Egypt

We left the calm and safety of the Cairo airport and made our way into the throngs of Egyptian cabbies waiting hungrily outside the sliding glass doors. It was seven in the morning here. We’d left Toronto 10.5 sleepless hours prior excited and nervous about our time in Egypt. 

After resisting many cabbie offers we made it through the crowd. Jesse lit up a smoke and we surveyed the drivers. Our meagre attempt to haggle failed and we were too tired to try harder so we accepted the over-priced fare and got in the old car.

It’s early January, the coldest month of the year with the temperature dropping to 5 degrees at night. We kept the window up (our cab driver was cold) and smoke filled the car as we raced through the city to downtown Cairo. The lines on the road proved useless as the multi lane highway jammed up with vehicles expertly weaving around one another, straddling the lines and utilizing the shoulder as another half lane. There are 20.5 million people living in Greater Cairo.

The city is grey and brown, blending into the desert it sits on with a blue vein of life running through the centre. There’s an old world elegance visible beneath the deteriorating buildings, a reminder that Egypt was once a popular vacation destination for Europeans in the first half of the 20th century.

For the first few days in Cairo jet lag woke us up before the first call to prayer echoed around the country. We wandered the streets at a pace that would have been too slow for the day crowd. Eventually we settled into an outdoor cafe where we drank coffees and watched boys scrub the previous days dirt from the vinyl floor. The sun finally rose, a welcome warmth from the frigid night, and slowly Cairo would come to life.

By the end of our busy days we often found ourselves back at the same cafe where we joined the locals in playing dominos and smoking shisha. 

Cairo bears little to no visible signs of the Arab uprisings of 2011 albeit the lack of tourists. There’s still a metro station named after Mubarak, the ousted president. Tahihr Square, once flooded by protesters, is a vast block of pavement with cars buzzing around it and people dashing across roads between them. 

However a feeling of desperation hangs between our encounters with other people. There’s been a drastic drop in visitors since the revolution and the Egyptian pound is worse off than the Canadian dollar. We’re lied to, deceived and mislead often in an attempt to make money which meant we travelled with our guard up. Every once in a while our faith would be restored with a genuine and honest person, but for the most part everyone was looking for a tip or backshis (bribe). As we spent more time here our empathy grew for their plight and we could almost forgive the number of times we felt taken.

Even when paying triple Egypt is an extremely affordable destination. You can get incredible street food for under a dollar, a lifeless hotel room for $10, a ticket on the metro for 15 cents and, most surprisingly, a ticket into the pyramid complex for $3.

Egypt today can thank their ancient ancestors for the impressive pyramids, tombs and monuments and the arid landscape for preserving them so well. They’re likely the only reason there’s a tourist industry here today. They don’t disappoint.
The Pyramids, Giza

The last standing of the seven ancient wonders of the world. 

We took the metro from Tahrir Square then flagged down a local bus the remaining 10km to the pyramids. When you first catch a glimpse of the fabled structures their size is hard to grasp. It’s not until you are at the base of The Great Pyramid that you realize each block used is almost as tall as you are. And there are thousands of blocks reaching towards the gods. 

These massive structures are over 4000 years old. This ancient Arabic saying feels appropriate today: “Man fears time, but time fears the Pyramids.”

 

Egyptian Museum

The Egyptian Museum is a pink building that sits on the north of Tahrir Square and is one place that is full of tour groups every day. Once inside, there are thousands of artifacts to look at. It could be the best Museum in the world, but it’s not modern or organized and even important artifacts are haphazardly placed on a shelf without a label. Somehow, this felt fitting with the Egyptian style and even added to the charm. We focused on the wing containing the treasures found in King Tut’s tomb, the only one that wasn’t found by tomb-raiders until it was discovered by Howard Carter in the early 1900’s. 

Coptic Cairo

After pharaonic rule and before Islam was introduced, Egypt was primarily Christian. As we walked out of Mar Girgis Subway station the fortress of churches, towers and monasteries sat 30 feet below us. This is how much the land has been built up from sand and debris in the thousand years it’s been there for.

We descended the stairs and instantly the noise of Cairo receded into the background. We were left to our own devises to slowly walk around.



Camel Market

Later, many people told us we were crazy to spend so much time in Cairo (6 days), but we were waiting for market day. A dusty 30 minute drive from Cairo is the Bi’resh Souq Gamal (camel market) where hundreds of camels are bought and sold. You can’t help feeling a little vulnerable surrounded by these awkward shaped creatures that tower over your head and mew loudly in your ear. One leg is bent and tied so they are left with three legs, but this doesn’t discourage the occasional one to break loose and gallop awkwardly through the crowd with reckless abandon.










City of the Dead

The most peaceful part of Cairo is a large cemetery where the poor live among the dead. The cemetery resembles a small city with a concrete jungle built up and around tombs. Amongst these are simple living quarters. A few funeral processions rushed by us but otherwise it was a nice break from the noise and hustle of Cairo.






Alexandria

We chose to visit the Mediterranean coast as a day trip from Cairo. The train takes you through 2.5 hours of lush farmland on the way. Alexandria used to be the capital and an important port on the trade route between Europe and India and then later a strategic position in the First World War. Throughout the day we took the local train that snakes its way through the market. It moves slower than we could walk so we easily jumped on and off.






Aswan 

We left Cairo on the night train to Aswan. A private sleeping berth made the 12 hour journey very comfortable as the train gently rocked us to sleep. 

Aswan feels like a breath of fresh air -literally. The air quality is noticeably better than the smog filled streets of Cairo. We passed through the souq (market) without the attention of every shop owner, but the closer you get to the Nile an onslaught of felucca captains hassle you incessantly. 

Aswan is the closest large city to Lake Nasser, the biggest man made lake in the world. The high dam, just south of Aswan, separates Lake Nasser from the Nile River, restricting flooding and drought. All this was built on top of what was once a Nubian village. The residents had the choice of moving south to Sudan or North to Aswan. The Nubians that migrated north have a mix of African features and the middle eastern features of their neighbours. There is a noticeable difference in culture as well and we felt a much more laid-back and content vibe when visiting them on the west side of the Nile. 






Abu Simbel 

By the end of most days we are exhausted and fall asleep early with the chill of January waking us throughout the night. Tucking in at 9pm made our 3am wake up call manageable. We boarded the mini bus to Abu Simbel and watched the desert sky change from moonlight to dawn on the way.

The Abu Simbel Temples are two massive temples once carved out of the mountainside. When the Aswan high dam was built they were painstakingly moved to higher ground piece by piece. Out front are four larger than life statues of Ramesses 2 and his queen, Nefertiti. Their purpose was to impress and intimidate Egypt’s southern neighbour (now Sudan) and discourage attacks.



Nile Cruise

Once back in Aswan we boarded a cruise ship and prepared to move north up river. We spent the first night docked in Aswan and left the following morning. It was a much-needed relaxing few days sitting on the top deck and watching the sun set over the Nile. We stopped at two temples along the way; Kom Ombo one evening and then Edfu the following morning. We killed time reading books, stuffing our faces at the buffet and sharing travel stories with Ken from Canada and Andy from Texas. Three days and two nights later we arrived in Luxor.






Luxor

Luxor is the most visited city in Egypt due to it being surrounded by Ancient Egyptian history. The Valley of the Kings is the main draw. Over a period of 500 years, tombs and chambers were built for pharaohs and nobles, including King Tut. Over 60 tombs have been uncovered so far and they are still digging. We entered three and descended long tunnels with painted hieroglyphs surrounding us on all sides. At the bottom are covered tombs, also often covered in hieroglyphic stories of the afterlife.



Sahara Desert 

The Sahara desert occupies the majority of Egypt, but only hosts a tiny fraction of its population. It’s a totally different side of Egypt that we wanted to experience on our return trip north to Cairo.

This is where it starts getting weird. To the west of the Nile is a string of desert oases – a lush reprieve from the inhospitable Sahara desert. They sit a few hundred km apart and there’s a paved road that runs through them.

We had read one or two accounts that you get a police escort upon arrival to these oases. We didn’t take that too seriously, assuming this experience was an anomaly. We were wrong. The police spotted us in the train station at Aswut waiting for a bus to the southern most oasis. For the next five days we were escorted by the police through the desert. An armed officer guarded our hotel room while we slept, another walked around town with us, ate lunch with us, got us on the bus and there was always another one waiting for us as we exited the bus at the next destination. They were really friendly, but didn’t speak English so after the initial polite greeting it was like having an awkward, silent babysitter. When we finally got an explanation, it was ‘tourists are very important to us and we want to take care of them.’ It seemed like an awful lot of resources just for us, but considering only one or two tourists take this route every few weeks I guess it’s manageable. 

Our first stop was Dakhla Oasis. Here we visited El Quaser built in the 12th century and took a motorcycle into the desert where we played in the dunes, ate lunch and gazed at the sandstone mountains. 

Our next stop was Ferafra where we booked an overnight desert excursion. We crammed in a tiny truck while our guide drifted through the many landscapes of the Sahara. Eventually we set up camp, lit a fire and watched the bright orange moon rise from the horizon and light up the desert with it’s soft glow. Our guide went to sleep and we walked around under the stars feeling like the last people on earth.







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Inle Lake, Myanmar

It’s a tight race between Bagan and Inle Lake for the most touristy place in Myanmar. Life on Inle Lake is the main attraction and there’s a plethora of boats and drivers ready to tour you around. They stop at several pre-arranged places: a weaving house, a silver jewellery manufacturer, a tobacco factory, etc. First you’re shown how the product is made and then you’re encouraged to buy. We still found the hand-made processes fascinating and the sales pitch wasn’t too pushy. Being paired with a really nice driver and new-made friends from Spain and Mexico ended up being a pretty nice day.

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Our cheerful driver.
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A typical house on the lake, built on stilts.
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Locals paddling through the lake. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where the lake ends and the marsh starts.
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On our way to the market.
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Heading home from the market with newly purchased goods.

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Temples popping up everywhere.
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On the last day we took a quiet bike ride outside of town.
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Another traditional meal costing $0.50

On our last day we came across this interesting construction site where they transport the concrete by hand shovel full by shovel full. So different than anything I’ve seen before!

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Bagan, Myanmar

There’s one thing to do in Bagan – look at temples. So that’s what we did! For two days we pushed through the vendors at the most popular temples and crept through the eerily quite ones, occasionally having to seek out ‘the keyholder’ to unlock them for us. Since we were visiting in low season, even the most popular temples had few visitors.

Entering into a new temple you never knew what you were going to find. Sometimes monks would be praying to buddhas, another time an old woman plugged a bare lightbulb in with an extension cord and carried it around the dark temple so we could see the ancient wall paintings. Other times you climbed through musky dark passages and up stairs until you were rewarded with a view of the landscape scattered with hundreds of more temples.

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A view of Bagan from the top of a temple.

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Squeezing through tight spots to get the best views.
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A lightbulb and a few windows were our only source of light to see the carvings on the walls of this temple.
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Jesse biking in his longyi. Our mode of transportation for the day.
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Inside the temples monks and practicing buddhists pray and leave offerings.
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A detail from inside a temple. I think this hand gesture meant to expel negative energy.
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Our lunch of very typical dishes in Myanmar. From left to right (not including rice): Bamboo Salad, a very spicy Tomator Chili Sauce, Cooked Cauliflower and Green Peas, Pickled Tea Leaf Salad, a Potato-y Bean-y Dish, Beef Curry (top), two bowls of soup and a plate of fresh local vegetables. All for less than $3!
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Near the top of a temple – luckily it wasn’t windy that day.
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The fingernails of the reclining buddha. The pigeons give you a sense of it’s size.
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After climbing up some dingy staircases Jesse took a break in the fresh air.

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We both agreed that we could have spent several more days exploring Bagan.

Siem Reap & Route 66

Cambodia has been my favourite country to travel, and the easiest. The people that live here are so beautiful with their warm smiles and eagerness to talk to you. We first checked in to a luxurious (by our standards!) guesthouse in Siem Reap with a pool (!) air conditioning and cable tv. We spent about 5 days there, mostly exploring the several temples of Angkor, eating and drinking in the town, or chilling by the hotel pool. I’ll try and limit the number of temple photos I post but they were so spectacular it’s hard to pick! Some were built almost a thousand years ago by kings and rulers trying to outdo eachother. The thing that always surprises me is that you can walk and climb all over them – no red tape or security guards like you’d find in the western world.

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part of Angkor Wat, the largest and most popular temple. We took quite some time in this temple and still probably missed thousands of little nooks and details.
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Since the temples aren’t well guarded several artifacts, such as these statue heads, have been stolen by thieves and sold on the black market.
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A monk studying Angkor Wat.
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This temple, which was mostly crumbling stone blocks and walls being pushed aside for new (and old) trees, was my favourite. Most of the temples had been restored and cared for in some sense but the fact that this one hadn’t yet added to it’s allure.
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Another spider photo! I can’t help it, the colours and patterns are soo cool!
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After a very long day of ‘templing’ we start our 7km bike ride home and left those tour buses in the dust!

About midway through our stay in Siem Reap we bought motorbikes from other tourists. It took a few days (or weeks) to get used to the traffic and road rules here (stop signs and traffic lights are mere suggestions). Meet Winston Hung Fat and Polley Hung Lo!

 

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Packs are strapped in and we’re ready for our fist day on the road!
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Watching a little cobbler fix a pair of shoes while getting a spare key cut.

We left Siem Reap with a full tank of gas, a road map (in Russian), and the excitement of getting a new toy at christmas. Our first leg of the trip was along Route 66 through rural cambodia. It has only been ‘rideable’ for a few years and has undergone demining and lots of roadwork. Even still it was mostly a dirt path covered in potholes! I’m not complaining though because we got to see some amazing sights and see a very ural part of the country. There was no chance of finding an english speaker but the kids were all smiles and waves and the adults just looked shocked/confused!

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Our view for most of the day. That red sand gets into your skin, teeth, hair … everywhere!
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A girl we met along the way.