Cambodia

Our first land border crossing of the trip brought us to Cambodia. On the Thai side Nick asked our ‘guide’ what time we would be leaving, which for reasons unknown caused massive offence. This resulted in us being shouted at and separated from our fellow passengers. It was baffling, even more so when one of them called Nick a F***ing Ladyboy. (first, I didn’t understand why this would be an insult and second, have you seen Nick?!)

The border crossing itself was pretty straightforward. I had to make a dash through the rain at one point carrying our 10kg back pack and Tomas on my shoulders. In Poipet, on the Cambodian side, we were told there would be a two hour wait for the bus to Siem Reap but they took pity on us being with children and we completed the journey on a bus full of contraband biscuits. That evening over a cold pint of Angkor beer we decided there must have been something fishy going on as we were the only ones from our bus that already had Cambodian visas.

 

We gave ourselves a day of playing round the pool to recover from the journey and then headed out to get a big tick on our bucket list; Ancient Angkor. Knowing that the kids would run out of steam pretty quickly we decided to limit our visit to the top three sites; Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm. We spent an enjoyable morning exploring the ruins; playing (can you guess?) hide and seek and pretending to be Lara Croft. Nick and I loved the majestic stone faces at Bayon but the highlight for the boys was the millipede they found at Ta Prohm.

 

That evening, after I’d donated blood at the nearby children’s hospital, we treated the boys to a visit to Bugs Cafe. Some mealtimes can last forever persuading the kids to eat unfamiliar food. Not so with our discovery platter where they wolfed down, tarantula doughnut, ant spring rolls, scorpion skewer and the cricket salad. Nick and I barely got a look in.

 

We enjoyed the ride out to the Cambodia Landmine Museum passing some of the lesser known Angkor sites along the way. T refused to go in, preferring to hang out with our tuktuk driver. G handled the visit very maturely; sitting quietly and listening to the audio guide. The museum was founded by Aki Ra, a child soldier under Khmer Rouge who went on to clear the land mines he’d helped install. The mock-up of a minefield shows the sheer number of ordnance that can be hidden in a small area and how hard they are to see. We learnt  more about the ongoing issue of landmines and stories of those affected. Children are often maimed picking up a mine thinking it is scrap metal that they can sell.

On the bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Pen I read First they Killed my Father. One woman’s account of the atrocities that saw a quarter of the population of Cambodia (over 2 million people) systematically killed. Loung Ung was just 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge took power. The narrative, written through child’s eyes, really brings home the horror of the time; forced labour, brutal killings and life as a child soldier. Travelling through the very countryside where the atrocities took place with my own 5 year old made her story incredibly vivid.

The following day we visited the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. This was one of the most moving experiences of my life. On first sight the area covers a peaceful wooded field. But as the audio guide leads you around you come to realise the horror that occurred there. Thousands of bodies of men, women and children were recovered from mass graves and there are still remains coming to the surface so that at times there are bones and cloth poking through the very path you walk on.

The audio guide ends at the memorial stupa displaying thousands of skulls. I was disturbed to see people taking photos, it felt really inappropriate. Even more so when I later discovered the images on Instagram. To me using a hashtag to share photos from the Killing Fields is not only disrespectful but also trivialises the genocide. However as education is key in reconciliation perhaps I am wrong and it is simply a way of sharing history with a younger generation.

Next we visited the Tuol Sleng Museum a former school used as a prison under Khmer Rouge. The museum is filled with haunting photographs of the prisoners taken on their arrival at the prison. Their eyes looking back at you give a human face to the numbers. It is a tough place to visit with photographs and instruments of torture on display. As with the Killing Fields we didn’t take the children. I was left feeling helpless, dispairing of the horror that humanity can inflict on itself. I was haunted by our days activities and didn’t sleep that night.

Phnom Pen itself is a flagship for a new Cambodia. Boutique hotels, fancy eateries and impressive architecture portray an image of extravagance vastly at odds with the scenes of poverty. One can’t help but wonder if the government has its priorities wrong when faced with so many children begging and sleeping on the street.

From the business of the capital we escaped to Kep. A sleepy seaside town, which was perfect for a few days RnR. We stayed in a bungalow and loved being serenaded by frogs, giant geckos and crickets whilst fireflies put on a show. The boys enjoyed the company of other children at the beach and we all enjoyed some fantastic seafood.

 

We spent a couple of days exploring the surrounding countryside on a scooter. We visited nearby Kampot by accident when we couldn’t find the road to a cave we wanted to see. We got there the next day with the help of our 7 year old tour guides. They cycled alongside the scooter to show us the way and escorted us around the site of this pre-Angkorian temple and cave. We learnt that villagers hid there from Khmer Rouge reminding us again how the regime affected every corner of the country.

This week we are volunteering at Khmer New Generation Organization (KNGO) School. Located in the village of Bospo near Battambang, the school is a grass roots project that offers English lessons to the children in the surrounding area. The permanent teachers use a fixed curriculum and welcome native English speaking volunteers to assist with pronunciation. Nick is struggling with the Americanized [sic] English but we’re having lots of fun. The students are smart, engaged and eager to learn. The eldest class is working on ‘the future’ and it is so inspiring to hear them talk about their aspirations.

 

Throughout our time in Cambodia I have found myself trying to guess people’s ages. Wondering  whether they lived through the dark years of Pol Pot’s regime and how they managed to recover. Not for the first time I feel incredibly privileged to have been born where I was and not into the famine and unrest that Khmer people my age have lived through. We have passed through many countries ravaged by war but here the impact is much more evident. Despite the horror of the recent past and the resultant poverty Cambodia is wonderfully friendly and welcoming. It is a truly beautiful country to visit and if the KNGO kids are anything to go by the future is bright.

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Two weeks in Thailand

As much as intrepid is the name of our blog, it has also become a bar by which we measure ourselves. A reminder to be brave and do things out of the ordinary. Despite this, I just couldn’t get my head round the idea of the 30+ hour journey it would take us to reach Laos from Vietnam. And so we flew to Thailand.

We had a couple of pleasant days in Bangkok before heading North for our elephant rendezvous. Our hotel was on a quiet soi (lane) not too far from Khao San road. After securing our train tickets at the station we joined the backpacker throng on the infamous street. The boys tucked into scorpion and declared it much tastier than in Beijing. We partook in a fish spa but resisted the urge to get a tattoo or buy elephant pants.

The following day we had a date with a lovely Thai man, Earth, who we had met trekking to Annapurna Base Camp back in November. We enjoyed his narrative as we sped around Bangkok’s canals on a long tail boat. Afterwards, he took as to a local eatery that has been in the same location for 40 odd years. We left the ordering up to Earth and sampled a range of authentic Thai dishes – delicious!

After our wonderful visit to Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary we headed to Sukhothai for a dose of ancient temples. We hired bikes and cycled round the historical park. This UNESCO world heritage site was built around 800 years ago and is similar in style to Angkor Wat. We had fun playing hide and seek amidst the ruins. That evening we enjoyed some tasty food near the market. Our food stall of choice shared their seating area with the local mechanic and we chowed down our noodle soup under the hydraulic lift.

We took a bus up to Chiang Mai. The five days we had there flew by and we could have easily spent longer. We had some wonderful food and met some wonderful people. The boys highlight was definitely our visit to the Siam Insect Zoo where we got up close and personal with all manner of bugs. George and I even held a scorpion! I decided to treat myself to some RnR and went for a Thai massage. Despite going for the ‘relaxing’ option, it was agony and I would hate to experience a ‘strong’ one! We really enjoyed walking around the old town and even dragged the children kicking and screaming persuaded the children to visit a temple or two.

We were thrilled with the sleeper train back to Bangkok. The bunks start the journey as seats and are converted about hour into journey, complete with sheets, blankets and comfy pillows. We were in lower bunks and they were pretty roomy, even sharing with a small wriggly child. It was best sleep on a night train we’ve ever had.

We split our last couple of days in Bangkok between doing something for the adults and something for the children. The grown ups chose a visit to see the massive golden Buddha at Wat Pho (My brain is still processing this as it would in Vietnam – what fer?). The boys were in a cooperative mood and we discussed the various merits of Wat Pho’s Buddha versus the giant one we’d seen at Leshan in China. We’d taken their sketch books and they were happy to sit by the pond drawing the fish.

For the children we went to KidZania the following day. A miniature city where the children get to dress up and role-play different jobs. They got to be firefighters, riding on a mini fire engine to put out a fire. They looked for a missing person whilst being police officers. They were vets, doctors, 7eleven cashiers and even took part in a stage production of the Little Mermaid. They earn kidzos for their endeavours and can spend them on other activities such as making a drink at the coca-cola bottling plant or having a good old boogie at the disco. There is also a department store where they are supposed to be able to by items with their hard earned kidzos but they all cost too much. A life lesson too far perhaps. The boys however had lots of fun. It is very clever marketing for the companies involved, an exercise in brand recognition and capitalist brain washing for the next generation of consumers.

This was not our first visit to Thailand and I’m pretty sure it will not be our last. The country is beautiful and the people friendly. It is easy to get around (apart from Bangkok where the traffic is awful) and the food, as you may have gathered, is amazing. We were happy and well fed for the long road to Cambodia.

Walking with Elephants

When people think of Thailand they think of elephants and an encounter with the gentle giants is high on many a travel agenda. Since logging was banned in Thailand in 1989 many working elephants have been put to work to serve tourists often in poor conditions with poor treatment.

We were very fortunate therefore to spend time with these incredible creatures in a way that did not compromise their wellbeing. Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES) was founded by my incredible friend Katherine Connor who has made saving elephants her life’s work. BLES is located in rural Sukhothai, surrounded by plantations and forest – it’s a far cry from the restaurant in Essex where we worked together 17 years ago!

“BLES is devoted to creating a safe & natural environment for elephants.                                                                    No shows, no tricks – just elephants being elephants.”

Katherine keeps visitor numbers low at BLES so as to not disturb the elephants. There are just 3 guesthouses on site and these are booked up at least a year ahead. We weren’t able to plan that far in advance, instead Katherine allowed us to come as day visitors and we lodged at a wonderful homestay a few miles away. We cycled to BLES through the countryside each morning; sawadee kaa/kap-ing merrily to the villagers.

 

When we arrived for our first full day at BLES we were quickly introduced to The Gossip Girls; Wassana, Lotus and Pang Dow. Two of them have serious disabilities from their logging days and they have all had very difficult lives. These magnificent female elephants now spend their days trumpeting and squeaking to each other as they browse in the forest. They were feeling thirsty and took long drinks from the hose right next to us. Katherine explained that we wouldn’t be able to be this close with all of the elephants as some of them are not comfortable around people.

After a wonderful breakfast with fellow visitors we watched Katherine and the Mahouts attend to their injuries. Wassana and Pang Dow have problems with their feet which need daily treatment. The boys were fascinated at the puss that shot out of Lotus’s leg as Katherine drained an abscess. Pang Dow walks on her ankle having never recovered from a serious break sustained from forced breeding. Wassana’s foot is badly damaged from standing on a land mine and she now has a specially made boot to protect it from infection whilst she is out in the forest.

 

The boys stroked trunks and busied themselves collecting grass for the elephants until they were ready for their morning walk into the forest. We follow behind at a safe distance, waiting as they pause to graze along the way. At one point we needed to stand aside to let Mee Chok pass. A cheeky young bull, with unpredictable behaviour who spent his early life chained up in a filthy shack. We caught up with the Gossip Girls and spent a couple of happy hours in their company and with another group. It was fascinating to watch their social interactions and get interpretation from Katherine about why one elephant may have beef with another.

We walked back for lunch and enjoyed watching elephants frolicking in the pond while we ate. We witnessed a tussle between Lotus and Mee Chok. Katherine explained that she is the only elephant that stands up to his naughtiness. We also watched as Wassana had her boot removed and proceeded to pull her bandages off with her trunk.

 

In the afternoon we piled into the sanctuary’s ‘limousine’ to collect additional food for the elephants from a nearby plantation. The ride on the old tractor was windy and bumpy but it still managed to lull the boys to sleep. The mahouts cut down banana trees and we carried them to the truck. It was heavy grubby work and we were soon drenched in sweat. Then we headed back to BLES sitting atop the banana trees.

 

Katherine’s capacity for caring seems boundless, she just can’t see an animal in distress with helping. Because of this the sanctuary is not only home to elephants but also also dogs, cats, cows, wild boar and tortoises. The pond in the tortoise enclosure needed cleaning and the boys were keen to help but quickly lost interest leaving Nick and I to finish the job. After dinner and a tropical downpour we cycled back to the homestay tired and happy. To cap a perfect day we saw our first wild scorpion on the track outside the homestay, George was delighted.

The next day was Saturday and the boys were very happy that Katherine’s older kids weren’t at school. They were soon busy with a pile of lego. We repeated the routine of the previous morning walking into the forest with the Gossip Girls after their clinic treatment. Nick wasn’t feeling very well so he stayed at base for a snooze.

Photo credit Katherine Connor

 In the forest I had great interaction with Lom who took my water bottle and drank from it. I sat at her feet feeling very small with Katherine offering reassurance from nearby. The boys climbed a tree and collected stones. Katherine told us more about their complex social lives. Meanwhile back at base Nick had a visit from Tong Jai, an old and intimidating tusker. An encounter with Tong Jai is sure to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Only Anon, Katherine’s husband, is able to handle him and she told him how he once single handedly scared off poachers who were after Tong Jai’s impressive tusks.

Katherine had recently organised some clinics for sterilising local cats and dogs and that afternoon we went to a nearby temple to check on some of the animals. When we got back the plan had been to wash some of the dogs but the water was off so we chilled instead. The boys enjoyed the company of Hope, Noah and Aaron. They played animal rescue together and got really muddy. When home time rolled around they were both really upset to say goodbye to their new friends.

 

Whilst the children played I read all the elephants stories and I was moved to tears. I felt very guilty about having ridden elephants in India and Nepal. At the time the animals appeared well cared for and we enjoyed the experiences. But I didn’t know then about the brutal process of training an elephant, or that despite a long history of carrying heavy loads, elephants do not have strong backs.

Later I asked Katherine about photos I’d seen of the mahouts riding the elephants as I knew they didn’t do this anymore. She adeptly quoted Maya Angelou: “Do the best you can. Then when you know better, do better.” It was a well-timed reminder for me to not beat myself up about the past and to act differently in the future. We certainly won’t be riding an elephant again.

Katherine has built BLES from nothing and works tirelessly for the continued running of the sanctuary, caring for the animals, planning further rescues and the mammoth task of fundraising, not to mention being mother to five children. To say she is an inspiration is putting it mildly. It is rare to meet someone living their values with such conviction and the space she has created is testament to her love and passion.

BLES survives on donations if you are able to help please click here.

Vietnam part II

We’d heard many good things about Hoi An and, happily, it lived up to expectations. Beautiful architecture, in particular the lanes of the Old Town and its riverside setting; the vibrant paddy fields; and a gorgeous stretch of beach (An Bang). To boot, Hoi An boasts some of the best eateries and best food we’d had in Vietnam. Unsurprisingly, therefore, our stay of initially a few nights was extended by a further week so we could enjoy exploring the many delights of this fine city.  We were also reunited with our Kiwi friends who had, coincidentally, rented a house on the edge of town and invited us to stay for a while. Happy days.

Of the many highlights from that week, though, Sam and my ‘afternoon date’ enjoying a wonderful walking street food tour was the best.  As our friends kindly minded the children, we gorged our way around the city, stuffing ourselves silly on some nine courses of local foods, including White rose, Waterfern cake, Cao Lau and supposedly the best banh mi in Vietnam. I should point out too that despite our adventurousness, we politely declined the fertilised egg containing a duck embryo (Balut) on grounds that it sounded disgusting.  As we walked around between courses, Sam was also afforded plenty of time to window-shop and indeed coveted many dresses and shoes en route. Not so silently, she vowed to return to Hoi An one day with an empty suitcase and her credit card. She did manage to have a couple of dresses made in the time we were there, citing an upcoming family wedding as reasonable justification!

We eventually dragged ourselves away from Hoi An and commenced the Northern leg of our Vietnam tour. Next stop, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park – home to the oldest karst mountains in Asia and some of the largest and deepest cave systems in the World.

After a day of relaxing (well, I say relaxing, but I had us cycle 20 ish km round the old village of Phong Nha in 35+ degree heat), we headed off on motorbikes in pursuit of The Dark Cave and afterwards Paradise Cave. Whilst the latter provided the classic cathedral-like splendour of a giant cave (all 31 kilometres of it) set in stunning forrest clad karsts, it was the former cave that provided us with the fun and laughter. The Dark Cave and the complex surrounding it was packed with enough surprises to keep us amused for several hours, including zip wire rides into the river (George showed his Mother how to do it!), river kayaking and, the best of all, a cave room with a mud bath so thick, even I was able to float! Once everyone was semi-submerged, we held the childrens’ hands as the head torches were switched off and absolute darkness was enjoyed. The sensation was incredible and brought out the child in everyone!

The following evening, with mud still soaked into our swimmers, we boarded another sleeper bus, this one bound for Hanoi. The inglorious details of this trip have already been provided, so I shall spare them here. Suffice to say, however, we were very pleased and relieved to eventually arrive at our next hostel in the capital. Our arrival was made even more pleasurable by not one but two warm welcomes. The first by Alice, the very friendly manager of our new home, and the second by The Brooks family, who we’d met through an online forum and had arranged to put faces to names and have a fun evening together before they departed the following morning.

Having been on the road for many months now, the childrens’ current appetite and enthusiasm for all things cultural – museums, temples and the like – is not exactly at an all-time high. So, when I suggested we visit Hanoi’s Museum of Ethnology, a large collection of tribal art and artefacts, my expectations were that we’d be in and out within an hour, with the children wholly unimpressed. Fortunately, I was wrong. In fact, we were so enthralled by the exhibits (George included), we managed to lose Tomas momentarily. Once his screams were answered by some helpful Indian tourists on the floor beneath us, we were reunited and learned that he was playing hide and seek – albeit on his own, poor boy!

With a week left in Vietnam, we decided to visit Cat Ba Island & Cat Ba National Park. It was from there we would also be able to explore the famous limestone islands of Halong Bay.


Like other places we’ve visited in Vietnam, Phong Nha, Mui Ne to name but two, Cat Ba is a boom town, which has unapologetically and unsympathetically developed in order to cater for the recent influx of tourists. That said, the surrounding countryside, including the national park, and the several hundred islands peppering the gulf remain the star attractions and rightly so. So whilst the food and the hotels weren’t the finest Vietnam had to offer, the scenery certainly was and we enjoyed several days venturing round the island and exploring the bays.  Unfortunately, our stay was accompanied by the arrival of Typoon Kujira, which aside from shutting the island down for day, reeked only minimal damage and relative normality was restored the following day. The highlight of our time on Cat Ba was the day long boat trip where we swam, kayaked and I hurled myself off a cliff into the bay.


Lastly, it was back to Hanoi for a few days before our departure for Thailand.  It has become customary for us, when we’re preparing to leave a country, to spend this time decluttering our backpacks, replenishing the missing stationery and Lego, completing some much overdue “home” admin and sending a postcard to my nieces in Sydney.  Hanoi was no exception.  Naturally, too, we do retrospective of our last few weeks and, in truth, whilst we enjoyed the last two months in Vietnam, we were definitely ready to leave. It was easy to get around logistically, but I would be lying if I said it was the friendliest place we’ve visited. The occasional touching by locals of young children’s private parts (in order to determine their sex, apparently) was a particularly unpleasant cultural trait of which any travelling parent should be wary. Nevertheless, resounding memories of Vietnam are George and I bouncing down the zip wire together before plunging into the river, a mud bath with the family and Tomas and George showing the Hipsters how to tear up a dance floor in a club in Hanoi!

Good evening, Vietnam. Thailand, we’re on our way back.