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Back on the road again

After two weeks of not seeing a wheeled vehicle I have been struck by how well traffic works here in Cambodia.

I think there are rules. Probably.  I’m not entirely sure on this, but as far as I can work out, when driving on a straight road, size / speed matters and at junctions everyone takes their turn.  It’s all very amicable; horns are used to let the guy you’re passing know that you are there rather than to express contempt for his driving skills.

Driving on a straight road – like the main road from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh – drivers should use both lanes.  As there is only one lane in each direction this means that you can spend a lot of time on the wrong side of the road.  And this is not only when overtaking; my driver had a pathological fear of the rumble strips used to indicate an imminent zebra crossing and would drive on the other side just to avoid hitting them.  He had less of an issue with potholes, however.

To facilitate the size / speed matters rule road users, from pedestrians to overloaded HGV,s have adopted a revolutionary concept of moving over, when a vehicle approaches from behind, to allow overtaking.  The road at each side of the carriageway is hard packed and can be used to drive on if more space is needed.  This also applies when the traffic coming the other way is using both lanes and you need to avoid a head on collision!

When turning left – ie across oncoming traffic – the practice is to indicate, pull out and, when a suitable gap appears in the traffic, go for it.  It isn’t necessary to wait until you reach the turning you want as it is quite acceptable to drive for a while on the hard shoulder on the other side in the opposite direction to the other road users.

But the best fun is to be had at junctions.  Those turning left creep forward waiting for the drivers coming the other way to let them through.  I can’t really describe how this works, it just does.  Loads of eye contact and general politeness and everyone gets where they’re going with the minimum of fuss.

In Cambodia they have terrific traffic lights.    Firstly, in addition to the red and green lights for traffic there is a countdown in seconds to the next light change. You’d think this would make each green light like the start of a drag race but, no, it doesn’t work that way here – maybe it’s too hot to race.  But absolutely the best bit is the pedestrian phase; based on the well known red man / green man design but taken to a new level.  The green man is animated and walks, slowly at first, then as the timer runs down he speeds up until, during the last 10 seconds before the lights change he positively sprints.  It’s funny in its own right, but made even funnier by the fact that people here never actually run.  If caught out half way across they just manoeuvre through traffic like any other road user.

I’d love to post a video of all this but I’m too mean to pay for the upgrade on my blog package, sorry.

Island living ….

Better late than never, I finally have time to add a little more on my two week’s of island life.

It’s hard to know how to write about this part of the trip.  You really have to have been there to understand.  I’ve already described the living conditions and those who know me have probably decided that it sounds like my idea of hell – but it wasn’t, it was really great.  I can honestly say it was the most rewarding part of my trip so far.  I’m not sure that I managed to make a massive contribution to marine conservation in the two weeks, but it had a big impact on me.

So what was so great?  Well, for one thing the people I met were just fantastic.  Everyone, staff, volunteers and locals, was helpful, considerate and great fun to spend time with.    I had worried that all the other volunteers would be about half my age or less – and they were – and that we’d have nothing in common – but of course we did.  We had all volunteered to help the project in one way or another and our different backgrounds and reasons for being there gave us plenty to talk about.  The lack of electricity meant that the one thing that would have really driven me nuts – loud music – was conspicuous by its absence.  The only soundtrack to the day was the waves lapping on the shore, the chickens scrabbling round the huts and the occasional dog barking.  At night there was music drifting over from the village, the occasional geckko vocalising and now and again the fruit bats would get a bit raucous.

Lazing in a hammock was a perfectly acceptable way to spend a few hours, although there was plenty of opportunity to dive, surverying reefs or seahorse habitats, or to teach English to the village children in the evening.

Not all the conservation was marine.  I joined one jungle survey where we trekked up a dry riverbed looking for orchids.  We came across some weird sticky looking stuff hanging from trees.

It looked a bit like a small wasps nest but subsequent enquiry discovered that it was the spawn of tree frogs.  When the rains arrive the eggs grow and hatch into tadpoles which drop into the river to turn into the next generation of frogs.  Pretty clever thinking by the frogs, eh?

The most amazing experience of the two weeks was the evening after my birthday when I went swimming.  I’m afraid there are no photos of this, so I’m going to ask you to use your imagination to get the idea.

Close your eyes – not yet, you fool – you need to read the full instructions first.

Imagine you are sitting in the moonlight by a bonfire on the beach.  It is very, very, warm and the sky is full of stars.  You can hear the waves gently lapping and the crackle of the bonfire.  The sky starts to cloud over hiding the bright moon and the stars.

You go into the water and start to swim out from the shore.  Suddenly the water appears to be filled with all the stars that have vanished from the sky; every move you make is magically illuminated by the glow from millions of microscopic plankton.

Then the heavens open and the rain pours down in torrents.  Every drop that hits the water excites more plankton into lighting up.  You float gently while the entire sea sparkles around you.

Right, now close your eyes and try to imagine it.

If you succeeded in visualising this you’ll begin to understand what a fantastic time I had on the island and why it is so important to conserve the environment in places like this.

Living off the grid

It seems a little weird to be wired up again after living without internet, phone, mains electricity and running water for the last two weeks. I had a great time and hardly missed my virtual life at all – honest.  (Before my kids spoil a good story I’ll admit I did have a mobile phone signal on a couple of occasions, when the weather conditions were right, so I received the birthday texts they sent. )

The general “off grid” living experience was genuine though.  No flush toilets, no showers,  just a barrel of water filled once a day shared by four people for washing and flushing purposes. All housed in a small room with a slatted floor at the back of a wooden hut with two sets of bunks which was my home for 14 days.  (Those readers who recall my earlier gripes about Chinese toilets will understand how pleased I was to find it was a proper sit-on  loo – even if the flush was manual.)

Of course no electricity means no aircon, despite daytime temperatures in the upper 30s C and night temps in the high 20s.  And plug-in mosquito repellents can’t be used.  We slept with the door open to capture any breeze and relied on the resident trio of geckos to deal with any insect intruders.  This task they performed admirably, the only down side was the deposits they left on the floor each morning.

Diving was my main activity, and I managed to do a fair bit of it and got some good pics in the process.  I learned a huge amount about the invertebrates who inhabit / comprise the reef.  All that stuff I used to think was coral is actually a whole host of different things, only a few of which are really coral.  The soft stuff is often hard coral, the hard stuff is sometimes sponge, even the algae can be quite hard ….. which makes learning it all quite hard too.  Luckily the seahorses were easy to recognise once you learned to spot them in their camouflage gear hiding between the spines on sea urchins.

Right now I have to dash to get a taxi to the airport for my flight to Siem Reap but I hope to add more about island life soon.

Rushing for a bus

I have been on a travel photography course – so expect the standard of the pics to improve from here on.

Actually, that might take time as I’m switching from my cameras automatic settings to use more of its capabilities.  Things may get worse before they get better.  Check out a couple of pics on the topic of children and sunsets  below.

I’m rushing for a bus this morning as I’m off diving for two weeks.  I’m not sure if I’ll be able to update my blog from where I’m going, but you can check my destination out at http://www.marineconservationcambodia.org/

Another thought provoking experience ….

… but this time much more positive.

Today I travelled out to a village in rural Cambodia with my new friend Sophea.  Soon we left the paved roads behind and I could see why Cambodians dislike the dry season.  Every car raised a cloud of thick dust which coats the trees and houses.  Motorcyclists and pedestrians are lefting choking in the wake of larger vehicles.  Sophea explained to me that he used to have a long cycle to school along similar roads and, in the wet season they were underwater and so he had to make parts of the trip by boat.  When it was very bad it could take up to 5 hours travelling a day.  And that was on top of helping his parents on the land.

When we got to his village we went for a trip in an ox car t to see the sights.  We were soon joined by his son and some other children who thought it was great fun.  As we travelled slowly along we were the subject of many stares.  The locals seemed friendly, smiling and laughing with us. Or perhaps it was at us, as I discovered that people do not normally travel in ox carts, which are usually for transporting crops.  Oh, the glamorous life I lead!

After an excellent lunch cooked by Sophea’s Mum and Aunt, I was expected to earn my keep by teaching a special class for the local school.   Normally the classes run from 5 – 7pm after the children have worked to help their family in the fields.  They fish, mind animals and help with the crops.

My attempts at teaching were not particularly skillful, and given a class ranging in age from 5 – 13, whose abilities were unknown to me, I was at a bit of a loss.  I introduced myself and explained where I was from – writing each sentence on the board and repeating it with them.  I was blown away to realise that the smallest children were copying what I wrote nery neatly into their exercise books.  Given that this wasn’t their native language or alphabet, this was a bit of a surprise.  Then they took turns coming to the front to introduce themselves and to repeat what they knew.  The littlest one again surprised by counting to 100 in english.  I checked and she knew, and understood, each individual number.   This helped me realise that they struggle to pronounce some specifics, like the difference between 17 & 70, 16 & 60, etc.  Also the letter S is difficult to say, so we practised some useful words to help them hear the difference.  By the time I left I think I had made a difference to their pronunciation.  They see learning english as a key route to success in their lives.  Given their commitment to learning they certainly deserve to succeed.

Returning to the city I just had time to change before leaving for my evening river cruise.  I had expected a seat on a river boat with some drinks and maybe some music.  It seemed a bit expensive but I’m on holiday……. so what the heck.   OOPS!  I had actually chartered an entire boat, complete with crew and guide.   I felt like royalty cruising down the Mekong on the top deck watching the boat people carrying out their evening chores and setting their nets.

Goodnight everyone.

Killer heat at the killing fields

I had hoped to use the travel south through China to gradually acclimatise to increasing temperature.  But that plan was not a huge success.  So, on arriving in Phnom Penh, the heat hit me like a wall.  It was 30 degrees when I arrived at my hotel at 7pm.  I managed to last most of the night without resorting to the aircon but at 5am I caved and switched it on for half an hour.  There was a bit of a breeze at breakfast time so that wasn’t too bad, but once I got into the tuk tuk for my tour today I realised it was going to be hot, hot, hot.

First stop the pharmacy to buy some sun screen. TRAVEL TIP no. 3 – always check what’s in the pockets of your hand luggage BEFORE you check your suitcase in.  I lost a very expensive bottle of sunscreen which, not having had to use it, I had completely forgotten I’d put in my day sack.  Grrr.

Oh and, while I’m at it  – Travel tip no 4.  Budget airlines are great, but if doing a multi-leg trip, you can’t check your luggage right through.  Fair enough, but if you are stopping in an intermediate country this means you have to clear immigration possibly incurring visa costs before you check in for the second leg.   Not a problem yesterday in Bangkok, but could be a nightmare in a busy airport if you have limited time between flights.

Anyway, back to today.  Second stop the royal palace and the silver pagoda.  The palace was beautiful,  but some parts were closed as the king is currently in residence.  The silver pagoda, so called because the floor is made of solid silver tiles, was pretty impressive too.

Next to a monastery to watch the monks having lunch …..  I know, I didn’t really see the attraction either, to be honest …… however it turned out better than it sounds.  I presented a gift of a saffron robe to one of the monks and, in return, he blessed me so that I would be fortunate and have a long healthy life.

Then on to the Genocide Museum and out to the Killing Fields at Cheung Ek.  I had been in two minds about including this in my trip, but I’m very glad I did.  It would be wrong to say I enjoyed it, but it had a profound impact and was well worth the emotional energy it took to go round both places.

The Genocide Museum is a former school which was used by the Khmer Rouge as a detention and interrogation centre between 1975 and 1979.  The regime was only in power for 3 years, 8 months and 10 days, but in that time they managed to kill over a million people and allowed another million or more to die of starvation and disease.  Amongst those they killed were almost all the educated  people so rebuilding the country afterwards was extremely difficult.

The guide I hired for the day gave me a really useful explanation as to why the whole thing happened, which made a lot more sense than reading it in a book.  Why on earth were the king and the communists allies?  How did the people come to allow the atrocities to happen?  I have a better understanding now, but even so it is almost unimaginable.

Intellectuals, dissenters and anyone whose face didn’t fit was taken away to one of the many detention centres.  There they were tortured until they had confessed to whatever their captors wanted to hear.  After that they were taken by truck to Cheung Ek where they were bludgeoned to death and buried in mass graves.  Of the 17,000 detained at this one centre only 7 survived.  One of these is an artist who painted pictures of life in the prison and the tortures that went on.    I was reminded that, little over a week ago, I was in a temple in China looking at graphic images of the tortures awaiting the damned in hell.  Today I saw images of some of those same tortures being inflicted on the living.

The wire in front of the windows was electrified to stop those on higher floors from jumping and committing suicide.  Classrooms were divided by rough brick walls into tiny cells with only a bullet box for a potty.  In the type of heat I felt today it must have been hell on earth.

The killing fields were << sorry, I can’t find the word that fits here >>.  It was quiet and peaceful, hard to imagine that such atrocities were committed there within my lifetime.  At the time loud music was played, to cover the noise of the dying.  The prisoners were all blindfolded to stop them seeing what was happening but in the heat the smell must have been appalling.  It’s hard to imagine that they didn’t work out what was going on.

Walking around the site, where many are still buried, you realise the some of the white stones in the packed earth path are not, in fact, stones.  They are the bones of ordinary people.  If I had been in Cambodia at that time, I would almost certainly have been one of them.

Those whose bodies have been exhumed have been preserved in a stupa 17 levels high. Interestingly they have grouped the bones by type rather than trying to put bodies together. Many of the skulls have big holes where they were struck the killing blow.  Men, women, children and even babies – very harrowing.

Having had a couple of hours to reflect on the experience I think the thing that has made most impact on me is not that this terrible thing happened.  But that it had happened before.  And it has happened again since.

It really doesn’t make you proud to be human.

Final thoughts on China

I just loved it.  The rural elements appealed to me more than the cities, but spending over two weeks allowed me to start to appreciate many elements of the Chinese culture.  I even feel that I have started to understand their sense of humour, which turns out to be  not that dissimilar to my own.

My initial apprehension about squat toilets turned out to be unfounded.  Most are perfectly OK.  The ones at the Great Wall were by far the worst.  I now even think that they may be more hygenic then our sit-up-ons.  However, I never resorted to ones like this.

The last resort of the desperate

Very simple mechanics.  The hole in the floor feeds into the open pit behind – which is adjacent to a field of crops.

I rest the case for my original reservations, however, all the ones I use were much more sophisticated than this.  But there may be an enviromental reminder for us all here.

Despite the loos and the random animal body parts in the food, I’d come back again.  And I hope I do.

Hong Kong in the fog

Leaving China behind to travel to Hong Kong was fast and efficient.  Being back in the city after a rural few days was a shock to them system.  This place is really busy from morning until night.
I’m now over two weeks into my trip and I’m still wearing my warm  clothes.  I only expected to need them for a week but we’ve only had one day of blue skies since the start of the trip.  Hong Kong is no exception, mist and fog means that I can’t fully appreciate the scale of the place.

I did the obligatory tram trip up The Peak.  Great fun, but the views were nothing special.  Here’s a shot of the return tram appearing out of the fog. Can’t share anything better than this, I’m afraid  😦

Next day I went to see the Big Buddha on Lantau Island.  He certainly is big.  I’ve travelled the best part of 2000 km since Beijing and I’m 9,600 kms from the UK.

The monastery was interesting, you can buy a vegetarian lunch cooked by the monks.  Very tasty.  Although the monks were busy chanting in the temple and the cooks looked pretty civilian to me.

Next day I went to Stanley on the south of Hong Kong island.  Stopped for lunch at a pub and sat next to a couple from Selkirk who used to live in the same town as me and even drank in the same pub!  And, if that wasn’t coincidence enough, at the next table was a guy from Cumbernauld who used to work for the same company as me, although not at the same time.  Truly a small world!

Three days in Hong Kong and only had  couple of hours of hazy sunshine at best.  Still, at least I’m not running out of suntan lotion and I’ve finally been able to stop wearing my fleece.  I was going to post my warm weather clothing home, but today is a public holiday here.

It has been really humid and sticky.  Although Cambodia is going to be 10 degrees hotter the humidity will, hopefully, be a lot lower.   Currently the night temperature there is 26 degrees C.  I’ll find out tomorrow.

Living without cars

Ping An is a small village  perched halfway up a mountain and can be reached only by a narrow path and steep steps.  There is no vehicular access at all.   I had to carry what I needed for two days, so I could only take a few essentials (pyjamas, toothbrush, laptop, bottle of Great Wall red wine…) in my backpack.

The journey there took longer than expected and we arrived after dark.  Making the 30 minute climb along a narrow path with many steps in the dark gave me no inkling of what the village was like.  Waking up next morning to spectacular views across the rooftops to the rice terraces was just fantastic.

I went for a short walk to the next village following a local guide with virtually no english and accompanied by Rosemary and Michael from New Zealand and Anthony from England.  The whole walk was along the same narrow paths that comprise the local streets and roads.  The views of the rice terraces were spectacular – when they could be seen for the low cloud.

The next village Long Ji, is less commercial than Ping An, and to  my surprise we were invited into the house of an elderly lady who showed us round her home and demonstrated the equipment for processing the rice into flour. All manual kit as it predated the arrival of electricity in the village.  Our new friend then offered us tea and peanuts in her living room.  She went on to offer us a taste of her home made rice wine.  It looked a little dodgy, and was stored in an old coke bottle,  but it tasted delicous.  So delicious, in fact, that I persuaded her to sell me a bottle.  She was a real star and this visit is one of the highlights of my trip so far.

The village of Ping An is completely different from anything I’ve encountered before.  Tiny sets of steps between traditional houses.  Everything here has to be carried up by man or horse.  These two pics show the main road into the village.

The people here are very short, I was head and shoulders above almost everyone.  I reckon they have evolved that way to keep their centres of gravity low so that they don’t fall down the mountains.

All in all I reckon this is my favourite place so far.  I hope I can come back one day – perhaps when the weather is better.

Pub quiz, cycling and my first crash

Yangshuo is a very pretty town, but a bit touristy for my taste.  The cafe next to the hotel is called Minnie Mao’s, which kind of sets the tone for the whole place.

Lots of shops selling cheap jewellery, silk and knick knacks.  The area is renowned for its spectacular scenery and draws climbers and cyclists as well as backpackers and more conventional tourists.

I did steer clear of this street though –

After dinner I sat on my balcony overlooking a pedestrian precint and shared a bottle of Great Wall wine with Tanya from Milton Keynes.  We then went out for a short trip to the cash machine only to get sidetracked into joining three Australian cyclists in a pub quiz.  We did pretty well and came in second, probably just as well as the first prize was two beers each and we were all cycling first thing in the morning.
I was a bit nervous about the cycling as the last time I cycled on public roads I was knocked off and fractured my spine.  But, being very brave, I got over my nervousness and the group headed out.  Cycling out of town was a bit nerve-wracking but everyone survived and the country roads were a bit quieter.  They also had pretty decent sized cycle lanes alongside which were only occasionally blocked by roadworks and parked vehicles.  the scenery was spectacular and it was downhill almost all the way, too.

Climbed a hill with the aid of a local farmer, a woman aged 59, who supplements her income by helping tourists climb the hill and selling them water when they get to the top.  The rocky steps were extremely slippery and I would have fallen more than once without her assistance.  (I did wonder later whether these women go out at night and polish the steps to make them so slippy)
On the way back I was pleased to note that it was downhill most of the way.  I don’t understand how because it was the same route in reverse!  Halfway back a little three-wheeler lost one of its rear wheels and overturned in front of us.  Luckily neither the driver nor her small child were hurt and the tiny car was soon righted, but it wasn’t going anywhere soon.

I made it back to town without incident and submit the following proof that I cycled in chinese traffic.

There was a good reason for the flowers in my hair.  It makes more sense in the group photo.  🙂