The countryside on the outskirts of the Capital looked very arid with few trees but with many small fish/prawn farms close to the road. We passed the mighty Mekong River and as we drove further north it looked even more arid with many of the rice fields already harvested and burnt off.

The trip took us about 8 1/2 hours with two half hour stops on the way. When we set off we thought that the road was quite good for the first half hour and then we hit the bone jarring potholes for about a third of the trip. I thought I was lucky as we sat in the second last row with the only window on our side that could be opened so it was good for opening briefly to take pictures but it did not have a good seal so that when we hit the dusty potholes a cloud of red dust would fly in over us. It was also a pity that the driver had not learnt where the gears were and there was much scraping of them when he did attempt it. Otherwise it was a pleasant journey with little variation apart from a few smallish towns on the way and a very large lake. The houses dotted amongst the trees were mostly on stilts with either animals or machinery underneath.The more affluent looking ones had painted bamboo screens on the front of the house and stainless steel or fancy railings on their staircases. Most houses had enormous pots outside their houses filled with water.

It started to sprinkle as we entered Siem Riep but we were whisked away by a tuk tuk driver Mr Shut Soeun who fitted all the luggage and us into the trailer and took to our hotel about ten minutes away for USD3. We walked around the corner and over the river to a lovely training restaurant for under priviledged youth and it was very pleasant sitting under the trees to have our tapas dinner. It was one of four such restaurants in the country run by one organisation. They also had a small shop which sold mainly recycled innovative products.
We chose our hotel because a friend from Perth was also going to stay there but didn’t turn up coming so we decided to move
hotels (walking up three flights of stairs was a bit much) to the Royal Crown which was a much nicer hotel and central to the
markets, river and many restaurants. We decided to employ Mr Shut Soeun to take us around the Angkor Archaelogical park for
the four days that we went out to the various temples of Angkor Wat, Bayon, Banteay Srea, Ta Keo etc.
He suggested that we not go temple sightseeing after we changed hotels as it was a bit later in the day and the three day pass (valid over one week) costs $40 and we wouldn’t get the best value from the pass that day. We instead went to see the
markets and the artisans of Angkor who employ a lot of disadvantaged and handicapped people to make all sorts of goods from
soapstone sculptures, silk items, porcelain to lacquer work and woodcarving. Soeun dropped us later to the Khmer Touch Cuisine restaurant where we had a delicious dinner and walked back to our hotel via “pub street” with it’s many bars and nice restaurants. The streets of Siem Riep were very clean as were the roads out to the Archaeologial Park. The French influence is still noticeable in many of the buildings.
Some of the roads in town including the one in front of our hotel were red earth which were watered to keep the dust down. It made for a lot of cleaning inside for the staff.

We set off the next moring at 6.30am to explore the temples of “Angkor Thom”. We liked Bayon temple very much as well as the
better known Ta Prohm temple where the film Tombraider was shot, not that we had seen it. There were hundreds of stairs to climb at many of the temples we visited with some very steep and narrow ones to boot but we managed them all. There were very good resting huts in the park and many refreshment stands.
We found the temples all quite different and the surrounding very tall and unusual trees made the whole area a fascinating one. The entire park is densely forested in many parts with a lot of shade and red earth roads. There was ongoing reconstruction at a few temples. One was undertaken by the Chinese and another by the Indians. How they reconstructed parts of the temple was to number every stone block which had fallen in a heap. These were then entered into a computer and the computer then made a jigsaw puzzle fitting the blocks together.
There were some long walks to some of the temples and a few small stages were set up with men playing Cambodian instruments. They were mainly amputees (landmines) and they were well supported by the tourists. They organised the tourists very well by having east/west or north/south entrances so not everyone was walking in the same direction and we found no congestion at any of the sights. It was the low season so that may have helped. There seemed to be a lot of Chinese and also Cambodian groups around. They do advise you not to venture off the beaten track as there are still landmines in the countryside.
Soeun was a very good driver and most of the drivers are very polite and there is virtually no blowing of horns or drivers getting impatient. Everyone just seems to wait their turn. The weather was very pleasant about 34degrees and 60percent humidity with a gentle breeze blowing. After we had covered about six temples in about five hours we decided we needed some lunch so Soeun dropped us at a great little cafe that we found called the “Little Red Fox cafe espresso” which served excellent coffee and food.
We walked back to the hotel stopping at a wonderful spa and had an hour’s very professional and luxurious reflexology massage for USD12. Our legs and feet very much appreciated that before we walked the short way back over the river to our hotel. The river runs right through middle of the main town with shops, restaurants,and hotels on both sides of the river with it’s overhanging trees.

When we decided to come to Cambodia we didn’t realize that we would be in Siem Riep for Khmer New Year which is a 3day event starting from the 14th April depending on who you talk to. A lot of workers take the whole week off and we saw many enormous stages being set up for the holiday. They were expecting up to half a million people to hit town, mostly locals who came home for the holiday or wanted to experience New Year in Siem Riep. There were many decorations and colourful lights to mark the occassion along the streets and in front of buildings.

Our driver took sick so the next day he sent us his friend Phanet to drive us to Banteay Srea and various other temples in that area which were over an hour away. We started out at 9am which was a much more civilised hour. We had a good tuk tuk ride there passing many rural houses and even some rice crops and a much greener landscape. Some of the houses were decorated with colourful stars and balloons.
The temples in that area were all quite different from the temples we had seen on the previous day and luckily with not so
many steps. Phanet dropped us in town about 2pm and we walked around the old market area with it’s French colonial buildings.
That night we ate at another nice garden restaurant (Georges Rhumerie) where we ate Creole,French influenced food. The owner and chef hailed from Reunion island. After dinner we walked back into the old market area where the streets were packed with Cambodians enjoying an enormous street party.

We had a lay day on the Wednesday and got up a bit later, went for a good hour’s walk around the town, had breakfast and then
tried to sort out flights which was proving difficult for dates and times that we wanted. We abandoned that and headed back to town where we bought me a very lightweight pair of trousers and then proceeded to find a little place in a small side street called “Ecstatic Pizza”. We were sitting close to the front of the restaurant and I saw who I thought was our friend Tom from Perth who we were suppose to meet in Phnom Penh. I wasn’t sure as he had sunglasses and cap on but went up to him and sure enough it was him. An amazing coincidence that we found each other. He had not told us that he was coming to Cambodia and we thought he had gone on a fishing trip instead so I didn’t bother emailing him that we had changed hotels in Phnom Penh and he thought he would surprise us instead and couldn’t find us so he came up to Siem Riep anyway. Such an amazing coincidence especially as we were going to go to another cafe for lunch but it was closed and he just happened to be walking along the same little side street!

On Thursday we decided to go and see the sunrise at Angkor Wat so were up at 4.30am for a 5am start with our trusty driver Soeun. It only took about twenty five minutes to arrive there with a hoard of other tourists, mainly Cambodians who were still in Siem Riep from Phnom Penh and from other area for the New Year. After photographing the sunrise we went to the side entrance instead of the front where everyone was heading and were lucky to see a lot of the temple with very few people to contend with. The rest of the day was spent doing last minute shopping and having massages and then to Khmer Touch Cuisine for a meal with our friend Tom.

Soeun took us to the airport on Friday afternoon 17th April to catch our business class MAS flight to Delhi via Kuala Lumpur. We told him that we would be back in Siem Riep which was such a friendly and easy town in which to explore and within easy reach of the wonderful temples to the north of the town. We hoped that the very friendly Cambodians would not lose that trait once tourist numbers rose in the years to come.

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We were collected at the airport by Mr Huot who dropped us at our hotel “La Rose” where we were met by a party of staff who asked if we would like to be upgraded to their new “Suites hotel”.
Of course we didn’t say NO and were whisked off in their 4wd Lexus to the other property which was very opulent with superb staff. Every time we entered the hotel we were met with a cold towel and greeted profusely with our names (well they probably were our names but the pronunciation was very innovative). The level of English comprehension by the Cambodians in the hotel and on the street
was very limited and we had to explain things in a very simple way.
The city had a very comfortable, open feel to it and although we were advised that traffic would be bad, it didn’t seem too bad travelling in the tuk tuks or Remork as they are known in Cambodia. They are much more spacious than the autorickshaws in India but instead of one vehicle they are a covered trailer pulled by a motorbike. We were recommended to go to “Kabbas” restaurant (one of the 300 odd in the city) and drove around for about 40minutes with our lovely driver who didn’t know where the place was after
being shown the location on the phone. After stopping several times to ask directions which had us going backwards and forwards, I spotted the place virtually in front of us while we were stopped to ask further directions. He wanted no extra money and was most appologetic – a lovely fellow called “Gi Vom”

We opted for a tuk tuk ride around the city the morning after we arrived to get our bearings. The hotel was located in a very central area just down the road from a large park with the statue for their independence at it’s centre and a ten minute walk to the river and Royal Palace which was similar to Bangkok’s Royal Palace in size and opulence. We visited the National museum with similar architecture but was a rich terracotta colour with many beautiful ancient life sized sculptures and an interesting virtual tour of ancient times
around Angkor Wat in the north. Wat Phnom with it’s enormous white stupa was surrounded by a leafy park and a large clock with even a working second hand.
There were only a few high rise buildings with many more under construction. There was much controversy apparently over a very new hotel across the river called the “Sokha” built by a Vietnamese of dubious reputation which now spoils the views from the Royal Palace to the other side of the river. The city was very clean on the whole with people collecting rubbish along the roads. We decided not to do the trip out to the “killing fields” or the genocide museum
as we had lived during that era and the subsequent revelations of the killings after 1979 and what Pol Pot did to the nation was enough for us.

The central markets were dominated by a huge domed hall full of very bling jewellery. Long corridors with stalls either side selling every type of goods ran from the main hall and surrounding these were the fresh food markets and eating stalls. Maurice purchased a new polycarbonate ultra light overnight bag for USD35 which was
way below what they wanted for one in Bali. The ice cutting/making stall was fascinating with a truck laden with dripping enormous ice blocks which were then dropped into a delivery shute to a worker who then stack the ice ready for cutting with a circular saw or dropping into what looked like a leaf crusher to be stored as crushed ice.

We were taken to a “safe” local restaurant near the river for lunch where the fresh vegetable rice paper rolls were delicious. Our driver then drove us to the Russian market(couldn’t find out why it was so named) which was a maze of open stalls selling mainly clothes, textiles (their main industry in Cambodia) and souvenirs.
We had time for a quick rest before being collected by Sonya Duck an Australian living in Phnom Penh who runs “Urban Forage” food tours. We started at Phnom Penh Towers rooftop terrace for cocktails and to see the sunset over the city. From there we ventured into the local food markets and started with tastings of local desserts which we found to be delicious, very unlike a lot of Asian desserts. We progressed to sample delicious pork ribs (not for Maurice the vegetarian or pescatarian really) and then to try the delicacies of fried crickets and water beetles and some kind of grubs. I think if I hadn’t had my cocktail first I wouldn’t have tried these but when in Rome and after a couple of drinks…..
The next stop for our nice group of eight with Mr Smiley (obviously his real name!)and another driver was a local restaurant with an enthusiastic band and circulating beer waitresses from the local Angkor beer company who replenished our drinks with firstly a large chunk of ice dropped in the glass. Later in the evening a group of “marlboro girls” in their red and white uniforms offering samples of cigarettes. We hadn’t seen that for a number of years anywhere else!
The menu apart from crispy fried frogs (which were quite tasty) was relatively tame – squid, morning glory vegetable with oyster sauce, spicy prawns, tofu and mixed vegetables. Mr Smiley and co driver joined us and there was much toasting which is done with one hand touching the other arm and shouting cheers in Cambodian.

I opted to do a cooking course in our hotel and was the only person doing it so had very personalized attention.
We made rice paper rolls with peanut and chilli dipping sauce, Fish Amok (which is not a very hot spiced dish) and banana and sago pudding. There was too much food for one so Maurice was allowed to join me for lunch.
A lot of the Khmer food is coconut based and a lot of emphasis is placed on a balance of flavours – sweet, hot, sour and salty. Cambodians like things very sweet and will even put spoonfuls of sugar into their beer.

We encountered few dour people in Cambodia – they were all very welcoming and smiling and the market sellers were not at all pushy and enjoyed the bargaining. They seemed a gentle, patient people in general with no honking of horns or impatience when driving. Sonya told us that in her three years in Phnom Penh she only saw one
incident of anyone raising their voice and that was to apprehend a thief that a group of people then nearly beat to a pulp. She told us that a lot of young people are not happy with the ruling party but the older generation after what they had been through during the Pol Pot era (1975-1979 where he annihilated more than two million people)
just want to have a peaceful existence. Cambodia has elections coming up in eighteen months so that might see a change.
The King is claimed to be gay by unoffical sources but the reason given by the authorities that he hasn’t married was that he is devoted to his position like a monk. The majority of Cambodians are Buddhists and there are many temples and newly contructed temples around the city and in the countryside.

Before going to dinner we opted for our free one hour massage in our hotel and Maurice had a traditional Khmer massage (no oil) which he said was one of the best he had ever had. Mine (with oil) was good too.
We walked on our last night in Phnom Penh to “Malis” a restaurant located a couple of streets away in a lovely garden setting and ponds filled with koi. They served very interesting Khmer food.

We used two tuk tuks to where we were to take the bus (no station as such)to Siem Riep. It was parked with many others beside the night market. One took our luggage and we took another one. Our motorbike had a flat tyre so we walked the last bit to the bus. The driver was most apologetic. The bus to Siem Riep which can take anywhere from 7-10 hours (because of traffic and/or roadworks) was very comfortable – recliner seats with adjustable leg rests and
plenty of leg room. A nice surprise.

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The rain continued on the 12th March when we arrived at Pondok Bambu in Candi Dasa. It was easy to relax at the property just watching the waves crashing over the breakwater in front of us with the island of Nusa Penida in the background and the east coastline of Bali to the right.
The only drawback in Candi Dasa was if we left the hotel which was located on the main road which also ran through the middle of town with a constant stream of trucks and vehicles thunderering up and down especially in the morning and evening.
There were very few tourists in town and instead of being asked if we wanted a taxi every few metres we were occasionally asked it we wanted “sailing in a boat”.
We found goods and services like massages and clothing quite cheap in Candi Dasa with a good hour’s massage costing the equivalent of $7.
Pondok Bambu is owned by a very personable middle aged Dutchman “Gerco Scheeper” a former marine who won 6 million euros in the lottery in 2000 and who came to Candidasa and purchased the property and who had since built himself a house in the jungle and a large restaurant across the road called the “Crazy Kangaroo” in memory of an Aussie friend who had died. They have a very professional dive outfit and specially built boat for such trips.
The property is right over the water and such a relaxing spot especially as there were only four other rooms occupied. We were joined by friends Robert and Gay from Sydney and we relaxed, swam in the sea and pool and took a 20 minute boat ride down to the “white beach” where we swam in crystal clear water and had fresh fish for lunch and lazed by the ocean. We were also lucky enough to see a pod of dolphins on the way there. Ketut who has taken us a few times before in his boat charged us approx $40 for the trip and waited for us for four hours and then took us back to our hotel.
We visited some of our favourite restaurants – Vincents and a little family run “Warung Boni” set amongst the banana trees and on the edge of the hill.

We were told about an upcoming cremation ceremony near Bug Bug village about five kilometres from Candidasa so Gay and I ventured off with a driver to see some of the ceremony. When we arrived at about 3pm there were hundered of men, women and children all dressed in traditional costumes and sitting around chatting. Some children were gambling, playing a roulette type of game and some of the women were finishing off the very decorative fruit offerings. We were told that the actual ceremony would only start at 6pm and finish about 3am the next day so we decided to leave after about an hour but just as the car got from the parking area to the road, the temple police stopped us and said that the main procession was making it’s way down from the village to the temple and we would have to wait for half an hour. There must have been about five thousand people in this procession which we watched from the side of the road with many people carrying offerings and some men carrying huge bamboo boxes also full of offerings. Others were leading calves on ropes along the road. It took nearly an hour for the procession to reach past us towards the temple and we could then leave to go back to Candidasa.
The people came from all over Bali back to their village for this important cremation ceremony. They never seemed to mind foreigners watching or even taking part as we saw a few westerners in traditional dress bearing offerings. There was also a bit of a fair atmosphere with stalls selling clothing, watches, food and live birds and bunnies.

On the 18th March the four of us caught the fast boat (an hour and a half) to Gili Trawangan, the largest of the Gili islands off the coast of Lombok. We decided after two days there that although the “Pearl Lounge” was an excellent place to lounge and eat, we would not be going back there. It is definately a backpacker’s paradise with booming music every night.

They did however have the best pizza at “Pizzeria Regina” (just like a real Italian one – not thin and crispy!). We saw Robert and Gay off and left the following morning on the public fast boat (85,000 rupiah) to Gili Air where we were welcomed back at “Chill out bungalows” by English Vinny and his Indonesian wife Suzi. The harbour is just a bit far to walk with bags so we were scalped for $10 for a 5 minute “cidomo” horse and cart ride but the rest of the two weeks we went for walks around the island which was very relaxing given that there are no motorbikes or cars allowed except for the odd electric motorbike and some of the drivers appeared to be about five years old.
We had two very relaxing weeks swimming in the crystal clear water, walking every morning and doing yoga nearly every day.
There were so many fish of every colour which could be seen very close to the shore. Some days we walked around the island and saw very few people which made a pleasant change from Bali and Gili Trawangan.
The beach was set up every night with tables and chairs so we sat listeneing to the water lapping on the shore while we ate our dinner with a pleasant breeze blowing every evening. It was hot and humid during the day but we could just take a dip if we felt hot.
We watched more TV than we had in the last three years since starting our adventure and we saw some interesting films and a particularly good English series “The Bletchley Circle”.

The “Chill Out” bungalows was such good value for money. They served a three course breakfast (if you wanted it all) with some or all of the following for breakfast – a choice of fresh fruit juice, tea or coffee, fruit and yoghurt,pancake with honey, eggs and toast all for $8. There was a choice of about eight types of fresh fish every night. I had BBQ’d barracuda one night which was very tasty but the chargrilled tuna and vegetable kebabs we ate nearly every night were just delicious.

They were on a large skewer and came with some salad, more vegetables and either chips, baked potato or rice and choice of four sauces for $5.
We reluctantly left the island to Gili Trawangan and then caught the fast ferry back to Bali for a few days to collect the rest of our luggage and do last minute essential shopping and go to some of our favourite restauants before heading to Cambodia on the 7th April.

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We had an overnight stop in Chennai and Kuala Lumpur and the luxury of travelling business class on both legs, however, a bout of food poisoning didn’t let me enjoy the trappings of the lounge and
cabin.
We arrived in Ubud on the 8th February to an hour long wait at immigration and an increase in entry fee to the country. I had thought that Indonesia was going to do away with payment for visas on arrival but instead they had hiked the price up to nearly fifty dollars each. Apparently the former won’t take place until January 2016.
The departure tax has also gone up to twenty dollars and extending a visa by one more month to seventy dollars each. I considered it a bit rich as we contributed to the economy paying for accommodation, meals and incidentals. Maurice had stocked up on our store of Vegemite which was just as well as we found that a 225gm jar cost more than $13 in Ubud.
There is also a ludicrous procedure now for a visa extension. You get a 30day visa on arrival and at least a week before your visa expires (this was always the case)one now has to go to the immigration department in Denpasar and have a picture and fingerprints (all of them) taken before they will grant an extension. It will put a lot of people off extending for another month – us included.
It is a real bother and an expensive exercise for a return trip to Sanur to the immigration office from Ubud. No one even at immigration could tell us why this extra procedure and inconvenience was necessary. We did point out that to leave the airport they sight you and your passport. Maybe they need a safeguard as we look all the same to them?
The traffic seemed to get worse every year with more vehicles and noisy smelly motorbikes tearing up and down everywhere. The main street in Ubud was blocked solid in the afternoons with people movers and enormous buses carrying busloads of Chinese and Korean tourists. They seemed to have lunch, visit the market and then traipse along the footpaths with their identical hats and spacial unawareness.
Having said that were lucky that we are in a nice quiet villa away from the road and we could still be close to some lovely rice fields although they are diminishing rapidly in the name of progress in and around Ubud as more villas, restaurants and shops are built.
People remained friendly and Bali is one of the few countries where the locals smile and say good morning even if they are not trying to sell you something. Even if you buy nothing, the little Balinese shop assistants are obliging and pleasant. Many eating establishments are still very good value and much cheaper than Australia. We only found it expensive coming from India where general living expenses were still extremely cheap.
I did a lot of walking down to town in the five days that Maurice was in Perth to see a sick friend.
It did get a bit wearing being asked if you needed a taxi every few steps or the more lazy ones just save their voices and just hold up a sign with “taxi” written on it.
I ventured into Ubud a few times but walked most of the time up and down the hills there and back which was good exercise. I timed my walks very well as on two occasions I just made it in the door before outbursts of torrential rain. The third time I wasn’t so lucky getting totally drenched with sneakers full of water but it was still pleasant walking in the warm rain.
I was happy to see some young and some not so young craftsmen working on statues and reliefs in the renovation of a temple. The very young and teenagers still dress traditionally to go to the temple which is refreshing to see.
Our friend Carol came up to stay with us and Maurice arrived the next day from Perth to enjoy relaxing taking dips in the pool,walking to town,shopping and dining out.

A rabid dog had bitten several people and several dogs not far from where we stayed.
It was caught and destroyed along with another dog and the humans would have had the course of anti-rabies injections.
Luckily that happened rarely in that area.
Another unusual occurrence was on Kuta Beach where a two metre snake disturbed beach goers and had to be caught and transported far away.

There seemed to be a lot more thunder and lightning and heavy rainfall while we were in Ubud, more so than last year. We therefore spent many evenings watching the $1 videos that we bought in town. Some excellent films were – The Imitation Game, The Water Diviner, The theory of Everything and The Good Lie.
Steve, our villa manager also recommended a dentist not far away so we had check ups and Maurice had some work done for a very reasonable price.
I cooked every quite a lot and it was a nice change from always eating out although we had some nice meals at Indus, Il Giardino and the Bridges restaurants. We had two lots of visitors from Perth this year. Carol came up for a few days as did Tony and Michelle who also visited us in Pondicherry. It was nice seeing friends from home again.

We also spent an inordinate amount of time (necessary when dredging the internet) researching our upcoming travels to Greece, Turkey and Morocco and booking ferries, flights and some accommodation. We were advised when we could go and visit the immigration department in Sanur to have our photos and finger prints taken and went for a coffee in Kuta first. The torrential rain persisted and the streets soon became rivers. The water did seem to drain away fairly quickly into the black volcanic sand below.
We moved to the villa next door for our last four days in Ubud and it was virtually identical to the one in which we stayed for the month however the living area and kitchen were open areas.
We travelled to Candi Dasa – a favourite spot of ours on the east coast on the 12th March to start our next month by the ocean between there and the Gili Islands off the coast of Lombok.

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I had to add some more photos of our time in Pondicherry. I had misplaced these photos and found them again. Friends from Perth joined us for a week and we did a couple of half day trips. One to Auroville in the lovely old Ambassador car to see the Matrimandir and later to Chidambaram temple further south.
Auroville which is a non-denominational town of approximately two thousand people was planned with fifty thousand inhabitants in mind but this never eventuated. The people who wanted an alternative lifestyle did turn it from a red earth desert into a green landscape with millions of trees. It resembled the Australian bush in some places. The buildings there are hidden amongst the trees and there are many establishments making things such as compressed mud building bricks and many sustainable energy projects. The amazing golden domed matrimandir is the centre of the town and with prior arrangement you can go in and contemplate or meditate inside the amazing structure.
Christmas the week before was colourful with beautiful saris and floral creations and a Christmas lunch for friends and relations of the owners.
The local markets had an amazing array of foods, some in vast quantities. They should not be missed on a trip to Pondicherry.

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We landed in Pondicherry to take up our “Basil and Sybille Fawlty” roles for the Gratitude hotel for two months, helping out
the owners while they pursued their various jobs and interests. Kakoli who lived full time at Gratitude was one of the driving force behind saving the heritage buildings of Pondicherry which gained force after the collapse of the town hall in November.

We took a flight from Calicut or Khozikode on the west coast on the 11th December and had a spectacular view over the beautiful Keralan mountains. We were collected by a pre ordered taxi and we had two stops to make in Chennai before travelling the three hours down to Pondicherry. Chennai is not a very attractive large city and the ongoing (many years) of installing a metro rail system made for impossibly long traffic jams. It took us over two hours to complete 20 kilometres leaving the driver very frustrated. We needed to get my computer looked at which only took the technician 15minutes to take the back off, clean it up and reprogramme a couple of things which cost the vast sum of 300 rupees or $5.50. The second stop was to take my camera to be repaired. The Olympus service centre took the camera, told me it would investigated that evening and couriered to me the following day (3hours to Pondicherry) at a cost of 200 rupees or $3.80. We were most impressed by both the service agents,their quick and efficient ways and their friendly attitudes. I know in Australia it would have taken much longer and cost a awful lot more.

Pondicherry like the rest of India is an assault on all the senses. It is however in a juxtaposed way with a marked difference between the French heritage area on the east side of the canal and the much more frenetic Tamil side of town.

There is the incessant honking of horns (no stop signs) at every intersection or “cutting” as many locals call it and the calls of the door to door sellers, the pungent odours when crossing the canal from the more sanitised “white town”. There are wonderful aromas of fresh samosas and other delicious foods being cooked at the roadside, the sight of beautifully restored houses and buildings and the derelict crumbling ones with trees growing from their rooves. There are also the sobering sights of the very poor living on the streets, some in what appear to be communities.
There is such a variety of food with the French cuisine and fresh seafood to the spicy and aromatic Chetinnad cooking of Tamil Nadu.

Both sides of town have their share of beautifully restored buildings – the French heritage buildings with their concrete
pillars and the Tamil ones on the other side of the canal with their carved wooden pillars.

It was lovely being close (two blocks away)to the sea with it’s wide promenade at the seafront. It was a pleasure to walk along it in the morning to see the sunrise and in the evening after 7.30pm when the road was closed to traffic until 7.30am each morning. A rock seawall separated the sea from the promenade.

Rubbish removal remains a problem with most of it just strewn over various parts of both sides of town but seems to be collected daily on the French side whereas there remains more neglected rubbish heaps on the Tamil side of the city.

We were warmly welcomed by the staff at the “Gratitude”. Our role was a guest relations and staff relations one whereby we helped with the breakfast, had breakfast with the guests and answered any questions about Pondicherry. Most of the questions related to what to see and where to eat. There were only a couple of guests when we arrived but that number quickly rose and it was full from the 20th December until well into February. The peak season in Pondy is from December to the end of February when cooler weather with pleasant breezes from the Bay of Bengal invites people from the northern, colder parts of India at that time of year and from much hotter Chennai.

As usual there were many interesting people staying at “Gratitude”. A girl from Pakistan who had great trouble getting a visa because of the tensions between Pakistan and India. She had to nominate each place she was visiting and report to the police station at every stop.
She was attending a wedding in Jaipur and just transited Delhi, however as she had written down Delhi on her visa application
when she arrived in Jaipur they would not let her stay and made her fly back to Delhi to get an official stamp before letting her proceed to Jaipur. As we finished this discussion an Austrian professor who was staying at Gratitude arrived and asked if I was also from Pakistan!

Our first few days were very relaxed and Gratitude, a tranquil haven with a leafy central courtyard was very pleasant.
To cross the canal into the Tamil part of town one noticed the change in pace and traffic. Sundays were particularly crowded in MG road (Mahatma Ghandi) with a market the length of the street. The local so called “Big Bazaar” or “Goubert Market” was a fascinating place to visit with virtually everything on sale in vast quantities from fish, fruit,spices, flowers and vegetables to letter boxes and household items. I couldn’t get over the mountains of flowers and corriander for sale and wondered what they did with all the excess every day.

I occasionally risked life and limb on the back of a motorbike to buy food for the Gratitude.
The pace really picked up with Christmas and New Year as a lot of Indians took their holidays over that period . A lot of them book at the last minute and we could have sold the rooms a hundred times over with people wanting to book for the next day or even ringing when they were on their way into Pondicherry.
Most only stayed for a couple of days whereas as a rule the Europeans tended to stay longer. Pondy is many hours drive from
anywhere and most people were exhausted by the time they arrived having flown into Chennai from many destinations in India and abroad.

It was much nicer for me when we had guests staying for a longer period like Nidhi a very talented screenwriter from Mumbai and her sister in law Anjum, and Linda and Monica who happened to live half an hour away from Maurice’s cousin in Germany and Nick and Kate lawyers from Sydney. They invited me out and I could enjoy their company which made a pleasant break from staying at the hotel.

I prepared a Christmas lunch (with the help of one of the staff) for 15 of the owners’ family and friends and that went down well with five kilos of plum pudding that we had brought from Ireland for the day.
Our dear friends Tony and Michelle from Perth arrived for a week’s stay which was a welcome relief as we could spend a bit of time with them and show them around a bit. We went to the “Dupleix” hotel for New Year’s Eve after confirming that the music would not be techno or blaring like we had had in Chennai the year before. For about $50 a person we had a wonderful array of seafood, fish, chicken and vegetarian fare with wonderful desserts and unlimited wine or soft drink. A French couple provided wonderful music for the evening.
We had a trip out to Auroville, a very different community about half an hour away to see the Matrimandir and to Chidambaram temple a couple of hours away. Our nice little guide that we hired was very hard to understand and he kept asking me if I had understood what he said. I did say yes although with his thick accent some of it was unfathomable but he was very enthusiastic.

After a month Maurice flew back to Kerala for a three week stay for more treatment for his rheumatoid arthritis which worked a treat and he came back a week before we were due to leave, pain free. It meant that I was on my own for those weeks which were fairly hectic with a six o’clock start and sometimes late finish but it was all in all a worthwhile experience although exasperating at times and a tiring one.

We tried out a few of the restaurants in Pondicherry even finding an Italian couple who produced fresh homemade pasta. I suffered a few trials and tribulations with the staff which made us appreciate how troublesome running a place of that kind could be. I also had some middle of the night awakenings and a few problems to be solved as well as writing procedures and generally cleaning up the back of house areas.

We didn’t need an alarm clock at Gratitude as the noisy crows woke us up every morning. They were a real pest and picked over all the garbage on the streets before it was collected by the rubbish people. There were packs of dogs around the French quarter but they were in the main a tranquil and well fed lot and most slept very soundly during the day and only seem to get agitated if other dogs encroached on their turf.
We fed one who slept under the owner’s car when we had leftovers and he became quite friendly by the time we left. We hoped that they would continue to feed him. There were also very cute tiny chipmunks who would vacuum the courtyard for any croissant crumbs that I saved them but who disappeared at lightning speed if you came anywhere near them.

The Ashram has many sites in town and they run many businesses in the city.
There was a major incident the first week we were in the city with a family of seven being evicted after a ten year battle to stay in the Ashram. They threatened if evicted to commit suicide and the whole family went and threw themselves in the sea with three of them unable to be saved.
There were many theories as to why they were evicted but afterwards people threw stones at the Ashram and had a general strike and wanted the government to take over the running of the place.
It was a sad time and there was a large police presence around the Ashram and we were advised to close the front windows in case of any trouble.
Everyone luckily calmed down and we didn’t notice anything different up our end of town.
I had changed my views on beggars after reading Rohinton Mistry’s “A Fine Balance” which was a graphic depiction of life in India pre and post partition. The beggars had a beggar master who obviously took their takings but who also looked after the group to ensure their own income. Their did not appear to be many professional beggars in Pondicherry rather just poor people living on the street or beside the canals. Instead of always giving them money which some gratefully accepted I would buy a couple of doughnuts or pastries and give them those instead. They all looked as though they needed a good feed.
Some homeless people just bedded down anywhere on a spare piece of pavement and most of the ones I saw had a blanket or cover that they wrapped around themselves with the odd dog curled up beside them. Many of the cycle rickshaw and auto rickshaw drivers slept curled up in heir vehicles, their only home.

We went and bought the fresh croissants (which all the guests enjoyed)every day getting there by 7am (a 15-20minute walk away) but we didn’t mind as it allowed us and then me some exercise every day. The walk took us along the promenade by the sea and then via the Governor’s mansion opposite a nice park and over the odiferous canal to the “hot bread” shop.
Nidhi joined me for the time she was at Gratitude which made for a nice morning walk and she introduced me to the juice shop across the road while we waited for our croissants. I ventured later to trying their onion samosas for 2rupees which were delicious.

Maurice and I went out to Auroville one day to the “Tsunamika” day which was attended by thousands of school children as well as tourists and locals. It was to celebrate 10years since Tsunamika was established. The project has focused on the fisherwomen who were traumatized by the Tsunami disaster. The initial aim of the project was to help the women overcome the trauma they experienced, by getting them involved in some creative handicraft work which could channel their energy in a constructive manner. For this purpose, 480 ladies from 6 coastal villages were given handicraft
training to make a small doll using left-over fabric from Upasana’s products. The project team then bought the completed dolls from the fisherwomen and began distributing them widely as gift items. The doll, known as Tsunamika, quickly became very popular, and soon helped establish a strong emotional bond and identity among the people who had made her, as well as among those who received her. Soon the project evolved into a livelihood option for nearly 180 ladies, who began receiving income for every doll they made. At the same time large numbers of people volunteered to distribute Tsunamika worldwide, and the entire project became a demonstration of “gift economy”. Within a period of just 18 months, with donations coming in from around the world, the project became self-sufficient to run on its own income.

The 14th until the 17th of January marked the Tamil Nadu harvest festival called “Pongal”. The first day of the festival saw many small fires outside houses to burn any old items no longer wanted. The second day saw beautiful “Kolams” or chalk drawings in front of most houses, businesses and hotels. The city had several Kolam competitions with hundreds being drawn along the promenade. It was a shame that the first for the season was washed away with rain as soon as they were done. The second competition was more successful and the Kolams remained for a couple of days.

A group of us went along to day three of the “Pongal” celebrations to a small town where there was going to be a procession of decorated tractors and carts with bullocks with their brightly painted horns. We saw a number of these but left before the procession started as they were waiting for a local MP to arrive to begin the festivities which meant that it would have been nightfall and we didn’t want a drive back in the dark. The fourth day was party day with thousands of locals all in their finery parading along the promenade.
One night we went along to a traditional dance performance by two Dutch/Indian brothers called “Arangart Tanjore Quartet Bharata Natyam”. They were wonderful dancers who were passionate about not losing the traditional dance forms.
We were lucky to get to the show as the autorickshaw driver who we thought knew where we were going – didn’t and after him asking a few people as to the whereabouts of the venue – just walked off and left the four of us in the rickshaw. He did eventually come back and we found we were only a few metres from where we should have been.

I took Nidhi along to “Aquarelles” art gallery where Maurice and I had seen some lovely watercolour artwork. I ended up buying two paintings from two of the very talented artists.

The Gratitude is regularly visited by many Indian architect students and tourists alike as a fine example of a renovated
heritage house. Some arrive in groups and are quite noisy so it is a constant job of keeping them quiet while there are guests around. There are also walking tours for mainly French guests of which there are many. Many of the local Tamil people speak some French rather than English as it was a French colony for so many years.

I had quite a lot of practise with my French and some with German and Italian although the majority of people visiting Pondicherry are Indian tourists,then followed by the French and a handful of English, American, Australian and a few Scandinavians, Germans, Italians and Russians.
The 26th January apart from being Australia Day for me was also Indian Republic day and a lot of the businesses were closed for the long weekend holiday. We had 100 percent occupancy, so with me and the owners who had returned from their sojourn in Delhi made twenty one people for breakfast.

It took me a while to get used to the staff when I asked them to do something, shaking their heads ear to ear for “yes” which for me meant “maybe”. The difficulty was when asked a question which involved more than “Is the room ready” I had to take the

staff to the reservations manager Vijay who spoke English and Tamil so as to translate for me. I wished that I had more time to learn some Tamil rather than just “hello, how are you” and “very tasty” for the delicious food we had.
We went invited to Vijay’s house one night for a lovely dinner and to meet his wife, son, mother and niece. He lived in a quiet village about 1/2 hour away from Pondicherry. On the way there we saw a huge rally for two political parties (elections were coming up) and we wondered why there were so many thousands of people attending the procession. We were told that people got a meal and were paid for their support. No wonder there was so much enthusiasm.

We had a frightening incident the week before Maurice got back. I and all the guests, the security guard (who normally slept)and the owner were awakened about 1am to a very loud explosion and crash. I expected to see part of the building lying in the courtyard but there was nothing untoward as we all ventured out into it. Three of us climbed a ladder up onto the roof to inspect the solar tank thinking it may have been the cause but there was nothing to see there either. I looked over the wall which was a common one with our hotel and an old metal water heater in the bathroom of the guesthouse next door had exploded in one of the guestrooms and gone through the asbestos roof and landed in their courtyard (just next to ours) along with the toilet, basin, door and many other things from the room. There was a woman asleep in her bed just metres away in the bedroom and it was a miracle that she wasn’t hurt. She would have however got an almighty fright as we all did and she was much closer. I don’t think anyone slept much after that. I know I didn’t.

Another commotion the following week resulted from a monkey walking into the breakfast room and overturning the milk powder (leaving a footprint) and breaking a cup. He obviously didn’t like the tea or coffee we served and left. Two days later there were two monkey on an inside staircase who managed to frighten one of the cleaning ladies. After that episode we closed the door to the terrace in the afternoon and also the glass doors in front of the breakfast room. They could still get in from an opening in the lounge area but at least it was a deterrent.

Prices for food varied greatly from the wonderful”Kamatchi” biryani veedu local restaurant where you could get a delicious meal for about $3 to the more expensive upmarket hotels in the French quarter serving more western fare. The prices there were still at least half of what we would pay in Australia. We mainly ate what the cook had prepared for us for lunch and dinner which was always tasty but occasionally we ventured out for the odd meal.

Our money went an awfully long way in India. I found an excellent tailor (the pictures I took of the tailor’s shop would not inspire you) who did a wonderful job of turning the silk sari I bought (they are all six metres long) into a top and a long lined coat for about $12. Maurice had shoes fixed for next to nothing including a tip to a wonderful smiling cobbler. We have found in India a “can do” and obliging attitude which although understanding that everyone has to make a living, is a refreshing thing to find when in so many countries the attitude can be so different when something is not vital to their survival.

I’m afraid that this was a very long post with many photos but the experiences of two months in one place in India were too
much to fit into a short one.

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We arrived into Calicut about 8pm on the 17th November and got a taxi from the prepaid service at the airport. It wasn’t really prepaid as the man gave us over to a driver and told us to pay him 500 rupees (about $10) for our half hour ride. Our taxi was an lovely old Ambassador car, no airconditioning and wind up windows. The”Raviz Kadavu” hotel was a much nicer hotel than where we had stayed previously so we had a good night’s sleep and then ventured with their driver to downtown Calicut to the local Vodafone office to get a sim card. In order to obtain one we had to provide a photocopy of Maurice’s passport, a photo of him and a letter from the yoga villa to state that we were staying there. They then check everything out before they give you access to the sim card which seems to take anything from three to ten days.

We had a delicious lunch with the driver at our usual”Metro Manor” hotel and then we had a more than usual hair raising drive up to the mountains with a crazy taxi driver who obviously had a death wish. We didn’t want to be part of that so Maurice shouted at him to be a bit more careful especially as the drive took nearly three hours.
The winding road up to Udayagiri which stands at about 1000 metres was being dug up for desperately needed road improvements
so we were transferred to a jeep to travel the last couple of kilometres.

It had been a year since we had been there and they had made many improvements to the villas and were building two more with
magnificent views down to the plain below. The plants and trees had grown considerably after a heavy monsoon season. It was
much cooler than at the same time last year and there was much haze and cloud and only a couple of decent sunrises. we needed
something warm to wear in the early morning and in the evening.
We were only six guests for the first few days – Bernard and Marie from Reunion island, Shoba from New Zealand and Ravilla from Russia. They were all lovely and we got on well. Once the couple from Reunion had left Reshma arrived from Mauritius. Guests usually stay for between 3-4 weeks depending on the treaments they receive.

The internet was unfortunately not working so I walked down to the next town a few kilometres away to find that their internet was also not working so I tramped back up the mountain, a wasted trip but very good exercise.
They did offer to take me to a town 20 minutes away so the next day I set off on foot for some exercise down the mountain and was collected on motorbike (no helmet for me) to the internet cafe which had fast internet access.
Three of us and the manager ventured one day down to Mananthavady a larger town 45 minutes away for a shopping expedition where we all managed to find some nice Indian style clothes to buy. On the way we saw a modern ambulance which had the words “oxygen” and underneath “freezer” written on the rear door. We wondered that if the oxygen didn’t work the freezer may take over?

Maurice had many mud all over treatments and poundings to reduce the calcification in his joints for his rheumatoid arthritis. Some may think it was hocus pocus but the natural treatments work for him and he doesn’t take any drugs which take their toll after a few years. I did the weight management programme (story of my life!) and it consisted as well as limited food to powder poundings and massage with medicated oil. Friends have asked us what we did all day but as most of the guests concur we didn’t have much down time and some of the treatments were rather taxing which left them feeling quite exhausted. A typical day was:

6.15am Pooja (ceremony)
7am Yoga for an hour and a half
9am breakfast
Treatments which are staggered from 9.30am onwards which take 1-1 1/2 hours
1pm Lunch
2.30pm Walk 1 1/2 hours
4.30pm Yoga 1-1 1 1/4 hours
6pm Dinner
7.15pm Pooja
After treatments, walk and yoga we usually are in bed by 8.30pm

Maurice and I didn’t attend the pooja sessions but managed most of the other yoga sessions. The staff were very obliging and caring and were a happy group group of people who looked after us well.

Ravilla and I went with the doctor, yoga master and manager down to the other Ayurveda villa location one night to listen to the staff
singing some Malayalam folk songs. It was about 45minutes drive away and we drove through the Tholpetty wildlife reserve which encompasses hundreds of kilometres through the western Ghats.

We saw about six elephants on the way there and then after dinner and the performance we stopped to look at a couple more
elephants who had two babies. We were very quiet but one elephant obviously didn’t like us being quite so close (they were near the roadside) so trumpeted and started to run towards us. The driver took off quickly thank goodness. We then saw two groups of deer let by a stag with giant antlers. It was the most wildlife we had seen in our four years of visiting there.
There were tigers in the reserve but the closest we got to seeing one was some droppings at the top of the mountain behind the villas. They were distinguishable by the amount of hair therein similar to other cats.

The locals we met on our walks always smiled as we greeted them and the children always wanted to know “what our good names were”.

The three weeks went very quickly and Maurice had a lot of success with his treatment and I lost 6 1/2 kilos so was very
happy. Our Russian friend Ksenia arrived a couple of days before we departed and it was nice to see her again.
We were driven much more sedately back to Calicut to overnight there and then flew on Spicejet to Chennai on the 11th December.

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A german guide who had brought a group to the desert camp suggested we take the coastal highway, a much more interesting drive than the flat uninteresting interior highway to Salalah on the south coast. He also advised us to stop at “Jaalan Bani Bu Ali” to see the oldest Omani mosque with it’s 50 domes.
On the way we found our way to one of the major tourist attactions of “Wadi Bani Khalid” but got a bit lost (lack of road signs) and we had to cross a pebbly riverbed with water flowing across it. We managed that and found the large and beautiful oasis with it’s water channels and pools.
A lot of people apparently swim there but it didn’t look that inviting although the water flowing in other parts of the wadi looked much fresher.
We had tried several times asking Indians or Bangladeshis for directions but they really had little knowledge of the country which was understandable as they worked in one spot and never travelled around the country. We therefore stopped at a service station in Jaalan Bani Bu Ali and asked an Omani who was getting into his car for directions to the old mosque.
He was a lovely friendly fellow who immediately said to follow him. “Kamis” took us on an hour’s tour of the old part of the town which was in a state of decay and gave us explanations of where the old market used to be and how people used to live. We followed him into old crumbling mud buildings making our way over broken walls with ceilings that had partly fallen in and he showed us several old mosques which had been partly destroyed over time.

The old mosque with it’s 50 domes had been restored and was being used for 12 o’clock prayers so we couldn’t see inside.

Kamis worked for Halliburton and his job was in the desert working two weeks on and two weeks off.
He showed us pictures of his four children on his latest galaxy phone and we gave him four of the little koala bears that our friend Helen had brought us. He would have taken us to meet his parents but we were in a bit of a hurry to get to Haima before dark. It was a shame as it would have been nice to meet them and see a local house. He made a stop and bought us a typical Oman sticky dessert made with dates. It was lovely to experience his Omani hospitality and we thanked him profusely. He gave us his phone number and said is we ever needed help to call him and if he wasn’t available he would get a friend to help us.

We made out way down to the coast and it was nice to be by the sea again. We passed several Bedouin dwellings and small fishing villages along the way and the scenery changed from sand with tufts of grass and bushes to undulating sandunes and then to very flat desert with a few scattered camels and goats. We got to Haima at six o’clock about half an hour after sunset and as luck would have it our hotel just happened to be next to service station where we stopped to ask directions.
We went into town after checking in to the “Arabian Oryx hotel” and went to the small restaurant which had been recommended by the hotel and had some good Indian vegetarian food for $6 total.

We continued the following day on to Salalah which lies on the Arabian sea in the very south of Oman. It is not too far from the Yemeni border.

It was five days before we saw our first camel and the only other wildlife we saw until then were two beautifully coloured birds. We just had to watch driving too fast in places as there were goats, donkeys or sheep wanderinTg around. I had expected to see more camels in the desert at Wahiba Sands but apart from those penned for camel riding they were few and far between. There was an area to see flamingoes but we didn’t find it. The Arabian oryx are found in a nature reserve but tourists are not allowed into the reserve for some reason.
We always seemed to manage to get one fly in the car but otherwise there were no other flies or mosquitos around.
We did see a shop sign promoting “eradication of insects, rodents and insulation” so there must have been some about.

On certain stretches of highway were the humps in the road and most had lost their markings which made it interesting when we happened not to see one to be catapulted into the air.
There was also virtually no rubbish around and we saw the reason for this many times with the migrant workers walking along deserted streches of the highway collecting rubbish in large black plastic bags which were then placed beside the highways for collection. It was a harsh job for them as well as all the road and contruction workers who worked outside.

We couldn’t believe that the internet worked so well(we had bought an Omani sim card for five riyals) in the mountainous areas and in the middle of the desert and we had coverage most of the time even during the sand storm and rain.
In many of the coutries we had visited we were given many reasons for it not working well – the weather, the distances, the valleys, the mountains but in Oman this didn’t seem to count at all. It did make us wonder.

We couldn’t be too particular with spelling when looking for a place or town. There seem to be up to three spellings for the one town or location. We travelled to Haima via “Mahout, Muhut and Mohut”, all the same place.
Dates were in abundance from small containers to large sacks and we bought 1/2 kilo for $4 to nibble on our long road trips.

The trip from Haima to Salalah was uneventful with two military road blocks to check documents and there was practically no traffic for the entire five hour trip. We supposed that the military posts and presence in this area was because of the close proximity to Yemen over the Dhofar mountains. We came over a hill and couldn’t believe the change in the scenery.
From desert and rugged mountains we came to a green landscape and the closer we came down to the coast in salalah there were groves of banana trees, coconut palms and fields of corn and many patches of lawn.

The only problem was once we got to nearer the city google maps took us on a merry go round and it didn’t help that our Safir “Salalah Gardens Residences” hotel was part of a large mall complex with virtually no signage outside and the entrance instead of being on the road given us,it was actually in a side street.
After driving around for an hour we finally located the place which was owned by the King of Kuwait. It was a very nice four star hotel with a lovely room with kitchenette and bathroom and it overlooked an enormous central courtyard with a fountain, palms and several seating areas. We had a delicious arabic meal with wonderful service at the “Annabi” restaurant across the courtyard and had a nice chat with it’s Egyptian chef who had only been there a week. The mall and outdoor areas were teeming with people, many women dressed in niqabs and burqas. There was a cachophony at one stage for a pre wedding celebration with men waving make believe swords,beating drums and awfully loud and ill sounding singing.

The Saudis apparently flock to Salalah in Summer to escape the heat. It is then only about 35 degrees there whereas inland it reaches over 50 degrees.

The 14th of November their National day saw most buildings flying the Omani flag and people were out late with small children still screaming around outside at 1am. Many Omanis spoke to us and welcomed us to their country and wanted to know from where we came and told us that it was a safe country and to drive carefully. Even in Muscat the guesthouse we stayed in didn’t lock it’s door and many Omanis don’t lock their cars. We had women in niqabs offer us directions and most people had ready smiles whether Omanis or Indians.

There were more camels in the south to avoid on the road and we found some even on the median strip of the highway near the city. The turquoise water all along the coastline looked very inviting but we were surprised that apart from the resort hotels in Salalah, there were many abandoned houses at the seaside with only the “Cafe de Paris” showing signs of life.
We had a couple of relaxing days and Maurice bought the latest Galaxy phone and a new carry on bag . We found the prices of white goods and clothing in particular to be very reasonable and food to buy was very cheap in places like the Lulu Hypermarket where we found some very tasty Australian mangoes and fresh mango juice. It was the largest store of it’s kind that we had found anywhere in Oman.

We had read that the archeological museum and museum of rankincense was open but when we arrived there the opening hours were nothing like those shown on the internet and was closed so we decided to take the longer coastal road via Taqah an old port town where the Queen of Sheba purportedly obtained her Frankincense. We were very glad that we took this route ad stopped to see the castle there which was one of the best representation of life as it was many years ago. It looked as though the family had just popped out. We saw a tree from which they obtain the resin to make Frankincense which is then formed into stone like pieces for the incense burners.

The drive further along the coast was spectacular with wonderful views around every corner. The turquoise Arabian sea looked beautiful as we passed many bays full of fishing boats, a large new housing development and camels being herded along the road as well as some just lazing on the beach. The surrounding mountain range of Dhofar and Jabal Samhan varied greatly in colour and form and were amamzing sights as we drove along the coastal highway.
There were large parking areas along the way where we could stop to take photos or have a break as we did. There were few cars on this road and very few trucks which was good as the road was very winding for many kilometres. We calculated that we would get back to Haima a couple of hours after dark to spend the night there before continuing the 500 odd kilometres back to Muscat so we turned inland and made our way on the secondary road back to Haima where there were only a few trucks working in the oil and gas fields which were vast on that stretch of road. It was the first time that I had seen the oil derricks at work.

The only scary part was after dark with me driving and there were no street lights but signs warning for deer and camels. Luckily we saw none, only a stray fox who started to cross the road and thought better of it. It had taken us all day to get to Haima via the coast but it was definately worth it for the views of the sea and the mountains and canyons along the way.

We got up early the next morning after staying once again in the “Arabian Oryx hotel” in Haima to break the long trip and we got a good start on the inland road back to Muscat. I drove for three hours to give Maurice a rest who had picked up a bug of some sort.
There was little traffic again, only worker’s trucks and vehicles. This Muscat/Salalah highway was the most boring of all the roads and highways we had taken with only desert everywhere and the excitement for the morning was finding a bend in the road. It reminded us of the Nullabor plain between Perth and Adelaide. The early morning had been cool 22 degrees and it gradually hotted up to 32 degrees with not a cloud in the sky.

We overnighted at Behlys again and drove to the airport at 8am to return the hire car, have a “Costa” coffee and depart on Emirates via Dubai to Calicut for the next leg of our journey. Oman was a fascinating country with such diverse and beautiful mountain and coastal areas and we will visit it again.

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We had a very pleasant arrival into Muscat by not having to pay $60 each for a visa on arrival because we had spent a week in Dubai. A tourist information counter right next to the baggage belts employed an older gentleman dressed in a typical Omani long tunic with snug fitting cap who couldn’t have been more helpful. We had been told that the Omanis were most welcoming and we experienced that on our first day there and indeed for the rest of our two weeks there. The man gave us an assortment of maps and took his time to advise us of the places we should visit in and around Oman. The car hire people at Europcar were also extremely efficient and friendly as well as the local “Omantel” company where we bought a sim card for internet and calls.
We hired a car for the two weeks as public transport was non existent and we wanted to drive over 1000 kilometres down
to Salalah which is not too far from Yemen.

Muscat was quite a contrast to Dubai and Oman in general is geographically vastly different from its UAE neighbour.
Dubai lies mostly on sand whereas Oman has a largely varied landscape with mountains of many shapes and colours to the north and west of Muscat and then another large mountain range in the south. The deserts of the interior vary in colour as well as
the sandunes to the south which ranged from white to almost orange. We covered a lot of the country and everywhere there were highways, roads, bridges and overpasses being built. There were also many newly finished offices and appartments throughout the country with some ornate two storey houses built in between older single storey houses. Some of the villages have remained as they were hundreds of years ago. There were very few high rise buildings and no skyscrapers to be seen and apparently Sultan Qaboos a revered ruler wanted to keep it that way.
There was much celebration for two nights with cars blowing their horns (not that they don’t normally) but this was excessive. The people were waving flags from their cars and sitting on their cars waving flags. We thought that Oman must have won a soccer match but it was in aid of their leader Sultan Qaboos Said al Said who had just addressed the nation from a hospital in Germany where he had undergone major surgery. Many Omanis are very patriotic with the country’s flag as well as the Sultan’s picture on cars,in shops and businesses as well as hanging from lamposts especially for the 14th November, Oman’s 44th National Day.

Our friends Marianne and Franz who worked in Muscat in the early seventies just after the city was opened to foreigners (previously ex pats lived in a compound and were not allowed into the city). They said that it was a fascinating place then. Every night the city gates were locked. They wouldn’t recognise the place now with all the construction that has gone on over the last 10-15years albeit low rise. They have spent an incredible amount on new
highways, overpasses and bridges and the work is still going on all over the country. The highways are superb and even the secondary roads are excellent. They have no tunnels and the highways have all been cut through the mountains.

In Oman the drivers don’t seem to speed quite as much as in Dubai where they only have one speed – flat out.
We were very pleased and greatly relieved when the brakes on our hire car worked very well so as to not slam into the car in front of us in peak hour traffic. There would only have been a couple of fingers between the cars.
We just happened to be in such traffic because we got lost and ended up in the mountains outside Muscat. We were trying to get back to our guesthouse in the suburbs but the internet stopped working and google maps therefore didn’t work. We were able to turn around after about 10 kilometes and made our way back in the dark to Al Seeb and the guesthouse where we stayed.
We had brought our Tom Tom to Dubai and wanted to download a map of Oman on our new device however Tom Tom advised us that it was only available on old Tom Toms which didn’t make sense to us.

“Behlys Guesthouse” which was more like a large suburban two storey brand new house with large rooms was conveniently located near the beach and opposite was a take away kebab shop, a “beuty saloon!” and a small supermarket. The landlord was a very pleasant Omani and it was run by a helpful German man, Oliver.
We found a quaint “coffee shop” which was really a small restaurant and not a coffee shop on the corniche along the seafront and which seemed to be popular after it had cooled down to about 26 degrees in the evening.
The shop had plastic tables and chairs outside facing the Sea of Oman and we enjoyed hoummos, arabic salad (so named),a plate of falafel and a vegetable korma with plenty of parathas and delicious large lemon and mint drinks for the princely sum of just under AUD9 or 2.8riyals.

Car hire and accommodation was quite expensive in some places especially the in the desert where some overnight stays were up to $600 a night and most comments were that one could pay a lot of money for accommodation and the standard not be what it should be. We were lucky in the places we chose which were midrange from $60 along the highway to $180 in the desert camp.
Our German landlord told us that it is only in the last 10 years that Oman has “taken off” as a tourist destination and is becoming ever more popular as one of the few Arab countries to still be peaceful and retain a lot of it’s culture and heritage. As there is no public transport most people either travel in a group or a few tourists hire a car as we did or a 4WD to be able to access some of the unsealed and steep mountain roads. He believed that it would never be an enormous tourist destination for backpackers due to the lack of public transport and the great distances.

It took a bit of getting used to converting the currency to our dollar. In the UAE 3 dirhams equals AUD1.00 however in Oman 1 riyal equals AUD3.00 so instead of dividing the currency we had to multiply it.

We decided on Oliver’s recommendation to head north to the town of Nakhal and we followed the coast road up to Barka. We headed into the local “Lulu Hypermarket” to buy a couple of beach towels for all of $4 each and then made our way inland through the impressive mountain range on the new highway to the Fort of Nakhal. We explored the fort which had wonderful views of the surrounding plain and the mountains. There wasn’t much to the town so we followed a winding road lined with date palms to “Ain Al Tharrawah” hot springs. The warm water gushed from the rocky side of a hill.
We lowered our feet into the water and small fish immediately started nibbling at them. I thought it a strange and tickly
sensation with some of the fish seemed vacuuming our feet.
I have seen this done in fish tanks in Bali but never felt keen on putting my feet into a tank where many other people had done the same but in this flowing water it seemed much more cleansing. As we were leaving a group of local women came down to do their laundry in the warm water.

The highways in the main were quite empty and the one to “Wadi Mistal” on the way to Nakhal had a sign which stated that the asphalt ran out after 300metres. We decided to give it a try and it must have been an old sign because it was a brand new highway through the mountains to the “Wadi”.

Every small town had mens and ladies tailoring shops, barbers and “coffee shops” and along the highway were many small contruction and engineering outifts and auto repair shops.
From Nakhal we took the inland road up to Rustaq Fort which had closed for the day so we made for the coast and back to the guesthouse. The “wadis” and groves of date palms were in such sharp contrast to the very stark surrounding mountainous areas as we drove to the north and west.

We started off on the 7th November at the very early hour of 6am so as to see the Friday livestock market at Nizwa,a two hour drive through the mountains to the west of Muscat. We were advised to leave early as the selling of the livestock finished before 11am. When we arrived at 8am the entire area around the market was already full of cars.

It was fascinating to see how the livestock market operated. Owners of goats, some calves and a few very strange looking sheep were paraded around in a circle with prospective buyers sitting on the inside of the circle and others standing on the outside. When someone wanted one of the animals, the customer stopped the owner and haggled with him until a price was settled upon and then the buyer took the rope and led the animal away. It wasn’t particularly noisy but there were many men watching the proceedings. Most women were the foreigners who had got up early as we had.
We moved along then to outside the neighbouring building where mostly boys were doing deals for pidgeons, chickens and birds.
At the back of the buildings a few men were selling vegetables and fruit and opposite in another building was the fruit and vegetable market which was very clean and tidy.
The “Souk” was in the same area, selling all sorts of daggers, silver, pottery and jewellery. We managed to find a western style “illy” coffee shop.
We saw an old man carrying a rifle and wondered where he was off to so we followed him to an outdoor area where rifles were being sold. Adjacent to this was the original “East Souk” where amongst other things special honey from wild bees was selling for about $180 for a litre.
We were going to come back to Nizwa the following day so we left for the two hour trip back to Muscat where we had our lunch
overlooking the sea of Oman and then went for a short walk along the beach which was clean and tidy but the sand was a grey colour and quite coarse. There were a lot of interesting coloured shells and stones near the water’s edge.
Wanting a non tourist place to eat that night we on a ecommendation went to the “Turkish Corner” restaurant where we
ate “Mutabel” a vegetable and cheese dip, tabbouleh, flat bread and a vegetarian pizza. The unsweetened lemon juice with mint was very tasty and it all came to a total of $12.

The Grand Mosque in Oman which is only open to the public until 11am and not on Fridays is a very impressive series of buildings with beautiful specially made carpets from Iran and exquisite chandeliers and carved sandstone. It is 20 years old and took 6 years to complete. Unlike the Catholic churches in Europe many of which charge an entrance fee, the mosques have free entry. On our way out we were invited to have a cup of tasty Omani coffee flavoured with cardamom and some dates. We were free to ask the attending well educated Omani women any questions about the mosque or islam and they had a large variety of free books on offer.

We were going to head into the “Muttrah Souk” to have a look around but a violent sand storm started and then torrential rain
as we were on our way so we changed our minds.
We instead headed west to Nizwa again. The highway had a lot of water lying about and some trees had been uprooted. We saw the result of two accidents along the way although people were driving at a lesser pace during the storm.
The “Al Karm hotel appartments” 15minutes from Nizwa town was a delightful find. It looked very stark fromt the outside but the appartment we had for about $100 a night had a sitting room, large bedroom, bathroom and kitchen with all the essentials. It was spotlessly clean and the staff were very friendly. There only appeared to be one other occupied room in the four storey building for the first couple of nights. There were not many restaurants in Nizwa so we opted for the “Lulu Hypermarket” which is part of a massive chain of enormous supermarkets found mainly in the middle east and in India. They have an extensive delicatessen section where we bought very good cooked Indian food and fresh salads to take back to the appartment.
The Nizwa mall had been open for four years however there were many shops still vacant. Maurice was in seventh heaven with all the watch shops, there were about six in a row. He ended up with a new Casio one which is linked to the atomic clock, accurate to one second in 100,000 years as well as phases of the moon, tides and much more.
About 200 metres away they were building a Grand Nizwa mall which was going to be even bigger and better. An enormous new mosque was also under construction as well as a large gateway building to Nizwa.

The Omanis on the whole are quite small in stature and the babies and toddlers are like dolls, they are so petite. The Omani women wear a variety of clothing from full niqabs to burqas and chadors and some wear western clothing and no headgear although this wasn’t a common sight.
They are polite and the atmosphere in the country is a friendly one. There are many Indians and Philippinos working in Oman. All need an Omani sponsor to work or run a business. All the taxis in Oman are owned and driven by Omanis unlike in Dubai where they are owned by Emiratis and driven mainly by Indians and pakistanis.

We made a leisurely start from Nizwa up to the town of Al Hamra and to Misfat A’Abeyeen a very old village which was like stepping back in time to see how the Omanis lived hundreds of years ago and continued to do so.
They had abundant water channelled down the hillside where banana, mango and other fruit trees were grew amongst the date palms. It was a very verdant oasis. A woman was washing the dishes in one of the channels and several branches of dates were drying in the sun on a rock in front of her house. We didn’t spend long there as it felt as though we were intruding on their village life and we only saw one old man on the street.

We left and drove to Bahla to see the fort which is shown as an historical destination. It was very large and most of it looked as though it had just been completed. It had been totally reconstructed but it had no placards or information in the many rooms apart from a sheet we were given on entry giving a brief history of the fort. There were no artifacts or any kind of furniture in the buildings which gave it a very sterile atmosphere.
The Nakhal, Nizwa forts and the Taqah castle in particular had a much more authentic flavour with artifacts, furniture and explanations of the ses of all the rooms.
We took a different route back in the late afternoon to Nizwa, had a much needed coffee and after a quick visit to the hypermarket for some salads,headed back to the hotel.

Some Omanis especially the young ones had some English but not many had a good enough command for a discussion.
We saw a few guides with tourists with some speaking French, German or Italian as well as English.

We left Nizwa at 7.30am and make our way to Sur on the northeast coast on the sea of Oman. We stopped at Ibra along the way for me to see the “ladies souk” (men not allowed) which had a gaudy array of long dresses and children’s clothing. I had to persuade an older Omani lady that I didn’t want to buy one of the dresses but was just looking at them.

Sur is a coastal port and we drove around the seafront which forms a circular route around the town. An old seafaring dhow had been restored and was on display as well as some seafaring ones in the harbour. There were some nice gazebos on the beach but we had our lunch in the car as there was no seating in any of them.

We drove nearly two hours doubling back to our meeting point at “Al Wasil” at the office of the “Desert Retreat Camp” where we were to spend the night. When I booked the one night they omitted to tell me that a 4WD was needed and that they would take us the 20 kms to the camp and back for 20riyals ($75) which we thought was very excessive given that a full tank of petrol only cost us 6.5riyals ($20). We had read previously that the desert stays were expensive. Ours was $180 and which was one of the more reasonably priced camps. As luck would have it we met an Australian young man and his Russian wife waiting for the office to open and they kindly offered to take us in their 4WD which we gratefully accepted. Our 2WD would have easily made the trip but they do not allow us to take it into the desert.

We left with several others in convoy and arrived at the camp. It was in a lovely setting in a valley with tall brown/orange sandunes on either side. We stayed in a very sturdy tent made from goat hair and the gaps were mostly covered by netting to keep out the mosquitos.Luckily there were none. There were about fifty tents in total.
We could have taken the option of a camel ride or dune bashing but having done the former we opted to just relax in the bedouin style tent and have coffee and dates.
I did venture almost to the top of a steep dune to take some pictures of the sunset and it was hard work as the sand was very soft and it was very easy to make no headway slipping back with each footstep.

The owner or manager was an Omani but the two workers were a Bangladeshi and an Indian from Delhi and they prepared a delicious meal of chicken curry, vegetables, rice, hoummos, crunchy salad and flat bread. The beds were good and we had a shared bathroom which was spotless. No hot water unfortunately and the drain in the floor tended to flood the place when you turned the tap on in the basin.
The generator was turned off at 9pm and it was lovely to just stare into the night sky and see so many stars (like in
the outback of Australia). I got up at 2.30am and the moonlight lit the whole campsite. In the morning following breakfast of Boiled eggs, “foul” beans and cucumber sandwiches (a strange combination) the young couple took us back to the office on the main road and we set off for the long drive down to Haima on the coast road (half way between Muscat and Salalah).

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It was a pleasure landing at the new airport in Doha for our couple of hours transit to Dubai. Alan kindly picked us up at midnight from Dubai airport. Qatar via Doha had a schedule change which got us in after 11pm but it was half the price of flying Emirates from Rome.
I had had a bad head cold for ten days and it was almost gone when it came back with a vengeance leaving me in bed for 2days and I could only manage a walk down to the beach and to the Mall by taxi a couple of times during our week there.
In the six months since we had been in Dubai there had been major new building projects with new appartment buildings and shops springing up all over the city.
Dubai is undertaking the largest shopping “Mall of the World” which they say will be bigger and better than any of the hundred other malls already there!

Alan knows all the good and very reasonable places to eat or from where to get take away. We usually opt for Indian fare or Arabic food which we love and his lovely daughter Samantha came to see us all while we were there.
I do feel sorry for the poor Indian workers who work from 6am to 4pm six days a week in the blazing sun but for them they can earn more money than at home and make a difference to their families back home.
Their transport buses have no windows however the local buses are air conditioned as well as the bus shelters which is something as none of the locals use the bus. They all have large 4WDs or fast sports cars.

We travelled on the 5th November to Muscat flying Emirates. The plane was a great distance from the terminal and we were taken by bus after a very lengthy walk. The flight only took 40minutes and they even managed to give us a simple breakfast and serve coffee.

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