(Photo: Yellow Tram, Lisbon) At the point of leaving Australia and returning to Europe to get home to Ireland in time for Christmas, there were a few important developments happening along our journey that I feel are worth mentioning. Firstly, at this point we were … Continue reading LISBON V BARCELONA
Our final destination on the Australian leg of our journey was one that I was feeling quite emotional about. This part of the trip was more about meeting up with my late father’s only brother Paul, who had emigrated from Ireland to Australia in the 1970’s, almost 50 years ago. On hearing that I was travelling to Australia, one of Paul’s daughters (my cousin Sinead) contacted me and invited us to stay at my uncle Paul’s house in Sydney. My father had passed away tragically at 57 years of age in 2000 and to say I was distraught after he died is an understatement. It was many years before my Dad’s passing that I last met my uncle Paul in Ireland. My memories of him and his family were vague. While I had recently connected with Paul’s children on Facebook, I had yet to meet them as adults in real life. The strongest memory I had of my uncle Paul as a young man was a wonderful moment when he had returned to Ireland for a visit to my paternal grandmother’s house, unbeknownst to her. I remember the excitement of him arriving and secretly being let in through the front door where he made his way upstairs to hide until the right moment arrived to surprise her. She was flustering around downstairs in her sitting room trying to tie a belt on her skirt. She had been told by my father and his sisters that she and my grandfather were being taken for dinner and at this point of the evening she was running late. She had no idea that Paul had returned home to Ireland for that dinner. As she scurried around trying desperately to fix the belt on her skirt, Paul casually opened the door of the sitting room, walked up to her and asked her if he could help her tie her belt. She didn’t even flinch! She casually explained the problem with the belt and began to show him how to go about it. As he started dragging at the belt to secure it, the light suddenly dawned on her that this was Paul, her youngest son whom she hadn’t seen for many years since he had gone to Australia. As a child, witnessing the realization dawning on the face of this beautiful woman who I adored was amazing. She shrieked with delight and began to weep with happiness. Hugging and kissing him, and still trying to rationalize the whole situation unraveling before her. It was a wonderful and special moment of the love between a mother and her son, and one of many beautiful memories I have of Paul being home on and off throughout the years.
My father and Paul had a typical Irish brotherly relationship. Growing up, I am told, they were like chalk and cheese. They both had a passion for music as teenagers back in the ‘60’s. My father was a big Roy Orbison fan and Paul a Del Shannon advocate. I would never put the two of them together as brothers if I didn’t know. While they both had a circle of mutual friends from their neighbourhood, by and large they lived very separate lives aside from this. They had two sisters (my aunts) who still live in Ireland, and all four siblings had a very close-knit bond, despite their very different personalities and the thousands of miles between them since Paul left for a new life in Australia with his wife Anne, (also from Finglas/Glasnevin) back in the 1970’s.
Paul and Anne reside on the outskirts of Sydney with their two daughters Sinead and Orlaith and one son Daire. They all live relatively near to one another. Sinead and Orlaith are both married with children of their own. Daire is due to be married in the coming days.
We arrived into Sydney airport late on Thursday evening, 29th November. The familiar image of the Sydney Opera House came into view as we buckled up on the aircraft for landing. My aunt Anne met us at the airport. Paul was waiting at the house for us, and on arrival, I didn’t know what to expect given the years that had passed. As we walked towards the house, this tall, thin, gentle, white-haired man with the kindest set of blue eyes greeted us. Reaching out to hug him tightly, I realized that in that moment it was like I knew him all my life. I guess that’s the wonder of “family”. It doesn’t matter about years that pass, when you’re family, you’re family; and that bond is there despite the distance of both time and place. My first impression of him was that I could see both my grandmother and my father in his twinkling blue eyes. While he wasn’t “the image” of my father, there was a very close resemblance and as older men they both grew to resemble each other closer than I would ever have imagined. I also wondered that if my father had lived into his 70’s would he have looked like Paul?
(PHOTO: Uncle Paul feeding the Lorikeet birds in his garden)
Anne, getting right down to business, steered us excitedly towards the heart of their home (the kitchen) and opened the wine/champagne and all four of us gathered around to catch up on all of the years that had passed. This was their first time meeting my husband Colm, but within a matter of hours it was like we had all known each other forever. Stories about my father and Paul when they were younger were in abundance and I sat open mouthed listening to the wonderful memories that Paul shared with us about growing up in Finglas with Dad. Anne too shared her hilarious memories of being home in Ireland. Time became irrelevant and by the time we had shared as much as we could in one sitting, it was naturally a late bedtime. We fell into bed merry and content, with the wonderful anticipation of meeting up with my cousins, Sinead and Orlaith and their children the following morning. They arrived, as planned, with their youngest children in tow, bright and early and it was wonderful to at last meet with them, face to face. A trip to Santa’s grotto was on the agenda for their day and the children excitedly explained to us that the Christmas “elf” had arrived to their home and had settled in nicely, causing mayhem as he went. They told us that he was there for the sole purpose of checking to make sure they were being good and reporting back to Santa, and yet they were perplexed that the elf himself was upending everything he could back at their house, and didn’t have to abide by the same standards they did!?!?. Their innocence was heartwarming and of course playing along with it was quite a challenge, trying to ensure that our version of the elf’s existence was consistent with what they had been told. Over the coming days, we heard more stories of the elf’s antics in each of their houses, and what dawned on me was the huge effort being made by their parents to create this excitement for them. Every night, for weeks before Santa’s arrival, Sinead and her husband and Orlaith and hers had to wreck their brains and come up with a new antic for the elves. Hats off to them! And what fabulous memories the children will have when they look back on these years.
(Paul, Anne with my cousin Orlaith and her children)
Over the next few days, Sinead and Orlaith and Daire and their respective partners/husbands and children came and went. Paul and Anne prepared wonderful family BBQ’s and we all sat around in the garden getting to know one another and sharing our lives. When everyone left we would sit with Paul and Anne outside listening to Paul’s huge collection of music and relishing every moment. During the day, Paul and Anne took us walking to visit the spectacular beaches nearby. One of my favorite days was when Paul drove myself and Colm to Cronulla Beach. We strolled along the beachfront and then stopped for a bite to eat at a small restaurant by the sea. After our meal, I left Paul and Colm at the restaurant to venture for a swim. I had swam in many oceans and seas along our journey thus far, and wanted to add the South Pacific Ocean to my list. It was still only Spring and temperatures, while warm, were still not as high as those reached during the typical Australian Summers. The water was cold and I would be lying if I said I didn’t think of the possibility of sharks swimming around, (as we all do when we think of the seas around Australia). Regardless, in I went and am still alive to tell the tale 🥶Indian Ocean and South Pacific Ocean…tick. To dry off, Paul, Colm and I strolled further along the seafront and found a grassy green hill to sit on. As we sat and chatted with Paul, it almost felt like my father was with us. I’m not sure if it was the fact that Paul had very similar characteristics and ways about him that my father had; I’m not very religious, but there was an unmistakable presence of my father as we sat looking over the ocean that day which brought me more comfort than any other time since my father passed away. While Dad and Paul were never alike when they were younger, there was no doubt in my mind that they were in their kind and gentle personalities as they grew older. It was getting late and we headed for home a few hours later. Daire had arrived with his fiancée. Orlaith and Sinead were there with their children and after yet another family gathering with food and wine, the day, too soon, came to an end.
I mentioned earlier that Anne and Paul were hands-on grandparents. It is evident from the moment you meet them that their family is everything. They eat, sleep and breath for their children and their grandchildren. Every moment of their free time is about taking care of their every need. Paul is retired now and travels back and forward between Orlaith and Sinead’s homes doing his Grandpoppy duties. Anne, also spends every waking moment looking after them, and the children adore them both. They are busy busy grandparents and it was incredible to share their family moments with them while we were there.
(Photo: The beginnings of another family gathering. Paul and Anne surrounded by children, grandchildren and us)
Now when we arrived in Australia, we had planned our trip so that we could have a week in Perth, a week in Melbourne and a week in Sydney. We had arrived on the Thursday evening in Sydney and made plans for later in the week to get out and about and explore the sights around. On the following Monday (3rd December), Colm and I decided to head into the city to visit the Sydney Opera House, Sydney Harbour and on the recommendation of Anne and Paul, Taronga Zoo. We also made plans to take Paul and Anne out for dinner the following night and to have our final evening (Wednesday) with all of the family around before we left. We set off early that Monday morning and took a 40 minute train ride into the city and strolled around taking in the sights. To my delight, we came across a native Aborigine, sitting on a side street playing traditional Aboriginal music on a Didgeridoo. I stood for what felt like an hour listening to him play.
(Photo: Aborigine playing his Didgeridoo)
At around noon we made our way to the Harbour to catch a ferry across to the Zoo. Taronga Zoo is a ‘must see’ if you visit Sydney. From the moment we stepped on the ferry to cross Sydney Harbour in the warm afternoon sun, with close up views of the Sydney Opera house as we sailed past, we were loving every minute of the experience. While zoos are not something that I agree with in the context of animals being enclosed in an unnatural environment, Taronga has got it right on that score. The animals have acres of land as their habitat and each section of the Zoo is designed to the nth degree to reflect the natural habitat of each species.
(Photo: The highly venomous and dangerous red back spider at Taronga Zoo)
Having heard of the infamous “red back” spider, I had to gather all my courage to overcome my fear of spiders to enter the spider sanctuary if I was to get a close up look at this life-endangering species. With my imagination running wild on entering the sanctuary I visualized a huge hairy, multi-legged spider with fangs sprouting from its huge wide eyed head. Drama Queen being my middle name, I slowly walked towards the glass box which was my only guarantee of safety from a highly venomous attack. I closed my eyes as I got closer, and on opening them I had to squint to actually see this tiny black spider! Whaaaat? It was nothing like I imagined. Its body resembled nothing more than a beetle with threadlike legs and a tiny red dot barely visible on its back. How on earth something so small can cause such havoc is mind blowing! A little relieved, I ventured on through the room of glass enclosures to see the other spiders gently weaving their webs inside. Yes, some were large and frightening to look at, but here I was, standing only a few feet away, feeling pretty safe watching them in amazement. For a full five minutes only mind. The exit sign above the nearby door was never out of the line of my peripheral vision. We continued on to the Koala and Kangaroos and Emus and snakes and by 5.30 p.m. we had done the full tour and made our way back to the Harbour to catch the return ferry to Sydney.
With rumbling bellies we were famished and opted for an evening meal at one of the restaurants alongside the Harbour where we could dine outside in the evening sun. Over dinner we both began to chat about our plans for our remainder of our time in Sydney which we thought was only a couple of days and about our arrangements for the next destination, Lisbon in Portugal which was ever looming. It was 6.30 p.m. and so we decided to check the train times back to Paul and Anne’s, and at the same time our flight times for the following Thursday to Lisbon. We knew it would be a long-haul flight and we would need to be at Sydney airport well in advance of boarding time for an international flight. As Colm opened his phone to check the flight times, his face became distorted slightly and I’m sure I heard a whimper although I wasn’t sure if he had belly ache given he had eaten his food so fast. When he looked at me in total shock and said “Our flight to Lisbon is tonight! The flight leaves at 9.30 p.m”, I couldn’t register what he was saying and laughed gently thinking he was having me on. He repeated it, slower, and with more urgency “Our flight to Lisbon leaves TONIGHT! In THREE HOURS!”….Holy S**T…he was serious!!! The shock took a whole two minutes to hit me! All hell broke loose! We both jumped up leaving everything on the table behind, running frantically through the streets of Sydney towards the railway station. We quickly gave up and hailed a taxi to take us there as we were at least 20 minutes away from it and still had a 40 minute journey back to Paul and Anne’s house. When we eventually boarded the train I rang Paul’s mobile and left a message telling him of our c**kup! Anne, on returning my call, calmed me down on the other end of the phone saying we would try to get to the airport but that we may not get there on time, but we’d try. Paul assured us that he would meet us at the station and drive us back to the house where Anne was waiting to help us pack and most importantly, bring some level of calm to the whole situation, as she did.
By 7.45 p.m. we were buckled up in the car, luggage in tow with Anne giving it welly on the accelerator and Paul chatting us to keep our blood pressure intact. To miss this flight would result in us having to pay thousands for another one given it was Christmas time and most flights would be booked out. With a requirement to check in almost three hours before an International flight we were on the back foot for sure. Teeth and fists clenched, we pulled up at the airport departure hall at about 8.30 p.m. with sadly not enough time to say our proper goodbyes to Paul and Anne or the rest of the family for that matter. Hugs and kisses and goodbyes were done in the car. We were devastated, but thought, we’ll just have to go back and stay longer next time in Sydney, which we most certainly will do! We had only touched the surface of experiencing the beautiful sights of Sydney and more importantly spending quality time with family. We made it to the departure gate within an inch of our lives, boarded the plane and then the questions started. How on earth did that happen? We had it out, and needless to say, it hasn’t been discussed since! It’s a no-go, no-way, no-how question that is best left like that for fear of major repercussions 😂 and we have both sworn to secrecy on this one 😂. Once onboard, a young girl from Lithuania clearly seeing my disheveled state, began chatting to me. Having literally vomited out my story about almost missing the flight, she took out a little tablet box and told me she had sleeping tablets with her to help her with the long flight and that I was welcome to have one to help me sleep also. Under normal circumstances, I would never accept any sort of medication or drugs from a stranger, but, given the current state of affairs, I gratefully accepted, whipped up the little white tablet, swallowed it whole without water, and was asleep in dreamland within minutes and never woke until we landed in Lisbon, Portugal. It was probably best too that I was. The flight would have been made in silence between us at that point anyway, given the events that had just unfolded. 😱 😂😂😂.
Travelling together as husband and wife and sharing every waking moment with each other is probably one of the biggest tests any relationship can face. Particularly when prior to this we were working full-time and barely catching sight of each other before our journey began. The journey itself, no more than everything in life, has had its highs and lows for us. This, I can assure you was one of the lows. But from the outset, we quickly realized that these things happen on a journey of this magnitude and so we just picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and got ready to explore the next city, Lisbon. The city that would change our lives forever.
More to follow soon….
Photo: The ArtVo Gallery, Melbourne
Three and a half hours after leaving the lovely warm sunshine of Perth, feeling replenished both physically and mentally after our stay with Kevin and Geraldine, we landed in Melbourne. First impressions; it was overcast and cold, and it could have been Dublin we had landed in if we didn’t have “Melbourne” written on our tickets. Something to be aware of when visiting Melbourne. The weather can change really quickly in the space of a single day. It can feel pretty cold and windy one minute and then the temperatures can climb to swelteringly warm in a matter of hours. Dressing in layers of clothes that can be discarded throughout the day is advisable.
Australia is expensive by European standards. We took a transfer bus from the airport directly into the bus station in Melbourne City. The return cost was the equivalent of €40 for us both. Or maybe my reaction to the cost was the fact that we had travelled through Asia at minimal expense on public transport and were re-adjusting to the western style prices. But even taking this into consideration it was still quite expensive to eat out and for our day to day shopping. Thankfully we had booked ourselves into a small studio apartment in the centre of the city which had minimal cooking facilities, so spaghetti bolognaise was top of our menu, followed by ham and cheese rolls. We felt like teenagers again 😱 There are always ways to avoid expensive costs in countries when travelling, Iceland being a case in point, where we lived on pasta and tuna and mayonnaise for almost a week. Booking self-catering accommodation is the easiest way around it. On the cost of transport however, (unless you’re prepared to hitchhike in a foreign country, which is not ideal) it is pretty much unavoidable. Nonetheless, we arrived at our little studio apartment, delighted with ourselves because of its central location and how pristine clean it was, which is always a plus when booking budget accommodation. It was quaint and tiny, and so we referred to it as our very own little “love nest” 😂
Venturing out the next day, I felt like I had stepped back home, just for a day. This city was the nearest I had felt to Dublin in our entire journey. From the weather, to the old buildings, it reminded me in parts of the north side of Dublin city. We spotted an Irish bar “The Last Jar” (as you do when you’re away), and popped in to see whether it ticked all the boxes for its level of “Irishness”. Yep, it didn’t disappoint! I could have been in any pub in the centre of Dublin (back in the 1980’s). With the cold weather outside, a little fire was burning at the back of the pub and some old guys at the bar with the thickest of Irish accents began chatting to us about ..guess what?…Ireland, and how long they had been in Australia (some for almost 50 years without returning once back home). Before the evening was out I was left in no doubt that all these years later they were still dreadfully homesick. I guess this was their place of refuge where they came together with their Irish friends and ex pats and where it felt like they were back home in Ireland too. Adding to the feeling of being back home, was eating Irish Beef and Guinness pie and mashed potatoes and mushy peas. We were in heaven!
A trip to Melbourne would not be complete without meeting up with a dear friend from home, Aine, and her husband Aaron from New Zealand. We had planned to begin our meet up with a tour of Melbourne’s night life and none better than a social butterfly like Aine to show us those sights. Aine moved from Dublin to Melbourne more than twenty years ago, and with the exception of seeing her once since then back when she came home for a brief visit, meeting up with her was long overdue. Our plans, however, took a little bit of a detour when she contacted me to say that she had broken her foot the previous day and was in plaster of Paris. The poor darling was totally incapacitated and in bad pain. And so we deferred our plans until later in the week when she had undergone all her medical assessments and treatments. Typical Aine style, she was undeterred and so we arranged to take a train out to her in the north western suburbs of Melbourne for a much needed catch up.
Photo: Colm, Me, Aine and Aaron in Melbourne
Aine and I grew up in the small village of Finglas, about 4 miles outside of Dublin city. The centre of our community back in the day was a local pub called “The Northway House”. Aine’s parents and mine knew each other well from within this close knit working class community. Now the Northway House was not just a pub. People didn’t go there just to have a drink. It was the central meeting point, the beating heart of the area, where all of the local people gathered every weekend. Like any local establishment, it was the place where parents met up to discuss the best place to buy school uniforms and books that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. Savings clubs for Christmas were organised to offset the expense throughout the year. Raffles for Christmas Hampers and shopping sprees. Summer Holiday savings clubs were commonplace where families would head off together to various parts of the country for little breaks away with their children having saved €5 a week throughout the year for what was, back then, an absolute luxury. It was where men of all ages gathered to discuss the latest football scores, and women met to advise each other on the bargains they got in the local shops and complained about kids and husbands and everything they needed to get off their chests, with the ears and support of the other local women. If someone was having a rough time, everyone would gather round to offer help and support. It was the go-to place for entertainment every weekend, where up and coming bands would play on stage and the locals would be nominated by their families and friends to get up and sing a song with them. Even if the singers sounded like crows, everyone scurried around them when they disembarked from the stage reassuring them that they were “only brilliant” and giving words of encouragement like “ya sounded like Tom Jones you were so good”. It was hilarious! Aine’s father, I remember, blew us away with his singing. He was a tall, unassuming man who resembled Harry Secombe by all accounts, and sang just as beautifully. He was one of the main characters, along with her mum, who was at the heart of the community and who always had a warm and welcoming smile and chat for everyone when meeting them. It was the same when visiting their home. Nothing was spared in the welcome and if ever you wanted to experience a proper Irish session, this was the place to go. On arrival, there was food and drink and the warmest of welcomes for friends and strangers alike who crossed the threshold of their door. They had a large family, one of whom was Aine, and they exuded laughter and positivity wherever they went.
Yet again, I digress. The Northway House was also where Brendan O’Carroll entertained us until our sides were splitting with laughter. In fact it was here that he got a lot of his material for his character in his recent sitcom and movie “Mrs. Brown’s Boys”. It was where the local group “Tinkers Fancy” belted out ballads and music that would have the patrons singing and swaying all night long. If you wanted to have a true “Dublinesque” experience , this was the place to come. Although if you were new to the place, there was almost an initiation process to be undergone before you were allowed into the clique. Pubs in Dublin pay a fortune nowadays trying to replicate this, and we had it in abundance on our doorstep. It was the place where broken hearts got mended when relationships ended one week and new ones began the next. Words of consolation to the spurned guy or girl would be along the lines of “he/she was only a b**tard anyway, you’re well rid of him/her. You were far too good for him/her” and life would feel better and everyone would move on to the next chapter, ready to catch people when they fell and carry them over their next heartache or difficulty. If someone missed a weekend, there was a search party sent out to see if they were ok, until word came back that they were away or unwell, and then they would be inundated with callers to make sure they didn’t want for anything. It was where collections happened when someone was struggling financially to pay for funerals and other unexpected expenses in their lives. If there was an unplanned pregnancy of a single mother, people would offer prams and cots and clothes to help the family through and when the baby arrived, huge celebrations would be had to welcome the new arrival. The oftentimes single mother would be pampered and fluffed around to make sure she knew that she was totally supported. For the young lads who went astray and came to the attention of the police, they were spoken to by the local men and advised and guided on a different path. Some successful, some not. There were Christmas dinner parties arranged for the elderly, and kids parties for birthdays. It was here that I met the most colourful characters of my life. Salt of the earth people. People who were given the nicknames “Radar”, “Bottley”, “Franner”, “Redser” and the like. It was definitely the closest thing to Roddy Doyle’s Dublin characters in his movie “The Snapper”. I distinctly remember one such character (who shall remain nameless), but deserves a mention all the same. A guy who wasn’t blessed with good stature or looks, and was married to a girl who was much bigger than he and literally towered over him. He was a bit of a “Hard Chaw” (or so he thought), and more than a regular at the pub. His wife naturally didn’t want him spending long hours at the pub and so tried to put certain restrictions on him that he obviously didn’t like. When he did manage to get out it was like “the great escape” and something he took great pride in by the time he had negotiated his way from his house to the bar. One evening, he struts in the door of the pub, chest out with pride and delighted with himself that he had managed to get out of the house and as far as the barstool. He climbed up on a stool, legs swinging because they were so short, beside a group of local guys. He orders a pint and starts bragging about how he wouldn’t let his wife dictate to him about when he could and couldn’t come to the pub. Within minutes, a large hand reached in to where he was in the group, lifted him clean off the barstool and dragged him across the floor and out the door. It was his wife, and him looking petrified and mortified as he kicked and squealed as she dragged him home. The next time he arrived to the pub was with her in tow and him fawning all over her. And that was how business was done back then. There was solid community spirit, and no matter what life threw at us, we came together and supported and each other. The Northway House closed many years ago, and the impact it had was huge. Elderly people now had nowhere to go to meet with their friends on a regular basis. There wasn’t an alternative place to go within walking distance and so a whole community suffered as a result. The reason for it’s demise? A million euro car sales company bought the land and replaced the heart of the community with shiny luxury cars. The last thing on a priority list of services that this beautiful village needed! Now, when I go home, it’s a place where my childhood friends and I recall the wonderful memories of those days. A sure sign of growing old when we’re reminiscing about days gone by! 😂.
Photo: The Northway House Pub (late 1980’s)
Aine was someone I knew from those years. She was a little older than I was, and a bit of a fashion icon at the time. Dark haired and stunning looking with the widest smile and bubbly personality and the best, warm Dublin accent you could ever encounter. She was a gifted hairdresser working in some of Dublin’s top hair salons and had a quirky, cool and groomed “Madonna style” appearance to her. We hit it off immediately when we met one morning on a bus journey into the city. We met up regularly after that. She permed and cut my hair, gave me beauty tips and advice on anything and everything. She gave me “older sisterly” advice and I took it. Even at such a young age, she was an assertive independent clever and cool woman (and still is), and I looked up to her. She left for Australia back in the ‘80s and found the love of her life, her now husband Aaron, on her first night out there. I had met Aaron on only one occasion when they were on that trip home that I mentioned earlier. My first impression? He was huge! A New Zealander, built like a rugby player, but with soft eyes, and a personality so contradictory to his physical appearance. He was a teddy bear in disguise!
I was so excited at the prospect of visiting them in Melbourne and so after a few days sightseeing which included the amazing Aborigines Museum, some shopping, a trip to St. Kilda’s beachfront (where we almost froze our a**es off), we headed for Aine’s and Aaron’s abode one sunny Saturday afternoon.
Photo: Aine and Aaron in Melbourne
On arrival to Aine’s, the door swung open and in front of me, her beaming welcoming smile, looking like Marilyn Monroe on crutches with Aaron on her tail with his rock star appearance still intact. All I could hear was her distinctive Dublin accent, “Howya Ya…come in…ah jayziz it’s great to see ye!” After all this time in Australia her Dublin accent was as strong as ever, and the only thing changed about her was the color of her hair! The welcome replicated that to which I had become accustomed to when visiting her parents house back home. We “chatted for Ireland” over a few beers and then were whisked off to sample the delights of their favorite local Vietnamese restaurant (Phi Phi) where Aaron ordered a tableful of different dishes, some of which I had never even heard of and were fit for a king’s palate. To top off our visit, Aaron cooked a scrumptious traditional Irish breakfast the following morning (better than any Irishman) and we had a fabulous Sunday, meeting their friends and family throughout the day. All too soon it was time to say our farewells, as our week was nearing an end. I hate goodbyes!
Over the few remaining days, on Aine’s recommendation, we visited some of Melbourne’s sights, one of which was the most entertaining place I had ever been. It was the “ArtVo Immersive Art Gallery” at the Docklands in Melbourne. A large old building with rooms covered with wall to wall art where we could interact and actually become part of the paintings. We captured and created photographs that were just mind blowing and hilarious. I would highly recommend visiting if you find yourself in Melbourne. You will belly laugh all the way through the experience and come home with a tonne of fantastic holiday photos.
Photo: ArtVo Gallery, Melbourne
Travelling to Australia through Asia had left me constantly wondering how the people in the likes of Vietnam and Cambodia managed to get through the poverty and turmoils of their everyday lives. The reason they do is not unlike my story about the people from my hometown. Community spirit is the answer. I witnessed the most amazing community spirit throughout Vietnam and Cambodia where families, albeit living together in very small spaces and shacks, supported and took care of each other in the most difficult conditions that life could throw at them. It’s the bond within and between these communities that brings such resilience, positive outlooks and hope. I believe the Western World in its rapid development might be losing its grasp on this important ingredient in society. Consumerism now takes up much of our time. The “keeping up with the Jones’s” mindset doesn’t actually exist in many of these poor countries, as there’s no place for it. Just a thought and my humble opinion at this point of our journey.
Next stop…Sydney, and another long overdue visit to a very very special family. My late father’s only brother, uncle Paul, aunt Anne, cousins and family that I hadn’t seen for, yet again, for almost 30 years. Excited wasn’t the word when we boarded the plane for Sydney that Thursday morning.
Photo: ArtVo Gallery, Melbourne
Leaving Cambodia for Perth in Australia came as a huge relief, and I was so excited at the prospect of staying with our dear friends Kevin and Geraldine from home, who emigrated to Melbourne in Australia back in the 1970’s and subsequently ended up moving to Perth where they now live with their two beautiful grown up daughters. Kevin is my daughter’s uncle (the brother of my daughter Alison’s father), and while Alison’s father and I went our separate ways many many years ago, Kevin, his family and extended family have nurtured and nourished and doted on Alison throughout her life. They have also been a rock of support to me as her mother since Alison was born over 32 years ago and are still a huge part of my life and my family’s life to this day. I see them as my extended family, and I adore each and every one of them like they were my own flesh and blood. Kevin and Geraldine have always been a total rock in both my daughter’s and my life since she was born. They had kindly invited me and Colm to stay at their place for as long as we needed to on our trip around the world. They offered to take us around Perth to show us the sights of their adopted hometown. Getting there couldn’t come quick enough for us.
And so we readied ourselves to board our flight to Perth at the airport in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. As always, the first step was to rid ourselves of our luggage at the check-in desk on arrival to the airport. Now, let me add at this point that checking in baggage at airports and trying to figure out the allowance and costs associated with dragging around two years of belongings has not been something I have grown accustomed to on this trip. In fact, I’ve become quite irate at the sheer inconsistency and scamming that goes on. In a nutshell, it’s at the behest of the individual airlines as to what they want to charge passengers and while the majority of information around this is set out clearly on their websites, not all of them are upfront about it until passengers arrive at the check in desk with luggage in tow. Luggage costs is something that everyone should be aware of before undertaking any journey, and while it might appear to be rather insignificant when doing all the booking and planning that comes with travelling, the costs can be very significant if it goes wrong. Cheap flights doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the cheaper option. By the time you factor in the baggage costs it can cost a hell of a lot more than the most expensive flight on your search engine. A couple of incidences in particular almost resulted in me pole-vaulting over the check-in desks. At one point I was contemplating skipping my flight from Nha Trang to Hanoi in Vietnam and doing some serious protesting with banners in front of the airline check-in desk. On that occasion we had booked our flights with Vietjet Air. As always, we checked on their website before arriving at the airport to ensure that our luggage was within the allowance limit listed. It had stated that we could carry up to 32kgs on the flight (included in the flight cost). When we arrived at the check-in desk, we were advised that the 32kg allowance only referred to “international” flights, and not internal ones. This was certainly not stated clearly on the website before we arrived to the airport and I told them so! Having queued at the check-in desk for almost an hour we were re-directed to the airlines information desk where we were told we had to pay a hefty additional cost for our luggage to be accepted on the flight. Thankfully the people queuing were mainly Vietnamese and didn’t quite get the true extent of my rage as I ranted and cussed at the desk about the fact that this was nothing short of an attack on my rights as a consumer etc. and that I would walk around Hanoi naked before paying the costs of the luggage transfer. Clearly the threat of me walking around naked didn’t work, and so we eventually had no choice but to cough up the exorbitant cost of bringing two 20kg suitcases on board with us! I did remove my jacket and scarf dramatically though…just for the effect lol!
Now, here we were at Sihanoukville airport in Cambodia getting ready to board our flight to Perth. Yet again, the airline Air Asia advises when booking that baggage allowances and costs can be found on their website. Our tickets didn’t include baggage costs and so a few days before leaving we checked their website and found that their site was down. Inaccessible, no-can-do on checking luggage etc. We repeatedly checked before arriving at the airport only to find that it was still unavailable and thought no more about it, resigning ourselves to the fact that we would sort it when we arrived at the airport. Again, queuing for quite some time, we arrived at the desk, handed over our passports and dropped our 20kg cases onto the weighing belt. When the desk assistant muttered “that will be €560 please”, I thought she was talking to somebody else as I scanned the area for the person she was talking to. Nope, she was looking directly at me. It was us! She explained that if we didn’t check in online on their website, that it was more costly to do so at the check-in desk. We were to pay €80 each for the first 15kgs of our luggage and €40 per kg after that. Basically we were 10kgs over, which was €400, and €160 for the first 15kgs. A whopping €560 bill or we wouldn’t be able to take our bags with us! Understandably, I flipped! I’d had enough! Rats, flea-ridden dogs, garbage, a nightmare of a journey through Cambodia….it was the straw that broke the camel’s back! I turned into a raving lunatic! Through gritted teeth I reminded her that because their website was down, despite numerous attempts to access the baggage cost section (and to this day is still not working), was she now saying that we were being caught for all of these additional costs? Red-faced with temper, and much to the amusement of nearby spectators, I started emptying all of the contents of my case out on the floor, dirty laundry included (reckoning that it would cost me less to buy brand new clothes and shoes etc. than to transport the ones in the case). I was ready for war! I point blank refused to pay the costs being applied because of checking in luggage at the desk instead of the website and threatened that I was gonna go public with this (I think Joe Duffy got a mention at one point – in Cambodia! That’s how mad I was). Naturally the Manageress was called to deal with this raving mad Irish woman and after much to-ing and fro-ing with her she eventually backed down and charged us what we would have been charged if we had booked in online. The bill of €560 was quickly reduced to €80 in total – and with the savings associated with the costs of a potential hospital bill for cardiac assistance for me and god knows what for her, I exhaled deeply, dusted myself down and made my way to the plane in as dignified a manner as I could muster, and with our luggage carefully labeled and transported to the hold of the plane. My point…it didn’t have to be like this if airlines made sure that their websites were working properly and more importantly, updated regularly!
Our flight was a two-stop flight. One stop-over for a couple of hours in Kuala Lumpur and onwards to Bali. The Bali stop-over was a long one of about 7 hours and so we decided when we landed in Denpasar that we would take a cab to nearby Kuta for a bite to eat and some relaxation time before our onward flight to Perth. On arriving in Kuta we did contemplate visiting a tattoo parlor but that kind of crazy thinking happens after long-haul flights coupled with a few gin and tonics Luckily, time was against us and instead we made our way to a nearby restaurant/bar. Once inside, a huge thunderstorm struck and the road outside became a river. But we were snug and safe inside and with not a care in the world began tucking into our meal. Suddenly I felt a shudder under my feet and a huge rumbling noise filled the air around us! Nervously I asked Colm if this was the country that experienced regular earthquakes? I was sure I was feeling vibrations and rumbling (I assured him that it wasn’t that I hadn’t felt earth move before but this had a different feel to it 😂😂😱). He confidently explained that it was only the vibration from the claps of thunder outside, and so I happily continued eating, we paid the bill, and headed back to the airport. Arriving into the airport, the huge TV screens had reports flashing all over them that only a few miles away from us in Kuta, an earthquake measuring 5.6 on the Richter scale had hit Bali. I knew it! It was an earthquake that I had felt earlier! People at the airport were sharing stories about how they had felt serious tremors from the higher floors of their hotels and how they thought they would have to be evacuated. A quick google of “the effects of an earthquake on a plane taking off” confirmed that we would most likely be able to fly regardless! Our baggage problems were a distant memory at that stage and pretty insignificant…and when the engines roared as we climbed high into the Bali sky and headed for Perth, I didn’t look back!
Perth city in Australia is the most remote city in the world, with a population of just over 2 million people. It is a relatively young city by comparison to other cities around the world and was founded as recently as 1829. It is 2,104 kms away from its nearest neighbour city of Adelaide and is the largest on the entire west coast of Australia. Its population is diverse, with immigrants having moved there from all over the world during the Western Australia gold rushes in the late 19th century. Flying over north western Australia en-route to Perth from Asia gives a real insight into the remoteness of this city. Thousands of miles of red-soiled desert lands with no sign of life gives an almost outer space like look to the land, until out of nowhere, as the aircraft nears Perth, buildings and skyscrapers appear and look a little out of place as we come in to land.
Now you might remember me mentioning in my earlier blog that water was scarce on the islands we had stayed on in Cambodia. Hot water was non-existent, and showers trickled with cold water. All of this you see, led to us resembling hobos. Colm had grown quite a thick beard (I wasn’t too far behind him on that score in the hair growth department 😱😂) and would not have been out of place on the movie Castaway! We didn’t look great in fairness by the time we landed in Perth and probably smelled even worse! We had gotten rid of a lot of our dirty laundry on the floor at the airport in Cambodia and that helped I guess with the odours permeating from our suitcases as we wheeled them through the Arrivals gate at Perth Airport. As we came through, I caught a glimpse of Kevin and Geraldine in the waiting area. The sense of relief and excitement at seeing their familiar faces after our whole journey was so comforting. But I’m almost sure I caught a glimpse of fear in Kevin’s eyes when he saw the state of us first as we reached out to give him a hug. 😂😂😂. It was back to theirs, into the shower and lots of chats and catch up before we headed out again for our first sight-seeing drive around the city. It was breathtaking! Geraldine and Kevin live just a stone’s throw from the ocean and in total contrast to the homes that we had seen in Cambodia, these homes were multi-million dollar ones with ocean views and immaculately kept grounds. My first question was “what do these people work at to be able to afford such splendid houses?”.
Kevin and Geraldine were dream hosts, taking us sightseeing around all of the white sandy beaches nearby, cooking traditional Australian BBQs in their garden where we sat and caught up for hours over glasses of good quality conversation and of course, Australian wine. They couldn’t do enough for us. They took us out to meet their close friends for dinners and of course a much needed girly shopping trip with Geraldine .
They organized an open-top bus tour with a bus company (Perth Explorer) owned by a friend of theirs, where the company was launching its first multi-lingual audio bus tour which included every language you can think of, including a children’s channel. It is the only bus tour currently that offers this service in Perth. The tour was being filmed as part of a promotional event and to our amazement, we featured on the Australian news channel that evening. Fame at last! If you ever visit Perth I would highly recommend this tour as you get to see the whole place, including the beautiful Kings Park from a birds-eye view in the space of a few hours. Next on the list was a boat trip out into the Indian Ocean to do some Whale watching! Never in my wildest dreams did I ever expect I would get to do this and it has to be up there as one of the highlights of our trip down under. We boarded the large boat at Perth Harbour and headed miles out into the Ocean to where the huge hump backed whales were happily swimming and breaching the waves. Scanning the horizon excitedly, we soon spotted a mother and her baby calves, with their backs arching above the ocean, and tails spanned wide as they dived deep below us. It was jaw dropping! A large male whale soon joined them and apparently, although not related to the female and her calves, was guiding them back to the colder waters south around the Antarctic where they usually live and away from the warming waters of the Indian Ocean. It was spectacular! Watching their huge tails gracefully lift up as they glided down into the ocean below was like nothing I had every seen before. Yet another once in a life-time experience on this journey that I will never forget!
One of our final trips was to the Fremantle Prison, a few miles south of Perth and a must see if you happen to find yourself in this part of the world. We learned on the day of the tour of the cell blocks and courtyards of the prison that in the 19th century, in addition to Australian convicts held, that Irish political prisoners had also been jailed at the prison. One of the most prominent escapees in the 19th century was a group of Irish men. The story goes that six Irish Fenian prisoners from what was then known as the British penal colony of Western Australia, and who were supporters of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, organized a fantastic escape from the prison. The plan was that an American ship, the “Catalpa” would sail close to Fremantle but remain outside the international limit. The ship was provided by an Irish sympathizer and former prisoner of Fremantle who had received a pardon for his part in Irish nationalism, but who had been banished from returning to Ireland. He instead moved to Boston. The six carefully planned their escape from the prison on a day when police and security were distracted with another event happening outside of the town of Fremantle. All six Irish men were on gardening duties outside of the prison walls on the day when they stealthily made their way to a dinghy in the harbour which took them out to the ship waiting for them a few miles out at sea. By the time they had reached the ship, the prison guards became aware of their absence and immediately fled to the harbour to search for them. A police boat was deployed and sailed out to the ship, firing warning shots across the bow of the “Catalpa”. On seeing the police the Captain of the “Catalpa” raised the American flag on the ship’s top mast and declared that if they continued to fire shots at the ship that it would be deemed as an act of war against the United States, as the ship was sailing in international waters. The ship sailed away without any further obstacles and the six Irish men were brought back to New York to a hero’s welcome. A pretty impressive story by all accounts and we left the prison tour with our heads held a bit higher than when we went in 😂… Go ye Irish Fenian men!
Perth City is immaculately laid out and it is clear walking around that the locals take great pride in their city. The public services are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. In the very centre of Perth there is a huge swimming pool with sun loungers where families can gather and spend time together. Nearby is a huge park with public BBQ facilities! And I kid you not, once one family/group of people use those BBQs they leave them sparkling clean for the next group of people. There isn’t a piece of litter to be seen anywhere, nowhere! Not even on the beaches! Their public toilets along all of the beachfronts are the standard of any toilets you would find in a 5-star hotel. A skateboard park and playground flank the outskirts of the city centre and kids can be seen playing from sun up to sun down, leaving the parks as immaculate as they found them. Not a bit of graffiti anywhere to be seen on the walls of the buildings. “What’s their secret?” I find myself asking. There is no other city anywhere we had been on our travels that was so pristine clean and organized with the whole population taking such pride in their surroundings. Whatever they have, they need to bottle it, or at the very least share it!
Now I had heard before arriving in Perth that shark attacks have happened at certain stretches of the beaches in Perth. As we walked along the beaches, we could clearly see cordoned off areas for swimmers with large safety nets and buoys, set up for the swimmers safety. Some of the restaurants in Perth have the remnants of surf boards with huge shark bites taken out of them hanging from the ceiling. So as you can guess, I didn’t sum up the courage to swim in the beautiful ocean. However, I did pop in for a paddle one day and really wanted a photo of myself actually in the Indian Ocean. Kevin kindly offered to take the photo. He shouted, turn around and face the camera and hold on until I get you in view. What I didn’t know was that there was a huge surf wave gaining momentum behind me. I should have copped him trying to muffle a loud laugh, but no, I was standing there, all smiles waiting for the photographer to capture the photo, when suddenly …bang, over my head came the most gigantic wave, drenching me and causing me to scream at the highest pitch I could manage! It still didn’t drown out their laughter on the beach! And that was my photograph of me in the Indian Ocean. Nice one Kevin 😂.
As our week drew to an end there was one more thing that we had to do before we left. Julie, a friend of Kevin and Geraldine’s, had told us about wild Kangaroos who lived in the local cemetery. Yes, I know…I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why either 😂. And it was simple…a huge expanse of green grassy land with flowers on graves. Perfect for their hungry bellies and for feeding their joeys! And so, Julie collected us on our last evening in Perth and drove us out to the graveyard to see for ourselves the antics of these creatures. As we drove into the grounds of the cemetery I was astounded to see kangaroos everywhere! Hundreds of them all over the grounds. Mothers with their joeys and the larger ones never to far from them. I hopped out of the car and approached a group of them and to my excitement, they didn’t move! They stayed right there and let me video them, although the males were always nearby watching and waiting for any sign of danger or sudden move from me. And what better way to end our trip to Perth than watching a joey climb into his mothers pouch as she hopped off to eat yet some more grass and plants with him safely inside.
Isn’t nature just a wonderful thing?!
Our plan was to spend three full weeks travelling Australia. One week in Perth, one in Melbourne where we planned to meet up with another old friend, Aine (Geraldine’s sister) also from my hometown who had emigrated many years ago to Melbourne. For the last week of our Australian trip we decided we would head to Sydney to meet my late father’s only brother, my uncle Paul and his family, who had also emigrated from Ireland to Sydney back in the 1970s. I haven’t seen him or his family for almost 30 years and at this point of the journey, I am beside myself with excitement at the prospect of spending some good quality family time with them.
But for now, it was onwards to Melbourne…
More to follow….soon
(Photo: The street running alongside our resort – Sihanoukville)
I’m still trying to figure out how we didn’t spot the dangers and horrors of this place, Sihanoukville before we booked a ten-day stint here. By all accounts, the reviews and articles that we read about it led us to believe that it was a paradise on earth with beautiful stretches of beaches, palm trees and restaurants. It also had an airport that would fly us on to Australia, our next destination after Cambodia. And while we didn’t expect top class accommodation having stayed in the more southern areas of Cambodia, availing of budget accommodation in the main, we certainly did not expect what came next.
We excitedly scoured the internet for accommodation in advance of travelling to Sihanoukville (a city just north of Kampot on the mainland of Cambodia). We booked a quaint looking bamboo cabin at a beach resort, with a traditional looking Cambodian restaurant and bar attached to the premises. The beach was literally a few steps from our doorstep with sun loungers and comfy couches and chairs with sun umbrellas for shade. The photos we viewed had the most picturesque views of beautiful scenery and surroundings. The reviews were relatively good, or so we thought. It was only in hindsight that we realized that many of the reviews were from many years ago, and hadn’t been updated. What could go wrong?…Basically, in a nutshell, we got it wrong! So wrong!
Our three hour bus journey from Kampot to Sihanoukville was the stuff that nightmares are made of. We had been advised not to travel after darkness fell as the roads were in such dangerous condition that there was a really high risk that we might not arrive at our destination in one piece, if at all. And so we opted for an early afternoon bus ride with a private company that seemed to have a relatively decent safety record. The bus was basically a converted mini-van that we shared with other westerners who were brave enough to take the risk of travelling by road. The World Health Organisation has raised concerns for many years about the high rate of road deaths in Cambodia, pointing out that it is the leading cause of death in the country. Over 2,000 people on average are killed every year and in 2018 a further 5,539 people suffered serious injuries. Compare this to our own statistics of c. 150 road deaths each year in Ireland and it brings some perspective to what Cambodia is dealing with. The roads are death traps! Regulations and rules of the road are practically non-existent and the lack of money being invested in building roads, let alone maintaining them is clearly evident. To travel short distances, there are small “Tuk Tuks” which are basically motorbikes that pull you along on a seated cart, with luggage tied on to the same cart with bungee cords. However, their ability to travel long distances is limited. There is literally no public transport in Cambodia, albeit one train runs from Phnom Penh (midland Cambodia) to Sihanoukville daily, and so we had no choice but to take the risk of travelling by bus. The bus travelled like a snake along main traffic filled roads. At points of the journey the bus driver couldn’t see the road in front of us because of the clouds of dust rising from traffic travelling in the opposite direction, and there were a few ‘near misses’ as we sped along what was left of pot-holed roads swerving to avoid both them and oncoming traffic. We were certainly getting the “how the locals live” experience as we had signed up for on this journey. The saying “be careful what you wish for” came to mind on numerous occasions during this particular part of our trip! 😱 With a huge sigh of relief from everyone when we disembarked in the city of Sihanoukville and changed over to a local Tuk-Tuk which took us a few more kilometers along just as treacherous roads to our final stop, Otres Beach 1 along the coast.
On the face of it, when we pulled up outside the resort, (albeit in darkness), it looked relatively ok. We rocked up to the bar in the middle of the restaurant and introduced ourselves. A friendly Cambodian guy checked us in and proceeded to show us to a row of lovely bamboo cabins that flanked the fringes of the restaurant. As we made our way to our cabin, out of the corner of my eye I was sure I spotted a large rat running into the one next door. But it was late and I was tired and thought I was imagining things. Until we closed the door behind us and above our heads, scurrying along the beam over our bed was the biggest rat I had ever seen in my entire life. It was the size of a small kitten! In shock, we both agreed that under no circumstances were we staying in this cabin and quickly made our way to the bar area again. Nearing tears I explained that we could not possibly stay in a room where there were rats running around. He kindly transferred us, temporarily, to a room above the restaurant, off the ground floor, until, he assured us, the problem would be resolved the following morning. Reluctantly we agreed to climb the wooden stairs to another bedroom at the top, with floor lino for wallpaper and just one bed in the centre of the floor. We slept very little until the sun came up the next morning. The ocean view from the window of the room was spectacular, and the comforting sounds of the waves lapping against the shore calmed everything down. Temporarily! Our bathroom was a communal bathroom with showers and a sink at the entrance to the building. My first attempt at having a shower failed miserably when I discovered that the water was a trickle of freezing cold water, and that the sink offered only the same. “Maybe it might improve after breakfast” I thought. And so we sat for breakfast in the vast open space of the restaurant and placed our order. Lying in the middle of the floor in front of me was a clearly neglected female dog, yelping in pain and biting aggressively at her front legs where her fur had been bitten away exposing large areas of pink flea infested flesh. Being covered with fleas, she was biting and scratching and yelping trying to ease the horrifying discomfort she was in. She circled the floor trying to bite at her tail continuously as her yelping intensified. And then another dog appeared out of nowhere with the same neglected look and biting and scratching continuously. These dogs freely walked in and out of the kitchen of the restaurant and having eaten one small portion of my breakfast, I decided, there and then, that we needed to find somewhere else to eat at the very least, and to stay. As we waited for our new cabin to be readied, I agreed to hold off and take a day on the beach first before making any decisions. I was upset. Seeing dogs in this condition and rats in our room was taking its toll on me and so I made my way into the ocean for a swim, to try to get my head together and figure out how to get out of a ten day stay at this nightmare of a place, and what options we had to stay somewhere else. We made our way out of the resort for a walk to scour the area for a place to eat that was relatively clean. As we walked along the road, my worst nightmare came to pass. Right outside the resort, on the side of every road, were piles and clearly weeks of garbage stacked and sprawled along the streets. The putrid smell was unbearable. I wanted to run and hide and find somewhere clean and safe, but there was nowhere. Each place was as bad as the next! No wonder there were rats! Mangy, undernourished, neglected dogs, scratching themselves vigorously, were lying around outside every building in the searing heat. Only kept by local businesses for the purposes of killing rats it appeared. That evening, on returning to our resort, we sat on a couch near the restaurant floor and witnessed rats running back and forth across the floor every few minutes. It was rampant with these vermin and even with four flea-infested dogs (another two appeared out of nowhere) keeping watch, these rats weren’t intimidated and weren’t going anywhere. As soon as one was killed, another would appear.
When I asked a local boy working in a nearby restaurant, who was responsible for dumping all of the rubbish on the streets, … his response was “the Chinese”?!! Unsure that he understood my question properly, I was desperate to find out what he meant and what was going on in the area. A friend of mine who had visited Sihanoukville only a few years earlier explained that this was not her experience of staying at the same location. On seeing some of my photos, she explained that it was certainly not like this before and that something was clearly going on in the city to bring it to what I was seeing today.
I had noticed a number of lavishly decorated, brightly lit, Chinese gambling casinos en-route to our accommodation that looked very much out of place against the backdrop of the poverty stricken Cambodian homes we passed along the road. It was time to talk with the locals and foreigners in the area to see what was going on. It turns out that more than 30 casinos catering exclusively for Chinese gamblers have been built in the city and there are another 70 under construction. That was the reason that the city looked like a building site at every turn! As we spoke to more and more of the local people we discovered that Cambodian businesses have been forced to close and thousands of tenants turfed out of their homes in order to make prime land available to not only Chinese investors, but to gang-lords and mafia. The local people have become hostile to Chinese visitors and tourists and they are understandably angry. Implying that the Chinese are responsible for dumping rubbish outside businesses to the point that local businesses cannot function because of rats etc. making businesses untenable to the point of closure, might only be said by the local people out of anger, but it begs the question as to the power, or lack of power that these local people have against such huge Chinese conglomerates taking over their city. The Cambodian people themselves can never work or play at these glittering multi-million dollar casinos as it is illegal for any Cambodian to gamble, let alone work in these playgrounds of the rich Chinese. To add insult to injury the Cambodian Prime Minister has embraced this Chinese investment (neighboring countries have not). The southern coast of Cambodia is now home to $4.2bn worth of power plants and offshore oil operations, all owned by Chinese companies. The Chinese businesses are obviously attracted to the tax free haven that has been offered to them by the Cambodian government. Naturally there is rising hostility between the locals and the Chinese arriving in their thousands. But hang on! If the Chinese are investing all of this money buying up prime land and building huge casinos and hotels; opening businesses and setting up offshore oil operations. Where is all this money being reinvested by the Cambodian Government for the local people? And yet, this is never questioned by the local people on any large scale? And why? Because they can’t! Because if they do they risk their lives and that of their families for raising any concerns about their government! It’s as simple as that! So the Chinese get the blame and the local people deal with living in even more horrific conditions than before. And no one helps them. Sure it’s a democracy…why would anyone interfere?!!! (Eye roll). Yes, the wealthier Cambodians are most likely gaining from all of this Chinese investment, but the local small businesses and ordinary poor Cambodian families are being run out of their homes to live in dire conditions under tarpaulin sheltered hovels in filth and dirt. They are down-trodden and bear all the signs of people that are wonderfully welcoming to the non-Chinese foreigner, warm and kind, but people that clearly feel that they have no hope for their future and that of their children. Their homes have become multi-million dollar casinos, and basically no-one gives a damn. Not even they care anymore about their surroundings. Piles of rubbish can be burned away. They didn’t even have the will to do this. No will to bother about hygiene and basic sanitation for themselves, let alone for us tourists! And again, clearly the link between poor sanitation and health did not ring through for them. Without a proper education system for its people, this is what happens! What corrupt government wants an informed electorate?!!! And what I was seeing, was the result of this!
(Photo: A home in Sihanoukville, Cambodia)
Another piece of advice that we received within the first two days of our arrival was to stay no more than three days in the area. Foreigners are not safe in Sihanoukville. We were told stories of tourists’ movements being monitored by hardened criminals over a three day period, and once a pattern of movement is established they go in for the kill, robbing and beating tourists for their valuables. Of Chinese gangs and drug-lords shooting people in broad daylight on the streets. Stories of foreign girls being raped and beaten were far too many for me to feel safe in this city. And bringing a crime to the attention of the police is pointless. We heard stories where badly injured tourists tried to follow up with the police about their attacks, only to be told that if they paid the police money they might “consider” trying to solve it. It was time for us to abandon ship and find a safer place to stay until we could return for our flight to Australia. By day three, having been given another room on the ground floor, I had not slept for longer than two hours each night with the sound of rats scurrying around. By then, I had had a serious “head-to-head” with the manager of our resort about having dogs on the premises that were being totally neglected. Freaking out at him when he made feeble excuses as to why the owner of the premises and the dogs was not having them cared for and treated for fleas and whatever other godforsaken disease they happened to have. I’d had enough! It was time to grab a Tuk Tuk and head for a boat that would take us to an island, Koh Rong Samloen, off the mainland and away from this “Hell on Earth”! A place, I hoped, where I could shower and clean my teeth without the noise of rats and dogs and the putrid smell of garbage permeating in my nose at every turn. What was very much on my mind at that point was how lucky we were that we could afford to “run away” from this hell. The local people living here have nowhere to run. No matter how bad it gets, this is their only existence. For them there is no escape! In Cambodia, one out of every eight children born dies before his or her 5th birthday from diseases associated with these poor unhygienic conditions. For every 1,000 babies born in rural Cambodia, 170 die in their first year, with most of these deaths occurring in the first month of life. Another 33 plus out of this 1,000 die before their 5th birthday. It has one of the highest infant mortality rates in Asia. Malnourished mothers are uneducated and are unaware of the benefits of immunization and therefore their children are exposed to so many illnesses. The lack of knowledge on how to treat children for basic illnesses such as diarrhea as a result of poor sanitization results in a huge number of deaths. And this is happening in 2018! 2018!!!! 🤬🤬🤬😡😡😡. And yes, it makes for depressing reading! Yes it makes for …”let me turn this off” reactions! Yes, I would often do the same when pictures of poor people from third world countries flashed up on the screen in front of me. But to see it, in all its glory…the reality of what’s happening in some of these countries. The conditions that people are living in as we jump into a warm bed at night time after a nice dinner and a few beers. The frustration of not being able to do anything that would make any sort of a meaningful difference, apart from raising awareness and a few attempts at raising money … because we’re dealing with a government who controls all of this. A government who controls all of the charitable donations made to its people, for its people, that never reaches its people in any real sense. The huge efforts and obstacles that NGO’s and charitable organizations have to overcome to even begin helping these people! It’s an “eyes-wide open” moment that changes you, to the very core of your being. What we have seen cannot ever be unseen and everyone, or should I say every western foreigner that we met along the way, had the very same experience. In 2018, people should NOT have to live like this! But what is the solution? The biggest question … what is the solution????
With a huge sense of relief, we boarded a boat that would take us to a safer place. We arrived on the island of Koh Rong Samloen early that morning, a boat journey of only 40 minutes, to a room that was clean, with a running shower (albeit the water was cold), and a proper toilet and wash hand basin with a full stream of water flowing from the tap. And not a sign of a rat! It was heaven and even more so when we arrived at the local café to find it immaculately clean with lovely hot food on the menu. And while it boasted that it had electricity for 24 hours per day, this wasn’t the case. But considering what we had left behind, the lack of electricity was a small price to pay for providing us with a safer and cleaner environment. We took a stroll across to the other side of the island (only a few kilometres away) along the white sandy beach, through the island’s jungle, where monkeys lurked and signs were pinned to trees advising us not to feed them, again, due to their tendency to give pretty serious bites to the naïve tourists trying to attract them. It was on this walk that we bumped into the most wonderful, funny, Malaysian guy, Lucas, who had travelled to the island alone and asked if he could join us on our walk. And am I glad we agreed. He was a breath of fresh air and after a few lessons from him on how to make seats for ourselves on the beach from the leaves on the nearby trees, and some more such tips, we made our way back to the local café to spend the evening being totally entertained by this wonderful soul. We shared so many stories about his and our travels and said farewell to him at the end of the night, as he was leaving for his onward journey the following morning. Early the next morning, just after the sun rose, I heard a rapping on our front window. With a fuzzy head, and even fuzzier hair, I opened the door and it was Lucas! He was on his way to the boat and called to say yet another goodbye to us. Now Lucas is the type of person that has the ability to bring a beaming smile to the face of anyone he meets, just by looking at him. He’s colourful and mischievous and I felt I knew him forever even though we had only spent one day with him. He was exactly what we needed right there and then. A godsend and medicine for our souls! We spent only three days on this island, and to be honest, I could have stayed forever. I had contemplated coming home at one point while in Sihanoukville. I was ready to abandon our trip altogether, but after our stay at Koh Rong Samloen, it settled me somewhat and gave me some extra vigor and enthusiasm to continue the journey and to move on to yet another island nearby, Koh Rong. Could any more Koh Rong? 😛😛😛
(Photo: Lucas, Colm and Me on the island of Koh Rong Samloen after our escape)
Arriving on the pier to catch our boat, we came across two other couples who were touring Cambodia. One couple from Finland, and another from Holland. Sharing stories again with these people as we sailed out onto the Gulf of Thailand was just wonderful. They too had been shocked at what they had seen as they travelled through Cambodia and it formed the basis of much of our conversation as we travelled. We reached the Island within a couple of hours and arrived at our accommodation in the early evening. On arrival, we were greeted by none other than David, a 73 year old Irish man who lived and worked at the resort, and who offered us an extra warm welcome when he saw our Irish passports! We spent the next few evenings sitting in his company in the restaurant, enthralled by his story telling. Stories of his family in Ireland, of him growing up in Dublin and the time he spent as a student at Trinity College majoring in English. About his journey since leaving Ireland over 40 years ago, never to return, and his decision to live in Asia since. Learning about his life experiences while living in Asia was fascinating. His insight into how the powers that be operated in Cambodia offered us some explanation as to what we had just experienced in Sihanoukville. He told us stories of what he had witnessed during the years that he had lived here and kept us riveted to our chairs on many of those story-telling nights. During the days we walked to the nearby village of Prek Svay where we met with local children at a nearby run down dilapidated school. A school where the playgrounds swings, slides and see-saws had long since given up the ghost. David explained that many of the beautiful children that we met on the way to the village would most likely not be aware of what a proper playground looked like, let alone ever had the joy of playing in one. With 300 pupils attending the school and only 3 teachers, education isn’t a priority for the children of the village, and there is really no incentive for them to attend school. We suggested to David that we might take another trip to the school the following day to see for ourselves what the possibilities might be to provide a basic swing, slide and play area for the children. David immediately put us in touch with a local man, Mr. Hun, who lived and worked in the village, giving up his time freely to the locals to teach them cooking, English and about how important it is to protect their environment by disposing of their garbage correctly. Mr. Hun works alongside the village “Chief”and is a highly respected individual amongst his community. We travelled back to Prek Svay the next day and met with Mr. Hun. He struck me as an almost angelic figure, who devoted his whole life to improving the lives of the people of the area. We spoke at length about how we might be able to provide some play equipment for the children at the school in an effort to encourage them to go, and in particular ensuring that any funds raised would be used for just that and only that.
(Photo: A little boy we met on our walk to the village of Prek Svay, Koh Rong island)
After much to-ing and fro-ing and discussions with both David and Mr. Hun, David happily agreed to arrange for the transportation of any play equipment we could fund by arranging for a boat belonging to a friend of his to transport it free of charge from mainland Cambodia to the island. Mr. Hun also explained that if we could fund the play equipment that the local men in the village would work to install it in the grounds of the school for the children. Both men reckoned it could be provided for less than €3,000. I have recently since set up a “Go Fund Me” page where I’m now trying to raise as near as possible to the €3,000 target for this project. To date, there is €250 in the pot! So any more contributions for this, no matter how small, would be greatly appreciated! (Link below).
Our time in Koh Rong was just as wonderful as that in Koh Rong Samloen. Our stay at both islands was a lifesaver for us. But the day was coming soon when we had to go back to Sihanoukville, just for one night, to catch our flight onwards to Perth in Australia. I dreaded going back, but we did our research properly this time and booked a room at a resort that was totally secluded, albeit near to where we had previously stayed. We had come across it on one of our walks and it was the nearest we could find to a clean and comfortable place to stay before we travelled.
The night before we left the island we had one more thing to do. David had told us about some bio-luminescent plankton that were visible under the water at a stretch of the beach not too far from where we were staying. He thought we might like to enjoy the experience before we left. With his directions memorized, and his advice that we had to find the location at night time when it was totally dark to enjoy the full display of flickering lights shooting from the plankton as we walked through it on the waters edge, we headed off with torches in hand, and excitement in our heads at what we were about to find. He told us that the plankton lay below the water in the sand at a point between two large bushes. A large tree stood between the bushes, and if we followed the line of that tree along the sand to the water, that was where the plankton lay. After a few attempts at running into the water with no success, suddenly out of nowhere, between my toes, sparks of beautiful pink and red lights shot up through my toes like magic fairy dust. Barely visible to begin with until I walked further into the water, there, right at my feet were more and more shooting starlike lights surrounding my ankles. It was breathtaking and yet another, more positive “eyes-wide open” moment. This time, I was so delighted that this was a vision that once seen, cannot be unseen! It was the most perfect way to spend our last night on Koh Rong. We left the following morning on the boat that would take us back to Sihanoukville. David came along to wave us off. A sadness came over me momentarily as the boat left the island and David stood on the pier waving. I wondered at that moment would I ever get to see him again, to spend even one more glorious evening in his company, learning so much about his adventures. I really hope that some day soon I will get to travel back to spend some more time with him, captivated by his stories.
(Photo: Our wonderful friend David. Koh Rong Island, Cambodia)
And so we spent an uneventful night back in Sihanoukville (well uneventful in the sense of things I can write about here…ahemmm 😂😂😂😂) thankfully. We left for the airport, relieved to be leaving, but all the richer for the lessons we had learned on our journey through Cambodia, and thankful for the fantastic people that we met along the way.
And oh boy! The thoughts of a hot shower and a washing machine was a dream about to come true once we hit Australia! But we had a stopover at Bali enroute! Another eventful first-time experience was yet to come!
More to follow…. 😛😁😜
(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!
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!
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! 😂😂😂)
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!