Author Archives: lievelee

Modern colonialism: the case of Bokor Mountain in Kampot

25th September 2018

‘A visit to Bokor Mountain is a must,’ our guesthouse host in Kampot explains.  ‘Mind you, since the Chinese leased the mountain, a lot has changed.  You better go now before it’s too late and nothing is left.  They have already spoilt Sihanoukville…’ 

They are eyed with suspicion, distrust even.  Just like in Vietnam, the Chinese are not welcomed by the locals in Cambodia.  Under the surface, sentiments run high, trampled into silence and acquiescence as the locals feel powerless to turn the tide.  They watch on as more and more of their country is sold out to Chinese and foreign companies whilst the grease of corruption only touches the greedy hands of the ‘establishment’.  Here, progress doesn’t touch the lives of ordinary citizens.  Welcome to 21st century communism.  Welcome to modern colonialism.

Liz and I visit Bokor Mountain riding pillion, safely seated on the back of motorbikes; we haven’t taken to renting them for ourselves… yet…  It’s quicker than cycling or a hike up I suppose and, at a distance of around 37 km from the centre of Kampot, it may be a little too far to cover in a daytrip.  With a motorbike, it is easy to take in all the sights in a matter of a few hours. 

It doesn’t take long to see how a splash of foreign investment has put its mark on Bokor Mountain.  We leave Kampot on dirt roads but as soon as we reach the National Park, beautiful tarmac greets us, courtesy of the developers who need good access to set their plans for the National Park into motion.  On the upside, it also makes for a comfortable journey to the top of the mountain, a trip that in the past would have taken almost an hour and a half by jeep or 4×4 on a bumpy, muddy track…

Bokor Mountain overlooks Kampot from the other side of the river.  The impressive mound – its peak often clad in opaque fog and prone to more rain than the lower lying regions – used to be covered in dense jungle and home to an abundance of wildlife.  Tales of roaming lions, tigers and elephants may well have been exaggerated, but the trees are a habitat for giant birds, parrots, wild monkeys and some of the smaller cats.  Not that we see any of those either on our trip, apart from the inquisitive and bold monkeys maybe.  They are always on the lookout for opportunities to loot unsuspecting tourists. Loss of habitat doesn’t mean they are on the brink of starvation.

Bokor Mountain National Park is under construction, Chinese style.  Vast swathes of prime forest have been devastated by logging.  Bulldozers and other machinery have flattened land ready for construction and development.  Not that anyone in town knows what the long-term future holds for Bokor Mountain; it’s all kept under wraps. My guide, who speaks reasonable English, is not exactly shy about voicing his disquiet.  ‘Before, locals used to come to the mountain to collect fire wood,’ he elaborates, ‘but now this is no longer possible.   Maybe they [the Chinese] are really exploring for valuable minerals, who knows…’   Although small-scale, illegal logging by locals and poachers has been happening for years, it is the magnitude of the current devastation by the new owners that is causing grave concern.  The rainforest has no time to regenerate; what is lost is lost forever.

We soon hit our first tourist attraction, a gigantic statue of the Lok Yeay Mao Buddha, the lady Buddha protector of the hunters and travellers and a divinity revered in Cambodian Buddhism, especially in the coastal areas of Kampot and Kep.  The statue was inaugurated in 2012 by the new lease-holding company and part of a 15-year development plan of Bokor National Park.  But the statue feels at odds with its surroundings and history; it’s ostentatious, if not grotesque and does not sit well with the more modest and simple Cambodian way of life…

‘Far more interesting are the collection of dilapidated buildings across the road from the statue,’ my guide explains.  And indeed, nestled between the encroaching jungle stand the remnants of the Black Palace and other royal entourage buildings, built in 1936 as the residence of King Sihanouk.  Clearly restoration of those historical keepsakes is not part of the grand plan for a bright future for Bokor Mountain National Park.  Still, being reclaimed by nature and graffiti artists makes the ruins so much more fascinating and eye-catching.  A tangible legacy from a not too distant but more affluent past. Easy to see why royalty picked out this site: the view from the clifftop overlooking the bay is simply spectacular, although veiled by a wisp of cloud when we are there.

Bokor Hill Station, originally built by the French in the 1920s at the top of the mountain, was a luxurious retreat for colonial residents offering respite from the summer heat and stuffiness of Phnom Penh.  The hotel and casino have long since fallen in disrepair; its haunting skeleton a tourist attraction and used as a location for ghost movies.  As the clouds are drawing in and the light drizzle is becoming more persistent, we don’t stop at the old hotel and only take photographs of the entrance. 

But we pass the newer version of the hotel though: grandiose and overbearing, recently built by the new owners as part of the redevelopment.  The casino and hotel are already functional: taking in predominantly Chinese guests looked after by Chinese staff with none of the proceeds benefiting the local community.  Bokor Mountain, a little Chinese enclave… No wonder there is resentment.

But it is the Wat Sampov Pram, or ‘five-rocks-pagoda’ at the top of the hill that really catches my eye.  The jumble of pagodas, temples and statues breathes mystic tranquility and peace.  Although the legend linked to the pagoda spins a yarn of ancient love and sailing boats, the pagoda was actually only built in 1924.  Whilst the French administration claimed the mountain for their own pleasures, the King added the pagoda complex in keeping with the country’s Buddhist tradition.  

But even this sacred place has not escaped the attention of the new guardians of Bokor Mountain.  Just opposite the stairs leading to the main pagoda, a newer building has arisen, this time more in character with the architectural style of the surrounding structures. 

The real eyesore however can be seen through the gate to the pagoda, a modern block of apartments housing the Chinese mainland workers brought to Kampot to help in the construction and development.  And as our guide points out, ‘They don’t even have to go into town for their shopping.  All food is imported and made available on the premises here…’

On our way down, we stop at the old, disused French Catholic Church.  The building crumbling and its windows gaping, graffiti has sprouted on its walls whilst church paraphernalia still rest on the alter.  Still an interesting place to visit, though, if only to witness the contrast in the landscape:  on the one side a valley thick with rainforest, the other side blemished by the tide of progress…

We finish our visit to Bokor Mountain National Park with a trip to the Popokvil waterfall.  We get our entry tickets in a cavernous building, hollow for its space and nothing to fill it.  Chairs and tables stretch inside what must be an enormous dining hall, only it is empty, another soulless addition.  Luckily, the waterfall itself doesn’t disappoint.  Recent rainfall has ensured a healthy flow of water and it’s fun to dip our toes in to cool down… 

Bokor Mountain is in flux and Kampot town is watching on, nervous about the outcome.  No one in this town wants Kampot to become the next Sihanoukville which turned from a backpackers and beach lovers haven into a gambling addicts paradise, a playground for the cash-rich Chinese middle class. Deprived of gambling opportunities in their own country, they are taking full advantage and flock to Sihanoukville to spend their money in Chinese-owned and Chinese-backed hotels and casinos.   They buy up the properties, pricing locals out of the housing market and livelihoods…

It is a delicate balance.  Cambodia is a country in need of money for development, but at what price…   

A taste of Cambodian countryside: Kampot.

24th to 27th September 2018

With plenty of time to explore a bit of Cambodia’s countryside, we head for Kampot: a small, sleepy town – not quite near the coast – renowned for its pepper plantations and salt fields.  And, of course, the Durian Roundabout named after the ‘Marmite-fruit’ Kampot is equally famous for.  Durian, you either love it or hate it.

As the durian season runs from mid-May to July, we have arrived a little late to ‘enjoy’ the fruit in all its olfactory and pungent glory… Not that this worries me; a fruit lover at heart, I have never developed any fondness for this tropical delicacy.  They rave about it in China and consider it a absolute delight in Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia, but hotels and Airbnb places in SE Asia forbid guests to bring the fruit into the accommodation.  Once the smell permeates the room, it lingers rather longer than one would wish.  Personally, I don’t know what is worse about the fruit: its taste, texture or smell…?   I only sampled it once, two summers ago in Malaysia, and was totally unimpressed: it was like chewing tasteless custard.  An experience I have felt unnecessary to repeat, as just like Marmite, durian divides folks into lovers and haters and I definitely belong to the latter group.

We book our Giant Ibis coach from Phnom Penh to Kampot through our hotel; dead simple.  After travelling though Vietnam on the Futa buses, we feel like pros at budget travel.  A four-hour trip at a drop of $10 in the lap of luxury: wifi, seatbelts, AC, legroom, charging points…  almost the same as travelling on the UK’s National Express coaches.  Only: no toilets!!  ‘At Giant Ibis Transport, we’re not fans of onboard toilets. They take up a lot of space and smell bad,’ their website explains, although they relent for the night buses…  Luckily for those with limited bladder capacity, or great thirst, the bus makes a couple of stops on the way…

Kampot is a tranquil town, nestled between the Elephant Mountains and the Praek Tuek Chhu river. Traffic is almost non-existent and once the ‘morning rush’ has passed, the streets empty as locals retreat to the comfort of cooler inside rooms.  Quaint buildings, a reminder of Kampot’s and Cambodia’s French colonial past, line the deserted streets. Women, head to toe protected from the blaring sun, pedal past, heaving baskets either side of the back seat of their bicycles.

The advantage of sparse traffic, and the miles of flat surface skirting the river, is that it makes the town and surrounding areas easily navigable by bicycle. Unfortunately, the cycling and kayaking trip we had booked with ‘WE’ was cancelled at the last minute by the tour company. A pity we missed out on joining a bicycle ride with local guides, but bicycle rental is widely available.

With Google Maps in hand, we set off on our own adventure. The tricky bit is finding a road-worthy bicycle… Flat tyres and unreliable brakes dictate that we do not venture too far out of town, just in case, and it doesn’t take too long for potholed tarmac roads to turn into dusty, orange tracks.

We follow the river, inland first, passing guesthouses where tourists can indulge in kayaking, paddle-boarding or swimming or just lazing about in the heat of the day. We plough on, trying to discover a bit of Cambodian real life and are rewarded with a glimpse of how those huge baskets on the back of bicycles are made. However, without a local guide to explain the details, we can only take photographs and guess the rest. English is not widely spoken in the Cambodian countryside.

Cycling along the river towards the Gulf of Thailand leads to the famous salt fields, which are mainly situated along the road between Kampot and Kep. When we are there, the place is totally abandoned. Some of the salt reservoirs are full of fresh water; it has been a particularly wet rainy season. During the dry season, from mid December to April, the fields are flooded with seawater. They are then sealed off to allow the water to evaporate, leaving behind the treasured salt crystals.

The Cambodia Natural Salt Production Exhibition Centre, or the Salt Museum, is only 5 minutes outside Kampot, on the road towards Kep.  Entry to the one-room museum is free and, as well as giving an overview of how the salt is harvested, you can buy some locally produced salt in 2 kg bags.. Rather too much salt to add to our travel essentials, so we’re giving this souvenir a miss.

http://www.kampot-cambodia.com/mainpages/PlacesinKampot/kampot-salt-museum.html

Pepper, on the other hand, is a different matter… Both cooking aficionados, Liz and I definitely find room in our bags for some samples of Kampot’s finest BoTree Farm pepper. Although ‘La Plantation’ seems to be the pepper farm on most tourists’ itineraries, we opt for BoTree Farm, enticed by the mouthwatering and delightfully piquant samples in BoTree’s shop in town as well as the packaging which looks so ‘Waitrose’ and exclusive … with price tags to match.

BoTree Farm is wholly owned by a Scottish-Cambodian family, according to their website. And indeed, during our visit, our guide elaborates further on how the Scotsman bought the farm and, together with his Cambodian wife and her family, gave it a new lease of life and a lucrative market back home in the UK. Another form of colonialism? Maybe, but Cambodia relies heavily on foreign investment to shed its poverty and the legacy of the Khmer Rouge. At least the pepper farm provides employment for locals, which is more than can be said of the China-run projects. Chinese investors are eagerly eyeing up this ‘needy’ country but definitely with more mercenary motives on their mind… (more about this in the next post on Bokor Mountain)

But what really makes our trip to the Pepper Farm exciting is travelling inland, deeper into the countryside, and watching people going about their daily life. After all Kampot is a town, and a tourist magnet for that with a liberal peppering of expats. Even our guesthouse, The Magic Sponge, is run by an expat American and his Cambodian wife… More Western than Cambodian food on the menu, but at least it guarantees good coffee for breakfast…

As we make our journey to and from the pepper farm, we pass the Secret Lake. Not secret because no one knows about it, but because of the secrets buried beneath, the peaceful surface belying the atrocities perpetrated during its construction. The lake is not a natural lake, but formed by a dam built with the hard labour and lives of prisoners and locals who were made to dig the reservoir with hand tools by the Khmer Rouge. No one knows how many people died and are buried underneath the vast expanse of water. Another macabre heirloom from the Pol Pot regime.

We get back to Kampot in the early evening to enjoy a short cruise on the river and watch sundown. It may not be the most spectacular sunset I have ever witnessed, but still a pleasant way to spend a few hours.

Nothing can prepare you for The Killing Fields of Cambodia.

21st-22nd September 2018

Nothing can prepare you for The Killing Fields.

I’d seen some of the movies; I’d read some books. But no versions of the truth made more palatable and less gruesome for the wide-screen audience, or left to avid readers’ vivid imagination, come anywhere close to walking through the grounds where so many Cambodians were brutally and mercilessly executed during the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot.  There are several such sites within Cambodia, but the best-known mass grave of victims of the Khmer Rouge, Choeung Ek, is situated about 17 kilometres south of Phnom Penh. 

Having barely digested the horrors of the Vietnam War after visiting the Cu Chi tunnels and the War Remnants Museum in Saigon only a few days before, Liz and I set off early on a grey morning, befitting our sombre destination.  It is not something we look forward to, but a must.  As a matter of fact, the Cambodian government and the ECCC (Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia(*)) encourage visits to The Killing Fields and former prisons such as Tuol Sleng: a lesson in history to prevent similar atrocities in the future.

Set in a former orchard and Chinese graveyard, the now peaceful surroundings belie the cruelty of the site’s recent history.  Numerous dips in the greenery mark the mass graves excavated to date; a polite notice reminds us not to stray of the paths, lest we should step on not-yet uncovered or recovered remains.  Human bones still litter the site, as during every rainy season more bones and skulls are exposed when the gush of the downpours washes away soil.

We walk through the grounds in silence, accompanied by the words of a former Khmer Rouge guard, narrating his story through the headphones of our audio guide.  And you cannot stop wondering about those guards’ humanity.  How can one human being inflict such gratuitous horror onto another human being?  But often Khmer Rouge cadres and officers themselves only had one stark choice: obey the orders or be at the receiving end themselves.

But no more macabre a legacy than the Killing Tree.  Whereas adult prisoners were executed in all kinds of cruel manners whilst loud music blared out of loudspeakers to muffle the cries and moans, small children were killed by bashing their heads against the tree as their mothers were made to watch.  Bullets were expensive and the noise of gun shots could be heard outside the perimeter of the camp, so the executioners availed themselves of whatever tools they could lay their hands on.

Today, Choeung Ek is a memorial marked by a buddhist stupa, housing many of the skeletal remains found in the mass graves.  The stupa has acrylic glass sides and is filled with more than 5,000 human skulls.  Many have been shattered or smashed in.

Buddhist monks regularly attend the stupa to pray for the souls of the thousands of victims, joined by visitors and relatives of the people who perished there. It is a solemn moment and you cannot help being swept up in its enormity.  The sheer scale of the genocide, in which around a quarter of the Cambodian population was exterminated, and the horrific manner in which it was carried out, are overwhelming.

Although most tour packages in Phnom Penh combine a visit to The Killing Fields with a tour of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Liz and I decide not to take up our tuk-tuk driver’s offer for taking us there in the afternoon.  Somehow it seems too much to bear in one day and we cannot stomach it.

With only a few days for Phnom Penh on our itinerary, we walk to the Genocide Museum the next day. It’s not far from our hotel and gives us time to muster up the courage…

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is set in a former secondary school, the Chao Ponhea Yat High School, and was used by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise in power in 1975 to its fall in 1979 as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21).  In that time, at least 20,000 people were detained and tortured there until they signed confessions to ‘crimes’ they never committed before being sent to the killing fields of Choeung Ek. Tuol Sleng, an education centre turned into an interrogation centre, was just one of at least 150 such torture and execution centres. 

At first, most of the victims were from the previous, ousted Lon Nol regime and included soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers.  In fact, anyone who was deemed to have had an education or understood a foreign language was regarded as the enemy. An estimated 90% of artists, intellectuals and teachers were killed in an effort to return the country to “Year Zero” – Pol Pot’s vision of a classless, agrarian society.  Later, the Khmer Rouge leaders’ paranoia turned to its own members; country-wide purges resulted in thousands of party activists,  including some high-ranking communist politicians,  and their families being brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered.

To ensure prisoners could not escape, the school buildings were encircled by barbed wire and windows were fitted with metal bars.  Some classrooms were divided into tiny individual cells for special prisoners; others had iron shackles fixed to the floors to stop detainees from being able to move around as they were crowded into the space.   Some classroom were used as torture chambers; the metal bed frames only meant to tie prisoners down whilst being beaten… 

The purpose of the torture, which included any means imaginable but too horrific to describe here, was to extract confessions, not to kill.  Most prisoners would remain incarcerated at S-21 for about two or three months, others who were deemed more ‘valuable’ might have survived longer.  All were continuously subjected to torture.  Medical treatment was administered for the sole purpose of keeping people alive until they had signed their confession. Most were subsequently murdered in The Killing Fields, killed by a team of teenage executioners.  Only a handful survived.

Photograph taken just after the Vietnamese liberation of Phnom Penh. Many S-21 prisoners were killed in the last few hours before the Vietnamese entered the prison.

As the Vietnamese troops closed in to liberate Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, the guards did not want to leave any loose ends or witnesses.  Some prisoners were taken along with them; others were executed where they lay. 

Only seven adult prisoners are known to have survived the Khmer Rouge imprisonment in S-21. One of the survivors, a car mechanic, believes he was spared because his skills were useful; another survivor, Bou Meng, was an artist and had painted a portrait of Pol Pot himself. Both are still alive and spend every day in the centre to remind people of what happened. They even have a little stall outside where they make a modest living selling their autobiographies. Inside, Bou Meng’s paintings of the brutal torture methods make a chilling contribution to the exhibits in a room dedicated to the instruments of torture used by the Khmer Rouge.

A painting by Bou Meng © Kirstie Brewer (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-33096971)

The most haunting room of the Museum houses a gallery of portraits. Row upon row of countless headshots taken of the prisoners when they first arrived. Men, women, teenagers, children. I did not take any photographs; it felt disrespectful at the time. But ultimately, it is their only legacy and the only way in which their stories can be told and their voices be heard. Whatever happened to each one of them afterwards has been lost to the whispers and anonymity of the mass graves of The Killing Fields. One can barely imagine the horrors.

Source: AFP (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-33096971)

If Liz and I had felt unsettled after our visit to Choeung Ek, coming face to face with the depravity of man at Tuol Sleng is even more disturbing. And still, as one of the survivors of S-21 remarked in an interview for the BBC News Magazine: “If those guards hadn’t tortured a false confession out of me, they would have been executed – I can’t say I would have behaved any differently [in their position]” ( https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-33096971 ).

(*) ECCC: The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, commonly known as the Cambodia Tribunal or Khmer Rouge Tribunal, is a court established in 1997 to try the most senior responsible members of the Khmer Rouge for alleged violations of international law and serious crimes perpetrated during the Cambodian genocide. To date only three former Khmer Rouge leaders have been convicted and sentenced. Most of those responsible for the killings, including Pol Pot, died before they could be tried.

On 16th November 2018, an article in The Guardian online read :

The two most senior Khmer Rouge leaders still alive today have been found guilty of genocide, almost 40 years since Pol Pot’s brutal communist regime fell, in a verdict followed by millions of Cambodians.

Nuon Chea, 92, who was second-in-command to Pol Pot, and Khieu Samphan, 87, who served as head of state, were both sentenced to life imprisonment for genocide and crimes against humanity carried out between 1977 and 1979, in what is a landmark moment for the Khmer Rouge tribunals. The pair are already serving life sentences for crimes against humanity.

As senior figures in the Khmer regime, the court declared both men responsible for murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation imprisonment, torture, persecution on religious, racial and political grounds, enforced disappearances and mass rape through the state policy of forced marriages .‘ […..]

[In 2010] the first life sentence was handed to Kaing Guek Eav, known as Comrade Duch, who ran S-21 concentration camp in Phnom Penh where at least 14,000 people were tortured and killed. In 2014, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were then found guilty of crimes against humanity.

Their second trial, for genocide and mass rape, drew to a close in June last year but the verdict has taken 18 months to reach by the panel of three Cambodian and two international judges.’

(read the full article at : https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/16/khmer-rouge-leaders-genocide-charges-verdict-cambodia)

Sights of Phnom Penh

(19th – 23rd September 2018)

Silver Pagoda inside the Royal Palace grounds, Phnom Penh

The man behind the desk looks up, unsmiling, my passport in his hands.  ‘Visa cancelled.  Why?’  It doesn’t sound like a question, more like an accusation.   ‘You overstay your visa?’

Liz and I have made it to the Giant Ibis office in Saigon, the bus company recommended by one of my colleagues for our border crossing from Vietnam to Cambodia.  We are both a little on edge.  Experienced travelers indeed, but having been spoilt in previous lives, we are more accustomed to border hopping via the air and are pretty adept at negotiating the trials and tribulations of immigration at airports.  Travelling on a shoestring and with adventure in mind, this is new territory for us, but for a fare of around $20 to get us to Phnom Penh, a land crossing is a no-brainer.

I sigh, it’s a sore point…  The man’s job is to inspect our passports before we board the bus to ensure there are no hiccups at the border post.

‘Are you from immigration?’  I retort.  ‘Please look at my visa, you will see it is/was valid until November…  I finished my contract and my boss insisted on cancelling my visa… Apparently it’s the law.’  Strange that in this instance the letter of the law should have been invoked when it had been flaunted on numerous occasions in the past, depending upon whose needs it suited… 

Way back in November 2017, before signing my contract and paying for yet another visa at $150 a pop, I had been reassured that with this new visa I would have plenty of time to travel after finishing my 1-year contract in early September 2018.  Plenty of time to explore Vietnam at leisure, I had thought, as the visa did not expire until 11th November 2018.  Only just a couple weeks before I was due to leave and was in the throes of finalizing details with Liz, it transpired that, at best, I could hope for a two-week period of grace at the mercy of the local immigration officers to be granted on my final day of work…

Oh, I was given a choice alright…  ‘Either I cancel the visa and you take the two weeks, or you leave and travel longer in Vietnam.  You let me know when you have left the country, and then I will inform the authorities that you have left your job without permission, but you may find it difficult to get a work permit in the future…  The contract you signed ends in November…’ Not a choice at all really, unless I have no intention of ever working in Vietnam again…  I’ve fallen victim again of the vagaries of SE Asian contract negotiations.. It isn’t worth the argument, so Liz and I adjust our plans to exit Vietnam no later than 19th September, my passport emblazoned with the offending cancellation stamps all over every Vietnamese visa…

Back in the office, the Giant Ibis man eyes me with suspicion, then relents and nods his head as I hand over my $25 Cambodia visa fee, plus the obligatory $5 to ease our way out of Vietnam and into the next country.  We pile onto the Giant Ibis coach and settle in for a comfortable ride, mobile phone charging points at our disposal, complementary bottled water and Blue Pumpkin pastry snack provided. 

At the Vietnamese border, we disembark and join the long queue of people leaving Vietnam…  The immigration officer is in no hurry and seems to have a penchant for solo travelers, or small groups of travellers, whose passports have been boosted with a few dollars inside.  We wait, and wait… and, finally, when lunch time approaches and our line has dwindled to just the Giant Ibis passengers, the immigration officer slowly picks up our stack of passports.  Clearly the extra $5 we paid in Saigon does nothing to speed up our departure from Vietnam.  Luckily, entering Cambodia proves less of an ordeal and we are on our way to Phnom Penh in no time. 

After Saigon, Phnom Penh is an oasis of calm.  Gone are the clogged roads heaving with the exhaust fumes from motorbikes and cars, gone are our mad dashes across the road when motorists ignore traffic lights and crossing the road on foot becomes a game of Russian roulette.  Although it may be that our hotel is in one of the quieter neighbourhoods of the city; we are after all but a stroll away from the mighty Mekong River and most of the sightseeing highlights that Phnom Penh has to offer. 

View from the rooftop swimming pool and bar area of our hotel
Mekong River at night
Independence Monument in the evening
Moonlight Pavilion, inside the Royal Palace grounds
Wat Phnom in Phnom Penh, suitably disguised as was our luck…

Still, when my friend Andy asks me a few months later, ‘What’s different about Cambodia anyway?’, I struggle to immediately put my finger on it.  A seasoned traveller himself, Andy has previously visited Vietnam, but given Cambodia the cold shoulder.  ‘Surely, being neighbours with similar histories, they must be much the same..’  he surmises.  However, sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam, the country has such a different feel to it: a slower pace as tuktuk taxis rather than Grab motorbikes take passengers across town;

ubiquitous saffron-robed monks wielding yellow umbrellas keep the Buddhism vibe in full view;

Wats and pagodas dotted around the city resemble those in Thailand rather than the ones in Vietnam;

we discover Western style coffee… all Arabica, just as Liz likes. And to be honest, although I have grown accustomed to Vietnamese style coffee, there is nothing like a ‘normal’ cup of coffee to start the day ;

People are friendly and smile.  And of course, I’m on holiday rather than being irritated by a ‘saving face’ and work ethics culture that remains alien to me…  I smile a lot, I laugh a lot.  Cambodia is a much-needed tonic.

New country, new currency to get familiar with of course.  As always, I have not given it much thought, relying on the hole in the wall (or ATMs) and my currency card.   As a matter of fact, I have no idea what Cambodian currency looks like and on my first attempt to lay my hands on some at an ATM, I am bitterly disappointed to be presented with a stack of US dollars…  Foreigners cannot withdraw Cambodian Riel, it transpires!  Although it comes as a bit of a surprise, in the end it does not matter a hoot because in practice, Cambodia uses a mixture of US dollars and their own currency: big amounts in dollars and change in Riel..  It makes perfect sense once you get the hang of it, but Liz struggles with the concept for a few days…  Granted, she has only just mastered the conversion rate of Vietnamese Dong to British Pounds.  After a while, we just stop calculating…  Seems simpler that way, although not necessarily prudent on a tight budget..

The days are hot and sultry and heavy evening downpours are conveniently just that: short lived and timely; they hardly interrupt our tourist ventures. We live in shorts and strappy t-shirts and forget to pack tourist essentials in our day packs… Not sun cream or sun hats, but sarongs and shawls to cover legs and knees and to drape over naked shoulders… Whereas most establishments, including Buddhist temples, seem rather forgiving, not so the Royal Palace. Although many parts of the Palace grounds are open to the public, it is still the official royal residence. No admittance unless suitably attired. Of course, you can buy the necessary garments at the entrance, but at the exorbitant prices and ‘do we really need another t-shirt in our luggage?’, we turn back and decide to give this auspicious complex a miss. At least Liz does. We retreat to the hotel and, whereas Liz opts for an afternoon near the pool, I get changed abiding by the dress code and walk back and spend an hour meandering through the impressive sprawling grounds and gardens: a sanctuary of greenery tucked between the mishmash of buildings and dwellings in the area.

On our last day in Phnom Penh, we make it to the Russian Market.  Not that we are particularly enamoured with kitsch-laden markets plying tourist with cheap trinkets, having already sampled the night market in town which turned out rather disappointing.  Still, the tacky tourist stuff aside, the main attraction is exploring the diverse quarters of the market where hairdressers, beauticians, dressmakers, butchers, etc all rub shoulders. A little glimpse into Cambodian life, not so different from Vietnam after all.

The Stuff of Nightmares.

On the darker side of teaching English abroad…

‘What are you running away from?’ a fellow teacher asked.  I had only recently arrived in Hangzhou, a fresher on the ESL-teacher scene in China.  It seemed a strange question, and a strange introduction.  ‘You watch these young teachers…  They are not here for the love of teaching English,’ he added. 

And admittedly, he had a fair point.  With a few exceptions of course, for many the ‘teaching-in-China’ episode is hardly part of a well-laid career plan.  More of an option for those in limbo after graduating with a dead-end degree and poor career – or no career – prospects in a home country.  Although I did not exactly fit into that category age- or career-wise, my life certainly felt like the fast road to nowhere and at least a change of scenery was bound to make the ride more palatable.  It was early days and I was filled with the optimism of the novice!  I am discounting India here; being the only white face in a small hamlet in Kerala meant I missed out on any immersion in the world of expats, ‘teaching expats’ in particular.  The few brushes with the wider world beyond the village only happened during my monthly visits to Varkala, the latest hip town with the hippy vibe, an awesome beach and decent coffee…

On the bright side, Hangzhou had a lively expat community, mostly populated by a teaching fraternity and a spatter of businessmen and women employed in the diverse world of manufacturing, engineering, banking or accounting.   In other words, one of the more desirable places to hang about for a while, rather than being farmed out to more rural and remote areas of China.  ESL agencies and schools in Hangzhou had the pick of the teachers’ bunch, preferring white and young above experience, qualifications and even the ability to speak English.  Still, at least most of the undesirables and incompetents were quickly weeded out and replaced from the rich pool of available and keen talent.  Of course, there were stories… but they were far and few between and mostly about contract-related disputes between agencies/schools and foreign employees.  In a country where everyone is under permanent CCTV scrutiny, not much goes unnoticed and unpunished without the leverage of backhanders.  Deportations abound.

Fast forward to working in one of the less affluent states in Vietnam.  On my arrival, the language school had just survived a major staffing crisis and fresh blood had been hastily drafted in to cover the unexpected avalanche of vacancies…  With an hourly pay rate for ESL teachers way below the national average and a workload well in excess of the national average, applications were scarce on the ground.  For me the only redeeming factors were the school’s proximity to the beach and the mirage of a social life: surely communal living on the school premises and organized trips would be conducive to having a bit of fun and interaction?  And of course, there was also the minor issue that I needed a job…

Being a little short-staffed, I had been put under pressure to get to the language school early, five days before I was due to start teaching.  It took me only a few days to seriously consider desertion.  My room was a claustrophobic nightmare with no window to the outside world, the poorly equipped communal kitchen a germ factory of piled up, unwashed dishes and festering leftovers hogging the only two pots at our disposal.  A descent into the horrors of a student life I had left behind decades ago… 

And then there was my first encounter with J, one of the recent recruits and about to emerge from his stint of probation.  My induction kicked off with two days of unpaid observation of J’s teaching.  Unpaid???  Obviously, this was never mentioned in the interview… I let it wash over me, but silently rued the days of exploring Vietnam I had given up for this.  The first day, Sunday, I lived through seven and a half hours of non-teaching, the unmistakable whiff of alcohol intensifying as the day wore on.  Whilst I was asked to supervise the students playing games with balloons and being engaged in other questionable ‘educational’ activities, J. disappeared from the classroom for multiple extended breaks…   

Dread engulfed me at the prospect of spending another four and a half hours in that classroom the next day.  I dutifully turned up but drew the line at being instructed by J. to do some team-teaching, or me teaching and him observing or learning more likely…

‘No way,’ I insisted, ‘I’m not being paid for this…’

‘You will regret this,’ his words blasted across the ethanol vapours. ‘I am a secret manager and I have special powers. I don’t want you in my classroom and I will report you to ‘Xxx’ for insubordination.’  (Xxx being the owner of the language school and our actual boss…)

Granted, I had refused to stay in his previous lesson, a one-to-one.  Instead of focusing on teaching the student, he had proposed discussing the lessons I would be covering whilst he and his Vietnamese wife, Mrs J., flew off to Bangkok for a visa run.  Professionalism got the better of me… Surely talking through a handover should not be done during lessons.  How old fashioned of me…

My suitcase barely unpacked I was all set for a return to Hanoi but a few laughs with colleagues over a beer and dinner persuaded me to at least give it a bit more time. 

‘Watch our words,’ they reassured me, ‘he won’t last.  Xxx knows very well what goes on in the classroom.  She just needs to find a replacement.’   

‘You can move into my room,’ another one tagged on. ‘I leave at the end of September.’  At least her room was spacious and had massive windows with fresh air wafting through. A promise of some improvement on the bleak horizon.

For a few weeks, all was well.  J and I taught in classrooms on different floors and, when our paths crossed in the kitchen, exchanged polite conversation.  Mrs J, aloof and reticent, refrained from chatting to any of the foreign teachers, although her English was deemed good enough to work as an English teacher at the centre, a position she relished. The recycling bin regularly overflowed with empty beer cans and bottles but those of us with a sense of responsibility and community took turns dealing with the debris.   

Nevertheless, the kitchen remained a battle ground as nothing was more irritating than having to wash up other people’s pots and pans before being able to start preparing your own meal.  And as you may well have guessed, J and his wife were some of the main culprits.  ‘Of course we will wash up our things, as and when WE feel like it…  If you don’t like it, maybe you should not be living here…’  So much for being considerate.

It was however in one of such moments that I disposed of a pot of rice that had been inviting bacteria on the counter for a day or two.  Provenance of the rice unknown and in dire need of sustenance and a clean cooking vessel, I put the rice where it belonged: in the bin. I didn’t have the time nor the energy to knock on doors to find out whose rice it was. It was an impulse that would come back to haunt me, but not until later, weeks later…

By the end of October, rumours were rife, J being the source of the whispers that were spreading like wildfire: he had handed in his notice, just a matter of deciding a convenient date; Xxx had decided not to renew his contract; he had better job offers elsewhere.  Versions varied but the gist was clear: J and his wife were in the throes of their last swan song…  The building heaved a sigh of relief!

When a sudden drastic time table revision was emailed to me and I inherited 50% of J’s classes, I logically assumed the gossip was true and J was indeed about to pack his bags.  I did not often find myself alone in the kitchen with Mrs J, but that day I did and curiosity got the better of me. 

‘I hear you’re leaving soon,’ I said.

She looked up, shocked and antagonistic. ‘It’s not true.  Who told you that?’

‘Hmmm….  Your husband has been telling everyone for days now… and I have been asked to take over many of his classes.  I just wondered…’  I continued hesitantly, sensing that maybe Mrs J had not been privy to the information that was doing the rounds.  The rift between the pair over whether to stay at the school or not was very well known to all of us: she wanted in; he wanted out or pretended it was his choice to leave.

‘It’s not true.  You’re lying.  We’re not going anywhere,’ she maintained.

‘That’s great,’ I added.  ‘I will speak to Xxx and ask her not to change my timetable; no need if J is not leaving…’

The conversation seemed innocent enough, but sparked a chain of events that quickly spiraled out of control.

I did indeed have a meeting with Xxx and refused to take over J’s classes.  Had there been any complaints about MY teaching?  I tried to broach the subject of J’s teaching when I observed him in early September, but this was not deemed important and brushed under the carpet. The thought of some of my younger students ending up in a classroom with J horrified me.  Too young to understand the reality, they obviously would not complain to their parents. Nevertheless, I agreed to swap one of my classes with J; parents had threatened to pull out their children unless J was no longer their teacher. 

The next day, I walked into the kitchen and found the walls covered in abusive messages written by J’s wife, all aimed at me.  Three weeks after throwing out a small amount of rice, it suddenly became a hot issue… I carefully removed the paper from the wall and offered amends.  Did she want me to cook some rice for her…? The messages on the walls continued and became more aggressive.  What on earth was she talking about?  Was this really about a bowl of rice that three weeks before did not even raise an eyebrow?  In the meantime my food in the kitchen gradually disappeared.  Anything labelled with my name went down the sink and in the bin, the empties left on the shelf as a clear message.  Trying to defuse the situation I did not react and moved anything still unopened, and therefore not spiked or spoiled, into my room…  Could I be sure that my half-filled jar of peanut butter was still fit for human consumption???

Roll on Friday, my day off, when things really started to escalate.  Being in the kitchen on my own, I was preparing my evening meal whilst most of the other teachers were in their classrooms. Windows perpetually open to allow some fresh air, what ensued was witnessed by many teachers and students.  J and his wife turned up in the kitchen.  I stood in silence as I was caught in the middle of their explosive domestic over whether or not they would be leaving soon, whilst J., entirely for my benefit, tried to persuade his screaming wife that the bowl of rice was not important.  Every time I attempted to leave, my escape route was barred by J., looking at me menacingly.   

Feeling uneasy throughout, it was his parting message that made chills run along my spine.

‘Can I have a word with you?’  He stopped me in my tracks and wedged against the fridge, the smile on his lips belying the threat conveyed in his message.

‘You fuck with my wife, I will fuck with you.  We will make your life here hell and you will be glad to leave… You mark my words.’

What I witnessed was not reasonable behaviour by any standards but it was hard to decide who of the two was behaving the more psychopathic.  All of this over a bowl of rice??  Or was it because I inadvertently made Mrs J aware of the fact that all was not well with J’s job prospects at the centre and I was the scapegoat for refusing to put my young students at risk?? 

As the whole episode had echoed within the walls of the school through the open windows and had piqued the curiosity of both staff and students, one of my colleagues sent a message to the boss, who unfortunately was out of town for a few days.  There was no response.  That evening, over a couple of beers to steady my nerves, it was decided that I should never be in the kitchen on my own as long as J and his wife were still at the school.  It was a comfort to know that the rest of the teachers were on my side!

Saturday morning, the circus continued.  My first class was with very young learners, four and five-year olds.  The lesson had barely started when Mrs J burst in ranting and raving and screaming abuse at me.  The previous night’s ambush in the kitchen was bad enough, but this outpouring of venom in front of my young students was not just outrageous, it was also very frightening.  In the end, I had to lock my classroom door and ask the office staff to keep an eye on Mrs J.  She was spending the morning in her husband’s classroom whilst he was ‘teaching’ and concocting the next step of intimidation.

Saturday lunch time, Mr and Mrs J took up residence in the kitchen.  Being one of our busier days, I normally ate out, but had arranged to meet one of the teachers near the kitchen.  Another barrage of insults headed my way.  Luckily J’s attempt to involve other teachers in their attacks were quickly rebuked. 

‘We are quite capable of making up our own mind,’ they said.

In the afternoon, I answered a knock on my door to find Mrs J waiting.  Although she seemed much calmer and composed, the message remained the same.  ‘Give me back my rice, give me back my food!’  ‘’What food are you talking about?  It was a bit of rice…’  I thought it wiser not to mention my food that had mysteriously vanished.  Since I had not actually witnessed it, there was no evidence Mr and Mrs J were the culprits but suspicions ran deep…

Later that afternoon, I went to the kitchen to get some fruit out of the fridge.  Mrs J followed close on my heels and blocked my way to the kitchen sink. 

‘Don’t come near me,’ she warned.

‘I need to get something from the sink,’ I dared carefully. 

She turned to the sink herself, picked up a knife and swiveled around facing me knife pointed…  In fairness to her, at the time she was holding a papaya, so it could have been entirely innocent, but it made my blood run cold. 

Luckily, the next day Xxx arrived back into the office, and alerted to the volatile nature of happenings in the teachers’ block, she called me into the office.  If I had expected any sympathy from her, I was in for a surprise…  Whilst I had waited for the storm to pass, Mr and Mrs J had been busy feeding their side of the story to the boss and suddenly the inflammatory outburst from Friday began to make sense…  I was no longer accused of throwing out a bowl of rice, but food Mr and Mrs J bought in the supermarket Friday morning. 

‘What food??  I threw out some rice a few weeks ago that was left on the counter.  We needed to cook…  I haven’t thrown anything else out.  By the way, my food has been disappearing…’   But Mrs J was Vietnamese, and I was not.  Ultimately, saving face would always prevail over honesty and apart from Mrs J’s vile intrusion into my classroom, most encounters had happened when no one else was in sight.  J was clever, a master of manipulation and his wife perfect putty in his hands.  I had to give them that…

‘I cannot get involved in what goes on in the teachers’ block.  It is not my responsibility…’ Xxx maintained.  Really?  None of us other teachers had the means or authority to ask Mr and Mrs J to leave.  ‘Anyway, keep your cool.  J will be leaving at the end of November, he has been given notice…’

‘Another whole month?  In any Western country, the police would have been called and Mrs J would have been removed from the premises with a restraining order to keep her away from me.  Especially after barging into my classroom and scaring all the students…’  

I resigned myself to the situation. Ironically, just a few days before I had finally, against my better judgement, signed the contract and tied myself to the school in the spirit of ‘better the devil you know, than the one you don’t.’ But then again, I am not the type to be allow myself to be bullied by the likes of Mr and Mrs J, so I decided to keep my head down and ride out the storm.

I can only thank the quick wit of one of my colleagues that the whole episode had a speedy and positive outcome.  The next day, another encounter happened in the kitchen when both Mr and Mrs J cornered me yet again.  On hearing the noise and shouting, N came to the kitchen and videoed part of the altercation on his phone.  As soon as the warring couple were aware of the camera, they retreated to the privacy of their room.  

Incensed at being caught on camera, Mrs J took action and demanded a meeting with Xxx where she insisted the police be called to deal with the matter of the video.  As most of us were in our classrooms at the time, no one witnessed the discussion that took place between Mr J, Mrs J and Xxx.  Suffice it to say that Mrs J’s way of acting resulted in the immediate dismissal of both Mr and Mrs J…  Maybe once Xxx had had her own measure of the irrational behaviour at first hand, she could understand my point and what I had been subjected to.

In our subsequent meeting that evening, Xxx explained the situation.  Of course, she had needed to intervene, she had a care of duty to her foreign teachers.  This clearly had not been a pressing matter the day before…  Could it have been the spectre of a less than flattering video circulating on social media and potentially harming her and the school’s reputation that made her change her mind??  Or am I being cynical?  N was also called into the office and was requested to delete the damaging footage…

On his last day in the building, J. came to see me.  He apologized and brought me a present: a calendar for 2018.  It was the 31st of October and Halloween.  Did I, in the coming year, really need daily reminders of the events of the last few days?

About a week later, around midnight, several teachers received an email from J.  He would be visiting town shortly, bringing some friends and showering us with presents..  We all sensed the Clockwork Orange shadow of Alex.  J was a knowledgeable film buff after all.

Luckily there was no visit, but it took several weeks before I felt safe enough not to look over my shoulder when leaving the cocoon of the school’s premises and my home in Vietnam.

PS.  Please rest assured that this tale is an aberration.  The majority of teachers are honest, hardworking, law-abiding and sane.   But of course, there are the ‘characters’, life would be boring without them.  Luckily their stories are more often than not hilarious and have become the legends we reminisce about.  Just this one had a particularly nasty and personal streak to it for me.

Unfortunately, although the ESL teacher scene is sobering up as government requirements and checks increase, the demand for suitably qualified and experienced foreign teachers outstrips the supply.  Some dubious individuals still manage to slip through the net, especially in jobs with less attractive terms or in less desirable locations…

Borneo: the kindness of perfect strangers…

I leave Nepal with only the vaguest of plans: breeze through Kuala Lumpur as a starter, have my fill of adventure on Malaysian Borneo, followed by a week of relaxation in Malacca for afters…  To be garnished with detail when in situ. 

‘Anything lined up for Borneo?  Heading into the jungle?’ a fellow traveler asks when we lounge at the breakfast table in my Pokhara hostel, weeks earlier.  All flights booked before setting off on my three-month journey, accommodation to be arranged last minute as per usual, my mind is foggy about the minutiae.  I have yet to conquer Base Camp Everest at that point and somehow my imagination is blocked by that monumental obstacle that seems to be commandeering my every waking breath.  In Pokhara, I cannot yet contemplate life post-EBC.

‘Nope,’ I admit.  ‘Haven’t made any plans beyond ‘no plans to climb Kota Kinabalu’…’  Uncharacteristically, prudence has ruled my head and I thought it wise not to book another strenuous hike in the immediate aftermath of The Hike.  I resolve to go with the flow, see what trips are available at the time and what I can fit into the one week I have allowed for the Borneo adventure.

It proves to be an error!!  Borneo may only be an island but it is a massive island which Malaysia shares with Indonesia and ‘The Nation of Brunei, The Abode of Peace’.   With dwindling finances and limited space – or more precisely ‘no space’ – left in my passport for collecting stamps, I decide to leave Sarawak for a future trip and focus on Sabah instead.  Travel by bus between the two Malaysian states on Borneo is very much possible, but involves multiple encounters with Malaysian and Bruneian border officials and inevitable passport embellishments along the route.  Definitely a no-no, my passport screams out!

I have booked a private room through Airbnb, cheap and cheerful, on the outskirts of the city of Kota Kinabalu in a less touristy area but within walking distance of the beach.  November is not exactly the high season on Borneo, so I am the only guest..  Not what I was hoping for, but, after making peace with sound explosions at ungodly hours emanating from neighbouring Kota Kinabalu International airport, at least I do not have to share kitchen and bathroom facilities with anyone else.  On the downside, no one to exchange travel experiences and tips with, so I resort to reading the brochures in my room, online travel blogs and Tripadvisor reviews when the internet speed allows.

Borneo has so many great trips and exciting activities, I am overwhelmed by choice and lack of time.  Do I opt for a day of white-water rafting?  Have another go at scuba diving or more sedate snorkeling amongst abundant exotic corals? Visit Snake Island and the mud volcanoes on Pulau Tiga? And what about the tempting river cruise through the jungle?  A two or three-day jungle trek in Kota Kinabalu National Park is quickly discounted, I simply have not given myself enough time… Also, many of the trips can only be booked with a minimum of two people, and some involve traveling to different parts of Sabah first..  To make the most of Sabah, I should have stayed at least a month on the island and forged some alliances with other single travelers to be able to take part in the more adventurous trips…

In the end, I opt for the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sepilok, near Sandakan on the Eastern side of Borneo.  Let’s face it, there will be other snorkeling, scuba diving, jungle trekking and river cruising opportunities in different parts of the world, but places for a face-to-face rendezvous with the Jungle VIP in the wild are shrinking as we speak and breathe..  Only, Sandakan is a six-hour bus ride away, or a short 45-minute flight.  With time of the essence, the more scenic drive across the country loses out on the more practical air travel.  And relying on the wisdom of fellow explorers, I don’t intend to waste money on an organized tour at the other end; taxis are easy to get hold of and if I’m lucky to find some company, I can even save on the fare…

At Sandakan airport I order a Grab – the Uber of the East – straight to the town of Sepilok and the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, where sightings of the ‘man of the forest’ are orchestrated to the tune of its hungry stomach.  The purpose of the centre is to prepare orphaned, injured or rescued orangutans for independent life in the jungle, a process which can take several years whilst trainers teach survival skills such as foraging for food, nest building, grooming, the art of tree swinging and other jungle essentials.

The drive to Sepilok is a 15 km long jaunt through the middle of nowhere, to the middle of nowhere…   Trees in abundance line the roads but buildings and other signs of human life are far and few between.  I wonder slightly about my return later on in the day, 25 km to Sandakan..  How many Grab drivers will want to pick up a ride that far out of town? The Tripadvisor reviewer had not added any info on that part but, being on the optimistic side, I quickly dismiss my disquiet: something will turn up, it always does.  And indeed, at the ticket counter I spot a bus time table and a quick confirmation from the sales girl settles my doubts.  I have until four pm when the orange and white mini bus arrives at the car park and ferries visitors all the way back to Sandakan.  Who needs taxis when there is a bus service…?

At the rehabilitation centre, an indoor viewing platform looks out at the orangutan playground where twice a day adult, teenage and baby orangutans entertain visitors with acrobatics and antics on their way to the feeding stations.  No better place for a bit of fun, socializing and sibling bickering than at a dinner table laden with effort-free grub.  A second outdoor platform attracts not just more mature and jungle-primed orangutans, but also long-tailed macaques who are clearly the real Jungle VIPs.  What the macaques lack in size is made up by the unveiled aggression of the dominant male monkey.  With a few threatening growls and a vicious baring of teeth, it quickly cows the much larger hairy apes into retreat to higher branches, wistfully eyeing the bunches of bananas handed around the greedy macaque troop. Only the last scraps are left for the orangutans.

After an amusing few hours watching orangutans, and sun bears in the conservation centre opposite, I venture to the car park to wait for the bus.  Better be on the early side and at the front of the queue; it is Sunday after all and the park is busy.  I sit and watch, and wait, and wait a little more… Slowly cars start drifting away, pre-arranged taxis cram in their passengers and disappear, a lone taxi driver tries his luck touting for customers and soon purrs happily into the distance.  I wait stoically as four o’clock comes and goes and the car park drains of human presence.   A park attendant saunters my way and asks whether I have a taxi arranged.  He shakes his head when I explain that I was hoping the bus would make an appearance soon…  ‘Ah,’ he sighs, ‘the bus only comes if it still has empty seats..  If it isn’t here yet, it probably won’t come..’  Incredulous, I groan, ‘You’re telling me now…’   It looks like I may be spending the night in the company of the orangutans who get free reign across all parts of the park at night, including the car park…

The attendant walks off studying the few remaining cars.  ‘Give me a minute,’ he reassures me, ‘I have found a Grab car.  Let me have a word with the driver.’  The news is not promising.  The Grab driver is enjoying a day off and is visiting the centre with his own family, a full car load..  Whilst I ponder a plan B, the Grab driver turns up, family in tow: wife, mother and aunt…  ‘Let me phone a friend,’ he offers, but even his taxi friends are not up for the trip as there are more lucrative Grab journeys for grabs closer to town.  In the end, all other avenues exhausted, his mother and aunt shuffle up and I squeeze into the back seat.  As it happens, the Grab driver lives in Sandakan, so he is heading in my direction anyway and does not want to leave me stranded… Plus picking up a tourist gives him the opportunity to practise his self-taught English.

‘Do you have anything planned for tomorrow?’ Grab driver enquires…  Labuk Bay, the Proboscis Monkey sanctuary, has crossed my mind.  A relaxed half day trip before catching my flight back to Kota Kinabalu.  ‘It is a bit further than Sepilok, so make sure you arrange a return taxi this time,’ he recommends, as he passes me his phone number and offers his services.  Of course, how can I refuse and not repay his kindness?

The Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary turns out to be an interesting place, a safe haven for another species on the verge of extinction.  Privately-owned and located within a palm oil estate, the centre has two feeding platforms from which to observe these rather nosy creatures…  The Proboscis Monkeys may well be the main reason for the centre’s existence, but it’s the Silverleaf monkeys that steal the show when I am there.  Imagine having the cutest orange baby, the envy of the rest of the troop. Imagine being that cutest orange baby and being passed around the aunties, uncles, grandmas and other nosy creatures to have a good sniff and inspection… Baby boy or baby girl?? It was definitely NOT grooming that was going on…  Isn’t that what we, humans, do too??? Only maybe a little less hands on…

In the end, Grab driver did rather well out of his good deed.  A generous tip, a free English lesson, a morning’s work… But it’s the hospitality I have come to associate with Malaysia; people are incredibly friendly and unassuming.  It’s definitely my favourite place in the Far East so far… but then, so far I’ve only experienced it as a tourist, not yet as a member of the workforce..

Everest Base Camp Trek (2018) (5) : The hardest part but the best bits…

Day 6

Panoramic view from Nangkartshang Peak

Another rest day, another steep ascent!!  All the way from Dingboche at 4350m to Nangkartshang Peak at 5083m, and then down again.  I am totally confused when we arrive at the top, out of breath but still breathing…  Did the itinerary not state ‘ascent to 4800m’?   Sonam is adamant, ‘No, we’re definitely at 5000m and something…’   He probably mentioned the name of the peak at the time, but although my legs seem to function perfectly well in the low-oxygen zone, my brain is unable to keep pace.   Thank goodness there are plenty of photographs about on the internet to help me identify the peak in question weeks later.

It has taken us just under three hours to reach Nangkartshang Peak, the spot marked by an impressive white flag and an abundance of prayer flags fluttering in the breeze.  Plenty of stops for snapshots on the way.  Nangkartshang involves some minor scrambling but, apart from the effects of the altitude, is a fairly easy walk up.   Nevertheless, the crest is all but deserted when we get there, just a few other trekkers milling around.  Where is everyone?  Earlier on, nearer Dingboche, the trail was buzzing with other trekkers slowly snailing upwards, huffing and puffing in the thinning air, bearing down hard on their trekking poles.  I learn later in the evening that many other trekkers took the ‘rest day’ more literally.   ‘We stopped at the half-way rest point and turned back.  We were only supposed to climb to 4800m,’ a New Zealand father and daughter trekking duo explained.  Others opted for an even more relaxed approach and interpreted the itinerary quite literally: rest (all) day…  Five days of relentless hiking at altitude is taking its toll on many.

The trek up to Nangkartshang is tough but every bit worth it, so I am pleased to have made it to the top, doggedly putting one foot in front of the other and ignoring any aches and pains.   The panoramic views along the trail and from the crest are some of the most impressive in the Khumbu Region.  Many of the Himalayas highest peaks, such as Ama Dablam, Kangtega, Nuptse, Lhotse, Makalu and Tabochu are visible in their full glory from the summit. 

Taboche (6495m) and Cholatse (6440m), as seen on the way up to Nangkartshang Peak
Ama Dablam (6812m), as seen on the way up to Nangkartshang Peak

The change in the landscape is pretty dramatic: no more trees, or even large shrubs; just plenty of small compact bushes scattered on a gravelly soil.  The path is lined with precariously balanced cairns and littered with jagged rocks.  The magnificent mountains tower over crystal-clear fresh-water lakes and deep-cut valleys.

After our descend and a quick lunch, I am dead beat and ready for a rest too.  I sleep most of the afternoon…  Still, on the upside: only minor headache, no knee problems.  Things are looking good!!

Day 7

It is bitterly cold when I get up.  I dig out my warmer leggings and even wear my windproof jacket to keep warm.   Although today is supposed to be an easier trek, and we are only ascending to 4910m (Labuche), I am finding it tough going.  

I am sure tiredness plays some part in filling me with trepidation when crossing the most wonky looking wooden bridge on the trek.  It isn’t a long bridge, nor suspended high over a raging river.  Just a few wooden beams and thin boards spanning the width of a smallish stream that hefty yaks manage to tramp over with ease.  But my head suddenly brims with memories of past close calls: putting my foot through a rotten plank in the middle of a suspension bridge in the Vietnamese rain forest, or falling down a crevice near the turbulent Yangtze River in the Leaping Tiger Gorge in Yunnan, China.   I do not fancy a dip in the icy water coursing just underneath the bridge.  So I swallow my pride and take advantage of Sonam’s galanterie and outstretched hand to help me across…  I feel such a wimp, though…

Just past the bridge, we enter the Thukla Pass, a large plain dotted with memorial stupas and cairns honouring climbers and sherpas who have died on their quest to reach the summit of Mount Everest, or on their way down.  It is a sobering moment to reflect on the dangers and unpredictability of the mountains and the price some pay to realise their dreams: ‘The last word always belongs to the mountain’ (Anatoli Boukreev).   Although the solemnity of the place is palpable, the significance of this ‘memorial of the fallen’ is rather lost on me at the time, as Sonam’s English is sadly lacking the necessary vocabulary to explain it to me…  Still, the wonders of the internet once again help me out to piece it all together..

A lesser ‘highlight’ of the day greets me when we reach our lodgings for the night.  Of course, I had expected things to get less cozy with the increasing altitude since most food, goods, equipment, and whatever is required to sustain human life at the foot of Everest, has to be brought up either by yaks, or people…  Porters carry incredible heavy loads to the tea houses and lodges for the comfort of trekkers.

But I am not quite prepared for the state of my room and the ‘facilities’…  I can manage with the absence of a light bulb at the end of the wires; a head torch and the light on my smart phone take care of that.  It’s the ablutions that send shivers down my spine, and not just because of the daytime sub-zero temperatures..  On either side of the squat toilet, the floor is slippery with pure sheet ice and obviously someone had to break a thick layer of ice to get to the water for flushing.  This is not going to be fun during the night!!   

Day 8

The day we have all been aiming for!  Today we should reach Everest Base Camp.  First an early morning trek to Gorakshep (5,164m) to drop our bags at our lodgings and then have a quick satisfying mid-morning lunch before gaining the last 200m in altitude to arrive at Base Camp.  It is a challenging trek along the Nepalese ‘flat’, so plenty of up and downs, peppered with some adventurous scrambling over massive boulders and rocks.  Plus, the temperatures are well below zero when we set out in the morning; I even ever so briefly need to wear my gloves…

First view of Khumbu Icefall in the distance

Nevertheless, the awesome scenery along the way takes my mind of any discomfort.  It does not stop my mind wandering though, as I make the ascend on 29th October, exactly one month to the day of my sister’s passing.  But for the fickleness of life and fate, it could have been her achieving this.  She was the sporty one in the family, a PE teacher spending her holidays traversing the French Alps.  Me?  I eschewed any form of physical effort until I hit my forties…

This is where the ‘real’ mountaineers would set up their camps in the Spring, just in front of the Khumbu Icefall.  

In all honesty, the views of and from Everest Base Camp are not that spectacular, or even interesting.  The sky is grey and overcast when we arrive at the spot. The real showstoppers are the magnificent panoramic vistas on the way.  Maybe a Spring visit, when the real mountaineers prepare for their ascent to the summit and set up their tents, might add a little colour and excitement, but for most of the visitors it is about the achievement, a box to tick.  It is for me, in any case.

The journey down from Base Camp and back to Gorakshep does not seem as arduous, but after a quick bite to eat, I head for my cozy, warm sleeping bag.  Mission accomplished, I deserve a rest! 

In the evening, I join other trekkers in the dining hall, many of us feeling the worse for wear.  The dinner I so exuberantly ordered at lunchtime stares me in the face and, after just one mouthful, I can’t stomach any more.  The dreaded lack of appetite.  In the end, I take the advice of a Lithuanian man at my table, who is enjoying a luscious looking apple pie as dessert.  ‘Forget about nutritional value.  Just eat whatever you fancy…’  The cheese topped potatoes are returned to the kitchen and I order the apple pie..  Just dessert sounds good to me!! 

Conversation at our table revolves around the Mount Everest viewpoint on Kala Patthar where I am heading the next morning.  Sunset or sunrise?  My itinerary mentions an early rise to revel in the sunrise, whereas the Lithuanian couple preferred their afternoon hike.  Both have their pros and cons: sunsets dazzle with colour if the skies are clear but there is more chance of glimpsing Mount Everest in the mornings before the clouds start forming…  What I had not reckoned on was the additional four hours trekking to be added to the six hour downhill journey later on in the same day.   My itinerary was definitely a little sketchy on that point and Sonam’s explanation certainly did not shed any light on it either.

Minor headache tempered with some medication, stomach comforted with apple pie, and using my water bottle as a hot water bottle, I dive into my sleeping bag, fully dressed… Too cold to even consider anything else.  As on most days, I hit the sack around 8.00 pm and try to get in a bit of light reading before getting to sleep. Let’s see how I feel in the morning. 

Sonam has agreed on a not too early start.  ‘Let’s leave at 5.30 after breakfast,’ he suggested..  I set my alarm for 5.00 am.

Day 9

I can’t do it.  I ignore the alarm piercing the frost in the room and turn over.. Sonam knocks on the door, eager to get going.  I groan…  My head overflows with an acute desire to move towards lower altitude and a desperate need to wallow a little longer in the soothing womb of my sleeping bag.  Mind over matter fails abysmally.  I briefly get up, my stomach unsettled, and find Soman in the dining hall.  I shake my head, sadly… ‘I can’t do it…  I just want to go down.  Let’s have breakfast at 8 and aim for Periche… ‘  I get a few more hours of rest and feel so much better for it…  Maybe if we had added another day to just walk up to Kala Patthar in the afternoon, I might have managed, but Sonam is keen to get back to Lukla; he has another trek lined up already.

A couple of weeks ago, Sonam sent me a photograph of the view I missed; his subsequent charges managed to complete that part of the trek.  It is the next best thing to being there myself.  But I knew my limits, and there was no point in unnecessary heroics.  Plus, I promised my kids to come back in one piece.

Days 9, 10, 11 and 12

The descent is so much quicker.   Whilst on the way up to Base Camp altitude has to be gained very gradually – no more than 500m a day with acclimatisation days in-between – there is no such worry on our return.  We trek back to Lukla in just four days.

When we pass the flimsy bridge that looked so unconquerable a few days earlier, I almost waltz across. 

When we reach Tengbouche, my stomach rejoices and I greet the pang of hunger as a dearly missed friend.  I am in need of food, proper food, lots of it and I feast on a mouth-watering banquet of humble egg and chips (French fries). 

And of course, being back in the land of Western style toilets!  My knee may not have given me any trouble walking and hiking, but squatting with a knee that refuses to bend properly poses certain challenges…   Sadly, showers have to wait until Kathmandu; not even the lodge in Lukla provides those facilities..  I can’t wait to wash my hair; I am dying to use the shampoo sachets I so optimistically carried all the way to Base Camp and back…

And finally data on my phone…  I have missed being in contact with my kids and the world, although I am partly to blame for this.  Having bought a local SIM card for Nepal on my arrival in Kathmandu, I just assumed that it would cover the Khumbu region and I did not buy the more suitable Wifi card when I had the opportunity early on in the trek.  

Lukla is busy when we finally get back and the lodge where I stay overlooks the helipads next to the airport.  Lingering cloud cover throughout the day has grounded all flights in and out of town; only commercial and rescue helicopters are on standby, ready to fly out in case of emergencies.  I keep my fingers crossed for an improvement in the weather; I don’t even want to contemplate the thought of another few nights without shower facilities…  

Day 13

At least I don’t have too far to walk in the early morning as I am booked on the first flight out at 7.00 am, together with the rest of Lukla it seems…  The departure hall is packed with passengers hoping for a quick and timely exit.  The sky over Lukla looks promising, but rumour has it that not all is clear further ahead and flights are delayed…  All that is needed is half an hour of clear and cloudless airspace to get us safely to Kathmandu.  Without a control tower in Lukla to guide the aeroplanes, pilots need good visibility to be able to take off and land and navigate between the mountains.

I breathe a sigh of relief when finally, one hour late, our flight is called and we pile into our small aircraft.  Exhausted but very pleased with my achievement, I am on my way to Kathmandu and a hot, refreshing shower…