Desert island paradise, continued…

Its now almost a week since I landed on this beautiful island and I have every intention of staying exactly where I am until I am required in the Indian Ocean for a 4 day live aboard dive trip on 8 March. I have a fantastic flashpacker beach hut with a view to die for (as previously noted on this blog – will spare your jealousy by not posting the photo again). A white sand beach. A blue/green bay. And a whole lot of peace and quiet, which is just what I need at this stage of my journey. Time for reflection and an opportunity to day dream about what the future might hold.

My days roll something like this: wake at 5/5.30am as the sun starts to peep over the mountains, throwing light into my bedroom (windows on 3 out of 4 walls); lie in bed for a few hours, dozing, day dreaming, reading, checking the news (war, famine, disease, financial woes – snore); 9am shower and dress; 9.30am walk a few strides to the beach restaurant linked to my bungalows for breakfast (key strategic decision: one espressor or two? This morning was a 2 espresso kind of a day on account of my encroaching illness); approx 11am to 3pm a mix of sunbathing, reading, playing guitar; 3pm late lunch; 4-8pm see above comment for 11-3pm; 8pm dinner; 10pm sleep. The odd day I mix things up by throwing in some snorkelling or scuba diving, but that’s pretty much it. Bored? Absolutely not.

Last night was full moon, and this is one of the key islands hosting the famous ‘full moon parties’. I resisted the urge to head there myself – drug-fueled beach parties and single white women travelling alone don’t mix well, I suspect, so as per usual I was tucked up in bed by 10pm. Hilariously, there was the tiniest of full moon parties on the beach outside my hut – basically about 4 or 5 people have a quiet drink. They were still there when I woke at 5am but had gone after I had finished snoozing an hour or two later. How very civilised. When I woke, I looked out of my window and saw a perfectly round orb lighting the sky – full moon indeed. I thought to myself it would make a fantastic photo, but in my sleepy and flu-y state that’s as far as that intention went. There was, however, a lovely sunset last night that I captured to slightly redeem myself in the eyes of my readers, who are no doubt thinking I am rather lazy after reading this post. Exhibits A and B:

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I have spent a very happy couple of hours over breakfast, watching the sea and taking in the sights of the beach’s early morning guests. Mothers and their small children, prancing around naked with a sense of pure wonder and joy at being in and by the lapping waves. Puppies playing, jumping on one another, getting bored and moving on, tails wagging furiously as anyone approaches in the anticipation that they might offer a) a belly rub, b) food, or c) companionship. Boats chugging into the harbour carrying visitors and fish.

After 2.5 months travelling on my own I am exhausted so this island retreat is very well timed. Travelling alone, it turns out, is wonderful. You go where you want, do what you want, and meet so many more people along the way that you would do if you were travelling with a companion. But it is tiring and more stressful – I have been solely responsible for everything from where I go next and how I get there to where I stay and what I do when I arrive. When you are feeling tired/ill/not in the mood, you still have to do all the haggling, make all the decisions, and solve all the problems that inevitably arise. There have been a few moments when I would have happpily handed over responsibility to someone else.

It’s also a time for reflection as I near the end of this amazing adventure. I have quite literally savoured every single minute and feel so very very lucky to have been able to take time out – some punctuation between two lives, two worlds, old and new. It’s with a heavy heart that I will come back; it will be very difficult to say goodbye to this feeling of freedom, release and adventure. I do wonder how I can hold on to that feeling, how it can become my sense of gravity rather than a momentary blip. No plan forthcoming, as yet, but it’s a work in progress.

I have so many reflections on what I have got out of my journey and what I want for my life going forward, but this is not the place for their airing. With just over 2 weeks left now, things are finally starting to come together.  

My own little paradise

I arrived in Ko Pha-Ngan 2 days ago fully expecting to stay for a few days before heading off. Yes, I was keen to stay longer than the 2-3 day limits I have allowed myself for most other places in Asia, so keen have I been to see as much of these wonderful countries as I can. I thought maybe 5 days would be nice, then to Koh Tao for more diving, then a secluded beach, before my live aboard off the Similan and Surin islands that sets sail on 8 March.

However, I have found my own slice of paradise right here and can think of nothing better than staying here for a couple of weeks before moving on for the live aboard. I am staying in a tiny fishing village called Chalok Lam on the quiet north side of the island. Here, evidence of its fishy credentials – squid and fish drying in the midday sun, thankfully out of noseshot of where I am staying:

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I have everything I need right here: a beautiful luxury bungalow right on the beach, at the quiet end of what is a very quiet beach. When I say luxury, I mean it – solid walls, tiled floors, air conditioning, hot shower, and a fridge. What a treat. The view from my balcony is to die for:

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And my bedroom has windows overlooking the sea on 3 out of 4 sides. I draw the curtains back when I go to sleep so I can wake to not just the sound but the sight of the lapping sea each morning.

Right on my doorstep, I have Sail Rock, one of the best diving spots in Thailand, if not SE Asia. Yesterday, I went out on a boat and did a couple of dives. Even though the visibility was only around 6-8 metres (poor for here – it’s usually 20-30 metres, but there’s a storm a-brewing), I saw some amazing sights. Huge schools of fish swimming around me, a massive moray eel at least 3 metres long, curled around a rock. Trigger fish, sulking and looking for someone or something to bite (yes, they have teeth and they are not afraid to use them). Colourful shrimps, both large and small. I even swam up through a vertical tunnel (underwater they call those things chimneys). Here we are on the boat, coming in to shore after a morning’s diving:

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And, thanks to my wonderful mum and dad, I now have a functioning and fully loaded kindle so have all the reading material I could need. And with 2 weeks of nothing to do, that could amount to rather a lot. I am currently embroiled in Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – really good read and an interesting insight into the perilous lives of those with the fortune/misfortune to live in and around the court of Henry VIII.

So, as long as I continue to feel the same about this place, it will be home for the next 2 weeks until I make my way to the Indian ocean coast for a few days on a boat. It’s the perfect way to see out the last few weeks of the wonderful quartergapyear. Yes, 3 weeks today I will be at home again in London. And I certainly need to reserve my energy as my amazing friend, Mel, has planned one hell of a homecoming weekend for me. All my best friends are on standby for 48 hours of fun.

Downsizing…

There has been some major downsizing on the quartergapyear today. I bought myself the tiniest of backpacks that holds little more than a swin suit and pair of MC Hammer traveller pants and have left everything else in the care of Brian, a mate of Mr Smith’s. Merci beaucoup for the connection, John.

Here, evidence – the small bag in the middle and the guitar are all that will travel with me tomorrow as I head out to the islands. Better hope I’ve got everything I need, as Brian has just left with the rest of my gear…

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Reflections on Cambodia

Cambodia is a country that I came to like and appreciate over time, but it wasn’t love at first sight. In hindsight, it was a mistake to fly from Burma into Siem Reap, which is tourism gone bad – there is even a street called Pub Street… Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed much of what Pub Street had to offer on three separate nights/early mornings out, but it was too much of a culture shock after quiet, peaceful and un-touristy Burma and it threw me off my stride slightly. And the crowds kind of spoiled Angkor Wat for me -throngs of noisy, photo taking tourists experiencing the wonderful temples through the view finder of their iPhones, rather than enjoying the beauty and serenity they had to offer. I hope I manage to do a short hop back to Angkor Wat at some point when I am back in SE Asia (note when not if…), but definitely out of season.

Phnom Penh is a wonderful city – full of history of many kinds, all aspects of life being lived right in front of you on every street corner, colours, sounds, beautiful open spaces, and magnificent temples and palaces. I admit it – I am a city girl, but not all cities are for me. Phnom Penh, though, is a place I could actually consider living if I had the chance. Full of life, and a lot to do. It was also a place where I found much meaning – S21 and the Killing Fields were two of my most difficult but important days, seeing both the worst of human behaviour and realising how strong is the human spirit for survival and rebirth. They also served as an important reminder of why I do the kind of work I do, but have made me realise my need to be a bit more hands on and practical, doing things where I can see more of an immediate and tangible impact. I’m not quite sure how yet, but it’s definitely the direction I want to go in.

Aside from Phnom Penh, the things I have enjoyed most about Cambodia have been when I have managed to get off the tourist trail – in my view not done especially well here. The Cardamon Mountains were peaceful and beautiful and it was such a rare treat to get right back to nature and basics: sleeping in a basic bamboo hut with the sounds of the birds and animals to keep you aware at night wondering what/who would be in your room by morning, swimming in rivers, taking lazy trips in rowing boats and eating packed lunches from bambo baskets, meeting locals who just wanted to sing and talk, and dealing with little or no electricity and a scarce supply of water.

As precocious as it might sound, it has been some of the really simple things that have given me most pleasure – dining with locals for a dollor for a feast, hand washing my underwear in the bathroom sink, riding a bike out to distant villages, and sitting by the river with nothing to do but people watch, play guitar or think. At times in Cambodia, I got frustrated because I wasn’t doing as much as I thought I should be, going to more places. I suspect it’s no coincidence that I was in Cambodia when I reached the half way point of my journey, which made me far too conscious of counting down the days, rather than just enjoying each day for itself. I realised this a week or so ago, and began to just enjoy the country and what it had to offer. I guess that’s the benefit of having this much time away; there is the luxury to just be, without the urgent need to get stuff done which unfortunately is the default setting for the rest of my life back home. Maybe a healthy balance between the two is what I should be aiming for.

So, what have been the other highs of Cambodia? Diving was fantastic (great to be back in the deep end of the pool), beach paradise on Koh Rong and Otres beach, beautiful French colonial architecture in Kampot, seeing my first flying fish on the boat from Koh Rong to Sihanoukville, witnessing a huge storm from the safety (ahem) of my bed in the bambo hut that woke me at 5am, learning a few more songs on the guitar (including one of my all time favourites – Looking for my Own Lone Ranger – Anna B, I was thinking of you and Will  as I learned it), meeting some really lovely people, watching a Cambodian family playing together in the sea on Otres beach, having my legs threaded on the beach (who’d have thought…), getting a valentine text from my sister (bless her), the children joining me on my tuk tuk in the fishing village near Kampot, the old casino at the top of Bokor Mountain where I felt like I was walking towards the edge of the world, film footage from 1965 in the National Museum, and eating and cooking some amazing Cambodian food. I have also had a series of ‘firsts’: banana plants, mango trees, pineapple bushes, salt farms, bamboo huts, sleeping under a mosquito net, swimming in a river, and probably a lot more that I can’t remember.

And the lows? Well, definitely the rats. The bus journeys were irritating in their disorganisation, but I couldn’t list them as a low as I always enjoy the journey. Maybe my approach at times, as I kind of lost my travelling mojo here and there and forgot to just enjoy the moment. But those moments never lasted long, they soon passed as I went on to the next great experience.

So, overall, I have come to love Cambodia in a way that I didn’t think I would at times. And in terms of my journey, it was a place of a few growing pains in between wonderful experiences that I think set me up perfectly for the last leg of this trip. I knew when I was planning this months ago that I would need to finish with a few weeks of down time, and that’s exactly what I want and need right now. The scuba diving will provide enough activity to stop me going stir crazy, but really I need to process this amazing experience and start looking forward to what might lie ahead when I get home. The quartergapyear was always about fun, release, gaining independence, challenging and scaring myself, living for the moment, and opening my eyes to new possibilities. It hasn’t disappointed in that respect. But it must also be about transition and moving on, and that’s where my head is leading me next.

Flight to the islands booked. Time to get on with the final chapter of the quartergapyear. 

Goodbye Cambodia – finally…

It’s D Day for Cambodia today – i’m heading on to Thailand for the final leg of the quartergapyear.  It nearly didn’t happen after I missed my flight. Complete laid-backness and incompetence were to blame. I thought the flight was at 10am rather than 845am. I checked from the seat of my tuk tuk on the way to the airport…

As it was almost certain I would miss it and there was absolutely nothing I could do, I sat back and enjoyed the ride to the airport through the rush hour, watching Cambodians waking up and going about their daily lives. Pretty much most aspects of life happen on Cambodian pavements,  so it was a great goodbye present on the way out of a country I have finally come to love and understand.

I will post later with my thoughts on Cambodia,  with the highs and lows. But its definitely been an interesting 3ish weeks that I’ll remember forever. And it provided some much needed time for thinking and reflection and I now feel ready to start thinking about the future as I head towards my hammock/live aboard boat in Thailand.

Khmer cooking course

Even those who have only a passing acquaintance with me will know I have a great love of food – almost anything goes, and lots of it. I have tried some really great food in Cambodia and it would be a shame not to be able to eat it again (even London ain’t awash with Cambodian restaurants), so I was thrilled to have the chance to do a Khmer cooking course today. It didn’t disappoint.

First we headed to the market to buy our ingredients, where we saw some wierd and wonderful sights:
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I also had the joy of seeing – for the first time – where bananas come from. Believe it or not, this is a banana flower, which has petal after petal curved around it. Between each petal is a neat little row of ‘baby bananas’ as our cooking teacher called them. These tiny buds grow up to be big juicy bananas – hence a bunch of bananas. Brilliant.
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Next we went to our rooftop cooking classroom:
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We made four dishes: spring rolls with sweet and sour sauce, fish amok, banana blosson salad with chicken and sticky rice and mango. We made every single component from scratch, including the banana leaf boat that our amoks were cooked in. Here are the fruits of my labour:
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Observant readers will have spotted the recipe book in one of the photos above. Friends and family be warned!

Cambodian Food

Cambodian cuisine doesn’t really get much press – good or bad – but I have enjoyed some great food here. So, here is a photo hommage to some of the wonderful things I have tasted. Plus some things I am glad I haven’t…

This was my first banana pancake of the quartergapyear and tasted as good as it looked:

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This is one of the tastiest breakfasts I have ever had – eaten as the sun rose over our boat along the river from Chi Phat and served in a bamboo basket, the Cambodian equivalent of a packed lunch/breakfast:

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This is definitely the best meal I have had in Cambodia – green mango salad (grated green mango, carrot, red onions, garlic, lime, fish sauce, sugar) followed by a delicate and fragrant fish amok (which is on the menu for my cooking course tomorrow):

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And here are some of the stranger parts of Cambodian cuisine – deep fried spiders are a delicacy in Kampong Cham province and my bus companion decided to try one (yuk!):

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Not sure what these little beauties were – look like a cross between a fly and a cockroach… With a side serving of whole roasted small bird complete with head and all limbs… They were spotted at a bus stop – to be fair, I’ve probably not seen better at the Little Chef…

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Kampot to Kampong Cham

I left Kampot on Friday morning, spending most of the day travelling on the unique transport that is Cambodia’s bus network. There was the usual late departure, long stops en route for apparently no reason, and general chaos at every possible moment. I had to change buses in Phnom Penh, which was an experience. Many people with official looking passes, but noone with any information about where I would find my bus. Luckily I had met a Scottish woman called Lorraine in Kampot who was travelling all the way to Kampong Cham, too, so she stayed with the bags while I periodically wandered along the line of buses asking if one of them was mine. Eventually, it arrived and almost left without us. Late, naturally.

Having done a spot of moaning, I must admit that the bus journeys are always an experience and they are a great way to see the country. For that reason, I never feel like I am ‘wasting’ a day when I take a long bus trip.

I got to Kampong Cham late afternoon. It’s a town on the Mekong River. It used to be Cambodia’s third city, but Siem Reap and Sihanoukville have usurped it. I found it to have a special laid back charm. I have been feeling a little tired over the last few days – part travel fatigue, part due to the heat, and also probably because I picked up a bit of a stomach bug a couple of days ago. Nothing serious. But enough to make me feel a little lethargic. I decided to check myself into the most expensive room (river-view balcony) of allegedly the ‘smartest’ hotel in town. A relative term of course… I met someone on the bus back to Phnom Penh yesterday who had also stayed there and hilariously we had both taken photos of our beds because they were rather grand affairs – exhibit A:

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I also had a TV in my room and decided to check out BBC World. It stayed on for about 10 minutes before I could bear it no longer. If I hear one more story about horse meat…. And I decided it’s not essential I know anything about the wars, disease, meteors, or murders that are going on in the world. After all, there is very little I can do about them when I am equipped with little more than a pair of MC Hammer traveller pants.

I did very little in Kompong Cham. There wasn’t that much to see or do anyway, but I decided that sleep, reading, people watching and day dreaming were more important than activity. At least for a couple of days. I generally think these passtimes, along with idling, are much underrated and get a very bad press.

At dusk I watched a group of bonkers Cambodians line dancing under the main bridge across the Mekong River. Apparently it’s a daily ritual. It all looked very dance flash mob to me, but they seemed to be taking it seriously. I didn’t get any photos as I was having a long phone call with an old friend. I’m sure readers can conjure the image for themselves.

I had to revise my travel plans – I was hoping to catch a bus to Sen Monorom but there is only one bus per day that doesn’t leave until midday, arriving at 4pm (by which what the timetable really means is arriving after dark). As I was only going to have a couple of days there, I decided to ditch it in favour of coming back to Phnom Penh – there were a couple of things I missed first time around because of the King’s cremation. So they have now been re-scheduled and I have booked myself into a Khmer cooking course for my last day.

Bokor Hill Station

Today I took a day excursion out to the Bokor Hill Station, established by the French in the 1920s as an escape from the heat and humidity of the town below. We took a mini bus up the to the Bokor national park and snaked our way up around the mountain via hairpin bends made all the more bearable by the new vista-spoiling/life-saving (it’s a tough call what matters more) road from the base to the summit of the mountain.

First stop was a series of building built for the king for his dry season get away. What was amazing was how small his own dwelling was – it was certainly no Balmoral. Just a modest hillside home with a few rooms. It was abandoned when the Khmer Rouge seized power and what remains now are the bare bones of the building.

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The royal bathroom…

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Much of the scenery has been spoilt by the construction of a massive casino and resort towards the top of the mountain, which was sold to developers on a 99 year lease a few years ago. That such a beautiful area should be blighted by bad architecture and sleazy passtimes is a real shame. There will even be a golf course here eventually.

For lunch, we found an amazing ledge leaning out over the jungle below – if we stood quietly we could hear the monkeys and their companions in the ground below going about their business. There was a ledge hanging out over the rest that our guide jumped out onto to show off – there was no way I was going to miss out, but I took a slightly more cautious approach. Readers will be interested to know I was one of only 3 people who made it across and was actually the first to make the leap. Here I am milimetres from sure death with the jungle and clouds behind me.

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For me the most amazing thing was visiting the old casino right at the top of the mountain. This beautiful big old art deco building would have been the site for some decadence in its day, and it seems to hold these memories within its ageing walls. Beautiful floor tiles gave a hint of its former glory…

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And the best bit was the huge balcony at the back of the building. As I walked out onto it with not another soul in sight, the sun hit the white floor and walls and in front of me all I could see was the clouds hanging over the valley below. I’m not sure this photo quite captures it, but as I walked out I felt I was walking towards the edge of the world.

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Before we headed back, we stopped at a waterfall where I came across some women with beautiful garlands in their hair. I told them how beautiful they looked and asked if I could try one on. Much fussing followed and here I am with my new friend.

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We finished off the day with a sunset boat trip along the river – it was a fantastic day, made even better by the fact of running ino my old friends Rebecca and Chris that I met in Koh Rong. Great people, a great day.

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Kampot

Yesterday I caught an early bus from Sihanoukville to Kampot. What could have taken an hour door to door in Cambodian time (with endless messing around and errand-running en route) ran into hours. Frustrating. But I wasn’t exactly in a rush.

Kampot is just off the south coast inland slightly and on the river. It is dominated by crumbling French colonial architecture and if you look hard enough and shut out the sights and sounds of modern day Kampot you can just about imagine the town in its former glory. This is the old cinema.

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Yesterday I wandered around town taking in the sights and rhythms of the place, and was then talked into a tuk tuk ride to a fishing village. Right decision as it turned out to be one of the highights of my time in Cambodia, going out into the countryside and well off the tourist trail that is so well established here but so badly done.

First we stopped off at a salt farm – never seen one of them before! The land was aub-divided into small rectangular areas, each with slightly raised edges of earth, and within each sea water was collected and left to evaporate leaving the grainy sea salt behind. I watched men and women, hunched over brushing the salt free of the land into heaps and then collecting their gains in bamboo baskets that they carried into the collection shed. It was a truly amazing sight.

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Next, we went on to a Muslim fishing village where we saw women sitting under their houses making fishing nets, the only brick/solid building in the village (the mosque), children riding bikes several sizes too big for them, and endless buffalos grazing in the fields. Here is the bridge I walked over to reach the boats:

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As we drew into the next village, the tuk tuk was greeted by what seemed like dozens of beeming faces from the local children. If you can’t beat them join them, right? So I invited them all to hop on board (to their delight) and they laughed at me as I tried to pronounce all their names. Then they insisted I take their photos so they could see them in the camera afterwards.

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After that, my driver took me to his friends’ place for rice wine (actually, I think it was wine made from sugar palms) and some kind of sea food. It was at that point that he seemed to suggest we get married, at which point I thought it might be the right time to ask him to drop me back at my hotel. And that, thank you very much, but I didn’t want any more wine. But it was all done in a very good natured way, so all is good with the world…