From our route through the United Arab Emirates we have taken a two hours flight to the capital Manama of Bahrain. From there we took a Lufthansa flight back to Frankfurt with a stop over in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. This would also be the normal route if you want to get to Bahrain directly from Germany. Alternatives are via Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Istanbul.
For our three days we spent in Bahrain we haven’t used a rental car but rather walked or taken a taxi to explore the main sights.
Our travel tips for Bahrain
This modern museum with its equipment is good to get an insight in the traditional way of life in Bahrain. The signs are also posted in English so that it possible to learn a lot.
From the National Museum we walked over the bridge into the Muharraq quarter. From this area we enjoyed the beautiful view on Manama’s skyline.
We continued our walk through an ancient town area where we also enjoyed a traditional cardamom coffee.
Pearling, Testimony of an Island Economy (UNESCO World Heritage)
The site is the last remaining complete example of the cultural tradition of pearling and the wealth it generated at a time when the trade dominated the Gulf economy. It consists of in total seventeen buildings in Muharraq City from where boats used to set off for the oyster beds. The buildings include residences of wealthy merchants, shops, storehouses and a mosque.
Skyscrapers of Manama
On our walk back from the ancient town to the hotel we have tried to take pictures of the most beautiful skyscrapers.
Qal’at al-Bahrain – Ancient Harbour and Capital of Dilmun (UNESCO World Heritage)
We have taken a taxi to get to the ancient harbour and capital of Dilmun that is recognised as UNESCO World Heritage. This artificial mound was created by many successive layers of human occupation. About 25% of the site has been excavated, revealing structures of different types: residential, public, commercial, religious and military.
Royal Camel Farm
Our last point in Bahrain was the royal camel farm where the king keeps over a hundred dromedaries for pleasure.
At the Méridien in Bahrain we had the best breakfast we have ever enjoyed in one of these hotels. Never had such a large variety of Arabian, Indian, European and Asian food for breakfast! We ate so much that we were hardly hungry throughout the day!
For the festival Christmas season 2018 we decided to do a tour in United Arab Emirates and Bahrain due to our very positive experience of Oman. Of course, United Arab Emirates are not so originally like Oman was but we were curious what hidden places <nd of course UNESCO World Heritage places we could discover.
The Unites Arab Emirates (UAE) allow driving a rental car without an European driver license. Consequently and together with the fact that many international rental car companies have locations in UAE it is very easy to get a rental car. We started in Dubai and returned the car in Abu Dhabi to fly to Manama in Bahrain afterwards.
We enjoyed driving around in the United Arab Emirate (UAE) due to the possibilities to stop everywhere and the empty roads.
Our travel tips for United Arab Emirates by car
In Dubai as it is famous for its unbelievable skyscrapers we have taken directly the elevator up to the viewing deck at Burj Khalifa. Due to its height with 828 meters, the view on Dubai is really fascinating. Everything from the viewing deck of the Burj Khalifa in a height of 456 meters (124th level) looks like being part of a city built of Lego. The elevator only takes 55 seconds from the ground to deck 124. Remind of booking a ticket for the entrance in advance to be sure that you can visit.
Jumeirah Hotel Dubai
Walking from the Burj Khalifa to the Jumeirah Hotel Dubai required a lot of discipline to not cave in taking a taxi. Each couple of meters another taxi stopped and asked us to take us wherever we want. Walking seems not be something that is normal in the United Arab Emirates. From there we walked over to The Walk, JBR to enjoy the Christmas market with a kind of snow.
King Faisal Mosque
Just some kilometers from Dubai city center away on our way to Ras Al Khaimah, we visited the King Faisal mosque. The mosque lies in a very quiet and traditional area and we felt a bit unwell of being a tourist. Therefore, we just visited the mosque and cancelled our plans to walk around in the area.
Ras Al Khaimah
Dhayah Fort was build in the 18th-century and is located near to Ras Al Khaimah. It is the highest hilltop fort in the UAE and worth travel due to the fantastic view over the area. Stairs were built to facilitate the visit during the summer time. Even in December we covered our head against the sun.
Ras Al Khaimah City
A complete contrary to Dubai is Ras al Khaimah City: no world record breaking skyscrapers, more traditional and picturesque.
We have visited the Fort Al Hisn with its national museum. Some of the buildings were just built in the last century. The temperature inside the fort is due to the construction just perfect with a little wind.
60 km before Fujairah City lies the small town Dibba. Many houses are built in the traditional arabian style that reminded us of Oman. From the port in Dibba we had a view into Oman’s enclave Musandam.
Fujairah is a relatively small town so that we left our car at the hotel and walked through the city. The wealth of the city is mainly driven by the dates export. We have visited the Fujairah Fort on a hill. This fort was built in 1670 and was home to the Emir.
In addition, we visited (but only from outside) the central mosque (Sheikh Zayed mosque) of Fujairah.
Al Ain (UNESCO World Heritage)
In Al Ain the color of the nature is completely different to the desert we have seen so far: there are so many green parks, gardens and palm groves. This is the reason why Al Ain is also known as “garden city”. The reason are the more than 3000 years old Falaj water system that brings the water from the mountains to the oasis. Skyscrapers are not allowed in Al Ain – the maximum height of buildings is set to six levels – to safe the cultural heritage. More than 1 million dates palms do exits within the oasis in Al Ain. The modern style of UAE is visible allover the city with streets of six lanes and the new governmental buildings however the cultural states of Al Ain (UNESCO World Heritage) and the camel market has been remained.
Cultural states of Al Ain (UNESCO World Heritage)
One of the oasis lies directly in the city center next to the national museum. The oasis is kept alive by the Falaj water system.
Al Ain Souk
Just some kilometers from the central oasis away, we walked by a traditional souk. This souk is also selling the dates.
This one of the last camel markets in VAE and that’s the reason why more than 1,000 camels are sold everyday – or better said one-humped dromedaries. We spent several hours walking around and also have seen how the camels are then transported after a deal.
Empty Quarter (Rub’ Al Khali desert)
On our way from Al Ain to Abu Dhabi we made a short side trip to the Empty Quarter. The amount of this golden sand is incredible – it was in tons around us – everywhere. It is the largest continuous sand sea in the world, with an area of 650,000 square kilometers. The Al Rub’ Al Khali desert is shared by four countries: Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.
Our last stop in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was Abu Dhabi. Compared to Dubai it is a more relaxed with a higher focus on traditions and culture. Due to the massive oil and gas occurrence in Abu Dhabi the tourism is just built up as a second economic pillar with museums (dependence of Guggenheim and Louvre museum, national museum designed by Norma Foster) and with the CO2 neutral city Masdar new technologies and renewable energies are pushed forward.
More about the traditional way of life shows the Heritage Village on Breakwater Island. The workshops of the souk show the wood, metal and weaving work and you can have a look into a Bedouin tent.
From there we had a beautiful view on Abu Dhabi’s skyline.
Luxury Hotel Emirates Palace
The lobby of the luxury hotel Emirates Palace is open to the public. Entering the entrance hall it looks like in a fairy tale of 1001 nights since almost everything is made of gold. This also holds true for the cappuccino that is served with gold leaves in the café in the basement.
Our hotel was close to the Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Street we walked each evening along the Corniche. The Corniche is in total 7 kilometers long. Here and in the monuments park from our hotel to the Corniche we found these giant monuments of Arabian culture.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
The white marble is downright dazzling in the sun and should be an image of the paradise. It is one of the biggest mosque in the world. The 5,600 m² carpet weighs 47 tons and was made in Iran by 1,200 weavers. The huge chandelier consists of 2 mn Swarovski crystals from Germany is said to be the largest in the world.
We have selected the Baedeker Travel Guide for the United Arab Emirates since it was quite new and has short overviews of the regions and do not focus only on hotels.
On New Year’s Eve 2017, we had one of our shortest flights on the all-around-the-world trip – this was from Singapore to Siam Reap (Cambodia). But the difference between these two cities could not have been bigger. Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world. After it has been the country with the highest standard of living in South East Asia in 1970 and was also called the Switzerland of South East Asia. Follow us on our adventures in this lovely country and get top travel tips for Cambodia and it’s world-famous UNESCO world heritage sites.
Cambodia is a kingdom but the king is more representative. The current king Norodom Sihamoni lived from the age of nine in the Czech Republic to be educated in ballet dancing. He got a diploma in cinematography in Russia and North Korea – now we understand that our guide we had on our tour in North Korea has already been to Cambodia. Arriving at the airport a typical Cambodian taxi has picked us up:
Our route through Cambodia
For the first time on our around the world trip we do not have a rental car to drive by ourselves since his is not possible in Cambodia. To explore Cambodia we have taken local buses or hired a Tuk Tuk driver or a private driver, e.g. to get to Preah Vihear Temple at the border to Thailand. Self driving is not allowed for tourists except renting motorcycles what we have done to explore areas around the cities.
In general, the buses are comfortable and a lot of other tourists are on the buses. However, it is better to sit quite in the back of the bus and not to watch the way the bus is driving to not get worried.
Overtaking despite a long queue of vehicles in front of the bus and passing other vehicles with a distance of just some centimeters is the normal way of driving in Cambodia and motorcycles and Tuk Tuks are honked away.
Traffic in Cambodia
The traffic in Cambodia is similar to other Asian countries and with all the traffic members like Tuk Tuks, motorcycles, bicycles and cars, quite chaotic and on each lane in both directions. In addition, sidewalks are rare and consequently also the pedestrians have to walk on the streets. Traffic lights are not common and therefore crossing the street as a pedestrian requires a portion of luck.
The locals seem not to like walking. Only tourists are on the streets and at every corner a Tuk Tuk driver offers to pick us up. Same with massage service which is besides restaurants one of the most seen business here. Therefore, we bought a shirt to avoid these annoying questions – but honestly it didn’t helped much.
Our travel tips for Cambodia
Angkor Wat (UNESCO) / Siem Reap
When thinking of Cambodia, the first thing that will come to one’s mind might be AngkorWat which is also listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. The main temple is one of the biggest temple complex in the world. But the complete (and sort of mystic) Angkor region comprises more than 1,000 temples in an area of around 200 km². Angkor with its population of over 1 million people at the time when London was a small city was the religious, political and social center of the ancient Khmer empire. Despite some of the temples are damaged and destroyed the impressive and beautiful Khmer architecture from the 9th to 15th century is still visible.
The temples are based on Hinduism and dedicated to their gods. At the end of 13th century, the kings became Buddhists. With this change, there was no need to build such big temples anymore. This together with the relocation of the center to Phnom Phen due to the better possibilities for trading at the Mekong river lead to the leaving of Angkor. We haven’t expected so many tourists visiting Cambodia to see Angkor Wat….
The 216 faces carved into every angle of the Bayon temple represent Buddha.
The terrace of the Elephant is about 350 m long and decorated with parading elephants. It was used for public ceremonies and as king’s ceremony hall.
The temple Ta Prohm is known from the movie Tomb Raider. The trees on the top of the temple show the power of the jungle.
We have spent two full days with our Tuk Tuk driver Mister Fi in Angkor. We are deeply impressed by the big area of beautiful temples. It is definitely one of the highlights on our trip so far. Here are some more pictures from other temples in Angkor:
The city Siem Reap is close to Angkor and therefore a very touristic place with around 2.1 million people who have visited Angkor in 2015. There is a wide range of different restaurants serving traditional Khmer cuisine for 1 to 3 dollars per dish. Also the prices for drinks, especially beer and cocktail are quite cheap. A quarter liter draft beer for 0.50 dollars and cocktails for 1 dollar. But in addition, you can find a lot of touristic places like foot massage, beer halls and a lot of pubs in the respective pub street.
Cooking class in Siem Reap
Siem Reap’s center is the old market where we also went shopping for our cooking class we attended. Everybody was able to choose his starter and main course from the menu and we tried fried spring roles and the traditional Khmer dish Amok. Amok is a delicious kind of steam cooked curry served in a banana leaf. We have made this one with Tofu.
Temple of Preah Vihear (UNESCO)
We continued our temple tour to Preah Vihear in the North of Cambodia towards the border with Thailand. The huge Hindu temple was built between the 10th and 12th century on top of a hill. This UNESCO world heritage site is exceptional for the quality of its architecture, which is adapted to the natural environment and the religious function of the temple, as well as for the exceptional quality of its carved stone ornamentation.
The temple causes border conflicts with Thailand since both countries claim the temple is belonging to their territory. The temple comprises several buildings using the topography of the area with stairs and streets leading to the sanctuary on top of the hill where we had a view on Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
To get to Preah Vihear, we have hired a private driver from Siem Reap to get directly to the temple area. It is definitely worth a day trip, and you have the site more or less just for yourself without tons of tourists.
Cambodia’s country is dominated by the great lake Tonle Sap. This freshwater lake is connected via a river to the Mekong River and has several hundred species of fish. There are some touristic places around the lake and even going to the capital Phnom Phen is possible by boat across this lake. We decided to visit Kompong Khleang – the most remote place as well as the largest community with over 4,000 families. So we hired our Tuk-Tuk driver Mr. Fee again and drove all the way in his Tuk-Tuk what was a very windy experience.
In Kompong Khleang the time stands still. The place is untouched by the mass tourism from Angkor and Siam Reap despite being just 50 km away. As far as the eye could see, only stilt houses and now during the dry season we were able to walk around in the village.
The closeness of the houses to the water varies according to the season. At the end of the wet season after continuous heavy rainfall the lake will rise so that the streets are only accessible via boat, the stilts of the houses are under water and the ladders to reach the house are not required anymore. In the dry season on the other hand the people have to descend several meters to reach the water. Seeing this truly authentic Cambodian life was a mind-boggling experience.
S21 in Phnom Phen
The Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot installed their government of Democratic Kampuchea in 1975 after the victory in the Cambodian civil war. The Khmer Rouge and its attempts to establish an agricultural communist state is remembered especially for orchestrating the Cambodian genocide taken place from 1975 until 1979 until they were removed from power by Vietnam. However, the military power of the Khmer Rouge organization was not broken. A long era of guerrilla war began including attacks in Siem Reap until the mids of 1990.
We have visited the Tuol-Sleng genocide museum in the capital Phnom Penh. This former school was used as torture prison by the Khmer Rouge. The prisoners were killed on the Killing Field of ChoeungEk outside of the capital.
Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh with a population of around 2 mn lies in the South of Cambodia at the Tonle Sap which is an inflow to the Mekong river. It seems that the difference between poor and rich people is quite big. Besides the Tuk Tuk and cyclo driver we have seen also a lot of big and expensive cars. During the Khmer Rouge regime the city was almost empty. At the time we were in Phnom Penh also Singapore’s president visited the capital. The Singapore flags (in one of the pictures) are due to his visit.
Phnom Penh’s national museum and the royal palace in the city are good examples of the Khmer architecture with its peaked roof and the golden color. The national museum hosts world’s largest collection of Khmer art and is the largest museum of cultural history.
The royal palace was built in 1813 and consists of several smaller buildings like the throne room. Since the family of the king is still living in the palace some parts are closed for visitors but the open buildings are beautiful. One building is constructed in a French way since it was a present from Napoleon III to the Cambodian king. Also a small model of Angkor Wat is shown in one of the garden.
The silver pagoda lies in a separate area but directly adjacent to king’s palace. One could think of that the silver stupas are the pagoda but the name is derived from the floor that is covered with silver tiles. Inside a life-sized Buddha decorated with diamonds is located.
Buddhist meditation center
Near to our hotel we have visited the Buddhist meditation center and gave a silent meditation lesson a try:
Car wash in Cambodian style means involving as many persons as possible:
We have taken a local bus to Kampot. The city lies approximately 150 km from Phnom Penh in the South of Cambodia. Kampot is known for two things: old French colonial houses and the best pepper in the region which is also exported worldwide. And they even have an Olympia stadium. But we are unsure whether this really fits to the size required to Olympia and not to mention the missing seats).
After two weeks exploring Cambodia it is time to travel further to Vietnam. We enjoyed our time in Cambodia and hope that the country will further develop to overcome the poverty and to preserve their cultural Khmer heritage. Despite the Khmers had been to hell and back in their history the Khmers seem to have an unbreakable spirit with smilings.
We always felt safe and welcomed in Cambodia and not as a cash cow. Of course there were a lot of offers for Tuk tuks, tours, massages and restaurants but after saying ‘no’ one time, they didn’t offer their service again.
Departure to Vietnam
From Phnom Penh we took bus to Ho-Chi-Minh City in Vietnam. Despite the distance of just 230 km the bus was running for seven hours. The bus tour started with the collection of the passports. That is always a strange thing for us since we are not used to hand over our passports to other people. The whole process of crossing the Cambodian-Vietnam border was a nice experience.
Our passports was returned to us at the Cambodian border. The Cambodian visa and departure card was already removed from the passport and the departure stamps included. However, we had to pass the control again and return the passport afterwards back to the bus driver.
At Vietnam’s border, everybody queued at the visa control check point but without having the own passport. The whole pile of collected passports were brought to the control officers. He checked and stamped one passport after the other without seeing the respective person. After the passport has been checked, they were returned to the bus driver. That guy called out the name of the passport holder. Then we were allowed to cross the border.
The Cambodian money consists again of big numbers: 1 Euro is equal to around 4,400 Khmer Riel. However, the most common currency is USD. It can be used everywhere – not only in hotels and restaurants but also on local markets. The local Khmer Riel is only used to pay the cents.
According to the German ministry of foreign affairs security of personal belongings is an issue in the capital. Reading this we were surprised by the safes we found in some hotels. Just take the whole safe and carry it including the belongings away. 🙂
Our recommendations for Cambodia
For Cambodia we have relied again to our favorite travel guide Stefan Loose. It covers most of our travel tips for Cambodia quite well:
This was maybe the most frequent question we have heard when we told anybody about our new travel plans. North Korea (or officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – DPRK) was always a dream for us since we wanted to know how this country really works and whether all the stories we hear in the Western world are true or rather fairy tales. Of course, you can not just book a flight and go to North Korea as for your usual holiday trip. To get you ready for our DPRK adventure, we will walk you through our North Korea travel tips.
We were looking for some agencies offering private tours. At the end we decided to go with Young Pioneers Tours since they were also flexible in regards of the tour program. However, we recognized during the trip that this was not just a simple warning but reality:
Due to the nature of travel/tourism in the DPRK, itineraries do not provide or imply a guarantee of the tour’s contents.
Since we are UNESCO World Heritage lovers it was a MUST to have all the listed and tentative in North Korea. The planning of our private trip was rather easy. Our dedicated colleagues from the tour operator were open to changes of the standard agenda and made every effort to adjust the agenda to accommodate with our wishes.
Getting prepared for DPRK – Behavior training
We started our trip in Beijing where we met up with our agent from Young Pioneer Tours. Before letting us go on our trip to DPRK they advised us how to behave. Some highlights we still remember:
We strongly recommend bringing a gift for your North Korean guides and driver. The DPRK has very limited access to foreign products, e.g. local specialties, beauty products, cigarettes are all recommended (Koreans prefer Western/Japanese cigarettes to Chinese ones).
At certain places, especially statues of the leaders, you will often bow to show our respect according to the local customs. You will also have the opportunity to buy flowers but it is not expected.
Be nice to your Korean guides, listen to them and they will relax and let you do more.
We are not allowed to use the local currency in North Korea (much like Cuba) so we will be using hard currency (ie. EUR, USD, or Chinese RMB). RMB is the easiest to use.
You can take your digital cameras into the DPRK, but professional video cameras are not allowed. Please make sure there is no “GPS” printed on your camera. Your Korean guides will give you the ‘go ahead’ and the ‘no-no’ zones for taking photos – it is crucial to follow their requests.
And not to forget: the agent taught us how to bow and show respect and we had to repeat it several times until we were good to go.
But with this introduction we were best prepared to start our unforgettable trip.
Entering North Korea / DPRK
Departure in Beijing
We decided to take an advantageous way to enter the DPRK: by train from Beijing! In total this journey lasts 15 hours in comfortable night trains. The first train left Bejing in the evening and brought us overnight to the border to Dandong in the North of China.
In Dandong we changed to a local North Korean train after passing the departure check from China. The train was completely booked by Korean people and we were with two Dutch the only tourists on this train. A big fun was the immigration in North Korea.
After passing the Chinese-Korean friendship bridge the train stopped and the train conductor collected the passports from every passenger and brought them to the immigration office. The immigration procedure took over an hour. Luckily, we were allowed to leave the train but however, not more than one meter from the train door. Looking forward to receiving our passports back and to continue our trip to the capital of North Korea Pyongyang.
Impressions from our first hours in the DPRK – taken from the train
Our itinerary in the DPRK
Daily life in DPRK
Despite having read a couple of books about the DPRK and of course about the poverty and the shortage in foods we did not know what to expect. Considering the fact that the guides will observe us and try to show us only the “nice” sides of North Korea, we did not really know what to think about this country: what was real, what was just because we are here now (e.g. the good mood in the orphanage and the good condition of the summer camp) and especially what do the people think? We did not try to talk to local people to not get them into trouble.
Moreover, after some days we tried to avoid talking so much about our thoughts after we have seen that our guides are writing a report every evening about the day. They told us that they rate the service quality of the attractions we have visited during the day – but we can imagine it was also about how the tourists behaved…
How to move around in DPRK / North Korea
Since we have booked a private tour, we had two English-speaking tour guides (one male, one female) and a driver. These three were our guides through the entire tour. The streets were fairly empty but due to the conditions of the highways that link the cities our van was not going more than 50 km/h.
Arriving in Pyongyang at the train station, it was not hard for our guides to identify us as their tourists due to minimal number of foreigners in the train. We were happy arriving after 7 hours in a train with quite drunken Korean people. In addition, we were looking forward to getting to know the popular Koryo Hotel.
We can really recommend the Koryo Hotel – it was very clean and sufficient for the six nights we stayed in total here. Since it is not allowed to leave the hotel by yourself, the hotel also has a mini market with touristic food products like Nutella. We used to buy bottled water there.
Highlights to explore in Pyongyang
This impressive skyscraper is being built since 1987 and should have been with 330 meters the highest hotel in the world. At the time we were in DPRK the outside of the skyscraper was finished but it was said that there is nothing inside.
Main train station
The train station is especially at night a beautiful building. Every morning and evening the song “Where Are You, Dear General?” is blasted over a speakers at the station.
Grand People’s Study House
We spent the first two days in Pyongyang. The first item on our agenda was Grand People’s Study House. It is a library and academic center for adult learners. This grand building is built in the Korean style. From the balcony we had an impressive view over the central square with its governmental buildings.
Mansudae Grand Monument / Mansu Hill Grand Monument
On 9th September – the National Day in DPRK – we visited in the early morning the Grand Monument of the leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. These statues are maybe the best-known picture from DPRK. With a height of 20 meters the bronze statues are impressive. Here we had the first opportunity to show our learned bow.
Another highlight in Pyongyong is a ride with the metro. Korean people are very proud of their metro and the stations are very beautiful decorated – at least the three stations we were allowed to enter and to stop there. The metro trains are partly imported from East Berlin and we have seen still German signs inside. Above all, the metro seems to be a popular as a mobility because the metro during lunch time was crowded with Korean people.
Mass dance at the Arch of Triumph
The last stop was at the triumphal arch in Pyongyang. It is said to be the largest victory arch on the planet. This one celebrates the victory over the Japanese and the return of the general Kim Il Sung to his home town. In the park next to the triumphal arch
On the other side of the River Taedong – opposite of the Grand People’s Study House – we have visited the Juche Tower. This tower was built for Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday and it is with its 170 meter said to be the tallest made of stone in the world. The entrance of the tower contains many labels from supporter of the Juche Ideology and study groups. We have taken the elevator to the top and had an impressive view all over Pyongyang.
Korean War Museum & USS Pueblo
One point on our travel itinerary we were not able to cancel was the visit of the Korean War Museum and the USS Pueblo. The USS Pueblo is the only ship in the world that is still held by a foreign nation. USS Pueblo was captured in 1968 by North Korea.
Kumsusan Palace of the Sun / Mausoleum of the Great Leaders
In the mausoleum the embalmed bodies of Kim Il Sung ans Kim Jong Il are laid out. For this special visit we had to dress up formally by wearing a tie and dress shoes. As the other memorial places in the DPRK the Palace of the Sun is absolutely clean, without any power outages and with air-condition. Pictures are unfortunately not allowed inside and we had to undergo strict security checks. In the rooms with the embalmed bodies we had to bow three times for each leader – one time on the left side, the other time on the right side and at the end in front of their feet. The other rooms of the palace show the official car of the Great leader (it was a Mercedes) and the train in which they used to travel to China.
Pyongyang Fun Fair
North Korean love adventure and fun. Hence, they were very proud so show us their fun fair and we had to try it. We have experienced already in our first days in Pyongyang power blackouts. Therefore, it was hard for us not to image a blackout when sitting in one of the fun rides. One thing we will never forget was one attraction this was so wired to us that we have not even took any picture: we also had to visit a shooting range but instead of shooting at paperboards they offered us to shoot real chickens… To the surprise of our guides, we resolutely refused this.
Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)
Travelling to Kaesong was our first trip outside the capital Pyongyang. Roads are like in Soviet countries – several lanes in both directions. But with many holes and almost nobody on the streets. I guess that the van was not going faster than 30 km/h. The DMZ divides the Korean peninsula roughly in half and is approx. 250 kilometers long. This corridor between North and South Korea is about four kilometers but you can see the South Korean flag. Though the zone is demilitarized, the border beyond that strip is one of the most heavily militarized in the world. Before entering the DMZ we had to leave our van and to change to a military bus. Even our guides had to present their ID cards at this checkpoint. During the procedure of analyzing our passports, we used the chance to buy propaganda posters and postcards.
In front and behind the blue small barracks are buildings with terraces from each country. Inside the building on the North Korean side there is table that is also divided in a North and South part through the speaker cable. The photo with the soldiers was only possible because our guide gave him some cigarettes.
The city of Kaesong awaited us with a lot of high-rise living buildings. But Keasong also has something like an old town with traditional Korean houses and one part being the Kaesong Folklore Hotel.
Historic Monuments and Sites in Kaesong (UNESCO World Heritage)
The geomantic layout of the former capital city of Kaesong, its palaces, institutions and tomb complex, defensive walls and gates embody the political, cultural, philosophical and spiritual values of a crucial era in the region’s history. Situated in Kaesong city the site consists of twelve separate components, which together testify to the history and culture of the Koryo Dynasty from the 10th to 14th centuries. The site was added by UNESCO to the list of world heritage sites in 2013 for testifying the transition from Buddhism to neo-Confucianism in East Asia and to the assimilation of the cultural spiritual and political values of the states that existed prior to Korea’s unification under the Koryo Dynasty.
On our way to the beach in Nampo we stopped for an overnight in Sariwon. We walked up the hill in the local folk custom park and enjoyed the view from the mountain top pagoda.
Nampo in the west of the DPRK due to being just 55 km away from Pyongyang is from strategic importance. We visited an orphanage in Nampo and brought a lot of gifts to the kids living here. We hope that the kids are so happy as it looks like and the toys and gifts we brought, could be really used by the kids. Of course, pictures of the Great Leaders are also hanging in each of the rooms in the orphanage.
Our driver had issues finding the orphanage. Therefore, while driving through the city we have taken some pictures.
West Sea Barrage
Nampo is also famous for the West Sea Barrage. This barrage with its 15 kilometers is an outstanding example of socialist construction. The barrage was built to keep the salty water of the west sea from the rendering parts of the Taedong river and the surrounding farmland. A little island is integrated into the barrage with a light house in the shape of an anchor. Of course, guess what, a monument of the leader must also be located on this island.
Complex of Koguryo Tombs (UNESCO World Heritage)
Of course, one mandatory item on our itinerary was also the second listed UNESCO World Heritage of the DPRK: the Koguryo tombs. Several tombs from the later period of the Koguryo Kingdom are located in this area. These tombs are almost the only ones from that time. Some of them have walls paintings inside. However, entering one tombs costs 100 Euro per person. We refused to go inside and took pictures from the images the local guide has shown to us to get a better picture of how they looked inside.
Sparkling water production
We were allowed to visit a sparkling water production in North Korea. To ensure the cleanness, we were advised to wear work coats . You can see the whole production lane on our pictures. The glass bottles were falling several times in the lanes and despite the sanitary principles our guides have taken the bottles out or ordered them with their hands.
Similar to the sparkling water factory in Nampo, we visited in Hamhung a factory that we built decades ago. However, this factory is still operating and produces fertilizer for the farmers – this is at least what they told us. In our travel guide we have read that the factories in Hamhung are also used for the production of chemical weapons. Impressive to us were these old machines and operating rooms to monitor the production process – like going back in time for more than a half decade.
Historical House of Ri Song Gye
Besides a walk through one of the parks in the city and the Tonghung hill we visited the historical home of the usurper of the Koryo dynasty and Ri dynasty founder. Hamhung also has the largest theater in the DPRK.
In Wonsan we visited a recently renovated holiday camp (Songdowan International Children’s Union camp). This really beautiful camp is used for the children of party’s people. Really impressive however, we haven’t seen any children here. Maybe nobody was there due to our visit outside the holiday season.
One of our highlights of the tour was the friendship exhibition. In two huge buildings all presents the DPRK’s leaders have received from other people, governments and institutions are presented here. This should show to the people how popular the leader of the DPRK is in the world. Unfortunately, it is not allowed to take pictures inside. It is not possible to visit the whole exhibition due to the many presented and you have to choose two continents at maximum.
Buddhist temple (Pohyon Temple)
The Pohyan Temple is one of the largest Buddhist temples in DPRK. It was founded under the Koryo dynasty at the beginning of the 11th century.
Ryongmum is a lime cavern in an area which belongs to Outer Myohyang. The cavern was formed for a long time by water-soluble lime underground and is illuminated very colorful that creates a wonderful atmosphere. It has two main caverns and tens of side caverns. The drip-drops from the ceiling created scores of multifarious sights.
Our Hotels in the DPRK
In Pyongyang we always stayed in the Koryo Hotel. The hotels outside from Pyongyang were completely fine and clean. Despite that we didn’t have power and fluent water in the rooms itself. We will never forget the hotel in Wonsan where my husband “borrowed” a towel from the hotel. After leaving the hotel room the service team directly checked our rooms. Detecting that one towel is missing we had long discussions and paid at the end 2 Euros. It almost evolved in an act of state – unbelievable since the towels in the hotels were all quite old.
Flying back to Beijing
The last adventure of our really impressive and unforgettable trip to North Korea / DPRK was how we got back to Beijing. Due to entering via train we decided for the quickest way to get back – the plane. Not sure how this has happened but I didn’t realize with which flight company we are flying: Koryo! The flight only lasts approx. 2 hours but I was not sure whether we will arrive in Beijing. We were the only tourists on the plane. When it was coming to complete the immigration for China on the plane, the Korean people asked me whether I could help them since it was in English and in Chinese.
Food and beverages in North Korea / DPRK
On top of our North Korea travel tips, we also want to share our food adventures with you. For our whole trip the meals were pre-arranged and we always had breakfast at the hotel and lunch as well dinner in some restaurants. We always received so much food we were not able to eat and it was really a pity sending it back having heard that people are starving.
The traditional drink at DPRK is Soju – a kind of rice liquor. Our guides drank this during lunch and dinner. In addition, beer is very popular and only available in large bottles.
We are really hotpot / fondue lovers and one of the first hotpots we were enjoying abroad was in Pyongyang. Everybody received his own pot so we have cooked the raw fish as long as possible.
Traditional Korean Pansangi
In Kaesong at Thongil Restaurant they served us traditional dishes in small bronze bowls (Pansangi). Besides Kimchi we tried different fermented vegetables and fried fish. In addition, Paul ordered a dog soup – I refused to try but he told me that it tastes like chicken.
At Nampo, our guides decided to have a BBQ in front of our bungalow. We do not know where they have found the clams but to have fire they have taken out petrol from our van and put over the clams. However, this was one of our best fish.
One really strange experience was the dinner in an Italian Pizza restaurant in Pyongyang. It is said that the ingredients are imported directly from Italy and the cook is making the best pizzas. The specialty in this restaurant was chocolate pizza!! This was really special – cheese pizza with a kind of chocolate. But in this restaurant, real coke was served. The first time we have seen this in a restaurant in the DPRK.
As a travel guide and excellent source for North Korea travel tips we can recommend the one from Trescher – our guides (despite pretending not to be able to speak German) looked through our travel guidebook. We have read before that not every travel guidebook is approved to take into the DPRK but with this one we did not had any issues:
As mentioned, we have read a couple of books before booking the tour to get a kind of a feeling what to expect. Here are the ones we enjoyed reading:
Our exploration of Uzbekistan started already at the check-in counter at the airport in Bangkok. We were quite early at the check-in counter since online check-in is not possible when flying with Uzbekistan Airways. Consequently, only a few people were in front of us in the queue in front of the check-in counter. However, the Uzbek people did not care if somebody is already queuing up. Consequently, they opened the barrier and pushed-in somewhere in the front. In addition, they got all of their friends to join them. But honestly, I am still wondering why I have accepted to travel with Uzbekistan Airways…
Read on to find our best Uzbekistan travel tips.
Getting a visa for Uzbekistan
It was very complex and time-consuming applying for the Uzbekistan visa. The reason is that the application is only possible by a maximum of six months before entering Uzbekistan. Since the embassy needs three weeks to get the visa, we collected all documents in Australia. After that we sent our second German passports by post to the Embassy of Uzbekistan in Singapore. This is definitively nothing what we prefer doing with our passports. During the Christmas time we luckily collected our passports in Singapore.
Arriving in Uzbekistan we had to claim all money we were carrying with us and it often happens that they want to see all the money. In case it doesn’t match with the amount declared a high fine will be applied. But since we arrived from Bangkok the inspectors seemed to be more interested in the purchases the Uzbek did.
Our route through Uzbekistan
Finally, we are again exploring a country with a rental car instead of using public transportation like we did now for three months in Southeast Asia. We have already missed stopping everywhere on the road to take pictures or to have a break in a beautiful environment. Stefan, a friend of us, is joining us for two weeks through Uzbeksitan on the following route.
Our experience of self-driving in Uzbekistan
We got a very convenient car – Chevrolet Captive that was a really nice one for three people with the luggage. Since self-driving is not so common in Uzbekistan, it took us some time to find and negotiate with a company on self-driving. If you are interested, this was our company: https://www.autoprokat.uz
We did not had any issues except for the ones self-inflicted (see our tire issue on our very last day). In addition, the guy handed over the car was very polite and with very good English skills.
Getting fuel in Uzbekistan
Getting fuel for the car was a challenge since gasoline stations are rare and only existent in larger cities. But also in the cities the only available gasoline is 80 Pb petrol. Experienced this we didn’t wonder anymore that our engine control light was already on when we received the quite new rental car. At least in the capital Tashkent we received an additional gasoline ingredient (produced in Germany) to increase the octane number by four so that we had 84 Pb petrol.
Gas stations are not well spread over Uzbekistan and even the rare gas stations do not guarantee that petrol is available. Once we queued at a gas station for twenty minutes when suddenly every car left since no more petrol was left over. Therefore, we had to search another gas station. In Southeast Asia the majority of cars were from Toyota but in Uzbekistan Chevrolet is the market leader.
Interesting fueling of our car
The stations on our way only had propane or methane gas and so it seems that the majority of the cars are driving with gas. Consequently, the only way for us was buying gasoline at the black market. We learned that the private households selling gasoline have put colorful plastic bottles on the road. But we do not know what they have in their water bottles and put in our tank. The good news is that the car is still driving. However, the gasoline had every time a different color.
The main roads in Uzbekistan are in general in a good condition but smaller roads are more bumpy. Also very interesting bridges can be found in Uzbekistan. There were several controls by the police on our way through Uzbekistan. At the beginning of our tour we really didn’t adhere to the traffic rules since they were not really well signposted, especially speed limits. However, we guess that the police stopped us due to their curiosity seeing tourists driving on their own. Playing stupid and pretending to not understand the violation helped us and avoided any penalty. We have earned special prying eyes when I was driving the car with the two men (Paul and Stefan) sitting in the car but no policeman stopped me.
We were happy that we had a quite new rental car since there are a lot of old Ladas and Wolgas on the streets. Last time we have seen such old cars was on Cuba. Together with the old mud houses it felt like a journey in a time machine.
Our travel tips for Uzbekistan
How and where to get money in Uzbekistan – a VERY special experience 🙂
We started our exploration of Uzbekistan with changing money. The best way to do this in Uzbekistan is going to the market and not to withdraw from an ATM. Not sure whether we have at all seen an ATM… With “going to the market” we really mean a market stall where fruits and vegetables are sold and not a bank. All above, the black market rate is twice the official exchange rate.
We got ALL the money in 1,000 denomination bills what ended up with a heavy plastic bag full of money – like we were shopping on the market. The Uzbek 1,000 note is only worth about 15 cents. Consequently, paying with our 1,000 bills in the restaurants or fuel at the gas station is another story and especially very time-consuming counting the amount using only the small 1,000 Uzbek Soms bills. The Uzbek people are unbelievable fast in counting the money – for us it took us always several minutes…
Tashkent – the capital
We spent our first days in Uzbekistan in the capital Tashkent. An earthquake in 1966 destroyed many ancient buildings so that only a few buildings from the Soviet era can be found in Tashkent. The obvious signs from the Soviet era are large parks, wide roads and prefabricated high-rise houses. Moreover the Independence Square is crowned by a globe where formerly a huge Lenin statue was located. A short way from this place, additionally, the Timur Square is dominated by a statue of the adopted national hero on a horseback.
Metro in Tashkent
Wandering around in Tashkent, we have seen a lot of police on the streets. Consequently, it was hard for us to take pictures of the outside of the nice Soviet buildings and resulted several times in being stopped by the police, showing the pictures and – of course – deleting them. Moreover, Tashkent is very proud of its metro system and it is known for its Art Deco design but also here the police is present. Before going to the track, every bag is checked twice manually by the police. Unfortunately, It is against the law to take pictures from the metro station since the metro is considered as part of the strategic military infrastructure.
Samarkand – minus degrees and no heating
Samarkand is famous for the enormous Registan and listed by the UNESCO as an world heritage site (“Samarkand – Crossroad of Cultures“). The Registan forms the center of the old town with three madrasa (Islamic college) facing each other. Each of the madrasa has a unique and colorful mosaic geometric design that shines in the sun. It was also the commercial heart of the town in the 14th century with six roads running through the square and a connection with Timur’s citadel.
Besides this amazing architecture, Samarkand has in addition several other mosques, madrasa and mausoleums – each breathtaking in its own way. Especially the Shah-i Zinda with its blue-and-turquoise tiled collection of mausoleums and tombs. In addition, the Bibi Khaoum mosque in Samarkand is one of the tallest in the world.
The Gur-E-Amir mausoleum has wonderfully decorated rooms inside with gold and geometric corners. Above all, we spend some time inside the mausoleums just stunning and being impressed of the design from the 15th century. The mausoleum is the final resting place of Timur’s male descendants.
Bukhara – UNESCO & our favorite city in Uzbekistan
We thought we have seen the most impressive sites from Uzbekistan in Samarkand but Bukhara is even more breathtaking (at least it was to us). The Historic Center of Bukhara, a UNESCO world heritage site, looks like the time stood still here the last hundreds of years. It felt like we are really on the ancient silk roads and camels will come around the next corner. It does not have one impressive site like a Registan in Samarkand but the ensemble of the old city with the simple mud houses, the car free sandy roads and the many colorful madrassas have caught us immediately. We spent the evening when we arrived in Bukhara and one full day walking through the streets and visiting numerous madrassas and covered market halls that populate Bukhara.
The experience we made in Myanmar that locals are asking us for pictures with them remained in Uzbekistan. We were favorite photo models…
Khiva and its UNESCO inner town Itchan Kala
The last stop on the ancient Silk Road before entering the Persian desert was Khiva. Its historic city with its Islamic architecture is remarkably preserved between the ten meters high city walls and also here it seems the time has stopped. The inner town is a UNESCO site called Itchan Kala. Khiva with its mosques, madrassas, mausoleums and markets as well as narrow sandy alleyways is a lovely place to wander around. In addition, try to imagine how the life might have been at the time of the Silk Road.
We can not get enough of the beautiful turquoise colored tiles which decorate the monuments and are in big contrast to the dust and sand surrounding the buildings. The first monument that has caught our eyes was the comparatively short but colorful minaret. The most probable theory is that the architect promised that the tallest minaret will be built in Bukhara and not in Khiva.
Karakalpakstan – a special region we will never forget
From Khiva we continued our tour through desert and Uzbek steppe towards the autonomous region Karakalpakstan in western Uzbekistan. Karakalpakstan was formerly an autonomous region in Russia before becoming a part of Uzbekistan in 1936. The region is now mostly desert due to the exploitation of the Amu and Syr Daryl rivers mainly for the cotton production and that consequently caused dehydration of the Aral Sea. It is estimated that less than 10% of the original size of the Aral Sea remains. Karakalpakstan means translated “black hat” what was the name of the tribes.
Moynak is one of the big city in this region was half a century ago located at the shore of the Aral Sea and a proud fishing community. Today, the Aral Sea is more than 150 km away. Ships once floating in the sea are now standing and rusting in the dried out sea at the ship graveyard.
Termez – close to Afghan border and problems of finding a suitable hotel
Moynak and Nukus were the most western destinations on our tour. From here we drove back the complete route to Tashkent with some additional stops on our way for instance in Termez in the South of Uzbekistan.
Termez was a Buddhist center in the past and some ruins still remain. We visited Fayaz Tepe which consists of an old stupa and the ruins from a monastery. The ruins date back to the 2-3rd century. Long time ago that we have seen pagodas and stupas 😉
We are still not tired and in contrast we cannot get enough of the turquoise domes and colorful mosaics and therefore, the architecture and the decoration of the nearby mausoleum Sultan Saodat impressed us. In both, Fayaz Tepe and in the mausoleum, a local guide was waiting for tourists to explain the history. We were impressed by the enthusiasm both described the monuments and one gave us his address to send him the pictures via post we have taken with him.
You might have heard about Termez as the base camp of the German army during the war in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union has built a bridge to get into Afghanistan and the same bridge was used by the Americans during the war. That bridge is ironically named Friendship Bridge. The border to Afghanistan is open and that’s the reason why we cannot show any pictures from the bridge.
Pictures from our route through Uzbekistan
On our route to Termez the landscape changed completely: colorful mountains and smooth hills were carrying us to our destination.
Shakhrisyabz – UNESCO & insider tip
On our route back to Samarkand and further to Tashkent we stopped in the UNESCO historic centre of Shakhrisyabz. This is the birthplace of Uzbekistan’s national hero Timur. The tombs and madrassas are smaller compared to those in Samarkand but not less beautiful.
Finally, on our last day in Uzbekistan we drove from Tashkent further to the Charvak lake. The Charvak lake lies in the North at the edge of the Tian Shan mountains. Due to the dry winter, the lake has less water than usual but an amazing blue color. The road to the lake was pretty good but driving around the lake resulted in a bumpy adventure. Getting around means around 100 km but after approximately half of the way, the road was blocked. Consequently we had to turn and take he same way back.
Our very last day on our all around the world trip after eight months
Suddenly, we heard a whistling. Getting out of the car to check the tires has shown us the root cause: one of our tires was loosing air. In this situation, we remembered the words from our rental car company: “The car does not have any spare tire since you will not need it. The tires are unbreakable.” It seems the many holes on the streets and the gravel roads have killed one tire after our 4,000 km in Uzbekistan.
We stopped a car coming along the way to ask them whether they could take us to the next village to buy a new tire. The locals could not believe that a real Uzbek car does not have a spare tire. And they were right: they found one in the car! After changing the tire with their help, we continued our trip to the next auto service station. We experienced the Uzbek style handling a flat tire: repairing the flat tire within 15 minutes. And this for just converted 1,50 Euro.
We have integrated Thailand in our all around the world trip during the refinement of the route in order to have a more convenient transfer from Laos to Myanmar. Arriving in the North of Thailand via boat from Laos, a 24 hours long journey to get from Chiang Mai to Bangkok started. Since the direct bus to a central train station in Chiang Mai was already booked out, we had to take an alternative route. Therefore, we had to take a local bus to Chiang Rai in the West of Thailand and then to take a more touristic bus to Chiang Mai. Read on to get some of our travel tips for Thailand.
The day didn’t start promising. The ordered Tuk Tuk was not showing up at all. In addition, no other Tuk Tuks were available on the road due to the early morning. Thanks to our hotel for taking us to the bus station on time. Amazing but the local bus was driving the around 90 km in 2.5 hours but arrived exactly on time. And this despite taking up passengers at every corner. We were lucky catching the pre-booked connecting bus to Chiang Mai.
Arrived there, we had to hurry up to buy tickets for the night train to Bangkok. The reason for the hurry was because a pre-booking of the train tickets is unfortunately not possible. Therefore, the tickets are sold following first come, first serve. In total, we had a very lucky day.
Night train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok
The night train to Bangkok was luxury since we have booked the first class. In the first class we had our own compartment with beds.
Arriving in the early morning in Bangkok we were well rested and started immediately with our exploration tour. We made the whole tour by foot but of course it is possible to take a tuk-tuk or some buses. There are plenty of it at very low costs.
Bangkok’s most important landmark is the Grand Palace consisting of more than 100 buildings from different architectural styles. The Grand Palace includes a Buddhist temple with an emerald Buddha statue. We have not expected to udergo such high security measures. In order to get into the area of the Palace we had to hold our passports in front of us and into the camera.
Thailand’s king died in October 2016 and the one year mourning period is still ongoing what we have not only recognized through the many people dressed in black at the entrance of the Grand Palace but also through the many pictures of the king with black colored draperies – even the first screen at the ATM shows the king’s portrait.
Pho Temple (close to Grand Palace) and Arun Temple
Bangkok has around 400 Buddhist temples but after nine weeks in Asia, we are getting tired of visiting temples and all the Buddha statues. So we have decided to only visit two of them. The Pho temple close to the Grand Palace includes a huge covered with gold leaves reclining Buddha. On the other side of the river, the temple Arun is located. The pagodas look amazing due to the all over decoration with colored glass stones.
On our second day in Bangkok we took a train to visit the ancient capital Ayutthaya. The historic city of Ayutthaya which was founded around 1350 is one of Thailand’s UNESCO world heritage site. Ayutthaya lies around 60 km outside of Bangkok. The ordinary train needs 90 minutes. But the price is unbeatable: 50 cents per person. Okay, it is the price for a third class ticket but there are normal seats (no wooden boards) and without air condition since the windows remain open during the journey.
On our way back we caught a train that runs 120 minutes and consequently costs even less: 35 cents 😉 All trains we have taken were on time but in case it would not have been the case, we would have taken the chance to go to the hairdresser which is directly located at the beginning of the track.
Arrived in Ayutthaya we rented bicycles to explore the huge area with ruins of Thailand’s ancient capital. Ayutthaya was founded in 1350 and along with a long history of violence Ayutthaya was overthrown by the Burmese army in the mid of 1700. It is said that the gem and gold can be now seen in the pagoda in Yangon what we will explore further in the next next two weeks visiting Myanmar.
Probably the most popular relic of Ayutthaya is the head of Buddha wrapped within the tree roots. Its Buddha can be found in Wat Phra Mahathat temple. The Buddha statue was destroyed and the head fell to the ground and tree roots grew around it.
The largest temple in Ayutthaya is Wat Phra Si Sanphet with its three distinctive stupas.
Outside the center of the temples lies Wat Yai Chai Mang Khon with rows of Buddhas and a giant reclining Buddha dropped in safran colored robes.
Our book recommendations
Since we were visiting several countries from the golden triangle, we have bought a combined travel guide for this region which also holds good travel tips for Thailand.
If you want to get more into the Thai society, you should read Monsoon Country by the Nobel Prize-nominated author Pira Sudham:
We arrived in Laos after a short flight from Hanoi. We initially planned to take a bus to cross the border between Vietnam and Laos but due to Tet celebration in Vietnam, no travel agency was able to arrange the respective bus tickets.
The capital Vientiane with a population of approx. 320,000 is relatively small and most sights are reachable within a short walk from the city center. Vientiane contains many Buddhist temples all over the city center. Monks in orange robe can be seen the whole day walking through Vientiane’s streets.
The Buddhist stupa of That Luang is one of the most famous in Laos. The golden stupa is about 45 meters tall and was originally built in 1566.