3rd class trains in Thailand

The charm of 3rd class trains in Thailand

Where I come from (Hungary, Central Europe) we find it almost natural that the railway is left to slowly but surely wane. Lines are closed and stations fall into decay. We don’t even have dining cars any more.

Hua Lamphong, the central train station of Bangkok

The railway in Thailand is alive and kicking as it’s still one of the main modes of transport. What’s more, the construction of new lines can be expected in the future thanks to Chinese investment. All this in spite of a busy network of budget airlines and thousands of bus services throughout the country. Low fares must be one of the main advantages for local passengers and it’s something we, travellers, also appreciate. On the other hand, the train rides that can often take half a day or more offer a very special opportunity to know more about Thai people, their customs and even their food.

Why take the train?

I have always thought of the bus as a necessary evil. In my childhood I constantly struggled with motion sickness even on shorter rides – I remember one day I could hardly get off the city bus in time… Later I learnt how to control my breath and other factors but I still prefer to travel by boat, motorbike, bicycle or, better still, by train. And in Thailand there are rails to take you to almost all main attractions (except the islands but you don’t go there by bus anyway).

We got off the plane near Pattaya and we spent the first few days there to get over the jet lag. Many years ago we were lucky enough to try the slowly crawling its way to Kanchanaburi. So when I noticed that Pattaya has its own railway station, there was no doubt how we should get to Bangkok.

The train arrives at Pattaya South.
The train arrives at Pattaya South. There are only 3rd class carriages on this line but it hardly takes longer than the minibus, where you are packed like sardines. Plus you arrive right in the city centre.

Faux leather seats and refreshing breeze

Then when we were heading south the night train came in handy. It takes the adventurous traveller to Chiang Mai in 13 hours, a flash of time really. The only problem is that we don’t like to plan ahead weeks in advance, far from that. But the better seats are taken relatively fast so once again we had to make do with the 3rd class carriage.

Narrow seats with artificial leather upholstery (that stick better than Michelin tyres in the tropical heat), fans buzzing on the ceiling, windows you can fully open and an attentive choice of squat and sit-down toilets.

3rd class carriage travelling between Bangkok and Pattaya
3rd class carriage travelling between Bangkok and Pattaya. You can easily book tickets online in Thailand here.

Suddenly disgusting gutter stench fills the atmosphere of the carriage. I look out and see that we are just passing by a smaller river, so upset by road construction that it no longer knows which way to flow. It doesn’t really flow anywhere. However, filthy water flows into it from all sides because sewerage is still missing. But the vivid green rice fields and the coconut palms soon make us forget the unpleasant experience.

Sawaidee!

The landscape you are leaving behind is well worth the attention but if you get tired of that you still have your fellow passengers. They are mostly simple everyday people, hardly any tourists. You can even catch a glimpse of traditional woven skirts on the north-eastern line. Heading in the other direction towards Malaysia more and more female faces are hidden behind hijabs while men wear the sarong instead of trousers. Thai people are generally smiling and open so it’s not hard to strike a conversation with them. Although language can be a difficulty. This didn’t prevent my son from making friends with two young girls who happened to sit opposite him…

Thai girls on board the train heading south

The trains have a dining car with chairs and tables carefully protected with nylon cover. The chairs are not fixed to the floor; your orders are taken by a smiling waiter and the dishes won’t leave you disappointed…

Oiled business

Finally, there are the hawkers! I have observed how they work – I had plenty of time as it took 18 hours for us to get from Bangkok to Hat Yai, in 3rd class again. 5-6 men and women get on the train with their goods at a larger station and they start moving to and fro between the carriages. Others sell food prepared in the train’s own kitchen. The array of goods is amazing: all types of “fried rice”, the typical Thai fast food, pre-portioned with plastic spoons; the same with pasta; peanuts, home-made rice pudding, cakes, biscuits and fruits served with spicy sugar and quall eggs(!); brightly coloured cold drinks, hot coffee and tea…

Dinner's coming! And people buy everything. Our neighbours were eating almost without stopping and this is contagious...
Dinner’s coming! And people buy everything. Our neighbours were eating almost without stopping and this is contagious…

They keep walking up and down with their boxes, baskets and buckets for two or three hours, offering their goods in a singing voice. As time passes, ice slowly melts in the drinks and hot dishes slowly cool down. As a result, prices start to slowly sink. Then they have reached the level where the seller feels it’s no longer worth carrying their weight around. The remaining drinks end up between the rails and I guess they take home the food for their families.

The train keeps rolling and a new team gets on with fresh stock at the next stop. And I eagerly watch what else I should try.

Luang Prabang – a little Europe in Laos

From a dusty village to a gem of colonial architecture

By slow boat down the Mekong – Arriving in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang and its rivers - the Mekong and the Nam Kham.

Yes, it takes two whole days and you have to travel without much comfort (unless you charter a whole long boat). Still the two-day slow boat ride down the Mekong river is the best way to enter the country in the north from Thailand. It’s a unique opportunity to get a glimpse of village life and you can meet lots of other travellers. After our fabulous first day we continued our journey to Luang Prabang.

One more day on the river

After a quiet night in Pak Beng (or not so quiet for those who spent their time in or close to a bar), the boat departed around 9 in the morning. None of the seats were reserved this time so we could sit wherever we wished. There were Buddhist monks and villagers sitting in the front rows but we found some comfy seats in the middle. (You should go for the front (car) seats as the back seats are much smaller).

Undulating hills by the Mekong
Undulating hills by the Mekong

The landscape was more or less the same as on day one: gentle hills covered by plantations or pristine rainforest with a few villages thrown in for a change. This time we were less lucky with the weather but the occasional rain made the heat more bearable. We made a few stops, where locals hopped on and off and smiling villagers waved to us.

On the second day we had a different boat so I could take a photo of the first one when it overtook us later in the day,
On the second day we had a different boat so I could take a photo of the first one when it overtook us later in the day.
For these kids, the Mekong is their life.
For these kids, the Mekong is the whole world.

The second part of the journey is actually longer and we only arrived after 4 pm. Although we bought the tickets to Luang Prabang, we were dropped some 5 km before the town. Apparently, slow boat owners no longer have the right to use the port right under the Royal Palace. This means an additional tuk-tuk ride (20,000 kip pp) to the centre of town with all the hotels and guesthouses.

The city of the Golden Buddha

Luang Prabang is a real gem, a city with beautifully preserved temples, French colonial architecture and a cultural heritage. All this made it worthwhile to be listed as a World Heritage site back in 1995. The historical centre of Luang Prabang was built on a peninsula, surrounded by the Mekong and its tributary, the Nam Kham. Almost al of the once decaying colonial buildings now house hotels, restaurants, bakeries, bars and art galleries. 

The high street of Luang Prabang at night
The high street of Luang Prabang at night

On arrival Anita stayed in a café (Laotian coffee is world class) while Áron and I looked for some place to stay. It was shocking to realise that Laos is actually more expensive than its western neighbour (somehow I assumed the opposite). And Luang Prabang is probably the priciest of all Laotian cities so we had a hard time. After checking a dozen places, which were either too dingy or out of our price range, I reserved a room on Booking. Villa Luang Sokxay is a pleasant hotel far enough from the main drag to ensure quiet nights yet close enough to the action.

3 things you shouldn’t miss in Luang Prabang

If you only have a few days in this lovely town like we did, you won’t have time to see all the sights in and around Luang Pragang. But if you listen to me, you shouldn’t leave without visiting some of its finest temples, the historical centre and a nearby waterfall.

These young boys live and study in the monastery.
These young boys live and study in the monastery. They usually come from poor families and this is one of the few ways of ensuring a secure life for them.

Nothing can beat the residential buildings and wats of the former Royal Palace (Luang Prabang used to be the capital before the communist takeover in 1975) in elegance. But we also enjoyed the other central Buddhist temples like Wat Siphouthabat Thippharam or Wat Pa Huak. If you don’t mind climbing hundreds of steps, you can enjoy great views of the city and its rivers from the top of Mount Phu Si. This hill has its own monastery, a cave filled with Buddha statues, a gigantic Buddha footprint and a viewpoint on the top.

The elaborate roof of the Royal Palace
The Royal Palace was built with French help in the early 20th century and it was the last Lao king’s home for half a century.

As the French gained control over Laos in the late 19th century, they started to build administrative and residential buildings in the then capital. They imported European technologies and materials but successfully blended them with local and other Asian designs to create a new Laotian architectural style. Most of these buildings still exist and they are nicely restored so keep your head up as you walk the streets in the centre.

A fine example of French colonial architecture
A fine example of French colonial architecture

You like nature? Then the surrounding areas offer just as many attractions to you. We visited in the rainy season so the choice was a bit limited. For example, some of the caves were closed due to high water levels and it wasn’t possible to swim in the ponds under the waterfalls. We still decided to see one of them, Kuang Si, and we didn’t regret it. It’s about 40 minutes by tuk-tuk from the centre of town (we paid 200 thousand kip for the three of us but bargained hard). 

In normal weather conditions you can swim in the pools under the falls. When we visited it looked stunning but nobody wanted to step into the whirling murky water.
In normal weather conditions you can swim in the pools under the falls. When we visited it looked stunning but nobody wanted to step into the whirling murky water.
The flooded stairs leading to the top of the waterfall. It was quite an experience!
The flooded stairs leading to the top of the waterfall. It was quite an experience!

It must be fun to soak in the turquoise blue water but during the monsoon the waterfall is a breathtaking giant. We had a short trek in the jungle, walking around the falls. There was so much water that the stairs were flooded on the way down but it was more fun than risk. Definitely worth the time and the 20 thousand kip entrance fee.

Kuang Si waterfall near Luang Prabang

All in all, I would say that if you see only one place in Laos, it should be Luang Prabang. But why would you leave so fast when the country has so much more to see and experience?

Slow boat down the Mekong

Slow boat ride on the Mekong from the Thai border to Luang Prabang in Laos

Sailing past some awesome landscape

Part 1

Compared to its neighbours, Laos is still relatively less visited. However, due to the shape and geography of the country, there is a tourist trail that most visitors follow. It features most of the must-see sights in Laos from Buddhist temples and colonial cities to waterfalls and caves. And you can start your adventures in this beautiful country on a traditional slow boat ride that takes two exciting days.

 

One of the magical Buddhist temples of Luang Prabang in Northern Laos
One of the magical Buddhist temples of Luang Prabang in Northern Laos

Many tourists choose to start this route in the north after exploring the famous Thai city of Chiang Mai and perhaps the Golden Triangle. Arriving from Bangkok, you can take a night train or bus to Chiang Mai. The most convenient train is No. 9 that leaves Hualumphong Station around 7 pm. When I tried to book our tickets, there were absolutely no seats left so we took the afternoon train. A third class seat set us back only 240 baht. There are also domestic flights connecting the two cities but then it seems more practical to fly directly to Chiang Rai.

A short stop in Chiang Rai

It may be a bit tacky for European eyes but no doubt the Clock Tower in Chiang Rai is a unique sight!
It may be a bit tacky for European eyes but no doubt the Clock Tower in Chiang Rai is a unique sight!

I’d recommend Green Bus to travel on to Chiang Rai (you can also book your tickets online). It costs about 170 baht and takes 4-5 hours. Chiang Rai is much less touristy and much more hassle-free than Chiang Mai but it also offers a few nice sights.

Apart from the recently built White Temple, there are two lovely old Buddhist temples, too, within walking distance from the centre.

If you break your journey here, you should check out the night market with great street food options. We tasted fried larvae with some delicious sauce besides the usual spring rolls and fried rice.

The red bus to Chiang Khong
The relaxing journey in the rickety red buses to Chiang Khong by the Lao border takes you through spectacular landscape.

Take it easy in Chiang Khong

The town itself doesn’t have too many classic tourist attractions to offer. Its location by the mighty Mekong river and the backwater atmosphere still tempts many people to stay bit longer. For those on a tight budget, there is decent street food and Chiang Khong even boasts with its own humble bar strip. We spent two nights at Namkhong Resort and Bungalows (300 baht for a triple room with fan and free use of the resort’s pretty swimming pool).

Family shrine in front of a house in Chiang Khong
Family shrine in front of a house in Chiang Khong
The Mekong with Laos on the other side
The Mekong with Laos on the other side

Across the border to Laos

There is a convenient ferry connecting Thailand with Laos but sadly it is only available for locals. We, foreigners, have to cross the border on the new Friendship Bridge. This means an extra hour’s travel in the morning and higher costs. Many if not all the guesthouses in Chiang Khong offer tickets for the slow boat including transfer to the border and, in some cases, all the way to the pier. It may sound a good deal and most tourists we saw opted for this solution. We don’t fancy the idea of being driven like cattle from one tuk-tuk to the other so we decided to arrange things for ourselves.

If you know the prices, it is actually cheaper this way and certainly feels more independent. Hotels offer the combined ticket for 1250-1500 baht. The trip from Chiang Khong to the pier in Huay Xai cost us 120 baht per person and we got there faster than most others. You can buy the boat tickets at an office on the hillside on the left as you approach the pier for 220,000 kip (880 baht). However, make sure to change money somewhere in Huay Xai first because they’ll charge you 1000 baht if you pay with the Thai currency.

A row of long boats waiting at the pier in Huay Xai, Laos
A row of slow boats waiting at the pier in Huay Xai, Laos

The slow boat

The boat was scheduled for 11.30 am and we could have a quick lunch in a riverside restaurant before departure. We could also buy Laotian kip there but the rate was awful. If I did it again, I wouldn’t exchange more than 100 dollars for three people because there are much better rates in Luang Prabang.

Traditional wooden long boats ply the waters of the Mekong. There are dozens of them in use and they are normally staffed by members of a family, who own the boat and live on it. The captain sits in the front of the boat and there are two rows of seats right behind him. In my experience, locals tend to sit here but we joined them on the first day because most of the better seats were reserved for the ‘package tourists’. We didn’t mind: it was less noisy and fresher than in the back and we had more contact with the villagers.

We were stopping at a small village when I daw some children playing in the water. I took my camera but this girl also noticed me and immediately posed for the photo.
We were stopping at a small village when I daw some children playing in the water. I took my camera but this girl also noticed me and immediately posed for the photo.

There are rows of old car seats in the middle section of the boat, organised pretty much like in a bus. Only these seats are not fastened to the floor! There is a very basic bar and even more Spartan toilet in the back, followed by the engine room and luggage storage (on smaller boats your bags may go under the board in the front). The living quarters of the family occupy the rear section.

The captain of the slow boat takes a break between two long trips.

 

The "tourist section" inside the slow boat with the reused car seats.
The “tourist section” inside the slow boat with the reused car seats.

Remote villages along the way

We had nice sunny weather on the first day with only a few brief showers. The river flows quite fast and there are some scary rapids with sharp rocks so we weren’t bored. Then when we saw our captain was in control we could enjoy the countryside and chat to our neighbours. It takes about 6 hours to reach Pak Beng, where you have to spend the night. You can only buy boxed noodle soup on board the slow boat (and cold beer) so it’s a good idea to buy some take-away in Huay Xai.

The scenery is interesting enough with a few villages along the way. Now and then the boat stops at one of these settlements or just by a rock and people get off and on. Young girls offered handmade jewellery at one village – unfortunately, we had no time to buy anything from them.

These girls were offering hand-made jewellery by the river but they were quite shy and by the time they got closer to the boat it was time to leave.
These girls were offering hand-made jewellery by the river but they were quite shy and by the time they got closer to the boat it was time to leave.

 

For many villagers the boat is still the only way to travel
For many villagers the slow boat is still the only way to travel

Pak Beng

We arrived in Pak Beng about 6 pm. Some days before I checked room prices on the internet but they all seemed way too dear for such a small place. And there is absolutely no need to book in advance. We hardly got off board and we were approached by local kids and their parents, all waving faded photos of their guesthouses. We said yes to two smiling girls and in a minute we were sitting on the back of a van with some other tourists. A triple room only cost 60,000 kip. It was all very efficiently organised: they asked us what we wanted to have for breakfast and take away for lunch the next day, we paid and that was it.

What must have been a sleepy fishing and farming village in the past has become a (budget) traveller’s haven in the past decades. I’m sure 90 percent of the villagers either have a guesthouse or run a restaurant, a bar or a bakery. We had a pleasant dinner (fried rice with buffalo meat) with river view and then retreated to our dingy room for the night.

Bangkok highlights for 2 days

Two relaxed days in Bangkok

Krung Thep as the Thais themselves call it, Bangkok is a beehive of over 8 million people. It is famous for its awe-inspiring shrines and colourful night life, not to mention the bustling markets and other shopping opportunities.

A quick photo at Bangkok's Hualamphong railway station.
A quick photo at Bangkok’s Hualamphong railway station.

We spent only two whole days in the Thai capital this time and it wasn’t easy to choose from the wide array of sights. We don’t like to rush from one place to another so we finally decided to look around the Grand Palace (because our son hasn’t seen it yet) and Chinatown, both in the centre of Bangkok.

No shoulders or knees please!

Tourists will know the complex as the Grand Palace although its official name is Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha). We saw it back in 2000 when my wife and I first travelled to Thailand. We don’t particularly enjoy crowded places (to say the least) but we thought our son should also see the majestic buildings so we paid the hefty 500 Baht each and entered. Well, almost, because we first had to buy a pair of long trousers for Áron, who was wearing shorts. The same thing happens to those arriving in sleeveless tops (only they’ll have to buy a T-shirt).

I thought I'd blend in well with the monkey statues :)
I thought I’d blend in well with the monkey statues 🙂

Visitors are only allowed to see a few of the more than 100 buildings of the complex. The main attraction is clearly the Emerald Buddha and its temple. You can only enter the elaborately ornamented building without your shoes and photography is not strictly forbidden inside. The large room is half empty but the other half is composed in a way that the rich details direct your eyes on the – surprisingly small – green figure sitting on a high platform. Interestingly, the Buddha statue was originally kept in Chiang Rai, where it was accidently discovered after lightning cracked a building.

It was good to see that they spend the tourists' money on the restoration works.
It was good to see that they spend the tourists’ money on the restoration works.

 

A Kinaree majestically stands above the crowds.
If you watch the details, you can find some weird statues on the buildings. The Royal Pantheon (Prasat Phra Thep Bidon) is guarded by the Kinaree (halfd-swan, half-woman creatures, while other buildings are supported by the Hanuman, monkey deities from the Hindu mythology.

If I went again, I’d avoid the whole neighbourhood at the weekend. It can be frustrating when you have to stop every second to let someone take a photo and there are queues even for the dustbin. Also, some of the buildings, like the coronation hall, are only open Monday to Friday.

Bird’s nest soup, anyone?

If you’ve got tired of the hordes of other tourists, take a boat down the Chao Phraya river to Pier 5 (Ratchawong). You are bang in Chinatown, surrounded by another kind of crowd. It is as old as Bangkok itself and one of the largest of its kind in the world.

The busy main road of Yaowarat (Chinatown)
The busy main road of Yaowarat (Chinatown)

During the day it is the gold capital of Bangkok. You can see the golden letters against a red background everywhere. Then there are countless stores selling food products. When the sun goes down some of the streets turn into a night market of clothes, bags and whatever you can imagine.

Chicken for sale in Chinatown
Chicken for sale in Chinatown

Yaowarat in Thai, Chinatown is also famous for its street food and restaurants. We tried a busy eatery across Hotel Royal (we actually had to wait for a table). Professional staff, unexpected but addictive flavours and affordable prices. But you can also try bird’s nest soup or seafood the pricier restaurants.

It doesn't look oexclusive from the outside but the food is excellent just like the service
It doesn’t look exclusive from the outside but the food is excellent just like the service

For a cultural experience, leave the busy streets behind and check out Wat Traimit, the temple of the gold Buddha. It looks like Buddha statue are not made but discovered in Thailand because this 3-meter-tall solid gold figure was also found by accident. All right, the statue itself was there for centuries but nobody knew it was made of gold until it was dropped while being moved. The plaster covering broke and a top tourist attraction was born.

The same building houses a small exhibition about the Buddha statue and a museum about Chinatown on the second floor.

And the Golden Buddha himself
And the Golden Buddha himself. Photography was prohibited but when I saw that everybudy was taking photos with their phones I followed their example.

Breakfast with Buddhist monks

It’s tricky to find a budget room in Bangkok that’s not a cubicle without any windows and so noisy you can’t sleep all night. After a long search I stumbled on a homestay by Wat Sangkathan in the northern Nonthaburi district of the city. For just 10 dollars we had a spacious room with a bathroom and a little terrace. But the main advantage was the location.

Wat Sangkathan is a temple popular with Thai people, who come and spend a few days learning about the teachings of the Buddha. They follow a strict daily routine, which includes that they can only eat once a day before noon. The monks collect food and then share it not only with their disciplines but anyone who turns up in the morning.

 

This is how we ended up having breakfast with all those people in white and orange. Of course, donations are appreciated. At the weekend there is even a small market with a large range of homemade products and fruits and very friendly prices.

Coffee, tea and fruit juices were available for free at the temple all day and you could also get drinks with curative effects
Coffee, tea and fruit juices were available for free at the temple all day and you could also get drinks with curative effects

The temple complex offers a quiet retreat after the craze of Bangkok. There’s a large pond full of enormous catfish, a dream of any fisherman (but be warned, fishing is not allowed). We saw turtles and a giant lizard, too.

Leaving Bangkok

Our plan was to go north to Chiang Rai from the capital but because we dislike buses we chose to take a train to Chiang Mai first. Thai Railways has a very useful website where you can book tickets online. Just make sure you buy your ticket days ahead as the popular lines fill up very quickly. We only got third class tickets one day before departure for the 14-hour journey. The seats were not designed to fit the average European but there were empty seats most of the time so we survived. We loved the restaurant in the train and all the food offered by locals between the stations.

A glimpse of Doha, Qatar

20 hours in sizzling Doha, Qatar

Emblem of the city over one of its main roads

 

It was just by accident that we spent (nearly) a day in Doha. I was desperately looking for reasonable flight tickets to any exciting destination all April and May and I almost gave it up. Then I found this special offer by Qatar Airlways (no, this is not a paid advertisement) to Thailand. The only drawback was the duration: 32 hours in total from Budapest to Pattaya. This meant arriving in Doha at midnight and get on the next flight 20 hours later.

The original plan was to spend a few hours at the airport and spend the day in the city, saving the cost of the hotel room. Then a well-travelled friend advised us that you get a free night’s stay (or even 2 nights) at a 4 or 5 star Doha hotel if you have a long stopover. I checked the official website of the airline and within 3 minutes we had a night booked in the Holiday Inn. Not one but two rooms absolutely free.

I can fully recommend this option if you don’t mind arriving a little later at your destination. Just make sure you contact the hotel about the free transfer (part of the offer in case of 4-star hotels) before you travel. We didn’t book a shuttle so we had to take a taxi (70 riyals or 20 US dollars).

Warm welcome

The first thing that struck me (apart from the mile-long queue at immigration) was how kind and helpful people are in Doha. This includes airport staff (except maybe immigration officers), hotel reception, shop assistants, museum staff and people at restaurants. Perhaps it’s only because I come from a post-Communist country where politeness towards customers isn’t necessary the norm but all three of us noticed immediately.

Road on an artificial island with the skycrapers of Doha in the background
Road on an artificial island with the skycrapers of Doha in the background

Of course, we couldn’t wake up early so our sightseeing walk coincided with the hottest part of the day. It was around 45 Celsius but we didn’t want to start spending our bucks on the first day of our holiday so we walked. If you do the same, take some water with you and cover your head. Sunscreen is also a good idea. Most stores have AC and there is quite a lot of shade so you’ll survive.

A museum you shouldn’t miss

There are three places I’d like to recommend in Doha. The first one is the Museum of Islamic Art, a modern building situated on its own artificial island. The building itself a feast for the eyes with its square blocks curiously forming a dome not unlike that of a mosque. And the two openings on the top resemble the head of an Arabic woman wearing a chador.

The museum seen from the port
The museum seen from the port
The dome of the museum rethinks ancient mosques
The dome of the museum rethinks ancient mosques

The space inside is no less impressive. The exhibition halls are arranged on three floors around the open interior so that you can walk around the dimly lit rooms. The principle of “less is more” is perfectly applied here so each object receives the attention they deserve. There are carpets, tiles and various everyday objects created in the Islamic world from Spain to China. Some of them are more than a thousand years old.

An ancient bazaar

You can spend hours lost in the mazes of the bazaar
You can spend hours lost in the mazes of the bazaar

The second must-see sight is Souq Waqif, probably the oldest remaining part of Medieval Doha. In contrast with most of the buildings you can see in the capital today, the alleys full of little shops recreate the atmosphere of a world gone by. Sure, it’s touristy and way too clean compared to Damascus or Jerusalem but you can spend an hour or two browsing or shopping. The streets are shaded, which is a huge advantage in the summer months.

Tickle your palate

And, finally, let me recommend a friendly South Indian restaurant located about 20 minutes’ walk from the Corniche (and the two sights above). If you just desire a snack, you can (hardly) choose from the range of super sweet cakes on display in the bakery section. But if you are after something more substantial, the restaurant offers a fine selection of spicy South Indian fare. We loved the vegetarian aloo gobi masala and the Rayroth chicken curry. It’s also great value for money as the three dishes with steamed rice, water and coffee cost only 80 riyal (23 USD).

Visitors take a break in the lounge of the museum
There are many other places to have a drink or a meal – even in the museum.

All in all, Doha with its unique sights and friendly inhabitants was a very pleasant kick-off for our holidays and we’ll be happy to return for another round on our way home.

Two long days in Aceh, Sumatra

Are we there yet?

We had our first glimpse of Indonesia on our first trip to the Far East and we started with one of the less popular islands, Sumatra. We only had 12 days, barely enough to make quick stops at four distinct destinations: a volcanic lake, the top of an active volcano, the bustling capital of Aceh and a real tropical paradise, the Island of Weh.

More pages from an old travel diary…

Tuesday 11th July 2000

It’s Tuesday today, the first day of a long and not the least pleasant journey. The entire trip can be divided into 7 smaller sections, the half of which takes place today.

After breakfast (not porridge for a change) the minibus transformed from a pickup to suit the high local demands sets off from Iboih to Sabang, the port of Weh, with a little delay (this word will gain special importance later on). Following an hour’s jolting ride, spent sweating and sticking to one another, we are dropped at the ferry, 20,000 rupiah poorer.

We suffered at this place for three days and our bungalow even boasted with a bathroom - the others had their bath at the public well...
We suffered at this place for three days and our bungalow even boasted with a bathroom – the others had their bath at the public well…

We no longer worry about the timetable just wait in the shade patiently. We have a few words with an elderly man, whose hobby is to collect tourists’ addresses and coins from their countries. He proudly shows us his collection and gets a 100 forint coin from us.

Unlike when we arrived here, we now settle down on the upper board with the captain’s special permission. It’s certainly better than the smelly and crowded lower deck but it’s also stifling hot. Luckily, it’s only 2 hours to the mainland!

A short break in the capital of Aceh province

You can take a minibus to Banda Aceh from the port. We quickly hop into one and it leaves within fifteen minutes.

We kind of feel at home in Banda Aceh now; everybody says hello and shakes our hands, etc. We find an internet cafe and get up-to-date with our letters and then head to the CFC (next to a Burger Queen). We try to buy some souvenirs to get rid of our remaining rupiah but only find some basic stuff.

At the time Aceh was far from being a tourist destination. The province had been suffering from civil war conditions for years as the local community wished to become independent, which the central government didn’t quite support. We were chatting with a young Acehnese man by Lake Toba and he said we were in the middle of a half-year ceasefire. It was enough for us to go. Then the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 abruptly ended the fights but it demanded the lives of more than 170,000…

Baiturrahman Grand Mosque in Banda Aceh is arguably one of the most beautiful of its kind in Indonesia and the symbol of Acehnese culture and nationalism.
Baiturrahman Grand Mosque in Banda Aceh is arguably one of the most beautiful of its kind in Indonesia and the symbol of Acehnese culture and nationalism.

We take two becaks to the bus station, where we find the bus to Medan after a little search. It is indeed a luxury bus with large comfy seats and even seat belts.

We set off and it all goes fine until…

Wednesday 11th July

…until the driver hits a huge pothole somewhere between Aceh and Medan (it’s not hard, there are plenty of them) and it destroys one of the tyres. However, they decide to carry on after a short examination and discussion. It’s only in the car park of a petrol station some time after 5 that we learn from one of the passengers why they didn’t change the wheel. It’s because they’d lent the spare wheel to another bus. Right now we’re waiting for yet another one to fit its spare wheel on ours.

The rescue bus finally arrives and we can get going again at 6.30. By the way, we were supposed to arrive in Medan at 8 the latest in our “nonstop express bus” to catch the free ride to the ferry.

Meat for sale - in one of the small towns where we stopped for a coffee.
Meat for sale – in one of the small towns where we stopped for a coffee.

All’s well that ends well

It turns out that we have another 80 km ahead of us, which means a good 2 hours in this part of the world. Two nerve-wrecking hours for us. At 8 it becomes clear that we’ll miss the bust to the port so now we pray to get there at least by 9 and somehow reach the ferry, scheduled at 10.

At 9.30 the bus finally stops somewhere in the outskirts of Medan and we get off. After a mild physical insult of the driver (Anita, the little spitfire), we get in a taxi.

Although we clearly explain to the cab driver that our ferry sails at 10 and he should hurry, he drives as if we were on a sightseeing trip. At last we reach the port at 10.10, park and then run to the gate. Of course, we didn’t miss anything and still have to queue for half an hour.

To our surprise, this boat doesn’t swing up and down like mad and nobody vomits. In only 5 hours we are back in Malaysia.

 

Trouble in Sulawesi

Arriving at the land of Torajas. Rantepao, Sulawesi

For twenty years I kept diaries of all of our travels before I switched to using a computer. So now I have hundreds of pages full of experienced, good and not so good. I’ll randomly pick a day each time and add a photo or two. And I hope some of you guys will also find it interesting to read…

Wednesday 25th July 2001

It was a day we basically spent doing nothing but lazing. Well, OK, we took some breaks when it got really boring.

The bus pulls in at Rantepao at 5 am and we have the first bad sign even before arrival: it is pelting down with rain. Then it suddenly clears out so we walk to the hotel but it starts drizzling again once we get there. A huge, frightening beetle is eyeing us on the wall of our room, kind of warning us of what’s going to happen.

We lie down to have a nap and wake again only around 10. It’s still raining heavily so we go back to sleep. It then goes on like this until around 2 pm: I’m reading and Anita keeps sleeping. Then our hunger defeats our laziness and it gets clearer once again so we set off to find a rumah makan (restaurant). It would be nice to get over the hurdle of buying our bus tickets so we check one of the ticket offices. Our destination is Tentena, in the central part of Sulawesi.

The traditional ornament of a Toraja house near Rantepao in the southern part of Sulawesi
The traditional ornament of a Toraja house near Rantepao in the southern part of Sulawesi

Recalculating

They stare at as is we were completely mad and just shake their head. Then the woman in the 3rd office finally tells us nobody will take us there now. Christians and Muslims are busy killing each other in the central part of the funnily shaped island and the government has announced a state of emergency. But we already have our plane tickets from Manado (in the north) back to Jakarta! The only way by road is to take a huge detour via Palo. This way we’ll definitely have to forget about the Togeans (tropical paradise) and spend at least 3 days in some rickety bus – wonderful prospects.

We still have our appetite so we enter a friendly-looking restaurant. We try tamarillo juice and it’s worth every rupiah. Our lunch is gado-gado (a rich salad with boiled eggs and lots of peanuts on top). Then we head back to the hotel to find out what to do next.

The dollar takes a dive (we don’t)

In the meantime we find out that we only get 9,200 rupiahs foa a dollar in the town, which is around 15% less than what we would have got in Makassar. And we were stupid enough to forget to exchange there… So our new plan is to return to Makassar and from there we can still take a bus up to Palo. And perhap’s we’ll have a better chance to find a decent bus than here in the middle of nowhere.

Off we go and quickly buy the tickets (for Friday) and then we order a motorbike for tomorrow at one of the travel agencies for 60 thousand (6 dollars). Dinner is at another restaurant, where they surprise us with a fruit salad. It’s delicious but it’ll cause us problems tomorrow… It rains again in the night.

Day trek to the Zawrat, High Tatras

A challenging day trek crossing the Eagle’s Path in the Polish High Tatras

Starting point: Five Lakes Valley Refuge (1673 m)
Highest point: Zawrat Pass (2158 m)
Destination: Murowaniec Refuge (1500 m)
Total distance: ~8 km
Net duration: 3 h (highly dependent on the weather and your fitness)
Difficulty: medium-hard

The Five Lakes Valley under waves of cloud
The Five Lakes Valley under waves of cloud

 

Thanks to the network of high mountain refuges in the Polish High Tatras, you can easily make shorter or longer treks between the valleys and ridges. As I mentioned earlier, most of the hiking trails are in use on this side of the border though you definitely need proper winter equipment.

If you arrange to stay in the two mountain refuges at the two ends of this trek, it can be done in half a day. However, if you don’t want to sleep on the mountain, you’ll have to calculate with around 4 extra hours to reach the starting point and then get back to civilization at the end. Even then it is perfectly doable in one day.

After a sleepless night

We stayed in the Five Lakes Valley refuge (Schronisko Pięciu Stawów). This is one of the 8 similar hostels located in the Polish Tatras and the one that lies at the highest altitude. This time there was a huge crowd and people were sleeping everywhere: on the floor, on tables, on the window sills, in the corridors and even in the tourists’ kitchen. Unfortunately, some guys didn’t have a sense of time and kept chatting by a table after midnight when we all wanted to sleep…

The inviting refuge on the bank of a frozen lake in the Five Lakes Valley
A home for trekkers in the Five Lakes Valley

It was a short night but we felt surprisingly fresh and fit at 6.15 when the noise woke us. The thermometer showed -19 °C outside the house. It is not generally that cold but you can expect around -10 degrees on an average winter day.

Yellow and blue to the Zawrat

From the house, you follow the yellow (and only) trail on the right hand side of the lake. This section is fairly easy as you gradually gain altitude. You can enjoy the view of the lakes as you pass them and the ridge of spiky peaks that separate the Five Lakes Valley from the valley of Morskie Oko.

As usual, the path does not follow the same line in winter as in summer but it’s hard to get lost. You walk past two fork-offs on the right: first the black trail leading to Kozi Wierch and then the yellow to Kozi Pass. If you carry on, you soon see the signpost showing the direction to Zawrat (blue trail).

Just another 85 minutes to the top (or more)
Just another 85 minutes to the top (or more)

This is where the harder part of the ascend starts and the last 1 km to the top can easily take more than an hour in the snow. After a short stop for a photo (or dozens of photos in good weather) you continue steeply downhill on the other side of the ridge. Zawrat is the point where the famous Eagle’s Path (Orla Perć) starts and intrepid trekkers venture on it even in winter. But don’t forget that this king of trekking paths is dangerous even in ideal summer conditions so think twice before turning right.

The view from just under the Zawrat Pass
The view from just under the Zawrat Pass

Downhill

Before you start descending carefully along the steep path into the valley, take a look at the Madonna statue in the rock face on the right. It was placed there by priest Walenty Gadowski, father of the Eagle’s Path, to commemorate the successful completion of the path in the early 20th century.

Our happy team on the Zawrat Pass
Our happy team on the Zawrat Pass

Yes, it’s tiring for your knees and thighs but within an 25 minutes you can look back at the pass from the bottom of the valley. Because the most popular mountain refuge is so close, this trail can be crowded even in winter. There are mountaineers checking their equipment before heading to the nearby rock faces.

Groups of mountaineers and trekkers prepare for the day under the Zawrat Pass
Groups of mountaineers and trekkers prepare for the day under the Zawrat Pass

After the steep section you cross (or walk around in summer) a small lake (Black Lake) before you enter the pine forest again. This path is also very popular with ski tourers so be prepared to step aside when they reach you from behind!

Arriving at Murowaniec Refuge

After only 2 kilometres across the forest you arrive at the impressive building of Murowaniec Refuge, where you can enjoy a cold beer and a hot meal. Often to the sounds of a spontaneous concert!

These cheerful people created great atmosphere with their Polish songs
A spontaneous concert in the Murowaniec Refuge

Hiking in this part of the Tatras became popular in the mid-19th century. A simple refuge already existed on the bank of a nearby lake but it couldn’t satisfy the growing demand. The imposing house we can see today opened in 1925 after four years’ building. It can now provide accommodation for 116 people in rooms with 2-12 beds for 32-45 PLN/person/night. Unlike some other similar institutions, Murowaniec doesn’t let you sleep on the floor when all beds are taken.

Pine forest just above Murowaniec Refuge
Pine forest just above Murowaniec Refuge

This is probably because this refuge is relatively easy to access. After a little break you can follow the yellow or blue signs to Kuznice, south of Zakopane (2 hours) or take the black trail to the Brzeziny parking area (2 h 20 min). From there you can take a bus to the Morskie Oko parking area if you left your car there.

Other possible destinations

If you stay in Murowaniec refuge, you can spend another day exploring the peaks and ridges of the High Tatras. For example, Kasprowy Wierch is only about 1 hour away and from there you can take a breathtaking excursion along the ridge that follows the border between Poland and Slovakia.

If you are lucky with the weather you won't believe your eyes.
If you are lucky with the weather you won’t believe your eyes.

Just don’t forget that the weather can change rapidly and unexpectedly any time of the year. You should always be properly equipped and informed about the area and the actual conditions (avalanche risk, for example). Don’t take unnecessary risks and always respect the mountain!

A winter trek in the High Tatras

Medium to hard winter hike in the High Tatras

Starting point: Palenica Białczańska (car park)
Destination: Szpyglasowy Wierch, High Tatras (2172 m)
Total distance: ~20 km
Net duration: 7-8 h (highly dependent on the weather and your fitness)

(The map shows our second day when we hiked up Szpyglasowy Wierch from the mountain refuge and then descended back to the car park)

The High Tatras

Zawrat, the peak where the Eagle's Path begins. But not in winter!
Zawrat, the peak where the Eagle’s Path begins. Not recommended in winter!

The High Tatras are the highest section of the Carpathian Mountains and the world’s smallest high mountain range. Its full area belongs to national parks on the two sides of the border. Only one third belongs to Poland (with the rest in Slovakia). It’s a popular destination for nature lovers, hikers and mountaineers all year round, thanks to the dozens of hiking trails, friendly refuges and magical vistas.

Ski tourers in the Five Lakes Valley
Ski tourers in the Five Lakes Valley

During the winter months the higher parts of the High Tatras are closed for ordinary hikers (in fact, the alpine trails are closed from early November to mid-June). Polish regulations are more reasonable in my opinion as they only close those routes that are too exposed or where there is a danger of avalanche. I personally love winter treks: you can feel so small when everything is covered in snow and ice and it’s great to be surrounded by similarly crazy people.

From the car park to the mountain refuge

The trail starts from a car park and bus stop (Palenica Białczańska) only a few hundred metres from the Slovak border. There are regular buses to and from Zakopane. If you come from Slovakia, you can take a train (electricka) to Tatranska Lomnica and then a bus to Lysa Polana. From there it’s only a short walk. Parking costs somewhere between 20 and 50 PLN (I see no logic in their charges).

If you arrive at daytime you pay a small amount at the gate and then follow the red sign towards Morskie Oko (a lake with a refuge next to it). The lake is one of the top attractions of the region so don’t expect solitude on this first section. Horse sleighs take less vigorous tourists to Morskie Oko and a car passes by now and then. Exactly after 3 easy km you reach the waterfall named after the Polish poet, Mickiewicz. There are some benches and tables on the left and a trail (green signs) forks off on the right.

Hundreds of thousands of pine trees were destroyed in the High Tatras in the early 2000s and you can see the damage.
Hundreds of thousands of pine trees were destroyed in the High Tatras in the early 2000s and you can still see the damage.

Hikers and ski tourers share the same route though the two paths sometimes part (hikers take the shortcuts). You walk about 3.5 km mostly uphill in the pine forest with much less traffic. The difficulty of this section is easy-medium with few steep hills. The path follows a mountain brook with a couple of picturesque bridges over the water that meanders around mounds of snow. Then you’ll notice a small hut on the right – it’s the lower station of the cable lift that takes supplies to the mountain refuge some 240 m higher.

Get out of the basket, it doesn’t take passengers. Turn left instead and follow the black sign uphill. The house with hot drinks and food is less than one km away but it can take more than an hour. It’s a really hard steep crawl, especially in winter when knee-deep snow alternates with icy sections thanks to skiers. It’s not a bad idea to put on your crampons here. The winter trail is a little different from what you see on your map. It veers to the left and when you reach the highest point you actually take the green trail that goes to Morskie Oko (closed in winter) for the last hundred or so metres.

Five Lakes Valley Refuge

Hiking and mountaineering has long traditions in the Tatras. The first refuges for tourists were built in the late 19th century. Today there are 8 of them catering for a youthful crowd at altitudes between 1031 and 1673 m.Most of them were built in traditional style, using natural materials (stone and wood).

Inviting lights of the mountain shelter on a cold winter day
Inviting lights of the mountain shelter on a cold winter day

After 6.5 km you have just arrived at the highest – and most remote – Polish refuge, lying by one of the five lakes in the Five Lakes Valley (Schronisko Pięciu Stawów). It offers accommodation in rooms for 2, 4, 8 or 10 people (68 beds in total) for 30-45 PLN per bed. You can book online but don’t worry if you don’t succeed. I saw a man in the middle of January reserving a room for the last weekend in May. But the good news is that you can still stay if all the rooms are full. For 20 PLN you can sleep on the floor (or a bench or a window sill) from 11 pm till about 6 am.

A room for 4 with basic but comfy beds
A room for 4 with basic but comfy beds
You can sleep in the restaurant after 10 pm if all the beds are taken.
You can sleep in the restaurant after 11 pm if all the beds are taken.

There are shared but surprisingly clean showers and toilets and you can use a simple kitchen if you want to prepare your own food. Hot water is available for free. But if I were you, I wouldn’t miss the excellent soups and dishes made right there by an enthusiastic chef. You won’t complain about the taste or the prices. (My tip would be bigos, a Polish pork and sauerkraut stew). The restaurant is open from 8 am to 9 pm (with two short breaks). In addition, they have a small shop, a drying room and free storage of baggage.

The yellow trail to the Slovak border

We arrived at the refuge in the dark so we spent the night there and did the last section of the trek the following morning. But the whole trip can easily be done in one long day. From the shelter, you have to take the yellow trail that follows the valley and then climbs up to a pass before leading down to Morskie Oko on the other side.

The main building of the Five Lakes refuge
The main building of the Five Lakes refuge

Only in winter this path has a different route, too. You have to turn left right after the first lake and walk uphill until you almost reach the first rocks. Look for the footsteps of other trekkers. It’s not impossible if you’re the first one but it will take much longer in the deep snow. Otherwise, this part is still only medium hard as you gain altitude gradually. Then after around 1.6 km you turn left and don’t be surprised if you have to climb the next 300 m on all fours. It’s a really steep slope where crampons are essential. It took us 40 minutes to reach the pass (Szpiglasowa Przełęcz, 2110 m).

This is what you can see of Five Lakes Valley on a cloudy day (if you are lucky)
This is what you can see of Five Lakes Valley on a cloudy day (if you are lucky)

You can take a deep breath there and enjoy the views of the two magnificent valleys. If you are luckier than we were the last time when all we saw was the clouds. If you still feel energetic, continue to the peak, less than 100 metres away. Mind you, this last section includes some exposed ridges with deadly precipices on both sides so don’t go if you have vertigo.

If you reach the saddle, you can see something like this: Morskie Oko and a smaller lake a bit higher.
If you reach the saddle, you can see something like this: Morskie Oko and a smaller lake a bit higher.

Other possible destinations

Apart from the steep drop below the path, where you have to mind every step, it’s a much easier hour back to the refuge. Depending on your speed, you can be back at your car in less than another 2 hours.

The Five Lakes Valley offers a number of hiking trails that all promise stunning views from the top of the High Tatras. It takes about one hour to 90 minutes to reach Zawrat, Kozi Wierch or Kozia Przełęcz, all three along the famous Eagle’s Path (Orla Perć), without question the most difficult and dangerous public path in the Tatras. While the treacherous route itself is off limits in winter, you can visit these three points.

The western range of the High Tatras and one of the five lakes from Szpyglasowy Wierch
The western range of the High Tatras and one of the five lakes from Szpyglasowy Wierch

Finally, a few words about safety. That the trails are open in winter doesn’t mean they are entirely safe, far from it. You should check the weather conditions and the avalanche risk level (here) before you set off. Invest on proper winter trekking gear (crampons, waterproof boots, gaiters, possibly ice axe and helmet, map, cellphone, head torch, sunglasses, etc.). Always adapt to the weather conditions and respect the mountain. Do not take unnecessary risks – that dream view can wait.

Vintage cars and crusader castles in Syria

After visiting the southern and eastern parts of Syria, let me share with you the experiences we had along the coast and the around the mountains west of Damascus. Vintage cars in active use, hitching a tractor and the depths of Syrian bureaucracy. Plus the photos.

A mosque with a nice shadow in Hama, Syria
Mosque dome in Hama. I didn’t have my camera when I first saw the shadow of the tower on this mosque but I remembered the time and returned the next day

The port of Syria

As we looked out of the train from Aleppo to Latakia, we noticed how the landscape turned from shades of brown to green. There were farmlands and even forests near the Mediterranean coast.

Fishing boats in the port of Lattakia
Fishing boats in the port of Lattakia

Latakia itself is a sizeable city, the most important port of Syria. We walked a bit by the sea and in the central streets. The first thing that struck us was that the place had a very European atmosphere, compared to other towns. Lots of women wore western clothes and the shops also looked richer.

Street in Latakia with the image of the country's leader, Basar al-Assad.
Street in Latakia with the image of the country’s leader, Basar al-Assad. (Photo by Yazan Badran)

In fact, we used Latakia as our base to visit one of the Crusader castles, 30 km to the east in the hills. It was tricky to get there by public transport but we soon found out that hitch-hiking was the easiest thing in Syria. The first vehicle always stopped as a general rule. In this case, it was a tractor and it was full already. Still we could climb on its trailer and what a ride it was! Taking photos was out of the question, though…

Two Crusader castles

Salah ad-Din Castle neat Latakia
Salah ad-Din Castle neat Latakia (Photo by Dan)

This beautiful citadel of Salah ad-Din (also known as Saladin) dates back to the 10th century though most of its wall are from the 1100s. It was an important stronghold of the Crusader knights and the Mamluks in the Middle Ages. Today it is a World Heritage site.

One of the most astounding features is the pillar of its former bridge. The ditch by the castle was painstakingly carved out of the rock but the builders left a 28 m high needle. The bridge is long gone but we can still see the pillar.

The incredible rock needle of Salahaddin Castle in Syria
The incredible rock needle of Salahaddin Castle in Syria

Update: Thanks to the Russian air force, based nearby, Latakia has been relatively safe and calm during the civil war. However, it suffered attacks by the Syrian army in 2011, when dozens of people were killed. Salah ad-Din Castle has so far survived the war without serious damage.

Krak des Chevaliers

View from the nearby town from Krak des Chevaliers, a nicely preserved castle of the Crusaders
One of the bastions of Krak des Chevaliers, a nicely preserved castle of the Crusaders. The town below is where the French moved villagers from inside the citadel walls in the 1930s.

This gem is perhaps the best example of medieval castle architecture (and not only in Syria). Its name refers to the first residents, the Kurds but it lived its golden age under the Knights Hospitallers in the 11-12th centuries. At that time it was defended by up to 2000 soldiers and controlled the strategic route between Tripoli and Homs.

A magnificent example of Crusader castles, Krak de Chevaliers
A magnificent example of Crusader castles, Krak de Chevaliers (Photo by Dan)

We visited Krak on our way from Tartus to Homs and so we only had a few hours to discover it to ourselves. Even in its ruins it was impressive. And it was full of sheep and people in period costumes to our surprise. It turned out that they were shooting a movie about the Crusaders. 

Update: The castle was partly damaged during the civil war but no details are known other than that the damages were hastily repaired.

Tangled in red tape

Tartus is a pleasant enough seaside city near the Lebanese border. It has been inhabited since ancient times and it has its fair share of historical sights but I will always remember it for its bureaucracy.

Three lovely kids we met in the port of Tartus
Three lovely kids we met in the port of Tartus

It was our 15th day in Syria so we had to prolong our visas at the Office of Immigration and Passports. The LP book said it would only take an hour. You’d think it means that you hand in your passport and then get it back with the stamps. Well, it involves a little more legwork in the Middle East.

A piece of cake

First of all we had to wait for our turn in the basement outside what was supposed to be an office. In reality it was a windowless cell with a desk and a tired-looking policeman behind it. Queuing didn’t mean waiting in a line, either. It was more like 10-15 people elbowing each other, trying to thrust their greasy documents in the policeman’s hand first.

I waited and submitted our passports. The man asked for 60 lira and took two forms. He completed them in Arabic, stuck the stamps on them and gave them to me. No, that was not all. We had to take the forms upstairs to the captain. The door with the sign “CHIEF” was fairly easy to find so we entered shyly. The man put his signature on the papers and pointed at the opposite door. 

From there, we were sent to the end of the corridor after 5 minutes, where we disturbed an officer’s lunch. He entered something in his computer and we received 2 stamps on our forms each. Then he showed us to another office down the corridor, where our collection grew by four other papers. This time we had to fill them in.

The stamps and signatures we struggled so much for
The stamps and signatures we struggled so much for

Anita couldn’t finish hers because someone grabbed her passport but who cares. More stamps (3 each) but now in the passports (hurray!) Then they told us we needed 3 photocopies, which we could buy in a small house across the street. Down we went and then back with the copies. Now we took the passports to a previous office, where a man performed some more data processing. The next stop was the captain’s office, who now signed the stamps in our passports. And one hour had just passed.

A dizzying excursion

Tartus has a pleasant seafront area with colourful boats, fishermen and pelicans. And there’s a tiny island half an hour away from the city so we had to see it.

These pelicans were kept to catch fish. We saw them in the port of Tartus
These pelicans were kept to catch fish. We saw them in the port of Tartus

The sea was so rough and the boat so small that we thought we’d never arrive. We only spent about an hour on Arwad Island (and the first 30 minutes we were just sitting on a bench struggling with nausea).

A boat on Arwad Island, ready to return to the sea
A boat on Arwad Island, ready to return to the sea (Photo by Stijn Hüwels)

The whole rocky piece of land is full of stone houses and narrow streets. If it was renovated, it could become a popular tourist destination for sure. We especially liked the shipyard and the views of the mainland. Actually, we could have stayed forever (just to avoid the boat trip back).

Havana of the Middle East?

A beautifully preserved car in the centre of Hama
A beautifully preserved car in the centre of Hama

Our last stop in Syria was Hama, a city we will always remember for the weird groaning sound of its wooden wheels and the sight of its vintage cars. And we could experience Syrian hospitality once again.

One of the many operating noria in Hama
One of the many operating noria in Hama

There are not too many cities famous for a specific sound but Hama is one of them. It is the norias (giant wooden wheels) that cause it. There were 17 remaining at the time of our visit, some of them 5-600 years old. Originally they were used to get the water of the Orontes River to the nearby fields but today they are just there to be admired.

The noria we could access through a joiner's yard
The noria we could access through a joiner’s yard

The other thing we noticed the moment we arrived were cars. Even by Syrian standards, there were a huge number ancient automobiles from the 40s and 50s in the streets, many of them in great condition. Old Mercedes served as taxis and graceful American models were parked outside houses. Of course, the war took its toll on these beauties, too, as you can read and see here.

A retired vintage car in a side street in Hama
A retired vintage car in a side street in Hama

As it was the last city we visited in Syria, we wanted to take some souvenirs with us. We stumbled on a small shop selling everyday objects its owner collected when an old district was demolished. This is how we got hold of two intricate handmade tiles that now decorate our living-room.

One of the two tiles we bought in Hama
One of the two tiles we bought in Hama

Update: There were hundreds of thousands of people protesting against the single-party regime in Hama in spring 2011, which was followed by the siege of Hama in July and August that year. The Syrian army deployed tanks and snipers; hundreds of civilians were killed and many more injured in the attacks.

We left Syria rich in memories and experiences. And we were sure we’d return in a few years – well, we’ll have to wait with that I’m afraid.

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