SOTM World Tour – Brunei

March 4th, 2014

1660320_10153786052195241_1554794481_nI confess that when my old friend Helen invited me to Brunei, I had to look it up on a map as I wasn’t exactly sure where it was.

My blushes were spared when I was told by some of the folk living in this part of Borneo that it’s a common problem. People seem to get sultans and sheiks mixed up, it seems.

So, not knowing what to expect, Kate and I packed up, bid a fond farewell to marvellous Thailand, and flew smoothly into Brunei.

What we found was absolutely fascinating, but before you run off and book your flights there, bear in mind that having insider knowledge of the place, courtesy of meeting locals and expats, really made our short trip a very enjoyable one.

If you didn’t know anyone there, and wandered around on your own, it would be a different experience altogether.

It’s the people of this oil-rich, tropical nation that makes it a unique destination. I was tickled to know that while it’s much, much bigger than Malta, Brunei has the same population size.

An example of the warmth and charm of that population can be found in the top photo, where our new friend Kathy is seen with the pupils she teaches.

But let me begin with Brunei’s more ostentatious side. The Sultan of Brunei was once the world’s richest man, known as a playboy in his younger days (he’s now 67) and educated at Sandhurst.

He is supreme leader, overlord and demigod among the populous. His word is law, and that word has also decreed that Shariah law is going to start being enforced onto this Islamic nation. It’s already been technically in place, but not widely employed, for a while now.

The trappings of his fantastic, oil-derivied wealth are commonly seen. This is Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque, which dominates the centre of the nation’s petite capital, Bandar Seri Begawan.

1654136_10153786110345241_1188310171_nSee the gold bits? They’re actual gold. Not solid, but the paint has real gold in it.

This beautiful building is apparently rather sumptuous inside also, but is only fully functional for two weeks of the year when the Sultan and his ministers debate the forthcoming budget. Aside from those two weeks, its use is quite limited, I was told.

1514290_10153786050385241_1982378209_nThis is the Sultan’s polo club. A high quality hospital was built right next to this, ensuring that should His Majesty ever fall off his steed, he’d be able to receive medical treatment very promptly.

1497448_10153786045140241_1677519658_nThis is a roundabout decoration. Yes, it is a giant diamond ring replica. No, I don’t know why it was built, either.

1779241_10153786042695241_1793821859_nThere are other impressively structured, but rather soulless buildings to be seen in Bandar, but this isn’t really giving you the full picture.

Brunei is a smashing, interesting destination because of the people who live there, both locals and expats.

When Kathy, who is a top-notch and highly qualified English teacher, learned Kate and I were in town, she invited us to her school, on the edge of a water village. She teaches the children English, and kindly agreed to tell them all about Someone Once Told Me. 

994106_10153786073420241_2106784417_nThe kids were brilliant – a little excitable but I like to see kids with a bit of life in them. And Kathy had them firmly under control.

1601248_10153786070455241_1922540329_nSo, they listened attentively as Kathy got across the mechanics of how SOTM worked.

1480632_10153786068980241_1696050172_nThen Kate and I set about taking their photos for SOTM. It was a lot of fun and the children tried very hard in their best English.

After taking their shots individually, we gathered them for a group shot.

1514960_10153786074445241_285881954_nHere’s one of the chaps, the mischievous Nasrul, whose photo I took.

And I was pleased to see how neatly the children kept their shoes. This is what my shoe cupboard looks like generally (at last count, I had 33 pairs of shoes pre-yomping around the globe).

Soon it was time to say goodbye, so Kate and I gave Kathy the bag of notebooks, pens and colouring pencils that we’d brought along. Kathy said she gives out prizes for those pupils who achieve certain academic goals, and assured us that our gifts would be used in this manner.

After all that fun, it was time to meet the school’s headmistress, the charming Hjh Noraini Binti Hj Timbang who insisted on having her photo taken with us.

1011982_10153745661870241_216549647_nIncidentally, Kathy’s air conditioning unit wasn’t working in her classroom, meaning it was quite stuffy in there. But the day after our visit, her headmistress arrived with the repair man, who skills must surely be regarded as essential in this tropical nation, where temperatures can be fixed in the 30s Centigrade (80-90s Fahrenheit), both day and night.

After all that excitement, Kathy took us on a tour of one part of the nearby Water Village, also known as Kampong Ayer, guiding us around the section where most of the children she teaches live.

This is a remarkable place. It is what it sounds like, a group of 42 villages located a few feet above the murky, crocodile inhabited water. The structures spread along the banks of the bay that has burrowed its way into the heart of the capital. Apparently some 10% of Brunei’s population, or 39,000 people, live in the Water Village.

What you see here is only one part of the entire village. The buildings I saw were quite sturdy-looking, and generously sized.

1618665_10153786057555241_1481242860_n

1555441_10153786093425241_1458454302_n

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1013855_10153786056565241_1985442986_nHowever, they are perched on a series of concrete or wooden stilts, and these supports don’t look all that steady to my untrained eye.

1656257_10153786080445241_1243085560_nThis is one property that had collapsed, possibly done on purpose as sometimes families break down shaky parts of their dwellings when they can afford to replace it with better quality living space.

1000224_10153786066320241_999046251_n The entire village is connected by a series of wooden walkways which spread more than 95,600 feet (29,140 meters).  They don’t have sides to them, are slippery when wet and the odd one is loose, so you do have to watch your step somewhat.

1607077_10153786061905241_1960550207_nThe people living there were very friendly, and we got lots of waves and posing for photos. It was a brilliant spot to visit, although it must be said that the people living here are doing so in poverty.

When you hear so many stories of how wealthy the Sultan is, the question arises as to why more of that wealth hasn’t been funnelled this way.

1017358_10153786093145241_1101384797_n I was trying to get this guy with my long lens, but then he spotted me and wouldn’t stop waving until I’d definitely taken his shot.

The place is a normal, working village, filled with people going about their daily lives, which are a far cry from the opulence of the nation’s ruling family.

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But here’s another building that had fallen into the river, demonstrating that life here isn’t always that secure.

1554337_10153786062840241_990448216_n This is a new structure that was going up at the time of our visit.

1554541_10153786089165241_819633475_nI spotted something that I really liked – not only do a lot of these houses have (apparently illegal) satellite dishes, but they often have their own little islands built to house them, too.

Now, at one point Helen took us to a supermarket called Supersave, which is known among the locals as Monkeysave. This is because monkeys congregate there and loiter in hope of getting food.

I actually spotted a couple of women throwing food to the critters, which might not be the best move. They are cute, but can become aggressive and giving them food will make them see all humans as a definite food source.

They’re certainly smart. I saw this one test the roof of the light, making sure it could take his weight before he clambered on top of it.

1625752_10153786048795241_975333473_nWhile Kate and I were there, we also spoke to pupils at Jerudong International School. I jabbered on about journalism, the importance of a free press (Brunei doesn’t have one, its media is controlled by the state) and naturally, Someone Once Told Me.

photo 4Kate talked about the joys and perils of travel blogging, and shared a few tips with how to get started in blogging.

photo 5The kids were great and we had a smashing time talking to them, both this (unexpectedly) large group, and a smaller set we chatted to in the school library afterwards.

Once again, thanks to Helen and her fine efforts, Kate and I both ended up in the local newspapers, the Borneo Bulletin and, seen here, the Brunei Times, who both covered our time spent at the JIS school.

1507370_10153763001400241_774863366_oAnd as if all that wasn’t enough, Helen managed to secure a chat for us with the British High Commissioner, a fine chap called David Campbell. He was very interesting to talk to about the past and future of Brunei.

Here’s the girl of the hour herself – the brilliant Helen with an inspiring story from her youth.

Finally, I also got to get a little time in the jungle, courtesy of Helen’s excellent husband Kris (closest to the camera) and his friend Neale, who do a regular walk on a trail at Bukit Shabander and invited me along. It was a hot, sweaty, green and pleasant afternoon.

This was the view at one point, and it was sumptuous. Welcome to the tropics.

1654398_10153786118635241_52814837_nKris advised me not to lean against this tree. Upon closer inspection, I could see why. Mother Nature was clearly having a bad day when she came up with this design.

1689032_10153786137050241_1590580866_nBrunei is a place to pop into for sure, as there are many fascinating sides to it. But it would be a difficult place to visit on your own, without any help.

Alcohol and cigarettes are banned, for those who care about such things, although foreigners can bring in a small amount for personal, discreet use. There is no nightlife at all, but if you’re hanging around with friendly locals/expats then that can make for a perfectly entertaining stay. Shariah law will tighten behaviour still further, but no-one is quite sure how, as yet.

Many of the folk I met, such as Kathy for example, are keen to show off their part of the world in that kingdom, so if you’re going to Brunei for any reason let me know and I’ll see if I can put you in touch.

They’re hugely friendly types there and are always pleased when visitors pop in, because not too many do. I understand that tourism in Brunei is shrinking and recently stood at around 200,000 people in a year.

Considering the nation’s natural beauty, this seems a low number – but then again, the Sultan is keen to preserve that very natural environment, so perhaps they don’t want too many people trampling all over their tropical forests.

So I recommend securing a contact prior to your arrival, someone who can show you around a little – public transport isn’t great and a car is fairly necessary – and give you an insight into life there, because that will unlock some of this nation’s secrets.

Next stop on the SOTM World Tour? The Philippines, where I find Manila to be a happy hunting ground, whether it’s among the middle classes or people living in one of the city’s cemeteries.

SOTM World Tour – Cambodia’s Temple History

February 28th, 2014

Angkor Wat is big. It’s famous. It’s so revered by Cambodians, it’s on the country’s national flag.

But is it any good?

I think it’s ok. It is worth visiting, but not for too long. Bits of it are impressive and as it’s regarded as probably the world’s largest religious structure, it demands respect.

The temple is actually part of the Angkor Archaeological Park, which contains the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire that date from the 9th to the 15th century.

It’s the most famous site on the park, so we stopped there first. But really it’s just a huge temple complex, with many plain parts, and with lots of faded carvings which overwhelm by the sheer force of their numbers and lose their impact the longer you are there.

To give an example of its architectural splendour, Angkor Wat itself has more than 3,000 apsaras, or heavenly nymphs, carved into its walls, each one a unique design. There are 37 different hairstyles shared between them, also.

Now archeologically, that is remarkable. But seriously, how long do you want to stand around, looking at wall carvings? And while each might be unique, the differences are very subtle, so they don’t immediately strike you as individuals. While these are lovely carvings, how massively different do they look?

The carvings are superb, don’t get me wrong. You’ll note the faces of these ones are scratched out – that’s probably because the Khmer Rouge abolished religion and would often deface or behead any Buddhist imagery.

1461721_10153628956845241_1004384247_nAs I said, Angkor Wat is worth looking around for a while. Here’s some of what I saw.

This corridor was covered with carvings, depicting a variety of scenes, and as such this was a good place to linger and take it all in. Here’s a close up.

And here’s some of those lovely nymphs. Hello, ladies…

Here’s the best looking nymph of them all.

It was blisteringly hot that day, so any shady spot was highly desirable. I never noticed this before I posted this first photo, but check out the living Buddha on the left side.

The grounds are worth a quick look, but the best thing about what’s there is that it’s all so big and sprawled out. Otherwise it’s nothing special.


You can get up high in Angkor Wat and check out the view.

575443_10153628966215241_455528629_nWhich looks like this.

And this.

But after an hour, an hour and a half max – push off. There are much better sights to drink in, just down the road.

When we left Angkor Wat, Adventurous Kate and I hopped back into our tuk tuk, driven by the excellent Mr Mean.

Friendly, always laughing and smiling, handing out bottles of chilled water, you’ll struggle to find a nicer chap than Mr Mean.

I liked saying his name a lot, because it was so at odds with his demeanour. (It turns out you pronounce his name Me-An, but he introduced himself as Mr Mean, so it stuck). If you ever go to Siem Reap, visit New Angkorland hotel (a very decent place to stay and quite reasonably priced) and ask for Mr Mean as we booked him through its reception, so they should have his details.

He took us down the road to Bayon, part of the city of Angkor Thom and on the way you pass these fellows on a bridge with a once-grand entrance, making you feel like you’re entering a secretive, lost city which could count King Kong among its residents.

Now this place is more like it – smaller, and largely crumbled, it nevertheless has much more personality than Angkor Wat.

There are carvings here, but not so many that you become blasé about them.

There’s so much charm about this place.

Bayon is a Buddhist temple and has 37 towers, most sporting four carved faces.

1465214_10153628981530241_155999281_nThe many faces to be seen at Bayon are similar, but located in different parts and positions around the temple, making them very photographable. They’re thought to be of Loksvara, Mahayana Buddhism’s compassionate Bodhisattva, or perhaps a combination of Buddha and Jayavarman VII, the king who built the temple.

My money’s on the latter. You know kings and queens and authority figures everywhere – they give, but they like to be recognised for having done so.

1486833_10153628983875241_1211641003_nAfter a spot of lunch, Mr Mean expertly took us to my favourite part of the temple complex, the brilliant Ta Prohm.

I’ve a three-temple maximum, as I’ve previously mentioned in other blog posts. This was the third of the day, the best and one of the most remarkable I’ve ever seen.

1456061_10153628994570241_2080326739_nThis temple complex was abandoned for centuries, and as a result has been overgrown by giant trees, who have dismissed man’s feeble attempts at making a mark on the land, simply pushing their way past mere stone.

1461860_10153629012040241_179151178_nIt now looks like where Indiana Jones would go for a weekend break, and actually the first Tomb Raider movie was filmed here. Closest I’ll ever get to Angelina Jolie, probably, although I did used to live on the road where Lara Croft and her game was created, in Derby.   

Someone should tell the CIA that the FBI are now running overseas operations. And on a tight budget, clearly.

The place is quite eerie.

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It made me wonder, again, what the world would look like if human life vanished from it.

These roots were so big, they now have to be supported.

I spotted this woman having her picture taken in one of the roots. This is clearly a theme of hers, but whatever it is, that dinosaur is quality.

What remains of the inside of the temple still has much to offer.

1456793_10153628999755241_91411417_nHere’s another Buddha to be found inside Ta Prohm.

Finally, Mr Mean took us to Banteay Kdei, a monastic complex which is in poor repair but is slowly being restored. Now this did break my three-temple rule, but despite feeling a touch of temple fatigue, I enjoyed seeing this one also.

The late afternoon light played happily with what is left of this mainly ruined site, and made for some interesting shapes.


This site may be ruined but it’s still worth a visit.

This kid was curious to see what was in the Big Blue Box parked near the temple’s entrance, but sadly for him there didn’t seem to be anything in there.

While inside we came across this Buddhist shrine. I was told that the Buddha’s head is new, because the Khmer Rouge beheaded it and destroyed the original.

The nun you see here gave Kate and I a blessing and tied coloured string round our wrists. I wondered if they’d last the week, but more than a month later, it’s still on both our wrists!

So if you go on the hunt for Cambodia’s temples, these are four that you should definitely check out, and you can do them in less than a day.

Finally, as we left Banteay Kdei, I bought a Coke for Kate, Mr Mean and me. The woman who sold them was a charmer – look at that smile!

That’s all for my time in fascinating, if occasionally frustrating Cambodia.

SOTM World Tour – Cambodia’s Fearsome History

February 18th, 2014

DSC_0051The Khmer Rouge were a mystery to me before I came to Cambodia. By the time I left, that group had became just as loathsome in my mind as the Nazis.

They were, if anything, an even bigger bunch of homicidal maniacs than their German predecessors in that unhappy club whose membership insists upon death, abuse of power and blind, irrational hate.

The Khmer gang killed as many as they could, as quickly as they could, and they didn’t even have the hateful ideology of the Nazis against Jews and other groups. No need to muster the troops and invade neighbouring countries to wreak havoc, because the Khmer Rouge simply killed their own.

And for what? To maintain a twisted, doomed ideology where everyone worked the land and everyone was equal. Instead they reduced their own society to the worst extremes of the impoverished medieval age.

Money was banned by the regime, would you believe, as was private property and public displays of affection, even between families. People were killed for wearing spectacles or knowing a foreign language.

Naturally those in the Khmer Rouge themselves were exempt from these idiotic rules. Their leader, the hideous Pol Pot, was an intellectual who had studied abroad in France and could speak its language.

The millions who died on Cambodia’s Killing Fields, and those who perished because they were starved or overworked to death, need to have their story told, because suppressing these horrors is how the Khmer Rouge got away with it from 1975-1979. People outside, and often inside the country, didn’t know what was going on, which is what their moronic leaders wanted.

So, here are a few images of the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek where people were killed in huge numbers. Although the Killing Fields were actually hundreds of sites across the entire country, this one outside of Phnom Penh has come to be known by that name and symbolises the horror in its entirety.

Also there are shots of the notorious prison S21, or Tuol Sleng, where thousands were tortured into confessions of completely fabricated crimes, such as spying for both the US and Russia and other such fevered delusions, by people whose stupidity was measured in tears.

The top shot shows the location of one of Choeung Ek’s mass graves.

When you arrive, the first thing you see is the Buddhist stupa, which has many skulls within it. We placed a couple of incense sticks before it, in memory of those who died.

This is a tooth I spotted on another grave site. When the rains come, they persuade the earth to give up fragments of those who were clubbed and hacked to death here – the Khmer Rouge did not waste bullets by shooting prisoners, instead bludgeoning them to death.

DSC_0052The tooth was within easy sight of the path, and the only one visible, so I suspect it was placed there. But its power and story remain undiminished.

Once fenced off at the front, and bordered by a small expanse of water at the back, Chuong Ek is now a very peaceful place. The wind plays with the long grass and butterflies jig about the green tips, which were once stained red.

1507550_10153643700600241_1453288251_nExplanatory boards help you understand what the place was, and how it worked.

DSC_0033There are cabinets where you can see clothes which have been dug up, and on top of them are bone fragments, pieces of jaw and skull, all kinds of shattered bone remains.

I stood and looked at these shorts for a while, so small that they must have belonged to a child.

I wondered what threat a child could possibly pose to the Khmer Rouge regime.

Later I learned how their philosophy was that if you killed an adult for whatever delusional crimes had been dreamed up against them, you also had to kill the entire family, so as to ensure the children would not grow up and come after the perpetrators.

These strips of cloth can be seen in large numbers. They were used to blindfold those earmarked for execution, who were killed on the edge of pits.

This is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. It’s a large tree right next to a pit where bodies of women and children were found after the collapse of the regime.

It later emerged that Khmer Rouge soldiers would beat the heads of babies against this tree’s bark, before tossing their lifeless bodies into the adjacent hole with their mothers.

Today, people leave coloured bracelets pinned to the bark, which once contained fragments of skull, hair and brain according to the man who found it after the Khmer Rouge had fled.

This is the grave next to the tree.

On many of the grave sites bracelets and money is placed, offerings to the deceased.

Sadly, there were a number of $100 bills dotted about which looked fake to me. It’s easy to buy fake money in Cambodia and I suspect they’d been placed there to guilt foreigners into making similarly large, but genuine, donations.

I could be wrong about this, but there were also plenty of Cambodian riel about, and they hadn’t decayed the same way. Also, that money could have done much good to impoverished Cambodians alive today, so who would leave it to rot on a former grave site?

1526668_10153643736220241_301583199_nBefore people came to die at the Killing Fields, they were imprisoned and tortured at Tuol Sleng, also known as S21.

Some 17,000 men, women and children passed through its gates. Only 12 survived, the rest dying there or mostly being taken off to be butchered.

So this was the gateway to hell for many.

1513657_10153636606835241_1030880125_nTuoel Sleng is a former school, and you can clearly see that in its architecture.

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1469818_10153636548485241_841462238_nDifferent floors were dedicated to imprisoning different levels of prisoner, many of which had formerly been in the Khmer Rouge but were later deemed an enemy of the regime, for reasons only known to those clinging to power.

DSC_0886Higher ranking prisoners were chained to beds in the ground floor rooms.

1456697_10153636553330241_563375459_nThis table was chilling. It was where a Khmer Rouge officer would sit and fire questions at the prisoner chained to the bed in front of it, trying to get them to confess to something that would incriminate them.

Why they didn’t just kill them straight away seems baffling, as they were making up the crimes that they were accusing them of anyway.

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1482772_10153636549335241_71127957_nThe Khmer Rouge were meticulous in their record keeping (as were the Nazis).

Photos can be seen of those young men, mostly peasants and many in their mid-late teens, who were the prison’s jailers and torturers and who mostly just went home after the regime ended, meaning they are still alive today, unpunished.

Those who’ve more recently been interviewed say they were brainwashed and were victims of the regime themselves.

960075_10153636568780241_1527601014_n
1512744_10153636570410241_1712492761_nAlso, there are many photos of traumatised, horrified looking people – the prisoners. Every single one who came to S21 was photographed in a special chair, which is still on the premises. Some 6,000 of these images still survive.

This man, like so many others, looks like he knows he’s going to be tortured and then killed. Which he was.

The individual trappings of the former prison are still present, humanising the concrete and tile, serving as a reminder that people spent endless days here, before their days eventually ended.

The prisoner restraints and metal boxes once used to put their meagre food and water rations in are still around. Those boxes looked like they were originally ammunition boxes.

936024_10153636540375241_886317745_nThis was formerly an exercise frame used by the schoolchildren. For the Khmer Rouge it was a place to hoist up prisoners with their outstretched arms tied awkwardly behind their backs.

When they passed out in pain, they would be dunked upside down in one of the large pots beneath to revive them.

If they did not confess to some nonsense idea, they’d go through it all over again.

1479455_10153636564880241_805425862_nIn another of the site’s blocks were these crude cells. They had no doors as their former inhabitants were restrained by short chains.

1499546_10153636576625241_20755593_nThe chains are still there.

The brickwork forming the cell walls is so poor that it’s now being held up by metal scaffolding. I’m assuming that this wasn’t there when the place was used as a prison.

It was on these nails that the padlock keys to the shackles were kept.

1510504_10153636591525241_1306426728_nAnd the shackles also held prisoners in place in the larger rooms. Hundreds of them were crammed into the former classrooms, forced to lie on the floor in close rows at night and not make any sound.

Once every few weeks, if they were lucky, they’d have a hose sprayed over them so they could attempt to wash themselves.

960248_10153636572645241_1423856906_nFinally, here’s the very devil himself, Pol Pot. A typically insecure tyrant, he had many busts in his unsightly likeness around the place.

1512666_10153636573445241_1528470526_nHappily not all of Cambodia’s history is so horrific. There are some ancient temples which are really worth a look, which I’ll write about next time.

 

 

SOTM World Tour – Cambodia

February 16th, 2014

DSC_0003I didn’t know what to expect from Cambodia. I was keen to go because Kate raved about the place, and also I wanted to delve into the history of the Khmer Rouge, a group whose name I knew but whose scale of crimes I was unsure of.

What I found was a complicated country, enriched by many of its people, hindered by others. It’s a fascinating place which has understandably weaved its spell over many non-Cambodians. However, while it’s easy to like, it’s a tough place to love, depending on your experiences.

Let’s start with how I found the country to be a photographer’s dream. Its landscape is eye-catching, even its simplest architecture is carved out with an aesthetic eye, and many Cambodians are keen to pose for the camera, making street photography a real joy.

I spent a happy afternoon in the capital, Phnom Penh, walking around taking photos of the streets and its inhabitants. This gent was keeping a fire going on the street, presumably for culinary purposes.

DSC_0056I found this chap astride his hog, which I was quite taken with.

DSC_0012And speaking of motorbikes – well, we are in South East Asia. The motorbike here is king, and there are literally endless examples of them in Cambodia.

DSC_0040-2 This family were astride one bike – and there’s frequently an awful lot more people, and goods, to be seen expertly balanced on bikes around here.

Texting on a bike with a small boy on the front, while neither of you wear a helmet? No problem.

DSC_0079-2None of these bikes were going very fast, but you still wish people would protect their noggins while on them.

You see babies and small children perched on many bikes, and those kids clearly grow up to have expert balancing skills.

This chap didn’t seem to have a bike, so I assume he pulled people around with this contraption. Tiring work, clearly.

DSC_1038I popped into the capital’s Olympic Stadium one evening (no idea why it’s called that as the Olympics were never in Phnom Penh) just to look around, and stumbled across an international friendly, Cambodia – in blue – against Guam.

Guam were much better than Cambodia, sadly, and won 2-0, the second goal coming from an own goal. I did capture this shot, a split second before Cambodia’s goalie came charging out and got clattered – by his own defender, the chap in blue.

There were no tickets or anything at the ground, you literally just walked in. The crowd was sparse, too.

I later learned that the stadium was the site of executions by the Khmer Rouge. This is an example of how much terrible history is never far away from Cambodia’s landscape.

While the game went on, there was some rather loud UNTZ UNTZ UNTZ music polluting the airwaves behind me. All around the top perimeter were people of varied ages, but mostly older folk, waving their arms and legs around aerobics-style to the beatz.

It was painful to listen to but the whole thing was a great idea, because as much as I hate exercising myself, it’s the right thing to do of course. Not that this philosophy ever made my Bikram yoga classes any easier.

DSC_1032 This guy dreams of being a choreographer on Cambodian X-Idol Factor, I reckon.

DSC_1022Excitingly, one day Kate and I stumbled across a network of temples not far from our Phnom Penh lodgings, called Wat Ounalom. It is here that you can literally crawl into a tiny, hot room, crammed with many Buddhas and dominated by a dark-coloured one.

It was overseen by this gentleman, who gave us a blessing and sprayed water over us. 

He kept saying “eyebrow, eyebrow”, the only English word he seemed to know, and immediately afterwards we found out that an eyebrow hair from Buddha is kept in that tiny chamber. So the story goes, anyway, but I was delighted to have been so close to such a relic, albeit one that does require a dash of faith in accurate historical records.

At one point I managed to get up high in Phnom Penh, atop the rather nice Green Palace Hotel. It has a rooftop bar that affords excellent views of this captivating city.

DSC_0845And while looking down on the sun setting over Phnom Penh. I met the Rather Amazing Amy Hanson, who runs the Small Steps Project, and also her friend Benedicta Bywater who runs Safe Haven Cambodia Children’s Trust.

Both do superb work in helping the poor in this country, so do check their respective charities out. Amy runs an annual, brilliant, celebrity shoe auction which contains the former Scooby Doos (shoes) of very famous types.

And both took part in SOTM, happily. Here’s the tour de force that is Amy.

And this is the unforgettable Benedicta.

But while I did enjoy my time in Cambodia, it’s clear that the country’s many problems include an increasing level of crime. 

I’ve never newly-arrived in a country and heard of, or experienced, so much crime in such a short space of time.

In no way were we looking for it, or asking about it, but as we went about the place we randomly met travellers who had their cameras snatched out their hands on Phnom Penh’s streets, or witnessed backpacks being ripped off of people’s backs in broad daylight by motorbike riders, and other such stories.

My Swedish friend stayed at the same hotel as we did in Phnom Penh and was violently mugged while in a tuk tuk – he fought back in a street battle involving him, five thieves and his driver who came to his aid. He retrieved his friend’s bag but he then went to Siem Reap and had his phone stolen there by a gang of street children. Again, he managed to retrieve it.

We came across these stories easily, and more. Worst of all Kate got extorted $200 to get her own iPhone back after she lost it on the way to Kampot and the man who found it made his costly demand, after failing to sell it for a better price.

Interestingly, while some Westerners we encountered seem willing to claim that there is nothing, or very little, in the way of criminal acts in Cambodia, the chief prosecutor of Phnom Penh says that there has been a yearly increase in crime in the country.

He does blame that on an increase in political protests, a claim which seems false to me and has certainly been disputed by Cambodian human rights groups.

Also, the British Foreign Office gives advice for travelling to the country and states how as of 2013 there has been increase in the number of crimes reported by Britons in that country, particularly in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, where a fellow traveller told me he personally knew five women who’d recently had their drinks spiked.

And just the other day, a Finnish woman I met travelling in Thailand went to Sihanoukville and was attacked by two men on motorbikes. The next day she says the police took her bike and refused to return it unless she paid a fine (she cried for an hour and they eventually gave it back for $10).

When she then returned the bike to the hire place the owner said it was damaged and that she had to pay a fine (she cried for another hour and they eventually returned her passport). She’s now left the country and says she isn’t coming back.

My position is that Cambodia is a hugely interesting country, with a wonderful landscape and terrible roads.

It’s also got an awful, compelling history which needs to be healed yet still told,  and while it’s got an engaging population there’s an increasing element that is fed up of being so poor and is starting to steal what it wants. If they continue to do this, people will stay away, not invest in the economy and Cambodians will be worse off, through the fault of the more unscrupulous members of its society.

Here’s a noble expression told to one Cambodian woman by her father, and I rather wish that more of her countrymen and women would take heed of it too. Click on the image to learn the translation.

If you’re interested in Cambodia then you should certainly go – but be more vigilant there than anywhere else. It is absolutely not a place to drop your guard such as by leaving your camera or bag within easy snatch-and-grab reach of expert motorbikers, the victims of which I met in Phnom Penh.

And if you do go I recommend popping down to Kampot, a slightly ramshackle town well worth the trip.

DSC_0374 The place is famous for its pepper, and also known for its amusing roundabouts. Here’s the one which pays homage to a giant durian fruit (which Kate hates and says smells of feet.)

There is one theory as to why many of these roundabouts have large statues on them – it’s so that any uneducated people can get about without having to read road signs. So it’s straight on till the durian roundabout, then left until you hit the salt workers’s roundabout etc etc.

DSC_0203Kampot is sweetly run down in parts but also very interesting to look at, and some of its buildings are actually in decent shape.

DSC_0495We stayed in the excellent Magic Sponge, a smashing guest house that was affordable for us ($12 a night for a large en suite room which actually had two double beds.)

The owner is a flawlessly friendly Alaskan called William. No idea how an Alaskan ended up at the bottom of Cambodia, but he runs a great setup down there. If you go, tell him Kate and I said hello.

One day we went to Kep, which has superb crab. On the way we stopped at a Muslim fishing village, which is pretty small and quiet and not visually interesting in the slightest. Tours of the area often include it on the itinerary but it really isn’t worth a visit unless you’re actually a fisherman.

Still, while there I spotted one boy and his cat.

DSC_0441 Here’s just one example of the beautiful architecture that you’ll find out in the countryside, ageing beauty queens who must content themselves with passing flirtations from those biking by.

DSC_0481 And it was while we were in Kampot that our tuk tuk got stuck in terrible mud on the way to the Les Manguiers resort, located just a little way out of the town.

I had to push the machine out of the thick, grasping, infectious mud. I managed to do so and felt manly afterwards, I don’t mind telling you.

mud While we were at that place, a storm lashed down with the rage of a bear awoken early from hibernation to find that a fox has stolen his supply of honey and is now wearing his slippers.

When we managed to get back to Kampot itself we found many of the town’s streets had flooded. This is a regular event and the locals took it all in their stride, as you can see.

DSC_0334 In Kampot I also spotted this guy. He was looking over his shoulder while still driving at speed a lot longer than he should have been…

And there’s plenty to photograph on Kampot’s network of wide streets, which are sometimes smooth, often not and frequently do not have pavements. When they do, they’re sometimes in such bad repair that everyone walks on the street anyway.

That’s it for this bumper blog edition. Next time, I learn about the Khmer Rouge and their appalling reign in Cambodia in the 1970s.

SOTM World Tour – Thai Islands

February 14th, 2014

I’m a bit wary of sunset photos. While they look amazing, they are of the same thing, with only a variance of landscape which can often be slight.

And most often I suspect they’ve been so heavily amended by a filter such as Instagram or Snapseed, that they are now very far removed from what the photographer actually saw.

I started thinking about this after I took this photo of sunset from Lonely Beach on the Thai island of Koh Chang. Adventurous Kate had gone off to work in Italy on a trip for a couple of weeks and I was kicking my heels on the island in the meantime, on her recommendation.

Anyway, while the sunset was great, I ran it through Instagram and made it look even better. You can see it at the top here, and while that is what I saw, it’s a little better than what I actually witnessed. But there’s a plentiful number of people who say such alterations don’t matter.

The debate over sunset authenticity v aesthetics will continue for some time, I suspect.

Anyhow, I’ll always look back at my time on Koh Chang as the place where I partied harder than I have done in years, and also fell in love with motorbikes.

This being South East Asia, everyone uses a motorbike it seems. I used to occasionally hitch a ride to school on the back of a scooter in Malta when I was a boy, but have never driven one myself.

I didn’t have a push bike as a kid and learned as a teenager, so have always been a bit wobbly on a bicycle as a result of a lack of practice.

Therefore I was hesitant about taking on a motorbike, seeing as Thailand is one of the world’s most dangerous places to drive, and there is such a thing as a “Koh Chang tattoo” which is the scrapings you get after falling off a bike.

However, I finally mounted a mechanical steed and drove around happily on the island’s decent, if occasionally very steep and twisty roads.

I did worry that the helmet made me look like a member of the SS, mind.

On another occasion I took a bike I noticed some time later that the tread on the tyres was clearly a thing of the long and distant past. Also, the engine warning light came on a lot but when I told the woman who hired it me, she just shrugged and said she didn’t have any oil.

This taught me a valuable lesson – always check the tyres before you take a bike on.

Also, learn how to kick start it. That’s pretty easy but I didn’t know how to do it, and was stranded at one point on a Cambodian bridge, some weeks after my Koh Chang trip, when my bike wouldn’t restart.

Luckily a nearby fisherman came over and showed me the procedure, but I had another bike back in Thailand that wouldn’t start either, proving that a) these bikes are driven into the ground and not very well maintained and b) learning to kickstart is important, otherwise you’ll be stuck wherever you last parked – although kickstarting is common knowledge so you could always ask for help from passers-by.

Anyway, back on Koh Lanta, I was tootling around on my first bike with my new friends, Anton and Jasmin, two Finns who are long-time best friends and were travelling together.

They were a lot of fun and we had a good few laughs. Anton was shocked to eventually learn I was 40 at the time we met, as he was 21 and this meant I’m old enough to be his dad. He started calling me father, disturbingly, but I embraced it and called him son. We still do that over Facebook now.

1377240_10153413298440241_298113982_nHere’s Anton’s SOTM.

And here is the lovely Jasmin’s. She too is great fun and we were introduced through our mutual friend Backpacker Becki, who came over to Koh Chang and we all hung out during a fun week.

While on Koh Chang I saw an impressive fire show at one of the bars on Lonely Beach. I grabbed this shot with my iPhone which pleased me somewhat. All these chaps had their cigarettes lit by this man’s spinning, flaming balls. I raised my eyebrows and happily they kept theirs.

Although Lonely Beach area is a lot of fun, it is far removed from its name. Sadly, the beach itself is dirty in places and getting worse. There is a lot of rubbish around and it’s frankly spoiling what is otherwise a great spot.

I was told that foreigners tried to clean it up and sort out a regular cleaning/recycling scheme, but that local Thai officials refused to support it. This seems like slow suicide, as people will go elsewhere when they are fed up of treading on condoms, plastic bottles and bits of broken glass, all of which are on Lonely Beach itself.

During my stay, for the first time in years, I hit the party scene. Hard. Suffice to say that most of my evenings were taken up with vodka Red Bull buckets and kebabs. Both free, if you timed things right at the appropriate bar. Things never got too wild, but I did get a little squiffy a couple of times.

On my first night I saw a ladyboy show, in which they mimed to Whitney Houston. Nice work, ladies.

Also, more Finns arrived and my two Finnish mates befriended them. We all became pals and partied a bit. This is my favourite photo of us all. I’m getting on famously with Anton here, as you can see.

1383457_10200921252376851_1484886068_nAnd otherwise I hung out with a load of Swedish girls. They were all a great laugh and at one point we went to a waterfall where they were all running around in bikinis. I would post pics but this isn’t that sort of blog.

Alternatively, here’s a shot of us all at a viewing point in Koh Chang. They were a great bunch, both the Swedes and their Thai male companions.

1393672_10152331576266501_2035546939_nWeeks later I headed to the remote Phayam island. This has a good reputation but I wasn’t that taken with it. I did get this one shot, run through Instagram.

But otherwise its beaches were dirty, either from natural wood and seaweed or from humans – flip-flops, plastic bottles, all sorts.

The one nice beach we went to was littered with hundreds of jellyfish, making swimming impossible there. This one was a particular monster, the size of a hubcap. Here it is next to my flip-flop for scale.

And here’s an example of the rubbish to be found on its beaches. It is a very remote spot – most places don’t have 24-hour electricity, the wifi advertised in a couple of cafes doesn’t work very well and it’s not a place to hang out in unless you’re Jason Bourne or are on the run.

I did see this sign which made me chuckle, though. We later breakfasted here and it was full of older British expats.

Shortly after our brief stay on Koh Phayam, Kate and I headed to her beloved Koh Lanta. Now this really did have a good vibe, and Kate assured me that it was one of her favourite spots in the world.

On the ferry ride over from Krabi, I grabbed these couple of Instagrammed shots of the islands that we passed by.

Klong Dao beach, where we settled, is a superb spot. We stayed at the Cha Ba Bungalows and they were pretty good, right by the beach with plenty going on nearby.

There are cheap, basic bungalows, which we stayed in, and also better quality ones are available for those with a bigger budget, or not trying to stretch theirs around the world for a year.

When you get off the ferry at the harbour, you pay a 20 baht tax (37p, 60 US cents, 44 euro cents) to keep the island clean.

I did wonder where that money would really be going, but having spent a few weeks on Klong Dao, and ridden another motorbike around the island, it is really quite clean, so perhaps it’s well spent after all.

This place is a fantastic location and a perfect example of how worthy a destination can become if it’s not built up too much, and cleanliness is maintained on its streets, beaches and in its waters.

This chap pops up on Klong Dao sometimes, and is like the Pied Piper as kids from all over the place come running along to chase his soapy balloons. It’s quite hypnotic to watch. Again, this photo is via Instagram.

During our Koh Lanta time we hired more bikes and went for a tootle around to the Old Town, and then back up the other side of the island, stopping a few times along the way. Here’s some of what we saw, starting with the Old Town itself.

1557729_10153718848555241_1559804668_n

1497637_10153715474595241_1766849519_nThis woman and her son, I presume, were watching a man burn and cut long shrubs.

58433_10153782713430241_1395805815_nI also came across the Thai Snoop Dogg.

1546047_10153782716995241_108448551_nThese were our bikes. Koh Lanta’s roads are good and using them to explore resulted in a cracking day out.

However, this guy topped all the local riders when it came to displaying bike skills that day.

Here’s a dog I was quite taken with, who would come say hello whenever we ate at a good and cheap street-side restaurant. I named him Poochie, for reasons I can’t quite recall. I’m normally a bit better with my animal monikers, but still.

He was a very friendly chap and I was worried about him living on the streets – I bought him food from the local 7-11 a couple of times, which he gobbled up speedily.

I was considering dognapping him and sending him back to my sister, but later found out he belonged to another restaurant owner, so I do think he is getting some food and shelter, at least.

And speaking of dogs, one of my favourite things on Koh Lanta was our visit to the marvellous Lanta Animal Welfare.

This is a smashing place that does a lot to help the animals on the island. This includes caring for sick and injured ones, but also it neuters animals, administers rabies shots and tries to educate the locals about how they can live alongside various strays.

Who says napping is just for cats?

1510849_10153684427665241_1391410941_nSadly sometimes the animals that come here are badly maimed by people – having been cut wide open or having had boiling oil thrown over them, that sort of thing.

This poor chap had his leg crushed by a car. He seems to be coping now thought, after plenty of loving care at the centre.

 The staff here are mostly volunteers. This lady is from Italy and was spending a few weeks there.

All the signs are that the animals here are well cared for in a responsible, loving manner.

1512594_10153684441190241_990412504_n

1520609_10153684440690241_460973682_nAnd the centre is eager to promote adoption of its charges. All the animals are available for rehoming, even overseas.

The centre runs a full adoption programme with all the necessary veterinarian checks and international paperwork needed. It’s pricey but not as expensive as you might think.

Here are some of the centre’s successful adoption stories.

1521358_10153684419895241_363649229_n“I never had to have bath time when I was a stray, dagnammit…”

1538748_10153684424385241_80509541_nThe animals kept in these cages are either ill or recovering from treatment.

1544489_10153684417525241_1317322255_nLike this chap.

Also while on Koh Lanta I got some SOTM action in. Here’s the smashing Aruna, who runs a guest house on the island.

And here is the unforgettable Jenifer Divine, an American who has lived on Koh Lanta for some four years and says she feels totally at home here – so much so that the locals call her dok mai, a Thai word meaning blossom.

Finally, Kate and I celebrated my birthday, Christmas and New Year during our time on Koh Lanta. Here we are on my 41st birthday, sipping on coconuts and chilling on the beach – something I’ve always wanted to do on my birthday.

1521949_10153640252110241_184638897_nThat’s it for this Thai island round up. They are generally beautiful places and I’d recommend Koh Lanta in particular. So if you do go, please support Lanta Animal Welfare too. And give the kitties and pooches a cuddle from me.

 

SOTM World Tour – Chiang Mai and Pai

January 29th, 2014

995008_10153694685995241_2112312177_nChiang Mai proved memorable for two reasons.

Firstly, it’s the closest thing Thailand gets to being trendy in the Western sense, at least. It’s got American-themed burger joints, cute cafes run by Americans, sports bars that show Premier League football, and places to hang out in and listen to live blues or jazz.

Chiang Mai is the cool, trendy kid at school, the one with the best trainers who doesn’t have spots and gets the latest gadget the same day it’s released. But it’s also friendly, lets you come round and borrow its computer games, and makes you wish you were cooler, so you could have an excuse to spend more time together.

Secondly, it’s got great temples, but while we did do a bit of temple-hopping, we didn’t do too much. My three-temple maximum depends on how many days the temples are seen over, and how long we spend in each one. And, as I’m interested in Buddhism, whether or not Buddha is the main feature of the temple in question.

The highlight of Chiang Mai’s temples is the remarkable Wat Phra That which is located near the top of the mountain known as Doi Suthep. Consequently, people often call the temple Doi Suthep also. The top image was taken there.

Its location is interesting – among the many legends attached to this place, the strongest one is that a white elephant was given a religious relic to carry. It then walked up to this lofty spot, trumpeted three times, and died. The temple was built on the spot where it passed away.

You get up to it via a twisty, windy songtao taxi ride, and then you have to make the final part yourself, via the Naga Serpent Staircase.

The serpents look like this.

And the 300 steps they flank each side are like this.

At the very bottom I went back for a closer shot of these girls.

At the top is a fairly small area stuffed with gold-coloured Buddhas and other religious symbols. This stupa dominates the skyline.

There’s so much to look at, it’s quite overwhelming at times.

1506059_10153694592730241_1866804112_nThese bells are commonplace, and it seems as though you can write your name on the hearts that dangle from them. A variation on the theme of love locks, I suppose

People frequently make candle offerings and pray at various points around the temple.

1530389_10153694691380241_2130669176_nAnd you can be blessed by a monk in at least a couple of the smaller temple buildings on this site. My nephew Thaisaac, (Thai-Isaac, geddit?) who was still on his odyssey in Thailand with us at this point, and we were both blessed by another monk.

I grabbed a hip-height and therefore blind photo of this blessing. These people had bought a basket of goods from inside the door, and offered it to the monk, who then blessed them. Note the monk’s many tattoos.

1509059_10153694593680241_1620425049_nSpeaking of monks, we spotted them often, of course. Whether it was doing their daily chores…

996092_10153694566795241_317958591_n…or conducting their daily prayers, which I captured using my iPhone…

…or readjusting their robes…

1545865_10153694533480241_1118502188_n… or chatting to skinny white boys, they were everywhere, as you would expect.

1470249_10153576652560241_57563880_nThis chap gave an interesting insight into the life of a monk, at something called a “monk chat” where anyone can come do as the title suggests. The holy men get to practice their English and the foreigners who attend get an insight into monastery life. Several monasteries do this, apparently.

Our monk told us that he didn’t have all the answers to Buddhism, so he entered the monkhood to try and learn them. “I’m still learning,” he said.

He also said he shaved his head once a month, didn’t eat after noon, went to bed early and got up very early in the morning to pray, and missed being able to play sports, which he did prior to his life as a monk.

Disturbingly, he also told me that while on a trip to London, he’d visited the Emirates football stadium, and therefore supported Arsenal. I fear for his chances of enlightenment with allegiances like that.

Here’s more monks at prayer in one of Chiang Mai’s many temples. They are worth a look because they’re small and very beautiful, crammed with ornate decorations but you can be done with one in about 15 mins, so temple fatigue won’t set in too quickly.

Another site worth seeing in Chiang Mai is Wat Chedi Luang.

1530460_10153694538055241_829827194_n

It’s ruined, but still worth a look and there’s some Buddhist items of  interest around its periphery.

This was my favourite – an image of Tan Pra Maha Kajjana who was a monk so handsome that people mistook him for Lord Buddha. Once, an enlightened monk became corrupted because of thoughts he had upon seeing Tan Pra Maha Kajjana.

To stop all the trouble he was causing for being too handsome, our hero turned himself into a fatter, uglier monk so that no-one would fancy him.

Here he is, post transformation. I think he looks rather jolly.

While at Wat Chedi Luang, I saw a series of beautiful golden Thai Buddhas gleaming in the sun.

But I was more taken with the shadows they were casting, and I’m mindful of the fact that you can keep taking pictures of Buddha until the day you achieve enlightenment. It’s worth trying to think of different ways to photograph a similar subject. I liked how this one turned out.

Chiang Mai is also famed for its markets. Here’s Thaisaac and I at one, in which we bought some Christmas goodies for the folks back in England.

1557520_10153694699685241_1172688202_nAnd I managed to get some SOTM action in there as well, thanks to the excellent Michael Dewey, who blogs as Wanderlust Mike.

An American living in Thailand, he organised a meet up at the Focus Gallery, a coffee shop and bar, which was well attended. Thaisaac and I set about the crowd and we got a number of shots between us.

Here’s Michael’s SOTM.

31122013After Chiang Mai, we popped briefly to Pai. This was via the notorious 762 curves that the minibus you take has to negotiate on the journey from Chaing Mai.

This is during the two-and-a-half hour journey, so it’s a lot in a short space of time. Thaisaac was worried about yakking in the bus, but we were all fine, except for one lady who threw up in a bag.

Apparently, there’s always one.

When in Pai we hired motorbikes. Thaisaac was a bit wobbly at first, understandably, but the roads around Pai are good quality and quiet, so we were all able to ride around safely.

I’d never driven a bike myself until I was on Koh Lanta island a few weeks ago, but since then have fallen in love with two wheels, having never been much of a fan of bicycles. I now dream of getting a red Vespa when back in England.

While in Chiang Mai we met fellow travellers Josh Haftel and his lovely wife Natasha. Josh is a tour de force, and with the best beard this side of the Mississippi. His story comes from his time at the Burning Man festival, held in the Nevada desert.

I must also mention the trip Thaisaac and I took to the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai. It rescues and cares for elephants who are often abused by their owners.

There is nothing, quite nothing like seeing a happy elephant.

1521421_10153707330765241_2000555735_nWell, would you want the job of scratching an elephant’s inner thigh?

This baby was hugely entertained by this loop of cord.

1525072_10153707162065241_1649450966_nThis is one of the elephant mahouts. Each one has a human assigned to it, and they spend all day with their animal, keeping it out of trouble. Occasionally, however, the elephants get rumbustious and the mahouts bear the brunt of this.

One had just been put in hospital for two days after it was thrown about by its elephant.

This chap was carving out an elephant as a group of them frolicked about nearby.

While babies always stick close to their protective mums, they also have aunties, other female elephants, who keep a close eye on the little ones. I mean little in the elephantine sense, of course.

1526910_10153707166305241_1462027427_nElephants eat a lot.

1535393_10153707171340241_2075628184_nWe got to feed them ourselves, and it was oddly addictive to have their nimble, fast, wet-ended trunks snuffle around your hands and whisk the fruit chunks away.

One part of our visit saw us wash the elephants in the river by chucking buckets of water over them. They seemed to love it and we certainly did.

1549279_10153707230790241_1227808019_n

1551609_10153707290690241_1642943795_nAnd finally – while in Pai Kate and I finally did something we’ve joked about for a while. The Korean Thing.

You see, in South Korea couples who have been dating for 100 days are allowed to dress the same. And I mean the same – exactly matching outfits. Shops will even sell his ‘n’ hers t-shirts, trousers, shoes etc. It’s taken very seriously and only after 100 days would a couple be ready to take this next important step in their relationship.

Pai seems to have cottoned on to this, for some reason. Maybe it’s not just a South Korean thing, although I was led to believe it was. But in Pai you can also buy his ‘n’ hers t-shirts.

So Kate and I bought a couple, which don’t exactly fit us but what the hell. Best 500 baht we’ve ever spent.

That’s all for this time. Next time I’ll do a round up of my time on some of the Thai islands, which includes time with Swedish girls, happy dogs, cheerful cats and beautiful sunsets.

SOTM World Tour – Bangkok

January 24th, 2014

When I was a boy, growing up in Malta, I often heard a song on the radio called One Night In Bangkok.

I loved it, recorded it onto a tape and then listened to it all the time. When I got into my teens I discovered it came from the musical Chess, the music for which was written by Benny and Bjorn from Abba.

Amusingly, there’s a lyric in One Night In Bangkok that goes: “If you’re lucky then the God’s a she.” I couldn’t work out what it said, so I used to sing: “If you’re lucky then they’ve got some sheep.”

Well, I was about eight.

Anyway, some 32 years later, I landed in Bangkok for the first time. And I loved it.

It’s fun. It’s crowded. It’s friendly. It’s polluted, cheap and occasionally smelly. Lots of people speak English. It is easy to travel around as a backpacker, so those seeking a challenge should look elsewhere.

But if you want a bloody good time, then spend much longer than one night in this crazy town.

Let me pick a few highlights from my time in Bangers, as I affectionately called it. First up, Chinatown. Incidentally the top image is Kate and me in the back of a tuk tuk, returning from a happy afternoon in that place.

It’s a wonderful, narrow labyrinth of shops, stalls, clothes, motorbikes, Hello Kitty phone covers, dried squid, handbags, and lots, lots more. You name it, you can buy it or eat it here. We had two bowls of tasty noodle soup, in a place where no-one spoke English and the paint was peeling off the walls and the electrics looked past retirement, for 40p each.

Here’s a typical Chinatown side street, and there are some which are narrower.

1383668_10153379074740241_719704391_nThe shops here all very well stocked.

582345_10153379084765241_846717404_nBikes squeeze in and out of the tiny, streets crowded by people, boxes, and other bikes.

Outside of Italy, I’ve never seen so many Vespas. They are hugely popular here, and many are quite old. I’ve decided to own one someday.

He looked like he’d done that before. At least, I hope he had.

Here’s a brand I’ve never heard of before, although it does have a familiar ring to it…

There’s so much choice in Chinatown that it’s impossible to make a quick decision.

Housewives and househusbands could spend hours in here.

You want wigs? They got wigs.

1174665_10153379073750241_983108897_nHappily Kate and I never got close to breaching my three-temple maximum during our time in the Thai capital. We went for quality over quantity, and it was an excellent move.

We took a trip on a crowded boat down the river to the marvellous Wat Arun.

It has a startling level of detail, its facade being incredibly intricate.

1385341_10153379049990241_469872795_n

1174578_10153379048060241_1012656437_nThe view from higher up the temple.

1393826_10153379051770241_1534753705_nAnd guess what – while at Wat Arun I found those sheep I used to sing about!

Continuing the animal theme, I came across these fellows. Never mind the identity of the fifth Beatle, who’s this fourth monkey?

1382415_10153352637875241_482481115_nAway from temples, Kate and I spent a lot of time on the streets of the legendary Khaosan Road and its adjacent streets, as we were staying nearby. Here she is about to feast on our favourite, mango with sticky rice.

1393572_10153379032010241_2084350870_nGrazing for street food is a smashing, and fun way, to fill your stomach with tasty treats, for very little cash.

1381841_10153379036325241_289259284_n

1378349_10153379018465241_174302835_n

1395946_10153379026920241_694358514_nIt may be street food, but someone’s still got to do the washing up.

Eating isn’t the only thing that goes down on Bangkok’s streets. Here I am – well, a bit of me – getting my first ever foot massage.

And that’s not all you can do on Bangkok’s streets. A mushroom-shaped button on the fly of my jorts (jean shorts) came off, because the hole it was stitched into became too big. So I found this lady sitting on the side of a busy road in Pra Athit with her sewing machine.

She actually used a lot of thread and a needle to close the hole up, and charged me an embarrassing mere 20 baht – about 40p.

As she was sewing, I could imagine her thinking: “This man’s an idiot. He needs a wife, because he’s so stupid he can’t even sew and is clearly going to die unless someone looks after him.”

I thanked her and retreated, with jorts that no longer exposed my pants, but with my pride somewhat dented…

Later on, Kate and I were joined by my 20-year-old nephew, Isaac, the son of my sister Antwanette. He’d never been out of Europe or backpacking before, so I figured it was time for him to Man Up and come on the road with us for a couple of weeks.

While we were waiting for him in arrivals, I spotted these chaps cleaning the airport windows.

And here he is, pictured straight off the plane.

1463894_10153560133230241_1133579641_nHe’s 6’4 so not exactly difficult to spot in a crowd. I remember him the day after he was born, when I could pick him up in my hands and when he was a lot pinker. He still cries a lot and wears a nappy, though. (Probably).

We had a lot of fun with Thaissac, as I began calling him. He took to the backpacking life like a trooper, booking buses and trains and picking up basic phrases with which to greet the locals.

We took him to Wat Pho, also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.

Here is the great, big, incredibly long idol, which looks good but doesn’t move much. And the Buddha.

1474502_10153674098285241_68273683_nThe Buddha is 46 metres long, is covered in gold leaf and is unforgettable.

The whole temple complex is filled with a dizzying array of Buddhas. This is a classic shot that I’ve seen done before, but thought I might as well get my own version done.

1530393_10153674230560241_1357652267_n And there are many indoor temples to be seen here too, which are incredibly splendid.

Back on the streets of Bangkok, Thaissac and I went to dunk our tootsies in a large fish tank, for them to nibble on.

It was an… odd experience. Bordering on the unpleasant at times, very ticklish, and not like anything I’d ever experienced before.

1470069_10153568546145241_1496097039_nI had LOADS of fish around me, as you can see here, while Thaissac had about 12.

1454649_10153568546365241_1809186530_nThen a large Thai lady came in, and solemnly gestured to Thaissac to move across to the next tank. He did so and immediately started yelping like a wounded sea lion. Turns out that particular tank was filled with very hungry fish.

While Thaissac was begging for mercy, the Thai lady banged on the glass wall dividing us, broke out into a grin and gave us the thumbs up. I laughed my head off while Thaissac prayed that he’d get out with all 10 toes. There’s a video of us both struggling to deal with the beasties, too.

At one point, Kate and I held a meet up in Bangkok, which was a lot of fun. Many travel bloggers and a few backpackers turned up for quite a popular meeting.

It turned out to be a Big Night Out, ending at around 4am, but before then I managed to get a few people to take part in SOTM. Here’s the excellent Steve Schreck, who writes at A Backpacker’s Tale.

And this is the lovely Kate Button, who had never revealed this story about her dad before.

And this is the inimitable Jeremy Foster, who writes at Travel Freak.

Finally, before Thaissac, Kate and I left town, we went to the Lumpinee stadium to watch some Muay Thai boxing.

This was an idea that I insisted upon doing. I’d read great things about it, and we weren’t disappointed. It was an amazing evening.

While the stadium is charmingly ramshackle, the organisation was pretty smooth. We were approached by a ticket seller draped in Muay Thai garb outside the stadium, who politely showed us a laminated sheet with a choice of tickets.

As advised, we went for the most expensive ones, priced at 2,000 baht, which are ringside. This isn’t a cheap ticket, but it’s serious value for money.

We were then whisked through to our seats inside, plastic chairs close to the ring, where all the foreigners sit. The interior does look like it might fall down soon, with patched-up corrugated roof, fans wobbling in the ceiling and lots of sweating, shouting Thais.

But the whole thing is hypnotising and it frankly looked and sounded exactly how I hoped it might. This stadium is actually closing next year, to be replaced by a new one elsewhere in the city, and while it’s always good to have new facilities, I fear that something will be lost when the action moves to plusher premises.

1491771_10153699118650241_1439802114_nBehind us were rows of mostly Thai men, who were betting in certain strictly-controlled areas. There were nine bouts, starting with teenagers and moving up through the age ranges, until we reached the main fight, which was bout seven.

As the action moved through the rounds, and the winner or loser was soon to be decided, the roars of the crowd crashed upon us like waves. It all seemed to depend on who’d bet on whom, and also which of a boxer’s family members were in the audience. I think I spotted a few mums here and there during the fighting.

I wasn’t able to move or stand up or use a flash, so while I took a few shots I was quite limited in what I could do photographically. Still, I managed to get a few decent shots.

There are lots of rituals attached to Muay Thai, and there is a clear emphasis on respect for one’s opponent and surroundings.

76856_10153699294705241_1929321929_nThis chap was the winner of bout seven, the main event of the evening.

1546335_10153699318885241_1444275655_nAfterwards, we were able to queue up and have our photo taken with him, rounding off a superb evening.

Next time, Kate, Thaissac and I head north to Chiang Mai, Pai and us two lads get tickled by the trunks of elephants.

SOTM World Tour – Melbourne

January 8th, 2014

Even in a city as proud as Sydney, I was struck by how many people said: “Oh, you’ll love Melbourne.”

Adventurous Kate and I are very keen on our café culture. We like nothing more than finding a cool spot with nice coffee, “glamour beat” music playing (easy listening versions of classic songs etc) and good wifi.

This is the cue for us both to spend hours on our computers, facing each other but not talking to one another much, apart from Kate telling me something she’s read about a celebrity on People Magazine’s website, and me trying to explain just why Robin van Persie’s left foot has similar abilities to Harry Potter’s wand.

It works for us, anyway.

So it was with much excitement that we hit up Melbourne, and we weren’t disappointed.

It is filled with social establishments that look ramshackle from the outside and yet are chic on the inside.

This place, for example, is a perfectly respectable cafe in the daytime. At night, when it’s closed, it looks like the kind of place that hobos might break into for shelter.

We were staying in Melbers, as I liked to call it, with my old buddy Dave, who was about to marry his charming lady, the smashing Meg (and I’m happy to say they’ve recently Sealed The Deal).

So, having reacquainted myself with long-lost friends, and introduced them to my fiancée, they kindly not only gave us a comfortable room to stay in, but also a great tip by suggesting we visit Melbourne’s Laneways, which start next to Flinders Street Station.

This, incidentally, is a proud building in its own right.

Across the street and snaking away between all the chunkily historic buildings in the heart of Melbourne, the laneways are simply a series of streets as narrow as their name suggests.

But while they’re slim, they’re still a treasure trove of shops, arcades and cafés.

There was so much to see, we could have spent all day in just the laneways alone.

Although we didn’t go in it, I liked the look of this little eaterie.

And the arcades are pretty fancy too – lots of cute shops and high class goods sitting side by side.

Oh, and did somebody say cake?

cakeThis area often has the spaces between its shops and individual lanes filled by graffiti so loud you can feel it etching itself onto your eyeballs.

Speaking of which, Hosier Lane is famous for begin a spot where graffiti artists regularly go to town on its walls, and even its floor sometimes. It’s quite a sight.

You can’t stand still for too long in Hosier Lane, or else you might end up covered in spray paint.

I was pleased to see this red scooter there – perfect photo opportunity.

While Kate and I were walking through this area, I spotted a gang of young graffiti artists. I approached them and two agreed to take part in SOTM. They were top lads. Sean, on the left, is half-Maltese!

Here’s the photo I took of Drex, who is the chap on the right.

I spotted this photo when I was walking around that day too. I wonder what’s in his purse…

And this is one of those moments where I feel the tiniest bit like my favourite photographer, Henri Cartier Bresson. Check out the signage in the alleyway where this fellow is giving his tootsies a break.

Although I prefer to have people in my photographs, buildings can give me pleasure too. This is a typical example of much of the urban architecture in Melbourne, and it’s utterly charming, as you can see.

And I loved how the light looked in this street full of shapes. For some reason, as soon as I saw all that before me, I knew it’d look best in black and white. So that’s how I took the shot.

While in Melbers I was very pleased to be interviewed by Libbi Gorr who presents a Sunday morning radio show on  774 ABC Melbourne.

We had a great on-air chat about SOTM and words that have impacted upon people. I even got to speak to some callers about the things they’d heard which proved memorable to them.

Here’s Libbi’s own SOTM.

I also later met the lovely Hilary Harper, another presenter at the same radio station. She told this story which reminded me of painful days when trying to fit in at a new school. Happily she sounds like she eventually had some luck on that score.

Shortly after my chat with Libby, Kate and I had another meetup, at Ponyfish Island bar which is built on one of the supports of a bridge over Melbourne’s Yarra river. It’s worth a look not least for its quirkiness. It’s located around the area seen in the very top image.

Here’s one of the shots I got from there, which came from the lips of a druid, no less.

Finally, on our last day in the city we went to St Kilda, which is very popular and somewhere we were often recommended to visit. Here’s the beach.

Whilst there I got this shot of a woman sat alone in a cute little café – where else?

And check out the entrance to Luna Park amusement park which is in St Kilda. Really impressive and slightly nightmarish at the same time.

That’s it for this edition of my ramblings. After slurping up the last of our coffee, Kate and I then packed up for South East Asia, so I’ll talk about our adventures in Cambodia next time.

SOTM World Tour – Sydney

January 2nd, 2014

 After spending time in the Northern Territory, which frankly can’t look that much different from when dinosaurs were running things, arriving in Sydney was a welcome return to the sweet trappings of modernity.

Our time in Sydders, as I affectionately called it, was to be brief – a mere five days – but we galavanted around and had a rare old time.

Our digs were in Bronte beach, a huge, immaculate and tasteful house run by the charming Lise, who confided in me with a sigh that everyone says her name wrong (it’s pronounced Lisa).

I’d previously been told by a colleague who used to live in these parts that the walk from Bronte beach to Bondi beach was really nice, so Adventurous Kate and I did just that. It was a memorable afternoon and no mistake.

Here’s some of the things we saw along the way (which do not include, much to Kate’s disappointment, a Speedo-sporting Hugh Jackman, who lives at Bondi).

That is Bronte beach itself, and there are plenty more eye-catching spots of coastline along the way.

dsc_0060The architecture here is smashing – the houses are really cute and colourful.

Finally Bondi itself appeared on the horizon.

 Kate and I managed to visit Manly beach too, and while it is another lovely part of the city, it affords you a super view of Sydney Harbour as you take the ferry out to it.

The world-famous Sydney Harbour bridge looks great at any hour – and Kate even walked over it!

Here’s Manly (I like to think I fit right in a place like that).

manlyAnd it was in Manly that I had THE ICE CREAM OF MY LIFE at the Royal Copenhagen store. Seriously. I’m not joking.

Best. Ice cream. Ever.

On the way back to Sydney Harbour, the night had almost won and so we had a whole new view of that lovely place.

Here’s that bridge again.

And the Opera House looks just as divine when it’s lit up.

harbournightWhile in Sydney I was tickled by the fact there are so many place names which match those found in London. There’s Oxford Street and Liverpool Street, for example.

And let’s not forget the gorgeous Hyde Park, a haven in the middle of the gleaming glass and stone pimples which are forever fixed onto Sydney’s face. But here in the park huge trees cast invitingly cool spots, and there are stretches of deep green and plenty of benches where you can pause and chomp down your lunch.

It’s also in Hyde Park that I came across some of Sydney’s snails. My advice is to keep out of their way, as they’re deceptively quick…

My time in Sydney yielded some great stories, like this slightly fruity one by the remarkable Jo, another moment from my all-too-brief time in Hyde Park.

Remember you can click on any SOTM image on this blog to visit the photo’s page and to learn the subject’s story.

In search of further SOTMs, Kate and I had a meetup at the Australian, a well-known watering hole not far from the harbour.

I heard some great stories that night. Lain, for example, took ages to think of something and I didn’t know if he would come up with anything – but then all of a sudden he pulled this corker out of the hat.

But I was most moved by Mary’s tale of something her mother told her once, when she wished that Mary had the autism which affects her brother.

Finally, at the end of our time in Sydders, I caught up with old friends Steve and Liz. They not only put us up for the night, but gave us our first proper shrimps from an Aussie barbie! Very tasty indeed.

barbieOn our last morning in Sydney, Steve kindly drove us out to Botany Bay, to see where Captain Cook first set foot in Australia (well, his landing party anyway, of which he was not the first to disembark).

As a history buff, this was very exciting for me. An entire nation was formed as a result of those moments, and of course not to everyone’s benefit.

There are plenty of information boards up and they do acknowledge the hardships endured by the indigenous Aborigines in the years following colonisation.

At this site is the retelling of an interesting tale which I didn’t know of, that details how the first Aborigines to spot Cook’s rowboat approaching the shore told him to go away and threw spears.

Cook and his men ignored this, fired upon the Aborigines (aiming to scare and then hurt, but not kill) and came ashore anyway.

Here’s where it happened.

A tale like this, of course, gives politicians, sociologists and historians plenty to chew over regarding what happened over the subsequent centuries, as other nations – and the British in particular – swept across the land which became Australia, creating disputes and debates which continue today.

Then, after a fascinating morning, it was off to the airport for a quick flight to Melbourne! More of that next time.

SOTM World Tour – Uluru

December 29th, 2013

 When I was a kid, I knew of Ayers Rock. A sleeping, red, ominous giant. A pimple in the middle of the Australian outback.

You’d think there wasn’t such a thing as a good pimple, of course, especially not a bright red one that stands out for miles around and brings people from everywhere to come stare at it.

However, this isn’t a blemish for teenage boys to worry about. This red lump is celebrated across Australia, famous globally, and the oxidation of its minerals is what gives it such a fiery hue.

Nowadays what the world knew as Ayers Rock is officially called by its traditional name, Uluru – although both names are used, depending on who you speak to.

Adventurous Kate and I were staying at the Outback Pioneer on Ayers Rock Resort, courtesy of Northern Territory Tourism and Flight Centre who were supporting this leg of the SOTM World Tour.

The stars of the show around here are Uluru itself and Kata Tjuta – formerly known as the Olgas. You can see both in the top image, with Kata Tjuta in the background – more of those later.

Let’s talk about Uluru. Despite it being a big stone, it fascinates. If nature is poetry, Uluru is the chorus that you belt out loudly, even if you can’t sing, because those words really mean something to you.

Uluru is a shapeshifter. It looks quite different at various times of the day. You think “Well, I’m not going to be hypnotised by a rock.” But you are. You can’t take your eyes off it, and its palpable shifts of colour make the thing seem like it’s more alive than you are.

The above shot was taken a little after sunrise – and that hour, plus sunset, is really when the rock is at its best.

This one was was taken shortly before the sun had given into the snooze button.

 And this one was taken after the sun started to get a grip and was rising steadily.

 And this was shot as the sun set one evening. See how different it can look?

dsc_0061-2The more you stare at Uluru, the more you notice its texture and shapes. This lion’s head was pointed out to me.

Here I am with a much-needed cup of coffee on one of the occasions that I got up before the sun did, just for that lump of rock.

I’m not a morning person, and have to get up around 4.45am regularly when I’m working shifts at the BBC, so I usually begrudge having to arise at ungodly hours when it’s not for employment purposes.

But I’m really glad I did. Seeing the sun rise over Uluru is a surprisingly unforgettable experience. It is, after all, just a rock. But when it’s right in front of you, it seems a whole lot more than that.

The Aborigines implore you not to climb Uluru, saying it is a sacred place and should not be clambered over.

Looking at how steep it is, and taking into consideration that 40 people have died and around 100 others are suspected to have died shortly after descending through heart failure, makes you wonder why on earth anyone would want to attempt an ascent. And the descent looks like the really hard part of it.

I was told a great story about the chain that goes up the first part of Uluru’s ascent path. Apparently a farm owner got the contract to put the single chain in, stretched between regular poles, for people to grip onto.

He was told to make it thigh-height. He was apparently quite a short man, so in obeying instructions he made the chain much too low for those of average height, or above, to hold onto as they haul themselves up the red, unforgiving rock.

Our trip to Uluru, and later Kata Tjuta, was part of the two-day Uluru Explorer tour with AAT Kings.

After worshipping from afar, we finally got up close and personal with Uluru, walking around part of its base and even being able to press flesh on that red rock.

And when you’re so close, you can see all the detail that has enchanted the indigenous people for so many millennia. Stories have been created to complement the fissures and mineral stains on the stone, for example.

dsc_0146-2While there, we spotted some markings in the sand in a cave, drawn by local Aborigines. No-one could work out what it meant. Looks like a dingo to me.

But if Uluru is the flashy redhead that everyone fawns over, Kata Tjuta is the cleverer, more voluptuous one.

They were formed around the same time but it’s Uluru that grabbed the spotlight, sells the postcards, brings all the tourists in. Kata Tjuta is the girl next door, the one with plenty to offer but who needs more work to unlock her secrets. She doesn’t put out quite as easily as the popular red head next door.

It too had a name change. It used to be known as the Olgas, a suitably exotic-sounding name for its red, rounded peaks.

It has, in some ways, more to offer. It opens itself up invitingly, like a familiar lover, as you walk over the Mars-like surface of Walpa Gorge.

Walking into this part of Kata Tjuta made me wonder what on earth it was like for the indigenous tribes who came here before the modern world ever presented itself to them so crudely.

Also the first explorers who found this place – looking up at the red walls, we were seeing much of what they saw back then. It was a thrilling time for me, to be treading the same paths as they did.

Speaking of which, some of Kata Tjuta’s peaks have green trails on them. This is because people used to climb these rocks too, and brought seeds on their boots. While the people have long been banished from clinging to the slopes, Mother Nature hasn’t relinquished her opportunity to spread a little more greenery around.

Aside from all this expeditionary stuff, there was some good old-fashioned pampering going on.

Kate and I had a great ride out into the desert just before sunset, thanks to Uluru Camel Tours.

I was riding Meryl, a cute and impeccably behaved camel. The seats are fashioned to each individual camel so they make for a very comfortable ride, even for someone with cheeks as skinny as mine.

Kate was on Rex, and it was a lot of fun getting out to our desert destination that way.

Once I’d bid a fond farewell to Meryl and scratched her behind the ears a bit (take my tip, fellas – the ladies love that) Kate and I had a wonderful evening at the Sounds of Silence dinner.

This saw us and a large number of others all sitting at round tables, enjoying tasty food and lots of Aussie banter. Then a hush descended on the assembled and suddenly a chap in a hooded cloak, an astronomer, started talking about the various constellations and individual stars which dazzled above us.

The cloak was naturally just for effect, but I must admit is was pretty cool. If cloaks came back into fashion, I’d be all over that.

I have never seen the night sky look like it has done in the Northern Territory. You can forget all sense of time with all the glittering.

Our planetary guide pointed out various star sign constellations including Sagittarius, which was quite moving for me as it’s mine and I’ve never seen it before. I don’t really believe in astrology, but the individual characteristics of my star sign often describe my behaviour and attitude, so I do find that aspect interesting.

Another moving moment was when the astronomer, using a hugely powerful green laser pointer, wobbled it around a sparkling dot. We were looking at a star’s light which dated from the time that the first settlers were building New Amsterdam – which later became New York, my favourite city in the world.

The photography around both Uluru and Kata Tjuta is severely restricted. We had to submit our photographs for approval before we could use them on any social media.

Any that showed parts of the rocks at certain times of day, when details such as some caves are in focus, were rejected. Therefore it was a little tricky to get some SOTMs there, but I did manage a couple, including this one. Click on the image to see what it’s all about.

And the excellent Danny, who was on our table at the Sounds of Silence dinner, kindly also thought of something memorable he’d once read on a wall.

There was one more early start for Kate and I, but again it was totally worth it.

We each sat on the back of a Harley Davidson provided by Uluru Cycles. We then rode to Uluru, saw another sunrise and toured around the rock in the chill of early morning. A brilliant experience.

Despite this pic, I didn’t control the beast myself. But I watched a lot of CHiPs when I was a kid, so like to think I styled it out pretty well.

After that bike ride, it was time to hit the road again – this time even further south, to check out Sydney and Melbourne. More on that next time.