This Saturday had started like any other. I was in Chiang Mai, the northern region of Thailand, a land known for its mountains, traditional temples, and the laid-back atmosphere that stands in stark contrast to the bustling, chaotic energy of Bangkok. But today I felt a random urge to get behind the wheel, take a random drive, and see where the roads would take me. In the back of my mind, I had a vague notion to explore the eastern region of Chiang Mai. Maybe it was the whisper of adventure or the need for a change of scenery, I couldn't tell.
Driving eastwards, I found myself getting drawn to the small town of Doi Saket. There’s a Buddhist temple up there, Wat Phra That Doi Saket, a guidebook had told me. Built in 1112. A relic of the past, standing stoic through the sands of time. Legend says that Lord Buddha once visited Doi Saket and was received by the naka, a serpentine deity, who was honored with a lock of Buddha's hair for worship. It sounded like the kind of story folks around here liked to believe in.
As I drove up the winding road to the temple, I felt an odd sort of anticipation building inside me. The narrow road stretched on, revealing fleeting glimpses of the temple, a tease before the main event. On reaching the base, I found myself staring at a long flight of stairs. Upon reaching the top, I stood in the presence of the golden Buddha. But what took my breath away wasn’t just the sight of the Buddha but the panoramic view that unfolded in front of me. The vast expanse of Chiang Mai and Doi Saket lay sprawled out, a quilt of varying shades of green, patches of civilization dotting the landscape. Nice random exploration!
Today, as I reflect on my recent travels, I am filled with a profound sense of gratitude. I have been blessed with the opportunity to experience the mesmerizing spectacle of hot air balloons rising over the otherworldly landscape of Cappadocia. Let me share with you the remarkable details of this adventure that still warms my heart and awakens my spirit.
I remember, I initially balked at the exorbitant prices for a hot air balloon ride. Having experienced this thrill on previous occasions, like in the ancient city of Bagan, Myanmar, and the monumental Valley of the Kings in Egypt, I decided to seek an alternative perspective of this captivating spectacle in Cappadocia.
Instead of soaring in the skies, I chose to be a spectator from the valley, to catch a glimpse of the hot air balloons as they gracefully launched and hovered over the jagged landscape. The tour guide I was with couldn't arrange a morning trip. Undeterred, I decided to take matters into my own hands. It was 10 pm at night, a time when most would be winding down. But there I was, making a few contacts, reaching out to independent tour operators. With a bit of bargaining, I secured a good deal.
I found myself waking up at 3:30 am. It was a daunting task, but the anticipation of the spectacle that awaited me kept my spirits high. As Kahlil Gibran once said, "You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth." And in those early hours, it felt like I was working to keep pace with the sun, racing to greet the dawn before it could escape me.
The reward for my efforts was beyond spectacular. We managed to reach the perfect vantage point just in time. As the first light of day broke over the horizon, the hot air balloons began to rise, painting the morning skies with their vibrant hues. They dotted the dawn, like myriad floating lanterns, their warm glow juxtaposed against the cool blue of the breaking day. It was a sight to behold, a magical dance that filled the sky and stirred the soul.
The adventure I embarked upon that day was a testament to my unwavering determination. It was a reaffirmation of my belief in the joy of journeying and the beauty of staying grounded, both literally and figuratively. As I continue on my path, I am filled with gratitude for these experiences that enrich my life and feed my soul.
This experience has reminded me once again that sometimes, the most memorable moments come not from the most expensive or luxurious experiences, but from the simple decision to see things from a different perspective. Just like the serpentine shadow on the side of El Castillo at Chichen Itza during the equinoxes, the true magic of life often lies in the unexpected.
To all who walk this journey with me, I wish you the courage to embrace new perspectives, the strength to overcome challenges, and the joy of discovery in every moment. Happy travels!
The need to stretch our legs, to breathe in the crisp mountain air, was pressing. We had been on the road, taking in the vast expanses of the Canadian Rockies, but the confines of our car were starting to feel limiting. Too much seeing, not enough being. So, we decided to embark on a hike.
Johnston Canyon, a marvel of nature sculpted by the unyielding flow of water, was our chosen terrain. Its inviting trails, broken into manageable segments, made it the perfect choice. Not all paths were open, as the season had only just begun to shake off the chill of winter. Some trails stretched far into the horizon, 20-30km, enticing for another day, perhaps.
We set our sights on the Ink Pots. The name itself was intriguing, hinting at a mystery waiting to be unraveled. The trail was a little over 10km round trip, a challenge but not insurmountable. It was a conscious decision, a step outside our comfort zone, a determination to embrace the journey rather than rush to the destination.
Our path was adorned with waterfalls, each more breathtaking than the last. The constant rush of water, the spray, the cool mist, they became our companions, guiding us along. They whispered stories of the ages, of time and persistence, and we listened.
Reaching the Ink Pots was an achievement, a milestone. The sight of the deep blue, crystal clear waters was a reward in itself. They were as the legends had described, pools of liquid sapphire nestled amidst nature's green. We had brought packed sandwiches for lunch, and as we sat there, feasting not just on our simple meal but also on the beauty that surrounded us, it felt like a moment suspended in time. The journey was challenging, yes, but the destination was worth every step.
And then, we turned back. The return journey was just as enchanting, the path familiar yet new when seen from the opposite direction. The weather held up, perfect for a day outdoors. The sun was warm, the breeze cool, and our hearts full.
Manchester is the starting point and also the last leg of the Northern UK (or Scotland) trip. We were fortunate to have sunny skies for this last leg, making the photos all look much better. As this was my first time being in Manchester, I found it to be a rather vibrant city (with lots of young folks and diverse nationalities). I found Trafford Centre to be a nice place for shopping as well. It didn't seem like there was an incoming recession, and everyone was out and about shopping and having fun!
Manchester also had its own out-and-proud Gay Village, and it was literally named "GAY VILLAGE" on the map, with signs all pointing to this small precinct. It's refreshing to see a city where diversity was truly celebrated.
Made a quick stop at Bradford and Huddersfield enroute towards Manchester (from Leeds). I was particularly impressed by the architecture of Huddersfield Train Station.
Designed by the architect James Pigott Pritchett and opened in 1850, Huddersfield station is near the town centre and the cultural hub of St George's Square, with the nearby retail centres, restaurants and Victorian architecture all within easy reach.
A Grade I-listed building, the station underwent a £1 million refurbishment in 2009, and as a result, it won the Europa Nostra, an award for outstanding European Architecture. Huddersfield was also one of poet John Betjeman's favourite early railway stations.
From Loch Ness, we arrived at Inverness and unfortunately, we had only one day to spend in this city. Interestingly, one of the key highlights was to go to the various grocery stores and supermarkets and marvel at the affordability of vegetables, salads, meats, eggs, milk, cheese, beer, cider, wine, toiletries... almost everything! I like to alternate between dining out and buying back food (either to cook or ordering takeaway to eat-in), and for Inverness, we found a large Aldi right opposite where we were staying. Hence the evening was microwaved food, cider and Disney+.
For the following day, we drove around Inverness and decided to take a walk around Ness Island. Because the weather was just right (ample sunshine + cool breeze), it turned out to be a nice stroll. Many people were also out and about, taking advantage of the sunshine, and there were many dogs running around and even going into the water around the small island.
From Inverness, it would be a drive along the northern coast, passing Nairn, Forres, Elgin and more, and making quick stops along the way. Elgin Cathedral was one of them. Due to the nature of the roads in this region, I couldn't drive at a higher speed, and by the time we reached Bow Fiddle Rock at Portknockie, we decided to drive straight towards Aberdeen instead to save some time. I was amazed by Bow Fiddle Rock though, which was this impressive sea arch resembling the tip of a fiddle bow.
From Carlisle, we made a detour to visit the Robert Burns House at Dumfries. Robert Burns wrote many poems and songs in his lifetime; with some of the famous ones being "Tam o'Shanter", but the song that everyone should know would be Auld Lang Syne. Unfortunately, we arrived too early and the house was not open. We loitered around a little bit and because it was getting chilly, we decided to continue onwards.
Since we were at Dumfries, we decided to stop by Dumfries House. The Dumfries House was currently maintained as part of the Prince's Foundation, and occupies over 2000 acres of land. We walked around the main house and the lovely garden. The weather was great and there wasn't really many people around, which certainly help to add points to my enjoying the walk around the area.
From Dumfries, we made a few other short stops, such as Cumnock, the coastal town of Ayr, Prestwick, Troon and Irvine before heading towards Glasgow in the late afternoon. The weather was turning rainy, so we quickly checked into our accommodation and settled down for the evening, since we had another few more days to explore Glasgow. I've been to Edinburgh before, and this was my first time to Glasgow. While the weather wasn't really kind during my stay in Glasgow, I do like Glasgow and find it a city that I would like to explore further. There were many interesting precincts to explore, and oh boy, there was so many large murals to see~
From Glasgow, we originally wanted to drive straight up to Inverness and move back southwards to Loch Ness, but our car host told us that it would be cool to drive towards Glencoe to see the scenery, landscape as well as to go to the "Skyfall Road". While this wasn't something I was planning to do, it sounded like a mini adventure. Also, after doing some map-plotting, it seemed that it was a more direct route towards Loch Ness via Glencoe. It turned out to be a right choice, as the drive in the Glencoe area was really nice. Because we drove up gradually into higher altitudes, we saw a change in the landscape. It kinda reminded me of a greener version of Iceland (expansive landscapes with no trees in sight). This ended up being the most picturesque drive for the entire trip.
On the other hand, Loch Ness was nothing to shout about. There were several lochs, with Ness being the most famous one. And nope, I didn't see any sea creatures (lol).
Thought I'll do a journal about my Scotland trip (July to Aug 2022 period). It takes time to organise the photos and write about the trip, so I will do it a bit at a time (and time's so hard to find as always). So we arrived at Manchester, got the car and then quickly got on our way. First quick stop was Preston. As the weather wasn't fantastic, we got out of the car and took a quick sweep of the city centre area centered around the Harris Museum, Art Gallery and Library before driving off towards Carlisle.
Along the way, we made a visit to Lancaster Castle, which was a free-entry medieval castle in Lancaster, Lancashire. Again, the weather wasn't great, but it didn't stop a wedding couple and their entourage from celebrating and taking photos at the castle. In fact, during the 18th and 19th centuries, until the Bankruptcy Act of 1866, Lancaster Castle housed between 300 and 400 people in the debtors' prison at any one time. Apparently the prisoners had their last meal at the Three Mariners pub before heading towards the castle, so we decided to have our lunch there as well.
Another quick stop along the way was Brougham Castle. Founded in the early 13th century, it was used as a formidable barrier against the Scots invaders and welcome Edward I in 1300. Unfortunately, part of it is in ruins.
The first rest stop for the trip would be Carlisle. We walked around Carlisle and found ourselves in Carlisle Cathedral. Carlisle Cathedral is the second smallest of England's ancient cathedrals and has a long and turbulent history. It started life as a Norman Priory Church in 1122, becoming a cathedral in 1133. When we visited, there was music playing in the cathedral (tubular bells?) and was welcoming indeed.
The city of Carlisle is not too big and walkable by foot, and everything closed early by about 6pm. The early history of Carlisle is marked by its status as a Roman settlement, established to serve the forts on Hadrian's Wall. Carlisle Castle was built in 1092 by William Rufus, which explained the name of the Wetherspoons that we visited, aptly named "William Rufus" lol!
From Bilbao to Santiago de Compostela
The Northern Spain trip was one that was taken during the COVID-19 pandemic storm. 2020 hit all of us with this dark swan event, and grounded literally the entire world. In 2021, with some semblance of normalcy creeping back to some tourist destinations, it was time to make plans for some careful travelling! Hence this trip to Northern Spain.
As usual, many photos were taken during the trip, but I'll try to insert those 360 photos that I've consistently taken and posted on Google Street View. Enjoy!
First stop (after checking into the hotel) was Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao. At it was getting late, we reckoned that we will take time taking photos, and enjoying the cool yet sunny weather instead of going into the museum.
Actually the view from the nearby bridge is the best as it provided an expansive view of the museum. If you walk along the bridge, you can see the various light reflections off the Museum exterior, giving the museum a very interesting sheen. Due to the fact it was the COVID-19 period, there were not many tourists at this area, making it a nice walk around the museum, the surrounding park as well as along the river bank. The first day was a short one due to jetlag.
We then took the funicular (Funicular de Artxanda) up to the lookout area, called the S. Cook Bilbao Lookout. This lookout is famous for the red "BILBAO" characters which are obviously popular with the tourists. While the hill is not very high, it still offers a view over Bilbao city (not too many skyscrapers fortunately).
While looking for a place to eat, I read the reviews and decided to head over to Cafe Iruna to try their tapas and drinks. The Café Iruña located in front of the famous “Jardines de Albia”, was inaugurated on July 7, 1903 by the great Navarrese promoter Sir Severo Unzue Donamaría. We arrived a little too early (remember lunches start very late here in Spain), so we had tapas and drinks before settling for their value-for-money lunch set.
We had meals at a few really nice restaurants, such as Restaurant Alameda (at San Sebastian) which offers menu with local and seasonal products, and they have held a Michelin star for over twenty years. We also tried Arzak, a 3-starred restaurant focusing on traditional Basque cuisine by Elena Arzak, who was named best chef in the world by Veuve Clicquot. Nevertheless, I think that dining is not always about the stars, and homely restaurants and cafes can be a joy to dine in. A case in point is Hidalgo 56, a nice cafe-restaurants serving pinchos at San Sebastian.
Another interesting part of the trip was driving all the way into the mountain areas (lots of curvy turns) to this place called Fuente De, where you can take a cable car up to the mountains, with snow walks and amazing views. This is also a stop for hikers who want to spend a few days hiking in the snowy mountains.
If you are a fan of Gaudi, then you would want to include this stop as part of your trip. El Capricho de Gaudi. El Capricho is one of the few projects completed by Antoni Gaudi outside of his native region of Catalonia and produced a summer villa for a wealthy donor based in Comillas, Cantabria, Spain. One interesting aspect of this design is that Gaudi decided upon a different shape of roof than he would normally use, due to the different weather and climate conditions of this area close to Santander in Northern Spain. His normal consideration was, of course, Barcelona, and so in this case he demonstrated an understanding of the implications of working in a different part of the country. It's a great stop for 1 or 2 hours.
At Santander, one of the main highlights would be Palacio de la Magdalena. It was built in 1909 to house the Spanish Royal Family. There were some local tourists visiting the place as well, and as with the previous stops, we were the only Asian folks doing any visiting. (We did not see any Asian travellers until we reached Santiago de Compostela.
Gijón or Xixón is a great stop for the Northern Spain trip. The city itself has this nice bay-beach area with underground parking. There were so many locals who were bringing their dogs out to play. The humans-to-dog ratio here is incredible! Generally, if you are visiting this city, you will also be making the stop to Oviedo which is quite nearby.
Another really quick (morning) stop was Ribadesella. a small town in Asturias along Spain's northern coast. As we arrived on a Sunday, everything was closed and there was no one around. We managed to find a pub-cafe place which was open for a quick bite before taking a few photos and then going on our way.
Summary of My Norway-in-a-Nutshell Trip
Honestly, this was my first attempt to commit time to do a day-by-day blogging of my Norway-in-a-Nutshell trip. It was a time-consuming affair, as writing, journalling or blogging should be focused on quality rather than quantity, on passion rather than facts. In this aspect, this would be a work in progress, and I might just add more bits and pieces in time to come.
But with everything, I would have less time once I am back in Singapore. So it would be wise to summarise everything here, at least as a tidy first draft.
Norway Day-by-Day Journal Entries
Throught the Norway trip, I have stopped to take many 360 photos. I was able to upload them into a single Norway collection at Kuula. You can see my 360 photos via this link or directly below.