SE Asia · Travel · Uncategorized

Cycling Angkor Archaeological Park

Spring 2015: It was an ‘interesting’ entry into Cambodia. I didn’t apply for a visa before hand, which meant a rush around Bangkok airport to find a photo machine for some dodgy passport snaps. Luckily I was prepared for the dollar only visa-on-arrival fee. I knew it was coming, but I’d also become accustomed to carrying a fair amount of dollars when travelling in Asia. If there was an official currency of bribery, it would be US Dollars.

The flight to Siem Reap was run by Angkor Air, and the take off time was pulled forward and pushed back multiple times. I’ve even heard tales from other travellers that if two flights on any given day arn’t full, they’ll combine them. So if you do make your way into Cambodia via air, keep this in mind.

The wait for a visa was long, and then there was immigration and security, but I was lucky enough to be picked up by a driver from the guesthouse I’d booked. He waited despite the delays and via tuk tuk we went back to the guesthouse, which I was so grateful for after witnessing the queue for a taxi into town.

I stayed in the Wat Bo area, wanting a break from SE Asia’s hustle and bustle. Remember, it’s okay to keep to yourself/your travel buddy/etc whilst travelling. Back to back weeks or even days of partying, sharing dorms and noise isn’t for everyone. There’s nothing wrong with being alone, even out of choice! It took me a long time to realise that and maybe some days I’m still working on it!

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I rented a bike from my guesthouse for $1 per day. This included a lock, and there was a basket attached to the front of the bike, which I often used to carry food shops. By carry food shops I mean “put my purchases in the basket and then cycle whilst praying nothing would fall out”. It was by no means a brand new bicycle, but the tires were in good condition and the frame was sturdy.

My only previous experience of cycling in Asia was in the quiet Thai border town of Mae Sot near Burma, mainly used by travellers as a border run stop. The majority of roads there were unoccupied dusty countryside ones, however to reach a petrol station with Internet connection I did have to cycle into oncoming traffic on a busy highway! An activity I survived but wouldn’t recommend!

In contrast Siem Reap, even the quieter end of town, was busy. Tuk tuks, moterbikes and cars streaming into all directions regardless of road markings and red lights – which in most countries means ‘stop’. Cambodia does not fall into the category of most countries. I didn’t have a helmet, so at first walked across some super hectic tangled crossroads, which was only marginally safer, but my confidence increased quickly over the hours.

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The cycle from Wat Bo to the park was absolutely stunning. After (with relief) leaving the heavily congested roads, the route was along a relatively straight countryside road. I passed farms, wild cattle, local people working…. and also coach loads of tourists, which I learnt to ignore pretty quickly!

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To visit Angkor Archaeological Park you must purchase a permit.
$20 for one day
$40 for three days
$60 for seven days
If you’re planning on visiting during the day and then watching the bucketlist favourite ‘sunrise over Angkor Wat’, go for a permit which spans over more than one day.

This pass is checked entering the park, but can be requested randomly throughout your day by park stewards, so make sure you keep it safe and at hand.

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I dressed in lightweight long trousers bought at a market somewhere along my travels, and had my shoulders covered, in order to respect the dress code for a place of spiritual and religious significance. If you forget about the dress request, it shouldn’t usually be a problem depending on the guard at the gate into the park. I was really surprised by the amount of girls wearing butt-cheeks-hanging-out shorts and crop tops, and although I did feel envious as I sweated away, I was happy to be respectful of the cultural norm.

It’s a common mistake for people to assume that Angkor Wat is the only temple to see, but there are actually many others. Yes, including that one from TombRaider! Otherwise known as Ta Prohm. There are so many beautiful temples spread across the park, each with their own character, charm and style. Your visit is likely to take at least a whole day, if not longer. If cycling try to hire a bicycle with a basket so you can carry around extra water, which you will be needing! I covered at least 35km in one day, and water soon became the best friend I’d ever had!

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I noticed that many visitors decided to move around the many miles of temples via tuk tuks with a driver they had hired for the day. Personally I wouldn’t have enjoyed being tied to a driver, and quite enjoyed exploring and getting a little lost. I liked locking up my bike and going where I wanted, when I wanted. Some people got dropped off by tuk tuk and returned to their driver later in the day. The distances to cover are huge and then there’s the sun and humidity factors. However, there’s no right way, just an appropriate way for you!

Although enchanting and beautiful, there is a dark side to the park. You’ll bump into cute children selling bracelets, postcards, water and other souvenirs or snacks. Although I did crack and purchase some items, I was conflicted by the knowledge that these children are sent out to work by adults hiding behind them. It’s a very complex issue, one which I admittedly need to think about more. It’s important to mention it here instead of ignore it, even if it is uncomfortable. Awareness is a starting point…

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Onto matters of a more cheerful and cheeky nature, there are monkeys all around the park and unless you subscribe to the opinion that ‘sharing is caring’ when it comes to food, hold on to your stuff! You can buy bags of food to feed them, but I refrained from doing so and stuck to polite nods as I passed! As well as being aware of thieving monkeys, I always locked up my bike and kept any valuables on me. I hadn’t heard of any incidents and the park seemed safe, but why risk being part of a story which is the exception to the rule!

Cycling around all day was thirsty work, and I treated myself to a couple of fruit shakes which were made by vendors at mini markets in the park. These fresh fruit shakes, along with roti pancakes are two of the street food snacks I miss the most from SE Asia – crisps and fizzy drinks from the corner shop just don’t compare!

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I returned to Angkor Archaeological Park within the next couple of days via tuk tuk for sunrise. For this experience I do highly recommend hiring a driver. Not only will you be tired from exploring the site but the roads to the park don’t have street lights, and in the dark you run the risk of getting lost… or worse. Sunrise was such a beautiful experience that I forgot to see it through a camera lens, and only took the one snapshot above before things really got started.

So, instead of experiencing the sunrise from a picture you see on this blog, you’re just going to have to get out there and see it for yourself – you won’t be asking for your money back, I promise!

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Hiking · Travel · UK Travel

Snowdon Solo – 1085m

September 2015: I was tidying some travel books, which being employed as a Librarian was nothing out of the ordinary, when I got distracted by flicking through a LonelyPlanet guide to a far-away and most exotic land… Wales.

I’d been to Wales a couple of times (both visits within 2 weeks of each other) to visit a friend at Cardiff University. I’d love to say they were cultural visits which taught me a lot and widened my horizons. I can’t say that I’m afraid, although I did learn that getting a coach to Wales from Victoria station was cheaper than a single peak journey on the London Underground. The occasion for my visit to Cymru was a vodka-fuelled pity party for a recently dumped and tremendously teary twenty-something girl. That girl may have been me. Somehow, I don’t think that constituted a real visit to the land of daffodils and leeks, and well, I couldn’t remember it without a fuzzy haze anyway. I was due another visit.

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Reading about Snowdon and having a scorned-by-a-Welsh-ex colleague exclaim to me “Oh, you don’t wanna go there!” cemented it in my mind that it would be an excellent idea to go! Plus I’ve always had a talent for doing exactly what people tell me I shouldn’t do.

So, I booked travel to Llanberis for that weekend and packed my 30l rucksack. Mainly with cereal bars and gummy bears, which I hoped would keep me alive in case I became stranded or lost. I ate most of those on the journey from London to Snowdonia.. Oops! I’m a growing girl! Perhaps not in the right direction anymore, but a growing girl all the same!

I stayed overnight in a quirky hotel (quirky meaning the owners greeted me in pyjamas when I arrived in the early afternoon) and set off to conquer Snowdon the next morning. I’d dressed reasonably warmly – thermal leggings, base layer, hoody, pink windproof jacket, hat, walking socks and my trusty nike trail shoes.
I don’t personally believe you need to commit to buying walking boots or shoes with ankle support for hiking, but they may work better for you – definitely don’t attempt a long walk with footwear you’ve never worn before though. Unless you enjoy blisters, pain and discomfort.

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I took the Llanberis Path route up to reach the peak of Snowdon, which is according to many a guidebook, the easiest way up. Apart from the train of course, opened in 1896! You may not notice it until you’re starting to tire and wish there was an easier way; choochoo you hear it steam past, going oh so slowly, yet still quicker than you… I’m not bitter, I swear!

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There were quite a few groups hiking up the mountain alongside me, some for charity, some for recreation. There were plenty of families and groups of men and quite a few couples too – the couples seemed to be the most leisurely of the demographics, slowed immensely by loved up selfies taken every 78th step. And then there were the solo’s, like me. The route is well trodden and there’s no need for a map or internet connection. In September there were plenty of hikers for me to follow. This was a hike I did on my own, but I was never actually alone. It was a perfect first solo mountain hike, and although the elevation did get steep occasionally it was a relatively easy walk. You know how the phrase goes, if I can do it….

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It took me about 3 hours to climb Snowdon, and it was quite a foggy day. However when the clouds did occasionally clear, the views were spectacular and reached for miles. According to my guidebook (which I had read on the journey over and never removed from my backpack once actually in Snowdonia) you can see Ireland from high enough altitude on a clear enough day. I’m very doubtful I did see Ireland, but whatever I did see, it was incredible. I tried not to stop for too long to admire though, because stopping meant I’d cool down and all the sweat on my back would freeze which ruined the moments of awe. I know, I’m incredibly sexy, but don’t act like you don’t sweat either!

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The summit was absolutely freezing, but it would have been rude not to join the queue for a photograph at the direction dial. I got to the front of the queue and posed for a photo. Which a stranger took for me, and unfortunately it was far too busy and cold to explain the rules of a good photograph (hold the camera at an angle and take more than one photo, it’s on burst mode for a reason!). No instagram filter could fix that mess, trust me, I tried.

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A cafe resides at the summit which is pretty surreal to say the least. In fact, I also passed a cafe about half-way up, which was quite reassuring as I hadn’t become confident yet in the art of being Ray Mears. So, at the summit cafe, which at first I thought was a mirage, I peelled off my layers and finally went for a long awaited wee. I treated myself to a quilt-free (I’m taking calories, not price mind you!) sausage roll, pot of pasta and hot choc. Everyone inside was super friendly and there’s a community spirit which is pretty convenient as you’re likely to share a picnic-table for 6 with 15 others. There’s toilets, bins and of course, even on the peak of Snowdon, you can exit via the gift shop! Where I purchased a “I climbed Snowdon -1085M” pink pencil which is now MIA, probably lying at the bottom of a draw somewhere.

If you’re really tired and can’t face the walk down there may be some return trips on the railway avaliable. However don’t count on it – they’re very often booked up in advance, and if the weather takes a turn then they won’t run at all.

The walk back down starts with a shock as you’re thrown back into the freezer after a nice commercial thawing, but it’s not too strenuous and the view was less foggy by the time I was returning. On my way down I began to relax much more and take in my surroundings. I took a few more pictures, and even tried my hand at wildlife photography. I took a picture of some sheep and they ran away. I took a picture of a horse and then I ran away!

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This was one of my first ventures in the UK as a solo female, and any anxiety I had about that was quickly waved away by people greeting me along the route (see what I did there!) and the gentleness of the very obvious route. Maybe it would have been more-than-nice to have shared the experience with someone else, but maybe it was better to do something for myself, by myself.

I climbed a mountain. And made it back down. Alone. Which is not only an achievement, but I’m pretty sure it’s also one of those important inspirational metaphors which applies to life. One of those ‘you can do anything because you did this’ accomplishments. And even if it’s not, I’m going to believe it is.

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