Escape to Vietnam

Hội An is a city on Vietnam’s central coast known for its well-preserved Ancient Town. The former port city’s melting-pot history is reflected in its architecture, a mix of eras and styles from wooden Chinese shophouses and temples to colorful French colonial buildings, ornate Vietnamese tube houses and the iconic Japanese Covered Bridge with its pagoda.

Japanese bridge

It has a unique concentration of architectural monuments which are preserved pretty much intact. It also has a great beach and riverfront. It’s only a 2 hour flight from Chiang Mai to Da Nang and we are being picked up by car and taken to our homestay in Hoi An, 45 minutes from the airport.

The homestay is just what we wanted, slightly out of town between the old city and the beach. The family are very friendly and inviting. We have bicycles to get about and everyone speaks good English which is a bonus. We have the best room in the house overlooking the pool.

We cycled into the old town, dicing with death along the way as no one drives on the right side, they come at you from all angles, aargh. The key to staying alive is just keep going, don’t stop. Whew. We entered the old town along the riverfront passing the big open vegetable, fish and meat market and left our bikes. The loud chatter of market traders was piercing the air along with the aromas of flowers, fish and meat adding to the sensory overload. Unusual looking fish and huge prawns shimmering in big bowls of iced water ready for sale and all sorts of exotic fruit and vegetables loaded on the stalls. It was bustling and busy with people and motorbikes.

It’s very different to Thailand in many ways. In Thailand you have to find the shopkeepers to give them money, here they take no prisoners, everyone wants you to go in their shop, look at this…Madame, Madame come look. It will take some getting used to, they are very persuasive. You have to count your fingers if they give you change, they are a canny business like race….they all speak good English and not beyond trying a good sob story to get you to buy something!

The old town is pretty with an eclectic mix of buildings and architecture built on a grid pattern. The town is a fusion of indigenous and foreign cultures, principally Chinese and Japanese with later European influences and very well preserved.

It has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1999. It was a major trading port between the 15th – 19th century and sits on the mouth of the Thu Bon River where you can have boat trips from the quayside and many cafes and bars line the rivers edge great for people watching.

Many of the small old houses in town are now souvenir, leather shops and tailors, who will knock up clothes in record time. It’s well known for its swift tailoring skills. Tiny little alleys with flowers growing over walls, small coffee shops with just a few seats enticing you in with the smell of fresh coffee. It’s enchanting.

Food is a big thing in Vietnam, there are hundreds of restaurants and street food carts on every corner. There is a huge indoor food market. Lots of noodles and rice, seafood and some weird and wonderful dishes. Spices and herbs, fragrant and aromatic rising from every small counter, makes you hungry.

The town is very different at night, it comes alive. Once you cross over the bridge to the little island where the night market is, lanterns turn it into a colourful grotto. Boats with lanterns on the river carrying tourists, little floating lighted ‘wishes’ for good luck sold by traders to drop in the river, they were everywhere.

The night market was awash with colour and food. Madam, Madame come look voices trying to get you to look at their stalls or buy food. Frogs on sticks, all sorts of meat and fish, food everywhere. We found a restaurant in the heart of it all and just watched the throngs of people from all over the world looking enchanted by the spectacle.

The beach is a 15 minute cycle ride from our guesthouse, we went the longer, quieter way down dirt roads to get there. Way more interesting than all the traffic. It’s a big clean beach and you rent a sun lounger, free if you eat in the restaurant.

There is still a lot more to explore here.

Escape to Erawan National Park

Erawan falls is one of the most impressive waterfalls in Thailand just a couple of hours away from Kanchanaburi. It sits within a large national park which has an area of 550 square kilometres. We normally arrive in Thailand in December the cooler, dry season so don’t bother with waterfalls as they are mostly disappointing, this wasn’t.

Seven tiers of waterfall tumble through the forest, and bathing underneath these crystalline waters in emerald green pools is loved by locals and visitors alike.

The first 3 tiers are easy walking but to get to the top, 2k straight up is more of a challenge.


As we got higher the forest changed from deciduous to evergreen trees, the undergrowth thicker and more dense, roots and rocks tripping you up, lizards and larger insects noisily scurrying about and altogether more jungly.

We walked right up to the top level, no 7.

It was a harder climb to the very top. It was exhilarating when we finally got there. I love the air around a huge body of cascading water, clean and pure.

It’s more than the sound of rushing water or the beauty of it bouncing off the rocks.

It’s the plethora of negative oxygen ions generated by the crashing water that produces the positive effect. Invisible and unnoticeable as they’re tossed into the air, the negative ions are incredibly powerful. Breathe ‘em in and it’s like recharging your personal batteries. You feel immediately refreshed. The higher the concentration of negative ions, the better you feel.

Suitably refreshed we made our way back down to pool no 2 where people swim under one of the smaller waterfalls. They insist you don life jackets and as you put your feet in the water the fish start nibbling your toes which is a bit freaky. As you get further in they bite your legs and thighs. You have to move quickly or they are on you. I jumped about like someone possessed, as if I had stood on hot coals with lots of ‘ows’ and other words!! I’m not sure it was so enjoyable being munched by quite big fish. The water was cold but not arctic and very refreshing after the hot hike up. After a shower and dry clothes we returned back to our driver for return to the hotel.

Tomorrow the early train back to Bangkok and the airport for a flight back to Chiang Mai, can’t wait.

Escape to Kanchanaburi

Flying back to Bangkok from Kathmandu we decided to go to Kanchanaburi, close to Burma which is where the bridge is over the River Kwai. It’s 3 hours from Bangkok on a train, we hadn’t been before and we got an amazingly cheap deal in a very good hotel for 3 nights, only £25.

We walked along the railway line that spans the River Kwai, took some photos and then spent the morning in the local ‘Death Railway Museum’.

I have never been brought to tears as often in a museum. The accounts of some of the survivors on film was heart wrenching. The brutality by the Japanese and Korean guards was unspeakable. They made the men march with all their equipment for sometimes 300k. If they fell or couldn’t carry on they were whipped and left to die.

It didn’t get better when they got to Thailand. The Japanese needed to get supplies to troops fighting the English in Burma. Most of the men were British, Australian and Dutch captured soldiers.

Indians, Malaysians, Burmese and Indonesians (called the Romusha) who enlisted to work on the railway were treated even worse as they didn’t even have the support networks provided through the military hierarchy.

If you were unlucky enough, after the fall of Singapore in 1942, to be shipped to the Thai/Burmese border by railway, often 28 men in a small metal carriage, no room to sit amongst the Japanese supplies and stopping once a day if lucky. The heat was sweltering in the day and freezing at night. They were given tiny rations of maggot infested food and little water, lots of men died before reaching their destination to build what was considered an impossible railway.

There were fewer deaths in the first eight months of construction until July 1942 when the rains started.

In the wet season as the men used the latrines which was 2 bamboo poles over a stinking pit, maggots and leeches crawled up their legs. Their bamboo beds full of lice, there were no comforts not even sleep. The boots rotted off their feet as well as their uniforms and they were reduced to loincloths and bare feet. With little food it was impossible to not get sick.

Many of the men got cholera, malaria and ulcers from injuries and beatings. There was only a small unit of medics and volunteers desperately trying to care for them with little or no equipment and no medication. Often only given 1 maybe 2 days off work even if very sick. Disease thrived in these conditions, tropical and wet.

They only had basic tools, hammers, shovels and picks sometimes working 18 hours a day, beaten if they couldn’t continue. It was horrifying listening to the accounts. They were expected to move 3 cubic metres of rocks each a day after making holes in the hard rock face and then blasting the rock out. No wheelbarrows just bamboo poles and brute strength.

The ingenuity of these soldiers never ceases to amaze me. They made radios out of bits of scrap they found to try to listen out for news. They engraved their billy cans with records of events with sharpened bamboo. The medics made cannulas from bamboo and reused bottles for drips. Amazing creativity.

The next day we went to an Australian funded museum 2 hours away, Hellfire Pass. A lot of Australian POW were shipped from Changi in Singapore to Thailand, first by sea and then by road many stationed in camps near HellFire Pass. They were told conditions would be much better…

The museum was cleverly thought out, in a very modern building with good screens and films, all interactive.

Roll call of the dead

Walking around the site with audio guides, survivors telling their stories, made it come to life.

It was harrowing but so pleased we went. After the Japanese surrendered the worst perpetrators of the brutality were executed, some imprisoned for life and rightly so.

The Japanese guards although incredibly cruel in life were respectful to the dead and allowed full burials. Because the Japanese, respectfully, wouldn’t interfere with the graves, the soldiers left full reports, names, dates and lots of information which was very useful for the allied governments in Asia and the Pacific investigating the war crimes. They wouldn’t have known as much as they did without that ingenious plan. The Japanese had tried to destroy all the information and records on surrender.

The exact number of deaths isn’t known, but historians from the ANZAC Portal estimate at least 90,000 labourers and more than 12,000 POWs were killed. The grim statistics – which equate to one man dying for every sleeper that was laid on the track – led to the line being dubbed the ‘Death Railway’.

This horror lasted until 1945 when Japan surrendered. 415k of railway line was built and 600 bridges in 15 months. When the men that survived eventually came home they were emaciated bags of bones, but alive at least to tell the tale..

Hellfire pass was an incredible feat of engineering, you would have to see it to realise the immense effort it had taken. Cutting a path through rock and thick jungle with basic tools and building a working railway line. There was not one road in this impassable area.

The Australians and all the soldiers said they wouldn’t have survived this appalling time without their feelings of comradeship and ‘mates’ it was a really important aspect of their survival.

We both felt emotionally drained and unsettled at man’s inhumanity. I have seen ‘The bridge over the River Kwai ‘ film a couple of times many years ago but am definitely going to watch it again now I know more about the history. It won’t be as accurate as the reality, that would be just far too grim.

Escape to Kathmandu

The walk down to Paseban from the tented camp took 4 hours. The last 2k was still tricky but with help from our guides we made it down safely. No more uphill walks, whoopee. We all felt it was a big achievement as none of us are dedicated walkers and unless you can afford a helicopter, there’s no other way to get this high and see the mountains. It was well worth the effort.

We relaxed, read, showered and just admired the view. We did a village walk and the houses were very beautifully decorated unlike many of the more basic houses of other villages.

There were lots of young teenagers and when we visited the porters house Trish bought scarves, Chris bought some beers, everyone was happy.

The porters

We had lovely food made by two lovely young cooks back at the guesthouse, they were so eager to please. We ate everything but the daal, that was it, no more, ever. Now we were dreaming of roast chicken dinners and cheese every night in our dreams.

The last evening in the guesthouse under the dark night sky full of twinkling stars and planets. The Milky Way as bold and obvious as can be, we had a big campfire. All the villagers turned up with music and their cheery personalities.

We danced all night, the teenagers treating us to TikTok dance routines. Even Chris danced. We will never forget this night it was truly magical and will be forever imprinted in our memories.

Our 2 young dancers

We took pictures of the 2 girls, porters and the guides who looked after us and after big hugs we walked for 2 hours back down to our original driver.

Chef’s, porters and guides

It took a further couple of hours to drop the guides off in their village. We all felt emotional, we can’t praise them enough. They were funny, kind, knowledgeable and genuinely nice young men. We will stay in touch.

It took several hours before we made our next hotel 2 hours from Kathmandu. The next day we returned to our favourite hotel The Shambaling.

Hosts from the Shambaling

I went all the way through their extensive breakfast menu, ate everything, yum.

Now to explore the Boudhenath stupa we were saving until our return.

It’s the holiest and most important Stupa outside Tibet. Built around the 14th century but has roots back to 600 AD. It was on a popular trade route between Tibet and Nepal. It’s now a UNESCO world heritage site.

The giant Boudhanath stupa is a gateway to heaven serving as a horizon between the earth and sky. The base of the stupa structure consists of three large platforms decreasing in size. These platforms symbolizes the sky, whereas the circular vase supporting the semi-sphere signifies water. The eyes of Buddha painted on the stupa are diversely described as inscrutable, impassive, empathetic and shrewd. The five most promising elements representing Buddha i.e. earth, air, water, fire and space are comprised in the Stupa architecture.

There was a real buzz as you get near the stupa, it’s the biggest I have ever seen.

People circumambulate, large numbers moving slowly, 3 times around. The unmoving centre symbolises enlightenment and it’s a form of meditation. Again we were very lucky to be here on an auspicious day in the Buddhist calendar.

Even more impressive at night

Many Tibetan monks gliding along in their deep red robes, young and old mingling amongst tourists, Tibetans and Nepali people offering their blessings. Enormous prayer wheels perhaps 12 feet tall and 6 foot wide, all a red and gold blur as they constantly were spun around.

The smell of burning incense hanging in the air and the twinkling lights and aromas of the yak butter candles adding to the atmospheric feel.

We entered The Jamchen monastery, just outside the stupa, which had drawings from Buddhist texts, all over the walls, beautifully drawn.

Entering a large room full of statues of enlightened beings, no photos but many monks happy to chat. The decorations and artworks were a sight to behold. Chris and I had a blessing, we need all the help we can get..

We would come back to Kathmandu and Nepal. We love the quiet serenity of the place, the beautiful friendly nature of the people and the amazing scenery.

Thank you Nepal 🙏

Escape to the Himalayas

We left Kathmandu for a 5 hour road journey. Our Village Ways contact said the road was 70% good and 30% atrocious. After a few hours we crossed a big iron bridge over a large river and started climbing higher and higher.

We entered a small village where our driver paid a small toll fee to enter the mountain region.

We passed busses with people sat on the top, same price in or out apparently, along steep winding roads many small villages along the route. We were all thinking we couldn’t climb higher, but we did…

We entered an enormous forest and the road became thick slippy mud like a WW1 battlefield and boulders like broken teeth littering the track, fallen trees pushed to the side of an already narrow track. There were mind numbing drops and I still have the fingerprint bruises on my leg from Trish! It reminded me of a ‘Top Gear special- the worst road in the world’. We thought we had already been there in our previous journeys but now we knew they were a ‘walk in the park’ a breeze compared to this. All part of the fun.

The driver was amazing, skilled and careful, driving a 30 year old Land Cruiser with great dexterity. He got a big tip when we arrived in our village called Solambu. We were greeted by our guides Sambhu and Buddha and about 10 children aged from 3 to 10 years old who scampered excitedly ahead down the rocky path to our guesthouse.

We ate smoked buffalo, assorted veggies, rice and cucumber salad, cooked by 2 lovely village women, one of them Sambhu’s mum. It thrashed it down and we hoped it would soon pass over. Sambhu asked if we wanted alcohol, yes came the quick reply. They make it from corn and rice and the only way to describe it, is a cross between paint thinners and rocket fuel, it made your eyebrows curl..only once !

Sambhu, Buddha and our 2 amazing cooks

After breakfast once the mist had disappeared we went for our village walk. The village has 5 families with many generations, lots of siblings with their families. Women were hard at work cutting maize and hauling produce up the steep paths. All very curious of the visitors.

We stopped at the mill which grinds corn into flour, polishes rice and mills oil for all the villagers. It had a shop which sold everything a village could possibly need.

We walked up to the Buddhist temple at the top of the hill passing an enormous pig with 12 tiny 15 day old piglets and a co-operative store.

There were villagers interested in who we were and all asked us if we wanted a drink, it was 10.30 and everyone seemed already well on their way. I think it must have been the village pub! The villagers say it keeps them warm…..that’s a new one.

We went to our guide Buddha’s home, met his parents and looked at all the livestock. Cows, a pig, goats and saw a baby buffalo which was really cute.

We also met the ‘dancing granny’. She was part of the welcome party and loves to dance, she is 85 and a real character. She also tried to ply us with alcohol. She had a grip of steel from years of hard graft. There was no escape for Chris..we all had to dance with her.

Dancing granny

Sunset from one of the high ridges.

We had a long walk up to the next village, 6 hours. First walking down from 1800m to 1000m then across a wobbly bridge over the river and then up to 1500m.

Crickets on the path

Walking up from the bridge I really thought I was going to expire, it was now midday and very hot a gruelling walk. My legs turned to lead, my heart felt like it would explode it was so fast and I struggled to get air in. After a bottle of sprite and a couple of biscuits from a village shop half way up I felt much better and was able to continue. We stayed in another village overnight and the heavens opened. Torrential rain battering the tin roofs, rolling thunder slicing through the valley and the road in the village turned into a stream. We just sat and read our books.

Again the next day another brutal 6 hour walk, straight up, relentless slippy boulder strewn paths, winding our way up the mountainside.

‘Whose idea was this’ I kept asking myself, it was mine!

We left the dark, damp overgrown paths and came out onto a ‘sound of music’ open meadow hillside with a magnificent view of the mountain range.

We eventually arrived to a lovely guesthouse. It was worth the heavy legs and feeling of utter exhaustion for this moment. We were told when we reached the tented camp that the next day the view would be even better, hard to believe. We were very lucky with the weather.

Our guesthouse

We got up at 5.30 the following morning to wait for sunrise. The mountains softened into indistinct shapes by the darkness. As it became lighter, a crystal clear day, the mist hanging like lakes of marshmallow in the valleys. It’s immense, almost spiritual, with a feeling of calm and quiet that is hard to describe we just sat and looked, awestruck.

After breakfast the walk up to 2,900 metres, a 5 hour hike. Our porters came for our bags.

We knew the first 2k would be hard, steep and arduous. You just stare at your feet navigating the slippy clay and uneven rocks a twisted ankle or worse was not worth thinking about half way up a remote mountainside. The guides were exceptional, constantly helping us up tricky climbs that looked impossible. We were ecstatic when we entered the thick pine forest.

Narrow paths, not so steep with glimpses of the magnificent mountains through the trees, occasionally opening up into wide meadows.

The tinkling of yak bells, the herds grazing all around. We crazily burst into ‘ high on a hill with a lonely goatherd’ well Trish and I did, the guides looking confused but giggling.

As we got higher, towering rhododendron trees with enormous girths surrounded us. Some had been hit by lightning strikes at the top. We had arrived at the tented camp for our overnight stay. Hallelujah.

There was only 6 houses in the village, 6 friendly dogs, a shop (which was owned by our cook) and goats and chickens.

We arrived at the shop, almost the whole village was in there. We had a black coffee, bought beers and we sat. They are a friendly, jolly bunch of people who live in the harshest of conditions. They laughed at us (I’m sure), in a lovely way. Curious of the 3 blonde softies sat in their shop, it was all very good natured. We had a camp fire and put on every item of clothing we possessed.

The next morning we got up at 5 am for a 1k walk straight up hundreds of steps to the viewpoint for sunrise, 3,200m, the air is thin. This was the pinnacle of our trip. It took an hour. It was breathtaking.

It was hard to get those legs up in the air

After breakfast a 4 hour descent back down to Pasaben. We have a 2 night stay. We need it we are all really tired and everything hurts. Now we just want to sit and relax.

Escape to Kathmandu

The trip back to Kathmandu from Chitwan took 5 hours. It was an interesting journey

Kathmandu valley is enormous and takes an hour from one side to the other. It is split into 3 large districts. The city centre is chaotic. Cars, motorbikes, trucks all delicately weaving around each other like a vehicle ballet without any traffic lights or accidents. We also noticed how much cleaner Nepal is to India.

The traffic was intense and we were pleased to eventually arrive at our boutique hotel in the Boudha district, a more upmarket part of town. The hotel was elegant and beautifully appointed with a good restaurant.

The hotel was originally a staging post for Tibetans leaving Tibet in 1959 and has been recently refurbished. It’s called The Shambaling.

The district has the most important stupa in Nepal called the Boudhanath stupa and is classed as the city’s no 1 attraction. It has a lot of history and a lot of Tibetan people live here. It’s fascinating. We are saving this until we return in a week and have more time.

We had a driver for the following day. We went to the ‘monkey temple’. It’s high on a hill, hundreds of steps up and looks over the expanse of the city.

Lots of stupas and intricate carved woodwork.

In the centre of the city is Durbar Square where the city’s Kings were crowned. There are medieval buildings, although most buildings were 17th and 18th century. It was badly hit by the earthquake a few years ago. The building that gave Kathmandu its name the Kasthamandap which was a pilgrim shelter from the 12th century but roots dating back to the 7th century was sadly largely destroyed.

A lot of it has been rebuilt and very well restored. They charge foreigners 1000 rupees (£7) to enter the square, there is a lot to see. It helps to fund the restoration. It has 3 loosely connected squares and a huge variety of wooden temples, palaces and sadly stumps of buildings lost to the earthquake. UNESCO are doing an amazing job for this historic city. It’s a fascinating place to people watch.

There is a living goddess called the Kumari Devi. She is chosen from a particular caste of Newari gold and silversmiths, picked at an early age, 4 years old. She has to meet 32 strict physical requirements including eye colour, shape of teeth and sound of her voice. The most recent Kumari, three year old Trishna Shakya took on her role in 2017.

She lives in a very intricate building in the square called the Kumari Bahal and when groups of people enter the building she comes to the window for about a minute. We were lucky to see her. There are gestapo like guards who inform you to put your hands together, bow your head and say namaste and definitely no photos. Her parents can see her in the day only, she cannot go to school and only leaves the building 7 times a year in a gilded coach drawn by men. When she menstruates that’s it, they find the next living goddess. It must be a very strange life for her.

The top window is where she appeared

We are returning to Kathmandu after the walking tour and will spend more time exploring this very interesting city.

Escape to Chitwan Nature Reserve

We arrived at the resort hotel in Chitwan Nature Reserve and were greeted by the friendly hotel guide who brought us refreshments and took us to our delightful bungalow rooms.

We ate in the restaurant and were excited to find pasta, cheese and meats and lots of different foods we haven’t seen since we left the UK. Cake and good coffee put everyone in a good mood.

We thought it was just down time in a nice hotel…no, there was a full programme of events for us for the 2 days we were here.

In the late afternoon we went for a village walk. The villagers were from the Tharu community who arrived in the area from Rajasthan in the 1600’s. They had been persecuted by the majority Muslim rulers so left and settled on the Nepali plains. They live simply, in harmony with their surroundings and their Nepalese neighbours.

They rear chickens, goats, buffalo and ducks which they sell to the local community.

There is an elephant centre in Chitwan, lots of baby cute

The next morning we went down to the river for a trip in a dugout canoe to see the 2 types of crocodiles and other wildlife along the river. It was a bit wobbly.

The big ones were lounging on the river banks looking menacing. As we travelled down the river we saw the crocs which only ate fish not tourists!

Next up a jungle walk. We only saw wild boar and samba deer. No tigers or rhinos, Trish was very disappointed. The guide pointed out plants used for medicine by the villagers and there were many different smells of decaying plant life and flowers along with the chirruping of insects and birdsong. It was an enjoyable walk

In the afternoon we had a jeep safari which was a bit like whacky races, lots of jeeps full of Indian and Nepalese tourists just wanting Instagram pictures rushing around.

We saw 5 rhino’s, dart birds, hog and samba deer and elephants.

We were all amused as we got back to the entrance that a rhino was there after everyone spent hours looking for them.

At the entrance !

We were sad to leave the next day the guide, staff, food and accommodation was excellent and we would have liked more time here.

There is a vibrant bustling town within the park which has everything you could want and more and we would like to come back. Now back to Kathmandu.

Escape to the Himalayas

On the walk to Dalar there was a small temple along the way with a live in priest who showed us round and gave us all a blessing.

We crossed raging streams and slippery paths and eventually came to the river, swollen and fast flowing from the rain.

It is the one and only walk where we pass a shop. It sells masala chai tea and almost everything you could need from food, toiletries to sweeping brushes and a multitude of items imbetween.

We sat watching hard worked, sad looking mules who were overloaded with stone taking it up the hills and villagers passing by, almost falling off their motorbikes to look at 4 hot and sweaty looking foreigners. It was a very hot day.

Passing peoples gardens with crops drying in the hot sun, chillies, lentils and maize spread out.

All uphill, I looked like a baked tomato and we all took advantage of a spring gushing out of the roadside, washing our faces trying to cool off. It didn’t get better, a really steep climb up a ravine saw us all off. Eventually we reached Dalar and stopped at our guide Hemu’s house for tea and a sit down before eventually reaching the guesthouse.

We visited Bipin’s family, we have met them all before and again took pictures and chatted with his mum and more pictures on the steps. Our guide from last time Santosh (Bipin’s brother) was guiding elsewhere but we met his 2 young sons and his wife. The son of Kemal, another brother who Chris played badminton with last time was now a skinny bean pole of a teenager. It was lovely to share time with them.

This time
In 2018 with Santosh our guide

We walked around the village, always the best bits.

After a hearty dinner we all slept like babies before our final walk back to Khali Estate and our last night in Binsar. It was an easy walk back.

The accommodation, the round houses in the grounds are very comfortable.

A huge troop, 50 or so, of white faced langurs descended on the house and gardens like a bunch of football hooligans. They try and steal the fruit and vegetables in the garden, the staff shouting and banging pans to deter them. Apparently they do this every few days. They ate and destroyed all the stunning cosmos flowers in the garden and ran across the tin roofs sounding like galloping horses. They were fun to watch.

The staff at Khali

The next day we left for a 4 hour drive to Kathgodam station. There had been a Hindi festival called Dussehra which had been going on for days. Floats and cars with dozens of people all in their colourful finery and loud music making the journey much longer. Every temple en route had flags, music and much jollity going on.

At this point we didn’t have confirmation for all our train tickets. We had 2 in second class AC and 2 in 3rd class AC and that’s how it stayed. Chris and I said we would take the 3rd class. When we got to the station at 9pm my heart sank, it was the longest, scruffiest train I’d ever seen. There were big families with acres of luggage and lots of unsavoury looking single men. We would be in a 6 berth open carriage for 16 hours. Fortunately a lovely young Indian couple and 2 older business men were with us and it was fine. I slept all night from 10-6, they even swapped a bunk with Chris.

Trish and Ingrid fared less well as they had a very pushy, shouty Indian lady who really invaded their space and wanted their seats. Trish gave her what for the following morning.

The views from the train along the tracks was heart wrenching. Along the river it looked like all the poorest people we had seen in Delhi had been transported, beaten up, covered in grime and living in rubbish strewn hovels. There were festering pools of water, children in filthy rags and mangy dogs. Scenes from a poverty stricken region of rural India, the stuff of nightmares and utter desperation.

We eventually got to Gorukpur a real skanky looking border town which has the longest station platform in the world.

Fortunately our guide Sunil met us and got us past the incredibly insistent and grabby hawkers, porters and tuk tuk drivers. We crossed the border, much paperwork on the Indian side and easy peasy into Nepal. We were taken to a nice hotel in Lumbini, Buddhas birthplace, for the evening for some brief R&R before our next long car journey.

The roads were appalling, there had been a typhoon in Thailand and Vietnam which had left major flooding, and this was the tail end of it passing over. Huge pot holes and rivers of water on the roads, passing landslides and flooded towns and houses.

The enormous rivers we passed, brown with glacial mud. It took forever. We were on our way to Chitwan wildlife reserve and National park, a 6 hour drive.

We arrived at the most beautiful resort hotel. Lush tropical gardens, swimming pool and lovely staff. This is more like it.

Escape to the Himalayas

We were introduced to our 2 local guides Hemu and Bipen. Bipen is the brother of one of our last guides from 2018 and all the guides come from the villages we visit. They have an amazing knowledge of their area, wildlife, flora and fauna and are lovely and charming with it. The walk started the next day, up to the viewpoint of 2,500 metres. We could just see the peaks above the clouds. The first 100 steps steal your lungs but then it gets better.

We then walked to a village called Gonap. They have refurbed the simple accommodation and now have en-suite bathrooms. All the villages have a guesthouse with 3 twin rooms, a lounge with a dining table and comfy armchairs.

We were greeted with a drink of juice and later ate a simple dinner of organic vegetable curry, chipatis and daal. Because the monsoon has just finished (mostly) the mountains can be shrouded in mist, and were, so the next morning we got up early, 5.30 before sunrise and went to the village viewpoint to see the majestic Himalayas.

We climbed up to the viewpoint again in the evening and a huge thunderstorm passed over and we sheltered in a hut for an hour, all good fun.

After breakfast we walked in the forest, passing villagers taking their animals to graze amongst the trees. Cows, oxen and goats led by brightly dressed young village women.

The plants along the paths are beautiful, Himalayan balsam, turmeric growing everywhere with big fronds of red flowers, no wonder all the early botanists came here. Delicate plants with tiny flowers everywhere in the banks.

Turmeric flower

The scenery, rolling hills and mist clad mountains. The pictures really don’t do it justice. The smell of the pine trees and pine needles crunching underfoot, on the narrow forest paths the clean fresh air is a real treat for the lungs like a spring clean. It took us all a while to get used to the thin air and steep climbs but it was worth it!

Lunch and dinner is always the same. Organically grown local vegetables from the village, chipati or puri, rice and daal. Simple healthy food. Omelettes and porridge for breakfast, as much as you can eat.

After lunch we went on a village walk. Passing burgeoning sweet lime, and lemon trees and many different crops including towering marijuana plants which they use in many different ways. The stems for making rope, the seed to add to food ( it makes a very interesting chutney) and for next years crop and of course they make hashish from the plant tops. The pungent smell was intoxicating as you passed through them down the many village paths.

They also grow cabbage, sweetcorn, cucumbers, chillis, potatoes and many other vegetables. They are very self sufficient. Dahlias and other well known plants grow like weeds it’s amazing.

There are always lots of baby goats and animals to cuddle on the way.

The villagers are shy, friendly, hard working people especially the women who appear to do most of the hard work. It’s a very natural organic way of life and a real community although most of the young people leave to work in the big cities especially if they have had any education.

We went in a primary school which had only 3 young children..

Its the village walks in the afternoon which we really enjoy the most. Observing village life unfurling , women carrying enormous bundles of feed for the animals freshly cut from the fields. Washing clothes and caring for their children, milking the animals which live below the houses while the menfolk seem to sit about chatting…

The next morning we walked to the next village about a 3 hour walk and our main rucksacks were there before we were, we only carry our small bags.

Speaking to an ex soldier he wanted to know how old we were and our jobs he asked us what we thought his age was. He was 70 but looked a lot older, gnarly and bent double, it’s a hard life. He thought I was 45, I’ll love him forever!

I’m sat next to my new bestie

There was a guy mixing paint from pine resin, which they collect in the forest, they just add colour which was a lovely mauve.

We had to check for leeches on our next walk as the land was still wet and we were crossing streams. We had salt sprinkled on our boots and socks by our guides. Stopping occasionally to pick them off, they still got in our boots and socks, yuk! Ingrid had one between her fingers and was huge…nasty things.

Another big thunderstorm came growling through the mountains you can feel it deep in your abdomen, the intense rain made the air taste amazing. Loved the hammering of the rain on the tin roofs. Good time to read my book.

We had another forest walk, monkeys, black faced langurs bouncing through the trees collecting and eating mushrooms which are prolific. The white mushrooms are poisonous to humans but our guides were picking the yellow oyster looking mushrooms for their lunch or the tasty pakoras they serve us every afternoon after our walk.

We saw griffin vultures and black eagles, woodpeckers and lots of colourful birds. There are barking deer, wild goats all a good meal for the local leopards which also take the local village dogs. Porcupine quills litter the paths.

Black eagle

We walked around the village. We met Mr Singh the carpenter who brought all his woodworking tools out to show Chris.

We then carried on around the village and looked at all the veggies, you really could grow anything here. We spoke to 3 women and took their photos and the shy children eventually came out with their mum. One of the women invited us to her house for tea. Lots of photo opportunities. Everyone is happy to have their photo taken.

The next day a gruelling 5 hour walk to the next village Risal. The walk up was hard enough but the walk down was more than challenging, 9 kilometres in total. One of our guides Bipen suddenly clutched his middle and cried out in intense pain, we had to ring the hospital and we were fortunately 30 minutes from a road so he could be taken to see a Doctor by taxi. We had to carry on without him and were all worried about him.

The path was all broken up and was slippy from the rain and rock strewn, everyone slipped at some point. It was daunting and made everyone jittery and quiet. We were all delighted to get to Risal and to a warm welcome from the friendly villagers. Better still we found out Bipen was ok and had been treated for food poisoning and was there to greet us.

Escape to the Himalayas

We arrived in Delhi after an uneventful flight and we were picked up and taken to our colonial style hotel called ‘The Colonels Retreat’. We have stayed here before and it’s a comfortable hotel with great food and service.

We went out for a wander round the local shops and market, had lunch and stopped at an interesting building, a Jain temple close to the hotel. It was a huge domed building in a garden with statues of animals in the gardens and an impressive elephant arch.

Inside the building there was the whole cosmos painted on the ceiling with all the stars and planets and Indian deities and gods in arches all around the walls.

It had an impressive echo….it was strange and very beautiful in a way only the Indians can do.

We chilled out for the rest of the day as the next morning we had booked a cycle tour in Old Delhi. It was an early start, the taxi came at 5.45 and we met Tenzin our Tibetan guide who sorted out bikes and gave us a quick run down of the tour. People were sleeping on the streets and shop doorways it’s always shocking to see the poverty in the cities. We set off and the first stop was a Shiva temple.

He gave us a brief history of Old Delhi and we set off dodging workers pulling and carrying unfathomably heavy loads, cows, horses, motorbikes and all manner of things. Smells of food cooking, spices, and decomposing rubbish assaults your nostrils and it was a joy to get to the flower sellers.

The tiny alleyways in old Delhi a warren of activity as the city awakes. Men washing themselves in bowls of water, people with large containers of cows feet they were cleaning for sale, meat from which I have no idea what animal or even which body part it came from around every corner. Hollowed eyed men staring from doorways at 5 cyclists picking their way through the rubbish strewn streets.

Many porters and workers looking for work standing on the roads and many poor people waiting, sat on the street waiting for food handouts. There were doctors giving free surgeries on the street for Ulcers in one line, another treating jaundiced patients in another long line, all for free. Everyone should come and look at this and maybe they would realise how good their own life is…

We visited a havelli which were owned by wealthy, mostly Muslim traders, women had a separate entrance and lived upstairs. There was a stage where they brought in dancing girls for the menfolk for their entertainment and in their heyday were very beautiful ornate buildings. Most of them now have been turned into retail downstairs but you can still see remnants of their former glory.

Chandni Chowk in the centre of old Delhi has a mosque, a Jain temple and a Hindu temple. There are people everywhere even at 6 in the morning.

We had a walk around the spice market where most traders sleep and work in their small shops bundling huge quantities of spices in burlap sacks and sew them closed. Different stalls, different spices. The aromas of all the different spices are pungent, you can almost taste them hanging in the air. Skinny young men heave these sacks on trolleys and must be incredibly strong and earn very little for their hard work.

The only female spice seller. She cannot get a husband because she is too independent!

We were ready for a drink, Masala chai, India’s spicy tea. The best is on the street served in little paper cups it was so good we had 2. They even pulled up a trolley for us to sit on and gave us biscuits.

We then went for breakfast. We had a large puri ( big puffy bread) and a bowl of chick pea and potato curry, they came with more if you finished, I had 2 of everything, delicious.

The final journey through all the tiny streets was entertaining dodging bikes, people, cows, trailers laden with goods to return to our starting point. We jumped on the metro back to our hotel. Loved every minute of it, it’s haunting, interesting and strangely beautiful, an unmissable experience.

The following day we were up early for the train from Delhi to Kathgodam in Uttarakhand and then a 4 hour taxi ride to Binsar wildlife reserve and the Khali Estate to a warm welcome with the red tiki on our foreheads, petals on our hair and a bunch of flowers.

The house and now wildlife reserve was the British commissioners house for the region of Almora built in 1863. Our accommodation is round houses in the garden with a view of the mountains. Now we are excited.