A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about life lessons

Cambodia

Chinese New Year in Cambodia and Vietnam...

sunny 34 °C

Our journey began in the typical tradition of us, barely getting to the airport on time.
The error this time however not being our oversleeping or going to the wrong airport in the same city, oh no. This error revealed itself in the form of me underestimating the Chinese ability to tell time.
I specifically requested a car to the airport at 11am to allow for adequate travel time and traffic, but when our driver finally arrived just shy of 11:30am, we had no choice but to ‘Home Alone’ run through the airport to our check-in desk!
However, due largely in part to my obsessive positive thinking to resolve all worldly issues, we arrive with 15 minutes to spare for check-in and 15 minutes early for what became a slightly delayed flight anyway!
Thank you, universe!

We arrived in Shanghai starving, but slightly warmer due to its southern placement within the vast land mass that is China!
With food dutifully scoffed and suitable seating acquired for a quick nap, we settled in for a while until our connecting flight to Phnom Penh departed.
It wasn’t until we went for a cigarette near our departure gate (27) that I glanced at the board listing all departures and noticed a flashing sign next to our flight…
Thinking our positive thinking had finally failed us, I read the flashing note:
“Gate changed to 214”
Lady Luck was still with us and we walked (quite a distance) to Gate 214 only to wait for 10 minutes before boarding our flight :)

The flight was nothing special; standard seat, standard food, standard safety instructions. However, the journey was made slightly more intriguing by the 10 deaf Chinese passengers that accompanied us in the occupation of the back of the plane.
The gentlemen sat next to me was so happy, he took a picture with me and Ricky and laughed in a way I can only describe childlike. It was beautiful!
I brought a magnetic travel game of 5 across (thanks to a Christmas present from one of my students!) and without realising, the group of Chinese people were our eager spectators!
It was fascination watching them communicate effortlessly with each other, in a blissfully silent world, all of their own.

The flight arrive 25 minutes later than it should have and with a lack of Bureau de Changes where we live, we didn’t have any US Dollars to pay for our Cambodian Visa! After faffing around losing a massive percentage through airport exchange rates, we got out visas, our US Dollars and our fingerprints scanned….Apparently, this was some form of Cambodian security against roaming foreigners!
Good job that we’re usually good people… most of the time!

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Now our hostel, Me Mates Villa, had agreed to pick us up from the airport (very kind of them, given that we were supposed to arrive at 11:15pm but didn’t actually leave the airport until 12:30am!) and they were still waiting for us with my name emblazoned on a piece of card!
Into the tuk tuk we Dre, our hostel helper, and away to the hostel we went.
They told us to go up to bed and check-in when we woke up as we were obviously tired!

We crept into our 8-bed dorm of 4 bunk beds, spacious and comfy with clean linens and a fresh towel. Not bad for $6 a night.
The bar was lovely with its 75₵ draft beer and incredible food, and the staff learnt our names instantly!

On the way to our hostel from the airport, Dre was telling us about all the tours we could do and what sights to see (not that my anal planning hadn’t already written down what to do in each of our destinations…!).
I was aware of course that planning trips through the hostel tuk-tuks would probably be more expensive than going it alone, but it is comforting to know our driver would be waiting for us wherever we went.
When we woke up the next day, we showered, had breakfast, organised our money and jumped in the tuk tuk with our driver for the day…

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S-21 Prison and the Killing Fields

Our first outing took us to the Killing Fields where Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge movement took thousands of brutally tortured and slaughtered prisoners from S-21 to be disposed of.
On the way, our driver stopped and bought us some medical face masks as the road to the Killing Fields was incredibly dusty and underdeveloped.

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Having lived in China for over 18 months now, Ricky and I have grown accustomed and desensitised to the sights of westernly-deemed, unsanitary food stalls, stray cats and dogs and children roaming the streets. These things would probably provoke a discussion between other western travellers, but to us, that just reminded us of home!

After about 20 minutes or so of driving, we turned down a pleasant enough road through trees and green fields until we pulled up to large, elaborate gates: The Killing Fields.
On first impression, the place was really quite stunning – beautiful greenery and flowers, large open spaces of nature in its purest form…

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Upon receiving our audio guides and headsets, it didn’t take long to realised the genocidal atrocities lurking beneath all of that natural beauty.
As we progressed around the numbered path of this hauntingly beautiful place, we were audibly assaulted by the terrifying ordeals these people suffered.
Large plaques stood in place of the buildings with detailed descriptions of those buildings purposes.

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As we moved around and continued to listen to this reasonably modern horror story, we were introduced to mass graves of nameless men, women and children.
Visitors had begun a tradition of leaving holiday bracelets and Riel (small Cambodian currency) as tribute to those lost souls.

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We listened to survivor stories of dying children, no food, constant gang-raping and beatings.
One man spoke of a female worker who was bludgeoned to death with a hatchet to the neck, finished off with a sewage plunger until she violently convulsed and died – all for supposedly stealing a banana that was actually given to her by one of the guards…
We saw glass containers of rags and clothes, teeth and bones, and countless mass graves of the victims of S-21 Prison.

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We saw the tree where babies were smashed against the trunk until they too died and were discarded in an open grave nearby. Another place of tribute from visitors to this harrowing sight.

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A beautiful tree, named the magic tree, told a tale of loud music playing over the grounds to muffle the sounds of people being tortured and killed.

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Finally we arrived at the sompiah – a tall monument that we saw when we entered the sight built as a memorial to all the lost souls, displaying their bones and skulls as a visual aid to the already destroying aural tales of this place.

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We finished the audio tour and returned the equipment in total silence. We left through the now less elaborate, and more confining gates and stepped back into normality.
We had a cigarette, found our driver, sat down and continued to say nothing.
Eventually Ricky turned to me and said, “I have no words to describe that”.
Nothing truer had ever been said.

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We continued to S-21 - the prison that these poor people were sent to to be destroyed mentally before going to the Killing Fields to be destroyed physically.
Once again, apart from the dated buildings, the natural beauty of the place outside was juxtaposed by the inherent lack of beauty inside.

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Wire beds, solitary in an otherwise empty cell, with only the odd shackles or torture paraphernalia to accompany them. Photographs of those victims hung solemnly on the wall.

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We moved through the grounds into each building only to be greeted by hanging gallows, tiny cells devoid of even a chair and walls and walls of photographs. Nameless masses of victims, their identities gone from their hopeless eyes. Only numbers adorned their chests which provoked flashes of number-engraved Jews and other victims of the Nazi regime springing to mind.

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As the modern world progressed just over the barb wire-topped walls, I couldn’t help but notice that life inside this place appeared frozen, with only birds and stray cats let patrolling the grounds.

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We went back to our hostel to get some lunch before continuing our day by going to the Royal Palace…

Posted by Lady Mantle 19:32 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia phnom_penh travelling tuk_tuk genocide pol_pot chinese_new_year killing_fields khmer_rouge life_lessons s-21_prison late_to_the_airport natural_beauty horrible_history Comments (1)

New Year in China

A Gregorian New Year and a soon-to-be Chinese New Year quickly approaches...

sunny 7 °C

I felt it was time to evaluate my life in China so far, what with the dawn of the Chinese New Year fast approaching and the Year of the Horse wielding unknown potential.

I'd like to share with you some things I have learned from living in this amazing country:

1. No matter what ailment is troubling you, be it a headache, menstrual cramps, a cold or the flu, a chesty cough or generally just feeling a bit under the weather, hot water will be your best friend and ally during these tenuous times!

You will be hard pressed to find a Chinese person, especially where I live, without a flask, mug, glass jar or some other nondescript container filled at least three quarters of the way with hot water.
Now don't get me wrong, I already understand the value of water; it's good for your skin and keeps your body hydrated, it provides much needed moisture to maintain strong brain power, it can even aid digestion. However, it is not just the miracle of water that the Chinese understand and appreciate, oh no! It is hot water, with its glorious cleansing steam gliding up into your sinuses, it is the warmth spreading through your chest into your stomach and down to your toes as this apparent heavenly hand guides its warming embrace throughout your entire body.
Whenever in the past year and a half, I have experienced any kind of medical annoyance, the first thing any of my students or Chinese friends have advocated is this, 'Drink hot water, keep your body warm', and although sage advice, it is not only this, but also an undeniable truth.
I drink hot water in restaurants, at home, whenever I feel a cold coming on, or am experiencing particularly uncomfortable cramps - out comes my very own flask which locks in the magical heat and within a day or two, I am back to feeling tip-top again.

2. You will never be as popular anywhere in world with people you've never met, than you will be in China.

Every single day, I walk to school, or I get a bus or a taxi into town; I meet my friends, I go shopping, I'll stop in somewhere and maybe have some hot water (with tea in it!) - I do a myriad of things throughout my weeks and months, often different things or trying different places, or trying to find the place I really like but that appears to have closed down...! One thing however remains constant:
Every single person you walk past will either want to, will know how to, or actually does say one or all of the following phrases to you...
'Hello' / 'Nice to meet you' / 'My English is very poor'

I have made more friends on the streets of this town, in the short space of time that I've lived here, than I have in my previous 20 odd years in the UK.
Everyone is so desperate to interact with a foreigner that they usually pluck up the courage and put their limited knowledge of the English language to use.

The best part is, that if these brave souls happen to be girls, usually of any age, or younger boys, when you reply to their 'Hello' with an equally matched response, they will giggle, run away and then point and talk about you with a group of their friends who never seem to be very far away.

It has gotten to the point now where I genuinely cannot remember if I've met, seen or even spoken to this person before me offering a cordial greeting as it happens so often, I've almost lost track.

3. People you have never met, or have perhaps met during one of the aforementioned bravery conversations, will have photographs of you on their cameras or their phones and they will have passed these photos on to at least 5 of their friends, or better yet, they will simply have posted these pictures on to one of Asia's many social outlets. QQ, WeChat, Weibo etc.

My first encounter with the stealth photographers happened when I arrived fresh-faced and excited in Beijing. The sights, the smells, the immense number of people, the strange language on every sign, the incredible feat to find and navigate the subway system (read some of my earlier blog entries for that thrilling debacle!)

It was however, on the subway, that my suspicion peaked... through the wonders of peripheral vision.... I saw them.
Slowly, almost unnoticeable to the human eye, people's mobile phones were creeping up over other passengers’ shoulders, heads, arms, each one pointing their judgemental camera's eye directly at me.
I waited for the sound, the give-away that a picture had indeed been snapped, but nothing.
Just as eerily as they had appeared, the phones slid back into pockets and bags, calculatedly waiting for their next prize photo opportunity.

4. At more than one interval throughout the day, you will eat an entire meal from a plastic bag:

It doesn't matter how much money you do or don't want to pay for your food, whenever you buy food outside or even from a little shop, you will be served your succulent meat or soup or rice or noodles, all together, in one bag (after all - it's going to end up like that in your stomach once you've masticated it!)

Once you've gained the skill of not eating a little piece of the bag with each bite, you get to really understand and enjoy the bohemian thrill of it all - no plates to clean, no cutlery to wash; you just put the disposable chopsticks you were given into the empty food bag, tie it off in a neat little bow and boom, straight into the bin it goes.

Restaurants, of course, have a little more western etiquette to them, you get to enjoy your food on plates with sturdier chopsticks and separate dishes for you to portion out your required amount of food. There is demonstrably the added benefit of once again, not having to do any washing up or tidying up of any kind; but to think you escaped the bags?
How foolish of you.
Once you've eaten your fill, the kindly waiter or waitress will appear with several empty bags, pick up your leftovers (from the serving dish, rather than your individual plates or bowls) and pour said contains into the plastic bags.
Taking home any uneaten food is very important here, again, at least where I live, as the government is trying to cut down food waste and if you don't want it now, you'll probably want it later so why not just pop it in a doggy bag and take it home with you?!

The same practise of using a bag over crockery also applies in Qingdao during their annual beer festival - instead of tables for you and your friends to sit around and discuss current affairs, there are hooks on the walls for you to hang your beer bags on.
(It saves space, allowing more beer bags to be purchased by more patrons)

5. If you have any colour hair, other than black or dark brown, you are suddenly the Messiah:

My Australian friend who lives here with his beautiful Chinese wife once told me that he had a friend (male), with shoulder length blonde hair, who took a trip on one of the marvellous trains we have all over the country, and decided to take a nap as it was going to be a long journey.
When he woke up, he saw before him several concerned and awe-stricken Chinese passengers staring at him.
Now given the previous points of foreigners being interesting commodities, it would appear to be understandable to have a group of unknown voyeurs to this man's train journey.
It was however the large chunk of hair he was missing that these travellers were more put out by....
During his nap, someone had decided that his golden locks should be shared amongst his earthly comrades and thusly cut off a large piece of his hair as a keepsake.

As a fellow blonde, my roots ache for that man's lost locks, but luckily (for me!) I have yet to encounter any serial hair collectors.
My hair dresser here does however tell me, more often than not, that my hair is too soft to do anything with.
I take that as a compliment!

6. If you have a boyfriend or girlfriend in China, not only will your parents be thrilled, but so will clothes manufacturers throughout the country:

The Western world is already aware of the massive influence Asian countries and their trends have had on popular culture; Hello Kitty, Sushi restaurants, glasses without lenses (Asian Hipsters!), coloured contact lenses, brightly mismatched clothing etc.
What the Western world has yet to cotton onto is the booming market of girlfriend/boyfriend shops.
Now don't get me wrong, we have 'His and Hers' towels and bathrobes, but we’ve got nothing on the Chinese niche for boyfriend/girlfriend matching outfits.
That's right folks.
Couples in Asia don't just want you to know they’re a couple, they want to show you through the medium of fashion.
Whole boutiques dedicated to sweatshirts and hoodies sporting the same colours and logos - bigger sizes for him; petite, perfectly figure-hugging sizes for her.
This phenomenon even extends to shoes, hats and trousers.
You and your partner can walk into one of these boyfriend/girlfriend shops and kit each other out in perfectly harmonised ensembles.

7. Poorly translated and often comical signs and menus:

When picking your food in restaurants or trying to figure out where you are in the major metropolis can be daunting, but fear not, because someone, somewhere, with a basic understanding of English has attempted to assist you in this ordeal.

Pictures, clear as day, show you a delectable dish of Chicken with potatoes and vegetables in a colourful blend of culinary excellence, and although the Chinese, if you're fortunate enough to understand it, tells you that that is indeed what this dish entails, the English version will probably put you off eating for the rest of your life.
I once saw a similar dish described as 'Flavoured Fungi and assorted entrails', even though the Chinese characters told me it was Chicken and vegetables....
The fun continues with warning signs or polite notices.
In a hotel I saw a sign in the corridor outside the elevator, with a picture of pursed lips and a single finger laying gently over them, telling me to 'put it mildly, and then put it mildly'.
Common sense would dictate that this probably means, 'Please be quiet when walking about the hotel so as not to disturb other guests', but alas, this elegance was somewhat lost in translation.
Another interesting warning came from what I presume was a 'Slippery when wet' or 'Uneven steps' sign in a tourist attraction of ancient art and temples, with a sign that simple read 'Don't fall down' accompanied by a picture of a foolish naysayer falling down some steps.
The list is of course, long and endless, but usually full to the brim with hilarious mistranslations and equally amusing illustrations for added effect.

8. If you're outside, feel free to spit wherever you like, even out of a car window, whilst on the move.

Now as a quintessentially British childhood moulded my sense of propriety and manners, spitting was never an appropriate past time, but in Asia, if it's in your mouth, you need to expel it as loudly and thoroughly as you can.

You are all probably aware of the guttural wrenching sound people make when they have a particularly stubborn phlegm build-up in the back of their throat or nose. Well this sound is only part of the cacophony of sounds one hears on a daily basis in China.
If it's not a taxi honking it's horn to see if you require a lift; small, barely audible speakers shouting at you to buy the freshly picked produce or children departing school en mass, then the pise de résistance, will be the spitting.
If Disney were to recreate Fantasia using the sounds of Asia rather than actual instruments, the sound of spitting would account for the percussions, strings and probably brass sections as well.

But have no fear readers, because cleaners are on hand 24/7 with their bamboo handled, mesh and feather street brushes to clear the congealed mess away…

9. If you can still breathe, then there is enough space in this taxi, subway car, bus or ticket office for more people:

If you've ever wondered why Asian people tend to lack basic manners in regards to space awareness and entry/exit protocols, look no further for your answers.
It all starts here, in Asia.
If you want to get on that subway train in the UK or the US and there doesn't seem to be a lot of room, you will probably have the basic instincts of self-preservation to wait 3 minutes for the next train.
If you want to get on that subway train in Asia, you get on the damn subway train, regardless of that child's face you've now squashed against a window or that small family of foreigners you've all but forced into a vacuum, slowly suffocating them to death.

Not only will you hardly ever see a queue or something to that effect, you won't see a patient Asian person either.
If you've got somewhere to be, you get there no matter the cost, damage or possible offence it may cause.
If you need a ticket but the mass conglomerate ahead of you doesn't have your best interests at heart, you force your way to the front, interrupt the employee who is already dealing with another customer and thrust your money into their hands, talking over the previous patron.
It reminds me of that scene in Titanic when everyone is trying to evacuate the sinking vessel and the lower level passengers are all pushed up against that padlocked gate, clambering on top of one another for just a glimpse at their possible freedom and escape.
Even without the threat of imminent death by frosty cold drowning, the assertion to survive and be the first to do so lives on in the heart of pretty much every Asian person alive.

10. Pyjamas are not just an inside outfit, but don't wear indoor shoes outside, obviously:

During the harsh winter months, I've learned that PJ's are not just a comfy, cosy, indoor outfit for you to nestle into on the sofa with your mug of hot chocolate, oh no.
Pyjamas are actually giant layers of padded warmth that you wear over your normal outside-clothes and when you combine these two fashion masterpieces together, you get a warm outside look with all the comfort and cosiness of your inside outfit.
The best part about wearing your pyjamas outside is that everyone else is doing it too so no one thinks you look utterly ridiculous and some of the designs and patterns could even be deemed fashionable.
The rooky mistake however, is mistaking indoor shoes for outdoor shoes.
It's completely acceptable for you to wear pyjamas outside, but if you wear flip flops in summer or the matching cosy booties that go so perfectly with your PJ's in the winter then you are opening yourself up to ridicule and the blatant question 'Why are you wearing slippers outside?'

Overly fluffy or felt-style boots are slippers.
Flip-Flops are slippers.
Shower-shoes are slippers.
Slippers are slippers.

And at no time is it appropriate to wear any of these items of footwear outside.
Even if you are wearing a Michelin-man inspired pyjama set.

Posted by Lady Mantle 20:34 Archived in China Tagged shopping china asia subways new_year spitting trends food_in_bags life_lessons rules_of_asia social_etiquette asian_hipsters lost_in_translation winter_wear year_of_the_horse Comments (3)

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