Bali Part 3 – Broken Roads, Manta Rays and Surfer Pros

Spending the past week in one place was a really welcome break but with so much to see and do in Bali we started to get itchy feet to explore some more. We were enjoying island life and had heard good things about the Nusa islands so we hopped back on the ferry and left the gorgeous Gili islands behind.

Day 12 – To pick up where I left off we arrived in Nusa Lembongan and had booked a stay at Taos House. While checking in our host told us it was her birthday and invited us to join in the celebrations later that night. We were immediatly made to feel welcome with home cooked food and ice cold Bintang beers, which mysteriously kept replenishing every time one was finished. Once the Bintang ran low we were offered vodka in a small martini glass and from there graduated to a strong Balinese liquor that came from a plastic water bottle. Apart from the fact it tasted like nail polisher remover, it didn’t seem all that strong but that being said we only had a bottle cap full. It was a fun and unexpected experience – the party as a whole, not just the alcohol!

Day 13 – Our main reason for coming to the Nusa islands was because we had heard we were basically guaranteed to see manta rays there, something which had become a bucket list item for us after hearing it was a possibility in Bali. So first on the agenda was to find a dive centre and book in a manta dive. We asked around at a few places before settling on Two Fish divers and booking in for two dives the next day.

With this underway we stopped for lunch by the sea and then continued on our way the Mangrove forests. You can book boat trips, snorkel trips or kayaking through the forest. When a guy we were chatting to knocked the price down to 100,000 IDR we were tempted but having lots of cameras and bits with us we didn’t trust leaving them behind or potentially getting them wet. I had also read up that there wasn’t a huge amount to see in the Mangrove forest, that being said though the only way to see them is to take a boat trip. We went to the edge thinking we could at least see a little bit or venture part way in ourselves but the way is pretty much blocked by restaurants and places to arrange tours. Being able to bargain down to £5 for a couple of hours trip though isn’t a bad deal if you do want to explore.

From the mangroves it was on to the neighbouring island of Nusa Cenigan. I had heard of some beautiful spots, such as Blue Lagoon and Secret Beach. They were a bit tricky to track down and to be honest Blue Lagoon was pretty but nothing spectacular and after rattling down a dirt track and going through a resort to get to Secret Beach, I was disappointed to see it was nothing special. The wind and waves were too fierce to swim there and it was a rocky beach with very little sand to chill on. The photos I had seen online looked more impressive. It is something which has been a topic of conversation recently that many typical instagram spots in Bali turn out not to live up to expectation and I have to say this is something we encountered a lot. Many places looked nice but less impressive than the edited photos online and for these photos to have zero tourists in they must have had superb timing in visiting places as it was a constant struggle to get photos without crowds. Aesthetics aside the other disappointment is that many of these picturesque beaches are too dangerous to swim in and generally, views aside, there are not a lot of activities to do on these islands.

That being said, simply watching life pass by from the back of the motorbike, zipping through villages, past bustling markets, serene temples or even the beautiful blue ocean, on our way to these view points and beaches was an experience in itself and made the day all round worth it.

Day 14 – An early start for our dives this morning but it wasn’t long before we were on the boat speeding round to Nusa Penida. After some research we discovered that although Manta Point dive site is off Nusa Penida, most dive shops are based on Nusa Lembongan, although more are opening up on Nusa Penida now too, and they will charge an extra fee for the manta dive sites (150,000 IDR per person). On the way we saw a couple of dolphins jumping out of the surf and I took it as a good sign for the days dive.

The water was a lot colder than we had been used to in the Gili islands as manta rays prefer colder water. We were diving down to a known cleaning station where other fish come to eat parasites and other icky things from the rays, keeping them nice and healthy and feeding the other fish at the same time. I was expecting we would be lucky to see a couple on our dive but almost immediately we saw our first manta ray and it was stunning. I knew they would be big but their size still surprised me and so did their grace as they glided through the water. I could have watched them all day. The most magical moment was when a particularly dark one, black almost all over, came straight towards me. I hovered in the water as it moved closer, feeling completely at peace and in awe of this incredible creature, before it swerved away into the ocean depths. One of my favourite moments of the trip.

After that experience the second dive was a bit of an anti-climax however it was still a beautiful reef, teeming with fish. We managed to see a couple of moray eels and I even spotted a lobster that had recently de-shelled, the poor naked lobster looked very startled and scurried under a rock!

Day 15 – We checked out of our AirBnB and headed to the Yellow Bridge to get a boat across to Nusa Penida. The journey is just 10 – 15 minutes and costs 40,000 IDR per person each way. It was simple to get a ticket, there was a guy with a stall, he handed us a yellow ticket with the names of the boats on the back for us to look out for on our open return and then took a seat and waited to be called up. Our next Air BnB picked us up the other end and a kind local even helped us out by calling him to let him know we had arrived when he saw us trying to track down wifi to message him.

The rest of the day was spent chilling out and in the evening we hopped on a scooter hired from our host and headed to a popular restaurant I had read about online called Penida Colada. If you are a big group it is best to book ahead and I think most tables are reserved after 8pm as there is always a queue. But the wait wasn’t long and it was most definitely worth it! Penida Colada is a stylish beach side restaurant with a mixture of tables and more casual beanbags, benches and sofas, in case you want to wander straight off the beach, and is great for watching the sunset. It was started by a Balinese guy called Pak Wayan and his Australian wife, Liz, you can usually see him helping out around the restaurant and keeping things running smoothly. They only hire locals and cook with local produce, which is great in itself, but they also make it their mission to get involved in community projects, run beach cleanups you can join in with and sell eco friendly bits and bobs such as bamboo straws. The menu is quite small but there is only one thing you need to order – the honey barbequeue prawns. We ended up coming back a second time and I couldn’t resist eating them again. Joey had major regrets and food envy both times. If you are on Nusa Penida definitely pay them a visit, it is a great way to support the local community and eat some amazing food.

Day 16 – Around lunchtime we headed to the nearby Crystal Bay, the same bay we had done our second dive at, to chill on the beach. We were hoping it would be a bit more built up so we could grab lunch, wander through some shops and then relax on the beach but it turns out to be a few shack shops selling cheap lunch and not much else. So we chilled for a bit and then hit the road again to find the Guri Putri Cave temple.

When you arrive you can hire sarongs from a shop over the road, then head up the stairs where at the top you’ll receive a blessing and provide a donation to enter (40,000 IDR for two of us). The entrance is a very small hole you have to climb into. It isn’t too tight a squeeze and as soon as you are in the ceiling is low but it all opens up pretty quickly then you can walk through these huge caverns. It was very humid and there were several alters and statues in the different chambers we passed through. A few people were at prayer but otherwise when we visited it was very quiet.

At the end as we left there were some monkeys outside the temple, only I got completely caught off guard by one on a railing that I seemed to have also startled. He bared his teeth at me and then made to lunge forward, I took a step back and lowered my gaze, trying to appear submissive, and at the same time one of the men from the temple chased him off but it was a scary moment!

Day 17 – Today was our big siteseeing day. We were driving over to the other side of the island to see Broken Beach and Angel’s Billabong, Kelingking Beach and Waterfalls. As we were leaving our AirBnB host warned “broken beach, broken road” and he was not wrong! I expected some uneven ground, potholes and dirt tracks, what we got was mile stretches of all of these things combined to the worst possible standard you could imagine, plus going up and down hills, plus going round tight bends sometimes and as there were plenty of big cars taking other tourists there, we also had to occasionally dodge these too. “Hold on”, Joey was yelling repeatedly as I gripped the back of the motorbike and rattled around so much I swear my brain was bouncing about in my skull. But eventually, we made it.

Angel’s Billabong is a rock pool that creates a natural infinity pool overlooking the sea. If you come at low tide you can swim, enjoying the crystal clear waters, but at high tide the waves crash over the edge and it is too dangerous to enter the pool. We had tried to time our visit for low tide but seemed to have gotten the wrong information as the pool was cordoned off. There were so many people surrounding it to get photos that I was almost glad I wasn’t swimming with them in a small pool where everyone would be trying to get the over the edge shot.

Around the corner from Angel’s Billabong is Broken Beach, so called as it is encircled by land that has an opening, creating a kind of bridge on one side and an enclosed beach to look down on. You can’t get down to the beach but it makes for some stunning pictures from above.

Next was KelingKing Beach, so well known as the rocky outcrop next to it looks like a t-Rex head from above. Again it was a bit of a battle to get photos without people in (how they do it for instagram I have no idea?!) but it looked gorgeous. The beach is accessible here… if you fancy climbing down approximately one thousand steep steps. We went part way down for a better look but didn’t much fancy the climb back up and to be honest we would be glad we saved our energy. This is another beach that isn’t great for swimming, though as long as you don’t go too far out in the surf you can actually get in the water.

Final stop for the day was Waterfall and if I thought the steps at Kelkinking were bad I was in for a surprise! The blue stairs leading down was more like a ladder at points and the gaps between the stairs themselves were enough to make my knees weak. The fact that the old, collapsed and rusted previous stairs still lay directly underneath these new ones didn’t help either. However, it was worth the journey. At the bottom is a temple so you need to wear a sarong t visit. When we reached the rocks at the bottom there was water cascading over them and it was a little slippy so you had to be careful. We passed through the small temple gates and down the rocks, with nothing more than natural footholds to climb down, to an area where you can bathe. There is a set of mini infinity pools that offer a beautiful look out to sea as the waves crash just below you. For the first time that day there were not many people around, we reached the bottom not long before sunset so everything had a slight golden glow and the water was cool and refreshing after a humid hike down. It was so peaceful. I took a moment just to be.

Unfortunatly it couldnt last too long though as we were nervous about getting caught on bad roads in the dark so as much as I would have liked to sit and watch the sunset we got going on the long climb back up and luckily didn’t come across any broken roads on the way back.

Day 17 – The end of our trip was approaching fast and we had decided to spend our final days back in Canggu. We loved the food, it was nice to go back to somewhere we knew and we were still keen to give surfing a go. It took us retry much the whole day to get back as it involved getting the short boat trip back to Lembongan first, getting picked up by Scoot at the Yellow Bridge, a bumpy boat journey back to mainland Bali and then a long taxi ride mostly in traffic from Sanur to Canggu.

Day 18 – Canggu is known as a good place to give surfing a go as the waves are great for beginners. I had only tried surfing once before and loved it, so was keen to give it another try. We booked a lesson for 350,000 IDR per person but we went with the first person we spoke to so it is worth asking around for the cheapest price.

The instructor didn’t have the best English so I felt like I missed some of the finer points of surf techniques but once I got the hang of it in the water he was very encouraging. It was slightly disappointing that Joey had a different instructor and was taken off separately but he really needed bigger waves than me to get the best experience. We managed to cross paths though when I looked up to find the surfer in the white rash guard was my boyfriend, my first thought was ‘amazing! He’s standing up!’ And my second, as he came straight towards me was ‘please dont kill me!’ Up to that point I had been struggling to stand, always losing my balance at the last moment, but I think seeing him made me more determined than ever and on my next go I stood up on the board. I was amazed that I managed to ride a wave a fair while and only jump off when I was either losing momentum or heading towards another surfer.

It was a great way to end our time in Bali and we sat talking over our trip and reminiscing about our favourite parts as we sat on the beach, cold drinks in hand and watched surfers more pro than us. Our next adventure was about to start and although I hoped there would be more times like this I knew that we had a lot to do when we touched down in Melbourne. Bali was the perfect break we needed to soak up the sun, let go of past stresses and find our feet traveling. There were times this country surprised me, times it didn’t quite meet expectations and times it exceeded them immensely. Above all I can see why people come back again and again and I knew as we lingered another moment longer on that beach, that we too would be back again one day.

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Bali Part 2 – Turtles, Reef Sharks and Sunsets

Gili Trawangan is an island off Lombok known for a party atmosphere but even if partying is not your thing there are a host of other activities to enjoy. We had barely dipped our toes into the ocean and now we were off to the gorgeous white sands and crystal clear waters of Gili T for diving, snorkelling and more. If you want to hit the strip and hop from bar to bar there are cheap drinks to be had and great live music to get the party started. However, our scene is a bit more laid back and we discovered there is still plenty of more chilled out spots, fresh local seafood to try and amazing ocean life to experience.

Day 7 – We travelled to Gili T on a one way ferry ticket for 500,000 IDR for both of us, which is around £28. There may be cheaper deals to be had if you book a return ticket or even with a bit more haggling but since we had heard of return tickets for one going for 600,000 IDR we didn’t think this was too bad. It’s always hard to know what is a fair deal for the locals and a cheap price for yourself.

It was an early start to get to the dock with an hour transfer there and then a lot of standing around in the heat waiting for our boat. You need to have your wits about you as a guy who seemed to be taking us to our boat left us waiting and never came back to collect us when it actually turned up. Luckily the local hawkers on the pier were very helpful and let us know we needed to get a move on to catch our boat. The journey was fine if a bit hot and stuffy and we were soon piling out onto the white sands of Gili T.

Just seeing the hustle and bustle of holiday makers and backpackers, the array or restaurants, shops and bars along the beach front and the dive shops everywhere you looked we had already decided we were glad not to get a return ticket and to extend our time here. Having a 4* hotel also helped! Villa Ombak was stunning and we stayed in a traditional Lumbung room, with our own private terrace and balcony plus outdoor shower to bathe under the stars. We wanted to stay forever.

Day 8 – Knowing our days in luxury were numbered we took full advantage of the facilities today and spent most of the day swimming and sunbathing. In the afternoon we went back to one of the dive shops we had checked out earlier and booked in to dive the next day.

Day 9 – There are a lot of choice with dive shops but after ducking our heads into a few we went with Dive Central as they made the dive sites sound most exciting and seemed pretty chill about us getting back in the water after quite a break from the last time. Only downside was we did feel at times they were selling the dive packages and courses a little too much. This is surely down to competition from other dive shops and partly also because we seemed to speak to a different person each time but as we dropped in a few times over the course of the week to chat about what dive sites were coming up this got a bit repetitive.

Selling aside they were great to dive with and we headed to Turtle Heaven for a mid morning dive. This certainly lived up to its name! Within 5-10 minutes we had spotted our first turtle. They have a mix of Green and Hawksbill turtles and I’ll admit I’m not sure I could tell the difference. I was impressed by the size though with some stretching up to my shoulder if we were laid down next to each other. We lost track of how many we saw in the end but we loved every minute and along with turtles we saw a stonefish, trumpetfish and humphead bannerfish. Along with, of course, many of the regulars you see on tropical reefs, the yellow, black and white bannerfish you would recognise as Gill from Finding Nemo, clownfish too, many bright blue and neon fish, anemones and so much more. If you want to see a video of the dive you can check it out here on our facebook page @ThereAndBackAgainJJ.

Day 10 – As if we hadn’t had enough of turtles we started our day with a snorkelling trip. If you are on a budget then you can join the group boat trips from as little as 150,000 IDR (around £8) but these trips can have up to 30 people on them, so a great way to meet other backpackers but also expect crowds. We opted for a two hour private snorkelling trip so we could choose a time when the sites would be less busy and went early in the morning, which I would definitely recommend. We paid 600,000 (around £34), which in hindsight was more than it was worth for 2 hours, especially as they had advertised it as 4 sites and we only went to 3, however the first place we went to had asked for 900,000 and we had talked the one we booked with down from 750,000 but we were told the prices were high because of peak season.

Regardless we had a great time! Our first stop was Turtle Heaven again and this time the turtles were a lot more active, coming up to the surface to breathe so that we could swim right alongside them. It felt magical to dive under the waves and float along next to them as they munched on coral.

The second site was not great visibility so we didn’t see a huge amount of sea life and didn’t stay long. The final site was the famous ring of statues that is also a popular instagram spot and this was my least favourite of the day. It was pretty cool to dive down and swim amongst the statues but dodging the flippers of other snorkelers trying to get that perfect shot in the water was not so fun. The way everyone was splashing about in clusters reminded me of a net of fish on dry land, flapping about, not really sure which way to go. It has the possibility of being such a peaceful spot but after a while it got a bit too much and we gave up and hopped back on the boat.

To end the day we hired bikes from our Air BnB (by this point we had moved to Lumbung Cottage Air BnB, a huge step back to basics after our gorgeous hotel but it would do the trick or the next few days and the staff were very helpful and kind) and set off to see more of the island. We stuck to the coast and some of the paths were pretty tricky, stony or too sandy to ride over at all, when we cycled back we had more luck cutting across the island where the roads weren’t cut off by sections of beach. The sunset side of the island is a completely different vibe, very quiet and dining and drinking options a lot more spread out but I have to say some of the accommodation we passed looked lovely. Definitely a good shout if you want some peace and quiet. We settled down right in line for the sunset and although slightly obscured by the clouds, it was gorgeous and the perfect way to end the day.

Day 11 – Joey wasn’t feeling a second dive so opted to do research on our next stop but as you can’t keep me out of the water I booked an early morning dive to Shark Point. Dive Central explained that with the water temperature drop recently and the sharks enjoying cooler water there was a good chance of seeing them and I was in luck! This dive was deeper than the one before and the currents were strong so it was a bit of a battle at times but as we were drifting along, letting the current take us, our guide pointed out two white tip reef sharks sitting on the bottom. Neither were huge but one was bigger than the other and both darted awake as us divers went past. I wasn’t nervous of the sharks at all, they really just look like big fish, but I can’t say I would be so chill if it was a great white!

Along with the sharks I saw a sting ray and blue spotted eagle ray, an octopus hiding away in the rocks and a cuttlefish that was so well camouflaged I had to look three times to spot him! It’s incredible to see this animals in their natural habitat and I’m always recommending people give diving a go to enjoy the same wonders. It may not be for everyone but it certainly gives you a whole new perspective from snorkelling alone and actually a lot of the time the breathing is easier (if that’s something that worries you) as there is no chance of accidentally sucking up water. You won’t notice the depth either because there is just so much to see! It really is an amazing experience I feel privileged to be able to do.

Day 12 – As I write this we are sitting in a cafe not far rom the ferry port waiting to catch a ride to Nusa Lembongan where we will stay for a few nights before heading on to Nusa Penida and finally back to Canggu for a final couple of nights. There are lots to do on these islands so I feel our chill out time is coming to an end but having the luxury of three weeks to explore means we’ve been able to do everything at a slow pace and not cram a lot in. The Nusa islands offer some amazing beaches, cliff top lookouts and swimming with manta rays (fingers crossed for us and this big bucket list item!) so lots to see and do. We managed to get a direct ferry from Gili T for 600,000 IDR for both of us which also included a ferry on from Nusa Lembongan back to Sanur, Bali and a transfer from there to Canggu, so even better value than our outbound trip. And apparently boats between the islands are pretty cheap.

I can’t believe we have reached the end of our second week in Bali! I can feel that now we are more energised our attention is beginning to shift to Australia and all we need to prepare for our Working Holiday. It is exciting to still have so much to look forward to but for now I can’t wait to get to Nusa Lembongan and plan our next week of adventuring.

10 Things To Remember When Travelling To The Seychelles

Imagine clear blue seas, white sandy beaches, palm trees heavy with coconuts, local markets, friendly people and all the sea food you could eat. Sound like paradise right? The Seychelles was even more beautiful than I pictured it and there was so much more to this little cluster of islands than I expected. I was invited along by a family friend for a birthday trip and I happily signed up without really knowing what to expect so I thought I would pass on a few tips to help anyone about to travel to the Seychelles prepare for their trip.

Here are 10 tips for what you should remember when travelling to the Seychelles so you know just what to expect for yourself.

1 – Bring Your Snorkel!

Seriously. I’ve never been anywhere where the snorkelling was so consistently good. Jump on the new full-face snorkel craze and find out just how much to see right off the beach. We spotted cuttlefish, starfish, a couple of stingrays, a multitude of colourful parrotfish and so much more! The beaches may be the main thing to do on the Seychelles but there is a good reason for that. Usually you’ll have your 3 standard types of beaches everywhere you go; the tourist beach that is fairly good but is the easiest and most popular to get to, the stony beach often still in a fairly good location but not as comfortable to sit and relax on and the perfect out of the way beach, the one that has fine sand and calm seas but is usually more of a trek to get to. Not so in the Seychelles. Every beach is a number three beach! Some had rougher seas and some you couldn’t swim on at all but all had lovely stretches of sand, turquoise ocean and absolutely every one had amazing snorkelling.

 

2 – Dive a Little Deeper

If you’re not satisfied with merely floating around on the surface there are a good few dive centres as well. We went with Kempinski Dive Centre but there was also Blue Sea Divers and several other centre at the main hotels. It is an easy place to dive if you are a beginner as many of the reefs are quite shallow. We were lucky enough to see a turtle but there are also black tipped and white tipped reef sharks and you might be lucky enough to see whale sharks! Apparently the peak time to see them is October but when we went early in the month there hadn’t been any sightings yet. These gentle giants are less scary than they sound (don’t worry, they eat plankton not divers) but their sheer size makes them a sight to see in the wild.

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3 – Watch Out For Bats!

They may have a bad reputation for turning into blood sucking monsters but imagine floating in the sea at dusk, the sky a swirl of purple and indigo as black silhouettes glide overhead. During the day you can hear them chattering in the trees or finding a comfortable place to snooze upside-down. The Seychellois

apparently love bats almost as much as I do… just not quite in the same way… Fruit bat is apparently a very tasty dish on the Seychelles. I didn’t see it on any menus when eating out but we stayed for one night in Victoria and the owner of our apartment was stringing up nets in the nearby tree to catch the poor unsuspecting creatures. I’m not sure if he caught any but the BBQ was definitely sizzling and ready to go when we left to find a more conventional dinner.

 

4 – Beware of the Roads!

If you’ve gone careening down the Bolivian Death Road then you might feel right at home swerving and bouncing along the narrow roads of the Seychelles, otherwise you might want to be wary. Travelling with Irish friends one pointed out that the roads were no narrower than those in Ireland but the difference here is that if you pull over you won’t be crammed into a bush you’ll be tumbling down the rocky drops or deep trenches that line the roads! Buses frequently speed around the island but otherwise if you want to get around hiring a car is your best option – just be careful and watch for the dongas!

 

5 – It’s Not Cheap

Unless you stay somewhere like the stunning Four Seasons Hotel on Mahe island, travelling the Seychelles won’t break the bank but it’s certainly not the place to go if you are a budget traveller. We kept costs down by staying in a self-catering villa and cooking for ourselves but eating out could quickly rack up your costs. A simple curry dish you might expect to pay between £8-£10 for in the UK could be anywhere between £10-15 on the island. Even buying food from the shops will depend on availability as one day that delicious mango juice you bought for breakfast will be on the shelves and the next time not. The main place your spending money will be disappearing fast though is activities. We spent €150 per person for a trip to the neighbouring islands of Le Dique and Praslin. It was nice to explore different islands and have a break from chilling on beaches (I know, such a hard life) but it was not worth the money. However if you want to do it there is not many other options. Even getting the public ferry over will set you back for between €45-60.

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6 – Seychelles Accept Euros

It’s a small point to make but always a handy thing to know. Seychelles have their own currency of Seychelle Rupees but you won’t be able to get hold of these in the UK. There are banks (even Barclays), ATMS and money exchange in Victoria town so it will be easy to get currency once you arrive but if you want a little cash to start you off then Euro is widely accepted and sometimes even preferred over Seychelle Rupee.

 

7 – Head to Beau Vallon Beach for Watersports

If sunbathing and reading on the beach isn’t enough for you there are plenty of watersports available too. We tried paddle boarding at the Four Seasons hotel, most of which will offer kayaking and paddle boarding but if you’re looking for a bit more head to Beau Vallon Beach on Mahe island. The prices are reasonable (for the Seychelles) and they offer wakeboarding too! Surfing is available as well but the Seychelles isn’t known for its waves so your surf costs may include a ride to a different beach.

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8- Try Fresh Fish at the Markets

Near Beau Vallon Beach you’ll find the market. There are some souvineers but the main thing to go for is the food, the best of which being grilled fresh fish. Now I’m not a fish person (other than when I’m in the water myself) but this BBQ snack was delicious! If you’re not feeling fish then there are lots of fruit markets too where I had some tiny juicy mangos and mini sweet bananas. If it’s coconut your craving you’ll be sorted too, we spent half our holiday trying to figure out how to break into the tough husks before the cleaner at our villa showed us how to prize it open with the end of a pick axe before splitting the shell with the back of a cleaver. Don’t worry, the markets sell them ready cracked though!

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9- Say Hello to the Local Giants

I thought I would be lucky to see one or two giant tortoises but turns out they are more common than I thought. There are plenty of places to see these lazy creatures stretching their necks and limbs out in the sun. We found some down at the Four Seasons resort on Mahe where they do feedings at 4pm you can join in with, at the botanical gardens in Victoria you can also get involved with a feeding and on La Digue there was a collection of tortoises whose age ranged between 25 to over 100 years old! Though I didn’t go myself I’ve heard there is an island called Curieuse where they roam totally free!

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10 – A Final Word of Warning!

You won’t want to leave.

Cambodia Part 2 – Peppercorns, Royal Palaces and Movie Binges

There are times when travelling solo that you relish time alone, times when you have spent days or weeks in others company and long for the freedom to do what you want when you want. And yet there are equally times when the complete opposite is true. After a break from the non-stop, fast paced bus travel of the last few weeks I was looking forward to some downtime but as my stay on Koh Rong drew to a close I found myself looking forward to hopping back on the Stray bus. I was ready to move on, to see what more Cambodia had to offer.
Day 115 – For my last day on Koh Rong I decided to explore the Khmer village I had been staying in at my Inn The Village hostel. The hostel was set up as a place to stay for volunteers helping out in the village and building articulate reefs in the local waters. I meandered through the streets, that were little more than dirt paths, that led from one house to another, small shops or food stalls set up inside their homes. Rural Cambodian houses tend to be on stilts with the bedrooms upstairs and the main living area downstairs between the pillars, usually with a few hammocks hung between them. This village was no different. As I went down towards the water I spotted some children playing with something in a pile of blankets, half buried, behind the back of the house. When they noticed my interest they turned towards me brandishing their find. Three tiny puppies held in their small outstretched hands. They were more than happy for me to hold them as they were more interested in my camera. Being a little rough with it I was reluctant to let it go entirely and I don’t think they paid much attention to what they were taking a picture of but they liked the clicking of the shutter. I had some interesting snaps to say the least!


I spent the rest of my morning and early afternoon on the beach, making the most of the sun and the beautiful sands. Felt so relaxed after my crazy run around the day before! 

Eventually though it was time to get the ferry back and check in to Big Easy hostel, which did the best western food around. I spent the rest of the evening devouring both sweet and sour chicken dish with mango and the rest of my book.
Day 116 – I had planned another day on the beach but when I woke up the weather had other ideas. An overcast day didn’t give me much hope for topping up my tan so instead I shopped and bought souvenirs, stopping for lunch at a great Mexican place called Stay Later, which tempted me in with their sign that proclaimed “Mexican food so good Trump wants to build a wall around it!” They weren’t lying!


I managed to meet up with Team Norway in the evening for some drinks and an embarrassingly bad game of pool!


Day 117 – I had enjoyed my time to myself on Koh Rong and felt refreshed after a break from the constant travel but I was also ready to be moving on and exploring new places again. Danielle, a fun loving girl with ambitions to run her own animal sanctuary one day, and Annika, the ever elegant German girl with an unexpected giggle that bursts out of her, had hopped back on too after their own adventures on Koh Rong. There were also four new guys, only two of which were travelling together but they all seemed to have been on Stray together for a while. 
From Sihanoukeville we travelled to Kampot, which is famous for its salt fields and pepper farms. We took a tuk tuk tour around the rural back roads, stopping at the salt fields first to see how they flattened the land and filled it with salt water. The water would eventually evaporate leaving the salt behind to be raked up and collected. The pepper is apparently the best in the world. I was surprised to learn that green peppercorns are dried to become black and the red peppercorns simply have their skins taken off to become white peppercorns. 


In the evening we relaxed on a river boat cruise to see tiny fireflies flickering on the nearby trees. I also got to see the phosphorescent plankton again when we realised their was some in the bucket of water in the toilet! We took turns queueing not to use the facilities but to shut the door, making the room really dark so as better to see them, then swirling our finger and sending them sparkling in the water.
Day 118 – Leaving Kampot we headed to the island of Koh Tunsay, also known as Rabbit Island. I was disapointed to discover the name did not indicate an abundance of fluffy creatures on the island. There was nothing to do here but relax, read and watch the sunset from my hammock and that was fine by me. 


Day 119 – Today was a less fun day seeing as we were heading to the killing fields and S21 prison in Pnom Penh. Couldn’t be described as fun but it was definitely an interesting day and worth seeing. There is not much left to see at the Killing Fields. The grass has grown over the mass graves and the few buildings there were are gone. The audio guide described what used to be there and we heard the voices of those who had survived this traumatic place. People were corralled and kept under horrendous conditions before having their throats cut or being bludgeoned to death with various tools. More disgusting than that was the killing tree where they took babies by the legs and whacked them against the tree before throwing their broken bodies down to lie with the corpses of their mothers, already in the pits below. They believed in stopping future generations from coming back for revenge. It was probably the most harrowing part of this tour.


Sleng Prison, S21, was almost as bad. Standing in the rooms where people were chained to their beds, starved, tortured and left to die, was chilling. Sleng Prison used to be a school but was converted to a prison to hold people, everyday people, people who were intelligent and educated and didn’t conform to Pol Pots ideals for a nation of farmers. Sitting near the exit were two survivors of these atrocities, selling books and art inspired by their experiences, but I couldn’t understand how they could bare to watch tourist mill around a place that held such nightmares for them.


To make sure the day ended on a high note we went out for a few drinks and a karaoke session! 
Day 120 – Most of our group were hanging in the morning but I wanted to make the most of my time there, even though I had some extra days waiting on my Vietnam visa (I could only enter the country after the 9th). I headed first to the Royal Palace. It turned out to be a very peaceful place, the royal buildings scattered amongst a simple garden, their elegant yellow roofs sparkling in the sunshine. My favourite spot was a small temple on a hill in the middle of a large courtyard. The hill was made up of a small jungle, leaves half obscuring the winding staircase to the top where you could sit amongst the plants and feel a million miles away from the dirty, busy city. My one disappointment was the Silver Pagoda. Despite being warned that it was not silver I had expected something at least to make it stand out but when I reached the end I wondered if I had missed it altogether. I used Maps.me to back track and find it only to discover I had already been inside and viewed the bronze, gold and silver Buddha statues that were housed there. 


As the afternoon stretched into early evening I walked across town to an interesting temple called Wat Langka I had heard about. Here, on Monday evenings, they held a free meditation session for any who want to join in. I looked around the simple but pretty temple, unsure how this worked, and eventually followed everyone else’s lead in getting comfortable on the round cushions spread evenly accross the floor. I attempted to meditate on my own, at first trying to keep my mind clear and then letting it wander, picking up and turning each thought that came to my mind as if it were an interesting pebble on the beach. I had been doing this for 20-30 minutes when a monk softly called any beginners to meet with him outside. He spoke quietly and haltingly as if his mind was on other things, pausing for a time before he came back to explaining to us how to sit and focus on our breathing. We rutrned to the cushions and I tried again. I couldn’t keep my eyes closed without feeling like I would nod off so I focused in front of me and found I enjoyed letting the distant sounds of traffic, the twittering bird calls and the soft movement of monks and the people around me shifting. I left feeling still. I think I’d like to start meditating more often.


Day 121 – Second on my list to visit was the National Museum. It turned out to be a lot smaller than I had thought but that was good as I was still feeling weary after walking around it for an hour or so. I liked the paintings depicting stories of the Hindu Gods best, including the one I had heard in India about Diwali. I was glad that there was information describing them so I could understand the detailed artwork. 

In the evening I returned to the museum to watch the Cultural Show they perform there. This is so important in Cambodia as it is a way to revive arts and skills that were almost lost during the time of the Khmer Rouge. It was beautifully done too, singers and musicians at the side of the stage and the dancers in bright, sparkling costumes. There was a dance where a man and a woman were dressed as peacocks, with big paper tails fanned out behind them, moving as they moved their arms. There was even a dance full of acrobatics as the group pretended to be a giant praying mantis. My favourite though was a dance about everyday life. It showed the importance of fishing and told s story of a shy boy teasing a fisher girl to gain her attention. To begin with she is annoyed with him always stealing her net but eventually she softens and the two end up blushing as their fisher friends notice their hesitant courting. It was very cute! 
 Day 122 – For my last day in Cambodia I did something quite opposite from the cultural experiences of the last couple of days: I went to the cinema. In my hostel, Happy Backpackers 11, there was a cheap and low key cinema called The Flicks 2. I had wanted to watch Dr Strang but as it clashed with the Cultural Show I decided to go to the Flicks 1 and pay $3.50 to be able to watch unlimited films all day. On the way I made a brief stop to Wat Pnom, which was not much different to any other temple I had visited but I felt I should at least try and see it. The cinema was what I really enjoyed though. I saw by the bar, receiving cuddles from the cinema’s very needy cat before finding a spot on the rattan sofas a the back. I watched Moana, Hacksaw Ridge and Dr Strange, one after the other. It was intense but one of my favourite ways to spend the day. In between I ordered popcorn and regretted not ordering one of the huge pizzas, or any other kind of food from the menu, that they bring in to you to munch on while you enjoy the film. As much as I love doing Cultural stuff, sometimes it’s good to just take a “me day” and do whatever you want, regardless of what it is.
My last task of the day was to sort out my bag, easy to cross the border into Vietnam. It seemed bizarre that after so much traveling I was about to visit my last country of the trip. I had heard a lot of good things about Vietnam though and was excited to see how it differed from Cambodia. It didn’t feel like my trip was drawing to an end yet, it felt like I still had all the time in the world.