After spending a week under its spell, we ask – Is Singapore utopia or a police state?
The air is thick and tropical, blanketing us in heat as we wait to cross at a busy Singapore intersection. Green, orange, red. The traffic lights above us slow the heavy stream of traffic to a stop. Knowing the pedestrian lights will soon turn green in our favour, we step lazily into the crossing.
Seeing us move, the businesswoman across the street also takes one, two steps forward, before suddenly snapping her eyes upwards and coming to an abrupt stop. We follow her gaze up, discovering not just one, but an entire bank of surveillance cameras above us, filming every conceivable angle of the intersection – including us.
We had arrived at the steamy Changi airport in late November, weary after an 8-hour flight across the heart of Australia. It was the first stop on our year-long adventure, and our priority was to clear customs and struggle to our air-conditioned hostel as quickly as possible so the real adventure could begin.
Passports stamped, we hauled our huge backpacks onto our shoulders and made our way slowly towards the MRT subway signs. There was an element of dread in this, knowing that trying to navigate a new transport network right now could be disastrous while we’re exhausted. When we run down the steps just in time to see the MRT’s taillights disappear around the bend, our fears are confirmed and we settle in for a long wait to the next one. Or so we thought.
CITY OBSERVATIONS: IS SINGAPORE UTOPIA OR A POLICE STATE?
See, this is where our first brush with ‘perfect Singapore’ happens.
Turns out, the driverless system is efficient beyond belief, and regular city services run every few minutes. Just two minutes later we were on board a quiet, clean, durian-free (seriously, there’s a $500 fine!) carriage, en route to our hostel. The journey was comfortable, easily navigated thanks to clear signage, and well, basically just… perfect.
But we soon discovered that it’s not just Singapore’s MRT system that runs perfectly. The entire city runs so seamlessly and efficiently that it seems like a true urban dream. The streets are beautifully clean, without any sign of food scraps, rubbish, or unsightly gum stains (chewing gum is banned here). The four major ethnic quarters (Chinese, Malay, Arab, Indian) seem to exist in a respectful and harmonious balance (at least, to our tourist eyes), while the many world-class attractions (hello, Gardens by the Bay!), endless shopping stops, and tasty street food keep us happily entertained for the whole week.
We feel safe, never having to check our pockets or over our shoulders after dark in the city. It’s almost impossible to get lost considering all the streets are signposted in English. The public notice signs have us feeling all fuzzy with their inclusive language (“let’s work together to keep the streets clean!”, “Give up our seat on the MRT to someone who needs it more than you do!”, “together, we will open this train station in 2017”).
Singapore just seems to have it all; a temperate 28c climate, low unemployment rates, efficiency, interesting sights, and a society that promotes tolerance and kinship. Surely, we think, this is a gleaming steel and glass example of a harmonious modern-day utopia. A carefree and pleasant society, where everything is looked after for you.
But waiting to cross the street just three days into our trip, it’s that one glance – like a glitch in the matrix – from the woman across the street to the bank of cameras above that dents the armour of this perfect society.
As the lights finally changed to green and the swarm of people began to cross, it dawned that we’d seen these banks of cameras everywhere. In the MRT, in shopping malls, public areas, hotels entrances. Our every move, tracked by a mechanical pair of eyes.
I turn to Mark and whisper “I feel like we’re in Orwell’s 1984..”, and the look on his face tells me he agrees. Big brother is watching.
If you escaped school without coming across the novel, 1984 imagines an advanced dystopian society called Oceania (formerly Great Britain), where Big Brother and the Party use fear and surveillance to scrutinise their citizens. They alter history in their favour, overwhelm the citizens with a barrage of propaganda via Telescreens in every room, and replace English with Newspeak, a language designed to suppress a person’s ability to even think negatively about the Party by removing words.
We should probably pause here and make it very clear that we don’t think Singapore has descended into a futuristic dystopia controlling the people through TV screens, and we definitely didn’t see any people speaking Newspeak! But there are definitely some striking parallels.
Like the fictional country of Oceania, which exists in a bubble, Singapore seems obsessed with being a fully independent state that doesn’t rely on its powerful neighbours. During our visit, there’s a lot of talk about developing their self-sufficiency and cutting reliance on countries like Malaysia, and it seems they’re committed considering they achieved water independence in June 2016.
Then there are the cameras. So many cameras. Once we notice them, we can’t quite shake the paranoid sensation that someone is following us a few steps behind. And it does seem as though a culture of fear underpins the city-state; more than once we spot people hiding their faces against a wall with their backs to the CCTV cameras, trying to sneak a cigarette in a no-smoking zone. Later, we learn that practically the whole city is divided into no-smoking zones, so this law-breaking is somewhat of a necessary evil for the nicotine-addicted.
After our encounter with the lady crossing the street, we realised that no one – and we mean no one – crosses in the wrong place or against the lights here. It’s a weird phenomenon coming from Australia, where ‘jaywalking’ is pretty much just an alternative term for ‘I crossed the street’ (we’re a rebellious bunch, us Aussies!), and it definitely takes us (read: Mark) some getting used to.
Overwhelmingly, most Singaporeans seem friendly but obedient and disciplined. Although, if we grew up in a place where you could be fined for feeding pigeons or not flushing a public toilet, caned for vandalising property, and put to death for being involved with illicit drugs, I guess we’d be pretty obedient too. In a sign that it has traits of being a borderline police state, freedom of speech isn’t really a thing here either. The only pocket of the city where people can freely express themselves or demonstrate is the Speakers Corner – and even then there are rumours that the security department often films these in order to identify dissident citizens. It’s probably not too surprising that in 2012, the country was ranked as the ‘most emotionless in the world’.
But are all of these things reason to strike Singapore straight off your travel list? Well… no. Truth be told, we actually love this bustling city. For locals, expats, and travellers alike it’s clean, modern, safe and on the surface at least, generally happy. What’s not to love about a city that boasts Hawker halls full of deliciousness, harmonious multiculturalism, effortless transport, and a balmy mid 20c temperature every day?
Despite the restrictions on some personal freedoms (and unlike 1984), Singapore has managed to create a society where every citizen actually has the opportunity to live comfortably and thrive – of course, as long as you’re prepared to play by the rules. For the most part, the restrictions stem from a desire to protect and promote citizens, which sets it apart from other countries with a similarly strict party ruling. It’s certainly not perfect by any stretch (even if the government would have you think differently), but for a country that was little more than a colonial port city 70 years ago, it’s an impressively well-functioning place.
Is living in a totally worry-free society worth the sacrifice to your small personal choices? We’re not sure. Will we be back again? Absolutely – but we’ll be sure to wait till the lights turn green before we cross any streets.
Is Singapore utopia? Or did you find it a police state best missed? Let us know in the comments below.
Visiting Singapore? Read more from our time there.
We first heard about Chi Phat, Cambodia’s community-based ecotourism project, while sprawled out on floor cushions at the Ten103 beach bar on the castaway-esque island of Koh Ta Kiev.
Swirling the paper umbrellas in our passionfruit margaritas, we were contemplating our next travel move as the sky above drifted into lilac and peach hues. While the beach life had been a great source of much-need relaxation, it was time to head back out on the road again. But to where? We definitely wanted a change of pace and scenery, but also desperately wanted to find something that went beyond the usual backpacker highlights of Cambodia. Something unusual, and a little adventurous.
So when the girl from the couple next to us leaned over, exclaiming that we “simply had to get to Chi Phat and the Cardamom Mountains”, our curiosity was instantly piqued. “It’s just incredible,” the bangles on her arm jangling together wildly in agreement, “a total mission to get to, but so worth it. Best thing we’ve done in Cambodia”. Three days later, we were rolling out of Phnom Penh en route to the project, buoyed by her tales of jungle treks, hidden waterfalls, and sleeping under the stars.
Turns out she was right on both points. Chi Phat was the best thing we did in Cambodia, and the project is also a mission to get to. Nestled deep in the heart of the Cardamom jungle, about 17km from the nearest town of Andoung Teuk, it’s remote, and definitely requires some forward-planning.
Here’s our guide to getting to Chi Phat, from (almost) everywhere on the Cambodian backpacker route, including prices.
HOW TO GET TO CHI PHAT ECO-TOURISM PROJECT, CAMBODIA
Getting to Chi Phat is definitely part of the adventure! The community is 17km upstream from the nearest town of Andoung Teuk – which also happens to be the start and finish point for all your adventures here. Because of that, we’ve split this guide into two sections: Getting to Andoung Teuk, and getting from Andoung Teuk to Chi Phat.
HOW TO GET FROM PHNOM PENH TO ANDOUNG TEUK
Getting to Chi Phat from the east of Cambodia is extremely straightforward: jump on a bus bound for Koh Kong along Highway 48 and let your driver know that you’ll be jumping out at Andoung Teuk. Unfortunately, you’ll still have to pay for the whole route through to Koh Kong, but Cambodian bus transport is pretty cheap comparatively.
The drive takes about 4-5 hours depending on congestion, and travels along the main (paved) route connecting Phnom Penh to Thailand. Your driver should know exactly where to drop you off, though it might be worth bringing a map to show, or asking someone to write down Andoung Teuk in Khmer for you just in case.
At this point we feel we should probably give you a heads up: if you jump off the bus in Andoung Teuk only to panic that you’ve been stranded in the middle of nowhere, don’t stress. There are two drop off points: the turn-off for Chi Phat (just a few small stalls), and the town of Andoung Teuk itself, a very small highway town, not much more than a couple of buildings either side of an intersection. You’ll be able to organise onwards transport at either point (more on that below).
Virak Buntham – Bus information (as at October 2017)
Departure times: 7:30am*, 8:30am*, 1:30pm* | Length of trip: approximately 4-5 hours | Cost: $7-12 USD
*note: often buses will leave when they’re full, rather than by scheduled departure time, so factor this into your planning.
The Sorya Company was operating a service between Phnom Penh, although recent reports suggest that this is no longer the case.
HOW TO GET FROM SIHANOUKVILLE TO ANDOUNG TEUK
With the exception of the starting point, the journey to Andoung Teuk from Sihanoukville is basically the same as the one from Phnom Penh. Previously, the trip used to involve ferries and could take up to 12 hours to get between Sihanoukville and Koh Kong; these days the travelling is far easier, with the NR4 and NR48 roads recently having been re-paved.
Buses depart from the main Sihanoukville station daily, and you’ll need to book your ticket all the way through to Koh Kong (but get out at Andoung Teuk as above). If you’re travelling from Kampot you’ll need to transit through Sihanoukville to get to Chi Phat.
Virak Buntham – Bus information (as at October 2017)
*note: often buses will leave when they’re full, rather than by scheduled departure time, so factor this into your planning.
HOW TO GET FROM SIEM REAP TO ANDOUNG TEUK
The trip from Siem Reap to the Chi Phat area is around 8.5 hours, so your best option is to bus to Phnom Penh one day, then follow the above instructions to get from Phnom Penh to Chi Phat the following day.
HOW TO GET TO CHI PHAT FROM KOH KONG
Pretty much the same trip as above, just in reverse! Take the bus to Phnom Penh from Koh Kong’s central station, and get out at Andoung Teuk. Again, you’ll need to pay full fare from Koh Kong to Phnom Penh.
Virak Buntham – Bus information (as at October 2017)
Departure times (to Phnom Penh): 7:45am, 2:00pm | Length of trip: 2 hours | Cost: $11-12 USD
Note: you can now book all your bus tickets using BookMeBus.com, just search using the widget below and select your dates!
HOW TO GET FROM ANDOUNG TEUK TO CHI PHAT
Here’s where the adventure really kicks in. To complete the last 17km from from Andoung Teuk to Chi Phat, you have a couple of options for transport:
This two-hour boat ride up the Stung Phipot (Phipot river) is the most peaceful and scenic way to complete your trip to Chi Phat. Snaking through thick mangroves and forest landscapes, the cruise is picturesque and also provides a great opportunity to spot some of the local wildlife (monkeys and birds are common here).
The boat costs around USD $10, and normally leaves around 12:30-13:00 (when the Virak Buntham bus arrives from Phnom Penh) – although this may be pushed out if the bus is running late.
If you arrive after the boat has already left (and you’d prefer to stick to the rivers to complete the journey), you can also rent a community boat though this may be more expensive.
This was the option we decided to take, and while it definitely wasn’t in our plan (Mim’s golden rule of travel until now had been to never jump on the back of a motorbike!), we had arrived too late for a boat transfer and there were no community boats available.
Turns out, this 45-min, white-knuckled ride through fields of sugarcane and rural life turned out to be one of the most fun experiences of our time in Cambodia.
If you don’t already have a booking pre-arranged with the Chi Phat info centre, just walk to the restaurant on the main road with blue pillars and organise a driver from there. Generally, moto-taxis should cost about USD $7.
Private transfers can also be arranged from Andoung Teuk to Chi Phat, but you’ll need to arrange this well in advance, and we’re not sure on cost.
We like to keep these posts as up to date as possible to benefit you on your travels. Have you been to Chi Phat community based eco-tourism project recently and discovered transport has changed? Share your tips in the comments below!
Thinking of visiting Cambodia? Read these posts for inspiration!
“The elephants are returning to Chi Phat” our guide Leeheng smiles proudly, waving an outstretched arm across the open plain before us.
“You know, a few years ago there were none here. They got scared by the hunting and the guns and moved away, into Thailand. Now, they’re starting to come back again”. His smile is one of those enthusiastic ones that sweep you along with it, helping to dissipate the memory of the steaming hot jungle-clad incline we’ve been scrambling up for the last hour.
It’s hard to imagine that merely a decade ago, our presence on this peaceful grassy hilltop plain in Cambodia’s Southern Cardamom mountain region would have been impossible at best, deadly at worst. After the collapse of Pol Pot’s murderous communist regime in 1979, his loyal guerrilla fighters quite literally fled for the hills – choosing the thick jungle cover of the Cardamoms as their last stronghold.
What followed was nearly 15 years of violent war and chaos for the region; mines were laid, villages attacked, locals murdered in grisly clashes. When the last of the Khmer Rouge fighters were finally driven from the area, the locals who remained were left impoverished. With few options available for survival, many had no choice but to enter the lucrative poaching and logging trades to support their families.
Surprisingly, despite the ensuing destruction, the 1443 sq km mountain area has remained home to many a rare and endangered species. Big cats, elephants, gibbons, deer, wild pigs, snakes, and the extremely threatened Pangolin have survived amongst some of the most unchartered flora in the world.
A chance at lasting positive change came in the form of an approach to village elders by American-based conservation NGO Wildlife Alliance. Together, they developed big plans for a community-based ecotourism (CBET) project in the Cardamoms and Leeheng’s village, Chi Phat, that set the wheels in motion for Cambodia’s most successful conservation project, transforming the lives of its residents completely.
OUR VISIT TO CAMBODIA’S ECO-TOURISM SUCCESS STORY, CHI PHAT
COMMUNITY-BASED ECOTOURISM IN CAMBODIA
Today, Chi Phat welcomes fighters of a very different kind with open arms; those workers, volunteers, and travellers interested in the battle for environmental conservation. It’s this goal and a promise of world-class hiking that has brought us to our current grassy plain and the first of our three-day hike into the mountains surrounding the village of Chi Phat.
Getting here is half the adventure. It’s a 4-hour bus ride from Phnom Penh to the small highway town of Andoung Tuek, and (having missed the 2-hour boat ride alternative) a white-knuckled 45-minute ride through fields of sugarcane and patches of sand on the back of a local motorbike to this pretty community of 500 families. Colourful bamboo houses on stilts line the two dusty red streets, giggling children wave sous-dey (hello) enthusiastically, and all around us are the genuinely welcoming, happy smiles of locals.
Villagers, like Leeheng, who once roamed the forests in search of a quick payday are now wildlife warriors, now lead educational cycling, kayaking and trekking tours, training as cooks, opening guesthouses, learning English and computer skills, and working together to protect their futures.
Under his knowledgeable eye over the next few days we explore the stunning and diverse ecosystems on offer; thick jungle, mountain ranges, grasslands, lush river systems; eagerly observing animal tracks. We camp in hammocks under the stars and swim in refreshing waterfalls. While we have the time of our lives, we’ll also be supporting a community working tirelessly to protect their environment, helping to provide them with a livelihood far removed from those of their pasts.
Leeheng opens up about the huge shift he’s seen take place over the last few years. A former hunter (mostly deer, wild pig, and Pangolin) and logger himself, he knows first-hand what it signifies for him and his young family.
“It was hard at first, some people had no choice but hunting or logging – we had to make money.
“Everyone thought they’d lose their income, so only 20% of the community supported it at first. But now almost 100% support it because the tourists come. We have jobs and opportunities again,” he shares.
Not only do they have opportunities again (over 5,000 people have benefited from the creation of sustainable jobs here), they are passionate about sharing their expert knowledge of the area with visitors. That passion has been helped along by intensive conservation and guide training programs established by the CBET and Wildlife Alliance.
We pause regularly to inspect the day-old tracks of a herd of elephants, taste a Tamarind pod, discover a new plant species. We eat a meal made from root vegetables found in the forest and drink water from vines one afternoon. “City people don’t know how to do this,” Leeheng winks, “this is something you grow up learning around here”.
As we eat lunch, sitting cross-legged in the middle of a dry river bed one day, we ask him whether there’s a downside to this huge change. To him it’s extremely simple; “In the past, if I killed a deer I might make $100USD. But now if I bring people here and they don’t see any animals, I feel pretty sad. If someone visits and sees lots of animals, they might tell their friends and encourage other people to come here. Our community could earn $10,000, maybe $20,000 USD instead”, he tells us.
We get an incredibly authentic taste of the returning elephants on our second day, when Leeheng stops abruptly in front of us, holding up a hand for quiet. He’s spotted fresh tracks and believes a wild elephant could be in the area – confirmed by the faint sounds of the ground being trampled and low grunts about 300 metres away.
Our excitement at the find turns to something a little more serious when he warns us quietly that we have to walk quickly, a sober expression on his normally cheerful face. As we move forward, he swings the back of an axe hard against a tree, a gunshot-like sound ringing out through the thick forest.
The elephants here haven’t forgotten the hunting days when bullets fired by humans would land amongst their herd. It makes them a dangerous animal for a human to encounter in these forests today, but Leeheng hopes their fear of the sound of guns will keep them well away from us.
Pausing frequently to take stock, he inspects tracks, listens to the low grunts in the distance. When we come across a strong earthy smell – a mound of very fresh droppings – and damage to ferns, tree trunks and plants reminiscent of a rogue ride-on mower, he gathers us around urgently. He thinks it’s a mother and child, meaning protective aggression is a real risk.
“They’re extremely close now, maybe 100 metres. If you see the elephant on the path, drop your bag immediately and run through the jungle. They can’t turn easily, so find the biggest tree you can and run behind it. Then move to the next and do the same. If you get lost, get to the river and head downstream. We’ll find you”.
Senses sharpened, we move stealthily along the paths to the nearby soundtrack of grunting and Bush-bashing(while hoping the fact we haven’t showered in a few days won’t give us completely away). With Leehengs help, we escape any face-to-face meetings with a territorial mother – but if our close encounter is the price to pay for CBET and the Wildlife Alliance achieving their goals of protecting the area’s remaining elephant population, we’ll happily take it.
Since its inception, the program has resulted in the reforesting of 733 hectares of degraded areas, cancelled 36 land..
Eventually, the constant blare of horns, the persistent pollution, and the never ending haggling from street vendors took its toll. Our time in Kathmandu, despite its obvious pleasures, was getting to us. We needed to find a respite; somewhere to escape, if just for a few hours. Heck, we didn’t need it, we craved it!
We asked a few local friends who suggested we visit a hidden garden just outside of famous tourist district of Thamel, ‘The Garden of Dreams’. It sounded like exactly what we were after.
We set off through the narrow streets, dodging crazed Kathmandu taxi’s, hashish dealers, and pesky street vendors. The short walk seemed to take an eternity, but before long we stumbled across the nondescript hole in the wall entrance that announced The Garden of Dreams.
It turns out The Garden of Dreams is like a gift from Shiva – a delightful little spot where we could finally escape the crazy, chaotic streets of Kathmandu.
THE GARDEN OF DREAMS, KATHMANDU
AN OASIS RIGHT IN THE HEART OF KATHMANDU
The Garden of Dreams has a varied history. Built in the 1920’s, and originally named of ‘The Garden of Six Seasons’ (after Nepal’s six seasons), it was formerly a private garden for Field Marshal Kaiser Sumsher Rama, who requested an elegant, European neo-classical walled gardens complete with pavilions, fountains, ponds, pergolas, and verandas to accompany his sprawling mansion. Like most of Asia’s stately colonial remnants, the gardens fell into disrepair upon his death. After decades of neglect, restorations were undertaken between 2000 and 2007 with the support of Austrian Government.
After paying our 200 rupee entry fee, we stepped through the entrance way and right into our version of heaven; an oasis, right in the heart of Kathmandu. Ornate neo-classical pavilions, well manicured gardens, expansive lawns and quiet. So much quiet.
Thankfully, The Garden of Dreams escaped with only minor damage from the destructive 2015 earthquake, and while the signs were evident, it didn’t distract from our exploration. We spent hours investigating all corners of the gardens, admiring the unique flora brought from varying countries around the world, and learning about the history, its fall into disrepair, and the extensive 7 year renovation project. We couldn’t help but feel a little thankful to the Austrian Government. They did good; real good.
We found secret hideaways, no doubt perfect for the throngs of Nepali youth who frequent the gardens, and we found the best position to lay down, in an amphitheatre no less, to relax in the glorious Kathmandu sun.
We didn’t move for the rest of the afternoon, enjoying a few precious moments away from the ever constant shrill of motorcycle horns, and the constant craziness of everyday life outside the walls.
We finished our perfect little afternoon the best way possible – with tea and cake at the Kaiser Cafe. Not just any tea, but ginger tea which we’d become accustomed to in the high Himalaya. The cake, chocolate, hit the spot, much like the whole day had. There was no hint of the chaos that surround the walls, just us and our perfect afternoon.
If you’re in Kathmandu and looking to escape the hustle and bustle, or simply looking for a brilliant, relaxing afternoon after a hard week’s hiking, The Garden of Dreams is the perfect place.
Visited The Garden of Dreams? Enjoy the serenity as much as us? Let us know your thoughts!
FURTHER INFORMATIONTHE GARDEN OF DREAMS ENTRANCE FEE
If you’re non-Nepali, entry is going to cost you Rs. 200 per person (under $2). Nepali’s get a special rate of Rs. 100 per person.
If you’re after wi-fi at the Garden of Dreams, it costs Rs. 50 per hour.
The Garden of Dreams are located in between Thamel Marg, and Kantipath on Tridevi Sadak. It’s located practically opposite the ever popular Fire and Ice restaurant, and next door to Himalayan Java cafe.
It’s a seriously easy 2 minute walk from Thamel, but if you get lost, ask for directions.
THE GARDEN OF DREAMS MAP
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‘This is Myanmar [Burma],’ wrote Rudyard Kipling, “and it’s unlike any land you know”.
Like any cliched travel quote, the one above has been thrown about pretty often by writers and journalists, in travel circles, and travellers who struggle to find the words to describe this fascinating land themselves. The thing is though – as with all good travel quotes – under all the overuse and cliche – there’s actually some truth to it.
When we travelled recently through Myanmar, we were struck by its uniqueness, the warmth of the locals and the way the country retained so much authenticity. But arriving into Yangon, we weren’t sure how long we’d stay. Big city travel isn’t generally our thing, and we didn’t want to sour our experiences with the kind of modern chaos and tourist traps that big cities tend to bring.
Plus, perhaps kind of ignorantly, we weren’t really even sure what there was to do once you ticked off the glimmering gold of the Shwedagon Pagoda or Golden rock. So when the opportunity came up to spend a day exploring Yangon via colonial-era city loop train and experiencing a slice of local life on an Urban Adventures tour, we jumped at it.
OUR EXPERIENCE RIDING THE YANGON CIRCLE LINE TRAIN
“HELLO NEW FRIENDS!”
Our beaming guide Thura greets us out front of the pick up point, arms wide open and excitedly calling out “hello new friends!”. He’s a bubbly 20-something mechanical engineering student with a passion for his exploring Yangon with tourists, and speaking and teaching English. He shakes our hands and introduces us to the rest of our group – his other new friends – before we take off. It’s like the coming together of two old friendship groups in a new city, and it sets the tone perfectly for the rest of the day.
Right in front of the Central Railway Station we hit a snag in the form of what seems an impossibly busy six-lane main road. Thura grins. Stick with him, he says, he‘s done this Yangon traffic thing before. He waits for a break to appear before stepping out with a hand up and a respectful nod to the drivers, slowing them long enough for us to run across and down the stairs to the station platform. Cross a Yangon road like a local? We got this.
It’s quiet at the station; surprising given between 100-150,000 people will be ferried around the loop today. Not far from where we wait, a teenage boy listens to pop music on his iPhone’s speaker while a businessman thumbs through Democracy Today – a sign that the times, they really are a-changing here.
The quiet is shattered when a train screeches into the platform, a swarm of people moving past us and throwing curious glances our way. Thura shepherds us on board; we only have a few minutes before the old engine springs into action, hauling the bouncing rickety carriages over the 45.9 kilometres of track linking 39 urban, suburban, and rural stations in one big loop.
Carriage rocking from side to side, we wind past the city’s neighbourhoods, through suburbia and shantytowns and into the rural villages where water buffalo still pull carts and plough fields. Monks wander along the tracks, grubby children play in the fields, and rolling green watercress and rice paddies abound. Inside the carriage, the locals watch us with bemused expressions, probably wondering what we make of it all. They break into huge grins when we smile at them.
Life in Myanmar is still difficult for many and poverty is rife. Far cheaper than bus fares, the train is the transport of choice for many locals taking their wares to market. Every now and then, the train slows just enough to allow passengers to scramble on and off. Vendors swing wicker baskets full of fresh produce on board and mount the stairs with dexterity, balancing trays precariously upon their heads. Soon, each carriage is transformed into a noisy moving marketplace; Papaya salads, fresh fruit, the day’s paper, cigarettes and Betel quids at our fingertips.
At Da Nyin Gone station the wholesale market spills onto the platform in a flurry of activity; traders hustle at train doorways; vendors dash to stalls with arms full of produce; Thanaka-painted children dart between legs; and beggars wave metal cups and wait for the jangle of incoming Kyat. Everyone listens for the signal of an oncoming train, collecting their goods and joining the stampede to safety when the announcement comes.
Following Thura into the market’s narrow, dark laneways it’s not long before the smell of fermenting Shrimp paste assaults our noses. He laughs at our screwed up faces and explains that it’s used in the majority of dishes in Myanmar so most people here love it. We’ll take his word for it.
The stall owners here are incredibly friendly, flashing smiles and calling Mingalaba (hello) as we pass. We stop occasionally to buy an ear of corn, bags of sweet watermelon or fresh pineapple. Our limited Burmese fails us, but it turns out that thumbs ups are universal and we manage to communicate how tasty everything is with a series of gestures and big grins which are returned to us ten-fold.
KFC? IN MYANMAR?
Heading back towards the city (and our next stops on the tour!), we gaze out the window in contemplation at the totally unique cross-section of life laid out before us. A trip on the city circle is much like taking a journey straight back into Myanmar’s past, and yet we realised that while the train lazily crawls around the track each day, the rate of development in Yangon is skyrocketing. There are signs of rapid change everywhere – a three-level KFC rising next to a Hindu Temple, iPhones in every hand.
As the sprawling city comes back into view, we can’t help but wonder whether the vibrant, simple existence that floats alongside the tracks will last in its current state – or will it give way to high rises, overpasses, and highspeed MRTs? How long this life beside the rails will remain unlike any you know is anyone’s guess really, but we’re glad we took the time to explore it while it does, just like a local.
We spent six weeks exploring Nepal in 2016; three weeks in the chaos of Kathmandu, two weeks hiking the picturesque Annapurna range with Intrepid Travel, and a week relaxing lakeside in Pokhara. Those six weeks were all it took for us to fall completely, madly, head over heels in love with the country.
WHY DID WE LOVE NEPAL SO MUCH?
It’s the intangible spirituality that curls itself around every fibre of your being, granting you new eyes, new appreciation, new awakening. It’s the kaleidoscope of colours, the cacophony of sound, the smells and the chaos which jolt you into life around every corner. It’s the people; so generous and friendly, such kindness in their eyes that your soul is warmed. It’s the prayer flags that flutter messages of peace on the breeze, their colours representing the elements of air, fire, water, wind, and earth. And it’s the towering mountains and their epic scale, the feeling of insignificance, yet being part of something so big, so powerful, and so beautiful on this big spinning ball of stardust.
Our love of Nepal was one we wanted to document, honour, and share, so here’s a short film we made; Colours of Nepal. We hope you enjoy.
We recently spent a month exploring Cambodia and discovered it’s a fascinating land of extreme contrast and wickedly authentic adventure, from the jaw dropping beauty of Angkor Wat through to the depths of despair of the Killing Fields and S21.
But there were a few things we wish we knew before we arrived; little tidbits of information that would have made our life easier. If you’re planning on visiting Cambodia in the future, we’ve put together a list of things you need to know before you visit; simple stuff that will make your life easier on arrival into this wonderful country.
TRAVEL ADVICE FOR CAMBODIA – 16 USEFUL THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU VISIT
#1 CAMBODIA IS AWESOME AND THERE’S A LOT TO SEE AND DO
Cambodia’s a pretty awesome country to visit. In many ways it’s like Thailand was 20 years ago – tourism is growing rapidly, as is the country, yet it still retains that old skool southeast Asian charm, beautiful landscapes, friendly locals, and wonderful food.
If you have time, we recommend visiting Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, the Islands, Chi Phat community based eco-tourism project, Battambang and Kampot.
#2 LEARN ABOUT RECENT CAMBODIAN HISTORY BEFORE YOU TRAVEL
For such a vibrant and happy place, Cambodia has a dark recent history. Upon seizing power in 1975, the Khmer Rouge, under their revolutionary leader Pol Pot, began a murderous regime that lasted for four brutal years.
Cambodia’s coastline and islands are astoundingly beautiful, and you can find one to suit whatever your vibe is – chill or party. We preferred to chill on Koh ta Kiev, but if you’d like a party hop across to Koh Rong, or hang out in Sihanoukville.
The temples of Angkor Wat are the prime motivation for most people to visit Cambodia. A wonder of the world, exploring the whole archeological park is an incredible experience – though prepare to battle crowds in their hundreds/thousands! It can also be a very expensive day out (for Cambodia), so be prepared to break the bank if you’re on a budget.
The easiest way to explore cities/towns in Cambodia is via tuk-tuk. They’re generally inexpensive, especially when compared to taxi’s, and are nimble enough to get you from A – B before you know it.
If you’re travelling regionally, be sure to use the bus network. It’s widespread, with many operators available on the main routes, such as Phnom Penh – Sihanoukville.
#6 CAMBODIA GETS HOT – VERY, VERY HOT
Obvious as it may seem, Cambodia gets really, really hot. Especially so during the peak season from November – March, so be prepared for some very warm days (and nights).
Our tips: get up early and explore before the hottest part of the day, wear sunscreen all the time, wear relaxed, breathable clothing, and drink lots of fluids.
#7 COVER UP WHEN VISITING THE TEMPLES
As this is a religious site you really should be dressed appropriately, with your legs and shoulders covered (particularly for ladies!). Just be mindful that you’re in a foreign, more conservative country, and much of the access to temples is limited if you’re not dressed respectfully.
#8 YOU SHOULD VISIT CHI PHAT COMMUNITY BASED ECOTOURISM PROJECT
We highly recommend visiting a community-based ecotourism project in the Cardamom Mountains called Chi Phat. It’s hard to get to (but that’s part of the fun, right?), but once there it is like a nature lovers paradise. There are a heap of awesome activities you can enjoy including hiking, mountain biking and kayaking. We opted for hiking and this was our best experience in Cambodia. Spending two nights deep in the jungle, sleeping in hammocks and eating jungle curries, tracking animals and washing in rivers was our kinda jam!
#9 A CAMBODIAN VISA IS EASY TO GET (for the most part)
It’s easy to obtain a visa on arrival at key border crossings; meaning if you arrive by plane or overland you’ll be fine. Remember the obvious stuff like having a valid passport (6 months +) and bring a passport sized photo.
Tourist visas will cost you around $30USD (you will definitely need USD here) for 30 days. The reason we say around is there are many scams in which you may be forced to pay a ‘stamp fee’, a fee for a bus employee to collect all passengers passports together for processing in bulk, or for a ‘medical clearance’. They’re only a few USD here and there, but if you’re crossing into Cambodia via land, try not to pay these fees, even if they are ‘mandatory’. The best bet is to plan ahead and organise your visa prior to arrival, then you won’t have to deal with these annoying scams.
#10 CAMBODIA USES TWO CURRENCIES
The Cambodian currency is Riel, yet you’ll probably pay in USD. It’s weird, and kinda frustrating but it’s important to know that we used USD almost exclusively throughout our time there.
Because Cambodia doesn’t use American coins, you’ll get change for your purchases in riel (1,000 riel is 25 cents). This is fine, as you can then use your Riel when purchasing smaller items such as snacks for bus rides, or a Coca Cola for those sweltering days! It just gets a little annoying after a while!
If you want to exchange money so that you have riel on hand, you can do so at any bank in Cambodia. You may get better rates at the local markets/black market, so shop around; you’ll be able to identify the moneychangers by their glass cases filled with piles of notes.
Cambodia, like most southeast Asian countries, is cheap. It’s so cheap, in fact, that the two of us could last on $40USD a day (apart from our days visiting Angkor Wat, but we’ll get to that). Granted, we stayed in hostels, ate at markets (Siem Reap night market FTW!) and travelled on cheap transport, but you get the idea. Here’s a breakdown of general costs (all in $USD):
Hostel: Dorm – $7, Double -$20
Hotel: $25+ a night depending on rating
Bus | Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville – from $10
Tuk Tuk | $1 – $25 depending on journey distance
Taxi | $10+ depending on distance (note. never use a taxi unless you feel unsafe at night!)
Boat | Sihanoukville to Islands – $10+
#12 PLANNING IN ADVANCE ISN’T NECESSARY
If planning ahead isn’t your thing, don’t stress. We prefer to wing it too, and Cambodia suited us just fine. Although we recommend you read up on Cambodia and learn a few key phrases before you arrive as it’ll make life a lot easier.
There are many bus companies which service the whole country, so this is the easiest way to get around. We organised most of our travel a day or two prior to our departure, though during the really busy periods, book at least two days ahead as some of the popular routes fill up quickly.
The same goes for accommodation. Book accommodation at least two days in advance and you shouldn’t have any issues, however around holiday periods such as Christmas and New Years, give yourself a little bit more time. But don’t stress, we arrived on the day at a few places, and didn’t had to sleep on any streets (phew)!
If you want to head to the Cambodian islands, things are a little different. While most of the time you can arrive and find somewhere on the fly, we recommend booking at least a week in advance. That way you’ll stay at the place you want and won’t run the risk of sleeping under the stars (although that does sound rather enticing).
#13 CAMBODIA IS SAFE, BUT KEEP YOUR WITS ABOUT YOU
Cambodia has a pretty tragic, violent recent history, but the Cambodia we visited was only friendly. Everywhere we visited, be it rural or city, we were met with kind-hearted, happy people.
That being said, it’s important to keep your wits about you. This is still a developing nation, and crime exists. In the cities, we took tuk-tuks instead of walking at night, and were somewhat less adventurous than usual. If you’re travelling alone, buddy up with some other backpackers, never walk home at night alone, and steer clear of drugs.
Poverty is still rife in Cambodian, despite the rapidly growing economy and rising middle class. It’s not uncommon to see children begging or trying to sell you books, bracelets, or trinkets in many tourist hotspots. We urge anyone visiting Cambodia to not fall into the trap of buying from these children, as it fuels the cycle and encourages more families to send their children onto the street for a decent pay-day.
From the moment we stepped off the plane, we really enjoyed our time in Kathmandu. It’s surprising, because we’re not usually fans of heavily polluted cities, nor ones that are claustrophobic, chaotic and exhausting. Despite the constant grumbles from motorbikes, annoying touts pushing trekking tours, and the painfully bad infrastructure, Kathmandu is endlessly appealing.
The rabbit-warren streets of the backpacker district of Thamel are intoxicating, as are the surrounding alleyways which head seemingly in all directions, only to end in the same place. Despite the recent earthquake, the city’s cultural and artistic history is prevalent just about everywhere, as are it’s medieval temples and royal palaces, all waiting to be explored. And the food.. don’t get us started on the food, so delicious, so cheap.
But what made the city just the little bit better were the people. They’re all so friendly and accommodating, despite the constant hardships of recent years.
If you’re planning to visit Nepal but spend minimal time in Kathmandu, we suggest you change your plans. You need to trust us when we say it’s worth it. You won’t be short of things to, and that’s why we’ve put together our favourite things to do in Kathmandu.
#1 WANDER THE THAMEL DISTRICT
Most travellers spend most of their time in Thamel, Kathmandu’s non sleazy answer to Bangkok’s Khao San Rd. Right in the heart of the city with all the major attractions and transport routes close by, it’s colourful, busy and brash!
Thamel’s a complete rabbit-warren of narrow streets and alleyways, and has everything a traveller needs; hotels and guesthouses, restaurants, bars, top quality bakeries (seriously, they are that good!), supermarkets, book stores, pirated DVD’s and everything in between. You could spend hours exploring the streets and meeting all the smiling locals.
It’s also the place to find all your trekking gear (mostly imitation but still good quality), with literally hundreds of stores selling pretty much the same stuff. It’s worth the effort to haggle the prices down as you can save up to 50% from the first offer.
While Thamel is a cool place to hang out in and meet fellow travellers, it can pull you in and not let you out. Make sure you make the effort to escape its grasp and go explore the surrounding areas.
#2 EMBRACE KATHMANDU’S SPIRITUAL SIDE
Nepal is a pretty spiritual place, being the birthplace of Buddha and everything. So it’s not surprising that Kathmandu is home to some of the most revered temples in both the Buddhist and Hindu community. If time is limited, you HAVE to visit the following temples and stupas.
Pashupatinath, dedicated to the god Shiva, is one of the holiest sites in all of Hinduism and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. On the banks of the Bagmati river, Pashupatinath has existed since 400 A.D and its main temple is considered a masterpiece in Hindu architecture. For westerners, you’ll have to view from outside as the temple is for Hindu devotees only. The main attraction here is the shining Shivalinga and huge golden statue of Shiva’s Bull, Nandi. It’s also home to some pretty colourful artwork.
Pashupatinath is also the location for many buddhist and Hindu cremations, so you’ll likely see one of these taking place on the banks of the river. It’s a pretty confronting sight but incredibly interesting to witness.
We recommend hanging around and watching the Aarti ceremony which commences each evening at 6:30pm. The Aarti ceremony is one of the more important ceremonies in the Hindu faith; it’s full of colour, light and chanting and it’s totally worth staying for.
Overall, the temple only suffered minor damage from the 2015 earthquake so can still be seen in all it’s glory.
Entry | Around $10 USD per person
Location | Northeast Kathmandu, about 20 mins from Thamel
A visit to Swayambhunath (or Monkey temple) is an essential experience in Kathmandu. There may be a few stairs (365) and a heap of monkeys to navigate before you summit, but the views at the top are worth it. The temple is a mix of Buddhist and Hindu iconography and is quite stunning to witness. The best time to visit is early evening when local devotees circumnavigate the stupa, spinning prayer wheels as they go and making their way through the ever present smoky incense hanging heavy in the air. This lofty hilltop also provides the best vistas of Kathmandu, perfect for a sunset snap.
Unfortunately, the temple suffered a large amount of damage at the summit however the main structures are still standing.
Entry | Around $4 USD per person
Location | Western outskirts of Kathmandu, about 20mins from Thamel
If you really want to experience Kathmandu’s spiritual side, Boudhanath stupa is a must. Thousands of pilgrims visit each day to walk around the central dome, spinning prayer wheels as they go; Tibetan monks chant mantras and pray in the surrounding monasteries while tourists take it all in.
The best time to visit Boudhanath is during the late afternoon when the place has a more authentic feel. Locals go about their daily ritual and the surrounding area is less busy.
Prior to the 2015 earthquake, the eyes of buddha gazed out from the gilded central tower and while this is currently not standing, renovations are taking place to reinforce the structure and return it to it’s former glory.
Entry: $2 USD per person
Location: Northeastern outskirts of Kathmandu, 20 mins from Thamel
No visit to Kathmandu would be complete without visiting these three beauties.
Back in the day, Nepal was split into three main kingdoms – Basantapur (Kathmandu), Bhaktapur and Patan, each of which had a royal palace and surrounding squares located in the Kathmandu Valley.
In the unified Nepal of today, each Durbar Square is made up of temples, idols, statues, open courts and fountains along with other structures. They are the perfect place to admire ancient Nepali architecture, Newari wood carvings and historic traditions. Oh, and it’s a great place to people watch.
It’s hard to say which one is more impressive as they’re all incredible in their own right, but our favourite was Patan. The architecture is stunning, it’s well maintained and it has a much more laid back vibe.
These UNESCO World Heritage sites may have suffered more than most in Kathmandu during the earthquake, but they still retain the beauty and intricacy which made them so famous. It’s easy to spend a day exploring these squares and we absolutely recommend it. We also recommend venturing out into the surrounding areas which are filled with quaint laneways and hidden temples/religious monuments.
Entry | $10 – $15 USD to each, per person
Location | Bhaktapur: East of Kathmandu, 40 mins from Thamel. Patan: South of Kathmandu, 10 mins from Thamel. Kathmandu: south of Kathmandu, 5 mins from Thamel
#4 CHILL OUT IN THE GARDEN OF DREAMS
When the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu gets you down, pop into the Garden of Dreams just outside of Thamel for a relaxed oasis of tranquility.
In this beautiful neo-classical garden you’ll find pavilions, verandahs, fountains and a relaxing amphitheatre where you can chill out on one of the pillows provided. It’s also evidently the romantic destination of choice for Nepalis, with lovebirds on every corner!
There’s also the Kaiser restaurant which does a damn fine hamburger if you’re craving a western delicacy!
Entry | $2 USD per person
Location | 5 min walk from Thamel
#5 EAT ALL THE DELICIOUS NEPALI FOOD
Don’t be worried by the quality or variety of food in Nepal because it’s incredibly good! Nom.
For the local variety of snacks, start with Momos. The Nepali answer to dumplings, these pockets of joy come in vegetable, buff (buffalo) or chicken and can be fried or steamed. You can also find amazing pakora and samosas on any street corner! Next, find yourself some Choila, spicy grilled buffalo meat which goes down a treat with a beer.
For larger meals, you really can’t go past Dal Bhat, the Nepali staple meal for lunch and dinner. Dal Bhat is a traditional Nepali meal consisting of rice, a lentil based soup and other condiments, and it’s generally all you can eat so you’ll never go hungry. For those who enjoy soups, there is Thukpa or Thenthuk, a delicious mix of meat, noodles and vegetables.
On the restaurant front, check out Yangling in Thamel. It has seriously good food at seriously cheap prices.
“The mountains were so wild and so stark and so very beautiful that I wanted to cry. I breathed in another wonderful moment to keep safe in my heart.”
WHY VISIT NEPAL?
Mountains, jungles, medieval cities, spiritual sites, travel nirvana and the friendliest people of earth. Yep, there’s a reason why we love Nepal, and you will too.
It’s almost too obvious to speak of the incredible natural scenery, however it really is reason enough to visit Nepal. The soaring Himalayan mountains offer some of the best hiking and mountaineering on the planet, while the steamy plains bordering India provide many of Asia’s best wildlife viewing opportunities. Elsewhere, there’s a perfect array of outdoor activities for those adrenalin seekers among us.
But to us, what makes Nepal so great is the intangible. It’s a spiritual feeling that comes over you the minute you step foot on Nepali soil. You feel it when you’re first greeted by an impossibly friendly local – “Namaste” (I bow to the divine in you), you feel it high up in the snowy peaks of the Himalayan mountains, and you feel it in Kathmandu and its stunning historical sites. You feel it everywhere, all the time.
It’s hard to adequately describe the feels, but to truly understand us and Nepal, you have to experience it yourself.
WHAT TO DO IN NEPAL?CITIES/TOWNS
Kathmandu | Unique as they come and different to anywhere we’ve visited, Kathmandu is crazy, chaotic, historic, spiritual, haphazard, enticing and vibrant – yet these words still don’t do this city justice. There are many UNESCO World Heritage sights to see, and equally tasty food to eat!
Pokhara | Pokhara is almost the complete opposite of Kathmandu; relaxed, quiet, with a distinct south east Asian feel. On the banks of Phewa Tal lake, and with the backdrop of the Annapurna Range, it’s no wonder it’s a favourite with backpackers.
Bandipur | Like stepping back in time, this living, breathing open air museum of Newari culture might be a little off the beaten track but well worth the visit.
Nepal’s list of outdoor pursuits is virtually endless.
Annapurna Circuit | Famous the world over, the Annapurna Circuit is one of the world’s best treks. Over 17 days, you’ll be treated to striking mountains, fresh air, clear streams, quaint mountain villages and famous Nepali hospitality. If you do one hike in Nepal, make it this. Trust us!
Everest Base Camp | Another famous trek, Everest Base Camp is altogether different than Annapurna, but equally beautiful. Expect to be challenged, especially on the final two days, but expect to witness some of the most beautiful scenery in Nepal.
Gokyo Lakes | High in the Sagarmatha National Park lies the Gokyo Lakes, a set of incredible turquoise glacial lakes surrounded by some of the tallest peaks in the world. It’s incredibly beautiful and worth the hike.
Mustang | Bordering Tibet, Mustang’s terrain reminds of Mars, with high-altitude dessert’s and eroded badlands forming the area. It’s less frequented by tourists but well worth the effort.
CULTURAL & HISTORY
Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur Durbar Square | Formerly the capital of three kingdoms, each Durbar Square is unique, and made up of temples, idols, statues, open courts and fountains along with other structures.
Boudhanath Stupa | Boudhanath Stupa is a must visit for anyone wanting to experience Nepal’s spiritual side. Daily, pilgrims visit to walk around the central dome, spin prayer wheels, pray and chant while tourists take it all in.
Pashupatinath | One of the holiest sites in all of Hinduism, Pashupatinath has existed since 400 A.D and it’s main temple is a masterpiece of Hindu architecture. Only Hindu devotees may enter, but this doesn’t detract from this incredibly spiritual site.
Swayambhunath | A visit to Kathmandu isn’t complete without a visit to Swayambhunath. Climb the 365 stairs to enjoy stunning views of Kathmandu, and intricate temples complete with Buddhist and Hindu iconography.
Lumbini | Lumbini is the birthplace of Buddha and a must-visit for those interested in Buddhism.
Chitwan National Park |In the steamy lowlands bordering India exists Chitwan National Park. Formally the royal hunting ground, Chitwan is now home to one of the most successful national parks in Asia (zero poaching was achieved in 2015). On safari, you’re likely to see Rhino, Sloth Bears, Crocodile, Gharial, monkeys, and if you’re really lucky, Tiger and Leopard.
Take it from us wanderers; Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit trek is not a simple walk in the park (pun intended). When we commenced the trek, we thought we were prepared to deal with the super cold nights. We weren’t. In fact, we were so cold at one point we could barely sleep. So while it’s super tempting just to turn up, hire your sleeping bag and take off, there are a few more incredibly useful things you need to consider before commencing Nepal’s best trek.
Lucky for you guys, we struggled through cold nights at altitude so we would provide you with inside knowledge before tackling the long, epic and beautiful Annapurna Circuit trek.
You need to be fit, but not super fit
While you don’t need to be super fit to complete the Annapurna circuit, it’s definitely worthwhile putting in some hard yards at the gym, in the mountains or around the block before you leave.
For the most part the days are manageable; 5-6hrs and 10-15kms, with plenty of rest, long lunch breaks and a few rest days in between. BUT. Some days on your trek will be 16 hours at high altitude starting at 4am. Other days can be over 20kms through the Nepali flats or in the snow. And then there’s the final day from Muktinath to Jomsom (you can discover all about that yourself!).
Our advice is to build your general cardio (the fun stuff!) for at least a month prior to leaving as well as a few consecutive days of long distance walking. If you want to, try altitude training before you leave. We didn’t do this, but we’ve heard good reports. You’ll be grateful you made the effort when the time comes to lace up those boots up again for the 6th day in a row.
It pays to prepare so if you’re committed to completing the Annapurna circuit trek successfully, to training before you leave.
It’s long, hard and tough
It’s always further than it looks. It’s always taller than it looks. And it’s always harder than it looks.
That’s a quote about the ‘three rules of mountaineering’. We’re not really sure who came up with it, but they’re pretty spot on except for one detail: It’s also always completely worth it.
We’re going to get all tough love on you here: the Annapurna trek is long, tiring and physically and mentally tough. Depending on which route you take you’re going to be hiking for 13+ days – probably longer than your first high school romance.
Some days will be really physically tough. You’ll be living out of a backpack with a very limited supply of clothing, sleeping on some rock hard beds, eating only carbs (we didn’t say it was all bad), drinking chlorinated or steri-penned water all while having no internet access to check Facebook
Sound daunting? Well yeah, maybe it is. But trust us, when you’re standing in awe of the peaks around you, bonding with your group over a cup of hot chocolate, or celebrating crossing the Thorong La Pass these challenges become so insignificant you’ll wonder why they got you down in the first place.
The scenery is incredible
You know that feeling you get when you spot a hottie across the dancefloor for the first time? The hairs stand up on the back of your neck, your heart pounds like a kick drum, and you have this existential crisis about being so freaking small in this universe and how could all this amazingness actually even exist. Well, this happens Every. Single. Day. in the Annapurna region.
With every step the scenery in front of you changes and the mountains reveal something new; rolling clouds, the breathtaking terrain, the towering mountains or the smiling locals.
It’s literally the definition of awe-inspiring. Them feels are good for the soul and you’ll leave feeling all giddy about the world.
The accommodation is decent
If you’re expecting to stay at the Shangri-La, you’ll be disappointed. If you apply a little common sense and realise the Annapurna circuit is pretty remote, you’ll be satisfied with the basic accommodation options available.
Guesthouses and teahouses are dotted along the whole trek, starting from Besisahar all the way to Jomson. They’re pretty little things made from rock and wood and provide a welcome relief at the end of a long days trekking.
Rooms at each teahouse are generally twin share, with enough space to spread out. As the altitude increases, the accommodation becomes more basic, however, the higher you go the happier you’ll be with any form of bedding! Each teahouse has a common area which is usually stoked with a fire in the evening. This is where you’ll spend most of your time, eating and meeting fellow travellers.
Most teahouses make their money from food, so expect to pay slightly more than you would in Kathmandu. We do recommend buying food and drinks at teahouses. Firstly, it will lighten your load, and secondly it provides income to what are sometimes fairly poor communities.
Most teahouses will have basic amenities, such as showers and toilets. Up until Manang, you’ll be able to have hot, solar powered showers, although be prepared to fight for first position! You do have to pay for warm showers, but it’s definitely worth it.
You are also able to charge your electronic devices, and this comes at a cost too.
There are legends in Nepal; super strong guys who glide up and down mountains carrying all your stuff on their shoulders and neck. They’re called Porters, and they do this so you can concentrate on accomplishing your goal without extra baggage.
While their feats are super-human, they are in-fact quite human, with really human muscles and backs that are also prone to injury.
Help them out here by bringing only what you really need (10kgs or so), so ditch the hair straightener, the three pairs of jeans and the full make up bag as you won’t need it.
Bare essentials include:
A pair of good quality waterproof hiking boots and a spare pair of inside shoes
6 pairs of underwear and four pairs of socks (you can wash them as you go!).
Two pairs of hiking pants
One pair of shorts
Two jumpers (fleece or woollen)
Two thermal tops and bottoms
One goose-down jacket (you really need this).
One Gore Tex jacket
One pair of waterproof pants
1 beanie and 1 buff
1 pair of thick gloves
Personal hygiene essentials
Your porters (and their spines) will thank you later.
Prepare for 4 seasons in one trek
Trekking through your tropical first day you’ll probably be asking yourself what the heck you brought all these warm clothes for. You’ll realise why when you get to 3,000m.
The Annapurna trek covers everything from tropical to alpine climatic zones. Some days you’ll be hiking in shorts and t-shirt consuming your fourth litre of water on yet another water break. Other days you’ll be wearing all of your clothes as the brutally cold -15c wind freezes your water.
The range of climatic zones you pass through is awesome, and sure makes for some epic views. Just be prepared everyday and ask your guide what temperatures to expect and which essentials to throw in your daypack and you’ll be ready to face it all.
Food is damn good
As your mind wanders while trudging through the snow on your way to Thorong La pass, you’ll dream of your favourite meal; a chicken parma, killer veggie curry, or Fro-Yo with all the toppings you like.
You don’t need to fear for your taste buds; the food in the Annapurna region is actually really freaking good, and pretty varied. Expect a lot of carbs and seasonal veggies, soups, momos and the most famous mountain meal of all, Dal Bhat.
Dal Bhat is a traditional Nepali meal consisting of rice, a lentil based soup and other condiments, and it’s generally all you can eat so you’ll never go hungry. As they say on the mountain: ‘Dal Bhat Power!’
You’ll be surprised by the amount of bakeries, stocking everything from strudel to doughnuts. We recommend stopping at each of these as they’re amazing!
While the hike may break your leg muscles, it certainly won’t break your bank balance.
Budget for about $20 USD per person a day and you’ll be able to grab all the goodies including your meals, drinks and some snacks. Do make sure you also have some money set aside for tips to thank your guides and porters for their awesome service.
One thing you do need to note is that you won’t have an ATM until you finish in Jomson. So stock up on Nepali rupee before you start the hike. To keep that amount of money safe, stash it in your daypack.
Altitude sickness is real
Run the London Marathon? Completed the Hawaiian Ironman? Smash out spin classes four times a week? We commend you for being so awesome in your active wear, but it won’t help you with altitude sickness.
Altitude sickness can affect anyone, including the fittest athletes alive (and Sir Edmund Hillary – the first summiteer of Everest!) so make sure you take all the necessary precautions after 3000m. That includes taking Diamox (if you wish), staying hydrated, fuelling up and getting adequate rest. If you feel symptoms, let your guide know and take action.