• Grand Canyon National Park

Visit: 3rd January 2019

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I went all the way to America and all I got was this one World Heritage Site. We had intended also to visit Yosemite, but it tuns out it is closed for the entirety of winter. Nevertheless, the one we did end up at is a good one: the world-famous Grand Canyon.

It was the final stop on a road trip that Natalie and I took over the New Year holidays in December/January 2018/19. We started in San Francisco, drove to Los Angeles and then Las Vegas before ending at Tusayan, Arizona. First, though, a quick run-down of the non-WHS bits.

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We really liked San Francisco, which was not surprising given the good things one hears about it. It is a walkable city full of foodies and has a climate quite like England’s, though maybe a little milder. After a soul-sapping government shutdown-related queue at passport control we rode Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) into the city centre, where were staying for two nights. Day one we walked from downtown to the Mission district via a soul food restaurant in the sketchy Tenderloin district for breakfast. This was good, but the salted caramel ice cream at the Bi-Rite creamery next to Mission Dolores park was even better. Highly recommended.

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We took in a bit of history at the city’s oldest building. The San Francisco Mission is one of 21 churches that Spanish missionaries built when exploring the area in the late 18th century. It has featured in Hitchcock films and been visited by the Pope. We went on to visit a couple of other missions in California, which I feel should collectively have their own place on UNESCO’s list. At this one there were stained glass windows depicting the others, which gave us a taste of what we would see over the next few days.

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We then took a train up to the Embarcadero, which is the waterfront are that still features the many warehouses which formerly made up the city’s bustling port. Nowadays there are food halls and museums here, as well as the rather overtouristified Pier 39. We did have a pleasant surprise on the pier, though, as there was a colony of sea lions chilling out within spitting distance.

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The next morning I ran the Crissy Field parkrun, which is set on the Presidio with sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge (which must have inspired me as I managed a PB). The wildlife surprised us again, with appearances this time from dolphins and pelicans in the bay.

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By this time we had acquired a car, and after the run we pointed it south and began the long, winding journey down Highway 1, the Pacific Highway. On and on it went, taking us along the coastline of Big Sur national park as day turned to dusk, which soon became night. We had stopped for a Mexican brunch in Half Moon Bay and for a stretch of legs in leafy Carmel-by-the-Sea, but when we finally reached our destination for the night in San Luis Obispo it was a relief to be out of the car!

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SLO, as the locals call it, has a mission of its own, above. We had an all-American breakfast of an enormous stack of pancakes and then drove through the tamer landscapes of Southern California to Santa Barbara, where we visited our third mission. We also visited the art gallery in this affluent town, and had a lunch of Poke (Hawaiian salad). It’s not too far from LA, where we were heading, and we made it there before sundown.

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LA didn’t really impress us, in the main. A vast, sprawling concrete jungle, it developed most of its expanse in the age of the motor car – and it shows. Unless you are wealthy enough to live in Beverly Hills or some other high-end neighbourhood, LA seems like a pretty bland, unhealthy place to reside. However, we had a decent hike in the Hollywood Hills and enjoyed the low-cost local obsession of an In ‘N’ Out Burger.

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After two nights in LA (including New Year’s Eve, which we spent in a bar near the hotel) we left the metropolis, traversed the rugged mountains to its northeast and soon found ourselves in a very different landscape on Interstate 15. This is the desert, which was unlike anywhere I’ve been before. The scale of the country I think hits you out there, as you can drive for hours and seemingly pass nothing. Jackknifed lorries and road signs with warnings like “uphill for next 16 miles, turn off A/C to save engine” gave it bit of an ominous atmosphere. However, the small towns and diners off the side of roads like this are pure Americana, which I thought was great.

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Eventually we reached Nevada (you can tell because there’s a casino resort literally on the border), and soon we were in Las Vegas. We stayed one night at the MGM Grand, which is a mega-hotel with 6,000 rooms and myriad casinos on the ground floor. Although the room was cheap, they are not afraid to price gouge in America – Starbucks coffees there were all over $7 and yet it was still rammed. I couldn’t bring myself to be ripped off for a lousy dinner in the casinos so we drove out to the city’s Chinatown where (thanks to a tip on Andy Hayler’s blog) we ate the best meal of the trip, at essentially the lowest cost.

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The casinos allow gamblers to smoke inside, and the gaming floors are ringed with fast-food joints. The combination of smoke and grease in the air didn’t leave a great impression, so I’m afraid to say we were not fans of Vegas.

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The next morning we high-tailed it out of there, passing (and completely missing) the Hoover Dam as we drove southeast toward Arizona. The altitude continued to rise, ending up about 6,000 ft above sea level. Desert scrub was replaced by trees and a covering of snow carpeted the ground. We had arrived in Tusayan, 5 miles from the Grand Canyon’s south rim, where the temperature was a cool minus 16 degrees Celsius!

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I’m going to surprise you and include here a thank you to President Trump, as because of the shutdown there was nobody manning the ticket booths at the entrance to the national park, saving us c.$30. However it did mean there was probably nobody to rescue us if something bad happened, so we began by gingerly walking along the flat and level south rim of the canyon, which is also where you get the best views.

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The canyon is a mile deep and 275 miles long, formed by the erosion of the rock by the Colorado River. This river, mighty enough to have such an effect on the landscape, nowadays does not even reach the sea as it is fully consumed by humans before it gets there.

The reason canyons have been carved here is because of the hardness of the rock. When water flows over softer land it leaves wide, shallow valleys that can be imperceptible, but when it flows over hard rock its most efficient route is just to cut downward. It is not, by the way, the water itself that erodes, but the small stones and silt it carries along wherever it flows. This is a work in progress, so you can sort of see geology in action (if you squint).

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Given that we had brought walking boots we did end up descending one of the snow-covered trails that snakes down into the canyon, getting 1.5 miles along it before turning around to come back up. The view does not change very much unless you walk for many miles along the trail, but it was nice to have a slightly more natural experience than the paved footpaths at the top of the rim. Unfortunately we saw no basically no wildlife at all on our visit. Maybe the animals were all hibernating or perhaps just feeling lazy that day?

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Following our two nights in Arizona we dumped the car at Flagstaff Airport and flew back to San Francisco’s Oakland Airport, via Phoenix. Back in SF we had dinner with a friend, Eunice, I re-ran the parkrun the following morning (for it was a Saturday, and I must!) and then we ended up on an earlier-than-planned flight home courtesy of weather conditions in Europe necessitating a re-routing.

It was a great trip, the weather was really fine despite it being mid-winter, and we got a nice mix of man-made and natural. We plan to be back in the natural parks of North America this summer, when we head for Alberta and Wyoming on a two-week extravaganza.

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• Medieval Town of Toruń

Visit: 30th September 2018

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Toruń was the second WHS of our weekend lads’ trip to Poland in late September. Having visited Malbork Castle earlier on the Saturday we took a train 2 hours south, tracking the Vistula river. Toruń was built in the Medieval period (c.12th-14th centuries) by Teutonic knights spreading Christianity through eastern Europe. Malbork was a Teutonic castle, and Toruń once had a notable castle too – but, as you can see from the picture above, there is not much left of it.

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Toruń later became an important city in the Hanseatic League. I am losing track of the number of Hanseatic cities we have visited in recent years, but this one is slightly unusual in not being by the sea. Instead, its position on the Vistula gave it access to international markets. It also provided a formidable natural defence on the city’s south side.

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Located in the heart of the Kuyavian-Pomeranian Province, halfway between Gdańsk and Warsaw, it is a little off the beaten track for most visitors to Poland, which was reflected in the emptiness of the streets when we arrived. On the Sunday, however, there was a military parade going on – which we watched from the base of a statue of Nicholas Copernicus.

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With his name you would not expect him to be Polish, but he is Toruń’s most famous son and is known in Polish as Mikołaj Kopernik. He is best known for postulating that the Earth revolves around the Sun and not vice versa – which at the time was a controversial idea. Galileo spent the latter part of his life under house arrest for his endorsement of the idea, and was forced to recant his views under threat of torture by Pope Urban VIII.

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The food was not bad on this trip to Poland. Having had a fairly grand dinner in Gdańsk, in Toruń we ate at the Jan Olbracht brewhouse, where goose is the most prominent dish and traditional alternatives include carrots with bacon or bread with lard. We did not have a heavy night, so were up early for sightseeing on Sunday before it was time to head home. Gokul and KC sped back to Gdańsk in a taxi to catch their flight back to Munich, whilst Ross, Nowell and I had a more leisurely time eating their abandoned potato pizza before travelling to the nearby airport at Bydgoszcz.

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Poland boasts 15 World Heritage Sites, with most of them located in the south along the Czecho-Slovak border. Ross, Nowell and I visited Warsaw in 2015, and with this trip we have now been to three of the four WHSs in the northern half of the country. The remaining one is the Białowieża Forest, a transnational WHS on the border with Belarus – but I have a feeling it might be a while until we have ticked that one off, too.

Lads’ trip to Belarus, anyone?

• Castle of the Teutonic Order in Malbork

Visit: 29th September 2018

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After two successful lads’ trips in the first half of 2018 (to Bremen in January and the German-speaking Alps in March) pressure built once again to organise a trip in the latter part of the year. Poland was the chosen destination, since I at least had only visited it once before (Warsaw, in 2015). The plan was to fly to Gdańsk and spend a night there, then travel via Malbork Castle to Toruń before flying home from Bydgoszcz. Joining me on this occasion were longtime attendees Ross and Nowell plus more recent converts KC and Gokul (who flew in from his hometown of Munich).

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Whilst not inscribed as a WHS, Gdańsk is an attractive and historic city. Known in German as Danzig, it was a Hanseatic trading city of significance in the Middle Ages. Like Warsaw, it was occupied and brutalised by the Germans in WWII, and hence most of the historic centre had to be rebuilt. In the case of Gdańsk, the emphasis was apparently on expunging any memory of the Germanic architecture that was formerly characteristic of the city (it lies fairly close to the German border and had long been a place of cultural mixing). So the buildings today are more in the style of a Dutch or Belgian city than the pre-war Gdańsk.

After Gokul’s arrival on the flight from Munich we had a hearty meal at former president Lech Wałęsa’s favourite restaurant and drank Polish lager well into the night. Gokul had neglected to bring a jumper or a coat, but was saved by the bar’s in-house blanket service.

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The next morning, having failed to comprehend the city’s train system, we caught taxis 40 miles southeast to Malbork. Inscribed in 1997, it is the largest castle in the world by land area. It is also one of the largest brick buildings in Europe, which put me in mind of fellow WHS Roskilde Cathedral, in Denmark. The castle was built by the Teutonic Order of knights in the 13th century to exercise dominance over the conquered area of Old Prussia (I wonder if they called it ‘old’ at the time?).

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Gokul in front of a ‘wide moat’ (Warren Buffett reference)

The knights at the castle monopolised the trade in amber, which was found locally and coveted for use in jewellery. This enabled them to fund their autocratic ways, which abruptly ended in the 15th century when they were defeated in battle by a Polish-Lithuanian coalition. Malbork was subsequently utilised by various Polish kings and during the 1930s it was used as a summer retreat for the Hitler Youth. In 1945 it sustained extensive battle damage and not until 2016 was the restoration completed, leaving us with the fine building we are able to visit today.

It was mostly empty inside, and lacking in signage. We had neglected to pick up audioguides so wandered around for a while before taking lunch at the castle’s restaurant. We then caught a sort of golf buggy taxi to the local station, just in time to catch the train southbound for Toruń.

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• The Climats, terroirs of Burgundy

Visit: 23rd-24th June 2018

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After visiting the Saltworks of the Franche-Comté region in France’s east Natalie and I continued onward to the capital of the region of Burgundy: Dijon. It was evening when we arrived so after checking in to our room we headed out for dinner at a restaurant named after its proprietor, the chef Stéphane Derbord.

We were not disappointed with the cooking and in fact we both agreed this was one of the best meals we had ever eaten (with the cheese selection being a particular highlight for Natalie).

Clockwise spiral from top-left: cheeses; appetisers; frogs leg and mushroom cannelloni; beef with truffles; amuse-bouche; parfait and chrysanthemum desserts; some sort of terrine; lamb lasagne.

It was in this restaurant after a long and enjoyable meal that I revealed the secret I had been burdened with for the past few weeks. My t-shirt draw had been the repository for a diamond ring for the prior fortnight. As we passed through airport security I feared a pat-down would reveal it. When we did the parkrun around Lac de Divonne it was with me in my running shorts. Having never quite found the right moment whilst driving through the Jura I had almost run out of time, but as we got up to leave the restaurant I seized my moment and asked Natalie to marry me. I’m pleased to report she agreed, so Restaurant Stéphane Derbord will always have a special place in our memories for both its food and its foyer.

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Disbelief

The next morning we went out to see the city of Dijon. This WHS is one of many wine-related sites on the UNESCO list, and consists of the vineyards of Burgundy, the small city of Beaune and the larger city of Dijon.

Dijon’s role was less hands-on than the other parts – no wine was grown there, but it provided “the political regulatory impetus that gave birth to the climats system”. Not the most exciting description I’ve ever read, but it is a nice city nonetheless. One of the local quirks is a penchant for multicoloured tiled roofs, which we first noticed on the city’s cathedral.

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Dijon Cathedral

The climats system refers to small, precisely-defined parcels of land in which grapevines are grown. There are 1,247 of them, and each has for hundreds of years been categorised as to its geological, hydrographical and atmospheric characteristics.

In the Town Hall of Dijon hangs a version of the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen, which interested me as it was drafted in part by Thomas Jefferson, author of the 1787 United States Constitution (and whose house at Monticello in Virginia I visited in 2016).

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We then moved on to Beaune, 30 miles south of Dijon. Quaint and pretty, it served (and still serves) as a centre for the trading of grapes harvested from the climats. The terroirs, by the way, are the actual slopes on which the grapes are grown. We didn’t have enough time to visit a terroir, but we have done so in Switzerland at the Lavaux vineyards, so we have an idea of what they are like. One of Beaune’s most notable sights is its hospice, set up in 1443 with the proceeds of winemaking to care for the sick and dying. It, too, has a Burgundian tiled roof and also features a famous altarpiece by 15th century Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden. A contemporary of Jan van Eyck (whose more famous Ghent Altarpiece we visited in 2014 when seeing the city’s Flemish Béguinages), he had an exceptional eye for detail and made his figures come to life with a brilliant precision that no painter has equalled since.

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Hospice of Beaune

After touring the hospice and seeing how much effort went into caring for its patients (high, by Middle Ages standards!) it was time to head back to Switzerland and fly home from Geneva airport. This was actually our first trip to France as a couple – and it turned out to be a transformative one.

In case I haven’t yet convinced you, dear reader, that it was acceptable to tick off a wine-related WHS without setting foot in a vineyard, let me placate you with two relevant facts:

  1. we did at least drink some Burgundy (a white, in fact, at the restaurant on Saturday night);
  2. there are at least a dozen other wine WHSs, in places as diverse as Palestine, South Africa and Slovakia. So, plenty of opportunities ahead to walk amongst the vines.

Next stop: Poland!

• From the Great Saltworks of Salins-les-Bains to the Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans, the Production of Open-pan Salt

Visit: 23rd June 2018

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This WHS, at 101 characters, is France’s entry for “needlessly long and descriptive official name”. By my reckoning that puts it in fourth place, behind the 108-character Historic Centre of Rome, the Properties of the Holy See in that City Enjoying Extraterritorial Rights and San Paolo Fuori le Mura, the 109-character The Historic Centre (Chorá) with the Monastery of Saint-John the Theologian and the Cave of the Apocalypse on the Island of Pátmos and the mammoth 137-character Jesuit Missions of the Guaranis: San Ignacio Mini, Santa Ana, Nuestra Señora de Loreto and Santa Maria Mayor (Argentina), Ruins of Sao Miguel das Missoes (Brazil).

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So, that’s exciting. But the reason for our visit wasn’t to tick that box. Natalie and I were our first weekend away to the Continent in quite a while. We flew, cheaply, to Geneva on a Friday night, hired a car and immediately left Switzerland for the small town of Divonne-les-Bains just across the border in France.

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Divonne-les-Bains

There we spent the night in order to wake up early and participate in an extension of a new hobby: parkrun. Every Saturday in many hundreds of parks primarily in the British Isles, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Poland there is a free, timed 5 km run. There are only a handful in France, but the Lac de Divonne parkrun happened to be right on our route for the weekend, so we ran it. An out-and-back around a beautiful lake, it is also a fast and flat course – leading to a new PB of 22:09 (six parkruns later I am still yet to beat that).

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Lake Geneva from the Jura

With the run complete we drove a hairpin-riddled road north across the sub-Alpine Jura Mountains into the province of Franche-Comté. The plan was to spend Saturday night in the Burgundian city of Dijon, but first came a visit to the two components of a salt-production World Heritage Site.

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Salt was known as ‘white gold’ in the Middle Ages because – long before the invention of refrigeration – it was one of the only ways to preserve food (in particular meat). Since it was not easy to produce salt the commodity was very valuable. The word ‘salary’ comes from the the Latin for salt, because the Roman army used to pay its soldiers a monthly allowance of the mineral.

There are basically three ways to produce salt:

  1. mining rock salt
  2. solar evaporation of salt water (only feasible in very hot climates)
  3. using fire to heat and evaporate salt brine found underground

Salins-les-Bains and Arc-et-Senans employed the third technique, known as open-pan salt making.

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Our first stop, Salins-les-Bains, is the older site – established in the Middle Ages. It is located in the hills near a natural brine (saltwater) deposit. The brine was pumped out of the rock and siphoned into metal trays, which were then heated until the water evaporated and only salt remained.

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Evaporation trays at Salins-les-Bains

The salt was so sought after that Salins-les-Bains became wealthy and a strong wall had to be built around it to deter raiders. Over time, though, the site began to suffer from a lack of access to wood – essential to fuel the fires that heated the evaporation trays. So in the late 18th century a 21 km wooden piping system was installed to link the boreholes at Salins-les-Bains to a new, purpose-built evaporation facility at Arc-et-Senans.

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Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans

This factory, sited near the Forest of Chaux, was designed by a prominent Parisian architect and built at great cost to the public purse. His intended his buildings to inspire the workers each day with its Enlightenment neo-Classical features – but also to create a Panopticon-like effect whereby the manager could see practically every other building on the grounds from his grand headquarters (above right). The large halls either side of it contained the evaporation pans, just like at Salins-les-Bains but on a grander scale.

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Franche-Comté (Free County) regional food in Salins-les-Bains

After opening in 1790, the site only operated for about a century as the rapid innovation of the Industrial Revolution soon rendered it out-of-date. In the 20th century it was still owned by a salt company which, worried that modernisations would soon be prohibited by its imminent inclusion on a list of heritage properties, attempted to blow it up with TNT! They were unsuccessful, however and it was protected by the French government. In 1982, as a result of a campaign by a UNESCO official who happened to be from the local area, the Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans were inscribed as the first ever industrial World Heritage Site. The Saltworks of Salins-les-Bains were added to the inscription in 2009.

• Singapore Botanic Gardens

Visits: 6th, 8th April 2018

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After an enthralling but exhausting two days in Angkor we travelled for the final leg of our trip to the bustling city of Singapore. The three things I like most about this city-state are the weather (hot and humid), the food (varied and punchy) and the way it blends old and new.

The culture in Singapore is one of eating out far more than we do in Europe. Because food is both high-quality and reasonably priced it seems affordable to eat out three meals a day on an average salary. The city’s three main ethnic groups are Malay, Chinese and Indian, which shows in the selection of meals I photographed, below.

Clockwise from top-left: Indian biriyani at Lau Pa Sat food court; Cantonese cuisine at Bugis hawker centre; Malay laksa at Ion Orchard Food Opera; Taiwanese hot & sour soup at Din Tai Fung Chinatown Point; kaya toast & runny eggs at Toast Box on Bencoolen St; xiaolongbao dumplings at Din Tai Fung in the Manulife Centre.

The obvious outlier there is the breakfast – the Singaporean penchant for toast, tea and eggs is surely a legacy of their time in the British Empire, and I have to say I loved their twist on it. The eggs are barely cooked but it works, the toast is spread with sweet kaya jam made from coconuts and the tea & coffee is sweet and airy. The servers in this chain, Toast Box, pour the hot drinks theatrically from height in order to get as much air into them as possible.

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Singapore is a high income, high tech country that serves as a centre for shipping, aviation and finance due in large part to its strategic location at the end of the Malay Peninsular and the mouth of the Strait of Malacca. But in the heart of this metropolis lies the tranquil oasis of the Botanic Gardens, comprising Singapore’s sole World Heritage Site.

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The gardens were created in 1859 initially as more of a ‘pleasure garden’, but soon became scientifically and economically significant as it came to function as a botanical research hub in Asia. Explorers scoured the breadth of the empire and brought back with them intriguing new plants. These were sent first to Kew, with the tropical varieties going onward to Singapore. Kew Gardens is our local World Heritage Site and was the parent organisation in Britain’s international network of research gardens.

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One of the most important plants in Singapore’s history is the rubber tree. In 1876 Henry Wickham arrived in Kew with a shipment of rubber tree seeds from Brazil. Some germinated in England, but others were sent on to Singapore where the gardens’ scientific director H N Ridley was determined to make rubber commercially viable. In this he was fantastically successful, overseeing mass planting in the Malay Peninsula and coming up with a novel way of tapping rubber that would not kill the tree.

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The gardens are full of wildlife, including the lizards Natalie photographed (very well, in my view!). The monitor lizard, below, came as a bit of a surprise to us – they can grow up to 6 feet in length.

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This trip was actually my second (and third) time in Singapore Botanical Gardens because I had first visited in December 2009 with my family. I had not ‘discovered’ the joys of World Heritage Sites back then – and besides, it wasn’t actually inscribed until 2015. It doesn’t look like Singapore will be getting another WHS any time soon, but it will remain one of my favourite cities to visit thanks to its friendliness, cleanliness, top food and climate.

This was the end of our Asia trip: after 5 days in Thailand, 2 in Cambodia and 3 in Singapore we packed our bags and flew home on a brand-new Norwegian 787-9 for only £220 – quite a bargain for an almost 7,000 mile journey! We didn’t get any food for that price, mind, so if you do something similar take it from me that 13 daylight hours is a long time to go without a meal…

 


 

N.B. The UNESCO committee is meeting right now in Bahrain to determine the next round of additions to the list. So far 19 have been announced and include the usual range of hard-to-visit places like Iran and Saudi Arabia. The ones of most initial interest to me:

  • Caliphate City of Medina Azahara (Spain)
  • Chaine des Puys – Limagne fault tectonic arena (France)
  • Naumburg Cathedral (Germany)
  • Victorian Gothic and Art Deco Ensembles of Mumbai (India)
  • Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region (Japan)

This brings the total today to 1,092 – making it harder than ever before to complete this impossible list!

• Angkor

Visit: 4th-5th April 2018

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This year was my dad’s 60th birthday, and to celebrate this milestone he had the idea of getting the whole family together in Thailand, choosing a tiny resort on the island of Ko Jum, near Krabi and Phuket in the country’s south.

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Six of us (Mum & Dad, Joe & Shaz, Natalie & I) spent five days together, travelling around the small island of maybe 1,500 people on rented scooters. Highlights included a cookery class, a fishing trip and of course Dad’s birthday party thrown by our generous host Kitima.

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There are no World Heritage Sites on the island of Ko Jum, however, and as you can imagine I could not travel all the way to Asia without shoehorning some WHS-visiting into the trip. The most exciting one in Southeast Asia to my mind was always going to be Angkor, in Cambodia, consistently rated a top 10 WHS for those in the know. Natalie and I bade farewell to the others and caught a flight on local budget carrier Air Asia from Krabi via Bangkok Don Mueang to Siam Reap.

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We arrived by night into a surprisingly modern but unsurprisingly bureaucratic airport at which we were required to pay US$30 each for visas on arrival before sharing a car with an Australian couple to our hotel in the city. Through the hotel I arranged a tuk-tuk for the next day to take us sightseeing, which is really the only way to see this enormous temple complex of some 400 square kilometres.

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Day 1

The next morning we hit the road and, after buying a 3-day pass at US$62 each, headed first for the most famous of the temples, Angkor Wat.

To give a sense of perspective, click on the map below. Below and left of centre you can see the airport with its 2.5km runway for scale. The square in the centre and that one beneath that are the moated land sites of Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat. The rectangular reservoirs of West Mebon, Preah Khan (both still water-filled) and East Mebon (now dry) are enormous. They are called barays and nobody really knows how the 12th century Khmer people managed to dig them. Their purpose was probably part practical, in order to store water for the many people who lived here, but it is likely there was also a spiritual element.

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Angkor Wat

The many dozens of different temples located at Angkor are the product of the ancient Khmer civilisation and were built mostly in the 12th century. Angkor Wat is 2 square kilometres and is more of a city itself than a mere temple.

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The central temple comprises a pyramid of three levels, surrounded by two concentric galleries that contain statues and wall carvings known as bas-reliefs.

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Although there were probably several thousand tourists at this single temple, its sheer size meant it did not feel very crowded. Most of our fellow visitors seemed not to notice what to me were the highlights of the visit: the bas-reliefs.

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Maintained in remarkably good condition, these 50 metre-long carvings depict epic scenes from Hindu and Khmer mythology and history, such as the Procession of Suryavarman II (above). This procession takes place across three different levels, and depicts the very king who oversaw the building of Angkor Wat with his thousands of men and beasts.

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My favourite bas-relief was the Churning of the Sea of Milk (below). In this tale 92 asura gods pull alternately at either end of the giant snake Vasuki, which is coiled around Mount Mandara. This causes the hill to rotate, churning up the sea of milk for 1,000 years to produce the elixir of immortality. I especially liked the small details, like the fish in the bottom right of the picture below that have been chopped to bits by the ferocity of the churning!

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Angkor Thom, South Gate

The second place our driver took us was the enormous ancient city of Angkor Thom. Today much of its area is wooded, but in the 12th century it was a bustling metropolis. A square with edges of 3km in length, it is surrounded by a wall and a moat. The best-restored gate is the south entrance, where the bridge across the moat is flanked by statues of gods and demons churning the sea of milk – just as depicted in the bas-relief back at Angkor Wat.

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Bayon

At the centre of Angkor Thom is the Bayon, which was the State Temple of King Jayavarman VII. Because it is located right in the middle of the city – which is the most auspicious place – later kings, instead of building their own state temples, added to the Bayon. For this reason it is a highly complex hodgepodge of a building of great interest to historians.

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The most striking features of the Bayon are its many ‘face towers’, smiling serenely at all angles.

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Elephant Terrace

Leaving Bayon, we continued to Ta Prohm, stopping off on the way at the Elephant Terrace and the Leper King Terrace in the north of Angkor Thom.

These once formed the bases of two ‘royal pavilions’. These were apparently the only structures we saw at Angkor that were not religious in purpose.

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Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm – our final temple for day 1 – has been left in the state of decay in which it was originally discovered. This was the idea of Cambodia’s former French colonial administrators and I think it was a stroke of brilliance. Not only is it picturesque to see the crumbling walls dominated by great trees, but it also reminds us that most of these temples have undergone a great deal of renovation since their ‘rediscovery’ in modern times.

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The strangler figs and silk-cotton trees that have grown so large were probably dropped as seeds by birds. The roots then worked their way through the masonry to the ground and as they grew they split and crumbled the temple’s walls to their present state.

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Back in Siam Reap that evening we went out for dinner on ‘Pub Street’ where the beer was cheap and Natalie managed to find a dish containing potato and cheese (not ingredients you come across often in Southeast Asia!).

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Day 2

Preah Khan

Having taken the ‘Small Circuit’ tour the previous day, this morning we hired the same driver and set off on the ‘Grand Circuit’, which takes in different temples but didn’t seem noticeably grander (how could it be?). We zipped past Angkor Wat, in through Angkor Thom’s south gate and out again through its north before arriving at the temple of Preah Khan.

Thought to have been a Buddhist university employing 1,000 teachers, it held special significance because it is thought to be built on the site of a major battle won by the Khmer when they recaptured Angkor from their arch-rivals the Cham (a people whose heartland at the time was in modern-day Vietnam).

Buddhism and Hinduism have much in common, which is why we see so many Hindu references at the site of a Buddhist civilisation. One of the most interesting things about Angkor is that when much of it was built, under Jayavarman VII, the Khmer civilisation was in a period of transition from Hinduism to Buddhism.

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Neak Pean

The next site was unique in being a water shrine, consisting of a cruciform pond arrangement with a central tower, itself situated in the middle of a great baray that has been recently refilled with water.

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It was inspired by the mythical Himalayan lake Anavatapta, which is known for its healing powers and is the source of four great rivers.

Neak Pean is accessible via a long boardwalk to the centre of the baray with no fencing to keep you from falling in!

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Ta Som

Another temple that has been left in the state in which it was discovered, Ta Som was referred to by the 12th century Khmer by the poetic name ‘Jewel of the Propitious White Elephant’.

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East Mebon

This temple has little in the way of surrounding buildings because it was originally located in the middle of a huge 7.5 x 1.8 km baray some 5 metres deep. The baray is now dry and it is impossible on the ground to get a sense of what it used to be like, but if you look on satellite imagery you can still make out its outline.

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Pre Rup

The final temple of our visit, Pre Rup was the State Temple of King Rajendravarman, who came a little later than Jayavarman VII.

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By this point we had seen quite enough temples for our short time in Cambodia and it was time to start making our way back to the airport.

Visiting Angkor can be a slightly overwhelming experience on account of its sheer scale. But it must be one of the most awe-inspiring World Heritage Sites and one that could occupy a great deal of time if you had the luxury of several weeks there.

Although a more recent civilisation than the Egyptians and the Romans, it is still incredible to consider what these people built with the basic tools that would have been available during what we would call in Europe the Dark Ages. In fact what impressed me the most, on reflection, is not the temples themselves but the sheer scale of civil engineering required to dig out millions of cubic metres of reservoir for the grand, mysterious barays.