Category Archives: travel

Viva España. The road to Cazorla, Southern Spain (2)

10th April: La Rochelle to Escalona

Having learnt our lesson the hard way, on Day Two we consulted every means of up-to-date navigation available to us:  Simon’s iPhone and the trusted Google Maps on my reliable Androids phone!  Obviously, nothing as solid as a road atlas. They went out of vogue years ago and are probably out of date as soon as they roll off the printing press anyway.   A little bit like ‘Satellite Man in the Know’ in Simon’s car who had probably missed out on an update or two… 

To ensure a timely arrival, our next Airbnb host – Tarja from Finland in Toledo – had lavished us with plentiful advice on how to reach her home via ‘the scenic route’ and thus avoiding getting trapped in or around Madrid.   Rather than putting Toledo as our final destination, she suggested using exotic sounding locations such as Vitoria-Gasteiz, Burgos, Valladolid, Segovia, Avila as waypoints…  ‘May add more miles to your journey, but the scenery will make up for it..  providing you get here before dark…’ she had tagged on. 

Somehow I got the better part of the deal on our trip; navigation was mainly in the hands of modern technology, and I was relegated to being passenger, a role I embraced with plenty of gusto…   I love road trips!!  Trains, buses, cars.  Gazing through the window at ever-evolving landscapes.  The greens and yellows and pinks of a budding spring.  The curves and folds of gently sloping hillsides. The crags and peaks of rugged, snow-capped mountains.  Plains that stretch as far as the eye can see.   And the South of France and Northern Spain did not disappoint with the rapeseed fields in bloom, vineyards stretching upwards to catch the sun, the Pyrennees still clinging to their winter robes…  It’s that part of Spain that most tourists never lay eyes on taking flights to the more popular beach resorts to soak up sea, sun and sangria…  

The biggest drawback of mostly sticking to motorways was that taking photographs was nigh on impossible.   Just as the next amazing landscape unfolded, a line of trees would block the view…  Cars and lorries would whizz past just as I pressed the button…  The foreground blurred into the haze of an impressionist masterpiece, leaving just the distance razor sharp.  I did my best whilst the windscreen slowly but surely filled with splatters of insect adding their finishing touches to my digital canvas..  Luckily the odd heavy shower along the way, washed the most offending blotches away. Anyway, as befits a road trip, my photographs show plenty of road…

‘Simon,’ I pleaded, ‘on our way back, we must try the B-roads.  We can actually stop to take photographs…. and it will also be a lot cheaper…’  The French motorway system is terribly efficient but its use comes at a sizable cost with every few miles yet another toll booth demanding a hefty Euro contribution to the upkeep of the network…  Even so, when speed is of the essence, there is no alternative and the drive from La Rochelle to Toledo would take us around 9 hours, the best part of a full day allowing for regular top-ups of solid and liquid refreshments, as well as much needed rest breaks.

As we neared our destination, Google Maps suddenly drew a blank.  Tarja’s address was nowhere to be found in Toledo.  After a few frantic attempts to get hold of her, she finally replied to fine-tune her information. ‘Try Escalona instead,’ she urged, ‘Toledo is the name of the province’.   How were we supposed to know… Not only was Google Maps more obliging after receiving further instruction, it also shaved off a fair bit of mileage from our day’s journey.  We would definitely arrive before the onset of darkness.

Tarja lived in a lovely house, in the middle of nowhere. A brand new estate next to an abandoned and desolate golf course built at the height of the economic boom of the noughties and now providing luxurious living at a fraction of the intended cost… And as for the golf course?? Left to the dust of time whilst nature was happily reclaiming its territory. Perfect for Tarja with her brood of dogs and a horse…

Still, we were not in any mood to try out the golf course and headed into Escalona, in search of dinner. ‘Too early,’ the restaurant owner shook her head. ‘The chef only starts at 8 pm. But you can have a drink whilst you wait…’ Of course our Spanish left a lot to be desired but with a bit of French, our imagination and plenty of hand gestures we got the gist.

So we had our drinks first, accompanied by tasty tapas. The shape of things to come.

Viva España – The road to Cazorla, Southern Spain. (1)

9th – 20th April 2019

Day 1: 9th April

‘Simon,’ I shrieked, ‘we’re in Paris!!’ 

How the hell did we end up in Paris?  I know, it is probably many a girl’s dream to be whisked off to Paris, but we had been on a mission to miss the place altogether…

On a road trip to Southern Spain, our first stop was La Rochelle, a picturesque seaport on the Bay of Biscay.  We’d carefully studied the route on Google Maps on my laptop and phone: a blue line snaking down the length of the French Atlantic coast.  Nowhere near Paris…  Only, when we set off in the very early hours of the morning to catch the train across the channel, we’d put Google Maps to sleep.  No need for instructions to the port of Folkestone.  And once we reached France, Simon’s car, equipped with its own navigation system, took over.  My navigation skills totally redundant!!  Music on full blast and ‘Satellite Man in The Know’ only sporadically interrupting, we let ourselves be guided..

But with the car’s satnav only revealing our route an inch at the time, we had been lulled into a false sense of complacency.  Apparently, there is more than one road that eventually leads to La Rochelle…  and some of those indeed skirt the lovely city of Paris, its ring roads as notorious as its centre. I must admit I had pondered why the distance between our car and Paris seemed to shrink as we drove along.  But then again, British cars talk in miles, whereas the French signs speak an entirely different metric language, as one would expect…  and neither of us had really considered the possibility that the car was sending us into an entirely undesired direction…  Paris was definitely not a place to get stuck when all we wanted to do was hurtle down the motorway with a deadline to meet. 

We had booked our accommodation a few days ahead, an Airbnb find we hadn’t been able to resist.  Sleep on a boat in La Rochelle in the largest yachting marina in France:  Les Minimes, Port de Plaisance des Minimes??  Rock that boat.  Awesome!!  But in our rush to book, we hadn’t noticed the small print requiring a check-in time before 6pm…  ‘Of course, monsieur,’ we had argued, ‘we will get there in good time.’  Our host, Maxime, was less convinced and suggested maybe we should cancel.  ‘Annuler..?? Mais non… Miss out on rocking that boat?’ we gulped.  We took an earlier train across the channel, put our foot down as we raced through France, ground to a halt around Paris as we snailed through standstill traffic and took the wrong exits on the ring roads..  But we made it!! With about two hours to spare and a speeding ticket in the post!!

Although we had hoped to spend two nights in La Rochelle, the boat was clearly in high demand and there was no availability to stay for a second night.  A shame really, because La Rochelle’s old harbour and city are certainly worth a day of exploration.  With another long drive ahead of us the next day, we had to content ourselves with mingling with the locals over a couple of glasses of crisp white wine and oysters.  Of course, La Rochelle and oysters go hand in hand…   

We watched the sun go down as cooler air breezed in, and woke up with the squawking seagulls to greet the sun. No time to dawdle though. After a quick breakfast, onward to the Spanish border and the Pyrenees. Next stop somewhere near Madrid and Toledo…

As UK winter morphs into spring… I practise patience!!!

December 2018 – May 2019

When I landed back in the UK at the end of November, winter hardly registered on my mind.  My UK visit was to be brief: a six-week interlude, a mere interruption of some well-laid travel plans… Alas, as plans go, they often need adapting to the changes in reality, and so it is that this six week break is turning into a six month break and beyond… 

Of course this doesn’t mean I am entirely at a standstill and not going anywhere.  Only, after a while the scenery along the motorways that link Southampton in the South, where my daughter lives, and Birmingham in the middle of the country, where my son lives, has become a tad monotonous.  The same hills, the same plains, the same tarmac…  In my stubbornness I continue to hike, or walk and complete daily one hour treks to the local shops, or the train station, or the local park or along the canals.  I no longer own a car and refuse to fork out on unnecessary buses or taxis as long as my legs and other essential body parts are willing to cooperate in my quest. Or, as long as I am not in danger of being doused by the persistent drizzle and unrelenting showers that are the hallmark of British weather…  Walking is my contribution – or lack thereof – to climate change!

At first it was passport woes that interfered with my return to the Far East.  Who would have thought that renewing a British passport would be such a long drawn out process??  Whereas a few years ago the Belgian Embassy employees in London hadn’t batted an eyelid over the discrepancy in surnames on my passports, their British counterparts were less forgiving…  I was given a stark choice: renounce my Belgian nationality (Who on earth would give up a European passport with the spectre of Brexit on the horizon???) or produce a brand-new Belgian passport in my new name as it appeared on my current and still valid British passport…  A name change that had been so flawlessly accepted by the British authorities at my naturalisation now proved a serious hiccup.

Although the British Passport Office returned my defunct and expired Belgian passport, they kept the valid British one firmly in their grip.  Still good for another two years, but so full of stamps that when I entered Malaysia in early November, the border control official had looked rather worried.  ‘No room in your passport,’ she argued until I pointed out that the Malaysian visa stamp was hardly going to cover more than a half page, of which I still had two left…  What was the problem?? Plenty of room for one last entry and exit stamp…

With no valid passport or other legal travel documents, I was stuck in the UK.  A process that should have taken two weeks at most, dragged on for almost two months.  Why women should consent to giving up their own name on marriage is beyond me..  A bureaucratic nightmare which I refused to buy into until about 10 years ago when I finally became British after passing the Britishness test with flying colours and sitting through the British Citizenship Ceremony…  Having moved to the UK in the 80s and married in the 80s, it took me until the late noughties to accept the British nationality along with my Belgian one.  Don’t get me wrong, I am proud to be British and I definitely feel more British than Belgian..  In the end, my concession to name changing at marriage (22 years after the event…) was annexing my husband’s (now ex-husband..) short English name to the end of my maiden name: an addendum or a kind of afterthought.  Aren’t hyphenated, double-barrelled surnames the latest rage anyway??   

Several weeks later, in early January, with my Foreign Office authenticated Deed Poll* in hand, I made it to the Belgian Embassy, along with numerous other dual nationals who suddenly discovered the value of a Belgian passport…  Brexit was still ticking down, 29th March had not yet come and gone…  Finally, by the end of January, I had completed the mission: two brand new passports.  Ready for Europe after Brexit and beyond…

1st February 2019, the one and only day of snow during my UK stay.

One silver lining of my rather protracted UK visit was being in the country when my tenants moved out and new ones moved in.  Being in a rush to get going, I had allowed myself a mere week for the turnaround: just one major issue and a few minor issues in the house to deal with.  It was 31st January and an escape to the Far East at the end of the next month still looked a distinct possibility… What could possibly go wrong?

The weather. Hard to believe that with last winter’s (February 2018) ‘Beast of the East’ – and the resulting deluge of snow that paralysed the country – still on everybody’s mind, the workmen who were scheduled to start a two-day repair on an inside wall should decide to follow their Sat Nav’s advice instead of using common sense…  On the one and only day this winter that heavy snowfall made travel tricky, they decided to trundle along the smaller, hilly roads across the Cotswolds..  No surprise they got stuck just a few miles from my house!!  Sandwiched between masses of snow in front of them and the snowplough on their heels, they were well and truly snookered on a hill crest and had to wait to be rescued.  Another well-laid plan scuppered… Luckily, the setback was not insurmountable, but it piled on the pressure on those already very tense few days between tenants..

Whilst February marched on, other issues reared up their ugly head. In my ‘wisdom’, I was persuaded by my GP to make use of the free National Health Service, rather than giving in to my gut feeling and make a quick escape back to Vietnam, where private health clinics offer the same good quality care at a fraction of the cost of private clinics in the UK… When a hospital appointment that was supposed to happen within two weeks failed to materialise, my telephone enquiry about its progress was hardly encouraging. The stern and toneless voice at the other end declared, ‘Well, at the moment we are seeing people who have been referred to the clinic in August… Your GP letter is from January… ‘ Basically, don’t hold your breath, nothing’s going to happen anytime soon.

I discussed the issue over lunch with ‘Red Porsche Andy’. ‘Well,’ his reasonable advice sounded, ‘if you want to get things moving on the NHS, there’s no surer way than ending up as an emergency in A&E (accident and emergency)’ ‘ How about a little panic attack?? Might just do the trick…,’ he suggested.

In the end, after the stress of getting the house ready for new tenants in record time, I had no need to pretend and wholly justifiably called the NHS 111 number. Not 999, the emergency number, but the next best thing. I felt sure I would be able to make it to the hospital on my own steam, but there are certain key words that ring alarm bells with the 111 service… Ambulance was on its way. A gross overreaction, I thought, but at least someone was taking notice. After 16 hours in A&E, an ECG, several blood tests and an X-ray later, I was discharged as dawn was breaking. Urgent appointments for diagnostic tests to follow in the post…

At least the weather didn’t disappoint. After an abysmal start, February turned out almost spring-like. Plenty of blue skies in Southampton,

Sudeley Castle and the Cotswolds offering a great hiking reprieve,

and the smooth mirror canals of Birmingham reflecting “winter-scapes” in all their glory.

Onwards to March… Hospital letters started arriving. Somewhere in between the early hours of my hospital discharge and the doctor’s recommendations landing on the desk of the appointments clerk, the word ‘urgent’ had taken on a different meaning. With no immediate escape from the UK in sight and the first signs of Spring in the air, I relentlessly carried on stomping the by now familiar grounds of Southampton and Birmingham…

Still, with a five week break between hospital visits on the horizon, April got off on a pleasant start. A quick 10-day getaway to Spain and the birth of grandchild Number 1 later, there was cautious optimism in the air whilst the English countryside streaked yellow, the woodlands sprouted blue and the leaves on the trees unfurled in verdant extravaganza. Maybe, just maybe the end of April appointment would signal a turning point and I would be on my way… or at least in a position to fix a date for my return to the Far East…

Nope… At the onset of May, the NHS is keeping me stubbornly within its grasp. More tests, more appointments, no quick exit route ahead… I have decided I might as well plan for the long haul and aim for a return to warmer shores nearer the end of the summer… Surely, an English summer isn’t all that bad…

Southsea, May 6th 2019

*In the UK, a surname can by changed by Deed Poll, an official document that shows the transition from the old name to the new one.  As my Deed Poll was required by a foreign embassy (Belgian Embassy in this case) I also needed to have the document authenticated by the British Foreign Office.  Not only time consuming, but also adding cost…

Kep, the ‘blue crab’ gem at the Cambodian coast

27th September – 1st October 2018

After almost four weeks on the road, we’re gasping for a bit of beach therapy.  We haven’t seen the sea since dipping our toes into the South China Sea in Hoi An; it seems a lifetime ago having crammed every bit of every day with abundant excitement and thrilling new experiences.  Bus journeys, motorbike and tuk-tuk rides as well as a fair amount of hiking and cycling have left us in need of a well-deserved rest.  We are on holiday after all.

‘Don’t bother with Sihanoukville,’ a friend in the know advises us. ‘If you want the beach, go to Kep instead.  Stay at The Beach House, awesome location overlooking a sumptuous stretch of sand and sea.’   She lived in Cambodia for a couple of years and is better acquainted with the country and places worth a visit.  Kep hadn’t been on our agenda, but with no fixed itinerary, and accommodation booked last minute and on a whim, flexibility forges our path through Cambodia…

Kep is a mere 30km from Kampot so we get a tuk-tuk across.  Probably just as comfortable as a bus journey as long as we wear our dust masks en-route…  I have to be honest, it probably is the first time I have bothered with one preferring to put up with the air impurities rather than being suffocated by the heat.

And indeed, as my friend intimated, Kep is definitely the place to be.  Less overrun by tourists than Kampot, but clearly still on the ex-pat map, it has a lot to offer.  From the vibrant crab market along the seafront to a trip with the locals to Rabbit Island, from hiking and biking in the National Park to peddling the cycling routes along the coast.  And of course, watching the locals enjoy a day at the beach.  A lot to sample in just a couple of days.

We never make it to the Crab market early enough to watch the fishing boats pull in; only very early risers have that privilege.   By the time we arrive, the market is busy and bustling and we watch on as locals bargain and barter to get the best price for Kep’s highly prized blue crabs, their distinctive electric-blue legs and claws twisting and writhing inside the large bamboo baskets.  Just over the wall, several bamboo baskets bob in the sea, storing more crabs in the coolness of the water until they are sold.   We return to the market in the evening as the sun casts its last shadow over the water and, still, fishermen and women are milling around, eager to find buyers for the last few crabs in their baskets. 

We actually don’t get to sample Kep’s delicious crab until we venture to Koh Tunsay (Rabbit Island), an idyllic paradise just a few miles off the Cambodian coast. The island is best accessed by small local boats which not only ferry tourists and locals to the island, but also much needed provisions to feed those visitors.. With mainly palm trees as vegetation and very little else in the way of edible produce, the island relies on the daily deliveries of food, coconuts, more coconuts and probably crabs as well…

Whereas Liz and I spend the day exploring the nooks and crannies of the island,

splashing in the refreshing waves, lazing about in hammocks and engaging in other touristy antics,

locals have other priorities. For several hours I watch a woman trudging the length of the beach in search of cockles, a hard day’s work for a pitiful heap barely covering the bottom of her red bag.

Before heading back to the mainland, we gorge ourselves on a sumptuous lunch of succulent crab, although not the ‘Crab and Kampot Pepper’ version Kep is famous for. A pity, but at the hotel we have already indulged in a finger-licking awesome ‘White fish and Pepper’ dish and the delectable pop-in-the-mouth green peppercorns are simply to die for…

Crab and Kampot Pepper, a la Kep…

Of course, tourists are not the only ones making the most of the being near the seaside and at the weekend Cambodians take full advantage. Only, they seem to do it quite differently from Westerners. No crowded beaches here! We watch on as early in the morning hammocks, colourful umbrellas and jazzy mats start cluttering the pavement. Slowly people start filing in and by lunchtime, every little space is crammed with men, women and children tucking into picnics or taking a nap. Even the hammock shelters on the opposite side of the road are heaving whilst at least some daring souls are braving the sun to get to the coolness of the sea. But the beach remains largely deserted… The party mood lingers until later in the evening when dark falls and more food is shared among families and friends. Not a single local is going home with sunburn here..

Not much of a beach bum myself, I look for distraction on the hillsides. Liz and I take an early morning hike into the National Park, which is just a short distance from our hotel. Somehow we struggle to find the official park entrance and we may have added a few unintended miles to our journey, but thankfully a couple of French tourists who set out much earlier than us kindly point us in the right direction… After stopping off at a pagoda on the way, we meander along an easy path. By then the weather has hotted up quite a bit and we only manage a short hike, barely scratching the surface of what the Park has to offer. Definitely worth another visit, if I make it to Kep again sometime in the future..

On our last day in Kep, we rent some bicycles to venture a little further along the coast. It’s a hot and sweaty trip but interesting to get a glimpse of the lives of local fishermen and their families. The track is pretty isolated as most people are sheltering from the late morning heat . Fishermen have long since returned with their morning haul and only children are out and about enjoying a little fishing or a dip in the murky water surrounding their homes.

Kep definitely deserves to be on the tourist map, but then again, it’s attraction for me is the absence of tourists… and the little French bakery in the centre of town, a reminder of Kep’s colonial past as a thriving resort for the French and Cambodian elite until the early 1970s. Not only does the bakery offer the finest Arabica coffee in town – a must for Liz – but it is a magnet for foreigners missing a bit of home: croissants, pain aux chocolat or pain aux raisin, bread that looks and taste like bread…  And of course conversation.  Few of the foreigners we meet here are tourists. In actual fact, most seem pretty settled in local life or are engaged in voluntary work, such as the French twenty-something engineer who is involved in the construction of a youth centre.  ‘At the youth centre, local youth leaders provide counselling and activities for Cambodian teenagers,’ he explains. ‘The widespread killing of teachers and intellectuals during the Khmer Rouge regime war has left a whole generation without educators and positive role models.’  As everywhere in Cambodia, spectres of the genocide still lurk in every corner…

And then there are the sunsets… From the hotel balcony overlooking this stretch of the Gulf of Thailand, to cycling or hiking along the beach towards the Crab Market, the views are breathtaking. Certainly some of the most impressive ones I have seen on my travels so far…

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.

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.

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.

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…

Everest Base Camp Trek 2018 (4): The Long Way Up

I have no intention of narrating every part of my EBC trek in detail. Boredom would kills us all, me included. Besides, the internet is rife with blog posts about EBC conquests.  Mind you, I am grateful they are there, because they help me to fill in the blanks and the minutiae..  Name places I have completely lost track of, views that were shrouded by persistent cloud, a reminder of the malaise of getting a touch of altitude sickness… Still, there is some merit in recording some of it, so here goes…

Day 3

Today is a ‘rest’ day, or an acclimatization day.  Take your pick.  Rest takes on a whole different meaning in the world of trekking.  No sitting around, putting your feet up. Instead we complete a shorter 3-hour hike and ascend to higher altitude, only to retrace our steps later on, back to our lodgings in Namche Bazaar in this case.  It’s called: ‘climb high, sleep low’ and allows the body to adapt to the thinner air, thereby reducing the risk of the dreaded altitude sickness. 

Still, today counts as one of the highlights of the trip:  my first unhampered view of Mount Everest itself. A steep and taxing climb up to 3880m to the Everest View Hotel with, as the name suggests, breathtaking views of the mighty Himalaya peak.  Not only Mount Everest, but also its immediate neighbours, Lhotse and Nuptse, as well as Ama Dablam and a whole host of other mountains in that vicinity.  With less oxygen around, the trekking is certainly becoming more challenging. 

In the afternoon I have time to wander around Namche itself, the last real town we will see for a little while.  I browse the tourist shops lining the narrow streets, but it feels a little premature to buy t-shirts or yak wool hats emblazoned with ‘Everest Base Camp’ or ‘Kala Patthar’.  Let’s see if I make it first…  ‘People watching’ seems more appealing as I marvel at both men and women attending to laundry using refreshing water as nature provides it.  Icy cold, straight from the mountains. 

In the meantime, after three days, I am pondering about the state of my hair but decide that even at an affordable 400 Nepalese Rupees for a hot shower, I cannot bear the thought of standing in a state of undress in a very cold room…  Anyway, in another three days, I will be back to square one and it will be ever colder… I shall learn to love my hat and my indispensable, versatile tube scarves (neck warmers) and cover my hair instead!

Day 4

This morning I wake up to a hoar frost extravaganza.  White rime has crisped the grass and bushes. Piercing sunrays dazzle the morning sky.   At night, temperatures plummet to well below freezing and it is certainly getting much colder when we start our trek.  Time to dig out warmer leggings to wear under my trekking pants and have an extra fleece ready in my backpack…

Today’s destination is Tengboche at 3867m.  ‘A steep ascent ending with a nice downhill stretch,’ Sonam assures me.  Not in so many words though, as his English is rather more limited than I would have hoped for from a guide.  I gathered early on in our travels that my many questions never quite got the expected reply.  Conversation soon dried up and has been limited to very basic mono-syllabic vocabulary liberally supplemented with imaginative body language.  On the whole, I get the gist about simple matters, such as the names of the mountains and the villages, but it does not satisfy my curiosity about the local Buddhist culture in the Khumbu Everest Region.   With no immediate internet access – I did not buy the one and only wifi card that works in the area – I have to rely on Sonam’s sketchy information and my memory so I can check facts online later on my return…

But today, Sonam is particularly preoccupied, constantly on his phone whilst setting a brisk pace and I have to remind him to slow down once in a while so I can take some photographs.  Lunch in Tengboche comes just at the right time; I am famished, sapped of energy, ready for a much needed rest, and did we not just reach the ‘end of a nice downhill stretch followed by yet another steep upwards track’?  Instead of being shown my room after lunch, Sonam heads for the great outdoors and motions me to follow him.  No time to stop by the famous Tengboche Monastery, we pick up our backpacks and on we go…uphill…  It is not quite what I am expecting, but my queries don’t seem to spark any kind of sensible response.  

‘Another hour or so,’ Sonam elaborates.  I shrug my shoulders, none the wiser and go with the flow all the way Pangboche…  Pangboche??  It appears that all the lodges in Tengboche are full and we arrived too late to get a room.  On the upside, Pangboche is at 3,985m, just that little closer to EBC and at least Sonam has managed to get us some lodgings there.  At least we do not have to resort to sleeping in tents…

‘Not such a long hike tomorrow,’ Sonam smiles…  ‘Thank goodness,’ I think, as I collapse on the bed pretty shattered, and snuggle into my sleeping bag for a refreshing nap.  I’ll surface again later, closer to 4 or 5 pm, when the yak dung stoves are lit in the communal dining rooms and for just a few hours we can all relish in some warmth. 

Day 5

Today’s trek takes us to  Dingboche at an altitude of 4350 m, higher than Annapurna Base Camp!  With an ascend of less than 400m and a much shorter hike ahead of us, I am allowed a lie in!!  As there is less pressure on accommodation at our next destination, we’re setting off at 8 am rather than the usual 7 or 7.30 am. 

Still, the altitude is beginning to bite and even the three hour trek leaves me exhausted.  Luckily, no headache, no signs of altitude sickness.  Others though are not so lucky.  The last couple of mornings, the air has been thick with the whirring noise of rotor blades.  Rescue helicopters on emergency evacuation missions have been flying past to pick up trekkers who have succumbed to altitude sickness and need to descend urgently.

Having arrived at our destination before lunchtime, I have a full afternoon to kill…  Whereas reading a book would be my normal recourse,  in order to minimise the weight in my backpack, I have downloaded a couple of thrillers on my smart phone, which also doubles up as my camera…  What sounded like a great idea at the time, turns out less practical than I had anticipated.  Phones need battery, and charging phones and power banks is not free; the cost increases dramatically with the altitude where the tea houses and lodges rely on solar power.  The more savvy trekkers have bought and brought solar chargers to boost their phones and cameras.  A thing to remember for the future…

Luckily, Dingboche has some entertainment on offer in a few of the coffee shops: movie time accompanied by coffee and cake.  Not the latest adventure blockbusters, though, but a sobering tale about helicopter rescues when pilots have to push their machines to the limit and often risk their own life to save the lives of stranded trekkers and sherpas who are making a bid to reach the summit of Mount Everest.    At least I have no ambitions to go that far, I will be very pleased with myself if I make it to Base Camp!!