CAMBODIA – POVERTY AND POTHOLES 😞

(Photo: The home of one of the “luckier” families in Kep, Cambodia)

Early on Wednesday morning 24th October 2018, we headed to Ha Tiên in Vietnam to meet our escort and interpreter Mr. The, who would accompany us across the Vietnamese/Cambodian border. We had heard from a number of reliable sources that it was a relatively common occurrence for tourists to encounter corrupt officials who would impose absurd costs for visas on foreigners travelling out of Vietnam and onwards to Cambodia. In fact there are men and women who surround the border waiting for vulnerable tourists to arrive on the pretence that they will help them with border officials to have ease of passage at minimal cost. The flip side of this scenario is that these men and women charge a huge sum of money to tourists for their “service”. Mr. The had come recommended to us by a westerner living in Ha Tiên to help us avoid “hidden” costs that often “suddenly” arise on the whim of an official at the Border Control Office.

Mr. The, a dark-skinned middle-aged Cambodian man with a gentle tone to his voice greeted us in Ha Tiên and explained to us in broken English what we needed to do that morning. He was very much aware of the effect that corruption was taking on the tourist industry in his country and wanted to assist foreigners as much as possible to counteract what was going on for many years at these border crossings. His fee was just €40 which included the travel costs, and seemed a small price to pay to avoid any potential difficulties we might encounter had we have travelled on our own. A taxi arrived to take us to the exit point of Vietnam. We walked across the Vietnamese border and entered the office on the other side to have our visas processed by the Cambodian officials. Mr. The followed our taxi on his motorbike and made himself known to the uniformed officials on our arrival. They sat behind their desks looking serene and intimidating, using abrupt hand gestures instead of words. Mr. The stepped in immediately and spoke to them respectfully and almost pleadingly in their native tongue. Within minutes, more abrupt hand signals and our paperwork was processed with no “additional” costs added ad infinitum! Mr. The quickly guided us to another car waiting for us (and our luggage) on the Cambodian side of the border to take us to our first stop, Kep, just 30kms from the border. It felt like we were taking part in an old James Bond movie, and that Sean Connery would appear out of nowhere at any moment in his specially equipped Aston Martin. I was quite relieved to see our luggage being tossed into the boot and not us! 🙏🙏🙏

(Photo: The border crossing on the Vietnamese/Cambodian border)

Having spent almost two months travelling through Vietnam, I was very much shocked at the poverty I witnessed there. I expected that Cambodia would be very much the same, however, I was in for yet a greater shock as we drove along the practically non-existent roads to our next destination. The fact that this country is one of the poorest countries in the world became obvious as we drove. White malnourished cows wandered along the roadside. A large white cow tethered to a post inside a corrugated iron shelter caught my eye. I assumed it was a cattle shelter. And as we spluttered along the pot-holed roads, barely hanging onto the teeth in our heads with the jolting of the car, I spotted children sitting on top of wooden boards that ran along the width of the shelters, balanced on boxes to raise them off the muddy floor below. There were no lights, just total darkness inside. In some of the shelters, young adults lay sleeping on these boards. As we passed more and more of these corrugated boxes, I quickly realized that these structures were in fact homes! The luckier families live in these I’ve been told. The not so lucky ones live under sheets of tarpaulin held up by bamboo sticks. As we came closer to Kep, homes became a little bit more sturdy, with many old Cambodian style wooden houses built on stilts to protect them from the flooding that comes with their “wet season”. But even these houses are not fit for purpose in many instances and would be considered too dangerous to use as a home in Ireland. In all my lifetime, I never ever realized that this type of poverty existed in the world today! My understanding of “poverty” was the worse case scenarios I’d come across in the western world. Seeing what I was seeing as I travelled the roads into Kep and beyond, has been one of the most life-changing lessons I have learned while travelling on this journey. This is not “poverty” as we know it. This is Cambodian people living in conditions the equivalent of what we would deem apocalyptic. Hell on earth basically! And sadder still, they do not know. This is all they know! They have no way of accessing media from the outside world and so they live in these hellish conditions totally unaware of how the rest of the world live! Or maybe it’s better that they don’t I guess? As I grew more and more saddened by what I was seeing, the biggest question for me was “WHY”? WHY? Why are people who are born here expected to live like this? Why? Who is to blame for this? And why … just WHY? If people in other parts of the world live with their only worry being where the next designer bag or car is coming from, or indeed, me, who had just spent three weeks enjoying the wonders of an idyllic paradise island only 100 kms away, WHY are these people living like this??? By the time we reached our accommodation in Kep I wanted to delve into the history of these people, their Government to try to find some logical answer to the questions that were running through my mind at 100 mph. However, with limited access to Wi-fi, my questions would take longer to research and I would have to rely on local knowledge for answers.

Yet again, when we arrived at our clean and comfortable, but very basic, one roomed Cambodian style home raised on stilts, I was hit with pangs of guilt that we had at least a bed, electricity and running water. The homes we had just passed didn’t have any such luxuries! Once we had settled in, we rented scooters for the princely sum of $6 per day (princely by Cambodian standards. The average household income for a Cambodian family is just over $2 per day) and set off to explore the locality further. What we discovered was mostly the ghostly remains of old derelict French style buildings hidden behind large walls with padlocked gates, clearly abandoned many years ago by the French who occupied many of the finer buildings in Cambodia almost 150 years ago. Evidence of the grim atrocities that this country has endured over the last 50 years during the war in Vietnam is everywhere. And even more so, the impact of the genocide that went on during the years of the Khmer Rouge reign, led by the well renowned Monster who was the Head of State back in the 1970’s, Pol Pot! Yet again, the word apocalyptic best describes the ruins that remain, not only of the buildings, but of the bridges and roads and whole infrastructure in most parts of Cambodia. This country has not even come close to the beginnings of recovery from its past, and it won’t, because the existing Government won’t allow it. The existing Government is basically made up of the lower members of the earlier Khmer Rouge regime, (the higher members having either died from old age or having been imprisoned for purely international PR purposes rather than to punish them for what they put these people through during their reign). There was an eerie silence throughout the countryside as we travelled, and again, a sense of doom and desolation. We travelled onwards towards Kep beach where we found the market square with young people selling street food from their simple stalls. Buddhist Monks from the local Monastery strolled along the beach in their orange robes, skimming stones into the water. We stopped for a cold drink at one of the bars and sampled yet more of the refreshing lime and peach juices, and a dip in the warm water of the Gulf of Thailand was a must. In the evenings, small monkeys waited patiently on the walls by the beach for the last of us humans to leave, allowing them to feast on the days scraps of food left behind. We had been forewarned not to approach them for fear of them dishing out a severe bite. Their cuteness is an illusion that many tourists fall foul of when attempting to get near to them, offering them food in exchange for a possible cuddle. It doesn’t happen! They are vicious and thankfully we knew this in advance, as the novelty of these creatures is quite enticing if we didn’t.

Over the days we spent in Kep, we came across groups of impoverished children happily playing along dirt roads. When we stopped to talk to them, the older children watched us cautiously with fear clearly evident in their huge brown eyes, while the younger ones (no more than 4 years old), approached us excitedly to examine us and our scooters. They were a sight to behold!

(Photo: Children playing on the roadside in Kep, Cambodia)

Another very unusual part of Cambodian society is the absence of older people, i.e. people from 60 years and older. Over 50% of the population of Cambodia is made up of people under the age of 22 years old. Only 4% of the overall population of now 16m people are over 65! A shocking statistic! While travelling throughout other countries in Asia there were elderly men and women everywhere. China, in particular, where grandparents are the main carers for their grandchildren are a huge part of society. However, there are very few people over the age of 60 still living in Cambodia. Why? Well most of them were murdered by the Khmer Rouge back in the 1970’s. Demographics from a number of census records from 1947 through to 1981 shows continuous population growth up to and including 1971 with an average growth of approximately 30% every ten years. However between 1971 and 1981 there was a sudden drop in the population of over 8%. Over 2 million people were murdered or died from malnutrition, which goes some way towards explaining the huge deficit of elderly people living in Cambodia today.

And again, the same question, WHY? The answer, genocide in the main! So I had not really been conscious of this guy Pol Pot, the Prime Minister of Cambodia from 1976-1979 before coming to Cambodia. I had seen the movie the Killing Fields as a young girl, but living in Ireland, I couldn’t relate to it on any real level. Yes, it moved me. I remember that much about it. But no more than any other movie did…. the old romantic ones where I cried at the end, put the popcorn away and then got up and moved on and forgot about it. The Killing Fields at that time to me was “just another movie”. I had no real connection or knowledge or understanding about the background to it. What young child would I suppose? But here, being here. Seeing the poverty and the carnage that the years of war left behind made me want to watch it again. And I did. But this time in a whole different light.

(Photo: Prime Minister of Cambodia Pol Pot 1976-1979)

It would be too detailed and lengthy to go into the whole history of Cambodia under this man’s reign as Prime Minister and leader of the Khmer Rouge. A shortened version which gives some insight into the poverty that remains in Cambodia is that Pol Pot came from a wealthy Cambodian farming family. He struggled with his education, failed miserably at many of his “prestigious” exams and eventually went on to study Marxism-Leninism amongst the wealthy aristocratic society in Paris in France, eventually returning to Cambodia, becoming involved in politics. The Vietnam war rained terror on Cambodia during the 1970’s. Both the Vietnamese and the United States Army basically bombed the s**t out of Cambodia in an attempt to prevent North Vietnamese soldiers using it as a passageway from Hanoi in North Vietnam to Saigon in the South to attack the southern Vietnamese people. With war escalating between the Vietnamese and the Cambodians in the 1970s, Pol Pot was elected Prime Minister of Cambodia in 1976. His vision was to establish an agrarian socialist society. Probably influenced by his Marxist ideology! His aim was to have a self-sufficient state. He forced those working and living in the cities in Cambodia into the countryside and his intention, unrealistic as it was, was to force his own people to be self reliant and successful by working on collective farms. His expectations were delusionally high in the context of the amount of work that he expected from the Cambodian people. Those who failed to reach his unrealistic and unachievable targets, working in horrific conditions, were tortured and starved at best and executed or buried alive at worst. And those who objected to his ideology were viciously murdered by his party, the Khmer Rouge. He blamed the evacuation of the Cambodian people on the threat of American bombings on the cities, and the Cambodian people were none the wiser and obeyed his orders. They believed the evacuation would be temporary. The Cambodian people became peasants to the Government and were starved, religion was banned, minority groups exterminated, and educated people executed for fear of them retaliating. Anyone who wore glasses was immediately executed on the grounds that they were reading too much and likely to be educated. In the rice fields, in order to keep the output targets high, workers’ rations of rice were taken to inflate the figures resulting in them dying of starvation. Today, some 20 years later, over 20,000 mass graves from the Khmer Rouge era have been discovered in Cambodia. It is estimated that this Monster Pol Pot and his party were responsible for the deaths of over 2 million people during their reign. In 1998 Pol Pot was summoned by an international tribunal to account for his actions during his reign, however, he died (conveniently) that night. According to his wife he died of “heart failure”, however when his wife refused to hand over his body for an autopsy and had him cremated, suspicions were raised that he had in fact taken an overdose and killed himself. Almost 50 years later, a United Nations backed tribunal has convicted only three senior Khmer Rouge leaders of crimes against humanity. Some have died while waiting to go to trial…50 years later!??@. And while the senior figures are no longer in power, every dog on the street knows that the existing government is merely an extension of the same party, the Khmer Rouge! Cambodia is not a poor country per se. There is wealth and money there. It’s just not shared with the people. It’s put into the pockets of the current leaders. Greedy, heartless leaders who pass their own people every day living in squalid conditions, yet still line their own pockets with money. And no human rights organisation seems to be doing a goddamn thing about it! The excuse? It’s a democracy now and no longer a communist country?! Oh really? So the leader of the opposition party that apparently won the last election was executed in strange circumstances and a recount of the election result was called by the current leader Hun Sen! And imagine, when they recounted, Hun Sen’s party was found to be the winning party?! Ok then…lets not give a s**t and ignore what’s going on there so! Grrrrr!

Yet again I digress from our travels. But it’s important to know what’s happening in the world I believe. I didn’t know until we came here about the conditions that exist for people in Cambodia, and as I’ve pointed out before, all travel blogs are not glamorous. In this part of Cambodia there are no bikini bodies and muscle men lying on the beaches, other than foreigners. There are few holiday resorts per se! In fact, we left Kep after one week and travelled further north to the city of Kampot. To arrive into a western style resort was like stepping from one world into another. It was situated on the banks of a river where firefly danced at night and palm trees isolated it from the poverty that existed outside. It had a pool which was a blessing in temperatures of almost 40 degrees. Run by a wonderful guy from Holland called Hans, who left Europe in the 1970’s to come out to do refugee work in an effort to help the Cambodian people who had suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Now retired, he has made Cambodia his home and has set up this wonderful resort (and only resort) just outside the city. A few days there gave us time to refuel.

Little did we know how much we needed to before we reached our next destination of Sihanoukville, a major city further north, and a place we decided to visit for ten days because it was the only place along the west coast of Cambodia that allowed us to fly directly to our next destination, Perth, Australia.

If we thought we’d seen the worst of Cambodia, we hadn’t! Sihanoukville was yet to come!

….More to come!

COME ON IRENE! 💃

Just 45kms west of the city of Ha Tiên on the western coast of Vietnam and Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand, lies a beautiful underdeveloped paradise island called Phu Quoc. The island itself is surrounded by some 27 uninhabited smaller islands. Having earmarked Vietnam and Cambodia for our onward journey from China, we found some really interesting articles about this island. We read that it was practically unspoiled and untouched by the tourist industry. It has only recently been discovered as a potential tourist destination and already it’s been named the new “Bali” of Asia. We thought, why not take a trip there to see what everyone is raving about? Before it’s over-run with high rise hotels and the multi-million dollar tourist industry that is already planned for its future. Recently, the Ritz Carlton has begun construction on a new hotel on the island, along with many more hotels. Half of this small island is a protected natural park, with beautiful landscape for miles, and so it was a no-brainer to book a three week stay at a small resort on the west coast of the island in one of the main towns, Duong Dong.

One evening, just a few weeks before we left for Phu Quoc, my phone pinged with a message from a dear friend of mine back home, Irene. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I opened it. She was coming out to Asia to join me for a few weeks of my travels and asked where we would be in October! “Phu Quoc” I replied when we got chatting! “Oh…well if you put it like that, she said”…and then the penny dropped. Yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like when you say it fast 😂 “No, no, no”, I said. “It’s the name of the island off the west coast of Vietnam where we’ll be staying” I explained, in hysterics laughing. And so, within a matter of hours, Irene had booked into accommodation right next door to us in the Vela Phu Quoc Resort just outside Duong Dong. Now, I think it’s important to explain before going any further that this was Irene’s first time in Asia, so the usual sight of unfinished buildings and construction sites everywhere was not something that she was accustomed to, nor the living conditions in Asia generally. This is what the term “culture shock” was invented for I guess. I too had had my fair share of it travelling throughout some parts of Asia I must admit. And so the planning got underway for Irene’s long haul journey from Ireland to Asia. The excitement for both of us was palpable. Added to the sense of excitement was the fact that Irene was also bringing out with her some Irish cheese and bags of Tayto crisps! Oh the joys of the simple things in life when you’re away from home! Sure we were laughin’ 😂. Transporting Irish sausages and bacon was also considered, but discarded just as quickly, as Irene understandably couldn’t hack being banged up abroad for too long if it went wrong 💥

Irene, you see, is one of the most feminine of women I know. She has been my close friend for many years. It’s not unusual to meet her donning a beautiful flower tucked behind her ear, with her beautiful sun kissed blonde hair perfectly styled, her petiteness and long girly eyelashes wrapped around big glistening blue eyes, dressed to feminine perfection no matter what the circumstances. She has it all! Having spent almost a year travelling with my wonderful husband, trekking around in tee-shirts and jeans, Irene was like a whirlwind of fresh air to have around. Her happy and sunny disposition, her sense of childlike fun came just at the right time, and I was so excited at the prospect of spending a few weeks with her after all this time.

Irene’s arrival to Phu Quoc preceded ours by a few days. Her “culture shock” experience was hilarious to witness on occasions. While in Vientiane I received a message from her saying “it’s like a construction site here Martine, I don’t think you’re going to be too happy with it.. maybe I should say something to the resort owner?”. There were Kango hammers going at the small wee hours of the morning and all through the day. On arrival, we very quickly realized that this was everywhere, every resort, every building was being demolished and rebuilt, or extended etc. And that’s Asia! It’s something to be aware if you are considering travelling here. Noisy construction work is pretty much the norm and unavoidable, albeit bloody annoying. But it’s one of the very few downsides to experiencing this beautiful part of the world.

As sure as night follows day, as soon as Irene opened her door when we arrived, she was beaming with excitement from ear to ear with a beautiful pink flower pinned to her immaculately groomed hair. After lots of hugging and air kissing, we made our way down to the lovely restaurant on site and caught up with all our girly gossip to make plans for the following day. Bicycles were top of the list so we could begin exploring our surroundings the following morning.

I remember as a young girl cycling out past Dublin airport along the small country roads, with my girlfriends in tow, excited that my parents had given me the freedom for the first time to travel further than my nose and with the wonderful anticipation of finding new places as we travelled further and further away from home. Well, getting on a bike with Irene and Colm the following morning was the very same. I was 13 again! And with the same sense of excitement we headed off down the pot-holed roads of Phu Quoc, over dirt tracks where old cows with square bells tethered to their necks, (their eyelashes not a patch on Irene’s beautifully curled ones), looked on at us with curiosity as we passed by. And then the gasps! We arrived slap bang into paradise, to one of the most gobsmackingly picturesque beaches I had ever seen in my entire life! The sand was ice-cream white and just as soft! Palm trees everywhere and a little bamboo hut bar/restaurant with sun beds for us to lie on free of charge. Crystal clear blue water for us to swim in! But where was everyone? Only two people, aside from us, were sitting on this huge stretch of beach…how could it be possible that no-one else was here? That we had the whole beach to ourselves? We soon discovered that there are so many beaches on the island and that most of them remain undiscovered (as we had heard), and untouched! We had just found one of them! A secret beach that we had all to ourselves! Well, we felt like we’d hit the jackpot! Towels came out, and clothes came off and we ran into the warm sea to cool off from the heat of the early morning sun. All three of us, like children, spent the day splashing around in the water and lazing around on the beach until the sun went down over the horizon, drinking lime juice with fancy straws like it was going out of fashion. We were in heaven for sure! And this was our life for the first few days on the island. Cycling around, discovering yet another beach to explore…and continuously gasping with delight to find yet another gem, and huge tree swings to keep us occupied when we wanted to take a break from our endless dips in the sea.

Our next adventure was a boat trip to three of the islands that lay south of Phu Quoc, one of which is known as “Robinson Crusoe Island”. This was going to be fun! Snorkeling off the huge boat that took us from one island to the next. Each island more spectacular than the last. We spent hours snorkeling and swimming amongst spectacular coral reefs, with the most colourful fish and sea creatures. Visiting some more jaw-droppingly beautiful beaches, swinging on hammocks and eating some of Phu Quoc’s most famous dishes! My favorite was chicken wings smothered in the island’s really famous fish sauce. It sounds incompatible with chicken, but trust me it was absolutely delicious. Phu Quoc is renowned for it worldwide. There isn’t enough of it to export to other countries so the only place you can get it is on the island. It’s sweet and syrupy and really doesn’t taste too much like fish at all. Also, pepper farms are sprinkled everywhere on the island, and some of the pepper sauces served with food are to die for. Irene became addicted to the large coconuts on sale at every street corner. When I say “large”, they were often not much smaller than herself 🧚‍♀️🧚‍♀️🧚‍♀️. Not a day went by that she wasn’t sipping coconut water from a huge green ball of a coconut

Our trip wouldn’t be complete without a trip to mainland Vietnam. Irene had mentioned that she would love to see what the mainland was about and so, without further ado, we booked a boat to takes us for an overnight trip just 45kms across the water to the city of Ha Tiên. Now this was probably the most hilarious part of witnessing Irene’s culture shock! Walking around the markets on the quay when we got off the boat and watching her gagging as we passed the fish market, with sea creatures staring up at her that I wouldn’t even begin to guess what they were. At one point she was beginning to retch and we thought it best to move along. 😂😂😂. We carried on through the fruit market and into the area where people were haggling for live fowl. We came across a bicycle with large baskets on either side of it. In the baskets were huge live chickens and turkeys squawking and flaying their wings trying to escape. Their legs tied together and pinned to the baskets. One of the traders, noticing my discomfort looking on, proceeded to pick one up and teasingly chased me around the market with it, much to the amusement of all of the other traders! I was terrified but hysterical with laughter as she chased me from stall to stall to the roars of laughter from all of the other traders. A fabulous moment shared with all of the hardworking women at the market that day led to chats and a wonderful welcome to us naïve and privileged travellers who had come to have a peek into their world for just one day. I have the height of admiration and respect for the women throughout Asia who spend long hours doing backbreaking work at these markets to earn a crust for their families. I know I would never be able to endure for one hour what they do every single day of their lives, and I know that Irene felt the same having met these people on our visit to Ha Tiên. Witnessing the extreme poverty of the people living on the outskirts of the city, similar to what I had seen in Saigon, was gut wrenching. There are no words to describe the desolate conditions that many of the Vietnamese people have to live in. Watching poverty-stricken elderly women pushing heavy carts through the markets just to earn enough to feed and clothe themselves is a disgrace in this day and age! Enough said…I feel another rant coming on, so moving swiftly along…

Our accommodation in Ha Tiên was basic and clean. We stayed at a Hostel, with an Entrance Hall that had gold-painted walls from floor to ceiling and Buddhist statues everywhere. Thankfully, that color theme didn’t run through to our bedrooms. We settled into our rooms across the hall from each other. Well, that was until I saw the picture hanging over our bed! A young naked woman covered in flowers smiled down at me from the picture frame! Nope! There was no way I was having that sort of competition in my bedroom! And even moreso, over my marital bed?! No wayyy! So I quickly dashed over to Irene’s room to see if we could casually “switch” rooms. Oh No! An even more beautiful naked woman hung on her wall! Back to my room, I was wrecking my brain for a solution. And I found one! A bit ingenious if I may say so myself (see the picture below). Maybe not very discreet, but beggars can’t be choosers! 😂😂😂

We ventured out and about around Ha Tiên and came upon some of the most ornamental and colourful Buddhist Temples. We dipped in and out of as many of them as we could, joining in meditations and lighting candles for everyone we thought might need a bit of Buddhist intervention along the way. As the sun went down, we lazed by the banks of the Giang Thanh River sipping a Gin and Tonic before heading back to our Hostel for the night, with me feeling quite happy with myself knowing that that floosy in my room was well out of sight 😂

Before leaving to return to Phu Quoc Island the following morning we decided to pop into the only bar in the city that served a good hearty English/Irish Breakfast, The Oasis. There we met the owner “Andy” who sat and chatted to us about our travels and gave us some tips about travelling on to Cambodia which was next on our travel plans. Explaining to us about the corruption that can go on when tourists try to cross over the border from Vietnam to Cambodia, where Visa application costs can be ramped up on the whim of anyone we might meet at the border control office, he offered to help us with our passage across. And so we arranged to return to his bar a week later before we crossed into Cambodia. Andy promised he would provide us with a local “negotiator” and a driver to take us to the Vietnamese side of the border and then another driver to meet us on the Cambodian side who would take us safely to our accommodation. Andy, in a nutshell, was a godsend for us at that point of our journey.

With only a couple of days left of Irene’s holiday on Phu Quoc Island, no trip would be complete without a girlie pampering day together. So off we trotted to the local Vietnamese beauty parlor for massages, manicures, pedicures and whatever else we could have done for a quarter of the price we would normally pay for them at home. Delighted with ourselves that we had managed to avoid the “Drag Queen” look when we were done, we of course had to have a little celebration with none other than some more lime juice and coconut water. No day passed without us downing litres of the stuff. 🍹🍹🍹.

Sure enough, all good things must come to an end. We said our goodbyes, sadly, to Irene one morning as she headed off for her return trip home, but feeling very much rejuvenated and the better for having spent such a wonderful fortnight with her. We were ready and motivated to go on with the rest of our journey.

With only a few days left ourselves on this paradise island, we decided to take a trip across to the eastern side of the island to have a glimpse at what that held. An early morning bus took us to Sao Beach, where we spent a few hours rambling around. While it is a beautiful beach, the west side of the islands beaches are far superior. We stopped off for a visit to the famous Fish Sauce Factory and the Pepper Farms and took a tour of the notorious prison camp “Coconut Prison” where North Vietnamese soldiers were held and tortured during the Vietnamese war. Even with tourists gathered at the camp, the silence was eerie and the shock of what went on here many years ago was clearly sketched on every persons face who had come to see it. It is not a comfortable experience and I was happy to leave it and return to Duong Dong that evening. It was yet another learning experience and one that again left me shocked at the atrocities that human beings can inflict on each other when brainwashed enough.

In Phu Quoc, there are no “seasons” as we know them. There is only a “wet season” and a “dry season”. Our stay was right at the end of the “wet” season. While most of the torrential tropical rain fell at night time, with spectacular thunder and lightning storms, on the day we travelled back to Duong Dong from the east side of the island, one of the heaviest rainstorms hit. Within minutes of our journey back, roads turned into rivers. Shopkeepers were up to their knees in rainwater inside their tiny shops, desperately trying to put up barriers to keep the rain out and sweep out the rising levels of rainwater from inside. The roads have little or no drainage so the water rises rapidly. Thankfully we had boarded the bus before the worst of it hit, but the two hour journey back was pretty hair raising in parts, as the bus driver struggled to deal with the road conditions. Yet, by the time we arrived back and had our meal, the heat of the sun had dried up every inch of rainwater and it was as though it had never happened. The locals take this regular occurrence as part of the course during the wet season. They mop up and just get back to business within hours basically. Whatever damage is done is temporarily fixed until the next downpour. No insurance claims or payouts to victims of the weather…it’s just life in the eyes of the local people.

Our time on Phu Quoc Island was most definitely one of the highlights of our journey, and if we could we would have stayed much longer. Right now it is a paradise island where everything is cheap and affordable. Our stay at both the resort and the hostel in Ha Tiên cost us no more than €15 per night. Food and drink is extremely cheap and we paid for everything in dollars rather than the Vietnamese Dong (you can opt for either currency). But if you opt to use dollars, make sure to bring US Dollars with you as they cannot be got from the ATM machines on the island. Another red carrot they offer to tourists planning to travel to Phu Quoc is that if you travel through Vietnam directly to Phu Quoc a visa isn’t required, for up to maximum stay of 30 days. The beaches and surrounding islands are spectacular and are like nowhere else we have ever been. Clean and stunningly beautiful with some of the most amazing sunsets we have had the pleasure of seeing. We have been so lucky to have had the chance to spend time on this island before the mania of the tourist industry hits and possibly destroys it. And it will! There is evidence everywhere on the island that this is earmarked by the powers that be and the big guys in the hotel and tourism industry that major development is coming. There has been no provision made apparently for the impact on the island’s eco system which the locals are extremely concerned about. But being poor, they will have no say over the wealthy conglomerates plans to invade their home. We will most definitely be coming back someday to see for ourselves the changes that will happen in the next few years. In the meantime guys, if you get the chance, go visit it in its natural and raw state before it becomes yet another tourist trap. It has been an experience of a lifetime for us for sure!

VISTAS OF VIENTIANE, LAOS 🇱🇦

When I started plotting out destinations for this wonderful adventure, I chose places to visit that were not on the usual touristy radar, but rather with a view to educating myself and learning about how people live in various countries throughout the world. Immersing myself in the daily lives of people who live outside of the typical tourist destinations was a priority, where it was possible to do so. Vietnam and Cambodia were most definitely on the list, however, our next destination, Vientiane in Laos never featured. That was until we spoke with some people along the way who had visited it and recommended that we stop off along our journey to take it all in in Laos. We had received mixed reports about it, mostly that it was about one hundred years behind most places in the Western World, and very different to any other country in Asia. I was hooked! Examining the map of Asia again, we decided to visit the capital city of Laos, Vientiane. Laos is a landlocked country which lies between Vietnam to the east and Thailand to the west. Its borders at the north are shared with Myanmar and China and to the south, Cambodia. Vientiane City lies on the western border of Laos, shared with Thailand. There is just one small river, The Mekong river, separating both countries. We altered our itinerary slightly so we could take a week to explore this totally unique part of Asia. It fitted in nicely as we were heading that direction anyway to visit a practically unexplored island off the west coast of Vietnam, Phu Quoc. So we threw caution to the wind and said…why not?

With flights booked and hotel prices costing less than €12 per night each, (which included a swimming pool) with top class facilities, we were soon leaving China and heading to one of Asia’s cheapest and most cheerful destinations, Laos. With a flight of just under three hours from Guangzhou in China we landed in Vientiane and were collected by the hotel’s taxi (included in the cost of our accommodation) and brought to one of the most luxurious hotels in the city, with a plaza at the centre of the resort, palm trees and an onsite restaurant. We were ready for our next adventure!

We took off the following morning to explore. The sights we saw were in total contrast to the images I had conjured up in my mind following our conversations with people who had visited it many years ago. First impressions were that this was more like a large town than a city, and in fact with a population of only 760,000 it certainly had a town like feel to it. Visually, many of the old buildings along the streets have a very Parisian look to them architecturally and there is evidence on every street of French occupation during the 19th Century. It felt like I was walking through Paris, one hundred years ago or more. Colourful buildings with French shutters and balconies create an almost hippy vibe to the city. Alongside, there are the most spectacularly colored Buddhist Temples, with blazing gold, red, orange and blues emerging from every rooftop and Temple as we walked along the streets. In total harmony with these amazing colors, Buddhist monks with bright orange sarongs were everywhere. I had never seen so many Monks in one place. It is most certainly the Buddhist centre of Asia. With shaved heads, young boys as young as ten years old were walking around gently smiling at passers by as they made their way out of their Buddhist Temples to do their daily chores. Most boys join the monasteries for part of their lives before making their way out into the world. The Buddhists are revered and respected by the community and treated with dignity and honor. The local people build their lives around helping these Monks, going to bed early and rising at sunset to bring gifts to the Temples. I have always been intrigued by Buddhists throughout the world and the positive impact they bring with their teachings and way of life. One thing that struck me as I travelled through the mainly Buddhist countries in Asia, is the lack of greed that these people have, and how happy they are to live with very little. The people of Asia who we met along our journey, who followed the Buddhist teachings, were some of the kindest, gentlest and most humble people I have come across in my lifetime. This subject was at the centre of many discussions I had with other “Westerners” who had visited Buddhist countries throughout the world, and the conclusion has always been that we need more of these respectful and kind people in our world today. Even those within the Buddhist communities that have little or nothing themselves, share with the community and help each other through the most difficult of times. There is no begrudgery of their neighbor, there is no requirement to have expensive material things in their lives and their main focus is on being kind and non-judgemental to anyone who is lucky enough to cross their path. The Buddhist monks themselves within the walls of the Temples in Vientiane live in relative poverty. They spend their day working on re-constructing and re-furnishing their Temples, meditating and praying. They also go out into the community to help those in need on a daily basis. We learned that many poverty stricken families and single mothers who just cannot afford to keep their babies often place their male babies on the steps of the Temples for the Monks to rear. The Monks do so willingly. The families do this, with a certainty that the children will be given the best of care, love and education. Not unlike our own history I guess, however there is not one shred of evidence to say that the children that these Monks have reared to date, have been anything but nurtured and cared for. Each time I met one in Vientiane they radiated goodness and gentleness as they smiled and greeted me. Their quest is to help as many people as they can on their journey through life and cause no harm to anyone. Even animals and insects are treated with love and respect by these beautiful people. This and only this is their main focus. There are however, some rules associated with greeting a Buddhist Monk that we had to know about as we travelled through Laos. Women are totally prohibited from touching a Monk, even in the form of a handshake. If a man or woman has offerings to give to the Monks, they must be placed on a cloth on the ground and the Monk will lift the cloth with the offerings and accept them, gracefully and thankfully. To get the full experience of the life of the Monks, we decided to attend an “alms giving” ceremony held at one of the more beautiful Buddhist Temples in the city, “Wat Si Muang”, which took place at 6 a.m. The Temple is named after a young pregnant woman who volunteered to sacrifice herself to appease angry spirits back in 1563 when the Temple was being built, whereby she threw herself into a hole in the ground where the building’s central pillar was to be placed. She was crushed when the huge pillar was lowered into position over her. To this day, people go to pray to her and offer gifts in her honor.

Dragging ourselves out of our beds at 5 a.m., we took the half hour walk to the Temple, with our alms in tow. We arrived just as elderly women made their way in, carrying baskets of food and small amounts of money wrapped in cellophane, and individually wrapped parcels of gifts for each of the Monks at the Monastery. The Monks can only accept alms before 12 p.m. The local people take care of them and bring daily supplies of food. On entering the Temple as the first meditation began, i joined the group by bowing my head to the chief Monk who was conducting the ceremony. I took my place on the floor beside a group of women, who had their heads bowed in prayer, with candles lighting in ceramic bowls in front of them. The ceremony lasted for about 30 minutes, and when it was over, each of us made our way to a table at the front of a large Buddha statue where small brown wooden bowls were lined up in a row. Each bowl belonged to one of the young Novice Monks who sat in silence at the side of the Temple waiting for their first meal of the day. One woman in front of me put sachets of cocoa and some sticky rice into each of the bowls. Another placed fruit on top of these and so on, until the bowls were full. Small sums of money were also placed in plastic wrapping in each of the bowls. The Monks are only allowed to keep a small amount of money from the donations offered, no more than the equivalent of €1 per day. As the ceremony drew to a close, homeless people began to gather outside the Temple, waiting for a share of the offerings from the Monks. Even the homeless women who waited patiently outside the Temple, and who had nothing to cover their shoulders with, did not enter the Temple out of respect for the dress code required. As I left, I was moved beyond belief at the generosity of the people of Vientiane towards these Monks, and in turn at the generosity of the Monks who shared their alms of the day with the poor unfortunate homeless people who came to them for help. As we left, cats and dogs who clearly had made the Temple their homes were happily playing in the courtyard, waiting for the younger male Monks to come back out to feed and entertain them.

As the days passed, we hired bicycles and cycled around visiting all of the Temples, each one more stunningly beautiful than the next. With the typical tropical climate of the “Wet Season” coming to an end, we were beginning to enjoy the warm tropical sunshine of the new “Dry Season” as we travelled around. Some local traditions that we learned of were fascinating. One of them being that when passing a seated elderly person, one must duck down when passing them making sure that your head is below them. This also applies to passing the Buddhist Monks. This apparently is the ultimate sign of respect. There is also no tolerance for public displays of affection (PDA’s). Myself and Colm could not even hold hands walking down the street as it would be highly disrespectful and as much as we were tempted, we had to consciously remind ourselves not to. Separately, when travelling around Laos, I had to be mindful of the fact that out of respect, I had to have my shoulders and arms covered and clothes to my knees before being able to enter any of the Temples. It is merely as a mark of respect and there are signs throughout the city explaining this to tourists.

While Buddhism plays a huge part in the society here, there are also statues and temples associated with the Hindu teachings, but the Buddhist society far outweighs the Hindu, and so it takes a bit of searching to find the Hindu monuments. Another Monument that we came across was Vientiane’s very own “Arc de Triomphe”. It’s called the “Patuxai Monument”, but has earned the nickname, “The Vertical Runway”. The reason being that the cement that was donated by the USA for the building of the Monument was originally earmarked to build a new runway at an airport in the US. 😁 It was built in 1969 in honor of those Laotians killed in pre-revolutionary wars. There are beautiful gardens at the rear of the Monument, and stairs that bring you to the very top of it, to enjoy the splendid views of the city.

Laos, we learned, was one of the most heavily bombed countries in the world. Between 1964 and 1973, during the Vietnam war, the USA dropped 2 million tons of bombs across the country. About 30% of these bombs have never exploded. Like Laos’s neighbors, these unexploded bombs leave most of the agricultural lands unsafe and unusable. Children who have come across them thinking they were toys glittering in the sun have been killed and maimed and they are still a threat to the Laotian people to this day.

We took a trip to the famous markets that flank the riverbank of the Mekong River, standing at the edge of the river in disbelief that Thailand was literally a swim away. The lights of Thailand twinkled invitingly across the water from us. There is only one bridge in Laos “The Friendship Bridge”, and one train (following a train trek of only 3kms) that crosses that bridge which brings you to the city of Nong Khai in Thailand. There are no other trains throughout the country. Travel is either long journeys by bus, taxi, or more locally the Tuc Tuc. Unfortunately, our trip to Vientiane was planned at the last minute and didn’t allow us the time to visit Thailand, but hey, we couldn’t get everywhere I guess. And so we rambled around the markets, hoping to spot a bargain or two. With Asian women being half my size, it was not a pleasant experience trying to buy anything to fit me. Even the shoes with my size printed on them were two sizes smaller than at home. I guess it meant I had more kips (national currency) to spend on the gorgeous French coffee and local beer (Beerlao) which came in at about €1 a pint. All local businesses, including pubs and restaurants here must close, by law, before 12 a.m. There is however a “special license” that businesses can purchase to have this curfew relaxed. It’s basically bribery and a sum of money paid to the police will get you one of these “special licenses” quite easily. I was also amused to discover that a Pestle and Mortar from a kitchen is called a “Khok”, and there is quite a bit of teasing apparently when the chef is pounding the garlic for the evening meals in these 😂😂😂😂.

Our final destination during our stay was to visit the world famous “Pha That Luang” Buddhist Temple. The main monument at the Temple takes pride of place on the Lao currency and is regarded as the most important national monument of Laos. It’s a huge gold covered Buddhist stupa. Originally a Hindu Temple, and having survived throughout all of the wars, it is now the main Buddhist Temple of Vientiane. At the Temple we came across some Lao women selling tiny birds in small wooden cages. And so we bought some and immediately released the birds once we had the cages in our paws. Hopefully some good karma will befall us on our travels as a result  Another famous Monument we came across at this site was that of “the Reclining Buddha”. An enormously long Buddha sleeping on his side and a fabulous place to take some funny and amusing photos!

We eventually drummed up to courage to taste the local dishes and tried out the most famous dish of Laos. Sticky Rice! I was somewhat apprehensive about eating it, but when I did, oh wow! I had it for breakfast, dinner and tea. There is quite a complicated process involved in getting it from the kitchen to the table in its exquisite bamboo basket. It is a particular rice only available in Laos, and it is steamed in a small cylinder shaped basket made of bamboo with a lid tightly covering it. When it’s cooked, you basically dive in with your fingers and pluck a piece out and dip it in the local sauces that come with it. It is scrumptiously sweet and mouthwateringly tasty. Beef Lok Lak was another dish that became part of our daily diet. The peppered sauces mixed with beef and fresh tomatoes on a bed of rice was to die for!

Am I glad I did a de-tour to visit this country? Absolutely, without a doubt, most definitely! It was much more than I expected it to be. Its people are kind, generous and so welcoming to foreign visitors. They are so relaxed and laid back and this permeates throughout, to the point that we also chilled completely during our time here. It is like a place of retreat where one can take a break from life, rejuvenate and rest. It is very different to any other country we visited in Asia and I say this in the most positive way. If you are looking for a totally unique experience, and a “get away from it all” destination, this is certainly the place that offers all of that and more! Plus, you’ll always be in your bed before midnight ! 😂

Next stop…the newly discovered island of Phu Quoc, off the west coast of Vietnam… (No I didn’t say f**k off, I said Phu Quoc! 😂😂😂)

RICE RICE BABY!

With just a little over a week left before we were due to leave China, I looked for recommendations from our fellow teachers at Omeida and local Chinese people as to where we should absolutely not miss visiting before leaving this beautiful part of the world. A resounding response was “you have got to visit the Rice Fields in the Longsheng county of the Guangxi province ”, a four hour trek from Yangshuo, via Guilin, by train and bus. The reason? Not only to see these rice fields from the different viewing platforms, one of which is called “the Dragons Backbone”, but for me, a much more interesting reason; to visit the Ethnic Minority Tribes who inhabit the mountains in Longji, and have worked tirelessly in these fields for hundreds of years. The rice fields are a central part of the daily life and identity of these exotic people. With such riveting stories of their customs, traditions and beliefs, I just had to go and see this for myself. And so, with the help of a local Chinese businessman “Mickey”, who had become our dear friend during our time in Yangshuo, we arranged to travel and stay for two days at the rice fields, hoping that we would get to meet some of these minority people.

The journey from Guilin to the Rice Fields is a small bit piecemeal and complicated when not having any Chinese. However, as we have experienced on every trip throughout China, the local people are always more than willing to help. Albeit it might take some time to communicate with them through body language or google translate, which isn’t always translated accurately. Google translate has led us into funny situations when locals give us totally different information than we thought we’d asked for! Or the Chinese will read the message from our Google translate app and snigger and look at us strangely and walk away. On many an occasion we were left none the wiser as to how exactly the translation was being interpreted! 😱 God only knows what reputation we left behind in many of the places we visited using google translate, but we haven’t been arrested yet, and that’s a plus 😂.

A two hour journey in an ancient van (converted to a minibus with seats crammed into the back), brought us to another pick-up point at the foot of this mountainous region of southern China. There, we boarded yet another bus, packed full of wonderfully unique looking locals, including an elderly woman who was certainly in her late 70s at least, who wore the most intricately embroidered outfit with what looked like a pink tea-towel wrapped around her head. I took a seat beside her and thought “she’s clearly one of the women from the minority tribes”. Giving me the most beautiful welcoming smile that I’m sure is reserved for westerners, and with only about 3 teeth in her head, her dark wrinkled skin reflected the years of hard work that she obviously endured working outdoors in the mountainous rice terraces. As we made our way, higher and higher into the mountains, we passed villages of three-storey wooden houses built on stilts. They would not have been out of place in an old western movie. The first floor held the family livestock, the second was their living quarters and the third floor was storage. With no fire regulations, needless to say the villages are serious fire hazards, which we were soon to learn more about, sadly.

By way of background, throughout China there are about 56 different ethnic minority groups in total officially recognized by the Chinese Government. In this particular region of Longsheng there are just four. The Yao, Zhuang, Miao and Dong tribes. There are three main villages dotted around the rice terraces of Longsheng where they reside. The Ping’an, Dazhai and Longji villages are home to over 100 peasant households. Ping’an, is the smallest of the villages with just one cobbled street where the local traders sell their wares. This was the village we opted to visit. The Yao and Zhuang people make up the majority of the minority groups in Ping’an. They had originally lived throughout the low lying lands of China until rebellions between them and the Ming Dynasty forced them to retreat into the mountains. There are almost 2.5 million ethnic minority people living in the wider area of south-east China.

Living in relative poverty, they are a dignified and proud race of people, with their unique customs and practices and are only too happy to show them off to western visitors. In particular, the women of the community are the most unique group of women of any community I’ve ever come across. Every woman, young and old, sports a huge head of hair, sometimes up to 2 meters long, piled on top of their heads. They never cut their hair throughout their lifetime (with the exception of a few, who cut a small amount off only just, when they reach adulthood, only to weave it back into the pile of wrapped hair for the rest of their lives). They wash their hair in the rivers with extracts from the rice plants growing on the mountain. We took a trip to one of their villages on the first morning we arrived, encountering the most wonderful sights of their daily lives. Firstly, we were treated to a performance of their traditional dance where a group of women unwrapped their hair as part of the dance and proceeded with the seemingly simple task of wrapping it up again into various knotted piles, each knot representing the differing status of the women, i.e. single, married, widowed etc.

We spent the day wandering aimlessly around the village, stopping to chat with the local women, who had a small amount of English, having clearly picked up from the huge number of tourists passing through. I was totally taken with how warm and friendly they were, happily posing for photos with me. I was like a giant standing beside them, with their tiny frames. Even with a lifetime of hair piled onto their heads, I still towered over them. The clothes worn by these minority groups are fantastically vibrant! Handmade with beautiful textiles, and embroidered with the most glorious colours. Their clothing has been listed as a “national intangible cultural heritage of China”. A prestigious and well deserved status indeed. And did you know…Yoga Pants originate from these people? 😱. Nope..Me neither 😁.

The Yao tribe has its own language which differs from region to region, with the different dialects often creating communication difficulties within their own community. There is no written “Yao” language. However, a fascinating piece of information I learned about was that the Yao women, and only the women, have had a written language created just for them! It is called Nushu (meaning “women’s script”! It bears a resemblance to Chinese characters, however it is a “secret” language that only the Yao women are taught and can read. No man is allowed to learn the written language. It was created specifically for the women who were often isolated both before and after marriage. The women who become close friends would often not be able to meet up and so would write to each other in this Nushu language. They could share secrets and problems, complain about their men, or their lives etc. amongst each other, and the men in the community would be none the wiser. It was their secret way of supporting each other in difficult times. The practice of these writings ceased for many years during the Japanese invasion of China because they feared it would be used as a secret code, however in the 1980s it was briefly revived. However the last original writers of the script died in the 1990s and it is slowly dying out with only a small number of women now learning it. Such a shame!

They are a vulnerable group of people who live a simple, uncomplicated lifestyle. Farming (tending to the rice fields mainly) and trading of handmade crafts and jewellery are the main source of income. The crafts they create hold special meanings, particularly the batiks, sculptures and paintings. Outside of the hotels catering for the visiting tourists, the people themselves have no computers or TVs and in fact have no real access to the outside world other than meeting those who visit the terraces. Many have never been outside of their villages, however the younger generation are beginning to venture out into the world in small numbers. Those who do take that step, usually end up returning to care for their elderly parents, as is legislated for under Chinese laws. The elders in the community are revered and respected and at every meal are seated at the head of the table in the “seat of honour”. In addition to adoring their elders, they have huge respect for “totem poles”. Their main religion is Taoism/Daoism, a recognized religion in China, based on the three principles of compassion, moderation and humility. Interestingly, many of the Yao people also believe in witchcraft and wizardry. They believe in evil spirits and ghosts and shaman priests often preside over exorcisms with chicken bones and bamboo sticks. Yes, real life Harry Potter stuff, with potions and spells too for healing. They believe that when someone is ill, that their souls are stolen by spirits (not the alcohol ones 🤪). They perform rituals, often calling on the shaman priests, who will try to “convince” the spirits to leave by offering blood sacrifices or writing the name of the spirits they believe are causing the illness on pieces of paper and burning the paper to rid the victim of the illness. Should this not work and the person dies, they are cremated and buried in caves in the mountains. Separately, marriages are often determined by parents who make sure that the match for their offspring is compatible and in line with the bride and groom’s horoscopes! What a task, and while divorce is permitted, I’m not sure how many of them are blamed on the star signs not aligning 🙏🙏🙏

Our hotel was situated at the very top of the mountains and the view from our window was the first sighting we had of the vast expanse of green rice terraces. I had never before really given much thought as to how we got our rice into plastic bags and onto the shelves of our supermarkets. I had no idea of the work that went into growing, picking and preparing rice for the world market before. The whole community is involved in the process here, from planting to picking, and each and every part of it is done manually. The very nature of the rice terraces terrain means that no machinery can access the steep terraces to help with the heavy work involved in bringing the rice from the terraces to the wider market. Instead, elderly women carry baskets on their backs, filled with the rice they have picked, to donkeys with huge baskets balanced on their backs. The donkeys bring the rice picked on the mountain shelves back down into the villages before it’s prepared for selling on. Needless to say, our first meal was all rice dishes and the most delicious rice I have ever ever tasted. You don’t get any better rice than farm to table rice here.

I was eager to climb the rice terraces to get a glimpse of the famous “Dragons Back” and so this was the agenda for our last day. In scorching heat we climbed high into the mountain along a narrow pathway for about 3 kms. I struggled, panicking at one point when my heart rate had reached an uncomfortable level. After a few “stops and starts” we eventually made it to the very top viewing point. The view from the top was totally breathtaking, in every respect! And if you look at the picture I’ve included here, you will see that it does actually look like the spine of a dragon! I have no idea how elderly women do this day in and day out! I climbed it once and was panned out after it. They do return trips up and down daily. I take my hat off to them! (If I had a hat 🎩 )

We returned to Yangshuo, thrilled with the decision to make this trip our final one while in China and even more so to have met and learned so much about these fantastic people. Two weeks later, shortly after arriving to our next destination, Vientiane in Laos, we received a short video clip from a friend of ours in China bringing with it awful news. The video was devastating and had been recorded live only an hour beforehand. It was the village of Dazhai, (the next village to Ping’an) with a fire raging out of control, and with inevitable tragic consequences. We still have no idea how many deaths there were, but I understand there were many and a whole community destroyed. I’ve no doubt these strong-willed hard-working resilient people will rebuild their village, as they have done in the past from scratch apparently following such disasters. Their strong belief system and sense of community that has stood the test of thousands of years will carry them through!

Next stop….the colourful city of Vientiane in Laos…. An unexpected hidden jewel of South East Asia!

BEAR NECESSITIES 🐼

Such was my desire to see the beautiful Panda Bears at the Giant Panda Research Centre, (based in the city of Chengdu, in south western China’s Sichuan Province), that we travelled for 12 hours on a bullet train from Guilin to Chengdu city. These cute bears are now a highly protected species under the State’s laws. Pandas that you see in zoos throughout the world are now “loaned” to these zoos by the Chinese Government for a king’s ransom! The reason for such strict laws surrounding the protection of the bears are tenfold. But one such reason is that historically, famous socialites and celebrities would pay huge money to buy these bears to bring them from China to the Western world as fashion accessories.

One such case was that of a very famous socialite, Ruth Harkness back in 1936. The story goes that the day before Christmas Eve, a giant panda appeared in New York City. Its name was Su Lin. Two months earlier, the animal had been taken from its jungle home, fretful and in distress, and transported halfway around the world on airplanes and ships, wrapped inside blankets and baskets. * “No panda had ever survived a trip outside of East Asia. In the weeks before Su Lin’s arrival, American newspapers reported each detail about his trip across the Pacific.From the first moment Su Lin was carried out into Grand Central Station and reporters instantly trumpeted the news of America’s first panda, the celebrity clung to his coat. He clung too: to Ruth Harkness, the widowed socialite-turned-explorer, who went to China without any wilderness experience, vowed to complete her late husband’s hunt for a panda, and returned triumphant, nursing Su Lin from a baby bottle filled with instant milk. Harkness’s journey sparked a “happy furore” across the USA. A photo taken of this Panda with Ruth Harkness was the first of a live panda ever published in a newspaper, The New York Times. The world became hooked – a Panda Bear frenzy ensued and in the 1930’s became a cultural phenomenon. Many explorers flocked to China to try and capture this much sought after bear”. A Panda was worth its weight and more in gold! (*Link to this article below)

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-america-fell-love-giant-panda-180956692/

Because of the bears’ timid and gentle nature, they could easily be kept in the celebrities’ and socialites’ homes and were frequently paraded at public events as status symbols. It beggars belief that such cruelty to such a beautiful animal was tolerated!

The Pandas are the symbol of China and once you step off the train in Chengdu you are left in no doubt how much the Chinese love and take pride in their Panda Bears. Huge advertising boards and towering statues of Pandas are sprawled in every corner of the city. Even our accommodation had cuddly toy Pandas sprawled across the bed. Pictures and photos of them hung in every available wall space in our room.

I have to admit that I was quite cynical about whether this Research Centre was ethical in the context of confining bears at the base for experimental and research purposes, away from their natural habitat. My thinking was that even if these bears were multiplying in the artificial environment of the Research Centre, what purpose would this serve in protecting these beautiful animals. If they have become dependent on humans for their very existence and cannot fend for themselves when released into the wild, is it right to be increasing their numbers and keeping them captive in Chengdu, or any of the other 26 Research Centres in China? The question being, should we continue to reproduce them or risk leaving them to nature to fend for themselves in trying to survive in their natural habitat? I had read stories about the failed attempts to release Pandas back into their natural habitat. Two bears in particular, named Xue Xue and Xiang Xiang, had been released and sadly were found dead within months of them being released. And so, the purpose of my visit was to find out more about the Centre and educate myself about the plight of these adorable creatures.

The Giant Panda Research Centre in Chengdu was set up in 1987, for the protection of this cute and cuddly endangered species. The base is a non-profit research and breeding facility for giant pandas and other rare animals. It started with 6 giant pandas that were rescued from the wild. To date, it has reared over 300 pandas. Its aim is to be a world-class research facility, conservation education center, and international educational tourism destination, raising awareness about the plight of these spectacularly cute creatures. To multiply their numbers and experiment with releasing them gradually back into the wild in Chengdu.

So what did I learn? Well I learned how little I actually knew about these creatures, other than the visual cuteness of them.

The reason that these incredibly interesting creatures have become endangered is basically down to us, i.e. humans, and our disregard for the natural habitat of the vulnerable animal kingdom. With the population of China increasing rapidly over the years, more and more land was needed to meet the demand of a growing population, both for domestic and business ventures. The Panda Bears’ natural home became smaller and smaller with the expanse of the surrounding cities. They were pushed into smaller compounds where their natural (and only) food resource, bamboo, was almost diminished to the point that it could not sustain the number of Pandas depending on it. You see Pandas, unlike other bears, don’t hibernate and are not carnivores. They only eat bamboo, and lots of it! 99% of the bears’ diet consists of bamboo. They eat for at least 12 hours a day and can shift up to 12kgs of bamboo daily. Their natural life expectancy in the wild is approximately 20 years. You can imagine then, how much bamboo is needed to ensure that they can survive a lifetime! There are currently just under 2,000 Panda Bears still remaining in the world. 70% of these are living in China.

To add to the complication of the scarcity of bamboo, the bears are extremely fussy about what bamboo they will eat. I learned that there are truckloads of bamboo delivered to the Panda Base each day and it is not unusual for Panda Bears to refuse to eat much of what’s on offer, wanting a different batch to taste before settling on one.

They are also extremely difficult to breed. Pandas are by their very nature are solitary and unsociable animals. The male bears much prefer to laze about and eat bamboo than to copulate with their female mates. Despite numerous attempts at the base to encourage the males to engage with the females, including games to strengthen their back legs so they can mount the female easier, the males don’t get any further than a few lame attempts at mating before they lose interest and go back to snacking on their bamboo. The scientists at the Centre have resorted to anaesethising both male and female Pandas to perform basic artificial insemination of the females, in the hope that a female Panda will become pregnant and therefore add to their numbers in captivity. A risky process, but without this intervention, the number of bears would most certainly reduce further. The female Panda is also only fertile for about 2 days each year, so timing is of the essence for artificial insemination. Even when the Panda bear becomes pregnant, the pregnancy cannot be confirmed until literally minutes before a birth. A pregnancy can last from 11 weeks up to 5 and a half months, and there is no way of knowing how long any individual pregnancy will last. Most Pandas also give birth to twins! So, once the female Panda is inseminated, she must be treated as though she is pregnant, whether she is or is not. In many instances she is not, and the whole process begins again. Frustrating for the researchers and scientists at the base for sure, but they keep on trying, unwavered, regardless.

Then, when the optimum result happens and the baby Pandas are born, sometimes unexpectedly, it is here that you will see the dedication and love and care that the researchers, scientists and keepers at Chengdu have for these bears. One such scientist is quoted as saying that she sees the Pandas more than her own family because of the amount of time she must dedicate to the rearing of these tiny babies. The mother Panda will only have the capacity to care for one of the twin bears, for a maximum period of 18 months. The second bear is removed from the mother by the team of carers at the base and placed in the equivalent of a baby incubation unit at a maternity hospital. The baby bear is nursed in the very same way that a premature baby is, fed and changed, kept snuggled up in a little blanket and monitored continuously. It is pink and almost rat-like at birth, until the soft downy black and white fur begins to cover its tiny body within a matter of weeks. The scientists have experimented recently with one set of twin panda babies by alternating the bears with the mother. The mother Panda in this experiment was totally unaware that the researchers were alternating the twin Pandas in order to give them both time with their mother. Both pandas survived and thrived and are one of the many success stories at the base. In time, the healthy baby bears are placed in a “play pen” with each other for company. It is definitely the highlight of the tour of the base, to see these beautiful tiny cute bears trying to walk and play with one another. Little balls of black and white fur rolling around playfully with each other, and others not yet old enough to participate in the activity around them.

As we made our way around, we came across young Panda Bears, playing happily with their “friends” in relatively small enclosures fitted with glass panels so tourists could enjoy watching and taking photos of them from a distance. Some of the bears clearly were not amused at being on show and sat with their backs to the glass frontage. Others who were a bit more mischievous were quite happy to “show off” for the tourists by playing tug of war with each other and rolling around, much to the squeals of delight from us tourists. The preservation of the bears, I also learned, takes precedence over anything else, including the tourist industry that the centre attracts. Money made from this industry is re-invested into the Centre for the continuation of the work that’s carried out here.

In the main, however, the majority of the bears on display on the day of our visit, were doing what Pandas do best. Eating and sleeping! They get very little energy from the bamboo shoots so they spend a lot of their time sleeping between meals. Having been surrounded by so many wonderful Buddhists here in China, I think if their belief system is true about Karma, and given how much I love my sleep, I want to come back in my next life as a Panda Bear! 😱…. (be careful what you ask the Universe for I’m thinking 🙏🙏😁)

And so, the question of whether this was an ethical way of reproducing the bears remained with me. Well, the answer was obvious once I learned a little bit more about this base. So, what’s the alternative? How do we protect an endangered species if we don’t take risks of rearing them in a somewhat artificial environment (abeit the staff at the base go to great lengths to ensure that the environment is as close to their natural habitat that they can provide. But, it’s just not!) and risk releasing them back into the wild? The researchers have a target of breeding over 300 bears before they begin the process of releasing more bears, and they have now reached this number. The next stage of the project will be to gradually release them under strict supervision to the surrounding hills in Chengdu where they have secured hundreds of acres of land for this purpose. I understand that this will happen very soon. And then the next question is, how do we measure the success of this venture? It is inevitable that there will be casualties, but if it increases the number of Panda bears in the wild in the longer term and they don’t become extinct it’s most certainly worth the years and years of painstaking work on the part of the Chengdu Centre.

Suffice to say that I too have caught “Panda Fever” that no inoculations I received before leaving Ireland will protect me from 🐼🐼🐼🐼

Another lesson that I learned during my time here. We need to take stock, as human beings on this delicate planet, of the impact of deforestation on our wildlife. Chengdu is just one Centre trying to undo the damage that we have already done to these beautiful bears! Just one species out of god knows how many that man is driving to endangerment and extinction!

And the question of ethical or unethical? Only time will tell!

(Note: To travel around China on public transport/bullet trains, as we did, costs very little, relative to the cost of public transport anywhere else in the world. For the return train journey from Guilin to Chengdu (almost 2,500 kms) it cost less than €70 each, and an entrance fee of c. €8 each which includes a transfer bus from the train station to the Panda Research Centre. Accommodation costs are little or nothing, so for a two day trip to Chengdu it cost less than €200, all in for both of us – not bad for such a fantastic experience)

THE GIANT BUDDHA STATUE – LESHAN, CHINA

Before leaving for our return journey back to Guilin (Yangshuo), we decided to take a quick day trip to see the world’s largest and tallest pre-modern stone statue of the Giant Buddha, based nearby in Leshan, in the Sichuan Province, only an hour’s train ride away. The Buddha statue is carved out of a cliff face that lies where two rivers meet (The Min and Dadu River). Work began on the statue as far back as 713 AD by a Chinese Buddhist Monk named Hai Tong. He hoped that by carving out a Buddha in the rock that it would calm the rough waters that caused havoc with ships travelling down the river. In fact the amount of stone removed during the construction which fell into the rivers altered the currents resulting in a safer passage for the ships passing by. Following his death, the Monks continued the work on the sculpture, completing it in 803 AD. A total of 90 years to create this spectacular piece of work!

We began our trip by taking a boat out along the river so we could get a complete view of the Buddha, before returning to climb 71 meters down the giant rock from the head, to the feet of this giant monument. It took us almost two hours to reach the bottom where Buddhist Monks were gathered in prayer. The large toenail on one foot could easily seat a few people. It is a sight to behold and was certainly a bit overwhelming trying to take in the sheer enormity of it and the wonder of how on earth these Monks persisted with this project for 90 years and succeeded in achieving such a perfect end result. Proof that the power of a belief system knows no boundaries and can achieve anything!

Climbing back up the steps to the head of the Buddha in seriously high temperatures left me struggling. Gasping for breath as I climbed, I glanced up briefly, only to see three smiling Tibetan Buddhist Monks seated at a resting place along a gap in the mountain. Seeing me in difficulty they kindly moved and offered me a seat beside them so I could catch my breath before going any further. After spending a bit of time trying to communicate with them, one of them whipped out a mobile phone and asked if they could take a photo with us. I was gobsmacked! Here was me, in total awe of these guys, and the tables turned quicker than I had time to blink, with us smiling away getting selfies with them. Selfies with Tibetan Monks at the worlds largest Buddha – ya just couldn’t make it up 😂😂😂.

And so, we returned to our “Panda” accommodation in Chengdu to get ready for our return journey to Guilin, and onwards to Yangshuo. Yet another part of China ticked off our list of places to see, Pandas and Buddhas – Check ✅. With just over one more week left in China, our next place to visit; the famous Rice Fields in Ping’an, just outside Guilin where we plan to try out the local delicious rice dishes and also meet the “Minority People” who live in the mountains and valleys of the area.

(Note: A day trip from Chengdu to Leshan (return) cost less than €20 each, which included return train fare and entrance fee into the Buddha Statue climbing area).

DREAMS REALLY DO COME TRUE 🌈

(Photo: 5 years ago on the Yulong River, Yangshuo, China)

My blog, on this occasion, is digressing a small bit from my usual updates on where I am on my travels as “Irish Granny on the Run”. Today, I am so excited to be afforded an opportunity of entering a competition where I am hoping to win a Safari Trip to Tanzania.

The competition asks that I write about the best holiday that I have ever been on. Well, there’s no prizes for guessing where that is folks! .. China!

https://yellowzebrasafaris.com/inspiration/blog/news/yellow-zebra-tanzania-competition/

The reason I’m entering is firstly, the obvious one, that it is beyond my wildest dreams to even ponder on the idea of visiting such a beautiful part of our planet, to see nature at its rawest and to witness so many wild animals in their natural habitat on a safari trip to Tanzania. On my journey around the world right now, I am loving every bit of learning and knowledge I am gaining by visiting different countries around the world and learning about the many diverse and colourful cultures and traditions in meeting so many beautiful people as I travel. I am also really enjoying sharing this with you all in my blog! I remember I used to follow news articles and social media stories about world travel at a time in my life, as a lone parent, when it was impossible for me to even consider holidaying in Ireland, let alone the world, and how I yearned to be able to travel to all the different countries I read about. Reading those articles brought many destinations alive for me, and I would get lost in daydreaming about the places I would visit “some day”. These articles most certainly contributed to and inspired me to do what I am doing today in my fifties as a Grandmother, i.e. taking time out of my career and life at home to travel the world for two years. If I won this trip to the safari, I could, through my writing and pictures on my blog and on social media, bring this safari experience in Tanzania alive for you all to consider as a place to visit. And for those who, like me a few years ago, may not be in a position right now to do such a trip, well you might just put it on your bucket list to do in the future, as I did with many places I read about over the years.

https://yellowzebrasafaris.com/tanzania/

And so, to the competition itself, and the story of my favorite holiday destination. Well, for me, it has got to be one of the most magical places on earth and it’s most definitely China, and in particular Yangshuo in Southern China!

Now the first question is, how on earth did I find this magical place? Out of all of the places to visit in the world for a holiday, how did Yangshuo, China enter the equation for a holiday destination for me in the first place?

Let me give you a bit of background! You see, five years ago, in the run up to my birthday, my only daughter Alison (who was living in Beijing at the time), was sitting in her apartment, wracking her brains trying to think about the ideal gift to give me for my birthday that year. Receiving birthday gifts is wonderful as we all know. But of all the gifts we receive, there is always that “one” that we love most. From someone who knew and loved us so much that they just nailed it and gifted us just what was needed. A gift that you may not have even realized that you needed so badly. Well, Alison’s birthday present to me that year was just that and, little did I know, it would change the path of my life forever! My present was a trip to Yangshuo in China, for just the two of us! We hadn’t seen each other for a long long time as she was living and working in Beijing, and so this was just the right time for me to pack my bags and join her on a “Mammy and Daughter adventure”

I arrived in Beijing from Ireland on a balmy August morning, after an 11 hour flight, to be greeted by Alison, with two bicycles in tow! Our first adventure, she told me, was a cycle around Beijing, (to make sure that I didn’t sleep until the evening time and therefore avoid the serious jet lag that I could already feel creeping up on me) and of course to feed the mosquitos with some new foreign blood. They feasted on me from the time I arrived, until I realized that wearing strawberry flavor lipgloss probably wasn’t the best idea I’d ever had 😱. Mosquitoes are inclined to have a sweet tooth. My lips paid the price. Free Botox basically 💋. That cycle lasted 9 full hours! I kid you not!

(Photo: Alison and me cycling around Beijing on my first day in China, before the Mosquitos got me) 😂

This is the only way to see Beijing by the way! With the culture shock hitting me and the absolute uniqueness of this city, the jet-lag faded as we cycled around visiting spectacular sites. We took in the most colourful Buddhist Temples, the Forbidden City, the little Chinese “hutong” side streets with the essence of Chinese culture around every corner. I was hooked! I wanted to know every little piece of history about every place we visited! I was like a child in a candy shop! The excitement was indescribable as we went from place to place. Some of its Temples go back to the 1300s, with fabulous tales of Emperors and their Empresses and concubines no less! The media coverage in the western world is not often very complimentary to China and there are many reasons why, however there is an abundance of beauty and wonder about the place that just must be seen to be believed. In a nutshell, you experience what can only be described as “a whole new world” and very different to any other country in the world in terms of its customs and practice. It’s spectacular to experience and nothing like you might imagine it might be, before you arrive.

Having spent a couple of wonderful days in Beijing, she informed me that she was taking me next to another part of China called “Yangshuo”. I knew nothing of this place, but happily went along with her plan and boarded a flight to Guilin to visit, what I discovered, was a wonderful hidden Utopia nestled between lush green karst mountains, some 70 kms from Guilin City in Southern China and the nearest to paradise I had ever been.

Our home for the week was a traditional Chinese hostel, in the midst of the karst mountains! Alison had our activities planned for our stay, and on day one, after a hearty breakfast at “the Giggling Tree” we took a bamboo raft along the Yulong River with our very own Chinese rower steering the boat with one huge bamboo stick, and his tanned face smiling under his large Coolie hat. He would plunge the stick into the riverbed and push the bamboo raft down the river and over the weirs, listening to our excited screams as we approached each weir waiting for the raft to drop down yet another level into the water below. Large colourful umbrellas attached to the rafts, sheltering the passengers from the sun as they floated along, with the lush green karst mountains reflecting on the glassy water, created the most picturesque views of this beautiful corner of the world.

Exploring this part of China is like opening a beautiful Pandora’s Box of nature. It is a backpackers’ paradise on earth! It is so spectacularly beautiful that it appears on the back of the 20 rmb Chinese banknote. Yangshuo town is bordered by the Li River and Yulong River and surrounded by lush, soaring karst mountains. It is in these mountains that the locals bring their deceased loved ones to bury after the most colourful ceremony that goes on for twenty-four hours after their passing right up to the moment of burial. Family members go out into the mountains during this time to carefully chose the “perfect” burial place nestled in the mountains. The “wake” can be heard for miles around, with Chinese musicians commissioned by the family to play Chinese dirges and requiems on wind instruments. Fireworks can be seen and heard going off right through the night in honor of the deceased. The bereaved families dress in white to resemble the white clothes worn by the corpse, and carry the coffin of their loved one covered in flowers, respectfully and in silence through the town to their place of rest. They scatter yellow square pieces of paper and red rose petals along the route as they go. Having witnessed such a funeral during our time in Yangshuo, I can only describe it as almost tribal, and such a celebration of the deceased’s life. It is extremely moving to witness, even for a stranger in its path.

The scenery in the area is breathtaking for miles and miles around! For me, it is most definitely the “Shangri La” of Southern China. In 1998 President Bill Clinton and his wife Hilary visited Guilin and Yangshuo. President Clinton said after his visit that “nowhere is like Guilin, it has the best scenery under the heavens, but Yangshuo is even more beautiful”. Throughout Yangshuo you will find small farms and rice fields scattered everywhere. But you won’t find any farm machinery! Everything is done by hand, the ancient way, and elderly women and men in their bamboo hats can be seen crouching in the fields tilling the land by hand, and carrying the fruits of their labor in two large baskets hanging from a long bamboo stick balanced across their shoulders. The main mode of transport is bicycle and getting lost down dirt tracks, along riverbanks, is all part of the huge adventure when cycling around. It almost feels like you’re a child again, setting out on a scavenger hunt each day, not knowing what you will find along the way. At the end of every road is yet another soaring mountain, and around every corner you will find jaw-dropping scenery and colors of nature that is every photographer’s dream. But even photographs of this wondrous place do not do it justice. I often had to blink twice to be sure that my eyes weren’t tricking me into seeing such beauty around me.

(Photo: Yulong River, Yangshuo, China)

Day two of our stay, and the best was yet to come. Alison had mentioned she was taking me to see “The Fisherman’s Light Show”, a nightly event that takes place in Yangshuo on the Li River. With tickets prebooked and a taxi ready to collect us to bring us the short distance to this magnificent venue in the centre of Yangshuo, I was beside myself with excitement at the thought of seeing this performance. Now trying to explain the enormity of this event is difficult. Suffice to say that the guy who choreographed the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympic Games is responsible for the production of this magnificent musical performance which takes place once darkness falls, outdoors, on the river, with the mountains lit up as the backdrop/stage. The orchestra begins and suddenly, out of nowhere, hundreds of Chinese fishermen make their way out onto the river, with lanterns lit, on their bamboo rafts. They line up along the river and perform a synchronized movement with fishing nets illuminated with red light to the Chinese music echoing from every corner of the venue. It is spectacular to watch. We were absolutely stunned! On and on it went, with lines of performers (600 in total) with illuminated costumes performing various synchronized dances on the river. A large half moon then sailed out, representing an old Chinese romantic legend of a beautiful woman dancing naked on the moon, with her Chinese lover transfixed with her beauty looking on from the ground below. We were informed by the local people that the performance once had a real naked Chinese woman dancing on the yellow lit moon, however, following objections over the years to her performing on a live show naked, she now sports a full neutral color body stocking to appease those complainers. I can’t help wondering what the gender breakdown of the complainants were? Ha ha. The show takes place twice every night, and from then to now people who know me back home have heard me raving about this show for the past 5 years, and I kid you not, if you ever travel to these parts, make sure not to miss it! The Fisherman’s Light Show…you heard it here, you’ve been warned! 🤪

(Photo: Sunset over the Yulong River)

A huge plus to being a female tourist in China is that crime is practically non-existent. The fear of punishment is much too great and so we had the luxury of absolute freedom to explore and venture around both Beijing, Yangshuo and later Shanghai with the comfort and security of knowing we were totally safe. The Chinese people themselves are kind and caring in the extreme. They are excited to meet with “foreigners” and couldn’t do enough to welcome us to their country. It is not unusual to be accosted by an excited Chinese person as you walk along the street, pleading to allow them take a photo with you. We could all take a leaf from their book!

After another few days of exploring this beautiful part of the world, with girly nights of face masks, wine and meeting the most fascinating people, we travelled on to Shanghai where we visited the famous “Bund”. While it was a spectacular part of China too, part of me remained in Yangshuo! I fell in love with the place to the point that I vowed that some day I would come back to visit again, and stay a little longer.

Five years later, those day-dreams that I used to have of travelling the world have at last come true! Having been in the lucky position of being able to take a sabbatical from my work in Ireland, and with my new husband of two years, (and becoming a first-time grandmother to Alison and her husband’s two year old son Harry), I decided I wanted to travel the world and return to the beautiful town of Yangshuo in China. It was a bit like the scene with Gene Kelly at the end of the movie “Brigadoon”! I had to return to see if it was still there and still as beautiful as it had been five years ago. In the summer of 2018, two teaching jobs came up in the Omeida Language School in Yangshuo. My husband and I applied and were successful. We began working at the school from July through to September and spent the most memorable and fantastic summer teaching English to Chinese children. Part of our job description..”taking students out to explore the beauty of Yangshuo”! Living proof that “dreams do come true”..if you want them badly enough. A holiday that changed my life’s path for the better, made me want to explore this beautiful part of the world further. Since coming back to China, I have climbed the Great Wall of China, I have visited the Giant Panda Research Centre in Chengdu to learn about the near extinction of these beautiful animals and the efforts that are being made to reverse this. I’ve met Tibetan monks at the worlds largest Buddha statue, carved into a mountain in Leshen (Western China) over 1200 years ago which took the Buddhist Monks over 90 years to complete. I am still here in Asia, in Vietnam. Learning more, making more memories and living my life now as a Grandmother to the absolute maximum, documenting every moment of it on my blog “Irish Granny on the Run”.

Now you don’t get any better holiday experience than that! A holiday that changed the path of my life forever!

As the famous poet William Blake wrote in his poem “Auguries of Innocence”

“To see a world in a grain of sand

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour”

I am fortunate enough and soo happy to say that this is exactly what I am doing now. Taking in a trip to Tanzania on my travels, and learning, writing and sharing it with my readers would be another dream come true!

(Photo: Back in Yangshuo after 5 years, teaching English with my husband Colm)

IRISH GRAMMAR ON THE RUN – TEACHING IN YANGSHUO, CHINA 🇨🇳

We arrived in Yangshuo after a 5 hour journey by plane, train and automobile from Vietnam to Guilin China, full of enthusiasm and passion and the usual pangs of anxiety that go with starting any new job. Getting to the school headquarters a little earlier than expected, we climbed the steps to the outdoor seating area, where a large poster of the Principal Teacher greeted students and teachers alike, with encouraging words for their English Language learning. We took a seat at one of the benches and began chatting to two wonderfully pleasant Chinese men who were seated close by. One was clearly a student, with his head buried in his English textbook preparing for his day’s lessons. He was clear bait for any new English Language Teacher, and so I asked him how he was finding the English lessons, whether he felt that he was progressing in his learning of the language and what he thought of the school? He said that he was enjoying his studies and that his English was improving day by day. The other gentleman joined our conversation and I asked him about the area, and did he know much about the school etc. From his knowledge of the area and an identity badge hanging from his neck, it was clear to me that he may have been one of the local taxi drivers trying to grab a fare from the students and teachers on the first day of the new term. To pass the time we chatted away to him, explaining that we were from Ireland, on a trip around the world and were in Yangshuo to teach English to the students at Omeida for the Summer. We tried to get as much info from him also about his dealings with the school and what he thought of it. Once we heard the school chimes for the start of the day, we politely excused ourselves and made our way into the school to meet Jake, the Education Director at the school. After various introductions, instructions and induction, we came across the “taxi driver” guy still hanging around outside as we were leaving. Smiling at him again, we bid him farewell, before we were stopped in our tracks by another member of the Omeida Team for a brief introduction that went something like….”Martine and Colm, please meet Odar, the Principal Teacher”…and then my chin dropped! Throughout our conversation earlier he never once mentioned he was the Principal of the school! My mind did a frantic video rewind of what we had chatted about, for damage limitation purposes of course! And Odar, the Principal, sporting a wide cheeky grin across his entire face, had me in the palm of his hand from that day on. A genuinely, down-to-earth guy..who no doubt thought that morning “what sort of eejits am I employing who didn’t recognize me, even with a huge poster of me hanging right in front of them?”.

And so began our eight-week teaching experience at Omeida, under the governance of this funny, inspiring, unassuming and kind Chinese man. Odar is a shrewd business man as well as the Principal Teacher of this world-class school. One evening over dinner he told us the story of how he had grown up in a nearby rural Chinese village. I had shared with him how shocked I was to see the poverty of the children in Vietnam and seeing rats running alongside where they were playing. He explained that he grew up in very similar circumstances. He always had a love of English from the time he was a young boy and during his time at school he would sit with an English book hidden under his desk and read and read. He is the “Rags to Riches” real life story, and because of this, he is respected and loved by not only the students and teachers and staff at Omeida, but by everyone for miles around. Even the mention of his name to the poorer people of the community who line the streets of Yangshuo trying to earn a crust, brings a smile to their faces and yet another wonderful funny story about him. As the new “foreign” teachers at the school, Odar and his team made sure we had everything we needed, including a warm welcome, top-class accommodation at a small family run hotel nearby, and the local mode of transport in Yangshuo, bicycles, to help us get around and settle in. We couldn’t have asked for more, and over the next eight weeks we happily went about teaching at the Summer Camp, just a few minutes bike ride from our base. The hours were long, which is pretty standard for the people of China. They think nothing of working 15 hour days or more without flinching. We worked seven days a week, sometimes from 8.30 a.m. until 10 p.m. at night with the most beautiful Chinese children ranging between 5 and 23 years old. And while we taught classes indoors most days, we also had the fabulous task of taking these students around Yangshuo on outdoor activities visiting some of the most scenic places in China, and indeed the world. It most certainly didn’t feel like work a lot of the time, but an equally fantastic journey of learning for us.

Teaching at Omeida was certainly a life-changing and whole new learning experience for me as a new English Language Teacher in China. One Monday afternoon, it was time for me to carry out my usual assessment interviews with the new students who had just arrived at the school campus. A tiny young boy of about 6 years old with beautiful ebony innocent eyes, tottered up to my desk for his assessment. And so I began the usual conversation with him, asking him very basic questions about his favorite things and his family. Each time I asked him a question he froze in fear and just stared into my face, watching my every expression. A few minutes into our chat, I realized that he was just too terrified to utter a word in his own language let alone be able to have a little conversation with me in English. I called his Chinese language teacher aside to see if he was ok. Her response was that I was the very first “foreign” person he had ever seen and so my face and eyes etc. were comparable to him seeing an alien for the first time. The poor little mite was so fearful that the interview had to end immediately until he got to know me better and felt secure and safe. And this became a regular occurrence each week with the younger children. After this, I placed my little “Irish Granny on the Run” fluffy teddy on my desk and chatted to the children for a bit about Teddy before engaging them in any English language questions…lesson learned for me on that one for sure!

Our week consisted of teaching English to Chinese children through fun activities and classes to help them to gain confidence in speaking with “foreigners”, i.e. English speaking tourists. A new group of children would arrive on a Monday and stay on the school campus until the following Sunday morning when we would host a “closing ceremony” for them before they left. These “closing ceremonies” would inevitably end up with the students in tears having to leave, and often the teachers, including me, quietly sniffling in a corner as the children watched videos on a big screen of the week they had spent with us. We hosted Barbeque parties where English speaking tourists were invited to join the children at the school to chat to them and to help them learn about other cultures. Hosting Talent Shows at the end of every week before the children left for home, where there were jaw-dropping moments watching the children sing and act out their own cultural performances with such confidence. It was often hard to believe that these were the same shy, nervous children we had interviewed at the beginning of the week.

One of the tasks assigned to me at the start of the Summer was to come up with a “Camp Song” for the students of the Summer Camp. And so, the most obvious one for me was one that I’m sure, like me, many of you will be familiar with from those school tour days back home in Ireland where we would sing at the top of our voices on the school tour bus “Every where we gooo, (every where we goooo), people always ask us (people always ask us), who we are (who we are) where do we come from. And we always tell them (and we always tell them)…we’re from Dublin”…and so on. I just converted the “we’re from Dublin” to “we’re from Omeida, great great Omeida” and bang, that was it. Every group activity began and ended with this song, and the Chinese children would chant it loudly at the top of their voices “we’re from Omeida, great great Omeida”. They totally loved the excitement of it and every opportunity that arose they would burst into the song, much to the amusement of everyone around at all of the tourist sites we took them to visit.

Each week we would also have a “Bamboo Minority Dancing” night, where all of the “foreign” teachers learned how to do the local “Minority Bamboo Dance”. We dressed up in the local costumes and jumped and danced between Bamboo Sticks being shuffled on the ground by six Chinese Teaching Assistants to the beat of the local Chinese traditional songs. The dance was difficult, made even more difficult by our fits of hysterical laughter as we tried to avoid tripping over the constantly moving sticks. The children put us to shame when it was their turn to do it and were totally amused at these “aliens” in funny costumes struggling to stay upright throughout the dancing. During these eight weeks, we became children ourselves and every single day brought with it the most wonderful experiences with some of the most colourful characters I have ever encountered. And this was what our working days were like… adventure after adventure, each day better than the next. Exhausting for sure, but this was living life to the full and worth every single minute of it! Our fellow teachers and the staff at Omeida became like family to us, and in particular the young college students who became our teaching assistants while we taught. These teaching assistants were trojan workers and nothing was too big a task for them. They cared for the young students with patience, love and commitment from sun up to sun down until the young children were tucked up safely in their beds at night. They took care of the children “in loco parentis”, the same, if not better, than any parent would. With all of these people we shared absolutely everything …the highs and the lows of our time in Yangshuo. If one of us expressed a longing for western food or an item that we needed, all hands went on deck to find it. I had fresh French bread delivered to my door by one of the foreign teachers (who has now become one of my close friends) because I was having serious withdrawals from the lack of western food. The ex-pat community in Yangshuo really do become like family, as I’m sure most people living away from home in other countries have experienced. However I believe Yangshuo has the X-Factor on this having lived here for these three months.

Yet another lesson for me happened when we were assigned a group of 83 University Students on our last week at the school. They were young adults who were majoring in English and in addition to the usual classes, we had the task of accompanying these students on a cycling tour of about 20Kms round trip to visit some of the most beautiful sights in Yangshuo, one of which was to climb a nearby mountain called “Moon Hill Mountain”. Now climbing the mountain was via 800 steep steps in sweltering temperatures. The struggle was real! When we arrived at the foot of the mountain after cycling along the most beautiful scenic route, myself and Colm held back to the rear of the group so we could see and supervise all of the students ahead of us as they climbed. Naturally, being used to the high temperatures and at almost half our age, they climbed up at a much quicker pace than we did. Desperately struggling up at the half-way mark, we came across a group of young Chinese students lazing in the sunshine at a stone bench. The natural teacher in me questioned them as to why they hadn’t continued up with the rest of the students. I got the usual teenage response “oh it’s too hot” and “we can’t go any higher, we just can’t”. Well, I kindly but firmly told them to get up off their “behinds” and continue the climb to the top, reprimanding them that they would regret not doing the climb like their fellow students who would have the most beautiful photos and memories of the sights from the top of the mountain over Yangshuo. They reluctantly agreed to continue, but still complained and moaned, saying “our friends will be coming down soon and we’ll be late reaching the top now, and the teachers won’t be happy with us”. I was naturally becoming impatient with them at this point and told them that I was twice their age and was prepared to continue the climb and that they were to get their a**es in gear and do it and not worry about “teachers not being happy with them”, as we would explain to the other teacher that was with us that they got delayed. I assured them that it was “mind over matter” and that we would all do the climb together singing the “Camp Song” and that would keep their minds occupied as we climbed. And so we did, belting out the song all the way up, with me singing the lines of the song and them repeating “we’re from Omeida, great great Omeida”! Sure enough, their Chinese student friends passed by us on the return journey down, greeting them with laughter and jeering in Chinese as they passed, despite my disapproving glares. With continuous words of encouragement to them as they continued the climb I thought…”I’ll have them sorted, they’ll be at the top in no time and will be delighted with themselves”. And so, we reached the top some forty minutes later, only for them to do a swift turn around, in a state of panic wanting to go back down. I was gob-smacked! What on earth was wrong with these students? I asked them what their hurry was going back down and one young girl said “our bus will be leaving soon”! Now I was at the end of my tether with them trying to lie to me to get out of enjoying the views from the mountain top. So, I told them to go enjoy the views and stop the nonsense, sure weren’t they on their bikes with us? It was then the penny dropped…. They were students from a different college, with a different tour group! Another video rewind in my head for damage limitation…and bang… that I had them chanting all the way up the mountain “we’re from Omeida, great great Omeida”! Oh nooooo! No wonder their friends were laughing and teasing them… and no wonder they wanted to get away quickly… in their eyes they had met this mad western woman who was making them sing songs they had never heard of all the way up the mountain. As soon as they saw my face, and the realization dawning on me, they ran. No time for me to apologize or explain that with 83 Chinese students it was difficult for me to differentiate between them! The lesson? Know who your students are. We went out with 83 students and could have come back with 90! How would I explain that one to the school authorities? 😂😂😂

Exploring this part of China is like opening a beautiful Pandora’s Box of nature. It is a backpackers’ paradise on earth! It is so spectacularly beautiful that it appears on the back of the 20 rmb Chinese banknote. Yangshuo town is bordered by the Li River and Yulong River and surrounded by lush, soaring karst mountains. It is in these mountains that the locals bring their deceased loved ones to bury after the most colourful ceremony that goes on for twenty-four hours after their passing right up to the moment of burial. Family members go out into the mountains during this time to carefully chose the “perfect” burial place nestled in the mountains. The “wake” can be heard for miles around, with Chinese musicians commissioned by the family to play Chinese dirges and requiems on wind instruments. Fireworks can be seen and heard going off right through the night in honor of the deceased. The bereaved families dress in white to resemble the white clothes worn by the corpse, and carry the coffin of their loved one covered in flowers, respectfully and in silence through the town to their place of rest. They scatter yellow square pieces of paper and red rose petals along the route as they go. Having witnessed such a funeral during our time in Yangshuo, I can only describe it as almost tribal, and such a celebration of the deceased’s life. It is extremely moving to witness, even for a stranger in its path.

The scenery in the area is breathtaking for miles and miles around! For me, it is most definitely the “Shangri La” of Southern China. In 1998 President Bill Clinton and his wife Hilary visited Guilin and Yangshuo. President Clinton said after his visit that “nowhere is like Guilin, it has the best scenery under the heavens, but Yangshuo is even more beautiful”. Throughout Yangshuo you will find small farms and rice fields scattered everywhere. But you won’t find any farm machinery! Everything is done by hand, the ancient way, and elderly women and men in large coolie hats can be seen crouching in the fields tilling the land by hand, and carrying the fruits of their labor in two large baskets hanging from a long bamboo stick balanced across their shoulders. The main mode of transport is bicycle and getting lost down dirt tracks, along riverbanks, is all part of the huge adventure when cycling around. It almost feels like you’re a child again, setting out on a scavenger hunt each day, not knowing what you will find along the way. At the end of every road is yet another soaring mountain, and around every corner you will find jaw-dropping scenery and colors of nature that is every photographer’s dream. But even photographs of this wondrous place do not do it justice. I often had to blink twice to be sure that my eyes weren’t tricking me into seeing such beauty around me. Each Sunday we had our afternoons free, and so we sometimes de-stressed by taking a bamboo raft along the Yulong River with our very own Chinese rower steering the boat with one huge bamboo stick under his large Coolie hat. He would plunge the stick into the riverbed and push the bamboo raft down the river and over the weirs, listening to our excited screams as we approached each weir waiting for the raft to drop down yet another level into the water below. Large colourful umbrellas attached to the rafts, sheltering the passengers from the sun as they float along, and the lush green karst mountains reflecting on the glassy water, creates the most picturesque views of this beautiful corner of the world.

Along Yangshuo’s Main Street (West Street) it has bustling markets, with local street food. The dumplings and Guilin Noodles are totally scrumptious, and even the mere mention of them makes my mouth water. West Street on any day is filled with tourists enjoying the many restaurants and bars with local Chinese women shouting out their wares through microphone head-sets. Each bar has its music blaring in competition with the next one and it can be gritting on the nerves sometimes, but an experience to be had all the same. It was an ideal venue for our Chinese students to meet and speak with foreigners and they absolutely loved the buzz and activity of the town. It was also the meeting place for all of the “foreign” teachers to enjoy a rare night out if we had the energy at the end of a day with the students. I could write another ten pages on this piece, but, “what goes on in West Street, stays in West Street” 😂. Let’s just say, at the early stage of our stay (and before we all began work in earnest), the hotel where most of the “foreign” teachers were lodging put up a sign on the door to say there was a curfew, and that anyone arriving back at the hotel after 2 a.m. would not have access to their room as the doors would be locked. To explain that the World Cup was on and due to the time difference we had to stay out at the bar to watch it just didn’t cut the mustard 😜. There was no offer of a key to the door, so lucky for us, we arrived home (only on the one occasion mind, and only because our 25 minute walk home ended up being almost 2 hours, until we realized we were heading into the mountains instead of the town where our hotel was and had got lost!), at 6.10 a.m.! Luckily, the hotel re-opened the doors at 6 a.m. and we casually strolled in and up to our rooms as though it was the most natural thing in the world. I was quite amused that a curfew had been imposed on me, in my 50’s! It was quite nice to feel like a teenager again 🤪

And so our time of teaching came to an end, but we still had three weeks left in China before we had to leave for Vientiane in Laos. Yet again, the school went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure that we could stay in our accommodation, free of charge, until we left. To say that we felt respected and valued being part of this organization is an understatement. Even after our contracts ended, they still took care of us, to the point that when I needed a doctor for a horrendous tummy bug that I had picked up, the school organized a lovely young Chinese student to accompany me to the hospital to be my interpreter. The hospital experience was another interesting one. I arrived at the hospital at 9.00 a.m. I had seen a doctor, who referred me to the area of the hospital that dealt with gastric problems by 9.30 a.m. I had tests completed in the hospital, results in my file going back to the doctors office, a diagnosis, prescription and medication in my paws, ready to leave by 10.30 a.m. And all for the sum of c.240 rmb, which equates to just over €30. With a population of 1.4 billion people, the healthcare system in China far exceeds the demand that we are dealing with in Ireland and yet there are no trolleys in corridors, or lengthy queues of very sick patients waiting to be seen. Albeit, when visiting the doctor initially you discuss your symptoms with the doctor while other patients in the line look over your shoulder. Luckily the people behind me were Chinese and most likely had no English and vice-versa.

With my health problem sorted, the teaching finished, and a comfy base to return to in Yangshuo, we had a full three weeks to explore some more amazing places in Southern and Western China. The public transport system, in particular the bullet train, allowed us such freedom to begin yet another adventure and at very little cost. Our first port of call…to take a bullet train to Chengdu in Western China to visit the Panda Bear Reserve and Research Centre!

Yet another “learning curve”, and one that will certainly stay with me in the context of how important it is for us, as humans, to protect and preserve the most beautiful and vulnerable species on our planet.

More to come….

FROM CITY SLUMS, TO BEACH BUMS 👍

We left Saigon to travel northwards, along the eastern seaboard of Vietnam to a place called Nha Trang. Our plan was to spend two weeks here by the breathtaking South China Sea, and then travel further north to the city of Hanoi, (some 1300kms north which would take us 2 hours of a flight from Nha Trang), to learn some more about this country and its people. We travelled on the quaintest old train that wound its way through the little streets of Saigon where people’s front doors opened onto the tracks and children played happily until the next scheduled train was due to arrive. Little faces looked out from their tiny homes, waving in delight at the train as it passed by. The train itself was like something out of a Sherlock Holmes movie! The interior of the carriages were covered with wallpaper, with oil style lamps dotted along the inside walls. The chairs were old but so comfortable, and our fellow passengers, the local Vietnamese people, had literally everything but the kitchen sinks packed in with them (if they had kitchens!). The trains in Vietnam are a far cry from the high speed bullet train we had travelled on in Japan, but this train had such character that it was, on every level, the most enjoyable 9 hour train journey I had since leaving Ireland.

At each stop along the way, elderly Vietnamese women jumped onto the train with boxes of fruit, trying to sell their wares to passengers, in an absolute frenzy, so they could jump off the train with their pockets full of Vietnamese Dong before it took off again for the next stop. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them didn’t make the deadline and had to continue on for miles before being able to get off again. And how did they find their way back home? Taxis and cars are practically non-existent outside of the cities, so they’d basically have to walk for miles with their boxes of fruit in tow. Or wait for hours for the next train back! We opted out of food on offer from the trolleys of large soup pots passing us in the trains aisle. Nobody spoke enough English to tell us what the pots held, and we weren’t brave enough to try out the local cuisine. What did happen though was the the people around us, noticed that we weren’t eating and generously took out fruit that they had bought from the women who had been on the train earlier, and offered some to us. I was particularly moved by the generosity of a woman who clearly was quite poor, travelling with her young son and husband, taking out all sorts of food and fruit from her bag and offering it to us. This was a regular occurrence that we experienced during our time in Vietnam. The Vietnamese people have so little, yet they are happy to share with us, foreigners in their country, what little they had. We could all take a leaf from that book!

Now one piece of advice I’d give anyone travelling by train in Vietnam; Know how to ask for the stop you’re getting off at in the Vietnamese language! Don’t assume that someone on the train will speak English, not even the staff on board. They don’t! And the trains can be delayed along the way, so banking on a time of arrival to know what station is the right one just doesn’t work. We learned this the hard way, albeit it could have been worse. After about 8 hours into our journey, we asked one of the train assistants if the next stop was Nha Trang, but in the same breath, asked him what time it was due to stop there. His response answered a very different question (we think). He said “yes” (but if you ask any other question apparently, (because of the lack of English), the answer will always be the same…”yes” 😁). And so we grabbed our cases and bags and began making our way towards the exit doors. No other passengers seemed to be moving, which we thought was quite strange. In fact, I’m sure I saw a few smirks and giggles from the locals who I guess had seen eejits like us travelling on their trains before. One hour later, we’re still at the exit door. The station was nowhere near, and we weren’t even sure when the train did eventually stop whether it was Nha Trang. We had to take the risk, jump off and suck it and see. Luckily it was!

When travelling through Vietnam also, you really cannot rely on ATM machines being readily available. So cash, cash, cash all the way. The currency, the Vietnamese Dong, takes a bit of getting used to. €1 is equivalent to 27,000 Dong. When you’re trying to convert this back to Euro from millions of Dong, it becomes quite confusing. But everything from food to drink to accommodation is unbelievably cheap. A two course meal with drinks, for two people, would set you back no more than €15-€20. You actually feel like a millionaire when you look at all the notes of Dong in your purse…I’d always hoped to be one someday. I guess I just got the wrong country 😂😂😂.

We had been forewarned before we arrived, that when travelling by taxi in Vietnam, make sure it is a metered taxi! This is the downfall of travelling through Vietnam, or in fact many countries throughout the world. There are serious scams going on in relation to taxis, so if you fall foul of riding in a taxi that isn’t metered you could end up having to pay a serious amount of money for them to take you to where you want to go, not to mention the other dangers that I don’t dare to think about. There are hair raising stories of how tourists have been caught out and robbed by travelling in cars that appear to be taxis but aren’t. We had been given good advice, to download an app called Grab. It basically works the same as Uber and is regulated and monitored, and extremely cheap. So, stay with the metered ones, no matter how desperate you might be to get somewhere!

So onwards we went by taxi, to our beautiful Airbnb accommodation in Nha Trang. We have had nothing but fantastic hosts and accommodation in every place we have stayed throughout our travels. That was, until now! When booking we noticed that there were no reviews on the accommodation, which is quite unusual. We ticked it off as probably being the fact that it looked so new and pristine clean. Bad move! The accommodation itself, to be fair, was spanking new, to the point that it still hadn’t been fully equipped with kitchenware. But having a pristine clean apartment with two bedrooms and directly across from a beautiful beach…sure what more could we have asked for? That was, until about 7 a.m. the following morning when we heard the noise of Cango hammers and drills all around us. We were in a brand new building to be sure. Our apartment was one of the few that had been finished and the remainder of the building was basically a construction site. We had been told that breakfast was included with our accommodation! So we thought this would involve an “opt in” or “opt out” and that we could make our way to wherever it was served and voila. Happy Days! Not so! At 8.00 a.m. each morning after we had been woken by the major construction going on around us, a Vietnamese lady would arrive with a plate with slices of melon and a couple of cold fried eggs on top. Fair enough, we thought we could take in the breakfast and have it at our leisure. Again, not so! As soon as the breakfast lady had delivered our food, a team of cleaners would arrive. Five cleaning ladies, ready to attack the apartment with gusto. And this was every morning! If we didn’t answer the door when they knocked, they had their own key and just opened the door to let themselves in!

Day two of the stay I had decided, nope, not having this! Not an ounce of privacy…ah no! I thought if I advised our “Host” that we would only be requiring cleaning twice a week and that we would be out some mornings doing outdoor activities (seeing as the indoor ones were out…unless we wanted an audience 😜) so he could cut back on the breakfast deliveries also; Sure wouldn’t that sort it? Not so! He replied to my messages saying “yes”. (Probably similar to the train attendants). And the knocking on the door every morning continued, with the team of smiling Vietnamese ladies greeting us each time we opened the door to our gobsmacked faces looking back at them! How many days do you have to open the door and tell them “Go Away please”? Nope, they returned with even more gusto the following day. At a different time each day then…which meant absolutely no privacy at all! I started imagining hearing the door knock at 2 and 3 a.m. in the morning! It was getting to me I guess 😤. So back onto our Host, who at this point was totally ignoring my 2,000 word rants! Even on the last day of our stay when I notified him that I was leaving the key at reception, I opened the door to another group of smiling Vietnamese women who had arrived, yet again, to clean, but also to collect our key. Moral of the story? Do not everrr book accommodation on Airbnb unless there are a number of reviews to refer to. I notice following my review on the site, that his accommodation is available for the next year. Funny that!

To avoid the stress of our streams of visitors to our apartment each morning, we decided to make our way to the beach early, and relax on the sun loungers by the most beautiful sea I have ever seen. The South China Sea is warm and spotless clean, and swimming in it is definitely everything that you expect and more. Clear blue skies, golden sand and palm trees every day! This is the beauty of the place! It’s the stuff that holiday magazines display for that dream holiday. The issues with the apartment faded away into insignificance in light of the rest of our surroundings. Nha Trang itself is a huge city with bustling side streets of markets and bars and restaurants. It is the total opposite end of the spectrum to Saigon. It is called “the Riviera of Vietnam” for good reason, and that is the wealth that is apparent everywhere you walk. However, that is in the “tourist” sections of the city only. Venture into the back streets and again you will find the inner layer of the same onion, the poverty hidden away from the naked eye, albeit not to the same extent as we had already seen in Saigon.

We booked a boat trip one morning out to some islands off the east coast of Vietnam through a local tour company and were provided with the most attentive tour guide called Hung, who brought cold beer in a cooler box for us (I guess knowing we were Irish he knew this was a good move 🙏). The Funky Monkey Boat had a crew of hilarious Vietnamese and Cambodian entertainers who knew all of the familiar songs from their passengers home countries. One guy on the boat who called himself “Monkey Boy” (a native of Cambodia), burst into song with “The Fields of Athenry”, when he discovered that he had two Irish passengers on board. He was the most endearing character we met in Vietnam and we have remained in contact with him, and Hung since.

The Funky Monkey boat was taking us for a scuba diving and snorkeling experience, out into the seas alongside the islands. Now anywhere else in the world (I found out later), ensures that you complete a training course before embarking on a scuba dive. Not here! Being a strong swimmer with a passion for swimming in the ocean, I was only too happy to give this a try…not even considering the possible dangers of doing so without having any experience of scuba diving before this. My rationale was that this was the purpose of my journey; to experience new adventures and do things that I had never done before in my life. This was, for me, the perfect opportunity to do just that. And after all, I was to be accompanied by an experienced scuba diving instructor. Sure how much safer could I be? So, on went the wet-suit and the oxygen tank. A five to ten minute lesson on how to breath with the somewhat complex apparatus, and off I went. Off the boat, out into the ocean, with my diving instructor. As he gently pushed me down further and further towards the bottom of the sea bed, any fear that I had was replaced with absolute wonder and amazement at what I was seeing in front of my mask! The most beautifully colored fish, swimming past my face, eel like creatures slithering along the sea floor. And then, the instructor took my hand and placed it on the coral that was swaying on the sea bed. I never knew that coral was soft, having only seen it out of the ocean. And as I combed my hands through the mounds of coral, more fish darted out in front of me. Trying to concentrate on breathing through the mouthpiece was difficult with the distraction of taking everything in that I was seeing, and I struggled at one point and had to be brought to the surface very quickly for another quick re-run of using the mouthpiece and oxygen correctly. I wasn’t deterred, not a chance was I gonna stop at this point, and down I went again; with such an enthusiastic diving instructor who had explained to me how to signal to him when we were down at the bottom of the sea, if I was in difficulty, I certainly felt like I was in safe hands. The sense of achievement I felt, despite the initial fear, was overwhelming. It was certainly, for me, the highlight of my trip to Vietnam, and an experience I will make sure happens more and more as I travel further around Asia. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet, feel the fear and do it anyway, as the saying goes.

We had a fabulous lunch on the board the boat where we had the option of selecting live fish from fish-tanks submerged in the ocean at one of the fishing villages we stopped at en-route before docking for lunch.

In terms of food in Nha Trang, the local cuisine is most famous for fresh seafood and barbecued pork rolled in rice paper. The area’s “bird’s nest soup” is also deemed one of the best in Vietnam. Bird’s nests are collected in the wild, on bird farms on the islands off the coast and even in some houses in the inner city and used for cooking. The birds nest is not made from leaves or twigs that we are all too familiar with. It is taken from a bird called a swiftlet, indigenous to certain parts of Asia and Australia. Swiftlets, unlike most birds, make their nests by expelling saliva. The saliva dries and hardens upon contact with air to form the nest which is, of course, edible. So, in other words, what you’re ingesting is…bird spit. It is widely believed that eating these nests in a soup-like mixture can cure heart disease and even cancer, although proper research to support this theory is still being explored. It’s also expensive however, and so we decided to stick to the other local cuisine on offer, more because the thoughts of eating birds spit just didn’t appeal to my western and unadventurous palette. 😝 At that point, a sausage, rasher and fried egg was all my western palate longed for ….. it’s the simple things in life really 😂

And so, after spending two weeks lounging around the beautiful beaches of Nha Trang it was time for us to move on to Hanoi, where we had booked our next Airbnb accommodation at crazily cheap cost in the Old Quarter of the city. The influence of the historical French occupancy of this city is the first thing that strikes you as you arrive into this particular part of Hanoi. From the architecture of the buildings you could be forgiven for thinking you had landed in an old old city in France. Our accommodation was just one such building that was draped in French history, and belonged to a Vietnamese elderly woman whose family history went back generations to France. Our large bedroom in the old building had one of those wonderful old high ceilings with a three-bladed fan hanging from the centre ceiling that would not have been out of place in one of those old movies with hospital rooms where romance bloomed between the nurses and patients, during the Second World War.

Another great tip for anyone travelling to the cities of Saigon or Hanoi in Vietnam (or indeed anywhere around Asia) is that there are fantastic enthusiastic young students who want to improve their conversational English skills who advertise to accompany western tourists, free of charge, offering to be your tour guide for a day. Eager to learn about the history of the city, we took advantage of this in Hanoi and booked a tour only to be accompanied by two wonderfully enthusiastic and educated guides Ann and Quinn, who brought us around the old quarter. We visited an old heritage house, visited the markets and cobbled streets of the city. The crafts and trades of the local merchants were used to name the streets of the old quarter of Hanoi, e.g. Bamboo Wares Street, or Copper Wares Street. Again, along these streets, we saw examples of poverty where tiny, narrow alleyways between shops housed families in tiny dark spaces with no light, just one tiny room at the end of the alleyway. It was during this particular trip that we stumbled across stalls with full bodies of dogs, cooked and ready to be eaten, on sale. This is a delicacy in Hanoi, and while it is easy to judge this practice, I think it’s important to mention that these dogs are not stray or pet dogs as is often speculated on, but specifically bred for the food market. It is difficult to comprehend and while I may not agree with such a practice, I’m conscious of the fact that there are practices that our culture engages in that are just as offensive to people from other cultures. I’m sure the Indian culture are horrified that we butcher and eat cows for example, whereas they venerate these animals. The debate goes on, however, again, we cannot judge other cultures by holding our own up as a paragon!

And so, our three week stay in Vietnam came to an end, shortened due to the fact that we had been offered the most wonderful opportunity of teaching English in China. We excitedly prepared to go back again to one of the most beautiful places on this planet, Yangshuo in Southern China, to begin our teaching of English at the Omeida Language Academy.

The best was yet to come!

THE VICES AND VIRTUES OF VIETNAM 🇻🇳

(Photo: An elderly lady mixing cement in Saigon – June 2018)

There is a notable time lapse between this blog and my last one. The reason for this is that I just could not bring myself to write any more on the Saigon/Ho Chi Minh experience (I’ll refer to the city as Saigon in this blog as the local people don’t particularly like the new name of Ho Chi Minh following the Vietnam war). I needed some time to process what I was seeing before being able to write about it again, and frankly, even re-visiting it in my mind was distressing, as i think is evident from my previous blog.

In hindsight, (aside from the War Museum), I’m not sure why it had such a profound impact on me. I’m very much aware that there is poverty everywhere in the world. I do believe however, that even the poorest of us in the western world live a very privileged lifestyle by comparison to how people live in many countries outside of this. Our TV screens show us this every day, yet to see it first hand I think is very different. News reports and images of babies being injured by bombs in Syria etc. seem to have very little impact on us anymore. While I’ve been horrified to see these images on my TV, I’m ashamed to say that it’s become such a regular occurrence that I have almost become immune to it, and I believe that this is the same for all of us.

While walking through the streets on the outskirts of the city of Saigon, and Hanoi (to a lesser extent), I witnessed for the first time in my life, people living in what can only be described (by our standards back home), as minimal at best, and totally poverty stricken at worse. It’s a very different level of poverty than I have ever seen in the Western World. It kicks you right in the gut, and it has made me reflect on many things, not least, about being a parent, rearing children in a society very different from here.

From the time our children take their first breath, as parents, we are constantly worrying about whether we are giving them “enough”?! And I refer here to material things! In first world countries, most parents, (including myself), frantically shop at Christmas and birthdays and every other occasion that demands it, filling rooms with toys, computers and whatever material gadgets might be in fashion, fooling ourselves that this will bring so much happiness to our children and make us better parents. We buy them everything from designer clothes, shoes, to expensive sugary cereals where inviting tokens and toys are displayed on boxes and targeting parents to buy them to ensure our children have “the best product”. Sucked in like idiots. I have been that soldier! Parents are pressurized into purchasing the best designer products for the same reason. I’ve known parents who have got into serious debt in order to “keep up with the Jones’s kids” in the belief that they were being better parents as a result! We are all guilty of overindulging our children at some point, as we are ourselves. It’s almost impossible to avoid! Our children will remind us about “Johnny’s mother or father buying him the latest x-box/computer/computer game” and we are challenged constantly as parents to say No! In a nutshell, we don’t say “NO”! It’s much more difficult of course, but in the end, by doing so is teaching our children a very important life lesson. “No, you can’t have everything you want”! I would love if every teenager living in the western world was encouraged to spend a minimum of two weeks of their school holidays out here doing voluntary work. Teaching them some valuable life lessons about helping people less fortunate than themselves.

Here in Vietnam it is very very different! Many parents don’t have the luxury of saying “Yes” ever, to their children. Even to provide them with the most basic of toys is a challenge and the children are none the wiser. Parents struggle to feed and clothe their children and toys just cannot be a priority. Regardless, these children can be seen playing happily in the little alleyways and along the side of open railway tracks where their tiny houses open out onto. Their street outside their homes are train tracks. I walked down along these train tracks in Hanoi one afternoon with a local English speaking Vietnamese guide and spoke to some of the women who lived in what can only be described as little one-room shacks no bigger than 5m2. They rear their children in these rooms. They cook, sleep, and conduct their family lives in such conditions. The women dry their food on blankets across the tracks in between the times of trains speeding through their tiny street. Children were playing on the train tracks, playing with burst footballs, (probably dreaming of being the next Ronaldo). Little girls playing with worn ropes for skipping. I asked one of the mothers how she could be sure that her children were safe from the daily trains speeding through their “play areas”. She pointed to a train timetable that she had pinned to her door and explained that when the train is due to pass she calls them in off the tracks. I was gobsmacked! And yet, these men and women go about their daily lives happily. They don’t complain and claim they are very happy with their lot. The children are the happiest little children I have ever seen and remind me of the really old photos from my parents time when children played with a tin can or played skipping from sun up to sun down. To watch these children playing and with having so little is a sight to behold and lesson for any parent.

Children, from a very young age, must also help to bring in some money to the household. On one occasion when we were out taking a stroll on the outskirts of Saigon, near our luxurious accommodation (that came at a very low cost but troubled me with guilt returning to it each evening), we came across a group of children from about 4 years of age up to maybe 10 years old at the side of a main road with traffic speeding up and down. They appeared to be siblings and were rummaging through a pile of rubbish, gathering recyclables and bagging it to sell. They were happily and excitedly going through the pile only a few feet away from where we had seen the rats scurrying the previous day. This is a common enough occurrence and one that is very moving to witness as a parent. And the elderly people! We saw old women who were at least 75 years old, doing the very same as the young children had; sifting through rubbish and piling cardboard and plastic onto their bikes to sell on in the hope of making some money for their families. Another elderly couple who were well into their late 70’s or possibly 80’s in Saigon were mixing cement at the side of the road in seriously high temperatures and stacking bricks outside their little house that was situated down one of the alleyways. (There would be uproar back home if this happened!)

Away from the train tracks, people, in the main, live in tiny one or two roomed dwellings of about 15m2 with no windows, one main door at the front of the house, with iron gates that fold across the front exterior of their homes to act as their barriers at nighttime. In this small living area, motorbikes and scooters are also kept. The roofs are made from pieces of corrugated iron joined together. There is little point in putting a window into your house here as the neighbouring houses are packed so tightly around you. On another day we decided to take a stroll through the alleyways, only to discover a river with a little bridge right in the middle of the neighborhood. And as we got nearer to the river we were overwhelmed by this nauseating smell. The riverbank was filled with piles of rubbish running alongside peoples homes. Weekly garbage was literally just flung into the river and never cleared! This same river where fish was caught and eaten. The roadways where we walked along had rats, running alongside us, scurrying into yet another pile of rubbish that had been left on vacant ground. The smell was palpable in temperatures of 32 degrees celsius (and rising). Directly opposite the waste ground where the rats were happily discovering their next meal were alleyways where men and women sat on the pavements selling fruit, meat, chickens, vegetables and all sorts of foodstuffs. Women with buckets of live fish, gutting them and selling them from plastic buckets. You don’t get much fresher than that! (Apparently this is common practice and done to ensure that the customer sees that the fish is totally fresh – they would never sell fish that had been dead and gutted already!). Hygiene standards are also very very different from ours back in Ireland. I witnessed a beautiful young woman who was in the full throes of gutting a fish. Clearly hungry, she reached for a peach and ate it without even a thought to wash the fish guts from her hands! And continued gutting the fish once it was eaten. Another woman was bargaining with a customer on how much she would charge for a piece of the dead dog that lay sprawled across her stall.

There doesn’t appear to be any sort of organized rubbish collection by the state in Saigon. The opposite is true of Nha Trang and Hanoi.

The southern city of Saigon is almost seen as the “prodigal son” after the war. There is an underlying resentment by the people of Saigon towards the people of Hanoi and vice versa. It’s not an “in-your-face” resentment. But it’s very much there under the surface. The hangover from the war I guess. The people of Saigon believe that the Government in Hanoi holds the purse strings too tightly in the context of their slice of the pie. They believe that it distributes monies stingily to its city. They are also expected to contribute a lot more of their taxes to the Government in Hanoi than people and businesses in Hanoi. The people of Hanoi however, believe that the people in Saigon are irresponsible with money and only live in the moment! Interesting that! I suspect it’s more to do with the fact that the people of Saigon had the USA as allies during the war.

Regardless, there is a clear responsibility on the state in this country to provide proper facilities for disposing of rubbish for its people and not have them exposed to dangerous levels of filth piling up. And I’m thinking, where are the state run rubbish collectors? Where are the equivalent of their “county councils” in all of this? There is absolutely no visual evidence whatsoever of garbage collection, let alone regulations around the environment in Saigon.

What is evident is that the Vietnamese are a dignified and hard working race. There is virtually no-one classified as “unemployed” according to “Government statistics”. But how reliable are these statistics? Latest reports state that the average annual wage here is just over $1,700 per year, that’s only $145 per month!

Like many other tourists who have visited this part of the world, there is a sense of initial shock, which then becomes “what can I or anyone do to help”? Before we arrived here, and from what little we knew of this country we had decided that we would like to do some voluntary work in Vietnam. And having spent some time here, my thoughts have turned to “how bloody arrogant and ignorant were we to think, we, two Irish tourist who are very privileged to be here to begin with, might think we were better than these people, or that they needed our help to begin with”!. I was seeing the needs of these people through a “western” lens, ignorantly assuming that they are not happy because they are living with different conditions than we have back home. I am ashamed to realize that this is very far from what these people want! I’m sure they are sick of foreign tourists coming in and “judging” their standard of living and telling them that they need to change! The reality is that the people here are so happy with so little! They don’t see themselves in the way that I, or other people who come here from the western world do. They have nothing to compare to how they live their lives. This is what they do and they get on with it. This is their life and they are a proud race of people who take pride in how hard they work, regardless of what the work entails. They don’t need “foreigners” like us coming in and telling them that they should be aiming for riches and wealth, and giving their kids computer games and xboxes! The children running around are happy and loved and cared for, albeit by different standards than we are akin to. They are not kids that have their own bedrooms and computer games and can lock themselves away when they choose. They are like kids of times long gone by in Ireland, so happy to be playing outside with a burst football or skipping rope etc. And they are certainly the richer for it!

The orphanages on the other hand, well the same applies here. Western tourists, like ourselves, come over with the intention of doing good and spending a few weeks helping out. Until you get here and realize that these orphanages cannot allow tourists to spend a couple of weeks getting attached to young children that are here, and then disappear back to their normal comfortable lifestyle, happy with themselves that they’ve done their bit? Well, a bit of a reality check here for all of us! The heads of the orphanages are absolutely right in restricting such a practice! So, from our perspective on our plans to help out, we are committed to our teaching jobs now in southern China and once that’s through, we can look into spending more time on these issues.

From what we have researched, there are 1.5 million children (out of a population of 96 million) housed in orphanages here. The vast majority of these children are victims of the Agent Orange chemical used in the Vietnam wars. They are severely disabled and are rarely if ever adopted by western families due to their horrific disabilities. There are also another group of children who will remain in the orphanages, unadopted, due to them having the aids virus. These are the children that need help and assistance the most.

In total contrast, the centre of the city of Saigon itself it is a hive of activity, with shops and bars and restaurants everywhere. The city is filled with such welcome for foreigners and the markets in the centre of Saigon are an absolute must to visit, filled with local gifts and wares and foods and spices that are spectacular and the freshest you will ever find. There are vegetables and fruit for sale around every corner that i had never seen or heard of before. And one of the jaw-dropping moments on arrival to Saigon is the swarms of scooters on the roads. Scooters with whole families piled on weaving through the traffic. We saw scooter drivers carrying large glass windows, fridges, doors, and basically anything you can think of, piled onto the scooter. Rules of the road are practically non-existent we figured! 🙂 We took a wonderful trip along the Saigon River on a huge illuminated ship where we were entertained with local traditional dancers and enjoyed the beautiful variety of Vietnamese food on offer. There are cranes along the skyline throughout the city, which is a sure sign that the city is on the brink of huge development. However, I believe that it is merely the outer layer of the onion on display for all the world to see. Peel it away and that’s when you see the inner layers that I have written about above.

Having moved further north along the coast to Nha Trang, and then Hanoi, the poverty was there, but was nowhere near what I had witnessed in Saigon. In a nutshell, I was happy to physically leave the city and move further north along the coast, although what I experienced will remain with me forevermore.

Our visit to Nha Trang took 9 hours by train from Saigon. A train that also ran through the tiny streets of Saigon with wide-eyed children looking out and waving at us from their tiny homes along the tracks as we passed by.

Despite all of the above, Vietnam has many virtues and the warmth of it’s people and the rest of it’s beautiful country are but a few that i will talk about in my next blog, Nha Trang…a world away from what we had left behind in Saigon.

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