The penultimate night of the year was spent on the overnight train from Hanoi down to Hue. A 10 + hour journey. We boarded the train for a 10pm departure, unsure of what jollities lay ahead, apart from the fact that I was highly unlikely to get much sleep!
Split into couples in one 4 berth, the boys (with Hung) in another, 4 ladies in another and the remaining ladies (myself included) in the final with a random stranger that could be male or female – there was no knowing. The higher priced tickets (that we had) involved a ‘soft’ bed in a cabin with bedding, water and a wafer biscuit included. I was VERY thankful that we weren’t in a lower class where we could have literally had a board to sleep on – oooo the thought!!!
Thankfully we had a lovely lady join us in the cabin who was the tour leader for a group travelling with Intrepid travel doing a similar thing to all of us. She had her work cut out though, come the morning time there were several of her group who had been drinking all night & were to be found in their bunk lying in the foetal position!! Her comment to it was, oh well, they are Australian (as if that explained their behaviour!).
We suddenly realised that beers were needed to be purchased before the train moved and spotted a little shop on the platform and so Paul, Chris and I darted off to go and get a few each. Not that we were planning on getting plastered but more that it might help us sleep. I didn’t really fancy the idea of getting up umpteen times in the night to try the loo. Many a giggle was had as doors were ‘jammed’ shut and the general hilarity of the sleeping conditions got too much. There was no elegant way to get up and down from the bunks and I was glad that I was a demanding madam and requested bottom bunk owing to my insomnia/ often need to visit the loo in the early hours – TMI? Oh well!
The morning came and I guess I must have got some sleep – amusingly the Fitbit begged to differ and recorded precisely none despite repeated synching as a result of not quite believing it! The night had been entertaining all round, mainly so on the comments from Hung who said that he didn’t realise that it was actually possible for anyone to snore louder than the noise of the train 😂 and that he had 2 hippos in his cabin ALL night!!
A fun must-do experience for sure but I’m not sure I’d want to travel a country purely by sleeper train like this as I’d get LITERALLY no sleep – even according to FitBit! One of the group was saying how he thought it would be a lovely peaceful way to travel – and he too was sharing with the so say hippos. Each to their own I guess!! I’m quite happy that I turn 40 soon & REALLY don’t feel like I’ve missed out in life by only encountering this experience whilst 39!
I’d seen so many photos of the Bay over the years and it always looked simply stunning. Our 5 hour trip out in a Chinese style junk boat did not disappoint in the slightest. The weather was perhaps not amazing as it would have been lovely to have had a bright blue sky but I thanked my lucky stars that it was not actually raining. We could have had it way worse.
The bay is formed of a lot of limestone structures or mini islands I guess with trees and so on on the top but whilst cruising along I was confused that there did not seem to be as many birds as I had anticipated seeing and hearing. Not that I was here as a twitcher – they just were noticeably absent. The word Halong translates as ‘where the dragon descends to the sea’ and legend has is that this area was created by a giant dragon charged towards the coast with his tail gouging out the valleys and so on that now exist.
It was named a World Heritage site in 1994 with all of the mini islands, grottos or caves and beaches and is deemed to be the main tourist spot of Northern Vietnam. There are a number of grottos that are in the trusty Lonely Planet but I’m not sure that the one that we actually visited is in there.
It certainly puts the magic of Wookey Hole to shame I have to say. The natural formations inside the cave were simply unreal. The stalactites and stalagmites almost didn’t look natural in places and there were parts that looked like cauliflowers as well as draped blankets. Extraordinary sights to put it mildly.
We all talked about the idea of waking up on a boat out here on the ocean & what an amazing place it would be to have a night, of course we are restricted on this tour owing to the amount to do in such a short amount of time. I’m not sure that the comfort of the bed on the boat would really be all that appealing though thinking about it. And I’m also not entirely sure that I could cope with the seafood that would be breakfast!!
We ate off linen table cloths and the food seemed to just keep coming thankfully the peppers and the sea food/ shell fish allergies has been accommodated and we had been on the beers since 930 – oops – but we were on the boat pretty early in the morning and when in Rome right?!!
Next stop for us was back to Hanoi to recuperate (and as it worked out – have more beers) before boarding the overnight train to Hue.
The last stop in the complex was the One Pillar Pagoda built to express the gratitude of Emperor Ly Thai Tong to his wife who had produced a son and heir for him. It’s built of wood and on a single stone pillar (unsurprisingly) and designed to resemble a lotus blossom – the symbol of purity rising out of a sea of sorrow as it is surrounded by a small pool. Sadly it’s not the original as the French destroyed it before they left Hanoi in 1954. Now there is a Buddhist shrine at the top adorned with offerings.
After finishing up at the Ho Chi Min Mausoleum Complex we visited the Temple of Literature which is also known as Confucius Temple. Not so much a just a temple in itself but there were a variety of things to see. All beautifully calm and serene whilst the scooters manically circle around on the roads. There is a rare example inside of early Vietnamese architecture which houses the honoured amongst Vietnam’s finest scholars and writes with literary accomplishments. These are all carved into stone tablets which are held on the backs of turtles – one of the three most sacred animals in Vietnam along with storks and lions/dragons. There are a number of impressive gateways and one of them is a symbol of Vietnam and Hanoi and is found in one of the many notes (of money). There are lots of bonsai trees everywhere in pots and many of them seem to have stories in them with pagodas and little people in. Something tells me it’s the story of Confucius himself but I didn’t get clarity.
From here saw our last preplanned stop of the day before a visit to the Water Puppet Theatre which we had booked tickets for earlier in the day. The infamous Hanoi Hilton or as it’s real name – Hoa Lo Prison Museum. Nicknamed as such by American POW during the war as many were brought here. There were parts only that still remain which exhibits relate to the use of rooms up until the 50s and even included a French style guillotine which was used to behead Vietnamese revolutionaries back in the day. One of the notable American Pilots kept here during the American War was John McCain (once nominated as a candidate for presidency in USA in more recent years) and there was a hugely thought provoking exhibition on memories after the war. There were the remains of the sewer tunnels that several of the Vietnamese prisoners managed to escape though at times. Tiny, tiny gaps. Fascinating & thought provoking but thankfully not such a hideous outing as the jail in Phnom Pen.
The Municipal Water Puppet Theatre was something that a few people in the group had been told not to miss. It wasn’t expensive and lasted an hour and sounded a bit different from the norm and so most of us went o watch. Originally created by the rice farmers on the Red River Delta about 1000 years ago. The puppets are made out of fig-tree timber and is always performed in ponds or lakes and so on with the puppeteers standing waist-high in water with the puppets on long sticks that create the story in front of a curtain at water level in front of the puppeteers. The musicians accompanying were all live and it was dark inside and pretty easy to fall asleep in given our jet lag and so on. One of the chaps I was sat next to did – only to wake up every time the section ended and there was clapping. I’m not sure it’s a not to be missed event but it was certainly something different.
The other restaurant that we tried was called Home – recommended to us by Hung. I wasn’t overly keen on one of the others that was recommended which was just one choice of a sort of fish hotpot. Traditional and like street food but I just felt I’d avoid fish whilst I had the option so I took 4 others off here – no idea what it was going to be like but it was utterly delicious I must say. By far the most expensive of meals that we would eat in this country but not really expensive for UK prices. Everyone’s (well mine didn’t) meal came on a bed of fire as it sat in a sort of Balti dish in front of you as you ate your way through it with the sticky rice accompanying it.
The other experience I wanted to try was the fresh beer. It took a while to try finding it but we got there in the end with help from a very helpful man who could see we were a little lost aimless looking around and trying to work out where the f*** we were from the guide book to the street signs. We weren’t that far off. Bia Hoi is Vietnam’s own fraught beer or microbrew which is similar to a light bodied pilsner and was first introduced to the country by the Czech’s. It’s brewed without preservatives and is meant to be enjoyed immediately. We went to the local Bia Hoi junction and found a few establishments with small plastic chairs to sit on similar to those seen in a Reception classroom. It was served in recycled glasses which made it look almost green in colour initially. It wasn’t that bad but the others were adamant that it would give them dodgy tummies – none of us wanted this so we only partook in the one to say that we had done it!
It would have been funnier if the chairs had sides as well as Paul and Chris (quite possibly myself as well) would potentially have needed cutting out of them!
A route via a stop in Kuala Lumper in Malaysia was how I finally made my way to my latest overseas adventure. Identified one of the group in the seat behind me on the second leg and we were met at the airport having made our way through both immigration and collected our luggage successfully without too much hassle. I’m sure when I checked I needed to get a visa to enter Vietnam & so had the extra sheet of paper which clearly wasn’t at all necessary after all but had sent my new travel buddy into a small panic as he had no paperwork re a visa. Ah well, better to be safe than sorry I say!
Arrived at the Anise Hotel about 2.30pm desperate to sleep but also, not wanting to knowing how badly I’d then sleep in the evening. I showered & managed about a 20 min power nap before venturing out to try familiarising myself with the locality of the hotel & what amenities we had close by. Having failed to have changed any money into dollars prior to my trip I was on the hunt for an ATM. I found two and was rather panicked that neither would accept my card. I was moneyless in a foreign country & felt very very vulnerable. I realised that despite all my prior research to the trip we in the guide book we were actually MUCH closer than I had initially anticipated to the Old Quarter. I was grateful to Mike (off of the Cambodia trip last year) for the introduction of maps.me which I recommend strongly as you can drop pins on where you are at a particular point in time and name them what you want etc. (helpful hint – download the map that you need on wifi and then you can use it off line as it works on GPS.)
Our initial meeting of the tour to tell us a little about Vietnam & to meet the others that would become companions for the rest of the trip, was held on the top floor of the hotel where the restaurant was – the 11th floor and only one away from my room. I’d say the views out were stunning but, as it was dark I’d have to wait until morning to find out. Already one of the ladies was clearly sticking out as one that would irritate not only me but the majority of the group in the fullness of time. Not listening to what our guide (Hung) was saying EVER & then asking him to repeat it as she didn’t hear. The temptation to point out to her & her friend the obvious was clearly going to come out of my mouth at some point this holiday without my being able to do ANYTHING about it.
Supper was a set menu in a delicious restaurant very close to the hotel called 5 Spice. Negotiating the puddles, pedestrians & potholes in themselves was quite some feat but add in the scooters factor and oh dear god – NIGHTMARE! I was catered for so that despite the set menu I was able to eat as the meals were tweaked accordingly, I was very impressed, and there was beer. Much needed beer.
Our first walking tour was in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, which was good as it was nailing it down with rain as we first walked out. Negotiating the traffic for every direction and of every form is something of an art form. In the UK we have pedestrian crossings painted on the ground and only on a few occasions do cars ignore them. Here THAT is the norm but it’s scooters, 15 years ago it would have been bicycles and it wouldn’t surprise me to see more cars on the roads here in 20 or so years. Hung told us that the average car price for nothing fancy was $25,000. In my book that’s A LOT when the average wage is around $150-200 a month. But there would be no room for them all anyway were they to start becoming more affordable. With the rain beating down they were all wearing ponchos that have a see through rectangle at the front that covers the handlebars and lights and so on. Clever. Here was one lady using the same that I spotted on a bicycle.
The historic Old Quarter was a maze of packed streets that were an explosion on the senses with the noise of the scooters to the smog from their engines. The sidewalks are crammed with parked scooters and the small shops were stuffed full of a plethora of goods which often spilled out and onto the side walk, then you have the shopkeepers making their simple meals on the pavements too – some selling food and some just creating for themselves. You have the street sellers passing with fruits freshly picked and presented in bamboo baskets and sellers on scooters with a record player shouting out what they were selling as they slowly made their ways down the streets. Food hygiene leaves A LOT to be desired and although Hung kept telling us the food would be ok but the issue with the hygiene would be more to do with how they washed the plates and so on rather than perhaps the food itself. We had heard their staple breakfast was a duck embryo boiled and still in the shell of the egg. None of us were keen to try, a step to far in my book. None the less Hung got one for himself and we all stood round in the rain as he showed us how it was prepared and how it was eaten from a street seller. My stomach churned and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one!
We continued through the streets taking in the sights and sounds, dodging the scooters from all angles. We passed what is believed to be the oldest Buddhist temple in the city originally dating from the 11th century but the current building dates from the 18th century. Bach Ma was originally built by Emperor Ly Thai To honour a white horse that led him to this very site where he chose to construct his city walls that now has evolved into this fascinating city.
Despite there, of course, being a number of other areas to the city I enjoyed spending the short amount of time that we had in this city just familiarising myself with the organised chaos of the Old Quarter. It felt all a bit too much on first view but once you got used to the different pace & way of life, I really rather liked it.
North Face jackets were on every street corner, blatant knock offs – some looked good & some looked & felt frankly shocking. None the less I wasn’t about to buy one for the sake of it. I don’t need one back at home & I had a perfectly decent pac-a-mac with me (nothing remotely like Mr Flatman’s almost famous black bin bag coat I hasten to add).
Popping out of the Old Quarter by the Hoan Kiem Lake we met our bus which would be swooping us up and ferrying us away from the hustle and bustle of the street and the peace of a bus – all kitted our with WiFi – too as we headed off through the busy traffic to the complex where we would see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and other sites on the complex. It was all rather surreal as you were literally allowed nothing as you walked around – everything had to be handed in and you were walked like working ants from the ticket office to the Mausoleum itself and encouraged just to keep walking around the frail body of Uncle Ho. I’m JUST not sure if it was/is him lying there or not?! He’s of course been embalmed (in Russia apparently where he returns for a month every year for ‘maintenance’) and lies in a sarcophagus surrounded by guards who are members of the National Army who were all wearing the ceremonial dress of white (this included white wellie boots which made me think of fish mongers or butchers) and we all thought that honestly they looked a little ridiculous – not that I was about to tell them that! It looked like they were cheap as sh*te sets from a fancy dress store rather than OFFICIAL uniform. I was pulled along at one point – still not quite sure why. A member of the group was asked to take her glasses off – they were those dark ones that turn into dark glasses and they had ‘gone dark’ and another was pointed at as we shuffled past as he had his hands in his pockets. The whole area was an open expanse and traffic free and you could tell that there has been a soviet influence in the design as there is plenty of opportunity for parades in front of the Mausoleum. What makes me so angry about it all with the pomp & ceremony is that it’s clearly been stated on a number of occasions that actually Uncle Ho was not in favour at all – his dying wish was that his ashes be scattered in a number of locations the length of the country. We also saw the stilt house where he actually lived in the gardens, he chose this over the Presidential Palace whenever he was in the city. It’s been preserved just as he left it and sits on a pond FULL of koi carp. The actual Presidential Palace is still used today and so visitors are unable to go inside of it but it’s a bright sort of orangey yellow colour and immediately reminded me of the building up on the hill as you drive out of the centre of Bristol on the M32. Apparently all of the presidential palaces are this colour throughout the country.
Medieval Times – we had a hilarious evening here supporting the Yellow Knight for the evening in a medieval tournament set inside the walls of the King’s 11th century style castle – sadly we were not able to choose the colour we wanted to support – as clearly this would NOT have been mine! On top of the regular cost of the entertainment and meal we upgraded, I managed to cleverly do a bit of research and found a free upgrade to bing a VIP Royal for the evening. Was it worth the extra buck – Id say definitly. We had preferred seating – in the second row with further supporting materials other than the paper crown that we all wore for the duration of the evening.
As with everything in America they try and sell you so much other stuff as well before and after going in as well as during. Anything Mediaeval Times could pretty much put some branding on was available. Its ok I didn’t succumb to this HARD sell, just went rebound trying on loads of the hats with the kids and taking photos and selfies! (OK perhaps not strictly true as I did buy the group photo of us all taken at the start of the evening as it is actually really lovely).
The evening involves watching jousting and combat battle between 6 differently coloured knights on valiant horses, all of whose supporters were seated in the same section of the arena to help build the noice and support of their warrior in the battle we were about to see. There was a bit of a story about them all wanting the hand of the Princess, the daughter of the King. The horses were pretty amazing, similar in style to those from the SPanish Riding School I once remember visiting in Vienna when I went to see Tom, golly, probably about 13 or 14 years ago now! So clever and yet also pretty dainty and such skill of the riders/trainers.
I wont lie, I enjoyed being referred to as M’Lady when offered food or drink or anything and when I thanked the serfs and wenches that were looking after us for the evening. It was all part of the environment of the evening – as was eating entirely with your hands. All pretty easy food to eat with hands and actually pretty tasty considering how often this meal is rolled out to the tourists and residents alike night after night, day after day. First up was a warm Tomato Bisque Soup served with Garlic bread in a metal bowl with a handle on the side followed by Oven roasted chicken (half of one – ??!!) herb-based potato and corn on the cob with a delicious Lemon cake for pudding (pastry of the castle). There was a full-service bar at which I might have had a pint or two – help lubricate the vocal chords for shouting for my Knight in yellow!
It was all in all confirmed to be a huge success by all ages. The kids really enjoyed it and were all able to eat the food – granted not all of it but then it was a meal for for a King (boom, boom!) Did the Yellow Knight win – sadly not – it was of course the blue Knight, which would of course have been the chosen colour had it have been up to me. Did it matter that ‘ours’ did it win? Not in the slightest, a wonderfully amusing evening and something so totally different to Disney which we will be inundated with bin just a few days.
Boggy Creek Air Boat Ride – The Everglades are best explored on an air boat. Of course there are a mass of different places that this can be done. The first place that I tried looking was sadly booked out already for the day that we wanted as I had checked online for reservations and so we went ahead and tried a place called Boggy Creek out – what a name 🙂 It also had 10% discount on the cost with the presentation of the guide book that I have (Brit Guide) at the desk – originally left in the car but quickly retrieved. Book had already paid for itself!
OH MY DAYS IT WAS HOT! There were a few things to look at in the smallish park but I opted for a walk around a couple of times pausing infront and then perching in the shade as I was ‘glowing’ like mad!
By the time that we were out there it was 1115 and the sun was making it really quite toasty and unsurprisingly the hotter it is, the more likely we were not to see any as they would retreat deeper under the water to the cooler water to loiter and keep cool. We did however see two aligators, one biggie and one that was about 3ft and so 3 years old. We were very lucky. There was apparently an American Bald Headed Eagle which most people managed to see after several careful instructions from Captain Chris, but Im blown if I could see the darned thing. I took a photo of the general direction in which he was pointing and the descriptions were aimed at in the vain hope that I might be able to see it more easily on a print out!!
The scenery was simply beautiful and we went straight through some pretty high reeds and so on which was at times a little unnerving as I sat thinking, how the hell does he know he’s not going to get caught up in this? The trees were mesmerising, cypress trees, very eerie looking and spikes roots which is where they get their carbon dioxide from & hanging down from them was a lot of the SPanish Moss which apparently Henry Ford first thought of using this (and did) to stuff the car seats in his first cars, before realising quite how many bugs and creepies lived in it and so had to recall and think again!
After this we decided that an ice-cream was an order of the day and in fact probably some lunch as well and we headed to MacDonalds. I made careful choices, owing to Fat CLub, would hav loved MASSIVE chips and Quarter Pounder with cheese with a HUGE drink. But i spent a while taking in all of the calories as they have them next to all the foods here (though, by the looks of the clientele in this particular branch – none of them took any notice. It even had in it a rather large chap, to put it mildly, with his own oxygen tank by the side of him and the pipes to his nose). Felt proud of myself – I could also see that I really would not be doing that much more walking today and so wasnt going to hit my 10k step target – way way too hot for that already and we still had one stop left on the visit before heading home. The food in the bellies and the sweet icecreams (for them NOT me – god Im feeling so good) led the kids to all fall asleep in the car on the way to out final port of call. Light snoring heard from Keira and Emily dribbling away – bless them! The peace for the 20 mins was very welcomed!
Wild Florida – Arrived here just after what must have been a down pour as the cars in the carpark were all pretty wet but not the ground. The boat rides, that were all fully booked, were on hold as there was a lot of rumbling thunder around and so the potential of a storm coming, thankfully it never arrived (while we were in the park anyway), maybe that was why we were all literally dripping with sweat. The heat didnt feel too intense, it was the humidity that was killing us all.
2017 was welcomed in as a group with dinner on the River Front in Touk to see the masses congragating outside as well as the fireworks which seemed to begin off all over the place including from boats on the River.
I seemed to set a tradition for myself by finding myself on water for the second New Years Day running as we took tuk tuks down to a river boat as some of us took the optional extra of taking in the views of the city skyline from the Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong River over to Koh Dach which is known by foreigners as ‘Silk Island’. The life is far more rural and rustic compared to the hustle & hustle of the busy city and moped & tuk tuk laden streets.
As you can imagine from the name a lot of silk weavers inhabit this island and we were here to visit them, do some shopping and find out more about their fascinating trade. We heard all about how the silk is made and the cycle of the bug to cocoon to moth to egg to bug etc and saw how by creating the cocoons is where the silk comes from and what they have to do to get the various forms of silk – as in raw, fine, coloured and so on. It was amazing to watch the ladies at work all hand made silk and cotton that would take a couple of days work to create such beautiful end results.
It was baking hot it must be said but that deterred none of us from shopping for a bit of silk. We were told why there was cheaper & more expensive piles – one was factory made and some were handmade there. We all flocked to that table to ensure that the money that we were paying was supporting the family and local economy rather than the factory made goods. It’s an amazing craft and I could have spent hundreds of dollars on gifts for all they were all so beautiful.
From here on the island we walked on a little bit further to see the Pagoda and temple. I don’t know but it kind of gave me the feeling of being in a neglected theme park with statues all over the place looking weathered and a big reclining Buddha. We saw a monk wander past evey now and then as Art was telling us more about the religion of Buddhism and how most Cambodians have volunteered as monks at some point in their lives. Be it a day, or two. A week, or two or indeed a month or two. There is no time limit as to how long you need to be one for. He was also telling us about how he went to a school taught by the monks as a child and how his parents are illiterate which fascinated all of us.
We were all melting at this stage, the sun was at it’s peak and we were all feeling it quite strongly. The beads of sweat were even starting to appear on my eyelids which is the strangest sensation ever!! We headed back to the boat and the journey back to the mainland for mid afternoon. Did spot this guy taking meter readings which did make us all giggle!
We headed back to the hotel on tuk tuks again from the boat, many more people were on the road this time being later on on New Years Day. Once at the hotel we visited the facilities, put our scarf haul in our rooms and headed the around the corner to the Friends Cafe for lunch. Much needed and such a lovely place similar to many of the giving back style cafes that I had read about in the guidebook.
Some of us headed to the central market to pretty much take in the tat! It reminded me of the market that we went to in Beijing after the Great Wall. I managed to pick up a few bits including a hat which was going to be an absolute life saver over the following few days as well as a small rucksack as I’d not got one with me – couldn’t find it anywhere before I left. Also picked up a T-shirt, some magnets & a couple of beautiful bowls made out of dried coconut that had I seen at the S-21 museum but that I simply couldn’t buy from there as I didn’t want to remember as the place where I brought it from.
I’m not really quite sure where to start with our afternoon of culture in Phnom Phen. I had done VERY little reading on the Khmer Rouge era and Pol Pot’s regime and as a result I think I was even more shocked with all of the information that I absorbed. First off, in the heat of the day after our lunch, was The Killing Fields (Choeung Ek) where I had tried fish amok as suggested to try by H and actually enjoyed it, using quite a meaty fish makes it not quite so fishy tasting which I think might have stopped me from perhaps trying it again.
First we paid our respects at the (Buddhist) Memorial Stupa, erected in 1988, to honour the victims of the atrocities that took place here. This particular location is only one of over 300 locations currently been identified across Cambodia and it is believed that at this location ALONE 17,000 men, women & children were killed. I think I had read about the tower of skulls prior to my visit but had not really taken it in. It was breathtaking, as in a shocking way. It wasn’t just a tower of skulls, it told you on the glass as they were separated into sections by sex, age and what was presumed to have happened to them from the excavations. I spent a while taking in all that these victims were put through by reading the labels on all four sides. 8,000 skulls lie here in sections. Each individual was savagely tortured before being brutally murdered in some of the most barbaric circumstances and this was something that was happening around the time my parents were getting married and up to the first year of my life. Bullets weren’t used as they were considered to be wasted if used to murder in this way. This happened IN my lifetime.
People were rounded up, mainly from what was the prison at the time called S-21 a former primary school that we were going to visit later the same day. Mainly in the dead of night after being blindfolded and brought out here on trucks. Loud music was played from a speaker placed high up in a tree so that the noises from the victims were not heard from neighbours at the time. There seemed to be no specific criteria for those destined for a gruesome ending, if you had a job, were an intellectual and even young, tiny children were taken. All to be ‘re-educated’ they were told after interrogation to learn more – nope taken to be slaughtered. The thing I think that got me the most about this site is that it is still only part excavated. There are still remnants of bones or teeth and sometimes even clothes that have been brought to the surface of the ground through rain and so on. Only in the past few years apparently has the wooden walkway been built as visitors had commented that it was like walking all over their graves to be walking direct on the ground.
There were several mass graves here (only 43 of the 129 communal graves have been uncovered) and areas which had significance such as the tree where the loud speaker hung that played the music whilst the killing took place. The other one that was really really quite hard to take in was the tree against which the youngest children were battered. Sorry to paint such a bleak picture but LITERALLY whacked against after being held by their feet so that their skulls were crushed. Then casually tossed into the mass grave next to it. Bodies would be gayly tossed into the air and caught on spears – as if for fun. It was worryingly easy to envisage and therefore simple horrendous to think of. What totally got me was the information on the age of these Khmer soldiers. I’d imagined them to be twenties upwards ish but 20s being the youngest. Not a bit of it – those that did this to these innocent people were anything from 12-17. That’s ONE YEAR older than primary school. On what level did they believe that they were doing the right thing??!!!! They had to have been brainwashed. I kind of lost focus on the info from the guide trying to absorb all the information and more to the point process it. I have some fairly harsh reading to do on my return to fill in the gaps.
It felt awful taking photos of the resting places but it’s important to share the information I feel. Our local guide, Sam, has a few grandparents, Aunts, Uncles and cousins still unaccounted for from the genocide. No remains have been found so they have no inparticular place at which to remember them which, to me, must be one of the hardest things to come to terms with, but the larger memorials to all victims offer him & his family some small amount of solace. Just hearing our guide’s information from the horses mouth as it were, from someone so closely linked to the atrocities kind of made it all hit home a lot harder. Watching him take a moment at each individual board and spot on the site having told us the gruelling information was heartbreaking.
Our final but if culture for the day and indeed year was S-21 the Security Prison which was once Tuol Svay Prey High School. It soon became the largest detention and torture centre in the country holding over 17,000 people between 1975-1978 the majority of whom then all were taken on to the Killing Fields as I mentioned before. Similar to the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge kept a record of every single victim that passed through, some even before AND after their torture. One of the blocks today, B I think it was held rooms and rooms of the individual cells taken out on the bottom floor and boards with faces upon faces of the headshots of the victims of the regime like some sort of glorification or proof of their barbarism. It was sick. Utterly sick. All of them dead behind the eyes, the womens dark hair all chopped off to a bob cut about earlobe level. It was just too horrific to think that of all these faces I was looking at virtually all, bar a handful, were later killed. Even foreigners in Cambodia at the time were inflicted under this regime with some photos of Australians, Kiwis and some from USA in amongst the head shots.
In the latter stages of the Regime the insanity stepped up a level as the torturers were taken over by others who in turn them tortured them. Come 1977 the prison was claiming an average of around 100 victims a day through starvation and torture. But one of the most shocking this is for me which I really hadn’t taken on board is that a huge percentage of these barbaric beings (the Khmer soldiers) now live as ordinary people in Cambodia with few, to no one, aware of their involvement of the regime. Some are being brought to justice and the trials are on going for some, sadly too some of the bastards have since died of natural causes. I find this so grossly unfair in comparison to the number of murders they will have each completed yet they state that they had no idea what was going on.
I, for one, couldn’t do much more of the gruesome images, the constant reminders of the past with the descriptions of the types of torture that was undertaken and the ‘rules’ at the prison. Thankfully we were coming to the end of the tour with our guide and offered free time for a further 20 mins or more to take in the remainder of the site. This was just before meeting two of the prison survivors for that time. I did the tourist thing I’m afraid and had my photo taken with & paid for both of their books of their ecprriejce, memories and indeed life since. I’ve already read a few pages of the first gentleman’s (Bou Meng) who managed to survive as he was a painter and painted portraits of Pol Pot as his means of escaping being re-educated. What the hell do you do when meeting these people? I greeted him with the typical gesture of palms together fingers pointing up and quite high on my chest as a mark of respect. I apologised for what he suffered through, bloody stupid thing to say in reality but my heart was in my throat. I had tears welling up in my eyes as we hugged, squeezy BIG hug and he kissed me on the cheek & said thank you, thank you. A mere flash in the pan but it just seemed to kick me into touch. There was a second survivor Chum Mey (there were 7 originally) with his book there and I too purchased that. I have some fairly hideous films to watch on my return.
UPDATE: interview with Chum Mey 20th Feb 2017
Further beyond the two survivor was another playground area if the former school where you could just envisage the children kicking a ball around. Only in the last year or so has a memorial been built here with plaques with all of the prisoners names on, the photographs and information of whom is in existence from that time. I just stood quietly and strolled round the area. I popped into one of the buildings to see the size of the individual cells but didn’t brave it to the other higher floors where the rooms of victims were larger and more in them. The bodies of the 14 that were in the torture cells at the time of the Vietnamise invasion in 1979 lie in white coffins in the first courtyard are just outside the cells in which they were found. Quite a depressing visit to end the year on but none the less eye opening and fascinating. Looking at the population of Cambodia today there is a very small percentage of elderly and you only really see those younger than me as anyone older was simply wiped out.
Why did the Khmer soldiers slay so many? What was their motive?
What would they gain from doing this?
Why was Pol Pot himself not put on trial/murdered himself?
Our first stop of the day was to the Royal Palace which is where the current King is usually in residence. The flag was up as it is when the Queen is in residence back in the UK but I think I’ve heard on 3 different occasions that the King left for his seaside residence for new year on the train yesterday. Here we needed to be appropriately dressed, no short shorts and no shoulders showing – no need for long sleeves as I’d packed for as t-shirts will do thankfully. I’d kind of imagined the necessity of covering all skin as much as possible not just the bare minimum. I guess that as it’s so hot in the height of their summer visitors would be wearing very little as even though it’s their winter it’s still a tad sticky.
Sadly, despite being pretty warm the sky was overcast so the photos don’t perhaps look as spectacular as they could. It’s an impressive complex within the gated walls and thankfully the large majority of it has survived the Khmer Regime of the late 70s. During that period the King was kept under house arrest, not allowed out for any visits to his people as he is known for.
The Silver Pagoda was another beauty, again photos of the interior were banned sadly. Not silver in appearance from the outside however, so named because of the remarkable floor which is laid in silver tiles each weighing 1kg in weight and there are 5000 of them! Covered in carpet in the main and visitors are asked to remove their shoes upon entrance there are parts of the carpet peeled back for you so see the beautiful floor. The building was rebuilt in 1962 as the first building here was from wood in 1892. The contents are simply stunning despite being massively depleted in number since the regime when a large percentage of the contents were stolen or destroyed. The main highlight is the Emerald Green Buddha thought to be made of Baccarat crystal which sits a top a guided pedestal. Also, which was rather impressive, was the life sized gold Buddha which is decorated with 2086 diamonds, the largest of which is in the crown and is a whopping 25 carats. It was created in the palace workshops here and weighs approximately 90kg. The steps leading to this treasure-trove is made of Italian Marble, and although still early in the day a nice cooling sensation on the feet!
Being the official residence of King Sihamoni there are only a few buildings actually open to the public. The Throne Hall being the main one is tipped by a 59 Meter high tower which was inspired by the Bayon at Angkor an tod was inaugurated by the king in 1919. It’s used for coronations and ceremonies such as the presentation of credentials to diplomats. Whilst the building was kept in tact as I mentioned by the Khmer Rouge the contents of some of the buildings that were on display were destroyed. You weren’t allowed to take photos of the room itself. It was long and had a splendid full length carpet in the same style of the mosiac on the floor surrounding the room. The throne as you can imagine was incredibly ornate and golden and the ceilings were adorned with paintings of a Cambodian story similar to an English one (at this moment I can’t remember what it was). To the right of the Throne Room was a separate house that is still used for meetings today that was also where the King would once alight the elephants – his chosen mode of transport for centuries for when he went out to the countryside to visit his people, however clearly modern modes of transport are more viable in this day and age!
The Silver Pagoda complex itself is surrounded by a mural depicting the classic Indian epic of Reamker (as it’s known in Cambodia). Created in around 1900 there are many parts of it that were destroyed or defaced during the Khmer Rouge regime. There are also several stupas within the complex which are shrines, ashes of the deceased are kept inside them one housing the previous King in a stupa dedicated to his 4 year old daughter.
Just before the exit was the Elephant Room which had a whole load of the seats that the various kings and dignitaries would have sat in over the years on top of the elephants. Some were more ornate than others as you would expect. Quite strange in a city so full of mopeds to think that elephants were once the choice of transport for the royalty.
From here we headed to the National Museum of Cambodia which we could have actually walked to from the hotel if needed as it was just round the corner, I’d stumbled across it the previous evening on a stroll having had a tactical nap and shower after the flight over. It’s a terracotta coloured building built in the early 20th century with a beautiful courtyard garden. The sculptures from across the centuries are in chronological order and we had our own guide that showed us round with our own commentary. It seemed that the majority of the pieces had come from Angkor Wat and surrounding temples which kind of made you wonder of the was actually anything of any significance left at the sites! Many Buddha, Vishnu, Shiva, Laksmi statues, enough to make you feel some what lackadaisical about them come the end of the tour. I’m sure that they will feel more beautiful and relevant when we see any at the temples themselves later on in the week. The religion in Cambodia is a real mid of Hindu and Buddhism as far as I can work out, quite confusing initially to be seeing Vishnu statues in a country I thought was Buddhist bit according to our guide they celebrate all gods. Buddha is seen usually in 4 different forms, teaching, meditating, and I can’t remember the other two (will fill in later!) and we saw enough of each in the museum to sink a ship!! It was getting ridiculously hot by this stage but we still had one more thing to visit before our lunch stop Wat Phnom which we got back on the bus to head out to.
Wat Phnom is the only ‘hill’ in the city standing at 27m high on top of which is a Buddhist temple and multiple shrines at which there were many of the locals laying gifts to Buddha and to other gods as it is new year this evening. Lions and naga (a mythical serpent) adorn the eastern staircase which was how we accessed the temple. Many of the locals come here to wish for good luck and if it comes true then return to bestow gifts to the gods such as lotus flowers, fruit, suckling pig (this might have been an exception to the rule tho!) they also set free birds to take away their bad luck (they often return to the cages as they are trained to so the guide book tells me). It was ridiculously busy and there were numerous beggars and so on trying to sell us things with signs in English about how they are trying to make a living. On the one hand one wanted to buy abut the cautious soul in me avoided like the plague, mindful of tourist scams and the fact that is then be surrounded by others trying to sell me similar things.
Lunch was on route to our afternoon cultural activity that I was mentally preparing myself for. I tried the fish amok as recommended by H to try as it was delicious. Made with quite a meaty white fish it’s a very flagrant mild current with a lot of lemongrass. I rather liked it – for a fish dish!
There are possibly very few that would land from a holiday the other side of the world in polar opposite conditions to the UK on a Monday evening and even contemplate recovering from a sleepless flight, jet lag & post amazing holiday blues to be up at 2am to shower and be in a taxi for a bus to Gatwick at 3am on the following Friday morning. But then I am of course unique!! (Many would say ‘special’ but let’s steer clear of that term shall we?!!)
Last here in mid November for a long weekend without rugby owing to the atrocities that occurred in Paris on the 13th of November, it felt only right to me to be making the return trip to this rather beautiful town of Toulon in the South of France. Temperature 10 degrees higher than the UK and far sunnier (nothing tho compared to what I had left in Cuba last weekend however). Time flies so quickly and one can only live to regret. This time (Fri eve) last week I was in a deserted island – white sand crystal blue waters in the Caribbean. This week I’m in the South of France and next week I’ll be preparing my house in Bath ahead of it being photographed to go on the market on the 18th of this month – all being well. Pretty sure that the rest of this year will not be quite as jet set but it certainly feels like my feet have hardly touched the ground in 2016 thus far!
We are in the same hotel and so the sights sounds and surroundings are, thankfully, all to familiar. I think that this helped in my decision to book to come out with Bath Supporters Travel without consulting friends if anyone else was coming too. Having booked it was great to hear that I won’t be ‘alone’. I tried a nap on arrival which failed miserably thanks to some maintenance work including a drill taking place in the next room just as I was nodding off. I headed out for a walk and a beer before heading to a familiar pizza place on the harbor for some food. The water appeared calm, yet the masts of the boats in the harbor were all dancing away. Sitting watching them all dancing around in the harbor did make me feel a little bizarre – couldn’t work out after a while (or was it the wine?!!) if it was me or the boats that were bobbing around when time came to get the bill!
Saturday was a lazy day for me. I’d decided against the Supporters’ Travel trip to Marseilles and wine tasting as I wanted some relaxing time on my own and not to be rushing around like a loon. Having already been to this city I didn’t feel the urge to sight see. Instead I wondered around the harbor a little and had coffees and hot chocolates and people watched. By far the best activity. The day was somewhat overcast as well and so the photos would not have beaten those taken on the last trip. There were certainly not the mass of Bath shirts present in every bar and cafe as there were back in November and I had traveled over only with 17 others and not the previous 40 odd. it was rather sad but then also understandable that those that came last time might not have been able to have made the return journey.
Match day finally came around and I sat in the Harbor with a beer before hand soaking up the match day atmosphere. There were many more Bath Supporters around town now in all of the bars and restaurants as well as the Touloun fans – the harbor had returned to the hive of activity that it was the last time that we were here. The sun was out – your couldn’t really ask for a more glorious day for rugby. My friend Virginie had driven all the way over from Montpellier (which I later found out was a 4 hour drive – had I known it was that far I would not have suggested her coming all that way!) and arrived about an hour before the game and so I waited for her in the Reception of the hotel as it was going to be easier for us to find each other there with the amount of people milling around.
Once inside the stadium we found our seats relatively easily and caught up and took in the ground and the surrounding area. While the city is beautiful, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the stadium has lots of beautiful views, its mainly several blocks of flats many of whom would have excellent views over the ground, for free! The seats were as uncomfortable as ever. I still don’t understand why the French stadiums never have the supporting back to the seats – just the scooped out seat. It was interesting to notice as well teat the crowd was once again fenced in. I assume to stop anyone from running onto the pitch either during or after the game? We had ordered our tickets from Toulon direct and so we were not surrounded by Bath fans, but there were a few dotted around us. Before the match was anywhere near started we had sung both of the National anthems of both teams. I found this rather strange but apparently it is what they do at Toulon before each European Match. We had a song that was sung by about 6 gentlemen int he middle of the pitch which Virgine had described as the song of the Provencal region. That seemed to go on and on and not a huge amount of audience participation but there were still quite a number of supporters from both sides to enter the stadium. The final chant before the kick off was the Pillou Pillou essentially – Toulon’s version of the Hakka. I have no idea what he is saying or if indeed it is meant to be understood but it was sung/chanted by ALL of the Toulon crowd with him. And then kick off happened and we were under way.
As per usual many confused looks from near by supporters over the volume of the shouting out of the mouth of a female, but I was, as always determined that the Bath boys would hear that though we might not be mighty in numbers we were mighty in noise and passion. A fairly even match was played and certainly a performance from the boys that as a supporter you could be proud of. We may not have ended up in winning but we showed that we CAN play as a team and show some passion, something that has been sadly lacking from our game as of late. Spirits weren’t too down heartened post match as we could have been slaughtered. Sadly we are highly unlikely to win or even come runner up in our group to progress any further in Europe this season, but then maybe that what we need a a team at the moment – just to concentrate on one competition?
An early start on the Monday morning did not leave me partying all night on the Sunday evening, I spent some time with Virgine and her mother post match, followed by dinner and then bed for me whilst I left others to carry on showing the French how the Brits drink post rugby. The last European weekend of the season for me – I wasn’t heading on to Dublin next weekend. Who knows where we will end up next season supporting the boys, hopefully another new city to explore for me!