Thailand. Cambodia. Incense. Photographs.

Happy New Year!

2014 is now! Tick. Tick. Tick.

I love the way the end of the year suddenly thrusts up artificial deadlines for everything. It lit a fire for me to organize my photos from last year’s trip to Thailand and Cambodia.

It’s been fun reliving some of the  moments through the photos and thinking about the people I met.  I just realized that this may not be visible on a mobile device. If you see blanks after this, you’ll need to look at the two slide shows separately on SlideShare.

Thailand first.

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Then Cambodia.

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Comments and/or questions are always welcome. Enjoy your days.

Thai Elephant Conservation Center

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On my month-long trip this past February, I went to this Thai Elephant Conservation Centre outside of Lampang, Thailand by about an hour’s drive.

As soon as you arrive, it’s as if you’ve been transported to another world. Elephants of all shapes, ages, sizes and colouring are wandering around. There’s even an elephant hospital.

Of course, in order to make money to support their work, they have to cater to the tourists so the first thing you see is the elephants being washed in the big lake and at the end of what started as just a daily washing and cool down becomes an all out water fight between the elephants and the trainers.

After that you get to ride the elephants which requires you to access their backs from a two-story bamboo structure that allows you to climb straight into the basket positioned on their back.

It’s a little bit scary at first when you head straight down into the lake, a trainer at the front to make sure the elephant behaves.  Natalie, who I was with, wasn’t paying attention and literally almost fell out of the basket when it was headed down into the lake.

The elephant lopes side to side and the basket moves to and fro and it doesn’t take long to get in the groove of its movement the way you would when you’re a passenger on a motorbike, learning to go with the flow, lean, no resisting.

It’s a beautiful place and as we entered I noticed that you could actually stay at a nearby Giraffe resort if you were intent on spending a lot longer with the elephants than just a few hours.

As fall arrives, my mind is wandering back to warmer climes. And it hasn’t even started raining yet here in the rain forest uh oh!

Battambang and Beyond

While in Battambang we rode the rails of the Bamboo Railway, a bamboo platform, recycled wheels and motorcycle engine careening down a bumpy railway track at up to 50 mph. The ingenious transport can be disassembled quickly and turned around. It’s a tourist attraction that’s expected to be closed by year’s end. The aim? A national rail system like Thailand’s. Our Cambodian guide looked skeptical.smallbamboorailway2

In Kampot, we stayed at the Natural Bungalows a short distance from town. Low key resorts on stilts dot the river creating bucolic scenes. Except, in early February, a 25-year-old French women went missing and was found the next day floating in the river, an apparent homicide.

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kampotdeckssmallBy the time I saw that on Twitter, I was back in Phnom Penh on my own; a vigilant tourist at the best of times. I rarely felt unsafe in Cambodia  but the city’s frenzied pace and the continual, “Madame, Tuk Tuk? left me on guard, initially.

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Kampot makes a great base to explore. We visited an organic pepper farm in a region known internationally for its organically grown red, black and green peppers grown  in rows of  tee pee tall vines. Handpicked, the seeds are shipped worldwide and Kampot Pepper Crab is to die for.

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We also visited a temple and White Elephant cave near Kampot.

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Along a bumpy dirt road, we headed to seaside Kep, a 1950’s resort town of former glory where mansions, derelict and abandoned behind ornate cemented walls neighbour updated resorts such as the Kep Lodge bungalows and Knai Bang Chatt, a modernist villa.kepwalls

In town, a strip of cafes/shop, with a view of Vietnam in the distance, we devoured a seafood lunch stuffing ourselves on broths of fat shrimp, white fish, tail and head intact, and  plump melt-in-your-mouth squid. Earlier, we’d stopped by a town where Buddhists lived on one side of the canal, Muslims  (Cham people) on the other, have co-existed peacefully for centuries.fixingnetssmall

Eventually, it was south to Sihanoukville, a party town. Lots of beaches to choose from:  Otres, Serendipity, Hawaii, Independence, Victory, Sokha, Ocheteaul. An hour away, Cambodian islands and we found paradise on Koh Ta Kiev. The azure blue pea-soup warm water, white sands and tropical bungalows make a great weekend escape. At $20 per night with a large open-air restaurant/bar, you’re set. Arrange the return trip with the boat before you get there for about $35.bungalowsatkohtakiev

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Back in the capital,  the cremation ceremonies for the late King Norodom Sihanouk were a wrap. I sat sipping a draft Angor Wat beer ($1US) watching a huge crane dismantle the splendorous site located between the Grand Palace and the National Museum. Flat-bed trucks carted off the palatial, leaving a red-steel skeleton while vendors got in their last minute hawking of place-mat sized photographs of the royal couple in their younger days.

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During the last few days in Phnom Penh,  I signed on with Grasshopper Adventures for a half-day cycling tour on the Mekong Islands across the river. A harrowing two kilometer cycle and 10-minute ferry crossing deposited us into rural tranquility.  We rode on earthen red roads, visited a silk farm, devoured mangoes, bananas, papayas, jack fruit and could not resist yet another  scarf, the signature Krama, a Khmer gingham fabric used  to protect from sun, wind and dust.

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One more quick ferry ride, and we arrived on another island that time seems to have forgotten. Just a few temples with brightly coloured ceilings, a few monks, a courtyard of carved wooden figures and five traditional wooden dragon boats undercover, awaiting next year’s annual water festival.

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Back in the city, I debated between a nightcap at Le Moon Terrace Bar in the Amanjaya hotel, the FCC perched above the riverside, or Friends, an NGO that trains marginalized youth in hospitality.

It was the perfect end to two weeks in a small country with a sad, yet fascinating history that has attracted more than 3.58 million tourists in 2012.

Up Close on Cambodia’s Sangkae River

The long wooden river boat was jammed. Me the Canuck, seven Brits, a Tasmanian, two Americans, our Cambodian guide and oh look, I note with a quick glance upward, just six life jackets. Let’s not even mention the “happy place” or toilet, just a bucket.

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We head north on a narrow stream that dwindles to make river travel impassable in the dry season.

“Hello. Hello.” Naked, dark-brown children dart forward on the riverbank. Squat men wading waist deep, check their nets. A woman slaps wet clothes against a flat boulder on the shoreline as we glide past shack after bamboo shack on stilts.manwadingsmall

We’re leaving Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city, moving down the intestinal-like stream of the khaki brown Sangkae River that drains into the Tonlé Sap, the largest fresh water lake in S.E. sia.Markonboatsmall

We’re on our way to Siem Reap, home of the world’s oldest Hindu temples and the UNESCO World Heritage site: Angkor Wat.

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smallelephanttuktukforwebAngkor Thom and the Bayon Temple are also on the day’s itinerary as is the dramatic Ta Prohm under seige, it seems, by the roots of Spung trees. Angeline Jolie filmed Tomb Raider there, and then my favourite, Banteay Srei, or ‘Citadel of Women’, pink sandstone structures glowing more vibrant in the late afternoon sun.

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Later, we head north to Sambor Prei Kuk, a  pre-Angkorian complex, 30 km past Kampong Thom; crumbling standstone monuments a mirror suggestion of their former glory, looted during civil war, and the destination of our overnight homestay to see how the locals really live.

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At the halfway mark, pulling into a floating corner store to grab lunch,  I bite down  into a baguette I’d bought from a street vendor the day before. On the second bite, I look more closely at the black dots I mistook for poppy seeds. Why are they undulating? Ants. Pfhaff! Very busy ones.  Amy, the Tasmanian yells at me like a mother. “Spit it out. Spit it out.” I react like an obedient child, scooping the chewed sludge from my mouth and after a minute, “Just ants,” I say. “Tiny ones.”deckinriversmall

What’s a little ant in a country where, out of necessity, desperate, starving families ate tarantulas, crickets, June bugs and whatever they could get to survive during Pol Pot’s barbaric regime (1975-79). In contrast, throughout the trip, we’d dine on local favourites: Fish Amok, (a coconut curry), Morning glory and Lok Lak (stir-fried marinated, cubed beef served with fresh red onions on lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes dipped in lime juice, sea salt and black Kampot pepper). An expensive meal set me back $3-5 US.

Culinary extremists, if you must, drop by Skuon on Hwy 6. Vendors, seated beside the hole- in-the-wall lunch stop offer crispy black tarantulas spooning in foot-high piles that look eerily similar to the eggshell-coloured human skulls piled high at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields memorial 17 kms from Phnom Penh.  Killingfields-small

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We’d put Cambodia’s unhappy history behind us on day one starting at Tuol Sleng or S-21, the high school turned torture chambers. A War Crimes Tribunal has crept along, frought with delay, as the former Khmer Rouge leaders have escaped with death from old age with only two elderly alleged war criminals potentially able to experience justice. Or Not.

Standing in front of a large white wooden board in the courtyard,  large black and white photos of the former leaders and in front of them, under shade, the oldest survivor,  artist Bou Meng, signs books about his experience. Our guide looked around nervously while he explained the trial.  “If you have any political questions, don’t ask them in public,” he warned on the bus before we arrived. “There’s an election coming up in the spring but we already know the outcome.”

Asia Rookie wide-eyed with Cambodia and Thailand

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I’ve been home for a week from a fascinating 33 days away in Thailand and Cambodia. It’s now time to get even more real than sitting in a Tuk Tuk in the middle of Phnom Penh can be. Feeling so present, then, in the vortex of scooters, motorcycles, and NGO Land Rovers and Toyotas. Movement. Human beings two stepping through the symphony of motion across four lanes, Gangnam-style, leaving me holding my breath as I watched their safe arrival to the other side.  There really should be  umpires on sidewalks  in Phnom Penh yelling “Safe” when you make it, alive.

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On my own, at night in Bangkok, I felt the alienation of sitting in an open air hole in the wall, every ubiquitous red plastic chair taken, except for the one I claimed, the only female, the only Caucasian surrounded by feasting Asians who must have wondered what that woman – me – was doing there, alone. Like them, I was hungry after a day of jostling on the commuter boats that plow up and down the klongs depositing the world to one famous golden site after another.

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At the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, I touched their grey suede skin and felt the strength in the gait of the one  I sat on, high in a basket on its back,  as it plodded down an incline into a lake.

I arrived in Phnom Penh early evening and caught a taxi with a woman I met at the airport, also in line because she’d missed the plane. Maggie Fletcher of Scotch Creek, B.C., in the Shuswap, returning to Cambodia after renewing her visa and happy to re-experience the amazement with me, the newbie, as I stared wide eyed and let out at few expletives experiencing the orchestrated chaos for the first time from the back of my first Tuk Tuk ride. I will never forget that.

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In Phnom Penh I heard unbelievable tales of torture inflicted by Pol Pot’s regime couldn’t help but notice how the guide looked around too nervously as he spoke near the end of our time there. I visited the killing fields and wondered about the silo of human skulls and hundreds of  friendship bracelets hanging along the fences and the senselessness of absolute power’s corruption.

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Then  Siem Reap, rising like a movie set, Angkor Wat, the largest religious complex in the world and all those Buddhist monks and nuns sitting in shadows ready to exchange coloured strings they’d wrap around my wrist mumbling their blessings in the Khmer language through particles of cloudy incense.

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I sat with 10 others in a river boat that had just a bucket for the “happy place” that left Battambang on a seven hour visual documentary of rural poverty.  Halfway through the journey, I bit into a dry baguette purchased from a street vendor the day before and noticed, after I’d eaten it,  very busy black ants undulating. Phafff! Thought they were poppy seeds at first. No big deal, really, especially after seeing the crispy tarantulas piled high along the rest stop at Skuon, for some a delicacy. Just ask Chef Gordon Ramsey. And, the markets, oh the markets and the assaulting aromas that arise from them.

MrTengsmallIn a homestay in Sambor Prei Kuk, close to where the oldest ( 7th – 9th Century A.D) temples are crumbling or were destroyed by civil war, twelve of us slept side by side, mosquito nets draped, while barking dogs underneath the house on stilts made it almost impossible to get any shut eye and then just as I dropped off, Cambodians, up early, ready to work. Always hustling. Our interpreter, Mr. Teng, so proud to show us his one room palm-sided house, the well he made, his village of 1,543. So proud that he could explain his history in English. Hope. Distinctly hopeful  in a country that based on its history, should have none left.

limestonesmallI was blessed to receive a tip from David Murphy, a man who traveled with my friend Mac in the 70s who came across my blog and decided to invite me via e-mail for a drink in Chiang Mai, a few days too late, but then directed me to a wonderful little town called Prachuap Khiri Khan when I said I despised Hua Hin. He then  recommended a hotel with an unobstructed view across the Gulf of Thailand with captivating limestone mountains in the distance. It was there that I raised my beer in a low-key nod to myself as I ticked off another year, older, all the while recognizing how lucky I was because I am not some young thing on a gap year but decades past that and still here, still exploring, even by taking a ride to see the sunset on the precarious Bamboo Railway.

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I returned every single urgent and excited high-pitched greeting, “Hello, Hello” of small dark-skinned children who ran towards me as I cycled the bumpy red roads of Mekong Island as part of a Grasshopper Adventure tour and found a place that’s as close to my definition of paradise as I could ever imagine I’d visit at  Koh Ta Kiev.

Already, I’m pining for the endless supply of white rice, spicy green and red curries, the subtle flavours of coconut Amok and the freshly sliced mangoes,  papayas, bananas, Jack fruit, pineapple often available with sweet chilli sugar.  I ate so much moist fresh-water fish, catfish and barracuda and delicate shrimp and calamaari and became addicted to the subtle flavours of lemon grass and lime, Lok Lak and Morning Glory. Eating is an Olympic sport in Asia.

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This of course, doesn’t even come close to detailing the experiences. Travel is just so life affirming, even on those days when it’s not.

Is there a scene from your own travels that sticks with you. Describe it. I’m curious. Leave a comment (above).