Siargao Part Two

One of the highlights of the trip was visiting three islands: Naked, Daku & Guyam. We took a local bangka (outrigger) with a tour guide and spent the day exploring.

Our first stop, Naked Island. Called Naked because there’s nothing there…except tourists taking photos!

Our first stop, Naked Island. Called Naked because there’s nothing there…except tourists taking photos!

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We stopped at Daku Island for Lunch and a swim. It was a nice place to relax and eat a local meal

We stopped at Daku Island for Lunch and a swim. It was a nice place to relax and eat a local meal

Lunch: locally caught fish and vegetables from the market

Lunch: locally caught fish and vegetables from the market

My favorite of the three: Guyam Island, full of beautiful rock pools

My favorite of the three: Guyam Island, full of beautiful rock pools

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The ride home

The ride home

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Thank you Siargao for a beautiful holiday. Will definitely be back.

Thank you Siargao for a beautiful holiday. Will definitely be back.

Siargao

Ah Siargao, how much do I love you? One of the 7,641 islands located in the Philippines, this tiny island started out as a surfer’s hub and suddenly burst into the mainstream partly because of social media and being featured in a local movie. While it is still mostly underdeveloped, things are moving fast and it would be best to get there before everyone else did!

We arrived in February, a good time to visit the Philippines because it’s just before the summer months (March to May) and while you can get a little bit of rain it is nothing like the monsoon season (June to August). Peak season is usually over Christmas up to about January so February makes it a good time to hit shoulder season before everything picks up again. It never stops being humid, though.

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The island is beautiful and has a limited amount of accommodation so it’s best to book early to make sure you get a good place to stay - one fellow tourist we ran into ended up in a place with no running water. We stayed at the lovely Siargao Bleu Resort and were greeted with a coconut upon arrival.V

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We wandered down the beach to Harana Resort, next door, where they serve excellent food and the best coffee on the island. You can enjoy your meal huddled up against the pillows, enjoying their wi-fi and patting the numerous dogs that hang out in the cafe.

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Some of the food we had: Native fish & garlic rice from the Siargao Bleu buffet breakfast, pizza from Kermit, also a popular place to stay, Traditional lonsilog (Longaniza, a sweet/spicy sausage, fried egg & garlic rice) from Harana, and dessert of Turon - banana fritters with Ube (Taro) ice cream

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For sunset we walked to Cloud 9, the famous break where all the surfers go. We walked over a rickety bridge - I swear I thought I was going to die, everyone else was fine and taking selfies - to get to the viewing platform on the end, before catching a glimpse of the magnificent sunset.

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Eating in Bangkok

We spent two nights in Bangkok in transit to Cambodia, and one night on the way home. We did visit a few temples, but mostly what we did was eat! We had dinner at Issaya Siamese Club (after the coffee) with excellent ribs and seafood, lunch at Nara, (purple bowls) which is a chain but offers excellent traditional Thai food and finally dinner at Namsah Bottling Club (the pink house) with its excellent cocktails and fusion Southeast Asian food. All highly recommended.

Cambodia Part Three

Here are Part One and Part Two

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On our third day of touring we started off at  Bantay Srei, Hindu temple of pink and yellow sandstone. It is the only Hndu temple that was made flat because they ran out of stone!

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Next we headed to Tonle Sap, a seasonal freshwater lake that is occupied by a bunch of houseboats, including a school (Pictured below). The people in the area rely on fishing as their livelihood although a lot of tourists also make it there. There is a small crocodile farm off one of the larger boats where they sell tourist items and have a bar for events.

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On our way to our next destination our tour guide was kind enough to get us some purple bananas - that turn red when they ripen - to try (right). They were sweet and a little tart and we enjoyed trying them.

 

Next we headed to Kulan Waterfalls (pictured below) where we took a short hike to see the falls. A short walk away is the river of a thousand lengas (below right). In the 11th-12th century the river was dammed up and the King had the lengas carved right into the river bank. It’s an amazing feat of craftmanship and I can just imagine how difficult it was to get that all done.

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The reclining Buddha on top off a hill and above a few flights of stairs. There were many worshippers when we visited and people also left offerings of money and food.

Our last stop for this trip was Bang Malea, an temple in the middle of the jungle that has been left unrestored to show tourists what that is like. During the war it was used as a hideout by guerillas because it was so deep in the jungle (It’s about 68k from Siem Reap) There is one wooden bridge that goes around part of the internal perimeter and it is only there because it was left by a movie crew after filming Two Brothers, a film about two tiger cubs. I felt like Indiana Jones discovering greatness walking through this temple. You really had to climb over rocks and walk through tunnels to get from one end to the other, it was an amazing experience and a fitting end to our trip to Cambodia.

Cambodia Part Two

The first part of my adventure can be found here

The next day, we got up at 4:45 to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. If you click through the pictures you can see the beautiful sunrise and the different colours that played out through the sky as the sun rose.

Angkor Wat is the largest temple of worship in the world, and is the most famous symbol of Cambodia. It was built originally for the Hindu God VIshnu and was converted to Buddhism later on. The statue of Vishnu was moved downstairs to one of the galleries and has been replaced by a Buddha that you have to climb a very steep flight of stairs to get to. Aside from monkeys and monks, the temple also hosts restoration teams from Japan, France and Germany. There are also visible bullet holes at the entryway, a legacy of the war. One of the galleries used to host a thousand buddhas that have since been moved or looted - it became commonplace in the past to slash buddha statues and sell just the head as it was more marketable and quicker to dispose of. We were able to get a blessing from the teenage monks that were sitting in a shrine within the temple. I’m not sure what they were saying but they tied a piece of red thread around our wrists and sent us on our way. (I still have the thread somewhere!)

After a quick breakfast provided by our tour company we rushed to Tah Prohm, the temple that King Jayarvarman VII built for his mother after her death. The temple was built specifically so he could pray for her, and he kept precious jewels in the walls, the niches of which are still visible. The temple is better known as the “Tomb Raider Temple”, having featured in the movie, complete with the trees with roots coming out of its walls. It was first opened to the public in 1998 and is still undergoing restoration. After Bayon, this is my second favorite temple.

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The advantage of being in a private tour is that not only can you plan your own itinerary but the guide can also suggest and tailor certain things based on your interests. For instance, I mentioned I loved elephants and would love to see a temple with lots of elephants and voila, here we are. Unfortunately I do not remember the name of this temple but there was an elephant on each corner!

My friend also expressed a desire to see the war museum and we ended up there, it was a barebones open air museum, almost like it was in the backyard of a large house. There were tanks (see one below), machine guns, kalashnikovs, and even a helicopter. There was documentation explaining the war, how they came to be involved, and the subsequent genocide. Many of the large, standing machine guns had been found abandoned in the country side. It made me sad to think that they had seen action and that the display featured actual weapons that had harmed people at one point.

The King also built a temple to honour his father, Praeh Khan, pictured below. Like his mother’s temple there are niches showing where the jewels were once stored. There is a clear view straight one end to the other, from the lenga (third photo) and the walls inside were full of carvings of the Apsara, or the ideal woman. The outer wall (not pictured) featured the Garuda, a mythical beast with the head of a bird.

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For dinner, we went to pub street, the main tourist road in Siam Reap. The food was so unremarkable that we didn’t even take pictures! To be continued…

Cambodia

Cambodia has been on my list to visit for a long time. Despite its proximity to Australia, I’ve always ended up choosing to go somewhere further, but last August, I finally decided it was time to see Siem Reap. There are no direct flights to Cambodia from Sydney (or anywhere else in Australia as far as I know) so I opted to spend a few days in Bangkok beforehand and on the way back. A good friend agreed to join me on this adventure and we spent five days in Siem Reap exploring the sights and sounds. Since there were a lot of things to see and a lot to get through I’ve split this adventure into three parts. Here is part one.

After a short flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap, we arrived on a not too grey day, despite it being the rainy season. We chose E-Ocambo Residences based entirely on photos and reviews online and it did not disappoint. For a very economical price, we got a lovely twin room, free breakfast and a nice pool to lounge at. The service was wonderful and attentive and you can even get massages in your rooms. We spent approximately $200 USD for two of us for four nights, including massages and drinks, which made it a very good deal indeed. (I even saved a copy of the receipt in case no one would believe me!)

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In the late afternoon we opted to take a street food tour with Angkor Street Eats. Phat, our lovely guide, was very knowledgeable and was kind enough to share his experiences during the war. We had a feast, considering there were only three of us including our guide! (See below.) We had four stops, one at a traditional beer garden, one at a street food restaurant and another at a stall near the river, before ending in a bar that served street food of the insect variety matched with craft beer!

Our favorite dish was the prahok, a fermented fish. Out of all the insects I liked the water beetle the most. I can see how you could keep going on eating them like chips. Despite the hype the tarantula was squishy and the scorpion tough and bitter. (Yes, I tried them all.) Crickets were really crunchy but not much substance. The reason why this food became popular is actually somewhat tragic. During the war, when they were out in the countryside starving, they had nothing to else to eat, so people learned to eat what was there, and that’s how they came to eat insects. After this and some beer we attacked a plate of sweets to wash the taste away. They were sweet and sticky and mostly made of rice, and I liked most of them.

I would highly recommend this tour, as it is an experience that you wouldn’t get anywhere else. Phat took us to places that locals really frequent, we tasted things that were familiar, and things that we’d never had before. It was adventurous but also tailored to your taste - you don’t have to eat the insects for example, he said we were braver than most as we tried them all - and a good introduction to Cambodian food.

The next day we began a three day private tour through Smile Cambodia Tour. We were able to customise our tour and pick places that were recommended as well as places that suited our interests. Sonny, our guide, had a lot of experience, was well-informed and very accommodating. He was also extra careful with my friend who hurt her ankle coming off the plane and made sure to make allowances for her. Private tours in Cambodia are not hard to book, there are many guides that speak different languages and offer different but mostly well-priced tours. I would highly recommend this group for their service and attention to detail.

Our first day began with a visit to Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom is a complex of temples within Angkor, the ancient mega-city capital of Cambodia that flourished from the 9th to 15th centuries. What I did not know about Angkor was that it was/is both Hindu and Buddhist. Most of the temples including Ankor Wat were built as Hindu shrines until the 12th century, when the reigning monarch’s conversion to Buddhism resulted in temples being converted and the building of the Angkor Thom complex as a shrine to Buddhism. When he passed away however, everything went back to being Hindu until the city collapsed after invasion in the 15th century and was eventually abandoned for reasons people are still trying to figure out.

Below, one of the gates of Angkor Thom. The complex of Angkor Thom has five entrances. Each walkway features the gods on one side and demons on the other. Each side carries the Naga (snake) and each gate has a four headed Buddha with a three headed elephant carrying Indra, the god of monsoon. I’ve included a photo of the “gods side” below.

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Bayon Temple is my favorite temple in Angkor. (At some point we ranked all the temples we visited and this was always number one.) This temple was built by King Jayavarman VII in the 11th century and was partially modified by Hindu & Buddhist Conquerors. (King J VII was the king that converted to Buddhism) It features 216 smiling and serene Buddhas. The sculptures are so jovial and welcoming that our tour guide named his company “Smile Cambodia” after this temple! All of the Buddhas, as pictured below, were created using stones from a quarry downstream that were taken up by barge and later by elephants and made with no cement or anything sticky to hold them together. Aren’t they beautiful?

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All the temples in Angkor were built for prayer. The King did not reside in any of these complexes, he just came to pray and each particular temple was dedicated to a god in the name of someone or the king himself. People believed the king was a god, or at least the earthly representation of him. It was here that I learnt that Hindu Temples are built upwards with stairs so that you are closer to heaven. Buddhist temples are built flat. At some point during our trip we got to asking what kind of temple it was before we decided to climb it! My friend could not climb due to hurt ankle, so guess who did all the climbing, everywhere? (It could get tiring because of the heat, but it was worth it. The craftsmanship was exquisite and the buildings were all awe-inspiring.)

The King built Baphuon Temple (below) in the 11th century and dedicated it to the god Shiva, the god of destruction/transformation. People believed the king was a god or the earthly representation of him. At the very top of the temple was a golden linga. He would climb al the way up and pour the sacred waters so that they could flow down. Nowadays the stairs to the linga is closed and the golden bit is no longer there, but you can climb all the way to the level just before it on a precarious ladder that was so steep you could fear for your life. (see below)

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After a long day of Temple Exploring we headed to a French restaurant called L’Annexe for dinner. The pate was excellent, and the duck & steak were well seasoned. The pizza was crunchy and while not very French was quite tasty.

Part two can be found here

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Doors

I have a slight fascination (obsession) with doors and often pause during my travels to take photographs. Here are some of my favourites from my last European trip.

Provence

When I was younger, I read the book , "A Year in Provence" by Peter Mayle. Visions of Provence from the novel and postcards of lavender enticed me to visit the region. We only managed a day trip, but it seems like it is worth staying a while and using it as a base to further explore the region. Here are some snapshots from last September. 

Things I did in London

I must have been so excited to be in one of my favourite cities in the world that I promptly dropped my phone in the toilet. (True Story.)  Here are some of the things I did in this marvellous city back in August. 

London was so bright and sunny I could hardly believe it was London at all.

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I went for a run in Notting Hill, one of my favourite neighbourhoods to explore, culminating with brunch at Ottolenghi's.

I never fail to make a pilgrimage to the British Museum for all the history and beautiful art

Random graffiti on the street featuring Amy Winehouse 

Random graffiti on the street featuring Amy Winehouse 

On one particularly sunny I should've worn shorts day I took the train to Greenwich, and stood on the Prime Meridian. Beautiful views and weather and a nice walk up the hill.

Books at Waterstones, all six floors of it are heaven for any reader.

Books at Waterstones, all six floors of it are heaven for any reader.

Robot from Tate Modern

Robot from Tate Modern

St. Pancras Station on a bright, sunny day (Is this really London?!?)

St. Pancras Station on a bright, sunny day (Is this really London?!?)

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Above & Below: Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, where we caught a production of Much Ado About Nothing. 

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On the way to St. Pancras

On the way to St. Pancras

Had Ghanaian food in Brixton, in a pop up that had been set up to promote food and art. Awesome place, great food. 

Tate Modern Art

Tate Modern Art

More Art from the Tate

More Art from the Tate

Walking down Mayfair

Walking down Mayfair

Asador Extebarri

Up and down a winding road in the mountains an hour from San Sebastian (or thirty minutes from Bilbao) likes Asador Extebarri, currently the sixth best restaurant in the world. Asador means to smoke, or to grill and their speciality lies in grilled seafood and meat brought in and cooked to perfection. We made the trek one fine autumn day, to quite possibly the prettiest middle of nowhere I've been to so far. 

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I stood in the middle of this road and danced like it was the Sound of Music and no one came down it. It was almost 1pm. 

I stood in the middle of this road and danced like it was the Sound of Music and no one came down it. It was almost 1pm. 

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We opted for the degustation, with some wine to go with it.

We opted for the degustation, with some wine to go with it.

Chickpea soup a very light starter to the meal 

Chickpea soup a very light starter to the meal 

Some small dishes on the left: The Chorizo Cracker was chewy from the fat, with a light touch of pepper and paprika coming through. One of the best chorizos I've ever had. The Salt Anchovy was smoky, rich with a touch of oil. I inhaled the oniony taste. The bread was crip but soft enough to be savoured. The next two were made from goat's milk, from the goats on site. It went very well with the bread, but not to diss their goats but it was not a unique flavour. The Tomato & white belly tuna was smokey and rich and the Chlamys varia or scallops were so rich and tasty that they deserved their own solo shot, below.

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The seafood at Asador was exceptional. The Prawn of Palamos, while ostensibly a simple dish was grilled to perfection. I left none of its guts behind. It was possibly one of the best dishes of the day, and I marvelled at how something so simple could be so amazing.

Kokotxa - soft like jelly, the throat of the cod, salty with just a tang of the sea

Kokotxa - soft like jelly, the throat of the cod, salty with just a tang of the sea

Red Sea Bream - Light, succulent and tasty. Lemon, olive oil and chives perfectly combined. So juicy.

Red Sea Bream - Light, succulent and tasty. Lemon, olive oil and chives perfectly combined. So juicy.

In contrast, this was my least favourite dish. Sadly it was well cooked but chewy and too rare. The crisp bits were flavourful and salty, but the rest of it was too medium. I think I possibly just didn't get the right side of beef, that happens sometimes. 

In contrast, this was my least favourite dish. Sadly it was well cooked but chewy and too rare. The crisp bits were flavourful and salty, but the rest of it was too medium. I think I possibly just didn't get the right side of beef, that happens sometimes. 

Dessert included a bonus dish, not unlike Hawaiian shave ice, followed by reduced milk with beetroot, a fig to balance the richness of the dairy in the previous dish and Mignardise & cocoa, rich and bitter to balance the sweetness.

Asador Extebarri was truly an enchanting experience. Well worth the trek to one of the prettiest villages in the middle of nowhere. They release their bookings three months in advance, and I spent a few nights hunched over the keyboard trying to beat the clock and working out how to best get the reservation. The restaurant can also arrange for a taxi for you to return to your accommodation. The service was impeccable and the ambience was rustic and down to earth despite the restaurant's prominence. Locals and international travellers alike filled the room, and there is also an ala carte menu for those that don't feel like eating as much as we did. 

Asador Extebarri is located at San Juan Plaza, 1, 48291 Atxondo, Bizkaia, Spain

Melbourne

I love Melbourne. I visit at least once a year to catch up with friends and to experience the beautiful sights, sounds and food that the city has to offer.  I like to time my visits with special events. This time around I came to watch the football (soccer) - Brazil vs. Argentina. I also managed to schedule work around this time, so it worked out quite well. 

Thursday night I hit the whisky with a dear cousin who had just moved to the city. Whisky & Alement, conveniently not too far from my office, has a wide selection of whiskeys, some of which I have not seen anywhere else. The menu is extensive and includes drams that have been bottled specifically for them, with no labels, only descriptions. While some of the copy gets carried away with combinations (with hints of calamari, anyone?) you can generally pick anything off the list and get a pretty good tasting whisky, or ask the helpful bartenders for their recommendations.

Rice Paper Scissors   is an Asian fusion restaurant that lets you get carried away with a set menu of 5-6 dishes for about $50-60.  And yes, we did get carried away. Somehow we managed to finish most of it, plus two orders of roti! Great value for money, and while not entirely traditional recipes it is a good way to sample Asian flavours, especially South East Asian ones. 

Roti, round one 

Roti, round one 

Pork Belly!!!

Pork Belly!!!

Crying Tiger (Thai Grilled Beef)

Crying Tiger (Thai Grilled Beef)

Korean Fried Chicken

Korean Fried Chicken

The next day I met up with a friend for lunch. Wonder Bao is a hole in the wall somewhere in the CBD behind some construction on the street. Despite its unobtrusive location it is very popular and we ended up getting take away and sitting in a park. I ordered a hotdog bun, an eggplant bun and a pork belly bun. Altogether filling, fluffy and flavourful.  Nice and cheap, too. 

This is the Brazil vs Argentina match that I went to Friday evening. While it was fun, it was largely fun because of the people I was with, and the atmosphere in the crowd. The game itself was rather boring - by the second half it was all about the paper airplanes - with too many players afraid to get injured so they weren't making too much effort. They also fell down a lot and didn't want to get up. Having seen both these teams before in actual competition (separately), I know they are capable of so much more, they just didn't quite deliver more than just a fraction of it. 

The Grain Store serves a seasonal menu using fresh produce. It is a very popular cafe, so be prepared to wait! I used the opportunity to catch up with an old flatmate and her partner while we waited for about 30 minutes for our turn. The food was well worth the wait - filling and comforting on a cold, winter's day. 

Thick Cut Bacon & Halloumi Pumpkin Fritter

Thick Cut Bacon & Halloumi Pumpkin Fritter

Portobello Mushroom & Gruyere Potato Rosti with Bacon

Portobello Mushroom & Gruyere Potato Rosti with Bacon

Sweet Miso Pork & Potato Hash

Sweet Miso Pork & Potato Hash

Warm Milk Chocolate Cookies & Milk - freshly baked, with a 10 minute wait. Worth it!

Warm Milk Chocolate Cookies & Milk - freshly baked, with a 10 minute wait. Worth it!

I was lucky enough to be in Melbourne in time to catch Van Gogh and the Seasons at the National Gallery of Victoria . The exhibit was lovely and featured some of his most famous paintings, organised by season. I have been to several exhibits at the NGV before and I felt that this could have been better organised. We bought our tickets in advance, but there didn't seem to be a cap per time slot, so the viewing area was rather crowded. I still enjoyed the beautiful paintings, though.

This is possibly one of the few times where they have allowed non-flash picture taking which led to a lot of people clustering around paintings like this. While I took a few photos myself, at some point it got a bit much due to the sheer volume of people...

This is possibly one of the few times where they have allowed non-flash picture taking which led to a lot of people clustering around paintings like this. While I took a few photos myself, at some point it got a bit much due to the sheer volume of people...

Dinner that night was at Town Mouse . Quiet and tiny (a lot of Melbourne is tiny) it was a great place to catch up with some girlfriends and enjoy some food and wine. 

Duck Liver Parfait

Duck Liver Parfait

Crisp Brussels sprouts, buttermilk, mint & pecorino. This one was my favorite

Crisp Brussels sprouts, buttermilk, mint & pecorino. This one was my favorite

Black angus intercostals (500g), hazelnut romesco

Black angus intercostals (500g), hazelnut romesco

Buttermilk poached pear, walnut, roast white chocolate & fermented pear sorbet

Buttermilk poached pear, walnut, roast white chocolate & fermented pear sorbet

I had my last Breakfast in Melbourne at Humble Rays , a smallish cafe in Carlton. The chef specializes in mixing sweet and savoury, and this has led to some -very filling -  creative dishes. I had the pancakes, in case you're wondering. 

Egg Benny: Ginger braised pork belly, miso and potato korroke, almond & cashew dukkah, poached egg, yuzu hollaindaise, chilli bacon jam and an egg

Egg Benny: Ginger braised pork belly, miso and potato korroke, almond & cashew dukkah, poached egg, yuzu hollaindaise, chilli bacon jam and an egg

Belly Dancing - Pancakes, bacon, sunny side up egg, nutella and banana

Belly Dancing - Pancakes, bacon, sunny side up egg, nutella and banana

Thanks Melbourne, for another wonderful visit. See you again, soon I hope. 

Snow Monkeys at Nagano

Once Upon a Time in the Winter, we took a train ride to Nagano to see the Snow Monkeys. Having grown up in a tropical country and now living in Australia, I haven't encountered a lot of snow in my life, and while I have seen it before, this was probably the first time when it was full on thick and flurry. Thankfully I had my trusty gum boots - I also bought spikes when we got there - and enough layers (Thanks Heatech) to get me through it. 

I highly recommend boot liners/warmers. I bought them to keep me warm in the snow and they were the best things I've ever bought! 

I highly recommend boot liners/warmers. I bought them to keep me warm in the snow and they were the best things I've ever bought! 

The walk up the mountain took about thirty minutes and at times could be quite slippery.  The vistas were striking and despite the cold, the views had my imagination working as to what kind of fairy tales happened in these woods.

Oh look, Monkeys! The Monkeys at Nagano are really chilled out. They are so used to people and being photographed they just ignore you and do whatever they want to do and be wherever they want to be. This is their turf, after all. It's not unusual to pass them as you are walking to the main hot springs.

Oh look, Monkeys! The Monkeys at Nagano are really chilled out. They are so used to people and being photographed they just ignore you and do whatever they want to do and be wherever they want to be. This is their turf, after all. It's not unusual to pass them as you are walking to the main hot springs.

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At the end of the walk you will find the famous hot springs, where the Snow Monkeys like to spend their time warming up. Again, they are super chill and don't care about you, but you will find each spring surrounded by paparazzi in the form of tourists trying to take perfect monkey photos. Despite all of that, I found the experience very peaceful. The surroundings were stark but beautiful and somehow the monkeys' calmness and ability to ignore the outside world made it a zen experience. 

We booked a tour through Viator, and after this went to a temple and had some sake tasting. Would recommend doing this with a tour as the mountain with the monkeys is not close to the centre of town and possibly not as accessible without a tour vehicle. 

Kyoto

Photos from Kyoto: The view from Kyoto station, My bento box en route, our room at the Chita Guest Inn (a lovely place to stay), at one of the smaller shrines in Arashimaya, the Kyoto Tower at night, my macha fish treat, Arashimaya Bamboo Forest, where they filmed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Some of the treats from our 13 course kaiseki tempura dinner, Higashi-Hongan Ji Temple

New Year's Eve in Kyoto

New Year's in Japan is a special holiday with everyone travelling back home to be with their families. The typical holiday lasts from about New Year's Eve to the 3rd or later. (This year most people did not return to work until the 5th) Many shops are shut and trains are very busy, and I initially thought we would have trouble finding places to eat and things to do. Instead, we got very lucky and got to experience the traditional Japanese New Year.

Hatsumode is the year's first visit to a shrine, usually done over the New Year period. We got to experience Hatsumode at Fushima Inari shrine in Kyoto, one of the busiest and most popular shrines in the area. The shrine was originally erected when the area was more agriculturally based and is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. As foxes are considered to be his messengers, the shrine is decorated with many foxes and is famous for its many Torii gates (the orange pi shaped structures). 

Possibly the longest line I have ever been in my life. It started from the station, snaked around multiple times then went into the shrine. It was also the most orderly and disciplined line I have ever been in. No pushing or shoving, just quiet, considerate, and patient movement. It was all very Japanese. This is just a fraction of the people that were in the shrine.

Possibly the longest line I have ever been in my life. It started from the station, snaked around multiple times then went into the shrine. It was also the most orderly and disciplined line I have ever been in. No pushing or shoving, just quiet, considerate, and patient movement. It was all very Japanese. This is just a fraction of the people that were in the shrine.

When we got into the shrine, we lined up again (basically we followed the people) to get to the main shrine. When we got to the front, we threw 5 cent coins into this opening, rang the bells for luck, and bowed a few times. You're also meant to make a wish, but I also uttered a prayer of thanks for the wonderful experience and the trip I had. (Observation is how we figured out what to do)

When we got into the shrine, we lined up again (basically we followed the people) to get to the main shrine. When we got to the front, we threw 5 cent coins into this opening, rang the bells for luck, and bowed a few times. You're also meant to make a wish, but I also uttered a prayer of thanks for the wonderful experience and the trip I had. (Observation is how we figured out what to do)

Here are some of the Torii in the shrine. There are many more, and we walked through a number of gates. They must be beautiful in the daylight but at night time they are a bit like a maze.

Here are some of the Torii in the shrine. There are many more, and we walked through a number of gates. They must be beautiful in the daylight but at night time they are a bit like a maze.

People are able to purchase these wooden blocks (fox shaped, and some with the rooster as in the Chinese zodiac it is the year of the rooster) to write wishes on the back and hang them on the walls. I got one for myself and hung it here.   There are also options to purchase many things, like little totems of protection that are meant to bring you luck, happiness, good health, etc. You can also get your fortune and tie it to a tree or a fence for it to come true (or not). It is written in Japanese, so we didn't get one. There were also stalls full of food and we made sure to grab a tiny snack on the way out. 

People are able to purchase these wooden blocks (fox shaped, and some with the rooster as in the Chinese zodiac it is the year of the rooster) to write wishes on the back and hang them on the walls. I got one for myself and hung it here. 

There are also options to purchase many things, like little totems of protection that are meant to bring you luck, happiness, good health, etc. You can also get your fortune and tie it to a tree or a fence for it to come true (or not). It is written in Japanese, so we didn't get one. There were also stalls full of food and we made sure to grab a tiny snack on the way out. 

We must have gotten home at around 3 in the morning. It was a lovely way to spend New Year's Eve and thanks to the efficiency of the Japanese rail system (yes, they really are that good) we got home quickly, safe and sound. While I've usually spent my NYE at a countdown waiting for fireworks, this was a great way to experience Japanese culture and appreciate the differences. I felt very grateful for this experience and would recommend it to anyone spending time in Japan over this period. 

Paris

I didn't like Paris when we first met. To be fair, it was the late nineties and we didn't get treated very well. My second time in Paris, I got lucky. A friend was staying for three months and I got the chance with a semi-local, dining and drinking and walking around the different neighbourhoods. This time around I went for a day, just because.

Paris, November 2015

Lisbon and its surrounds

The classic tram

The classic tram

One of the many delicious meals we had in the Barrio Alto area

One of the many delicious meals we had in the Barrio Alto area

Built by an eccentric gazillionaire, the Quinta de Regaleira palace was full of curious rooms and gorgeously gothic architecture.

Built by an eccentric gazillionaire, the Quinta de Regaleira palace was full of curious rooms and gorgeously gothic architecture.

Yes, I have a thing for doors.

Yes, I have a thing for doors.

The famous, original Portuguese Tart. So famous that no one in the family that makes this is allowed to fly on the same plane together in case the plane crashes and the lose the recipe! I came back everyday to eat at least one.

The famous, original Portuguese Tart. So famous that no one in the family that makes this is allowed to fly on the same plane together in case the plane crashes and the lose the recipe! I came back everyday to eat at least one.

Botswana

One of the most memorable experiences I've had in my life has been on safari in Botswana. We camped at the Okavango Delta, a lush, wetland teeming with wildlife. One night, our guide took some of us out on the mokoro (canoe) and told us, lie back and look up. The night was teeming with stars, I felt like I was swimming in them. It was the most beautiful sight. I felt extremely privileged to have been there - riding the mokoros through the delta while avoiding hippos, driving through a rhino park and seeing them before they become extinct, cruising down the river in search of elephants and getting on a small plane and seeing the Delta from above. Here are some of the photos from that lovely adventure.

Copenhagen

The advantage of travelling in the late fall or in winter, I find, is that you get a quiet holiday all to yourself. No one is in your pictures, and while the weather isn't always that great, you get to see your destination for what it is, with a more local flavour, not spiced up with the pretty put out for the tourists.

I love walking around cities by myself, just observing and internalising what happens in the day to day, taking in the sights and smells, meeting locals where I can, grabbing a cup of coffee or a drink. It makes me appreciate being by myself more.