Holy Varanasi, City of Light

Holy Varanasi, for me, is where things start to get really interesting. Maybe it’s because the clutches of the chest infection are loosening on my bones, maybe it’s because we’ve started to combat the jetlag or maybe it’s because it’s the first place we’ve stopped for more than two nights.

But it’s more likely to be because this is India as I had imagined it. Challenging, spiritual, colourful, relentless, flamboyant, unapologetic and did I mention challenging?

Our journey here is far more palatable than it could have been. Severe fog in North India is seriously hampering the railways and our pre-booked train is late to the tune of 18 hours. So, we bite the bullet and arrange a driver for the 9 hour road trip and make a sharp exit from our Agra hostel at 4am.

The driver, Mistra, works for the homestay we’re on our way to, and has a penchant for lateral-thinking puzzles. When we’re not asleep, we’re guessing at conundrums he poses us such as:

“Imagine you’re in a box, there’s no windows and no doors. How do you get out of the box?” Cue much head scratching until the irritating answer reveals itself. “You just stop imagining!” He yelps clapping gleefully.

Yes, my favourite parts of that journey were the parts when I was asleep.

Out on the motorways, we stop to pay tolls which are passed to no less then three men en route to the cashier. It seems India’s approach to employment is ‘why have one when you can have four.’ It’s something a lot of people I’ve worked for could learn from! The approach in London is more like, ‘it’s a four person job…let’s hire two and load’em up.’

Huge developments on the roads are taking place, we swerve from lane to lane to bypass roadworks. India also seems to be one of the only countries I’ve been where it’s your responsibility as a driver to let those in front of you know that you’re there…with a constant tooting of the horn.

Rear view and wing mirrors are purely decorative and obsolete. Trucks and tuk tuks even exhibit threateningly direct orders on their brightly painted rears.*

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Mistra even toots at stationary and empty vehicles for good measure. We wonder aloud how you attract attention or demonstrate displeasure given that’s the sole use for our horns.

Eventually, through bleary eyes, we swirl into the heavier traffic of Varanasi. When I was a kid, we’d play in the garden with sprinklers and hosepipes. The traffic in Varanasi is like the water in a hosepipe when you put your thumb over it. The pressure builds up and water goes in all directions, at different speeds. It’s frenetic and impossible to second-guess.

One lane forcibly becomes five. It’s a cacophony of horns, punctuated by fast bursts of acceleration and even faster intense braking. Hindus believe in reincarnation. I wouldn’t want to come back as a brake pad, but I would want to come back as an insurance broker. Mistra cheerfully tells us that you don’t need to pass a driving test here, but if the police stop you for bad driving, a baksheesh (bribe) usually does the trick.

We settle into Homestay run by Harish Rijhwani and family. Homestays in India are much like the Casa Particular system I saw in Cuba back in 2010. Your room is part of the family home, and you eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with them allowing you to get closer to their culture than in a hotel. They’re far better value for money than the hostels in India, plus a much more authentic experience. This one in particular is great and Harish becomes more than our host over those days. He becomes our guardian and teacher.

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Once settled, there’s time for a quick thali round the corner before a boat ride on the Ganges to watch the Ganga Aarti (river worship. But, we should start right at the beginning.

Varanasi sits on the banks of the Ganges in Uttar Pradesh, named after it’s two tributary rivers, the Viruna and Asi rivers. But it has had a multitude of other names over time including Kashi, translating as City of Light, and Benares. Hindus consider the three rivers of the Yamuna, Ganges and Saraswati to be sacred. Because of that, Varanasi’s position on the Ganges has given it the reputation as the capital of Hindu India and it is considered a very auspicious place both to die and to bathe.

So the west side of the river is lined with ghats with steps leading down to the water where the most colourful and vibrant parts of Varanasi’s life play out. On our first boat trip, we’re headed for Dashashwamedh Ghat to watch the nightly puja ceremony, also known as the Ganga Aarti.

We’re there before the crowds and assume our position right in front of the action. Hindu priests perform the puja with dedications to Lord Shiva and deities Agni (fire) and Surya (sun) as hundreds of hanging bells are tolled. It is hugely choreographed, unapologetically flambouyant and most of all, utterly mesmerising.

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We upgrade our karma by floating marigold encircled candles out on the water, buying them from the multiple vendors using the tied up boats as stepping stones out to the masses.

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We’re so overwhelmed by the puja that we return the following night, this time to watch on dry land from the ghat itself.

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Beforehand, all human (and bovine) life is here. For every devout Hindu, hands clasped and eyes closed in prayer, there is a tourist onlooker, hands clasped around Canon camera and eyes fixed through a zoom lens.

Sadhus, holy people who’ve renounced their worldly lives stare out from the stone steps. Some are at one in their spirituality.

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Some are in position to capitalise on the tourist rupee.

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And some are worshipping a different ganga altogether.

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But they’re not the only ones capitalising from the globally renowned festival.

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The cows remain nonchalant.

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But it’s worth reliving it, as the sounds and sights are in higher resolution somehow. Next to us proudly sits one of the ceremony bell-ringers whose eyes tell a thousand Hindu myths.

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As a pure, bright completely full moon hangs auspiciously above us, the puja starts and from this vantage point it is completely all-encompassing.

The bells ring out their clamour from above the ceremony as the priests untiringly make their well rehearsed daily dedication.

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The ghats sparkle by night as we head for home.

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The only way to see the city is by walking, its alleys are so slim-hipped that tuk tuks encounter too many cows and motorbikes and make slow progress. We’ve so many questions about this city and about its place in the Hindu pantheon, so Harish entrusts us to his friend Shasha, a local tour guide.

The first stop on this tour has to be Harishchandra Ghat, one of the two main cremation ghats. Shasha takes us down to a neighbouring standpoint a respectful distance from the cremations that are taking place as we speak. There, with his back carefully turned to the cremation, he patiently answers our (many) questions.

Varanasi is considered a very auspicious place to die. Hindus who don’t live here come here to do just that. To wait for death. When it comes, they are taken to the ghat where timber is scientifically measured in relation to the weight and form of the body. The body is wrapped in cloth and stretched out on a bamboo rack and carried at head height down to the riverside amidst incantations and prayers to Agni, the Hindu god of fire, to cleanse the sprit of the deceased and prepare it for transmigration into the next life.

The body is washed, for the last time, in the Ganges before being set alight atop the pile of timber. Only men are allowed to attend the cremation, it is thought to be too emotional for women. Once there, they are expected to stay for the duration. Four hours it takes sometimes, to watch your loved one disintegrate completely into ash before being swept into the Ganges.

Shasha tells us that this is why he can’t face the fire, he recently lost his grandad and watched it from start to finish. His words are chosen delicately ‘You see it all, every stage of the process.’

They don’t really mourn in the same way you would expect, because it is the soul of the person (the atman) that will live on. The body is considered as borrowed, and committing it to Agni, God of Fire, is like giving it back to the world once you’ve finished with it. Like a very morbid car hire.

This cycle of rebirth of the soul is called samsara and it is your karma that prescribes what you will return to the world as.

Not all bodies are burnt, specific groups will be floated out onto the Ganges instead. These include young children, pregnant women and holy men whose souls are considered clean and pure already. Often lepers or the diseased will be floated too. Very few bodies are buried, only those whose souls are considered never to rest, like murderers and thieves.

It is tradition for the men of the family, of all ages, to shave their heads as a mark of respect for the deceased loved one.

There by the water, the wind changes and plumes of smoke billow softly toward us. What was at first fascinating quickly becomes claustrophobic and disturbing. We’ve seen enough of the burning ghat.

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We head back through the streets taking in South Indian style temples…

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…North Indian style temples…

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…and even a ghat that promotes fertility when you bathe in it.

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Swastikas are painted everywhere, a symbol of spiritual fortune in Hinduism before they were ever commandeered by the Nazis and stigmatised for ever. Svastika is Sanskrit for lucky, they’re painted on walls, hands and doors alike. It’s a shock to the system at first, jarring with the European understanding of it as pure, unadulterated evil.

The locals are friendly, if a little obstructive.

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The colours of the place are so striking and eye catching, and it has it’s own unique soundtrack. As we plod through the alleys swerving motorbikes, stray dogs and the ever present holy cows, we pass such beauty in sight and sound.

Mantras lilt delicately on the breeze, streaming from open doors of religious halls, chanted by Sandhus sat in circles and rapture.

Impromptu Indian classical music performances burst into action from bazaar stalls stocking tabla drums and sitars of all sizes.

And colours are everywhere.

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Of course, I’d be on the tourist board’s bank roll if I didn’t highlight the equally persistent soundtrack which puts a pin prick into the romance of Varanasi (and much of India.)

The first and by far worst audio imposter is the ever present Samsung whistle, the default setting on the market leading smartphone. A close second is the, slightly less manufactured, hocking and spitting. Many Indians chew paan which is a paste of tobacco and nuts wrapped in betel leaf. They chew it as a stimulant then spit it out. A lot.

Then there are the vendors, rattling and rolling their wooden carts through the city either selling vegetables or buying unwanted plastic and metals to sell on. Their calls are loud, often the first thing to wake you up of a morn. But it beats an alarm clock.

My advice in Varanasi’s old town would be to look up as much as you look down.

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We have our first (of many) Masala Chai, and it’s love at first sip.

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Then, we fill up on thali and aloo paratha in Ayyars Cafe on Dashashwamedh road, tucked away in the bazaar.

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Then an UNBELIEVABLY good lassi at Milkbaba.

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We wave Shasha off after an enlightening day that has given us much to think about.

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The next day we drive 13 km north east to Sarnath, an exceptionally holy site as it is where Buddha gave his very first teaching to five disciples after finding enlightenment in nearby Bodhgaya.

There’s a quaint archeological museum near the actual ruins where his sermon was delivered, and what can only be described as a theme park with a MEGABuddha statue inside. We decide to visit the first two, but tensions are high at the gate when the ticket collector swindles us by taking our higher priced ticket unnecessarily.

Now, I should say that the financial win for him is 100 rupees (approximately £1 GBP) however unfortunately for him there is a principle attached to it. The on site manager refuses to talk to us because we are women, which further fuels the fire and with smoke coming out of our ears (but no swear words coming out of our mouths) we calmly make a formal complaint. The director listens to our grievance for approximately ten seconds before apologising and ushering us in backstage (as it were.)

The ruins are very serene, although the adrenaline pumping through us reduces the sedative effect.

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The Dhamekh Stupa was built here to commemorate the spot where Buddha first outlined his eight steps to Nirvana and spiritual enlightenment.

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Buddhist pilgrims come to the site attaching gold foil for good fortune.

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But the locals work year round to preserve the stone, gently removing the gold foil from the carved stonework.

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The site is revered by millions, and it’s a real privilege to visit. It’s so sacred in fact, that it’s the last place you would expect a young Indian boy to expose himself to you. But that is what happens to us. The only comeback I have to hand is ‘Buddha does not approve!’ which, in retrospect, is likely not a phrase taught in the schools here.

Not long after this, we swing into an ashram that Harish does charity work with. Here, physically and mentally disabled children are looked after and educated by missionary nuns. We’re greeted with the widest smiles I’ve seen in some time. They’re celebrating one of the carer’s birthdays, so, wearing conical party hats and between occasional toots of birthday horns, they sing a Bollywood song for us. Instead of money, we donate blankets, chairs and books to these amazing children. Heartbreakingly, polio is rife. That easily preventable disease, at a relatively low cost-per-vaccine. It makes you ask questions of the government and their responsibilities.

We ease ourselves out of the aggravation of the day with some retail therapy at Harish’s silk and textile shop Paraslakshmi Exports. It’s a treasure trove of beautiful silks in contemporary and traditional Indian design, with everything from scarves, bedlinen and tableware. We spend more time, and money, than we ever intend to in there, aided by Harish’s patient staff.

Our last supper in Varanasi around Harish’s dinner table is exquisite. The place has gotten busier, and we find ourselves amongst Swedish politicians no less, which makes for entertaining conversation. Harish’s wife Marika is a stunning cook, and she has introduced me to Gajar Ka Halwa, a sweet warm cinnamon-spiced carrot dessert. For that, I owe her my life.

We end our trip the way we started it, with a boat trip along the riverside ghats on the Ganges, this time at dawn.

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Life is playing out just as we’ve come to love it here. The ghats come to life in the hazy light.

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Locals gather for their morning constitutional dip in the waters.

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Kids play as their mothers wash cloths on the water’s edge.

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Downward dog joins stray dogs as yogis bring their classes to the sacred spot.

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Plumes of smoke puff languorously from freshly built funeral pyres.

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And all the while, bobbing there on the water, travellers find magical moments of India that they’ll carry with them forever.

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And the soundtrack was:
Nirvana ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’
Baharon Phool Barsao ‘Suraj’
Holy Fuck ‘Lovely Allen’
Samsung ‘Irritating Whistle Text Alert’

*Special thanks to Laura Varnam for additional photograph

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A Beginners Guide to India: The Golden Triangle

India.

It was only supposed to be a three week holiday.

I was only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.

The more I read about this diverse and mesmerising nation, the more warning phrases started popping up saying that you need time to fall in love with it.

I really want to fall in love with it.

So, I purchase a one way ticket instead of a return and joyfully shake off a year’s worth of dust from my shelved backpack. Jess and Laura are to be my travel partners in crime for the first fortnight for a whistle stop smash-and-grab of the country’s highlights. But afterwards, with time stretched out languidly before me, I can take India at my own pace.

To kick things off, we’ll be swooping in on the triumvirate of cities which is the usual introduction for the first-time visitor to India, known as the Golden Triangle. Delhi, Jaipur then onto Agra.

We arrive in the sprawling capital of Delhi, the world’s second largest city at 25 million. During the flight, my manageable winter head cold has incubated into more of a chest infection, so between this and our extreme jetlag, our time in Delhi is heavier on the smash than it is on the grab. I console myself that there will be time to return. We settle ourselves in amiably by taking afternoon tea in the Atrium of Raj-era hotel icon, The Imperial.

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It’s a very British start to our trip, and we follow it up with a drive around Delhi’s colonial heart at Connaught Place, taking in India Gate and the Government buildings. It couldn’t be further from the rest of the city. Pomp, serenity and stateliness completely replaces grit, hubbub and fervour.

But we’re most open-mouthed at the traffic. From all directions, at all speeds, with no regard for the usual mirror-signal-manoeuvre nonsense, there is an odd emphatic harmony to its insanity. We quickly come to realise that all modes of transport have their quirks in this country.

And before long we’re sampling the quintessential travel experience of the subcontinent, India by train.

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Everything you’ve heard about the Indian railways is true. It’s all rather infuriating. There are something like twelve different classes to choose from. You can either book trains in (good) advance through Cleartrip, or go to the station 24 hours before to secure one of the tickets that are released on the day. The former is by far the easiest way, but it does take a little spontaneity out of the backpacker experience. Thankfully, we’ve had tour manager supremo Laura taking the sting out of the tail for us by booking our journeys in advance. Before we know it, we’re off to Jaipur, Rajasthan’s glorious capital.

There is the small matter of Hogmanay to start off proceedings. We upgrade ourselves to a full five star experience to enjoy the festivities. A gala dinner and masquerade ball is prepared in the courtyard…

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…while we drink Margaritas as big as our heads.

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A colourful buffet awaits us…

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…accompanied by some good old Hindi rock’n’roll (they even threw in a Ricky Martin and Bruce Springsteen cover for good measure, y’know, to amuse the foreigners.)

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Then, there is drinking, dancing and merriment.

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Indians are not big drinkers, and their eyes widen as we order our third round. The bar manager, Mr Vishnal, becomes our closest pal and mixes up off-menu cocktails for us. Throw in some fire-throwing and the scene is set.

I’ve got a bloody good feeling about 2015.

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Our first touristic foray takes us to the city’s Amber Fort, a former royal palace made of pink sandstone and white marble which sits on a hill looking over Maota lake.

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Its former resident would have been the maharaja and his 12 wives. But as we climb the steep hill, we soon meet the current residents…and there’s a lot of them.

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The fort has an impressive facade and four main courtyards and stunning views out over the city.

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The Jai Mandir (Hall of Victory) is lined with white marble carvings and multi-mirrored panels. If you shine a torch upwards, you set off a little live light show.

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The Diwan-i-am (not to be confused with Will.i.Am) is the Hall of Public Audiences where the public could air their grievances to the maharaja in the hope of reconciliation.

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Then there is the Jaleb Chowk courtyard where the army returning from war would show off their spoils. From the 16th century until as recently as 1980, a goat would be sacrificed here every day. The women would be allowed to look upon the events of the Jaleb Chowk only from latticed windows above the courtyard.

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But most hilarious is the Zenana (the women’s quarters) where the maharaja’s twelve wives would live. It was designed with underground tunnels so that the maharaja could make his nocturnal visits without anyone knowing which wife he had chosen for the night. There weren’t even any doors in the complex, lest they creak and give away any clues in the dead of night. The women did not even socialise or eat together, destined to spend their time alone waiting for their man. It was considered very auspicious to be ‘selected.’ What a difference four centuries makes.

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On the way out, some of the locals wave us off.

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Next stop is the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds) which was built in 1799 by Maharaja Swai Pratap Singh to allow the women of the palace, constantly under lock and key, to have a better view of life in the city and its many processions.

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It has become the emblem of Rajasthan’s capital, crafted like so much of the city in pink sandstone, giving it the nickname of the Pink City.

There’s time for a brief pause at the Jal Mahal (Water Palace) in the Man Sagar Lake before we head on the Central Museum.

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Having spent so much time on the hoof (as it were) I’m always pleased when an audio guide has been produced by Narrow Casters. They’re are always so well put together, and have been rightly trusted at sites like Pearl Harbour, the Killing Fields and also here in Jaipur’s Central Museum. It takes us through an atmospheric run down of the sculptures, paintings, musical instruments and tribal dress.

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There’s even a 10th century black stone carving of Vishnu, the supreme being and preserver of the Hindu triad, with his respective deities Brahma (creator) and Shiva (destroyer) at either side.

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Then there is Ganesha, son of Shiva and Parvati, who is considered the remover of obstacles.

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For reasons unbeknownst to me, the overlords of my catholic education considered Jesus the ultimate and only religious study required (with a side of Mary and lashings of Joseph of course) so Hinduism is a religion I’ve never known much about. This has whet my appetite, and the next book shop we pass will hopefully be up to the brief.

The museum is housed in the rather glamorous part-English, part-North indian Albert Hall with inspirational quotes in both English and Sanskrit over each of its ornate archways.

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Another train ride, bite-size and manageable at 4.5 hours, awaits us to Agra in Uttar Pradesh, the home of the Taj Mahal, oft mistakenly considered as one of the seven wonders of the world. Wondrous? Yes. Officially an ancient wonder, not so much.

So it’s a tourist-heavy stop on a well-trodden route, and the aggro levels on arrival at the railway station seem to be directly proportionate. It is by far the worst we’ve seen and negotiating our way out of the station, into a tuk tuk and onto the hostel is a real chore. Irritatingly, north India is having what we’d call in Scotland “a cold snap”, and we’re ill prepared for the freakishly cold temperatures.

The Taj Mahal is the ultimate love story. Boy meets girl and makes her his third wife. Girl produces thirteen healthy children but dies in childbirth with the fourteenth. Boy promises to build girl a fitting mausoleum in tribute and love for her. Twenty two years later, the Taj Mahal (Crown of Palaces) is completed and considered the most significant in Muslim architecture. Boy’s son overthrows him, places him in nearby fort until the end of his days then, rather poetically, buries him next to girl.

It’s creator Emperor Shah Jahan, who built it for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, said its beauty “makes the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.” Two and a half million people each year come to see if there is any truth in that.

Sunrise is the best time to view it, so we shuffle out of our hostel in the wee small hours, torches at the ready, to walk down to the most accessible gate from where we are staying in Taj Ganj, the East gate.

The entry point is laughable. After a bag scan, they try to take our torches from us (which wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t my trusty event Maglite.) When we protest we’re told that the batteries are the problem. We now understand the synergy between the East gate and it’s many battery stalls outside, it had flummoxed us until now.

When they try to take Jess’ emergency Twirl, all hell breaks loose. We counter that she’s diabetic, patting our tummies by way of explanation. It just comes off as ‘hungry’ and it’s the last we see of the snacks. They agree to store our items, but when we ask how we’ll collect them we’re told we will be ejected if we ask any more questions. Sure. Radge Mahal.

Once the formalities are out of the way, we scoop up our audio guides for our first glimpse of this (unofficial) wonder.

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D’you see it? You might need to squint a bit.

The haze hampers our mission, but the morning sun starts to burn through it and that’s when we start to gasp in awe.

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Thirty-five different precious and semi-precious stones were used to create the marble inlays of the palace, the Pietra Dura.

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It’s flanked either side by four minarets with its back, remarkably a mirror image of the front, overlooking the Yamuna river which is considered sacred by Hindus. The mosques look on from either side, also with ornate red sandstone work.

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It’s starting to fill to the brim as the tourist coaches arrive from Delhi, so it’s time to get our covered feet out of here.

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We stop in at Joney’s Place for a brief refuel of Masala Omelette and Banana Lassi.

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After breakfast it’s a thirty minute walk to Agra Fort which is just along the Yamuna river, in full view of the Taj Mahal…on a clearer day. It was built by Emperor Akbar in 1565 but was modified by Emperor Shah Jahan later, he just could not get enough white marble so he embellished the fort with it.

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The residents here are a little camera shy.

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Then we have our first truly outstanding Indian meal, at Dasaprakash on Gwalior Road. We basically only order things we have never heard of before, so it’s an epic voyage of culinary discovery.

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A dander around Sadar Bazaar, and our golden Triangle experience is over.

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It has been a baptism of fire, we did in under a week combatting chest infections, Hogmanay-worthy hangovers and extreme jetlag. But we are triumphant. Next stop Varanasi.

And the soundtrack was:

Sufjan Stevens ‘Seven Swans’
Ricky Martin ‘La Vida Loca’ (forcibly)
The Killers ‘Glamorous (H)Indie Rock and Roll)’
Bruce Springsteen ‘Born to Run’
Robert Burns ‘Auld Lang Syne’

Reaping the benefits in Cambodia’s Vegas

Siem Reap is like Vegas in comparison to the places I’ve visited elsewhere in South East Asia. Tourists are drawn there in their droves to Angkor Wat; a complex of Khmer temples scattered over 300 square kilometres of countryside between the Tonle Sap lake and the Kulen mountains in the north of Cambodia. The searing temple towers and their intricate brickwork give way to remarkable stories of the Khmer empire, and are a must-see for pretty much every passer by…even those jaded by the usual tourist trail.

By day, the town is somnolent as its visitors traipse round the grand avenues and grounds of the temple multiplex. By night, it comes alive with Khmer cultural shows and outstanding Cambodian cuisine all designed at the tourist’s behest. The impact of this is certainly felt, with bright lights, pumping European dance music and English signage all adding to that feeling of ‘I could be anywhere…’ Hyatt and Ritz have made their presence known, and there is even a road called Pub Street which really caters for the delightful 18-30s market.

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Thankfully for myself and my Cambodian co-pilot Buffie, we’ve chosen this city as a place to try to invest ourselves in the spirituality of the country, a spirituality that is a remarkable attribute given the atrocities it has experienced in terrifyingly recent years. To that end, we check into our yoga retreat The Bodhi Tree where we’re greeted by owners Bob and Claire, originally from Australia.

Staying here is a little like staying with family, more like living in their home than in their guesthouse. We’re very well looked after.

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During our time here, we rise at 6.30am for sun salutations then Kundolini yoga after breakfast. Free time is followed in the upper floor by either stretching classes, Nidra meditation, Kundolini chanting or Hatha Flow yoga depending on the day.

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There is even water meditation sessions in the beautiful garden, where we’re challenged to find our inner calm amidst peeping horns and whirring tuk tuk engines.

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We take absolute advantage of this, and of the incredibly early nights, by way of preparing our energies for Angkor Wat. Beforehand all that though, we get to know the city starting with a walk along Tonle Sap river to the Psar Chas market.

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The market is your classic South East Asian explosion of colour, unique sights and sounds.

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From fragrant herbs and spices

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to shocked and stunned featherless chickens.

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We take in a handful of bookshops along the way. Always good to be able to reacquaint yourself with the classics whilst on the road…

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then there’s time for a quick sundowner.

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As far as restaurants go, there is quite a broad spectrum from the sublime

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to the ridiculous… (look carefully.)

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For casual lunches, there is ex-pat haven Sister Srey which serves a mean mango slushy from a menu housed in these quaint children’s book covers.

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Or settle into the huge linen-draped beds at The Blue Pumpkin and treat yourself to a lazy brunch or some exquisite pastries.

Real, authentic Cambodian cuisine is best sampled at The Sugar Palm, where expert service compliments an extremely tasty stir fried fish with chilli and peanuts served in the airy, spacious restaurant.

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For dinner, some of the standouts are the stunning caramelised ginger fish at La Noria, set in a tranquil tropical garden on the Tonle Sap river. We also loved Nest Angkor which is a sleek, contemporary cafe bar smack bang in the centre of town.

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Look out for the stir fried prawns with vegetable and rice, but don’t forget to wash it down with their signature Tamarind Margarita.

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Culinary attributes aside, we, like hundreds of thousands of tourists before us, are here for the temples. Ahead of these less doomed Indiana Jones style adventures, our yoga retreat ends in rapturous style with Kundolini chanting and a tribute to the stunning full moon above us. It’s a session rich in depth and meaning and, aside from the fact that one of the mantras rhymes with the word Sat-Nav, I keep it together long enough to ohm better than I ever have.

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And the soundtrack was:

Bombay Bicycle Club ‘So Long, See You Tomorrow’

The Spinto Band ‘Nice and Nicely Done’

Bon Iver ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’

Sigur Ros ‘Valtari’

Special thanks to Buffie Meekison for some of the photography on this post.

Cash cow corruption and other stories

Now, I love a land border as much as the next backpacker and I’ve crossed a fair few in my time with my trusty Berghaus Jalan. But the circus that is the border from Laos to Cambodia really takes the biscuit. As I edge closer to it, I’m told ghastly stories from those who have survived the experience; their wallets lighter, their spirits damper, their human rights affronted.

Buying a bus ticket from my departure point on Lao island Don Det to Cambodia’s Siem Reap is certainly an early indicator to the veracity of the stories. There is the option on sale; the gruelling route via Phnom Penh, advertised at 14 hours…actually 30 hours of the roughest road Cambodia has to offer. Then, there is the route which goes direct from Stung Treng to Siem Reap cutting out the stop at the capital and 20 hours of travel. But this option is spoken about in hallowed tones and hushed voices…and it isn’t on sale anywhere.

At one of the main travel vendors on the island, I ask about it and I’m told in whispers that it can be arranged but I’ll need to closely follow a script and admit to nobody that I am going this route. Apparently the roads are new and ungoverned, and as such run by dubious money hungry locals. All I gotta do is hand over the cash…so far, so dodgy.

The vendor is edgy, shout and as far as I’m concerned untrustworthy. Unluckily for me, he owns every smaller travel provider on the island so my attempts to circumvent him are thwarted. But I do buy through a hostel-recommended vendor, the Souksan Hotel on the northern tip of the island, which is about the closest I’m going to get to peace of mind.

We boat to the mainland the next morning where our guide offers to “arrange the visas” for $30 all in. The visa costs $20, plus I want to see this corruption first hand so I politely decline.

At the Laos exit, a bejewelled immigration officer demands $2 in return for an exit stamp. No problem, but I’ll need a receipt please sir…you see I am a travel writer. It’s a weak effort, but an effort nonetheless. The result is him withholding the exit stamp until I pay up…which I do.

Wandering through no man’s land, I’m stopped for a ‘health check’ where I have to fill out a document essentially asking if I have a temperature. Another $2 is demanded at this stage. Given they’re unlikely to be qualified doctors and I filled out the form myself, I politely decline. I’ve broken a sweat by this point because I’m quite the rule follower at home.

The real fun begins at the Cambodian entry point. A large sign suggests that the visa costs $20 and the entry stamp costs an additional $5. Sure, because that’s legal. In front of me, a group of French and Spanish are attempting to pay the actual shelf price of $20 but the immigration officer, covered in gold rings and wearing Ray Bans, rips up their forms and throws their money aggressively back in their faces screaming that they’ll simply be denied entry. Call me chicken, but it’s actually a rather terrifying show, and one I don’t want a bit part in as a young woman travelling alone. The principle is despicable, but the cost is less than a half pint of lager…so I make a decision to err on the side of safety and pay the man.

Of course, the French and Spanish group are booked on the same bus…so we still have to wait the two hours while they argue the toss. The bus is oversold too, so I share one seat with a French film production student for the next 7 hours, a journey broken only by a two-hour puncture. The resource-strapped driver doesn’t have a spare, so he borrows a moped from a nearby house and scoots off to get the burst tire repaired while we sit on the roadside in 34 degree heat sipping warm water.

But at the end of the day, which is when we finally arrive in Siem Reap 13 hours later and are eventually refunded half of our bus ticket, I remind myself that I am in a new country for the very first time…and there isn’t a journey that could dampen that feeling. Hello Cambodia.

And the soundtrack was:

The Clash ‘I Fought The Law’
We Are Scientist ‘Cash Cow’
Neil Young ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’
Bob Marley ‘Get up, Stand up’
Public Enemy ‘Fight the Power’

The Big Luang Prabang Theory

From Ventiane, it is simply a hop a skip and a jump north to Luang Prabang. Okay it is more like an eight hour bus ride, and an experience that will become synonymous with my time in Laos. Unfinished rocky roads mix with questionable suspension to provide a unique trampoline effect. Additionally, as we weave through the karst mountains, hair pin bends present themselves every thirty seconds creating a kind of roller coaster effect…but without the added security of a safety belt. Sure.

My partners in crime on this particular voyage are Jackie, an American lass who has been living in Bangkok for the best part of a year and recently engaged Brits Emily and James who have been on the road for TWO AND A HALF YEARS. Yes I am not quite sure how this is possible, if I did know it’s unlikely I’d have a flight home booked…

As soon as we arrive in Luang Prabang, life starts to get a lot more colourful.

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We celebrate our safe arrival with some dinner at backpacker hangout Utopia which hosts Yoga by day, and boozy falangs by night. The moodily lit gardens, low level cushioned seating and fringed palm trees offer a great atmosphere, but the food is fairly standard. It’s quiet when we arrive, but by the time we’re turfed out in time for the national 11pm curfew, it’s quite a chore finding our flip flops in the gigantic pile outside the door.

This beautiful town is certainly one of the jewels in South East Asia’s crown, and it’s intangible charm draws me in immediately. Nestled at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers, it’s the kind of place where time stands still as you wander tree-lined streets perusing handicraft shops, wats and patisseries, the ever present scents of frangipani, sticky rice and baking, a sign of the town’s former French links, lilting around you.

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Being a Unesco World Heritage site saves the centre from the usual logging lorries, trucks and tourist buses trundling through it and many choose to see the sights from the comfort of one of the favoured modes of town transport.

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On day one, the first sight to enthral me is the stunning Wat Xieng Thong, one of Luang Prabang’s most visited monasteries. The wat itself is a classic of local design, roof sloping low on either side and housing gold stencil work capturing exploits from the life of the legendary King Chanthaphanit.

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Classic gifts to Buddha in Laos include money, fruit and sticky rice. However, they also leave beautifully crafted offerings sculpted from banana leaves and flowers. It’s the equivalent of lighting a candle in a church, something of a Same Small World tradition when travelling.

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Dotted around the wat are stupas and chapel halls including the Haw Tai Pha Sai-nyaat featuring an especially rare reclining Buddha dating back to 1560.

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As the sun drops, the monks in their monastic robes play gong and drum which can be heard across the town.

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I wander back through the grounds to scope the stunning view out over the Mekong.

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You can walk all the way down the steep stairs (perfect for practicing your Oscar acceptance walk) to dip your toes in the river. It is one of the most polluted rivers in the world mind, so I wouldn’t dip much else in it.

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Round the corner, just off Th Sakkarin, is Big Brother Mouse, one of the first of many goodwill projects that catches my eye in this little town. It is a bookshop and literacy programme that invites tourists to give something slightly more consequential back than sweets and coins (actually impossible given the Lao currency, the Kip, is note format only) Here, volunteers are invited to drop in at either 9am and 4pm to spend a couple of hours helping local Lao schoolchildren with their English. It is a lovely, warm and fuzzy sort of experience, and I am struck by the linguistic talent on show from the kids. The are varying levels of ability, but the standard is certainly higher than my French would have been at an equivalent age. Of course, Luang Prabang is the big smoke round here, and I will soon learn that this is certainly not the case in the more remote towns and villages.

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Jackie and I have earned our dinner, which is a delicious water buffalo red curry at Lao Lao Garden on Kingkitsarat.

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Those of you very familiar with Same Small World (hi Mum, hi Dad) will know that I’m fairly fascinated by countries who hold their spirituality in high esteem. For me, it doesn’t matter what you believe…but if you believe it so utterly and completely, I will be slightly obsessed by you.

So, it’s not surprising that I’m up a good hour before the sunrise the next day to witness Tak Bat. Daily, at dawn, Buddhist monks, barefoot and saffron clad, perambulate along Th Sakkarin and Th Kamal in procession begging for alms by way of honouring their vows of humility. Townsfolk kneel on the roadside and place balls of sticky rice in their begging bowls, gaining spiritual merit in this act of donation. The stillness of the moment and the simplicity of the faith immediately springs a tear to my eye and gives rise to quiet contemplation. It is a very moving demonstration of faith, humility and respectful giving.

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What is even more stark alongside these admirable human values, is the ugliness of the disrespect displayed by some of the touristic voyeurs. This is supposed to be a meditative ceremony and there are several ways that you can show your respect; observing from a good distance across the road, removing your shoes and kneeling with your feet pointed behind you, covering your bare arms with a scarf and not making eye contact with the monks.

However, the willingness to get that perfect Facebook or Instagram photo seems to overtake good manners, and visitors sporting hot pants and bare arms crowd around them letting flashes go off in their faces. It is utterly despicable, like a twisted red carpet at an awards ceremony…and I’ve marshalled enough of those in my day job to know how empty, vacuous and devoid of admirable qualities they can be. It really gets to me, and now hot tears sting my face as I quietly simmer, head bowed, putting every grain of my being into not running over to berate them.

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Afterwards, I need to get far from the haranguing crowd so I tackle Phu Si, the 100 metre hill which dominates the city centre and skyline.

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Townsfolk are rising and getting on with their mornings below.

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For me, it is time to get involved in another local tradition. Local Lao lad La (try saying that after a few sherries) tells me all about it as we look out over the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Locals take songbirds up to the summit in small, hand-woven wicker cages and release them into the wild whilst making a wish. La, dressed head to toe in Lycra, says he runs up here every Saturday morning after dawn as part of his morning jog and makes a wish that he can one day become an English teacher.

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It’s a beautiful sentiment…and I want in. Here are my little songbirds.

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But I’ll be keeping my little wish to myself…

That Chomsi, a beautiful gilded stupa, sits atop Phu Si.

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The walk down the south easterly side of the hill is punctuated with a series of new gilded Buddhas (seemingly themed by the days of the week)…

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Followed by a footprint believed to have been made by Buddha himself (Christ, he must have been massive…)

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The rest of the world is waking…so Jackie, Ebba and I meet for breakfast to decide what to do with the rest of our day.

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After slinging on our bathers, we head out to grab a tuk tuk and meet up with a travelling twosome, French Lisa and Dutch Sander. Together, we drive out to Kuang Si waterfalls which is a little over 30 minutes from the town. As with every tourist attraction, a network of eateries and kiosks have sprung up at the entry to the waterfall’s park, but we’re on the hunt for something with a little more of a local feel. We’re following a recommendation from an expat Luang Prabang library staffer. It takes a good twenty minutes in the unforgiving midday sun…but it is well worth it. It is a waterside organic vegetarian cafe on stilts over the river, which has its own little falls that the local kids splash around in whilst we enjoy one of the best meals of the trip.

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The proprietor’s sun squawks up to her to come down and open up for the falangs. There isn’t even a menu…she just offers vegetables and rice…but it is so exquisitely cooked and seasoned that it becomes a true culinary highlight.

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Heading into the waterfall park, it is a five minute forest walk past a bear enclosure (yes, bear enclosure) to the foot of the falls. The stunning opal blue pools start strong, and only get more and more beautiful as you continue upwards onto higher level cascades. Seriously, it’s somewhere between a Bounty advert and a Timotei advert…but with less hard sell.

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We even happen upon The Thinker.

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The rest of the day is spent splashing around in the pools and behaving like eejits.

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Dinner comes courtesy of the town’s swishest restaurant Tamarind on Ban Wat Nong where we are reunited with Emily and James, and it is sampling platters and stuffed lemongrass ago go.

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So far, Luang Prabang has been utterly mesmerising. But on our last full day, it steals my heart in a way I never thought possible. After breakfast on our last day, Jackie, Ebba and I set off on a boat trip that I will never forget. The Luang Prabang library, in association with Community Learning International, an NGO promoting literacy here in Laos, invite donations from upwards of $2 (the cost of a book) all the way to $300 (the cost of taking a floating library aka the ‘Book Boat’ to remote villages along the Mekong.) I’m completely beguiled by this project, so here we are putting along the river in our long boat surrounded by books on a very special mission.

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Some of the books are in Lao, some are bilingual…and some very recognisable.

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We’re with charity staff Chantha and Sally plus animateurs SinXai and Madame Seangchan, who deftly prepare the props and puppets before we arrive at our destination.

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We arrive at Ban Hoi Koa just over two hours later, and the excitable squeals of the kids as they run down the hill to meet us at the waters edge can be heard clearly over the loud thrum of the boat’s engine.

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We walk up the hill and find shade from the punishing sun under a thatched roof in the centre of the village.

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In association with another NGO Eau Laos Solidarite, who focus their efforts on providing running water systems and toilets in remote Laos villages and educating local children in sanitary matters, SinXai leads an all-singing class on the basics in promoting good sanitation. They are so eager to learn that even children too young for school line up in oversized uniforms to ensure they don’t miss out.

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Around us, the sheer poverty is writ large. It is hard to believe, being so close to Luang Prabang, a town that pulsates with industry, culture and tourism. But, here in the shadow of a dramatic karst rock formation, the population of 300 constituting 70 families live without running water or latrines.*

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One of the many many things that is beautiful about this experience is the solidarity and friendship between the children. They have nothing…but they have each other.

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After class, the kids troop down to the floating library and are allowed to choose a book. Within seconds they are all seated and reading to themselves absorbing every word like their lives depended on it.

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As we hand out textbooks, storybooks, pens and soap to the kids, neatly lined up to wave us off, I’m told it is one year since the Book Boat last visited Ban Hoi Koa…and it could easily be the same again before they can return. It is this fact, and the look in the kids’ eyes as they stare hungrily at our supplies, which slowly and quietly breaks my heart as we slip away upstream back to Luang Prabang.

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I’m very heavy hearted by the time we return. If you are moved enough to read more about it, and how you can help this beautiful literacy project, please have a read of my feature on The Culture Trip here

Thankfully, Jackie, Ebba and I are cheered with a visit to Dyen Sabai just across the bamboo footbridge over the Nam Kham river. It is an open sided riverside restaurant, with wooden decking and seating sloping down the lush hillside to the water and twinkly fairy lights marking out the paths. The pork and aubergine with sticky rice, washed down with Beerlao, is easily the best meal I have had in Laos. Emily and James join us, and since all of us are headed for pastures new in the morning, we chat about the next chapters that await us.

In the more immediate future however, there is the serious matter of the League Cup Final. My beloved Manchester City take on Sunderland at Wembley tonight, and we all troop to the local Sports Bar which is full of cheering expats buoyed by Beerlao. It ends in a 3-1 victory, and after saying my goodbyes to our little Luang Prabang team, I proudly watch Kompany et al lift the trophy before I saunter home in a beery fug.

Luang Prabang has been utterly stunning, and I am immensely sad not to be staying longer.

And the soundtrack was:
Tom Baxter ‘Feather and Stone’
We Are Scientists ‘TV En Francais’
TV On The Radio ‘Return To Cookie Mountain’
Sharon Van Etten ‘Tramp’
Vampire Weekend ‘Modern Vampires of the City’
Arcade Fire ‘Afterlife’
Foals ‘Antidotes’
Luscious Jackson ‘Electric Honey’

*Special thanks to travel buddy extraordinaire Jackie Echegary for contributing this image to Same Small World.

(Fa)Lang May Your Lum Reek in Ventiane

Finally, Same Small World has been blissfully reunited with its backpack. Having lain impotent at the bottom of the wardrobe for the last nine months taunting me with the adventures that might never be, it’s now stuffed full of flip flops, mosquito spray and travel adapters once more.

Having spent half of last year sauntering through South and Central America, it seems as good a time as any for a return to South East Asia. The first stop on this particular reunion is Laos, population 7 million, which has fast established itself on the backpacker trail.

This trip is much needed and follows a fairly grim few months at the turn of the year which included frequent 20 hour days at work and an unexpected stint in hospital heralded by my maiden voyage in an ambulance. All the signs were there telling me that a change was in order. As a relatively wise person once said, ‘If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, then you’ll keep on being what you’ve always been. Nothing changes unless you make it change.’ So as I shake off the shackles of a very forgettable chapter of my life, I take my bruised and battered soul back to it’s spiritual home…the open road.

I have my first impressions of Laos in Ventiane, the languid capital which nestles on the Mekong whose banks play host to the majority of my first day here. Capitalising on part of its 1865km share of the river, they have developed Fa Ngum Quay, a stunning stone esplanade the length of the city’s river bank. It’s perfect for the runners zooming by, the impromptu keep-fit class taking place up ahead and the evening offerings made by the locals.

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All human life is here.

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It’s the ideal spot to watch my first Mekong sunset, a hazy affair where a perfectly spherical sun doesn’t so much as drop into the horizon as it does into a thick band of smog burning orange reflections into the water below. It is stunning nonetheless.

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Opposite the quay lies Buddhist temple Wat Chanthaburi, a great introduction to the kind of intricate carvings and stunning architecture that pure unadulterated worship provokes in these parts.

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Ventiane also provides a promising introduction to Lao cuisine. Whilst quality varies throughout the city, value is a constant and there are one or two standout joints including Amphone on Th Wat Xieng Nyean and Yulala Cafe on Th Hengboun. Laos has abundant specialities including Laap, a kind of spicy salad prepared with meat or fish, mint, chilli, coriander and lime juice and Or Lam, a stew of vegetables, smoked or grilled meat and aubergine. Other dishes include the kind of curries, stir fries and flavours you would expect from a nation with such proximity to Thailand and Vietnam.

However, the key ingredient is the universally present sticky rice. Laos people eat more sticky rice than any other nation, in fact it is seen as the essence of being Lao. Traditionally, it is eaten by hand, rolling the rice up into balls and dipping it into your curry or stir fry relegating it to accompaniment status. There is a phrase in Lao ‘Luk Khao Niaow’ that they often use to describe themselves, which literally translates as ‘Descendants of sticky rice’ Thankfully, it is utterly delicious and slightly addictive…although don’t expect many variants other than white sticky rice, black sticky rice or wild sticky rice.

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Further out of the city due east lies Phu Khao Khuay meaning ‘Buffalo Horn Mountain’ which is a nationally protected mountainous area of over 2000 square kilometres home to gibbons, Asiatic black bears, clouded leopards and Siamese fireback pheasants. It’s not only the wildlife that entices me out here, but the promise of Tat Xai waterfall set deep amidst the jungle. We set off waterfall hunting from Ban Hat Kai, a 25 strong village on the banks of the Nam Mang river. The journey starts by long tail boat.

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We get acquainted with some of the locals along the way.

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We trek through jungle, over rock and bridge until we have it in our sights.

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It’s a cracker, made all the more enjoyable by the welcome physical exertion to arrive here. I’m impressed that it still cascades at all during hot season.

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We head to the nearby Pha Xai waterfall, but its 40 metre drop is dry as a bone, bullied into submission by the soaring temperatures.

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It still offers stunning scenery set against a verdant backdrop.

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Now, before I make my merry way north to Luang Prabang, I must nod to this post’s title. ‘Falang’ is the entirely inoffensive colloquial noun for ‘foreigner’ and how the locals will be cordially referring to me during my trip. Think ‘gringo’ but in the Far East. Referring to yourself as a ‘falang’ when talking to Lao people immediately prompts a fit of giggles…So it’s a good one for the internal phrase book.

And the soundtrack was:
David Kitt ‘The Big Romance’
Mogwai ‘Master card’
Drenge ‘Drenge’
White Denim ‘Corsicana Lemonade’
Sigur Ros ‘Kviekur’
Rodriguez ‘Cold Fact’

Part IX: Guatemala – From Caribbean coast to the north

So, onward to Guatemala then. Fortunately I don’t have to rip myself from the Caribbean just yet as the first stop, Livingston (nicknamed Buga), is right on the coastline at the mouth of the Rio Dulce. It’s also Easter (Semana Santa in Spanish) which is kind of a bid deal in these parts and means two things…1) accommodation is booked out and 2) a whole lotta Jebus lovin’.

Due to the former, and the fact that I have neglected to forward plan due to rum consumption in Belize, the hostels are booked out. So I find myself in a charming little bungalow in Vecchia Toscana right on the beach. It’s a swell place to spend Easter…

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Livingston is, like much of Guatemala, set against the backdrop of stunning mountains and has a vibrant market too.

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As far as outings go, the must-see go-sees are Siete Altares (Seven Altars) which is a network of waterfalls flowing from the higher ground into the sea.

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Note extreme absence of water actually falling…dry season innit. Of course they don’t tell you that before the half hour hike.

Playa Blanca offers the last beach I will see until Hawaii next month so I am keen to soak up as much sun as possible before moving inland. Coconuts with straws, coarse golden sand and shallow tepid waters. Thankfully, it is everything you would expect from a Caribbean beach.

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Chief amongst the highlights here though is the food. There is a strong Garifuna culture here, as with the coast of Belize and Honduras, and the local specialities reflect this.

First up I try Tapado which is a Garifuna seafood stew and is a traditional dish served like a soup on the Caribbean coast. It has everything from crab, shrimp, snapper, conch and even shark served up completely whole in a mildly spiced broth. It is delicious…but I didn’t expect the crabs to greet me quite as they did…

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I want to immerse myself in the culinary culture here so I sign up for a Garifuna cooking class at Rasta Mesa (meaning Rasta Table), a cafe and cultural centre in the northern part of town. Roaming from hostel to hostel, I haven’t really cooked for myself since 2012…so I am keen to get the apron on and whip up a Garifuna storm in the kitchen. On the menu this evening? Plantain fritters with coconut rice and salsa. According to the Belizean born Rasmega and his American wife Amanda who own and run Rasta Mesa, this is what you would prepare for a special occasion like a family wedding or anniversary…it’s the luxury end of the Garifuna spectrum.

To kick things off, I crack open a coconut with a machete for the first time ever (oh the power) and proceed to excavate its flesh for the coconut rice. The utensils are a little more basic than I’d usually be used to. I am going straight to John Lewis when I get back to London to find one of these machines. Cookware klaxon!

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Then, just like Dinosaur Jr’s 1993 command, it’s time to ‘start choppin.’ We also grate the unripened plantains to make a paste.

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Before you know it, we’re quite literally cooking with gas, and it is not long before we serve up the goods and eat it with Rasmega and his family.

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Semana Santa fully kicks in and a procession takes place on Good Friday through the town, decorated by these beautiful sand carpets depicting religious scenes and messages. The kids in the town spend the morning working hard in the unforgiving sun to make this happen.

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The celebration is completed with a re-enactment of the crucifixon (of course), and drinking on a par with UK bank holidays.

I take my leave when the town starts to feel like Manchester the day after a Rangers UEFA Cup Final and head along the beautiful Rio Dulce to the town of the same name. The journey is well worth the two hour wait at the port as we snake through the slender and curvacious waterway dwarfed by rock formations either side.

One hour and a mild soaking later, we arrive at Rio Dulce town also known as Fronteras, a hangover from it being the last stop before the tricky northward road to Peten in the highlands. There is little to see in Rio Dulce town apart from the river itself, so I water taxi out to the Hotel Kangaroo, an Australian-run backpacker’s joint over the way from the bustling town.

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Here I get into a little bank holiday drinking to celebrate Cristo’s revival with a great bunch including Gabby and Sarah from England, Shahar from Israel and a Spaniard called Albert (certainly Scottish in a past life.) I’m not sure what the Spanish for honesty bar…but I do know that they had one…peligroso.

In and around the surrounds, en route to nearby town El Estor, there are a couple of well hidden haunts to visit. The route there includes taking a 15 quetzales collectivo, kind of like a clapped out mini-van that shuttles you onwards once full. They are usually hectic affairs, with a game conductor hanging out of the speeding vehicle shouting their destination as you reach top speed. To complete the hilariousness, the Guatemalans will stare at you the whole way, principally because they have never seen anyone (in their own words) as ‘long’ as you before.

If you survive that, you make it to Finca el Paraiso which is the world’s only naturally hot waterfall. It’s a stunning sight, busy with Guatemalan holidaymakers but splashing around in its pools is a lovely way to spend a morning.

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Under the lip of the rock, the hot spring water creates a natural sauna to get your detox on post-Easter celebrations.

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The visit is peppered with business-minded young Guatemelans swarming round you demanding that you buy their wares ‘Comprar cocos.’

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On the banks of the river, there is no Easter rest for the local women who wash their clothes in the tepid waters.

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Ten minutes further along the road in a collectivo, unless of course Tourism Policeman Roberto gives you an escort in his van, you’ll find El Boqueron. Here, a couple of kids will take out for a trip along the water in their boy-powered lanchas to enjoy this stunning view that is straight out of a Rambo movie.

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This is a very spiritual place for Mayans and it is here each year on the 21st December, the last day of the Mayan calendar, they perform Mayan rituals.

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And the Mayan gods reward them with amusingly shaped rocks along the river. Looky look, a crocodile!

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The 15 quetzales journey (approx £1.25) is big business for the kids around here. Some of the lanchas are full to the point of mild sinkage…

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The north beckons eventually, and it is time to leave the colourful port of Rio Dulce after one last shrimp ceviche, a central and South American speciality, my last in the continent.

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Again, due to extreme lounging, I have neglected to book the bus from Rio Dulce town to Flores. However, the driver let’s me sit in the aisle next to him for the hysterical four hour trip.

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All recommendations had pointed to Los Amigos hostel in Flores, a beautiful little island in the middle of Lago Peten Itza. And I can see why. I settle into this little treehouse for a few nights.

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The town is awfully bonny, with rocky flagstone roads and colourful buildings.

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The key draw here in Flores is its proximity to Tikal, the Mayan ruins set deep within the nearby jungle. So, armed with Uruguayan Roberto, Irish Elaine and American boyfriend Dan, we head to the site for a guided tour with a 4.30am kick off.

So, I am no stranger to Mayan ruins, having treaded the well worn path to Chichen Itza in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula back in 2011. The unique selling point here that really sets Tikal apart is its jungle destination, which means your tour is accompanied by howler monkeys swinging through the canopy, brightly coloured parrots and toucans heralding your arrival with their squawks and pisotes wandering around at your feet hoping you’ll ignore the signs about feeding the animals.

The former were kind of elusive when we got there, but here are the pisotes en masse with their antennae-like tails held high.

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The Mayans settled here in 700 BC, but Tikal’s downfall was part of the mysterious general collapse of the lowland Mayan civilisation in 900 AD. However, it wasn’t until 1848 that the Guatemalan government decided to send out an expedition to the site, and now just 20% of its expanse has been uncovered and restored for our pleasure.

The temples, towering to as much as 44 metres, are a key attraction here, numbered unimaginatively as they are. We trek through Templo I to VI in the sunshine.

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It would appear that the Guatemalan Mayans are much more relaxed than their Mexican counterparts, and you are allowed to scamper up and down these temples to take in the views across the jungle’s vast expansive canopy

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Cue team photo…

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All the way round we’re reminded what NOT to do at Tikal…

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…however if you were determined to flout convention, some of these signs could give you ideas.

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Inside the temples, we can see some of the rooms in the complex and get an idea of Mayan life. I can see that they were not turntablist fans…

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There is beautiful wildlife along the way like this Montezuma Oropendula bird, a yellow tailed tropical bird, whose nest hangs from the tree…leading to rather obvious and unflattering nicknames.

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It’s a place for spiritual connection for some…

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…and shameless tourist box-ticking for others.

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We reward ourselves with dinner at La Luna.

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The trek has inspired us for adventure, so we head out horseriding round Parque Ixpanpajul the next day. Roberto has a wild stallion who is bucking and rearing all over the place, whereas Dan’s horse seems to be on a Belizean go slow and is the complete opposite of the spectrum. My horse, Arbe, is somewhere in the middle but it is more of a gentle plod than a rapid canter.

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Afterwards, we take to the skies for a zip line across the park’s dense canopy on six lines of varying height and length. Not quite to Costa Rican standards, but exhilarating nonetheless.

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Game Elaine even goes for the ‘superwoman’

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A steak dinner accompanied by mojitos completes our last adrenaline-packed day in Flores.

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Elaine and Dan are headed for Rio Dulce while Roberto and I head south for Lanquin and chapter two of the Guatemalan adventure. The great news is our paths will cross again in Antigua next week! (I do love it when that happens on planet backpack)

Stay tuned for the next instalment…

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