Reflecting on Anthony Bourdain’s Death

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks you: it breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you.” Anthony Bourdain.

When I heard that Anthony Bourdain had taken his life, for one brief moment my heart stopped. Envied by both travellers and would be travellers alike, he had an amazing ability to gain an understanding of the many countries he visited. His love of all kinds of food and his talent for cooking it in five-star restaurants before he gained his fame as a ‘tell it as it is’ travel reporter led to an impressive lifestyle envied by those who wanted the kind of freedom that such a profession can give. The intensity of my shock at the news of his suicide took me by surprise. How could he of all people commit such a sad and selfish act when at the top of a flourishing career?

Although I envied his job and the finesse with which he handled it, I was never one of his avid fans. There was no question that he was a powerful interviewer and showed an honesty and humbleness which is rare in celebrities and that impressed me.  However, call me judgemental or plain old-fashioned, but his many tattoos bothered me. What was he trying to say I wondered? I wonder this about all the young travellers I see with bodies covered in them? I know that tattoos are meant to portray something personal about those wearing them, such as a love affair gone sour, a particular beef against the world, or to draw attention to a personal philosophy or cause, but aren’t they also an indication or sign that the person sporting them doesn’t really respect or like his body or what’s inside it? To me it speaks of some kind of self mutilation.Was this his way of unknowingly portraying an inner disconnect of something vital missing in his seemingly exciting life of freedom?

I also admired Bourdain’s wonderful way with words, hence, the above quotation which appeared in our Chronicle Herald the day after his death. It so vividly sums up the good and bad aspects of travelling alone. The amount of travel I have done is a drop in the bucket compared to what he put in. Nevertheless, I totally agree with what it can be and apparently was for him. It can be a blessing as well as a curse. The freedom which it allows has to be the top draw for any traveller who endeavours to do it, but there is invariably a price tag attached to such freedom.

Bourdain had an eleven year daughter and a wife… for awhile…apparently they had separated. He was totally responsible for pulling together his team of writers, photographers, and all the other bodies needed to carry out his travels to exotic places around the world. This effort was from all reports on a modest budget. It’s not surprising that this would eventually take a toll on his family. Those closest to him noticed that although he appeared to be happy right up until a few days before his death, he did look very tired. At the age of 61 perhaps he saw what was ahead and decided to end it before it got the best of him. We will never know, but the one thing I do know is that if you have a family or a spouse, travelling on your own doesn’t provide a firm foundation for a close relationship…..unless you can take the family with you. This is happening in some rare cases with young, mostly European couples. I think we will see more of this in the future as our world becomes more dependent on technology and young people are forced to find more rewarding work in a foreign country, or to escape from the rat race in their own countries. They could also be forced to move because of climate change and the cost of living in their native countries. There are a myriad of reasons and the opportunities for doing this are certainly there. The nomadic lifestyle is appealing to a growing group of those who want that kind of freedom.

I totally agree that the best education you could ever get is to travel by yourself. There is no doubt in my mind about that. As Bourdain said: “The journey changes you.” That is certainly true for me. Let me name the ways:

  1. It has increased my self-confidence.
  2. It has helped me to find the value in reaching out to others.
  3. It has helped me to be more resilient.
  4. It has helped me understand the world through the culture and the customs of the countries I have visited.
  5. It has helped me open my eyes and heart to see that although we may be different on the outside, we are not so on the inside. We are all very much connected.

Anthony Bourdain found his passion in the work he was doing which garnered him fame and recognition and all the other benefits that came with that. The missing link was his inability to overcome his demons and realise that the only way he could have conquered them would have been to face them. He needed to slow up and take time to do that. Unfortunately, he did not, resulting in leaving behind a young daughter who will have to deal with his decision. He will definitely be missed by all those who knew him, but we all  know who will miss him the most… and this is the greatest tragedy of all.

If you would like to find out more about my thoughts on travelling on my own as a senior woman you can take a look at the following posts:

Overcoming the Fear of Travelling Solo as a Senior

How Our Changing World Is Affecting Our Travel

Travelling Solo or Not?

My tribute to Anthony Bourdain’s perpective on travel with food as the key for unlocking his road to fame, is the gallery of pictures I have taken over the years in my travels to Viet Nam (his favourite country), Thailand, Cambodia, and Myranmar (Burma), Morocco and Italy. Click on the picture for the caption.

 

 

Celebrating Tea and Queen Victoria

Only in Canada do we look forward to that third weekend in May when we are gifted with a long weekend. Why is that, you might wonder? Is it because after a harsh Canadian winter, we can look forward to summer which is just around the corner, knowing we can finally get outside to clean up winter’s aftermath making room for our transplants, or to open up the cottage? This might be true for most of us these days, but for some it’s an opportunity to celebrate the birth of Queen Victoria who had the distinction of being Britain’s longest reigning monarch… a title she can no longer proclaim since Elizabeth 11 took it over in 2015.

When Victoria died in 1901, our then government decided to make the third Monday in May a statutory holiday to commemorate her birth on May 24, 1819, causing many a raised eyebrow in Britain as well as our neighbour to the south that we should be setting aside this day to celebrate a Queen who was to all extent and purposes a temperamental and dour, old woman who always wore black. However, as we have found out, appearances can be deceiving.

Thanks to her talent and love for writing, we have discovered that Victoria was the exact opposite of that stern image implanted in our brains by our history books and our great grandparents. Present day historians claim that her daily dairies were enough to fill over 700 books beginning with her childhood until her death in 1901. Through them, we have learned that she was a passionate and strong woman who refused to bow to the strict social norms of her time. She not only had a firm grip on who she was as a person, but also on the country she ruled as well as the country she most loved…Germany.

After all, her beloved husband, Albert, was a German and strong personality in his own right who came into her life at the tender age of 19 when she was about to take over the daunting task of Queen. He fulfilled not only the role of her lover, but also provided a strong father figure for her. He was the pillar of strength she needed as she gave birth to their nine children while struggling to keep control of the world’s largest Empire.

Our interest in Victoria has increased over recent years as her descendants have gradually released some of what she wrote. We are learning that this woman had another side which went totally against the acceptable customs of her day especially when it came to her subsequent relationships with men after Albert’s early death. Yes, she suffered from depression which explained her long period of mourning. She never discarded the black dresses, but she refused to stop having fun and being herself when she met a man who understood her, such as her servant John Brown, a rough and ready  Scot who adored her. The same was true for Disraeli one of her Prime Ministers.

Even in her final years after receiving the title of Empress of India, she refused to travel there insisting that India come to her. As a result, a young servant with a wife and mother-in-law arrived to carry out the task of teaching Victoria every thing there was to know about his country Thus, began another close relationship for this woman with an old body at 84 who still had a young heart.

Victoria’s personal life was certainly not a boring one. However, it was a source of concern for her family and many of those who worked with and under here as she fought to lead her Empire through the vagaries of the world at that time. As a head of state and ruler of the vast British Empire, we know she survived numerous attempts to assassinate her. We also know that she really came into her own after Albert’s death becoming extremely popular with her public towards the end of her reign. During her 63 years on the throne, Britain experienced tremendous growth in technology, industry and communication. Underground rail systems, bridges, and roads were built everywhere in attempts to unite the country. Judging by the crowds who came out to see her in her later years, it appears she had indeed matured and finally won her battle to take control without Albert’s influence.

Learning about Victoria as a person has made Victoria Day for me just a little more interesting. What started as a day to have a parade and some fireworks, morphing into a time to clean up the yard and plant some flowers to welcome summer has now  brought us time to reflect on the personal journey of a woman with two very distinct sides to her personality during a time of change in matters of morality and economic growth throughout her vast Empire.

For my Victoria Day Weekend this year, I had the opportunity to do something different: I was asked to be a greeter for the guests who attended a Victorian Tea and Talk at the Lower Granville Hall. Under the capable leadership of Medea and Alan Holtz, new comers to the community of Port Royal, and some hard-working ladies with much experience in holding dinners and teas to raise funds for their hall, this successful tea did a great job of commemorating the Queen’s birthday. What better way to raise some much-needed money for our hall and the Annapolis Heritage Society who will be using our donation to help fix and paint the exteriors of two light houses: the one in Port Royal and the other in Victoria Beach.

Medea and Alan Holtz

Every effort was made to treat all those who attended this fundraiser an authentic Victorian Tea. Not only did the servers don Victorian dresses, headgear, and gloves, but had to walk carefully to avoid tripping on their long skirts. These little touches along with soft parlour music lent an atmosphere of calm and gentility much appreciated by the guests causing some to linger longer than planned.

Susan MacGregor

Me, the Greeter

The beautiful table settings, the tea served in silver pots, and the dainty sandwiches and sweets were the main attraction. However, the star of the show had to be the peaches! Why peaches? Well apparently Victoria, when introduced to them on a visit to Italy, fell madly in love with them and every year after that insisted that some be shipped to her in England. Unfortunately, peaches aren’t in season on Victoria Day in Nova Scotia. Instead of serving imports the gals made their own life-like peaches from a secret recipe using ordinary cookie dough.

To keep our guests amused a trivia quiz about Victoria’s life as well as the Royals today…especially since this was the day of Harry and Megan’s wedding…was on each table to provide fun and learning for all. What a great way to pull people together.

Our special guest speaker, Barry Moody, a noted local historian, gave an insightful talk on how tea became the favourite drink of the British, and the influence that had on the country’s social norms and economy. Did you know that the first tea was offered in 1658 at a London coffee-house? From there it became the beverage of choice at the Royal Court. It then quickly became an important social occasion giving birth to our famous ‘afternoon teas’. You may have heard of the term ‘high tea’ which was customarily tea served with a meal. With the advent of such social customs came opportunities for the East India Company to import more tea from China. It also provided opportunities for business minded entrepreneurs to start manufacturing such tea essentials as porcelain tea cups and saucers, teapots and even mustache mugs. Barry went on to say that artifacts related to tea drinking have shown up at Melanson’s Settlement, a Historical Site in Granville Beach. He admitted not much else is known about how the ritual of drinking tea influenced the Port Royal area, but noted that it was the French who have given us proof that it existed here in some form. I suspect it was also a popular past time with the Scottish and English Loyalists who settled here. In my own experience, my maternal grandmother was a big fan of ‘afternoon teas’. After my grandfather died, she moved from Halifax to a small farm in Seabright, where she hosted teas every Sunday afternoon for all her friends. Petit fours, shortbreads, Scottish scones made on a griddle, oatcakes with homemade jam were the lure making “Georgie’s” teas very popular.

Like most things today, our rituals and customs are being challenged by the changes occurring in our lifestyles. Tea drinking is losing some of its allure to the rise in our coffee culture. There are still those who prefer their tea because it has less caffeine or none at all if you consider sipping herbal teas possibly for medicinal purposes. Or, it might just be a matter of personal taste. Whatever the reason, our guests and those who organized this event were left with an experience that left us satisfied and wiser about the influence of tea on the British Empire and the Queen who reigned. I am happy to have been involved in this ‘tea’ event which was a hit with all those who attended. Without a doubt, this will become a yearly event on Victoria Day. The Port Royal gals are already looking ahead to next year and planning for it to be held on Monday instead of Saturday.

Kamille and Jeff Langstroff

 

Final Stop – Sydney, Australia

Final Stop – Sydney, Australia

By the time I arrived in Sydney, I had covered half the continent by air in two weeks…not much time to see all I had hoped but probably enough to learn something about its people and how this strange land, its history, and its location have helped shape people into what they are today. This is especially true for their cities considering that about 80% of the Australian population live in them with most located along the coast.

Before I landed in Sydney, I got the impression from various people I know who have been there as well as Aussies, themselves, that there was no reason to stay for long as it was just another big city. I would be wasting my valuable time there when there are so many other gorgeous places to visit. True enough but I was finding it tiring and expensive moving around this vast country so was happy to stay ‘put’ there for the week.

My first view of Sydney.

Getting closer.

And yes, Sydney is a huge city of over five million people when you consider the entire area composed of the centre or CBD and all its precincts….but then so is Melbourne. Yet, I never once heard any disparaging remarks about that city. On the contrary,  the reaction of most who had visited Melbourne was that it was their favourite city. Perhaps this is an example of the rivalry that has and still does exist between these two dynamic cities.

A look at the city from the ferry.

My other reason for choosing to stay longer than most was because not only was it my place of departure, but also because I had friends I wanted to visit near Bathurst, a town about 200 km southwest by train. I would have time to actually see and get to know Sydney as well as have a quick visit to the Blue Mountains which were on my list of ‘must sees’.

Fortunately, my Sydney arrival was a breeze compared to the experience I had in Melbourne. To learn more about this you can go to my recent post First Stop – Melbourne, Australia. The Airbnb place where I had booked a room was located in the precinct of Leichhardt, Sidney’s “Little Italy” which was about a half hour from the CBD (Central Business District) by bus and train. The check- in procedure was similar to what I had with Little St. Kilda in Melbourne. However, this time I had clear and copious instructions from the owner on how to get there and most importantly how to get in and find my room. The whole thing went without a hitch, and the next day the owner came to introduce himself and answer any questions I had. This made my stay so much more enjoyable knowing I had an actual person I could call upon if need be.

With this hassle free arrival, I was ready to tackle Sydney and its sights the next day. After perusing all the brochures I had picked up at the Information Centre in Central Station the previous day and taking the time to read up on the expert advice of my Fodor’s guide-book, I decided the best place to start would be at the Circular Quay train stop which serves as a link for ferries, trams, and buses. Faced with a multitude of kiosks selling sight-seeing tours, I decided to not waste any time looking around but just go ahead and book the Zoo and Eco tour with Manly Fast Ferries. This family owned company offered me the two things I wanted to do: a trip to the Taronga Zoo which requires a ferry ride to reach and a two-hour tour of Sidney Harbour with commentary which would give me a birds’ eye view of the whole harbour area. Since the tour was good for 24 hours, I was able to do the zoo on the first day and leave the harbour tour for the following day.

The iconic Opera House from the ferry on my way to the Taronga Zoo.

The other Sydney icon-the Harbour Bridge.

This turned out beautifully because the cruise stopped at several places with the option to disembark at whichever one you wanted and stay for as long as the last ferry of the day departed. I am usually against taking a tour but in this case with the amount of flexibility and freedom to set my own pace, it fit my needs at the affordable price of  $59.

The Taronga Zoo covers a huge unspoiled piece of land built on the side of a mountain overlooking Sydney Harbour with an impressive view of the Opera House and Harbour bridge. All the animals are housed in a large space providing the kind of habitat they need to be happy. I could have taken a cable car up to the top (included in the price) but because of the long line-up….it was Easter Monday so many families with children were there… I opted to walk which allowed me to go at my own pace, stopping along the way to view the animals of Australia, such as the kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, the platypus, echinadas, and emus. I saw them all including the shy koalas, or at least one of them, who deigned to wake up long enough for me to capture him on camera. Now I could have had my picture taken with a koala  who has the special task of staying awake to have his picture taken by those who like to fork over $25 for such a privilege, but I was not that desperate to cuddle such a cute animal for that price.

You all know this guy.

Not another ‘roo but a wallaby – smaller with a pointed face.

What else is there for a koala to do in the day time?

That dark spot is a nearly extinct platypus.

The following morning I was up early for my two-hour cruise at 9:30. I say early because I had to have breakfast as well as leave at least a half hour to get there from my place which entailed a bus ride to Central Station and then the train from there to Circular Quay. I have to say that Sydney’s transit system was much easier to navigate than Melbourne’s. I bought an Opal card which worked the same way as the Miki but in general their whole system was better laid out and organized with people who knew how to help. In retrospect, I think Melbourne’s is in a bit of a mess because it’s been experiencing monumental growth of late. One Aussie told me that they have over 1500 people a week now coming to live there, a fact which was later backed up by some research I did.

Sydney’s Central Station-the hub to everywhere.

After an hour of cruising, I decided to spend the rest of my day in Manly and even though it was overcast and threatening rain, I still wanted to see why Manly Beach was considered by many as one of the best beaches around. Who knew that Sydney and its environs has over 100 beaches from small, maybe just a few feet, to very large up to more than several kilometres long? Fodor’s claims they have over 30. Whoever is correct, there is no denying that Sydney has its pick of fine beaches.

One of many stately homes on the harbour.

I loved Manly, a separate village and perfect seaside resort with gorgeous beaches.  It’s considered as the birthplace of surfing in Australia. Manly Beach is just minutes from the centre, linked by the Corso, a wide boulevard lined with numerous cafes, restaurants, and shops, leading to the beach promenade flanked by lovely homes and stately Norfolk pine trees. The promenade eventually hooks onto some excellent trails to the north where there is a National Park and views to die for. To me Manly looked like the perfect place for the well-heeled and those looking for a slower more laid back style of living.

Manly Beach before the sun appeared.

After the sun appeared.

My one regret…. not bringing my bathing suit! When I left so early in the morning, it was cool and looked like rain. Moreover, I wasn’t too clear on how the cruise worked or where it was taking me. It was a last-minute decision to get off at Manly. Less than an hour later, the sun came out as I was walking the Cabbage Tree Bay trail a short hike along the coast. Later, over a big all-day breakfast special of egg and bacon on a black bun with a rocket salad, I had regained my energy so decided to go for the longer trail that would take me to North Head at the northernmost part of the peninsula where Manly is located offering some more of Sidney Harbour’s gorgeous views. In my eagerness, I really overdid it because it took longer than I thought leaving me to have to rush back to the wharf to catch one of the last ferries going back to Circular Quay…my only way back unless I had a car. There was no bus service as far as I could fathom from those I asked. Despite this one blip in my lovely day, I was totally satisfied with the tour and the choices I had made.

Views from the look off on the North Head Trail.

The Harbour Bridge at sunset.

The next day I decided to make an easier one with little walking so didn’t go back to the CBD or anywhere near a train or bus. I stayed right where I was in “Little Italy” drinking cappuccinos, people watching, and reading in a nearby park in preparation for the next day when I would be travelling by train to the town of Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. I am saving my report on this trip for my next post.

After returning from the Blue Mountains, I spent my remaining day and a half in the CBD exploring the downtown putting me in the midst of the business and high-end shopping area. I wanted to see this part of Sydney where some of its most beautiful old buildings are located, namely the Queen Victoria Building built in 1898. It’s noted for its architectural beauty which sports a huge clock tower in the centre. Today it’s a classy shopping arcade with a host of high-end shops and cafes. Someone recommended I take in a High Tea while there but after seeing the price, I declined and settled for the Aussie version of an iced coffee made with milk, coffee, of course, ice cream all topped with a good dollop of whipped cream. Yummy!

Sydney’s business and shopping area with stately buildings.

Since Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden wasn’t too far away, I took my remaining time to walk around taking in The Calyx, a world- class exhibition featuring a colourful display of how pollination and colour play such an important role in the world of plants. I could have spent all day there because there was so much to see as there seems to be in all the botanic gardens in the places I visited in Australia. It really is a country of varied flora which they showcase so well. Finally, the fact that from the gardens you can get another fantastic view of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge is another reason to visit.

So colourful.

Interesting. Did you know?

My last day in Sydney presented me with a difficult choice. There was so much I hadn’t seen. In the end, I chose to make my way out to Bondi Beach, which is the one that everyone goes to. You simply don’t go to Sydney and not go to Bondi even though there are more than a hundred to choose from. Why Bondi? Well for starters, it’s probably one of the largest and has everything that beach goers want in the way of sand, surf, lots of places to eat, close enough to the city and easily accessible by bus, and of course, the people who flock there in droves giving it a carnival type of atmosphere. People draw people, and especially in Australia where biggest and best seem to be king. I would loved to have had the time to walk along the coast to Bronte Beach which sounded so much nicer but… At least I was able to put on my bathing suit and get half way into the water. It was very rough and unless you are a surfer or strong swimmer, you had to be careful not to get swamped. Even though it was a Tuesday when you would think that everyone would be at work or in school, such wasn’t the case. The part at the other end of the beach (it’s about 7 kms. long) had the flags up telling bathers there was less current, but it was so crowded I didn’t want to go near it. There were no lifeguards on duty since it was off-season.

I left Sydney with a good feeling and was glad I spent as much time as I did there. It really does have so much to boast about, and I can understand why Melbourne is striving to match it. They could very well do that too except they are missing one important component which they will never have….the most beautiful harbour in the world. Captain Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet to arrive in Sydney in 1788 said it best: “Here lies the finest harbour in the world.”

Four Days in Singapore

With a four-day stop over in Singapore,  I am happy to report that just about everything that’s been said about this unique city/city-state is true.

I arrived at Changi Airport just as the sun was setting so was able to see what was in store as the shuttle bus drove at a decent speed into the centre of the city where I am staying. The Bougainvillea lined freeway failed to turn up even one scrap of garbage…anywhere. I was looking both sides and saw nothing. What a contrast to Cambodia or any of the SE Asian countries.

I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps this is why some have said they found Singapore boring. Was it boring because it looks like a city should with clean streets and orderly traffic? Are we to the point that it takes dirt and poverty to stimulate our senses?

To tell the truth, these very qualities espoused by Singapore have put me into seventh heaven. For me it’s a pleasure to be walking around a city that seems to work. Traffic is heavy as it is in all big cities, but it moves at a good pace. There isn’t a lot of honking and excessive noise with big trucks and buses spewing out toxic fumes. Motorists stop for pedestrians before you even put a foot into the street, and they wait until you are all the way across. Pedestrians are equally as courteous. They don’t jay walk, and they wait patiently at the traffic lights until the walk signal comes up. At times this seems like an eternity to me. The Singaporeans don’t mind waiting; they can check their phones instead. Everyone has a phone to play with here. When I thought Bangkok took the prize for this phenomenon I have learned that it must be Singapore. While on the MRT (the subway), all twenty or so people in my car  except me and one other person was concentrated on their phones.

Street scene with old and new.

Since my solo travel began five years ago, I have found that the best way for me to explore a large city at first is by walking and getting to know the area where I am staying. I keep the regular tourist sites or ‘must sees’ for later…if ever. I am happy to get three out of ten of the best recommended sites. Trying to take in everything that everyone else goes to see would stress me out. I’ll take sore feet at the end of a day over that kind of stress.

My first day in a brand new city, especially one that has been recently named the most expensive place to live in the world, can offer mixed emotions for me. Yes, it’s definitely thrilling  for me to explore new territory but underneath there is always a little anxiety. My main stressors are getting oriented so I at least head out in the general direction I want to go and figuring out the general lay of the land. That way I can finally decide where I want to walk.

The advantage I had in carrying out this plan in Singapore is that all Singaporeans speak English. This is their first language but then you have all the various other languages, such as Mandarin, Malay, and Hindi with their different accents and rendition of English which doesn’t always make their English understandable to a person like me whose auditory strength borders on the weak side. With the help from the friendly staff at the Champion Hotel City where I have been staying, I quickly opted to start my exploration close to my area which just happens to be at the border of Chinatown and within walking distance to downtown and the Singapore River.

Entrance to Chinatown.

I found out that the river is the cleanest it’s ever been. At one time before Singapore gained its independence from Malaysia in 1965 it was filthy. I doubt many places can boast of this today, at least not any in Asia.

The Singapore River

Fortunately, I had an ideal location and if I wanted to go further afield all I had to do was figure out the complicated (to me anyway) subway system and go from there. I decided to make it really simple that first day by walking straight up Victoria Rd. to the area known as Bugis noted for its diversity, history and shopping.

Entering the Bugis area.

I expect most of you have heard of the Raffles Hotel with its famous bar serving the equally famous singapore sling. How about the man who started all this…Sir Stamford Raffles? My trek to Bugis helped me sort out some historical facts regarding this man who is considered to be the founder of what is modern-day Singapore. It has a humble beginning as a fishing village inhabited by poor Malays (people from Malaysia) at the time when Raffles’ made his appearance under British rule. This was in the early 1800’s which isn’t so old by our standards considering what Singapore is today. At that time, the area was controlled by the Dutch and those living there, numbering about a 1,000 were chafing at the bit under their rule. Sensing this, Raffles quickly proposed a more lucrative trade for them under Britain. With the right kind of diplomacy and salesmanship, a partnership was born and there has been no looking back ever since. Today his legacy can be seen on buildings and streets everywhere.

A little history of Bugis and Sir Stamford Raffles.

Before reaching Bugis I came upon a stately white portal or gate and wall encircling an attractive older building and grounds which looked at first glance like a five-star hotel sporting a couple of high-class restaurants and a courtyard. Seeing a parade of women dressed in beautiful long dresses spoke of some kind of ceremony to be held…a wedding perhaps? However upon closer scrutiny, I realised I was wandering around a significant historical site which also housed a gorgeous Gothic style church painted in white. Except for its colour it looked much like the Notre Dame in Paris. The site I had stumbled upon is called Chijmes, dating back to the 1880’s when it was built as an orphanage by the nuns for abandoned females. As far as I can fathom, it simply isn’t on the tourist radar. None of the brochures and maps mentioned it. Such a pity because the site is beautiful and a perfect symbol of Singapore’s past. The ladies were singers taking part in a Singing Festival. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find out when the actual performance was to be held. What I saw was a dress rehearsal.

The Chijmes Cathedral

A choir in their lovely purple dresses.

My travels that day also took me to a couple of ritzy malls… the brochures weren’t kidding when they said this was one of the best shopping areas in the city along with others like Orchard Road, Little India, Chinatown, and the list goes on. Singapore could brag they are the most over-malled city in the world.

At one point I wandered into a predominately Muslim area (Halal) evidenced by the number of women wearing scarves. Hunger was taking over by this time so I decided to stop for an afternoon meal which would serve as lunch and dinner. A restaurant with the Trip Advisor logo and a claim to have the best biryani in Singapore caught my attention so I decided to give it a try. I wasn’t disappointed and by Singaporean standards I got good value for my money at $14 which by the way is a few cents more in our Canadian money. Not bad considering the menus I had looked at where almost double that.

A chocolate dessert at a mere $18.

One of the tourist recommendations I did take in was the iLight Show at Marina Bay a magical display of light and colour celebrating the city’s support of sustainability. It showed creations from artists around the world including a Canadian artist from Quebec.

An exhibit made from used plastic.

This creation named Light Breeze is made from used neon tubes.

The light show with the Marina Bay in the background.

I couldn’t afford to have a drink at Raffles so instead I went to Level 33 a bar up on the 33rd floor of the Marina Bay Financial Centre where I opted for a cappuccino which I enjoyed much more than a singapore sling. The views were just as good, too.

View from Level 33 of the harbour and the container ships.

View of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and Casino with the Supertrees Garden on top.

Yesterday I met up with some Chiang Mai friends at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where we enjoyed a delicious lunch at the Halia Restaurant. We had so much to talk about that we didn’t leave nearly enough time to explore this English garden landscape dating back to the 1800’s. To this day it remains a major centre for plant research and breeding, with orchids leading the list. It’s one of the most visited gardens in the world and has won numerous awards. Time magazine described it as ‘Asia’s best urban jungle’. It comes highly recommended so I’m sorry we didn’t plan this better so we could see more of it. Maybe it was just as well we didn’t because by the time we finished our meal the humidity and the heat were overwhelming.

Friends Irene and Trevor.

Finally, you can’t visit Singapore and not take the time to visit the two most popular enclaves: Chinatown and Little India. I had my first meal in Chinatown the night I arrived…dumplings, my favourite Chinese food. Then yesterday I made a quick run through Little India, brimming with colour and bargains in Indian jewellery and clothing. For Indian food lovers there were restaurants galore. This was probably the place where I saw more garbage than usual, nevertheless,  by Indian standards it just couldn’t compare.

Street scene in Little India.

Colourful Indian saris.

Four days were about the right amount of time for me. There was still much more I could have seen and done had my budget allowed. I have no regrets in stopping over, and one thing for sure it’s prepared me for what lies ahead. Australia is also an expensive country to visit so getting used to such high prices has been a learning curve which I know I’ll have to deal on my next stop which will be Melbourne.

Chinatown

Coastal Cambodia at Risk?

Southwestern Cambodia on the Gulf of Thailand has been gifted with white sand beaches, tropical islands, budding resorts, and provincial towns. It’s no surprise that tourists from all over the world are flocking here to sample these offerings, potentially promising a boom for the local economy. Cambodia desperately needs this but will it succeed at getting it? Unfortunately, I see some black clouds on the horizon threatening their dream.

This is Kep Beach.

Sun setting on Outres Beach 2.

One of the beautiful beaches on Rabbit Is. near Kep.

Found this fellow on the beach above.

Before I begin to figure out how Cambodia can possibly deal with those black clouds I see looming over it, I want to relate how my stay this past week at the Village of Outres between the beaches of Outres 1 and 2 reminded me so much of the ’60’s when the ‘hippies’ of that era began their search for their nirvana which would come to be an escape from the troubles they saw in their world around them. Down through the ages there have many idealists wanting to set up their utopias in order to live life the way in which they felt it should be lived not how their governments dictated. They wanted to live on the fringes like the ‘hippies’ and create their own perfect world. The problem is that most of them were out of sync with their times so their experiments usually failed. Those of us who were around in the ’60’s witnessed their demise when drugs took over their lives. Others just got disillusioned from trying to right the wrongs and gave it all up to go back to normal living. However, their movement and the ideas behind it weren’t a total failure because what they did accomplish was an awakening in many of us that our western society didn’t have all the answers on how our world should work.

You are probably wondering where I am going with this but bear with me. Since I arrived here three weeks ago, in what is now referred to as Coastal Cambodia… first in Kep, then a little inland to the old French provincial town of Kampot, and, finally, this week to Outres Beach 2 near Sihanoukville, the largest city in this tourist haven…. I have stumbled upon a community of sorts bearing an odd resemblance to the hippy communes.

Old French colonial home in Kep being restored to its former glory.

Street scene in Outres Village.

For the past week I have been calling a comfy enclave of bungalows called Om Home in Outres Village, my home. I couldn’t help noticing that the ex-pats and many of the backpackers here were dressing and living a life similar to our “hippies” of the ’60’s. They are mostly young people wearing weird clothing, maybe some facial jewellery, sporting long hair, dread locks, and beards, and definitely showing off bodies with lots of tattoos. There are a few older men and women interspersed in the group. This group of ex-pats, digital nomads, or barang as the locals call them may dress and lead a laid back life style reminiscent of the hippy era but the similarity ends there.

Some barang or young ex-pats.

Unlike our idealistic ‘hippies’ who were too far ahead of their time in their search for a better world, today’s young people are more practical and here just when Cambodia and the world needs them. Their goal is not to escape our imperfect world but to immerse themselves in it. They are not sitting around dreaming about what to do: they are endeavouring to do it. They are aware of what they are facing and open to changing with the times in order to carve out a life for themselves.

I joined a clean up crew who meet once a week to pick up garbage on the streets.

Plastic bottles are the only items being recycled.

This is a common site everywhere.

Two girls from England trying to clean up the beach following a full moon tide.

Someone tried to make a neat pile from the trash the tide brought in.

The Village of Outres has basically been created by the barang  over the past eight years. On my first visit back then, all that was here was a handful of thatched huts and small restaurants renting out beach chairs for the few tourists who wanted to escape the crowded beaches in Sihanoukville. Seeing an opportunity to use their entrepreneurship and creativity, adventurous barang began to open up guest houses, restaurants providing foods from around the world, yoga studios, arts and craft shops, and, of course, numerous Internet jobs which has earned them the title of ‘digital nomads’…people who can take their skills anywhere to make a living as long as they have a computer.

This $3 special with good coffee drew me in for breakfast. The owner is Italian.

Music is a huge part of the creative scene everywhere in town.

Cambodia has been the perfect place for them to do this with the government basically turning a blind eye to what they are doing… that is until the tourists starting arriving in larger numbers. The increase in the number of Chinese tourists has quickly caught the interest of the government and  the developers. The rising middle class in China wants to  see the world, and they have the money to do so but not in the style of the backpackers. They prefer five-star resorts, fine cuisine, and easy accessibility to all the hot spots, such as Siem Reap with its ruins from the ancient Khmer Kingdom of Angkor. Before this influx of tourists from China, it was almost a win/win situation for all sides as it brought money into the country’s coffers and provided much-needed jobs and business opportunities for the locals. However, the influx of the Chinese tourist is changing all of this.

This owner wants to sell his business before the invasion of the Chinese really begins.

You must have guessed by now the cause for the ‘black cloud’ hanging over this unfortunate country. In the past few years, rampant construction driven by Chinese millionaires has been changing the natural beauty of this coastal region to what is beginning to look like a garbage dump with a landscape dominated by cranes and high buildings.  This is particularly noticeable in and around Sihanoukville and gradually creeping into Kep and Kampot.

One of many new buildings being constructed in the Village.

Garbage is everywhere waiting for pick up to be taken somewhere?

Depending on who you talk to, there are various moves from China that are causing not only the ex-pats but the locals much concern. Fancy resorts are replacing the bamboo huts and little guest houses which were once affordable to the young backpackers and middle class tourists.

One of the 5 star resorts on Outres Beach 2.

As I mentioned, the new resorts are geared to cater to the emerging middle class of China, Russia, and more mature tourists from Europe who no longer want to backpack it. When the developers start drawing this kind of tourist then there’s always another money-maker to be considered…gambling! Rumour has it that when all the construction in Sihanoukville is completed, the city can then boast of over 40 casinos! Now you might think that all this will benefit the Cambodian people by providing them with those much-needed jobs making it all good, but you will be wrong!

A casino nearing completion atop Bokar Hill near Kampot.

Apparently the construction crews and eventually the operators of the resorts and casinos are being staffed by the Chinese. All of this is creating gate-like communities which could ultimately destroy the efforts of the young ex-pats and the locals here in the Village of Outres where they have been learning to work together to make their community more sustainable and peaceful. Many of them are outfitting their buildings with solar devices to heat their water and run their generators, which they often have to rely upon when their power is cut off by the construction sites. Moreover, many restaurants are offering organically grown foods on their menus. They are proud to claim that their village is a foodie’s haven with everything made from scratch.

This restaurant takes pride in using solar power and serving organically grown foods.

However, this could conceivably become a past dream with the impending Chinese invasion which right now weighs heavily on the mind of the locals and the ex-pats. To add further insult to injury, their invasion is being openly aided and abetted by the present government led by Hun Sen. You can read more about him and his government in my most recent post Cambodia – Past and Present.

Of course, he’s doing everything in his power to keep the status quo in this country which is to line his and his cronies’ pockets with cash. China has no problem with this way of doing business for it’s the custom in this part of the world. They appear to be out to get whatever they need to take care of their aging population by building comfortable apartments for retirement, and for the younger generation, who are eager to escape to beaches, those five-star resorts. Then there awaits them the forests, the water from the Mekong River, and the minerals that Cambodia can still claim to have but are rapidly disappearing. Granted some of this money will filter down to the people. The infrastructure that the government has put millions of dollars into, enabling the people to travel around more easily and quickly is a plus for those who can afford motorbikes and fancy cars but what about those many poor people who can’t?

Cambodia is still a corrupt country. The only winners who can come out on top to improve their lives are those with the money. If you have that, you can buy anything you want including a job, but it you don’t, you can’t go too far.

I know Cambodia isn’t the only developing country facing this problem…. all the SE Asian countries and other parts of the world are to some degree dealing with this sickness depending on how much unspoiled land they have left, other valuable resources, and the degree of governmental transparency. The invasion of the Chinese is a great concern to all.

The opinions of many Cambodians and those barang I have talked to is that of all the SE Asian countries, Cambodia stands to be the biggest loser. It will continue to need our help, but it will have to be the kind of help that can empower them enough so that they can regain some of their pride of culture. They have been constantly beaten down over the years with totally corrupts leaders.They have also had over half of their country slaughtered during the reign of the Rouge wiping out almost all their well-educated and older generation. Now they are faced not only with a totally corrupt government, but a floundering population of young people who have by and large been poorly educated unless they were fortunate to have parents who were wealthy enough to send them to an International school.

Most NGO’s focus on teaching English and various skills such as making crafts and learning computer skills to those disadvantaged kids who have no parents or prospects, but I think that what they probably need more than anything else right now is to be empowered. More emphasis on Life Skills training could do this. They have to be given a better understanding of their past and learn to take  pride in their  culture again. This could help them to stand up to the Chinese in a way that isn’t going to get them killed. They need to change their thinking from despair to hope in spite of the obstacles that are facing them. Everyone agrees that a change of government is needed, but for now they will, unfortunately,  have to accept the fact that their present government is here to stay for a while.

I wish that the Cambodian people had fewer odds facing them and their lives could be easier. I wish that their future could be more promising because if any people deserve more, it would have to be them.

Cambodia – Past and Present

Cambodia – Past and Present

“Why do you keep going back Cambodia?” I am confronted with this question many times from fellow travellers and friends. This is always a good question to ponder because it does get me thinking about the reasons for putting it on my list four times out of the nine that I have visited Southeast Asia.

Cambodia is a small country with a dark history which could still be witnessed right up until the late ’90’s.  Each time I return, I see changes with forward strides benefiting some but by no means all. There are still those struggling with the scars of their past and the present day changes being thrust upon them by this rapidly changing world.  The ‘those’ I speak of are the poor who are more than 20 per cent of the population.

Historically all the SE Asian countries have had their problems with outside invaders, save for Thailand which has never ceded control to anyone but themselves. Thailand has a long history of invasions from its neighbour Burma (now Myanmar) but has continuously managed to keep them at bay as they have of other invaders in the past wanting a piece of their empire. In spite of numerous internal problems such as trying to build a democracy that works and learning to live with some very restrictive military governments, Thailand has successfully avoided being under the thumb of any kind of foreign domination.

This certainly has not been the case for Cambodia, Laos, Viet Nam, Myanmar (formerly Burma) or any of the other SE Asian countries, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines or Singapore. Many will note that for this reason Thailand has been recognised as one of the leading developing countries, except for Singapore. The very opposite is true for Cambodia which lags behind all of them.

A bit of the country’s history can help us to understand the problems she is facing today. The first recorded history for Cambodia can be traced back to southern China with the Hunan polity followed by the Chennai people.  The Khmer empire, the most notable and powerful period of Cambodia’s history, flourished from the 9th to the 15th century in what today is known as Angkor.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

After Angkor’s decline, the country lapsed into a period of hibernation resulting in being overtaken by the Siamese (Thai) and the Vietnamese who further eroded their culture. With the entrance of the Indochinese Union, it then became a French Protectorate. For a short time during WWII the Japanese occupied Cambodia and with their influence under the leadership of King Sihanouk, they were able to achieve their independence from France in 1953.

From then on, the ineptness or plain stupidity of the king, internal power struggles, outside influences, along with illiteracy and poverty all contributed to the country’s downward spiral.

Sihanouk’s first mistake was to abolish the romantic part of the Khmer language for the script which basically took their culture backwards. During the 50’s and 60’s he and his country tried to remain neutral towards the rise of communism and the cold war, but being surrounded by the heavy influence of Viet Nam and what was happening there, as well as the ultimate interference and fiddling of the US, a split between the rich and the poor began to occur. The middle class became more and more disenchanted. The seeds were being cultivated which would lead the country into its darkest hour…the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

This is just one of the theories for how and why the Rouge happened. Blame has also been levelled at China and their support of the Rouge. Who knows all the reasons for such madness, but to this day many  Cambodians cannot forget the horror of this genocide which nearly devastated this small, once very proud country.

The Rouge wanted to completely reform Cambodia’s society: their banking system, their religion, their beliefs, their lifestyles…everything. No one felt safe under this strict regime which resulted in neighbour fighting neighbour and in some cases family versus family. They were all struggling to survive and in doing so turned against each other. The whole country was collapsing. The murders began in Phnom Phen where most of the upper classes lived. The entire city was evacuated resulting in the loss of over 20,000 lives. Then began the purge of the eastern part of the country where records show that 250,000 lives were lost. When all was said and done, Cambodia faced the grim fact that their country now had an estimated two million people murdered…. almost all of the well educated…with 600,000 refugees displaced to other countries such as Thailand. Towards the end, many members of the Khmer Rouge fearing for their lives fled to Viet Nam. Hun Sen, the first and still reigning prime minister, was one of them. The Khmer escapees with help from the Vietnamese devised a plan to invade Cambodia to set up a new form of government which would eventually become the Cambodian People’s Party. Thus, began Viet Nam’s occupation of Cambodia beginning in ’79 and ending in ’93.

Any kind of lasting peace did not happen until 1991 following the Paris Conference when the United Nations was brought in to oversee the rebuilding of this devastated country. At first the country was ruled by a two-party system with Hun Sen…remember the man who was a member of the Khmer Rouge…. and Prince Ranariddh….a member of the Royal family…. as his second in command. Known for his strong-arm approach to ruling when “it’s needed” as the saying goes, Hun Sen maneuvered the situation so as to basically abolish any power the monarchy had to that which today gives them no authority other than to be figure heads for the country.

Cambodia’s figure head king.

As late as 2008, a tribunal was established to bring to justice those who were involved in positions of authority in the murder of the estimated 2 million citizens. Targeting only those who held senior government office and who had violated international law and carried out acts of genocide, a panel of foreign and local judges was formed to try them. By this time many of culprits had either died or disappeared including Pol Pot, the leader of the Rouge, who was hiding out for years in the north. After many trials and tribulations only three persons were convicted. Of those three, two have made restricted apologies to the Cambodian people with the third, the warden of the Tuol Sleng prison, called Duch, who was handed a life long sentence. To call this tribunal a success story is still up for much debate.

So what have I witnessed on this visit to Cambodia which could be seen as as a move forward to improve the lives of its people? The most obvious one is the vast improvement in its infrastructure. New roads connecting all the major towns and cities and streets in Phnom Penh all paved. This wasn’t the case on my first visit here in 2014.  A new train service has begun, linking Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, and another linking Cambodia and Thailand is just about completed. Here in Kep, from where I write this post, Route 33 A is a first-class highway running by the Bacoma Bungalows my lovely home for this past week. Cambodia has China, of course, to thank for this. Improved roads means more tourists especially from China which in turn is creating the problem of being overrun by them even though it’s providing jobs galore for young Cambodians.

Hwy 33 A

The entrance to Bacoma Bungalows.

My bungalow.

This, along with the flourishing tourist business, has increased the earning power of many Cambodians so they can now own motor bikes or even late-model cars. There is also evidence of a rising middle class taking place. I noticed this at Kep Beach which three years ago was a beach in the making. Tons of sand from somewhere else was brought in to make this sandy beach which has proven to be a huge success for locals and visitors alike. It appears to be a big draw for Cambodians of all classes and on a Sunday is packed with picnickers.

This is not on a Sunday!

However, the downside to this is that many of those forming the middle class are government workers whom I am told gain their positions by literally buying them. They also get substantial bonuses throughout the year which allows them to buy their big vehicles. Here is an example of  “the big C” at work which puts the country right up at the top when it comes to corruption. For more on this problem you can check out my post: http://The Big “C” in Cambodia

Cambodia’s history has not done anything to help it with its problem in getting their literacy rate up so that it can deal more effectively with its issues regarding poverty. Although statistics are saying that there have been improvements and that learning English is now considered a must, it’s up for debate on whether the present government with its lack of concern for human rights and the layers of corruption that still exist, is responsible for this. Most likely it’s been with the help of the NGO’s and the locals themselves, as well as young volunteers visiting from developed countries who want to get involved. In any event, the young people I talk to are eager to learn, but not so eager as those I spoke to in Laos. I would guess that the young are still affected by what happened in their country not that long ago. The scars of the older generation and the continued repressive government from a Prime Minister and some of his ministers who had connections to the Khmer Rouge are still having their negative effects.

Eeven though the economy here is showing an increasing growth rate fuelled by Chinese investment, increased tourism, and the garment industry which provides cheap labour for many countries including our own, it still isn’t keeping up with the kind of growth it needs to be a recognised contender in the Asian economy. It continues to lag far behind as it struggles with overwhelming human rights issues under an extremely repressive political regime. Although there are signs from the government that the lack of any kind of national education system is an absolute must to improve the literacy level of its population to alleviate the extreme poverty that prevails, there has been no real action. How can there be any change so long as the old way of getting anything done is to buy it? This is the core of Cambodia’s inability to become a more effective competitor in the new world which is emerging.

Ignoring such problems is easier to do than this one: the mounting piles of garbage! Garbage can be seen everywhere in this country.  And, to make matters worse, there is apparent lack of interest or will to do anything about it.

On my way to Kampot on the bus from Phnom Penh, I happened to take a pause from an interesting conversation I was having with an English teacher visiting from Ho Che Minh City, when out of the corner of my eye I saw the side of the road littered with garbage piles for what seemed like a kilometer or more. In the midst of it all sat a young boy about 12 years of age… totally naked. I don’t think I can ever erase this image from my mind. I resolved right there and then that I would do my utmost to avoid plastic bottles in my travels. This isn’t an easy task especially here in Cambodia. Fortunately, the owner of Bacoma Bungalows is filling my metal water bottle free of charge so I don’t have to buy plastic bottles. In most of the places I’ve stayed, I’ve had to take the small bottles of water offered to me. They were free so I took them knowing I would have to buy the same thing elsewhere. Large bottles often are not available or if they are they come packed in large quantities. Since the water here is undrinkable even for the locals, can you imagine the amount of plastic that keeps piling up! To make matters worse, the garbage collection from what I can determine in the rural areas is almost non-existent! I spoke to a young Cambodian lady about it, and she agreed there was a problem. “The only way to solve it is by educating the kids. The parents are hopeless,”she said. They aren’t educated enough to understand. Moreover, they prefer to buy their water in bottles from the fridge so they can drink it cold as a kind of status symbol to the fact they can afford it. She also pointed out that pure water is also something that brings good luck to their family. In rural areas the water is so polluted that people are getting sick from it. I am sure this is happening in many countries around the world where more and more of our water resources are being contaminated by toxins so what on earth are we going to do to solve this?

Phnom Penh’s garbage collection shows some improvement but still has problems.

Garbage collectors in Kampot trying to keep this tourist town clean.

Oops, they missed this pile.

I saw a few of these, but would the locals put their garbage in them?

Yes, Cambodia’s problems are the same ones facing all developing countries. The question is what can I or any tourist do to help them? Where can we start with the problem of potable water and the rampant use of plastic bottles? Perhaps we can start by setting a good example. From my small act of carrying a refillable bottle, I find myself not only talking about the problem with those who listen but now writing about it. This creates good energy which will spread. We can no longer just ignore the problems we see when visiting other countries. We must talk about them, or write about them, or do something! The more awareness each one of us can create the better. I would like to hear from you, my dear readers, on what we can do to alleviate rather than to contribute to their problems.

In closing, I will leave you with this quotation by the American ambassador, Joseph Mussomeli, who served here in 2005 which helps to explain why I and many others are lured back to Cambodia time and time again:

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.”

For my other personal reasons for returning to Cambodia, take a peek at my post from last year by clicking on the link A Brief Hiatus to Phnom Penh

or this post Soaking Up Phnom Penh

or Phnom Penh Re-visited

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How I Dealt With the Effects of Climate Change in Laos

Having to deal with climate change has never been on most travellers itineraries in the past, but I am betting it will be in the future if it isn’t already. I know it will be on mine. When Luang Prabang was experiencing erratic weather such as it did last week, most people I talked to were trying to ignore it by calling it a fluke or quickly changing the subject if it was brought up. Their intention was clearly on what to see and where to eat and not the weather.

Last week when I was packing my bags to catch the bus to Vientiane, the capital, I realised that I really didn’t want to leave Louang Prabang. I wanted to stay and experience the city bathed in sunshine and warmth. I wanted to explore some more of the Hill Tribe villages further north. I wanted just to linger a little while longer and savour its charms and slow pace of life. I have to confess I felt short-changed for I had only two measly days out of nine with clear, sunny skies. The others were dull and grey with maybe a few feeble  rays of sun trying to break through here and there. The worst of it was that each day the temperature dropped a little bit more…down to as low as 10 degrees! Not expecting this kind of weather left us tourists basically shivering in our shorts and sandals.

Over the years I have learned to adapt to travelling to this part of the world by taking as few clothes as possible …. just what I think I’ll need. Other than what I wear when I leave Canada is all I will have for any kind of warmth. So for the time I was in Luang Prabang, it was this outfit every day except for those two days of sunshine. At least I didn’t have to waste precious time deciding what to wear. Instead an easy routine set in: just grab those jeans, a long-sleeved top, my one and only fleece cardigan, my runners with my one pair of socks, and a scarf, which I broke down and bought at the Night Market, and get this on as quickly as possible in the morning. I must confess, I had to resort to wearing this outfit to bed on the night the thermometer went to below 10 degrees. It felt more like zero to me… worse than my  old drafty house in the dead of winter in Victoria Beach.

The five-star hotels probably had some kind of heating source, but my guest house certainly did not, and why should it? This kind of weather is not the norm for Laos. Yes, Luang Prabang is in the mountainous north of this small country where cooler temperatures can prevail in the dry season but apparently not as intense as what I experienced. The one blessing I did have for those cold nights was the fluffy white duvet on my large queen – sized bed. I was able to double it up and make a comfy little nest out of it to help keep me warm. Usually the places I stay will supply you with just a sheet and a light blanket which is quite enough for warm nights so I was lucky to have that duvet.

On our coldest day, I just couldn’t bear to be in my room at my computer making plans for my upcoming travels, blog writing, or wading through E-mail. I had to find a warmer place to do my computer stuff and keep moving. With this goal in mind, I set out. Although my guest house had Lipton’s tea and instant coffee available for breakfast, I have to admit that a cup of good coffee is the best way for me to start off my day. With that in mind, I headed for Le Benneton Cafe which became one of my favourite places to relax and savour a really good cup of coffee along with the newspapers to catch up on the latest Lao news. Fortunately, they provided thick plastic covers for the doors to shelter us from the cold making it warm and cozy. Most eating places were all open so weren’t much better than my room.

After tearing myself away from there, I decided to visit Mount Phousi (meaning sacred hill) in the centre of the city to climb up the 328 plus steps leading to the top. This hill which is over 100 meters high is graced with a golden pagoda which cannot be ignored as you approach the city or from wherever you happen to be while there. Once up to the top, you are rewarded with a panoramic view of the region including the two rivers…the Mekong and the Nam Kham. It’s not surprising that it has become the perfect place to view the rising and the setting of the sun. I regret not experiencing either but at least it helped to warm me up and give me some much-needed exercise. Furthermore, I had avoided the crowds who go up to catch the perfect sunset or not so popular sunrise picture and had the place to myself.

With the stair climbing under my belt, I decided to go to the nearby Indigo Cafe for a bowl of their pumpkin soup. This was definitely a soup day. I wasn’t too disappointed except for the rather small bowl which was, however, accompanied by a delicious, healthy roll.

The next thing on my agenda was to indulge in a massage and hot sauna. The only place that had a sauna as far as I could find was the well-known Red Cross Massage Centre. It wouldn’t be everyone’s first choice for indulgence and pampering because there were absolutely no frills. Everything was basic, but it supported a good cause, and I wanted that sauna to help draw out the toxins which were contributing to my cold brought on, no doubt, by the erratic temperatures. I was on a mission to outwit the weather. As I had hoped, the sauna did the trick even though there were at least a dozen near naked women packed into a small room. The heat and close body contact set up a curiously funny but intimate atmosphere, not just for me but also the young Lao women who were with me. I felt like we had really bonded even though we didn’t share the same language. I love their sometimes child like sense of humour where they take delight in such little things. The Centre does have separate saunas for males and females but that’s it. Everything else is shared. If you are taking a sauna, you must basically fend for yourselves by bringing your own towel, or a sarong as I did, for a cover. The massages were mostly good I would say based on what others told me on Trip Advisor and word of mouth. My masseuse had very strong hands which made things a bit too uncomfortable for me at times. However, she apologized and did try to lighten up when I let out a groan every now and then. It wasn’t one of my better massages; however, the whole experience gave me what I wanted. I felt better afterwards and definitely warmer.

My day ended with a hot and too spicy Laotian soup for me. Nevertheless, I managed to have one of the best sleeps in a while as I bunked down in my day clothes under my duvet tent. Having to deal with the effects of a changing climate in Laos had not only turned out to be my most memorable day of all, but may mean that I will have to revisit this charming and most beautiful country in southeast Asia.

Click on the pictures for the captions.