BREAKING NEWS FOR “IRISH GRANNY ON THE RUN”

NEW WEBSITE ALERT FOR IRISH GRANNY ON THE RUN!

http://irishgrannyontherun.ie/

HEY THERE EVERYONE,

I’M EXCITED TO TELL YOU THAT I HAVE JUST RECENTLY BEEN GIFTED MY VERY OWN WEBSITE/WEBPAGE WHERE ALL MY FUTURE ADVENTURES WILL BE UPLOADED IN THE USUAL BLOG POSTS.

NO FURTHER BLOGS WILL BE UPLOADED TO THIS WEBSITE.

TO CONTINUE FOLLOWING ME ON MY LATEST ADVENTURES, PLEASE LOG INTO MY NEW WEBSITE LINK BELOW:

http://irishgrannyontherun.ie/

PLEASE GO TO THE “MENU” AT THE TOP OF MY NEW WEBPAGE WHERE YOU WILL FIND AN OPTION TO “FOLLOW BLOG VIA EMAIL” AND FILL IN YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS. THIS WILL RESULT IN YOU BEING NOTIFIED OF ALL BLOGS AND UPDATES THAT I POST FROM HEREONIN.

THANKS SO MUCH FOR FOLLOWING ME IN 2018. THERE ARE MANY MORE ADVENTURES ON THE WAY IN 2019! PLEASE COME AND JOIN ME ON THEM! 🙏😁

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

IRISH GRANNY ON THE RUN ❤️

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EYES WIDE OPEN! SIHANOUKVILLE, CAMBODIA!

(Photo: The street running alongside our resort – Sihanoukville)

I’m still trying to figure out how we didn’t spot the dangers and horrors of this place, Sihanoukville before we booked a ten-day stint here. By all accounts, the reviews and articles that we read about it led us to believe that it was a paradise on earth with beautiful stretches of beaches, palm trees and restaurants. It also had an airport that would fly us on to Australia, our next destination after Cambodia. And while we didn’t expect top class accommodation having stayed in the more southern areas of Cambodia, availing of budget accommodation in the main, we certainly did not expect what came next.

We excitedly scoured the internet for accommodation in advance of travelling to Sihanoukville (a city just north of Kampot on the mainland of Cambodia). We booked a quaint looking bamboo cabin at a beach resort, with a traditional looking Cambodian restaurant and bar attached to the premises. The beach was literally a few steps from our doorstep with sun loungers and comfy couches and chairs with sun umbrellas for shade. The photos we viewed had the most picturesque views of beautiful scenery and surroundings. The reviews were relatively good, or so we thought. It was only in hindsight that we realized that many of the reviews were from many years ago, and hadn’t been updated. What could go wrong?…Basically, in a nutshell, we got it wrong! So wrong!

Our three hour bus journey from Kampot to Sihanoukville was the stuff that nightmares are made of. We had been advised not to travel after darkness fell as the roads were in such dangerous condition that there was a really high risk that we might not arrive at our destination in one piece, if at all. And so we opted for an early afternoon bus ride with a private company that seemed to have a relatively decent safety record. The bus was basically a converted mini-van that we shared with other westerners who were brave enough to take the risk of travelling by road. The World Health Organisation has raised concerns for many years about the high rate of road deaths in Cambodia, pointing out that it is the leading cause of death in the country. Over 2,000 people on average are killed every year and in 2018 a further 5,539 people suffered serious injuries. Compare this to our own statistics of c. 150 road deaths each year in Ireland and it brings some perspective to what Cambodia is dealing with. The roads are death traps! Regulations and rules of the road are practically non-existent and the lack of money being invested in building roads, let alone maintaining them is clearly evident. To travel short distances, there are small “Tuk Tuks” which are basically motorbikes that pull you along on a seated cart, with luggage tied on to the same cart with bungee cords. However, their ability to travel long distances is limited. There is literally no public transport in Cambodia, albeit one train runs from Phnom Penh (midland Cambodia) to Sihanoukville daily, and so we had no choice but to take the risk of travelling by bus. The bus travelled like a snake along main traffic filled roads. At points of the journey the bus driver couldn’t see the road in front of us because of the clouds of dust rising from traffic travelling in the opposite direction, and there were a few ‘near misses’ as we sped along what was left of pot-holed roads swerving to avoid both them and oncoming traffic. We were certainly getting the “how the locals live” experience that we had signed up for on this journey. The saying “be careful what you wish for” came to mind on numerous occasions during this particular part of our trip! 😱 With a huge sigh of relief from everyone, we eventually disembarked in the city of Sihanoukville and changed over to a local Tuc-Tuc which took us a few more kilometers along just as treacherous roads to our final stop, Otres Beach 1 along the coast.

On the face of it, when we pulled up outside the resort, (albeit in darkness), it looked relatively ok. We rocked up to the bar in the middle of the restaurant and introduced ourselves. A friendly Cambodian guy checked us in and proceeded to show us to a row of lovely bamboo cabins that flanked the fringes of the restaurant. As we made our way to our cabin, out of the corner of my eye I was sure I spotted a large rat running into the one next door. But it was late and I was tired and thought I was imagining things. Until we closed the door behind us and above our heads, scurrying along the beam over our bed was the biggest rat I had ever seen in my entire life. It was the size of a small kitten! In shock, we both agreed that under no circumstances were we staying in this cabin and quickly made our way to the bar area again. Nearing tears I explained that we could not possibly stay in a room where there were rats running around. He kindly transferred us, temporarily, to a room above the restaurant, off the ground floor, until, he assured us, the problem would be resolved the following morning. Reluctantly we agreed to climb the wooden stairs to another bedroom at the top, with floor lino for wallpaper and just one bed in the centre of the floor. We slept very little until the sun came up the next morning. The ocean view from the window of the room was spectacular, and the comforting sounds of the waves lapping against the shore calmed everything down. Temporarily! Our bathroom was a communal bathroom with showers and a sink at the entrance to the building. My first attempt at having a shower failed miserably when I discovered that the water was a trickle of freezing cold water, and that the sink offered only the same. “Maybe it might improve after breakfast” I thought. And so we sat for breakfast in the vast open space of the restaurant and placed our order. Lying in the middle of the floor in front of me was a clearly neglected female dog, yelping in pain and biting aggressively at her front legs where her fur had been bitten away exposing large areas of pink flea infested flesh. Being covered with fleas, she was biting and scratching and yelping trying to ease the horrifying discomfort she was in. She circled the floor trying to bite at her tail continuously as her yelping intensified. And then another dog appeared out of nowhere with the same neglected look and biting and scratching continuously. These dogs freely walked in and out of the kitchen of the restaurant and having eaten one small portion of my breakfast, I decided, there and then, that we needed to find somewhere else to eat at the very least, and to stay. As we waited for our new cabin to be readied, I agreed to hold off and take a day on the beach first before making any decisions. I was upset. Seeing dogs in this condition and rats in our room was taking its toll on me and so I made my way into the ocean for a swim, to try to get my head together and figure out how to get out of a ten day stay at this nightmare of a place, and what options we had to stay somewhere else. We made our way out of the resort for a walk to scour the area for a place to eat that was relatively clean. As we walked along the road, my worst nightmare came to pass. Right outside the resort, on the side of every road, were piles and clearly weeks of garbage stacked and sprawled along the streets. The putrid smell was unbearable. I wanted to run and hide and find somewhere clean and safe, but there was nowhere. Each place was as bad as the next! No wonder there were rats! Mangy, undernourished, neglected dogs, scratching themselves vigorously, were lying around outside every building in the searing heat. Only kept by local businesses for the purposes of killing rats it appeared. That evening, on returning to our resort, we sat on a couch near the restaurant floor and witnessed rats running back and forth across the floor every few minutes. It was rampant with these vermin and even with four flea-infested dogs (another two appeared out of nowhere) keeping watch, these rats weren’t intimidated and weren’t going anywhere. As soon as one was killed, another would appear.

When I asked a local boy working in a nearby restaurant, who was responsible for dumping all of the rubbish on the streets, … his response was “the Chinese”?!! Unsure that he understood my question properly, I was desperate to find out what he meant and what was going on in the area. A friend of mine who had visited Sihanoukville only a few years earlier explained that this was not her experience of staying at the same location. On seeing some of my photos, she explained that it was certainly not like this before and that something was clearly going on in the city to bring it to what I was seeing today.

I had noticed a number of lavishly decorated, brightly lit, Chinese gambling casinos en-route to our accommodation that looked very much out of place against the backdrop of the poverty stricken Cambodian homes we passed along the road. It was time to talk with the locals and foreigners in the area to see what was going on. It turns out that more than 30 casinos catering exclusively for Chinese gamblers have been built in the city and there are another 70 under construction. That was the reason that the city looked like a building site at every turn! As we spoke to more and more of the local people we discovered that Cambodian businesses have been forced to close and thousands of tenants turfed out of their homes in order to make prime land available to not only Chinese investors, but to gang-lords and mafia. The local people have become hostile to Chinese visitors and tourists and they are understandably angry. Implying that the Chinese are responsible for dumping rubbish outside businesses to the point that local businesses cannot function because of rats etc. making businesses untenable to the point of closure, might only be said by the local people out of anger, but it begs the question as to the power, or lack of power that these local people have against such huge Chinese conglomerates taking over their city. The Cambodian people themselves can never work or play at these glittering multi-million dollar casinos as it is illegal for any Cambodian to gamble, let alone work in these playgrounds of the rich Chinese. To add insult to injury the Cambodian Prime Minister has embraced this Chinese investment (neighboring countries have not). The southern coast of Cambodia is now home to $4.2bn worth of power plants and offshore oil operations, all owned by Chinese companies. The Chinese businesses are obviously attracted to the tax free haven that has been offered to them by the Cambodian government. Naturally there is rising hostility between the locals and the Chinese arriving in their thousands. But hang on! If the Chinese are investing all of this money buying up prime land and building huge casinos and hotels; opening businesses and setting up offshore oil operations. Where is all this money being reinvested by the Cambodian Government for the local people? And yet, this is never questioned by the local people on any large scale? And why? Because they can’t! Because if they do they risk their lives and that of their families for raising any concerns about their government! It’s as simple as that! So the Chinese get the blame and the local people deal with living in even more horrific conditions than before. And no one helps them. Sure it’s a democracy…why would anyone interfere?!!! (Eye roll). Yes, the wealthier Cambodians are most likely gaining from all of this Chinese investment, but the local small businesses and ordinary poor Cambodian families are being run out of their homes to live in dire conditions under tarpaulin sheltered hovels in filth and dirt. They are down-trodden and bear all the signs of a people that are wonderfully welcoming to the non-Chinese foreigner, warm and kind, but that clearly feel that there is no hope for their future and that of their children. Their homes have become multi-million dollar casinos, and basically no-one gives a damn. Not even they care anymore about their surroundings. Piles of rubbish can be burned away. They didn’t even have the will to do this. No will to bother about hygiene and basic sanitation for themselves, let alone for us tourists! And again, clearly the link between poor sanitation and health did not ring through for them. Without a proper education system for its people, this is what happens! What corrupt government wants an informed electorate?!!! And what I was seeing, was the result of this!

(Photo: A home in Sihanoukville, Cambodia)

Another piece of advice that we received within the first two days of our arrival was to stay no more than three days in the area. Foreigners are not safe in Sihanoukville. We were told stories of tourists’ movements being monitored by hardened criminals over a three day period, and once a pattern of movement is established they go in for the kill, robbing and beating tourists for their valuables. Of Chinese gangs and drug-lords shooting people in broad daylight on the streets. Stories of foreign girls being raped and beaten were far too many for me to feel safe in this city. And bringing a crime to the attention of the police is pointless. We heard stories where badly injured tourists tried to follow up with the police about their attacks, only to be told that if they paid the police money they might “consider” trying to solve it. It was time for us to abandon ship and find a safer place to stay until we could return for our flight to Australia. By day three, having been given another room on the ground floor, I had not slept for longer than two hours each night with the sound of rats scurrying around. By then, I had had a serious “head-to-head” with the manager of our resort about having dogs on the premises that were being totally neglected. Freaking out at him when he made feeble excuses as to why the owner of the premises and the dogs was not having them cared for and treated for fleas and whatever other godforsaken disease they happened to have. I’d had enough! It was time to grab a Tuk Tuk and head for a boat that would take us to an island, Koh Rong Samloen, off the mainland and away from this “Hell on Earth”! A place, I hoped, where I could shower and clean my teeth without the noise of rats and dogs and the putrid smell of garbage permeating in my nose at every turn. What was very much on my mind at that point was how lucky we were that we could afford to “run away” from this hell. The local people living here have nowhere to run. No matter how bad it gets, this is their only existence. For them there is no escape! In Cambodia, one out of every eight children born dies before his or her 5th birthday from diseases associated with these poor unhygienic conditions. For every 1,000 babies born in rural Cambodia, 170 die in their first year, with most of these deaths occurring in the first month of life. Another 33 plus out of this 1,000 die before their 5th birthday. It has one of the highest infant mortality rates in Asia. Malnourished mothers are uneducated and are unaware of the benefits of immunization and therefore their children are exposed to so many illnesses. The lack of knowledge on how to treat children for basic illnesses such as diarrhea as a result of poor sanitization results in a huge number of deaths. And this is happening in 2018! 2018!!!! 🤬🤬🤬😡😡😡. And yes, it makes for depressing reading! Yes it makes for …”let me turn this off” reactions! Yes, I would often do the same when pictures of poor people from third world countries flashed up on the screen in front of me. But to see it, in all its glory…the reality of what’s happening in some of these countries. The conditions that people are living in as we jump into a warm bed at night time after a nice dinner and a few beers. The frustration of not being able to do anything that would make any sort of a meaningful difference, apart from raising awareness and a few attempts at raising money … because we’re dealing with a government who controls all of this. A government who controls all of the charitable donations made to its people, for its people, that never reaches its people in any real sense. The huge efforts and obstacles that NGO’s and charitable organizations have to overcome to even begin helping these people! It’s an “eyes-wide open” moment that changes you, to the very core of your being. What we have seen cannot ever be unseen and everyone, or should I say every western foreigner that we met along the way, had the very same experience. In 2018, people should NOT have to live like this! But what is the solution? The biggest question … what is the solution????

With a huge sense of relief, we boarded a boat that would take us to a safer place. We arrived on the island of Koh Rong Samloen early that morning, a boat journey of only 40 minutes, to a room that was clean, with a running shower (albeit the water was cold), and a proper toilet and wash hand basin with a full stream of water flowing from the tap. And not a sign of a rat! It was heaven and even more so when we arrived at the local café to find it immaculately clean with lovely hot food on the menu. And while it boasted that it had electricity for 24 hours per day, this wasn’t the case. But considering what we had left behind, the lack of electricity was a small price to pay for providing us with a safer and cleaner environment. We took a stroll across to the other side of the island (only a few kilometres away) along the white sandy beach, through the island’s jungle, where monkeys lurked and signs were pinned to trees advising us not to feed them, again, due to their tendency to give pretty serious bites to the naïve tourists trying to attract them. It was on this walk that we bumped into the most wonderful, funny, Malaysian guy, Lucas, who had travelled to the island alone and asked if he could join us on our walk. And am I glad we agreed. He was a breath of fresh air and after a few lessons from him on how to make seats for ourselves on the beach from the leaves on the nearby trees, and some more such tips, we made our way back to the local café to spend the evening being totally entertained by this wonderful soul. We shared so many stories about his and our travels and said farewell to him at the end of the night, as he was leaving for his onward journey the following morning. Early the next morning, just after the sun rose, I heard a rapping on our front window. With a fuzzy head, and even fuzzier hair, I opened the door and it was Lucas! He was on his way to the boat and called to say yet another goodbye to us. Now Lucas is the type of person that has the ability to bring a beaming smile to the face of anyone he meets, just by looking at him. He’s colourful and mischievous and I felt I knew him forever even though we had only spent one day with him. He was exactly what we needed right there and then. A godsend and medicine for our souls! We spent only three days on this island, and to be honest, I could have stayed forever. I had contemplated coming home at one point while in Sihanoukville. I was ready to abandon our trip altogether, but after our stay at Koh Rong Samloen, it settled me somewhat and gave me some extra vigor and enthusiasm to continue the journey and to move on to yet another island nearby, Koh Rong. Could any more Koh Rong? 😛😛😛

(Photo: Lucas, Colm and Me on the island of Koh Rong Samloen after our escape)

Arriving on the pier to catch our boat, we came across two other couples who were touring Cambodia. One couple from Finland, and another from Holland. Sharing stories again with these people as we sailed out onto the Gulf of Thailand was just wonderful. They too had been shocked at what they had seen as they travelled through Cambodia and it formed the basis of much of our conversation as we travelled. We reached the Island within a couple of hours and arrived at our accommodation in the early evening. On arrival, we were greeted by none other than David, a 73 year old Irish man who lived and worked at the resort, and who offered us an extra warm welcome when he saw our Irish passports! We spent the next few evenings sitting in his company in the restaurant, enthralled by his story telling. Stories of his family in Ireland, of him growing up in Dublin and the time he spent as a student at Trinity College majoring in English. About his journey since leaving Ireland over 40 years ago, never to return, and his decision to live in Asia since. Learning about his life experiences while living in Asia was fascinating. His insight into how the powers that be operated in Cambodia offered us some explanation as to what we had just experienced in Sihanoukville. He told us stories of what he had witnessed during the years that he had lived here and kept us riveted to our chairs on many of those story-telling nights. During the days we walked to the nearby village of Prek Svay where we met with local children at a nearby run down dilapidated school. A school where the playgrounds swings, slides and see-saws had long since given up the ghost. David explained that many of the beautiful children that we met on the way to the village would most likely not be aware of what a proper playground looked like, let alone ever had the joy of playing in one. With 300 pupils attending the school and only 3 teachers, education isn’t a priority for the children of the village, and there is really no incentive for them to attend school. We suggested to David that we might take another trip to the school the following day to see for ourselves what the possibilities might be to provide a basic swing, slide and play area for the children. David immediately put us in touch with a local man, Mr. Hun, who lived and worked in the village, giving up his time freely to the locals to teach them cooking, English and about how important it is to protect their environment by disposing of their garbage correctly. Mr. Hun works alongside the village “Chief”and is a highly respected individual amongst his community. We travelled back to Prek Svay the next day and met with Mr. Hun. He struck me as an almost angelic figure, who devoted his whole life to improving the lives of the people of the area. We spoke at length about how we might be able to provide some play equipment for the children at the school in an effort to encourage them to go, and in particular ensuring that any funds raised would be used for just that and only that.

(Photo: A little boy we met on our walk to the village of Prek Svay, Koh Rong island)

After much to-ing and fro-ing and discussions with both David and Mr. Hun, David happily agreed to arrange for the transportation of any play equipment we could fund by arranging for a boat belonging to a friend of his to transport it free of charge from mainland Cambodia to the island. Mr. Hun also explained that if we could fund the play equipment that the local men in the village would work to install it in the grounds of the school for the children. Both men reckoned it could be provided for less than €3,000. I have recently since set up a “Go Fund Me” page where I’m now trying to raise as near as possible to the €3,000 target for this project. To date, there is €250 in the pot! So any more contributions for this, no matter how small, would be greatly appreciated! (Link below).

https://www.gofundme.com/prek-svay-school-childrens-fund-cambodia

Our time in Koh Rong was just as wonderful as that in Koh Rong Samloen. Our stay at both islands was a lifesaver for us. But the day was coming soon when we had to go back to Sihanoukville, just for one night, to catch our flight onwards to Perth in Australia. I dreaded going back, but we did our research properly this time and booked a room at a resort that was totally secluded, albeit near to where we had previously stayed. We had come across it on one of our walks and it was the nearest we could find to a clean and comfortable place to stay before we travelled.

The night before we left the island we had one more thing to do. David had told us about some bio-luminescent plankton that were visible under the water at a stretch of the beach not too far from where we were staying. He thought we might like to enjoy the experience before we left. With his directions memorized, and his advice that we had to find the location at night time when it was totally dark to enjoy the full display of flickering lights shooting from the plankton as we walked through it on the waters edge, we headed off with torches in hand, and excitement in our heads at what we were about to find. He told us that the plankton lay below the water in the sand at a point between two large bushes. A large tree stood between the bushes, and if we followed the line of that tree along the sand to the water, that was where the plankton lay. After a few attempts at running into the water with no success, suddenly out of nowhere, between my toes, sparks of beautiful pink and red lights shot up through my toes like magic fairy dust. Barely visible to begin with until I walked further into the water, there, right at my feet were more and more shooting starlike lights surrounding my ankles. It was breathtaking and yet another, more positive “eyes-wide open” moment. This time, I was so delighted that this was a vision that once seen, cannot be unseen! It was the most perfect way to spend our last night on Koh Rong. We left the following morning on the boat that would take us back to Sihanoukville. David came along to wave us off. A sadness came over me momentarily as the boat left the island and David stood on the pier waving. I wondered at that moment would I ever get to see him again, to spend even one more glorious evening in his company, learning so much about his adventures. I really hope that some day soon I will get to travel back to spend some more time with him, captivated by his stories.

(Photo: Our wonderful friend David. Koh Rong Island, Cambodia)

And so we spent an uneventful night back in Sihanoukville (well uneventful in the sense of things I can write about here…ahemmm 😂😂😂😂) thankfully. We left for the airport, relieved to be leaving, but all the richer for the lessons we had learned on our journey through Cambodia, and thankful for the fantastic people that we met along the way.

And oh boy! The thoughts of a hot shower and a washing machine was a dream about to come true once we hit Australia! But we had a stopover at Bali enroute! Another eventful first-time experience was yet to come!

More to follow…. 😛😁😜

CAMBODIA – POVERTY AND POT HOLES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

….More to come!

COME ON IRENE 😱

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VISTAS OF VIENTIANE, LAOS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RICE RICE BABY!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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