Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The last post




I'm reliably informed that this post is long
overdue. Some readers have told me that I simply left them hanging in my last
post in Vietnam. You know who you are.

So here I am, home sweet home.

I thought that coming home would be the start of a new journey.

It is.

Like most journeys, there are plenty of surprises, plenty
of unforeseen disasters, accidents, and moments of serendipitous beauty (I like
these best of all).

It's been lovely to see everyone again, all the
people I missed while I was away. You know who you are. I feel like I appreciate
all of the friendships in my life much more for being away.

People will
tell you otherwise, and feel free to believe them, but you don't need to travel
the world to change your world view - it just helps. Travelling allowed me to
glimpse into the lives of people whose daily lives are nothing like my own. This
glimpse of difference helped me to see more clearly what I have. And I have a
lot.

Looking at my life after travelling, many of the things that
worried me or caused me such unhappiness in the past now seem inconsequential
(they are).

I
am less interested in judging the lives of others and more interested in what I
can achieve with my own. I am less interested in other people's opinions of me
and more interested in my own perceptions of myself. I am not so quick to anger
nor so quick to despair (which is not to say I am over anger and
despair.......!)

I like my own company more than I did before. I like
myself more than I did before.

Now the challenge is to see if I can
carry on the lessons I learned when I was away. The challenge is to see if I can
continue on a journey that continues to enlighten and enliven me.

And at
last I get to put down that bloody backpack. It was 32 kilos at the last count
when I left. I think that makes me a Royal Marine.

Join me back at The
Daily
for my travels back home. And wish me luck! x

Monday, 10 August 2009

Great charity and mercy helps mankind

How I will remember Ho Chi Minh City - the sound of motos in the morning and the screams of terrified tourists, running for their very lives....

So, here I am in Ho Chi Minh City but not for much longer. Tomorrow is my last day in Vietnam, and from here I will catch a flight to Kuala Lumpur before catching a flight the following day to Singapore and then to home. The time has gone so slowly in some ways: we've done so much in the three months I've been away, but it's gone so fast that it seems like only yesterday I was stepping on that plane......

The pioneers, altogether at their last stop, HCMC, the city of pagodas....
This picture is taken at the Vietnam Quoc Tu pagoda and that's Shakyamuni there behind us, waving his many arms.

Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as many people still refer to it by its former name, is the perfect place to end a trip like this, in an urban metropolis that is simply teeming with life, culture and history. But the first thing that hits you about Ho Chi Minh City isn’t any of these. It’s the traffic, hopefully not literally, but here there are no guarantees.....!

I don't know if you can see this, but those boxes say Longevity Mushroom. Priceless. Well, a few hundred thousand Vietnamese Dong (we have not sniggered at the name of the currency once, nor have we once said "Who's got the dong?", "Where's my dong?" "I've got a little dong" or any variations thereof. Not once. Apart from then.

Ho Chi Minh City has a population of over 6 and a half million people, and although many of them drive cars, over 5 million of them use motos. The streets are packed with more motos than the average moto factory on its yearly ‘What’s the maximum number of motos we can pack into one place’ day. Fact. Add into this mix buses, cyclos, bicycles and pedestrians and you have a recipe for the most amazing road-crossing experience you’ll ever have in your life. The stream (by which I mean tsunami) of traffic on the roads is constant, so in order to cross you just have to step into the traffic and walk. Oh yes.

And more traffic. That cyclo ahead has Kate and Ang in it. This is a very mild traffic moment, now try and picture taking on the most chaotic roundabout you can imagine in one of those. I had a truck of police in my face at one point, not the police in my face, they were just pointing and laughing, but actually the truck. It has to be experienced, especially as the government wants to phase out the cyclos as they slow down the traffic, not to mention shortening the drivers' lifespans.

Somehow, cars, buses and so many motos you couldn’t shake a big old moto shaped stick at them, just swerve round you, usually tooting at full volume but never actually hitting you. Which is nice. Our first day, we thought we would spend our whole trip here on one block unless we got taxis across the road, but it’s weird how quickly you get used to it, and I hope that I remember not to try the same trick at home. The only consolation is that it works the same way for the motos who just swerve in and out of each other’s way with a generally high level of success. We’ve seen a couple of riders come off since we arrived, and there are on average 3.5 fatalities each day here, so not always though. Extreme.

The Thien Hau Pagoda in Chinatown. Very beautiful.

My favourite thing about the motos though, is the helmets that the riders wear. It has only recently become compulsory to wear a helmet in Vietnam, and the helmets worn here are not like the ones at home. They are a cross between a baseball cap and a helmet and I am seriously considering bringing one home so that I can use it as a cycle helmet.

The incredibly beautiful Hotel de Ville. Not actually a hotel, but the headquarters for the People's Committee of Ho Chi Minh City, which is what they call a local authority here. I'm quite liking the People's Committee of Portsmouth as an idea....


Our first stop was the War Remnants Museum, which tells the story of the Vietnamese War, acting as both an important portal to the perspective of war from a Vietnamese perspective, and as a testament to the lasting, enduring damage of war to all sides. Harrowing, disturbing, and in many places very moving, the museum is a must visit destination to anyone with an interest in the history of Vietnam. But be prepared for an emotional experience, and in some places a shaky one. My overwhelming ignorance over the history of South East Asia (and thus my history of the world) has come to the forefront of my attention so clearly over this trip.

Waxwork Vietcong at the Cu Chin Tunnels. The waxworks weren't that impressive, but I took the picture because I thought the one in the hammock looked a bit like Paul McCartney.


Like many others, I suspect, I simply had no real idea of the details of world history, the complex machinations of man's incessant need to dominate land, people, ideas. At times this has filled me with a strong sense of humility and at points even shame during my time here, particularly in Vietnam and in Cambodia. Even more than this, my own lack of awareness of recent world history has made me even more aware of my ignorance of current world affairs, and the things that are happening right now.

For a real insight into the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese people, though, a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels is a must. The people of Cu Chi built a network of underground tunnels that were used by the Vietcong and run for some 200km. When we went down into the original tunnels, they are only large enough for me to crawl through. I lasted for about 25 feet before I hoofed it up and out the next exit into the fresh air. At points it was pitch black in there and ridiculously hot, and it was a real effort of the mind for me not to descend into panic (memories of being the wrong way round in a sleeping bag as a child.........Matthias.........?).

Goods for sale at the Chinese Medicine Market, Chinatown. I'm not sure what these are but they smelt funky.

Yet the Vietcong would stay in these tunnels for days on end, often living within them to avoid detection by the US. As well as the tunnels themselves there are a vast amount of hidden entrances and exits, and the Vietcong constructed a huge amount of ‘home-made’ weapons and traps, including a ‘bamboo trap’ previously used for hunting animals, which is a swinging trapdoor in the ground that, if stood upon, propels the victim down onto a bed of spikes.

This guy is climbing out of the tunnel system. That's a hidden exit. Look at the size of it. Now imagine how small the tunnels are. When that lid goes back on, you can't see it at all. Those Vietcong - who were mostly 'normal' civilians and farmers - were good. Like really good. And what have we got by comparison? Dad's Army.

The sheer determination of the Vietcong, who were often farmers by day and guerrillas by night, highlights why any offensive by foreign governments, no matter how devastating, could not succeed here.

A little sculptured dude outside the Fine Arts Museum - I would call this piece, Average Man Thinking.

At the Fine Arts Museum, where we saw work of many Vietnamese students who are using art to make sense of the legacy of the past, including many pieces that show concern about pollution, the changing urban environment, and about the continuing effect of Agent Orange and other toxins used in the Vietnam War, which continue to devastate the lives of many across Vietnam. This is also a recurring theme in the War Remnants Museum, where photographic collections document the multiple disabilities and often severe hereditary effects of these toxins on generations being born today. The Fine Arts Museum is one of my favourite places we’ve visited here, in part due to the contemplative atmosphere of the building, and due to the sheer range and amazing quality of pieces on show.

The Old Post Office - can you see Uncle Ho watching over proceedings at the back?

HCMC has some amazing architecture. A great example of 60’s architecture here is the Reunification Palace, where we have a guided tour with the hilariously charming Nghiem, who takes us around on his lunch hour. The reunification palace was like a step back in time and it was here that the North Vietnamese officially wrested power from the South after the US pulled out of Vietnam. The most surreal part of this visit was a dying scorpion on the floor in the basement, which no one seemed to have noticed and by which no one but us seemed alarmed.

Dying scorpion. Just there, on the ground. Was Ithe only one thinking, 'Where there's a dying scorpion.......' Possibly. Did I get the hell out of there? Immediately.

The Sixties have NOT left this building - The Reunification Palace, virtually untouched since its days as the former home of the government of South Vietnam, or the 'US puppet government' as they like to call it here.

After the Reunification Palace, we went for a walk into the centre of HCMC. Capitalism may only have been adopted by the government in the mid eighties, but Saigon was the previous home of entrepreneurialism before the Communist government took power and reunified the country, and it has returned here with a vengeance. Western nations have had a real problem with the lack of respect for copyright in Vietnam, and the photocopied books, pirated DVD’s, and rip off Playstations and iPods are on full and open display everywhere. This is a real novelty for me, and part of me really likes it! My photocopied books will be prized possessions when I get home.

Ho Chi Minh City even has its own Notre Dame Cathedral. It's blooming huge.

Religion has been one of the most interesting things about Vietnam, which is inherently multi-faith, with temples for Taoists, Confucianists, Buddhists, and Hindus, Islamic mosques and Catholic churches in abundance. The most fascinating religion we’ve encountered though is a Vietnam original and was only founded in 1926 – Cao Daism. This religion fuses aspects of all the above religions, especially Catholicism, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism and has very strong spiritualist aspects, as the religion was founded on messages received through mediums from the spirit world. Indeed, one of the saints of this religion is Victor Hugo, the French writer, who communicated many messages to the church!

The Great Eye of Cao Daism at its HQ Cathedral in Tay Ninh, some 100km outside HCMC and our first and only tourist coach trip. Never again. Hell is other tourists. Nuff said.

We met a follower of Cao Daism a few days ago, Mr Kim, who is a cyclo rider here in HCMC. He spent a couple of hours with us over coffee explaining some of the final details of Cao Daism, using a notebook stuffed with notes, diagrams and pictures that he has compiled over the years for just this purpose. There is something very beautiful in Cao Daism, a sincere attempt to bring together all the major religions of the world, that perfectly illustrates their similarities and highlights the inherent beauty in humankind’s attempts to understand and find meaning in the world around them. Cao Daism fuses elements of pure mathematics and even physics with its religious eclecticism and begins with a religious explanation for the Big Bang, which created Yin and Yang.

Mr Kim at the Thien Hau Pagoda. We were very fond of Mr Kim, and his ability to teach via repetition. The title of this last blog entry is one of his Cao Dai mantras.

Travelling has also made me aware of my good friends at home, who have kept in touch in lots of ways over the months, and how very important they are to me. One good friend recently reminded me of the importance of remembering the ‘big picture’ in my consideration and reaction to what I see here, and nowhere has the ‘big picture’ been as evident as here.

Talking to Mr Kim about Cao Daism, as well listening to Minh on our visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels, made me realise that the appreciation and profound desire for peace that both men so powerfully articulated to us can perhaps only come from a lived understanding of suffering and violence. Perhaps, I wonder, this is why things in the West are such a mess, where our every need has been met with such luxurious ease, we no longer understand the material or spiritual value of even the simplest things any more.

My favourite of the temples and pagodas Mr Kim took us to, Quan Am Pagoda, dedicated to Quan Am, the boddisatva of compassion. This is a taoist pagoda, and so colourful, I hardly dared blink in case I missed something.

As well as introducing us to his faith, Mr Kim also took us around HCMC’s Chinatown with one of his friends on their cyclos. There is something inherently wrong about two elderly men cycling you around the city, but this is not how Mr Kim sees it. He has made his living this way for many years and in the process has learnt to both speak and to write English.

It's me, monkey! Ok, not actually me but Monkey as in magic, as in born from an egg on a mountaintop, as in blowing on your fingers for your magic cloud. Monkey. He's big in Vietnam. This was also at the Taoist pagoda.

It's me, the dragon! Well, not me. Another of the many finely detailed features of the Taoist temple. Beautiful.

I am not sad that my trip ends here. There was a point where I was nervous about it, but even this has abated. It is only South East Asia that I am leaving behind, and all that I have learnt comes back with me. My next adventure starts in England, and I feel more aware of a sense of adventure about this next part than my nerves would allow me to feel when I left England for Kuala Lumpur. In reverse, coming back to England, it is, as the South East Asian tourist mantra goes, ‘Same, same but different’. I have no way of knowing what awaits me in England and what I leave in South East Asia – my desire to anticipate every event in the false belief that I can somehow control it – I am more than happy to leave behind me.

Smoke me a kipper, I’ll be home in time for breakfast!

And, as ever, and for the last time in cyberworld, Peace Out x

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Good Morning Vietnam!

Yes, that means you.

Sorry, I couldn't help the title, it was either name it this or H would never forgive me (and yes, H, I have been saying it every day, when I remember, sometimes last thing at night, but I've said it!).

Shon told us that crossing the border on the Mekong River was the only way to leave Cambodia for Vietnam and she was absolutely right. It's a surreal experience and, on the Mekong, an incredibly beautiful one. We left Phnom Penh at Obscene O'Clock in the morning, took a taxi to the bus company, and then, oddly (but South East Asia kind of has you used to 'oddly' quite fast) a taxi to the jetty.

One of the many boats on the Cambodian side of the Mekong crossing

We had no idea what to expect from a Cambodian boat down the river experience, but our rickety blue old wooden boat was somehow perfect for our departure from Cambodia. I think I would have been sadder about leaving Cambodia were it not for the fact that I'm so certain I'll be back, so it was more 'A bientot' than 'Goodbye' to this beautiful country.

Once on the boat, we settled ourselves in along with a dozen other passengers, but after about 20 minutes, we began to wonder what we were waiting for. Then another dozen passengers arrived, and we realized that, true to form, the boat was really going to be full for this trip. We were lucky and snagged ourselves seats on the raised platform at the back, which, because the toilet was up here, no one wanted. No harm, no foul to us, though, because the boat was so crammed that almost no one had the nerve to make the trip to the bathroom during the trip, meaning that the three of us and two adventurous (also hilarious and permanently hungry) Tasmanians were the only ones up here and had room to spread out!

Our boat was just like this - when it rained there were flappy bits that came down the sides...

The journey along the Mekong was absolutely beautiful: blue skies, a low breeze, and the shining waters of the chocolate Mekong (they should film the CocoPops adverts here). The Mekong River has its origins high up in the mountains of Tibet and along its long, long journey across several countries to the sea, it carries a lot of silt, which gives the river its deep brown colour. I used to think brown was ugly, but not any more! Set against the green trees lining the banks, the blue sky, the boats on the river and the simple huts lining the banks in which the people of the Cambodian Mekong make their home, the river is simply stunning.

Logging (yes, I said logging) is big business in Cambodia and Vietnam, with many sawmills along the river

We reached the Cambodian border and clambered out of the boat, to queue in the blazing heat in a bizarre customs office, where officials lounged in hammocks, their guns by their sides, in front of a large Buddhist shrine. One officer on duty lazily stamped our passports while barely glancing at them. Then, back into the boat and off down the river again for twenty minutes down a patch of water that is effectively, a no man's river, as it belongs to no one, before you hit the Vietnam border checkpoint. Here we got off to swap boats and were taken firmly in hand by a wonderful Vietnamese woman called San, who shepherded us into a line, took our passports, waved us through a 'health check' - which looked suspiciously like a metal detector, was totally unsupervised and through which, despite the fact that it seemed to make a different sound for everyone who stepped through it, no one was stopped or examined further, and for which we paid the collective sum of $2 - then dumped us in the restaurant while our passports were being 'processed'. The fact that almost everyone then spent oodles of money there was mere coincidence.

A fishing boat on the Vietnam side of the border. San told us that the eyes on the local boats of the Mekong represent the spirit of the boat and are thought to bring good luck.

When it began to pour with rain, our passports magically reappeared instantly and we were informed it was time to go. San then shepherded us all into two boats and off we went for the rest of journey to the border town of Chau Doc - Welcome to Vietnam! Chau Doc is a great town, and most people don't stick around there to realise it. We were the only ones in a group of about 25 (apart from the Taz's) on our boat who didn't leave the same or the following day, and more fool them. Outside our hotel on our first day in Chau Doc, we met Long, a local moto driver and very sincere and gently Buddhist, who took us under his wing.

Our guide, Long, gazing at the distant mountains from the top of the Tra Su tower - he has the best moto helmet, ever and wears it everywhere. Even walking. Honest.

Moto is the most ubiquitous form of transport in Vietnam, and to see the environs of Chau Doc, it's either moto for about $5 or hire a bus for a lot more, so it was back on the motos the next day! With two of his friends, Long took us to Tra Su bird sanctuary, where we climbed a huge, and I'm not embarrassed to say, slightly frightening tower, though once we got to the top it was well worth it. The moto ride in Vietnam was very different. Although traffic in Siem Reap was crazy, we weren't in urban traffic very long, but in Chau Doc, we were, and it's really a case of 'Accept that you feel like you could die any second and enjoy it!" (Mum, it was perfectly safe, I was wearing the cutest helmet) - and we did! Once you get out into the countryside, it is a lot more relaxing and you can stop holding your breath while your driver decides to play chicken with a bus (Just kidding, Mum, that never happened, ha!ha!).

Quan Am Nbhin Mat Nghin Tay
(or for those of you not yet fluent in Vietnamese, The Buddha with 1000 hands and 1000 eyes)

After Tra Su, Long took us on a tour of local pagodas and temples. We had already had a long chat about Buddhism, which has a big influence on Long's life, and is the reason why he gets so angry about local hotels and tour companies overcharging tourists with what he calls 'commission'.

Lions (yes, I'm sure) outside the Du Hang or Cave Temple

"Bus ticket is $3, they charge you $6. Moto ride is $2, they charge you $4. They do no work for this money. I take commission before, long time ago, when I start working on moto, but it bad luck."

"Bad luck?" I asked him, intrigued, "What do you mean?"

"Every time I take commission, something bad happen on moto. Something break. Flat tyre. I pay the money I make on commission to fix bike! No, I no like commission. Now I no do that. Now I take tourist to bus station, ticket $3, they pay $3. They want to give me money for thank you, up to them, but no commission."

A monk and a bonsai tree at the Du Hang or Cave temple

We visited several temples with Long, including the Lady Temple, Ba Chua Xu Nui Sam, which Long says brings good luck to all who pray there.

"I no married, no wife before," he tells me, "I pray there, now I have wife, have a son. Very lucky there."

View from the top of the breath taking tower in Tra Su

More commonly, the Lady Temple is linked with business and prosperity, so I await the luck of the Ba Chua Xu Temple with interest, but my favourite pagoda that day was The Cave Temple, where we met several boys of various ages who learn from the monks and work around the temple. Although they spoke no English, their friendly, cheeky grins and gentle, affectionate curiosity for us was a real highlight.

After the temples, we took the motos up the Sam Mountain for sunset, where the views were spectacular and the ride up equally breathtaking - every one should climb a mountain on a motorbike and back down again at least once in their lives, if only for the bends......!

View of the floating village

We spent the next morning on a boat tour of the local fish farms, floating village and the Cham village, where Vietnamese who previously lived in Cambodia and were exiled in the seventies now make their home. Although 70% of the Mekong Delta is now in Vietnam, it has not always been so and we could see Cambodia from Sam Mountain. As such, the people of the Mekong Delta are diverse, including various Chinese communities, Cambodians, and Vietnamese on both sides of the border. The fish farms were a real highlight for me. The fish are kept in huge tanks beneath the floor of the floating farms, and go crazy when you feed them - honestly, it's like something from 007.....

Me feeding the fish at the fish farm - look at that tail poking up!

"No, Mr Bond, I expect you to diiiiiiiiiie......"

We spent the afternoon after our tour sitting around in the square drinking coffee and chatting with Long. After a while, I wandered over to a bookshop and got talking to the owner Mr Long, and ended up sitting chatting with him for over an hour, talking about Cambodia, Vietnam, and my ambitions to be a writer. Mr Long used to live in Cambodia and was himself a fisherman on the Tonle Sap lake. He explained to me about how when the dry season comes and the lake shrinks (if you don't know anything about the Tonle Sap River and Lake then look it up, now), he used to catch fish in his bare hands and that there are so many fish, the boats can hardly make it through.

Mr Long - if you visit Chau Doc, be sure to pay him a visit!

"Can you imagine this?" he asks me.

Just about, I tell him, but I'm determined to come back and see it for myself.

"Here on the Mekong, not so easy now, harder for fisherman because of the pollution of the factories along the river. Now, fisherman start to move to the rice fields and to fish there when they flood."

Mr Long is a rich source of information on all things Mekong River, as well as on Cambodia and Vietnam. When the Vietnamese were ordered to leave Cambodia in the seventies, before the Pol Pot Time, Mr Long and his Cambodian wife left for Vietnam and settled in Chau Doc, where they spent many years in the fishing villages we had visited that morning themselves. Mr Long began to have contact with many of the Westerners coming to Vietnam for tourism, and he began to collect books in English, first running a swapping service and finally opening his own bookshop and running tours of the local area himself. When I come back to South Vietnam, I fully intend to take one of his tours!

Up the Noi Sam, or Sam Mountain and a sunset over both Vietnam and Cambodia, showing the flood plains.

Long took us to the bus station the next day and true to his convictions, helped us to avoid the $4 commission charged by our hotel selling the same tickets. He waved us off at the station and I told him I hoped that the Lady continued to bring him luck.

Yesterday, we arrived in Can Tho, a Mekong delta town further South.

This morning we were up at 5am to see the sunrise on the Mekong and spent the next six hours on a river boat with Ko, our lovely, fatherlike guide, who despite having almost no English other than Hallo, somehow managed to communicate with us throughout. He seemed to take quite a shine to us and made us grasshoppers, windmills and flowers out of bamboo leaves (while driving the boat!), picked us fruit and flowers and taught us how to climb across a monkey bridge. These last are famous in the Mekong Delta and basically consist of very thin planks of wood or bamboo poles across the river, usually with one low balustrade on only one side. To be frank, I flat out refused until Ko came back for me and said with more sincerity than I could possibly refuse, "Ok lady, is ok," and then showed me how to do it again.

The view from our six hour boat trip today. This is down one of the quieter canals of the Mekong Delta rather than the river itself. The Mekong River Delta is called Cuu Long in Vietnam, or Nine Dragons, due to the nine 'fingers' or strands of the delta itself.

So I did. My heart was beating like a jackhammer, and I didn't dare allow my brain to think for a second what it was doing, but I did it, and that's what counts! Mum, it was perfectly safe, I promise.

Ko, in the process of making one of his many palm leaf creations - it's a kind of magic.

And the finished version - is this man a genius, or what?

Tomorrow, or maybe the day after, we will be off to Ho Chi Minh City, which will be my last stop in Vietnam and the place from which I'll fly back to KL for my long journey home in a couple of weeks. I'm so looking forward to seeing you all, and so very sad to leave, but I know this will be the start of a whole new journey for me and I can't wait for it to start.

Love to all and good morning Vietnam, wherever you are.......

And here's the fish farm live and unleashed........!

video

Monday, 27 July 2009

The moon's upside down

Cambodia gave us a rainbow when we arrived and we got one just before leaving Kampot, too!

First of all, (so long and) thanks for all the comments - it's great to hear from you all again and glad to hear your techno difficulty has been solved Dad!

So, Kampot town. Well, like nowhere we’ve been so far. I wrote to someone yesterday that it feels as though we’ve travelled Cambodia in chronological order: the ancient Khmer empire at Siem Reap, the terrible history of the Khmer Rouge at Phnon Penh, and now the contemporary complexity of Cambodia in Kampot.

Staying a while in each place that we travel is like making love to a beautiful woman, no, sorry, that’s a whole other show. It’s a bit like meeting people, first impressions are interesting and parts of them are absolutely correct, but other parts are way off.

As with Phnom Penh, I wasn’t sure about Kampot when we first arrived. This is a small town, smaller than Siem Reap, but it has a very tight knit community, and a large number of expats, both living here and running businesses, and working at the NGO’s and projects that exist everywhere here. In fact, it seems sometimes as if many businesses only manage to exist because of the westerners here, who can afford to spend at least triple what a local would pay for a cup of coffee, and, one should argue, rightly so.

The fishing village - very zen, and also very hard work, but then so is zen!

There’s something surreal about Kampot though, where an approximate 200 expats live and make a living, according to Steve, the owner of a local and highly recommended watering, feeding and sleeping spot, Bar Red, which specialises in the most amazing Indian food. It is second only to our own guest house, Blissful, which wins it for the sheer brilliance and friendliness of our international staff here, but more of that later. Steve is the founder and central contributor to The Kampot Survival Guide, an indispensible and highly tongue in cheek guide to the local environs. He is also familiar with Portsmouth, having lived there for a good few years in nearby Beach Road, spookily close to The Loft.

The beach at Kep - just like home, huh?

“Living in Beach Road and watching the local tourist trade there was what convinced me to never run a guest house,” he grinned wryly.

Everyone knows everyone in Kampot, it seems, and it has the feel of a more exotic international village as you might find in the English countryside somewhere. In the middle of the wet season as we are, we have only just missed 4 days continuous rain and accompanying flooding when we arrive, and the weather has been highly unpredictable during our visit. This was disconcerting at first, but soon grows on you, as you realise that everything you do or plan is entirely left to providence, which is actually the same as life back home, but without the illusion of control.

Professional rice farmers at work - and this is very hard, hot, arduous work. In the mud.

Maybe in part because of the weather, maybe because we love Cambodia and don’t want to leave so have slowed our pace to a crawl, we spend our time in Kampot leisurely, getting to know the international crew who run the guest house – A Dutch owner, a French barman who personifies cool as smoke pours slowly from his nose and a cigarette hangs elegantly from his mouth (it’s enough to make me want to smoke again. Almost.), English and Khmer staff – and exploring the wide range of bars and cafes that make up the town. Our new local best friend though rapidly becomes Kate, a beautifully laid back woman who has also spent some days in Portsmouth and is a Hampshire girl herself.

“It’s nice to hear the Pompey accent again,” she tells us, with calm, half-lidded eyes, “I was at uni there actually and got to know it quite well. Actually someone the other day told me he went to college in Southampton and my first reaction was to call him a scummer.....”

Sunset on the Sunset Boat Tour

We’ve also spent a good few hours in Sisters II, a sister cafe to Sisters Cafe in Phnom Penh, both of which are run by women who were raised in the same orphanage in Cambodia’s own Portsmouth, Sihanoukville. The owner tells us the inspiring and hard to listen to story of how she came to be in Kampot from a childhood growing rice in Vietnam, and Kate and I are rapt.

A few days ago, we climbed – and I mean climbed – Bakor Mountain, one of the Elephant Mountains, which are so named because they look like, er, elephants really. I don’t know what I thought two and a half hours walking on the sign referred to when we booked our places on the bus – which turned out to be an open backed trunk – or why they might call it the wet season, but the walk referred to a two and a half hour CLIMB, and I mean CLIMB, which almost had me in tears halfway up demanding to be airlifted out, but again, Kate, Steve Hender’s positivity training and a Vietnamese traveller I met in Phnom Penh who taught to me to chant as a Pure Land Buddhist (a long, beautiful story and one that inspired my first fiction piece written travelling – how exciting) got me to the top...

The pepper plantation, very peaceful and peppery.

....where we took another and very bumpy open truck ride – seriously, I didn’t know what hanging on for dear life meant until this ride. Mark, a 25 year old civil engineer from Norwich, who reminded me of Howard with his “Oh really?” - who is also out for his first trip round SE Asia, but he’s been out since January and only goes home briefly next March for his brother’s wedding - laughed a lot at my constant stream of giggles on the truck.

“How can you find this funny?” he said as I bounced along, squeezed behind a French family and ridiculously close to the back and perched on the edge of a tyre, my position so tenuous that each time I bounced, I thought I was going to fly off the back.

And this is what a pepper plant actually looks like. Really!!

I told him about a discovery I made riding the moto cross country with Pisith.

“Because when I’m really afraid, I seem to laugh a lot,” I cackled.

“Attagirl!” he replied.

“Although I think I’m also enjoying this way more than I should be,” I pointed out.

It was all worth it when we arrived though.....

The weather on the boat tour really cheered up, which allowed us to really take in the sheer beauty of the countryside rolling by.

...and found an abandoned ghost city, the abandoned summer palace of Sihanouk, the Cambodian king and the abandoned casino resort (including post office, casino and hotel) of the French occupation, which was later used by the Khmer Rouge as a hideout, prison and then execution spot. We got soaked. Royally soaked. Although Larry's huge poncho put a valiant fight! But the atmosphere of the abandoned mountain in the mist and the rain, the kind generosity of our soaked through the skin 21 year old Khmer guide, Bunner, and the laughter of the rangers when we dripped into the station, all combined to make it worthwhile.

We sat, dripping and gently steaming in the comparative warmth of the rangers’ station listening to the Khmer ranger whip through a history of the Bokor mountain at great speed.

“Of course, you know when Khmer Rouge use casino as a prison, it not really a prison,” he asked our blank faces.

“No, I don’t know,” I answer.

“Because when Khmer Rouge in power, all of Cambodia a prison,” he tells us sombrely.

The surf and shingle at Kep

But the ranger is saving the best for last.

“You not walking back down the mountain,” he announces.

I feign disappointment, although the prospect of doing some of the steep climbs I slid down twice on the way up has had my stomach churning for most of our visit to the top. He smiles at me in broad disbelief.

“No, it is better, I not happy you climb down because of rain. Too heavy. Maybe landslides.”

Oh good, let’s leave that then, I think, looking around me and trying to picture myself living here until the dry season kicks in in a few months.

“I arrange a truck for you, instead. Bumpy and a long way down, but better.”

“Are you sure?” I think, looking wistfully at a hook in the corner, where I think Larry’s poncho will look splendid until the return of the sun, and waving goodbye to my Sound of Music fantasy once more.

An elephant mountain - see the resemblance? It's asleep......

He is sure. And of course when the truck arrives, it is, yes, an open backed truck. In the pouring rain, we climb over tarpaulin covered sand and tools, to find the shallowest puddle on the back of the truck. Within seconds of sitting down, the three of us are laughing hysterically, while I try to sing “Wouldn’t it be lovely” from My Fair Lady while keeping a straight face. From his snug spot inside the truck, the driver glances nervously at us from time to time as if we might attack at any moment.

There is a strange zen about being soaking wet and freezing cold and bumping along in a hard floored truck down a mountain at speed for over two hours. Believe it or not, we all slept for about an hour, rain pouring down our already wet faces (and into various crevices). I fell into an odd state somewhere between meditation and sleep, which was a bit like being stoned, except I could remember it afterwards. In short, I found a place in my heart and mind where everything was absolutely ok and always will be, no matter what happens.

Here’s Tom with the weather.

As well as our day trip to the mountain and national park, we have taken the opportunity to venture into the Kampot countryside and nearby beach resort of Kep.

Much to the amusement of local farmers, Kate and I tried our hand at planting rice in a rice field. You would not believe how muddy an endeavour this is, although I got a strangely kinky thrill from the feel of the mud between my feet. I am not sure what the locals thought we were doing exactly, but I think we may have formed the basis for many a dinnertime anecdote that night.

The not so professional rice farmers. And that man in the background? Five minutes later, he was accompanied by the village.

We were guided around the local caves by a gaggle of young men who practised their English on us and their French on me (though all I taught them was “a little bit, very slowly”, which is my usual answer to ‘Can you speak French?’ and I’m not sure how they’re ever going to use that phrase....). The highlights of these caves were stalagmites and stalactites shaped like elephants and one shaped like a special lady bit.

“This one my favourite,” he told me sincerely.

“Really, gosh, well, that’s lovely isn’t it,” I murmured.

Our guide for the day, Dat, took us to a local fishing village, which I was enchanted by. The fishing village is predominantly Muslim, which is unusual in this area, and each afternoon, at around 4pm, the fishermen head out in their boats down the river and out to sea. They head about 30km out to sea, where they cast wide nets and drag them along behind for about 1km, stopping every so often to haul in their catch or to move to a different spot and they don’t return home until the early hours of each morning. When we visit in the mid morning the place is deserted as everyone is sleeping. The fishing village has an atmosphere and a beauty all its own and lines the river down to the sea.

Naked lady on Kep Beach. It wasn't me.

We went to a pepper plantation before taking in a few hours in Kep. We ate fresh peppers from the vine (is it a pepper vine? Answers on a comment slip or email please....), which taste, well, just like pepper actually, and bought some to bring home.

“Rick Stein recommends Kampot pepper,” says Kate with great authority.

Kep is not to everyone’s taste, but it is popular with local Khmer who use it as a weekend beach resort and I rather like the slim, brown and marbled beaches and the women who line the promenade with food stalls, putting their fingers to their lips as we pass and calling, “Madame, Yum-Yum?” as they offer food to us.

Our entirely unflappable boat driver

But the highlight of our Kampot holiday has to be the Sunset Boat Tour we take on a tiny wooden boat with a thin bamboo roof down the river to watch the sun do exactly what it says on the tin. Although we start off in typical rainy season downpour, wondering what the hell we are doing – again – within ten minutes we are in blazing sunset downriver for some of the most amazing views of the Elephant Mountains, and the communities that live beside and make their living from the river.

Sights I will never forget? Two men in a boat, dragging an utterly forlorn looking cow behind them – if he couldn’t swim at the start, he soon learnt; a man still sat on his motorbike being ferried across the river in canoe; a sad dog that howled from one bank as his master crossed to the other; more smiling and laughing children and a sunset that left my heart and soul, for such a long, unforgettable moment, at peace.

Kampot River, wider than a mile......

Roger that.

And here’s some Fiona Apple for you. Don’t say I didn’t send you something from Cambodia.