By the skin of my teeth…

Having  travel-hopped my way around South East Asia a flight at a time over the summer, it didn’t occur to me not to hop between flights when booking my trip to Australia for Christmas. I had been advised that I could get cheap flights there from Bali and, as that’s only a 50 minute flight on a cheap airline from Surabaya, I figured I could hop between the two easily enough.

When I found a rediculously cheap overnight flight to Melbourne with Air Asia I immediately booked it, relying on the fact that I could use a good local travel agent in the mall opposite my apartment to sort my ticket out for Bali afterwards. The problem was, I impulsively booked my flight to Oz in Hong Kong when visiting my travel buddy. By the time I got back to Surabaya another week had passed, and although I wasted no time in booking my connecting flight I came up against a problem. It was the end of October and all the sensible people had already started booking their flights out for Christmas. When I was shown the availability of flights, on a Friday afternoon at the end of the Christmas term, I was pretty limited in my choices. All the early afternoon flights were already fully booked leaving me with early evening options only. Now, this might not seem like much of a problem when catching a 00:40 flight, except for two things. There is a one hour time difference between Surabaya and Bali that reduced my travelling time; and, I am the sort of traveller who likes to get to the airport in plenty of time. The fear of missing a flight is my worst nightmare and when, in the past, I have felt that I have been cutting it too fine, I have become extremely stressed. It doesn’t start the journey well, and I hate that. By travelling solo I have reduced the likelihood of it happening dramatically, but not this time…

I booked the only flight available to me and started to pray. It was a calculated risk. Past experience had taught me that flights to Bali on a Friday evening were likely to be delayed, and Christmas travel days are always disrupted, which potentially left me with even less time to get from the domestic to the international terminal in Denpasar. Initially my flight times gave me two and a half hours transfer time, which should have been plenty of time, but of course, any delay would further reduce my window of opportunity.

I tried to cover all my bases. Hand luggage only, so I didn’t waste time waiting for baggage. (I’m an expert packer; you’d be amazed what I can fit in a small shoulder bag that will last for a three week trip to Oz!) I checked in on-line and printed my boarding pass to save further time. I couldn’t do any more. So I worried instead.

The more I travel the more I find intuition a useful thing, and my gut told me this plan was risky.

4am on December the 18th. Departure day had arrived. I had been packed and ready to go for days and I was desperate to leave. Of course I woke up rediculously early, increasing the time I was already expecting to be awake (approximately 26 hours straight) by another hour and a half.

3.30pm. After my final morning at school my 4pm taxi arrived to take me to the airport. Bluebird taxis in Surabaya are the most reliable firm in Indonesia but I’d forgotten that a 4pm booking would mean a 3.30 pm pickup. I arrived at the airport ridiculously early and resigned myself to a long wait before checkin opened. But at least I was on my way!

5.30pm. Having waited a sufficient time at the airport I managed to check-in with Lion Air even though my flight wasn’t officially up on the board. I’d spent an anxious hour watching the boards, conscious of the number of flights to Jakarta (which is the opposite direction to Bali) that were delayed. As I received my boarding pass I was informed that my plane was delayed by 50 minutes. Not by the lady on the counter I might add, but because I noticed that the boarding time was a good 30 minutes after the flight was supposed to depart. I did a quick calculation and reassured myself that I still had enough time to make my flight; but my stress levels started to rise.

6.30pm. I headed to the gate and waited, with an increasing sense of foreboding. Sure enough, an announcement in Indonesian crackelled across the tannoy, the people around me moaned and I looked at the gate information board in horror. My worst nightmare was about to come true. The flight was delayed until 9.30pm! Fireworks went off behind my eyes and I sat for a moment with my hand over my mouth, cursing quietly. Then I steeled myself and went up to the front desk. I explained my situation, showed them my Air Asia boarding pass, and was promptly taken to Customer Services downstairs. The girl from the desk disappeared with my boarding pass for what felt like hours (but was probably only five minutes) and eventually another girl came to talk to me. She told me she could transfer me to an Air Garuda flight scheduled to leave at 8.25pm. Huge relief! She then told me that that flight was also delayed and probably wouldn’t leave until 9.25pm and that she couldn’t guarantee that ground staff would help me once I’d landed. I asked if Lion Air could contact Air Asia and let them know I was delayed and on my way but no, that wasn’t possible because they worked from different terminals and couldn’t contact each other(!) I asked if Lion Air staff could assist with a quick transfer once I landed and I was assured that they would help me in anyway they could. My details and telephone number were taken and emailed to the Bali ground staff and I was advised that they would call me once I’d landed and help me from there. There was nothing I could do except lay it on thick about how important it was that I caught my flight. The girl was very apologetic, and I was very polite. I left Customer Services and returned to the gate to wait feeling less than reassured.

The minutes crawled past. Another flight ahead of mine was also delayed by two hours. Refreshments were served, camaraderie abounded. Eventually they started boarding and I moved closer to the gate willing the process to go faster. My agitation was palpable. When another announcement was made in Indonesian and everyone laughed I stared around wildly in desperation. Several travellers took pity on me and explained that I could get a snack from the desk. But by this point I really wasn’t hungry. I told them my sorry tale and they were sympathetic. I tried to bolster myself up by reassuring myself that I was in the system now; that the delays were probably the same at Denpasar; that Lion Air would save the day. I twitched, a lot. I tried not to look at my watch every thirty seconds. Time stood still.

9.20pm. Finally our flight was told to board. I tried very hard not to rush, knowing that we were all leaving at the same time regardless of how fast I got on the plane. All the checks and safety procedures took forever. We waited to take off at the back of a long queue.

10pm. At last! We departed from Surabaya, which was 11pm in Bali and meant that boarding for my next flight was starting in forty minutes. It felt impossible.

I twitched. I prayed. It’s possible that I talked to myself out loud. The gray fog and dry mouth of extreme stress had descended.

11.40pm. We landed, as far away from the terminal as it’s possible to be. Everybody moved painfully slowly so I just missed getting on the first bus to take us to the terminal. All the while my eyes were peeled and my phone was poised, waiting for the call from the helpful staff of Lion Air who would save the day…

12.00am. I sprinted off the bus scattering passengers in my wake. The baggage hall was a blur as I saw the sign for the International Terminal. Although Denpasar is small there are interminably long stretches of corridor to run down inbetween, and not a Lion Air staff member or golf buggy in sight. As I jogged desperately round corners and up ramps I realised just how unfit I’d become. 

When I arrived at the terminal and galloped past checkin I then hit immigration. SHIT! I’d totally forgotten about it in my panic to catch the plane! Now, I am a queuer, I loath queue jumping and I hate being rude but this time I had no choice. I apologised a lot as I pushed my way to the front, smiling and explaining while working my way forward all the time. Everyone was very kind. I can’t decide if it was my British accent or the tone of apologetic panic in it that cleared the way for me. I sent my bags through, grabbed them on the other side and queue jumped again to passport control. I was processed very quickly and as I went through I realised something was missing. I’d lost my scarf and handbag (with money, kindle and camera in). In my haste I’d only managed to grab half of my possessions. I had to go back.

I charged back round, looking like a headless chicken as I scanned the rows in an attempt to reclaim my possessions, losing several valuable minutes in the process.

Even though I was now pretty sure I’d missed my flight I kept running, nearly decapitating myself on the strap of my shoulder bag as it swung around my neck. I took the long route through Duty Free as I searched for a board to tell me which departure gate I needed. 9A! Last call for 9A! I was going to make it. Then I saw the sign for 9A. It was still 7 minutes away.

With sweat rolling down my face and panting like an asmatic steam train I trot-staggered on towards 9A frantically begging anyone with a walkie-talkie to radio ahead and let them know I was coming. The panic coursed through my veins as I comedy ran along, desperate to reach the gate before it closed. With the gate in sight at the end of the corridor I waved frantically to let the guy behind the desk know I was on my way. He saw me, and promptly dropped out of sight behind the desk! ‘You bastard!’ I muttered before realising that the was Gate 9B, and I wanted 9A!

When I reached the gate I was almost hysterical. Had I missed the flight? The guy who checked my bag and the woman who took my boarding pass just grinned at me. I checked my watch. It was 12.30am. I’d made it, by the skin of my teeth!

Ahead of me a girl casually wandered up to the desk and handed over her boarding pass before heading on towards the plane. WTF!

12.40am. By the original departure time I was in my seat, pink of face and soaked in sweat, recovering my breath and relating my tale to my neighbour while apologising for my state profusely. We didn’t leave until 1am.

As worst nightmares go, it could have been worse, but not by much!

In need of a cat

One of the biggest sacrifices I have made, with my decision to pack up and see the world while working abroad, is the loss of having a cat in my life.

Cats are a serious responsibility and a long-term commitment. I should know, having spent nearly eighteen years grounded in the UK because two beautiful cats owned me. While thinking about emigration to Australia I baulked, because my older cat was getting too elderly and cats – let’s be honest – are not very welcome in Australia. I couldn’t see myself putting them through a very gruelling journey and quarantine conditions, only to keep them shut up at the other end. So I stayed put.

That’s not to say I didn’t travel. I spent three months travelling around Australia and made several other long trips whilst a pet owner. But I had a wonderful support system of cat sitters and a comfortable home for the cats to live in. I wasn’t up-rooting them or leaving them uncared for. And truthfully, cats don’t need a great deal of looking after as long as they have food, water and a cat flap. They can almost look after themselves!

But now I’m abroad and I find I can’t, in all conscience, accept responsibility for a cat again. The temporary nature of my position; the school-supplied accommodation on the 19th floor of an apartment building; the fact that I am in a place where I can go out and explore the far reaches of South East Asia with great ease, make that commitment a no-no.

And I miss it. I miss being greeted at the door with an indignant cry of ‘where the hell have you been? Where’s my dinner?’ I long for the additional weight on the pillow that pins me into the same position all night, whilst being lulled to sleep by the comforting purr of loving companions. I miss tripping over furry friends and having someone – who truthfully doesn’t give a damn – to tell my day to, just so that I can get it all off my chest. I miss the affection and rejection a cat gives; their contrary nature; their serenity.

I see the odd cat around the neighbourhood but they are flighty, unfriendly and frankly, not very beautiful. Runny eyes and stubby tails indicate a life away from humans that make any solace from them extremely unlikely. Still, I do the mad cat lady thing and have a chat with them anyway. They just blink at me from a distance, usually in a distrustful crouch, ready to escape if I make any kind of movement.

The next best thing is dogs. My boss has a tiny Yorkie who comes to work with her. I cuddle that dog at every opportunity and will greet her before I talk to anyone else! But I do feel this is slightly disloyal as a lifelong cat fanatic.

So, I rely on social media as a way of enjoying the complex nature of cat ownership, without the commitment. Simon’s Cat animations on Youtube, Buzz-Feed mash-ups, Tom Cox and his SadCat; anything that makes me laugh, cry or nod in understanding, to fill the gnawing absence that I feel every day. But it’s not much of a fix, I can tell you.

I even have a Tigger, velvet soft and the size of a small cat, which accompanies me to sleep at night. It helps, a little, but it’s not quite the same thing. Nothing is.

 

 

Kidulthood

I was recently introduced to a new term that may describe my passion for life: kidulthood. Apparently it refers to the generation of adults who have not given up childish things but embrace their inner kid on an adult level. It does not mean they are Peter Pans who refuse to grow up. Oh no. It covers the generation, my generation, who love Harry Potter, watch every Pixar film without, or with, accompanying children and who aren’t afraid to wear childhood cartoon favourites on their tee-shirts and accessories.

We are (mostly) responsible, intelligent adults, who are still able to see the wonder and beauty of the world with a child’s eyes, and an adult’s intellect. We have not forgotten what it is like to be free to enjoy ourselves and have got beyond caring what anyone else thinks of our childlike ways. We geek-out over stuff (although I prefer to call it fan-girling) and can appreciate things on many different levels.

Take my recent trip to Disneyland Hong Kong as an example. It was my first Disney experience and, at over 40 and with no children in tow, I was slightly worried that there wouldn’t be that much for me to do except enjoy the ‘experience’.  However, having arrived on a train with Micky shaped windows, I was already bouncing with anticipation like an overgrown Tigger before we’d even got through the gate. I Dick Van Dyke danced down the avenue to the various Disney themes that were playing and positively lit-up when I saw the castle at the end of Main Street. I ran between rides and insisted that we did several ‘again, again’. There was no resistance from my accompanying kidult who sported a fetching pair of Minnie ears with princess crown for most of the day.

Space Mountain and the Runaway Mine Cars were good rollercoasters that satisfied the thrill seeker in me while Micky’s PhilharMagic and Mystic Manor left me wide-eyed in wonder at the magic of it all. I was conflicted by It’s a Small World when I couldn’t work out whether it was cute or really, really racist and didn’t rate it as highly as other attractions but the highlight of the day had to be my purchase of cotton candy on a rainbow flashing glow-stick. Apparently, my face was a picture and my tongue was blue!

Yet it wasn’t just about being ‘at play’. I truly appreciated the way Disneyland was presented. It might just be ‘Disney’ to the traditionalists and kill-joys but Disney do Disney really, really well. The combination of traditional fairytale Disney and popular Pixar worked brilliantly, although the adult in both of us missed Oscar winning Up! from the line up, which lead to a very grown-up debate about which films appeal more to adults than children in the Pixar back catalogue. Also, the Lion King show in the theatre-in-the-round was a fantastic piece of performance art, the Paint the Night light parade was better than any other carnival I’ve been to and the Disney in the Stars fireworks were just like the ones in the all the Disney opening credits. As a child I’d be awestruck, as a parent I’d be happy, as a kidult I was both!

To round an exhausting and exciting day off I purchased a Tigger cuddly toy, with additional Roo, to represent the kidult in me and satisfy my growing need to cuddle a cat every now and then. Kidulthood? I think so!

Testing times

 I had been in Indonesia for less than a month when I was informed that I was expected to take a Bahasa Indonesian proficiency test. My employer had been ‘invited’ (in a way that allowed no refusal) to send the expat employees along for the test. This examination was introduced a few years ago by the government for all foreigners living and working in the country but, as far as we were aware, had been scrapped earlier in the year. Nevertheless, one hundred or so expats were placed in a school gym behind exam desks and put through a Saturday morning of language exams.

Now I have no problem with being expected to learn the language of the country I am living in. I tried and failed in Myanmar, (languages not being my strong suit) but I arrived in Surabaya with the intention to learn, and I’m quite proud of my progress over my first few weeks of living here. Good morning ‘salamat paggi’ and thank you ‘terima kashi’ came quickly. I’ve been learning my numbers and can count to ten with the exception of seven and nine, as they keep slipping from my mind! I’ve been reading and interpreting signs while out and about. Dilarang, for example, is DO NOT (and there are a lot of those signs around I’ve noticed!) plus I’ve got the essentials: phone credit is ‘pulsa’,water is ‘air’, and beer is ‘bir’, all things I buy on a regular basis. But I’ve also been settling into my new life and job, meeting students and parents, planning lessons and learning my way around, so I haven’t been able to give much of my time to language acquisition. I’ve found going to the cinema helpful as everything is subtitled and I’ve started to see and hear other words I recognise. But still, after just 36 days, there I was facing a test of my proficiency in a language I barely understand. 

I first appreciated the rediculousness of my situation when we met with a trainer a few days before the exam so that he could explain the testing procedure. He had a tough audience, a group of teachers who knew that essentially, they were being set up to fail. Even the longer term colleagues who had picked up conversational Bahasa by going out and spending time with locals quickly saw how unrealistic and undifferentiated the test was. It went against everything we stand for in education. The session was disheartening and demotivating. Even though we were encouraged to try our best as the results were to be used for ‘data’ to help the government support expats in learning the language, we knew that the results would be skewed because of our short time in the country.

The test itself was equally rediculous. I suppose, after years in education testing children, I have a pretty clear view of how people should be tested (if they must be tested at all). 110 minutes of back to back exams with instructions in a foreign language (and some spoken translations I struggled to follow), using a multiple choice baked bean format is not my way to go about it, but that is how we were evaluated that day.

Candidates were wandering about, phones were out, selfies were taken (guilty). There was even the rumour that some people were using GoogleTranslate  to help them, but no formality was observed, except for the welcome speeches from people responsible for the delivery of the tests. We were encouraged to enjoy the experience, and I guess some people did!

But I tried, I really did, even though every fiber of my being screamed at the farcical nature of the situation. I followed my own advice to students in the listening test and pre-read the questions, listening carefully for keywords before making a (semi) educated guess at the answer. Let’s face it, I had a 25% chance of getting it right after all. I used reading strategies like skimming and scanning, key wording and prediction to attempt the reading paper until the length of the paragraphs I had to read became too much for me to process. I admit I used the old reliable snake pattern for the grammar seksi (section – see, I managed to extend my vocabulary while in the exam!) as I wasn’t even able to decode the questions in that one. And, I’m sorry to say, I failed the writing section completely as the 250 word limit exceeded my own vocabulary by about 225. So I wrote the phrase I learnt specially for the occasion ‘saya tidak mengerti’ I don’t understand. I also rated each section with emojis, most of which involved tears!

Now I simply await my result, and accompanying certificate, which will tell me what I already know: my proficiency in Bahasa Indonesian is very ‘terbatas’ –  limited!

  

Leaving Yangon

I have waited to write this post because I thought a bit of time and space might help me understand my feelings a little better on the matter of leaving Yangon. I have even started writing this post several times, but what sounds right in my head never comes across clearly on the page. The fact remains that my thoughts and feelings about my time in Myanmar continue to be as contradictory and complicated as the place itself.

Any country that insists on driving on the right hand side of the road, using right wheel drive cars, is bound to be a challenging place to live. Nothing is done easily when it can be done in a more complicated, laborious way. It is done that way because it’s always been done that way, and while change is wanted and needed in the country, it seems a distant hope rather than a present possibility. This could be considered charming, and a characteristic of a country that is determined to maintain its unique identity, or it could be an indication of the very long slog Myanmar still has ahead of it as it makes its place in the world.

My personal experiences were very frustrating. I’m sure much of it stemmed from the transition of living and working in the UK to becoming an expat in a developing country. Things weren’t going to be easy, but I felt I had enough travel and professional experience to adapt. Certainly, my impression of the country as I travelled around left me spellbound with the Golden Land. Ancient pagodas; beautiful landscapes; tropical beaches; charming, funny people who didn’t have much but were willing to do anything to help you and who smiled at the drop of a hat.

But Yangon was a different case altogether. The gateway to Myanmar, but a singularly unattractive one. Dirty, dusty and inconsistent are the adjectives I mostly associate with the place. It could, and did, give with one hand and then take away with the other. It has the Shwedagon Pagoda, which is beautiful, it has Scott Market and pretty much everything you need in some way, shape or form, if you are willing to search it out. It does have what you need. Mostly.

But.

Things are hard to find, both in a retail and geographical sense. Sometimes you can find items that you want, if you are prepared to shop around. Often you cannot. Everything is very spaced out across the city, nothing is in easy reach, and sometimes I couldn’t find places I’d visited many times before, even after 9 months of living there. I can read a map. I have navigated my way around many, many cities using a map, my common sense and visual cues. Yet, I found it impossible to navigate Yangon. My map proved useless, with insufficient detail to pinpoint locations. Taxis never took the same route twice due to severe traffic congestion, so my visual cues never took root, plus, apart from Shwedagon, the city lacks memorable landmarks. My common sense was repeatedly thwarted. It frustrated the hell out of me.

I wanted to like Yangon but it never grew on me. Day to day living was often more complicated than it needed to be. Being white meant hugely inflated taxi fares. A visit to the Post Office could take up half your day. A walk up the road could put your life in your hands when dodging traffic, open drains and crowds who appeared to have no spatial awareness whatsoever. Even the simplest task became hard work when faced with rigid rule followers, inefficiency, or insufficient language to communicate successfully.

I was luckier than some. I had school accommodation, a cleaner and a two minute walk to work. However, my accommodation was dark, uncomfortable, and regularly infested with visitors of a less than welcome kind. My job did not live up to its promise and the place seemed to become a microcosm of the frustrations I encountered in Myanmar society. It became clear to me, fairly early on, that I was not going to stay two years as I had hoped.

However, if I hadn’t gone to Myanmar I would never have had the opportunity to do the travelling I have so recently enjoyed. I wouldn’t have had the time or the money. By ending my contract early, I was ideally placed to visit other countries on a shoestring and scratch the eternal itch of Wanderlust. I spent a very happy summer doing just that and arrived at my new destination eager and ready to go. For that I am eternally grateful.

I am also grateful, that on my last, predictably frustrating, exit from Yangon Airport, (I was prevented from taking an empty water bottle in my hand luggage but the multi-tool, lying forgotten at the bottom, was completely missed. The transfer check-in staff in Thailand however, nearly had a fit!) Yangon chose to show me a sight I had always looked for but never seen. As I flew away to Chiang Mai to start my new adventure I could see the whole city spread out beneath me, with golden Shwedagon sitting proudly on its hill, the towers and grid system of Downtown visible to all; all cradled by the broad arm of the river, separating the emerald rice fields of Dalah from its urban neighbour.

It was beautiful!

All Good Things Must Come to an End

Ten weeks of travelling. Three countries, 15 cities, and four islands visited. More photos (and selfies) than I can be bothered to count. And now it is all coming to an end. Soon, I will be repacking my rucksack for the last time, stripped of ancient, travel wrecked clothing and rammed with more keepsakes than I meant to buy. Heading to yet another new destination, but this time with the intention to live there, not just to travel.

While I have tried to blog, Instagram, Facebook, Tweet and review my adventures to create some sort of lasting record for myself and others, there’s just been so much to take in I know I’ve barely scratched the surface. With time, I’m sure more memories will emerge but for now, I just want to share some of my highlights, for the sake of posterity:

  1. Flying over downtown Yangon and the Shwedagon Pagoda for the first time as I left Myanmar for the last time.
  2. Spending a day learning how to care for elephants in Chiang Mai http://www.pataraelephantfarm.com
  3. Cycling around Sukhothai and Si Sanchanalai in Thailand.
  4. Taking the train in Thailand from north to south.
  5. Discovering Phuket Old Town is similar to Georgetown, and they’re both a bit like Hoi An. But that I actually like Hoi An the most.
  6. The utter decadence of the Renaissance Phuket Resort and Spa and their amazing buffet breakfasts. http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/hktbr-renaissance-phuket-resort-and-spa/
  7. Enjoying a variety of performances. From Phuket Simon Cabaret http://www.phuket-simoncabaret.com/ to Phare, The Cambodian Circus in Siem Reap http://pharecambodiancircus.rezgo.com/ and the AO Show in Ho Chi Min City http://www.aoshowsaigon.com/. All brilliant in their own way although my heart belongs to AO.
  8. Whizzing around Angkor, temple running, in a tuk-tuk.
  9. Rattling along on the Bamboo Train, Battambang, in the rain with my arms outstretched yelling ‘Wooo-hoooo’ as we picked up speed.
  10. Watching bats flock like starlings in the sunset skies near Battambang at the end of a great day sight-seeing.
  11. Trekking in the jungle around Dalat. http://www.ptv-vietnam.com/product.php?rid=7
  12. Conquering my fear of motorbikes and getting on the back of a motorbike taxi to visit a lovely tropical beach near Hoi An, Vietnam.
  13. Doing a posh cruise on the Dragon Legend II around the less busy area of Bai Tu Long Bay in Halong Bay and spending the night on the boat eating, drinking and laughing. http://www.indochina-junk.com/dragon-legend-cruise/
  14. Visiting some pretty amazing UNESCO sites in Vietnam including My Son, Hue, Hoi An and Halong Bay.
  15. Enjoying all the food porn – from street food and amazing seafood in Thailand, new tropical fruits such as rambutan, national dishes from all around Cambodia and Vietnam, trying weasel coffee and egg coffee, and tasting my first fried crickets.
  16. Doing lots of accidental tourism and taking a few chances along the way, all of which turned out really well.
  17. Taking indulgent selfies anywhere I fancied. I’ve made a slideshow of them so I can cheer myself up when I need to!
  18. Treating myself to a posh hotel and spa stay in Hanoi to rejuvenate at the end of it all. http://www.hanoilasiestahotel.com/
  19. All the amazing people I met along the way – locals, friends and fellow travellers who’ve chatted, laughed, shared stories and tips and made my journey all the more interesting.
  20. Most of all, I have enjoyed the challenge of finding my way around SE Asia on my own; living in the present; being self reliant and doing exactly as I pleased.

Of course, there were disappointments too, but I have to say, that once again, I have been extremely fortunate in my travels and look forward to my further adventures with great anticipation.

Cambodia

Cambodia held a sense of menace for me as a child. While old enough to be alive when the atrocities by the Khmer Rouge took place, I was too young to comprehend what it meant. The name Pol Pot was always associated with evil and I remember being unnerved by his image although I could never say why. As I learnt about what had happened it held the same tragic sense of horror I felt when learning about the Nazis or Communist Russia.

Now I’ve been there, I would encourage others to visit too. It’s a rather wonderful place and its people, who went through hell and back only 40 odd years ago, and still face many difficulties, wear their hearts on their sleeves and are some of the friendliest characters I’ve met.

I only spent two weeks there, visiting Siem Reap, Battambang and Phnom Penh and I know that they are just the tip of the iceberg of an emerging country with lots of beautiful places to offer. I would like to spend more time there, visiting the coast and exploring lesser known towns but I’d also like to revisit Angkor Wat because, although Cambodia is a small country (181,035 sq. km) it holds many delights.

I was passing through from north to south, making my way to Vietnam, so I first arrived in the country via Siem Reap, which rather provocatively means ‘Siam defeated’ from early conflicts over land in this troubled region. The airport is smaller than I’d expected and as I travelled by tuk-tuk to my boutique hotel, I marvelled at how provincial it seemed. I had, foolishly, expected an urban sprawl out to the Angkor Wat National Park like Giza encroaching on the Pyramids, but that was far from the case. In fact, Siem Reap is a like a country town, and if it weren’t for its insane traffic, I’d almost call it sleepy.

Traffic in SE Asia is a curse. Some of the worst traffic, and pollution, in the world is found there. But Siem Reap is no Beijing. It’s not the amount of traffic that was the problem, although after several weeks on sleepy Thai Islands I’d got used to quiet roads, it was the chaos of it. Tuk-tuks, motos, bicycles, old and modern cars were all moving every which way, all at once. On the wrong side of the road, on pavements (when there were any), at crossroads, with the unspoken rule that if you can’t go forward you go round and if you can’t go round you stop until everyone’s shifted enough for you to carry on, and all the while wary pedestrians weave their way through as well. Strangely, horns were seldom used, everyone just watched and weaved and stopped if they couldn’t proceed. Of course, there’s less traffic as you make your way out around the National Park, and everyone has the same purpose there, following one of two routes around the ancient sights to visit the wonders of Angkor.

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Angkor Wat is as stunning as you’d imagine and worth several visits. Angkor Thom, Bayon and Banteay Srei are all intriguing as well, and while you can get templed out quite quickly, there are other things to do. I also visited the Landmine Museum, showing the efforts of one man who had fought in the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese Army since a child, growing to understand the error of his ways and make up for it one land-mine at a time. It was quite a wake up call about the problems many Cambodians still face as the aftermath continues to cripple them, physically, economically and politically. As an antidote to that, I also visited a small butterfly farm which raised my spirits a bit. Not surprisingly, the Cambodians are very conscious about the preservation of life, be it human, animal, or insect and there are also a great many attempts to conserve Cambodia’s heritage. Many are small, like the butterfly sanctuary, but there are also lots of NGOs in the country doing a lot of good where it’s needed. One example is Phare, a multi-arts centre for disadvantaged children. While the main activities happen in Battembang, Siem Reap has an internationally acclaimed circus branch and it is worth every penny to go along and see an amazing group of talented performers present physically and socially challenging shows.

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I’d planned to take the boat to Battembang, I’d even bought a ticket from a reputable source. But having experienced a stormy visit to Tonle Sap, the largest body of water in Cambodia, and seen how shallow it was in places at this time of year, I wasn’t surprised when it didn’t work out. I was told there was something wrong with the boat, but I suspect it was the instinctive desire to please that make Cambodians so easy to get along with that allowed me to buy a ticket on a route that was never going to run.

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I got to Battambang by bus instead, after a tricky moment when the agents organising my trip sent a tiny girl on a motorbike to carry me and two rucksacks to catch the bus. I’m terrified of motorbikes, and the weight and imbalance of me and my luggage scares me even further. Thankfully, Mr.Chi, who had driven me around Angkor Wat, came to the rescue and ferried me there instead. The bus was tackily decorated with limp fake flowers and childish stickers and I was jammed into a window seat with no leg space under the seat in front. I had to pull the DVT card when three quarters of the way into the journey the girl in front decided to lower her seat back. My knees were bruised from resting against the back of the chair  and with it back I had no way of keeping the circulation moving with exercises. Thankfully, it looks like the blood thinners I got in Thailand did their job! But not a comfortable ride, and not scenic either.

Battambang is Cambodia’s second largest city yet it also seemed provincial and sleepy like Siem Reap. It’s bus station is the side of the road, just outside the city. Of course we were met by dozens of tuk-tuk drivers all touting for business. I accidentally caught the eye of one young man who greeted me like an old friend. After some banter and barter I agreed to let him take me to my hotel.

Actually, Samol turned out to be a blessing in disguise. He also ran a tour service which he’d just set up on Trip Advisor and I booked him for the following day. Like many Cambodians his story wasn’t a happy one but he was working hard to make things right and the tour I had with him was great fun. I even ended up helping him with his English homework!

Beyond the limited delights of Battambang are rice fields, fishing villages, a vineyard (I don’t think the rest of the wine producing world has anything to worry about with regard to Cambodian competition), pagodas, killing caves that are a stark reminder of the country’s horrific past and The Bamboo Train. This brilliant experience is under threat and may well close due to the possibility of a high speed line (Cambodia currently has no rail service to speak of) but I really can’t see why it should. I took a short ride on a single track between two rural stations, riding a bamboo pallet on tank wheels driven by an outboard motor. I sat on a cushion and dodged overhanging undergrowth as the wind whistled through my hair and the heavens decided to open, then watched as the ‘train’ was dismantled to allow traffic coming the other way to pass. Priority was given to greater numbers of trains and people, so I got off a lot. But I loved every second of it!

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Another highlight of Battambang were the bat caves. While not up to Christopher Nolan standards, the sight of thousands of bats exiting a network of caves commonly called The Killing Caves, is pretty impressive. At dusk bats start to circle the mouth of the cave, high up in a cliff, and then suddenly they decide to start streaming out in two directions, a sentence of commas across the sky. I’m told this phenomenon can go on for up to half an hour but I only stayed for 10 or so as they were late leaving, it was the day after the longest day so dusk was around 6.30pm, and Samol had to get back to go to night school. In fact, by leaving then I also got to see the mesmerising sight of them pulsing and receding across the sky like flocks of starlings, dividing and reforming before heading off into the distance to hunt, some even going as far as the coast before returning at dawn. It was a good day.

After Battambang came Phnom Penh, which was a shock to the system after the beaches of Thailand and rural idylls of more northern Cambodia. Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s capital, a real city with long boulevards, a tower block and a lot of noisy traffic to dodge. The tuk-tuk drivers and restaurateurs are pushier, there are more modern amenities and the riverfront is very touristy. It is nicknamed the Pearl of the Orient but I’m afraid the pearl I witnessed was paste. It’s not without its attractions, a cute museum and cultural performance theatre, some attractive pagodas and the Royal Palace, but little stood out to make it a rich and lustrous experience. Of course, S-21 and the Killing Fields are sited there too, and should be visited for a greater lesson into the Khmer Rouge and the history of the Pol Pot era, but that was inherently depressing so I was glad to move on, especially as I was lodged in a hotel room opposite the sex tourist from hell!

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My next stop was Vietnam, and Ho Chi Minh City, still referred to as Saigon by the locals. It was another bus trip, rather more comfortable than some, and my only land border crossing. I’d got my visa in Siem Reap, ready to start for July 1st and duly arrived on that day. Getting out of Cambodia was fine, you just take your passport, see the immigration guy, go through the motions then get back on the bus. Getting into Vietnam was a little more chaotic as your bus company takes everyone’s passport and hands them over to immigration and you stand around, with all your luggage, until you are called up randomly to the desk. Once you’re through, you then have your luggage scanned before getting back on the bus. It was fine, and didn’t take too long, but I can imagine the difficulties during busier times.

All in all, Cambodia was an adventure and I thoroughly enjoyed the entire experience. I wouldn’t say I left my heart there but I am already thinking about how to return.

It’s been a year already!

As of today (July 11th) I have considered myself an expat for one year. I have not considered England as ‘home’ for 365 days. Not that I’ve considered anywhere else to be home either. Dissatisfied with life in Myanmar I am currently between jobs and between countries, touring my way around SE Asia before making another new start abroad.

Will I ever consider England as my home again? Possibly. Hopefully not. I don’t know. But over the course of a year I have realised there are some things I miss:

1) The people. Not the beer swilling, hooligan, tourist stereotypes obviously. But my people. The people who have filled my life and are important to me. Family. My best friend, who will in fact, be heading out this way for her own new job this summer. (I’ve told her to stop following me but thankfully she doesn’t listen!). My old colleagues, many of whom were setting off on their own adventures at the same time as me. The people who showed me love and support when I couldn’t show it to myself. I’ve been a poor communicator of late but I know they’re there and they’re all greatly missed.

2) Cats. I’ve had more cat action while I’ve been touring than I had in the whole nine months I was in Myanmar. (Clearly a sign I wasn’t meant to stay there). But it still hasn’t been enough. I still feel guilty about giving Shelly away, even though it has afforded me previously unimagined opportunities. I am no longer a mad cat woman, although I do still talk aloud to every cat I see! I miss the weight of a cat on my lap or my pillow; the sense of calm a purr gives me; the amusement and companionship I had as a result of being owned by cats (thank goodness for cats on the Internet!). Most of all I think I miss the responsibility of having to care for someone (my cats were my family too) and being loved for it, albeit conditionally, as every cat lover will appreciate.

3) Pavements. Actually what I really miss is being able to walk without having to watch every. single. step. I. take. Mostly, pavements only seem to exist in more developed countries with some sense of infrastructure. If you do get pavements at all in SE Asia, and you can’t bank on it, they are often irregular, dusty, dirty, broken down and pitted with open drains for you to fall into, leaving you taking your chances in the road with the lovely traffic while watching every step you take. It gets a bit tiresome.

4) Wearing jumpers. I know that sounds odd. Who would want to give up year round warmth in the tropics to return to a climate that requires knitwear? I don’t. But I do miss cuddling up in a chunky jumper. I always had more jumpers than anything else and now I don’t need any. I find myself yearning to buy the sweaters I see in the big city malls I visit, knowing I’ll never wear them while trying to justify the purchase to myself.

5) Baths. Long, indulgent soaks in bubbles with a glass of vino in attendance. Of course baths exist out here (although getting a plug for one is another matter altogether) but putting myself in a tub of hot water that matches the temperature outside is an invitation to blackout and do myself some damage.

6) Pub gardens. Sitting admiring some exotic view on a grubby chair beside a dusty road is great, for a while. But I do hanker for grass beneath my feet, slatted wooden bench tables and the familiar twitter of birds rather than the rush of traffic, as me and my friends chat in the warm sunlight under a tree and enjoy our tipple of choice together, whiling away a lazy summer afternoon.

7) A decent cup of builder’s tea. Lipton Yellow label just doesn’t cut it I’m afraid and while I am developing a taste for all kinds of exotic hot and cold tea beverages what I really want is a huge mug of Yorkshire Gold, stewed to perfection and served with sufficient milk to make it the colour of rich tea biscuits.

While this is by no means a comprehensive list, it does illustrate the things that do, occasionally, catch me unawares and start me reminiscing about life in Blighty. But if they really are the worst of it it can’t be too bad, can it?

From sunrise to sunset

‘It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, … and I’m feeling good’

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As I watched the sunrise behind Angkor Wat to mark the summer solstice of 2015 I got to thinking about the significance of the sun rising and setting and the beautiful versions I had witnessed.

In every culture, the sunrise and sunset holds significance. The dawn is a symbol of new beginnings and something I have become more keenly attuned to in recent years, making sunrise my favourite time of day. The dusk offers us closure, and it can be a fearful time when darkness and trouble closes about us. To my mind, it is an opportunity to reflect, and prepare for the new day.

Unfortunately, the promise of a sunrise or sunset in an exotic place can often be like the promise of the New Year, with all the potential and all the anti-climax that goes with it. I have been fortunate enough to witness some amazing dawns and dusks on my travels. And also, some damp squibs.

My greatest disappointment was probably at Uluru. I’d been aching to visit such a mythical, spiritual place for years and when I finally go there, on a beautiful day, I wasn’t disappointed. However, the beauty of the day didn’t encourage a beautiful sunset and the sun went down without the spectacular show of colour I had dreamt of. Just a slow dimming of the sky from blue to white to black and a greying of the famous Rock. Clearly, the spirits were not looking favourably upon us that evening. ‘Never mind’ I thought, ‘the sunrise will be better’. And it was, as the Rock achieved a warming glow, yet I still felt a little cheated of the colours I had dreamt of.

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A better example was the sunset and sunrise over the Sahara desert in Morocco. Maybe, because it was almost the New Year, the day decided to celebrate with us. Or, more realistically, perhaps there were more molecules in the air, serving to scatter the light and offer us the exotic golds of dusk and vivid pinks and oranges of dawn that sat beautifully above the orange sand.

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My favourite experiences (so far) were probably in Myanmar. Maybe it is the eternal layer of dust in the sky that fractures the light so beautifully but both sunsets I witnessed, in Mandalay and Bagan, were so powerful I could feel the heat of the red sky on my face for sometime afterwards. As for the sun rise over Bagan… words can’t really describe the way the light slowly grew through the mist of the early morning over all those half ruined pagodas. It was breathtaking.

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Sadly, the sunrise and sunset I saw in Cambodia were not really ones to write home about (hence the tangent!) but they were still an opportunity to reflect. Cloudy weather tempered the possibility of spectacular colour and light, yet the stillness of the hour, the gentle murmur of voices and the soft light, seemingly painted by the wings of birds wheeling through the air, still made for a reverential sight. I realised that I really don’t have a worry in the world, the darkness holds no fears for me now, and I appreciate that each day doesn’t have to be spectacular to be worthwhile. They are all a new beginning and a chance to live, full of light and promise.

Elephant Tears – learning why elephants cry

A melancholy brown eye stares at you from the grey, wrinkled face, fringed with luscious eyelashes. A tear stain reaches down the trunk of the poor, sad creature and you feel compelled to reach out and help.

A familiar image? It’s certainly one that has been used to generate much needed support for the dwindling elephant community on this earth. But is it the truth?

In my lifetime, in the last forty years, elephant numbers in Thailand have almost halved. That, in itself, is a travesty. What’s worse is that those that are left are often ill treated, broken, and abused in order to entertain tourists and the like. Anthropomorphically, they certainly have a reason to cry.

Elephants are complex, social creatures that need space, and variety in their diets and routines, not a concrete box and three shows a day. And that’s where Patara Elephant Camp is different. It is not a visitor center, a circus, or a place to watch elephants play football. It is a safe haven for rescued elephants, run by a Thai family who have taken in these poor creatures and supported their recovery. They are not ‘Conservationists’. (I use the capitalisation and inverted commas deliberately here because there’s conservation and ‘Conservation’ and Patara do not wish to be associated with the media circus surrounding elephants.) Neither are they activists, they are not trying to fight the good fight. They simply see elephants as part of their global family and have chosen to dedicate their lives to enabling these creatures to become happy and healthy through rehabilitation. They also have a reproduction programme that has successfully supported several offspring, with five more due by the end of 2015.

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My day with this elephant family started with a meet and greet by two mothers and their offspring. We were encouraged to stroke and pat them as they consumed sugar cane, cut up for them by their handlers. This wasn’t part of our day but a bonus while we waited for other people to arrive. In spite of our gushing interference, the elephants and their babies continued to eat and drink steadily, barely pausing between trunk-fulls of food.

Soon, we were called together for ‘the talk’ where the philosophy of Patara was presented to us and we started to learn about elephant care and how to make friends with the elephants we were to look after that day. Initially I thought it was a bit late for that lesson, having been let loose on the group earlier, but as the host explained I realised what an amazing job Patara do in rehabilitating these creatures to the extent that strangers can approach them and touch them without cause for concern.

Elephants are wild animals, but, like humans they show their emotions through body language. An angry elephant would have held its ears wide, away from its head, whilst happy elephants, like the ones we met, flap their ears every so often and flick their tails every once in a while. The best way to ensure an elephant stays happy, and becomes your friend, is to feed it.

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Elephants eat all the time. Wouldn’t you if you had to heave tons of body weight around with you for eighteen hours a day? This is the average time an elephant is on its feet. Even when they are meant to be resting they only sleep for forty-five minutes then get up, eat and play before settling down again. Interestingly, elephants lie down to sleep. A test to check that they are healthy is to check that both sides of their body are muddy. If they’re not then something is wrong with the clean side. If they sleep standing up it is because they are scared to lie down because they won’t get up again, so they rest against a tree, and that means something is really wrong.

So I fed my companion for the day, fourteen year old Manoi, and met her two year old, Passar. Manoi was also pregnant with baby number two. Elephants gestate for up to twenty-four months. Through observation, the camp has learnt that babies can arrive any time between nineteen and twenty-four months. They’ve also learnt that if they arrive between nineteen and twenty-two months they’re likely to be female, with the males being a little slower to appear! Manoi was only five months pregnant, poor thing. She still has a long way to go.

Feeding an elephant was a little like putting my hand into a gooey vice. I had to say ‘Bon, Manoi’ to ask her to raise her trunk and open her mouth, then I placed the small banana or sugar cane in as far as I could. Elephants have no front teeth and barely any lips therefore if I withdrew my hand too fast the food would drop from her mouth and I ran the risk of appearing to tease her with it, SOMETHING YOU SHOULD NEVER DO TO AN ELEPHANT, so I ended up having my hand repeatedly clamped in her soft but strong jaw and had to tug to release it! Every time I got my hand back I patted her trunk and said ‘De De Manoi’ which means ‘good girl.’

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Manoi and I made friends quite fast; at least, I think we did. The basket of food disappeared very quickly and if I stood in the wrong place her ears would dust me when she flapped them. Passar preferred to stay with her Dad and pose for photos with other members of the group, only choosing to join us later.

Another test of their health is the state of their dung. In true Gillian McKeith style we inspected the poo of our elephants. Size, consistency, and water retention are all considered. You can tell an elephant’s age by the fibrous structure as older elephants chew less so their poo is more straw like than a youngster’s, and you can also tell if they have drunk enough water by squeezing the dung to see if water comes out. If it’s dry then the elephant hasn’t drunk enough, which is another sign that something’s wrong. Elephants drink gallons as well as eating all the time and as a result they poo and wee almost every hour, if they’re healthy. Believe me when I tell you, ours were VERY healthy!

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A further test of their drinking habits is to check that they are sweating. Gross? Well no, not when you learn that elephant’s sweat glands are in their feet so they only sweat around their toenails. A nice sweat stain around each nail is all you need to look for to check if an elephant is fit and well.

Both Manoi and Passar were quite healthy. In fact, as we learnt the signs, it was increasingly clear that all our elephants were happy and healthy. For a small camp like Patara, who have sixty elephants and approximately 150 acres of land, that is a credit to them as many of the older elephants came to them after less salubrious starts to life.

With the feeding and health checks successfully completed, the next part of the day was the trek, a bit like taking your dog for a walk, only the elephants took us. I have ridden an elephant before, on Koh Samui, where I used a chair on its back and rode bareback on its neck. A seat can cause all sorts of problems for an elephant. I hadn’t known this when I did it and I certainly wouldn’t do it again now I do. The correct, most comfortable, place to ride an elephant is right up against the back of their heads on their necks, with your knees tucked up on the top of their ears and your feet dangling behind them. When I say comfortable, I mean comfortable for the elephant, because I suffered from acute cramp in my hips and knees after a while! It is quite secure though, as long as you trust the elephant and counterbalance yourself as they move so that you don’t fall off. Manoi had a rope around her shoulders to hold onto if I felt worried, and when descending steep slopes on a tall elephant I did feel worried.

Passar is too young to ride. She simply walked with her Mum. Or rather, rushed off into the undergrowth, bulldozed every tree she saw then ricocheted back onto the track on her knees right under her mum’s feet! Apparently, this is ‘play’ and the sign of a happy elephant. I was inclined to call her a liability, like a bulldozer with no driver and no brakes is a liability, and she caused many hair raising moments for us all, whilst also being the most adorable thing I have ever seen!

After about an hour, we came to a waterfall, where our elephants were to have their bath. Elephant’s skin is very thick and hairy, and of course, they get dusty every day, so they must be kept clean on a daily basis, just like us. We all had lunch first, and then it was bath time. Let me tell you that cleaning an elephant is not all about splashing and laughing and having your photo taken. There is an element of that of course, but actually, it’s bloody hard work! While Pon, her handler, used a wicker bowl to splash Manoi as she lay down in the pool I was handed a scrubbing brush and told to scrub. I clambered onto her back and worked over her head, back and shoulders, then slipped into the water as she rose so that I could do her flanks, scrubbing hard for a good fifteen minutes to ensure all her skin was clean. Then I had to keep throwing water at her to rinse her down. I actually bathed an elephant, and it was amazing!

Eventually, we had to return to the camp. I was exhausted, but jubilant. The trek through the forest had been brilliant, the weather overcast but not raining and not too hot, the insects had whined but not bitten and the hills had worn cloud caps that created an otherworldly feel. It was probably one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had. Patara do a great job of caring for their elephants and their guests. Their philosophy, that we are one global family and we should treat everyone and everything as such, is born of Buddhism and a lesson we should all remember.

So, why do elephants cry? It is not, as is sometimes suggested by charitable campaigns, because they are sad. In fact, if the tears stop, you should start to worry. An elephant has no tear ducts so continuously weeps to keep the eye healthy. Equal tear stains on an elephant’s face indicate that all is well rather than misery or mistreatment. So next time you see an elephant in Thailand, or anywhere, check the signs: flapping ears and tail, dusty sides, tearstained eyes and sweaty toenails (I’ll let you off inspecting the dung). It sounds disgusting to us but it means nirvana for elephants.