Australia, Camping

Off-Grid Camping in the Nariel Valley

Nariel Valley, a tranquil rural Victorian region located south of Colac Colac and around 296kms north-east of Melbourne. The area is noted for its peaceful beauty, colourful hills, a picturesque creek and valuable cattle and dairy farmland.

Many people around Australia will know the valley for the ‘Nariel Valley Folk Festival’. This event started in the early sixties, making it the longest running festival of its kind in Australia. Being a not for profit community event the artists perform without charge during the Christmas to New Year period. It is held at the Nariel Creek Recreational Reserve, 12 kilometres south-west of Corryong.

Nariel Creek Recreational Reserve

Nariel Creek Recreation Reserve has long held a special place in my heart. My husband grew up in Corryong and his parents had been involved with the festival for many years, with his Mum playing the accordion. I was introduced to the Reserve on our first family camping trip as it was a safe place to take young children. It offers a spacious grassed area alongside the creek with many shade trees for the hotter months. One end of the reserve is further away and fenced off from the banks of the creek, making it a safer spot for small children.

Since 2011, we have camped at Nariel a total of eleven times in our tent, camper trailer and more recently our caravan. It holds so many memorable moments for us and our extended family who on many occasions camped along with us. So what makes this place so special?

Aside from the natural beauty of the scenery and the fresh running creek, Nariel reserve offers a low cost option at just $5/night to camp off-grid in a safe well maintained environment. The camp fee, paid into an honesty box on site, covers the upkeep of the camp grounds, the use of drop toilets, water (not suitable for drinking) and fire pits. It is advisable to bring your own fire wood although on many of our trips fire wood had been left behind or donated by other campers. There is a fenced off section within the reserve with picnic tables, an undercover area and the stage used during the festival.

Even during the busier holiday periods (not including the festival period) due to the size of the reserve you never feel on top of anyone else. The expanse of the area also makes it suitable for all types of camping accommodation including caravans and big rigs. You won’t need to back up into a tight spot here!

The biggest drawcard to the reserve is the ability to camp right next to the creek. Nariel Creek gently meanders its way through the campground, offering swimming holes as well as safe shallow areas for younger children. It is also a great place to throw in a fishing line, although due to recent bushfire activity there are very few fish at the present time.

One of the greatest pleasures whilst camping off-grid is having a campfire. Fires should never be lit during total fire ban days, check the CFA website for up-to-date information. Please make sure that you keep the fire contained and have access to water nearby. Collection of firewood is permitted in certain places during autumn and spring, click here for more details.

If you find yourself travelling through this magnificent region make sure you stay at Nariel Creek Recreation Reserve and check out this wonderful spot for yourself as I’d love to hear about your experiences too.

Happy Camping!!

Australia, Camping

Our Camping Evolution

One of my greatest pleasures in life aside from travelling to other countries is to set up a campsite somewhere in Australia. I love the resourcefulness that comes with setting up your own accommodation and living with a minimalistic amount of stuff. It’s also very economical especially when we go ‘off grid’ and bush camp.

As soon as my youngest child started to walk we decided to invest in a Coleman twelve man tent. Yes, you read that correctly, twelve man! Why you ask would we need a twelve man tent for four people? Our reasoning was that we would have our children in one section we’d sleep in another section and the third would be for storage, getting dressed or a place for us to sit if the weather was inclement. We loved our tent and we had so many great adventures.

Coleman Tent collage

As the children grew, as they have a tendency to do, we had to create more space in the car for our camping needs. First a cargo barrier was installed so we could stack the boot to the highest point and a few years later a roof rack. We were loaded to the maximum and we still needed more space! It was time to make a decision, purchase a box trailer or make the bigger leap and upgrade to a camper trailer. The camper trailer won and we purchased a second hand 2004 Jayco Swan.

Our first Swan seemed so luxurious and it was a breeze to set up, usually taking us around 20 minutes. The layout of a Jayco Swan has not changed very much since they were first produced in 1975 proving that they are a great design. The advantage of these campers is they are lightweight, compact and easy to tow and once set up they provide plenty of space and storage. They offer a queen and double bed at each end and a dinette that can also convert to a single bed. The swan compared to other models has the added bonus of a club lounge and a wardrobe.

Jayco Swan Layout

I loved that everything we needed for a trip away was stored inside the van, kitchen utensils, pots, cutlery, plates, lanterns, bedding, it was all ready to go. The only items we needed to pack were clothes and food.

After experiencing a couple of trips we decided to explore our options for an ‘off grid’ set up. The van already had a 60 litre water tank, just enough for cooking and washing up for a week. We considered purchasing solar panels and having 12 volt plugs installed so we could charge devices and battery operated items. It was at this time that we saw a 2012 Jayco Swan for sale that had all the ‘off grid’ features we wanted. Our 2004 van sold quickly and on December 24th 2014 we purchased our second swan.

Our 2012 Jayco Swan

Our newest edition had a 90W solar panel on the roof and a battery system to run the led lights, bed fans and charge devices through a usb port. It enabled us to camp off grid for longer, although it soon became apparent that water storage was our weakest component. Nevertheless we managed to camp in remote spots for up to 7 days before needing to access additional water.

After numerous trips in our camper trailer and endless great memories it was becoming clear that as a family we were outgrowing this set up. Our son and daughter were at the age where they needed their own space and seperate beds. For a short time we persisted and used the dinette as single bed for our son but on wet days we would have strip the bedding to use it as a table. It was time to start thinking about our future needs.

My husband and I had always talked about purchasing a caravan for our retirement years to travel more of Australia. We considered a family van but soon realised our years of camping with children were numbered. Then the pandemic hit and we were in a lockdown, unable to get away for our usual autumn camping experience. It gave us some time to think about what we really wanted and it always came back to the same decision, we wanted a two berth caravan. You’re thinking ‘what about your children?’, well after many discussions with them they decided they would be happy in their own swag.

Welcome to our new caravan, the Crusader Lifechanger Passenge 2020.

In November 2020 we purchased our Crusader through RV World Albury Wodonga as it is a local dealership and they offered outstanding customer service. On collection day they spent around two hours taking us through step by step on how everything works, tips on loading the van and assistance with hitching. We were excited and nervous all in one and driving it home for the first time was a massive learning experience. For all the specifications and features on the Crusader Lifechanger series click here.

It is truly exciting to begin a new phase of our camping evolution, there is so much knowledge to acquire and many challenges to overcome but we are going to enjoy every minute along the way. I can’t wait to share all our discoveries and knowledge, I’d also love to hear about other people’s camping evolution.

Australia, Walks

Yackandandah Gorge Walk

With the recent restrictions on travel it has forced us to discover our ‘own backyard’ and boy are we lucky to live in the north east of Victoria. As a family there’s nothing we love better than being at one with our natural surroundings and walking through stunning scenery, so it is surprising that there are so many walks within our locality that we haven’t experienced. That is up until now.

Having dropped our son at a friends house for the day and not being able to convince our fifteen year old daughter to accompany us we were child free!

A Place Steeped in History

Yackandandah is a historic town located 308km from Melbourne and is situated close to the New South Wales border. At the time of writing this article we are unable to go across the state border without a permit! Yackandandah is Jiatmathang country and the Aboriginal word for the town is Dhudhuroa meaning one boulder on top of another at the junction of two creeks. European settlement began in 1824 and the with the discovery of gold in late 1852 there came a surge of alluvial miners settling in the region. From then on Yackandandah became a thriving town and many of the original buildings and disused mines from that era are still in existence today.

The Gorge Walk

This is a gentle, easy track that meanders alongside the Yackandandah Creek. The walk took us around 90 minutes to complete (with frequent stops) starting and finishing at Yackandandah High Street. For more details on the walk visit Explore Yackandandah’s website.

Map of Walk
Map of the Gorge Walk

To start the walk turn left on Wellsford Street at the top of the High Street, cross the bridge over Yackandandah Creek and immediately turn right onto the path. You will see a sign and information board explaining the historic significance of the walk.

Gorge Walk Sign

At the beginning of the walk you will pass tennis courts and the sports ground on your lefthand side. This part of the trail is suitable for prams and bikes. I have read that there is a resident Platypus in the creek here, sadly we didn’t see it.

Start of Walk

There are times when the path forks and you’re not certain which route to take. We found that both ways would take you to the same place but one path just took you closer alongside the creek. There are plenty of opportunities to stop and watch the water racing down the creek and I can only imagine how beautiful and refreshing it would be to take a dip in the hotter months of the year.

Yackandandah Creek

There are several information boards along the route that are worth taking the time to stop and read.

To save you the effort of climbing a hill unnecessarily, as we did, make sure you take the pathway on the right shortly after the bird information board. You will see another information board further along the path so you know you’re on the right path.

Take this path
This is the correct path

A short time later the bushland opens up and you will reach the miners gorge. Before you cross the bridge over the creek take sometime to sit on the rocks and listen to the sound of the energetic water rushing along.

Walk onto the bridge to observe the incredible gorge and you will realise why this place is so special. The 100 metre gorge was created by miners in 1858 so they could sluice gravel and sand in the hope of finding gold. They cut through the granite using only picks, shovels and blasting powder, it’s an impressive achievement.

Gorge bridge
Gorge Bridge

Gorge
The Narrow Gorge

After crossing the bridge the path gets fairly steep and slippery and extra care needs to be taken when it is wet.

Steeper part of the walk

Continue along the path for a few hundred metres and you will arrive at the dam wall. The dam wall was built to divert the creek and is believed to have powered a water driven timber mill. At a later date in 1859 a tail race was constructed when the miners deepened the gorge with the use of dynamite.

Shortly after the dam wall you will come across a wooden stye that doesn’t look like it goes anywhere. Being the curious people we are we decided to scramble over the stye and check out the other side. There were lots of blackberry bushes on the side of the path so care needed to be taken not to cut ourselves on the thorns. We discovered the path ended abruptly just around the corner so you won’t miss anything if you don’t go over the stye.

Stye

To return to the High Street you can either walk along Bells Flat Road (about 2kms) or return back the same way as you came.

Yackandandah Township

Yackandandah is an attractive, quaint town with many historic buildings from the gold mining days. A considerable number of these buildings have become boutique shops or eateries. The town became better known when the film ‘ Strange Bed Fellows’ starring Michael Caton and Paul Hogan was filmed on location in the High Street.

The town also has a very strong community and it shows in many of the initiatives undertaken. One such example is Totally Renewable Yackandandah, a 100% volunteer run group with a goal of powering the town with 100% renewable energy and achieving energy sovereignty by 2022.

You are spoiled for choice when it comes to dining in Yackandandah with two pubs, numerous cafes, an asian restaurant, a bakery and our favourite Gum Tree Pies. We couldn’t visit Yackandandah without enjoying one of their delicious pies, go and google them and you will see the positive reviews from all around Australia.

Gum Tree Pies Photo

To finish off the perfect day we soaked up the beautiful winter sun with a hot drink at Sir Isaac Isaacs Park. The park is named after Sir Isaac Isaacs who was born in Yackandandah in 1855 and was the first Australian born governor-general. The park has an excellent playground, public toilets, electric barbecues and plenty of picnic tables.

cuppa in the park

Next time you are able to visit North East Victoria be sure to spend a day in the beautiful town of Yackandandah. You won’t be disappointed.

Let me know about your experiences in Yackandandah.

 

 

Hotel Reviews, Thailand, Travel

Sam Roi Yot National Park

No matter how prepared you are, travel doesn’t always go to plan, sometimes you end up travelling in the wrong direction! Well that’s exactly what happened to us and it just happened to be on the shortest leg of our trip, how embarrassing.

We were travelling from Hua Hin to Sam Roi Yot, a journey that should take around 45 minutes. It was convenient that there was a mini van station right next door to our guesthouse (Baan Talay 51) or so we thought.

Tickets purchased and a few moments later we were stuffed into a minivan like sardines, bags and all. No more than 10 minutes into the journey it hit me….we were going the wrong way. It transpired we had bought a ticket to Phetchaburi and we were meant to be going to Pranburi. Being at the back of the van involved every single person having to hop off to let us alight but to their credit nobody seemed to mind.

After a few minutes confusion we found someone who was willing to take us in his songtaew all the way to our guesthouse in Sam Roi Yot.

Songthaew

Beach Box @ Pran

We had originally booked three nights at the Oriental Pearl Resort as we wanted to splurge and pamper ourselves for the Christmas period. On the surface the resort appeared to offer a taste of luxury with spa baths, a large swimming pool and a poolside bar. Upon further investigation reviews on the internet expressed that the property was in need of maintenance, the private spa baths were dirty and many didn’t work at all and it was a fair distance from the beach. We are not fussy people when it comes to accommodation but we do like to get value for our money. I cannot comment personally on the state of the resort and it would be grossly unfair if I did as we didn’t experience the place for ourselves. We stumbled across exceptional reviews on accommodation called Beach Box Pran and our stay there backed them all up.

The hosts Mo and Maem made our stay exceptional and memorable, always going well beyond our expectations. Upon our arrival we were warmly greeted with a delicious refreshment. We had booked two rooms, a deluxe family suite and a superior twin room. Both rooms were impeccably clean and had all the amenities you could possibly need including robes and slippers. An unexpected surprise was the roof in the bathroom retracted so you could shower under the sky or stars at night.

Beach Box Bathroom
Spacious Bathroom

Beach Box Room
Modern Family Suite

It’s clear to see why Beach Box Pran gets such wonderful reviews. The grounds are beautiful and include a huge swimming pool with well maintained gardens. They also provide free use of bicycles and kayaks and if you are staying for a few days they will give you a free transfer to Phraya Nakhon Cave, a place not to be missed. Breakfast is included in the rate and they offer a wide selection as well as an egg station.

The location tops off this exceptional choice in accommodation being 100 metres from the beach and within a couple minutes walk of amazing restaurants. If you find yourself in Sam Roi Yot do yourself a tremendous favour and stay here.

Things to See and Do around Sam Roi Yot

It is clear to see why Sam Roi Yot means ‘three hundred mountain peaks’. The limestone cliffs surround you and create a stunning backdrop to this stunning coastline. Many people chose to visit Sam Roi Yot as a day trip from Hua Hin, however, if you have the time I believe it is worth spending a few days here to enjoy everything this place has to offer.

Phraya Nakhon Cave

Phraya Nakhon Cave is located within Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park and is without a doubt the biggest draw card for the area. It is possible to visit the cave as a day trip from Hua Hin, however, if you want to spend more time at this remarkable site then it is advisable to stay locally.

There are differing opinions on how the cave was discovered. Some believe a local ruler Nakhon Srithammaraja discovered it 200 years ago when he was forced to take refuge from a storm although many historians think a nobleman named Nakhon stumbled across it in the 17th century. Nevertheless, it is a truly majestic place to visit.

In 1890 a small pavilion was constructed in Bangkok and assembled inside the cave to commemorate the visit of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). Every morning at around 10am the morning sunlight floods the cave and radiates the pavilion. In later years it was visited by King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) and King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX).

What you need to know before you visit:

Now you are familiar with the history of the cave it is advisable to know what is involved when visiting Phraya Nakhon Cave.

You will read several accounts from people who have trekked to the cave and most will agree that it is not an easy walk. As a family we walk regularly and as a whole are reasonably fit, however, this was a tough trek. Having said that my 81 year Dad managed to get to the top, although he admitted that it was almost ‘broke’ him. Adding to the element of difficulty is the extreme humidity, expect to sweat bucket loads!

Sam Roi Yot Map
Map of Sam Roi Yot National Park

You will be dropped off at the village of Bang Pu where you need to pay the entrance fee of 200 Baht per person to enter the National Park. From here you have two options to access the beginning of the walk, on foot or by boat. The walk will take you around 45 minutes and it relatively easy but bear in mind that the next stage is incredibly challenging so it’s best to save your energy and take a boat. The boat costs 200 Baht per boat not per person as I believed, hence why we walked.

Walk to Temple Gramps
The walk before the hard part!

View - walk to Temple
Rewarded with beautiful views

Signage leads you a few hundred meters from the beach to the start of the walk. Make sure you carry plenty of water and wear sunscreen. There is a rustic restaurant and toilets available before you start your ascent.

Sign walk to temple
Good to know!

Beach before temple walk
The beach area just before the uphill climb

Take your time, stop often to catch your breath and enjoy the remarkable reward once you reach the pavilion. It really is worth the effort and believe it or not the pavilion is more beautiful in real life than in the pictures on the internet.

Beaches and the Local Scenery

To be honest the beaches at Sam Roi Yot do not even compare to the paradise of the beaches located on the Southern Islands of Thailand. Having said that they are still beautiful in their own way and offer a much less crowded experience. The long stretch of sandy beach at Ban Phu Noi (Dolphin Bay) offers a safe swimming environment for children and is a great place take out a kayak in the calm waters.

Kayaking

The roads are very quiet and the area is relatively flat making for an easy exploration by bike and within a few minutes you are cycling in remote countryside.

Bike Ride beach
You get the beach all to yourself

Bike ride

Restaurants

Surprisingly for a such a small resort there are a variety of excellent restaurants, the majority of which are situated along the beach front. One great place was Phen Thai, a family run restaurant situated right next door to our resort and we had been given discount vouchers to top it off. They offer a traditional Thai menu and an extensive drinks list, you can chose to sit in the restaurant area or across the road on the beach. The food was delicious and very fresh, just don’t expect the food to come out all at the same time (this is typical of most Thai restaurants!).

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Phen Thai Restaurant

We then discovered Blue Beach Restaurant, tucked away in a tropical surrounding just a couple of minutes walk from our resort. The atmosphere was fantastic and both nights we visited we saw the same people as the previous night! Once you discover this gem of a place it’s hard to go anywhere else. The food was amazing, we tried a variety of dishes and they were all exceptional and the drinks were very good value.

Did Sam Roi Yot Meet our Expectations?

Sam Roi Yot not only met our expectations but the place went above and beyond and exceeded them. If you are looking for a quiet resort, away from tourist crowds and loud music then this is the place to visit. We could easily have stayed longer and explored the area further if we’d had more time. A stay in Sam Roi Yot will definitely be on our list again so we can discover the many walks and places of interest we didn’t have time to visit on this trip.

Where to next….

A four hour minivan trip and we were ready to explore the delights of Bangkok.

Hotel Reviews, Thailand, Travel

Hua Hin

Hua Hin was the second place on our itinerary around Thailand. We travelled from Kanchanaburi by train with a connection at Nakhon Pathom, where we saw Phra Pathom Chedi, the tallest chedi in the world at 120 metres.

Getting to Hua Hin
Phra Pathom Chedi

We pulled into Hua Hin’s historic train station at around 2pm. The station is one of the oldest in Thailand and it features a royal waiting room that used to welcome the King for visits to his summer Palace. The main station building is in Victorian style and dates back to the 1920’s when the resort became fashionable.

Train Station
Hua Hin Railway Station

We had intended to use a public songtaew (a converted pick-up truck) to get to our guesthouse but we couldn’t find any information about where they departed. Fortunately there were plenty of tuk-tuk drivers vying for custom so it wasn’t hard to negotiate a good price.

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Travelling by Tuk-Tuk

Baan Talay 51 Guesthouse

We had booked two family double rooms at Baan Talay 51 guesthouse for a very reasonable price. The room had one single bed and one double with a private bathroom. Towels, toiletries and a hairdryer were included in the room rate. There was also a kettle, tea and coffee, a tv and air conditioning. My only criticism about the room would be that the beds were very firm even for Thailand standards.

It was the swimming pool and quaint garden area that made this place truly great. The swimming pool is not very deep but this can be an advantage if you have young children.

Pool
Pool and Garden Area

Wat Khao Takiap (Monkey Mountain)

We arranged for a tuk tuk to take us up to the temple on Khao Takiap Mountain as it was too hot and humid to walk all the way. At the base of the temple there are a few shops selling drinks, snacks and souvenirs.

It’s entertaining to sit here for a while and watch the monkeys clambering over the roof tops avoiding being sling shot by the vendors. We were also joined by dogs, cats and a cockerel!

Monkey
No Monkey Business Here

It only took us around 10 minutes to walk up the steps to the top. Along the way there were lots of monkeys but they didn’t bother us at all. It’s best not to have any food that is visible to the monkeys as they are prone to stealing it from you. Arriving at the top awarded us with beautiful panoramic views of the area.

Hua Hin Night Market

We decided to walk to the night market in the centre of Hua Hin, although crossing the busy roads to get there was challenging. The night market had a huge range of stalls selling homewares, clothing, souvenirs, food and beverages. It was quite lively and a very popular place for tourists.

Market 1
Hua Hin Night Market

Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT)

One of the big draw cards for visiting Thailand is the unique opportunity to get up close and personal to their national animal, the elephant. Everywhere you go there are elephant images, they appear on posters, postcards and even on the Chang beer bottles. Chang is actually the Thai word for elephant so even their beer is named after this majesty creature.

Sadly though tourism has led to the destruction of their habitat and even worse the mistreatment of these iconic animals for financial gain.

I wanted my family to have the experience of seeing elephants but strictly at a genuine, humane sanctuary where elephants are not mistreated. After a substantial amount of research on the internet I found Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand. WFFT is located around 40 minutes from Hua Hin and this was a major reason for our decision to stay in the city. Click here to read my full article about Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand.

Restaurants

We were only in Hua Hin for two full days so it wasn’t much time to discover the culinary delights of this region. We found a few local restaurants within walking distance of our guesthouse that offered tasty affordable meals.

Drink
Thailand’s Known for Exotic Drinks

Hua Hin is a popular resort and many of the restaurants along the sea front are upper market and expensive. The area prominently focuses on seafood from its heritage of being an ‘old fishing village’.

Did Hua Hin Meet Our Expectations?

Originally we had planned to stay in Hua Hin for five full days as it appeared there were plenty of things to do. Upon further reading we decided to break the stay into two sections and book seperate accommodation in Sam Roi Yot instead of visiting the National Park in a day trip.

I am very pleased that we didn’t stay longer than two full days in Hua Hin. Maybe my expectations were a little unrealistic as I knew that it was not renown for having tranquil beaches. What I didn’t expect was an urban jungle of high rise buildings and polluted congestion in the centre. Luckily our guesthouse was a peaceful oasis to return to at the end of each day.

The highlight of staying in Hua Hin was the full day excursion to Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand but in hindsight they offer transfers from other less developed places.

Where to next……

A short hop found us in Sam Roi Yot National Park.

Animals, Thailand, Travel

An Ethical Interaction with Elephants…..Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand

When someone mentions the word ‘Thailand’ a number of images pop into ones head, tropical beaches, spicy curries, temples and elephants.

blue and green elephant with light
Photo by Chris F on Pexels.com

A trip to Thailand would not be complete without seeing their national animal, however in recent times there has been greater awareness surrounding the mistreatment of these majestic creatures. Sadly there are aspects of tourism that create cruel, inhumane behaviours and elephants are very often the victim of these practices in Thailand.

Never, yes that’s right NEVER ride an elephant.

Here’s why:

Have you ever asked yourself how an elephant ends up in a town or sometimes a city in Thailand taking tourists for rides? Before you even contemplate riding an elephant you should ask this question because the answer is truly heartbreaking.

Asian elephants live in herds made up of a matriarch (the oldest, largest most experienced female elephant), female relatives and their offspring. Once a male elephant reaches puberty they leave the herd and live a solitary life other than when they mate. The elephants that end up in the tourism trade get taken from their herd at a very young age (usually around three months old) for the sole purpose of holiday makers. It’s not just riding, some elephants are forced to perform tricks, paint pictures and play football for the spectators. The process of obtaining an elephant is not as straight forward as just taking the young elephant because the herd is very protective. The majority of the time both parents are killed to gain the youngster and the cruelty does not stop there. The young elephant is then placed in a cage and the process of breaking its spirit begins. The spirit has to be broken for the young elephant to forget its herd and natural instincts. Can you imagine if this occurred within the human race? There would be outrage on a global scale, well this is happening to elephants right now.  I won’t go into any further detail here but if you want to read more click here for this in-depth article by One Green Planet on the cruel practice.

I bet that’s changed your mind.

Just in case you need any further persuasion this article by Roger Lohanan talks about the elephant situation in Thailand and this article by the National Geographic discusses the role of the Mahouts and elephants in captivity.

It’s Not All Doom and Gloom

Thankfully there are many organisations and people within Thailand that are making a difference by providing animals with a safe environment and educating the public to rethink their choices. One such organisation is Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT).

WFFT Logo

Our Experience at WFFT

Like many people who visit Thailand I wanted my family to experience an ‘elephant’ activity but I didn’t want to contribute to an unethical business. It took a lot of research on the internet to find genuine sanctuaries as many claim to be but the reviews (many from volunteers) stated otherwise. Eventually I found Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand and the reviews were overwhelming positive.

We chose to book a full day tour with return transfers from our hotel. It is not a cheap activity but I felt that every baht spent was worthwhile as this is a genuine charity helping over 600 animals (not just elephants). It is worth noting that the sanctuary limits the number of visitors per day so book early to avoid disappointment.

When we arrived they welcomed us with free tea, coffee or filtered water. Our guide then drove us to the Wildlife Rescue Centre and we started on a walk through the park. At every stage our guide was informative with details about all the animals, their names and background stories and answered all our questions.

The Animals

The Wildlife Rescue Centre has over 600 animals and most of them has a sad story regarding their arrival at WFFT. The centre provides such great medical care and it is evident that every possible avenue is explored to get them back into the wild. Sadly it is not possible for all the animals to be released but it’s comforting to know that they are in a safe environment without exploitation.

Here’s a few of the many animals we saw:

Asian Sun Bears

Sun Bears

Turtles

Turtle

Lizards

DSC00464_1

Samba Deer

Deer

and lots of monkeys

Monkey WWT

Yes these monkeys are in large wired cages but it is for their own protection until they can be released back into the wild. Some of them had been raised in peoples houses and appartments around the world so they do not have the instincts or skills to survive on their own in the wild. Every animal at WFFT has the opportunity to be rehabilitated and released back to freedom unless of course their ailments are irreversible. 

Lunch

As we were doing the full day tour a buffet lunch was included and the food was delicious. Drinks other than water were not included but they have a bar where you can purchase alcoholic or soft drinks.

An Afternoon with the Elephants

The afternoon focused on learning about the elephants at the centre. The centre had recently implemented a change where you are no longer able to walk with the elephants. This is for the safety of visitors and for the well being of the elephants. You have to remember that most of these elephants have been through horrendous experiences and their welfare takes priority.

Having said that you do get to interact with these beautiful animals by feeding them fruit and washing them with a hose and brush.

Feeding Elephant

Bathing ElephantBathing Elephant 1

Did it meet my expectations?

It was a truly humbling experience. The centre far exceeded mine and my families expectations and we thoroughly enjoyed our day here. I am glad I chose to support this centre as the work they do is crucial for the survival of these animals. I hope that one day I can return and volunteer my time at Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand but in the meantime I will be making online donations to this great cause.

 

Hotel Reviews, Thailand, Travel, Uncategorized

Kanchanaburi

Way back in 1998 Thailand was my introduction to South East Asia and it was love at first sight. I was travelling with three friends and we planned to visit Kanchanaburi, however for one reason and another it didn’t happen. Subsequently in 2001 when I solo backpacked around South East Asia intending to make Kanchanaburi a priority it still didn’t eventuate. Fast forward to December 2019 and a holiday with my husband, two children, my 81 year old Dad and Kanchanaburi was the first destination on our six week itinerary,

It felt like the universe was telling me it was not meant to be with our airline deciding to strike on the very day we were flying to Thailand. This meant a possible delay in our arrival, hence pushing our itinerary days forward. I couldn’t bear the thought of missing out on Kanchanaburi again. So quick action was taken and we arranged to fly a few days early, hallelujah, my dream was back on track.

Getting to Kanchanaburi

Having the time we opted to take the 3rd class train from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi and experience the historic ride along what has become known as the Death Railway. There are two trains a day from Thornburi Station, one at 7.50am (a good option if you are visiting on a day trip) and the later one at 1.55pm.

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The best way to get to the station is to take a river boat to Thornburi Station Pier no.11. From here it is about a twelve minute walk past the Siriraj Hospital. My Dad had travelled from Thornburi station in 2002 and we expecting a large station building so it took us some time to find the current station. The original train station building was sold to Siriraj Hospital in 2003 and a new train terminus was built around 900 metres down the line.

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Alternately a taxi ride from Khao San Road should take around 20 minutes and 40 minutes from the City Centre. It is important to negotiate a price if the driver refuses to use the meter.

The station is very small with only one platform, public toilets and a ticket office. All tickets are 3rd class and cost 100 Baht per person for both Kanchanaburi and Nam Tok. Despite being 3rd class the train was surprising comfortable with padded seats, although we realised some carriages do have wooden seats. The journey took us around two and a half hours and when we arrived I was beyond excited to explore this beautiful town.

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My children enjoying Thai train travel

Siam Guesthouse – A little Oasis

Our accommodation at Siam Guesthouse was an easy 10 minute walk from the station situated at the end of a very quiet street but merely a few minutes walk from numerous bars and restaurants. Our booking included a family room (consisting of two interconnecting rooms and two bathrooms) and a twin room for my Dad. All rooms were spotlessly clean and provided a large fridge, air conditioning, towels, toiletries and other amenities such as toothbrushes and combs. The only amenity not provided was a kettle, although there is free tea, coffee and hot chocolate available all day in the communal kitchen area.

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Communal Kitchen Area

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Bedroom

The owners, Nueng and his family continually went above and beyond to make our stay memorable and their generosity was genuinely heartfelt. The real gem at Siam Guesthouse is their beautiful lush garden and courtyard. After a tiring day sightseeing in the heat we loved sitting in the shady garden enjoying a few cold refreshments.

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Things to See in and Around Kanchanaburi

Kanchanaburi is well-known for its dark cruel history where thousands of prisoner of wars lost their lives during World War II building a railway from Thailand to Burma under Japanese brutality. It is also a place of exquisite natural beauty, rural and located on the confluence of Rivers Kwai Noi and Kwai Yai. It is worth taking your time to appreciate Kanchanaburi’s history and beauty.

The Bridge over River Kwai

A quick internet search ‘Bridge Over the River Kwai’ will soon render results of the 1957 movie with the same title directed by David Lean. Whilst being hailed an epic war movie at the time of its release the sad reality is that the six academy award winner doesn’t even come close to the truth. I guess the gruesome reality of events that occurred in Kanchanaburi would not fit your traditional Hollywood blockbuster. You can read further details on the history of the bridge in this great article written by Barry Fox for the New Scientist.

The Bridge really is the iconic image of Kanchanaburi and it is definitely worth spending the time to walk across the structure. We visited in the morning and it was very quiet and at times we had the bridge all to ourselves.

Located on the south side of the bridge is the Chinese Temple ‘Wihan Phra Phothisat Kuan In’, a great place to sit and admire unobstructed views of the bridge. The temple itself is also worth strolling around to enjoy the beautiful architecture and colourful ornate shrines.

Thai – Burma Railway Museum and War Cemetery

The Thai-Burma Railway Museum was the first place we visited in Kanchanaburi and for good reason. The museum is very well laid out and provides a wealth of information about the prisoner of war’s and the conditions they were exposed to whilst building the railway. In the gallery upstairs there is a 3 metre deep diorama of Hellfire Pass demonstrating how the cutting got its name. The museum charges 150B for adults and 70B for children.

Across the road from the museum is the Don Rak War Cemetery where 6982 prisoner of war graves are laid out amongst neatly manicured lawns.

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JEATH Museum

We hadn’t planned to visit this museum as I had read that the Thai-Burma Railway Museum is more informative and better organised. However, we had a few hours to fill in so we decided to take a look and I am glad we did. Ok so I will admit that the reviews are spot on, this museum is a little run down and there was no real logic to the positioning and relevance of some of the exhibits. Having said that when you’ve only paid 40B per person it is not really a major issue.

JEATH is an acronym for the nations that were primarily involved in the war; Japan, England, Australia, America, Thailand and Holland.

Not many people realise that there were in actual fact two bridges built in Kanchanaburi by the POWs, the famous steel and concrete one and the less well-known wooden one. The wooden bridge was built several times (due to bombing) 100 metres downstream from the steel bridge. We discovered that within this museum there are remnants of the original wooden bridge despite lonely planet saying nothing remains. Another highlight upon entering this obscure museum was feeding the large fish of which looked like they’d eat your hand given half a chance!

Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting)

Konyu Cutting infamously known as Hellfire Pass aptly named because of the glow at night from burning torches were said to resemble scenes from hell. The 600m stretch is a place of great historic significance and has become a memorial to those who worked on the railway. It is one thing to visit the museums in Kanchanaburi and learn about the sickening brutality and cruelty inflicted on innocent POWs but a visit to Konyu Cutting brings it to life in an unfathomable way.

The Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre and Memorial Walking Trail built and maintained by the Australian Government is a located 1½ hours by bus from Kanchanaburi. We caught a local bus (8203) from Kanchanaburi bus station at 8am at a cost of 80Baht each. In hindsight it would have worked out cost effective for us to hire a tuk tuk for the day. It would also have saved us some extra walking as the bus drops you off on the highway and it is around 500 metres to the entrance of the centre.

The Interpretive Centre is an introduction to the atrocities that occurred at Hellfire Pass with narratives of the men involved at Konyu Cutting. The information and digital media is displayed respectfully and with great sensitivity. It is truly heart breaking to discover the extreme mistreatment of fellow human beings. It is difficult to even begin to imagine the suffering these men endured and it is unthinkable how some of them survived the torturous conditions.

The Memorial Walking Trail is linked to the Interpretive Centre by a boardwalk and stairway. The centre provides free audio guides that explain each section of the walk. There are two parts to the walk, the memorial walk and a section that takes you further along the railway line to Hintok Cutting. The memorial walk takes around 30 – 40 minutes including stopping to listen to the audio guide. If you chose to walk further along the trail to Hintok Cutting (around 5km) the centre will equip you with a two way radio for your safety as certain parts are steep, uneven and rocks are prone to falling.

Upon touching the rock along the cutting my heart sank, with every step along the track another tear rolled down my face. I can say with my hand on my heart that I can’t remember any other time where I’d felt so emotionally moved.

Wampho Viaduct

Sadly this trestle bridge is the only one to survive along the Thai – Burma Railway, although originally the bridge was built with bamboo and has now been replaced with wood. The bridge consists of 164 trestles up above the Kwai Noi River and appears to cling to the side of the mountain. Incredible to believe, this section of the railway was considered to be ‘lucky’ as only 4000 men died.

You can get to Wampho Viaduct by taking the train to Tham Kra Sae station and just a few hundred meters down the line brings you to the trestle bridge.

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Strolling along the line to Wampho Viaduct

Walking over the bridge is not for the faint hearted with a fear of heights and you will also need to consider the time of the trains crossing the bridge. The walk beneath the bridge is equally as rewarding as you get to marvel at the engineering prowess of this structure.

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Wampho Viaduct

On the far side of Wampho Viaduct is the Suansaiyot Resort and the Bridge Bistro Cafe, a great place to stop for a refreshment and admire the bridge against the beautiful back drop.

There are two train stations at each end of Wampho Viaduct.

Wamphu Map

We chose to walk back over the bridge so we could ride the train over the viaduct and it was an incredible experience. The train rides so close to the mountain but the best views are on the other side of the carriage. It’s fascinating that such a heavy train can still meander its way over this ‘pack of cards’ bridge. The journey back to Kanchanaburi took around one and a half hours.

Pak Prak Heritage Street

Meaning ‘crossroads’ in Chinese Pak Prak Heritage Street takes you back in time and displays 20 heritage buildings of mixed architectural styles. Each of the significant buildings have signs explaining the construction and architectural details. It also details how the building were used during the Second World War, some of which were occupied by Japanese officers and others by wealthy families who profited from the war.

Pak Prak

Erawan Falls

Erawan Falls came as a welcome relief, not just from the emotions of the devastating historic events of Kanchanaburi, but also from the humidity and heat. We had planned to catch a local bus to the falls but as I mentioned previously it was cost effective for us to hire a tuk tuk for the day. For those that catch the bus; it departs from the bus station hourly from 8am to 5pm, costs 45 THB per person and takes around one hour.

The entrance fee does seem expensive especially as the locals pay so much less than tourists but I felt it was worth the money. Firstly, it is a full day out and secondly, it is apparent that the money is used for conservation and keeping the park clean.

The falls are made up of 7 tiers each with a refreshing pool. Food and drink cans are not permitted past tier two to stop the spread of litter and if you take a drink bottle past this point you will need to pay a 20 THB deposit.

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Clear walking tracks to most of the tiers

Is it worth trekking to all seven tiers of the falls? Firstly it depends on your level of fitness. Sections of the path are very steep and the last section doesn’t really consist of a clear track, at times we were climbing over trees and rocks. Having said that my 81 year old Dad managed to get to the top, although he is much fitter than your average pensioner. It is also very slippery in places so it is sensible to wear good walking shoes or sandals. Secondly, consider how much time you have at the falls, it took us almost an hour to reach the top. I had read on several sites that the first two tiers are very busy and as you progress it gets quieter and quieter, so I was expecting to have the seventh tier to ourselves but it wasn’t the case. In hindsight I’d have probably spent more time at tier five where the swimming was equally as good.

Just one word…FISH!!! Not just any fish, fish that nibble on your dead skin. It doesn’t hurt at all, it just tickles. At tier 5 we noticed that there were really big fish in the pool and we were afraid that they’d nibble our skin but thankfully we discovered it’s only the smaller fish that have that fetish.

Overall we had a wonderful day out in what can be described as paradise on earth.

Restaurants

Kanchanaburi has a wide range of places to dine and has the added appeal of many riverside restaurants. The vast majority of restaurants are located along Th Mae Nam Khwae a kind of ‘backpackers’ street although the quality of food varies greatly.

Here’s where we ate:

Zeb Zeb

We ate at Zeb Zeb on our first night in Kanchanaburi due to its close proximity (a 2 minute walk) from our guesthouse. The restaurant has ample seating inside and a few tables outside. The vibe is quite lively although not too raucous that you can’t enjoy your meal. The food was delicious although like most restaurants in Thailand it doesn’t come out to the table all at once. It was so good we ordered extra dishes from the menu.

The Good Times Resort

The Good Times Resort is a great place to enjoy the peace and quiet with a beautiful river view. The dishes we ordered for lunch were large portion sizes but I found my curry wasn’t overly flavoursome. My husband and son however really enjoyed their dishes. Their prices were also higher than many other places in the area.

Keeree Tara

Keeree Tara restaurant is located a few minutes walk north west of the famous bridge. Many people go to the Floating Raft restaurant due to the close proximity to the bridge but we had read mixed reviews about the service, high prices and food. Keeree Tara has equally good views of the bridge and the ambience and garden-like environment are truly charming. The food was so delicious and excellent value for money that we ate here twice.

Blue Rice Restaurant by Apple & Noi

I have to say hands down Blue Rice was my absolute favourite place to eat in Kanchanaburi and we visited twice just to be sure! It is located on the opposite side of the river to the main strip but it is worth the effort to get there. We walked to the restaurant and travelled back in a tuk tuk, yes, 3 adults and 2 children in a single tuk tuk. This restaurant has everything going for it, a perfect view on the river, a lovely owner and friendly staff and last but not least some of the tastiest Thai food we’ve eaten.

On’s Thai Issan

Considering On’s Thai Issan only serves vegetarian food and being a meat eating family we were really pleasantly surprised. It is a very small place and the owner has a cooking station at the front of the restaurant. They don’t serve beer but they happily let you bring pre-purchased drinks from the store next door.

The Balcony

If you find yourself along Pak Prak Heritage Street then you must stop by at The Balcony. The interior is delectably modern with satisfying decor that you’d usually only expect in the western world. Wonder through to the back of the cafe and you find a hidden beer garden. Unfortunately we didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy a meal here but the snacks and drinks we ordered were amazing . To top it off the owners were super friendly and the prices are very reasonable.

Did it live up to my expectations?

Kanchanaburi offered my family so many beautiful memories with it’s history, culture and overwhelming natural beauty. I can truly say that it far exceeded my expectations and I couldn’t imagine anyone not finding pleasure in this fascinating town. I’d love to hear about your experiences with Kanchanaburi or maybe it is on your must see list.

Where to next….

After five fabulous days exploring Kanchanaburi it was time to move on to our next destination….Hua Hin.

Money saving, Packing, Travel, Travel Tips

10 Money Saving Tips Whilst Travelling

I truly believe that spending money on travel is an excellent investment in yourself. Not only does it reward you with beautiful memories but it educates your mind and opens up endless possibilities. You may learn some of the local language, try new tastes or just find out that your tolerance levels only reach a certain point!

Having said that, the majority of us have a budget and the costs do start to add up especially when travelling with a family. I am sharing my own tips for saving money whilst on a trip and you can apply these to your own itinerary. To save money on flights and accomodation please see my previous articles Planning an Overseas Trip and Finding the Perfect Accomodation.

1. What is Important to you?

Saving money whilst travelling is a personal choice and it really comes down to a more mindful approach as to what is important for you. For some it maybe enjoying a cocktail during a sunset, visiting a theatre or staying in a five star resort. Work out what is actually important to you and hence worth spending money on.

Our family of four chose one attraction each when we visited London. It was a great way for everyone to experience something that was important to them. My daughter chose the Cutty Sark and my son chose the London Eye.

Bottom line, don’t spend money on experiences and sites that don’t interest you.

2. Pack Lighter

This is something my family continue to improve on with every trip. It has become a mindset for us to take carryon sized bags only and I personally couldn’t go back to checking in a suitcase. How does this save me money?

  • Many budget airlines charge high fees for checking in a bag.
  • Lugging around heavy bags is not fun and you will avoid the cheaper option of public transport.
  • You can take you own bag to your room and avoid ‘porter fees’ (this probably only applies to fancier resorts).
  • Zero risk of your bag going missing during the flight thus avoiding the need to spend precious time and money replacing lost items.

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3. Do your own Washing

When you pack lighter it goes without saying that you will need to do some laundry along the way. Most hotels offer laundry services but it can be very expensive especially as many charge per item. To save money we always carry a small laundry kit that comprises of a washing line, universal sink plug and some laundry detergent. We usually wash smaller items in the bathroom sink and occasionally rinse less dirty items whilst taking a shower. We have also used local laundrettes which provides a fun experience chatting to the local people.

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Photo by Ali Müftüoğulları on Pexels.com

4. Eating on the Cheap

There are several options to save money when it comes to eating:

  • If you are staying in accommodation that has cooking facilities it makes sense to self cater. Quite often basic items such as milk, margarine salt and pepper are included in the rental so you just need to purchase the main ingredients. It’s also a great experience to wander around a supermarket in a different country.
  • Who doesn’t love a picnic in the park? This is a really great option if you have younger children who prefer not to sit for longer periods of time in a restaurant. We chose this option a couple of times whilst we were in Paris with some family friends. At the time our daughter was four and our son twelve months old. One evening we ate take away pizzas and drank red wine in a beautiful park in the centre of Paris. On other occasions we bought soft cheeses, cold meats and baguettes.
  • Always carry a few snacks and water with you especially when visiting popular tourist attractions. This is even more important if you are travelling with children. Nobody likes to pay three or four times the usual price for a bottle of water. Trust me we learnt this the hard way!
  • Try to avoid eating close to major tourist attractions as prices are always higher. You usually only have to walk a couple of hundred meters to find cheaper options.
  • Look out for promotions or happy hour deals at restaurants. Some restaurants offer cheaper meals on certain days of the week and who doesn’t love happy hour.

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5. Drinking on the Cheap

Now this is where you will save lots of money. Other than a select few destinations drinking alcohol and soft drinks is a costly exercise especially when there are four of you. For most of us though cutting out a few relaxing drinks is not a desirable thought. If like us you enjoy a few bevvies then here’s how you can save a few dollars:

  • Purchase a few drinks from the shop to enjoy before you head out. Cheaper drinks can be purchased at 7-11 stores throughout Asia, supermarkets throughout Europe and bottle shops in Australia.
  • Always look out for the locally made drinks as they are usually much cheaper.
  • Carry a reusable water bottle so you can refill at any time. It’s not only better for the environment but it’s also good for your own health.

Enjoying a beer with a perfect view

6. Search for ‘Free Activities’

The best things in life are free, sound familiar (I bet you’re singing it in your head) well quite often when it comes to travel it’s true. Do some research on the places you are visiting and check out all the free sights and activities. Some great examples are taking self guided walks, swimming at the beach, people watching, talking to the locals and looking around markets. More often than not the free activities show the true character of a place without the touristic hype.

Major cities can be particularly expensive, here is a list of great websites offering free activities in the following places:

Many of the activities my family love are free and have given us wonderful memories. Just to name a few stand outs:

  • Strolling through an endangered animal habitat park in Hong Kong and witnessing two large birds perform a mating dance in perfect choreography.
  • Listening to a powerful Russian quartet performing acapella at Carcassonne Cathedral.
  • People watching at a traditional Souk in Ras al Khaimah.
  • The very first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower as we turned a street corner……

……and so many more but I won’t bore you with them all! It really confirms the best things in life really are for free.

7. Getting Around

It will depend on the distance you need to travel as to what mode of transport you take. As a family we prefer to walk as much as possible, not only is it good for us but it’s free. You also get to see everyday life occurring right before your eyes.

Of course for longer distances we always try to use public transport. Along with being cheaper it is also better for the environment and you get to experience travel the local way. Having said that we did find taking a taxi in some Asian countries was cheaper than four tickets for the train.

Always do your research to find the cheapest option, this will save you time and money when you arrive at your destination. Most cities provide excellent connections and quite often children under a certain age are free.

For even longer distance travel consider overnight trains or buses as this has the benefit of saving you a nights accommodation.

8. Souvenirs

Without any doubt we’ve all succumbed at some stage in our life to purchasing a souvenir that ends up in a cupboard or worse still in the rubbish bin. Go to any major tourist attraction and you will find a shop full of over priced souvenirs.

I’m not saying don’t purchase any souvenirs just be mindful of the souvenirs you do chose to buy. Ask yourself the question…will this souvenir add quality to my life and will it serve a purpose?

Some great examples of souvenirs that serve a purpose:

  • T-shirt or item of clothing that you would wear
  • Picture or painting that can be displayed in your home
  • Keyring (if you don’t already own a myriad of them!)

And these examples of free souvenirs:

  • Tickets
  • Leaflets
  • Local free newspaper
  • Photo’s taken on you camera/phone

So next time you are tempted to buy a plastic model of your favourite building/sight look on the bottom of it and you will probably discover it’s made in China. And yes I purchased a plastic Eiffel Tower at the age of twelve only to discover the ‘Made in China’ sticker on the bottom. Lesson well learnt!

9. Books

Many of us take the opportunity to read whilst we are on vacation but purchasing and carrying around heavy books is not ideal and costs a lot of money. As I mentioned previously we travel with carryon only and this has size and weight restrictions. Taking books is not an option for us.

My husband happily reads books on his iPad or iPhone whereas I prefer the feel of a real book. When I am transiting from one place to another I usually buy a magazine to read as it is a cheaper option, it is lightweight and can be recycled or donated when I’ve finished with it. Years ago when I backpacked around South East Asia I swapped books at hostels or purchased at second hand book shops. Another option that we actually use here at home is purchasing our books at a charity shop and when we finish reading it we donate it back. Win, win situation.

Guidebooks are another expensive option and it is worth asking yourself whether you really need one. We are currently planning a trip at the end of the year to Thailand and Myanmar. My husband and I have travelled extensively through Thailand and have decided that along with all the information on the internet we will not require a guidebook for this part of the trip. However, Myanmar is a whole different story and we felt that having a lonely planet guidebook is going to be a great benefit and will save us money in the long run. We decided to get it as an e-book, not only is it cheaper but it doesn’t take up any of our weight allowance.

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10. The Local Currency and Banking Cards

If you are travelling to a country with a different currency you will need to do some research into the best way to convert your money. Banks make vast amounts of money on the difference between the buy and sell exchange rate known as the spread and on top on this they also charge a foreign exchange commission to change your money. It may not seem like a lot of money each time but add up multiple currency exchanges and you’d be surprised how much it costs you.

Some of the ways to keep the costs down:

  • Find a bank that allows you free access to your money. We moved our money into ING as they offer free ATM access globally. If we get charged they rebate us the fee within 5 business days. All we have to do is deposit $1000 into the account per month and make 5 card payments each month. A trip we did previous to making the change cost us $60 in withdrawal fees alone. We also found that they offered a favourable rate upon each withdrawal.
  • Look for places that offer commission free exchange. We exchange money at our local Post Office where they have a commission free arrangement. We don’t usually exchange a lot of money before we travel, just enough for the first day. We find that the rates offered here in Australia are usually lower than the local exchange rates in the country we are going.
  • Avoid changing your money at the airport as they usually offer unfavourable rates and charge a much higher commission.
  • In a few countries (for example, Cambodia and Myanmar) you will get better exchange rates for changing higher denomination notes.
  • Use a credit card that doesn’t have an annual fee and offers free travel insurance when you book your flights. Whilst we avoid using our credit card overseas it is always good to know we have it in case of any larger emergency costs.

I would suggest carrying a mixture of cash, bank cards and a credit card. We always carry an amount of our local currency just in case our cards don’t work. If we don’t need to use the cash we haven’t lost any money on the exchange rates. Just make sure it is kept in a secure place like a money belt.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

What to do with all the money you have saved? Well book another trip of course!

I’d love to hear some of your ways for saving money whilst travelling.

Happy travels!

Montserrat, Spain, Travel

Monistrol de Montserrat

We were on our way from South West France to my Dad’s house in Moraira on the Costa Blanca and this was the ideal place to break up the journey. Monserrat meaning serrated mountain in Catalan is situated in Catalonia and it is ideally placed for a day trip from Barcelona. There are so many websites that offer great information, two particular useful websites:

The Whole World or Nothing

Monserrat Tourist Guide

My husband, two children and my Dad decided to spend four nights in Monistrol de Montserrat, the town at the base of the mountain. We stayed at Apartments MO booked through Wotif.com for a total cost of US$480. The apartment was spotlessly clean and very tastefully decorated. It suited our needs perfectly with a functional kitchen, two good sized bedrooms and a cozy living area.

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The apartment was conveniently located close to the town and within walking distance of the Cremellera mountain train that takes you up to Montserrat.

It was an enjoyable walk through the shady narrow streets to the train station each morning.

We were able to purchase (through our accommodation) a four day train ticket for the Cremellera Rack Railway for the same price as one return journey. This meant that we could explore the mountain everyday at no extra cost.

Transport on Montserrat

Cremallera Rack Railway

Once we had settled into our accommodation and refuelled on some lunch it was time to venture up the mountain. The Cremallera Railway station (Monistrol-Vila) was very easy to find with google maps and the staff at the ticket counter were very helpful. The trains are fairly frequent (about every 20 minutes) with illuminated boards advising when the next train will arrive. The journey to Montserrat Monastery takes 15 minutes and the views on the way up are incredible.

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Enjoying the ride

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View from the station

There is an information centre next to the station where you can obtain a map of the mountain with details of the walking trails. They also provide timetables for the rack railway. If you are visiting on a day trip from Barcelona it is important to note which train will take you all the way back to the station Monistrol de Montserrat. At the time we were visiting the last train of the day terminated at Monistrol-Vila. If you find yourself stranded at Monistrol-Vila at the end of the day then it is a 23 minute walk through the town to Monistrol de Monserrat station.

Cable Car (Aeri de Montserrat)

You can also access the mountain by cable car (Aeri de Montserrat) from Monserrat Aeri train station. If you are coming from Barcelona you will need to decide which method of transport you would like to use as the price of either the rack railway or the cable car is included in the price.

Sant Joan Furnicular

Upon arriving at the Monastery the Sant Joan Funicular takes you on a very steep journey up the mountain for excellent views or the start of several amazing walks. With a maximum gradient of 65% it is the steepest funicular in Spain. The Sant Joan Funicular station is just above the Cremallera station. The trains run every 20 minutes from 10am until 4.30pm in the low season or 6.24pm in the high season. The entire journey takes 7 minutes, enough time to admire the beautiful scenery through the glass roof. At the time of writing an adult journey cost €8.75 single, €13.50 return and a child’s fare €4.80 single, €7.40 return.

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Very steep furnicular

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On the way up

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View from the furnicular

Attractions on Montserrat

It is surprising that there are so many attractions other than the natural beauty to experience on Montserrat.

The Benedictine Monastery Santa Maria de Monserrat

Whilst the exterior of the Monastery is not inspiring don’t let it stop you from exploring the interior where there are many treasures to be found. Firstly a brief history: The Monastery had been of religious significance since pre Christian time, in 1025 Olivia, Abbot of Ripoll founded the new Monastery at Montserrat and it soon received many pilgrims and visitors. It did not take long for word to spread of the miracles performed by the Virgin. Later in 1409 the Monastery became an independent Abbey and during the 17th and 18th century it became a cultural centre of the first order. Sadly during the French War (1808-1811) the Monastery suffered abandonment and this occurred again during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Fortunately the Government of Catalonia managed to save the Monastery from being destroyed and it continues to welcome pilgrims 1000 years since it was founded.

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Montserrat Monastery

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Interior of the Monastery

The Black Madonna

Within the Monastery high above the altar in the basilica sits the statue of the Black Madonna. Also referred to as ‘The Virgin of Montserrat’ and ‘La Moreneta’ meaning little black lady. The Black Madonna at Montserrat is of huge religious significance, possibly one of the most famous in the world. The statue was carved from wood in the 12th century and there are many theories as to why this Black Madonna and several other statues of the Virgin are black. Whether or not you are religious it is worth waiting in line to see the statue up close. We stood in line for about 35 minutes slowly making our way past interesting religious items.

 

The Black Madonna is behind glass however her right hand holding the orb to symbolise the earth is through the glass allowing you to touch it. Tradition is to touch or kiss the hand whilst opening and holding your other hand out.

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The Black Madonna

After seeing the Black Madonna you can enter the Chapel of the Image of the Mother of God. The Chapel was completed in 1885 by Paula del Villar Lozano who was aided by Antoni Gaudí. You will then walk along the Ave Maria Path (Cami de l’Ave Maria) where people pay homage to the statue by lighting a candle and saying a prayer. It is a very moving experience as the entire wall along the pathway is covered by lit candles.

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Inside the Chapel of the Image of the Mother of God

L’Escolania Choir Boys

Another fantastic experience not to be missed in the Monastery is to listen to the choir boys sing. Around 50 boys from the boarding school of the Monastery perform for the congregation Monday to Friday and on Sunday evenings. The choir dates back to 1223 and they are renowned around the world for their beautiful voices and music. They have recorded over 100 albums and they continue to perform around the world. They currently perform at 1pm and 6.45pm but it is worth checking at the time of your visit as they are not present during July or on the Christmas holidays. Even my two children were spell bound by the sound of the choir, certainly an experience not to miss.

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Choir Boys

Museum of Montserrat

The museum of Montserrat is located under St Mary’s Square and the entrance can be found next to the steps that lead to the square. The museum houses a vast collection of over 1300 pieces consisting of artwork, archaeological and liturgical exhibits. At the time of our visit the entrance fee was €8.00 for an adult and €6.50 for a child. The museum is open Monday to Friday 10am-5.45pm and Saturday to Sunday 10am-6.45pm.

My family love to visit art galleries so we didn’t want to miss this museum. Amongst the artwork there are paintings by Salvador Dali, El Greco, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso and Giardino. My children’s favourite exhibit happened to be the earliest one, an Egyptian sarcophagus from 13th century BC. The museum was very well laid out and it was not crowded so we could take our time and really appreciate the exhibits.

Painting 3
Salvador Dali

Painting 2
Pablo Picasso

Painting 1

Walks on Montserrat

During our time on Montserrat we managed to do several of the walks. The map that can be obtained at the information centre (behind the Cremellera Station) is helpful but we found it hard to follow some of the time. Apart from one walk where we got a little disorientated all the other walks were well signed along the tracks.

Strolling Along the Promenade

When you leave the Cremellera station you will notice a walkway along the main thoroughfare to your right. On the left hand side there were several markets stalls where we sampled several sweet treats. On the right hand side the views stretched as far as the eye could see towards the coast.

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Strolling along the main thoroughfare

Although it was only a short walk, it’s surprising what you stumble across. Unfortunately I don’t know what this statue is called or what it represents, however I thought it looked beautiful in the dappled sun.

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Santa Cova Walk

This is possibly one of the most popular walks to do whilst on Montserrat as it takes you to a pilgrimage site. This walk starts just below the Cremellera station next to the cable car and takes you on a fairly steep decent of 120 metres. The path is very wide and paved so anyone with a reasonable level of fitness will be able to achieve this walk. Along the walk are the ‘Path of Rosary’ monuments and sculptures, detailing the story of Christ’s crucifixion and his resurrection.

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It is 1.5km to reach The Santa Cova or ‘The Holy Grotto’ as it is often referred. It is believed that in 880 on a Saturday some shepherd children saw a ‘great light’ fall from the sky, an occurrence that continued for several weeks. The bishop of Manresa heard of the sitings and made the journey to Montserrat on a Saturday. During his visit he witnessed the image of the Virgin Mary in the cave and ever since the cave has become a revered site of worship.

The Chapel of the Holy Grotto was an addition built in 1696 – 1705. Within the Holy Grotto you will find a replica of the Holy Image. Whilst visiting the Chapel it is important to remain silent.

If you are stretched for time and can only fit in one walk then I would highly recommend the Santa Cova walk. It took us about two hours to complete with lots of stops to admire the monuments and sculptures along the way.

San Jeroni Summit

At 1236m San Jeroni is the highest summit in the Montserrat Park and can be reached by a relatively easy hike. To get to the start of the walk take the San Joan furnicular and follow the signs for San Jeroni. The walk to the summit should take around 2 hours return and is a fairly level path for most of the way. The final 10 minutes entails a combination of concrete steps and paths to reach the top.

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Stunning views on the San Jeroni walk

Unfortunately we started this walk late in the morning and we weren’t able to reach the summit due to hungry children! Looking at several articles on the internet it seems that we missed the best scenic views in Montserrat.

For a comprehensive explanation of this walk visit this website.

Restaurants and Bars

Within the vicinity of the Monastery there are a few restaurants, cafes and bars. The prices are somewhat inflated but I guess you are on top of a mountain!

Every morning we chose to have breakfast in our apartment to save money and we dined out at night in the town of Monistrol de Montserrat. During the day we ate at the following places on the mountain.

The Cafeteria

The Cafeteria is located on the main promenade opposite the train station. It is a great option for lunch as the service is quick and there is a varied selection of food and drinks. The opening hours are 9am to 6.45pm Monday to Friday and to 8pm on weekends.

Buffet de Montserrat

Located on the second floor of the Mirador de los Apóstoles building, the buffet offers great value for money at €15.50 per person. There was a large selection of hot and cold food with unlimited soft drink, beer and wine. It’s not exactly gourmet food although the quality was really good considering the variety.

Other options that we didn’t try include:

The Restaurant Montserrat

The Abat Cisneros Restaurant

Bar de la Plaça

For more information on these options visit this website.

Discover Montserrat for Yourself

Whether you visit Montserrat for one day or several days you won’t be disappointed. We had the luxury of spending three full days getting acquainted with the mountain and all it offered. The views have been forever captured in my thoughts and I will continue to affectionately reminisce about this magnificent place. It’s definitely a must see place so go and discover this gem for yourself.

France, Travel

Five Fabulous Days in South-West France

It had been nine years since we visited France as a family, a considerable time since it is one of my all time favourite countries. I love everything about France, the culture, scenery, language and most definitely the food and wine. We were travelling from Spain where the journey took us over the Pyrenees offering breathtaking snow capped mountain views at every turn.

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Our destination was the town Quillan situated in the Languedoc-Roussillon area, also known as ‘Cathar Country’. Quillan geographically sits in the foothills of the Pyrenees beside the River Aude. The town dates back to 781 and boasts a military castle (Châteaux de Quillan) built in 13th century.

We based ourselves at Erminy House located in the centre of town. We used Booking.com to book the accommodation and it was perfect for us as we were travelling with my Dad and our two children. The house consisted of a living room, dining room and kitchen on the ground floor, two bedrooms and a bathroom on the 1st floor and finally an en-suite bedroom on the 2nd floor. The rooms were tastefully decorated and the bathrooms were very clean. Upon arrival, Barbara the host gave us a tour of the house, she also supplied milk, butter, eggs, tea and coffee as well as a bottle of wine. It is worth noting that if you arrive by car it is not possible to park right outside the house. Barbara was very helpful and suggested a few places to park that were within 100 metres of the property. It is a great place to stay if you want to be within walking distance to everything in the town.

Quillan is a decent sized town with several restaurants, bars, supermarkets, chemists and boulangeries. There were two places in Quillan that stood out for our family. The first was the bakery Au Coin Des Gourmets (try the croissants from this bakery, you will not be disappointed) and the second was Café Brasserie La Palace, the perfect place to enjoy a beer with a view of the river and castle.

Day 1 – Rennes Le Château and Rennes-Les-Bains

Rennes-le-Château

Rennes-le-Château is a small hilltop village well known not only for it’s quaint beauty but for it’s renowned mystery and conspiracy theories centred around a Catholic priest named Francois-Bérenger Saunière.

I would recommend reading a few articles or watching a documentary about the controversial history of Rennes-le-Château to really understand the enormity of this place.

In short it is believed that Bérenger Saunière discovered buried treasure in the 19th century, a conspiracy theory that has never been proven. Between 1886 and his death in 1917, Father Saunière not only completely renovated the village church of St Mary Magdalene and its presbytery, but he purchased land directly adjacent and built a smart new villa and Gothic Revival tower. He also created a panoramic terrace and planted out formal gardens. It has never been discovered how Saunière came across large sums of money – amounts so large that it is inconceivable that a small village priest could gain such wealth.

Rennes-le-Chateau Info

The church is free to visit, however, there is an entrance fee to visit the Presbytery where Saunière resided, the Villa Bethania, the Magdala Tower and the gardens. We opted to pay to have an audio guide (you are given an iPad with preloaded videos) to make it easier to understand for our children. There are also information boards in English throughout the complex. We took our time and spent around 3 hours visiting all the key sites.

The Presbytery / Museum

Museum - Figures

The Presbytery is where Bérenger Saunière lived whilst he was the Catholic Priest at Rennes-le-Château. It is a well presented museum that explains the life of Saunière and the possible theories of how the wealth was accumulated. The most popular idea is that Saunière discovered a secret document relating to the Catholic Church inside the altar pillar, although this has never been substantiated.

Altar Piece
Altarpiece

After we had absorbed all the information in the Museum we meandered through the formal gardens. We enjoyed sitting in the garden to reflect on the amount of money it would have required to build such extravagant dwellings. From the gardens it is possible to visit Saunière’s tomb and resting place and the Magdala Tower.

Saunière's Tombstone
Saunière’s Tombstone

Magdala Tower

Personally the Magdala Tower was my favourite part of the visit to Rennes-le-Château. It is the iconic image that is shrouded in mystery. The Tower not only looks impressive with it’s turrets but the view from the top is breathtaking. You really have to visit and experience Rennes-le-Château to understand the enigma and curious nature it conveys.

Église Sainte-Marie-Madeleine

The church is a place you must visit even if you are not a believer in Catholicism. It is small inside but that does not detract from the ornate stain glass windows and religious sculptures. Just as you’d expect from a quimsical place you are welcomed into the church with a Latin inscription along with a statue of the devil that is now headless due to vandalism.

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Inside the Church

Rennes-les-Bains

Rennes-les-Bains was developed in Roman times when local thermal waters were discovered. Unusual geological characteristics of the rock have made the water salty, hence it’s name River ‘Sals’ (french for salt).

Although we didn’t get a chance to soak in the hot spring waters we did enjoy a leisurely walk along the river. The village is very picturesque and serene so it doesn’t take long to feel fully relaxed. Along the walk we discovered an ornate tree carving near the river. It was also the perfect place to stop for a refreshing beverage.

Day 2 – Carcassonne and Alet-les-Bains

Medieval City of Carcassonne

Arguably if there is only one attraction you can fit in whilst in this area then it has to be a visit to the medieval city of Carcassonne. It is one of the architectural marvels of Europe. I was lucky enough to visit when I was around 10 years of age so I couldn’t wait to experience the fortress as an adult.

The medieval walled city is nestled in the picturesque valley of the River Aude between the Pyrenees and the Massif Central. It took us around 45 minutes to travel by car from Quillan. At the time of our visit the entrance fee was €8.50 for an adult and under 18’s were free. Opening times were 10am – 6pm.

The Romans fortified the hilltop site in the 1st century BC and the towers that were built in the 6th century by the Visigoths are still intact. The viscounts of Carcassonne then added to the fortifications in the 12th century. A stronghold of the Albigenses, the fortress was taken by Simon de Montfort in 1209. The outer ramparts of the fortress were constructed during St. Louis IX’s reign, and the work was continued, with intricate defence devices, under Philip III. It was so well protected that Edward the Black Prince was stopped at its walls in 1355. However, its benefit as a defence ended in 1659, when the Province of Roussillon became incorporated with France. Sadly the ramparts were gradually abandoned and the fortification fell into disrepair. Fortunately they were restored by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century.

Once inside the fortified city you can walk atop 3km of walls and pass 52 towers and barbicans along the way. Inside the walls you can visit the Cathedral ‘Basilique Saint Nazaire’. We had the added reward of hearing a group of singers perform, it was so good I almost cried.

There is also a museum with interpretations of the history of Carcassonne and it displays many artefacts. It is possible to stroll through the medieval cobbled streets and peruse the shops without paying the entrance fee. There are also numerous bars and restaurants to experience.

Shop - Carcassonne
Lots of fun for kids

We chose to spend a whole day at Carcassonne, this gave us the opportunity to eat traditional food at one of the many amazing restaurants inside the city. It was a real treat to experience this phenomenal place of historic interest again.

Alet-les-Bains

On our journey back to Quillan we decided to stop at Alet-les-Bains, another village known for it’s spring water. Not far from the centre of the village stands the remains of an ancient Benedictine monastery which was built in the 9th century from ochre sandstone. It’s incredible to find such history in even the smallest of villages.

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Day 3 – Château de Puilaurens

Château de Puilaurens is a 20 minute drive south east of Quillan along a scenic road framed by rocky outcrops.

Way to Puilaurens

The Cathar Castle is located above the Boulzane Valley and looks down on the villages of Lapradelle and Puilaurens.

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View from the car park

It is a beautiful drive up to the car park from the village. Just beyond the car park is the ticket office where we paid an entrance fee of €6 per adult. We then walked for 15 to 20 minutes up the fairly steep stony path and then we zigzagged our way to the entrance of the castle.

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Entrance to Château de Puilaurens

This castle is very different from many of the other Cathar Castles in the region due to the fact that much of it are in ruins. Do not be put of by this as I felt it gave the castle a very special atmosphere were your imagination could run wild. A brochure is provided with information about each section so it is easier to understand how it would have looked in years gone by. The real gem to visiting this place are the outstanding views from the top. It is worth noting that some parts of the castle have very steep drop offs and whilst signage does warn you if like us you have adventurous children it’s best to stay with them at all times.

Whilst sitting at the top contemplate how such a structure was built so high up and so close to the cliff edges. It really is well worth a visit.

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The Journey Onwards

I wish we could have stayed longer in France and really soaked up the culture. It was time for us to head back to Spain and explore a new place, our next destination was Monistrol de Montserrat in Catalonia.

Journey to Spain
Picturesque journey back to Spain

I hope you get to enjoy this special region as much as we did. Thank you for reading my article. Keep a look out for my next article on Monistrol de Monserrat.