Tag Archives: Sunrise

Morocco – the country of contrasts

I spent an incredible few weeks travelling around Morocco in North Africa. This country wasn’t originally on my list of places to visit when I decided to go travelling, but I picked the trip because the duration, budget and distance all fit my criteria when looking for a small adventure to fill the gap between other travels… and I also wanted to fulfill my dream of sleeping under the stars in the Sahara desert! Having said that, I’m really glad I went… I came across some beautiful and historical places, had some fun and amazing adventures, made some great (hopefully lasting) friendships, got acquainted with Arabic music (Zina!) and some useful phrases… I’ll never forget ‘Yallah, Yallah’!

Morocco is a beautiful country and full of contrasts… you could be standing in the arid desert while at the same time being able to see snow capped mountains in the distance; there are large malls and western shops with fixed prices and a few kilometers away there are old bazaars and markets where bargaining is a huge part of the experience; there are centuries-old kasbahs and a short distance away modern cafes and satellite dishes everywhere; there is poverty on the one hand with people (including children) begging for money on the streets and nice buildings and expensive cars across town; and there’s a huge diversity of languages…. Berber, Arabic, French, Spanish.

We travelled around the country starting from Casablanca in the west and heading north to the city of Tangier. Unfortunately it was a cloudy and rainy day so we were unable to see Spain in the distance. However, I do remember the walk through the colourful streets of the medina, stepping in puddles, watching locals run their businesses and kids paint football badges onto walls, and smelling the scent of freshly baked bread.

Following Tangier, we headed south to the beautiful blue city of Chefchaouen. This was one of my favourite towns in Morocco… full of charming streets and spectacular landscapes! I really enjoyed walking through the winding and seemingly never-ending streets of the medina… a lot of the walls were painted in varying shades of blue and had splashes of other colours added to the mix. There were locals running their businesses inviting you in to check out their wares, kids playing in the streets and stray cats trying to keep out of the sun. The market in Chefchaouen was also very vibrant… I ate some of the best strawberries there that I’ve had in my entire life!

Panoramic view of the city of Chefchaouen

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The medina of Chefchaouen

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Leaving the blue of Chefchaouen behind, we visited the stunning ancient roman ruins of Volubilis, the imperial city of Meknes and the medina of Fes. The trip was very educational and I also learnt about different marriage ceremonies in Morocco… but don’t worry I didn’t get married while out there!

Ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis

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Tannery in the medina of Fes

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The journey then went further south to Merzouga and the Sahara desert after which we ventured back west across Morocco to the incredibly scenic UNESCO world heritage site of Ait Ben Haddou and then headed into the High Atlas Mountains.

Ait Ben Haddou

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Some of my highlights were riding out into the heart of the desert on the back of a camel, singing and dancing with new friends at the Sahara Bedouin camp and sleeping outside under the stars and the light of the near full moon. I hardly slept because of the cold, mosquitoes and fear of desert creepy crawlies but it didn’t matter because I was completely mesmerised by the sky filled with stars… another one of those ‘I can’t believe I’m here’ moments!

Camel ride into the Sahara desert

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Nomad family and their camp in the Sahara desert

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Sunrise in the Sahara desert

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Another highlight was hiking up to and around the village of Aremd in the High Atlas Mountains and getting to spend the night with a local family there. It was such a beautiful place… we hiked around the valley, crossed streams and took in the beautiful views and fresh mountain air! It was also refreshing to have no wifi!

Aremd village in the High Atlas Mountains

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As we travelled from North to South, the landscape changed dramatically from lush green vegetation to barren desert landscapes to snow peaked mountains. At points in the North, it was hard to believe we were actually in Morocco… I didn’t expect to see so much green! Leaving the Atlas Mountains behind, we went off to the coastal town of Essaouira and then ended in the bustling city of Marrakech. The sights, smells and sounds of Djemaa El-Fna put me into sensory overload! I also managed to visit Jardin Majorelle… the beautiful botanical gardens created by Jacques Majorelle and owned by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner. The garden contains hundreds of exotic plant species and trees as well as several ponds and streams. You can hear the sound of birds chirping around, see turtles swimming in the pond or just sit on one of the shaded benches and take some time out of the hustle and bustle of daily life.

Sunset in Essaouira

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The medina of Marrakech

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As with most trips, the food and drink is always memorable and I believe it’s a big part of the travel experience. Over the weeks I spent in Morocco, I became reacquainted with mint tea and probably consumed gallons of it! It was interesting to also learn about the process of making mint tea… it was more involved than I thought! Food-wise I really enjoyed sampling the different types of tagines… my favourites were kafta and egg tagine and lemon chicken tagine. I also came across Msemen, which is a Moroccan square shaped fried pancake (delicious for breakfast!), Harissa (a hot chili paste) and Lemon Fanta (so refreshing on a hot 39 degrees day!).

Mint tea making ceremony

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Kafta and egg tagine

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So with a week to go until the next adventure begins… you may ask ‘where to next?’… wait and see!

The river runs through it

Leaving Thailand behind, I spent just over two weeks in beautiful Laos and Vietnam. It was an amazing two weeks of adventure, fun, new friends, new (and unusual) foods and trying lots of new things for the first time… kayaking in the Nam Som River, holding a python round my neck, swimming in a freezing cold waterfall, riding on a water buffalo at sunset, eating deep fried worm (yes, I said worm!) amongst many other things… some of these things I’d never imagined I would ever do!

Kuang Si waterfall south of Luang Prabang

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Riding a water buffalo in Hoi An

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After crossing the border from Thailand into Laos, we spent two days sailing along the mighty Mekong River. It was a beautiful ride with cold mornings, sunny afternoons and being surrounded by gorgeous hills and mountains all around. We passed various villages and fishing boats along the way and several cows and elephants too. We spent the night in a rustic lodge in the small village of Pak Beng located on the Mekong River… staying in wooden cabins with very little hot water and lots of geckos for friends, it made for an interesting night as the only sounds I could here were those of nature.

Views sailing along the Mekong River

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Buddha statues in the Pak Ou caves, a stop along the Mekong River boat trip

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Finally we arrived in the town of Luang Prabang… this is a beautiful town located along the Mekong River and one of my favourite stops on the trip. It’s a laidback and serene town even though there are a lot of tourists visiting. Some of the highlights for me (apart from historical or religious sights) were the bustling night markets (and the bargaining that comes with them), street food vendors selling mouth-watering dishes, strolling along dusty side streets, rising at dawn to watch the saffron-robed monks receiving alms, and the lively morning market with a variety of unusual eats! I saw a lot of interesting and strange foods in the morning market including deep fried mice/rats, frogs, snails, squirrels, budgies and cobra… I wasn’t brave enough to try any of them!

Mice, rats and snake found for sale in the Luang Prabang morning market

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Monks collecting alms in the early morning

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Sampling street food was definitely a highlight for me… from scrumptious spring rolls to delicious dumplings and, my personal favourite, banana and Nutella crepes that I bought along the sidewalk.

Luang Prabang Street Food

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Home-cooked Laotian meal including laap and deep fried aubergine

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Aside from this, I was also lucky enough to spend a morning with elephants… the highlight for me was ‘bathing’ them in the Mekong River… in actual fact they were just splashing about with us in the river rather than actually bathing but it was an incredible experience with these gentle giants… a dream come true for me because of my love of elephants!

‘Bathing’ elephants near Luang Prabang

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Leaving Luang Prabang behind, we continued on to Vang Vieng for a day. Here I got to try kayaking for the first time… I was quite nervous at first but it was an amazing experience kayaking along the Nam Som River with the hot sun beating down on my skin. Along the way my group decided to stop at one of the infamous river-side bars… they are pretty cool with loud music blaring, people dancing, drinks flowing, BBQs burning on the side and awesome hammocks hanging around for people to catch some rest and shade from the strong sun.

That evening I sat along the riverside with a BeerLao beer in hand and watched the world go by… boats sailing, flocks of birds soaring through the sky, locals having a BBQ around a fire on the sand and the golden red sun setting behind the grand mountains… it’s one of those serene and breathtaking moments I’ll never forget.

Vang Vieng sunset

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After leaving Laos, we headed to Vietnam where the first stop was Hanoi. This is one of the most bustling, vibrant and chaotic cities I’ve ever seen, especially in the old quarter. There were people and motorbikes everywhere, horns beeping, power lines dangling, street vendors galore, amazing sights, sounds and smells everywhere and dozens of streetside ‘bars’ selling the cheapest beer in the world, Bia Hoi (for the equivalent of 24 cents)! There seemed to be no concept of traffic rules or personal space in Hanoi… you couldn’t walk anywhere without being bumped into or beeped at or nearly run over by a motorcyclist! The thing I found the most strange however is how such a vibrant city completely shuts down at midnight… it’s like it turns into a pumpkin… the streets become empty and lonely, all the sounds disappear and there is just quiet all around.

Streets of Hanoi

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BBQ dog for sale in Hanoi

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One of my highlights in Vietnam was an overnight stay on a junk boat in Ha Long Bay. I had an absolutely incredible time there… apart from getting scared half to death by monkeys when visiting a local beach… but don’t worry, we came away unscathed (just about!). I had another of those ‘I can’t believe I’m here’ moments when watching a spectacular sunset on the top deck of our boat with a glass of merlot in one hand and my faithful camera in the other… and coming back after dinner to star gaze in the beautifully clear night sky! These are some moments I’ll never ever forget!

Ha Long Bay

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HaLongBay

Aside from Ha Long bay, I really enjoyed my time in the city of Hue. I was lucky to be able to take a slightly non-conventional city tour… I got to ride on the back of a motorbike for the day to see all the sights. It was an incredibly fun and insightful experience… riding through big highways, small back alleys, rice fields, cemeteries, past peoples homes, businesses and schools… it was a great way to see the city as I felt I got a much better insight into the real Hue and the way people live there.

Motorbike tour in Hue and meeting local people en route

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Leaving Hue, we stopped for a few nights in Hoi An with it’s charming streets, many stalls, restaurants, cafes and shops. Some of the highlights here were a noodle making class (it’s harder than it looks!), a cycle tour through vegetable gardens and rice fields (and getting a little lost) and the opportunity to ride a water buffalo.

The final stop for me was Ho Chi Minh City. Before getting ready to go home, I took a trip to the Cu Chi tunnels. The tunnels formed an underground network used by the Viet Cong army during the Vietnamese and American War. It was quite an emotional tour and very thought-provoking listening to our guide who was a real war veteran as he told stories of his days during the war and in the re-education camps.

Cu Chi tunnels

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Unfortunately all good things must come to and end… and so it was time for me to leave Southeast Asia and come back home.  However, not long until the next adventure… from thirty degrees heat straight into sub-zero freezing cold… Iceland here I come!