Posts Tagged ‘Travelling’

Top 10 websites we use whilst travelling

Friday, December 16th, 2011

There are times when we wonder what it must have been like to travel 100 years ago… no mobiles, no internet, no digital camera, no cheap airlines, no email, just the occasional postcard or letter home. How different it would have been, and even in our lifetime we can can remember a time before sony cybershots, iphones and facebook. However the average traveller you meet now, has an mp3 player, a mobile, digital camera and probably a small laptop, maybe even an ipad or kindle. We stay connected more than ever and every third person seems to be writing a blog about their trip or tweeting about the local grasshopper delicacies at the night market.

Sometimes we feel as if we would love to escape all of it, ditch the mobile and laptops, disconnect and just travel without being in constant contact with the world, be free. Yet if we are honest, most of the time we are in awe of how marvelous ‘technology’ is and how amazing it is to be able to blog from the Gobi Desert or tweet from a mountain top.

So we have complied a list of the top 10 websites we use the most, as a celebration of how the interweb can be a useful tool for a travelling cyclist and how being connected can be helpful and inspiring to others.

1. XE Universal Currency Converter

Currency Knowing what your hard saved pennies will buy you is most important. This site is particularly useful when you first arrive in a new country and we often scribble down the value of 1, 10, 20, 50 and 100 or 1000 on a scrap of paper to refer to, until we get used to it. This will give you the exchange rate, although what you get on the ground may not be as good!

Top tip: rather than checking in pounds or dollars, we like to convert the currency of the previous country to the new one, for example 100 Chinese Yuan into Mongolian Tugrik, that way you can compare the local cost of food and accommodation, and make a comparison on value for money.

2. Google maps

6212839177_cd47fac6eb_mPaper maps are great, but Google maps comes into its own when you are travelling away from the main tourists hubs or when your paper map lacks detail. We use google maps on our mobile, allowing us to pinpoint our location using GPS, great for checking you are going the right way, especially in countries with few road signs!

It is also great for route planning as you can calculate distance and save routes, as well as zooming in to the satellite view to see the roads, forests and other details.

Top tip: take screen grabs of maps when you have an internet connection, that way you can view them offline when you are away from those free wifi areas!

3. WordPress

blog2 We’re sure many of you are familiar with blogging platforms like WordPress and Blogger. We use WordPress to run our blog and it allows us to share our travelling stories with friends, family, schools and anyone else who might be interested in our adventures. It’s also a way for people to comment and respond to what you are doing, which is great for us on the road as we love hearing from people.

Top tip: WordPress allows you to fully customise your blog to look like your website (if you have one), that way users have a seamless experience.

4. Lonely Planet Thorn Tree

train Most cyclists you meet will tell you that a big brick of guidebook is simply too heavy to lug round, when you have limited space and weight to worry about. Not only that but  it can be expensive if you are visiting many countries, and in the developing world the pace of change means that books quickly become out of date. However much of the information is now online and the most valuable resource we found on Lonely Planet is the forum, where other travellers post up to date, specific, first-hand information. Everything from the latest visa requirements, border crossings to new hostels and bus routes, a fantastic use of the web in our opinion.

Top tip: make sure you say which country you are from when you post about visas, as different rules apply to different passport holders.

5. Warm Showers

6504943899_70d800fa0f_m You’ve heard of Couchsurfing, well Warmshowers is like that but specifically for cycle tourers. Sometimes turning up places with your grubby bikes and loads of bags can be an issue, but with Warnshower hosts they know what it is like and will accommodate you and your bike without any fuss, in fact usually with great enthusiasm! We’ve had some wonderful times staying with Warmshower hosts and shared stories over a beer and a lovely homemade meal. So add it to your list: Warmshowers – Cyclists offering other cyclists a place to stay, all over the world.

Top tip: Email hosts well in advance. Some hosts want to show you around, take you on a tour and cook for you, others will leave you to your own devices. You either need to manage their expectations or simply go with the flow.

6. Wikitravel 

5464466984_b1eda42b93_m Like the main wikipedia site, but specifically for travel edited and written by the wiki community. This site can provide info on places that would never make it into a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide book, or places that LP will say ”there is no reason to go to this town”. As a cycle tourer you are often passing through places that tourists wouldn’t make a beeline for, yet you may be in need of a hot shower or post office. Wikitravel is great as it will give you that kind of info as well as historical or cultural information about the place. Lately we’ve found small hotels listed in tiny towns, that don’t exist elsewhere on the web.

Top tip: Consider stopping at these smaller towns and villages as they can be really welcoming and interesting. Some of our most memorable and real experiences of local culture, have been in these smaller places, with people offering us places to stay, helping us and refusing to let us pay for meals and generally being excited to see us in their town.

7. Wunderground

5689959725_a3962222ff Wunderground gives you reliable weather reports from anywhere in the world, even in far flung places like outer Mongolia.  We are all at the mercy of the weather and mostly we just get on with it, however if you are cycling out in more remote places it is worth checking the forecast. We’ve been caught in snow storms, freak hail storms, sand storms that last for hours, heat waves and gale force winds on our bikes. If you know what you are going into you can make sure you have enough food and water, not to mention mental stamina!

Top tip: The forecasts are quite detailed, so again, you may want to take a screen grab so you can look later when you are offline. Check the spelling of the place name carefully as it is quite sensitive and won’t return results for misspelt place names.

8. Spot Tracker

If you are planning on going off the beaten track in a serious way (ie no hospitals, no real roads, no mobile signal) then a GPS Spot Tracker is a gadget to consider before heading into the wilderness. You can press a button which send an email to specific addresses (ie your mum) to say you are ok and give your exact location. Or you can press an emergency SOS button if you get into big trouble which will scramble help to rescue you in an emergency. The website allows you to manage the messages sent and edit email addresses and contact details, as you travel.

6180231726_b0a354c979_mWhilst the debate may rumble on about the freedom to roam without anyone knowing where you are and having an epic adventure, for us the point of our adventure and exploration is not to cause worry and anxiety for loved ones at home. The Spot Tracker gives us and them peace of mind. And as great as our wilderness first aid skills might be, we’d like to know help would come if we had a serious injury whilst biking across a remote area.

Top tip: Your location is also plotted on a map which you can embed into your website or blog, which is great if you have people following you or schools wanting to track your journey.

9. Hostel World

5353592905_48e9b7fd5d_m Wild camping rocks, but in cities it can be tricky and let’s be honest who doesn’t want a hot shower and a soft bed after several days on the road? Finding cheap accommodation is priority for most travellers, if you want your money to last. Hostel world lists all the hostels in an area, with reviews and live availability and booking. There are also map and photos which can save time when trying to find a place.

Top tip: Booking online sometimes gives you 10% discount, free breakfast and generally seems to be cheaper than arriving in person and booking. We also use the website to help negotiate a better price in person ( ie “It’s says 50 RMB per night on can you match that price?”).

10. Flickr

5353341541_6f120e8631_m Great site for organizing and uploading the gazillion photos you’ll end up taking on your travels. Not only that but you can use it as a way to back up all of the photos, so if your laptop or hard drive go missing you still have copies.

Top tip: If you’re expecting (or hoping for!) media coverage, or have sponsors, it’s allow a great way to promote them with shots of your tent in wild remote locations, as well as showcasing your own photography skills – one of our photos made it into the 2012 Hilleberg catalogue!




There are many more we could include in this list of course…Seat61, BBC News, Twitter to name a few more, but what are your top websites?

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Finally a blog post!

Monday, December 27th, 2010

If you’ve been following our blog then the last you heard was that we were in Jinghong, Yunnan in southern China! Well we’ve done quite a lot since then, so read on for an update…

In Jinghong, we, and our friends Margo and Ben, stayed with a lovely guy called Ryan and ended up staying for a week after we all got sick with food poisoning. Let’s just say that we all got to know each other rather well after 4 days of vomiting and diarrhea! Poor Chris was hit the hardest and didn’t eat for 3 days (this photo was taken before we were all ill).

Staying at Ryan's place whilst sick

Jinghong is a nice city with a university and palm tree lined roads. I managed to buy a dongle and 6 months of internet access, which a few days earlier had seemed like an impossibility. So that gave us internet access anywhere. Margo and I also bought a pair of long trousers as our journey north meant that the temperature was starting to drop. After months and months of 30 degree heat, this was welcome although a little bit of a shock to the system. Ben did some work on our bikes and managed to find a smaller cog for my bike, which means I’ll be able to grind up those hills in an even lower gear.

We finally left Jinghong on the 22nd Nov, my birthday. The night before we went out to celebrate at the French run Mekong Café, with two French cyclists Sandrine and Damian, Ryan, and Margo and Ben. I had a fantastic evening, with red wine and a surprise birthday cake organized by Sandrine. Margo and Damian poured over maps, whilst Chris and Sandrine chatted away in French with me doing my best to follow the conversation. It was a fantastic and memorable evening.

Upon leaving Jinghong (after a full English breakfast!!) we ended up getting on the highway which wasn’t our intention. The highway itself is ok, it’s nice to cycle on and wasn’t too busy but it has tunnels. Even small cars sounds like jumbo jets as they come up behind you. We were doing ok until we came to a tunnel marked as 2.5km long. We pulled over and put on our reflective jackets, lights, head torches and anything else we could find that would help the traffic see us. The tunnel has a pavement on one side so I decide that I would prefer to cycle on the pavement. The others did too, so we set off. This was fine although dark and occasionally a big hole would open up in the pavement and bit of broken rock and glass would appear. I was relieved to reach the end and we all agreed that we should get off the highway as soon as we could.

We stopped that evening after finding a lovely campsite by a river, with a campfire. Margo and I cooked up sausages over the fire that Ben built, boiled up two pans of potato, which Chris and Margo mashed with expertise of Michelin star chefs, and we also had Heinz baked beans for dinner, what a treat! It was delicious and we all enjoyed it. Chris then brought out more birthday cake and candles, and we sat around the fire so we had a fantastic evening all in all. A lovely birthday with lovely people.

We were aiming now to get to Dali by 3rd Dec, so we had some cycling to do and followed the 213 taking in Puer, Simao, Zhenyuan, Jingdong and Nanjian along the way. The following photos show our encounters and adventures en route…

Beautiful wild camping spots in the mountains. Even though the Chinese cultivate every last square inch of land it was still easy to camp and we found some great spots. One morning we woke up to mist ( or inverted cloud?) below us in the valleys of the mountains. We couldn’t resist a photo.

Ducks being marched along the road, we had to stop to watch, and couldn’t help thinking they seemed like prisoners on some kind of death march.

Groups of kids in villages when we stop for noodle soup at lunch. The children and adults we met in Yunnan were wonderful, so friendly and welcoming, whilst also being surprised and shy. All the kids we said hello or “Ni hao” to would burst with laughter and seemed to find us talking to them or them talking to us, absolutely hilarious!

Tea plantations and impressive terracing. Every inch of space is used here, we’ve seen miles of banana trees, fields of red peppers, bay leaf trees, tea, coffee, they grow so much and the terracing is spectacular and obviously involves a lot of back breaking work.

Dodgy gravely roads. The road we followed runs alongside the imposing new highway being built and as a result this smaller road is also the service road for all the trucks and diggers. With such a lot of heavy traffic the road is in a complete state and for a while we were cycling on gravel, dusty roads, through muddy potholes ad puddles. It was pretty slow going to say the least!

Gorgeous sunsets. In harmony with the morning mist we also got to see the soft sunsets at the end of the day. China may have some problems with pollution, but out here in the countryside the sky is clear and spectacular.

Amazing scenery like the gorge we followed for miles. We were following a river for a long time and in paces the rocks would carve a gorge through the valley creating the most beautiful natural scenery we’ve seen in a while. I’m not sure what we expected China to be like, but we certainly didn’t know it would be so beautiful!

A crazy runway toddler careering down a steep main road. Can’t believe I managed to get a photo of him, but he came out of nowhere, on his own, flying down the hill. Kids here have quite a free rein and health and safety concerns are not the same as the UK!

A poor starving dog. We see a lot of dogs chained up. Often we’re glad as it means they won’t chase us or bite us, however from time to time we see some who look ill, starving and neglected, with no water left for them. We stopped to see this little fella gave him a load of biscuits and then carried on our way. But I now wish we had unchained him and let him go so he could at least fend for himself and find some food.

We stayed in an English school classroom for the night and after dinner with the teachers, we did an impromptu lesson with the children. All quite bizarre after a long, tiring day of cycling up huge hills, but fun at the same time, and the kids were very cool!

We also met Jerry, a great guy who spoke perfect English and made us very welcome in Jingdong. He cycled out of the town with us the next morning before saying goodbye.

The cycling was interesting, fun and I felt my legs getting stronger everyday with all the hills we had to climb, it was never ending! We reach Nanjian on 2nd Dec, about 110km south of Dali and stayed at a hotel for night (after much negotiating and confusion with the receptionist!). The next day we got up early, our plan was to try and reach Dali that night. After yet more noodle soup  we set off and had a flat run for the first 10km. After that we followed another stunning gorge and it was much easier than I had anticipated it was going to be. We met Kathy, a lady from New Zealand cycling around China and stopped to chat with her. I’m interested to meet solo female cyclists as I’ve been working on a women section called Girls on Tour, so hopefully they might agree to be interviewed at some point!

We cycled into Weishan following a flat valley, stopped for another delicious lunch and then continued along the valley floor, with a tail wind for about 25km. After stopping to buy some sugary snacks, we continued knowing that a 17km climb lay ahead of us. We could see the mountains we had to climb and Kathy had told us that once you’re up by the wind turbines then you know it’s the top. We’d been able to see them for the last 20km and they still looked an awful long way away!

The climb began with a well appointed sign, the Chinese are good at letting you know what you are in for! The climb wasn’t too bad to start with, but it went on for a long time and the time ticked away. As we got nearer the top I looked around to admire the scenery and view from up here, and felt incredibily lucky to be able to have such an experience. I knew that I was going back to England in a few days and suddenly it made me appreciate just what an amazing adventure I have had so far and I felt very emotional.  Chris had stopped to wait for me and in the early evening sun he took this photo..

We knew that we would pass the 9000km mark whilst climbing, so near the top as the sun was setting we cycled tother to celebrate this milestone. About 400m short we admired the intense sunset happening all around us…

We hit 9000km and were near the top now after 17kms. It was almost dark and we knew we had a 10km descent to look forward to. Margo and Ben had waited for us at the top, however with the warm sun now gone, it was pretty cold and the way down would be colder. They had put all their clothes on and were preparing to go, we did the same and Chris remarked that we were lit up like Christmas Trees! Off we set. I hate cycling in the dark to be honest and it was pitch black by the time we’d got ourselves sorted, only the car lights provided any illumination. That also has the effect of destroying any night vision that you might otherwise have had. So we set off at a slow pace and tried to stay together. Half way down I had to stop to put on more clothes I was shivering from head to toe! By the time we go to the bottom, warm clothes and all, my teeth were chattering and I was really cold. Not only had we been cycling for 8 hrs, over 100km, we also hadn’t eaten for a while so I was feeling pretty shattered and ready to stop now. Whatever excitement I’d had about hitting 9000km or beautiful scenery, had evaporated and I just wanted to stop, eat and sleep.

We were now in Dali (new town) and need to continue a further 15km north to Dali, the old town, where we had a place to stay. That last few km were fairly straight forward, with lit roads and an easy route, but they passed in a blur. We arrived into Dali old town, happy, relieved and very tired. I would stay here with Chris and the others for a few days before going back to the UK for 2 months. This was my last day of cycling and  the longest day ever for me – 114km!!

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A lasting legacy for Laotians – American’s Secret War

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

We visited the COPE visitor centre in Vientiane, Laos and this is what we learned…

Between 1964 and 1973 the US bombed Laos continuously, despite Laos being a peaceful, neutral country and despite the US never openly declaring war on Laos. Even the American people didn’t know it was happening. This was of course the time of the Vietnam war and the threat of communism spreading in SE Asia caused great fear in America. The Ho Chi Min Trail ran through southern Laos and was a supply line for the Vietnamese, as a result this was the original target in Laos. However the whole of the eastern border ended up being bombed, as well as the northern area of Laos where many north Vietnamese were believed to be hiding. Every red dot on this map represents a bombing mission:

2010-10-25 2010-10-25 001 012

The weapon of choice was the cluster bomb. These are fired and then the casing opens releasing many small sub-munitions, known locally as bombies (a name that sounds far too affectionate for my liking). The bombies are scattered indiscriminately across a wide area and the estimated number dropped during those 9 years, is in excess of 260 million!

2010-10-25 2010-10-25 001 005 The problem with bombies, apart from their indiscriminate use and lack of target, is that there’s a 30% chance they won’t explode on impact, a 30% known failure rate.  That’s 78 million unexploded bombies just left lying around Laos. Whatever the politics of the time, the fact is that now in 2010 pretty much all of that unexploded ordnance (UXO) still litters much of the Laos countryside. To date the number of sub-munitions painstakingly cleared and destroyed to date is 387,645 or 0.49%.

Laos is a poor, rural country where the majority of the people are subsistence rice farmers. Most people live in small villages, in wooden houses and farm the fields. As the bombing campaign against Laos was secret, the US did not adhere to the Geneva Convention which states that civilian areas can not be bombed. Many people lost their lives during those 9 years. However it is the lasting legacy that is an even greater problem for the people of Laos. These UXO are everywhere…. you may be ploughing your rice field and hit a bombie, walking in the forest looking for fruit and a child picks up a yellow bombie that looks like fruit, kids find a bombie and think it’s a ball and start throwing it to each other. Other stories include a woman cooking over a fire (as is the norm here) and heating the ground below her, causing a bomb buried below to heat up and explode.

Many deaths and severe injuries, leading to amputation and blindness, happen each year and have done since 1973. Some of these injuries are as a result of handling UXO (trying to move them or unearth them, or transport them to sell as scrap metal!?!) and many are involuntary (a farmer hitting one in his field). 50% of deaths and injuries are to children, who despite more widespread education on the subject, still pick them up and don’t see the danger. % of deaths cause by:

1.Handling of UXO (24%)
2.Farming (22%)
3.Forest products collection (14%)
4.Lighting fires/cooking and other domestic activities (12%)
5.Playing with UXO (11%).

santaroperation copy COPE stands for Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise and they provide prosthetics and mobility devices for those people who require them, free of charge if they cannot afford to pay for them.

COPE is the only provider of prosthetic, orthotic and rehabilitation services in Laos. Established by POWER International in 1997, COPE is a joint venture between the Ministry of Health and a number of NGOs (Non-government organisations). 

COPE not only provide help to UXO victims but also to those who have lost limbs through accidents (like Santar left), and they work with parents whose babies and children suffer from the condition known as club foot.

The visitor centre is well worth a visit and they screen a number of films on the subject, including ‘Bomb Harvest’, fantastic and shocking film showing the work that MAG (Mines Advisory Group) are doing to clear bombies and what they call big bombs, as well as the training programme they run to teach local people the skills need to clear bombs. Another is ‘Bombies’, with stories from survivors and old villagers who remember the bombing campaign.

The work that COPE do is amazing and gives hope to many people who would otherwise be forgotten and left unable to provide for their families. Their outreach programme allows them to identify people in remote areas, giving those people chance to access the services and support COPE have to offer.

2010-10-25 2010-10-25 001 004

Whilst their work is very positive, I still left the centre feeling very shocked and angry really. How come I didn’t know about this before? Sure everyone knows about Vietnam, but hardly anyone (my age) knows about Laos being the most heavily bombed country in the world or this terrible UXO legacy. And angry because Laos is so under developed that it doesn’t have the infrastructure or resources to deal with the casualties… A little boy goes with two classmates to play in the woods near their village, one finds a bombie and picks it up, it explodes, the two classmates are killed outright, this little boy was further back so was injured but alive. His parents have to find someone with a vehicle to take him to hospital. Several hours later they arrive at hospital, but the hospital has no blood or oxygen and can not help him. They go to the next hospital, but they have no blood or oxygen either. So with no other help available, they take their little boy back home and a few hours later, he dies.

2010-10-25 2010-10-25 001 006

1 August 2010, the Convention on Cluster Munitions came into force, banning the production, use and stockpiling of cluster bombs. As of Nov 1 2010, the UK enters into this legally binding law (thank goodness!). 108 countries have signed the convention, however many countries have still not signed up, including the US, Russia and China, and work continues to stigmatise the use of cluster bombs as a weapon. Read more here

Also see: 

lao-female-deminers-size-2 UXO Laos all-female clearance team. Laos will host the First Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions in Nov. 2010. Photo credit: Stanislas Fradelizi/CMC.

Visit the COPE website:


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Travelling by bus in Laos – 4 experiences

Friday, November 5th, 2010

And it really is an experience! Good Luck!

Bus 1 -  Vieng Phoukha to Laoung NamTha.

Local bus 1.5 hr 20,000 kip (plus 20,000 for the bike and panniers)

After our long hard ride through the mountains in northern Laos,  and feeling sick again, I took a local minivan the final 60km. It’s a 10 seater minivan, however by the time we collected the last passenger I counted 20 people, including 2 babies, a toddler and a little girl. This is the only transport available to most people between villages and towns. It was a squash, but ok for an hour or two. There are no seatbelts, but Laos isn’t too hot on health and safety to be honest. The driver put my bike and panniers on the roof and strapped it all down well. It was a good journey all in all.

20102010374 Bus 2 – Laoung NamTha to Vientiane.

Local bus 22 hrs ( advertised as 17hrs) 160,000 kip 8.30am – 6.30am following day.

We paid for a VIP bus and the guesthouse arranged a tuk tuk to take us the bus station. The bus stations are always about 10km out of town for some reason (we reckon to keep the tuk tuk drivers in business). When we arrived our bus had already left! Great. So the tuk tuk driver chased after it and we caught up to where it had stopped to wait. Bus driver not very impressed! It turns out that it was the local/regular bus not the VIP. Oh well. We got on and there was plenty of room. We sat near the back. Seats are fairly generous and comfy. The windows open so it’s cool, although very rattley. We manage to buy 3 baguettes, some sticky rice and pork before we left, plus some bottled water.

The route is  Laoung NamTha -  OudomXai – Pakmong – Laoung PraBang – Vang Vieng – Vientiane

The road between Laoung NamTha and OudomXai goes through the mountains and is a very bad quality road, no tarmac just gravel, corrugated in places (it looks as though it has been skimmed to allow for re-surfacing but no visible signs of road works anywhere). It is also very bendy with many twists and turns. The driver goes as fast as he can despite the road. It’s ok though, but local people around us were quite travel sick, vomiting out of the windows. The driver stops every couple of hours or so on the road, for a toilet and smoke break. There aren’t toilets, unless you stop in a town, so you just go on the road or behind a bush.

Around 3pm we stopped at Pakmong. Here the driver takes a proper break to eat. The bus station has several food stalls and cafes to eat in. The driver doesn’t really communicate or tell you what’s happening. The other breaks that day had been short, 5 mins max, so we hurried to buy food to take away. Turns out we were stopping for an hour and half, so plenty of time to eat.

Most of the toilets charge 1000 kip, so have some change.

The bus is really full by now and everyone has lots of luggage, sacks or rice, bedding you name it, so the isle if full of bags, an interesting assault course to navigate in the middle of the night to go for a wee. From here it was about 2.5hrs to Laoung Prabang where we stopped for another half hour. Then onto Vang Vieng, arriving at around 2am! Not sure how you find a guesthouse at that time…

We finally pulled up in Vientiane around 6.30am having managed a few hours sleep. It’s 10,000 kip tuk tuk ride to the centre of town from the bus station. The driver doesn’t swap with anyone although he does have another guy who help with the passengers, luggage, tickets etc. So not sure how safe it is to drive 22 hrs straight through with only a  few breaks, but that’s what happens.

Bus 3 – Vientiane to Laoung Prabang

Express Bus 10 hrs 90,000 kip 6.30am – 4.30pm

Well we got to the bus station the night before at 8pm having paid 50,000 kip for a tuk tuk. But there was no bus, we had been given the wrong information, there was no 8.30pm bus. Luckily there were rooms available at the bus station, 60,000 kip, slightly dungeon like (no windows) but comfy bed. We got up early, had sticky rice and pork for breakfast at the bus station and board the 6.30am express bus. A step up from the local bus, less rattling but still bouncy with interesting suspension.

Most of this journey is a blur I think we slept, listen to our ipods and generally relaxed. The road wasn’t too bad and there was plenty of chance to stop and go to the loo.

The last two hours dragged on though and the road was very windy and bendy, making me feel slightly nauseous. The driver was obviously keen to get there too as he drove really fast through the towns and villages beeping at everything in his path. As Chris said, probably best not to look! By 4.30 pm we arrived and got a tuk tuk for 10,000 each to the town centre.

Bus 4 – Laoung Prabang to Laoung NamTha.

VIP Bus 10 hrs 120,000 kip 7pm – 5am

We paid for a VIP bus as it has a toilet on board. Having just had an upset stomach I was anxious about the toilet situation, so paid to have the VIP. However when we got to the bus station and checked with the driver he said ‘no toilet’! No point getting cross though, that’s just how things are here.

It was pretty cramped and we had less room than the other buses we had taken. We did get a free bottle of water each though and blankets.

Driver was nice and stopped plenty of times for loo breaks, still drove very fast and I was a bit motion sick to begin with, but gradually lolled off to sleep. And the bus has suspension.

Bus broke down in the mountains. No information but it was the middle of the night and most people were sleeping, or trying too. No idea what the problem was but after about an hour we got going again. Bus was very cold, due to the outside temperature and I wore socks, a fleece with my hood up and had a blanket and was still cold. At 5 am we arrived at Luang NamTha, it was dark, misty and cold. After a 10km tuk tuk ride to the town we then waited 2 hours for a room in a guesthouse (the one we chose and had left the bikes at was full). All I can say is take warm clothes with you!

Tips for travelling bus in Laos

  • buses always take longer than advertised
  • they are likely to breakdown
  • the roads are bad and the drivers go fast
  • have 1000 kip notes for toilets
  • take plenty of food and water with you
  • take toilet roll and anti-bacterial hand gel
  • take a pillow or bag of clothes to use as a pillow
  • take a warm top (hoodie or fleece) and socks
  • take an ipod or mp3 player
  • er… cycle instead??

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Sacred Places

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Recently a fellow twitter asked us what we thought about sacred places and where on our travels had we visited, that would be classed as sacred. This is the reply that I wrote…

I guess it helps to define your own personal understanding of the word sacred (as well as the dictionary definition). To me a sacred place or object is of religious or spiritual importance; or place or object that should be preserved, protected and not be destroyed.

Is it the site that is sacred or the event?

For sacred sites that are of spiritual importance, the place can be significant because of the events or ceremonies that take place there. Or perhaps vice versa – arguably the events take place there because the site is sacred, so which came first? For example take Stonehenge, now the site of mass midsummer gatherings, with a history of druids and pagan beliefs, a strong connection with leylines as well as a great stone structure, with some remaining mystery surrounding it. This is a sacred site, to pagans and archaeologists alike!

Places such as the stone pyramid temples at Chitchen Itza, Mexico and Machu Pichu, Peru also attract the title of ‘sacred’, again due to the impressive feats of architecture and the mystery surrounding the people (Mayan, Inca) who built these places and their use. However whether they ‘feel’ scared when you visit, very much depends on your relationship to them. Is it meaningful to you? Does the location or the experience give you a feeling that is somehow spiritual or ‘sacred’?

Other sacred places are holy sites or places of religious significance. Jerusalem, Mecca, the Ganges river all come to mind as places of religious pilgrimage. What is sacred to one faith may be meaningless to another. Is it possible to visit a religious site as someone of another faith or as an atheist and still see it as a sacred place? Or is it the embedded belief system that makes it sacred?

Is there such a place that every human being can agree is sacred, does this place exist?

Personally, as a I don’t follow any organised religious movement or faith, to me the word sacred refers more to places I feel should be preserved or protected, left unspoilt. Initially I would say that places or structures that are:

  • ancient
  • interesting historically and culturally
  • amazing feats of stone masonry or sculpture
  • give people continuity, by way of a story or idea
  • remain meaningful to people, if only some people
  • provide sanctuary

should be preserved and protected. Two most recent examples we’ve seen would be Prambanan Temple in Java, dating back to 14th century with detailed carving of the Ramayana story around the temple; and Kampheng Phet, a collection of ancient Buddhist temples in Thailand. However on our visits to these places I cannot say that I experienced anything spiritual or ‘sacred’.

Kampaeng Phet Prambanan1Prambanan Temple, Java

So to go one step further and really get to the bottom of what is a ‘sacred place’ I would argue that you have to go back to nature, to the start and visit the great outdoors to really see what is sacred.

On my first trip to New Zealand, with it’s huge majestic landscapes and snow capped mountains, I stood staring out, feeling tiny, insignificant and in awe. Whatever worries I had melted away, they were so tiny when seen on this huge scale and I liked that feeling. For the first time in my life I felt truly ‘connected’ to the earth, it was a fleeting spiritual moment.

Since then I have spent some time at home in the Borrowdale Valley, Lake District; cycling though the empty hills and mountains of Scotland; walking in the Hogbacks rainforest in South Africa; cycling in the Rainbow road and passes in New Zealand. I now know that it big wide open spaces, with huge mountains and rugged pathways, with lakes, gorges, forests and waterfalls along the way, that are sacred places to me.


liz 134New Zealand

Ancient and even modern day tribes have always worshipped or feared mountains, so my feeling is not new. In fact many wild places can be described as having a positive energy, with certain sites identified as being a place of ‘good energy’. If you are interested in the idea of energy take a look at Robert Coon’s site on earth chakra sites, energy lines and ley lines, unsurprisingly most of them involve mountains.

So in the end my final definition of a sacred place has to be somewhere that is life-sustaining, a place of beauty, a place of truth, a place of sanctuary and space, but most of all a place that connects you to the earth itself and all your senses simultaneously.

Quite simply, a place that makes me feel alive.

Final Thought

The Aborigines of Australia are known to have many ‘sacred sites’ which to the uneducated may just be a couple of rocks or a small stream. The Aboriginals connection to their land was far deeper than anything we know of today. In the book Songlines by Bruce Chatwin he describes how the white man, wishing to the build a railway line across Australia but avoiding these ‘so called sacred sites’, is trying to negotiate a meeting so that he may identify these ‘sacred sites’. The protagonist says something like “thing is, what the white fella needs to realise is that as far as the Aboriginals are concerned, the whole bloody country is a sacred site! To them, Australia itself is sacred.

I guess once you understand that, then you understand what is truly sacred.

The Three SistersBlue Mountains, Austarlia

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