A Travellerspoint blog

Relaxing in Thailand

sunny 33 °C
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On Saturday November 21 we travel by private car from Cambodia to the island of Koh Chang, in the province of Trat. After leaving Battambang at 8am we arrive at the ferry terminal at 12.30pm. The driver parks the car on the ferry and recommends we head onto the upper deck with the other passengers for the short trip across. The island is beautiful; jungle covered mountains surrounded by a blue sparkling sea. Thirty minutes later he pulls up at our hotel which is right on the beach. A bit of four star luxury for us, with separate bungalows amongst tropical gardens, infinity pool overlooking the beach and beach side restaurant. The perfect spot to have a rest and for David to recover from a virus that has worn him down over the past week.

Koh Chang Paradise Resort

Koh Chang Paradise Resort

Koh Chang Paradise Resort

Koh Chang Paradise Resort

Our days and evenings are spent very lethargically reading, eating and drinking. Gradually we regain our appetites and begin sleeping properly, although the bed is still fairly hard, typical of Asian hotels. Thailand is so clean and civilised compared to Cambodia; no smelly drains beside the road, no tuk tuks, no cheap little restaurants with plastic chairs and dubious hygiene. It is also more expensive; used to US$2 cocktails and $3 meals, we find the average price of $5, $6 or more for drinks and main courses quite expensive! I think we are in for a shock when we get home!
The beach is clean with soft white sand and there are plenty of restaurants and supermarkets within walking distance. We feel pleased with our selection of hotel and beach, as there are many choices on Koh Chang. The only negative is the sand flies, which we notice after a couple of days by the itchy lumps on our arms and legs. These insects are so small you don't notice them biting you until a couple of days later when you discover you are covered with bites.

Sunset on Klong Prao beach

Sunset on Klong Prao beach

Klong Prao beach

Klong Prao beach

Klong Prao beach

Klong Prao beach

Klong Prao beach

Klong Prao beach

We catch a Thai taxi, a songtaew, to one of the six elephant camps on the island. The songtaews consist of a ute with bench seats along each side of the tray, where you sit under a canopy. So they can carry around 8-10 passengers at a time, and are cheaper than a regular taxi. We choose the elephant camp recommended by the author of the website iamkohchang.com. This author, Ian is a native English speaker who lives on Koh Chang and runs a small hotel. His website covers accomodation options, tourist advice, and how to get there. It is through Ian that I booked our transfer there from the Thai border. The elephant camp he recommends sits well as our preferred option, as it is on a large site in the jungle where the elephants have plenty of space, and elephant treks are not pushed by the staff there. We do not wish to do a trek because we find it cruel, but we would like to see these amazing creatures. Our songtaew driver takes us to the camp, well off the main road in Klong Son. He tells us he will wait, which we appreciate as we can see there is not much traffic there and it would otherwise be difficult to get a songtaew back. We tell the woman at the ticket office that we don't want a trek, just a look, so she takes us over to one of the female elephants, telling us she is very friendly and calm and we can pat her as much as we like. We stand beside her, tentatively patting her trunk, while she regards us with a depth of understanding that is quite intimidating, and picks up the plants strewn at her feet, belting them against her leg, then conveying them to her mouth with her trunk.

Elephant reserve

Elephant reserve

Elephant reserve

Elephant reserve

image

image

Another day we catch a songtaew to the Klong Plu waterfall. There are a few waterfalls on Koh Chang, but this one is closest to where we are staying. It is a 500m walk from the entrance, through lush green jungle, beside the river. On arrival there are a few other tourists there, some swimming in the pool at the bottom of the waterfall. There are a large number of fish here, some quite large. The small ones peck at our feet, which does not hurt, but is a shock at first. A family arrive and enter the water beside us, the children shrieking in alarm when they are pecked by the fish.

Klong Plu river

Klong Plu river

Klong Plu waterfall

Klong Plu waterfall

On Wednesday November 25 it is Loy Krathong, a water festival celebrated in Cambodia and Thailand. Our hotel was holding a dinner to celebrate; it was 600 baht per person, which we didn't want to pay, so we dropped in at the start for a beachside drink, then wandered down later when they had fire twirlers performing on the beach.

Sunset Chai Chet beach

Sunset Chai Chet beach


Fire twirlers

Fire twirlers

After our week on Koh Chang we traveled by private car to Koh Samet; about 4 hours closer to Bangkok. We stayed on this island in 1999 with our daughters. This time we had booked a hotel in a different location, but were interested to see how much things had changed in sixteen years.

Our driver dropped us at one of the five piers that service as departure points for the various boats that travel from Ban Phe to the different beaches on Koh Samet. In a scene reminiscent of our previous visit, a tout spotted our car as soon as we arrived, beckoning us to follow him, he offered the option of a speedboat leaving in 15 minutes, for 600 baht, or waiting 1 hour for the public ferry. We opted for the speedboat, which we shared with about ten other people. It plowed through the waves, spraying all the passengers, until it arrived at the beach near our hotel and we were unceremoniously dropped off, into the shallows, with our luggage. Nothing had changed in sixteen years. Fortunately we were wearing shorts and waterproof sandals, so we waded up the beach with our feet covered in wet sand, until we located a sign pointing to our hotel.
The hotel was on the northern end of Koh Samet, in an area with few other hotels or restaurants. So while this made it quiet, it also meant there were limited options for eating. The hotel had a bar beside the pool, which provided a simple and small range of dishes.
So the following day we hired a motor scooter for the day from our hotel, and rode the six kilometres around the island to Vong Deuan beach, where we stayed in 1999. It didn't look that different, except there was not much beach any more, the sea level obviously higher, so all the restaurants and cafes were sitting right on the water's edge.

Our transport on Koh Samet

Our transport on Koh Samet

Vong   Deuan beach

Vong Deuan beach

Vong Deuan beach

Vong Deuan beach

They say you should never return to a place you have visited before, and it's usually my motto as well. We only stayed on Ko Samet to avoid one long journey by road to Bangkok, and to provide another place to visit in Thailand on our way home. Visiting this beach after sixteen years did make me a bit nostalgic for all those years when our children were little. I could still remember them sitting under the tree at the water's edge having their hair braided, and me getting into trouble when I took a photo of them. In those days the beach was much wider, and every night the restaurants would set up chairs and tables on the sand, with ice filled trays of fish, from which you could choose your dinner. Candles would sit on top of the tables, and the whole beach would flicker in the gentle candle light. Electricity only ran for a couple of hours in the evening, so candlelight dinners were a necessity.
On Saturday night we ride the motor scooter to a beach front restaurant for dinner and I have the best Thai food so far; stir fry prawns with cashews. As we are eating some young men and a boy arrive on the beach in front of us to do fire twirling. The boy is only about ten, but his skills are amazing; the three of them twirl an array of fire-sticks, standing on each other's shoulders, throwing them in the air, and even using a hula hoop with small fires placed around it.
Sunday morning we ride to the town, where we have breakfast. There are a few nice looking cafes but the breakfast options everywhere are very limited and unappetising. Ko Samet is quite different to Ko Chang, it's still stuck in the seventies, with oodles of backpacker hostels, and western food options for breakfast and lunch are limited. Behind many of the hostels, hotels and restaurants lies jungle strewn with garbage and building materials. There is a lot of building going on; extensions and new hotels, but it seems a shame the Thais don't put more effort into cleaning up the environment as they go to make it more alluring for the tourist.
For the rest of Sunday we lie by the pool and read, feeling now that we are filling in time before we can go home. Now we only have two days before we arrive back in Melbourne we are impatient to be there and be reunited with our family.
On Monday we walk to a restaurant for another ordinary breakfast of stale toast and greasy fried eggs, then return to our hotel to pack. We get a taxi to the pier and catch the 12pm boat to Ban Phe. The public boats are the same old wooden boats we used in 1999. When we arrive there are two ticket booths; one to purchase a mini van or taxi ticket to Bangkok, the other to purchase a bus ticket. We decide to take the cheaper option of the bus, as we are not in a hurry. We have booked a hotel near the airport for our flight to Singapore at 11.45 the following day. The bus finally departs just before 2pm. I ask the ticket collector how long the journey is, and he says its three and a half hours. So we settle in for a long trip, which should get us to the bus station in Bangkok around 5.30pm. There is not much to see on the trip; the curtains are kept closed to keep out the hot sun, but we can tell the bus is slow, and driving on back roads, rather than the highway. It stops frequently to pick up more passengers. We should have realised it would be another interminable bus ride. It seems fitting to end our seven months of traveling with another of these, that have really highlighted the worst aspects of traveling. At least on a long flight you have food, entertainment and a toilet. None of these are available on long bus journeys.
Around 5pm the bus pulls into a depot. We start to hope this might none the bus station, but the bus is merely refuelling. No one seems to know how much further we have. We seem to be somewhere on the outskirts of Bangkok's massive sprawl. We set off again and about 15 minutes later I hear the two young women in front of me talking to a Thai passenger across the aisle. It seems we are quite near the airport, but still a long way from the bus station. The two women are heading to the airport for an evening flight, and are becoming worried that they are going to miss it. I speak to them and explain we also wish to go to the airport as our hotel is only ten minutes from it. One of them goes down to the driver and asks him to stop and let us off. He ignores her and keeps driving. Both women are pleading with him. And I add my voice in as well, telling him that four passengers wish to get off. During this David is saying to me " we can't get off now, how will we get our luggage?" The bus starts to slow, and I say to the women we can share a taxi with them to the airport. David continues to protest, this time that we'll never fit all the luggage in the taxi. I ignore his protests, knowing if we don't take the chance to get off the bus now, it will be a long time before we will get to our hotel, and I am already insane with boredom from this interminably slow journey. We all get off and retrieve our luggage, and as we do another couple appear who also need to get to the airport.
We flag down a taxi and I show him the hotel name and address on my iPad, thinking he can perhaps drop us off on the way to the airport. He says he doesn't know where it is, and is decidedly unhelpful, so we decide to go to the airport with the others, and get another taxi from there. In all the confusion we have forgotten to ask him to use the meter. When we pull up at the airport he tells us we owe him 400 baht, pointing to each of us and saying 100, 100, 100, 100. We tell him "sorry but it doesn't work like that. And why didn't you switch on the meter"? "Meter dead" is his response. We offer him 200 baht between us, which he immediately accepts! David and I farewell the two women, then approach another taxi driver, this time making sure he has a working meter. I show him the hotel name, which he looks up on his iphone, switches on the meter, and we are away, with him tracking the journey on his mounted phone, laughing and joking with us. He has a go at my bright green case, which after seven months of travelling is now covered in black marks. When we arrive at the hotel the taxi fare is 80baht. What a nice contrast.
The hotel is called Lilac relax-residence and it is the loveliest boutique hotel, setting out to capture the custom of the traveller needing somewhere overnight near the airport. It markets itself very well, offering free round trip transfers from the airport, breakfast, even free drinks in the mini bar. The whole hotel is beautifully decorated in lilac, and very tasteful. We eat dinner at a small cafe opposite, then returned to our room, turning on the TV to discover the film 'The Way' ; the film about a man walking the Camino. An incredible coincidence and so appropriate to spend our final night watching a film about our the start of our seven month adventure in May.
Watching the film revives how much we enjoyed walking the short section of the Camino that we did, and reinforces how much we want to return someday and do a longer section of this amazing trail.
It is hard to believe we have been traveling for seven months. At the start I wasn't sure how it would all go, whether I would get unbelievably homesick somewhere along the line, or worse, get sick or injured and have to return home. We have been so incredibly lucky; firstly to have the opportunity, time and resources to undertake such a long journey, and secondly that it has all gone so smoothly. We have had no disasters at all. Since the bombings in Paris we have become a bit more apprehensive, which has increased the urge to return home. Particularly when we received a 'world wide terrorist threat' alert from DFAT.
So, fifteen countries, seven months, over sixty thousand air kilometres and who knows how many thousands of kilometres on the ground later, we are finally heading home to our beloved family and friends who we have missed so much. We have learnt a lot from the experience; about travelling, about people, about other cultures, and mostly about ourselves.

So here it is: our 2015 adventure.

Posted by suel1960 01:56 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Teaching in Cambodia

sunny 33 °C
View 2015 Year of adventure on suel1960's travel map.

In December 2014 I casually asked a workmate what he was doing for the Christmas holidays. "I'm flying to Siem Reap tomorrow to teach at a school for the next six weeks" was his response. And thus crystallised the plans for the last stage of our 2015 adventure. We have visited Cambodia twice before; in 2008 with our youngest daughter, as part of a package tour of Vietnam and Cambodia, then on our own in July 2012 as our school holiday break from the dreary Melbourne winter. We love Cambodia and wanted to return to do some volunteer work, to contribute something to this very poor country and connect more closely with its people. I asked Dermot to let me know how things went, and based on his experience, we might make this school our destination in October 2015. Dermot sent me regular photos, videos and emails about his time in Siem Reap and he came over to visit us after he returned. Both music teachers, Dermot and I could work closely together on a program to offer these children some music education and a cultural experience otherwise not possible. This did indeed eventuate, as when Dermot visited us at home in March 2015, he announced his intention to write a musical that the whole school would put on in January 2016. He would visit the school again in July and September, to start teaching the songs, then send me the music to continue teaching his songs in October/November, and he would return in December with some assistants to put together the final rehearsals and performance in January.
We flew into Siem Reap on Tuesday October 20th, having spent one night in Kuala Lumpur after our overnight flight from Kathmandu. Malaysia airlines put us up in a hotel in KL, because they had changed the flight schedule, preventing us from making a direct connection to Siem Reap the same day. The hotel was very nice, but it wasn't in the city, instead we were driven from the airport for around 45 minutes through the countryside to a town outside of KL. The smog from the Indonesian fires was still very thick, with no sun visible at all, so we were glad to only be there for 24 hours.

Having visited so many new places this year, there was a sense of comfort and familiarity in returning to Siem Reap, which we know quite well. The driver who picked us up from the airport gave us his card and told us about other day trips out of town that he could take us on, as we have already visited all the temples in the vicinity of Angkor Wat.
That afternoon we set off on a walk to find the school, using the map the school had provided. We walked down a long, dusty road, past other schools marked on the map, but could not find the one we were supposed to start teaching at the following morning. We asked a couple of people, including staff at one of the other schools, but no one had a clue. It all seemed rather odd, and we wondered how we were going to turn up for work the next morning if we couldn't locate it. We returned to our hotel and I emailed Dermot and Tom, our contact at the school. By the time we returned from dinner, both had emailed back to give more specific directions. We had almost found it! There was just one little side street we needed to turn up, which wasn't on the map. Tom explained that the school is not sign posted in order to protect the children; they don't want strangers just dropping in.
In Cambodia the safety of children has become very important and very difficult to guarantee. Some orphanages and schools can be irresponsible in their obligation to protect children from abuse and emotional distress caused by tourists visiting with misplaced or more sinister intentions. It is for this reason that we have had to go through an application process, with detailed documentation to be volunteer teachers, proving that we have passed police checks in Australia, supplying detailed information about ourselves, and reading and signing comprehensive documentation on the do's and don'ts of working with children in Cambodia. They are all the usual things we know and do as teachers already; no personal friendships outside school, including social media, no favouritism, no gifts for individual children, fair and appropriate discipline. In addition are Cambodia specific requirements such as wearing appropriate clothing; no sleeveless clothes (no bra straps showing), clothes must cover from neck to knees, two adults must be with a child at all times, and vigilance about child abusers must be maintained at all times.
We arrive at 7.30am on our first day; Wednesday October 21. The school consists of a row of simple huts, the walls open a foot below the ceiling, an open doorway, wooden desks and a whiteboard at the front with a fan above. The staff room is a shed housing the library, a desk, a few chairs and all of the school's teaching resources. Long, the Cambodian head teacher, shows us around and explains the school's history. This school ABCs and Rice, was established around ten years ago by a Canadian woman, for children whose families are so poor they normally keep their children at home to work on the farm, or send them out to beg. Many children come from abusive, dysfunctional families, and Iive with a grandparent or some other relative. The school provides all the children's educational needs, breakfast, lunch, medical and dental care, and gives each child a bag of rice to take home once a month. This is payment in food for the family so that the child can continue to come to school. As a non government school, it relies on fund raising, donations and volunteers, although the regular classroom teachers are Cambodian, and paid a salary. But they rely on people like ourselves to volunteer, to provide specialist programs such as Art, PE and Music, to help with English acquisition and to donate resources during our stay.
We are pointed in the direction of our first classes; I will take Music classes, continuing to teach the songs that the children started with Dermot when he was here in September. When there are no music classes scheduled I will work as an English assistant, helping with reading, pronunciation, grammar, spelling etc. David has the same job description, only his specialty is PE, so he is working outside in the hot sun for a lot of the time. My first class is tricky; Dermot has sent audio recordings of two songs he wants me to teach, and the idea is that I plug my iPad into speakers they have at the school. What we haven't factored in however, is that I have an iPad mini, so the connecting plug is too big. I end up singing unaccompanied without the recording. The song is about Australia, and I have downloaded some images to show the children; kangaroos, emus, wombats, penguins, koalas, and the opera house, to name a few. Five minutes into the lesson, their Cambodian teacher, Houk whispers in my ear " Speak slower!". Of course, I should remember I am gabbling away instructions and information in their second language. I slow down, and take care to show pictures and explain things clearly. I show them YouTube clips of Australian rules football, cricket, an Aborigine playing a didgeridoo, penguins at Philip Island. Fifteen pairs of eyes stare unblinking at my iPad, riveted by these amazing scenes of Australia. What did we do before the Internet?
After the first lesson the ice is broken, and I get into a pattern; teaching the same lesson with each class. I gradually add more songs to their repertoire as they quickly learn each one. For the most part the children are enthusiastic and fast learners; attentive, focused and excited about learning. Some classes are more engaged than others, and at night David and I discuss the teachers who work well with the children to create highly motivated and disciplined learners. I show the children a YouTube clip of a boomerang being thrown, as the chorus of the song about Australia is "Like a boomerang I'll be back" and I show them some photos of a range of boomerangs, with different colours and designs. I then hand each child a piece of paper with an outline of a boomerang and tell them to colour it in with their own design and colours. This activity is very popular, and almost immediately the class is silent while they all intently create their boomerang design. All the teachers are called "Cha" (short for 'teacher') and as they finish I have children tugging at my skirt, grabbing my arm and tapping my shoulder; "Cha, I am finished", "Cha, look at mine!". At the beginning of every class the children stand with hands together, prayer-like, and chorus "welcome teacher, how are you going today?". After I respond, they chorus "Teacher, may we please sit down?". At the end of each lesson they stand again to chant "Thank you teacher for teaching us today. Please may we go to break?". And always a child stays behind and offers to carry the song sheets back to the library.
We teach from 8am - 11am each day, then the students have their lunch at school, and go home. In the afternoon they go to government school. We go back to our hotel for a shower and lunch. The afternoon classes run from 2-5pm. The days are long and it is hot work as the temperature is 32 -34 every day, and the humidity is high. I am grateful for the fans in each classroom and the staff room, but I still finish each day hot and sweaty after spending all day singing and doing actions to help the children learn the words. In the regular classes where I am assisting with English learning, I offer to teach songs to tie in with the topics, and to help with their vocabulary acquisition. Old Playschool favourites come in handy, such as "heads and shoulders, knees and toes", and "this is the way we sweep the floor" (etc.).

ABCs and Rice school

ABCs and Rice school

Classrooms at ABCs and Rice

Classrooms at ABCs and Rice

We spend our first week staying in a very nice apartment hotel, where we have a kitchenette, living room and separate bedroom and bathroom. Unfortunately when I booked it, I thought the price was in Australian dollars, but it is in U.S. dollars, which makes it a lot more expensive, and really outside our budget. On Tom's advice, we check out a cheaper hotel that is closer to the school, and after a week, we relocate there. There are a lot of public holidays during our time here; one each week, which gives us a four day week. On our day off during the second week we bundle up our hiking shoes, jumpers, raincoats and long trousers and take them to the post office where the assistant helps us cram them into a cardboard box and posts them to Australia. Now, I will have some room in my suitcase!
One afternoon it starts to rain. By break time, it is pouring. Large puddles quickly form in the dusty stretch that forms the play area between the classrooms and the library. The children head straight through the puddles to a large slab of concrete on one side of the library/staff room. Here they throw themselves onto their tummies, body surfing along the wet concrete in the rain. They have a ball, their clothes and hair saturated. After fifteen minutes of this, they return to class after the break, tramping their muddy footprints across the simple lino floors of the classrooms.

PE class on the 'oval'

PE class on the 'oval'

On sunny days, which are the norm, many of the children spend their break time in the staff room/library. They choose picture books and climb into our laps, demanding that we read to them, or they sit on the floor playing games. Small children constantly run up and wrap their arms around us, burying their heads in our tummies. At first it is a bit of a shock; coming from a culture where physical contact is banned between teacher and student, for obvious reasons. But as Tom explains, many of these children are starved of physical affection at home, and school is the only place they get it. They are constantly tactile, and fascinated by us, touching my watch, my rings, my necklace, the skin on my arm, my face, and holding hands as we walk around the yard. It is refreshing and quite delightful to receive such open and innocent affection and enthusiasm. As I walk past children in the yard they sing snippets of songs we have learnt at me, and grin cheekily. It is lovely to have such positive confirmation that I am giving them something they appreciate and enjoy.

On the playground

On the playground

One of the youngest students at ABC's and Rice

One of the youngest students at ABC's and Rice

Often out in the yard the children will grab your hand and tow you to the playground. "Cha! Play with me!" It reminds me of when my two daughters were little. So there I am, climbing up the jungle gym, down the ladder, across the wooden pole. I suspect that school is the only chance they get to play with an adult on a playground.
Girls playing with their barbie dolls

Girls playing with their barbie dolls

In the playground

In the playground


Our first weekend in Siem Reap; Saturday October 24, we hire bikes and cycle out toward Angkor Wat. We don't want to visit the temples, as we already did this on our previous visits, we just want a bike ride out in the country, away from the hustle and bustle of Siem Reap. Unfortunately it soon becomes clear that all roads lead to Angkor Wat, as each one we try eventually leads to a checkpoint, where we are asked to show our $20 ticket to the archeological park. The park is around 6km out of Siem Reap, so by the time we have tried each road, and then cycled down a few turn offs, just to see what is there, we have actually cycled quite a way. Despite the heat and humidity it is pleasant cycling, with a slight breeze created by the motion. Eventually we cycle back into town and I am amazed to be asked if I want a tuk tuk as a ride past a driver. They never give up!
On Saturday October 31 we hire a tuk tuk to take us to the ancient Angkor Temple of Banteay Srei. It is around 35km from Siem Reap, so the journey takes over an hour, but it is a pleasant ride through the countryside, past verdant green rice fields, small pockets of jungle, and villages selling hand woven baskets, hand dyed fabric, yams and timber. Although the road is quite bumpy in sections, the breeze is refreshing and we enjoy our escape from the traffic and chaos of Siem Reap. As we near Banteay Srei our driver pulls over to a road side stall and asks us to stand up while he retrieves a small eski from under our seat. He disappears, then returns with the eski filled with ice and bottled water. This is greatly appreciated when we wander around the temple which dates from the 12th century, as in the sun and without the breeze, the heat and humidity are relentless. The detail in the carvings of some sections of the temple is extroadinary. Of course there are the usual children and adults following us around trying to sell us postcards and clothing,, and the exit predictably takes us through the market where we have to say 'no thank you' to every stall owner who wheedles "You want buy dress Madame?"

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

Lake near Banteay Srei

Lake near Banteay Srei

Trip to Banteay Srei

Trip to Banteay Srei

That day an email arrives from my music teacher friend Dermot. He has cc'd me on an email to Australian singer/songwriter Paul Kelly. Dermot and I teach with Paul's sister in Melbourne, and she has told Dermot that Paul is visiting Cambodia, so his email is suggesting to Paul that he come and visit the school. A couple of years ago one of the teachers wrote new lyrics for Paul's famous song 'From little things big things grow' to make it an inspirational song for ABCs and Rice students, about striving to improve and doing their best. On Monday Tammy, the school director tells us that Paul is indeed visiting that afternoon, and asks if I could teach the children to sing the ABCs and Rice version of the song. Luckily she has a copy of the altered lyrics, so I work the chords out on the keyboard, then spend the day going from class to class, teaching the children how to sing the song. At around 3pm Paul Kelly and his partner Sian arrive and we assemble the children in the shade, in front of one of the classrooms. They perform the song, with me somewhat drowning them out in the verses as many of the younger children are not able to learn so many English words in such a short time. Never-the-less it goes down well, Paul joining in the chorus, and then producing his guitar and singing the original version of the song, as well as a few other of his songs. Later one little boy stands up and sings a Khmer song on his own which is very special. Then it is playtime, and Paul and his partner Sian join in playing ball with the children.

Paul Kelly performs at ABCs and Rice

Paul Kelly performs at ABCs and Rice

Paul Kelly performs at ABCs and Rice

Paul Kelly performs at ABCs and Rice

Children listening to Paul Kelly with another volunteer

Children listening to Paul Kelly with another volunteer


It seems there is always something happening at this school. A few days later we are asked to attend a meeting with all of the teachers and the volunteers. Also present are a British film crew who work for National Geographic. They are going to be filming a documentary at the school the following week, so we are filled in on the details of this, but asked not to reveal them.
Now we are in our new hotel, closer to the school, we walk to school in the morning, when it is still relatively cool. At 11am we catch a tuk tuk back to the hotel, then return to school at 2pm in a tuk tuk. By 5.15pm when we are heading home, the light is fading and it is cooling down again, so we walk home. Most days our return tuk tuk drops us off in the main road, as they seldom know where the school is. One day i get out of the tuk tuk and face the usual barrage of traffic in both directions; many vehicles travelling down the wrong side of the road, as is the norm here. As usual David is already across the road, but I am much more hesitant and concerned for my safety. Getting run over in Cambodia is not on my list of life goals. Suddenly the tuk tuk driver walks over, takes my arm and escorts me across the road! Another day when we are returning from lunch, a small crowd is gathered at the end of the road, beside a bike lying partly in the ditch beside the road. David goes over to see what is happening and tells me there is a dead body beside the bike, but no one speaks English, so he's not sure what is going on. I run down to the school and tell Tammy and Long. Tammy jumps on a bike and heads down there while Long runs. Ten minutes later they are back saying it was indeed a dead man; the local drunk who had possibly been there for a few hours, but had only just been noticed by locals walking past. Fortunately all the children were already at school by that stage, so I don't think any of them saw him.
In Cambodian culture people remove their shoes before entering a house and many shops. This also extends to the classroom and school office, so out side these buildings there is always a collection of thongs and other footwear.. On Friday November 6th it rains, and large puddles form throughout the playground, with a large one outside the office/staffroom/library. It requires a great balancing act to remove my sandals to enter the office, and then replace them when I leave. A couple of times they have been dislodged by little feet, and are too far to reach; on the far side of the puddle that sits right outside the door. One of the girls kindly picks them up and positions them for me to insert my feet. At the end of the day I enter the office to collect my bag, removing my sandals as I do. As I near the rear of the office where my bag is I feel something sharp enter the underside of my bare foot. I lift it up to see a huge wasp-like insect on the floor. Tammy and David quickly sit me down and take turns getting the sting out. It is like a thick barbed splinter, and it's entered my foot in a couple of spots, but there is no poison on the end of it, so I quickly realise that I haven't actually been stung. However it is quite sore, and I can feel there is still something in there. So instead of the usual walk home, Tammy insists we share a tuk tuk with her and her children. When we get back to the hotel David removes the rest of the sting. I decide I may revise my decision to be culturally correct and remove my sandals in the staffroom from now on!

David teaching PE

David teaching PE

David's class 'The Eagles'

David's class 'The Eagles'

Each night we get a tuk tuk into the centre of town for dinner. Our hotel, 'Motherhome boutique' employs a small group of tuk tuk drivers who seemingly live right outside the hotel in their tuk Turks. So for us, a trip to town costs $US1 instead of $US2. Each night is a marvel of bad driving on the part of everybody; in this right hand drive country, everyone turns left into oncoming traffic, drives on the wrong side of the road, weaves around pedestrians and other vehicles rather than giving way or stopping. The only time this practice is waived is when there is a bus involved. Somehow it all seems to work, and to date we have not seen an accident. Motorbikes are the most common form of transport and they are often crammed with entire families; cute little babies clutched to a parent's chest with one hand, while they drive with the other. Usually the driver wears a helmet, but only rarely do you see one on a passenger. On one of our days off we hire bikes, intending to ride out of town on a different road to last time, to explore the countryside. This becomes tricky as it involves a few left hand turns; something I am not confident doing in this land of no rules. Also we cycle for a long time past industrial areas, on narrow roads lined with large puddles from the previous night's rain. Again we are constantly trying to avoid the large buses and trucks that pass, whilst staying out of the puddles. It seems open countryside is much further out than we thought. Eventually we give up and head back to town for lunch at our favourite cafe. This cafe, 'Sister Srey' is owned by two women from Geelong. It is very hip Australian, just like being in a North Carlton cafe, but with Cambodian prices and background music emitting a fantastic 70's playlist.for around $12US we can each have lunch, fresh lime juice and a latte or even a soy milkshake. This is our favourite destination on the weekend and other days off. We end up having quite a few days off, as there are a lot of public holidays in November. Also the filming is going to take place on Wednesday 11 and Thursday 12 November, and they only want Kmer people on those days, so volunteers are given the day off.

Being such a poor country, there are many street beggars in Siem Reap. I ask our work colleagues about the do's and dont's of dealing with street beggars. Their advice is to donate money to amputees, who are the innocent victims of the many thousands of land mines still dotted around the countryside from the war, but never to give money to children, as that is perpetuating their parents' belief that it is better to send them out begging than to send them to school. They also explain to me the 'milk baby scam', which a couple of women have tried on me. This occurs when a women with a baby in a sling approaches you, carrying an empty baby bottle and asks you to go to the mini mart and buy milk for the baby. If you offer money, they always refuse, because they have a scam going with the operators of the mini mart, who will drastically overcharge you for the milk, and after you have gone, the milk will be returned to the shelf; the baby getting none of it. Children are used in this way, and once they become too big for the milk scam, often discarded by their mother, and left to beg for themselves on the street. Three of the children at the school have been adopted by Tammy, as they were milk scam babies, who were then dumped by their mother. They started sniffing glue, which represses their appetite, and coming to the school to sleep on the staffroom floor. A lot of negotiation with the authorities took place to rescue them and place them in a foster care situation with Tammy and her husband, which ended up being an adoption. They are lovely children and it is heartwarming to see how their destinies have been turned around by this incredible gesture.

Monday November 9 is a public holiday for Independence Day and so we book a tour to Kulen mountain, which is a sacred site for Khmer people. There is one other couple on our tour, and we have a very pleasant day enjoying the jungles, the beautiful clear river, Budddist temples and waterfall.

Buddhist temple

Buddhist temple

Sleeping Buddha

Sleeping Buddha

Buddhist temple

Buddhist temple

Buddhist temple

Buddhist temple

Waterfall Kulen mountain

Waterfall Kulen mountain

Waterfall Kulen mountain

Waterfall Kulen mountain

On Tuesday November 10 David is asked to accompany a group of students to the Angkor golf resort. The American owner wants to start up a golf squad, so he has invited 13 and 14 year olds from different schools to come in for a session to learn to play golf, while he looks for potential talent. The children are overwhelmed by the resort; the luscious greens, the electric buggies and their personal allocation of a caddy each! It is a rare taste of luxury for such underprivileged children and they have a ball.

ABCs students at the Angkor golf resort

ABCs students at the Angkor golf resort

That afternoon I take some photos of the school assembly which occurs twice every day; one at 7.45am and the other at 5.-15. This is because two groups of children attend the school each day; one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Their other half day is spent at the government school. At each assembly they sing the Khmer national anthem and their school chant 'I know I can be what I want to be. If I work hard at it. I'll be where I want to be". This is repeated three times, each time louder, so the last time they are shouting. It is very amusing to watch and also inspiring.

School assembly

School assembly

A little one in school assembly

A little one in school assembly

Student from Badger class

Student from Badger class

Student at ABCs and Rice

Student at ABCs and Rice

Wednesday and Thursday of that week are days off for us, as they are filming at the school. We wander into town, but it gets very hot walking around in the sun, and we are harassed about every two metres by tuk tuk drivers, which gets a little wearing. If you try to politely ignore them they become narky. We witness one European explode in anger at the constant badgering, and a lot of swearing and shouting ensues. This is not good form in Cambodian culture, as they find shouting means 'losing face' and very bad form. Always the Khmer are polite and smiling, even when you tell them something they don't want to hear. Laughter is often their reaction if they are told off.
Friday it's lovely to be back at school. At playtime a group of girls in my class are sitting in the doorway of the classroom, enjoying their morning snack of spicy snails. They offer me some, but I can't really bring myself to try this delicacy, so I take a photo of them instead.

Spicy snails for play lunch! Yum!

Spicy snails for play lunch! Yum!

I spend the day teaching the Badger and Eagle classes to make pirate hats with old newspapers, and then we paint them black. One of their songs in the musical is about pirates, and I would like to get the whole school singing it on Wednesday, our last day, wearing their pirate hats!

Painting their pirate hats

Painting their pirate hats

Friday is also the day of the monthly rice bagging. Each child is given a 4kg bag of rice to take home. This helps these poor families to keep their children at school and avoids them having to keep the child home to work on the farm. 85% of Cambodians are farmers, who live on less than $1 a day.

Bagging the rice

Bagging the rice


Student taking home his bag of rice

Student taking home his bag of rice

It's good to keep casting an eye around the school at the limited facilities, and reminding myself of the contrast between this school, and the school I teach at in Melbourne. They are a universe apart. In particular the staffroom/ office/ library that we all share, squeezing past one another to get things, making room for the ten or so children who pour in at playtime to read books, colour in, or cuddle teachers.

Staff room/office/library

Staff room/office/library

Inside of staffroom/office/library

Inside of staffroom/office/library

ABCs and Rice school

ABCs and Rice school

David and the girls

David and the girls

Me with one of my students

Me with one of my students

On Saturday November 14, in the wake of the Beirut and Paris terrorist attacks, we attend a presentation at a children's hospital in Siem Reap. The presentation is by a Swiss paediatrician, who has been working here in Cambodia since 1991. In that time he has built five hospitals for children and pregnant women, mostly with donations. All patients are treated for free. No one is turned away.
During his presentation, Dr. Beat Richner performs a number of cello solos, saying that this was his way of representing the voice of Cambodian children. It is so very moving and humbling to listen to this man whose career has been devoted to free health care for all Cambodian children. As Dr Beat Richner says: 'A child only has one life. And every child's life is of equal value'.
http://www.beat-richner.ch
Now it is November, peak season for weddings. Cambodian weddings go on for two days, starting around 6am and continuing late into the night. On Sunday November 15 we move into a cheaper hotel that is also closer to the centre of town. A wedding reception is in full swing just down the road, and both the music and many speeches are very loud. All the guests are dressed up in beautiful silk outfits, which are hired for the occasion.

Our final week at ABCs and Rice is only three days, as we finish on Wednesday November 18, but it is eventful. On the weekend David comes down with a cold, and by Monday lunchtime he has developed a fever, so I convince him to spend the afternoon in bed, while I return to school in the tuk tuk. He works all day on the Tuesday, but teaching PE out in the tropical heat is not doing him any good, and that combined with the air conditioning we need to have running in our hotel room each night, perpetuates the blocked sinuses and runny nose that were his first symptoms.
I spend Monday with each child painting a skull and cross bones on their pirate hat, using a stencil David made out of cardboard. I bring each child into the art room one by one to do this, and the expression on each little face as we lift the stencil off together is just magic. It's such a simple thing, yet it gives them so much joy, and in turn brings me so much pleasure to see their excitement. A new volunteer, Lee arrives that afternoon, as she helps me do this activity. The children are fascinated by their pirate hats, constantly dropping into the art room all afternoon to look at the different hats, find their own and compare it with the others.
On Tuesday afternoon at school, a boy falls off the swing and breaks both of his wrists. Tammy calls her tuk tuk driver and the two of us transport him to the children's hospital, his wrists resting awkwardly in his lap, with us trying to support him and hold him still to guard against any further pain from the extremely bumpy dirt road. We constantly remind the driver to go slow, particularly over the crater-like potholes in the dirt road outside the school, but the boy is very restrained; he doesn't cry or even wince in pain, although Tammy asks him in Khmer if the pain is bad enough to make him cry, and he replies that it is. Eventually we reach the children's hospital near the centre of town, and he is attended to immediately. While Tammy completes the registration forms, I accompany him to Emergency, where a surgeon examines his wrists, asks me a few questions, then sends him off for an x Ray. He is put in a wheelchair and I accompany him through to the x Ray room. We walk through ICU, where children and babies lie on beds, connected to machines, their distraught mothers beside them. Eventually the boy's mother arrives on her motorbike, and Tammy tries to explain to her in Khmer that she can't take her son home on the motorbike. His arms are put in a cast and he is scheduled for an operation the following morning. Tammy arranges for her tuk tuk driver to follow the mother home on her motorbike, then bring her back to the hospital so she can take her son home in the tuk tuk. Once this is arranged, around 6pm, Tammy and I can leave, and we walk back through the town together, discussing how brave our student was, and how difficult life will be for him until his wrists mend.

Wednesday November 18 is our final day at ABCs and Rice. I cannot believe how fast the month has gone, and I dread the final day, as so many students have asked me when we are leaving, and said they will cry when we do. I spend the morning going from class to class practising a number of songs, then at the start of the final period I bring them all together and we practise the pirate song en masse, then they perform the song wearing drawn on pirate eyes or pirate hats.

Singing the pirate song

Singing the pirate song

David films the performance on my IPad, then afterwards the children play some games and have a fun period, as part of the whole dressing up as a pirate activity. First they have like a piƱata activity, where lollies and talcum powder are put into a claypot, which is suspended from the basketball ring. A child is blindfolded and handed a stick with which to smash the claypot. Eventually she succeeds, and there is a writhing mass of children on the ground scrabbling for lollies, covered in talcum powder.

Smashing the claypot

Smashing the claypot

After this the children are lined up in rows, and the head of each row given a water filled balloon that is passed down the row, overhead, then between the legs. The balloons have been soaking in a bucket of detergent filled water, so they are slippery, and frequently dropped, splattering water on the ground and surrounding bodies.

Water games

Water games

The children shriek with excitement and enjoy the water spray in the heat. Eventually some pick up balloons and play 'throw the balloon at the teacher', so an all out water fight ensues, with one of the Khmer teachers getting in the huge bowl and splashing water at everyone. In addition some of the children have been in the face paint that was used to paint their pirate faces on, and they run around with bright green hands, covered in talcum powder, rubbing their hands on the teachers' faces. It is lots of fun and everyone ends up wet and covered in face paint and powder.

Then it is time for the final assembly, and David and I are summoned to the front. Soky speaks to the children in Khmer about us leaving, then the children serenade us, first with 'Yellow' by Coldplay, then the song about Australia that they learned as part of the musical. Somehow I manage not to cry, but it is all rather overwhelming. They all stand there, clutching a drawing they have made for us, and after the singing they stampede toward us, for hugs and to give us their picture. The force of so many children at once nearly knocks me over, and one small child becomes buried under the scrum, at my feet. I pick her up and continue to say goodbye and hug each child. So many ask me when are we coming back? I say I don't know, I cannot promise something that may not happen. Even one of the teachers gives me a drawing he has done of me with dark hair, playing the piano, David beside me. Houk says it is a picture of when David and I first met. Perceptive bloke!

Reflections on teaching here; it has brought me back to the grass roots of teaching, and re invigorated my passion that began over thirty years ago with a love of children and spending time with children. These are children as I worked with in the seventies and eighties, who love singing, have no sophisticated toys, none of them own a phone or computer, and many of them do not even know what the Internet is. They have almost nothing and enjoy the simple pleasures. Their clothes are handed to them from a cupboard in the staffroom, and they have no particular care what they are given to wear, as long as it fits. They enjoy every activity, and they particularly love to sing. For the past month they have wandered around the school singing the songs I have have been teaching them. They are happy, loving and innocent. Very tactile, open and generous with their affection. Their wonder and excitement at little things, such as painting a pirate hat, singing a song, and learning a new game, are just magic to witness, and it has given me so much pleasure to see this every day, and feel welcomed and loved by these children who tell you they love you regularly, and have no inhibitions whatsoever. It is heart warming to participate in a return to the simple pleasures of life, and be reminded that happiness is not about money; these children have nothing, yet they are the happiest and most open hearted children I have ever met.

We hire a driver to take us to Battambang the following day. We are both exhausted emotionally and physically. David still has the flu, with a fever, aches and runny nose. All of these things have prevented him from sleeping, and I have not slept much either, being aware of him frequently getting up in the night to turn the air conditioning on and off. Living in a tropical climate is not helping his fever, and the air con just perpetuates the runny nose, but we have no alternative as the windows of our room do not open, and we have no fan.
We are travelling to Battambang to visit a child we sponsor through World Vision. The World vision staff collect us at 8am from our hotel in Battambang on Friday November 20, and drive us around 80km to their office in a rural community where our sponsor child lives. She is eight years old and she is the youngest of a farming family with five children. When we arrive at the World Vision office we meet all of the staff, and then I ask to use the Ladies. When I emerge, our sponsor child and her sister are sitting at the table. Opposite them is their father. They say hello to me in Khmer, and the World Vison staff tell me they have just called me 'Mother'. The sister is twelve and both girls are very small for their age. I get out the gifts we have brought from Australia; a t shirt for each of them, which are both way too big! I show the father the gifts we brought for the other three siblings; t shirts, a hat and a pen. Then I pull out the other bag of items we bought the previous night at the supermarket; a bag of rice, toothbrushes and toothpaste, soap, and two boxes of coloured pencils. The father is overwhelmed and close to tears. He tells the World Visons staff this, and they translate, but I can see this for myself. We also brought some leftover pictures we had created for the school; join the dots kangaroos, and other Australian animals for colouring in, all drawn by David. I get some of these out and give the girls their coloured pencils, and they busily colour away. They are both very quiet and shy and it's hard to break the ice when they don't speak English, we only have four words of Khmer, and so the World Vison staff have to translate. Frequently I sense our sponsor child staring at me, but when I look at her she quickly looks away. Occasionally I get a lovely smile, such as when I show her the t shirt we brought for her, but we never manage to catch one on film. We spend three hours together, including having lunch of traditional Khmer food, and throughout this the girls remain very quiet and very patient in what must be pretty boring for them. I am glad we brought the pencils and pictures, as they continue to draw and colour in pictures, presenting me with each one as they finish. I wish we had thought to bring a ball, so we could go outside and do something more active, and possibly break the ice a little more. The project manager, Rasi, explains the details of World Vision's work in this community, which covers education, health and creating a more connected and mobilised community. Part of the education strategy is to run afternoon clubs for children, providing educational games and teaching them about good hygiene. After lunch we say goodbye to our sponsor child and her family, and as we drive off she gives me the most beautiful smile.

We drive to a community centre where two volunteers are taking activities with local children and their families. They begin with some fantastic educational games, all in Khmer, improving their literacy by matching words and pictures. Then they talk about hygiene and run a session on hand washing. The children and their mothers come up and wash their hands in a large bowl, with soap.

Hand washing program

Hand washing program

Look at my clean hands!

Look at my clean hands!

one of the World Vision team, Saveth asks if we would like to teach the children a game. David teaches them palm trees and elephants, which is no mean feat, as they do not speak English and have to make the appropriate shape according to whether he is saying palm trees or elephants. It seems to work, as there is lots of laughter and happy faces.

Playing Palm trees and elephants

Playing Palm trees and elephants

Playing palm trees and elephants

Playing palm trees and elephants

Finally we have a couple of group photos with everyone, and we climb back in the car to be driven back to Battambang.

The whole community

The whole community

The whole community

The whole community

In the car we both struggle to stay awake. We are still not sleeping, as the hotel bed and pillows are like a rock, and David is still suffering with sore muscles and a slight fever. That night we dine out at a lovely restaurant in Battambang which, like many in Cambodia, trains young Khmers in hospitality. This one is sponsored by Vittoria coffee. The food is beautiful, but when David orders a whisky and coke, his ice is delivered in a separate glass, then substituted for another glass of ice five minutes later. We cannot understand what the waiter says, but later that night he develops diarrhoea, and wakes up with a shocking headache.
We depart Battambang by private car for Thailand. We are spending the next six nights on Koh Chang, an island off the southern coast of Thailand near Trat, then four nights on Koh Samet, which is closer to Bangkok. From there we will travel to Bangkok airport on December 1 and fly to Singapore to pick up our return flight home. Despite my emailing the hotel about a driver to the Thai border, and emphasising that we wanted a safe driver, who didn't drive too fast and talk on his phone, that is exactly what our driver does. Fortunately it's over in 90 minutes, and around 9.30am he drops us at the Cambodian side of the border. We have overstayed our Cambodian visa by one day, so have to pay $5 each. Once this is done, we walk through the border where we go through the Thai arrival border section and have our passports stamped. We have organised a driver to collect us there and take us to Koh Chang, and he is there waiting. It is a relief to sink into the comfortable seats and relax with a sensible, sane driver. The contrast with Cambodia is immediately obvious in the quality of the road, which is mostly a two lane carriageway, the number of cars, rather than motor bikes, the more sophisticated middle class houses and towns lining the road and the petrol stations and supermarkets we pass, which look just like we are in Australia. Our rest on Koh Chang can't come soon enough; we are both suffering from no appetite and feeling exhausted. Time for a real holiday!

Posted by suel1960 00:22 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Nepal

sunny 27 °C
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Mt Everest

Mt Everest

"Yes, it's Mt Everest"! My eyes flutter open and I become aware of a stir of excitement in the aisle of the plane, as the air hostess and a group of passengers are peering towards the windows next to where I am seated. I turn my head to the right, and there it is, the white snow stark against the clear blue sky, the mountain range of the Himalayas continuing on endlessly. I sit there, on top of the world, marvelling at this spectacular sight.

As our Malaysian Airlines jet hurtles toward the unknown that is Kathmandu, the emails from my government's foreign affairs department continue to land in my inbox; now every second day a reminder that this is indeed a risky venture. In my fatigued state, having spent the night at Changi airport, with a couple of hours sleep in an overpriced lounge, I fluctuate between excitement at this new territory and sheer terror that all the things the Australian government predict might go wrong, will go wrong. This is not helped by chatting to a Nepalese man we meet in transit at KL airport, who warns us that this is not a good time to be visiting Nepal. There are shortages of fuel and other things; he adds that he can't believe tourists are allowed in at this time. This ominous statement settles in my gut for the remainder of the trip, only lifting when I wake to the resplendent vision of Mt Everest. The emails from the Australian government also warn about fuel shortages, protests that close roads, not to employ surrogate mothers (no chance of that) and for many regions of Nepal, apart from the area we are visiting, to 'reconsider your need to travel'.

After spending a month in Singapore and Malaysia, only seven hours flight from home, it is a wrench to be once again flying further away from Australia. As we come into the final stretch of our seven months away, we are both experiencing pangs of longing to return home. This flight feels like I am caught in an elastic band, reluctantly being stretched yet further away from where my heart is urging me.

Kathmandu airport is as chaotic and basic as I expect it to be; everywhere are piles of luggage and large cardboard boxes; many obviously containing flat screen TVs or other electrical items, having arrived with their new owners on the China Airlines flight which landed just before ours.
After an interminable wait for David's suitcase, we depart the airport and spy our hosts standing outside holding the expected sign 'Himalayan Social Journey'; the tour company with whom we are booked. Our tour guide who will be on the trek with us, Binod, welcomes us and takes us to our hotel the 'Holy Himalaya'. Our trip to the hotel takes us through dusty, crowded streets, past mostly standing buildings, some with wooden supports, and many piles of bricks and rubble. Our hotel is in the tourist area of Thamel, where the streets are very narrow and lined with shops selling hiking gear and beautifully bright clothing hand made in Nepal. Everywhere we walk we are accosted by locals, keen to sell us something, anything. 'Come look at my shop, buy jewellery/scarf/pashmina/painting/hat". The poverty is pervasive and I would love to help each and every one of them by purchasing something, but we have no desire for souvenirs, and absolutely no room in the suitcase.

Tuk tuk

Tuk tuk

The next day, Friday October 9, we are taken on a day tour of Kathmandu. We begin at the monkey temple, which features Buddhist stupas and Hindu temples. Nepalese people are either Buddhist, Hindus, Christians or Muslims, and all four religions co exist peacefully with intermarriage common, and temples often right beside one another. It is heart warming for someone whose home town is being besieged by anti Mosque protests planned for the following day. The monkey temple is so named because there are monkeys everywhere, scampering all over the ground, up the trees and swimming in their own pool! They mostly ignore humans, but one does run up and grab a packet of hand wipes out of a woman's bag; obviously thinking it is food. I bet he got a shock when he put that in his mouth!

Statue of Buddha at monkey temple

Statue of Buddha at monkey temple

Statue of Buddha at monkey temple

Statue of Buddha at monkey temple

We visit an art studio which houses thousands of canvases, all Buddhist paintings. Most of these are Mandalas; two dimensional paintings of the stupa from above. These are used for meditation and there are strict rules that govern when and how they are created. The artists paint the Mandalas as part of a ritual involving meditation. We are shown a variety, from those created by students to the professional works of art, painted by the grand masters, and often taking months to complete. As we wander around the complex, eagles soar high above, and we see evidence of the earthquake in various buildings supported by scaffolding and roped off from the public. Our guide tells us that he was here on the day of the earthquake, when everything was swaying, but Nepali people are grateful that it occurred on a Saturday, when there were no children at school. They also felt humbled and overwhelmed by the sympathy and assistance that flooded in from the rest of the world.

Earthquake damaged building at monkey temple

Earthquake damaged building at monkey temple

View of Swayambhu

View of Swayambhu

Prayer wheels, monkey temple

Prayer wheels, monkey temple

Stupa, Swayambhu world heritage site

Stupa, Swayambhu world heritage site

Our next stop is Durbar Square, which again features different faith temples alongside one another, some intact, others under repair. As we emerge from the mini bus the women are on us, thrusting necklaces, scarves and hand made bags under our noses in a desperate attempt to make a sale. Again we see some evidence of damage by the earthquake with some structures supported by poles and others roped off completely. One temple has only its base remaining.

Earthquake damaged temple, Durbar Square

Earthquake damaged temple, Durbar Square

Durbar Square

Durbar Square

Temple, Durbar Square

Temple, Durbar Square

Open air laundry

Open air laundry

From here we travel to a roof top terrace restaurant for our lunch; after a morning of standing and walking in the warm sun, everyone is keen to find a shady table. The terrace overlooks the Great Buddha Stupa, which was badly damaged in the earthquake, with all of the top section having to be dismantled and now in the process of being rebuilt. This is a significant site in Kathmandu and is world heritage listed. We wander around the outside and view an exhibition which documents its appearance before the earthquake, the damage done, and the work that has been undertaken to repair it.

The Great Buddha Stupa

The Great Buddha Stupa

Next is Pasupathinath temple, and the banks of the Bagmati River where Hindu funerals take place. Our guide takes us to the other side of the river to watch a funeral ceremony, which consists of the body of a man being placed on a flat stone beside the river, and the black plastic in which he is covered is removed and cast into the river. The river is regarded as holy and pure, like the Ganges. I wonder at this as I observe its murky brown colour and the rubbish floating downstream. Water from the river is collected and poured in the dead man's mouth, his feet are washed, and then he is wrapped in a white shroud converted in orange fabric and flowers, ready for the funeral pyre. We then pass the holy men who cover themselves in ash as a reminder of human mortality and the impermanence of life; we all end up as ash. These are men who have given up all their possessions and who spend their days in meditation.

Pashupatinath temple

Pashupatinath temple

Funeral men

Funeral men

From here we pass right beside two bodies burning on funeral pyres, watched by a crowd of onlookers. It is all very matter-of-fact; no grief is on display. The Hindu acceptance of the impermanence of life is part and parcel of this public display and burning of the body. In Hinduism once you die, your spirit moves onto inhabit another body, your body is nothing more than an empty vessel. So it's public display and burning is not an issue. For us it's a little more confronting as the smoke is thick and the smell unpleasant. With eyes watering, we dutifully follow our guide through the clouds of smoke, hoping to escape soon.

Funeral pyres

Funeral pyres

Funeral pyres

Funeral pyres

The next day we have to ourselves, so we walk to the nearby 'Garden of Dreams', which was established in the late 19th century, then fell into disrepair before being restored. It has some beautiful colonial pavilions, some of them earthquake damaged, and the gardens themselves are lush. A grassed area is furnished with mats and pillows, and we settle there for a while to contemplate in the warm sun, while tiny squirrels run up to us, before quickly darting away. It is a tranquil respite from the chaotic streets of Kathmandu, where bikes, taxis and motor bikes constantly toot, narrowly missing pedestrians, and every shop owner exhorts you to enter their shop. Their desperate poverty and reliance on tourists for their survival is all too clear.
Garden of dreams

Garden of dreams

Squirrel, garden of dreams

Squirrel, garden of dreams

After months wondering at the wisdom of visiting Nepal after the earthquakes in April, it is now clear that rebuilding and restoration is well underway. While there is much evidence of the devastation, there is also a bustling optimistic city, the wheels of life actively turning and depending on the return of tourists. There are many other westerners in the hotels, streets, restaurants and at cultural sites, and the souvenir shops are full of beautifully hand made pashminas, scarves, clothing, toys and jewellery.
What has created more problem however, is the lack of fuel throughout the country. The Nepalese government has recently passed a new constitution, which has been met with disagreement in a couple of the southern provinces bordering India. As all of Nepal's fuel comes by road from India, these provinces, supported by India, have blocked the border. Everywhere are long lines of cars, buses and motor bikes, queuing to buy fuel. Because of this we have to catch a public tourist bus to Pohkara, instead of having our own private deluxe coach. Our guide tells us that many restaurants are closing, owing to the scarcity of gas for cooking. Many hotels have closed their kitchens and provide accomodation only. Our hotel in Thamel regularly has power blackouts; this is par for the course in Nepal. All establishments fortunately have emergency lighting for these regular events, which kick in to provide dim lighting in public areas. In your room though, a torch is necessary, and this will be even more important up in the mountains where power blackouts are longer and more frequent.
There are 15 of us in our tour group, and we all climb on the bus around 8am on Sunday October 11. The bus is now full, with our group, Nepalese and other tourists, and we trundle through the streets of Kathmandu, stopping and starting in the heavy traffic until we stop at the side of the road. We look out the window and see the driver and his assistant with a large barrel and hose, siphoning petrol into the tank. Once this is done we are on our way, our bus driver regularly tooting the horn, which emits a short melodic motif. Each bus has its own horn jingle, and a musical conversation continues through our entire journey, as they all call to each other, when overtaking, approaching, or even passing. It is a noisy and chaotic trip, along a bumpy winding road. In order to save fuel we have no air conditioning, and despite the fact that it is only around 25 degrees, the bus becomes warm and stuffy as many of the Nepalese do not want the windows opened. We are crammed on, with bags in the aisles and Nepalese standing at the front. We have many stops at roadside restaurants, and we all clamber over the bags each time we get on and off the bus. This 5-6 hour journey of 200km ends up taking seven hours, and by the end most of us have decided to fly back to Kathmandu after our four day trek.

Public transport Nepal style

Public transport Nepal style

Finally we arrive at our very comfortable hotel, complete with swimming pool and spa. Our entire tour group of 15 are all Australians, all doing the same package through a Melbourne company, 'Luxury Escapes'. Already we have noticed that one member of our tour group is a slightly more demanding traveller than the rest. On the bus journey she has sat in the front seat with our Nepalese guide, Binod, holding forth in a loud voice, giving instructions to the bus driver and his crew. At the lunch stop a television blasts away overhead, and she asks the owner to turn it off. He refuses. As we check in to the hotel she asks for an upgrade, which is denied. After checking in and a shower, we have a meeting with Binod at 5.30, while he explains the program for the next four days. Halfway through the one traveller interrupts to say she has a headache and is going to her room. The rest of us start to realise that this is going to be an interesting week!
We are supplied with a duffle bag between the two of us, and fill this with the things we need for the next four days. This will be carried by a porter. The next morning we leave the hotel in a mini bus, and after a forty minute drive, we are dropped off at the beginning of the track. This is actually the Annapurna circuit, which we will be walking a portion of. The next three hours are spent climbing straight uphill, thousands and thousands of steps. Our two guides, both named Binod (thereafter called B1 and B2) are fantastic, being so patient and constantly reminding us to take our time, relax "you're on holiday!". One woman is unwell, she has had a stomach upset for a couple of days, so she struggles along at the back of the group, accompanied by B1, who makes her stop and rest frequently.

Start of the first day

Start of the first day

Our porters carry our bags on their backs; some place the band around their head, which looks like headache material to me. Always they are patient, smiling and considerate.

Nepali porter

Nepali porter

Along the track we see many interesting things and meet a lot of Nepali children on their way to school. Sometimes they hold out their hands and say "chocolates please", but usually they press their hands together, prayer-like and greet us: "Namaste".

Local children on the track

Local children on the track

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Eventually we arrive at our guest house at noon. It is like a school camp; small twin cabins; each with its own bathroom, which we were not expecting. We order our lunch from a reasonably wide menu, and are told this will take 1.5 hours to cook, so we have free time until then. I attempt to have a shower, but can only get cold water, so I have a very quick cursory one. While undressing I discover a fat blood engorged leech on my ankle, which I quickly flick off, only to have a large volume of blood continue to run down my leg until I cover it with a bandaid.

For lunch we have vegetable dumplings; in Nepal they are called 'mo mo'. Other options include curries, fried rice, spring rolls, pizza, pancakes. The kitchen is tiny, with a wood fired stove, but somehow at 1.30 sharp, they begin serving all our meals, which are hot and tasty. The serving and cooking is all done by our guides and porters.
After lunch we all set off on a short walk where we wind along stone paths through a local village. Cute Nepalese children welcome us with their hands outstretched, "chocolate?" they beg. The glimpse of a simple agricultural lifestyle is fascinating; corn cobs stacked under a shelter with cactus underneath to prevent the mice from eating it, chooks goats and buffalo roam the fields and paths, and live beside or underneath the houses. Everywhere there is dung, and we take care to avoid stepping in it.

Village house

Village house

Returning to the camp we sit up on the roof terrace drinking 'Everest' beer. Suddenly the clouds part to reveal three majestic snow covered peaks, towering far above the closest mountains. We had no idea they were there. "Snow!" shouts someone. "I see snow!" As the clouds drift around we continue to have glimpses of this awe inspiring sight, and gain an idea of how amazing our view would be if all the clouds disappeared. "Tomorrow morning", promises Binod. "Sunrise at 6am, you will hopefully see all of the mountains".

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Annapurna South

Annapurna South

Around 6pm the intermittent power supply goes off, and the temperature begins to drop. We go downstairs to the small, cozy dining room and sit under the one flouro light while in the adjoining kitchen our dinner is cooked in the dim light. "Can we have a bonnie?" someone asks Binod. "Bonnie?". Someone else explains to Binod that this is a bonfire, and in no time our amazing Nepalese workers have built a magnificent bonfire just outside, surrounded by a circle of chairs. Out we go and sit in the warmth until dinner is served. By now the group has gelled, and apart from the one isolate, the rest of us get along like a house on fire; the puns, teasing and laughter flowing constantly. The Aussie sense of humour really comes to the fore when a group of Australians get together, and we are nearly all in the baby boomer age bracket. It's wonderful to be laughing so much and have such a great group, as we will be together a lot over the next few days. After dinner we return to the bonfire and someone asks Binod how old he is. "28" he replies. I reflect on how hard it must be for him leading a group of people all his parents' age. His calm, friendly smile pervades all the time however, and he also joins in the jokes, having picked up our Aussie sense of humour very quickly. He teaches us some of the Nepali terms; 'Namaste' means hello, how are you. 'Nepali flat' means the walking won't be straight uphill, but up and down. 'Jam jam' means it's time to start walking again. And another word for 'goodnight' which I have no idea how to spell.
The next morning we peek out of the curtain in our room to see that the cloud is covering the mountain peaks, so we don't bother getting up to see the sunrise. After an impromptu yoga session, led by David, we have a huge breakfast of omelet, chapati (Nepalese bread) and coffee, then the cloud clears a little to reveal the mountains, so group photos are taken.

First view of the peaks

First view of the peaks

We set off to the Australian base camp, which is only a short 5km walk, but mostly uphill. It is a beautiful sunny day by now, and the tranquility out in the forest is very calming. This is called the Australian base camp because Australians used to camp there before trekking to Annapurna base camp. Now anyone can camp here, but tonight it's an all Aussie crowd. Binod tells us we are staying on home territory tonight.

Donkeys at Australian Base Camp

Donkeys at Australian Base Camp

David's birthday morning at Australian base camp

David's birthday morning at Australian base camp

By 11am we are there, and again we find we have quite comfortable rooms with bathrooms included, and simple single beds. We sit outside in the warm sunshine, laughing constantly. Binod tells us there is free wi fi here, but it doesn't work, and soon the Nepalese are asking us if anyone knows how to fix it. No one does, but we don't care that much; we are enjoying one another's company. We eat lunch sitting at a long table out in the sunshine, then go for a short walk to see the view and sit on the grass enjoying the warmth. The clouds roll in and suddenly the mountains have disappeared again, so we return to our cabins for a shower and bit of down time, and pretty soon it is raining. The rain does not last long and later we all get together again, sitting outside the row of cabins before we head to the dining room for beers followed by dinner. Suddenly Joe announces that he has wi fi! The word quickly speeds, and in no time, all fourteen of us are trying to connect. Its too much... just as my emails start to download, the signal disappears. We never see it again. "We should have organised a wi fi roster", I say. 'Trust a teacher to come upon with that", responds Julie.
At dinner many people have ordered too much food, which they can't eat, so start offering David their leftovers, which he readily accepts. We then remember that we ordered apple pie for dessert, and pretty soon it arrives; a whole pie made with similar pastry they use for spring rolls. It is delicious but we can't possibly eat it all, so we start offering it around.
During that day I have told Binod that it is David's birthday the following day, and ask him if it would be possible to have a cake in the evening when we stay at Sarangkot. He puts his hand on my arm and said "it's Lynne's birthday tomorrow as well, and Julie has also asked me to organise a cake. Don't worry, leave everything to me". That night after dinner Julie announces that as it is Lynn's birthday tomorrow, the birthday girl will be doing a birthday streak at 6am. I call out that she will have company, as it is David's birthday too.
In the meantime our isolate group member has spent the day in self imposed solitude. She walks way ahead of the group, grabbing her preferred upstairs room as soon as she arrives, where she sits and smokes, and takes her meals. Later in the day we see her bustling around to the other camps nearby, and introducing herself to the other trekkers. At dinner time she is nowhere to be seen. It is an interesting but sad display, and one which none of the rest of us can fathom. As her reputation and eccentric behaviour builds, she earns the nickname 'Blondie'. When she is with the group she is bossy and demanding, particularly of the guides and porters. She also spins some fantastical stories. But increasingly she keeps her distance, walking ahead of the group each day on the track.
So Wednesday October 14 dawns, with the clouds again obscuring the giant peaks beyond. Everyone wishes the birthday couple many happy returns, and David takes another yoga session.
Yoga

Yoga

After breakfast we set off on our longest walk; 17km to Sarangkot. The first 90 minutes is straight down hill, with steep stone stairs winding through the jungle and past small villages.

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It is our longest walk, and some people find it challenging. One member of the group has caught the stomach virus that is circulating, and another has artificial knees, so he finds the constant downhill steps very difficult. We reach the road and David gets talking to a Tibetan man. We all stop for a coffee a little further on, and the Tibetan man appears again, unfurling a bag full of goodies to sell. He tells us how his parents fled Tibet in 1959, and he cannot get a work permit for Nepal because he is considered Tibetan, so he ekes out a living selling Tibetan handicrafts and being a guide. I feel so sad hearing his story, and so I buy a colourfully woven 'Free Tibet' belt, and give it to David as a birthday present.

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For a time we are walking along a road, and after the peace and quiet of the jungle, our senses are jarred by the reappearance of tooting buses and motorbikes. Some of the buses carry some rather unusual cargo. We wonder how the goats get up on the roof, and then how they stay there!

Goats on a bus

Goats on a bus

The two group members who are feeling under the weather decide to take a taxi for the rest of the day's journey. When our isolate friend hears of it, she is desperate to get in the taxi as well, as her main aim each day is to arrive first and grab the 'best' room. The men have waited behind for their taxi to arrive, and eventually we see them coming up the bumpy, potholed road, in their taxi. The driver slows down, and our desperate group member sees her chance for a ride. However the rest of us can see there is no room, and find it all too ridiculous. "Go! Drive on!" we all yell at the taxi driver. He takes off, leaving her complaining bitterly that she wanted to ride in it. "Are you sick too?" one of us asks her. "No, just lazy" she responds.
The rest of the route is pretty flat, and it tries to rain a couple of times. Along the way we see more interesting people and gorgeous views. At one point we pass a small child holding a baby monkey. The monkey is desperate to escape, but the child maintains a firm grip, usually holding the monkey by one arm, so tightly that as it wriggles and squirms I fear its arm will be broken.

Child with monkey

Child with monkey

Evelyn discovers her T shirt sleeve is soaked in blood, and investigations reveal she has been harbouring a leech under her arm. Two Nepalese women stop to watch her partially undress by the roadside.

Nepalese women

Nepalese women

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Around 3pm we arrive at Sarangkot. Unfortunately we can't all fit into the one guest house, so three couples have to stay up the road at another guest house. Binod 2 asks us all to select what we want for lunch, which will be ready in 90 minutes, at 4.30pm. Reaction to this is pretty unanimously unfavourable, so I suggest they just make some vegetable noodle soup with bread for everyone, which will only take 30 minutes. David and I volunteer to stay in the guest house up the road, so we head up there for a much needed shower before lunch. This place is luxurious compared to our previous nights; all the rooms are inside a building, we have a mat on the floor, bath towels and hot water. The piece de resistance is working wi fi! On David's birthday! He receives lovely messages from his daughters and is able to speak to one on Skype after lunch, before we head back down to the other guest house for drinks and dinner.

Accomodation Sarangkot

Accomodation Sarangkot

While I am having a shower we hear an altercation outside our room, between two members of the group and 'Blondie', as she has been nicknamed, who has attempted to steal their room with the mantra: "I was here first!". Her attempt fails, and peace is restored as she surrenders and heads down to the other guest house for a second attempt.
Like every night on the trek, drinks consist only of 'Everest' beer, which Joe always orders at 'Everest Tea'. During drinks we discuss the complex question of tipping the guides and porters. The Nepali's wages are extremely low, and the guides and porters only work for around six months of the year, during the two tourist seasons of April/ May and October/November. So their income relies on generous tips from tourists. We have been given a very rough guide of how much to tip, but it is complicated by currency conversions, tipping the porters as a group, how much extra to give the guides, and when our last opportunity to all be together will occur. In the process of this I count up the number of people, as we have decided to pool our money to tip the porters and Binod 2, so we are working out how much each person will contribute. 'Blondie' quickly interjects to tell me not to include her, because she has already given her tips. "Oh", exclaims one of us, "how much did you tip, and how did you work it out?" 'Oh, I worked it out, its done', she dismisses our questions. It is obvious to all of us that we are sponsoring her in our tipping calculations.
By now it is getting dark and the power regularly cuts out, to be replaced by a couple of dim emergency lights. The two forms of lighting interchange so frequently we name it the 'disco lights'. As usual Joe and David are wearing their headlamps inside, competing to see who can look the biggest dickhead, alternating the white continuous light with the red light and the flashing light. The porters and guides join us, Binod 2 offering everyone a glass of raksi (local rice wine) out of a large lemonade bottle. We discover one solitary bottle of red wine behind the bar, so Terry buys it, to celebrate the two birthdays. For the first time there is a traditional Nepalese dish on the menu, which consists of rice with small bowls, each containing chicken curry, spicy potatoes and Dahl. A few of us choose this, and it is delicious. The disco lights continue through dinner, then after dinner suddenly all the lights are switched off, and Binod enters carrying a cake with two candles. We all sing the traditional happy birthday, then the cake is cut up into many small pieces. We give the guides and porters most of the pieces, and they accept with enthusiasm, as they have not yet eaten their dinner, because they always eat after serving us. By now they have drunk a fair bit of raksi, and they launch into a traditional Nepali song, into which they insert the lyrics 'happy birthday'. Binod 2 plays the bongos, and they continue singing, then some of them get up and dance, taking turns at the front of the group doing a dance solo. Binod 1 does a number of solos, arms pointing and hands twirling, then suddenly out of the kitchen enters another man we have never seen before, who also does a solo. The whole experience is wonderful; Lynne and David are touched to have such an enthusiastic celebration of their birthday. Julie tells me that Binod sent two men from the hotel down the mountain to Pokhara to pick up the cake on a motorbike!

David and Lynne's birthday cake

David and Lynne's birthday cake

By now there is a huge thunderstorm raging outside, and the lights are continuing to flash on and off. Everyone starts to head off to bed and Binod tells two of the porters to walk us up to our guest house. We tell them we'll be fine, and to go and have their dinner.
This is the traditional place to see the Himalayan mountain range at sunrise, and our last chance to do so. Binod tells us that he will send a porter to wake us at 6am to see the sunrise.
We emerge from our room the next morning to see clear blue sky and the most magnificent sight. The whole mountain range is on display in all its glorious splendour. Having previously only glimpsed fragments of the peaks, the entire vista is overwhelming. We climb up to the viewpoint to discover the rest of our group, along with about 40 other tourists. We had no idea there were this many people staying in Sarangkot, which the previous night was very quiet. This is a small village in the mountain above Pokhara, but suddenly there are people everywhere, with cameras on tripods snapping every minute, three drones buzzing around, and a group of Japanese tourists waving and shouting at the drones as they fly past.

Sunrise at Sarangkot

Sunrise at Sarangkot

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Sunrise at Sarangkot

Sunrise at Sarangkot


Sunrise at Sarangkot - Buddhist temple

Sunrise at Sarangkot - Buddhist temple

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Porter at Sarangkot

Porter at Sarangkot


Machapuchare, the sacred mountain

Machapuchare, the sacred mountain

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After breakfast we pack up and start walking down the mountain until the two groups separate; the larger group of paragliders remaining, while ourselves and four others have elected to walk down the mountain to Pokhara. It is a steep and long descent, with the track quite narrow in places, but Phil has lent me his walking sticks, and David has borrowed Leanna's, so this makes it a bit easier on the knees. The views on the way down are spectacular, and I enjoy the walk immensely. Binod sends four porters with us, who shower us with attention. Because all the large bags have been transported by car, the porters insist on carrying our small backpacks. Regularly we stop for breaks in the shade, and the porter carrying my backpack pulls out my water bottle and brings it over to me. Such service! Occasionally we see our friends paragliding down overhead, but they are too far away to distinguish.

walking down to Pokhara

walking down to Pokhara

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Paragliding 1

Finally we reach the foot of the mountain, and then it is another hour's walk to the hotel, along beside the lake.

Phewa Lake

Phewa Lake


We arrive around 1pm, and it feels so luxurious to be in a hotel with a pool, wi fi, with a hot shower and a comfortable bed and pillows! After lunch Binod takes a few of us out on a tour of Pokhara, to visit an underground caves and waterfalls. The rest stay behind top enjoy their free massage.

Devi's Falls

Devi's Falls

Devi's Falls

Devi's Falls

We enjoy a free group dinner that evening at the hotel with Binod 1 and at the end the porters appear, having been summoned by Binod. Lynne presents them with our pooled money, to be split between them, and we all give them a hug to thank them for their amazing care of us over the past five days.
The next morning most of us fly back to Kathmandu; the $US120 pp deemed well worth it, in preference to another hot, seven hour bus journey. The 25 minute flight is hilarious; we are crammed onto this small plane with our knees up around our ears, and we even have an air hostess, who has to bend over under the low ceiling as she walks down the aisle distributing drinks and lollies. "You'd think they'd get a shorter hostess" Joe mutters to me.

Flight back to Kathmandu

Flight back to Kathmandu

We are checked into the Hyatt Regency, which is right beside an enormous tent city, where the remaining homeless earthquake victims still live, six months after the earthquake. The flimsy plastic sheeted showers and toilets, and children playing in the dust contrast sharply with the opulence and grandeur next door, with its enormous manicured gardens, security entrance and huge swimming pool. Staying here is a nice luxury after the basic accommodation on the mountain, but we feel uncomfortable given the continuing situation for the local people, who despite their terrible living conditions are all so happy and friendly.

Tent city for homeless earthquake victims

Tent city for homeless earthquake victims


Hyatt Regency Kathmandu

Hyatt Regency Kathmandu

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Late in the afternoon the bus travellers arrive, full of stories about how 'Blondie' threw a tantrum just outside Kathmandu when the bus stopped to refuel, and demanded an immediate transfer to the hotel. Poor Binod had to ring the company who sent a car to bring them to the Hyatt. This in the midst of a fuel crisis, when petrol prices are going through the roof. On arrival she demanded a smoking room with a balcony, and was given a two room suite on the top floor at no extra charge. As regular rooms are $US200 a night, we can only speculate on how much this is worth.
The rest of us spend the next two days together, enjoying one another' company. Binod organises us a mini bus to pick us up and he takes us on a tour of the palace museum, where most of the royal family were assassinated in 2002, and the Garden of Dreams. Finally we bid him farewell, and give him our tips. I have also written him a letter on hotel stationery, to express our gratitude for all he has done. Its been a fantastic time and we are all going to miss his smile and great humour.
After a group dinner on Saturday 17th at the hotel, we meet again for breakfast the following morning, and say our goodbyes. Most of the group are being picked up at 10am for a 1pm flight, so we farewell them all, having already swapped email addresses to share photos. David and I are on the 11.30pm flight to Kuala Lumpur with Lynne and Julie that night, so the four of us have a leisurely day by the pool, then after lunch David and I go to the local cinema to see the film 'Everest'. It is quite surreal sitting in a cinema in Kathmandu watching a film showing Australians and New Zealanders arriving at Kathmandu airport, just as we did ten days before. The film itself has spectacular scenery, and keeps you on the edge of your seat. It also cements my determination to not visit Everest base camp. However we would like to return one day and do a longer trek to Annapurna Base Camp.

So after a somewhat apprehensive arrival, my departure from Nepal is tinged with sadness. I have enjoyed our ten days here immensely, and I think I have fallen in love a bit with this amazing country. To meet such a strong, resilient race who exude a calm and smiling demeanour in the face of such adversity, is truly inspiring. It seems so unfair to me that on top of the devastating earthquake, they now have a horrendous fuel crisis. Apparently the Indian government has blocked their fuel supplies over the border before; this is what it does when Nepal displays too much independence. India's intention to take over this country is potentially behind their actions, but as many Nepalese have told us, Nepal has never been a colony, it has always been an independent country, and it is determined to continue as such. The strong connection with Tibet is also clear; there are many Tibetan handcraft shops, restaurants and people who live in Nepal because they cannot return to their homeland. There is so much sadness and tragedy, but people get on with life in a simple and matter-of-fact way. At the airport that night David gets talking to an Australian man who has been in Nepal to help the new Prime Minister with the earthquake recovery. Apparently the government is going to build housing for all the people made homeless by the earthquake. The previous Prime Minister did not know what to do with all of the millions of dollars donated from other countries, so it has just been sitting in government coffers for the past six months. We feel inspired to return someday and do a longer walk; perhaps the 11 day trek to Annapurna Base Camp, again with Himalayan Social Journey.
I depart with every hope that the fuel crisis will soon be resolved. Its ramifications affect not only Nepali people; our plane has to land in Bangladesh to refuel on the way to Kuala Lumpur.

Posted by suel1960 02:04 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

Borneo

Malaysia

semi-overcast 30 °C
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So in the whole planning of a seven month trip, it is a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, and sometimes in the reality of working, preparing a house for sale, and getting rid of thirty years of living, it is difficult in January to plan ahead to September and figure out exactly where to go and what to do. This was the challenge of planning Borneo. To backtrack, Bormeo was a place we had been thinking about visiting for a few years; mainly to see the endangered orangutans. Also my father served in the army in Sandakan at the end of WWII, so I had an interest and motivation to visit this area. Other factors to be considered were the fact that we had to leave Europe in early September because by then we were approaching the 90 day maximum allowed according to the Shengen convention. Then we had a prebooked guided trek in Nepal beginning October 9. So. We had to leave Europe and spend a few weeks in Asia before picking up our flight to Nepal, which was departing from Singapore. We spent the minimum number of days in Singapore necessary to obtain our visas because Singapore is expensive. That left almost three weeks in Borneo. I wasn't sure about this, as I didnt know much about Borneo, and to be honest, I didn't have a lot of spare time to research it. So I booked a week in Kota Kinabalu, 10 days in Kuching, then 2 more days back in Kota Kinabalu before we fly back to Singapore to pick up our flight to Kathmandu. Why did I organise it like this? I honestly don't remember. Probably because by then I was exhausted from organising all the Eurpoean stuff and got a bit overwhelmed by it all. I would spend hours on the internet reading travel forums, looking up destinations, and finally quit when my head was about to burst.
So we flew into KK (as it is called) on Friday September 18, not too sure what to expect. The airport was reasonably rustic, but ok, and we caught the airport bus to the centre of town, as the bus terminal also happens to be opposite our hotel; the Dreamtel, a very comfortable hotel three star hotel centrally located. It had all we needed; great free breakfast with a wide variety of food, air con, comfy bed and helpful staff who could organise tours for us. We spent the following day wandering around the town in the steaming heat, then booked for a day trip to Mt Kinabalu the following day. There were plenty of restaurant options in the town; local food could be purchased very cheaply for around $3 a main course, or European food for around $10. Being Muslim, the Malay restaurants were non alcoholic, but there were a couple of restaurants with western food where we could buy beer, wine or cocktails.
The day tour to Mt Kinabalu was big. We were picked up at 7am and driven for 1.5 hours up into the mountains before we stopped at a village with a breathtaking view of the mountain.
Mt Kinabalu

Mt Kinabalu


Mt Kinabalu

Mt Kinabalu

From here we were driven to the bottom of Mt Kinabalu where we did a short jungle walk; our guide educating us about jungle plants and wildlife. Then we continued to the Poring Hot Springs where we did a treetops canopy walk, followed by a walk to a waterfall where we could sit with our legs and feet being nibbled by fish. Following this we soaked our feet in the natural hot springs, then had a delicious three course lunch of soup, rice, curry and fruit.

My Kinabalu

My Kinabalu

Canopy walk, Poring Hot Springs

Canopy walk, Poring Hot Springs

Waterfall at Poring Hot Springs

Waterfall at Poring Hot Springs

The Gods must have been smiling because the famous rafflesia flower, which takes nine months to grow, then only flowers for seven days, was in bloom that day. In fact there were two rafflesia flowers blooming in the nearby gardens and orchard. We visited this exotic plant, which every four hours exudes an odour akin to a corpse. In our fenced off section of the garden, we couldn't smell anything, but you could see that an odorous factor was at work by all the flies crawling within the large bowl-like inner section of the flower. If you look closely, you can see within this are some quite nasty looking spikes. It is hard to gauge from a photo, but the flower is quite large; around 70cm across, and it grows from a large vine on the ground, with no leaves or supporting vegetation. The black marks on it are caused by the sun, as the flower is very sensitive, and gradually these marks expand, until the whole flower turns black and dies. This is why it is fenced off; any thing or anyone touching it also creates a black mark.

Rafflesia flower

Rafflesia flower

We wandered around the extensive orchard and tried all the different tropical fruits that were growing there; rambutan, mangosteen, and Landsat, but we declined the offer of the strong smelling durian.
From there we headed to the town of Ranau, which is where the death march from Sandakan ended in 1945. The Japanese occupiers forced 2000 Australian, NZ and British POWs to march 260km from Sandakan in East Borneo to Ranau. Only six Australians survived, only because they escaped; three of the escapees being harboured by a local, who was later awarded for his kindness and bravery. It meant a lot to me to visit this memorial as my father served in the Australian Army in Balikpapan and Sandakan at the end of the war, when troops came into rescue the remaining POWs after the Japanese surrender. I still remember the stories my father told me of the atrocities the Japanese had committed against the POWs and the civilian population. Shocking to think of those poor men trudging for 260km through the steaming jungle, most of them surrendering to exhaustion and malnutrition.

Australian war memorial

Australian war memorial

On Monday September 21 we took a boat out to one of the many islands that lie Just off the coast. The process for this is that you walk into the ticket hall, where a variety of boat operators sit behind counters and immediately begin shouting at you to buy a ticket from them. This is somewhat bewildering to the uninitiated, as you think it's just going to be a straightforward process of buying a ferry ticket. So we chose the guy who was the most frantically trying to attract our attention (big mistake). It makes no difference in price, as the price is set, but as we discovered, the service can vary considerably. Once they had our money we were told to go and sit down while they prepared our ticket; the boat would be leaving in 20 minutes. 15 minutes later we were still sitting there, so we got up and walked over to the counter, asking for our ticket. They tried to fob us off "sit down, sit down, soon", but we stood our ground and demanded our money back. Suddenly the ticket magically appeared, and we were told to go down to the jetty and wait, he would be there soon. More waiting, until finally he appeared and motioned us toward a small boat with an outboard motor. Pretty soon we were bouncing across the waves on the 20 minute journey to Sapi Island.
We had been told by a few locals that this was the best island to visit. Wrong. There were hundreds of Chinese and Malaysian tourists there on package trips that included lunch, so they were all sitting around tables or snorkelling in the shallow water wearing life jackets. It was almost impossible to find a bare patch on the small beach, so we followed the track that went around the island, to try and find a quieter beach. When we arrived at the next beach it was covered in rubbish. In the water and all over the sand were plastic bottles, plastic bags, discarded takeaway cartons, etc. it was so disappointing. So we walked back to the main beach and eventually managed to find a spot on the sand where we sat and had a few swims in the shallow water until we caught the boat back to Jessleton Point. At least the water here was fairly clean, and there were some coral reefs you could snorkel over.

Sapi Island

Sapi Island

Tuesday September 22 we rose early and caught a taxi to the wetland centre. The tourist information brochure stated that it opened at 8am, but to see the birds it was best to arrive at 7am and pay on the way out. The taxi dropped us off at 7.20am, in front of a huge locked gate. There was no way we were getting in there early. We stood around and waited, until just before 8am a very friendly Japanese guy arrived on his bike, and let us in. We wandered around the boardwalk, through the mangroves. Again, plastic bottles and other rubbish were strewn everywhere in the water, and wedged in the mangroves. We saw very few birds, although we could hear some. David did manage to see a bright blue kingfisher, but wasn't quick enough to get a photo. The boardwalk was in poor condition, many of the boards rotting, and there were very few fish in the shallow water; no doubt due to the poor water quality. We returned to the entrance where their was a display about preserving the environment and the importance of clean water. It would be good to see the authorities put their rhetoric into action.

Kota Kinabalu Wetland Centre

Kota Kinabalu Wetland Centre

At 2pm we were picked up by our tour company for our afternoon/evening trip to see the proboscis monkeys and fireflies. Many of the day tours are 7 hours long, mainly because you need to travel such distances to the wildlife attractions. We were driven north from KK for two hours, arriving beside a river where a marquee was set up with tables and chairs, and we were given afternoon tea consisting of small pancakes with pandanus leaves, and fried banana. Very tasty. From here we got into a boat and were driven up the river in search of some proboscis monkeys. In no time our guide pointed to some trees close to the shore, the branches shaking with monkeys jumping around grabbing leaves. The boat pulled into the bank and we sat in awe for quite a while watching around four monkeys as they leapt around the tree, grabbing leaves and eating.

Proboscis monkey

Proboscis monkey

After a while the boat continued its slow journey down the river, stopping to observe the bird life as we saw a kingfisher and a purple heron.

River cruise

River cruise

Further on and someone spied some macaques on a tree overhanging the river. There were a lot of mothers with babies clasped to their fronts, and a lot of very cheeky young ones, constantly play fighting on the narrow branches, with one frequently tumbling off into the vegetation below, and quickly clambering up he tree to continue the game. It was a continuous cycle. After a while some of them noticed us in the boat watching them, so climbed out on branches towards us to further show off their agility and stare at us with bold inquisitive faces.

Macaques

Macaques

Macaque

Macaque

We returned to the bank side restaurant for an early dinner of stir fry chicken and vegetables, then back into the mini bus to the beach to watch the sunset. Unfortunately we couldn't see the sun, owing to the haze from the fires in Indonesia, but David did manage to take this very artistic photo of a boat on the beach.

Beach boat

Beach boat

From there we were driven to another jetty for a boat trip to see the fire flies. By now it was 6.45pm, and completely dark. We set off in the pitch black down the river. Suddenly the trees along the bank began to glow with tiny lights, like tiny Christmas candles. It was magic. One of the locals on the boat produced a torch, which he waved around. Before we knew it, the lights began to slowly make their way towards us across the river, and soon we were surrounded by tiny flying lights; all around our heads, landing on our clothes, they were everywhere. These were the fireflies, attracted by the light from the torch, which they thought was their queen. They say if you catch one and make a wish it will come true. We caught many; it was very easy. Some just sat in your hair, their light blinking on and off like a tiny beacon. It was a magical experience, and our guide kept telling us that the gods must be smiling, because we had seen a lot of wildlife that day. To see so many proboscis monkeys, macaques and fireflies in one day was most unusual, and we were very fortunate. We continued slowly along the river and the fireflies continued to fly out from the banks and into our boat like clouds of tiny Christmas lights.

The flowing day we caught a boat out to Manukan Island, which was much quieter and cleaner. It has a much longer beach, and it is possible to access deep water for swimming. When we first arrived however, we swam in a shallow section where there was a lot of coral, and we were both bitten on the leg by a small fish. It wasn't terribly painful, but it was a bit of a shock to be bitten by a fish! After that we swam closer to the jetty, where there were swarms of beautiful blue striped fish, who surrounded us; obviously expecting to be fed. And then later we moved further along the beach and discovered the deeper water.
We were planning to return to Manukan Island the following day; we liked it so much, however it was raining in the morning, so instead we visited the Sabah museum and cultural village. Here we saw some fascinating displays and information on Sabah's history, culture and wildlife. The cultural village included a number of traditional longhouses with bamboo floors and some beautiful lily ponds.

Sabah traditional village

Sabah traditional village

Sabah traditional village

Sabah traditional village

We flew to Kuching on Friday September 25. As this is further south, and very close to the Indonesian border, the smoke haze was very thick here, and the sun made feeble attempts to penetrate, casting an eerie orange glow over the landscape. Kuching was much bigger than I expected, some distance from the coast, and with a constant stream of heavy traffic in perpetual motion. Luckily our hotel was in a sheltered little garden oasis, around 25 minutes walk from the centre of town. A pleasant retreat to relax and cool down after a morning spent sight seeing.

Basaga Holiday Residences

Basaga Holiday Residences

When we arrived the 'Mooncake' festival was in full swing, with dragon boat races on the Sarawak River, and Blowpipe competitions on the bank. In addition were some pretty cute water taxis you could take to cross the river.

Water taxi, Sarawak River

Water taxi, Sarawak River

Blowpipe competition

Blowpipe competition

Dragon boat races Sarawak River

Dragon boat races Sarawak River

Blowpipe competition

Blowpipe competition

Our arrival in Kuching also marks an acknowledgment of a slight low point in our gap year. Whilst in Europe our approaching transition to the tropics had been regarded with some apprehension; apparently well founded. After almost five months in Europe, Asia is a big culture shock. Despite having travelled extensively in Asia in the past, and loving every aspect of it, now it has lost some of its shine. To be honest, we were a little disappointed with Kota Kinabalu; all the things I have previously found exotic and liberating about Asia, I now find frustrating and somewhat depressing; the pollution, the smell, the holes in the pavement that make street side walking a risky endeavour. We had convinced ourselves that Kuching would be better. But it's not. It's worse.the smog, the traffic, the lack of public transport, the risk of being a pedestrian in chaotic traffic with no pedestrian crossings or culture of giving way to pedestrians. In Europe you can go out for the day and choose how much money you are going to spend on entertainment. In most towns and cities the public transport is efficient and cheap. You can choose to spend very little. Or a lot. But with a little care and planning you can have a rich, fulfilling and busy day without spending a fistful of cash. Here in Borneo, to go out and see the wildlife you have to spend around $AUD100 or more for a full day tour. Which probably doesn't seem a lot, but for us away for 7 months, we cannot spend $100 a day + food and accommodation. Perhaps it's also a case of a lack of research, and circumstances. We have allocated too much time in Borneo, with not enough to keep us stimulated and occupied. Also we have been traveling for so long, at our age perhaps one just gets over travelling after a few months. I spoke to another Aussie about this today who said that while she loves to travel, she has to have regular breaks at home in between trips. We certainly won't plan a long stint like this again. It's a long time to be away from family and friends and I think we both miss the regular contact with other people. The volunteer work in Europe also created plenty of opportunities to mingle, whereas staying in hotels people tend to keep to themselves. Nepal and Cambodia will provide much needed opportunities to be with others in busy, productive activity.

Monday September 28 we take the morning visit to Semmengoh wildlife park, which is an orangutan sanctuary. Visitors are admitted only for one hour between 9 and 10am, or between 2 and 3 pm; these being the times when food is left for the orangutans in the feeding area. On arrival it is explained clearly that there are no guarantees you will see an orangutan. It's entirely up to the orangutans whether they choose to come through the jungle to the feeding area; most find plenty of food for themselves and are rarely seen by the keepers. A lot depends on the time of year and how much fruit is growing naturally in the jungle for these animals to eat. Our guide pointed out the large nests high in the treetops, where the orangutans make their home. So the group of around 30 people walked through the jungle to the feeding area, where we stood waiting in the viewing area, while one of the rangers put out some bananas and other fruits on a wooden platform, which had a number of ropes attached to trees leading down to it on 45 degree angles. The Rangers were calling and making strange noises, summoning the orangutans. We waited for around 5 minutes in silence, as we had been told these creatures are very shy and will not come if there is noise. Suddenly we noticed some movement high in the trees around thirty metres away, then a flash of orange as an orangutan leapt and clambered through the high branches toward us. As it came closer we realised there was a baby firmly attached to its front. Then it was descending down the rope right in front of us, toward the feeding platform. I felt so blessed to be able to see these amazing creatures so close up. I have been reading about them for the last few years, and the threat to their habitat by palm oil plantations. Their dexterity was a sight to behold; their hands and feet have the same claw-like structure for grasping ropes and branches, so they are able to issue their arms and legs interchangeably; so much so that at times it was difficult to establish which was an arm and which was a leg. Both the mother and her baby alternated which limb held the hand of bananas, while another limb was used to eat, while the remaining one or two limbs were attached to the rope. The baby, 'Ruby' was just as dexterous, climbing all over her mother, and snatching bananas out of her hands and mouth. We all watched, mesmerised for a good thirty minutes as the pair of them descended down to the platform to grab more fruit, then back up to the rope to eat them. The mother was very aware of her appreciative audience, obviously playing to us and enjoying he attention. Then finally she had eaten enough, so off they went, up another rope, to disappear back into the jungle. What an incredible experience!

Orangutans, Semmengoh nature reserve

Orangutans, Semmengoh nature reserve

Orangutans Semmengoh nature reserve

Orangutans Semmengoh nature reserve

Orangutans Semmengoh nature reserve

Orangutans Semmengoh nature reserve

The Basaga Holiday Residences; the three star hotel where we are staying, provide a free shuttle to the centre of town twice per day, at 10.15am and 2.15pm. So we spend our days catching the morning shuttle into town, wandering around and checking out the museums, the souvenir shops, the hotels and shopping malls, before returning early afternoon to spend the rest of the day in the pool. By Tuesday September 29 the smog level is pretty high, and we use the free face masks from hotel reception to keep out the pollution. The smoke haze is becoming a major concern; schools are closed, hotel guests return from the airport saying their flight was cancelled because of the smog. On the Singapore news each night it is the headline story, with the commentary focussed on sanctions and punishment of the Indonesesian perpetrators. It is a massive problem with no simple solution, particularly when it is caused by actions in one country, leaving the other two countries relatively helpless to intervene.
That day it rains for a couple of hours, which clears the air quite a lot, and suddenly we can see further along the river, and view more distant buildings that we hadn't seen before. The improved air clarity lifts our spirits a lot, and we feel a lot more relaxed about our departure on Monday, as the threat of a cancelled flight seems significantly diminished now.
Wednesday September 30 the rain is finished, so we bite the bullet and spend $176 on a day tour to Bako National Park. We leave the hotel at 8am, the hotel manager and tour operator Brandon driving us thirty minutes to the jetty where he hands us over to our guide for the day. He is a big, friendly man who laughs after every sentence and after initially telling us to call him "Madi", two minutes later the instruction is to call him "East". We are so confused by the two different names that we don't call home anything for the entire day, despite that fact that he begins every sentence with "Sue and David...."
We catch a small boat, driven by his cousin, which heads downriver into the South China Sea for around thirty minutes, until we pull up at a beautiful, clean beach at the park headquarters.
Boat trip to Bako National Park

Boat trip to Bako National Park

Approaching Bako National Park

Approaching Bako National Park

Bako entrance

Bako entrance

It's only around 9am, and we spend the next three hours walking along various jungle tracks, our guide looking for proboscis monkeys and other wildlife to show us. Every so often we meet other Europeans with their tour guide, and all the tour guides share information about the location of different animals, which results in frequent changes of direction and setting off on different tracks. Our guide often stops and listens for monkeys jumping in the trees. Pretty soon we can hear them too, and then we see, far above, the treetops shaking and catch glimpses of brown/orange fur as the proboscis monkeys leap around in the branches. Unfortunately they don't come any lower for us to get a closer look, so we continue along, seeing more movement from long tail macaques quite close to the track. Our guide tells us not to make eye contact, and he walks quickly onward, explaining that these monkeys can be aggressive, and will interpret eye contact as aggression from a predator. If one decides to chase you, the whole group will join in. We follow our guide, looking straight ahead and hoping the macaques will leave us alone. We continue, stopping now and then while our guide points out snakes, wild boar, crabs and spiders. All are so well camouflaged, it is amazing how he notices them.

Hiking in Bako National Park

Hiking in Bako National Park

Paradise tree snake, Bako National Park

Paradise tree snake, Bako National Park

Wild boar, Bako National Park

Wild boar, Bako National Park


Hiking Bako with our guide

Hiking Bako with our guide

Eventually at noon we arrive at a beautiful beach, where we sit in the shadow of an overhanging rock and eat our provided lunch of sandwiches and local donuts. All over the sand are crabs carrying variously shaped shells. One makes repeated attempts to climb into David's backpack, which is lying on the sand.

Lunch on the beach at Bako National Park

Lunch on the beach at Bako National Park

Hermit crab, Bako National Park

Hermit crab, Bako National Park

After lunch we walk back through the jungle and the mangroves to park headquarters. It is very hot and humid and our clothing is soaked in sweat. Eventually we climb back into the boat, and our guide takes us further up the coast to see some amazing rock formations. The jungle covered cliffs descend steeply to pristine beaches. It is such a privilege to see this beautiful landscape from the sea.

Bako National Park

Bako National Park

Bako National Park

Bako National Park

We return to the jetty and Brandon is there waiting for us. On the drive back to the hotel we talk with him about local food, and how we eat a lot of Asian food at home, and particularly like dim sum. He tells us that in Malaysia the usual time to eat dim sum is in the morning, for breakfast, and offers to take us out to his favourite dim sum restaurant the following day at 9am.
So Thursday October 1, Brandon, his partner Tanti, David and I go to an open air cafe where Brandon orders chicken feet, prawn dumpling, pork and pork buns, which he and Tanti wash down with coffee. I pass on the chicken feet, which David tries and tells me later they are full of bones. On the way back to the hotel Brandon stops to buy takeaway for each couple; a rice mixture wrapped in banana leaves, containing coconut milk, fish paste and peanut. We eat these in the afternoon for a late lunch.
The rest of our time in Kuching we spend in a leisurely fashion; much time is spent in the hotel restaurant, because that is the only place I can get on the wi fi. We have a lot of research and booking to do for the remainder of our trip, as well as emails and reading the paper online. Now the weather is starting to change as the wet season begins, so we start to see some rain, which also brings welcome cooler breezes. We try out a different restaurant each night; one that we really like is 'Tribal Stove' which serves very tasty food of Sarawak; midin, which is a green vegetable similar to spinach, cooked in garlic with baby corn, and shredded beef, a dry beef dish cooked in coconut.
We also catch a water taxi to visit the orchid garden and the Sarawak museum, which includes a reproduction longhouse, complete with skulls hanging from a beam; a nod back to the grisly days of headhunting.

Water taxi, Sarawak river

Water taxi, Sarawak river

Legislative Assembly building from the orchid garden

Legislative Assembly building from the orchid garden

David tries to find a hotel or bar with a big screen that will be screening the Australian Football League Grand Final on Saturday October 3rd, but he is unsuccessful. Despite the fact that a high proportion of tourists here are Australian, AFL football is not really recognised here. We end up spending the afternoon with four other Aussies who are spending the weekend at Basaga after two weeks volunteering in a local zoo which conserves animals who cannot live in the wild independently. Their work and accomodation has been gruelling and basic; working all day cleaning out cages, concreting, making up treats for the animals, painting pens, and staying in simple huts in this tropical heat. I admire their commitment and particularly the fact that they have devoted their holiday to helping endangered animals in Borneo. So the six of us sit around in the restaurant, watching the grand final on David's laptop, and chatting.
Sunday October 4 we decide to visit some fairy caves, around 50km away. As we have blown our budget for day tours on the trip to Bako, we elect to take the local bus and make our own way there. The hotel shuttle into town drops us at the bus stop, and we catch the Number 2 bus to Bau. Everyone we speak to pronounces this town's name slightly differently, so every time we ask someone how to get there, or how much the bus ticket us, they don't understand us, then laugh uproariously at our terrible pronunciation. We catch the clapped out old bus, with natural air conditioning, which stops every 100 metres or so, and finally an hour later at 12noon we arrive at Bau.

Bus to Bau

Bus to Bau

Enquiries at he bus station however, elucidate the information that the bus to the fairy caves does not depart for three hours. So we take a taxi for the 9km journey. The taxi driver drops us off, assuring us that many of he cars parked at the entrance are private cars for hire; we just need to hire a drive to take us back to Bau. We pay our entrance fee and climb around 4 flights of stairs.

Steps to fairy cave

Steps to fairy cave

From here we enter the rock face, and climb more stairs, only now they are wooden and slippery with water dripping from above. The light is dim and the space to climb through quite narrow, as we ascend up the steep staircase we enter a large cavern, much of it covered with bright green vegetation. It is all a bit like 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' with steep staircases heading off in different directions into the depths of the caves, and bats eerily squeaking far above.

Fairy caves

Fairy caves

When we return to the entrance there is no one around. We ask the ticket seller if he can call us a taxi, but he doesn't have the number. We are out in the jungle, with the nearest town of Bau 9km away. It's about 34 degrees and very humid, so walking it is not an option. The ticket seller tells us to walk to the road junction 300m away and wait for the bus, which should arrive in around 90 minutes. Not being greatly excited by this idea, we set off down the road, and each time a car passes, David sticks out his thumb. Finally two young guys stop, and give us a lift back to the bus station, just in time for the next bus back to Kuching.

Monday October 5 we fly back to Kota Kinabalu, to stay in a three star beach resort; Langkah Syabas resort in Kinarut, which is around 20km south of the airport. We stay here for two nights, enjoying beach walks, swimming in the pool and generally relaxing in a different part of Kota Kinabalu, before we will fly back to Singapore, then onto Nepal, for a 10 day package which includes some trekking. The beach sunsets are amazing, although in the daylight the rubbish on the beach is disheartening. Someone needs to develop a 'Clean up Malaysia' campaign!

Sunset Langkah Syabas resort

Sunset Langkah Syabas resort

Sunset Langkah Syabas resort

Sunset Langkah Syabas resort


Sunset Langkah Syabas resort

Sunset Langkah Syabas resort

Posted by suel1960 17:14 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Singapore

overcast 30 °C
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Our journey from Greece to Singapore was long, but tempered by an enjoyable day in Madrid where we felt very confident navigating the city for the third time in twelve months. We arrived in Madrid on Friday September 11 around midnight and stayed in a hotel close to the airport. As our flight to Singapore via Dubai was leaving at 10pm on he Saturday night, we had the whole of Saturday to sleep in, enjoy a late breakfast, then head into the centre of Madrid for the afternoon. We visited the Thyssen museum, where we spent three hours enjoying a wide range of art works, but particularly the Impressionist paintings. On our way we noticed a very heart warming banner on one of Madrid's heritage buildings.

Welcome banner

Welcome banner

Impressionist paintings, Thyssen museum

Impressionist paintings, Thyssen museum

Our flight to Singapore was broken into two 7 hour sectors, interrupted by a two hour stop at Dubai. Finally we arrived to a smog laden Singapore; the result of fires in nearby Indonesia. Our Air BnB apartment was in an Art Deco apartment block in the trendy suburb of Tiong Bahru, only a few MRT stops from the main Singapore attractions, and with its own large number of cafes, restaurants and hawker food market.

Tiong Bahru

Tiong Bahru

Singapore was cloudy and smoggy; that night watching the news we discovered that it was a result of fires in nearby Indonesia. They were hoping for rain to clear out the smog.

We had booked to stay in Singapore for five days in order to obtain our visas for Nepal and Cambodia. The morning after our arrival; Monday September 14, we awoke late at 10.30am, jet lagged from the change in time zone and lack of sleep on the flight. We breakfasted in a local cafe, then did some internet research to plan the rest of the day. I had inadvertently booked our forthcoming flights to Kota Kinabalu from Johor Bahru, which is in southern Malaysia not far from Singapore, but not as close as I had thought. So our first destination was back to the airport to Air Asia's service counter, to change the flight to depart from Singapore. Once we had done that it was back into the centre of town to the Nepal embassy, to begin the visa process. We successfully figured out the MRT and navigated our way to their tiny office, which was located on the fourth floor of a shopping plaza. The office was only open for visas between 3 and 5pm each afternoon, so after paying $180 for an 'express' (3 day) processing fee and completing the forms, we left our passports and were told to return on Thursday afternoon. I suspected the inflated price for the rushed visa was a scam, however we had no choice but to hand over the money. Of course they wouldn't accept credit card, so that took care of most of our cash. In our jet lagged state, with brains functioning at 50%, we realised much later, that we couldn't apply for our Cambodian visas without our passports. And we were flying to Kota Kinabalu on Friday. So that evening I sent the Nepalese embassy an email, explaining that we would have to collect our passports the next day. Once again, the response was we could pick them up, and pay an extra $20 each, but after 3pm, and the Cambodian embassy closed at 4pm.
We decided to spend the next morning at the Botanic gardens, which also house a beautiful orchid garden, as there was nothing we could do about our visas until after 3. David has an app on his phone that accurately predicts the weather, so he informed me that it was going to rain between 12 and 3pm. This sent me into the depths of my suitcase for my umbrella, which hadn't seen the light of day since we left Scotland over a month ago. We set off and caught the MRT, noting that the clouds were getting darker. When we emerged at the Botanic Gardens station it was pouring; the quintessential tropical downpour, complete with thunder. We waited for about 30 minutes under shelter, until the rain had diminished to a fine occasional drizzle, then set off into the beautiful gardens; me with my umbrella, David with no rain protection except for a small towel he discovered in his backpack.

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Singapore botanic gardens

Singapore botanic gardens

Fig tree, Singapore botanic gardens

Fig tree, Singapore botanic gardens

The gardens are vast and we walked for about 1.5 km, past brightly coloured bougainvillea, lush tropical plants and huge trees, before we reached the orchid garden. Just as we were about to enter it started to our again, so we waited a while in the entry pavilion, before again setting off once it had died down to a thin drizzle.

Orchid garden, Singapore botanic gardens

Orchid garden, Singapore botanic gardens

Orchid garden

Orchid garden

Orchid garden

Orchid garden

Orchid garden

Orchid garden

After an hour of perusing the magnificent orchid collection, we began the return trek to the station, and again it started to pour. So we just walked as fast as we could in the downpour; me under my umbrella, and David with a small towel over his head. Needless to say he was soaked by the time we arrived at the station, and from the bottom of my skirt down, I was also pretty wet.
From there it took an hour to get to the Nepalese embassy. We marched in at 5 minutes to 3, and I was all prepared to argue against paying any more money for our visas. But no argument was needed; he just handed over our passports, with visas completed!
We shot out of there, photocopied the front page of our passports at the photocopy centre one floor down, then caught the train to Orchard MRT, to find the Cambodian embassy in Orchard Rd. This closed at 4pm, so we had less than an hour to get there.
Fortunately our powers of navigation were much better by this stage, and we managed to locate it by 3.40pm. Also being in the upmarket Orchard Rd area helped significantly, because there are underground shopping malls everywhere, which you use instead of crossing the street. So we were able to stay out of the rain, which also made our passage a lot easier.
We charged into the embassy, filled out our forms, handed over another $130 cash and 5 minutes later it was all done!
Our remaining two days in Singapore were spent discovering the many parts of Singapore we had not had time to visit on previous short stays there. We walked all around Chinatown, visiting the temple and Chinese museum. This historic part of the original Singapore was so fascinating, and beautiful, with the old colonial buildings lining the streets, surrounded by the tall gleaming glass towers of modern Singapore. This juxtaposition of the old and new is what makes Singapore so unique; it is dominated by the modern office buildings, but sandwiched below are the reminders of Singapore's origins and colonial past.

Lau pa sat hawker market

Lau pa sat hawker market

Lau pa sat hawker market

Lau pa sat hawker market

Taoist temple

Taoist temple

Chinatown

Chinatown

Visiting the Chinese temple

Visiting the Chinese temple

Chinese museum

Chinese museum

Taoist temple, Chinatown

Taoist temple, Chinatown

We wanted to visit some of the memorials to WWII, but most of these are located in parks which were cordoned off for the Grand Prix, which was beginning on September 18. We did manage to see this monument to the civilians killed during the war, but navigation around the Grand Prix site was fairly tricky.

WWII Memorial

WWII Memorial

The rest of the time we spent eating cheap meals at hawker food markets, and drinking coffee at our local cafe 'Forty Hands', which I think is possibly the only cafe in the whole of Singapore that makes soy lattes. Everywhere else that I asked if they made coffees with soy milk, the response was "No!" As if I was asking them chop off their right hand and make soup with it!

Tiong Bahru

Tiong Bahru

Marina Bay Sand building

Marina Bay Sand building

All in all we enjoyed our time there, although it is not really a 'holiday' destination, in my view. Unless you consider being in a fast paced, dense city with lots of shopping malls, a holiday. Which I do not. The smog was of concern to the locals, and schools were closed because of the poor air quality. Hopefully the fires can be extinguished soon.

Posted by suel1960 02:01 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

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