Friday 25th March – Announcement

Dear Readers,

Firstly, I’d like to offer you a thousand apologies for the lengthy delay in these despatches.  The reason I’ve not written for a while is that we’ve come home.  We we returned to the UK three weeks ago on Sunday.  Since getting back I’ve just not found the time to sit down and do the blog justice – I appreciate every one of you following our journey and I didn’t want to give you a half-arsed version of events.

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The five and a bit weeks we had away were incredible –  life changing even, if I’m being honest.  However, during the last week of our trip we became increasingly concerned for the ones we love back home.  We went away on the premise that we could come back if we needed to and if we felt that we were needed.  That time came and we boarded a plane back to Britain, touching down in rainy Manchester on Mother’s Day.  When your mind is 6359 miles away from your current location you need to reunite with it pretty quickly, and with hindsight we know that we made the right decision.

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I’ll finish off posting entries in chronological order as I have been doing to conclude my write-up of the trip, but in the meantime I thought that I owed you an explanation as to why I’d not been writing.  We kept in touch with our family so they knew we were safe and coming home, but I just wanted to confirm to our wider audience that we have not been trampled by elephants, imprisoned for drug trafficking, kidnapped by pirates or eaten by tigers.  In fact, as I’m sat here writing this I feel much more threatened by our cat – who has a history of unprovoked aggression – than I ever did in South East Asia.

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You’re probably wondering what happens next for us – as you’re reading this you may be thinking that it’s the end.  NOT. A. CHANCE.  Our eyes have been opened my friends, and what’s done can’t be undone.  Never forget who you are or where you came from, but never pass up the opportunity to experience something new.  We have unfinished business with Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, and beyond that, a whole world beckons.  We know now that the only obstacles that prevent you from travelling are the ones that you put up yourself.  The fear of flying, the fear or terrorism, the fear of upheaval, the fear of fear – they’re all conquerable.  The world is not as dangerous as BBC News, or the Daily Telegraph, or even your Mum and Dad would have you believe (No offence Mum and Dad).  We will go again and finish what we started, then we’ll go everywhere else, again and again.  Cuba, Canada, Iceland, Peru, you name it – they’re all on our hitlist.  Don’t ask me how we’re going to afford it – dream first, pay later.

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As for the blog – well, you’ve been a great audience, and I’ve rather enjoyed writing for you.  I try to see exoticism in every place, from Belper to Bangkok, Crewe to California.  I’m going to broaden my subject matter to include any trip beyond our own front door that I feel like writing about, be it a country ramble or a trip abroad.

Our trip has taught us many things, and when I find the time I’ll do a summary of the things that we’ve learned.

Thanks for your time and effort in reading this, and I hope you continue to do so.  Sorry again for the delay in posting and  I promise I’ll write up the last few days of our South-East Asia trip over the next week or so.

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Peace and love, always.

Tommy and Hollie x

28th and 29th February – Days 32 and 33

Song of the days: The Butterfly Collector by The Jam

Ayup.
On Friday we took a tuk tuk with our mate Som Bath to various temples around Angkor. I won’t go on about it because they were all very cool, but there’s no point in trying to describe the nuances that made each one interesting. In the evening we took a tuk tuk to pub street. On the way the driver seemed to be suffering some kind of mechanical difficulty with his moped – the engine kept spluttering until finally it gave out just round the corner from our destination. We made to clamber out and walk the last couple of streets, but our driver was adamant that he’d get us to our destination. He dismounted from the scooter and walked up to a roadside stall and bought a pop bottle full of a liquid that looked the same colour of cooking oil. Many stores along the roadside have racks of this stuff on display, and we’d guessed it to be some kind of homemade whiskey. He poured the oily contents into the scooter and it became apparent that the problem was that he’d run out of fuel. I couldn’t begin to guess what concoction he’d just placed in his petrol tank – these bottles of fuel come in different shapes and sizes and no two bottles seem to have the same colour.

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As promised, Ta Prohm.  Featured in the film Tomb Raider

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On saturday we were finally beginning to suffer the condition known to backpackers as “Temple Fatigue”. It’s not so much the temples themselves, but the heat and the dust that makes visiting them such a chore after a while. He fixed a price of 30 bucks for our driver of the previous day, Som Bath, to take us on tour of a few of the less crumbly attractions.
First we drove about 30 kilometres out into the sticks to visit the Angkor Centre for Conservation and Biodiversity. The drive was another amazing insight into what goes on outside of the main cities. Cambodia is like one gigantic farm on a scale that you can barely begin to imagine. The roads are cluttered with overloaded trailers full of hay, or cows, or people being ferried from one farm to another. It’s amazing what constitutes a safe form of travel in Cambodia. A lot of farmers drive these two-wheeled tractor things that I’m assuming are meant to be hooked up to a plough in the fields. Instead they are hooked up to a trailer and you’ll see a young lad balancing on the front of the trailer with his hands on two gigantic handlebars that are attached to this two-wheeled ploughing machine, steering it along.
The Angkor Centre for Conservation and Biodiversity (I’ll call it ACCB from now on to save time) is a charity project run by a German zoo. Animal experts and volunteers here are attempting to rehabilitate endangered animals back into the wild. In a country as poor as this, pretty much any animal is considered edible, and as a consequence a lot of the animals at the ACCB have been rescued from the cooking pot or the cage. We were taken on a tour of the animals by a girl who is currently volunteering there – the money for this place is all put up by a German zoo – again, proof of the fact that most of the infrastructure in this country is put up by foreign do-gooders.

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A Greater Adjudant stork would give Big Bird from Sesame Street a run for his money

We saw a hornbill – a bird with a horn-like protrusion above his normal beak, used for making an almighty squawking racket. Once he started hopping around from tree to tree and singing his song, it set the gibbons off. The gibbons were one of the star attractions, making an almighty din as they swung from branch to branch. The males were in a seperate enclosure across the path from the females, and they shouted and screamed at each other whilst we stood in the middle – it was like a school disco, with all the girls on one side and the boys on the other. Watching gibbons swing from tree to tree without breaking their necks in the process is an awesome sight to behold. They let go of a branch long enough to be almost in freefall, before grabbing another and pulling it down with their whole weight to bounce up to the next. I reckon being a gibbon must be a great laugh actually. One of the females had lost a leg but she didn’t seem to care as she swung from tree to tree – an animal that’s that agile in the air can afford to lose a leg. For me, the most interesting animals in the centre were a pair of gigantic Greater Adjudant storks – massive birds that were probably not much smaller than an ostrich. One of these monstrous creatures swooped from one side of it’s enclosure to the other, and I swear it’s the biggest living thing I’ve ever seen in the air – like some giant pterodactyl from Jurassic Park. According to our guide it has a wingspan of two and a half metres, and it’s easy to see how it’s endangered – one of these birds would feed a whole village twice over. They were being kept at the park because they kept flying into areas where people would try to hunt them, and every attempt to re-release them so far had resulted in them flying back into the dangerzone. We finished the tour with a sit-down session studying the bodies of snakes and small reptiles. Our guide showed us a dead snake that was coiled up in a bottle of alcohol. She explained that it had been killed by a bird near the centre, and that it was a Malayan Krait – one of the deadliest snakes in the world. After that our tour ended and we left the centre, checking the path very carefully as we walked back to the tuk tuk!
Our second stop was the Cambodia Landmine Museum – another place that exists due to the single-minded determination of an amazing human being. Aki Ra was very young when his parents were murdered by the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian civil war. He lived in a forced labour camp until he was ten, when the Khmer Rouge recruited him to be a child soldier. The selection process for these soldiers consisted of sticking a rifle in the ground by the bayonet – any young lad that was taller than the rifle was conscripted into the army. For the next few years he laid landmines for the Khmer Rouge, until the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and he was forced at gunpoint to defect to the Vietnamese army, before moving back into the Cambodian army again. When he left the army he started turning up at old minefields and taking up the mines that he had helped to lay, using a pair of pliers and some wire. Aki Ra sees it as his mission to clear up the mess that he helped to create, although no-one could blame him for following orders as a kid. His reputation grew and people started turning up to his house to see the collection of mines and bombs that he had dismantled. He started a museum and a school, and adopted two dozen children into his family – kids who had been victims of landmines or who he had found wandering the street. He’s a national hero – and his government repaid him by shutting his museum down when they decided it was taking revenue away from another war museum that had opened up in town, owned by one of the country’s top generals. Aki Ra’s museum reopened a couple of years later and has since gone from strength to strength.

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On the day that we visited we were lucky enough to be taken on a tour by an American bloke called Bill, who had an interesting story of his own. He had been in the US army, in reserve to fight in Vietnam in the seventies, when he suddenly decided to quit the army and join the anti-war movement. These days he works with Aki Ra as a de-miner and teacher in the school for orphaned kids. His knowledge was impeccable and he had that matter of fact way of describing harrowing situations that you might associate with an ex-soldier. On display were 50,000 odd landmines that had personally been dug up by Aki Ra, and all sorts of military equipment left over from the war. Bill told us that between 6-8 million landmines and unexploded bombs are still in the ground around Cambodia, and that with the current resources in place it’s likely to take 150 years to clear them all. Though the incidents are getting fewer, people still step on landmines every year. They lose limbs but rarely die there and then – the mines are designed to maim an enemy soldier but not to kill, as it costs more to hospitalise somebody than it does to bury them. The most emotional bit of the tour came at the end, when he showed us a gallery of photographs of the children that had been helped by the school – almost all of these kids had grown up to go to live successful, fulfilled lives, despite having a variety of disabilities including missing limbs, polio and post-traumatic stress disorder. In a country so haunted by war and poverty, stories of hope and success are made all the more uplifting.

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Bill talks us through his ferocious papier mache army

The Landmine Museum was not as depressing as we’d expected it to be, but we were still in the mood for something a bit lighter. We bought Som Bath lunch and talked about football with him – he seemed to enjoy talking about the incident when Luis Suarez bit another man’s arm, and the time when Zinedine Zidane headbutted Mazeratti in the World Cup Final – in fact when I say we talked about football, we really just spoke about violent off the ball incidents, which he seemed better acquainted with than the beautiful game itself.

 

Further down the road back into Siem Reap was Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre, where we wandered about a beautiful garden full of flowers and koi carp ponds, pointing and gasping at giant butterflies. Some of the butterflies were in the process of having it off, which according to our guide takes about fourteen hours – you’d be knackered! It all seems a bit unfair on us humans really – butterflies only live for a few weeks and it turns out that they get to spend a large chunk of that procreating. Some of the butterflies were easily as big as a sparrow, and it was funny watching the conflict in Hollie, who loved the patterns of the butterflies but has a pretty serious phobia of bugs. She leaned in to get some good shots, but bolted if any of them began fluttering their wings.

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Tomorrow we’re off to Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia.
Tommy and Hollie x

27th February – Day 31

Ayup.
We were picked up by tuk tuk at 07:30. It’s a strange quirk of South-East Asia that each different area seems to favour it’s own style of tuk tuk. Bangkok has traditional rickshaws, whereas Ayutthaya has tiny vehicles that are like a cross between a songtheaw and a rickshaw. Go north to Chiang Mai and you’ll find rickshaws and songtheaws, but each city seems to have a favoured variation of the tuk tuk which prevails in number over all of the other forms of transport. In Siem Reap they have little carriages that are attached by a pin to a motorbike, and the drivers tow you along at a maximum of about 30mph. The dust blowing up off the road is constant, and though you might not notice it during the drive, you’ll probably end up having a sneezing fit at some point during the day. When we arrived in Thailand we noticed that a lot of the drivers seem to have nasal and phlegm issues, and this dust seems to be the cause of it – many of the Chinese tourists come prepared with dust masks.
One of the most common plans for visiting Angkor Wat is to go while it’s still dark, jostle with about a hundred thousand other tourists for a spot by the lake, and try and snap a picture without another human being in it as the sun rises over the temple. We didn’t really fancy this, so we decided to go there a couple of hours after sunrise, to coincide with all of the big tour groups going back to Siem Reap for breakfast. After travelling along a straight road lined with thick forest for about a mile, we swung a left at a junction and began driving alongside a huge body of water lined with flagstones. This in itself was impressive to me – a huge moat, about the width of the Thames, almost entirely surrounds Angkor Wat. At this point you have no view of the temple which is concealed behind foliage on the island, but it’s possible to see the human labour that must have gone into digging out this enormous pool. After a month of being away and having seen elephants, gekkos and snakes, we finally saw our first monkeys. Intelligent creatures, they know that they’re never far away from a good meal around these parts, so they sit on the flagstones surrounding the lake sunning themselves, scratching their arses and waiting for someone to throw food in their direction.

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It took a full ten minutes from first pulling alongside the moat before we were at the front entrance, such is the size of the place. A stone causeway spans the water and leads you to the outer gate, outside which a monkey sat eating an orange. A tourist attempted to take a selfie with the monkey, who bared his teeth and hissed, pushing the bloke away in much the same way a drunken lager lout might push away a rival for a taxi on a saturday night. The panic on the man’s face as the monkey struck was priceless – I wonder whether he’d saved a bob or two on not having his rabies jab, and in that second saw his life flashing before his eyes. After passing through the outer wall the causeway continues to bear you towards the picture-postcard bit of Angkor Wat. Though the years have ebbed away at the symmetry of the temple, it’s still pleasing to the eye to see that everything is set very deliberately – perhaps the Kings of the Khmers suffered a kind of megalomaniac OCD, which could ony be treated by forcing hundreds of thousands of their subjects to build temples in pretty patterns. We were able to go up into the main tower which afforded amazing views over the temple grounds and the dense jungle beyond. From here it was possible to spot the sea of tourists charging towards us like tiny ants below, and we realised that it was probably time to move on. Amazing that these walls saw the vanquishing of the Siamese, the Burmese and the Ancient Vietnamese, but have now been over-run by a far deadlier foe – Chinese tourists brandishing selfie sticks. Of all of the international tourists, the Chinese are the most formidable when it comes to asserting themselves. They arrive in Blitzkrieg busloads, twisting their SLR cameras over your shoulder or through your legs to get the scoop, and then disappear as quickly as they arrived, not to be seen again until you develop your photos and find the backs of their heads on an otherwise perfect picture.

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Angkor Wat is undoubtedly an amazing experience and doesn’t look like ever being challenged as the largest religious building in the world. It is widely regarded as a “Wonder” of the world but I’d argue that it’s not Angkor Wat on it’s own, but the whole historical park that’s worthy of being called a wonder. For Hollie and me, it was the second temple that we visited that impressed us the most. Ta Prohm might have been like any other of the dozens of temples scattered around if it weren’t for the vegatative onslaught of the jungle, which has claimed the temple as it’s own and turned the whole place into a scene from “Day of the Triffids”. Over the course of a millenium huge trees have stretched out their tentacle-like routes around the masonry, first wrapping themselves around the arches of doors, then constricting them like a python would it’s prey. In some parts it seems that flower power has caused bits of the temple to collapse entirely, and other bits are propped up by wooden beams. Ta Prohm was used as a setting in the movie Tomb Raider, and it’s easy to see why – why spend billions of pounds on sets and special effects when you can have something that’s stranger than fiction?

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By the time we’d poked around these two temples we were knackered. It was getting towards mid-day and the sun was beginning to become an issue. We went to see the last of the “Big Three” temples; Bayon. Bayon’s special feature is 36 gigantic stone faces designed to bear a likeness to the man who ordered their construction – King Jayavarman VII. Now, there was a bloke with an ego. Each face is as big as a a car, and there is something quite creepy and impressive about being stared out by 36 faces that have gazed unerringly at their beholders for the last thousand years. These temples were constructed by various Khmer Kings in the belief that they would achieve immortality through the scale of their gestures of worship to the Gods. I’m not sure about the God bit but in a way they’ve certainly achieved a kind of immortality, which is more than can be said for the labourers that no doubt perished during the construction process.
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We wandered along a couple more temples then returned frazzled to Baphuon Villa. We took an afternoon nap then got our gladrags on to attend a cello concert by a Paedeatrician – no, you did not read that incorrectly. In the evening we found ourselves sat with a load of other Europeans in the lecture hall of a university hospital, facing a stage on which a chair and a cello were placed. A portly gent with glasses and wild curly hair marched on and introduced himself as Dr Beat Richner from Switzerland. Dr Beat had been a young paedeatrician working with the Red Cross in Cambodia before the civil war broke out in 1975. When the war started he was forced to move back to Switzerland, but he returned after the fighting died down in 1992. Since then he has dedicated his life to providing the kids of Cambodia with medical care, raising millions of pounds and overseeing the construction of five hospitals around Cambodia. Inbetween playing short pieces of Bach on his cello, he would talk for ages about the dreadful plight of the Cambodian people, and in particular the children. He was an eccentric, passionate modern day saint who spoke well about his cause, but went on to labour the point quite a bit. Cambodia seems to be crammed full of benevolent expats and their charities, which is just as well really because the government seem to have little interest in helping their own people. Dr Beat talked about the rampant corruption and the complete lack of a healthcare system, and it made us feel humbled and grateful for being born in a country where education, healthcare and safety are taken for granted. Though the doctor provided little humour and plenty of harrowing information about his work, it was a privelege to be in an audience watching such a charismatic and dedicated man – apparently a bit of a legend in his native Switzerland. At the end of the free concert he asked us to contribute “Our money or our blood” for the children of Kantha Bopha – the name given to each of the five childrens hospitals. The name Kantha Bopha is a tribute to a daughter of the King of Cambodia, who died in infancy.
It’s taken me three days to get round to writing all of this up, and I’m all out of sync now.  Sorry there’s no pictures of Tah Prom – the wi-fi doesn’t want to play ball.  We hope you enjoy it, sorry for the delays in correspondence but the days are just too full of discovery!
Have a great day, whatever you’re up to.
Tommy and Hollie x