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!

Wild Ride Across Cambodia


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:

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.


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


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.


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!


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: 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: 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:

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: and visiting the wonderful little bookstore.


Quick – spell Equinox at Quito, Ecuador!

Following our trip to the Galapagos Islands we flew to Quito, Ecuador. At an altitude of almost 10,000′ this city is surrounded by green peaks of volcanoes. After the heat of the Galapagos it was nice to be in a much cooler, almost cold, place. img_4513
From our hotel we did a city tour of old Quito, a Unesco World Heritage site because of its old Spanish buildings, cathedrals and other buildings. The area is prone to both volcanic eruptions and earthquakes so much of the old city is low buildings.img_4523 Perhaps daily life has lulled people into some complacency because the outskirts of this city of 2.5 million people has highrises built right on the edges of cliffs – in my eyes a disaster waiting to happen. img_4551The old city squares felt very Spanish and we enjoyed strolling along, watching women in black felt hats and long skirts sell strawberries and other fruits and candies.

We’re a bit churched-out after our time in Spain, but visited a large cathedral as well as an amazing smaller church completely decorated in gold.

But the highlight was our visit to the Equator. Here the invisible line dividing the northern and southern hemispheres creates for some fun science experiments. Now, upon coming home and writing this blog, I decided to do some research so that I could explain what we saw on the equator: water flushed through a sink – either going straight down (on the equator), swirling down the drain clockwise or counter clockwise depending on which side of the line we were on… We were most impressed with what we saw. However… in checking Google, I read nothing but articles posted on science websites, in the Huffington Post and so on, that explain that all this is a hoax! I was baffled. I replayed the video I took. Then I went to the sink and poured water in the same manner. Indeed – I can make it go down clockwise or counterclockwise. It seems that the thing we enjoyed most in Quito was a simple hoax. I guess the young man who showed us around care nothing about the truth and fooling people. All that mattered was the income derived of unsuspecting tourists…


img_4541We tried our hands at balancing an egg on the Equator. Because it is pulled one way and the other, it took a lot of patience but Kees earned a certificate for a skill he never knew he had! Another equatorial hoax…

The museum here displayed some local native history: an enormous boa constrictor (stuffed!) and several shrunken heads. To our amazement we learned not only how to make a shrunken head but also that this practiced happened as late as the 1990’s. Tourism likely improved once they stopped this practice.

We ate at a restaurant that specialized in Ecuador cuisine: empanadas with shrimp, cheese and avocado.  And a fabulous soup eating together with a thick paste of peanuts and bananas.

We asked many questions about the education system (mostly free), about politics (elections this weekend and lots of unhappiness about corruption and broken promises), about religion (many young people turning away from the church and traditions) and also about why Ecuador is not called Equador is it is named after the important line running through the country. The answer: it is the Spanish spelling. Ta-da!


Galapagos: Boobies and Frigates


Sally Lightfoot Crab

We hiked across Mosquera Islet seeing many birds up close, including – to my delight – the Blue Footed Boobie. We had watched documentaries about the Galapagos and were thrilled to see these birds in real life, as well as the bright red Sally Lightfoot Crabs scurrying across the black lava rocks, pelicans, swallowtail gulls and many others.


Blue Footed Boobie!

One of the funnest animals was the sea lion, which looks exactly like our North American seals but the ears show that they are sea lions. It is amazing that all animals here have no fear of people. The seals come right at you, follow you like puppies and want to play. It is the hardest thing not to reach out and pet them… But this is a National Park and everything is highly protected – you cannot take a rock or a shell or touch anything. And rightly so.


Male Frigate bird

Next we hiked North Seymour island where the huge Frigate birds soared overhead and young ones with white heads in perched in trees looked like bald eagles.

Iguanas live on most islands but they are different species, having adapted to life on each island. Some islands had black iguanas, elsewhere they were yellow or even pink. We also saw the swimming ocean iguanas.

img_4402We hiked across Santa Fe and South plaza Island. Being on a boat allowed us to visit more places but it also had the disadvantage of rocking and bobbing.

However, the biggest thrill for me was being able to swim off the back of the boat. Even after a few excited calls of “shark!” I couldn’t figure out why it was OK to swim when there were sharks but I trusted that our guides knew what they were doing… We snorkeled several times and it was beyond description to be in the ocean and have a large sea lion coming straight at me, like a bullet, only to veer off at the last second. At one point two sea lions swam alongside me on either side. I watched turtles swimming below me, hundreds and hundreds of colourful fishes like parrot fish……img_4431

And sharks. White tip sharks. Pretty cool.

On San Cristobal Island we strolled through the town and it was a bizarre experience to run into two friends from Kelowna! img_4332

We bought tshirts and other souvenirs, of course, and visited the Galapagos Interpretation Center. Sweat dripped of our bodies as we just stood still, reading about the violent human history on the islands. The animals really ought to be afraid of humans after they killed over 100,000 turtles and thousands of whales during the mid 1800 to mid 1900’s. Nowadays 97% of the islands is strictly protected as a National Park. All we can do is hope it will always stay this way and that Galapagos’ amazing variety of wildlife, which so well demonstrates its way to change and adapt to its natural environment, will be around for generations to come.

Reflecting back on it all, I am very glad to have been able to make this amazing trip and to see these special places on earth. But it is a very long way to travel, expensive and a bit overrated. Like ‘Serengeti’ the name ‘Galapagos’ has mysterious allure, but we have visited many places where plants and wildlife have adapted to their environment, and places like Australia’s Great Barrier Reef where we also saw giant tortoises and birds that stayed a foot away from us. If you can go, do it. But otherwise savour nature around you anywhere – nature is always incredible and forever adapting.


Remember that all photos are Copyright ©Margriet Ruurs