Heather Hapeta lives in Aotearoa-New Zealand: real travel, real adventures, real stories, real photos. Recent destinations Vietnam, Cambodia, Taiwan and Hong Kong – now NZ destinations due to COVID travel restrictions
What can I say, there is no doubt I am a lockdown failure. I’d originally planned to do heaps of things during this time of being alone in my apartment. Here are just a few:
improve my level of te Reo Maori (the Maori language)
visit art galleries and museums around the world
write numerous blogs
complete a bio of my life – only halfway through it
eat well – succeeded but just ate too much
catch up on my reading pile – sort of completed (but bought more for my e-reader)
However, what I did do was travel. Armchair travel via a few of my thousands and thousands of photos and I’ve set aside a few to show you.
So this is the first of my gratitude blogs. I still cannot believe that someone who had only left New Zealand a couple of times before I was 50 years old (a couple of weeks in Australia, and a month in the USA -mostly the Pacific Northwest.
Looking at my photos I’m amazed at the amazing life I’ve led. So in no particular order, and chosen for no particular reason, here are a few of my memories – memory lanes I’ve slipped down while I should have been exploring or studying all sorts of things.
King of Cambodia shakes hand with me
glad I’m a travel writer
I’m given some tea by a salt pan family. Gujarat
Rain Forest World Music Festival Sarawak, Malaysia
Opposite the infamous Toul Sleng prison, amid the dust, heat and noise of Phnom Penh, I found an oasis of green and peace. The Bodhi Tree Guesthouse and Café have welcomed people for meals since 1998 and for the past three years (written early 2000’s) have also had guest accommodation. The ten rooms are individually decorated with traditional Cambodian materials: all are extremely tasteful and most have an en-suite.
I know the food is great, not only because I tried it, but also because some 70% of their customers are locals who eat there.
The main idea of the Bodhi Tree, as well as being commercially viable, was to give a comfortable working space for young Cambodians who find themselves in challenging circumstances.
I talked with a young man who has worked there for two years.
‘I could find another job with more money but it would not be good like here’ he says ‘I like to stay here. Everyone is friendly and all are equal. I have learnt so much. Before I worked at my Auntie’s shop and could speak some English but I did not understand anyone talking about it. The accent was too hard – now I can talk to many people.’ He continues ‘I want to study management. My boss wants me to help others improve too. We only have people here who have a good attitude.’
Another young man tells me he has worked there for five months and that it was ‘ . . . a good place to work. I get two meals a day and it is a nice place to be. People are kind to me and I am learning many things. I stay in a house with some of the others who work here’ He also told me the restaurant was named after the tree in the story of how Buddhism started. (See sidebar)
The cook, who has cooked for three years, produces wonderful meals. She had been a cleaner at the Bodhi Tree before learning to cook and now her menu and skills could be used at any international restaurant she chose to work at. Along with the Asian and continental breakfasts from the kitchen, these became my favourites during my stay:
Slow roasted honey and cinnamon Asian pears – topped with fresh blue cheese and walnut – served with balsamic vinegar.
Red bean and steamed spinach salad with black pepper grilled bread with grated Parmesan and summer vinaigrette.
Spanish potato omelette served with tomato, olives, and mint salad and garlic bread.
After a week of travelling on the back of a truck in the remote north-east of the country, being served these, while sitting on cane furniture, leaning against silk cushions, under a Bougainvillea tree in an outdoor room, and with a Buddha gazing serenely on the scene, was heavenly.
Surrounded by the delightful artwork, birds of paradise, orchids, lotus buds, and other floral arrangements or plants it was hard to imagine the horrors that had occurred right across the road in the prison S 21. (See sidebar 2 below)
Note: I wrote this many years ago and have just refound it!
Sidebar 1. (As told to me by one of the young workers at Bodhi Tree )During the 16th century, in what we now call Nepal, Prince Siddhartha Gautama became curious about what life was like outside his comfortable court existence. When he saw people suffering it caused him great pain and he decided to alleviate their suffering.
Giving up his comfortable life, and his wife and child, he set out to study various religions for the answers.
After some time he adopted a life of self denial and fasting until, on the verge of death, he realised that this was not the way to end suffering: in fact he was perpetuating it.
During this time he was meditating under a Bodhi tree and this was where he received the revelations which led to his enlightenment. These were on three successive nights: on the first night he saw his former lives pass before him; on the second he came to understand the cycle of life death and rebirth, and on the third night the four holy truths of suffering.
Despite receiving enlightenment he chose to remain on earth and help others.
Toul Sleng (known in the Pol Pot years as S-21 or Security Office 21) is now The Museum of Genocidal Crimes. This was Angkor’s’ primary security institution: designed for the interrogation and extermination of anti Angkor elements. Originally a high school (Ponhea Yat) and built in 1962 it was enclosed with corrugated iron and electrified barbed wire during the Khmer rouge regime. Prisoners came from all over the country, all walks of life and included different nationalities including British, American Australian and new Zealand.
Over 12, 000 people were killed at S-21. While in the cells prisoners were shackled to iron bars and on arrival had been photographed and details of their life recorded.
The museum is not only a reminder of Cambodia’s very recent history, but also serves as a warning about how badly very ordinary human beings can treat each other.
Excerpt from Naked in Budapest: travels with a passionate nomad to mark the death of the Cambodian king – King Norodom Sihanouk
“The King and I
Leaving Seam Reap by bus I have to buy a ticket to Phnom Penh despite plans to only go halfway – just another inexplicable rule that travelling identifies.
The army is repairing patches of the road; rice is being planted and at a toilet-stop a young man has a T-shirt proclaiming Stop trafficking in women and children and a shop beside the bus stop has a poster that declares ‘Corruption breeds poverty.’
In the little non-tourist town of Kompong Thom I get off and find a room – it’s a relief to be away from the nagging stallholders of Seam Reap. I stay three days, visiting a drum making family and exploring the area: drums of many sizes play a big part in ceremonies and are used to summon energy from the four corners of the globe. I also explain to a stallholder, who is positive I’m rich, it’s impossible for me to take her 10-year-old daughter to New Zealand. While I’m walking along the river bank children keep calling me. ‘Hello-what’s-your-name’: when I answer them, they respond with the same one word phrase – they don’t know what it means – just something they hear foreigners say.
Continuing to Phnom Penh on a local mini-bus, none of my fellow-passengers speaks English. A young woman prepares her fix of a mouth-numbing, ear-warming narcotic. She spreads limestone ash on a betel leaf, puts the small fruit from the areca palm into the centre of the, now white, leaf and folds it into a little parcel which she pops into her mouth. As she chews she smiles at me: her rotten teeth and scarlet lips show this isn’t the first time she’s done this. Luckily she’s sitting by the window as blood-red gobs of saliva fly from her mouth onto the road in a regular stream. I wish I’d photographed her and the huge barbequed spiders I’m offered when we stop to drop off a couple of passengers.
My bed is in a low, wooden, building perched on the edge of a lake, hanging over the water and while I’m eating, fishermen are setting their nets and clumps of water-plants float by. As I photograph the setting sun, a group of young men beside me are planning a trip to an old army camp where they will use machine guns and hand grenades – the artillery menu sounds obscene.
Tomorrow I am heading towards Laos on the Mekong River but today I’m off to the Royal Palace and the much-acclaimed Silver Pagoda. It will be good to get out of this backpacker-ghetto where it seems everyone is smoking dope and travelling in pairs, groups or are living here – eking out a living teaching English with false qualifications bought on Khao San Road in Bangkok. It makes me angry to hear people who speak basic, heavily accented English, teaching it.
Phnom Penh has had its streets cleaned so everything’s at its best: even the sky is a clear bright blue and, controversially, beggars and other street people have been sent out of town: presenting a good face for last weeks ASEAN Conference. Now President Thabo Mbeki from South Africa and Kim Suk Soo the Prime Minister of Korea are visiting.
The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda overlook the river and are surrounded by a high, pale gold and white fence – from outside all I can see are the vividly coloured multi-tiered roofs that are finished with wonderful naga, (snakes) spires and tinkling bells.
The pagoda is about 40 years old, each silver floor tile weighs a kilogram and contrasting with all the silver, an emerald Buddha sits among the numerous gold Buddha of different sizes. When I leave I’ve spent most of my time relaxing in the peaceful grounds, writing postcards, content with my own company and I’m one of the last to leave.
Outside the walls, huge numbers of school children in navy and white uniforms have appeared – some are carrying small, paper, Cambodian flags, others have the Republic of South Africa flag so I sit on the grass, watch and wait. I photograph army and navy men as well as a man sweeping the long red carpet with a small reed switch. An hour later I move closer to the podium.
‘Can I stand here?’ I ask one of the AK-47-wielding policemen. He looks at me blankly. ‘C’est possible pour moi . . . ‘I run out of French, ‘. . . stand here?’ I point to the ground. ‘Oui madam, c’est possible. Non problem.’ I sit but five minutes later I am being hustled further away – it seems my prime spot is no longer possible.
A man with a huge bunch of helium-filled balloons hands them to groups of girls; another arrives with more flags and I’m given a Cambodian one so apparently I’m now an official member of the welcoming party. Tanks, troops and the air force are lining up along the back of the dais; the road and footpath have been sealed off.
We’re waiting patiently. Gunshots explode – we all gasp – but quickly realise it’s merely a bouquet of balloons colliding with a prickly bush and the girl culprits giggle from behind their hands. At last a long shiny car comes through the palace gates. It drives slowly around the grassy park-like area and pulls up near the stage. Two people emerge. I assume they’re the president, Mr Hun Sen and his wife: they mount the stage and he makes a speech – I have no idea what it’s about. Minutes later they walk down the stairs to inspect the guard of honour and I try to photograph them under the ceremonial, gold parasols that are being held above them. Continue reading “The King of Cambodia and me”