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October 25, 2017

Top 10 reasons to choose an escorted tour of India

Delhi Station porters

Porters at Delhi Station

“Here, ma’am, over here. Take your bag? Porter for you. I help you onto train …” A cacophony of voices ricocheted around Delhi Railway Station as we trotted down the stairs onto the busy platform. It was early morning and we were on our way to Kalka to join the Toy Train to Shimla. But first we had to navigate the chaotic melee that is to be seen at every big city railway station in India, find the correct carriage and make sure our luggage came on board with us. Fortunately I was on a Great Rail Journeys award-winning escorted tour and had nothing to worry about.

Ganesh Elephant God Shimla India - photo Zoe Dawes

Our wonderful guide, Farouk, had everything organised and it was a seamless, if noisy, transition from our hotel to the station and the Shatabdi Express. A coach had taken us from the 5-star Taj Diplomatic Enclave Hotel in the heart of the city to the station entrance from where our suitcases had been whisked away. The next time we saw them was on the train. All we had to do was follow Farouk, wait on the platform til our train arrived and take lots of photos of the lively scenes all around us. This was just one of the many advantages of being on an escorted tour in India.

10 reasons to choose an Escorted Tour of India

1.  Knowledgeable Tour Manager

Farouk Escorted Tour Manager Great Rail Journeys India

Having a dedicated tour manager who knows the lie of the land and can smooth away all the hassle of travel, is a huge benefit. They ensure your trip is hassle-free from the moment you come through customs, throughout your trip until you check back in at the airport. Farouk, our escort, dealt with a myriad of issues, from ensuring our hotel rooms were ready, booking meals, handing out train tickets, answering questions about Indian etiquette, liaising with local guides and keeping us all together as we wandered the streets of Shimla and scattered around the Taj Mahal.

2.  Smooth transitions from place to place

Agra street scene India - photo Zoe Dawes

Agra street scene

One of the biggest time-consumers on independent travel is getting from A to B and on to C. Travelling around a foreign country can be stressful, especially if you don’t know the language. India has many pluses, but public transport can be very challenging for some visitors. On an escorted tour everything is taken care of, so you can enjoy the journey, with transport, tickets and luggage all magically sorted.

3.  Accommodation organised in advance

Taj Diplomatic Enclave Hotel Lobby Delhi India

Taj Diplomatic Enclave Lobby

With so much choice, choosing where to stay in India is a dilemma. Can you trust the web description? Is the Trip Advisor rating accurate? Where exactly is this hotel in relation to the sights you want to see? On a reputable escorted tour, this is all taken out of your hands. They will choose good hotels because they want happy customers. In Delhi we stayed at the excellent Taj Diplomatic Enclave Hotel. Great Rail Journeys only chooses the very top hotels so satisfaction is guaranteed.

Oberoi Cecil Lounge and bedrooms Shimla

Oberoi Cecil Lounge and bedrooms

In Shimla we had two nights in the delightful Oberoi Cecil, It’s famous not only for its local heritage but also because Mohan Singh Oberoi, the founder of Oberoi Hotels, started work here, rose through the ranks and eventually bought the hotel. The food, a combination of international, pan-Indian and local Himachali dishes, was superb and the service second-to-none.

TIC Mughal Agra banquet India

ITC Mughal – the biggest Indian bread you ever did see

The uber-luxurious ITC Mughal in Agra was another perfect hotel. We each stayed in a gorgeous suite and were treated to a delicious Mughal Banquet which included the biggest Indian bread I’ve ever seen. (even bigger than the Bradford Naan!)

4.  Value for money

Woman at the Red Fort Agra India- photo Zoe Dawes

Woman at Red Fort Agra

A trip to India is, for many, a once-in-a-lifetime holiday but, whatever your budget, you want to know you’re getting the biggest bang for your buck, if you’ll pardon the expression. Taking into account all your costs (see Point 5), an escorted tour can be the most cost-effective way of travelling. Whether you go for more economically priced tours, or splash out on a top-quality company like Great Rail Journeys, you can be sure that you are getting excellent value for money.

5.  Easy to budget

Closely linked to point 4, you can easily budget because just about everything is included. For example, on the Indian Golden Triangle Tour I sampled, scheduled return flights, 5-star hotel accommodation, superb meals and filling packed lunches, rail and coach travel, transfers and porterage, guided tours and dedicated Tour Manager are all included in the booking price. That meant we only had to pay for drinks, tips and souvenirs – which are a bargain in India.

6.  Tailored excursions to make the most of time and place

The Toy Train in the Himalayas Shimla India- photo Zoe Dawes

The Toy Train in the Himalayas

Good excursions should be a winning combination of stress-free organisation combined with well-informed local guides who take visitors rounds sites, share interesting stories and intriguing facts at a pace suited to the group’s level of fitness and interest. The major highlights of our trip included the Toy Train to Shimla, city tour of Delhi and to Agra for the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal, which was more lovely than I had imagined. That visit was enhanced by our tour guide, who brought the love story of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to life with fascinating information about the building and the significance of the architecture.

7.  Bespoke experiences to enhance local knowledge

Raj Ghat Mahatma Ghandi Delhi - photo Zoe Dawes

Raj Ghat – memorial to Mahatma Ghandi in Delhi

All good tours will have some unusual experiences to enhance their customers’ enjoyment. It might be a cookery lesson, wine-tasting, sailing on house-boat, wild-life photography or joining  in a traditional festival. On our trip, we watched locals taking part in a temple blessing, saw the sun rise over the Himalayas and heard an excellent talk on Shimla and the history of the British in India from charming historian Raaja Bhasin.

8.  Relatively risk-free giving peace of mind

Fast food on a railway platform in the Himalayas - India - photo Zoe Dawes

Fast food on a railway platform in the Himalayas

The best tour companies have fine-tuned their holidays to ensure that customers have a smooth and risk-free trip. India is a vibrant, colourful country with a somewhat lax approach to health and safety … With guides chosen for their attention to detail and drivers chosen for their experience of the crazy Indian driving habits, we were in very capable hands, even on the exciting journey back down the mountain road from Shimla. Advice on what food and drink to try ensured that I for one, avoided Delhi Belly and was able to experience superb Indian cuisine with no side effects.

9. Freedom and flexibility

Marble sculptors in Agra Market India - photo Zoe Dawes

Marble Sculptors – Agra Market

Select your escorted tour carefully and you will get both free time and flexibility in the programme. These trips are often packed with things to see and do, which can be tiring.  I’m sure you will find plenty of options to suit your own tastes. I need a break to just wander around on my own. On our trip, we had some free time in Agra and I went off with a couple of others from the group to explore a local market. Others relaxed by the pool, chatted at the bar, read a book, slept or had a indulgent Spa Treatment.

10.  The company of like-minded people

Great Rail Journeys escorted tour Taj Mahal India

At the Taj |Mahal

This is one of the biggest selling points of an escorted tour. Because everyone has chosen the same trip, you can be sure that you will find plenty of people who share your own interests. On Great Rail Journeys a common denominator is often, but not always, a love of rail travel, for which India is rightly famous. However, many people go on their tours because of their desire to see famous sights, learn more about the culture and traditions of India and to experience these memorable moments with others.

I travelled to India courtesy of Great Rail Journeys; I am grateful them for enabling me to fulfill a life-long dream in such a marvellous way. Special thanks to our guide Farouk for his unfailing care and good humour, to all the friendly staff in the hotels we stayed in and to all the wonderful people we met along the way who made this trip so special.

If you’d like to go on a similar trip, take a look at Great Rail Journeys escorted tours of India, specially tailored for the 50+ demographic, and start planning your trip of a lifetime now 🙂

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Top 10 Reasons to choose an Escorted Tour - Pinterest image Zoe Dawes

September 3, 2017

Visit 6 of the most notable tourist destinations in Japan

Phoenix Hall Byodo-in Buddhist Temple Kyoto Japan - photo Martin Falbisoner

Phoenix Hall Byodo-in Buddhist Temple Kyoto – photo Martin Falbisoner

In the next in our World Travel Blogger series, tourism expert Scott Carruthers shares some of his favourite places to visit in Japan.

Japan’s most notable tourist destinations

Kyoto in Japan

Kyoto

Japan is a beautiful country with so much to see. The historical side of Japan creates a world of fascinating cultural elements, like Samurai swords, ancient artwork, and tea-ceremony experiences. The modern side of Japan will leave your mouth agape, as you gaze at high tech infrastructure and dazzling skyscrapers. Through out it all, you will see breathtaking natural landscapes, meet amazing people, and taste amazing food. Here are six of the most notable tourist destinations in Japan, which you should be sure to include in your itinerary.

1. Hiroshima Peace Memorial

Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Japan

Hiroshima Peace Memorial

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial is iconic and carries the great weight of history. When you visit this cite, which is a memorial to the WW2 bombings of Hiroshima, you might feel a sense of loss. However, as you take in the paper cranes and vibrant, colorful memorial decorations, you begin to feel a sense of resolution. This memorial is truly a celebration of peace.

2. Todaiji Temple – Nara

Tōdai-ji_Kon-dō Temple Nara in Japan

Tōdai-ji_Kon-dō in Japan

The Todaiji Temple in Nara was constructed in 752 as the central Buddhist temple of the time period. The main hall of the temple is giant, and holds a stunning Buddha statue and is is said to be the world’s largest wooden Buddha room. Feed the deer that share the temple grounds, and visit the adjacent Todaiji Temple museum in order to learn more about this historically significant monument.

3. Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park

Fujisan from Motohakone Japan

Fujisan from Motohakone

Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park is home to Mount Fuji, Japan’s tallest mountain. The cone shaped and sometimes white-peaked mountain is a sight to behold! Hikers can attempt the daunting hike up this formidable 12,400 foot peak by traveling to a half way station and then managing the rest by foot. Though the peak is an active volcano, it has not erupted in over 300 years. The national park is a restful place to stay for several days if you need a respite from bustling city life.

 

4. Kinkaku-ji Temple – Kyoto

Kinkaku-ji Golden Temple Kyoto Japan

Kinkaku-ji – Temple of the Golden Pavilion

This widely loved and acclaimed tourist attraction in Kyoto is famous for good reason. Kinkaku-ji is also called the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, and is a beautiful structure covered in gold leaf. This work of art is placed in a harmonious garden filled with natural beauty. The accumulated effect is a visual masterpiece. The temple sits on the edge of a pond, and the gold reflected in the water is a sight that you won’t want to miss.

5. Imperial Palace – Tokyo

The Imperial Palace in Tokyo Japan

The Imperial Palace

The Imperial Palace of Tokyo is a must-see when you visit Japan because of its stunning architecture, landscaping, and rich quality of the scene. You will not be permitted into the palace or in many of the grounds, but you can walk through the traditional Japanese gardens that surround the palace. Be sure to snap a shot of the picturesque Nijubashi Bridge.

6. Ueno Park, Tokyo

Cherry Blossom in Ueno Park Tokyo Japan

Cherry Blossom in Ueno Park – photo Bernard Gagnon

This is a large park right in Tokyo filled with natural wonder. For a real treat, try visiting when the cherry blossom is in bloom. Ueno Park is designed in a very aesthetically pleasing way, and even if you do nothing but walk the many paths and soak in the design, it will be well worth it. If you’d like a little added adventure, visit the park’s zoo or go on a ride at the amusement park.

D. Scott Carruthers grew up within a military family and was forced to move from country to country through-out his youth. Rather than find this disagreeable, like many would, he enjoyed it! He loved being immersed in a new culture and landscape each time the family moved. From this background was born a love for world travel that did not leave him as he grew older. He entered the Air Force, and then studied business. He then used his expertise to start a successful travel-based business Dennis Scott Carruthers Travel.

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6 must-see sights in Japan - The Quirky Traveller

 

December 2, 2014

Take a leisurely cruise along the Yangtze River

This month’s World Travel Blogger is Keith Kellett, a free-lance writer and photographer, originally from Cumbria, but now living in Southern England, a short distance from the ancient stones of Stonehenge.  His travels have taken him to most of Europe, Cyprus, Oman, Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Kenya, the Gambia and Australia. Here’s his account of a recent cruise along the Yangtze River in China.

Yangtze 2 River Cruise China - image Keith Kellet

Yangtze 2 River Cruise

We arrived at Yichang in the early evening to board the Yangtze 2 for our Three Gorges Cruise. We weren’t going anywhere that night, though; the ship wasn’t going to sail until the morning. We’d upgraded to an Executive Suite, although all cabins have a balcony. From here and the impressive glass elevator we sometimes got views of the scenery outside the ship – and sometimes, views of a rather dilapidated dockside or a ship moored alongside.  It’s a reminder, though, that the Yangtze River is, first and foremost, a commercial waterway and the towns on its banks industrial ones. Nevertheless, if this is accepted, enough remains for it to be an unforgettable cruise – whatever the weather.

So quickly and efficiently did we get away the following morning that we hardly noticed it. Breakfast was a bit of a scramble, but buffets usually are. The food was, of course, Chinese; a pick-what-you-like, all-you-can-eat buffet. The ship was only a couple of years old, and well presented. Our cabin was roomy and spacious, in which we settled comfortably while we waited to see what the next day brought.

Interior of 'Yangtze 2'cruise ship - image Keith Kellet

Interior of ‘Yangtze 2’ cruise ship

Two programmes are on offer each day; one is included in the fare, the other an optional extra that you have to pay a supplement for. Our first excursion was the optional one for that day. It looked like chaos at first, with all the crowds, and the guides trying to outshout each other, for ours wasn’t the only ship moored here. But, some sort of order emerged from the confusion, and the ‘Tribes of the Three Gorges’ turned out to be an unmissable trip.

We moored in the Xiling Gorge, and hiked up a tributary gorge following the Dragon Stream. Most of the way, a boardwalk is provided, and, if it’s not there, it’s an easy path, Almost the first thing you see is a traditionally dressed lady in a sampan on the stream below. All the way up the gorge, you pass traditional Chinese buildings, water wheels, cormorant fishermen … They’re showing China as it used to be – or maybe, as we imagine it used to be. The jury’s still out on that one.

Dragon Stream Falls, Yangtze River, China - image Keith Kellet

Dragon Stream Falls

There’s natural beauty here, too. Everyone stopped to photograph or video the monkeys; the waterfall was pretty, rather than spectacular and, on the way back, they showed us a re-enactment of a wedding ceremony; I nearly got ‘fingered’ to be the ‘groom’, but I got out of the way in time, and another was chosen instead. When we got back around lunchtime, we found the laundry we’d left out before we left had already been delivered. Full marks for that!

Xiling Gorge, Yangtze China - image Keith Kellet

Xiling Gorge

In the afternoon, we went on the ‘included’ excursion, to the Three Gorges Dam. I’d already seen a couple of videos put out by the National Geographic Society videos and was expecting great things. After all, the dam is massive enough to actually slow the earth’s rotation, thus lengthening the day by a fraction of a nanosecond.

Three Gorges Dam, Yangtze River China - image Keith Kellet

Three Gorges Dam

There’s a better view of the ship lock, but, in a lock this size, watching a ship lock up or down, a process which takes about four hours, is an exercise akin to watching paint dry. However, the ‘ship lift’, which should be completed next year, will raise and lower vessels much more quickly, and might be more interesting to watch.

Unfortunately, the kindest thing I can say about this excursion is that it’s three hours out of my life I’ll never get back. After a lot of up-and-down on escalators, the viewpoints provided don’t give the best view of the dam by any means, and it’s difficult to appreciate its size and grandeur from this angle. I did get some good pictures later, when our ship went through the lock, and I was able to photograph the ship in front of us, festooned with lights.

Yangtze River from 'Yangtze 2' China - image Keith Kellet

Yangtze River from ‘Yangtze 2’

We were awakened in the morning by the squawking of a loudspeaker – 6 a.m. from the ship moored alongside. There’s probably an ancient Chinese torture called Death by Loudspeaker, for it seems that life everywhere is ruled by announcements, even at mealtimes, telling us stuff that we already knew from the daily handouts anyway. The guides sometimes carry portable loudspeakers; our excellent Linda Yang gets extra points because she didn’t.

The next day’s excursion on the Yangtze River was a sail up the Shenong Stream; a ‘stream’ no longer since the dam was built and the gorge flooded. Previously, boats had been man-hauled up the stream by gangs of men called ‘trackers’, nowadays employed as luggage porters. But, it’s now possible to sail up the gorge on a boat … Not in the Yangtze 2, though. It’s too big for that. We transferred to a ferry, which would have given some excellent views if not for the haze and mist. But, having said that, many Chinese paintings show misty scenes, so maybe it’s a common occurrence around here.

Misty Morning on the Yangtze River China - image Keith Kellet

Misty Morning on the Yangtze River

We came ashore at a Cultural Centre; strictly speaking, below the centre, for we had several steps to negotiate to achieve it. We watched a demonstration of music and dance, and someone described the work of the ‘trackers’, which, before the dam, consisted of man-hauling ships and boats up the stream. Their traditional garb, we were told, was silk shorts – but, in practice, they chafed so much that they actually worked naked.

Shenong Stream Cultural Centre - image Keith Kellet

Shenong Stream Cultural Centre

In the centre of the square outside, a drummer thumped out a repetitive boom boom CLANG; boom boom CLANG. I expected the ghost of Freddie Mercury to appear at any minute, and start singing ‘We Will Rock You’!

To get to the Ghost City of Fengdu, we’d have 400-odd steps to negotiate, for the city stands at the top of a sheer cliff and, before that, 100 steps to get from the quayside to the coach. We weren’t that keen on climbing so many steps and the final decider was that it was raining. (It had been raining all the way up here, through the Qutang and Wu Gorges, but the low cloud and mist didn’t detract from the scenery at all; indeed, it added an air of mystery and other-worldliness to it.)

Fengdu Hall of the Son of Heaven - image Gisling

Fengdu Hall of the Son of Heaven – image Gisling

So, we chose to stay on the boat for this one. But we did watch a constant stream of umbrellas going ashore to brave the elements, determined to get their money’s worth.

Fengdu was as far as the Yangtze 2 went this trip. It was planned to terminate at Chongqing, but the river levels dictated it couldn’t go any further. So, the following morning, we disembarked; the luggage carried up those steps four, or even six cases at a time by trackers, using a yoke. The service of man-hauling ships and boats up the stream is no longer necessary, they’ve simply become luggage porters.

Tracker hauling suitcases up steps Yangtze River, China

Tracker hauling suitcases up steps

We settled down for a four-hour coach ride to Chongqing, where we had lunch. We ate in a first-floor restaurant, with a covered balcony giving good views of the busy street below.  A good location for some candid street photography. We had a dish of minced beef mixed with noodles, and a thought came to me. Was is possible that Marco Polo was familiar with this dish, and the dumplings of Xi’an, and took the recipes home with him – to develop into ravioli and spaghetti Bolognese?

Dusk_on_the_Yangtze_River China - Andrew Hitchcock

Dusk on the Yangtze River – image Andrew Hitchcock

Keith Kellet

Keith Kellett writes about and photographs food and drink, beer, old cars, railways, beer, steam engines, historical re-enactments, bygones, beer, gardens, travel, beer and brewing, nature and the outdoors and beer. He’s presently trying to get his head around video and podcasting. Read more by Keith on his engaging blog Travel Rat. All images © Keith Kellet unless otherwise stated.

May 25, 2014

Step back into Singapore's luxurious past at the Raffles Hotel

Known as the ‘Grand Lady of the East' and described in 1889 by the Straits Times as, ‘one of the largest and handsomest hotels in the East' the Raffles Hotel Singapore is still regarded as one of the finest hotels in Asia, if not the world.

Raffles Hotel Singapore - Mirus Holidays

The hotel has seen many notable figures through its doors; Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, Ernest Hemmingway and Alfred Hitchcock.  More recently celebrity guests have included Michael Jackson and King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. It is truly a one of a kind place, which is synonymous with the highest quality service and luxury.

Raffles Hotel Lobby Singapore

The hotel takes its name from Sir Thomas Stanford Raffles, who founded the modern city of Singapore on 6 February 1819 whilst working for the East India Company to further British influence in the area against the Dutch. Raffles, also famed for the founding of London Zoo was a keen naturalist and researcher who compiled masses of scientific materials of the Malay area. His legacy lives on with strong links to Singapore; giving his name to the lighthouse, Singapore's University, Business Class on Singapore Airlines and with a statue immortalising him at Raffles' Landing Site.

The Raffles Hotel was established in 1887, the same year as the Stanford Raffles' statue was unveiled by the Armenian Sarkies brothers. They redeveloped the former boarding school along with esteemed architect R.A.J Bidwell, giving it its current majestic appearance. When completed in 1899, the Raffles Hotel was state of the art for the time, with its electric lighting and ceiling fans being a first in Asia.

Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel - photo meridian103.com

meridian103.com

The hotel quickly grew in popularity and became a centre of social events and the hotel continues to hold the New Year Fancy Dress Ball, as it has done since 1911. It further gained notoriety in 1902 as the site of the killing of the last tiger in Singapore and for the invention of the Singapore Sling cocktail by bartender Ngiam Tong Boon. The Long Bar in which the gin and brandy based drink was conceived still exists today and is a favourite spot for tourist wishing to relax with the iconic drink.

Although thought to be impenetrable, Singapore fell to the invading Japanese army on 15 February 1942 during World War Two in what Winston Churchill described as, ‘the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history'. It is rumoured that British guests were found dancing a final waltz in the hotel when the Japanese invaders arrived. The hotel's staff were more prepared for the invasion than their guests and buried the silverware in the Palm Court, from where it was recovered after the war.

Raffles Hotel Palm Court Singapore

The Raffles Hotel Grill continues to serve from the saved silver beef wagon to this day, bringing its rich history quite literally, straight to your plate.

Raffles Hotel Doormen SingaporeThe historical mystique of the hotel is further added to by it having a resident historian for the last 40 years.  The Raffles Singapore Hotel is truly unique and a worthy ‘once in a lifetime' experience which is steeped in history and which operates along traditional high standards of service. It is one of the only places in the world where there is an opportunity to experience ‘the Golden Age of travel' and sample the luxurious pleasure of  bygone colonial living.

 

This article was written by Gara Gharagozlou, Managing Director of luxury holiday operator Mirus Journeys who is an expert in finding the most exclusive and elegant places to stay from across the globe.

September 13, 2013

A first time visit to South East Asia

In our latest World Travel Blogger post, Travel PR specialist Lynne Gray discovers the joys of the exotic destinations on her very first trip to South East Asia.

If you ever get the chance to go to South East Asia, grab it very, very quickly with both hands. I guarantee it will be one of the best decisions you make.  It's just fascinating; wonderful countries, beautiful people and so much to discover.

Children playing by Angkor Wat lake, Cambodia

Children playing by Angkor Wat lake, Cambodia

As part of the ‘trip of a lifetime’ my friend and I had planned to change planes at Singapore on our way to Samoa, one of the gorgeous Polynesian Islands, but on looking at the atlas, how could we land there without going on an adventure to some of the surrounding countries? 

As well as Singapore we visited Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia.  We found Singapore to be very modern, slick but in no way boring. China Town was fascinating. The development around Clark Quay is lively and varied; so many places to eat, drink and spend your money. If you get a chance, try the chilli or peppered crab at Jumbo's – mouth wateringly delicious.

Clarke QuayPanorama, Singapore - photo by Sengkang

Clarke QuayPanorama, Singapore – photo by Sengkang

Hanoi in northern Vietnam next and a huge culture shock awaited us. The chaos of the old city and traffic was somehow exhilarating. The people were so helpful and friendly. We had our first experience of a cyclo there.  You need steady nerves for that! We went to HaLong Bay from there and were fortunate to have a cruise booked for three days. The serenity and beauty of the place was good for the soul. Back to Hanoi and more amazing food and then down to the south to visit Ho Chi Minh City (previously called Saigon). It was very different from the north of the country. The people were a little more reserved and the city was a little more modernised. Again, so much to see and do.

Halong Bay Vietnam

On to Cambodia and our first stop was at Phnom Penh, the capital.  The next day we went to see the Choeung Ek Memorial, also known as the ‘Killing Field' Memorial. This country has been invaded so many times, undergone huge hardship and genocide and here, what you witnessed was grace and dignity in bucket loads. We were in awe and that just multiplied when we went on to Siem Reap and visited the breath taking Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. Oh my goodness, it was one of the most marvellous and privileged days of my life.

Killing Fields Memorial Cambodia

The Killing Fields Memorial, Cambodia

Next stop, Thailand and the capital city of Bangkok. Another busy, busy city with so much going on. Whatever you do, do not miss going to see the Royal Palace – it will blow your mind, a joy to behold and marvel at. However, do remember that the rules of respect at the Palace ask that you wear clothes that cover your shoulders and also your legs, men and women.

Royal Palace, Bangkok, Thailand

The Royal Palace, Bangkok, Thailand

There are shops outside where you can rent clothes for the duration of your visit, as you will not be allowed in if dressed unsuitably.  Well worth any effort to see the treasures and buildings. We did so much walking that we treated ourselves to a full body massage that evening.  Oh, it was good. We also visited the Bridge over the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi on the Death Railway, which was a very poignant and moving day.

Bridge over River Kwai, Kanchanaburi, Thailand

The Bridge over River Kwai, Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Malaysia and its capital Kuala Lumpur were next.  We met up with Umei and Josen of CC Food Travel and spent a day with them.  What a delicious time we had.  They took us to an amazing food market where everyone sat in the middle of a circle of small restaurants and chose different foods and courses. Umei and Josen selected ours and what an experience it was – South East Asia food is full of spices and flavours that seem to explode in your mouth. Yummy scrumptious is how to describe it!

Kuala Lumpur City, Malaysia - photo by Alex Tan

Kuala Lumpur City View – photo by Alex Tan

Back to Singapore and on to Australia … Would we visit again? We'd go back tomorrow, given the chance and for a good few months too.

Lynne Gray - That's PRLynne Gray: Lover of our planet, passionate about conscious travel & tourism, friends, gardening, soul & chocolate.  Lives in the bodacious shire of Bedford, England.  You can read more on her blog That’s PR, follow her on Twitter @lynnerosie and like her Face Book Page That’s PR.

 

August 29, 2013

Go to Hell at quirky Gao Miao Temple in Zhongwei, China

In her second contribution, this month’s World Travel Blogger is Shara Johnson. She lives in Nederland, USA and travels all over the world. Here she describes a VERY quirky Chinese temple in the heart of this fascinating country.

Inside China, the primary religious groups of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism each typically have their own sacred spaces and temples. But in Gao Miao Temple in Zhongwei, Ningxia Province, China, elements from all of these religions, plus the relatively rare Christianity, are fused into one very unique complex.

Gao Miao Courtyard China - photo by SKJtraveler

Gao Miao Courtyard – photo by SKJtraveler

Originally built in the Ming Dynasty, perhaps the most frenzied period of construction in China's history, Gao Miao Temple is a charming maze of temple rooms and courtyards, beautifully painted doors and entryways, and elaborate rooflines overhead. The outer architecture is the iconic Buddhist architecture found throughout China, but inside the individual temples, the painted imagery and statues represent, to different degrees, the religious beliefs and practices of the four different religions.

Gao Miao Temple, Zhongwei, China - photo by SKJtraveler

Gao Miao Temple, Zhongwei, China – photo by SKJtraveler

The most bizarre and quirky feature of the Gao Miao temple complex is the tour you can take through Hell. Displayed inside a dank labyrinth of underground caverns, once used as a bomb shelter during the Cultural Revolution era, you can visit numerous animated scenes, like a Disneyworld ride gone monstrously wrong – instead of the animatronics recreating daily-life scenes in a particular culture or time period, or fictional story setting, these animated scenes depict daily life in the deepest pits of Hell. Though it's worth visiting purely for the sake of touring something so bizarre, it should really come with the TV-style warning: Some content may be disturbing to some viewers; viewer discretion is advised.

Gao Miao temple - Enter Hell, Zhongwei, China - photo by SKJtraveler

Enter Hell Gao Miao Temple – photo by SKJtraveler

A completely terrifying soundtrack blares throughout the tunnel system, the screams and wails of the heinously tortured souls echoing down the corridors. Each room is motion-activated to light up the day-glow sinners as you walk by and spring them to life, where they can begin screaming as they undergo a shocking variety of pains. If you get stuck in the pitch-black darkness between rooms with the soundtrack still running, it is scary as … well, scary as hell.

Gao Miao Torture - photo by SKJtraveler

Gao Miao Torture – photo by SKJtraveler

And then you emerge back into daylight, into the tranquility of quiet courtyards delicately veiled in incense smoke; robed monks strolling the grounds or snoring quietly on a stool in the corner, an open book resting on their belly; butter lamps burning with golden flames and gracious goddesses blessing you, welcoming you back from your terrifying journey through the Underworld.

Gao Miao Goddess China - photo by SKJtraveler

Gao Miao Goddess – photo by SKJtraveler

The profound contrast between the pleasant above-ground atmosphere and the rather appalling below-ground atmosphere is quirkiness at its height.

Shara Johnson plots her travels from her home in the small RockyMountain town of Nederland, Colorado, USA. Partial to volunteering and getting off the beaten track, you can find her adventures abroad at SKJtravel.net, ‘like’ her Face Book Page  SKJtraveler and follow on her on Twitter @skjtraveler.

August 15, 2013

Celebrating India’s Independence Day – photo essay

India’s Independence Day is a national holiday, commemorating the nation’s independence from British rule on 15 August 1947. India attained freedom following an independence movement noted for largely non-violent resistance and civil disobedience led by the Indian National Congress (INC) and most famously, Ghandi.  Independence coincided with the partition of India, in which the British Indian Empire was divided along religious lines into the Dominions of India and Pakistan. (Wikipedia).

India Flag image

Here are some of the most iconic and beautiful images from  the ancient land of India for you to enjoy.  They are courtesy of luxury travel company Indus Experiences, reminding us of the many reasons this country excites and stimulates the curiosity and delights the senses.

Amritsar Golden Temple - photo c/o www.indusexperiences.co.uk

The Golden Temple – photo c/o indusexperiences.co.uk

The Golden Temple is officially known as the Harmandir Sahib  or Darbar Sahib in the heart of Amritsar in the Punjab province in northern India. It was built by the fifth Sikh guru, Guru Arjan. In 1604, he completed the Adi Granth, the holy scripture of Sikhism, and installed it in the Gurdwara (temple). There are four doors to get into the Harmandir Sahib, which symbolize the openness of the Sikhs towards all people and religions.The present day temple was rebuilt in 1764 by Jassa Singh Ahluwalia with the help of other Sikhs. In the early 19th century, Maharaja Ranjit Singh secured the Punjab from outside attack and covered the upper floors of the Gurdwara with gold, which gives it its distinctive appearance and English name.

The Taj Mahal India - photo c/o indusexperiences.co.uk

The Taj Mahal – photo c/o indusexperiences.co.uk

The Taj Mahal, “crown of palaces”, is a white marble mausoleum located in Agra in Uttar Pradesh province. It was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Started in 1631 it was finished in 1638.  kiThe Taj Mahal is  regarded by many as the finest example of Mughal architecture, a style that combines elements from Persian, Ottoman Turkish and Indian architectural styles.

Bengal tiger India - photo c/o indusexperiences.co.uk

Bengal tiger – photo c/o indusexperiences.co.uk

The Bengal Tiger; who cannot fail to be impressed by this powerfully beautiful, stripily gorgeous, majestically lithe creature? The Bengal tiger is found primarily in India with smaller populations in Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, China and Myanmar. It is the most numerous of all tiger subspecies with fewer than 2,500 left in the wild. The creation of India’s tiger reserves in the 1970s helped to stabilize numbers, but poaching to meet a growing demand from Asia in recent years has once again put the Bengal tiger at risk. (World Wildlife Fund)  William Blake wrote a poem to ‘The Tyger’ and International Tiger Day was established to raise awareness of conservation.  Hopefully we can save this creature for future generations to marvel at.

The taste of India spices and other food - photo c/o indusexperiences.co.uk

The taste of India – photo c/o indusexperiences.co.uk

Well, who needs an explanation of Indian food? Having spread throught the world, India’s cuisine appeals to all the senses and is a culinary journey on a plate – or banana leaf.

Indian women in traditional dress - photo c/o indusexperiences.co.uk

Indian women in traditional dress – photo c/o indusexperiences.co.uk

And now an admission – I have never been to India.  But one day I will visit and, like millions of other people, I shall no doubt be left speechless by its beauty, history, poverty, natural wonders, architectural heritage and sensual passion.  For the moment, I join in celebrating India’s Independence Day with many others around the world …