The beautiful Bernese Oberland

When I was twenty I went abroad for the first time. Yes it was quite a while ago but I still remember how I felt when I saw those beautiful Swiss mountains; The Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau, it was breathtaking!

On that holiday we drove over from Interlaken to Grindelwald, a pretty village in the mountains, in the heart of the Bernese Oberland. It’s a popular ski resort as well as a perfect place to hike from, so many walks start from here. One of the things we did there and it’s the only thing I remember, is going on the chairlift up to First. In those days it was an open chair, two seats side by side with a canvas top and sides that rolled up. Somewhere I have a picture of myself sat on the chairlift and dare I say …looking a little like Julie Christie? I know, it’s hard to believe now! My first trip on a chairlift and I loved it! Now sadly the chairlift is no more having been replaced by a cable car. I’m sure it’s a good way to get up to this minor summit if you’re not able to hike, but I can’t believe it’s as much fun as the open chairlift. Health & Safety hey?!!

A couple of years ago we went back to Grindelwald staying at Hotel Tschuggen which is run by Robert & Monica. It’s a small hotel on the main street and from the back you get a magnificent view across the valley to the mountains. It’s an excellent place to stay with comfortable rooms and a delicious breakfast with home-made yogurt and of course a range of locally made cheeses.  The owners are lovely and are so welcoming and very helpful. We loved the town and the area so much and the hotel and the pizzas at Onkel Toms that we went back to Grindelwald again this year.

One of the things we wanted to do for the second time was to go on the Mannlichen Gondola cableway. It’s the third longest in the world and it’s just an amazing experience. We love the little gondolas which hold up to four people but guess what …this is the last season they will be running. From next year the little gondolas are being replaced by a cable car. Its a shame but for the operators they can get more people up there in a quicker time. Easier for skiers too.

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The summit at Mannlichen complete with a very large wooden cow! Great fun climbing inside and playing the cow bells.

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The drop below to the Lauterbrunnen valley didn’t seem to bother this chap!

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We’re all ready for the hike. Had to take a view of the Wetterhorn and of course the Eiger. Not a cloud in sight!

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If I didn’t stop to take pictures we would easily get to Kleine Scheidegg in two hours. It’s a simple, short hike with one of the most beautiful backdrops in the world. A fantastic view of the mountains, Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau.

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Not long before you get to Kleine Scheidegg station there just happens to be a watering hole on the route, Berghaus Grindelwaldblick. My man decided a beer was called for and I went for a Swiss wine from the village of Yvorne. We had stopped at the village crossing over from France a couple of days earlier and had spent a pleasant hour on a Sunday morning tasting a selection of their wines.

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I just wasn’t ready for all the alpine flowers which were growing everywhere. This alpine hike has everything!

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Although there’s no denying that Switzerland is an expensive country, if you can, do go. The scenery in the Bernese Oberland is wonderful …it’s breathtaking and unique. Pictures can’t do it justice. It’s pretty much unspoilt and hopefully it’ll remain so. I do feel very lucky to have done several hikes in this area and hopefully my man and I will be back before too long.

 

 

Beautiful sunset for our night by Lake Geneva.

Although we were sad to leave Provence we were so excited about staying in Switzerland for a few days. On the way however we’d booked into an inexpensive little hotel right on the shore of Lake Geneva in a village called Meillerie.

Quai de Meillerie
Meillerie by Lake Geneva

Is there anywhere by this beautiful lake that isn’t amazing? The views are stunning and the scenery …breathtaking. Meillerie is on the French side of the lake just a spit away from the Swiss border. It isn’t posh like Evian and the hotel, Les Terrasses certainly wasn’t expensive. The bathroom was smaller than our double-wardrobe at home but it had everything squeezed in there so no complaints and the breakfast was very good. The room even had a  little balcony looking over the lake.

Beginning of a sunset over Lake Geneva by Meillerie
The start of the sunset

We’d already booked a table at the lakeside restaurant just down the road as it had very good reviews and deservedly so. We had also stopped there just for drinks two years earlier when we were travelling from Switzerland to Provence. Le Restaurant du Port  is a really busy place and is only open between May & the end of September. This is the place to get perfect fish …of course.

Beginning of the sunset over Lake Geneva by Meillerie with swan
And then to complete my picture a swan arrived.

By luck we’d been given a table right by the side of the lake and even more exciting was the sunset that evening. I cursed that I hadn’t got my camera with me but my mobile has done a pretty good job. What I couldn’t understand was why  I was the only one bobbing up and down taking pictures?!

Maybe the reason was that sunsets over the lake happen quite a lot and I guess most of the people at the restaurant were locals although definitely not all.

Sunset over Lake Geneva by Meillerie quay
Spectacular sky but the sunset effect is disappearing!

My man is quite understanding about me taking pictures; he’s used to it so he didn’t mind me jumping up and down to take yet another one. He knew I wouldn’t ignore a sunset as good as this and anyway the meal hadn’t arrived yet and he was tucking into the wine, so that was okay!

Sunset over Lake Geneva by Meillerie
Sunset is looking good again!
Beautiful sunset over Lake Geneva by Meillerie
Doesn’t need a caption does it?!
Beautiful sunset over Lake Geneva by Meillerie
As sunsets go, this one was breathtaking.
Sunsetting over Lake Geneva by Meillerie
Over all too soon.

What a night! A fantastic meal, a superb setting and an unforgettable sunset oh and the wine was pretty good too!

Switzerland, here we come!

Two weeks in Provence.

I guess we’ve been visiting Provence for almost thirty years. It’s all down to the T.V. chef, Keith Floyd. He was doing a cookery demo in the pretty town of L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue chattering on as he used to do with a glass of wine in one hand whilst stirring a dish in the other. The camera panned round to show the river, one of the many waterwheels and the Provencal town houses …we were hooked. The very next year we were there and the magic has never gone. We love the town although it’s a lot busier than it was all those years ago.

L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Venice of Provence.
L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Venice of Provence.

For the last five years we’ve stayed at Mas de Miejour which is just outside the town of Le Thor not far from L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. The little cabin known as Le Cabanon, (small house in Provencal), feels very much like a home from home although where we live is bigger and a few centuries older! Le Cabanon is tucked away in the extensive grounds of the Mas de Miejour

Fred & Emma own the 19th century farmhouse (le Mas)and have several B & B rooms, cottages and the little cabin which is just perfect for us. It’s quiet, even the chickens don’t disturb us and we love their eggs for breakfast. The swimming pool is great and the area good for walking and cycling …very flat!

Mas de Miejour, le Cabanon
Le Cabanon at Mas de Miejour

The first Sunday we were there we decided to go along to the cherry festival in Venasque. The tourist info. on the village says ‘Venasque is perched on a rocky outcrop’, well they’re right about that. We parked at the bottom of the hill having decided we didn’t need to take the bus and by the time we’d walked up to the village we were definitely in need of a beer! The cherries were of course delicious as was the local wine however once the speeches started we went to explore the village. Not surprisingly it’s rated as the 126th ‘most beautiful village in France’.

Cherry festival at Venasque
Annual festival of cherries in Venasque

On Mondays we always go to Cavaillon. No it’s not rated beautiful but we like it because it’s not touristy. The market is very much for the locals and I know my espadrille man will be there and I always need to stock up for the year. Oh and the local butcher sells the best merguez anywhere.

Cavaillon Cathedral, the cloister.
The Cloister in Cavaillon Cathedral.

I can’t remember which day we went to Monteux but as this isn’t meant to be a diary it doesn’t really matter. I was in my element in this town, particularly the old part. The website mentions all kinds of festivals including a spectacular firework display but nothing I could see that mentioned the wonderful murals everywhere, many in the ‘Trompe-l’oeil’ style. The picture on the top right for example shows arches with windows inset but it’s all painted to ‘deceive the eye’. I did of course take loads of pictures but the girl in the red dress painted high up on a building in one of the square’s was my favourite.

Some of the murals in Monteux near Carpentras
The pretty painted village of Monteux near Carpentras

Arles is another of our favourite places. Built in Roman times by the great river Rhone it’s often described as the gateway to the Camargue. It’s a vibrant city famous for the Amphitheatre although there are other examples of Roman architecture which get overlooked. Never mind the Romans, there are some interesting shops here, art galleries, usually a photography exhibition or two and lots of places to eat and drink and watch the world go by. And we found a parking place near the college which was free!

Amphitheatre in Arles & The Rhone
Arles amphitheatre and the wonderful Rhone river.

Walking the back streets of Arles is just as interesting as the main thoroughfares and less crowded too!

Around Arles
Some of my favourite features in Arles.

We couldn’t stay in Provence without visiting the Luberon and especially the town of Lacoste. I think everyone must head for Bonnieux or Menerbes as Lacoste is usually pretty quiet. We always pop into the church and then walk up to Pierre Cardin’s place which is a large 11th century chateau which dominates the village. A feature of the village is the narrow streets and the old stone houses and the stunning view across to Bonnieux and Mont Ventoux. It isn’t me in the picture in the bottom right, I just liked this shot of a very French lady looking out across the valley.

Lacoste village in the Luberon, Provence.
Lacoste in the Luberon. The chateau previously owned by the Marquis de Sade now belongs to M. Pierre Cardin.
Cottage in Lacoste
My favourite corner of Lacoste

I could hardly finish this Blog without mentioning lavender. The lavender season hadn’t quite started apparently but it looked stunning to me. In the background you can make out the summit of Mont Ventoux. It’s the highest mountain in the region and has gained fame due to the Tour de France cycling race. Yes it is very windy and murky at the top but on a clear day it looks very magical.

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As usual we were sorry to leave Provence but we had Switzerland to travel to next …

 

Ayutthaya,Venice of the East.

It’s hard to beat Ayutthaya for the number and variety of temples within the old city. As I mentioned in a previous Blog you can get ‘templed-out’ but here they are very impressive, many set in extensive grounds and the city itself is a pleasure to explore. We walked a lot, took the ‘noddy’ style tuk-tuks and went on a boat trip on the river. Many tourists hire bikes but I wasn’t tempted …too much traffic around!

You can see from the pictures that these temples are centuries old . Ayutthaya was a significant city dating back to the 14th century and was once the capital of Thailand. The river runs around the centre and unfortunately serious flooding occurs. In 2011 some parts of the city was under three meters of water. It’s hard to imagine how difficult it must have been for the residents during those three months and the effect afterwards both on them and the historical buildings. Tourism was affected although they have certainly returned in large numbers as we found visiting the temples.

Ayutthaya, Ban Thai House
Ban Thai House

Ban Thai House where we stayed was a good choice. We’d booked their traditional small Thai house which is made of teak. It creaked a little and we eventually got used to the high step between our compact bedroom and the bathroom and enjoyed sitting on our balcony overlooking the lake and the grounds.

Wat Mahathat, The Temple of the Great Relic, Thailand.
Wat Mahathat, The Temple of the “Great Relic”
Wat Mahathat, The Temple of the Great Relic, Thailand
Wat Mahathat. One of the temple’s most photographed features is the head of a stone Buddha entwined within the roots of a tree.

I had to be patient to get these pictures of the stone head as I didn’t want any tourists in the way!

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Wat Ratchaburana.

I took this shot as we came out of a cafe opposite after having a beer. The cone-shaped oblelisk which are called Prangs had turned a golden colour by the setting sun.

Wat Yai Chaimongkhon Ayutthaya, Thailand
Wat Yai Chaimongkhon with its stunning reclining Buddha.

We had an interesting walk to this temple – having paused to watch workers making a sweet desert called Roti Sai Mai (also known as Sweet Angel Hair) which is a speciality of Ayutthaya and we were invited inside the mini factory. They were lovely people, so welcoming and eager to explain the process. They gave us a mid-morning snack of the most delicious Roti Sai Mai which is a bit like candy floss wrapped in a pancake.

Wat Yai Chaimongkhon, Ayutthaya
Wat Yai Chaimongkhon, an active temple where monks still live.

More tourists dressed up to visit the temples. It’s got to be said that not everyone looks great wearing the national costume and modern shoes with it doesn’t help …

Phraya River Ayutthaya Thailand
Visiting various temples on our trip on the river.

This two-hour boat trip was very interesting including visiting a Chinese temple (top picture). The picture of the little girl by the row of Buddhas is one of my favourite shots of the holiday.

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Visitor to Wat Phutthaisawan looking stunning in national dress.
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Dressing up to visit the temple.

Here are girls who can wear the traditional costume. I would have loved to have taken more pictures, they were just stunning and the light was perfect.

Wat Lokayasutharam, Ayutthaya, Thailand
Wat Lokayasutharam, home to a huge reclining Buddha

The tuk-tuks in Ayutthaya were different to ones we’d seen before, definitely ‘noddyish’. This Buddha is HUGE! 42 metres in length with the head resting on a lotus flower, very impressive. The grounds were beautiful and for once it was very quiet. I’ve added an effect to these two pictures to give an ethereal feel.

New weekend night market in Ayutthaya, Thailand
New weekend night market in Ayutthaya.

If the hotel hadn’t told us we wouldn’t have known about this new weekend market which opened at the beginning of the year. If you go to Ayutthaya you must go here. The food is cheap, varied and delicious. A word of warning, grab a tub-tuk before the market starts to close up otherwise you’ll have to walk back to your hotel. This city shuts early!

Wat Pichai Songkram Ayutthaya Thailand
Our last day and a visit to nearby Wat Pichai Songkram, getting a blessing for a safe journey home.

The blessing worked! We arrived home having had a good trip back. We were sorry to leave Thailand but we’ll be back, that’s for sure.

 

From caves to dragons to elephants in Thailand.

There’s always a danger when you visit a country like Thailand that you end up getting ‘templed-out’! If you’ve visited more than three temples in a day then you’ll know what I mean. This temple though is just a shortish trip out of Kanchanaburi and it’s well worth a visit. It’s called Wat Ban Tham or The Dragonhead Temple because there’s a long staircase that leads up the hill into a dragon’s head and through its body! You then walk into a cave, up a few steep staircases and eventually you arrive at the top. And what a view! We hit the gong just for the hell of it (three times according to Buudhist tradition) as we felt we’d achieved something.  Would you believe there was no one else around although someone had lit some incense sticks earlier.

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Wat Ban Tham_0002

Another interesting thing is that as we drove along the quiet road to the temple we noticed a huge Chinese cemetery. These large marble family graves each built into a grassy mound are like miniature mausoleums often decorated with mosaics and pictures of the deceased.  We stopped and walked around for a while amazed by the opulence of it all. The design of each grave is exactly the same so when there are hundreds in one area with nothing else around it seemed a little strange …

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Elephants! Several years ago we spent three wonderful days at an elephant sanctuary in Chang Mai. It was an unforgettable experience as elephants are our favourite animals. Riding on an elephant and I mean sitting on its back, not on a seat and feeling it’s lovely soft ears flapping around your ankles is just a very special experience. Contrary to what you’d think, elephants’ backs are not that strong so whenever I see tourists sat on one of those heavy wooden seats on top of an elephant it makes me shudder. I hate to think of the pain that’s causing the elephant and all for the enjoyment of the tourists.

Since that first camp in Chang Mai we’ve been to the Elephants World  in Kanchanaburi three times. Each time we have had a great time although on our last visit we felt there were too many tourists in each group so it didn’t feel quite so special as before. A relatively new sanctuary has opened up also near Kanchanaburi, Elephants’ Haven and appears to offer a similar experience. The best thing we found was to check with the hotel owners; they are pretty knowledgeable about the organisations and have up to date news on them too.

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After breakfast it’s off to the river to bathe.

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Stand back, he’s on his way to the river.

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Great fun cutting up food and then boiling it. Once it’s cooled you make them into balls and feed them to the older elephants who haven’t got quite as many teeth as they started with.

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Wallowing in the mud is great fun.

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Time to get into the river, grab a brush and a bowl and an elephant and have fun.  They love their back being scratched!

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Time for their final meal of the day before heading off in the jungle for the night.

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Just before we left Kanchanaburi we visited one more temple. Wat Tham Phu Wa is known not just for being a meditation retreat but for the amazing temple which is actually a cave. The stalactites hanging down are really impressive and round each corner you’d see another statue of Buddha all carefully lit. If they’d lit the statues too much if would have taken away the ethereal feel of the cave. There was no chance here of getting in without leaving an offering (as if we would …) as once you’d taken off your sandals to walk down there were women collecting money. Compared to the Dragonhead Temple this one was much more touristy.

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Now we’re on our way to our next stop in Thailand, Ayutthaya.

The Hellfire Pass Memorial

We took a taxi from Oriental Kwai, where we were staying, to The Hell Fire Pass Memorial.

It’s known locally as the Museum of Chong Khao Kad and is the area where POW’s and labourers during WWII were forced to carve through a mountain of rock to enable a train to pass. The Japanese needed a more secure route to maintain their armies in Burma so a decision was made to construct a railway 415 kilometres long through dense jungle and mountain from BanPong in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat. (This information is taken from the booklet provided by the Australian Government’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs). Of the 60,000 Allied POW’s who worked on the railway 20% died between October 1942 and August 1945 with an estimate of 90,000 civilian labourers having perished during that time also.

Admission is free to both the Memorial museum and the walking trail taking you along part of the the Death Railway. The Museum is excellent but tough viewing with graphic stories, memorabilia, first-hand accounts and pictures of the terrible conditions suffered by the POW’s and labourers. It’s hard to imagine how anyone survived …

Many of the tourists arrive at the Museum by coach and don’t have time to walk the 4km from the Museum to the end of the walking trail. Most people therefore walk as far as the monument at the end of  notorious Hell Fire Pass and walk up to the look-out which gives you a view looking down on the Pass. We carried on through to the end of the trail which is just 4km. All that time we only saw a handful of people and quite a lot of evidence of the tools used and some of the original tracks. Not one sound of a bird singing. All along where once the railway lines ran was eerily quiet.

Our taxi driver was waiting for us when we arrived at the end of the trail and took us to Namtock railway station to catch the train back to Kanchanaburi. It’s an interesting   journey especially going over the wooden viaduct that overlooks the River Kwai. I sat on the outside steps by the door to take a picture of the viaduct, couldn’t do this on GWR!

The visit had been a very emotional one but we were so glad we went.

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The first part of the walk has several flags and crosses of remembrance lined each side of the cutting.

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The notorious Hell Fire Pass. The tree has become almost a monument to the thousands who died cutting through the rock.

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The Memorial to the POW’s and labourers who suffered extreme hardship with thousands losing their lives. The smaller  pictures were taken along the walking trail.

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Evidence in the rocks where the explosives were placed also metal taps, sledgehammers and other tools used to break down the earth and rock. Not sure what the bamboo canes were used for in the r.h. middle picture.

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Railway sleepers still marking the Burma-Thailand death railway.

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This must have been a tantalising view for the POW’s as they worked. The mountains in the distance are in Burma.

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More evidence of the railway line.

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Thie is the end of the walking trail just past Compressor Cutting. Our driver is waiting for us, you can just make him out. We were grateful for the bottles of ice-cold water he had ready for us.

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On the right is the wooden viaduct we’ve just come over on the train.

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The War Cemetery in Kanchanaburi. All the POWs who died were reinterred here by the Commonwealth Graves Commission apart from the American POWs whose remains were returned to the U.S.

 

Oriental Kwai Resort by the River Kwai.

The train journey from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi takes about three hours and like most train journeys in this part of the world there’s never a dull moment. There’s always someone coming along with hot and cold drinks, fruit, unimaginable things in plastic bags and complete meals in foil containers. The vendors hop on and off the train as it saunters into the station (this is not a fast train) so the variety of food and sellers  changes all the time. You can go by bus which we’ve done a couple of times or hire a taxi but the 7.50 train from  Thonburi station in Bangkok is definitely our first choice. Oriental Kwai is just a short ride away in a Songthaew.

We’ve stayed at Oriental Kwai four times and yes … we love it there! Djo and Evelien are so welcoming and the cottages are superb. There’s only twelve of them and they’re tucked away in a stunning tropical garden, each cottage well-spaced from the next. There’s lot to do in the area including visiting Hellfire Pass which you can get to by train and taxi. I’ll write about this in my next Blog and include some of the pictures I took. It’s a very atmospheric walk with no bird song.

There are two Elephant Sanctuaries close by, Elephants World and Elephants Haven.  Yes there’s another Blog coming up with pictures of our visit with the elephants.

Erawan National park & waterfalls is another great place to visit You can spend hours walking and swimming in the beautiful green jungle with its stepped waterfalls. There are caves and temples to visit, fantastic landscapes, stunning views, walks, cycle rides and of course going into town by boat on the River Kwai is a must. The boat stops just by the (in)famous bridge which is always full of tourists walking across it.

Here is a selection of pictures taken at Oriental Kwai. It really is perfection and so peaceful, we can’t wait to go back!

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Staff at Oriental Kwai Thailand

 

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A beautiful sunset to round off the day, followed by a few beers and another excellent meal. What more could you ask for?