Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Cambodia: we see it as the land of impressive Angkor temples, a turbulent history and the tuk-tuk (the most we had seen in our entire trip!).

It is such a beautiful country but undoubtedly more impoverished compared to neighboring Vietnam and Thailand. We arrived in Phnom Penh, the capital, with low expectations.

Immediately the air pollution and dust hit us – it was the worst we experienced during our trip. We took a short tuk-tuk ride to the hotel. We had booked a 5* hotel for our stay – only 18$ a night, and at that price, I am so glad we did it! It turned out we were staying in a more up-and-coming residential area of the city, near good restaurants too.

After checking in, we immediately set off for some food and a walk around the city. We could see a lot of new development taking place and we were excited to see that Phnom Penh was so much more than what we had previously thought. As Cambodia uses the US$, we did notice that it was much more expensive in comparison to Vietnam which had been dirt cheap. The monsoon hit when we turned back into the hotel’s road. We returned, soaked, flip flops barely staying on our feet!

13501872_10156982622650447_671672806898857375_n13510881_10156982622770447_5276339724504659522_n

We visited the S20 Prison and the Killing Fields – this is the main reason travelers come to the city in order to get some context for Cambodia’s history. Although it was unpleasant, these sites really are key if you intend to get some scope of what Cambodia has faced and the consequences which are still on-going. We booked a tuk-tuk driver for the day through our hotel for 15$, who took us to the Killing Fields, to S20 and back to our hotel. Unfortunately, the tuk-tuk broke down along the way. Luckily we broke down next to a garage – what are the odds?! In 10 minutes, the driver fixed the tuk-tuk with a mechanic while we were in it (James and I looking at each other a bit worried and weighing up whether we should escape or not). It was not long until we were back on the road.

img_3628

We only spent two days in Phnom Penh and actually, it was not enough! Other than walking around, taking the tour to S20 and the Killing Fields and eating at some lovely restaurants, we didn’t do anything else. I would recommend at least 3 days in order to fully appreciate the city. We did not manage to see the Royal Palace which was a real shame. The monsoon hit every afternoon so it was impossible to do sightseeing for several hours as the downpour was so heavy! A good excuse for an afternoon nap.

All in all, a brilliant start to our travels in Cambodia.

Hotel: Balconitel Boutique Hotel

Must visit: S20 Prison and Killing Fields

Robyn

Advertisements

Snorkeling Between Continents

Snorkeling in the Silfra fissure, known as one of the top dive/snorkeling sites in the world, is something I will never forget. It was my third day in Iceland on a trip where each day just got better and better. I had already experienced Reykjavik and driven around the Golden Circle, but little did I know there was so much more to come, starting with Silfra.

The Silfra fissure is a crack between the North American and Eurasian continents. It is the only location on Earth where you can snorkel or dive between continents. That sounded amazing, so I obviously really wanted to go! At Silfra, the continental plates meet and drift apart about 2cm per year. The underwater visibility is over 100 meters, which is definitely something, so you can see very deep down. The water is so pure, as it is glacial water from the nearby Langjökull glacier. During our snorkel experience, we were encouraged to drink as we swam along! It all sounds pretty incredible, but there is just one catch – the water is very, very, very cold, 2°C – 4°C year round, in fact.

025One thing I would highlight, is that the meeting point (if you are not being picked up from Reykjavik). It is at the Information Center in Thingvellir National Park, NOT the Visitor’s Center. I don’t think their website stresses this enough, and I’m sure many people end up doing exactly the same mistake as us. Luckily, we realised we were in the wrong place and the Information Center was only a 5 minute drive down the road. It would be a lot less stressful to just turn up at the right location in the first place though!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe were to wear thermal tops and trousers with two pairs of thick socks which would go underneath a suit (like a sleeping bag, buut in clothes-form) and then a dry suit on top which they would both provide. Getting the dry suit on was not the easiest task. No wait, it was near impossible to get it on!

When they realised that the suit they had given me would not fit, after much struggling to squeeze me in, I had to lie on a table and cling myself tightly to the edges while two people had to yank the suit off me. I also received a special treatment which involved me having to be lifted in the air to get the larger size on. There was also something called ‘The Strangler,’ a neck choker, to tighten the suit at the neck, to prevent water from entering. It was all very tight and uncomfortable, and we were assured that this was how it was meant to be.

It was also very difficult to walk, and as they had selected a Men’s medium size for me to wear instead, I ended up waddling everywhere, as the suit was not the right fit. It was all rather funny, and making jokes about it made us put aside the thought that we were very soon going to have to plunge into icy-cold water.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We were in the water for a total of thirty minutes. It may not sound like that much, but you don’t want to be in there for much longer. By the time I had got out, my lips were so numb and abnormally puffy. It was then that I knew what it must feel like to have had lip fillers/botox.

The dry suit worked incredibly well and my body remained dry. Only my face and hands were exposed to the cold which was painful enough. Still, Kam wasn’t as successful with her suit and water had leaked in everywhere. She was absolutely soaked and freezing which was not enjoyable at all, and needed to change into dry clothes afterwards. (tip: bring dry clothes in case this happens to you!).

They warned us that there is usually one person in the group who ends up getting wet, and for our group, that was Kam. Oh dear. Still, she did say that she would like to do it again, but next time not get wet, so she can better appreciate the snorkeling side and not only think of how excruciatingly cold she was. At least it hasn’t put her totally off going back!

As my neck was so restricted, it was difficult to breathe and while I was in the water, I developed a headache and didn’t want to move my head too much. It was such a relief to get the dry suit off and be able to breathe again when I got out.

046aI was also worried about the visibility. As I said, the water is so clear and I thought I would be afraid of the depth and wouldn’t enjoy the experience. Surprisingly, it wasn’t scary at all, instead it was incredibly fascinating to swim through the fissure and look at the natural wonder all around me. The colours and sights were so beautiful, which made the headache and the numbing pain worth it.

Although exhausted from our snorkeling, there was still much to get done. We managed to drive down to Vik, two hours south afterwards, with a short detour to Kerid crater after blasting the heating on in the car for a good while. In Vik, we ate at the Gas Station, where I ate the most delicious chicken burger and fries in my entire life. When travelling around Iceland, you soon begin to appreciate any chance at getting your hands on some good hot food!

I took the DIVE.IS Silfra Snorkeling Day Tour (16,990 ISK), but they have several other options to tailor your visit to Iceland.

Untitled

Five Days in Porto

Porto was one of the few places I hadn’t managed to squeeze into a weekend this semester, so I am glad to have finally ticked it off my list!  When I announced I was spending five whole days there though, some were not convinced; apparently five days is too much time. I had just finished my last exam a few days before, and with just over a week free before I leave for Madrid, it seemed like a great idea to explore somewhere new. Although maybe a beach trip to Malaga would also have been nice…

With only weekends available to travel around studying at university, some of my trips have felt rushed over the last few months, e.g. I only spent one day in Lisbon and one in Sintra before it was time to leave. On top of this, I have come back on many occasions to Salamanca at 3am in the morning, after uncomfortable night coach/train journeys, exhausted. Spending five days in Porto allowed me to visit the city at a slower pace, take a few day trips (Guimarães and Aveiro) and rest when I needed to, which allowed it not just to be somewhere else to visit, but also a bit of time-out to relax. Porto, just like most places in Portugal, is extremely hilly, and I have returned feeling like I have had a good workout.

Walking down to Ribera, massive hill

Walking down to Ribeira, down a massive hill

I traveled by Blablacar on the way with two French Erasmus students studying in Madrid and a Polish Erasmus student in Salamanca, which was fun. The drive was much more direct than the six hour coach journey I took yesterday on the way back to Salamanca.

I stayed at Gallery Hostel, which is highly rated on TripAdvisor. I’d 100% recommend staying there, I had an absolutely fantastic experience and had no complaints at all. They go above and beyond to make your stay enjoyable!

Porto is currently a whole 10 degrees centigrade lower than Salamanca (Porto is 20-24), so it was a comfortable temperature to explore the city in the day, no jacket necessary and then something light on top if you are out at night. Coming back to Salamanca, I was hit with the heat, it has warmed up so much since I have been in Porto! What always confuses me is the time difference between Portugal and Spain (Portugal is one hour behind) and also the fact the Portuguese like to eat their evening meals earlier (8:30pm rather than 10pm) – although I prefer this, it is so strange when coming from Spain, where restaurants don’t open until 9pm! Also, tap water is actually drinkable in Portugal, so it felt weird to be filling up my water bottle from the tap, instead of buying those massive 5L water bottles from the corner shop in Spain.

In all honesty, although Porto is a fantastic city to visit, I have to hold on to the feeling that it in no way compares to Lisbon, which is in a league of its own – I am just so in love with Lisbon, it is hard to beat!

I love walking around cities but whenever I walked around the streets of Porto, I could go from a very touristy area, turn a corner and suddenly enter a very dodgy neighbourhood without warning during the day. Then I would turn another corner and be out in the clear again. And the fact that everywhere is so hilly, I could only escape at a certain pace without collapsing from exhaustion. These pockets of unsafe areas come without warning and I’d say they are difficult to avoid unless you stick to the main streets, but if you do that, you will also miss some of the most beautiful panoramic views and buildings in the city. During the evenings I never was out on my own, I always made sure I was with others. This is just the one thing I felt uncomfortable with during my trip, but nothing bad actually happened.

It was great to see a new part of the country, visit Nathan from Sheffield, who is studying in Porto this semester and also, to practice speaking Portuguese! I’m glad to be back here in Salamanca for my final four days though, and being away in Portugal made me realise just how much I am going to miss living here. I don’t know when I am next coming back to Spain, but I know I only have to wait 25 days until I jet off to Lisbon for a month! My departure from Porto was therefore much less emotional than what I can imagine will be the case when I leave Salamanca on Monday…

This is just a general update about what I have been up to. I will be uploading a post soon about the highlights of my trip to Porto next time – there were quite a few interesting ones.

Até logo! (See you soon in Portuguese)

Untitled

Barcelona, otra vez!

This weekend I was lucky enough to visit Barcelona for the second time in the past month. I am really lucky to live so close to the Spanish border! This trip was special because I got to spend the weekend with my boyfriend, James, who I had not seen for over 3 months and was therefore the first time seeing him since I started my Year Abroad.

Luckily for him as I had already been to Barcelona recently, I knew my way around the city (more or less), had already sussed the metro system and was prepared with a list of places and restaurants where I wanted to take him.

This time around was also quite different as I was the only Spanish-speaker in the group. Last time I was able to rely on my friends who are a million times better at speaking Spanish than me, so I would always let them do the talking if necessary. However, this time there was no hiding behind them and the majority of people I met preferred me to speak Spanish instead of English, so it was a great opportunity to get some practise in. I managed to survive in all the converations I had and was understood, so I am sure I will be fine when I arrive in Salamanca, and will hopefully be more confident after living there for a few months! From checking-in at the hostel, ordering food, asking directions, asking to find a top in a different size in a clothes shop, it was a good weekend for my Spanish!

As James’ flight was not scheuled to arrive until 8pm, after arriving by train at 2pm and checking into the hostel, I spent the afternoon making the most of Barcelona’s amazing shopping opportunities. Perpignan is not the best when it comes to shopping, and it’s fair to say I have saved a lot of money this semester as I have hardly bought any new clothes, however I do love a good shop. One of my new favourite shops is called ‘Oysho’, a Spanish store which sells really cute pyjamas and which are not too expensive either. I am in love with this place – they even played Lana Del Rey’s new album in the changing rooms (one of my favourite singers) which made it all the better! Unfortunately, I don’t know anywhere in the UK where they have stores but I know for a fact there is a store in Salamanca which I will be visiting very soon 😉

View from the hostel balcony

View from the hostel balcony

View from the hostel balcony

View from the hostel balcony. A bit noisy as it was on a main street and there were also road works 😦

After collecting James from the airport at 8pm we headed to La Plaza de Catalunya and got a bite to eat at 100 Montaditos. I have been there twice before, it is basically a very cheap fast-food outlet where you can get fast-food and drink cheap and there is a very lively atmosphere usually filled to the brim (as was the case this time). I got to make my order all in Spanish too and they ordered everything correctly this time. The server asks you for your name, for when you go to collect your order, and he was a bit baffled by how my name was ‘Robyn,’ as it is also only a boy’s name in Spain (just like France), but I am used to this moment of confusion on people’s faces now after spending 3 months in France.

Our hostel was located in the Barri Gothic, perhaps my favourite area in Barcelona, due to its narrow streets filled with interesting shops that you can get lost in. We were not far from the cathedral, so that was our first stop on Saturday, before heading out for tapas at the same place I went the last time I was in Barcelona. Despite being very tired, we managed to make our way to the Picasso Museum, which I had been told was worth the visit, which was just around the corner. We were pleasantly surprised that it was free entry because we were students – finally somewhere free in Barcelona!!

Interior of the Picasso Museum - very nice!

Interior of the Picasso Museum – muy bonito!

The Picasso Museum is located in a beautiful building; it was very odd to go from one modern room just white plain walls, to the next which consisted of a fancy chandelier and beautiful decorations. After a bit of convincing, I plucked up the courage to ask in Spanish about the building’s former significance before it became a museum – apparently it used to belong to rich merchants who constructed them in the 13/14th centuries. It does not take long to walk around the permanent exhibition and a variety of Picasso’s works from various collections and points in his life are on display. The museum offers an audioguide for the price of €5 but we did not get one, however each room offers information in Spanish, Catalan and English which was very informative. As we visited out of season, it was not busy.

In the evening, we went to Las Arenas, a shopping centre converted from a former bullring near La Plaza de Espanya and the Font màgica de Montjuïc (Magic Fountain); I love this type of development – making the most of current architecture and turning it into something quite unique, instead of it knocking down unnecessarily. Inside it there are a variety of shops, food outlets and a cinema. The rooftop is also open where you can get a great view of Barcelona, and this was also where we ate dinner that evening.

View of Las Arenas

View of Las Arenas

Night time view of the Plaza de Espanya and the Magic Fountain in the background from the top of Las Arenas

Night time view of the Plaza de Espanya and the Magic Fountain in the background from the top of Las Arenas

Before dinner, we walked across the road to the Magic Fountain. We arrived just before the 7pm music and light show; times for the Magic Fountain vary according to the time of year. During the summer months the fountain is on every day until 11:30pm, however in the winter months it is usually only on during the weekend and ends at 9pm, so check the website before you go so you are not disappointed.

Yep, those are all people waiting to see the Magic Fountain on the steps!

Yep, those are all people waiting to see the Magic Fountain on the steps!

I was surprised to find that there were hundreds upon hundreds of people who had turned up to see the fountain! I went to see the Magic Fountain last time I was in Barcelona but we only managed to see the final 10 minutes of the show which was a shame. It’s a great thing to do during the evening if you find yourself in Barcelona, especially as it is free! Don’t forget to climb up all the steps to the top by the museum for a great view of Barcelona at night as well.

10411049_10154810572655447_4140908985453232851_n

Magic Fountain

Magic Fountain

On the Sunday we went to the Sagrada Família at midday with our prepaid online tickets. I had already visited last time, but I was more than happy to go again as it is absolutely beautiful and I could not allow James to fly all the way to Barcelona and not see it! I especially love the interior and the stain-glass windows.

Light reflections from the stained-glass windows inside the Sagrada Família, Perfection!

Light reflections from the stained-glass windows inside the Sagrada Família, Perfection!

Light reflections from the stained-glass windows inside the Sagrada Família. Perfection!

Light reflections from the stained-glass windows inside the Sagrada Família. Perfection!

One of the main doorways into the Sagrada Famílis

One of the main doorways into the Sagrada Família

After trudging round a large area of Barcelona, we managed to find somewhere relatively affordable and interesting to eat, nearby to where we went the day before, near the Arc de Triomf.

Us by the Arc de Triomf

Us by the Arc de Triomf

And soon we were collecting our bags from the hostel and there was a quick tearful good-bye at Sants station before I had to catch my train to Perpignan and James had to get his flight back to Manchester.

After recently getting a new phone (a Samsung S4) after using my iPhone 4S for the last 2 and a bit years, I can now take all my pictures on my phone. The camera is really good quality and has great editing facilities and photo-taking options which are far better quality than my current camera. I’m quite made up with it as I specifically bought this phone for its camera. I still haven’t gotten round to fixing my main camera which broke all the way back in July in Kraków.

Barcelona is an incredible city and there is so much on offer; rich in history, culture, great for shopping and atmosphere and on a plus note for me, I can get to grips with the language (okay. not Catalan but Spanish…). Yet in truth, it isn’t at the top of my list for places I have visited this year, maybe partly caused by just how expensive it is for tourists or how everything is not exactly all in walking distance.

I have been priviledged enough to travel to so many places in the last 6 months: Wrocław, Warsaw and Kraków in Poland, a large part of Israel, a great chunk of the south of France and then Girona and Barcelona. If anything, my favourite city that I visited in 2014 would have to go to Kraków, hands down. I could talk for hours on reasons why it is an amazing place to visit: it’s very affordable for young travellers, so many things to do etc. but all I can say is go, and don’t just go for a weekend to see the Auschwitz concentration camp, the Salt Mines and leave for Budapest – yes, do all of those things as they are very much worth the visit( Auschwitz and the Salt Mines being the main reasons why I wanted to go to Kraków in the first place), but make sure you spend a bit longer in Kraków and take in what this beautiful city has to offer. I happily spent a week there but it could have been longer.

View from the Town Hall Tower, Kraków. Need I say more?

View from the Town Hall Tower, Kraków. Need I say more?

Barcelona is still a great city, and I will be heading back there on the 19th December to catch my flight back home for Christmas. Although, I doubt I will be able to do any shopping or signtseeing there for the few hours I have spare before I need to head to the airport, as I will have two heavy suitcases and a rucksack in tow!

Have you visited Barcelona, what do you think? Or do you hope to go in the future?

What is your favourite place that you have travelled to so far (in 2014)?

Bonne semaine,

Untitled

An afternoon with tortoises

Julia, me and Kam with our new tortoise friends!

Julia, me and Kam with our new tortoise friends!

Two weeks ago in October (18/10/14), we had the chance to go to a tortoise sanctuary, La Vallée des tortues, located in the small town of Sorède, not far from Perpignan.  It was a fantastic afternoon, and I really recommend it if you are around in the region.

Entry is quite steep – 9€ for a student ticket, yet I do feel it was worth it, as I can safely say that the residents are well looked after and are happy in the sanctuary. We even received a tour (in French) which lasted about 45 minutes. The lady who gave the tour gave us interesting information about all the different types of tortoises that were in the sanctuary and even some of their own personal stories – some happy and others more tragic.

As we visited in the mid-afternoon, we were also able to see the tortoises being fed. It was late-October, and the tour group was only small – however most days during the high summer season, there can be over 1000 people a day visiting the site; we were very lucky the have a more intimate experience. There were a few children in the group, and the lady allowed them to help her feed a few of the friendly tortoises and stroke them.

As you can see by the photo above, we also managed to meet them as well! She told us that we were very lucky, because everyone who visited in the summer who were in very large groups were only able to dream of the opportunity that we were given – we definately picked the right month to go! The tortoise’s skin is very dry, like paper, but he was lovely, gentle and really enjoyed having some attention and being stroked, a bit like a dog or a cat would. He is about 70 years old (quite young for a tortoise – they can live up to 200 years) and weighs about 200kg! I wouldn’t like to have to pick him up…

We also met a 23 year old tortoise whose speicies is the fastest of tortoises in the world (he did run quite fast actually – for a tortoise anyway!) and apparently he has 10 kids. We also encountered the world’s most dangerous turtle, mouth open and ready to attack… :

World's most dangerous tortoise

World’s most dangerous tortoise

It’s a fascinating little place to visit if you are interested in these gorgeous creatures 🙂 I love them, probably even more now I have been here, and it was a lovely relaxing day-trip out of Perpignan!

New vocabulary:

  1. Une carapace de tortue – a tortoise shell
  2. Tortue de terre – a tortoise
  3. Tortue de mer – a turtle

A few more photos:

??????????

Having fun in their little oasis

??????????

Also having fun

Untitled

Carcassonne

So, last weekend as I previously mentioned, I went to Banyuls-sur-mer on the Friday, Collioure the Saturday and then on the Sunday I went to Carcassonne. Yes, I was pretty exhausted for my first day of classes but it was definately worth it!

??????????

Carcassonne was a spur of the moment decision; I have recently fallen in love with covoiturage (carsharing) here in France. Despite having a Railcard here in France, train tickets can still be expensive. I found http://www.blablacar.com for covoiturage and it is the first place I turn to whenever I want to go organise trips to other places. I really recommend other people on their Year Abroad have a look at this website. What I love, is you can type in the departure town/city and the date, and the site will list all available options to you. This is what we did for Sunday 7th September and Carcassonne was on that list!

Okay, I know what you are thinking, getting in a car with a random stranger, really?! For some reason or another, covoiturage is quite big in France (saving money and the environment and all that). Plus it is a way to liven up your journey, meet new people and speak French. It isn’t for everyone – you need to have an open-mind and willing to talk a bit, so if you want to stick your headphones on and listen to music, maybe it isn’t 100% for you, but it’s worth trying at least once! Anyway, our first covoiturage went well, a 9-seater van, an older couple from Bordeaux and 4 other people doing covoiturage – it was an interesting situation! We even had a short break on the way and they offered us coffee, tea, juice – okay, this never happens on the train outside 1st class now does it..?

We have other covoiturage journeys booked; Kam and I are going to Girona in Spain (!!) this Saturday. We have the train for the way out, but a covoiturage on the way back. We have also booked to see Émilie Simon (a French singer I really like) in concert in Nîmes on 11th October, so we are staying there for the weekend. We have organsied a covoiturage already for the return journey.  We are trying to organise another one for Barcelona next weekend as well. It’s so much cheaper than getting the train, so it eases up the money woes a bit, allowing us to travel more and not feel so bad about spending loads of money.

Anyway. Carcassonne. Wow. It is beautiful, in a very different wayto Collioure. La Cité – the medieval citadel of Carcassonne is breathtaking. It is situatied on a hill and in order to walk to it from the train station, you must walk on the Pont Vieux across the River Aude. La Cité is very imposing – the city walls, the towers – it looks unlike anything I have ever seen before. It is also worth noting that La Cité of Carcassonne is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. ????????????????????

We spent the afternoon exploring the cobbled streets of La Cité and also walked around the Château et remparts de la cité de Carcassonne. There is an entrance fee, but for EU citizens under the age of 26 it is free.

Here are some photos of my visit!

?????????? ?????????? Year Abroad 065 ?????????? ?????????? ?????????? ?????????? ?????????? ?????????? ?????????? ?????????? ?????????? Year Abroad 082

Untitled

Beautiful Collioure

Collioure is a beautiful seaside gem on the southern French coast. Yet many of you, like me before I came here, may have never heard of it. It is only an hour’s bus journey from Perpignan at 1€/bus ticket, with breathtaking views the entire way. I went on Saturday 6th Sepetember, the weekend before university started. This is by far my favourite place in Languedoc-Roussillon. I was only able to stay four hours here, but I will be returning soon. Here are some photos I took, because they just say it all for me…:

?????????? ?????????? ?????????? ?????????? ?????????? ?????????? ?????????? ?????????? ??????????

Untitled