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Born Under a Wandering Star



A personal description of travels around the world.



Updated: 2017-11-29T06:53:51.657+11:00

 



Dambulla, Sigiriya and Polonuwarra, Sri Lanka

2016-09-12T12:53:07.045+10:00

Bas Relief of Charging Elephant, PolonuwarraTravel Date 7th-9th March 2015.Click on any picture to see a larger version.    I started to organise my pictures for draft posts on my recent 'round-the-world trip and realised I had not finished my reports of my 2015 visit to Sri Lanka. As time has passed and the memories fade this will be a pictorial report with a few brief notes to explain some of the pictures and localities. After we left Kandy my driver took me to a spice plantation and factory. It was one of those obligatory stops, like the tea plantation, where the driver hopes for a commission from purchases; sadly for the drivers I rarely buy. I visited a similar establishment in Munnar where similar marvellous claims were made for the products. The tour was mildly interesting and the sales pitch at the end was not too pushy this time. But I still did not buy. These two appeared to be their big sellers; Stula Mardani for "Sliming Magic" (I'm not real keen on being slimed) and Suwa Sampatha (which is also the name of a Sri Lankan Health Insurance company) which claims miraculous improvements in whatever ails you.Later I read some Tripadvisor reports; it seems I got off light and the pushy 'doctor' was off duty when I visited.  I stopped for lunch as we approached Dambulla at a roadside restaurant. The soup looked a bit strange but tasted delicious. Dambulla is an odd mix of new and old. The massive golden seated Buddha looked very new.Monkeys were everywhere and very cheeky as I climbed the combination of steps and rocky slopes to the ancient caves.The climb in 35C (98F) heat was tiring but worth it. I could see why he lay down when he reached the summit.Buddhists apparently believe it is impossible to have too much of a good thing.And even more...Sigiriya in the distance from Dambulla.My driver, Nirmal.My waitress at lunch on the way to Polonuwarra after a night in Sigiriya.Click for a larger picture showing the story of Polonuwarra. I am always annoyed when I have paid to see a site and find pictures are forbidden. These were taken sneakily in the Polonuwarra museum.Wandering the ruins at Polonuwarra, being watched by more monkeys.   On  the way back to Sigiriya for the night I noticed a group watching TV in this open bar outside a hotel. Australia were playing Sri Lanka in the One-Day Cricket.  I spent a pleasant couple of hours enjoying a beer or two and chatting to the other Aussies who had also stopped to watch. We won :) This solitary elephant was thoroughly enjoying a cool paddle in the shallows.    Some day I will probably regret declining the hazardous 1200 steps to see the top of the Lion Rock. But, although my mind still thinks I am 25 my body reminded me I was 68 at the time. It is still pretty impressive from below. I like to stop occasionally just to enjoy the serendipitous occasions when I am reminded of the beauty of nature. These Lotus pads and blossoms were by the road-side en-route to Anuradhapura.Cheers, Alan[...]



Avoiding Mosquito Vector Diseases: Zika, Malaria, Dengue, Yellow fever, West Nile, Ross River and others.

2016-04-15T08:09:46.623+10:00

This will be the first of a few brief posts on keeping healthy while wandering strange lands. The current concern about the spread of the Zika virus was my trigger. I hope these simple ideas help somebody enjoy their travels without fear of being infected by one of the many terrible diseases transmitted via mosquitoes. I am not a doctor, just a traveller. If in doubt about anything I write discuss it with your doctor before acting.While sitting in a doctor's office in shock after hearing the word "leukaemia" in early 2002 I was already making my bucket list. I had been brought up to live frugally and spend responsibly, always saving for a rainy day. I had put off my urge to travel the world but now I reckoned the rain was coming down in buckets. I started planning my first 'round the world trip at in that office.I discovered swiftly I had a new problem apart from finances. I now had a flawed immune system. That meant world travel, exposing myself to foreign bugs and diseases, was rather unwise in the doctor's opinion. I decided that was a risk worth taking, but I also decided to use a bit of common sense.After wandering through more than 50 countries since that day including regions with lots of mosquitoes such as South America, South East Asia, China, India, Egypt and Yucatan I have not caught anything worse than the occasional cold or Delhi Belly. I tend to believe my OCD methods for mosquito protection are a significant part of the reason for my good health.On my earliest trips I asked my doctor to prescribe Malarone. Eventually I discontinued that medication because I am aware of the possible nasty side effects and, although effective for malaria, Malarone would not have helped against other mosquito vector diseases such as these:Yellow FeverDengue FeverRoss River VirusWest Nile VirusZika That is not an exhaustive list. There are many other mosquito vector diseases, some unique to certain countries.For that reason I have developed some standard habits in regions where mosquitoes are a problem. These may seem over-the-top to some, but they have worked very effectively for me.After my morning shower I apply a light skin lotion as a base. Over that, if appropriate to the climate, I apply a sunblock. I finish with a light coating of 80% DEET to all exposed areas, including at least the face, back of the neck, ears, ankles and scalp. That strength of DEET is effective but can also cause skin problems. Applying the skin lotion first allows a more even spread of a thin layer and minimises the side effects.If necessary I repeat the lotion and DEET applications if I have been for a swim or have another shower later in the day. I wear a hat or cap (I am bald, with an excellent landing strip for unseen mosquitoes), long-sleeved shirts and long trousers at dawn and dusk, with as little skin left exposed as is reasonably possible. My clothing is lightweight in the tropics, but not so light that mosquitoes can drill through it. I make sure that there are no mosquitoes in the rooms I stay in and demand insect spray from the proprietors if necessary. I usually have it with me as insect spray is one of the first things I buy in a new country on arrival.  That may seem like a lot of messing about, but it adds only five minutes to my morning routine and lets me wander mosquito regions with confidence. Of course, there are no guarantees. It only needs one mosquito to get through my defences to infect me but that is a risk I have accepted. You must make your own decisions.Some practical points. Although some airlines allow aerosols on board these days I have found some do not. For that reason I use a DEET gel and buy it in tubes of less than 100gm to be sure I have no problems with airport security.  I use Bushman's 80% DEET but any equivalent would do the job. Similarly, if you prefer an aerosol it is better to buy a local insect aerosol on arrival in a country than to try to get one through airport security. I have also found it wise to look for air-conditioned rooms in t[...]



For Lovers of Train Travel

2015-12-07T10:02:54.628+11:00

I was pondering past travels last night and realised I had never collected all the train trips together. I will continue Sri Lanka reports soon but decided to write this while it is fresh in my mind.I grew up in the mid-20th century in New South Wales, Australia when air travel was a rare luxury and rail was the only economical way for us to travel to visit a far-flung family. Christmases were spent in Narrabri, a day and a night to the west via three trains, where Grandfather's house was near the station and I spent hours watching the wheat and other goods trains being shunted in the yards.I loved those trips, back in an era when steam was king and diesel was new. Clickety clack, clickety clack unendingly lulling me to sleep despite the discomfort of seats not designed to be slept in. Opening the window on warm nights and feeling the breeze, then the unheralded sudden darkness and soot in my face as we entered a tunnel at speed with Mum yelling at me to shut the window, the doppler tolling of warning bells as we passed road crossings, the rush to the counter at Railroad Refreshment Rooms to be sure to be served before the train moved on, seeing the beautiful but sometimes harsh countryside of my native land passing by. In the '60s I joined the RAAF as an apprentice and received travel warrants for visits by train on leave twice annually to home, 2000km to the north. Two nights and a day each way, coach class.Next year I am planning another short 'round the world trip. I have already booked The Canadian across the Rockies from Vancouver to Edmonton, followed by the Coast Starlight down the US West Coast from Seattle to Los Angeles. Before Canada I intend wandering Tamil Nadu, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Cuba by train; all brief visits but spending time in trains in each of those countries.      I had not realised how much train travel was in my blood until, during the planning for my next trip, I looked back and listed many of the world's great train journeys included in my travels over the years. Whenever I had to make a choice between air and rail, the train always won unless time made it totally impractical. Links to trip reports are highlighted where appropriate. Some are detailed reports of the trip, some include mention of several trips and a few mention the train trip as part of the report on a city or region. 1950s and '60s. Australia, multiple times on these routes, including returns: Grafton > Sydney or Newcastle (North Coast Mail)Newcastle > Werris CreekWerris Creek > Narrabri (Motor Rail) Inverell > Moree > NarrabriSydney > Melbourne (Spirit of Progress, Southern Aurora, Intercapital Daylight)Grafton > Brisbane1970s-2003    Worked for a living…         2003    Spain    Madrid > Granada2004    Australia    Murwillumbah > Sydney Lament for a lost line.2006    USA    NYC Penn > Buffalo       2008    Egypt    Cairo > Aswan 2010    USA   Washington DC > New York City        “  “    Peru    Puno > Cusco    Andean Explorer  “  “    Peru    Piscacucho > Machu Picchu    Vistadome           2011    UK    Stansted > London    Stansted Express     “  “    UK – France    London > Paris    Eurostar  “  “    France    Paris > Lausanne    Lyria TGV     “  “    France – Switzerland    Lausanne > Visp  “  “    Switzerland    V[...]



Ella to Kandy, Sri Lanka

2015-10-15T10:26:36.241+11:00

One of many valleys between Ella and KandyTravel Date 5th-7th March 2015.Click on any picture to see a larger version.  I enjoyed my relaxed day between travels in Ella but after two nights I was happy to move on early in the morning after breakfast. My driver, Nirmal, turned up on time, the car was clean and comfortable and the overnight rain had cleared. A beautiful day for my trip to Kandy. The scenery was spectacular in spots but the road was narrow and winding, making it difficult to stop to take pictures. The land is hilly, mountainous in parts, green and lush. We stopped for morning tea at this roadside café where my driver knew the owner. It was basic but the tea was good.This was the view when I turned around.About an hour later we passed by this lake and surrounding parks, used as a holiday and recreation area which could have been anywhere in the world. We soon entered the region of endless fields and terraces of  tea plantations.   We stopped for lunch and the obligatory tour at a tea factory. The tour was more interesting than I expected. I visited the Munnar tea museum in Kerala, only 500km away on the south-western tip of India in 2011. The comparisons were interesting.Despite the place being an obvious tourist trap my liquid lunch of soup and tea was quite good and inexpensive.The hotel in Kandy arranged by Mr Sampath back in Colombo (I'll post its name when I find my lost receipt) was a mixed bag. The location by the river was pleasant but far from the centre of town. The place is built on the side of a hill, with at least two flights of steps down to the restaurant or up to the road. The view to the left was a construction site; thankfully they did not work at the times I needed quiet. I took these pics in the bathroom on the morning I left. The shower heater was infested with ants and the shower base was not water sealed, leading to water flowing onto the bathroom floor.     On the plus side the air-conditioner worked well and quietly, the room was large and clean, the bed was comfortable and the food in the restaurant was OK. I've certainly stayed in worse hotels; on balance the pros beat the cons.     I spent most of the next day having a leisurely stroll around central Kandy. The city is overlooked by the obligatory Buddha on the hill.Down-town was surprisingly low-key for a city with a population over 100,000. I didn't notice any skyscrapers, in fact very few buildings more than four storeys tall. There were a few remnants of the British era, such as the Queens Hotel. I contemplated having lunch there until I discovered the price was more suited to Royalty than my budget. This is a view of the hotel, a past British Governor's residence, across Kandy's central lake. Instead I had a pleasant soup and beer on the first-floor balcony of a down-town bar where I could watch the cricket as well as the locals passing by below.  Elephants appear often in religious sites in pictures, statues and bas relief form. They were a very important part of the culture, protected by royal decree before the arrival of the British. All elephants were the property of the king. Sri Lankan elephants were prized as war animals in ancient times as far afield as Greece, with special ships constructed for the trade. The British changed the rules; prizing crops over elephants and encouraging culling of the beasts to protect crops. One of many acts leading to resentment in that era.In the late afternoon I attended a performance by dancers and musicians near the Royal Palace. The dance and music were fascinating, suitably loud and active, but the enjoyment was diminished by the packed non-air-conditioned hall being poorly ventilated on a 37C (100F) steamy day. Within minutes of arrival I was melting. Unfortunately, taking pictures was difficult in the crowd. This is the best of a blurry set: As the brief tropical twilight arrived I visited the Temple of the[...]



Sri Lanka: Colombo To Ella by Train

2015-08-09T17:09:09.687+10:00

 Travel Date 3rd March 2015.Click on any picture to see a larger version.   After a pleasant breakfast in the WTC restaurant I checked out of City Beds and strolled to the station. Platform 3 was nearest to the street. I'm not sure what happened to platforms 1 and 2. I was half an hour early and enjoyed relaxing on one on the few seats on the platform, watching the trains arrive and depart with the local commuters. I was looking forward to the trip because of good reviews on the web. I was not disappointed with the scenic ride but the quality of the carriage and seating left a bit to be desired.I had booked an air-conditioned 1st class seat in the Observation Car. The carriage and seats had seen far better days long ago. This and open windows was the air-conditioning:  I did not really mind as the fare was cheap (about 1000 rupees) and the temperature cooled as we climbed into the hills. The open windows were also better for camera shots. This was a passing commuter train near Colombo:We passed several large towns in the first couple of hours after departing Colombo.  Gradually the size of the towns diminished and became frequent small villages. Occasionally the village was a collection of shanties beside the tracks.    I'll let the pictures describe the rest of the journey to Ella as we slowly wound our way into the hills, with pastures giving way to rugged mountains, then becoming hilly tea plantations, then more mountains and valleys until the next group of plantations and villages appeared.    The observation car was an excellent choice for viewing and photographing the passing scene.  The only sour note for the day was the arrival of a noisy party of German tourists a few hours into the journey. They were very forceful and loud about sitting specifically in their reserved seats when others were free and enjoyed loud discussions among themselves for the time they were on board. Thankfully they alighted only a few stops further on. I'm not sure Sri Lanka's mothers would be happy with their school boards; all of the groups of students I saw, both girls and boys, were wearing white. I can just imagine the laundry loads. More future first class cricketers.  After a very pleasant trip I arrived at Ella two hours late in the dark. I was very pleased to see my driver, Nirmul, waiting for me at the station to take me to the hotel arranged by the tour salesman back in Colombo. Until that moment I was not sure the driver or the hotel would actually appear. I rarely saw a fat Sri Lankan. One of the reasons has to be their love of slopes, hills, and stairs coupled with a reluctance to install elevators in rural hotels. I had to climb the equivalent of two flights to the Rawana Hotel reception, then another two to my room in the section at the top of this picture.      It was a pleasant room but I moved downstairs the following morning to save that climb.   Ella was a pleasant small village. Backpackers like it as a central location to hike to local peaks. I enjoyed it as a relaxing village to chat to people, wander the streets and kerbside markets and drink a beer or a coffee while watching the locals in their daily activities.    I had seen “rice and curry” signs outside many restaurants since arriving in Sri Lanka but, as a diabetic on a low-carb diet had avoided ordering it. I decided to give it a try on my final night in the Rawana Hotel. What a delicious surprise; this is the serve for one person. The curry is in the small dish on the right, the rice is in the larger bowl on the left and all the other dishes are various small portions of delicacies to selectively add to the curry and rice. I used minimal rice but enjoyed “rice and curry” for my main meals in Sri Lanka from that day on.  Cheers, Alan [...]



Colombo, Sri Lanka

2015-08-09T13:24:46.026+10:00

Colombo World Trade Centre Twin TowersTravel Dates 1st-3rd and 11th-12th March 2015.Click on any picture to see a larger version.   I arrived at Colombo Airport refreshed after a good night’s sleep between flights at Kuala Lumpur KLIA2. The Tune hotel was a vast improvement on its cramped and basic predecessor at the old LCCT terminal. The price is a little higher but there is no longer a requirement to pay extra for basic necessities such as towels and soap. Layout was similar to a standard Ibis hotel but there was one significant omission for an airport hotel: no telephone in the room meant no wake-up call service. I could not rely on the faint alarm on the cheap watch I bought in a Laos market after I left my phone in Luang Prabang. I improvised by leaving the netbook plugged in with an alarm set to be sure I would wake on time for my morning flight.At the time an Australian dollar equalled 103 Sri Lankan Rupees. I used 100:1 as a rough rule of thumb for price comparisons; thus 1000LKR = AU$10.  The contrast with communist Laos was startling on arrival. The immigration officer hardly looked at my US$35 pre-paid e-visa, then swiftly stamped my passport and cheerfully welcomed me to his country as he handed me a promotional brochure for the Dialog tourist sim card.  There is a cheap bus from the airport to the centre but it was humid and hot outside so I decided not to try the public transit system this time. I paid 3000 rupees to the taxi arranger in the arrivals area. The car was a clean modern hybrid. As we left the driver held his hand out and yelled “300 rupees”. I cannot speak Sinhalese and that seemed to be the extent of his English. As I had paid for the trip in advance I could not see why I should pay more. He repeated the request several times without success then, obviously upset, drove past the on-ramp to the motorway and headed to the coast road. It was one of those serendipity occasions. If he had spoken English I would have asked him to take the back roads and scenic route. Later I discovered the motorway toll was 300 rupees. I enjoyed the interesting ride through the residential suburbs with much of the journey beside the canal. The One-Day-International Cricket World Cup was on in Australia at the time, with Sri Lanka a major contender.  Kids playing cricket on improvised pitches was a sight I saw often during the trip.I discovered that hybrids may be wonderful cars for fuel economy but in Colombo’s heat and humidity his air-conditioner could not cope when we were stopped at intersections. Possibly he had it set that way, because the hybrid cab I took back to the airport two weeks later did not have the same problem.Finding the City Beds Regent Hotel was difficult and stopping in front of it impossible. The driver spent a lot of time on his phone after I provided the hotel’s number, eventually dropping me around the corner where I was met by the hotel receptionist. I decided quickly I would find a different hotel when I returned before my departure from Sri Lanka. My review is on Booking.com dated March 6th: Comfortable bed, cramped room, typical Sri Lankan en-suite. Ten days later, after experiencing four more Sri Lankan hotels I would probably have been a bit kinder.Despite the standard of the hotel the location was perfect for my purpose: near the station and close to the centre of town. I spent most of the next two days walking around the district getting a feel for the place. I was between two worlds. Wealth to the west, comparative poverty to the east. To the West were Colombo’s own twin towers World Trade Centre, old government buildings and five star hotels.  On Sunday, when I arrived, the district was uncluttered, quiet and almost empty. It became busier on Monday, populated by business people, politicians and government employees. I started exploring by wandering down to the Old Dutch Hospital shops [...]



Travel Safely: Food and Drinks.

2015-06-24T10:35:28.269+10:00

These are habits and practices I have developed over the years as I wander the world as a senior with interesting blood.I am a wanderer, not a doctor. Some of my ideas may not be suitable for you; select those which suit you and ignore those which don't.  WaterYour body is used to your local water and your local bugs. I rarely stay in a country long enough to let my body acclimatise to its different bugs so I do not drink the local water. That does not just apply in the third world. I did not get Delhi Belly in India or Montezuma's Curse in Mexico but I did suffer from it in Cairo, Hong Kong, Peru and Texas.I keep it simple. I buy bottled water with an unbroken seal. That has been available everywhere I have been in fifty countries and has never let me down. Some people use water filters. I do not. That is partly because they can be awkward to carry and use, but mainly because I can never be sure they are removing all the local bugs. Only if bottled water is not available in a remote area would I take a filter.For fresh drinking water I only let bottled water pass my lips; that includes brushing my teeth and keeping my mouth shut in the shower.AlcoholI enjoy trying local beers and wines as I travel but I take care not to get drunk. It isn't worth the risk to me; not just to my health but also for security. It is too easy to become a sucker or a victim when judgement is impaired by alcohol. As long as I observe that precaution I have never had health problems from drinking local brews or vintages; in fact beer is usually a good choice in tropical climates instead of the local water. I occasionally find local wines which would better serve as paint stripper but more often they are quite good.I avoid ice in my mixed drinks or soft drinks unless I can be certain it is made from clean water.As a lateral issue, before you open the water bottles in your hotel room double check whether they are complimentary. If there is a charge you will nearly always find a shop nearby selling water for a fraction of the hotel price.Tea and coffee.I do not avoid tea and coffee brewed from the local water. I presume the water has been boiled long enough to kill any bugs. So far that policy has worked for me.Vegetables and MeatsI avoid fresh washed salad vegetables when travelling in places with questionable water. The water the vegetables are washed in may be more dangerous than the dirt washed off. I stick to well-cooked vegetables unless I washed the salad thoroughly myself with bottled water. On the rare occasions I decide to break that rule I try a small experimental portion at dinner and don't repeat it until I find my internal plumbing is in good working order the following morning.When choosing cooked foods I always make sure soups and stews are well cooked and my meats are always well done. I like medium rare at home, but do not risk it when I'm overseas.I often eat in the restaurants chosen by the locals rather than those intended for tourists but I use some common sense when doing so, looking at the general hygiene and cleanliness of the place before I order. I accept different standards in the third world.  Only once have I regretted a local choice.  In every one of the four cases of traveller's curse I suffered I was able to identify the cause. Each time it was from carelessness with foods, usually salads or fruit. My rule for fruit these days is to only eat fruit I peeled myself.When Mistakes OccurI carry prescription Norfloxacin with me. It is a strong medication with possible side effects and should only be used if prescribed by your doctor. For me it is a magic pill when the traveller's curse appears. One pill is usually enough. On one occasion (Nasca, Peru) I took two but I would never exceed that dose. Discuss that with your doctor before your travels. Cheers, Alan [...]



Health and Safety While Travelling

2016-02-14T09:02:15.420+11:00

This isan index page for several posts on health, security and associated subjects.



Cheers, Alan



Vang Vieng, Laos

2015-04-16T23:51:12.925+10:00

Travel dates 24th-25th February 2015 As is often the case, getting there was half the fun. Bear in mind that the road from Luang Prabang to Vientiane via Vang Vieng is the major highway linking the capital with the fourth largest city in Laos.The tuk tuk picked me up from the travel agency in Luang Prabang on time and took us to the VIP bus terminal. We departed at 9:40, about ten minutes late.The bus was large, air-conditioned and reasonably comfortable in the style of those used in Australia between major cities. It was a bit shabby and not particularly clean. While we waited to depart I found a damp rag and made an attempt to clean my window for better photos with not much success; hence the quality of some of the pictures. The luggage was stored under the bus. I was pleased to find I not only had a window seat but the seat beside me was vacant and I could stretch out. However, sleep or even dozing was never an option.The big bus had a soft, floating suspension but despite that the ride was unbelievably rough in patches. For much of it the road had a steep or sheer drop on one side and vertical walls on the other.There were sections where I simply closed my eyes because I knew the driver had to know the road even if I was certain we would go off the edge. He did, and we didn’t.The road was mostly sealed but that did not seem to make it much smoother and there were many unsealed stretches or road-works. It appeared to have no straights and no levels: only steeply up, down and rapidly sideways both ways.  The view was often spectacular. After a couple of hours we stopped at a collection of stalls and a basic restaurant. The driver yelled out ‘toilet’. I have seen some pretty basic privys in my time. These were very rough versions of the ‘squat’ variety. Luckily I didn’t need to spend more than a penny; well, actually, 2000kip to the toilet attendant for some tissues and permission to enter.I hadn’t checked how long the journey would take but based on distance I expected about five hours. After three more jolting hours we stopped at another restaurant at 2:30 pm. I thought we had arrived. No, this was lunch. Luckily I had not lost the tear-off section of my ticket as this entitled me to rice and meagre serves of boiled greens and some bland chicken curry from a bain-marie. Apparently they forgot to turn it on because the rice was hot but the rest was stone cold. I ignored most of the rice and was hungry enough to eat the rest anyway. I was annoyed with myself when I found too late there was a different queue for hot soup which I would have appreciated much more. I bought a cold Lao beer and enjoyed it far more than the food. When we eventually reached Vang Vieng Northern Bus Terminal at 4:30 pm I was rather impressed that no-one had lost their breakfast or lunch along the way. Pre-reading on the web implied that achievement was unusual on this rough and tortuous route. I was quoted 100,000 kip for the short tuk tuk ride to my hotel so I stood around for a while until four or five others going my way appeared. The price dropped to 20,000 each.I stayed at the Ban Sabai Bungalows, which looked much better on their web-page than it did in practice. However, the bed was comfortable despite the place slowly decaying, apparently in readiness to be replaced by a new resort. That is something they failed to mention when I booked. Balancing that the staff were very helpful, the food was excellent and they arranged for my laundry to be done inexpensively and on time. Many of these pictures were taken from the riverside restaurant. The position by the riverside was idyllic and peaceful considering how close the hotel is to backpacker central. For some reason Vang Vieng has been adopted as the favourite town in Laos by the international backpa[...]



Luang Prabang, Laos

2015-04-15T12:07:31.942+10:00

Looking up the Mekong from Pak Ou CavesTravel dates 20th-23rd February 2015  The short Lao Air flight from Vientiane to Luang Prabang was uneventful apart from a rather hard bounce on landing. I take the Air Force attitude to those: any landing I can walk away from is a good landing. The Vientiane domestic airport, like many others in less developed countries, was relaxed and easy to negotiate for check in and security. I was booked via Agoda at the Sayo Xieng Mouane guest house but as soon as I saw the room and checked facilities I realised I had made a mistake. Their description on Agoda did not mention several different standards of room and I had been allocated bottom of the range. To cut a long story short I stayed one night and found another guest house by walking around and checking availability. A link to my Agoda review will be included when they decide to publish it; maybe they don't like my poor report. As a side note, the name of my new guest house, Sackharinh, seemed phonetically apt for a diabetic. I later noticed it was also the street name. Luang Prabang was smaller, less hectic and more tourist-oriented than Vientiane. To be fair I did not get far out of the central tourist area bounded by the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers to the west and east and the National Museum to the south.View up the Nam Khan RiverWithin that region it is ‘tourist central’: guest houses, hotels, travel agencies, restaurants, bars, laundries, ATMs and currency exchanges within a few blocks, easy to walk around in a few hours. Later, when I climbed Mount Phousi (well, actually a large hill rather than a mountain) I could see there were further parts of the town where the locals lived and worked well beyond the tourist area. Possibly they are wise to segregate the districts that way. I enjoyed my visit to the town. The people were friendly, even my disappointed guest house manager who offered an Agoda refund for the cancelled nights (which I accepted). The food in the town was invariably good regardless of the price on the menu and the whole atmosphere was relaxed. I stayed three nights. On the first day I mainly wandered as usual, without any specific goal, just looking, listening and learning about the town. I had a curry soup for lunch at a restaurant perched high on the east bank of the Mekong, watching the ferries and boats ply their trade surrounded by beautiful scenery.Small pleasures like that are one of the reasons I travel. To me those moments are just as important as seeing the wonders of the world. On my first evening I was sitting alone at a table in another restaurant trying to decide what to order when an English speaking couple entered. I’m not sure who started the conversation but Mike, Carol and I ended up sharing a table and an enjoyable conversation for the next couple of hours. Carol also blogs about her travels. This trip was a happy one in that respect; later I mention two men from Manchester I met on the boat to the caves. I had similar encounters with an Aussie on the flight from KL to Vientiane who visits Laos four times a year on aid work. Later Kate and Tom were a lovely couple I encountered for dinner in Vang Vieng when tables were full and mine wasn’t. They are volunteers in Vientiane who had come up-country on a brief holiday. Earlier in Vientiane I had an interesting chat with an English bloke over a beer and a meal in the restaurant up those 60 steps.  Encounters like that mitigate the occasional loneliness of the solo mature traveller who doesn’t go to bars or join in the party scene. On the second day I did some housekeeping in the morning arranging laundry, always a task every four or five days, and catching up on some news on the web. After lunch I decided to see if [...]



Vientiane, Laos

2015-04-15T09:13:43.752+10:00

One of many temples near the Golden StupaTravel dates 18th-19th and 27th-28th February 2015I will start with the background and my journey to Laos.AirAsia made a good profit last year but their long-haul subsidiary AirAsiaX did not. Consequently they cut several of their routes to Australia including the one I had booked months before during a special promotion. The prices were incredibly cheap, so I'm not complaining too much, but it was a darn nuisance. I was flying from my local Gold Coast (OOL) Airport to KLIA2 (KUL) Airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which is their new hub airport for the region. My flight departing 9 am was changed to one departing 9:45 pm. I was still able to make my early morning connecting flight to Vientiane but I had to cancel my Tune Hotel booking at KLIA2 airport, as the transfer time would now be three hours instead of fifteen overnight. The only real annoyance was a 30MYR ($10) cancellation fee for the hotel. Considering that Air Asia are also involved with Tune Hotels that seemed a bit rough. I will write a separate report on KLIA2 and the Tune hotel for travellers later, as both are quite different to their predecessors at the Kuala Lumpur LCCT.I left home in northern NSW on the bus at 4pm Wednesday, changed at Tweed heads at 5:20 pm, arrived at the airport at 5:35, ate dinner at a pub near the airport, then had another beer while waiting at the pub for the rain to stop, waited a bit longer in the terminal then finally went through security and immigration to depart on time at 9:45 pm.I rarely sleep on planes and this was no exception. We arrived at 4am Kuala Lumpur time a little over 8 hours later. I obtained 50 Ringgits (~AU18) from the ATM. That was enough for an excellent bacon and eggs breakfast with change for later flights; AirAsia flight stewards prefer Malaysian cash for on-board purchases. I departed for Vientiane, Laos at 7:35 am, arriving 2 1/2 hours later at local time of 9 am.The set fare of US$7 for taxis from the airport to town was inexpensive and the cab was clean and air-conditioned. The driver also knew the way, a trait I later found rare among Lao Tuk Tuk drivers but not among the more expensive cab drivers. A good start.I reached the Ibis hotel at 10:30 am after visa, customs, getting cash from the ATM (6333 Laotian kip to the Oz dollar) and buying and fitting a local sim card. It was wonderful to get an early check-in at the Ibis, even more wonderful to stand under the shower and feel the lassitude wash off. And to find free wifi.I had booked the Ibis Nam Phu after research on the web and my experience with the same chain in Morocco. Although Ibis is a mid-range chain in the West it is an excellent choice in Vientiane. The room is small but adequate, there is an elevator to upper floors and everything worked, including wifi, hot water, TV and air-conditioning. That was rarely the case in the places I stayed later on this trip. I found I should have also pre-booked Ibis for my return to Vientiane a week later; sadly the price had doubled by that time from $70 to $140 per night; I ended up at a much lower standard at the SP Vientiane Hotel. After settling into the hotel and a quick shower I went walking around the district with no particular destination in mind, just getting a feel for the town. Very quickly it became obvious that the city of Vientiane and its people are very laid back compared to the more modern and larger SE Asian metropolises of Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok or Singapore.  There is a thriving market economy with small traders, restaurants, hotels, electronics outlets, clothing and other stores, many tuk tuks and infrequent cabs. It seemed incongruous to see the hammer and sickle flag of communism given equal prominence wherever the national flag of Laos was displayed.Som[...]



Budapest, Hungary

2014-08-28T09:06:07.615+10:00

Travel Dates Spring 2006, 2nd - 3rd June 2011.Click on any picture to see a larger version.  I visited Budapest twice. In 2006 my wife and I drove to Budapest from Slovenia, skirting Lake Balaton, on our journey by car through Eastern Europe. We stayed for three nights, then continued via Visegrad to Slovakia and beyond. I last posted a report about that journey back in  2007: Slovenia. More recently I dropped in for an overnight transit en-route from Sarajevo to St Petersburg in 2011. For reasons lost in the mists of time I stopped posting about that journey after Slovenia and did not post again until I departed on my third 'round the world trip in 2008. I am trying to correct that lapse now. Serendipitously I discovered an old draft from that time as a backup word file despite three changes of PC since. The first section below was written while the memory of that first visit was fresh. I'll add a few notes on the more recent visit after that. Budapest 2006 After an excellent breakfast in the Lenti Hotel, just over the border from Slovenia, we decided to head towards Budapest. While in Lenti I used an internet café in town to book at the 3* Hotel Charles for three nights. We selected the minor roads closest to the northern shores of Lake Balaton, rather than the quicker freeways.The towns and villages along the lake reminded us of waterfront holiday towns in any country, but were a step back in time for us. They reminded me of lakeside and seaside Australia in the ‘50s. Unfortunately, for some reason gremlins stole my photos of the area.  Once we reached the outskirts of Budapest it was like any large industrial city. It was dirtier than some, but all major cities seem to present their worst face to incoming motorists. This was the first time we had used the map provided on a booking web-site to find a hotel. It wasn’t the last time we got totally lost as a result. Eventually we got there after an unintended tour through the centre of town. The lesson I learned from that, and later efforts, in those pre-smartphone days was to always go to a good on-line maps site to check hotel locations by inserting the address; never trust a booking site map. That often also led to discovering that hotels are not quite as close to things as is claimed in their advertisements..Note that my comments on the hotel relate to it in 2006 and would not be valid today. For me it was an interesting experience as my first encounter with a large hotel in a country behind the old Iron Curtain. The Charles Hotel appeared to have been elite single-bedroom apartments during the communist era. Several of the rooms and some whole floors were privately-owned apartments. The room had an en-suite bathroom with a separate tiny kitchenette and a huge bedroom. It was shabby, but with a comfortable bed. I needed telescopic vision to see the small TV in the distance. As I chose the place because they had a kitchenette it was a bit disconcerting to find that there was a stove and a fridge but no cooking utensils, just a jug to boil water. When I asked for them to be provided: "but no-one cooks in Budapest". When I discovered the quality of their breakfast and the range and price of foods in the Budapest restaurants I understood why and stopped complaining. Undoubtedly this hotel provided the best breakfast quality and choices we had on that entire trip - or any trip since. The staffing was way over the top by Western standards – people everywhere but very few who actually seemed to do much or react when you needed them. This was our first real experience on that trip of the strange difficulty larger hotels in ex-communist nations seemed to be having coming to terms with modern tourism. Repeatedly there was an underlying feel[...]



Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

2014-08-10T17:47:06.449+10:00

The Holiday Inn, a haven for journalists during the warTravel Dates 31st May - 2nd June 2011.Click on any picture to see a larger version.    I have let too many old trips slide into obscurity without recording them. The next few posts will conclude my 2011 trip to Europe and Russia. After that I will add my 2008 trip to Mexico, which was part of the 'round-the-world trip at that time; it follows this past post on Egypt. I hope to add several nostalgia posts on past trips to the USA ('03, '06, '08, '10), Canada '06 and the UK ('03, '06, '08, '11) after that. Possibly I might slip Fiji '05 and New Zealand '06 in the midst of those.This post follows this earlier report: Mostar to Sarajevo By Train. This impressive new building near the railway station was an indicator that the city was rebuilding after the terrible Balkan wars. I took a cab from the station to the hotel I had reserved by internet based on tripadvisor reviews, but decided it was grossly over-priced. I cancelled on arrival (luckily I had not paid in advance) and strolled around the district. I quickly found the ETN hotel for half the price with better facilities. It had one rather strange feature: a full-size automobile lift in the lobby. I did not have a vehicle but it was also used as the passenger lift to higher floors. The hotel was in Safet-Bega Basagica street a hundred metres from a major tram stop on Mula Mustafe Bašeskije street which made access to most of the older section of Sarajevo very simple. I bought a cheap daily tram pass each morning then wandered where the trams went. The district was hilly but not too steep and not far from the river. Just across from the tram stop was a small shopping square which became a permanent market as I walked deeper into it.  I was very interested in the history of the war and went looking for the museum dedicated to it. The museum was surprisingly hard to find, partly because none of the locals I asked for directions appeared to know about it, or did not want to discuss it. It is in this nondescript building with no signs on the front. The direction sign in the street sent me off on a walk through a nearby park until I realised the arrow was misleading.   I was almost alone in the museum, with occasional visitors arriving but not staying long. I can understand; the pictures and stories are horrifying and depressing but I believe visiting places like this remind us of the folly of war. Every politician should be required to visit this museum, Auschwitz, the many WWI and WWII graveyards in Belgium and France and the many other reminders of past horrors around the world. Maybe then they would be a little less prone to going to war. Yes, I know, a forlorn wish, but if only it could be true. Photographs were not allowed, but as I was alone I sneaked these small samples of the display.After the museum I walked up the road to the famous Holiday Inn. It still bears some scars from the war.I had an over-priced beer in the bar for the atmosphere but it slipped by; it was just another beer in just another four-star American-style hotel bar. I headed back downtown to the real Sarajevo.The daytime and evening café culture was similar to Croatia. I do not know if the majority of the population are independently wealthy or just unemployed but most of them, especially males from teens to middle-aged, filled the cafés, sipping coffee and chatting, almost all day and well into the evening.I like to take local buses, not knowing where they go, to see a little of the town outside the central and tourist districts. At the end of the line I get off, have a meal and hopefully find a bus heading back to the centre. This lunch was somewhere in the outer suburbs. &n[...]



Paris, in transit 2013

2014-08-09T14:32:13.744+10:00

Travel Dates 18th June and 16-18th July 2013I love Paris, it is one of my favourite cities. This was my fourth visit, but a very fleeting one.  Despite that I enjoyed the brief visit.I mentioned earlier the trip from home to Paris via Kuala Lumpur. I flew back to Paris on Aegean Air to connect to my Malaysian Air return flights. It is so sad to see the MH370 and MH17 disasters the airline has had since then, but I had no problems on those flights. I decided to stay a couple of nights and spend the day between wandering the city with no particular goal, just a pleasant day taking pictures like any other tourist.The RAAF bases I worked at usually had an old fighter or bomber on a post at the front gates, but none were quite this large. It is such a pity the Concorde never really became commercially viable; if it had there would be fleets of supersonic successors by now and Australia would not be such a long, long journey from everywhere. Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport is huge. After disembarking we spent a long time travelling along an underground moving walk-way before emerging into this multilevel transfer area. It was like being in a space station. After collecting my bag I used the excellent internal train to reach the correct terminal to catch my Les Cars bus to La Place de Etoile. The Les Cars service was very convenient. I had won a deep-discount room for two nights in the Hyatt Regency Etoile using Priceline's bidding system and the bus stopped just around the corner. Once again it was a hot day and the bus took longer than expected in the traffic, but it was still much more convenient than the RER and Metro for the journey.   I spent the afternoon exploring the district surrounding the hotel. When the evening arrived I didn't feel like a big meal. I had a pleasant cheap dinner at a kebab shop nearby; not as good as the Cretan gyros, but not bad.  The next day I took the metro to the nearest station on that line to the Eiffel Tower, Bir-Hakeim. The station is an extension of the Bir-Hakeim bridge, named after a 1942 defensive battle by out-numbered Free French forces against Rommel's Afrika Korps. Paris is a city of a million statues. This one is on the bridge; I forget which hero it commemorates but I liked the style. I was surprised to see how many inhabited barges were moored in the Seine in the heart of the city.     I enjoyed a stroll until lunch-time around the Eiffel Tower district, remembering my first visit when we stayed nearby in an apartment in Rue Surcouf.   After a light lunch I decided to give my feet a respite and spend an hour or two on one of the sight-seeing river boats.  The next set of pictures were all taken from the boat. Despite the crowd on board it was a pleasant cruise. Seeing the city from the river was a different and interesting interlude.Several Parisian bridges are now developing infestations of padlocks. Unfortunately love is becoming a weighty problem on some bridges as this report shows. I think the practice is likely to be banned soon.I noticed something in an upper window and decided to experiment with my 20x optical zoom and stabilisation on the Fuji F770EXR.  The result is excellent for a handheld extreme zoom from a moving boat.  I hope this young bloke stayed safe.I stopped for a glass of wine at a tavern near the Assemblee Nationale. There was a protest occurring over the road; the speakers had very loud megaphones. I'm not sure what the protest was about but the police out-numbered them and the locals pretended nothing was happening. The perfect car for single-person city commuting.After a pleasant day I returned to the hotel to re-pack fo[...]



Ancient Knossos, Crete, Greece.

2014-08-06T14:52:49.880+10:00

Travel Date 14th July 2013 Knossos is only a few km out of town on the fringe of the suburbs and can be reached on the local inexpensive bus. I have always wanted to see it, ever since I first read about the ancient Minoans and the re-discovery of the ancient palace.  I thought I would arrive early and avoid the crowds. I failed. The queue was very long in the hot sun. There was shade under this canopy, but it took quite a while to reach this point and even longer to reach the ticket office.When I reached the front, after buying my ticket I repaired immediately to the nearby cafe for a cold beer. It was over 35C in the shade according to the weather report that day, and much hotter than that in the sun. I will let the pictures tell most of the story, with a few words of explanation between them.Arthur Evans, an English archaeologist, is responsible for the Knossos we know today. He was shown the site by a local man in 1894 and made excavation and reconstruction of parts of the palace his life's work after that.  Unfortunately his work has led to controversy, because his reconstructions owe much to his own vision of how things were in Minoan times and many of his reconstructions have made deeper archaeological investigion of sections of the site impossible. An excellent description of Evans and Knossos history is here: Arthur Evans & the Minotaur.   Over the past ten years I have visited many ancient sites. When looking at Knossos it was hard not to compare with Mycenae, Pompeii, Rome, Petra, Jerash, Trier and Athens among others. To be honest, although I am very glad I went and I enjoyed the experience, I also have to agree with those who criticised Evans for his anachronistic attempts at reconstruction of Knossos as he imagined it.  It is true that the use of concrete and paint make the ancient buildings easier to visualise, but the whole place took on the air of a Las Vegas version rather than the real thing. One is often left wondering how much is really as it used to be, how much is as Evans believes it was and how valid his imagining of Minoan life was. The local tourism industry would disagree because the crowds at Knossos were greater than any I encountered at those other sites, with the possible exception of Petra. Hopefully the site will go through restoration rather than reconstruction over the next few decades.    There is archaeological evidence of human habitation on Crete going back nearly 10,000 years. For those interested in more details I found an excellent brief history of Cretan civilisation on this web-site: History of Minoan Crete. Knossos was built in the period known as Neopalatial around 1700-1400 BC.Mid-way through wandering the site I sat for a while in the beautiful location imagining life for a Minoan.   They developed one of the most advanced civilisations of any ancient era, long before the time of Alexander. The Minoans were almost as ancient to him as he is to us.Earlier I mentioned the early Cretan's development of indoor sanitation and water supply. I believe these pictures show part of the system. Possibly this is a section modern Cretans might benefit from studying more closely...Their civilisation was eventually destroyed by Mother Nature when Thera exploded in volcanic fury about 1475-1450 BC with a resultant tsunami. That was followed by an invasion by Mycenaeans, a civilisation which had already embraced much of the Minoan culture through trade prior to that invasion. The Minoans never recovered from those events.The queue waiting to see the Throne RoomThrone Room, left sideThrone Room, right sideThe entry queue was even longer[...]



Heraklion, Crete, Greece

2014-08-05T14:01:59.321+10:00

Heraklion mole and fort protecting the harbour. Travel Dates 12th-16th July 2013   I arrived without drama at Heraklion Airport and took a cab to the Kronos Hotel. I booked it months in advance after reading many positive reviews on the web. In the main they were accurate, with some minor exceptions. It is in a great location near the harbour and an easy walk up the hill to the centre of town or along the foreshore to the mole or harbour-side restaurants. The room I eventually accepted after a problem with a smoky-smelling first offer was small but comfortable with an oblique balcony view of the sea. I enjoyed my stay there. The only jarring note was the sign in the bathroom advising that used toilet paper must not be flushed down the toilet but placed in the bin. The lady managing the hotel told me that the plumbing system would be blocked if paper is flushed. Later, when I visited Knossos and was reminded that the ancient Minoans were one of the first civilisations to develop indoor sanitation I wondered why the modern Cretans did not seem to have moved far in that field since.Apart from seeing Knossos I had no plans for Crete. My main intention was to take it easy and relax. Although there were many tourists, Heraklion was more laid back than Rhodes. The average age of the tourists appeared to be ten to twenty years older than Rhodes, with fewer teens and twenties and more in their forties and fifties. There were even some fossils of my own vintage.Despite the tourists the harbour and the sea are still the focus of the town. The giant ferries bring most of the tourists to town, the fishermen still sell their catch on the mole and the harbour is packed with boats of all sizes. I walked a lot over the next few days, covering most of the central town within the old walls.    There did not appear to be an 'old town' preserved in the same way as those I visited in Iberia, Morocco and Rhodes. Instead various old structures were surrounded by modern buildings. The ancient harbour docks are the structures on the centre right of the picture, well above the modern waterline.  Several old sites such as the old dockyards were restored or in the process of restoration and some sites, such as Agios Petros monastery near the hotel, appeared to be active archaeological sites. For most lunches and some dinners I again chose the tasty delights of Greek gyro pitas. A 15cm (6”) circle of pita bread formed into a cone around a filling of marinated gyro-roasted lamb with onions, tomato, possibly other vegetable choices and garnished with tzatziki. Cheap fast food but always delicious. I didn't encounter a gyro pita I didn't like. I usually washed it down with the local beer. A full meal for under 5 Euros. Better still, my blood glucose meter approved the meal an hour after eating. When I got tired of gyros there were wonderful fish and seafood choices. One of my favourites in mediterranean countries is mussels. At one stage while wandering in the western outskirts of town I walked into a bar that was a step back in time. The only sign of modernity was an old TV flickering on the wall. The service was similar to Spanish tapas, with a snack appearing automatically together with my order of a glass of inexpensive but very good house red wine, ordered by sign language as he spoke no English and I spoke no Greek. After a few glasses of wine, along with the Greek 'tapas', I no longer needed lunch. This was a bar that would rarely see a tourist. After a while another customer appeared who spoke good English. I had an enjoyable chat about many things[...]



Old Rhodes

2014-08-04T17:21:50.604+10:00

Palace of the Grand Master Travel Dates 6th-12th July 2013 Rhodes has a long and colourful history. Settlement first occurred in the neolithic period. After an early period of growing city states the cities amalgamated to become an independent island state. The island's strategic position close to the Turkish mainland has resulted in being invaded, occupied and controlled by every major civilisation in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East including, among others, the Persians, Greeks, Byzantines, Egyptians, Arabs, Genoese, Knights of St John, Ottomans, Italians, Germans and Italians again until it finally became part of modern Greece. The Old Town reflects all of the occupiers to some degree. Unfortunately each wave of invaders tended to remove or modify much of their predecessor's architecture. Some of the surviving buildings also suffered from earthquakes. There has been significant restoration and reconstruction work since Greek sovereignty was re-established. The northern section of Rhodes Town is a modern tourist city of hotels, restaurants, souvenir and services shops surrounded on three sides by beaches. There are occasional old buildings in that section but not many.   A short walk towards the south-eastern coast brought me to the older buildings and eventually the walled Old Town. Along the way I passed the Murat Reis Mosque, which dates back to the Turkish presence in the 17th century.  Nearby is the Turkish cemetery. The Prefecture building is not very old, but I liked the design. The 14th century Fort of Saint Nicholas guards Mandraki Harbour. I started my visit to the Old Town by strolling along the massive moat (now dry) around the walls. Entry was via this tunnel to gardens near the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes. The knights were also known as the Knights of St John and later the Knights of Malta. The order was originally founded in Jerusalem in the 11th century as a hospital caring for ailing Christian pilgrims to the holy lands. They became a military order during the Crusades. Muslim conquests of the region forced them to move to Rhodes in 1310. They ruled Rhodes under their Grand Master until 1523 when the Turks ejected them. Eventually they settled in Malta and ruled there until they were forced to move to Rome in the late 18th century as a consequence of the Napoleonic wars. They ruled each land they occupied absolutely but also built a hospital each time and became renowned for their quality of care with the highest medical standards of their time. They are also known as the Knights Hospitaller, Fraternitas Hospitalaria. The Grand Master's Palace is obviously reconstructed but still impressive. The rooms and courtyard are now a museum with exhibits ranging across the centuries, from classical Greek and Roman times until the mediaeval era of the Knights.    This bas relief on a wall of the palace intrigued me. Apparently Fert is an acronym used by the Royal House of Savoy with several different interpretations according to the scholars. The version that seems most apt for the Rhodes inscription is a Sardinian motto: "Fortitu’do Ejus Rhodum Ten’uit", meaning "His firmness guarded Rhodes". This relates to Amadeus the Great, founder of the House of Savoy. He helped the Knights resist a siege shortly after they arrived in 1310.  In the narrow cobbled streets and back alleys it was easy to imagine stepping back several centuries as I walked around. Wandering in places like that is one of my favourite pastimes when I travel, with no particular goal in mind, just looking at the[...]



Rhodes, Greece

2014-07-30T15:06:12.835+10:00

 Travel Dates 6th-12th July 2013 I deliberately planned the final section of my European trip to be in the Greek Islands. I visited Greece in 2003, seeing the Peloponnese and Athens, but I had always wanted to see their major islands and regretted missing them on that trip. I also thought Rhodes and Crete would be good places to wind down and relax after Iberia and Morocco. I had no planned itinerary for them, apart from relaxing, soaking in the atmosphere and visiting the old towns and some ancient sites. I had lost a couple of hours with the baggage problems in the terminal. Later planes had arrived and the queue for cabs was long when I reached it. I discovered that there was a set fare of €22 for the 15km trip to Rhodes Town. Because of the crowd I was not surprised when a driver called for someone to fill the front seat when he already had passengers in the back. When I was a cab driver in Melbourne we were allowed to do the same. But in Melbourne the arrangement was that each hirer paid ¾ of the meter fare as they reached their destination. Not in Rhodes. Each hirer pays full fare. Well, at least I got there before midnight. Later I found I could have taken the bus, but when I arrived I had no idea where the bus stopped or its route. The cabs were reasonably inexpensive once I reached Rhodes Town, but rarely around when I wanted one.I had only booked the first two nights at the City Center Hotel, not knowing what the standard would be like. When I decided to extend the booking I found they were booked out for two of the remaining four nights of my stay. I booked their available nights and ended up at two other hotels for the remainder. I didn't mind as it gave me a different perspective of the town near the western beaches for those other nights, but City Center was definitely the best experience of the three. Originally I intended to do some overnight trips by ferry to other islands, but I quickly realised I had arrived at the peak of the season and those hotels would also be full so I decided not to risk it. Rhodes was nothing like I expected. In my pre-trip reading I read about its rich history and the many ancient civilisations which left their mark on the island. In my mind's eye I suppose I was expecting a place like Mycenae or Argos, which were almost deserted when I visited Greece in 2003. I should have spent a little more time reading about modern Rhodes. Rhodes Town was full. The town is “tourist central” full of hotels, restaurants, cafes, bars and nightspots. That had the advantage of lots of choices for meals, although many of the tourist restaurants had identical menus in ten different languages, including all the Scandinavian languages. I looked for the smaller cafes and tried to avoid most of the tourist traps. It was a pretty forlorn quest in Rhodes Town. If I ever return I will go to one of the smaller towns or villages.The food was mostly very good. I mainly ate soups or gyros for lunches and fish or mussels for dinners. The town was jam-packed with tourists. Not tourists to see the ancient sites but visitors from colder mid-July climes, mainly the UK and Scandinavia, to bask all day in the sun on the island's beaches and drink and party most of the night. The European custom of paid spaces on beaches for Li-los and deckchairs with umbrellas in military-style formations is a strange one to an Aussie accustomed to free beaches where you find a spot to toss your towel where you can.Unfortunately for many of the sunbathers the westerly wind became quite fierce for my final f[...]



Flying Alitalia from Morocco to Rhodes.

2014-07-29T08:06:27.458+10:00

Travel Date 6th July 2013I will continue with the trip reports on Rhodes and Crete after this. Skip this report if you aren't really interested in reading about some of the little things that cause frustration and stress while travelling.The journey from Casablanca to Rhodes deserves mention. Anyone who has ever flown on a two-leg flight with a short connection time will understand why. When I planned the trip I wanted to see Iberia, Morocco and the Greek Islands. I prefer rail travel and it made sense to travel by rail and ferry through France, Spain and Morocco but eventually I had no choice. The only sensible way to get from Casablanca to Rhodes in a reasonable time is by air. After searching the various airlines and routes I eventually discovered that I could make the flight on Alitalia via Rome. Alitalia looked much more attractive as a full service airline than the various budget carriers which also had long connection times via secondary airports. The price was only slightly more than using a no frills airline via MilanOriginally I was going to use Qantas frequent flyer miles. Unfortunately, in the six hours between checking that a seat was available and confirming with Qantas that I could use the FF miles, that seat disappeared. The transfer time of one hour and ten minutes between flights at Rome looked tight, so I attempted to contact Alitalia to discuss that. I did not want to add an overnight stay in Rome, but I was prepared to do that if necessary. Eventually I spoke to a girl in the UK who reassured me that it would be no problem, so I booked the ticket. It was only when I printed out the booking that I realised I arrived at Terminal 3 at 16:30 and departed from distant Terminal 1 at 17:40, with a 45 minute check-in time limit noted on the ticket. That seemed to be cutting it very fine. Worse, I discovered that I would have to pass through immigration in Rome, not Rhodes, as I was re-entering the EU there from Morocco. A few weeks later an email arrived informing me that the Rhodes flight would leave Rome ten minutes earlier. This email exchange with the Australian agent (the phone was not answered) shows what happened next. My message: I am having great difficulty contacting Alitalia to discuss the booking at the foot of this message. Before I purchased the ticket I tried to contact Alitalia. The Italian customer service numbers answered with a recorded message in Italian then disconnected. I eventually discussed the transfer time at Rome of 1 hour and ten minutes using the UK customer service number. The person there reassured me that one hour and ten minutes was adequate. Based on that reassuring advice I purchased the ticket, which was the standard offer appearing for CMN to RHO on that day. I also pre-paid for non-cancellable hotel rooms in Casablanca before departure and Rhodes on arrival. Now this advice has arrived by email: ** Dear Madam, dear Sir, We would like to inform you that flight AZ 00730 of 06/07 has been rescheduled. The flight is now expected to leave ROMA FCO at 17:30 and arrive in RHODES RHO at 20:50. ** That means there is now only one hour to transfer. Today I still could not speak to anyone in Italy. I contacted the USA customer service number and found I was speaking to Jason in Albania who again reassured me that one hour is OK. I need to know whether I can have an Alitalia staff member meet me on arrival at FCO to assist me to make the departing Rhodes flight on time please? I have not been in that airport before. I will check my bag at Casa[...]



Casablanca

2014-07-28T16:05:57.528+10:00

Travel Dates 5th-6th July 2013   I was sad to leave Moulay Idriss. Despite the steps and steep roads, the odd but comfortable guest house/hotel, the dust and the heat it was a pleasant, relaxed two days and probably the closest I came to real life in Morocco away from tourists and guides. I departed Moulay Idriss for the railway station by the same means, Grand Taxi, but at a much cheaper price of 10 dirhams. I was wedged into the front right passenger seat beside the unlucky customer who straddled the poorly padded gap between the two bucket seats. The taxi took us about 20km to the main Meknes Grand Taxi Rank, where I negotiated the short extension to Gare Meknes for another 20 dirhams. I realised he had misunderstood when he tried to deposit me at Meknes Al Amir, the minor station, but eventually I persuaded him to take me the main station.  I had a pleasant lunch at the café near the station and also a pleasant 3 ½ hour journey in air-conditioned 1st class to Casablanca. The route was rural initially, slowly descending from the Atlas foot-hills to the rolling pastures nearer the coast.  After passing through the urban fringe of Rabat, the capital, we reached Gare Casa Voyageurs, Casablanca, where I walked to the Ibis beside the forecourt of the station.   I asked for a non-smoking room away from the rail lines. Somehow the message didn’t seem to get across the first two times. On the third try I got a room on the city side that did not smell of smoke. It was standard Ibis quality: moderate speed Wi-Fi, compact, clean, comfortable bed and small but adequate en-suite. Both the Ibis hotels I used in Morocco were better quality than the other dars and hotels I stayed in.   The tram ran past the window but did not cause me noise problems and was a very convenient way to get to downtown and the medina. The self-serve ticketing system was easy to understand, with an icon to choose English, and very cheap. I spent the afternoon wandering around downtown, then along the roads near the docks.Despite the romantic name and wanting to visit since watching Bogart, Bergman and Rains so many years ago in one of the best movies ever made, I used Casablanca as just a transit stop en-route to the Greek Islands. After Fes and Moulay Idriss it seemed too modern and almost Western. I enjoyed my brief visit but was happy to stay just one night.Casablanca was an interesting mix of old and new. The medina was far more tourist-oriented than those at Tangier and Fes. Most traders were obviously selling to the tourist market, unlike the other medina markets which catered primarily to the locals. For the first time I saw lots of other tourists. There seemed to be a cosmopolitan mix from Europe, the USA and a few from Asia.    The small section of the true Medina I entered beyond the markets was less congested than Fes and more modernised, but for the first time I felt uncomfortable while wandering the alleys. Just a feeling; no-one said anything, but the atmosphere was not really friendly. Maybe they've seen too many tourists and dislike the intrusion, so I obliged and wandered elsewhere. To be honest I found the Fes and Moulay Idriss medinas more interesting.   The central city was modern and bustling, with the standard trappings of a major modern city: skyscrapers, Western 5* Hotels and traffic. Early in the afternoon I happened across a small, dark bar where I had a pleasant local beer. Bars are not always easy [...]



Volubilis, an Ancient Roman Site in Morocco

2014-08-13T10:23:49.312+10:00

 Travel Date 4th July 2013   Volubilis is less than 5km from Moulay Idriss but it was already 35C in the shade at 10 am and there is no shade on that road. The man arranging rides at the Grand Taxi rank quoted 150 dirhams (~$20) for a driver to take me to Volubilis, wait a couple of hours and bring me back. I asked the price one way. It was 30 dirhams but he said there is no rank there and I would probably have to walk home. I took the chance.If you have read any of my earlier blogs you will notice that I like wandering around ancient places. Over the past ten years I have visited many ruins in many lands in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the Americas. As an Australian, travelling from a land where a stone age civilisation is all that existed before Europeans arrived in 1788, the ruins of past civilisations fascinate me. Thus I make an effort to visit the remnants of those civilisations whenever I get the opportunity.Entry was a paltry 10 dirhams. Volubilis was almost deserted. Compared to other major Roman ruins it is less well preserved and less spectacular than others such as Jerash, the Roman Forum and Colosseum, or Pompeii. Despite that I am glad I visited.  One feature that stands out is the number of floor mosaics which have somehow survived the ravages of time, earthquakes and vandals. This is one example, I will add several more as the closing pictures.Wiki gives an excellent description and history of the site here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volubilis Briefly, Volubilis was originally a Phoenician and Carthaginian settlement from the 3rd century BC. It became a Roman town after the defeat of Carthage in the 2nd century BC and gradually became a rich and important town at the south-western extremity of the Roman Empire, with a population reaching over 20,000 by the 2nd century AD. Olives and trade were the primary sources of wealth. The Romans kept strong forces in the region because of often hostile Berber neighbours to the south and east. The decay of the Roman Empire during the civil wars of the 3rd century AD weakened their control of far outposts like Volubilis and it fell to the local tribes. The population slowly decreased, with a resurgence in the 8th century when it became the local capital under Idriss I. He also established Moulay Idris nearby. After his death his son moved the capital to Fes and Volubilis became deserted. Sadly, the disrepair of the site is not just from the ravages of time. Several earthquakes assisted, especially in the 18th century, but the worst destruction occurred in the 17th century when the local ruler used the site as a quarry to build Meknes, about 20km away. French archaeologists started work on the site during the period of French rule. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.The ruins cover a large area and I spent a lot of my time wandering slowly in the heat around it all. I had planned wisely and brought a litre of water with me. There was probably water available at the restaurant and gift shops down the road from the entry, but there was none available on the site. To give an idea of the scale, this is the main road looking northeast, followed by a closer look at the gate:  This is the same road looking southwest and a closer look at that gate:  As I failed Latin in my third year of High School I'll leave it for others to translate the inscription, amazingly clear after two millennia: While wandering around the site it was clear that there had been att[...]



Morocco: Moulay Idriss

2014-07-26T16:30:45.367+10:00

Travel Dates 3rd-5th July 2013  The inexpensive 30 dirhams first class ride on the train from Fes to Meknes was pleasant, passing through interesting but unspectacular scenic landscapes and several small villages en-route.On arrival in Meknes I could only find one grand taxi at the station. He was aware of the bargaining power that gave him and demanded 150 dirhams for the 20km ride to Moulay Idriss. I declined and decided to have lunch at the café near the station. While eating lunch I saw a clear example of the more relaxed attitude of the Moroccans to displays of affection compared to some other Islamic nations. With the recent change in Qantas transfer hubs from Singapore to Dubai the law against public displays of affection in the United Arab Emirates, including cases where visitors have been jailed for kissing their spouse, were in the news before my trip. In the public square in front of the Meknes station I saw a young girl run up to her boyfriend, meeting him off the train, and give him a steamy kiss that would have done Hollywood proud while they tried to merge fully clothed bodies. Apart from myself nobody gave them a passing glance. My grand taxi driver was still waiting hopefully at the station. We agreed on 130 dirhams. Not much of a discount, but better than none. I discovered the real purpose for seat belts in his cab. They are to prevent the seats flying through the windscreen when the driver puts the brakes on. Although some grand taxis had rear seat belts, all of the clips had disappeared under the seats. Later the return journey cost 10 dirhams, although I was squashed in with four other passengers plus the driver on that trip. That was when I discovered the grand taxi rank is near the other, minor, Meknes Al Amir station. It would have been cheaper to take a Petit taxi to that station first. Why they wait there, at the minor station the express does not stop at, I have no idea.I booked at Diyar Timnay through Booking.com. It was more a guest house than a hotel, but it was clean, air-conditioned, with working wi-fi, pleasant enough and very cheap. Once again everything was on a slope. Down forty-odd steps from the street to the accommodation entrance, up twenty-odd steps to reception (if it was attended, up two more flights to the restaurant if not) and up another flight to the room. I became pretty fit in Morocco. I enjoyed my two days in Moulay Idriss. It was much more relaxed than Fes. Fes is not overcrowded by tourists but in Moulay Idriss, apart from the side trip to Volubilis, I was the only tourist I saw during my stay. There may have been other tourists, but our paths did not cross. When I was not walking up and down stairs or slopes I relaxed over coffee and watched the locals wander by. As a lone outsider I was an object of curiosity wherever I went, but unlike other countries I have visited where tourists stand out, such as Egypt, India and Thailand I was not constantly hassled by children or adults pushing souvenirs and trinkets, demands for baksheesh or by beggars. Only once did a salesman approach after I had already inspected hats he was selling. I didn't mind that because I actually wanted the hat and waiting for him to make the first price offer was the best way to start the bidding. Being conscious of watchful eyes I was careful to try not to offend carelessly, such as eating with my left hand or similar gaffes. It is a small, dusty town wi[...]



Fes, Morocco: Trains., Hotels, Cabs and Cafés

2014-07-25T16:05:23.228+10:00

  Travel Date 1st - 3rd July 2013 I like train travel and always prefer it over air or bus when the time involved is not excessively longer and the price is reasonable. In Morocco the ONCF system met my needs very well. I used the train three times: Tangier to Fes, Fes to Meknes and Meknes to Casablanca. Fares were inexpensive, even in First Class, all the trains were clean and ran on time. The on-line system is good for planning but I chose to buy my tickets at the stations. That was never difficult.Departing TangierGare de FesThe next few pictures were taken from the window en-route from Tangier to Fes.    This trip shattered yet another preconception. In my ignorance I was expecting a dry and mainly desert land. Instead, in early summer the countryside was more green than brown; much like my own state of NSW in a good summer west of the range.I realise Morocco is desert east of the Atlas Mountains, but I did not expect it to be this green west of them.I moved from La Source Bleue to the Hotel Splendid, which did not live up to its name. They started badly by refusing to recognise my hotel.de web booking. Begrudgingly, the man on reception booked me in at full rate in a poorer room without breakfast.Hours later the next manager on duty 'discovered' my web booking and agreed to honour the price including breakfast. He explained that they had only just started using hotel.de as a booking agency, but no apology. Next morning I found that wasn't much benefit because breakfast was all starch and juices. My friends on the diabetes forums will understand why I paid extra for an omelette after seeing this:To be fair, the bed was OK and the air conditioner worked, so I slept well.These pictures are of Fes beyond the medina.     This is the Royal Palace entrance. Unfortunately we were not allowed in because the occupants were 'at home.'  I received an education in Petit Taxis in Fes. One of the difficulties with the Hotel Splendid was getting a cab. The management will not call for one because 'they will not come'. All the hotel staff did was suggest which street a few blocks away to walk to for the opportunity to hail one. That was an interesting and time-consuming experience each time. In Morocco the Petit Taxis can multiple hire, so it is worth hailing them even if they are occupied. Although the fare is on the meter, the full fare is charged for each hirer without deductions for time and distance spent on dropping the other occupants. The fares are so cheap it isn't really a problem and I had some interesting conversations with the passengers in mutually incomprehensible languages in some of the cabs. Later, when I departed the Hotel Splendid for the train it took me half an hour to obtain a cab which already had a woman and child in it. The driver refused to put my two bags in the boot. Instead he demanded I squash the bags in between the child and myself on a back seat barely big enough for two. Surprisingly, the boy seemed to think it was all good fun squeezing against the door. I got to the station on time, which was the most important thing, so I didn't really mind. The day before I had been advised by my guide to take my laundry to a place near the station. To assist the cab driver when I returned to pick up my clean clothes in the afternoon I had a receipt from that laundry with the address in both French and Arabic. I hailed a cab a few bl[...]



Fes, Morocco: Scams, Dars and the Medina

2014-07-24T15:11:16.971+10:00

Deep in the Medina, Fes Travel Date 1st - 3rd July 2013 The Ibis was basic but good value and I slept well – which is my main criteria for a good hotel room. It was a short walk after checking out to the Tangier ONCF rail station. There was no difficulty being understood by the booking clerk for my first class ticket to Fes for 155 Dirhams (~$20) for the next train in about an hour. I had time for a chicken and vegetables item similar to a samosa, with a coffee for breakfast. Rail travel is so much less hassle than air travel.I will write more about trains in Morocco in the next post. For most of the five hour trip I had the clean, comfortable and pleasantly air-conditioned six-seat 1st class compartment to myself. For the final hour I was joined by a mother with a quiet baby and a young man who spoke good English and was very helpful with information. I'll mention him more shortly. He helpfully arranged for a driver to pick me up to take me to my accommodation in the Medina on arrival.La Source Bleue Dar Atrium I booked La Source Bleue months before after research on the web and email discussions with their representative Youssef. My choice was partly based on reviews but mainly on his good command of English and assurances of a pleasant stay. This was one of those occasions when internet bookings don't always work out. There appeared to have been a change of management, Youssef was no longer there and the owner and manager had no English. We ended up communicating via Google translate on pedestrian wi-fi. The air-conditioner in the room I had booked did not work, but it took an hour of increasingly strained discussions to convince Mohamed that it was only blowing hot air on a 40C day. The second room offered was up thirty stairs.  The Dar was gloriously over-decorated with some sections displaying quite stunning mosaics and craftsmanship. Although I appreciated the decor my main need was a good night's rest. The room I eventually accepted for that night had a lumpy bed, poor privacy and no TV – but a working aircon. They had difficulty understanding why I departed the next morning and, because the initial booking was for three nights, demanded a higher one-day rate than I was prepared to pay. I paid the cash I felt was due and left. I walked to several possible Dars and Riads on the first afternoon, but found most were already booked or were much too expensive. I booked the Splendid Hotel on the web. It was OK but did not live up to its name. At least I slept well there.For dinner I enjoyed a delicious tagine at a restaurant on Rcif Square, a short walk from the Dar. Apparently the difference between a Dar and a Riad is the atrium. A Riad has a garden in the centre and is usually a grander building. The Dar was about four storeys high, with a flat roof where breakfast was served. These are views from the breakfast table.Hotels and transport are really side issues. I mention the occasional problems of travel but they do not deter me from enjoying my journeys. They are just annoyances along the way and become less as I learn from each experience in a new country. I learned quite a lot in Fes, especially about bait-and-switch con men.   I was there to see and experience the medina. It did not let me down. On my first afternoon I wandered the medina alone, being careful to note my bearings and location. I managed not to get lost. On my [...]



Cordoba: Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos and Royal Stables

2014-07-23T14:19:12.892+10:00

Part of the magnificent gardens of the Alcázar de los Reyes CristianosTravel Date 27th June 2013. I almost forgot to mention one of Cordoba's other major historic attractions. An Alcázar is a king's palace fortress. The Spanish word goes back to the period of Moorish control, derived from the Arabic word القصر, phonetically al-qasr. Despite its title the site of Cordoba's Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos, Fortress of the Christian Kings, has a history going much further back than the Christians.  There are Roman ruins on the site from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Later the Visigoth fortress was here when they were defeated by the Umayyads in the 8th century. Successive Arab rulers created an al-qasr on the site as the centre of the caliphate. The original site was larger than the present fortress; the Arab palace was located closer to the Mezquita.When Ferdinando III conquered Cordoba in 1236 the original Caliphal Palace was in ruins. Nearly a century later in 1328 Alfonso XI commenced construction of the Christian Alcázar next to it.Over the centuries the alcázar has had a chequered history, much of it bloody. It has been central to Spanish history during the reconquest, civil wars and colonial expansion.This was the building in which Christopher Columbus received royal approval from Ferdinand and Isabella for his voyage of discovery to the west. It was also the headquarters of the monstrous holy inquisition supported by that terrible two, including rooms and towers for inquisition, torture and imprisonment. It was a prison again in the early decades of the 20th century. It was proclaimed a historic architectural monument in 1931 and placed on the world cultural heritage list in 1984. There are wonderful gardens in the Moorish style in the grounds of the fortress.The Royal Stables are next to the present alcázar on some of the land where the original alcázar stood. These were constructed in 1570 for Philip II who had a wish to create pure-bred Spanish horses.    In these stables the famous Andalusian horse was first bred from Arab stock.    Spain is one of those countries I will always enjoy returning to. Next time I will visit Seville and Toledo. On this trip, after Cordoba I went to Morocco.Cheers, Alan[...]