Sunday, August 18, 2013

Chiang Mai City Limits

I am not sparing with superlatives and have been frequently heard exclaiming about how someone is my favorite person or how 5 Roses is by far the best tea. That said, the day my friend and I spent riding motorbikes in Chiang Mai really was one of the happiest days I've had in a long time and has earned a spot in my admittedly long list of "bests."

Keen to get out into the countryside we hired motorbikes and set off, the plan being to visit Bo Sang Handicraft Centre and then go in search of waterfalls. My yellow 125cc felt like a step up from the 50cc I drive in Phnom Penh and the surge of power as I took off gave me a thrill every time. The city is much bigger than I'd thought and we wove among busy traffic along roads lined with shop fronts for about an hour before the buildings gave way to an expanse of tree dotted hills. 

"Bo Sang is known as the 'Umbrella Village'... And is famed for handmade parasols made from bamboo and rice paper. The village has made umbrellas for generations and the art has been handed down through a small number of families that live here and is said to have originated from a Thai Buddhist monk who learned the practice on a pilgrimage to Burma." (

Umbrellas of every size and colour were on display, some painted a single colour, some displaying intricate hand drawn patterns or pictures and some made from recycled paper inlaid with rose petals. Umbrella seems too clunky a term. They are more like parasols, delicate and beautiful. For taking a turn about the garden or displaying as a focal point.  

The artisans making the umbrellas were all in different stages of the process-some were splitting bamboo for the spokes, some were assembling the frame, some were dyeing the paper and others were painting birds, flowers or a vignette of rural life onto the umbrella.

After some cheesy photos, an ice cream(too much berry, not enough chocolate in case you were wondering) and finally deciding on purchases (white umbrella with black floral patterns) we set off in search of natural beauty.

Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden was an awesome find and I was giddy with excitement at the beauty of our natural surroundings. I hadn't known what to expect and was blown away by a mountain wonderland. It was another reminder to me that if you approach things with a grateful heart you will almost always be pleasantly surprised at what you find.

The mountain air was chilly, a welcome respite from the heat down in the town and as we drove home we looked out for a coffee shop to stop for some hot chocolate.  We came across a place called Proud Phu Fah, whose mugs proudly bear the logo "Smooch Angel" and I don't know what either of those means but it's awesome.  We sat on their verandah drinking hot chocolate, eating complimentary biscuits and reading our books and I couldn't have been happier.

Monday, August 12, 2013

In Which I Take Steps To Become A Better Writer

Hackneyed phrases, overused tropes, dull or confusing metaphors. These all come to mind immediately when I am writing, naturally near the top due to frequent use.  With the advent of social media the rate at which things go from new and fresh to cliched is faster than ever and it's a great challenge to bring originality to something that has been said many times before.

But where there's dross there must be gold right? Perhaps, with enough digging and clearing away it can be mined.

What trips me up in my pursuit of becoming the kind of writer who gets published is that I am acutely aware of the great gap between the current quality of my writing and the standard to which I aspire. Ira Glass perfectly captures my feelings on this:

And so begins my experiment in free writing.  
30 minutes of continuous writing every day, non stop and without censure.  My hope is that this exercise will unclog the stoppages in my mind and get my creative juices flowing, eventually leading to a point when my taste and what ability to produce will be closer together.  

The reason I am putting this on my blog is an attempt to keep myself accountable as well as use this space to write about things other than travel.

And away we go.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Within the Walled City {Chiang Mai}

Whereas Bangkok is huge, noisy, chaotic and modern, Chiang Mai is a small city with narrow streets and an old world charm (the center of town was once a walled city surrounded by a moat)!

We stayed in the walled city, in a dorm, at a place called 60 Blue House. The only other guest was a Korean girl who didn't say a word and wore compression socks and an over sized yellow shirt and slept in the room next door to us, so thankfully there was none of the unavoidable awkwardness of sharing a bedroom with a stranger. The owner had a lovely open face and a ready smile who further sealed my approval of her by bringing us home baked biscuits and taking a photo for her wall holding photos of everyone who's ever stayed there.
Breakfast for 10 baht (less than R10/$1) at a hole in the wall was great start to the first full day there, and we got the added bonus of eating in the owner's living room, next to her TV and an elderly woman.

If Bangkok is the city that never sleeps, Chiang Mai is the the city that sleeps in. On my first morning there I set off on an exploratory walk along still quiet streets and passed a Hello Kitty themed tuk-tuk, a Pirates Cove and a restaurant manned by Tintin and Snowy.

After breakfast we walked on; past waiting tuk-tuks and cyclos, shuttered windows depicting various scenes (I wrote this in my journal at the time but I don't know what I meant), street art, beautiful teak houses, an English looking red phone booth, Chinese signs and temples, a flower market selling things from dyed carnations to orchids and into a market overflowing with dried goods, a plethora of teas, clothes and cheap looking toys.

To be continued...

Monday, August 5, 2013

Music to Travel South East Asia by..

I'm a great fan of overland travel, for the views it provides of a country that are completely missed from a plane and also for other reasons that I can't think of right now.  That said, it can be exhausting and there were times during my recent trip through Thailand, Laos and Vietnam when I longed for the comfort of a 1 hour plane road as opposed to a 15 hour overnight bus ride.  A few key elements helped make these long trips sometimes enjoyable and always bearable:
~good company, beautiful scenery, books that were so good I didnt mind getting carsick while reading them, solitaire (game of champions) and lots of awesome music.

So, here is a sampling of the songs I played on repeat while curled into the foetal position in an attempt to stay warm under a blasting air con, or gazing out the window at undulating (isnt that a funny word?) rice terraces or averting my face from the creepy creeperson who stared unflinchingly..


Monday, July 15, 2013

Two Nights in Bangkok

I have a confession.

For the longest time, whenever someone spoke of Thailand I would say "oh that's nice" and other polite things but secretly I would think about how it was overrated and surely not as great as everyone made it out to be.

Turns out it really is all that and a slice of cake.

We left Phnom Penh late Saturday night, after a horrendous few days that involved packing up the house I've lived in since I moved to Cambodia, some teary goodbyes to colleagues, friends and children I taught, buying of last minute travel items and driving home in the pouring rain, wearing a torn raincoat and bearing a dud dinner.  

Boarding a sleeper bus we set off on the first leg of our journey, Phnom Penh to Bangkok.  The sleeper part was a bit of a misnomer as the speaker near our heads blared distorted Khmer songs alternated with  a Cambodian David Attenborough narrating a documentary on Angkor Wat until past midnight with the accompanying visuals on the grainy TV turned up to the brightest setting possible. And then the border. Surprisingly quick and painless with a short wait and then we were on a minibus to Bangkok.  The only drama came just before we left when a wild eyed young man started yelling about his friend not being able to fit in the bus as we were full.  A mumbled comment from another passenger. "I'm sure he's on drugs." He soon disembarked to wait for the next bus and we proceeded in peace.

I noticed an incredible sight as we drove. The roads were smooth and wide, perfectly paved and lined with street lights. The drivers followed the road rules.  The countryside was green and bright. Where was I? And then Bangkok! Bangkok is just pretty dang cool.  It's contradictory, a little wild with a sleazy and very large underbelly.  It's exciting and full of secrets and my brief stay of 2 nights was a brief glimpse into a city that would take years to uncover.

Here are some things I did:

Sat and watched throngs of people passing while waiting for a bus at the Thai border

 Walked along Khao San Road with a massive backpack perched at an odd angle on my back

Ate breakfast at our hotel which was chock a block with weird and wonderful retro furniture, knick knacks and decor

Rode the Skytrain multiple times to get the most out of the day pass

Admired the many wonders of Chatuchak Market, including this beautiful crockery

Rode down the river on a ferry before disembarking to do a walking tour of the palace and surrounds

Slept in a bedroom that contained this mural on one whole wall

Experienced a tastebude explosion in response to these banana and Nutella pancakes

Had to cover up because I was inappropriately dressed and then didn't get the memo to smile in a touristy fashion

Saw a plethora of stunning temples, a fantastic gallery of some of the Queen's immaculately preserved outfits and the Royal Palace

Another highlight which I couldn't find a photo for was our dinner in the Arab Quarter.  You walk down a street similar to any other in Bangkok and with a mere turn find yourself immersed in a different world.. shop signs are in Arabic, women are clothed in chadors, wisps of smoke from hookah pipes curl upward, the sizzle of grilled lamb kebabs is enhanced by the scents of lime, yoghurt and coriander.  It's incredible and the meal of grilled lamb, chicken and beef kebabs, feta salad and beer was a feast; and a fitting last dinner before the following day's journey to Chiang Mai.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

6 Things

As the halfway mark of 2013 approaches I am thinking about the year so far..a year that has been a whirlwind of activity.

A lot has happened this year. We've hosted over 30 people in our house, 20 in April alone, we  took part in an initiative called "Little Kitchen - Cooking for Change" organised, cooked for and hosted a South African themed dinner to raise funds for an NGO here, there's been lots of work demands from both jobs, I've applied for 6 visas and we've been planning our Summer holidays, I made some new friends, my dear friend Bear visited, good friends got married, other good friends left Cambodia, I lost some money, I had 2 moto accidents, people I love got sick, and an old friend died, I finished up 2 contracts at my respective jobs and now face an uncertain future, a wide open chasm of possibility that is simultaneously energising and stupefying.  

1. On Saturday this begins: 3 and a half weeks. 3 countries.  Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, places I've dreamt of visiting for years. 

2. I'm packing up and moving out of the house I've lived in since arriving in Cambodia. 2 nights left and despite the empty house forcing reality in my face, I am in full on denial.  It's a wonder I haven't invited friends over for dinner next week. "Paper plates? That's what we always eat on."

3. I have one day left with my class before the dreaded farewell.  The fierce love I have for these children makes me think being a parent must be the most heart ravaging and heart restoring thing in the world. I can't imagine feeling more protective and proud of a kid than I do currently.

4. I applied for a visa to visit Australia and they denied me.  After some tears of bitterness (I will probably never watch The Incredible Burt Wonderstone without being reminded of the death knell email), I mustered all my resolve and psyched myself up to take on the man a la Erin Brockovich.  Don't think about that analogy, it makes no sense. "The man" is an anonymous man/woman who looked at my admittedly weak application through the filter of a whole bunch of clauses and sub clauses and decided I was just the sort of person who would sneakily hide out in their country for years/apply for refugee status/generally drain the natural resources and goodwill of the land, and bring the country down.

5. I took my school's class photos this year and the owner of the school wants me to take photos of the clothing shops he has!  Is this how it feels to get  a gig/shoot/anything else creative and scary?

6.Mr Socheat, who deserves a post of his own

how to process
these ppl i love and will prob never see again?
thats the worst, the kids and some khmer ppl eg guard at home

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Stories from Kampot

So..... here are some photos from a cool weekend with one of my favourite people in the entire world.

The thing is, I very rarely book accommodation on weekend's away.  A cursory glance at my aptitudes will tell you that anything that looks, smells or in any other way vaguely resembles admin causes all manner of frightening symptoms to break out immediately.  The only relief is for me to run, wailing, in the opposite direction.  I have a great number of structured, organised friends who take care of these jobs while I contribute to a weekend away in other ways.. making sure there is a camera on hand, asking if breakfast in included in the accommodation price and over-packing, because who knows what I wil feel like wearing tomorrow?!

My dear friend Claire came to visit for a few weeks and in a fit of excitement I wrote down some ideas of places we could visit on weekends. After some discussion we settled on Kampot.  Some keywords popped into my head as I pondered where we should stay.  River... bungalow... live music... great people.  A river bungalow with live music and great people. Surely a win!  I quickly looked at the guesthouse in question's website and as it was 2 days before we were due to leave (see admin aversion above), hurriedly booked us a riverside bungalow.

After a grotto bus ride during which the grossest curtain imaginable gently brushed against my skin, and I periodically informed Claire, "Oh I definitely recognise this area, we're nearly there" (we were never nearly there) we arrived and squeezed, bags and all onto one moto.

Oh boy, this story is going nowhere slowly but bare with me, I'm nearly done.

As we descended the gangplank to our bungalow my heart soared while my stomach sank (don't over think it).  We had this view (see first picture) but I hadn't realised there was only a communal bathroom, which is pretty much the worst thing ever.  However, we had this view and could jump right out of room into the water, which is pretty cool.

Later on in the night we realised the live music was also very loud, late night music and our bed sat at a roughly 85 degree angle.  Also, in an attempt at conversation with a young British boy, I misheard him say friends as parents and proceeded to ask him where his parents were in a conciliatory tone.  He was mortified at such a thought and we came to the tacit agreement that it was altogether more pleasant to just listen to the music. Oh and one last thing... while jumping out your room into the water is fun,  if you're under 5'5 and/or have no upper body strength, make sure to have a tall friend around.  I hear that you may find it impossible to get out the water, leaving you with option A) bob down to the main deck and step, dripping, over the backpackers sprawled out or B) shriek and dissolve in unhelpful giggles while your tall friend tries to pull you out.

Those bikes, are really that tiny. Also, Claire's well earned drink of water was rudely interrupted by a dog marking it's territory.. although it's photo bombing gift is pretty impressive.

Kampot is the main pepper growing region in Cambodia.  Kampot pepper is one of the best peppers in the world and if the official website is to be believed "it develops an enthralling aroma, strong, delicate and aromatic."  So here it is, drying in the sun. Uh, this man appears to be checking on it.. Moving right along.

The pork ribs at Rusty Keyhole, a restaurant along the river, are legen(pause)dary. For a few dollars we got a massive plate of ribs, which the guys at the next table informed us we'd never finish.  Right, well now the challenge was on.  Their most stunning feature, besides the taste and tenderness is that there were hardly any bones, just chunks of delicious meat!  While we ate the manager's daughter came to sit with us and commandeered my camera while chatting happily about her dress and the photos she was taking.  Oh and we almost finished the ribs before conceding defeat.

We lay on the deck of our guesthouse and played that old favourite, "Cloud Pictures".  See the squirrel?

Kampot is a lovely little town and I'm so glad I got to experience it for the first time with such a good friend.  Besides eating meat and drinking beer, we enjoyed leisurely cycles, some really great live music, card games with friends we made at the guesthouse, a sampling of some of the other eateries in Kampot, a bit of reading and journalling, great conversations and lots of swimming. And we had views like this from our room:

Saturday, May 18, 2013

7 Super Shots

I am taking part in HostelBookers 7 Super Shots.  What you do is pick 7 of your favourite photos, according to the 7 categories below, and write a short description of each.  For the other boring details, click on the link and they'll tell you what it's about.

So here are my shots..

a photo that takes my breath away

This was taken along the Eastern Cape coast of South Africa, at a spot called Waterfall Bluff.  Waterfall Bluff is a waterfall that falls directly into the Indian Ocean, and is a breathtaking and vertigo inducing sight. This was an epic day.  We undertook a 20 km hike from Mbotyi to Grosvenor, sticking close to the rugged coastline where possible, while at times venturing slightly inland and hiking up and down significant hills, through wild flower filled fields and taking dips in smaller waterfalls encountered along the way.  Towards the end of our hike we came to a river mouth that could only be crossed by swimming and so, after two members of our party managed to secure a lilo from a nearby house, we loaded it with our backpacks and swam across.  As we got out on the other side my friend casually mentioned that she'd seen a photo of sharks swimming in the very spot we'd just crossed.  It was with nervous giggling that we watched the others make their way across and breathed a great sigh of relief when everyone emerged with limbs intact.

a photo that makes me smile

This photo brings to mind a happy day from a few years ago, that of the marriage of my cousin.  As we arrived for the ceremony we saw my gran and my youngest brother, always so full of warmth, gave her a hug.  I love his joyful expression and her gentle smile. I love that this tender moment was captured.  

a photo that makes me dream

One of my favourite things to do on our family farm is to go for long meandering walks. From season to season the landscape changes dramatically and the same piece of land holds both fond memories and new discoveries. Beautiful places clear my mind of clutter and make space for reminiscing, dreaming and connecting with God, causing hope to blossom and perspective to be restored.

a photo that makes me think

When the former king of Cambodia died this year, the country went into mourning for their beloved King Father, who secured the country's independence in 1953.  This photo was taken on the 6th night of mourning, as thousands of people came to the Royal Palace to pay their respects.  I felt the sense of living through an important moment in history and the outpouring of grief and love really moved me.  It made me think about the importance of honouring our leaders, and while King Sihanouk made some costly mistakes during his life, he was remembered and honoured for the significant good he did.

a photo that makes my mouth water

I was a late discoverer of Eggs Benedict, but it has become one of my favourite breakfasts (of which there are admittedly many).  Efforts to create it at home have failed dismally, from a questionable Hollandaise to a swirling mass of stringy egg white.  The toast was pretty top notch though.  And so, until the secret is discovered, it remains a treat when eating out, and perhaps it's better that way.  

a photo that tells a story

A few years ago my family embarked on the "Simpson Family Road Trip", an epic cross country trip from Kwa-Zulu Natal, through Grahamstown to pick me up and on to Cape Town, the only other time we'd visited as a family being sometime in the early 90's.  My memories from that first visit include wind, being enamoured with my aunt, views of the city lights that blew my farm girl mind, cable cars, Table Mountain, big red buses, feeding squirrels in the park and some man shouting at me from a passing car to stop hanging my arm out the window.  On a day trip to Hout Bay I was walking along a pier at the harbour when I saw what, to my mind at least, epitomised a man of the sea.  I desperately wanted a photo but felt too shy to ask so I discreetly aimed my camera in his direction and pretended I was taking a photo of the rigging(1st photo).  Ninja skills.  Except it was totally obvious and he saw me, so I sheepishly asked if he would mind if I took his photo, to which he graciously nodded and I took it before scuttling off, a little embarrassed but mostly elated.  

a photo that I am most proud of

I can't really claim pride in a photo of which I was simply fortunate to be in the right place at the right time but I feel so happy to have captured it.  Last year I visited Koh Thmei, one of the many beautiful islands dotting the coast of Cambodia.  We slept in bungalows on the beach and every morning were treated to the most exquisite sunrises I'd ever seen.  On the first morning we hurried out to document it  before taking an early morning swim and I took this photo as my friend was walking along the shore.  It was an idyllic, almost surreal setting and one of the best holidays I've had.