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We arrive in Guatemala City in the early evening by air, it’s a bit extravagant of us to fly – we were planning to take a bus but were less than enthusiastic to spend a whooping 60 hours on a journey by bus - our time is precious and we much prefer spending it relaxing rather than cooped up in a bus now that we’re seriously starting to feel the fatigue after countless long journeys, always on the move from place to place. We managed to book a room at Hostal La Coperacha and an airport pickup while waiting for our flight in San Jose – we had a few hours to kill as our VIP taxi-van arrived early from Montezuma. It feels very luxurious to have everything booked up and arranged for us for once – no stress is a very pleasant feeling. Our taxi driver is waiting for us as we come out but he need to go and pick his car up from the car park so we have to wait outside where we have some crazy woman (probably on crack and various other substances) shouting abuse at the world and some gibberish about government satellites and aliens. We try to just ignore her as she comes up to us but this just make her more determined to shout louder and even more abusing than before. We’re just hoping she won’t attack us with her used needles and probably deadly diseases. Our taxi driver arrives in the nick of time to rescue us from an attack by this crazed babbling woman – we’re out of here. As we get closer to the centre of town we hit crazy traffic – it’s all stand-still as many roads are closed off for the Easter holy week parades. Due to this chaos the journey that is supposed to take 10-15 minutes takes over an hour. It’s quite nice to watch the bustle of the people dressed in their funny purple church outfits as we slowly move through the traffic stand-still in our taxi. When we finally get to the hotel we get a very nice surprise - the room is huge and really nicely decorated and the hostel is in a really nice old building on a quiet road.

[caption id="attachment_2782" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Our budget room at Hostal La Coperacha, Guatemala City. Our budget room at Hostal La Coperacha, Guatemala City.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_2783" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Our budget room at Hostal La Coperacha, Guatemala City. Our budget room at Hostal La Coperacha, Guatemala City.[/caption]

Upon arrival we’re absolutely starving and quickly pop out to get something to eat. Because it’s the start of holy week and Sunday not many restaurants will be open, but we head out in good hopes. We don’t get far down the road before we can’t get any further because of the crowd of people still hanging about in the streets after the parade we saw some of from the taxi earlier. The good thing with it still being very busy is that there are many food-stalls around, so our worries about not being able to get food are unfounded. We really like the look of a stall that makes some gorgeous smelling chorizo sandwiches. With my broken Spanish I manage to order one for me without the mayo sauce and one for Hannah with all the trimmings. I’m astonished I manage to do the order without stuttering and even more surprised that the stall-holder understands me on the first try, so I don’t need to repeat myself – I’m getting better at this, whohooo. I even get a compliment on my Spanish from a bystander after he learns I’m Norwegian. Happily fed we walk back towards our hostel (or more correctly – we’re happily stuffing our faces while walking back to the hostel). It’s quite late by now and we’re looking forward to relaxing in our plush room. Our hostel has a really tranquil setting with lots of plants dotted around the place. The manager Lucien, an ex-pat Frenchman, is really nice, and in the morning cooks up a very nice traditional Guatemalan breakfast for us. He also arranges for us the transport to the bus station for our bus to Panajachel on Lake Atilan where we can catch the boat to San Marcos La Laguna.

Before we get our taxi to the bus station we need to get some cash out and head in towards the main square to find an ATM. We’re quite surprised to find there are armed guards everywhere and for everything - how bad is the situation here when they need an armed guard for the truck delivering frozen chicken and the van delivering sausages to the various small shops. We’d seen armed guards by banks and ATMs in other countries but that is sort of expected – armed guards for some frozen chicken is a sign of desperate measures due to desperate people – how poor are people here to resort to robbing a chicken or sausage van?

It’s time for us to take the bus to Panajachel and the taxi takes us to the bus company. From the outside I would never have guessed the place was a bus-station – it’s an anonymous doorway and at first we’re unsure the taxi driver was properly briefed on where we were supposed to be dropped off. He keeps saying something about one o’clock and wait, and something more about a closed office. We get our backpacks out of the car and head into the anonymous doorway hoping this is actually where we’re supposed to be. When we get inside we can breathe a sigh of release as we can see our bus with a Panajachel sign getting a proper overhaul and a good wash. The old bus is positively gleaming as if it was brand new by the time it’s ready for boarding. It’s a so-called chicken bus and in the beginning we’re a bit worried it’s going to be a bit rough and ready. It quickly fills up and we’re happy to see the passengers are a mix of families and business people, and not the crooks our guide was warning us would frequent these busses – maybe we should show our Lonely Planet books the shredder... (under pressure they might start to improve themselves...). The journey is a really fun experience with vendors coming on during the trip selling chicken in tortillas and fruits – and a few things we couldn’t understand what it is of course. Everybody on the bus are wearing big smiles, even though it’s really crammed – we’re practically sitting on top of each other – and the atmosphere is really great.

[caption id="attachment_2788" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Our chicken bus getting a good wash and overhaul before the journey from Guatemala City to Panajachel. Our chicken bus getting a good wash and overhaul before the journey from Guatemala City to Panajachel.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_2785" align="aligncenter" width="533"]The bus depot for the chicken bus to Panajachel in Guatemala city. The bus depot for the chicken bus to Panajachel in Guatemala city.[/caption]

We arrive in Panajachel around six and after a bit of walking about find the right pier for the boats towards San Marcos la Laguna. After about a 45 minutes wait for the boat to fill up we’re finally on our way across Lake Atilan.

[caption id="attachment_2787" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Our view from the pier in Panajachel while waiting for our boat to fill up and cross Lake Atilan to reach San Marcos la Laguna. Our view from the pier in Panajachel while waiting for our boat to fill up and cross Lake Atilan to reach San Marcos la Laguna.[/caption]

As we get dropped off at the bus station we immediately notice the lack of intimidating tuc-tuc drivers compared to Siem Reap - what a relief. We decide to walk towards the guest houses we've picked from a combination of the Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor. It's very hot in the sun and I soon resemble Niagara Falls... All the guest houses we'd picked as favourites before leaving Siem Reap are unfortunately full, and we have to settle with going for the "door to door technique" we visit quite a few grotty hotels - why are the nicer ones always taken... No need to answer that on second thought... We finally find the Royal Hotel, and they offer us an OK room at a discounted rate - a bit more expensive than what we normally go for, but I'm tired of walking up and down stairs in this heat looking like a drowned rat to look at sh*t-holes so it'll do.

In the afternoon we do a self-guided tour of Battambang’s architecture that we downloaded from KA Tours - it has many traces of the French colonisation and some nice Art Deco influences. At some stage it's like we could as well be standing in a street somewhere in France. After our sightseeing we stop by Smoking Pot, a restaurant mentioned in the Lonely Planet. We have some gorgeous wok-roasted chicken and decide to book a cooking class for the following afternoon. After our splendid dinner we visit Bamboo Train Cafe and Riverside Balcony Bar, both are very nice bars, but because they're a little bit out of the centre of town they're both very quiet - a real shame as they both have a lot of character - much more so than the more "fancy" bars around the hotels in the centre of town, which are more generic and could as well be anywhere in Europe - and they're overpriced.

[caption id="attachment_1727" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Wat Pipetharam, Battambang. Wat Pipetharam, Battambang.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1728" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Battambang. Battambang.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1729" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Central Market, Battambang. Central Market, Battambang.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1730" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Battambang. Battambang.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1731" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Battambang. Battambang.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1732" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Battambang. Battambang.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1733" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Battambang. Battambang.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1734" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Old Sangker Cinema, Battambang. Old Sangker Cinema, Battambang.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1735" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Wat Damrey Sor, Battambang. Wat Damrey Sor, Battambang.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1736" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Wat Damrey Sor, Battambang. Wat Damrey Sor, Battambang.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1737" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Wat Damrey Sor, Battambang. Wat Damrey Sor, Battambang.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1738" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Wat Damrey Sor, Battambang. Wat Damrey Sor, Battambang.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1739" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Battambang Railway Station. Battambang Railway Station.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1740" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Battambang Railway Station. Battambang Railway Station.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1741" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Battambang. Battambang.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1742" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Battambang. Battambang.[/caption]

The next day we manage to be ten minutes late for our cooking class at Smokin Pot with Vannak. A bit embarrassing as the other couple attending the class are waiting for us for the lesson to begin. We first go to the Central Market to pick up the ingredients needed. We pick up various vegetables and the fish for our main dish. The fish is called snake-fish and there is no doubt it's fresh as it's still alive when purchased. After a bit of a brutal treatment by the market trader the fish is most definitely dead and quickly relieved of its scales and fins. We then head back to start our lessons. It's similar to the Laos and Thai cooking lessons we've had, but at the same time quite distinctive. On the menu for the day it's Amok Snake-Fish, Beef Lok Lak and Khmer Style Coconut Roasted Chicken (the same as we had here the evening before). The other couple are Flavie and Sacha, a French couple that are at the start of their 10 months travel and we realise they're also blogging on Wordpress, same as us. If you like to have a look at their adventure you can visit their page at East Side Story. After the class is over we have a nice long chat with the owner of Smokin Pot and our teacher of the day Vannak.

[caption id="attachment_1743" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Central Market, Battambang. Central Market, Battambang.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1744" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Central Market, Battambang. Central Market, Battambang.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1745" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1746" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1747" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1748" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1749" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. The Snake-Fish Amok sizzling in the pan. Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. The Snake-Fish Amok sizzling in the pan.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1750" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. The Snake-Fish Amok ready for serving. Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. The Snake-Fish Amok ready for serving.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1751" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. The Snake-Fish Amok ready for serving. Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. The Snake-Fish Amok ready for serving.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1752" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. The Beef Lok-Lak ready for serving. Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. The Beef Lok-Lak ready for serving.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1753" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. Vannak showing us how to pan-roast a chicken in coconut water. Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. Vannak showing us how to pan-roast a chicken in coconut water.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1754" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. Vannak showing us how to pan-roast a chicken in coconut water. Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. Vannak showing us how to pan-roast a chicken in coconut water.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1755" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. Vannak showing us how to pan-roast a chicken in coconut water. Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. Vannak showing us how to pan-roast a chicken in coconut water.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1760" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. Vannak showing us how to pan-roast a chicken in coconut water. Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. Vannak showing us how to pan-roast a chicken in coconut water.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1756" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. Vannak showing us how to pan-roast a chicken in coconut water. Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. Vannak showing us how to pan-roast a chicken in coconut water.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1757" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. Vannak showing us how to pan-roast a chicken in coconut water. Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. Vannak showing us how to pan-roast a chicken in coconut water.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1758" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. Vannak showing us how to pan-roast a chicken in coconut water. Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. Vannak showing us how to pan-roast a chicken in coconut water.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1759" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. Pan-Coconut-Water-Roasted Chicken. Cooking Class at Smokin Pot Restaurant, Battambang. Pan-Coconut-Water-Roasted Chicken.[/caption]

Our next stop is Pnom Penh, and it's a fairly short journey which we conveniently book from our hotel. No complications at all with the travel are a welcoming change and we arrive in Pnom Penh on time and without any issues underway - what a joy, we love Battambang!

Before I start this little rant I want to ensure there are mostly positive things to be said about our time in Nepal – please bear with me…

We entered Nepal at the border-crossing at Karkarvitta, and although we were initially in good time to make the bus, we got caught up enough to miss the last bus of the day by about 10-15 minutes… We weren’t impressed… The problems started with the taxi dropping us at the Nepalese side of the border, so when we came to immigration they went “where is your exit-stamp?” We didn’t realise we had to have an exit-stamp from the Indian immigration a 15 minutes schlep back down the road. They told us to catch a rickshaw – it should only be 10 rupees they said… And so we did agree with the rickshaw drivers… To our surprise when we got to the Indian Immigration they were demanding 20 rupees each (although why we were surprised, with all our previous experiences with rickshaw drivers, I don’t know…) We’d been shaken to the edge of our life for countless of hours already in jeeps from Darjeeling and was not in the mood for being taken for a ride – even for a measly 10 rupees (12 pence) extra each – and the battle of wills started. We tried to reason with them saying we agreed 10 rupees each before we got onto the rickshaw and they said “yes 10 rupees” so that’s what we’ll pay. The drivers wouldn’t budge and claimed to never have promised this. The discussion gets heated and the drivers start to engage the border guard officers – we start to feel slightly uneasy as we’re arguing in front of a heavily armed border guard – and the officer that is handling our applications for the exit-stamps needed to leave the country (HELP! LET US OUT PLEASE) – which of us will they take sides with? We start to fill out the paperwork with all the details of our entire life – twice for some reason… and this with the drivers hanging around arguing their case with the border guards – we’re getting more and more angry and stressed, but we hide it well and stick to our guns shouting out “you agreed 10 rupees before we got on – take it or leave it!” in-between filling out the countless lines of information that I’m sure is not really needed – especially in duplicate…? At some stage the guards have had enough of these drivers bickering outside and they tell them they’ll have to honour their promise and accept the 10 rupees we’re offering them – they take the money sheepishly and FINALLY bugger off to rip off someone else (the funny thing is that they could have made a couple of other journeys in the time they were hassling us and made much more than the measly 10 rupees they were trying to con out of us…). We get our exit stamp in the end and decide to walk back to the Nepalese side instead of having more aggravation from horrible rickshaw drivers from Hell – it’s a danger it could tip us over the edge and trigger a fight at this point…  At the Nepalese immigration office more paperwork was of course needed, and a new unpleasant surprise of a quite expensive entry-visa was awaiting us. At the end of all this palava we finally got through to the other side and we were in Nepal. By this time, as luck would have it, the time was 17:10 and the last bus to Kathmandu for the day left at 17:00… We were followed around by numerous of touts as we were trying to decide of what to do, although we didn’t have much choice. The next bus would be at 04:20 in the morning and we needed a place to get some rest and some food. We were now really on edge after all the bother with the immigration scenario and the relentless touts as we arrived into the town. We started to ask around some travel agents to figure out which was a good price for tickets and accommodation. Thankfully we walked into the office of Batika Travels, and now feel sorry for the guy who turned out to be a top man – very helpful and welcoming, but being so on edge we didn’t trust anything he told us in the beginning and we ended up giving him a bit of a hard time. He didn’t have any room available in his hotel but he recommends next door – the two hotels are kind of interlinked and feels a bit like it’s the same place anyways. The room is cheap, clean and just what is needed for a bit of rest before our early morning start. We have a lovely dinner in the restaurant downstairs which funnily enough doesn’t have a menu, but they present us with a copy of a menu from some other restaurant and tell us they can try to dish up what we want from that one. We choose the traditional Nepalese equivalent of an Indian thali and a nice Nepalese beer called Everest. The food arrives with what seems endless top up of rice and sauce so there was no way we were going to leave the table hungry. After the dinner we get to use the Wi-Fi of Batika for free to see if we can check out a place to stay in Kathmandu, as we don’t have a guide for Nepal. We source one place that sounds lovely called Shree Family Guesthouse and send them an email to enquire about a room. It’s a bit late in the evening, so we don’t expect a reply before we leave on the bus in the morning. So with no idea of whether they have a room for us we decide to head there upon arrival and hope for the best. The bus journey is a gruelling 16 hours, but the fortunate thing about missing the bus in the evening before is that most of the journey is in daylight so we get to enjoy the scenery. The person in the seat in front of us is unfortunately not agreeing with the winding and bumpy road and quite frequently has to pop his head out the window to decorate the side of the bus with his breakfast and other snacks and food he tries to eat during the day… Our window gets some fancy horizontal yellow lines – thankfully we made sure it was always closed so none of the lines would continue on the inside of the bus and most important not onto us…

We finally arrive in Kathmandu around eight in the evening – a little ahead of schedule, and after getting our bearings decide to get a taxi to Shree Family Guest House. We had not been able to get access to any internet since we got onto the bus at silly o’clock in the morning, so had no idea wether or not they’d replied to the email we sent them with our enquiry the night before, and if they would have any rooms available. We were in luck though and they had received our email and reserved a room for us. We had a quick freshen up and on our way out to get some food asked the very nice gentleman at the reception about whether he could recommend some sights or activities for us. He gave us a few suggestions of what we could do. The guest house have one of their own vehicles with a driver they use for airport pick-ups and private hire and suggested a two day sightseeing tour for us. It was a good deal, but we were umming and erring a bit about it as we are on a tight budget and said we had to think about it over dinner. Hannah had spotted a nice little restaurant just down the road from the guest house so we went there for a very lovely meal. Over dinner we decided to go for the two day sightseeing tour suggested by the receptionist of our guest house – as we only had two full days in Kathmandu and arranging taxies or finding busses to take us around would limit the amount of time to spend seeing the sights, we thought it would be worth it. It turned out to be a wise decision and an excellent suggestion by our guest house receptionist.

We get a very nice driver at our disposal – quite funnily as he doesn’t speak much English, so some of the answers to our questions have some unexpected answers – not matching the question at all, but probably matching the question he though he heard. The first day of sightseeing covers some of the main sites of Kathmandu – it includes a World Heritage site spread over three different locations within the city. First site is the Pashupati Temple one of the holiest Hindu temples in the world, and with our impeccable timing in the midst of a Hindu festival so the site is ram-packed – many worshippers have made the journey over from India to come here to worship and get blessed. We also get to see the Hindu tradition of cremating their dead on large fires on the bank of the holy river that runs through the site. In the river there are remains of offerings floating about everywhere, and we see poor kids in the midst of it all sifting through all the debris looking for anything valuable or useful to sell on. Many of them have huge magnets on a string they use to dredge for coins that have been thrown as offerings into the river. It’s a sad sight to see children in such a deprived situation, and this water can’t be healthy, polluted with all the debris and rubbish from all the offerings being thrown into the river.

We move on to the next stop on the tour, Boudhanath (Boudha), which is a very important Buddhist shrine. This site is quite strikingly amazing with its white-washed dome with the golden roof and the painted eyes watching over the site. The shrine is surrounded by shops selling handicrafts, art, clothes and souvenirs, but surprisingly no tacky tourist paraphernalia really as far as I noticed. We have a walk around on the shrine, and it’s a very tranquil, peaceful place with all the prayer-flags waving in the wind. We start to notice quite a few European tourists in their “authentic” clothes you find in the shops for tourists walking about with their prayer-beads and paying respect to all the different points around the shrine, and some on mats around the periphery meditating. We find this a bit odd, and we’re not alone – the locals who walk around look at them in disbelief and sometimes point and quietly laugh to each other about the sight of these tourists. After we’ve done our circling of the shrine we have a stop for a cup of coffee at a restaurant where they have a rooftop terrace with view of the shrine. From here we can study from afar this influx of tourists that seem a bit too much into their newfound religion – some seem completely zoned out as if they’re tripping on some drugs, walking around in a daze touching all the walls and “bathing” in the prayer-flags, really touchy-feely like… We can’t help it but laugh about this and wonder if they all came in on the loony-bus, or should we call it the “tour-bus of lost souls” (I’m being very cynical, I know).

Next stop is the Durbar Square in the Patan area of Kathmandu, a part of the ancient city which is very much intact. The architecture is quite amazing with very intricate wood and stone carvings. Some of the buildings are in use as art galleries, and there is a museum in one of them as well, and some are temples that are still in use. We meander around and lose our sense of time as usual… We also get the driver to wait for a bit extra to have a look at a couple of temples outside of this World Heritage site. This site together with Pashupatinath and Boudhanath are three sites that make up one World Heritage site in the city centre of Kathmandu.

Our fourth stop on the list is the Swayambhunath (Swayambhu) where we get an excellent view of Kathmandu, and the light up at this temple is beautiful as the sun is setting on the horizon. Everywhere there are monkeys stealing food from the offerings left by the shrine – it’s quite fun to watch.

Our last stop for the day is Basantapur Durbar Square where we say goodbye to our driver for the day and make our own way to the hotel after wandering around another amazing historic site. It’s now starting to get dark and it’s really busy around the buildings with market stalls setting up for the evening. Most of these stalls are selling their fruit or vegetable produce, and range from actual stalls to someone with a couple of carrots on a carpet. It’s a very lively atmosphere along the whole way back to the guest house – the road is lined with all sorts of little shops, and wherever there is extra space there are temporary market stalls. Being a shopaholic here can be very expensive indeed.

Our second day of sightseeing has a very early start to enable us to get to the Nagakot Tower Viewpoint for the sunrise. We leave from the guest house at 05:00 and the drive to the viewpoint takes about an hour. We’re with the same driver as the day before and he’s clearly tired but very happy, enthusiastic and chatty. The journey goes by very quickly and we get to the viewpoint in good time – about 30-40 minutes wait before the sun appears. It was fairly cloudy and misty but the view was still magnificent as we got to see the sun rising over the Himalayas, right next to Mount Everest.

At first we were the only people up there, but closer to the time of the sunrise two more couples arrived – much more quiet and relaxed than the very crowded sunrise at Tiger Hill in Darjeeling, where unfortunately there wasn’t much to be seen because of the heavy fog – it was also nowhere near as cold as when we were waiting for the dawn at Tiger Hill. After witnessing the sunrise we go down towards the car and have a nice breakfast cooked for us in one of the small huts next to the parking lot. Quite nice to sit by the little fire outside of the hut warming our hands and feet, although afterwards we reeked of bonfire smoke of course. From Nagarkot the trip went back in the direction of Kathmandu with a few hours stop in the ancient city of Bhaktapur, another World Heritage site. If you go to Kathmandu you should make sure you get to visit this city, only 20-odd minutes outside of Kathmandu by car if the traffic isn’t too bad. I’m sure there are plenty of busses one can take as well, which would be a lot cheaper than a taxi. The whole city is a museum of old buildings with their very intricate carvings. It’s still very much a busy city even though it’s a World Heritage site. People still occupy the houses and live and work within the city. How good that is for the preservation of the buildings I don’t know, but they’ve obviously been taking very good care of it until now. It’s a slightly difficult place to manoeuvre even after we get our bearings on the map we get together with the entrance ticket – it’s not the most accurate map, with black-spots where they insert small pictures of monuments covering essential info about which exit to take out of a square or which alleyway to head down to get in the right direction. Even so we are able to get back to our driver at the right place and on the agreed time. From here we head back to the guest house and say good bye to our driver who well deserve the tip we give him for showing us around for the last two days, and hopefully he’s able to go back home for a well earned rest after the silly early start. We spend the rest of the day walking about the shops and market stalls and generally taking it easy as we’re a bit tired after the early morning start. Not much shopping done in the end, save some music from a lovely little music-store down the road from the hotel – a couple of CDs with relaxing music from Nepal and India.

It’s the last morning in Nepal before we fly to Bangkok, Thailand via New Delhi. We have a fairly early flight so have to get to the airport by taxi without the opportunity of having a breakfast. We arrive in good time at the Kathmandu airport, so it all looks like it’ll be a smooth journey without any stress – our dreams of a stress-free day start to crumble as we find there is security checks for what seems like every step you take and every move you make (did The Police train these security personnel?). By the time we get through to our gate. We’d had six security-checks… and it wasn’t over just yet – we have one more pat-down where they check our boarding-pass, and then yet another pat-down and bag-check down on the runway inside some strange temporary wheeled container-tunnel vehicles before the stairs up to enter the aeroplane – the flight was already delayed before all this extra time-consuming but completely pointless exercise of the “secure boarding” and our two hours of time in-between our flights at New Delhi airport was diminishing rapidly. We finally take off about two hours after schedule and hope we won’t have more hassle with the transfer. When we land at New Delhi it’s already past the time when we’re supposed to be boarding the next flight… the taxiing of the plane from the runway alone feels like an eternity… As we come to a halt there are a few people in the back who are running down the aisles to get ahead of other travellers to the exit – I’ve seen stressed and/or impatient people on flights before but this really takes the biscuit… We’re in the rear of the plane ourselves so have a long wait before we’re able to move and exit. By the time we’re out it’s only minutes before our next flight is about to take off. We scramble down trying to get past all the slow people in our way and to our surprise get a bit of priority through the transfer process and the security-check – the people working the x-ray and body-search seem to revel in their power to make the travellers suffer, so I’m fearing the worst, as unpacking and re-packing my bag with the camera-equipment is a longwinded process. We’re in luck and pass through the check without problems and get another bit of good news – our flight is a bit delayed, so we get on the plane breathing heavily after our marathon run, but very happy to be on the last leg towards Bangkok.

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Arrived in Kochi by a very comfy bus, and as a bonus had about a four hours quicker journey than what we’d been told to expect. We’d had no break on the bus (at least not that we knew of, as we were asleep for most of the journey) so we went into the first restaurant we could find that had a toilet and had a lovely – and surprisingly cheap – thali breakfast. I say surprisingly because it looked a bit posh from the outside, and we were quickly ushered into the nicer air-conditioned section on arrival.

The big breakfast came in handy as we were hell-bent on not taking an auto-rickshaw or taxi and walks the five kilometres plus to the ferry-port with our heavy backpacks. It was baking hot, so we were pretty sweaty when we finally got there. I got so hot after the walk I was completely drenched, and I just couldn’t dry up for absolute ages – I probably looked a right state – very nice…

We had a hunt around for guest houses and home-stays as we arrived at Fort Kochi, but although we were desperate to freshen up with a shower and a change of clothes we shopped around by asking at quite a few places that all seemed a bit pricy, before we finally found the very lovely Union Home Stay. This home-stay is run by Paul, and his mother Anne and they are really lovely friendly people, and Paul had some funny stories from student years and mad trip to Bangalore to share – very entertaining.

For sightseeing in Fort Kochi we did a little walk around with a map of the historical sites that we picked up at the Kerala Tourist Office in Ernakulum by the ferry-jetty. It’s not a very big place Fort Kochi so it wasn’t very far to walk the whole map, but the baking heat makes it a bit more challenging… How can they call this the winter season?

We weren’t sure where to go for dinner our first evening and thought we’d ask around for a good restaurant. We got recommended Talk Of The Town as a good option. We were keen to have some traditional fish and I opted for the Kerala fish curry. One could say this curry really warmed my cockles (must be one of the spiciest curries I’ve ever tried) – as if I weren’t warm enough after walking around in 35 degrees for the whole day – I was again sweating like a beast, and not helped by the fact the power was out so the fans in the restaurant weren’t working. It was really good food though, so can recommend that place, if your taste-buds can take it that is 🙂

When we picked up our map of Fort Kochi from the Kerala Tourist Office we also booked a day boat-trip. They picked us up from our home stay in the morning, which was rather nice – no stress with trying to get somewhere on time – and the bus then took us down to Alleppey, picking up other people on the way. We got to the boat and started our journey through the backwaters. The day was split in two parts – the first one was on a larger boat and we were about 20-odd people on this boat, the second half of the day we went through the canals of one of the many islands that makes up the region of the backwaters. These canals are very narrow so we were travelling in canoes that could seat from four to eight people. With the larger boat we also stopped off on an island for a while and had a walkabout in the village. Here we were offered to buy a little snack in the form of a mussels curry (which was very nice indeed) and a drink called Tody (fermented juice from the flower of the coconut) – both me and Hannah didn’t like the smell of the stuff and gave the drink a miss, and some of our fellow tourists were gagging while forcing themselves to drink it, so we kindly thanked no to any offer of a taste. Also included in the trip was our lunch which we had on the first boat after returning from the first half of the day – again very tasty. Second part of the day was our canoe trip through man-made canals through villages on one of the islands around the backwaters. This was such a tranquil environment that we were all almost lulled to sleep while drifting past houses and people doing their work and dally chores. We stopped off and had a demonstration of how they make twine from coconut husk, a speciality and tradition of the area, and later on a last stop for a cup of chai of course.

We manage to coordinate a little catch up with Diane, a lady we had a quick chat to at Rocky’s Guest House in Hampi. We went to one of the restaurants recommended by the Lonely Planet – and I can warmly recommend this as well – it’s called Dal Roti and it has excellent food and a very friendly and attentive host – the prices are also quite reasonable. We also caught up with Diane a second time on our last evening and ended up at Seagulls for more lovely food (although I prefer Dal Roti).

Also on our last day we had a walk down to Mattancherry and the Jewish Quarter and visited the Pardesi Synagogue, and had a look at the Dutch Palace Museum. The walk there from Fort Kochi is very interesting with the old colonial wharfs and merchant houses lining the street. Unfortunately in good Indian tradition most of these houses/warehouses are not looked after and hence in a very sad state. We can’t help thinking of the immense value these houses would have been worth had they been renovated and located in the UK…

Shame we couldn’t have more time in Kochi – there is a really friendly and relaxing atmosphere here – I suppose it’s one of those destinations one can come back to for a little holiday, and then maybe do a proper boat-trip which our budget didn’t allow for this time.

The next destination should have been Agra for the Taj Mahal, and then Varanasi for the Ganges before Darjeeling. However, we realise we’re running out of time and decides to bypass the two dusty, dirty and tout-riddled cities of Agra and Varanasi and head straight up to Darjeeling. It’s a long old journey by land, so we board a winged tin can and get there the easier and more comfortable way.

The swarm of tuc-tucs following the bus as we rolled into Hampi was a sure sign of what was to come, but after being so relaxed after our stay in Goa we weren’t quite prepared for the amount of harassment we were about to receive. Some of these tuc-tucs had been following the bus already from the last rest-stop it did in nearby Hospet. We really felt like we were the honey among a swarm of wasps, and there were no let-up to the constant bombardment. All of them seemed to be the owner of a guest house and could ensure us they did not get any commission – how thick do they think we are? Especially obvious as there seemed to be many owners for the same guest houses in the end. When I asked one alleged owner of Gopti Guest House his name he said “Roy – I’m the owner” I confronted him with the fact that the person I’d been in contact with was not called Roy. He then goes on to explain he’s the owner and doesn’t deal with the bookings – that would be just the people working for him, like it was beneath him… strange then that he was roaming the dirty cow-dung littered streets harassing newly arrived tourists, because that really sounds like a job for the top boss…

The harassment seems to cease somewhat shortly after I leave the backpack with Hannah at the outskirts of the main bazaar and venture in to have a look around for a guest house. I finally find one that looks OK (Rocky’s) and we go there and check in. Also mandatory is that all tourists have to report and register with the police, so after a quick breakfast we wander down to the station to get that over and done with. As we now are walking about without our backpacks we’re suddenly largely left to ourselves apart from the odd shop or tuc-tuc driver.

Hampi is a world heritage site, and you quickly become very aware of the splendour of what was once here. We decided to hire push-bikes and cycle around. Being optimistic, and not realising the extent of this site we thought we’d be able to do all the sites in a day, but soon realised we’d bitten over more than we could chew. A second day with sore cycle-saddle-bums was definitely needed (oh… did I not mention the bikes were not very comfortable and break down on a regular basis? Top tip is to check the saddle, brakes and tires before you agree on a bike…). There are literally old ruins scattered around everywhere, so to see them all wouldn’t be very feasible. We get to see most of the highlighted temples and monuments on our two days of cycling around but there are a few we don’t get the time to see.

A bit of an eyesore is all the demolished houses around the Main Bazaar of Hampi, but it’s a necessity for preserving further damage to the site. The centre of Hampi is slowly getting moved from its current position to a new location away from the protected site. One would think it could be demolished in a nicer fashion though, and not leave half broken houses everywhere as if an aftermath of a warzone. When walking around in the ruins we again notice how these historical sites are not being looked after very well – we see where people have been littering these monuments with all sort of rubbish, and in true Indian fashion we see people casually urinating on their own heritage – and that seems to sum it all up…

There is another part of Hampi they call Hampi Island, which is across the river by boat – the bridge apparently “mysteriously” fell apart and they are in the process of building a new one up river and away from the protected site. This side of the river seems really quiet and relaxed, and I would recommend staying on this side if you’re not on quite as tight as budget as we are – it’s quite a bit more expensive on this side in comparison to the budget options available in the Main Bazaar.

Our second day of cycling around is on the other side of the river, and on the agenda is the Hannuman Monkey Temple and Anegundi, a small village by where the new bridge crossing is being built. First stop is the Monkey Temple, and the 600ish steps to climb to get to the top. The steps were a challenge in itself in the baking heat, but the monkey-attack near the top of the steps (when you’re at the most exhausted of course) was the proper test of strength. We didn’t get attacked in the end, but it looked bad when we managed to startle an aggressive little firecracker of a monkey with some very large teeth, that he was more than happy to show off… With a lot of growling and waving with his hands as he was trying to grab a hold of me he was a little bit too close for comfort… Managed to slowly back away and move down the stairs a bit to get away and rethink how much we really wanted to get to the temple on the top of the hill. Quite suddenly our little furry friend found an alternative outlet for his aggression and started to chase another poor innocent monkey down the steps right in between us, brushing our legs – the scuffle seemed to be due to a piece of coconut. Just after – while we’re trying to calm down – a man comes down the slope squeezing on an empty water bottle. This noise seems to keep the creatures at a distance, and he also breaks off a branch of a tree and hands it to me as an extra deterrent against more attacks. So there is me armed with a twig, and Hannah crushing a water bottle – creating a right racket – we climb the last few steps up to the top of the hill. There is a nice view from the top, and a very tranquil atmosphere – good to relax and unwind a bit after the heart-stopping experience just below. The temple is apparently on the spot where Hanuman the Monkey Faced Hindu God was born. Second stop, after the descent from the Hanuman Temple, is Anegundi village which has a nice little temple (Ranganatha Temple). We also have a bite of lunch and a drink at the Hoova Craft Shop & Cafe here – the food was heavenly. Anegundi is a very relaxing little place, and we kind of wish we had known about this place when we arrived and arranged to stay here instead of the Main Bazaar, although we really enjoyed our stay at Rocky’s this place would have been even more tranquil.

After our exploration of the other side of the river we hand our hired bikes back and head down to the river crossing. The crossing seems very busy this time – it must be rush-hour or something. The result is of course that they try to fit as many people on as possible. We only just get a space on the boat crouched down between two large motorbikes. The boat by this time looks like it’s about to give up and sink to the bottom, but somehow we do get over to the other side without having to start swimming. I’m sure for the boatmen this is a complete mundane daily thing, but most of the passengers (being tourists) look very worried on the short voyage across the tiny river. By the river crossing there is always a well of activity from people bathing and washing. Many women can be seen washing clothes in the river and drying them on the stones or bushes along the riverbank. You can also sometimes see people throwing what looks like prayers (pieces of paper or parcels of offerings) into the river from the Ghats – some wrapped in plastic bags, which doesn’t seem the nicest thing to do to their local environment.

Hampi is a very tranquil place once the touts have left you alone. The historical sites are amazing and that alone is a good enough reason to endure the initial shock and stress as you arrive. The place itself has an aura of peacefulness to it and you can get lost in just taking it easy for a few days. I can highly recommend visiting Hampi – just beware of the touts initially and you’ll be fine – it’s probably advisable to book a hotel/guesthouse in advance, so you don’t have to hunt around for a place to stay on arrival with a swarm of people constantly harassing you claiming their hotel/guesthouse is the best (and make it more expensive as the hotel will have to whack a big commission on top of the rent to pay off the tout. I would recommend staying on other side of the river if you like a more tranquil experience, but can highly recommend Rocky’s in the Main Bazaar. Rocky is quite a young man – very friendly and helpful – he runs the guesthouse with the help of his mum and dad, and he can of course also help with booking of further travel and such without charging extortionate commissions. With his help we booked our tickets to go to Bengaluru (Bangalore) where we picked up a local bus for the onward journey to go to Tiruvannamalai. A fun bumpy ride on a rickety bus for about five hours – unfortunately, not what we had expected was waiting for us on the other side of this journey…

What a difference a beach makes.

Our first day of lounging at Vagator Beach in Goa. We’ve been here for six days and the last day while waiting for our bus to Hampi we’re spending chilling at the beach (although it’s more like frying than chilling…).

Our first day here in Goa we didn’t really do much at all, just looking around the Vagator area, eating and having a few beers. We’re very surprised about how quiet this place is, bearing in mind its reputation for being a partying Indian version of Spain’s Ibiza or Costa del Sol. But after a bit of research we realise that due to stringent noise-pollution laws the big Goan beach parties that goes on for days at end are no longer happening. They still try to arrange some beach rave-parties here but because they have to shut the parties down at 22:00 they don’t seem to properly take off at all, and it leaves many tourists here very disappointed. Apparently in the very high season – leading up to Christmas and New Years – they still go on. The Lonely Planet did mention that the club-scene in Goa was winding down a bit and it’s not like it was in its heydays – this information is really out of date though unfortunately, as it’s now pretty much dead. The new noise-pollution laws must have been disastrous to many local businesses and the employment in the area. With signs of many closed guesthouses and shops, it looks like it used to be a very thriving place and it now is trying to clutch at straws to stay afloat. It has been very nice with a bit more relaxing quiet atmosphere, but we’re disappointed with the nightlife here. There are good sides to the fact that the party paradise is no more of course. One such is that the locals can have a more normal life and get some sleep. Another is of course that the now much slower pace of life makes it a very relaxing place to visit, and we’ve sworn to come back again.

After some recommendations from other travellers we decided to hire a scooter while in Goa. I’ve never driven a scooter before, so naturally I was a bit reluctant to just hire one and shoot off into the crazy Indian traffic without first a little practice on the local small roads. Found the scooter really weird to handle and it took me a little time to get used to drive this weird little thing (quite big and awkward actually), especially with a passenger on the back. It gave me a bit of hope and boost in confidence to see many others having the same problems. Many near crashes later, as in about 30 minutes and as many near-crash-experiences, we got to our first destination with our new vehicle of freedom – my nerves were by this time slightly frazzled… The trip back was however much smoother and easier – also because by then I knew the way back of course, and we didn’t have to navigate by inadequate maps. The first test of fire had gone well (we didn’t crash), so I was sort of confident enough to take the next leap of faith and head out on the main roads to get down to the capital of Goa, Panaji. Leap of faith indeed – the traffic here is nothing like I’ve ever seen before, and driving in it can be a hair-raising experience – not recommended even if you have a strong heart. From the back of the scooter I had a running commentary mostly consisting of “crazy bus driver”, “use your horn Tom”, “Watch out for the cow/dog/goat/massive crater of a pothole/crazy bus/mad tuc-tuc driver” and so on. We finally get to Panaji – thankfully in one piece – and try to find our way around to the government run Goa-Tourism office in order to book a couple of sightseeing tours. This turns out to be quite difficult with the poor maps of the Lonely Planet guide (we’re seriously starting to become tired of these not-adequate maps). By the time we find the office it has closed for the day and the sun is about to go down – we decide to come back next day and start to head back in the midst of rush traffic – bad idea! What earlier seemed like mad traffic now appears quite tame in comparison all of a sudden. The commentary from the back was more or less consisting of the same phrases as before, only now much louder and more frequent…

Next day we went straight down to the Goa-Tourist office and booked our trip for a sightseeing tour of South Goa. We also wanted to book a tour to see the Dudhsagar Falls, but had to give up on that idea as it only run on certain days – none that fitted our schedule obviously. Once that task was done we headed out on our trusted scooter to see one of the spice plantations. It took some time to find the one we were looking for – Savoi Plantations – but at the end of a very long detour we finally got there with very numb bums after shaking about on the scooter for God knows how long. The tour of the plantation was very interesting and informative so it was definitely worth the numb bums. We also got lunch included in our tour and it consisted of a huge serving of various dishes – about as much food as you might be able to finish off in about a week.

On our way back from the spice plantations we sort out our bus tickets for going to Hampi. We can’t seem to get exactly the type of bus that we would prefer, but by now we’re starting to get used to the way things work here – or not as the case may be. All sorted out we manage to leave Panaji just in time to beat the mad rush traffic – result!

The tour we booked with Goa-Tourism isn’t quite what we hoped for. As it’s a government office we thought it would be of the same standards as the RTDC (Rajasthan Tourist Development Company) sightseeing tour in Jaipur. To our surprise they only act as an agent for another travel agency, who in turn is an agent for yet another travel agency… We get onto the bus and hope for the best. The guide seems perfectly able to speak English and promise to first do briefings and info in Hindi before translating into English for us. Unfortunately he becomes very lazy and decides to make it one of our fellow passengers’ tasks to translate for us, which we find is very rude of him. This poor little girl of only about maximum 13 years old get the responsibility for looking after us around the sights and translate instructions for when to get back to the bus and such. We feel very sorry for this poor little girl who probably wants to enjoy her tour she’s paid for, and we try to be of as little of a burden as possible. One thing, and the thing that annoys us the most with the tour is that the most interesting scheduled stop (for us at least) – Ancestral Goa – gets dropped off because the majority of the passengers doesn’t want to spend the extra 100 Rupees for the entrance fee to the site, and because the vote for this was all done in Hindi we weren’t able to object to this before it was too late. Even with some disappointments along the way we had a good day, and it’s nice to get a little bit sightseeing done. But when at the end of the tour our guide tries to sell us another trip for the day after, we secretly chuckle to ourselves (what a joker…) and tell him we can’t as we’ll be travelling towards Hampi.

After our beach-session on our last day we’re so docile we forget to check our ticket for departure time, and we both have it in our mind the bus leaves at 21:00… We realise as we sit down in a cafe in Panaji and are about to order that the bus leaves at 20:00 and according to the ticket we were already supposed to be at the assembly post… In full rush – waving our oversized backpacks around in this little cafe it’s a miracle we don’t knock anyone over or break something – we start running to get to the bus on time.

The bus to Hampi would have been much more comfortable if we had some leg-space, and the couple in front of us didn’t recline their seats to the max. With crushed knees we arrive in Hampi about 07:00 in the morning – what met us there woke us up pretty sharply…

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