My time in Cambodia… Part 1

I have not posted much about the time I spent in Phnom Penh on my volunteering stint so I thought I would some of this enforced stay at home time to put some words down. I think it will be a post of things I actually did and then some thoughts or observations that I had. I have been looking back at pictures that I had taken and I forgot what a super time I had but I will admit that at times I really did not like being there – I think that if I had been 20 years younger, it would have been different.

So many times I had to keep reminding myself that I was in a totally different culture and that meant that the way people did things and how they lived is going to be different. I might not enjoy or even understand why things happened the way they did, but that did not mean it was wrong and I had to just accept.

I arrived back into Phnom Penh via Singapore after Heidi’s funeral so was somewhat subdued, but I was so much looking forward to a new experience, a new world and was ready to go!

My volunteering was being facilitated by Asia Volunteer Network (http://www.volunteerworkcambodia.org/) which I chose because they are a local organisation and the money I paid would cover their operating costs plus my room and board, it was important to me that any money I paid stayed local. My accommodation at the start was a volunteer hostel in the Russian Market area of the city, properly known as Tuol Tumpoung. I was lucky as I got a single room with a bathroom and the family that ran the place were just so lovely. The mother was the housekeeper and her 2 children also lived there and they interacted with the volunteers so was fun, even with the language barrier!

I arrived on Friday and my orientation etc was not due until the Monday so I spent the weekend wandering around the local area and then going into the central Riverside area. I didn’t see many volunteers as weekends is when they tend to travel around.

I am trying to recall my initial thoughts or impressions but I can’t! I had been there before but I had that little incident with the mosquito, but I think that I was just so happy to be there! I felt very at home as it was very much like Bombay – loud, busy, loads of people around, cars, motorbikes with some very strange smells!

I was lucky with the group of volunteers that I met up with that first week, we were all newbies all doing different things, teaching, working with disabled children and microfinance.

We worked during the week and then planned trips around the country at weekends, our first was Siem Reap and the Ankor Wat Temples, which I was glad to get back to as I was able to see the other temples in the complex. They were amazing, Bayon Temple, built during late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII and is dedicated to Buddha with four sided face carvings looking down on you as you walk around, and Ta Prohm which is known as the Tomb Raider temple as it was the site used in the film.

People say that the best time to see the Ankor Wat complex is at sunrise, so, at 4.30am on a Saturday morning, we made our way to the complex. Pitch black, we gingerly walked our way onto the grounds. There were loads of people which was an experience in itself, all with cameras which spoilt things a bit, I will confess that I was one of them! Even though it was a very touristy thing to do, it was amazing to see the colours change as the sky became lighter and we could see the outline of the temple. It was all very calm and quiet, some people were meditating, most just standing and watching quietly as dawn broke over the temple. Was magnificent and well worth the 4am alarm call.

Sunrise over Ankor Wat

It was a really amazing weekend, exhausting but amazing. There was the floating village, which was exactly as the name suggests, a group of floating houses where people lived. There were schools, churches, temples and shops!! Amazing place. I did hear afterwards though that they were Vietnamese encouraged by the government to live there so that there was something for the tourists to see. Whether that was true or not, I have no idea but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was!!

My first trip to Siem Reap early January was very different to this second one, we had a hostel in the tourist centre this one and it is horrible, honestly I thought I was in the centre of Magaluf or something! Neon city, loud, banging music coming from every building and even a wrestling match! During the day, things were pretty quiet as I guess people were sleeping off hangovers or whatever, or out seeing the sites. I sound judgmental, I know. There is a very apparent and obvious drug trade but it keeps the economy going. I really would have liked to have gone again as I didn’t see every thing that I had wanted to, it was really hot and exhausting so we had to pace ourselves. Also I lost my pictures (long story) which I am really annoyed with myself about but I can’t change it and at least I have the memories of being there.

Regarding the voluntary work, my placement was with an NGO called Samatapheap Khnom Organisation (SKO) which was set up to enpower women to fulfill their potential and improving the living conditions of the poorest and most vulnerable families in the community. It has a group of social workers that go out into the local villages to talk to women about domestic violence, education for children and how they can improve their own economic situation. Not speaking the language nor being a social worker meant that my contribution was fairly minimal, but I helped where I could. I went out into the community with the social workers to see the impact that they were having. I saw some really shocking things, the poverty, housing etc. SKO was funded by large international aid organisations like UNICEF and aid funds from France and Australia to target DV, budgeting training and education. One of the interventions is providing small grants so that women can set up micro businesses such as selling items from their homes, buying sewing machines to make sacks for cement and training for childcare to provide cheap childcare in the village so parents can go out to work. We visited some of the homes, some were just a wooden shack where the bed turned into the dining table in the day, the air full of cement dust and the cat eating the fish earmarked for lunch. One lady and her family lived in one room that cost $50 a month and was in a block next door to the local rubbish tip.

My first thought was oh my God, what is this slum? But then I was ashamed and sad that a, I could think like that, and b, people had no choice but to live like that.

One of the most common occupations is garbage collection – yes – garbage collection. Women, in the main, walk around the city with a trolley or cart and pick up cans, glass, cardboard and paper which they sell to recycling merchants. There are charities that even provide large carts to families so that they can earn money this way.

This brings me on to one of my observations – that Cambodia has a huge garbage problem. It’s like they don’t care, they just pile up rubbish and I am not sure if the local council actually cares about collections. The result is that there are piles of rubbish everywhere and then they burn it with the result that there are always piles of smoldering rubbish adding to the already polluted air.

They also have this extremely reliant relationship on plastic, I mean everyone uses single use plastic every day from the packaging for their breakfast, coffee/tea, lunch, snack and dinner. It looked like no one cooks at home, all along the streets are food carts serving noodles and rice, congee and soup all day. Some people eat on the pavement, others do take away so the items are put in foam boxes and then placed into small plastic bags. Coffee is in plastic cups and then put into plastic holders so people can hang them from the handlebars of their bikes or carry them easily.

This plastic makes up part of the rubbish that is burnt so you can imagine what the air is like, and the rivers that run through PP are covered in plastic, food and other things that I won’t mention. I really don’t understand it, people just chuck things on the ground, they live with piles of rubbish around them and then set fire to them???? – This is one of those characteristics that I don’t understand but have to accept.

End of Part 1………… Part 2 coming shortly!!

Well I wasn’t expecting this…

I am going back to London, I resisted it for ages but when the Programme Director at work advised me to leave, I listened.

This whole COVID 19 situation has scuppered my plans which I am very disappointed about. I don’t think that I did half of what I wanted to here in PP but I met some amazing people, fellow volunteers and local Khmer people who are trying hard to improve the country.

Why am I leaving? Well, if I were to catch the virus, I would be on my own in a foreign country where I don’t know the language, don’t trust the government nor the health facilities.

I will share some of my observations during my 8 weeks here, it’s a great place even though it is noisy, busy, dusty, dirty and smelly in places!!

I am going to spend the rest of my day packing up my nice new studio flat into the extra case that I have to yet buy, and then reflect on things when I get back.

Watch this space!

Phnom Penh and Siem Reap

I have just realised how long it has been since my last post and I must finish the ‘Journey to Ankor Wat blog, before I forget what happened. My last post ended with the info that I was bitten by a bug of sorts in my eye, yes sounds bloody stupid but that is what happened – promise! After checking in to the hotel in PP (that’s what us locals call it y’know!) and decided to go to the ATM. As I came out of the booth, I spied this bug coming straight towards me and tried to move but no, it flew straight into my eye and I reflexively shut my eyes and rubbed…… Fellow travelers very kindly tried to help by trying to flush the blighter out with saline but the damage had been done.

After trying to sleep, the next day (NYE) was a full on sightseeing tour of the city which I was determined not to miss, I had been waiting to come to Cambodia for years and I was going to see it all!!

The first stop was the Royal Palace, right in the centre of town on the Riverside, a beautiful traditional building constructed from 1866 – 1870 where the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers cross. The complex houses The Throne Room, The Silver Pagoda and the main palace residence of the King. Only parts are open to the public but I did get a chance to walk through the beautifully manicured gardens with colourful Bougainvillea and shaped hedges.

The Throne Hall is painted yellow to represent Buddhism, and white for Hinduism which was the dominant religion in Angkorian times. The Silver Pagoda is one of the only ones to have survived under the Khmer Rouge, the floor is covered with five tonnes of silver spread across more than 5,000 tiles. The staircase leading to the pagoda is made of Italian marble, with the temple home to a life-sized gold Buddha dripping with 2,086 diamonds. There are beautiful murals and sculptures all along the walls, making it a very impressive site.

The King even gives you a bottle of water as you leave, not personally mind!

As you can see from this very unflattering picture, the left eye seems to be rather sore……!!

The afternoon brought what I was dreading/looking forward to most Toul Sleng Prison and Cheung Ek Genocidal Centre, more commonly known as The Killing Fields.

Toul Sleng aka S-21 was an old school that was taken over by the Khmer Rouge. The classrooms were turned into cells, larger ones for ‘VIP’ prisoners who were tortured whilst chained to metal beds. There were pictures on the walls of the bodies on the beds which remained in the room. I have not added any of those pictures, I didn’t take any. Other rooms were separated into cubicles where captives were chained into and some had rows and rows of pictures of those who were then taken on to the Killing Fields and killed.

There were very few survivors. those who were valuable to the regime were saved. They have written books to educate and raise awareness, which I bought. Two such survivors were at the sight and we were able to speak with them.

Fourteen children were saved at the end, one of them was also there.

The Genocidal Centre has been preserved in respect for the thousands of victims who were killed there in very barbaric ways, and then just dumped into mass graves. As you walk around, you can see some of the pits but a lot have been left in respect. In the pagoda, all the bones of those that were dug up have been placed. You can go in and lay flowers and say prayers. It was a really terrible place and the history of it is just terrible.

What kept going on in my mind was how was this allowed to happen? It was in such recent times yet did the world ignore it? Did the regime hide it well and presented a happy community to the outside world? It is just terrifying to think that these events happened in my lifetime, just shocking.

The evening brought some much needed alcohol, it was NYE! Unfortunately I flaked out early as my eye was really sore but not before some celebrations!

Next morning was our flight to Siem Reap, people kept reminding me that my eye was red which did not help! As soon as we landed, we were off to see Angkor Wat, one of the main reasons for my whole trip!

Angkor Wat is among the world’s largest religious monuments and is a popular spot to see the sun rise. It is a UNESCO heritage site measuring 400km sq,the largest religious monument in the world. It was built in the 12th century as a Hindu temple, but later transformed into a place of worship for Buddhists. Construction was started in the mid 12th century and was dedicated to Vishnu. King Suryavarman built it as the state temple and the capital city. Later, towards the end of the 12th century, it transformed from being a Hindu temple to Buddhist one.

It was built in the Khmer style out of sandstone and historians have speculated for years what it was supposed to be, why it is orientated to the west and how the symmetry was so perfect.

It is a main building surrounded by long galleries lined with bas relief patterns that tell the stories of ancient Kings in the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the ancient Hindu scriptures. Virtually all of its surfaces, columns, lintels and even roofs are carved. There are miles of reliefs illustrating scenes from Indian literature including unicorns, griffins, winged dragons pulling chariots as well as warriors following an elephant-mounted leader and celestial dancing girls with elaborate hair styles, it is said that there are over 135 different hairstyles carved in.

It was all just wonderful as I watched the sun go down and the shimmering reflections in the water. Unfortunately that was the only temple in the complex that I made it to as from then on, I was stuck in my sick bed for the next 2 days and if I had known then about the Coronavirus, I would have been worried!!

The amazing journey ended on 4th January, I felt tired, overwhelmed, in a whirlwind and exhausted! I can only now, 7 weeks later, appreciate what I saw and did. I knew that I was coming back to Cambodia so although I was disappointed not to have seen the other temples, I didn’t feel too bad as I was going to make sure I came back to Siem Reap.

Looking back, it was far too much for a 2 week trip, you can’t really get a feel for a place in short snippets of time, being on a bus a lot of the time or living out of a bag. It is a good way of getting the flavour of a country, knowing what to see more or do different on a trip back, or even if you want to go back! Jet lag has a real effect and it takes time to get my head around things if I have traveled a long way and so yes, I do want to visit Vietnam again to give it another go. I am in Cambodia at the moment, that episode is the next page of the blog site!!

Met some really cool people on the trip, Cambodians, Vietnamese and fellow travelers and it was a right old adventure………..

Goodbye Vietnam, Hello Cambodia

Saturday morning began at 3.30am for us as we had to get the 7am flight from Da Nang airport to Ho Chi Minh, which most people still call Saigon. The plan was to arrive into Saigon and then drive to the Mekong Delta, ”Mekong Delta is famous for its abundant
harvests of tropical fruits, flowers and rice, as well as it fantastic views while boating along the canals
” which was supposed to take about 2.5 – 3 hrs long….. 4.5hrs later, we were still on the bus trying to get to there! It was a holiday weekend and the world and his dog were out on the roads. I was dozing on the bus and everytime I woke up, I swear it was the same building that I was looking at out the window each time!

The days activities were moved around so lunch came first and then we had a boat ride along the Mekong River from Cai Be down to Can Tho, I think if we had arrived as early as we were supposed to may have been a bit more vibrant as most the boats had closed up for the day, but it was interesting to see the way life works on the river, with the different boats selling their items. Their cargo was identified by an example of their product hanging from a pole on deck!

There was a whole village on the water, fuel stops, grocery boats even cafes! Life just carried on as normal. We also saw some local cottage industries, making popcorn, sweets from coconuts and rice paper, it’s quite ingenious what people do to make a living and how important the river is to daily life.

Next stop was the obligatory market stop, health and hygiene standards are very different to those back home! Plus any kind of food goes here, all the parts of a variety of animals are eaten here, nothing goes to waste – honestly, nothing! Dairy products don’t seem to factor much, milk is condensed milk from a can (brought over by the Americans to add to the really strong coffee made here), staples include rice, vegetables, noodles and fish.

Sunset meant another trip along the river but this time in a traditional sampan, rowed by a very strong woman! This allowed us to travel through smaller bits of the river where it was quieter and more peaceful so I was able to take in more of the river surroundings, which was nice. The beautiful sunset was an added bonus before another 2.5hr bus journey to Can Tho and the best hotel of the trip – shame it was only a 12 hour pit stop as we had to leave for our drive to Phnom Penh the next day.

Sunday morning we left for HCM/Saigon, yet another long bus journey, again just realising how big Vietnam is and how much land you have to cross to get anywhere. Our first stop was the War Remnants Museum, 3 floors of pictures, posts and documentation of the Vietnam War. It was horrible – that’s all I will say about the contents. Pictures of dead bodies, mangled and bloody. The famous photo of the naked girl, running screaming away from napalm attack was sobering. We all were rather subdued for the rest of the evening.

Although I was interested to learn about the Vietnam War and get to the real history about it all, it was a shocking thing to hear about. What is difficult to understand is that it happened in my lifetime, recent times but other countries in the western world did nothing nothing to stop it – why was this allowed to happen? This is a question I asked myself over and over again during this trip.

The Cu Chi tunnels are a 75mile long set of sprawling underground network of tunnels and living quarters used by the Viet Cong during the war. From there, they masterminded their warfare against the Americans – very cleverly I might add!

These tunnels are only part of a wider network across the country, air, food and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with ants, centipedes, scorpions, spiders, and rodents. Most of the time, soldiers would spend the day in the tunnels working or resting and come out only at night to scavenge for supplies, tend their crops, or engage the enemy in battle. Sometimes, during periods of heavy bombing or American troop movement, they would be forced to remain underground for many days at a time. Sickness was rampant among the people living in the tunnels, especially malaria, which was the second largest cause of death next to battle wounds.

The soldiers hid themselves well so as not to alert the americans to their activities, for example camouflaging air holes as mole hills and having strategic traps doors to allow for easy escape. They set up booby traps using simple items such as sharpened bamboo sticks. They were a group of tenacious soldiers.

As we were walking around the area, I heard gun shots and I thought that it was sound effects to make it seem more realistic but.. NO! As we approached the souvenir/shop bit at the end, there was a firing range – practice area for the army but civilians could pay to have a go. I was rather surprised, to say the least. We had a couple of ex military in our group that actually found it difficult and had to leave, something the Vietnamese government should have thought about before putting the army practice range at the end of a tourist site. (Warning, the video below shows the practice shooting)

We left the tunnels to drive towards the land border at Moc Bai/Bavet, crossing in to Cambodia which I was really looking forward to. I had found Vietnam interesting, the history, the people and the definitely the food, but did I like it? I have to be honest and say that I don’t know. I found it an odd place, very gray and concrete and not very pretty. People didn’t seem happy or maybe I just didn’t warm to them? I felt that we got a very generic narrative of the country, guides towing the line and avoiding the real narrative so I don’t feel that I got a real feel for the country. For example, the Reunification Palace is noted as a must for tourists, yet it was not part of our tour. Apparently it was the base of  Vietnamese General Ngo Dinh Diem until his death in 1963. It made its name in history in 1975 when a tank belonging to the North Vietnamese Army crashed through its main gate, ending the Vietnam War. It is like a time capsule frozen in 1975. You can see two of the original tanks used in the capture of the palace parked in the grounds. It has gardens, secret rooms, antique furniture, a card playing room & casino, a command bunker and still used to host important occasions in the city.

Thinking back on it now, it was a whistle stop tour with long days in the main cities going from one site to another without the time to stand still and take it all in. Not much of countryside or coastal areas and there was a lack of colour and atmosphere. It was a loud, bustling relentless assault of people, bikes, noise and smells – nothing wrong in that at all but I am not sure I got much pleasure out of it overall.

I think that I was still reeling from leaving my life in England, leaving the boys and also dealing with grief, too much maybe, to enjoy Vietnam. It was an introductory experience into a land that has a load more to offer, and I think that I would like to go again and explore different parts of the country with a different mind set to do it justice. I mean it is a HUGE country and it can’t be possible to get a real view of it in just 10 days.

Having said that, crossing into Cambodia from Vietnam was an uplifting experience. Straight away, even just walking across from the Vietnam immigration & customs building to the Cambodian one, I could see that it would be a very different experience. That was until a mosquito bit me in the eye, and it was downhill from then………!

The Highs and Lows of Hoi An

We arrived in Hoi An and all I knew is that we were there for 3 nights so I could unpack and sort myself out. I have to admit that I had not done too much research on the area, I just wanted to go with the flow.

It is about 100 miles from Hue but it is much more laid back with the river winding through it, an old trading post dating from 15th – 19th century lined with multi coloured shophouses and merchant trading premises. It is busy and touristy, with evening bringing busy shop stalls and street food carts, but I did find a gentle charm during the day just strolling past the buildings, some of which have been preserved so you can get some of that lovely french/chinese/portuguese vibe. You can also get clothes, shoes and eye glasses made at a fraction of the price and in 24-36 hours – a shoppers paradise.

As the area is very fertile and rural, it is known for agriculture and fruit and vegetable production. The first day was a visit to Tra Que Village, a cooperative farming area that families have tended to for generations, where we learnt about the traditional farming methods and how agriculture still works in the rural area. It is a large area of working allotments and the families grow fruit and veg for themselves and to take to market, using traditional methods.

We were also encouraged to have a go at helping out! Not sure how much of it was for a tourist show and how much actually goes to market but it was a very nice, calm and quiet space which was a welcome break from all the full on hustle of the urban areas.

We then had a cookery lesson from a chef who we were told, was a world renowned chef, actually he was so entertaining! We all had a great amount of fun watching him and then we cooked traditional Vietnamese pancakes with him which was really entertaining! It was a strange experience as we planted some traditional plants, had a foot massage and then a cookery lesson?!

The town is also trying to be green, vehicles are banned from the centre and taxi’s are run on electricity. Having said that, the highlight of the stay was a Vespa food tour of the best authentic food places. There were 15 of us paired with a Vespa driver taking us through the area, making stops at different eating places to try the local specialities. As pictures are worth a thousand words, there are lots on this page as anything that I could write would not do the trip justice.

We tasted traditional flower dumplings, hot pot, pancakes and of course some local rice wine – let’s just say that some preferred it to others. It was the best fun and I think that I can safely say, the highlight of the trip for alot of us, being on the back of a bike, experiencing the town from a different perspective and then being able to place a lit candle on the river and make a wish whilst watching it float downstream. I would say it was nice to feel the wind in your hair but we had to wear helmets, the locals hate wearing them as, in their words, they are f**king hot!!

The last day I just wandered around, yet another foot massage and more food. In the afternoon, there was an excursion to a place which was supposed to be a great example of Vietnamese architecture, to see the great Golden Bridge and some stunning countryside.

Ba Na Hills is billed as the most important mountain top resort complex and was first developed by the French in 1919 to provide respite from the intense heat. When the French left, it fell to ruin and then the Vietnamese government allowed Sun World to develop it. It now has a cable car (the longest non stop track cable car) a french village complete with castle and a miniature Notre Dame, wax work museum, rollercoaster and gaming arcade – all at 1500m above sea level.. Its like Disneyland on speed and the most bizarre experience!

The Golden Bridge is a wide span bridge supported by two giant hands and I get that it is a great bit of engineering so high up in the hills but that is all – I wish I had not wasted the $110! It was very surreal, the weather was not great and it was misty which gave it a abit of an empty movie set type of feel and the Chinese seem to really like it. The Vietnamese are very proud of it and think that is the best thing since sliced bread! I just found the large pigs and fairytale characters a bit on the spooky side. But I will agree that it’s great engineering infrastructure.

Dinner was an international buffet (not!), with an Eastern European band playing old 70’s disco music for entertainment….. yes, you read correctly.

Again, the pictures will explain better than I………. I think also that I was not looking forward to the 3.30am wake up call for the 7am flight to Saigon..!!

Sticky Rice and Happy Stops….

Christmas Eve, 2019 was spent in Hue, after the dragon boat ride along the Perfume River, we were treated to a Christmas Eve dinner courtesy of On the Go Tours, let’s just say that the thought was there!!

Adam, a fellow traveller, had gone out and bought us all Christmas hats to get us in the spirit of things, and there was a band of musicians to serenade us, the video below will give you an idea….

Food was an ok affair, served with the usual presentational flare….

Hue from the breakfast room

Christmas Day was spent mainly on the bus to Hoi An but on the way we stopped of at the Royal Tomb of Khai Dinh, the penultimate Emperor of Vietnam ruling from 1916 – 1925. He was seen as a puppet of the French as he closely collaborated with the French Occupiers. He was a very reluctant King who spent most of his years in Paris and so was very unpopular in his own country, living the high life rather than ruling his country. He loved art and architecture and although he didn’t really want to be king, he built a tomb for himself with as much opulence as the treasury would allow. The tomb was paid for with increased taxes on the Vietnamese peasants.

In 1919 he made a decree that Vietnamese cease to use Chinese as official written language and was replaced by Romanised Vietnamese.

He only had one son, with his concubine but that is in question as studies state that he was homosexual and surrounded himself with eunuchs and was close to his male guard.

He was a sickly man and became a drug addict, he died of TB in 1925 aged 40.

The tomb was amazing with an exterior of blackened concrete but with a very colourful and flamboyant interior that really took me by surprise!

We then started one of many road trips in our bus, comfortable though it was, it did get rather tedious! It is only when you look at a map to track our journey do you see how huge Vietnam is, it’s enormous! No wonder our road trips were so long.

The sticky rice and happy stop in the title are phrases that our guide Kien used along our trip. When he said sticky rice, it meant stick close by and don’t wander off! The happy house was the toilet so a happy stop was a comfort stop along our long and windy road!

We took the Hoi Van Pass to Hoi An as the weather was clear and we could get good views before we descended into Danang. We drove across the demilitarised zone which is marked by the Ben Hai River and it acted as the buffer between North and South Vietnam. This was the location of some of the bloodiest battles but now most of the sites have been cleared and planted with rubber and coffee.

I had heard of Danang , known as China Beach, as it was the beach where the Americans landed in 1965 citing the need to fight against the communists.

Along the sea front are modern hotels and resort developments and it has turned into a nighttime, neon lit destination.

By the time we got to Hoi An, everyone was shattered, but we knew that we had 3 days here. The first thing I did was sort out some washing – by the kg here, brilliant service. Then…. I did nothing!!

Hoi An brought some of the best experiences and also some of the weirdest, my fellow travellers that might be reading this will know what is in store and will be inwardly chuckling so I will dedicate my next post solely to Hoi An…!!!!

Thought of the day?

I am going to stray a bit here and I will apologise for that from the start. This post will probably come across as a bit of a personal therapy session but please bear with me.

Within the last 10 months I have had to attend two funerals, which may not seem noteworthy i the grand scheme of things, but both were for young women who passed away way before their time and in very sad circumstances.

My lovely niece Risha, was 26 years old and in the prime of her life. My cousins live in Arizona and although I had not spent a lot of time with Risha, she was very much loved. My sister and I were lucky enough to have been able to spend some time with her and her family In 2018 when we went to a family friend’s wedding.

Heidi was my college mate, we met when we were 18 and spent probably the next 20 years hanging out together, going on holidays, partying, christmasing, laughing and crying together, and then supporting each other through break ups and divorces.

We had not seen each other much more recently but things just get in the way sometimes.

I am not really sure where I am going with this post and what I am trying to say, but it will come clear at some point!

Risha’s passing was definitely a catalyst for my embarking on my current travels, I thought that it was such a waste of a young life and that I should be doing more with mine instead of just living the usual life that is expected of us – work, home, routine etc.

Neil, a friend of mine (actually my finance person who has always encouraged my plans) has always said that we never take the time to just “be”, to stay still take the time to appreciate what we have around us, not to fret about what you can’t control or something that may or may not happen at some point in time.

It’s at times like these that we tend to say that life is short, or that we should value people more, or that we need to decide what is important to us and I do agree with that but, how sad is it that we only think like that when something sad or tragic happens? We all say it but does it actually sink in?

When I was told about Heidi, the first thing that I wanted to do was be with “the girls”, to share the grief with those who were feeling the same . That feeling of wanting support from those who are feeling similarly is an odd one, I remember the last time that I felt like that is when Simon and I separated, but he was the only one that would be feeling the same (I don’t think he would have been happy with that!) and so I just had to get on with it. This time it was different, the comfort I got from sharing my grief was invaluable and I think we all valued what we have as a group of friends.

We have said that we need to see each other more and generally be better at keeping in touch and I am sure that will happen, but how long will that last for? Family, work, general life takes over and then we all go back to the way it was. Is that bad though? I mean that it is like 2 steps forward and then one back, we won’t go back to exactly how it was before – when we just got together on occasions, but possibly be in contact a little bit more. All the talk about seeing each other more with families, partners etc, will convert into action but then will settle back down slightly – BUT that is better than nothing, right?

Also, it is such a shame that people only realise how people felt about them when they die. I know that is a blunt statement! I suppose that it would be very strange if we went around telling everyone we knew that we appreciate them and that we would miss them – but why not?!

My thought is that as humans, we just want to love and be loved – in all its’ guises – I do think that it is as simple as that. We strive for money, fame, material goods, recognition and success but at the end of the day, what are you left with? I am sure that many will disagree with me but that is only my view.

Neil introduced me to a book called “The Path of No Resistance: Why Overcoming is Simpler Than you think” by Garret Kramer. In this book, the author is trying to say that we already know deep down, what we need to allow us to prosper and become resilient. What we already have what it takes ‘to excel and give back to others’.

I am not sure if this sort of situation is what he was talking about but 2 points I have taken interest in are;

  • You cannot control your thinking – The human mind is designed to effortlessly replace stale thinking with insight. If you obstruct this process by trying to continually think positively, you will perpetuate struggle and confusion.
  • Stay in the game – What happens when you sit on the sidelines and think yourself into a troublesome experience? It grows and grows. Strategically pausing to figure out or fix a dysfunctional mind set only holds the dysfunction in place. Rather, the key to overcoming adversity is to stay in the game and allow your psychological immune system to clear the dysfunction. Answers will then find you. Success or failure, every experience is guiding you inwards – where resilience truly exists.

Facing the loss openly and being in the moment of it all, not trying to push away the grief is what I am doing. This may not be what Garret Kramer was really talking about but I think that learning from these situations, allowing my mind to realise for itself what is or isn’t important to me, is the way to go. That way I am not ‘deducing’ what I should be feeling or doing by using what is considered the social norm, and by acting in what others might consider an acceptable way.

Wow – sorry – this has been an all over the place post! I suppose what I am saying is that I am trying to work out what is important for me, to inform what I am going to do in the next few years and not to overthink about what I should be doing. Trying to get something good out of these difficult and tragic situations.

Also, it is a way of letting people know how valuable they are to me. Don’t underestimate the power of friendship in any form- cliche yes, but true.

Pressing the Pause Button

As I mentioned before, I am making a little side trip back to UK via Singapore and so I am writing this a bit disjointed as I know I have not finished the Vietnam and Cambodia trip yet. It is all a bit of a blur, I will admit, with the jet lag, very early mornings and long days of seeing the sights as well being on a bus for which felt like the full 2 weeks…! All with a side order of a very awkward mosquito bite and a touch of the flu, (I will explain later!) I need time to think about the rest of the tour and make sure I know what day was where etc. But I have just ended 3 nights in Singapore which have been a revelation!

I have been here before but a long time ago, I think on my honeymoon with Simon in about December 1990, and I liked it then but this time seems to have surpassed all my expectations!

I booked a room in an upmarket hostel called The Great Madras in the Little India area, found it via the Lonely Planet Guide. Rocked up at about 1.30am once the taxi driver had driven around trying to find it for about 20mins, to be greeted by the bar next door in full swing, it was Saturday night I suppose. In the end, it was not too bad, the music went on til about 4 but I drifted in and out of a coma like sleep!

I had decided that the best way to get to know the city was to get a hop on/off bus ticket – what a great set up . Took the Blue line, drove through Chinatown and the decided to get off at Orchard Road, the big shopping area. I only got off there as that was where the tourist office is – promise! Food was actually my first stop, as always, Sate and grilled corn. Then I did have a look at the shops but was very restrained. In the evening, I just went to the 7/11 and got some wine and sat in the hostel watching something on my iPad.

Monday included a walking tour of Chinatown in the bus ticket so I went along as it looked interesting, glad that I did as it was fascinating. The guide was a local resident, born and brought up in a traditional shophouse 5 years after independence in 1965. I had no idea that Singapore was such a young country and the guide told us that his whole family (parents and 4 kids) all lived in one cubicle area and shared a floor with 6 or 7 other families. They shared a kitchen and a bucket for a toilet. I can’t believe that people were living like this as recently as 1971. I went to the Chinese Heritage museum which was fascinating. They had converted 3 old shophouses to show how people lived. They were called shophouses as the were long and narrow buildings and the ground floor front was normally a shop, possibly a tailor or cafe. The shopkeeper would have lived in the back, with the apprentices and their family. The 1st and 2nd floors were then rented out and as housing was scarce, each floor was sectioned off into cubicles that were then rented out. People ate, slept and lived in these small areas. They were very poor and lived from hand to mouth.

Modern Singapore was founded by Stamford Raffles in 1819 as he established a new trading post for The British East India Company and then it became a Crown Colony ruled directly by the British Government in 1867.

The majority of the population of Singapore are from South China, they came over in cramped ships, given little food and treated badly, in the mid 1800’s. They were escaping the fighting and famine in South China, thinking that they would be able to make a new life for their families. They were treated like slaves, being set to work on the docks, construction sites, emptying the poo buckets from the shophouses etc. They spent what little they had on things to alleviate the tedious nature of their lives and became addicted to opium. Obviously all of this led to the formation of gangs and clans and the associated issues.

With Chinese New Year being on 25/26 January, the shops were full of all the brightly coloured paraphernalia, food and loud music!

The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple is only 12 years old and it is absolutely beautiful. Locals remember what it was like to come over from China and the conditions that they lived in, it is unbelievable that it was all relatively recent.

Mass settlement of Indians in Singapore began in around 1819, with initially the population being mainly workers, soldiers and convicts. When Sir Raffles arrived, he tried to form a town plan which allocated areas for the different nationalities to live, to give them their own space. There is Chinatown, Little India and the Malay area. These were the 3 main ethnic groups in Singapore at that time.

A large number of the Indian migrants were rural Tamils, landless peasants who performed manual labour at the docks and constructions sites. Wandering around Little India was like being back in Bombay, the music that was being blasted out of the shops, the clothes, smells….. all made me feel happy and comfortable.

Tooth Relic Museum Hall of 1000 Buddhas
Little India Market

This history has really added to the culture of Singapore, I really loved it there. It has really authentic ethnic sub cultures, with rich, historic strands running through it all. I love the old and the new, mixed with eastern and western culture. I think it sort of hits my love for cultural aspects of a place, with lovely food and interesting people, and then on the other side it has modern technology, great transport system, clean and safe. The roads are modern, there isn’t much traffic as you have to apply for permission to have a car and there are a set number of licences for the whole country and you can only get one if a previous owner has redeemed theirs.

Maybe my thoughts of not being a city girl is wrong? Singapore has a really calm atmosphere, even along the busy Orchard Road shopping area. If you want the buzz of Chinatown or Little India, it’s there, if you want modern accommodation (albeit it pricey) and to get from A to B efficiently, it’s there. There are green spaces, botanical gardens and interesting architecture. I don’t know how a young country can achieve so much when others are struggling. I am sure someone will tell me that I am being ignorant about how economies work and develop and that Singapore had a leg up or an advantage of sorts.

Nevertheless, I really like Singapore, Kaya Toast and coffee for breakfast, Chinese for lunch and Indian for dinner………

On my last day, I had to check out of the hotel at 12 but my flight wasn’t until 11pm so I took my last bus ride back to Chinatown and I decided to find a place to have a massage. I have had a foot massage, full body and leg massages in the past 3 weeks, they are very different out in SE Asia, less of the soft, calm and quiet surroundings with slow, calming pressure. Here it is more of a pummelling of the body, using every body part to help, pulling arms and legs in all directions with very firm, purposeful strokes. Sounds like a wrestling match but they are extremely theraputic, designed to relieve pressure points and loosen up the body.

This one though was all the extremes in one go! The therapist was a young lady but full on, she found all the muscles around my shoulder blades and pushed on each nerve, winded me at times, at one point I had to remember to keep breathing! As she pummelled my bottom, she said – oh you have just had a tattoo – I was rather confused at this when I realised she thought my HRT patch was a plaster!!! I just managed to eek out a reply! She also commented that my body was a bit stiff which was surprising considering how many massages I had had in the previous 3 weeks!! Must have been the fact that at times I was clenching my jaw and tightening up at times to stop myself from yelping out in pain!!!

But, by the end of it, I felt relaxed and loosened up -felt great, BUT all the good work was undone as I got royally lost on the way back to the hotel to pick up my bags…… :-(. Trying to not switch my data on and pay the daily $6 fee…………)

End Note……..

If anyone has the chance to visit Singapore, I highly recommend it. There is still so much left that I wanted to do, 3 days was not enough.

Neon sign in The Great Madras Hotel.

Hanoi to Hue, 23rd December, 2019.

Walking around the Old Town area of Hanoi in the afternoon confirmed my thoughts on how much it reminded me of some of the quieter Bombay streets. Shops piled up their wares on the pavement, hung up in string lengths, ladies sat on the pavement selling vegetables in great wicker baskets, so much like Breach Candy (for those who know the area!)

As you can see from the pictures, it was a grey day which just added to that whole austere vibe, maybe in the summer it is different.

Main form of transport are push and motor bikes, just adding to the rush and chaos.

Getting ready for the cyclo tour, bit of a hairy ride at times!

Interesting electrical work!?

We then got ready to get on the ‘Reunification Express’, the overnight train to Hue (pronounced a bit like WHEY), a 4 berth cabin sleeper which was described as ‘not like the Orient express but the highest class of train available in Vietnam ! Cabins are comfortable though not comparable to European standards, with western style toilet with a varying degree of cleanliness’ !?!?

I had chosen the train option as I thought that it would be good to experience something different and you can see so much more from a train, BUT it was at the point of embarkation I wished that I had taken the flight option instead..

(As an aside, I am sat in Phnom Penh airport waiting for my flight to Singapore, what is it with people who think that it is ok to talk into their phones really loudly with the other person loud speaker? Drives me mad. I am going to try and video it for you, may be illegal, not sure….

Terribly unflattering me but you get the picture!

Anyway, back to the sleeper train, the last one I went on was with my grandparents when I was about 15 to Mount Abu.

The tour company had advised that we take sleeping bag liners to ensure hygiene (shock emoji) so I really was wondering what I was getting on to.

As you can see from the picture on the left, all was fine, an air conditioned carriage with nice clean sheets and pillows. The western style toilet was clean, it was just a bit rocky sat on there as the train rattled along!!

My cabin mates were Maria, Jen and Louise and I think we did ok! As I was on the top bunk on the left, I decided to go slow on liquid intake as there was no way that I would survive the climb down in the night. We were all thrown around a bit and we came to a screeching halt at times but the morning rewarded us with fabulous scenes across the countryside, with the locals going through their daily routines. This is the countryside that I was looking for, the paddy fields, buffalo and the people do wear conical hats!

Trains are always such a great experience, be they the local 2nd class seats or a better ‘tourist class’. You see the real scenery.

Hue is a world heritage site as it was the empire capital in 19th century. The Imperial Palace is beautiful, and the home of the Nguyen Empire, set inside a Citadel and Royal Enclosure, built between 1804 and 1833.

The evening was a Dragon Boat cruise along the river.

We were taken to have lunch in a lovely garden, we were told that the place belonged to the chef of the royal household. A lovely setting and the presentation of the food added to the whole experience.

From what I understand, Hue was an important city in the history of Vietnam, geographically in the centre, it was an ideal place to rule from. We did get a potted history of the Chinese, Vietnamese and how the Emperor’s gained a vantage point depending on who they traded with and how power war allocated etc. However, when I and others asked about how the south area of Champa, previously a self ruled area, and other more detailed and searching questions regarding the formation of Vietnam as it is today, I am not sure we were given an answer.

I really don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, that’s not what I mean, but just that possibly there is a a set view that we are being given as that is how things are, and that’s ok. I just find the whole country fascinating and beautiful.

Overnight in Hue and then onto the Road of the Ocean Clouds from Hue to Hoi An.

Off to find dinner now….

Gooooood Morning Vietnam!

Dubai to Hanoi, 21 December, 2019.

Yes, I know the title is cheesy but had to be done!

Left Dubai at some silly time (3.40 am) for the 5 hour flight to Hanoi on my parent’s 58th Wedding Anniversary to start my trip, bittersweet journey but looking forward to it.

I did wonder if I had packed my toiletry bag ok as the evening before, every time I zipped up my rucksack, I accidentally pressed the on button of my electric toothbrush – not sure if the baggage handler could cope with that!

Flight was fine and got to the hotel and met my room mate for the trip, Maria from the States but currently living and working in Moscow.The obligatory group meeting where I met the rest of the group, 21 of us from UK, Aus, NZ, Lebanon and Kuwait, a great mix of ages and nationalities.

Had a little walk around, in the Old Town area and it reminded me a bit of the quieter streets of Bombay, people sat on the pavement, selling stuff, cracked stones..!

Early morning and then bus ride to Halong Bay to join the boat for the overnight sail. Have to admit that I was not expecting it to be grey and chilly but it was ok.

Boat was very nice, around 20 cabins, viewing deck etc – comfortable cabins and dining deck. Large lunch (as is the case most days) and then there was an excursion to a cave and a beach. I obviously didn’t go, it was cold and grey, but I had a massage instead!

Afternoon brought a cooking lesson, fresh spring rolls and a ‘Masterchef’ cook off! Girls against boys, girls won of course. Rice wine shots (not nice) and dinner. I would add pictures but am using hotel WiFi and nothing is downloading!

Cheers in Vietnamese

Monday we sailed a bit more, even though it was cool and slightly grey, it was a lovely view, Halong Bay being a UNESCO site. Were lots of boats though, some larger, cruise type boats and some traditional ones like ours, took some of the charm away but it’s a famous site so to be expected.

There is a large cave we went to see, it was like being on a Harry Potter set, or Indiana Jones, very impressive but just streams of people pushing to get just the right picture. I know that that is what tourism is like and wonderful sites and views are always going to be popular, but it does take something away from the experience.

Back to Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital is loud, busy and full of scooters and mopeds, sometimes with a whole family on board getting from A to B. I could never drive on the roads there, people just go to where they want to without regard for any other road user, pedestrian or buffalo! Crossing is impossible without taking the role of a lollipop person and physically standing in the middle of the road to stop traffic! It’s a very cosmopolitan city but not much of any french influence around, very functional and concrete. I don’t know if the old world was destroyed by the war or just that I didn’t come across it, but I was hoping to like the city more.

See what I mean?!

I have been wanting to visit Vietnam for a long time but maybe I relied too much of what I had seen on TV, with Hawkeye, Maj. Houlihan, Klinger and Radar rather than Apocalypse Now.

I am curious about how the Vietnam War started, how USA became involved and how the North & South became reunified. South Vietnam was a separate state years ago, known as Champa, I had no idea about this or how it came about that it was taken over by the Vietnamese.

The Mekong region has been influenced by both India and China with Indian traders arriving in around AD100 and then Chinese occupation from around AD800 for 1000 years. I got the impression that the Vietnamese are proud of claiming back their country only to then have it taken over by the French and then ‘meddled with’ by the Americans because they feared communism.

All these different influences and rulers have left their mark on Vietnam, I am sure, but I think I need to read further and work things out for myself as I am not sure that I have been given unbiased details and information about the history, the troubles and the evolution.

I wanted to add pictures but can’t download them right now!!