So here it is. The last post. Sob. I am writing this watching the sun come up as I sit on the balcony of Faye’s apartment in Singapore, having returned from Japan late last night. In keeping with the erudite tone of previous blogs, you will forgive me for starting with a toilet description. Given my obsession with the squat toilet on this trip, it seems only appropriate that I end my trip with a visit to a country where the lid opens and the toilet lights up as you enter the bathroom, before you sit down on a heated seat (great when skiing and once you overcome that uncomfortable sense that the warmth means someone has sat on the toilet for a considerable time before you) and face a bemusing choice of washing/drying/musical accompaniment options. I am in toilet heaven. I want one.
They all seem to be the same brand and I have found myself talking to the toilet, saying “Hello Toto” as I walk into the bathroom and the seat lifts in greeting. Is this perhaps a sign that I have been travelling on my own for too long and it is time to come home? And is talking toilet habits just a step too far for this blog? I will move on…..
Japan: A last minute addition to the trip, booked at New Year when recovering from my Cambodian Kontiki hell, and now somewhere that I wish to return to and discover properly. 36 hours in Tokyo was sufficient to whet my appetite for this beautiful country with its friendly, helpful people. As for the skiing (further north in Niseko): those of you who have skied with me know it is not really one of my strengths, but even I can feel like a supreme athlete on the slopes out here – amazing powder snow, great runs and with a brilliant group of people – just a perfect way to end my trip.
And end it must. 5 months has flown by and in 24 hours’ time I will be on the plane back to the UK and to reality. It seems like no time at all since October 6th when I flew to Bali to start my journey. When I was on the boat in the Whitsundays a couple of weeks ago, I sat on deck one evening and, shutting my eyes, tried to replay each country quickly in turn, seeing what immediately sprang to mind in each place. Unsurprisingly it left me feeling quite emotional. I worry that I have forgotten my experiences but then I re-read the blog and look at the photographs and the memories come flooding back. Some favourites on this post….
Along the way people have asked me what my favourite bits have been and I have found it hard to answer. I have swum 18 metres below sea level and climbed 4075 metres above it. I have travelled by bus, train, boat, tuk tuk, truck, plane, stayed in some great hotels as well as some terrible hotels, met some brilliant people (and some less so!). I seem to have done a pottery and/or weaving workshop in most SE Asian countries, bought more t-shirts than my case can hold, laughed a lot, cried a lot, been lost (literally) a lot. It has been amazing. Every country held a different appeal. I found my journey through mainland SE Asia challenging and fascinating in equal measure. I took so much away from that – a love for the countries and their people, an understanding of different cultures, a better appreciation of living in a democracy (even though I still struggle with UK politics) and freedom of speech, in a world where we take so much for granted that we really should appreciate more. I now have a thirst for knowledge – there is so much history I was and remain ignorant of. Whilst away I have evolved a “40 before 40” list of things I want to do or achieve in the next 6 months before my big birthday and understanding more history forms a large part of that (as does eating a tomato – it’s a diverse list – although I finally did that in Australia).
I loved everything I did in different ways and have learnt so much, even from the bad times (thankfully few). Laos was a really special place – I haven’t met anyone yet who disagrees with that. Borneo was also magical from start to finish, even at 2 a.m. climbing a steep mountain ledge in the dark. I had a number of brilliant experiences in Thailand – from catching up with old friends in Bangkok, to sailing round the islands and living amongst the elephants in Chiang Mai. Without a shadow of a doubt the 2015 leg has been the highlight and, back pain apart, I have loved every minute of this year, I don’t think I have stopped smiling. And I can even cope with the back pain because I truly believe everything happens for a reason – had I not had the pain, I wouldn’t have found Cory the healer and had the wonderful treatment from her in Chiang Mai. As a consequence of that, I am now booked on a Reiki healing course in April (I know – I can hear all you non-believers sighing from here!).
Before I left people told me I would change and I wouldn’t want to come back etc etc. The latter is true to a certain extent – the idea of returning to a chilly England in the lead up to a general election, and returning to the same routine, fills me slightly with horror. I am however excited to see my family and friends. At Christmas I was feeling a bit blasé about the whole travelling experience, questioning whether my frame of mind had changed at all and what I would do differently back home. If you have followed the blog regularly you will know that in January that shift in my frame of mind finally happened. What it was, I don’t know – did I finally relax, chill out, let go of stress? I have a few theories. But I definitely felt a change and have felt relaxed and happy ever since.
The lawyer in me has to reference back to the beginning, to remember why I took the time out in the first place. I wanted some time to myself, to work out how I could make changes to the way I lived life. I don’t have the answers, but I have lots of ideas and I am content to “sit” with the experiences I have had and see how life feels once I am back home. Because if there is one thing I have learnt whilst I have been away it is to be more patient. Climbing a mountain, that manifested itself in the need to take small steps in order to preserve energy over the 2 day journey. More generally, I have accepted that I don’t need to have my life planned, or know all the answers, these things come with time and experience and it is more fulfilling to slowly find your way than rigorously plan your way, if that makes sense.
And I have learnt a lot of other things about myself on the way, too. I had to laugh this week when I had a one-off ski lesson with Faye. In a very short space of time the instructor had the measure of me – telling me I shopped too much (in this case for an easy place to turn on the mountain) and also that I overthink the whole skiing thing too much. Shopping and thinking too much – two very consistent themes on this trip!! My credit card is maxed out so the shopping has stopped, but I am still working on this overthinking malarkey although I think that will come as I learn to stop planning so much.
I think a pretty defining moment for me came on the boat in the Whitsundays. As I said in the last post, I was close to bailing on the trip as I was feeling distinctly unenthusiastic about boarding a boat in the rain and the wind. Thankfully I did, and spent 4 days with a lovely bunch of people, one of whom as I mentioned previously was a Dutch musician. Remy (his name was Remco but as that is the name of a former client of mine I felt obliged to unilaterally rename him, and if he objected he was too polite to say so) is someone who has followed his dream. A gifted musician, he shared his time and talent and entertained us throughout the trip with songs and improvisations of various genres. Watching him play the guitar and sing to us all, something made sense to me. I have angsted for so long as to what my life plan was going to be. I still don’t know what it is going to be, but I know what it should look like. It should involve something that makes my face light up, has me smiling with happiness and enjoyment, that fills me with such confidence that I can do it without inhibition, changing the mood of the room that I am in with my presence and enthusiasm, something that makes people want to join me on my quest/journey, whatever it may be (although I think its safe to say that quest will not involve singing, for the avoidance of doubt). So Remy, if you are reading this: Thank you, you inspired me and I owe you…
HHHmmmm, a bit evangelical? Too idealistic, or just stating the bleeding obvious? Maybe, but I have to believe that it is possible. And I am in a frame of mind that does believe that right now. The answer may not show itself for years, but that’s fine. Whilst I work on it I have a bucket list to achieve*, a load of places I want to visit, and a lot of friends to catch up with on the way.
A special thank you to Faye for being my SE Asia bestie, hosting me numerous times in Singapore and holidaying with me twice – it made such a difference having a friend from home out here. I also made some amazing friends along the way who I have shared so many different experiences with.
I feel incredibly lucky to have had the time and the opportunity to do this trip. Right now, I am excited for the future and whatever it may hold. And if, in a year’s time, I have simply gone back to my old routine, please wave this last post in front of me and remind me of the hopes and aspirations I have returned with. In the meantime, smile, be happy, do good, love life. That’s my plan.
*the 40 list is now on the blog on its own page and if anyone wants to help me out with parts of it, get in touch!
(Its ok, this doesn’t end badly….)
Having travelled alone for almost 5 months now, visited 11 countries and taken numerous modes of dubious transport in various places, it may come as a surprise that the most scared I have been on a journey is the day I borrowed my cousin Julie’s car. I stayed with her and the family in Canberra for a week, getting some quality family love down under. As cars go, Julie’s new Lexus 4WD is a thing of beauty (I don’t count porsches or supercars as they are things of testosterone fuelled inferiority complexes*). When she told me I could drive it, I pointed out that I hadn’t driven since September and since it was rather a nice car I was quite happy getting the bus. But she told me not to be ridiculous. So I went out in it on my last day in Canberra. Julie’s 18 year old son looked at me incredulously as I walked towards the garage. “Mum’s letting you drive her car? Do you know how many times she has let me drive that car in the year she has had it? Twice. Twice (he repeats, for emphasis) It is her pride and joy”. Oh shit. I didn’t need to hear that. I preferred Julie’s version of “Don’t worry, its only a car”.
It was so weird getting behind the wheel. Julie’s sat nav is now set to a variety of random destinations as I tried to work out how to set and reset it. Rather annoyingly, it would switch off once it thought it had taken me to where it thought I needed to be. You have reached your destination and the navigation will end here. NOOoooooo, reroute me, please, I don’t know where I am, I don’t know what my destination looks like, and am someone who is perfectly capable of getting lost on a straight road. So I admit I did drive round in circles for quite some time, sweating and swearing a lot and frequently switching on the windscreen wipers rather than the indicators (stupid Australian cars with the instruments on the wrong side), but eventually found my way to where I wanted to be (a shopping centre because when in Australia, buy Uggs, of course). And I returned the car in one piece, despite Alex’s attempt to convince me I had scratched it when I got home.
I don’t know what is worse, Alex putting the fear of god into me about driving the car, or the manager of the hotel in Airlie Beach, from where I was heading on my Whitsundays sailing trip, saying to me with a concerned look on his face “you do know that its just a load of young people that go on that boat?”. What was he trying to tell me? My mood wasn’t assisted by the weather forecast – pouring with rain and, according to the totally bonkers bus driver who had picked us up from the airport, a cyclone was coming. Said bus driver had not allowed us on the bus until we all did a suitably enthusiastic response to his “Hi-De-Hi”esque “WWwwwelcome to the Whhhhhitsundaysss” (imagine a desperate pantomime dame trying to rouse a silent unresponsive crowd who have landed in a blowing gale in what they thought was supposed to be summer) and then proceeded to give a running commentary on the rain, the flooding, the vermin that are wallabies “We can’t shoot them fast enough here, I run over at least 10 a week“….
So I was feeling miserable and wet the day I was due to go on the boat, and was seriously contemplating bailing on the trip. And as I sat having dinner and watching the England v Australia cricket game I realised that I was sat there, in an Italian restaurant, on my own, and it was Valentine’s Day. Between that, the weather and the manager’s comments, I had a one way ticket to Loserville, clearly**. So nothing to lose except to get on the boat.
And I am so glad I did. The most fun, ever. An eclectic mix of 24 travellers, ranging from a Swedish couple travelling through Australia and NZ with their 3 beautiful children (because in Sweden men get paid paternity leave for 6 months, too!!), to a private jet pilot from the UK, a dutch musician and a range of ‘young’ backpackers from all over the world. The first night it was so windy we didn’t even leave the port. When the engine started at 6 a.m. then next morning I raced tactically to the deck to stare at the horizon. Not something that worked for everyone, with a quarter of our group being sick that morning as we set off in 35 knots. It was proper sailing all day that particular day, hair-raising and exhilarating in equal measure, especially when we were accompanied for a small while by some dolphins.
I had last been to the Whitsundays when I was in Australia in 1997 and then I had visited the picturesque Whitehaven beach in the Australian winter, on a day when it was too cold to swim and my photograph included a big grey cloud. So one of the main reasons for doing the sailing trip was to go back there and see Whitehaven Beach at its best. Or so I thought… I hadn’t appreciated there was a rainy season as well as a summer, and the beach was in cloud and the sea very choppy as we arrived. Clearly I am destined to return again for that perfect sunshine shot, preferably when there isn’t a cyclone on the way (we arrived back 2 days before it hit, luckily). Still, pretty bloody beautiful, cloud or no cloud.
Unintentionally I am working backwards in time in this post. When I arrived in Australia, my first stop was Lord Howe Island, a place located a 2 hour flight out of Sydney in the Tasman Sea at the southern most tip of the coral reef, with tourist numbers restricted to 400 at a time, and designated as a place of outstanding natural beauty. LHI was something I had booked with much excitement before my trip began, but I had not wanted to think about it too much, partly because I didn’t want to be disappointed when I got there, and also because being there would signify that I was nearing the end of my trip, which I simply could not contemplate. We flew in a little 36 seater plane, a real test of whether I had truly overcome my fear of flying, especially as I was wedged in the corner at the back (and apparently I haven’t). The flight however paled into insignificance when the island came into view – wow, wow, wow.
And that is basically what I said for the next 5 days. I can honestly say I have never been anywhere as beautiful, or as friendly, as Lord Howe. It felt unreal, as if I was an extra in the Truman Show and at any point someone would tear down the turquoise sea coloured wallpaper to reveal the film set behind the scenes. But it was real, and it was truly extraordinary. I think the photos speak for themselves. I arrived to be greeted at the airport with a hug by the manager of my lodge, who then chatted to me like an old friend as we made our way there. That friendliness set the tone for the rest of my time on the island. I had a bike and cycled round the island, feeling as free as a bird. Someone described cycling there as a return to childhood and perhaps that is why it felt so good. In the evening time I never dined alone, that is how lovely people were.
I was adopted by a fantastic family from Perth who were over for their son’s wedding and spent several evenings with them and the newlyweds (yes, they were on honeymoon, yes I did feel like I was imposing, but they promised me I wasn’t and we drank through it..). Western Australia: another place I need to go and visit, if everyone there is as fun and nice as the Hammond family. Another evening an American couple invited me to join them (hello Hal and Linda if you are reading this) who reminded me very much of my parents (that’s a good thing!). I think that is another reason I enjoyed my time so much – I felt part of a family again, one of the few things I am looking forward to returning to the UK for. Whilst in LHI I dived, snorkelled amongst the most amazing fish, went turtle watching (they were HUGE!), climbed another (small but steep) mountain, and did lots of walking. I literally didn’t stop – the lodge staff had to drive to pick me up on my bike on the last day as I was going to miss the flight, such was my excitement on the last morning at finding a bay full of parrot fish when I was only knee deep in water. I was so sad when I left, I cried. If I ever get married again, I want to go back there on my honeymoon. Appreciate that’s a bold statement in many respects, but just saying….
In between Lord Howe, the Whitsundays and Canberra I have spent almost a week in Sydney and in keeping with my whole Australia experience, have fallen in love with this city, too. It really does tick the boxes – a fantastic combination of city and beautiful beaches pointing towards an enviable lifestyle for those lucky enough to call it home. I met up several times with my friend Helen, who I used to work with back home and who now lives there. On our last night we went to see Tim Minchin perform on the steps of the Opera House (aka I crashed a date night with her boyfriend, thank you both). A musical comedy genius (if you don’t know him, google him on Youtube and be entertained), on an iconic landmark, on my last night in this wonderful city. It doesn’t get much better than that.
If all this sounds like a saccharine account of happy times, I apologise. But Australia exceeded all my expectations – perhaps because I didn’t really have any, I only went in order to catch up with Julie and her family whilst I was vaguely in the area. But I am a total convert to the country and the way of life and it is gut wrenching to leave (I am typing this at the airport en route to Singapore). Gut wrenching too as I inch closer to the end of my trip and the return to reality beckons. Had I not added on my forthcoming ski trip to Japan on, I would be on my way home now. Thankfully that has been delayed by 2 more weeks and I am headed back to Singapore (I think Faye is getting bored of me now) and a group of us are flying to Tokyo for the weekend and then on to Niseko for a week’s skiing. Its going to be cold…..
With that in mind, I think my next post will probably be my last. Is that a good thing??! No longer will you all have to hurriedly read the latest instalment before sending me an email or being in touch, or pretending to have read it when I ask… I will try and make it a goodie.
*A test to see if my friend Pete is still reading the blog.
**Although for the avoidance of doubt I would make clear that I wouldn’t be seen dead in a restaurant with a man on Valentine’s day, but you get my point.
“Well I thought we would go for street food but I suppose this seems quite authentic”. And with that, I knew that I would not get on with this particular member of my new travelling family. This was confirmed later the same night when she was still quizzing our guide as to the ingredients in various items on the menu, as my order was already arriving on the table. It was also confirmed on a daily (sometimes hourly, depending on how much interaction I was required to have) basis throughout the trip. However, don’t think this is the start of another group travel rant. On the contrary, the remaining 5 members of my group were brilliant, as was Richard, our guide. And if every month in 2015 is as good as January was, then it is going to be a great year.
Borneo, or Sabah to be more precise, was always a destination I was particularly looking forward to on my travels as my sister Wendi had spent some time there 15 or so years ago and loved it, so I knew it promised much. In fact I am not sure I have ever heard anything but good things about the country from people who have visited it, and I now know why. I wish I had saved some superlatives for the later entries in my blog: although ‘verdant’ doesn’t even begin to describe the scenery in and around Kinabalu National Park – it is simply beautiful, as are the Sabahan people.
In the Park we embarked on the most physically challenging aspect of my entire time away – climbing Mount Kinabalu, which at 4095m is one of the highest peaks in South East Asia. We started out early on the Monday morning and climbed 6 kms from 1800m to 3272m. Wendi had warned me not to feel demoralised by the porters who regularly overtake you en route and she was right – these guys practically sprint past you carrying up to 70 kgs up to Laban Rata, the rest stop we were all headed to. The porters are paid (if I remember this correctly) 5 ringit (about a pound) for every kilo they carry up the mountain to the hostel (although they charge more if you require carrying down the mountain, and some do!).
The climb itself is stunning for all the changing biodiversity you see en route (she says, moving swiftly over the number of steps you also see en route). We got to the rest point around 3 p.m. and experienced amazing vistas above the clouds. There is something quite surreal about watching local guides play volleyball with the clouds below them for a backdrop.
The start for the summit commenced in the wee hours, timed to coincide with arriving at sunrise, and so the alarms went off at 1.30 a.m. and we set off shortly afterwards. As we pulled ourselves up steep rock faces with ropes, in the dark, I got by singing “I am not scared” (Eighth Wonder, remember them?!) to myself and just forcing myself to keep going, hypnotised by our guide Sopingi’s footsteps in front of me, trying not to think what it might be like in the light on the way down. One of our group admitted to praying at some of the steeper points, even though he wasn’t particularly religious. At the less steep points, it was possible to have a break and appreciate the beauty of the stars in the sky – just breathtaking, and so peaceful, as noone was really speaking on the ascent.
After climbing uphill for 6 hours the previous day, getting barely any sleep before such an early start, I have to admit that the last few hundred metres to the peak were achieved in a blur of adrenalin, sheer bloody-mindedness and quite a bit of scrambling rather than with any kind of athletic prowess, but 4 hours after setting off we had achieved the 2.5kms and 875m required to get to Low’s Peak, the highest point of the mountain.
If I could have my time again, I would remind myself to sit there for longer and take it all in for a while. As it was, the giddiness of altitude and achievement meant I was concentrating more on not falling down the mountain as I took some photos than doing much else.
The descent was (thankfully) less scary than I had anticipated and we arrived back at the rest stop around 9. The feeling of euphoria was quickly replaced by the knowledge that there was still another 6 kms of step-based descent to go. I had been warned to start taking the nurofen before I set off, to use poles, and to accept that no matter how fit I may be, it was going to hurt. “Pah” I was thinking about 3 or 4 kms down as I bounded down with Richard and a few others from my group, what were they talking about? And then – boom – with 1500 metres to go I understood. Complete jelly legs. Is this how it feels in the last few miles of a marathon? I couldn’t take any rest stops, I just had to keep walking otherwise I would not have been able to keep going. For 4 days afterwards I have never felt pain or stiffness like it. Wendi told me they call it the Kinabalu crab walk, because everyone walks sideways up and down kerbs and stairs. Beyond painful. I couldn’t even bear having my legs touched in a massage. Thankfully there were no squat toilets at this point in the trip. But it was worth it, totally, and I would do it again tomorrow. The nature as you ascend the mountain is fantastic, the landscape beautiful, eerie at times as the clouds close in, and the feeling of being above the clouds is just magical. There weren’t too many climbers when we went and on the way down in particular we were completely alone for much of the time, which made it even more special.
I think the lack of tourists was a positive theme throughout this particular trip that also set it apart from other destinations. We were travelling in low season, but whilst it rained each day, it was generally only later in the day and we also had brilliant sunshine. It benefitted us at our next stop, Kinabatangan River, where there was not the influx of boats that I understand you see in high season chugging down the river banks, stopped to see a wild orangutan, macaques and probiscus monkeys as well as birds (here my twitcher knowledge fails me, but I know we saw some pretty spectacular varieties of hornbill).
By night we did a jungle walk from the lodge we were staying at. Donning the leech socks (attractive but necessary) we waded through the mud, seeing a variety of animals including, much to the excitement of the local guides, a very rare wildcat called a Banded Linsang. My photo isn’t great, but it was pretty cool.
Low season also meant that Turtle Island was only at half capacity when we travelled there. When I say travelled, I really mean “got tossed and turned and battered and bruised for an hour and a half” on a boat crossing that one guide conceded as being “quite choppy”! Richard assured us he had been on worse journeys, but what should have taken 45 minutes took double that time, and the same trip was cancelled for the next 2 days due to the sea conditions. Had I not been on some hideous boat crossings in Indonesia I would have been more scared but at least I was above deck and wearing a life jacket for this one, neither of which applied in Indonesia. It is amazing how my fear thresholds have changed (she says, on her 22nd flight of 33 in total for the trip). The journey was punctuated by a variety of little squeaks and the occasional curse (“sorry, I don’t swear, but f***”) from one of our group who was unfortunately positioned at the head of the boat and therefore took the most impact from the bumpy crossing. I tried to focus on the horizon, but that was only possible when you were above the waves…. You get the picture. And you can imagine how much we beseeched Richard to promise us that it was going to be worth it. Mother nature did not disappoint.
There is nothing to do on Turtle Island except sit on the beach by day (which we were doing when Julia casually said “oh Sharon, look”, at which point I turned round and leapt up at the “small” visitor checking us out)…and then in the dining room by night, waiting for the “turtle time” call. At which point you run to whichever part of the island the female turtle has landed on and made her nest. You watch the mother lay her eggs (72 in our case), which are promptly taken by the ranger. Once the mother has finished laying her eggs you are allowed to move to the front and take photos whilst the rangers measure her and clean her up.
In our case the turtle was already tagged and had been on the island 10 years previously (there is usually a 4/5 year gap between egg laying). We then went with the ranger to bury the eggs in the hatchery, where they are protected from predators such as monitor lizards and eagles. The third part of our turtle night was to then take the turtles that had hatched that night down to the sea to be released back to the wild. The fact that you are essentially releasing fish food/dinner, given only 1% survive to adulthood does not spoil a truly magical evening, definitely worth the bumpy ride.
We then went on to the orangutan rehabilitation sanctuary at Sepilok. This trip really kept producing the goods. Orangutans share just under 97% of DNA with humans and up close you see how. Particularly with the cheeky boy who stalked us for a while after feeding time. He really was a stroppy teenager, sulking because the ranger was watching him and ensuring he didn’t get too close to us.
In keeping with tradition I bought a t-shirt and adopted a few babies whilst in Sepilok. And also gave some language lessons to our guide. [*Warning to my friends Paulo and Jenny who sometimes share this blog with their children, I take no responsibility for the awkward squirming that may follow if you are asked to explain anything in relation to the next few lines*]. En route to Sepilok, Richard kept referring to the large flanges on some of the orangutans. Whilst in the rehabilitation centre, he also warned us to avoid the golden shower that the cheeky young boy was threatening. Are any of you with me yet? I wasn’t sure if it was my potty mind, or an english language thing, but later that night I introduced him to the urban dictionary definitions of flange (in his description, the wide face on a male orangutan) and golden shower. He looked slightly horrified and said “but nobody ever told me that before”… It is nice to know he will forever think of me when he gives that talk on the bus each time he takes a group to Sepilok. (Mum: I do not propose to elaborate – look it up and then pull that ”Oh Sharon” face you do when you want to laugh but feel you shouldn’t; Paulo, Jenny: sorry).
So a truly fabulous way to end my SE Asian journey (Borneo, that is, not my urban dictionary lesson). I loved Sabah so much. Even an unbearable member of the group – let’s call her Elphaba II (for those of you who are regular readers you may recall the original Elphaba at the start of my trip in Bali) couldn’t spoil it – the rest of us bonded over our mutual dislike and it just gave us good stories to tell. Like the time Elphaba II’s roommate woke up in the night to find her sleeping topless, with the sheets off. Or the daily mealtime grilling of the guide to establish if there was sufficient chilli in a dish. And the constant explanations to us all of the relative merits of certain vegetables. And more chilli requests. One time we were at a food market and Elphaba II asked Richard “will those tangerines taste nice?”. I would have so loved for him to have explained that he lacked a crystal ball, however he was way too polite to do that.
Another time she didn’t realise there would be bones in her chicken soup at a homestay we did. Rather than just leaving them in her bowl, she stood up, walked round the table, firstly as if to put them back into the soup bowl. Then, realising that our vegetarian member wouldn’t be using her bowl, put them in there instead, and then left the bowl of bones next to the vegetarian, who was still eating. And then there was the “trainer incident”. I had taken my trainers up the mountain with me in case my feet hurt too much after the climb. I ended up lending them to Elphaba II, who packed boots so old that they had broken on the way up the final ascent. I arrived at the bottom of the mountain a couple of hours before she did. She came in to the restaurant we were in, and informed me that whilst my trainers were comfortable, they were very slippy and had caused her to fall over and hurt her knee. I believe she meant to say thank you. That was after she had told me she only had smelly socks to wear with them – “you don’t mind do you” – I did, so I had lent her a pair of mine, which were replaced on my doorstep, inside out, unwashed, on her way to do her laundry. And breathe……..
So, ungracious, ungrateful and completely thoughtless to boot. And fairly stupid, it turns out, as she asked Julia how long the particular marathon was that we were discussing one day…. Had to turn away and stifle a giggle at that point as Julia politely responded “well, it’s a marathon…..”.
[Needless to say, Elphaba II was far too caught up in herself to take any interest in the rest of us and is blissfully unaware of the existence of this blog]
And there ended the group travel element of my trip, and my visit to SE Asia. I feel gutted and happy in equal measure. So sad to have left somewhere that gave me such pleasure, happy to have experienced so many wonderful places and people. Malaysia is somewhere (else!) I would like to return to, to the point where I am contemplating trying to learn some of the language. On a more serious note, there were yet more reminders of the benefits of living in a democracy. My guide is part of a campaign group seeking a referendum on independence for Sabah from West Malaysia. A campaign that is treated as treason in Malaysia and for which several people have already been arrested. We may not like our government but at least we can voice our opinions….
My trip is rapidly coming to an end and I don’t want it to. I am tidying up this post on the flight back from paradise – Lord Howe Island – where I have had no phone reception or decent internet for 5 glorious days, hence the delay in posting. Watch this space for the next post about Australia – I think I am in love*.
*with the country, that is, no other news!
I stand corrected. It wasn’t a rice paddy. It was fields of onions. It was just a sea of green until I got up close to take a photo, ok!?!? Whatever it was, it was beautiful. I went back to try and take some photographs but couldn’t capture it sufficiently as my previous post (now updated with pictures) will demonstrate. But here’s the onions….
I forgot to mention in my last post that whilst I may have felt like an idiot with my Borgen reference, at least I wasn’t the (english, sadly) member of my group in the first elephant park to ask, out loud, if the male elephants can have babies, too. And he meant it. Even his girlfriend turned round and said “please tell me you didn’t just ask that”. So at least my comment wasn’t completely off the scale like this was.
Anyway, I didn’t cry when I flew out of Thailand, but I did feel very sad to leave. As I lay in my bed on the last night, watching the light from my thatched roof cast eerie shadows over my mosquito net (which kept out the mozzies, but not the ants), listening to the cacophony of sound outside ranging from a frogs chorus (now I know what one sounds like, and it is very loud!), to the running water in the river, elephants eating, trumpeting, roosters crowing, I had to keep reminding myself to remain in the moment and soak every last second up.
Now then, here’s a warning: the more pragmatic of you may start shaking your head at the following part of my post…
Something amazing happened to me in Chiang Mai. My back, as you may recall, was extremely painful. At it’s worst, I couldn’t sit down, propel myself upwards, or walk very well. Back home I would have been utterly reliant on Katie, my miracle worker cranial sacral therapist to fix me, but all I could do from Thailand was text her and get her view on the damage. After a lot of searching and begging, I found Cory, an alternative practitioner in Chiang Mai who was prepared to see me, as long as I didn’t mind her students being present as she was in the middle of running an Asian Bio Energy Therapy course (stay with me here). The first thing she did was test my energy levels (like I said, stay with me!). I had to sit, forefinger and thumb gripped together as she tested my resistance depending on different acupressure points that I was touching. I was very strong except for my back, where I couldn’t hold my fingers closed, or my stomach (I had been ill the whole night). And then she took my watch off, and put it back on. No resistance. “That’s a very nice watch Sharon, but your body doesn’t want you to wear it”. And the same with my mobile phone. And my flip flops (who would have thought little old me had sensitive feet, but apparently I shouldn’t be exposing them to cold floors!). And then she treated me, by holding a heated herb mixture, Moxa, to my back and my stomach. Once I got over the embarrassment of her pulling down my trousers to reveal a rather shabby g-string (oh, the shame), I lay there and truly felt things move in my back and the energy return to my body. (Please stay with me!!).
Its hard to describe, but I went back to the lodge feeling so much better, both physically and emotionally, although the taxi driver was less impressed, told me I smelt (of herbs) and opened the windows. The people running the lodge said I seemed really different, as well. I returned the next day for a second treatment, which was just as energising. (I put on big pants this time, proud of planning ahead, but then realised as I rushed to get in the taxi again that they had a big hole in them…. I cannot wait to stop using the laundries out here!!). The same taxi driver told me I smelt again but that he quite liked it in fact.
And then I woke up on my last day, with no pain in my back and feeling… brilliant.
So, like I said, something amazing happened to me in Chiang Mai. I think I have found what I was looking for. I feel energised, relaxed, so so happy, excited… the only way I can think to describe it is that I feel like I have found my peace. I almost want to go back through Indochina and start it all over again in this frame of mind. I don’t know if it was the treatment, the elephants, seeing old friends, chilling out, the wish I made as I launched my lantern in the elephant park, or all of the above but I feel like a completely different person. And those of you who know the hippy in me will know that when I get home I will be working on that energy….
So, if you are still reading, and if you haven’t given up on me after reading this particular post, be happy for me, knowing I am in a great place. And send me some anti altitude sickness vibes please. I am off to meet my new Borneo family and climb a mountain 🙂
I am writing this whilst sitting in a hammock on the river, bathing in the sunlight having taken the elephants for a walk this morning. You don’t get to say that very often, do you? Note to self: remember the moment. I think it is fair to say that equilibrium is well and truly restored after the Cambodia misery.
After a relaxing few days by the beach in Phang Nha where I left you last time, I flew back to Bangkok and met up with some university friends who coincidentally had done the Cambodia trip the week after me and they finished up in Bangkok (as I would have done, had I not escaped to Singapore).
From there we did a daytrip to Kanchanaburi, which was as impressive as it was moving. We visited Hellfire Pass, the site of one of the most dangerous parts of the building of the Thailand to Burma railway during the Second World War. Over 60,000 Allied prisoners of war and 200,000 Asian labourers were involved in the construction of the railway with one in three estimated to have died during this period.
Of those, 12,000 were PoWs and many are laid to rest in the beautifully maintained cemetery at Kanchanaburi, where we also spent some time. I had only recently watched the film “The Railway Man” on the recommendation of a friend and several parts were filmed both in Hellfire Pass and also on the railway line that we travelled along for a short period of time the same day. Once again, it was a reminder that there is so much history to take in and learn and I struggle to believe it when I read that they are contemplating taking the World Wars out of history syllabuses.
It was absolutely brilliant to spend time with old friends, doing some culture as well as playing “spot the sex tourist” (not difficult, but very amusing) each night we went out. My time there was topped off by a day hanging out in Chaturchak market, the biggest market in SE Asia, with John, a school friend who lives in Bangkok. I found Bangkok quite an intimidating city so it was great to pass the day in this way with him and his friends, just soaking up the atmosphere and watching the world go by (from our seats in the bar…).
From Bangkok I headed up to Chiang Mai in the North of Thailand and here began my return to nature. Unintentionally, although I am very happy it has worked out this way, my trip is divided history/nature, with Chiang Mai marking the start of the second part, so to speak. I did a brilliant cookery course in Chiang Mai city and then spent 3 days in Baanchang Elephant Park, an hour north of Chiang Mai, learning to care for elephants. Baanchang is a not for profit organisation that rescues domesticated elephants from activities such as logging and circus acts and provides a sanctuary for them.
The highlight of the trip was staying overnight, seeing the sleeping (snoring!) elephants and then the second day, when just 3 of us remained to do a trek into the forest, where our elephants were left free to roam whilst we cooked our lunch over a camp fire. I also bathed the animals several times, which essentially involves wallowing in water filled with elephant poo and scrubbing hard whilst the keeper stands on the elephant surveying your work. So, whilst I will admit to the occasional bit of flashpacking, I would use the elephant poo in my defence to demonstrate that I am happy to get down and dirty as well!
I stayed a second night at the park, this time on my own, when once again my overactive imagination convinced me that I was going to be attacked in the night. I wasn’t, but not before I had checked the windows and doors to my room several times and propped my daypack up against the door (which would clearly have held any attacker at bay for at least, oh, a second).
On the last day I did a trek up to a local waterfall. Flattered by the guide who told me I looked 29 and was very agile, I tried to live up to this by upping my pace and jumping over rocks, before promptly slipping and falling hard on my backside. Not remotely embarrassing. My back, already struggling from an overenthusiastic yoga session the previous week, now feels completely broken and if I stay in the same position for too long I end up having to push myself up like an old woman. I am not sure riding elephants helps, but strong co-cocodamol does (thank you Wendi for sharing your supplies) as does valium (thank you dodgy street seller in Laos). I am, for once, doing regular stretches to try and get it right as I have 9 days before I have to climb a mountain in Borneo and I will be gutted if I can’t do it.
Which brings me to the present day, and the last stop in my Indochina journey. I am now an hour south of Chiang Mai, staying in a beautiful eco lodge http://www.chailaiorchid.com, which is also situated on an elephant reserve. Until this point I had been a little disappointed by the lack of wow factor in the Chiang Mai scenery but here it takes your breathe away. We turned a corner and I did just that: “wow”.
Rice paddies in the foreground, beautiful mountains in the background. The lodge is situated in the mountains and one of the benefits of being a guest is that you can spend time with the elephants. Last night before I went to bed I asked about doing this and was told, very vaguely, to just be around at 7 am. So there I was at 7, and eventually a mahout appears and says “are you the elephant girl?”. Well, I guess so. And with that he fetched an elephant from the forest and told me to get on. With another couple from the lodge who had also appeared we rode through the forest for an hour with a baby elephant running around our heels like a naughty child, before walking them into the river and bathing them. It was so magical.
But it does make me laugh as I try and imagine this happening in the Western world, no instruction, no health and safety, no helmet, just “climb on” to this massive, untethered animal and off we go. Love it. And love the elephants – what majestic creatures. Here they seem genuinely happy, they have a river to roll around in and are regularly bathed and walked.
This morning I proved my cultural knowledge at breakfast when I identified a family who are staying here as Danish, based on the fact that I couldn’t understand a word they said, but that it did sound a lot like Borgen (brilliant Danish political drama to those of you who don’t know what I am talking about). And I was right. Sadly I identified this to them directly, it was a bit like the “I am carrying a watermelon” moment from Dirty Dancing when you stand there and think “did I really just say that out loud”?? Ah well, I will just tell them I am American…
I am here for 3 more nights before flying to Borneo to do my last group trip. All I can say is my group cannot possibly be worse than the previous one, so I feel like I have nothing to fear. It is sad though. The end of Indochina. I can’t believe the time has passed so quickly. So, it feels like time for a few more reflections on what I have learnt:
1. It is possible to carry anything on a motorbike. It is going to be strange to return home and not see entire families travelling together, or the contents of a garage, or, obviously, a cow.
2. “Face” matters a lot out here. A SE Asian person will nod and say yes, even if they haven’t a clue what you are talking about. This can be confusing.
3. A thai massage is a feat of endurance, not a relaxing experience.
4. You don’t need to be scared of eating dog in Vietnam. Dog is, in fact, a expensive delicacy and you are not going to be served it instead of beef. Cat is an even finer delicacy.
5. You don’t see many dogs or cats on the streets of Vietnam. See 4.
6. Elephants are the best animal, ever.
7. Elephants also do the best farts, which is quite disconcerting if you are sitting on one at the time. And they shit, a lot.
8. Losing track of what day or time is it is the best indication that you have finally relaxed.
9. Indochina is an amazing place with beautiful people. Yes, it has its dark sides, but so does everywhere. Other than when I have fallen victim to the excesses of my imagination (see above, and remember the pirates in Burma?) I have always felt totally safe, even though I have spent a fair amount of time travelling alone.
10. When I return home I am going to make an effort to be way more friendly to foreigners, as so many of my impressions of a country have been based on the people I have met and the kindness they have shown me.
11. I have amazing friends. I have learned that it is more lonely travelling in a group of people that you don’t bond with than it is travelling on your own. The latter is enriching and the times I have enjoyed the most have invariably been those when I have been master of my own schedule. I remain to be convinced by group travel although I think that has in the main been more a reflection on my independent character than the groups I have travelled with. But what has sustained me when I have been low are my friends back home and I thank each of you who has reached out (yes, I did just say reached out) with notes and calls. It has given me a new level of appreciation for friends and family.
I think so far:
12. Laos is my favourite country.
13. Hanoi is my favourite city.
14. Gili Meno is my favourite island.
15. Every type of curry is my favourite curry.
And there is still so much to look forward to…. But I will definitely have a tear in my eye when the plane leaves the mainland on Tuesday.
I have to finish here. I am my mother’s daughter and the running water in the river is making me need to pee ☺
p.s. eco lodge in the mountain = bad wifi and I have given up trying to upload pictures as everything keeps crashing. Will update post with pics when I get a better connection.
What do you get if you cross 8 Australian 19 – 25 year olds with 2 quiet Mexicans, an elderly couple from Leeds resembling the characters from creature comforts, and 4 PLMs*? Welcome to my Cambodia travelling family. When I booked my 3 week “Indochina Discovery” trip through Vietnam and Cambodia, I naively thought that it would be exactly that – 3 weeks travelling with the same people, so that by the time I reached Cambodia on 24/12, I would be spending Christmas and New Year with people I had come to know well over the preceding weeks.
By the time I started the trip I was better accustomed to the Intrepid way, so realised different people may join in Cambodia, but I still wasn’t prepared for (a) a group of 16, after travelling in such small groups through Laos and Vietnam, or (b) travelling with 8 people who got on the wrong bus and were so clearly meant to be on a Contiki tour. Admittedly, I was a bit weary after being ill and on the road constantly for several weeks since Bangkok, and being half way through my trip itself I was missing my friends and family so maybe I wasn’t at my most resilient. But seriously… when you go to Cambodia, you are going for history and culture. You pack a proper camera, at the very least, and try to look interested when the guide starts explaining things, rather than sitting with your headphones in. You don’t sit on the bus loudly talking about w*nking (Mum – I don’t mean winking), drugs you have taken and prostitutes you have slept with in front of strangers. You don’t walk away from the guide in the genocide museum because your hangover is so bad you can’t stand up, as opposed to the fact you are so moved by the tragedy he is describing. You don’t climb on sacred monuments taking group selfies on your camera phone (the only camera you have packed) or run through temples trailing your Go Pro. And (to the 19 year old), you don’t have “dibs” on me!! One of the main reasons you don’t do this, respect for local culture apart, is the fact that IT MAKES ME FEEL OLD AND BORING. I DON’T WANT TO FEEL EITHER! I don’t want to shout at someone because I am so incensed that they have casually thrown their litter out of the window (they really did, and I really did lose it!). I want to make friends on this trip, not feel like a stick in the mud and someone’s bloody mother.
Does that set the scene sufficiently?
So, if I never quite found my mojo in Burma, I totally lost it in Cambodia. Having had time to reflect subsequently, I guess it was inevitable that I was going to experience highs and lows… and this was a real low point. Which is such a shame as it is such an amazing country, so steeped in history, both ancient and recent. The bad group experience cannot detract however from the short, but sweet (sometimes bittersweet) time I spent here.
I shall start with the amazing bit: Siem Reap. Another place that should be on your bucket list. Despite the hordes, it blows your mind. There is something both mythical and magical about Angkor Wat and Angkor Tom, irrespective of the fact you are sharing it with what at times felt like half the world. I could happily have spent a day sitting in the grounds of Angkor Wat, just contemplating life.
The Killing Fields and Genocide Museum at Phnom Pen was mindblowing, for entirely different reasons. It is just so hard to fathom how genocide on this scale can happen. For anyone who shares the ignorant void I was existing in before coming out here, I would recommend a book by Loung Ung called “First They Killed My Father” (the clue is in the title), which vividly depicts the author’s life from 1975, when she was 5 years old, and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge commenced its brutal regime. I warn you, you will cry, but it gives you great insight into what happened. There isn’t an agreed figure for the number of people who died, but estimates range from 1 – 3m people, or circa 21% of the population, as a consequence of the actions of the Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Rouge tortured and killed anyone connected with the previous Government, anyone educated, monks, professionals, in its attempt to turn Cambodia into a classless society. Entire families were wiped out, lest children grew up angry and sought revenge against the regime. In this way, the only people who survived were those where families separated, children claimed to be orphans, in order not to be killed. Many hundreds of thousands of people died as a result of starvation and disease that ensued…. and this all happened in my lifetime. I feel ashamed that I had so little idea of what had gone on.
We visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, an old school that was converted into a prison by the Khmer Rouge and through which c.17,000 people passed between 1975 and 1979, being held captive and tortured to give up names of family and associates. Very few people survived the prison (only 12 known survivors, most of whom have now died). We met one survivor – Chum Mey – who now works as a guide at the museum. He survived because his mechanical skills were useful to the regime, but had to watch his wife and children being killed.
Reading the book prepared me for visiting both the museum and the Killing Fields themselves but I still cannot begin to understand how it must have been, and how people can behave in such an inhumane manner. As we took the day long journey along the extremely bumpy and dusty track from Phnom Pen to Siem Reap I tried to imagine what it would have been like, having to leave PP, quite literally overnight, heading to the countryside and fighting for survival for the next 4 years. But it is just impossible to ever appreciate what the Cambodian people must have gone through. What is perhaps as difficult to fathom is the fact that a former senior member of the Khmer Rouge has been the president of Cambodia for 35 years, repeatedly voted in via allegedly democratic elections – as democratic as the only outcome being that the Cambodian People’s Party will always win can be. Or that only 4 members of the Khmer Rouge have ever been brought to trial (only one of whom so far has gone to prison), with the remainder being allowed to carry on their lives following an amnesty on Khmer Rouge members some years back. Our guide on the day had a story similar to that of Loung Ung in the book and I asked him how he and his friends and families could live with the knowledge that their neighbours were Khmer Rouge soldiers and responsible for so much bloodshed and misery. He told us that this was for a number of reasons. They are Buddhists, peaceful people who believe in karma. They see little point in perpetuating violence – if he was to kill in “an eye for an eye” – who would earn money to support his family? A truly humbling and amazing man.
Cambodia still has it’s dark side. There was a lot of young children begging on the streets – more so than in any other country I have visited thus far. And sex tourism is rife. We caught the public bus from Phnom Pen to Siem Reap and two men sat behind two of the women in my group, openly discussing unspeakable things they were there for in Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines. I heard from a couple of guys who had travelled through Cambodia that after dark the tuk tuk drivers will openly pimp and offer to take you to certain places. At the airport, I saw an old man travelling alone holding back on putting his plastic bag full of camera film through the x-ray machine. I can’t say he looked very much like a professional photographer. But as with many other countries, a lot of work is done to try and combat the poverty, sex tourism, child exploitation and the like so hopefully progress is being made. http://www.friends-international.org http://www.childsafeinternational.org/CAMBODIA/CSCambodia.asp. We ate at 2 wonderful restaurants that support these foundations (reminding me a little of the Jamie Oliver Fifteen concept) – perhaps unsurprisingly, I bought another t-shirt….
And so I may have spent less than a week in this country but it’s effect on me was profound. Perhaps that is what gives Angkor Wat an even more magical aura – the fact that it stands, so serene, in a country that has seen so much mindless suffering. I came away with a love for the country and a deep respect for its people and suspect I may go back there when I am in better company to explore more. Because at this point I have to admit that I bailed early on the trip. Life is too short to be spent with idiots. I will forever love Angelina for sensing my misery on Christmas Day and calling me the moment she received my (clearly not very well disguised) Happy Christmas text so that I could sob down facetime and let it all out, and Faye for sending me the lifeline of her “come to Singapore, there is still room on the boat” message, at which point I promptly booked my flights and left the country as soon as we had finished up in Siem Reap. One of my New Year’s Resolutions is that I will never take for granted the ability to escape in this manner, both literally and financially. As well as to stop being so preachy on this blog and get back to telling funny stories…
Having spent New Year back in Singapore on said boat, I am now taking some time out at the beach in Thailand where I intend to reflect on my journey so far (New Year’s Eve representing the half way point in my time off work) and ensure I prepare to make the most of the rest of my time away. From here I will head to Bangkok in a few days to catch up with friends, then on to Chiang Mai to go trekking and live with elephants! I feel like I have closed one chapter and am opening the next, it is exciting, I have renewed energy and I can’t wait to begin.
For those wanting a potted history: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khmer_Rouge
*people like me
My 3 weeks in Vietnam were characterised largely by the motorbikes I described in my last post and, sadly, rain. Thankfully, it didn’t dampen my spirits (see what I did there?) or my enthusiasm for this crazy country, although my photos are a bit dull as a consequence. I ended up spending a week in Hanoi, a visit to the doctor costing a lot, but curing the cold at long last, and fell for its madness. Initially because I was just able to hang out and soak it all up, waiting to meet my new family and mourning the loss of my Laos boys, (and I am sure a couple of nights in the legendary Metropole Hotel helped) and then subsequently thanks to another great guide, Tuyen. More on him later.
Whilst in Hanoi we went to Halong Bay and spent the night on a boat in the Bay – stunning scenery that many compare to the Thai Islands but in my opinion is better, albeit not the kind of water you fancy jumping into. Having stopped by the wedding that I mentioned in the last blog, we headed back to Hanoi before catching an overnight sleeper train to Hue. You may recall how fond I was over the overnight sleeper train in Thailand. This was worse. We had the “luxury” of our own sleeper cabin, compared to the sleeper carriage in Thailand. But that was as good as it got. And when we spotted the mouse early on, there wasn’t much sleep to be had.
Hue is Vietnam’s Imperial City, built two centuries ago to house the country’s emperors of the time. I am not usually into architecture so surprised myself with how taken I was with the buildings and general ambience of the citadel. I am also not usually into motorbikes but loved being driven (are you driven on a motorbike??) around the countryside visiting the various tombs in the Valley of the Kings. We also visited a fortune teller in a local market. Freakily, she told me exactly the same thing that the only other fortune teller I have ever seen (over 10 years ago) also told me. And not something very generic either… let’s see if it happens ☺
From Hue, we moved on to Hoi An, which reminded me a lot of Luang Prabang in Laos, and similarly has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was also the place where I spent most of the plastic money I referred to in the last blog, as it is renown for its tailors and jewellery makers. So when (yes, when, not if!) I return to work, I will be bejewelled and newly suited up, assuming, that is, that I don’t put on any weight between then and now, as everything was made to fit the “travelling me” as opposed to the “I am working too hard so will eat myself happy” me.
The bad weather continued as we got to Nha Trang – our beach stop for 2 days, where I had blithely assumed I would be kicking back and topping up my tan. As I dipped my toes in the South China Sea, determined to swim in it notwithstanding the fact that it was bloody freezing, I had a massive flashback to a conversation with Angelina when she was helping me plan this trip, and a face she pulled as she said ‘you may want to check the climate at that time of year in Nha Trang’….She had a point.
So by this time we were starting to feel a little disillusioned and the resort did nothing to brighten our spirits – a beach holiday destination reminiscent of a low budget resort in Turkey, complete with a million Russian tourists. It was at least a little warmer than the North and lovely to sit by the beach in the evening listening to the waves crash on the sand and hearing Christmas songs being played. Having arrived in Nha Trang after 10 hours on a day train, and having left there on an overnight train (yes, another one! I am so over this mode of transport) 2 days later, we arrived in Saigon (Ho Chi Min City) pretty exhausted and fed up.
I only had a couple of days in Saigon so didn’t get to explore much. It seemed to be more commercialised and upmarket that Hanoi, which appealed to the others in my group. For me though, Hanoi will always come out top. I would love to go back and spend more time there, and also head North into Sapa, where there is a lot of trekking to be done and hill tribes to visit – a big regret of mine that I didn’t make the time to go there. One thing in Saigon however that will always stick in my mind is the War Remnants Museum. If I tell you it used to be called “The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government” you may get some insight into the degree of propaganda that still exists in Vietnam. I wish my historical knowledge were such that I was able to view the museum with a better understanding of what actually happened (because only one side of the story is told in the museum – and a very sobering one), but I certainly left it with a desire to find out more about the background to and events during the Vietnam War.
Having thought a group of 5 through Laos was small, discovering we were just 3 (girls) for the 2 week journey through Vietnam was a bit of a shock. But it worked. It better enabled Tuyen to show us the real Vietnam – making us squat on tiny stools in small cafes and on the pavements in “local” restaurants trying out different types of street food rather than eating in tourist restaurants, marching us through the streets rather than jumping in taxis, and obviously taking us to the wedding I mentioned in my last post. I think part of Vietnam’s appeal was the fact that the chaotic way of life represents something completely at odds with my more ordered life at home and so challenged my boundaries in a certain way.
From the crazy electric wiring hanging precariously from every street lamp, the mental driving system, street sellers touting their wares at every step, people cramming the pavements in street cafes, playing backgammon or eating hotpot with their friends,to the mobile karaoke man wheeling his music system down the street and serenading us whilst we ate, and the aerobics class in the public square competing for customers and music with the neighbouring ballroom dancing class – It really was sensory overload. And whilst the hawkers became tiresome, and the ‘tip tip tip’ request from one boat man after a 30 second journey was uncomfortable, this aspect paled in comparison to the amazing vibe that I got from the country.
I had visited the Women’s museum in Hanoi that celebrated (funnily enough) the women of Vietnam and had a floor dedicated to the role played by women in the war, both in terms of the war effort, and the fact that so many women lost husbands and sons during the war. This recognition of family values was a theme that has run throughout the entirety of my trip around South East Asia. Family is the central tenet of life. Respect for elders is paramount and the manner in which you address someone depends on whether they are older than you. Families stick together and look after each other, and the only time elderly people would go into any kind of home is if there was no living relative to look after them. Admittedly this is in part due to a lower standard of health care, but irrespective of that I have been struck by the strength of commitment to the importance of family life, and respect for cultural values. Our guide, at 34, was the embodiment of this and also an indication that the values still hold strong in younger generations. Food for thought in our Western culture….
It seems only appropriate therefore, that I should end this blog talking about my own family. A slight tangent, as it is nothing to do with my trip so apologies for being self indulgent, but my parents celebrate their golden wedding anniversary today. 50 years. Blimey.
I don’t know how they have done it. I am not sure they know either. But what I do know is that they have stuck together through thick and thin, and supported Wendi and I through numerous challenges, several of these in more recent years when they probably thought they would be enjoying a quiet life and ours would be sorted. Mum and Dad are the most selfless, honest, funny, caring people I know and I am the person I am (assuming you think I am a good one) because of them. The manner in which they have embraced my present journey has exceeded any expectations I could have had. They encouraged me to go when I thought they would tell me I was bonkers to risk losing my job, they have mastered the ipad so that we can keep in touch by facetime, and enthusiastically read up on all the countries I am visiting. It has given me a new level of appreciation and I love them more now than I ever have. I am glad I was a special chosen child, because it means I had the privilege of being their daughter, and the pleasure of my sister and my extended family. I know a lot of people think locking children under the stairs and giving them regular beatings is bad, but I think I turned out alright… (sorry, Prosser humour). I am saying all this on the blog because in our family we don’t do face to face emotion. So Dad: I know if I was there you would proffer your cheek and so I peck it back. Mum: here’s a hug where your glasses as always get in the way as they hang round your neck. Congratulations on an amazing milestone, thank you for being brilliant parents to both of us. Have a lovely day and a great trip to St Lucia to celebrate and I look forward to the party when I am back. And just so you know, in keeping with the SE Asian culture of the eldest sibling being in charge, Wendi assures me she will look after you when you get old(er)…
Much love x
Someone wrote to me having read my last blog post agreeing that there was just something about Laos that seduces you. I couldn’t agree more and still miss it very much. But if Laos is the partner your parents aspire for you to settle down with – peaceful, lovely, gentle, reliably wonderful, Vietnam is the one they fear, and the one you always fall for – gorgeous, dark, slightly crazy, unpredictable and horribly addictive. From the moment we arrived from Laos and experienced the complete madness that is Hanoi, I have loved it. It seduces you in a completely different way.
I mentioned a few posts back that I had been warned about crossing the road in Hanoi. The traffic is quite simply mental. If the attached video works, you will see what I mean. Apparently there are 4 million motorbikes in Hanoi. But weirdly, it works. And by the time I left Hanoi after almost a week there, I had learnt that all you did was step out and walk slowly across the road, and the traffic simply moves around you. We saw no accidents, there was no gridlock – just a lot of beeping, swerving and laugh out loud moments as you watch the traffic in action.
And that is before you even start on what people carry on their bikes. Several of you will have seen the cow picture already – if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it. And the poor animal was alive! Entire families are carried on the back of a bike. In the midst of a busy junction, I have seen it all – a passenger putting on her make-up, riders’ texting/phoning/selling wares, passing things between other riders, eventually such sights become the norm. If the traffic becomes too heavy, that is no problem, because they just ride on the pavements. Numerous times as I was standing there, minding my own business, I suddenly realised that I was about to be mown down by a rider. Of course, that’s if you can walk down the pavement – usually it will be blocked by parked bikes. People even ride directly into stores and park inside. It really has to be seen to be believed.
It is wedding season in Vietnam at the moment (as it is cooler – may work for the locals, personally I have been quite chilly). Seemingly it is customary to pose for a romantic shot in a public location before the big day… here are just a few snaps.
We (my new family now comprising just 2 other girls) were lucky enough to go to a local wedding on our way back to Hanoi from a trip to Halong Bay a few days ago. A fellow tour guide was getting married and having one of the receptions at his parents’ house.
We were a bit concerned that pitching up in our jeans and trainers may make us look even more out of place than we felt we would be as random punters at a wedding. However, it turns out that only the bride and groom and maybe their immediate family dress up for a wedding. Everyone else just turns up mid morning, gives a gift of money, sings a bit of karaoke, eats lunch, catches up with friends, toasts the bride and groom with ridiculously potent rice wine (and a ridiculous number of times), and then it is all over.
We couldn’t have been made more welcome. People got up and made speeches thanking us for coming (assuming our guide translated everything correctly!). The groom told us that we had made the day even more special and that all his friends and family thought he was a VIP as westerners had come to his wedding. The children were fascinated by us, pinching, prodding, practically sitting on us. It was a great experience. It was difficult to imagine strangers gatecrashing an English wedding getting quite the same reception…
On the way out to Halong Bay we had stopped off at Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation (www.bluedragon.org) an organisation supported by Intrepid Travel (the company I am doing many of my trips with) that works with street children in a variety of ways – reuniting them with their families, supporting their education, keeping them off the streets. I found myself profoundly moved by the work they do and the situations many children find themselves in. The child trafficking trade is terrifying. A few months ago I did a personality profiling test which had me totally off the scale where empathy was concerned and I think Intrepid saw me coming. Take this girl to one of our charity partners, show her a moving video, watch her cry, then buy a t-shirt, donate money and pledge to stop being a corporate slave and do something more worthwhile with her life. It happens every time. I am accumulating the t-shirts and the best of intentions….
But in all seriousness, I am glad to be travelling with a company that takes such an interest in local initiatives (they have their own charitable foundation that supports local partners and matches any donations you make), and encourages you to be involved (COPE in Laos being another example). And it is so thought provoking which is one of the reasons I came away, after all. What defines poverty, hardship, and dangerous situations in places such as Laos and Vietnam are so extreme in many cases that it seems wrong to draw any kind of comparisons with what many describe as poverty and hardship in the UK. I don’t want to get on my soap box when I am horribly lacking in adequate knowledge, and there are undoubtedly some tragic situations in the UK, but I think sometimes an awful lot is taken for granted. We do not have to worry if we are going to have any water this week, we have healthcare and, let’s face it, the vast majority of people have sky tv and smart phones (I know I am generalising, before anyone berates me for sounding like a Daily Mail reader).
In Laos I watched a video about a 9 year old boy who died whilst playing with an unexploded bomb which promptly blew up. His parents found a truck driver to take him to 2 different hospitals, neither of which had any resources available to treat him. In the end the truck driver refused to take him to another hospital as he didn’t want the bad luck of the child dying in his van. His parents took him home and didn’t even have any water to give him when he asked for a drink just before he died. Heartrending stuff. As for child trafficking in Vietnam…. all I can say is there really are some evil people in this world.
Anyway, it just makes me think, that’s all I am saying and I am glad that I am having the opportunity to really get under the skin of each country I am visiting. It helps to keep life in perspective.
On a lighter note, I have maintained this charitable giving throughout Vietnam in a manner which our guide has coined “supporting the local economy” but which is more commonly known as “shopping”. In my case, it feels more like I am in fact propping up the local economy with my mastercard, or “plastic money” as they keep telling us in the shops. And then supporting the local post office by shipping it all home when I can’t find a friend to take it for me*. I do try and reconcile my finances regularly but have to admit this week I am a little scared to do so. Oh well, trip of a lifetime and all that (or, if you are my friend Angelina that will be trip of a ‘legume’ according to her phone’s spellcheck). I suspect I will return from my travels emotionally rich, financially bankrupt.
I appreciate that this post is distinctly lacking in detail about Vietnam and the places I have been. Here’s a little insight.
Its amazing, I still have another week to go before heading to Cambodia, and I will post more cultural references at a later date. In the meantime, it’s a week until Christmas!! I have never felt less Christmassy although I have to admit to feeling a little homesick earlier today when I heard Christmas Carols being played in a coffee bar.
In case I don’t post again before Christmas, I hope you all have a great one, please savour the turkey and mince pies for me. My favourite meal of the year is Christmas lunch so I will really miss it and I suspect my parents and sister may feel a little sad when I am not there to win the race to finish first (which I always do) and eat the rest of the parsnips. And as my itinerary for Christmas Day involves being in the Killing Fields, I think I need to get those tissues ready now….
Christmas hugs, especially to Mum, Dad and Wendi. Love you all xxx
*Shout out to Tracy, Gesa and Daniel!!
Apologies for the radio silence for a wee while. I have been existing in a fog for the past few weeks, having gone slightly deaf as a consequence of having a bad head cold, combined with a rapid descent on my flight from Singapore to Bangkok causing my head to feel like it was exploding, and my ears haven’t yet recovered, nor can I shake off the cold. I haven’t been able to breathe, smell, hear or taste for the past 2 weeks. So I lost my sparkle somewhat, and my propensity to be both witty and articulate escaped me (I am both of those usually, right?).
So this is where the boys come in. Whilst wallowing in a pit of congestion, I have journeyed from Bangkok through Northern Thailand and into Laos, ending in Hanoi, Vietnam, a couple of days ago. My Laos family this time was (with the exception of our wonderful guide, Tudtu) entirely male. We were just a small group of 5 and despite one of them commenting “is this it?” when we first met up in Bangkok, we ended the trip agreeing that it was a great way to travel. In such a small group, that is. I am pretty sure they would have all preferred more female, and certainly less snotty, company.
Being boys, they didn’t give two hoots about me feeling crappy. So I just had to man up and get on with it (with 50 tissues to hand – I can assure you that it was even less attractive than it sounds). But for me, and I hate to admit this, traveling with boys was simple. They are uncomplicated. They don’t ask you how you are feeling… but in equal measure they were great company, easy going, funny and (importantly) they carried my case, despite it being a good 10 kilos heavier than any of their baggage. (Am still not sure how that happens but as we decanted 2 (of my 3) toilet bags from my case to Dan’s at the airport to avoid me paying excess, we realised that those alone weighed 4 kilos, so the clue may be in the beauty products. Let’s face it, it takes a lot to stay looking this young/good/or just ‘like this’*.). I even let the boys call me Shazza which as many of you know is not a privilege I bestow on many people. Or perhaps I didn’t have a choice….
As for the trip itself… my new family and I have just spent the most amazing fortnight travelling through the most stunning country ever. Laos rocks. I already want to go back, get on a bike, and take it at my own pace, because every turn heralds a beautiful sight. I frequently found myself silently saying “stop the van” as there were numerous wonderful photo opportunities.
We started out in Bangkok and travelled by overnight sleeper train to Chang Mai in the north of Thailand. Now, I have never done the Edingburgh to London sleeper train but I am guessing it is better than this was, both in terms of sleeping and also I imagine it doesn’t have a loo that blows a breeze ‘up there’ when you use it, given it empties directly onto the tracks. Having said that, it was at least western style toilet which is more than we expected.
Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep, and I was feeling my worst in Thailand so I can’t even describe the next few days. But we got to the border a few days later and crossed into Laos before spending 2 days sailing down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang so I didn’t have to make much effort for a while.….
The photos don’t do it justice but hopefully give you an idea. En route we saw elephants, water buffalo, people sifting for gold, fishing, farming, we went through jungle as well as farmland. It was beautiful. And then we arrived in Luang Prabang, a UNESCO world heritage site. They say Lao PDR stands for ‘people don’t rush’ as well as People’s Democratic Republic… and that sums Luang Prabang (and Laos) up. Sleepy, chilled, beautiful. Don’t expect good service, but do expect amazing vistas, gentle, reserved locals and a great, great experience (did I already say I loved it?).
Laos is similar in size to the UK, but has a population of 7m. Its main income is from gold mining, followed by hydro power, then tourism. The average earnings are c.USD600 per annum. It is one of (if not the) poorest Asean nations. But if I compare it to Burma, I didn’t get any of the sense of poverty or unease I felt there. People here are happy, streets are clean, food is tasty (or so I am told, personally I haven’t tasted anything for weeks). But then again, Laos doesn’t have cities on the scale of Burma – the capital city’s population is 700k, so it is probably wrong to compare. Plus I have now acclimatised to the SE Asia way so there is less of a culture shock awaiting me in each new place.
Laos is also the most bombed country per capita, despite not having been directly involved in any of the relevant conflicts. In the capital, Vientiane, we went to visit COPE, an organisation that was originally created to support people with disabilities following accidents involving unexploded bombs following the Vietnam (or American, as they call it out here) War. I am sure we will visit equally harrowing places in Vietnam and Cambodia, but COPE struck a chord on the basis that Laos wasn’t involved in the conflict save for the fact it was the route between the two other countries, and therefore the place where the USA would drop their bombs when they hadn’t used them on Vietnam, but couldn’t land back at base with them on board. The statistics below are taken directly from the COPE website. For someone like me whose history is seriously lacking, it has really prompted me to take more of an interest. (And this isn’t USA bashing, incidentally, I don’t have remotely sufficient knowledge to make any judgment calls, and being British am sure I should be the last to throw stones. It was merely an extremely illuminating and moving exhibition).
SOME STATISTICS TO REMEMBER:
• 260 million
• Estimated number of sub-munitions (bombies) from cluster bombs dropped over Lao PDR between 1964 and 1973.
• 2 million tons
• Estimated ordnance dropped on Lao PDR between 1964 and 1973
• 580 000
• Estimated number of bombing missions flown over Lao PDR between 1964 and 1973
• Estimated failure rate of sub-munitions under ideal conditions.
• 80 million
• Estimated number of sub-munitions that failed to explode.
• Estimated number of unexploded sub-munitions destroyed by UXO LAO from 1996 to December 2009.
• Estimated number of new casualties from UXO incidents every year in Lao PDR
Sources: NRA Annual Report 2009/NRA Website
Anyway…soap box moment over.
Like I say, I existed in a bit of a fog during this trip so if the detail is vague, that’s because I wasn’t entirely with it. Thankfully whilst all my other senses failed me, I still had my sight and as you can see from the photos, this is a must see country. I loved it, loved my group, loved my irrepressibly enthusiastic leader Tudtu (I used a big word there Tudtu so you had to look it up, but it’s a compliment, I promise ☺), and miss them all already.
I am writing this from the bar of a very lovely hotel in Hanoi where I am taking a 48 hour luxury pitstop before my 3 week trip through Vietnam and Cambodia starts. Hanoi….. that is another story in itself. Next time.
I will finish with some stats of my own…. As I lay having my massage earlier (tough that), I worked out that in 9 weeks I have done 8 countries, 11 flights and 30 beds….. (3 of them comfortable). And I have loved every moment. I have also lost 9 lbs in weight – it gets better! Oh…. And I even had time to look at the moon (tenuously) See right….
*Delete as appropriate.
I have turned into my mother.
Before I realised it, I found myself chiding the 20 year old Australian girl on my recent sailing trip for not wearing sun factor. She had the most amazing alabaster skin, but wanted to “look Australian” when she arrived in the UK, her next destination. I watched her go red and blotchy, knowing how that wouldn’t be tan, it would be sunburn followed by peel, which in any event would be covered up in the UK winter. I genuinely had to resist the urge to spray her surreptitiously whilst she sunbathed. Those of you reading this thinking me massively hypocritical given my factor 2 carrot oil days…. well that is my point – I have changed. I am getting old. Like I say, I have turned into my mother. I crave a proper cup of tea, prefer to avoid a hangover (although Mum only has to sniff alcohol to get a headache – god help me if I ever get to that stage). At one point on the boat I even found myself thinking “please turn the music down” ….. having said that, it was largely due to the fact it was One Direction blaring at high volume.
Thailand was the perfect antidote to the fairly intense and tiring Burma trip. I spent a few days chilling out in Phuket before spending a week aboard a catamaran sailing round the Thai islands. There isn’t much to tell you about it – you can imagine how terrible it was, lying on the deck, swimming in turquoise waters, snorkelling, kayaking into caves, bonfires on the beach and eating amazing thai food cooked by our legendary onboard chef, Doh. It did rain sometimes mind you – I think I should get some money back for that. I witnessed my first tropical storm the day before I got on the boat – it was amazing and terrifying in equal measure.
I loved it, fun people, a captain who got us in and out of places before the hordes arrived, and nothing to do but relax.
Over the week, stories were told about different group experiences which has once again filled me with horror at the prospect of what my new families will be like for my forthcoming trips through Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. One girl’s (British) roommate had been kicked off their trip for trying to throttle a fellow traveller and also throwing a drink over another. Our captain told us a story of (another British!) girl who got so drunk she told him that “you work for me, I insist you turn around!” when trying get him to take her back to land to find her shoes that she had left in a nightclub at Railay beach. HHHmmmm.
I never did describe why the dynamic on my Burma trip was a difficult one. Let me set the scene. We were a real range of ages – several in their 60s, including one Australian couple (let’s call them the bad cops) and a set of Australian cousins (the good cops). We also had a couple of lovely, very unassuming, quiet Swiss guys. As you may recall from a previous blog, one of our early journeys was an overnight boat trip to Mandalay. The top deck was our only social space and also doubled up as the sleeping area. Bad cops went to bed at 7, wanting the double mattress and as such the bed closest to where we were all sitting having a beer. During the evening one of the good cops fell off his chair (because it broke, not because he had drunk too much) and fell close to the bad cops, waking them. Rather than take it in good humour, man bad cop abused the other good cop cousin when he made a joke about it. Later that evening (but only around 10) when most of us had gone to bed, man bad cop shone his torch on his watch and shouted at the (very quietly spoken) Swiss guys something along the lines of “You f***ing Swiss you are all the same, shut the f*** up”. I think he meant to say “Sorry guys, do you mind keeping it down, we are trying to sleep here”.
So the man bad cop rubbed several people up the wrong way, and people weren’t too forgiving. At breakfast a couple of days later I asked good cop cousin if he was ok. Man bad cop was sitting the other side of me. Good cop cousin said, deliberately loudly “I am fine Sharon. The problem is that f***ing obnoxious twat sat on the other side of you”. Oh, where to look!?! Suffice to say the ensuing days turned into tactical assessments about seating arrangements at dinner and other such matters which do not lend themselves to a relaxed atmosphere.
All in all I am really looking forward to meeting my Laos family tomorrow!
I left the boat on Saturday and headed straight to Singapore for a few days with an old work friend, Faye. I have to say it has been nice to have a first world city interlude, as well as catching up with old friends. I have enjoyed simple pleasures here – living in a home not a hotel, using the washing machine, eating marmite on toast, a civilised underground system – although I am not sure I could ever get used to the humidity. I am shortly off to Raffles hotel (got to be done) and then am going to cook supper (again, simple pleasures!), before catching a flight back to Bangkok in the morning and starting a 5 week trip through Northern Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Which, despite my travelling family fears, I am very excited about.
Thank you to those of you who have commented on the blog and been in touch separately – I really appreciate it and love that the power of wifi means that I can keep in touch. As much as I am entirely happy in my own company and am having an amazing time, I do miss my friends and it is great to hear from you x