Cuba to Rio De Janeiro – NCL Norwegian Sun’s Cruise

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Leaving Cuba wasn’t easy but I’ve no doubt I’ll be returning to a different country in the future.


Arriving and leaving Havana with LATAM was seamless and onto Lima for great connections to other destinations within South America. I’m off to Rio De Janeiro for a few days before taking a cruise with Norwegian Cruise Line down the east coast to Argentina.

LATAM has been my airline of choice every time I’ve visited South America, not just because they are part of the Oneworld Alliance, but they have a great network and numerous destinations to choose from. The service onboard is exceptional with all meals and drinks being included. The experienced crew were extremely helpful and English spoken perfectly. I really like their uniforms as well which are stylish and look quite professional.


Heading into Christmas in RIO is very much what it’s like at home in Australia – hot, hot and hot. Taking a walk along Copacabana beach allows you to enjoy some of the most incredible sand sculptures, and then when you feel thirsty, try some of the agua de coco straight from the coconut.


I love Copacabana Beach, it’s one of the best and most famous – not just for Brazil but it’s world renown.


Great for people watching too, especially with the mix of bike riders, dancers and games being played on the sand.The view to the left of Copacabana beach is the towering Sugar Loaf Mountain and while the beach runs for 2.2 miles (4 km) in an east west direction running from Postos Dois to Posto Seis there’s plenty of other sights to see. Stop by one of the several beach bars and enjoy a gold cup of chopp (draft beer) and refeicao (herbed meat and fried onions).


Or you might just stumble across the commemorated song/music writer Jobim. He was a primary force behind the creation of the bossa nova jazz style and one of the most memorable songs ever written – Garota de Ipanema. In English ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ was a worldwide hit in the mid-1960s and won a Grammy for Record of the Year in 1965. It was written in 1962, with music by Antônio Carlos Jobim and Portuguese lyrics by Vinicius de Moraes.


Think this sculpture may have had his head and toes rubbed a few times.


From the beach and on the right is Copacabana Fort which dates back to 1914. It houses the Army Historical Museum and worthy of a visit with plenty of cafes and restaurants looking back over to the waves pounding the beach and swimmers alike.


Football is the most popular sport in the country, it’s well respected and defended by the adoring locals. Just don’t mention Argentina … In fact, some employees are even given time off to watch important World Cup matches when Brazil is playing.


And if you can’t make it to the Mardi Gras held in February each year, don’t panic, there’s festivities going on most weekends in Rio De Janeiro along the beach. Music, dancing and performers showcasing in their best frocks – doesn’t matter it’s over 30 degrees Celsius here early in December – just a great vibe all round.


Now it’s time to head to the port and I’m taking the light rail VLT which is easy enough and slices through the traffic. VLT do Rio de Janeiro or VLT Carioca, is a 30 km (18.6-mile) light rail system linking the region to the subway, ferries and bus stations. The project covers seven neighbourhoods spread out over five million square meters (1.9 million square miles): Centro, Santo Cristo, Boa Saúde, Gamboa, São Cristóvão, Cidade Nova and Caju.

Buy your card for about BSL3.00 and then top it up. One sector is about BSL3.70 regardless if it’s bus, train or light rail. The port for ships to dock is one of the last stops and you just walk over to the check in area.

Please note: Australian passport holders require a visa to enter Brazil and also must pay a Reciprocity Fee online to enter Argentina prior to boarding.


There’s my ship! Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Sun which has one of those itineraries I’ve wanted to experience for a very long time. I’m heading onto this passenger cruise ship which carries just under 2,000 passengers and wondering what I’m in for over the next ten nights. Yes, I know I’ve been selling cruises for many years but this is my first cruise on this size ship. Nervous excitement? Yes definitely now that I’m looking at her and wondering about my upcoming journey.


Balcony cabin is perfect with space in the centre which is what I like personally; even with hotel rooms. Ok, I know I’ve had a nana nap and the staff in the evening tidy up the cabin which is really lovely with all those funny towel impersonations of different animals. So far, so good.


A lovely gesture from the Captain and a most welcomed treat … Lots more blogging coming up from this cruise. Stay tuned as we sail down the coastline towards Buzios and Ilha Grande in Brazil in my next blog post.

Havana to Varadera via the Eastern Beaches, Cuba


Ready for a beach experience in Cuba? My very willing model Stephen is all for enjoying the outskirts of Havana – and as much as he loves the city, the beaches are in close proximity and it’s about having the best of both worlds.

Photo courtesy Stephen Catchpole, Canada


Ready to leave Havana, take a Chevy as a taxi and negotiate the price? No problem at all.


As mentioned, Havana doesn’t have a beach and just to the east are some of the best anywhere. Heading to Santa Maria and it’s under half an hour by bus or cab. If you negotiate with a cabbie you might pick up a ride from $15-20 CUC one way.


Cuba’s eastern beaches from Havana to Varadero can only be described as a juxtaposition to the abundance of Australia’s heavenly stretches of sand … All along the coastline the beaches are ablaze with a hot sun, cool refreshing waves and a smattering of beach chairs coupled with a charitable number of colourful umbrellas.


The eastern beaches are much quieter if that’s what you’re seeking in a holiday.


Like me you don’t have to be a ‘swimmer’ or a surfer – you can enjoy standing in amongst the tame pull of the waves and feel quite safe. Splashing around and dog paddling are just as much fun here.


If there was such a colour as ‘opalesque’, then this is it – beaut shades of blue which change with the depth of the sea. A good indicator of how far to go out if you’re not a confident swimmer, or have youngsters.


Many resorts have an all-inclusive rate which is something Aussies do love. Even on the beach side they sometimes have small bars set up to help out with thirsty guests.


Small markets along the shore front also make Cuba’s cigars accessible, even if you don’t smoke.


These little fellas are around and about and seem harmless. I think?


In Varadero, the number of properties available is tremendous. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever witnessed so many in one location, especially on the peninsula. You might not think you’re in Cuba when staying here, but hey it’s safe and families love it. Varadero is a two-hour one-way trip from Havana and perhaps one of the most touristy in Cuba.


And yes, Varadero is populous with resort style, all-inclusive accommodation. Because the high season starts to ‘heat’ up around early November onwards, my advice is to book early to avoid any disappointment. In Veradero you’ll find hotels which are high quality, very competitive and far more appealing then you’d expect.


Quite a number of small museums and parks, book and music shops like this one make it interesting to visit.


No shortage of classic cars here either …


Oh and look at that sunset. Just one of many.


And, when you’re done in Cuba, make sure you take home those memories with a 120 year-old box camera. And yes, I’ll be back, most likely to quite a different place. But at least the music and dancing will resume by then.

Photo courtesy Stephen Catchpole, Canada

To visit Cuba and further information, see my visa link tab on this website for entry requirements which are constantly updated for Australian travellers.

Havana, Cuba


In January 1959 Fidel Castro took control of Cuba and placed Guevara in charge of La Cabaña prison. He was later appointed president of the national bank and minister of industry and did much to assist in the country’s transformation into a communist state.

Countries such as the United States and those allied with it ceased trading with Cuba. Supplies were rationed. Questionable friendships were struck with members of the Soviet Bloc. The people suffered, as they always do.

Times are now changing for the tiny Caribbean Island nation Cuba with the United States restoring diplomatic relations on 20 July 2015, which had been severed in 1961 during the Cold War.


All signs are ready to go from Miami Airport to Cuba with instructions for Americans to complete their applications for entry and a ‘Ready Stamp’ at the desk.

For an update on visa requirements for Australians please see the tab Visalink on this website for updated entry requirements.


The currency in Cuba can be a little bit confusing because it has two currencies. The Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC$) – simply called convertibles – and Non-Convertible Pesos (CUP) / Moneda Nacional (MN$) simply – Cuban Pesos.

Non-Cubans use mostly convertibles. That’s what you exchange foreign currency for and that’s what you pay goods and services with. 1.00 Cuban Convertible Peso = $1.00 is considered equivalent to $1.00 USD.

Personally, I exchanged Australian Dollars in Fort Worth, USA for USD before leaving the country – at a bank which I’ve found to give the best rates (in fact anywhere). It was worth the effort as my AUD was not accepted at the airport in Havana. The commission charged on a USD100.00 transaction was about 14% and you are very much a ‘captured tourist’ in that taxis weren’t permitted to take USD either. The major hotels such as the Melia for example, were somewhat better in its exchange rate.

Note: Canadian Dollars are widely accepted almost everywhere as Nationals do not need a visa to enter Cuba.

  • However, Australian travellers often experience problems accessing funds in Cuba. Credit cards, debit cards and travellers’ cheques are not accepted in Cuba if issued by US banks or Australian banks affiliated with US banks. This includes all American Express, Visa and MasterCard cards depending on the issuing bank and Westpac Bank cards. To avoid being caught without money in Cuba, ensure you have a variety of ways of accessing your money. Take an emergency supply of cash, enough to leave Cuba if your bank cards do not work. In the past, foreigners without access to funds have been detained and deported by local authorities.
  • Source: www.smarttraveller.gov.au


And, if you want to relay any emails about your travels to your mates, you’ll need one of these cards for wifi. Generally two CUC to purchase one with plenty of street vendors and hotels selling them. They are valid for one hour with the ability to sign off and use later. You must find a place such as a hotel or eatery which has wifi to connect to before using it.


News was out the day before I arrived, ‘Castro Dead’. Plagued for decades by revolutionary struggle, crippling poverty along with social and political isolation, Cuba is slowly beginning to open up again to trade and tourism. No dancing, partying or music allowed in the streets. Nor any drinking of alcohol for nine days. unless you’d already pre-booked an all-inclusive rate at your accommodation and only there is where you could have a ‘quiet one’.


So being an accidental witness to a time in Cuba’s history was a moment I wasn’t expecting. The line up was growing by the minute to view Castro’s memorial which was announced on the Monday morning. The crush which took place after me taking this photo, led to the military being called in on standby; once they made their presence nearby, everyone settled very quickly and orderly.


Ministry of Interior building in Plaza de la Revolución (Revolution Square) where we inched past this iconic façade on our way up to the memorial.


Once inside the monument which hosted Castro’s memorial the line was kept moving and after two hours of waiting, I thought it was worth the wait considering this had been an historical occasion in Cuba’s diary.


See the guy in the green shirt? That’s who I was pushed up against in the crush to view the memorial. I’m not complaining or stalking, I was just wondering if he was going to line up again …


After standing in line for so long it was great to take a little yellow taxi back to the hotel. They’re everywhere and quite cheap.


However, one of the best ways of taking a quick look at Havana city and surrounds is by Hop On, Hop Off Bus and cost 10 CUC (at the time). The cemetery being one of the interesting places to visit even if you’re not a local. You can also bargain with an owner of one of the classic cars to take you around for an hour or so at a comparatively low rate if there’s a couple of you.


Walking around the streets and in many ways, Cuba hasn’t changed at all. It has stayed exactly the same, trapped in a time capsule dated 1959 I’m told. I believe it.


Beyond this point I might not have gone alone, but it’s great when you pick up three Canadian guys to walk around with … And have lunch with them too.


You’ll meet quite a lot of Canadians and happy to say here at lunch; myself, Stephen, John and David all did well with a delicious (rico) locally-made traditional pizza each. Include a drink – all four came under 10 CUC – bargain! Though I have to say, Cuba is not known for its culinary delights.


By passing the butchers, we decided not to go in for a closer inspection.


Stalls along the streets are plentiful with in-season fruit and vegies.


We were fortunate enough to be invited in to see an old cathedral being gutted and in the process of being restored. One place we’ll return to and check on what transpired from it all. The builders said in about a year it would be finished.


This is not the only construction being built or renovated at the foreshore in Havana. Hotels are gearing up at breakneck speeds to invest. Obviously money is coming in …


Cutesy coffee shops There are no smartphones to distract people from the human chatter which echoes from the buildings lining Old Havana’s potholed calles. A welcome relief in having the technology unavailable.


Did I tell you before old doors are my ‘new thing’ to photograph? No shortage here.


Cars are everywhere – Vintage American cars – Dodges, Oldsmobiles, Cadillacs and Fords, all still trundle along Havana’s crumbling streets as though they’re on their way to some collectors’ rally.


Plaza Vieja, Havana – ‘Hold My Fork While I Mount this Rooster’. Sure, seeing it’s the Chinese year of the Rooster, I’ve no doubt it’ll be the most photographed Rooster ever.


Have a seat? Maybe next time I visit.


I’m also wondering if this will look like Woolloomooloo Wharf in Sydney next time I return.


Ship in port and for passengers it’s walking distance to some sights. I’ve been reading many of the travel industry articles of late and there’s been a number of  approvals given to new entrants which will add to mass tourism undoubtedly.


Moro Fort across the water as seen from the Malecon is a must see. Great walk all around here with magnificent views of ships coming into the port.


Sunset – doesn’t come much better huh?


Café serving fresh fish and vegies, cake and a  glass of red 7.90 CUC (straight across the road from the sunset) with good-old fashioned service thrown in.


Near the Melia Hotel it’s one of the best walkways along the foreshore with locals as well as tourists soaking up the atmosphere. And, if you’re wanting a ride home, there’s a parade of old chevies and the like which are also taxis – way to go!

Next post more of Havana and onto Varadero via the eastern beaches.

Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas – USA


If you’re heading to Dallas and Fort Worth’s International Airport (DFW) in the United States, then you’ll know it’s one of the longest flights in the world from Sydney with Qantas Airways travelling 13,804.95 kilometres. And after 15 or so hours flying time, the staff onboard my flight, namely Matthew and Kiet who looked after my section couldn’t have been more helpful. Fresh and still able to share a joke at the end of the journey. The A380 was always kept immaculate and with touch on-demand inflight entertainment from the moment you step onboard the aircraft until arrival – the time just seemed to fly.


Things have changed considerably since my last visit to Dallas – and for the better. A train service now operates from the airport to downtown Dallas. The cost? A whopping $2.50 one way per adult and valid for two hours. Make sure you have some US dollars before arrival as the machines are located in the train terminal and platforms.

DFW is one of the best airports to arrive as they now offer passport control very much like here at home (in Australia), whereby you scan your document and have finger prints taken all in a matter of minutes. No long queues as previous trips to the States. For Australians – make sure you’ve completed your ESTA online form before departing – see link for applications  https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov

See https://www.dart.org/riding/dartrailorangeline.asp for more information as this is one of the quickest and easiest ways for ground transport as the rail line will slice straight through to the main parts of the city.

(Information given here was correct at the time this blog was posted.)

Perched 170 metres above the ground, Reunion Tower’s newly renovated GeO-Deck lets visitors glimpse an impressive view of the city skyline.

From this angle I can see Fountain Place located at 1445 Ross Avenue in the Arts District which is a 60-story modern-styled skyscraper which was used in the last seasons of the TV series Dallas. If you were anything like me, you were glued to the TV screen wondering what JR Ewing was up to next.


Equally impressive is the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza which is a timeline of John F. Kennedy’s life and presidency. The exhibits are thoughtful, respectful and reflective of the events of what happened on this day 22 November, 1963.


The road where President Kennedy was shot more than 53 years ago when this photo was taken. It shows even after all this time, people are still curious about the assassination and the circumstances surrounding his death. It seems people still have their own theories as to what really triggered the calculated slaying.


Jacquie and John F. Kennedy will always be remembered and as this museum is a dedication, it’s one of the most visited in Dallas. It’s also part of the CityPASS which allows you easy access and discounted admission to many of the popular attractions, which incidentally are mostly within walking distance to each other. By buying it ahead of time allows you to skip the ticket line and gain entry to the crowd pleasers of which most are within walking distance to each other.


I’m here with Jeb and Jamie from Efrogs recommending a choice of crafted beers from one of the tour’s breweries. Starting at $70.00 The Brewery Tour is a fun way of making new friends and not having to worry about driving as it’s all taken care of.

Efrogs which is an acronym for Eco-Friendly Rides on Green Shuttles and is a tip-based transport service, also providing free rides for office workers, hotel guests, restaurant and bar patrons, as well as visitors at parties and sporting events.


At the Community Beer Company during our tour, I had to ask the old pick-up line. “Do you and your dog come here often?” Owners from around the neighbourhood and afar come here with their pooches to socialise and listen to some good music. Dogs are permitted due to no food being served on the premises.


Band at the Community Beer Company giving us a few tunes to either dance along, or there were a number of other activities you could partake in.
http://efrogsdallas.net


At AT&T Stadium Dallas Cowboys in full flight against Baltimore Ravens makes it a super charged game and the crowd was electric. There are various tours available ranging from VIP, Self-Guided, Art and Educational which can be booked through http://attstadium.com/tours and definitely worthy of a visit even if there’s no game on during the week.


Dallas Cowboys are world renown as a football team and even if you don’t follow footy of any code, you won’t want to miss going to a game just for the atmosphere.


Free trolley ride anyone? Everyone loves this especially the young ones as it trundles from downtown to uptown with a number of stops along the way.


And the delightful Klyde Warren Park is one of the stops and central to everything. A wonderful open space which was built over the top of the freeway.


The Perot Museum of Nature and Science (allows entry with a CityPASS) and is home to one of the most impressive gem collections in the United States. A new dinosaur species just recently discovered can only be viewed here.


The Trinity Rail Express (TRE) operates between Dallas and Fort Worth with each city having its own unique attractions and events making it easily accessible. The TRE is provided by the Fort Worth Transportation Authority (The T) and Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART). Trains operate Monday through Saturday with no scheduled service on Sunday. Fares are US10.00 per adult one way see http://www.trinityrailwayexpress.org for timetables and updates.


The Stockyards at Fort Worth are a must see especially if you have children who love the idea of being in the Old West. The Cattle Drive as shown here happens daily (weather permitting) at 11:30 am and again at 4:00 pm.


The Museum at The Stockyards showcases some of the best-preserved and restored wagons, buggies and farming methods of this era.


And if you want to have a really good time, then try the bucking bull.

There’s so much more to Dallas and Fort Worth and I’d recommend at least three to four days for a fun time and soak up the southern hospitality.

 

 

Patan, Bhaktapur and Khokana – Nepal


Our group stopped at a school on the way back towards the Kathmandu Valley to inspect some of the more earthquake affected towns of 2015. The school children at Ketaaketi gave us not just a tour of their class rooms, but showed us their talent as dancers too! I know I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but please give some of your excess stationery items such as pens and paper as it’s always greatly appreciated to any school you may wish to offer them.


Visiting earthquake ravaged places such as Khokana which is a traditional Newari village, people went about their daily business as best they could considering the amount of damage which had been caused.


Buildings in need of repair are very slowly being reconstructed. Unfortunately, the community cannot afford to pay for the heavy machinery and skilled labour needed to remove the rubble.


Goats always seem happy no matter where they are, there should be more people like goats – maybe that’s why Aries is my compatible star sign? They seem to have a natural curiosity like this fella.


Ladies were also involved in the heavy workload in shifting debris from some of the temples which were destroyed and hopefully enough funding will be forthcoming to restore them.


Ladies hand weaving carpets at a Tibetan Refugee Camp which allows them to earn an income as their skills are highly sought after for the creation of magnificent woven rugs which are offered to the international market.


Exquisite rugs on display of hand-knotted wool and silk  – a purchase of a life time.


Time for lunch, more yummy Nepalese food.


So many well-made handicrafts makes choosing difficult and it’s best to declare these coming back into Australia as wooden items are subject to scrutiny. Wouldn’t be too happy losing one of these to Customs.


As you walk along the streets, you’ll find dozens of masterful wood carvers and sculptors offering you handcrafted items at bargain prices. Most of them work from home and they may even offer you other articles for sale as well.


Mmm look very much like mushrooms on steroids, wonder if they’re magic ones?


Pottery being made by this family for over six decades at Bhaktapur.


Staying at a Buddhist Monastery Guest-house in the peaceful location of Neydo Tashi Choeling was a highlight of our journey with Australian tour operator Crooked Compass.


At 5:00 am the bell rings for the monks to wake and make their way to the main hall to chant for about one and half hours for world peace. As well as prayers of aspiration and longevity, they are offered to the upholders of the Dharma.


At nearby Patan it’s a time to reflect at the Pashupatinath Temple  which is a famous sacred Hindu temple and located on the banks of the Bagmati River, 5 kilometres north-east of the Kathmandu Valley.


We were honoured to witness the ongoing celebration and cremation of many Nepalese people who have just recently passed on.


Cows meandering around oblivious to the crowds who gather here daily to observe the ritualistic cremations.


Take a front-row seat along the Bagmati River for a full viewing …


Cremation Ghats of the Pashupatinath Temple and at the holy Bagmati River (which is a tributary of the Ganges River), a funeral fire was already burning as we arrived in the late afternoon. 


The Ghats in essence, welcomed families carrying cloth-shrouded bodies on stretchers and prepared them for the formality whereby each was carefully unwrapped. Then, the bodies in turn had their feet washed in the river water and laid on a prepared pyre – all the while prayers from the family members being said to the lost loved one. At the top of the Ghats were stacks of wood where families of the deceased had arranged for the cremation.

Shown here, the Aarti is the magnificent event during the evening as it allows you to experience the great act and fills you with inherit spiritual thoughts, particularly of your own mortality. All the priests who perform the Aarti wear the same cloth and perform with the same brass lamps which are accompanied with the customary mantra chant. And, in the presence of a huge crowd who is also gaining momentum in dancing and singing along, it’s mesmerising and almost hypnotic.


The true heart of Nepalese culture is seen during the many festivals that are held in the country. The multitude of different religions and sects that are present in the country lead to more festivals than days of the year. There may be celebrations throughout the country, in a city, or in a village of a single neighbourhood  and family. These are moments to unite the people, even if apparent to different castes or ethnic groups which share the same values ​​and prayers together for the good and happiness in the future.

The dates of the festival changes, as most of them is linked to lunar cycles and Buddhist, Hindu or Nepalese calendars and they do not correspond to the Gregorian calendar.


Smiley faces of the Nepalese makes you want to return in the future without doubt … Namaste!

Contact me through this website for enquiries and bookings.

Panauti, Nepal

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When you first arrive in Panauti you might think it’s one big dust bowl, but then all of a sudden the air settles, we heard women singing – then offering us floral necklaces and dressed in beautiful exquisite saris; they had arrived in a timely manner to meet us and had welcomed our group whole heartedly.

The town is approximately 32 kms southeast of Kathmandu. Panauti is quaint and a truly interesting destination to visit for those seeking a quieter alternative. It feels as if it’d been left exactly the way the founders had built it in the 13th century. It’s a real gem and one of the oldest places in Nepal which is steeped in culture and tradition.

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Lisa being greeted by one of the organisers of our Community Homestay which is run by Women for the Women. Currently there are 16 ladies involved in the Homestay Project which empower them to become involved in tourism and hospitality which in turn allows them to give travellers an authentic and interactive experience with a local family.

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At the Community Centre we’re offered light refreshments before being taken to our respective homes for a two-night stay and experience how a Nepalese family goes about their daily lives.

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And if it means helping out with some washing – well, better throw some of mine in too!

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And as luck would have it, our host family was located near some of the oldest temples and monuments, not just in Panauti, but all of Nepal.

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There are some fabulous ancient temples which have stood the test of time, partly because of Panauti’s legendary resistance to earthquakes. This certainly held true during the 2015 earthquake, when the town escaped with minor ‘abrasions’.

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Along the river is the most concentrated number of temples to visit. Panauti, consists of a variety of Buddhist and Hindu religious edifices and is considered to be one of the area’s most important medieval sites.

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Triveni Ghat is located at the confluence of the Punyamata Khola (river) and the Lilawati (or Roshi) Khola. A third river, the invisible Padmabati river is said to join these two.

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A 15-minute climb north-east takes you to Gorakhnath Hill (2,000 ft) from where one absorbs an overall view of the fish-shaped town as well as panoramic views of the region.


There’s no shortage of goats hanging around and I’m glad, they’re so naughty and always make me laugh, except when they chew on something they’re not suppose to!


Another means of transport and carriage of goods.


Ready for work.

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Walking around the township and a simple nod acknowledges a friendliness from the locals –  it’s time for a break.

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So what happens when you find a cool spot to sit down and watch the world go by? You meet a small girl and another Mum who were happy to chat and have their photo taken. And just as you think you’re going to rest up after climbing the ‘huge’ hill earlier in the morning – then just hang around whilst my group have gone off trekking, I gladly ended up spending the rest of the day with my new-found friends showing me another view of the town’s fascinating aspects.


But firstly to check if the outside world still exists … I mean really? How many westerners would offer you their computer to try and check your emails over at their shop? Apparently there are designated times for the power to come on and then go off with a schedule being made available.

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Here’s where we meet Rajan who’s a teacher at the Shree Panuati Lower Secondary School. Being Saturday they aren’t at school, but it’s their only day off in the week and then it’s back to the business of learning on Sunday and work for others.

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Rajan at the Gyan Bikas Community Library with his younger siblings; it’s considered the only library in the world located within a World Heritage site. I’d been shown around the library and found it quite impressive as there’s more than 100 people (on average) who visit the library each day. The facilities are a place of interest for children, women, youth and adults for learning and sharing. There’s a dedicated Women’s section to those who are pregnant in giving them maternal advice and support.

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And at the end of the day, it was interesting to watch at the Barber’s shop people having a haircut and trim up which was probably around the equivalent of A0.50 cents …

Chitwan National Park, Nepal

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Ready, set, go and we’re off now to Chitwan National Park in the southern region of Nepal. It’s a quick flight of about 40 minutes or so to Pokhara and then a bus transfer to our resort.

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The region is quite flat and perhaps, naturally you’d think all of Nepal is of mountainous terrain and needing to be climbed somehow! But, here in the south, seemingly endless fields are sown with the staple diet of rice. In altitude it ranges from about 100 metres (330 ft) in the river valleys to 815 metres (2,674 ft) in the Churia Hills.

Out of interest, South Base Camp at Mt Everest in Nepal is an altitude of 5,364 metres (17,598 ft) and North Base Camp is in Tibet at 5,150 metres (16,900 ft)

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It’s a bit of a bumpy ride to the Lodgings, but no one’s complaining – just enjoying really warm weather of late August as it’s freezing back home.

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We did enjoy a ride by way of buffalo and cart later on and there’s quite a number of them around.

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Our lodging for two nights is at the Barahi Jungle Lodge whereby free-standing ‘huts’ give privacy to the guests and a sense of intimacy.

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Beautifully presented, clean and smart, all accommodations types are air conditioned and offer superb views  of the river and the natural surrounds.  And this being the lead-in category, everyone’s very happy with the choice made by Crooked Compass.

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One of the highlights of the day is seeing Rani being fed a snack by her Mahout. He will care for an elephant and be their trainer, rider and keeper after he is assigned one chosen early in its life. They remain bonded to each other throughout their lives.

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Why bother having a shower when you arrive, we’ve all taken off to the river with the elephants and their handlers.

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In turn, the big fellas are been given a scrub down and readied for our safari later in the day.

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After a snack and wash, we’re now part of the elephant safari alongside the river’s edge. If you’re seeking a less expensive alternative to Africa’s safaris and packages, without doubt you might want to consider Nepal as an option – especially Chitwan National Park being part of the ‘Soul of Nepal’ tour.

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The cooler afternoon made for some great photos as the light was constantly changing with some rhinos being spotted.

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This old boy is used to the elephants coming near and it seems to be a rite of passage to let us go along our way and continue sightseeing.

By the end of the 1960s, 70% of Chitwan’s jungles were cleared using DDT, thousands of people had settled there and only 95 rhinos remained. The dramatic decline of the rhino population and the extent of poaching prompted the government to institute the Gaida Gasti – a rhino reconnaissance patrol of 130 armed men and a network of guard posts all over Chitwan. To prevent the extinction of rhinos the Chitwan National Park was gazetted in December 1970, with borders delineated the following year and established in 1973, initially encompassing an area of 544 km2 (210 sq miles).

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Sunsets are just stunning here and it’s been a full day but, so worth every minute to see and experience this place first hand.

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Next day out, we’re taken by one of the Lodge’s own guides to show us a small part around the huge 360 square miles of tall grasslands and forestation whereby it’s home to an abundance of mammals and birdlife, some of which are endangered species.

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I can’t think of anything better than having men make breakfast, somewhere out there in the wilderness – just like nature intended – on the banks of two rivers meeting for us to enjoy watching its ebb and flow. And these guys doing some preparation for our yummy meal.

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Next day we’re all up early and off to the other side of the river for a walking trek through the forest. Here with Nina, Brownie, Tom and Lisa without our morning coffee fix,  but that’s all been taken care of when we return …

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Trekking through the forest which is one of Asia’s premier wildlife reserves, we’re taking in an early morning of fresh air and uninterrupted views of this delightful park’s surroundings.

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Heading back to our canoe with the resort shown in the distance, we’ll have our breakfast there ready for us.

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However, later in the day we had the privilege of canoeing on the Narayani-Rapti river system. Perfect scenery for quiet reflection and diversion of life’s everyday hustle and bustle.

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And with that, we’ll have some canapés and drinks on the river’s edge watching the sun set for another day in this superb location.

Next day we head onto Panauti after a flight back to Kathmandu. Could’ve stayed here much longer and absorbed the natural settings of a prized and protected national park. Simply delightful.

Kathmandu, Nepal – Part Two

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We’re travelling with Lisa Pagotto (left) who is the Aussie Founder and CEO of Crooked Compass which was launched back in May 2014. Lisa and her team are committed to sharing inspirational travel ideas and expert knowledge specialising in small group touring. Here with travel writer Nina Karnikowski who have both just met up with a local and, he’s obviously taken a liking to Lisa’s coconut body butter scent …

Little fellas like this one are seen frequently and are held in high regard due to religious beliefs of the Hindu faith – so no need to worry, he’s safe.

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There’s a plethora of temples, pagodas and monuments dating back from the 12th Century and are generally in close proximity to the most notable heritage-listed sites. Walking around Kathmandu is a sensory overture and one of which the camera doesn’t take a break in case you miss something.

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Looks very much like a door of wisdom which has seen much and thankfully after the devastation of the 2015 earthquake, there were many pieces salvaged and readied for repair at the Royal Palace.

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Carefully pieced together and tagged to ensure it be replaced in its original form and place.

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Not taking too many risks in having the structures become any more unstable, there’s a multitude of scaffolding around to maintain the support structures.

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While there are several Kumaris throughout Nepal and some cities having several; the best known is the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu. At the tender age of ten, she lives here in the Kumari Ghar which is a palace in the centre of the city.  Briefly materialising at this window in the Living Goddess Temple, she appears at the same time each day to visitors who marvel at her presence and then hasty retreat.

In Nepal, a Kumari is a pre-pubescent girl selected from the Shakya Caste or Bajracharya clan of the Nepalese Newari community and once menstruation begins, she is no longer a Goddess. The onerous selection process begins again for a young girl not yet aged four years to replace her.

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The Princess’s photo was shown to us by way of a postcard, otherwise photographs were not permitted to be taken by tourists – even if you could press the shutter in the brief time she emerged.

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Upon closer inspection, you can see the intricate workmanship of the wood used throughout the palace and this particular temple.

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Guards keep a watchful eye over visitors. You can be forgiven in thinking he was a wax model …

Here is where Raj told us the story about the Nepalese Royal Massacre which occurred on 1st June, 2001 at the house in the grounds of the Narayanhity Royal Palace. Ten members of the Royal family including the King and Queen who were killed during a monthly reunion dinner of the family.

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Walking around the buildings of the Royal Palace you can see the scale of the architecture and witness just how valuable its grand design and craftsmanship really is – and so worthy of restoration after the earthquake.

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All that walking around allows us an invitation into one of the small restaurants and gaze over Kathmandu’s skyline.

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Time for a snack and I know one of them is a kind of intestinal delicacy – but I’m not saying which one …

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After heading down to the Boudanath Stupor, we found ourselves admiring yet another incredible structure and place of ancient worship.

Built some time around the 14th century, the huge meditative monument is said to have been created just after the passing of the Buddha. The huge offering site quickly become a focal point of worship in the area. The structure of the building consists of a giant dome, whereby on the top sits a Buddhist pyramid tower.

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Some insight for those not familiar with the teachings.

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We climbed to the top of the building opposite with a bird’s-eye view of this magnificent complex – the massive mandala makes it one of the largest spherical Stupas in Nepal.
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The influx of large populations of refugees from Tibet has seen the construction of over 50 Tibetan Gompas (Monasteries) around Boudhanath. As of 1979, Boudhanath also became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Along with Swayambhunath, it’s one of the most popular tourist sites in the Kathmandu area.

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You can also light candles and take some time out to reflect regardless of your faith or beliefs.

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Thereafter, our group was allowed to partake in a ceremony whereby as individuals, we were presented with our own recital by one of the monks who in their own way was a blessing.

We’re told that during the days surrounding full moons, the air is often thick with incense and mantras sung by monks,  the number of people visiting this Stupa increases significantly along with the intensity of their mantras and prayers.

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And, once finished saying our prayers and promising to be better people, we’re heading off for some retail therapy … Mandala Street Bazaar is a tourist hot spot and mecca for shopping.

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Here is where you’re going to find some great bargains, regardless of the fact it’s a touristy area, don’t forget when bargaining it’s not always big dollars you’re negotiating … Just do it and pay the money – stop haggling over 25 cents.

Next post we’re off to Chitwan National Park, probably need an elephant to help carry some of these goods around.

Kathmandu, Nepal – Part One

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Flying into Kathmandu (KTM), Nepal with Korean Airlines was a seven and half-hour journey from Seoul and the stopover there being a welcomed break. No visa is required for Australians stopping in South Korea.

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My very friendly Immigration Officer was happy to pose for me and extremely helpful with our entry into the country.

However, in regards to Nepal it’s possible to apply for a visa upon arrival at the airport and the cost is USD25.00 cash (no cards), with applications given on board the aircraft, you can fill it out and be ready. Just need to pay with US dollars at a designated counter before proceeding to Immigration. Otherwise, if you prefer a visa prior, it can be obtained before leaving Australia (or any other National might wish to check with their own country’s requirements). Information given here was correct at the time of writing this post.

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Like most travel plans, the unexpected will always happen and it’s best to go along with the flow and accept Nepal does the best it can, when it can. If you think this country is going to be a ‘box of chocolates’ forget it.  For it’s about doing the best you’re able to do – with the best you have – learning that the less materialistic goods you have in life, may actually be a better way. Not to mention enlightening you on a different level – both physically and mentally! Less baggage sounds about right to me, just have to put it into practice now – especially leaving Nepal with less than what I came with …

I know – give all the old stuff away and make space for the goodies to take home.

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The country’s beauty and rawness make it a drawcard for travellers and tourists alike, to visit and experience its friendly people, and perhaps it helps seekers find their  inner self, thus creating prosperity in their own life’s journey. Just remember, it’s not always about you. The captivating  culture of the people here is contagious … Be warned!

An example of a true faithful and following thereafter his famous ascent of Mt Everest, Kiwi mountain climber Edmund Hillary devoted most of his life to helping the Sherpa people of Nepal through the  Himalayan Trust which he founded. Through his efforts, many schools and hospitals were built in Nepal.

Unlike many of the other trekkers who visit the better-known Base Camp and beyond, with this trip our group is visiting the southern region of the country to experience hiking, swimming and an elephant safari – just to name a few of the activities planned ahead.

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With our guide Raj who has lived here all his life, we have the pleasure of his first-hand knowledge and wisdom to keep us enthralled with his never-ending stories and anecdotes.

Raj being our guide with boutique operator from Australia, Crooked Compass (of which our group is touring ‘The Soul of Nepal’), he too believes in immersing the traveller deep into the culture while protecting its immediate environment to ensure its systematic conditions and values are not implicated.

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Beautifully packaged and healthy food choices make it clear there’s not too many obese people in Nepal that’s for certain. It’s simply grown and sold without all the preservatives.

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When was the last time you bought pomegranates by weight? Makes for that delicious, refreshing drink when the heat has been turned up somewhat since our arrival.

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Nepalese people make extensive use of spices such as turmeric, coriander, cilantro – the leaf of the coriander plant, pepper, timmur – a unique Himalayan pepper, cumin, chilies and mustard. Who needs additives in their food other than these kinds of flavour enhancers?

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Not much in the way of refrigerators … Just letting you know.

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Anyway, might be time become a vegetarian … Heaps more choices.

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This is one place you’ll be carefully consider your baggage on the way home. Possibly the nicest souvenir ever made is a Singing Bowl. Made of metal its rim is rubbed in a circular motion by a small wooden stick to produce a low/high pitch sound. Aside from the sound the theory behind the singing bowl is that the sound causes a vibration in the air which has healing qualities. If you come across a very large singing bowl, have the vendor make it sing next to your stomach and feel the vibrations run through you.

There are basically two types; machine and hand made. The latter is more scarce and expensive and is usually a plain brass colour with a beaten quality about them.

Told you, it won’t be easy leaving without some additional bits and pieces.

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Three-wheeler rickshaws can be hailed off the street, though it might be a bit difficult to find after sundown. The charge for a metred taxi is Rupee 7 at the initial flag down and then add Rs. 2 for every 200 metres and for the tempos, it starts with Rs. 3. There is an extra 50% charge from 9:00 pm to 6:00 am.

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I’m certain I didn’t see pigeon on any menus … they’re everywhere. No need to feed them.

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And of course, not only Kathmandu but the whole of the country is filled with shrines, temples and sacred sites, almost all of which are UNESCO World Heritage protected.

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Prayers being offered in the main Durbar Square. With a multiplicity of beliefs, Nepal has several cults, gods and goddesses which co-exist with the major religions. In its long cultural history, the country has always remained a land of religious harmony and perhaps one of the many reasons it’s a place you can feel safe to travel around.

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A prayer wheel is a cylindrical wheel on a spindle made from metal, wood, stone, leather or coarse cotton. Traditionally, the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is written in Sanskrit on the outside of the wheel. Traditionally they are used to accumulate wisdom and merit (good karma) and to purify negativities (bad karma).

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A truly mooooving experience. Moo to you too!

Hinduism is well and truly alive in Nepal and a cow is considered equal to one’s own mother and their slaughter or consumption is considered offensive. They are happy to wander around and enjoy the petting they’re given by locals and visitors.

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Our accommodation for a couple of nights is at the Gokarna Forest Resort which is set on 470 acres within the Forest Reserve and just on the outskirts from the city centre. By the end of day one, it was great to relax in this delightful property and simply walk around viewing the lovely gardens, birdlife and extensive golf course.

Seoul, South Korea – Asia

travel_gracefully-c-2016-15En route to Nepal with Korean Airlines (KE) and Crooked Compass – a small niche tour company who encourages you to experience the lesser known and immersive side of many unique destinations. ‘Follow a different path’ is their mantra and we’re about to explore with our group the alternate southern side of the country rather than heading off to Base Camp style trekking.

One of the fantastic benefits of being a Korean Airlines member is that, once you have accumulated 4,000 points redeemable, you can gain entry into one of the participating lounges around the world – provided you are holding a KE boarding pass for onward travel.

Personally I would recommend at least three nights in Seoul as it’s one of those Asian cities which connects the senses by embracing culture, art and history, even though it leads a distinctive urban lifestyle.

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And the start to a wondrous trip can’t be any easier than relaxing in the Sky Team Lounge at Sydney Airport.

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There’s a few transport options into the city from Seoul’s Incheon International Airport; the bus being one of the most convenient ways and will deliver at designated stops within its area. Check with your hotel as it could mean either the  bus or train may be the better path to their address. Additionally taxis are available and more expensive as the ride will take approximately one hour regardless.

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Entrance of Four Seasons Hotel Seoul exudes class and an undeniably stylish décor. It’s smack in the centre of all attractions in Gwanghwamun – the very heart of Seoul and not far from the Gyeongbok Palace.

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The Four Seasons Seoul being a five-star hotel, offers 317 guest rooms and luxury suites. My recommendation is to upgrade which allows entry into the Executive Club Lounge.

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Wish this was my desk everyday … And the TV, well it might have to go – too much of a distraction … not!

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Buffet lunch at the hotel cannot be missed. Endless choices from all over the world.

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And, what are some of the things we love about Korean food? It’s all those tasty condiments which go with the main dishes. So much to choose from and if you like spicy, then this is the country to visit.

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Isadong is a shopper’s dream with so much on offer – of course it’s the tourist precinct but can’t be missed.  It gained in popularity with international tourists during the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

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Games, toys and techno? It’s all here.

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Smells divine too.

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A night out with my group calls for some cool décor and a place to relax such as Hangik, a neighbourhood wedged between two Universities which has a thriving arts and indie music scene. It’s home to an array of independent clothing labels and off-the-wall vintage shops. The relaxed vibe here can be best felt in any one of the area’s clubs, bars or cafés and is the closest city area to/from the airport. Located on Seoul’s Metro Line 11 is easy to find.

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In Hongdae, we  headed towards  the Mint Bar to enjoy their signature cocktail with Tom about to tackle his and yes, you have to sip and slurp with the bottle still in the glass.

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Even if you’re not a beer drinker, you’ll enjoy these,  the Coronarita! An icey blend of corona beer and a margarita.

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Going back to Incheon Airport by train is incredibly straight forward with a plethora of stations underground which feed into the main subway and effectively take travellers to where they need to go.

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Clean, fast and comfortable the train slices through any traffic hiccups. Cost is approximately A$4.00 one way per adult.

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Back at the airport and this has to be one of the most efficient airports in the world. Have your comfy shoes on because you’ll be running a marathon to check out all the duty free shops.

Next stop Kathmandu Nepal – Namaste till next week’s blog.