Cambodia – a country of contrast and contradiction.

Nothing I’d read or heard before I visited Cambodia could possibly have prepared me for what I was to experience. Pictures, beautiful as they were, never portrayed what I was to see. Words no matter how eloquent could ever have described this fascinating and intriguing country or its people.

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Please bear with me while I give you a bit of background. Cambodia has a very chequered history.

As part of the Angkor Empire from the eleventh century, it suffered sustained attacks from the Vietnamese which ushered in a long period of decline. In 1863 it became part of French Indochina. Following Japanese occupation, during World War 11 Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953.

In April 1975 the communist Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh and evacuated the city. Most of the population was sent into the country to work on the land and in paddy fields, but many were held in prisons by Pol Pot. More than 2 million Cambodians died from execution, forced hardship or starvation under his regime.

In 1978 the Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge into the countryside and started a 10-year occupation setting off 13 years of civil war. UN-sponsored election in 1993 calmed things down, but factional fighting in 1997 ended the first coalition government.

The Khmer Rouge surrendered in 1999 and their remaining leaders still await trial for crimes against humanity. Elections in 2003 led to a new coalition government. National elections in July 2008 were relatively peaceful.

I normally travel on my own, but on this occasion, I chose to join a small group on an escorted tour.  We started our trip in Sien Reap, a bustling city where new hotels and modern shopping malls are springing up all over to cater to their new invaders, tourists! But alongside the world’s banks and glossy apartment blocks sits the old heart of the city with its ancient market and winding river. A walk along its bank and out of the city took me to a barrier which was put in place to hold back the rubbish would otherwise have flowed into the city. And beyond the barrier, the banks are lined with shacks which sit above the water on stilts. This is the Cambodia of today.

 

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But the reason for Siem Reap’s popularity starts a couple of kilometres outside of the city in the area known as Angkor.150 years ago the French discovered in the jungle the remains of some the most spectacular buildings on the planet. No less than 18 temples, some of which were small villages.

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The largest and oldest of these is Angkor Wat. Built in the 12th century, it remains in remarkably good condition mainly due to international assistance in preserving this world treasure. Today it is featured at the centre of Cambodia’s national flag.

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The most amazing of the Angkor temples must be Ta Prohm. Dating back to the 13th century, the buildings have been completely overwhelmed by grotesque silk cotton and fig trees.

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In total contrast, Angkor Tohm remains virtually as it was in the 12th Century. It is huge and is thought to be the original capital city of Angkor. The main building features the four faces of Buddha. No photo could ever do justice to these enormous effigies.

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I visited five temples in two days. I have never climbed and clambered so much in my life! I’ve decided that if the steps I endured are anything like those to heaven I’ll give up being good right now.

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In Cambodia, most children cease to be coddled by the age of four. Only about 30% of them go to school. The remainder are either abandoned to live on the streets or are expected to earn their keep in the family home. This used to involve straightforward begging, but in recent years this has been discouraged, so now the kids stop you at every opportunity to sell their guide book, postcards or bangles. As a salesman myself, I have nothing but admiration for their skill! Generally speaking, they are well turned out and have a grasp of each of the languages they are likely to encounter among the tourists.

A number of charities have been set up to take the kids off the streets both in Sean Reap and the capital Phnom Pehn. Their aim is to give them a basic education and a trade such as car mechanics, plumbing, arts and crafts etc. The public faces of these institutions, however, are the restaurants which have been created to teach children the skills needed in the fast-growing hospitality sector. We visited two such restaurants. Having cooked and hosted myself, I was completely in awe of the way these restaurants performed. The food, the service, the ambience, everything was as good as any first class establishment I’ve visited.

At the centre of every Cambodian community, you’ll find a market. Meat, vegetables, eggs, fruit and fish sit outside in the searing heat. At every turn, your nose is assaulted by a different smell, sometimes disgusting, but often fragrant. Vendors sit either on the ground or in the centre of their tables surrounded by their stock.

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I mentioned at the beginning, the period of rule by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. One reason for visiting Cambodia is to see up close the appalling atrocities inflicted on the Cambodians during that time. We took a flight down to Phnom Penh where we visited S21, one of over 100 Khmer Rouge prisons. It was created from a large school which was abandoned when the residents of Siem Reap were driven out of the city. Here prisoners were held for various reasons. Many had been accused of taking part in anti-Khmer Rouge activities; others were prominent people who were thought to have information useful to Pol Pot. Some had simply refused to leave the city. Here they were interrogated and tortured by soldiers who in most cases were between just ten and seventeen years old, young enough to be brainwashed and drawn into the Khmer cause. The accommodation was either in large rooms where one prisoner would be shackled to a bed, or in classrooms which were crudely converted to tiny individual cells created from brick or the wood from school benches and desks.

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When their captors felt that were no longer of use to them they were taken to a nearby killing field where they were murdered and thrown into mass graves.

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Babies and young children were beaten to death against the trunk of the killing tree which stands today as a reminder of those awful times. It’s a sobering thought that this was going on just 40 years ago during many of our lifetimes.

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Landmines have become synonymous with Cambodia. More than 10 million were planted by the Khmer Rouge and at least 6 million still remain undetected, all these in a country with a population of just 11 million. It is a sad statistic that 98% of those killed or maimed by these devices have been civilians. People with missing limbs are a common sight wherever you go.

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The royal palace with its surrounding buildings is truly spectacular. After days of visiting ancient black and grey temples, the bright colours of the buildings came as quite a surprise!

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I’ve written far more than I would normally after a holiday, and added lots more photos!  If you’ve stuck with me this far, I thank you most sincerely. I could have written several more pages but I won’t push my luck!

 

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India – The Golden Triangle

Unfortunately, I didn’t keep a diary of my trip from Delhi to Agra and Jaipur, but I did manage to find a few of my photographs!

 

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Samos, an unspoilt Greek island

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Samos is a small unspoilt Greek island – just fifty miles by eleven. It sits in the Aegean Sea, a stone’s throw from Turkey. It’s the birthplace of Pythagoras, home of Poseidon, god of the sea, Dionysus and Apollo – and me, of course, every now and again!

 

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It is rich in ancient archaeological sites. At every turn, one comes across another treasure, from the amazing Roman bathhouses to important early Christian churches and burial grounds.

 

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Samos is a lush green island which suffered a devastating fire thirty years ago. The result has been a re-growth of flora and fauna the like of which is unequalled amongst the other Greek islands. The deep brown soil land is rich in olive trees, fruit and vegetables. Butterflies and exotic birds abound.

 

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As if God had splattered
flecks of yellow and red
on a canvas of green
And released a thousand butterflies
to fancify the scene
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I love to dine on moussaka, stuffed vine leaves, kleftiko, kebabs and of course Greek salad, tzatziki and taramasalata.
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Fishing is the lifeblood of the island.
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Let’s go for a wander.

 

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On my last night, I love to sit in an overstuffed armchair outside Gregor’s bar and look out across the still water in the harbour

 

As I looked out into the night
memories of days before
played out in my mind
A full moon looked back
I’m sure I heard it say
please come back another day.
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So often, however, the calm is disturbed by the affable and eccentric Kapitan Jainnus and his boatload of clapping passengers dancing and swaying to Zorba the bloody Greek! As I had to put up with it each day, I thought it only fair that you dear reader should experience it too!
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Luxor, Egypt. If only walls could talk…

Egypt has put up with a lot since it came into being in 3150 BC. Having originally been ruled by the Pharaohs, it was later to become Persian. Then Alexander the Great came and conquered Egypt and so its Greek period started. Then along came the Romans! This chequered history has, of course, provided Upper Egypt with a wealth of history, traces of which today litter the landscape. I chose to visit Luxor in order to visit many of the sites which have earned this region the title ‘the world’s greatest open-air museum’.  Join me as I give you an idea of what I experienced.

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I’ve seen temples in most of the countries I’ve visited. But the temples I saw in and around Luxor took me to another level! It’s hard if not impossible to appreciate the fact that these enormous sanctuaries were constructed not just centuries ago, but thousands of years ago. Luxor temple, for instance, was founded in 1400BC.

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I’m not going to bore you with loads of historical facts and dates. To be honest, I had trouble in getting all the dates and names into my head, so whenever a guide looked at me whilst spouting facts plentiful, I just stroked my chin, nodded my head and tried to look intelligent! Take a wander around Luxor Temple with me, and whilst you do so imagine if you will that until the late 19thcentury most of what we see was completely buried beneath the ground.

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There is no doubt that what has so far been uncovered is but the tip of the iceberg, and excavation is still going on today as it will into the far future. There was originally an avenue of sphinxes all the way from Luxor Temple to the Karnack temples some three miles away. Both ends have now been excavated and work is ongoing to eventually uncover the whole road.

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The Karnack temple complex is the most visited site in all of Egypt. It was started by Ramses 11 who reigned from 1391–1351 BC. All of the temples in Egypt were originally brightly painted. It would be wrong of course to use modern paints today to renovate the pillars and walls. Whilst they have some idea of how the paints were made they’ve not yet discovered the secret ingredient that prevents the colours from washing away when it rains for that single day every year! Here endeth the facts! Come for a stroll.

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Queen Hatshepsut temple butts the mountainside was commissioned by Augustus in 15BC. Climbing all those steps in the midday sun was sheer torture!

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Halfway through my holiday, I decided to set off down (or was it up?) the Nile. The River Nile is the world’s longest river measuring over 4000 miles. I was surprised to learn that only about 20% of the river actually flows through Egypt. The country is almost entirely desert, but alongside the Nile, there are wide fertile banks on which crops grow and cattle graze. I travelled in a floating palace known as the M/S Orchid. It was great!

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It chugged along past village after village whilst feeding me scrumptious food and quenching my thirst with flavoursome beers. We even had tea and cakes at sundown! It was a long day from the misty moisty morning until sunset. My arm ached from waving at the ebullient children who rushed to the river bank as we passed. Hardly surprising that the God of the River Nile is known as Hapi! There was a swimming pool on board which was filled with screaming splashing kids for the whole 12 hours. I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d been happier playing with youngsters at the riverside, but I resisted the urge to get them to walk the plank!  Anyway, swallow a sea sick pill and come with me; sorry I can’t offer you a beverage!

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Needless to say, we managed a quick stop off to visit another temple (surprise surprise!) This time it was a Greek one, Dendur temple, and it had a roof – that’s unusual I‘m told.

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The Valley of the Kings which dates back to 16-11BC was the highlight of my trip. It was here that the tomb of Tutankhamen was found having been there for some 4000 years.  His tomb is in fact quite modest compared to the other 63 so far discovered. This was the final resting place of the Kings of Egypt; a valley in the mountains on the west bank of the river Nile. Sadly cameras are forbidden (They claim that the flashes would harm the paint –  mmmm) So, I’ve nicked a couple of pictures from another site to give you an idea what I saw.

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We also visited the Valley of the Queens which as its name implies is the burial site of the wives of the Kings. Again, photography not allowed! 

I mentioned in my preamble that I spent some time wandering around Luxor. I have to say that I’m not one for lounging around the pool. It bores me. The smells, the sounds and the sights I experienced downtown will remain with me forever. From the donkey carts to the meat stalls; the shoemakers to the vegetable sellers.Flags strung across streets and brightly coloured washing hanging from balconies. And of course the heat – it reached 45 degrees every day, that’s 115 degrees in old money. Ready? Then off we go.

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I didn’t take lots of photos of my hotel, lovely as it was. But I did take a couple from the bar, after all, it was the best place to sit (because of the view of course!) This is what I saw.


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I was of course in the wrong part of Egypt for the pyramids. I may go there one day, I don’t know. My abiding image of them is a picture I saw recently which showed a branch of McDonald’s alongside one of those great monuments! I can just imagine the menu – Pharaoh Burger and McRamses fries and Tutan Cola!

Thanks for joining me on my trip. I can only hope it has inspired you to go there too. As I write this the sun is going down in my little corner of England. Minutes before I left the hotel for the airport I leaned on the wall beside the swimming pool and took a picture of the very same sun setting across the Nile.

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La bella Roma

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Rome is steeped in history; mainly and unsurprisingly a history of its Roman ancestors, their achievements and culture. But if you are expecting me to deliver a history lesson you’ll be disappointed! I managed to retain a few key facts from the constant avalanche of information which could have buried me had I allowed it. So instead of cramming my brain with statistics, specifics and actualities, I set out to enjoy it for what it is today rather than delve too deeply into how it happened. I hope you’ll forgive me!

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I only had a limited amount of time to see as much as I could; five days to be precise. I chose to take a city tour on a hop-on-hop-off open-topped bus on the first day. That I thought would help me get my bearings. My first impression of Rome was how compact it is; quite small I fact. Not only that, there are no modern buildings at all in the city centre, so different from cities such as London where glass and steel shards punctuate the skyline above the elegant buildings of former times.

I only did a couple of ‘hop-offs’, the first of which to see the Fontana di Trevi – it sounds much nicer in Italian.

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It is of course immortalised in the movie Three Coins in a Fountain. It was packed! There were crowds of people; something which I was to have to get used to on my Roman adventure! I threw a few coins over my shoulder into the rippling water and made a wish which I’ll keep private! Someone offered to take my photo. Now I’m not one for having my picture taken, but on this occasion I accepted. Make the most of it, it didn’t happen again!

Quick facts 1 – It was completed in 1762 and the central figure is Neptune, god of the sea. EOL (end of the lesson!)

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The Coliseum was literally a few minutes stroll from my accommodation. It was a pleasant stroll too which took me through a lovely park. I rounded a corner and quite unexpectedly, the Coliseum was right in front of me beyond some trees. I had expected it to be big, but the sheer enormity of it took my breath away. It’s probably one the most recognised buildings on the planet, but none of the photos I’d seen through the years could possibly have prepared me for what I encountered. I was however prepared for the crowds! There were hundreds of people there taking pictures of each other, queuing for tickets and generally getting in my way! However, I did a few circuits then ventured inside. It was unbelievable. I don’t think my photos really do it justice. At least with a bit of help from my editing suite editing, I managed to erase the swarms of people in bright coloured clothes which would otherwise have detracted from the scene. Just 20% of the original building stands but it is fairly easy to get an impression of how it would have looked both above and below the arena floor.

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Quick facts 2 – It was completed in 80 AD and only took eight years to build. It could accommodate 55,000 spectators who entered the building via 80 entrances. Above the ground are four stories. The lowest story was preserved for prominent citizens and ladies. Below ground were rooms with mechanical devices and cages containing wild animals. The cages could be hoisted, enabling the animals to appear in the middle of the arena. 

The Scalinata Della Trinità dei Monti, (get me!) better known as the Spanish Steps at the Piazza di Spagna were I have to say a little underwhelming given the fame they enjoy. Basically, there are lots of steps (obviously!) which take you up and up and up, dodging seated people, to the Trinità dei Monti, a French-style church.

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Quick facts 3 – It was completed in 1723. There are twelve different but symmetrical flights of steps, 137 steps in all. EOL

I spent the best part of a day at the Vatican, and it was worth every minute. I was warned about the long queue I would have to endure, mainly by the hordes of eager sales folk who try to sell overpriced guided tours which they claim allow you to ‘skip the line’. Well, there was a very long line, halfway around St Peters Square in fact, but it fairly trotted along, and I got to the front in twenty minutes or so. But whilst winding my way forward I was able to take in the magnificence and grandeur of my surroundings, something I’d have missed if I had indeed skipped the line!

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My first stop was the viewing platform atop the cupola or dome of St Peter’s Basilica. I had a choice of taking a lift part way, but instead, I opted for climbing the whole way up the staircase which got narrower and steeper as it rose! Thankfully there was one stopping point, and that was on the church roof behind the row of statues which stare down at the square. Needless to say, the view from the top was wonderful.

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The Vatican sits at the top of a hill, and the added height afforded by the dome provides one with an unbelievable panoramic view of Rome. After descending I spent a considerable amount of time in the basilica which is I understand the largest church in the world.  Words cannot possibly express how glorious it is.

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Quick facts – 4. The dome was designed by Michelangelo. There are 551 steps to the top. The staircase is situated between the inner and outer shells of the dome, so the walls are quite slanted. The Egyptian obelisk in the centre of the square was transported to Rome in 37 AD. 

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Now I’m not as you may have gathered, one for museums.  So with it was some trepidation and a premature yawn that I entered the Musei Vaticani. One reason for doing so was that traipsing through the museum is the only way to get to the Sistine Chapel which is at the very end of your trek. But my goodness, I’m so glad I went in. My eyes were immediately assaulted by brightly painted ceilings. I wandered through galleries of incredible sculptures, pictures, carpets, maps and artefacts the like of which I have never seen before and am unlikely to see anywhere else in the world. Whilst the exhibits are mainly ancient there is a little light relief in the modern sacred art section which held me spellbound for ages.

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When you actually get to the Sistine Chapel you find yourself in quite a small building. It was packed. I was shoulder to shoulder with other members of the shuffling crowd, everyone straining their necks to take in the magnificence of Michelangelo’s ceiling. Speaking is strictly forbidden, although gasping was hard to police! Also, photography was inexplicably not disallowed. I guess they just want to sell more postcards and picture books. so I shelled out 99c for a card and photographed that instead!

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Then it was just a matter of leaving the museum by the world famous Vatican staircase and out into the beautiful gardens where I sat for ages trying to take in everything I had seen and experienced.

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Quick facts 5 – The tour takes about five hours to complete. The staircase was designed in 1932 by Giuseppe Momo and consists of a double helix, one leading up and one leading down. 

One night when I arrived back at my room after an exhausting day walking in the heat of the sun, I flung open my shutters and was suddenly aware of music and laughter coming from the gardens across the way. I decided to investigate! I followed the noise and found myself alongside a basketball court where dozens of couples were busy dancing the tango! I should add that this was 11.30 at night. It was quite bizarre! I watched for ages and when I eventually returned to base at about 1am it was still going strong. I closed my shutters, fell asleep and when I got up in the morning they had gone!

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 Light relief from the hustle and bustle of Rome can be found high up on a hill in the peaceful setting of the Pincio Gardens. It covers a vast area and everywhere you look you see flowers and small sculpted busts – 228 in all, created in the late 19th century and portraying the good and the great of Roman history. I was able to enjoy live jazz music and indulge in not one but two huge portions of gelato; Italian ice cream. At its centre is a really impressive water clock. 

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At the southernmost end of the gardens, you can lean on a balustraded wall and stare out across the city with the Vatican in the distance. Truly wonderful. I spent ages there. Down below is the vast Piazza del Popolo.  In the middle of the square stands an Egyptian obelisk and at one end the stunning Fontana Della Dea di Roma (there I go again!) – Fountain of the goddess of Rome.

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Quick fact 6 – Italian architect Giuseppe Valadier laid out the gardens from 1810 until 1818 in a classical style. The 3300-year-old obelisk in the square was taken from the Sun Temple in Egypt by Emperor Augustus and transported to Rome in the 10th century.

At first sight, the Roman Forum looks little more than a vast area of ruins and piles of stone blocks, but with a bit of imagination and a guide map, it is just possible to see in your mind the Roman Empire coming back to life. The forum was littered with temples, basilicas and triumphal arches. Alongside is Palatine Hill where I walked past and through ruins of ancient palaces and other buildings. At the southern end of the site, I saw Circus Maximus which was the venue for Rome’s famous chariot races.

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Quick fact 7 – The Forum Romanum was the centre of activity and the political heart of Rome from 509 BC, and remained so until the fall of the Roman Empire more than 1000 years later. On Palatine Hill, the twins Romulus and Remus were supposedly found in the Lupercal Cave by their four-legged shepherd mother, who raised them.

 Before visiting the Victor Emmanuel Monument I was told that it’s not considered to be one of Rome’s most beautiful structures. They say it’s too white and looks like a wedding cake! Well, I thought it was stunning.

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Quick fact 8 – It was built as a tribute to the first king of a united Italy, Victor Emmanuel II. The tomb of the Unknown Soldier is guarded by soldiers at the top of the steps. It was inaugurated in 1911. 

In-between visiting these awesome places I also flitted to, from and around most of Rome’s major venues. Here we go!

The Pantheon was built more than 1800 years ago. The name Pantheon refers to the building’s original function as a temple for all the gods.

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One afternoon the heavens opened. I’ve never seen rain like it! The street sellers suddenly change from tempting young couples with romantic red roses and produced umbrellas instead!

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However, I remained undaunted and walked to Piazza Navona which is said to be the most beautiful of Rome’s many squares. I couldn’t understand why. OK, it’s nice. There are three fountains and a lovely Baroque church. There was a jazz band playing between downpours and the whole place was lined with trattorias.

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I used the Metro quite a bit; modern stations, crowded but comfortable trains and plenty of them. Now again a train appeared totally covered in graffiti!

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The church of Santa Maria Della Vittoria was just up the road from my B&B. It’s a small baroque church situated at Piazza San Bernardo, opposite the Fountain of Moses. It’s best known for ‘The ecstasy of Teresa’, one of Bernini’s most dramatic works

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I walked along the banks of the River Tiber. It was so quiet down there; the busy streets were way above me and I was completely alone. From there I saw the Palazzo GiustiziaCastel Sant Angeles and got a wonderful view of St Peter’s Basilica from a completely different angle 

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Apart from all that, I enjoyed the best Italian food I’ve ever eaten! A proper pizza with thin crispy crust covered in gorgonzola mozzarella and chicory, another with anchovies Parmigiano salami and basil, flambéed bucatini with bacon and pecorino cheese, fettuccine with salmon cream, antipasti buffet, and bruschetta Pomodoro. I washed it down with jugs of Vino Rosso Della Casa and Birra alla Spina. And ice cream of course!

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I returned home aching in every muscle I have, and some I didn’t know I had! I’d walked and climbed, hour after hour, day after day. Most days it was baking hot, one day I got soaked. But every day was special and it was worth every painful twinge! In five days I fell in love with Rome!

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South India.

I joined my tour of South India with no preconceptions. Most of the trips I’ve been on in the recent past have promised the wow factor; one sight or experience guaranteed to blow one away whether it be Macho Picchu, Angkor Wat, Mount Everest or Tutankhamen’s  tomb. But this I knew would be different, and it turned out to be one of the most relaxing and memorable group trips I’ve taken part in.

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My trip from Dubai to Chennai landed at a pretty unsociable hour, 2.15 in the morning! During the flight, I’d got myself in the mood by watching the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and now I was ready for whatever accommodation I ended up in! After sitting around until sun-up, I took a hair-raising taxi ride to Mamallapuram which involved high-speed dodging and darting for over an hour. I even had to shell out a few of my recently acquired rupees at three tolls which I was assured were not included in my taxi fare! When I arrived at the Sea Breeze Hotel I was pleasantly surprised until the receptionist pointed out that I was to be accommodated in the annexe down the road. Now I’ve stayed in some very iffy accommodation over the years, but this took the biscuit! Regular power cuts are a feature of Asia and normally hotels, restaurants and shops have generators which cut in automatically. But not at the Sea Breeze Annexe! It seems it broke down some time ago and they’d never got round to sorting it. Add to that cold showers and air con which made a lot of noise but did nothing, it was a worrying start! 

2.JPGHowever, my travelling companions and I managed a very sociable start to our holiday with a fishy meal, followed by a very alcoholic party in the room of our tour guide –something which was to become a nightly event for several of us! Normally I take copious notes which enable me to relate to you, dear reader, the names and dates of the sites we visited, but on this occasion, it dwindled out after a few days so I’ll have to let the pictures tell their own story in many cases!

Mamallapuram; now that was an interesting place. It has it seems, been a sculpture centre since the 5th Century. We walked miles and miles looking at gravity-defying rocks, sculptured friezes and temples which had been hewn from a single rock. Later in the day, I joined the cows on the beach!

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On the third day we drove for several hours to the town of Pondicherry which I’m told has over the centuries been occupied by the Portuguese, Danes, French and of course those land-grabbing Brits! It’s a bustling yet somewhat tired looking market town but fascinating none the less. It also plays host to the Auroville which is an idealistic ‘village’ with roughly 1800 residents from 38 nationalities, mainly Europeans, serving a Divine Consciousness. As you enter you are informed that ‘Auroville aims to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds all politics and all nationalities’. At its unfinished centre is its magnificent gold temple which is designed as a place of contemplation.

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The village operates as a kind of alternative community, subsisting from handicrafts and alternative technology. It is however far from finished and one cannot help wondering if it ever will be! I was reminded of a similar objective undertaken by the tree hugging hippies who flocked to India in the 60’s (no, I wasn’t one of them. The nearest I got to it was climbing trees to get conkers!)

Our next stop was to Madurai which we reached by what was to be the first of several train journeys. Where do I start with Indian trains? Well, the first thing one has to learn is they tend to stop at the station for just two minutes after which they depart whether you are on, half on, or not on at all! Our venerable Health and Safety Department would have a fit if they saw that!

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The train arrives with people clinging to the side, and after 120 seconds of frenzied activity it takes off again! Needless to say, the cleanliness inside the train leaves more than a little to be desired, but it seems to run very efficiently with a constant stream of blokes carrying trays on their heads flogging curries and the like. I’ll tell you more later. Incidentally, the Indian railway is the worlds second biggest employer after the Chinese army!

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Madurai was a fascinating place. It is famous for a temple dedicated to the goddess Meenakshi, one of the re-incarnations of Parvati – Shiva’s consort. 

The Meenakshi Temple is one of the finest and largest examples of Dravidian architecture, has an estimated 33 million sculptures and is always a hive of activity. The most fascinating features of the temple are its musical pillars, each of which is carved out of a single block of granite and each when tapped let out a musical note. Then there is the Hall of a Thousand Pillars, part of which was converted into a museum filled with sculptures and antique treasures. (Confession time – I hadn’t committed all that to memory – I cut and pasted it from the trip notes!). 

We saw several weddings whilst there with worried-looking very young brides clearly anxious about what they were letting themselves in for! Oh, and the hotel we stayed in in Madurai wasn’t at all bad!

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Where next? Oh yes, Varkala in Kerala. We travelled there by an overnight train on which I had a compartment to myself whilst each of the others was occupied by up to four of my companions. I’m still wondering if they were trying to tell me something! I say I was alone but that’s not strictly true as I was entertained all night by two mice which were determined to rob me of as much sleep as they could. 

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I suppose you could call Verkala a seaside resort because it boasts one of the finest beaches I’ve seen since I was in Barbados. The whole length of the beach is fronted by magnificent red cliffs atop sit colourful shops and laid-back cafes. I have to admit that the never-ending steps down the beach and back were a bit hard work!

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There is no town centre as such and the many hotels and guest houses are spread out along narrow mud roads and passageways. Our place even had a pool! I’m not normally one for chilling out, but this place was so special that even I managed to relax.

21A trip by tuctuc, train and boat took us our next destination, Alleppey.Our little craft dropped us right outside a very pretty bungalow which was to be our homestay for the next two days as the guest of its delightful owner (her name sadly escapes me) It was all a bit basic with cold showers and doors which didn’t lock, but it was pleasant enough. 

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This part of the state of Kerala is mainly water. Several large lakes are linked by canals, both man-made and natural. Apparently, they are known as ‘backwaters’ because during the monsoon season water flows down from the surrounding mountains and out to sea, whilst in the dry season the sea water flows ‘back’ again! I don’t know if that’s true – our guide told me about it at one of our nightly rum drinking parties so I’d take it with a dash of salt (or coke!) Anyway, I do know that much of the land has been reclaimed and small communities live in narrow little settlements out amongst the canals. The area is served by water buses which carry the kids to school and everyone else to their destinations.

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29We spent a wonderfully relaxing day on a houseboat watching the paddy fields, coconut palms and fishermen go by whilst working our way through a chest full of cold beer and eating a fabulous meal cooked in the boats diminutive kitchen.

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About transport. Obviously, the easiest and cheapest way to get around is in one of those little black and yellow autos. But my favourite way to go is in a Hindustan Ambassador taxi which started production in 1958 and it’s still rolling off the production line today. It was of course originally the Morris Oxford.

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Another train took us to our final stop, Fort Kochi. This lovely place is home to an artistic community with artisan cafes and galleries.

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The air is filled with filled with the smell of spices, and it boasts the oldest christian church in India, St Francis’s, which in its time has been used by Roman Catholics, Dutch Protestants and Anglicans .It also hosts a Jewish community which has its own small but perfectly formed synagogue.

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Spot the cow!

It was here we saw the famous fishing nets which feature in so many images of Kerala.

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Hungry or thirsty? Take a look at some of the delicious food we enjoyed from basic breakfasts to freshly caught fish!

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Thanks must, of course, go to Geckos Adventures and our genial host Vishi who informed and entertained us as well as hosting a nightly mini-party in his room!

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A Taste of Scotland

Not so long ago my daughter Penny and her husband Martin packed their bags and moved five hundred miles north to Scotland. I’ve visited several times in and around their new home in the Trossachs National Park near Loch Lomond and not too far from Glencoe. I never fail to be amazed by the beautiful landscape that unfolds before me. I’ve taken many hundreds of photos, and after spending many hours sorting through them, I have chosen those I feel best to represent my experience – so far!

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Rob Roy’s grave!

 

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Morocco

The image I had of Morocco was very much drawn from movies such as Lawrence of Arabia, Jewel of the Nile and of course Casablanca. But many people told me there was so much more to this ancient country than appeared on the silver screen. I’d met many people who had travelled there and one descriptive word kept cropping up when relating tales of their visits; ‘colourful’. I just had to see it for myself, so I joined a group of other curious travellers and set off across this fascinating land.

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After a little investigation, I discovered that Al Maghrib, the Arabic name for Morocco, means far west, or where the sun sets. When Arabs first arrived in northern Africa in the seventh century Morocco was believed to be the westernmost point in the world.

We started in journey Casablanca. When I read our itinerary I wondered why we were only spending a part of one day there. Surely this legendary place was worth more than that. But it soon became clear. In a way, it is a shame we started there because I don’t think I’ve ever been more disappointed with the beginning of a holiday as I was right then. It’s a mixture of run-down old and ugly modern. Its streets are choked bumper to bumper with fuming traffic. I saw no one who vaguely resembled Ingrid Bergman or Humphrey Bogart! It’s one saving feature was the subject of our only visit in Casablanca; the amazing Mosque of Hassan 11 opened just 20 years ago. Some say when you have seen one mosque you’ve seen them all! But this is different. It’s huge. In fact, there is only one larger and that’s at Mecca. From its massive roof which can be slid open, to its titanium decorated walls it’s truly a modern work of art. The cost of building it has never been disclosed; it’s thought it may about four times the already mind-boggling official figure due to anonymous funding.

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My initial disenchantment was swiftly reversed when we went to the capital of Morocco, Rabat. We started high up on a hill from where we got our first view of this amazing place.

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Once inside the city, we saw numerous Arab monuments and the remains of the citadel in the area known as Chellah with its magnificent gardens and squawking storks.

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We wandered around the walled quarter known as the Kasbah des Oudaias. Suddenly I was surrounded by the colour I’d heard so much about!

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Volubilis was once a provincial Roman capital. It sits atop a high plateau near Meknes and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. We chose an exceptionally hot day on which to visit somewhere which is completely exposed with no shade whatsoever and miles of walking and climbing to be undertaken! 42c. it was or 108 in old money. But my goodness it was worth every bead of sweat. I’ll let the pictures do the talking (and the walking) It makes me hot just writing about it!

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Back in Meknes, we wandered through the charming narrow shaded streets of the old medina. It was quiet and relatively cool. At its centre, we spent some time at the Bou Inania Medresse, a religious school where the intricate wall carvings and its colourful patterned tiled square were quite remarkable.

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No matter which way you look in Morocco, your eyes are assaulted by the bright colours of decorated tagines and patterned carpets. We watched artisans applying pigments in intricate patterns, and weavers throwing bobbins back and forth. We saw metalworkers sitting on some steps making pots and pans

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Fes is the spiritual heart of Morocco. Medieval Fes was once one of the world’s most important centres of education and culture, both Islamic and Jewish. This was what really what I’d hoped to see and I wasn’t at all disappointed. It’s noisy, vibrant fascinating and overwhelming – a visual and pungent assault on the senses. We were based in the elegant French influenced Nouveau Ville area. We visited the old city known as Fes el Bel which is arguably the planet’s most fascinating and confounding old city.  We strolled through its traffic-free streets, just stepping aside now and again to avoid being run down by a donkey transporting goods to one of the hundreds of little shops.  We walked past historic khans, medresses and looked out over its famous leather dye pits and tanneries.

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Fes is on the Atlantic coast and its beaches are packed with people and sunshades! My lasting impression will however be the amazing sand filled air which hangs above the sea.

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Whilst alcohol is freely available in large restaurants, it is not so in the smaller and far nicer cafes that spread out onto the street. But they are an enterprising lot and in places we chose to eat on a couple of occasions, a request for a cola accompanied by a tap on the side of the nose produced of a bottle of red wine in large Coke bottle!

The next morning we boarded the famous Marrakesh Express for a days’ train ride.

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On arrival in Marrakesh we settled into our accommodation which was a beautiful Riad, and we had it all to ourselves. A Riad is a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard. Ours was on three levels with spacious rooms surrounding the centre area. The four slender palm trees which stood in the cntre reached up into the bright blue yonder!

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On our first afternoon we paid a visit to Jemaa el Fina, one of the largest public open spaces in the world and home to snake charmers, story tellers, fire eaters and musicians.

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One of the most bizarre market stalls I’ve ever seen was one selling made to order sets of false teeth!

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The following day we set off to the old medina where we visited the stunning Bahia Palace with its inner courtyards fragrant with orange blossom and delicate flowers. The rest of the day we meandered through the narrow streets of the medina, strolled through the ancient bazaar and returned to Jemaa el Fna  to watch the sun set.

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We ate some wonderful food; Moroccan fare is far more varied than I could have possibly imagined. Of course, tagine and couscous abounds, but so many other dishes share the exotic fragrant spices. The smell of cumin, smoke and mint waft on the breeze around every corner.

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I took hundreds of pictures, and deciding which ones to use has been a bit  problematical! I can’t finish without  including a few more.

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I visit Nepal

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We travelled by coach, taxi, elephant, light aircraft, dugout canoe, bicycle, tuctuc and rickshaw. We stayed in two hotels, a jungle lodge, a guest house and a monastery. We walked, crawled, tripped, slipped, shuffled and climbed.

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I recently returned from a trip to Nepal and needed another holiday to get over it, but those 12 days were some of the most interesting, inspiring and enjoyable days of my life. I wouldn’t have missed a single minute. We had no tour guides in the traditional sense; instead, we were accompanied by friends and personal contacts of the organiser. The BBC’s Steve Carver. My problem now is to condense this remarkable trip into a few words rather than a book! Join me now as I show you some of the sights, and attempt to convey to you a little of what I experienced.

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Kathmandu is a bustling city. Taxis, rickshaws and motorcycles weave their chaotic path between pedestrians. Shop after shop bulges with colourful rucksacks, hats and trekking gear. Others are stuffed ceiling to floor with pashminas; puppets hang by their strings and money changers sit shoulder to shoulder in its narrow streets. The air is filled with the heady scent of incense, food and petrol fumes. Above, the sun is blotted out by masses of garish posters and flags advertising everything from schools to massage parlours. Ones path is constantly blocked by street sellers. Purse sir, cheap? Wooden elephant one dollar sir? Shoeshine very very good?

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In Kathmandu, we were accompanied by Steve’s friend Surendra, a university professor and historian. He was to be our guide to this fascinating city. He took us high up on a hill to Swayambhunath. There we walked around a 1500-year-old Buddhist shrine known as a stupa. All around were stretched strings of brightly coloured prayers flags and the site was surrounded by spinning prayer wheels.

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Later that day we ventured into the tiny courtyard of a diminutive palace. Thanks to our learned professor, we witnessed the sight of the current Living Goddess peering at us expressionless from an upstairs window. At just six years of age she is no longer considered to be a child. It is thought that her body is processed by the virgin Goddess Kumari. 

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The atmosphere in Durbar Square (every town has one) was totally different. Market traders sit on the ground selling everything from bracelets to vegetables.

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Early one morning we left our hotel before breakfast to take a dramatic flight in a light aircraft to see Mount Everest.

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Later that day we were taken to Pashupatinath where on the banks of the Bagmati River, Hindus and Buddhists cremate their dead on open fires. It was a time of mixed emotions for all of us.

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We saw and did so much in Kathmandu, far more than I can describe here. Suffice to say, it’s a city which excites, enthrals and mesmerises all who visit.

We then travelled to the ancient city of Bhaktapur were we said goodbye to the professor. Bhaktapur is another world heritage site and was the setting for the movie Little Buddha. Within its walls, life goes on at a far slower pace than in Kathmandu. The morning starts with the sound of barking dogs at about 5.30 when the locals rise, and the day ends just after nine in the evening. There are very few cars and motorbikes to disturb the scene. The centrepiece of this beautiful city is the magnificent five-story pagoda devoted to the Goddess Laxmi. In an adjacent square, every inch of space is covered by pottery which has been spun, formed and fired on site.

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It was in Bhaktapur that we experienced a side to Nepal that tourists rarely see. Thanks to Steve’s contacts we were handed over to four teenagers who were to give a glimpse of their lives.

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They led us down dark narrow alleys where tall houses reached up the sky. We stepped through little doorways, up and down steps until we eventually arrived at the home of one of the children She gave us a guided tour of her home, climbing five red mud floors up to the roof. She showed us her bedroom – not a TV of X-Box in site! With no electricity in the house, it was difficult to make out everything, but it was a fascinating visit.

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We were then led out of the back streets and out of the city to be led across lush green fields of wheat and vegetable crops. Eventually, we arrive at a patch of grey mud where the parents of one of the kids were making bricks.

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*Since my visit  Nepal suffered a dreadful earthquake and much of what you see in my pictures of  Bhaktapur has been destroyed

This is perhaps a good time to mention electricity. Nepal has very little manufacturing capacity due to the fact that energy is rationed.; in fact, it is only enjoyed for a few hours each day. We got used to being in our hotel’s rooms or in restaurants only to be plunged into darkness without any warning. If you were lucky, after a few minutes of sitting in the dark you would hear the throb-throb of a generator. It was a constant complaint among some of our group that the power would cut off whilst they were using their hair straighteners and dryers. Not a problem I encountered of course!

I’m not sure where it was, but one evening our friend Mary fancied an Irish coffee; she’d had one on our first night in Kathmandu. The waiter seemed a little unsure about her request so between us we attempted to describe what it was. He went off and returned a few minutes later with a dish of instant coffee granules, a pot of sugar and a tot of whisky!

We had a very long drive to Chitwan National Reserve, about eight ear popping hours on our coach along mountain roads with sheer drops to our side. The vegetation became greener and the temperature rose as we headed south.

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At Chitwan, we booked into a jungle lodge a few steps away from the river bank where the elephants bathe. It was a beautiful tranquil place and we sat an enjoyed a chilled Everest beer whilst the sunset deep into the jungle. The next day proved to be far from relaxing! We kicked off with a trip down the river on dugout canoes. Later we disembarked then set off on a jungle walk.

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Later we were to mount elephants and head into the jungle in search of Rhinos, deer and crocodiles. Sadly we were not to catch a glimpse of the ever elusive tigers! I have to say that it was the most uncomfortable form of transport I’ve ever used, but what we saw more than made up for the pain.
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Our eighth day took us to Lumbini, another world heritage site. By now we had been joined by a friend of Steve’s who is a Buddhist monk. Losan, his name. He was to be our guide to this ancient and revered place. Our accommodation was in a monastery were boys as young as nine train to be monks. Lumbini is the location of Buddha’s birth and a place of pilgrimage to devotees from all over the world. There we saw the actual spot where Buddha is said to have been born. And under a huge tree, we witnessed monks and worshipers sitting in quiet meditation.

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There are several temples surrounding the area the most notable that built by the Chinese. There we were to watch monks chanting in prayer. Before we left, Losan sat with those of us who wished to meditate.


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bOur next destination was Pokhara. This has to e the nearest Nepal has to a resort! At its centre is the wonderful Lake Fewa home to boats birds and snake charmers. There are at least 150 bars and restaurants many of which sit on the edge of the lake.

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I remember one particular evening. I was sitting with Myra enjoying the peace and tranquillity as the sun began to set over the mountains. The bar had a little resident dog which lay contentedly at our feet. On the bank just in front of us a man sat on a rock contemplating the scene. The dog rose to its feet and stretched. It then sauntered over to the man, cocked its leg and peed all over him. Then it strolled back and lay down again – a picture of innocence.  We could hardly contain our laughter, unlike the hapless fellow who could not believe what had just happened.

Whilst in Pokhara, a few of us visited the Gurkha Museum. We left in awe of those brave selfless men who have played such an important role in many a war or conflict.

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Late one afternoon our friends Chris and Mary thought they’d like a trip out onto the lake in a rowing boat. Chris being all man turned down the offer of an oarsman preferring to row himself. Unfortunately, soon after they embarked the weather changed and a fierce wind appeared. Before long they found themselves travelling in the opposite direction to the one in which was frantically paddlingMinutes later they had a narrow escape when a boat carrying ten Indians almost caused a catastrophic collision. Happily, they were rescued by an experienced rower who was able to bring them safely back to shore!

The next morning we went up a mountain to a small mud house where a friend of Steve’s was to lead us in the preparation and cooking of a typical Nepalese meal. Before we set off we visited a market to buy ingredients.

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Our journey most of the way was by minibus, but when the road ran out we were abandoned to continue uphill on foot! It was quite a climb! Once there we washed, chopped, sliced and crushed our vegetables and herbs and in no time at all the wood stove was lit and the most wonderful smell filled the air.

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The meal was a huge success. Soon after we had finished, dense clouds began to envelop us. Then black clouds started scurrying past illuminated by a display of lighting. Suddenly we were in the midst of a ferocious thunderstorm with lashing rain and buffeting wind. We all retired to the house for shelter.

The storm soon passed and we started our slippery and muddy descent down the mountainside.

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Then it was back to where we started. Our flight to Kathmandu was to be with the unlikely named Yeti Airways. We were wondering if it actually existed, but it did and we flew back enjoying our in-flight meal of peanuts and coke!

On our final evening, we all joined together for a farewell dinner in the converted stables of the King’s palace. It was a wonderful multi-dish Nepalese meal, and we were entertained by traditional dancing.

I ‘ll leave you with a few pictures of people!

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