Monday, October 30, 2006


Cambodia was a revelation. Poor, blighted by corruption, landmines and sad history, it nevertheless had the friendliest people and a welcoming manner.

For the record, Cambodian men are much better looking than Thai boys.

Tuk tuk drivers had a sense of humour, boys at reception would talk for hours just for the pleasure of it, people waved at buses and boats.

I took a moto on Wednesday evening to find some food. The driver was friendly, chatty and we sang 'Hit the Road Jack' the whole way around Battambang as he tried to find me the take out food I wanted.

Eventually we hit a cheap food stall that looked the part. It was not. I took it back to the hotel and asked the receptionists if I could borrow a bowl and spoon. They were only too obliging and within minutes a group of moto drivers and recptionists had gathered for a chat and a laugh.

I spent ages practicing my Khmer with them - they teaching me phrases such as "I love you" and asking me to take them to Europe so they could earn decent money.

After a while I went to settle down infront of School of Rock on TV and eat my stirfried beef. I don't know if it was actually beef, if it was rancid or not cooked properly but it was the most horrid thing I have ever tasted. Looking closely at it, it looked decidedly dodgy. Dinner became a huge portion of rice, tinted with a hint of the icky sauce.

The next morning, I took a moto tour. My driver was a friendly Battambanger who had many stories to tell about Pol Pot's regime and about the area.

He had been living south of Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. Aged 15, he was split up from his parents, brother and sister and sent to a childrens camp to work. He believes his mother died of malaria and that his father was killed by the soldiers for some small mistake. They were a farming family and not the educated elite.

When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979, he fled with hundreds of other people through the jungle to Thailand. He stayed in a refuge camp and worked with the Red Cross until the early 1990s. He returned too Battambang with a woman he had met in the camp and they married and had three children.

His search for his brother and sister proved fruitless and he now believes they died of starvation during the Khmer Rouge regime.

He said he was emotional when visiting spots like the killing caves near Battambang. Up on a hill near a temple, the caves were found filled with skeletons - many people had hidden in the caves from the soldiers, prefering to die ther rather than at the hands of soldiers.

In one cave, an opening in the ceiling had been used by soldiers for killing people. They were thrown into the cave, often being cut by soldiers bayonets before landing on the hard floor.

After walking up to the newly built temple, we went back down the steep hillside to the restaurant where we had left his bike.

We then drove alone a dirt road through rice fields to an old temple on a hill. Pre-dating Angkor Wat, it was a bit of a disappointment after that mighty temple but still very interesting, if another steep climb.

In the central stupa, infront of a Buddha shrine, there was an old woman giving out incense for offerings. She chatted to me in Khmer and I nodded and shook my head to indicate that I didn't understand. She pointed to my skin as if to say it was beautiful and then pointed at her own deep brown wrinkles - as if to say, my skin was once like yours. I wondered what this woman had suffered in her life.

An elderly gent joined us. He could count in English, just about, and he also tried to communicate. He drew his age in the dirt and we practiced saying 76 in Khmer and English. He chatted away to me for some time not really caring that I couldn't understand any of it.

My moto driver and I then drove to the bamboo train. We passed children fishing in streams, buffalo pulling wooden carts, villagers squatted at the side of the road eating from numerous bowls, dozens of children yelling 'hello!' and 'bye bye!', a little boy who high-fived me as I went past, concrete villas and palm leaf huts on stilts, wooden shacks and bumpy paths.

Eventually we arrived at the bamboo train. Not so much a train though - actually a bamboo platform on top of wheels which perch on rails. Villagers use it to get into Battambang.

I shared the 'train' with another tourist, my moto driver and his bike and her driver and bike. Because of our heavy load, any trains we would meet coming in the opposite direction would have to 'make tracks' and get off the single line.

We set off at a fair whack - it is now powered by motor but in Khmer Rouge times was operated by sticking a pole into the dirt - Venice style.

We met people walking the line with food packs strapped onto their backs, a frightened dog with a death wish who could only run straight and refused to veer off the track as he ran for his life, and tourists coming in the opposite direction who had to dismantle their train and get out of our way. It was a bit costly - $5 for the train (which the girl and I shared) but an experience. The track is supposed to be straight but it wiggles and every less than perfect join (most of them) jars your body.

I decided to leave for Bangkok the following day and left at midday on a rickety and overcrowded bus. But I was looked after by a Cambodian lady on her way to Bangkok for business with her sister and niece. She spoke good English and shared her fruits with me and gave me her contact details in case I was ever in Phnom Pehn again.

At the Thai border we switched to a plusher bus - thsi time with mostly backpackers whereas the previous bus had been Cambodians and one other tourist.

In the space of a few miles the bumpy dirt road to Poipet and the border became a smoothly tarmaced highway. Billboard lined the road. 4x4s, sedans and motobikes cruised through the countryside and through small towns which were more technologically advanced and modern than the biggest in Cambodia. It suddenly felt very odd to be in a country so similar to Cambodia yet with so much more.

I wonder how I will adjust to Sydney.

Bangkok is the same as ever. Noisy, busy, bustling, alive. I ventured back to Four Sons Village - overpriced but nice save for the $70 missing from my room. Have mostly been Christmas shopping and buying 'essentials' such as cheap trainers and sparkly shoes, a suit for interviews and so on. Spent way too much but had great fun doing it. Actually spent over 10 hours shopping yesterday...

Also managed to go the Grand Palace and Wat Pra Kaw and Wat Pho too - the big sights in Bangkok.

But today I leave. Time for a foot massage and manicure methinks before my bus. I think I could get back into a materialistic world of nice clothes and manicures quite easily (if I had money). But the sights of Whittard, FCUK, Benetton, Zara, Mango, Molton Brown, Mac, Chanel and so on made me think of home - the oddest thing is that despite the fact it is 35C here and getting warmer day by day, all the fashions in big stores is winter based. The models are cald in scarves and gorgeous sweaters, thick wool suits and berets. It is truly bizarre that sales items are summer wear.

And who'd have thought I'd be lusting after winter woolies after vowing to escape England's cold for as long as possible???

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Temples, kids and river life

The last few days have swept past in a dizzying but delicious pace.

On Saturday evening, Marissa and I met up with her French friend Sandra and Sandra's friend Cellia. They decided to join us the following day in our tuk tuk with Mr Won and see the sights of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom and also to move to our guesthouse, Queen House Villa.

On my way to an ATM, I saw a little girl who we had been playing with the previous evening and she stopped me to tickle me and talk to me. She didn't ask for money and it was lovely to see her smiling instead of the normal groaning sad noise she, and the others, usually make.

A girl and a boy with one leg soon joined us and carried on the banter. They seemed fun and when the other girl disappeared I chatted to them a little more. As I was about to make tracks to find the others, they said they were hungry and pointed down the street asking if I could buy them some food. It seemed a reasonable enough request but something told me not to.

I told them I had to find Marissa and they walked with me down Bar Street but could not wait outside the bar - they are supposed to stand the other side of the fences at the ends of the street - so they said they would wait for me.

I checked a couple of bars but couldn't see the girls but saw some other friends and two new people and sat with them for a while chatting. I told them about the children and we all said it was better than giving money - which I am loathe to do as it goes straight to parents or some other adults.

Richard and Luke agreed it would be a nice thing to do and Adam and Tish, the new people, agreed. I was feeling guilty for having said I would buy them something and not so I went to find them.

Basically, I wanted to buy them a meal and they directed me to a shop. By this time, I was surrounded by two or three women clutching malnourished babies and two other girls. All pulling me to this one shop. And pointing at baby powder. Which cost $8 for a tin.

I didn't have much choice. I told the girl I thought she was hungry but she did the whole 'my sister...' I knew there was something up with the price but said I would buy it if they agreed to share.

Two girls stayed behind after the others left and were wrenching my arms as I walked, trying to pull off my cheap rings and doing the groaning noise. I felt shattered and upset when I reached my friends.

Adam said he had the same thing happen to him in Nepal. Of course they just return the milk and get the profit.

I left early to go home feeling naive and shaken.

But it was a good move as we had to be up at 4.15am to go to Angkor. Sandra and Marissa were celebrating their reunion until some ungodly hour though!

As we approached Angkor, the suns first rays were breaking the horizon. We had our first glimpse of the towers of the mighty temple in this ethereal light. It was magical walking the bridge over the massively wide moat (more like a lake), seeing Angkor Wat being gradually lit from behind.

When the sun had risen above the towers, we began to explore the grounds. Climbing steep stairways to the top and looking at fascinating bas-reliefs (stone carvings telling a story where the figures and pictures are raised and the background has been chipped away).

We spent hours looking in awe at the work of 11 to 12th century craftsmen. It is truly amazing how they built this temple.

We needed Red Bull after this to perk us up and then headed for Baphuon in Angkor Thom. This mountain temple collapsed and is being restored at the moment and it was interesting to see how the work had come on since the photographs in our guide books.

Marissa and I had split from the other girls as we were taking longer to look around. We chatted to a policeman who was filling in for his friend and selling water and followed some monks through a stone doorway which ended up leading to the Royal Palace.

We took some ridiculous posed photos and chatted to other tourists and then teased some girls selling scarves. We came up with a ploy to put the many sellers off. Simple but we told them we weren't going to buy for $3 or whatever they were asking, we were going to pay them $10, and when they said yes please! we said no no no. we can't do that at that price. You're crazty. We'll give you $20. and so on. It makes people laugh. Marissa has that quality, particularly with children. She has people in stitches just by pulling a funny face.

We bought coconuts and drank the juice sat looking at the palace. As we sat and chatted, we realised the seller was calling out cold drinks! cold coconuts! cold cold cold!!! in different languages and different nationalities walked past. We learned the Chinese for cold from her and tested it out to the delight of some tourists and then learned the Khmer for it too. And goodbye - very useful. We practiced these words on everyone we met on our short walk to the last temple of our tour - Bayon.

It is a very famous temple and rightly so. A jumble of towers, corridors and bas-reliefs. All the towers have faces carved into them on each side of the King at the time. He wanted the temple to show he was looking over his people at all times and protecting them - but it is actually quite ominous to see so many. It was rather spectacular.

We had lunch, met the others and then drove to the Landmine Museum. Here, children survivors of landmines have come to live with Aki Ra (an ex-child soldier who has cleared more than 6,000 mines) and his family in a rehabilitation centre. Other survivors help show people around. Our guide had stepped on a landmine aged 8 and the blast had killed his elder brother and sister who were walking behind him. He lost a leg.

We looked at the different landmines used here and the countries who still haven't signed the anti-mine agreement (US, Vietnam, China, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan...). We learned that it will take between 50 and 100 years to clear all the mines in Cambodia. We learned that both the Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge used mines against their enemies in the 1980s in Cambodia and the dreadful effects they still have today. It is evident in the number of people missing limbs begging in Siem Reap and Battambang. (Donate here to support children and also the continuing clearance of landmines -

Knackered, drained and needing a few hours sleep, it was inevitable something was going to stop us. A tyre on Won's motorbike popped. Luckily there was a souvenir shop over the road where we sat and ate the complementary sweets and drank jasmine tea until he had it fixed.

Later we slept and then Marissa and I decided to stay an extra day in Siem Reap and chill out the following day.

So Tuesday (yesterday) was spent sleeping off the early mornings and late nights, wandering the market Christmas shopping and eating. I managed to donate blood at Angkor Children's Hospital, a place more in need than the other place (which is on the tourist route) and which only gets a few donations a day. The staff were excellent, coke, a massive pack of biscuits and a t-shirt large enough to fit Rab C Nesbitt were included and it was quick, sterile and painless.

Our last evening, a group of us went to a street stall for food and bought noodles. Marissa agreed to buy a little boy a plate of fried rice and Sandra was asked by a woman with a baby for food and bought her a plate too. Soon we were surrounded with children eating the rice and helping themselves to Sandra and Marissa's food (they were on the end by the road) while the rest of us looked on with amusement.

After the meal, we played with the children - noughts and crosses in the dirt, thumb wars, spinning them around and giving them piggybacks. Children who normally (and some still did) have babies on their hips in slings begging for money and baby milk with groaning voices and sad faces. They were giggling, tickling us, hugging us and playing as children should.

We went for some drinks, free popcorn and peanuts and chatted for a few hours.

But it was another early start today. I had a pick-up at 6am. Well the pick-up for the boat to Battambang was supposed to come at 6am but it was more like 6.45am. By this time I was pretty worried as the boat leaves at 7am - a 20 minute ride away. The guesthouse owner was frantically contacting the tour company.

Eventually they turned up with a car as the minibus was too full for me. The road from Siem Reap to the Thai border is closed as it's in such a bad state so everyone travelling to Bangkok was forced to come to Battambang instead. Five passengers squeezed into the car and we made it to the boat.

The trip was stunning. At first, the trip along the Tonle Sap lake was just glass-like water with abundant plantlife making passages across the lake. But soon we came upon floating villages. The first was quite basic - wooden huts floating with fishing boats moored nearby, people fishing and very modest.

But the second was a veritable town. It had what looked like a townhall, a police station, a floating temple and even a floating school (built by Unicef) with children in their immaculate white shirts and blue skirts and shorts.

Apart from these villages dotted here and there, the scenery was fairly dull for the next three or four hours save for the fishing boats, larger boats towing two or three others and house boats. There were some big houseboats but many were just longtail wooden fishing boats with a cabin atop. More had a circular roof constructed of thin bendable wood and palm leaves.

The last couple of hours of the six hour trip was magical. As the lake became a currentless river, we saw houses along the banks surrounded by jungle - palm trees and wooden huts, brwon children splashing off boats into the waters, people bathing, youngsters fishing, women covered with scarves from the sun in fishing boats, surly teenagers annoyed at their boat being rocked by our larger ones.

Surprised glances and delighted waves from people at seeing westerners or a friend on the boat. Many smiles. Many waving hands. Life looked so simple, so peaceful though I suspect the reality is far different. The riverside was just beautiful and I can't highly recommend the trip enough.

So now I am in Battambang. Have found what seems to be a nice guesthouse. Had a wander around the market today. Few people spoke English so I had to test out my Khmer (very bad) but it was fun to be somewhere again where there is a challenge like that.

Still quite a few beggars and moto drivers but nothing like Siem Reap. No children from what I have seen so far. It is a tranquil riverside town it seems (though as I say this a child is shouting outside the cafe) with a post-colonial air.

Tomorrow I will take a look around the countryside on a moto with a nice guy who speaks good English and will tell me about the Khmer Rouge in this region of Cambodia.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Phnom Penh to Siem Reap

Phnom Pehn, the capital of Cambodia, grew on me during the short time I was there.

At first I found the poverty, disabled people, children begging and constant appeals by tuk tuk drivers and moto taxis very frustrating, tiring, confusing.

The city is at odds with the French colonial buildings and corrugated iron slums, 4x4s with groomed people sporting the latest cell phones and dirty-clothed, bare-footed mothers with snotty babies slung on their hips.

On Thursday morning I went to Wat Phnom, a temple on the only hill in the city. It was rather disappointing in its similarity to the hundreds of other temples I had visted in Thailand, it's less than stunning views, the foreigner entry fee of $1.

I got chatting to Jim, an American, and his Thai girlfriend Kate. They were looking for monkeys in the grounds and had brought fruit for them to eat. We talked for ages and then decided to hunt out the furry beasts.

There were dozens of them playing at the bottom of the hill - swinging from trees, sitting in the grass, nicking things from the shrines.

We fed them the fruit and they cheekily tried to snatch it out of our hands. There was a big daddy and three tiny baby monkeys. They were friendly and tame and we spent ages taking photos and videos and feeding them bananas.

Later, I ignored the tuk tuks and wandered the streets for a while - a much calmer alternative. The drivers in Cambodia are far crazier than in Thailand and crossing roads is quite a trial. I shopped for a while at a silk shop with handicrafts made by disabled people in Cambodia (there are many due to Khmer Rouge torture and landmines) and then wandered the riverfront for a while.

In the late afternoon I visited the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda which were impressive and beautiful in the early evening light.

Tired, I returned to the guesthouse feeling Phnom Pehn had a better atmosphere than I had felt at first. In the restaurant, one of the tuk tuk drivers talked me into visiting the orphanage that afternoon.

I wanted to take the children something so I asked him to stop off so I could buy them some rice. They get through 70kg a day and rice is expensive at this time of year.

I ended up buying 25kg which cost a whopping $15 - it seemed a lot for rice to me and I wondered if the tuk tuk driver was in cohorts with the lady at the market.

Nevertheless we popped next door to the orphanage. The marketplace is down a dirt alleyway - a dark and smelly place of tin huts and wooden slums. The orphanage (Cambodian Light Children's Association - is quite honestly horrible. Like a cowshed. It leaks on the children packed into the bedrooms. The classrooms are dark holes with tiny electric bulbs.

Dinner is a meagre portion of rice and a watery vegetable soup because they cannot afford meat often.

Backpackers and travellers come here often and the charity is geared up for these visits. The director, Pat Noun, showed me around as night fell - children holding my hands and asking my name or counting for me as we toured the small area.

They were adorable, friendly and full of life. I felt awful presenting them with only half a sack of rice. I felt worse when the director asked me to donate exercise books to the school - a donation of $80 was required for that! I had to explain I didn't have that kind of money on me but it was useless to tell him I could not afford that.

To him, I am travelling and am western. I am froma rich country and I have many material things. They have nothing.

I left feeling sorrowful for the children but a little surprised by the directors straight-forward approach. I have no doubt about his passion for the cause but was a little concerned, in a country full of corruption, that the money was being filtered through.

Now, I have discovered that they have been vetted by the UK's Charities Aid Foundation which gives me hope that these orphans are being cared for in the best way under the difficult circumstances.

After such a draining encounter I was ready for bed. But I wanted to tell other people about the orphanage and encourage them to visit the children. I got chatting to John and Jenny, an Irish couple, and their friend Connor (also Irish).

After a beer, we decided to join a girl Connor had met in Vietnam at a party at the lakeside - the main travellers ghetto. So Andrea (Brazilian), Connor, Jenny, John and I hopped in a tuk tuk and headed for a guesthouse with a bar over the lake.

We sat ontop of a two storey boat which had been permanently moored to the landing stae and chatted with Marissa, an Argentinian girl Andrea knew, Chicho - an Argentinian who looked and sounded JUST like Chico, an English girl Rebecca, an American John... many many people.

It is much easier to meet people here and in Vietnam it seems than in Thailand. There, people are on holiday as part of a couple or a group more often than being a backpacker.

Here, most people are travelling alone but you are rarely alone here.

After Thursday night out, I had planned to meet Andrea in Siam Reap on Friday morning and met Marissa on the bus there. In Siam Reap, I caught up with Jenny and John and numerous other people we had seen on our bus or in Phnom Penh or elsewhere.

The trip to Siam Reap was long and included a breakdown in the middle of nowhere for an hour or more.

Marissa and I ended up at Queen House Villa guesthouse and, after settling in, wandered town for a while to get the atmosphere and find a tuk tuk to take us around the temples of Ankor.

We saw many of the people we had been with in Phnom Penh and on the bus, had Amok - the national dish of Cambodia - for dinner, and met Mr Won who became our driver.

The last two days have been spent exploring some of the lesser temples around Ankor - such as Ta Phrom (where Tomb Raider was filmed) and Bantay Srei, and these have been amazing.

We haven't managed sunrise yet but saw sunset last night and this evening, the sky was a hazy burnt orange colour over the fields and huts of rural Siam Reap as we returned from Ankor.

Last night, we met up with our friends and partied at Temple Bar and Ankor What? bars. It is quite a pleasant, although very touristy town. Stepping onto the street - any street - means about five tuk tuk drivers will descend on you for business along with a child carrying a baby, a one-legged man with his cap out a-begging and a small boy selling postcards.

It isn't easy to deal with, especially when tired, but that is life here. Before we went out for a few drinks, we went to Beatocello concert - a former Swiss cellist-turned doctor who has worked in Cambodia for more than 14 years. He worked in Phnom Penh before the Khmer Rouge took power and returned at the request of the king after their fall.

He has now set up a childrens hospital here (there are three affiliated in Phnom Penh) and plays a free concert every Saturday to ask for donations and blood donations and to explain his work. Here, there is a dengue fever epidemic, HIV, Hepititus and an outrageous TB problem.

This hospital is free to Cambodian children and has modern equipment for the blood transfusions and operations necessary to save lives here. But he is fighting a battle to get decent health care for poor people and relies on private donors, the Swiss, the Thai government and others to run the hospital. He is also fighting for proper drugs to be made available for free here instead of cheap and dangerous ones which have been banned in the west - a sobering tale (

Tomorrow, we do the daddy's of Ankor - Ankor Wat, and Ankor Thom (including Bayon) and maybe the landmine museum.

Maybe I will have some profound thoughts for my next blog. All I can think of now is sleep...

Thursday, October 19, 2006

From one tragedy...

So this is Khao Lak. A paradise that has been turned to hell. Luckily, time and effort have healed many of the physical scars upon the land.

Here, there are more than 30km of golden beaches fringed by palms. You can lie for hours on a stretch away from the bungalows and resorts and see no one but the occasional shrimp collectors or Thai children walking past in the surf.

At the Bang Sak, the beach stretches in a giant crescent. There are no tourists here. Only the sound of the waves. In a few weeks time, as the monsoon finishes shedding the last of its downpours, the sea will become glass-like and silent.

During th heaviest parts of the monsoon, the waves are Hawaiian in their magnitude. A stirring reminder of the tsunami on December 24, 2004.

Here, the was the greatest tragedy for Thailand. Thousands died. Maybe 8,000 along this coastline known as Khao Lak. 60% were foreigners and the rest were mainly those Thai's working in the resorts or as fishermen or the children playing on the beach.

As a result, there are fewer English speakers here. Fewer children. But also many orphans. There are people still afraid of the sea. People unable to make a living.

The social problems are too complex to explain here. But the story of the Moken people illustrates just how tough life can be even while the resorts continue to be rebuilt in the hope foreigners will come back to this palm-fringed destination.

The Moken people are sea gypsies but this community have been living on land in Khao Lak for more than 100 years.

The tsunami killed 40 villagers from the 50 families living there. It destryed their simple bamboo huts and killed their animals. They were simple people - living off the fish the men caught, their pigs and chickens and sharing the leftovers. They were a self-sustaining community.

Now many men are too afraid to fish, or are dead, or were too late putting thier name down for a replacement boat. Even if they do fish, the migratory patterns of the fish have changed and there are fewer to be caught. Of those that are, they are sold and no longer shared. But with fewer tourists, the restaurants do not pay as well as before.

A well-meaning NGO rebuilt homes for the community - plus an extra 20 families who muscled in and decided they wanted new homes. They are not Mokens or even from the area.

The NGO built large, solid homes on stilts which are close together. The people love their sturdiness. But because they are so close, the people can no longer keep animals there - it would smell too bad.

So they have lost their means of survival. On top of this, they cannot get jobs in resorts (no tourists -little English spoken) or in construction (little pay - too many Burmese taking jobs).

And in addition, the tsunami brought their land to the attention of the provincial government who decided it was prime real estate. They said the Moken could live on the land - but must pay rent and move after five years.

Rean Kratalay, a 67-year-old tsunami widow, said she has to pay 300baht rent a month and 400baht in electricity a month depsite using very little. For people with no source of money and who have to feed themselves too - it is impossible.

I visited this village and several others which have been rebuilt or are in the process. I saw the handiwork of women who sew and weave items for tourists to make ends meet, and Thaikea - a furniture project - where villagers craft stunning items from wood of fishing boats broken in the tragedy.

But it is still a beautiful place and the people are desperate for tourists to come back. Taxi drivers, shop keepers, restaurant owners, guesthouses and hotels, laundry women and street vendors all depend on that income.

And why wouldn't you go? There are miles of golden sands. Stunning hotels and cheap beaches. And world-class diving just 60km away in the Similan Islands...

Sadly it was time to say goodbye to the people of Khao Lak (who have been the most artless and wonderfully friendly I have met so far) and to the volunteers at Tsunami Volunteer Centre who took me under their wing and invited me to their Monday party.

I boarded a bus for Bangkok for a 13-hour ride and made it to the capital at 5.30am (an hour late). I had a quick whizz across town to the new airport and boarded an hour-long flight to Phnom Pehn - the capital of Cambodia.

Just hours later, I arrived at Okay guesthouse and found myself a nice room, a cup of coffee with condensed milk (soooo good) and then was whizzed to the S-21 (tuol Sleng) musuem by moto-taxi.

I was driven by the friendly Peter - who now thinks I need him whenever I step out of the door.

The museum is the former prison of the Khmer Rouge. It is a former school that was converted into cells and torture chambers. Pictures line the wall of the victims and perpertrators. Stories are told about this all-too-recent history.

It was just two years before I was born that the regime was halted. It was many years before they found peace here.

The scenes were horrifying. The torture instruments, cruelty, senseless waste... It is thought up to three million Cambodians were killed in the four years Khmer Rouge were in power. Just four years and many were starved and overworked to death. More were killed for their education.

At the museum I met a Canadian couple and Australian guy and we took a tuk tuk to the Killing Fields.

15km out of Phnom Pehn - on a very bumpy dirt track - this is the place the victims of S-21 were taken to die. There are 129 mass graves here - 43 have not yet been opened.

The 17,000 inmates of S-21 were killed here - most blugeoned to death to save on expensive bullets. There is a memorial of 17 storeys of stacked skulls.

A tree against which babies were swung. Numerous holes where bodies had been discovered - eyes blindfolded, arms tied.

It is a place of such horror - almost too much to take in - surrounded by peaceful fields and waterways. The setting makes it all the more poignant.

Our guide seemed almost angry at us as we walked around. He had escaped from Phnom Pehn in the early years of the regime - his father was not so lucky.

He worked in a camp until in 1980, he came to keep the site of the killing fields secure. He says the stench was unbearable. He said ghosts haunted the place.

We left with a feeling of disbelief and also unease that we were intruding on the death place of Cambodians.

On the bumpy road back, we stopped at a shop - shack you would probably think of it - for a real street lunch of some unidentifiable meat in some unidentifiable sauce with rice. Nice though.

Then it was on to the overpriced and overly dull National Musuem. If I have learned one thing from this - it is that I don't like these kind of rigid places. I like to see statues at temples or in the place they were intended. I don't like to see them behind glass. Particuarly when the signs aren't the best andt hey look like many other hundreds of statues I have seen in the last four months.

We walked down to the riverside and bought a beer from a street vendor and sat on the banks and talked for a while. Steve bought a cooked snake and we all tasted some (too many bones, skin too chewy) and then we wandered to find some real food.

We found it in the market place - more unidentifiable meat and sauce and a beer - all for less than 50p.

Tomorrow there are more sights to see and places to wander. It is very different to Thailand - far poorer for a start.

But I like to see the cyclos - the bicycles with a chair infront, hear the chatter of the moto and tuk tuk drivers, the friendly advice of people, to see the large wheeled bicycles ridden by elegant men, and wander past the colonial French-style buildings.

Yet every face hides a story. Everyone over a certain age has a black reminder of Khmer Rouge. Even the naked children playing at the side of the street have grown up in a country tainted by that period.

There are too many beggars missing limbs and asking for food. Too many people grateful for your offcast food. Too many children wandering selling items or holding outstretched palms... Thailand was easy compared to this. But Cambodia may turn out to be more rewarding.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Lost in Phi Phi

Ok so I didn't stick to my plans and leave Phi Phi when I intended. I tried. The weather conspired against me.

Or maybe it was my heart.

I think I may be in love.

With the weather grey and dull and constantly threatening to rain, I decided I was better off on Phi Phi. No matter that it was raining there - I had friends to meet and CSI dvds to watch, nights out to indulge in. And more diving.

I completed my advanced course for PADI - four further dives to test my navigation, buoyancy, fish identification and planning multi-level dive skills. It was a funny two days which saw Kim, my instructor, and I giggling constantly underwater as he tried to protect me from 'animal porn' (slugs mating), scratched his head at my attempts to swim backwards that saw me eating sand, and as we fought over who was barging into whom as the current swirled us around.

The island is so beautiful, so naturally blessed with stunning beaches, turquoise seas and imposing cliffs. The people, both Thai and western, are welcoming and friendly. They have been through so much and come out smiling.

It genuinely terrifies and appalls me to think and to see the devastation wrought on the tiny sandbar which separates the two main beaches and where all the main resorts are, or were. Everything about who lived and who survived on Boxing Day 2004 was down to chance.

I found myself thinking constantly, 'That could have been me. It could have been any number of my friends.'

The love affair did not end well. I eventually had to wrench myself away on grey and rainy Friday. But my last night out, while mostly great fun with the crowd of people I had come to know and love, turned sour.

I'd had a nagging sense of guilt and sadness which dogged my time on the island. So many of the westerners who loved here had been on the island when the wave came or rushed to help with the clear-up and who all came back.

Everytime I mentioned I was a journalist or said I was planning to write an article, there was a wary look in their eyes - even those who hadn't been here at the time.

In the months after the wave there was such heartache. Such appalling scenes. Such effort to rebuild the lives and livelihoods that had been broken. I suppose it was dragging up a past which many wanted to let lie, although many realised I was writing about Phi Phi's future and not its past.

On my last night talking to Chris, a diver who had been here pre-tsunami, come back to clear-up in its wake and again to live and work here, his thoughts on my journalist efforts were clear. I felt kicked in the stomach. Like a sick intruder. Like all my fears about what I was doing were realised.

He was drunk but his sentiment was nevertheless undeniable and deadly in its intent. As soon as he heard my profession, he cut me dead. Spoke some harsh words. Refused to speak to me.

Incensed, I tackled him. I told him he hadn't given me a chance to say what I was writing. I told him about going to Sri Lanka. He listened.

He told me how journalists had arrived during the clean-up and drank until all hours, trying to extend their stay in 'paradise'. And after several weeks being looked after, they turned around and wrote about how westerners were taking liberties with the Thai people, turned against the rescue workers. He told me I was looking for a break from people's misery.

I have enormous respect for the people involved in the immediate aftermath - and those floods of backpackers who stayed on Phi Phi to lend a hand wiring, painting, cleaning, builing homes for people. I cannot imagine the horrors of thousands of bloated bodies across the beaches, the smell, the sense of loss and fear and guilt...

But I felt so guilty then. I felt like and intruder. I felt guilty for not having been here and helping. I felt I had no right to be asking people to remember those days.

I had a moment of pure self-doubt which lasted through my final hours on Phi Phi. Until Friday morning when I looked out at my surroundings of constuction work while eating breakfast with my friend Far. I was in a restaurant that had been rebuilt three times since the tsunami (due to repeated land sales). The owner's business which she had built from nothing over a decade to a successful enterprise was back to its original small size.

She had not given up. She had not accepted her lot or bowed out after her successful restaurant and rooms had been decimalised by the wave. She had fought many battles in the ensuing period and her worries are not yet over. Her lease on the current land is up in a year and she may have to move and rebuild yet again.

Yet she is cheerful and optimistic and grateful. And there I was sitting in her restaurant bemoaning that I did not know what direction my life was going in.

The strength of the people on Phi Phi was what impressed me. And the community spirit of westerners and Thai's together - as if they were facing the natural world together. Picking themselves up collectively and supporting each other 100% to ensure they all survived.

But I still had to leave. Ten days on Koh Tao and nine on Phi Phi was rather cutting into Cambodia and other travelling options.

So on Friday, I set sail for Krabi and travelled to Phang-nga. On Saturday, I did a tour of the national park - made famous in James Bond's Man with the Golden Gun. It was a stunning tour on a long tail boat with an Australian brother and sister I met and a German couple.

The landscape was breathtaking. The sea was like glass - the mountain ranges reflected along with the brilliant sunshine. Odd islands jutted up through the waters covered in trees. Secret caves led to enchanted caverns. Monkeys played in mangroves and sail boats cut across the amazing seascape.

Until James Bond island - crammed with package tours from Phuket. And a canoeing stop - where they paddle the unfortunates who had signed up around a large rock and through a small cave for a vast sum (I read my book).

Sarah, Dan and I stayed in a Muslim fishing village that night which is constructed on stilts next to one of the craggy rocks. We wandered the village (fairly touristy) before eating dinner next to the water and watching the sun sink behind the moutains - the colours reflected in the sea.

Today, we travelled back to Phang-nga and then parted. I came by bus to Khao Lak - the area worst hit by the tsunami.

It was nearly two years ago but, like many places in Sri Lanka, the land next to the ocean was flat. So the waters swelled further inland. Half the death toll in Thailand occurred here. There is around 35km of beach here - not all was affected. But I was driven around by one of the resort owners today.

He pointed out ruined pavilions which stood 4km from any high ground - the former reception of a four star hotel, or the club house of a bungalow resort. Here was the hotel where residents could not escape because of the high wall and there three boats which had been washed 1km inland.

Villagers have moved inland but some resorts have rebuilt next to the ocean. Some, foolishly you could argue, more than 4km from the evacuation point - in other words high ground.

It is hard to take in everything here but tomorrow I aim to meet volunteers who are still based here and find out a little bit more.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Diving diva

Have spent nearly a week on Koh Phi Phi and I'm not yet eager to leave. Once again I am running out of time here...

Michelle, Duncan and I did two days of diving when we first got here - the first stunningly beautiful near Koh Phi Phi Ley (The Beach location) and the second day on a ferry wreck between here and Phuket.

That was great and we saw a large turtle there but couldn't do the other dives nearby because the waves were too choppy and current too strong.

I went out diving yesterday again - a beautiful day - the kind you imagine in Thailand with turquoise flat seas and brilliant sunshine. The diving was truly amazing. So much better than Koh Tao for its visibility, fish life, colour and brilliance. We saw three leopard sharks, three black tip sharks, moray eels and numerous other weird and wonderful creatures.

Have really found my feet here. The community is re-establishing itself and slowly rebuilding. It won't be up to full accommodation capacity here for another high season (Nov-Mar) and there is a lot of construction work taking place. People are hopeful though. Like Sri Lanka, everyone has a story about Boxing Day 2004.

Through the dive team at Moskito, I have met a lot of the divemasters and instructors on the island and am so tempted to take diving to pro level, live out here, make a bit of money on the side doing web work, and get paid to take people diving. It would cost around 600 pounds to train up and then living costs but you can make money working in the dive shops in the mean time.

I have made a wide circle of friends which means that wandering around town you bump into people, stop for chats or drinks and end up dancing on the beach, occasionally until the sun edges over the rocky outcrops of the island.

Meanwhile, the rain has come and weather forecasts predict it will continue for several days. I have been watching CSI in the classroom at Moskito and meeting people for coffee or on the beach.

However, I do plan to leave tomorrow (Wednesday). I was aiming for the beaches of Railay and then Phang-nga where The Man with the Golden Gun was filmed. But the weather makes me tempted to stay where there are friends and diving. I could stay and do my advanced course here and then head to Cambodia for the last few weeks or days...

Or go to Khao Lak and check out the rebuilding efforts since the tsunami. The choices are there but, as ever, I remain indecisive...

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Planes, Seatrans and automobiles

Had a busy few days travelling from Koh Tao on the east coast over to the Andaman coast.

Monday was spent soaking up the beach atmosphere with the lovely people I have met on Koh Tao and trying to save a little bit of money to make up for flying by not diving.

However the whole crew were going out in the afternoon and so I decided to do one of the two dives at Hin Wong Pinnacle.

It really ended my diving there on a high. The visibility was so amazing - the shoals of fish, the many angel fish we spotted as well as all kinds of parrot fish, damsel fish, banner fish, squirrel fish, foil fish, butterfly fish and a giant (and I mean giant) grouper.


It was like being in a different place the water was so clear and the colours so vivid.

Michelle and I then sat the next dive out and had a nap on the boat.

That evening we went for a slap-up meal at El Gringo's for fantastic fahitas and a few glasses of wine before retiring to the beachside Lotus bar for farewell drinks.

The next morning was an early start to get us to the pier, take a Seatran Ferry to Koh Samui and then a taxi to Hat Chaweng, the main beach.

We had a few hours to kill and headed to this main strip. It is busy, noisy and packed with sunburned farangs. At first I was genuinely horrified by the loud music blaring from each beachside bar, the untidy sprawl of the main strip behind the beach, the cost of food, the rude attitude of the staff in restaurants, the dozens of sun loungers, offers for cheap alcohol... it seemed a world apart from Koh Tao.

Gradually, as Michelle and I hit the shops hard, we could see the attractions in the dirt cheap imitation clothes and pretty jewellery. If I had been leaving for home anytime soon, I could have bought a serious amount.

Chaweng beach (above) is a pretty stretch of sand but marred by the masses of people even off season, the jet skis and the ugly beachside buildings. The main strip is dirty and the large bars look fun for a good night out but this is where holidayers come. Travellers tend to stay away I suppose.

Samui airport is in the process of a revamp but is currently a couple of bamboo huts next to a large strip of tarmac. Fresh coconuts can be bought next to your airline tickets. There is a great complimentary food and drink section we discovered two minutes before our flight, but this is amply paid for by the 300B airport departure tax. Still, the flowerbeds next to the runway and gardens to sit and wait for your flight make a nice change from Heathrow.

The flight was just 40 minutes to Phuket but the actual trauma of getting in a minibus and to Patong beach was far longer. Patong is the Pattaya of Phuket - the noisy, seedy, beachside town with hordes of middle-aged farang men being handed flyers for ping-pong shows or Thai bozing matches.

I was glad to get the chance to see it in its hideousness, as I was to see Chaweng's certain 'charms', but it was a bit of a trial for three weary travellers. We found a hotel which put an extra mattress on the floor for us (which muggins got) and headed to find a cheap street stall which we did after some searching.

Patong is all bright lights, fake goods and rip-off merchants attempting to sell fake watches for the same price as genuine articles. We had an amusing time haggling for a few odds and ends we needed to replace such as torches but opted for an early night rather than a girlie show.

This morning (it seems so long ago), we took a minibus to the boat and sat up on deck to watch the stunning tiny islands dotted along the route as we sailed to Koh Phi Phi.

Ten minutes after we left port it chucked down so we retired below decks until Phi Phi where the sun came out when we came off the boat.

After lunch, we headed for Mosquito diving where we could find cheap rooms and were hoping to do a live-aboard where we would stay onboard a boat for two nights and spend two days diving. Unfortunately they were not running that tour.

So we are diving locally at two sites tomorrow and are hoping for clear seas and skies. The waters are supposed to hold some amazing sights here.

I have found myself stunned to be here and to imagine things before and immediately after the tsunami.

Duncan was here several months before and has said there is much less development here now. The main part of the island is centered around a narrow strip of land between two rugged outcrops and this is where the destruction occurred as the wave swept across it, destroying everything in its path. There are few beachside bamboo huts now and only a few concrete villas.

Most seem to be further inland and upland slightly.

There are patches of barren or grassy land which were once hotels, restaurants, bars, homes... Much has clearly been rebuilt in a tidier way. Other places have been patched up. The dive shop where we are staying had water to the ceiling of the ground floor and photographs show the destruction the wall of water caused there. It is several hundred metres from the beach.

The people still smile here and the atmosphere is friendly - it seems nicer than Chaweng on Samui where I felt I was not in Thailand. Landing in Phuket province and driving past rickety second-world buses, huts and small shops selling fruit and noodles, ornate temples and everyday houses felt like coming home.

Here, of course, it is different. But the scenery is just so stunning. The water a brilliant greeny-blue hue, the dramatic rocky outcrops rising from the sea and surrounding the bays... It is still a travelling ghetto...but it is a beautiful one.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Changes afoot

I survived my encounter with the sharks, you'll be happy to hear.

On Friday morning, I went out with the Advanced divers to Chumpon Pinnacle. The wind was whipping up the waves and there was a very strong current. Visibility, which has been low in recent days, had really declined.

Sairee Beach
We played a bit on the sandy bottom at 30m deep and cracked open an egg - the yolk stayed intact and we bounced it between each other like a ball. At this point a reef shark swam up less than 8m away to see what we were up to but didn't stay for long.

We swam a bit more, through a fish pool where apparently there was a large shark lurking but I must have missed it! The visibility was pretty awful and we were low on air because we had all been fighting the current so hard.

The next dive we did at a site called twins. Again, visibility was very bad and we didn't see much during the dive - however we did see Nemo! and a few of his relatives.

We logged our dives and then I'm pretty sure I went sunbathing.

In the last few days I've got chatting to quite a lot of the fun divers and have met a good bunch of people.

We ate that night in the cheapest place in town - real Thai food at Thai prices as opposed to the ridiculous amounts they charge in most restaurants, and then hung out chilling, drinking and smoking on Ben's bungalow balcony.

With such a chilled atmosphere and the prospect of rushing up to Bangkok the following day and rushing (well trying to - it's a hellish trip) to Cambodia, I decided to try and put my flight to Australia back a couple of weeks.

After most of Saturday spent in indecision - it cost 75 pounds to change - about the amount which was stolen from my room the other day - and unable to contact Emirates, I managed to contact the London office who changed it there and then.

So instead of flying to Sydney on October 12, it will be October 30.

This gives me a month to play with. So I celebrated with a night dive and a night out.

The dive was quite scary as it was pitch black underwater. We had torches though and there were just three of us and the dive master. WE had to cancel Barracuda hunting ground destination of White Rock because it was just too choppy and headed for the sheltered Japanese Gardens.

We say two blue-spotted stingrays, many shrimps with their eyes glowing pink, and fish such as squirrel fish. It was very relaxing actually to be down there at night and you had time to concentrate on the colours and corals.

Later a large group of us headed to Chopper bar for a few drinks and then to Lotus bar - a beachside place with mats and candles on the sand - dancing on the beach until the wee hours of the morning.

Today, Sunday, has been a day of catching up on sleep, reading, sunbathing and eating. Michelle, Duncan and I have just booked to leave Koh Tao on Tuesday by flying to Phuket (a real luxury!) and will head straight for Phi Phi for some more sunbathing, relaxing and supposedly the best diving in Thailand...