I am currently teaching and travelling in Cambodia, Asia with a TEFL organisation. Here is where I’ll be posting accounts as Gaeilge and in English of my travels, things I see, things I experience, and all the rest!!
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor”. – Thich Nnat Hanh
Today something really weird happened. I’ll try to keep my explanation of it brief.
I was in a yoga class. (hello, Yogahub Dublin– !) and the teacher mentioned anchoring down against negative thoughts and allowing them to pass us by…a fairly standard mantra to base an extremely enjoyable class around.
With me so far? Alright.
It just so happened that I’d recently discovered this picture on my phone, taken by accident of a canopy of trees above my head as I stood at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. I’d set it as my screensaver on the train on the way into class. Inevitably I found myself thinking about it as we exhaled and rooted down.
I now think it might be the most significant picture I’ve ever taken.
It shows the trees as individual organisms, yes. But it also shows their similarities; the cracks and passageways between them. It’s difficult to tell where one tree ends and another one begins.
It’s made me consider my entire brain composition differently.
It’s made me see the cracks in between what I now understand to be tectonic plates of thought; continents of beliefs, passions, negative and damaging habits and feelings which make up the circumference of my brain.
It’s like this:
Once upon a time, the continents existed as one individual and solid mass of being, consciousness, and innocent, untouched thought;
that of a child.
Somewhere along the way, this ‘pangea’, if we’re to use the geographical term, encountered some unexpected upset, resulting in quite permanent and irreversible damage. Either that, or just the continuos expansion and erosion resulted in gradual minor movement which in turn caused a larger break, causing the continents to float in all directions, and fall apart into the random assortment of misshapen cookies and their crumbs as we recognise them today.
Puberty, you say?? Or something more uncontrollable?
Hear me out, here.
Only one thought, idea, or passion has managed to reign over each continent. One thought, or else a vague confusion of several, has been marooned alone on each of these continents to fester; each landmass offering promises of a new and unique culture, perspective, opinions, lifestyle, and possibilities.
These ideas have however been declined the opportunity or space to spread out and moderate their extremity evenly, remaining instead stuck and concentrated solely on their own intensity.
It’s as if each passion, ideology and notion has been designated its own population, culture, and religion – wild tribes inhabiting each unique and promising island, waiting impatiently to pounce on any passing explorers or trains of thought in the hope of improving their own inexplicable situation.
Enter, my train of thought.
Or in this case; a ship.
Which, after years of leaping straight onto the banks of each new ideology or passion encountered and becoming so enraptured with the entirety of the initial apparent potential and/or ‘brilliance’ of a given concept, has finally learned to anchor briefly offshore, before plunging ahead full-on and succumbing to the enticing newness of each place. All seems well, until realisation hits that this place has fully-consumed any sense of individual thought or ability to reach other thought patterns.
There are no bridges between these continents.
When the ship is in motion; when the platform of departure and arrival is uncertain and unspecified, any port appearing safe and trustworthy is going to appeal to latch onto if an anchor is not in existence. Trustworthy, that is, until advantage is taken of the deprivation it has experienced whilst at sea, harbouring urgently and wolfing down deficit supplies with no escape; obsessed and utterly drawn into the centre of this new continent and the exciting yet dangerous discoveries it promises. All resistance is ceased, and assimilation begins.
Maybe I’m going too deep here.
What I’m trying to get at is that in viewing my thoughts as these isolated places I’ve finally learned to navigate the cracks which exist between them; the extreme passions, and ideas – enough at least to allow me to anchor briefly offshore to take a peek and try it out. The picture of the trees resembling a globe was only the beginning of it. There’s not much hope of getting the continents to reconnect or to return them to how they once existed – but that too would be against the natural flow of the streams I now live relatively comfortably upon.
By anchoring my ship and thoughts just slightly offshore within the cracks between the continents, I am embracing the damage that has occurred instead of avoiding it. I am leaving the islands accessible, completely within my grasp to feel and experience, yet still rooted firmly with the knowledge that at the first sign of any negative, infatuous, or damaging behaviours, I will be able to find my way safely back to return to the flow leading onwards.
That I can leave the negative behind and remain safe and in control of whether I return or not is empowering, and I enjoy balancing the flow of this current.
This current which naturally bears me along from one emotion, breath and experience to the next, embracing them as I see fit, and leaving them fondly behind as I move onwards.
It’s mad that I got all this from an accidental picture taken whilst my phone was on selfie-mode and the sun was too bright for me to see the screen.
But there you have it. Angkor Wat and yoga have literally anchored me.
‘Because perfection comes, not when you’re watching golden sunsets over paradise, But when you have grown, Unbreakable, At peace, Within.’ – from ‘Pathways’, by Leah Fortner
As I sat in my miniscule double room on the 5th floor of a dingy guesthouse situated a stone’s throw from Phnom Penh International airport in Cambodia, completely and utterly alone in a strange country that I can honestly never see myself feeling comfortable in, I breathed an unexpected sigh of relief. At least that’s what I think it was. It might have been something to do with the fact that I’d just cast off the 18kg backpack containing everything I hold dear to me for the first time in a couple of hours, or that the prospect of an actual night’s sleep loomed ahead after several delayed and uncomfortable flights through tropical storms and some dodgy landings. Either way, I was more at ease than I’d been in a while.
I’d finally realised something about myself and about the reasons I’d felt the need to flee my life at home, albeit only briefly. For some reason I thought I, as so many before me have dramatically claimed to be in books and movies, had been ‘searching for something’; some sort of reason or reassurance to keep going and continue. I realised I’d been half expecting to find this something in every new place I stayed and new face I met, each one vaguely seeking a similar confirmation of their own validity or ‘pathway’.
In actual fact, at the risk of sounding awfully conceited and/or like a sappy American rom com (I realise I’m going to sound like it anyway no matter how hard I try), this whole time I have been learning to come to terms with myself; to love myself. It sounds ridiculous. It sounds cheesier than the Vietnamese vegetarian cibatta rolls that contained a single piece of lettuce along with 3 different kinds of rubbery ‘dairy produce’ and a slice of tomato in Hoi An. But there’s a kind of autonomy and respect one learns to have for the person who navigates them safely around unknown territory and through uncertain and somewhat dangerous situations. I realised as I sat alone in Cambodia for the second time around and with a pathetic amount of dollars remaining among the various other currencies in my purse that I’d orchestrated this journey to mean that the only person I had to depend on and to look to for help would be me. I’d forced myself to take care of me, to be the dominant voice of reason and force of reckoning for once, instead of depending on others and placing an unfair responsibility on friends and family who did not ask for it. I sat back and let my inner child be led and guided by the knowledge this world has taught me that I barely knew I had taken on board until it became necessary to utilise it. Led by the mistakes I have already made, and that I have seen others make, I have taught myself how to progress; how to power through; how to hold out for that one minute longer when it feels like you’re lost entirely and will never find your way back to where you want to go. I have fueled my body through lonely and rainy days where it felt like the last thing I wanted to do was get up, eat, and explore – perseverance resulting in enjoyable new experiences and friends, places and photographs that would not have been possible had I not correctly energised and motivated myself enough to be there. I gave myself no option but to recover and escape from whatever demons have held their grasp on me for the past few years, each step and flight taken away from them making them cower that little bit more into the corner at the strength and potential of what I am actually capable of doing in spite of them and without their crutch to lean on. I have practiced ignoring their voices and perservering independently without their help, and I have realised that I am capable of such great things, not only that – but that I am also perfectly worthy of them too.
I have sat with myself and accepted myself. Accepted the fact that I occupy this miniscule space upon the earth and that it is mine to take where I choose, and to do with what I please. Practicing yoga and maintaining balance along the way when it would have been easy to get lost in ‘holiday mode’ and indulge too much has been difficult, but extremely worthwhile. I’m not going to say I haven’t indulged at all, but I’ve done so in a way that has allowed me to also enjoy the moments before and afterwards, instead of focusing merely on the excessive bursts of energy and consumption, and cowering away from anything outside of them. Overall I feel I have learned things that cannot be taught, that some people are born automatically programmed with, but that others must experience and realise for themselves. Extremes of emotions have been dealt with and processed by myself and in a way that has helped me realise I am capable of overcoming them without leaning on anyone for reassurance or aid – something I struggled with hugely in the past.
The overall emotion I feel at leaving Asia and my first solo travelling experiences behind is one of intense and overwhelming pride. Pride for myself, pride for my strength, contentedness that I have managed to do this and prove the negative thoughts and people wrong who doubted my capabilities. They and my own anxieties were always going to be there, but I feel in a way that I have finally reached a place where I can focus less on their intensity and importance, and embrace more of the autonomy and experience that ‘living in the moment’ can actually bring. It may seem like an extreme way to finally come to terms with oneself and place in the world, but I can’t deny how effective it has been both in allowing me the space to realise all these things, and put them into practice; experience required to actually sit as strong and tall as I do today as I wait to board my final flights home.
I can’t change the fact that I am an anxious person, but I can change how that anxiety manifests itself, and how I process it. It is possible to change the direction it takes just like I can change the direction my feet are taking me. It’s a different kind of energy required to do so, but I’m now aware of it’s presence, and have more of an ability to access it, especially in the midst of chaotic environments and unfamiliar situations.
If nothing else, this is what travel teaches us. That there are other options, other paths, other ways to do things that might not initially appear obvious. There is always another way through, another route to take that will take you where you need to go and away from seemingly inescapable situations and emotions. Following your nose and going where your feet take you without worrying or questioning it too much and ultimately just trusting in yourself will inevitably eventually steer you right.
For now, I’m going to close the book on this particular chapter of my travels, in the knowledge that the next will lead me to even more exciting, mischevious and unplanned destinations, that I will come to terms with and navigate when I get there.
For now, the mischievous emotions and uncontrollable situations have been managed, and I’m ready to go home.
Fánaíocht fánaíocht fánaíocht. ‘Sé an t-aon rud a dhéanaimse na laethanta seo. Níor thosaigh mé amach le plean faoi leith. Níl aon rud faoi leith bainte amach agam go fóill seachas meas níos láidre ar mo chuid scileanna loingseoireachta agus cumais féin, agus freisin an t-eolas go bhfuil mé go breá in ann aire a thabhairt dom fhéin agus mo bhealach a dhéanamh go dall (nó bodhar) trí chuinsí nach bhfuil leagtha amach go cinnte romham.
Tuigim go maith freisin agus airím na rudaí beaga sa bhaile – frása a usáidtear i bhfad ró-(Ho Chi) mhinic(!) ach faoi láthair comh fíor domsa gur féidir liom an t-aistear abhaile a shamhlú agus dinnéar na Nollag le fataí breá na hÉireann os mo chomhair a bhlaiseadh cheana féin – is i bhfad ó rís agus soy sauce a togadh mise! (#Notions)
Cairde réidh le casadh tar éis téacs scioptha i ndiaidh na hoibre; bia réidh le hollmhú sna cófraí; nósanna coitianta; ranganna íoga le freastal orthu agus coinní rialta nach bhfagann mórán le bheith buartha faoi ó thaobh athruithe gan fógairt; córas taistil a bhfeidhmníonn sách maith agus caighdean slándála nach dtugann cúis imní ar bith d’germaphobes ar nós mé fhéin…leanann an liosta ‘home comforts’ ar aghaidh. Ach fós, is láidre an maitheas ná an t-olc leis an gcineál taistil, slí bheatha féin-cruthaithe seo, agus mar sin is féidir liom glacadh leis níos fearr anois agus é a shlugadh siar, mar a deirfeá. Níos tábhachtaí ná haon rud eile anois ná gur féidir liom sult a bhaint as na ‘droch’ rudaí freisin, seachas díreach iad a fheiceáil mar gnéithe a bhfuil orm cur suas leo.
Is príomhchathair Vítneam í Hanoi a bhfuil tréithe cosúla aici le roinnt príomhcathracha eile atá feicthe agam, sa chaoi is nach bhfuil an iomarca deacrachtaí ann í a thrasnú…tuigim go bhfagann an pictiúir atá in éineacht leis an bpóstáil seo a mhalairt le tuiscint, ach thug ár mbrú (Drift Backpackers’ Hostel) léarscáil dúinn (comh maith le bricfeásta agus beoir saor in aisce!) a bhí sonraithe go maith agus a chuir go mór lenár gcúpla lá ann. Níor chaith muid pingin ar iompar taistil an t-am uilig is muid ann, agus fós d’éirigh linn na pointí spéise is mó sa chathair a fheiceáil agus a aimsiú, ar nós Hoan Kiem Lake (Sword Lake), leis an Turtle Tower agus Huc Bridge a mhaireann ann ón Ming Dynasty, iarsmalann Ho Chi Minh, iarsmalann Staire, agus Airm Hanoi, agus Mausaleum Ho Chi Minh (sa phictiúir). D’éirigh linn teacht ar an ‘Bia Hoi’ san oíche freisin, le cúpla deoch ‘al fresco’ i measc na sluaite daoine áitiúla ag stanadh orainn ach ag baint sult as an oíche, muid uilig inár suí ar stólanna beaga plaisteacha ‘nós na cinn a bhí againn sa gháirdín sa bhaile is muid óg, a bhí mar dréimirí dúinn don doirteal sa leithris.
Theip orm teacht ar an studio íoga a chonaic mé ar líne, ach ní gan iarrachta ar mo thaobhse a tharla sé- chaith mé uair a chloig ar fánaíocht thart timpeall an cheannscríbe a leag Google Maps amach dom, ag cuartú in aisce an Zenith Yoga Café nach bhfuil ar an bhfód a thuilleadh, de réir dealraimh. Is ar éigin a d’éalaigh mé ó roinnt mná ag seastáin a bhí ag díol maisiúcháin Nollag bándearga, a d’iarr mé orthu go neamhurchóideach faoin áit – arís leis an bhfánaíocht – sular éirí mé as an iarracht le seacláid te a cheannach ar an mbealach ar ais – tá sé ag éirí fuar i Vítneam! Níor cheap mé ariamh go ndeirfinn na focail sin!
Bhí roinnt cómhráite thar a bheith spéisiúla agam le grúpaí mic léinn a bhí beartaithe i hataí, cótaí agus geansaithe móra cíbe uair a thóg ár gcosa in aice an locha muid. D’iarr siad cead orainn go cúthaileach pictiúirí a glacadh linn, cómhráite a thaifead ar ghutháin chliste agus taibléidí, agus go bunúsach labhairt leo i mBéarla go nádúrtha faoi rud ar bith – faoinár mbaile fhéin, ár nósanna, tír, agus teanga. D’inis siad liom a gcuid freisin, agus dúirt siad go raibh siad thar a bheith buíoch as an t-am a thug miuid dóibh – ach le fírinne, ceann de na rudaí is spéisiúla le tamaill a bhí ann domsa comh maith! B’iontach spreagúil an díograis a bhí acu i dtaobh foghlaim teanga, agus bhí an cur chuige díreach ceart acu comh maith – labhairt go nádúrtha le cainteoirí dúchasacha, ar bhonn neamhfhoirimiúil…d’fhéadfaimis go leor a fhoghlaim uathu!
Bheadh lá nó dhó eile an chathair a thaisceáladh go deas, toisc gur laghdaigh an fhaitíos a bhí romhainn dul i mbun rudaí a chuartú nuair nach raibh muid cinnte cén treo le tabhairt faoi, ach san iomlán fós thaitin Hanoi liom i bhfad níos fearr go Ho Chi Minh (Saigon!). Chuir sé seo ionadh orm toisc gur Hanoi an phríomhchathair, ach b’fhéidir léiríonn an chaoi go bhfeidhmníonn sé agus an chaoi go bhfuil gach rud comh héasca le loingsiú go leor i bhfábhar an teideal seo. Tá sé fós ina cíortuathail, ach cíorthuathail faoi a thuilleadh smachta atá inti!
Mar fhocal scor, tá cuma melodramatic ar an abairt seo ach caithfear a rá go bhfuil rud eicínt thar a bheith teiripiútach ag baint leis an tuiscint a aimsiú go bhfuil tú go hiomlán caillte agus leat fhéin i gcathair iomlán éagsúil agus i bhfad ón bhaile, agus teacht ar an eolas go bhfuil tú in ann do bhealach a dhéanamh ar ais go háit nó sráid aitheanta faoi leith. Cé nach raibh muinín agat ionat fhéin in aon chor, is mothúcháin thar a bheith láidir é. Cinnte, tá go leor le rá faoin gcumas agus umhlaíocht a bhaineann le ceist a chuir i gcomhair treoireacha nuair nach bhfuil an léarscáil ag obair i gceart (ní mise atá ann, I swear!!) agus tá an dorchadas ag titim go scioptha timpeall ort. Fós is fearr liom an rogha seo a choinneál mar ‘Plan B’, ach sa chás seo, airím go láidir gur fearr i bhfad an modh ‘tástáil agus earraid’ a chuir i bhfeidhm is tú ag taistil thar aon rud eile.
************LEAGAN BÉARLA *** ENGLISH VERSION
Wander wander wander. It’s all I ever seem to do these days. I set out with no specific plans. I’ve achieved no specific sense of anything just yet other than a greater respect for my own capabilities and navigational skills, and also the knowledge that I am actually perfectly able of taking care of myself and finding my way blindly (or deafly) through a lot of seemingly impossible situations. Okay, so maybe I have learned something.
I’ve also come to really appreciate the little things at home – a phrase used all too often, but so true for me at this moment in time that I can vividly imagine Christmas dinner and fine Irish roasted potatoes on the table in front of me – it’s far from rice and curry I was rared! Friends ready to meet at the drop of a text message, food ready to prepare in the cupboard, routines, yoga classes to attend and regular plans that leave little to be apprehended regarding last minute changes, functioning transport systems, general cleanliness and standards of hygiene that give those with germophobic tendencies such as my own no reason to be sent into overdrive…the list goes on. But still, the good outweighs the bad in this kind of travelling, self-induced lifestyle, and as such I’ve also learned to better ‘suck it up’, for want of a better phrase, and most importantly of all enjoy it, instead of merely enduring.
Hanoi is a city akin to several other capital cities I’ve visited in that it it is actually fairly managable to navigate…I know the initial picture and caption in this post suggests otherwise, but our hostel (Drift Backpackers’ Hostel) provided us with a map (along with free breakfast and beer!) which honestly made our few days there seem so much easier. We didn’t spend a dollar (or dong) on transport the entire stay, and still managed to find and see some of the main attractions the city has to offer, including the Turtle Tower and silver Pagoda, the night markets, History museum, Ho Chi Minh museum and mausoleum (pictured), Women’s museum, and Bia Hoi old quarter for several beverages ‘al fresco’ – seated at night along a crowded street on tiny plastic stools like the ones we used to have in the garden and use as stepladders to reach the sink in the loo at home.
Considering the streets all have actual names, instead of numbers which don’t match up to any neighbouring street or follow any sensible sequence of address or postal code (ahem, here’s looking at you Phnom Penh..!), we actually found ourselves not needing the map to find the more local places after a day or two!
I failed to find the yoga studio I’d located online, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying or any failure on my part – I wandered the 100 metre area of where Google Maps had led me searching in vain for the non-existent Zenith yoga café, asked numerous people and even ended up almost buying some tacky pink Christmas decorations just to fend off a particularly pushy vendor lady whose shop I unwittingly wandered into on a whim – again with the wandering – before accepting defeat and buying a hot chocolate on my way back. It has actually begun to get cold in Vietnam. I never thought I’d say thse words!
Fascinating conversations were had with local students wrapped up in hats, coats and scarves who approached us nervously whenever we strayed near the lake, looking to record conversations with us in English, pose for photos, and mostly hoping to maintain a sensible conversation with a native speaker for more than a few minutes. Their dedication was frankly inspiring, and I thoroughly enjoyed talking to them and exchanging knowledge, traditions, and facts about our own countries that couldn’t have been shared otherwise. They also had the perfect way of approaching language learning, which was fascinating to see in practice – speaking naturally and informally to native speakers in a casual setting. We could learn a lot from them….
I would have liked a bit longer to explore the city as I felt once we got a grip on the basic layout of the place it became an awful lot less daunting to go searching for things without knowing exactly where they were, but in general I much preferred it to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)! This surprised me considering Hanoi is the capital, but maybe it’s functionality and general heightened sense of accessibility says a lot to support this choice. It’s still chaotic, but nowhere near the rat races of Ho Chi Minh!
It sounds fairly cheesy, but there is something extremely theraputic about getting completely lost in a strange city and managing to somehow find and guide yourself back to an area of relative familiarity, taking a chance at each turn and trusting basic instincts to lead you right again. Of course there’s also a lot to be said for being able to admit defeat and ask for directions once it starts getting dark and you can no longer see the street signs or map in front of you, but I like to think of this option always as Plan B – in this case, I feel trial and error is always the best way forwards.
Ar Thóraíocht Taistil – Ó Chonamara go Cambodia…go Vítneam
Níor cheap mé riamh go n-aireodh an baile uaim comh mór seo. Go háirithe toisc go bhfuil sé ráite agam cheana nach dtarlaíonn sé sin dom. De réir dealraimh, ní tharlaíonn sé sin do daoine is iad ag taistil na cruinne, pictiúirí ar Instagram agus Facebook ag léiriú na híomhanna is fearr, na buacphointí nach mhaireann ach ar luas lasrach le cúpla soicind agus iad glactha. Ní raibh tinneas baile orm ariamh is mé ar saoire nó in aon áit ar bith ar domhan, agus mar sin níor aithin mé an mothúcháin go dtí gur bhuail sé sa chluas mé – é sin ráite, ní raibh mé riamh as baile comh fada seo ach oiread.
Ní bualadh sa chluas a bhí ann go fisiciúil, dar ndóigh.
Is mé ag athrú busanna ó mhionbhus go bus codlata le taistil ó Hue go Hanoi ar chósta thoir Vítneam inné, chas fear liom agus dúirt sé comh giorraisc Gaelach is a thagann siad; ‘you’re not Irish, are you?’ Ar chúis éigin mhuscail rud eicínt i mo chroí an canúint so-aitheanta sin a chloisteáil, glór aithnidiúil agus an ghreann ghearrchúiseach céanna is atá ionam fhéin ag casadh le chéile faoi dheireadh, i dtír nach bhfeiceann ionann ach turasóirí ó Theas tagtha le hairgead a chaitheamh agus pictiúrí a glacadh. Seans mhaith go bhfuil beagan áibhéil i gceist agam leis an abairt sin, ach ag an bpointe seo bhí mé comh sásta casadh le duine muinteartha nár thug mé faoi dheireadh go raibh muid tar éis moill ollmhór a chuir ar an scuaine, agus go raibh an tiománaí ag béiceadh orainn deifir a dhéanamh (ar a laghad, sin a tháinig trasna leis na gothaí móra agus tuin glórach cainte a bhí aige).
Shocraigh muid fhéin inár suíocháin (nó ‘leapacha’, sa chás seo), agus dúirt muid go labhródh muid arís ar ball, ach ní sular bhain mé amach gur Ciarraíoch a bhí ann ar saoire lena chailín ar feadh míosa, agus gur mise an chéad Éireannach a bhí casta acu go dtí seo. ‘Cén chaoi a raibh a fhios agaibh?’ ‘Do ghruaig, dar ndóigh.’ ‘Ah’.
D’úirt mo mham i gcónaí liom gan dath nó díriúcháin buan a chuir i mo ghruaig, agus anois gabhaim bhuíochas leí agus le chuile rud a d’iarr sí. Comh buíoch lena raibh mé nuair a tháinig mé ar an leabhar sin ó Ross O’Carroll Kelly i mbrú sa Chambóid an mhí seo caite – an cineál greann sin a d’airigh mé uaim agus a bhí orm a mhíniú don chomhluadar Sasanach a bhí timpeall orm ag an am – ‘loike, Ó mo Dhia bhí sé focking thar barr!’
Bhí turas fada romhainn, 12 uair a chloig ar a laghad, agus na buncleapacha míchompordacha ag freastal ar riachtanaisí na ndaoine nach bhfuil cosa comh fada píleata is atá agam. Tháinig mé ar sheasamh sealadach a rinne chúis dom codladh eadrom a fháil ar feadh 20 nóimead ag an am, sular éalaigh an mothúcháin uilig ar thaobh mo láimhe deise, agus bhí orm malartú a dhéanamh chun go ndéanfar cothromaíocht ar an easpa mothúcháin a bhí ag leathnú amach ionam. Ní dúirt éinne riamh go mbeadh busanna codlata galánta!
B’fhéidir gurb iad na hÉireannaigh eile a chuir cumha don bhaile orm, nó seans gur an aimsir a bhí ann – b’iontach an rogha a bhí againn an lá áirithe seo a chaitheamh ag taistil, toisc nár stop an báisteach ón uair a d’éirigh muid ar maidin. Cíbe rud é, thit coladh aisteach orm leathbhealach tríd an turais, agus ar feadh tréimhse ní raibh mé cinnte an fíor-eachtraí nó brionglóidí a bhí ag tarlúint timpeall orm, mo chairde ón bhaile do mo leanúint trí ghoirt ríse glasa ar rothair agus muid uilig ag caitheamh hataí triontánacha déanta le tuí.
Ba dlisteanach na radharcanna a bhí ag imeacht timpeall orm nuair a dhúisigh mé, ach ní raibh tásc nó tuairisc ar mo chomhghleacaí ón mbrionglóid in éineacht liom. Bhí mé liom fhéin arís, na ‘Paddy Fields’ mar a cuirtear orthu ag imeacht timpeall orm do mo chrá lena n-ainm Gaelach agus dath uaine álainn taobh amuigh – sílfeá gur ar Citylink nó GoBus go Gaillimh a bhí mé ag pointe amháin, na scamaill agus páirceanna ag déanamh comhbhrón le mo chuimhní ón tsamhradh i gConamara de réir mar a d’imigh an ghrian ón spéir is dorchadas anabhaí na hÁise ag titim.
Chaill mé uair a chloig nó mar sin ag cuimhneamh siar ar an cúpla seachtain deireanach a bhí caite agam le daoine nár chas mé le riamh roimhe sin, daoine eile ar fánaíocht ón Astráil, ó Shasana, Meiriceá, an Ghearmáin, an Bheilg….lean an liosta ar aghaidh. Bhí cairde iontacha déanta agam, rudaí feicthe agam agus déanta agam nár smaoinigh mé riamh a bhí mar fhéidireachtaí dom; cén fáth mar sin go raibh cumha comh mór sin don bhaile tagtha gan choinne orm? An Ghaeilge i mo chloigeann a bhí curtha ar leathaobh le cúpla seachtain anuas ach amháin le sampla a thabhairt do ghrúpa ón Ísltír nár chreid go raibh a teanga féin ag Éireann ag pléascadh uaim anois gan smacht, is mé ag streachailt teacht ar leabhar nótaí nó laptop le mo chuid smaointe a scríobh síos agus cuid de mo theanga dhúchas a chloisteáil arís go scioptha– fiú má’s i mo chloigeann amháin a bhí sí.
Tugann an cineál seo taistil meas agus grá difriuil agat do do bhaile féin. Domsa, tá os cionn mí go leith caite agam anois amuigh ón bhaile agus cé go bhfuil mé anois i dtaithí ar an tslí beatha seo, an ‘backpacker culture’ mar a deirtear i measc na taistealaí óga eile anseo, tá rudaí ionam agus mar chuid de mo phearsa nach n-athróidh comh héasca sin. I measc cultúir comh éagsúil ó mo cheann fhéin tá sé éasca dearmad a dhéanamh ar na rudaí a cheanglaíonn mo chroí go hÉireann nuair nach bhfuil siad díreach os mo chomhair, na nithe beaga a tharlaíonns ó lá go lá nach féidir cuir síos nó cur amach ceart a dhéanamh orthu do daoine iasachta eile. Tá an ‘Late Late Toy Show’ ar siúl anocht, mar shampla. Déan iarracht an ceann sin a mhiniú don ghrúpa taistealaí óga ón Nua-Shéalainn a roinn mé seomra leo aréir. Go figure.
Nílim ag rá nach bhfuilim buíoch as an deis seo a fháil – cinnte, ‘sé ceann de na rudaí is fearr a tharla dom agus a rinne mé dom fhéin i mo shaol, agus molfainn d’éinne é, ach tagann chuile rud go pointe ina bhfuil ort céim siar a thógáil agus amharc a thógáil ar na rudaí a d’fhág tú i do dhiaidh. Tharla an nóiméad sin dom le linn an turas sin inné, agus sílim go bhfógraíonn sé an cineál rian leathbhealaigh atá buailte agam anois. Tá neart foghlamtha agam, neart feicthe. Ach tá fós bóthar fada le dhul agam go dtí go mbeidh mé ar an bhfód dúchais arís.
Is an bus ag leanacht ar aghaidh tríd na hoíche, is dóigh gur thit codladh orm arís ag pointe nó dhó, in ainneoin na bóithre baolacha agus síorghleo na caranna ag bualadh bonnáin ar a chéile gan chúis agus gan éifeacht seachas paisinéirí traochta agus uaigneach ón Iarthar a choinneál ina suí. Cé go raibh mé ag súil leis na radharcanna a fheiceáil ag an gceannscríbe, is an chéad chéim eile ar an tóraíocht taisce seo a bhaint amach, líon íomhanna ón bhaile agus ón Nollaig ach go háirithe mo chloigeann, agus ghlac mé le suaimhneas go bhfuil sé sin fós ag fanacht orm tar éis dom filleadh abhaile. Don nóiméad seo, a bheartaigh mé, níl ann ach cúpla seachtain fágtha, agus tá sé ar intinn agam an oiread is mó a bhaint astu siúd agus gur féidir liom.
A clear head and a stretched out body makes for a clean and positive start to the day. Cheesy, but true. I’ve made a pact with myself and a new goal to ensure I attend at least one yoga class in each new country I visit. Backpacking with my mat has been both a conversation starter and a cause for funny looks, as the original mat that has travelled with me from home has now gathered an unholy amount of dirt and probably smells like the underside of some of the buses and interestingly covered surfaces I’ve now used it on.
I’ve already ticked off Hungary, Bratislava, Cambodia, and Vietnam, along with various other European countries, and in two weeks with a little luck I’ll travel to Indonesia to spend some time in one of the ‘yoga capitals of the world’ – Bali, something which I’m both excited and apprehensive about – surely the hype can’t be all that? With typical Irish cynicism I am dubious already, but this destination has been a dream of mine for so long now that I’m willing to risk it all for the potential anticlimactic flump of a mediocre experience.
I’m not sure why I’ve suddenly placed all my energy into practicing yoga and the consistency of my practice whilst travelling, but it sure as hell beats having all that energy wasted on worrying and being anxious what I look like, how much and when I eat and what certain people think of me or how wrong/right the choices I’m making are. It’s as if all the energy that went into the massive effort of striving for ‘perfection’ (lol,jk, there’s no such thing!), is now being put to better use and helping me to balance upon my own two feet and move my body along instead of hindering it. The energy is being diffused physically instead of mentally, a terrible habit I’d fallen into which merely exhausted me and meant I had less cognitive capacity to deal with and process actual problems when they did occur.
It really does benefit you to pay attention to your own expenditure, be it money, energy, emotions, or anything else. Travelling has really opened my eyes to this, in more ways than one. It may seem like something fairly obvious, but the very fact that I am now aware of the new spectrum of potential for me, and where I want to lead my life means that I know whenever I find myself slipping backwards into the old ways of worrying about what people think and about how I am percieved by those around me, that I have wasted valuable energy that could have potentially been used to strengthen my body or to creatively express myself and generate something new. This contribution to the world by adding my original stamp to things is something that simply will not happen if I fail to balance my body and mentality on a regular basis. I have dreams of writing songs, novels, articles, poems and stories that will make a difference, that will change and help people, and also some that may not impact or alter anyone whatsoever. To be able to focus my attention on these things, I will need energy and the ability to control where I direct it. Finding balance through my yoga practice and maintaining it by staying aware of myself won’t singularly ensure that all of this gets carried out successfully, but at the very least it will provide a firm foundation on which I can build and mould these plans and ideas.
As I travel I am putting energy into moving along in an alternative way, trying to make the right moves and go in a direction that will take me where I want to go; like a board game where rolling sixes and being let win by parents who only want to see you succeed is no longer an option. Many ideas float past regularly, and I find it difficult to pinpoint exact and definite concepts, instead casting short bursts of energy into writing them down to ensure I don’t forget them. It’s a totally different kind of energy expenditure which took several weeks of getting used to, and one which I’m still forcing myself to combine with as regular a yoga practice as possible.
Because of the nature of a ‘backpackers’ budget’, yoga classes while on the road are considered somewhat of a luxury, even if the going rate in many Asian countries is less than half of what you’d pay at home. For this reason, over the past few weeks I’ve found myself practicing on various deserted rooftops, balconies, and most interestingly secluded bathroom and poolside areas when I’ve found them available in places we’ve been staying. Generally this is in the morning before most of normal society has awoken, or else during nights interrupted by loud music and noisy fellow-dormers returning from drunken nights out. Don’t get me wrong here, I’ve also been on the other end of this situation, and I’m not condemning it in any way – I’m just a particularly light sleeper and prefer not to lie in a state of semi-consciousness while people prolong their party around me.
Self-practice whilst travelling is something an awful lot easier said than done however, even though the addition of the yogamat to any backpack surely suggests otherwise, creating the image that’s it’s bearer is a highly dedicated and strict tree-hugging practitioner.
This couldn’t be further from my reasoning for carrying my mat with me. While I do practice at any available opportunity and location I find myself presented with, it’s more of a ‘recharging’ ritual for me. The stress of moving about and carrying your life on your back is certainly something which requires regular recharging and reassessing of both self and belongings, and it simply makes sense for me to practice whenever I can if I intend to maintain any kind of balance and help myself to move from place to place without getting too worked up or anxious.
Yoga has changed the way I see things, not necessarily life in general or the way I live my life, but it’s changed how and where I stand when it comes to expanding and living through certain things and has helped me improve my outlook on many aspects of the world. The fact that I have chosen to travel with my practice and maintain some of the balance I’ve achieved getting myself here has made me view this progress as a kind of animated road that’s extending out before me, but that is created only about a foot ahead at a time as I take one precariously balanced step and place one foot in front of the other day by day. One slip up or failure is not going to knock me off completely, but it will mean that the next few steps will be more wobbly than those before, as I strive to find the inner balance again.
Even though the general and accepted attitude to adopt whilst travelling is one of apathy when it comes to external appearances, I really feel like I’ll be able to continue this lessened sensitivity to things on my return home, and continue to channel this energy into my practice and bettering myself instead of worrying that I’m not enough. Because I am enough. I will always be enough. Yoga shows me that I am. Moving with my disagreeable body and mind shows me that I am. It’s imperfect, but it still takes me places. It still supports me through waves that sweep sunglasses from your head and up steep hill climbs with backpacks twice as wide as any grown man’s shoulders. It supports me through each flow, each movement, each difficult leg or section of my journey that has left me unsure of where I am and what on earth I’m doing this for. Yoga just brings me back to my body, and back to the realisation that it is actually okay for me to occupy this space, and to enjoy being here.
I’ve included some pictures from the beach resort of Mui Ne down the South coast of Vietnam where we’ve been chilling for the past few days. A sunrise trip to the sand dunes, fishing village and fairy stream trek were highlights, and were all organised through our (very affordable and clean!) accomodation Mui Ne Hills Budget Backpackers. Motorbike rental is available also aswell as windsurfing lessons, but our budget didn’t quite stretch that far and also I was so drained after Ho Chi Minh that a few days chilling by the pool with intermittent yoga practice/classes was exactly what was needed. The nightlife in the town was fairly non-existant but the poolside bar and restaurant were great. A lot of older couples holidaying and (strangely enough) Russian tourists everywhere. Would advise eating at some of the smaller family-run kitchens along the street as the prices were often half of what they were charging in the hotel and given the sheer amount of tourists around the menus were mostly actually catered to Western pickyness and cases of ‘oh no I don’t like that, thanks’.
A Ginger’s Guide to Southeast Asia, or any Inconveniently Hot Country (aka how not to look like Mr.Crabs after a couple of minutes spent outside the shade)
There comes a time in every gingers’ (or just fair-skinned person’s) travelling experiences when he/she just has to admit defeat and accept the fact that beneath a burning midday sun in Asia is maybe just not the most ideal place for them to spend a lot of time. Having occupied the unwanted tan lines of society for many years already and met with others of my kind who’ve dealt with the ‘orange hair’ and ‘carrot top’ teasing as a kid, it’s the last thing on many ginger, redhead, or strawberry blondes’ (as I used to insist) list of preferred activities when on holiday or abroad to actually sit out beneath the sun and intentionally try to ‘get a colour’, as other breeds of human have taken to practice. Sunbathing as a way to pass a day in a foreign country (let alone South East Asia) is simply not an option for people of my skin type, and it’s often been difficult to explain this to my sallower, darker-skinned friends who live for a day spent ‘tanning’ and ‘lapping up the rays’. I say each of this phrases with a tone of disdain and immense jealousy that I cannot engage in such activities with them, instead cowering in fear beneath the nearest parasol and shining beacon-like with my latest applied layer of factor 80. Yep. Factor 80! I’m in Asia!
Once this lack of tanning potential has been dutifully noted and accepted as just the way it is, it becomes so much easier to implement measures to ensure my continued paleness is not tainted by anything save some new freckles and a stark contrast to many of the locals I find myself interacting with around here. Over the past few weeks in Asia I’ve proudly managed to secure only extremely minor sun damage by adhering to some of these strict and rigid guidelines, many of which are really just common sense. As we all know however, once a bit of sun and potential holiday fun and exploring gets in the way, this sometimes gets left by the wayside in the heat of the moment (pun entirely intended), and we’re left regretting not getting up those 5 minutes earlier to apply the suncream we forked out a ridiculous amount of dollar for. Here’s a short list of guide-lines I’ve compiled which have helped me avoid some unnecessary discomfort!
Shade is key. Shade is your friend. Shade is vital to your continued enjoyment of both life and this trip abroad which you’ve saved long and scrounged hard for with all that money you saved on spray-tans (because let’s face it, they just don’t look natural on you). Seek it out wherever you go. If you find yourself waiting to cross a road somewhere for an unspecified length of time and you feel the heat of a hundred thousand suns burning between the hairs on your pale white scalp, it’s time to find the thin shadow cast by the traffic light pole you’re waiting at and stand behind it. I’m not kidding. You’ll thank me. When exploring, make sure you walk down the side of the street that’s most covered over by stalls, canopies, buildings, or anything else that casts a safe stretch of shaded road ahead of you. If you played ‘The Floor Is Lava’ at any point during your childhood (or college years) you should be perfectly well able to adapt to this style of jumping from shaded patch to shaded patch in avoidance of the dreaded sun. It’s extra fun if you have a ginger-buddy with you to compete against! (Please consume sunrays responsibly!)
Like ogres, onions, parfait and cake (thank you Donkey!), another thing us gingers must always remember is that layers are a MUST. Always remember that Sweat > Burning. I’ll choose a few sweat patches over a few red patches any day – a little extra heat from a light layer of clothing to cover your arms is totally worth the excess sweating and slight discomfort it may cause. At least you can remove it and wash sweat off once you’re indoors, instead of standing/lying/crying stock still for days on end because it hurts to move while you wait for a new layer of skin to grow. For people as pale as I am, it’s wise to always carry a light scarf/shawl/jumper of sorts in case you find yourself unwittingly enjoying some happy hour Pina Coladas and getting caught in the rays…. yeh I went there.
3. Wind Burn is a real thing.
Beware of the sneaky rays that will catch you unawares as you cruise on a bike/motorbike/boat/tuk tuk with the wind blowing in your hair…sure it might not FEEL hot enough to burn, but I’ telling you now – it IS! The breeze created by the wind (even in Asia!) as you move is only masking the heat of what you usually can feel when you begin to burn, and it pays to pre-consider this before undertaking any trips or tours which will expose you for any length of time. This is not to say you can’t enjoy them, just be aware of what you’re getting yourself into so you can adequately apply sunblock before stepping outside. Any exposure to the sun can affect ginger skin and so it’s worth asking when you book how long you’ll be spending in an exposed situation.
Choose your beach/pool time wisely
Another one that seems like common sense, but that is surprisingly very often ignored is to avoid sitting at a pool or on a beach during peak hours of heat – midday sun is a fairly obvious one, yet depending on the climate you’re in, midday heat can last anywhere between 11am and 3pm. This can often prove problematic, especially when travelling with a group or several others who see this time of day as ‘optimal tanning time’, and you’re left either sunbed-hopping as the sun rises and relentlessly chases you, or you’re forced to occupy yourself with a non-sun related activity for the day. These are surprisingly easier to find than people may expect, and often mean you’ll actually get more out of your day and travelling experience instead of a mild tan and ‘a little bit of redness – but don’t worry, it’ll fade to brown!’
Rise early to get the most out of the day
A similar point to the one above, most Asian countries begin their day at sunrise, and people can be found going about their daily business from an earlier time in the day in order to avoid the glare and discomfort of the midday heat. Rising early ensures you get three main sections of the day to fill, the middle one of which may be slightly less busy in order to cater for the heightened heat and natural afternoon-lull of extremely hot countries. Siestas are definitely a thing here, but they’re just not given the name and are generally signified only by people lounging around in hammocks on the sides of the streets as the ‘3 o’clock slump’ hits slightly earlier and lasts a couple of hours.
Be prepared for the STARES
Local people in Vietnam and Cambodia so far have been extremely welcoming to us. While many children stare and point as we pass, in general we’ve found that returning their stares with a warm smile and a wave has broken some sort of unspoken tension, and we’re rewarded with an even bigger and toothless grin as they wave and proceed to follow us down the street or offer us whatever local produce they’re selling. If you’re someone who gets uncomfortable by being watched and looked at (something I quickly had to get over), be prepared to be the subject of much gossiping and incomprehensible giggles amongst young people when they spot you. Ginger hair is simply not a thing over here. I’ve been asked are my freckles an illness, is my hair real, and my sunburn (when I did unfortunately get some) was the cause of much interest and concern among the locals. Try to remember that it is only out of interest and genuine fascination that many locals stare, and most of them probably don’t even realise they are doing it! To them, tourists are a source of income, and so the very sight of pale-skinned wanderers causes a ripple down the street of local shops and markets, and before long everyone is out to have a look.
Suncream is EXPENSIVE
Bring as much with you from home as you can, because out here it costs an arm and a leg (and you’ll pay with that, if you don’t invest in some!) to buy in local supermarkets. It’s clearly a ploy for foreigners, seeing as suncream is not generally a thing required by the people out here, but just be aware that if you fail to pack it or else run out you will be paying nearly 3 times what you would at home, even in the markets.
If you do get burnt, prepare to be made aware of it
‘Oh my GOD your SHOULDERS…what happened?!”, ‘Oh! Someone got the sun today!” ‘Lookin’ good lobster!’ – I’ve heard them all over the years, and they’re not exactly helpful! Yes I’m aware I was slightly careless today, yes I’ll be more careful next time, yes, contrary to what you may think it is actually painful and yes I can feel how hot it is from an inch away….I don’t want your pity or concern…just get me some Aloe Vera!!
People will be concerned, it’s only natural, but at the end of the day it’s up to you to ensure you’re correctly prepared to face a day outside, and that all exposed skin has been touched up each morning before you leave your accomodation.
Don’t Let People question your travel motives
‘Why on EARTH would you go to such a hot country if you can’t handle the sun?’ Why on earth not? Why should I let my skin type stop me exploring the world and experiencing things? If I’m careful enough and aware of the consequences of exposing myself to the sun for too long, surely it’s as ok for me to come abroad as it is for the next person who spends their days trying to get brown, which by the way is also seen as sun damage – any change of colour due to the sun can be seen as sun damage and by avoiding it completely I am in fact lowering my risk of it whatsoever! We’re all winners here!
Finally – ‘Water Resistant’ does not always do what it says on the tin
I learned this the hard way. Sure, go for a dip, wade in the sea, get accidentally pushed in or else swept away by an unexpected wave – it’s fine! I’ve waterproof factor 50 on!
Not always the case.
While some brands are better than others in the level of protection they provide (I’d better word this carefully or it’ll end up sounding like I’m talking about something else), not all suncreams are as reliable as they’d like you to believe. While sunblock implies it supposedly blocks out all sun and refuses to let it impact you at all, suncream merely promises to prevent sunburn, and often is actually tailored to ‘encourage tanning’ – enticing the sun but actually controlling what it does to your skin? Sounds a bit dodgy to me…. I’ve found that in general, the strongest and most reliable sunblock to get are the ones advertised for children. Kids’ skin is notoriously more delicate than adults’ and as such it makes sense that their sunblock is stronger than ours. It may be extra gloopy and white and take that little bit more time to rub in correctly, but in the end it’s worth the shiny face and smelling like a baby when you reach sunset each evening with a smile just as pale and ghostly as you began the day with.
Whatever about budget accommodation and shared dorm-rooms, there’s nothing quite like being woken up to about 9 different phone alarms ringing from various corners and muffled covers of a 16-person hostel room, signalling a trip to see the sunrise behind the Angkor Wat temples. One after another, the Samsung and iPhone default alarm settings become the soundtrack to my morning in Siem Reap as I lay in wait for my own – because it surely can’t be 5am until my own device says so!?
It’s been happening all week, as our fellow travellers blindly seek their way to the bathroom in the semi-darkness to prepare for a long day of ‘being tourists’, Siem Reap being possibly one of the earliest rising cities in the country purely for the fact that its main attraction is a daily naturally occurring phenomenon. Our turn comes on a day when I’ve already been awake for a short while; I’m an early riser anyway, and so the premature sunrise and subsequent sunset during the Winter in Asia actually came as a shock to me not so much because it always seems to be slightly earlier than you’d think, but because for once the entire population and world around me rises with me, instead of afterwards, and I don’t feel guilty or apprehensive for waking people up.
Ten minutes after I shamelessly pull the girls from a deep slumber by employing the age-old tactic of shaking them ’til they groggily tell me to stop, we’re swerving around a street corner in a rickety trailer attached to the back of an old an noisy motorbike, as our tuk-tuk driver silently traverses his morning commute down what appears to function as a one-way street before sunrise. We find ourselves unintentional participants in a rat-race of identical vehicles, all surging forwards akin to a playstation game where the goal is simply to get to the finish line first, in our bid to reach the entrance to the temples before the sun peeked it’s head above the eastern-most tower. I’ve never seen anything quite like the huge mix of families, backpackers, elderly couples, middle-aged wanderers and still-drunk party-goers who presumably haven’t slept yet but have impressively managed to find their way to the temples after pre-purchasing a ticket, all disembarking from the assortment of tuk-tuks and motorbikes that line the streets at the main entrance to Angkor. We join the throng of camera-clad sky-gazers shuffling along the pathway in the morning darkness as many drivers settle back into their vehicles with newspapers and smart phones, preparing to wait for their charges to take some pictures of a view they merely glance at as regularly as I see the Leapcard machine on Dublin Bus when I’m at home. This might not be a fair comparison, given that sunrise at Angkor Wat is ultimately slightly more picturesque than the interior of a Dublin Bus, but you get the idea.
It’s an odd sensation as this particular days’ visitors to the temple gather in silent expectation around the little lake outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of the reflection in the water as well as the black silhouettes of the 5 towers of Angkor Wat. I hold up my camera blindly and press the button several times. I do this every couple of minutes. I’d say everyone else does too. I watch the sky change from a burning orangey-red, to a slightly brighter pinkish hue, suddenly joined by flecks of yellow and an undercurrent of purple and blue. Around me, photographers of varying levels of seriousness watch it all through the lenses of cameras that probably cause more hassle than anything to carry around, my trusty Android providing me with pictures just as good (if not better!) than some of the pictures I’ve seen online.
Once the sun has properly made herself visible through the cracks between the Eastern towers, an anti-climactic trawl back through the crowds leads us to follow one of the many pushy vendors along the pathway inside to have breakfast at their ‘restaurant’ – various pop-up eating houses ridiculously named with the intention of enticing hungry foreigners to sit there. We follow ‘Nelly’ to his café area, passing Lady Gaga, Spiderman, Ronaldo and Harry Potter on the way, and unfortunately having to tell Micheal Jackson that we’ve received a better offer.
After this, it’s time to start exploring properly, and together with some Canadian friends we bump into that we’d made in Mondulkiri, we source a guide outside to bring us around the Angkor Wat temples for a cheap enough rate each, given there’s now a group of us. It proves an interesting and well-executed tour, but the heat of the sun now properly risen means that I have to cover up pronto, the lack of clouds having proven beneficial during the actual sunrise itself now frankly uncomfortable on my white freckled skin.
I spot various monks around the temples, some clearly sightseeing, others presumably local and going about their daily practices. One agrees to bless us and tie a red woollen bracelet around our wrists, taking specific care not to even graze the skin with the tips of his fingers as he does so – monks aren’t allowed to touch women’s flesh, the consequence of which would result in their banishment from the monkhood! Talk about extreme measures…. We finish the Angkor tour, and after a quick refreshment, this time from Harry Potter, we negotiate a tuk-tuk ride onwards to the next temple, Ankgor Thom. This one is by far my favourite temple, the stone faces and maze-like tunnels reminding me of The Road to El Dorado and providing both a fun and cultural way to spend the afternoon, not to mention plenty of photo opportunities!
Good intentions and map-reading aside, we get well and truly lost in the final temple, Ta Prohm, or ‘the one from Tomb Raider’, as it’s more commonly known.
A combination of heat, fatigue, awful sense of direction and an array of nooks and crannies to explore meant that four or five times we backtrack on ourselves and have to extract directions to the exit fragment by fragment from a security guard with extremely broken English. It’s been a long day…..but it’s only 3pm! Naps are in order, and even the breeze of the tuk-tuk ride back to the Mad Monkey Siem Reap fails to wake us up properly.
We’d arrived in Siem Reap and spent the day exploring the city a day prior to undertaking Angkor Wat, and I have to say I liked it a million times more than Phnom Penh. Not only is it cleaner, less crowded, and more catered to visitors, but it’s actually fairly easy to navigate, and I’ve felt ultimately so much safer walking around here than I had in Phnom Penh. Everything is clearly labelled, from the ‘Night Market’, the ‘Day Market’, to the neon lights of ‘Pub Street’, meaning less time spent wandering around aimlessly searching for places even tuk-tuk drivers don’t know where to find. The “Beatnik Speakeasy” was an absolute gem of a find on Pub Street, my fascination with Jack Kerouac being clearly represented on the wall inside (the actual quote I’ve been using for this blog since I began it!) along with original beatnik-inspired cocktail concoctions, and we enjoyed a happy hour tipple or three here, for once completely surrounded by other Westerners and tourists alike, and actually feeling like we could relax a bit.
I’ve really become more comfortable with every aspect of this travelling thing now, our experiences before having felt more like pre-organised group outings, rather than independent and self-fulfilling navigation and exploration. We are so much freer to do and go where we please now, our decision to purchase visas to Vietnam being heeded on a whim and promising an unexpected twist for the next leg of our unplanned adventure.
With a bus booked to Ho Chi Minh city the following morning, the few nights in Siem Reap were over far too quickly, and after an evening socialising in The Mad Monkey I hastily repacked my bag with the clean laundry (hurrrah!!!) I’d finally managed to get done behind the counter, and attempted to get some much sought-after sleep.
“If we were meant to stay in one place, we’d have roots instead of feet” – Rachel Wolechin
Modes of transport vary from country to country, city to city, year to year and even day to day if you’re lucky enough to live in a place that offers them all at a low cost. Buses, trains, cars, trams, taxis, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, bicycles, and not to mention the good old reliable two feet attached to our own bodies, it seems we have built industries and businesses surrounding the very nature of human kind to move about from place to place.
It’s ironic that as I write this in an illegible scrawl on pages of a notebook containing my budget for the next week I am actually en route to Ho Chi Minh city, having decided not to renew my Cambodian visa and instead use the remaining time I have in Asia to do just that – move about and see as much as I can see. This particular bus is honestly the most comfortable and luxurious form on transport I’ve taken since being here – it’s a new service with Virak-Buntham Travel which connects Siem Reap in Cambodia directly to Ho Chi Minh city, bypassing the MarioKart streets and crazy traffic of Phnom Penh completely. The discovery of this route was a godsend, especially after our fairly dodgy experiences organising buses so far- our journey to and from Sen Monorem in the East proved a particularly painful (physically too!) stretch of 13 hours in total, with necessary stops in Phnom Penh leaving us feeling we maybe should have reconsidered our route. This was the only service available at such a price, however, and the prospect of meeting the elephants of Mondulkiri at the side of the cramped, uncomfortable and downright dangerous journey was enough to make me suck it up and convince myself the distinct pong of urine combined with ageing fried food and unwashed feet was actually a cultural delicacy that I was privelged to be experiencing.
We were crammed into a rickety piece of metal alongside our bags, several packages with Khmer addresses scrawled across them, sacks of potatoes under each chair and a dubious looking plastic bag containing a mystery kind of gooey substance, the level of English of our fellow passengers ranging from awkward nod to expressionless blinking and complete silence.
‘Think of the elephants”, I found myself chanting along in time to the din of Cambodian wailing coming from the phones of the teenage girls behind us, who had spent a good 15 minutes staring at my skin before proceeding to provide a DJ service (free of charge!) for the entire bus.
‘Mr.Tree’ from the Mondulkiri Elephant Sanctuary and affiliated Tree Lodge Guesthouse picked us up from the station in Sen Monorem, darkness having beaten us there and prevented us from grasping a good bearing in the directions from town. I’ve never been a fan of arriving places at night time purely for this reason, but I think we were just so relieved to be removed from our foetal positions aboard the death wagon of appalling aromas that it didn’t really matter what time it was.
The family-run Tree Lodge Guesthouse provides treetop accomodation just outside Sen Monorem town and overlooking the mountainous forests of Mondulkiri. Childhood fantasies come true, sleeping in treehouses with hammocks and access via ladders and steep wooden steps was made all the more exciting with the prospect of trekking with elephants the following morning – even the giant bugs and flies who shared our dinner and room for the evening couldn’t dampen our spirits at have made it this far. A local menu including avocado and fresh fruit shakes cheered us up immensely too.
Next morning we woke to a cockerel crowing, bugs and birds chorusing a new day in the forest. Humidity and Monica Gellar hairstyles aside, I was pleased to note a significant drop in temperature as we’d ascended the mountain, and the cool breeze which billowed out my clothy overshirt was refreshing as we sat in the back of Mr. Tree’s open-top jeep on our way into the jungle.
The brilliant thing about the Mondulkiri Elephant Project is that it has been set up as a means of providing care and rehabilitation for abused and mistreated elephants. As Mr. Tree explained in perfect English during an extremely passionate introduction to the project, it remains one of only two organisations in the whole of Cambodia which does not exploit their elephants in any way or use them against their will as modes of transport, one-trick circus animals, or decorative additions to a money-making tourist scam. This is eco-tourism at it’s finest. 100% of the funds generated by the Mondulkiri Elephant Sanctuary is pumped straight back into the care and maintenance of the elephants, their highly skilled mahoots, and the upkeep and security of the 123 acre forest itself in which they reside. Mr. Tree stressed the importance of the forest to his tribespeople, and explained how they managed to push a decree through in October 2014 prohibiting any intrusive, destructive, or building work within the existing perimeters of the forest, something he firmly believes would not have been possible without the success of the Elephant Sanctuary Project. In a symbiosis which has worked thus far maintaining peace and balance within the forest, it seems they have slowly but surely gained the trust of their 4 previously abused and tortured elephants in a similar manner.
For centuries the elephants in Cambodia have been used as a means of getting both very heavy and very important things from A to B. one only has to look at the ancient stones which pave the way in the Angkor Wat temples (more on that in the next post!) to see the holes in each where they were fastened using bamboo shoots and rope to elephants who pulled them for miles at a time to reach their destination. In order for these giant and powerful creatures to actually succumb to this work and be controlled by the humans who conscripted their service, they underwent cruel and brutal ‘training’ in their youth, which involved them being chained up for days on end and beaten when they attemped to escape. This is still happening today.
Though the chains are stronger than the young elephants at the time of imprisonment and succeed in keeping them stationary despite their struggling, Mr. Tree described sadly how as the elephants grow to a strength and power easily matched to the bonds of their chains, their struggling and will to escape lessens as they gradually stop trying to push against the chains. They are then seen as trained and fit to serve the owners, whips also being used to ensure their diligence and loyalty.
You cannot ride the elephants in Mondulkiri, and the tour description of ‘jungle trek’ is really a glorified explanation of what they actually do here. Because these elephants are free. It makes such huge and wonderful sense to simply provide visitors with a glimpse into the lives and natural habitat of the elephants and their mahoots. Instead of forcing a route upon them day after day and camera-clad gawping Westerners stopping at set intervals to take pictures of them, visitors to Mondulkiri go where the elephants go. The mahoots act merely as satellite dishes to keep track of their elephants’ whereabouts in order for a tour group to find them, observe briefly and tempt with bananas, then follow at a distance as soon as the elephants have gotten bored and decided to wander onwards. It’s such a humane and natural system which benefits everyone within the community that I honestly am so so proud and happy to even have had the chance to experience it.
In treating the elephants as the majestic, gentle and highly intelligent creatures that they are, the mahoots and staff of Mondulkiri have earned their respect, and Igot the impression they even enjoyed being fed huge bunches of bananas at a time, and followed to the streams to swim. After observing Lucky, Princess, Sophie and Ginzaag for a time as they filled up on branches and shoots and leaves of the protected forest, we were treated to a lunch of rice, beansprouts, spinach and vegetables in the treetop Jungle Lodge. An hours’ chilling in the hammocks there split the day up nicely, after which we followed the mahoots’ whistles to the riverside to find the elephants bathing. Although we were lucky in that our day for the tour seemed to be a fairly typical day for them, the success and value of the treks here really is at the mercy of the elephants themselves. It just further goes to show how fair treatment, equality and balance lead to a happier and healthier environment for all living things to exist in harmony (forgive me for sounding like a tree hugger here!)
After an exhausting yet exhilarating day at the Elephant Project, it was back to the TreeLodge and our friends Mr. Bathroom frog and Balcony Bat for what was one of the deepest and longest sleeps I’ve had in weeks. We awoke refreshed and ready to power through another 6 hour hurtling Gringotts’-cart shuttle van ride back to Phnom Penh. This time the pictures of our new elephant mates kept us occupied, along with various games of ‘guess the marinated insect’ at the market stalls of the hourly toilet breaks. I wouldn’t dare taste any, but it reminded me of Timone and Pumba’s jungle-introduction for Simba in The Lion King.
I felt somewhat better about taking the bus and putting my life in the hands of someone who doesn’t speak my language knowing that it meant I’d helped ensure that even some of Cambodia’s remaining wild elephants are still free roam where they want, responsible only for the transport of themselves from watering hole to the groups of Westerners they must see as irritating yet reliable banana-vending machines.
I’d urge anyone to visit the Mondulkiri project, the tours and information provided is extremely well-delivered and easy to understand, and the accomodation, though you don’t have to stay at the Tree Lodge (not to mention fun!) accomodation. Bug spray is a must, as well as comfortable walking shoes and bum-pad for the bus journey there!!
If you’ve ever wanted to visit a secluded paradise island….prepare to become very green. Our latest adventure took us to Rabbit Island, just off the coast of Kep in South Western Cambodia.
We arrived in Kep late the other evening, after a group weekend spent motorbiking, river- cruising, and Mad Monkey-ing it up again, this time in Kampot– I’m one ‘passport’ stamp away from a free t-shirt!!
The next morning, we broke away from the group to spend a few days in Kep, the bus via Kampot leaving The Mad Monkey in true Khmer fashion an entire 45 minutes later than scheduled. We had to get talking to a local American teacher who shared our bus to direct us to our accomodation for the evening, yet as I’ve found since coming out travelling, people are generally so willing to help and show a bit of kindess to those who ask with a smile, and fellow travellers are generally always a safe bet. We’ve also been on the opposite end of this aid, when visitors unfamiliar with an area we have recently travelled have required directions and recommendations, and even local Cambodian people asking for help understanding English translations and signs around us have really just left us feeling quite positive about a lot of day-to-day interactions in the Kampot/Kep area. At the end of the day, I feel if you can help someone else, no matter what the area or nationality, a vast majority of people will go out of their way to do so, and most kindred spirits encountered whilst travelling have also embodied this belief.
We eventually found our way to The Oasis Guesthouse, a place we’d booked online having had no previous knowledge or recommendations of it, let alone awareness of its facilities. It actually proved not to be too far from
all the main attractions of the small holiday town of Kep – many wealthy Cambodians come here with their families on short vacations from their busy lives in the cities. Sure enough when we eventually found it the beach was full to the brim with young Khmer families, all sitting at intervals along the pathways on thin wooden mats, sharing meals consisting of rice, crabmeat, sugar cane juices and fruits. This huge variety of food is eaten in Cambodia no matter what time of day it is – I still haven’t gotten my head (or stomach) around having rice for breakfast, but it seems to be that anything goes here! I’ve gotten used to the stares at my ghostly white skin by now, the children loving a wave from any Western-skinned person, and always responding to a smile with an even bigger and toothless one (literally everything here contains sugar).
True to what the sky had been threatening all day, our arrival was applauded by a downpour of rain, and the bikes available for free from the Oasis Guesthouse we’d taken to explore the town on our first evening getting drenched as we sheltered in a local pop-up night market. It might have been the rain, or it might have been the fact that we were the only Westerners for miles around, but this market was honestly one of the strangest experiences I have had since arriving in Cambodia.
Everything from pyjamas, to clocks, to sanitary towels and dried bananas, not to mention of course the live mini-rabbits dressed in tutus and on display in an assortment of coloured cages with spindly wheels were available to purchase as casually as you’d stroll into Tesco of a Sunday morning for some milk. Many of the vendors mistook our fascinated pointing and laughing for interest, and I lost count of how many children gleefully waved and laughed as they watched us duck from canopy to canopy to avoid the torrents of water flowing from the roof.
I ended up precuring some free bananas and also a taste of some roasted chestnuts, (delicious) again in a weird out-of-place kind of way reminding me of Christmas. Our cycle home was punctuated by some of the most beautifully odd and silent lightening that seems to accompany the purpling night sky every evening during the end of rainy season here. It was oddly peaceful as we pedalled home through the darkening streets, completely vulnerable yet strangely dominant over our own space upon the road, the only things and belongings we could be sure of resting precariously in the baskets on the front of our bikes.
Siang the tuk-tuk driver from the day before met us as scheduled outside the guesthouse the following morning, his two young daughters giggling as we re-entered the vehicle and greeted them with a familiar smile – it seems they travel around his work with him during the day, taking travellers and locals alike from A to B. Siang helped us book tickets for the boat out to Rabbit Island, and arranged to pick us up from the same shop as the day before after lunch. This left us with a morning to explore Kep and also to relax on the sands of the first beach I’ve encountered since coming out here!! It was hot and terrifyingly dangerous for gingers (burn potential was seriously high here, and I’m proud of how I managed to avoid it!), but I stayed in the shade and read a book, finally finding a mangostein fruit (out of season) at a stall along the road after weeks of fruitless searching for one in the city (pun entirely intended).
It was as we sat along this low stone wall under the minimal shade available from extremely naked looking trees that a local man enlisted our help understanding a YouTube video of the son of Cambodia’s Prime Minister talking on a TV news station. An Australian interviewer was asking him (in English) about his father’s rule and whether or not he would consider ‘continuing on the mantle’ when his turn came. The man we met had excellent English, far better than many other locals we’ve encountered, yet he informed us he’d learnt it all from the internet, and I found it fascinating to even consider the fact that although he was doing his utmost to make himself aware of his country’s political situation and be knowledgeable of their current affairs, the language barrier presented by the government themselves was preventing the majority of its’ citizens from understanding what their leaders’ incentives are.
Our fascinating conversation was cut short as the tuk-tuk driver pulled up, a gobbledeegook gesture and nodding towards his phone and the tuk tuk supposedly suggesting that Siang had been held up, and that this new driver was to take us to the port. Actually getting used to leaping blindly over the language barrier of communication that is required to successfully secure a seat in a tuk-tuk here, we hopped in and hoped for the best.
As we neared the port for the crossing to Rabbit Island, ‘ferry’ being too strong a word I feel for the long-boats used to cross the 30-minute distance from the mainland, the smell of the sea did it’s salty dance up around us again, and I relished the cool spray of the waves as they jostled between the boats we clambered into. A few minutes’ confusion again as the local ferry drivers laughed and joked amongst themselves, presumably at us – a small group of white people not having a clue what they were saying and yet entrusting them with their lives on fairly old and dodgy-looking wooden boats – and we were off, the small green lump of foliage in the distance slowly becoming greener and larger as our proximity neared. Phu Quoc in Vietnam was visible off to our right, Cambodia behind us, and Rabbit Island up ahead. The Gulf of Thailand expanded off ahead of us between the various chunks of land, and the boat sped ahead, spraying us with fresh salty water and shielding us from the preying and sneaky rays of the sun by providing a cool breeze that would easily fool a rookie ginger under its’ gaze – I’d brought my scarf to cover up just in case this happened!!
Stepping off the boat and onto Rabbit Island was honestly one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had. I’ve been on a secluded island before, Samuka Island in the middle of Lake Victoria, Africa, yet this was something entirely different. All along the narrow strip of beach below the palm trees and in amongst the secluded beachhuts with hammocks stood individual huts and houses on stilts at least a metre or so off the ground. Each wooden dwelling had been carefully constructed plank by plank and thatched daintily from above – as we wandered further down the sands we saw a group of islanders re-thatching an older looking hut, and I was struck by just how delicate and impermanent everything around me was. Each couple of huts was interrupted with a local ‘restaurant’, or kind of makeshift kitchen where noodles, rice, and various fish or fruit-based dishes were being served, along with several Western options. I eagerly ordered a portion of ‘grilled fish’ at one, my fairly legitimate question of ‘what kind of fish?’ falling on deaf and language-barriered Khmer ears as the waiter smiled and shook his head as if it was the most normal response ever– a reaction I’ve become accustomed to receiving on posing any sort of question here.
Accepting that I was about to receive a nameless and mystery plate of seafood, I settled back and took in my surroundings again, several hens clucking around and clearing up the crumbs atop the table next to us.
Couples on holiday, singletons come to find a bit of respite from the madness of the mainlands, and then the random day-trippers like ourselves were dotted around the sparsely populated beach – although there seemed to be a fair few people around, I would not describe it as being ‘packed’ or ‘touristy’ in any way. It was peaceful, calm, and just…..chilled. I felt more at ease here than I have in weeks. There are huts every 100 metres or so where local Khmer women sit and wait for someone to place themselves in front of them for a massage. There are fresh coconuts ready to drink and eat off the branch. The fish had literally been caught mere few hours before it was served to me. There was no one yelling ‘tuk-tuk??” in our ears every couple of steps. There were no motorbikes. Just pure sand, sun, beach, hammocks……bliss. Nobody comes to Rabbit Island with the intention of anything but to relax, chill, and take in some beautiful beautiful scenery from the Gulf of Thailand whilst doing so.
I would happily retire tomorrow from my non-existant job and live happily ever after on Rabbit Island, but our ferry had been booked back to the mainland for 4pm, and we reluctantly picked our way through the discarded coconut shells and sea shells alike to meet our boat driver back at the dock. Clutching a mini can of Angkor beer, he expertly pushed off from the jetty with one hand and steered us back out to sea, the unchanged perfection of the island slowly getting smaller and smaller as the sun lowered closer to the horizon. Time to go back to reality.
Our tuk-tuk driver arranged the tickets for us out to the Island from a local company with an office situated in the main square of Kep, and we travelled Kampot – Kep with Giant Ibis transport. The tuk-tuk man we were lucky enough to get talking to right where the bus had dropped us off – again, it pays to be friendly to the locals and make acquaintences! It saved us a lot of painful negotiation and frustration having a set driver planned!
Oasis Guesthouse is a family-run compound of twenty or so wooden cabins just outside the centre of Kep, situated in a beautiful garden with so much greenery it’s difficult to see between cabins! We never found out what kind of creature walked over our roof several times every night but I remain convinced it was a large ape of some sort – apparantly the surrounding forestry is home to more than just birds!
As I tentatively tugged the right handlebar of the heavy 2-wheeler towards me, I felt a surge of power and heard the grumble of the engine cut through the silence of the morning like the sudden snores of a drunkard sleeping with his mouth open after a particularly heavy night out. It was a feeling of power within my grasp that I’d never quite encountered before, and as I pulled back further and further on the throttle, gradually releasing more and more power and feeling giddy at the speed I was gaining, I couldn’t help but smile. I’m free!!! I took ten to fifteen minutes before leaving to circle the grounds of the yard, just to get to grips with the controls, but by the time it came to leave and follow our guide through the narrow streets of Kampot and up toward the shadow of the lonely Bokor Mountain (I couldn’t help but compare it to ‘The Lonely Mountain’ from The Hobbit!) I was raring to go, and more confident than I’d ever thought would be possible for me on such a vehicle.
We rented the motorbikes from The Mad Monkey Kampot’s own rental company who, as we learned the hard way, are NOT great at negotiating group prices and /or tour guides. Eventually, after almost an hour discussing prices and trying to keep ‘cool hearts’, we were sorted with our bikes and two ‘guides’. Terrified as I was of losing my balance on the motorbike and causing a pile-up on the narrow and steep uphill climb to the peak of Bokor Mountain, I persevered and was gladly rewarded with a stable confidence after a few minutes of initial terror. We were informed on the way that we’d have to stop and pay for fuel refills ourselves, which we did begrudgingly, yet also got free rice crackers to keep us going on the way. As we drove further and further out of town towards the countryside and the beckoning heights of Bokor Mountain, I actually grew to really enjoy the biking, and made sure to get use of the 24 hours I’d rented it for by taking short trips to and from the shops and breakfast the next morning! It wasn’t for everyone, however, as the prospects of riding a motorbike in Cambodia after witnessing the madness of Phnom Penh understandably put us off somewhat. We managed to get through the entire trip with no major incidents, a massive downpour of rain drenching us to the bone as we passed through a cloud on the way down the mountain being the worst of it, only to emerge just as suddenly to heat and sunshine on the other side which dried us off almost immediately.
Seeing the giant statue on top of the mountain clearly having some work done made me laugh and ironically made me think of how even The Buddha needs some TLC sometimes! I felt balanced and controlled at the summit, and proud of the fact that I’d made it up so far with only a minor burn from the exhaust pipe on my left leg to show as signs of battle.
In Kampot we ate in local restaurants The Rusty Keyhole, Veronica’s, and of course The Mad Monkey’s own yummy bar area at varying intervals. The Rusty Keyhole proved a popular favourite amongst our party, yet also quite small – they had no room for us at dinner, and so we were forced to make a booking for the following morning for breakfast!
On the final evening we all booked a private boat for a sunset tour up the river in Kampot – The ‘Fireflies’ tour which lived up to it’s name as we stopped at several points along the way to observe and catch the fireflies which lit up the shrubbery along the banks in a Christmas-tree like display of twinkling and shimmering. The old man and his son who steered and moored the boat were amazing guides, pointing out and explaining all points of interest and even giving us basic Khmer lessons – my day was MADE to discover that ‘nom’ in Khmer means ‘cake’! I was so thrilled to discover that literally saying ‘nom nom nom’ means ‘cake cake cake’ in Cambodian that I didn’t stop saying it all night!
The good company and beautiful scenery brought a lazy close to a busy day as the sun set behind the Elephant Mountains, the fireflies providing a trail of fairy lights to lead us home. This tranquility and festive atmosphere kind of made me think of home briefly and how everyone will be gearing up for Christmas in the next few weeks, and my mind was filled both with contentment at the proximity of the holidays on my return, and with a strange emptiness that I am not there to experience the build-up this year – often the best part of any major holiday. It only took a blink or two however and a glance around at my present surroundings to shake these thoughts from my head and focus on the amazing opportunities and experiences that are currently within my reach.
We enjoyed good food in Veronica’s, a glass of wine or two drooping the eyelids of weary travellers’ eyes like the slow ebb of a tide not yet sure if it’s on it’s way in or out to shore. It was expensive enough in comparison to some of the local food places, but it was a nice way to mark the end of a fun weekend. There was a pool party in full swing on our return to The Mad Monkey, but I stayed only for one more before calling it a night, if it could be called that with the music playing late into the night….One thing The Mad Monkey is not is being a place for catching up on lost sleep!
Tours to the summit of Bokor Mountain in The Elephany Mountains and motorbike rentals are available at various places throughout the village of Kampot, though ours was organised exclusively through The Mad Monkey’s own operators at reception, which was easier seeing as there was a large group of us. It worked out at $6 each per bike, and a further $3.50 for the Fireflies cruise (group rate for a private boat).
The Giant Ibis Bus company to/from Phnom Penh worked out the most affordable form of transport, and worked out at $8 one –way for all passengers. (Most Cambodian bus companies charge extra for ‘foreigners’, but Giant Ibis have regularized all fees, hurrahh for equality!!) Buses leave