At John O'Groats

Road trip – Thurso and John O’Groats

Today is day 12 of our huge 97 day road trip and boy have we seen so much already! The idea behind our Great British Road Trip was always to see more of our own country and appreciate it as a tourist destination in its own right. The first 4 weeks are in Scotland, starting as far north as we could.

Scotlands A9 scenic driveAfter our fun few days in Glasgow we headed north, seriously north! Right to the top of mainland Scotland in fact to the sleepy little town of Thurso. The drive was pretty epic as we quickly escaped the urban sprawl of Glasgow and started winding around the hills and countryside of Scotland. After a quick-lunch break on the shore of Beauly Firth in Inverness we headed onwards ever North along the gorgeous coastal road of the A9. Forget the great ocean road in Australia, this road has some fantastic views and it was  shame to turn inland towards Thurso!

Thurso

Sandras backpacker hostel in ThursoAfter a long day on the road we reached Thurso, the northern most town in the British mainland. With a population of around 10,000 it’s a fairly quiet little town, with a nice high street market area and pretty church. We checked in to our hostel for the night, the quirky little “Sandra’s backpackers hostel” above a fish and chip shop of the same name.  Unfortunately we didn’t get to meet Sandra but the friendly staff showed us around. They’ve been running a hostel in the town since 1996 and get all sorts of guests. In the warmer months surfers often head to Thurso for the turbulent seas, perfect for catching a few waves. We were thankful of a double bed and a well stocked kitchen to make some home-made dinner. When you’re on the road for as long as we are the budget plays a crucial part so a good kitchen can make all the difference. We had a lovely chat with the staff and the next morning we were back on the road along the north coast to two famous landmarks.

Dunnet Head and John O’Groats

At Dunnet Head in ScotlandLike many Brits I’m sure, I always thought John O’Groats was the most northern point on mainland Britain. Turns out that’s wrong and anybody looking at a map of the british isles will notice this too. Dunnet Head is actually the most northerly point and is an easy drive along the coast from Thurso. Dunnet Head is quite a spectacular sight too, with a brightly painted light house and a sign marking the head’s importance. The waves crash against the rocky coastline and the Orkney islands are easily visible on a good day. There’s a very panoramic spot too with great views over both the mainland and the coast. Well worth a visit.

At John O'GroatsJohn O’Groats is just 20 minutes or so down the road and is nothing like Dunnet Head. Rather than being the most northerly point in the British mainland its actually the furthest point from Land’s End in the south-west of England. Making it the longest distance between two points in the UK. While John O’Groats is a pretty place to visit it lakes the drama of Dunnet Head. There’s some nice hotels here and a very historic one which is currently being renovated too. Some great cosy cafes with fire places to help you enjoy the view without getting cold. The coastline is fairly flat and you can catch a small tourist boat out from here. Personally I much prefer Dunnet Head but John O’Groats is still well worth a visit if only to get your photo next to the official marker sign.

Onwards to the Orkneys

We drove back towards Thurso just a couple of miles to Gills Bay where we caught a ferry  over to the Orkney Islands, a place I knew little about and was very excited to explore! You can read all about that very soon on our official Places To Go Blog. You can also follow our tweets at @placestogoblog and the hashtag #GBRoadTrip

With thanks

Thanks to our sponsors HostelWorld and Sandra’s Backpacker Hostel in Thurso for their support and hospitality. Also to GetYourGuide.com for sponsoring our tours.

Check out the video of our drive so far.

where to go in antwerp belgium

A short break in Antwerp, Belgium

It’s probably fair to say Belgium is one of those countries that everyone has heard of but not many really know much about or what there is to do there. Flanders in particular is the northern region of Belgium and has a surprising amount of fun things to do. It’s definitely time to find out what Belgium is really like besides the beer and chocolates. We were recently invited to check our a festival in Flanders as part of the “Flanders is a festival” campaign raising awareness of just how much is going on in this region.

How to get there

St Pancras to BrusselsFirstly, reaching Belgium from the UK is fantastically easy. There are cheap flights of course but I’d recommend the Eurostar. You can catch it to Brussels in under 2 hours and there’s lots of trains up to Antwerp taking just 50 minutes. So you can get to Antwerp quicker than you can get to Manchester! Travelling by train also makes you appreciate just how close Belgium is and how connected the UK, France and Belgium really are. You also arrive at one of the most beautiful stations I’ve ever visited at Antwerp Central. Definitely stop and take a few photos before you leave.

Music Festival

antiliaanse feestenWe wasted no time in jumping straight in to what the Flanders region does well. As the campaign name suggests there are lots of festivals in Belgium worth checking out. We arrived just in time to attend the first night of the Antilliaanse Feesten in nearby Hoogstraten. Driving through beautiful countryside and passing houses with immaculate gardens we arrived at this lively festival some 35 minutes from Antwerp. The belgians sure do know how to organise great festivals and this one has been running for 30 years now. A celebration of Caribbean music with 3 stages under huge roofs. The array of food on offer was very impressive, everything from great belgian food, Caribbean of course and Asian cuisine too.

The atmosphere was great and it’s always interesting to see such long-established festivals, seemingly in the middle of nowhere doing well with a good crowd that continued to pour in even at midnight. Highlights for us were Morgan Heritage who were real crowd pleasers, Loco Mondo which we only caught part of their set but were really impressed by, and also the Salsa tent with its wonderful interior and DJ playing lots of great big-band songs for the impressive crowd of skilled salsa dancers.

Much like every music festival these days the drinks are expensive and they used an annoying token system, but other than that it was very well organised and had a great atmosphere. I’d highly recommend it if you’re thinking of checking out some festivals in Belgium next summer! For more information check out www.antilliaansefeesten.be

Walking around Antwerp

where to go in antwerp belgiumFrom the collection of tourist leaflets and books we were given it was clear that Antwerp is a very walkable city. There’s lots to see and do on the streets so while there is some great transportation options like the tram system and tourist hop-on hop-off buses. While they are the quick option if you really want to cram everything in, our preference is to walk and soak up the atmosphere of Antwerp as we go.

We headed to Olv Cathedral, an obvious landmark that’s hard to miss from anywhere in central Antwerp. It’s surrounded by a number of large squares and pretty streets lined with beautiful buildings adorned with gothic architecture. This really is a very photogenic part of the city and the back to back cafés and bars make this the perfect place for people watching too. A look inside the cathedral reveals more wonderful architecture as well as a gallery of renaissance art. The streets outside also contain some great shops for some real authentic Belgian souvenirs including chocolates and all manner of interesting trinkets.

The Grote Markt was a particular favourite area of mine with some impressive buildings and a beautiful fountain statue in the centre, raining water down on to the cobble ground below, rather than in to a pond. It’s a popular place for a photo and also where you can catch a horse and cart ride around the city centre.

Antwerp Pride

Drag queen at Antwerp PrideThe rainbow coloured flags of the Gay Pride festival were out, prompting us to wonder when pride might be on in Antwerp. We soon found out when we walked to the river’s edge and were met by thousands of people and a parade of floats with impressively loud music.

We stopped for a while and enjoyed the party atmosphere in the sun. Who ever said Belgium was a dull place clearly hasn’t been to Antwerp! What great timing and the weather was perfect too!

Museum aan de Stroom

As with any major city there is always a number of museums in town. Antwerp is no different and of allt he museums on offer the one that caught our eye was the MAS (Museum aan de Stroom) It’s an interesting building on the MAS buildinggrounds of an old port warehouse. It now houses 9 floors of museums, exhibitions and art galleries as well as a roof-top panoramic view of the city. The view alone is worth the walk along the river and up the 9 escalators to the top. Inside you’ll find out about how Antwerp came to be and it’s importance in the world, especially the port. There’s also an art gallery with mixes modern art with classic paintings by the likes of Rubens. It’s a strange mixture as it highlights just how lazy and relatively unskilled modern art is, compared to the intricate and photo like quality of classic pieces. In one room a famous Rubens masterpiece hangs on the wall near to a modern piece that seems to be made of 3 bits of cardboard taped together. I know which art I prefer! Check out www.mas.be for more info.

Mussels and beer!

De Koninck beerA trip to Belgium wouldn’t be complete without two things. Mussels and beer. So when it was time to stop for a bite to eat we headed back to our favourite square outside Olv Cathedral and found the perfect table to dine and people watch. To large glasses of Belgium’s finest beer and a pot brimming with freshly cooked Mussels made us feel very much at home in Antwerp. We were even serenaded by a quartet outside the cathedral playing classical music to a growing crowd. A great way to enjoy our food in the sunshine.

After freshening up back at our hotel we enjoyed an evening of yet more wonderful Belgian beer and soaking up the atmosphere of one of Antwerp’s many street restaurants where tables are lined up filling the streets with the sound of sociable people enjoying a conversation with friends. It’s a lovely way to round off a fun day in Antwerp and we both agreed it’s a city we could easily spend a lot more time in. It’s relaxed atmosphere yet busy social scene makes it the perfect place to spend a few days or a few months.

Our stay in Antwerp was all too short but Brugge beckons! We’ve really enjoyed our time here and highly recommend a visit especially for a long weekend with a loved one. The Eurostar makes it so easy and Antwerp is perfect for strolling, dining and drinking!

With thanks to Tourism Flanders and Antwerp Tourism for our stay in Antwerp at the Park Inn Hotel.

Eco Cameron tours review

Cameron Highlands eco tour review in Malaysia

While much of Malaysia is bathed in tropical heat and humidity, there is an area of some 712 square kilometres that enjoys a cool and dry climate up in the hills. The Cameron Highlands, so-called after a British surveyor in the 1920s is a region of outstanding natural beauty as well as some equally beautiful man-made landscapes too. On a recent visit to the Cameron Highlands we had the chance to sample some of the area’s flora and fauna with Eco Cameron and Cameron Secrets tours.

Half day guided tour of the Cameron Highlands

Eco Cameron tours reviewWaking up fairly early (for a tourist at least) we grabbed a light breakfast before the vehicle came to pick us up from our guesthouse. As we’d be exploring the hills and peaks of the Cameron Highlands there’s only really one type of vehicle fit for the job, the trust Land Rover, by far the most popular vehicle here. In fact there are so many Land Rovers in the Cameron Highlands only the British Army own more. Francis, our driver and guide for the day helped us in to this oversized vehicle that can take around 10 people. We soon departed Tanah Rata, the main tourist town in the Cameron Highlands and started winding around the hills to our first stop.

Tea plantations

Malaysia produces some great teas and most of that comes from the lush green rolling hills of the BOH tea plantations. Roads hug against rocks, passed pretty trees and sometimes right through the 600 acre tea plantation, with a few places to stop and take some photos of this landscape. It’s hard to believe that most of the undulations within the plantation are actually man-made, increasing the surface area that can be cultivated. Francis explained to our group about the age of the trees used to produce the teas and the methods the workers use to collect the leaves. It’s a beautiful sight I could happily stare at all day. We stopped a couple of times and with perfect weather and clear views the sunlight seems to dance across the plantation, the younger green leaves shimmering against a sea of dark older leaves.

Tea Plantation

There are occasional hills of brown, seemingly dead tea trees but in actual fact these are healthy, pruned back every 3 years to let entirely new branches grow with healthier leaves. A full-grown tea tree can tower some 5 metres or more above you yet the plantation’s trees are no more than a metre or so in height. This makes them easy to pick and healthy too, despite the tree’s being the original plants since opening the plantations in 1929.

Mount Brinchang peak

Mount BrinchangWe drove on, up the hills past the plantation to the top of Mount Brinchang, some 2031 metres above sea level which can have some wonderful panoramic views of all of the Cameron Highlands. The weather here is changeable at best with clouds flowing through the trees below, sometimes obscuring the view. We climbed the 15 metre high viewing tower here, built by the British Army in the 50s to watch over the land. On a good day you can see Titiwangsa mountains and Mount Irau, on a bad day you’ll be lucky to see the tower! Thankfully we visited on a relatively good day with great views and mystical looking clouds floating across the trees below us.

Mossy forest

A rare orchid growing amongst the mossWe drove down just a few minutes from the peak and all jumped out of our trust Land Rover. Francis gave us a wonderful lesson in the origins of the Cameron Highlands, some of the uses for the many species of plants in the area including medicines and food. 101 uses for Bamboo and some of the exotic species of plants you’ll find all over the landscape if you just look closely enough. A short walk down the road brought us to an inconspicuous opening in the forest. Francis told us most tour groups take you to a trail that is popular but now overcrowded with tourists. This area of the highlands is known as the “Mossy Forest” and is one of my favourite. The secret that only Eco-Cameron seem to take you on is without doubt one of the best experiences for me.

Orchid flowers in Cameron HighlandsWithin minutes of starting the train through dense vegetation you find yourself transported in to an eery world of moss growing from almost everything you can see. The ground bounces beneath your feet, hundreds of years of vegetation slowly compacting to form a soft forest floor. Dew drops hang from every leaf, fir, moss and the occasional spiders web. It’s like something out of a J.R.R Tolken novel and I truly haven’t seen anywhere else on earth quite like it. The thick mossy forest cancels out all noise and although you’re never very far from the winding road up the mountain, you’ll never hear a car, a footstep or even wildlife as the cold damp climate isn’t wildlife’s preferred environment. Again this is a place you could happily spend hours, exploring the paths that take you through this magical world created by the clouds that collide with the hill.

Time for a cup of tea

BOH TeaDriving back down the hill we took a different turn and explored more of the BOH tea plantation. There are 3 BOH plantations in the Cameron Highlands. The Sungai Palas Tea Garden not only has a working factory you can tour but also a large cafe and viewing point that hangs over the plantation. Francis our ever knowledgable guide showed us around the factory explaining the different processes that make tea.

Tea at BOH plantation Malaysia

It’s an interesting experience and we had ample time to enjoy the cafe afterwards and sample some of BOH’s finest tea while enjoying the view. Again the weather was still on our side and the clouds flowed over the hill tops making for a pretty scene, definitely the best place to enjoy a cup of tea!

 

Butterfly Farm

butterfly farmThe last stop on our tour was on the way back to Tanah Rata, near the entrance to the tea plantations. From the road the small entrance to the “Butterfly Farm” doesn’t seem much but once you pay 5 Ringet to enter (£1 / $1.50) you’re step in to a series of outdoor enclosures filled with pretty butterflies and all manner of creatures in boxes, cages and pens. Some of the butterflies are big too and all are harmless, Francis was even able to pick them up and place them on our shoulders or hang from our ears like earrings!

ScorpianHe also showed us some of the amazing tropical bugs you’ll find in Malaysia including the Ryanosurous beetle, stick and leaf insects, scorpions and lizards too. It really was a great collection of insects and animals, some of which I never knew existed! I was particularly impressed by the leaf insects that really do look like a leaf with legs. Amazing!

Back to Tanah Rata

Our drive back to Tanah Rata was swift and enjoyable. Everyone in our group had a great day and Francis thanked us all for coming to the Cameron Highlands and choosing an Eco-tour. It’s great to see a tour company having some clear environmentally responsible policies and some highly knowledgable guides who are real wildlife geeks too.

Our video guide to the cameron highlands tour

Check out the video from our day in the Cameron Highlands.

For more information

  • Check out the Eco Cameron website for more details on their tour packages
  • You can also call them to ask them any questions and book tours on +6019 4802388
  • You can visit their tourist information office in Tanah rata at the following address
  • 72-A, Jalan Persiaran Camellia 4, 39000 Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands, Pahang Darulmakmur.
isail whitsundays review

ISail Whitsundays review

While in the Witsundays we sent our trusted contributor Jason Hosler to try out a sailing tour from ISail. One of the most beautiful areas in the world to sail. Here’s his full report.

First, a short history

ISail Whitsundayssailing in the whitsundays was started in 2007 by Luke and Tristram Mairs. The brothers began sailing early in life through competitive endeavours and sought to offer tours to uncrowded locations while providing high quality and personal service.

It is for this reason that each of the three boats they now own and operate carry a maximum of 10 or 12 passengers. They were looking to continue doing the things they loved while enjoying their water ‘toys’ including Standup Paddleboards, SeaScooters, clear kayaks, and kites.

They now include combinations of these activities on each of their three boats. Blizzard is their newest boat and is the one I had a pleasure of sailing on.

Blizzard

My fully booked tour of ten passengers was met at Able Point Marina in Airlie Beach by the boat’s skipper, Dave. He led us along the jetty towards Blizzard and after passing by other boats, large and small, in good condition and bad, we arrived at our home for the next two nights. There, we met the deck-hand and chef Elly.

She is backpacker from England who has been working on the boat for the past two months. Elly got us to take off our shoes and put them in a bag since barefoot sailing really is the only way to do it!

When we arrived on board Blizzard, Dave told us about the boat and its amenities including toilets, showering, the very important beer fridge, and anything else we were curious about. I was pleasantly surprised to learn the boat was only 7 months old! “New boat?” I thought…Sweet! Blizzard was built in France last year, transported to Airlie Beach, and has only been in operation since November of 2011. My first impressions of the boat were that it was incredibly clean and made great use of the space it had.

I was shown to my room: a private twin bed suite that I was sharing with a fellow backpacker that I had been travelling with for the past week. There wasn’t much storage space but, then again, how much storage space do you need for a two-day, two night trip? It was enough and, as I discovered later, the beds were incredibly comfortable!

Sailing

Whitsundays sailing RouteDave loves to sail whenever he can. The boat was built for it so why not use it? He especially loves to put it to the test when he sees other boats on the horizon. Nothing beats the thrill of coming from behind and catching and passing competitors’ boats.

Unfortunately though, the wind was not on our side for most of the trip. The first afternoon, we got a good taste of it and sailed from Airlie Beach to Hook Passage. The engine was cut and the only sound coming from the boat was the wind in its sails and the water below as Blizzard sliced gracefully through it.

All ten of us customers sat on the high side (safe side) not the low side (suicide) of the boat to help keep the boat in balance (or at least to make it seem like we were helping!).

The journey took around two hours and was quite exciting. I had never been on a mono-hull sail boat like this before so it was exhilarating to look over my shoulder and see just how far the boat was leaning on the port side. It conjured up thoughts of flipping over which were quickly dismissed as I sipped at my refreshing beer. The sun set while we made our way to our anchorage which made for a beautiful backdrop.

Upon arriving at our destination, Dave took care of paperwork while Elly brought out some delicious appetizers and the rest of us started to get to know each other over a few drinks. A delicious supper was served and we ate it up on the deck before spending the rest of the night sharing stories of our travels.

Taking both helms at once!On the second day, we set sail from Tongue Bay towards Hook Island. The wind was light so Elly and Dave brought out the spinnaker which is a massive lightweight sail which can only be used in light winds. We got going but after an hour or so, the wind was dying so we had no choice but to turn the engine back on.

There were some other boats on the horizon that we were chasing and even though we didn’t gain much ground, we were the only boat under sail. The others didn’t use their sails at all and I was happy we had the chance to give it a try!

The wind was quite weak on the way back to Airlie Beach on the last day so the crew pulled out the spinnaker one last time to see if we could get some decent speed with it. After all the set up to get the spinnaker out it was used for only about thirty seconds before the wind completely vanished.

This made sailing back to the marina impossible so we had to resort to the engine instead. Dave was upset by this because, having come from a racing background and being the sailor he is, he feels immense pride sailing home and ideally passing slower boats along the way. He’s a competitor and he really wanted the chance to challenge (and beat) other boats to the marina.

Whitehaven Beach

Whitehaven BeachAt Tongue Bay on the first morning, we were taken to shore in the small inflatable boat that is towed behind Blizzard. Since tides weren’t quite right for the best viewing from the lookouts over Whitehaven Beach, we walked out to the beach itself first.

This beach is the purest silica sand in the world and is so white that it never heats up in the sun. Its reflective properties are so high that all the heat gets reflected back into the atmosphere. We were told of the sandcastle making properties as well but had to find out from ourselves.

We had several hours to do whatever we wanted on the beach so a few of us decided to make sand castles while others went for a swim. It was absolutely amazing what kind of shapes and forms the sand could hold!

This is the first time in my life that I’ve ever been able to create a bridge over the requisite moat and have it stay structurally sound. Being relatively unartistic, I decided to create a face in my sand castle. To make the eyes, I grabbed a handful of sand from just below the water line and spun it around in my hand.

It turned out to be a stable ball of sand much like a snowball. It was incredible! Again, something I had never witnessed in my life before. Unfortunately, my experiences on Whitehaven Beach may have forever ruined all future sandcastle building attempts.

From the beach, we radioed Elly back on Blizzard who then met up with us and led us to a lookout above Whitehaven Beach. The tide had been lowering the entire time we were on the beach and now we could see more of the white sand like in famous photographs of the beach.

We took our time at the two different lookouts, watching small reef sharks and stingrays swimming in the water below before heading back down and to the boat.

Snorkelling

After eating our delicious lunches onboard Blizzard, we set sail towards Manta Ray Bay at the north end of Hook Island. Upon arrival, Elly handed out our snorkelling gear including mask, snorkel, and wetsuit and briefed us on necessary safety information.

The mask and snorkel were excellent quality and they had plenty of options for all face sizes. I got my GoPro video camera ready and then Dave offered me the use of one that he had as well. I jumped in and took some underwater photos and videos, many of which can be seen in my video of the trip here: Sailing on Blizzard with ISail Whitsundays

isail whitsundays review

We moved on to Luncheon Bay which was only about ten minutes away for a second snorkel and a bit of paddleboarding. Normally, the trip might only get one snorkel on the second day but since we were forced to use the motor due to lack of wind, we were able to get the second snorkel session in.

I explored the coral here both from underwater with a mask and snorkel and above water on top of an inflatable paddleboard. It was amazing being able to see the colourful coral below me through the clear blue water in the bay.

Much fun was had watching people either succeed or fail while attempting to master the skill that is paddleboarding. Regardless of the outcome, everyone was smiling throughout!

With everyone thoroughly exhausted, we made our way towards Black Island which was our anchor point for the night. The wind was calm which allowed us to stop right at the point where we would be snorkelling first thing the next morning. That evening, we all took it a little easier and most went to bed at a reasonable time.

Myself, however, I stayed up late talking to Dave about all things GoPro and photography and we experimented with our cameras trying to get ghostly shots around the boat while seeing how far my camera’s flash could reach. I captured some cool photos of the light rain coming down.

isail blizzard whitsundays

The next morning, we ate breakfast, got our snorkelling gear ready and literally jumped straight off the back of the boat to go check out the reef. This was the first day the sun was out in the morning and it lasted all day! After some time in the water, it was time to move on to Langford Reef and the sand spit. Being only about a mile away, Dave gave the first five volunteers the chance to paddleboard over to the small sand island. I jumped at the opportunity and the four of us that wanted to do it set off towards Langford.

Blizzard sailed on by us and we met up with the rest of our group after our longer-than-expected paddle was finished. We soon began wandering in the shallows and then I spotted a shark! It was a small reef shark only about two feet in length swimming around in a foot of water. I took out my camera and tried to capture it on film. On the other side of the island, one of the other guys spotted a ray and I attempted to film it as well.

The most incredible part and highlight of the trip for me was snorkelling at Langford Reef. It is because here, our entire group was able to swim with turtles. A few of us spotted a couple of green turtles and then kept tracking them and finding others while the Another turtle!rest of the group got their snorkel gear on and came out and joined us on the reef. We saw at least a half-dozen different turtles and at one point were swimming around with three of them at once. They are such incredible creatures and I couldn’t help but think of them as the turtles from ‘Finding Nemo’. They were just so chilled you could swim right next to them and they would casually continue on their way seemingly without a care in the world.

Walking along the sand spit which was becoming increasingly exposed due to the lowering tide, we spotted more reef sharks and stingrays and had a little swim with them. Dave brought the power kite out onto the island and some people had a chance to try that out.

It was eventually time for us to leave Langford Island and once we were back on the boat, we were treated to our lunch which had been prepared by Elly while we were in the water. Of course, it was delicious. Chicken salad wraps…a perfect way to end the day. At this point, I looked at my watch. I figured it would be late considering all the things we had already done. In fact, it wasn’t even 12 o’clock yet. We still had a half day left and that left a smile on my face.

With lunch finished, we set off towards Airlie Beach. A few hours of baking in the sun later were saying our goodbyes to the crew and boat which made for such an incredible adventure. Definitely a trip to remember!

sailing in the whitsundays

Summary

I have met plenty of other travellers who have sailed in the Whitsundays. Each trip is similar but one thing has remained true…not one person’s story of their trip has made me wish I went on their boat instead. After all, we got 4 snorkels (more than anyone else I’ve met), 2 stand up paddleboard sessions, incredible food, many laughs, great memories, and it all happened on the newest boat in the Whitsundays, Blizzard!

And Dude! We swam with turtles! Lots and lots of turtles! What more could you ask for?

You can check out more of my photos from the trip as well as Blizzard’s own on their Facebook Page here

Prasta Thom, Koh Ker Cambodia

How to see Angkor temples in Cambodia

In recent years the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia have become a tourist mecca. Sometimes as crowded as the tourist spots of Venice, their immense beauty and power can be diluted by the hundreds or thousands of people there with you.

Thankfully this really isn’t an issue at Angkor Wat. What many don’t realise is there are now over 50 temples within the Angkor Archaeological Park. All within driving distance and many with virtually no crowds, in fact you’ll be lucky to meet another tourist.

We recently visited a number of the more remote temples on a private guided tour with Cox & Kings, the UK’s most experienced travel agency. We wanted to experience temples in peaceful surroundings with no tourists!

A tour of angkor temples Koh Ker

Koh Ker temples

We headed out to the Koh Ker region, some 2.5 hours outside Sieam Reap. It’s not that far away but the roads are only good for 50{bec4beb4183ddc16376e6eff89836f2abe3407e857522bf84005ba0ad48d654d} of the journey. We were glad to be in an air conditioned min-van with good suspension rather than a rickety little tuk tuk which i doubt could have handled some of the rougher roads.

Koh Ker was the capital city of Khmer Empire from 928 to 944 and there are hundreds of smaller temples in this region, less than a mile apart, the circle a man made reservoir. We spent a couple of hours at these temples and met 2 other tourists who also said we were the first they’d seen.

Check out the vide we made while touring these amazing temples.

You get to enjoy the majesty and beauty of these ancient monuments. Without the noise of tourists you can really imagine how they would have looked and been used over a thousands years ago.

The occasional butterfly floating past you as you explore these frankly mind boggling sights with tree roots wrapped around virtually every building.

Koh Ker temples review

Beng Malea

We drove back towards a slighty more well known temple of Beng Malea.

This is an extraordinary temple, much like the main Angkor Wat temple except this one has not been fully restored and cleared of the thousands of trees that now grow in and sometimes on the temple walls.

It’s considered to be how Angkor Wat would have looked before restoration and clearance commenced by the french in the late 19th century.

Meng Malea in Angkor Wat Cambodia

Prasta Thom, Koh Ker Cambodia

We had a great time spending hours exploring this lesser known region of Angkor Wat and enjoying these amazing temples without any crowds.

You spend more time on the road to get to them but when you’re there you get uninterrupted views and all the time in the world to have your own personal Angkor Wat temple experience.

Angkor Wat temple tour with Cox and Kings

Great hotels in Siem Reap

I’ve found some great discount deals on centrally located hotels in Siem Reap that are worth checking out. Just click “VIEW HOTEL” to see more details about the deal.

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Learning to ski again

Learning to ski in Bulgaria

When I was 15 my school organised a skiing holiday to Austria. I jumped at the chance to visit another country with people other than my parents! A week in the snow in Austria seemed magical to me and after just 2 days of ski school I was learning to parallel turn and ski down the blue runs with ease. I felt I was some what of a natural.

Learning to ski in Bansko BulgariaA year later, bitten by the skiing bug, my college friends and I decided to go skiing one more. We saved up what little money we had and booked ourselves a very cheap ski holiday in Romania. My parents could see I loved skiing so very generously invested in a ski jacket and trousers for me, otherwise known as salopettes. I was all set to ski every year if I wanted to! After a fun filled second ski holiday I should have continued ski holidays every winter, but alas I didn’t.

Being 16, I was too busy spending all my money and then out getting jobs, moving out, paying rent and bills. Life moved on and nearly 17 years passed without another ski holiday in sight. Often thinking “maybe next year I will” but never committing my words in to actions.

Then in early 2011, with very little warning, I find myself buying a ski jacket, asking my friends if they have salopettes and ski gloves I could borrow, frantically preparing myself for a press trip to Bulgaria with the UK budget airline easyJet and Bansko tourist information. With 17 years of growing up, maybe losing a little coordination, balance and confidence along the way, my expectations were firmly set at “old beginner” and was very glad when I was kindly booked in to ski school for the 2 days of skiing ahead.

Welcome to Greece!

The flight was early, meeting fellow journalists and PR at 4:30am at London’s Gatwick airport. Chatting to the others I considered myself to be a total novice. Reminiscing of those days back when I was young and had all the confidence of a college kid. Take off was delayed due to bad weather in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital. The 3 hour flight was smooth and enjoyable until we were put in a holding position, hoping the bad weather would improve. It didn’t and, after watching the same mountain appear in my window 7 or so times we diverted to Greece! We landed in Thessaloniki, just 35 minutes by plane from Sofia but some 5 hours by coach. Worth mentioning this wasn’t easyJet fault, if there’s bad weather then there’s not much you can do but divert.

Thankfully our destination was Bansko in the South-west of Bulgaria, only 3 hours from Thessaloniki. Our transfer was redirected and, after a long lunch in the airport, we boarded our minibus and headed in to Bulgaria at last.

Rediscovering my skiing abilities

Our first full day in Bansko was an early start after a late night’s eating, drinking and dancing in a traditional Bulgarian restaurant. We headed to the slopes with our newly acquired ski gear. So far none of the original feelings of skiing had returned. I wobbly in my tight boots and clumsily carried my poles and skis with the dexterity of a 1 year old. The sizable queue for the cable cars moved quickly and our group were soon on our way up the mountain. Slowly, as we rose above the town and through the trees, something happened. Slowly remembering how beautiful the views could be, how quiet a cable car ride is and how you feel transported to a world like no other.

Arriving at the slopes this somewhat dissipates as hundreds of people amass at the mountain base near the nursery slopes for us “beginners”. Myself and another journalist, Ann, met with our ski instructor for the morning, the wonderful John from Method Snow School. As our lesson began I really had no idea what I was doing. Snow ploughing was something I vaguely remembered but, thanks to John’s expert tuition, I slowly regained from my memory and put to use.

And then it returned

I’m not sure how it happened, or when exactly it happened, but within just 2 short hours, all those memories of skiing from 17 years ago returned. The excitement of mastering parallel turns, steering a short course from left to right, stopping without falling over! Somehow all that information was still there and I could ski again! Not even the hunger for lunch put me off trekking up the nursery slopes (to beat the queue for the button lift) for another run down the short and crowded incline.

Meeting with the group at lunchtime, I was excited to ski some more. The afternoon was our own time to either explore the town of Bansko or ski some more. By now i was bitten and definitely wanted to ski, but I was keen to see the rest of the slopes, feeling vaguely confident enough to maybe try a blue run and slow speed. Others in the group very kindly offered I join them on a few runs to see how I get on. A mulled wine with my tasty Chicken soup had be ready to tackle the blues.

This is a blue run right?

I was so excited to be heading up further up the mountain to try a blue run. My parallel turning abilities slowly returning, we began to ski down, stopping along the way, one point at which was the top of a rather steep looking section. My friends had told me this was a blue run, it looked pretty steep for a blue run but I was here now and there was no other way down the mountain! So we launched off down the steep slope, gathering speed.

It was then that another remarkable thing happened. My confidence grew with every turn, the faster I skied the more control I had, suddenly the steep (apparently blue) run seemed a breeze and was over all too soon. I went straight for the chair lifts and headed back up to the top with the others. Ready to tackle it once more! The second run was even more enjoyable. Confidence counts for a lot in skiing, not enough of it and you’re as likely to make mistakes as if you have too much of it. Finding your ski feet and feeling in control can make all the difference.

By the end of the afternoon it was as though the last 17 years had never happened. As though I’d been skiing every year. I was well and truly hooked again and felt so at home I was able to ski all the way back to the main cable car base, some 6km, with ease, some finesse and raring to go again the next day!

Bansko skiing day 2

The weather wasn’t so good for day 2 but that didn’t stop me. I ditched the ski school and headed straight for the what I had been told was a blue run. I’d later found out it was in fact a red run! By now I was happy to confidently ski down it 4 times in the morning, stopping for lunch before heading to a different run at lunch time. The afternoon was spent repeating this new red run until annoying they closed the chair lift! Had the place been flood lit I could have happily skied all night.

When I finally returned to base and handed over my ski equipment, it was with a sense of disappointment and pride. Disappointed that I wouldn’t be here tomorrow, skiing some more but filled with pride that I had once again discovered I can ski!

I will ski again soon!

I definitely wont be leaving it another 17 years before I ski again, in fact if I don’t get to ski again this season it would be a shame. Definitely next season if not. Skiing is like no other experience on earth. Not only the action of skiing itself but the environment it takes place in, the beautiful views, the stunning snowy landscapes, the hot mulled wine on the slopes with new friends and yes of course the Apres Ski too.

A massive thank you to Bansko Tourist Information and to easyJet for re-igniting my love of skiing. I can highly recommend Bansko for a great cheap ski holiday. I was lucky enough to experience a range of skiing there, from beginners lessons on the nursery slopes, up to red runs in various places. I’d happily return to do it all again.