How the West wasis Fun – 6 Reasons to Visit the West of Ireland
1. Shop Street, Galway City
Romantic images of ‘The Magical Ireland’ aside, Shop Street in Galway really is the Diagon Alley of Irish muggledom (yes I did just use a fictional place as a means of comparison- what of it). This narrow, winding, and densely populated street is lined with everything from high street brand names to Eastern European market stalls (on a Saturday), buskers of every kind imaginable, and even several pubs where anything less than a 24-hour live-music céilí is classed as a ‘quiet day’. (Taaffe’s and Tigh Cóilí). The cobblestones have been known to cause several tipsy topples and are best navigated in comfortable, non-heeled shoes!
2. Cliffs of Moher
I couldn’t have made this list without featuring probably the most recognisable chunk of land in the country down in the chinstrap of Ireland. The Cliffs of Moher are eerily parallel to sea-level and rise up out of the waves as steady and firm as a perfectly layered cake – green icing and all. On a good day, it’s windy. On a bad day, it’s downright perilous…But still very very pretty. Multiple outer layers recommended, and no filters necessary! #OneForInstagram
3. The Aran Islands
Ireland’s answer to the island-hopping backpacking jaunts of Thailand and SouthEast Asia, pack your kit bag and a couple of cans and catch the ferry out to Aran, for as satisfying a retreat as any pristine, sandy, ‘untouched’ beach in Indonesia could provide. You won’t find any coconuts, but rumour has it there’s a rock somewhere on Inis Meáin in the shape of Leonardo Di Caprio’s head….
From Spiddal, to Ros a Mhíl, to ‘lock-ins’ and incomprehensible local dialects (even some English speakers), Connemara really is an experience that most Irish people fail to appreciate completely. Stunningly barren landscapes roll into sudden clusters of habitation, the local pub the central hub of communication and shop attendants so charmingly Irish that they marvel at the foreign intrusion of ‘amango, no less!’ onto the fruit shelves of the local grocers. Gaeilge is actively spoken here and resides as harmoniously alongside Bean an Tí (woman of the house) as the delicious home-baked goods in our tums after a windswept walk on the coral beach in Carraroe.
Although we’re a far cry from Bali’s Batu Balong beach or the warm, attractive swells of more tropical climates, the West Coast of Ireland has been dubbed a surfer’s paradise and boasts several ideal spots such as Lahinch for a days’ floundering in the Wild Atlantic Sea. If you’re like me and fail fantastically at being tied to a large piece of polystyrene and fiberglass, numerous schools and lessons are available, Lahinch Surf Experience being among the most noted. Further up the West Coast, Mullaghmore in Sligo has even been featured in Lonely Planet’s ‘Best Spots to Catch a Big Wave’. No fear of the waves stealing your swimsuit here, as inch-thick wetsuits are a necessity, yet still might not protect from teeth-and bone-shattering temperatures – it’s gonna be COLD.
6. Regular Direct Buses to/from Dublin
This is the clincher for many tourists to Dublin who may be interested in taking a trip West. Both Citylink and GoBus operate a non-stop hourly service leaving from Dublin Airport and the city, at extremely affordable prices. Comfy, efficient, and guaranteed to get you there within the 2 1/2 hours’ promised time.If you’re lucky you might even get a plug socket!
Whatever about budget accommodation and shared dorm-rooms, there’s nothing quite like being woken up to about 9 different phone alarms ringing from various corners and muffled covers of a 16-person hostel room, signalling a trip to see the sunrise behind the Angkor Wat temples. One after another, the Samsung and iPhone default alarm settings become the soundtrack to my morning in Siem Reap as I lay in wait for my own – because it surely can’t be 5am until my own device says so!?
It’s been happening all week, as our fellow travellers blindly seek their way to the bathroom in the semi-darkness to prepare for a long day of ‘being tourists’, Siem Reap being possibly one of the earliest rising cities in the country purely for the fact that its main attraction is a daily naturally occurring phenomenon. Our turn comes on a day when I’ve already been awake for a short while; I’m an early riser anyway, and so the premature sunrise and subsequent sunset during the Winter in Asia actually came as a shock to me not so much because it always seems to be slightly earlier than you’d think, but because for once the entire population and world around me rises with me, instead of afterwards, and I don’t feel guilty or apprehensive for waking people up.
Ten minutes after I shamelessly pull the girls from a deep slumber by employing the age-old tactic of shaking them ’til they groggily tell me to stop, we’re swerving around a street corner in a rickety trailer attached to the back of an old an noisy motorbike, as our tuk-tuk driver silently traverses his morning commute down what appears to function as a one-way street before sunrise. We find ourselves unintentional participants in a rat-race of identical vehicles, all surging forwards akin to a playstation game where the goal is simply to get to the finish line first, in our bid to reach the entrance to the temples before the sun peeked it’s head above the eastern-most tower. I’ve never seen anything quite like the huge mix of families, backpackers, elderly couples, middle-aged wanderers and still-drunk party-goers who presumably haven’t slept yet but have impressively managed to find their way to the temples after pre-purchasing a ticket, all disembarking from the assortment of tuk-tuks and motorbikes that line the streets at the main entrance to Angkor. We join the throng of camera-clad sky-gazers shuffling along the pathway in the morning darkness as many drivers settle back into their vehicles with newspapers and smart phones, preparing to wait for their charges to take some pictures of a view they merely glance at as regularly as I see the Leapcard machine on Dublin Bus when I’m at home. This might not be a fair comparison, given that sunrise at Angkor Wat is ultimately slightly more picturesque than the interior of a Dublin Bus, but you get the idea.
It’s an odd sensation as this particular days’ visitors to the temple gather in silent expectation around the little lake outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of the reflection in the water as well as the black silhouettes of the 5 towers of Angkor Wat. I hold up my camera blindly and press the button several times. I do this every couple of minutes. I’d say everyone else does too. I watch the sky change from a burning orangey-red, to a slightly brighter pinkish hue, suddenly joined by flecks of yellow and an undercurrent of purple and blue. Around me, photographers of varying levels of seriousness watch it all through the lenses of cameras that probably cause more hassle than anything to carry around, my trusty Android providing me with pictures just as good (if not better!) than some of the pictures I’ve seen online.
Once the sun has properly made herself visible through the cracks between the Eastern towers, an anti-climactic trawl back through the crowds leads us to follow one of the many pushy vendors along the pathway inside to have breakfast at their ‘restaurant’ – various pop-up eating houses ridiculously named with the intention of enticing hungry foreigners to sit there. We follow ‘Nelly’ to his café area, passing Lady Gaga, Spiderman, Ronaldo and Harry Potter on the way, and unfortunately having to tell Micheal Jackson that we’ve received a better offer.
After this, it’s time to start exploring properly, and together with some Canadian friends we bump into that we’d made in Mondulkiri, we source a guide outside to bring us around the Angkor Wat temples for a cheap enough rate each, given there’s now a group of us. It proves an interesting and well-executed tour, but the heat of the sun now properly risen means that I have to cover up pronto, the lack of clouds having proven beneficial during the actual sunrise itself now frankly uncomfortable on my white freckled skin.
I spot various monks around the temples, some clearly sightseeing, others presumably local and going about their daily practices. One agrees to bless us and tie a red woollen bracelet around our wrists, taking specific care not to even graze the skin with the tips of his fingers as he does so – monks aren’t allowed to touch women’s flesh, the consequence of which would result in their banishment from the monkhood! Talk about extreme measures…. We finish the Angkor tour, and after a quick refreshment, this time from Harry Potter, we negotiate a tuk-tuk ride onwards to the next temple, Ankgor Thom. This one is by far my favourite temple, the stone faces and maze-like tunnels reminding me of The Road to El Dorado and providing both a fun and cultural way to spend the afternoon, not to mention plenty of photo opportunities!
Good intentions and map-reading aside, we get well and truly lost in the final temple, Ta Prohm, or ‘the one from Tomb Raider’, as it’s more commonly known.
A combination of heat, fatigue, awful sense of direction and an array of nooks and crannies to explore meant that four or five times we backtrack on ourselves and have to extract directions to the exit fragment by fragment from a security guard with extremely broken English. It’s been a long day…..but it’s only 3pm! Naps are in order, and even the breeze of the tuk-tuk ride back to the Mad Monkey Siem Reap fails to wake us up properly.
We’d arrived in Siem Reap and spent the day exploring the city a day prior to undertaking Angkor Wat, and I have to say I liked it a million times more than Phnom Penh. Not only is it cleaner, less crowded, and more catered to visitors, but it’s actually fairly easy to navigate, and I’ve felt ultimately so much safer walking around here than I had in Phnom Penh. Everything is clearly labelled, from the ‘Night Market’, the ‘Day Market’, to the neon lights of ‘Pub Street’, meaning less time spent wandering around aimlessly searching for places even tuk-tuk drivers don’t know where to find. The “Beatnik Speakeasy” was an absolute gem of a find on Pub Street, my fascination with Jack Kerouac being clearly represented on the wall inside (the actual quote I’ve been using for this blog since I began it!) along with original beatnik-inspired cocktail concoctions, and we enjoyed a happy hour tipple or three here, for once completely surrounded by other Westerners and tourists alike, and actually feeling like we could relax a bit.
I’ve really become more comfortable with every aspect of this travelling thing now, our experiences before having felt more like pre-organised group outings, rather than independent and self-fulfilling navigation and exploration. We are so much freer to do and go where we please now, our decision to purchase visas to Vietnam being heeded on a whim and promising an unexpected twist for the next leg of our unplanned adventure.
With a bus booked to Ho Chi Minh city the following morning, the few nights in Siem Reap were over far too quickly, and after an evening socialising in The Mad Monkey I hastily repacked my bag with the clean laundry (hurrrah!!!) I’d finally managed to get done behind the counter, and attempted to get some much sought-after sleep.
‘To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the most pleasant sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure” – Freya Stark
It’s funny sometimes how it takes longer than anticipated to truly feel at ease in a new place. I’ve come to the conclusion that some places simply may never feel like home – the school floor upon which we slept in Uganda, for example, or the layover area of Helsinki airport.
But really, when it comes down to it, what even is home? We adapt to our present situations, and continue to beat onwards regardless of what came before or what is coming next. Right now I am here, and I have finally begun to adjust to the fact that Cambodia is currently my temporary home, and boy is life here more difficult than I had expected!
It may sound extreme, but I honestly believe that the past two weeks have been some of the most testing of my life, with as many ups and downs as there are staircases to climb to each lesson and each floor within our new schools and homes (that’s a lot!). At first, I didn’t know whether or not I’d stick it. Hell, I still change my mind every couple of hours, and from what I’ve heard from the other interns, many of their stories are similar. In general though, things have finally, finally reached a kind of level enough field where we can live within our means and support ourselves to some extent within this crazy country. For me anyway I think it took longer than I expected for the initial buzz of travelling and being in a new place, with new people, completely alone and self-sufficient to wear off, and I hadn’t honestly taken much of the teaching element of things into consideration.
Luckily I have a bit of teaching experience to stand behind me, and so I wasn’t relying too much on things to be organised for me – I work well on my feet, ‘winging it’ and adapting to unpredictable situations having been a large part of my previous work (grá mo chroí Coláiste Lurgan!!). This is where the main problem lies in Cambodia and with the LoveTEFL programme in particular – the teachers and schools here really had no idea what to expect from us, nor us them. This combination led to several extremely frustrating days of half-teaching, half-observing, being thrown into teacherless classes with no prior knowledge of what had been taught, nor what level of understanding the kids had of English – trial and error was literally the only method we could have used, the mistakes we made seeming even more humiliating due to our total ignorance to even the way the schooldays were laid out, and what the children see when they looked to us – we are only the second pair of Western interns to ever work at this particular branch of NYIS (New York International School).
Our school accomodation and wifi situation has (thankfully) finally been remedied somewhat, and we’ve rearranged our limited kitchen appliances to form a kind of kitchenette area, using some of the tables and chairs from the classrooms as a base. This now means that we can at least stock up our own fridge and prepare some meals at home, although these are still limited to foods that are either microwavable or toastable. Eating out was acceptable for the first week or so, but I feel if we are to truly adapt to living in this city instead of being tourists and properly settle in, it’s simply not sustainable! (Not to mention it being expensive). I don’t think the LoveTEFL organisation took into consideration that some of us are on quite tight travel budgets, and cannot afford to be eating out as regularly as seems to be required – the lack of basic appliances for cooking is testament to this. Also, the fact that there was minimal access to internet until this week was extremely frustrating, especially given the fact we are expected to be planning lessons during the evenings – it just didn’t make sense!
All things aside, overall it seems to have finally taken a turn for the better, or at least levelled out somewhat, the actual teaching element of the programme for me proving actually kind of enjoyable and rewarding when the kids respond and succeed in class. I’ve taught one class the same story in three different accents, and both they and their teachers seem hugely appreciative of the exposure to different pronunciations and intonations of words! Sometimes I think we forget that even our presence here in the schools for the Khmer children is effective in their learning. For them to be exposed to other cultures, languages, and identities is as important as it is for them to be attending school in the first place. It opens their eyes to the world and presents them with knowledge they might use to help themselves in the future, language being the key to any sort of communication, be it on an academic, emotional, or spiritual level.
What it was for us as kids to walk down the street – our countries being far more multicultural and multi-denominational in population, is similar now to what we are providing by our presence in the schools, many of them functioning on extremely limited resources and funding.
I don’t want to speak too soon or jinx things, but I am finally feeling somewhat more at ease here, and useful during the schoolday!
Our weekend was spent in the Lovely Jubbly Villa hostel in Phnom Penh, a quieter and more relaxed spot than the Mad Monkey of last weekend, although we did go out anyway for Halloween and watch the Rugby World Cup final in the Aussie XL bar not too far away. On Saturday myself and one of the other interns booked a tour with Nature Cambodia to visit The Killing Fields Tuol Sleng Genocide museum, and see the surrounding villages via quad bike – something I’ll admit I was really excited to try!
It was a good mix of a serious versus fun afternoon, as the sombre content of The Killing Fields was made up for by the exhilaration of the orange dirt tracks our guide Johnny took us around on the quad bikes. At one point it felt like freedom was the orange, blue and green hues that surrounded us on all angles, and we returned to our tuk-tuks feeling like we’d gotten our money’s worth. It’s worth mentioning here that this tour was extremely well organised, and from each pickup, drop off and switch over to another element of the tour it flowed seamlessly – one of the first times since arriving to Cambodia that something has actually seemed to work out without a hitch!
It was sobering to think of the tragedies which occurred at Choeung Ek, but I feel it was a necessary insight into the country’s history which left us more aware and appreciative of the successes of the country today, and how far it has come to escape the Khmer Rouge regime.
We made our way back to the hostel, ready to leave the haunting images of the fields behind and sample the yummy food and drinks menus that really added to the Lovely Jubbly experience, along with the pool, with the prices proving a lot more affordable than those at the Mad Monkey. We even started to find our way around the city a bit as we made our way on foot to and from several places – something that I myself had been hesitant to try until then. Next weekend we’ve booked a stay at the sister branch of the Mad Monkey in Kampot which is a couple of hours outside the city –a break from Phnom Penh that I personally am really looking forward to!
Bikes. Boats. Wind. Currachs. More wind. Sheep and cows and woolly jumpers your Granny made you wear at Christmas time that are great for keeping out the cold and also, you guessed it – the wind.
We’ve all been there, no??
As someone whose teenage Summers were spent for months on end in the Gaeltacht, and many a summer-holiday in my youth camped in fields with only some board games for entertainment, I had generally assumed that ‘Na hOileáin’ were a fairly standard destination for most Irish families at some point in their lives.
Being bundled into the back of the car with some ham & cheese sandwiches in ziplocked bags and cartons of Ribena to ‘keep you going ‘til teatime’ and driven cross-country to unknown destinations in the rain was generally what ‘holidays’ meant for us until the advent of Falcon package-holiday deals with kids’ clubs filtered its’ way to the forefront of my parents’ fairly limited knowledge of affordable travel options.
Given all this, I was shocked to discover recently that a colleague of mine who grew up in the Gaeltacht area, a mere 20-minute drive from the port at Ros a Mhíl, had never been to the islands!
His secret was revealed as we stood on the ferry crossing over to Inis Mór last week; the largest of the three bitesize chunks of Irish land, and the most popular with visitors from all over the world. Although I still found it hard to believe he’d never even been tempted to take the trip over, the more I considered it the more I realised how unusual a destination it is for many Irish people, even though it’s hailed as one of the country’s main tourist attractions.
The Islands attract thousands of tourists a year, and yet many of us remain completely oblivious to the stunning simplicity and beauty lying right on our doorstep – attractions we would be the first to aquaint ourselves with were we travelling abroad and not a 45-minute drive outside Galway city to the ferry port. As the last stop off in the Atlantic before America heading West from Ireland, the Islands have always held a special place in many Irish people’s hearts, with their spectacular landscapes, views, fascinating history, and enviable easygoing way of life – at times it can feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
If you’re lucky enough to get a clear day, the famous preoccupation and fascination with Irish coastland and scenery finally hits home and starts making sense in a place like Aran.
Poll na bPéist
Poll na bPéist (‘Wormhole’, as Gaeilge) has played host to the Red Bull Cliffdiving competition, a highly anticpated and attended event which promoted the Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland as a prime location for adventure sports and water fun and just as a really really awesome place in general.
Bike & Walking Tours
A choice between bicycle hire for the day or walking tours – it’s possible to see the entire island of Inis Mór, (‘mór’ meaning ‘big’ as Gaeilge, for anyone who doesn’t know) and cycle all over within a day, so what better way to do so than to hire a bike from Aran Island Bicycle Hire – your steed for the day will see you safely over terrain that you wouldn’t dream of trying to cross without it!
Having undertaken both the walking and cycling tours myself now at various stages over the years, I would highly recommended cycling to anyone slightly impatient like me who likes to get places fast – the other half of our group chose to walk, and we ended up over an hour ahead of schedule due to the various terrifyingly steep downhill pathways. It was an exhilarating yet extremely bumpy experience, and one that should not be undertaken with anything less than an Aran-approved bicycle – good suspension is a necessity.
While it is also possible to get bus tours, there really is no more authentic way to see the island and fit as much into your day as possible than by hiring a bike.
Although I have yet to experience a night out in one of the various pubs on Aran, it’s definitely something on the to-do list for my next trip, and I’ve heard wonderful things about the music and craic there is to be had there. Joe Watty’s Pub is a renowned spot, yet there were also quite a few other unassuming places along the ‘main street’, if you can call it that, which looked like they would be lively enough after dark.
The Lios Aengus Café at Dún Aenghus is a great bet to refuel after a long trek or cycle, as is The Pier House Restaurant by the pier (no way!). Both of these places also came up a step or two in my books when at various times they allowed us to nip in to use the toilet after long cycles!
If that’s not enough to persuade you to visit the Aran Islands then all you have to do is take a peek at another one of those stunning views I was raving about earlier.
Aran Ferries run regular services to and from the islands throughout the day, and Aer Arann also have recently increased their services running from Connemara airport. More details below.