On Christmas Eve I watched a movie together with my lovely friend Mairi. We did this virtually as she’s in Oman, using What’s App to synchronise our start time and chat on the action throughout. When the movie had finished we followed up with a quick video chat before I headed to bed.
It was during that chat that she reminded me that my life of encountering bonkersness started long before I came to Cambodia and of two nutters I had previously encountered, namely Perfume Paula & the Angry Buddhist.
Fast forward to today (29th December) and I’m procrastinating. And whilst doing so I found a folder on my desktop that I’d forgotten about called ‘am writing’. A sub folder called ‘you couldn’t make it up’ piqued my interest and lo and behold, the following gem lay within…
“Two minutes. Two whole minutes. That’s all it took for me to realise two things:
The woman standing beside me had some serious issues and
Working with her was probably not going to be a walk in the park.
It was my first day in my new job, I’d had a longish and fairly unmemorable induction conversation with my boss (think induction by numbers complete with a tick list for good measure) and was now being introduced to the team.
“So Sara, this is our office space and this is your desk” my boss intoned.
As I looked at the expanse of desk immediately in front of me, I became aware of a presence to my left, grinning inanely and cloaked head to toe in black, long dark hair flowing wildly, face shrouded in large dark sunglasses. (Sadly, my google searches for ‘weird goth old lady’ ‘darth vader on crack’ and ‘hag wearing sunnies’ failed to bring up a picture to mirror the reality.)
“This is your desk mate, Paula” he continued.
I turned to face my neighbour and, before I could utter a greeting, a monologue ensued. Delivered at warp speed, in a shrill high pitched voice it went something like this:
“Er er er hi, I’m Paula, I’m glad you don’t wear perfume, err I’m allergic to perfume, it’s the daffodils, I’m allergic to something in daffodils they say, they don’t know what it is but it’s something in err perfume that they use that comes from daffodils and I’m allergic to it so I’m glad you aren’t wearing perfume because err I have an allergy”.
The monologue ended and I was vaguely aware of a silence all around me as the rest of my new colleagues and my boss looked on, I guess eager to see how the hell I was going to deal with the onslaught.
Without thinking I replied: “well actually, I am wearing perfume” and before I could continue Paula was off again:
“Oh, well, err, it must be expensive perfume because I’m allergic to some perfumes, some perfumes err have daffodil in them and I’m allergic to whatever that is but they don’t know what it is but I’m allergic to it and your perfume must not have it in because it’s expensive and I’m not having a reaction. I usually have a reaction err because I’m allergic.”
In hindsight, I should never have mentioned that I was wearing perfume and I certainly shouldn’t have said what I did next but I’d been practising being a more authentic me and I wasn’t going to give up such a glorious opportunity to try it out for size.
“Well” I kicked off, “as you say, my perfume is expensive and I wear it every day, it’s part of who I am. But, if you’re able to tell me what element of perfume it is you’re allergic to I’ll happily contact the manufacturer to get clarification whether it’s in my perfume or not”.
This achieved nothing other than to kick Paula off on another “I’m allergic to perfume, it’s the daffodils…” rant, at which point I put my bag down, sighing loudly before turning to my boss and asking “what now”, a look of perplexity on my face and utter fear on his.”
And that, my dear reader, gives you a little insight into the delightful!?!?!?! perfume Paula. Sadly there’s not another document labelled Angry Buddhist, but I’ll try my best to sum him up in a blogpost for you some time soon.
Being so close to my release from prison had the effect of putting me back into coiled spring mode. For the rest of Saturday I remained fairly restless flitting between pacing, doom scrolling and tv watching. The 5.30 bell delivered what I hoped would be my last dinner in a plastic box (steak, potatoes & veg) for the foreseeable.
I woke on Sunday more exhausted than when I’d gone to sleep on Saturday night and tried to settle myself for the potentially long wait for the phone call.
I’d mainly packed up my stuff on Saturday night so finished off what I could of that. Having been delivered a copy of my quarantine bill the previous evening this packing included decanting moisturiser into water bottles, collecting up all 6 toothbrushes, emptying the tissue box (yes I am that petty) and stuffing it all into my bag along with the 4 teabags (they were twinings no less) from the hospitality tray in a vane attempt to convince myself I’d got value for money. I’m sure you’re not surprised to hear that it didn’t work – to this day that bottom line dollar figure makes my heart break a little every time I think of it.
We’d been told that the test results would be back sometime between 24 and 48 hours after the test and so I reckoned the earliest I’d be hearing from anyone would be around 1pm. To fill the time I tried to read my book succeeding for a while when I combined book reading with yet another bath (gotta make hay while the sun shines as they say).
Bathed but restless I flicked through the endless options on Netflix settling on The Politician as my medium of distraction. 1130am bell delivered a rather yummy chicken burger with home cooked chips which I devoured with the Politician keeping me company.
A call to reception after lunch revealed that they had no idea when we’d be free but promised they would call as soon as they did. Another call at 4pm promised the same and finally at 4.45pm the call came “Please pack up your things and go to reception for paying money”.
I was out the door like a rat up a drainpipe and once down on the 5th floor discovered I’d only been beaten by 2 people so was quickly filling in the necessary paperwork, paying for that fabulous bottle of wine (it was $20 and whilst was realistically a $10 wine at most was worth every penny for the comedy value it provided) and being ceremoniously handed back my passport. Next stop removal of facemask for photo with said passport and I was free.
Or at least that’s what I foolishly thought. I made my way to the door only be stopped by a very sheepish looking general manager and an officous policeman. I glanced around and saw that the other 2 detainees were also being held back and so shuffled off to one side to once more be patient whilst whatever the problem was was sorted out.
Meanwhile more and more detainees began appearing looking slightly startled at being so close to freedom. Unlike me they were not allowed to settle up and get their passports, instead being forced to line up in the corridor – a social distancing nightmare that I was glad to not be part of but one that offered me plenty of opportunity for people watching.
In true Cambodian style, information on what was happening was scant an issue that one obnoxious cockwomble seemed reluctant to accept despite claiming himself to be a long term Cambodia resident (he was travelling with his Cambodian wife/girlfriend in tow who he regularly barked instructions in both English and Khmer).
Banging on about having a flight to catch, this all being a disgrace, f***ing ridiculous blah blah blah his behaviour triggered a Mexican wave of eyerolling down the line as more and more people heard his dickheaded rant.
A couple of people standing next to me were getting quite anxious about what was going on and so, having reassured him that the lack of information was purely the way things were sometimes in Cambodia I proceeded to relay the same message to cockwomble in the hope of getting him to STFU. He shuffled off with his tail between his legs pacing back and forth like a caged Sara Perry whilst ordering his wife to ask questions on his behalf.
After 30 minutes of various officials demonstrating their importance by shouting loudly into phones (on speaker) or walkie talkies and demanding we retake our prisoner with passport photos the manager announced that the problem was that whilst the lab had declared us all free to go as our tests were negative the Ministry of Health hadn’t yet ratified this decision causing the holdup.
And so we went back to waiting – the hotel allowing those in line to one by one complete the departure procedures I’d already gone through.
Eventually, an hour and 10 minutes after the call came we were officially released.
Cockwomble pushed his way through to be first to exit but, karma being the bitch she is, thankfully overshot the lift bank we needed to take and so I was first to escape, travelling down towards freedom in the lift with the exact same guy I’d travelled up in the lift with 2 weeks earlier.
Out on the pavement I got out my phone to call a car but found my hand shaking too much to press the requisite options so stepped back and just took in a deep breath of freedom (more commonly known as heavily polluted Phnom Penh air). Composure regained, I booked my car and waited, noticing only then that we were being filmed by random middle aged Khmer men loitering nearby. I’m sure this made for thrilling viewing on Facebook live!
Eventually the car arrived and I piled my luggage and myself in chatting to my lovely driver about the usual shite you talk to taxi drivers about aka how busy they are, the quality of the roads, the brilliance of their English and other vitally important subjects.
And suddenly I was outside my building. Sadly not to a red carpet welcome. Such is my status in the city I was greeted by a Mr Muscle bottle wielding security guard who sprayed me and my luggage from top to toe in alcohol sanitiser before allowing me into the building.
The lift deposited me at the 10th floor, I opened the front door to my lovely little apartment and breathed a heavy sigh of relief.
Bus number one departs and we pull in to the space left by it. Having piled off the bus we hover on the pavement as the luggage is unloaded before being allowed to go in twos in the lift to the 8th floor. Once there we are told to pick a room, any room and so I head off to find my cell for the next 14 days.
On entering I am pleasantly surprised. I can already see the balcony so that’s number 1 nightmare (I won’t be able to breathe “fresh” air if there are no opening windows or balcony)sorted. There’s a little kitchenette with a kettle (cross off nightmare No.2) and a huge lounge/bedroom with sofa, super king bed, flat screen TV and a desk. All the sockets have both 3pin & 2pin options plus USB slots – this is getting better by the minute. And then, the Pièce de résistance, there’s a bath in the bathroom.
Now, for those of you who don’t know me, a bath is pretty high up on my list of potential choices for the luxury item I can take if I’m ever invited to do Desert Island Discs (Yeah right – who am I kidding!). This discovery in my room really helped lift my spirits and spurred on by this I very bravely closed the door and attempted to settle in to my new home.
I’d been in the room about 30 minutes when the doorbell rang. It became obvious at this point just how anxious I still was as I jumped up like a coiled spring to go and find out who was on the other side of the door.
And then I opened it only to discover there was no-one there. A glance around and I discovered the reason for the chime. Dinner was served. A plastic bag filled with containers of food was carefully placed on a table located to the right of the door. The food consisted of a box of rice, another box with ginger chicken (one of my favourite Khmer dishes) and a piece of fruit. One of my biggest nightmares of all was slowly being beaten back – the food was edible (pretty tasty to be fair) and the portion size was reasonable, unlike some of the horror stories I’d read online.
And so it was that once I’d had a doorstep visit from 3 hazmat wearing staff with a computer on a trolley to complete the necessary registration procedures in a suitably socially distanced fashion I settled down to go to sleep.
My sleep was long but peppered with weird dreams of people running down corridors chased by staff (wearing full protective gear of course) screaming “You are disease! Go to room NOW!” (Please feel free to read that in a dalek like voice as that was how it transpired in my dream) Stressed? Moi? Never!!!!
A call at 7am informed me I hadn’t completed my food order. I resisted the urge to say that it was because I hadn’t realised I had to and instead told them I was going back to sleep and would do it later. 15 minutes later the doorbell rang and once again a food parcel had magically appeared on the table by my door. I grabbed it, dumped it on the counter and went back to bed waking again at 11.30am to another bloody doorbell and another bag of food.
Once I finally came around (about 2pm) I explored the magically appearing bags and discovered more fairly decent looking food (I didn’t bother trying any of it because I wasn’t hungry.
I decided to put the radio on for company and passed the day catching up with emails and other dull as dishwater stuff. A 5.30 doorbell indicated it was dinner time and this time I was hungry enough to consume a palatable piece of fish with potatoes and veg.
As I was returning to the kitchen I noticed there were a number of trails of dusty footprints leading from the balcony to the front door – how had that happened I asked myself. I looked at the front door and noticed that right above the spy hole there was a shiny patch and it was at that point I realised I hadn’t been pacing the room going from looking out on the balcony to peering out of the peephole (hence the shiny patch where my forehead had met the door) looking for signs of life on and off all afternoon. In other words I was behaving like a caged animal and on realising this acknowledged that it was probably because I felt like one.
It’s a very weird thing to be in a fairly luxurious room with all mod cons and not be allowed to go out of it. To have a door that opens but know that there are guards watching to make sure you don’t leave. A very upmarket version of prison with Wifi, 300 thread count sheets and a bath. The pacing continued to some degree for about 3 or 4 days but I eventually settled to my fate and became more sedentary – a fact I’m sure the floorboards were relieved about.
I developed a rhythm to my days very much determined by the doorbell. Like Pavlov’s dog I jumped at the sound of the bell and headed eagerly to the door to check what had been left on my table. At 7.30 (apart from one occasion which I’ll share later), 11.30 & 5.30 the table gift was food parcels, but at other times I received toilet paper, water (delivered in batches of 12 bottles every couple of days), clean towels and bedding, a bathroom amenities pack (why they thought I needed 6 toothbrushes during my stay I will never know) and deliveries from room service (more on that next). Work filled my most of day with yoga filling the time immediately before dinner at 5.30 and bath and Netflix after.
Friday came and I decided to treat myself to a bottle of wine from room service. I called and ordered and 15 minutes later the doorbell tolled. Up I jumped and headed to the door. By now I’d gotten used to the ghostly delivery service that on opening the door I would automatically reach my arm out to the right before my head followed. And boy was I in for a surprise when my head followed this time. There in full protective gear was the guy from room service brandishing a corkscrew. I let out a little squeal and with tears of laughter running down my face said yes he could indeed open my bottle of wine. As I continued to laugh away (I wasn’t in anyway subtle in my mirth) he muttered repeatedly “I’m sorry maam is my company policy”. Such was the lack of stimulation and variety in my world during quarantine this was one of the highlights of my two weeks. The photo became my go to whenever I started to feel a bit sorry for myself and never failed to make me laugh (Even now just writing about it has sent me into a fit of the giggles).
Chat apps became my best friend – my contact with the outside world. I was also lucky that I was able to have lots of long chats with good friends and of course with mum to ease the anxiety my confinement induced. I even relished the opportunity to ring reception or housekeeping to ask for the mundanities of life like loo roll – any opportunity to feel like I mattered was welcomed.
On one occasion though I was led to believe that maybe my call to reception had not been well received. The thing about developing a Pavlovian response is that you come to rely on the rhythm and when it’s broken it can be a problem.
On the second Tuesday I sat patiently waiting for my 7.30 bell so patiently in fact that is was nearly 8am by the time I broke. I called to reception and in a super friendly way asked where my breakfast was. The lovely lady told me it was being made and I asked her if she could ask them to hurry up as I was very hungry and with her promise that she would I hung up and went back to patiently waiting.
15 minutes later I was rewarded for my patience – at last the bell!. I head to door, open door, reach out of door to my friend the table, pick up the bag and thank the table (yes I honestly did start thanking the bloody table) and with the door firmly shut I opened up my box of delights. I’ll let the picture below tell you how impressed the restaurant were with my request that they hurry up!
And finally Saturday came about and it was time for the hopefully last Covid test of this expedition. Having already rang reception on Friday evening I was reliably informed that the doctor would be arriving at 8am Saturday.
I got up, showered, dressed ate breakfast (it came early at 7.15 which was slightly discombobulating) and yep, you’ve guessed it, 8am came and went, as did 9am-10am and 11am which were the two further definite times the doctor was arriving according to the ever smiley (I imagined they were smiling from the tone of their voice on the phone) reception staff.
The bell dutifully rang for lunch at 11.30 but there was still no sign of the elusive doc. At 11.50 the bell rang once more and this time a person was on the other side of the door demandingthat I “Go now to floor 6 for test”. Like a good prisoner I conformed and trotted off. A guard at the lift pressed the buttons for me lest I should contaminate them and various other guards pointed from a distance to guide me ever closer to my fate.
As with the airport, the test was well organised and bloody painful. To add insult to injury, this time the torturer explored both nasal cavities and eye sockets with his evil swabs.
The most bizarre part of the whole experience though was seeing (and hearing) people. Having been locked away from all human contact for a period of time (apart from a comedy interlude provided by a spaceman with a corkscrew) I found myself feeling very exposed and vulnerable and happily scurried back to my cell to recover.
And what do you know, I’ve yet again got more to say than I thought and so am stopping here to go partake in some online Street Wisdom (check it out on the interweb: https://www.streetwisdom.org/). I will be back tomorrow with what I promise will be the final chapter. In the meantime I’ve chucked a few food photos below for you to salivate (or not) over.
So when I left you yesterday we’d just landed at Phnom Penh airport apart to start the convoluted process of entering Cambodia.
First step, avoid rampage of pasengers giving no thought to social distancing as they barge their way off the plane towards immigration.
We are shepherded towards immigration but the usual path is impeded by a temperature checkpoint and a 5 lane queuing system leading us to an initial document check station. As I stand in line I note with interest that despite visa on arrival currently being suspended, there are still a line of staff manning the counters – no idea why?!?! Obviously just another of the many times when the only answer to that question is “because it’s Cambodia, stupid!
The queue provides comedy interludes as a group of Japanese scrabble through bags searching for various documents whilst bickering ever louder as the required paperwork eludes them. You might be pleased to know that this searching, scrabbling, bickering charade continues throughout the airport journey and onto the magical mystery bus.
Further entertainment comes from observing people play queue jumper as they try to weigh up which is the fastest line, dodging back and forth, twitching as the line 3 across moves forward one but someone else jumps in that line before they have chance.
Meanwhile I wait patiently, head in book as my queue slowly shuffles forward. Near the front are two women having trouble as they haven’t purchased the mandatory insurance and are instead trying to get through on their much superior but not welcome health insurance (I have my own theories on why this is the case but am not putting them in writing here – walls (& blogs) have ears!)
Suddenly an English speaking official appears to mediate and immediately discovers that one of the women is a “VIP” who is hurriedly stickered as such and allowed to pass without the insurance golden ticket. The other meanwhile, is offered a connection to the official’s wifi hotspot in order to purchase said insurance on the spot.
Thankfully I pass the document check unquestioned – the requisite words my name, “negative” & “PCR” and the date and time of the test circled carefully on my COVID cert. Papers back in hand, I pick up my backpack and shuffle off to hand over my hard earned cash on deposit for my upcoming prison sentence.
Another painless (apart from the fact my bank account was $2k down) process completed and I go through to another document check. Documents again deemed to be in order I’m shepherded towards a rather grumpy immigration official who refuses to make eye contact with me, mutters for me to remove my mask for photo purposes then stamps and confiscates my passport (it gets returned to me after my quarantine period is over) before pointing onwards to baggage collection.
Unsurprisingly, as the previously described process had taken a while to complete, the bags are all off the belt waiting for us to collect. I take a quick bathroom break (any opportunity to take the mask off at this point is welcomed with open arms) then pile my bags onto a trolley and head off into the unknown.
Arriving almost at the point where the customs and health check would be carried out I come to a halt behind a line that I can see is snaking some way in front of me. It’s at this point that I suddenly remember that I have to have another COVID test – I’d somehow managed to totally blank out this horror since landing in Phnom Penh.
Now bearing in mind that there are currently an average of only 6-10 flights a day landing at Phnom Penh Airport and on this particular day my flight landed with a more than 4 hour gap between the one landing before us and the next one landing, anyone want to hazard a guess as to what time the COVID testing team chose to take their dinner break?
Yep, you guessed it, the line I was standing in was the result of said dinner break and so we stood waiting, in some cases patiently and in other cases not (the guy behind me who paced back and forth endlessly whilst muttering ever louder) for our torturers (the reason for the use of this particular noun will become clear shortly) to finish their rice and soup (no Cambodian meal is complete without these two staples).
I used the time to take a seat on the end of my trolley and read more of my book and eventually the line started moving. I quickly progressed forward until I reached the zigzag around barriers bit where I once more encountered the scrabbling Japanese. At the head of the line they were unceremoniously shoved to one side to find their papers and I was ushered forward to my booth for COVID test number 2 in less than a week.
First stop was document check, my health certificate was scrutinised, a form was completed, my name and DOB were both verified, a vial was labelled and then I was conducted onward to the actual torture chamber.
As I sat on the chair facing away from my persecutors I glanced at the notices in front of me. A poor quality print of a picture of someone sitting with their head so far back their Adams apple was pointing to the ceiling was next to various printed and handwritten signs with English words and their Chinese equivalents on. Around 60% of the flights currently arriving in PP daily are from mainland China and my guess is that these signs have gradually appeared to aid the Khmer/English speaking testing staff communicating with the large number of Mandarin & Cantonese speaking arrivals.
Swab in hand the tester instructed me to put back my head and open my mouth and I duly obliged. The throat swab was taken so quickly that I barely felt it and foolishly marvelled at how much less intrusive it had felt than the UK one as we moved on to the nasal passages.
And on that point, Holy Crap is the phrase that first springs to mind. Having had a mildly uncomfortable experience of this form of testing back in that Leicestershire Garden Centre car park, I thought I knew what I was in for, How wrong could I be. The swab was unceremoniously bodged into my nostril and just when I thought it could go no further the tester twisted and tunneled deeper in what I could only imagine was an attempt to find an escape from said nasal cavity via my eye socket. Tears sprung from my eyes, the taste of blood entered my throat and I silently prayed I’d survive this ridiculously simple form of torture the health authorities of Cambodia had unwittingly developed. The only saving grace in the whole procedure was that thankfully he only invaded one nasal cavity not both (sadly, this is a fact that would come back to torment me at a later date).
Once dismissed from the torture chamber I wandered away somewhat stunned, sniffing tentatively underneath my mask and swallowing to taste yet more blood, and shortly found myself in line for the magical mystery bus. My bags were loaded on and I followed them and took my seat in the middle of the bus. Loe and behold, shortly after I sat down my Japanese scrabbling friends arrived and made a meal of getting themselves and their stuff onto the bus (& yes this did involve more squirrelling deep into their copious bags though this time for god knows what as we had no documents left to give).
Eventually, after a lot of counting of heads by yet more hazmat suited officials we headed off out of the airport and onto the unknown destination that would be my home/prison/quarantine station for the next 14 days.
Thanks to the very informative Facebook forum I mentioned yesterday, I had a head full of horror stories concerning some of the destinations the mystery bus delivered people to in the past and so I opened up my google maps, crossed fingers, toes and everything else and tracked our journey into the city. A couple of horror destinations averted I allowed myself to feel a slight sense of relief. However, I was also slightly concerned as we also weren’t heading to any of the better options I’d read about either and so I eventually just sat back and let fate do its thing.
We pulled up outside the Olympia Mall – a relatively new mall complex on the site of the city’s Olympic Stadium and a quick glance led me to another magical mystery bus and a group of people hovering under a sign for The Olympia City Hotel by Dara. And thus the mystery was solved – this was to be my prison/home for the next 14 days. While waiting for the 1st bus to depart I googled the hotel and found it to be pricey but nice looking from the pics and though past experience has led me to be extremely sceptical about hotel photos on websites I breathed a tentative sigh of relief.
Well, it appears my lovely readers that I have even more to say than I anticipated. A sneaky peak at the word count just now has made me realise this is already creeping towards a 1500 word post and so I’m going to sign off for now and make you wait for tomorrow to find out how the hotel panned out and how I managed the whole quarantine experience.
Thanks for reading so far, hopefully see you back here tomorrow for part 3.
Yes my lovely readers – it’s me. I’m back! The last couple of months have been so entertaining that I’ve finally been inspired to blog.
It all started at then end of summer when news came that renewing my visa in country would be nye on impossible thanks to Cambodian regulations and British Embassy shiteness.
And so an extortionatly priced flight ticket to the UK was purchased with one of only 2 airlines currently flying out of Cambodia to hub countries for European flights.
Knowing I would have to self isolate for 2 weeks when I arrived in the UK, I decided to visit for a healthy period of 6 weeks to allow me to spend lots of time with friends and family once isolation was over (oh how foolish and naive that idea would prove to be!)
The journey was long but fairly uneventful. Key learning points were:
Flying during a global pandemic is a ball ache especially when transiting through countries that take the whole thing very seriously and tag you with a fluorescent green wristband before marching you single file through the airport – the only thing missing was the bell around our necks and someone hollering “unclean” as we came through.
Little Miss Sunshine is an awesome film no matter how many times you watch it.
Face masks are not fun to wear for 30+ hours straight but are great for catching sleep drool.
Watching people try to don hazmat suits over puffer jackets is entertaining in the extreme – especially when they’ve chosen to put their 2 pairs of rubber gloves on before starting the process and are confined to the aisle of an Airbus A350-900.
Back home in the leafy East Midlands, I settled in to a simple rhythm during my self isolation, peppering my days with super early work calls, online shopping, walks down country lanes and lots of shite tv watching. All the while eagerly awaiting the end of the 14 days when I would finally be FREE (in a socially distanced, covid friendly way obvs).
Sadly, the dumbass UK government had different ideas and, half way through my isolation period, announced that the UK would be going back into lockdown 3 days after I was finally free. To make matters worse lockdown would end the day after I flew back to Cambodia!
So that meant that, apart from the couple of times when I exploited the travel for exercise clause of lockdown to visit a couple of my favourite places, I spent most of the 6 weeks in the UK at my mum’s house in the centre of the universe that is sunny Shepshed, seeing very few people and doing very little other than a hell of a lot of online shopping (my record was 7 parcel deliveries in 1 day!).
And then, just as I was getting into my stride with lockdown UK style another curveball was thrown. This one came from the Cambodian Government who decided to change the quarantine rules following an incident involving a selfish prick of a Hungarian Foreign Minister testing positive for Covid after a visit to Cambodia. Up until this point returning to Cambodia involved 2 days quarantine in a hotel awaiting the results of a COVID test on arrival followed by 12 days self isolation at home with a second COVID test on day 13. This process was withdrawn in favour of a 14 day mandatory hotel quarantine at my own expense. And just in case you were wondering, no you aren’t allowed to choose your own hotel, you ride the magical mystery bus to who knows where (more on that later). The COVID test on arrival and on day 13 still applied but the latter would now be administered at the quarantine hotel rather than at one of the 2 designated COVID test hospitals in the city.
Well, that announcement sure got the tears and the expletives flowing and added more fuel to my already regularly occurring nightmares about the return journey. Now not only did I have COVID test horror stories to contend with but also magical mystery buses taking me to prison camp style hotels featured heavily too. Thanks to a very active Cambodia focused Facebook forum there were plenty of horror stories of what awaited me courtesy of those who had already done the trip.
And then, before I knew it, my time had come to say farewell to mum and head back home to Cambodia. With documents and paperwork in order (listed below) I headed once more to Heathrow airport to begin the long trek home.
The journey home mirrored the outbound in that it was long, uneventful and masked (no drool this time as no sleep but did watch a total of 4 Christmas films which I consider a win). And 29 hours after leaving mum’s house on the Saturday morning we finally touched down in Cambodia and the fun really started.
Evidence of my inflight Christmas movie marathon
And that my lovely readers, is where I’m going to leave you today. Please come back tomorrow, I’ve got lots more to tell you about my arrival and subsequent 14 day imprisonment quarantine.
All the stuff I had to show to various officials numerous times throughout my journey:
New passport (yes I have sadly had to relinquish my lovely Eu passport in favour of the awful black (it’s definitely not blue) new non EU one)
New visa (one of the highlights of my time in the UK is how wonderfully helpful the Cambodian visa official at the embassy was – made the whole process so pain free)
Lab results for Negative COVID test less than 72 hours before departure (had to have this done at a private clinic to guarantee getting the result – this actually involved sitting in mum’s car in a garden centre carpark and having a swab bodged up my nose through the car window)
Certificate for Negative COVID test less than 72 hours before departure stamped with the official clinic stamp (yep I had to pay extra for this and get them to do it again as they’d missed the word negative off – An absolute must have for Cambodian immigration who are not happy to accept the standard wording of not detected).
Government mandated COVID insurance (even though my own health insurance covers me for COVID!)
$2000 quarantine deposit (yep you have to pay in advance for your magical mystery bus trip to god knows where)
All boarding passes
My new flourescent green wristband acquired when I once again returned to the COVID transit lounge in Singapore (this time for a 9 hour wait).
On Sunday I experienced my first ever Satsang. Like lots of stuff I end up doing it started with me seeing a post on Facebook, thinking “hmmmm I’m not sure what that is but it looks kind of interesting” and signing up.
According to Wikipedia, a Satsang is “a traditional activity in the Indian spiritual context, and basically translates to “being with good/righteous companions.”” In other words, it is a group of people sitting together with an enlightened person who usually gives a short speech and then answers questions.
Sunday afternoon saw myself, Ann & Otto piling into a tuktuk and heading about 10km down river to the secluded guesthouse that was hosting the event.
We arrived to find our guru, Ladu Baba already in residence, resplendent in his faded orange robes, sipping a cup of jasmine tea whilst gazing firstly into the middle distance and then latterly at his mobile phone.
At the requisite time we all plodded down to the lower deck to start the Satsang together with Ladu Baba.
A beautiful note resonated from a singing bowl deftly handled by a lady worthy of spiritual enlightenment solely as a result of her chosen outfit – harem pants, a bejewelled crop top, various jingling bracelets and three silver toe rings.
We sat patiently as the note quivered on, me already regretting my choice to adopt the seated meditation pose I know I can’t sustain for more than five monutes without starting to get chronic back pain.
Thankfully, reprieve came. Just as Babu opened his eyes ready to enlighten us, the Chinese woman sitting opposite started jerking her head and poking at her ear. Her boyfriend joined in the exploration of the ear canal and all sense of peace and tranquillity was lost as we stared on incredulously at the apish display in front of our eyes.
They got up and left, with miss harem pants explaining that she had a creature in her ear.
I took the opportunity to move, firstly as a way of better supporting my back by placing myself next to a pillar to lean on but also as Ann and I had struggled to hear the few words that Babu had so far uttered – a fact we thought might negatively impact on our experience which was specifically centred around listening to him talk.
And we waited with Babu maintaining his peaceful enlightened state for a good ten minutes before bluntly muttering something to harem pants lady which I didn’t quite catch but definitely had something to do with getting started as it had involved him getting his mobile phone out to check the time before hand.
Sitting closer and having time on my hands I was able to observe Babu more closely. He truly was the epitome of Indian guruness, his face appearing to have been carved from a block of mahogany before being lovingly waxed, his hands leathery from years of toil and exposure and his great straggly beard tapering off into split ends galore.
Finally, ear girl and her boyfriend returned – an ant had caused the issue and resolution was achieved after first drowning it in olive oil before scooping it out of her shell-like.
With everyone seated Babu shared some kind of spiritual prayer thingy (in Sangskrit I assume) before inviting us to chant a mantra together. Norman was convinced that this was a stupid thing to do as how did I know what he was getting me to say – it could be anything, but I ignored him and complied, finally managing to get the different syllables in the right order by about the eighth time round but never quite mastering the key change (I sure wasn’t alone in that – there were some very oddly pitched noises coming from the right of the room!).
Rituals over, Babu settled into his stride, sharing with us his take on happiness and how to achieve it. It quickly became apparent that Babu had a limited command of English which led to some interesting choices of phrase, a lot of repetition of the words god, stupidness and misunderstanding and more than a few side wards glances between Ann and myself that resulted in stifled giggles.
The giggles weren’t quite held in when, mid flow, Babu was interrupted by the resident dog who had come sniffing around to try and work out what was going on and in the process get himself some fuss and love. Babu was having none of it, very firmly (and a little too loudly) stating no whilst commanding the dog to go away with a forceful hand gesture. It worked and the dog shuffled away, tail firmly between his legs allowing Babu to continue to enlighten us with all things happiness and stupidness.
I took to gazing out towards the river as Babu continued on, listening to stuff I’ve read and heard many times before and in the main believe to be true but struggling at times to reconcile with some of the stuff he was saying, wondering if he truly meant that we shouldn’t judge others but should judge ourselves or whether it was a case of a message lost in translation.
His message finally delivered, Babu invited questions from his assembled audience. A well-meaning chap, the companion of harem pants lady and wearing more than a little hemp fabric, decided to share with Babu his difficulties maintaining focus on the stuff that’s really important thanks to the noise of the outside world and ask for his guidance. Well, that’s what I heard anyway. As for Babu, I’m not so sure as the question was met with a fervent (and again a little too loud) NO, followed by a bit of rant about stupidness.
And then came that moment. You know the one. That moment when something like the above lost in translation engagement occurs and the questioner decides to try again.
It took every ounce of self-control I had to not yell ‘stop it you muppet” (yep I know it’s not a very enlightened way of being but it’s me so get over it!)as the same outside world… noise… staying on track…. speil spilled from hemp man’s lips to be met once more by emphatic, loud and totally irrelevant rebukes from Babu.
Eventually, both parties gave up and we were approaching the end. A little white pot was retrieved from Babu’s bag of tricks and he invited each one of us to in turn go up and have a blob of it pressed onto our third eye whilst Babu did a weird rolling his eyes to the back of his head thing as he shared the energy or spirit or whatever it was with us.
Ann & I feeling blessed
Check out the eye roll thingy going on
Hemp man receives his blessing despite having asked the same question twice
Ceremony complete and donations of energy paper (AKA hard currency) gratefully received by Babu, we headed back upstairs to grab a post Satsang libation and for me this was where the magic happened. Our dissection and reconstruction of what had gone before led to a really interesting and enlightening discussion which went on well into the night. Added to that we had the joy of experiencing Babu wandering down to the river and gazing out before taking numerous selfies from various angles .
So, would I do it again?
Well, whilst the Satsang itself was slightly underwhelming, the entertainment value inherent in it and the fab discussion that followed would certainly lead me to sign up for another should the opportunity occur. Watch this space!
Back in Phnom Penh for the weekend I met up last night with the lovely Kheang from VSO. She’d contacted me earlier in the week and asked where I wanted to eat and I’d suggested soup, something we’d eaten together before and a reminder for me of many fun meals when living in China.
Basically, soup (or hot pot as they call it in China) is a communal affair. A gas cooker is placed on the table and a bowl of steaming broth sits atop. What else goes in is entirely at the behest of those around the table, this led to some hairy moments when dining with friends in China but last night meant a soupy mix of mushrooms, green veg, shrimp, crab and corn. With an accompaniment of sweet chilli dip and a bottle or two of pretty shit tasting but icy cold Cambodian beer it made for what should have been a delicious meal.
Unfortunately though, in the restaurant Kheang had taken me to the soup was only half the story, the other half consisting of barbeque. Again involving a gas camping cooker, this time with a griddle pan atop onto which two lumps of white greasy pork fat were placed along with a dish of bright yellow gloop which Kheang described as butter. One sniff and my worst fears were confirmed, the dish did not contain butter but instead was filled with vile smelling margarine – the type found in those 1kg Kraft tubs any Brit of my generation or older will remember well.
Slowly, the lurid yellow plastic fat melted in the dish, the smell drifting towards my nostrils causing me to feign an I’m hot moment requiring major hand wafting as I tried to fan the stench away.
Even the photo makes me want to vomit
Trying to keep my eyes averted from the offending gloop
Eng, our companion for the evening excitedly poured the gloop onto the griddle and slapped meat, fish and seafood on to fry away having firstly blocked the griddle drain hole with a plug formed from an okra finger ensuring the food was swimming in the processed oil slick. Thankfully, the cooking food smell masked that of the marge but that only served to lead me to a foolish decision to try a piece of the lightly charred barbecued beef. The minute I put it into my mouth my gag reflex kicked in as the taste of bad margarine flooded my mouth. A quick gulp of beer washed away the worst of it and I lavishly dipped some mushrooms into chilli sauce before chomping away on them to remove the remainder of the gruesome flavoured oil slick in my mouth.
Needless to say, for the rest of the meal my chopsticks were pointed firmly towards the soup cooker and my eyes studiously averted from the yellow cesspool that Eng was delightedly dipping his animal products into before lobbing them onto the griddle.
Having had my fill of soup I headed to the icecream stand (yep it appears that icecream is the standard all you can eat buffet dessert offering in countries other than England) and grabbed a ridiculously small metal saucer which I piled high with garish pink strawberry ice cream. Back at the table I tucked in using a tiny teaspoon which buckled under the weight and density of the frozen dessert. Undeterred, I shovelled the tasty sweet treat down and thankfully had finished my last mouthful before I turned just in time to see a certain someone dip a digit in the toxic fat pot before transferring said finger to his mouth.
Even now my tummy does a little turn at the thought!
One of my favourite Cambodian things to do is to go and eat banh chao. It’s one of those eating experiences best shared with a friend and on Tuesday I had the opportunity to indulge.
A huge storm on Tuesday afternoon meant that:
Class was a very noisy affair as I competed against the noise of the torrential downpour and accompanying electrical activity (complete with shrieks from both kids and TA at each thunder roll and lightning flash)
I got the opportunity to teach the kids the ‘I hear thunder’ song and then sing it every single time a clap of thunder rolled overhead. I was entertained by it – everyone else not so much so!
All of the dirt roads in Kampot turned to red mushy sludge
The latter point in that list is significant as it meant that when Channy picked me up from school at 4.45 to go eat banh chao, within 5 minutes we were immersed in this mud fuelled hell. In fairness to Channy, she’s an excellent motorbike driver meaning I felt confident enough to video part of the yukky journey (I obviously kept my feet very firmly planted on the foot pegs of the bike) only erring at the point where Channy contemplated turning back to visit a different banh chao seller (listen carefully to the video and you can hear my concern at the potential that this would occur).
On arrival, having chosen our hut and with only minimal mud splashes on our feet and calves we headed to the counter to order. Both ridiculously hungry we ordered not only one banh chao each but also a bowl of noodles each – curry flavour for me and traditional Kampot noodles (fish soup noodles basically) for Channy. Oh and I almost forgot, Channy also bought us 6 lotus flower seed pods to snack on while we waited.
Settled in our open sided hut I had my first try of lotus seeds and whilst they have very little taste I could see how I would very quickly munch my way through a head full of them. The rhythmic process of pooping the seed from the head, then releasing it from its shell before popping the seed in your mouth felt very therapeutic.
Our first course arrived and, with Channy expertly seated in her hammock and me choosing the far safer option of sitting on the floor, we slurped away happily.
And then it was time for the main event. Banh chao is basically a rice flour pancake stuffed with minced pork. You eat it with your hands by ripping off a piece of the pancake and wrapping it in a lettuce leaf that you add various herbs too. Dipped into a pot of fish sauce, chilli and nut dip it’s ready to chow down on and far more delicious than it probably sounds from my description.
We had had a bit of an eyes bigger than our bellies moment when ordering and so had to have a brief rest with Channy swinging in her hammock and me embarrassing her with my rolling about in various bad yoga poses on the floor.
The little huts that you sit in are quite low to the ground and as you sit eating the local wildlife will often come for a wander around. We were visited by the obligatory cats and dogs on this occasion along with a couple of chickens and a gorgeous young calf who came for a chew on a nearby plant.
The venues are very popular with groups of young people and the vague sound of chatter and music videos being played on the mandatory smart phone fills the air whenever you visit.
On an earlier visit to this spot, Channy told me of a nearby location that has huts where the roof comes all the way down – perfect for that clandestine engagement should the opportunity ever arise!
The lotus pond to our right was beautiful in the early evening light with the post storm breeze gently bending the stems of the buds and leaves. Couples and groups of young people wandered across the rickety little plank bridge to reach the other side and embark in selfie activity on the train tracks and all the while Channy and sat and chomped and chatted. A perfect way to spend a late afternoon/early evening, although I have to admit that the ten degree drop in temperature from a gluey, yukky body temperature equivalent of 37.6 degrees down to 27 left me chilly in general and with positively icy feet. This does not bode well for my upcoming UK trip!!
Finally finished with our feast, we washed it down with the Cambodian non-alcoholic drink of choice – fruity, sweet sugar cane juice and Channy (having planted the remaining herbs from my banh chao in the mud next to the pond as it was apparently “perfect growing time”) continued to munch away at the lotus seeds, determined at one point to finish all six heads before we left.
With the light fading fast and the chill really setting in we decided to stash two heads of lotus in the bike seat and head home. On concrete roads this time the ride was less slippy and muddy but the cool breeze and odd huge rain drop plopping down on us added an element of entertainment to the extremely sedate pootle home (27kmh was our top speed).
Back home, I quickly locked the door to keep the cold out and changed into my PJs before curling up under the sheet (no fan!!!) to catch up on my documentary watching (my latest TV obsession).