Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Nutella Pancakes (and Lamb with all the Trimmings)

Completely lacking in any blog inspiration myself (though feeling much better otherwise) here is number 1's latest blog from the Far East - along with a very attractive picture of her and Alex (it must be the genes!!!). Hope you enjoy it. Incidentally, herself is due to appear on 8th March in Call the Midwife - finally! But then what (or wat) would I know, I'm only her mother...

Kampot was a place I kept mistakenly calling Tampon for reasons unbeknownst
 to me (other than that 5 of the 6 letters are the same). It was described by the 
little brown owl (Trip Advisor) as a 'pretty French colonial town' on the river in 
South Cambodia. A 'must see' by Lonely Planet. If we hadn't done so many of 
these towns everywhere along the Mekong River now, we might have enjoyed 
it but, as anticipated, there was nothing to do there except sit and stare at 
brown sludge. Which you can do from the retreat of your own bathroom, if 
needs be.

So let's skip the 48 hours we spent there.

There was one amusing moment when Alex had to queue nearly half an hour to 
use the new ATM - the first ever in Kampot. Dozens of locals were trying out 
their new credit cards at the same time, crowding around it like kids at a vending 
machine. A few of his toys were discarded here.

Sihanoukville provided us with our first view of the sea in four weeks, a welcome 
distraction for the town itself was like a Far Eastern Benidorm. Taking a walk to 
the 'Wildside', our accommodation for two nights, we found the gates closed 
and two alsatians (or alastians as I once called them) growling at us. 
Eventually a semi-naked Frenchman high as a kite let us in and it materialised 
out we had the entire premises to ourselves for both days. Dubious times.

Booking our ferry tickets to Koh Rong Samloem (a desert island), we were 
delighted that for 15 dollars per person, they managed to throw in free 
breakfast, lunch and a snorkelling trip to the 'best coral reef in Asia' en route. 
I was also assured by Alex that we had taken out enough cash to last the 
five days we were intending on staying there.

The next morning we got picked up at 7am via minibus and dumped at a 
shack where we were served our "free continental breakfast" as part of the 
trip - a baguette with some jam. Meanwhile our bags were given to some 
tuk-tuk drivers whom we watched drive off into the distance with a 
trepidation that we might never see our clothes again. In a car chase, we 
were delivered to the pier and pushed onto a "party boat" where we 
watched a policeman do a tally count from his bike, shaking his head 
somberly all the while. The more observant of us quietly claimed lifejackets 
at this point. After taking off, we had to duck to avoid being bludgeoned by 
selfie-sticks owned by the famed Korean tourists.

So good so far.

About half an hour into our boat trip, an overhead tannoy announced that 
anybody interested in snorkelling should disembark the boat and swim to 
the island where there lay the promise of colourful fish and the coral reef. 
We were told to be back in half an hour. We immediately jumped in, 
alongside with some tourists in head to toe swimwear and rubber rings. 
Ten minutes later we arrived at the beach and put our snorkel masks on. 
We didn’t see anything but sediment. Then the tannoy went.

“The Party Boat is leaving!”

Ten minutes later we were back on the boat.

Lunch was some rice with either some chicken that tasted like fish, or some
 fish that had the texture of chicken. I didn't eat it.

But Koh Rong Samloem was a little slice of heaven. The summation of the 
simile 'as pretty as a picture', the definition of 'tropical paradise' - all of 
those stultifying cliches which we hate to use but sometimes are the only 
ones that are just right. White sand like powder, crystal clear waters - you 
name it AND you could walk 200 metres out to sea and still be only waist 

At Paradise Island Beach Resort - the original, we are staying on the upper 
floor of  a mixed dorm for 12 dollars a night. A double storey bamboo barn 
with the front completely open to the sea, we have a mattress and a mosquito 
net for privacy, lined up alongside others like ducks in a row. The electricity is 
only on between 6pm and 10pm. There is no internet, shops, roads, vehicles. 
There are a couple of beaches to walk to, but that is all. It is like being 

At 6.15am, we creep down the stairs to watch the sun rise. To our surprise, 
the sun is a deep blood red, crimson, vermillion - whichever romantic shade 
you like. You would think it was sunset. The rest of the island is asleep.

It is quiet here - except for the party boats that come here each afternoon 
when the tourists disembark for a couple of hours, take lots of pictures, then 
abscond again in response to the tannoy:

“The Party Boat is leaving!”

Not many actually stay on the island which gives us a sense of superiority - 
that smug self satisfaction - we knew better than all the other tourists. False 
vanity is a common flaw amongst backpackers. 

The only slight problem  is that we were rapidly running out of money. 

So we count our coins - or dollar in this case as all of Cambodia now uses 
American currency to circumvent the poor value of the riel. The island 
overcharges for everything, as there is little choice but to comply. Breakfast 
becomes a meal shared - Alex gets the free coffee and I the free juice. 
When possible, we avoid lunch and drink water instead. Dinner is a bargain 
if rice comes with the order. We had already booked our accommodation to 
last us through to the end of the week and we didn’t want to have to leave 
early. Plus we were feeling martyr-like - cue a rendition of Gloria Gaynor's 
"I Will Survive" performed walking along the beach, off-pitch and off-key. 
Hands in the air, shaking. By Sunday, we had 13 dollars to last us two 
meals before returning to Sihanoukville.

Alex had dreams of piles of Nutella pancakes. We basically spent a lot of 
time sunbathing and thinking about food. Occasionally we went on walks 
off the beaten path.

Alex found some exciting toys to play with.

Whilst I continued to think about food.

And look for it everywhere.

It reminded me of a story we were told by a friend who once served in the 
SAS, when he was returning from the selection course having been out in 
the field for three days with only a handful of rations and no sleep. In the 
truck on the way back having passed the test, the assessors asked the 
soldiers, in attempt to keep them awake, what their perfect meal would 
be to return to. Not one for the short and sweet answers, our wonderful 
friend in glorious and immaculate detail described the whole preparation 
of a rack of lamb with all the trimmings from start to finish. Fifty years 
later, he bumped into a fellow comrade who immediately brought up that 
rack of lamb.

The things that stay with us. 

On the last day we met this little kid. A local boy, maybe six years old, with 
a mop of black hair and the pearliest white teeth I had seen on the island. 
He wore red shorts and a checked shirt and the French owner was sending 
him around the restaurant serving food to the customers. His English was 
perfect - better than any we had heard here. He had the sweetest smile.  

I of course wanted to adopt him.

But the prevailing thought at the time was that he was unfortunate. Unfortunate 
to have been born on the island, however nirvana-like it appeared. Would he 
have the opportunity to attend a good school, to make something of himself in 
this world - the way a young bright boy has a right to? But then again, do we 
have a right to say with conviction that ours is a better life?

I don't know.

Koh Rong Samloem was a lesson in serenity for the city-dwellers accustomed 
to having civilisation at their feet. There was a high probability that if a 
groundbreaking event had occurred elsewhere in the world during those four 
days, we might have been some of the last people to hear about it. Certainly, 
it would have made no difference (to the world) whether we had been told or 
not. It was good for us - but I couldn't live this way. I realised that I have to 
be at the front of the world where technology is evolving, where 
advancement is at its steadiest. Where the best schools are and the best jobs. 
And that was quite a big lesson learnt I thought.

That little boy will stay with me. 

Friday, 20 February 2015

Dr Evil and the Killing Fields

Another travel blog from number 1 daughter who is making the most of this 
wonderful opportunity to travel the world. I wish...

All was going relatively well until I got tonsillitis on the 13 hour bus journey 
between Laos and Cambodia. Simultaneously shivering and sweating on shit
-coloured leather seats with a trigger-happy-with-the-horn driver meant that 
life was not turned onto Comedy Central that day.

Upon arriving in Phnom Penh, the boy's first port of call was to find a non-
dodgy chemist, in a city where behind every counter lies a Dr Evil maniacally 
cracking his fingers. Entering a pharmacy in Cambodia is a little like the 
Skittles Midas Touch advert* where everything one touches explodes into 
thousands of colourful sweets - except here it's obviously pills. The good 
news was that you didn't need a prescription for anything, just simply a 
response to:

"What you want? Where you from? I get you anything you want!"

Luckily Alex's fine memory from his New Year's sickbed experience meant that 
he could reel off all the antibiotics he took, including some very nasty mouth-
spray which was like inhaling bug repellent. Alex actually calls this stuff 
'Pooberry Juice' and has concocted a theme-tune for it to the rhythm to The 
Who's 'Who Are You' - just play it out in your head. And don't let it stick.

Alex has just asked me why I blame him anytime I write something stupid on 
this blog. He's right, it's a joint effort. (It was really him).

One night spent at 11 Happy Backpackers Hostel was enough for us to swerve 
off the budget trail and check us in to an actual hotel with hot water. The music 
played until 3am and was loud enough for me to suddenly sit up in the middle 
of the night and name the song - an astonishing feat for a deaf person who has 
old fashioned taste in music. The ceiling was pretty low and so the ceiling fan 
hovered precariously above Alex's head. This meant that inevitably, when putting 
a tshirt on, he experienced an almost finger dismemberment that any fan (ha!) of 
the film 300 would have been proud of. The sheets were dirty, the water cold and 
the drains in the bathroom smelt pretty miserable. It was only a fiver, but if we 
had stayed another night, you would have seen a reproduction of the prom scene 
in 'Carrie' with me starring in it.

Being sick enables a little bit of extra leeway - a little bit of getting away with things 
I wouldn't ordinarily be allowed to do. For when I asked Alex whilst he was shaving 
to show me what he would look like if he had a goatee, he indulged.

Photo removed here by owner's request.

Additionally, I also discovered that the one thing that his father would say to him as 
a child that really riled him up was "Stop showing off". This would result in a freeze 
and a quiet fury radiating from every pore of his eight year old body which was a 
very cute image and useful ammunition.

Six days later and I was sufficiently recovered to actually go out and see Phnom 
Penh and to visit two of the sights I had really been looking forward to - Tuol Sleng 
Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. Because it is simply not possible to 
describe our experiences here in an entertaining way, you will have to accept my 
apologies because the funny part of this blog is over.

In spite of having a history degree, I shamefully know very little about the Khmer 
Rouge period which meant that whilst I knew this was somewhere I had to visit, I 
didn't really appreciate why. Though I knew that if HCMC's Revolutionary Museum 
was anything to go by, this would be brutal.

The Khmer Rouge was Cambodia's Communist Party led by Pol Pot which ruled 
between 1975-1979. During this period, two million people - a third of Cambodia's 
population was killed by their own. Genocide - "a systematic destruction of a 
significant racial, ethnic, religious or national group" took place here. Tuol Sleng 
was a prison during the Khmer Rouge period which housed at least 1,500 people 
at any given time over the four years. Whom through torture were forced to 
confess to international espionage links with the CIA, KGB or Vietnam.

Tuol Sleng's premises is a high school. Playgrounds, classrooms, lockers - the 
things we all take for granted were there among the barbed wire fence, torture 
instruments and rows and rows of photographs of prisoners. A clash of good and
 evil, of right and wrong. Many of the classrooms are subdivided into crude cells for 
the prisoners. Blood stains remain on the floor, gruesome pictures of torture taking 
place stand unapologetically on walls. Outside stands a climbing frame with three 
pots sitting underneath. Prisoners were hung upside down here whilst being 
questioned, until they passed out from exhaustion at which point they would be
 dunked into human faeces. The most difficult of prisoners were skinned alive.

Did you know when arresting people, they took whole families to reduce the 
risk of bad blood or revenge later in life?

I'm going to crib a line by WW2 poet, Charles Sorley. "When you see the 
millions of mouthless dead"

Choeung Ek - the Killing Fields is a little further outside of town. We took a 
tuk-tuk in the early hours before the hoards of tourists arrived. Audio guides 
are presented to us, which I declined of course, but there was more than 
enough of a visual.

There is a 'Killing Tree' and a 'Magic Tree'. The Killing Tree is where soldiers 
would grip the ankles of babies and bash their brains in against the trunk. The 
Magic Tree held a loudspeaker which played music to drown out the screams 
and cries.

The palm trees, which stand next to us, were also a weapon - the serrated 
stem of the leaves were used to cut people's throats. Wooden shelters house 
the mass graves and thousands of bracelets are left on the fences as a 
blessing or a token to the dead. Only 79 of the 112 gravesites here have 
been excavated - they have chosen for the rest to be left alone.

Possibly one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen is observed when 
we walk around, there are rags in the hard soil of the paths we are walking on - 
clothes of the dead that are slowly rising to the surface after the rainy season. 
We are advised not to pick up the rags or the bones that are also emerging - 
the volunteer custodians that look after this place will do it after we have left.

It seems inane that a full excavation has not taken place - that people would not 
want their family or friends identified and their remains put to rest. But the 
unspeakable horror that took place here is visible - it smacks of impact. The final 
part of our visit was the Cheoung Ek memorial; a buddhist stupa with glass sides 
displaying over 5,000 skulls that have been found here. Red, yellow, blue, green 
stickers are affixed to the skulls to illuminate the cause of their death - whether by 
bullet, bayonet, club, hoe, tree or palm. Whatever they could put their hands on.

Most people didn't know where they were coming to - when they were blindfolded 
and transported at night to the Killing Fields. They were told they were going to 
somewhere else to work - most did not come from prisons but from the fields - 
picked out for wearing glasses (for these showed foreign influence), for looking 
like an ethnic minority - this all rings akin to the holocaust. And the court cases 
are still taking place to this day. The killers have still not been brought to justice.

I could have skipped all of this and lightly recounted the highlights of our visit to 
Phnom Penh. But this was it - the highlight. Phnom Penh itself was a little bleurgh 
and very smelly. After staying in five hostels in five nights in five different areas of 
the city, we felt we had seen it all. Sometimes it is not the best of times that stay with 
us, but the worst. And I will forever remember, with haunting precision, those rags 
and those bones. May they rest in peace.

*Check the Skittles Midas Touch advert out here.

Monday, 16 February 2015

The Troll and the Power-plates

Guest blog from number 1 child who is now in Laos. Enjoy her wonderful insight on a Yorkshire lass and a Scouser in this very different world...
Like the good cop/bad cop detective routine, Alex and I have a similar dynamic duo to 
pat.This comes into play when bartering a tuk-tuk ride and so far, the Lao have proved 
our most formidable opponents. But hell hath no fury like a Scouser scenting a rip-off, 
and even though I know it’s coming…it’s impossible not to wince, cower or quake in 
his wake. So, pleasingly, we have managed to mark down most of our rides to around 
a fifth of the price, though the poor drivers look woefully begone when carting us 

Alex can be really scary when he wants to be...

Carrying on with the theme of sharing our adventures, we made the journey from Vang 
Vieng to Vientiane - the capital of Laos. We had heard no raving or blaspheming about 
the place so we had no idea what to expect. I could spend a paragraph or two on our 
take of the city but I would waste a precious minute of your life (if you are reading this). 
It was a dump. 

What was worthwhile was visiting the COPE centre, about 15km outside of the city - 
a rehabilitation centre and museum raising awareness about the 80 million undetonated 
bombs in Laos, leftover from the Vietnam War. Poor children in villages go hunting 
for scrap metal in the forests, picking up tin-cans or the buckle of a belt to sell for a 
bit of money or to remould into a latch on the chicken coop or to fix a handle for a 
frying pan. They see a UXO - unexploded ordinance and have no way to tell if it is 
deactivated. Many have never seen one before. When they explode, they shatter and 
no one knows for the better. A mother is sitting in a hut, rousting the fire for dinner. 
A daily routine that is once too many, for the heat has finally travelled far enough 
through the earth to detonate the bomb sitting two metres beneath her. Over 300 
people still die annually - 40% of them children.

The COPE centre does a number of things. It provides prosthetics to ease the hardship 
of having fewer limbs or being less mobile. They have COPE Connect which is an 
education programme - volunteers travel to remote areas of Laos to let people know 
about the centre - that there is help and spread awareness about the dangers of bombs. 
They also have a large department dedicated to the dismantlement of all explosive 
devices. The museum was moving and when we left we walked past the rehab centre 
where people were sitting outside in a park with limbs covered in bandages, in wooden 
wheelchairs. There was a father holding a baby with bandages on both legs. He stared 
at us expressionless as we walked past. I didn’t know whether to smile and wave, or to 
look away. In the end, I did neither.

We are now boarding the night bus to Si Phan Don - liberally translated to mean ‘Four 
Thousand Islands’ and described as a “travellers’ mecca”. It’s a bloody long way away 
- at least half the country so it had better be worth it. Getting to the night bus 
automatically got the exclamation “like in Harry Potter!” from my mother and “Pfff…
she means Darth Vader” from Alex. Either way, it really doesn’t matter, it has a 
fluorescent grill that changes colour and we have got a double-bed that is situated 
under the engine of the bus. Next to us are two Korean men who are using wipes to 
clean their faces and placing masks over their mouths. We stare at each other wordlessly 
(at least I don’t think they are saying anything). The driver was shouting down his 
phone with a very high-pitched voice and sliding into oncoming traffic. It was a very 
confusing experience and I am still mildly traumatised that I managed to get a decent 
night’s sleep. 

Within minutes of stepping on the boat, Alex had made his mind up that this was the 
very best part of Laos as we motored past tiny dotted islands on the Mekong River and 
entered a sort of Wind in the Willows world where swallows spun threads through the 
air and the river was more of a turquoise-green as opposed to a muddy swamp. The 
boat was taking us to Don Det - one of the 2/4000 islands which is inhabited - small 
enough for it to take 60 minutes to walk all the way around. Mr Tho, whose 
guesthouse was situated in between Mr Pho’s and Ms Mo (no joke) (don’t smile) was 
delighted to welcome us and since the bungalow on the riverfront that we had arranged 
for online was double-booked, we were upgraded to a suite which had a hot shower. 
Bonus. Since I am considered the filthiest of all my family, it will seem amazing that I 
care so desperately about being clean now - but it’s more about the moderate to warm 
heat that comes with it. 

Dedicated to the O'Hara faction of the RSPB

Staying on Don Det is a chance to see the rural Laos without any pretences. The houses 
are bare shacks except for the more successful of the guesthouses. We learn that the 
reason food is ‘so expensive’ here is because very little produce is locally grown - most is 
imported from Thailand or further afield.  The centre of Don Det is arid, barren - there is 
nothing here, everyone is crammed back-to-back round the edges of the island. Naked 
children run amok - dusty, blackened by the sun, muddy amidst the chickens, cats, pigs, 
buffalo that roam freely here. The wooden bridges that cover the banks are on the verge 
of collapse and riding a bike down the lone road through the middle is like giving your rude 
bits a power-plate session. But the locals are genuine - they ignore us for the most part and 
get on with the day-to-day job; whether that’s sitting at a shop, running a guesthouse, 
being a fisherman or carpenter, everything is family orientated and that way of life spills
onto the street. It is charming.

We hired power plates, sorry, bicycles to visit Don Khon the neighbouring island for the 
day. When we arrived at the bridge which connected the two, Alex’s bike broke so we had 
to walk back and hire another bike. Finally crossing the bridge, the troll told us there was a 
toll - a steep 35,000 kip apiece and after obliging him and presenting 100,000 kip, he 
announced to Alex that he had no change. So Alex insisted that we got our tickets for free, 
as this wasn’t his problem. The troll tried to snatch the tickets back. 


Whilst a loud exchange was taking place, the queue of people lining to pay their toll was 
growing behind me. I went and hid behind a tree. Eventually we proceeded past the bridge 
without our change and collected it from the toll-person who was sitting in a box on the 
other side. Mission accomplished with no blood spilt, just.

Taking a road down the west coast of the island, we arrived at the Liphi Falls - the 
largest waterfall in Asia (by volume). ‘Liphi’ means spirit trap and the locals steer 
clear of this place for they are convinced that bad spirits of dead bodies from the 
Vietnam War are trapped here - many got caught in the fishermen nets. Not an 
appealing Surf and Turf. But the falls were stunning. Crossing back to the centre of 
the island, we visited the beach and then headed south to the French Port where rare 
irrawaddy dolphins can be seen, and you can observe the invisible line that indicates 
the border to Cambodia. Hiking up the east coast, we ended up on a narrow track 
past villagers who unapologetically stared at us, climbed under a tree (we did, not 
the villagers) and crossed some barely-there bridges before realising that the path to 
the next set of waterfalls was probably out of action. It was a long long way back to 
Mr Pho’s at this point and our bruised buttocks needed extra padding when we sat 
down for dinner. 

This place is exceptionally beautiful and there is not much to do but to sit on the 
riverbanks and enjoy it. This has been one of the only places in Laos where sitting and 
doing very little has been worth it. As one of the poorest countries in the world, we were 
not expecting a substantial amount from Laos and furthermore, were careful not to 
measure it against the same standards as we did Vietnam. But the whole country - or what 
we saw of it, is…lacking. There is not another word to describe it and it’s mystifying. 
Mystifying as to why there is not more foreign investment, why the country has not quite 
figured out how to capitalise on the tourism it receives. We overheard a conversation in 
Vang Vieng (or I lipread) and apparently the government banning the drug trade and the 
tubing lost Laos a lot of its customers. Apparently the only reason people came here 
originally was because it was easy to get intoxicated by illegal substances. It’s an 
interesting position to consider. So I digress from my opinion on Laos slightly because 
in spite of the harsh sentence it has ended up serving itself with, Laos is now regenerating 
tourism from the ground up. And this is the right way. Being principled is more important 
than wealth, isn’t it? Even if the country suffers a while in the meantime? And I have 
every hope that in a few years time, they will have figured it out.