Monday, 28 August 2017

Discover Northern Cambodia

Village built over the mighty Mekong River

Words and photos By Brett Goulston

Without doubt, Cambodia is a poor country – probably the poorest of the region. Some of the rural areas face particular struggles, lacking in basic infrastructure. But regardless of the hardship much of the population endures every day, one thing is evident 
– the locals appear happy, more often than not with a smile on their face and always ready to exchange a wave with anyone who passes. This was evident on my trip from Phnom Penh, the capital city, to Kratie and through the northern rural parts of the country.

The trip by car takes about 5 hours on a decent sealed road. There are a few great stops along the way including Kampong Cham and its famous bamboo bridge of which you’ll want to take heaps of photos from every angle. There’s also Wat Nokor Bachey, a temple with a large reclining Buddha statue and a bustling local market. A few hours in, you’ll cross the Mekong River and continue along rural countryside to Kratie. The road stays close to the Mekong most of the way so you’ll watch the locals going about their daily activities and using the river for washing, cleaning and drinking. 

When you arrive in to Kratie, there’s a small market, local shopping area and just a few small hotels that lining the river. The township offers a good few hours of entertainment and a Chinese meal by one of the local restaurants on the river is popular.  

The main thing to see in Kratie is the rare Irrawaddy dolphins with the best time to visit being late in the afternoon when they are feeding. For a few dollars, a local boatman will take you out and it’s most probable you will see the dolphins. It’s quite a special moment when you first spot them given there are less than 100 left in this part of the river and they are an endangered species. Photographing them is difficult as they pop up for just a few seconds at a time. Take time to walk though the village on the way back to township. The houses are beautifully made wooded structures and with the sun on them, they make for fantastic photos.

Most people know Cambodia for the Angkor Temples and these are truly spectacular but there is much more to see including the rural north. The best time to visit Cambodia depends on the heat, rainfall and the number of tourists. Cambodia is warm year-round with temperatures rarely dipping below 20C but most travelers visit in November to March 

Blue Dot Travel offers Cambodia travel with small group tours.  Click here for details. 

Map showing location of Cambodia
Local village

Fishing Cambodian style

Meet the local children

Selling traditional clay stove pots

Exotic fruit of Cambodia

Mobile traditional clay stove seller in Cambodia

Monday, 21 August 2017

24 Hours in Bogota


After three days enjoying Colombia tourism, I expected more tropical weather in Bogota but the first thing I notice on arrival is the temperature. No … it’s not blistering hot … it’s a cool 15 degrees and I need a jacket! How can this be when I’m not that far from the equator? Well … Bogota sits at 2,500m above sea level at the foot of the Andes so it is cold to mild all year around. But the city itself is Colombia’s warm and beating heart, a vibrant and sprawling metropolis cradled by the tall surrounding peaks and offering heaps to do.

My guide Andrea (Andy) tells me we can race around and see the best of this city in one day if we go at a quick pace. I’m up for the challenge…

The second thing I notice about Bogota is that there is graffiti everywhere. Andy reassures me it’s street art – well tolerated although technically illegal. Strangely, they have an official “changing of the street art” every six months so it can’t be too frowned upon. Much of it is very clever work and there are even street art tours if that’s your thing.

I make my third core observation … there is security everywhere. Police, army and private security guards stand on every corner. I witness one handcuff arrest and another search of a young man spread-eagled against the wall. (I couldn’t help but stare – you just don’t see this stuff in Oz).

Andy advises there are about a dozen core sites around the city. The first – and most renowned – is the gold museum. Set aside a good 45 minutes to learn how the Spanish stole gold from the indigenous people who had used it in their daily life without recognising the value to the rest of the world.

Seventh Avenue is closed to cars to make a people-friendly public space. A walk down the wide, bustling avenue will take you past many shops and cafés and eventually lead to the Plaza de Bolivar, the centre of the city.  The square has all of the government buildings including the Supreme Court, the national capitol where government sits and the mayor’s offices plus the iconic Cathedral of Bogota.

We visit the Fernando Botero museum, a local artist who paints people and other items in “large” proportions. Apparently, he never uses the word “fat” and I couldn’t stop laughing at his version of the Mona Lisa (“way funny” as teenagers would say).

My favourite part of the city is the bohemian La Candelaria precinct, the historic cobbled old town which attracts many travelers with its tiny bars, cafés, craft shops, graffiti (whoops – street art) and young people everywhere … with that ever-present police presence.

Keen to travel to South America?
Blue Dot Travel offer small group tours of Columbia and Panama.  Click here for more information.  

Monday, 14 August 2017

The Galapagos Islands - one of the foremost wildlife experiences on the planet

Photos and story by Brett Goulston

All the documentaries I’d seen on the Galapagos Islands inferred that it’s one of the foremost wildlife experiences on the planet. Friends and family members who had travelled there only reinforced this. It was time to experience these famous islands for myself so, along with my family and some friends, we took at Galapagos cruise,  joining National Geographic Lindblad’s Islander, an expedition ship with a capacity of just 48 guests.

These isolated volcanic islands are a province of Equador, lying about 1,000kms off its coast. Whichever way you come at it, it’s a haul. From Guayaquil, Ecuador, we fly to Baltra Island, board the ship and before too long, head off on our first adventure – North Seymour Island via zodiac. The wildlife’s impact on us is strong and immediate. Just minutes after hitting the shore, a blue-footed booby poses for us on a rock, fur seal pups bask in the sun, land iguana’s are everywhere and we see dozens of bird species – too many to name. Special mention to the frigate male with its red chest puffing out to attract a female!

There’s a general rule on the Galapagos that tourists are not allowed within 6 feet of the wildlife. Problem is, the wildlife didn’t get the memo and doesn’t abide by the rule so expect to get close … real close … to many different and extraordinary species.

Over the week we snorkel, trek, paddle and witness the very best this archipelago has to offer. The list of wildlife we see first hand is extensive and brings with it the best possible boasting rights! There is no single highlight to mention – every activity or viewing brought its own wow factor.

We couldn’t fault any aspect of the cruise either. The staff’s knowledge, enthusiasm, and willingness to assist were simply outstanding. A real plus was their genuine passion for conservation and that care-factor can’t help but rub off on you. The food on board is varied, healthy and good quality. Our basic level cabin was more than comfortable. The activities, the planning, overall organisation and logistics all worked seamlessly. I could go on and on… and on… but the best thing to do is to go see this special part of the world for yourself.

The Galapagos Islands is one of the greatest places on the planet to get your fix of wildlife. Just remember the 6 feet rule – even if the wildlife doesn’t!   

Blue Dot Travel
is an authorised agent for Lindblad Expeditions - National Geographic and can book you on any one of their Galapagos Islands tours or other itineraries.  Click here for details. 

The Galapagos Islands lie nearly 1,000kms off Equador

Heading out on a zodiac to  meet the wild life

Easy does it for this old tortoise - who could be a century old!

Want to see unusual critters? Galapagos is the place!

Galapagos abounds with iguanas and reptiles ... kicking back in the sun for all to see

Lots of seals and sea lions to be spotted too - hard to get isn't in their vocab!

The famouse blue-footed booby - not to be confused with the red-footed equivalent!

The dramatic landscape that is home to some of the world's most unusual creatures

Bird life abounds

It's tough being out there all day in the equatorial sun

Told you the red-footed booby was different to the blue-fotted one!

Monday, 7 August 2017

Cartagena’s Old City – an up-and-coming destination

Photos and story by Brett Goulston

I’d heard and read a lot about Cartagena, Colombia’s UNESCO-listed old capital on the Caribbean coast. My travel friends kept telling me I had to travel to Columbia and when I finally got there, I was not disappointed and now understand why Cartagena’s popularity as a destination is on the rapid rise. It certainly offers great contrasts having been described as elegant and crumbling, sexy and scruffy, colonial and modern. And if you like colonial architecture, this city is a must-visit. In my view, it’s equal to Antigua, Guatemala, which is generally regarded as Central America’s best-preserved colonial city.

There are three sections to Cartagena’s Old City contained within some 9kms of Spanish fortified stone walls, which are in a continual state of maintenance.

First, there’s fashionable San Diego where boutique hotels, trendy restaurants, bars and cafés and intriguing shops are to be found amid a maze of cobbled streets and winding lane ways. Don’t be put off because it’s touristy – it has a fabulous atmosphere and there’s a photo to be taken around every corner. Dinner in a nice restaurant will cost about $US20 – including a beer – so it’s good value. Over the years it has become very expensive to buy in this area where, so I’m told, properties rarely come on the market and a small house can cost millions! Drop the sightseeing routines and be sure to get lost in this area or you really won’t experience the alluring atmosphere. My personal view … spend at least a morning plus an evening visiting this part of town. Better still, repeat the exercise on another day and you’ll feel like you know the place!

The second area is where locals live and it too is a must-see. Up-and-coming Getsemani is also filled with atmosphere but one vastly different to that of the tourist area. Just a few kilometres from San Diego, you’ll notice it’s significantly poorer and well-worn but also colourful and intriguing with lots of graffiti and street art. As you walk through the narrow roads, catch a glimpse into people’s houses and see how they live. This doesn’t bother the friendly locals who are more than likely to give you a warm “ola”.  You’ll notice back packers and cheaper places to eat and drink, including some trendy food vendors.

In between these two sections is La Metuna. Consisting government offices, a few higher rise buildings and local housing, there’s not much on offer for the tourist.

One final piece of advice – time permitting, head out at the crack of dawn for a mangrove tour in a wooden dug-out boat. The canoe owner will do all the hard work while you just pop on a life jacket, get your camera ready and enjoy. You’ll see amazing bird life, the locals fishing, amazing mangroves and serene scenery. Well worth the effort!

Keen to travel to South America? Blue Dot Travel offer small group tours of Columbia and Panama.  Click here for more information …

Cartegna lies in Colombia's far north on the Caribbean coast

Colourful and inviting street cafés abound

Tour the mangroves in a simple boat

The atmospheric Getsemani district with great street art

Fresh tropical fruit abounds

Colourful street-scapes

Cartagena brings together Spanish and colonial architecture