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Author: Amy

I'm half Irish rover, half Slovak gypsy, and at 5'10", I might as well be a giraffe. Join in me in my travels through this big beautiful world!
A Journey Through Cambodia: Past and Present

A Journey Through Cambodia: Past and Present

When I first visited Cambodia back in 2009, it was my first taste of traveling in a third world country. But a lot has happened in Cambodia–for the better–in the past nine years.

To understand the Cambodia of today, it’s important to know the Cambodia of the past. It’s a small country by Asian standards, with a population of 15 million. It’s bordered by Thailand to the west, Laos to the north, and Vietnam to the east.

Due to its unfortunate location, during the Vietnam War the US military dropped tons of unused artillery on this poor country of farmers and laborers. In the same decade, Cambodia also became the only country in modern history to commit genocide against its own people.

In 1975, as the Vietnam War was drawing to a close, a Communist revolutionary named Pol Pot seized control of Cambodia and instituted what would become known as the Khmer Rouge. Over the next four years, the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge captured, tortured, and executed an estimated 2-3 million of its own people, targeting educated men and women or anyone else who could potentially be a spy. Mass graves known as “killing fields” are littered around the country in a gruesome reminder of the not so distant past.

As if that wasn’t tragic enough, during the decades of upheaval from the 1970s to the 1990s, different factions planted millions of landmines throughout the country. Cambodia now has the largest population of amputees anywhere in the world, and every day, landmines continue to maim and kill innocent men, women, and children.

The good news in all of this is that, after a few decades of relative peace, Cambodia’s war wounds are finally beginning to heal. Although it’s still classified as a third world nation, there have been some radical changes in recent years. China, Korea, and other wealthy nations have begun investing in Cambodia, bringing new business and jobs into the cities. The capital of Phnom Penh, which seven years ago was little more than dirt roads and rusty tuk-tuks, is now full of high-rise offices, luxury hotels, and shiny new BMWs.

I was amazed at the difference in so short a period of time.

Ready to explore the country beyond its bustling capital, we took a comfortable overnight bus ride from Phnom Penh six hours north to the smaller city of Siem Reap. You may not be familiar with the name of the city, but you’ve undoubtedly heard of what everyone comes here to see: the temples of Angkor. They are to this day the most beautiful, fascinating, and impressive historical sites I have ever seen.

What’s even more amazing is that this ancient temple complex was buried in the jungle for the better part of a millennium, virtually unknown to the outside world until French explorer Henri Mouhot “rediscovered” it back in 1860. His impression?

“One of these temples–a rival to that of Solomon and erected by some ancient Michelangelo–might take an honorable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Even though excavation and restoration work went on for most of the 20th century, the decades of war and civil strife made the site inaccessible to foreign tourists. Today, though, all are welcome to Cambodia to visit the incomparable temples of Angkor.

Angkor Wat is the one you hear about the most, and rightly so. It is the single largest religious structure in the world, a 12th-century Hindu masterpiece crowned with five lotus-shaped spires rising 200 feet off the ground. Located in an isolated region, surrounded by impenetrable jungle and an enormous moat, it’s easy to see why it got “lost” for centuries.

Although all those years of neglect and war took their toll on the building, it stayed remarkably intact. Even now, extensive restoration efforts are taking place on Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples.

Angkor, however, is much more than just one temple. It was, in fact, the thriving capital city of the ancient Khmer Kingdom, which flourished during the 11th-13th centuries and controlled much of what is now Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.

Satellite imagery suggests Angkor may have been the largest pre-industrial city in the world, covering an area of nearly 400 square miles. Now it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the impressive ruins attract over 2 million starry-eyed visitors every year.

Our day of touring began at the unfortunate hour of 4am, when our friendly tuk-tuk driver Dewan picked us up at our hotel so we could be at Angkor Wat to see the sunrise.

Was it worth it? For sure.

After that (and a much-needed breakfast) came the temple of Bayon, covered with hundreds of giant stone faces of the 13th-century Buddhist King Jayavarman VII.

The highlight, though, was the temple of Ta Phrom, which remains virtually untouched from its “lost in the jungle” state. Enormous trees have overtaken the temple, breaking down walls, wrapping around doorways, and stretching for the sky. If you’ve ever wanted to feel like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, this is the place!

The town of Siem Reap hasn’t changed much since 2009. It’s still a cozy little backpacker’s paradise, with cheap guesthouses and even cheaper food and drinks. Pub Street is very much alive and well, with massage parlors on every corner, and there’s even a new Cineplex where you can see the latest 3D movies for an astounding $4.

English is widely spoken, too, and everyone will readily bend over backward to accommodate you. Just arrived at 5am on the overnight bus? No worries, ma’am, we’ll get a room ready for you. Don’t have your own 3D glasses for the movie? You can borrow a pair, free of charge. Want to use our luxury swimming pool? We’ll waive the entrance fee if you buy a ($1) beer or cocktail. Massage in our day spa? Here’s a 20% discount, just because we feel like it.

If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll leave Siem Reap feeling like nothing less than a rock star.

In fact, every time I visit, I’m amazed and humbled by the friendly, smiling people and the beautiful sights in this materially poor but culturally rich country. Despite its turbulent past, I can’t help but feel that the future of Cambodia is looking brighter and brighter.

Day Trip to Petra: Jordan’s Epic “Lost City”

Day Trip to Petra: Jordan’s Epic “Lost City”

January 12th. 1 pm. Petra, Jordan.

It flourished as an ancient civilization for over 500 years. Then, forgotten by the outside world, it faded into obscurity and disappeared off the map for centuries. It’s best known for Indiana Jones’ famous ride through its canyon walls on his quest for the long-lost Holy Grail.

Where is this ancient city?

It’s Petra, the lost (and rediscovered) “Rose City” in Jordan.

petra jordan

Our journey to Petra began at the very early hour of 3 am. We were so excited the night before we barely slept anyway, so it was a relief when our alarm went off and we went downstairs to find our driver waiting for us.

In true Amanda Hotel fashion, Ali had prepared a takeaway breakfast for us of bread, boiled eggs, white cheese, and fresh fruit. Seriously, I love that man.

We drove through the darkened streets to the outskirts of Dahab, where we boarded a bus full of Ukranian tourists. Yep. Somehow we ended up being the only English-speakers on a day tour with about 50 Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Luckily, our guide spoke English too so we weren’t completely lost!

We and the 50 Ukrainians traveled 2 hours north up the east coast of the Sinai Peninsula, all the way to the port town of Taba. This tiny town sits right on the border of Israel, and from its port, you can see four countries at once–Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

Pretty nifty!

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

As the sun came up, illuminating the barren desert mountains, we cleared Egyptian immigration and boarded our ferry boat, the M/V Petra Wonder. We sped off across the Red Sea, passing the narrow strip of beach that made up Israel’s Red Sea border before docking about an hour later in Aqaba, Jordan.

Needless to say, Aqaba looks slightly different than it did 100 years ago, when Lawrence of Arabia famously captured the port city during WWI through an unexpected land attack. The Port of Aqaba now features dazzling townhomes, luxury yachts, and a whole slew of jetskis.

petra jordan

After clearing Jordanian customs, we boarded another bus and began the two-hour journey north to Petra. Along the way, we passed the city of Aqaba and the barren deserts and canyons of Wadi Rum. The highway hugged the border of Israel almost the entire way up, offering us views into the neighboring country.

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

Temperatures hovered around 50F (10C), providing a chilly but pleasant backdrop for the day. After winding through a series of switchbacks and the modern-day town of Petra, we arrived at last at the entrance to the historical city. 50 Jordanian dollars (or about $US70) later, we held in our hands two tickets to one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

Was it worth the whopping admission fee? HECK. YEAH.

petra jordan

petra jordan

What no one tells you about Petra is how HUGE it is. I imagined turning a corner and seeing the canyon Indy rode through, with the Treasury just a few steps away.

In reality, you have to walk half a mile just to reach the entrance to the canyon (Siq). Then it’s another three-quarters-of-a-mile through the Siq’s winding valley before you catch your first glimpse of the famed Treasury. There’s nothing quick about the journey through Petra, especially when you’re sandwiched in with thousands of other starry-eyed tourists.

But, hey. It is what it is. And it’s oh-so-worth-it.

Our tickets included a “free” horse ride from the visitor’s center to the canyon entrance, which I, of course, took advantage of. While everyone else walked, a guide led me and his horse, Rosie, along the soft dirt path towards the canyon entrance.

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

Along the way, we pass horse-drawn buggies and remnants of the ancient civilization carved into the sandstone walls. When we reach the entrance of the Siq, I say goodbye to Rosie, tip her owner, and rejoin the tour group to begin our official exploration.

Here’s a quick history of Petra:

  • Located in the heart of the ancient Silk Road, it was once a thriving trading center and the capital of the Nabataean empire from 400 B.C. to 106 A.D.
  • At the height of the Nabateans’ rule, Petra had a population of more than 20,000 inhabitants.
  • Once Rome took control of Petra in 106 A.D., its importance in international trade began to wane.
  • By 700 A.D., Petra was abandoned and forgotten by all but the local Bedouins.
  • In the early 1800s, a Swiss explorer named Johann Ludwig disguised himself in Bedouin costume and infiltrated the “lost city.”
  • To date, only 15% of Petra has been uncovered and cataloged. Experts believe another 85% still remains buried and untouched.

petra jordan

With our mouths agape, we follow the crowds through the Siq’s stunning red, orange, and yellow canyons. At some points, it opens wide above your head. At others, it’s so narrow it almost feels like a cave.

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petra jordan

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petra jordan

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petra jordan

You aren’t allowed to ride horses through the Siq (bummer), but those who can’t cover the long distance on foot are able to take horse-drawn carts to the Treasury and back. The sound of clip-clopping hooves echoed off the canyon walls, no different than it was 2,000 years ago.

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

Remarkably, much of the ancient Roman roads are still intact. You can even see the remains of the aqueducts that once supplied water to the thriving population that lived within these canyon walls.

petra jordan

At last, after giving yourself a neckache from staring up at the massive stone walls, you enter the final part of the Siq that leads to the famous Treasury.

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

And then–finally–you’re there. Staring at the Treasury of Petra, in all its rose-colored glory.

This is one historical site that is definitely NOT overrated.

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

So, now for the million-dollar question: What lies inside Petra’s mysterious Treasury?

A maze of underground halls? Buried treasures? A medieval knight guarding the Holy Grail?

Sorry to burst your bubble, but the answer is none of the above. All that lies within the poorly-named Treasury (which never actually held any treasure) is a small hall that once contained a royal tomb.

Still, the facade is stunning. And the great part is that it’s only the beginning of Petra’s wonders. As you venture further, you find more and more evidence of a once-thriving civilization: broad streets, a Roman amphitheater, royal tombs, colonnades, a monastery, and much more.

In the free time that remained, we wandered through some of the ruins to see what else Petra had to offer, besides its famous Treasury. Journey with us!

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

We could have spent days–weeks, even–exploring the nooks and crannies of Petra. The ruins are half-built, half-carved into the most colorful rocks you’ve ever seen, reminisce of the US southwest, but on a much grander scale.

Indeed, the “Rose City” captivated us, as it’s been doing to visitors for thousands of years. It’s easy to imagine the city during its heyday, when traders along the Silk Road would have passed through in their caravans of camels and Arabian horses. I can easily envision bustling marketplaces, lively performances at the amphitheater, and the scents of tea and spices in the air.

Unfortunately, time was running out, and we still had to return to Egypt. We enjoyed our second journey through the Siq–just as spectacular from the opposite direction–before we reluctantly boarded our bus and prepared for the long trip back to Dahab.

In case you’ve ever wondered, Petra is not overrated. It does not disappoint. It is every bit as awesome as you imagine it to be–and then some.

My only regret? That we didn’t have more time to spend here.

But that’s okay–something tells me we’ll be back again someday!

petra jordan

Dahab: Fun in the Sun on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula

Dahab: Fun in the Sun on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula

January 13th. 12 pm. Dahab, Egypt.

My gray Arabian horse, Oscar, starts prancing beneath me. I feel his powerful muscles coil in anticipation as we turn off the paved road and approach a mile-long stretch of hard-packed sand.

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“Are you ready?” my guide asks.

“Ready,” I reply, and release my hold on the reins.

Seconds later we’re thundering down the straightaway, galloping through the sand as Arabian horses have for millennia. These animals are bred for the desert; every drop of their purebred blood is designed for speed, endurance, and the relentless Egyptian sun. Oscar’s breaths come steady and fast and his long silver mane whips into my face as we fly along the shore at speeds nearing 40MPH.

To my right, the barren red peaks of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula stretch towards the sky. To my right, there’s nothing but the open expanse of the Red Sea and–off in the distance–the purple peaks along the coast of Saudi Arabia.

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

Welcome to beautiful Dahab.

I’ll come right out and say that current travel advisories tell visitors not to go to this part of Sinai. It’s considered “dangerous” for travelers and “should be avoided” on travel itineraries.

Of course, like the rest of Egypt–and the rest of the world–there are potential dangers that exist. But during our five days in this absolutely breath-taking resort town, the only things I felt were happy, safe, and exuberant. The locals are the friendliest and most welcoming I’ve met anywhere in the world.

And since there are so few visitors these days, they truly do treat you like royalty. We experienced that our very first night, when we rode in the back of an old Jeep out into the desert for an authentic Bedouin dinner, cooked and served by the campfire.

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But anyway, back to the sunshine.

We’re staying at the cozy Amanda Hotel, located right on the shore of the Red Sea. The owners, Mohammed and Rita, have treated us like long-lost family from the moment we arrived.

dahab

dahab

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

Dahab is a stunning little town, full of funky street art, coffee shops, and family-run businesses. Along the seaside path that meanders through town you’ll find joggers with dogs, locals on horseback, mothers pushing strollers, and street artists at work.

If there was a dry, desert version of the Caribbean, this would be it.

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

For me, it was love at first sight. The sky and the sea are so blue it almost hurts your eyes. The mountains shift from red to chestnut to gray to lavender, depending on the time of day. The air is crisp and dry and the temperature hovers between 60-70 degrees.

I’ve found my happy place. It is Dahab.

From here, we’ve explored Saint Katherine’s Monastery and climbed to the top of Mount Sinai. We also took a ferry across the Red Sea to Jordan to explore Petra–but that’s for another post.

Let’s return to Oscar and our gallop across the sand.

When we (finally) reach the end of the straightaway, it’s time to untack the horses and go for a swim. I haven’t done this in ages, since I had my own horse in Florida–and I’m psyched.

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

Back and forth we swim through the most amazing crystal-clear water I’ve seen in a long, long time. The water’s a few degrees cooler than my Floridian blood prefers, but hey…I’m not about to complain.

After we dry off and saddle up again, we head back towards town past a literal cemetery of beachfront resorts. The 2011 and 2013 revolutions hit all of Egypt’s tourism industry hard, but especially so in Sinai. Beautiful high-rise resorts now sit eerily empty, their windows sandblasted, their pools dry, their lounge chairs rotting in the sun.

It’s easy to imagine the town in its heyday, and it’s sad to see what it’s become now that so few people are traveling here.

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

By the way, I didn’t have to try hard to get these photos with no people in them. In fact, I didn’t have to try at all.

There’s virtually no one else here.

But anyway–enough dwelling on the negatives. The upside is that we had the whole place to ourselves and our pick of leisure activities to enjoy!

My ride on Oscar was awesome, but it wasn’t my only outdoor adventure in Dahab. We also signed up for an excursion to the Blue Hole, via a slightly untraditional mode of transportation.

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

As if riding camels isn’t awesome enough (how cute are those ears?!), riding camels along the beach is seriously cool. The peaks of the Sinai Peninsula spread out before us, while the mountains of Saudi Arabia rose from a gray haze across the sea.

It was pretty trippy. In a good way.

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

As always, Jeremy was such a good sport. I drag the poor man on all sorts of four-legged adventures all over the globe–even though he’d prefer to be on the ground.

He’s a keeper for sure.

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When our seaside camel trek was over, we continued our journey via Jeep to the famous Blue Hole. One of the best-known dive sites in the world, it’s also the most dangerous.

How dangerous? A staggering 130 divers have died here in the last 15 years alone! The beach surrounding the Blue Hole has been nicknamed the “Diver’s Cemetery” because of all the commemorative plaques and tombstones lining the rocks.

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Danger aside, the Hole itself is a sight to see, both in and out of the water. The little spread of dive shops that have popped up around the site is reminisce of an old west town. I half expected to see a stagecoach come rolling through!

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

Since neither of us is PADI certified, we rented some snorkeling equipment and prepared to brave the chilly water. While the Europeans and Russians bragged about how warm the water was, I tried to control my chattering teeth as I slid on my fins and forced myself to get wet.

Let me tell you–the chattering teeth were worth it. We hugged the shallow rim around the bottomless blue abyss, marveling at the brightly colored coral and fish. Hundreds of them–thousands of them–all just inches below the surface. The water was the clearest I’ve ever seen, far clearer than the Florida Keys, Belize, Hawaii, or southern Thailand.

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dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

I had no idea water could look like this. Makes me wonder how incredible the oceans must have been hundreds of years ago–before modern industry polluted them!

On our final free day in Dahab, we ticked another activity off our bucket list: sandboarding! We saw it once in a travel show and always wanted to try it, so we were thrilled when we saw a place in town advertising it for a very reasonable $15.

Done.

We’re picked up by a kindly man and his 14-year-old son (who doubled as our sandboarding instructor) in a beat-up car with equally beat-up snowboards sticking out the back. Off to a great start already!

We drive out into the desert to a surprisingly tall dune located just off the (one) road leading inland. No boots, no fancy equipment required. Just you, your board, your bare feet, and hundreds of feet of sand to climb.

Where’s a chairlift when you need one?

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

Let me be the first to say: This is NOT as easy as it looks! Unlike snowboarding, where the snow does most of the work for you, you have almost no maneuverability in sand this deep. You can’t turn an edge or carve down the hill.

You pretty much have to straight-line it down and hope for the best.

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

After climbing the dune and making four or five runs, we were sufficiently exhausted (and had sand in places we didn’t know it was possible to get sand). It was officially time for a shower and a seaside meal in town.dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

Yes, it really is that beautiful. No, we never wanted to leave.

Especially after we tasted these incredible dishes: calamari tagine, beef shish tawook, and two scoops of date and hibiscus ice cream.

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

It was a delicious end to our five fun-filled days in Dahab. We were sad to drive to the airport at Sharm el Sheik and leave Dahab behind, but I have a strong feeling we’ll be back someday!

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Into the Wilderness of Egypt: Climbing Mount Sinai

Into the Wilderness of Egypt: Climbing Mount Sinai

January 10. 3 pm. The summit of Mount Sinai, Egypt.

I’m sitting at the top of a mountain I’ve only ever read about…and certainly never thought I’d climb. From this vantage point, I can see a huge portion of the Sinai Peninsula. I can also see the wide open plain where Moses, Aaron, and the ancient Israelites camped at the base of the mountain over 3,000 years ago.

In every direction, nothing but desert spreads out before me. The landscape is stark but strikingly beautiful, changing colors every few seconds as clouds drift by overhead. It was almost a 3-hour hike to get here, but the rewards far outweigh the effort.

This, dear readers, is my journey to Mount Sinai.

mt sinai

Our day began at the not-terribly early hour of 7 am. We awoke in our seaside bungalow at Amanda Hotel, an absolutely delightful place to stay. The owners, Mohammed and Rita, warmly welcomed us in and treated us like family.

dahab

dahab

dahab

The hotel sits right on the coast of the Red Sea, which is a stunning shade of deep blue. Tall desert peaks surround the coastal town of Dahab, our home for the next five days. And across the water, we had perfect views of the craggy coast of Saudi Arabia.

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dahab

dahab

dahab

The best part of our morning (and every morning we were there)? Ali’s incredible Egyptian breakfasts. Each day there were different, but each day they were literally a work of art — ful, omelets, cheese, veggies, the works.

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Fueled up for the day, we climbed inside our waiting car with our driver for the day, Ahmed. It took about two hours to get through at least 10 security roadside checkpoints and into the interior of the Sinai Peninsula. At every checkpoint, we had to show our passports while heavily armed guards with German shepherds sniffed our car (the dogs sniffed, not the guards).

With such heavy security here — and everywhere in Egypt — you’d think it would make you feel leery. If anything, it’s just the opposite. They’re protecting these sites and the people who live there, and they’re doing a darn good job of it. We wondered if there would be any sort of negative reaction to our American passports because — let’s face it — America’s not exactly the most loved country at the moment.

Especially in this part of the world.

To our surprise, though, we were met with nothing but smiles, hellos, and warm welcomes (from the guards, not the dogs). In fact, that’s pretty much been the reaction everywhere in Egypt. The locals make a few jabs at Trump, we agree, and everyone gets a good laugh out of it.

Seriously, Egyptians are some of the most open-minded people I’ve met anywhere. Nothing at all like they’re portrayed in the media.

But anyway, that’s another tale for another blog.

Onward and onward we drove, past miles and miles of barren mountains and sand, before we arrived at last at St. Katherine’s Monastery.

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Located at the base of Mount Sinai, this is the oldest working Orthodox monastery in the world. It also contains the world’s oldest continually-operating library. It’s home to the 4th-century Syriac Sinaiticus and the 4th-century Codex Sinaiticus, considered to be one of the best-preserved Greek texts of the New Testament.

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

After a brief tour of the monastery, we fueled up for our climb with two hearty bowls of vegetable soup and a few cups of delicious Bedouin tea. This delicious concoction is made with black tea, sage, thyme, mint, cardamom, and plenty of sugar. No joke — I drank about 5 cups a day while we were in Sinai, and I brought a big bag home with me!

Anyway, I digress. We pass security checkpoint #247 (they are thorough, I give them that!) before we meet our Bedouin guide for the day, Abdul. As we began our hike past St. Katherine’s and into the wilderness, we quickly got a sense of just how isolated and alone we were.

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There was no one — literally NO ONE — on the entire trail. Abdul explained that most visitors make the trek overnight so they can see the sunrise. That’s actually how our tour company had it set up for us, but I nixed that one real fast.

Climb a deserted mountain in the middle of the night? In near-freezing temperatures? And forfeit an entire night of sleep when we’re already exhausted?

No thanks. I don’t value the sunrise that much — not even on Mount Sinai.

Because we chose to make our climb in the middle of the day (trust me, it was still PLENTY cold enough), we had the entire mountain to ourselves. It was just us, Abdul, and a camel named Paris (more on him later) for six hours up and down the mountain. We did not pass another soul!

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s return to the base of the mountain near St. Katherine’s, where I found myself wishing I really, REALLY didn’t have to climb this mountain today. Don’t get me wrong. I wanted to — badly. But after a long travel day the day before and eight straight days of a crazy tour schedule, I was exhausted.

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Yes, I was gonna do it. But I was exhausted.

Well, miracles have happened in this region before. In a way, one kinda happened for me too. Right at that moment, out of nowhere, a Bedouin man and a camel appear and begin walking alongside us.

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At first, I don’t pay them much attention. I figure Mr. Bedouin and Mr. Camel live somewhere nearby and they’re headed home for lunch or something. Nope. As fate would have it, the kindly Bedouin man asked if I would like to ride his camel (Paris) to the top of Mount Sinai.

Why, yes, good sir. You must have been reading my mind. I would like that very, very much!

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

I gotta say — my mood improved considerably once I was seated on Paris’ tall back (hump?). Jeremy and Abdul continued on foot while the still-unnamed Bedouin led me and Paris up, up, and up the winding trail of Mount Sinai.

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sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt
Camel selfie!

Gradually we overtook Abdul and Jeremy as we made a steady, lumbering trek up the mountainside. Not much for me to do except sit back, take pictures, and enjoy the scenery, including Paris’ long neck and adorably cute camel ears.

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sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

When the Bible describes the barrenness of this wilderness, it’s hard to imagine just how barren it really is. Even now, thousands of years later, there’s still virtually nothing here. No water, no trees, not a single blade of grass. It truly was only by God’s power that the Israelites survived for 40 years here!

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

At last we reached the shade of the mountain’s summit. All that remained was a dizzying 750 steps to reach the top! At this point, I bid farewell to Paris and my helpful Bedouin and enjoyed the view while waiting for Jeremy and Abdul to catch up.

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I’ll always have Paris!

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sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

We’re nearing the end of our climb. The temperature’s dropping as the elevation increases, so we throw on an extra layer and prepare to continue. On foot, Jeremy, Abdul, and I begin the final steps that will take us to the glorious summit of Mount Sinai.

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

And then…we’re there. Standing an impressive 7,496 feet (2,285 m) above sea level, on top of one of the most famous mountains in mankind’s history. The view was breath-taking…and not just because we were out of breath.

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

What’s at the top of Mount Sinai, you may wonder? A monument to Moses?

Nope. When you reach the summit, all you’ll find is a small covered area for hikers to sleep, a few rundown Bedouin shacks, and the unfinished remains of both a church and a mosque (both started in 1865 and never completed).

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt
Bedouin tea atop Mount Sinai

sinai egypt

It was an epic day, an epic climb, and an epic sight. Abdul asked if we wanted to stay ’til sunset, but we didn’t feel equipped to hike back down the mountain after dark.

So instead we sat and enjoyed the views in the late afternoon sun, marveling at the fact that the view probably wasn’t much different all those millennia ago.

sinai egypt

The Temple of Karnak and Luxor: Where Time Stands Still

The Temple of Karnak and Luxor: Where Time Stands Still

January 8. 4 pm. Luxor.

I’m sitting on the deck of an old-fashioned felucca, the same sailing boats Egyptians have used for thousands of years. Our captain, Saleh, works with his first mate to unfurl the sails and push the tiny boat into the Nile’s mighty current.

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There’s no motor on this boat, which means it’ll be slow going today. But that’s okay. There’s nothing we want to do for the next hour except lay back, drink some karkade (hibiscus tea), and reminisce about the two incredible days we’ve spent in Luxor.

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Our horse ride yesterday morning was spectacular – a perfect introduction to the region’s impressive history. In the afternoon we met our guide for the next two days, Rumany, a big jolly man somewhat reminisce of an Egyptian Santa Claus. Rumany had a habit of cracking himself up with his own jokes, which made our tours that much more entertaining.

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We began on the East Bank with what would be both my and Jeremy’s favorite temple in Egypt – Karnak.

It’s a city of temples constructed over a period of 2,000 years (2055BC-100AD), back when the surrounding city was known as Thebes. The temple is dedicated to the worship of the Theban trinity of Amun, Mut, and Khonsu. It’s considered the single largest religious structure ever made, covering a total area of 200 square acres.

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To put it into perspective, the inner Great Temple area alone is large enough to hold St. Peter’s Basilica, Milan Cathedral, and Notre Dame Cathedral side-by-side inside it.

Okay, so it’s big. But how does it look?

In a word: Awe-inspiring.

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The most impressive feature is the Hypostyle Hall, consisting of 134 towering columns spanning an area of 54,000 square feet (16,500m). 4,000-year-old paint still clings to some of the hieroglyphics. Only 20% of the original temple remains, but it’s a darn impressive 20%.

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With the sun sinking lower, we made the short drive back into the heart of Luxor. Next stop: the appropriately named Luxor Temple. It spans over 1,000 years of history, from its original construction in 1390BC to the granite shrine dedicated to Alexander the Great in 332BC. It also houses a Coptic church and a mosque.

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luxor

Though not as large as its cousin Karnak, it’s still a beautiful and impressive sight. We wandered its ancient columns, pillars, and obelisks as dusk faded and the temple lit up.

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This blog wouldn’t be complete without a shout-out to Sofra, a traditional Egyptian house converted into an elegant, affordable, and delicious restaurant. The food was so great we dined there three nights in a row! Among their specialties we tried were stuffed pigeon, stewed rabbit, roasted lamb shank, and a dizzying variety of hot and cold mezes (appetizers).

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Breakfast at our hotel was not overrated either. Ful, an omelet station, fresh bread, veggies, and four types of cheese. I see nothing wrong with this picture!

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We needed the fuel for another long day of touring. Rumany picked us up again (all smiles and laughter) and we crossed the bridge to Luxor’s West Bank to begin our day.

Once the ancient Egyptian capital shifted from Memphis in the north (near Cairo) to Thebes (now Luxor), the kings decided to hide their burial chambers in the mountains rather than build huge pyramids. Thus, the Valley of the Kings (and the Queens) began.

To date, 64 tombs have been discovered in the Valley of the Kings, including the still-intact tomb of Tutankhamun. This was noteworthy because the other tombs had long ago been pillaged and robbed of their treasures.

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King Tut’s tomb was believed to be “cursed” because Howard Carter and the men who discovered it all died within two years. In reality, though, scientists suspect something used to preserve the mummy slowly “poisoned” the air over thousands of years.

Whichever theory you subscribe to, it’s an incredible sight to behold. We toured three of the 64 tombs, all of which are empty now except for giant sarcophagi (yes, that’s a word) and floor-to-ceiling hieroglyphics. Sorry I don’t have photos for you, but cameras aren’t allowed inside the tombs!

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Next stop: the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. The only female Pharaoh in Egyptian history, theories abound about this powerful woman. She’s often portrayed as a man and supposedly claimed to be a demi-god. Could she have been the woman who found and raised baby Moses?

No one can say for certain, but her tomb carved into the mountain speaks of Egypt’s once-mighty status. Interestingly, despite her impressive mortuarium, her remains have never been found.

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Speaking of queens, the last stop on our West Bank tour was the Valley of the Queens. 80 tombs have been discovered here, although nowhere near as large or ornate as the Valley of the Kings.

We were literally the only ones there!

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After a quick stop at the Colossi of Memnon and a farewell to Rumany, we took the ferry across the Nile and enjoyed a leisurely lunch on the riverbank. When we were offered a private felucca sail for 100 pounds (about $5), we couldn’t resist.

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So here we are, drifting lazily down the Nile in our very own felucca. Saleh even let us pilot his boat for part of the journey!

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Luxor has been beyond amazing – sights, people, horses, food. I can’t wait to see what Dahab and the Red Sea have in store for us!

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Hoofprints Through History: Horse Riding in Luxor

Hoofprints Through History: Horse Riding in Luxor

January 7. 7 am. Luxor.

We awoke bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in our hotel room in Luxor, eager to begin our day. For me, this ride was going to be a highlight of my visit to Egypt – right up there with riding past the Pyramids in Giza.

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that horse riding is a top priority anywhere I visit. But riding in EGYPT? Native home of Arabian horses, my all-time favorite breed?

I’ve died and gone to equestrian heaven!

We’d arrived after dark on the train from Aswan the night before, so we had no idea our room looked out over the grounds of Luxor Temple. In the streets below, horse-drawn carriages clip-clopped by, along with an interesting mix of taxis, donkeys, and pedestrians.

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luxor

If you removed the taxis, you could easily be seeing the city as it’s looked for the past 4,000 years.

Have I mentioned Egyptian breakfasts yet? Let me tell you – this culture does it right. It’s particularly great at this hotel, where a smiley Egyptian man expertly whips up eggs and omelets. Along the buffet line you’ll find a feast of ful (mashed and spiced fava beans), potatoes, crisp vegetables, four types of cheese, and freshly baked bread and fig jam. Add in a cup of Arabica coffee or Egyptian tea, and you’re set for most of the day.

We wait outside for our pickup to the stables, which seems to be taking a little longer than usual. When I finally call to inquire, I’m told that the boatman is there waiting for us right behind the hotel pool.

This is a fascinating twist, consider our hotel has no pool, nor is located on the river!

After some confusion and laughs, we realize that the stables had us down as staying at the Hilton outside of town. Nope, I say, definitely not staying at the Hilton. (One can dream…) A comedy of errors later – including a taxi ride, the boatman’s brother, and a tiny tuk-tuk – we’re across the Nile to the West Bank and headed to the stables of Luxor Equestrian Adventures.

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As I imagined, this place is GORGEOUS. No skinny horses here – the British owner Emma keeps her herd in flawless condition. Their diet of clover, barley, chaff, and quinoa (these horses seriously eat better than I do) show through in their bright eyes and shiny coats.

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luxor

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We meet our guide for the day, Sayyid, and the three beautiful gray Arabian horses we’ll be riding – Luna, Gypsy, and Amira. Just like my old horse Jon, Luna has a sweet disposition, a thick white mane, and a pink nose.

It’s love at first sight.

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Our three-hour ride took us through an incredible variety of settings – a chance to see the “real” Egypt off the beaten tourist trail. We rode through small villages, along cart tracks where they transport sugar cane, wheat fields and family farms, colorful bougainvillea and flower gardens. Everything was so lush and green!

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We also rode past a few historical sites, starting with the Colossi of Memnon. (Photo op!) Off in the distance, up on the mountainside, we could see the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut and the entrance to the Valley of the Kings.

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Awesome.

After riding past a few more temples and villages, we entered the open desert. Nothing but us, sand, and barren desert mountains.

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Again, awesome.

It could’ve been 2018AD or 2018BC, and we wouldn’t have known the difference. It was just us, the blazing sun, and our trusty steeds…the same as it’s been for Egyptians for thousands of years.

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luxor

Our return to civilization brought us through more villages and sugar cane, boys riding donkeys and men working the fields. It was a portrait of Egypt past, present, and future, and it wouldn’t have been the same from the window of a car.

Luna and Gypsy behaved beautifully for us, and Sayyid was a kind and knowledgeable guide. We were sad to return to the stables at the end of the morning, but time was pressing on, and we still had an afternoon tour to get to.

I have nothing but high praise for Emma, Sayyid, and the beautiful, well-trained horses at Luxor Equestrian. Something tells me I’ll see them again someday soon!

Aswan & Abu Simbel: Jewels of Upper Egypt

Aswan & Abu Simbel: Jewels of Upper Egypt

January 6. 3 pm. Aswan.

I’m sitting on the east bank of the river Nile, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun. In a few moments we’ll be heading to the train station and onward to Luxor, but for now I’m reflecting on two days spent in Upper Egypt (which is actually the southernmost part, because the Nile flows from south to north).

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aswan

Anyway. After a surprisingly pleasant 14-hour overnight train ride from Cairo, we arrived in Aswan yesterday at 10 am. Instantly it had a different “feel” than Cairo did. Cairo, for the most part, felt like a crowded and more hectic version of a large European city.

When we got off the train in Aswan, on the other hand, we were definitely in Africa. The streets were filled with horse-drawn carriages and donkey-drawn carts. Although temperatures were warmer, the locals were more conservatively dressed, especially the women. Most people had much darker skin, too, evidence of their ancient Nubian background (which they are indeed very proud of).

We meet our driver and head to our hotel, situated a few miles out of downtown on a hilltop overlooking the Nile. For the moment, we appear to be the hotel’s only guests. Since our tour doesn’t start until later in the afternoon, we enjoy a leisurely lunch on the empty but beautiful pool deck.

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aswan

There’s no menu, but the cook, Gaman, proudly assures us he can cook any Nubian dish we like. Since we know nothing about Nubian food, we ask him to surprise us. He soon returns – wearing a jacket and tie this time – with enough food to feed the Egyptian army.

No, really.

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aswan

Gaman presents us with bread, rice, salad, carrot-lentil soup, a whole grilled chicken, pickled vegetables, and our first taste of molokhyna, a local green sauce made from spinach, okra, and mild spices. The food was delicious, his service exceptional, and the whole thing was a little surreal, considering there was not another soul in sight.

With overstuffed bellies (we barely made a dent in all the food he provided – I do hope the staff finished it!), we headed outside to meet our guide and another young couple from Brazil. We transfer to a minivan and are joined by a couple from Philadelphia (the first Americans we’ve met on the trip) and the six of us set off for the famed Temple of Philae.

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This temple is noteworthy for a few reasons.

First, it was built around 280BC by Ptolemy II, son of Ptolemy I (one of Alexander the Great’s Generals who ruled the divided Greek empire after his death). It was built on an island using features of Roman, Greek, and Egyptian architecture. And for hundreds of years after Christianity spread through Egypt, it was used as a Coptic church.

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But what really makes this temple interesting? The entire thing was deconstructed, moved, and rebuilt on a different island during the 1960s.

Why? Because of the construction of the Aswan High Dam during that decade. The dam resulted in the creation of Lake Nasser, one of the largest manmade lakes in the world. This enormous reservoir required many things to be relocated, including hundreds of Nubian villages, the temples at Abu Simbel (more on those later) and also the beautiful Philae Temple.

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You’d never know it wasn’t in its original location, because it was perfectly reconstructed. It’s a unique blend of architectural styles, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Coptic crosses, Greek and Coptic writing, and a spectacular setting.

To reach it, you pass through a small Nubian market and board a local ferry boat. The boat ride alone is a treat; the temple itself is the icing on the cake!

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After returning to the mainland, we made a quick stop at the top of Aswan High Dam, where we learned more about its construction and impressive size. The dam is over half a mile wide at its base and has a volume greater than SEVENTEEN Great Pyramids of Giza!

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Interestingly, the dam also created a protected habitat for Nile crocodiles in the reservoir behind it. There are no wild crocs anywhere in Egypt beyond the dam, from Aswan all the way to Cairo and the Mediterranean.

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Thanks to lingering jetlag and our very early start the next day, we crashed around 7 pm. Received a wake-up call bright and early (dark and early, actually) at 3:30 the next morning so we could prepare for our tour of Abu Simbel.

For this tour, we joined about 20 other travelers on a full-sized bus. Thank goodness, because the journey south to Abu Simbel (near the border of Sudan) takes over three hours each way. We snagged a few more hours of sleep before the bus rattled to a stop on the side of the highway so we could enjoy the sunrise over the Sahara.

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After driving past sand, sand, and more sand, we arrived at the waterfront temples of Abu Simbel. These majestic structures sit on the shores of Lake Nasser, the same artificial lake created by the Aswan High Dam. We were over a hundred and fifty miles south of Aswan at this point, but we’d barely covered a fraction of the lake’s shoreline!

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Like Philae, these iconic temples were also relocated from the original place. Otherwise, our guide explained, they’d be located about 200 feet underwater. They were carved during the reign of Ramses II and his wife, Nefertari, in the 13th century BCE.

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aswan

Our visit was memorable but short, as we had to be back to Aswan to catch our afternoon train. Four hours later we were back in Aswan, where we now sit enjoying a final view of the Upper Nile.

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And now…off to Luxor!

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aswan