Cambodia Visit – Claimed Back by Nature

On the last main day of travels I hired a car with driver since I had no desire to ride the 57 km to the target temple with a tuktuk. A wise choice, since the drive went quite smoothly with the car. The target was the Beng Mealea temple, which is famous for its moss overgrowth during the rainy season. When I visited there were some remnants of moss left, but most of it had already been burned away by the sun. Nevertheless, the site is breathtaking. The temple is more or less entirely destroyed but how plants rank around it, claiming it back, make for a unique atmosphere which is mystic, bizarre and beautiful. It is well worth the ride from Siem Reap.

On the way back were another three temples to visit, all of them from the 9th century with Bakong temple being the most beautiful as well as best preserved one. The other two, Lolei and Preah Ko resemble the East Mebon and Pre Rup temples of the big circle tour, but Bakong is a gem of its own with its central lone tower. A very impressive site well worth the visit as well.

While all the temple glory makes you wonder who the Khmer were and how they lived and how they built all these sites, the Cambodian people of today have a hard life. Well, the people who actually toiled to built those temples on behest of their kings of course too. I chatted with the lady who brought me my dinner in the Siem Reap hotel every day. She has two sons, six and one year old. She works every single day. People in big companies have one day off per week, but people in small businesses usually work every day, because no work = no money. She has two jobs. She works at the hotel restaurant from 14:00 to 23:00 every day, then, twice a week, she also makes religious flower arrangements for people who go to the temple to pray. On those two days she has to get up at four in the morning.
I asked her about new year. Oh the Cambodian people don’t care. The fireworks and stuff on 31.12. are for the tourists. Khmer New Year is in June. That’s when people go to meet with their extended families to celebrate. The biggest deal is a festival in September though, which lasts two weeks. I understood it’s the Cambodian version of the all saints or Obon in Japan, when you think of your ancestors and honor the dead. There is a lot of fine clothes, fine food and dancing during those times and temple visits.
If you speak English, you can get jobs in the tourist industry, which is the best source of income around Siem Reap of course. Children go to school from 7:00 to 11:00 and then from 13:00 to 17:00. I suppose that’s why she starts to work at 14:00 to cook lunch for her kids. She comes from a small village further north and has never been anywhere else apart from her home town and Siem Reap, she has never been on a plane. Her mother and younger brother came to Siem Reap too. She didn’t speak of a father, maybe he passed away or left for whatever reason and then the family moved to Siem Reap. Her mother is the head chef in a nightclub and she works from 17:00 in the evening to 4:00 in the morning every day. Her mother wanted the son to “get a government job = official” because those are the best jobs, apparently, but he “was too lazy” and does internet commerce to the grievance of his mother. It’s a hard life under the tropical sun. In April it gets over 40 degrees… my hands were covered with heat rash, I got bitten by (only) three mosquitoes and luckily they didn’t carry any diseases. I sprayed an entire 200 ml bottle of insect repellent onto my skin and clothes and got bitten 3 times despite that.
But even though I am usually not in the habit of going to the same place twice, I might return to Siem Reap one day because there are still a lot of temples and sights that I couldn’t see and Angkor Wat and Bayon etc. are so beautiful it’s worthwhile to see them again 😉 let’s see!

Cambodia Visit – Sunrise at Angkor Wat

I am NOT a morning person, never have been, never will be, I suppose, but the first of January of a new decade was approaching and I decided to do the sunrise at Angkor Wat thing after all. Arrangements with the hotel resulted in a departure time of 5:00 in the morning. That meant getting up at 4:30. I tried to go to bed at 22:00 on New Year’s Eve, ignoring the countdown. But… across from my hotel was that already mentioned roof top bar. They blasted (louder than the other nights) live soft pop whining until midnight. I put earplugs in, didn’t help, I put my headphones over the earplugged ears, didn’t help. I played heavy metal. Finally the rest was blended out. At midnight there was a short official fireworks, which I watched a bit from my window. Then techno disco music thumping louder than heavy metal in Wacken let the house vibrate. I dozed on and off until three in the morning when the disco thumping finally stopped. I got maybe an hour of shut-eye until the alarm clock rang. Well it had been New Year’s Eve…
So, there I was at five in the morning riding with the tuktuk. It was pleasantly cool, almost cold, it’s dry season in Cambodia this time of year and that results in a whiff of continental climate with coolish nights of around 22 degrees and hot days with 34. I soon saw the next tuktuk with tourists and the next, all flocking towards Angkor Wat. There was a bit of a traffic jam even at the ticket control site. The stars were still out when I arrived and I headed straight for the lotus pond across from the temple. I was not the first one to arrive there, but not the last either and managed to get into the second row with someone short in front of me. There was already a hue of pink and blue to the east. The people in the first row in front of me were some people talking about finances and stock market exchange…. ahhhhhhh…. excuse me you capitalist fuxxs, don’t you have something else to talk about or can’t you just shut up? Luckily, they did shut up when it became lighter, but nevertheless they were tainting the enjoyment.
Angkor Wat faces west. On the spring equinox the sun rises exactly above the main tower in the middle, now it rose to the right of the complex. Strewn over the whole area surely several thousand people watched the first sunrise of the decade together with me. When the sun was up I ventured into the temple though not the uppermost gallery due to too many people and caught some sights in mild morning sunshine. It was very beautiful, all of it.

The rest of the plan involved the so called “big circle”, but I had requested another stop in Angkor Thom due to the confusion of the day before. I had not seen the terrace of the elephants and the Baphuon temple. At Baphuon I was suddenly more or less alone and enjoyed exploring that temple thoroughly.

On went the journey to the Preah Khan temple, which is huge and also has trees growing out of it. Since it was still before nine in the morning, there were very few people there and I enjoyed that temple immensely, also thanks to jungle birds singing for the new day which made the whole site even more amazing.

Next we went to a temple called Neak Poan or Pean, I found two spellings, which is in the middle of an artificial lake and in itself partially submerged, it’s very beautiful and mysterious site.

Next up was the Ta Som temple, which is small but very beautiful as well and it came along with two temple cats 😉

The East Mebon and Pre Rup sites are similar in style but completely different from e.g. Angkor Wat or the other temples in the area. They are more rectangular in nature and are dating earlier than the other sites, from around 950, while Angkor Wat is from the 12th century.

It was only noon when I returned to the hotel, but after seven hours on the road and not much sleep the night before I held a noon nap after a shower.
It’s been a magnificent first of January 2020!

Cambodia Visit – Angor Wat in Reverse

The ride to Siem Reap with an airline you’ve never heard of went smoothly. Lanmei airlines, apparently a Cambodian carrier, had the smallest distance between seat rows I have ever encountered on any airline anywhere. Interestingly the flight came in from Bangkok and unloaded passengers bound for Phnom Penh, but those bound for Siem Reap stayed on board, then they added those who boarded in Phnom Penh. Luckily, with those super uncomfortable seats, the airbus barely lifted off when it already landed again. At Siem Reap airport are no gangways, you walk over the concrete and some ground personnel tried to separate those who flew domestic from those who flew international to get the latter through customs and border control. Interesting system.
I had to wait a bit for my promised driver and was expecting a car, but then a tuktuk drove me and my suitcase to the hotel. I only walked down the road for a bit and it was the same traffic chaos as in Phnom Penh only with more westerner tourists dodging the traffic. At the hotel I sorted things out for the first day, the so called “small circle” with the three main sites of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm temple.

The goal of the journey was in reach! I boarded a tuktuk and off I went to the Angkor ticket center. The temple complex is about six kilometers north of Siem Reap. On the jungle road just behind ticket control my driver suddenly stopped and said Ta Prohm. Originally the first stop was supposed to be Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm was supposed to be the last, going clockwise. My driver’s English wasn’t the best and it was even harder to communicate with him than with my trusted driver in Phnom Penh. Ta Prohm, um… hm… well, I’m kinda at his mercy. I think he did the reverse tour because on the way to Ta Prohm he stopped at a road shop and had someone put more air into the rear tires. Well, okay, necessary I guess. At Ta Prohm the reverse was no problem, there is only one stop where many people unload from their whatever vehicles. Ta Prohm is amazing, those trees that rank around the temple are very impressive. It looks bizarre. Unfortunately the temple is quite narrow and the loads of people were worst at Ta Prohm.
The trees and their snake-like roots make for an atmosphere I have not yet seen. It’s spooky, beautiful and reminds of the fragility of human endeavor.

Then we went on to Angkor Thom, which is the old Khmer city. The outer wall is left, then jungle has basically taken over and in that jungle are whatever ruins, with the Bayon temple, the temple with the mysterious faces in the center. If we had gone the correct way we would have arrived at Bayon and done the rest later.

But now we arrived from the other side and the driver dumped me and pointed wildly into the jungle and said he will wait at Bayon. All right. I stumbled along and got pretty much lost in the jungle. It was insanely hot, just the peak of the noon heat. I had to ask other tourists for directions. I found Bayon, but of course approached it also from the wrong direction.
The central temple mount is so withered away it looks like a hill at times. The mysterious faces in the many turrets around the main mount are all a bit different and one is more beautiful and mystic than the other. Also Bayon is a rather small site and you are not alone. Looking at my pictures afterwards I am amazed how well I managed to blend out the people.

It was after 13:00 now and even hotter than at noon. I got out of the temple somewhere, having no clue where I was and there was no sign of my tuktuk. I waited in the shade, unwilling to go on walking in the heat and called my hotel, asking them to call him and go looking for me. That worked out in the end and at least I had a bit of a rest in the shade. Then we of course approached Angkor Wat also from the wrong direction. We should have been there at ten in the morning when it’s not so super hot yet, instead we were now at Angkor Wat at 14:00 or so when it was super hot.

Angkor Wat is fantastic. It’s in extremely good shape considering it’s age of over 800 years in the brutal tropical climate. I think everyone knows about the Pyramids in Egypt or Taj Mahal in India. Angkor Wat stands right next to them in size, grandeur and cultural significance, but is somehow still less famous (I think). I guess that’s because of the Vietnam war and the Khmer Rogue regime, which threw the country back into the Stone Age and tourism was only established during the past 20 years.
You can get into the upper half of the temple right under the five towers if you climb up rickety, steep wooden stairs, it’s every bit worth the climb though. It started as a Hindu temple but was partially transformed into a Buddhist temple and has several sites of active worship inside it now too. If Angkor Wat is not yet on your travel bucket list, add it. It’s worth the pain to get there.
The three sites of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom or rather the Bayon temple and Ta Prohm are so different and yet right next to each other. It makes you truly wonder what kind of people built those magnificent temples and in what kind of world they lived.
I’ve been to 36 countries by now but have never seen anything quite like the Angkor area. It’s just “wow”.

Cambodia Visit – Oudong and Zoo

On my third day in Phnom Penh, I escaped the reception desk and waited outside for my trusted tuktuk driver and it worked out. He was there at nine in the morning and I paid him directly and not the hotel. He was happy and promptly drove me north. The goal was the Oudong temple on top of the first hill far and wide outside of Phnom Penh. Later checking revealed it is around 34 km north of Phnom Penh. The road was a rather good highway for most of the way, which meant my driver pushed the tuktuk to its speed limit and dashed down that road with what felt like a 100 km per hour at times. It might have been 80 km, but in an open vehicle without seatbelts it felt horribly fast and I clung on for dear life. But as evidenced by me being able to write this, I survived the journey 😉
The goal of the journey was well worth the ride. Up some stairs were three stupas, one new, two old and you got a fantastic 360 degree view of the area. The wild monkeys on the stairs including a baby monkey were super cute but of course you are not supposed to touch them. They are far less cute if they bite you!

Of the two old stupas one was studded with ceramic ornaments and very beautiful. There were a few foreigners, meaning westerners, at the temple, but most of the people were locals or from neighboring countries.

On the way back my driver made a detour to the Phnom Penh “safari”, a zoo as I had come to understand the day before. All the more astonished I was as to where he brought me. We crossed the Mekong at some point and landed in a huge wasteland. It seems to be a new development zone as evidenced by two three buildings already around and a giant stadium under construction.

The stadium looked huge, surely holding 80,000 people or more. I seriously wonder though how those 80,000 are supposed to get there without public transport?? Next to the zoo was one lone hotel (perhaps) and an amusement park that looked also under construction. And then the zoo. It was finished, but pretty much devoid of visitors. It’s empty parking lot was laid out for hundreds of cars and looked spooky so empty.

The zoo was well constructed and organized and also designed interactively with the possibility to buy feeding material for e.g. birds, fish, deer and giraffes. I fed deer crunchy green leaves and bananas to the giraffes which they happily chomped down skin and all. There were so few visitors it seemed like some of the animals were even reacting to me, bears were getting up on their hind legs taking a look, deer were turning their heads when I walked past, and the highlight was an orangutan who came closer, sat down, looked at me and then seemed to smile at me.

I just hope they take good care of the animals there. And I also hope that the rest of the wasteland will be developed quickly so that more visitors will come to the zoo.
After the initial scare of asking myself how to get around I had a great tuktuk driver for three days, who brought me back safely every day despite the hair raising traffic of the city of Phnom Penh!

Cambodia Visit – Silk Farm

On my second day in Phnom Penh I got the same trusted tuktuk driver but he seemed a bit angry at me! Only when we arrived back in the hotel did I find out why. His English is not that good so it took a while to understand. I had said ten o’clock for today and he went “okay okay”. He seems to have been under the impression that I don’t ask at the hotel desk for the tour but him directly. I didn’t pick up on that the day before. So the second morning I asked the hotel reception again and paid them instead of him. No clue how much margin the hotel takes for giving him the job. But thus I got it that I was supposed to pay him directly and not the hotel.

As for the contents, the tuktuk ride led me to the shores of the mighty Mekong river. The plan was to get onto the Silk Island, its real name is Koh Dach, which is an island inside the Mekong river. The Mekong is a stunning 4350 km long and parts a little for this island, so what you see on the pics is only roughly half of the river.

There are no bridges to Koh Dach and you have to go by ferry, a very old and rickety affair. LOL. The pictures don’t express the age of these vessels or the noise of their sputtering Diesel engines.

Once on the island my driver brought me to a silk farm where a nice guy explained to me (and a group of Italians) about how silk is made. Of course I knew about the worms but not about the entirety of the process. The worms, or rather caterpillars are eating only mulberry leaves for about 30 days, then they turn from white to yellow and cocoon, once they become moths they mate, lay eggs and die. They live for around 45 days in total.

Now, if you want to get silk you have to balance your stock of worms to let some become moths to continue the process and the rest you throw into boiling water and cook them. The traditional process is then to take an eggplant leave and dip it into the hot water picking up threads. About twenty of them you twirl and then spin them into a thread. One cocoon yields up to 500 meters of thread. The outer layer of the cocoon is a bit rougher and used for e.g. rugs. The inner part of the cocoon is softer and spun into a thread for clothes. Then you dye the yellow threads into the desired colors and start weaving. A four meter sarong with a two colored pattern such as this peacock design takes a month to finish, two meter scarves with less of a pattern or none take ten days, they said.

Despite that they sold the scarves for 20 USD and I didn’t even haggle (I don’t like haggling). I’m pretty sure I’d pay double or triple or even more for that in Japan. The guy explaining things to us said he was a “volunteer” and was supporting his university studies with explaining things to tourists and was also improving his (already pretty good) English. The weaving ladies were all widows, he said, who are working at this place as a part of a support program for them. True or not, they make beautiful stuff and it was very interesting to see the process of silk being made the “old” way. I just wonder how the hell our ancestors came upon the idea to boil those cocoons and make threads out of them for cloth. That was quite some invention / discovery.
On the way back to town, I asked my driver to drop me off once more at the national museum, I really like that building and it’s garden and the day before stayed only thirty minutes during the busy day.

That day I stayed for an hour and also borrowed an audio guide and listened to some of the explanations for the artifacts on display. During that audio description, they also said that the museum, which came into existence around 1920 was closed during the four years of the Khmer Rouge rule, I’m surprised they just closed it and didn’t burn it to the ground. Luckily they refrained from doing stuff like that…

Cambodia Visit – Phnom Penh

Cambodia, or rather Angkor Wat has been on my travel bucket list for a while already and I finally decided to go. The Southeast Asian country I’ve been to most often is Thailand (3 times so far). Phnom Penh, my first destination, reminded me a lot of Bangkok in 1999 when I visited there for the first time. There is no public transport system in Phnom Penh except for busses and downtown there are always traffic jams. Last time I was in Bangkok was 2012 and they had an elevated train and had much evolved. In Ho Chi Minh city they were building a subway when I was there in 2016, which should be finished by now? Not sure. In Phnom Penh though it’s all busses, cars, mostly fat pickups, tuktuks and scooters, although less scooters than in Saigon. There is endless chaos in Phnom Penh, though the worst chaos I’ve seen remains the traffic in India.
On my arrival day I took a walk around the block of my hotel and was a bit spooked. There was no real space for walking and no people on bicycles either. So how do I get around town without being able to walk? To hire a tuktuk seemed like a scary prospect, not so much concerning traffic safety but concerning personal safety, what happens if the tuktuk driver takes me somewhere strange and demands more money to take me back and so on and so forth. The possibilities are plenty. I wrecked my brain about those during the night.
The next morning I asked at the reception of the hotel how to get around and the lady immediately suggested, oh we have a tour for 30 USD and you can visit all the major places in one day. Okay, fine, nice, let’s do that. I paid and was then brought to a guess what, a tuktuk. Lol. It turned out to be no problem though, my driver brought me to all the places, nicely waited and brought me back to the hotel 😉

Money… there is Cambodian money, called the Riel, but the preferred, harder currency is simply USD. If you look like you are not from Cambodia, they kinda expect you to be paying in USD.
Money… Cambodia is pretty poor, the hunt for money = better living conditions is present everywhere. As a foreigner you are seen as a source of money and they expect you to not be sitting on it. But that’s okay, since from a European, Japanese perspective stuff is cheap.
So, there I sat in my tuktuk with a driver who spoke only rudimentary English and the first thing he does is taking me to the Killing Fields.

Cambodia’s recent history is a tough cookie. Politically unstable it was drawn into the Vietnam war and extensively bombed, then the Khmer Rouge came along and “liberated” the country in 1975 proclaiming a communist utopia. They drove people out of the cities into the countryside forcing them to be farmers. They started treating everyone with “soft hands”, or glasses, as a traitor and within the four years of their rule, they killed a fourth of their own countrymen. Out of eight million people, around three million have died. There is not one family that was left unscathed I suppose. There are many killing fields all over the country, the closest to Phnom Penh is only a thirty minute ride by tuktuk away. Some 20,000 people were killed at this place. They built a stupa for remembrance and filled it with some of the skulls that were exhumed at the site. There is a tree where the guards smashed babies against whose parents had been executed. It is hard to comprehend how people can do such things.
The harsh part of the day-tour continued with the prison camp in downtown Phnom Penh, a former high-school, where prisoners were interrogated under torture confessing to “crimes” they didn’t commit and accusing others falsely in the hope it would ease their suffering only to be then transported to the Killing Fields and hacked to death anyway. Bullets were too expensive, most people were killed with axes, hammers and so forth.
After three hours of such harshness the rest of the day and tour felt like balm. The first thing after the prison in town to visit was befittingly a beautiful Buddhist temple and it was great to see something nice and peaceful.

Next up were the national museum and the royal palace. Both of them magnificent buildings of intricate beauty in their designs. What a day of the human spectrum. From the blackest possible depths to highest achievements in beauty.

Average 97 Decibels – Part 2

Some words about the bands for those not so familiar with this world. Stam1na is a melodic death metal band from Finland, singing in Finnish. Mentioned Black Dahlia Murder is an extreme metal band from Detroit, USA. Insomnium is an English singing melodic death metal band from Finland as well. Silver Dust is a gothic, steampunk metal band from Switzerland, singing in English, Rotting Christ is black/dark metal from Greece, singing in many languages, mostly Greek and English, but also French or Farsi for example. Moonspell is a dark, gothic metal band from Portugal, singing in English and Portuguese. While most of the six bands are t-Shirt bands, Moonspell does a little bit with props and costumes, and Silver Dust does a lot. It was actually refreshing to see some effort put into clothing and makeup and putting on a „show“ with a video screen also, showing clips and bits fitting to the songs.

The audiences were all the same tribe, no matter in which country: metalheads! Moshing wise the French were most active and squeezed the first two, three rows pretty well, on all other gigs, I was safe in my beloved first row. The first row is just the best place to be. Despite creating a meter or two of space between the bands and the audience, I actually prefer a railing, since you can put your coat there, lean on it and use it as head banging support, lol. The unobstructed view to the stage is of course the best part of things. The sound in the first row is actually not the best, but that can’t be helped. Only after the Rotting Christ gig in Budapest, I gave up on the first row, because of the low stage, no place to hold onto and back pain and retreated to the back of the hall for Moonspell to have a wall for support. I didn’t see a thing anymore, but the sound was excellent.

Some people may shake their heads at crazy trips for heavy metal, but I’m proud of my passions, lol. It’s the adventures you make, the people you meet and the things you experience that define you. I met French metalhead friends in Lyon, I made a new metalhead friend from Brazil, I chatted with Austrian fans in Vienna, I talked to a lady from the Netherlands in a bus somewhere, a super friendly Hungarian grandpa helped me in broken English to find the airport bus, I met my sister in Dresden, where neither of us had ever been before. I managed to explore Lyon, Dresden and Vienna for a bit, I’ve been to Budapest again after nine years. I saw excellent concerts of bands whose music touches my heart and soul. All that would not happen without the passion. I hope it never dies and that the next trip will be around the corner soon! Cheers!

Average 97 Decibels – Part 1

Ahhhh, a sweet week is over, three bands four times (Stam1na, The Black Dahlia Murder, Insomnium) and another three bands two times (Silver Dust, Rotting Christ, Moonspell). It was a blast! Any time again please!
In the very good venue of the Pratteln Konzertfabrik Z7 (in Switzerland) was something I have never seen before in the plenty of concert venues big and small that I so far had the privilege to visit: a decibels counter. Insomnium and the other bands averaged out at 97 decibels. There was one spike cracking the 100 decibels mark, but most of the stuff was between 95 and 99 decibels. So that’s the magic number: 97 decibels 😉 In some venues things might be louder, but judging from the comfort level of my (earplugged) ears, the around 100 decibels seems to be the norm 😉

There is no debating about taste, but frankly I didn’t care for The Black Dahlia Murder at all. As stated by the vocalist, they are an extreme metal band and in my humble opinion did not fit to Stam1na and Insomnium, which work very well together. I have nothing against extreme metal, Meshuggha is an awesome band for example, but the Dahlia guys just didn’t do it for me, which made the hour of their set quite a drag.

I thought the three other bands of Silver Dust, Rotting Christ and Moonspell made a much better combination. Steampunk, ghost themed Silver Dust, then the black, dark metal of Rotting Christ and the dark, gothic metal of Moonspell, now that went down smoothly. I enjoyed those two evenings immensely.
The traveling within Europe went flawlessly, even the most challenging part of getting from Budapest to Dresden went well thanks to on time airplanes and trains. But, to a limited extend, I have come to understand the challenge of touring. These bands hop around from city to city in their tour busses, apparently also sleeping in them, taking showers at the venues. While I traveled about for fun, they have to give their best every night for new audiences. Well new audiences??? Lol there were people I saw three times, traveling around with the bands like myself, lol. But the majority of the audience is of course not doing the city hopping.

The best Insomnium gig was in Pratteln, Switzerland I suppose, thanks to an excellent venue and great sound. The best Rotting Christ gig was in Budapest, due to first row, no barrier, my hand on the monitor of the guitarist. The stage was very low, since the venue was on a fixed boat on the Danube river that resulted in a low ceiling. That gig was very close up and personal and earned me the pic that Sakis Tolis, the front man of Rotting Christ, played with 😉

Norway Fjord Cruise – Part 3

The morning after the storm everything was fine, the seas flat again and I felt okay, even if I didn’t have any appetite yet. The Okinawa trip where the bad weather lasted for about 16 hours and when I couldn’t walk straight anymore for a while upon arrival, remains the peak of seasickness so far, but now I have a clear number two: that night on the MS Lofoten 😉
The last full day at sea was the least interesting with plenty of fjords, yes, but not really amazing sceneries, apart from the town of Molde, which has quite a view at mountains across the shore.

The day also provided another stretch of open sea before Molde, which was quite shaky again and I lay down for a while on a sofa in the salon. I found that lying down does help a little with the seasickness feeling. I didn’t get sick this time, but was happy when it stopped swaying.
On the last day towards Bergen seas were quiet, luckily.

The average age of the cruise passengers on board was maybe 60. There were a few younger people though, notably an Australian lady in her 30ties who I talked to a lot and a British girl in her twenties. There was also a weird young guy not yet 30 who walked around in a suit for the entire journey. Lol. One notable passenger was a 87 year old lady from Norway who spent much of her life in Canada though. She didn’t even get sea sick, she was only complaining that she cannot walk through the ship when it shakes so badly! She was everyone’s grandma and so funny and alert. I wanna be like that and still go on cruises and be interested in the people around me if I get to become 87!
The tour guide announced everything in Norwegian, then English, finally German. Half of the cruise guests were Germans and they did make me cringe. The kind of Germans who want to take Germany with them wherever they go and complain about anything they find un-German and not up to their “standards”. There were no younger Germans on board, I might have been the youngest. I felt kinda embarrassed and wanted to apologize to the crew for those arrogant German retired couples. There was an astonishing amount of Australians on board and equally interesting there were no Chinese or Japanese around, some signs along the route were in Chinese, indicating Chinese passengers, but not on my trip.
All in all the journey was living up to my expectations and that one glorious day with the Trollfjord and sea eagles and the view of the Lofoten at sunset will remain a highlight among the travel experiences I have made so far.

I’m not in the habit of doing the same thing twice apart from Wacken and other heavy metal related things, so I won’t do a Norway cruise again 😉 Let’s see what will happen after Wacken next year. The Wacken ticket just arrived! 🙂

Norway Fjord Cruise – Part 2

Day three of the Norway cruise was the most glorious and perfect day. Sunshine, quiet seas in the fjords, astonishingly warm for 70 degrees north. The best and most spectacular fjord was the Trollfjord, followed by the main town of the Lofoten islands, Svolvaer. Wow, those were picture book fjords in fantastic weather. It also offered the only excursion I had booked, a sea eagle photo safari. It involved spectacular action like the small boat for the sea eagle safari matching speed with the MS Lofoten and the people who booked the excursion “jumping ship”.

Seagulls entertained us with the tour boat people throwing bread and fish at them and before and after entering Trollfjord looking out for eagles and luring them to the boat with free fish. We had six or seven eagles in total, two of them catching fish from the air close to the boat and the others catching the fish that the crew threw into the water, noteably after injecting the fish corpses with air to make them float to make it easier for the eagles to catch them out of the water. The nosy seagulls kept their distance from the eagles when they approached by the way.

I would have loved to go ashore at Trollfjord and spend some more minutes there, but it was just in and out of the fjord and it’s for the cruise ship the only detour without calling to a port and only weather permitting. One of the cruise staff said we were hella lucky that the weather was so fantastic, many times you don’t see the tops of the mountains due to clouds, fog, whatever.

From Svolvaer to the next port we had to cross a stretch of open sea, but the day was fine, the sea was quiet and the view of the receding Lofoten islands in the sunset was completely stunning.

On day four we crossed the arctic circle in the morning and were entertained by cool looking, low hanging cloud and fog banks.

After passing a row of mountains called the seven sisters in the afternoon we entered an area of bad weather with rain and not seeing further than fifty meters. Then came the nightmare. We had to cross another section of open sea and the rain developed into a little storm and sent the ship swaying up and down and from side to side and by 23:00 I felt like I’d die!

I’ve only been really seasick once before, as far back as 1995 when I once went from Fukuoka to Okinawa by ship during my scholarship student times at the University of Kyushu. On the way to Okinawa everything was fine, on the way back we got into the outskirts of a typhoon and I thought the ship would sink and I got violently sick. Now for the second time on board the MS Lofoten. It’s amazing how miserable seasickness makes you feel, you really feel deathly sick and as if it’s the end of you, lol. I threw up two times, then fell into bed in my clothes. Luckily we left the stormy waters after around three hours and at two in the morning I was able to get up and get ready for bed in a proper fashion.

Norway Fjord Cruise – Day 1

Hurtigruten has a wide range of ships of all ages and luxury classes and due to my travel times and dates I traveled with the MS Lofoten, currently the oldest vessel in service, I believe. The boat is from 1964, wow, quite an old lady for a boat 😉 You could of course feel and see that in the simplicity of the design and the often painted over old steel, but the ship did have a rustic charm. I had chosen my cabin a bit unwisely though, since I was very close to the old sputtering, noisy engine of the ship, however, the constant sound and vibration also lulled me to sleep at times.

From Kirkenes we sailed further north with not much fjords yet but the open Barents Sea to our right and the coastline to our left. The ship calls to port every two, three hours on average. Climbing up north along the coast was quite unpleasant. Due to the constant sideways swell of the Barents Sea, the ship, which had of course no stabilizers being old and rather small, the ship rolled quite heftily from side to side. I didn’t get seasick, but I didn’t feel like eating more than half of my dinner that first night. From the second day onwards we entered the jungle of fjords big and small and the sea was much calmer. The north is rough but beautiful and at times I wanted to take pictures of every single mountain we passed.

There was also a sense of desolation and isolation though and I could not shake the thought of just how bleak and cold and miserable it has to be there in winter. One place particularly threw me and I checked about it in the Internet. An island called Loppa. It was halfway between the maybe five hundred inhabitants towns of Oksfjord and Skjervoy, which are served by Hurtigruten. It looked like there are ten or twenty houses on Loppa, even a church. Internet says there are “few” permanent residents left, but there ARE permanent residents left. Holy crap.

You need one and a half hours to Oksfjord with a whip going 14 knots like the MS Lofoten, longer of course with a slower ship. Main industry is presumably fishing, it didn’t look like there is anything else. What must it be like to live there? Why would anyone choose to live there? In summer, okay, I might still get it, it’s lonely, remote and beautiful, but in winter??? Where it never gets really bright at 70 degrees north and where it’s minus thirty or whatever degrees Celsius? I can relate to living in a place like this if it were subtropical but not if it’s subarctic. Wow.

Kirkenes and Hurtigruten

After the Oslo visit, I flew to Kirkenes, a mere seven kilometers from the Russian border and located at 69 degrees north. Kirkenes is a frontier town and has officially 3500 inhabitants compared to the 600.000 of Oslo. Much of the place exists because of the Norwegian fjord cruise ships that anchor there and load and unload passengers. There is some cruise ship there every day, I believe, even during the winter months for aurora watching. For only 3500 people living there, it has a lot of shopping malls. I went to two and a map spoke of yet another one. Apart from those though, there is nothing going on in that cold little town.

Despite it being 9th of August, it was about seven Celsius during the endless day. While staying there I learned about civil, nautical and astronomical twilight. Thing is, in winter, there is no official daylight from November 28 to January 15. I cannot imagine how bleak, dark, cold and miserable the place has to be in winter when I found it already pretty bleak, cold and miserable in summer! The pic below is from my hotel room at around midnight or so.

But then it was finally time to get on board the cruise ship.
A few words about the company with the for German ears funny sounding name Hurtigruten. Hurtig is also a now rather unused, old-fashioned German word, and it means quick, fast. Ruten is route. So it literally means express route. The company is over 120 years old and they started as post, cargo and of course passenger ships along the Norwegian coast to reach all those remote villages. The stops are fixed still to unload and offload people and goods. You can also board the ship from town A to B like a train without paying for cabins or food or anything. You can even sleep in the salons on board if you stay for a few stops overnight.

If a cabin were to be free you could also book a cabin for a night, I suppose, but I guess most cabins are occupied by cruise passengers who have full meal packages too. So apart from the cruise passengers there was a coming and going of backpackers and locals and all sorts of people from all walks of life. The full cruise is eleven nights from Bergen to Kirkenes and back. I did only the half cruise from Kirkenes to Bergen. Since you are at the ports at different times of day, you kinda need to go both ways to get the full experience, but for me personally five nights on board were enough 😉 with greetings from sea sickness! 😉

A Visit to Oslo

After the usual family visit following Wacken, it has become a bit of a tradition to do something extra. Last year I’ve been to Iceland, the year before that to Scotland and Ireland, etc. This time the way led to Norway, the last Scandinavian country I had not been to yet. The plan was to have two days in Oslo, then to go to the very north eastern end, to Kirkenes, a mere seven kilometers from the Russian border, and board a ship to do a Norwegian fjord cruise.

Oslo is a beautiful, rich and expensive city that is well worth a visit. It’s got everything to offer from castles over palaces to modern architecture, good museums and fancy shopping malls. One highlight is surely the opera building. You can walk onto its roof from the outside. A very cool and interesting concept and a must when you go to Oslo.

The Akershus Fortress is a nice small castle with not too many tourists (at least not when I went there). You can visit the royal palace during the summer months, but only with guided tours with a limited number of tickets and my “go and see what’s there” travel style without planning much in advance, did not help here, since all tickets for the days of my Oslo stay were booked out.

I did a two hour fjord cruise too, which brings you past exquisite summer residences and permanent residences on the small islands everywhere in the fjord and past glitzy yachts as well.

I went to two museums, the Viking ship museum, which has, as the name says three 1000 year old Viking ships to offer. You can see the ships as well as other Viking times items like sledges, tools and so forth.

Vikings are “popular” nowadays and you have to compete for viewing space with countless other tourists. I also visited the Fram museum, named after the ships Fram 1 and Fram 2, which were polar exploration vessels, led by Roald Amundson, the man who reached the South Pole first. The north and South Pole missions are equally treated, and enough space is given to the other explorers who tried to reach the same goals. The main attraction of the Fram museum are two preserved ships, the Fram 2 and the Gjoa. You can also board both vessels and explore them first hand.

Oslo is a lovely city and it would have been nice to stay a day or two longer, but the way led further north 😉

Kume Island Report – Part 4

On the next day on Kume island, I headed to the west coast, which promised another great beach. The promise was correct and the Aara beach turned out to be equally lonely as the east side beach of the island. It looked especially lovely from a higher vantage point when you can see the sea converging between the coral reef banks.

I drove through the main town in search for some decent souvenir and food shops, but was disappointed. While there were two, three souvenir shops, the whole “Main Street” area was run down and had definitely seen better days. I rode on towards the airport past the baseball ground where the Rakuten team usually holds its winter camp and to the only real “resort” hotel of the island. It’s at an interesting boulder cluttered beach, but also right next to the airport. Not that there are many planes, but nevertheless the fortification concrete slabs of the runway are disturbing the boulder beach.

My last full day on Kume island brought bad weather unfortunately and it rained quite heavily for most of the day. I went only for a short bicycle ride to another look out, then walked on the beach for a while in the rain.

The next morning, the Kume trip was already done. I have explored most of the island though apart from a forest stretch to the south and the north-western corner. The four hour boat ride back to Naha was nice, even though the boat swayed quite a bit despite better weather than on the way to the island.

In Naha I did some shopping and then headed to a shopping mall in order to catch Avengers Endgame. I must admit that the city girl in me highly enjoyed the shopping mall and some modern touch. While Kume has beautiful nature, the man made stuff on the island is old and run down and a bit depressing. It’s a shame actually, since the island itself is so beautiful. But then again, there are many beautiful islands in Okinawa 😉

Kume Island Report – Part 3

There was a fat thunderstorm during the night and tons of rain, but luckily it cleared up in the morning and ever more so during the day and I made best use of the fine weather with the longest bicycle tour that I had planned out. The eventual aim of the day was the northern shore of the island with a big rock formation. But the first stop was the magnificent Hiyajo Banta cliff with great views over the northern east side of the island.

From there I headed into the clouds to the Uegusuku castle ruins, which lie on the top of one of the highest hills of the island. While it was a shame that the view wasn’t so good, it was also kinda cool and mystic to be standing in the clouds.

Then I rode down to sea level again for the Mifugaa rock, which is indeed quite am impressive formation, also the grim rocks next to it, which I called the castle of the Witch King of Angmar were equally Impressive.

The long rides up the hill to the Hiyajo Banta cliff were quite hard, but luckily my bicycle had power assist. The Mifugaa rock was the furthest point away from home and I was pretty tired and hot and had a headache and feared for a while to have a sunstroke by the end of the trip. Without hat I surely would have gotten a sun stroke. As soon as the sun is out it’s quite brutal in Okinawa. After all, the island is on the same latitude as the Sahara desert… But after some rest and cooling down everything turned out to be fine. 🙂