Posted by: girlaboutworld | October 19, 2009

Welcome to my world…

Come on in…

Hello. Welcome to the world through my eyes. I am currently on an adventure around the world for six months, taking in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo, Bali and Singapore.

So sit back, open up your eyes and your mind, and drink in the carnival of colours this planet has to offer…

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Posted by: girlaboutworld | July 13, 2010

Wax on, wax off

Looking for a salon to wax my bikini line – sorry boys, this instalment may be one for the girls – leads to a very surreal beauty experience

Whilst in Hue, Vietnam’s former capital city complete with emperor’s tombs and their former residence, I realised that it had been a month since I arrived in South East Asia, and therefore a month since I visited a salon in Bangkok to get a Thai massage and the nether regions groomed.

Seeing as I was due to head to Halong Bay in a matter of days, where swimming and sunbaking would no doubt take place, it was time to book myself in for another waxing before I horrified my fellow travellers with errant hair appearing outside the confines of my bikini bottoms.

Walking past a hotel, I spied a large sign advertising a spa on their grounds. ‘Aha, that’s bound to be a reputable salon, seeing as it’s part of a hotel’, I thought to myself as I wandered up to their glass-fronted property.

Walking in, I find three girls sat in hairdressers’ chairs watching a channel that streams lots of Asian pop videos. Asking doubtfully if they provide a waxing service, they nod their heads enthusiastically and point to a list of treatments and prices. The list, very simply, says ‘Waxing’, and quotes a price in Dong, the Vietnamese currency, that’s on a par with a good English salon’s prices. Suffice to say, it’s a little higher in price than you’d expect from the salon that I’m stood in.

‘Do you do bikini lines?’ I ask, to which the girl says ‘No legs?’ No, I explain, just the bikini line. And the price seems a little high for that. The therapist runs for a calculator, tapping in a price that is the equivalent to about $5US. I agree, and allow myself to be led down the long, narrow salon to the end. Where we stop by a reclining chair used for shampooing clients’ hair. In full view of anyone who happens to walk by the window of the salon.

My therapist gestures for me to lie down. ‘Here?!’ I cry, ‘What about the window?!’ to which my therapist’s two friends pick up a big white sheet and hold it in front of the chair, demonstrating that they’ll be holding it up as a curtain.

Alarm bells start to go off, but I’m there, and the reckless thought that whatever happened, it’s great material for my blog, popped up in my mind.

So I remove my skirt, and am handed the most awful white frilly polyester monstrosity of a skirt to pull on instead, I presume to paradoxically try and protect my modesty in some way. I’m spreading my legs while she smothers hot wax on me – I don’t know how this elasticated doily can help in any way.

While I’m changing, I watch my therapist go to the rice cooker that every Vietnamese business or family has, open the lid up, remove the metal bowl containing their rice, fill up the rice cooker with water, and place the pot of wax in it. They’re quite literally cooking the wax to heat it up. Maybe we could spread some on some toast as well.

While it heats, she takes what looks like some old bandages, and trims them into more conventionally shaped rectangles to use as strips. ‘In for a penny, in for a pound’, I think, as the therapist proceeds towards me with pot and wooden spatula in hand.

It quickly becomes apparent that she might not be so used to working on bikini lines, as she smothers vast swathes of the sticky stuff on my skin. All I can think is how painful it’s going to be when she smoothes the strip on and tears it off. I take a few deep breaths to calm my nerves.

My gorgeous, petite little therapist with the delicate frame of a bird puts the material over the wax. She grips the end of it, and… the pain is nowhere near what I was expecting. It doesn’t even hurt, really.

She works in four sections, there’s no real neatening up, no moisturising cream, and I’m done and back into my own skirt much quicker than I was expecting.

Having escaped up to my hotel room afterwards, I conduct a closer inspection, which reveals that while it’s better than before, the hair removal is a little patchy in places. ‘It’ll do for now,’ I think, ‘But I must see if I can find somewhere in Malaysia when I get there.’ Goodness only knows what practices I’ll find in a beauty salon there…

Posted by: girlaboutworld | July 13, 2010

The joy of Hoi (An)

Vietnam starts to make sense as we reach this gem of a city

On we move from Ho Chi Minh to Nha Trang, Vietnam’s tourist beach resort, for diving adventures and relaxation, before heading onto Hoi An, this country’s tailor capital.

After a long and disturbed nights’ sleep being rolled on by my next-door-neighbour Pete, another big burly Canadian whom was next to me on the sleeper coach, my group manage to find an excellent guest house to stay at complete with a swimming pool in the reception. We’re so ruined by our random night cross country that we all crawl into bed for a few more hours’ sleep.

Vietnam has so far failed to live up to my romantic notions of ancient Asian architecture and customs, but Hoi An offers it in bucketfuls. It is here you find the marriage between the old wooden structures, the bridges and traditions, and the airy French colonial buildings complete with songbird cages and pretty floral creepers.

France’s former colonial influence on Cambodia and Vietnam is felt everywhere, but especially in the street food, where baguettes are commonplace, as are tubs of crème caramel.

This is the city that inspires dream-filled wandering within me, as I watch locals working the rice paddy fields and socialising at the market in their conical hats, and gaze at the juxtaposition of beautiful architecture.

Hoi An is very aware of being a major tourist draw, and there are plenty of shopping opportunities to buy pashminas, wooden trinkets, and lanterns throughout. For those people looking for a sartorial thrill, however, it is straight to the tailor shops for them to get measured, choose items of clothing, and hand over their Dong for the upcoming outfit that they have ordered.

Having been warned that we get what we pay for and hearing good things about a shop called Peace, we troop down there to become overwhelmed by the skeins of material piled from floor to ceiling throughout the shop. A rifle through their catalogues, and the boys have chosen suits, while Hollie and I are ordering one shoulder dresses and coats.

A group fitting the next day garners some brilliant results – the boys look especially smart in their togs – and we all end up ordering more. We just can’t help ourselves – this bespoke business is rather addictive!

With a couple of days to kill, time is taken up with a cooking class learning how to make some of the local cuisine, and cycling to the beach 5km down the road to hang out with the locals, eat barbequed food and play cards.

We all decide that now is a great time for present buying, as we can send purchases back with our clothes, so we wander about haggling with local vendors. The people here are good fun, and it seems like every few minutes offers a photo opportunity.

After a few idyllic days it’s time to leave, and so I package up my purchases from Peace and the surrounding shops to be shipped back before jumping onto a hot, sweaty bus to Hue, Vietnam’s former political capital.

I am once again alone as I set off up some fabulous coastline for a city that can only be a disappointment after the magic of the last few days.

Posted by: girlaboutworld | June 21, 2010

Good evening, Vietnam

Heading ever east into Vietnam introduces the delights of night travel in Asia

Leaving Phnom Penh, and Cambodia, behind I take a coach across the border into Vietnam like so many travellers before me. Our passport check is relatively swift and painless, and I’m in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, in the relative blink of an eye.

The journey is helped along considerably by my meeting Hollie and Dan, a couple from England who are on their way to meet some friends who reached Saigon the day before.

Having little to no time in Vietnam in the grand scheme of what this country has to offer, I book myself a coach with my new group to leave for Nha Trang in 24 hours’ time, giving us just long enough to head out to the Cu Chi Tunnels the next day.

The Cu Chi Tunnels are situated a hot two hours’ bus ride outside of Saigon, the length of the journey being down to the awful traffic more than anything.

We arrive at one of the bastions of guerrilla resistance against the Americans in stifling heat, and are ushered into a small covered dugout to be shown a video depicting the glorious resistance against the American scum. Or so the tone of the video implies.

The group are then led around the area, being shown tunnels and their hidden entrances, their ventilation systems, and the weaponry that the Vietnamese created and used.

The mental strength of these fighters was incredible. To live underground in the tight spaces and networks of tunnels that they made shows enormous willpower – I had a mildly claustrophobic attack crawling through a widened one for the grand total of 60 seconds.

There are many barbaric booby traps on display that mainly involve pits dug into the ground, and very sharp, long metal spikes that either stick up from the bottom of these pits, or move in various ways to really shred any poor unfortunate soul who happened to stumble into one to ribbons.

The Cu Chi tunnels are an interesting insight into the war with America, but I don’t engage with this place in the way that I’m used to doing when visiting other war memorials and museums. There’s something mechanical about the way in which we’re shown around that might have something to do with it.

A visit to the War Remnants Museum, which contains many photos and artworks depicting the American atrocities, comes after lunch. The evidence is definitely stacked up against America in their behaviour towards Vietnam during the war, especially in the widespread use of Agent Orange to strip the foliage from trees. The awful physical effects of this chemical on the body are still being seen today, sadly.

However, the tone of the displays in this museum is so anti-American they run the risk of discrediting the information they present to those people with critical faculties.  For the most part, the War Remnants Museum feels like another piece in the communist propaganda puzzle of this country.

We depart, humbled by the hardships that these people had to face at the hands of such a large military power, and hurry back to make our overnight bus.

Taking overnight trains and buses here is a popular way to get around Vietnam, as the distances you cover are large and take quite some time. The buses are an experience – they have actual beds in them, the two that I took had bunk beds and flat beds instead of seats respectively.

The lights are dimmed, you lie down, and… fail to drift off due to the manic beeping of the driver. Road rules here go out of the window. People drive on the right hand side of the road most but not all of the time, drivers seem to play chicken with each other every minute, and small vehicles are meant to yield to larger ones, although this often isn’t quite the case.

Sticking your iPod in and cranking up the volume will help to drown most of the honking out, but most of the music ends up being accompanied by a blaring horn. Still, it’s infinitely more comfortable than having a conventional upright seat in a coach.

The buses stop at about 1am at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere for a toilet stop and refreshment break, with all the passengers stumbling bleary eyed from their beds. Destinations are usually reached at 6am, where you’re chewed up and spat out on the pavement to wander dazed and confused between hotels trying to find a decent place to stay.

Sleeper trains are a little better, with separate compartments with space for four people, and bigger beds to lie in. It feels a bit grubby, but the air conditioning works, you can get up and walk about, watch the world go by, and sit with the locals you’re sharing your space with, communicating with crazy gestures and sharing food.

It can be a little difficult to relate to the people of Vietnam, who can be frosty, especially the further north you go. Travelling by train is a brilliant way to get to spend time with people here, as is buying some Pho, or noodle soup, from a wandering street vendor and sitting down with them as you eat to watch the world go by. Nourishing for the body and soul, a bit like Asia itself.

Posted by: girlaboutworld | May 20, 2010

Camb-Ode-ia

Singing the praises of this magical country

With two and a half magic weeks flashing by in the blink of an eye, it’s time to say a fond farewell to the Kingdom as I move onto Vietnam. But before I do so, it’s only right that I wax lyrical about some of my favourite things about this incredible country…

The children

Despite their horrific recent history, the people here are quick to smile and very friendly. The kids are gorgeous, as long as you can handle being hassled by those trying to sell you bracelets, postcards and other knick knacks at the main tourist destinations. They’re funny, intelligent and very cute. Although some travellers I’ve met who’ve fallen prey to pickpockets won’t necessarily agree with me on that one. Remember, folks – never totally let your guard down.

Fresh fruit

As with a lot of countries in South East Asia, it’s easy to come by stalls and wandering vendors peddling fruit to all and sundry in Cambodia. The best fruits to gorge on here are pineapple and mango, both of which are sliced up, thrown in a bag and handed to you with a wooden skewer – all for the princely sum of approximately 50p. And I never even liked mango before, either…

The Garage, Phnom Penh

This funky little hangout has the best vibe and music in town, as well as a decent range of single malts. Check out the Andy Warhol-esque t-shirts for sale featuring the old Khmer rock n roll stars of yesteryear. One bar that wouldn’t feel out of place in any scenester area in any city in the world.

Otres Beach, Sihanoukville

The beach resort of Cambodia is Sihanoukville, and those who want to party here head to Serendipity Beach, which is lined with bars and feels like an unofficial British holiday hangout. It’s good fun, but hardly paradise. For those of you who want to escape, head to Otres Beach, which is 5km out of town down a bumpy dirt track.

Here you’ll find a long stretch of golden sand lined with a few ramshackle bars. Set up camp at one – we stayed at Dany’s Guesthouse, whose four rooms were full, so they pulled beds into the bar for us every night and hung mosquito nets. We’d fall asleep to the sounds of the sea with chickens running beneath us, and walk out onto the sand for breakfast.

Days were spent lolling on sun loungers playing cards, watching the sun traverse the sky until after its glorious sunset, and buying fresh fruit and barbequed squid from the hawkers walking up and down the beach. Pure heaven.

Top Banana Guesthouse, Phnom Penh

I know I’ve mentioned it a few times in my blogs about Cambodia, but this place seriously rocks. The people who stay here are cool, the staff are legendary, the food is delicious, there’s a rooftop bar/lounge area to chill out in, and a bar with a swimming pool next door. Quite possibly my favourite place I’ve stayed in on all my travels to date.

The food

Everyone always waxes lyrical about Thai food, and many say that you should give Cambodian food a miss, but I must disagree. The food here is delicious, but much more subtly flavoured than Thailand. I can only assume that most people blasted their tastebuds to smithereens in Thailand before getting here. Fish Amok is the first thing everyone should eat on arriving in Cambodia, and Beef Lok Lak is also yummy.

Posted by: girlaboutworld | May 15, 2010

The Kids are Alright

Visiting a Cambodian orphanage starts to put our privileged lives in perspective

The realities of Cambodia’s problems are evident everywhere you look. Most people scratch to make a living, playing their lives out along hot, dusty streets in both urban and rural environments. Beggars approach the tourists as soon as they step out of a tuk tuk, desperate for some small change.

People with disabilities approach you with baskets of books and postcards, trying to sell their wares under a scheme to help decrease the amount of people begging.

It’s a tough existence, and no more proof is needed than when visiting one of the numerous orphanages that are dotted around the country.

Accompanying Jasper, one of my new-found friends from the Top Banana guesthouse in Phnom Penh, we head out of the city on a tuk tuk, chugging along at a slow enough pace to watch the landscape turn from city streets lined with small enterprises and eateries to emptier roads dotted with market stalls and fields strewn with vast amounts of litter.

Litter is a big problem in Cambodia – it is everywhere, and no one really seems to care. Plastic bottles are collected up because money is given for recycling, but unfortunately it becomes apparent as you travel around that this country is one big plastic bag.

Stopping at a market in a disparate new town on the outskirts of Phnom Penh to buy biscuits for the children, Jasper explains how this settlement has come into being due to the displacement of large groups of people.

A symptom of the corruption and vigorous development here, communities are sadly getting kicked out of the homes that they have lived in and worked for only to receive a building the size of a double garage – single storey – as compensation for the whole family to live in.

Those that have the money can extend on top to create a multi-level building, but these are few and far between. Being an hours’ tuk tuk drive away from the city centre can often mean that the livelihoods that these people have built up have also been lost, and so they start again in their new homes. Frustratingly, a lack of land laws means that these people don’t have the official rights to their original homes, so therefore they have no leg to stand on.

Climbing back into the tuk tuk, we bump down a dirt track for another five minutes before entering a small yard area with low buildings around the edges. It’s surprisingly quiet, but this transpires to be because the children are all watching TV in the covered communal area, making the most of their free time on a Saturday morning.

Jasper takes the opportunity to show me around the grounds, which include a three storey building where the ‘library’, teachers’ offices and accommodation, and classroom are based, a covered communal eating and TV watching area, a three-storey boys dorm, and the girls’ dorms, which are two rooms in a low wooden building.

Peeking my head in, I see that the girls all sleep on hard wooden platforms together, and lockers line the walls for them to keep their personal belongings in. The basic conditions are difficult to see, however it is clean and dry, and outside there is a pile of bricks which is to be transformed into a new female dorm very soon.

The organisation of SCD Orphanage is impressive – there is an attempt to move towards self-sufficiency in the shape of their own fish pond, rice paddy, vegetable plot and an intention to buy chickens. They even have a water purification machine, which produces clean, bottled water for the children to drink.

There are grand plans afoot for this machine, with the intention for the orphanage to start selling their water externally in order to generate revenue. Annoyingly, they’ve so far been unable to gain the certificate needed in order to start selling this water as the officials are demanding payment for it.

None of Cambodia’s orphanages are state funded, and so it is the kindness of mainly western benefactors that funds these organisations. Apparently it’s a sad truth that the government smells this western money that the orphanages receive, and consequently sees the opportunity to gain extra cash through bribes.

Once the TV show is over, a number of the kids drift over to say hello. It’s clear to see what English they’ve recently been learning from Jasper, as many of them ask me whether I have any brothers and sisters. They’re all charming, with sweet smiles, good if slightly grubby clothes, and a touch of shyness about them.

When we hand out the cookies, they line up expectantly and politely say thank you, before excitedly posing for photographs and taking it in turns to play with my camera.

Jasper explains that only a handful of the children are actual orphans – the rest come from families who are either too poor or sick to take care of them. The orphanage apparently goes through a rigorous assessment process to ensure that only the children who need it most are admitted.

The orphanage is currently full with just over 130 children, and they face a problem here – they’re so full that they couldn’t take any new kids in this year. Being a new institution that’s only been open a handful of years, none of the students have actually graduated yet, meaning no spaces are being opened up for a new intake.

Some of them are in their penultimate year of schooling, but this has poses a problem in itself: what happens to these children once they’ve graduated and no longer have a place at SCD? Should they be cast out and expected to fend for themselves? Or should the orphanage have a hand in helping them get started in a new chapter of their lives?

SCD needs these children to leave so that they can take in others who need the care as well, but they apparently still want to maintain some involvement in helping the graduates out once they’ve left. There is talk of a foundation being created, financed by fundraising, to help tackle the problem – it’s something that I’ll be keeping an eye on from now on.

A week later, and it’s the Khmer New Year, a time for celebration when the majority of people head out of Phnom Penh to the countryside to visit their relatives and friends. The roads are eerily quiet, save for a pick-up truck driving down the road with a dozen children of various ages standing in the back.

These are the true orphans of SCD – whilst the other kids have gone home to their families for the holiday, this handful remain behind with nowhere to go. A few of us have volunteered to take them to Phnom Penh’s water park, which consists of three not-so-large slides, a wave machine, and a lazy river.

The orphans are full of barely contained excitement – this visit is one of the highlights of their year, according to Jaspar. We race up and slither down the slides over, and over, and over again, with the boys stopping halfway down and clambering up over you like monkeys until we form big chains of people, crashing into the pool below.

One of the older boys, who was about 16 years old from my guestimation, turns to me at one point and says ‘I am so happy today. This is so much fun.’ Given the basic facilities – in comparison to Western standards – here, it’s touching that such a simple trip can give such pleasure even to an older teenage boy.

At the end of the day, my friend Nancy and I decide to buy everyone an ice cream. Everyone tucks in as they clamber onto the truck, cheerfully saying goodbye. The same teenage boy I was talking to earlier turns around and says one thing that will always stay with me: ‘Thank you from the bottom of my heart.’

If such simple acts as these result in so much gratitude from these wonderful children, I tell myself, I’ll endeavour to do everything I can to help them, even from a distance. And take my word for it – I will.

If you would like to learn more about SCD – Save the Children Cambodia for Development – orphanage and how you can help, then please contact me and I’ll put you in touch with Jasper.

Posted by: girlaboutworld | May 5, 2010

King (Koh) Kong

Heading to an area only just emerging as a tourist destination makes for a lovely hassle-free excursion

On Cambodia’s side of the border with Thailand sits a strip of land that many people have travelled through, yet hardly any have stopped in.

Formerly known as Cambodia’s Wild West according to my Lonely Planet, Krong Koh Kong and the Koh Kong Conservation Corridor are surprisingly only just emerging as a tourist destination in their own right.

Boasting the largest mangrove forest in South East Asia, a virtually uninhabited island a short hop away and the southern parts of the Cardamom Mountains, there’s plenty for any nature-lover to get involved with in this area.

There are snorkelling and trekking tours to be taken on, with a couple of companies making a foray into the ecotourism trade. A quick word of warning – only go trekking in the jungle with a guide so as to avoid the many landmines that sadly still litter the land here.

Arriving mid-afternoon, my new travel friend Emma and I wandered into Koh Kong town to book a trip and find something to eat, and got stared at incessantly– something to do with the fact that we’re both at least 5’11” tall, and the fact that not many westerners currently stop in the area for any length of time.

Everyone called out ‘Hello!’ as we went past, and we found ourselves calling out greetings every few seconds. Wandering into a tour shop, facilities were basic at best – I got the impression that this business was still just starting up, but we liked the look of the island visit itinerary, so booked onto that.

Bright and early the next morning, we were taken by a rickety tuk tuk to the river where a speedboat was waiting for the five of us who were heading out for the day. Wending our way fairly slowly through the mangrove forests downstream was an interesting experience; the water was so shallow we could have hopped out and pushed the boat with the water barely reaching our knees.

Birds flitted across the water, and small blue crabs scuttled their way along the banks of the river amongst the network of tree roots.

After a while floating through the sleepy green wonderland, we reached a floating fishing village, heralded by brightly coloured boats and rickety wooden shacks standing drunkenly over the water. We disembarked for a short exploration, whereupon hordes of little children came running out from buildings yelling ‘Hello!’ and wanting to pose for photographs, while the locals smiled on benignly.

Families sat sheltering in their open fronted houses or under pieces of tarpaulin in front of the buildings, eating communal meals and carrying out menial pieces of labour and housework. Thin strips of fish were being smoked over a tall barbecue.

We walked to the bottom of some steps that led to the village temple, children in tow, and climbed upwards into the brightly painted place of worship. The colours and scenes depicted were incredible, this was truly one of the most eye-catching and original temples I’ve visited in a continent full to brimming with such structures.

Making to leave, we called goodbye to everyone in Cambodian much to their delight, and carried on with our journey out from the river and forest towards Koh Kong Island, where we were to stop on a deserted beach for the afternoon to eat and snorkel.

A lunch of stir fried chicken and noodles was taken in the shade of a tree at the edge of a stretch of golden sand that didn’t see another soul all day. A small lagoon stood just behind the beach, adding to the sensation of being stranded in the middle of nowhere.

After lunch we snapped on some snorkel masks and fins and waded into the water to go exploring a small patch of coral offshore that boasted some decent boulder coral, giant clams and the usual reef life I’ve seen.

A few pieces of rubbish were sadly floating in the water, mainly plastic cups and bags, which I can only assume came from the floating villages in the area. This is a sad reality of many of the beaches throughout Cambodia and Vietnam – water pollution isn’t that high on the locals’ agendas for the time being.

A couple of hours went by with the group swimming and peacefully reading under the shade of our tree before we started off for home.

Halfway back, near to a large bay with a floating village just off the island, we were suddenly treated to one of my most exciting wildlife shows – a pod of half a dozen dolphins surfacing for air, their fins and tails breaking the water every minute or so. Dolphins were high on my list to see whilst away, and so far they had managed to elude me on the various trips I’ve taken, so I was particularly enthralled by their appearance.

As we entered the mouth of the river and entered the mysterious mangroves again, a massive thunder storm suddenly hit, throwing rain down so hard that it appeared to be coming upwards from the river below. It was completely impossible to see the banks of the river, which were shrouded in grey mist.

We sheltered under our towels to try and stay warm and cushion the blow of the watery onslaught, but arrived back inland looking like the most wretched drowned rats in South East Asia. There was nothing for it but to laugh at the ridiculousness of the weather and look forward to hot showers in our guesthouses.

All in all, it was a really fun and relaxed trip – with less of the hassle you get as a tourist – in an area which deserves to be higher on people’s list of priorities to visit when in Cambodia.


Posted by: girlaboutworld | April 18, 2010

Seeing red at the Killing Fields

A sombre introduction to Cambodia reveals the sadness behind the older generation’s smiles

In order to gain an early insight into the impact that the Khmer Rouge’s regime had upon Cambodia and its people, I decide to dedicate my first trips to learning about the conflict and genocide through visiting two of the biggest symbols of the tragedy – Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek.

Tuol Sleng

Set in a quiet courtyard with only the barbed wire ringing the perimeter to hint at the atrocities that happened here, groups of tourists mill around the entrance of Tuol Sleng, a former high school that was converted into a prison by the Khmer Rouge. Tuol Sleng, or S21 prison as it is otherwise known, is today one of the main symbols of the genocide.

An eerie building that churned through 15,000 prisoners throughout the three years and eight months of Pol Pot’s reign, only seven people were found alive in its walls when the Khmer Rouge regime was defeated.

There are four buildings to walk around, with the first containing the torture rooms, each furnished with a single bed frame and some of the instruments of torture used laid out upon them. These rooms had glass windows to muffle the screams of the victims, and their suffering is made clear by the inclusion of an image on the wall, showing skeletal bodies lying in these very rooms, slumped on beds or on the floor with their legs shackled and their bodies contorted.

The following buildings contain yet more evidence and information about this brutal regime. Board after board of black and white photos of the victims, who were meticulously photographed and catalogued by the Khmer Rouge, line walls. A whole section of children’s photos stare back at visitors, with one child no more than two years old at the most catching my eye.

A long room explains the history of the Khmer Rouge and the genocide, how culture, currency, family structures and lives were decimated at the hands of a few in order to create the ultimate rice-growing socialist state. The cells in which the prisoners were kept are tiny, while in the courtyard stands the high bar once used in PE lessons where prisoners were strung upside down and raised and lowered until they lost consciousness, before having their heads dunked in pots of fetid fertiliser water to shock them awake.

The third building is still veiled in the barbed wire that was put up to stop people from committing suicide by jumping out of windows. The evidence against the Khmer Rouge here is stacked up and depressing, the methodical collection and torture of thousands of innocent prisoners plain for all to see. Three hours in this place where the sadness immediately weighs on your shoulders is enough, it is time to leave.

Choeung Ek Killing Fields

Taking a moto out to Choeung Ek killing fields, I witness an extraordinary feat of motoring as my driver’s baseball cap blows off in the wind. Pulling up along the side of the road, we look back only for him to stick his hand out and grab his cap from the person on the bike behind us. Quite how they picked it up at speeds of 60kph is beyond me.

In fact, the inventive ways that motorbikes are loaded up in this country and all of Asia never ceases to amuse, as whole families and their dogs pile onto two wheel vehicles, and I even see double beds pulled along on tiny trailers with people sitting on top.

Choeung Ek is 15km out of Phnom Penh down two straight, dusty roads that run through suburbs lined with basic amenities shops and small food stands. The further out we go, the more rural the landscape becomes with rice paddy fields dominating the landscape.

Turning into the entrance, the sun lazily beats down upon the hushed vicinity. It is here that the prisoners of S21,amongst others, were sent to meet their grisly ends. The victims killed and buried here were intellectuals – professors, doctors, lawyers – who were seen as an enemy to Pol Pot’s vision.

Paying the entrance fee, I head to the stand where Guides sit in order to get a tour. My man is rather coarse in his behaviour, pushing my camera towards skulls and bones – which I wanted to photograph anyway – and demanding I push the shutter. He was 17 when the Khmer Rouge came to power, and has worked at the Killing Fields since 1980, initially as a security guard when they were first discovered, sleeping there overnight to guard the mass graves, and eventually as a guide as his English improved. Having fled the regime and then losing his mother and father to the genocide, his behaviour is perhaps understandable in that he wants to bring the reality of the horrors home to visitors.

Walking in, a huge tower or Stupa dominates the path ahead. On closer inspection, it has numerous levels inside with bones piled high. There are over 8,000 contained in this tower, with the bottom stuffed with victims’ clothes, and the first and second levels filled with skulls. These skulls smile out at the visitors, belying the suffering that they went through until you realise on closer inspection that teeth are missing, and the cracks or holes in the bone were probably as a result of a major impact.

I light incense in respect for the deceased and we move on, amongst the hushed trees and dug out holes where the bodies were discovered. Signs ask you not to walk on the graves, something that the numerous chickens scratching around obviously don’t understand.

The first tree we come to is called the ‘Magic Tree’, from which a speaker was hung and noises played to mask the sound of victims as they were tortured and slaughtered while others awaited a similar fate. Looking down as we walk, there are bones everywhere underfoot, with my guide pointing out the skull of a young child poking up through the earth in front of us.

Within a few metres of walking, we are stood in front of the ‘Killing Tree’, where young children were killed by having their heads smashed against the trunk. Duch, the head of S21, ordered his subordinates to kill all children and babies in order to prevent them from seeking revenge for their families as they got older.

And so the stories of atrocities go on as we meander slowly beneath the trees – sharp, jagged palm leaves being used to cut throats. Blunt objects being used to break necks rather than waste bullets. And on and on…

Having visited numerous monuments to the horrors of WWI and WWII, I am used to shedding tears when confronted by the remnants of such brutality, but something about the experiences today leaves me feeling numb. It isn’t until I’m describing the experience to a friend over dinner that the tears finally come – a mere drop in the ocean of tears that have been shed by the Cambodians themselves.

Posted by: girlaboutworld | April 16, 2010

Cambodia Calling

Two weeks in this beautiful yet troubled country are sure to be an education…

Arriving in Phnom Penh, the capital of this now peaceful country, in late afternoon, I grab a taxi in time for the end of school, and am treated to a glimpse of children pouring out in their uniforms on the back of motorbikes and bicycles.

This is a country that intrigues me – apparently safe to travel around, even as a solo female backpacker, how can a country that was ravaged by war so recently have found such a supposed peace? The answer is with difficulty, and with numerous problems that will take a long time to unravel.

While the Khmer Rouge – the communist organisation who committed mass genocide against their own people for almost three years – were defeated in 1979 by the Vietnamese and Cambodian rebels, their retreat into the provinces and continued fighting meant that Cambodia was embroiled in conflict until 1998, the same year that their former leader Pol Pot died in Thailand while under house arrest.

Almost two million people, roughly a quarter of the population at that time, died at the hands of this man and his followers, leaving a population scarred both mentally and physically, and a landscape decimated by relentless bombing from the Americans, Vietnamese, and Cambodians themselves.

Cambodia is consequently a country still in recovery, and one that will be for a long time to come. The horrors of their recent history are still fresh in this nation’s minds, and while the economy is growing apace here, also helped by the injection of money from a growing tourist industry, corruption is apparently rife.

A new anti-corruption bill was passed last month and is due to come into effect in November – apparently the next 12 months are instrumental in determining whether this new bill will be a success or not.

The first real evidence I spy of the difficulties this country faces is upon arrival at my guesthouse, Top Banana, where I can’t move for people who are working for NGOs, orphanages and other such programmes. An evening spent talking to some of the guests begins to lay bare some of the problems – the mafia presence, a Nigerian gang that is apparently worth avoiding, a massive human trafficking issue, landmines and drugs are all discussed within the first two hours.

On top of all this, according to one acquaintance, freedom of speech has been undermined in the last year in the form of the government taking numerous people to court for defamation, and two journalists being killed.

It’s not all doom and gloom here, however. Changes are coming quickly – Phnom Penh alone has countless high rise buildings that are due to be constructed, in a city where the landscape is virtually flat at present. New businesses are springing up all the time.

Yet once again some people pay the price in the name of progress – land ownership is yet another issue, as many people don’t possess paperwork to lay claim to their homes. As land is bought up by both foreign and domestic investors for development, many Cambodians are losing their land and being relocated elsewhere, often a fair distance away from their old homes.

With foreign investors showing ever-increasing interest for investments in residential towers, the issue of land ownership has become a political hot potato over whether limits on outside investment should be regulated before the rights of Cambodian nationals and their land are even protected.

With so much going on from one day to the next, there’s a lot to take in. And for some reason I have a voice inside telling me that it’s vital to try and learn as much about it in the short time that I am here. Here’s to an impending intense fortnight…

Posted by: girlaboutworld | April 15, 2010

Work that body

Exercise is a truly communal activity in South East Asia…

It’s 5.30pm on a Sunday in Bangkok’s Lumpini Park, and it seems like a large number of the city’s residents have come to partake in some gentle exercise in the early evening sun.

In this stifling heat, the only real time of the day to partake in anything in the least bit strenuous is at 6am or 6pm, when the worst of the oven-like temperature is over.

I have escaped the cooler air of New Zealand, where the first snow had settled on the peaks as I left, for the heat of South East Asia for the last two months of my trip.

First stop is Thailand’s capital to plan my route and catch up with my friend Leon, who has been living here for just over a year.

Having visited Thailand before, I plan to take it easy for a couple of days, visiting the humongous MBK shopping centre, and generally hanging out here.

Bangkok has changed in the last five years. It has a brand spanking new, bigger and more modern airport for starters, and the whole city feels as if it’s well and truly moved into the 21st century, which is no bad thing.

The only signs of the political troubles that are currently rocking this country are a few placards asking for peace and democracy, and a few red shirts – the movement opposed to the current government – getting into a truck one day.

And so it was on Sunday evening that I come down to Lumpini to have a run around the park’s jogging track, and to see if I can find a free aerobics class to join in.

Free aerobics sessions appear to be the state’s way of ensuring everyone has the opportunity to get fit, and this service seems to be available in many South East Asian countries from all accounts.

Drive or walk around the city when the sun starts to come up or go down, and you will find pockets of people in squares, on sidewalks, outside shopping centres and in parks moving frantically to a beat while someone at the front leads the way, calling out the moves as they go. It’s quite a bizarre spectacle, but brilliant to watch at the same time.

Lumpini is in Sunday afternoon carnival mode, with different music being played over speakers as I run, and a bandstand featuring a band and dancers playing all kinds of funky latin music.

At 6pm, the daily evening broadcast of Thailand’s national anthem strikes up over these hidden speakers, at which point everyone in the park stops stock still – from the runners to the football players to those taking a leisurely stroll – and listens before continuing to move on when silence falls again. It’s like something out of the Truman Show – a truly surreal moment.

And so I finally stumble across one of these groups, one so big that there are three different instructors spread out in front of various speaker stacks calling out instructions in Thai.

Stationing myself at the back, I start trying to join in, but being rather slow on the uptake when doing an English aerobics class, let alone attempting to follow Thai instructions, I am rather hopeless at trying to keep up.

Those around me giggle politely at the Farang, or foreigner, towering over them with her limbs flailing. But it’s good fun, and soon the sweat is running off all of us.

After almost an hour, we come to a temporary stop, at which point the crowd claps before entering into the cool-down stretching session.

A fantastic way to provide some form of exercise for everyone, it’s a shame that we don’t have something similar in England, although the weather isn’t quite as favourable on our little island…

Next stop on the itinerary is Cambodia. I’m certain that this is going to be an interesting step change from the other countries I’ve been to so far…

Posted by: girlaboutworld | April 14, 2010

Deep, Deep Down

Wonderful waterfalls, steep streets and rapid rafting comprise the last stretch of this NZ adventure

Cruising on Milford Sound

There is a section of travel bookended by the Queenstown sojourns on my Stray pass, and this little loop takes us into the deep south of New Zealand, the furthest south I have ever been on this planet.

First stop is the incorrectly Milford Sound and its stunning plethora of waterfalls, incorrectly named due to the fact that a ‘sound’ is formed by river action, and Milford was formed by glacial action, which actually makes it a fjord.

We took a very wet cruise out towards the sea around the Sound, taking in the views and getting thoroughly drenched due to the foul weather that fell from above. The surrounding rock faces plunge majestically into the water, with multitudes of white frothy waterfalls pouring forth, some as light as gossamer that disappear into a fine mist halfway down, and others that torrent down, sending shockwave ripples far out into the water.

Going gaga for Gunn’s Camp

Milford Sound is accessed by the Homer Tunnel, an extremely long tunnel that was widened in the 1930s.

It was the mining of this tunnel that prompted the creation of Gunn’s Camp, an old mining camp in a valley 19km from Milford. Gunn’s Camp is now – and has been for quite some time – open to visitors who wish to stay, and it has been preserved as much as possible to give the authentic experience of the living conditions during those times.

The huts are wooden, and Spartan yet clean and strangely cosy. The electricity runs off a generator that gets turned off at 10pm every night, while the huts are heated by their fire-powered Aga, or stove.

Set amongst the mountains and pine trees, this feels like a truly magical place. Former owner/manager Murray Gunn obviously had a sense of humour, which is evident in the weird and wonderful memorabilia he has lying about, including a gate to ‘keep out’ sandflies.

A museum is also on site to give insight into the work on the tunnel, the lives of the miners, and the history of the local area. All of the visitors’ books from the past 40 years are there to peruse, which return guests have been known to do to try and find their entries.

This has to be one of my absolute favourite places to have stayed on the trip so far, it was a very unique experience indeed.

The blow of having to get up at 5am the next day in order to make a 9am ferry crossing to Stewart Island was softened by the brightness of the stars shining over the Camp. They were so distracting against their inky black sky that I almost tripped up as a result of craning my neck skywards instead of to the floor.

Stopping over on Stewart Island

Just off the South Island sits another landmass called Stewart Island. It’s a very choppy hour-long ride, accompanied by huge birds from the albatross family with a two-metre wing span, and Shags.

Shags are birds that dive for their fish, smashing into the water at terrifying speeds and reaching incredible depths in the water. The sad reality for these unfortunate beings is that their repeated diving into the water at such speed eventually sends them blind, at which point they’re unable to fish for themselves, and end up starving to death, or worse. How morbid.

Pulling into the harbour of Oban, the island’s only town, I am struck by how much this place reminds me of a Scottish island. Oban is tiny, with a cluster of streets, many of which are named after Scottish towns.

There are walks galore here, but with limited time I went for a short hike up to the nearby lighthouse on the hunt for penguins. This island is also a prime place to spot penguins and Kiwi birds, but sadly both birds proved to be elusive.

Being St Patrick’s Day, a few of us headed to the pub in the small hotel to watch a handful of locals drinking green beer and listening to the Pogues, I tried to warm up with a hot chocolate before calling it an early night.

Driving on to Dunedin

Heading back to the mainland, Cougar the driver picks us up for a day’s journeyi ng to Dunedin, the Scottish city of NZ. I can see the comparisons to a certain extent, there is something about this part of the world that feels like the Highlands.

Dunedin has the world’s steepest street, Baldwin Street, whose heart-stopping gradient defeats me in my attempt to run from the bottom to the top without stopping. Three times running up and down there every day would be the best way to achieve those buns of steel.

The final push

 Having stopped back in Queenstown for the second and final bout of partying, a few of us were more than a little worse for wear on our Stray bus as we pulled out of the city with Hoff, the new driver.

This was to be my last journey with Stray, as Ash and I hopped off the bus at Geraldine to stay at a sheep station overnight before going white water rafting the next day.

Sadly there was rain overnight that transformed the first section of the river – usually a Grade 1 – into a Grade 3, and a boulder the size of a house that normally sticks out of the water was covered.

The Grade 5 sections were therefore impassable, and we all had to get out and carry our rafts further downstream before continuing. It was still a lot of fun, with a simulated capsizing of our vessel at the end, if a little disappointing.

And so it was onto my final destination in this fantastic country, for an overnight stop in Christchurch, the most ‘English’ of NZ’s cities. I didn’t really see the comparison myself, other than the cathedral in the city centre. However, seeing as I spent less than 24 hours here, I don’t really feel I can judge.

And so the New Zealand chapter of my travels ends as abruptly as it began, and continued to run: in one long, flustered, flurry of excitement with nary a moment to catch my breath.

In fact, if there is one word that can sum this country up, it’s ‘Breathtaking’.

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