Sydney : The Queen Victoria Building.

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The QVB is probably one of my most favourite places in Sydney. Not because it’s full of expensive shops, and not because it links directly into yet more shops via the basement.

I love it because it’s an beautifully restored old building. Not old on an English scale, obviously…  It’s classy and blends the old with the new seamlessly. Plus, it has some really posh public toilets.

It was originally completed in 1898, and performed many functions. Standing on the site of the original market, it was built to house a concert hall. It became the city library, offices, and other tenants including piano tuners.

I’m pretty much in awe of any beautiful architecture, I can quite happily spend time sitting and staring at all the intricacies and detailing. Stay classy QVB…

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South Adelaide : Snorkelling, kayaking, and the Nude Olympics.

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We headed down to Adelaide for ten days to meet some of Jess’s rellies. They live in one of them most picturesque areas of southern Adelaide, in Maslin Beach.

Maslin beach, is most famous for being the first nudey beach in all of Australia, and still hosts the annual Maslin Beach Nude Olympicswhich happened to be scheduled during our visit. Great success!

Adelaide seems to get a pretty bad rep in the Australian media and whilst it’s a small city, the surrounding areas are beautiful.

During our stay we made the most of being two minutes walk from a beautiful beach (not the nudey end…) We also Snorkelled at Port Noarlunga, Kayaked on the Onkaparinga river, got up close with kangaroos at Deep Creek conservation park. we also saw wild koalas. Maslin Beach is also our unofficial home of sunsets. In ten days, we probably saw five or six spectacular skies of fire which we took great enthusiasm oversharing with our Facebook friends. Every day.

Beautiful beaches, wineries, the Adelaide hills, and National parks all readily accessible and ‘Mad March’ when festival season kicks in. We’re looking forward to coming back!

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Border jumping, Cambodia to Thailand: Siem Reap to Bangkok/ Aranyapathet to Poipet

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We arranged via our hotel to travel back to Bangkok on the bus, we didn’t really ask too many questions so it came to no surprise to us that we had absolutely no idea what was going to happen. Will it be one bus? Will we drive straight through?

The bus cost $16 US dollars through our hotel, it may have been a little cheaper if we had booked direct, but we didn’t know where we needed to go, and our hotel had been excellent so we were happy to pay them a commission.

We were offered three different times, six or eight in the morning and midday. We took the eight o’ clock bus as we thought it would be the most convenient time to leave, and also arrive.

The bus left sort of on time, and we drove towards the border. We stopped an hour into the journey for provisions and a toilet break, as is customary at these places everything is massively overpriced. There is a mini-mart opposite where the bus left from in Siem Reap which would has more choices and probably cheaper too.

We ended up stopping again in Poi Pet for some still unknown reason; we sat in a car park for about half an hour. After that the bus took us about a kilometre down the road to the border. It was very much a waste of time. The total journey from Siem Reap to Poi Pet took around three hours.

We were then taken off the bus, took back our luggage and given a red sticker! Hardly a ticket, and didn’t fill me with confidence if I’m honest.

So now were walking across to get stamped out of Cambodia. It’s getting on for midday and theres a lot of people around and plenty trying to get across the border. After you’re stamped out you have to walk across to the Thai side around two hundred metres and join the immigration queue here.

Again, the queue was long, and it did not move very fast at all. Literally hundreds of people walked straight past, out of the midday sun and into the air conditioned building. According to an employee we talked to you could go straight through if you got a visa on arrival! It’s a pretty great system that I pay for a multiple entry visa and have to stand in the midday sun for two hours whilst probably five hundred people  queue jump for a free visa on arrival. We spent over two hours waiting to get stamped out.

When we FINALLY get through, a man is waiting on the other side picking up lost looking people with red stickers. You now get assigned a number, and told to wait around.

A short while later a succession of vans turn up to ferry people to a restaurant around a kilometre up the road, where you’re invited to eat. It’s shit and it’s overpriced, but by this point I, and many others are pretty hungry. Sneaky.

You’re then ferried in mini vans to Bangkok, according to your red badge number (I guess to avoid queue jumping and suchlike) They jam you in and stuff all the luggage around you, it’s hot and stuffy and if you try to open the window the guy stops the car and gets out to tell you off. It takes about four hours and they drop you near Khao San Road.

Perhaps on other days the queue is shorter, or they are better organised. Maybe we went on a good day! If I did it again, I would get the six ‘o’clock bus to try to arrive at the border when the sun isn’t so strong.

The bus arrived into Bangkok around seven in the evening, taking eleven hours total.  I’ve read online about scams involving bus companies at Khao San Road, but nobody seemed to be missing anything in the buses we travelled in. Perhaps the night bus would be a more likely place to lose things.

How much does it cost to travel in India? Budgeting Delhi, Rajasthan & Agra.

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We spent three weeks travelling around Rajasthan, Delhi and Agra, an extension of the golden triangle. We flew into Delhi, travelled by train to Jaisalmer, and Jodhpur and then flew to Udaipur as there is no direct train link. We continued our journey onto Ranthambore national park, Jaipur and got a bus to Agra, as all trains were fully booked for our dates of travel. Lastly, we took the train back to Delhi.

Travel

Most people travel one of two ways, by bus or by train. We had quite a long wish list for India, and essentially a short period of time, so we booked (almost) all of our travel from the UK via Cleartrip, an English language version of the IRCTC for a small booking fee. Generally, I prefer not to book everything in advance, but being our first time in India, and after reading all about trying to book at the stations we decided it was the best way. It worked out perfectly for us, even after doing our best to miss our first train by going to the wrong station.

Generally, we looked to book trains in the ‘AC’ classes.  AC2 & AC3 offer good value for money.  AC2 specifies Air conditioned, two tiers and AC3 specifies, unsurprisingly, Air conditioned with three tiers. There is also the cheaper ‘sleeper’ class for the more adventurous. For all things train related check the train god Mark Smith’s website seat61.com.

Delhi to Jaisalmer was our longest journey, seventeen hours; and around 480 miles. We travelled in AC2. The tickets cost 1’384 rupees (£15/$25) per person. By comparison, one of our cheapest journeys from Sawai Madhopur (Ranthambore National park station) to Jaipur, was little over two hours, around one hundred miles and 300 Rupees (£3.50/$5.50) per person. Basically, the trains are very good value for money.

Travelling by train is a cheap, comfortable and enjoyable experience, as you get to meet Indian families also travelling the railways. The trains we took all left on time, and only one arrived late They are also clean and well organised. My tip would be if you’re travelling as a pair, book AC2 side upper and side lower. You get a window seat, usually with a power point and can be a little bit removed for the main area of the berth if you don’t feel like being sociable, or just want to sleep.

I wrote about our one bus journey from Jaipur to Agra in this post.

Our flight was the only transport we took that left late, and cost 3000Rupees (£35/$55) for the hour journey, which is still cheap for a flight.

Accommodation

Generally, we stayed in double rooms with en-suite. The standard of cleanliness in India, can quite often be a long way from European expectations, but It’s one of those things with India, you accept it and get on with it or you hate it. Kind of like the country I suppose.  We booked everything online the day or so before we arrived in a new city with Hostelbookers. Personally, I prefer to just book something and turn up, I don’t want to waste my time wandering around for deals. It might work out more expensive some times, but what price to you put on your leisure time in a location? Especially when we’re trying to cram as much in as we did.

With the exception of Ranthambore National Park, we found accommodation to be affordable, and fairly abundant. We generally paid around 500-700Rupees (£6-8/$9-13) per night for a double, with fan and an en-suite.

Food and drink

Food in India, is incredibly good value. I’m still wondering to myself how they make the bread, so light, crispy and not oily!?

Street food stalls, will sell tasty snacks, although almost always fried for between 10-50Rupees, (£0.10-0.60/$0.20-0.90) depending on how substantial it is. A simple sit down meal for two with a couple of vegetable mains, and some bread would cost between 100- 300Rupees (£1.20-£3.40/$1.70-5.50) A thali, for example would cost, on average around 200Rupees (£2.20/$3.60)

We ate out for ‘Fancy dinner’ three times in India, in Delhi we wanted to go to a restaurant we had seen on TV, famous for its chicken dishes. In Udaipur we wanted to spoil ourselves in the surroundings and in Agra, we were just quite weary and needed the peace and quiet. In all three we took advantage of the professional kitchens and refrigeration to indulge in meat! They were all around 1500-2000Rupees (£17-22/$27-36) for an amazing meal, and especially in Udaipur, a dinner experience unlikely to be matched any time soon.

Drinks in India are generally quite cheap, although alcoholic drinks in restaurants can be relatively expensive, especially spirits or cocktails. A large bottle of water usually cost around 15Rupees(£0.20/$0.30), a can of Coke, around 20Rupees (£0.25/0.40), and a large bottle of Kingfisher beer was around 150Rupees (£1.70/$2.75).

Experiences

India ticket prices can vary for historic attractions. They have a system whereby they have tourist prices, and local prices. The archaeological survey of India sites, including The Red Fort and Humayuns tomb in Delhi, and Fatehpur Sikri near Agra are all 250Rupees (£2.80/$4.50) entry for  a tourist. The Taj Mahal, is however 750Rupees. (£8.50/$13.50) Other historic sites such as Mehrangarth Fort in Jodhpur, or Jag Mandir in Udaipur are around the 300Rupee mark.

Other experiences included going on the tiger safari in Ranthambore national park, desert safari in Jaisalmer and visiting the famous Raj Mandir cinema in Jaipur.

Ranthambore, does not work out to be cheap, especially not compared with the rest of Rajasthan. Currently, (and I think the rules and prices in Ranthambore change regularly) a safari lasts around three hours and costs  555-600Rupees depending on whether you’re in a gypsy (15 seats)  or canter (4 seats) . For accommodation we paid around 1300rupees (£14.80/$24), for nothing extraordinary. It’s a small town next to Ranthambore national park and as such prices are inflated for food as well as accommodation. We spent in the region of 10’000Rupees, (£115/$185) for two safaris each, three nights accommodation and all meals and drinks. We did see tigers, so it was totally worth it.

The town of Jaisalmer was averagely priced for Rajasthan, and we wanted to take an excursion to the Thar Desert to see the sand dunes and generally adventure. It was great, we went with a small company, ate good food and didn’t see another safari group, litter or the other things we had read bad reviews of. The rate for our tour was 1300Rupees (£14.80/$24) per person, but we paid extra to go out on our own.

Numbers.                                                                                                                                                       

We travelled for twenty one days, visiting three states.

Our transport, from city to city amounted to 6’800Rupees (£78/$125) per person, for three weeks and around 1500 miles total. we travelled in the region of 1’150 miles, spending approximately thirty five hours on the train tracks. We also spent around three hundred miles travelling via bus or train. Travel in India is exceptionally good value.

Aside from the above mentioned excursions, we reckon we travelled around India, eating well (although cheaply), but drinking sparingly; sleeping in private double rooms, travelling in AC2 or AC3 carriages and doing activities, or sightseeing most days for around about 1200Rupees (£13.70/$22) per person, per day.

All prices listed are in rupees, pound sterling and US dollars. I have not included our flights in, and out of the country as they are part of a multi-flight ticket. We travelled between October and November 2012.

Since leaving India, I have written this summarising post, which also may be of interest. Any views, or opinions welcomed.

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Sydney : Ballast Point Park, Balmain.

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Three of my favourite interests, from a purely aesthetic point of view are architecture, design and photography.

Ballast Point Park in the Sydney suburb of Balmain, manages to straddle all three. Over the last 150 years, the site has been used for many things, including a private estate, a fuel depot, a grease plant and finally returned to the public to be used as a park.

It’s industrial history has not been forgotten and many elements have been retained and recycled as part of the artistic site, such as ‘Tank 101’,  much of the metal was salvaged to create the installations. The dotted typeface used on  the site reflected the thousands of rivets used in it’s industrial period. The  passages of poetry on the installation read ‘Stone statues of ancient waves’ &  ‘Tongue like dingoes on shore’ are from ‘The Death Of Isaac Nathan’ by Australian poet Les Murray.

The clean, cold lines of poured concrete reinforce its industrial past.

The park is an award winning space, and has great views of the CBD and the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge, it is strangely calm and serene for somewhere so close to the city centre.

Curiously, there is also a Michael Jackson shrine. similar in theme to the love locks made famous by the Pont de l’Archeveche in Paris; but seemingly now popping up everywhere including the Harbour Bridge (although a security guy told us they just cut them off once a month!) Paris, and romance are like mac and cheese, or Kylie and Jason.  MJ & Balmain are, well not the same.

You can reach Ballast Point Park on the Cockatoo Island ferry from Circular Quay.  

Hello Sydney! I’ve missed you.

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We arrived into Sydney on the twentieth of December, since then when we’ve been running around catching up with people, being festive and sorting out boring things like bank accounts and medicare. We’ve spent a lot of time catching up on sleep too, the last few months have clearly hit us hard.

We’ve spent a bit of time at the beach, and wandered around the city some, but one of my favourite places to wander is The Rocks.

it’s odd to think you’re only five, or ten minutes from circular quay and hundreds of tourists but hardly any of them venture further into the older area of Sydney. For this, I am thankful.