East Meets West

It seems like an eternity since we left Thailand but really it was only a little over a week ago. Having to go through so many changes such as climate, culture, and time zones, has put our minds and bodies totally out of sync. However, now that we are settled in Portimao in the south of Portugal for the next two weeks, I am at last beginning to feel a sense of satisfaction and some anticipation for what lies ahead.

I must confess that it’s taken some getting used to being back into the western way of life again. It’s always comforting to be back in the midst of the orderliness and cleanliness of life in this part of the world, but it’s been tough dealing with the high prices and the cool temperatures. It’s a real challenge to keep within our budget when the cost of each Euro is now $1.60 Canadian. Moreover, with the temperatures hovering around 15 degrees and our fair share of rainy overcast days, which we are told is unusual for the Algarve this time of the year, adequate clothing can be a problem if one doesn’t relish wearing the same thing every day. Truth be told, I am missing those hot, humid Thai days where sandals and shorts were the order of the day. The one thing I don’t miss though is the dirty air in Chiang Mai which is becoming more of a problem for me every year. I can now revel in Portugal’s clear, crisp air wafting in from the Atlantic Ocean, a little reminder of home and Nova Scotia.

Now that we have put in roots for a while, I’ve had time to reflect on just what we have accomplished in the past ten days since we left Chiang Mai. We flew down to Bangkok and stayed at a hotel near the Sukhumbhumavarni Airport where we prepared for our twelve-hour flight via Air France to Paris. Graham always manages these long hauls with lots of wine which puts him to sleep. I don’t fare so well since I can’t drink lots of wine, and I don’t sleep. My choice is to either read or watch movies. I always opt for the latter as I find this much easier, and it often gives me an opportunity to catch up on some of the latest flicks. I was delighted to see 12 Days a Slave, which I had heard so much about, and another recent release with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts titled August: Osage County, a fairly heavy drama about a very dysfunctional family. After all of this and just one meal, I even managed to squeeze in those old favourites Annie Hall and The Graduate. Whew, by the time we landed, I was exhausted and famished as we only got one full meal during that whole 12 hour trip!

Since our flight to Lisbon wasn’t scheduled to go until late in the afternoon the next day, I had booked us into another airport hotel near the Charles De Gaulle Airport in the suburb of Mesnil-Amelot, a fairly quaint little French village with large cathedral and all. I loved our brief time there. Not only were we treated to some sunshine, but clear blue sky and fluffy white clouds, something we hadn’t seen for a while. Every thing was green and spring flowers were popping up everywhere.  Unfortunately, all the pictures I took were lost somehow in my travels.

My one and only picture of the village of Mesnil-Amelot in France.

My one and only picture of the village of Mesnil-Amelot in France.

We arrived in Lisbon that night after a short two-hour flight. Casa Santa Clara, the place where we stayed, couldn’t have been in a better location. It’s an old Lisboan house which has been totally renovated and sits next door to a huge cathedral not far from the Tagus River. We were in the old part of Lisboa known as Alfama, which is noted for that soulful type of singing called Fado.

Entrance to Casa Santa Clara in Lisbon.

Entrance to Casa Santa Clara in Lisbon.

We spent three days in Lisbon just getting to know this beautiful city built on seven hills on the Tagus River with the Atlantic Ocean looming in the background. Thus, it has a distinct Maritime feel. Our first day was last Sunday, and since museums all have free entrance on that day, we decided to take advantage of their generosity. There are numerous museums to choose from in this historic city, but we decided on the most significant, the Calouste Gulbenkian, named after an Armenian oil magnate, a passionate collector of artifacts encompassing the entire history of both eastern and western art. His collections begin with ancient Egyptian art, then on to Classical Greek and Roman art, to the great treasures from the Islamic and Oriental cultures, and finally the great masters of European art. Never had we seen such an extensive collection of art all in one building! The Portuguese are very lucky to have had all of this bequeathed to them.

Wooden sculpture from the early Egyptian period.

Wooden sculpture from the early Egyptian period.

A piece of gorgeous Persian pottery.

A piece of gorgeous Persian pottery.

A Manet masterpiece, one of my favourite artists.

A Manet masterpiece, one of my favourite artists.

Our second day presented us with some very iffy weather (rain and sunny periods) so we decided to take a tour on one of those ancient tram cars for which Lisbon is so famous. In fact, we took tram No.28 which our guidebook told us was a ‘ must do’. So we did and got to experience what a really bumpy ride up and down very steep hills is like and to see just how narrow the streets are in the Alfama district.

The No. 28 tram car - a Lisboa landmark.

The No. 28 tram car – a Lisboa landmark.

Our third day started off sunny, so we opted for another touristy activity that had been recommended not only by our guidebook, but everyone we met, and that was a train trip out to the town of Sintra which was once the summer residence of the kings of Portugal. It’s now a UNESCO site meaning that entrance fees and transportation costs require that you take lots of Euros with you.  By the time we got there, the weather had changed and not for the better. Due to weather and the horrific prices, we decided to limit our sightseeing to the castle which dominates the town and just one of the many palaces. The one we chose was the last to be constructed in Portugal by Ferdinand II who pulled out all the stops in having his German architect make it the most fantastic of palaces. There were gargoyles, and chandeliers galore in addition to beautifully landscaped gardens. The whole place had a definite fairy tale aura to it.

Graham and me in front of the Palacio da Pena in Sintra.

Graham and me in front of the Palacio da Pena in Sintra.

One of the many gargoyles adorning the doorways of the palace.

One of the many gargoyles adorning the doorways of the palace.

The palace living room with chandelier.

The palace living room with chandelier.

The following day, we travelled by train down to Lagos. The trains here are wonderful: fast, efficient, extremely comfortable, and cheap! This, we decided, will become one of our chief modes of transportation while here in the south. We stayed two days in Lagos at a hostel/hotel with shared bathrooms. We aren’t big on sharing bathrooms, but in Portugal in our price range private baths can be difficult to find. Lagos turned out to be a  pretty little seaside town near the Atlantic Ocean making it a prime resort area for Europeans, mostly Brits. For this reason, I found it difficult to find a small studio apartment with kitchen facilities to fit our budget, so began to look elsewhere. Fortunately, I lucked in to just what I was looking for: a clean, fairly new one bedroom apartment with a modern kitchen, big bathroom, private balcony, and all that we need to make some of our own meals. This little gem is in the small city of Portimao once the sardine capital of the world. Portimao isn’t so touristy as Lagos or Albufeira as it caters more to the working class rather than the tourist ,but it still has its own charm, such as a nice older part of town, extensive ocean frontage, and a beautiful beach just 2 km. away. I still can’ believe that it isn’t even mentioned in our tour guide-book! To make life even easier, we have a shopping centre with a huge supermarket nearby. An added bit of interest is a nearby camp of gypsies who were here long before the apartment buildings that are starting to crowd the hill.

The beach at Lagos.

The beach at Lagos.

Our apartment in Portimao.

Our apartment in Portimao.

We’re keeping our fingers crossed that this cold, wet front will soon pass over us so we can get out to explore some of the many smaller villages and towns along this beautiful coast. Since I am now feeling settled into some kind of routine, I hope to get a better feel for the people of this beautiful country and in future posts  be better able to give some impressions of the Portuguese way of life. At last, I am prepared to leave behind Thailand in the east and open up to Portugal in the west.

 

 

A “Words of Wisdom” Walk

Life can be full of some pleasant surprises when we stop to listen to our hearts and be open to the suggestions of others. This happened to my husband and me a couple of days ago while having lunch at Nest 1, a restaurant and resort near the small town of Chiang Dao in the mountains of Northern Thailand.

I need to go back a bit and explain how we ended up at this particular restaurant in Chiang Dao in the first place. Back in January when we first arrived in Chiang Mai, we met a lovely young couple of Americans who told us about this wonderful little spot up in the mountains about an hour and a half drive from Chiang Mai. They spoke so enthusiastically of it that I made a mental note to not forget about it and research it as a possible place for us to escape to in March at the height of the hot, dry season. We followed through and ended up spending four glorious days there.

Our escape turned out to meet our expectations except for the one thing that unfortunately one just can’t avoid this time of the year in Northern Thailand – the haze from the fire burning ritual that the farmers practice every year. The government is trying to discourage it but with little success. With this one exception, we thoroughly enjoyed the invigorating waters of one of the many hot springs in the area,  the ‘oh so cool’ nights accompanied by deep sleeps, a market to beat all other Thai markets that I have seen for size, and finally, the “Words of Wisdom Walk” which prompted me to write this post. How did this happen and why this title? I must give credit to our attentive and very knowledgable waitress who served us lunch at Nest 1. Her enthusiastic description of the 310 step walk up to a landmark monastery nearby had me hooked. To work off the lunch, we took her suggestion and started up.

Our inspirational and very helpful waitress at Nest 1.

Our inspirational and very helpful waitress at Nest 1.

The Chiang Dao market.

The Chiang Dao market.

Some chilli anyone?

Some chilli anyone?

The Tham Pla Pong temple was built into the mountain that hovers over Chiang Dao some time in the early 1960’s as a memorial to a monk from this area who devoted most of his life to the monk hood for well over 60 years.Chiang Dao - March 2014 046

The monk to whom this temple is dedicated.

The monk to whom this temple is dedicated.

Although the temple is beautiful as so many of the Thai temples are and the scenery from the top was spectacular, the best part was, believe it or not, the climb up those steps. On both sides of us and at about every tenth step, we were confronted with an inspirational saying from the Dhamma, the Buddhist term for his teachings, to spur us upward. I couldn’t help feeling a wonderful sense of peace envelop me as butterflies flitted around me, and strange bird songs echoed through the trees. Even though Thailand is in the midst of their dry season, the foliage all around not only looked very green and healthy,but also very familiar. I quickly realized I was seeing many of the common house plants that we have at home, such as the Philodendron and the ‘wandering jew’ all looking much more beautiful in their natural habitat. Below are some pictures of those ‘words of wisdom’ that spoke most clearly to me and the ones that I and probably most of us need to be reminded of from time to time.

Just think how much better our world could be if we could practise this one more often!

Just think how much better our world could be if we could practise this one more often!

So true!

So true!

Another favourite!

Another favourite!

And yet another!

And yet another!

And so the work begins!

And so the work begins!

After a seemingly quick and easy descent, I felt rejuvenated and strangely enough quite at peace with myself and the world. I realized that I had just experienced a wonderful form of meditation achieved by mental focus and physical movement in harmony with the surroundings of nature. I really don’t think meditation can get any better than this because it sure beats sitting in the lotus position trying to still my thoughts in a room by myself.

The Big “C” in Cambodia

It was Joseph Mussomeli, the American ambassador to Cambodia in 2005, who gave this warning to all visitors to the country:

Be careful because Cambodia is the most dangerous place you will ever  visit. You will fall in love with it and eventually it will break your heart.” 

Upon reading this, my mind flew back to four years ago when I met an American at the Atlanta Hotel in Bangkok who poured out his heart over his disenchantment with teaching in Cambodia. His problem wasn’t with the students whom he found to be respectful as all Cambodian students are to their teachers, but it was the corruption within the system from the top down to the teachers and even the students themselves. Every one seemed to be “on ‘the take” from the Education Minister who was a directly appointed by Hun Sen, the Prime Minister, to the department heads who accepted bribes in the way of new cars and big houses, the teachers who demanded money from their students to supplement their meagre incomes, and even the students who fought to find money to buy copies of their exams and in some cases their results. The losers in the system were the students whose parents couldn’t afford to pay the teachers’ demands, and the students who really learned nothing since most of their time was taken up with getting those good results. How can a country move ahead when its educational system is in such disarray?

This is a good example of how the country has been run since the days of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. From the powers that be at the top, to the teachers and doctors and, yes, even some of the many NGO’s that have invaded this country, corruption lurks and is mostly responsible for the poverty that is seen throughout the country. I hesitate to blame it all on corruption or the big “C”  as there is the aftermath of the trauma left by the massacre of over two million people. Yet on second thought, perhaps even this would not have been so devastating if there had been more money put into mental health to give the population the necessary tools to deal with their demons. Instead,much of the money that has been allocated by the donor countries has unfortunately gone into the pockets of the government officials. The incredible fact of the matter is that natives and ex-pats, including some NGO’s, are all well aware of what has been going on, but most are reluctant to talk about it let alone do anything about it … until quite recently. From what I’ve read and can imagine from such a system that if you are honest and speak out against it, you might have your heart or some other part of your anatomy broken, but if you are a fearful sort, you will most probably close your eyes to it all. Unfortunately, the great majority of the people in this country have fallen into the latter category which isn’t surprising given Cambodia’s brutal recent history along with the ancient Khmer class system of king and slave.

The big C issue is not just peculiar to Cambodia, it hovers over most of SE Asia. Since December, we’ve been witnessing the protests occurring in Bangkok for the same cause as the protesters are fed up with the corruption they see in their present government. The same is happening in other places around the world – the Ukraine, India, and Pakistan to name a few. It is so easy for those in power to be corrupt and just as easy for us who aren’t to simply ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist. However, I think many of us are willing to take the risk and say enough is enough, even in countries like Cambodia where there is the all too likely risk that you can be shot down by a motorbike whizzing by in the dark of night. The people there will tell you about at least one incident or more that they know of where this has happened.

After all I’ve learned through my reading and talking to native Cambodians and foreigners who work there, I do have some faint feeling of hope that the past and present way of doing things will change but ever so slowly. I have seen Siphon and Mach at the Meas Family Homestay trying to make a difference slowly but surely. They are strong believers in getting their community to keep the good part of their culture such as the weaving and the working of their land, but at the same time endeavouring to bring the changes which will matter to their community if they are to rise up and make life better for themselves. Doing what they want to do and not buying into the game of bribery, they are beginning to gain the respect of their community. Their after school program is a good example because here we saw an eager bunch of kids coming to their school voluntarily to learn, not just English, but a good example of how their lives could go if they choose. Then there is, Rotah and Sithan, the young couple running the Learning Centre at the garment factory on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, who worked diligently for ten years to get their NGO status the legitimate way and not the old way which is to hand over more money to get more quickly to the top of the list. They are very proud of what they are doing and trying to pass this on to their students.

Finally, there are the street protests by the garment workers that took place in January. Unfortunately, six were killed and over 100 were thrown into jail and still to be released. However, they are not giving up and are planning further protests. It remains to be seen how the government will deal with this in future. About a week or two before we arrived in Phnom Penh, the garbage collectors went on strike. They were actually given a small raise, just enough to keep them quiet, but they were not able to get medical compensation which is what they desperately need since they aren’t paid enough to pay for the bribes many of the doctors demand to compensate for their low salaries. In spite of all of this, it’s encouraging that Cambodians are beginning to stand up for themselves for the first time. It’s about time, but they will have to do it with small steps and low expectations when dealing with a government that says it’s concerned about the state of the country’s affairs but shows little action to prove it.

On our last day in Phnom Penh, my husband and I squeezed in one final thing to do which was a visit to L’Institute de Francaise for an art show that our journalist friend told us about over breakfast that morning. We are so thrilled that we took the time to go because here I saw another hopeful sign from not only the paintings hanging on the walls, but also the dancing that we were fortunate enough to see as some of the artists rehearsed for an upcoming show. Actually it was these paintings below that inspired me to do this piece on corruption or the big C as I prefer to call it. To me corruption is like cancer: it can ruin a country as it can ruin a person if we allow it, but with a little bit of  help and a change in our thinking it can be beaten.

Disease of a Society - Bo Rithy, Cambodian artist

“Disease of a Society” – Bo Rithy, Cambodian artist

Disabled Nation

“Disabled Nation” – Bo Rithy

Heartfelt expression from a Cambodian dancer.

Heartfelt expression from a Cambodian dancer.

Behind the Smiles

If you read my previous post Soaking up Phnom Penh, you might remember that the best part of this complex country for me is the beautiful people who live in it. It amazes both my husband and I, and just about every traveller we have met in the past few weeks, how the Cambodia people have managed to come through the terrible killings of the Pol Pot regime in the ’70’s not to mention the hardships since then, yet still welcome all the tourists who are discovering their country with smiles and what appears to be genuine hospitality.

However, I shall begin by relating some of the highlights and the people we met in the past few weeks as we headed down to the south and the beaches of Kep. From time to time we have heard travellers repeat this mantra: “You have to go to quiet, laid back Kep before it changes into just another tourist resort.” With these words ringing in our ears and a desire to just be a typical tourist at the beach for a while away from the dirt and noise of the cities we had been in over the past two months, we  booked ourselves into the Q Bungalows for ten days.

This little resort is owned by an older couple from France and Italy who have chosen to fulfil their dream of running a guest house which just happens to sit on an ideal piece of land sitting at the base of a small mountain facing the Gulf of Thailand. Our weather was perfect with hot days tempered by cooling breezes from the ocean with surprisingly clean water. As an added bonus, our place had one of the best swimming pools around. Close by was the Crab Market where not only crab but many other fish are caught giving rise to a dozen or more fine restaurants offering delicious fish dishes. The secret to the great cuisine we sampled is the yummy Kampot pepper sauce made from the peppercorns grown in this region.

Not only did we do much reading, swimming, and eating, we also managed to take in a couple of sight-seeing trips. One of them was a boat trip out to yet another about to be developed place named Rabbit Island, which still has that really rustic look. It offers a limited number of small bamboo huts for accommodation, a few restaurants offering happy hours starting at eleven o’clock in the morning, a lovely beach, and about five hours of electricity a day. It’s still the perfect place to escape to for now, but probably not for long.

Crab fishing in Kep

Crab fishing in Kep

Rabbit Island accommodations

Rabbit Island accommodations

Our next stop was the nearby town of Kampot for which the peppercorns we had been eating in Kep are named. Kampot lies on an inland river making for a pretty setting and was once the centre for the French colonials who lived and worked there when Cambodia was a protectorate of France in the mid 1800’s. Today many of their mansions are just crumbling remains but some are being restored to their former glory by wealthy foreigners. Kampot has a certain charm and definitely a very laid back atmosphere which seems to be growing on foreigners from Europe, the US, and Canada at a growing rate evidenced by the many who choose to live and set up a business there. We have heard some say it’s the next Chiang Mai as a choice for ex-pats to retire to.

French colonial Kampot

French colonial Kampot

Monks doing their morning rounds for food or a donation.

Monks doing their morning rounds for food or a donation.

From Kampot we took a bus up to a the Meas Family Homestay mid-way between there and Phnom Penh. This family homestead and farm has been in the Meas family for three or more generations and is now run primarily by a wonderful couple, Siphon and Mach and other family members, who survived the Pol Pot years. Both are teachers who are supplementing their meagre teacher’s salaries by opening up their home to tourists like us, running an after school program for young students who want to improve their English, and setting up a weaving centre to provide employment for the very poor women in their area. We spent two days there not only helping out with the|English class and buying scarves woven by the women, but also eating delicious Khmer home cooking. This dynamic couple is certainly an exception to the norm and are a good example to us and other Cambodians that they can heal and begin to move forward.

The Meas Family Homestay

The Meas Family Homestay

Siphon modelling one of the centre's scarves.

Siphon modelling one of the centre’s scarves.

Siphon's niece showing her colouring with such pride.

Siphon’s niece showing her colouring with such pride.

Now, we are back in Phnom Penh rounding out our final days in Cambodia with a visit to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, one of the 300 killing fields that blanketed this country during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, and the Toul Sleng Museum which was the S-21 prison. These two sights are memorials to the over three million people who were killed under this cruel regime which ruled from 1975 to 1979. The horror of this period is sometimes just too much to even comprehend but it did exist, and those Cambodians who are responsible for making these sites available for us to see did so that we might all witness what took place and be aware that this sort of madness has not only happened in their country but in many others, and that we must always be vigilant.

A memorial to all those who were killed at Choeung Ek near Phnom Penh.

A memorial to all those who were killed at Choeung Ek near Phnom Penh.

We also had the good fortune to visit one of the many garment factories here in Phnom Penh, thanks to my husband’s ability to easily strike up friendships in some of the churches he visits in our travels. A Canadian couple who live and work here are involved with a centre which has been set up by another enterprising young Cambodian couple at one of the sites. This couple has worked long and hard to establish a school on the premises of one of the garment industry complexes where they used to work themselves. The school teaches English and computer skills to the workers who attend in the evenings or after their work shift. They have also got a card making business up and running to help some of the workers make a little extra money. Their wages from the factories, even though they recently got a raise, are still very low so many of them are looking for ways to supplement this by taking on extra work. It’s really encouraging to see them take advantage of such opportunities to get ahead.

Rota and Sitan at the garment factory centre they have set up and run to teach English and computers to the workers.

Rota and Sitan at the garment factory centre they have set up and run to teach English and computers to the workers.

Making cards at the garment factory learning centre.

Making cards at the garment factory learning centre.

Not one to just be a tourist taking in the sites, I wanted to know more about Cambodia’s history and hopefully learn more about them as a people. I was particularly curious as to why most of them are so accommodating to us tourists, and why we are always greeted with such lovely smiles when we know that their past has been so violent and unsettled. Shouldn’t they be sad and perhaps be working hard to get as much money from the tourist as possible?  After all, not only have they suffered so much, but they are still one of the poorest countries in the world. How can they appear to be so happy and satisfied with their plight? To get some answers I read an eye-opening book titled The Curse of Cambodia by Joel Brinkley, a former New York Times reporter, editor, and foreign correspondent, who covered the demise of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. My curiosity was sated, but I was saddened to learn that much of the population is still suffering the after effects of the genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge with probably more than a third of those who lived through this era suffering from PTSD (post traumatic stress syndrome) where depression, insomnia, and passive behaviour are the norm. Even those born since that time are exhibiting similar behaviour since studies are showing that the symptoms are being passed down to the children. So, the smiles we see are born of a feeling of resignation in many cases which could erupt into anger. Fortunately, we have not witnessed this, but we are hearing reports of tourists having their bags snatched by motorcyclists, and the NGO workers will tell you about the many incidents of family violence.

In spite of all the monetary aid from donor countries around the world, the work of the numerous  Not For Profit Organizations, and the peace keeping measures of the United Nations, there is still much healing to be done. This will have to be done now by the Cambodians themselves. I am hopeful that this is happening judging by the people we have met such as, Siphon and Mach, Rota and Sitan, and our Canadian friends who work here.