I’m from Australia but I moved to Cambodia five years ago. Having grown up in the western world, living in Southeast Asian presented me with a very different lifestyle and new experiences. Sydney and Siem Reap are significantly different places to call home, being at virtually opposite ends of the development index.
It was my passion for archaeology which brought me to Cambodia and I was immediately hooked on the incredible temples of the Angkor. As an archaeologist I am fascinated by human history and how people have lived in the past, but I also admire the immense cultural diversity we can experience today. My work in Siem Reap is research based, but I also do occasional work in the heritage-tourism industry, so I was eager to see how things are done. While I have visited a few European countries, I have never been to Latvia and knew virtually nothing of its customs or history, so I was very excited come here.
Upon arrival in Riga airport it is immediately clear that the Latvian capital is very modern and highly developed city, and I admit this might not have left such an impression on me had it not been for my years in Cambodia. In terms of infrastructure and amenities, Riga is on par with any other city in the world. Aside from the radically different histories and languages, the main contrast between Sydney and Riga is the climate (and probably the beaches). With only a brief time to explore the old city and the University of Latvia, the real adventure began when we headed east towards Balvi, within the Latgale cultural region. In contrast to Riga, anecdotal evidence and my limited pre-trip reading had identified Latgale as the least developed region in the country. So, what to expect now?
While on the bus trip to Balvi, one statistic was quite clear – around half of Latvia is indeed covered by forest. I was also pleased to learn that around 20% of Latvia is protected within natural reserves, and in fact the country has a long history of environment preservation as their oldest laws date back to the 16th and 17th centuries. Upon arrival we checked in at the Balvi State Gymnasium which was our base for the next few days. As we took in the various municipal centres, cultural institutions and museums around Balvi and beyond, it became clear that despite being relatively remote (~3 hours from Riga), the Latgale region is a gem. My personal favourites were Briežciema, where we saw traditional singing, took part in some folkdances and made a brief stop to experience the magic of lying down in a field, as well as the trip to Lūznava with its splendid manor and beautiful parklands. Our visit took place in early June so the countryside was verdant and alive. I was really impressed with the high standards in interpretation and display at the various museums we visited, as well as the local guides who took us around each site. Our visit to Latvia was truly a joyful experience. I would not hesitate recommending it to anyone.
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