Bring out the Brit

I consider myself a fairly cosmopolitan individual.  I’m pretty happy to adapt to different cultures and lifestyles and generally kind of go with the flow when things around me don’t conform to the norms of my culture.

However, there is one situation guaranteed to challenge every single ounce of my cosmopolitan, laissez faire outlook and bring out the true Brit in me and that’s public transport!

Or more accurately, public transport in foreign countries. Or more accurately still, public transport in Asia.  No hang on a minute, that should be people who work and travel on public transport in Asia.  In case you hadn’t already guessed this may get ranty!

 

Take our trip home from Battambang for example.  Picked up from the guesthouse and delivered to the station an hour before the 7 hour journey commenced, we sit for 30 minutes before being squished into a tiny decrepit minibus which proceeds to go back the way we came, past our guest house and out to an area resembling a disused airfield where we wait for another 45 minutes in an outdoor shelter with a number of other presumably passenger all staring blankly into space.  During this period of approximately 1 1/2 hours not one single word has been uttered to us by anyone connected to the bus company and to top it off the bus is now 30 minutes late.

 

When it finally arrives, everyone rushes (in a slow disorganised Cambodian way) to the door with their assorted bags, boxes and belongings in the process blocking access on to the bus.  Aaaaargh yells my internal Brit – desperate for queues and order and structure.

 

Finally, on the bus we go to our allocated seats to find someone already in them.  Mum is in super Brit mode now, huffing and puffing away, especially as the seat I told her to sit in instead had some contraption sticking out from under the seat so that she couldn’t put her legs down comfortably.   I moved them back another row and we sat waiting.  Three generations of family got on next (Grandma, mother and baby) – mum and baby occupied the seat my mum had vacated whilst Gran looked puzzled as to where she was going to deposit her HUGE basket (It was as wide and as high as a single seat) and her bin liner of whatever crap she was taking to PP.  Inwardly, the Brit in me was again chuntering ‘could you not have put that in the hold? what on earth have you got in that ridiculous thing?’ etc etc whilst one of the two other Brits on the bus (my mum) was doing her best British let’s be helpful thing by trying to help a family who spoke no English and therefore making matters 10 times worse!

And then gran finally decided to sit next to me, but not before she’d wedged her bloody huge basket in front of her seat and 1/2 of mine, and bodged the bin liner on top.  Having already placed my rucksack under my legs I was left with very little room to maneuver and so pointedly put my feet on the basket – I like to think us Brits have turned passive aggressiveness into an art form of which I am definitely an old master!!!  The facial gurning and emphatic NO I received both from gran and her daughter prompted me to engage in further passive aggression by pointedly shoving the basket out of my leg space and spreading my legs like some wild west hoodlum at a saloon.  That told them!

The status quo established, gran then sat herself on her seat and performed the miracle that is having the ability to fit her tiny 5 fo0t nothing skin and bone frame into both her seat space and part of mine.  Her knees were in my thigh, her elbow in my boob and her head on my shoulder at one point.  Erm, excuse me! I’m British! I need my personal space thank you very much!

I should perhaps point out that we’re actually still on the abandoned airfield at this point as passengers are still piling on, oh and we still have not been spoken one word to!

We finally set off, an hour later than scheduled, with super gran continuing to contort herself into any shape that would guarantee bodily contact between me and her whilst I tried desperately to avoid the same every time I wriggled and fidgeted due to my contracted amount of body and leg room.

I plugged in my headphones, whacked on some tunes and did my best to zone out before suddenly I see a flacid object being waved before my eyes.  Super gran has decided I will share her greasy pork floss filled baguette and is not going to take no for an answer.  Polite Brit obviously can’t refuse and so I chew on the very chewy greasy bread until it is finally gone, having received another elbow to my left boob thanks to gran trying to tear her section of bread to no avail.

Having eaten, super gran nodded off and in doing so further invaded my personal space as her body and neck went limp and she lolled all over me.  Inwardly crying I try to picture myself shrinking to a point where I have my required zone of comfort around my very British person rather than it being invaded by limbs (and greasy bread).

I gaze out of the window, randomly flicking through my Spotify playlists in a vain attempt to find music to soothe my frazzled being before again being prodded, this time to be offered a random piece of food.  Unable to identify it beyond the category of food (it looked vaguely fruit like but one can never tell) I politely declined and went back to gazing.

 

We finally stopped for a comfort break after about 3 hours on the road and I made to get off the bus.  Once I had straddled my way over super gran’s worldly possessions and landed myself in the aisle I was then confronted by the stool hurdles.  This game involves stepping over the plastic stools that people have been using to sit on in the aisle (because the bus is over full) but haven’t bothered to move when they got off to go for a pee!!!!!!!!!!!!  By this point, my ability to internalise my rant was fading and a few expletives escaped as I picked one of the stools up and flung it into a seat well.  Whoops!

 

The 2nd part of the journey continued much as the first, prod, poke, knock, random food offering from super gran.  Fidget, fiddle, moan, mumble, chunter from me until we were finally back in Phnom Penh.

 

Having disembarked, my Britishness was once again challenged as the tuktuk driver who approached us doggedly tried to rip us off.  He eventually came down to a reasonable price but by this time righteous indignation had taken over and so she and I stomped off, leaving mum and Auntie Yvonne trailing behind, to find another tuktuk and offer him the exact same price that the first guy had finally agreed to – well it’s the principle you know :-D.

 

 

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Battambang Extravaganva part deux

So, it’s now 3pm and we’re heading back down stairs at the guesthouse, refreshed and ready for Yo to charge up his mighty chariot and take us on the next stage of our adventure.

We were all very excited at this point because this was one of those not in the guidebook experiences that living and working in a different country sometimes affords you – we were heading to a Cambodian colleague and friend’s home for dinner.

Having called Phirum (the wonderful friend in question) and passed the phone to Yo to ascertain the location, we were off heading back away from the city into the countryside.

Before long we were passed by 2 girls on a motorbike who appeared to be chatting to Yo as they passed.  They continued on but were soon back and again speaking to Yo as they scooted past.  It turned out to be 2 of Phirum’s family sent on a mission to guide us safely to our destination.

Yo skillfully negotiated the narrow track down to the house and before we knew it we were being welcomed into the bosom of a wonderful welcoming Cambodian family.  Bosom being the operative word here because, apart from Phirum’s long suffering dad, her husband and one young male cousin the rest of the family consisted wholly of women.  The men were basically outnumbered by about 3 to 1 when you factored us three into the equation.

 

As well as meeting Phirum’s dad and stepmum, her husband (I’ve met him previously but it was a first meeting for mum and Yvonne) 3 of her 5 sisters (including my new best friend, older sister Pisey) we were also introduced to her beautiful twin cousins, Ching and Jing, along with Pisey’s son and daughter.

 

A barbecue was being prepared in our honour and while mum and Auntie Yvonne tucked into the copious snacks Phirum was plying them with, I was invited over to help Pisey with the barbecuing – none of that mans territory nonsense when it comes to barbecuing in Cambodia, it’s totally womens’ work.

 

Despite my best efforts, I was unable to replicate the super deep squat that all Cambodian’s manage with ease, even with the added support of a couple of bricks under my bum to prop me up.  Obviously, this was seen as a cause for uproarious laughter as I creaked and groaned my way down, and even more so when I narrowly avoided a spectacular face plant straight onto the barbecue on my way back up.

Whilst I’d been away, the picnic mats had been laid on the floor and when I returned we were invited to leave our chairs and join the family on the floor.

Cue more laughter as my travelling companions made heavy weather of the journey down to ground level and then attempted to ‘sit like buddha’ which apparently I’m quite good at according to my buddy Pisey!

Once settled (well kind of settled – in truth there was an awful lot of adjusting, fidgeting and general discomfort from the British contingent throughout the entire meal) we tucked in to a delicious meal of meat and veg skewers and paper wrapped spring rolls chatting amiably to the twins as they took their opportunity to practice their English (which is flipping brilliant BTW) and demonstrate that, despite sharing a birthday, they were both fiercely independent with very differing aspirations in life.  The kebabs kept coming and at one point I got up for a wander and discovered that salted fish had also been added to the barbecue though we never made it that far thus was the quantity of food prepared in our honour.

 

And then for the next moment of comedy gold.  The rise of the pensioners from the mat.  Poor mum made a slight hint of her intention and before you could say boo the whole family was surrounding her to help with this gargantuan, and obviously hilarious, task.

 

Once firmly settled in their reclining chairs, talk turned to what we would do next – Phirum was really keen to show us the rice fields and the sunset but there was concern about distance because of mum and her gammy leg.  For a while we went round the houses about whether to go or not with it being mooted at one point that mum and auntie Yvonne should hop on the back of motorbikes to be escorted to the venue (now that I would love to have seen) but finally we set off on foot across a vegetable plot and into the village.

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As we wandered along our group split up, I was at the front with my best buddy Pisey and Jing guiding me, auntie Yvonne came next, skillfully guided by Ching, with mum, Phirum and the rest of the clan bringing up the rear.  We strolled down a long dusty lane, past Cambodian families settling down to eat their evening meal, bringing the animals in from the field and generally living a typical laid back countryside life.  As the sun dropped lower in the sky we arrived at some land owned by the family at the edge of the village and just beyond it the open rice fields with a drop dead sunset for a backdrop.

And then we turned round and there she was, Mrs Supermoon in all her glory, slowly rising above the trees lining the edge of the village.  What a wonderful sight to behold and with such a lovely group of people.  We posed for photos whilst waiting for Yo to come to get us, whilst unbeknownst to us Phirum and Pisey plotted to extend our visit further.

The extension to our visit involved going to visit the temple to celebrate Water Festival and boy did we have fun.  The temple was awash with fairy lights, food stalls and a cacophony of noise when we arrived and we gawped left and right, marvelling at the sights that greeted us. Phirum carefully explained the legend of the event, pointing out the full moon hoisted on a pulley system to later be lowered as part of the ceremony and the spinning candles which would determine the quality of the rainfall for the next year.  As we wandered around the local kids were entertaining themselves at various fairground attractions, every type of street food imaginable was being consumed in copious amounts and various musicians and speakers were competing to be heard by booming their offerings out over the numerous PA systems around the place.

We sat on the steps at the entrance for a while drinking sugar cane juice and drinking in the atmosphere as firecrackers ran up the long flagpoles and exploded noisily into the night sky and Chinese lanterns delicately floated away on the breeze.  Phirum and I (assisted by her dad) set off our own lantern wishing for good fortune for the whole family before the three weary travellers decided it was all too much and headed off to find Yo and journey back.

We travelled quietly back gazing at the stunning moon guiding our way and marvelling at the wonderful shrines placed carefully outside of each and every home we passed on route and finally we were back at the guesthouse – exhausted but elated after what was perhaps the most amazing day of the whole trip.

 

(Oh and in case you were wondering, I relented and admitted that Yo was indeed an excellent tour guide and gave him what we’d agreed and a fairly large amount on top, but not before he’d convinced us to go out with him again the next day :-D)

 

Battambang Extravaganza

After an extreme bout of procrastinationitis I am finally getting back on the blogging bus.

When I left you we were back in Siem Reap city, knackered but happy following an eventful trip to the temples of Angkor.

Following a day of recuperation in Siem Reap we hopped the bus to make the 3 hour journey west to Battambang – Cambodia’s second city.

I first visited Battambang not long after I arrived to start my placement with VSO and instantly fell in love with the place – it has a lovely laid back sleepy feel to it, nothing at all like the hustle, bustle and bedlam of Phnom Penh.

Arriving at the bus station we binned off our first tuktuk driver who thought it would be ok to try to rip us off with an extortionate price and then only agree to drop the price down if we agreed to employ his services for another exhorbitant fee the next day.

Thanks to this guy’s poor negotiating skills though we stumbled upon Yo (when he introduced himself it sounded more like Joel so that’s what we all called him for the 3 days though he never seemed to notice) who immediately offered us a fair price to the hotel and when discussing the trip the following day gave us loads of suggestions and jokingly agreed to accept a lesser price if I decided he was a bad tour guide.

He picked us up bright and early and off we trundled heading slowly towards an 11th Century Temple in the province – Wat Ek Phnom.

Within five minutes of setting off it became clear that Yo was determined to earn his full fare for the day, as he went into full on tour guide mode telling us all about the history of Battambang and the naming of the river (it’s named after a big tree that was on the east bank and when it fell made the first bridge between the inhabited west bank and the jungle of the east in case you were wondering).

Next on the itinerary was a stop at the legendary magic man of Battambang statue that looms large on one of the main through routes of the city.  Yo explained the legend in depth (it involves a farmer with a magic stick, a prince and a flying horse if I remember rightly) whilst we watched in awe as a family pulled up beside us in a car and proceeded to get a whole roast pig out of the boot and head towards Magic Man with it!  Apparently, the Battambang Magic Man is still thought by many to wield special powers and especially on auspicious days (it was the day of the full supermoon) the super superstitious of the province bring offerings (most weren’t as ridiculously OTT as the pig but there was enough to supply a good old buffet from what I could make out) and ask magic man for help, support and good fortune from him.

Our next point of call was the bamboo train.  I have to admit I wasn’t that bothered about visiting this, thinking it would be something fun to do when my nieces came to visit but not really my cup of tea.

How wrong could I be.  We spent a fab 30 minutes trundling through the Cambodian countryside on a few planks of bamboo resting on some wheels and powered by what sounded like a overworked hairdryer motor, waving at those who had disembarked and disassembled their train to allow us to pass and marvelling at the sights including a HUGE spider that loomed large in a web directly over the tracks.   On the way back Auntie Yvonne even managed to fit in one of her legendary naps thanks to our good fortune at not having to disembark to let a train come past the other way.  According to all of the guidebooks the etiquette is that the trains with the least passengers give way to those with more.  However, I think some discussion had gone on amongst the drivers and agreement had been reached that, having witnessed the farce that was the initial embarkation of my travelling companions anyone and everyone would be forced disembark enroute to allow us to pass and avoid a repeat of this very slow, cumbersome comedic event!

Our journey post bamboo train took us through more of the Battambang countryside to visit small home enterprises where rice paper, rice wine and sticky rice products were being made.  Again Yo was tour guide extrordinaire, explaining the process involved in each instance, answering our myriad questions and encouraging us to sample the wares (all of which were fab if a little potent in the case of the rice wine).

Speaking of potent, our tour also took us past the ‘fish factory’, a covered market area where they produced dried and fermented fish.  OMG is all I will say – whilst not as toxic as the ammonia experienced on route to the Killing Fields the smell was certainly as strong forcing an emphatic no from the 3 of us in answer to Yo’s enquiry as to whether we wanted to stop and look.

As with the rest of Cambodia, Battambang was not immune from the iron grasp of the Khmer Rouge.  This time it was a beautiful little temple that suffered at the hands of the regime being transformed into a place of mass cruelty, torture and slaughter in its use as a prison.  We wandered around the small structure accompanied by a ghost like local with the most gentle features before Yo guided us to the nearby memorial, built with donations from various nations, to those murdered in that short but oh so brutal period of Cambodia’s recent past.

And finally we reached our destination.  The ancient ruins of Wat Ek Phnom.  Dating back to the 11th Century the temple predates those of Angkor, is equally ornately carved and, unlike Angkor, was virtually touristless when we visited.  After my amble and mum’s comedy scramble up the again ridiculously steep steps we had a very pleasant wander around the ancient ruins, stopping whenever we reached shade to marvel at the intricacy of the construction and to just take in the beauty of our surroundings.

Next to the temple is a huge Buddha statue which sits proudly on top of a half finished concrete bunker like structure.  Yo confidently informed us that this building was so because, half way through construction, the authorities had enforced an existing law prohibiting the building of structures in temple grounds.  They further demanded its destruction though for the local community this was a step too far as to destroy a statue of buddha would be sacrilege of the highest order and thus it came to be that there is a marvellous, imposing Buddha sitting on an unfinished concrete bunker surrounded by a mixture of beautiful statues on plinths and the empty plinths of the statues that never were.  Only in Cambodia!

Wow we had seen so much and flipping heck it was still only 1 oclock.  Yep that’s right, this post only covers 1/2 of our day out in Battambang.  We headed back to the hotel for a quick shower and change before heading out once more and I’ll tell you all about that when I write again tomorrow.

Little legs and long naps

When I last wrote we had just left Angkor Wat and were headed for Angkor Thom.

The South Gate of Angkor Thom is drop dead gorgeous.  Rows of stone soldiers guard the route to a magnificent gate marking the entrance to the kingdom.  We wandered through, by now the sun was really heating up and so some sweating was involved in this pursuit and once on the other side we were picked up and driven along the shady tree lined dirt track to the stunning Bayon Temple.

Exploring Bayon involves a fair bit of clambering – there’s a lot of stepping up and over the huge stones that have fallen over the years and climbing steep steps to view the higher levels.

Auntie Yvonne decided to forgo this adventure, instead opting to have a nana nap in one the window frame like areas on the edge of the temple.  Ever the intrepid explorer, mum decided to join me and off we went a wandering.  Now, bear in mind the steep steps and fallen stones I’ve already mentioned and add in the fact that my mum probably has the shortest legs of any adult I know and was sporting a crippling muscle pain in her back and this made for an interesting adventure.  Together we scrabbled around, huffing and puffing and pausing frequently to catch our breath, sweat profusely and oohhhh and aahhh at the sights.  Just like Angkor Wat before, Bayon was no less awe inspiring for having visited before and I wonder now if it will ever lose its ability to astound no matter how many times I visit.

Our desire for breathtaking sights satiated we headed back to where we’d left Auntie Yvonne and sure enough there she was fast asleep but still the picture of Penelope Pitstop elegance but this time minus the scarf.

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Wacky Races

Ah the 3.45am alarm bell, how I love thee not.  Let me tell you when you add into the mix a Cutts and a Diamond to the grumpy, sleep deprived Perry you get one quiet getting ready to go experience as you prepare to visit the temples of Angkor Wat at sunrise.

We’d already sorted our tuktuk driver and sure enough, as we emerged bleary eyed into the pitch black of Siem Reap pre dawn there he was, equally sleepy but smiley none the less.

We were soon our way, the chill of the night air a cruel shock to the system as we sped along.  There was little traffic on the road at the ungodly hour of 4.30am and nearly all of it consisted of tuktuks full of tourists of all shapes and sizes heading in the same direction as us.

First stop was the ticket office.  People were piling out of their tuktuks, some wandering lazily towards the counters, others speeding head on as if in an episode of The Amazing Race.  I was totally hooked on this programme when I lived in China and in my head we were at that point in our journey winners by a mile as we strolled nonchalantly into a queue.  And yep, you’ve probably guessed it, it turned out to be the slowest moving queue of them all.  That said, before we knew it we were photographed, paid up and heading back to the tuktuk with our passes in hand.

 

And here’s where the fun began.  What was The Amazing Race turned into Wacky Races in a flash.  Tuktuks performed seemingly impossible manouveres as each and every one of them tried to escape the parking frenzy and make the journey proper to the temples.  All that was missing was the evil laughter of Dick Dsterdly and Muttley as they plotted their sabotage.

 

Speed was of the essences as we bumped and bashed our way over the potholed route, passing and being passed by others all eager to achieve the holy grail.   As we sped along the wind got stronger, it got progressively colder and Auntie Yvonne, in true Penelope Pitstop style, flung a scarf around her shoulders and dropped her sunglasses onto her nose to protect her from the elements.

 

We were by now on a long straight road along a lake that looped back on itself to reveal a stream of rear lights heading ever onwards.

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the blurred tail lights of the other wacky racers as we sped towards our goal

As we swooped around the bend I looked ahead and there they were – the towers at the gates of Angkor sillhouetted against the black blue of the sky.  Prompts to mum to look were met with a “what am I looking at?” followed by an “oh I thought they were trees” and so it was that we reached the end of the road – literally – giggling away.  We hopped (or stumbled/clambered/tripped more accurately) out of the tuk tuk to join the throng as we marched onwards towards Nirvana.

 

The walk was truly wonderful.  Light was just starting to appear behind the towers of the temples as we walked the long promenade to the gate that would lead us to the centre and our viewing spot.

 

Once there we found our spot(s).  Me by the mozi infested lake to capture the money shot and mum and auntie Yvonne on the steps of a building to one side to rest (mum later revealed she had excruciating back pain and was struggling to stand) and take in the sunrise.

 

And as it rose it was truly stunning.  The sky turned pink as slowly the towers of Angkor Wat were lit from behind by the sun.  The reflection on the lake grew and, apart from the clicking of cameras there was a hush to the place, despite the thousands we shared the event with.

Eventually the sun was high enough that we could see fairly well and so we headed in to explore.

 

Although it’s my second time to visit, it was no less awe inspiring than before.  It beggars belief how, thousands of years ago such amazing feats of engineering and intrecate creative exploits were carried out.  Every turn provokes another gasp, your eyes struggling to choose where to focus, such is the quantity and quality of the beautiful art and architecture that surrounds you.

 

We wandered in and out of libraries and chambers, stepping into huge openings to view the stunning beauty of more temples and carvings that would greet us.

 

By 7.30am we were ready to move on and so, fortified by extremely strong coffee and antiseptic tasting tea at the Angeleina Jolie (sic) cafe on site we headed back to the carpark to find our tuktuk among the seemingly millions of other, identical tuktuks that scattered the grounds.  Eventually we met up and were on our way, this time to visit one of my favourites, Angkor Thom and the great temple of Bayon.

Pain & Suffering (in more way than one)

Day 2 of our holiday was always going to be a tough one.  Sadly, Cambodia has been through horrific periods during its history, not least from 1975 -1978 when the Khmer Rouge held the country its vice like grip.

 

This atrocity took place in my lifetime – it’s not the stuff of textbook wars that I learned about at school, I actually remember it happening and the aftermath as 1,000s fled for a new life in the UK and elsewhere.  Whilst I was worrying about whether my pencil case was cool enough, wondering whether to ask for seconds of my delicious school dinner, or waging my own war against the dinner ladies by organising a protest march in the playground (our slogan was “We hate the dinner ladies” – catchy eh!?!?!) the Cambodians (some of whom I now live and work amongst) were going through hell on earth.

 

And so we set off to visit sites reflect on this period in Cambodia’s history knowing that what lay ahead was going to prove a challenge.

 

What we hadn’t bargained for was a different challenge enroute.  A leaking pipe at an ice factory on the road to the Killing Fields was spewing neat ammonia onto the road as we were driving through.  We sat in Sophat’s tuktuk covering our faces and gasping for breathe as he gallantly (and virtually blind) manouvered us through the chaos and back into the relatively fresh air past the incident.  Poor Sophat’s eyes were red raw and streaming but he refused to stop, instead dabbing at his eyes with a wet towel that we gave him and gulping down water as we continued on our way.

Here’s the link to the story from the Cambodia Daily Newspaper

 

As we got nearer the route to the Killing Fields took us out of the city and through ramshackle villages surrounded by water.  The recently built memorial stupa at the site suddenly loomed large in front of us and before long Sophat was dropping us at the gate.

You’re guided around the site by a fantastic audio tour allowing you to go at your own pace whilst you are taken to key areas of the site and given the facts and figures of what went on.   Interspersed with the facts are stories from survivors and also those involved in the killings.  What set this tour above other similar genocide site tours in my mind though was the offer of time for pause and reflection.  You were actively encouraged to take a mindful walk around the lake or sit under the shade of a tree on one of the multitude of benches around the site to not only listen to the stories survivors told but also to enjoy beautiful music written specifically to commemorate the lives of those lost.

 

I’m not even going to try to describe the tour itself.  My words will in no way do justice to what we saw and heard – pain and suffering beyond belief that bought tears to my eyes a lump to my throat and more than once had me shivering as the hairs on my arms stood on end.  It’ll be a long time before the memory of the visit fades – a good thing I know but also painful in many ways.

Heading back into the city after a brief look around the shop (same tat for sale as everywhere else sadly) we thankfully didn’t get ammonia gassed again but did have to take a detour due to the afore mentioned leak.  As the detour took us down a steep slope to a part of the city set lower there was some weight redistribution required (us chunkies moved to the rear seat) to ensure the 150cc motorbike transporting us could cope.  When it came to getting back out of this dip more drastic measures were needed to get the tuktuk back up to normal city level – yep we got out and walked up whilst Sophat took a run at the slope!

 

Back in the city we were ready for lunch.  At the Killing Fields mum had mentioned that she wanted a cheese sandwich just to help her get back a sense of normality in this hell that she was in and so I took us to a lovely café in the Russian Market where mum got her sandwich (she had egg rather than cheese) and Auntie Yvonne partook of a jacket potato.  Oh and obviously a pot of tea was the order of the day as well.

 

Sufficiently reenergised we headed to the second site of Khmer Rouge atrocities – the S21 prison which was a former high school.

 

Again we were provided with an excellent audio tour as we made our way through room after room full of photos and stories of the prisoners, the atrocities committed against them and their stories of survival.  In all honesty after a while this got too much to bear.  The harrowing pain in the eyes of prisoner photos were harrowing enough but then there were the photos of tortured and dead soldiers, the smears of blood in the cells, the implements used to chain prisoners to the floor, the vile evidence of mans hatred of man went on and on and on.

 

And just when you head to leave, there sits one of the survivors selling his books.  His face is such a picture of gentleness, of kindness, of the beauty of humanity that once again your heart breaks at what he and millions more went through under the evil dictatorship.

 

It was a solemn return to the hotel and we all needed a bit of time to refresh and process before heading out to lighten the mood over dinner by meeting up with the gorgeous Kheang.   We were soon smiling, laughing and giggling over fabulous food (apart from Kheang’s odd choice) and a treat of ice cream for dessert before once again heading off home to bed exhausted and grateful for the peace that we have in our lives.

 

 

What’s occurring

 

I’m currently on holiday.  Now I know at this point some of you are probably thinking ‘what’s new there?’ but this is an official ‘fill in a form’ type holiday where I don’t even go in to the Ministry of Fish and pretend to work.

 

And the reason for this holiday – my lovely mum, Lorraine, and auntie, Yvonne, are visiting Cambodia for 2 weeks and I am happily performing my duties as tour guide.

 

Duties commenced on Sunday when we (Sophat and I) collected the intrepid travellers from Phnom Penh airport.  Sophat excelled by taking me on a new route which not only took us past expensive international schools and Truman Show like gated communities along with the headquarters of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, but also through the most overt red light district I’ve experienced to date.  The two arrivals had eyes on stalks as we passed shop after shop with KTV signs ablaze and rows of girls scantily dressed in red lounging outside looking bored out of their brains.

 

For reasons of health and safety (and also my sanity) I had chosen to put the pair up in a nearby hotel and so we dropped them off there and once settled in I headed off home to bed.

 

Day 1 proper involved a tour around some of the sights of Phnom Penh – The Royal Palace, Wat Phnom, Wat Onalum and the National Museum.

 

It was my first visit to the Palace but it certainly won’t be my last – it’s set in beautiful, tranquil, lush green surroundings and the various buildings are a sight to behold.  There’s an amazing fresco in one of the courtyards depicting the ancient history of the country and whilst slightly tarnished and stuck down with tape in places, the silver tiled floor of the silver pagoda is pretty damn special.

 

I’ve visited Wat Phnom before but was happy to return as it’s a quirky little place with an odd Chinese/Vietnamese temple off to one side (they feed raw pork and boiled eggs to statues of lions in a conveyorbeltesque blessing ceremony)and despite being a tourist attraction it still very much feels like a working temple with a constant stream of locals praying, making offerings and asking for blessings.  And of course I got to show mum & auntie Yvonne the fabulous bat tree opposite.  Being close to midday no bats were flying but they were still very visible and no less mind blowing to see than on my last 2 visits.

Lunch was in a funny little restaurant on the riverfront that Sophat recommended.  The walls are adorned with messages from people all around the world and upstairs there’s a packed little balcony where you can sit and look out over the river whilst you eat.

 

Wat Onalum was next which is another favourite of mine in the city.  Located close to the palace, every time I visit there’s carving of some sort going on.  This time two guys were repairing a pair of life sized elephant sculptures.  Much to mum’s astonishment they were squatting atop the elephants in flip flops wielding axes to pieces of the solid red wood characteristic of the region to whittle them down to replace the rotten sides.  I also love this temple because, despite being right in the heart of tourist ville as soon as you step inside the compound the energy level drops and a sense of calm comes over you.

Sophat was off at the Ministry of something or other getting told off for not filling in some or other form correctly and so we meandered slowly and sweatily from the Wat, via a gorgeous jewellery shop for an aircon blast, to the National Museum.  Not being a lover of bits of pot I sent the intrepids inside and sat in the gardens basking in the sun which had finally decided to make an appearance.  Sooner than I expected my visitors reappeared.  Apparently, it’s not full of bits of pot but is full of statues which didn’t really float their boat.

 

By this point we were all knackered and Sophat brought us to my house and that’s where the fun began.  The ascent of the spiral staircase was hilarious – I swear it took 5 monutes or more for the climb to be completed.  We finally all made it to the top where I whacked on the kettle and we all settled down for a good old British cup of tea (or in Sophat’s case coffee and in mine water as I’ve only got 3 cups J).

 

All in all a fun first day with my visitors in the Kingdom of Wonder.