Chiang Mai

A taxi driver told us that the meaning of the word ‘Chang’ meant elephant. This was after we drove past a statue of an elephant in Chiang Mai. Some confusion also followed when we asked him if that ‘chang’ was the same meaning as the word ‘chiang’.

We eventually grasped that Chiang Mai translates as ‘New Town’, although I’m still not sure what the ‘chiang’ part actually means. Still it was a relevant conversation to have as we drove next to the ancient walls of this new town, which dates back to 1296. And it’s always good to glean some local trivia.

Chiang Mai is situated in the north of Thailand. It is surrounded by jungle and famous for its (sometimes) controversial animal sanctuaries. For me, this was the Thailand I had been looking forward to seeing the most.

The town outside the wall, where we stayed, was nothing spectacular. A new shopping mall had sprung up down the road. There was plenty to do nearby. But it is within the ancient walls where Chaing Mai gets really interesting.

Mai oh Mai

More than once we walked past the wall into the old town and felt a little bit out of our comfort zone. There didn’t seem to be anything going on. Just houses. Very quiet houses. At one point we passed an empty Muay Thai boxing ring and were chased off by a dog wearing some kind of hoody.

But we turned one corner or another and soon old Chiang Mai came into its own. In a town of over 300 religious sites, the old town has the most in a small density. In the heart of the 2km square area there are temples, stupas and statues on every road.

There is a vibrancy within those walls. Chiang Mai is a humble town, with a rich history and a peaceful air. It is also a very tasty town with the most exciting food market I have ever experienced. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so many different foods, or felt that full, after spending £9.


From the laid back island life of Sri Lanka we threw ourselves into Bangkok. For the first time in over a month we had a taste of modernity and certain comforts that we had almost forgotten about – the golden arches of fast food outlets; vast expanses of highly polished marble and glass where people worship designer labels and precious objects that shine in the Thai sunlight; a super fast, super sleek public transport service. In certain respects it felt as though we had stepped into the future, especially as the SkyTrain whizzed over our heads.

Bangkok is an Asian city that embraces the twenty-first century. Still, respect for the past is its backbone. Its ancient palace and historic floating markets must be on top of every tourists visit list. But nothing speaks as loud for Thailand’s inherent respect as their love for the late King Bhumibol Adukyadej.

Royal; Family

There are monuments and memorials to the monarch everywhere. I do not use that phrase as a blanket for every other corner and leaflets at tourists information centres. The late king’s face is literally everywhere. From hotel foyers to tube stops; public shrines to elaborate graffiti, I have never seen a nation mourn with such passion. Two months since his death most people are wearing black or at least a black ribbon. Children and adults alike can be seen wearing t-shirts that affectionately proclaim that they were ‘born in the reign of King Bhumibol Adukadej’ (1950 – 2016).

What is obvious is that the love is real. Thai people are freely and openly mourning their beloved king. Abby reminded me of how they stood to respect him at the start of every showing at the cinema. I witnessed it myself when we went to see a film (as odd as it may sound, I highly recommend going to the cinema in Bangkok as part of any visit to the city) and we stood out of respect to remember the king. Emotions were running high in that dark room as we stood and watched two touching memorials. Quite a surreal experience just before Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them.

Even when we paid a visit to the notorious Khao San Road I seemed to offend a young man who we found ourselves drinking beer with because I said he looked like the king. Bit of a faux pas. But being English, of a similar age to him, I can’t imagine being so attached to our monarchy. Sadly, when our Queen – who since the death of King Bhumibol Adukadei is now the world’s longest reigning monarch – dies, I can’t imagine the United Kingdom would mourn in the same way. It certainly will not resonate across generations the way the Thai feel their loss.

It is certainly an interesting time to be in Thailand. I feel privileged to have been able such a delicate and true sense of humanity. As for the future of the monarchy it will be interesting to see how it pans out. I get the general feeling that the heir to the throne will not be so popular.

Beyond the public mourning and cinema, I was overwhelmed by the Grand Palace in Bangkok. It truly is an ancient marvel in the modern world. It’s also full of monsters and myths. Naturally, I got lost in wonder. Read about what I learned at the Grand Palace here.

Golden Palace

A little walk from the Chao Phraya River, and through some pretty strong security (remember to bring some ID and dress appropriately) we came to the official Thai royal residence, Grand Palace of Bangkok. Golden stupas glistened in the glorious sun. Perfectly manicured lawns stretch from vast gates. And hundreds of tourists jostled to pay their respects to the king.

It’s hard to be critical of the masses of tourists at a place like this. While it is true that certain elements of the site might get missed because there are too many people around it, it shows the importance of the palace at the time of national mourning. Abby reminded me that when she visited five years ago, there were half the amount of people there.

Despite the crowds, the palace did not fail to astound. From the giant mythical guards (Yaksha) to the miniature replica of Angkor Wat, it was a feast for the imagination. Behind opulent buildings, almost hidden from the centre temples, there is a mural that spans 178 scenes. Giants, demons and battles shine out in gold against the soft colours. All around the site there are statues of mythological creatures.

bird is the word

After some research into the creatures at the Grand Palace, I found that they mostly stemmed from Himmapan.  Originating in Hindu mythology, this forest is home to a wealth of creatures. The half human/half bird Kinnari have become some of the most respected characters from Thai folk tales. Effectively the Kinnari are angels that live near a hidden mountain in the Himalayas. Their songs and dances have worked their way into Thai tradition.

The more I read into Himmapan, the more I see how crucial it is to Thai life. Other creatures from the forest that have worked their way into daily Thai life is the mighty Singha. This guardian lion can been seen across the country on beer labels, amulets and even water.

Between a mythical mountain, half human/half animal creatures, demons, monsters and a wealth of legend, Thailand will certainly have an influence in Nechronicles somewhere along the line.


One of the must-see-attractions of Sri Lanka is a huge rock. Sigiriya is situated north, about 90km from Kandy and is worth the two hour to three in a bus. What makes this rock special is its history. King Kasyapa founded a royal residency at the top around 1,500 years ago, although it had been a monastery since the 3rd Century AD (more information can be found here). There are lions feet carved into the surface and some 1,200 steps to reach the top.

In a way, it’s a shame to travel so far and not see Sigiriya, even if you have made the journey and scaled it with the hundreds of other tourists. And when you’re up there, it’s hard to actually see the rock, if you know what I mean. We learned of another rock, Pidurangala, which is locally known as Sigiryia’s little brother. It is in the same park as the main attraction but doesn’t come with the $30 ticket price.

Of course, it’s not just me being cheap. Pidurangala has a rich history of its own. A buddhist monastery has grown at its base. In fact monks have been living in the caves around this rock for around 2,500 years. Half way up the rock lies what was once the largest brick Buddha in the world.

The statue looks fairly new thanks to restoration in the 1960s. This had to happen after some opportunists came searching for treasure. Around it are ruins of small rooms and dwellings, remnants of a smaller settlement. But as I said, this is only some way up the rock. Our inner Indiana Jones/Lara Croft had only just surfaced.


I had noticed that the ground near the reclining Buddha looked a little less paved than the way we had just come. There was no evidence of helpful steps or paths. And forget about a handrail. Instead, a handy arrow had been drawn on the floor in faded red paint.

Following the arrows was the easy part. Climbing boulders, not so much. As we scrambled over the rocks, ignoring the slopes that dropped into oblivion, we were reminded by the brave few who had already made the ascent that the view was worth it. And it did not disappoint.

As we fell over one boulder and landed on a bit of a plateau we were rewarded with an exclusive view of Sigiriya. The magnificent rock rose out of the forest, proud, like the lions it depicted. And we could enjoy it as we allowed the cold sweat on our clothes to soak into our skin.

But we did not stop there. Up a couple more impossible ascents we came to the top of Pidurangala. As with our trek up Little Adam’s Peak, the country was ours to observe. Forests stretched on for miles. Statues and stupas popped up over the tree tops. Somewhere in there were the famous elephants, leopards and centuries of hidden history. It was a humbling feeling, and our last opportunity to appreciate the wild Sri Lanka.

It was an island of diversity and friendly faces, with a different flavour to India. But our journey into South East Asia had only just begun.

Little Adam’s Peak

One of the main attractions for us visiting Ella was the high hill called Little Adam’s Peak. We had initially wanted to visit (the actual) Adam’s Peak but the logistics of getting there and seeing pictures of it on Google made us opt for its smaller cousin. I must stress that it has nothing to do with it being a strenuous trek up 7,300 feet.

We planned our circular route around Ella with the help of our host who had taken us to Dowa Cave the day before. We would take in the trek first, gently descending into tea plantations where we could stop for a quick cup of Sri Lanka’s finest before paying a visit to the famous Nine Arch Bridge that leads back to the town. While walking along the tracks is the only way back to town, there are only a few trains a day – we just had to time it right.

The 3743 foot climb was a great way to start the day. Through tea plantations and along a well trodden path we found our way. There were plenty of locals nearby who would freely point us in the right direction when we came to a fork in the road or looked the slightest bit lost.

The walk took us less than an hour and we were rewarded with the best views Sri Lanka has to offer. We could see for miles. Further hills and forest sprawled before us, pocked with waterfalls and lined with winding roads. With our taste for adventure not quite quenched, we scrambled over, down and along less obvious paths to reach the farthest tip where it felt like we had the whole country to ourselves.

We could easily have spent hours up in that space, breathing in nature and wondering how a couple of puppies came to find themselves rolling in the dust at the peak. But there was more to see, and I really fancied a cup of tea.

The descent was simple enough and we soon found the path that we had started out on that morning. Our host had told us that there was a tea factory that was open to tourists along this road. Confident in his recommendation, we passed one that was nearer to Little Adam’s Peak and went on our way.

About an hour passed and rain started to fall before we came to a large white building nestled in tea plantations. A long road ran from where we stood up to its door, and instantly we were transported back to the height of the Victorian tea trade.

Tea Total

We entered the wooden building and marvelled at the huge machines that were sorting the thousands of leaves that would pass through them every day. Although we couldn’t see any Oompah Loompahs, we were excited for the tour. We found a sink and promptly de-sweated before we made our way up the modest staircase and into some kind of tasting room.

A man greeted us, invited us to sit down and said that he would be back in a couple of minutes for our tour. In the meantime a woman came along with a steaming white teapot, two empty cups and served us some fresh leaves. The taste was crisp. The golden liquid was rejuvenating. We refilled our cups and waited to start the tour. We repeated this until the pot was empty and half an hour had passed. By this point, our intrigue of the magic of a tea factory had evaporated and our wet clothes sent chills down our spine. And we had to make it back to Ella before the train came.

We decided to cut our losses and carry on our exploration of Ella. But there was no one around to pay for the tea. We looked around the large room but we were alone. Short of walking down some steps that took us to the large driveway, our only option was to walk down the wooden stairs we had come up. The machines had stopped in the factory. In this small space we saw a single employee who we asked how much do we owe for the tea. ‘No charge’ came her sweet reply. After we made sure that this was the case, and she insisted that it was, we walked out of the building, down the road and towards the Nine Arch Bridge with a surreal feeling that we had stepped away from somewhere that should not exist in 2016.

The rain promptly resumed when we found the road and made our way back towards town. We very nearly missed the path to the train track, but fortunately and as ever, there were some friendly local faces who pointed us in the right direction. This happened more than once until we found ourselves taking a ‘short cut’ which was little more than a dirt track behind a restaurant and down through some trees.

Tracks of our Tears

Half walking, half sliding, we found the tracks. The bridge was worth the trek. It was a classic Victorian viaduct, much like the ones we’re used to in England, especially Brighton, except it was surrounding by lush Sri Lankan forest. Palm trees and banana plants swallowed the brickwork as it was lost to the jungle floor. We stepped onto the tracks safe in the knowledge that there was about an hour to the next train, and we only had about 1.5km to walk. It could be done. As soon as we stepped onto the bridge an old man who was sitting on the wall for some reason cheerfully reminded us that there was around at half past three and that we ought to be careful. We smiled, thanked him, and went on our merry way.

The walk was interesting and certainly not the kind of thing we were used to. We found that each track was about a stride apart, which sped up our pace especially through the bat infested tunnels. There was a life around the tracks. More than once we saw farmers leading their cows next to it to feed on the grass. People sat next to the tracks, there buildings. We took in this new environment, all the while keeping an ear out behind us for the rumble of an incoming train.

Minor panic hit when we heard it from a distance. We sped up our pace to a safe area before the next bend. There was a stretch of green with a tea factory below it. It wasn’t until we got to this area when we realised that the rumble that had panicked us was actually the sound of the machines in the factory doing their thing. We did find it a bit odd that a train would be running twenty five minutes early. Relieved but not complacent, we decided to get back to Ella as quickly as possible.

The rest of the journey passed quite quickly. Another track appeared next to us and merged with the one we were on. We turned one corner and saw Ella train station. There was a train at its platform. The engine was running. As a salute to our safety, the driver sounded its almighty horn which tore through us and echoed along the path we had just come from. He laughed at us and waved moments before the train slowly pulled away and we had reached a safe distance from the tracks.

Safe and exhausted we saw the train pass us, grateful that we had not delayed any further getting to the bridge. We went for a well earned beer and planned our route to Kandy.


Beyond the tropical beaches and warm waters of Sri Lanka there is a cooler climate to be found in its central hills. As the bus journeys form the coast, across the flat plains, the ascent towards Ella brings lush forests and a refreshing breeze.

Around hairpin bends and past waterfalls this is an area ripe for adventure. It came as no surprise that when we were dropped off in the middle of town almost everyone we saw wore hiking boots and anoraks. A look of exhausted exhilaration was spread across each face. We hotfoot it to our homestay to find out what the hidden attraction was. It turned out to be quite a few.

Wings of Dowa

Our first point of interest came in the form of a 39ft statue of Buddha. While that in itself might be worth a visit, what made this statue was that it was carved into a wall of rock. By a king who had to flee his kingdom. 2000 years ago. The more we heard about Dowa Cave, the more intrigued we were.

Our homestay host was keen to take the role of a guide and took us straight to the cave. He shared its history and lead us into the cavernous temple. Similar to sights at Dikwella, this buddhist place of worship was brightly decorated and depicted scenes of holy tales.

We saw the now familiar depiction of a devil, standing tall and naked next to humans, with bulbous eyes shaggy hair. Sharp lower teeth protruded over his lip towards the top of his head. Claws grew from his toes and fingers. But he did not seem menacing. Perhaps it was the constant flow of a mountain stream that ran nearby that helped mute anything sinister.

As we stooped under the low ceiling and through the ornate door, or host advised us on the best way to spend the following day. Read how we climbed hills, turned invisible in a tea factory and found ourselves walking on a train track here.


High in the hills of the Nilgiri Moutains sits the town of Ooty. Its history as an important hill station for the wealthy British gave it the catchy monicker ‘Snooty Ooty’ and probably goes some way to explain the abundance of tea plantations.

I had expected Ooty to be more surreal than it actually is. I envisioned grand colonial buildings. I half expected hotels with staff in traditional clothing serving gin and tonics or pouring tea. I heard about the world heritage Toy Train. I expected greenery and a boating lake. The reality is that Ooty is quite a grubby town with noise to rival Delhi. There is, however, a boating lake and the Toy Train is active.

The real beauty of Ooty lies in its surroundings. The Nilgiri Mountains are spectacular. Vast forests of tall trees hide waterfalls and gushing rivers. Ornate tea plants line the hillsides, sheltered by silver oak trees. Monkeys sit on the roadside, waiting for scraps of waste from the humans. In those hills live some of India’s greatest animals.

We trekked through the forest with a guide who grew up in the area. He knew the labyrinth of trees like the back of his hand. We followed deer tracks to a river and saw fresh bear droppings as we scrambled up some kind of path. Something growled as we walked past. I thought it best not to tell Abby that a tiger had killed three people in a tribal village only a year ago.

At the end of our trek we stopped in the village our guide descended from. Tourists rarely came there. It was a honour to witness this place. Everything in this village was evidence of a simple life. The boys were playing cricket under a 600 year old tree while the girls giggled and asked for their picture to be taken. Sacks of freshly picked tea lives lined the walls of houses with unusually small but colourful doors. Even their religion is simpler than the rest of India – they worship their parents.

The journey up to Ooty takes some time and at first, when the city comes at you with its confusion and sinister looking bars, a fleeting feeling of regret may surface. But the nature is stunning. The Nilgiri Mountains were a fine way to end this visit to India.


Of all the places that I have seen in India, Varanasi is the one that remains the biggest mystery. It is a celebration of death. It is populated with a world of characters, some good, some sinister and some that have to be seen to be believed. The whole city, from the busy upper roads, to dark lanes, right up to the ghats, focuses on one mighty river. Varanasi is the closest place to Necropolis you can get.

Varanasi is sacred in the hindu world because it sits on the Ganges. This body of water is worshipped. Every morning pilgrims bathe in it. Throughout the day women wash their clothes and hair in it. Kids somersault into it. Bodies are burned into it – it’s the fastest way to achieve moksha. The city’s raw sewage pumps into it. The waters are essentially toxic, but still there is a majesty to the river.

My first visit to Varanasi was one that inspired me to focus on Nechronicles. It was one of the most intense experiences of my life. I was duped by the ‘rickshaw mafia’ and ended up staying in a place that was a lick of paint away from being a prison. I saw the burning ghats and was followed by a man who was really keen to read my future. The overpowering smell of milk and sewage fused with the hot, hot air. I needed to leave the city, but I knew that I would return.

Dawn of the Dead

And so, six years later, a bit wiser, married and with a stronger idea of Nechronicles I came back. I did warn Abby, but still there is no way to tell what Varanasi will hold for you. Especially on Diwali.

On arrival, we were passed from an AC car to a cycle rickshaw. With our bums on a plank of wood, all of our limbs were holding onto our bags and a box of doughnuts. While it wasn’t comfortable for us, our thoughts were with the poor fella who had to cycle us for half an hour.

He battled the normal Varanasi traffic. He endured the vast swathes of tourists, both Indian and more, who were in the holy city for the festival of lights. He swerved past cows and escaped explosions as fireworks were let off whenever and wherever revellers felt necessary. Needless to say, we gave the guy a doughnut. That look of appreciation and exhaustion as the sugar comforted him will stay with us for quite some time.

After a night of reckless celebration – more like a war zone in Disneyland than the displays we’re used to at home – the sunrise in Varanasi was truly a sight to behold. The river was calm and the heat came as soon as the crimson ball crept into the sky. And still the ghats burned. All day and all night bodies are cremated. It is a surreal experience to be a spectator at something like this. Surely a funeral should be a private event, but all are encouraged to observe, just no photos allowed.

While we watched one body burn – the heat could be felt meters away – and another pyre set alight that same intensity that I felt hit Abby. It’s the curious sadness that is brought by the smoke of burning wood and flesh. It’s the uncertainty of who is around, watching.

Varanasi is not an easy place to be a part of. Tourists have gone missing, and I waited until we were seated comfortably in Goa before I mentioned anything about Aghori Sadhus. But it did explain who that skinny guy, with a long white necklace sat near one of the burning ghats and give us a funny look.

Varanasi, Necropolis in the overworld, doesn’t only need to be seen, but smelt and felt to be believed.


Caught amongst the madness of India is the pearl that is the Taj Mahal. Possibly, one of the most iconic monuments in the whole world, it still sits comfortably in the official 7 Wonders of the World (if you’re as curious to know what the others are, click here). It’s no surprise that Agra, the town it sits in, is dedicated to it. In fact, after a while you do almost feel sorry for Agra Fort and the other sites, which try to pull in the tourists from the massive mausoleum.

Agra itself is a strange little place. I first visited in 2010 and found the city quite charming. The roads weren’t great. There were so many winding roads and corners, crowned with beautifully mogul archways. Intricate steps led up to the side of walls, seemingly to nowhere in particular. It was a town full of rooftop views of the Taj Mahal, slightly obscured by a dense network of overhead cables, with a large population of monkeys.

It would seem, however, that some money has no been pumped into Agra. Gone is the charm that reminded me so much of Aladdin’s hometown. The roads have been paved over. There are now swish LED streetlights. Businesses have been given an identity to follow. The result feels like a hundred gift shops at the base of the world’s greatest museum. And they all want your business.

Wonder Stuff

The Taj Mahal is truly a sight to behold. You can’t walk through that gate and not feel an overwhelming sense of awe the first time you see it. And that feeling grows the closer you get to it.

White marble is constructed to perfection. Red flowers and mogul script detail the vast structure so that even up close – when you touch it – that wonder stays. Colours change as the sun moves across it.

This is equally the greatest and saddest testament of love that has ever been created. 363 years later, the king and his wife are still resting together as thousands of tourists wonder at them in the overworld.

On a final note, it’s worth mentioning that the Taj Mahal is closed on a Friday. I found that out the hard way. Six years later, I’m still grateful for that old rickshaw driver for peddling me around to all the places in Agra I could view the Taj Mahal from afar.


The Pink City and capital of Rajasthan, Jaipur has it all. Stunning architecture and a rich history. Camels and cars share roadspace. Vast bazars and shopping centres complete with Marks and Spencer. There’s no denying the importance of this city.

Our experience of Jaipur was a bit manic. We arrived in the city via a sleeper bus (cabins reminded me a bit of a fancy microwave, but surprisingly comfortable given the bumpy roads) and found our hotel. After a brief catch up on sleep, we left the city again. We were on our way to Ranthambore National Park to find tigers.

It was a bit of a nightmare finding transport to take us the 100-or-so miles south. After wandering around bus stations and travel agents we finally got tickets for a train. They were the cheapest tickets, so no air-con. But that’s fine, it was only 2 and half hours. There were no allocated seats. No big deal, we’ve travelled with Southern Rail. And the train left at rush hour. How busy could it be?

Tracks of my Tears

After nearly three hours, crammed on a train, with strangers hanging onto us for support, limbs in all directions and still being encouraged to take a selfie, it was like nothing we had ever experienced. I salute the Indian people for their determination and ability to hang on the side of a speeding train.

On our return to Jaipur (which was much more comfortable. Room to breathe and sip a chai. Same class, just midmorning) we were blown away by the beauty of the city. Diwali had started to sneak in. Multi-storey buildings were draped in strings of colour. Houses, businesses, even tuc-tucs shone brightly in artificial lights. Joy beamed across this opulent city in colours as the night set in. It was a sight to see.

Jaipur, the Pink City and capital of Rajasthan – I don’t think we’ll be forgetting our time there in a hurry.

But what happened after the train? Read about our time in Ranthambore National Park here.