Monday, December 28, 2015

More Morocco

Arriving at Casablanca and you soon find out it isn't a quaint little city. It's the economic powerhouse of Morocco, with the city & suburbs housing a reputed 8 million folk. One of these cities, where drivers use their horns for driving!

I headed out to see the must-see sight, Hassan 2 Mosque. It's huge with a minaret over 200m high, capable of holding over 25,000 people inside and a further 80,000 outside. Amazingly it was built in just seven years, albeit by thousand of workers. A tour inside and you can see the fine intricate details. Nearby the waves crash on the breakwater, and even a couple of people surfing in the choppy waves. A hop on the train takes me up to the capital of Morocco, Rabat.

Rabat seems slightly quieter and more relaxed, with wide tree lined avenues where I am staying, near the Archaeology Museum. I pop in there for a nosy, it's small and has some neat carved items taken from nearby Volubilis. I head to the exotically named Kasbah of the Udayas, a former Barbary pirate stronghold! Well, now it's a tidy blue-painted village. Small lanes wind around, up and down the residential area. Good views over the sea, and nearby Sale. A nice garden houses many plants, some with medicinal uses, and some fruits such as oranges & bananas. Heading back into town, I walked through some markets, some selling tourist tat, others just general household goods.

Another short train journey and I arrive in Meknes. I stay at a beautiful riad, which was once used by a branch of royalty (apparently!) and hoarded some treasures, hence the metre thick walls! I'm in the middle of the medina, and get nice views across Meknes from the rooftop. Back down on the ground a couple of minutes away, tucked behind a door lies a small former school. Although not nearly as grand as Medersa Ben Youssef in Marrakesh, it has a well decorated courtyard. A walk through the medina, bring you out at the large El-Hadmin square, flanked by the Bab Mansour gate. I had a walk around town and find a tasty rotisserie chicken joint for dinner, where I get a plate with everything on it!

Next day it was a petit taxi to the grand taxi stand, where I shared a taxi with a couple of other backpackers to get to Moulay Idriss. A holy town, with Moulay Idriss bringing Islam to Morocco. Six pilgrimages here is equivalent to one Haj to Mecca. The town itself is perched on a hilltop and nearby has great views of the town itself and down to the nearby Volubilis, which I walked down to. However I must of taken the wrong road, whilst ending up at Volubilis, unfortunately there was a large fence in the way. Not sure where the proper entrance was, I just ducked under a gap. I had a good look around the partially excavated sight. The sun was starting to dip, giving a golden hue to the pillars, it was nice and quiet, until a busload of tourists turned up for sunset. After taking some pictures, I headed out giving my 10 dirhams admission price to a bemused guard. I walked back up the hill just as it was getting dark. I later headed into a local restaurant to have some overpriced and very chewy beef brochettes. The next day I crammed into the taxi with a driver and 5 other passengers. Definitely a tight squeeze, but luckily the door locks were adequate. Back in Meknes, I jumped on the train for another short hop over to my final destination, Fez.

The last of the four imperial cities and the hardest city to navigate! It is a huge warren of interconnected pathways weaving around in no discernible order or direction. They say is is unchanged in a thousand years, but one obvious addition is that of satellite dishes everywhere! I set out to get lost and succeeded. I did manage to get up to the Borj Nord Arms Museum. It was a decent museum, but the English audio guide was amusingly bad. Great views back out over the medina from up on the hill here. Back down in the city itself, I has a look at the tanneries, which color the skin. I enter and am given a sprig of mint to hold to your nose to mask the smells. They store the animal skins in pigeon droppings for a while before dyeing it. As you can imagine it's not a place you really want to linger to long. I  ended up getting dragged into the dreaded carpet shop, which I managed to extricate myself from. I stopped off at Cafe Clock for one of their famous CamelBurgers, which was surprisingly good! Another sight I manage to eventually find was the faded grandeur of Palais Glaoui. This crumbling palace had hints at it's former glory. Quite interesting with a tour from the guide, although she didn't speak a whole lot of English.

After Fez, I retraced my path, following the railway line back to Marrakesh via Casablanca. A few more days in Fez, I went to the Menara, which looked better in the postcard. Although in the postcard, you don't hear the music they were playing. Then I found a couple of palaces which I had failed to find first time round! They first was more run down, the second however had more surviving. With mosaic walls, intricately painted doors and wooden carved ceilings. One final meal, I opted for the 'royal' menu at a restaurant where I got six starters, then a huge main with chicken, beef & meat(?) skewers over couscous with few different sauces & chutneys. Then just the flight back to Glasgow which was fine except for one crazy woman who decided to suddenly start screaming at the top of her voice at the airport gate.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

El Jadida

I went to the bus station to buy a ticket to El Jadida, but the bus only went as far as Safi so I went there. I shouldn't have bothered.

Safi is an industrial town with a large sardine processing facility near the middle of the city.
After much searching more a place to eat I did have a nice pastilla at a snack shop with an impossible small spiral staircase. However, one night was enough, so I headed up along the coast to El Jadida. This has a Unesco Heritage site of the traditional Portuguese City near the sea. However lots of restoration work at the moment.

I stopped off at Cafe Do Mar for a gallete more French influence at work. One place of interest was the cistern, which is below ground illuminated by a single shaft of light. The light reflects around the surface of the water resulting in a very atmospheric place. This setting was used in Orson Welles' Othello. Later at night, a much better choice of places to eat. I headed for a local fish restaurant, Al Bahri, for a good whole fried fish.

A short trip the next day I was in Casablanca.

ATVing

While in Essaouira I decided to have a go on an ATV. I signed up for a 3 hour tour in the afternoon. At 14:00, after getting dressed in a wind jacket, gloves and dapper scarf, we got underway. A quick intro to the controls and once around the block, then a short journey along the road. Soon we turned off the road and on to the beach. After a few manoeuvres, the speed limiter was removed and we were zooming along the beach. You have to follow the lead driver tracks, as he knows what he's doing!

Started curving up sand dunes and back down. Then steeper ones. Eventually out in to some proper desert style sand dunes. While the lead in driving, he also manages to take photos. I only got stuck a couple of times! Just have to reverse and then zoom up the dune again. A couple of downhill ones, which you can just use the brake, but it the ATV will slide down the sand anyway!

We headed out to an outlook over a surfing beach, to stop for some water and a snack. A quiet beach with a few folks surfing the waves on a rocky beach. The area further south near Agadir might not be so quiet in a few years, as a big development further south at Taghazout Bay plans many new hotels.

After a break, we headed back through dunes, scrubs and trees, then finally back along the beach. A very enjoyable time with great scenery, only spoiled by the amount of plastic rubbish washed up onto the shores.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Agadir & Essaouria

In Agadir the wide beach stretches for miles in a gentle crescent. As the Atlantic laps the sand, the damp flat areas are turned into football pitches by the locals. Although footy on the beach isn't the only option, as I passed a city stadium which I wondered into for a brief look. Lots of organised football with 4 or 5 games going on. Well I say organised, but after being under a spell of pressure one team countered attack, only for the move to stop as the attacked threw up his hands in despair. A kid from a different team had nicked the opposition goalposts.

The beachfront has a new promenade for the locals and tourists to stroll down. At one end resorts, the other the marina. Around the marine are dotted some fancy restaraunts. I popped into a fancy one on a whim, somewhat underdressed in a t-shirt. You know it is fancy when your spuds come in a smear on the plate! And you get what I imagine was an amuse bouche (I don't remember ordering this!). Here is le menu.

One of the things which was recommended to try was a Morrocan Hamman, so I booked one. I got picked up from my guesthouse and whisked away. After stripping down to your pants you get put in a steam room ala Turkish bath. Soon a woman comes in and slathers Argon oil on you. Then leaves you to sweat. Later you get rinsed off and out comes the brillo pad. Okay, it wasn't a brillo pad, it just felt like it. This gets rid of the dead skin cells (by removing a layer of skin, I suspect!). Then some buckets of water over the head and shampooed. Then you get a normal massage afterwards. Interesting as a bit of a different experience, but I don't think I'll be in a hurry to repeat the brillo pads!

Next up was Essaouira. I jumped on the Supratour bus, they have assigned seats and I ended up right behind the driver, not sure I like that seat! Traffic is actually quite light, and well behaved. Although it seems like traffic coming on to the roundabout has right of way. Of course they drive on the wrong side of the road here. After finding my guesthouse down a cul de sac, I headed out to the medina for a nosy. Much more managable size compared to Marrakesh. Nearby the medina itself is the fishing port. Around 15:00 the boats return along with their catches and loads of seagulls! Certainly an interesting time to have a stroll, as people bustle around and seagulls are whirring through the air. Also the ramparts nearby have some cannons, as it used to be a military fort with the much cooler name of Mogador! Just off the coast lies Ile Mogador. A small island now a nature preserve with resident falcons. Apparently it was used as a backdrop for Game of Thrones, with the guesthouse owner getting a part as an extra!

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Rock the Kasbah.

Rock the Kasbah. If by rock you mean get lost, then yes I did rock the kasbah. Repeatedly! But back a day, a last minute flight deal meant I was on my way to Marrakesh. Only a 4 hour flight from Glasgow. I touched down around 16:00 and immigration was straight forward. I had arrange to get picked up from the airport. So I met the driver and he shuffled me towards the car, I thought I was going to have to drive as he pointed at the driver seat, but of course it is left side drive here, so I was thankfully in the passenger seat! 
The airport isn't to far from the old town (the medina) where I has booked my riad (hotel with rooms set around a courtyard). Still we entered the old walled town and the driver parked. Now we had to walk. Throught the busy market, then down an alleyway, getting quiter, down another dark alleyway. Uhhh, we are we going? Arrived at a rather non-descript door and then when you enter it was a very nicely decorated patio, with fountains and rose petals littered about. I had a seat and a very tasty pot of sugary mint tea was presented (Morocco's national drink). 
The French owner turned up shortly, just as well, as my Arabic is non-existent so about on par with my French, which is what the staff were speaking. :) Handily the owner spoke English fine. She gave me a map and some info about what to see, so after getting settled I headed out to Jamma El Fna to see what was happening. That's Marrakesh main square not Ras Al Ghul's home. 
Lots of number food stalls, with people trying to drag you in, if you so much look at a menu. I settled on No. 1 stall, I doubt there is much difference between most of them, except a few only selling some food. I settled on a chicken tagine, and got some bread & sauce (one tomato based, one spicy). After dinner I tried to return to the hotel, but got hopelessly lost, eventually made it back thanks mostly to google maps.

The next morning I head off to Majorelle Gardens. A tranquil garden by a French Painter, Monsieur Majorele. Inside was a small memorial to Yves Saint Lauren. Entrance to the gardens and the museum was 100 dirhams. There was a small museum about the Berber folk of Morocco, which was also worth a visit. I went off on a wonder down a main road, having a nosy around. After that I jumped in a local petit taxi, heading down to the other end of the medina. 10-15 min ride cost 20 Dirhams. Not much more than a pound! Although not always the case, depends on what price you can agree. I managed to jump into the taxi as he was letting somebody else off.

Then I was getting lost in the kasbah. Eventually I manage to find the Saadian Tombs (I had walked straight past the huge building). Kinda empty inside, but a couple of places where the intricate decorations could be seen. Worth a quick stop and only 10 dirhams, but it looked like there were tidying it up, so expect the price to jump!

I tried to find the palace, but ended up in some sort of industrial area! I abandoned that idea and found a cafe for a chicken shwarma (plus frites!)

Next up was Ben Youssef Madrasa. A large Islamic college.Not much in the rooms, but central courtyard was certainly impressive, next door was the Marrakesh museum. Some interesting things, such as a massive chandeliery-thingy, okay I don't know what it was!

At night time I returned to Jamma El Fna for a spot of music. During the day the snakecharmers are there, but as night falls a ragtag cluster of musicians led by a mullet haired banjo singer (decked out in an all red Nike tracksuit) entertained locals who perch on plastic stools giving a a dirham or two for the performance.

Also on show was a crazy little guy, who I watched for 5 mintues and couldn't make head nor tail off. Just a crazy shirtless shouting guy with a crowd watching him! At least I think that was a show...

The next day if was off to Agadir for a spot of gentle R & R at the beach.  A nice spot with a looong wide beach and promenade made for dusk strolling. Loads of restaurants nearby, an easy place to chill out. They even sell beer! I popped into to an 'Irish' Bar named 'La Truite' for a pint of Pression and a plate of olives. Just like Dublin!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Jungle Flying

I finally took the plunge and decided to book a  in Chiang Mai.
I was picked up in a car at the horrendous time of 06:40, then the driver went round in circles for a bit till he found another couple of people. Then drove to the highway and swapped from car to van. We proceed quickly down past Doi Saket and beyond, then turn right onto a narrow road. A long winding road uphill, twists and turns, guess this is part of the adventure!

We arrive at the office and grab a helmet, harness and a "hi-tec nanotechnology braking device" (a stick). Once everybody is harnessed up, we march through the village to the first station. Not much hanging about, there are 34 stations to travel through. From the small platform, you are quickly hooked onto the zipline, and safety attach. Told to lean back and sit down, and then "Go!", you zip down the line and the other guide at the receiving end helps you, unhooks you and attaches the safety to a line running round the tree trunk. Then you shuffle round the trunk ready for the next one.

Takes a bit of getting used to, I keep spinning round and arriving backwards which is awkward, not too much you can do, try and wave your arms or legs was the suggestion, but I think I'll just keep my white knuckles clenching the rope.

Then comes the longer ones! We need to use the stick by pulling down on the line using the friction too slow down. Somehow I ended up first, but spun round going backwards, so can't see the platform. Then guy shouted "BRAKE" as previously instructed, then something else, which turned out to be "HARDER!", so I kinda bounced off him. Just as well for the helmets. Later he was saying you need to use your brake, I'm not ABS! There is only 2 sections were you need to use the brake, the second one went much better, easier when you are going forward.

Just before a quick snack break, we slide along another zipline, this one had the best view I would say, as you are in a break in the jungle, the photo on the jungle flight website shows it well, it does actually look like this!

On one of the section we got hooked on the back for a superman style ride, nothing to hang on with your hands, and the worst part is you need to lean into the void to leave the platform.

Another 12 more or so zipline and 1 more abseil, hooked on the back. Then back on terra firma! The guide at the end decided to go head first.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Ayutthaya, Korat & Khon Kaen

I decided to head down to Ayutthaya at the last minute. I nipped over to the station to pick up a train ticket, and found out the usual 9pm sleeper train has been cancelled. So I ended up getting one at 17.30. Enough time to go back and pack a bag, before u-turning back to the station.

The train rumbles along slowly, after Lampang the train attendant comes round and makes your bed. Try to snooze, but didn't sleep much. Trundled into Ayutthaya early morning, long time on the train. I'd booked a room near the historical park, didn't look that far away. One songtaew later I arrived. I headed up to try and find a reasonable bicycle to rent, but nothing like a mountain bike here. Ended up with an old clunker, still at least it had straight handerbars and not these horrible U shaped ones that are common.

Ayutthaya was a Kindgom between 1350 to 1767, a busy trading port during these times, situated on the Chao Praya river, which flows South through Bangkok. Spread over several square miles, the remnants of the Kingdom are still here to see. Grand temples, some ruined, some rebuilt. I pedalled around the sights, such as the oft-photographed Buddha head in tree. Also Wat Phra Si Sanphet a large complex strewn across the grounds, which was formerly the old palace compound.

Further afield, I visited some temples across the river. Including one chedi standing grandly, now situated on a flat rice field. Seems to take a longer route than necessary and ended up on a very dusty road that presumbably is being resurfaced. Eventually arrived at the impressive Wat Chaiwatthanaram, but unfortunately closed for restoration to could only look from afar. That night I ate at a the busy Sai Thong riverside restaurant, a strange
duck with random bits dish.

Next day I cycled over to Wat Phanan Choeng, with thousands of Buddhas sitting in niches, and a huge central figure. When I was visiting there was a ceremony, where the cloth is brought over peoples head.

Back in town there was a huge firework display for the King's Birthday, causing traffic mayhem by blocking off one of the central roads. I returned my bike and walked back to the guesthouse, further than I thought!

Next day it was on the train into Isaan, the North-East region of Thailand. I got on the train, and found my seat squashed in beside a family. After a few hours, I stretched my legs, and looked out the windows. At the front of the train, you can actually look through the font window, as the driver is situated of to the left rather than right in the middle. A local guy with "Police" written across the back of his jacket is taking large gulps of whisky.

Eventually arrive in Korat, a small provinicial town. I thought it would be a bit bigger, not a whole lot here. Anyway I try some local food, phad mee korat, similar to phad thai. After that I find a barber and get a haircut and shave for 60 baht.I tried a busy Thai restaurant for dinner, and got a very bland dish, must have been specially prepared for the Farang.

Next day it was off to the bus station, as I only had a small bag, I jumped on a motorbike taxi, a quick way of getting around. My timing was good as I just caught the soon to depart bus to Khon Kaen. Actually it didn't leave when full, it left a bit after that. 3 or 5 hours later I arrived. I decided to just walk towards the large Pullman hotel, guessing that around there would a good location. I happened upon a guesthouse and got a nice room, if you're a hobbit. Doorway was about 5 ft tall!

Khon Kaen seems to be more lively than Korat, new buildings sprouting up. A big fancy Central Plaza mall, and lots of busy pubs. That night I ventured into Tawan Daeng for some Isaan music, accompanied by the locals strutting their dances moves, in a very thai style.

The only problem with coming out here, is the long journey back to Chiang Mai, about 12 hours. I headed to the bus station, only to find out only have night buses, so I bought a ticket for 7pm that night. I headed into the mall to pass some time and ended up watching Super Salary Man, a Thai drama about office life. Well, it passed the time!

At about 7.15, the guy next to me went to sleep and didn't move for the next 12 hours. The bus decided to occasionaly do a random roadside stop, people were on their phones, some banging about with the baggage hold, and then after 30 minutes on out way again. Then stop again, at a National Park in the mountains, the thermometer outside read just 1C. Wait around here for a bit with the bus staff shivering, then eventually get back on the road. Mystery stops.

Finally get back into Chiang Mai around 7AM, I jump into a songthaew and grab some breakfast before heading back home, knackered.