South by South West…Kerala

Having hungrily hoovered up the highlights of the golden triangle and holy Varanasi we head south, like a flock of migrating birds, away from north India’s unexpected cold snap towards Kerala’s sprawling port city of Kochi. The wall of heat that hits us when we land is most welcome, and I will admit to feeling smug as I finally slip into flip flops with months of time in India stretched out in front of me.

The city is a real masala of influences, from the gigantic mechanical fishing nets bestowed by China, the colourful Portuguese churches to the deteriorating British Raj architecture. And it’s not just the temperature that we feel changing, there is a real change of pace here too.

The frenetic transport hub of Ernakulem is straight forward enough, but it’s the intriguing villages of Fort Cochin and Mattancherry where this mix bubbles up and thus it’s the biggest attraction for travellers.

We’re staying across the water in Bolgatty Island and arrive by boat into the main port of Fort Cochin for our first glimpse of the Chinese fishing nets which punctuate the curved bay. Watching the cantilevered nets being dropped and raised in line with the tide is a right of passage here, it’s all hands on deck when the time comes.

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From here, we amble through Fort Cochin’s sleepy streets which are a collage of handicraft stores, bookshops and cafés. St. Francis Church stands at the end of the strip. It’s thought to be India’s oldest European built church dating back to 1503.
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Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama died in the city in 1524 and he was originally buried here until his remains were sent back to Portugal. His tomb still lies signposted in a macabre ‘here’s what you could have won’ kind of way.

Doubling back on ourselves, we round the northern peninsula through a colourful little trinket bazaar specialising in paper lanterns.
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As we walk towards Matancherry, things start to get a little more interesting. The streets narrow, and the walls are no longer blank canvases as street art meets our eye on each twist and turn we take.
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Unabashed by the narrow streets, industry ploughs on around us, together with the symphony of car and tuk tuk horns forming the street opera we’ve grown to love, or at least accept, in India.
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Spice markets now line our route.

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When it’s time to refuel, suave new restaurant 51 ticks a lot of boxes with vistas across the ocean and contemporary distressed steel inside.

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It’s more contemporary middle eastern and Mexican than it is Indian, but the food is exquisitely seasoned and beautifully presented.

We soak up the last of the sun ambling back to the port through the colourful streets.



Back at the hotel a tantalising signpost greets us. After a long day walking in the serious sun, it doesn’t take long to make our decision.

Naturally we turned left. And after one too many (or one too few depending on which way you look at it) ran into this Kathakali dance artist who had just finished a performance of the Keralan traditional classical dance. This is not a face we will forget in a hurry.

The next day, with dreams of sand between our toes, we board a four-hour train south to the backpacker hangout of Varkala, set precariously on steep cliffs overlooking sandy beaches that gaze out at the Arabian Sea.

This is where Jess, Laura and I will spend our final few days together before they hightail it back to London and I let the breeze steer me through the rest of India. And what a way to go.

Many who’ve gone before warned me that they ended up staying way longer than planned here in Varkala…which is exactly what happened to me. In my defence, just look at the place.

It is principally a temple town flanked by the busy little strips of North Cliff and South Cliff (Heathcliff?) and we settle into Soul & Surf on the latter and are quickly sucked into the Varkala vortex. Here, in the pristinely painted and comfortable well-finished rooms, the focus is on yoga, pranayama and massage for the soul, and the frothy swell of the Arabian Sea currents for the surf. They get the balance just right and it’s a fantastic place to spend some time.


Our days are bookended with dawn yoga in the gardens,

and evening yoga and pranayama on the rooftop yoga hall…

…with this view.

In between times, if we’re not reading in a hammock,

then we’re larking about (or asleep) on the beach.

Despite this hectic schedule, we valiantly manage to s.queeze in some massages and Ayurveda treatments.

Those of you who have holidayed with me will know that Primal Scream’s ‘Screamadelica’ album is my absolute favourite to listen too on a beach. I discovered in Varkala that Beck’s ‘Morning Phase’ is an incredibly close second.

In the evenings both South and North Cliff keep us amused. Being a temple town, getting an alcohol license isn’t possible, but the various bars and restaurants along the strip flaunt this wildly by serving beer wrapped in newspaper and poured into mugs under the table. Not that we’re complaining.

Nor are the police. Each time they catch a restaurant in the act, a tasty little baksheesh goes into their back pocket. Standard.

They even advertise the cocktails on their drinks list with secret ingredients; Gimlets with ‘G Juice’ and Piña Coladas with ‘R Juice.’ Stealthy.

When it is time to say goodbye to these two beauties…

..the unenviable task of entertaining me falls to Ben, Abi and Steve and a sterling job they do too. As luck would have it, they all live in North London too and I’m already looking forward to the reunion dinner at Rasa in Stokey.

Sooner than I’d like it is time to say goodbye to this view.

…but hello to this one!

The next stop is the quintessential Kerala experience, a leisurely cruise along the backwaters setting sail from bustling travel hub Alleppey (also known as Alappuzha) in a wee bread basket of a boat.

The crew of able-bodied seamen consisted of Captain Babu, first assistance Raj plus chefs Subaj and Fijo.

These fine fellows steer us through some of the most stunning scenery I have ever seen. Palm-fringed waters lead onto a patchwork of rice paddy fields as far as the eye can see.

Meanwhile, vibrant and colourful village life carries on around us for those who live by the water’s edge, for whom the river is their playground, their laundry, their bathroom and their fortune.

We anchor up for the night to watch the sun drop into the paddy fields behind us.

Then we turn our attention to preparing the catch of the day; tiger prawns and tilapia.

This gorgeous little sailing trip marks the end of my time in South by South West Kerala. In the morning, it’s all uphill as I’m bound for the first tea station of this trip in India. More from Munnar once the kettle has boiled…

And the soundtrack was:
Beck ‘Morning Phase’
Primal Scream ‘Screamadelica’
DJ Shadow ‘The Private Press’
Gwendoline Stefani ‘Baby Don’t Lie’
Theme from Jurassic Park (for real)

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Holy Varanasi, City of Light

Holy Varanasi, for me, is where things start to get really interesting. Maybe it’s because the clutches of the chest infection are loosening on my bones, maybe it’s because we’ve started to combat the jetlag or maybe it’s because it’s the first place we’ve stopped for more than two nights.

But it’s more likely to be because this is India as I had imagined it. Challenging, spiritual, colourful, relentless, flamboyant, unapologetic and did I mention challenging?

Our journey here is far more palatable than it could have been. Severe fog in North India is seriously hampering the railways and our pre-booked train is late to the tune of 18 hours. So, we bite the bullet and arrange a driver for the 9 hour road trip and make a sharp exit from our Agra hostel at 4am.

The driver, Mistra, works for the homestay we’re on our way to, and has a penchant for lateral-thinking puzzles. When we’re not asleep, we’re guessing at conundrums he poses us such as:

“Imagine you’re in a box, there’s no windows and no doors. How do you get out of the box?” Cue much head scratching until the irritating answer reveals itself. “You just stop imagining!” He yelps clapping gleefully.

Yes, my favourite parts of that journey were the parts when I was asleep.

Out on the motorways, we stop to pay tolls which are passed to no less then three men en route to the cashier. It seems India’s approach to employment is ‘why have one when you can have four.’ It’s something a lot of people I’ve worked for could learn from! The approach in London is more like, ‘it’s a four person job…let’s hire two and load’em up.’

Huge developments on the roads are taking place, we swerve from lane to lane to bypass roadworks. India also seems to be one of the only countries I’ve been where it’s your responsibility as a driver to let those in front of you know that you’re there…with a constant tooting of the horn.

Rear view and wing mirrors are purely decorative and obsolete. Trucks and tuk tuks even exhibit threateningly direct orders on their brightly painted rears.*

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Mistra even toots at stationary and empty vehicles for good measure. We wonder aloud how you attract attention or demonstrate displeasure given that’s the sole use for our horns.

Eventually, through bleary eyes, we swirl into the heavier traffic of Varanasi. When I was a kid, we’d play in the garden with sprinklers and hosepipes. The traffic in Varanasi is like the water in a hosepipe when you put your thumb over it. The pressure builds up and water goes in all directions, at different speeds. It’s frenetic and impossible to second-guess.

One lane forcibly becomes five. It’s a cacophony of horns, punctuated by fast bursts of acceleration and even faster intense braking. Hindus believe in reincarnation. I wouldn’t want to come back as a brake pad, but I would want to come back as an insurance broker. Mistra cheerfully tells us that you don’t need to pass a driving test here, but if the police stop you for bad driving, a baksheesh (bribe) usually does the trick.

We settle into Homestay run by Harish Rijhwani and family. Homestays in India are much like the Casa Particular system I saw in Cuba back in 2010. Your room is part of the family home, and you eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with them allowing you to get closer to their culture than in a hotel. They’re far better value for money than the hostels in India, plus a much more authentic experience. This one in particular is great and Harish becomes more than our host over those days. He becomes our guardian and teacher.

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Once settled, there’s time for a quick thali round the corner before a boat ride on the Ganges to watch the Ganga Aarti (river worship. But, we should start right at the beginning.

Varanasi sits on the banks of the Ganges in Uttar Pradesh, named after it’s two tributary rivers, the Viruna and Asi rivers. But it has had a multitude of other names over time including Kashi, translating as City of Light, and Benares. Hindus consider the three rivers of the Yamuna, Ganges and Saraswati to be sacred. Because of that, Varanasi’s position on the Ganges has given it the reputation as the capital of Hindu India and it is considered a very auspicious place both to die and to bathe.

So the west side of the river is lined with ghats with steps leading down to the water where the most colourful and vibrant parts of Varanasi’s life play out. On our first boat trip, we’re headed for Dashashwamedh Ghat to watch the nightly puja ceremony, also known as the Ganga Aarti.

We’re there before the crowds and assume our position right in front of the action. Hindu priests perform the puja with dedications to Lord Shiva and deities Agni (fire) and Surya (sun) as hundreds of hanging bells are tolled. It is hugely choreographed, unapologetically flambouyant and most of all, utterly mesmerising.

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We upgrade our karma by floating marigold encircled candles out on the water, buying them from the multiple vendors using the tied up boats as stepping stones out to the masses.

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We’re so overwhelmed by the puja that we return the following night, this time to watch on dry land from the ghat itself.

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Beforehand, all human (and bovine) life is here. For every devout Hindu, hands clasped and eyes closed in prayer, there is a tourist onlooker, hands clasped around Canon camera and eyes fixed through a zoom lens.

Sadhus, holy people who’ve renounced their worldly lives stare out from the stone steps. Some are at one in their spirituality.

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Some are in position to capitalise on the tourist rupee.

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And some are worshipping a different ganga altogether.

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But they’re not the only ones capitalising from the globally renowned festival.

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The cows remain nonchalant.

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But it’s worth reliving it, as the sounds and sights are in higher resolution somehow. Next to us proudly sits one of the ceremony bell-ringers whose eyes tell a thousand Hindu myths.

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As a pure, bright completely full moon hangs auspiciously above us, the puja starts and from this vantage point it is completely all-encompassing.

The bells ring out their clamour from above the ceremony as the priests untiringly make their well rehearsed daily dedication.

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The ghats sparkle by night as we head for home.

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The only way to see the city is by walking, its alleys are so slim-hipped that tuk tuks encounter too many cows and motorbikes and make slow progress. We’ve so many questions about this city and about its place in the Hindu pantheon, so Harish entrusts us to his friend Shasha, a local tour guide.

The first stop on this tour has to be Harishchandra Ghat, one of the two main cremation ghats. Shasha takes us down to a neighbouring standpoint a respectful distance from the cremations that are taking place as we speak. There, with his back carefully turned to the cremation, he patiently answers our (many) questions.

Varanasi is considered a very auspicious place to die. Hindus who don’t live here come here to do just that. To wait for death. When it comes, they are taken to the ghat where timber is scientifically measured in relation to the weight and form of the body. The body is wrapped in cloth and stretched out on a bamboo rack and carried at head height down to the riverside amidst incantations and prayers to Agni, the Hindu god of fire, to cleanse the sprit of the deceased and prepare it for transmigration into the next life.

The body is washed, for the last time, in the Ganges before being set alight atop the pile of timber. Only men are allowed to attend the cremation, it is thought to be too emotional for women. Once there, they are expected to stay for the duration. Four hours it takes sometimes, to watch your loved one disintegrate completely into ash before being swept into the Ganges.

Shasha tells us that this is why he can’t face the fire, he recently lost his grandad and watched it from start to finish. His words are chosen delicately ‘You see it all, every stage of the process.’

They don’t really mourn in the same way you would expect, because it is the soul of the person (the atman) that will live on. The body is considered as borrowed, and committing it to Agni, God of Fire, is like giving it back to the world once you’ve finished with it. Like a very morbid car hire.

This cycle of rebirth of the soul is called samsara and it is your karma that prescribes what you will return to the world as.

Not all bodies are burnt, specific groups will be floated out onto the Ganges instead. These include young children, pregnant women and holy men whose souls are considered clean and pure already. Often lepers or the diseased will be floated too. Very few bodies are buried, only those whose souls are considered never to rest, like murderers and thieves.

It is tradition for the men of the family, of all ages, to shave their heads as a mark of respect for the deceased loved one.

There by the water, the wind changes and plumes of smoke billow softly toward us. What was at first fascinating quickly becomes claustrophobic and disturbing. We’ve seen enough of the burning ghat.

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We head back through the streets taking in South Indian style temples…

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…North Indian style temples…

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…and even a ghat that promotes fertility when you bathe in it.

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Swastikas are painted everywhere, a symbol of spiritual fortune in Hinduism before they were ever commandeered by the Nazis and stigmatised for ever. Svastika is Sanskrit for lucky, they’re painted on walls, hands and doors alike. It’s a shock to the system at first, jarring with the European understanding of it as pure, unadulterated evil.

The locals are friendly, if a little obstructive.

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The colours of the place are so striking and eye catching, and it has it’s own unique soundtrack. As we plod through the alleys swerving motorbikes, stray dogs and the ever present holy cows, we pass such beauty in sight and sound.

Mantras lilt delicately on the breeze, streaming from open doors of religious halls, chanted by Sandhus sat in circles and rapture.

Impromptu Indian classical music performances burst into action from bazaar stalls stocking tabla drums and sitars of all sizes.

And colours are everywhere.

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Of course, I’d be on the tourist board’s bank roll if I didn’t highlight the equally persistent soundtrack which puts a pin prick into the romance of Varanasi (and much of India.)

The first and by far worst audio imposter is the ever present Samsung whistle, the default setting on the market leading smartphone. A close second is the, slightly less manufactured, hocking and spitting. Many Indians chew paan which is a paste of tobacco and nuts wrapped in betel leaf. They chew it as a stimulant then spit it out. A lot.

Then there are the vendors, rattling and rolling their wooden carts through the city either selling vegetables or buying unwanted plastic and metals to sell on. Their calls are loud, often the first thing to wake you up of a morn. But it beats an alarm clock.

My advice in Varanasi’s old town would be to look up as much as you look down.

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We have our first (of many) Masala Chai, and it’s love at first sip.

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Then, we fill up on thali and aloo paratha in Ayyars Cafe on Dashashwamedh road, tucked away in the bazaar.

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Then an UNBELIEVABLY good lassi at Milkbaba.

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We wave Shasha off after an enlightening day that has given us much to think about.

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The next day we drive 13 km north east to Sarnath, an exceptionally holy site as it is where Buddha gave his very first teaching to five disciples after finding enlightenment in nearby Bodhgaya.

There’s a quaint archeological museum near the actual ruins where his sermon was delivered, and what can only be described as a theme park with a MEGABuddha statue inside. We decide to visit the first two, but tensions are high at the gate when the ticket collector swindles us by taking our higher priced ticket unnecessarily.

Now, I should say that the financial win for him is 100 rupees (approximately £1 GBP) however unfortunately for him there is a principle attached to it. The on site manager refuses to talk to us because we are women, which further fuels the fire and with smoke coming out of our ears (but no swear words coming out of our mouths) we calmly make a formal complaint. The director listens to our grievance for approximately ten seconds before apologising and ushering us in backstage (as it were.)

The ruins are very serene, although the adrenaline pumping through us reduces the sedative effect.

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The Dhamekh Stupa was built here to commemorate the spot where Buddha first outlined his eight steps to Nirvana and spiritual enlightenment.

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Buddhist pilgrims come to the site attaching gold foil for good fortune.

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But the locals work year round to preserve the stone, gently removing the gold foil from the carved stonework.

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The site is revered by millions, and it’s a real privilege to visit. It’s so sacred in fact, that it’s the last place you would expect a young Indian boy to expose himself to you. But that is what happens to us. The only comeback I have to hand is ‘Buddha does not approve!’ which, in retrospect, is likely not a phrase taught in the schools here.

Not long after this, we swing into an ashram that Harish does charity work with. Here, physically and mentally disabled children are looked after and educated by missionary nuns. We’re greeted with the widest smiles I’ve seen in some time. They’re celebrating one of the carer’s birthdays, so, wearing conical party hats and between occasional toots of birthday horns, they sing a Bollywood song for us. Instead of money, we donate blankets, chairs and books to these amazing children. Heartbreakingly, polio is rife. That easily preventable disease, at a relatively low cost-per-vaccine. It makes you ask questions of the government and their responsibilities.

We ease ourselves out of the aggravation of the day with some retail therapy at Harish’s silk and textile shop Paraslakshmi Exports. It’s a treasure trove of beautiful silks in contemporary and traditional Indian design, with everything from scarves, bedlinen and tableware. We spend more time, and money, than we ever intend to in there, aided by Harish’s patient staff.

Our last supper in Varanasi around Harish’s dinner table is exquisite. The place has gotten busier, and we find ourselves amongst Swedish politicians no less, which makes for entertaining conversation. Harish’s wife Marika is a stunning cook, and she has introduced me to Gajar Ka Halwa, a sweet warm cinnamon-spiced carrot dessert. For that, I owe her my life.

We end our trip the way we started it, with a boat trip along the riverside ghats on the Ganges, this time at dawn.

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Life is playing out just as we’ve come to love it here. The ghats come to life in the hazy light.

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Locals gather for their morning constitutional dip in the waters.

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Kids play as their mothers wash cloths on the water’s edge.

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Downward dog joins stray dogs as yogis bring their classes to the sacred spot.

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Plumes of smoke puff languorously from freshly built funeral pyres.

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And all the while, bobbing there on the water, travellers find magical moments of India that they’ll carry with them forever.

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And the soundtrack was:
Nirvana ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’
Baharon Phool Barsao ‘Suraj’
Holy Fuck ‘Lovely Allen’
Samsung ‘Irritating Whistle Text Alert’

*Special thanks to Laura Varnam for additional photograph

A Beginners Guide to India: The Golden Triangle

India.

It was only supposed to be a three week holiday.

I was only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.

The more I read about this diverse and mesmerising nation, the more warning phrases started popping up saying that you need time to fall in love with it.

I really want to fall in love with it.

So, I purchase a one way ticket instead of a return and joyfully shake off a year’s worth of dust from my shelved backpack. Jess and Laura are to be my travel partners in crime for the first fortnight for a whistle stop smash-and-grab of the country’s highlights. But afterwards, with time stretched out languidly before me, I can take India at my own pace.

To kick things off, we’ll be swooping in on the triumvirate of cities which is the usual introduction for the first-time visitor to India, known as the Golden Triangle. Delhi, Jaipur then onto Agra.

We arrive in the sprawling capital of Delhi, the world’s second largest city at 25 million. During the flight, my manageable winter head cold has incubated into more of a chest infection, so between this and our extreme jetlag, our time in Delhi is heavier on the smash than it is on the grab. I console myself that there will be time to return. We settle ourselves in amiably by taking afternoon tea in the Atrium of Raj-era hotel icon, The Imperial.

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It’s a very British start to our trip, and we follow it up with a drive around Delhi’s colonial heart at Connaught Place, taking in India Gate and the Government buildings. It couldn’t be further from the rest of the city. Pomp, serenity and stateliness completely replaces grit, hubbub and fervour.

But we’re most open-mouthed at the traffic. From all directions, at all speeds, with no regard for the usual mirror-signal-manoeuvre nonsense, there is an odd emphatic harmony to its insanity. We quickly come to realise that all modes of transport have their quirks in this country.

And before long we’re sampling the quintessential travel experience of the subcontinent, India by train.

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Everything you’ve heard about the Indian railways is true. It’s all rather infuriating. There are something like twelve different classes to choose from. You can either book trains in (good) advance through Cleartrip, or go to the station 24 hours before to secure one of the tickets that are released on the day. The former is by far the easiest way, but it does take a little spontaneity out of the backpacker experience. Thankfully, we’ve had tour manager supremo Laura taking the sting out of the tail for us by booking our journeys in advance. Before we know it, we’re off to Jaipur, Rajasthan’s glorious capital.

There is the small matter of Hogmanay to start off proceedings. We upgrade ourselves to a full five star experience to enjoy the festivities. A gala dinner and masquerade ball is prepared in the courtyard…

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…while we drink Margaritas as big as our heads.

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A colourful buffet awaits us…

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…accompanied by some good old Hindi rock’n’roll (they even threw in a Ricky Martin and Bruce Springsteen cover for good measure, y’know, to amuse the foreigners.)

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Then, there is drinking, dancing and merriment.

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Indians are not big drinkers, and their eyes widen as we order our third round. The bar manager, Mr Vishnal, becomes our closest pal and mixes up off-menu cocktails for us. Throw in some fire-throwing and the scene is set.

I’ve got a bloody good feeling about 2015.

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Our first touristic foray takes us to the city’s Amber Fort, a former royal palace made of pink sandstone and white marble which sits on a hill looking over Maota lake.

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Its former resident would have been the maharaja and his 12 wives. But as we climb the steep hill, we soon meet the current residents…and there’s a lot of them.

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The fort has an impressive facade and four main courtyards and stunning views out over the city.

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The Jai Mandir (Hall of Victory) is lined with white marble carvings and multi-mirrored panels. If you shine a torch upwards, you set off a little live light show.

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The Diwan-i-am (not to be confused with Will.i.Am) is the Hall of Public Audiences where the public could air their grievances to the maharaja in the hope of reconciliation.

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Then there is the Jaleb Chowk courtyard where the army returning from war would show off their spoils. From the 16th century until as recently as 1980, a goat would be sacrificed here every day. The women would be allowed to look upon the events of the Jaleb Chowk only from latticed windows above the courtyard.

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But most hilarious is the Zenana (the women’s quarters) where the maharaja’s twelve wives would live. It was designed with underground tunnels so that the maharaja could make his nocturnal visits without anyone knowing which wife he had chosen for the night. There weren’t even any doors in the complex, lest they creak and give away any clues in the dead of night. The women did not even socialise or eat together, destined to spend their time alone waiting for their man. It was considered very auspicious to be ‘selected.’ What a difference four centuries makes.

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On the way out, some of the locals wave us off.

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Next stop is the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds) which was built in 1799 by Maharaja Swai Pratap Singh to allow the women of the palace, constantly under lock and key, to have a better view of life in the city and its many processions.

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It has become the emblem of Rajasthan’s capital, crafted like so much of the city in pink sandstone, giving it the nickname of the Pink City.

There’s time for a brief pause at the Jal Mahal (Water Palace) in the Man Sagar Lake before we head on the Central Museum.

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Having spent so much time on the hoof (as it were) I’m always pleased when an audio guide has been produced by Narrow Casters. They’re are always so well put together, and have been rightly trusted at sites like Pearl Harbour, the Killing Fields and also here in Jaipur’s Central Museum. It takes us through an atmospheric run down of the sculptures, paintings, musical instruments and tribal dress.

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There’s even a 10th century black stone carving of Vishnu, the supreme being and preserver of the Hindu triad, with his respective deities Brahma (creator) and Shiva (destroyer) at either side.

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Then there is Ganesha, son of Shiva and Parvati, who is considered the remover of obstacles.

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For reasons unbeknownst to me, the overlords of my catholic education considered Jesus the ultimate and only religious study required (with a side of Mary and lashings of Joseph of course) so Hinduism is a religion I’ve never known much about. This has whet my appetite, and the next book shop we pass will hopefully be up to the brief.

The museum is housed in the rather glamorous part-English, part-North indian Albert Hall with inspirational quotes in both English and Sanskrit over each of its ornate archways.

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Another train ride, bite-size and manageable at 4.5 hours, awaits us to Agra in Uttar Pradesh, the home of the Taj Mahal, oft mistakenly considered as one of the seven wonders of the world. Wondrous? Yes. Officially an ancient wonder, not so much.

So it’s a tourist-heavy stop on a well-trodden route, and the aggro levels on arrival at the railway station seem to be directly proportionate. It is by far the worst we’ve seen and negotiating our way out of the station, into a tuk tuk and onto the hostel is a real chore. Irritatingly, north India is having what we’d call in Scotland “a cold snap”, and we’re ill prepared for the freakishly cold temperatures.

The Taj Mahal is the ultimate love story. Boy meets girl and makes her his third wife. Girl produces thirteen healthy children but dies in childbirth with the fourteenth. Boy promises to build girl a fitting mausoleum in tribute and love for her. Twenty two years later, the Taj Mahal (Crown of Palaces) is completed and considered the most significant in Muslim architecture. Boy’s son overthrows him, places him in nearby fort until the end of his days then, rather poetically, buries him next to girl.

It’s creator Emperor Shah Jahan, who built it for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, said its beauty “makes the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.” Two and a half million people each year come to see if there is any truth in that.

Sunrise is the best time to view it, so we shuffle out of our hostel in the wee small hours, torches at the ready, to walk down to the most accessible gate from where we are staying in Taj Ganj, the East gate.

The entry point is laughable. After a bag scan, they try to take our torches from us (which wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t my trusty event Maglite.) When we protest we’re told that the batteries are the problem. We now understand the synergy between the East gate and it’s many battery stalls outside, it had flummoxed us until now.

When they try to take Jess’ emergency Twirl, all hell breaks loose. We counter that she’s diabetic, patting our tummies by way of explanation. It just comes off as ‘hungry’ and it’s the last we see of the snacks. They agree to store our items, but when we ask how we’ll collect them we’re told we will be ejected if we ask any more questions. Sure. Radge Mahal.

Once the formalities are out of the way, we scoop up our audio guides for our first glimpse of this (unofficial) wonder.

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D’you see it? You might need to squint a bit.

The haze hampers our mission, but the morning sun starts to burn through it and that’s when we start to gasp in awe.

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Thirty-five different precious and semi-precious stones were used to create the marble inlays of the palace, the Pietra Dura.

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It’s flanked either side by four minarets with its back, remarkably a mirror image of the front, overlooking the Yamuna river which is considered sacred by Hindus. The mosques look on from either side, also with ornate red sandstone work.

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It’s starting to fill to the brim as the tourist coaches arrive from Delhi, so it’s time to get our covered feet out of here.

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We stop in at Joney’s Place for a brief refuel of Masala Omelette and Banana Lassi.

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After breakfast it’s a thirty minute walk to Agra Fort which is just along the Yamuna river, in full view of the Taj Mahal…on a clearer day. It was built by Emperor Akbar in 1565 but was modified by Emperor Shah Jahan later, he just could not get enough white marble so he embellished the fort with it.

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The residents here are a little camera shy.

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Then we have our first truly outstanding Indian meal, at Dasaprakash on Gwalior Road. We basically only order things we have never heard of before, so it’s an epic voyage of culinary discovery.

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A dander around Sadar Bazaar, and our golden Triangle experience is over.

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It has been a baptism of fire, we did in under a week combatting chest infections, Hogmanay-worthy hangovers and extreme jetlag. But we are triumphant. Next stop Varanasi.

And the soundtrack was:

Sufjan Stevens ‘Seven Swans’
Ricky Martin ‘La Vida Loca’ (forcibly)
The Killers ‘Glamorous (H)Indie Rock and Roll)’
Bruce Springsteen ‘Born to Run’
Robert Burns ‘Auld Lang Syne’

Phnom Penh; Mightier than the Sword

My introduction to the city of Phnom Penh is much like every other introduction has been during my time in South East Asia, whizzing by in a clapped out old bus…followed by a clapped out old shoddily-negotiated tuk tuk. This time I am arriving from Sihanoukville on the coast of the Gulf of Thailand with (increasingly ill) travel buddy Buffie.

We check in at Eighty8 hostel which touts itself at the ‘flashpacker’ market, those willing to pay an extra dollar or two for increased luxury. After the rat infested beachfront pad on Koh Rong, we feel we owe it to ourselves. This is the glamour to which we have not become accustomed.

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Named after the street it is on, it’s in the north-east of the city around 5 minutes walk from Sisowath Quay where the boats arrive from Siem Reap. So exploration starts with a long walk through the city from north to southern tip.

Wat Phnom is the first item on the agenda. It’s the hilltop sanctuary from which the city takes its name. Cambodian legend has it that a wealthy widow called Daun Penh (try saying it without thinking of Sean Penn) found five bronze and stone Buddha statues in 1372 during a walk along the Tonle Sap river. As a mark of respect, she built a sanctuary on the top of a hill to house them. It became known as Phnom Penh, translating as the hill of Penh. Over time, it became the shorthand for the city that sprung up around it.

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With $1.50 ticket in hand, I ascend the stunning naga staircase passing bronze carvings of battle scenes and Apsaras dancing, replicated to look like those at Angkor Wat.

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The sanctuary, or vihara, at the top was rebuilt in 1926 and little of the original building remains but it is very close to the heart of the population here, so it’s worth spending some time at the summit surveying the city or cross-legged in meditation inside the Wat itself.

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The inside is beautiful, vibrant and colourful.

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Behind it, a stupa has been built to honour Daun Penh.

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Not unlike neighbouring Laos, the Cambodian people also release birds from cages at the top of the hill to invite fortune and good health.

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Offerings are left inside the wat for the statue of Buddha; some of food and some of local currency the Riel.

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Continuing south, at the crossing of Sihanouk and Norodom Boulevards, I see the Independence monument which has the dual role of commemorating independence from the French in 1953 but also stands as a cenotaph to those who have died in war.

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On display around it are the riches of various parliamentary buildings, in stark contrast to the poverty I’ve seen elsewhere in the country.

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I swing into Mali’s for lunch and a couple of Kingdom beers on nearby Norodom Boulevard. It’s a grand spot, if a little formal.

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After lunch, I set my internal compass for Psar Toul Tom Poung (the Russian Market) but I seem to be following a slightly fraudulent map. I’m still walking 90 minutes later…but many of the sites along the way have kept me in good humour.

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Despite this, I swiftly come to learn two key facts about Phnom Penh:

1) It is nigh on impossible to cross the road. You’ll find many of your restaurant/shop/sightseeing decisions are led by this.

2) As a visitor, you’ll be offered a moto taxi or tuk tuk approximately three times per minute. It’s not at all irritating.

Eventually, (273rd time’s a charm) I grab a moto taxi to the Russian Market, so-called as all the goods would have originated from there, Russia being the only country to provide aid during the Vietnamese occupation. Browsing through the ramshackle tarpaulin-covered market, I find it’s the usual miss mash of textiles, hand-carved artefacts…and knock off electronics. Dr Dre was kind enough to reduce his speakers to a mere $3 here. What a philanthropic gent.

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But there’s no show without punch…

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Back into the tuk tuk

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and (via the petrol station) I’m headed north again.

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Street number 240, just behind the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, is where you’ll find the craft boutiques and book shops. After a browse at D’s Books on 240 and Monument Books on Norodom Boulevard, I bag a copy of Virginia Woolf’s ‘To The Lighthouse’ before scooting back to the hostel to scoop up a much less peaky Buffie.

We head out to Bopha Phnom Penh, a beautiful outdoor restaurant on Sisowath Quay.

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Despite this being the site of our initial hoodwinking when we first arrived in Phnom Penh ($5 to tuk tuk 25 steps) we still manage to enjoy the lights twinkling on the Tonle Sap river and the Apsara dancers defying the laws of joint capability.

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They accompany our Fish Amok curry washed down with a house speciality cocktail made with their local spirit. Game.

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We dart across to the Flicks 2 on 136 which is a comfy, cozy cinema that regularly screens movie The Killing Fields.

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It seems a fitting way to mark visiting Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields) the day before (see previous post.)

The next day, we swing by Friends which is a not-for-profit cafe that supports the training of young chefs and servers in the hospitality industry.

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There is so much to compute at the end of our trip to Cambodia. We do so with outstanding falafel burgers and raspberry rum cocktails.

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Afterwards, we cross to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club to watch the world go by below.

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And I watch my final sunset over the Mekong (on this trip at least.) It’s how this trip started back in Ventiane so it seems right and proper to end it that way.

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The last supper is Pad Thai alongside numerous Pina Coladas and Angkor beers.

The next morning, we trip out to Psar Thmei (the central market) to pick up some gifts to take home. It is much more glamourous than the Russian market, housed in an actual hall with art deco arches stretched above.

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The art of the oversell is not lost here, and it is a fittingly frenetic final experience for my time in Cambodia.

To balance things out, we head out to the local Wat and are blessed by Buddhist monks. We are ceremoniously soaked by litres of water thrown over us as the monk chants his blessing.

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It’s a strange sensation, but there is certainly something very  peaceful about it. Blessed, and soaked, we tuk tuk back so I can pack for the flight home to London.

You might remember that when I embarked on this trip, it was after a fairly grim few months. South East Asia has helped me draw a line under that, with aplomb.

My tuk tuk ride to the airport is insanity personified, and with joy in my heart and tears in my eyes, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

And the soundtrack was:

Arcade Fire ‘Afterlife’

The Antlers ‘Familiars’

Him Sophy ‘A Memory From Darkness’

Sufjan Stevens ‘Seven Swans’

Midlake ‘Antiphon’

Edison Lighthouse ‘Love Grows’

 

Gaining Perspective at Phnom Penh

To say that I have been putting off writing this post would be an understatement. I have been willing it away.

Like millions of visitors to Phnom Penh, I have struggled with the things I saw when learning more about the regime of the Khmer Rouge…things that can never be unseen. To put it into words seems indomitable.

However, it is intrinsic to understanding more about Cambodia and, more importantly, the Cambodian people who have shown more resilience, industry and positivity than many nations would in the wake of such atrocities. For them, I am going to give it a try.

The first stop on this journey is Tuol Sleng. Formerly a school, it was taken over by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 under Pol Pot’s ruling and was turned into S-21, the notorious secret prison (one of 196) through whose gates more than 20,000 people passed to their deaths. Now it is a Genocide Museum.

When the Khmer Rouge took power of Phnom Penh, something the Cambodian people were initially happy about after a drawn out war with Vietnam, Pol Pot began to target the educated and elite; teachers, doctors, military personnel etc. Basically anyone intelligent enough to question his way of ruling…and glasses wearers. Many were accused of largely fictitious acts of treason or fraternising with other governments. Typically, entire families of the accused would be taken and people wouldn’t know what charges were being levied against them.

They were brought here for interrogation and torture in a bid to extract a confession. If they didn’t die accidentally during this process, they were marched out to Choeung Ek (aka the killing fields) to be killed and flung in mass graves.

“Better to kill an innocent by mistake, than to spare an enemy by mistake” Pol Pot

We knew this would be a difficult day, but there are times when I was actually gasping for breath with the weight of it all. If it already sounds too much for you, you shouldn’t read on. Gruesome does not begin to cover it.

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We’re guided around three of the four main buildings. Our tour guide lost her father, brother and sister to the regime. She tells us very calmly and assures us that talking about it regularly and showing S-21 to visitors has helped her come to terms with it. But it brings tears to my eyes immediately.

We first walk through the rooms with original beds and torture implements left just as they had been found.

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Victims found by the Vietnamese army in January 1979 are buried in unmarked graves in the courtyard.

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Some of the rooms are divided into 3ft by 5ft spaces that two people would share shackled together.

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Those considered VIPs, such as military personnel, would have their own rooms. Same conditions and torture, just more space in which to enjoy it.

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In the next sombre block, there is an exhibition where hundreds of black and white photos, of victims and perpetrators, stare hauntingly back at you.

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On of only seven survivors is there, and I find his presence mesmerising. He managed to make himself useful to the Khmer Rouge leaders by painting portraits of them. This appealed to their vanity, and spared his life.

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We’re offered a photo with him when we purchase a copy of his memoirs. Somehow I can’t see a place for it amongst these images.

Torture devices are all around. The gallows in the main square were built for the school’s students to take exercise but were adapted by the Khmer Rouge. They would tie the prisoners hands and hang them upside down until they lost consciousness, then dip their heads into filthy water which would bring them back into consciousness allowing the generals to continue their interrogations.

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The final building holds an exhibition of eight Khmer Rouge combatants, and their stories of how they felt forced into the killings.

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We take some time to reflect.

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Then it’s time for us to make the journey that hundreds of thousands of Cambodian prisoners did on the way to their deaths, we tuk tuk out to Choeung Ek.

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It’s a long old dusty road, and a sad trip. When we arrive, we’re given our headphones and we pass silently through the grounds, witnessing horrendousness after horrendousness. From the point where the trucks would stop to deliver prisoners, to the serrated sugar palm they would used as a weapon of torture, to a series of mass graves.

One after another.

The uneven earth undulates before us, and we’re warned that the horrific crimes present themselves in the ground below. When we look down, garments of clothing, bones and teeth are in the process of rising to the surface. It’s an unstoppable sadness brought on by nature’s rainfall and erosion.

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Only some of the graves have been excavated, there are likely hundreds of thousands of bodies still to be found over time.

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Each is surrounded in friendship bracelets left by travellers wishing to pay their respects.

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We’re manoeuvred to the side of a nearby lake where we’re encouraged to sit or walk alongside it and reflect on the atrocities.

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A piece of music has been commissioned to help us do this. ‘A Memory From Darkness’ by Him Sophy. It is a most unexpected and welcome interlude, an opportunity to allow the emotions to flow over you.

From here we pass collections of clothes most recently found by the groundsman.

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But the worst is still to come. One of the final excavated mass graves is ahead of us, and next to it a large oak tree covered in friendship bracelets just as the grave walls before it. This is where babies and children were killed.

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They would either be thrown into the air and shot with a pistol or smashed against the tree. It is the most horrific thing I have ever known or seen, and it breaks me. There, by the tree, my spirit collapses. I can never un-know what I now know, and I’m different. Its as simple as that. I sit and weep.

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Towards the end, a sprawling tree serves as the spot where speakers were hung to play regime-friendly music drowning out the screams of the victims.

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The final stop is the majestic and graceful Choeung Ek Memorial built to commemorate every life lost during this harrowing era in Cambodia’s history.

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The design incorporates garuda birds, like those ridden by Vishnu in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, alongside magical naga serpents said to have fathered the Khmer people. Together, they are a symbol for peace.

Categorised skulls are piled high within it.

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I lay flowers at the door. But we’re so saturated with grief, it is absolutely time to go.

On our journey back to town, the beautiful Khmer children give us unwitting comfort with their cries of ‘Hello’ from the roadside.

We’re stunned. And we’ll never be the same again.

 

And the soundtrack was:

Think of the saddest song that you’ve ever heard, and listen to that.

 

Koh Rong but it feels so right

Time for another ambitious travel day as we make our merry way from Siem Reap to the arms of the sea. We start with a dart down the Tonle Sap river on this submarine-esque boat for around seven hours.

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As is usually the case in Cambodia, the advertised travel time is actually doubled. The boat’s captain even stops for a quick dip mid way. Still, I’ve always been about the journey rather than the destination, so long as there is music (sweet music), a decent read and some time to put your mind into neutral and take stock. The riverside views and Cambodian life whizz by.

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We arrive at the capital Phnom Penh and tuk tuk to the bus station for the next connection to Sihanoukville. We are punished at this point for not looking at the map beforehand, and we’re immediately charged $5 by an industrious tuk tuk driver who then proceeds to drive us approximately 20 steps.

Six hours and one stop later (good luck to those who are weak of bladder travelling in Cambodia) we pull into Sihanoukville bus station for the mandatory haggle with the gaggle of tuk tuk drivers. The entertaining (and devilishly handsome) German (hi Lasse) I met back in Si Phan Don urged me to ditch the town centre in favour of nearby Otres Beach which is 6km east. Backpackers trade on recommendations like this, yearning as they do for turn offs from the well beaten track. In fact, the next few days will be spent in places that weren’t on my original itinerary.

It’s late and the tuk tuk drivers are trying to extrapolate $40 from us for 6km, which is pretty much on a par with London black cab prices. Negotiating skills need to be at their sharpest in Cambodia, but at midnight after 16 hours on the road, we settle on a generous $10 and scoot off to Otres Beach where we’re booked into hostel Don’t Tell Mama.

After a brilliant night’s sleep, we wake to the beauty of our little beachside bungalow complete with en suite bathroom and mosquito nets.

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It’s clean, well kitted out with amenities and secure. Perched right on the end of the strip, it’s also peaceful. The best (and most talked about) in Otres Beach is Mushroom Point with its unique round bungalows with thatched roofs shaped like little fungi. You’ll need to book early to get in there though, so it’s not an option for the more spontaneous traveller.

Otres is a fishing village set on a simple strip of coastline which can’t be more than quarter of a mile. Both sides of the red sand road are lined with hostels, bungalows, tour operators and quirky bars and restaurants. Tuk tuks ply the route swerving to avoid potholes and other ‘pedestrians’ like those below.

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It is a great place to relax and enjoy Cambodian cuisine. One of our favourite places to eat is the chic outdoor diner, Dune.

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Here, I enjoy my first taste of Fish Amok which is a native spiced curry with chilli, garlic, turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, and lime zest. The view out to the Gulf of Thailand is cracking.

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It’s also illegal in the Same Small World travel guidelines to sit beachside without a pina colada in hand. Standard.

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Here we watch the sun dip down into the sea as the bells on the fishing boats ding gently as they bob on the waves.

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The territory of the next part of the journey is so unchartered that it’s not even in my guide book! I’m fairly trad when it comes to travelling; ebooks will never replace books, my blog will never place my diary and the travel forums on my iPad will never replace travel guides. I used to be a Rough Guide sort of a girl, but Lonely Planet won me over during a trip to Thailand nine years ago.

ANYWAYS, the next stop is Koh Rong, the second largest island of Cambodia which is located in Koh Kong Province about 25 kilometers off the Sihanoukville’s coast in the Gulf of Thailand. The island has 43 km of beaches, unspoilt jungle, quaint beach bungalows, no roads or traffic and no electricity. It’s the classic island paradise, very rough round the edges and only for the seasoned traveller.

We wash up on the shore after a 45 minute journey from Sihanoukville.

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And first impressions are everything we’d hoped for.

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First things first, we’re taken into Coco’s for a briefing.

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The stark realities of living on an island paradise are outlined to us in no uncertain terms. We’re warned against jungle walks due to snakes,  told how to outsmart sandfly bites with coconut oil and advised to get comfortable at the sight of rats. It’s fair to say that for all the attractive lure of its underdevelopment, Koh Rong has sanitation issues that bring their own challenges.

Briefed, and on high alert, we troop to La Mami one of the only guesthouses set out over the water (a sensible place to be to avoid unwelcome guests of any kind.)

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We’re remarkably underwhelmed with the accommodation (including a drop loo into the sea…yeah the one we’re due to splash in later.) We ditch it and make for the White Rose Guesthouse at the end of the pier.

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The double rooms are spacious but basic, kitted out with tired looking mosquito nets and fans which run when the generators do. It has a sociable little terrace, a balcony with hammocks to swing in and two shared bathrooms at the end of each hall.

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Proximity to the pier is a plus point too due to the searing heat. And the view out onto the strip ain’t half bad.

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We set out on an exploration mission walking the length of the beach along the south-east of the island. We quickly surmise that the island is utterly stunning…

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We also realise that the population is about 5% Khmer, 95% tourist; something to be expected for the foreseeable future as word spreads on the backpacker network about this idyllic little spot.

My favourite local is this little guy who sports something we’ve seen a lot of in Asia, Premiere League football strips with a twist. On this one, unthinkably for Chelsea fans, the name Hazard is emblazoned on the back but the Manchester United badge sits proudly on the front.

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There is much to do here, from scuba diving and snorkelling the coral, boat trips to watch (and swim in) the twinkling plankton by night and fishing hauls to nearby reefs.

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Of course if you come, as we have, during a period of rough water and terrible visibility, there is nothing to do here other than eat, drink and bathe in the arms of the sea. We do all three with gusto.

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Daringly at times, we even forsake Angkor Beer and dabble instead with regional brew Klang. (Cue MEGAlols and wordplay around our beloved Scottish colloquialism ‘langers’ – meaning the state one gets oneself in when one has over-imbibed alcohol…)

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The quality of the restaurants relate directly to distance from the pier, with one exception. Despite the accommodation options being underwhelming at La Mami, the food is exquisite. Whilst I am not usually one to go for the western option, their Italian menu is outstanding with handmade pastas and freshly prepared sauces. Between us over our four days, we tried tagliatelle bolognese, pesto fettuccine, blue cheese gnocchi, bruschetta and aubergine crostini. When in Rome right?

In fact the food was so good that a lapse in concentration caused Buffie, travel buddy du jour on this Cambodian jaunt, to drop her purse onto the pier which promptly fell through the slats and into the sea. The manager Leo and his pal nonchalantly reach for a fishing net to catch it and deliver it back safely. Points for service boys.

Another highlight was Monkey Kingdom, midway along the beach, which is a very popular hostel that has a brilliant and very sociable raised wooden bar. The view is great.

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The Thai chef serves up really flavoursome specialities including Guang Kua with pork and pineapple (it is outrageously good)

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and Pad Ka Pow with chicken.

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If you stop in early doors, the watermelon shakes are a winner too.

Further up at the end of the beach, far from the madding crowd, sits Treehouse Bungalows. They mix a mean Banana Rum cocktail and the prawn with garlic, ginger and pepper is ace. Order it at your peril though, I counted 14 cloves of garlic…

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The Seahouse is a relatively new restaurant that we tried, the music was admittedly better than the food, but as it sits on wooden stilts over the water its a good place to catch the breeze and cool down. I had the Beef Lok Lak, another of the national Cambodian dishes, which is marinated beef with a sea salt, lime juice and black Kampot pepper sauce served over salad.

The beach at the other end of the island fast becomes our favourite haunt and we manage days of sunbathing where we barely see a soul. It’s a beautiful walk and the water is perfect, kept calmer by its protective peninsula and shallow enough that you can stride out endlessly before the sand is no longer at your toes.

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Its mesmerising to watch the sand crabs scuttle around on the sand, starting at every vibration. Can you see this little guy?

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There is just something very renewing about being by the sea. I have always felt that way, on coastlines all over this Same Small World. I can literally feel the stresses of the last few months wash away; the hospital stint, the excruciating work situation, the arduous 20 hour-long working days and the joyless relationship I had to pull myself out of. For that reason, I fall for this island…rats and all.

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And the soundtrack was:

Iron & Wine ‘The creek drank the cradle’

The Lemonheads ‘It’s a shame about Ray’

The Antlers ‘Hospice’

Primal Scream ‘Screamadelica’

Phosphorescent ‘Muchacho’

Tomb Raiding in Angkor Wat

Some things in life grab you and you’re instantly touched by their beauty, like the opening bars of Corsicana by The Antlers or the smiling face of a friend meeting you at the end of a long journey. Angkor Wat is one of those things, and my first experience of it is at the break of dawn.

Whilst also shorthand for the dazzlingly impressive 300 kilometre squared temple complex which sits valiantly astride the Tonle Sap river in northern Cambodia, Angkor Wat is also one of the largest temples on the site, built of sandstone and laterite in 1150 by King Suryavarman II of the Khmer empire for the Hindu god Vishnu. And it’s here that we start.

After whizzing through the streets of Siem Reap at 5am in a tuk tuk, we are now stumbling in pitch black along the moat over the river through entrance gates and over stone steps which we can’t even see. We’re not alone, the respectfully quiet chatter around us implies that we’re amongst hundreds of people making their way to the well documented vantage point to watch the sun come up over Angkor Wat, their darting torch beams the only thing keeping us from falling over.

We follow the masses and exit the causeway, ending up next to a lake on the – of the site. It has rather a communal festival feel with groups cross-legged on the floor chatting. As we wait for first light, the chatter dulls and quietens, and slowly the rising sun (albeit shrouded in wispy cloud) reveals those unmistakable and majestic corn-cob towers atop 1500 metres squared of intricate brickwork.

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And suddenly all at once we feel like we’ve been here a thousand times over.

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After we’ve taken it all in from a distance, Bette Midler style. We leave the throng at the lake, all draped over the library temples like they were built to take selfies on, and head for the temple.

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It is said that Angkor Wat took thirty years to complete, and you can forgive the slow workmanship when you get closer. Every nook and cranny boasts such fine detail, with each turn a new feat of crafstmanship surpasses the last. Its 3rd enclosing wall is embossed with a series of bas-reliefs, a particular kind of sculpture designed to be viewed from many angles without distortion.

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Scholars have ruminated that this particular temple was built for funerary purposes since its bas-reliefs are meant to be viewed anti-clockwise, a direction that was associated with death in the Khmer empire.

We walk round the walls taking in each gallery depicting battle scenes and tales from Hindu mythology.

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These were once embossed in red and gold, but it has worn off from thousands of hands caressing the complex and detailed stonework. Two of the most famous are the Heaven and Hell gallery, and The Ocean of the Churning Milk.. The latter is concerned with the life story of Krishna, one of the avatars of Vishnu. In it the devas (gods) and asuras (demons) line up against each other trying to churn the ocean to make amrita (the elixir of immortality.) I’ll tak a cup o’ that.

The pyramid at the heart of the temple is triple tiered. Up one level is the Gallery of a Thousand Buddhas, or it was until large numbers of the statues were removed for conservation and the remainder were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. We’re invited by a local to light incense and give thanks to Buddha by kneeling, clasping the incense between our palms, holding it to our foreheads and bowing three times. It’s a lovely, peaceful moment, but the bubble bursts almost immediately when the understandably industrious Cambodian invites us to donate $20 ‘for good luck.’

Nearby the Chamber of Echoes is a place where sound reverberates if you stand with your back to the wall and thump your chest. This what the locals do, three times, for good fortune. This time for free.

In the same cloister are the old library buildings and the south west and south east corner of the complex.

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Up another level is a stunning frieze of apsaras which are spirits of the clouds and waters from both Hindu and Buddhist mythology,  the emblems (and poster girls) of this beautiful country.

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It’s a steep climb to the third and final level, which only the high priest and king would have been allowed to visit in Khmer times.

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Here, your flesh will need to be covered to within an inch of its life to observe the tradition respectfully, a scarf over the shoulders won’t do. But, after the climb, in the excruciating heat, we are very much rewarded. The views outward are of the dense forests and rice paddies, the sheer scale bringing your jaw to a slack position.

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The views inwards are just as gratifying.

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Beautiful courtyards giving way to the 65 metre corn-cob towers themselves.

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If you can squint long enough into the debilitatingly hot sun, you’ll see garudas (large mythical birds), nagas (serpents) and apsaras (poster girls) on every inch of every spire.

On the way out at the gates, we stop in at the statue of Vishnu resplendent in saffron.

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Sounds just heavenly doesn’t it. Well, it does have its downsides. We are harangued relentlessly by local vendors to eat and drink almost constantly when outwith the enclosure walls. That I can deal with. The fact that they are all named Harry Potter, Lady Gaga, 007 etc, I can’t.

This could indicate numerous things; that Western tourists are so lazy they can’t remember a Cambodian name, that they’re so oblivious they can’t identify someone they just had a conversation with or that they are so xenophobic that the moment they see something which connects them to the part of the globe that they can relate to more closely they are so giddy with excitement they’ll by a $2 dollar Coke. Or all of the above.

We beat a hasty retreat after this due to the searing heat, returning the next day in late afternoon to the Angkor Thom complex and specifically the Bayon.

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When we reach there, a production team are setting up for a film shoot which is not uncommon here (parts of Tomb Raider were filmed at nearby Ta Prohm…of which more later.) In front of the temple, flight cases are lined up and lighting rigs are being assembled around us.

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But within the enclosure walls and away from the melee, we see the temple in all its uninterrupted glory. In this lower light, the setting sun seems to turn the stone pinkish in this dusky hue. It’s a beautiful time of day to see it.

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The eye is drawn immediately, and mesmerisingly, to the temple’s unique selling point (marketing speak people…bathe in it) which is 216 faces carved into the temple’s 54 stone towers dominating the view from every enchanting angle.

Some claim that these were modelled in the image of the ever modest Khmer King. Others say that it is the image of Loveskara, meaning ‘Lord of the world’, the bodhisattva said to encompass the compassion of all buddhas in Mahayana Buddhism.

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Not to be outdone, the Bayon has its own bas-reliefs adorning the walls…

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…but many are unfinished and in poor condition, so I’d suggest swerving these and spending your time seeking out the faces and taking a moment to admire how the light dances upon the stone.

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Next up the following morning is Banteay Srei, the veritable poster boy of Angkor Wat itself. Or perhaps we should we say poster girl given that it translates as ‘Citadel of women’, its intricate and detailed carvings in the fine-grained rose-pink sandstone lending themselves to the legend that it was built by women.

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This is the temple that adorns $2 dollar t-shirts the country over, and it’s understandable. Even if you’d spent a full week shuffling around temples in the excruciating heat, I defy your heart not to soften on sight of this charming beauty.

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This temple is the Kylie of Angkor Wat, positively diminutive compared to some of its contemporaries comprised as it is of one single level. It is richly embellished with floral motifs and scenes from the Ramayana, considered one of the great Hindu epics. The temple itself was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva in 967.

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Mythical beasts with monkey’s heads and human bodies guard the temple steps.

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It’s a popular spot despite the 25km schlep from the main drag of Angkor Wat, so it is not conducive to linger here and the flow of visitors kind of carries you aloft towards the western exit. A local band of musicians raising money to support those affected by land mines plays us out with a beautiful soundtrack.

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It’s worth stealing one last glance over your shoulder at the resplendent temple before the off.

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Our penultimate stop is Ta Prohm, made famous by a lycra-clad Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. It was built in 1186 as a monastery dedicated to the deity Prajnaparamita. Over time, nature has battled with it and in this case, won. Enormous kapok trees wind their way over, above and through the terraces and walls.

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Wandering around it feels like walking down London’s Oxford Street though, it’s overcrowded and mostly shrouded in scaffolding. We make a very sharp exit and head for Preah Khan.

Here, we find something unique to Angkor Wat…peace. It starts at the processional way entering the western gate.

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Preah Khan was built by Jayavarman VII on the site of a former royal city, and it was here that the king lived whilst he was overseeing the restoration of Angkor Thom. The name Preah Khan means ‘sacred sword’ is said to be a weapon that was ceremonially gifted by the king to his heir, so the person holding the sword hold’s the throne.

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Soon I’m clambering through the halls and corridors of the temple which once served as both a monastery and university. Nature has also had its way here and lichen encrusts the sandstone giving it a very ethereal feel here.

The walls are graced with yet more eye-catching carvings.

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Taking respite from the sun, I grab a seat on the stairs facing one of the library buildings.

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Right at this point I feel a calmness descend over me. The beauty of the temples hit me over the head from the moment the sun rose over Angkor Wat on the first day but it’s not until now, away from the bartering Lady Gagas and 007’s, that the serenity takes hold.

Maybe it’s the yoga, maybe it’s the full moon, maybe I just utterly love being back on the road again. But a switch flicks today for sure.

It seems like the right thing to do to pay my thankful respects at the stupa of Buddha on the way out.

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Our tuk tuk driver looks as knackered as us by the time we’re ready to traipse home.

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And the soundtrack was:

Youth Lagoon ‘Wondrous Bughouse’

Sharon Van Etten ‘Are we there’

Daughter ‘If you leave’