Welcome to Chiang Mai!

It was time to leave the chaotic country of Nepal to somewhere more laidback and calm. I hadn’t organised anything past my Everest Base Camp hike so I had a thousand options to choose from before settling on North Thailand. I’d been to Thailand twice before but both times were in the south so I was excited to see the difference between the north and south.

I flew from Kathmandu to Bangkok, where I had a 3 hour layover before jumping back on a plane to Chiang Mai. I got in at around 11pm and even at this time, the humidity was rifling through the city. By the time I got to my hostel I was sweating profusely! My hostel – the Chiang Mai Gate Capsule Hostel – was a tiny hole in the wall hostel tucked away into a small street just outside the Old Town. It was quiet and the streets were desolate at this hour. It didnt take long before I was fast asleep in the lovely air-conditioned room.

The following morning I set out to explore. I’ve found the best way to get to know an area is to get yourself completely lost and then try and work out how to get back to where you started. This started off accidentally as I would always end up walking in circles  before finding my destination but now I just wander and see where I end up. I’m famous in my family for not knowing my north from my south, but have gotten really good at remembering landmarks which usually save me. I figure you are never lost, just a few wrong turns from being in the right place! Besides I could cheat a little with my Maps.Me app which worked without wifi, but I was trying hard not to use it! 

I wandered through the Old Town, past undercover markets selling everything from mangos to chicken carcasses, past beautiful gold temples and tourist stores before reaching Walking street, the Main Street in the Old Town. Here was filled with restaurants, travel agents and artsy shops. I found somewhere for breakfast and coffee to refuel before wandering on towards the Nimman area. I’d heard this area was famous for its cafe culture and being a coffee fiend, I was eager to suss it out!

It was about a 25 minute walk from the Old Town to the Nimman area, which wasn’t ideal to do in the middle of the day but I got there eventually. At the end of the main road was the brand new MAYA shopping centre so I ducked in there to cool down in the air-con. Picking up a new SIM card so I could finally have a phone number, I had a wander around the shopping centre wishing I had a bigger bag (and budget) to do some serious shopping! I headed back out into the heat and walked down Nimmanhaemin Road to find some of these cafes I’d been reading about. The Nimman area is basically one main road with lots of lanes branching off it. Down these lanes are cafes, hotels, art galleries and shops. You could go a down these lanes a hundred times and see something new everytime. As I was on foot I only ventured down the main road, saving the rest of the exploring for another day. It was about 3pm so I started to head back towards to my hostel. 

After resting in the aircon for an hour or so, I headed back out again to check out the night market that was happening just outside my hostel. Since I’d been in the hostel, hundreds of stalls had been set up down the entire street and spilling out onto the intersection. There were food stalls, arts and crafts, souvenirs – basically everything you could possibly want! The street stalls were lined up about 1km long and I walked back and forth between stalls, admiring the locally made products and umm-ing and ahh-ing over what to eat. 

Busy night market right outside my hostel

Delicious Pad Thai for just AUD$2

Night Market scenes

Settling on pad Thai (so predictable Jess) and a fresh juice, I people watched as I sat and ate. After dinner I followed a market stall trail down a side street which led me to the Silver Temple. Under lights, this temple made of real silver glowed brightly! It was a lovely discovery to finish the day off with!

The beautiful Silver Temple!

The markets didn’t finish until about 11pm but I was exhausted from the amount of kilometres I’d walked today so ducked into the cool of my hostel much earlier that than. I’ll be in Chiang Mai for the next two weeks, so was in no rush to see everything quickly. I just wanted somewhere to relax and wind down after a chaotic few weeks in Nepal. I was glad I chose Chiang Mai, it fits the bill perfectly!

J. X

The Day I Got Chased By A Rhino

“Don’t make eye contact, don’t look, don’t look! Okay run, RUN!”

The three of us bolted, following the zig-zag pattern that our guide was doing to throw them off course. My camera bag bounced against my hip as I ran, my heart raced and the sweat started to drip down my face. The branches on the ground crunched as we trod on them heavily, being completely silent wasn’t an issue anymore – getting out alive was. 

How I’d found myself running away from a rampant female rhinoceros, I’m still trying to work out but here I was in the Chitwan National Park in south-west Nepal trying to outrun a pissed off mother rhino whose bath was rudely interrupted by humans. 

This morning when I’d left the Safari Club Lodge where I was staying, I was under the impression that we would be going for a lovely canoe ride down the river, followed by a short walk through a part of the national park to hopefully see some animals. I had assumed that the short walk was just a way of making it back to the lodge and they’d called it a jungle walk to make it seem more exciting. However, this is Nepal and after three weeks of being in this crazy, chaotic country that a short walk actually means two hours of trawling through dense grasslands in search of animals.

The canoe ride was indeed very lovely. There were two guys from the Czech Republic – who were also staying at the Safari Club – who had come along with me. Before we even got into the canoe our guide spotted two rhinos further down the river. One was cooling off in the river and the other was on the banks out of sight, sussing out whether he should invade the other rhinos territory. It was my first time seeing a rhinoceros in the wild and it was quite exciting to be up close to such an exotic animal. Little did I know I was about to get a whole lot closer.

There were over 600 rhinoceros in Chitwan National Park, the largest population in Nepal. They are some of the most protected animals in the park and years of poaching culling numbers dramatically. However since the 1970’s, many conservation laws have been put in place to protect the species. This has been very successful, with rhino population numbers higher than they’re been in years. The past three years the park has had zero poaching attempts, a number that they’re very proud of.

When I first decided to go to Chitwan I hadn’t expected to see any of the exciting animal in the wild, like rhinos, tigers or elephants. I thought it would be a glorified trip to the jungle where the most exciting thing you’ll see is a monkey or deer. So to see a rhino straight away, I was stoked!

As the canoe ride went on, we floated past locals fishing on their wooden rafts. Everyone seemed to know each other and yelled out conversations as they passed. Rain started to sprinkle on us and I was annoyed that I forgot my rain coat. A rookie error in monsoon season. We passed an elephant having a bath and a snack and a few diffferent varieties of birds. After about an hour, we pulled up to the sandy bank and climbed out, ready for saunter through the jungle.

Cruising down the river

Like I said earlier, I thought this would be a quick stroll through some of the jungle before heading on to the elephant breeding centre and the tour guide wanted to make the day’s program sound more exciting. However, I was wrong and we were actually going to stalking around the jungle for about two hours! Before we started, our guide gave us the lowdown on how to act if an animal turns on you. As he went on about running in a zigzag pattern and climbing trees for rhinos and standing still and making eye contact with tigers I had a little laugh to myself. These guides sure have been taught well on how to wind up tourists! He was so sincere in his monologue I almost believed him but thought that there would be no way they’d let us out in the wild with potentially deadly animals. Now you’d think for someone who’s done some pretty wild things in her travels, such as letting off explosives in a silver mine in Bolivia and hiking the illegal Stairway to Heaven in Hawaii that I would be a little less naive about safety regulations around the world (or more, the lack of) But no, having come from Australia where everyone is wrapped up in cotton wool and treated like a baby I still believed that everything will always be sunshine and dandy and danger would never come my way. 

I was going to be proven wrong, yet again..

After the safety briefing we hiked in a single file silently through the jungle. The humidity was even worse under the canopy of the jungle and my shirt clung to my sweaty back instantly. We walked for about fifteen minutes, treading carefully on the grassy plain below us, the only sound being the crunch of twigs breaking beneath our feet. I was already bored of the walk when my guide stopped suddenly and turned his head to listen. 

‘This way… Rhino” he whispered, indicating that we follow him behind a huge shrubby bush. As he pushed the bush away there was a small lagoon filled with lilyponds a few metres away. At first I couldn’t tell what he was pointing to but then I saw the dark grey blob amongst the bright green reeds. A rhino was bathing just 10 or so metres from us! Completely oblivious to his audience, the rhino looked so content as he wallowed in the reedy water. One of the guys inched closer and trod on some broken branches. The rhino turned his head towards us and looked us directly in the eye. We stood still waiting to see what would happen but the rhino just turned back around and continued his bath. He wasnt camera shy. We watched for a little longer before moving on deeper into the jungle.

What chu lookin’ at???
Nothing to see here folks…

Excited that this dull jungle walk was more than what I was expecting, I picked up my pace and kept my eyes peeled for anymore animals. Another 10 minutes passed with nothing and then we spotted some monkeys and deer going about their day. The deer with the excellent hearing ran off just as we got got but the monkeys weren’t afraid being so high up. We walked further and my hopes were slowly disappearing again. 

Oh deer.. they spotted us

Just as I was about to give up on expecting any more animals, our guide made a sign to be quiet and follow him. We tiptoed behind him and he pointed out a muddy water hole to our left. We walked past the waterhole to the hide behind a couple of trees. Just 20 metres away was a mother rhino and her baby having a bath in the muddy water. The baby rhino was quite possibly the cutest and ugliest thing I’d ever seen! We watched for a few minutes before trying to edge closer for a better look. As the branches crunched underneath our feet, the overprotective mother looked our way with her little ears pricked in attention. We halted abruptly and waited for our guides next move. Paused a moment, I got the chance to take a quick photo before the mother rhino turned towards us and started moving. 

Right before she started to run towards us

“Okay, go, GO!’ Our guide said and he took off – there was no protecting hotel guests here! We followed hastily, trying to run in a zigzag and not lose our guide. I didn’t dare look behind me but kept an eye out for any trees that might be climb-able. I wondered if my travel insurance would cover being trampled by a rhino. Even though it was only a handful of seconds, it felt like we were running for an eternity. Finally our guide launched into some bushes and waved us to get behind him. We squatted, panting for breath hoping that the rhino had been thrown off course. Thankfully we’d made so much noise running like idiots through the jungle that she was too startled to chase and ran off in a different direction. We stayed squatting for a minute to catch our breath.

“She gone, we are safe” our guide said. The three of us looked back at him bewildered. What happened to the mundane jungle walk!? We all looked at each other and burst into nervous laughter, talk about dodging a big, grey leathery bullet! Continuing on, I kept very close to our guide as we made a quick exit out of the jungle. That was enough cardio for the morning! We reached the edge of the dense jungle and walked down the beaten 4WD path until we reached the elephant breeding centre, sweaty and muddy. So much for an easy jungle walk!

J. X

Peaceful Pokhara

This morning was an early start. C and I had to be at the bus station 6:15am for our bus to Pokhara and after a pretty cruisy couple of days, it was a bit hard to function at this hour of the morning. Thankfully the bus station was easy to find and by 6:30am we were on our way to Pokhara in an air conditioned coach with wifi! Not too bad for about AUD$8!

Five hours later, we were not quite as chirpy as the bus bounced and jerked along the road. To say that Nepal’s roads were awful would be the understatement of the century – THEY WERE THE WORST IN THE WORLD!! Let me just backtrack a little and really give you some perspective as to how terrible they are. Kathmandu to Pokhara is 204.5 kilometres, which in Australia would probably take under two hours to get there. However this is Nepal and nothing happens quickly here. It took us two hours just to get out of Kathmandu! It was a bouncy old show as well, the roads which were continually under construction were a pot-holed, often dirt lane that hundreds of vehicles and bikes fight to race to the front. C and I were slowly losing our minds as we bounced around the back of the bus, wishing we’d worn sports bra’s but the locals on the bus weren’t fazed. Despite it being six hours in and not even close to Pokhara they just sat happily, eating their chips and playing on their phones. I’ll give the Nepalese some credit, they’re patient as hell. By the time we reached the outskirts of Pokhara, C and I were ready to get off and walk. I may be sounding like a drama queen but I’ve done some hellish bus rides in my time and this takes the cake. As a forewarning for any future travellers to Nepal, the bus rides bloody suck!

We finnnnaaaallly got to Pokhara and found a place to stay easily. On the taxi ride there were drove past the lake and any disgruntled-ness I felt from the bus ride disappeared. Pokhara has a serene and calm place and the chilled vibe was very contagious. Our little guest house, the Harvest Moon, was costing us a huge AUD$6 a night and was just a couple of streets away from the lakeside. As the most touristic area, the Lakeside is filled with restaurants, cafes, spas and travel agents. We found a spot to grab a snack by the lake and relaxed in the afternoon sun and tried to plan out what we wanted to do here. After walking past the many spas and wellness centres, we decided we deserved to treat ourselves to a spa day. After all, we had just hiked Everest Base Camp and survived that God-awful bus ride. We booked in for a massage, facial, manicure and pedicure for the following afternoon and I was already feeling calmer.

Incoming rain

Finding dinner nearby to our guest house, we had an early dinner and headed to bed. It’s really quite tiring sitting on a bus all day! The following morning we woke early and set out to hike to the World Peace Pagoda. It was lovely and cool as we began our hike but as soon as we reached the forest where the main trail lay, the humidity set in and we were sweating in minutes. It took over an hour to get to the top. It was so much easier to hike in low altitude, if I wasnt dying from the heat I could have ran up there! (not really, lets be honest) but it felt good to actually do some proper exercise again! I’d done a couple of yoga classes in Kathmandu but nothing strenous like this uphill hike. We reached the top and cooled down by wandering around the large, white stupa. Here we met a couple of other travellers so after we’d done looking out at the beautiful view, we headed down the hill to a little boat station and got a boat back to the Lakeside.

Sweaty but finding peace at the World Peace Pagoda!

Lush views of Pokhara
Boat rides across the lake are a popular activity to do here in Pokhara

C and I hadn’t eaten brekkie yet and it was getting close to noon so we sussed out where this cafe that we spotted yesterday on the taxi ride in was and made a beeline for it. AM/PM Organic Cafe was a little slice of hipster heaven in central Nepal. They offered things like smoothie bowls, kombucha and cold brew coffee. A little more exxy than other restaurants in town but we reasoned that it was actually brekkie and lunch so thefore it actually worked out cheaper! I ordered an iced coffee and scrambled eggs and C got a smoothie bowl with her iced coffee. It was delicious and exactly what I’d been hoping for!

After our brunch we had about an hour to refresh before heading to Jiva Spa for our spa afternoon. I have to say, this is the first time I’ve done something like this. Usually if I’m spending money when travelling, its on good food or fun activities but something about this spa day was so exciting! However after my feet had spent two weeks in hiking boots, I felt bad for the lady who had to deal with them. The whole experience was about four hours long and by the time we got out I was feeling totally new. We topped off our afternoon with a peanut butter and banana smoothie and that shocking bus ride was a far, distant memory in my head. I was so zen right now!

That night we had dinner at the Pokhara OR2K restaurant, it had basically the same menu at Kathmandu, minus the espresso martinis! It was a great end to a good day though! We headed to bed early as our massages had put us in too much of a relaxed mood to do anything else!

Tonight’s dinner was served with a slice of gorgeous sunset

The following morning we had another early start as we had booked to go zip-lining. The weather was brilliant and I could even see a tip of one of the Annapurna mountains from our room! The drive to the top of the zip line was a little hairy. It was a one-lane road and i think  our driver thought he was in the Formula 1, not taking up bunch of tourists up a hill! We made it there safely though and had a beautiful clear view of the Annapurna range.

Sneaky snowy peak hiding behind the clouds!

As per usual, things were moving in Nepali time (aka – slowly) so it was a good half hour before the first person went down the zip line. C and I were last to go and had to wait another hour for our 90 seconds of adrenaline rush! by the time it was our go I was so hungry for breakfast that I wasnt even excited about the zip line anymore! It was fun, don’t get me wrong but it was over so quickly! Everyone was ready to go by the time we were unharnessed so we had two seconds to catch our breath before jumping back in the van to head back to the lakeside.

The beautiful Annapurna Ranges – I’ll be back to hike you!
Compulsory dorky GoPro selfie!

That meant breakfast though! C was still buzzing from the zip line and decided to spontaneously book a paragliding flight because of the beautiful clear skies. I wanted to save my money for later (plus I’ve already paraglided in Oludeniz, Turkey – the best in the world! 😛 )so we split up for a couple of hours. C ran off a cliff with a parachute and I grabbed a coffee and my iPad to do some writing before going to the weirdest yoga class I’ve ever been to! I was the only person in the class and this guy was kook-city. A sweetheart but not on a whole other planet! I met up with C afterwards and got reorganised to have dinner at Pokhara Thakali Restaurant, which apparently serves the best Thakali cuisine in Pokhara!

The Thakali are an ethnolinguistic group originated from the Thak Khola region of the Mustang District in the Dhaulagiri zone of Nepal. There’s only about 30,000 Thakali in Nepal however most of them are successful businessmen, dominating the hotel game. They have a certain cuisine which is a combination of different curries served with rice, pappadums and condiments such as pickles and chutneys. The best part is the usually have free refills! We were having dinner early so were the only ones in the restaurant. The staff didn’t speak the best English so we ordered what we thought was the traditional Thakali meal and hoped for the best! While it lacked in presentation, it made up for it in flavour! The tiny bowls of curry were delicious and the sweet chutney was good enough to bottle and take home! After dinner we headed a couple of doors down for a brownie and ice-cream at AM/PM Organic! 

Tasted SO much better than it looked, trust me!

The following morning we were up at 6am to catch the bus to Lumbini. Unfortunately the man who sold us the ticket was a bit dodgy and the bus he promised never showed. We were put on a bus that was going to India, that would drop us in Lumbini but after waiting an extra 45 minutes, we bailed and decided to head back to Kathmandu. C was due to fly out the next day and we weren’t sure how long it would take us to get back to Kathmandu this time!

J. X

EBC Trek – Dingboche 

Our time in Dingboche was mainly to acclimatise so we had an extra day here relax and find some extra red blood cells to keep us oxgenated up higher! There wasn’t a whole lot to do in Dingboche so we spent most of our time reading, washing clothes or playing UNO. The morning after we first arrived however we had to go on an acclimatisation hike, which was definitely a highlight of they stay.

Dingboche – 4410m in altitude

We left about 8am and pretty much walked out the front door of the lodge and up the huge hill that stood outside. It took about an hour to reach the view point and we climbed up to about 4,700m in altitude. It wasn’t a super hard hike, just hard to breathe from the thin air. Every couple of steps required a break and gasping for air was becoming the norm. But slowly and steadily we made it up. The view point was definitely worth the walk! As it was still quite early in the morning, the sky was clear and the mountain range around us stood magnificently in front of us. Lhotse and Nuptse were the show-offs yet again, their dramatic peaks stood boldly against the blue sky. Everest sat behind in their shadow, leaving us wanting more. I guessed she thought we had to work harder for a proper view, not just hike up a hill. We still had two days until Base Camp so perhaps she was holding out until then.

Note – not my hiking stick (I’m not that pro!)
Mt Everest hiding to the very left
The only thing getting my through the day’s hikes!
Stunning peaks!

Behind us stood Ama Dablam, Taweche, Cholatste and Island Peak were just some of the peaks that stood around us. With 360 degrees of mountains around us, it wasn’t hard to believe that some of these peaks haven’t been named yet – there were just so many! We stayed at the view point for about two hours, taking in the thin air and letting our bodies adjust to the higher altitude. It was already starting to affect some of the others in the group who reported lethargy, headaches and dizziness. Thankfully I wasn’t feeling too bad, but I felt for the others who were feeling sick. 4,700m high and in the middle of nowhere wasn’t the ideal place to not be feeling 100%. 

We hiked down around 10:30am and had lunch not long after. I even treated myself to a hot shower for $6AUD because it had been six days without one. While it wasn’t the greatest shower, it felt incredible to have clean hair! Especially after using talcum powder for six days to dry out the greasiness! Ahhhh the hikers life! The rest of the day was spent relaxing and basically waiting for tomorrow to come. We only had 18km until Base Camp and anticipation was starting to building!

Tomorrow we leave for Lobuche and climb about 600m higher! Joy!

J. X

EBC Trek – Namche to Tengboche

After a pleasant “rest day” yesterday it was time to get back into hiking higher towards Base Camp. This morning brought another magical view from my windows. The mornings were so crisp and clear that all the mountain peaks surrounding Namche were in full view. Whilst my sleep routine was so out of whack, I was thankful that I was waking up early to witness this amazig sight. Usually by mid-morning the clouds settle in and cover up most of the mountains. 

Today’s destination was Tengboche, a small village of the top of a huge mountain at 3875m. In the village there is a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery which is the major money maker for the small village. In 1989 this monastery was destroyed by a fire so thanks to financial aid for volunteers all around the world, the monastery was rebuilt and a ‘Master Plan’ was made. this included building a water supply system for clean drinking water, an Eco-tourism centre to promote more sustainstable tourism, improving school and education systems for the local people, establishment of sacred land for high altitude medicinal herb plantation, a hydropower station for assured electricity in the village and better facilities for the porters. Without the help of this financial aid, the Tengboche Monastary might not be here today.

Our hike began the same way as yesterday and feeling slightly more energetic from the influx of red blood cells I bounced up the steep track. The path flattened out after half hour and it was a beautiful stroll along the edge of the mountain. We were walking towards the same view as yesterday but as usual Everest was hidden by cloud and Lhotse was claiming all the glory! . I was starting to think that Mt Everest was just a very clever marketing ploy by Nepal Tourism – or its the world’s best mountain at hiding! It was still surreal to think that I was walking along the Everest Base Camp trail in Nepal. Just a week or two ago I was working in a office, now I was here! 

The path was built into the side of the mountain and with no guard rail to keep us in, one wrong step could mean a very long fall into the valley below us. Our group had formed its own little mini-groups, measured by walking pace. Three guys zooming ahead at the front, our group of six with us three Aussie girls, two Scots and one of the Germans. Behind us were the trailing Germans and the Americans taking it nice and easy. We mostly walked in silence enjoying the scenery, leaving conversation for break times where we spent most of the time discussing the scenery! One may say we were a little one-track minded! 

We walked along the path for an hour or so before we started to descend into the valley. It appeared we had to walk down to the river to cross it before making our way back up again to reach Tengboche. Undoing all our hard work from yesterday we dodged donkeys and yaks as we stepped our way down to the river. I could feel the pressure in my knees already from walking down steps. If they could last the whole trip, it would be a miracle! 

Stopping for a lunch break (at 10:30am) we sat in the sun at a little cafe by the flowing river and waited for the last of the group to arrive. This little break turned into a massive two hour one and by the time our guide Krishna told us to ‘Jam jam’ (Let’s go) we were all drowsy from the sun and not in the mood to hike up to Tengboche. Nonetheless we put our backpacks back on and walked across the suspension bridge that would start our hike uphill.

This hike uphill wasn’t fun to say the least. The constant steps, thinning air and moody weather made the hike uncomfortable and it was slightly frustrating that we were higher only just a bit higher than we were yesterday. If only we didnt have to go down to the river to cross it! As the heavy clouds set in for the afternoon, there wasn’t even the stunning mountainous views to look out to. Pink wildflowers dotted the path but apart from that we were still in quite a forestry, green area. The temperature dropped dramatically with the clouds and it was getting chilly, especially in our sweaty clothes. Thankfully there was the six of us hiking together so we all were in the same boat, happy to stop regularly and dream about a warm cup of tea and clean socks!

The porters carrying loads of up to 140kg were always a remember not to complain about your own backpack

Finally we reached Tengboche and as per usual, the last two hours were erased from my memory. It seems I was suffered from short term memory loss when it came it hiking. Once I reached the destination and become enthralled in it, the pain of hiking uphill disappeared. I wont lie, its quite a good problem to have!         

We walked into our lodge, thankful to be out of the cold and starving hungry. Thankfully the lodge knew we were coming and were quick to get food and drink out to us. After lunch we had a little rest before visiting the monastery to watch the monks perform one of their sermons. Our guide Dawa warned us it would be long and loud and to feel free to leave at any time but I was intrigued to see what goes on behind monastery walls, it seems like such a sacred and secretive place.

The monastery had a strong Chinese influence to its architecture. We walked through the huge ornate gate, elaborately designed with gold painted ornaments and walked up the stairs to the entrance. We had to wait for the monks to enter before we could go in and the whole thing felt a like cult like. As we walked in I was gobsmacked by the interior of the room. For a building that sort of looks like a large dormitory on the outside, it was so beautifully decorated on the inside. The Chinese influence (I guess its Chinese? Could be Buddhist?) flowed through the room, with more ornate carvings on the walls and roof.  Incense burned and candles were lit, creating a very zen-like atmosphere. There were four rows of long raised wooden boxes that the monks sat cross-legged on top of. Long, gold instruments sat at the two front corners of the room and several monks sat behind them, ready to play when told to. At the front of the room sat a statue of very large gold Buddha, the siza of the whole wall! I felt sorry for the poor sucker who had to lug this massive statue up the mountain, it was bigger than an elephant! His huge presence loomed over us and we sat on the hard wooden floor, pretending to not be there. I wish I could have taken a photo but were were forbidden to bring cameras inside.

Dogs of Tengboche
A monk waiting to begin his afternoon ritual

We sat waiting to see how the sermon unfolded but didn’t have to wait long as the monks opened their scripts and began to chant. There was a lead monk who ran the chants and the others followed. His voice was raspy and at times he seemed to just be making noise, but the others followed suit so I can only imagine it was part of the mantra. They added the musical instruments to their chants and the large horns scared the crap out of us sitting close to them, as the monks blew them without warning. I stifled a laugh, our dirty, tired, smelly group couldn’t be more out of place in this sacred building.

The chanting went on and on. They stopped at times and then began up with a different chant or a new blow of the horn. It was mesmerising to watch in a way that you could almost fall into a trance,  but after an hour the hard wooden floor was making my backside numb and some of us in the group were giving each other side eyes to see who would get up and leave first. 

Thankfully the Germans left first, making way for the rest of us to slowly file out and head back to the lodge. It was almost dark by this time and dinner wasn’t far away. They had lit the fire in the dining room of the lodge so it was toasty warm for our return. After dinner we had another UNO competition go down. I have to say, not having access to technology has been pretty great. I feel like we’re closer as a group because we haven’t spent all our times in front of our mobiles. It was another early bedtime as we were knackered from today’s efforts and knew tomorrow was going to be another big one.

J. X

Tayrona National Park

We were back in Santa Marta and ready to tick off another one of Colombia’s must-do things. The Tayrona National Park was about a two hour bus ride from Santa Marta and super cheap, thanks to the local buses. Tayrona National Park not only has an immense natural importance on the region, but also it is a cultural treasure as it was once inhabited but the famous Tayrona tribe. Their culture is still present today with their direct descendants, the Koguis tribe still living and maintaining many of the original traditions.

We reached the park entrance and paid our entry fee (note – bring a student card if you have one, chops off 45% of the price!) and took a colectivo to the start of the hiking trail. We planned to stay in Arrecifes for the first night, mainly because it was the first stop on the trail! We hiked for about an hour through the Tayrona jungle, dodging long hanging branches and spotting monkeys. After being in busy Santa Marta it was nice to be back to nature, with hardly anyone in sight. Reaching the campsite dripping in sweat, we paid for our hammocks and dropped our bags off before heading to find some water to cool off in.








However the beach at Arrecifes isn’t suitable for swimming due to its dangerous currents. Judging the currents and our swimming abilities, we decided to ignore the sign and paddle in the huge swell. This didn’t last long though as a security guard swiftly came over to tell us off. At least we got to cool down a little!

Food was next on the agenda so we headed off down the trail in search of comida. There were a couple more campsites and small restaurants as we walked along the trail. The park had a very ‘Lost’ feel about it, I was expecting to see a crashed plane and a tribe of people to come running out at any second! We gushed over the beautiful scenery and the amazing light of the setting sun before stumbling across a life-saver of a lady who sold the most delicious bread in the world! Freshly baked, still warm pan was just what we needed for an entree for dinner. We sampled the ham and cheese, the guava jam and cheese and the chocolate bread before telling the lady we would be back first thing in the morning to have it again for breakfast.

After views in Tayrona National Park


Beautiful sunsets

We found some dinner at a small restaurant at the next camp to ours. Full from the bread, we just had a small dinner before attempting to brave the walk home in the jungle alone. We were all set to go until some fellow travellers told us how they had just seen the alligators by the beach. Slightly freaking out, we ruled out walking back by the beach and decided to go via the way we came. However the topic of snakes popped up and suddenly we were too scared and stranded to walk back alone! Luckily a couple of locals were heading the same way we were so they guided us back through the jungle and we made it back to our hammocks snake-free. Sleep came easy that night, which was surprising because it was the first time I’d slept overnight in a hammock. But the clean hammock and solid mosquito net made for the perfect slumber, especially with the sound of the ocean lulling us to sleep.

Our ‘hostel’ for the first night


The following day we packed our bags up and hiked towards El Cabo San Juan. Despite it still being early, the sun was beating down on us hard. We dodged some monkeys and made a pit stop at La Piscina (‘the pool’ for those non-Spanish speakers) for a quick dip and to admire the amazing view. Finally the white sand, turquoise blue water dream I had been envisioning was starting to come to life.

Horses for when you couldn’t hike anymore
La Piscina – the ‘swimming pool’


We walked onto El Cabo San Juan, which took about half an hour and jumped straight into the blue water. This place was way busier than where we had been previously, mainly because it was the most advertised area. We spent our day sun baking, swimming and generally enjoying life. L and I braved swimming out to a huge rock with some boys we met and managed to scar ourselves climbing up the rocks to jump into the ocean. Luckily there were no sharks nearby to smell the blood!

GoPro Fail #10230949
Cabo San Juan


We dined on garlic prawns and rice for dinner and played cards until it was an acceptable time for bed. This sun-baking business was tiring! Unfortunately I didn’t sleep so well in the hammocks here, they just weren’t as comfy as the night before.

Fresh garlic prawns! Muy bueno!

After a fitful night of tossing and turning I was happy to get up and start the day. We had freshly cooked ‘caprese pan‘, which was warm bread filled with cheese, tomato and pesto sauce, washed down with a fresh maracuya juice. It wasn’t quite as sunny as yesterday but we still managed to get in some solid sun baking time. We considered staying another night but the thought of sleeping in those hammocks again put us off and we decided to head back to civilisation that day.

In the late afternoon we had a final meal at the only restaurant on Cabo San Juan and caught the boat back to Taganga and returned to our hostel in Santa Marta for a proper shower and a bed! Tomorrow we planned to go to Minca, the tiny village in the mountains about 40 minutes away from Santa Marta. I couldn’t wait!

J. x








Castles before the Causeway.

We left early from our little B&B in Loch Lomond with a mission to be in Stanraer by noon to catch the ferry over to Northern Ireland. Though of course, we had a do one last castle in Scotland and did a flying visit through Culzean Castle, which was absolutely magnificent.

The grand Culzean Castle. Behind her is the ocean!
The grand Culzean Castle. Behind her is the ocean!

The entire property included a walled garden, a swan pond, deer paddocks and of course, the grandest looking castle I’ve seen in Scotland! The Culzean Castle is the former home of Marquess of Ailsa, the chief of Clan Kennedy.

The entrance gates to the Culzean
The entrance gates to the Culzean

The most impressive rooms were the armoury rooms and the grand oval staircase. It was unfortunate that we had to rush through because you could easily waste a day there enjoying the royal vibes.

A canoe bed! Looks pretty cosy!
A canoe bed! Looks pretty cosy!
One wall in the armoury room. Thats a whole lotta pistols!
One wall in the armoury room. Thats a whole lotta pistols!
A royal stag.
A royal stag.

Jumping on the freeway, we managed to make it to the ferry dock with five minutes to spare. Mum and Dad with their forward thinking had booked us into Premium Loading so we drove straight onto the ferry and had first pick of seats onboard. Go parents!

The ferry ride was uneventful but pleasant as we had scored lounge seats right near the window. Definitely opt for Premium Loading if you’re taking the ferry from Scotland to Ireland, well worth the extra pounds! It took about two and a half hours to reach Larne and us Premium Loading folks were first off the ship. There were about four or five guys with their Ferrari’s and other super fast cars that I know nothing about surrounding us. They had been revving their engines, showing off when we were loading and disembarking. It backfired on one guy in a red Ferrari though, his clutch stopped working just before the disembarking begin, leaving him a little red-faced!

We left the embarrassed Ferrari guy behind and speeded up towards Bushmills, where we would be staying for the night. We had plans to see the Giant’s Causeway the following morning but decided it would be better to visit in the fading sunlight, and boy, weren’t we correct.

Driving towards Bushmills
Driving towards Bushmills

The Giant’s Causeway is essentially a free attraction to see. You can pay to visit the information centre and have a tour guide, but seriously, all you want to do is see the crazy rock formations in real life. We walked down the Causeway, (which was actually a bit of a hike!) admiring the green, lush coastline. As we reached the Giant’s Causeway, it was hard not to be in awe of what nature can create.

Walking to the Giants Causeway
Walking to the Giants Causeway

The 40,000 interlocking basalt formations spread themselves along the coastline and the hexagonal shaped rocks are somewhat similar to bee’s honeycomb. The formations are a result of a volcanic eruption about 50 million years ago. Though, like most natural wonders, there is a legend about how it way created.  According to Gaelic mythology, the basalt columns are the remains of a causeway created by the Irish giant Fionn man Cumhaill (Finn MacCool). After being challenged to fight by Scottish giant Benandonner, Fionn accepted and built the causeway across the North Channel so the two giants could meet. In some stories, Fionn wins the battle, though in others he loses and destroys the causeway so no more battles can occur. Whatever way the story ended, the result of the rock formation has fascinated humans for many years.

Result of volcanic eruption or leftovers of a giant's path to battle?
Result of volcanic eruption or leftovers of a giant’s path to battle?
Admiring the honeycomb rocks
Admiring the honeycomb rocks

We climbed and clambered over the honeycomb shaped rocks and watched the sky turn all shades of gold and blue with the disappearing sun. Definitely was a smart choice to visit in the late afternoon.  We caught the last bus back up the hill and drove the 200 metres to where we were staying for the night, at the Ballylinny Holiday Cottages.

Seeing more of Northern Ireland tomorrow!


J. x