Delhi to Agra

Day 2 of my Indian adventure started with a quick breakfast of coffee and toast. We checked out of our Delhi hotel and awaited our transport. It consisted of a 20 seater bus with driver and helper. With bags loaded into the bus – I remembered to tip this time! – we set off into old Delhi.

Our first stop was Jama Masjid (the great mosque) built in 1656 by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. It took 5,000 workmen six years to build and is the largest mosque in India. The huge square courtyard can accommodate up to 20,000 for occasions such as Friday prayers. It was a foggy day in Delhi so we declined the opportunity to climb the minaret. This is supposed to give great views of the city but with the fog there wouldn’t have been much to see. We removed shoes whilst entering the mosque. This to be a common theme over the next few days and it was common for our shoes to be “minded” by someone in exchange for a tip.

In the courtyard of the biggest Mosque in India

In the courtyard of the biggest Mosque in India

The Jama Masjid

The Jama Masjid

After leaving the mosque we walked through the streets of Old Delhi heading for Chandni Chowk one of India’s most vibrant centres of commerce and religious activity. It was early in the morning and many shops had not yet opened. The usual opening time is 10am. I paused at a stall where an Indian gentleman had just ordered breakfast. We stood aghast at a street where electrical cables hung above us in a chaotic spaghetti of danger.

Breakfast in Old Delhi

Breakfast in Old Delhi

Check out the electrical cables!

Check out the electrical cables!

Having reached Chandni Chowk we visited a Sikh temple. The Sikh holy site of Gurdwara SisGanj stands at the site where the ninth Sikh Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur was beheaded in 1675 on the orders of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb for refusing to accept Islam. To enter the temple we had to remove shoes and socks and wear headscarves. We sat in silence for a few minutes watching Sikhs at worship.

image

Inside the Sikh temple

We watched lunch preparations underway in the temple kitchens. Some of the girls helped with making chapatis. Apparently lunch is provided free to the worshippers within the temple.

Now that's a big pan!

Now that’s a big pan!

Making chapatis

Making chapatis

After leaving the temple we retraced our steps back to the Jama Masjid where the bus was waiting. Many of the shops which were shut when we passed earlier were now trading. There were lots of jewelry shops with no doubt many bargains to be had.

It was now time to leave Delhi as we had a 5 hour journey ahead of us to reach Agra which is around 210km south of Delhi. It was a good journey with most of the road being a relatively new toll motorway. We passed a number of new residential and office developments in the Noida area. One of the places we passed was the Indian Formula 1 circuit at Buddh. Much of the scenery along the way was agricultural. North India is very green at this time of year. There were many workers out in the fields and little sign of mechanisation.

Having made good time to reach Agra we visited the Itmad-Ud-Daulash tomb which is also known as the Baby Taj. It was built by Empress Noor Jahan, the beloved wife of Prince Saleem’or Jahangir, in the memory of her father Mirza Ghiyas Beg, who was the Prime-Minister of the Mughal Court. The Baby Taj was started in 1622 and took 6 years to build. It is if particular interest as it is a forerunner of the Taj Mahal and many of the designs within it are also present within the Taj. The tomb is a combination of white marble, coloured mosaic, stone inlay and lattice work. I found it absolutely captivating and loved the symmetry of the design. It was a wonderful way to spend time at the end of a long journey. Compared to the fog (or smog?) in Delhi it was clear in Agra.

The baby Taj

The baby Taj

Sandstone entrance gate at the Baby Taj

Sandstone entrance gate at the Baby Taj

Me at the Baby Taj

Me at the Baby Taj

image image

After leaving the Baby Taj we headed for our hotel. We got stuck in a traffic jam on the way. Traffic coming on the opposite direction moved onto our side of the road to try and avoid the gridlock. It was absolutely fascinating watching from the bus. Tuk tuks rammed full with an improbable number of people. I saw a family of five (mum, dad and 3 kids) on a motor bike! The young girls on our bus got plenty of attention from a number of the Indian guys stuck in the traffic jam. Eventually the traffic started to move and we got to our hotel.

Family on a motorbike. Mum head away behind Dad for this shot

Family on a motorbike. Mum hid away behind Dad for this shot

A very full Tuk Tuk

A very full Tuk Tuk

In the evening we went out to a local restaurant and enjoyed a meal sat outside. There were a number of Indian weddings going on in Agra. It’s peak season for weddings there. We saw a wedding procession go past involving a marching band and the groom.

After getting back to the hotel I had a drink in the bar but then retired to my room. Tomorrow was an early start and I was going to see the Taj Mahal!

Arrival in India

Coming to India was the part of my trip that I was most excited about but this also came with worries. Would I catch Delhi belly? How would I adjust to such a different culture? What about my security and could I overcome language barriers? People say that coming to India can be a real shock when you first visit. So to alleviate these concerns I am here on an organised tour to the “Golden Triangle” run by G Adventures.

On arrival at Delhi Airport I was met by a young Indian guy as part of the pre-booked transfer. He was a splendid chap who was studying at university in Delhi and earning some extra income by undertaking airport transfers. He didn’t drive the taxi but helped the driver navigate the way to the hotel. It was Sunday afternoon and so the traffic was much lighter than normal. I saw a game of cricket in progress on a patch of rough ground on the way.

After around half an hour I arrived at the hotel in the Karol Bagh area of the city. The Hotel Grand Park Inn was tucked away on a busy side street. It was immediately apparent that this hotel was different from others that I had stayed in whilst I have been away. I was asked to complete details within a very grand and big registration book that seemed to have been in use forever.  No sign of the usual computerisation that you would generally see. A number of guys milling around in the reception area were very keen to help with my luggage. My twin room was clean but basic. It was apparent from what the guy who showed me to my room said that hot water was not always available. I arrived around 2pm and there was to be a group welcome meeting at 6pm. I decided not to venture out of the hotel in the meantime. I headed up to the rooftop terrace to see what lunch may be available. I ordered a butter chicken, naan and rice to be washed down by a kingfisher beer. It turned out that beer was not on the drinks menu but was procured and paid for separately directly to one of the guys I saw in reception earlier. I think he had a little sideline in profiting from selling alcohol in the hotel. The butter chicken was delicious. I was soon joined by Tor-Bjorn who was another member of the tour group. Tor-Bjorn, a Swedish speaker, came from a small Finnish Island and had worked for the Birka cruise line for over 20 years. Tor-Bjorn is a lovely guy and I enjoyed his company throughout the course of the week. After lunch I chilled in my room and watched tv. After expressing interest in a game of cricket showing on the tv in reception, one of the hotel guys came up and found it for me on my room tv. I was amused to see the hotel rules displayed on the door of my room and I took particular note of rule number 6 (see below).

image

At 6pm I met the rest of the group and our Indian CEO (Chief Experience Officer) Yash. There were 12 in our group altogether. As well as Tor-Bjorn and I, there were 4 English girls Amy, Amy, Vicky and Holly. 3 Aussie girls from Adelaide – Prue, Susie and Carrie. A couple from Derbyshire, Dave and Emilie. Last but not least was Paulette who is originally from Belgium but now lives in Canada. I was delighted that over half the group consisted of women in their 20’s!

Yash did an introduction and spoke about the plans for the rest of the week. He talked about India and some of the differences from what we may be used to. Some of the things that stuck with me were:-

– although India may appear chaotic. – it is “organised chaos”

– there is very much a tipping culture – so tips are expected for helping with bags, tour guides, drivers, in addition to bills for meals etc. I realised at this point that I had totally failed to appreciate this and had not tipped the car transfer man, the bag helper or the tv tuner!

– G Adventures believed in sustainable tourism so we would be using local companies rather than multinationals. Eg locally owned hotels.

– the best advice that Yash provided was how it was best to adjust expectations about some of the ways that things work in India in comparison to what you may be used to. eg standards in hotels. He reiterated that all the hotels that we stayed in would be clean, and they were, but perhaps some of the things you take for granted may not be there. That explained the hot water issue earlier. This advice was really useful and really helped me during the week.

With introductions and welcomes out of the way we headed out of the hotel for dinner. Yash led us through the bustling streets of Karol Bagh for around 15 minutes until we found the tranquil oasis of a restaurant and we enjoyed an excellent meal.

After dinner we headed back to the hotel and retired to our rooms. The noise outside was something else and the main contributor was car horns. Indian drivers love to use them. Normally a “watch out” warning for other drivers. The noise abated at around 10pm and I managed a decent nights sleep feeling excited about what was to lay in store for the rest of the week.

Interesting name for travel company seen on way back to our Delhi hotel

Interesting name for travel company seen on way back to our Delhi hotel

 

A week in Krabi

So for the first time in my trip I have chosen to spend a week near a beach doing very little….

I flew from Bangkok to Krabi international Airport which is about an hour away by plane. Krabi is 800 km south of Bangkok towards Malaysia. I have been based at a delightful hotel, the Centara Anda Dhevi Resort and Spa in Ao Nang. Just down the road there are two beaches which I refer to as the quiet beach (Nopparat Thara beach) and the busy beach (Ao Nang Beach). Ao Nang itself is a busy bustling resort with loads of bars, restaurants, massage parlours, tailors (no I don’t want to buy a suit thank you!), small supermarkets, a bewildering multitude of “tourist information places” (basically they are on commission for getting you on a trip) and souvenir shops. Street food is in abundance and I have enjoyed consuming fresh banana pancakes cooked in front of me in seconds.

The quiet beach

The quiet beach

Long tailed boats lined up at the busy beach

Long tailed boats lined up at the busy beach

My banana pancake being cooked

My banana pancake being cooked

Ao Nang is an incredibly relaxing place although more geared up to couples and families than the single traveller. The Thai people I have met in the hotels or in restaurants have been in virtually all cases delightful although there grasp of English often makes communication difficult. So what have I done here other than lounge by the pool, go down to the beach and read books?

Well I have had two hour long Thai full body massages. Incredibly relaxing and an absolute bargain at £6 a go. It’s so cheap here….

I have found the most incredible beach bar next to the quiet beach where I have watched the sun go down whilst drinking a beer or a cocktail.

The view from the beach bar

The view from the beach bar

i have taken a long tail boat, a wooden boat shaped a bit like a canoe with an engine at the back, from the busy beach to the beautiful Railay beach a little further down the coast.

Railay beach

Railay beach

Yesterday I went on a 4 Island boat trip on a 30 seater long-tailed boat. It’s a trip I booked the previous day from one of the “tourist information” places. It was a great day seeing some stunningly beautiful islands and beaches. One of the islands looked like a chicken! All for the bargain price of £8 including lunch!

Chicken Island

Chicken Island

Sandbank by Tup Island

Sandbank by Tup Island

Lovely beach at Poda Island where we had lunch

Lovely beach at Poda Island where we had lunch

Temperature wise at this time of the year, the Thai winter, it’s been in the high 20’s to low 30’s and although humid is not uncomfortably so. The main issue I have had here is insect bites. My legs are absolutely covered in them and they are itching like mad. I will spare you a photo. I am not sure why they are picking on me as I have been checking out other holiday makers’ legs and they do not seem to be similarly afflicted. Perhaps the Mosquitos here like Yorkshire meat?

I am now embarking on a 2 day journey to reach New Delhi to start the next leg of my trip. Delhi is where I join a Golden Triangle tour. I am excited and I am sure it will be an experience never to forget. I am sure that India will be unlike anywhere I have ever visited before. I hope to be able to blog regularly from India but I understand getting an Indian SIM card for by iPad may be a challenge. So watch this space…

Book Review – The Ashes According to Bumble (David Lloyd)

So my next book review goes back to the cricketing theme of many of my earlier blog posts. It feels a little weird to be reading a book about cricket and the Ashes after the series in Australia has been completed. But anyway…

The book is a funny and entertaining read in typical Bumble style. There are many amusing stories and anecdotes. It’s an easy read.

I have two favourite stories in the book.

The first involved a sledging incident between the Aussie batsmen Mark Waugh, one of the famous Waugh brothers.  A number of years ago England selected a bowler called Jimmy Ormond to play against Australia. When Ormond came out to bat Mark Waugh shouted over.  “**** me. Look who it is. Mate what are you doing out here? There’s no way your good enough to play for England.” Ormond replied “maybe not but at least I’m the best player in my family”.

The second involves a game of golf between David Lloyd (Bumble), Mike Selvey and Christopher Martin-Jenkins (CMJ). The game took place, in Queenstown, when England were touring in New Zealand. CMJ, who is sadly no longer with us, had a reputation as a delightful eccentric. As they were warming up before the round he remarked. “Marvellous place this, isn’t it? Did you know it was designed by Ray Charles. You know the famous New Zealand golfer”. Selvey, carried on the conversation. “Yes and I believe there are a number of blind holes on this course”. “So I understand” replied CMJ who was totally oblivious to the gag. The famous Kiwi golfer is Bob Charles…

The book was written before the series in the English summer. There is a section where Lloyd is castigating of the Aussies and some of their players which he may now regret writing… “They’re not very good it’s as simple as that. They’ve got one batter in Michael Clarke, they haven’t got a spinner and this lauded pace attack I keep hearing about must be a drastically different one to the one I’ve witnessed over the last couple of years because it’s not much cop”. Having just witnessed the 5 nil whitewash I beg to differ…

Another book to be donated to the hotel library. Not sure what they will make of it in Thailand…

image

 

Book Review – SHUNT The Story of James Hunt by Tom Rubython

Probably not the next blog that my followers were expecting…. Much earlier in this trip, back in Australia, I referenced the amount of reading material I had brought with me. By the time I arrive in India I need to have significantly reduced the weight of my luggage. So now I have arrived in Krabi in Thailand, the most relaxing place I could possibly imagine, it has given me the opportunity to catch up on some reading…

When I left Manchester back in mid November I spent a lot of the flight over to Australia reading SHUNT – The Story of James Hunt. I finally finished it this week – nearly two months later. It’s an epic amounting to 624 pages. Last week sitting by my hotel pool in Bangkok the American guy next to me, on seeing the size of this book, asked if I had heard of the Kindle Fire!!!

So why the interest in James Hunt? Well I have always had a fascination in him but not totally sure why. Is it because we share the same surname? It is because I remember when I was a young kid growing up watching Formula 1 and the rivalry he had with Niki Lauda? Or is it that he was an incredibly complex character? Was the fascination rekindled by the recent film “Rush” which chronicled Hunt and Lauda duelling for the Formula 1 title in 1976. I am not a Formula 1 fan. I rarely watch it on the tv. It definitely held more of an interest for me in my youth when it seemed less predictable and had amazing characters.

So to the book. Yes it’s long. At times I found it hard going. I think the editing could have been tighter – I found a number of contradictions, errors and repetitions along the way. Perhaps it could have been a little shorter. But I doubt for anyone wanting to get a real insight into James Hunt there is anything better out there.

Hunt was undoubtedly a complicated and often troubled individual. Bernie Ecclestone summed him up as “He had more facets than a diamond, which, combined with an irresistible charm, made him the most remarkable character in Formula One ever”

James Hunt died in 1993. I can’t believe its over 20 years ago. At the time of his death he was working as a Formula 1 co-commentator, alongside Murray Walker, for the BBC. He died after a massive heart attack. His heart muscles had been fatally weakened by hard drinking, smoking and recreational drug use. At the time of his death it is said he was at his happiest. He had largely gone on the straight and narrow, stopped womanising, and had a steady girlfriend called Helen Dyson. One of the saddest aspects of the story is that James had proposed marriage to Helen just before his untimely death. She is quoted as saying “I shrieked with joy when he proposed to me over the phone, and I accepted. It was the last time I ever spoke to him”,

The book is filled with some amazing stories, some of which are shocking, but nevertheless are important to understand the real James Hunt.

Some that stuck with me were…

Hunt was a womaniser. He was not faithful to any of the women that he had long term relationships with. He married his first wife, Suzy Miller, in 1974. Soon after the marriage he realised he had made a mistake and it was with considerable relief in 1976 when he discovered that Miller had begun an affair with Richard Burton whom she subsequently married.

Hunt had a lifelong fascination with budgerigars. Following his retirement from Formula 1 he took up this passion and began breeding prize budgies. There was a rather bizarre incident on a visit to a budgerigar show in Doncaster in 1989. After the show when one of Hunt’s budgies won first prize he and some of his budgerigar enthusiast friends decided to go out to a nightclub. Hunt often dressed very casually. Often he would wear jeans and no shoes for formal events and because of who he was normally got away with it. So James turned up to the nightclub wearing jeans and trainers. He was refused entry because of the club’s dress policy. An argument ensued with the doorman. A cup of coffee which the doorman was holding was flicked over him by Hunt. It could have been an accident or deliberate. The police were called and Hunt was arrested and taken to Doncaster police station. Goodness knows what the police thought about about an ex Formula 1 world champion being in Doncaster attending a budgerigar show! Well after a couple of hours he was released and not charged as the CCTV evidence was inconclusive. Hunt made a point of going to the night club to apologise. Many  years later, after Hunt’s death, the CCTV footage was shown on a Channel 4 documentary about him. This caused much anguish to Hunt’s family.

After his retirement from Formula 1 Hunt began a career commentating on Formula 1 alongside Murray Walker. The two of them to begin with didn’t get on particularly well. Walker thought that Hunt was there to replace him. Over time the relationship much improved and Walker gave a very moving tribute to Hunt in a celebration of his life held 3 months after his death. Shortly before his BBC debut Hunt had a skiing accident and had his leg in plaster. At his first broadcast, in Monaco, he arrived worse for wear from drink and deeply upset Murray by resting his plaster cast on Walker’s lap for the full two hours of the broadcast. Despite all this, Hunt put on a brilliant performance in front of the microphone. Typically he would arrive for these commentaries with seconds to spare and holding a bottle of rose wine.

Several more stories I could recite but are probably not suitable for a family blog. If you want to know more buy the book or to avoid the space issues I have download it! I will be donating my copy to the library in the lounge in my Krabi hotel.

image

 

 

 

Floating Markets and Bridge on the River Kwai

The tour mini-bus picked me up from my Bangkok hotel lobby at 6.10am. It felt ridiculously early. The city was still dark and there were the signs of the transition from nightlife Bangkok to morning rush hour as we moved through the city to pick up other members of the tour party. It was a small group. 9 in total including the driver and tour guide. The other members of the party were a couple from Melbourne who were on a cruise which had docked at Bangkok, a Welsh couple who had been living and working in Australia for the last 4 years and a British mother and son who were travelling through the Far East for 4 Weeks.

From Bangkok we were driven in a South Westerly direction towards the Damnoen Saduak floating markets. We passed salt fields and rice paddies on the way. There was a stop on the way which transpired to be a roadside market which seemed to cater exclusively for tour buses. After a couple of hours we had nearly reached the floating market. We boarded a long tail speed boat and sped along canals for an exciting 10 minutes before reaching the market. We disembarked but were then given the option of boarding a more leisurely craft to explore the market. This bit was fascinating as we were taken to stalls at the side of the canal where the locals tried to sell you all manner of wares including fruit, vegetables, sweets, spices, souvenirs and freshly cooked food. Some of the traders were selling from their own boats. After disembarking the boat we had time to explore the “non floating part” of the market. I bought a couple of T-shirts for the beach. I get little pleasure from wearing my England cricket t shirts at the moment for obvious reasons….

image image image image image

After the market we drove for a couple of hours, North West, to the Bridge on the River Kwai. I remember watching the film about the building of the bridge when I was a kid. There were 3 elements to the Bridge part of the day. It started with a visit to the JEATH war museum. The museum is contained within a reconstruction of a prisoner of war hut. The museum is so named as the abbreviation of the six countries involved in the building of the railway from Thailand to Burma during World War 2. Japan, England, America and Australia, Thailand and Holland. The railway constructed was 415km long (303km in Thailand and 112km in Burma). Construction began in September 1942 and involved 30,000 prisoners of war and 200,000 forced labourers from India, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Burma and Thailand. Of these 16,000 POW’s and 100,000 impressed labourers died of abuse, disease, starvation and lack of medical facilities. There were photos in the museum which showed some POW’s in an awful states of emaciation or with skin diseases. The temperatures and humidity they worked in must have been really high. It was in the low 30’s the day I visited and that was on a winter’s day. The Japanese originally expected it to take 5 years to complete the railway but because of how hard they got the labourers to work it was completed in 16 months.

After the museum we went to the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery which contains the graves of 5,000 commonwealth and 1,800 Dutch POW’s. The cemetery is really well kept. I found the number of graves and the age of the men who died, typically in their early 20’s, very humbling.

The Kanchanburi War Cemetry

The Kanchanaburi War Cemetry

So finally to the Bridge on the River Kwai. There were 2 bridges built. A temporary wooden bridge followed by a steel and concrete bridge. Both bridges were bombed and destroyed by the RAF and US Air Forces towards the end of the war. The steel bridge was rebuilt by the Japanese after the war ended as part of war reparations and is still there today. Post war the railway line was in poor repair and was dismantled. However eventually part of the line, a 130km section etween Non Pla Duk and Nam Tok, reopened in 1958. According to the Thai Railway timetables only one passenger train a day operates on the line in each direction.

image image

The Bridge has become a tourist attraction and there are numerous souvenir stalls there and a train you can ride over the bridge on and for a short distance beyond the bridge. There was something unedifying about the Bridge being exploited for tourism. As I headed off to walk across the bridge one of the souvenir shops, selling CDs, was blaring out Boney M’s Painter Man. On my return the accompaniment was “Love me Love my dog”.

After time at the bridge we headed back to Bangkok. The journey was uneventful until we reached the city. It was rush hour on a Friday evenIng. So as well as lots of traffic leaving Bangkok there were lots of people coming in to take part in the nightlife. The result was total gridlock. The minibus moved about 100 yards in half an hour. Some members of the group bailed out to find a train back to their accommodation. I held tight not knowing where I was in the city in comparison to my hotel. Finally the traffic started moving. The tour guide said he would accompany me in a taxi back to the hotel. I noticed when he was sat in the taxi that he was coughing almost uncontrollably. It was gridlock again and the tour guide and I abandoned the taxi with the plan being to get the Sky Train. The guide was clearly unwell, sweating profusely and needing time to catch his breath. At this point I suggested he needed to go and recover and not worry about me. I asked him directions to the nearest sky train station to where we were and the station for my hotel. With this information and 50 baht (around £1) in my pocket I managed to negotiate the skytrain system back to Nana station which was a short walk to my hotel. The sky train is a bit like an elevated version of the London Underground and was an impressive way to get around the traffic locked city.

Bangkok City and Temples Tour

After an uneventful 8 hour flight from Sydney I landed in Bangkok. My first experience of a different culture was in arranging a taxi to take me to my hotel. On the way to the taxi queue I had already been approached by a number of guys offering what I presumed was non official transport to my hotel. I declined and took my place in one of a number of separate queues. At the head of the queue was a woman sat by a desk. When it was my turn I gave the name of my hotel. She then wrote something on a form which I was then to hand to the next available taxi driver. Soon he appeared and I was on my way. We headed away from the airport on a motorway. Because of the smog there was no sign of Bangkok ahead. After a while the driver, who clearly did not know much English, said to me “Expressway”? I had managed to glean from the form that there was an additional charge for using this toll motorway of 75 baht (around £1.50) so I gave him the go ahead. What I hadn’t appreciated was that he wanted me to pay it directly! Anyway the rest of the journey was uneventful. I was clearly staying in a busy part of town. The bill for the taxi journey which took around 45 minutes was the equivalent of about £7. Somewhat cheaper than Australia!

I settled into my hotel room. A much nicer room and hotel than the rather depressing one I had experienced in Sydney for the previous week….

The next morning I was up bright and early for a “City and Temples tour”. The local female tour guide wore a face mask which she explained was due to her having flu which she attributed to recent temperature swings. Currently it is winter in Bangkok although daily maximums were in the low 30’s. Apparently temperatures had been significantly lower in recent days and weeks. I did see a number of people in Bangkok wearing masks to avoid the smog. On the day of the tour the skies were clear. Certainly much clearer then when I arrived in town the previous evening.

The first stop was at the Wat Traimat Temple to view the Golden Buddha that is displayed there. It is mightily impressive, solid gold, weighing 5.5 tons and is 16 feet high by 12 feet wide. It’s valued at £28.5million. It was held elsewhere until 1955 and was covered in plaster. It was only when transported to this temple in 1955 was it discovered to be golden. In visiting all temples here you have to remove shoes before entering.

Outside the Temple of the Golden Buddha

Outside the Temple of the Golden Buddha

The Golden Buddha and me!

The Golden Buddha and me!

After leaving this temple there was a stop to view roadside flower and fruit markets. The tour guide led us across a busy road with motor cycles, tuk tuks and cars all flying past. It felt a little hairy!

imageimageimage

The next temple was Wat Pho – The Temple of the Reclining Buddha. This was even more impressive than the Golden Buddha. The reclining Buddha is 46m long and 15m high. It’s modelled out of plaster around a brick core and is finished in gold leaf. The grounds to this temple were extensive and in side buildings there were golden Buddhas everywhere.

The reclining Buddha

The reclining Buddha

The back of the reclining Buddha's feet

The back of the reclining Buddha’s feet

More Buddhas

More Buddhas

In what the guide described as the "Ordination room"

In what the guide described as the “Ordination room”

That was the last of the temples. I had been expecting one more but when I queried this the guide explained that due to the political protests going in in Bangkok currently we would not be able to visit one temple. Political protests have been ongoing in Thailand since November 2013. They were triggered by an amnesty bill taken through parliament by the ruling Pheu Thai Party led by Yingluck Shinawatra. The law would have led to the potential return to Thailand of the former prime minister, and brother of Yingluck, Thaksin Shinawatra. He was a former prime minister of Thailand between 2001 and 2006 before being removed in a military coup. Since then he has lived in exile apart from a brief return in 2008. He has been convicted of abusing public power by helping his wife buy public land at an auction and was sentenced to two years in jail. The new amnesty bill, as I understand things, would mean this conviction would no longer be a barrier to Thaksin returning to Thailand. The Democracy movement who have organised the protests are unhappy about the amnesty bill and the perceived influence on Thailand politics of Thaksin. The protests so far, in Bangkok, have been relatively peaceful but appear to be growIng in size and intensity. There is a major protest going on in Bangkok on 13th January in a number of locations and seems to have brought the roads to a complete standstill. The protestors aim to indefinitely occupy Bangkok. In response to the protests the government has dissolved parliament and called a general election for next month. I saw no direct evidence of the protests when I was in Bangkok although it did appear to be exorcising the locals. There has been an impact in reduced tourist revenues in Thailand across Christmas and New Year compared to the previous year.

The last stop on the tour was unexpected and involved a trip to “The worlds largest jewelry store”. On arrival we were ushered into a small cinema for a 10 minute long film about jewelry. Following which we were taken into a huge room full of rings, necklaces etc… Any efforts to sell to me got short shrift and when it became clear that I was single I was left alone!

My Last 48 Hours in Sydney

So with the cricket finishing 2 days early this gave me an opportunity for extra sightseeing.

On the first spare day I fancied time at the beach but to begin with went to Darling Harbour for a spot of breakfast at one of the harbour front restaurants. This also gave me the opportunity to check out some of the boats moored there including the worlds largest operational steam ferry “South Steyne”. It used to operate as the Manly Ferry. There is also a full replica of Captain Cook’s HMS Endeavour at Darling Harbour as part of the maritime museum.

South Steyne

South Steyne

Replica of HMS Endeavour

Replica of HMS Endeavour

The famous Sydney beach is Bondi but another beach, Coogee, had been recommended to me. I travelled there by bus. The journey takes around half an hour and takes you past the Sydney Cricket Ground and through the suburb of Randwick. On the way through Randwick I spotted a racecourse, the University of New South Wales and Sydney Children’s Hospital.

It was an absolutely glorious summers day with cloudless skies and a temperature in the high 20’s. On arrival at Coogee I headed to get a view of the beach. It’s a belter! Wide golden sands and crashing waves. Like other Aussie sea side resorts the early settlers tried to replicate what they were familiar with from England. So Coogee had at one time a pier, a tram, separate baths for gentlemen and ladies and a Palace Aquarium which featured a whole host of different entertainments. One thing quite different which you won’t find in Blackpool was a shark net. Now the only visible sign of these remaining that I could see was the Palace Aquarium which has now been redeveloped as the Beach Palace Hotel. The pier and shark net have long since been claimed by the sea.

Coogee Beach

Coogee Beach

Coogee Beach facing South

Coogee Beach facing South

The Coogee Bay Hotel sits just across the road from the beach. I had been told that it has the biggest bar in the Southern Hemisphere. I’m not sure about that but it does have the biggest beer garden in Sydney and certainly the biggest I have ever seen! The website says it has 7 bars and a 1,750 capacity venue where bands such as INXS and the Foo Fighters have played. Well I think I missed some of these bars and the venue but as well as the beer garden bar I saw a beach bar and a sports bar. The sports bar area in particular was massive and included an area for gambling on horses and greyhounds. There was also a separate “VIP lounge”. The “VIP lounge” is something I had not noticed in any other part of Australia so I am guessing it only applies in New South Wales. I was rather excited to discover that my hotel in Sydney had a VIP lounge and wondered who the VIP’s may be that frequented it. Kylie and Danni Minogue?  Shane Warne? Tony Abbott? On further investigation after checking into the Great Southern Hotel I rather disappointingly discovered that a VIP lounge is actually a room full of fruit machines. Every pub and hotel in Sydney seems to have one and suggests that this part of a Australia has a real gambling culture. So anyway back to the Coogee Bay hotel. I settled into the beach bar and enjoyed a Chaucer golden ale and a fish and chip lunch. Having done further research into the Coogee Bay Hotel for writing this blog I found a story from 2008 entitled the “Coogee Bay Hotel poo scandal”. I won’t go into the gory details here but google it and you can see what it’s about. Suffice to say had I read that before going to Coogee I am not sure I would have chosen to eat at the Coogee Bay Hotel…. The fish and chips were fine though.

Coogee Bay Hotel

Coogee Bay Hotel

Beer garden at Coogee Bay hotel

Beer garden at Coogee Bay hotel

I decided to walk off lunch and headed north on the coastal path and passed through Gordon’s Bay before stopping for a sunbathe and paddle at Clovelly Beach.

Gordon's Bay

Gordon’s Bay

Clovelly Beach

Clovelly Beach

On day 2 I spent some time on chores ahead of the next leg of my journey. Laundry, haircut and a bit of shopping. With that out of the way I headed for one last time to Sydney Harbour. This time I went a slightly different route which took in the Queen Victoria building which has been lovingly restored to include shopping and eating places. A bit like the Victoria Quarter in Leeds. I also visited briefly the St Mary’s (Catholic) Cathedral before heading for the mightily impressive Royal Botanical Gardens which stretch right down to the Opera House. Earlier that day the Aussie cricket team had been at the Opera House celebrating the 5 nil whitewash but thankfully by the time I arrived they were long gone.

Interior of Queen Victoria building

Interior of Queen Victoria building

St Mary's Cathedral

St Mary’s Cathedral

Royal Botanical Gardens

Royal Botanical Gardens

After getting more photos of the opera house and harbour bridge I headed for the Rocks area. This part of Sydney, which as it turned out where I had been to see the fireworks on New Years Eve, is the oldest part of Sydney and has recently been transformed into bars, restaurants and shops.

Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House

image

The Rocks

The Rocks

So my time in Sydney and Australia had come to an end. I can’t believe it’s now 7 weeks since I arrived in Brisbane. My time in Australia has been fantastic and Sydney has been a fitting end to it. But now it’s time to move on. Next destination Thailand!

400 Richie Benaud impersonators!

The highlight of day 2 of the second test match was not the cricket!! It was a group of around 400 Aussie guys all sat together, dressed in the same outfits as a tribute to the legendary commentator Richie Benaud. They all had light suits, grey wigs and carried a Channel 9 microphone. It must take a lot of organising and I’m not sure how they do it. They were a lively bunch and by the end of the day many of them seemed to be struggling to stand up due to alcohol. When Mitchell Johnson came into bowl they stood up and shouted “Mitchell, Mitchell!” whilst waving their microphones in unison. At one point there was a commotion involving someone sat behind them in the entertainment area. From tv coverage next day what happened was that the “Richie’s” got former Aussie Prime Minister Bob Hawke to skoll a beer. “Skoll” is Aussie for “down in one”. He did it successfully. Not bad for a man in his 80’s!

The Richies!

The Richies!

More Richies!

More Richies!

Two Richie's

Two Richie’s

A Richie and me!

A Richie and me!

Bob Hawke skolling a beer in front of the Richies

Bob Hawke skolling a beer in front of the Richies

Bob Hawke gives the thumbs up after downing the beer in 10 seconds

Bob Hawke gives the thumbs up after downing the beer in 10 seconds

 

Richie Benaud has been away from the screens this summer. He suffered a car crash last October in Coogee, a Sydney suburb where he lives. He crashed his beloved 1963 Sunbeam Alpine into a parked car and then a brick fence. He suffered a cracked sternum as well as back and shoulder injuries which continue to hamper him. He is currently back in hospital whilst having further treatment on the lingering back problems. Best wishes Richie!

The Sydney Cricket Ground

Having now visited all 5 of the grounds in Australia that have hosted the Ashes fixtures I have to say that I think the SCG is my favourite. I love the way that the two beautiful old stands have been retained whilst the ground is redeveloped. These old stands the Ladies Pavilion and Members Pavilion sit next to a huge new Northern Pavilion within which are contained the MA Noble and Don Bradman stands. The new stands were completed on the eve of this test match – actually more work is needed to 100% complete the work as the roof is not fully finished. This new stand was getting rave reviews from the SCG members who were using it for the first time. I was seated in the lower tier of the Brewongle stand. It was a decent view. The facilities were not the best that I have seen in comparison to the Gabba, Adelaide Oval or MCG but there plans to redevelop this stand along with the Churchill and O’Reilly stands. On balance the SCG gets my vote as my favourite of the 5 venues for the way that old has been retained whilst redeveloping new stands. I also had the best view of the scoreboard at the SCG. That’s important!

The Ladies and Members Pavilions with the Sydney skyline in the distance

The Ladies and Members Pavilions with the Sydney skyline in the distance

The new Northern Pavilion

The new Northern Pavilion

The scoreboard and the Bill O'Reilly stand

The scoreboard and the Bill O’Reilly stand

My second favourite ground is the Adelaide Oval. They have built some massive magnificent new stands there. But all the old stands have gone. The main item that had been retained to preserve history is the lovely old scoreboard.

Third is the MCG. It’s massive and I had a fantastic view. However it is all a bit the same. It’s a huge bowl. It is gob smacking when you first see it.

Fourth is the Gabba. To a large degree a smaller version of the MCG. I had a great view of the pitch but not of the scoreboard. Also this was the one ground where I was in the shade all day. That is very welcome when your watching cricket. It doesn’t have much character though.

Fifth and by some distance is the WACA. It desperately needs redevelopment. There are a hotch potch of old and temporary stands. There is also little shade which is a big issue given the heat experienced there during the Australia summer. The facilities are also by far the worst I experienced. I like the grass banks though! The WACA needs to work hard to retain it’s test ground status. I hear the ground at Hobart is in better shape to host test cricket although it’s more likely to rain there!