Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Tropical Loveland

What better way to allay my rich western tourist angst and guilt after the trials and tribulations of Cambodia than with a quick pit stop for 7 days on the glorious tropical island? We are currently on the island of Koh Chang which is nestled in the Thai Gulf right near the border of thailand and cambodia.

Koh Chang has been slow to discover tourism and its only been the last few years that development has crept its way onto the white sandy beaches here. Thankfully so far it has mostly been of the low level kind and we have found ourselves parked in a little wooden bungalow on the beach complete with a friendly and opportunistic cat who has moved in for the week and spends most of her time asleep on our bed when not snacking on the tinned tuna we rush to the shops to buy here everytime she looks slightly peckish.

Although Koh Chang is relatively unknown to most people around the world, someone must have given the Swedes an early tip off. I am convinced that half the population of Sweden is here on the island at the moment, everywhere we walk and stop to eat there is the sound of Swedish and Thai being spoken - except of course when the Swedes and the Thais talk to each other, then they speak English. It is all, as Hannas German students would say, rather Multi Kulti.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Hey Lady

I thought after 10 months of travel I thought maybe I had become one of those hard bitten travellers, the kind that can use the most grotty of toilets without retching, bargain hard over something that would costs 10 times more at home and wave away someone begging for money in the street without batting an eyelid. Turns out I was wrong (which could be a good thing) and Cambodia was my undoing.....

Having already gone into shock in Siem Reap with all the children begging for baby formula, people begging for money, taxi drivers almost hysterically begging for the opportunity for the chance to drive you somewhere for 1 dollar I thought I would be ready for Phnom Penh but I was wrong again.

Over the days we were there we were confronted by the sight of people with no hands, arms, legs (victims of landmines), small children who are employed by adults to wander the streets alone late at night selling books or flowers, fat old German/Aussie/American/English men with tiny young Cambodian women they have hired for the week or the night and whole families bedding down on the street. A loud american expat brags in a cafe that he doesnt know whether he has more prostitutes or drug dealers on speed dial in his mobile phone, other expats and rich corrupt government officials slide past rickety cylcos and rickshaws in their brand new Lexus cars.

We tour the S21 prison where the Khmer Rouge tortured thousands of people - it's on the site of a high school and the KR used the kids playground equipment as torture equipment, we visit the killing fields where there are still bits of bone and pieces of fabric from the thousands of people murdered there under my feet as I walk. The barrage was constant, one night Ed and I gave our dinner away to a young boy with no arms, the next night we watched a little five year old boy be sent across the road by his desperate mother holding his tiny baby sister to beg for money. At one point the little boy placed this tiny naked baby on the side of this busy road next to the wheels of a parked car and wandered off to buy a bottle of water, the baby lay on the ground alone crying while various tourists and locals stepped over her without batting an eyelid. This was the last straw for me and I kind of freaked out, bursting into tears and making a bolt for the hotel running past the reception desk with swollen red eyes.

Later when Ed managed to coax me out and onto the streets again we were greeted by the lady at the front desk of the hotel who I nicknamed the Beauty Queen, mainly because she had these massive glamour photos of herself decked out like a Cambodian princess on the wall. As I stomped past with a red nose and swollen eyes I guess she decided to cheer me up, "Hey Lady" she said, "You are beautiful.......I see you!" Obviously a lie but it did make me laugh. The next day I walked past and she lit up when she saw me and again called out "hello Lady!", next time "How are you Lady, you look tired....I see you!" and another time after Ed and I admired her glamour shots she said "I can take you Lady, you can have photos too!".

Each day it was something different from the Beauty Queen and I must admit each day I also was able to start to see Cambodia in a better light. The problems the country has stared down over the years are horrendous, but the people are quite incredible, the country and the culture are unique and there is such a buzz in the air that things feel like they can only get better as time goes on. On our last day in Phnom Penh Ed and I wandered into reception and told the Beauty Queen we would be leaving early the next morning. She looked sad and said "Ohhhh Lady, you are leaving? I miss you........ I LOVE you." Can't say I have had too many Hotel staff tell me that they love me before but I have to say that thanks to the Beauty Queens efforts all week I got to see a happier side of Cambodia when all I could see was doom and gloom. So for that alone I have to say that I love the Beauty Queen back. Thanks Beauty Queen, may good Karma bring you all the glamour photos you desire in life.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Angkor What?

Although Siem Reap is not my kind of town, we are here for the very same reason every tourist is here - the temples of Angkor.

The site the temples are housed on is enormous, as the former capital of the Khmer empire from the 9th to the 17th century it is a vast complex with over 40 temples still in fine condition. They are all different reflecting the different tastes and interests of each king, it is a mind boggling collection of art and thankfully is about the one thing the Khmer Rouge decided to spare from their almost total destruction of all Cambodian history and art.

After making the aquaintance of Nabot, a tuk tuk driver who was so desperate for our business that he followed us through the streets for half an hour one night begging for a job, we agreed for him to show us around the temples for a couple of days. A great move as he was a lovely guy who is working as a driver while trying to save up to go to university.

At 6am we head out on our first day - the land around Angkor is different to the rest of the country. It is dense, green and jungly. Cicadas sing in the trees, mist curls around the ground and elephants pad past carrying tourists. But words cannot do justice, I'll let the pictures do the talking.................

Asparas, these are the gorgeous celestial nymphs who adorn several of the temples. All the groups are different, these ones look particularly pleased with themselves.

Me and Ed after climbing up the steep steps into Angkor Wat at sunrise, nice shadow of my hand holding up the camera.

Eduardo sitting in a window at Angkor Thom. Many of the temples had beautiful window frames all ornately carved with delicate lotus flowers. In the background is one of the faces from Bayon.

Another big head at the Bayon temple. These huge faces look very serene and remind me a little bit of the faces cats pull when they are resting. Smug and like they know the secrets of the universe.

Ta Prom - has been left in a more ''natural"state and the jungle has run amok. Giant silvery trees straight out of a fairytale grow through the buildings. Some of them look like a massive prehistoric claw foot stamping down on the ruins from the heavens.

Other trees make a spider web pattern all over the ruins.

Monks visiting the temples - a couple of groups of them could be seen roaming about the site.

Cheeky little kids are also prominent at the site - its sad cause they are all wanting money or for you to buy postcards or drinks constantly. But this little gang were easily distracted by the magic of my digital camera and laughed their heads off when I showed them the picture. (Espeically the girls who were laughing the most at the boy...nice one!)

If aliens landed on near Angkor Wat they would see clear evidence of a cult. A cult that involves wearing silly hats, stupid t-shirts, daggy trousers with zippers and climbing all over ancient ruins to watch the sun set. Each member of the cult appears to have a small silver box that they like to hold at arms length that appears to hypnotise them.


When I arrived in Cambodia it felt like the saddest place in the world. The contrast between Thailand and here couldnt be more marked, we travelled from green fields and prosperous looking towns on the Thai side to a kind of hot, dusty hell on the Cambodian side. Piles of rubbish everywhere, mud, little kids with no clothes run through the debris, military vehicles roam the streets, chickens and geese peck through the garbage. We are crammed onto a bus, bags piled up in the aisles, some people standing for the long hot journey to Siem Reap, the road is a roller coaster of red dirt accompanied by metal bridges that look like they will collapse any day now. At one point we are told it is another 80kms to town, it takes us 2 hours, the whole trip almost 6.

Siem Reap is bizarre, a town with open sewers and amputees begging right next to super deluxe hotels where one nights accomodation can cost $2000 US dollars. The tourist restaurants are like something out of a home decorating magazine but beyond the potted plants that screen the street there are kids holding tiny babies begging for money on the other side. It all feels very, very wrong.

One night two little kids attach themselves to me, holding my hands tightly and basically taking me prisoner. We walk down the street and I cannot get rid of them, finally we stop in front of a shop where Ed and I cave in and decide to buy them something. The little boy and his sister march into the shop and straight to the back shelves where we think they will probably want sweets. But they are pointing at a tin of something on the very top shelf, it is baby formula. "For little, little" coos the girl, pointing at the tin. So we buy it for them, they take the bag and the boy opens the door for us with a little flourish. He and his sister grin, say bye bye, put their arms around each other and disappear into the night. It's just another sad night in this town.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Tiger Tiger

When I named this weblog I really had no idea quite how prophetic is would be. Though there haven't been too many teapots passing by in my life of late, yesterday I had more than my fair share of tigers. In fact I found myself in the very intimate company of about 10 fully grown Indo-Chinese tigers wearing no chains, roaming about only with the protection of two frail looking buddhist monks and a handful of very brave volunteers.

The Tiger Temple started life about 12 years ago when someone rescued a tiny tiger cub from a poacher and gave her to the local Abbot at the temple, he cared for her but unfortunately after a few months she died. Strangely a week or so later two more little tiger cubs were delivered into the hands of the monks and out of the poachers. Word got around and more tiger cubs appeared out of the woodwork (very sad - most of their mothers have been killed and sold on the black market to China where tiger bits are considered cures for impotence, horrible.) Fast forward to now and for a donation visitors are treated to the sight of these 10 fully grown beasts frolicking like kittens with the monks, with no bars, and mostly no chains to keep them under control.

After signing away our lives at the front desk we study a sign that tells us that Tigers are "kindly but dangerous" we approach a huge metal gate. We enter with knees knocking and start the long walk into the canyon half expecting a tiger to leap out and savage us in a kindly manner at any moment. Instead we arrive safely at the bottom of a dry rocky canyon and there they are, huge heads, massive paws, orange fur, black stripes, lolling on rocks, lying on the ground - they are beyond beautiful. The monks and the helpers known as "tiger boys" wander freely amongst them rubbing them on the head and scratching them under the chin like they are pet cats. It is the most extraordinary sight.

Us tourists are kept at bay with nothing but the safety of a little red cord - lovely. Then we are asked if we would like to go in and pat the tigers, what??? Before I know it one of the Tiger Boys holds me by the hand and another Tiger Boy takes my camera to take some pics. "Sit" says Tiger Boy as we approach one of the beasts, I do and then he says patting his hand on its haunches "touch, touch". I do and they feel rather lovely, like a soft hairy dog than a cat. Then we are off to visit another, and another. Sometimes the tigers growl or roll over and the tiger boys just push them down with their hands. The head monk sits at the side watching over the scene smiling at the tigers like a proud Papa - occassionally stepping in to take someones small child or in one instance my nephew Alec and sit them on the tigers backs or make the kids sit on the ground with an enormous tiger head in their laps. Alec (and the tiger) didnt seem at all phased as the photo shows.

After working with wild cats in Bolivia, Ed and I were pretty well versed in what big cats are like even if they are hand raised. They will still try and attack you if the opportunity presents itself. The scary thing about this is that these Tigers made our Pumas and Ocelots look like kittens size wise but behaviour wise they were just so placid. There are rumours that the tigers are drugged but having worked at the animal park we know this can't be possible. The amount of sedatives a tiger would need to be drugged each day would be huge not to mention very expensive, also large animals cannot be tranquilised everyday without developing heart problems. And considering how growly and active these guys were at dinner time its just not possible.

What is bizarre is how the tigers are just so compliant and relaxed. It is either very good training, with the monks being very assertive with the cats so maybe they think they are the alpha tigers or it is the magic of Buddha....I don't know which but I do know there wont be too many opportunties in life where you can sit and pat a tiger.


Its been a big couple of days for us. Firstly Ed and I took a bus one hour north to an area called Sai Yok to rendevous with my sister Lisa, her husband Steven and my nephews Max and Alec. Originally Ed and I would have reached Thailand after they had finished their holiday so it was brilliant that we changed our plans which allowed us to meet up eith the family in the this quiet little part of the world.

The reason that we were in the particular corner of Thailand is very important. This area is the site of the Burma-Thai railway a railway line that was built by the Japanese during WWII using Australian, British and Dutch prisoners of war as labour. My Uncle John was unlucky to be one of these prisoners of war and for 3 and half years suffered starvation, 16 hour work days and brutality at the hands of the Japanese. Over 100,000 people died building this railway including the poor local labourers who were coerced into working on the line too. Diseases like Cholera, Malaria and Dysentry stalked the prisoners as they laboured through mountains of sheer rock with only hand held tools, wearing little clothing, bare feet. If you got sick, you still had to work, if you were too sick to work you didn't get fed.

Uncle John was stationed at the most notorious part of the railway, Hellfire Pass. This area is now a memorial to the POW's who suffered there and it is quite an amazing place. It is hard to believe such a tranquil and beautiful place was the site of so much pain. Though the sheer scale and density of the rock they had to cut through virtually with their bare hands is there for all to see. I tried to walk through the pass barefoot to see what it must have been like, within seconds rocks were cutting into my feet - I can't even imagine how people survived. But the good news is that my Uncle John DID survive, came home, married my Auntie and became my very favourite uncle.

An Apple a day

Here at Apples Guesthouse in Kanchan Ed and I decided it was time to do more than eat all this delicious and exotic Thai food and actually go into the kitchen and learn how to do it ourselves.

With the help of our lovely ladyboy instructor we visited the market where I became rather interested in the fruits and vegies but had to try very hard not to chuck up in the meat section. I'm not just talkin about sides of beef and the like, I'm talking wriggling eels in a bucket, frogs hopping in sacks, fish flapping about on tables and frogs erm without their skins at all. I must have looked like I was ready to vomit cause the ladies in the market were laughing. One kept pointing at the frogs and then at me and saying "Very Beautiful" - what, me or the frogs? Either way she MUST have been lying.

So its back to the kitchen to learn the secrets of pad thai, red curry, massaman curry and tom yum. Although it is delicious it was a little alarming to learn that the secret the most excellent thai taste seems to be lots of fish sauce and lots of white sugar...tablespoons of the stuff. But health concerns be dammed, it was bloody delicious. So look out when we get home, Ed will whip on his red apron and we will cook for you all.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Floating Nun

After some more crazy times in Bangkok Eddy and I lobbed into Kanchanaburi, a nice sleepy town on the rather famous River Kwai. Here lives the even more famous Bridge over the River Kwai and the start of the infamous Burma Railway built by allied POWs in WWII. This we will see more of in the next few days but in the meantime Ed and I decided to hire a motorbike and check out some of the other sights in town.

Number one on my list was the floating nun. Just out of town at the bottom of a big mountain is a rather special Wat. It is home to the usual lovely temples, monks and nuns as well as one rather special nun. Years ago a buddhist nun decided to meditate while floating in water - this worked a treat and after she passed on a tradition was maintained.

When we arrived we were the only tourists on the site, rather unusual as apparently loads of Korean and Chinese tourists are usually roaming the place. All the signs were in thai only so Ed and I followed a long flight of stairs and walked into a cave all decked out with Buddhas. A guy appeared and asked if we would like to make a donation and then pointed in the direction of a very small hole - Ed and I climb in and start to crawl on our hands and knees into the cave accompanied by the odd bat whooshing over our heads. We were getting excited, the nun must live AND float in the cave! On and on we scramble before climbing a ladder and emerging in broad daylight at the top of the hill - nice view but where was our nun?

We climb back down the steps and there amongst some other buildings we spy a small stadium with a tank inside. Sitting outside was an enourmous thai woman wearing all white, with a piece of toilet paper stuck up her nose. This was our floating nun! As the sign above says the nun won't float for less than 200 baht so we waited to see if any other people turned up. After watching the nun pick at her nose and make a few calls on her mobile phone we finally decided what the hell, lets splurge and have a private viewing.

We step into the little stadium and take a seat (Luckily Ed is busy taking photos so he doesnt laugh). With little ceremony our nun lowers herself into the pool and off she floats striking different poses almost like karate. She seemed very buoyant, never needing to paddle her arms to stay upright, only her little feet were paddling furiously which made her look a bit like a little Hippo, but rather sweet. All in all the effect was rather hypnotic.

Just as I was getting into it a little man appeared and gestured that we should clap cause the show was over. Ed and I clapped a bit and without further ado the nun stomped off - odd, very odd.

As the sun set on the temple we puttered out of there on our bike briefly stopping to take a look at the fat Buddha at the entrance - suddenly out of a speaker at his feet the sound of loud hysterical laughing could be heard - I guess he was a laughing Buddha but it was just a bit too freaky after the nun so stepped on the gas and headed for home.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Say it with cake

We are back in Bangkok which is a bit of a shock after the slow, slow pace of island life. On the island it would be a big day if I managed the walk to Handsome Sandwiches (more on that one from Ed) and usually after all that exertion I would need a nap.

But here in the city that never sleeps, this kind of behaviour is not an option. Instead Ed and I are doing as the locals do and have become cosumerist, mall crawling city folk. Bangkok seems to have an obsession with shopping malls - in Siam Square there are at least 10 gigantic shopping malls hunkered down on a traffic choked main road - they are all connected with walkways and each seems to be more space age than the next. Each one is stufed with shops, beauty salons, food courts, massage centres, hairdressers, cinemas. Rich Thai princesses in shorts and stilletos work out their credit cards in the designer clothes stores, sharp looking businessmen check out the Bentleys for sale on the fifth floor, giggling schoolgirls admire pastel coloured mobile phones and everyone seems to be stuffing themselves silly at the food stalls.

The cinemas are total pleasure palaces, for a few dollars extra you can go VIP and have a huge remote controlled seat, pillows, blankets and bar service - some of the cinemas even have been themed to suit the film. Yesterday when we saw Narnia Ed almost came to grief when he bashed into a spiky tree covered in fake snow.

The shops often have great "Thai-lish" names like "Mr Bread", "Sparkle Fun Girl" and my personal favourite "Say it with Cake". The great corporations of the world haven't missed out on the local action either - behold the terrifying Ronald McDonald doing the traditional Thai style greeting above, its been giving me nightmares for days...

Now amongst all this rampant consumerism in Bangkok there is still a traditional side, ancient Buddhist Temples are everywhere as are the orange robed Monks whose shaved heads, sandals and cotton bags hark back to a simpler time. Well of course this was what I thought until a spied a big gang of monks roaming the mall testing out laptop computers, admiring mobile phones and checking out video cameras - seems like they dig on the consumer vibe too.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Happy New Baby

Well I think the year has started off on the right foot. A chilled out New Years eve on the beach, drinking pina coladas, watching the local girls do what was billed as a "Thai exotic dance" (which consisted of doing a madonna style bump and grind whilst waving a carrot in the air), watching the dangerously fun homemade fireworks exploding on the beach and giggling at the ageing hippies who hang out here on the island. My favourite line of the night was an old american hippie guy who was smoking a huge joint suddenly put it out and said "oh I have to go, my kids have just told me its time to get home." And sure enough there were his teenage sons standing nearby telling him it was time to put down the joint and stop partying....an interesting role reversal.

The other auspicious start to the year is thanks to my brand new niece who choose to arrive in this world at 4am on the 1st of the 1st. My brother describes her as "47cm long little girl who started out an angry shade of red and has faded to a nice pinky colour." Lovely, I look forward to meeting her in April.