Zhaotong Hope School: Part 2

If you haven’t already, make sure you read my last blog post before starting this one; it explains the background and context to this trip, plus some great photos of the Yunnan countryside!

Arriving at the JLR Hope School in Zhaotong

After close to two hours of back-seat rodeo, negotiating rocky mountain paths and crawling through flash-flood streams, we arrived at our destination: the JLR Hope School in Zhaotong. Since the 2014 earthquake the region has received funding for improved infrastructure but the Hope School was so deep in the mountains that the final leg of our route there was more off-road than on!

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Photo courtesy of Acefoto

The team of photographers who documented our weekend used a drone to capture the stunning surroundings of the school and the photo below is one of my favourites; Zhaotong is largely agricultural (tobacco is one of the main crops), and the stepped fields transform the landscape into a work of art. The large building in the bottom centre is the school.

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Breaking the Ice

Our team-building event took place on a Sunday and the grounds were deserted. The headmaster and the volunteer teachers came out into the rain to greet us, then ushered us into one of the classrooms where they had prepared hot tea and set up some electric heaters (it was a cold, wet day, and there was no central heating).

Prior to our visit I’d helped the mentors and mentees to exchange contact details so they could introduce themselves by phone or WeChat (China’s main social media platform), but this was their first chance to meet in person. To help ease any initial nervousness we had arranged a series of games designed to raise the collective energy, build trust and – importantly – have some fun together. It was great to watch everyone participate so enthusiastically (even those who may ordinarily be a bit shy!).

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With the ice broken, we split the mentor-mentee pairs into two teams who then competed against each other in a series of interactive challenges. The stakes were high, as the winning team would receive the best ingredients from which to make their lunch! Over the next few hours they solved problems, hunted for treasure, configured rollercoasters from chopsticks and finally, once the challenge was complete and the ingredients had been won, the two teams threw themselves into the final test – to work together as one team to prepare and cook their meal, from scratch.

The Hope School has a small kitchen where meals are prepared each day for the children and staff. The teachers often pitch in to help the cooks at mealtimes and so are familiar with the recipes and they taught the JLR mentors how to make the local dishes (an insight into their daily life). I’m sure the significance of this activity wasn’t lost on the mentors; we have hundreds of restaurants on our doorstep and the most difficult part of our lunchtime is deciding whether to have sushi, sashimi or grilled salmon. Here, if you don’t gut the fish and scale the fish, you don’t eat the fish.

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As you can see from the photo, they all pulled together and succeeded in creating a delicious and well-deserved feast.

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Bon appetit! (or rather, 好车 ‘Hǎo chē’ )

Teacher’s Day Ceremony

The following day we returned to the school again. We had planned our visit to coincide with China’s National Teachers Day (Monday 10 September, 2017) and watched as the children lined up in rows in the yard and sang a song to give thanks to their teachers. Teaching is a historically respected vocation in China dating back to Confucious; however, during the Cultural Revolution the pursuit of intellectual growth was repressed and teaching condemned. Teachers’ Day was established and awarded national status in 1985 as a government-led effort to reestablish the status and dignity of the profession, and is an important date in the academic calendar. A few children wearing bright red sashes raised the Chinese national flag of the same colour, and later we presented the mentors with a certificate to recognise and celebrate the commitment they had made to the teachers.

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Teacher for a day

Prior to the team-building trip we had tasked our mentors to collaborate with their mentee to design a lesson which they would co-deliver to the Hope School students. They were given free reign on the subject matter, and the lessons ranged from English language to martial arts; this was another great way to give the JLR colleagues a glimpse into the daily life of the graduate teachers.

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Students learned some key facts about England and China, and drew the Chinese and British flags. They did a great job!

The photos below were taken during the lessons which our JLR mentors facilitated.

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 The First Foreigner

During the break-time we had an opportunity to meet the students and play games together. My colleagues told me that I was likely to be the first foreigner that the children had ever met, which was clear from their reaction; they were nervous at first, running up to me in a group and pushing each other forward in my direction before running away squealing and laughing! But it only took one kid to take hold of my hand and after that I was mobbed for the rest of the day…

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Say “cheese”! (or, in Chinese, 茄子 ‘qié zi’ – which is used as it sounds like ‘cheese’, though it actually means ‘eggplant’. Cheese is 奶酪 ‘năilào’ but that won’t trigger a smile in photos).       Photo courtesy of Acefoto.
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This game involved jumping on an elastic rope stretched between the ankles of two people stood a metre apart, and was very similar to a game I remember playing when I was at school.
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This little girl had an incredible smile. Photo courtesy of Acefoto.
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The students had to wait outside the canteen while we finished our lunch, but it was hard to concentrate on the food with such an eager audience so I soon went back outside to play!

The Hope School

While the children and mentors were in class I explored the school grounds, which include the main school building, a separate ‘outhouse’ toilet block, the kitchen, the students’ and teachers’ dormitories and the playground, where a new dormitory wing is under construction. Students who live fairly locally can walk to and from the school each day; however, many live further away and they reside at the school full-time during the week.

I wrote previously about the devastating 2014 earthquake; the insult to injury here was that this part of China was already incredibly poor; in 2015 the average disposable income in Zhaotong was only 540 yuan (61 GBP) per month and more than a quarter of inhabitants fell below the poverty line. One consequence of this is that many young people migrate to Southen or Eastern Chinese cities in the hope of finding better paid work, leaving their children to be raised by grandparents or relatives. There are 176 of these so-called “left-behind children” and the Zhaotong Hope School, who see their parents once or twice each year. A recent JLR China crowd-funding initiative has helped to buy telephone watches for each of these children so they can more easily call their parents, and help them to maintain their relationships despite the distance.

The dormitory building was life-changing for many children, enabling them to more regularly attend school (I was told stories of some children who would walk for 3 or four hours across the mountain each morning and evening before the dormitory was built). However, keeping the children in school over the long-term is an additional hurdle; as their families often need them to support with the farming and so pull them out of school early.

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As we made to leave the school on our final day I was suddenly seized by a clamour of tiny hands and dragged into a classroom, the children chanting a chorus of “teacher please don’t leave us!”. I’ve never been particularly child-savvy and was completely helpless – they were surprisingly strong!. Luckily one of my colleagues came to the rescue and negotiated my release – on the condition that I sing a song. Mind racing (what do you sing to small Chinese children who maybe know a couple of words of English!) I settled on “heads, shoulders knees and toes”, and got them all to join in, which seemed to go down a treat (phew!). It was a sweet and funny end to the visit.

A lasting impression

This wasn’t my first time in Yunnan – Matt and I spent a weeks’ holiday there in 2016 – but this was my first glimpse of life deep in the countryside, far from the tourist-friendly cities of DaLi and LiJiang. As we made our way back to Shanghai I reflected on the significance of schooling and education in China. Even the most basic education – being able to read and write – can make a monumental difference in a persons relative prosperity and quality of life; the more highly educated the person, the better their chance of boarding the economic juggernaut of modern China and accessing the boundless opportunities available in the big thriving cities.

The Chinese education system is notoriously grueling (google ‘GaoKao’ to get some idea of this), and if you’re not from a privileged background then it takes an admirable amount of grit and application to get a university degree – your golden ticket to a well paid job in a blue chip company. Through conversations with Chinese friends and colleagues we’ve learned that the norm is, having emerged successfully but battle weary from the educational gauntlet, you find yourself at the bottom of a huge ladder (the career ladder), ideally with a respectable company/job. You then need to gather your wits and get climbing as far and as fast as you can to reach your goal of achieving level X by age Y.  This makes it all the more remarkable to me that the volunteer teachers have chosen to take an atypical path, to do something decidedly altruistic at just the time when society dictates that they should be climbing that ladder the fastest.

The two days I spent at the Hope School were a great experience for me. For the teachers it will surely be an incredible character-building step, and a powerful foundation for their future careers. The 28-year old headmaster was testament to this; he has a huge amount of responsibility to deal with for someone so young, and moved me with his genuine humility and resilience.

While driving through Zhaotong we witnessed highways being built which will eventually traverse the mountainous prefectures and connect traditionally remote areas (such as Qiaojia 巧家县, where our hotel was locatedwith cities such as Kunming. This will bring new economic opportunities to the region, but any entrance is also an exit which may entice more people away from these remote regions. It will be interesting to see how the tourism industry develops here over the coming years – the natural beauty of the area is immense – and what impact this will have on the local life. In the meantime I look forward to supporting the JLR-Hope School Dream Mentor programme, and I hope this brings lasting rewards for both mentors and mentees.

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Photo courtesy of Acefoto

– Emma

 

Zhaotong Hope School: 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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vientiane, Laos

After 5 wonderful days in Luang Prabang we were on the move again, flying South to spend a few days in Laos’ capital city: Vientiane.

Our decision to visit Vientiane was largely practical – an opportune pit-stop en route to Phnomn Penh in Cambodia – and I was quite intrigued as to what we would find there having read contrasting reviews online from people who had visited. Some wrote of an idyllic, laid-back city where the aroma of freshly baked baguettes drifted from pavement cafes, while others described a drab, spiritless, hectic place with little to do or see beyond a handful of – albeit beautiful – temples.

So which was it? Idyllic, or drab? Laid-back, or hectic? Or a compound of both, coexisting under the wrapper of ‘Vientiane’?

The more negative reviews weren’t enough to worry us; we had packed a healthy dose of optimism and figured that, if all else failed, we could make our way through the menu in some good local restaurants, get a massage, do laundry and so on. However, over the next few hours my optimism slowly ebbed away. I admit that a sky full of drizzly grey cloud never helps, but crappy weather aside, first impressions weren’t great.

Boat Festival… Vientiane Style

In my previous blog I mentioned that Luang Prabang were gearing up for their annual boat festival, where wooden rafts dressed as fiery dragons are lit with candles and floated down the Mekong, carrying away bad luck from the previous year. Vientiane also had plans to celebrate, although the atmosphere was somewhat different.

In what seemed to be Laos’ rendition of Mardi Gras, thousands of people had flocked to the city and many roads in the centre were blockaded by cranky-looking policemen cradling wooden-handled rifles. Any idyllic tranquility had been chased away by blaring loudspeakers from the sprawling ‘night market’ (more on this later), and ear-piercing whistles blown by aforementioned policemen. When our car finally broke through the traffic and dropped us at our hotel, we dosed up on a little optimism and decided to get some sleep; things would be better in the morning. Unfortunately sleep was easier said than done – our hotel was only 50m from the heart of the market, so we could hear the loudspeakers, music and whistling until around 3am.

The following morning we took a (grumpy) look at our hotel’s ‘What’s on in Vientiane’ notice. Oddly, it didn’t mention the massive festival right on our doorstep, instead listing things like ‘Construction Materials Convention’, and ‘National Bus Logo Drawing Competition’. Not feeling inspired, we decided to walk along to the tourist information centre to get some advice. Ironically, the building intended to help and guide visitors was a bit of a challenge to locate and so we found ourselves wandering up and down streets like the ones below; squashed rows of damp, disintegrating buildings garnished with graffiti and sodden piles of trash.

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Luang Prabang had pulled off the peeling-paint look with a character and charm which sadly eluded Vientiane.

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The Tourist Information turned out to be a hole-in-the-wall in an unremarkable building where we were simply handed another copy of the map which we’d already been given at our hotel, detailing a handful of monuments, temples and the presidential residence. Having seen a number of temples already – and not wanting to ‘temple-out’ before we reached Cambodia – we estimated that there was a day’s worth of activities, max.

Only 11am and already time to engage Plan B: eat some tasty local food and perhaps track down one of those provincial French cafés for an espresso and side of sugar-glazed goodness. Easy, right? Er…. no. TripAdvisor revealed that the top 10 restaurants were Pizza or Burger joints and so even Plan B started to look unworkable. At this point, I lost my patience with Vientiane.

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Plan A & B aborted, we quickly drafted Plan C – to bring forward our trip to Phnom Penh and write off Vientiane as a sunk cost. So ensued a 2 hour escapade to and from  Vientiane airport and Vietnam Airline’s HQ (which had been temporarily relocated to a hotel in the centre of town due to the airport renovations), where we eventually managed to book tickets for the following day. With an afternoon and a morning left, we ate a Pizza and set off to see some of the sights, starting with the National Museum.

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Despite being full grown adults, I admit that we had a bit of a giggle when we arrived at the museum. The the dilapidated entrance, prehistoric-style paintings and wooden planks crossing a muddy river wasn’t too far off a set from an Indiana Jones movie – it looked so incredibly low budget that it was difficult to take seriously. The large 2-story building may have once been the Pride of Vientiane (maybe in the ’70s?) but had obviously fallen on much harder times. In the small lobby a young girl collected our $1 entrance fee and I paid an additional $1 to take my camera inside.

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Either side of the entrance gate, someone at some point had painted these oddly bad al frescos of famous Laotian landmarks – this one featured the Plain of Jars in Xieng Khuang province.
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Wooden planks had been lain (left side) for pedestrians to navigate the deep puddle which had collected around the entrance.
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For the last 6 years I’ve been trying and failing to persuade Matt that we should take a ski holiday, his excuse being ‘I have no balance’ – ha, photographic evidence to the contrary!

The first exhibit generated more giggles; a small model of a dinosaur with the sign ‘Dinosaurs have long necks and tails’ – an endearing over-generalisation hopefully aimed at children – a couple of strange dioramas of neolithic people standing around next to papier-mâché trees, and some light-bleached photos of deer. Beyond this though, we found that the museum had some pretty interesting and valuable artifacts and exhibits- important discoveries of well preserved prehistoric man, dinosaurs, ancient iron-works and well preserved pottery.

The museum spanned an immensely ambitious time frame from pre-history (dinosaurs) to modern history (post millennium), though most of the content was dedicated to the conflicts with and invasion by the French (from the late 19th Century) and the astonishingly extensive bombing by the US in the 20th Century. These exhibits belied a deep sense of national pride and gave us a powerful insight into the trauma that Laos had endured at the hands of it’s protectorate, but the museum itself was in serious need of some TLC. The photographs, paintings and weapons were either jumbled in crumbling display cabinets or simply left out in the open, exposed to the ruinous heat and humidity. With such a small stream of visitors paying such a small amount ($1 is a third of the price of an ice cream in the parlour across the street), we wondered how long this place would be able to scrape by. What had started out with giggles ended with a more quiet reflection on the historical significance of the contents of the museum, left to rot and bleach in a crumbing mansion.

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On our final night in Vientiane, we adopted the ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ mentality and joined the thrum of night-market-goers along the riverside. The market had a lot of the tourist-friendly tat that you would expect, but was unmistakably aimed at locals, not tourists. Glaring lights from hundreds of street stalls polluted the night sky, illuminating the mundane necessities of daily life – toilet roll, washing powder nappies and socks. Pretty young girls in too much make-up and outfits that left little to the imagination shouted offers into microphones, their voices compounded by music from loudspeakers and the collective chatter of thousands of people. The intermittent rain had produced pools of muddy water which barefoot young guys swept away from their stalls with pieces of cardboard. Apparently the market sets up each night all year round but during festival time it is larger-than-life, and the crowds suggested it was a highlight in the Vientiane calendar. Half an hour was enough for us though, before we headed back to the hotel for dinner.

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BBQ eggs: Finally, we’ve found a food that even Matt (he who famously ate a desert made from frog fallopian tubes) draws the line at!

The next morning we packed up our things and made our way back to the airport (for the third time in as many days) and reflected on our brief experience of Vientiane while we waited for our flight.

Sleep-deprivation and drizzle undoubtedly coloured our view of the city – maybe if we’d arrived under a clear blue sky a week later then we’d have had felt differently; even so, I think we would have struggled to find the languid, laid-back capital described by those who visited before us. Modernity has infiltrated Vientiane, evidenced in the Dairy Queen chains, garish commercial festival-market and sprawling construction sites (soon-to-be shopping malls), but the ‘development’ didn’t seem to be happening in a particularly harmonious way. We were only there for a short time, but felt it represented a dystopian vision of what might happen to the rest of Laos if this was allowed to spread.

I took a photo (below) which I thought illustrated the problem in Vientiane. It shows the ‘Lao National Cultural Hall’, a modern, grand imposing structure, outside of which sits a large plastic stein, advertising Oktoberfest. The main sponsor is ‘Beer Lao’ (a very tasty Laos Beer, owned by a Laos company) and the event is cosponsored by a bunch of other brands from the Dutch/Danish Carlsberg Heineken Consortium. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of globalism, and why shouldn’t the Laotians enjoy their local beer in the context of a European sponsored German beer festival? Maybe some of that foreign investment will improve the lives of local people?

Maybe, but there’s a sad irony that this National Cultural Hall sits directly opposite the Laos History Museum, with it’s sadly decaying cultural artifacts, poorly protected by a damp, decrepit building; where handfuls of visitors pay a dollar each to trace Lao’s struggles to retain independence from Imperialist influence or control by Americans and Europeans.

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We don’t for one second expect a country to stay poor and idyllic just to satisfy tourists’ Instagram feeds – if the local residents want to eat American ice cream, then it’s absolutely their prerogative – but equally, we can’t fairly say that we’d recommend to visit this place.

Next stop: Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

– Emma

 

Day and Night in Luang Prabang, Laos

This is my third and final love letter to Luang Prabang. Located on a tropical peninsula – a long finger of land at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, approximately 1km long by 300m wide – the city was tiny but so so beautiful. I wanted to capture everything and took hundreds of photos; squeezing my favourites into two blogs was impossible!

Luang Prabang Old Town…

Along the centre of the peninsula runs the main street, a spine off which stems quieter streets lined with old colonial houses, interspersed with more traditional Laotian buildings such as the temples and royal buildings. 

Laos only opened it’s doors to tourism in 1989 and – sat in a European-style coffee shop sipping iced lattes from glass jars – we reflected on the journey that Luang Prabang must have taken within our lifetime. I imagine the wary welcome of the first trickle of intrepid travelers in the late 80’s was a world away from the slightly more polished reception that we experienced – the pace of change in the last 30 years must have been quite a challenge.

As the city grows to accommodate the influx of tourists, it expands outwards from the peninsula to the south and east. Previously most of the tourism stemmed from the backpacker trail, but now there are ample guesthouses and hotels ready to satisfy more affluent customers and our hotel manager told us that learning English was the best way to guarantee a good job here.

The charm of Luang Prabang flows from it’s unique architectural, religious and cultural heritage; imagine grand French colonial villas with wooden-shuttered windows and pastel-coloured pebbledash, sitting side-by-side with gleaming gold and burgundy Buddhist temples. The streets are mouthfuls of ‘s’ and ‘p’ – Phou Si, Sisavangyong, Samsenthai, Phamahapasam – and the delicious smell of spicy smoke drifts from charcoal grills at the front of shops and homes. 

Since being awarded UNESCO protected status in 1995 development in the city has been regulated by a strict building code, meaning that the original buildings can be hard to distinguish from the architecturally-sympathetic newcomers; this has helped Luang Prabang to avoid the unfortunate homogenization which developing Asian cities are so susceptible to.

 

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This is the first photo I took in Luang Prabang and it really captures the place for me; a swarm of scooters buzzing down sun-baked roads, through clouds of smoke drifting from roadside grills.

By day…

The streets in town are filled with guest-houses, massage-parlors, restaurants and french-style cafes street. It’s nice to cycle around as the majority of traffic is two-wheeled rather than four, although the bikes we borrowed from our hotel had seen better days and so we did more stopping to drink coffee/beer than we did actual cycling.

Luang Prabang was the ancient royal capital of Laos and the surrounding region until King Sisavangyong moved the seat to Vientiane in 1545, and some of the grander buildings are an echo of this provenance; however, the city has also seen more than it’s share of turbulence. Towards the end of the 19th Century it was ransacked by successive Burmese invasions, providing a prime opportunity for the French to sweep in and pick up the pieces, supporting renovations and ushering in Luang Prabang’s ‘French period’.

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A rare photo of Matt on a bike!

 

Buddhism is the main religion here and deeply permeates the Laotian culture. Each morning as dawn breaks over the city, a line of locals wait patiently on their knees to offer ‘alms’ – gifts in the form of rice snacks, fresh fruit and traditional sweets – to the 200-or-so Buddhist monks in a traditional ritual which dates back to the 14th Century. The alms giving starts along Sisavangvong road and then radiates out to the adjoining side streets.

This scared and peaceful ceremony is obviously novel to us Westeners and so it’s unsurprising that tourists flock to watch or take part. After discussion we chose not to go (aside from that fact that I’m grumpy if I have to get up too early, we also felt that the ceremony was for the local Buddhist people, rather than for our benefit); however, for around $5 your hotel or a tour operator will help you to participate in a respectful way.

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We saw lots of women and young girls selling bright orange flowers on the streetside. These arrangements are given as offerings at Buddhist shrines.
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Rice patties drying in the sun.
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The orange flower arrangements, studded with smoldering incense sticks, left as an offering at one of the temples.

Wat Xieng Thong

As a Buddhist city in South East Asia, we expected there to be a few temples dotted here and there, although if you’d have asked us how many there were in Luang Prabang I’m certain we would have underestimated. There are 33 Wats (temples) in total, and you hardly walk a few meters without passing one!

16th-century Wat Xieng Thong, off Sisavangvong road towards the far end of the peninsula, is the coronation place of the Lao kings, and also an important gathering place for annual festivities. Truly beautiful, it was described by Auguste Pavie, the first French vice-consul in Luang Prabang, as “famous for its sloping curved roof with three levels overlapping one another, as if it were an immense bird preparing to fly”.

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The back wall of Wat Xieng Thong features a dazzling ‘tree of life’ mosaic.
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No matter how often I see people posing on one leg, I still don’t understand why they do it?! Something tells me that this guy spends a lot of his life crouched down squinting into a camera lens.

Lhai Heua Fa:, Festival of the Boats of Light

Unbeknownst to us when we booked our flights our time in Laos coincided with the build-up to ‘Boun Ork Phansa’, the last day of Buddhist lent which is celebrated by festive celebrations steeped in tradition. During the day donations and offerings are given at the local temples, and in the evening candlelight processions are held. In Luang Prabang the celebration is most spectacular – hundreds of brightly coloured dragon-shaped boats floats decorated with flowers, incense and candles are set adrift down the Mekong river, to pay respect to the Buddha and give thanks to the river spirits. These boats also symbolise the bad luck from the previous year being swept away, allowing the good luck to flow in. In addition to the big dragons, families make their own small boats from banana leaves and say a prayer at the side of the river before lighting the candle and sending the boat on it’s way.

The consequence of us not knowing about this festival beforehand was that we didn’t coincide our stay with it, and left a couple of days before it took place. The boats were already shaping up though!

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This guy was toiling away under the shade of one of the temples we visited.
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These guys have tried to hide their dragon boat behind this tree. It’s not been entirely effective.
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As we left Luang Prabang, just days before the festival, the lovely people at our hotel were making some good progress on their boat.

And by night…

As the sun sets over the city, a transformation takes place on Sisavangvong Road. From the Post Office roundabout to the Royal Palace, the wide street bisects into back-to-back stalls; brightly coloured merchandise stacked and spilling from the plastic sheets spread along the ground (more of these sheets are deftly hung overhead at the first spots of rain, creating a bazaar-type environment).

 

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Market vendors start to lay out their goods as the sun begins to set over the town.
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Many of the stall-keepers were women, often with small children strapped to their backs or playing quietly.
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On this occasion we dashed through the stalls with our bikes before the ‘roof’ of plastic sheets blocked our path.
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The market begins at the roundabout opposite the Post Office, and here you can find lots of food stalls like this one.
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Women carry baskets and buckets of food through the market, selling to other women manning the street stalls.

The market unfurls each night and underneath the tarpaulin sheets a small community comes to life – the vendors huddle together to slurp noodle soup, share snacks, and entertain small children, occasionally unfolding some of the fabrics and typing the price into a small calculator (this is partly to help communicate to foreign tourists, but also because the exchange rate to the Lao Kip can take some getting used to – 1GBP is about 11,000 Kip, 1USD around 9,000).

The market offers a vibrant miscellany of goods, from traditional hand-made crafts (silk scarves, cloth bags, carved wooden bowls and ornaments, embroidered story-books and childrens toys) to mass-produced backpacker essentials (the obligatory BeerLao t-shirts and elephant-print trousers). You can also buy locally-produced teas, coffee, spices and corked bottles of Lao Lao (the Lao whisky I mentioned in my last blog). The stalls are repetitive (not unusual for an Asian market), but this is one of the best ones I’ve come across – not least for the fact that you don’t feel harassed as you walk around; they seem to be happy with window-shopping.

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When the time came for us to leave Luang Prabang I definitely had that pang of “do we have to go?” that accompanies the end of any good holiday, but at the same time we were excited to be moving onto our next destination, having had an encouraging start to the trip.

It didn’t take long for this excitement to be somewhat dampened, when our hotel manager – as he drove us to the airport – inquired as to where we were going next and replied “oh” (in a tone that was somewhere on the spectrum between surprise and disappointment) when we said ‘Vientiane’. He continued: “I studied in Vientiane, but…. I much prefer it here. We have some rooms left if you’d prefer to stay?” We smiled at this, taking it as a polite effort to tempt our continued custom… although in hindsight it was perhaps an option we should have considered more seriously.

If you’re planning to visit Laos, I wholeheartedly recommend that you head to Luang Prabang and spend a good few days soaking it up. It’s the kind of place where you can ‘do all the attractions’ in a short period of time, but there’s such a nice atmosphere in and around and it’s worth staying on a bit longer to make the most of that.

– Emma

 

Tuk Tuks and Riverboats in Luang Prabang, Laos

After a good 24 hours relaxing into holiday-mode, we decided to book a day-trip to cover some of the key local attractions. The main street is choc-full of tour providers offering an exhausting variety of excursions, but most included elephant riding which Matt and I strongly disagree with so instead we hired private transport – in the form of tuk-tuk and riverboat drivers – and ‘DIY’d’ a tour to the Kuang Si Waterfall and the Pak Oh Buddha Caves, via the Lao Whisky Village.

Kuang Si Waterfall

Our first destination – Kuang Si waterfall – was 29km south of the centre of Luang Prabang; in practical terms, this equated to an hour bumping around in the back of a tuk-tuk over dirt roads dented with gravelly craters, teeth chattering as we clattered over creaky wooden bridges (more fun than it might sound!). Through the dust clouds in our wake we saw lazy buffalo, scrawny chickens, goats, dogs and people performing odd-jobs such as bundling wood or pruning trees. In the background, green as far as the eye could see.

As we approached the entrance to the falls the roadside around us sprung to life with sizzling racks of BBQ meat, towers of fresh young coconut and row after row of ubiquitous elephant-print trousers.

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To enter the waterfall area we paid the nominal 20,000 Kip (1.80gbp) admission fee to a girl in a kiosk in exchange for a ticket which we promptly handed to a guy sat less than 2 meters away, then started up a mud-track under a shady canopy of dense trees. Almost immediately – and quite unexpectedly – we came across an enclosure of black bears snoozing atop wooden towers (I’ll come back to this) and shortly afterwards reached the bottom tier of the waterfall – a paradisaical pool of glacier blue water which, quite honestly, blew me away.

You see, I’d managed my expectations so well before we arrived (seen one waterfall, seen them all right?) and convinced myself so conclusively that the promo photos would have been diligently photoshopped by the Laos Tourisism marketing department (water can’t be that blue, right?) that I completely and utterly underestimated the place. It was genuinely incredible!

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When I’d recovered from my initial shock (and taken 800-or-so photos) we continued to follow the path past successive pools of milky turquoise until we arrived at the source – a 50m vertical drop of frothy white water, crashing against the limestone rocks*. Having arrived early, we were fortunate enough to be among the first visitors of the day and got some great shots before taking a dip.

* nerdy fact – the limestone is what causes the water to be that insane blue colour.

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Despite the ‘no jumping’ signs, I couldn’t resist! The water was deliciously cold and the perfect antidote to the already hot Laotian morning.

Back to the bears…

The enclosure that we passed near the entrance to the falls is a sanctuary funded by ‘Free the Bears’, which is home to 23 Asiatic Black ‘Moon’ bears. Most have been rescued from the ironically sickening ‘traditional medicine’ trade, which saw them kept in suffocatingly small metal cages, unable to move, with a catheter inserted directly into their gall bladder to remove the bile – a substance which has been used in traditional Asian medicine for centuries.

The rescued bears looked quite content in their new home; the larger bears were lazing around on the high towers of a huge jungle-gym, and the younger ones were play-fighting and eating chunks of pineapple.

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Save the Bears do some brilliant work supporting environmental education projects, and working with governments and local police forces to protect bears around the world.

Although the sanctuary sits in the Kuang Si Falls park it sadly doesn’t benefit from the admission fee so they rely on donations of people passing through, and they sell soft toys and t-shirts to raise funds.

Xanghai ‘Whisky’ Village

After visiting the waterfall we headed back to town, grabbed some lunch and then traded our tuk-tuk for a narrow wooden riverboat. In the welcome shade of the boat’s canopy we zipped along the milky-brown waters of the Mekong, passing grandiose villas which neighbored corrugated iron shacks, amidst towering palm trees and lush forest.

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We passed so many groups of kids playing in the water near the riverbanks; most shrieked and waved when we went by, but these boys seemed more interested in burying back into the earth!
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Another riverboat (similar to ours), against the mountainous backdrop.

After an hour-or-so our driver docked to a wedge of bamboo connected to a flight of rudimentary steps which led us up the riverbank to Xanghai Village – otherwise known as the ‘Whisky Village’.

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Matt and I are huge Scotch whisky fanatics (to the extent that our first holiday together was a distillery-crawl around Islay, and a bottle of Ardbeg 10yr old was tucked away in our luggage for this holiday). At the slightest whisper of the ‘W’ word our ears prick up and our noses scout for signs of peat, so we were looking forward to learning a bit about how ‘Lao Lao’ whisky was produced and maybe getting to sample a cask or two. However, we very quickly learned that ‘whisky’ is interpreted a bit differently in Laos.

At the top of the riverbank a young girl standing by a trestle table laden with glass bottles of various concoctions (some which contained snakes or scorpians or other insects) offered us a drop of purple liquid – sans snake – in a shot glass. It tasted a bit like sweet blackcurrant grappa and not in the slightest like any whisky I’ve encountered before, but it wasn’t unpleasant. The sign below told us everything else we (apparently) needed to know, although failed to explain at what point the poor reptiles were jammed in there – a peculiarity which made me feel a bit queasy, physically and morally.

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The rest of the village showed little sign of whisky… but lots of signs of weaving. Actually, ‘Weaving Village’ would have been more a appropriate monkier (if less enticing!). For 20 minutes we wandered around the small village in the searing heat, a little bemused, politely declining invitations to purchase scarves and blankets.

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Lots of weaving, not much whisky!
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We came across a beautiful temple in the centre of the small town, and there appeared to be some kind of celebration going on with loud music and singing.

Between us we know quite a bit about whisky – both at the production and the consumption end – and while we acknowledge this wasn’t whiskey proper, it also didn’t have enough on show to interest booze enthusiasts. If you are planning to visit Xanghai to see how LaoLao is produced, I’d suggest you avoid it; however, you want to buy some reasonably priced woven goods and see the ladies of the village making it outside their homes, this is probably a good place to stop off!

Pak Oh Buddha Caves

Back on the boat, we zipped along for an hour before docking to a second bamboo deck, above which a whitewashed staircase carved into a limestone cliff signaled our arrival at the Pak Oh Buddah caves. At the bottom of the staircase we handed 40,000 kip to a young guy perched under an umbrella, then climbed the 10-or-so steps into the cave. After the ancillary business of lighting the some incense sticks and wedging them into a pile of ash (another 10,000 Kip “to support the restoration of the caves”), we took stock of our surroundings.

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The cave was small and damp and a blanket of Buddhas camouflaged each horizontal surface. Some were as small as my thumb, others were around waist height; some gleamed gold and others decades old, rusty and crumbling; all were covered in a dust of undisturbed cobwebs. The air was still and cool like a chapel and the entrance to the cave formed a beautiful jagged frame of the river.

A notice explained that while local people had used the caves to worship river spirits since the 8th Century, the Buddha statues only started to accrue much later when Buddhism was adopted by the Royal families of Lao having spread from the West in the 16th Century. From that time until 1975, the King and the people of Luang Prabang made an annual pilgrimage to the caves as part of their New Year religious celebrations and commissioned artisans to create sculptures which they entrusted to the cave.

Given the popularity of this place (the caves feature on almost every Mekong River excursion), I had expected to find something quite grand and breathtaking. Instead, I found myself asking Matt: “is this it? Really? It can’t be, can it?!”.

While the cave had an certain natural beauty and the devoted compilation of Buddhas was sweet, it didn’t really blow me away. On reflection, it probably didn’t help that we recently visited the Terracotta Army in Xi’an, which kind of raises your expectations when it comes to large-scale statue collections!

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After snapping a few photos we climbed back down the steep white staircase and only then saw a sign pointing to a second cave and a second set of steps (I counted 238, although regular interruptions by small children with puppy-dog eyes selling painted snail-shells and sticks of sugarcane may mean that I’m a step-or-two out).

Gasping we reached the second cave, the entrance to which was blocked aside from a small gate. This absence of natural light created a stellar opportunity for the entrepreneurial young girl who sat outside renting torches for a dollar; by this point we were fed up of people trying to sell us things so made do with the iPhone torch and flash photography, but if you don’t like the dark I recommend you suck it up and hire a torch as it really is pitch black inside!.

There were relatively few statues in this cave compared to the one below and it was a bit underwhelming, but it felt good to get some exercise in!

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Post-trip reflections on the caves: If I’d spent 2 hours in a tuk-tuk to get there then I think I’d have been disappointed with what we found; however, the breezy boat ride along the Mekong was such a pleasurable experience that it became the main event and we credited the cave visit as an added extra, an opportunity to stretch our legs and get a deeper insight into what makes this place tick.

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For me this day was one of the highlights of our Laos-Cambodia trip; the Kuang Si waterfall was unlike anything I’ve experienced before; in fact, we made a return visit before we left LP…

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One more blog on LP to come (I tried and failed to keep it to two posts!)

– Emma