My number one travel experience is a very personal one, which involves a site that had almost mythical status during my childhood.
You see, on June 8th 1957 my parents were married at St George’s Church, Tanglin, Singapore. I was brought up on tales of how they met in the army, got engaged on Christmas eve in Penang, Malaysia and then wed, so far from home and with no relatives present.
Some forty years later, I was able to pay homage to the feted church on my way home from a trip to Indonesia. I will never forget the feeling of emotion & pride as I viewed the mecca that had seemed impossibly far away as I grew up.
This most personal of pilgrimages set me thinking about my top travel experiences. One look at my bucket list will show you that I have a load of must-sees still to do, but here are my top ten thus far:
Number Ten – Watching the Ramayana at Prambanan in Java
I visited Java & Bali in 1997 (we were actually due to do Malaysia & Sumatra, but El Niño put paid to that idea).
It was a fantastic trip with lots of happy memories from manic Jakarta to peaceful Ubud. Number one however was our trip to Prambanan, a Hindu shrine in a dominantly Muslim country (Indonesia is the world’s most populous Islamic country with only Hindu Bali standing apart).
Prambanan itself was stunning with its jagged monuments and homages to the gods of Shiva, Vishnu & Ganesh.
Hamish & I were the only two white faces there, the rest of the visitors seeming to be Indonesian schoolgirls! The girls giggled incessantly and hilariously tried to take surreptitious photos of Hamish & I when we were not looking in their direction.
After the secret snappers were tumbled and we made it be known that we did not mind, we were inundated with requests to pose for photos with girls barely into their teens. Then I realised how Michael Jackson must have felt most of the time!
After we signed the last autograph (I kid you not) and posed for a final time, peace returned and we were able to enjoy a lovely sunset over the peaks of the structures.
However, this was not the end of the day. We had the treat to come – an open-air performance of the Ramayana, the age-old Hindu epic.
It ended with a set made of hay being burned. A hot ending for those of us sat in the front rows and with the added bonus of lighting up the sky enough for me to see a bat swoop and catch a moth.
The performance was colourful and dramatic. A superb way to end a long day.
Number Nine – Observing The Monks of Luang Prabang
LP as it is known is the most spiritual and relaxed place that I have ever been to (Nepal & Myanmar still to come).
It is the monks and their wats that make the place special. Every evening around five, the novice monks and their masters take to the temples to sing Buddhist script and recite religious text.
The sweet melody has you in a spell like the children and rats of Hamlin, as you are drawn to the prayer halls to sit cross-legged in silence and awe to witness the holy spectacle in the shadow of a giant Buddha.
In a lovely touch, once the mesmeric ‘show’ is over, the young monks mingle with the tourists to talk about the life of a monk and more importantly which football team we all support.
A unique experience in LP is the daily parade for alms. Before sunrise, lines of orange robed monks silently walk the streets collecting rice, bread and fruit for their daily meals.
This is offered up by kneeling locals and tourists and placed into small lidded baskets that are carried by the monks.
The monks then breakfast on their spoils, said to be their main meal of the day and enough sustenance for their daily ritual of praying & learning.
The whole spectacle is a surreal, almost eerie experience in seeing many hundreds of orange clad, bare-footed, shaven-headed youths snaking along the streets of LP in total silence, nodding their thanks to the offerings as travellers snap away to record the moment.
Well worth getting up for.
Number Eight – The Train/Bus Journey from Trondheim to Narvik
They say that a major part of the travel experience is getting there and I agree. I will take a train by preference to any other means of transport if convenient.
I have experienced this favourite journey twice whilst inter-railing in 1989 & 1992 and hope to do it again one day.
The first special time I took the overnight train from chic fjord flanked Trondheim (being broke and wanting to use the train to sleep), but the second time I travelled by day for the nine-hour train leg to Fauske, before boarding the bus for the five hour journey to Narvik, deep inside the Arctic Circle.
If you go in June/July of course it makes no difference as it will be light all of the time anyway.
The train journey is absolutely wonderful as you cut through the rocky mountainous terrain, every tunnel an incredible feat of engineering. I travelled in September and even then there was plenty of snow up on the high ground, the pine forests completely blanketed.
For me the most memorable part was the bus journey. The natural scenery was absolutely stunning – raging rivers, torrential waterfalls, majestic forests, twisted rock formations. When is started to rain, new rivers and waterfalls quickly formed, running by us and cascading over us as we swept on untroubled by the elements.
I listened to Grieg’s Peer Gynt as we moved smoothly on. Every time I have listened since, I am instantly transported back to the land of mountain trolls and sprites, the very landscape that inspired Ibsen to write his famous story that Grieg set to music.
At one point we had to board a ferry to cross a glacial lake. Despite the freezing conditions, I stood on deck and was rewarded with icy cold but perfectly clear waters to have a perfect view of the fluttering jelly fish and shoals of silvery fish.
It was actually disappointing to arrive in Narvik, I did not want the journey to end.
Another train trip two days later on the Ofoten Line following a beautiful fjord for dozens of miles as we made our way to Kiruna in Sweden, soon had the travel juices flowing again however!
Number Seven – Seeing Three of the Big Five in Kruger
I guess this is on the highlights list of every person who has ever done a safari. For Mrs Wilbur & I this is definitely the case.
The thrill of seeing majestic beasts roaming in their natural habitat is a joyful experience and in Kruger you have an excellent chance of seeing all of the Big Five, as well as many of the delightful ‘lesser’ animals that do not make the elite list, such as zebra, giraffe, crocodile, antelope, baboon & jackal.
Here is one to debate – why is the buffalo in over the hippopotamus?
Enough of that, we saw an abundance of lion and elephant, missed out all together on leopard and the controversial bovine, but it was our pursuit of an elusive herd of black rhino that was to prove the highlight.
We pursued their tracks for three hours, until just before total darkness fell and we were about to head home, there in the gloom we spotted six shadowy giants grazing. Ryan our guide was beside himself. He had never seen a group this big before.
Our efforts were rewarded for once (are you listening tigers of India, whales of Iceland and dolphins of Mauritius?), as we viewed the impressive pack until such time as they mingled in with the darkness. Twenty minutes of great joy.
Number Six – Traversing Ha Long Bay
UNESCO Heritage Listed Ha Long Bay is on every Vietnam visitor’s must see list nowadays and the fact that it is so close to Ha Noi make
s it an easy excursion.
When Hamish & I went in 1998, we decided to spend a night at Cat Ba Island to ensure we made the most of what the bay had to offer.
After a bumpy three-hour drive from the capital, we joined our sailing vessel for our steady but serene float along the turquoise waters.
The area is a place of outstanding natural beauty. Huge flora covered rocks burst from the sea like tortoise shells, scattered liberally throughout the bay. Occasionally junks with their orange paper-like sails, glided by to make our pictures that bit more impressive.
The wind-fuelled journey was incredibly peaceful and it was one of those periods of complete tranquility and love for the world we live in, so incredible at times in an entirely positive way.
Part way we stopped off to visit a jagged cave and mountain lake. Unfortunately the crew took the opportunity to steal some cash, but to their credit they only took a few notes rather than the lot. I didn’t notice the loss until two days later and to be honest it would not have detracted from the trip in the least.
We spent the night on Cat Ba Island in a cheap hotel best remembered for the large cockroaches that frequented the bathrooms. The hotel flip-flops came in very useful!
Next morning we spent some time swimming and laying in the beach in the December sunshine – we would be back in the cold UK soon enough,
The trip back was marginally less spectacular as our marginal propensity for stunning scenery waned a little. We returned to Ha Noi to find that Ho Chi Minh was not in his mausoleum – he had paid a trip to Moscow for a facial!
Number Five – Petra
Many people will have seen Petra, even if they do not realise it. A good part of Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade was shot there.
The Nabatean settlement, an ancient oasis city on the historic main Caravan Route, has to be seen first hand however to appreciate its splendour. The Treasury & Monastery are iconic sights of course and rightly so. Your first glimpse of the former as you come to the end of a long narrow path (siq) and view the peerless structure will live long in the memory.
The ‘Rose City’ is one of the so called ‘Seven Modern Wonders of the World’ (I could never understand how The Coliseum in Rome (fab as it is) trumped the Acropolis of Athens in the vote), largely on the back of the unique Treasury. However, Petra has loads more to offer.
Hundreds of cave dwellings cut into the desert rock, the rocks themselves beautifully patterned and vibrantly coloured pink, rust red & metallic grey, the amphitheatre, countless tombs, columns, statues, ruined churches, a prison, well preserved mosaics & much more.
I was delighted to see humming birds collecting nectar, Bedouin herding goats and camels roaming freely. We went right off the beaten track and ended up in a Bedouin settlement where it was fascinating to see the locals who call Petra home just going about their normal business.
We did linger a little too long, not only being charged at by a daft camel, but also meaning that we only just made the exit before complete nightfall. Teach us to go ‘off piste.’
In a slight twist on the spectacle, you can also visit The Treasury at night on a guided tour. The whole siq and the foreground in front of the main attraction are lit with hundreds of candles in paper bags filled with sand. A mesmeric sight and for once I was very happy to be guided by an expert who regaled tales of traders, villains & artisans.
Number Four – Sunset At Taj Mahal
A year after Egypt, I was back with Explore again for a fabulous trip to India for the Golden Triangle of Delhi, Jaipur & Agra.
The undoubted special moment were our visits to the Taj Mahal, the first at sunrise and the second at sunset.
As a relatively modern monument, the Taj stands out on its own and is to India what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, The Statue of Liberty to New York and Christ The Redeemer to Rio. An iconic structure that is instantly recognisable.
To see at close quarters the smooth white marble encrusted with inset precious stones was for me an unexpected bonus over just seeing the magnificent building.
It was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife Mumtaz Mahal as her mausoleum. How incredibly sad the Jahan was imprisoned by his own son before he could get the replica black marble taj built on the other side of the river connected by an amazing bridge. Now that would have been something!
Sunrise was fabulous, but sunset with the orange glow of the sun bouncing off the white marble and the perfect reflection of the great building in the waters to its front and side brought tears to the eyes. It was that perfect.
I think I need to go again!
Number Three – Sunrise Over The Valley Of The Kings
In 1996 I visited Egypt at Easter. I went with the brilliant people that are Explore as a singleton. The whole trip was brilliant – Cairo, Pyramids, camel ride, temples, two night small boat trip (sleeping on deck) down the Nile etc.
We had two three a.m. starts – one to go to unbelievable Abu Simbel and one for what was to prove to be the highlight, a donkey ride to see the sun rising over The Valley Of The Kings.
Sceptical at first – I had only ever ridden a donkey at Pontins before as an unsuccessful jockey in a ‘donkey derby’ – but as soon as I set off along the rocky path with my sure-footed friend the magic started. Before long our small group had reached the prime point overlooking the valley.
As we munched on breakfast on the hoof, the tip of the sun made its first appearance over the horizon.
Soon the giant orange sphere had turned the desert landscape from murky grey to a golden glow. You probably had to be there to appreciate it, but the whole group had tears in their eyes, such was the beauty of the spectacle before us (the hard, spiny back we recently had between our legs had nothing at all to do with it)!
We lingered for thirty minutes or so before re-mounting for the descent and the amazing visit to the huge tomb of Ramses III, the longest serving Pharaoh ever. They started building each Pharaoh’s tomb as soon as they are crowned, hence Ramses (who died aged ninety) had a far bigger and grander three-chamber tomb compared to the equally famous Tutankhamen who died (was murdered?) aged just nineteen.
Unfortunately the Ramses tomb had been looted centuries before despite the location being kept a closely guarded secret to all but a very small chosen few (surviving manual labour and architects plus their families were even killed to preserve the secret), otherwise the fabulous Cairo Museum would have needed to be twice as big! (As it is they say that if you looked at every exhibit for one minute you would need to spend an entire year there without sleep)!
I have since ridden a donkey in Santorini and on the Acropolis of Lindos and good as the experiences were, nothing has come close to that magical morning just outside Luxor.
Number Two – Riding An Elephant In Laos
Normal Monday morning – get up at six tired from weekend excesses, get on an overdue, packed and sweaty train (no seat) with other grumpy commuters, go to office with grumpy colleagues, drink disgusting vending machine coffee, work on sales figures, eat plastic lunch at desk, get home at seven, fall asleep on the sofa.
Special Monday morning – get up at six invigorated despite weekend excesses, motorise canoe down misty river to main camp, clamber onto the neck of a non-grumpy elephant, comfortable if unusual seat with plenty of room, open air ride to river with exuberant new friends, drink freshly squeezed fruit juice, work on scrubbing elephant in aforementioned river, feed elephant sugar cane, back in lodge at seven, fall asleep on the sofa.
Oh, add to that a feeling of complete exhilaration, beautiful jungle surroundings, like-minded traveller ‘colleagues’ & wonderful al fresco meals prepared on an open fire.
Number One – Hiking the Inca Trail To Machu Picchu
Much has been written about the hike to the lost city of the Incas and indeed it is may people’s number one experience. For me it is there to be beaten to top spot – perhaps that erupting volcano that tops my bucket list will do it?
Our whole time in Peru was fabulous – Arequipa, Colca Canyon with its soaring condors, The Nazca Lines, Lake Titticaca, The Puno – Cusco Express, Cusco itself, Pisac Market, all strong contenders for a top twenty position.
The 26 mile hike though easily topped the lot, something that we so very nearly missed. All hikes were fully booked when we arrived in Cusco towards the end of our three week stay in Peru and with numbers strictly limited on the Trail, we were faced with getting the train with all the tourists.
An Israeli couple’s misfortune was our golden ticket. They had to drop out and we got their ride. The only downside was that my permit stated that I was the 21 year-old Israeli wife of Hamish, my 27 year-old Israeli husband!
$5 changed hands at the entrance to the Trail and I was in.
There were so many highlights – the outstanding natural beauty of the Andean landscape of course, the camaraderie between our group and with our sherpars & guides, the feeling of achieving something really worthwhile the hard way (and it was pretty hard!), the thrill of sleeping under the stars, the fun we had around the camp fire telling stories & jokes.
Amongst it all, were two never to be forgotten experiences.
Firstly the ascent to Warmiwañusqa (Dead Woman’s Pass), the peak of the Trail at 13,800 feet above Sea Level. The effects of the thin air at altitude have to be experienced to be appreciated. The climb was an ascent of around 1,000 metres in a few hours. Absolutely exhausting, like walking through treacle with chains around your ankles.
I had trained hard beforehand, but even then I had to stop after every two or three steps for a rest. The hardest thing I had or have ever done and (with Kilimanjaro unlikely to be on the agenda) probably will remain that way.
The sense of achievement in reaching the top was absolutely sensational, as was the stunning view.
The second highlight naturally was arrive at the lost Inca city itself. There was however more to it than that. We were up at three and headed off by torch light as we wanted to ensure that we arrived in time to see the sunrise, with the added bonus of having the place virtually to ourselves for a couple of magical hours.
Upon arrival, all we could see was mist. As I listened to Beethoven’s 5th on my Walkman, the sun rose slowly but surely to burn the cloud away and bit by bit reveal the stunning view that we had spent three days walking to.
The feeling was unequivocal joy, it was almost like we had discovered Machu Picchu and not Hiram Bingham at all!
The site was completely deserted, those that stayed in the nearby hotel still breakfasting and the day-trippers just starting out on their train ride from Cusco.
Machu Picchu was ours, even if only for an hour or two. Stupendous!