Viva España – The road to Cazorla, Southern Spain. (3)

11th April – Escalona to Cazorla, via Toledo.

Finally some reprieve.  With Cazorla only four hours’ drive away, we relished the chance of a little sightseeing on route.

A speedy breakfast and quick outing with our host’s dogs later, we set off to explore the pretty little gem of Escalona. Although Escalona Golf Village may have been a little underwhelming, the town itself was quite a revelation, with its rich heritage dating from before the invasion by the Muslim Moors in the early Middle Ages.  And to think that just a day before we hadn’t even known Escalona existed.

At first a Roman villa, then a Moorish fortification near the Alberche River, in the hands of King Alfonso VI of Castile around the 12th century, the town developed into a stronghold for attacks on Toledo.  Escalona’s most emblematic monument, the Castillo de Escalona, was built in the 15th century; its moats, walls, towers and walkways still dominating the town.  The castle is currently privately owned and open to the public, but try as we might, we could not find an entrance to explore what lay beyond the walls and towers. Being a little pushed for time, we only sneaked a cursory glance at this main attraction and it wasn’t until we stopped to top up with petrol and looked back that we could truly appreciate the vast scale of the ruins.   

Of course, we managed a quick dash into the town to look at the walkways and walls, but were easily distracted by the abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables in a grocery shop.  Rather than spending time being impressed by the architecture of the central square, we were seduced by a glut of Spanish strawberries, their sweetness and succulence irresistible…  For the next couple of days we overindulged devouring the largest two kilogram punnet of strawberries I have ever paid for, the fruits only second to the best strawberries in the world that used to grow in my Cotswold garden.  OK, it is possible I am a little biased, but they were definitely more mouth-watering and delectable than any shop-bought ones, even the Spanish ones…

With our sights set on an extended lunch break and playing tourist in Toledo, we headed for the city’s old historic centre.  Whereas Escalona’s legacies had come somewhat as a surprise, Toledo’s cultural heritage is well documented and had piqued my curiosity.  After a well-deserved coffee, I left Simon on a quest for antiques in town and forged my own route through the winding, narrow and steep roads that characterise Toledo’s old centre. 

Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes.

Toledo is a fascinating place, blending the architectural styles of its past cultural influences: Moorish, Christian and Jewish.  Moorish mosques have been built on Roman foundations;  an early, primitive mosque minaret houses the bell tower of the Catholic Mezquita-Iglesia de El Salvador; the old Synagogue of Santa Maria La Blanca, now owned and preserved by the Catholic Church, was constructed under the Christian Kingdom of Castile by Islamic architects for Jewish use.  Santa Maria La Blanca is considered a symbol of the cooperation between the three cultures that populated the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages.

Mezquita-Iglesia de El Salvador.

Another impressive example of this unique blend of architectural styles and religious tolerance is the Toledo Cathedral, considered to be one of the greatest Gothic structures in Europe.  Construction of the current building was started in 1227 on the foundations of a former Visigoth Cathedral originating from the 6th Century. During the Moorish occupation of Spain, the site was also used as a Mosque.

Santa Iglesia Catedral Primada (Toledo Cathedral)

And when in Toledo, the El Greco Museum, which displays some famous paintings by ‘The Greek from Toledo’ himself, is a must. But with Easter only a few days away and schools clearly in holiday mode, the place around the museum thronged with teenagers, chaperoned by teacher-lookalikes… and blocking the entrance to the ticket boot.  Free entrance for students, so no hope of me securing a ticket during our brief visit to town…  A mural inspired by some of El Greco’s masterpieces was plastered on an adjoining wall!  A perfect photo opportunity for the youngsters, trying to match their outfits with the colourful attire of the adulating apostles… But for now, this was the only El Greco work I would feast on, unless of course I ventured into some of the Toledo churches where other El Greco famous works can be seen. In his heyday, El Greco was quite prolific and whilst in Toledo received several major commissions and produced his best known paintings.

On my way back to meet up with Simon, I lost myself in the tangle of small roads cluttered with tourist bagatelles… Oils and olives, sweet turrón, caramelized nut brittle, churros con chocolate offered by nuns, and of course the famed Toledo swords. As early as the 15th century, a Toledo sword crafted by Toledo bladesmiths marked a warrior’s superiority.. Musicians, displaying their prowess on stringed dulcimers, mesmerised passers-by into buying CDs, or just dropping a few euros in a box.

Still, we needed to continue our journey, our last leg, onwards to Cazorla where we would spend the next six days. And Tarja, our last Airbnb host, had not been exaggerating when she told us the best of our road trip was still to come. For miles we traversed across an enormous valley, stretching from Toledo all the way to the Sierra de Cazorla, a massive area of seemingly drought-stricken lands where agriculture thrived. Row upon row of neatly trimmed vines thirsting for rain and drenched by the sun; unending grassy slopes dotted with lonesome trees; the green of olive groves as far as the eye could see …

‘Can we stop, please, Simon,’ I gently nudged my companion, ‘I’d like to take some better pictures of the olive groves. They may well be the last ones we come across.’ We were no longer using motorways, so pulling off onto the roadside was finally within our grasp. I clicked away merrily, as if there would be no tomorrow… I needn’t have worried about olive groves. Little did I know then that Cazorla happens to be surrounded by olive groves and we would be spending most lunchtimes and evenings gazing at them from our rooftop terrace…

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.

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 (

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 (

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]” ( ).

(*) 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 :

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…