The Kids

The Kids
Southern Laos....

Friday, 20 May 2011

All over....Back to England

So, here we are, back in Suffolk. Sam is in school, Meg is in pre-school and South East Asia seems a long way away. I went for a bike ride this morning and although it was very beautiful, no-one did a double take as I whooshed past, I didn't nearly run over any chickens, I didn't stop for noodle soup and I didn't curse and splutter over pot holes and cracked tarmac. What kind of a ride is that?!

It's been amazing and thank you to everyone who read the blog and commented on it. It's been fun writing it.

If anyone ever comes across this blog when thinking about going travelling (or better still, cycling) with their kids, then my unwavering advice is to go for it. Before we went, my imagination ran riot thinking up all the horrendous scenarios that could result from our plans...I read somewhere that Burma had open drains and I had this awful vision of one of the children disappearing forever into an abyss of stinking sewage. As with everything, the truth is seldom quite as awful - the drains were open but they were less than a metre deep and whilst the children might have got a bit stinky if they fell in, it wouldn't have been the end of the world.

The same goes for pretty much everything else. Yes, the kids got a bit sick at one point but only a bit of vomiting and it cleared up within a few days (and how many vomiting viruses go round schools every winter?). Yes the food was difficult at some points - there's only so much that you can do in SE Asia with children who won't each rice or chilli and who dislike noodles, but in the end we always found something (and they lost a few pounds!).  Yes, we stayed in some very unsalubrious accommodation but the children couldn't care less..... they didn't know what a brothel was so were unperturbed by our stays in such establishments, and they certainly weren't bothered by sheets which had seen cleaner times in previous decades.

In a nutshell, it was absolutely brilliant and I can't recommend it enough. Take with a generous pinch of salt, all the awful scenarios that your imagination conjures up and think only of all the wonderful things that you can do and see.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Back to Bangkok

Well, we have pretty much finished.

We left Cambodia yesterday and cycled over the border into Thailand. It was the strangest thing; as per my previous post, the town on the Cambodian side of the border is pretty remote and we didn't see any other foreigners. But the minute you cross into Thailand there were hordes of tourists, all there to do visa runs and get extensions to their time in Thailand. The differences between the two countries is stark and immediately apparent. Thailand really is pretty first world, with a highly developed infrastructure, excellent roads, highways and so on. The rutted, pot-holed roads we had cycled on in the morning were a memory but so was the peace and quiet, the small friendly villages and frequent sugar cane juice stops.

The rain started pretty much the minute we got over the border so we flagged down a songthaew (jeep) and got a lift to the nearest big town. On arrival it was still raining so we decided to keep going all the way to Bangkok. We arrived about half eight in the evening, loaded up the bikes and, horror of horrors, started the ride to our hotel.

It was the first time we had ridden in Bangkok, and most certainly the last. My heart was going like the clappers and my palms were a hot sweat. Mike had ripped his rear tyre that afternoon and had done a botch patch up job with a bit of plastic from a tube of face cream. It worked suprisingly well but he had had to partially deflate the tyre and also detatch the rear brake so he swerved rather alarmingly as he cycled. We had to go about 5km along one of the busiest roads in town (Sukhumvit, for those who know) and I really did not enjoy myself. At one point another cyclist (the only one we have seen in Bangkok, and who was lit up like a Christmas tree with endless flashing lights which made our single front/rear light seem a little paltry) flew past taking pictures, then stopped up ahead to take a video as we passed. All great fun but yet another obstacle to be avoided.

It was with great relief that we pulled up at our hotel and were told that there was a room and we didn't have to go any further.

So, that's it. The cycling is pretty much done. We notched up 3,500km which seems quite respectable. We will miss it.

Meg and the Princess Prostitutes

Back in Battambang we went to see a circus performance one evening. This was put on by a local charity, which teaches performing arts to poor children in rural Cambodia. It was held in a mini-top down a rutted side street on the outskirts of town, but was actually rather good. The first part featured a couple doing a Khmer version of the tango which was extremely acrobatic and involved a woman in a pretty red dress being launched all over the place. Both children were completely entranced; we described her as a princess and throughout the second half, which was a more sombre though equally acrobatic piece, portraying the horrors of war through dance, Meg continually and loudly asked when the princess would be back.

A couple of days later we were in Pailin, a small town on the border with Thailand with a seriously wild west feel about it; it was one of the last Khmer Rouge strongholds. The bike ride there had taken us up and over some hills; nothing too big mind, but hills all the same. Anyway, when we got there we went off to try and find some food and the only place we could find was a huge almost empty restaurant with a stage on which a solitary man was singing some rather tuneless Cambodian ditty to the distinterested few diners. We sat down for dinner and after a while a woman in a dramatically short dress came on stage and started to sing. Meg was entranced. 'It's the princess' she cried and immediately insisted in going up to the (empty) dancefloor and gazing up at her in raptures, whilst doing a few twirls. Mike felt sorry for her so went to cut some moves on the dance floor with her.

Later, when the song finished, Meg followed the singer around the restaurant, still shrieking 'princessssssssss'. The woman looked very pleased. Mike explained to our waiter that Meg thought the singer was a princess at which he gave him a lewd wink and said, 'princess yes, but also good boom boom girl', the local slang for a lady of the night.

After dinner another woman turned up, in an even shorter skirt and a pair of the highest stilettos, accompanying a couple of Russian business men. No prizes for guessing what she was up to, but again Meg was entranced and as soon as the Russians left, she rushed over and they had lots of cuddles.

The moral of the story; princesses come in all shapes and sizes.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

3,340km and counting.......(not that we are bragging)

We chalked up our 3,000th kilometre about a week ago, riding around Angkor Wat and have since added a few to the odometer, bringing us to 3,340km.

Are we proud? Yes.
Are we bragging? Absolutely.
Do we have buns of steel? Clearly.

Truth be told it is fairly easy to chalk up the distance in Cambodia as it is FLAT AS A PANCAKE. There isn't even a ripple in the landscape - Suffolk is like the Himalayas in comparison. It's not really the most interesting cycling either, as it is the end of the dry season so the fields are brown and parched. But we still pass through enough friendly villages where we get cheered on our way to enjoy it. Today, for example, we stopped for some sugar cane juice at a roadside stall, and a few minutes later a woman who spoke English rode up on a motorbike. She lives in Boston but is back visiting her family; half an hour later we were ensconced in her back yard eating mangos freshly picked from the tree.

We are now in Cambodia's second biggest city, Battambang, staying in a snazzy(ish) hotel and enjoying our last couple of days before we head for Thailand and brave the rains. We'll keep you posted.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Angkor Wat

Wow, Wow, Wow, Wow, Wow.

Meg and Sam have this dreadfully banal Charlie and Lola tape, which they have fortunately now lost interest in but which used to be a firm favourite. (For those without kids, Charlie and Lola are a really annoying brother and sister about whom there are endless boring stories, and who need some top tips on how to speak properly). Anyway in one of the stories Lola discovers the tooth fairy and says, in her irritating voice, 'I can't believe that there is a tooth fairy, WHY didn't someone tell me this before?!'.
For some reason, this refrain keeps going round in my head as we look around Angkor Wat. The ruins are STUNNING. Not just impressive, or beautiful or any of the usual adjectives. They are absolutely breath-taking and I am incredulous that I've never realised quite what I've missed out on by not coming here before.

Angkor Wat itself is a single (but huge temple) which is amazing, but what I had failed to realise was the sheer number of temples that form part of the group, and the variety contained within.

Our first stop was the Bayon (see photo below) which is a huge temple with faces carved out of the rocks staring out in all directions. Again, I had seen pictures before but I hadn't realised quite how big it was, or quite how many faces there were staring out at you. But this was just for starters. We have been exploring solidly for four days and have continued to discover new favourites every day; we have still only really touched the tip of the iceberg. It is just staggering. Some temples are immaculately maintained, others have been left slightly more 'naturally', with the jungle still all around and tree roots working their way through ancient stone work. Some are huge pyramids with steep staircases you can climb, others have cloister after cloister after cloister, each brilliantly carved.

There are hundreds of them and only the most impressive merit a mention in the guidebooks and on the standard tour itinerary.

On the third and fourth day, Mum and Dad hired bikes and we rode out to some of the temples a little further away. We all felt very virtuous as the buses and tuk tuks roared past us.

They left this morning and the children are bereft. There were tears all round and even the promise of ice-cream did not do the trick....Meg continued to sob for the best part of twenty minutes!

Sambor Prei Kuk

From Phnom Penh we hired a van to take us west, stopping for the night in a smallish town, well off the tourist trail, called Kamphong Thom. En route we climbed a holy mountain (the only slight hill in a country that thus far is as flat as a pancake). The views from the top were beautiful, as were the temples and the 850 steps up gave us all a good work out. Well, most of us. Mike was not feeling quite so lively and persuaded the van driver (against his better judgement) to drive him to the top. We then all jumped in for the descent, which was positively perilous as the brakes were awful and the incline very steep. We had a precarious moment when the brakes suddenly failed and we went careering around a corner but fortunately the driver got things under control again.

The following morning we headed to some Pre Angkorian ruins called Sambor Prei Kuk. These are about 1200 years old and consist of more than a hundred brick temples situated in the middle of the jungle. They are wonderfully atmospheric; during our morning there we saw perhaps 5 other tourists, so these are rather off the beaten track but we all loved them. You were able to clamber over all of the ruins so the kids played at Indiana Jones and we all played hide and seek endlessly.

We then drove on towards Siem Reap, the base for visiting Angkor Wat.

Phnom Penh

After a week or so following the Mekong south through Cambodia, we cycled to where our quiet road intersected a major highway into Phnom Penh and jumped on a mini bus. There was just too much traffic, and the drivers too crazy, for cycling to be fun. Arriving in Phnom Penh we biked to our hotel and even that was an experience that you wouldn’t want to repeat too often. The following day, in a state of HIGH excitement, we headed out to the airport to meet Mum and Dad who were arriving for ten days. It was lovely to see them; we’ve been away for nearly five months now, the longest I’ve spent away since my tour leading days. Over the next couple of days we went sightseeing in and around the city, returning frequently to the blissful oasis that was out hotel (the Billabong, in case anyone is heading in this direction). There was a pool there and the kids spent many an hour showing off to Granny and Grandpa.