Wandering and Wondering

Friday, February 6, 2009

Khmer culture

We began our tour of Cambodia a little over a week ago. Today we are in the capital Phnom Penh, and this morning I was asked by a tuk-tuk driver if I would like a ride to the “killing fields”. The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek is an area where approximately 17,000 people were executed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1978 under Pol Pot’s brutal regime. For many Khmers (which is what Cambodians call themselves) including our tour guide, the Khmer Rouge years are the source of many painful memories and it has taken a long time for the country to rebuild itself. It was only in 2007 that a tribunal commenced to bring genocide charges against the Khmer Rouge leaders, and there are still many who haven’t been brought to justice.

I didn’t take up the tuk-tuk driver’s offer as we had our own mini-bus transportation already organized. Before visiting the killing fields we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The museum building was originally a school until 1975 when it was converted to a prison and used for detention, interrogation and torture by the Khmer Rouge. Every person who passed through the prison was photographed, and the photographs remain today as a brutal reminder.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

The killing fields contained numerous mass graves, the biggest of which held 2000 bodies. Most of the bodies have since been exhumed and are now on display in a large monument, but there are still many bones scattered around the fields, and every time it rains more get revealed. Our guide pointed some out to us on the very path we were walking along.

Killing Fields of Choeung Ek

Even though the Khmer Rouge regime ended almost 30 years ago, Cambodians have only really been living in peace since the year 2000. It makes you realize why much of the country’s infrastructure isn’t in the best condition – rebuilding a nation takes a long time. Tourism is helping to bring a lot of money into the country, but many of the tourist facilities are foreign owned, so a lot of the money doesn’t stay here. Even the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek are privately owned by a Japanese company after the government privatized them in 2005.

Despite the country’s recent problems, the Khmer people have a rich heritage. The golden age of the Khmer civilization was between the 9th and 13th centuries, when the centre of power was located at Angkor. The temples that were built here during this time still remain standing today. Our base for visiting the temples was the touristy town of Siem Reap. As part of our full day tour we were up at dawn to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat, after which we visited several other temples including the Angkor Thom complex and Banteay Srei. My favourite temple complex, however, was Ta Prohm, which has become overgrown by the jungle. This is where some of the scenes from the Tomb Raider movie were filmed.

Sunrise over Angkor Wat

Carvings on the Bayon Temple

Tomb Raider Temple at Angkor

Apart from the temples, the other highlight of Cambodia has been its friendly people. In Siem Reap we visited an orphanage to spend some time with the children. After playing some games with them and letting them take photos with our cameras, they performed a traditional dance for us. One little girl attached herself to me from the moment we arrived.

English lesson


Emma with one of the kids

We also had a chance to meet with some local families while staying at Kampong Cham. We went on a cycle tour to an island that involved crossing a bamboo bridge. On the island we visited the home of a local family and they shared some home-grown food with us. Later in the evening we had dinner with our tour leader’s family, and they provided a delicious spread of traditional food. And for dessert? Tarantula! With Em hiding outside the front door, I had the experience of holding a live tarantula in my hand. Some of the other members of the group even tried eating tarantula, but I decided to pass on that.

Bamboo bridge


Dinner with a local family

Making friends with a tarantula

Another interesting experience was our home-stay, where we got to experience sleeping in a hut on stilts with the locals. We went to sleep listening to the sounds of the farm animals, including a couple of small pigs that were running around below our hut (or was that the sound of our tour leader Sam snoring?), and in the morning we were woken by the sound of the roosters crowing.

Football star

Ashley's nail salon

Young girl

Our final destination before reaching Phnom Penh was the beachside town of Sihanoukville. The main beach was far too overcrowded, so we decided to go on a boat tour to some islands just off the coast. On the first island we did a bit of snorkeling, and on the second island we spent a few hours just relaxing on the beach. But it seems you can’t have a day in Cambodia without an adventure of some sort – on our way back to Sihanoukville the propeller on our boat broke and we were stranded in the middle of the sea. We had to wait about 45 minutes before another boat came along and towed us back to shore.

But our adventure wasn’t quite over just yet. Our boat couldn’t be towed all the way to the shore, so we either had to jump from our boat to the other boat (both of which were rocking up and down quite vigorously), or jump from our boat and swim the 150 metres to shore. Most of us chose the second option, but then there was the problem of our bags. I had thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment in my backpack, which I watched with trepidation being passed from one boat to the next. I’m happy to say that everyone arrived safely back at shore along with all their luggage. Except, that is, for one of Elle’s thongs, which she had to swim back to the boat to fetch.

We had the option of going on another boat trip the next day, but surprisingly no one took up the offer. Instead, Emma and I spent the afternoon at Ortres beach, which was a 20 minute tuk-tuk ride from the main beach and a lot more peaceful. Here we tried some wind-surfing which took a while to get the hang of, but was quite fun.

Relaxing at the beach

Stranded at sea


Tomorrow we leave Cambodia for the next part of our adventure – Vietnam!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bangkok, Dangerous

Emma and I arrived in Bangkok a couple of days ago for the start of our 5 week "Indochina Unplugged" overland tour. On the plane I watched a movie called "Bangkok, Dangerous". The opening scenes of the movie described Bangkok as a "city full of con-artists and hustlers". Having been to Bangkok once before, I already had the experience of being scammed by a tuk-tuk driver who promised to take me to see some temples for a very cheap fare, but ended up taking me to a tailor shop where they tried to sell me several suits. It is a pretty standard scam, and this time in Bangkok I noticed a sign up at the hotel warning about it. So for my second time visiting Bangkok, I was a little bit more travel wise. But that didn't stop me running into problems.

The first problem started back in Sydney when we were on the plane waiting to depart. There was some sort of problem with the radio system on the plane which delayed our departure by 40 minutes. Our flight to Bangkok was via Hong Kong, where we were scheduled for a stop-over of just over an hour. With our flight delayed by 40 minutes, however, we were only going to have around half an hour after landing to get off the plane, go through a security checkpoint and get to the boarding gate for the next leg of our flight. We voiced our concerns to the flight attendant and they agreed to move us up to the front of the plane just before landing, so that we would be the first to disembark. This meant that we got to sit in business class for the last 20 minutes of the flight, which I must admit was a very nice way to fly.

After landing, we pretty much ran to the security checkpoint and then on to the gate and made it just as boarding was commencing. My luggage, however, wasn't so fortunate, and we arrived in Bangkok to find that my bag was missing, even though Em's bag was there. On reporting this to the lost luggage counter, they told us they had no record of either my bag or Emma's bag in the system. We were left with no choice but to head to our hotel and hope they would find my bag and fly it down on a later flight that night.

Come the next day and my bag still hadn't arrived, so I was thinking I would need to buy a whole new set of clothes, toiletries and other travel gear, not to mention all the chargers for my camera, phone and laptop. I finally got a call later that evening saying that they had found my bag in Hong Kong and would fly it down that night.

So I know had my bag, but my troubles in Bangkok didn't stop there. The next day we visited the Grand Palace, and after wandering around the amazing palace buildings and temples for about half an hour I realised that my mobile phone was missing from my pocket. Em tried calling my number on her phone, but couldn't get through. So I'm not sure if it fell out of my pocket somewhere or was pick-pocketed. Either way it was gone. To be honest, after going thru losing my entire bag of luggage, I wasn't really all that concerned about the phone - losing my wallet or passport would have been a lot worse. Sure, I'll be without a phone for the rest of the trip, but when I get back home I can buy myself a brand new iPhone with the money from the travel insurance.

Tomorrow we leave Bangkok and head into Cambodia, so hopefully my luck will improve. "Bangkok, Dangerous"? Maybe. "Bangkok, Unlucky"? Yes.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Throwing up on Mt Kilimanjaro

Mt Kilimanjaro

At the end of my overland adventure, I met up with my friend Jeromy in Nairobi to climb Mt Kilmanjaro, Africa's highest mountain. I didn't really think about how hard it would be until we had our pre-trip briefing in Moshi the night before we were scheduled to start our climb. Our guide mentioned that the temperature could reach as low as minus 20 degrees celcius, and that on the final day we would need to get up at midnight to make the climb to the summit, and I began to realize that this wouldn't be a walk in the park.

Then of course there was the threat of altitude sickness. Unless you've climbed before, it is impossible to know how it will affect you. From the accounts of other people we met, it seems to strike people down randomly with disregard for fitness levels. The best advice is probably to take things day by day, step by step. With that in mind, here is a day by day summary of our climb:

Day 1

After filling up our stomachs as much as possible from the buffet breakfast and hiring some extra cold weather gear such as gloves and balaclavas, Jeromy and I pilled into a mini-bus together with a Canadian couple, David and Annette (who would be our hut-mates for the next 5 nights), for the drive to the Marangu park entrance gate. Amusingly, our mini-bus stalled about 50 metres from the gate so we had to get out and walk (TIA). Not to worry - we would be doing a lot more walking over the next 6 days.

For the very underprepared climber, there were people at the gate trying to sell us everything from hats to walking sticks and even shoes. Personally, I think that if you get to the gate and realize you've forgotton your shoes, you probably aren't ready to climb Kilimanjaro.

We had to wait at the gate for at least an hour or so while all the necessary papers were signed. We finally entered through the gate and into the national park at around 12pm. The first day's walk was only a relatively short 3 hours through tropical rainforest to reach the Mandara hut. At 2700 metres above sea level, it was 700 metres above the park entrance gate.

Rain Forest

At the end of the day's walk, we were served afternoon tea consisting of popcorn, biscuits and a nice hot cup of tea:

Afternoon tea

In the evening, I went exploring around the campsite, and watched dinner being prepared:

Preparing dinner

Preparing dinner

Dinner itself was quite tasty. By day 6 the meals would start to become a little repetitive, but the important thing was that there was always plenty of food so you certainly didn't go hungry. Our guide encouraged us to eat as much as possible to stock up on energy for the days ahead.

After dinner we played cards for a couple of hours before heading to bed at 9pm for an early night. I was pleasantly surprised at how nice the huts were for sleeping in (they even had solar powered lights). Then again, when you've been sleeping in a tent for the last 8 weeks, any accomodation where you can stand up inside seems luxurious.

Day 2

Today we began walking at around 8am. While it was a bit tougher than the first day's walk, it was still pretty easy going. We passed quite a few people who were heading down the mountain, and most of them had big smiles on their faces suggesting that they had reached the top. The weather was beautiful, and we got some good glimpses of our target which was still a long way off:

Traffic jam on the mountain

We arrived at Horombo hut at around 3pm in the afternoon. At 3720 metres above sea level, it is situated in a picturesque location above the clouds.

Welcome to Horombo

Relaxing above the clouds

Horombo is the biggest campsite on the whole mountain, and it was buzzing with people the whole time we were there. Dinner time was particularly chaotic, and we were rushed through our meals in half an hour in order to make room for the next group of people:

Dinner time

Day 3

Today was our acclimatisation day, so in the morning we had a fairly relaxing walk a short distance up the mountain before returning back to Horombo. In the afternoon we had nothing much to do, so we got in some extra sleep knowing that we probably wouldn't get much over the next couple of days. In the evening, fog rolled in over the campsite, highlighting just how quickly the weather can change while you're up here:

Huts at Horombo campsite

Looking back, I'm glad we had the extra day at Horombo to give our body extra time to adjust to the altitude. The only disadvantage was the extra waiting around which added to the anxiety about reaching the summit.

Day 4

Most of the walk was pretty easy going. We were travelling across an alpine desert landscape, and the road was quite smooth and not very steep:

Alpine Desert

The last hour or so, however, was quite tough and I arrived at Kibo Hut with a bit of a headache. When my strongest pain medication didn't seem to have any effect I was a bit worried that I wouldn't be able to make it to the summit. Luckily, Annette gave me some Diamox pills for altitude sickness and they seemed to do the trick.

We slept for a couple of hours in the afternoon before an early dinner and then back to bed again at 7pm. I'm glad I packed an extra blanket, because the temperature inside the hut is freezing.

Day 5 - Summit Day

We were woken up about half an hour before midnight and had a cup of tea and some dry biscuits so as not to upset the stomach. I was actually feeling pretty good when we started walking at just after midnight. The two things I remember the most about the climb are the amount of clothing I had on and the phrase "pole pole". First, the clothing. Everyone we had passed on their way down the day before had told us to wear every piece of clothing we had because of how cold it was. I didn't quite wear every piece I had, but almost:

  • Feet: 3 pairs of socks, 1 pair of shoes = 4 layers

  • Legs: thermal underwear, jeans, cargo pants, rain pants = 4 layers

  • Torso: 2 singlets, thermal top, ice-breaker long sleeve woolen shirt, thin zip-up jumper, long sleeve button up shirt, ice-breaker woolen vest, light jacket = 8 layers (I also took a rain jacket which I wore at the very top)

  • Head: balaclava, beanie, neck warmer = 3 layers (I also had my beard which I had been growing for 2 weeks)

  • Hands: gloves = 1 layer

In total, I thus had 21 separate pieces of clothing! I did sweat a little on the way up, but overall I think it was the right amount of clothing.

The second thing I remember about the climb is the Swahili phrase "pole pole" (pronounced "poleh, poleh"), which means "slowly, slowly". Whenever I stopped to catch my breath, my guides would tell me "pole, pole". If you stop for too long you freeze, so it is better to keep moving slowly.

Looking up at the stars or back at the line of torches crawling up the mountain also wasn't advisable because it tended to make me feel a bit dizzy. Instead, I just looked at Jeromy's feet in front of me and tried to match my steps with his.

Listening to some tunes on my MP3 player helped keep my thoughts away from how exhausted I was and how much further there was still to go. This is also one of the reasons why we climb up in the dark - you can't see how steep the slope is and become discouraged, and instead you are forced to concentrate on the ground just in front of you in your torchlight.

At the halfway point we stopped for a short breather and I ate some chocolate. Bad idea. 30 seconds after we started moving again I began feeling a bit nauseous, and suddenly threw up. After throwing up, however, I found a second wind of energy and was actually feeling pretty good.

Jeromy, on the other hand, wasn't so well off. When we reached the section where we needed to scramble up some rocks he started feeling dizzy and couldn't maintain his balance very well. With the support of our guides, however, we eventually reached the major milestone of Gillman's point at around 4.30am. After that, we were told, it was only an "easy" hour and a half or so to the summit. Exhausted as we both were, however, it was still pretty tough going.

At around 6am, the sun started to rise and we could finally see our surroundings. At this point, the sheer beauty of where we were and the realization that we had made it hit me, and it was a pretty amazing feeling. Watching the sun rise over the clouds from the top of Kilimanjaro is something I'll never forget. My exhaustion was temporarily forgotten as I got my camera out to take some photos.

Snow and Ice

Mt Meru

We finally reached Uhuru peak, the highest point in Africa at 5895m above sea level, at the official time of 6.40am. We had a group hug and lots of handshakes to celebrate, and then lined up in the queue to get the obligatory photo in front of the sign. Kudos to Jeromy for making it to the top - I'm not sure if I could have made it in his condition.

Uhuru Peak

On top of the world

Our guide estimated that the temperature at the summit was around minus 15 degrees celcius. With all my layers I felt reasonably warm, but my fingers froze when I took them out of my gloves.

We were only allowed to stay on the summit for around 10 minutes before starting our descent. Given that Jeromy still wasn't feeling that good, it was important to get down as fast as possible.

Since the sun was now up, I started sweating profusely in my 21 layers of clothing. The problem was that I couldn't really take much off, because apart from wearing it there was no easy way of carrying it all down.

Once we were half way down, Jeromy was feeling a lot better and could walk on his own again. Strangely, I threw up again at pretty much exactly the same place as I did coming up. Must be something about the altitude of 5300m that my body doesn't like. At that point, I decided that I'd had enough of the mountain and just wanted to get back to Kibo Hut as soon as possible, so I all but ran down the last section. Mainly I just wanted to remove some layers of clothing. When I finally reached Kibo, even my third layer of pants was soaked with sweat.

After a short break at Kibo hut, we started our descent back to Horombo. Looking back towards the mountain, it only now became apparant how steep the slope was that we had ascended in the dark. In the following photo, the light gray line on the right hand side is the path we followed to reach Gillman's point (may need to view the large version of the photo). We then walked along the top to reach the snow covered peak on the left:

We climbed that?

Upon reaching Horombo, it was time for a well deserved sleep.

Day 6

Feeling rather refreshed after one of the best night's sleep I've had in ages, today we descended all the way down from Horombo to the park entrance gate. On the way down, it was now our turn to smile at those people coming up and wish them good luck, with the knowledge of what they are in for.


The morals of the story:

  • Slow and steady wins the race, or "pole pole" as they say in Swahili.

  • To borrow a phrase from U2, "sometimes you can't make it on your own", but with a good team behind you anything is possible. We certainly wouldn't have made it anywhere near the top without the help of our guides and porters, who did a fantastic job of keeping us motivated and lightening our load (I hate to admit it, but they even carried my day-pack for the last section on summit day).

  • Throwing up may not always be a bad thing - it may just give you that second wind of energy you need to reach the summit.

The Kilimanjaro Expedition Team

What's next on my crazy list of adventures? Who knows. But I think I need a bit of a break first.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Close Knit

The Livingstone to Nairobi group. Kande Beach, Lake Malawi on the night of the cocktail party

The Cape Town to Livingstone group

Nairobi marked the end of an 8 week journey from Cape Town in which I spent almost every minute of my life with the other members in the tour group: having meals together, travelling on the truck together, cooking together, visiting sights together, rafting the Zambezi together, partying together and even throwing up together. As you could expect, we became quite a close knit family, so it was sad when we finally had to say goodbye. Thanks to everyone who made it such an enjoyable trip. Come and visit if you ever find yourself in Sydney.

Close Encounters

In my last few weeks in Africa we got closer than ever to some of the wildlife. In South Luangwa national park in Zambia we were driven around in a small jeep, so we could get a lot closer to the animals than we could in Etosha where we were forced to stick to the main roads in our truck. Our guide in South Luangwa also knew the national park like the back of his hand, so was able to drive us to places where we were more likely to find animals. It was actually on a night safari that we spotted our first leopard for the trip, enabling us to tick off the last of the "Big 5" animals. The leopard was hunting a herd of springbok, and stalked across the road right in front of our jeep:


Our close encounters weren't just confined to the national park. At our campsite the next day, we returned to find a full grown elephant trimming the branches from some trees only about 20 metres from where our tents were setup:

An elephant invades the campsite

And elephants weren't the only animals to invade our campsite. Jake and Sarah were woken up at 1am to the sound of a hippo grazing right outside their tent (and I mean right outside - in the morning they discovered one of its footprints on their tent!). Then of course there were the monkeys, who would steal anything from the campsite that wasn't locked away:

Monkey food

After South Luangwa, the next major national park we visited was Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania. The main thing we were hoping to see were some lions, which until then we hadn't really seen up close. We weren't disappointed. First up, we saw a lion and lioness lazing in the sun:

Lion and lioness

Then, just before lunch, we stumbled upon a pride of 7 lionesses. They walked right past our jeep, and we realized that they were headed towards a herd of zebra, so we drove off and positioned ourselves right in the middle. A couple of lions held back and hid in cover just behind our jeep, while some others flanked the zebras from both sides. Eventually, the zebras cottoned on to what was happening, and starting running frantickly in all directions. A couple of zebras ran within about 10 metres of one of the lions that was hiding behind our jeep. The lion jumped up and gave chase, but the zebras were a bit too fast and made a lucky escape.


Zebra on the run

If our encounters with animals in South Luangwa and Ngorongoro weren't close enough, we managed to get even closer still in Nairobi when we visited the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and the Giraffe sanctuary:

Baby elephant


Feeding the giraffes

It was a great way to end our 8 week animal odyssey. Overall, I can pretty much say that I've seen everything I was hoping for in terms of animals in Africa, so I'll be leaving quite satisfied.

Mountains and Beaches

After several weeks on the road, it was nice to arrive at Lake Malawi and have nothing much to do except laze around on the beach for a few days:

Relaxing on the beach

In between sessions on the beach, we also got in a few hours at the bar and numerous games of foozball (table football) and pool. Helen and Matt managed to give Blair and I a caning in foozball, even playing with their hands behind their backs:

Foozball at Kande Beach, Lake Malawi

Soon enough, however, we were back on the road and headed towards Nyika Plateau nestled high in the mountains. The road up to the top of the plateau wasn't all that flash, so we didn't arrive until after dark. Our campsite was in a clearing at the edge of a forest, and we were the only ones there so it was a little spooky. Once we had our campfire going, however, it wasn't so bad, and the showers turned out to be the best ones we'd had in the whole of Africa (it is amazing what the regenerative powers are of a nice hot shower). The next morning we went for a walk on the plateau. We were the only people around for miles, so there was a great feeling of openness and freedom:

Nyika Plateau

Back at the campsite, Helen taught us how to cook bread on a stick over the campfire. Basically, you just prepare some dough, wrap it around a stick, and cook over the fire for 5 minutes. Then drizzle with honey and eat. Delicious!

Bread on a stick

The next morning we had a very long drive day ahead of us. Because we had spent an extra day at Kande Beach, we had extra ground to make up so we were up at 4.30am and on the road at 5am. The road heading down from the plateau was one of the bumpiest and dustiest roads of the whole trip. Whenever the truck slowed down to go over a bump (which was a lot), all the dust from behind just poured into the back of the truck. By the time we reached the bottom of the mountain, our faces were so orange with dust that we looked like Oompaloompas from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory:


We crossed the border from Malawi to Tanzania sometime after lunch, but still had a long way to go. At around 9.30pm (after almost 17 hours on the road), Blair finally called it quits, and we camped in the middle of a pine forest (another somewhat spooky campsite). The next day we still had another 9 hours or so on the road before we finally reached Dar es Salaam, with Zanzibar and the promise of some time to chill out only a short 3 hour ferry ride away the following day. Our first day in Zanzibar was spent in the historic Stone Town, which is made up of lots of old stone buildings and narrow alleyways, reminding me a little of some Italian towns that I've visited:

Old building

In the afternoon I went for a wander and managed to get a little lost, but eventually found my way to the "African House" bar where we all met up to enjoy some cocktails while watching the sunset:

Cocktails at sunset

The next day we went on a spice tour and were shown where the contents of those little jars on your spice rack come from. Nutmeg, for instance, comes from this exotic looking nut:


We also learned that pepper is regarded as the "King of Spices" and cardamom (a spice which I previously had never heard of, but will most definitely have to start using in my cooking) is known as the "Queen of Spices".

With our educational sightseeing out of the way, we were ready to spend some time relaxing on Zanzibar's beautiful beaches. We headed to the town of Nungwe on the north of the island where I decided to try some snorkelling. At first I didn't really like it, but after I got used to being able to breath with my head underwater it was pretty good. We travelled out to the reef on a traditional dhow sailing boat, which was an interesting experience in itself. On the way back I noticed several dhows parked up on the beach, and it reminded me of a certain famous building in Sydney:

Sydney nostalgia

The following day our short visit to Zanzibar was over and we caught the ferry back to the mainland, bound once again for the mountains. This time it was the Usambara Mountains. Our campsite was at a place called Irente View Point, and we arrived just in time to watch the sunset:

Irente View Point at Sunset

The next mountain I'll be visiting will be Kilimanjaro. Given that I've done very little exercise over the past few months, I hope I'll be fit enough to make it to the top!