Tag Archives: World Heritage Site

CAMBODIA – SIEM REAP; its stunning temples, countryside and more…

2 Jan

Siem Reap

Siem Reap is the capital of the Siem Reap Province in Northwestern Cambodia.  It is a popular town as the city is the gateway to the Angkor Region with its magnificent temples.  These Angkor temples are the most popular tourist attraction in Cambodia and while we usually shy away from busy, touristy places, this is not one to skip. (If you like travel and have a bucket list item, I suggest adding these temples to the list!)….but more on them later.

We noticed right away that Siem Reap is more set up for the tourist trade than some of the other cities in this country. The town boasts many lively café’s, even a dedicated Pub Street! and has a lively core with its Old Market and bustling night markets, restaurants and numerous street vendors.  Massages here were the very best! For $3-5 (yes, you read that right), you can have an hour-long foot or shoulder & neck massage…Needless to say, we had many!! And the street vendors had the most amazing food – one lady was making these wraps that had sticky white and black rice, with bean paste and shredded coconut inside them.  Two of them for $1 – my favorite dinner by far!

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Street vendor with delicious wraps in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Cambodia does not have any copyright laws (yet), so locals can copy or download any movie, tv-show, book, language program etc. you like. (Cambodians copy complete books such as the various Lonely Planet Guides and other current bestsellers and sell them on the street for a fraction of the price – however these books are mostly sold by very young, street children which makes buying them an ethical dilemma).

Being on the road though, we are always on the look-out for the next book to read, or movie/show to watch. So, we did go into a fun shop in town named Rogue Cambodia (http://www.roguecambodia.com/shops/siem-reap/). It is here that they have learned to cash in on what travellers want – they offer to download any music album, movie or book to your I-pad or I-pod in a matter of minutes for a very reasonable price. We made a small investment of $20 which got us 15 of the newest movies to watch. So now we are set for entertainment for a while!

After a few days of exploring Siem Reap, and actually doing a little bit of shopping (the temptation of $2 designer sunglasses, the most beautiful silk scarves for $4, and cool wrap-around pants etc. was just too tempting!)…..it was time for our day of temples!

Angkor Wat

Our temple experience started with an early rise (4:30 am) to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat (this most famous temple is at the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture, and has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag and currency). We were certainly not the only ones with the sunrise idea as there seemed to be a stream of drivers with sleepy tourists heading to Angkor in the early morning. However, we had a great tuktuk driver that picked us up from our lovely Tanei Guesthouse (http://www.taneiguesthouse.com) and took us to the famous temple in time for a magnificent red glow to slowly appear over its silhouette. It was quite magical!

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Seeing the sun come up over Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world.  A real Y.O.L.O experience!

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Taking in the beauty and serenity of Angkor Wat

The temple of Angkor Wat (or “City of Temples”), was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century in the capital of the Khmer empire (present-day Angkor), as his state temple and eventual mausoleum.  It is the only temple that remains a significant religious centre since its foundation. We observed this by the many monks dressed in orange that flank the various corners of the structure, praying and bringing offerings.

Emile & Filou got quite excited about praying with these monks, who would offer a colourful bracelet with a meaning (“happy family”, “safety”, “long life” etc.) in return for the purchase of some incent sticks.  Before we knew it, the boys were looking for monks everywhere to make an offering, pray and get their good luck bracelet as a kind return gesture!

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Ta Phrohm

After Angkor, we opted for the “small temple circuit” – a loop of about 17 kilometers past a diverse set of temples, all completely different in look and style.  The first one was Ta Phrohm – a 13th.century temple, built in the Bayon style and founded as a buddhist monastery and university. What we liked about Ta Prohm was that unlike most of the Angkorian temples, it has been left in much of the same condition in which it was found. This amazing UNESCO World Heritage site has jungle-like surroundings and the boys particularly liked all the trees growing out of the ruins – some of which they were happy to climb!

Besides the many beautiful trees that had wrapped themselves around these ruins, Ta Phrohm had an overall adventure type feel and we could see why the producers of Lara Croft’s movie, the Tomb Raider had chosen this location for filming. It was very cool!

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Tree climbing at Ta Phrohm, just like Lara Croft in Tomb Raider

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The beautiful details of the ruins at Ta Phrohm

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Angkor Thom

Next, it was onto the city of Angkor Thom, a temple ruin with the most impressive sculptures at its entrance.  A long causeway leading to each entry tower is flanked by a row of 54 stone figures on each side (demons on the right with grimacing expressions and gods to the left, looking serene), to make a total of 108 mythical beings guarding this city.

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Stone Figures at Angkor Thom

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We weren’t actually allowed to visit the city of Angkor Thom itself, which looked mighty impressive with its very long, central staircase – as the kids were deemed too young (not 12 yet) to climb the very high structure of stairs. However, by this time, it was getting incredibly hot and the kids were easily distracted to move on.

At the base of Angkor Thom, Emile & Filou found a huge, gold buddah temple where monks were praying. Hoping to make another donation in return for a bracelet, they quickly joined them.  While I watched them from a small distance – a monkey “fell” out of a tree, right in front of me.  Before I knew it, he saw Filou, making his way back from the temple.  He must have liked his bright red t-shirt or something, as the animal made a bee-line for him and started chasing Filou at high speed.  I have never seen my little man run as fast as he did!  The monkey finally gave up his chase and Filou concluded that he was a speed machine (“but mom if it was you, or I was still 5 years old, the monkey would have gotten to me”). He was quite right, so thank goodness he ran fast…. as a monkey bite is not an experience we wanted to add to our list!

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The nasty monkey that started chasing Filou

And although many tourists like pictures with monkeys, we know better now.  They are actually quite vicious, and not all that cute. Our tuktuk driver told us a story about one of his tourist clients who insisted on a picture with one of them. He took out some bananas and in no time, had a few monkeys on his shoulders. However, when he “mistakenly” grabbed a little one by the tail – its squealed so loudly that monkeys from trees all around, quickly came to its rescue and attacked the tourist.  He was lucky that the tuktuk driver quickly came to his defense, but the tourist had major scratches all over his face and body, and had been close to losing an eye….

We also noticed that the local Cambodian kids are actually quite afraid of them. So NO…the monkeys – we don’t like so much anymore…but the temples.  Wow, were they ever impressive, stunning, must-see!!!  What a fantastic day.

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Resting after a great day of Angkor Temple visits

To close off our time in this wonderful country, we took the “Day in the Life” Tour of Husk Cambodia (www.huskcambodia.org), a non-profit organization that is working with communities to help improve the lives of Cambodian families. Their goals focus around the basics of providing access to safe water, livelihood opportunities, health, education and environment.  This outing, run by Beyond Unique Escapes (http://beyonduniqueescapes.com) – was a tour that our friend Brian Robertson had recommended.   The hands-on experience promised a first-hand look at life in rural Cambodia while providing us the opportunity to learn and give back a little.

Following our arrival in the local village (about 20 minutes outside of Siem Reap), we quickly climbed onto two traditional ox carts and were driven around the village. The roads were very dusty, and at times extremely wet with thick mud – however the animals seemed to pull us through with ease. We did however, have to dodge the occasional thick tree branch and steady ourselves to remain seated on the wobbly cart (taking pictures was virtually impossible), but it made us laugh and thankful for the unique experience!

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Our fun Ox Cart Ride

We arrived at the local family, most in need of our help that morning. It was a very poor, childless couple that needed a new roof; theirs was full of holes and consequently leaking.  After we said our hello’s, we sat down on a large, square mat. A big pile of bamboo sticks and palm leaves were put in front of us and we were taught how to weave (overlap) the leaves and string them together with the bamboo sticks to make a waterproof ensemble.

Anthony, being Mr. Green Building, was just thrilled that this was the way in which were asked to help out.  He really wanted to do a good job for this couple but the lady of the house, just kept laughing at him (as his work wasn’t quite what she was hoping for, I think). However, he quickly got the hang of it and got very productive….as were the kids!

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Learning how & helping to make a roof out of palm leaves and bamboo

While we worked, we were in the company of many beautiful, sweet children – who came to spend a little time with us.  They were just so happy to have their pictures taken (showing them their shots –gave them great laughs!) and interact a bit with Emile & Filou (swinging together in the hammocks and feeding the chickens together was a thrill).

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Village children coming the spent some time with us

We were very pleased to have spent the morning helping this warm, smiley couple that apparently received one bag of rice as a thank-you for hosting us (the rest of our tour fee went into projects such as planting trees, implementing water purification systems and building houses and schools – things to benefit the entire community).

From there, we went to another family, where together we made a chicken curry for lunch. The lady of the house (a beautiful widow), first gave us some big knives and a large mortar and pestle. With that, the kids had fun cutting and mashing up all the fresh ingredients and spices. After an hour of cutting, mashing, stirring and boiling – we ate fried fish on a sugarcane sticks and a very tasty chicken curry with lots of local vegetables. A fun, personal cooking class & wonderful experience with a great end result!

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Lady of the house!

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Emile mixing up many wonderful, local spices for our curry dish

Following a little rest, we took a long walk through the village and visited a local school (insulated with empty water bottles filled with dry rubbish), a beautiful temple and a successful community project – where women were learning how to make children’s toys and gift items from sowing materials together (we bought a little pencil case for the boys).

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A community-sewing project. Emile joined right in!

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Several of the villagers we encountered on our walk through their area

We learned a great deal about current life in Cambodia and its people, mainly because of our knowledgeable guide, Kimthet.  Although the country is still extremely poor (apparently more poor than AfricaCambodia’s GDP is made up of 60% foreign aid), its people are extremely hard working and moving towards of a better tomorrow. We felt privileged to have learned from them and experienced a little with them….….and to have travelled this incredible month in their beautiful country.

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Kimhet, our wonderful guide during the “Day in the Life” Tour

So thank you Cambodia & your smiley people, for the many wonderful memories you have given us!

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From here, it is onto beautiful Thailand….a country especially dear to our hearts!

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An Bang Beach; our 3 week home base in Hoi An, VIETNAM

11 Nov

Hoi An

Hoi An, a beautifully preserved port town on the coast of Central Vietnam was our chosen home-base for the next three weeks (as a bit of a rest was needed after 3 months of go-go-go!).  We were delighted to find our accommodations; Be’s Beach Bungalow – a newly built, bright, two-bedroom bungalow situated in a small fishing village, about 400 metres from the beach at An Bang (http://www.hoianbeachbungalows.com/). 

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Be’ Beach Bungalow, An Bang Beach – Hoi An

We quickly adjusted here and got to love the place, the people and our routine! Every morning between 6-7 am, we were woken up, by either the rooster, the family living behind us cleaning their dishes from breakfast, or the locals starting their workday – the villagers all wake up at 5:00 am and go to sleep when the sun goes down…(and then there were the handful of times that the Vietnamese communist propaganda and local information updates blasted through the loudspeakers and jolted us out of bed at 5:00 am!).

Then, between 7-8:30 am, we would visit the local little market to get our delicious French bread (one of the many great French influences still remaining in Vietnam), our eggs, vegetables and fruits (among them the best mangoes I have ever tasted and a large array of the most exotic fruits).  I quickly honed in on my favorite fruit & vegetable ladies at this truly local, little gathering of women and received warm greetings and acceptance (it is uncommon to see men at this market as it is a woman’s job to do the groceries – and for that reason Anthony got less favorable pricing and welcomes, when picking up things).

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My favourite “fruit lady”, at An Bang Beach’s morning market

Following the market, an early morning beach walk or run was in order.  These early morning beach visits gave us a great insight into the local life of the fishermen and hardworking women at An Bang. 

Numerous large baskets dot the shoreline on this peaceful stretch of coastline.  These baskets seem too small to be fishing boats that can handle the incredibly rough waves. However, this is exactly what they are.  For many years they were the most common Vietnamese fishing boat (called Thung Chai).  Around 7:00 am, we would see these mighty fishing boats come back from their early morning run – with the fishermen frantically making number eight’s with their paddles to stay afloat on the breaking waves (often 4-6 people were needed to launch the boat or bring it back to shore)…Once arrived, the women would quickly take the fish and bring it to the market for sale!

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Vietnamese basket boat (Thung Chai) on An Bang Beach, Hoi An

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One of the dedicated and brave fishermen

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Hardworking women on An Bang Beach

Following calm mornings of work (homework for the kids!), we would enjoy the beach or go into town in the afternoon.  We quickly got to like the “beach bum” life, with the boys turning into little “caramels” and “surfer dudes”.

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Surfer Dudes

Strolling through the picturesque, historic town centre of Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was a real treat. This city core has distinctive traits (French, Japanese, Chinese etc.), leftover from its many rulers. Most of the city’s historic buildings are still completely in tact as during the American War, the city with the cooperation of both sides, remained undamaged.

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Street vendor in the historic old town of Hoi An 

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Vietnamese girls making colourful lanterns all day for the tourists

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The old trading hub & port of Hoi An

So, Hoi An is known for its rich history, as well as delectable cuisine (amazing street food, restaurants and cooking classes) and wide range of tailors and shoe makers (on every corner imaginable!).

So we had a little fun, and each got a funky new pair of shoes made.  And if you want a North Face jacket or bag, this is your place (apparently copied but made in the same factory as the real thing, with the same materials!)

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New funky shoes, made for all of us in a day (complete with initials – see F.W!)

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North Face (and other brand name) jackets and bags in every colour imaginable (apparently made in the same factory as the “real” thing).

As well, Filou & I indulged in taking a full day cooking class at Green Bamboo Cooking School (http://www.greenbamboo-hoian.com)Van, the instructor, was an amazing teacher and delightfully warm personality (she LOVED having Filou in her class as he charmed her and the other participants all afternoon with his jokes, stories and cooking skills!).

Van first took us to the market, where we got to buy the fresh ingredients for our chosen dishes  (And fresh it is!  We were told that they slaughter the cows at 3:00 am in the morning and have it at the market by 5:00 am – and as they do not have refrigeration, all that you see is fresh from that day).   As there were 8 participants in our class that day, we got to make a wide range of traditional Vietnamese dishes (chicken  & beef curry, seafood salad, beef noodle soup (Pho Bo traditional dish), Cau Lau – Hoi An special noodles with pork, shrimp & pork pancakes, grilled BBQ fish in banana leaf etc.) – and eat it all – for three hours straight! It was scrumptious!

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Filou, slowly adding water to fresh coconut pulp, which he then had to squeeze by hand into coconut milk for his curry dish

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And with his final creation; a delicious chicken curry in coconut milk

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And for me, a Vietnamese seafood salad with squid, shrimp, basil & chili

Our stay at An Bang Beach, was interrupted when SUPER Typhoon Haiyan (the strongest type 5 Typhoon recorded in history!!!), made its way from the Philippines directly for us. The whole village of An Bang, due to its coastline location was being evacuated.  It was amazing to see how the villagers were pulling together, helping one another to safeguard their homes by putting sandbags on the roofs (roofs made of simple tin plates that had the real risk of flying away), sturdy ropes around their houses – and taping up windows (although most villagers didn’t have any glass windows to worry about).   The owners of Be’s Bungalow (Aaron & Huong), were nice enough to put us up in a luxurious, sturdy hotel on a hill in town (the villagers were all going to government-provided cramped halls where they were ordered to sleep for the night).

Although we had nothing to complain about, there was still concern (trying to get out of the city to no avail as all trains and flights were fully booked, not being together as a family the day before the storm hit as Anthony and Emile were rock climbing in Cat Ba Island – so hoping they would make it back to us safely, not knowing how hard this super typhoon would hit us etc.).  But in the end, all worked out well for us and the people of Hoi An as the strength of this hurricane remained over sea and hit land hardest in Northern Vietnam.  All in all, an eventful ending to a spectacular stay in the wonderful village of An bang, Hoi An. 

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Villagers putting sandbags on their roofs, to protect their homes against Super Typhoon Haiyan

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Be’s Bungalow’s windows being taped up to protect rocks from shattering them

Thank you to our wonderful “landlords” Aaron & Huong who did everything in their power to give us the most enjoyable stay in their beautiful bungalow, their friend Carl who taught the boys how to surf and showed us the good places in town and to Mr. & Ms. Mai – the very sweet housekeepers who made our stay so pleasant & luxurious!

Newfoundland – 3, Gros Morne National Park

8 Aug

Gros Morne Park – one of these places that should be on everyone’s “bucket list”!

Gros Morne Park is one of Canada’s national parks and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is not hard to see why its distinction, given to the park in 1973, places it alongside such company as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia (which Anthony & I had the pleasure of visiting some 10 years ago – also stunning!), the Pyramids in Egypt or Yellowstone National Park in the United States.  It’s awe-inspiring. Beautiful like none of my words or pictures will come close to describing. Like I said, a bucket list item…. especially for my Canadian friends as Newfoundland is accessible and gorgeous all around, so this is a must!

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The park was designated a world heritage site for its “exceptional natural beauty” and its “outstanding example of representing major stages of the Earth’s history and development”.  The rocks of Gros Morne National Park tell the story of ancient oceans, and the collision of continents.  Many international scientists have already visited the park to study its rock formations.

Upon entering the park, you have two main routes to choose from, one that heads north on Hwy 430 or one that veers towards to west on Hwy 431.

We headed north, and our first stop was one of the lookout points along the highway where we stopped to have a little lunch and take in the incredible scenery. Anthony found the spot inspiring and picked up his travel guitar, while the boys did some crazy dancing and running around!

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Hiking is a must in Gros Morne, and the two hikes we did were completely different but equally spectacular.  The first one was a 10 km walk (which took us about 3 hours) to Bakers Brook Falls  – this path guided us through very lush and dense forests during which we enjoyed mountain views, encountered many a beautiful pond with frogs (which Emile was excited to photograph) and amazing wildflowers…plus at the end, an incredible waterfall (in my opinion, a rival to our Niagara Falls in beauty!).

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Bakers Brook Falls Hike 

We met a lovely retiree with his family at the waterfall – his son, a bit of a daredevil – started climbing the waterfall with his camera.  Filou, who is also a bit of a thrill seeker, was “encouraged” by him and quickly followed suit, taking Emile with him.  The boys actually found a spot on top of the waterfall where you could sit and have an incredible view of the water rushing down. They were delighted, and we took some nice pictures.

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Bakers Brook Waterfalls

Our second hike was a 6 km coastal trail hike (which took us about 2 hours). This walk took us along rugged shoreline and included landscapes of cobble stone beaches, marshy ponds, ocean breezes and many different kinds of shorebirds. Emile was really hoping to see a moose in one of the marshes, as it seemed the perfect place to spot them, but I think that the enthusiastic chatter of the boys probably kept them at bay.Image

Coastal Trail Hike (first part through forest)

Being a water girl at heart (I lOVE to be by, on or in the water), I wanted to take in the beautiful park scenery from the perspective of the water. So we drove to Norris Point and took the Bon Bay Discovery Tour, a delightful, children-focused boat excursion of the bay, plus a visit to the local aquarium.  On board, the boys enthusiastically partook in 3 different science experiments, and learned a lot about the local bay and marine life.  Emile even spotted a bold eagle soaring over the mountains (he has a fantastic eye for nature and often is the first one in the family to spot an animal or something else of interest)!

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Entrance point for our boat tour at Norris Point

In Norris Point, we enjoyed a nice meal out a little local restaurant (bit of an exception as we make most of our meals in the RV!), but the boys were tempted by the promotion of eating a MOOSE burger.  Anthony thought it was quite good, but Emile, who gave it a good try, did prefer his salmon.  Filou loved the local vegetable and turkey soup so much that we took 3 extra containers with us for lunch the next day (keeping up with the food intake for the boys remains a challenge especially now that they are so active and in fresh air all the time – non-stop eating machines!).

We ended up in a KOA campsite in Norris Point (which apparently is a large US chain of campgrounds), a location the boys really loved – mainly because they had a very large jumping cushion (big enough for 10 kids to jump on at once). This attraction provided for many hours of jumping fun – and facilitated the making of some buddies – such as Allen who thought that Filou was a nice “chatterbox” friend to hang out with.  Anthony & I also loved this location as it was a breathtaking spot for a quiet swim, overlooking spectacular mountains.

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Emile diving for the ball at Rocky Harbour

The KOA staff recommended us to go to Rocky Harbour for some children’s activities (again a stunning location!).  The local mothers of the area had organized a scavenger hunt on the beach – the kids were excited to look for anything from a curtain rod to pennies to mittens and goggles. Our team – Emile & Filou, me and 2 local girls put forward a nice effort and were awarded with a black t-shirt that said Rocky Harbour on it – little souvenir that the boys treasure – and can actually take with them (the moms had a variety of prizes such as backpacks, water bottles etc). 

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Filou & Emile in their newly acquired Rocky Harbour t-shirts

In chatting with the locals, we learned that no new developments are allowed in Gros Morne Park since becoming a heritage site, but that one can still build in existing communities that range from 50 to 1500 people.  Also, as work is limited for local women, some work for the Oil Sands – and get flown in from the park every 2 weeks, to work in Alberta.  Challenging for sure – but also incredibly blessed people that live in a place that provides such peace, serenity and incredible beauty!

Next: Twillingate; home of Iceberg Alley, whale watching and most importantly…a fishing paradise for Emile.