Northern Thailand

We arrived in Chiang Mai after a 10 hour night bus from Bangkok. We had read some horror stories about this journey but it was completely fine, we managed to sleep ok despite everyone being woken up at midnight for “FOOD” *cue dramatic miming of eating and us returning our eyemasks and ear plugs*. The worst thing was the cold because the air con was on full blast!

Chang Mai is a beautiful small city surrounded by mountains, the central ‘old city’ is 1.5km squared and as you walk down each road going east to west or north to south you can see the mountains not far away. It is the capital of the north but less than 150,000 residents. It felt busy whilst we were there as there was the annual Yi Peng festival, world renowned for its sky lanterns, at the same time as the Loi Krathong festival where people release floating lanterns onto the river (to symbolise letting go of the previous years’ worries and problems).

We kept coming and going from the city using it as our base as we took a scooter up to Chiang Dao, a bus to Pai, a trek out to Pha Deng national park. It worked out that we were in the city for two different Sunday’s so got to go to the Sunday market twice which we loved, full of stalls for trinkets and food.

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We spent a day at Elephant Rescue Park, recommended by Ella’s Aunt, Uncle and cousins who visited last summer. It was a truly, once-in-a-life-time, incredible experience.

Top tip: we would urge anyone visiting elephant “sanctuaries” in Thailand to do research on how they are treated, we were shocked at how many camps still offer riding and openly use chains and stick hooks, and even more surprised at the amount of tourists who still endorse this behaviour which we thought was “out of fashion” now… Many elephants are rented by parks in the high season and then returned to their logging, riding or circus jobs once the tourist have left. To our knowledge the Elephant Rescue Park owns all the elephants it cares for and treats them medically for injuries and illnesses they’ve received in their old jobs.

We spent one night in Chiang Dao, 70km north of Chiang-Mai. This tiny town has only a few restaurants and two beautiful temples, one a kilometre deep into the caves where a guide lead Isaac in by oil lamp (Ella opted out!) and the other is a working monastery in the mountain, we climbed up just after sunrise and the monks were eating breakfast, it was amazingly peaceful and the first “silence” we had heard since arriving in Thailand! On the way back on the scooter we took a detour to see the “sticky waterfalls” where, due to the limestone, it’s not slippery and you can grip and climb the face of the Waterfall.

A few days later we took a speedy minibus the “762 turns” up the mountain to Pai, and although we didn’t count the hair pin corners ourselves, once someone had been sick at the back of the bus it felt like double that! We booked into a hostel in Pai which doubled as a skate park, full of the nicest people and plenty of Bristolians and Londoners so it felt like a slice of home. The local kids come by to use the park as well! Pai has been given the unfair comparison to Koh San Road (a road in Bangkok renowned for partying and tourists) and although you can get an avocado on toast on the high street, the town is in a beautiful mountain setting with friendly people and a lot to explored in the surrounding countryside. We only had a few days to stay there but the views are stunning and Sunset at Pai Canyon is a must see.

We then went on a 3 day trek from Chiang Mai and stayed in two different Karen villages, the trek had amazing mountain views and lots of stops to swim in waterfalls. Pau, the trek leader, made us cups and chopsticks from bamboo in the jungle and in the evening we cooked up curries with our hosts and shared games and stories. One night was completely clear and we could see amazing stars, although the temperature felt close to freezing at night as we were quite high up we were wrapped up under mosquito nets in bamboo huts and were grateful to see a western toilet when we returned to Chiang Mai!

After the trek was finished we headed on a bus towards the border with Laos. We made a brief stop in Chiang Rai to see the White Temple and spent our last night in Thailand in a left-a-lot-to-be-desired Guest house in Chiang Kong before crossing Friendship bridge into Laos on 1st December (cutting it fine as our visa exemption ran out that day!)

Love Ella & Isaac

Rajasthan part 2 

Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur & Udaipur

In Rajasthan we had a taxi driver called Balvinder who took us around, this was great because we weren’t restricted to the train routes and times. Balvinder was really nice but sometimes wouldn’t say anything for a few hours and would then shout some words at you until you got out to discover what he was talking about. One of these examples was on our drive to Bikaner, “RED TEMPLE” he said, “RED TEMPLE!”, we didn’t understand, “RED TEMPLE” we sighed “OK, OK we’ll go see” we got out, not too keen as we’d just woken up from a long heat-induced nap and we were starting to feel a little templed-out.

Anyway, we took off our shoes and wandered in, Ella noticed a large black rat scurry through a crowd of worshipers, Isaac pointed to a group of 10 rats in one corner and another 20 rats being fed seeds by some locals. “Ohhhh RAT TEMPLE” we had read about this temple which is overrun with 25000 rats but people still come from far and wide to worship at.

Ella’s opinion was that it was that the smell was revolting and Isaac was expecting more rats…

It was c.40 degrees every day in the desert so we went out mainly in the early morning or evening. In Bikaner we took and evening Tuk tuk tour through the winding old streets seeing the most beautiful hand carved wooden Havelis (hotels).

We went to see a master of miniature painting as well which is famous in the region, he did a miniature painting on Ella’s nail and we got one (on paper, not nail) to take home. 

The highlight of the next city, Jaisalmer, had to be our visit to out into the desert. Neither of us had been on a camel before and it was a scary ride 10ft in the air! In the evening there was dancing entertainment and dinner with some other groups of tourists. There was a lot of laughing, some local children even came and sang. After dark we opted to sleep out in the dunes under the stars, the moon was so bright you could see for miles and we woke up to sunrise over the Thar desert.

Top tip: podcasts or entertainment are needed for the long car/train journeys in Rajasthan… eye-spy is not that entertaining in the desert!

Jodhpur was another beautiful city based around a fort, every hotel and restaurant had great views from the rooftops. It was also a great place for shopping, Ella got a Sari, Isaac bought a shirt and we also got some Masala tea spice for our Chai.

Our final stop in Rajasthan was Udaipur which is the “lake city”. Here we went out on a boat around the lake and also took an Indian cooking class with a lady called Shashima. We could not recommend this enough it was so interesting to learn all about her life as well as how to cook the basics for all indian curries, breads, chutneys and teas. You leave with a cook book of recipes and a very full stomach as you get to eat everything that you made during the class. Following this we watched our last sunset in Rajasthan on a roof top cafe with some chai and headed for our night train which would take us the 800km to Mumbai and then onto Goa.

Love Ella & Isaac xxx

Rajasthan part 1

We spent 2 weeks in Rajasthan so we’ve split the tour of the state into 2 parts, part 1 is Agra, Jaipur and Pushkar.

We started off in Agra, home of probably the most famous Indian temple; the Taj Mahal. On arrival we visited a park that sits behind the Taj to see the “river side” as the sun went down a small crowd gathered to watch the ant-like people swarm in and out of the domes of the temple. The next morning it was our turn to be the ants, we woke up at 5.30am as we had be told that sunrise was the best time to see the Taj Mahal and it did not disappoint. There were less crowds, but still more than we expected, lots of short queues to get the Instagram-worthy shots!7589954208_IMG_1022

Next up was Jaipur, a half-day drive from Agra. We went to the Monkey temple, which is both a shrine to the Hindu Monkey God and overrun with real monkeys, we never got to the bottom of which came first! From here it was a short climb up a hill to the Sunshine temple which has an amazing panoramic view of Jaipur.

 

Top tip: keep small notes with you in the temples because if you are blessed you will need to give a “donation”, which are not optional and you will be advised if you don’t give enough! We were blessed about 5 times before realising you can politely decline before you’re out of pocket about 1000 rupees!

 

The next day in Jaipur we went into the old part which gives the pink city its nick name. The beautiful art deco buildings are a pale terracotta colour. We visited the Jantar Mantar where Ella could geek-out over the 18th century star constellation, astrology and time measuring apparatus (they have the largest sun dial in the world which could measure the time to a 6second accuracy, in the 1700s… pretty impressive!) We are trying to be positive tourists so we accepted the offer of a local guide in order to put money into the community, however this was a disaster as he failed to tell us anything, and wondered aimlessly around the grounds, so we gave him a small tip and carried on on our own.

 

No hurry, No worry!

The next place we moved to was Pushkar, this was the first city we had been to where there were a noticeable number of non-Indian tourists. Pushkar is a hippie paradise, people live by the phrase a tea stall holder said to us: “no hurry, no worry”. The town is tiny, we could walk from one side to the other in half an hour. There is a bazaar over 1km long full of stalls selling patchwork trousers and jewellery like that you’d find on a stall in Camden. The cafes mainly serve pizza and special lassi but we managed to find an incredible curry house (Raju, Main Bazaar) which may*** be the best curry we’ve had in India.

***The jury’s still out, we don’t want to commit!

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There is a holy lake in the centre of Pushkar which legend claims was a petal of a lotus flower placed down by a god in the middle of the desert. People from all faiths make the pilgrimage to bathe in it. For such a small town there are a lot of temples (500 or so), we visited during a festival where the statues of the gods from each temple were taken from their home and down to bathe in the holy lake, this was partnered with a lot of singing, dancing and music through the tiny streets. There are also temples on the hills surrounding the town; we opted to walked up to Savitri Mata temple (we love a steep hike apparently!) but there’s a cable cart going up and down the hill if you wish. The views are breathtaking from the top. You can see why the lotus flower legend was born as there is nothing but desert for miles around this tiny lake.

 

Love Isaac & Ella xxx

Welcome to Amritsar

We arrived into Amritsar on the sleeper train from Jammu. It was 3am and we almost got off at the station before which was deserted and pitch black, luckily the train conductor ran down the train shouting “no, no next stop!”. Amritsar station was busy considering the time; full of people waiting, sleeping or offering rides but we managed the 350m to our hotel by foot. There were large boars everywhere in the street, which made a difference from cows (although plenty of those too)! The next day we saw our first Indian elephant, being ridden down a main road.

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We really liked Amritsar, the tourist office gave us a great map and we walked/tuk-tuk-ed around the city. The streets are busy, but not like Delhi, and people take “no” for an answer, which is nice. We got lost in the maze of the walled city which is full of tiny streets and shopping lanes. People seem friendly here and willing to help you which is nice.

Top tip: you can find anything in the Hall Bizarre, and everything is grouped (4 shops for sandals, 5 shops for school books, 3 shops for stamps(?) etc.) we needed a lock for our bags on the sleeper train and sure enough there were 4 stalls in a row selling them.

We visited the Gobindgarh fort, the Jallianwala Bagh memorial garden, and at dusk we went to the beautiful Sri Harmandir Sahib (the world famous Golden Temple). The temple is beautiful, sitting in the centre of a pool of water, we queued to go inside and then sat on the bank where people were bathing in the holy waters as the sun set. The temple is free to enter for everyone and they feed 100,000 people daily for free, we later learnt you can also sleep there if you don’t have accommodation. This is all part of the charitable Sikh customs.IMG_3960

Everyone said 1 day would do for Amritsar but our next train wasn’t until 11pm so we had a second whole day to kill. We looked at the map and randomly chose a temple close to our hotel which is how we stumbled upon probably our favourite part of Amritsar: Mata Lal Devi Ji – an elaborate Hindu temple dedicated to the bespectacled female saint Lal Devi. Lal Devi was believed to hold the spirit of fertility and many people travel from around India to pray here. Hindu temples are always bright and colourful but this is something else, it was like a fun fair madhouse with mirrored rooms, huge statues of deities, doors that looked like Lion’s mouths, and a watery cave you have to crawl through to get to the shrine of Lal Devi. It was absolutely crazy and we loved it, like no other temple we have been to, we would recommend a visit to anyone in Amritsar.

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Lal Devi – Saint of fertility

Ella & Isaac xxx