A good old rainy time in Surat Thani

Surat Thani, 19-22 February 2020

With Surat Thani we reach our final destination in Thailand and indeed our final destination of our big Asia roundtrip – and the heavens are weeping for us.

Surat Thani, the City of Good People, on the Gulf of Thailand is mainly known as the jumping-off point to Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao. Tourists don’t usually stay here for more than a day, which is a shame because the city is perfectly placed to visit quiet beaches, waterfalls and ancient ruins, not to mention it has some fantastic southern thai food for low, low prices. With limited time left before flying back home we decide to save Ko Tao for future travels and get a taste of this authentic southern thai city instead. Or so we thought..

When we arrive in the city after a long day of travelling from Tonsai beach it’s still warm and sunny, like it has been for the entire time we’ve been in Thailand. Our hotel is located in the city center, near the pier and the food stalls of the night market, and surrounded by dozens of temples. From our window we can see the only local landmark mentioned by Lonely Planet: the statue of Guan Yin, which is the bodhisattva associated with compassion.

The river Tapi runs through the heart of the city into the Gulf of Thailand, and several canals have been dug out of old, connecting the various parts of the city.

Characteristic old stilt houses can be found all along the river. Ko Lamphu, an island in the middle of the river, has been turned into a pleasant public park.

While checking out a few temples, by chance we stumble upon a 100-year old wooden pavillion which was used during WW2 for opening negotiations between the Thai government and the Japanese army. A laminated piece of paper on the table reads that this is the original furniture that was used in 1941. And they say Surat Thani has no real sightseeing..

Our self guided walking tour ends at the City Pillar Shrine, a religious landmark we learn is made of wood from the Golden Shower tree. Indeed, at this point we realize our sightseeing options in the city have likely been exhausted, but luckily we are able make up some big plans for visiting the area around Surat Thani.

Khanom beach is located roughly 65km east of the city and may be considered to be one of Thailand’s best beaches, not in the least because it has little to no tourism.

To the west, the small fisherman’s village of Chaiya houses remains of an ancient kingdom. Srivijaya was a seafaring empire from Sumatra, which influenced much of Southeast Asia from the 8th until the 12th century AD. Landmark temples such as Wat Kaew and Wat Phra Borommathat are beautiful examples of Srivijaya architecture.

And finally there’s the Monkey Training College just outside the city limits where you can ride a bicycle with a friendly monkey on your back.

It all sounds pretty great, but then the rain starts and never stops for the entire time we have left in Surat Thani. I suppose it’s a pretty good sign the universe is telling us it’s time to head home for a little while.

Even though the weather was against us, we’ve enjoyed great hospitality in the City of Good People. Tomorrow we’ll be flying to Bangkok, where it’s time to deliver the verdict on our time in Thailand from the hotel pool!


Through the Valley of the Kwai

Kanchanaburi, 3-6 Februari 2020

After the metropolitan Bangkok we are ready to fill our lungs with some fresh air at the countryside. Kanchanaburi near the Myanmar border seems a good place for it, as this will give us the opportunity to ride a train to the river Kwai.

The Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway, was a 415-km railway between Ban Pong, Thailand, and Thanbyuzayat, Burma, built by the Empire of Japan in 1943 to support its forces in the Burma campaign of World War II. This railway completed the rail link between Bangkok, Thailand, and Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar). Source: Wikipedia

During its construction, around 90,000 civilian labourers and over 12,000 Allied prisoners died of the effects of forced labour under harsh conditions and tropical diseases. The line was closed in 1947, but the section between Nong Pla Duk and Nam Tok was reopened ten years later and is still in use today.

Our journey from Bangkok is quite easily put together. At one of the piers we get a ferry to drop us off at the other side of the river where we take the train to Kanchanaburi. The thing with Bangkok ferries is you have to get on and off them quickly because they don’t like to wait around. Even though we are aware of this, when we get to the pier only one passenger manages to jump off in time before the boat takes off again in a hurry, leaving him on the pier, baffled, and taking us and his friend who’s still on the boat with us, by surprise.

Luckily the next stop isn’t far away and we soon make it to the train station where we find the two friends, reunited.

At first it’s a bit of a strange idea to be riding on the tracks of the Death Railway, but the feeling soon fades. After all, it’s just a normal train we’re on. Or rather, normal for Asia, since the side doors are dangerously open and you can smoke there. Before long the scenery changes to a pleasant rural setting, with a few mountains in the background.

Kanchanaburi, a small city of around 32.000 people, lies 123 km west of Bangkok, where the Khwae Noi and Khwae Yai Rivers converge into the Mae Klong River. Though its location at the edge of a mountain range keeps it much cooler than the other provinces of central Thailand, winters here are dry, and very warm. Source: Wikipedia

In 1942 Kanchanaburi was under Japanese control. It was here that Asian forced labourers and Allied POW’s constructed a railway bridge, an event most famously portrayed in 1957’s film The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Once a year a carnival is set up in the area next to the bridge. At night a small pyrotechnics display is held to re-enacts the wartime bombing of the bridge. Throughout the rest of the year we find, there is a rather bizarre POW prison camp-themed food court located here instead..

The downtown area has part of a city wall, a governor’s mansion, and, surprisingly, a tiny heritage walk with a few buildings dating back to the 20’s and 30’s. One of these buildings is now a gun shop. In Ko Chang we learned that Muay Thai is taught in every school, so what on earth they need guns for? It’s a relief to know the Thai in truth are very friendly!

The riverfront area is mostly dedicated to tourism with restaurants, hotels, travel agents, scooter rental places. During the day it has a wealth of riverfront hangouts to choose from, while at night the place comes alive with an unbelievable amount of bars offering happy hour until midnight, that’s Thailand!

Following the Kwai Noi river upstream, we visit the Tha Krasae Bridge train station, one of the more scenic spots on the line towards Hellfire Pass, where tourists gather to catch one of six trains passing here daily.

While waiting for the train to arrive we hide from the blazing sun at Krasae Cave, which is carved into the rock right next to the track and has an interesting Buddhist shrine built inside it.

After a short while a guy shouts: “Train coming!”. People begin to clear the tracks and then comes the moment we have been waiting for: The train over Tha Krasae Bridge next to River Kwai, something to savour.

While this is the history Kanchanaburi is most famous for, we are delighted to find traces of the Khmer empire on our visit as well. Siem Reap was our favourite stop in Cambodia, and here, 600 km from Angkor Wat, we find an ancient outpost of the empire that ruled over most of mainland Southeast Asia from 802 to 1431.

When we try to get our next journey organised, two Australian guys from the local tourist police division (Slogan: “Your first friend”) advise us to allow ourselves enough time to get across Bangkok to the airport, so I guess we’ll be waking up early. Tomorrow we catch a flight down south where the plan is to cool off in the Andaman Sea.

So it’s one last sunset on the river Kwai for us, next stop Phuket.

A wholesome time in Asia’s Sin City

Bangkok, 30 January – 2 February 2020

With a population of over 8 million, the capital city of Bangkok is the largest city in Thailand. Though (in)famous for its abundant nightlife and sex tourism, in Bangkok we experience a forward-thinking and entirely pleasant mega city.

After arriving at the Centrepoint pier from Ko Chang, a big bus is waiting to take us straight to Bangkok’s Khaosan Road, the touristic heart of the city. The first thing I notice when we reach the outskirts of town is the public transport. The Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTS), also known as the Skytrain, began its operation at the turn of the millennium and soars over the traffic-congested streets below.

Then there is also a convenient subway system, an extensive network of public buses, and last but not least, public ferries, connecting all the different piers on both river and canals. It’s easy to get around in Bangkok.

There are currently 1,682 canals (khlongs) in Bangkok, totalling 2,604 km in length. Khlongs were used for transportation, floating markets and sewage and helped gain Bangkok the nickname “Venice of the East”. (The list keeps growing..)

The majority of sightseeing in Bangkok revolves around temples – almost too many to count. We check out a fair few, starting with Wat Saket: The temple of the Golden Mount. This Buddhist temple on a steep, artificial hill offers round views over the city. Phu Kao Thong (The Golden Mount) has become a symbol of Bangkok.

Now that we have seen the lay of the land, our temple tour continues at Wat Traimit, home of the Golden Buddha. Weighing in at 5.5 tonnes, this holy statue is believed to have been cast in parts in India.

Wat Chakkrawat, our next stop, is not usually included in the circuit, thpugh this temple stands out for its resident crocodiles. Legend is a canal was dug from the temple to the river, after which one of the monks found a croc in the garden and decided to keep it. With so many temples in Bangkok I guess it’ll help secure a few donations!

We follow the canals past Wat Pho, a big temple complex known also as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. This 46m long statue represents the entry of Buddha into Nirvana at the end of all incarnations. After a lot of walking we can do with a bit of rest ourselves, so we end the day watching the sunset from a pub on the river, which has a great view of a lit up Wat Arun on the opposite bank.

The next day we continue where we left off and visit a couple more godly residences. Though India officially only has one temple dedicated to lord Brahma, located in Pushkar, Thailand has many. Still no visit would be complete without paying our respect to the naughty god!

Around the corner from the Brahma temple is Wat Suthat, which you can recognize by the 30m high, giant swing in front of it. An annual swing ceremony was held here until 1935, where Brahmins would swing in an attempt to grab a bag of coins from one of the swing’s pillars. The temple itself dates back to the 18th century and is considered one of 23 first grade royal temples in Thailand.

At this point we make a sidestep to try and procure some hand sanitizer from the markets. Since recent reports on the Coronavirus, almost every Western tourist in Bangkok is wearing a £1 surgical mask (along with a customary set of elephant trousers), but keeping clean hands seems more useful to us. Turns out every shop’s sold out. When we find ourselves giving it one more go on a cramped market street in the middle of Chinatown we have got to stop and wonder; this might be defeating the purpose..

Keeping our grubby fingers well away from our mouths then we head to our final sight of the day, the Grand Palace. First stop inside the walled complex is yet another temple: Wat Phra Kaew, or, Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

This temple is regarded as the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand. At the very least it’s probably the most adorned, both inside and outside.

The compound walls are decorated with some fantastic murals. In 178 scenes they illustrate the complete sanskrit epic Ramayana. I’d be lying if I said I know much about the story, but any barbarian can still appreciate the beautiful craftsmanship that has gone into its creation. Beautiful stuff.

Finally it’s time to head inside and catch a glimpse of the famous emerald Buddha. According to legend, this Buddha image originated in India as well, where a sage prophesied it would bring prosperity and pre-eminence to each country in which it resides. Hence the statue is deeply revered in Thailand as the protector of the country. This means there’s no photography allowed inside, but I couldn’t keep this from you now, could I?

Delighted in having seen the coveted emerald Buddha we still have the Grand Palace to go, the icing on the cake, the home of the Thai King who’s face you find plastered on billboards all over town. The Grand Palace has been the official residence of the Kings of Siam (and later Thailand) since 1782. Several royal ceremonies and state functions are held here every year.

Bangkok has lots to discover, not least of all its food scene. Thai cuisine ranks up there with the best in the world and in Thailand’s capital it’s easy to find some mouth-watering dishes, such as Som Tam, Tom Yum Goong, Massaman Curry and Tom Kha Gai, all extremely flavourful and super cheap, sold at food stands found literally everywhere in the city. Plus you can bring your own beer, doesn’t get any better than that.

On our final day in Bangkok we check out some of its hypermalls. As part of the Japan Expo Thailand 2020 event we witness a really terrible yet extremely popular Japanese girl band performing at Central World and find a gourmet food store at Siam Paragon which sells anything needed for a little picnic in the park by the river. Wonderfull! I’ll admit I didn’t expect Bangkok to be such an easy-going place!

True we may have missed Soi Cowboy, go-go bars, ladyboys and being fall-down drunk, but in return had a pretty darn good time in Thailand’s capital. Bangkok has been a city full of pleasant little surprises.

Next up we’ll be taking the train to the Bridge on the River Kwai.

Sihanoukville in the Year of the Rat 2020

Sihanoukville, 24 January 2020

Our original plan was to get from Koh Rong Sanloem in Cambodia to Koh Chang in Thailand in one day, but although it’s technically possible, we rather play it safe and divide the travel up into bitesized chunks. This does however mean we’re spending the night in Sihanoukville, which is erm… an experience??

This coastal city, which was named after former king Norodom Sihanouk, was founded only after the dissolution of French Indochina in 1954 with the construction of the country’s first and only deep water port. As the entry point to the islands, and the most developed settlement on the coast, Sihanoukville was known for years as a relaxed beach area frequented by backpackers. These days it’s more known for crime, casinos and failing infrastructure.

Since 2011 Chinese investments have rapidly started changing Sihanoukville into what is supposed to become some sort of a new Las Vegas. Largely unchecked development has come at a cost of freezing out locals and completely altering the city’s character, not too mention some serious building collapses. Native Cambodians are paying the price for a government which has sold out to the Chinese.

Got to hand it to them though, the locals that haven’t left are pretty vocal about their distaste for some of their new neighbours. When we’re organizing the next part of our journey, the woman at the travel agency does little to hide her feelings about tomorrow’s Chinese New Year celebrations. The next morning she explains how she is one of the few people who have managed to hold on to property in Sihanoukville, the value of which has increased tenfold(!) over the past few years. For the average Cambodian person however, who earns about $200 a month, buying or even renting in town is no longer possible.

Walking along dusty streets through the building site that is Sihanoukville is a surreal experience. The maps I have been using are almost entirely useless here, since scores of restaurants and hotels have disappeared, and roads changed. I have to say I’m not displeased for one when at the end of the day we have bus tickets, a hotel for the night and dinner.

By the time the fire-crackers go off the next morning to mark the dawn of the Year of the Rat (traditionally a sign of wealth and surplus, and the beginnings of a new day) we are already on our way to Koh Kong, wondering what Sihanoukville will become for Cambodia.

Wedding season in Kampot’s melting pot

Kampot, 15-19 January 2020

Following the example of the French elites in the 1900’s, to escape the heat of the Phnom Penh plains, it’s off to the countryside we go. On paper today’s an easy 150km ride to Cambodia’s west coast, but no matter how long or short the distance, travel in this country always seems to end up being a full day’s affair. When we drive past a giant durian statue in the late afternoon we know we’ve ultimately arrived in Kampot.

Famed for its pepper plantations and the trade of durian fruit, Kampot used to hold Cambodia’s main seaport, attracting an international crowd. The town itself used to be half Cambodian, half Chinese, and the surrounding area had both a Vietnamese and a Malay village. With the arrival of the French in the 19th century Kampot’ melting pot became an administrative centre for the coastal region as well as a resort area, which it still is today.

For our first night we stay at one of the resorts along the Prek Tuek Chhou river, which flows through Kampot into the Gulf of Thailand. We rent a kayak and explore the backwaters, which are completely quiet except for birds and gibbons.

From across the river at the resort you can just about see the outlines of nearby Bokor mountain.

After visiting the genocide museum and the killing fields, it looks like we’ve found ourselves the ideal place to unwind in Kampot. And then there’s a mosque..

Though Cambodia is almost entirely Buddhist, there are roughly 600.000 Muslim Chams also living in the country. Right now in the cooler, dry season it’s the most popular time to get married, and nothing screams “party!” more than having your local holy man rage against the microphone non-stop from 7pm until midnight. Very interesting how little sound a bamboo hut blocks. When the call to prayer wakes us up at 5 the next day we’ve heard enough. Time to pack our bags and head to the village for some peace and quiet.

Kampot proper is a provincial town of roughly 50.000 people. It has some of the best kept French indochina architecture in Cambodia. Even though the Khmer Rouge dominated (and wrecked) the area during (and after) the civil war, a lot of the old buildings have been left standing. Some of the architecture has been beautifully restored, while yellow paint is flaking off on others, giving it a different kind of charm.

After the ultimate defeat of Khmer Rouge, since the mid-90’s, expats from Western countries have settled in Kampot and become part of the community. Given its chilled-out vibe, it’s not hard to see why this town attracts a lot of backpackers too. It’s the kind of place where you end up staying.

One cool customer in town is Joe, a white-maned, Australian hippy with an impressive moustache, who is in the middle of skinning up a fat joint when we meet him in front of his hotel. Joe’s happy to help out a couple sleep-deprived travellers, and while we’re waiting to check-in he entertains us with a couple crazy stories. When Lauren jokingly asks if the old stoner might be her dad, the panicky look on his face is just priceless! So we found ourself a new hotel, but ironically a big tent is being set up right in front of it for yet another wedding. ‘Tis the season after all..

Luckily this one’s a Buddhist ceremony, which means singing and dancing rather than a four hour single player shouting match, a big mercy. Having an actual room this time also helps a lot, so after a pretty decent rest we’re ready to explore some of the area surrounding Kampot.

Salt fields just outside town. Water is let in from the ocean and left to evaporate, leaving crystals.

Bokor National Park

It’s a hot day, so to cool off a bit we drive up 40km to the old French hill station on Bokor mountain, which is part of Bokor National Park, a 1581-sq-km area of rainforest home to the Malayan sun bear, Asiatic black bear, clouded leopard and pig tailed macaque. Sadly the park is currently being threatened by poaching, illegal logging and development, so much so that in fact we’re probably lucky to see a lone macaque by the side of the freshly paved road leading up to the summit.

Once at the top it’s ten degrees cooler and we go check out the remains of the station the French built in the early 1900’s. Though most of it is no longer recognizable, the Old Palace was once re-used as a casino during the 50’s and 60’s. The old church is left mostly in one piece. While we’re there it’s being used as a backdrop in another wedding’s photoshoot.

Around the hill station there’s also a waterfall (mostly dry this time of year), some rice fields and an old temple complex on a cliff’s edge. On a clear day the views are supposed to be quite spectacular.

Between the old colonial ruins, a cliff-side temple, amazing wildlife and dramatic mist descending from the jungle on the side of the mountain, Bokor has a lot going for it, but sadly this may not last for much longer. In 2012 a 190-sq-km area within the national park was already granted to a Chinese investment group for a multi-million-dollar tourism development. Currently a gigantic casino and hotel have been completed, along with an entire ghost town of empty apartment buildings, and this is only the beginning. When you leave the park, a big sign reads: “Thank you for helping us maintain our national heritage.” Aye, right then.

During cocktail hour at RikiTikiTavi, the oldest bar in town, we meet Bjorn, an expat turned local boatman (though he prefers to call himself an immigrant), who is happy to answer a million questions we have about Cambodia, the country he fell in love with ten years ago. He has some great stories about what Kampot used to be like when he first arrived and how it’s changed over the years, and one very lively story about a former UN soldier he had on his boat, who came to Kampot to track down a former Khmer Rouge commander responsible for a massacre, gripping stuff. Together the three of us continue our way to a barbeque joint and end up at the market stalls for a few more beers afterwards.

Phnom Chhngok Cave Temple

The next day we head to Phnom Chhngok, to see a temple inside a cave complex set in limestone mountains. The ride alone is already worthwhile, when we cross rice fields, sleepy towns and a few giant temples appearing out of nowhere. Judging by how excited the local kids get when they see us my guess is not many people come out this way.

The main cave of Phnom Chhngok is home to a 7th century shrine to Shiva. Sheltered by the cave walls, the temple has been quite well-preserved. Local kids act as guides here and speak remarkably good English. They call it the elephant cave, because the rock formation next to the shrine resembles both an adult and baby elephant. Pretty dead on, isn’t it?

At the end of our time in Kampot we can say it turned out to be one of our favourite places in Cambodia. We found a welcoming community here, some good food, good vibes, nice people. Bye-bye Kampot, don’t ever change!

Khmer Rouge: Cambodia’s dark past

Phnom Penh, 12-14 January 2020

The 250km drive from Kratié to Cambodia’s busy capital city Phnom Penh is mostly uneventful and only slightly delayed (the equivalent of excellent when it comes to public transport in Cambodia). After finding our hotel at the city’s riverside, and scaling 6 levels to get up to our room, we’re greeted by a monkey peeping inside our window. Once again on our travels we’re being terrorized by macaques, who have taken over our balcony!

Phnom Penh first became the national capital in 1434 when Ponhea Yat, king of the Khmer empire, moved it from Angkor Thom, which had been captured and destroyed by Siam. A stupa erected behind Phnom Penh’s major temple of Wat Phnom houses the king’s remains.

Positioned at the junction of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, by the 1920’s Phnom Penh was known as the Pearl of Asia, considered to be one of the most beautiful French-built cities in Indochina. Today it is a busy, not unpleasant, city of 2 million people. While there are a few other things of interest around here, such as the Palace and the Russian Market, as well as numerous pubs selling craft beers, our main goal in Phnom Penh is to learn more about the grim events taking place in Cambodia during the civil war.

I see myself like a broken glass. It’s so important that genocide be prevented, because it destroys the strings of humanity, it destroys the family, not just physically but emotionally. Reconciliation is about the responsibility of each of the victims to put all these broken pieces back together. – Youk Cchang (director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia and Killing Fields survivor)

The Cambodian Civil War which officially started in 1968 can only be understood within the wider frame of the Cold War, in specifically the conflict in Vietnam. In 1970 the North Vietnamese Army captured a third of Cambodia in the northeast and started empowering a then small communist guerilla movement called Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot. After five years of fighting, the pro-American Republican government was finally defeated when the victorious Khmer Rouge proclaimed the establishment of Democratic Kampuchea in 1975.

The war had caused a refugee crisis in Cambodia. More than 2 million people had fled the countryside to find shelter in Phnom Penh. When the Khmer Rouge took over the city they began what has been described as a death march: the forceful evacuation of the entire city.

Over the next four years the Khmer Rouge would become increasingly xenophobic and paranoid, causing what is known as the Cambodian genocide: the deaths of 2 million people, around 25% of Cambodia’s population.

The prison at S-21

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh chronicles these dark pages of Cambodian history. The site is a former secondary school, which was used as Security Prison 21 (S-21). During the regime an estimated 20,000 people were imprisoned and tortured here, under accusations of political dissent. It is just one of roughly 200 torture and execution centres established by the Khmer Rouge.

An audio guide takes us through the complex of classrooms converted to cells and torture chambers, and rows and rows of victim’s photographs, so many of whom were just children. Recollections from survivors of this time make for a harrowing listening experience as we walk through the former school.

Choeung Ek

Following history we then visit the so-called Killing Field of Choeung Ek, about 10km away from S-21. After prisoners at the detention centres signed their forced confessions, they were brought here to be executed. Although Choeung Ek is one of the best-known locations, this is but one of many, many mass graves scattered throughout the country, some of which have yet to be discovered.

Fragments of bones and clothes still resurface from these mass graves when it rains, but even on a dry day like today some of the remains are visible in the burial pits. A monument was built in the central courtyard to remember the people that lost their lives at Choeung Ek.

I see my mother everywhere. I see my sister everywhere. I see the whole country as my family. When I meet a woman who has lost her child, I treat her like my mother. When I someone who is poor, who lost their siblings, I see my sister. They become my family. – Youk Cchang

Cambodians literally address others, even tourists such as ourselves, as family; brother, sister, aunt, uncle.

Visiting Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek has been informative, and heartbreaking and at times maddening, but I’m glad we went to see it. Seeing how much Cambodia has had to endure and still endures, not in the least because of Western countries, we’re only left with great respect for the people of Cambodia, who have began to put the broken pieces back together.

Kumbhalgarh: Taking the scenic route

Udaipur to Jodhpur, 25 September

Between the two painted cities of Udaipur and Jodhpur there’s no trains, and after hearing a story from other tourists that the bus they were on doubled as prisoner transport we decide it might be fun to hire a car and driver instead and take the touristic route to Jodhpur past Kumbhal Fort.

We’ve teamed up on this one with a couple of crazy kids we met, Tony and Jas, a Kiwi and Brit living in Sydney. At 9AM sharp we set off on our trip. Today we’re going to see rural Rajasthan, a fair bit of it too.

The drive up should take about 5 hours, plus an extra hour to visit the Fort and in the morning it’s a smooth ride on quiet roads past tiny villages. Though slow-paced it’s full of life here between the farmers herding their cows, buffalo and goats, children playing in the streets and dogs napping in the shade by the side of the road. It’s great to be here at the tail end of the monsoon season, as it’s dry and sunny but the surroundings are lush and green. We pass waterholes where nearby villagers take their cattle inside the house at night because of tigers and leopards visiting at night. Around noon we make it to the Fort, an impressive structure!

We’re still in the Mewar region in Southern Rajasthan where Mewari is the first language, and Kumbhalgarh, which literally means Fort of Kumbhal is a Mewar Fortress built during the course of the 15th century by Rana Kumbha, ruler of the Mewar Kingdom.

Kumbhalgarh is the second largest fort in India. Its walls extend over 38km, making it one of the longest walls in the world, and are thick enough for 8 horsemen to ride abreast on top of it!

A wide, winding stone road takes us up higher and higher into the Fort and at each new level you’re more and more beginning to admire the work that has gone into building this structure. It must have been a gigantic project, just carrying up all the building materials must have taken an army of workers.

Each gate has big metal spikes sticking out to prevent elephants from breaking through, and the walls contain holes for the defending archers. Almost impregnable to direct assault, the Fort only fell once to the forces of Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1576.

After a 30 minute climb we reach the top of the fort to enjoy a grand view of the Aravalli Hills.

It’s time for some lunch, and as expected our driver brings us to a restaurant owned by a friend of his’, or maybe it’s his cousin’s, were not sure, but hey, they serve cold beer, some decent food and even show off the cannabis plant they grow in the garden, so it’s all good.

Back in the car we travel through enormous valleys where the langur monkeys hang out. We stop off to feed them some crisps, which they immediately destroy, and pieces of custard apple, they wait for patiently to receive.

It’s now getting to 3 o’clock and at this point one of us notices we’re nowhere near our destination of Jodhpur yet. We decide to skip our planned visit to the Ranakpur Jain Temple and try and get to Jodphur before nightfall.

This is of course not taking India into account. Everything just takes a little longer. Most roads are littered with potholes, so we’re stuck at 20 km an hour until we get to the toll road. A simple train crossing keeps us stationary for another 15 minutes and we even get stuck inside a big herd near one of the villages!

We watch the sun go down on the horizon. At 8PM we’re finally closing in on Jodphur. We’re ready to turn into our hotels, but suddenly the driver stops at a roadside cafe and wants us to have tea with his brother! This is the moment Tony cracks up and makes clear he would like to be in Jodhpur now. We were told it would take 6 hours to get to Jodhpur, but it’s getting close to double that amount. When we finally reach the city, the driver, with a straight face, remarks he’s pleased we’ve arrived early, and we can’t help but laugh when Tony replies: “Early, you say? Early? Well in that case I got some news for you bud, we’re not f*cking early!” Poor Tony needs a drink. All is well in the end when we finish our night with a cold beer on the rooftop of our Jodhpur hotel.

First taste of North India: Visiting Taj Mahal

Agra, 15-16 September

Sunday marks a big step in our 7 months on the road. We’re waking up at 5AM to travel 2,500km from Cochin in the south of India way up to Agra in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. While the train to New Delhi takes 3 days (not including delays) our flight takes us there in just 3 hours, after which another 3 hours by train sees us to the home of the Taj Mahal!

While the south of India is known for being pretty easy-going, the north on the other hand is a lot more intense. The same way that Sri Lanka was a great introduction to South India, we figured South India would ease us into Rajasthan/Uttar Pradesh. Let’s hope it does!

Arriving at Delhi airport things already move at a much quicker pace. In less than half an hour we clear security, retrieve our luggage and get on board the metro to the train station. Delhi’s urban area is the second largest in the world and with over 26 million inhabitants it dwarfs Scotland and the Netherlands’ total combined! A milky white veil of smog covers the sky (it might be a nice day, we’re not quite sure?) but we’re not planning on hanging about.

In Alleppey, Yeti, our new friend from Delhi has shared some interesting stories about travelling in the north, which has prepared us at least a little for the scams, poverty and selfies we’re about to encounter at Delhi train station today.

We have already been asked to pose for a few selfies in India, but in the south it was usually families taking photos with us, and we both quite enjoy the idea of randomly ending up in the odd family album. In the north it’s an entirely different game: It’s almost always a guy on his own, or a group of guys, who essentially want to take a picture with Lauren so they can boast about it to others later. On the short walk between the metro and the train station we stupidly agree to one picture with a guy and seconds later we’re being pure fenced in by a crowd of men all waving their phones at us! Not sure where those pictures will end up, not in a family album I suspect. Ah the price you pay for being a famous blogger! 😉

The poverty is a bit more difficult to deal with. Though it’s only midday, being at Delhi train station is like being on the worst imaginable version of a night bus back home: People are lying sprawled out on the ground everywhere, drunks try to talk to you and ask for money, there’s no seats, it smells of raw sewage, and the floors are sticky. Now add to that some serious humidity, heavy bags, selfies, an entirely illogical station layout with severe lack of sign posting and kids following you around begging, that just about sums up the experience.

Similar to the selfies, we’ve been advised to ignore anyone asking for money. Begging is a big business in India, often run by cartels and it is said some beggars go as far as to maim themselves just to make more money, pretty gruesome stuff.. In Sri Lanka, by a local’s example, we’ve given money to the odd beggar, in North India begging is a lot more widespread. Between the time spent at the station and the train journey to Agra alone I’m asked for money by at least ten different people, but clearly it’s only tourists they engage.

Then finally there is scams. Just before the train arrives to Agra, we’re asked for our tickets by a random guy in a shirt, who’s clearly not the conductor. A friendly Sikh we’ve been sharing our carriage with quickly tells him what I assume is something along the lines of: Beat it, these two are with me, as he points to us and then himself, and the guy legs it. Scams are rife in the north so we better get wise to it quickly. The cheekiest one we’ve heard so far is from another tourist who was told to pay 1,000 rupees for a 20 rupee bottle of water!

When we arrive at the hostel we can conclude it’s been a successful day, we’re in Agra!

Taj Mahal

In Agra we’re visiting two major sights, both of them buildings from the Mughal era. First up on our list is the famous Taj Mahal on the banks of the river Yamuna, one of the big ticket items in India and voted one of the Seven New Wonders of the World.

Once again we get an early start to our day to arrive at the site before sunrise. Our hostel is a convenient 10 minute walk away from the Taj, which was commissioned in 1632 by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, also housing the tomb of Shah Jahan himself. At its height, the Mughal empire was one of the largest empires in the history of South Asia, and the Taj Mahal is definitely impressive!

Taj monkey, a second before it lunged itself at Lauren

Agra Fort

In the afternoon we visit Agra Fort. This was the main residence of the emperors of the Mughal Dynasty until 1638. Once in ruins, it was rebuilt in red sandstone by Mughal emperor Akbar by 1573, and later partly remodeled in white marble by Akbar’s grandson Shah Jahan to match the nearby Taj Mahal.

Tomorrow we’ll be travelling to our first of the three painted cities, Jaipur in Rajasthan!