Friday 25th June – Brexit

Today is Friday. Friday is a day when I come home from work and check which blog post is to be published. Quite often, I schedule them so far in advance, I forget what I’m going to tell my readers this week. Today, I’d planned a “day-in-the-life” kind of diary entry, but you’ll have to wait for that one I’m afraid. Today’s post is a break from the usual exploits my minion and I get up to for your reading joy. Sorry, but today, I have something very different for you.

Today is Friday. Friday 24th June 2016. An historic day, following a vote in my home country as to whether Great Britain will continue to live and work and exist under the protective arm of the European Union, or go it alone like the stubborn old goats we apparently are in our heart of hearts.

In four short hours, the value of the Pound Sterling dropped plummeted, at one point by 10%, although it has now plateaued at 8%. As I’m typing this, furiously battering my keyboard, I’m personally cursing the injustice that I’m now going to have to think even harder about the exchange rate of GBP-USD now that it’s settled at around $1.35 to £1. Maths has never been my strong suit, but trying to work out around one and a half USD to GBP was a much easier calculation yesterday than it is today. My currency exchange app that I’ve been using to convert Vietnamese Dong, Thai Bhat and Cambodian Riel into USD and GBP since the beginning of my travels has completely crashed and won’t update its rates.

My Facebook newsfeed has been inundated with sad faces; that emoji with the lone tear falling down its cheek; of people predicting similarly atrocious results in the upcoming US Election; of people berating a Prime Minister who has resigned on a decent salary for the rest of his days whilst his country around him blunders around trying to work out “What now…?”. I for one have posted a status with the F-bomb in it, which, whilst in person I can use really quite colourful language from time to time, I try to keep my online persona as cool as possible. Not today.

I think that what bothers me most about the result is that I do not for one second believe that the British people who voted Brexit actually understand what they have voted for. I don’t pretend to know the inner workings of Parliament, Politics, the way in which the European Union is governed. I do know though, that the EU, or rather its preceding organisations were originally set up to promote unity after the Second World War. We are still in need now of that same harmony and collaborative effort than ever before. Instead, what has happened is Nationalist leaders in other EU member states have demanded they also be given the right to hold a referendum such as the UK. France, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark have all had prominent leaders making comments about following in Britain’s footsteps.

It pains me to say it, but I have not helped the remain party. Though I currently reside outside of the UK, I could have voted, by post or by proxy. Now, the Cambodian postal service is really quite terrible, and the instructions to register as a proxy voter were not the easiest to understand, but I could have overcome these obstacles and placed my vote. The problem I had was more of misplaced faith. Faith in the British people understanding that:

we are only as strong as we are united, weak as we are divided.

I think Albus Dumbledore said that. I am a very firm believer in that if you choose not to vote, then you cannot complain about the outcome, so I’m a filthy hypocrite by my own standards, but I never ever thought that the majority (52%) of Britain would be swayed by a racist campaign, riddled with half-truths as well as blatant lies. How wrong could I be?

Many people have reminded me that the process to actually exit the EU is a long and difficult one. I can only imagine the interconnecting strings that need unravelling before such a tie can be severed. It has only ever been done once, when Greenland wanted to remove itself from the European Communities organisation. In addition, the Referendum of the 23rd June 2016 itself is not legally binding, there are other steps that need to be taken before anything concrete can happen. I should take solace in that.

I should also be comforted by the fact that the vote was pretty close. I mean, it tipped the wrong way in the end, in my opinion, but the fact is, there are just as many people feeling dejected as ecstatic, and as one of my old schoolfriends, Eleanor Fagan, put it on social media: Please people, today, don’t be smug and condescending, or on the other side spiteful and bitter. Appreciate how other people are feeling.  Half of the people you meet today will be elated, the other half, crushed.  As long as those feelings don’t turn toxic it might just be ok. Otherwise everyone will be at each other’s throats by lunchtime.

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Let’s talk about the weather

There is nothing quite as quintessentially British as talking about the weather. Except maybe with a cup of tea and eating Custard Creams and Jammie Dodgers, with the odd Ginger Nut thrown in for good measure. Another traditional British hobby is complaining about stuff. Combine the two, and you’ve got a good two minutes of small talk before you have to start scraping around for actual conversation topics (I can almost feel the wry grins forming on the faces of some of my readership… if it’s any consolation, I miss you too!).

Despite most Brits complaining all year round that they are sick of the miserable rain and constant dull cloudy sky, give them more than two days of +28oC temperatures, and the news will be full of reports of heatwaves. Honestly, if I had a £ for every time someone in the UK said “I like warm weather, but this is just too hot,” I’d be a wealthy girl!

Personally, I really do like the hot weather. I live for that week in early June, and the 10 days from the end of August through the beginning of September. When I planned to travel to SE Asia, I was warned that it gets very hot, I just shrugged it off and said “yeah, but I like the heat”. Little did I know how hot it was to get. Looking online, the average temperatures for the months I had planned to live in Siem Reap were between 30-35oC. That is fine, but I hadn’t taken into consideration either the heat index nor the fact that the temperatures may actually be significantly higher than the average of the last 75 years. And I picked the right year for it too… from freak cold storms in north Laos to the driest dry season Cambodia has seen in living memory, I’ve experienced and interesting climate since my travels began at the very end of 2015. image

As a general rule, Cambodia has two seasons, one dry, one rainy, both pretty hot. I’ve now experienced both of these, as well as drought and floods. It doesn’t quite seem fair that half the year it is so hot and dry that you can’t function properly and the other half has that much rain, there aren’t enough containers to hold it, in time for the months when you are really going to need it. Excuse my language, but Mother Nature can be a bitch, right?

Since I arrived in Siem Reap back in February, the temperatures have physically soared to above 40ºC (104ºF) and the heat index has been higher still. The locals have complained perhaps more so than the expats that I have spoken to because this year’s dry season has been the longest and most brutal in the last 70-odd years. Between the beginning of February and the middle of May, not a single drop of rain fell. Water levels have plummeted and remote villages have been left with wells that have dried up and the “F” word has been bandied about. Famine. The lack of rain in recent months has caused many crops to fail, inland fisheries have dried up completely and before long, we will be looking at widespread famine in many provinces of Cambodia. And worst of all, this is being hidden from tourists. There have been reports that the river that runs through the city has been dammed to prevent it looking too depleted and to keep up the river’s aesthetics for the benefit of tourists. Large hotels continue to water their lawns on the heat of the day, and locals (who may not know better) can be seen hosing down their footpaths and driveways to prevent dust blowing into their homes and businesses, and washing their cars and motorbikes to keep up appearances.

But it’s not all bad news, there is a great Facebook page called Water Wise Cambodia that aims to educate people how to reduce your own water usage in both English and Khmer, and I’ve personally managed to stop lawn-watering during the hottest hours of the day at my place of work!

Some concerned expats have set up a fantastic organisation to provide short term crisis-relief before the rains come (fingers crossed!!) to villages in and around the Siem Reap area called Water on Wheels.  Through specific fund-raising events such as a quiz night and raffle, plus generous donations from businesses and individuals around Siem Reap and the world over, Water on Wheels has been able to provide water and rice deliveries to outlying villages. If you would like to help a much needed cause, there are a couple of ways you could do it. Either donate by credit/debit card at Razoo or by PayPal at World of Crowdfunding. I haven’t used my minion to ask for cash before, and I doubt I will ever do it again, but if you can spare some money, I would personally be incredibly grateful. And I know that the villagers in remote areas would not only appreciate it, but might even live to see another rainy season thanks to your generosity. Look at his little face, in the first rainfall of the year! How can you resist?

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Mango Salad and Pan-fried Scorpion with a side of Ant Spring Rolls

South East Asia is a great place to eat extraordinary things. The delicate flavours of curries laced with coconut milk and crispy crickets, warming ginger packed full of health benefits, juicy silkworms and fresh mangoes, dragonfruit and rambutan. Fusion foods borrow tastes from India, China, the Middle East and beyond. Signs outside eateries take pride in stating they “do not serve cat, rat, lizard or dog”. You can get an entire meal for $2 if you know where to go with (pretty much) unlimited rice. It’s more than likely cheaper to eat out than it is to cook, and believe me when I say that the weather and humidity is not conducive to standing next to your little portable stove in any case!

So it was on the way back from Preah Vihear that I was coerced into visiting a Siem Reap tourist attraction I’d managed to steer clear of so far. It’s a restaurant. Great reviews on TripAdvisor. This place is called Bug’s Café. And you guessed it, they serve crispy crickets, juicy silkworms, pan-fried scorpion and ant spring rolls. And other bugs too, of course!img_2179

When I spoke to my parents on Skype last weekend, I told them about the experience, and I can only imagine that your face right now, dear reader, is much like that my mother pulled when I told her that waterbugs are basically cockroaches.  And though the texture is not the most pleasurable, the taste was really good.

The kitchen at Bug’s Café is looked after by a very talented French chef and the menu really is quite something to behold, with chutneys and pesto, sauces and other accompaniments. After much debate about the Mediterranean Feuilletés with ants or the tarantula doughnuts, with some of our party flat out refusing to eat some bug or other, we eventually ordered a discovery platter, wanting to try a little bit of everything, and when our waitress arrived with our food, she very quickly explained how to eat the delicacies on the plate.img_2180

“The scorpion should be eaten with the salad; it is very good together. But you should not eat the pincers or the head, just the tail and body, up to the neck. Same with the waterbugs, please do not eat the head. Does anyone need another drink? No? Okay, please enjoy your meal!”

After everyone snapped a few pictures, we went about trying to equally share out the meal. Personally, I wanted to try the curry. I guess it’s the Indian blood in me that wants any excuse to try a new curry! We could choose which bugs we wanted and in what style they were to be cooked. The choices were hot, coconut, green and Mediterranean. We went for a mixed insect coconut curry, and it was seriously good. Check out that cricket on my fork. Mmmmm.img_2182

Naturally as we were munching on our insect skewers – one bite of scorpion, one cherry tomato –  we started chatting about the nutritional value of eating bugs, and they may actually be the way forward. Low in fat, high in protein and in abundance, insects are one of the most efficient foods you could possibly choose to eat. And super good for the planet too, because if you think of how much methane is produced by one cow, compared to an entire bucket full of crickets… you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to do the math. Note the stats for those who like a protein-rich diet: dried beef is about 50 percent protein, but dried crickets weigh in at 65 percent protein. And let’s face it, it all depends on how food is prepared and seasoned as to whether you enjoy it or not. The most expensive cut of beef can taste completely rubbish if it is cooked incorrectly.

The cocktails and even the fruit juices were divine. I ordered a watermelon concoction with mint and basil that was delicious. A lot of the drinks had healthy servings of fresh ginger blended within to give a spicy taste. One of the cocktails had coriander and fresh chilli in it, by grandmother would have been impressed! She’d have served that up as a chutney for her samosas. But there would be no trace of tarantula in her recipe!img_2177

In conclusion, whilst the health benefits seem plentiful, I don’t think I’m going to make insects my meat of choice, and to be honest, I didn’t eat the tarantula because I’ve always been freaked out by spiders (nothing needs that many legs, and that many eyes… it’s just being greedy!), but I would recommend to eat bugs at least once in your life. The experience really is awesome. Plus you get some pretty cool pictures. I mean, even the décor was funky!

More Temples, and a wrong turn leading to Thailand

Whilst I’m living out in beautiful Siem Reap, working to make enough cash to pay my way, I’m also trying to see as many other places in Cambodia as possible. I’m incredibly lucky that I have some awesome friends who have planned some pretty cool trips and don’t mind if an extra body and a plastic Minion join them. Most recently, I had the pleasure of visiting the temples of Koh Ker and Preah Vihear, in a private minivan complete with fantastic A/C but with the most infuriating beep every 15 seconds. There were seven of us altogether and we had a blast! Our trip itinerary was Siem Reap – Koh Ker – Sra’ Em for the night – Preah Vihear – Siem Reap, and we were not confined by public bus schedules or routes which invariably all go through Phnom Penh (…which is just infuriating. Just imagine if you wanted to travel anywhere in your home country by public transport, you had no choice but to get a bus to the capital city and then another to your final destination! Madness!). On reflection though, our minivan was approximately 350 times more comfortable than my last cross-country trip in Cambodia, so I really shouldn’t complain about a mildly irritating beeping! Other advantages included if anyone wanted to nap, we could just tell everyone to shut up without fear of offending anyone… and we could enjoy each other’s company without worrying about disrupting other passengers. Naturally, we took advantage of this time to give each other spirit animal names, because why on earth wouldn’t you? I was the first to be named as the green elephant. Whilst some may be offended at being described as a traditionally “fat” animal, I was assured that this was not the intention. The rest of the crew was made up of an orange owl, a burgundy turtle, a purple flamingo, a rainbow rabbit, a blue cobra, and a white peacock. Did I mention that we were an enigmatic bunch(!)?

Anyway, I digress, back on topic: Koh Ker is around 75 miles from Siem Reap and the temple complex is on the UNESCO tentative list. For a short period of time near the beginning of the 10th Century, Koh Ker was the capital of the Angkorian Empire, and is home to an impressive number of temples. We climbed the main one, Prasat Thom, (prasat means temple) which is a beautiful pyramidal structure reminiscent of the three pillars of Angkor Wat but only one, built on a much larger scale. In fact, it is the highest prasat in the Kingdom of Wonder, stretching 36m high. The temple is believed to have been dedicated to the Hindu God Lord Shiva, but the linga that was enshrined in the main chamber of the temple has been long destroyed.

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A pretty impressive (but also severely damaged) garuda at the top of Koh Ker Temple

 

We visited a couple of the prasats, and took some wonderful pictures. The sky was a brilliant blue, but when we reached the top of Prasat Thom, there was a massive black cloud above us. With the threat of rain, we made our way to the next prasat, where the temples have been over-grown with strangler trees and the sun was beating down through the canopy of leaves providing us some great lighting for photo-taking, without a grey cloud to be seen. Nature – who can predict it? Later on we had a lovely lunch at one of the little eateries at the entrance to the temple complex, a quick laze in a hammock and then we set off again to find our bed for the night in a rural town called Sra’ Em.

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We climbed Koh Ker Temple (there were stairs at the back of the temple)

We made great time and checked into our guesthouse a lot earlier than we had anticipated. Heading out for a stroll before the heavens opened, we took a walk around the town, stopping for a coconut and buying local food for dinner, that a few people in our crew have previously nick-named “the pots”. Basically, rather than a restaurant, local people make a variety of dishes and sell them, buffet-style. Its street food, but not as you know it. Generally speaking, food in SE Asia is pretty tasty, but when you eat “local food” that has been made for the local palate, you realise just how tasty (and cheap) you can eat. With a good 9km clocked on my iPhone, we decided after a quick can of beer, that it was indeed bedtime, agreeing a 6.45am meetup for the journey to Preah Vihear.

 

The main topic of conversation on our 30minute ride to Preah Vihear Temple was whether we would walk up the hill, which is around 500-odd metres to the temple or take a truck. The walk would be 7km, and take us around two hours. Uphill. One by one, we were peer-pressured into agreeing to the walk. We paid for a truck to bring us back down, but we decided that we would complete the pilgrim’s walk, through the trees with great photo opportunities and a fair amount of shade. Bad move. We didn’t complete the pilgrim’s walk at all. We were directed to a concrete road. With trucks and motorbikes zooming up past us on a road with little to no shade at all, and with returning motorbikes tempting us with honks of the horn and shouts of “moto to the temple?” I wasn’t the first to give in; I made it to around 5.5km and up the first of the steepest hills before I finally caved and took a motorbike to the base of the temple. At some of the steepest parts, the incline must have been more than 60 degrees, and whilst three of us chickened out on the walk, the other four toiled through and had the satisfaction of saying they completed the hike.

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The view was a little misty from the top, but at least it had stopped raining.

 

At the top, we stopped for a coconut drink and then we continued our walk up to the temple which truly was beautiful, even through the sheets of rain that then fell from the heavens. Having taken refuge in a little leaking wooden shelter for a good 45 minutes, we decided to brave the rains with a $1 plastic raincoat. I took a picture of a man-made water reservoir just as the rain started, and then got another one at the end of our journey. This reservoir or “barai” was pretty big, maybe 75-80m across, so that wasn’t an insignificant bit of rain… what do you think?

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Before the rain…
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…after the rain

Preah Vihear is on the very border to Thailand, physically accessible from both countries. Whilst history has been fraught with territorial conflict, eventually in 1959, the temple has been officially claimed by Cambodian authorities. I’ve done a fair bit of research and have come across numerous different stories regarding access to the temple from Thailand. Some sources state that after the last lot of territorial rioting and fighting in 2013, the Cambodian authorities closed the temple to Thailand, but others state it is still possible to access the temple. At any rate, on the return journey, we all sort of split up. I managed to take a wrong turning, getting completely disoriented and going down some steps that looked a little unfamiliar, but I didn’t think too much of it. I took a picture at the bottom, looking up and then tried to continue my descent. img_2137Some non-official looking people (non-official as in, luckily for me, they didn’t have guns and they weren’t wearing uniforms) were sitting around at the bottom of these steps and in very broken English they told me that over the barbed wire approximately 10m in front of where I standing was Thailand. I had on my trusty “Siem Reap” tourist shirt and pointed at it, saying “Cambodia?”. All of the people looked at me, quite concernedly and shook their heads. I pointed back up the steps and repeated “Cambodia…?” to which they kind of smiled, kind of grimaced and nodded. I’m not going to lie, at this point I was pretty panicked. I was cursing myself for splitting from the group, I wasn’t able to call anyone because there was no reception and I had a wholly unnecessary climb ahead of me. All of the people I had smiled at on the way down were now staring unashamedly as I climbed the steps again, but fortunately, when I reached the top, the way down to Cambodia was perfectly apparent, and I could even see a few of my friends! Breathing a sigh of relief, I caught them up, and I wasn’t even the last to arrive back at the truck, and I guess I do have a fairly amusing story to tell.

When we got back to the bottom, we got some lunch at a local place and collectively decided we would go straight back to Siem Reap, rather than stopping off anywhere else. We made it back around dinner time, and although we had eaten pretty late in the afternoon, I took the opportunity to have a parting dinner with my new travel buddies, plus got a takeaway burrito for my lunch on Monday. Win-win! So with all of my extra walking, I managed to rack up 17.75km for the day. Not bad, if I may say so myself. And though I slept like a baby overnight, waking up at 6.15 to teach my lovely Year Ones was a painful experience from head to toe!