Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Memorable Travel Moments: Climbing the “stairs” at Angkor Wat, Cambodia (2006)

As part of a group tour to Thailand, we booked an extension to Cambodia. Our group in Cambodia consisted of seven of us, with our own guide and driver. As a small group we had a lot of flexibility, a trait that came in particularly handy when visiting Angkor Watt.

Angkor Watt is among the most visited World Heritage sites, with more than a million tourists each year.  On the day we visited, we had much of this magnificent and gargantuan structure mostly to ourselves. The exception was the area around the “stairs” leading up to the third level and central courtyard. This is the heart of the complex and a spot through which every tourist passes.

The main stairway leading up from here is steep and uneven – but it also has a narrow set of concrete steps that have been added, along with a hand rail, along one edge. The accessibility provided by this accomodation resulted in a line that snaked around the courtyard as people awaited their turn to climb to the next level.

Our guide took account of the situation and then directed us around to a similar stairway on the other side. This one seemed even steeper and was worn nearly smooth, but you could climb up without waiting in a long line – assuming you could navigate the huge, uneven “steps.”  
With patience and a good deal of coordinated effort (pushing and pulling each other up), we all made it up.

It was definitely worth the effort. 
The evening before our guide had taken us to a site that required us to help each up climb up the side of a ruin. I suspect that was a test run for today. Thank goodness we passed!

(We took the “regular” stairs back down. As predicted by our guide, there was a much shorter wait to go down then there was to go up. I suspect that access is much more limited – and controlled – today.)

Thailand and Cambodia (2006) 

More Memorable Travel Moments    

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Longing for a Return Trip: Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Siem Reap, Cambodia, is one of the more disconcerting places I have visited. It is a city where the multimillion-dollar hotels (with room rates to match) are surrounded by nothing but poverty.
Busy side street in Siem Reap
Our relatively modest hotel
 It exhibits all the worst traits of mass tourism.

To some degree, the same is true of Angkor Wat. Despite its UNESCO World Heritage status, the namesake temple of 12th century complex regularly shows up on lists of sites that are in need of additional protection from the impacts of tourism. Indeed, Angkor Wat was rather overrun with tourists when we visited, but there were still opportunities to quietly contemplate the ruins. It was amazing and much too much to absorb in one visit. I would love to have another chance to try to absorb it all.       
But the real reason I want to return is spread throughout the surrounding jungle. The Angkor site covers over 150 square miles and includes scores of Khmer temples and infrastructure dating from the 9th to 15th century.

Among the temples we visited were Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom, Bayon, Banteay Srei, Banteay Samre', East Mebon, and Neak Pean.   
All of these temples are worth a second visit (and a third and a fourth) and there are many more we didn’t get a chance to visit. However, more than anything, I would love to return when the weather is damp and misty. The bright sunshine that dominated our visit – while in some ways picture-perfect – didn’t seem like the right setting for these mysterious-looking ruins. I want more time to explore the area (which is perfect for biking) and the photographer in me would like a little light rain or morning mist to enhance the shots I take as I explore!

Thailand and Cambodia (2006)   

More places I long to return to 

Friday, April 26, 2013

Good Gear: 150W Power Inverter

Never get caught with a dead camera battery (or phone or iPAD) again.

This is an electric inverter – a gadget that takes DC power (produced by your car or boat's battery) and transforms it into AC power (used by your phone, camera, iPAD, and other electronic gadgets).

Having one guarantees that you won’t find yourself with dead batteries on your next road trip . . . or on your next trip into the office.

These come in various sizes, but my 150 W (Input: DC12V/Output: AC 110W) is small enough to take anywhere and powerful enough to charge my Nikon SLR as well as a slew of smaller cameras. It plugs directly into a standard automobile cigarette lighter or a marine outlet. It won’t recharge your gadgets as fast as regular AC power, but if you use it while you are on the go, it can keep you going indefinitely. 

As you can see, mine takes a standard American two/three prong plug and two USB ports.

You can use all three at once, but your gadgets will charge more slowly.

You can charge your laptop this way too, but computers run on DC power (the box on your power cord is converting AC current to DC), so an inverter is a really inefficient way to charge a computer. If you frequently use your computer while on the road, you are better off buying a DC power cord that plugs directly into a cigarette lighter/marine outlet. (I have one of those too and I love it and will feature it in a future post, as I recommend it for anyone who has/wants to work while on the move.) However, for occasional use, the inverter should keep you going.

A variety of inverters are available on line through a variety of merchants. (We were told that some auto shops carry them, but couldn’t find one that actually did.)

My sweet little inverter is a Bestek and is available through Amazon. (As are other sizes and brands.)

Purchases made through this link provide me with a small percentage of the total sale. (Thank you for supporting this travel blog!)

This really is the perfect travel tool for folks on the road – in Morocco our driver checked it out and immediately decided that the tour company should provide one in every vehicle.

More Good Gear

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Photo Thursday: The Beauty of Spring Snow

Spring has been late to arrive in Minnesota this year, but it has reminded me that you need not travel far to find beautiful photos.

These were taken two days ago near my home. Today this snow is almost entirely gone, as it is more ephemeral (and thus even more beautiful?) than the cherry blossoms that will (eventually) burst into bloom.
This is my contribution to Travel Photo Thursday at Nancie's Budget Traveler's Sandbox. Head on over and see what she's posted this week and then follow the links to images from around the world.
More Saint Paul posts

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Memorable Travel Moments: My First Trip to New Orleans (1991)

In the spring of 1991 I had the opportunity to go to New Orleans to attend a conference.

I didn’t know anyone else who was going, so I was delighted to discover that a friend from Germany would be visiting the US at the same time and wanted to see New Orleans. We teamed up for a pre-conference visit and there couldn’t have been a better introduction to the city.

Because we were pretty broke, we stayed far from the tourist areas around the French Quarter. (I don’t know exactly where we stayed, but I’m pretty sure that the hotel and the neighborhood around it were submerged as a result of Katrina.) Although the hotel was on a local bus line that went directly into the city, hotel staff advised us not to take the bus as it went through bad (but not dangerous) neighborhoods and would be filled with undesirable people. Instead we were advised to take a tourist shuttle that served the hotel and a number of nearby RV parks.

Our shuttle ride helped me understand why my so many RVers seemed to hate cities – the RV parks were located far from the city center in poor neighborhoods. All of the parks on the shuttle route were surrounded by high walls topped with barbed wire. It was pretty bleak. 

After spending nearly two hours on the shuttle, we decided we’d take our chances with the bus. In comparison, the bus practically whisked us into the city. We never took the shuttle again. The bus went through a lot of poor neighborhoods, but it never felt unsafe (even after dark) and it gave us a better sense of how most people in this city really live. Despite the obvious poverty, the people in these neighborhoods were clearly working hard. And, while clearly were surprised to find us on their bus, everyone was kind and gracious. They were good people and traveling with them each day was so much better (and quicker) than the tourist shuttle! 

Of course, we were on the bus because we wanted to get to tourist sites like the French Quarter and the Garden District.
 I don’t recall much about the French Quarter, but I loved the Garden District. The large, elegant mansions were beautiful, however, the little shot-gun houses that stole my heart. I loved their simple shape and fanciful trimmings. Furthermore, in a place where rapid decay comes with the climate, each shot-gun house was cloaked in mystery: was this an empty run-down shack or a dilapidated exterior that concealed an extravagant collection of art and antique furniture. I might not know exactly what is inside a Garden District mansion, but it probably contained at least some of the trappings of a comfortable upper class life.

As much as I loved the city, we didn’t spend all of our time there. One escape took us into Honey Island Swamp via boat.  
This was an otherworldly landscape of water and trees, every branch dripping with vegetation. It was made even more memorable by the abundance of alligators and the fact that they were NOT snapping at the marshmallows our guide occasional tossed to them. He claimed they not only stop eating when it is cold, but actually can’t even open their jaws! How fascinating.

I returned to New Orleans with my husband a few years later and decided that it was my favorite city in the US.

I haven’t been back since Katrina and I don’t know that I’ll ever go back now. I know the devastation wrought by Katrina is invisible to the casual tourist. Still, I can’t forget the neighborhoods I saw and the people I met on my bus rides all those years ago. So much has been lost. Despite their poverty, those people were part of the rich stew that was New Orleans. I can’t believe that this loss doesn’t hang in the air to be inhaled with every breath . . . or maybe I fear that it doesn’t and that New Orleans has become something new.

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?

More Memorable Travel Moments 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Memorable Travel Moments: Celebrating my Birthday in Soure, Portugal, 1998

In 1998 I celebrated my birthday by meeting the President of a municipality in Portugal, touring the city library, attending an art opening for a Japanese artist, and dining at a fabulous restaurant. 

None of this was planned. Indeed, had I not been traveling with friends who were much more persistent than I, none of it would have happened.

We were on the second day of a two-week trip to Portugal and had decided to explore the country’s smaller towns. We didn’t have a plan, but were generally aiming for the Roman ruins of Conimbriga near Coimbra.  Noting that there was a tourist information office along the way in the smaller town of Soure, we decided to stop there and seek help in making plans and arranging lodging farther down the road.

We arrived in Soure at mid-day and the tourism office was closed for lunch. This gave us time to explore town a bit. Indeed, it was just enough time for my friends to decide that this is where they wanted to spend the coming weekend.
 That decision made, all we had to do was make the arrangements!

Of course, the tourism office was still closed.

The sign on the door appeared to direct visitors someplace else if the office was closed. Instead of continuing to wait, we decided we’d just go to this other place and get help there . . . once we figured out where that other place was. We weren’t sure about our translation, but eventually decide it must be city hall. Even if that wasn’t right, surely someone there would be able to help us.

City hall was a busy place, but it was not prepared for clueless English-speaking tourists. None-the-less, the baffled employees wanted to be helpful and finally found a young woman who spoke a bit of English. Perplexed by our questions and unsure of why we came to city hall, she, in turn, directed us to an office at the top of the stairs for assistance.

We went up the stairs and then stopped, confused.

The office that confronted us was huge, grand, and very formal-looking. It was not the sort of place one sends lost tourists.

Not knowing what else to do, we went in to ask for help.

Well, actually, my friends insisted that we go in. I was more than ready to head back to the car and try to find the tourist office in Coimbra.

Instead, I followed my friends into the fancy office. Inside, the bewildered receptionist had no idea why we were there, but she welcomed us anyway. Soon we were rejoined by the woman who had directed us there. Both did their best to show us around and keep us entertained. Thus we were well watched over while we waited for assistance.

The President
That assistance arrived in the form of the city’s young, energetic and fully multi-lingual President.

This was obviously a person of great importance in the city and he was as confused by our presence as anyone (Soure was not a place that attracted tourists), however, he graciously gave us a tour of his office and the council chambers while telling us about government in Portugal, his city (which includes the surrounding towns and villages), and some of his recent accomplishments. He was interesting and engaging – giving us the kind of personal insight into this place that tourists usually only dream of! 
 Meanwhile, staff had been dispatched to locate the missing tourist office staff. Eventually a very flustered young lady appeared, apologizing profusely and offering to help with whatever we needed.

The Library and Art Opening
One of the accomplishments the President had told us about was state-of-the-art library which was housed in a newly restored historic building. He had also assured us that the library staff would be happy to give us a tour. My friend’s farther was on the library board back home, so he was thrilled by the opportunity to tour this new, high-tech library. Our guide (probably the only English-speaking member of the staff) patiently answered our questions about both the restoration of the building and the library it now housed. It was very impressive. Best of all, from the tower we had a bird’s eye view of the garden and community pool that were part of the library complex and the fields that edged up to the city. All of it was lovely in the late-day sun.

The President had also invited us to attend an art opening at the historic castle that housed the tourism office. The Japanese artist’s work was beautiful and, as the president had expected, we were among the few people in attendance who shared a language with the artist. Besides the chance to enjoy the art, we had the opportunity to talk about politics and Portuguese history with the young lady from the tourism office, her English-speaking boyfriend, and a couple of their friends. (The boyfriend translated the rapid-paced conversation, which must have been exhausting.) There were a lot of questions and a lot of laughter.

The Dinner
We chose one of the nicest restaurants in town for dinner that night, a cozy spot on an island in the middle of the river that ran through town. The waiter spoke a little (very little) English, but was determined to walk us through the menu. That was not necessary, however, as we quickly realized there was a “house special” of some sort. Of course we would have that!

Our certainty about our choice seemed to make the waiter nervous. Soon after we ordered he returned to the table with a little grill, intent on making sure we understood that we had ordered grilled meat. Yes, we nodded. Perfect. That we had ordered grilled meat was really about all we understood, but if that was the specialty of this restaurant, then that was what we wanted!

He returned almost immediately again, this time with a tray that included skewers with various grilled sausages, a basket of bread, and bowls of marinated mushrooms, fava beans, and more. It wasn’t until I finished eating my share that it occurred to me that maybe that was the meal, not just a fabulous appetizer. At the very moment I was thinking this, my friend’s dad (concerned he had used the wrong plate) asked me if that was the meal or an appetizer.

I admitted I wasn’t sure, that I had thought this was the appetizer, but now I wondered.

At that point the waiter slid another table alongside ours.

Obviously that was the appetizer.

Along with another set of amazing side dishes (vegetables, beans, and more), out came the little grill again, this time stacked with the perfectly cooked pork, steak, lamb, and shrimp. Every bite was fabulous. This was followed by cookies with a lemon liquor and cake with a very nice port.  

What a birthday!

More Memorable Travel Moments

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Places to Return to: Victoria Falls, Zambia, Africa

We ended our 2005 Botswana trip at Victoria Falls, but we were there shortly before the rains would start, which meant the falls were dry! Ok, not totally dry, but not the thundering wall of water I was expecting. 

The advantage (as my husband kept reminding me) was that we could clearly see the underlying geology (which was pretty interesting) and take all the pictures we wanted without swathing our camera in plastic (which was convenient).

How the falls fits into the landscape became even clearer when seen from the air.  
(The helicopter tour of the falls was totally worth the cost.)

All of this was good, but still, this isn’t what Victoria Falls is SUPPOSED to look like! I want walls of water rushing over the edge and so much mist you can barely see the falls through it. 
Photo by John Walker via Wikimedia

I’ll have to make a return trip someday. 

While I’m there, I think I’ll check out a bit more of Zambia, which also looked pretty fascinating.

More places I long to return to 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Photo Thursday: On the Road in Morocco

We hired a driver for our recent trip to Morocco. Usually my husband does the driving so I can take pictures, but he misses so much that way. Hiring a driver allowed him to really enjoy the scenery and take pictures along the way without having to keep his eyes on the road. He wasn’t very excited about having to deal with police checks either, so it solved that problem as well. It also allowed us to do some back country travel that we would never have attempted on our own.

In general the main roads in Morocco are reasonably good, but there is lots of traffic of all types to contend with – even on major roadways!
This is my contribution to Travel Photo Thursday at Nancie's Budget Traveler's Sandbox. Head on over and see what she's posted this week as well as links to images from her friends all around the world.

More Morocco photos 

Friday, April 5, 2013

Travel in Morocco

Morocco Travel Page

under construction!

Dream Trips: Morocco (January, 15, 2013)

Morocco Spring 2013

Travel Journals
Morocco Lodging: It All Looks Good (March 13, 2013)

Who Knew? Morocco Looks like Ireland in the Spring! (March 19, 2013)
A Satisfactory End to Hotel Confusion, Meknes

Morning at the Riad d’Or, Meknes (March 20, 2013)

Travel Details
  • The Riad Experience 
  • Riad d'Or - Meknes

Daily Snapshots
Day 1:  Enroute to Meknes (March 19, 2013)
Day 2:  Meknes and Fes (March 20, 2013)
Day 3:  More Fes (March 21, 2013)
Day 4:  Through the Mountains to the Sahara (March 22, 2013)
Day 5:  Around Erg Chebbi (March 23, 2013)
Day 6:  Deserts, Markets, and More (March 24, 2013)
Day 7:  Traveling through the Saghro Massif (March 25, 2013)
Day 8:  Around Tinehir
Day 9:  Tinehir to Ait Benhaddou (March 27, 2013) 
Day 10: Kasbahs, Mountain Passes, and Tumbling Waters (March 28, 2013)
Day 11: Ouzoud Falls (March 29, 2013) 
Day 12: Day One in Marrakech (March 30, 2013)
Day 13: Touring Marrakech (March 31, 2013) 
Day 14: Marrakesh and Essaouira  (April 1, 2013)
Day 15: Dawn to Dusk in Essaouira  (April 2, 2013)
Day 16: Along the Atlantic Coast  (April 3, 2013)

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Daily Snapshots: Along the Atlantic Coast, Morocco

Our final day in Morocco includes a lot of driving, but also some great scenery, a fabulous fried fish lunch where the locals eat, and a quick tour of the Chellah in Rabat before settling into our riad for the final night of the trip.  

Previous post: Dawn to Dusk in Essaouira

All Morocco posts

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Daily Snapshots: Dawn to Dusk in Essaouira, Morocco

They say that Alfred Hitchcock got the idea for The Birds here. It’s easy to see how that could be, as there are seagulls almost everywhere – I’m surprised not see any of them haggling over merchandise in the medina!   

Next post: Along the Atlantic Coast
Previous post: Marrakesh and Essaouira

All Morocco posts

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Daily Snapshots: Marrakech and Essaouira, Morocco

We have just enough time in the morning to run down the street and be the first ones through the doors at the Bahia Palace – by racing through the first courtyard we actually have a reasonable amount of time to absorb and photograph these beautiful rooms in peace! Then we are back in the car on our way to the sea and the old Portuguese port city of Essaouira. 

Next post: Dawn to Dusk in Essaouira
Previous post: Touring Marrakech

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