Sydney : Balls Head Reserve

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I’ve been coming to Sydney for years, riding the North Shore Line into the city and always passing through Waverton, wondering about Balls head. They have  this lovely Victorian signage “Alight here for beautiful Balls Head”.

It’s one of those things when, you have plenty of time in a place, and you know you’ll come back regularly that you think ‘I’ll go there one day’ Five years later, we actually got off the train at Waverton to take a look.

Once you’ve meandered down through gentile Waverton, you’re surrounded by Nine square hectares of urban bushland.

Sydney is full of surprises, and having an area of harbour fronted land, with an enormous real estate value as this small urban hideaway is pretty special. It’s incredible to think you’re just a mile or so from the CBD and North Sydneys business district. The area also has a rich Aboriginal history.

Beautiful bushland and great city views. Get away from the city without travelling too far.

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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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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.

Hello Bangkok, goodbye South East Asia.

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We left Cambodia on the bus to Bangkok, it was quite an experience.

We’ve had an amazing time in South East Asia, and are really quite sad to be leaving what is probably our favourite part of the world. We have been lucky to experience some great things in the past weeks, and are looking forward to moving on; but with regret at skimming the surface of Cambodia, and not getting to Indonesia. We’re going to try to travel there as soon as we’ve replenished our funds.

We’ve had such wonderful experiences, indulged in food and culture, and met great people. We’re also excited for the next chapter and new challenges.

We planned to get back to Bangkok a day earlier than our flight, partly in case of any unforeseen problems, and partly to hang out in Bangkok again. We’ve both seen plenty of this city, so we’ decided to spend our day slightly differently and went shopping. I had pretty much worn my trainers out traipsing around Asia, and I left my baseball cap somewhere so I thought best to replace these in Asia, rather than Australia to preserve some funds.

We headed to the MBK centre, a shopping centre the size of a small city. The plan was a quick march around MBK, head home for a nap via Chinatown & then go across town to a food market the local students love. Easy?

We left MBK nine hours later.

MBK has eight floors, around two thousand retail outlets, and probably over one hundred restaurants and food areas. As well as this it has arcades and a cinema. It’s immense.

So after we casually wandered around two floors and around three hundred shops we decided to get something to eat. This is a pretty hard task for indecisive people like us.

We settled on Shabu Shi, a Japanese sushi train style restaurant with individual hot pots on your tables! The conveyor belt has little plates of meat, fish and vegetables which you grab and throw into your hotpot. Jess was particularly skilled at hotpot cooking, as she continually forgot she had squid or prawns in her stock and cooked them to resemble small rubber lumps.

They also had Sushi and Tempura, all for a set price ‘eat-what-you-can-in-ninety-minutes’ agreement. Particularly good for gluttonous eaters like us who skipped breakfast. It was fun to play ‘guess what i’m putting in my hotpot’, although the fish on the bone, wasn’t so enjoyable when it came to eating, and the plastic pork sheets still resembled cling film after they had been cooked.  All part of the fun, I guess…

We wandered around several hundred more shops, bought a few bits and pieces, haggled for the fun of it, and drank iced coffees until we ventured onto the seventh floor, and found the cinema.

We had a very memorable cinema experience in India, at the Raj Mandir and wanted to see what it was like here too.

We saw Skyfall, I know it’s not a Thai film, but I LOVE Bond films, and It came out a week after we left the UK, which was particularly annoying.  We got VIP tickets as it was the only showing that day, which bought us comfy chairs, blankets and a cinema that only sat around fifty. To be honest, it was mostly westerners at the showing, but rather bizarrely we had to stand for the Kings Anthem. The monarchy is a big deal here, and after Googling I’m astounded to find out people get arrested for not standing! (sorry, it’s the Daily Mail website..)

We finally ambled out of MBK and into another large market, there was so much food, but we were just so full of hotpot we couldn’t face eating any of it. We then wandered towards music, where we strangely found a girl singing the longest song possibly ever recorded (we left after fifteen minutes and she was still going..) several girating teenage girls on the stage and a handful of half naked Thai boys dancing in front. I love this country.

It was a good day, we bought loads of stuff we probably don’t need, ate like kings and most importantly I got some fantastic pictures for my freaky mannequins collection. Next stop Sydney.

Siem Reap and the Angkor temple complex : Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Banteay Shrei, Banteay Samre & Ta Som

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Angkor Wat is a massive site, and the town of Siem Reap is almost entirely supported by the tourism generated from the Angkor complex. Tourism supports the hoteliers, bars, restaurants, guides, drivers; and those employed directly by the park as security, sweepers and ticket inspectors. It’s great for the local economy; and the economy of Cambodia as a whole.

In order to see the site properly you have several choices, drivers, tuk-tuks, moto taxis, and bicycles. Some people even attempt to hike around, but seeing as the site is three kilometres from Siem Reap, covering an area of over four hundred square kilometres and some sites are over twenty five kilometres from town, it makes it a hard slog, especially in thirty degree heat.

We hired a Tuk-tuk driver for our time in the city and he was great, he knew about the sites, spoke good English and recommended us things

I’ve already posted about Angkor Wat, and Angkor Thom which you can see here. This post focuses more on the temples further away, and generally not as popular, except Ta Prohm, which is incredibly popular.

Ta Prohm, is with the exception of Angkor Wat itself possibly the most recognisable site due to the Tomb Raider film series. It was left to ruin and the trees took over and turned it into the most enchanting, fantasy spectacle. This was the sort of place you wished you could play in as a kid. Unfortunately, due to the years of trees taking over and roots winning battles against buildings, it’s looking a bit unstable. Lots of support pillars and tension wires are holding very old bits of stone together.

Banteay Shrei and Banteay Sambre are both located further afield in the complex several kilometres from the main attractions. As such they are a bit smaller, but with the added bonus of being quieter and less tour groups.

Ta Som, like Ta Prohm and to an extent Preah khan, was left untouched. It features a beautifully overgrown doorway where a tree has snaked all around, giving it a fantastical atmosphere; another of the many highlights of nature overtaking the man-made structures.

Preah Khan, is without a doubt my absolute favourite place in the Angkor complex. Its vast, and has great big open spaces where you can imagine everyday life going on, but it also has little hidden away corners, where you can pretend you’ve stumble upon as yet undiscovered ruins.  It’s also pretty quiet compared with Bayon, Ta Prohm and Angkor wat. There’s a whole new level of amazingness at Preah Khan when all you can hear is the birds.

Siem Reap and the Angkor temple complex: Angkor Wat & Angkor Thom.

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We flew from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap, as we had ended up spending too much time in Vietnam enjoying the middle areas of the country and its relaxed beach culture. It was a quick flight, and it ended up buying us an extra day in the Angkor temple complex; pretty much the only thing we felt we absolutely couldn’t miss out on in Cambodia. We’ve already decided we’re going to plan another trip to Vietnam as we decided to leave Ha Long Bay for another time (the weather was so grey, and I would have been so disappointed had it been overcast and not the beautiful blue images we’ve seen in magazines and photographs) so perhaps we can revisit Cambodia too.

Firstly, a little historical context. The Angkor temple complex dates from around about the ninth century, when the king of the time declared independence and created what was to become the Khmer empire. Over the passing of time, war, rebellion, and such like happened and inevitably there were conflicts, death and overthrowing of monarchies – standard historical stuff.

The changing of rulers meant new structures within the Angkor complex, and embellishments on existing ones. Jayavarman VII, is worth a mention. In his thirty odd year rule (from 1181) he was a hero prince who drove away the Cham forces (modern day southern Vietnam) from Angkor. He was also Buddhist, not Hindu like his predecessors and built much of the modern day Angkor site, including a lot of the well-known sites of Angkor such as Bayon, Ta Phrohm & Preah Khan.

In more recent history, the French colonised modern day Vietnam & Cambodia as French Indochina and spent many decades developing and clearing the Angkor sites until political instability and rise of the Khmer Rouge forced a stop. Since the 1990’s the popularity of the site as a tourist attraction has increased and as such, renovations and investments have increased.

That was brief and not very historical but you get the point, lots of groups had a part to play in creating what is the largest historical site in the world. Although it can never be verified some historians argue that up to one million people may have lived in the Angkor region during its peak.

The extended site is absolutely massive, the superlatives are endless and you can easily spend a week here just exploring.  We spent three days here, and I’ve broken the temples down into two posts. This post covers Angkor Wat & Angkor Thom area. The other post is viewable here, and covers Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Banteay Shrei, Banteay Samre & Ta Som.  There are literally hundreds of other sites with the complex.

Angkor Wat, is the generalised name quite often used to refer to the entire site, but is in fact the centre piece of the Angkor temple complex and the largest religious monument in the world.

Angkor Thom, is the collected area including Bayon temple, Baphuon, Phimeanakas, and the terraces of the Elephant King, and Lepers respectively.

Tickets!

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