Category Archives: Travel musings

A range of general musings from travels past and present.

Getting a Sense of Cambodia

P and I set off to the small town of Pursat to get a feel for a more rural part of Cambodia. Despite being detailed in our guidebook, Pursat was a great place to get away from the regular tourist trail a little. No-one at our guest house spoke more than a couple of words of English, I had issues conveying the notion of “No meat, no fish – I’m vegetarian” at each restaurant we visited and every kid we passed seemed to be inordinately excited to see us walk by.

To get a real Cambodian experience, we decided what better way than to take a ride on the bamboo train. This refers not to a train making its way through a bamboo forest, but actual carriages made from wood. However, I use the word ‘carriages’ with caution, as in reality they are mere platforms of a few planks tied together, set upon wheels and powered by a motorcycle engine. Used by locals to get around the countryside, these great little cars run up and down old single-track railways that are rarely used these days except for the occasional freight train. While we wanted a true local experience, in reality this is quite hard to achieve when none of the locals driving speak English (my Khmer was at that point limited to ‘Hello’ and ‘Thankyou’). So instead of just hoping for one to pass and hopping on, we on settled paying $10 for a trip down the tracks with a whole bamboo platform to ourselves. Bearing in mind that this is a form of public transport to those living in the area, the locals did appear slightly bemused at the fact that we just wanted to drive down and back with no specific destination. I suppose it was a little like getting a guided tour of the tube, just to see how local Londoners do things.

Nevertheless, it was well worth it and we really did get a sense of the area in so many ways.

To begin with, the landscape was breathtakingly beautiful. Chugging through the countryside away from any roads meant we were met with unbroken vistas of fields and trees, with the occasional wooden house built on stilts. We saw water buffalo wallowing in paddy fields, dirt tracks deserted except for the odd duck and secluded wats (temples) rising above trees in the distance.

Apart from the small engine propelling us along, there was not another motorised vehicle in sight, so the air felt wonderfully fresh. A deep breath in brought the scents of leafy trees, humid air blown across the fields and the occasional odour of manure – we were in the countryside after all.

Then there was the sound of the train. If you’ve ever thought a train was loud as it drives past, try sitting just a foot or so above the tracks as it chugs along. The clack-clack of the wheels across the track are amplified to a deafening roar, so that your ears are inundated with the noise of the carriage.

Some people might say that it is hard to experience a place through touch, but I would argue that after a little while of sitting on the bare bamboo slats of the platform, my bum definitely had a feel for how Cambodians travel. Forget railroad tracks being the epitome of the straight and parallel, these things had some definite wobbles to them. We were jolted up and down, swaying from side to side as the wheels rumbled over ancient lines. Built for larger trains intended to travel at a greater velocity than we were capable, curves in the track had a slight tilt. This meant that as we rounded corners the whole thing lurched alarmingly towards the ditch. While bamboo trains are eminently practical, travelling down a single track also had the unfortunate disadvantage of only allowing one bamboo carriage to run at once. If you meet another train driving in the opposite direction, you have the felicity of experiencing a walk into the bushes, as the whole apparatus is taken apart and moved to the side to allow the other pass by.

As for taste – after a few hours with the sun beating down on you, not much beats a juicy mango fresh from the tree.

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The Witch’s Stone Garden

I wrote before about the magic of the fireflies on a river in Cherating, but I am going to mention magic again in a different context. Namely because I feel like I stepped into a Buddhist version of Narnia.

A few kilometres outside of Vientiane in Laos is the Xiang Khouan, or Buddha Park, something vaguely resembling the Gaudi Gardens in Barcelona. Basically, it is a small park absolutely overflowing with concrete creations of all shapes and sizes, from small little Buddha statues to an immense pumpkin shaped construction topped with a spiky, branch-like spire and filled inside with whacky sculpted figures.

Now I’m not really an expert on Hindu and Buddhist lore, but if this garden is anything to go by, the guy who created it would sure have been an interesting person to meet. There are some of the usual depictions of Hindu deities, complete with multiple arms, heads or tails. Indeed, these features are often utilised to their utmost; I counted no less than eighteen arms on one statue. However, as well as various Hanumans (monkey god) and Ganeshes (elephant god), there are also many more fantastic mythical masterpieces. Mermaids, monsters, figures emerging from the mouths of fish and an awful lot of images featuring both wings and serpents tails, which seemed an interesting dichotomy given the religious context.

Halfway down the garden is a giant statue which from the back could quite conceivably be a standing Buddha, which to be fair you could be forgiven for expecting in a Buddha Park. But once you turn to face it, you see that the figure actually has the triple-headed face of a scary monster, the toes of its shoes gape open as toothed jaws and its arms are holding the figure of an unconscious woman. There are lines of maidens bearing offerings next to warriors poised with bows and spears. Cute little animals, but also a man pulling the legs off a giant grasshopper.

Yet despite the strangeness of many of these apparitions, they somehow manage to work with the landscape, becoming a part of it rather than an imposition on it. Seated Buddhas are tickled by the leaves of trees and stone snakes seem to twine around roots or slither straight out of the ground.

But what makes it all seem so magical is that everything seems to be caught mid-motion, as if they really had been turned to stone by the White Witch and are waiting for Aslan to return to rescue them. they are all mythical creatures captured in her castle. There’s even one that reminds me of a faun. I’m sure that if Aslan came along, the creature would start running again. Spears held aloft would be thrown, arrows would be fired and nymphs would continue to dance.

Magic

‘Magical’ is a word that can be over-used to describe experiences, particularly while travelling. But when P and I had just returned from a beautiful trip down a river in search of fireflies, we both agreed that ‘magic’ truly was the best word to describe it.

The coastal town of Cherating in Malaysia is pretty in itself, but this excursion is what truly made it for us. There were just the two of us in the boat with our guide, following the river upstream and into the darkness. The journey in itself immediately had an enthralling aura about it, with a few stars peeking out from behind the clouds and the trees faintly outlined against the dying light. At first all seemed dark ahead, then we began to make out a few flickers in the distance. These became stronger and more frequent, until suddenly a whole tree would be glittering and glowing. Imagine walking through a forest at night, to suddenly find in the distance a tree lit up with fairy lights gently twinkling through the shadows. I now understand why fairy lights are so named; these days they are fairly overused, but in isolation they retain an enchanting simplicity which is incredibly beautiful.

Not content with allowing us to view this spectacle from a distance, our guide drew out a faint red torch and began enticing them towards us. Like a sorcerer in a fairy tale, he sat in solitary splendour charming spirits from the trees. They followed him like a cloud, swirling around him as they flowed from the riverbanks in a never-ending stream. With a wave of his magic wand, he sent them flying towards us; soon we were both surrounded by the little glowing creatures. Words really can’t describe just how miraculous it felt to have them so close, landing on our hands, our hair, and flying so close to our faces that we were almost blinded by their little lights. Along our journey so far we have become familiar with mosquitoes, cockroaches and other such ‘evil’ bugs, that I have usually been more than happy to exterminate at the first opportunity. Yet if I harmed even one of these fantastic little fireflies, just by accident, I would have felt terrible, like I’d spoiled something truly special.   Like in the movie ‘Avatar’ where the forest suddenly comes alive, it felt like we had a glimpse into another world, totally removed from the busy riverside restaurants we had passed just moments before.  

Home Sweat Home

Taman Negara, in the heart of Peninsular Malaysia, is said to be the oldest rainforest on the planet. Worlds away from the bustle of Kuala Lumpur, this is the kind of place where you can arrive by boat and then hike through the trees to reach your guest house. Accommodations tend to be of the basic-wooden-hut variety and most of the restaurants are on floating barges to allow for increased river levels due to the monsoon.

Outdoor enthusiasts that we are, P and I decided that a couple of days hiking in the forest sounded like a great idea. Braving the impending rains with only a little trepidation (dark thunder clouds appear a lot more threatening when you’re in a tiny boat on a river in the woods) we embarked on a few days of tropical exploration.

For some reason, we always seem to prolong the hassle of finding a room by marching around for far too long with our giant backpacks while looking for the best deal. Our arrival at the tiny town of Kuala Tahan was no exception. We trekked up dirt tracks and confused ourselves with maps in an effort to find the place we’d heard recommended. However, for once we were entirely satisfied with having followed the hand-painted signs saying ‘Durian Chalet 200/400/800m’. Set in a beautiful little wooded garden, we found a great little room complete with a kettle and a drying rack. This last was an absolute necessity because of what seemed to be the predominating feature of life in the rainforest – sweat!

We went on two day hikes into the forest – one along the stunning canopy walkway and up to a hilltop viewpoint, the other to a bat cave along an equally hilly route – and each time we needed to only have taken a few steps into the trees and we were just bathed in sweat. Not just a little perspiration on the forehead and damp armpits, but full on drops falling in the eyes and a T-shirt that could have filled a small bucket if you wrung it out. The hikes were awesome, with giant twining roots, Tarzan-like vines and bizarre, unidentifiable plant life. But still, one of the things I remember most was the intense humidity. Not heat, for we have certainly been in places where the temperature was a few degrees higher. Just the overwhelming sense that the air is so saturated with moisture that you could be drinking it rather than breathing. We had to drink so much water to combat the gallons we were losing through our pores that I think we even sweated more from the weight of carrying so many bottles.

I felt that another of those hand-painted signs in the town summed up the way I felt about Taman Negara. In a comical case of mis-spelling, they were advertising their guest house as ‘Home Sweat Home’. I entirely agreed with the ‘sweat’ portion of the sign, but I was also very glad we had found such a homely place where I could fix myself a cup of tea after a long day out hiking.  

Indian Menus

One of my favourite sources of entertainment in India is very simple and incredibly easy to find: the menu.

Now, as we are traversing a country with a wide range of curry delicacies that are unfamiliar (not to mention unpronounceable) to the average tourist, I was prepared to find that I wouldn’t always understand everything listed for dinner. But what I hadn’t realised was the number of different spellings used for seemingly commonplace dishes. It seems the more foreign to India the food, the more scope for hilarious errors.

Breakfast is the first thing we are confronted with each morning, so before he has had his coffee P has to figure out if he wants “fride”, “scrembold” or “pochede” eggs. “Tost” is often available with “botter” or “honney”. “Indian musly – friut with card” may sound rather unappetising, until you realise that they are referring to muesli with curd, a type of yogurt. Different nationalities are not ignored, so that you can have a “Spenesh omlet” or “France toast”. However, these forays into international foods sometimes degenerate into complete unintelligibility, such as when we had to ask for a translation of a “coarsen”, to be told it was ‘breakfast pastry, you know, like in France’.

Fruit in general appears to present a few problems. Particularly lemon, which is more commonly known as “limon”. Or “liman”. Or “leman”. It seems any combination of vowels interspersed with the letters “l”, “m” and “n” will do. Longer fruits suffer the fate of being split in two, so that you can have “Pine Apple”, or even “Water Million” juice. And if you’re not in the mood for juice, there’s always “koka colar” or “sprit”. The bemusing thing is that the same word can be spelled in three or four different ways on the same page; are they hoping that if they include all possible permutations, at least one will be correct?

There is also a predominance of unexplained acronyms and abbreviations randomly placed throughout menus, so that you have to puzzle out for yourself that a ‘C.T.G. S/wiche’ is in fact a Cheese Tomato Garlic sandwich.

Pasta never fails to produce hilarity. On a sample menu, I was faced with a “choice of spaghetti, Tegliattli of Machroni”. I was then offered – no joke – the following varieties of sauce: “Tomato souse with chess”; “Funghi – con Pana Mush. in creamy with sause”; “Spenish mashroom Cennelloni”; and “Bloganice -Chicken”. No wonder eating in India can be hazardous – could you guarantee what I would be served from the above descriptions?

The same menu featured “Egg. Plant Tomato lasagne”. The British are always confused by this alternative way of expressing “aubergine”, but even Americans may be perplexed by this division of the vegetable into two separate words, the first apparently an abbreviation of something longer than just “Egg”.

Our guest house in the Andamans was no exception, with some very choice “Ala’ carte” offerings to keep me amused. Options included “franch fry” (or, more simply put, chips), “Posed eggs” (presumably eggs which have been poached, not just placed artistically on the plate) and under the heading “pancakes” was “Banana filter chocolet honnmey” (all I can deduce is some form of fritter involving banana, chocolate and honey).

My absolute favourite is the apparent availability of nuns; we were offered them in plain, butter or “garlick” variety for a mere 25 rupees. Evidently they go rather well with curry.

A Digression upon Cake

It may just be me, but throughout my life birthdays have always been about cake.

In the street where I grew up, two weeks in March contained four or five birthdays, with the result that my birthday seemed to be the centre of a steady stream of sing-happy-birthday-and-eat-cake visits between neighbours.

As I grew a little older, within my group of friends birthdays were always marked by some form of edible delicacy of ridiculous proportions created by the group; I distinctly remember the shock on my thirteenth or fourteenth birthday when I sliced open the seemingly innocuous chocolate-coated concoction SB had produced, to find that in fact the bottom layer was bright blue and the top a lurid shade of pink. From childhood until now, cake has always played an important role for me in birthday festivities: home-made chocolate goodness with my office last year; apple cake freshly baked by SF the year before; even in Sri Lanka, my wonderful housemates produced some kind of sponge-type-dessert with candles.

So these days, when I am asked what I wish to do for my birthday, I say that I don’t mind as long as it involves cake. Imagine P’s dismay when he realises that while we have arrived in paradise for my birthday, the facilities in paradise – namely the Andaman Islands – are somewhat limited. The one ‘large’ shop on Havelock island has less in stock than your average corner newsagent, and dessert menus usually consist of fruit or pancakes. I tried to hide my disappointment when he suggested the day before that procuring baked goods from a kitchen that cooks everything on a gas ring may be a little unrealistic.

So imagine my joy when on the day itself he walks in with a box containing a specially-ordered, beautifully-iced chocolate confection. It even bore the words ‘Happy Birthday to Jenny’ (though apparently P had some difficulty explaining that it was my name, not his as the one collecting the cake, that needed to appear in the icing!). My birthday had begun with gifts of fabulous Indian jewellery then continued with a wonderful day spent snorkelling in turquoise waters and relaxing on beautiful white sand, so I was perfectly content.

However, receiving my own personalised piece of dessert was – sorry, I have to say it – the icing on the cake.

The Last Train in India

P and I were taking our last train across India. I was actually sat aboard train #2334, the Vibhuti Express, as I wrote. As we set off for the station I was almost feeling a little sad that this would be our last journey before we get on a plane, that our true ‘travels’ in India are over.

However, as this was our final train trip, fate appears to have conspired that we get the last train to ever arrive at the station, and this excursion seemed destined to include all the elements of a true adventure in sleeper class.

To begin with, we waited forever for the journey to begin. Arriving at the station before 5pm for our train at 6pm (a usual precaution when we often spend at least half an hour trekking in circles trying to find snacks, water and, of course, the right platform), we were then told it was two hours, no three hours, wait, maybe four hours late. In true Indian fashion, even the stationmaster couldn’t be sure, but we eventually boarded at roughly 10.30pm, only four and a half hours late. Unfortunately, boarding is not the same as actually moving and the train didn’t get underway until around 11.45pm. The ironic thing was that another train to Calcutta had since come and gone, but due to the complicated nature of Indian train bookings, we couldn’t board this unless we wanted to sleep in a doorway.

Once in our own, correctly numbered vehicle, we found our proper place (two upper bunks in Sleeper car 7 to be exact) and settled in for the next 14 hours. Making your bed on the train involves attempting to clean off the layer of grime, but at least this is something we are used to. I am now well practiced in cleaning them the Indian way: sprinkling with water and scrubbing with newspaper (or in our case the many ‘Rules and Regulations’ pages ripped out of the back of our timetable, a book the size of a small phone directory). You would think that the delay on the platform would have been a nice opportunity for the conductor to come and check passengers were in the correct berths, but no, he decided to wait until 2.30am to come and wake us all up with demands for tickets. During the night, the train seemed to be stopped more frequently than it was moving, so we had no idea how much further behind schedulewe were.

Travelling as foreigners on the railways, especially on less common tourist routes, inevitably means that we attract attention. I awoke in the morning to find two little faces peering over the divide from the next bunk. In my semi-comatose state, I found this slightly off-putting and instinctively looked to my bags, however it was not my belongings that the ragged little girl next door was fascinated with, but just me and everything I was doing. Sweet, but somewhat disconcerting when you have someone intently watching you washing your face at seven in the morning.

Unexpected railway delays are also slightly inconvenient when I had been counting on a late breakfast in Calcutta, but ended up devoutly hoping we would arrive in time for dinner. As the journeys are so long, hawkers are constantly traversing the carriages selling everything from tea to biriyanis. Yet the nature of the trip itself as an exceedingly long one means that we were just a little wary of ‘omelettes’ they had been selling for the last four hours in the heat – just imagine the state of the toilets by that time and I’m sure you’ll understand why. Living off snacks seems a possible alternative, but even purchasing peanuts is never as simple as appears. I tried to buy a banana; we only wanted two, but apparently were not allowed anything less than ten.

P went to stand in the door with the GPS; despite the fact that we had been travelling for nearly 12 hours, we found we were apparently less than half way. I guess I’m glad that we were used to Indian railways and decided that allowing 24 hours before our flight was a sensible decision. I spent the rest of the journey just hoping we make it.  

*For the record, our train that was scheduled to arrive at 7.55am eventually crawled into Calcutta sometime after 6.30pm, at which point we gave up all hopes of seeing anything of the city except traffic and headed to an airport hotel.