Author Archives: claire

all good things must come to an end

Sixty weeks, eleven countries, three subcontinents and one empty bank balance later and I’ve reached the final blog entry for this amazing trip (as I don’t plan to bore myself or anybody else with blogging my readjustment to reality)! How do I summarise these entire thirteen months of travel? It has been fascinating, wonderful, harrowing, illuminating, surprising and just far too much fun.

I began in Argentina trekking in the Andes, wine tasting, horse riding, dancing Tango in San Telmo, learning Spanish in Buenos Aires and visiting volcanoes. In Brazil I fished for piranhas, danced Samba in Salvador, learned to surf, gazed on incredible waterfalls, crawled through caves, went clubbing in Rio’s favelas and fell in love with Caipirinhas. In Sri Lanka I walked along the railway tracks, saw huge stone Buddhas, fought monkeys off my breakfast and brought my first Saree. Then it was onto Nepal where there was intricate architecture, stunning scenery and adventure overload; bathing with elephants, trekking in the Himalayas, white water rafting, rock climbing and one 160m high bungee jump that terrified me beyond belief. I spent the next four months falling in and out of love with India on a daily basis: from Bollywood dance routines, working on an HIV project, sunsets on camel rides and sunrises over the Ganges, ancient city palaces, crumbling forts, drinking chai with shop owners, talking to street kids, visiting Jain, Baha’i, Sikh, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist temples and mosques and watching fireworks over Udaipur’s lake at New Year. Possibly the most wonderfully crazy, intense, contradictory, infuriating and enchanting place to travel in the world. After India I arrived into comparative calm and order in the easy bustle of Bangkok and hill tribes of Northern Thailand. A slow boat took me into the beauty and charm of Laos, tubing down the river, kayaking, discovery the tragedy and scars from the Secret War and doing nothing on the 4000 islands. In Vietnam there were terraces, rice wine drinking with ethnic minorities, limestone karsts, Viet Cong tunnels and the beautiful island of Phu Quoc. Cambodia was a furnace in April but nothing could diminish the splendour of the Angkor temples. Finally I went to Malaysia, a country with the sweetest people in South East Asia, where the beautiful Perhentian islands were a week of relaxing on balconies and scuba diving with sea horses, eels, turtles and rays.

I’ve been so lucky to meet so many wonderful and entertaining people on this trip – from countries as diverse as South Africa, Taiwan and Norway. I’ve met everyone from liquid dance teachers, to psychiatric nurses, band managers to martial arts enthusiasts, every age from 18 to 60. I’ve been adopted by Indian families, brought chai with rickshaw wallahs and been taught Nepalese by my trekking guide. What I love about travelling is how much you learn; about the places you visit, the cultures of the people you meet and about yourself. I’ve learnt that I love a good shouting match with tuk tuk drivers, that I cannot handle my rice wine, that photographs of the Vietnam War shocked me but not as much as the simple head shots of torture victims of the Khmer Rouge, that I hate backpackers with dreads & stripy trousers who walk around in bare feet trying to find themselves, that I can foil camera muggings in Vietnam, how to pull off leeches, that there is no such thing as full public transport in Asia, that I will never wipe my arse with my hand, that a sense of humour goes a long way, that nobody ever has change and that no matter where you are in the world it is always possible to find a good cup of Earl Grey Tea, if you look hard enough.

So I do I feel about going home? Split is the answer. I do miss England, my family, friends, the dog, proper English pubs, mature cheddar cheese and semi-skimmed milk. I’m looking forward to not constantly running out of clean underwear, to be able to drink the tap water, to unpack my rucksack, to walk down the street being totally ignored and to not have took check bathrooms for snakes, spiders, rates, cockroaches or monkeys before sitting down. And despite all that I am going to miss travelling more than I can express. I’ll miss arriving in new places where any time can be a Sunday afternoon of a Saturday night, where there is always something new to see or to do, someone new to meet or somewhere beautiful to do nothing at all. The longer you are away the more you realise travelling is never about one trip, one holiday or one sabbatical. It is not as much something you do as someone you are. I love my life at home and although this trip is at and end I know it’s not a question of if I will ever be off on my travels again… only when.

back in Bangkok

 Kek Lok Si temple!Bron and I spent a day in Georgetown on the island of Penang before going our separate ways. I’m sure there were lots of interesting things to do and see but I’m pretty much at sightseeing saturation at the moment so we simply walked around the historic district, strolled through Little India, shopped and snacked. The day we left we did get a bus out to the Kek Lok Si temple, an attractive if overly elabroate Buddhist monastry that stands stop a hill outside the town. There is a beautiful pagoda reaching up from the hill that was sadly shrouded in scaffolding when we arrived so we entertained ourselves with walking around the huge prayer halls of massive gold buddhas, ornate tiling, and decorated courtyards. Further proof that they have no understanding of the word kitsch in South East Asia!

mmmmmmm!Ah, feels good to be back in Bangkok. It’s always nice coming back to a city when you have an idea of how things work, how much they cost and how to get around. I arrived in Bangkok on Wednesday evening and dumped my stuff before heading up to Kao San Road to have a reunion with Mary, Mika and Rob who all arrived yesterday. Typically the evening got very messy, there was a Thai acoustic guitar duo playing very good covers from the Killers to the Beatles, two Spanish guys making balloon animals, I definitely recall a lot of buckets, dancing on tables, stealing a guitar from a busker on the street so I could play ‘Proud Mary’ and eventually passing out in Rob and Mika’s hotel room. Kao San road, cheesy and cliched, but fun! “Take me home, Kao San Road, to the place I belong…”

postcard from paradise

Model poses on our own little beach View from the beach Giant monitor lizards Palm trees in the morning

We are finally leaving the Perhentian islands after a week and I am really going to miss this place. I’ve been out diving most days, hanging around the dive shop chatting to the owner Jakub and looking at his amazing photos of sea horses and cuttlefish, lying on our balcony with the boys from next door, Steve and Ben, playing guitar in the evenings, drinking M&M milkshakes, swimming in the warm waters, wandering through the jungle to find our own private beaches, hanging out with guys who work here (one of whom Pappa, has kept the python they found in one of the chalets and is feeding it rats he catches behind the kitchen), eating French toast and drinking pots of Earl Grey tea. The diving has been really good fun and there is some fantastic coral around the reef, bamboo sharks who seem to permanently lie under the rocks doing nothing, colour-changing cuttlefish, playing with the tiny Nemo fish and coaxing them out of their sea anenomes, crazy coloured nudibranches, huge Jenkins whip rays and brightly patterned blue spotted sting rays, giant angel fish, batfish, schools of mean looking barracuda and grumpy looking giant moray eels. Is it any wonder I don’t want to leave!

gecko heads The wonderful milkshakes of Pulau Kecil the boys next door! View from the restaurant

under the sea

The beach on Redang for our surface stopOkay, I am actually on holiday now, there is no way I can call this week even slightly difficult, stressful or challenging. Then again, I’ve been on the move for 13 months and quite frankly I think I deserve a holiday before coming home.

Right now I am in the Perhentian islands with Bron, on Pulau Perhentian Kecil. Imagine a stretch of cobalt blue ocean with gently undulating waves. You are speeding across this stretch of water in a speed boat heading for two small islands almost interlocking into one another. They rise up to hills in the centre and are covered with dense, thick green jungle. Around the shores are small idyllic white beaches and rocky outcrops. As you round the corner there is a long beach ahead of you with pale creamy sand, a few brightly coloured parasols dotted along the length and a few locals and tourists playing volleyball. The sea morphs from dark blue to turquoise as you get closer to the shore. A few restaurants and wooden bars are dotted about the place with most of the simple wooden A-frames and bungalows set back in the bush and palm trees, large spotted geckos hanging out in the eaves and snap up the insects and huge monitor lizards sulk around in teh shadows. Waking up to go for a morning dive you can see the sun rising over Long Beach and shining through the palm fronds and in the afternoon you can walk five minutes through the jungle to see the sun set over the clear waters from Coral Beach. Jealous yet?

This place is lovely, relaxed, beautiful, laid back and easy. The Malay people generally are just the loveliest warmest people which makes such a difference after Vietnam and Cambodia where there is a reasonable amount of hassle and rip offs. No, the Malays are relaxed, helpful, friendly and all seem to have an excellent sense of humour. We’ve been here for three days and I’ve been on some fantastic dives, I’ve seen turtles, Bamboo sharks, Bat fish, Blue Ring octopus, Cuttlefish, Moray eels, seahorses, huge mangrove rays, angelfish, scorpion fish, Titan trigger fish, lionfish and barracuda to name but a few. I’m loving the diving, just the feeling of being under the water and looking up a bank of coral to see the sun shining from above the water through shoals of hundreds of tiny fish, looking down on tiny orange and black clownfish darting in and out of their anaenome homes or staring out into the blue and seeing crowds of hunting trevallis swimming by. I took a digital camera out for the first time and turns out underwater photography is a lot harder than it is on dry land but I’ve included some of my better efforts.

This afternoon I went down to a huge sunken boat called Sugar Wreck which was just like something from a Jules Verne novel. Huge baracle and clam encrusted sides towering above us with bamboo sharks hiding under the base, cuttlefish changing colour as they swam over the sea floor and we even came up into air pockets nine metres down under the wreck and had a quick chat! Bron has been entertaining herself and has gone off snorkelling in a secluded beach with one of the very lovely guys who works in our chalets. She said something about needing to go and improve her Malay language…

Coral baySadly as I came up from the Sugar Wreck dive I had to move away from the line as another group were going down. So I swam alongside their boat as ours was behind. The current here is really strong so I was staying close to the boat. Now if you dive off a boat you usually enter the water with a backward roll. You always check behind before you do this and usually the boat driver or the instructor (who should be the last one off the boat) also keep a look out. Unfortunately for me this didn’t happen and this guy just rolled back without checking and clunked me on the head with his air tank. Those things are big and heavy. By the time I reached my boat it was bleeding profusely and there was blood in my mask. Our dive master pulled me out whilst yelling at the other boat’s driver. None of them apologised which I thought was more than a little rude, they just sawm off for their dive. I am fine though, it throbbed a bit but otherwise I’m okay and the guys at the shop have covered it in antiseptic and antibiotic cream. Still I’m taking it easy for the rest of the day just in case. Luckily the afro hides the bump. Now if I can just go and find the monitor lizard that lives behind the kitchen…

Bron and Claire’s jungle day of fun

Bron and Claire playing Rambo in the jungle Bron and I bade farewell to the others and caught what has tho be the best, most comfortable public transport in the whole of SE Asia along wide, wonderfully smooth tarmac highways up to Jeratut where we had a scenic three hour boat ride along the fringes of Taman Negara National Park where we’d decided to stop for a day en route to the islands. As we only planned to spend one full day in the park we decided to get our money’s worth and have a jam packed jungle day of fun. After breakfast on the floating restaurants down on the river we caught a boat over to the entrance and set off through the jungle to the world’s longest canopy walk. It is a fantastic swaying bridge suspended in the canopy about 40 metres above the ground and the sections are 450m in total length, worthy of an Indiana Jones movie certainly and with fantastic views across the jungle canopy from the platforms. Canopy walkway in Taman NegaraTaman Negara is the world’s oldest rain forest which makes it roughly 130 million years old, give or take a millenia or two. Huge trees tower above you, giant ants scurry around the forest floor, the sounds of geckos and birds echo through the dense foliage and far away from prying eyes tigers and wild boar lurk about. Sadly we didn’t see a tiger but we did spot two wild pigs trotting through the entrance area as we were eating cookies outside the souvenir shop! After the canopy it was only a 2.6km walk to Ear cave. Somehow, due to the steep up and down paths riddled with tree roots, a torrential downpour, a prolonged photo stop by on the park’s largest trees and several slides it took us nearly 90 minutes to reach the cave. Sunset over the rainforestBy this time we were absolutely filthy, covered in mud and thoroughly damp but with that wonderful dismissive-ness that comes from being dirty enough not to care. It was a rough and slippery scramble to get into the cave with our torches. We went in just far enough to see the colonies of cute furry bats clinging to the overhangs with tiny clawed feet and inhale the unmistakable stench of piles of guano! It was getting late so we made our way out and managed to get back to the village before dark. Bats in Ear CaveI must have picked up a few leeches on the way back as when I took off my trousers my feet and leg were covered in blood – nice! That evening after dinner we went on a night walk with a guided group. Sadly the six or so British 18-year old backpackers could not grasp the concept of walking and talking quietly to maximise the chances of spotting the wildlife. After the guide had asked them repeatedly to be quiet I asked them rather curtly to attempt to talk a little more quietly and the girl just rolled her eyes at me. Seriously, youngsters these days have absolutely no respect! We did see a green tree snake, a viper about a foot above my head, wood scorpions, huge furry spiders, massive stick insects and a beautiful flower called a one night stand which only blooms at night. It was 11pm by the time we made it back to our little dorm bungalow, muddy, damp, dishevelled but nicely jungled out!

bright lights in the big city

Malaysian Flag

I have reached the final country of my trip, Malaysia and am currently in Kuala Lumpur. I can barely believe that it has been 13 months since I took my first flight to Buenos Aires, last April a year seemed such a huge length of length of time and now all to soon it is drawing to an end. Still, I have some serious beach and jungle action left to go before I head home! I arrived at the hostel in KL on Monday afternoon to find that my brother had managed to arrive before me, having hopped through the islands of Thailand and Malaysia whilst I was happily pottering around the Mekong and Cambodia. I also had a mini reunion with Jill who I hung out with in Pune, and Bron who James and I travelled with in Laos who is back in Asia en route to Europe. I love travelling reunions while your away!

View down the river in the histroic district

Kuala Lumpur is a really interesting city, it seems far more quiet and civilised after cities like Saigon and Hanoi. The motorbike has all but vanished which has made road crossing a litle problematic. With your average throng of motorbikes it’s not a problem. You walk, they swerve – everyone is happy. In KL there are a lot of cars and huge traffic congestion but it all seems to travel fairly fast and cars don’t tend to swerve around you… The city is fairly compact, hot, humid with an electic mix of Malay, Indian and Chinese inhabitants. There are mosques, catholic churches, Indian restaurants, monorails, markets full of fake Gucci handbags, enormous shopping malls with Chanel, Topshop and M&Ss, rice porridge with ginger and chicken for lunch, everyone seems to speak English, there is a 7-Eleven on almost every street and the skyline is ringed with retro-looking skyscrapers. Towering above them all are the dizzying heights of the Petronas Twin Towers and the KL Tower, two of the world’s highest buildings.

Views from the KL TowerWe went up to the Petronas towers out first morning to get one of the free tickets for the skybridge that connects the two towers about 100 meters up. It is a little bit of an anti-climax, a big corridor stretching between two towers that are fairly impossible to see from within and beforehand you have to don a pair of very sexy 3D glasses to watch a publicity video on the wonders of Petronas, the oil giant that built the tower. It was far more entertaining walking around the park area and paddling pool behind the building and taking comedy photos of the towers from the base.

The KL towerYesterday evening a group of us went up to the observation gallery of the KL tower which stands on a hill in the centre of the city and that has really spectacular views after sunset as the sky darkens and the cityscape begins to illuminate below you. We zipped across to Chinatown for dinner and ended up in the Reggae bar which was huge amounts of fun between the hula hoops-on-fire show, the crazy dancing tourists, lady boy waitress, the amourous bar owner Robert, the two best games of pool I have ever played, the jugs of cocktails and playing pub golf with plastic balls and clubs. Even better, McDonalds was still open at 4am on the way home! Needless to say today has not been very productive.

The lift of the KL Tower

For more photos click here!

the awe-inspiring architecture of the Angkorian Empire

There are very things in life that are worth waking up at 5am to see especially if you’re not a morning person which I’m most definitely not. It’s not my fault, all down to the genetics, my cell’s circadian rhythms are primed for the twilight hours and not the dawn. It was still very dark outside when my phone vibrated itself off the bed and we had to crawl up, get dressed and stumble down the guest house steps to meet our tuktuk driver for the day, Mr Bross, outside. Half an hour later we were walking along the causeway that leads up to the temples at Angkor Wat, the most iconic and famous of all the ruins.


A little history

Khmer ladies at Angkor WatQuick smattering of history before I get into any lyrical waxing. The great Khmer civilisation that built the temples around Angkor arose in the last 1st century and flourished for the next 600 years stretching at times from Burma to Vietnam. They built huge temples, irrigation systems, canals, hospitals and libraries and at the peak governed around one million people. Sadly their success was probably instrumental in their decline. Over population and deforestation led to the silting up of their farming and agricultural irrigation systems and the empire suffered from the extensive and hugely ambitious building projects. What I found most intriguing was the echoes of the temples at Hampi and Maharashtra in India in the buildings around Siem Reap. Indianisation had occurred in Cambodia prior to the Khmer empire at the turn of the 1st century via trading ports along the coast. It was strange to come across Ganesh, Shiva, Yama and Vishnu as well as statues of the Buddha and even engravings in Sanskrit on the walls of doorways.

Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat at sunriseThere were clouds gathered across the horizon so it was a while longer before a hazy yellow sun rose into view in the sky between two palms next to the towers of Angkor Wat. We were standing by the edge of a large lily pond inside the walls and caught the perfect early morning reflection of the whole structure. It is pretty damn cool! Angkor Wat is believed to be a funerary temple built for King Suryavarman I to honour Vishnu, it faces West, a direction usually associated with death. After the sun was up nearly everyone vanished to our surprise and the three of us were among only a handful of tourists that went inside to explore. There are long columned corridors, beautiful intricate carvings of stories and battles along the sides, engraved heavenly nymphs called Aspara and the mighty towers in the centre.

Angkor Thom, Bayon and Ta Prohm
Stone faces at BayonAfter Angkor Wat, and pancakes, Mr Bross drove us onto the large enclosure at Angkor Thom which was known as the great city. The central temple is called Bayon and it is not for the paranoid, each of the towers and entrances are adorned with over 200 huge stone faces with slightly cruel blank eyes and wide smiling lips gazing down on you. From here we visited a few other temples and a wide long terrace known as the terrace of elephants with huge stone trunks and tusks carved draped down the front and fighting elephants running along the sides. By now the wonderful coolness of the morning had begun to mature into the usual sweat-inducing humid Cambodian midday heat so we decamped to a stall for spicy sour Khmer soup and rice for an early lunch. Overgrown trees in Ta ProhmMy favourite temples of the day were those of the buddhist monastery at Ta Prohm, and not just because they were featured in Tomb Raider. The jungle had done a remarkable job of reclaiming back these Angkor temples and whilst they are being excavated the largest trees have been left to show how nature has run amok amongst the stones. Huge roots of Chann and Sprung trees have grown down, into and through the huge stone, splitting them apart in places and in others winding along and around the columns and walls like huge sandstone snakes. The walls and doorways seem to be buckling to withstand the pressure.

A few more temples including the dizzying vertigo inducing climb at Ta Keo and the lake stretching out from Sra Srang and we’d been temp-ling for almost eight hours. Our wonderfully stoic driver took us back to the guest house just as the clear day broke and the rain began to fall.

The long bike ride and the Roluos Group temples
Doorway in the Rolous templesIt may have been one of those days where Rob and Mika regretted me being in charge of the plan. I thought it would be a great idea to hire bicycles for the day (they don’t hire motorbikes to tourists in Siem Reap sadly) and ride out to a few temples around 13km from Siem Reap. The road was flat and smooth but the bikes were a little rusty, the brakes dubious and the day was a scorcher. The ride out was fine as we left just after 9am and huge trees once we got outside the town provided some welcome shade. We had to take the National Highway but the word Highway is really being used in the loosest possible way. In Cambodia that means it’s paved, relatively smooth reasonably straight. We got overtaken by shared taxis with people literally stuffed into the back, motorbikes carrying wicker cages of pink pigs, buses, trucks and tuktuks. All along the road were small wooden houses on stilts, more expensive cement multistory villas brightly painted, palm trees, skinny white cows and tiny roadside stalls selling cigarettes, drinks and fruit.

Bakong monastry ruinsWe arrived at the first temple just off the main road called Preah Ko, built in the late 9th century and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. There were six elegant stone halls, now sprouting tufts of earth and grass from they steeped towers but having kept much of the beautiful engravings around and above the doorways and the extensive Sanskrit passages on the inside. In front of the three front halls a small Nandi (sacred oxen) sat squatting looking up to the doors, just like the ones I’d seen all over India. After drinking our own body weights in water we cycled a little further on to what turned out to be the impressive temple of Bakong. We had to cycle along a red dirt track around two sides of the outer wall that enclose a green moat, another inner set of walls and within those the large central temple of Bakong also built for Lord Shiva. Rob’s sandal had mutinied once we arrived and broken so we had a brief interlude of buying chewing gum, threading the thong bit back through and sticking it together with the chewed gum. A brilliant brain wave of Rob’s that lasted long enough to walk around the temple but sadly gave up the gum half way home. By the time we got back to Siem Reap this afternoon Rob was cycling in bare feet and Mika was very red in the face. I suggested popping in to see the local miniature replicas of the Angkor temples and got two very exasperated looks in return so I swung by on my own and let the other two got back to sleep off the sweat!

Banteay Srei and beyond
Rob and I in Banteay SreiFor our final day of temples we wisely left the rickety bikes and employed the services of Mr Bross again for the hour drive through small local roadside villages out to a beautiful temple called Banteay Srei. It’s small and has the most beautiful carvings around the doorways and archways, they look as if they are made from wood as it seems improbable that so much detail could be fashioned from stone. After lunch in the baking heat we also stopped by a temple called Banteay Samre of which we’d heard nothing but proved to be pretty cool. Delicate carvings in Banteay SreiInside the structure steps lead down from the main towers into what would have been an inner moat, now dry, surrounded by engraved windows. A really lovely spot and more importantly some very nice shade! We came back into the main fold of temples to visit ancient pools, more towers, vaulted walkways and gateways overgrown with tree trunks, battle through the never-ending supply of women, children and boys selling guide books, scarves, water and postcards. Eventually by 3pm we were well and truly templed out, there is only so much stunning ancient architectural masterpieces the brain and the eye can take. They are amazing but after three days of Angkor glory I can definitely leave Cambodia with my historical needs well and truly sated!

More temple photos here…

Farewell to Team Token
Claire RobMika
I am flying to Kuala Lumpar tomorrow while Mika and Rob head on up to Laos so finally the token black, the token boy and the token American are parting ways. Well I have left them with a full itinerary for Laos so I’m sure they’ll be fine without me…

sweat and pepper

Kampot RiverCambodia is getting hotter and hotter. The locals have a remarkably simple way of dealing with this. They get up at the crack of dawn, eat and fuss about until about 10am when they disappear into shaded hammocks and enter a partially comatose state until 4 or 5pm in the afternoon when things begin to cool down. The three of us have not quite managed to emulate this skill. Generally by the time we are awake, up and breakfasted it has become the hottest part of the day so there has been much sweating and Rob’s arm got so burnt the other day that if he rolls up his sleeve it looks like a nepolitan ice cream!

Looking through the ruins at Bokor HillWe left Snookville and got a very small minibus to the riverside town of Kampot which is a very sleepy town with wide streets, palm trees along the river front, small restaurants and cafes, prowling night dogs, a militant ant population and absolutely no street lighting after dark. Standing overlooking Kampot ProvinceThere were some lovely old colonial buildings below the centre and a fascinating bridge in three mismatched parts (one French, one Vietnamese and one Cambodian) and two different heights. On our second day we took a trip up to Bokor Hill Station, a former retreat during French colonial times and used as a major strategic stronghold for the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge in more recent decades. The view from the top was pretty impressive, the station stands at 1080m and drops straight back down to sea level, we could see the coastline stretching out in front of us. All that remains now are burnt out decaying ruins including the former palace, casino, church and water tower. Walking through the abandoned buildings with the clouds rolling over the hill top outside the whole place was a little spooky, shades of The Shining and the water tower looked like a stage prop from War of the Worlds. After lunch we had a short,rather uneventful walk through the jungle on our way back to sea level and then hopped on a wobbly wooden boat which took us the scenic one hour route back down the Kampot river into town.

The three country bridge in Kampot

And as for the pepper, Kampot is known for its pepper, and I have to say, it is probably the best pepper I have ever tasted.

dirt bikes and dirty dancing

Happy New Year! Phnom PenhCurrently chilling out in Sihanoukville, which has been a lot of fun, but is beginning to burn a hole in both my liver and my wallet! Our last night in Phnom Penh we ended up being covered in talcum powder and wished a Happy Khmer New Year by the staff in the restaurant – for some reason we were the only westerners they felt the need to talc…Turns out I look pretty scary with a white face!

Big Night out in SnoopVilleThe next day due to some late night Cuba Libres in an Irish Pub chatting to a fascinating old American guy called Bob, we were all fast asleep for the whole of the four hour journey down to the coast. About 15 minutes after arriving we found ourselves in a $7 bungalow in a place called the Monkey Republic. Kids in Ream National ParkSihanoukville is a weird place, everything seems to be owned and largely run by westerners, there are bars, restaurants, beach loungers a go-go and the place is more full of backpackers than our bathroom is of ants. And still, it’s a nice place, the beach is cute and chatting to the kids there is very amusing even though we refused to buy anything from them (many reasons not too, namely trying to encourage them to go to school). Beach Kids in SihanoukvilleThey have Camembert, Monterrey Jack and Feta cheese in the restaurants which, after two months of Dairy Lea and plastic cheese, is heaven. The music is good, the rum is dark and the weather is hot, so really it’s a fun place to hang out. Thursday night proved rather messy although it started out so peacefully having post-sunset Cuba Libres in a little beach bar with Squid and chicken skewers for dinner. How it descended into a bar crawling, gin-fuelled, dance fest is beyond me – maybe the addition of two new friends, Tara (Camden) and James (Glasgow) tipped us over the edge. Well it was fun, but sweaty, and at least this time I didn’t break the beds! We all wisely decided to have the next day off and concentrated on eating food, drinking water and sitting in the TV room with the fans on full blats watching DVDs.

The pink scooter girlsToday Rob, Mika and I hired bikes to head out to Ream National Park abut 20km from town. Mika and I have very cute, but speedy automatic scooters in hot and baby pink. Rob, being a boy, and being Rob, hired a 250cc Dirt Bike! Thankfully apart from a broken brake handle both he and the bike made it back in one piece – actually it was pretty cool although I didn’t quite feel confident enough to have a go as my feet couldn’t reach the ground from the seat! We drove out to Ream National Park and rode through the edges of the jungle along the coastline dotted with palms and small local wooden houses on stilts. shells in Ream National ParkThe narrow strip of beach was deserted apart from ourselves, strewn with drift wood, shell fragments and tiny white crabs scuttling into the surf. There was a good few kilometres on really rough, bumpy track which Mika and I carefully navigated on our hers and hers scooters whilst Rob went flying along at full speed and grinning like he’d just found the true meaning of happiness! Bless! Well I am off to meet Rob, Mika, Tara and James in the bar for a few drinks and a quiet meal…and if you believe that, you’ll believe anything!

troubled past and the hedonistic present

In thought at Wat PhnomThe journey to Cambodia I think will go down in my memories as the hottest, sweatiest day of my life. Two cramped boat rides down the humid, sun soaked Mekong, a very efficient border check and then another boat ride and a final 90 minutes by bus to deliver us into the centre of Phnom Penh. I fell asleep on the bus with my forearm stretched out across my leg. When I lifted it up there was a wide sweaty damp streak underneath. Tasty!

The Nightlife of Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh reminds me a lot of Bangkok without the the huge shopping malls and Skytrain. It’s really quite at the moment as most places as closed over the Cambodian New Year, although despite that we’ve managed to find some excellent restaurants (how can I describe the wonders of deep-fried Mozzarella after months of Dairylea slices and plastic cheese) and some very entertaining late night bars. Yesterday we spent the day wandering around the centre, visiting a small sleepy temple called Wat Phnom at the top of a small hill and vegging out in a lakeside bar. We’d had dinner and a few drinks along the riverside strip and Rob refused to go home until we’d had one more for the road so we asked our tuk-tuk driver to take us one somewhere else. I think we ended up in what must surely be the only lesbian run bar in all of Cambodia. Seriously! I had my boobs poked by our very friendly bar woman who told us she slept with her girlfriends and didn’t like men. Needless to say it was a rather entertaining evening! Mika in the broken bed!We got back to the guest house about 3am and Rob and Mika both collapsed on their beds. I was marching over the three beds complaining that they were being boring whilst “Pretty Fly for a White Guy”was playing on the speakers. As I stomped my foot onto Mika’s bed the whole end of it crashed through onto the ground! I laughed until there were tears! We sort of fixed it but it will no longer support anyone’s weight. Oops. This, boys and girls, is why your mother tells you never to jump up and down on the bed.

The Killing Fields
Skulls at the Killing FieldsThis afternoon we went to visit the Killing Fields and S-21. These two sights represent the horrific regime of genocide that was implemented by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge between 1974 and 1979 in his attempt to create a Maoist-peasant dominated agrarian co-operative. The entire population of Phnom Penh was driven out of the capital to work on forced labour camps in the countryside, hundreds of thousands were executed and still more died of famine and disease. S-21, formerly a school was converted into the main torture and detention camp, also called ‘Tuol Sleng’ which means a posionous hill to keep those who bear or supply guilt. Photo of a girl at S-21About 27,000 men, women and children were detained at S-21 and then taken out to the extermination camp at Choeung Ek outside the city (the Killing Fields) and machete’d to death (they didn’t want to waste precious bullets by shooting the victims). Choeung Ek is now a rural, peaceful area, with bright flowers and the sounds of birdsong. There is a large stupa which houses 8000 skulls exhumed from mass graves around the area. Even so, it is hard to imagine the atrocities that took place.

S-21 I found far more upsetting. It still looks like a school with a leafy courtyard, white flowering trees, checkered floor classrooms and balconies; but the exercise bar was used to torture detainees and the classrooms were the cells for holding thousands of prisoners, administering lashes, electricity and other torture methods to extract confessions. The prisoners were mainly Cambodian, from all over the country and from all walks of life. It was not only the individual who was guilty, their whole families from the elderly to babies would be taken for extermination. Cells at S21The rooms now show the blank expressions of the men, women and children taken there. Some show the bloodied faces and emaciated bodies in horrific detail. There were rooms in which narrow brick cells had been built within the classrooms to keep certain prisoners in isolation. It was a very thought-provoking and very harrowing afternoon. All three of us were very quiet in the tuk tuk driving back.  As we passed through the streets we could see families lying around their porches in the shade, children running around on their bicycles, young guys posing by their motorbikes, girls with hilights and heels chatting on new mobile phones and groups of men laughing and playing cards. As we paid our driver he smiled and said “Happy New Year” before driving off. Whatever horrors lie in the recent past Cambodia seems, at any rate, to be positively rushing forward into the future.