Posts Tagged ‘motorbikes’

SOTM World Tour – Cambodia

Sunday, 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

Friday, 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.