“Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.” –Mark Jenkins

Sunday, 24 November 2013

The wait is over... next trip is booked - let the countdown begin!

Whooo hooo - so pleased I made the decision and have taken the final place on a 2014 tour - again with David Plummer. So I am now going.... Back to the swamps of Brazil!
I went to the Pantanal in 2007 (where unfortunately I did not see the elusive Jaguar) but the knowledge that, every year since, the tour has seen Jaguars, in multiple numbers, has persuaded me to break my own rules and re-visit the same place twice. The tour leaves London on the 1st October 2014 and so already it is less than a year away. A little too early to start preparations, but never too early to start blogging.
I was immensely pleased with my images from the last visit and the experience was one that's difficult to put into words, but thankfully I now have a chance to relive it and make some improvements (mainly to the kites and kingfishers).

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Positive exposure for the charity!

Hi again Joanne,
I just wanted to give you the very good news that your visit story was picked up by several local papers for their websites! I think this is the most online interest I’ve seen so thank you so much. It’s fantastic to get news of Plan’s work out there for people to read about.
Many thanks and best wishes,
Westaly Duignan
Supporter Development Co-ordinator
Plan UK
Address: Finsgate 5-7 Cranwood Street, London EC1V 9LH
Follow us:Twitter|Facebook

Sunday, 10 March 2013

on reflection...

It's been a week since I returned now and I have had a little time to review the photos (all 1019 of them), I've even uploaded some (click here to view the first 165!) and spent 3 days working in Italy which gave me yet more flying time to reflect...
Cambodia as a country is a photographers dream, so many subjects, so much colour and so much history. The people are incredibly calm, almost submissive, happy and always pleased to help. The Buddhist religion is also clear throughout - but what sticks with me most are the opposites that are seen all over the country; sweaty rickshaw riders laden with goods bumping along in between the rich Lexus drivers in their air-conditioned cocoons. The holiest of ancient pagodas and immaculate temples perched on top of mountains that are completely covered with waves of

Friday, 1 March 2013

Rest and recuperation my arse!

After a very poor nights sleep we met for breakfast at 8am which was the best we've had so far. Both western and Cambodian food choices, fresh fruit and even yoghurt.
Today we had planned to be a day of rest and recuperation, and seeing as we are at a spa hotel we had booked ourselves in for a 1pm treatment. Having never done it before I opted for the safest...  foot reflexology. With the miles we've clocked up this trip and rapidly growing bunions like mine I was expecting great things, and it didn't disappoint. 45 minutes of foot massage and pressure therapy for a mere £7 was worth every penny. So much so that I decided to book a second treatment for 4pm whilst Mum was having her all over aromatherapy oil body massage. Not one for having my bits felt by strangers, I went for a simple head, shoulder and back massage. On arrival we were again given very fiery ginger tea which was gorgeous (and sobering after the two beers we had already consumed by the pool) and were then taken to the spa treatment room. Mum got given some fetching navy pants and I got a pair of linen pyjamas. I lay on the bed and put my face through the hole as instructed, which felt a little tight I have to admit, but they had kindly provided a view for me by placing an arty bowl of water on the floor filled with pebbles and a fresh lotus flower - which Mum later told me was supposed to waft scents up to me during the experience. The therapist started by asking me whether I wanted a soft, medium or strong massage and having never done it before I went with medium, she was only tiny, how bad could it be?... well.... if that was medium I dread to think what strong would have done to me.
The pyjamas should have given me a clue that this wasn't going to be a soothing affair, but quite a painful pummelling and one that wasn't limited to my head, shoulders and back either, it pretty much covered everything except my chest. The legs, arms and bum were bearable - nice even, but the back and shoulders were seriously uncomfortable. At one point it felt like she was actually standing on my shoulders - which forced my head deeper into the already snug hole cutting off my air supply, which in turn caused a steady stream of dribble to land in the bowl below! Thankfully the hour flew by and before I knew it I was out of there leaving Mum to enjoy her final 30 mins in peace. I don't think I will be venturing into a spa again any time soon.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Travelling back to Phnom Penh on last day of tour

Woke with a sore head at 3am and then 5am and then finally at 7am just before the alarm. No power meant no coffee, no aircon and no fan in the room, but thankfully I had cooled down quite a bit after my heat collapse last night.
The Cambodian Crouch
Eric arrived in a large air conditioned car at 8am and we set off shortly after. Sitting in the back of a car is never a great experience for me and so I tried to sleep through it which would have worked had the driver not spent the majority of the 4 hour journey leaning on his horn. Thankfully we stopped a couple of times to break it up. The first was at a Buddha factory (more like a roadside village where most people made Buddha's in their front gardens). It was stupidly hot again and I managed to walk around a few of the "factories" before giving up and getting back in the car. I think I have seen enough Buddha statues to last me a lifetime now.
The second stop was mainly for lunch, but it was a place where the locals hold a small market selling all kinds of weird and wonderful fried creatures that I had to have explained to me by a 13 year old girl called Soraya. Her English is fantastic and she said she goes to school every day and then comes after school to the market to sell fruit to make money for her family. She took me round and told me what all the goods were including whole deep-fried quails and their eggs, tarantulas (live ones in buckets and also deep-fried in chilli), there were fruits of all kinds and sweets made of rice, sugar and chilli. Dried bananas, frogs and crickets, enormous cockroaches in garlic and sugar as well as sticky rice bundles and elaborately cut mangos on sticks. I tried a palm fruit that I watched a lady cut out with a machete, and eventually bought Soraya's miniature bananas as a thank-you for her interesting mini-tour.
Mum and I decided we had had enough at this point. The heat was incredible. So we suggested to Eric that we go straight to the hotel when we got to Phnom Penh rather than visit the Cham Muslim community as planned. Eric also had to make the return journey back to Siem Reap ready for a 430am start tomorrow with new clients. So we found the Plantation Spa hotel and sat poolside for a last beer with him before he headed off and we went to do a bit of shopping at the Russian market in town. Sad to be over, but in a way glad to be over too, because now we can enjoy a full day tomorrow to rest before returning home to the cold and the frost on Saturday. And what a place to rest - the hotel is incredible with poolside bar, poolside beds complete with standing fans and a friendly "Bar Captain" called Soran. But why wait til tomorrow....? it seemed a shame not to sample one of her cocktails as soon as possible - our first of the trip.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Countryside to Clinic

Our adventure and what turned out to be the best day of the trip started with breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, bread and ham.
Tuk-tuk at 820am to a rural village market where we saw an old woman eat a raw fly-covered fish head!
We still had some gifts leftover from our visit to Arafin's village, so we used to bribe a few of the market traders for photos which they quite enjoyed. I gave a disposable razor to one guy which I had taken from a hotel room somewhere, and immediately the old fish-eater was back and tugging my sleeve. I turned as she whipped off the krama on her head and ran her hand over her grade 1 then promptly stuck her hand out for a razor too, smiling at me with her one remaining tooth! It seems quite common here for old women to shave their heads. I know monks have to do it every couple of weeks as part of the monks regular rituals but I have no idea why old women would do it too.
Eric then took us to see the Pagoda where a cremation was due to take place in the afternoon. It's basically a massive fire in the grounds of the village Buddhist temple. We looked into the fire pit where the body is placed and there were still the remains in there of the last person who'd been burnt. I'm not great at human anatomy, but it looked like a hip and someone's leg bones were still sitting on the grate! The heat really was unrelenting and I could feel myself burning up inside, so I went to sit still in the shade for a bit whilst the others went inside the pagoda to take pictures of another big Buddha statue.
Another bumpy tuk-tuk ride and we had a gorgeous pasta picnic lunch made by Eric's wife, Lida, in a tiny village near a school on the river. Then another long, but thankfully breezy, tuk-tuk ride on an even more bumpy dust track to a river "port" for a ride upstream to another floating village, complete with school, crocodile farm and shop. An amazing afternoon was spent sipping beers at a floating cafe, and shooting the passing kids paddling home from school.  What a life.
The road back was again long bumpy and dusty, but  we passed through some stunning dusk lighting. A small boy was pulling buffalo through the canal waters that ran along the side of the track. Ox carts made their way home driven by both men and women and the children were busy washing in the water ponds. It was a really contented peaceful ride.
Unfortunately though, due to the traffic in Siem Reap, we only had 20 minutes to shower, change and get back out again for a Khmer BBQ, so the photos from my big camera I didn't have the time to upload, but these snaps from my little point-and-shoot give a pretty good idea of what it was like.
The Khmer BBQ is not like home at all. Firstly each person cooks their own food and secondly the BBQ is sat on the table in front of you! It's basically a camping gas cooker with a large metal saucepan on top that has had it's bottom raised up into a dome shape and a few holes punched in the top of the dome. Chunks of pig fat are placed on top of the dome and then when they have produced a little fat which trickles down the sides of the dome, you are ready to put your meat/fish etc on the dome to cook. Also, water is poured into the bottom of the pan to allow you to cook noodles and veg to go with the meat. Under normal circumstances I would call this ingenious, but it wasn't such a good idea for me when it was already 38 degrees in the shade and the outdoor restaurant can't use ceiling fans as it would blow out the cookers.
It was so hot that unfortunately, after a failed attempt to find the ladies loo, I collapsed and fainted cracking my head on something concrete on the way down and landing on my back in a pool of liquid right outside the male urinals!!! Typical.
I don't remember too much for a short while afterwards, but when I came to, I was in the back of the restaurant in a chair surrounded by Cambodians fanning me with bits of cardboard, whilst being splashed with iced water. The next thing I remember is being pushed down a main road alongside the traffic in what felt like a rickety wooden wheelchair to the local hospital clinic which was more like a large doctors surgery I guess. A bit surreal at the time, and I was filthy dirty, soaking wet and stinky on the way home (as well as $100 lighter), but 24 hours on and although the head is tender to the touch, I can say that yesterday was my favourite day by far. And would you believe it.... I'm travelling with 3 other photographers and not one of them got a photo of me lying in dirt and stale pee - result - that's a facebook moment that wouldn't have died for a while!

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Siem Reap and the world heritage site of Angkor

Angkor park is massive and requires at least 3 days to get round it all. We had a day. Angkor Wat is a famous temple in the middle somewhere. A very old one. I get that. Then there are other temples and stupahs and bayons and ruins and a whole load of other ancient piles of rock which I have to confess I didn't really get at all. But hey we aren't here for a history lesson, we went to take photos and by god did we. We started at 5am and raced in the dark in our tuk-tuk against a thousand other tuk-tuks to get a good spot in front of the temple (wat) and wait for the sunrise. As far as sunrises go, it wasn't the best I've seen and the building itself I hate to say it wasn't all that either. I was more interested in the full moon that was rapidly sinking behind us, but without a tripod it simply wasn't an option for my amateur camera - in fact it didn't cope much better with the Wat either!
We moved on to other decaying buildings and had instruction from Eric about symmetry and searching for the non-standard more interesting shot which I did get to grips with eventually. After a breakfast of hard boiled eggs and mango (on account of having eaten our hotel-provided bread ham and cheese at 630!), we headed back to Preah Khan for our shoot with the monks which was nerve-racking, challenging and not altogether comfortable. But we got there in the end and I have a few images I am happy with. We had taken gifts for the monks and were taken back to a low stilted house for a blessing from them which I really did get quite into. The 3 monks were chanting in unison over our bowed heads and it was actually quite moving.
The heat in the park was ferocious and at times I felt like I was inside a kiln. I have no idea how many bottles of water I got through today, but judging by the time it took to peel my clothes off later, I lost most of it in sweat. Lunch was thankfully another success at a lovely quiet restaurant just outside the park and then it was back in for Ta Prohm - famous for being the set of the Lara Croft films with the ancient ruins being consumed by  enormous tree roots. I played with the infra red filter on my camera and took a load of arty shots to liven things up a bit. Hot as hell here.
Mum, Greg and Eric then went to the Bayon as a final location, but I simply couldn't do it in the heat and ended up discussing the probability of another war in Cambodia with our tuk-tuk driver who estimates a 3-4 year wait for a war with either the Vietnamese or the Thais. It's good to know that cabbies are somewhat similar the world over.
A spare afternoon of swimming, reading and eating followed, which gave me a chance to upload some images to the cloud for safe keeping and do some more washing.
After dinner Eric arrived in a tuk-tuk and we went to Greg's posh spa hotel on the other side of town for some post-processing tuition using the Lightroom software that we finally managed to get installed on Mum's laptop. Brilliant, easy and something I think I will be using when I get home. So much less time-consuming than Photoshop and has all the tools I need and none of the ones I don't. Perfect.
All in all a very long, hot, exhausting but enjoyable day. Tomorrow we are spending the whole day in the surrounding countryside.... rice paddies and floating villages. Bring it on.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Battambang to Siem Reap

Luxurious hotel with huge breakfast selection and proper air con for only $28 per night, only problems were the lack of hot water (thankfully a cold shower was my preference this morning anyway) and we didn't get time to use the pool. Feeling run down today, not getting anywhere near my usual amount of sleep; to quote a very thought-provoking man who died 19 years ago tomorrow, "I need my sleep. I need eight hours a day and about ten at night" - and even with the hours in the van it's impossible to catch up on sleep with major potholes every few hundred yards.  Not entirely convinced our driver (Naro) has a licence either. He doesn't seem to know the order the gears go in or what the accelerator is for. Our van is now in serious need of a new clutch and/or gearbox - if it didn't before.
We started with a 3-shot assignment from the bossman Eric; he took us into Battambang town and stopped outside a building which housed an indoor market - an impossibly dark one too.  He told us we had one hour to return with 3 shots, and only 3 shots. The rest had to be deleted. The first was to be a portrait of someone older than 15 with a clear background. The second had to feature the colour red as its' main/only colour and the third had to depict typical Cambodia. He said he would not be coming with us but would wait by the van and wished us good luck. We set off to put our new skills into practice and all went our separate ways pretty much as soon as we entered the building.
The portrait (I thought would be the hardest for me) I tackled first. At the entrance to the market was the textiles section where I met a man making wigs on a sewing machine - we chatted (smiling and miming), but he wasn't happy to have his picture taken so I moved on and on and on, until I came to the next section which was mainly jewellery makers and it was here I got my shot. A jeweller with his magnifying glasses on his head. Eric later stated he liked the composition but that the shot was blurry - best I get to specsavers when I get home as it looked fine to me!  My red image Eric really liked - a carrot grater on top of an old burnt red coolbox - I quite like it too, although what it would ever be used for I have no idea. The third image turned out to be the hardest of all for me, and took the longest. Mainly because a couple of little boys kept wanting to be in the shot.  We went to the Gecko Cafe for Eric to critique our work and discovered that Mum and I had taken between 30 and 40 shots each and then deleted most to leave the 3 we were asked for, but Greg it turns out had taken 711 in an hour and had not really deleted any! I think Eric might have his work cut out changing Greg's snap-happy habits. We headed back to the hotel to check out and make the journey to Siem Reap. It was already much hotter than in the South. Despite repeated attempts to get Naro to step on it, the two hour journey still took us over three, by which point I was starving and in desperate need of a loo - and not the Cambodian-crouch kind either.
The hotel is where Eric's wife is the assistant manager, so we at least have a translator on hand. However, it's not up to the standard of the last two. Aircon not working, grotty bathroom with mosquitoes in and no bed netting. Still I requested a can of bug killer, had lunch which was gorgeous and we set off for a private photo shoot with some monks at Angkor Wat who unfortunately failed to turn up.  It's a major Buddhist festival today and so apparently the monks weren't allowed out.  We have rescheduled it for 9.30am tomorrow when we finish the sunrise shoot at the main temple of Angkor Wat.
Before dinner men came to have a look at my air con, they washed the filters, changed the gas and it now seems to be at least making some noise and blowing some air, so with any luck I will get some sleep. It's an early one tomorrow, we are being collected by tuk-tuk at 5am (ouch!!!!!) so I need to get my head down.
Photos to follow as still downloading - wifi speed sadly not great here either.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Floating on the Tonle Sap

If I am to attempt a decent amount of sleep, then I have 20 minutes to get the blog written, upload photos, check email and get prepared for tomorrow - this trip is amazing, but very full on. It feels like we don't stop. Today we got up at 5am aiming for breakfast at 6am, but chef wasn't awake, so we eventually got some anaemic toast and coffee at 630 and set off at 7am. All was not lost though as we spent 2 incredible hours on a boat going up and down the river shooting life in the floating villages. Fascinating, challenging and very frustrating. The boats were either going too fast or facing the wrong way but more often than not we were simply too far away.
Back to the hotel for a speed-shower and check out before driving further north a couple of hours to Pursat for lunch. Then another 2 hours to Battambang famous for its' killing caves and yet another Buddha temple. A hot trek to the top on foot and we were chatting with monks, shooting portraits and learning more about Buddhism and what it means to Cambodians - which it would seem is not the same as it means to other Buddhists around the world. This monk we found horizontal on top of the mountain smoking opiates through a rolled up palm leaf! I guess that's one way to reach true enlightenment. By the time we got back down the mountain, the light was fading and as we know, with dusk comes bats. Well I have to say I have never seen so many bats in all my life - either on TV or in person... it was a moment I think even Sir David's jaw would have dropped.
We had just reached the mini-van, hot, sweaty and extremely desperate for beer when we looked up and tens of thousands of bats were spewing out of a cave entrance in the rock half way up the mountain. We stood mesmerised as they produced what I can only describe as the kind of murmur we see starlings perform each Autumn from under Brighton Pier - truly incredible.... and then of course the smell hit us and it was time to leave. Something that will stay with me forever - the photo simply doesn't do it justice.
A gorgeous meal at the Gecko Cafe in Battambang in the evening before returning to the lovely Khemara I hotel and our air conditioned room. Awesome day indeed.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Heading North on National Route 5

Checked out of the lovely Hilary boutique and for the two nights, with dinner and breakfast my bill came to a whopping £76 - bargain!
Breakfast today saw us try another new fruit which we think is called a meal fruit although we are not yet sure given the accent here. As is typical of me, I cleaned and wrapped the pips from the plate ready to stow in my luggage. I've waited 20 years to get an avocado to germinate, so fingers-crossed it's a good year for me and propagation.  Our mini-van, and its' driver Naro, were waiting at 8am to take us to the holy mountain at Oudong where it is believed the temple houses one of Buddha's teeth. As such there were quite a few children selling flowers and incense sticks to take into the temple. I'm not great at indoor photography in the dark, so I stayed outside to take shots of the people coming and going.
The sun had some out for the first time this trip this morning and it was harsh. At the top of the mountain where the temple sits the heat was immense (particularly after the 509 stone steps we had to climb to get there!). The bright sunlight also isn't great for photography but we managed a few shots helped by Eric's composition tuition. However, I don't think I will ever get excited about architectural photography.
Lunch was a bit of a disaster and I fear the inevitable after effects will be felt by me for a few days to come.
A couple of hours drive and a short sleep later and we had arrived at our hotel in Kampong Chnang. Clean, air conditioned and with free wifi, but not a patch on Hilary's. Still it is only $15 per night, so we can't complain!
We cooled off with a couple of beers before "Chamrong", our new guide, took us to visit the local villages to see how they make a living. Kampong Chnang is the area known for it's pottery and so we stopped first at a rural house where the family were hand-making clay pots using an old method of bashing it with wood and stone before building a fire in the garden and cooking them before they go off to the village kiln for a final firing. The family's eldest daughter, 15 years old, was busy making pots using a more modern method on a potter's wheel in the garden.  She makes 30 pots a day and is teaching her little sister to throw pots too. The next stop was a larger pottery workshop making charcoal stoves using moulds made of aluminium and packed with ash. We were invited to visit the houses beyond this workshop to see how they made sugar and beer from palm fruits. A fascinating and long-winded process, but the results tasted pretty good, provided you steered clear of the dead insects embedded in it. Today seems to have been a day all about food. We tried meal fruit at breakfast, raw sugar-cane at Oudong, caramel sugar at the village as well as another fruit that I can't remember the name of. Eric seems to think we will have an opportunity in Siem Reap to try both fried crickets and fried tarantula!!
Dinner was disappointing after the poor lunch. We were recommended a restaurant that had an English menu  just outside town, but the tuk-tuk driver told us it was closed and dropped us off at another restaurant with an English menu that was tacked on to a petrol station with a Saturday night live karaoke out back. The singers were god awful, but the tables out back in the garden provided at least a nice setting.
After dinner we were scheduled for a theory session back at the hotel using some software called "Lightroom" for post-production of our images, but unfortunately version 4 requires a later OS than we have on the laptop and so we couldn't install it. Eric says he has an earlier version at his house which he will be able to get when we reach Siem Reap in a couple of days.
Stayed at the Sovann Phum Hotel

Friday, 22 February 2013

street photography - Phnom Penh

It certainly was a new experience and one that took me so far out of my comfort zone I was actually shaking at times this morning! Glad I did it though. We started at 8am by taking a tuk-tuk down to a cafe on the riverfront where Eric explained the rules, tips and plan for the first location - a food market. The steps were basically to find a suitable subject, take a photo fairly close, show the photo to the subject to build rapport and then take some more of the same subject from a much closer position. Sounds easy right? But when he said close, he meant closer than one metre and when he said suitable subject he meant one with a clear background in a jam-packed food market where everyone's first focus was preparing and selling their wares! I did manage a few shots in the market that I was quite happy with but the second location blew me away. With our new found confidence, Eric took us to a very dilapidated building, which is used as an unmaintained block of flats, where incredibly poor and mainly unemployed people live. There was no lighting inside and rubbish everywhere, so it was dark and difficult to see what you were treading on. However, many sets of open stairs zig-zagged up the block at regular intervals along the street providing places with plenty of light where children played and adults gathered to eat or just sit and watch the market on the streets below. Here it was much easier to build rapport with the people as they had time to chat and we had space to work. I managed a few more shots that I am very pleased with. This beautiful little girl was one.
From there we went to a pagoda which could only be reached through an area where glue-sniffers hung out. Eric warned us to stay close and not to take photos of them or any of the disabled people that they pushed around on a wooden trolley bed - he said it was difficult to know if they would get aggressive or want money, so best to just walk on past.  We managed to get a few shots of one of the monks who lived there, but very soon we carefully made our way out along an alleyway where the sick and the homeless lined the walls.
The order of things during the day became somewhat of a blur for me from that point on, with only 3 hours sleep under my belt my head was spinning. We went to Tuol Sleng before lunch; the prison where officials were tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge which was an eerie place for me as I have read so much about the country and the atrocities it has suffered in it's recent history. There were only seven people who were still alive in the prison when Vietnam arrived in Cambodia in 1979 to free them. Tens of thousands of people had been killed and tortured in the prison during the 4 year period of Pol Pots reign. Somehow taking photos of some of the rooms didn't seem right, so we wandered outside and I bought a book about the life of one of the two remaining survivors, Chum Mey. Chum, now 83, was sitting at a table under the shade of a tree inside the prison walls with a translator on hand to talk to people. He kindly wrote my name out inside the book and dated it in English above his Khmer signature. Incredible. I have to confess, nothing really seemed to matter much after that. We had a gorgeous lunch and then in the afternoon visited a Buddha "factory" and another Pagoda followed by the cremation temple for the late King Sihanouk which I found quite garish and very gold. Then thankfully it was beer time. A very long and emotional but successful day.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

back at Hilary's and meeting our travelling companions

Would you believe it, the Mekong Crossing Pub does breakfast too - result - what a great way to start the day; fresh coconut and home-made cheese and tomato crumpets. Perfect, and just as we were finishing, our driver arrived twenty minutes early and off we went. Another two-hour drive back to Phnom Penh saw the usual mixed bag of heart-stopping overtaking, frighteningly loaded motorbikes and cows riding in the back of open top pick up trucks!
By the time we got back to the capital and checked in to our rooms it was of course beer o'clock and so we lounged by the pool trying to keep cool and I managed to finish my second book (albeit with a few silent tears) called "Children of the River" (another Khmer-based story).
We pottered about getting our gear charged and ourselves ready for the big meet up, during which I managed to completely blow all my attempts at cultural decorum.... I knew there was a reason I don't iron clothes.
I had done a bit of washing (smalls) and after finding the laundry price-list in the room decided the bigger items were better off done by hotel staff and nipped down to reception to hand over a couple of sweaty T-shirts and my long shorts. Whilst I was down there I also asked for an iron (my style of rolled-up travel-packing is great for maximising space, but doesn't do much for the appearance of skirts). Tonight we were to meet Eric and Greg for the first time and I wanted to make an effort. The girl on reception radio'd housekeeping (her brother I think) and told me she would bring the iron up. I returned to my room and sure enough moments later expecting to open the door and take said iron, I was faced with not one but three staff members carrying an item each... the first came in and set up the ironing board, the second plugged in an extension lead while the third connected the iron and placed it neatly in the holder on the end of the board. Much bowing and thanking went back and forth and all three of them departed giving me slightly strange looks - it was then I turned and came face to face with the 3 pairs of knickers I had hung up to dry on the wall hooks right beside the door!
I sauntered down at 7pm and red-faced walked straight past reception to find Mum and almost immediately afterwards, Eric, our photographic guide. Tall. Very very tall. Dutch, friendly and speaks incredibly good English. A short while later Greg came down the stairs, he had arrived at the hotel last night, he too handed over a pile of laundry before coming out to meet us and we all piled into a tuk-tuk headed for the Riverside pub/restaurant for dinner.
Greg is from Oregon and went on one of Eric's one day workshops in Siem Reap last May, so he has already been to many of the places we will go in a few days time. He is married, retired and seems to travel a lot around Asia. They both seem nice enough and the evening passed with a gorgeous meal (fish amok), a few beers, easy chat and some instructions about what was to come for the days ahead. I am a little nervous as Eric wants us to use shorter lenses than I'm used to and says we will be taking portraits in a food market tomorrow and will need to get up close and personal with our subjects. I'm so used to using a zoom for wildlife and staying at a relatively safe distance it will be a whole new experience for me.

Staying at - Hilary's Boutique Hotel

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Crikey where do I start? what an amazing day!

Vivak Vong, the Plan Area Manager, and our driver arrived at our hotel at 8am in a posh pickup emblazoned with the Plan logo to take us to the Dambae district and on to Arafin's village.

The drive took an hour and a half during which time Vong talked us through the projects the charity is currently working on.
There are 3 programmes running at the moment which helps them to manage the projects in three age groups; 3 to under 6 which is the largest programme and deals with sanitation, water provision, rice growing and fish farming, then comes the 6 - 16 year old group which is primarily concerned with education and finally the youth group which is 17 to 24 year olds and focusses on reproductive health and parenting. It is typical in Cambodia for people to marry between 16 and 18 years old.
Arafin's mother is 33 years old and has 5 children (3 girls and 2 boys) Arafin is her oldest child at almost 16. So when I asked him if he was soon to be married, his shy shake of the head and coy smile (coupled with the joking jab in the back from his mother) told me he probably had a girlfriend but no plans to marry yet.
He's a good looking lad and could easily be mistaken for a western teenager with his modern emo haircut and skinny jeans, but when you look at his house you see he is far from Western. The house is not the same one as those in the photos Arafin has sent me in the past. They have done well for themselves in recent years and as such have moved to a house which they had built for them. The house is not on stilts as I had imagined, but is a large open rectangular room on the ground with a dirt floor and wooden slatted walls to let air in and out. The roof is made of corrugated concrete and is watertight. There are two raised wooden platforms for sleeping on and numerous wooden carved stools, an area for cooking over a fire and another in the corner for cleaning pans etc. 
There are ten of them living in the house; Arafin's grandparents, parents, siblings and Uncle and so I'm guessing they have quite strong and intimate family relationships as well as zero privacy. They have chickens but no pigs and as a family they farm cashew nuts to make a living.
They are a very beautiful family and you only have to look at their mother to see why, she clearly cares a lot about her appearance and that of her children. They all look healthy and very happy.
Rohanny, the eldest daughter, and probably the shyest of them all, was at school when we arrived. She sneaked in just as gifts were being handed out, but as Mum pointed out, once her muslim head cover was removed (to try out her new hair-clips), her shyness seemed to go along with it and she was soon playing elastic, skipping rope and giggling with the other girls. Another sister, the 4 year old I think, was the bravest of all when she stood alone in front of a room full of people and quietly sang a little song for us complete with all the actions. We later learned it was a song she had been taught at Plan's pre-school all about taking good care of yourself and your health. 
The inflatable globes went down a storm and before long we were surrounded by 20 balls hiding happy faces as they attempted to play a pass-it-on game with Vong... the trouble was they either didn't understand the rules or they were so reluctant to pass on their globes in case they never got them back! All too soon our time together was over and after saying our goodbyes, Vong took us to see Arafin's school. Being lunchtime, it was deserted apart from three teenage girls who have too far to walk home for lunch and so they cook rice for themselves in one of the staff rooms. We gave them a miniature sewing kit each and headed out to the Dambae Plan office to hear more about the local projects from the field manager and to taste a wedding sweet made of rice, coconut and sugar wrapped in some kind of leaf - interesting.
Lunch on the way back was an experience; Vong ordered a selection for himself and the driver, and we agreed to rice and fish. I live by the motto "if you can't tell what it is, don't eat it", and as a result, I ate just the fried rice and vegetables for lunch - either the word 'fish' was lost in translation or they have some strange creatures swimming about in these parts.
As we came back into Kampong Cham, Vong kindly took us to see the only remaining example of one of the traditional style of bridges built annually across the Mekong out of Bamboo. He says the bridge will only be rebuilt for the next 2 or 3 dry seasons as there is a new permanent concrete bridge being built further downstream for the island residents to use, making the annual bamboo bridge completely redundant. Seems a shame to let such a tradition die out, but I'm glad I got to see it when I had the chance. After climbing down the dusty track and back up again to grab this shot, I was approached by a monk who wanted to see the bridge too. Waving his camera at me, he asked me to go with him and I assumed it was to take a photo for him, but after some polite chat, it turned out that for some reason he wanted to have a photo taken of me and him in front of the bridge, so back down I climbed motioning to Vong to help by taking the shot - we took the picture and climbed back out, by now sweating profusely in 38 degree heat, but how do you say 'no' to a monk?
Back at the hotel by 3pm and a quick dip in the pool to cool off before Tuk-tukking it back to the "Mekong Crossing" for Angkor beer and some reflection as the night-life set itself up along the river-front and of course dinner. .... I thought I'd add a little variety this time and go with steamed rice and vegetables.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Kampong Cham on the Mekong

Ok so we have arrived safely in Kampong Cham, and have had a cracking day, but it's not been without it's complications. The driver arrived on time and we set off no problem, he does not speak a word of English, but he assured the guy at the hotel that he knew where we were going.  An hour or so passed by on the road and the scenery became more and more rural as we had expected. Houses were no longer on the ground but built on stilts and the fields were full of water lilies and dry grasses. Soon the traffic we were dangerously passing became more mopeds and bikes, carts and goats rather than lorries and buses. It was at this point the driver (who was constantly on his phone) unexpectedly handed his mobile to me. I had a chat with his daughter Fayi, who is studying English literature at a university in Phnom Penh. Turns out he either cannot read or didn't know the hotel where we were heading after all.  His daughter explained and within the hour we were unloading our luggage and trying desperately to explain to another non-English speaker that we had a reservation. She showed us to our rooms and to Mum's horror they were up 3 flights of stairs with no bellboy! I think it's safe to say she won't be travelling with that suitcase again.
After some time getting the aircon working and removing the beer cans from the bathroom (hopefully from the last occupant and not the cleaner), I met Mum for an exploratory walk into town. The intention was to change some riels and have something to eat.
However, the best plans and all that... we ended up getting a tuk tuk into town and spending four hours at the Mekong Crossing pub, drinking beer, coconut milk, and strange chocolate tea with tasty rice on the river front. In the picture Mum has just shown "Red", our waiter, a photo of my brother Lee.
So we failed to change any money and even more worrying, we didn't manage to get hold of the Plan co-ordinator to confirm tomorrows trip as the phone number we have for him is disconnected! let's hope someone turns up at 8am to collect us.

another travelling day

Let the battle commence.... hours sleep = 4, mosquitoes dead = 5.
A few hours broken sleep meant that by the time 9am rolled around I was out cold and woken by Mum hammering on my door. I was supposed to meet her for breakfast at 830am - oops. When we arrived last night we arranged a driver for today who will collect us at noon and drive us the 3 hours it will take to get to Kampong Cham. Right now we are sat by the pool with an hour to go before the driver arrives. We had a traditional Cambodian breakfast of fresh lychees and papaya followed by egg fried rice with vegetables, then a quick dip in the pool as the air is permanently hot and sticky. I am slightly ashamed to say that we haven't yet changed any US dollars into Cambodian Riels; I was planning to ask Eric the photographer the best place to do it, forgetting that we will probably need Riels for the village visit over the next couple of days.
£1 = 6,160 Cambodian Riels (KHR) and $1 = 4,000 Riels.

Monday, 18 February 2013

A full days travel

Smoked salmon and bubbles to start at Heathrow (becoming a holiday tradition that!), followed by a luggage strap and clickie-mosquito-bite-ease-thing purchase (don't ask - I just know they work and are worth every penny).
The main flight to Bangkok was 11h20m and I quickly discovered my "jeggings" (which were chosen for comfort, weight and pack-size when rolled into my rucksack) proved to be totally the wrong choice when it came to getting on the ultra tight flight socks that I needed to stop my legs twitching and keeping me awake. Unfortunately almost as soon as the food had been served and eaten, I began a series of hot flushes, and decided to try removing the socks to regulate my temperature - the attempt ended in another bout of sweat and frustration trying to get the damn things off!  ... after removing one of the socks I gave up and watched a film instead - "Hope Springs" with Merryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones - very amusing.
After not very much sleep and several bored hours of fidgeting, we were served breakfast followed by mild turbulence to shake it all up before arriving in Bangkok at ten to four in the afternoon local time.

The second flight was much better at only 50 mins during which they served yet another meal in record time - although worryingly the plane itself appeared to be a cut-and-shut - as the row numbers went from 14 to 32!.

Coming in to land Mum and I were a little confused as to why we could not see any lights or roads beneath us - the view was ominously dark and devoid of life. Cambodia has power right?
On arrival we successfully bought our visas, a mobile broadband SIM and recovered our luggage before heading out in a taxi to find the hotel. It all seemed very simple and easy to navigate. The only problem being the heat and the mosquitos - they were everywhere - the DEET was out the luggage and applied before we left the airport!
Also turns out Phnom Penh does indeed have electricity, and is actually very lively on a Monday night - it's just all hidden from above. Hilary's boutique hotel is perfect for us - small pool, basic recognisable food and Angkor Beer. We've arrived!

Saturday, 16 February 2013

last day before the off....

....and I started it by forgetting to take my anti-malaria tablet! - thankfully it won't make too much difference as we don't arrive until Monday afternoon.
Product DetailsI have watered every plant in the house and written out instructions for their care as requested by Ant (or should I say the "Butcher-of-Bolney" as he was known after he killed an entire greenhouse full of my plants a couple of years ago). I have spent decades balancing avocado stones, spiked with toothpicks, on glasses full of tepid water determined to get one to germinate, and right now I am in the eighth month of caring for seven avocado stones, two of which have actually split and one has even produced roots! I am quite disappointed that the one time there actually seems to be a chance of successfully seeing an avocado seedling emerge, I could very well miss it. :-(

Sunday, 10 February 2013

something's missing...

Loaded 3G Mobile Broadband SIM card into laptop, checked international roaming was enabled, topped up the credit to £50 as instructed by the website, and then discovered data roaming is not available in Cambodia, only voice and text.... So why put a price of £6/MB for data in Cambodia on your website then Three!!!????  Grrr. Have decided to get a Cambodian SIM from the aptly named comms company "Hello", when I get to Phnom Penh airport instead. At 1 cent for 500Kb and only $2 for the SIM itself I can afford to be permanently attached to the internet clogging Three's customer service desk with images from my trip.
Collected altered dress yesterday and now decided I don't even like it. Bought a small (4") lockable metal cash box which I will use to stash my dollars. I also bought a tiny waterproof tube-shaped keyring which fits a single note inside apparently of any currency. I'm a sucker for tiny useless gadgets and since Millets appear to be having some kind of winter sale and I will obviously need emergency beer money when swimming, I couldn't resist.
The rucksack embroidery is done (flag not as good as Ant's Ugandan one last year), the cold is slowly disappearing and I am on track to finish the book before we go (which incidentally is a real shocker - I've never read a book before that has to have warnings before certain chapters). So I decided to have a go at packing to see how much culling I was in for next weekend and that's when I got the shock - the rucksack is barely two-thirds full! which begs the question, what's missing? what have I forgotten?

Thursday, 7 February 2013

the photographer not the model

A quick lunch time dash to Sainsbury's saw me tick two more items off my list today. The first was easy - straight to the travel money counter to get my US dollars. Got a crappy rate of only 1.52, but at least it's done.
Next stop was the photo booth for my two visa photos. I don't know if you've ever been in one of these new digital passport photo booths, but my first experience today in the one inside Crawley's Sainsbury's has to go down as something I hope I never have to do again. The first problem is its' location... not discreetly placed at one end, or in the hidden away customer facilities area, or even in the entrance foyer area, oh no, this one is stuck at right angles to the end of the busy tills, right slap bang in the middle of the store. So the people paying and packing their shopping can practically sit on your lap. Not only can they see your lower half beneath the pathetic excuse for a curtain hanging across the booth entrance, but the machine is so bloody loud, they can also hear you being instructed "press green if you are happy with your image, or the left hand button if you'd like to try again", the volume for some unknown reason then seems to increase enormously to ensure half of frickin Crawley can hear your vanity being announced with "Please be aware you only have one attempt left!"
After an agonising 30 second wait I ripped the sheet of 5 printed images from the front of the machine and trotted out of the store. By the time I got to the car I had to laugh as I gazed at the strip of highly uncomfortable, slightly mad looking women staring back at me. Let's hope the Cambodian customs officials aren't so fussy!

Saturday, 2 February 2013

not looking my best

They weren't wrong about the book - it's fascinating and if I didn't have an excruciating head cold at the moment, I'm sure I would have finished it by now. I did manage to get out of the house today and drop my dress off to the alteration shop so it should be ready in time to take with me (and Caroline you will be shocked to know it's not brown.... it's Khaki!).  Not much left to do now, need to get my US dollars, print out my flight tickets, and pack. Oh and I have also just discovered that I need to take two passport photos with me for the visa on arrival - hopefully by the time next weekend arrives I will have lost the raw, red, snotty look that I am currently sporting.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

how lucky am I

Fishing in the Mekong River, Cambodia (file image)
looks like we could be lucky in getting to visit the Mekong Delta before it is completely dammed!

Sunday, 27 January 2013

3 weeks to go

Eric sent the final hotel bookings and a kit list this week and thankfully I already have everything he has suggested. I went through my camera gear and decided on taking two shorter zooms and a wide angle, leaving the long zoom and the macro at home. Eric is also saying we won't need a tripod but I'm still undecided as to whether I will take mine or not (sods law and all). Also checked all polarising filters and thankfully they fit so that's good news, - although whilst I was out  with Keith yesterday walking round the mill ponds, I discovered the "Reversal Film" settings on my camera which appear to do the same thing... turning dull mosses a gorgeous vivid green. So I will have to revisit the K7 manual again before we go, to check I'm not missing other settings which might be worth playing around with.
Bought travel insurance, dug out a second bag to fill with all the gifts and charity donations which I will leave there and I put together a small first aid kit. I am off to Barcelona tomorrow for work and starting my new book - "Survival in the Killing Fields" by Haing Ngor, which is cited as being "the greatest book on Cambodia that has ever been published". It's written by the supporting actor who played the Cambodian journalist, Dith Pran, in the film "The Killing Fields" and is his memoir of life in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. I know it sounds a bit morbid and not really a good way to get in the mood for a trip like this, but it fascinates me how countries that suffer these kinds of atrocities cope. It makes me think twice before complaining about certain things and reminds me to be content with what I have; which compared to many is immense. The sad thing is that much of it is either unnecessary or wasted.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

time to shop

I have suddenly realised just how much I have to do before we go and thought I'd start with a little online gift shopping. So after consulting the "cultural considerations guide" from the Plan charity, I settled on some small functional gifts for the adults and some more enjoyable, but still educational, gifts for the children. I started with 10 miniature zip-up sewing kits for the older girls, 3 tea towels that have the British isles and a union jack flag on, then 10 miniature first aid kits; apparently bandages and plasters are also in very short supply over there too, so if anyone fancies donating any it would be appreciated. For the children I bought 20 inflatable globes which can be used as playtime balls as well as teaching aids. It's something we desperately wished we had taken to the school in Uganda as they would have been so useful. Not sure yet what would be a good gift for the men of the village, but I'm sure something will come to me. My personal gift for Arafin arrived this week too - over the past few weeks I have been scanning in all the drawings and letters that Arafin has sent me over the years along with all the photos of him and his family. I then found various photos of me and my family, and some pictures to help explain our lives here (our campervan, our cat etc.) and using the online Blurb Bookify tool I turned them into a small paperback book for Arafin to keep. I know he can't read English, so I kept the explanations basic in the hope that his Plan community worker will be able to translate for him (my Khmer is non-existent too!).

I'm getting quite excited now to meet him and the other members of his community.
We also had some news from Eric the photographer who is asking if we would be happy sharing our trip with another amateur photographer from America. Apparently this guy attended one of Eric's courses last May and now wants to go again, which I guess is a good indicator of the venue and Eric's skill as a tutor. After some discussion, Mum and I decided it wouldn't change the trip too much and may even mean we hire a minivan instead of a car which would be easier, as well as making the tour slightly cheaper of course. Eric will also be sending us a kit list next week, but I am hoping my new lens will be sufficient. The question is whether or not I need to get new polarising filters, I haven't yet checked the diameter of my new lens to see if my old filter fit.

Friday, 18 January 2013

1 Month to go - and some decisions to make.

The-Mouse-Brain-in-Stereotaxic-Coordinates-9780125476409.jpg (530×400)
Went to the doctors this week to see the nurse about my vaccinations. Being someone who hates needles, I was thrilled to be told everything was up to date and I would need only anti-malaria tablets... perfect. However she then went on to confirm that Japanese Encephalitis was present in Cambodia and a nasty disease that can give you brain damage and render you disabled, but as suspected I would only be at risk if I was going to any rice paddies or anywhere where the locals farm pigs.  ...great, Arafin does both! She then went on to explain that it was £45 a shot and I would need 2 shots, one now and another in 28 days time which would be only a couple of days before the trip. I would not reach full immunity until 7 days after the second shot which is also not ideal as the visit to see Arafin is in the first 4 days, but the real turn off for me was when she told me the vaccine was actually made from mouse brains! The decision was made there and then... no needles, no potentially feeling sick a few days before the trip and definitely no mouse brain pumping round my body. I will simply have to smother myself in DEET and hope for the best.