Monday, September 25, 2006

Singing in the rain... on the beach in Koh Tao???

Sept 25th. Shamelessly hurried off the bus by the driver at 3am this what seemed like the middle of nowhere. Hmmn.... how exactly do we get to Koh Tao from here? No fear.. eventually a wee bus came to pick us up and then it was a hop and skip, another bus and a ferry then we are there! Ahhhh beach time here we come! Welcome to Koh Tao.

We made some new friends on our trip to the island; David, an American just starting out on his travels and Arri, a lovely Finnish boy (first Finnish person i've met so far!), so when we hit land, we all headed off to the Tao Tong Villas together...

As San (the owner) drove us up and over the island via the wierdest "road" AKA totally "off-road" rocky path that you literally had to hold on for dear life, we did think, hmmmn... where exactly is this place.. pretty much on the complete other side of the island actually. But it was lovely and quiet, only tiny problem being if you wanted to go into town, you had to get a lift in the 4x4! But actually its perfect for us to just chill out, and relax (yes, i know im not too good at that but im going to try!). After checking in to our "gorgeous" (aka nice but rustic!) bungalows looking out onto the beach, Nadine and i headed into town to get some surprise bits and bobs for Jeremy's birthday the next day! As we pottered around, we realised we really liked our out-of-the-way place, as town was full of lotsa divers and beach chickies; KT being the big dive island in Thailand. As we drove back, i was a tad worried about picking up Jeremy's birthday cake tomorrow - i mean seriously you have to hold on for dear life in this truck, exactly how would the cake hold up?

Later on, we met a bunch of Germans staying at our guy, San's (so lovely!) cousins place next door - a real character called Talik. They told us about the Sky bar, 10 mins up a rocky path that they have frequented most nights..hmmn, might have to check it out later! Took a wee walk around the "resort" (not really!) and then off to wrap up Jeremy's pressies including (and this is key!) a ton of chocolate as he has as sweet tooth as myself! As we sat eating dinner at the restaurant, looking out over the water, we all thought "how lucky are we?".....lovely time!

So off to bed after a lovely day, or so i thought! Pretty tired from our overnight bus trip, so ready for a nice relaxing snooze. Hmmnnn not so fast! As I looked over the pressies i had so nicely wrapped, i realised they were all ripped up, there was quite a lot of "mouse" poop and some of the chocolate had been nibbled on! Damn.. should have realised i was staying in a pretty rustic place after all. But hey, i've been traveling for a long time now, i'm almost good with mice.. so i thought i could handle this! And then I turned around and saw what looked like a pretty big mouse run along the edge of the bed...gulp, its ok, i can handle this! Wrapped up all the chocolate, and went out to throw it in the bin away from my bungalow. OK that done, back in the room, sitting reading and writing in my journal when i heard a rustle, then these two giant (i'm not exaggerating i have witnesses!) rats come out of the side of the wall and pretty much saunter past me, giving me a cheeky look! AAAAHHH. Rats i can't do! I screamed my head off, i have to admit, merely in an attempt to scare them away. Phew... job done. Lay there hoping they wouldn't come back.. but of course they did. Began to have some minor panic attacks and realised i couldn't sleep there so banged around to get rid of them again.. then made a run for it and woke San up... he thought i was a nut case but gave me a new bungalow to move into. Meanwhile the rain was pouring down, the wind was howling and it was quite a miserable night. Terrified, i went back to the room and gingerly (but very speedily), i began to throw all my stuff into my backpack... Damn it, here they came again... this time making a direct beeline for me.. i mean it! One of them slid all over my backpack then made a run for the door; think i terrified it with my screaming but i didnt care!

For those of you who know me well, I'm sure you can imagine that by this time, i was FREAKING out! Grabbed my pack and ran out of the bungalow slipping and sliding in the mud as i went! Great! Found my new place and walked up the stairs only to realise it was Jeremy and Nadine's bungalow and i had woken them up. Oops! As they asked whats wrong, i of course tried to be brave but clearly i was a complete (and pathetic) wreck. As usual, they were so brilliant and lovely! Jeremy took my bag and checked out my new abode and approved it "rat free!"... they even said i should stay with them but hey, i pulled myself together and pretended i was fine haha! Didnt sleep a wink but at least I didnt have any little friends running around!

Sept 26th. Jeremy's birthday!!! Yah! Went into town with San this morning to pick up the birthday cake and some new "rat free" chocolate...Back to the ranch to see the birthday boy.. with the cake almost intact. Nadine wanted it for a surprise tonight so San hid it for us ....had a lovely time just chatting over breakfast...where does the time go when you are having fun! Of course for us camera geeks there was lots to talk about..Jeremy had recently bought a new camera so him and i spent lots of time discussing shutter speed, ISO's and of course landscape or auto??? (hey, thats not boring...well Nadine WAS pretty patient with us, I have to say!). But of course we had to do SOMETHING today..couldn't be totally lazy so decided to do the famous "cliff walk" along the coast. There wasn't actually any cliff to speak of, but we had a great time, gorgeous sunshine, beautiful sea, bobbing boats as we sat at a waterfront cafe having a wee drinkie..ahh the good life! Pottered around the town area and had lunch on the beach then headed back to the bungalows to celebrate the big day with cake, cerveza and lotsa chat with our new friends David, Arri and some of the Germans..Jeremy even got the guitar out and David played the bongo drums ...Then we all headed up to the Sky Bar where Talik, San's cousin was playing bar man! Had a great night ..although i did make Jeremy (in his tipsy birthday state!) check my new place for rats .. phew a-ok again tonight. Thank goodness. Well, i had tied everything possible up outside just in case the rats were partial to toothpaste or anything else i might have, so clearly it worked! Have I mentioned how lucky i am traveling with Nadine and Jeremy....feel like i've known them for years....and actually quite enjoying the pottering too; thought i'd need to be doing more but happy doing very little!

Sept 27th - 30th. Ahhh.... another few days in paradise! Tough choices.. what do we do, sit in hammocks all day, rent motorbikes and zip around the island, check out some other lovely beaches.. kayak in the beautiful blue water.. ahhhh yes, all of the above. Just lovely. Oh, but before i forget, we did have yet another "beastie" incident. Not me, thank goodness, although i did find more rat poop in my room damn it! No, this time it was Jeremy and Nadine who had all the excitement! After saying goodnight after dinner one night, they headed off to their room only to return pretty quick smart telling us there was a huge spider in their room. Come on now, a spider. No biggie right?
Well, actually after David, Arri, myself and Jeremy and Nadine trooped back up to see it, I have to be honest this spider was bigger than any other spider i have ever seen! HUGE doesn't describe this thing! It became quickly apparant that all the boys were scared of spiders (admit it boys its true!). Finally had to get Bom, one of the guys who works there (who thought we were all mad!) to come and help out. He was useless and only managed to pull some of its legs off. Yuk! Jeremy had to finish the poor thing off ..... i know, i know we sound awful but it had to be done!

Thought that was the end of it but no, about 10 mins after the spider incident, they are back! This time they found a scorpion about 2 inches from Nadine's head! WHAT!!!!This place was becoming more dangerous by the minute! We were all pretty freaked out by this point so demanded (ok asked politely!) if we could get one of the newer bungalows that Arri and David were staying in (i mean the only beastie they had was a 5 ft lizard living in the wardrobe next to Arri's head... that's nothing right!). So luckily there was one free, and with our new abode, the three of us (yup we hunkered down together for the next 2 days! - told you we were close!)...felt much more relaxed and beastie-free...phew!

Had a great chat with San before i left; he had asked me about my impressions of Thailand, I wanted to know his thoughts on the military coup and what people thought (everyone very happy apparantly!); we talked about the change that tourism has brought about in the country and how unfortunately, the Thai culture had been hijacked and nowadays is really all about money and it was hard to really get a feel for the real Thailand any more (his words not mine)! Really lovely man and so smiley and happy with his life, just like his cousin Talik. They both said "Hey, if i have 100 baht in my pocket every day, that's fine with me. If people don't come to stay, we just go fishing for the day. Life is good. We are lucky to live here." I told him it was great to have such a positive attitude about life!!! Hard to find that kind of contentment and happiness these days! Felt quite sad to say goodbye to them and our fun time on Koh Tao!

Sept. 30th. And so it was time to leave our little island paradise (where it had rained every day.. but hey, it didnt ruin our lovely time!)....heading back to the big smoke of Bangkok for a few days before Jeremy and Nadine flew off to Australia and me to India .....Arri decided to join us on our trip back so yah, more folks added to our merry bunch!

Oct 1-2. Pottered around Bangkok with the gang and had a leisurely last few days in South East Asia... went to the giant Chattachuk market again.. you just have to shop in Bangkok. It's obligatory! Had a wonderful "last supper" with Jeremy and Nadine (thanks so much for that folks!) and wished each other all the best in our onward travels. So so so sad to say goodbye to these guys.. can't believe its been just over a month we have been together! I mean seriously, they put up with me for that long! They are off to Australia and then to live in New Zealand for a year, Arri is going to Cambodia and me, well, it's a hop and skip to Delhi then hopefully i'll fly out the same day to Kathmandu in Nepal to start the last leg of my amazing adventures! Stay tuned!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Military coup anyone? It's back to Bangkok for us!

Sept 20th. Woke up today, our last day before we had to bus it back toThailand, only to hear BBC World tell us that our next port of call, Bangkok, had just undertaken a military coup! WHAT!!! Unbelievable.. but hey, we did a bit of research, everything seemed ok as it was a very peaceful coup (don't ya love that!) and we had bought our tickets already, so it was off to a new adventure tomorrow (come on, how good would this be for the blog!).

This afternoon we popped over to the hospital where we had been to the Beatocello concert, and gave blood. Pretty painless, the staff were gorgeous to us, we got a Fanta, a packet of biscuits AND a tshirt...oh yes and i found out my blood group. Lucky me I'm AB+ apparantly...who knew? As Dr Beat said, it was important to give blood in Cambodia if we could, as over 60% of the blood they have is we felt we did just a wee bit to help out! Said a sad goodbye to our lovely guest house as we were leaving early next day..

Sept 21st. Wow - on the road at the crack of dawn...and wow, what a road it was! Lets just say at the end of our 13+ hour journey even my well-padded bottom was numb from the bumps and holes along the way - horrendous! Even worse than that; Jeremy and Nadine totally corrupted me into deliniating from my promise to myself not to eat any Western food for dinner while i was in Asia.. so ok, ok we had Burger King.. and it was lovely!! Hey, we were exhausted - and there was a military coup going on - don't judge!!! Teeeheee!

Sept 22-24. Spent some time trying to get a good pic of a Thai tank and hottie soldier...but too shy to ask, so, sorry about that girls, don't have one! Not much to report except to say we visited the worlds biggest market, Chattuchak Market with over 15,000 stalls!!! It is beyond overwhelming; tons of trendy Thai's also shop here so there is definitely something for everyone! Did see quite a few tanks on our way to the market, but really, everything seemed pretty mellow! Children getting photos taken sitting on top of the tank, flowers everywhere, smiling soldiers. Kinda wierd and crazy but hey, it's my first military coup so what do i know!

Enjoyed many an ice-cream sundae with the folks - gotta love Jeremy and Nadine... and hey, we met up with Oliver again....he and I will be in Nepal at the same time so hopefully we'll see each other there! Back "home" and then it was off on our overnight bus to take us down to our "chill out time" on Koh Tao, one of Thailand's cool beaches....stay tuned!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Volunteering at the Land Mine Museum...where do i start?

First visited the Land Mine Museum just outside Siem Reap on September 10th. As soon as we arrived, we all realised we wanted to do something here, even if it was only something as insignificant as volunteering to teach English or help clear the place of some of the rubbish that had accumulated over the last few years (they were planning to do this for some time so needed some hands on deck to help with this!). We wanted to do something; anything; so we asked and were told, yes, no problem please come whenever you can. We look for volunteers all the time! But I'm kind of jumping ahead as I haven't filled you in on the museum yet, so read on...

September 14th. This was my first day of volunteering here at the museum. LOVED IT! Lets just say that it is a very relaxed atmosphere here, in other words there is pretty much no structure whatsoever. You offer your services to teach English, and the children come up and introduce themselves and if they are interested, you sit down and start working! Ended up being quite a busy day. After having a tour of the museum and meeting Joseph and Matthew, two of the more long term volunteers who were living at the museum, I checked out the interest for English lessons and then got started. First "class" I had two boys and a girl - Vannick, Chat and Kun. Then a more intense one on one with Da, one of the older children who live at the museum (he knows WAY more grammer than me, i need to definitely get some lessons myself here!). The Landmine Museum really is such a heartbreaking story - yes, yet another one for Cambodia. The awful horror that has beset this country really does break your heart but somehow, it hasn't broken the Cambodian spirit. The museum was set up by Aki Ra, an amazing man with the most incredible life story that is almost beyond terms of how many times he could have died during his tenure in three different armies from a very young age, to his new and very dangerous career of making land mines safe; in many ways he is a very lucky man yet his story when you hear it is almost primarily about war and violence and killing and sadness, and luck really doesn't come into the equation until much later in his life!

I have to believe Aki Ra was "saved" to look after all the child land mine victims who now live with him. From the age of five when his parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge for very simple crimes (his mother for calling out to an old man not to trip and spill the little food he had, his father for being ill and starving and then managing to eat a bowl of vegetable soup!), he was taught to lay mines, fire guns and rocket launchers and make simple bombs, all while being forced to fight with the Khmer Rouge. His first gun at age 10 was an AK47, almost the same size as himself. When he was about fourteen, the Viet Cong overthrew his village and he had the choice of joining this army or being killed. He "joined" and went on to fight his former army, the Khmer Rouge. Eventually, the Vietnamese pulled out of Cambodia in 1990; at that point Aki Ra was conscripted yet again, against his wishes, this time into his own country's, the Cambodian Army, who were still fighting the Khmer Rouge in the Siem Reap area! Needless to say, some of the awful things he had to undertake during his time as a child soldier, including killing people, stay with him today, but he soon realised that he wanted to make a difference - and try to make his country safe - so he decided to put his knowledge of landmines to good use once he left the army.

In 1993, he worked with the United Nations peacekeeping forces to help them clear mines laid over the years by many different armies. In 1999, he set up the Cambodia Land Mine Museum up to showcase some of the many armaments he had gathered over the years; Russian, American, Vietnamese mines, singles, doubles, booby traps.. you name it he had it. The museum is a very humble but emotional place. Aki Ra's only goal in life is to make his country safe for his people. He has finally found happiness and lives there now with his wife Hourt and their two children, Amatak and Mine. Unfortunately, in 2005, he accidently inhaled TNT (dynamite) which poisoned him and made him very sick. He almost died. Even today he is still affected and was actually flying to Japan during the time we were at the museum, to get a full CAT scan as he was becoming ill again. This was being paid fo through donations and sponsorships, as is the upkeep of the museum. Also, all the children have sponsors who have agreed to pay for their secondary education if they want to go on to university after high school.

The reason i say fate kept him alive from all his horrific experiences was that he is now the father figure for more than 20 land mine victims - all children who live with him and his wife at the museum. They call it home, Aki Ra and his wife call them their other children. All of the children have lost one or two limbs, or eyes, or been scarred in one awful way or another.. but their spirit is so strong, it is incredible to see! They are amazing that they can move forward past the horrors of their accidents as well as having to move away from their families who can't really cope with children with disabilities - they need hands to work the land, and more importantly feel that Aki Ra can give their children a better life - imagine having to make that decision! There are so many individual stories .. stories I feel I will never forget. For example, one of the boys, Poiy, went into the rice fields one day with some soldiers. The soldiers always let the children go first so they will test out the roads for mines. The children didn't always know the dangers of the mines or even that they were walking in a mined area. Poiy stepped on a land mine that lay on the raod. He remembers being blown in the air.....that's all. When he woke up, a KR doctor had amputated his leg with a wooden saw....(in the background the Vietnamese were still fighting the KR so Poiy had a bloody bandage in his mouth to stop him screaming from the pain of the amputation...). Luckily, he learned about Aki Ra's museum/home through the Belgium Handicap International organization and has lived there since 2003. There are so many other stories like this from the gorgeous kids we met, Da, Vannik, Bros, humbling to realise they don't see their disabilities as disabilities...just things that happened to them and now they are living a better life with Aki Ra ...and they are so thankful to be at the museum, and to us for helping them with their English lessons or just hanging out with them! It really does make you speechless!

Some gruesome statistics on landmines. According to the Landmine Monitor, (and these are old numbers from 2004) there were more than 60,000 landmine/unexploded ordinance (UXO's) victims between 1979 and 2003. Over half of them with no connection to any war, innocent bystanders who unfortunately stepped on mines or bombs unknowingly. In 2003, 772 new landmine casualties were reported in Cambodia alone; many of them children. In the first six months of 2004, ther were 671 new mine/UXO casualties recorded, the first upward trend in many years. Every month more than 90 more victims are reported. It costs $5 to purchase a mine and $500 to destroy it! All over the world more than 100-200 MILLION LANDMINES HAVE BEEN LAID AND ARE STILL ACTIVE TODAY!!!! In countries like Angola, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Mozambique...these statistics are horrific and staggering and you feel so ashamed for whoever came up with the idea of these awful, evil things in the first place. Cambodia is one of the worst landmine and UXO affected countries in the world due to three decades of of conflict. In 2003, 97% of all casualties were civilian. That is the worst thing - that they are planted indiscriminatly - so we asked "Well, surely each army knows where they laid them. Can't they just give that diagram to an NGO and they can be detonated?". How stupid and naive are we? Of course there is no such information.. that was the point - the element of surprise for the enemy!

Sept 15th - 19th. Loved my time at the museum. Got into a bit of a routine. Jeremy and I would cycle up each day and hang out with the kids from about 8:30am -1-2ish. Great to arrive and see them waiting for us, with their books and pens at the ready. Lots of time it was as much about just spending time with them and practising words and pronunciation rather than any formal classwork. Jeremy spent much of his time teaching Tol and some of the others how to play the guitar, and was amazed at how quickly they picked it up! So lovely to see their smiles when they understood something or answered questions correctly - they were quite delighted with themselves! Lots of different levels; some like Kun were very shy and didn't have much English, but she really came on so well in her lessons. Then there was Vannick -who i admit was one of my favourite children, incredibly smart with a beautiful smile, willing to try anything. Apparantly, when he first arrived at the museum he was in such shock, he wouldn't talk to anyone for months. Now - he is a cocky wee chappie to say the least! Even when he is a bit lacking in confidence, he has a go. For example, with my camera which is quite heavy and hard to handle, especially with just one arm. The first time he said "I can't use that" but after Matthew and I said "Yes you can" he went and took some fantastic photos... he definitely has the photographers eye! Then there was Da, who sometimes didn't feel up to class, due to him having typhoid (on top of all his other problems)!! Gave him Harry Potter to help with his reading....he loved it - but had never heard of it before! Then there was Sokna,of the girls; so huggy, every time we left she would put her arms around you, and say thank you, thank you teacher! Totally made your heart melt how demonstrative and loving these children were.

Had a clean up day with some new volunteers - Marilyn and Christian from Holland. Kinda daft in retrospect as Marilyn and I were running around pulling up rubbish (the smell alone was atrocious never mind the actual rubbish... no-one here really practices waste management let's just say that! Everything is just thrown anywhere!). We got alot accomplished by the end of the day though, and the place really looked so much better... but as we headed home, we discussed the fact that as there are still so many UXO's ...even around the museum (no-one really knows where the mines are or how deep they have been planted), we could quite easily have disturbed some in our aggressive clean up! Aki Ra had seen us and had thanked us (and probably would have told us if he thought we were in any danger) but even he would tell the children on a regular basis "don't dig too deep in case you disturb bombs i havent yet detonated"! Phew - luckily no harm done but did make us think a little!

Our last day was definitely a bit sad... but it was great to know that Marilyn and Christian were taking over and staying for two months so that would be brilliant for the children to have stability of volunteers over such a long period of time!

And so it was time to leave Cambodia! So many words come to mind for me in everything I have seen in Siem Reap and also in Phnom Phen - courage, love, warmth, joy, sadness, poverty, maimed and amputated limbs, old, lined faces that have seen so much horror from places like S21 and the Killing Fields; young, scarred ones that have seen and felt more pain than they should at such a young age from land mine accidents.... so much evil, yet so much hope and inspiration for the future. Very humbling I have to say!!! There is something about this country that really affects you and takes over your heart. I really love Cambodia and would definitely come back to this wonderful, warm country!

If anyone wants to know more about the museum or Aki Ra, please check out the following website -

Friday, September 08, 2006

Siem Reap ...and the wonders of Angkor Wat!

Sept 8th. 7am bus ride with Nadine and Jeremy from Phnom Phen to Siem Reap today! Crazy tuk tuk drivers grabbing you as you get off the bus - you need room, you need taxi, madam, lady , hey hey!!! A tad disconcerting but then again, these guys have to make a living too!

Booked into our respective lodgings (not enough room for both of us so I'm just down the road!). Into town to check it out. Siem Reap is a strange dichotomy (right word?)....I mean really really trendy cafes, bars and restaurants.. i mean trendy as in London or Manhatten...and a huge number of street children and adults, many of them with awful amputations. Clearly there is tons of money here (obvious from the huge and very high end hotels like Raffles, Sofitel and many others) but the poverty is also very prevalent.

Met up with a tuk tuk guy, Mr Dom, who was recommended by a friend - he picked us up to go buy our 3 day Angkor Wat passes which also give you a sneak preview for sunset.. so excited that i'd finally be seeing this amazing wonder of the world (if its not then it should be but i think it is officially one of them!).

Back into town and randomly met our pal, Joe from Phnom it was off to dinner at the local food stalls that line the streets of any Asian town or city. Siem Reap is a little different tho'. Nowhere in Asia have i seen so many beggars.. hate to use that word.. it sounds so harsh. The children (some looking as young as 4 or 5) come up to you "Where are you from" they ask (its a well worn starter for 10 phrase for newbie tourists to town!). "I'm from Scotland.... or Wales... or Ireland" for Jeremy and Nadine. "Capital of Scotland is Edinburgh, Wales is Cardiff, Ireland is Dublin".. The children are amazing. Rote learning or not, its way more than any child in the western world knows about Cambodia!!! Made friends with a gorgeous wee girl called Neaat..who asked me to buy her bracelets.. Tried to resist, she then said (as they all do for whatever they are selling) "you have boyfriend"... "no i dont".. "You know why you dont, cos you dont buy my bracelets. Buy them you will get boyfriend no problem".....hmmnn interesting ploy! Then when i was still resisting, she gave me a hand written note with a flower on it, wishing me all the best in life etc. (come to find out later all the children have these; some adult must sit all day busting these out!!!). Anyway, once i saw that, i had to buy the bracelets. But then the others come, "you buy postcards, how about book"....they are really persistent. That sounds terrible; i know, and i understand how little they have, but it is just pretty full on, which unfortunately is how they have been taught. They sit next to you at the food stall, crying out for food, and of course you feel horrific as you sit there with your rice or noodles! That's why many tourists, including us, would rather buy them dinner rather than give them money, cos at least you know they are getting fed! Worst of all, we got chatting to a lovely wee chappie about 10 yrs old, full of smiles cos someone had bought him dinner; he was going over his English with me and also teaching me to count to ten in Cambodian. Then i realised his entire right leg was gone, due to land mine of course. So awful it put me over the edge. I know, I know.. you all think im pathetic but its so hard not to feel so heartbroken for these children - they are children and they should be having the kind of life children deserve. I started crying; just couldnt help it, and two or three of them who had been tapping me on the shoulder earlier, looked all concerned and said "Whats wrong, are you ok?". Can you believe it! So i had to pretend the food was too spicy and they gave me water and said i had to be careful.... what do you do? Also an older man came by with a Celtic top on - and only one leg and arm....mothers with babies who run after you saying "just a little milk for the baby.." just so bloody sad! Jeremy and Nadine discussed the fact India was actually much worse in places in the sense that the poverty is endemic and not just concentrated so much in one city like here ....but the guys said they thought the people in Siem Reap were a wee bit more persistent than in India. Probably this has alot to do with the fact that there is a constant influx of new, affluent tourists coming into Siem Reap on an almost daily basis. Either way i just found it so overwhelmingly sad.. easy for me to cry. I dont have to live these poor folks lives but thats just my way of dealing with it i suppose! A German guy who was sitting with his friend next to us said to me, "the first time eh?". I replied "yes"...and he said "When i came to Cambodia the first time, i was told to take my heart and lock it up in a box. You feel so guilty about what you have; you can't help everyone here....but it is a very overwhelming feeling when you first experience it". Very true but i dont want to lock my heart away; and i do wish i could help more but I suppose reality must win out. Unless i win the lottery of course!!! Anyway, very strange, distressing, emotional day here ....

September 9th. Sunrise at Angkor Wat! WOW. WOW. WOW! Well worth getting up at 4:30am for! Seriously! Its impossible to put into words, and my pics probably wont do it justice either, but this really is an amazing, incredible, serene, beautiful place! When we arrived, it seemed like there were literally thousands of tourists all lined up at the one main place to see the sun rise above Angkor Wat... of course we are not typical tourists so we went to find our own fabulous, less crowded area! (Of course we then ran back to catch that perfect spot shot too - hey, we're not daft!).

The colours were amazing; orange, yellow, pink, red. The sky went from clear to misty to stunningly bright and perfect blue - all really quickly! Absolutely breathtaking! And the scale - how did all these ancient civilizations do it? Even with modern equipment it would be a feat, but way back then, well, its definitely WOW factor! And yes yet again i dont have all the gory historical info for ya.. you'll be glad to know!! What i do know is that AW has 3 specific layers with the top steeple being higher than Notre Dame in Paris. Loved the splendour of the temple; the preservation is incredible! Saw the amazing Gallery of the Churning Milk with opposite sides of good and evil holding the seven headed naga (snake thingy!). Wandered around in literally about 100 degrees (Cambodia is seriously hot!) then had to take a break for lunch!

Then it was off to Te Phrom; known as the jungle temple where mother nature has been given free rein and tons of majestic trees have taken over the temple; just shows you how strong nature is!! So incredible and wild; so very different than the formality of AW. Loved this maybe a teeny bit more although you cant really compare; they are both gorgeous! Met some amazing musicians who taught themselves the instruments rather than become street people, due to their land mine accidents.

At this point, early afternoon, our 4:30am start was beginning to make us all drag a bit so we headed back to town and our guest houses. Nadine and I met up later in the evening to go to the "Beatocello" concert at the Khopa Bhopal childrens hospital in town. A little bit of background here folks about the hospital and its mentor...a Swiss doctor called Beat Richner. After specialising in paediatrics in Zurich, Dr Richner was sent to Cambodia in 1974/75 to work at the Kantha Bopha Children's Hospital. His mission came to an abrupt end when the Khmer Rouge invaded the country and Dr. Richner was forced to return to Switzerland where he took up his former work at the Zurich Children's Hospital. In December 1991 Dr. Richner was asked by the Cambodian government to rebuild and manage the Kantha Bopha Children's Hospital; since then four hospitals have now been built and/or overhauled.

Whilst pursuing his medical career Beat Richner developed the character of BEATOCELLO, best described as that of a poetic and musical comedian or clown. He gave countless performances, mostly in the German-speaking part of Switzerland but also abroad. More recently he has used this "persona" to help raise awareness and increase donations for the four Bopha hospitals in Cambodia.

Some really basic facts (check out the website for more details at Thanks to these four hospitals, all medical care is freely available to all children in Cambodia. Kantha Bopha has become a highly respected model for the entire Southeast Asian region of just how efficient direct medical and humanitarian aid -i.e., correct medication unhampered by corruption combined with targeted long-term training. Most of the hospital's funds come from private individuals in Switzerland who make spontaneous donations for Kantha Bopha, very often straight after one of BEATOCELLO's performances.

Some amazing statistics! Each year 75,000 children are hospitalized (the average length of hospitalisation is 5 days), 800,000 ill children receive treatment in the outpatients department, 400,000 healthy children get vaccinated, 16,000 surgical operations are executed, 12,000 birth in the maternity (designed to prevent mother-to-child AIDS and TB transmission) and daily 3,000 families receive health care education. All medical services are free of charge since the families in Cambodia are simply too poor to even make a small contribution towards these medical costs. Without Kantha Bopha, 3,200 additional children would die in Cambodia every month. As it is, over 65% of Cambodians have TB. Dengue fever is rife, even in Siem Reap where there is a huge outbreak right now but you never hear about these things in the media.

Yet even with all of this good being done, people like Princess Anne (who heads up the INTERNATIONAL which would include Cambodia, no?) Childrens Fund, and the WHO, have said to Dr Richner, "the facilities of the Kantha Bopha hospitals are too high end for the Cambodian economy to sustain and too luxurious for the Cambodian people. Essentially, they can manage with less!". That type of perception is rife apparantly in the Western medical community with doctors staying at the Sofitel in Siem Reap for $340 a night, coming in to see Dr Richners work and telling him the $170 average cost for a child to be looked after in hospital for 5.5 days, is too much money per child!! OK for the west, not for Cambodia's poor! So disgusting - and as these hospitals are run almost completely on donations,how dare they question him. Maybe if they donated the price of their hotel room, that might even things out a bit! Listening to this made you feel appalled at being a westerner - at least that is how Nadine and i felt after the concert.It clearly made a big impression on us! Yet another eye opening day in Siem Reap.

September 10th. Bad nights sleep. Started to have awful sweats and chills. Didnt sleep at all.. but had to move guest houses cos mine was a bit smelly so forced myself to pack up- thought my head was going to explode!! (yes i know a tad dramatic!). But hey, we are off to see more temples today soi have to pull myself together! Met Nadine and Jeremy at 10am and off we biked to Angkor Wat - yup, biking with a fever, good idea! First stop today was the Land Mine Museum which is situated on the way to the temples. Yet another assault on the senses,when you meet the most incredible kids whose lives - and bodies - have been torn apart by evil landmines...shocking and incredible stories but i'll do a separate posting on that! Felt pretty rotten (how can i even say that after meeting these folks..) so left the guys and biked back to the guest house. So bummed that i was missing out on AW today but that's life!

September 11th. Couldn't possibly stay away from AW today! The three of us decided to treat ourselves to a balloon ride up 180 metres to see AW at its very best. Big yellow balloon (ok you only get 15 minutes but it only costs $15 and what a fabulous view!!). Felt quite luxurious! Then off to Angkor Thom and Bayon....incredible temples!And so good of Jeremy and Nadine as they had already been here yesterday! Bayon is MASSIVE - 216 faces on 54 different heads. The carvings were incredible - so different again from the other temples. After lunch we visited Pre Rup, a smaller, very pretty temple..the heat was incredible today or was it just me, still feeling rotten! We had a big chat about what we wanted to do next, as this was our last day on our three day AW ticket, and we all agreed that rather than go lie on a beach for two weeks as we originally planned, we wanted to volunteer at the Land Mine Museum.. so we would stay an extra week here in Siem Reap.
Back at my hotel,i realised i couldnt take the incessant Cambodian kareoke any more so planned to move into Jeremy and Nadine's guest house tomorrow.

September 12th.Long story short. Nadine and Jeremy came to pick up my bags this morning and I realised i had to go to the clinic as i was feeling much worse.Nearly fainted on top of the tuk tuk driver -didnt bother him. He still ripped us off..really how cheeky is that! Got to the clinic. The doctor, after speaking with me, (and about Celtic Football Club,who he loves yah!), then diagnosed acute tonsilitis...interesting as my tonsils were probably the only part of my body that didnt hurt. So-after five hours on an IV and a giant injection in my bum to get rid of the pain in my head, i felt a bit better and headed home! Thank goodness i had changed hotels - so nice at Red Lodge and so FAB to have the lovely Nadine and Jeremy to look after me-seriously they were stars!!!

Monday, September 04, 2006

Cambodia.. Phnom Phen our first stop.... a whole new experience!

September 4th. The usual early start (with the usual 2 hour delay!) for all of us heading to Phnom Penh. There was quite a gang of us now - Silas, Matthew, Nadine, Jeremy, Oliver, another new pal Joe and myself! Got a wee river boat across the Mekong to the mainland then on to the proverbial mini-bus to take us to the Cambodian border. Now Lonely Planet does say this particular border crossing is a bit haphazard - hmmn a tad understated. Seriously, no-one seemed to have a clue what they were doing - on either the Lao or Cambodian side. You'd think we were the first people ever to do this crossing! At one point, we were all sitting in this bus on a dodgy dusty road which looked like it was in the middle of nowhere thinking ...."eh, what happens now". There was also a bus with people coming from Cambodia into Laos right next to us, who were saying exactly the same thing.."what does happen now?". Very odd but eventually we were told we would be crossing into Cambodia very soon, so once we were officially over the border, we all jumped in a convoy of Toyota Corollas (met a fab Dutch couple, Herbert and Margaret who were our travel mates on this journey!) to drive the 2 hours to Stung Treng where we took yet another ferry across to the city itself. Phew....

We met this young guy at the ferry point - super nice with the strongest English accent although he was Cambodian. Turns out he had a cancerous tumour in his throat which meant he couldn't breathe that easily, which strangely meant his accent sounded really English. He smoked like a chimney and was quite resigned to the fact he would never get the operation cos he didn't have the money. So depressing that he had given up in a way; i suppose he knew his reality, even though we asked him wasnt there some way he could get treatment .. still, very very sad!

After we said goodbye, it was a quick boat ride over then lunch then into yet another mini-bus for the last leg to Phnom Phen. Learned how to play backgammon and had a great chat with Silas...and everyone actually, even forced folks to play charades at one point. Hey - it was a long, long drive folks!! - and we didn't get into Phnom Phen till after we had been going for about 17 hours! Said goodbye to the boys who were heading to Siem Riep - so sad, as I had such a great and fun time with them.. but hopefully we will cross paths again in Cambodia - if not, back home!

September 5th. Up early today and Joe and I checked out Number 9 guest house that had been recommended to me by my friend Marieke, way back during the New Zealand trip.. we walked all over for ages, only to find it bloomin' right next door! Its a rabbits warren down here by the riverside, I tell ya! So we all moved next door (Nadine and Jeremy made up the foursome) as it was a nicer place, and the people there were so lovely. Everyone in Cambodia speaks such amazing English - its incredible.

So as none of us were sure exactly how long we would stay in PP, except for Joe who had only a day or two, we all decided to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum together. It is a must on the PP circuit - and we were there for over 4 hours. I really can't put into words how you feel after visiting this place. The hairs stand on the back of your neck as you visit some of the rooms where torture was carried out by the Khmer Rouge on people from all walks of life including their own loyal soldiers, intellectuals, teachers, politicians and so so many women and children. It is so surreal as these buildings used to be a school, and there is a grassy park area and trees ; it could actually be a pretty place apart from the inherent evil and terror that happened here. So many horrific stories of people's lives ruined. Men, women and children were killed here (or at the Killing Fields which we were to visit tomorrow). Over 20,000 prisoners came through Tuol Sleng and only 7 survived. The technical name for the "area" is S-21 and the rules and regulations that Pol Pot and his henchmen set up here made you realise he had to be stark, raving mad. No excuse for this evil but had to have been complete madness. Prisoners were not allowed to look left or right, always straight ahead. Even in chains, they had to ask to move in any shape or form, even when sleeping. They were not allowed to cry when being tortured. Such an awful, awful place.. reminded me in many ways of the Dachau concentration camp I visited in Germany...So many lives shattered and why? We all felt really affected by this place; a necessary visit but an incredibly depressing and horrible time in Cambodian history.

September 6th. Up really early today 'cos Joe and I were going to the giant Russian market - better to go early to see all the action. Of course, I had to wake Joe up - yup, he overslept - how come I'm always the dork who is up early! While waiting for my pal, I chatted to Peter, one of the guys working at the hotel. His story is like so many here in PP and in Cambodia. He lost his father and four other members of his family during Pol Pot's regime. He explained that no-one had a choice - anyone who joined the Khmer Rouge, didnt really have a choice. It was join or be killed. His mother lost their family home when everyone in the city was forced to move to the countryside. When the war was over, and the rush to return to the city was so great, his family didnt get back quickly enough so today him and his mum rent a few rooms, and other people are now living in their house. First come first served.

The market was interesting.. huge with tons of stuff but there was a definite difference in the people here compared to Laos. They were more aggressive and definitely didn't like it if you just looked, "you buy, buy, buy"!!! The guide books say to bargain hard here, no chance - very little budging going on! We took a walk through the food market - always good fun and saw some lovely skinned frogs still alive and jumping around (yuk!).

After lunch, Joe and I headed out to the Killing Fields, another chilling reminder of Cambodia's tragic past. The road there was ridiculous - its technically a main road and also the way to a very well visited tourist and spiritual site - but you couldn't even call it a road. Our tuk tuk was bouncing and sliding all over the place.. as were we and the dust was gross. But to be honest, you really can't complain about any minor issues in this country when you read and visit so many places that harbour such sadness brought about by such evil. The Killing Fields was another such place. There is a building in the middle of the site with over 8,000 skulls, many bodies were exhumed here, many mass grave sites, children were beaten to death on a specific tree with gun butts rather than using bullets, there was a magic tree where loudspeakers played music to hide the screams..just horrific. Didn't think it right to take any pictures here - too too sad.

There was a very surreal aspect to this tho', as lots of poor children lived here and farmers tended their water buffalo through the land where these atrocities happened. I suppose life has to go on.. but it just seemed so strange. We chatted away to some local children for a while; of course they asked for some money but we bought them drinks instead. They had nothing but shared their green beans they were shelling - beautiful kids ....again heartbreaking to know they had little hope to get ahead. And yet their English was fantastic and they could do so well if they only had the opportunity!!

Back into town and we checked out the Central Market - another massive place! How do people manage to make money at all these stalls and markets around Asia - i mean there are millions of stalls, all selling the same things, are there enough people to buy them??? Must be i suppose.
On our way home, we saw a bunch of kids flying kites from their apartment block - we waved and took pics and they were so delighted, shouting "hello, where are you from" .. so lovely although i was a tad worried they were so excited and waving so much they might fall out of their flat balconies!

Another chilled out night watching DVD's and chatting away...talked about the country and how different we all found it from Laos. The people have been through so much, maybe that is why they are more aggressive. Even the landscape is different ,....just outside this city there is nothing, all flat land with no other urban sprawl. Really quite strange. Like this shot of a mosque close by our hostel! The more you read the more you realise how much this country was torn apart by war and Pol Pot's horrific regime.. you look at people in their 40's and think they experienced all of this. I cant even imagine to be honest. 12-15 year old children given huge responsiblities; in many cases the power of life or death over people. Very much a kill or be killed mentality grew here, with paranoia and fear everywhere.

September 7th. Pottered around today - to be honest a tad overwhelmed with all the heavy stuff we had experienced the last few days. That sounds so trite and pathetic but it really has made me think long and hard about what some people have to experience in their lives and how some of us really have it so easy......So just chatted to Nadine (have i mentioned how great Nadine and Jeremy are!). Heard from a few people that Cambodia is a lot more harsh and you should be much more careful here.. didnt really find that at all but so nice to be traveling with yet more fun fab people; again how lucky am i! This sign is everywhere as Cambodia has quite a strong campaign against child exploitation.. not sure how effective it is but it can only help to have the message so clearly out there!!!

Anyway eventually got my act together and walked into town - hmmn a million degrees so not the best move! So hot in Cambodia i have to say! Really feel like im getting to know the city (at least some areas anyway!). And actually really like PP.. off to the Royal Palace but for the first time, i forgot my long sleeved top so couldnt get in. Not that bothered so took a walk along the sea front - very pretty but a big tourist area and so unsettling to see such hip and trendy cafes and restaurants and so much begging by street children and people with amputations and very crude prostetics (if at all) who are obviously very poor! Also so strange to see that there is alot of money in this city - tons of Land Cruisers for example. Apparantly the police are particularly corrupt here...some NGO's too, more so than other parts of Asia.

Back to the guest house - had dinner with Nadine, Jeremy and Oliver (not sure why Jeremy isn't in this shot!) who we bumped into again...It has been an eye opening experience so far in Cambodia. We are off tomorrow to Siem Riep to visit the incredible Angkor Wat!! Can't wait i have to say -very excited so will fill you in on that soon!