Wild Ride Across Cambodia

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This was NOT our bus!

To get from Phnom Penh to Siem Riep in the northern part of the country, we had done some research on the internet. You can fly, but then you don’t see a thing. We opted for a bus: Giant Ibis busses take 6 hours to drive at a cost of 15.- p.p.. We had ordered our tickets online and were lucky that, a month ahead, we were able to get front row seats. Their website is easy to use: http://giantibis.com

A small bus picked us up in the morning and drove us to the bus ‘station’. Our front row seats were great. While most people dozed or read, we had a great view and did not have enough eyes to take it all in. IMG_0512

While the seats and the service were good, the driver drove like a bat out of hell and the bus’ tires were so bald that metal wire shone through the smooth rubber. The company advertises with wifi onboard but that did not work for us at all. The guide said it depends on the server provider of each area we drove through, but for us it did not seem to work anywhere. There is also no bathroom on board – a good thing to realize ahead of time. The bus stops once for a bathroom break and once for a half hour lunch break at a local open air restaurant. It’s a good idea to carry paper because there is none in more bathrooms here.IMG_0523

The road out of P.P. was lined with stalls. Some sold fruit, other sold buckets or chickens or clothing or TV’s. Little children walked barefooted along the road, dogs dozed in the red dust. Cambodia feels to us as a mixture of Laos and Myanmar. As we left the city behind us, green fields replaced shacks. We spotted the occasional very skinny cow. And the bus gathered speed. Even as we passed through towns and people crowded along the road, we must have done 120 KPH while passing kids, cows, motorbikes and tuk-tuks. Honking at everything that moved, we managed to avoid hitting things although one deaf dog had a very narrow escape and I kept expecting a motorbike loading with entire families to swerve in the path of our speeding bus.

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Us western woozies think of a motorbike as transportation for getting from A to B. Here it is obvious that owning a motorbike means you are well-to-do and that you need to help out friends and neighbors. In this one day alone we saw motorbikes transporting:

  • entire families including babies, toddlers and grandmothers.
  • a wicker cage with 6 live pigs
  • armloads bamboo, including one dragging 10 meter poles
  • large flats of potted mums
  • loads of bricks
  • a rack with steaming pots of food
  • enormous bales of rice piled high
  • large baskets, on either side, full of bananas or eggs
  • lumber
  • haybales
  • shoes for sale
  • piles of bottles of gasoline
  • terra cotta charcoal burners
  • large loads charcoal
  • fruits and snacks for sale
  • stacks of about 20 wooden tables (!)
  • teak carved bed frames
  • towering piles of mattresses
  • rolls of fencing
  • dried fish
  • firewood
  • coconuts and mangoes
  • tires
  • a cargo bike with a cow

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Cambodia, Here We Come!

IMG_0478Years ago I wrote about Cambodia by including a unique school in my book called My School in the Rain Forest. Recently, Cambodia was included in my book Birthdays Around The World. This was possible because kind Cambodians helped me to gather photos and information. But I really wanted to see for myself. Cambodia was one of the few countries we had not yet visited in Asia. So this year we planned a trip to get to know Cambodia.

IMG_0492As with all countries we describe in this blog, we don’t pretend to knów the country after a short stay. We simply want to share the excitement of what we see, do and learn.

The flights to get here were very long. We flew from Victoria to Vancouver and then had to wait for a flight that left well past midnight. The seats on our Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong were one of the most cramped we have ever seen. You could barely move and if you dropped something, tough luck. If the person in front of you moved the seat back, you could no longer hold a book or use the table tray. Cathay obviously cramped too many seats into too small a space.

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After a two hour lay-over, we boarded the flight to Phnom Penh. It’s always exciting to finally see the real thing, after seeing so many maps, photos and books about a place.

Even from the air, we already noticed that there were not really a whole lot of cars but loads of motorbikes.

We were met by a driver with a van who took us to our downtown hotel – about a 45 minute drive. The city streets got narrower and more crowded as we came into the old city along the river. Our hotel was a lovely colonial building with a restaurant and pool on the roof top.IMG_0525

We managed to stay awake all day (we left home on Monday and arrived on Wednesday!) –  taking a stroll along the river and through on old temple complex. Then we had a swim in the cool pool and enjoyed happy hour with one-dollar-beer and half price pina colada’s! We ate dinner during the sunset as the temple areas turned dark and the lights on boats came on. Did we ever have an amazing sleep after 3 days of traveling and no bed!

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Walking into a Harrison Painting – Day Trip from Whitehorse, YT

Here is a nice day trip from Whitehorse, Yukon.

On a clear day, it is fun to do this 200 KM round trip. We took the trip in early September when the hill sides were just turning brilliant yellow. But even on a sunny winter day, this is a nice drive. carcross map

We drove to Carcross first because of the views if you drive it counter clockwise. Carcross may be a speck on the map but it is steeped in history. Short for ‘caribou crossing’ this is where prospectors came of the famed Chilkoot Trail, and many hikers still do. The Caribou Hotel was built in 1898 and still remains, although I hope it will soon be restored and protected. The hotel and other buildings were painted by famous Yukon artist Ted Harrison. Walking into this tiny town is like walking into one of his paintings. I chuckled to think that people who see his paintings might comment that “buildings don’t lean that way,” or ‘the sky isn’t really like that.” In Yukon, and in Carcross, they are!

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Carcross has a bakery and coffee shop. It also has a new area with First Nations crafts, artists, coffeeshop and tourist information centre. Tagish is pretty but doesn’t have many services. We brought a picnic along to eat at the Marsh Lake Campground. Jake’s Corner has a gas station and restaurant.

Impressions of Honduras

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen the Canadian Executive Service Organization (CESO) asked me to go to Honduras for three weeks to assist looking at trail development and for eco-tourism opportunities in the San Pedro de Sula valley I was very skeptical. Every government travel website I checked (Canadian, US, British, Dutch) warned against travel in Honduras. As a matter of fact one of the sites stated that the city of San Pedro de Sula was the murder capital of the world. Who would want to go there? After checking with people who had been on a CESO assignment in Honduras and had had no problems at all, I decided to take the chance and go.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs soon as I landed in San Pedro Sula (SPS) after an 8-hour flight via Mexico City from Vancouver (only a 1 hr. time difference with PST) and was driven to my hotel I noticed how similar the city of one million looks like cities in SE Asia (Vientiane) and Africa (Lusaka). Lots of garbage everywhere, lots of old buildings, but also several brand new hotels and businesses.  After arriving at the hotel I was warned not to go outside after dark, too dangerous. During the day it was OK to be walking around in this neighbourhood, but beware. So on several occasions I walked to a large shopping center 15 minutes from the hotel. By the time you had walked those 15 minutes you were sweating pretty good. The temperature is well into the 30’s during the day and air conditioning is a must to be comfortable. Many days in the late afternoon or evening tremendous thunderstorms would occur with heavy thunder and lighting strikes. In no time the streets are inundated with water and cars drive through 2” to 6” of water. But soon after the rain stops the elaborate drainage system takes care of the water and within a few hours the streets are dry again.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs part of the work I was asked to do here I have been driven to some 10 of the outlying communities around SPS in the valley, including one of the national parks. Several of the other outlying communities are too dangerous to go to, just like one particular road up to the National Park had to be avoided. I found the surrounding area quite beautiful, lots of green forests, banana plantations and coffee plantations. The roads are mostly in good shape, however some road sections to smaller villages are atrocious and it  takes hours to drive around potholes at 10 km per hour. There is a lot of poverty in the country, some websites identify it as one of the most impoverished countries in Central America. Unemployment is roughly at 27-28% and several of the outlying communities appeared to be half empty. When I asked about that I was told that many people try to move to North America and end up as illegals, much of the time being deported back again. When I had lunch in a restaurant (Pizza Hut, but there is also McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Subway among others)  one of the servers spoke reasonably good English. When I asked him where he had learned that he said ”New York”, he had spent 6 years there before he got deported. Unfortunately many Central American gangs are made up of deported LA gang members. Especially El Salvador is notorious for having drug gangs. The Honduras government has worked hard the last few years to change that and is making progress. The last few years the GDP also has gone up (7% growth) and a lot of new construction on roads and buildings is evident.

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The security is still a major problem. At night a security guard is stationed in front of the hotel. In the shopping Center dozens of armed guards walk around. Every bank has an armed guard at the door. I was warned against using public transportation since it is not safe for foreigners.

The people are very friendly and helpful, few people speak English. At times my work was quite challenging because I don’t speak much Spanish and as a result missed much of the discussion that took place around me (without me). One thing that I noticed was that very few people smoke. In the few weeks I have been here I have seen exactly 2 people smoke a cigarette. However I also noticed that many people are overweight. That may be not difficult to explain because going for a jog or even an extended walk is close to impossible in this humid / hot environment. And not many people can afford the membership of the few indoor fitness centers.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe primary purpose of my assignment was to look for opportunities for trail development. So after seeing some of the poor trails I developed a manual for trail planning and development. The secondary purpose of my trip was to look for eco-tourism opportunities. I found quite a few. I think it would be interesting for a north American tourist to be able to visit a banana plantation and packing facility, or a coffee plantation or have you ever seen a cacao plantation? I never knew how cacao grew, interesting to discover how it grows and is turned into chocolate bars.

In summary: I would not (yet) go to this country as a tourist because of the security situation. However as far as its natural beauty is concerned, I am impressed. If the government manages to get the drug trade and subsequent murder rate under control, improves the road system this country can become a major tourist attraction.

 

BC’s Sunshine Coast

Map ss coastJust north of Vancouver there is wonderful stretch of coast waiting to be explored. Attached to the mainland, you can only reach the Sunshine Coast by ferry, boat or floatplane so it needs a bit of planning to get there. But it’s worth the effort. Like the Gulf Islands, you need to book the ferry especially when you visit in the summer and bring your car.

If you travel by car, then you need to take the ferry. Check the schedules here: www.bcferries.com and do make a reservation during the summer months if you don’t want to sit out a sailing wait.

IMG_4669If you don’t take a car, check out the float planes: http://www.harbourair.com Yes, it is more costly but you will be in Sechelt 20 minutes or so after leaving downtown Vancouver. You can also fly from the airport’s south terminal. The impressive terminal next to Canada Place on Vancouver’s water front offers free coffees, croissants, fruit and pastries. They have umbrellas for rainy boardings, and even offered me a free transit pass to connect to the Skytrain and busses. Great service. And sitting in the co-pilot seat, searching for whales, flying right over Stanley Park and the Lion’s Gate Bridge never gets old!

You arrive in the traditional lands of the Sechelt, Squamish and Sliammon First Nations. Towns include Gibsons, Sechelt and Pender Harbour. Totem poles stand tall and proud in many locations. If you are lucky, you might encounter canoe races, a musical festival or artist demonstrations organized by the Coast Salish people. IMG_4672

One of major events in this region is Sechelt’s Sunshine Coast Festival of the Art. It takes place in August but tickets sell out quickly once they go on sale in May. This literary festival is widely known and a major attraction for the region: http://writersfestival.ca

You can stay in many cabins, B & B’s, campgrounds or the odd motel but planning and booking ahead is becoming a necessity, especially in summer. Like the Gulf Islands, there are plenty of funky eateries, coffee shops and gift shops along the Sunshine Coast. But what I like most is the many beautiful hiking trails right along the shore. A walking path in Sechelt runs right along the gorgeous pebbly beach, offering views of the Salish Sea and the snowy mountains of distant Vancouver Island. You’ll see plenty of bald eagles staring down at you while deer and the occasional black bear wonder around, too.fixedw_large_4x

I highly recommend stopping for lunch in Madeira Park’s Mad Park Bistro: https://madparkbistro.com and visiting the wonderful little bookstore.

Websites:

http://www.sunshinecoastcanada.com

http://www.writersfestival.ca

Rapa Nui’s Tapati Festival

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The gods smiled on us again when we booked our trip to Easter Island. Totally by fluke it turns out that we are here for the grand finale of Rapa Nui’s annual Tapati Festival.This huge festival celebrates local culture and honours the ancestors.

The local people prepare all year for this week long event. Local young men and women sign up as candidates, representing their extended families or tribes. Contests test their skills, strength and knowledge. One contest is sliding down an enormous slope on handmade sled made from palm branches.

img_3710They sing, dance, cook, make crafts and much more. Not only are the candidates tested and judged, but also their entire tribe which supports them. The tribes dance and sing, make costumes and create amazing floats for the final parade.

How amazing to be here to witness this authentic, grass roots Polynesian festival. We walked to the main street around 5 PM.

Floats made of farm tractors pulling long flat beds, were parked along the upper end of the main street. The trailer beds were decorated with greens, mostly palm leaves. img_3695img_3694But it was the carvings on these trailers that blew us away. People had spent weeks carving huge statues of mermaids, warriors, turtles and more. These are reminiscent of North American totem poles, polished and oiled or painted. At first we thought that, surely, these carvings were re-used each year. But we were assured that they are newly created for each festival!

Hundreds of people milled about. To our amazement, all locals, even even some tourists, were decked out in traditional costumes: feathers, paint, and a pair of coconuts – if that. Many women were completely naked except for a sandy body paint. The paint resembles henna mixed with sand. Entire bodies were painted brown or with contrasting designs all over: swirls, lines, dots, symbols – including the face. Even the hair was often covered in this ‘mud’ and made to stand up straight. Women usually had feathers or palm fonds in their hair. The men only wore a loin cloth, or simply some leaf wrapped about their private parts… Infants and children were all painted and decked out in feathers. Little boys brandished their wooden swords and even tiny girls wore little shells as bra’s.

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When we asked what time the parade would start, the answer was invariable “Maybe at 6, maybe by 7…” So we waited, strolling along the street and did not have enough eyes to take everything in. At one point I felt I was in a Disney movie about the South Pacific, except that this was so real, so authentic. Nothing on the floats was made of plastic or anything artificial. Just local wood and greens. Only the preschool had a gigantic fish on their float made of recycled bottle caps.

Once everyone and their entourage was judged, a king and queen were announced and then the parade slowly started to roll down the street. A float would come by, followed by a huge horde of local people in their body paint and feathers. Suddenly everything stopped again and people would sing and dance. There were ukuleles, a harmonica, guitars and drums. They sang these wonderful, catchy Polynesian songs, dancing and swaying arms and hips. Such energy! At some point we sat on a patio for empanadas and drinks while watching the parade flow by. img_3819

The parade would move again and another couple floats came by before it all stopped again and another dance and song erupted. By 9 PM the float wasn’t even at the end of main street. Tirelessly they danced and sang, everyone happy and beaming. There was no drinking, no drunkenness, no pick pocketing. It was amazing to revel in this happy atmosphere and I kept pinching myself that I was able to witness this Festival. It was totally not touristy and a true celebration of local customs and tradition. It was joyfulness personified.

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By ten o’clock a full moon shone down on it all. The king and queen for the coming year were still waving and smiling, music and laughter and song was still wafting out over the white capped waves of the Pacific, as we finally turned our backs on it all and walked to our hotel. The next morning our waitress was sleep eyed and admitted she had gone straight from partying back to work at 6 AM…
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If you ever have a chance to visit Easter Island, I highly recommend you coincide your visit with Tapati Festival – a highlight of our trip to South America.

Our travel agency: www.savacations.com

For details and video of Tapati Festival, click here: http://www.easterislandspirit.com/tapati-festival/

Qatar: from Bedouins to Buicks

img_2710Qatar, a small peninsula country in the Middle East, is difficult to understand*. Ruled by an Emir, Qatar once was one of the poorest countries, but now it is one of wealthiest. This change happened in a very short time thank to oil and gas.qa-map

92% of its + 2 million inhabitants live in the capital city of Doha. But the strangest fact is that only around 10% of the population is Qatari. The remaining 90% is expats, mostly from India, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and other countries where men seek work. These foreign workers run the stores, clean the hotels, drive the taxis and build the buildings and roads. img_3095

Qataris were a nomadic people until recent history. Living a difficult life in the desert was no longer necessary once oil was discovered. Those three letters changed life forever here. The desert was reshaped into an ultra modern city with all of its conveniences.  The Emir, the ruler, decreed that all Qatari would receive an income from the profits of oil. No one over the age of 18 needs to work, although Qatari do hold government and managerial positions. The daily chores are performed by people who come from all over the world to find work and who send home their income to support families overseas. The young man who drove me while in Doha put two sisters through school in Bangladesh and supported his mother in raising her family there.

img_2879The buildings of Doha are incredible. It reminds me of how my husband Kees once worked with a group of high school students to help them design the skateboard park of their dreams. He gave each one a bit of play dough and told them to shape their favourite jump. Doha feels like different people dreamed up their favourite building and then just built it. qatar-national-convention-center The skyline is made up of vase shaped skyscrapers, at night highlighted in different colours. The torch hotel is shaped like a torch. The new Sidra hospital resembles ships sailing into port. The national library made me think of a gigantic airplane. Each building is executed in marble, glass, chrome – with dazzling results.lw6272_55199331_720x450

In the process of changing lifestyles, Qatar runs the risk of losing its heritage. On my first night here I was lucky enough to witness the Dhow Festival. Dhows are long, sleek traditional wooden boats that plow the waters of the Gulf. Along the Corniche, the boulevard that skirts the water, were demonstrations of traditional skills: opening pearl oysters, handmaking fishing nets, buildings boats, making palm leaf baskets. Older men sat crosslegged on carpets to demonstrate these skills. img_2721However, they had all been brought in from Oman because Qataris no longer have or practise these skills. Different shaped head dress or different coloured outfits indicated people from different Middle Eastern countries. There was singing and dancing, even the playing of conch shells. Strong coffee was brewed in copper kettles on hot coals while thousands of people strolled along, in a sea of white (men in starched thobes) and black (women in abbayas). Little boys in spotless white thobes ran along, free as birds. Flocks of young, veiled women giggled and strolled along the boulevard. It was an enchanting, Arabian night! img_2803I always like knowing, during festivals in the Middle East, that there is no drinking of alcohol involved. I always feel safe because there is virtually no crimes here. Severe punishments ensure that no one steals. I was even told that you can leave your bank card in the ATM machine and no one will take it…. I didn’t test it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is true. There is virtually no pickpocketing!img_2772

The temperatures were amazingly perfect while I visited. In summer it can be 40 or even 50 degrees C but now it was a beautiful 24… Qatar has one or two days of rain each year and, as luck would have it, I experienced both of these days. Rain fell so furiously that, within an hour, streets were flooded. Homes, even the airport, flooded. This happens each year. Traffic comes to a screeching halt as roads flood and are impassable. Two days later, it’s all dried up for another year…

In my next blog I will tell you about some special sites to visit if you are in Qatar.

* A note of caution: as with my stories about any place I visit, I do not pretend to truly know Qatar after only visiting there for 2 weeks. My stories are merely aimed at sharing my personal experience there, and I might well get much of my understanding wrong.img_2758qfis-mosque_dsc3152