Despite the Covid-19 lockdown, I refuse to stop travelling!

Despite coronavirus in cities and countries being locked down, I refuse to be locked in – just as all my ancestors did in the mid-1800s – fleeing Scottish clearances, Cornish tin mine closures and the Irish potato famine.

And despite my trip to China – a river cruise on the Yangtze River  -being cancelled, and the fabulous Rainforest World Music Festival  -in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, being postponed until further notice, I refuse to be locked in despite the virus and, despite being compromised by age, nothing will stop me, travelling.  I remember a song from my parent’s era “don’t fence me in.”

Coffee in XIam, China

Travel writers have an affliction which, means they, I, we, are doomed to travel and as I said despite COVID-19 and the lockdowns all around the world  I am going to keep on travelling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yesterday I was in Oman, today I’m in Dubai with my parasol and a few days ago I was back in my home city Christchurch,

Solitude, Wellington, NZ
Peacock Fountain, Christchurch Botanic Gardens

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve also been down on the Wellington waterfront I’ve seen some birds that I saw in India yet again and I’ve even been upright on a paddleboard in Fiji.

So, take that coronavirus you’re not going to stop me – my memories are too well embedded for me to be isolated in my lockdown bubble, I can, and will travel the world with my wonderful memories.

What a privilege, it’s been to have travelled so extensively and I’m grateful for the example my parents set of not wasting money, saving, and living frugally as required.  they also left me a small inheritance which, after a lot of earlier travel, enabled me to do even more.

I recall being on a plane -in 1995 – petrified that at age 50 I still wasn’t old enough to travel the world by myself (with no bookings).

If I run out of memories, I could be jogged by just some of my clippings or books.

So where are you travelling to while in lockdown? I’ve been to Alaska in bwZimbabwe I’ve been to London, Wales, and Borneo. I’ve been to the USA, Mongolia, Zimbabwe and had a river cruise in Europe – to name but a few.

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Phare Circus: Siem Reap, Cambodia – a must visit

A circus in Siem Reap?  Absolutely! And, it’s become one of the city’s biggest attractions – and has a positive social impact.

Siem Reap, Cambodia, of course, has the incredible Angkor Wat temple complex and the awful, infamous Pub Street but it also has many charity and community projects like Phare Circus which aid this still-troubled country. (see also my blog about the HeroRATS) Both initiatives benefiting great causes as do many of the places we visited, ate at or bought from during our week there.

Phare, the Cambodian Circus, is an offshoot project of Phare Ponleu Selpak – a Cambodian non-profit, non-governmental association founded in 1994 by eight young Cambodian ex-refugee artists in the area of Anchanh Village, Ochar Commune, Battambang Province – a few years ago I spent a week in Battambang, (on the other side of Tonle Sap) right opposite the market and loved it.

The Phare Ponleu ‘helps vulnerable children, young adults and their families, build careers of Cambodian Artists, to revive Cambodian art scenes, to make worldwide arts connections with Cambodia and to contribute to the artistic, educational and social programs of PPS Association.’

When I, and a friend, attended the circus, it meant we were doing more than paying to be entertained: our money benefited the growing arts scene in Cambodia, that is, helping talented young people get the opportunity, income, or training access in which to develop, and showcase, their skills.

The Phare Circus is an incredible hour of traditional and modern theatre, music, dance, acrobatics, athleticism, juggling and contortion all beautifully choreographed and performed in stories about Cambodian lives and society. We loved it and talking to the young people after the show reinforced the value of attending.

Shows, each of a different theme or ‘tale ’change about every eight days. It seems tales, and sayings, are a big part of the local culture and the circus is an extension and visual representation of this with the moral of the shows often being about facing your fears in order to overcome them. The performance we saw was about being different, and bullying – combining laughter, happiness, music, and entertainment in a superbly presented show.

I recommend getting advance reservations during high season. (November through April) as performances sell-out most nights during this period.

It’s more than ‘just’ a circus, and the performers use – with energy, emotion, enthusiasm, and talent – theatre, music, dance and modern circus arts to tell uniquely Cambodian stories – historical, folk and modern. What’s even better – no animals!

All the Phare artists are students and graduates from Phare Ponleu Selpak’s – an association which was formed in 1994 by young men coming home from a refugee camp after the Khmer Rouge regime.

“They were greatly helped during that time by an art teacher using drawing classes as therapy and wanted to share this new skill among the poor, socially deprived and troubled youngsters in Battambang. They founded an art school and public school followed to offer free education. A music school and theatre school were next and finally, for the kids who wanted more, the circus school. Today more than 1,200 pupils attend the public school daily and 500 attend the alternative schools. Phare Ponleu Selpak also has extensive outreach programs, trying to help with the problems highlighted in their own tales.”

Phare The Cambodian Circus offers these students and graduates somewhere to hone their skills and a place to earn a decent wage, money that takes them out of poverty and provides self-respect and freedom. Many of the performers have gone on to be employed by the likes of Cirque du Soleil and Phare Circus also travels the world so you may see them in your backyard!

Phare, The Cambodian Circus is one of Cambodia’s most innovative social enterprise models. Profits generated through ticket, refreshment, merchandise and private performance sales support the free education, professional arts training and social support programs of Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang. It is one of the business units of Phare Performing Social Enterprise, along with Phare Creative Studio. Other business units will come soon. The circus survives through sales of tickets, merchandise, refreshments and private events. Ideally, the business will do better than just pay bills, but also make a profit from these activities. The majority shareholder is Phare Ponleu Selpak NGO School. Therefore, the majority of the profits go to support the school’s free education and social support programs to 1200 students daily.

Circus Phare The Cambodian Circus a responsible, social business in many other ways too. While always keeping an eye on making a profit to send to the school, other efforts are made to benefit society when possible. We both bought some items in the Phare Boutique shop as it supports local artisans and craftspeople. (higher quality souvenirs or gifts than you will find in the big markets – where many items are imported ☹) Royalties for each show performed -that was created at the school –  are paid to the school before profit is calculated. The business invests a great deal in the personal and professional development and the welfare of the artists and staff and participates in many community activities, sharing art with Cambodian people who otherwise might not be able to experience it.

The school survives mainly on donations and earns some revenue through sales of show tickets, merchandise and refreshments, but it depends mainly on donations. Maybe you can help – each little bit helps – and, if I get back to Cambodia, I plan on visiting the school.

 

Chungking Mansions – great accommodation or den of inequity in Hong Kong?

When travelling, it’s always great when plans come to fruition.  At our arranged meeting point I meet my friend whose LAX flight arrived 20 minutes before my New Zealand one.  After a coffee, we find the bus into town, and get off at the correct spot – our 5 weeks of SE Asian travels are beginning well.  And, we’re off to stay in a mansion!

Chungking Mansions to be precise – and despite the name, these mansions were the cheapest accommodation we could find in the centre of Hong Kong.  Fantastic we thought.

As we approach the doorway, dragging our wheeled suitcases, half a dozen men offered us their cards – touts for suits, dresses and jackets that we could have made. Silk, linen, cotton, a sari perhaps?  All we wanted was to check-in and start exploring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This huge block is actually a collection of 5 buildings each named A, B, C, D or E -and each block has 2 lifts – one stopping at all the even numbers, the other at all the odds.  Despite the rabbit warren confusion, we found the appropriate check-in place. What we hadn’t realised there are hundreds of tiny guesthouses, and once checked-in we were taken to our accommodation – in a different block.

My room is across the hallway from my friends one: it’s tiny, spotlessly clean,  has air-con, a bottle of water and is windowless. It’s also shoebox-size, with an even tinier bathroom.  I have no problem with that, I only want this room to sleep in as I know I’ll be out exploring – this is my first time in Hong Kong!

We stayed here for 3 or 4 days, and then after our travels, I stayed another couple of days before returning to New Zealand.

This is not only full of guesthouses but also restaurants, shops and moneychangers.  As someone said you could have a holiday in Hong Kong and never leave the mansions.  No matter what you want it will be here: fruit, biscuits, bread, curries, pizza, computers, or kebabs; new luggage, new phone, Sim card, umbrellas or batteries, they’re all here -and of course suits, dresses, jackets, or a  sari.  In fact, anything you want.  We had our delicious, early morning, Indian breakfast, on the ground floor, every day.

This United Nations of people seem to come from, largely, Southeast Asia and Africa, and in conversation with a young Hong Kong woman on the ferry, she was astonished at our bravery. ‘I’ve never been allowed there’ she said. ‘My parents would never let me go anywhere near there.  Is it safe?  It’s full of drug dealers I think.’

There is no doubt about it, for years it’s had a notorious reputation, and at any one time, among the 4 or 5000 people who live, and or work, there.  I’m sure there are drug dealers, illegal immigrants, and sex workers.

Over the years it’s cleaned up its act, and despite still being a fire hazard, I never saw anything that concerned me.  However, over the past few years, there have been assaults and even murder (s?)

Originally built as middle class, one-family flats or apartments, many families, seeing an opportunity to make money, bought other flats and converted them into guesthouses to serve American soldiers on R&R from Vietnam -it was then that the sex workers started hanging around the entrance.

Would I stay there again?  Of course!  Would most my friends stay here?  Of course not!

our first day in Hong Kong we experience and march

shops and restaurants are beginning to open .. about 630 am. some are open all night

messages of support to the marchers – in the underground

 

 

 

The year of the rat? Meet the HeroRAT

 

‘Rats?  I’m in Cambodia for the first time and you want me to go see rats?’  Reluctantly, dubiously, my friend gets into the tuk-tuk – we’re off to see the HeroRATS I’d recently heard about.

When last in Siam Reap, in the countryside, I placed my foot exactly where the person in front of me had put their foot.  Landmines, laid during the ousting of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and throughout the 80s and 90s, have had, and continue to have, a devastating impact on the people of Cambodia. I didn’t want to be yet another victim. Sadly, over 64,000 casualties and more than 25,000 amputees have been recorded since 1979.  It’s been a long, slow and difficult task finding these unexploded devices – which can last 50 years.

Numerous ways have been tried to find and disarm them and these new heroes seem to be the best in many ways, so, in April 2015 15 giant mine-sniffing rats flew into Cambodia, one of the most mine polluted countries in the world.

Not all heroes wear capes and these Gambian pouched rats, also known as Giant African rats, are now used to help the local demining efforts. They’ve been renamed ‘HeroRATS’.

Before being introduced to these heroes, my reluctant friend and I read most of the well-written signs explaining what we were about to see: by now she was getting enthused and interested to see a skills demonstration by these rats and their handlers.

After arriving from Tanzania, they then spent the rest of the year acclimatising and continuing their training.  Cambodians, SokHeng Hul and Thoeun Theap, had spent 6 months at the APOPO training centre near the mountains of Morogoro, Tanzania, learning the science, technology, and of course the practical operation of allowing the rats to detect unexploded ordinances.

The HeroRAT training continued until November 2015, when it was decided the team was ready for the first stage of the accreditation process. They took a Performance Test. This test is designed to show evaluators that they and the handlers were capable of detecting all mines that had been placed in the examination area. Over a one-week period, all the rats were tested and produced a 100% pass rate so were deployed in helping the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) deminers in their mine detection work and have since found roughly 500 anti-personnel mines and more than 350 unexploded bombs.

This success rate has no doubt saved many lives and limbs and for many families, enabled them to farm their land without fear and increase productivity.

Further information /sidebar

  • APOPO is a global non-profit organization with roots in Belgium that has developed an innovative method using African giant pouched rats, to detect landmines and tuberculosis using their extraordinary sense of smell. They detect only TNT and ignore scrap metal.
  • One HeroRAT can search an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes – this would take a manual deminer with a metal detector up to four days (depending on the levels of scrap metal present).
  • The HeroRATs are too light to set off the landmines and not a single rat has ever died in a minefield.
  • The expert rat handlers are trained in basic nursing care and rat first aid. Routine care includes daily observations of individual animals, weekly health inspections and regular prevention treatments for common parasites. Every week a university vet inspects the rats. When necessary, sick or injured rats are interned at the APOPO sickbay.
  • Their diet consists of high-quality pet pellets, fresh peanuts, plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, sun-dried sardines and clean water that is regularly infused with extra vitamins and minerals to boost the rats’ immune systems
  • On retirement, typically between 7 and 8 years of age, the rats work as long as they are performing well, are happy, and pass their weekly health checks. If a rat decides to stop work, or if its performance has declined, or it is suffering from age-related health problems, it is retired to its home cage. It then continues to receive its usual healthy diet, is regularly taken out to play and exercise, and continues to receive its weekly health checks until it eventually passes away. If a rat is clearly suffering in its old age or from an untreatable disease, it is humanely euthanised.

Want to adopt a rat? Save a limb or a life?

SEE MORE www.apopo.org  https://support.apopo.org/en/adopt 

 

I dont like everywhere I visit – but it seems I’m out of step here

Boats pushing a shoving to get the best spot, despite it being a world heritage spot this trip was too crowded for me – most others loved it.

the karst rocks are amazing

we are taken into a cave

it looks like a dragon

kids love doing this all over the world

Big travel lies – and the the truth: I have an Ayurveda massage :)

I could tell you a great big lie about why I have massages when I’m travelling.  I could say it’s for research, or I could say it so I can write a blog, but neither of them would be true.

Sure, I may write an article or blog about a massage – and I confess I have one everywhere I go – but nearly always the main reason is pure pleasure and relaxation.  Of course, sometimes I  have tight muscles or a sore back and massages are my go-to treatment for them too.

About 18 months ago, while staying at the Kannur Beach House in Kerala, I gave myself an early Christmas present – the day before Christmas – and had an Ayurvedic massage, here in what must be the Ayurvedic capital of the world (Kerala) – the first time I’ve had one.

So, what is Ayurveda?  Firstly, the word is evidently Sanskrit and translates as the knowledge of life or life science. It’s a holistic way of living that combines meditation, yoga, diet, herbal remedies and massage.  Its beliefs include: everything in the universe is made up of elements, including ear fire and water.  It is the balance of these bodily energies, which governs our physical and emotional health.  According to a book I read at the beach house.  These were written in the ancient Hindu scriptures, The Vedas, which describes health as balance and illness, as an imbalance.  Imbalance can be set right through eating foods based on body type, proper digestions, physical exercise and yoga or meditation.

Enough of my research, what about the massage?

I arrived by Auto (a 3-wheeled, Tuk-tuk type vehicle) and was first interviewed about my health history.

She started with a head massage, which was lovely, and finished with my face being massaged at the end. It felt luxurious having very warm oil poured over me.  No oil on her hands but poured directly onto my body in copious amounts.

The massage included long dramatic, two-handed swirls and strokes from my foot to my fingertips.  Smooth figure-eight movements travelled all over the front of my body and included long sweeps over my arms and torso.  This certainly was a different sort of massage and not at all like a Thai massage or Swedish.

With great care,

I climbed off the oil-covered massage table – fearing I would slip right off. I thought that was the end of it, but no, I was then put in a steam box and wish I had a photo of the box with my head poking out.  I found it very claustrophobic and quite scary and asked to be let out after about 5 minutes, which she did gracefully.  A shower followed – with shampoo and body wash provided.

So, I’m not sure if the herb-infused oil used in the massage purified me, detoxed, cleansed or removed any toxins, but I can say it was a great massage and next time I’m back in Kerala I will return for another!

However, like all massage therapists each one differs: that first one was magic, it felt authentic, but then I had another one further south, which seemed more tourist orientated, and more like a regular massage> I’m pleased I was able to ask a local where to go, who they could recommend,  when I was at the Kunnar Beach House 😊

 

Taiwan’s “Lantern village” has a train running through it

An unexpected road trip, with 2 local Taiwanese women,  ended at a lantern village that, surprisingly, had rail tracks running through the middle of the settlement.

Playing chicken for a photo

Here, daily, and at night time, people write wishes on paper lanterns, before releasing them into the sky in the hopes ancestors will answer their prayers.

It seems this ritual started during the Three Kingdoms period and were first to send military signals and, lighting these lanterns grew widespread during the mid-19th century when bandits often attacked these towns. So now, although once used as signals for villagers to let their families know they were safe, they now carry people’s wishes, dreams and hopes, skyward.

An annual lantern festival also takes place on the last day of the Lunar New Year but you can set off the lanterns any time of year.

There are many lantern colours and it seems the different hues have different meanings -from hoping for greater wealth and fame and fortune through to marital happiness and everything in between. Although I didn’t see them, there are also animal-shaped lanterns such as cats, monkeys and pandas.

“You can’t just let the lantern go, there’s a ritual to it and a meaning” I’m told. It seems you can even buy digital, electronic, lanterns for virtual prayers! (an environmentally-friendly version :))

For safety reasons, a shop worker lights the lanterns and controls the release – another safety measure is they now use soybean oil instead of kerosene.

To prevent the mountainside from being littered with lanterns, they have a recycling programme and residents can exchange used lanterns at shops for items like toilet paper or detergent.

WHOOPS

On rainy days, visitors can write their prayer on a piece of bamboo, which is hung along a fence in the village.

rainy day prayers

This was my first visit to Taiwan was fantastic and more stories will be written about it soon!

 

 

 

 

How to pack for business and leisure – my Asian adventures

 

Packing for both business and pleasure is often seen as difficult – I solve the problem by using different packing cells for the 2 different parts. One for business, one for leisure.

One or 2 items may belong both bags, in this instance, it’s a white T-shirt that, once the 5-day business meeting is over, it will be moved into my leisure cell for the month-long exploration in SE Asia at cheap and cheerful destinations and accommodations.

My travel is in Southeast Asia, so will have the extreme heat of July and August, and I suspect, the over-cold meeting rooms in the hotel. This just seems to be what they do in Asia – overcompensating for the heat.

I’m taking 2 pieces of luggage, my trusty red suitcase in the hold, and a daypack no. The suitcase will be left behind in Hong Kong with all my business stuff in it, while the backpack will be my luggage for Taiwan, Cambodia, and Vietnam. My red suitcase will be about 10kg max. (22 lb) while my backpack will be under the regulation 7kg. (15lb). What

carry-on luggage

It’s always a treat to just have carry-on luggage when travelling – no waiting at the luggage carousel for my red case to appear. I will also use my backpack as my carry-on luggage when I leave New Zealand for Hong Kong. It will contain vital business papers, my camera and tablet, as well as medication, Kobo e-reader and phone.

So what are in those cells? Two trouser suits – a white one with 2 tops to wear with it, and a yellow one with the white T-shirt. So over the 5 days of work, I have 3 different outfits, so one will be repeated, and if I decide to, I could wear my black travel trousers with one of the tops. One pair of black shoes will accompany them all :-).

business clothes cell

All these will remain in HK storage when I leave for Vietnam, Cambodia then onto Taiwan, before returning to Hong Kong for a couple of days and pick up my red suitcase, and go home to New Zealand’s late winter weather – and where my daughter will meet me at the airport with a warm coat 🙂

My red leisure cell contains a long sundress, a loose pair of trousers, 3 tops and my trusty Teva’s while the blue one has underwear, swimming costume, and nightwear. So that’s how I pack for a combined trip that is both official and laid-back – very different needs clothes-wise

I hope this helps you keep your clothes to the minimum -after all, we don’t have to dress to impress when we’re on holiday, you will, mostly, see a person only once, so even if you are in the same clothes daily, most of them would not even notice. We, humans, are pretty self-centred and concentrate on ourselves.

 

I’m given a very small umbrella for sun protection

ready for the airport

When a heatwave strikes, this tip will help

An umbrella lowers my temperature as I struggled up a hill in Cambodia.  People struggling with the heatwaves in Europe right now would benefit from an umbrella too.

Cuba Street Wellington, NZ -framing my apartment block at the end of the street

Here is an excerpt from my book, Naked in Budapest travels with a passionate nomad, which explains how I learnt to always carry an umbrella in hot places.

See, others carry them too … being out of the sun lowers my temperature by about ten degrees it feels

‘You go ahead. I can’t walk up here. It’s too steep, too hot.’

‘Yes you can. We’re nearly there. You will love the waterfall.’

‘We have waterfalls in New Zealand; I’ll give this one a miss.’

‘Come on. You can get up here. Just around the next corner is the last steep bit – you can make it. Just take it a step at a time. We’re in no hurry,’ Rob tells me.

‘No, I’ll sit here in the shade and wait for you all to come back down. I won’t go away from the track.’

‘Here, I’ve got an umbrella, use that, it will reduce the heat for you.’

‘I don’t have the bloody energy to hold a damn umbrella.’

‘Well you walk and I’ll hold it,’ says Rob and step by slow step I get up the mountain, feeling like a cross between a missionary with her servant and a stupid, overweight, unfit, old fool.

I’m the first to fall into the cool water – my T-shirt, shorts and sandals are off in seconds and in my underwear, I’m wallowing like the buffalo. Later, back in the boat, we make a list of the 20 different creatures we’ve seen: leeches are not on the list. The others return to Sihanoukville leaving me in this small village to find a bed for the night.

Next day I’m the only foreigner in the taxi when I travel through the mountains towards Thailand. We get pushed through sticky orange clay and cross four rivers by ferry and at each one, I’m the centre of attention – few westerners have used this road that opened two months ago: no one in the taxi speaks English.

 

“Psst … ” I’m offered an illegal money deal. And drugs :)

I’m off to Cambodia soon to write some more travel stories …. wonder what I’ll be offered this time. Drugs? Illegal money exchange? Or?

Extract from Naked in Budapest: travels with a passionate nomad

Kings guards outside the Palace walls

‘Pssst! Want to change money? Opium? Marijuana?’ Women, standing on the steps of the 1901 building, mutter the offer from behind hands and I succumb to temptation.

‘How much?’ I ask and, with that sign of encouragement, I’m whisked into the hidden walkways of the market and negotiations start.

‘Eighteen.’ says the younger one and I laugh, aware that laughter is a good lubricant in Asia.

‘Twenty.’ I reply knowing it’s the rate she gave a young man just 10 minutes ago.

‘Nineteen,’ she tries again to which I give the same reply as before. Conceding, to what is a fair exchange rate she hands me a few rubber-band-held-bundles, each containing, I hope 10,000 kip. A quick flick through convinces me it’s all money and my first illegal transaction is complete.

It’s hard to believe that such huge bundles, casually dropped into my bag, are worth so little: all those zeros are still confusing me. I’m a kip millionaire yet the money is leaking out of my daypack. 3,500 kip to replace a small towel, 15,000 for a basic room, 14,000 for an Indian meal and for another 4,000 I can walk up a gigantic rock hill, Phousi, for a 360-degree view over Luang Prabang, (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) the Mekong River and surrounding mountains.

See more about this book and author here on Amazon