To Market To Market

For much of our travel we have been behind ‘the season’ and I can’t tell you the amount of times something has been closed or unavailable because of it. However, now, we are finally in the season! This means we aren’t the only people eating I’m restaurants or wanting to do some activities and something we wanted to do was actually open. This time it was the Ajuna Beach Flea Markets.

Open only on Wednesdays we got to go to the first one of the season meaning that not only did everyone want our business but we had better bargaining power. The markets were placed between the palm trees right next to the beach so we spent our time wandering through the hundred or so stalls that where there. Many of them were selling the typical touristy goods such as ali-baba pants or Jewellery but we did find a few selling something different. Dad discovered that you could pledge money to buy a village a few chickens and we walked past a hippy trying to sell us trance music.

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As we continued on the bargaining and pushy market stall owners got a bit much as they would crowd you, grand at your arms ams tell you to come to their shop next. Many times we heard them say ‘you give me good luck – first customer of the day – buy anything for 50 rupees’. We did get some bargains but it wasn’t long before we retreated to a shady beach front bar to compare our shopping and bargaining.

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With our shopping out of the way we walked down Ajuna Beach which was full of Russian, German and Indian holiday makers that had all arrived on the first charter plane of the season. We snuggled in amongst them on some sunbeds and spent the rest of the morning dipping in the ocean, reading and of course sipping drinks. Its easy to see why this is the place people come for a holiday.

It was nice to check out another beach and get my shopping fix but I much prefer the quieter beaches of Palolem or Candolim. Even Calangute that is a package deal paradise is a bit more quiet. Maybe having the season start isn’t the best thing ever!

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Old Spice

After saying goodbye to Mish and Hamish it was only a couple of hours before we met up with more company – this time in the form of my parents. Needless to say I was very excited to see them and after the hello hugs and kisses (and a few happy tears) we settled down with a Kingfisher beer to catch up. They had just finished a week long trip around the Golden Triangle (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur) before making their way down to Calangute, Goa. The catch up continued as we walked along the beach for another amazing sunset and then had a delicious seafood dinner with a few more celebratory drinks.

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The next day was also a pretty exciting day as it was James’s birthday. He woke to presents and cards from friends and family and then got treated to a cake with candles that Mum had brought all the way from home. James wasn’t the only one to get pressies as I received a big care package full of my favourite Australian food which meant we had heaps of Lollies and chips to add to the celebration. It was a pretty good start to the day. The rest of it was spent in true Goa style – relaxing by the pool, reading and grazing on food while sipping beers and cocktails. Followed by an evening walk along the beach for sunset where James tested his new Polariod camera and we watched the locals play beach cricket. We went out for a meal and a few drinks to celebrate and on the way home met a taxi driver who said he would take us to Old Goa.

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The next day our driver, Vas, picked us up and we set off for our day out. As far as taxi drivers go, Vas was the most enthusiastic we had ever come across and immediately nicknamed my parents ‘John the Baptist’ and ‘Jennifer Lopez’. He couldn’t stop talking to us and telling us about the history of Goa, his life there and then asking us lots of questions about ourselves. It made for a pretty interesting drive but by the time we got to our first stop we were all a little ready for some peace and quiet. Old Goa is found a bit further inland and had a cluster of different churches giving it the nickname ‘the Rome of the East’. We first visited the Se de Santa Catarina which is the largest in Old Goa and would have been even more impressive on the inside if all the gold hadn’t been chipped off the sculptures and the paintings hadn’t been stolen. We then went into the Basillica of Bom Jesus which was a huge building and high on the tourist route as we had to scramble through the many other tourist there trying to glimpse the remains of St Francis Xavier that were left on display. Finally we drove to our final view of the Church of Our Lady of the Mount which wasn’t open but did provide some spectacular views across old Goa.

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From there we had the options to visit some temples or head to a Spice Plantation. We opted for the spice plantation as by this stage we had all seen our fair share of temples and churches. We went there via a cashew factory where we saw how they treated, peeled, sorted and flavoured fresh cashews. It looked like repetitive work as we watched women on machines peddaling and pushing to peel the cashews and then more flicking them into different piles for sorting. We of course got a taste test and then couldn’t resist buying a bag as they were crunchy and fresh with a yummy coating.

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When we arrived at the Spice Plantatiom we saw three big elephants at the entrance way so we rushed over to snap a couple of photos. Mum slipped them a few rupees and got to get up close and give one a big pat on the trunk. They were trained and we could have gone for a ride but as they were chained up only under a flimsy tarp we weren’t sure about the welfare of them and decided to let them rest. We headed across a footbridge over to the main reception where we were welcomed with a herbal tea full of some of the spices they grew there. Once we had finished we where lead off on a tour of the gardens where they grew the spices. Our tour guide made it a guessing game giving us samples to smel or taste to help us decide what each one was. As a cook that uses mostly pre packaged seasoning and rarely uses herbal remedies I was rubbish at guessing most of them but I dedinately learned a little along the way. Once we finished our tour we helped ourselves to the lunch that was included and of course it was one of the most spicy and flavoursome meals I have had on my trip. We also tried Fenni which is a cashew liquor made from the apple of the cashew plant. It was extremely potent and smelt horrible but the taste wasn’t too bad. Its not my favourite drink ever but we are glad we tried it.

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We really enjoyed our day out to Old Goa but as the hot day continued we felt the pull back to the pool at the hotel and decided to head home. It wouldn’t be a holiday in Goa without an afternoon at the pool!

Palolem – the Place to Goa

We had a few days from our time in Kerala before meeting up with my parents in North Goa so we decided we would check out the South of the sunny state. We were also lucky that our itinerary aligned with Mish and Hamish’s so we had two great partners in crime for some relaxing days by the beach. I was excited to head to Palolem because it was famous for its relaxed backpacker vibe and its beach front coco-huts but when we arrived we found out we were a week behind the peak season (again) and they weren’t built yet. We settled for a little room as close to the beach as we could and went to explore.

As we wandered down the beach and discovered it was a little bay with palm trees leaning towards the sun, bars and restaurants lining the beach and of course just to remind us where we were a herd of cows wandering the waterfront. We had a day before the others arrived so we spent it checking out the place which mostly included relaxing on the beach, taking shelter from the sun in a beach side bar followed by a bit more relaxing on the beach.

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At the end of a very hard day we headed back to our tiny room to freshen up before dinner and we realised being as close to the beach in super cheap accommodation (£2 a night) wasn’t what it cracked up to be. There where plenty of mozzies sharing our room with no mosquito net to fend them off and a centrepede hanging out in our shower. If this wildlife wasn’t enough after we checked out our very stained bed and mattress we found what looked sucpisciously like bed bugs. Needless to say that was enough for us and half an hour later our bags were packed, we’d hiked along the beach with them and settled into a gorgeous guest house that was a bit more expensive ( a massice £6 a night) but much cleaner and much more welcoming. With that stress out of the way we made our way to find food and we realised we where tucked right behind the main drag – an even better reason to be closer to town and away from the beach.

The next morning we were very well rested before heading out to see more of Palolem. Even though it is pretty relaxed and chilled out it is also very touristy and therefore has many restaurants that cater towards English tourists. So for breakfast I treated myself to Heinz Baked Beans on toast and a cup of Tetley Tea. It was heaven! The rest of the day was spent with more time at the beach before Mish and Hamish arrived. Once they arrived it was time for a drink and dinner and we found a place with tables in the sand so we could eat while listening to the sound of the waves. We all ate meals with fresh seafood picked from a tray and drank and ate while we caught up on each others travels from when we had seen them last.

We did break our relaxing routine the next morning when Mish, James and I headed to a drop in yoga class. I’ve done a few yoga moves in a class here or there but never a dedicated class and it was James’s first time too so we where not quite sure how we would go. Our instructor Kishnan was as hippy as you could be with long hair and baggy clothes and he took us up to the rooftop of his house where we layed out mats and waited for the rest of the class. People arrived slowly and there would have been about 15 of us with all different experiences in the class. As we went through all the movements I was enjoying the class because it seemed like a good stretch out and a pretty relaxing way to start the morning. We then started on a few harder moves that us as novices couldn’t really do and yoga started to seem a lot harder then I had originally thought and since we where in the front row Kishnan could easily come along and adjust it so it was right and therefore harder. Overall I really enjoyed the class and will probably try again but I have certainly changed my view of it as a good ‘ol stretch.

Yoga was followed by brunch, and then of course the beach and then mandatory drink at our favourite bar in the midafternoon. To keep with our active morning we had an active afternoon as we decided to rent canoes and paddle across to a little island on the end of the bay. James and my canoing is about as good as our rowing in Pokhara and there were a few times we steered off course but in the end we made it out to the island. We jumped out and had a swim as all that canoing was hard work! We had aimed to be out there for sunset and it was slowly setting behind the island. Unfortunately our canoeing rental time didn’t allow for us to hang around so we paddled back and watched the sunset while we swam in the water instead.

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The next morning was both our last day in Palolem but luckily for James and I we had ten relaxing days in North Goa ahead of us. We were up bright and early but thankfully not for a bus or train but for a dolphin watching boat ride. We were promised that if we didn’t see dolphins we didn’t pay so we where pretty confident we would see one and we where right! We saw four dolphins swimming along trying to catch soe fish from the schols of sardines we saw. At first they where pretty far away and our glimpse was brief but our boat drive tracked them down and we saw them pretty close up for a few minutes. We where then take on a tour of different beaches on the islands before heading back to shore. Even though it was am early start it was a great way to begin the day.

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We had a delicious brunch before all jumping on a local bus up to the train station where we said farewell to Mish and Hamish and continued on to Calangute. If the rest of our experience in Goa is as good as our days in Palolem we will have a fantastic 10 days!

Multicultural Kochi

Our final stop in the state of Kerala was Fort Kochi. It was less relaxed then our other stops but that only meant we had more to visit and explore.

We turned up in Kochi and headed to a home stay recommended by the guidebook. It was a cute welcoming place set in a residential area. We were welcomed in with handshakes, pieces of chocolate cake and tea before we got shown to our room. The word room is a broad term for what could be described as a bamboo shack. It was a pretty swish shack with comfortable bed and western bathroom (with a tap and bucket shower) so it was definitely an experience. We were on the top floor in amongst the tree tops so it was nice and cool in the room. We were also next to the roof top area complete with hammock so it was a perfect place to stay.

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After we settled in we headed out to explore Fort Kochi which was one of the most multicultural places I have ever visited. We started our day by walking along the beach and past the Chinese fishing nets. They are left there from the 1400’s and while there are many other ways to catch fish nowadays they still get used occasionally. Luckily for us as we were wandering by we saw four men using them so we got to see how they worked. From there we wandered along the sea front past market stalls selling fresh fish and other trinkets and along to the St Francis Church. Built back in 1503 during the Portugeuse reign, it is believed to be India’s oldest European church. The church is just one of many scattered through Kochi.

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One of the other main sights in town is the Santa Cruz Basillica which unfortunately was closed off to us due to preparations for a procession. We decided to take cover from the heat of the day in a little cafe called Teapot. It was cute little kitchsy cafe with a to die for chocolate cake so it was easy to spent some time in there. Next on our to do list was the Bishops House and the Indo-Portuguese Museum. The museum hosts many religious artefacts from the period of Portuguese rule and we wandered around looking at their beautifully carved wooden crosses and bejewelled head dresses. The friendly curator told us about the special locks that were placed in the doors that each have a symbol of each religion on it so that people from all different faiths knew they were welcome inside. It was not only a really interesting design but such a great idea for tolerance and I was so glad that he had explained it to us.

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We stuck around in town long enough to view the procession. We had been told it would start between 4.45 and 5.30pm so we found a cafe with a second floor window space and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally as the sun had just gone down at about 6.45 we saw the first part of the procession. We watches for about an hour as different groups from the church walked in two lines down the road dressed in their best finery singing and praying. It was interesting for the first few minutes but after a while I used it as a fashion show, checking out all the different sari’s and picking my favourite. The parade was finished off with a long and loud firework display that we watched from the second story of another cafe. The waiter then told us that this had been happening every day for 10 days and this was the final night. It may not have been the most thrilling of processions but I was glad we got to see it on the final night.

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The following day our multicultural tour continued and we hired a rickshakw driver for a few hours. First stop on our tour was Kerala’s biggest laundry where we saw people washing clothes by hitting them against stones, drying them in fields and fields of clotheslines before ironing them with a 6kg iron full of hot coals. It was all a bit of a process really and as much as I hate doing my washing I’m thankful its only wacked in a machine and dryer.

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From there we were taken to Mattancherry which was home to the spice markets. He took us to a few of the larger shops before taking us to a ginger factory. We could smell it even before we got out of the rickshaw and we walked in to find it drying in the sun. We were then shown the sorting room where women were sitting flicking bits of ginger into different piles by hand. It looked like a long and laborious process and I didn’t envy their job for a second.

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Next stop was a Jain temple and was one of the only Hindu temples we have been allowed in to visit. I had to wear a shawl over my shoulders and we had to leave our bags and shoes behind but it was worth it to go in and have a wander. We went from that temple to the Synagogue which was closed due to a Jewish holiday so unfortunately we didn’t get to go in there. We did have a quick wander around the un-politically correct named streets of Jew Town. The area is famous for is linen and tailoring but the streets are also lined with the usual touristy kind of shops. From there we were shown a few more temples on our way out to see the fishermen at work. By this stage it was steaming hot and we were a bit temple out so we decided to leave the tour there and retreat to somewhere cooler. We headed to the waterfront for some cool sea breeze via the Dutch cemetary filled with bodies of soldiers and workers from the time of Dutch rule.

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The next day we skipped the cultural stuff of churches and museums and instead caught the ferry over to the mainland to go shopping. We had lost or used up a few supplies along the way and thought we may be lucky to find them in one of the malls. It seemed to us however that all that malls were filled with mobile phone shops. After visiting three and having no luck and also attempting to wander through the markets we gave up and headed back to Fort KochI to relax in a cafe before our overnight train that evening.

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After a few days of relaxing on a beach or house boat Kochi was a pleasent reminder of a hustly city filled with things to see. It was good to get off our bums and walk around and sight see for a change especially when it is a town filled with places of all different places and religions. It may not be the most picturesque place we visited in Kerala but it was definitely the most interesting.

Botel

Our next stop, Alleppey, is known as the Venice of India due to its location on canals. Well I’ve been to Venice and I would have to say the similarities end there. Alleppey is one of the gateways to Keralas famous backwaters and many people use it as transit stop before heading off on a rice barge houseboat. We were no different and as soon as we arrived planned our house boat to depart as soon as possible. The rest of the day was spent wandering the canals and watching another sunset from the beach. Alleppey was a nice town but we were glad we were heading off the next day.

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We were directed to our boat, Baselel, at around midday and were pleased to find it had a clean roomy bedroom, a sundeck and comfy couch chairs on the lower deck that we could relax on. We set of soon after and as we sipped our welcome lemonade drinks we gazed out the side of our boat at the many other rice barges along the way. No two are the same with some the size of huge floating palaces or some smaller like ours. There were modern boats with flatscreen tv’s and satellite dishes and others that were more traditional. We even saw a couple in the process of being made. When I could tear my eyes from the other boats and looked at the scenery I as treated to swaying palmtrees, rice fields and little villages tucked behind the canal walls. We saw fishermen in their canoes, women cleaning clothes against the rocks and young kids swimming in the shallows. Everytime we passed another boat everyone would wave and shout hello. There was so much to look at I didn’t realise we had already been going for two hours when we stopped for lunch.

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Three meals were included in our package and as we were served up a feast we were told that it was all local produce. The fish was caught from the lake we had just crossed and the rice was from the fields behind us. The food was fresh and tasty and I am getting more and more used to eating seafood. We were absolutely stuffed at the end of it and were thankful that all we had to do was spend the rest of the afternoon lazing around.

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Later in the day we had the option of stopping at a local fish market to pick out our own fresh produce for them to cook. The ‘market’  was actually a
shack on the side of the canals but when we asked to see some prawns we were shocked. The owner picked up what could only be described as a medium sized lobster to show us an example of a king prawn. I’m not even exaggerating. We opted for getting eight or so smaller king prawns (which were definitely king size) to have cooked with our dinner.

Not long after we stopped it was time to dock and as we pulled up to the side of a canal we watched the sunset from our top sun deck. It was cool and breezy up there and we spent dusk just chatting and reading in the breeze. Unfortunately after the sun went down there wasn’t too much to do except eat our dinner, read and relax as we tried fight off the bugs attracted to the lights. This would have to be the only downside of the experience as we spent our evening a little bored after so much relaxing. Its a weird thing to complain about I know, but when you can’t really get off the boat and explore there isn’t much else to do!

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The next morning we set off early to make it back to Alleppey. Once we were sailing again we thought we could have done another day since it was so much fun and we were a bit bummed it was all over too quickly. We had a great time on our house boat with our friendly and helpful crew and I can see why it is one of the most popular things to do and the experience is near the top of the favourites list!

Sunsets

With three quick flights from Kathmandu we arrived in the south of India to Thiruvananthapuram (I know what a mouthful). Even though we arrived in the early hours of the morning we decided to jump in a taxi to take us to the nearby beach town of Varkala. We thought it would be nicer to wake up at the beach rather then a transit capital but as we arrived at our hostel via tiny dirt roads I wasnt so sure. Thankfully when we woke up the next morning and went into town we discovered we had made the right choice as Varkala was stunning in the light of day.

Set on top of a cliff the main strip was filled with restaurants, shops and ayuravedic health centres all looking out into the ocean. We wandered along until we found somewhere we wanted to eat and had a delicious breakfast overlooking the blue sky and rolling sea. After our meal had to wander to find an ATM. We got a bit lost in the process and spent 45 minutes wandering the local town. The whole place just had a great relaxed and friendly atmosphere – even the men wore sarongs rather than trousers. The locals would greet you with a smile, the streets were cleaner and the houses in better shape. James then told me it may be because it is a communist state but I just think its because they have a beautiful place to live. We spent the rest of the day was spent at the beach under an umbrella with a few paddles in the sea.

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A beach in India is so different then those in Oz or Europe. For staters they are still modest when swimming and go in with most of their clothes on which made me feel scandalous in my one piece and sarong. Also it was surprising that while many people come to wander in the sand and watch the sunset very few of them do actually swim. Which is lucky because the lifeguards are tubby fellows relaxing under an umbrella that simply blow their whistles if someone is too far out.  The beach we were at is also used for rituals for family’s to say farewell to their lost loved ones. We saw many families wandering at the waters edge, holding hands and praying.

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As the sun was setting over the ocean we retired to a beachfront restaurant to have a drink. We ordered a beer not knowing that the restaurant wasn’t licensed and ended up with a teapot and mugs filled with a warm Kingfisher quickly bought from an off licence. It wasn’t the most refreshing way to end the day but the novelty of drinking a beer from a teapot and watching a stunning sunset was a great experience. It was the first of many gorgeous sunsets we watched at the beach and we weren’t alone. It seemed that most of the locals would come down just to sit and stare like we did. Including the local puppies who tried to come close and snuggle or play. Sadly due to risk of rabies we couldn’t play or cuddle but it seems at even in Kerala the dogs are friendlier.

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After our first relaxing sun and sea filled day we got into a rhythm of waking up late, casually eating breakfast, days at the beach, evenings playing cards or reading in our hotel lounge followed by a delicious meal on the cliffside. And delicious all our meals were. There was no shortage of choice for places to eat as we wandered the cliffside we passed many restaurants with their daily fresh seafood on ice outside. You could choose which fish (including shark) or check out the size of the prawns before making your choice. I’m not a big seafood eater but as they say – when in Rome and each night I tried to eat something local and fresh. I had an amazing tiger prawn curry (the prawns were more like mini lobsters they were so big) and delicious calamari rings. I didn’t branch out far enough for the shark though. Kerala is also known for its coconut flavoured meals and cashew production so you can find many options with these on the menu’s. James tried coconut porridge and it is a new favourite along with the cashew biscuits we stumbled across.

We started to lose a bit of time and after four nights I realised we hadn’t done anything we planned to do – no ayurvedic massages, no cooking classes and no further exploration to other beaches – so I decided on a day trip to Kollam. About 30 minutes by train Kollam sounded like another beach side town but with a spice market and lake nearby. Once we arrived we headed over to the rickshaw stand and got asked to be taken to the spice bazaar. None of the drivers knew what we were talking about and perhaps we should have taken that as a sign but we forged ahead. Once we got there the Mukkada Bazaar recommended by the lonely planet was literally just a local market made of rusty ramshakle huts selling pieces of meat covered in flies, fruit and some spices. Many locals were doing there shopping there and it was obvious that foreigners didn’t drop by often because nearly everyone said hello to us or came to the front of their stall to stare. It was still interesting to see a local market but was very different from what we had expected. I guess that’s why we shouldnt always take advice from a four year old guidebook.

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From there we set about trying to find the Ashtamudi Lake as it was apparently the gateway to the backwaters. We jumped in another rickshaw and asked to be taken to the lake. There was a bit of confusion, pointing at the guiebook and discussions in Hindi and English but we thought we got there in the end. 45 minutes later we only just arrived at a random resort in the backwaters. It wasn’t really what we were expecting but they did have a floating restaurant so we stayed there and relaxed over lunch and drinks looking out into the water. It was a fairly scenic place to view the lake but since it was so far away that was pretty much all we could do before having to had back to Varkala. There was no air con seats on the trains so we were packed into the standard section with the rest of the locals. I didn’t mind as it was only half an hour and there is much more going on in these carriages to look at. That said I’m glad we don’t do our longer journeys in that class – even if that makes me sound snobby.

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After a fairly disappointing day trip we had one last cliffside meal as we were leaving Varkala the next day. It was a perfect place to lose a few days and experience the more relaxed and friendly part of India but it was time to move on and fully explore the famous backwaters.

Kathmandu – Take Two

Before setting off back to India, James and I had a day to spare in Kathmandu and, as neither of us were particularly that enamored with the city, we weren’t sure what to do with ourselves. Thankfully our handy hotel owner came to our rescue and set us up with a day trip out of the city to Nagarkot and Bhatakupar.

The only catch was we had to be up at 3:30am to drive to our first destination. The last time I was awake at that time on a Saturday morning was after a big Friday night out so I wasnt too fussed on the idea. The early morning start was in aid of a second attempt (our first being in Darjeeling) to see the sunrise over the Himalayas. This time we were not disappointed. Even though we arrived groggy and sleep deprived we got to Nagarkot just as the dawn cracked the mountains. We stood at the look out gazing over the snowcapped peakes and shadowed mountain ridge taking it all in. I was glad that we had got up to see this but I didn’t realise it got better. Once the sun actually peeked over ridge the whole place was flooded with sunlight making the scene even more incredible. Watching the sunrise pop out over Mt Everest is pretty breaktaking and might inspire me to wake up earlier more often.

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The next stop on our trip was the city of  Bhaktapur which from what we saw of it looked like a mini Kathamndu. Similar to the capital, Bhaktapur  is centred around their own Dunbar Square filled with temples, shrines and palaces. Getting there only a few hours after sunrise I was surprised to see it already so busy and full of people. Obviously the Nepalease don’t do sleep ins. We wandered through the square visiting several smaller places before hitting the Sun Temple sitting high above the rest of them over a big square. The building  sat above markets of food and produce, trinket sellers and tourist touts, all before 8am. The temple was topped with locals looking out over the city and as we wandered through the rest of town we saw many families and groups saying their prayers at smaller shrines along the way. We often miss this morning ritual so it was really interesting to see their faith in action.

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We were back in Kathmandu by about 10am and collapsed into our beds for a mid day seistsa. Unfortunately neither of us could sleep due to construction noise outside and the heat. The power cut in our guest house (extremely common everywhere) meant we had to retreat elsewhere for a fan and food. We wandered the tourist hub of Thamel and found the Pilgrim Bookstore complete with garden restaurant outside. After wandering through a huge store filled with books, knick knacks and local wares we spent the afternoon relaxed in in their garden. It was the best way to kill the hottest hours – sitting under a fan and snacking on momo’s (a hybrid of dim sum and samosas – they are delicious). As soon as it cooled off we headed back into the hustle and bustle of Thamel and whiled away the hours, and the rest of our Nepalease rupees, doing what I do best – shopping!

It was a great afternoon fornour last one in Nepal, a place that we both really enjoyed, and we were glad to finally get some sleep as we passed out about 8pm. Next stop is Kerala in South India where we plan to hit the beach!