The Crimean Peninsula

 

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There are times when you are on the coast of the Crimean peninsula, or Crimea, when you get the feeling that you are in the South of France, in Provence, before it became famous and developed and expensive There is that familiar mix of a rocky coast the scents of pine tress, the warm waters and beaches, good wine good food and sun! But it’s a lot cheaper that is certain!

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A good place to stay is in the city of Simferopol, the main city of Crimea, which, whilst not being exactly in the centre is very well placed to get around and see the south coast and the mountains. There are hotels but a good plan is to rent an apartment and a driver and get around the peninsula. A driver and a car are not expensive and really convenient.There is an interesting park dedicated to metal workers with statues they have created, and when you get thirsty try the local Kvas, a drink made from fermented bread.

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Crimea is famous for its wines and they are really good. There are many beaches and small ports. Balaklava is a good place to go hire a boat spend the day at sea going around the coast, swim off the boat, catch fish, find a beach, make a fire, cook the fish, drink the wine and have a great day. Or sit at night on the beach with a group and watch the shooting stars and the sky lanterns that people send up

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The history of the Crimea is a vivid and warlike, one, which makes for a lot of sites for historians or those interested. The Crimean war, the naval bases of Sevastopol and Balaclava and the history of the second world war. Then the famous Swallows Nest on the South Coast. Of course also Yalta, a beautiful town in addition to its historic significance, and see the palaces dating back to the days of the Tsars.

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The scenery of the Crimea is not just beaches but mountains too and a great outing is to take the 3.5km cable car up Ai-Petri, which, whilst not being the highest mountain has amazing Vistas down the South East coast and at the top there are great hikes, and exploring.

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Its hard to get to Crimea these days since the Russian takeover but if you want a Riviera experience without the crowds and cost, a great place to go filled with welcoming and interesting people.

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Kiev Ukraine

 

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Despite the turbulent political history of recent years Kiev is a great city to visit. It’s a real walkers city, old streets alongside wide boulevards, old houses and modern blocks, park, gardens, historical sites and a great buzz that reflects a really lively city. It’s not a flat city so the hills, which contain some of the nicest parts of the city, have vistas and intriguing places.

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The Dnieper River or Dnipro runs through Kiev, more than 2000 kms long and flowing through 3 countries before it empties into the Black Sea. It is a focal part of the city with many bridges and islands in the centre of the stream some of which have beaches used in summer months just to have fun. You can take boats along the river walk along it look down in it from parks and gardens and see its relevance in life.

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The centre of the city at the Maidan, sits in a sort of bowl with hills around it and narrow roads going up from it and this is an historic area with Cathedrals starts of old building squares built in a European style. The city blends its history and daily life seamlessly making it easy to immerse yourself in the city and its ambience.The city is filled with colours, this is not a city of gray and glass, it has real vibrant colours.

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Kiev is an artist’s city, museums, galleries a castle, open air displays by painters ,theatres, libraries, photo exhibitions all abound, and its easy to get to without the trials of having to find transport. Ukrainians enjoy enjoying themselves and that feeling permeates the city. Its fun. There are parks, botanical gardens high on the hills surrounding the city, even a fascinating and historical cemetery if you enjoy that sort of thing, and up on the hill above the city stands the Mother Motherland statue or Brezhnev’s daughter depending on your point of view of history. Made of more than 3000 tons of metal it’s an amazing sight looking down on the city.

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A really good way to spend some time is to visit the Pirogovo museum not far outside Kiev where old and ancient buildings have ben preserved as an exhibit that gives you a real insight into how Ukrainians lived through earlier generations. The buildings are set in a park so in summer filled with wild flowers and streams and grasses so it’s a fascinating place to meditate too.

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Ukrainians are really hospitable friendly people, so don’t be put off by the troubles of the world it’s a great city to visit.

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Cultural Contrasts.

 

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It is a statement of the obvious but of you travel then outside your own land, your own place and way of doing things you will travel to another culture. It is part of the nature and experience of travelling. It is one reason why we go in the first place. But when we do and we find this other culture and we enter it how do we treat it? Do we accept the culture or what it is, do we shrink from it, do we try to impose out own culture on that which we find, do we adapt to it, or do we reject it? Of course we go with an open mind, but then a new culture can attack our senses and confuse us. And when we come with our own culture and enter another one, what happens to ours, have we left it behind?

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In Asia some of the most beautiful monuments and sights are Buddhist. An ancient religion still very prominent, revered and practiced by the people who live there. We want to see these buildings, temples, icons, and so we do. Some like Angkor Wat are historical, empty relics, large stone constructions that give us an image both of something extraordinary but also an image of a bygone era. Some on the other hand are alive and part of the everyday lives of the communities around them.

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Enter a Buddhist temple filled with people having removed our shoes and watch what people do. The dress code is sometimes serious and perhaps it irritate us that we are not appropriately dressed. So do we ask ourselves why on earth do they have these rules, or do we accept this as just part of the culture and comply? Sometimes we stand to one side quietly, trying to be unobtrusive so that we don’t interfere in what is happening. Or maybe we deicide we want to be a part of it, we might buy some incense sticks or a piece of gold leaf for the Buddha, or sit and meditate.

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Unless it is our own religion we are always outsiders but accepted as such by the people at the temple. We may, discreetly, take a photo, or ask a question and we are careful not to impose either ourselves or what we think and how we act. Having sampled, we wander outside to be met by the sight of a monk standing at a souvenir stand sipping from a can of Coke through a straw. It’s a jolt, we don’t expect it, and it’s amusing but why not? There is our culture and his culture coming together and neither one is the less for it.

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In times gone by cultures rose and fell on war, attrition and the supremacy of one over the other, now perhaps they start to blend and we can hope that the best of both is what the traveller carries home.

Wat Phra Kaew – Bangkok

 

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In the grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok stands Wat Phra Kaew, the temple that houses the Emerald Buddha, a statue 45 cms tall depicting the sitting Buddha made of jade and clothed in gold. The image is thought to have originated in India and was moved from place to place before finally coming to Wat Phra Kaew in the 18th century. The image is said to bring prosperity to each country it resides and so is deeply revered and the protective image of Thai Society.

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The buildings that house the image and surround it are exquisitely created with fine detail grandeur and the reverence that the image commands. Traditional Thai art did not distinguish between the artist and the artisan, seeking to depict the Thai sense of community and religion. These works of art were created to achieve some religious merit for the creators of the shrine and buildings.

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The area is right in the heart of Bangkok near the Chao Phraya River around which Bangkok is built. It is away from the main bustle crowd and stresses of Bangkok but an important tourist site. THB500 buys you a ticket and there are endless guides to lecture you if that is your thing, otherwise just wander and absorb the magnificence.

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Given that you will have experienced the pollution crowds traffic and general stresses of Bangkok, it’s hard to believe you are in the same places despite the crowds of fellow viewers. As always in Bangkok ask the price of everything specially taxis and tuk tuks before you start since this is a prime hunting ground for transport looking for willing tourists.

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The tradional Buddhist colours, ubiquitous gold and terracotta create a sense of light and contrast that reflects the importance of the place and is in major contrast to the heat and greyness of most Bangkok streets. It is crowded but you can find your own space and absorb the wonderful detail and care that is taken of this place. Good to go with a local if you know someone Thai, they don’t pay to get in and can give you a great flavour for what it all means.

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Buddharupa

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Buddharupa is the Sanscrit name given to statues of Buddha or those who have attained Buddhahood. Images of Buddha abound throughout Asia in various shapes forms and postures. Normally gold or at least partly having the gold colour they sit, stand, lie in temples and every community.

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Each posture has a meaning the most common being that where Buddha is sitting with legs crossed his left hand in his lap and his right pointing downwards, this being Calling The Earth to Witness and depicts the moment of enlightenment for Buddha. In some places each day of the week has a Buddha pose associated with it and that pose attaches to the day you were born.

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The noticeable thing also is the variety of facial expressions. The gentle smile the beam and the laugh. These you see also depicted on the many statues that abound. Its not enough to see a statue of Buddha and assume its is the same, many places show the varied styles and messages of the statues.

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Some statues are tiny, some enormous, some you will see with covered in small pieces of gold foil as a mark of requesting fortune or good luck. These small pieces are attached by those offering at the temple and cover the statue. For those suffering pain the gold leaf is placed on the statue at the place where the pain exists in the supplicant.

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As well as being central to the lives of the people who live around them, the statues are beautiful; works of art in varied states varied presentations and varied settings. To us they can simple be that, a work of art but to others who follow the religion, they are at the core of their religion and life.

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Phnom Penh -The Royal Palace

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Phnom Penh sits astride the great Mekong River, a city with a long history of greatness, war, famine, poverty, genocide and re-emergence. The city reflects its history in its daily life with broad streets lined with trees from the French colonial era, to modern developments of office blocks and condominiums, to tight narrow old streets lined with small shops and roadside traders selling food and souvenirs, and huge covered markets with stalls selling food clothing and everything imaginable. The roads hum with gridlocked traffic and the driving attitude that is the tradition in Asia, where every small inch of road is occupied, and drivers manoeuvre so close to one another that one wonders how and why the scooter riders survive. It’s a mystery but the driving is a culture that all observe and no one complains of.

 

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The city is busy energised and at times frantic, but it all works with a sense of purpose and style. The restaurants that line the edge of the Mekong thrive at night with every food imaginable with sellers, performers and buskers everywhere. Bright neon lights contrast with dark side streets most simply carrying a number to identify them. An old lady walks down the street leading an old man by a rope around his neck while he plays a Tror a Thai stringed instrument and they collect money. There is always something going on.

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In the midst of all this seeming chaos sits the serene peace of the extraordinary Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. Dating back to the 19th century when the capital moved back to Phnom Penh the Palace sits alongside the Mekong and is the residence of the Cambodian Royal family today. They live in a part of the Palace shut off but the rest you can wander in. This includes the throne hall, a magnificent enormous room of gold and white still used today for religious and ceremonial functions. The detail intricacy and the symmetry of the buildings are beautiful and although they have similarities of design they are unique.

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The Palace reflects the place of Buddhism in society with the silver Pagoda sitting alongside the palace buildings. The Palace is walled so that the endless noise of traffic and daily life does not intrude and is like entering another world. The Palace reflects how Cambodia has both retained its links with its historic past of the Khmer kingdom down to the present day and Cambodia’s emergence into the 21st century.

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The Temples of Angkor, Cambodia

 

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A 5-hour drive north from Phnom Penh brings you to Siem Reap, the home of the temples of Angkor, the most famous and best known being Angkor Wat. Built near the Great Lake with its supply of water fish and fertile soil these temples and buildings date as far back as the 6th century reflecting the mix of Hinduism brought by the Indians and Buddhism in an extraordinary array of temples which are even now emerging from the jungle that overwhelmed them.

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The Angkor Temples have become a major global tourist attraction with the sleepy provincial ton of Siem Reap now housing an array of large and luxurious hotels that accommodate the vast numbers who come to see this fascination every year. But for those less disposed to western hotels in Asia you can still find great accommodation more in tune with the area close to the site. Entry costs $20 for a one-day pass brought from a huge modern ticket office near the site.

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The sheer scale of the buildings and their sophistication given the period when they were built is hard to express. Built of stone, intricate, tall, beautifully designed. They are filled with passages, rooms, staircases and views over the surrounding lush green countryside. Built over a long period period of time these buildings are testament to a sophisticated society. Angkor was the capital city of the Khmer empire from 11th century. At its zenith it was the largest pre industrial city in the world and incorporated the Hindu religion until the 12th century when Buddhism took its place. The development of the magnificent buildings was achieved over 300 years from the 9th to 12th centuries.

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Some of the temples are simply piles of stones, other remarkably preserved and restoration happens all the time. Surrounded as you are by the lush vegetation of the area it seems and almost secret place each temple seeming to emerge from the jungle as you reach it.

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To get the true sense of time and scale you see that some of the temples have blended with nature and formed the foundations for trees that have grown into and onto the buildings, sometimes appearing to be some enormous triffid that has consumed a building. That vision gives you a sense of both the power of the natural world and the ability of man made structures to survive the revages of time. The area has survived nature, war destruction the Khmer Rouge and endless attempts to loot the place, but survives in all its grandeur and splendour.

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The site is hidden from Siem Reap and the contrasts between that town of modern Cambodia and the wonders of Angkor tell lots about the march of history. Anyone in Cambodia has to go. There are many extensive books about the history of the area and the site but I think good to read after you have felt the atmosphere of this extraordinary place.

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Journeying in Cambodia

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Memories and emotions from journeying in Cambodia are, for the most part, triggered by colours, also water and of course people. Outside the urban sprawl and tourist areas it is the consistency of colours everywhere that strikes you. The land is flat with the odd seemingly misplaced hill, a world of farmed fields rice paddies, a couple of cattle in the flat fields, and the odd farmer pushing his bicycle to or from his work. The villages that dot the landscape are consistent and small with wooden houses on stilts, subsistence shops, the ubiquitous scooter, food sold beside the road, and a real feeling of timelessness.

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In the landscape the earth is brown and the water is brown, the cows are brown and the houses mostly brown, and growing alongside those every shade of green tree, plant, and bush. The varied shades of green highlight the vivid colours of the flowers, and even a very tiny butterfly as yellow as you ever saw, takes its prominence when seen in contrast to all that green and brown.

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The colours that are the most vivid are those of the ubiquitous Buddhist temples. Deep terracotta tiled roofs and bright shining gold embellishing the symbols. If the sign of the extent of religious belief is to be found in temples and churches them for sure Bhuddism thrives in Cambodia. The poorest village will boast a beautiful temple and even in the middle of busy roads are shrines at which people pay devotion as they pass by. The nature of Buddhism is not to impose and you never feel imposed on but the beautiful temples and statues can’t be ignored. Those colours offer a vivid and vibrant contrast to the brown and greens of the landscape.

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Water is everywhere, big wide deep rivers and tributaries starting with the Mekong, no small streams, irrigation ditches, dykes and of course the rice fields providing that staple diet. It rains lots in Cambodia in season and that rain disturbs no one. A violent downpour drives people inside but within minutes of it ending the world is alive again, life continues as before, the torrents of water just a normal part of natural life. Someone cooking with a wok stops for the rain but barely has it gone and he is at work again. The rain is just rain, its not even an inconvenience.

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And the people? Gentle smiling ever friendly, they have not acquired the hard edge of some people of the countries of south East Asia. The people are family orientated, conservative, hardworking and very cool. The best way to know them is to eat with them at an open air restaurant where the food is real, the price almost embarrassingly low and the flavours divine. Enjoy that hospitality and curiosity and be part of lives that, whilst very simple, fulfil everyone. A Cambodian driver for your journey ensures you will pass the time with the people and enjoy them.

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Cambodia is a proud place, and a growing place, but away from the centres of change and construction and the increasing western facilities it’s a beautiful warm friendly and unassuming country to bring a person back down to earth.

 

The Travel Bore

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I learned a long time ago that when returning from a journey, heart and mind filled with reflections on the things I have seen, people met, the places explored, the scents, emotions, secrets and sensations experienced, its really not good to talk about it too much.

Camera loaded with amazing photos, tales of people met, places seen and dangers overcome fill you, as you sit comfortable in the knowledge that you have something very special to offer now that you are home again and with friends. There is a fine point between simply saying that the travel was great and being a travel bore. Even sitting with another traveller it can become a competition trading the most beautiful, the most ugly, the highest, longest and most dangerous, oh and of course the oldest. Comparing notes on outlandish activities you would not do at home, and the sensuality of travelling is not wise, its easy to become a travel bore.

How much people really want to know you have to gauge. How many times people say would love to see your photos, but still they are unseen by all but you, except for one with a fabulous beach which is all they seem to want to see. You wonder why, you are slightly hurt. You have the wonders of the world to lay at your audience’s feet, but somehow they dont really want to know. “They are envious” you whisper to yourself, “they don’t care, they don’t understand”, but in truth they know that if you start you will never stop, and they will have nothing to say because for them such things are abstract compared to the appalling weather we have been having lately. You can hope that one day they will come to you and say “tell me all about Timbuctu” and then you can expound, but in truth they just want to know where you were and whether you enjoyed it. You are safe returned, that is enough. To hear the rest would be unsettling. So here is an ode to the travel bore!

The Traveled Man

SOMETIMES I wish the railroads all were torn out,

The ships all sunk among the coral strands.

I am so very weary, yea, so worn out,

With tales of those who visit foreign lands.

When asked to dine, to meet these traveled people,

My soup seems brewed from cemetery bones.

The fish grows cold on some cathedral steeple,

I miss two courses while I stare at thrones.

I’m forced to leave my salad quite untasted,

Some musty, moldy temple to explore.

The ices, fruit and coffee all are wasted

While into realms of ancient art I soar.

I’d rather take my chance of life and reason,

If in a den of roaring lions hurled

Than for a single year, ay, for one season,

To dwell with folks who’d traveled round the world.

So patronizing are they, so oppressive,

With pity for the ones who stay at home,

So mighty is their knowledge, so aggressive,

I ofttimes wish they had not ceased to roam.

They loathe the new, they quite detest the present;

They revel in a pre-Columbian morn;

Just dare to say America is pleasant,

And die beneath the glances of their scorn.

They are increasing at a rate alarming,

Go where I will, the traveled man is there.

And now I think that rustic wholly charming

Who has not strayed beyond his meadows fair.

 

Ella Wheeler Wilcox 1896