A Monk, a Ginger, and a Picturesque Palace

A young Buddhist monk clad in orange robes and flimsy, thin sandals holds up a smartphone. I quickly stow mine away. Who knows where he’s had it hidden, those robes look fairly impractical when it comes to storage and safe keeping of things.
All of a sudden the tables have turned, and now I am the subject of interest; the main attraction; the pale, ginger alien from afar. For some reason all I can think of is how violently those orange robes would clash with my hair if I ever had to wear them.
I glance around the vast grounds of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, uncomfortably in search of the tour group I’d wandered away from. The young monks, (the eldest can’t be older than about 13) have started giggling amongst themselves now, as my anxiety spikes higher and I grow visibly flustered. Or maybe it’s just the heat?
They clearly don’t know how to put the camera switch on silent mode either, I grumble internally, as I hear the phone make the ‘click’ and ‘click’ and ‘click’ noises of this impromptu photo shoot.
Surely this is against some religious code or regulations, surely they’re not allowed to do things like this? What happened to empathy, understanding, treating fellow humans with respect and privacy??
As my frustration builds I realise that I’ve been guilty of all those things I just listed as being ‘out-of-bounds’ for the monks. Me and the thousands of other tourists who pass through their home everyday and gawp in awe at their clothes, their houses and schools – their entire world. It hardly seems fair that they should have to put up with it, but then again, Cambodia has many aspects to it that Westerners would consider unjust. The Khmer people just accept things as they are.
The grandeur of the Palace in Phnom Penh is testament to that, as I consider the riches and perfectly preened gardens and hedgerows in comparison to the wildness, the go-karting, free-wheeling adventures of the city streets beyond. Somehow everything in here seems calmer, as if the Playstation game has been put on pause and everything moves in slow motion until you’re ready to go again.
I eventually spot the gaggle of excited Chinese tourists who were part of my group by the submarine-pipe heads of their selfie-sticks bobbing above the crowds. Glancing behind me, I notice that the monks have fallen back, now sullen in their observation of the mass of tourists and my re-assimilation into it after a brief escapade into their camera-range.
How odd it must feel to be a stationary figure in the middle of such a steady, ferocious stream of people passing through. The orange robes to us are just about as fascinating as orange hair is to them, yet their desire to express their interest and marvel at things unaccustomed to them is met with questioning, staring, and judgement. My own reaction to their interest shamed me.
As I reach the outer gates of the palace, I lighten up at what’s just occurred, and manage to laugh off the irony of it. I steady myself to prepare for the tuk-tuk games to begin again, reflecting softly that Phnom Penh and Cambodia as a whole is truly a beautiful, chaotic celebration of the old world and the new coming together in a frenzied rush of confusion, odd smells, and exhaust-pipe dust.

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Anchored…or what?! – How an Accidental Selfie Altered My Entire Perspective.

 

“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.

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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.

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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.

 

Ar Thóraíocht Taistil – Ó Chonamara go Cambodia…go Vítneam

Ar Thóraíocht Taistil – Ó Chonamara go Cambodia…go Vítneam

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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 Panickers’ Guide To Travelling

 

Take it from a seasoned panicker – new and unfamiliar situations are always going to pose the threat of throwing you off-balance. If you’re like me and tend to overthink every potential outcome of every hypothetical situation before it’s even had a chance to become a possibility yet, it’s time you accepted the fact that you do this, and stopped distancing yourself from trying new things in fear of it.

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Once you accept the fact that certain circumstances and types of people stress you out slightly more than they do others, it becomes so much easier to take a step back and put things into perspective. Perspective in this case has a lot to do with accepting your own lack of control over certain elements of life, and embracing your vulnerability instead of running from it and pretending it’s not there.

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That’s why when I announced my plans to embark on a bit of solo travel and exploration, my close friends and family were very clearly slightly dubious of me. Even if they didn’t say it or voice their concerns, I know them well enough to recgonise their polite acceptance of what I was calling my ‘travels’, when I knew all they were thinking was ‘how the hell is she going to manage?’. It’s only been a little over a month since leaving, but several short-term trips beforehand prepared me both mentally and physically for this next step of setting out on my own and away from the safety net of an organised travel group (I’m not completely on my own just yet, but will be soon, and I find 2 or 3 is a much more managable number than a large group). But I like to think I’ve proven them wrong in how well things have gone so far…..(*touches woods apprehensively*). Here’s some advice I wrote for the benefit of others that I keep needing to remember to follow myself….

1.  It’s Natural to Anticipate

I am and have always been chronically early for absolutely every kind of appointment, meeting, flight, bus, train, or any other kind of scheduled journey I’ve ever taken. 532242_265319013590365_2114068047_nIt’s this anticipation, this un-uttered fear and apprehension that something might go wrong or somehow need to be altered at the last minute and leave me unprepared that has led me to panic as I have in the past at the mere mention of the dreaded words ‘change of plan’. I am also an earlybird. I’m up before the worms, which I figure is always better than being late. It’s ok to be early for things, in fact sometimes it even works out in your favour. The tricky part though is managing to get the balance between overpanicking about it to the extent that you arrive 3 hours before your check-in time and have to sit with your suitcase in the only café on this side of the airport, and being so relaxed that you rock up 5 minutes before boarding closes and have left no time to deal with any issues that may have arisen between the sprint from the check-in desk and the quickly downed pint of Bulmers’ in departures. The apprehension associated with pre-determining things and trying to ensure it will work out as planned is exhausting, so just be aware that only certain things are in your control when it comes to transport and travel. You can only ever hope to take care of yourself and ensure you’re there on time and with all of your belongings – there’s no point stressing over others or over conditions (weather, delays, timetable changes, etc) that are outside of your control. Going with the flow is something that is most effectively learnt by literally just taking the leap and doing it, and so there’s only so many times you can tell someone before that they must take the initiative and do it for themselves.

2. Just Go For it.

This leads me on to my next point. Just Go For It. There’s only so many times people are going to listen to the fact that your main plan and dream in life is to travel and see the world until you actually set out and DO something about it. It shouldn’t be about what other people think, but I know myself that I was getting tired of hearing myself go on about it on nights out and with various groups of friends, so much so that I eventually just went for it and booked something. I was more nervous than excited right up until the week of my departure, but by then it was too late to change anything and I’d come to terms with the fact that I was challenging myself in this way for the forseeable future, and that it would ultimately prove a positive and character-building experience for me. What have you got to lose?

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3.  Language Barriers
img-thingBe prepared to encounter some pretty incomprehensible situations and difficult people on your travels. It can get frustrating and stressful at times, especially if you’re (heaven forbid) running late for something or require certain information immediately. It’s often the hardest thing to do to take a step back and a deep breath, and use your most plainly broken down English to try and get a point across. Panicking in this situation will only make things worse, as body language becomes more important and obvious when words are no longer an option – this means that the more erratic you get, the more difficult it will be for the locals to grasp your intent. Keep a ‘cool heart’ as much as possible, and you will get by without too much anxiety or frustration bubbling over and escaping in the form of angry and accidentally offensive hand gestures (many Asian cultures do not appreciate pointing). Another thing that can help with this is to try to get a basic grasp of the local language – such things as please, thank you, how much, and the numbers 1-5 have proven especially helpful in securing directions, transport, prices, and also in cooling off situations where the language barrier has been particularly difficult to scale.

 

4. Money is Not Actually all that Important
If I had’ve known how little it is possible to get by on a day in South East Asia, I would have embarked on this trip a hell of a lot sooner. If you’re smart about it (which I’m not pretending to be always, but hear me out here), the main thing you will find yourself parting with hard-earned cash for will be transport from place to place. Food and drink is another necessity which does add up (especially given the charges to refill water bottles), but if you stock up in a supermarket and don’t mind carrying an extra ‘food bag’ around with you (beware of ants!), it is actually easy enough to avoid paying extortionate amounts. Still, it’s difficult not to let budget concerns get to you while you’re on the move and dealing with tens of thousands of a foreign currency you can’t begin to grasp the value of. This is made more difficult by the surcharges that seem to exist at every unexpected turn. A dollar here for parking a bike, 50 cent there for a water refill, which actually leaves you a couple of million Dong down, really make for a lot of confusion and stressful expenditure until you familiarise yourself with the currency, which I recommend doing as soon as you arrive. Avoiding organised tours and pushy guides who convince you their offer is best is also key, and it is often so much cheaper to rent your own bike or motorbike and go exploring by yourself. BJ7Se2rCMAAmsXR You may get lost once or twice, but there’s nothing quite like the feeling of finding your way back and grasping the geography of such a foreign place – every chance you’ll stumble across hidden gems you’d never see whilst blindly following a tour guide! The sense of independence achievable by doing this is also second to none, and even if you do go astray and feel like you’ve no idea where you are, there will always be someone willing to point you in the right direction home – humans can actually be nice, you know, and contrary to what some people think the whole world isn’t actually out to get you!

 

5. You Get What You Give
I get it. You’re a nervous person. So am I. It generally takes me a drink or two to loosen up to the stage where I’ll talk freely with a stranger for no reason other than out of politeness. But travelling has really changed the way I see this. Being forced into group situations and dorm rooms where it would be just downright rude to ignore likeminded travellers’ enquiries and lighthearted banter has really made me see that I am more than capable of socialising and holding solid conversation without the backbone or safety net of a group of friends behind me. So often I’ve heard ‘oh I’m rubbish at making friends’ or ‘I find it hard to talk to people’ – excuses I’ve made myself to avoid having to involve myself in social situations that I actually end up enjoying when I get into it. I’ve found that, simply put, to gain anything from any social situation or interaction, you must be prepared to also give an equal amount to show the person you’re engaged in conversation that yes, actually I do want to keep talking with you and stike up an impromptu friendship over how we both got ripped off by a cyclo guy in Ho Chi Minh City. 7a7ba950ff1df75bec529b7b7d867adf8db12c5d783aea2d22362b117b482a5d.jpgYou never know anything until you ask, and more often than not I’ve found you’ll be surprised with both the answer and with yourself and confidence after opening up and letting people in. After all, how can you expect anyone to want to speak to someone who sits closed off to the world? Any relationship is based on give and take – even a barman is not going to know what you want unless you tell him, this seemingly minor interaction being strengthened by the only certainty of it’s grounding, which is your order. It’s more difficult with new people, when intention may or may not be clear, but I’ve found that if you let go of this factor and accept that it really doesn’t matter WHY this person is talking to you, they just ARE, it becomes easier to lessen anxiety and enjoy just living and being in the moment of the conversation.

 

6. Push Your Limits
You’re already doing this by taking the step outside your comfort zone to go travelling, so why not try and push a little more? I’ve surprised myself in many ways since leaving home; I’ve held tarantulas, tried streetfood I wouldn’t touch in a million years were it made at home, ridden motorbikes up mountains and around streets where the only observed rule of the road is ‘biggest vehicle goes first’, and put my life and valuables in the hands of bus and tuk-tuk drivers who swear they knew where my requested destination was, but have actually embarked on wild goose chases searching and asking others they see along the way. It’s only natural to be slightly on edge when trying to progress in such a foreign and alien society, but there is definitely a balance to be struck between letting the anxiety take over, and accepting that certain things here are just done differently, and that it’s kind of in the unwritten travellers’ handbook that visitors to any city or new town adapt to the local ways instead of resisting and causing negative and problematic interactions – there’s a reason many locals in tourist areas dislike foreigners!

 

7. Enjoy, don’t Endure
This is possibly the most important piece of advice I have ever received. I guarantee you, if you fill the time you have out travelling and exploring a new country with worrying and anticipating everything up until you arrive on time for your flight home, you will return with nothing but regret that you fret over such trivial issues instead of enjoying your surroundings while you were there. Living in the moment is advice we all hear on a regular basis, and I feel that escaping to a new country, a new place, with new people and new experiences is one of the best ways to put this way of living into practice. In shifting your mindset to enjoyment, focusing on the new and exciting things that surround you on all sides instead of merely existing and not fully appreciating things, you will gradually come to be aware of how easy it is to confuse enjoyment with endurance.images-1 I’ve lost count of how many family holidays or group trips away that I’ve merely endured purely to satisfy others, and I regret hugely not enjoying them and making more of them whilst I was there. It had gotten to the point where I confused the boundaries between what was endurance and what wasn’t, and I’d almost forgotten what it was to enjoy new experiences, instead focusing always on the negative – the long journeys, the heat, the lack of available peanut butter….the list of trivialities goes on. I’m now lucky in that even though I’m often naturally inclined to the negative, I have the ability to pull myself up on it and stop the spiralling thoughts before I lose control of them.

8. Learn From Mistakes
Finally, you wouldn’t have reason to panic or be anxious at all if it weren’t for past mistakes you’ve made, or the potential disastrous consequences leaving your home and comfort zone can present to you. Be aware only that things will go wrong, and you will make mistakes, but it’s so important not to view these mistakes as failures, and merely to accept them as they happen and try to learn from them. Admit to yourself that no, it probably wasn’t the best idea to agree to a city tour without fully understanding how much they charged first, but it happened, I was naive, and I won’t do it again. It’s the only way to deal with the unexpected blows to the bank balance, dignity or confidence that come naturally with travel. If nothing else so far it has taught me to take myself less seriously, and to see that literally everyone in the world is in the best way possible just out for themselves in the hope of progressing forwards. Rarely have I encountered a situation where people are genuinely nasty or mean in their intentions, and even the most stingy shop assistant will at the end of a tough haggling session sigh and take what little amount of money you have resigned them to accepting. If you’re assertive enough and aware of the potentiality of being ripped off and taken advantage of, but possess the ability to still function somewhat normally and enjoy your new surroundings despite this awareness, a good balance can eventually be struck between awareness and fear. It’s not exactly an easy ask, but it gets easier the more you remember it in tough situations, and gradually becomes second nature to take things in your stride instead of letting the anxiety win over and needing to ask for directions home to the hostel you’ve returned to without an issue for the past 4 nights already. Learning curve. Baby steps. All that jazz. Worst comes to the worst, at least you’ll have the comfort of knowing you had the confidence to give it a shot!

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If I can do it, anyone can!

A Ginger’s Guide to South East Asia, or any Inconveniently Hot Country

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)

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Shade-bathing is my new favourite pass time

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!

  1. Shade.

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!)

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Welcome to my cribbb..we’ve got shade here

 2. Layers.
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.

  1. Choose your beach/pool time wisely
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I’ll stay right here thanks!

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!’

  1. Rise early to get the most out of the day
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Sunrise over the Mui Ne sand dunes (*note the shawl for the return journey!)

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.

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Morning scene at Mui Ne fishing village..

 

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

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We all just want to see the sun rise….

  1. 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!

  1. 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.

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My new best friend

Temples, Tombs, and Touristy Tipples – From Connemara to Cambodia

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.

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We all stood and looked at the sky for a bit

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.

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Angkor Thom

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.

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Hurrah! Sun’s here

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.

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Lilies and Lotus flowers in the lake

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!

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I had to stop myself calling him ‘Avatar’

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.

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Cringe, but a must – Tomb Raider pic in Ta Prohm

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.

**************

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‘beatnik speakeasy’ – my new favourite bar ever

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.

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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.

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Angkor Selfie (standard)

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.

Next stop, Ho Chi Minh City……!

Elephants, Eco-tourism, and the Express Bus from Hell

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Jungle Overview…

“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.

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Tree Lodge Guesthouse

‘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.

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Trekking in the Forest

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.

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Have you guessed I love elephants?!

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.

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Happy

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.

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Gentle Giants

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!)

12243634_10153183145423483_167972287_nAfter 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.

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Princess

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!!

Useful Links:
Virak- Buntham Travel
Mondulkiri Elephant Sanctuary
Mondulkiri Elephant Sanctuary Facebook
Tree Lodge Guesthouse

 

Rabbits, Rabbit Island, and Paradise in the Gulf of Thailand – From Connemara to Cambodia

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.

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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.

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Oasis Guesthouse, Kep

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).

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Kep Beach

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.

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Pop-up night market
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Rabbits in tutus…?

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.

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Tourist info, Kep!
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Gingers love the shade

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.

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A local lady views her fleet…
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Rabbit Island one side, Vietnam on the other…

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!!

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Stepping on to the Island…
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Mystery fish

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. unnamed-90Each 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.

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Hammocks ❤

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.

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I’ve got a loverly bunch of coconuts….diddleedeee

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.

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Longboats

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!

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Did someone say Damien Dempsey…?? #AlmightyLove

Useful Links:

Oasis Guesthouse Kep
Giant Ibis Transport 

Bokor Biking and Fireflies – From Connemara to Cambodia

Bokor Biking and Fireflies

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.

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Motorbiking up Bokor Mountain

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.

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Even The Buddha needs a bit of work sometimes!

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!

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River-cruising in Kampot

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!

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Waterfall – another stop on the Bokor Mountain trail

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

Phnom Penh – Kampot: 8:00 a.m, 2:45 p.m.
Kampot – Phnom Penh: 8:30 a.m., 2:45 p.m.

Useful Links:

Mad Monkey Website
Mad Monkey Kampot Facebook
Rusty Keyhole
Veronica’s
Bokor Mountain Tours (With Mad Monkey Kampot)
Fireflies Tour Kampot
Giant Ibis Transport

Koh Dach Moments, Cambodian Yoga, and the Mad Monkey Hostel

When travelling with a group, it is always easy for arguments to arise regarding preferred activities or ways to spend a free weekend. After a busy first week working in a Phnom Penh, our TEFL group however, seemed to all be on the same page when it came to organising some downtime.

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Koh Dach Island

After a group dinner at a local BBQ restaurant, we were shepharded on to Dusk til’ Dawn, or the Rooftop Reggae Bar Phnom Penh  as it’s more commonly known– exactly what it says on the tin, and a phnomenal way (pun intended) to really relax for the first time together and experience great music, views, and our first taste of the nightlife of the city. Curfews at 9pm during the week don’t exactly allow for more than a rebellious tipple on the riverside before racing back to accomodation before the security guards fall asleep, but I feel this restriction allows us to make the most of the weekends, and in a way this week it feels like we’re actually settling into a (somewhat) normal working routine.

The delicious cocktails at the Reggae Bar were exactly what was needed by all after a tough week, and after a bit of chatting and dancing we proceeded to hop the nearest                            tuk-tuk to check in to our accomodation for the next 3 nights.

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The Mad Monkey hostel in Phnom Penh is one of the primary spots in the city for backpackers, with honestly probably the cleanest shower facilities and tastiest restaurant menu I’ve seen since arriving in Asia. Shared dorms, every nationality imaginable wandering around the reception area and rec room, and likeminded working-travellers just chilling for the weekend, it really allowed us to feel like we were finally taking a break and allowed us to revert to ‘traveller-mode’ again.

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Mad Monkey Hostel Phnom Penh

The popularity and widespread reputation of the Mad Monkey for Western backpackers and travellers such as ourselves really showed as I ran into a girl I know from college back home in Ireland whilst trying to find my way up the windy and confusing staircases one night. The rooms are very strangely laid out, but it’s fun trying to find each one if you don’t mind a bit of trial-and-error – and the artwork around the walls is brilliant to look at too if you do get lost!

There are nightly beer-olympic style games in the ‘Rooftop Sunset Bar’, and plenty of other bars, nightclubs, and Western-style restaurants around within walking and tuk-tuk distance that also appealed to us. I was particularly excited to see the Costa Coffee, and directly opposite it stood a large branch of Domino’s Pizza!

The staff were excellent, the menus were yummy and nicely varied (albeit slightly pricey), and the rooms were spotless, well-cleaned and spacious. We were particularly happy when they didn’t seem to mind us hanging around in the resturant area for hours on the Sunday, I’m sure they’ll be sick of seeing our faces before the end of our stay in Cambodia!

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The ‘Healthy Monkey’ fruit & granola option : )

Only a 5 minute walk up the road from the Mad Monkey, I was thrilled to find the Nataraj Yoga Hub Cambodia, where I attended classes both mornings of our stay. Both the Ashtanga and the Regular Flow classes I attended were great,  and the open-terraced balcony looked out over a beautiful courtyard garden.

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I didn’t mind paying the rather pricey drop-in rate of $9 in order to get a proper class or two in though – self- practice is great, but difficult to accommodate regularly whilst travelling and staying in shared lodgings.

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Koh Dach Island

Our Saturday was spent cycling the length of Koh Dach Island, or ‘The Silk Island’ as it is known to the locals. This beautiful, quiet and picturesque length of land was exactly the break we needed from the madness of both the city of Phnom Penh and the backpackers’ hostel, and we were treated to a visit to the house and workshop of a local lady who showed us exactly how she wove and made the silk products, one long scarf she told us taking ‘three to five days’ to complete. The ferry out from Phnom Penh port cost a mere 500 Riel, (the equivalent of $0.25), and it took us smoothly over the Mekong River to dock silently at the other side, alongside a haul of dusty motorbikes and one or two old cars which drove straight off the boat and onwards to their island destinations as soon as we thumped gently into the bank.

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Silk weaving on Mekong Island

We rented bikes for $2.50 for the day from Phnom Penh Bicycle, which meant we had the island to ourselves to explore. I’d definitely recommend the bike rather than the motorbikes – much quieter, more peaceful, and really helps you feel like part of the island as you pedal forwards over the barely-used dust tracks and pathways.

It was so tranquil and relaxing to traverse the dust tracks and wave at the excited local children who saw us as we passed, the palm trees, strange bone-thin cows and local vendors giving us a true insight into what life here is really like. As we continued on and found ourselves immersed in beautiful countryside, greenery and blue skies, I really had several glorious moments of smiling peacefully and thinking;

‘This is why we travel’.

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After a long afternoon we stopped for refreshment at a French Hotel/Pizza place  where the fresh stonebaked veggie pizza was honestly the most deliciously mouth-watering thing I have ever tasted! Rooms there go for $70 dollars a night between 6-7 people, which we worked out would cost us about $12-$15 each to share for a weekend. Definitely returning here some weekend soon, because it was literally paradise on earth – and there was a pool!!

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Useful Links:
Dusk Til’ Dawn on Facebook
The Mad Monkey Website 
The Mad Monkey on Facebook