After months of planning we are finally on our way! Our travels will take us to Singapore; Cambodia to visit the charity where I am a trustee, United World Schools, and the school we sponsored; to the Solomon Islands to dive for two weeks (via Singapore and Brisbane briefly); then to New Zealand for 5 weeks, joined by Tommy, to see all our old ‘nannies’ now married with children; next to French Polynesia for more diving and some island-hopping, including to the Cook Islands before crossing the date line to LA for one night and three weeks in Colombia. Phew!
We have bought two lightweight cases which we stuff with packing pods: mine are arranged by tops, trousers & shorts, undies and swimwear, dresses and posher tops for evening wear (that sounds grander than it isI assure you!). And, finally, wet weather and warmer gear for NZ. We will be leaving one case in various places where we need to downsize, so ease of transfer from one to t’other is critical. Four pairs of shoes, two sandals in tan and black for everyday/night, robust open toed Eccos for tramping around plus a pair of walking Trainers. Then there’s the meds, lotions & potions. Amazing we each weigh in at 23 kgs, plus a dive bag weighing 24, so we’re good to go! Oh and I nearly forgot to mention all Ross’s camera and underwater diving equipment which gives him a far greater weight than me!
It’s a bit daunting to tell the truth; as I leave the house I try to give Pickle a farewell hug – all I get is a big hiss as she scarpers through the cat flap! I put it behind me as we finally get airborne on the first leg to Singapore. It feels blissfully familiar on arrival – the muggy humidity, lush green vegetation, the bougainvillea, the ubiquitous orchids and the chatty taxi drivers. We are staying at the Regent off Orchard and our first stop is to the $2 store to buy footballs, stickers and streamers for our school, before tucking into to some delicious xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung. Our two evenings are spent catching up with old fiends – Mark and Lucie Greaves, Sanjay and Sachiyo Sharma, and Simon and Eira Day. Singapore does not disappoint with good food, good drinks and good company. I particularly liked the tom yum G & T!
Siem Reap is a short 2 hour flight and we arrive in late afternoon. We are soon sipping cocktails in the rather good Lynnaya hotel while we wait for our travel companions, fellow Trustee John Siebert and his wife, Kate, whose plane has broken down. While we wait I make plans for the next day. No visit is complete without a trip to Angkor Wat, although at $37 a ticket anything less than a few hours is a waste. So after a quick visit to the local temple and the market to buy some gifts, we set off in a tuk tuk to get our money’s worth.
We are determined to avoid the crowds of Chinese who are arriving in bus loads; by leaving it until the afternoon we think we have outsmarted them. Almost true – Ta Prom the Indiana Jones temple is busy but not over-run, although the Chinese do like to take a photo of every person in the party in the exact same spot, so there is a fair amount of congestion. It is quite hot and I am in a sleeveless dress and am forced to don my cardigan from time to time by the temple police. Nevertheless it is a magnificent temple.
We go to the Bayon temple via one of the oldest in the complex, Ta Keo, where we are the only visitors (no carvings, the probable reason). Bayon is spectacular, with its huge carved heads reflecting softly in the dying sunshine, liberally peppered around the site. The Chinese are out in force, a huge group of elderly men, one delighting in shouting a voiceover while he videos a man standing stock still. Bizarre.
As we leave, we come across a bridal party, with the bride glowing in a golden gown off to get some moody shots. They have had a picnic and as they leave a couple of macaques tear their leftovers apart, delighting in find packs of chocolate wafers which they attack voraciously, rubbing their hands in glee.
A quick photostop at the grand Angkor Wat Temple itself – but its cloudy and no sunset. The site has expanded hugely since our last visit 14 years or so ago; but there are still ragged kids with soulful expressions trying to sell you stuff – 10 postcards $1 – and little boys running around pleading ‘one dollah, one dollah’ . It makes me realise that these kids really need to be in school and that’s why what we do at United World Schools is so important.
The next day we hire a car and drive 65 kms to Beng Mealea, a 12th century Hindu temple. Although smaller than Angkor it still remains as one of the empire’s larger edifices. It rises majestically out of the jungle and is a mixture of fine carvings and tumbled stones – it must have been hugely impressive, with its long corridors and vaulted passageways all built without cement, just stone dressing. It is much less busy although the tranquility is shattered by a couple of raucous Chinese ladies in red dresses who are having a screaming match. But I think that’s normal talking… no handbags swinging.
While there I witness a simple scam: a lurking local offers to take photos of two hapless Japanese who are thrilled. Before he gives back the camera he says, ‘Two dollar’ and they cough up meekly with a look of rueful bewilderment, knowing they’ve been had. After a hot hour or so we we depart for lunch; 32 Chinese arrive and are in and out in 15 minutes! We take at least 30!
From there to Kampong Khleang on Tonle Sap lake. We soon discover why it is the least visited part as we are charged $25 each for a scant hour in a boat! But not a Chinese tourist in sight! Nevertheless it is unspoiled, with the stilt houses perched above the water, boats underneath and even floating schools. There is a pervasive stench of putrefying fish: the local speciality is drying and smoking small lake fish. Each stick sells for $1, and there are only 5 or so fish on each. The community should be rich what wit the tourist revenue and the fish but it all looks depaerately poor.
As we leave we see boats returning home stuffed full of fresh water clams which are being decanted into huge sacks – will there be any left we wonder? Amid rumours that the lake is shrinking fast we are surprised – and pleased – to see that perhaps it is not so bad as we feared.
Now the rains are over and the lake falling, it reveals fertile islands of silt. The fishing community seizes the opportunity to farm these lands for vegetables and we see them erecting their huts, and ploughing the fields with the ubiquitous ‘metal buffalos’; some even have those huge circular irrigation sprayers on site.
Despite the high price (it includes an onboard massage from an eight-year-old, who of course expected to be tipped!) we are thrilled to see the kids playing naturally, chasing butterflies, each other, and not relying on computer games and screens. They are smiling and happy despite the dirt and poverty that surrounds them. As we discover later, not unlike in the remote villages. Despite the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodians have retained a gentle and smiling nature – or perhaps because of it. They are delightful people.