Travels with two “flat grandchildren”

Do you know the Flat Stanley books?
(see: https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/books/flat-stanley-by-jeff-brown/)

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These fictional books are fun stories about Stanley, who was a regular boy until he got flattened by a bulletin board that fell on his bed. Since then he’s had amazing adventures because he fits under doors and through mail slots. IMG_1106

My dream is for my grandsons to be able to travel, albeit it not in a flattened state. I’d love it if, one day, they can come along on some of my travels to schools around the world. I would dearly love to show them Hong Kong, have them meet kids in Cambodia or see life in Dubai. One day I hope I can realize this dream. But for now, I decided to take two flat grandchildren with me on my latest trip.

The boys each coloured a ‘flat Nico’ and a ‘flat Aidan’, giving them the clothes they were wearing that day, as well as an attractive hairdo.

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Their favourite place was a beach on the Bay of Thailand

The two flat boys were tucked neatly in our daypack and they came along on the airplane!

They made new friends in a school in Cambodia and visited one of the most amazing sites in the world: the Angkor Wat temple complex. IMG_0819

Flat Aidan and Flat Nico made a trip on a wooden boat on the Mekong river but mostly they loved the white sand beach of Koh Rong in southern Cambodia.

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On the Mekong River

IMG_1668Then the flat boys visited Hong Kong – they saw skyscrapers and a metropolis of apartment buildings and green hill sides. They saw the Star Ferry and bowls of rice with chicken.

Peace is achieved when people make friends, when cultures understand and respect each other.

My dream is to help my grandsons make friends around the world. I can’t wait for that to happen.

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V2V: Catch a Ferry with a Catchy Name

I’ll never forget the face of a little girl who overheard me, in a school after an author visit, telling the librarian that I was in a rush because I had to catch a ferry. The girl looked at me with huge eyes, then whispered, “Are you really going to catch a fairy?”

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If you want to catch a ferry, there’s a relatively new one on BC’s west coast.

The V2V (downtown Vancouver to downtown Victoria, or visa versa) is a twin hulled catamaran ‘fast ferry’, traveling at around 30 knots per hour as opposed to the appr. 15 knots per hour traveled by the Spirit of British Columbia. The other main difference is the fact that the V2V Empress is passengers – only, no vehicles.

We boarded in Victoria where a red carpet led into the luxury vessel, docked right across from the Parliament building. The smiling crew welcomed passengers and led us to our reserved seats much like airline crew does.

IMG_1792The large, reclining chairs are comfortable. Each has its own power and USB outlets and, of course, wifi is free on board.

There is also a small bar serving coffees, soft drinks, alcohol and light meals.

Despite the speed, the vessel stopped on a dime, or so it seemed, when orca’s were spotted. Passengers had a close-up view of a mother and baby orca as they drifted by us.

The ferry makes the trip along the southern Gulf Islands, through Active Pass and across the Strait of Georgia to downtown Vancouver in 3 hours. We disembarked close to Canada Place and found ourselves walking downtown Vancouver.

If you have to conduct business or if you are visiting on a cruise ship, the V2V offers a wonderful alternative way to travel between BC’s beautiful coastal cities.

Check it out here: https://www.v2vvacations.com

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Hiking Hong Kong

IMG_1763When you visit the concrete jungle known as Hong Kong, hiking is certainly is not the first thing that comes to mind. However, when I spent a week there, while Margriet was visiting international school, I decided to give it a try. And I can tell you there is more to Hong Kong than just high rises, mad traffic and hordes of people. There is a lot of nature around Hong Kong and numerous opportunities for hiking. IMG_1761

One of the first days I went to the far eastern end of the district and found several County Parks with numerous hiking trails. I first hiked in Ma On Shan County Park, an area with a variety of trails. The first one I tried starts out with about 500 steps up a staircase, just to get the blood flowing. After that it is a few km’s of nothing but big boulders. It resembles a dry creek bed and I don’t recommend hiking it after a good rainstorm. IMG_1765However the day I did it the sky was threatening, but except for a rather cold wind and low clouds at the top, it did not rain that day. A local resident fortunately showed me the start if the trail because it is well hidden in a village halfway up the mountain. Even though I had been warned about snakes in the area, the temperature was such that they did not concern me (too cold). When I got back down someone mentioned that a tiger had been seen that day in the area. I do have my doubts about that sighting though.

North of Kowloon numerous county parks are located relatively close to the city. In addition there are also several city parks, manicured and relatively small, not very conducive for hiking but nice for a stroll or a contemplative rest. IMG_1769

One of the most famous trails in the area is the Dragon’s Back trail south east of Hong Kong. It is an urban hiking trail with coastal scenery and easily accessible (MRT to Shan Kei Wan and Bus 9 to Tei Wan). The trail starts out relatively steep and climbs to almost 1000 feet, but then levels off and ends up back down near sea level. The Dragon’s Back is part of the 50 KM long Hong Kong trail.

So, at first glance Hong Kong may be nothing more than a concrete jungle, looking at it more closely it definitely offers very good hiking opportunities.IMG_1768

From One Jungle to the Next

IMG_1671Getting off the plane that took us from Phnom Penh to Hong Kong, felt like arriving on a different planet.
Suddenly there were no more stalls with piles of coconuts, pineapples and rambutans. Stores have coolers with sliding glass doors again instead of large orange ice boxes. People wear Gucci’s instead of flip-flops. Instead of power outages, the skyline is alive with neon signs and coloured skyscrapers. 
What is generally all referred to as ‘Hong Kong’ consists of much more than just that city. Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, and very different from mainland China. No need to apply for a visa ahead of time and much easier to enter. Chinese and English are the official languages of Hong Kong.
Consisting of 1,104 km2 Hong Kong is made up of over 260 islands. The major cities are Hong Kong and Kowloon. Kowloon has a population of just over 2 million, while the entire Administrative Region has about 7.5 million. Most of these people live vertically: in the many skyscrapers that make up HK’s concrete jungle. IMG_1675
We have visited HK several times and explored much of its city and country scapes. On our first day, we walked from one end of Kowloon to the other, following some of its major roads to the water front at Victoria Harbour where we watched the HK skyline, much of it hidden in heavy clouds. You can cut the humidity with a knife. Ferries scuttle back and forth, people from all kinds of cultures walk along the water front. 
Then we walked through Kowloon Park and into an old part of the city, Mong Kok, where stores still are very Chinese. Louis Vuitton and Hermés made way for roast ducks in the windows and piles of red envelops and gold paper to take to the temple.
We were lucky to see the last parts of Chinese New Year, celebrated with music, drumming, dancing and traditional dragon dances. Amazing to see how two men make up one dragon and jump onto high poles while they can barely see anything, yet never missing a pole. IMG_1732
Walking around Kowloon city and going to schools each day, gives us a glimpse into life in this metropolis. It is so crowded. Hordes of people come down the sidewalks, it is sometimes impossible to pass people. Yet almost no one bumps into you. People are friendly and smiling and helpful. Some speak English and can help explain foods in restaurants. I made sure I had addresses in Chinese before taking a taxi. Meals and groceries are so much more expensive than in Cambodia!
Hong Kong is a place of many contrasts. It has skyscrapers and very crowded city streets. But there are also wilderness areas where you can walk and not meet any people. There are monkeys, snakes, even tigers – we were told – in the nearby wilderness. 
On the streets you can see elderly ladies with Chinese wicker hats selling green leaves. But also ultra modern young women in tights and leather boots. Perhaps my favourite contrast is to see a gleaming high rise being build of mirrors and chrome, with bamboo scaffolding… IMG_1759
Getting around the cities is easy. When you arrive at the airport, buy an Octopus card. It works like a credit card and can be used for all trains and busses and even at 7/11. When you leave, they effectively refund the remainder. The MRT goes everywhere and you can transfer to busses. Pretty simple.  But having your destination printed in Chinese is always helpful. For US$12.- per person you can take the Airport Express into Kowloon. We then hopped onto a free shuttle bus that dropped off us at the hotel. We stayed at the Metropark Hotel Kowloon. The location was great. The room was small but clean, good bedding, a small fridge. And the best part was a glorious pool on the rooftop.
If you like shopping and food, Hong Kong is a fun destination. IMG_1752

Things-we-learned-the-hard-way about Cambodia

IMG_1020After almost a month in the country, this is what we have learned:

  • Bring medications. Getting food poisoning on day three of our 15 day trek, was no fun. I still don’t know for sure what caused it. It is hard to avoid local food. First of all, because it can be very good. But also because, in some places, there simply is nothing else available. Be sure to not drink water from the tap, even in luxury hotels. I even switched to using bottled water for brushing teeth. We brought things like Tums and gravol. I used them all. Anti-Diarea pills are better to bring rather than to buy them abroad.
  • In Cambodia, going to remote areas, we had to take malaria pills. But instead of using official malaria pills at 10.- a pop for about 40 days, we were able to take Doxylin, a mild antibiotic which was less than half the cost. IMG_0508
  • We did not realize, before we went, that money dispensed from local ATMs would be dispensed in US dollars! We had assumed we’d be paying in riels, even though US $ are readily accepted. But basically everything is in US dollars, all posted prices. Just when you pay cash, you get the small change back in riels.
  • Bring a (quick dry) towel. Several times we stopped for a swim and needed a towel. I was also glad to have a towel when washing up in a village during our homestay.
  • Toilet paper! Most public toilets, even in restaurants, do not have toilet paper. Bring your own!IMG_0679
  • You might want to check with your tour planner about meals. We really like to chose our own food. But sometimes we were confronted with a set menu. That resulted in the same fish dish three days in a row until we asked that we can select our own menu.IMG_1222
  • Bring gifts. Any guide will appreciate a small gift from your home country. But especially if you visit local schools, you will want to leave some meaningful things behind. We brought a large pile of simple, English picturebooks, lots and lots of pencils with pencil sharpeners and lots of stickers. We also bought, at a local market, some soccer balls to bring to remote schools where a soccer ball will be hugely popular with the kids. We left good clothing and shoes with our homestay family. I brought clothes for the entire trip that I could discard. This cut down on my laundry but also made it possible to leave good clothes behind with families that could really use it. I just gave a bag of my last clothing to a lady who was raking the beach. Her smile was enough reward.

IMG_0544And lastly, traffic can be daunting. Drivers of motorbikes, tuk-tuks, busses, cars and trucks all ignore all signs or lines. Two lines painted on the road mean at least 4 rows of traffic, all vying for an empty spot. We switched from a car ride to a bus to Phnom Penh, just to be in something bigger… All in all, it’s been a memorable, wonderful holiday in a hot country with lovely people. Arkoun, Cambodia!

Koh Rong – an Island Paradise

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Knowing that we would be doing a lot of hiking in the heat, we planned to end our time in Cambodia with a relaxing time on a beach. We did a lot of online research to find a good spot. We’re not really into just sitting on the beach but we did want something where we could rest after our hiking.

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We talked to friends who had been to Cambodia and read lots of reviews on Trip Advisor and other sites.

We ended up selecting something a step up from the very cheap beach cabins where, on photos, we could look outside through the planks and where they often had no bathroom. IMG_1649

We picked Sok SanBeach Resort on Koh Rong, off the coast of Sihanoukville. Sihanoukville is a big ugly city with lots of traffic and lots of (Chinese) construction of highrises and casinos. We stayed near Otres Beach on the far west end of town to clean up and reorganize before crossing to the island.

The only way to get there, of course, is by boat. A few rinky-dinky “ferries” offer a way to cross the water, the Bay of Thailand, to Koh Rong. But really the only option is the modern catamaran operated by the resort. I must say I find it strange that you have to pay US $20 per person per ride to get there and back.  This effectively added another 80 dollars to our stay. I think that the resort should provide transportation if they want you to come. But…

IMG_1644We selected a seaview cottage, which was a good choice. The room is small but adequate. It’s nice that two lounge chairs are reserved in front of our room because all other chairs are claimed daily and occupied by towels all day long, even if people move on.

The other guests seem to be mostly French, some German and Italians, and some Chinese. China even offers direct flights to Sihanoukville….

Turns out this resort found its origins in the TV series Survivor. To accommodate the crew for Survivor Cambodia, they started what is now Sok San Resort.

You can watch that Survivor season here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_9KMkP_frT8

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The resort is quiet, no partying or loud music. The food is limited: small portions and fairly high prices (27.- for an Italian Buffet). We walked into the village for a few meals (5.- for breaded pork and fries, less for Khmer food).

But it is the perfect place for us to veg out, swim in the warm sea, walk and even kayak. We went out with some other guests for a 2 hour kayak session on a small mangrove river that ended at the beach on the other side of the island.

The resort has fairly good wifi so I was able to get things done. It’s amazing how quickly our 5 days here went by. I could definitely stay much longer! IMG-20180228-WA0012

Cambodia Unplugged

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Our home stay in Chambok Eco Village

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Our door is beautifully decorated

When I saw that the online itinerary of Cambodia Cycling offered the options of a home stay, I got all excited. I thought staying with a local family would be a wonderful way to learn about real life and to meet people.

Once we were in the country, I started to worry about a home stay. What kind of house would it be? More like a boutique hotel or truly in a local home? The local homes look pretty darn spartan.

 

 

 

 

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The kitchen at our homestay

Our very last night was the planned home stay. South of Phnom Penh we turned into the hills and bumped along smaller and smaller roads until we entered the natural area of Kirirom National Park. Villages were far and few between. Finally we drove into a small village with beautiful, local houses. Well kept, ornately painted. The yards look swept and tidy. We noticed lots of ‘homestay’ signs on the houses. We drove through the village, past the school and temple and into an area where the road ended at some shelters – roofs sheltering large tables. This turned out to be the ‘Women’s Restaurant’ – a communal kitchen were visitors are fed.

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The restaurant with huge meals

From here, we hiked to some lovely waterfalls and back. Then we were taken back into the village and to one home that was to be our stay for the night. Slowly, over the next day, we pieced it all together.

In 2002 a German NGO came to this area to convince the locals not to cut down any more forest. They explained how slow the trees grow and how they could make a much better income by protecting the environment and inviting tourists to come and spend money. I’m not sure how long it took to convince the people but when all was said and done now, some 16 years later, the community thrives, the environment is protected, the people have learned diverse skills and host visitors from all over the world. If they come. They need a lot more publicity to make this place really known.

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Neighbour’s girls playing traditional games. Our guide said ‘better than city kids with an iPad!’

But the foundation is great and, so far, proving to be sustainable.

We are told that about 300 women now work locally rather than having to go to a nearby city for work. They take turns growing food, cooking it, cleaning, and preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner in the communal kitchen where the visitors come.

After our dinner of fried pork and pineapple, rice and fried noodles, we went to our home stay. The traditional house, like the ones we have seen everywhere throughout Cambodia, is built on poles. Underneath is a sitting platform on which a clean mat is spread for visitors. Upstairs is one large room. I’d been dying to see what was in that main part of a house.

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Our sleeping room

Now I know. There is nothing! Absolutely nothing. Except for sleeping mats for the entire family and one tiny shelf holding some incense and a cup of water for the house spirit. No pictures on the wall, no decorations.

No airco! But at least there was a ceiling fan. No wifi. No running water.

A squad toilet only.

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The bathroom

The host, for western guests, put a thin foamie and a pillow on the floor but those are only for the guests -the local sleep on the hard floor on a woven wicker mat. We had the room to ourselves and deducted that the family slept downstairs, somewhere, during this night.

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Waking up in my mosquito net – there’s no glass in the windows.

The families in the village take turns hosting so that they are only displaced a few nights per month but earn money for hosting.

The kitchen of the house is a small wood fire outside on the dirt, with a pot or two simmering. The family’s cow sleeps next to it and is taken back into a field around 5 AM.

I had expected a night in a village to be peaceful and quiet but instead it was a cacophony of sounds all night long. The music stopped around 1:30 AM. The dogs never seized barking. The roosters crowed until midnight and started up full swing again around 3 AM. The crickets and other things happily chimed in. By 6 AM all of the motorbikes were roaring out of the village, taking the men to their jobs.

The women have learned many skills and organize the sales of drinks and food, they make a few crafts to sell and plan meals and overnights for the visitors.

The children all attend school and have the option of English lessons after school, taught by a volunteer.

 

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The view from our room

All in all a very interesting look, not only at life in a rural Cambodian village, but also at how a well run sustainable project like this can both protect nature and provide a more solid income. It was explained to us that the money not only benefits the entire community (they share all income) but also supports very poor families living in the nearby area who were not able to provide enough food for themselves. These people now receive enough rice and staples to help support them.

It might be hot and uncomfortable, but I highly recommend spending time at a home stay. The experience is an eye opener. It gives a glimpse into the real Cambodian life and how people live in a rural village.

https://chambok.org

http://mlup-baitong.org

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Making rice milk to bake a cake.