“English, Motherfuckers!” Parisa’s throaty admonishment rolls along the top of the bar and out across the beach. We all go quiet. The dog looks up, wags his tail. I only speak English so I am not in trouble, but all the German speakers half-heartedly switch to English, although the thread and spark of the conversation have wavered. There is an inclusive English-only policy at Sunboo Beach Bungalows bar on Sunset beach on the west side of Koh Rong Samloem. So, after noticing a meandering of German chat Parisa, the boss, yells at everyone – staff and tourists alike. Ten minutes later she is chatting away in German, drinking white wine, the English-only rule all forgotten. Her attention is razor-sharp when directed, like rays of sunshine lighting up a spot on the ground and you see all the dust particles glittering like specks of silver and a moment of magic expands. Then, like a cat hearing a silent noise, she switches onto something else.Continue reading “Cambodia: Parisa on the beach”
I am perching in a half kneeling position on my bamboo bunk bed in my bamboo hut in the middle of the jungle. I am peering through a crack between two pieces of the bamboo screen that serves as my bedroom wall, stapled onto the netting – the only thing between me and the jungle creatures. There are monkeys outside and they do not know that I am watching them intently. There are ten of them and they are sitting in small poised lumps of mushroom and beige fur, cracking nuts. One of the monkeys has a baby clinging onto its belly. The monkey nearest to me is so near I can look into its eyes without it knowing. It feels like I am looking into an ancient secret and that I shouldn’t be there. I feel like David Attenborough. The monkey picks up a nut, rolls it nimbly between its palms, bites it, rolls it again then cracks it open. Quiet, alert, confident, it eats. Watching.Continue reading “Cambodia: Mary and other creatures”
“I’m going to the other side!” calls Mariana, one of the volunteers on Sunset Beach, as she marches off with a daypack and a phone. She is going to get internet. That’s what the other side means here. Paulo the waiter calls it ‘Indiana Jones and the search for the wifi.’
To get to the other side you have to do a jungle hike of about thirty minutes depending on whether you are an Austrian mountain expert, like the owners of the little resort, or an English girl like me, used to the rolling undulations of the South Downs. It is actually a short climb then a hike. The climb is up what seems to be a dry waterfall – ropes on both sides that you grab and haul yourself up with. Orange rocks and yellow earth form steps and vines curl around trees like snakes, curl around your feet. You are dripping with sweat in seconds. The jungle squawks and trills and crackles with dry sticks. A leaf falls and I am certain it is a snake. Or a spider. Or a lizard. Or some other creature pictured on the brightly coloured informative poster at one end of the path. Each time I do the jungle hike, grabbing a rope that could so easily be a snake, my ears tingling with the tinny saw of cicadas, I am not sure if I would rather see the jungle inhabitants… or not. I secretly hope to see the black Cobra, or the black and white stripy super dangerous one. Or the green one Oscar the chef saw with a frog in its mouth. Continue reading “Cambodia: The other side of Koh Rong Samloem”
If you switched the train to a boat and took out the murder, my slow boat cruise down the Mekong River from Thailand to Luang Prabang in Northern Laos, would be a plot-free Agatha Christie.
We were a group of 21 people, including five children and two solo travellers, one of which was me. I knew no murder was afoot, but somehow being in an enclosed moving space with others, made me watch them, wonder about them, attribute stories to them. We sat on the polished wooden benches and watched the river.
The journey takes two days and you glide through green jungle which tumbles down to brown waters which lap onto sandy shores. If you look closely at the sand you will see glinting flakes of silver. The water is flowing as a river should, but it is so busy eddying and swirling in self-contained pockets of intricate activity that it almost forgets where it is going. Small worlds of hidden twigs and rocks and river bed angles cause the surface to jump and fold over itself like a dance. There is an epic story heaving under the surface; the chocolatey water shows hints of shoulders as we navigate through it.
Doi Inthanon is a national park in northern Thailand an hour from Chiang Mai. If you are in a car. If you are on the wasp, a small yellow and black scooter, it is two and a half hours including a coffee and shaking-in-fear break.
It is not easy to write humorously about traumatizing experiences. But I didn’t know it was traumatising until afterwards. Until now really.
By the time I got on my scooter to hit highway 108 south of Chiang Mai, I had been travelling alone for five weeks. I was feeling isolated, and was in constant pain from my chronic back condition. In no mood to go out and meet people, I thought a road trip would be a great idea, as I did not need to speak to a soul. And I didn’t. For the entire three day trip, apart from asking in key words and sign language to switch to an AC room, no words passed my lips.
Apparently, when Neil Armstrong looked down from space, he saw something glowing on the face of the earth. When they zoomed in to see what he could see, they realised it was a structure in central Java, the enormous Buddhist stupa, Borobudur. I got up at 5 to go there before the heat and the crowds. I was prepared to be overcome, and I was.
When I read The Lord of the Rings the first time my favourite bits were the ents, the Wood-elves, and The Shire. I understood the Shire as I grew up in the Cotswolds, which had thatched rooves and flower gardens tumbling over warm walls. My childhood was not idyllic like a hobbit childhood by any means, but I can’t deny the rolling hills, the round pubs and the Morris men dancing on a Sunday.
There is something about The Shire that is pristine and nurturing. Tolkien wrote it like that to show that the starting point of anything is home – soft, nourishing and womb-like, somewhere we all belong. Many of us never had that kind of home but we still remember it somewhere in our sinews. It makes us feel a yearning for what life should be like, what it was like in some fantasy time, before supermarkets and war and Donald Trump.
I couldn’t put my finger on it straight away, at Nyambu Village in Bali, but there was this feeling that I was in The Shire. Not just a reminder, but actually there. The wistful unreachable feeling of what home really was, the warm pinchable centre, I was feeling it right there. Everything was dusted off, the surface peeled back, to reveal people living as they should. And lots of little houses.
When I was in my late 20’s and hadn’t yet passed my driving test, I bought a scooter. A cream Vespa, with a matching cream box and a 125cc nippy engine so I could zoom off from the lights like Evel Kineval. I wore a petrol blue PVC wet look mac and sixties boots and thought I was pretty cool. I used to park it up near the nursery. I would push Daisy’s buggy, laden with her baby paraphernalia, her lunch, my lunch, my bag full of teaching folders, up the hill in Brighton, all the way to Young Sussex Daycare. I would dump all the stuff and then peel off the rain cover of my scooter and jump on it and speed off.
I lost my cool a few times as I couldn’t reach the ground with both feet at once, so sometimes the scooter would tip from under me and slide over, sometimes on top of me, sometimes on black ice. Usually, I was wearing heels. I would cry then and have to get a passer-by to help me lift the scooter back up and then I would get back on it, a bit wobbly, with ripped tights. It was worse when it happened in the school carpark as year 10 would be watching and laughing at me. But in general, I was scooter-pro.
Almost 20 years later and here I am in Java, Indonesia. It is 35 degrees outside and I am staying in a house in a village which is not next to a row of shops where there is food. The only way to not have to walk for an hour in the heat is to use the scooter parked outside. How hard can it be I think – I was ace twenty years ago, on my cream Vespa.
I’m standing in the glaring heat, trying to explain in school French to three retired backpackers that they must wear a sarong to enter the temple, according to the woman selling sarongs. But I am trying to add that I don’t think they need to buy one from her. The strict 30 minutes we were given for the first temple on our Bali temple tour, is ticking away in the carpark . I sneak out my own (unfortunately bright orange) sarong , wrap it around my waist and sidle off without being noticed.
The first temple had three stone goddesses, ageless, washed away through time in dents and dints and crumbs. They were pouring water into a basin. I entered the grounds, ready to be transported into ancient holy peace. But it was the dead moon day, so the temple was full to bursting with bustle and chat – the women in bright yellow and the men in bright white.
In the monkey forest, I follow the other tourists past the smiling, green-clad guard and a grimacing monkey statue. I’m in the jungle – which for me, is a sauna and the Oxford botanical gardens and Indiana Jones all rolled into one. I am dripping with sweat. Austrailian twang, Spanish and French, American glass. Asian vowels I don’t understand. They follow each other with selfie sticks, and enormous-lensed cameras. Hushed somehow.