Sun, sea and Singha in Samui

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We have finished our amazing 30-day tour of South East Asia and now have some chill time on the tropical paradise of Kho Samui, Thailand. Our first afternoon on the beach was filled with thunderstorms, but the next day and the day after, and the day after that  blue sky and the sunshine was plentiful. We visit a few different beaches while we are here; there’s the long stretch of narrow yellow sand of Chaweng, the gorgeous little bay of Coral Cove where we snorkel with the stripy yellow fish, stunning Chong Moi with its aqua sea and powdery white sand and the palm fringed ‘off the beaten tracks’ stretch of  Mae Nam beach…..and that’s just a few to choose from on Samui. My daughter has come out to join us on this part of our trip and we go on a snorkel tour to the coral reefs of Kao Tao and Kho Nang Yuan. As the sun lights up the aqua blue waters we watch the rainbow coloured parrot fish munch on the coral and the sea slugs and crabs scuttle along the sea bed, we spot the silver needle fish darting along at the top of the ocean and swim amongst the shoals of brightly coloured fish. To finish off the day there is a cool and refreshing beer waiting and there’s plenty to choose from in Samui: Chang, Leo, Tiger or Singha. They all go well with the delicious Thai food.

I’ve been to Kho Samui before, more than 15 years ago, and it’s changed. The island now caters much more to the tourist, rather than the traveller. What’s the difference you say? Does it matter? There are plenty of organised tours to be bought and one can easily be swept into doing what everyone else is doing. For the traveller it’s more about the journey and the experiences along the way, and not just the destination itself. By not planning too much or too far ahead, one can be in the moment more and stumble across unexpected experiences. Being more of a traveller than a tourist (I’ve done the quiz and the results are in!   https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/quizzes/are-you-a-tourist-or-a-traveller-quiz/ ), we try to break the mould and walk the 4 miles to Coral Cove and we hire a motorbike and explore the North of the Island, rather than sign up for the usual tourist tours.

So now as I sit on the flight back to Glasgow, I can’t believe it was 3 months ago that we set off on our adventures. This experience has been so rich and full of wonderful experiences, the memories of which will stay with me forever. We have experienced and learned about many different cultures and made some wonderful friends along the way. When we were in Goa for Christmas, I bought the book ‘Alice in Wonderland’, in a ram shackled Indian bookstore. I had never read it growing up, always meant to as an adult, but never quite got around to it. Reading it on the beach in Goa was magical and Alice’s remarks have stayed with me since and sum up how I feel on this journey home; “I knew who I was this morning (when I left in November), but I’ve changed a few times since then”, and just like Alice I have loved every moment.

Angkor What!!??#

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In Siem Reap we have two days to explore the 294 temples scattered around the city’s boundaries, including the jewel in the crown of Cambodia, Angkor Wat, visited by over 3 million tourists every year. As it turns out we only have time to visit 5, but what a memorable tour it is!

Many of the temples in this area were originally Hindu and were built over 600 years ago, but abandoned in the twelfth century due to a severe drought. Lost to the jungle for hundreds of years, they were rediscovered by a Buddhist king in the 1600’s and then Hindu gods sat side by side new statues of Buddha. Angkor Wat, the biggest of the temple complex in Siem Reap, is one of the largest religious monuments in the world originally dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu. It took 40,000 elephants and 400,000 people, many of them slaves who were later granted their freedom, 37 years to build, finally being completed in 1113.

In contrast with the many of the Hindu temples we visited in Southern India, the intricate carvings have lost their detail, ravaged by the jungle and by war, but It’s the scale and setting of Angkor Wat that’s impressive. Despite the thousands of tourists here, the buildings radiate an uplifting spiritual serenity. Several Monk’s sit in the inner sanctum, offering a blessing for a small donation. There is a majestic quality and the structures blend seamlessly with the surrounding woodland and lakes. We visit twice and the second time is to see the sunrise over its towers. It was worth every minute of our early rise a truly unforgettable experience.

Whilst in Siem Reap we visit other temples; Baneteay Srei (also know as the Lady Temple), Angkor Thom (the great wall), the Mayon temple and Ta Prohm, the famous ‘Tomb Raider’ temple. Ta Prohm, originally a tomb for one of the great Khmer King’s mother, lay undiscovered for many years and the jungle has taken over. Huge banyan trees have cracked the immense sandstone blocks of the temple, which formed the spectacular backdrop for the film, Tomb Raider. Restoration continues and Angelina Joli, the sweetheart of the film and mother to an adopted Cambodian orphan, has donate $1 million to this project. The trees are very slowly destroying the foundations of this temple, but felling these imposing trees would result in the ancient temple crumbling. It is a race against time, history versus nature….but the effects are sight to behold.

On our final morning in Siem Reap we visit the final temple of this trip, the Mayon Temple, with its 4-sided Buddha statues. We arrive just before throngs of Chinese tourists pour in to take their thousands of selfies. It’s a hot morning and we have only visited 5 temples over the past two days. For now, we are ‘templed out’ and an afternoon by the hotel pool calls. We will just have to come back again …… there’s only another 199 left to visit!

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Superstitions of South East Asia: Phi houses and re-internment

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As we’ve travelled through South East Asia, I have been fascinated by the little houses which sit outside houses, shops, lanes, trees and sometimes fields. An assortment of ‘offerings’; flowers and incense, food, drink and other gifts are carefully placed on its veranda.  Initially I thought they might be mini shrines to Buddha, but in the remote village of Pak Ben in Laos, I finally asked our guide, an ex-monk himself, what they were.

These miniature houses known as ‘Phi’ or spirit houses are for wandering spirits and the gifts that are left, are there to appease these spirits so they will not make any trouble for the inhabitants of the house/land. Unlike our western culture where believing in ghosts, ethereal land spirits or fortune telling is often frowned upon and generally doesn’t mix with religion, in South East Asia Buddhism blends seamlessly with mysticism and superstition. The appearance and stature of the Phi houses are dictated by the wealth of its owner. Government institutions, luxury hotel resorts and shopping malls will have impressive, ornately decorated spirit houses. In contrast simple homes in the countryside are more likely to have Phi houses made of wood. On closer inspection some stand on 4 pillars; for the spirits of the land and some sit above one pillar; for the spirits of the house. A second smaller Phi house (Saan Pha Phum) incorporates an angel with money and a sword professing to protect its owner, bringing both luck and fortune. Tiny figures often stand inside, epitomes of the home owners’ ancestors. In Thailand, a bottle of strawberry Fanta, always with a straw, is the offering beverage of choice. I’m not quite sure why spirits need straws to drink… maybe its because their hands don’t work properly? The idea behind using a red liquid as an offering, dates to when sacrifices were made, and blood was offered. Blood, the giver of life, brings good fortune and fertile land and I guess in modern times red Fanta is the next best thing! Sometimes other offerings are given; fake money for luck around the Lunar New year and at our hotel in Siem Reap a bottle of pink nail polish and perfume…… just the job for a bit of spirit pampering!

In both India and South East Asia culture Astrology or the Chinese Sheng Xiao is given high regard, and fortune tellers or Shaman are sought to determine anything from couple compatibility to the best day for harvesting the rice. Travelling on the bus past the sodden rice fields in Vietnam there were many small, walled cemeteries, and our guide tells us more about the funeral rituals of the people living in the countryside of North Vietnam. Here it is the local Shaman who decides whether the day you die is a ‘lucky’ day. If you are blessed to die on a ‘lucky’ day……. although it’s not such a lucky day really as you’ve just died……. then you will travel seamlessly onto the next life. However, if the day you die is ‘unlucky’, then several rituals need to be followed so that the curse of dying on such an ‘unlucky’ day, can be reversed. Money is placed in your mouth to pay the toll for the afterlife, and all mourners attending the funeral wear white, not black. No tear drops can fall on the body and any household cats must be kept out of the house while the body rests, for fear that the spirit might enter the animal causing it to become possessed. The family continue to make a meal daily for the deceased for 49 days, just in case there are any issues with them passing into the afterlife, after all they need to keep their strength up for the journey. The strangest ritual yet however is that of re-internment, where 3 years after burial the body is removed from the ground, the bones are washed and then re buried in a small stone coffin, protecting their loved ones from the frequent flooding which affects this land. “But what if the flesh hasn’t fully decayed?” we ask… “there are 2 options”, she replies, the first is to re entomb the body, digging it up again in 3 years, hoping for full decay to have occurred. The second, is rather more gruesome. After the body is exhumed, any remaining flesh is pared away from the bones, allowing re-internment to occur as originally intended.  Although this custom is growing less popular, nowadays a specialist team is employed, and the ceremony is performed in the middle of the night in Winter. Many families still believe this ritual to be an important expression of filial piety, respecting ones elders right to the end, which is one of the strongest ethics in Confucianism and Buddhism.

Our Western practices of scattering of ashes and leaving out a glass of milk for Santa at Christmas now seem quite tame in comparison to these startling superstitious practices of South East Asia, but certainly gives food for thought.

Cycling around Battambang

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Most people come to Cambodia to visit the ancient temples of Siem Reap, but as always when travelling some of the most memorable experiences are those you stumble across rather than those you seek out. Our cycle around Battambang is one experience that I will treasure forever. After a long bus journey, we arrive in picturesque Battambang, in the northwest corner of the country. It’s a welcome respite after the horrors of the killing field and genocide museum and the buzz of Phnom Penh city. I’m looking forward to checking into The Classy Hotel. The breakfast is amazing and there’s a pool…. all’s good in the life of a ‘classy lady’!

The following morning, the sun is shining, and we set off on a cycle tour in the  countryside, where we will also visit some local families. We are out of the city in minutes, cycling along country roads full of villagers going about their daily lives. It’s Sunday and the local children are playing, shouting hello and waving as they run beside our bikes with their happy smiling faces. It’s clear that the villagers have very little, but  accept the strange convoy of westerners wearing helmets and they too smile, clasp their hands together and bow, saying ‘Arun Suesday’ (Good morning). We stop at the homes of two families, one family is busy making rice paper, in the other  a women shows how she sun dries bananas over bamboo and collects rubber form a handful of trees on her land. The homes here are wooden and built on stilts which helps to prevent the flood waters in the rainy season from reaching their homes, and also serves as a useful work and family space which is cool in the hot season. Both families tell us how the years after the fall of Pol Pot’s regime were hard.  They returned to their homes in 1979 to find that there had been ‘a first come first serve’ policy with regards to property and land, and many families came back to find their home’s already occupied. Civil war with Vietnam continued for another 20 years and it was only in 1992 that the UN finally arrived in the country to help. Cambodian’s fought with each other for property and land, forcing many of them to look at alternative ways of surviving. Many died from starvation and disease Healthcare was in short supply after 90% of doctors in the country were executed during the Khmer Rouge’s regime.   The people we visit work hard, often 7 days a week just to keep their family fed, clothed and educated. I am humbled by the welcome they give us in their homes.

On our return to the city we visit a street vendor who makes and sells Kralan, bamboo sticky rice cake. Small bamboo sections are stuffed with sticky rice, red beans, grated coconut and coconut milk and then slowly roasted over a charcoal fire. The blackened outer bamboo casing is trimmed off and the bamboo layers are peeled away to reveal a tasty afternoon snack. I must admit it is delicious. I have loved this morning. I’ve always enjoyed cycling, one becomes part of the countryside in a way that walking or using a motorised vehicle doesn’t and I think any future visits to this country will definitely  include travelling by bicycle.

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Charming Kampochea: the dark years

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We travel by bus across the border into the Kingdom of Cambodia, known as Kamphochea by the Cambodian (Khmer) people. There are subtle differences here compared to neighbouring Vietnam … the roads are quieter and less developed, the land is flatter, drier and vast paddy fields stretch as far as the eye can see. Cambodia is a country of around 16 million and 80% of its people are farmers. The central plains are known as its rice bowel and it exports rice to more than 60 counties around the world. There are no more Non-Bai Tho (conical) hats and I can see fragments of southern India in the faces of the people and in its ancient temples. The charming bow with hands together for hello, goodbye and thank you, is back! Our new guide tells us that around 95% are Buddhists in the country, but in the past great Khmer empire, formally known as Funan had one of the oldest regional Hindu cultures and was a significant maritime trading partner in the Indosphere.

Our first destination is Phnom Penh or ‘Penom Ping’ as our guide likes to say. We head out on a tuk-tuk tour of the city before dusk settles, and a real surprise awaits. Although this is a much smaller city than those, we visited in Vietnam there is lots of development here. It is an interesting blend of the old and the new. In the heart of the city an Angkorian style tower, signifies Cambodia’s Independence from the French in 1953. On the other side of this imposing tower sits the equally impressive Norodom Sihanouk Memorial, a 4.5-meter bronze statue housed under a 27-meter-high stupa of gold and white of the beloved former King. Modern neon lights shine out around these monuments making this park quite a spectacle. Next, we visit the street food market and there are some similarities with its neighbouring country, Laos. This time its BBQed rat, not dried, deep fried tarantula and snake, chicken feet and heads and frogs’ legs and snails by the plenty. Our guide advices us against eating this food which has often been cooked days before and left out on the stalls until sold. Our delicate western digestion would need some toughening up before we could avoid several hours on the toilet! We pass the flower market full of amazing smells and exotic flowers and the fruit and vegetable market: we try some Rambutans and Longan fruit, and sniff the infamous tasty but stinky durian, which is often banned in hotels. I feel there is a buzz about this city and that things are changing here fast…., it would be interesting to visit again in a few years.

This city has a dark past and the next day we visit the Killing fields and the Genocide Museum, which was initially a high school and was transformed into a prison camp in the city during the Pol Pot regime from 1975-1979. As a child in the 70s I remember nothing of this tragedy, but I do remember the discovery of mass graves in the early 80s of what we now call the Killing fields. When Pol Pot came into power in 1975 which he declared as ‘year zero’, everyone was evacuated from the cities and forced them to live in the countryside, to work and live as communal farmers. He abolished education and health care and people were allowed only a few personal possessions. Communal kitchens fed the masses on very little. The ‘lucky’ people were forced to work long gruelling hours in the fields, but 1.7 million were rounded up, tortured and met their final death in the killing fields. Pol Pot embarked on a brutal campaign of social cleansing and anyone who had worked for the previous government/army and the educated middle class; doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists, foreigners and even those wearing glasses, were sought out and eliminated in order to create a pure self-sufficient peasant society. This is not a visit I have been looking forward to and to be confronted with the dark side of what humans are capable of, is harrowing and fills me with sadness. A monument to the 20,000 men, women, children and babies who were systematically murdered by the Khmer Rouge soldiers at this killing field just a few miles outside the city, sits in the centre. The white stupor contains 9,000 skulls of the victims. I can’t bring myself to go in, but slowly walk round trying to comprehend what has happened here and paying my respect to the victims. Did they know that they were coming here to die? How could the soldiers beat their own people to death? We learn that the soldiers were often very young and threatened with torture and death of both themselves and their families if they didn’t do their job. One of the mass graves we visit at the field contains the bodies of hundreds of soldiers, murdered by their own comrades. Despite the great sadness here, it is peaceful, and visitors are quiet and reflective. The birds are singing and the chatter from the local children playing at a school nearby drift across the scene…life goes on despite the horrors which happened here.

Next, we visit the Genocide museum where the prisoners were initially brought. They were photographed, weighed and measured before being systematically tortured until a confession was made. True or false, the soldiers didn’t care. If they didn’t get a confession from their prisoner, they too would be killed.  Prisoners usually stayed for 2-3 weeks where they were chained and blindfolded in individual tiny brick or wooden (for the women) cells with an ammunition box for a toilet. No one escaped from either the prison camp or the killing fields, although 7 men and 4 children who were still prisoners at the time of the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 survived to tell their stories of their time in Tuol Sleng prison. Two of the men who survived, now 87 and 79 visit the museum regularly to talk to visitors about their experience. I buy a book from one of them, Chum Mey, a mechanic who lived in the prison for months because he was useful to the regime, he repaired typewriters and sewing machines.

This has been a difficult day and I can’t begin to imagine what it was like for the Khmer people who were subjected to Pol Pot’s regime. The images from the killing fields and the prison camp will stay with me forever, and because I have been here, I feel that I too have a responsibility to share this story with others, in the hope that we can learn so that nothing like this can ever happen again. In the evening we meet Johns nephew and his partner who are living and working in Phnom Penh. We sip our drinks and watch the sun set over the skyscrapers and I push the images from today away for now but hope that the lessons from Cambodia’s darkest past will guide the future on mankind.

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The American war

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We are sitting on the Giantibis bus (no idea why it’s called that) travelling out of Vietnam into Cambodia and there is one final story still to tell…. that of the Vietnam war, also known as the American war by the Vietnamese people. During our time in Vietnam we have visited many places which still bear the scars, listened to the people’s different stories and perspectives and tried to understand more about what happened and the implications of the war for the country and its people today.

Before visiting Vietnam, I knew a little about the war from 1964 to 75 between North Vietnam and South Vietnam who were backed by the USA. Conflict leading up to this period however simmered in the country for decades before. The USA first became involved in the late 40’s when they came to the aid of the French, who had colonised Vietnam since 1887. Following the invasion and subsequent withdrawal of Japan after world war II and the declaration of independence of North Vietnam by Ho Chi Minh, the French struggled to regain power in the country. By the early 1950’s both China and Soviet Union supported North Vietnam and the French troops were defeated and finally withdrew from the country in 1954. US concerns about the ‘domino affect’ of communism dominated politics at that time and led to their backing of the catholic nationalist leader of South Vietnam. We learn in the Ho Chi Minh war museum that 58, 000 American and 1.3 million Vietnamese soldiers (on both sides) were killed in the 9 years of the war and a staggering 2 million civilians died as a result of the conflict. In addition to dropping Napalm and cluster bombs, the USA sprayed Agent Orange, an herbicide, thick with the harmful contaminant dioxin, over 3 million hectares of jungle and farmland. The main aim was to defoliate vegetation which had provided cover for the illusive Viet Cong soldiers. Up to 4 million people (including USA army personnel) were exposed. Unfortunately, not just those exposed at the time were affected and we now know that the chemical is capable of damaging genes, resulting in deformities in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th generations of the exposed victim’s family. Still-births and deformities such as cleft palate, limb loss, mental retardation and neural tube defects, serious skin diseases and several cancers have all been linked to Agent Orange. In 2004 the USA government was prosecuted to gain compensation for the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, however the case was dismissed due to ‘lack of evidence’, despite USA government having already provided compensation to US veterans and their families. The legal battle for justice continues to this day.

In Ho Chi Minh war museum, where graphic photographs detail the horrific events of the war, the victims of agent orange and their continued struggles. On our second day in the city we visit the Cu Chi tunnels and marvel at how the Viet Cong army lived, fought and finally won the war. Soldiers used these underground routes which went on for miles to house troops, transport communications and supplies, lay booby traps and mount surprise attacks, after which they could disappear underground to safety. With an underground city to penetrate I now understand how USA troops were never going to defeat the Viet Cong.

On our journey back from Hanoi, we visit a centre supporting all generations affected by Agent Orange by training the people in local handicrafts, offering valued employment, regular income and hope for the future. It is a hive of activity and dozens of young disabled people are working on the most amazing embroidery paintings and jewellery products. We buy a painting designed and stitched by a young girl called Chau, and when we are back from our travels it will hang on the wall, holding poignant memories of this beautiful country, its past struggles and hopes for the future.

There are always many perspectives and the American war is no different. For the USA it was a fight against communism. For the Vietnamese people, who had been occupied for more than a thousand years first by the Chinese, French and Japanese, the American war was a fight for independence and a chance to govern their own country. The American people were outraged at the devastation and violence of the war and because of its lack of clear objectives. For Ho Chi Minh, the leader of North Vietnamese Communist party, his story too is thought-provoking. Our guide tells us that he first approached the French and USA to support his fight for independence, however they refused, and he turned to communist China and USSR who were happy to help. One wonders if the USA had supported Ho Chi Minh, whether the war would have happened at all. And finally, there is the plight of the 2 million South Vietnamese who fled their country for fear of persecution after the war ended in 1975 when the North and South were reunified. Some opponents of the new regime were also sent to re-education camps and international outcry ensued.

In Hue we visit a local couple in their home and share a delicious home cooked meal. The husband, a former North Vietnamese army officer still bears the shrapnel scars of the war and his wife, who was a nurse during the war years, tells of tending to the injured soldiers. For their service to the country, the government has gifted them this home in Hue. We speak to them about the war, and they say that many people suffered on both sides, that the past is the past and that we must all live for the present and have hope for the future.

On our final day in Vietnam, we head out of manic Hoi Chi Minh city, formally known as Saigon,  past the 8 million motorcyclists and the street vendors with their lucky cats and brightly coloured piggy banks stacked up for the upcoming Lunar New year celebrations, I reflect on our stay here. I truly believe that despite some of its current difficulties Vietnam wants to forget its past, has hope for the future and that there is now a determination to move forward in the 21st century in peace….and I wish them all the luck in the world.

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Hue to Hoi An: do all cities in Vietnam begin with an H?

 

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Another overnight train journey and we arrive in Hue. All went well until early morning, when a little mouse popped his out from under our berths and made the ladies in our cabin shriek. He promptly ran off and I think he was probably more scared of us than we were of him. Heu, pronounced ‘whey’ is the ancient capital of Vietnam and I’m looking forward to visiting the Imperial Citadel complex. Our guide tells us that it often rains here, but the people are hardy. It’s one of those days today and the rain is torrential. Motorcyclists have extra big plastic macs draped over themselves and their bikes, with a clear section for the headlights. Others sit on the side streets under make shift rain canopies trying to sell their wares in the dripping rain. I grab a bright green plastic mac for 20,000 dong (about 60 pence) and we head out for the day.

The imperial city has a distinctly Chinese feel in its architecture and gardens (lots of bonsai’s) and I can’t help but feel that it would look even more stunning if it wasn’t raining so heavily. We learn about the history of the last 13 Nguyễn emperors of Vietnam and visit their palace. The rain is relentless and we start to trudge back to the bus. Some of our group, including John opt for a ‘cyclo tour’. The ‘cyclo’ looks like a giant pram which is propelled by a bike and although it looks drier, I’m not sure how much John is going to see from the top of the rain cover! The next day we have a motorbike tour. We head off as a group on the back of bikes with our matching helmets and snazzy raincoats and we zip around the city. We learn more about the history of the emperors, visit the fake tomb of emperor number 4 (It’s a long story!) and the Tien Mu pagoda. Constructed in 1844 each of its seven storeys is dedicated to a manushi-buddha (a Buddha that appeared in human form). We have a simple and delicious vegetarian lunch in the grounds of the pagoda.

The following day we are on the bus again and after a brief visit to one of the pearl farms along this stunning coast of Vietnam, we arrive in beautiful Hoi An, recently declared a world heritage site. The sun is out and after a brief orientation walk, we have some free time to explore the town, a shopping mecca, famous for its tailors, leather making and jewellery. We spend a leisurely evening strolling along the narrow alleyways by the river, the colourful lanterns add to the celebratory atmosphere. The next day we head to the beach for a day of chilling. We walk back through the rice fields and the backstreets where many of the locals go about their daily life. ‘Sin Chow’ we say as we walk past. By the end of our time in Hoi An, after a bowl of Pho Ba, a 2-1 win for Vietnam in the Asia cup (the first time they have ever reached the quarter finals), and an amazing Pho Ba (beef noodle soup, with plenty of fresh herbs and spice), I feel warmed, rested and ready for our last few days in Vietnam.