Special Six: Spotlight on Luang Prabang

Earlier this year, in February, I had taken a short holiday to Luang Prabang over another long weekend.

The following six are some of the key highlights of the city, for the first time visitor.

(1) Temples of Luang Prabang:

Right in the center of the UNESCO heritage city is this famous landmark of Luang Prabang, the royal palace temple. It’s construction was completed in 2006. Every evening, the area around this temple transforms into a lively night market.

With over 30 temples concentrated within the tiny heritage city, you are bound to come across a temple with every few steps that you take.

(2) Garavek:

Storytelling of local folklore, accompanied by music, is what Garavek is about. The tiny theatre opens for an hour each evening for a rendition of selected folk stories by two performance artists. The story that still stays in mind is the one where the story teller linked the famous Mount Phou Si in the middle of Luang Prabang to Sri Lanka and Hanuman.

 (3) Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center (TAEC):

To have an introduction to the ethnic groups in Laos, a visit to the TAEC is a must. Not only is information on the four main ethnic groups in Laos presented there, aspects of culture – clothing, music, handcrafts are also shared. The handicraft store at the center is also a good place to get gifts for home, as it directly links up with artisans across Laos.

(4) Ock Pop Tok: 

Founded in 2000 as a social enterprise, Ock Pop Tok is a lovely textile and artisanal institution. While there is an outlet in the center of the city, it is worthwhile to visit the Living Craft Center, where there is a museum and shop, that one can visit.

Ock Pop Tok Living Craft Center also has café and offers bed and breakfast as well.

(5) Sunset Cruise:

A sunset cruise on the Mekong is another must. There are so many boats and packages that you can walk along the river bank and choose the one that interests you.

(6) Kuang Si Waterfalls:

This is a half-day or day trip from Luang Prabang, depending on how much time you wish to spend at the waterfalls. I hired a car from outside of Joma Bakery and left around 8am. When I arrived at the entrance, there were not many visitors yet so I was able to enjoy the environment in peace.

Kuang Si waterfalls is a three levelled waterfalls. People generally stop when they reach the second level.

To reach the top level, one needs to climb a steep path to the side of the second level waterfall. While I generally have issues climbing steep paths, I was feeling quite healthy that morning and very much keen to go to the top of the falls. I started my climb and I hardly met anyone going up the path, though I did meet a few while coming down. It was a tough climb for me and there were moments when I scolded myself for taking the risk of climbing alone and the fact that if I were injured midway, it would be very difficult to get back down. For those without leg issues, the climb should be quite an easy one though there are some sections without any steps or rails. However, I made it to the top and saw the beautiful tranquil pool that seemed to be the start of the top waterfall level.

For my stay in Luang Prabang, I had booked two Airbnb places. I especially liked the place that I stayed in for the second half of my trip. The accommodation was an old traditional house, which was part of the heritage of the city, right in the center of the old city and my room window opened out to the alley, where there was an early morning market every day.

The best part of my travel to Luang Prabang though was meeting this little fellow, Tak, a resident at the Airbnb and who followed me everywhere like a puppy, the minute I stepped into their courtyard.

IMG_0867If you have not been to Luang Prabang, I highly recommend a visit to this lovely city.

Special Six: Flavours of Bali

During my first visit to Bali, these are the flavours of Bali that greeted me.

(1) Nasi Kuning at Wanaku Bali:

Straight from the airport, our group was taken to Wanaku Bali for lunch and served a variety of traditional Balinese dishes such as sayur urab, deep-fried eggplant with a spicy sauce.

(2) Ikan Bakar at Jimbaran:

Famed for its seafood, Jimbaran was the location of our first group dinner in Bali. We were served grilled seafood on the beach.

IMG_1784 (3) Sate Lilit and Ayam at Kurnia Village:

On our way back from Tanah Lot, we stopped at Kurnia Village restaurant for lunch. I had some delicious sate lilit there as well as the spicy sambal matah.

IMG_1994

(4) Nasi Campur with Tum Ayam

Tired from my day out the second day visiting Pura Lempuyang, I chose to order room service and ordered Nasi Campur. The food at the hotel was actually quite tasty.
IMG_4744

(5) Smoothie bowl at Paperboy:

While smoothie bowls are traditional Balinese cuisine, since this is served at almost all cafes and hotel restaurants for breakfast, and especially since I had the most delicious and refreshing bowl at Paperboy on my last morning in the city, I am including this as my special flavor of Bali.

IMG_4790 (6) Coffee at Expat:

If a country I visit is known for its coffee, I usually like to try out a couple of coffee shops. During my brief visit in Bali, I tried out four different places. My favourite of the four was Expat’s (Seminyak) coffee and I brought home some of their coffee.

IMG_4742Which are your favourite flavours of Bali?

Special Six: Highlights of Bali

During a long weekend in November, I decided to take an impromptu trip to Bali. While I had booked a tour package, I found there were areas that I wanted to visit which were not covered by the package so I opted out of the two full day tours included in the package and I find that while writing this post, that those two days on my own private tour seemed to be the highlight for me.

The special six highlights of my 5 day trip are as follows:

(1) Pura Luhur Uluwatu:

On the first evening of the trip, our group visited Uluwatu and its famous temple for the sunset view.

It was the first time that I had visited a Hindu temple, which didn’t seem to have a shrine. Our guide said that Hinduism in Bali was different from that practiced in India and other countries and that images were not used in temples. Considered to have been built a thousand years ago by a sage who attained ‘moksha’ at this site, this temple is one of the six holiest places for Balinese Hindus in Bali. The steps led to the sunset view point and there were crowds moving to the location of the locally famous ‘kecak’ dance venue.

The temple is located on a cliff overlooking the sea and is considered one of the best spots to view the sunset in Bali.

(2) Pura Lempuyang:

I decided to opt out of the trip included in the tour package on my second day and hired a private car (guide seemed to be included with the car) to take me to Pura Lempuyang, on the east coast of Bali. Another of the six holiest places for Balinese Hindus, the temple is considered one of the oldest Hindu temples in Bali. This temple actually has a series of temples along the mountain and the main temple/ shrine is at the top.

Having seen the famous mirror photo taken at the entrance to the first temple at sunrise, I set out around 3.30am for the east coast which would enable me to arrive by around 5.30am at the temple.

IMG_1814Deciding to get the photo taken first before the crowds arrived, I waited in the short queue forming by the photographer. Basically, you give your phone or camera to the photographer who places a mirror underneath the lens and clicks a series of photos and you provide a tip for taking the photo.

While I had planned to try making it to the top of the mountain to the seventh temple, getting to the first one had turned out to be a bit difficult for me because of the steep climb, so I decided that I would only visit the first temple. Having taken some offering, I was allowed into the temple.

There were little shrine like structures but again, there were no images. I was instructed to place my offering on one of the concrete slabs in the courtyard and light my incense sticks for prayers. My guide, Suryanta, later explained that images were not used in Bali temples and that there were three types of Hindu temples: family temples, which were located within one’s home, functional temples, which were associated with one’s livelihoods (e.g. farming) and ceremonial temples.

After some peaceful moments of reflection in the temple courtyard, I decided to take a final shot of the gateway and Mount Agung from the top of the staircase of the first temple.

IMG_1959(3) Tirta Gangga: Suryanta, my guide, highly recommended us stopping at a water palace built in 1948 by the Raja of Karangasem. Since we were passing it on our way back from Pura Lempuyang, I agreed. It is now open to the public and apparently popular with families with children.

(4) Rice terraces of Bali:

Having seen beautiful photos of the Tegallalang rice terraces, I had asked Suryanta take me there as well but he basically stopped at one of the rice terraces we passed and said that the rice terraces look the same everywhere and that it was not necessary to go another hour or two out of the way simply to see the same rice terrace. Seemed like a fair point and since the rice terraces was not one of my priorities, I agreed with the alternative offered of going directly to the Bali Swings instead.

(5) Tanah Lot: This temple is part of the sea temples along the coast of Bali. One of the myths around the temple’s origin is around a powerful Hindu sage who had arrived in this area centuries ago and had caused the local priest to become jealous and retaliate against the sage. The sage then supposedly chose to separate a piece of land from the land and guarded it with snakes. This is one of the stories behind Tanah Lot.

Whatever it’s true story, it is today a pilgrimage point for many Balinese Hindus and there were many families there to pray and to obtain the water blessing.
IMG_1985.JPG

(6) Cooking Lesson: On the day the group went to Nusa Penida, I opted out to again set off on my private adventure – this time to try a Balinese cooking class I booked through cookly.com.

Wayan, that was how the instructress at Taste of Bali introduced herself, first showed me how to make an offering for their family temple. Had I not learnt the previous day from Suriyanto, about how naming in Balinese culture worked, I would have assumed that Wayan was her name. Suryanta had explained that Hindu families in Bali gave their children two names. The first would indicate the order of birth and the second, their actual name. Wayan indicates the eldest born, Made the second, Nyoman, third and Ketut the fourth. And if there were more children in the family, this cycle would be repeated. Thus I understood my cooking instructress was the eldest born in her family.

After making the offering for the temple, she showed me how to weave rice baskets in which to cook rice.

After we had put the rice to cook, she showed me how to cook several dishes starting from making the base sauces ( a red and yellow one).

Bali was quite the relaxing holiday destination, and I would certainly consider revisiting. Next time though, I would definitely book my own accommodation and trips as it is more fun that way rather than with a package tour.

What about you? Are you more of an independent traveler or prefer package tours?

 

 

 

 

 

Special Six: Highlights of Luxor

One of the last cities we explored, during the 9 day Nile Adventure – Felucca cruise tour of Timeless Tours, was Luxor. Luxor, the ancient city of Thebes, was one of the most prominent cities of ancient Egypt. Now the footprints of the modern city intertwines with the ruins of this ancient city.

The following were the special six highlights from my visit to Luxor:

(1) Luxor Temple:

Located on the east bank of Nile River, Luxor temple complex was built in 1400 BC and believed to have been dedicated to Amun.

Obelisks were a key feature of ancient Egyptian temples. One of the pair that stood at Luxor temple was relocated to Paris and is currently at Place de la Concorde.

The Luxor temple and Karnak temple was connected across a 3 Km avenue of Sphinxes.

The sacred lake within the temple was built around mid 1500 BC by Tuthmoses III. There was a scarab facing the lake, around which my group members walked around seven times as there was a local belief that doing so would eliminate any love problems that one had or would face in the future.

IMG_2541

(2) Karnak Temple:

Karnak was the main place of worship during its time. It was dedicated to the chief deity of the Theban Triad, Amun.

IMG_2586

There was an annual procession from Karnak temple to Luxor temple along the avenue of Sphinxes.

(3) Colossi of Memnon

The two stone statues of Pharoah Amenhotep III have stood guarding the mortuary temple of Amenhotep on the west bank of Nile River since 1350 BC. The temple was considered the largest in its time, even larger than Karnak temple. However, an earthquake around 1200 BC destroyed the temple and left only the statues standing.

Why Amenhotep’s statues later came to be called Colossi of Memnon is connected to the Trojan war. Memnon, the King of Ethiopia, and believed to be the son of the Goddess of dawn. Following his slaying by Achilles in the Trojan war, a cry was heard at dawn across the statues which apparently sounded like Memnon. Hence, the name Colossi of Memnon was bestowed to these two statues. Our guide mentioned that the sound may have been due to the wind passing through the cracks in the statues.

(4) Habu Temple:

The Mortuary temple of Ramesses III is located in the west bank of Luxor.

Our guide had given us the option of visiting Temple of Edfu, on our drive from Aswan the previous afternoon, or visiting Habu temple in the morning. He mentioned that while Habu was a smaller temple, the relief on its walls were well preserved and worth visiting. Our group unanimously voted to visit the Habu temple and we were not disappointed.

(5) Temple of Hatshepsut

Hatshepsut was a female Pharoah, who came to power in 1478 BC and ruled for nearly 22 years.

She had herself depicted as a male with a beard in her statues at the entrance of her mortuary temple.

(6) Valley of Kings:

The Valley of Kings, on the west bank of Luxor, was the Theban necropolis where Pharoahs were buried between 16th and 11th century BC.

Our entrance ticket to the Valley of Kings allowed us to visit 3 of the tombs within the valley. There were some tombs, especially Tutankhamen’s , that had an additional entrance ticket.

What amazed me was the preoccupation of ancient Egyptians with death. Apparently, a Pharoah as soon as he came to power would start building his tomb. As indicated at the entrance of the tomb of Rameses III, the tomb was built at different levels deep inside the ground to accommodate not only the Pharoah but his family members and other people close to the Pharoah.

IMG_2629

As was the case of Ramesses III’s tomb, he worked at extending the partly excavated tomb initiated by his father.

The paintings on the walls of the tomb of Ramesses IX were well preserved. Different Gods, including Anubis, the God of death were painted on the walls.

The overall impression I left Egypt with was that ancient Egyptian rulers were obsessed with their mortality and after-life. They were concerned about their reputation after their passing and wanted to document and record their lives from their perspective. This obsession has left us with materials thousand years down the line, for us to be better able to understand how royal life was back then.

Have you been to Egypt? What was your impression of the ancient Egypt sites that you visited? If you haven’t, which site would you want to visit the most and why?

Special Six: Highlights of Coptic Cairo

I opted out of visiting Saqara on the group tour, as I had already visited it on my first free day on my own. Instead I decided to take an Uber ride to Coptic Cairo. These are the six places I visited within the cordoned off area.

(1) Cavern Church

The Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus or the Abu Serga is dedicated to the soldier saints martyred in the 4th century. The church is believed to have been built over the crypt where Mary, Joseph and Infant Jesus are said to have rested during the flight into Egypt when fleeing from Herod.

 (2) Hanging Church or the Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church

Built around the 7th century, the Church’s location above the gatehouse of Babylon fortress gave the church it’s name.

IMG_4831

(3) St George Orthodox Church

Located within the Babylon Fortress of Coptic Cairo, this church was rebuilt in early 20th century after a fire destroyed the original structure from the 10th century.

 

(4) St Barbara’s Church

Dating back to the 5th or 6th century, St Barbara’s Church is one of the oldest buildings in Coptic Cairo. It is close to Ben Ezra Synagogue.

IMG_4821

(5) Ben Ezra Synagogue

The current structure dates to the late 19th century but its predecessors are said to have dated back to the 9th century. Local folklore also considers this the site where Baby Moses was found among the reeds.

article_original_3937_2012206_02513143-600x323

Photo Credit: Cairo 360

(6) Coptic Museum

Built in the early 20th century, the Museum has a large collection of artefacts from Coptic antiquities.

Coptic Cairo is definitely an area that needs to be visited, after one has visited Giza governorate and the Pyramid complexes of Giza, Saqqara and Dahshur.

 

 

 

Special Six: Highlights of Aswan

I had booked the 9 day Nile Adventure Felucca Cruise with Timeless Tours, through Tour Radar and chosen the option of flying into Aswan from Cairo, instead of taking the overnight bus. It was a good option as it allowed me to rest better before the travel around Aswan started.

These are the special six highlights of my travel around Aswan.

(1) Aswan High Dam:

Construction on the High Dam started in 1960 and was completed in 1970, with the reservoir filling to capacity in 1976. With the dam being better able to control flooding, protection from floods, drought and has contributed to an increase in agricultural production and employment as well as electricity production, it has also caused the relocation of thousands of people and flooded ancient sites. Abu Simbel Temple is one such site that was relocated to another site due to the dam.

The Lotus Tower or the Friendship Tower was built in 1971 to mark the contribution of Soviet Union in the building of the dam.

(2) Temple of Philae

The Temple of Philae built in the 4th century BC, was relocated from its original location to the island of Agilkia due to the flooding during the Low Dam construction. Ancient Egyptians believed that this was one of the places where one of Osiris’ parts was buried.

After walking around the temple, I made my way back to the café by the jetty to have some mint tea. Some kittens had taken over the couches and were enjoying their siesta, as I sipped my tea.

(3) Nubian Museum:

Inaugurated in 1997, the museum in Aswan is dedicated to the Nubian culture and civilization. Since we had a couple of hours free in the afternoon and the museum was just opposite our hotel, some of our group members decided to visit the museum. It had a few artefacts and information.

 


(4) Abu Simbel Temple

The visit to Abu Simbel Temple was one of the special highlights of my travel to Egypt.

IMG_4842

The statues at the entrance of the temple for Ramesses II reminded me of Shelley’s poem Ozymandias. Shelley had been inspired to write Ozymandias from the accounts of the statue of Ramesses found in the desert among the sands, head separated from torso and legs.

” ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The carvings inside the temple was clear and told the story that Ramesses II wanted successive generations to associate with him.

Next to the temple for Ramesses II, there was the smaller temple built for his Chief Queen, Nefertari. It is supposedly one of the rare instances when the Queen’s statue has been made the same size as that of the Pharaoh.

IMG_4881 There is a beautiful carving of Goddess Hathor within Nefertari’s temple and a painting that shows her being blessed and accepted as an equal by the Goddesses Hathor and Isis.

IMG_4886

Both temples had been beautifully carved and were full of stories. Due to the building of the Aswan Low Dam, the temples had to be relocated to its current location.

IMG_4900

(5) Felucca Overnight Cruise

There had been an option of an overnight felucca cruise or being on a 3 day cruise ship, with Timeless Tours. I chose the overnight felucca cruise option.

Cruising along the Nile in a traditional boat was a beautiful experience. Our group was divided into two groups of ten and given two feluccas. Our felucca basically had a common, open sleeping space with mattresses, which also converted into the dining area during meal times.

The food was quite good and we had flatbread with baba ghanouj and okra curry for lunch, a chorba for dinner and some rice and fried chicken. For breakfast, we were served baladi with ful and boiled eggs, and some cheese and fruit. Overall, within the narrow confines of the boat’s cooking space, the crew turned out hot, tasty meals.

The felucca also had a top deck, where it was lovely to sit and experience the quiet and calm start to a morning on the Nile.

(6) Kom Ombo Temple:

After we disembarked from our felucca, we boarded our bus for the drive to Luxor. We stopped at the Kom Ombo temple for a visit.

Kom Ombo had been dedicated to both brothers, Sobek and Horus, and represents both the dark and light forces that human nature appeals to.

The temple had carvings on its wall depicting the seasonal calendar and the offerings that needed to be given at each stage to ensure a prosperous cultivation. The well within the temple was connected to a Nilometer, which was basically the system that ancient Egyptians used to tax people based on the water level of the Nile River and the corresponding proximity of residence of the people.

Overall, Aswan was a lovely city that I enjoyed, especially for its history.

Special Six: Tastes of Egypt

During my 9 days in Egypt, I tried some of the local cuisine. Here’s six of my favourites.

(1) Baladi with Torshi

IMG_4799

At Sobhy Kaber Grills, they served the flatbread with pickled vegetables (aubergine, carrots, onions), a spicy salad (cucumber and tomato with coriander), hummus and a cheesy dip as a starter. It was very delicious that I would have been happy had it been the complete meal.

(2) Molokhiya

IMG_4801The green leafy vegetable soup with coriander and garlic was an interesting interlude before the main meal was served at the Sobhy Kaber Grills. The Egyptian rice served with okra in a tomato based sauce and roast chicken was a lovely finish to the lovely dinner I had on my first day in Cairo, at the recommendation of Nour Gaber, my taxi driver for the day.

(3) Koshari

While I had wanted to try Koshari at the famous Abou Tarek Koshari shop in downtown Cairo, I finally got to try it at a café in Khan El Khalili bazaar.

IMG_2687Considered the unofficial national dish of Egypt, Koshari is a tasty mix of carbs – rice, pasta, fried lentils, onion flakes and tomato sauce.

(4) Falafel Sandwiches:

I was not much of a fan of falafel before, mainly because the ones that I had tried earlier had been made of chickpeas. However, from the first time I tried falafel in Cairo, I enjoyed it very much. The Egyptian falafels are made of fava beans.

Also, on our tour, our guide organized falafel sandwiches for lunch whenever we were traveling through the day with limited time to stop for lunch at a restaurant. Therefore, I associate falafel sandwiches as the flavor of this trip.

I haven’t taken any photo of the falafel sandwiches because all the times I had them had been when I was too hungry to bother about taking a photo first.

(5) Ful Medames

I tried Ful on the felucca cruise, when they served it for breakfast. Again, I forgot to take a photo but the cooked fava beans was great with the flatbread and boiled egg.

(6) Konafa

On my last morning in Cairo, I had asked Nour to take me to El Abd bakery so that I could get some traditional sweets to take back home. It was there that I first tried out the Egyptian Konafa which has a creamy layer in the middle. Previous Konafa I had tried in Jordan was more crispy without any creamy filling. At home, my mother also seemed to enjoy the Egyptian Konafa very much.

article_original_1227_20101411_421414974-600x323

Photo credit: Cairo 360

Which of the above have you tried?