Apr 18 11

Egypt = 37 degrees

by Emily Benjamin

The heat was smothering as we stepped out of Cairo Airport and made our way to Isis Hotel. Thick, enveloping and dry – with a nice hot breeze to match. It felt as though someone was holding a giant hair dryer to my face as I wound down the window, but any breeze was better than no breeze at all.

We had a restful afternoon after our flight from Jordan, and made ourselves at home in the hotel with the air-conditioning pumping. We used the time to make some plans for the next few days, and decided that tomorrow would be the best bet for the pyramids. We are only in Cairo for a few days over the 18 days in Egypt, and decided against maybe better judgement to kick off proceedings at 4am the next day for a sunrise tour of some of Egypt’s most famous sights – Giza, Dahshur and Saqqara pyramids.

The morning was tough – a 4am wake up after only 5 hours sleep – and the light from the city outside was exactly as I’d left it when I went to bed. We sipped tea and had eggs on toast before heading out at 5am for Giza, about 40 minutes away. Our driver, Ali, would be driving us to all sights we wished to visit, but would be ‘outsourcing’ the first part – a camel or horse ride to view the famous pyramids of Giza at sunrise. As he waited back at the car, no doubt catching a few more z’s, we negotiated a price for two camels to take us to see the pyramids. Negotiating with Egyptians appears to be difficult, but even more so this morning with such little sleep and with the sun rising quickly as we haggled. Eventually we settled on a price and set off slowly for the hills to see the sunrise.

We caught glimpses of the pyramids as we rode but the eventual view was pretty amazing. We were a few hundred metres away, as the gates didn’t open until 8am, but you could still get a sense of how huge these pyramids are. Thousands of years old and in better condition than buildings much younger around the world. Built without the technical equipment we have today, and mostly just built as tombs for kings, queens and important society figures. You’d expect with each pyramid built, the next king or queen would demand theirs be bigger, but this isn’t the case. Often they would just try to make theirs stand out in a different way – stepped finish, smooth finish, location, or even the angle of the pyramid itself. In one case, King Chephren of the fourth dynasty asked for a big lump of rock to be removed from in front of his pyramid site, so people would have a clearly view. However he was convinced to make something of the rock and instead it was turned into the sphinx!

After our camel ride we set off for Dahshur, or the bent pyramid. It is further out than the others, but we made it with 5 minutes to spare before the gates opened and were the first ones to arrive. The owner of this pyramid feared that the angle was too steep as it was being built, and decided half way up to make a change. Thus the bent pyramid of Dahshur came about. Next to it, about 1500 metres away, is the Red pyramid, so called because from a distance it looks red. Original stuff, you could say.

Next came Saqqara and the museum of Imhotep. Imhotep was a scientist, doctor and engineer, perhaps the pioneer of pyramid building all those years ago. The museum was amazing – small, but filled with artefacts that are anywhere between 4500 – 2000 years old. Bronze figures, medical devices, jewellery and hair pieces – all in pristine condition. Imhotep has his own museum here at Saqqara because through his work over the years building pyramids for kings and their queens. But as Ali tells us, perhaps the most important point is that he was bald, which was considered a sign of supreme intelligence at the time. If only that were the case now, Shane Warne could have saved himself the hassle…

Finally we made it back to Giza to see the pyramids up close. As the hours ticked over though, the temperature guage had been creeping up rather quickly and even before lunch we were tired, dehydrated and desperate for cool air. I was feeling rather faint so I stuck to the air-conditioned car as much as possible, and Ali was a real star in driving us as close as he could to all the sights. By 3pm we had pretty much peaked with the pyramids and the sphinx at the end and decided to retire for the afternoon. The management at Isis Hotel were kind enough to offer us a cool room to relax and shower before our night bus that evening – that’s right, we seemed to have forgotten that we were spending 10 hours on a bus that night to get to Siwa, an oasis in the north west of Egypt. Suddenly, the 4am start that day didn’t seem like the best idea.

Overall the pyramids were pretty amazing… but maybe not as amazing as I had expected. I could also blame the heat, which really was suffocating. I could also blame general soreness from weeks of travel. You’d think the thick, hot air of Cairo might have acted like a sauna for our weary muscles but apparently not. Then there was the lack of sleep – and that’s something that never fails to affect me. Perhaps we’ll make it back to the pyramids before we leave Egypt, to see them at sunset, away from the crowds and the hot lunchtime haze. But if not, that’ll be ok too – there is plenty more to Egypt than the pyramids!

– Em :)

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Filed Under → Words
Apr 16 11

You’re Welcome in Jordan

by Emily Benjamin

Now I try to capture 8 days in Jordan in a succinct blog entry, including all our adventures, mishaps and experiences. From Amman to Wadi Rum, the deep blue of the Dead Sea to the bright red of the sunset on the Monastery, from the lowest lake in the world to the high peaks of Petra, and all the sights in between. What an overwhelming surprise Jordan has been.

We knew it would be a packed week, but I had no idea we could fit so much in. From our early morning arrival on Friday 8th April, we gave ourselves only 3 hours rest before we went out to explore. In that one afternoon and evening we covered most of Amman, from the cheapest and best falafel around, the views of the citadel looking over the city, and the panorama of sandblasted yellow and white Lego block houses of Amman. We met some locals, smelled the sweet shisha, and enjoyed the cool sunset from Rainbow Street.

On Saturday we shared a cab with a determined French man to Umm Quays, Ajloun and Jerash. I’d never heard of the first two, but was keen to see the ruins of Jerash to the north of Amman. We filled our day in these spots by taking photos and enjoying the warm but dry sun – a welcome change from the sweltering humidity of Asia. It is so much easier to walk around in hot dry heat than hot wet heat, I know that for sure! By 6pm we were back in Amman and back to Hashem’s Restaurant for the best falafel in town – for only 4JD.

Sunday came quickly after a quiet night in and we were up early again for a public bus to Petra. This was the big goal of our trip to Jordan – to see the Treasury in Petra, perhaps best known as the backdrop for the Indiana Jones movies. Over two thousand years old and taking years and years to carve, the temple and tomb facades of Petra were truly a breathtaking sight. By 5pm we were alone but for 4 other people, able to absorb the magnificent Treasury as it was bathed in the last of the afternoon sun. I’ve written a separate account of Petra in an earlier blog, so I won’t gush much more here, but it was absolutely spectacular.

By Monday we were itching to see the rest of Petra, as the day before covered only half what we had expected. Preparing to walk the same way as before, through the narrow, mysterious Siq, we were stopped by locals offering a horseback ride over the top to the Monastery. We haggled them down from 70JD to 40JD, and set off. For the next 2 hours our horses negotiated rocks, rubble and sand as we went around, up and over the top of the mountains, eventually stopping at a point with a clear view back to our hotel, kilometres away. We left the horses here while we scrambled down one side of the mountain, across narrow paths, and at times sliding on bums as it felt safest. Ten minutes later and we were told to keep our voices low, close our eyes, and hold hands, as our guide lead us up to a ledge above the Treasury. We opened our eyes and had to quickly remember to keep the ‘WOW’s’ to a minimum – being in this spot could get our guide in trouble with the police below, apparently. For the second time in 24 hours, we could see the Treasury with no one in it – but this time, there were hundreds of tourists below, unaware that we were peering over their shoulders.

The rest of the day was long but fulfilling. We crossed over to the High Place of Sacrifice for 360 degree views of the endless valleys below. I still haven’t found out how big Petra is, but the next day, I followed the view of the mountains from a bus window for more than 30 minutes before they disappeared – so I assume it’s pretty big! After lunch we found ourselves following closely in the footsteps of an Australian man with his local guide that we had met back where we left our horses. The guy from Melbourne quickly invited us to share his guide while we walked with them, and we discovered that Mohammed is not just any guide. It turns out Mohammed is a location director for movies and productions in Jordan, most notably responsible for the multiple Oscar award winning Hurt Locker in 2009. He rattled off more movies he had worked on, and sights he could recommend for us in Petra and Wadi Rum, and invited us to add him as a friend on Facebook. We took his card and promised to get in touch, before parting ways later in the afternoon as we headed to the Monastery.

We took donkeys to the top of the Monastery for the ‘best view in Petra.’ They weren’t wrong – the view was astounding. Another panoramic view but with the late afternoon shadows deepening the lines of the endless valleys, and the rich reds coming through in the last of the sun. Tired and overwhelmed, we trekked back down and made our way to our hotel, with our last 2JD put to use on a cab back up the hill to the hotel in Wadi Musa.

Tuesday would have been an ideal day for a sleep in, but it was not to be. We had booked a 6.30am bus to Wadi Rum, but by 6.45am it had not arrived. The day before we had asked three separate times to book the bus for us, but it turns out that three is not the magic number. It had not been done. No worries though – our knight in a shining pick-up showed up, and offered to catch us up to the bus some 25 kilometres away. We had no choice so we said yes, and over the next 15 minutes we gripped each other as our driver took racing lines at 140km/hr through s-bends on the edge of cliffs. No railings, no concerns that he was going to be caught speeding, and probably the most concerning was that he was on the wrong side of the road going around blind corners most of the time. But we made it, made not safe and sound, but at least awake. Our bus was waiting and we jumped on board, and settled in for the 1 hour ride to Wadi Rum.

Wadi Rum reminds me of Mars. No, I haven’t been to Mars before… after all, women are from Venus, right? But Wadi Rum, or the Valley of the Moon, could easily pass as another planet. In fact it has passed as Mars a number of times before, for movies – Red Planet and Mission to Mars, to name a couple. Here we had arranged for a night under the stars, and we were joined by five others and our hotelier, Walid. Maybe not a hotelier, as we were sleeping in tents. Does that make him a tentier, maybe? Who knows. But first we were given a jeep tour of Lawrence of Arabia’s one time home. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence’s house and spring, and burnt red sand dunes. We wrapped our scarves tightly around our heads as sand whipped through the deserts in every direction. We saw rainbows of yellow sand, green shrubs, orange and red mountains and bright blue skies. Every corner looked like a movie set, complete with mini sand tornadoes and wild camels creating silhouettes on the horizon. You haven’t been to Wadi Rum until you’ve got a photo of a camel on the horizon with a cloud behind it, I say!

By night we sipped tea and stared at the stars, before setting off again early on Wednesday morning for Petra again. There we picked up our hire car and set off for Madaba along the Dead Sea Highway. A brief stop at Dana on the way was fruitful, as we met a couple from the morning’s bus ride there. Turns out I had forgotten my jumper on the bus and of all people to collect it, this couple grabbed it and hoped to catch us again. Which was very lucky, as the nights in Jordan had been surprisingly cool and I’d been layering up to 4 or 5 times to keep warm. That layer would have been missed! A few hours later after a flat tyre and our first glimpse of the Dead Sea, we were checked into our hotel in Madaba for our last three nights in Jordan.

Thursday we made the most of our hire car and went to the Dead Sea. We were stopped three times along the way, for very different reasons. The first was a passport check point, because of how close we were to the Israel border. The second stop was for a camel ride with a local boy named Ahmed. That was very random – he waved us down, got his camel to sit, and offered us both a ride. He tried to charge 20JD for the service but we weren’t having any of that, and gave him 6JD instead. The third stop was to make way for some rally cars. Ok, not just any rally cars – the World Rally Championship was being hosted here for the next three days. Monkey got out and took photos for 10 minutes, no doubt revelling in the opportunity to see the real life rally characters that he’s raced against in Playstation. Then onwards to the Dead Sea, where we did as tourists do – we giggled and posed as our legs were lifted out from under us and we bobbed up and down in the salty water. Of course we also covered ourselves in the Dead Sea mud, and enlisted the helpful lifeguard to take our photos while we dried the mud in the sun.

It was only once we’d had another dip, had a shower and scrubbed off the mud that Monkey, being the muppet that he is, realised his iPhone had been in his pocket the whole time. You might call that a Major Monkey Mishap. We let it dry, tried the blow dryer technique, but unfortunately the phone died at the Dead Sea. We traipsed back to Madaba and had a quiet night, but spoiled ourselves with a delicious feast of warm pita bread, spicy beef sausages, lemon and garlic chicken wings and kebab and chicken shawarmas for dinner at Haret Jdoudna, reportedly the best restaurant in Madaba. I can’t compare it to anywhere but it was a delicious end to a crazy day.

Friday was our last full day in Madaba and I think we used it well. We lay by the pool for a few hours, with regular attempts to access the internet seeming futile by lunch time. A late breakfast had us full until 4pm so we headed into town for a quick look at the Greek Orthodox church containing the famous mosaic map of Jerusalem before an early dinner. It wasn’t long before the crowds and loud music outside interrupted our dinner – Madaba Tourism Agency was putting on a Middle Eastern Music Festival for us! They gave us front row seats for the action – singers and dancers from Jordan, Egypt, Palestine and Syria all there to show off their local song and dance talents as the sun went down. If I were to be honest, a lot of it sounded the same – but they each brought their own flair to the table with bagpipes, oboes and mesmerising dancers.

And Saturday… well, I’m finishing this entry now from our hotel in Cairo! On the 18th floor, with a view to Cairo Tower and the Egyptian Museum. Apparently Tahrir Square is about 10minutes walk away, but given the recent unrest, and not wanting to concern our families and friends, we’ll won’t be walking in that direction needlessly. For now we take a break in the airconditioned comfort of our room and work out how we’ll be spending the next 18 days in Egypt!

There you have it – my week in Jordan. I was succinct as I could be but this may still be my longest blog entry yet. There was so much to see and do in Jordan, but I’m glad we fit it all in. My view of Jordan has changed dramatically over the past week and I would earnestly encourage my friends and family to visit – the temperatures in April were sublime, the people were friendly and always incredibly welcoming, and the sights were almost always breathtaking. Unfortunately there is only one downside, and that is that we’ve found Jordan to be far more expensive than we planned. When we mentioned this to some locals, they laughed and agreed – it’s like some sneaky secret of theirs, to entice tourists here and then surprise them with hefty price tags. We blew our budget by almost double, maybe more. But it was just one week, and one fabulous week at that, so we’ll survive!

Until next time…

– Em :)

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Filed Under → Words
Apr 12 11

Portraits of Petra

by Emily Benjamin

Petra is unbelievable. Seriously, it is – I did my research before we left, checked out heaps of photos, and thought I was prepared. But I wasn’t. Every corner of the siq, every valley, every peak, every tomb and every camel – they all had me gasping for breath and wishing I knew better adjectives than amazing, incredible and spectacular. Phenomenal might be a good one, but I still don’t think that covers it.

I’m not sure how much of the area we covered, but we had 13 hours in there to explore, with sunburn and blisters to prove it. When we arrived at lunchtime from Amman, Monkey was chomping at the bit to get out of the hotel room and down into the valley to explore, so we set off. A guide accompanied us, and he was brilliant. Mahmood is a local, and lived in Petra until 1985 when it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Bedoiun people were relocated. He knew everything there was to know about the area, and let us walk at our own pace. Which ended up being slowly, because we were so awestruck by the sights, and busy snapping photos.

The first afternoon took us through the siq and down to the Treasury, before making our way down to the basin. By that time it was too late to climb to the Monastery, but just in time to miss the crowds back at the Treasury on our way home. I’d seen photos of the Treasury, Petra’s most famous tomb, and often wondered how the photographer managed to get photos with no one in them – just the spectacular scenery. And now I know – wait til 5pm and everyone will have left. Amazing!

The next day we aimed for the Monastery, Petra’s second most famous tomb, but got a little sidetracked. We were offered an ‘Indiana Jones’ horse ride and as we’d bargained them down from 75JD to only 40JD, we figured we may as well say yes. Quoted as a 45minute ride to the top, it was almost 2 hours long and took us around and over the siq, to a spot hundreds of metres above the Treasury. Once again we got photos of the Treasury with no one else in it – this time from above, where no one could see us. Back to the horses and we were dropped off near the High Place of Sacrifice, some 700 steps from the valley below. We check that out, then headed down slowly, winding through the valley seeing the side of Petra that others miss when they only visit for one day.

A quick picnic on the mountain top and we set off for the Monastery. By now we’d covered countless kilometres and my feet were sore and blistered, so we bargained to get two donkeys to escort us up the 800 stairs to the Monastery. It is bigger and better preserved than the Treasury, which is surprising, as we were whipped and blasted by wind and sand while up the top. It’s a wonder that it has remained in such pristine condition. We trekked a little higher to the ‘best view in Petra’ and were not disappointed. I’ve seen a few incredible views in my time – including a handful already in the day – but this was spectacular. Blue skies, red and orange rocks, and sprawling valleys below.

By 4pm we’d made our way back from the Monastery, through the basin and back through the siq just in time to get a free horse ride for the last 700metres. Which is lucky, because my legs gave up. We’d saved our last 2JD for the cab back up the hill and collapsed into the hotel just before 5pm. Dehydrated, aching all over but with a few hundred photos waiting to be reviewed. I took over 400 photos over the two days but have culled it down to 170, a handful which I’ll share below, and back on the main page.

Petra was one of the most phenomenally (there, that one works!) spectacular and jaw dropping places I have ever visited. I can’t even imagine how long it would have takes for the tombs and facades to be carved from the coloured sandstone, and over such a huge area as well. Absolutely incredible. If you’re ever in the area, give it more than a day, maybe even three. It’s tiring of course, and it ended up being quite expensive with entrance fees, a guide, and horse/donkey rides. But it is so, so worth it.

The more scenic shots are back on the main page, but here are a handful of photos of Monkey and I from the last two days in Petra.

– Em :)

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Filed Under → Words
Apr 10 11

Fala-fulls

by Emily Benjamin

I’m sitting on a bus right now with 19 men and one Monkey. Before you go getting all excited, no, it’s not a Wild Boys Afloat tour – I’m on my way from Amman to Petra! And it would appear very few women travel or walk around in Amman/Jordan, because I feel like I’m sticking out like a sore thumb here. Albeit an attractive sore thumb… the sort that might get me some hand modelling work :)

It’s hard to say what my expectations of Jordan were before I arrived here, but whatever they were, I was wrong. I really liked Amman, for the two days that we were there anyway. Maybe it was just the awesome falafel, or the cooler temperatures, or the blue skies. Maybe I was just revelling in the fact that I was getting all the looks again finally, after 8 weeks of Jamie being ‘flavour of the month’ in Asia. Everywhere we turned in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, some man or woman would come up to us and exclaim how handsome Jamie is, how much he looks like David Beckham/Brad Pitt, and how lucky I am to be with him. Very tiring stuff I tell you, and I’ve had to make a point to insult him regularly now to keep his ego in check. But now in the middle east, I am the highlight of the Baskin Robbins ice cream selection. White, blonde, and female. Finally, Monkey is my minion again!

We arrived in Amman at 6am after a 9 hour flight from Bangkok. I’m getting better with each of these long flights – apparently I was asleep before we even took off at midnight from Thailand. Maybe there were a few scotches under my belt… but still, I’m sleeping on flights which is progress! We had a rest for the first half of the day in Amman (Friday) and then went out for food – I hadn’t eaten in 17 hours, which might be a new record for me :)

First meal was at Hashem’s Restaurant, about 100m from our hotel. It was epic. Falafel, pita, hummus and ‘fool’ which I think is just refried beans. Served with tea and a Coke for me – can’t beat a good can of Coke I tells ya! Those who know me well might wonder now if you’ve ever seen me indulge in falafels before and you’d be right in thinking you haven’t. I might be one of the biggest carnivores in existence – or at least, one of the biggest consumers of chicken in Australia. But I was looking forward to testing my taste-buds with some vegetarian delights here and I was not disappointed. It was simply delectable. And only $7 for both Jamie and I, which is expensive, we were told – but well worth it.

Then we saw some sights. The view from the Citadel was spectacular, with blocks of buildings stretching over hills and valleys as far as I could see. Then the amphitheatre which was pretty amazing, but now I’ve seen 3 in 2 days I think I’ve had my ‘fill’ of amphitheatres. Pun intended. Then we walked around some more, caught the sunset from up on Rainbow street, had dinner and a relatively early night. I was searching for good falafel again but was disappointed. We sat down at the most local looking spot and were told that they only sold pizza. Force fed pizza when I felt like falafel – who’d have thought I’d ever say that.

On Saturday we took a day trip to Ajloun, Umm Quays and Jerash. Umm Quays took us to the north-west edge of Jordan, with a view to Israel, Lebabon and Syria. Pretty surreal, to be standing on a hill looking out to three different countries. I mean, I’ve stood at Tweed Heads and jumped from Queensland into New South Wales, but this might just top that! Then we were down to Aljoun for an old crusader castle, before driving back towards Jerash. The sprawling landscape and ancient pillars of Jerash were amazing, but after 2 hours of roaming through there I had shoes full of blisters and was well knackered. We returned to Amman, had dinner at Hashem’s again and had another early night.

Early start this morning to pack, upload some pics and get on the bus to Petra. It takes about 3 hours, so we’ll have the afternoon to check out some of the first sights in Petra before a full day tomorrow. We’ll probably go with a guide for either today or tomorrow – I know a lot of people find guides at popular tourist sites overpriced but we got a guide for 2 days in Cambodia for Angkor Wat and found it really worthwhile. So hopefully Petra is the same. That will be today and tomorrow (Monday) then on Tuesday we’re off for a day trip and overnighter in Wadi Rum. Famous for Lawrence of Arabia, apparently. Spectacular scenery, jeep tours, camel rides and camping in the desert with local Bedouin people. If I go missing, that’s where I’ll be!

Back to Petra on Wednesday where we pick up a hire car and make our own way back up north for Madaba, Mt Nebo and the Dead Sea. We’ve got three nights in Madaba which is more than enough, but should give us a day to relax before heading into Egypt on Saturday.

Now I’m not sure what inspired me to write such a long post about the middle east, when I maybe only offered a few sentences here and there for all of Asia. I’m creating a favourites list on my new iPod as I type though, so maybe the rocking beats are fuelling creativity and communication again. The joys of good music to block out the loud Jordanian radios playing. Time to go start a Mark Ronson sing-a-long on this man-filled bus, I think! Wish me luck! :)

– Em :)

Filed Under → Words
Apr 9 11

Trial of the Lightroom Presets

by Emily Benjamin

Most of my photos so far have been in or close to their original form. Besides a little cropping, minor colour adjustments and a vignette here and there, I try to edit my photos to show just what I see – in all it’s beauty or ugliness! But spending my days taking photos, and many nights looking at photo blogs, I see many people using more imaginative editing techniques to give their photos a surreal look. Some use HDR , some are trying assorted plug-ins, and others are using crafty filters or editing presets.

I did some research and experimenting with HDR but found I could achieve very similar looks with simgle images in Lightroom rather than merging three images in Photoshop. Filters would be great, but I’m attempting to travel light with my camera gear this time around. Presets on the other hand seem endless, with many photo fanatics out there contributing free editing templates for Lightroom. So I’ve begun experimenting with a few presets and so far, I’ve been pleased with the results. I have used a range of presents for the two Jordan sets below, including Dramatic Horizon, Edgy Church, PH in the City and B&W. They seem to suit the photos and in some cases, they result in images that are not too overdone from what I saw on the day.

An example…

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I’m interested to hear what anyone else thinks on this style, as it varies significantly from my usual style of ‘less is more’. Have a look, enjoy the sets, and let me know what you think!

– Em :)

 

Filed Under → Words
Apr 7 11

South East Asia – Highlights

by Emily Benjamin

Four countries, eighteen stops, fifty-three days, seven boat trips, two overnight buses, four flights, and an unknown amount number of tuk-tuks, buses, and taxis. The people we’ve met have been Thai, German, Canadian, Laotian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, American, Australian, English, Welsh, Dutch, Irish and Kiwi.The nicest locals we’ve met were from Cambodia. The worst traffic was in Vietnam. The best weather was in Thailand. The most secluded spot was in Laos.The most expensive dinner was steak and red wine in Hanoi for my birthday, and the cheapest was actually last night – two serves of rice with chicken or duck and mixed greens with two drinks for only 87 Baht, or $3. The most expensive flight was from Bangkok to Hanoi – because we never used it. The worst boat ride was from Thaton to Chiang Rai. The best was Halong Bay. The most beautiful spot we visited… well that, I can’t decide.

Each country has had it’s real highlights and lowlights. When I try to think where my favourite place has been, I come up with no answer. It’s only when I break it down to each country that I can choose spots that I loved more than others. It may be the weather, the people, the food, or the comfort of the bed – each place has had something to define it.

In Thailand, Chiang Mai was outstanding. Laid back, plenty to do, with lovely people to meet. The air was clear, the mountains were cool, and the sights were amazing. Our accommodation here was a highlight – Sawasdee Guesthouse, if you’re ever in the area. Down south, Bangkok had fantastic food, ease of transport, but terrible humidity and pollution. The days were hot and long, but you could find great and inexpensive food right outside your front door. Accommodation here was great, too – Udee Bangkok, with clean, cool rooms to escape the hot concrete city outside.

Laos was mostly unexplored, but absolutely beautiful. Some of the best indian food you could get was in Nong Khiaw, as well as some of the cheapest beers and accommodation. The people were lovely, if not a little shy of the tourists that have discovered their tiny village amongst the limestone cliffs. In Luang Prabang the streets were filled with people, markets and crepes – Nutella ones, of course! Again the people were lovely and the city was quiet – but the mosquitoes weren’t.

Vietnam was surprisingly the most expensive country on the list. We went from Hanoi to Halong Bay, through Hoi An, Mui Ne, Ho Chi Minh City and Phu Quoc Island. Admittedly these are all tourist spots along the coast – but Vietnam is so narrow, there wasn’t much more to visit if you went west! The beef curry pho was delicious, the chicken and cashew nut stirfry fresh, and the rice fields were endless. The people were lovely, as were the sights. Halong Bay, Cham Island, sand dunes in Mui Ne and the Mekong Delta – all beautiful. But Vietnam is where the unlucky turtle literally reared its ugly head and resulted in my phone being stolen, so I’m still a little sour about that!

Cambodia. I wish we’d had more time in Cambodia. With only 10 days we managed to see Kep, Rabbit Island, Phnom Penh and Siam Reap, along with countless monkeys, temples and sights. Cambodia has been, as expected, the cheapest country we visited in Asia. Accommodation for as little as $7 a night on an island would be unheard of anywhere else, but on Rabbit Island it was ‘top dollar’. The people in Cambodia were the kindest and most helpful we met. Tuk tuk drivers helped us cross busy roads by blocking traffic for us, and hoteliers recommended full day tours for no commission, and encouraged us to move on to the next city to see more sights, knowing full well that they were losing another nights room fee. Speaking of which, the absolute best hotels we stayed in, in the second half of this Asian leg, were here. Campus Guesthouse in Phnom Penh – speak to Tepy Ban, the abovementioned hotelier. Her brand new hotel is perfect, for only $20 a night. And in Siam Reap, try Motherhome Guesthouse. Five star service, unbeatable for $18 a night. Also n Siam Reap, a man named Long offered to drive me around town while I looked for a store to buy a replacement iPod. We found one after 6 stops, then he waited patiently while I picked up groceries as well. All to be helpful, because they know no other way. Absolutely heart warming.

It has been almost two months since I left home in Brisbane for this massive around-the-world adventure, and already a third of the trip is finished. I’ve managed to keep myself out of harms way for this whole time, handling only a few short instances of colds, flus, stomach upsets and mood swings. I’ve discovered that Magnum’s taste the same everywhere, but they are heaps cheaper than in Australia. Bottled water ranges from 25 cents to a dollar, and Coke is the same. The cheapest beer was 20 cents, but it tasted best after you’ve already had a few. We discovered that eating street food will always be cheapest, and often it will be the tastiest, too. Unless it is chicken necks – those things are foul… :)

Next up is Jordan. We fly tonight at midnight, arriving in Amman at 0515 local time. Amman is seven hours behind everyone back in Australia, should anyone be interested. We’ll be there for 8 days to see the city, Jerash, Dead Sea and of course Petra. Then onto Egypt for the pyramids, the Nile, and maybe an oasis in the middle of nowhere.

Until next time…

– Em :)

Filed Under → Words
Apr 3 11

Templed-out!

by Emily Benjamin

We arrived in Siem Reap late from Phnom Penh, and after a 6 hour bus ride we were exhausted. Fortunately we had arranged to be collected by our hotel, Motherhome Guesthouse, and we were greeted by Mr Michael and his shiny new tuk tuk. Off to the hotel we go!

The hotel was fantastic. Number 1 on TripAdvisor and with good reason. It is the same price as most of the others around it – only $18 – but far better value. And I can say that with confidence, because when they ran out of rooms for us after two nights, we checked out three other options all within the same price bracket, but none of them came close to the service, hospitality and inclusions offered by Motherhome. But enough of that, I’ll save my gushing for Trip Advisor!

Before bed we felt energetic enough to book 3 days of temple trekking, based on a detailed itinerary offered by the hotel. Jamie Talbot has been waiting to visit Angkor Wat for almost 2 decades. Yes, he is that old! A game he played as a little tyke had Angkor Wat in the background, and ever since then he wanted to visit this historic site. NOT because of Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider,  or so he says…

Over the three days we visited as much of Angkor Archaeological Park as we could possibly handle. Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat, Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Pre Rup – to be honest I can’t remember which one is which anymore, but Jamie Talbot does, so check with him! It’s not that they weren’t all very different – in fact they each had something unique about them, whether it was the Buddism or Brahmism influences, the size, the shape, or the number of towers. But in seeing maybe 20 temples in 3 days, I should be forgiven for forgetting the names!

The temples themselves were magnificent. It is really unbelievable that these buildings of sandstone, rock and laterite were built as early as the 9th century and have lasted over 1000 years. Even more surprising is that many of these temples, including the one we visited today, were only discovered within the past 100 years. The work that has been done to preserve this UNESCO World Heritage Site is outstanding, with many of the temples delicately restored to some of their natural glory, painting a clear picture of what awe-inspiring structures they must have been so many years ago.

This is where Jamie Talbot will probably excel – his written words are often far better than mine, and he’ll be able to use his words to convey just how beautiful and awe inspiring Angkor Wat was. Considering I can’t even remember the names of most of the temples we’ve seen, I think I best stick to photos and let them tell the story of our 3 days of temple trekking in Siem Reap. You can see what I saw here.

Now we have a day of rest in Siem Reap, where I might try to buy an iPod and we’ll get massages before a long bus ride to Bangkok. Then, two more sleeps in Thailand before we fly to Jordan on the 8th April. No more pho, khmer spices, spicy green curries and morning glory (minds out of the gutter people, morning glory is stir-fried water spinach!). Let’s see if my stomach can handle what the middle east is offering!

– Em :)

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Mar 29 11

Adventures on Rabbit Island

by Emily Benjamin

Seeing as the internet is so so fast here at our beautiful hotel in Phnom Penh, I thought I might share a few recent photos of us that haven’t made it onto the main page. Hopefully you will all note that the skies are (mostly) blue, the delta was green, the water is crystal clear, and that our tans are developing nicely!

– Em :)

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Mar 28 11

Hurray for Rabbit Island!

by Emily Benjamin

After only a few hours sleep overnight on Rabbit Island, I was very happy to wake to birds chirping, roosters crowing and the sun shining, on what was a glorious Monday morning. Actually, I only just realised it was Monday yesterday, so I’ve clearly lost track of the days finally. And to forget that it was a Monday, of all days, as I slept in, read a book, and enjoyed a late breakfast – my, what a better way to spend a Monday opposed to working!

We eventually got up at about 9am, and decided to make the three hour trek around the entire island. It was considered the day before, but as I wasn’t feeling too well it was postponed in the hope that the weather would be kind to us the next day as well. And it was. So first up, we filled our bellies with the only breakfast option available – pancakes! Nutella pancakes! Thank you, Monday!

Setting off at about 10am, we circled Koh Tonsay through mini jungles, across rocks and seaweed, and along empty beaches. The weather was sublime, the breeze was cool, the few locals we met along the way were charming. As we walked, we discussed how easy it would be to arrive on Rabbit Island and go undetected for as long as you wished – either pay upfront for a month in a bungalow, never to be disturbed, or rough it in the jungle, and no one would know you were there. There’s no internet, no hot water, and only limited electricity. If you are happy with Nutella or banana pancakes, then you’ll be satisfied with the breakfast options. There was also a shortage of crabs while we were there, so sometimes you might have to have fish instead. But really, you could escape to Rabbit Island and never be found again.

But I digress. The walk only took 90 minutes, so we were back before lunch. Maybe we walk very quickly, or maybe it’s just the skewed perception of time and distance that people have in these parts of the world. Either way, it was time for a cold drink, a cool swim, a brief sun bake, and a quick massage. We sat at one of the small bamboo shacks on the beach and had banana shakes, and pulled faces at a 5 year old local boy (photo included). A quick dip in the cool water got the sweat off our backs, before we air dried ourselves on the sun lounges under the palm trees. Then right there on the beach, there are a few options for massage – coconut oil, Thai massage, Khmer style – but we went for the coconut oil option. An hour later, my brow was un-furrowed, the knots in my shoulders were gone, and I could walk without leg cramps again. Bliss, bliss, bliss.

Then onto lunch, with the freshest ingredients you could imagine. I had a fish curry with ‘fresh coconut milk’ – and the cook went over to a pile of coconuts sitting at the base of a tree and selected the ripest one for my curry. Amazing. Jamie ordered crabs with lemon pepper, and a moment afterwards we saw a woman wading out to get the crab bucket from the water. They pulled out 6 or 7 small local crabs and carried them into the kitchen for cooking. Minutes later, a fresh and very tasty lunch was delivered to our table – absolutely awesome. My curry was delicious, perfectly seasoned with the local pepper, and Jamie devoured his crabs. Slowly, I might mention, because neither of us have extensive experience with prying meat from a tiny crab shell!

By 2.30pm it was back to the sun lounges for a post-lunch rest before the boat whisked us back to the mainland. It was a brief, energetic yet relaxing time on Rabbit Island, which may not stay so untouched for much longer. If you’re ever in the south of Cambodia, do stop by for a swim, a walk, a massage and some fresh crab. Simply divine.

Once back on the mainland, we decided to hang around in Kep to watch the sunset with a couple of local Angkor beers before heading back to our bungalow at Botanica. But more on that in the next post!

– Em :)

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Mar 28 11

Rain on Rabbit Island

by Emily Benjamin

About a month ago, we stayed in a bungalow in Nong Khiaw, Laos. For $10 a night, with intermittent hot water and a scoop toilet. That was the cheapest accommodation we’d come across so far. Until now.

On Rabbit Island, or Koh Tonsay as it is also called, just off the coast of Kep in Cambodia, we have a bungalow for only $7. A bargain really, with a double bed, mosquito net, western-style (read: a porcelain bowl with no seat or flush or anything…just the bowl) toilet, and the beach is just outside the door. There is no hot water in this one – no shower at all, actually. Two hammocks on the verandah, but electricity for only 3 hours a day. I think it even comes with it’s own guard dog, based on the scratching and snoring I heard outside our door during the night. But there is one small problem – it’s not waterproof.

We discovered this at about 9pm last night, when we were making the most of the limited electricity to charge the laptops, read the Kindles and get comfy under our mosquito net. The rain started up, which was lovely. Rain at night time usually is – peaceful and comforting to fall asleep listening to the consistent drops on the roof. But then I felt drops on my legs, my feet and my stomach. Not quite as heavy as the rain outside, but definitely rain leaking through the roof. Just on me, mind you, not on Jamie. Damn my preference for sleeping on this side of the bed!

As luck would have it, it rained on and off throughout the night. At first I couldn’t sleep at all; listening to the rain that was always so relaxing now had me mildly anxious, waiting to hear if the drops would get heavier and soak me and all my belongings. When the drops started up again, I’d reach for the blanket – which seems to be made of towelling material, or may even be an oversized towel, in anticipation of such events. Unfortunately the oversized towel/undersized blanket didn’t quite cover two people, so throughout the semi-sleepless night there was a gentle tug of war going on between Jamie and I – when it rained, I needed protection, and when it stopped he pulled it back to stay warm.

When I woke up this morning I checked all my stuff and it’s dry. It seems I was the only one affected because I slept directly under the cross-beam of the bamboo ceiling. Jamie stayed dry, snug and warm for most of the night… but at least I got a shower in the end!

– Em :)

 

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