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.
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.
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.
Free Bike Use
Stunning Garden Area
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
Blue Beach Restaurant during the Day
Blue Beach Restaurant at Night
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
When someone mentions the word ‘Thailand’ a number of images pop into ones head, tropical beaches, spicy curries, temples and elephants.
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.
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).
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 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
and lots of monkeys
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Top of the Tower
Floor tiles inside the Tower
View form the Tower
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Cathar Castle is located above the Boulzane Valley and looks down on the villages of Lapradelle and Puilaurens.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It has been seven years since we last camped in the Grampians region and we decided it was time to rediscover this wonderful ancient landscape. The Grampians is located 260kms west of Melbourne and 460kms east of Adelaide making it an ideal stopping point between the two major cities. Previously we stayed at Halls Gap however this time we chose to stay to the north of the National Park at Dadswells Bridge, known for the ‘Giant Koala’.
Grampians Edge Caravan Park
We stayed on a powered site at Grampians Edge Caravan Park for five nights. We were staying over the New Years period, a busy time and despite the powered sites being fully booked it did not feel overcrowded. The layout is well designed with an immaculate amenities block located in the centre of the park surrounded by the powered sites. Beyond the powered sites there is ample space for unpowered camping and these have the added bonus of offering stunning views of the Grampians National Park in a bush like setting. Other accommodation options include onsite caravans and cabins. Facilities include an outdoor pool, indoor and an outdoor camp kitchen and a games room. The owners Steve and Jen are so welcoming and go above and beyond to make your stay perfect. They have not owned the park for long and it is evident that they are working hard to improve the facilities and the overall look of the park. I would highly recommend staying here for that extra special experience. For more details and contact information visit their website here.
Dadswells Bridge is located along the Western Highway in the Wimmera region only 37kms south east of Horsham and 30kms north west of Stawell. It is a great base to explore the northern region of the National Park including Mount Difficult, Mount Zero, Beehive Falls and Gulgurn Manja Shelter. A slightly longer drive of around 40 minutes gets you to MacKenzies Falls one of the biggest draw cards in the National Park.
One of our great pleasures as a family is to go for beautiful walks in the natural environment. Beehive Falls is a gentle undulating walk of 2.8km return along a well maintained track that begins from the roadside car park at Rose’s Gap. Towards the latter part of the walk you cross a wooden bridge onto a series of large rocks that need to be stepped on and over to reach the small waterhole at the base of the waterfall. We sat for sometime listening to the trickle of the water passing over the rocky outcrop. We had the place to ourselves and it was blissfully peaceful (well apart from our chatty ten year old!). The entire walk took us around 1 hour to complete and it was at a leisurely pace. I recommend taking a water bottle, wearing a hat and applying sunscreen in the warmer weather as there’s not much shade along the track.
We chose to have our lunch at the Mount Zero picnic area where there are several tables in the shade and a drop toilet. The picnic ground is the starting point for the Mount Zero walk as well as the longer walk to the summit of Mount Stapylton. Whilst we were enjoying our lunch we saw several rock climber enthusiasts set off as this is a popular area for climbing. Feeling rather less adventurous we decided to trek up to the summit of Mount Zero, a 2.8km return walk. The walk is graded as medium with an elevation of 150 meters and takes approximately 1 hour to complete. The weather had turned up a notch and in the sun it was around 33 degrees. The first section of the walk gently slopes upwards on a well compacted path offering next to no shade. Shortly along the way there is a section of sand on the track before coming to a series of wide steps. Unbeknown to us this was the easy section of the walk as the remainder was quite steep and at times you had to scramble and climb up large rocks. Despite the energetic level required the reward at the summit was worth every heavy breath. The vista offers views to Mt Stapylton and the Wimmera Plains. Although we endured the heat on this walk I would not advise doing it on a hot day as the rocks get very hot and there is no shade to take a respite. It is also worth noting that there is not a hand rail towards the end as advertised on many websites.
Heatherlie Quarry Walk
This is a gem of a place to visit offering an insight into the workings of the stone quarry during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Surprisingly this significant place is not well advertised in brochures and doesn’t even appear on the tourist maps. It is located about 9kms south of Rose’s Gap along Mt Zero Road. The walk is 2.4km return along Heatherlie Track and is graded easy.
About ten minutes into the walk we stopped to read the detailed information board. It also displays a map of the walk highlighting key features including machinery, the powder magazine, power plant, rail tracks and three stone cottages.
We found the quarry fascinating and enjoyed reading the information boards at each feature. The stone quarried here has been used for prominent buildings such as Victoria’s Parliament House, Stawell’s Court House and Town Hall. We spent about 2 hours absorbing the historic and natural elements and we were lucky enough to have the place to ourselves. For more information about this incredible historic site click here.
Boroka Lookout is located along Mount Difficult Road 15km from Halls Gap. If you are limited on time then I would recommend visiting this viewing platform as it arguably offers some of the best views in the National Park. It is only a short stroll to two platforms that overlook Halls Gap and Lake Bellfield. Although we had visited this lookout on our previous trip it did not disappoint, the panoramic scenery of this ancient land is breathtaking.
Zumsteins Historic Walk
Zumsteins is a historic site, it was developed by Walter Zumstein and his Scottish wife Jean as a holiday retreat. During the 1930s the couple built three pisé cottages, a tennis court and hand dug a swimming pool. Water for the swimming pool was sourced from the nearby MacKenzie River. The short walk of 250m return tells the story of this development.
It is certainly worth the 20km drive from Halls Gap to experience the atmosphere of a bygone era. There is also a picnic area with well maintained toilets. We also enjoyed dipping our feet into the MacKenzie River from the timber board walk. A lovely treat for our weary feet on a hot day.
Funnily enough we had driven past this big structure numerous times before we decided to actually stop and see it properly. It is situated on the Western Highway midway between Stawell and Horsham at Dadswells Bridge. As one of Australia’s iconic ‘big things’ it has touristy attractions such as a petting zoo, a souvenir shop, a cafe and a motel next door. I cannot comment on the petting zoo as we chose not to partake in this attraction.
The Koala made of bronze on a steel frame is 14m high and weighs 12 tonnes. If you are passing by or you are a fanatic of these larger than life sculptures then it is worth the visit.
A Day in Horsham
Our daughter, a keen admirer of art, celebrated her 14th birthday whilst we were in the Grampians so we decided to spend her special day in Horsham. I had read about the Art Trail around Horsham and the town’s Regional Art Gallery so it seemed the ideal spot to spend the day. Horsham is located in the Wimmera district 300km northwest of Melbourne. It took us 25 minutes to drive to the centre of Horsham from Dadswells Bridge.
We popped into the information centre to pick up the brochure that had a map and explanations of each stop along the walk. We were blown away by many of the exhibits and they are all accessible for free along this easy walk. There are two sections to the walk, one along the river and the other around the CBD. One piece of artwork that stood out for us was the Bradbury Lane Mural, created by youth groups under the guidance of Nichola Clarke. It’s so apparent that Horsham embraces the creativity of its community, there was even a public piano along the walk where people were encouraged to play.
After a relaxing picnic along the Wimmera River we visited the Regional Art Gallery. Whilst being a small gallery, there is a significant national collection of photography and interesting regional artworks. For more information and current exhibitions click here.
Horsham Botanic Gardens was our final stop before heading back to Dadswells Bridge. The gardens were designed in the 1870s by William Guilfoyle and it is certainly worth spending at least an hour here.
There aren’t many holidays where we don’t visit at least one winery. We are so lucky here in Australia to have such a diverse range of wineries in different regions. The wine of this region is consistent and full bodied due to the all year round good weather and the good terroir. It is well known for it’s Shiraz and Reisling but also produces Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
We chose just two wineries, Best’s Wines and Seppelt Wines. Best’s Wines has been owned by two families since 1866, the Best family who started the winery and more recently the Thomson family. The winery has a rustic, pure country feel right from the start and it is not difficult to visualise the history of this place. The historic building in which we tasted the wines has a hand dug cellar that dates back to the 1860s. We couldn’t resist exploring the cellar that was free to enter. Seppelt Wines had a completely different atmosphere and appeared on the surface very modern in contrast. In reality Seppelt is steeped with history and is well known for their heritage listed underground cellars. The cellars known as ‘The Drives’ runs for three kilometres making them the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. You are able to take a guided tour of the underground cellar at a cost. Unfortunately we arrived after the last tour was conducted so we just sampled the wines.
We thoroughly enjoyed our 2nd visit to this picturesque ancient land of the Grampians National Park. We didn’t get a chance to see some of the aboriginal art work on this trip so that will have to wait until our next visit. Hopefully we don’t have to wait another seven years!
Upon arriving in San Sabeastián or Donostia as it is known in Basque we were immediately captivated by the grand majestic atmosphere of this upmarket city resort. San Sebastián established itself from a modest fishing village into a classy seaside resort, favoured as a holiday destination for the Spanish royals. It is located on the coast of the Bay of Biscay a mere 20kms from the French border.
We arrived by car after an easy 36 minute drive from our accommodation in Lesaka. The easiest place to leave the car appeared to be in the car park beneath the train station and the central location made for a leisurely walk along the river (Urumeato Itsasadarra) to the old town (la parte vieja). At the beginning of the walk we marvelled at the Puente María Cristina (María Cristina Bridge) with the four monumental obelisks that stand 18 metres high and guard the entrance on each side of the river.
La Parte Vieja (Old Town)
There are a number of places of interest to visit in the old town of San Sebastián as well as experiencing the culinary delights of pintxos (pronounced ‘peen-chos’) the basque equivalent of tapas. The sophistication of the modern city slowly slipped away as we entered the narrow cobble stoned streets filled with alluring architecture adorned with filigreed balconies of classical elegance. Even the moody overcast weather couldn’t spoil our eagerness to discover the richness in this part of the town. Our first stop was at San Bizente Eliza – Inglesia de San Vincent’s (Saint Vincent Church). This gothic style church was constructed during the 15th and 16th century and is the oldest in the city. It is free to enter the church and very worthwhile as the impressive stain glass windows are enhanced with the natural light from outside. The church also offers one of the finest Romanesque altarpieces as well as a sculpture of the ‘Pieta’ by artist Jorge Oteiza.
A short stroll towards the west side of the old town leads you to Koruko Andre Mariaren Basilica – Santa Maria del Coro (Saint Mary of the Chorus). The first thing that struck me about this church was the majestic size of the ornate niche flanked by two bell towers. Above the vaulted niche stands the figure of Saint Sebastián and the main altarpiece dedicated to the Virgen del Coro (Virgin of Chorus) the patron saint of the city. The facade is incredibly delicate in its decoration, a masterpiece in stonework. We were so enticed by its graceful charm that it was hard to leave this place of magnificent behind.
Once we forced ourselves away we meandered into the heart of the old town which took us to Plaza de la Constitución (Constitution Square). The square was constructed in 1817 by architect Ugartemendia after a devasting fire started during the battle between French troops and the Anglo-Portuguese army in 1813 that claimed much of the old city. The square was originally used as a bullring, the numbers displayed on the buildings mark the bullring boxes and are a permanent reminder of its history. In recent times the square has become a place to enjoy a glass of wine and pintxos at one of the many bars.
Monte Urgull is located on the north-east side of La Concha Bay and is one of three natural settings within San Sebastián. Access to Monte Urgull is closed during the night, for current opening times click here. The walk can be accessed from several start points, Plaza de Zuloga, next to Basílica de Santa María or Paseo Nuevo. Each way meanders through the lush vegetation along well defined pathways and offers numerous picture perfect views of the Bay. During the 12th century Monte Urgull due to its elevated nature became the site of a military fortress protected by walls that were subjected to many sieges and attacks. The summit is topped by Castillo de la Mota, a castle built in the 12th century and the grand statue of Christ (Sagrado Corazõn) that has been overlooking the city since 1950. The walk took us about an hour to complete with our two children and this was at a leisurely pace whilst stopping at several view points and fortresses along the way. Once we arrived at the summit we were rewarded with breathtaking panoramic views of the city, harbour and the surrounding mountains. Contained within the castle is the Casa de la Historian de Urgull, a small museum that showcases 800 years of the city’s history. Despite there being a lack of English translation on the exhibits it was still a valuable experience.
La Concha (Kontxa) Beach
The walk had stirred up an appetite so we wandered back to the old town to partake in a gastronomic delight of paella and a fine drop of wine. Satisfied from lunch we opted to take a relaxing amble along the beach ‘La Concha’. It’s not hard to appreciate why this strip of coastline was voted the second best city beach in the world by Travel and Leisure Magazine. The beach sits harmoniously with the backdrop of the city and is flanked by the natural wonders of Mount Urgull and Mount Igueldo. The eye is drawn along the 1350 metres of honey coloured sand and compels you to remove your shoes and feel the sensation of sand between your toes. It was not warm enough for us to swim in the sea but we couldn’t resist paddling through the frothing surf at the edge of the tide. Whether you decide to swim, stroll along the sand and surf or remain on the sophisticated promenade it is sure to delight your senses and uplift your spirits.
On our way to Mount Igueldo we decided to stop for a refreshing beer at the Wimbledon English Pub. As well as serving great beer there is also some very interesting memorabilia on display. I really liked the style of the building, you could almost believe that you were in England.
After a refreshing pint we could virtually stumble to the base of Mount Igueldo. Located directly behind the pub is the furnicular railway that carries passengers up to the old fashioned amusement park at the top of Mount Igueldo. It is also possible to drive to the peak, where you can choose to stay at the Mercure San Sebastián.
We purchased our tickets (return €3.15 adult, €2.35 child) and eagerly awaited the arrival of the wooden carriage. There are two carriages on the cog railway that run on a single track and they pass each other at the midway point. The furnicular carriage operates between 10am – 9pm, every 15 minutes and it travels a distance of 320 meters through dense woodland up a steep cliff face. The minute you step out of the carriage you are transported to a bygone era that feels like it got left behind from the rest of the world. The amusement park opened in 1912 and has continued to provide pleasure with its mix of old fashioned and modern fairground attractions. There is also a bar, restaurant and coffee shop for the more faint hearted. Unfortunately the weather closed in on us and the incredible views that can usually be witnessed were enshrouded in misty cloud.
It was an unbelievably amazing day with so much squeezed into such a short time. Even though our time was brief in this suave highly cultured city it was enough to make us fall madly in love with its charm. This destination is most definitely on my list for a return visit and I plan to stay much longer than one day.
I’d love to hear about other people’s experiences of San Sebastián.
I have to be honest in admiting that before I visited Pamplona I was naive in my belief that this town could be anything more than the ‘running of the bulls’ festival. I was wrong, very wrong!
We had planned a stop for lunch in Pamplona and to stroll through the city to break our 3 hour journey between Calatyud and Lesaka. Knowing that our visit was so short I hadn’t bothered to look up any information about Pamplona so my only knowledge of Pamplona was the Running of the Bulls or the festival of San Fermin as it is officially known. Now don’t get me wrong, it is a very worthy reason to visit Pamplona as the San Fermín Festival is certainly unique but I discovered there are so many more reasons to visit this beautiful city.
We arrived late in the morning, the weather was grey and the rain fell intimitantly. Unperturbed by the gloominess of the day we ventured out of the underground car park to immediately encounter the Plaza de Toros (the bullring). Our sense of direction was telling us to walk through the streets on the opposite side of the road. By chance we stumbled upon Plaza del Castillo, a square encased by ornate residential buildings dating from the 18th century. The central location of the plaza set the stage for main events including bullfights up until 1844. The bandstand situated in the middle of the square was installed on 28th June 1943. A wonderful place to relax and soak up the beauty of the buildings, it’s not hard to see why the locals fondly call the plaza ‘Pamplona’s living room’.
We continued to wonder through the shiny cobbled laneways, imagining what it would be like to get chased by several bulls. The shop fronts were filled with San Fermín mementos of the usual touristy particulars. The festival is celebrated every year from 6th to 14th July. The running of the bulls actually developed from a need to move the bulls from the countryside on the outskirts of the city to the bullring. The festival only became popular in 1926 due to Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, however it dates back as far as 1592. San Fermín, a native bishop during the 3rd century was martyred and allegedly dragged through the streets of Amiens in France by a bull. Prior to the ‘encierro’ or running of the bulls the participants chant a benediction of praise to San Fermín before a rocket is fired signalling the release of the bulls. The runners then traverse along the 875 metre route ahead of the charging bulls over 3 to 4 minutes hoping not to get gored. Surprisingly there have only been 15 deaths since 1910, although many participants are badly injured. Personally I would not want to witness this spectacle and fortunately for us we were in Pamplona in early June and not July!
It’s also worth knowing that Pamplona is the first major city on the Camino de Santiago (the Camino Frances), a pilgrimage walk also known as ‘The Way’ that starts in St Jean Pied de Port in France and ends at Santiago de Compostela in Spain. This route follows the streets of La Curia, Mercaderes, San Saturnino and Calle Mayor before leading up to the medieval walls of the city.
Along this route we were able to observe the Cathedral, a Neoclassical Roman Catholic Church designed by Ventura Rodríguez in 1783. On such a grey day the cathedral appeared to glow displaying the intricate stonework of the cloisters. We admired the Cathedral from the outside due to our time constraint. Had we had more time I would have joined one of the tours that include a visit inside the cathedral, the cloisters and a small museum. Apparently the 11.15am tour visits the bell tower where you can see the 2nd largest bell in Spain.
Continuing on our exploration we emerged at The Citadel and Vuelta del Castillo Park. The Citadel was built by the order of Phillip II of Spain in 1571 to align with the murallas (walls). It is now considered by many to be one of the finest examples of military architecture in the Spanish Renaissance style. The walls stretch for 5km around the Casco Viejo (old town) and are considered to be among the best preserved walls in Europe. When the military function of the Citadel was no longer required it was turned into Vuelta del Castillo park, the largest green space in the city. It is possible to walk around the walls between Media Luna and Taconera Park to admire the impressive stonework and soak up the soothing green colours in the background.
After a leisurely lunch in a traditional Spanish bar it was time to make our way back to our car and finish our journey to Lesaka. I have to admit we were a little lost so I couldn’t say which route we took back to the Plaza de Toros. Along the way we accidentally stumbled across the Monument to the Fueros located at the eastern end of Paseo de Sarasate parade. Fueros de Navarre were the laws of the Kingdom of Navarre from the Middle Ages up until 1841. The monument is made of bronze, marble and different types of stone, it was constructed in 1903 and is 23.4 meters high. Even on a gloomy day the monument was awe inspiring and simply looked majestic.
It really is amazing what you can discover in a matter of a few hours when visiting such a great city. Our final surprise was a gigantic red back inflatable spider crawling down the Teatro Gayarre.
Considering we only had a few hours in less than desirable weather, it was enough to fall in love with Pamplona. It had culture, history, great food and a relaxed atmosphere for a city of its size. I will definitely return and spend more time delving deeper into the character of Pamplona, it just won’t be in the second week of July!