Zhaotong Hope School CSR Project: Part 1

Last year I was fortunate enough to be able to work on a pretty special project; to design and launch a mentoring programme which would match eight employees from the company I work at with eight volunteer teachers at an underprivileged school high in the mountains of Yunnan province, South West China.

In general I try to avoid talking about work in this blog (Matt and I agreed from the outset that we wanted to focus on documenting our life in Shanghai and our travels around Asia, rather than giving our view on what it’s like to work here); however, getting to visit the school in Yunnan was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me, opening my eyes to a rural community and way of life that the majority foreigners to China (especially expats) will ever get to see, and so I am making an exception.

First a bit of the background…

Project Hope

Corporate Social Responsibility or ‘CSR’ (whereby organisations support social and environmental initiatives as part of their corporate strategy) is commonplace in Western companies, but less so in emerging markets. That said, Chinese companies are starting to get on board with certain types of CSR and Project Hope – one of the better recognised public service projects – is a pioneering example of this. Launched in 1989 by the China Youth Development Foundation (CYDF) and the Communist Youth League (CYL), it’s goal is to seek non-governmental financial support to give children in very poor, typically rural communities the opportunity to go to school and receive an education.

It’s an opportune and important initiative in modern-day China, where the income inequality between the ‘Tier 1’ cities like Shanghai and the interior countryside regions is severe (recent statistics show that the richest 1% of mainland households hold one third of the country’s total wealth, with many having benefited from owning multiple properties during the recent real-estate price inflation). China’s gradual approach to economic reforms post-1978 have enabled unprecedented and prolonged economic growth; however, it’s estimated that more than 30 million children aged 6-14 are unable to attend school or drop-out early to support their parents at home, with over 80% of this number coming from the countryside.

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Provinces in blue show where average income exceeds the national average (unsurprisingly these include the coastal areas), while those in orange show where it is lower – the darker the orange, the lower the income (map produced by Matt Hartzell, based on 2011 data).

 

The Jaguar Land Rover Dream Fund

So back to my trip.

For a region already at a significant economic disadvantage, 2014 brought a new and tragic challenge to the people of Yunnan. On 3rd August, a 6.1 magnitude earthquake hit the impoverished Ludian county, claiming 617 lives, injuring over 3000 and damaging or destroying around 80,000 houses. As part of the recovery effort, JLR (my employer) in collaboration with Project Hope, funded a school to be built in Zhaotong – a city close to the epicentre – and in 2016 the ‘Dream Class’ project was launched, placing 8 qualified volunteer teachers at the school.

The volunteer teachers are recent university graduates who sign up for a two-year placement to live, teach and help to care for the children of Zhaotong Hope School. It’s a serious commitment – the school is isolated from Zhaotong city due to the near-inaccessible mountain roads, the environment is unforgiving and the living conditions are basic – so the intention of the ‘Dream Mentor’ programme was to offer the teachers a friendly ear and sounding board; someone they would be able to talk to about their aspirations and dreams for the future, and figure out how to make it happen. With around 2000km separating the Shanghai-based mentors and Zhaoting-based mentees it was essential that at the start of the programme they had an opportunity to meet each other face to face. The solution was to arrange a team-building event at the school, which took place last September.

The journey

When I was invited to accompany the mentors to the team-building event, I received words of warning from some colleagues who had visited the school a few months earlier; “the mountain road is so bumpy that my step tracker thought I had walked for miles, even though I didn’t leave the car”, one colleague told me, holding up a screenshot on her phone as proof. But the risk of being considered a fraudulent stepper wasn’t enough to deter me; I was intrigued by the Hope School, a place I had heard so much about but still could hardly imagine.

On a drizzly day in September I flew from Shanghai to Kunming (the capital of Yunnan, which hosts the nearest airport), and from there we boarded a fleet of cars which would take us the rest of the way to the school. Having exited the city, we zipped along quiet highways, cut straight through the mountains.

After a few hours we left the highway and started to climb winding mountainside tracks, passing though ramshackle roadside villages, huge quarries and beautiful lakes. The drizzling rain which had pursued us from the city subsided, revealing a brilliant clear blue sky.

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It took around 4 hours in total to reach Zhaotong and it was almost evening when we crawled the last few kilometres towards our hotel, under the casual gaze of locals sat out in front of their homes and the chickens scratching around in the street. Our hotel was the most modern-looking building in sight, and doubled-up as Zhaotong’s KTV (karaoke bar) – open throughout the night, as I found out the hard way!

 

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That evening we crowded around a circular table and ate a feast of typical Yunnanese food, which was spicy, oily and quite delicious – the sticky eggplant (top left) was my favourite. The restaurant itself was a bit of a stretch outside of my comfort-zone; the air was thick with cigarette smoke (smoking indoors is still normal in this part of China) and the ceiling was dotted with hundreds of flies; however, to my surprise my stomach survived without incident!

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Early the next morning we set off for our first day at the Hope School –  a 90 minute drive away through progressively more difficult mountain terrain. We bumped and bounced in the backseat and by the time we arrived my insides were thoroughly churned!

 

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September is the back end of the rainy season and we knew that the roads would be vulnerable to landslides. At one point, not far from the school, we were forced to double-back on our intended route as the road ahead had become completely blocked but fortunately our drivers – local men and women who are familiar with the mountain – soon found an alternative route. We got some great photos out of it too!

 

 

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The time and effort it took for us to reach the Hope School gave me a powerful sense of the isolation that the graduate teachers are living in here. Even sat in luxurious cars, it was quite gruelling just being a passenger! While some of the teachers were originally from the countryside, others had grown up and attended universities in Tier 1 and 2 cities, and the disparity between the two environments is monumental. I’ll talk more about this in Part 2, as well as the enduring impression it left on me.

– Emma

 

January in Shanghai

When I started this blog 22 months ago, my intention was to capture and share (hopefully interesting!) stories about our move from the UK to China, our new life in Shanghai and our travels around Asia. Reflecting back, I’ve focused much more on the latter! Our new base has provided a brilliant opportunity to more easily explore South East Asia and we’ve grasped this with both hands, visiting many cities in mainland China and also in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia – I’ve enjoyed sifting through the hundreds of photos after each trip and recording my favourites here. In the beginning our followers were colleagues, friends and family but now we have readers from all around the world!

While we have some amazing trips in the pipeline for 2018 – including Goa, India for Chinese New Year and Japan later this year – I also want to capture more of the normal stuff – what it’s actually like to live as an expat in Shanghai. This is our last full calendar year here, so I’m aiming to write a monthly ‘non-holiday’ post (I smashed Dry January, so in comparison this goal will be a piece of cake… right?!). Without further ado, here are my January diary entries.

We moved offices: Lujiazui to New Bund

On my first working day in China back in April 2016 I caught the metro from Shanghai Library to East Nanjing Road, then changed to Line 2 to cross the Huangpu river to the Lujiazi Business District. I looked up at the Mirae Asset Tower – my new Monday-to-Friday home – gleaming in the April sunshine; it was a world away from where I had worked in Coventry in the UK!

Lujiazui is the central business district of Shanghai, home to iconic and shimmering skyscrapers including the Shanghai Tower (the world’s second tallest building). It’s a cool place to work, with huge malls, luxury hotels and restaurants catering to every kind of appetite and budget. However, it’s ‘business district + tourist hot-spot’ status in such a vibrant and fast-paced city meant that it was also incredibly crowded (Line 2 in rush hour was less than fun!)

The ‘powers that be’ in government seem to have acknowledged that Lujiazui has reached capacity and in response have begun construction of the “New Bund” – a burgeoning new financial district around 14km south downriver from Lujiazui. Keen for a bit more space and shiny new facilities, we moved into our new office in the New Bund World Trade Centre (next door to the Oriental Sports Centre) on 2nd January. At the moment the view from our workplace is a 360 degree panorama of a construction site so it’s not quite as glamorous as our previous home, but it’s definitely got potential – and more importantly, it’s cut a valuable 10 minutes off my commute! I’m looking forward to watching it grow and change over the next year or so.

Shared Bikes

Another change this month has been the mass culling of shared bikes from the streets of downtown Shanghai.

When Matt and I moved here in April 2016 we noticed the orange-and-silver Mobikes lined up in neat rows along most streets. These GPS-enabled bikes which you (a) unlock via a smartphone app, (b) use as long as you want, and then (c) leave anywhere, took off in a big way and over the course of 2017 the sector exploded. Multiple new brightly coloured competitors joined the fray at breakneck pace, most notably the canary yellow OFO (my bike of choice).

It’s easy to see why they are so popular; they cost next to nothing (just a small deposit plus a negligible fee-per-use) and Shanghai is as flat as a pancake so there is zero effort involved. Their popularity hasn’t been limited to Shanghai and it’s estimated that there are now 10 million shared bikes on the streets of Chinese cities, operated by more than 30 companies (between them, Mobike and Ofo take up more than 90 percent of the market).

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“Colourful chaos”; a bike-share centre in Hangzhou (from the Guardian article – see below)

The explosion of this highly convenient facility had it’s down side. Pedestrian walkways in certain areas became clogged with bikes making it difficult for pedestrians, especially near popular tourist spots or near metro stations, and by the back end of last year you could hardly walk down Wulumuqi Lu for the unsightly jumble of bikes cluttering the pavement. We even caught a few examples of some interesting attempts to ‘stack’ bikes.

 

Over the last month there has been a crackdown following new government regulations which aim to regulate the industry. The photo below is taken from outside our apartment building, where until recently we could easily pick up and drop off bikes. Many upmarket shopping areas or residential areas have banned shared bikes and cordoned off parking areas. It’s been interesting to witness this explosion and counter reaction in such a short space of time, and this January we’ve seen the tipping point when the highly social idea of shared bikes suddenly began to be perceived as anti-social.

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You might experience something similar in your home town – see this interesting article from the Guardian newspaper last year

Weather

I’m British, so i’m genetically obliged to talk about the the weather. Around October and November last year our colleagues started to predict that this winter would be a particularly harsh one – much colder than last year – and that it would impossible to get warm due to the damp air. What they didn’t predict was the snow! The first snow in Shanghai in around 5 years. It fell for 2 or 3 days and didn’t stick around for long, but that didn’t stop a social media frenzy and snowmen/snowrabbits popping up everywhere!

As temperatures drop, people turn up the coal-powered heating in their homes and workplaces causing pollution levels to rise. The naturally overcast winter weather traps the pollution beneath the cloud line, and so China’s major cities become shrouded in a blanket of smog (especially the heavily populated Eastern cities such as Shanghai and Beijing). The government are conscious of this and during times of particularly bad pollution the production in factories is suspended (I have read that that are also investing in clean energy sources, and there is evidence the air quality getting better year-on-year). Even so, on Saturday 20th Jan when the Air Quality Index (AQI) spiked at 216, I took the opportunity to stay indoors and have a duvet day!

Annual Party – A Fantasy World

I wrote in more depth about annual parties last year

Friday 26th January 2018 saw the most eagerly anticipated event on the company calendar: The Annual Party. The theme was ‘A Fantasy Journey’, with fancy-dress strongly encouraged – the result was spectacular!

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I opted for Alice, as it saved me having to buy a wig. I’m now quite confident that if the HR gig doesn’t work out, I would go down a treat at Disneyworld (and they have one in Shanghai, Bonus!).

The team performances were seriously impressive – from human shadow-puppets to sumo-wrestlers! There was even a rendition of the ‘pineapple pen’ song (google it).

 

My favourite restaurant this month: OHA Eatery

I want to try and visit a new place to eat each month. Ideally a brand new restaurant, but failing that, at least somewhere we’ve not eaten before. To say that the food & booze scene in Shanghai is competitive is an understatement. There is so much choice, with new places opening every week, that restaurants have to really bring their A-game; as a result we rarely have a bad meal out. Trends sweep into the city and one current trend is for ‘izakaya’ (informal Japanese pub-style restaurants). One such place – OHA Eatery – opened a short walk from our apartment so we went to check it out.

The space: Small and cosy, with one U-shaped bar-table down the middle. It felt more like someone’s dining room than a commercial restaurant, and the service was in line with this – warm and welcoming but not overly personal.

The food: The menu, printed on a small piece of creamy paper contained a curated selection of Guizhou-inspired dishes (often using ingredients from the Southwestern province). We ordered 5 dishes, and almost licked the plates clean they were so delicious (My favourite was the stuffed baby squid with calamansi lime and soy). Walking out we agreed that we would need to go back soon to try the other half of the menu – always the true test in Shanghai where places can peak early and then lose their edge. That said, I’m looking forward to returning here already – maybe this evening!

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See you in February

– Emma

 

Photo-Diary: Siem Reap & the Angkor Temples

Three months after the event – and interrupted by a couple of blogs on our pre-Christmas weekend in Hong Kong – here is the final installment in our Laos-Cambodia trip: Siem Reap and the Angkor Temples…

From the airport we caught a remork (Cambodian tuk-tuk) to our hotel, our luggage piled precariously at our feet, and as our driver sped into the night the smell of smoke mingled with the powerful fragrance of the frangipani trees. The long, wide, straight road from the airport was lined on either side by floodlit luxury hotels, then a few minutes later by a smattering of late-licenced shops and bars. We turned off the main road to take a weaving route through increasingly dark, narrow and gravelly streets, at one point passing through what was clearly the red light district; I gave Matt a sideways look which said “our hotel better not be here!” but to my relief we pressed on towards The Green Corner Residence, a small but beautifully designed hotel tucked away at the end of a secluded cul-de-sac.

With five full days ahead of us in Siem Reap we were in no rush to see the temples on Day 1. Instead, we chilled out by the pool (me) and explored the city centre (Matt). Siem Reap is often referred to as the ‘gateway to the Angkor temples’; a functional base camp in which to to eat and sleep, in close proximity to the Angkor Archaeological Park. It fits this bill perfectly, with lots of great bars, restaurants, coffee shops, massage parlors and a huge day-to-night market. We read about a number of other things to do – from Khmer cooking classes to the Phare Circus – but as this was the last stop on our trip we indulged in a good bit of R&R when we weren’t out ogling temples.

The atmosphere in Siem Reap (once you learn to tune out the persistent solicitation of remork drivers and massage therapists) is very laid back and it seemed we were only ever 3-4 metres away from a frozen margarita which was ideal!

The Angkor Temples

R&R successfully accomplished, we set off the next day to explore Angkor Archeological Park; the 400 sq km stretch of lush Cambodian forest which contains the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire- including over 1000 temples. From the 9th to the 15th century each Cambodian ‘god-king’ strove to surpass his predecessor by building a bigger, grander, more symmetrical and increasingly intricately carved place of worship which culminated in the world’s largest religious building: Angkor Wat.

Today the remains range from ruinous piles of moss-covered rubble through to painstakingly well-restored landmarks – thankfully all now safeguarded by UNESCO – and you can choose whether to stick to the well-trodden paths or venture further afield to some of the more remote areas. We hired a remork and driver via our hotel, purchased a 3-day pass* from the ticket office, and explored 9 temples over two visits:

VISIT 1: Banteay Kdei, Ta Promh, Ta Keo, Bayon and Angkor Wat.

VISIT 2: Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som and Pre Rup.

* FYI, there are three types of tickets: a 1 day ($37), 3 day ($62) and 7 day ($72); the latter tickets can be used on non-consecutive days over a fixed period, for example the 3-day pass that we chose can be used over a ten-day period. Peculiarly the ticket office is around half way between Siem Reap centre and the Park so you need to make a stop here first to buy a pass – be prepared to show your passport or ID card, have your photo taken, and pay in cash.

Temples map

Unsurprisingly there is a wealth of information on the internet about the Angkor temples so it’s not my intention to replicate that here. Instead, I have captured some of my favourite photos from our temple tour, with a few brief captions.

Banteay Kdei

The first temple we visited was Bantaey Kdei, a massive Buddhist monastery built during the reign of Cambodia’s most celebrated king, Jayavarman VII, in the latter part of the 12th century.

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Banteay Kdei means “A Citadel of Chambers”. It was still quite early in the morning when we arrived and there were only a few other people there, so we had peaceful stroll around the shady corridors and courtyards.
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A cloud of strong-smelling incense lured us into this temple chamber, where Buddhist nun tied a red-and-yellow thread bracelet around our wrists as a blessing (in return for a small donation!).
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This was our first sight of the intricate  carvings which we soon found were synonymous with the Angkor temples. The stones were a mottled mix of ruddy red, bleached white and charcoal grey, which looked beautiful in the early morning light.

Ta Prohm

Nicknamed the ‘Tomb Raider Temple’ – having provided the backdrop to the 2001 movie – Ta Prohm is one of the most popular temples in the park. Built by Jayavarman VII for his mother, and consecrated in 1186, the temple is an amalgamation of long narrow corridors, courtyards and towers, many now enveloped by the strapping roots of twisting towering trees. The effect is powerful and atmospheric, the sunlight filtering where it can through the canopy of leaves and casting shadows over the mossy stones and earth.

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After the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century, Ta Prohm was abandoned and neglected for centuries. While many Angkor temples have been restored, Ta Prohm is in much the same condition now as when it was found.
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Temple and jungle fuse together, with brilliantly eery results.
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Ta Prohm is one of the few temples where, thanks to an inscription, we know that around 80,000 people were required to maintain or attend there, including 2700 officials and 615 dancers.
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A decision was made by Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient (the group who initiated the restoration and conservation of the Angkor monuments at the turn of the 20th Century) to leave Ta Prohm in its original state, as a “concession to the general taste for the picturesque” . While in places the trees are slowly destroying the monument—with some having to be chopped down in 2014—in others they’re holding it together!
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 “There is a poetic cycle to this venerable ruin, with humanity first conquering nature to rapidly create, and nature once again conquering humanity to slowly destroy.” – Lonely Planet

Despite the army of blood-red ants that launched a full-scale attack on my calves if I dared to stand still for a second, I think Ta Prohm was my favourite temple. The devastatingly powerful trees slowly but surely ensnaring the stone buildings in their inexorable and unyielding grip was captivating. I felt tiny stood next to the tree in the photo above!

Bayon (Angkor Thom)

Built in the late 12th- early 13th century, Bayon was the official state temple of Jayavarman VII (the same King who ordered the construction of Banteay Kdei). It is known as the ‘face temple’, due to the unique and extraordinary stone faces built into it’s upper towers.

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From the outside, Bayon resembled a grimy stack of rubble.
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Only when we got inside and climbed up to the third level did the temple transform before our eyes, revealing 216 gargantuan smiling faces of Buddha. The huge heads observe the forest below from every angle, representing an all-seeing yet subtly human power.
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The similarity of these gigantic faces to other statues of Jayavarman VII has led scholars to suggest that the faces are representations of the King himself, which aligns to the tradition of Khmer monarchs seeing themselves as god-kings.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat was built for king Suryavarman II in the early 12th century, and is recognised as the world’s largest religious building. It is also the symbol of Cambodia, appearing on the national flag and is the prime attraction for tourists to the country. We debated whether to get up early to watch the sunrise over the temple (as friends who had visited before us had implored us to do) but when push came to shove we decided in favour of a few extra hours in bed! Heavy grey clouds hung over Angkor Wat as we explored, but luckily didn’t break and so made for some great photos.

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Angkor Wat is the earthly representation of Mt Meru, the Mt Olympus of the Hindu faith and the home of ancient gods. It’s 5km perimiter is surrounded by a 200m-wide moat.
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This was my favourite view of Angkor Wat; the pine-cone-like towers and dandelion-clock tree branches reflected in the still waters of the lake below.
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Young monks, barefoot in their dark-orange robes, explored the temple in groups.
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At the heart of the temple is the central tower, entered by way of a very steep staircase.
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Originally built as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu, it was converted into a Buddhist temple in the 14th century, and statues of Buddha were added to its already rich artwork.
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Monkeys guard the long stone corridors at the entrance.
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The grassy lawn around Angkor Wat is home to a family of monkeys – the babies were adorable!

Prasat Nean Pean

Prasat Nean Pean is a small island temple which sits at the axis of a cross or lotus pattern of eight pools, thought to have powerful healing properties. When we visited in October the lake were full and the result was spectacular.

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We made our way over a wooden bridge across the lake towards the temple.
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The temple itself was tiny, sitting on a small circular island in the middle of a circular pond.

Other Temples

Here are a collection of photos from some of the other temples that we visited; Ta Keo, Preah Khan, Ta Som and Pre Rup.

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After nine temples we felt like we had seen enough (and it was so hot that I feared I was melting!), so we spent the remainder of our time in Siem Reap trying out the local cuisine in the luxury of air-conditioned restaurants. One of the best places we ate was Pou Restaurant; their menu was a collection of traditional Khmer dishes which had been given a modern and creative twist. I instantly knew what Matt would choose – the Kulen Mountain sausage with pork belly and tree ants; I couldn’t bring myself to try it, but Matt polished off the lot!

We had a brilliant time in Siem Reap, the temples, the food and the cocktails were first-class. I can even give a glowing review of the Royal Angkor International Hospital where we made an unscheduled visit thanks to a nasty gastroenteritis bug which completely wiped me out, a few hours before we were due to board our flight home! Luckily an IV drip and course of antibiotics brought me back from what felt like deaths door and we made it back to Shanghai – if a little worse for wear…

– Emma

Hong Kong: Big Buddah & Tai O Village

The vision of Hong Kong in my mind’s eye before our recent visit was quite similar to the Hong Kong that I described in my last blog; soaring skyscrapers of glass and steel amalgamated into an iconic skyline along the harbour, double-decker trams gliding through busy streets, flashing noticeboards competing for attention. However, Hong Kong is a lot more diverse than I realised. It is made up of 3 distinct geographical regions – Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and The New Territories – divided by their historical time of acquisition by the UK.

My last blog focused on the areas we visited in Kong Kong Island and Kowloon, but two of the attractions that we wanted to see – the ‘Big Buddah’ and Tai O fishing village – required us to take a day-trip to Lantau Island (see left hand side of the map below), part of The New Territories. Lantau is the largest of Hong Kong’s islands (almost twice the size of HK Island itself), and more than half is covered by mountainous country parkland.

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The Hong Kong metro system conveniently links Hong Kong Island to Kowloon and on to Lantau, but to reach the Big Buddah we had to take the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car from the Tung Chung terminal to Ngong Ping village. It’s a popular route (despite arriving early we still spent an hour snaking up and down roped-aisles in the ticket queue*), but once we were up-and-away the panoramic view from the carriage was incredible!

* For a few extra dollars you can get a ‘Crystal’ cabin which is glass bottomed; we bought Crystal tickets for the return journey which turned out to be a good idea since the queue for Crystal on the way up was huge while on the way back it was actually much smaller than for the normal cabins.

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At 5.7km the ‘Ngong Ping 360’ is the longest bi-cable ropeway in Asia.
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Stunning view over Tung Chung Bay.

Tian Tan Buddah (‘Big Buddah’)

As we neared the end of the cable car journey the silhouette of the Tian Tan Buddha – informally known as the ‘Big Buddha’ – materialized on the horizon, sitting atop a tree-covered hill, surrounded by an endless sea of tree-covered hills. It was a misty morning and the sight was quite magical.

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First glimpse of the Big Buddah

Exiting the cable car terminal we followed the stream of people into Ngong Ping village, and were funneled past a collection of souvenir shops, noodle restaurants, teahouses, a Starbucks and a Subway. The whole village looked incredibly new and reminded me of a ski-resort with it’s single-story wooden-roofed buildings (the bright blue sky and crisp winter air probably helped with the association).

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There were a few cows dotted around, and they took on a kind of celebrity status with the tourists…

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The Tian Tan Buddha is a seated representation of Lord Gautama (on whose teachings Buddhism was founded) and was unveiled in 1993 to symbolise the harmonious nature between man and nature, people and faith. Cast in bronze he is 26m high (34m if you count the base podium), weighs 250 metric tons and faces North towards mainland China to look over the Chinese people.

His gigantic shape loomed above us as we climbed the steep flight of steps up the hill, getting ever larger as we got higher until he captivated our entire view. At the top we could walk a full circle around the viewing platform beneath the Buddha, and were rewarded by a beautiful view over Ngong Ping village and the remote ‘Po Lin’ Buddhist monastery and temple complex (built in 1924).

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Surrounding the Buddha are six smaller bronze statues known as “The Offering of the Six Devas” that are posed offering gifts of flowers, incense, a lamp, ointment, fruit, and music.

Our journey to see the Buddha was long compared the the 20-or-so minutes we spent there, but I would really recommend making the effort; it was a truly hypnotic sight and a meaningful demonstration of the commitment to the Buddhist faith in this area.

Tai O (大澳) Fishing Village

From Ngong Ping we caught the #21 bus to Tao O on Lantau’s west coast, a 15 minute journey in which Lantau island morphed in front of our eyes from alpine-esque ski-resort to Cornish-esque fishing village. Little boats bobbed in the harbour and – in contrast to the pretty chalets in Ngong Ping – the surrounding buildings looked weather-beaten and functional.

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We entered the village through a street lined with trestle-tables laden with miscellaneous dried fish and seafood, glistening like crystals in the cold winter sunlight. For a fishing village it didn’t really smell of fish, although I imagine that may change in the summer months! The leaflet we collected with our cable car ticket listed local delicacies as shrimp paste, salted egg yolks and fish, steamed glutinous rice cakes and rice dumplings.

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It was approaching lunchtime and we were craving something hot to warm us up, so we ducked into a tiny restaurant (essentially the front room of someone’s house) and ordered steaming bowls of noodle soup with cuttlefish (Matt) and wantons filled with shrimp and pork (me). It was delicious, and really hit the spot.

Our energy topped up, we continued through the village until we reached the ramshackle web of interconnected stilt houses which are home to the Tanka people, a community of around 2,000 fishermen and women who’ve built their houses on stilts above the tidal flats of Lantau Island for generations. Their homes are at once sturdy – with concrete stilts driven deep into the seabed – and incredibly fragile, as evidenced by those which have succumbed to the watery elements.

Apparently Tai O used to be one of the biggest villages on Lantau with 30,000 residents, but the stability of a 9-5 job downtown has drawn most young people away from the traditional fishing lifestyle; the remaining residents now rely on tourism to supplement the income from fishing.

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While exploring the labyrinth of stilt houses via the rickety wooden walkways we came across the Three Lanterns Cafe, where a friendly lady informed us of their open-door policy and welcomed us to take a look at the view from the upstairs terrace; here we found three small tables and a great view over the rope-drawn ferry bridge.

We decided to stay for a slice of cheesecake and some jasmine green tea and ended up chatting with the co-owner, a guy from Devon (UK) who it turned out was married to the lady who invited us in. He told us that he spends half his time in the UK and the other half in Tai-O helping to run the cafe, a favourite location for professional and amateur photographers alike who are keen to capture the moment the sun sets above the bridge in the distance.

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Once I’d exhausted every photo opportunity in the village we made our way back to the bus stop, but not before we had tasted some of the street-food snacks… delicious!

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Matt: crushed peanuts in a glutinous rice dumpling. Emma: Egg waffle.

We had an incredible time in Hong Kong – the lingering Britishness of Hong Kong Island was just what I needed on the run up to Christmas (I’ve since devoured the M&S mince pies that we smuggled back to Shanghai!). I enjoyed the tram ride up Victoria Peak and the view over the city, and I could have spent a whole week wandering around the narrow SoHo streets; however, Tai O village was the highlight of the trip for me. The collection of stilt houses was unlike anything I’ve seen before and – for the moment at least – it still feels authentic. Plus, you can’t beat a good egg waffle!

– Emma

A pre-Christmas long weekend in Hong Kong

While Shanghai has started to dip it’s toes into the concept of Christmas – with ostentatious festive displays in every mall and Mariah Carey on repeat in Starbucks as of November 1st – the adopted traditions have only been around for a few years and feel relatively superficial. Christmas isn’t a national holiday here and barely registered on the radar of our colleagues (everyone is too busy looking forward to Chinese New Year, which will fall in mid-February 2018). Being a big fan of Christmastime (not just the day, but those preceding days where everyone starts to relax into a mulled stupor of glühwein, baileys and mince pies), I wanted a refresher of something traditional.

“Where to find some authentic British Christmas cheer?”, we pondered, “without resorting to a long-haul in economy class… perhaps a former British colony in Southeastern China?” And so the weekend before the big day, we nipped over for our first visit to Hong Kong.

We arrived in the early afternoon (HK is a 3 hour flight from Shanghai) and after lunch we wandered around the Causeway Bay area (where there also happens to be excellent shopping) before taking in the sunset from the rooftop of our hotel. I’d been told by friends to expect a cramped and crowded place, so it was nice to have an unobstructed view of the harbour at dusk.

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Street Art in Soho

Our first morning dawned chilly and overcast scuppering our original plan to climb Victoria Peak, so instead we caught the metro to Sheung Wen, Soho district.

When we arrived at 10am-ish, aside from the trash collectors, we had the place to ourselves. This was great for taking photos, but finding somewhere open for breakfast was impossible! It dawned on us that it was Sunday, and we had a flash-back to Sundays in England where shops don’t stir for blood nor money before 11am. It was strange for us to be in China and yet not come across little street-food stalls selling scallion pancakes or congee! We found a coffee shop that did bagels and then spent a few hours exploring the street art in the neighbourhood.

I’d read a little about HKs street art and was excited to check it out. We didn’t have to try very hard to find what we were looking for; right opposite the place we got coffee was a queue of 8 or 10 Asian girls queuing to have their photo taken against the Instagram-worthy wall opposite.

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We spent the rest of the morning, and some of the afternoon, strolling up and down the steep streets and narrow alleyways – each of which in turn revealed street-art, graffiti and paste-ups – some were glaring and obviously commercial (commissioned by the owners of the wall) while others were more subtle. I took a raft of photos, a sample of which you can see in the slideshow below.

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Street-art aside, Soho – so called because it is South of Hollywood Road – was a cool place to explore. Once the city began to stir and the window shutters were rolled back we found stylish restaurants, coffee shops, wine bars and fashion boutiques.

The whole area is packed like a proverbial sardine tin; buildings have been assembled one-on-top-of-the-other like lego bricks and they are often as colourful, albeit slapdash and shabby. Some streets had advertisement signs bracketing every inch of second-floor wall space, vying for attention, while below throngs of people and boxy red taxis navigated the narrow streets. In some areas we found raised pedestrian walkways, above the streets themselves, which had the effect of making the dense space even more concentrated. Above, only slivers of sky were visible.

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Nestled down one of the streets we found a Christmas market… although unfortunately no mulled wine!

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Victoria Peak

We had heard that the view from Victoria Peak – named after Queen Victora and 552m above sea level – was a great way to get your bearings and take in the city as a whole. Those who feel energetic and have a bit of time can walk up to the top – a steep hike which takes you through a shady rain-forest and past exclusive, isolated houses (HKs costliest real estate); however, if energy and time are not on your side then – like us – you can take the tram.

The Peak Tram was designed by a couple of British engineers in the 1880’s. They were told by everyone it was an impossible feat – justifiably, given the logistics of the journey –  but they managed to prove all those people wrong; the tram has been running continuously ever since (apparently only World War 2 and a freak mudslide have ever disrupted the journey). Our bodies sunk back into the polished wooden seats as the carriage was hauled upwards at a seriously steep gradient. It felt a little like the stomach-churning pull up towards the peak of a rollercoaster and I was relieved when – after about 5-or-10 minutes – we reached the top.

Exiting the tram we entered ‘Peak Tower’, an anvil shaped observation point that for some reason also contained a Madam Tussaud’s and a Forest Gump themed shrimp restaurant. We resisted those temptations (!) and headed up to the panoramic viewing platform: Sky Terrace 428. From here you can see right out over HKs harbour and epic skyscrapers and across to Kowloon. You can also see the tram clanking up and down the hill below. I try not to use words like ‘breathtaking’, but I’m struggling to think of a better word – living in Shanghai you get used to skyscrapers and spectacular skylines, but this was nonetheless very impressive.

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Hong Kong Park, a little oasis in the urban Central District not far from the Peak Tram terminal.

Star Ferry

Like the Victoria Tram, the white-and-green (and undoubtedly British-looking) Star Ferry fleet is iconic of HK.  Residents have been shuttled between HK island and Kowloon on the astral-named boats for over 120 years; indeed, until 1978 when the Cross-Harbour Tunnel opened, it was the only way to cross the harbour.

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Boat names included Morning Star, Celestial Star and Twinkling Star.

The interior of the ferry was beautiful; polished redwood floors and a star pattern stamped into each seat. The crossing from Kowloon to Central only cost us a couple of dollars each (about 20p), and offered another great perspective of the city as well as a step back in time.

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And finally, food…

As an international trade city, Hong Kong has on offer pretty much any kind of food, to suit any taste and budget. For lunch you could enjoy a sandwich and afternoon tea in a 5-star Victorian hotel overlooking the bay (though you may need to get permission from your bank manager), or alternatively you could grab some noodles from a cupboard-sized restaurant under a footbridge. There is a huge variety of international cuisine here, and we indulged our nostalgia at a couple of British celebrity chef restaurants.

The true Hong Kong experience wouldn’t be complete without dim sum (or diǎnxīn  snacks). When you eat dim sum you typically order several different dishes (tapas-style), which tend to be buns or dumplings, stuffed with sweet or savory fillings and then steamed, baked or fried. You then dip in Chinese vinegar, soy or simply enjoy them as they come.  Apparently Hong Kong has the cheapest Michelin Star awarded restaurant in the world, a dim sum eatery situated in a secluded part of a train station. It isn’t much to look at but the queues for tables were enormous whenever we went. Fortunately they did take away so we skipped the queue and ordered their speciality dish: BBQ pork baked buns….

These were delicious; light, fluffy and ever so slightly crispy baked dough with a filling of succulent barbecued pork in a sweet/sour barbecue sauce.  We could just about see why people seemed prepared to wait for hours for a table!

We visited one of HK’s branches of Lady M, an American cake maker that specialises in mille crêpe (cakes made up of alternating layers of paper-thin crepe and sweet cream). We aren’t necessarily cake people but one of these cafes recently opened up in one of the more upmarket malls in Shanghai; at peak fad, the queues for a crêpe cakes topped 8 hours. 8 hours! For a cake! The supply/demand shortfall led to some entrepreneurial sorts flying to HK to smuggle these cakes back into Shanghai and sell them at an outrageous profit to people who were prepared to pay to avoid the queue. The government consequently had to ban the smuggling of cakes into mainland China, making it perhaps the most first-world crime of which i’ve ever heard!

In (dim)summary…

It was a relatively significant time for us to visit HK, as 2017 marked the 20th anniversary of the transfer of sovereignty from the UK to China – an event known as “the Handover” internationally and “the Return” in China – ending over a century of British rule.

HK’s growth from a natural port to a global financial centre came largely under British governance and the city still has an undeniable British feel to it; there are streets named after British prime ministers, lots of options for afternoon tea and – perhaps most important – Marks & Spencers. Negotiations between the PRC and Thatcher’s government, initiated in 1982, were protracted and complex but finally a solution was reached. The territory was to be reintegrated into China using a formula of ‘One Country, Two Systems’; meaning that HK would be Chinese from 1997, but with economic, political and judicial freedoms for the next 50 years.

There are now more than 1 million people from mainland China living in HK and the Kowloon Peninsula and to the untrained eye and ear it may look for all intents and purposes like a Chinese Tier 1 city; however, it is very different to any other we’ve visited. For a start, Hong Kong did not adopt the simplified Chinese characters, choosing to use traditional characters which lots of Chinese cannot read, and audio announcements like those at the airport are normally given in 3 languages; first in Cantonese, then English and finally Mandarin Chinese (it seemed like people typically spoke Cantonese or English by choice; when we tried to speak a little mandarin to people it didn’t get us very far!). HK also has it’s own currency – the HK Dollar and surprisingly the mobile payment services of WeChat and Alipay which are ubiquitous on mainland China hadn’t taken hold here – it was a little strange carrying cash around!

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We found many examples of British-style architecture nestled between the high-rise towers.

We only dipped in to HK for a short 3-day stay but we found the cultural contrasts between British, Chinese and Cantonese fascinating, particularly from the perspective of a couple of Brits living in China.

– Emma

 

 

 

The lighter side of Phnom Penh

Thanks to our early exit from Vientiane we found ourselves with an extra couple of days to spend in Phnom Penh. Having visited the genocide sites (our reason for stopping off here in the first place), we were faced with two options; kick back by the hotel pool and quench the soaring October heat with a frozen margarita, or venture out to explore what else the city had to offer us. An aptly timed poolside construction project made this decision an easy one so – ducking and diving past the tenacious tuk-tuk drivers clustered outside our hotel – we set out on foot.

Phnom Penh isn’t a huge place – certainly not if you’ve grown accustomed to incomprehensibly huge Chinese cities like Shanghai! – but with a population of about 1.5m, it’s at least twice the size of Vientiane (750k). On our impromptu wander we found a blend of Buddhist and Cambodian architecture (temples, monuments and palace buildings), French colonial influence (municipal buildings and townhouses) and modern development (leisure areas, malls and hotels).

It’s a city where you can wake up in a Western-style boutique hotel, spend your morning visiting some magnificent buildings from a bygone era, stop for an espresso at a cool and reasonably-priced cafe, then sit on a colour-bleached plastic chair on the edge of a public park while an old lady cooks you some fragrant spicy noodles on a camp stove attached to the back of a tuk-tuk. In fact, this was what we ended up doing while in Phom Penh and the transitions didn’t feel too harsh or incongruous. That said, there are still signs of a conflicted city wrestling with modernisation. We visited several cafes and shops devoted to raising funds for disadvantaged people, such as those caught up in and trying to leave the sex industry (the red light district is only a short walk from the Royal Palace grounds!).

Like Vientiane, Phnom Penh is in parts grimy, noisy, smelly and messy; however, unlike the Laotian capital we found it to be quirky, interesting, and full of charm. The presentation of the heritage sites reflected a deep pride in the city and in my view the architecture alone is enough to warrant a stay for a few days. Some of the highlights for us were…

Phnom Penh Royal Palace

The Royal Palace, built midway through the 19th Century, is the official residence of King Sihamoni. As we approached, a flock of pigeons scattered among the crowd of tourists swept up to the sky, circling above the palace gate before coming to rest momentarily on it’s elegant and intricately tiled classic Khmer roof. From the street outside you can see the gleaming gold spires of the striking palace buildings, which rise above the pale gold wall surrounding the palace compound. It’s certainly an impressive sight.

To enter the palace you need to dress modestly, with your shoulders and arms and legs covered (the rules on this are strictly upheld by the staff manning the entrance; we saw a couple of people in just-above-the-knee shorts being turned away). Once inside you can explore the two vast adjacent courtyards containing several magnificent white-and-gold buildings and a display of beautifully manicured gardens. Most of the buildings contained artifacts and treasures such as court costumes, tapestries and royal heirlooms (although many items were lost, stolen or destroyed during the turmoil of the war and subsequent Vietnamese invasion).

The Silver Pagoda

A popular attraction in the Royal Palace is the extravagant ‘Silver Pagoda’ – a somewhat misleading name given that it’s neither silver, nor a pagoda! Also known as Wat Preah Keo, it is a huge palace hall containing hundreds of gold and silver and jewel-encrusted Buddhas, whose name is derived from 5000 silver tiles inlaid on the floor (although these are largely covered for protection).

To the south of the Silver Pagoda is a giant wooden replica of the main temple at Angkor Wat (complete with a moat-like pool teeming with carp) and just beyond this you can find an intricate painted mural that stretches along its inner wall of one of the cloisters. Despite being faded in parts and apparently mid-way through a restoration project, this painting was one of my favourite parts of the Palace – the colour, detail and imagination was exquisite.

Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom is a Buddhist Temple which sits atop an artificial hill, right at the centre of Phnom Penh. It was originally built some 600 years ago to house and protect four statues of Buddha which legend says were washed up by the waters of the Mekong river and discovered by a wealthy widow, Lade Penh. Aside the temple is a huge white stupa (below). It’s still an active place of worship today, and we found a group of ladies clustered around a shrine, chatting amongst themselves while preparing offerings of food and flowers.

We were told that Wat Phnom was the best place to see the city from on high. However, at 27 metres there weren’t many vantage points that allowed you to see above the trees! That said, while the trees blocked our view, they did provide a thick canopy which allowed us some shelter from the glaring sun, while making our way through the hillside gardens back down to ground level.

Central Market (Phsar Thmei)

There were two markets we were recommended to visit in Phnom Penh: the Central Market and the Russian Market. The Central Market is a large domed Art Deco building of french-design dating back to 1937, which is still operational as a market today. There are 4 ‘arms’ that splay out from the central dome, each of which contains dozens of market vendors selling clothing, watches, jewelry and domestic goods, and we explored and tried-on without feeling any pressure to buy anything. The entrance to the market is crammed with vendors selling touristy t-shirts and cold juice drinks (the fresh coconut water was delicious) and the airy design of the market made it an excellent place to take a break from the heat (you may be noticing a theme here, it was too hot to spend a lot of time outside!). Although watch out if you visit in the rainy season… the market occupies a square that had previously been a lake, and it is prone to flooding!

Phsar Tuol Tom Pong (Russian Market)

The second we were recommended to visit was the Russian Market, so called because of it’s popularity in the 1980s with Soviets who lived in the area. Unlike the open, airy and geometric Central Market, the Russian Market is a cramped, dense warren of stalls selling everything from handicraft, antiques and art to kitchen hardware and motorbike parts. If you burrow your way to the centre of the market you will find a dingy but vibrant ‘food court’ (some tables and chairs), where people were somehow rustling delicious Cambodian noodles from the most rudimentary of kitchens.

The tasty and extremely cheap meal was important fuel, given it might have taken several hours to find our way out of this shopping labyrinth!

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Chasing Monkeys at Post Office Square

We’d sought out the old Post Office, an imposing colonial public building in a sleepy and very French part of the town (complete with cafes and chocolate shops) but no sooner had we arrived than we became distracted by a family of monkeys – fat old ones and cheeky babies – playfully traversing the street on overhead cables, climbing up buildings and harassing the irritable locals. We were immediately and completely distracted!

When the monkeys finally disappeared over the rooftops we took a look around the nearby square. Dating from 1890, Phnom Penh’s original post office is an elegant building which is still in use today, having been renovated several times. It’s fortunate, considering the state of the other once-great buildings in the surrounding area. For example, the Commissariat (Central Police Station from circa 1910), which commands a corner view by the Post Office is sadly at the point of disintegration, shuttered for decades and blocked off by a giant metal fence. It would be great if, as part of the development of Phnom Penh, some funds were earmarked for the restoration of areas like this – before they reach a stage beyond repair.

 Independence Monument

Modelled on the central tower of Angkor Wat – a lotus- shaped stupa consisting of 5 levels, each decorated with snake-heads – the Independence Monument was built in 1958 to commemorate the country’s independence from France in 1953. In the daytime the monument is attractive but doesn’t really stand out. To see it at it’s best, go in the evening when it is lit up; the resulting shadows demonstrate the beautiful complexity of the design. Walking inside the monument isn’t permitted, but you get a good view from across the street.

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Emma

Discovering the heartbreaking history of Cambodia, in Phnom Penh

Please note: this article contains sensitive content and images which some may find upsetting.

To be honest, I didn’t want to visit Cambodia’s capital. My preconception of Phnom Penh – based on a swift scan of our guidebook and some of my favourite travel blogs – was of a city inextricably and depressingly linked with the heartbreak of the Khmer Rouge atrocities. Google confirmed this before I’d finished typing ‘Penh’ in the search bar.

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The rational part of me understood the historic importance of these sites, but the thought of visiting the “must see” Tuol Sleng Prison Genocide Museum and infamous Choeung Ek memorial (better known as the Killing Fields) made me feel uneasy and didn’t gel with my idea of a relaxing vacation. Matt on the other hand was keen to learn more about what had happened in Cambodia during the 1970’s and so we came to a compromise – to spend 24 hours on Phnom Penh before moving on to Siem Reap. However, our hasty departure from Vientiane meant that we arrived in Phnom Penh early, with double the time that we’d originally allocated..

This change in itinerary prompted me to reconsider my position; after all, those guidebooks and bloggers had all insisted that to really get to know Cambodia today, you first had to understand it’s recent past  – so the next morning we clambered into a tuk-tuk and set off for the Choeung Ek.

NB – At this point you have to make a grim choice of route: (a) visiting Tuol Sleng first and then Choeung Ek, so following the final steps of the genocide victims, or (b) do it the other way around and avoid the bulk of the tourists. We chose the latter.

Tuk-Tuking through Phnom Penh

As in Laos, Phnom Penh was teeming with tuk-tuks. Unlike Laos (and Thailand for that matter), the passenger area of Phnom Penh tuk-tuks were equipped with wrap-around metal cages, to make it harder for scooter-driving theives to snatch your bag/ phone/ camera. Friends had warned us about the high level of street crime here and I made Matt keep tight hold of our rucksack while I kept a watchful eye out for suspicious-looking-people (which had the ironic consequence making everyone look suspicious!).

After 10 minutes of not being mugged, and forgetting our destination, I relaxed a bit and became engrossed in the sights and sounds of the streets which whizzed by. Haphazard houses of concrete and wood; shopfront-after-shopfront, primarily dedicated to construction of some sort (the dull buzz of electric drills and heavy machinery made a soundtrack to the city); women in brightly coloured pajamas grooming each other by the streetside; goods and people loaded precariously on motorbikes.

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Understanding the past

As we headed across and out of Phnom Penh, we witnessed a whirlwind of clamorous development. The city has that tangible sense of change, which juxtaposes barefoot children playing with gravel on dusty streets with minimalist-chic coffee shops selling flat whites, and sees upmarket boutique hotels with green credentials neighbouring abandoned and disintegrating buildings. The chaotic roads are clogged with tuk-tuks and motorbikes weaving between Range Rovers, blaring their respective horns as they negotiate their way forward past potholes and people.

This mish-mash of tradition and progress, wealth and poverty, energy and lethargy is something we’ve seen many times during our travels across Asia. Often what distinguishes it is a recent political or social event, the shockwaves of which are still visible should you look for them (such as the occupation and bombing of Laos, the cultural revolution etc.).

Only 40 years ago, Cambodia was devastated by the attempt of Khmer Rouge party leader Pol Pot to turn the country into a communist agrarian utopia. In reality, this involved the forced evacuation of millions of Cambodians from the cities into the countryside, where they laboured as slaves for a federation of collective farms. Having been brought up in the city, they had no idea how to grow crops or live off the land, and so millions perished from execution, starvation or disease (ironically, doctors were classed as intellectuals – ‘potential opposition’ – and killed, meaning that in the end there was no-one left to save even the most powerful Khmer Rouge).

It’s estimated that between 1.5 and 3 million Cambodians – 25% of Cambodia’s total population – lost their lives between 1975 and 1979 at the hands of the Pol Pot’s regime – who operated under such dehumanizing mottos as ‘To have you is no benefit, to lose you is no loss.’.

Choeung Ek Killing Fields

Choeung Ek is the most well-known of over 300 killing fields set up throughout Cambodia in the late 1970s. At the entrance gate we bought audio-tour tickets ($3 each) and walked into a grassy field surrounded by a thick forest of lush trees and bordered on one side by a vast lake. It was a quietly peaceful spot and we joined the trickle of headset-wearing tourists following a guided route round the site, stopping periodically to listen to the horror story which unfolded on each audio track – an account of what we now know based on the stories of survivors.

The stark natural beauty of place took on a new dimension as we learned that the rolling depressions in the grass were the sites of mass graves. Two or three times a month, in the late evening, trucks packed with 20-30 people would arrive at Choeung Ek; the prisoners, blindfolded, were executed immediately or detained overnight only to be killed the following day. A killing field is literally just a field where people went to be killed and buried.

We observed the glass box filled with fragments of bone and bits of clothing, washed up in the rainy season. On the ground next to the path, more pieces of clothing, bone and teeth were visible. We then stood in front of the thick tree trunk against which Khmer Rouge soldiers had, holding them by the feet, swung babies and small children until they were dead. Adults were clubbed to death with sticks, or hacked at with farm implements or sharp palm branches. After all, money was tight and bullets were expensive.

It was as terrible as I had anticipated; impossible to comprehend and too much to bear. I had to stop some of the audio-tracks part-way through,  conscious that I would never be able to un-listen to them.

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The guided tour ended at the Memorial Stupa, a tall white obelisk towering above the surrounding trees, erected in memory of the victims. Inside the memorial are thousands of skulls, arranged neatly by age and sex, many disclosing evidence of the trauma suffered in their last days or moments.

Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21)

Back in the tuk-tuk we returned to the centre of the Phnom Penh and stopped outside an innocuous looking mid-20th Century concrete building, on a dusty urban road packed with bustling grocers and cafés. This building was Tuol Svay Prey High School until 1975 when it was taken over by the Khmer Rouge and converted into S-21, one of the regime’s top-secret security prisons. From here, prisoners were loaded onto the trucks which transported them to their final destination at Cheoung Ek.

S-21 quickly became the largest and most notorious of the network of around 200 prisons; it’s estimated that between 17,000 – 30,000 Cambodians were imprisoned here, interrogated and brutally tortured. Only seven are known to have survived, and the site now serves as a testament to the horrific crimes which it bore witness to.

Again guided by an excellent audio-tour, we walked slowly and silently through the former school buildings. The Khmer Rouge, like the Nazis, were meticulous in keeping records of their inhuman cruelty, and the museum is a harrowing collection of the black-and-white photographs taken of the prisoners, and the transcriptions of the often bizarre forced confessions they made.

At the Killing Fields that morning, we had witnessed the shadows of the genocide – unidentifiable remains and marked graves. At S-21 however, we came face-to-face with thousands of pairs of eyes, of men and women and children and babies and these eyes bore a searing hole into my heart. While imprisoned, they had been shackled to the concrete floor or to each other in tiny makeshift cells, without mats or blankets. They received four small spoonfuls of rice soup each day and were forbidden to talk to each other. Routinely beaten and tortured in the most horrific ways, and made to confess to being CIA or KGB members – yet from the language they used it was clear that many had no idea what these organisations were.

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You’re not allowed to take photos inside the museum, but I did take one – below – which was the final straw for me (after this I took a seat outside in the garden and waited for Matt to finish the tour). The little chap in the middle reminded me so much of my brother as a baby; unbelievably chubby cheeks and a mop of dark hair – only he wasn’t given the opportunity to grow up. This was one of hundreds of photos of innocent children.

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One of the few prisoners to survive S-21 is Chum Mey, pictured below with Matt. After ten days of torture he confessed to being a secret agent for the US, but managed to survive due to his skills as a mechanic. He now returns to the former prison each day where he sells his memoir. You can read about his story in this BBC News article.

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There is a lot written online about the Cambodian Genocide, the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng and I wanted to focus this blog more on our personal impressions than an in-depth account of the history; however, if you are interested to learn more about what happened:

Last thoughts

Given that I wasn’t keen to visit Phnom Penh – and more specifically those sites now dedicated to remembering the recent genocide – do I regret my decision to go?

It was certainly difficult. There are some images and stories that I imagine will haunt me for a long time – perhaps forever – and the experience clashed with my usual criteria for a ‘holiday’; but in this case I’m glad I pushed out of my comfort zone. And not for the reason I expected.

Setting out on this day-trip I’d convinced myself that I would learn more about Cambodia’s history and in doing so, would better understand the Cambodia we would experience over the coming week. To an extent this was true, but another very powerful reason occurred to me over the course of the day: if people like me don’t visit the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, then there is a risk that one day there won’t be any demand to keep them alive. These sites rely on tourists who can afford to pay the entrance fee – an unrealistic prospect for many ordinary Cambodians. A charity stand in Tuol Sleng asks for donations to fund visits for local schoolchildren, who otherwise may grow up wondering “was it really all that bad?”, or even worse, “did it really happen?”.

I’m not saying that visiting these places is the right thing for everyone, and I put a disclaimer at the start of this blog post for this reason. It’s emotionally exhausting. But we need to remember how easily the genocide happened, and how devastating the repercussions were for a whole country.

– Emma