Monday, 22 April 2013

... Indochina: Top Of The World Lookin' Down On Creation

Known as China's ultimate east-meets-west metropolis obsessed with the latest fads, fashions and technology, Shanghai has got to be the most dynamic city in the world’s fastest- changing nation. Is there anywhere else in China where can you see traditional houses shadowed by towering skyscrapers? Not that I have seen any other part of China, aside from Hong Kong, but I doubt it. Here you ain't gonna see any dusty imperial palaces. Instead you are transported into a combination of Lost In Space/Tron with a twist of 60's Trek sci-fi skyline of Pudong (minus the space suits of course). Couple that with the European-style nuances and tree-lined neighbourhoods and you could be forgiven for thinking you were actually somewhere else. Admittedly I may have heard the 60's theme tune to Star Trek playing in my head as I walked along.

In the last 28 hours I've discovered that Shanghai is an exhilarating, ever-morphing metropolis that isn’t just living a dream, but is setting a pace that quite possibly threatens to leave the rest of the world in the dust.

If you’re into culture, The Bund (the waterfront area), the Shanghai Museum, the French Concession and Yuyuan Garden (Garden of Contentment) are just some of the places to visit.

The Bund (Wai Tan) definitely doesn't give you the impression that it was once merely a muddy towpath. Now instead it's a plethora of neo-classical and art-deco buildings, which includes the rather impressive former British Consulate. Most buildings now house trendy stores, bars and hotels which, of course, were of no interest to me. However, now that most of the traffic has been sent underground in the immediate vicinity, walking along the waterfront both during the day and after the sun has set is rather lovely, especially when armed with a camera. It did get quite chilly at night mind you, I guess after temperatures of +40 in the previous weeks anything below 25 was going to feel like I was in the Antarctic.

The Shanghai Museum is easily reachable by the Metro to People's Square (Renmin Guang Chang), which is an interesting place all of its own to stroll through. The latter was formerly a racecourse for the hoity toities to race horses and nowadays is a popular meeting place for Shanghainese. You can watch a Tai Chi practise, games of checkers and cards and yes, public aerobics! Despite this being in the centre of the city, it's really pleasant to walk around or simply sit and take in the scenery. It was actually very peaceful despite being incredibly busy. Apparently it is also home to a "Single's Market" aka "Wedding Market", where parents try to match their single kids to someone suitable.

Home to at least 11 galleries, The Shanghai Museum opened in 1996. It is here where you can spend many an hour, for free no less, viewing China's exhibits of Ming & Qing dynasty furniture, jade, bronze, ceramics, sculptures, coins, traditional dress and paintings. It is very well laid out making it easy to visit. I suspect you could easily lose yourself to half a day in here, if not longer. In any case you'll need at least 2 hours if, like me, you actually like reading the labels. There are English pamphlets at the entrance to each of the areas which show and tell you about the main artifacts housed in each gallery, I'm guessing so that you don't miss them. Some of the sections are absolutely mind-boggling and this was an exemplary museum to visit.

The French Concession will make you feel like you're not actually in Shanghai, as the name might suggest. This residential area was once designated for the French during the colonial era and is now a popular spot for tourists thanks to the plethora of coffee shops, little boutique stores & galleries and tree-lined avenues & lane ways. Sitting with a coffee and people watching for an hour or so is a great way to grab some downtime in an otherwise hectic tourist schedule. It's European eccentricity all the way here. Well may be except for the "Superman" panda t-shirt I acquired.

I had been pre-warned of pandemonium and commercial mayhem at one of Shanghai's most conspicuous sights, the five-acre Yuyuan Gardens. Initially, in my quest to locate this classical Chinese garden, I got thoroughly lost although this meant I got very familiar with the old China Town that surrounds it like a maze and a much needed pit stop at Starbucks. The garden itself was really lovely, despite the obvious inability to accommodate a thousand visitors every day. If you go early enough, however, you can still be a part of the tranquil surroundings that the garden is most definitely trying to achieve. There's the pre-requisite plants, trees, rocks and water providing lots of photo opportunities and if you get your timing downpat you can perhaps get the quintessential photograph minus some random stranger.

Shanghai's Lujiazui skyline (Pudong) is in a state of constant change. As each skyscraper is designed and constructed, it takes over from the previous as being China's tallest building. Currently that accolade goes to the Shanghai World Financial Centre, which took the title from the neighbouring Jin Mao. It is also the 4th tallest building in the world. However the Shanghai Tower, a 632-meter super skyscraper, is under construction next to both and so Shanghai’s skyline will change again soon, and there will be yet another reason for a postcard snap on the Bund. The Shanghai Tower is expected to be completed in 2014.

Without a doubt though, the Oriental Pearl Tower is Shanghai's most recognized landmark of Lujiazui. It rises 1500 ft above the Huangpu River, which is the last significant tributary of the Yangtze before it empties into the East China Sea. The tower has 3 metallic space-age looking spheres which, believe it or not house a dance hall, a karaoke bar, a rotating restaurant and an observation deck. When you stand there looking up at it it truly feels like you have been transported, at light speed, into the future. All I needed was a silver space dress and I'd have been set! During my walk along the Bund I joined a plethora of camera-laiden visitors in snapping shots of a well photographed skyline as the sun set for the day.

The Shanghai World Financial Center (SWFC) looks like a rather large bottle opener. It is a mixed-use skyscraper that consists of offices, the Park Hyatt hotel, conference rooms, observation decks open to the public (for a fee of course), and ground-floor shopping malls. There are 101 floors above ground, 3 below and 91 elevators, the top speed of which is 10 m/s. The main observation deck, the world's tallest at the time of completion, offers views from 474 m (1,555 ft) above ground level.

 The entrance fee is not cheap at 150¥ for a combo ticket to visit 3 observatory floors (94th, 97th & 100th floors), however the view of the entire city skyline is quite something and the reason why I opted for this view over the Oriental Pearl. Make sure you go when the sky is somewhat clear otherwise I suspect you will be disappointed. I went to watch the sun set and was not. It was pretty awesome to catch the space age style lift up all those floors within a minute where you can watch the height and floor figures rise and trust me this thing fair shifts. For someone with acrophobia, that being me, this will be quite the experience. I "eased" myself in with the 97th floor although could feel my legs somewhat losing their nerve as I slowly made my way towards the window to take photos. Bloody hell it's a bit high is this thing!? I made my way to the 100th floor thinking I'd gained this new found confidence.... Take that scary high building! That was before I saw the glass floor. Firstly let me elaborate. The "glass floor" is actually a series of clear glass tiles that run periodically down the middle of an otherwise opaque floor. Still, don't allow that descriptive to appear dismissive... they afford you the view...all... the... way... down. You know those action movies where someone is teetering along a cliff edge with their arms splayed in the seemingly misconceived notion that a) should they slip they will miraculously be able to suction themselves to the cliff face or b). by making themselves look bigger it will prevent them slipping to their death? I would have looked like that had it not been for the fact that the "cliff face" was also clear glass treating you to a 360 degree view of the city from above. A view where everything waaaaaaaaay down there on that nice solid ground looks the size of an ant. A little kid looked at me as he began jumping up and down on one of the glass tiles. I'm pretty sure I looked like I wanted to puke. I wasn't the only one struggling with the fact that the glass won't break. I walked, gingerly, down the one side which looked out across the city towards the International Airport planning to leave the best side until last. I'm pretty sure I stood contemplating how on earth I was going to "get to the other side" for a good 5 minutes, much to the amusement of the staff member who was stood right next to me. Whilst I have potentially painted a picture that makes this thing sound like it was as wide as a ravine, it was at best about half a metre, with at least an opaque tile on either side of the set of clear ones. I pretended to fumble with my camera lens... For a very long time. My heart was literally pounding in my ears... Out of fear. I chuckled to myself as I thought "For God's sake Nic, quit being such a wuss - you can't stay here all night" and went for it.... I still stepped on the opaque tile avoiding the clear ones at all costs. Hey you never know there could have been a trap door or something!?! After a while I found my British stiff upper lip and even sat down on, ok may be more semi-bum shuffled towards, the floor-to-ceiling window sitting half on a see-through piece of glass to take photos of the Oriental Pearl, Jin Mao, the river and the Bund.

It is kind of insane how high this building is and I am pretty sure it wasn't my acrophobic mind playing tricks on me when I thought I could feel it moving (there's information boards on how the building was constructed to deal with this). This admittedly was a fantastic way to spend a couple of hours on my final night in Shanghai, with my head quite literally in the clouds. I felt I truly deserved my Ms. Shanghai cocktail with dinner at  the Blue Frog bar at the bottom of the tower courtesy of a freebie voucher that came with my SWFC ticket! As I made my way back to the Metro station the heavens opened and the top of the tower became hidden in the clouds.

Side note: Shanghai gets most of its drinking water from the Huangpu, and dumps most of its sewage into it (4M tonnes in 1990 and only 4% of it treated in any way). As a result of pollution, the tap water must be heavily chlorinated. In February and March 2013, thousands of pig carcasses were found floating in the Huangpu River in Shanghai. Yummy! Needless to say I only ever drank bottled water and I kept my mouth closed like a vice when taking a shower!

Sunday, 21 April 2013

... Indochina: Faster Than A Speeding Bullet

Thanks to my backpacking pillow, which I oddly woke up hugging, I slept most of the flight from Bangkok to Shanghai landing just before 7am local time. Back on track with my "I don't check in luggage" mantra I was soon heading towards customs, which was painless, friendly and swift.

When I'd finished lugging my tired behind through the massive airport and recovered from a cloud of cigarette smoke, I had two ways to get downtown. Choices are taxi or the world's fastest train. Guess which I chose?

If I thought that getting through customs was fast then that was before I boarded the Maglev train for a round-trip return ticket cost of ¥80 (about $13CDN). That is a measly $4 more than what I have to pay to get from YVR to Marine Drive Canada Line station, which is a piffly few kilometres and basically crap in comparison.

The Shanghai Maglev line was the first commercially operated high-speed magnetic levitation (Maglev... clever hey?) line in the world. It was designed to connect Shanghai Pudong International Airport and the outskirts of central Pudong where passengers can then interchange to the user-friendly Shanghai Metro to continue the trip to the city centre.

Inside the train car, I admittedly expected to see seat belts and shoulder harnesses space-age style. However, upon reflection, they likely wouldn't be much use in an accident at 1/3 the speed of sound and yes I was perhaps a tad disappointed to find your bog-standard style of seat, albeit comfortable. The doors shut, and the train began to accelerate silently, smoothly, and rapidly. The vehicles on the parallel highway on view out of the window lost ground as we whipped by at a speed that I, in my rather tired state, couldn't quite grasp the concept of.

However, when the speedometer above the door reaches its apex, I became acutely aware that I was moving.... very fast. It felt kind of like a jet in turbulence and for a brief moment I wondered if there had been any Maglev MayDay episodes. Just after the speedometer topped out, there was a"boom" and blur, which scared the bejesus out of me. This was the Maglev headed in the other direction blasting past at an aggregate speed of 604 kph! Then, with about 10km to go, it was time to hit the brakes and a few moments later, when we had slowed to a mere 241 kph, I felt as though I was strolling.

Now here comes the science.....

Using a electromagnetic levitation system (sounds kinda heebie jeebie but bear with me), vehicles are propelled with magnets rather than with wheels, axles and bearings. The train hovers a half-inch above the track using magnets to create both lift and thrust with no support other than magnetic fields. This allows for faster acceleration, less weight and a quieter & smoother ride than regular wheeled transit systems, basically the Bionic Man of transit!

How. Cool. Is. That?

At full speed of 431kph (268 mph), the journey takes 7 minutes and 20 seconds to complete the distance of 30 km (about 19 miles). Some trains in the early morning, like the one I was on, and late afternoon take about 50 seconds longer due to *only* traveling at 302kph. A train can reach 350 kph (217 mph) in a rather jaw-dropping 2 minutes, with the maximum normal operation speed of 431 kph  reached thereafter. This also means that at full speed the Maglev passes in the other direction at an aggregate speed of 862 kph (536 mph). To put that in perspective, a 747-400 flies at high-subsonic speeds of 913 kph (mach 0.85 or 567 mph). So as you can see, this is no stroll in the park! I plan to experience this on my return journey to the airport in 2 days time.

Riding the Shanghai Metro, in comparison, felt admittedly like I was riding with how my grandad used to drive. Seems kind of backwards for it to be known as the "rapid transit system" in light of what I had just ridden. In 2012 it was the 5th busiest metro system in the world and with a daily ridership record of 8.486 million in March of this year it is no surprise to hear it is one of the fastest growing transit systems. There are currently 12 metro lines yet several more are under construction.

Rather wonderfully, for me anyway, the Shanghai Metro decided to create a ¥45 pass that allows unlimited journeys on all Shanghai Metro lines for a 72 hour period. Absolute bargain! Not only would that be fantastic for all the exploring I was going to be doing but would also get me back to the Maglev Interchange at Longyang Road when I return to the airport. Similar to the transit systems in Bangkok you swipe/tap this card at a turn style to gain access to the station, which may serve several lines, and then make your way to the platform for the line you want.

Everything is well marked including all the exits which tell you where you will end up on the surface. There's also plenty of signage advising you of what the next station is in each direction in both English and either Shanghainese or Mandarin (I'm not sure which but have been told that they are both quite different). I had absolutely no problem in making my way through downtown underground on 2 different lines to my destination station.

It was funny to see how I peaked everyone's interest - I stuck out like a sore thumb being the only non-Asian in my carriage. However, two passengers smiled warmly at me overloaded with my backpacks and said hello in English.

I think I will heart SH!

Saturday, 20 April 2013

... Indochina: One Night In Bangkok

"Bangkok, oriental setting and the city don't know what the city is getting...."

I had one final night in Bangkok. That is excluding the 150am 4hr flight to Shanghai later tonight. After the erm, fun? of the border crossing I arrived in Bangkok feeling rather wiped. The heat coupled with queuing for an age certainly has an uncanny knack of draining the energy from you. I think I laid on my bed for about 90 minutes before I moved. I didn't even nap, that would've required far too much effort.

When I finally got my skates on I headed out into the hot & humid Bangkok night under the protection of some air con courtesy of the MRT.

With a name like Cabbages & Condoms, you could be forgiven for wondering what kind of establishment I was visiting. This popular Bangkok restaurant actually promotes sex education to Thai's and anyone else interested. It is educating people on a wide range of subjects and issues but also population control and how, in today's medical age, families don't need to have 7 children just so one can survive.

There are lots of condoms: condom lantern anyone? I also received cabbage with my meal. However, this is an incredibly good restaurant despite poking a little bit of fun at sex education to make people sit up & take notice. It has a wonderful outdoor seating area. And as they promise, you won't get pregnant from their food!

"I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine."

Checking out of my hotel today left me with almost 13hrs to kill before my flight. I didn't really have anything particularly touristy that I wanted to see, at least not in the heat with two backpacks and the knowledge that my next shower was 24hrs away. So instead I bought myself a one day BTS skytrain pass and decided to ride around on that.

Terminal 21 is a shopping mall done up like an airport with each floor representing destinations. There was London, which looked like the opening scene from Austin Powers - have we really given the world that impression about us?; San Francisco; Istanbul - cue singing up the escalator to They Might Be Giants and the Caribbean to name but a few. It was kitsch, garish and rather cringe-worthy in places but kind of fun to whittle away some time, grab dim sum dinner and laugh at the hi-tech toilets.

" a show with everything but Yul Brynner"

From 0600hrs until midnight Bangkok has the incredibly efficient and easy to use Airport Rapid Transit Line. There are actually two trains. An express, which stops at a handful of stations, and a slightly slower commuter train which stops at every station between where you board and the airport. As a result there's a price difference. Seeing as how I was heading to the airport unbelievably early, to the point where my flight wasn't even showing up online, I chose the latter and saved some money in the process. Turns out I would've waited at least 15 minutes for the express anyway. So by the time I reached the airport around 1010pm I was still almost 4hrs early for my flight and I had beaten the express train. This is probably not the case during the day when I suspect trains are far more frequent to deal with heavy passenger traffic.

I saw the airport in the distance quite some time before I arrived thanks to that bright blue neon sign. Checking in was an experience. The airport was incredibly busy given the time and it was a case of fighting your way through the sea of people to locate where your actual check in desk was. Mine wasn't yet posted but I knew the general area for China Eastern flights, of course right at the far end of the terminal from where I was stood. So like someone in a mission I set off. Whilst others sat and played on their various electronic gadgets I briefly sat on a bench in section U and scanned my surroundings. I watched as staff dragged a China Eastern notice board to the desks at the end of the section. I'd nothing better to do so I followed. Shrewd move on my part. Aside from a few minutes of trying to find out if a bunch of us were stood in the right area, seeing as how nothing yet was posted, I was able to sit on my larger pack for almost an hour near the front of the queue and wait for the Shanghai check in. I was the 4th person in that Cattle class line to check in window seat and all!

It was amusing to watch people try pulling all kinds of stunts to get to the front of the queue. Now if, like me, you've got the British queuing gene then watching someone try to hustle a spot in front of you because they are basically too lazy to do what everyone else before them has done will piss you off no end. All credit to the airport staff, they were putting up with none of that crap. One woman tried to claim that because there were two of them checking in they should be allowed to check in at the group check in counter. Nice try lady... Now get your arse to the back of the queue! I have to admit I did kind of chuckle to myself as I watched all this go down.

Clearing security was entertaining. One lady looked mightily impressed at how efficient I was, or I rather believed complacently it seems, with having everything prepped for X-Ray. iPad in a tray.... Bag of "liquids" under 100mls in a Ziploc.. Jacket off, pockets empty. Done like dinner! I'd even taken the lid off my Sigg bottle to show it was empty. On the other side of the metal detector is where it got interesting. The lady on that side seemed transfixed on my 85ml half empty bottle of $12 sunblock. As she was scanning that and telling me I couldn't keep it another pair of hands began patting me down. Heeeeeey hang on a minute, aren't I supposed to get some warning about this? Of course I had forgotten to remove my money belt, which had admittedly become like an extra body part to me over the past 4.5 weeks. Up went my tshirt. And not by my own doing. Now can someone explain to me why I was stood in public with my tshirt around my chest, thankfully wearing a sports bra, when I wear my money belt on my waist? I had to laugh at how all this was done without batting an eyelid, all part of the service.

Yet it was all rather speedy and efficient if not a tad non-PC. And so here I now sit in Starbucks drinking my "fresh milk" non-fat UHT milk latte with still just under 2hrs until my flight to China.

"One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster."

Friday, 19 April 2013

... Indochina: Hindsight is 20/20

You know that saying "if I knew then what I know now I would......"? Well I think I can safely say I would apply it to the Cambodian-Thai land crossing at Poipet-Aranya Prathet. This is apparently the busiest land border crossing between the two countries. This is primarily because it is the most direct route to Siem Reap/Angkor Wat but also a bunch of Casinos have popped up in Poipet and Thai's apparently flock to them in droves. It took me almost 3 hours to reach Poipet but thankfully the Cambodian border formalities were swift and hassle-free.

"Sweet!" I foolishly believed the hard part was over.

Then came the Thai border. I walked over the Friendship bridge already feeling the sweat pouring down my back. It had to get better. Right?

Yeah no. This was where it all unraveled. My first duty, once I figured it out no thanks to the lack of signage, was to grab an arrival/departure card with a number stamped on it and begin the queuing process. Outside. In the searing heat. The queue didn't actually seem all that long and consisted of 3 lines for various types of passport. Yet it took me a good half an hour to actually get under some shade which was less than 10 steps away from where I began queuing. Once under the shade, which appeared to be made from old large green rice bags, I may have been out of the sun but I most certainly wasn't out of the heat. Yet I didn't dare drink a drop of water. Needing the bathroom at any point during this ordeal was not something I wanted to give up my spot for. I didn't even dare look at the 1.5L bottle I had let alone drink from it, certainly not with my thimble-sized bladder. I wasn't even in the building that was so near & yet so far and presumably where immigration was actually housed.

About every 15 minutes or so the doors ahead opened and about 10-15 people were let in. This was not from each line at once however but from one at a time. I couldn't believe it. I hope you have an idea of how painstakingly time consuming it was. The clock moved painfully slow and I took my rucksacks off my back and front to ease up the weight on my body. My back, much to the disgust of the person behind me, had the sweaty imprint of my larger backpack through my tshirt. Lovely.

I'm not sure what the stamped number signified whatsoever. Previously as the queue would progress you were chosen to go into the Immigration hall based on that stamped number. Today however it appeared to be a free-for-all. Specifically if you are British the lack of queuing etiquette will make your blood boil, although that of course could be due to the heat. So with this seemingly obsolete number I was incredibly perplexed to see people who had stood in the queue for 2+ hrs get sent back to the end of the line because it wasn't stamped. I reckon that when I finally got into the Immigration hall that the queue behind me was at least 5+ hours long!

Once you actually get to enter the hall you queue yet again. Oh joy! Thankfully this process was a darn sight quicker and I was through that portion in about 30 minutes. Why the heck this process takes so long your guess is as good as mine. But finally, the worst part was over. Despite the signage every where advising you, in the Harry Potter font no less, of the death penalty for any drug paraphernalia Customs was pretty much non-existent. A woman, who looked like she would rather be getting a manicure or something, waved me through without batting an eyelid. That is when she could be bothered to look up from her phone. That entire ordeal took around 3 hours to move a couple of 100 metres at most. I then had the joy of traveling for another 4+ hours including through peak hour Bangkok traffic... in what, perhaps rather appropriately, appeared to be the "PMS-mobile"! I had been on the road for over 10 hours.

Ironically I had been looking at Siem Reap - Bangkok flights the night before for $150USD.....

If I knew then what I know now......

Thursday, 18 April 2013

... Indochina: Blood. It's In You To Give!

My alarm was set for 430am. Now whilst that sounds a little insane when one is on holiday, and may be even when one is not, I had good reason. I was soon walking, along with a considerable amount of others for such an ungodly hour, towards Angkor Wat in the dark. This is the crazy thing you do when you are hoping to watch a sunrise and this ain't my first rodeo where that is concerned (Machu Picchu, Valley of the Kings). It looked quite promising at first. The dark black turned into a royal blue and there was a glimmer of hope that the clouds would indeed disperse in time for the 612am predicted sunrise. Alas it did not. This, however, did not stop the Mosquitos in their relentless attack and whilst those around me cursed I thanked my lucky stars that a friend had advised me to slap on some Deet. Mozzies seem to think I am tasty otherwise.

Even though I didn't get to see the sun it was still kind of magical to be there as the darkness turned into light all around you. A little while after sunrise the sun did manage to burn through the clouds and the mists lifted giving you a spectacular view. It was well worth getting up for.

After returning to Siem Reap for some breakfast I was returned to Angkor to visit two of the less visited temples. It was a nice way to dodge the crowds. The temple of Bat Chum has been undergoing restoration work and the job thus far is impressive. Even though the Khmer kingdom was dominated by Hinduism when it was constructed, this was built to be a Buddhist temple making it incredibly unique. Ta Keo is possibly the first to be built entirely of sandstone. It boasts some impressive towers arranged in a quincunx, a geometric pattern consisting of 5 points arranged in a cross, and the trek up the stone steps to view them is quite the workout.

Nerd alert: the inscriptions found on the door jambs allegedly contain ancient "No parking here" signs requesting elephant owners not park there to prevent damage.

My return visit to Ta Prohm was a lot drier than the previous day. Unfortunately the better weather also meant crowds. Famous because of movie scenes yet unique because of the large banyan & silk-cotton trees and their reptilian-like roots. Unlike the other temples before there are fallen rocks and inaccessible paths. It looks the most original and least restored, although some restoration is occurring. You had to queue to take photos at most places within, namely where the huge tree roots have taken over the buildings. But if you like not playing sheep it is possible to wander off on your own and walk to parts where you will be the only one there in the same temple. It is a must see visit but, unlike many of the ignorant visitors, be mindful that the trees are quite brittle so no sitting or touching.

Siem Reap likely has a little of something for every traveler. Temples, swimming pools, coffee shops, many many restaurants, nightlife, markets, massages & spas... to name but a few. There's also something else you can do here that is far more worth while and involves a total yet trained stranger sticking a few needles in your arm to drain a small but invaluable volume of liquid. That liquid is blood. When an average adult human has between 4-5 litres of this stuff coursing through their arteries and veins, what's giving up about a pint of this stuff?!

28% of Cambodia's population live below the poverty line of $1.25USD per day meaning few can afford to pay for health care. Since 1999 the non-profit paediatric teaching hospital Angkor Hospital for Children (AHC) has provided top notch free health care to impoverished children helping over 1 million of them! However, they face a critical shortfall in blood supplies which are vital for operations and transfusions. A horrifying one out of every twenty Cambodian children is likely to die before they reached the age of five. There are many with blood cancers and HIV. The hospital is also fearful for the coming monsoon season which raises concerns about an epidemic of dengue fever every year. Your donation of about a pint of blood can help save a child’s life in Cambodia.

I've never actually given blood before. As a Brit in Canada I've been advised I'm not allowed because 1). I don't weigh enough and 2). Being British they assume the risk of Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) aka Mad Cow Disease despite the fact I can't remember when I last ate a British burger... Now I may be mad but....

You’ll find the hospital on Samdech Tep Vong Street, behind the Central Market, and donors can drop in at any time between 8am-12pm & 2-4pm every day; no appointment is necessary. An English-speaking phlebotomist took my medical history details and then performed the first procedure gently and professionally in a spotless room. I didn’t even feel that he had stuck in the needle when he took a first sample to type my blood and measure my levels e.g haemoglobin, hematocrit, RBCs, WBCs etc. I got to watch my blood get typed, something I've never known, which was also really quite neat having studied all about it in Anatomy & Physiology class. I am O+. They wanted my blood.

For the actual blood donation, I was hooked up after my blood pressure & pulse we taken. My bp, as always, was low (thanks bradycardia!) but the Dr. cleared me after some more questioning and I was checked in on during the procedure every few minutes to see how I was doing. I had to laugh at how sluggish my flow was but that just meant I got to lie back and relax longer. The sound of the whirring of the mechanical tray to agitate the bag to mix my blood with anticoagulants was kind of soothing. Weird I know. No-one is going to blast huge bubbles of air into  your veins like they do in Bond movies. Speaking with the phlebotomist as he tended to me whilst I was donating was interesting too. He told me most Cambodians are afraid to donate so only do so when relatives are hospitalized and are in dire need of a transfusion. It's just not a custom here. A lot of males bring home diseases (guess the kinds) to their partners and so are unable to donate. I was the 5th donor of the day and he told me this month has so far been good for donations, lots of tourists had stopped by the hospital. Yay!

Brand new needles and other sterile equipment were used, and the whole experience was really as worry-free as it’s probably going to get when someone sticks a huge needle into your median cubital vein. Seeing the young child sat on a bench with various tubes hooked into her cuddling with her mum made sure there was no going back at any stage in any case. At the end, the phlebotomist allowed me to rest for 10-15 minutes, before disappearing and coming back with snacks, a soft drink, multivitamins and my very own T-shirt. I felt groovy! Not even light-headed. Still, I aired on the side of caution and took it easy for the remainder of the day.

Blood. It's In You To Give.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

... Indochina: Tomb Braider

UNESCO certainly are kept busy in this neck of the woods and Cambodia is no exception. Deep within the thick Cambodian jungle lies a city that, from around the 9th to 15th centuries, served as the seat of the Khmer Empire and flourished with life. It was forgotten to civilization for 400 years and slowly disappeared due to encroaching jungle covering all parts of it. This was a magnificent ancient city covering 322 km2. This was Angkor.

Frenchman Henri Mouhot is often mistakenly credited with "discovering" Angkor in January 1860. However, this is not correct because Angkor was never lost — the location and existence of the entire series of Angkor sites was always known to the Khmers and had been visited by several westerners since the 16th century. This included missionaries, a Portuguese trader and a Portuguese Monk. It is therefore more accurate to say that Mouhot popularized Angkor in the West.

The word Angkor is derived from the Sanskrit nagara, meaning "city". The Angkorian period began in AD 802, when the Khmer Hindu monarch Jayavarman VII declared himself a "universal monarch" and "god-king", which was rather ballsy of him. Talk about an inflated ego?!?

The ruins of Angkor are located amid forests and farmland to the north of the Great Lake (Tonlé Sap) near Siem Reap. There are over 1000 temples ranging in scale from nondescript piles of rubble scattered through paddy fields to the magnificent Angkor Wat, said to be the world's largest single religious monument. Many of the temples at Angkor have been restored to showcase the most significant site of Khmer architecture. It is believed that Angkor was the largest preindustrial city in the world, with an urban sprawl of at least 1,000 km2. The closest rival to Angkor, the Mayan city of Tikal in Guatemala which I visited and was astounded by in 2008, was between 100 and 150 km2 in total size.

Today, after years of being on my ever-expanding bucket list, I finally got my itchy feet to Angkor. I even braided my hair Lara Croft-style to get my Tomb Raider on. A 3-day pass costs $40USD and ensures that you can take your time seeing the big guns one day, come back for a sunrise one morning plus visit some of the smaller sites. One day just won't cut it, get at least a 3 day pass. When you purchase your pass you have to pose for a photo as this gets printed onto your pass. Naturally you look like you're dead. This photo pass is one of the measures they're taking to stop scams from occurring and doesn't take long to do.

Angkor Wat is truly a symbol of Cambodia, explaining why it is on the national flag. When I first saw the familiar sight I said "oh wow"... Loudly. I don't think my descriptive could do justice to what you lay your eyes upon. So, you are just going to have to go and see it for yourself. It should be on everyone's bucket list! It surpassed my expectations and you can't help but feel a sense of amazement at being here. Unlike some ancient sites, they let you in to just just about any part of the temple. However they're really strict about dressing appropriately, which some people shamelessly ignored to their disadvantage, and you WILL be refused entry to certain parts.

The artwork carved into the sandstone walls throughout the temple is overwhelmingly beautiful and the architecture itself is mind-blowing, it is all based on exact astronomical measurements and sacred geometry. The rock from which this astounding monument was built was quarried more than 50km away and floated down the river on rafts.

The upper level is open again to "modern pilgrims" that are cleverly disguised as tourists, like me *cough*, but your visits are strictly timed to 20 minutes. The entire complex is huge, 1.5km by 1.3km, so take your time... and lots of water, sunblock and Deet!

If I was astounded by Angkor Wat then I was naïvely unprepared for Angkor Thom. The gate grabs you first, either side of you along the causeway there are these neat looking 54 demon and 54 god statues engaged in a representation of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. However, there was no cream to be seen anywhere......

At the centre of Angkor Thom is the Bayon, the temple of the rather egocentric Jayavarman VII. This temple will stand out in your memory. This temple is stunningly beautiful. This temple is mesmerizing as the carvings are very different from the other temples. This is the temple of faces. Approaching the temple from afar, they begin to come into focus. There are 216 coldly smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara decorating 54 towers and they're enormous. You can climb up and view many of them at eye level, which is a bit of a mind ending experience. The crowd can get large here and I suspect you often have to queue to take photo with the faces. Thankfully I got there just before the rush. This was definitely one of my favourite of the temples visited.

Nerd alert: Out of all those carved faces, only one is truly smiling! My guide challenged me to find it... it will probably not be as much of a challenge if there are lots of tourists as they will be all queuing to take photos with it.

Ta Prohm is Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones all rolled into one! Incidentally Angelina Jolie filmed here, the Bayon and Angkor Wat plus a few other places around Angkor for the 2001 movie. Ta Prohm was left largely as it was rediscovered in the early 21st century. The Archaeological Survey of India is currently restoring more of the temple in the back of the complex one brick at a time, a very costly endeavour I'm sure but makes you realize how important your entrance fee is. This is the temple where you can see the jungle itself devouring this 12th century monastery and university, leaving you in awe of nature's power. It's also where the heaven's opened with a torrential downpour and I fled in fear of my camera gear exploding as opposed to being chased by the Illuminati. See! An excellent reason for a 3 day pass, I can make a second attempt tomorrow!

After a day of temple trekking I'm heading out to sample some Khmer cuisine in Siem Reap at Le Tigre de Papier.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

... Indochina: Incy Wincy Spider

The tiny town of Skuon between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap might not seem like much at first glance. In fact most people merely hop off and back on their bus merely to use the washroom, without even realizing just what lurks around the corner.

Seeing as how I had a platter shoved in my face with the words "Tastes like chicken, sister. You try?" proudly bellowed, I'm convinced, at me I couldn't really avoid what I had just had presented to me.

The locals of Skuon like to eat a local delicacy for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Identified by some sources as Haplopelma albostriatum, this arachnophobic has absolutely no problem in recognizing when there's a spider in front of her. Make that a platter piled high with them. The spiders, a species of tarantula locally known as "a-ping", were once about the size of your palm which was undoubtedly their shortcoming. That is before they were tossed into a sugar, salt & good ol' MSG (per literature) mixture and deep fried in fresh garlic infused oil. This is apparently an "exotic culinary delight". Fried spider anyone? I wonder if Gordon Ramsey ever makes these in his kitchen. I'm thinking probably not.

With online statements such as "fried until the legs are almost completely stiff, by which time the contents of the abdomen are not so runny", you would be forgiven for thinking "yeah but no" even if you don't mind these 8-legged furry creatures when they're alive n' kicking. The origins of this interesting cuisine comes from necessity. During Khmer Rouge rule these spiders played a major role in survival for the locals from starvation when food was scarce.

Hunted in holes in the hills to the north, these spiders put up a fight literally to the death and painful bites are not uncommon. This tarantula is known to have venom that is more potent than that of many tarantula species. However, this didn't stop one young seller wearing a live one like it was a brooch. May be she wanted to keep that one as a pet? The locals can earn up to half of their livelihood thanks to spiders and other deep-fried critters. I can't say I have ever seen an arrangement of crickets, larger grasshopper-locust type bugs, beetle-cockroach creepy crawlies nor stuffed frogs on silver platters, that is until today. And they sell like hot cakes! Skuon is officially nicknamed "Spiderville" with good reason! There also appears to be a penchant for pregnant spider females laden with eggs.

Still interested? Well apparently the abdomen appears to be filled with a rather vile looking brown sludge. Online debates range from organs, eggs and poo. Yummy!

As the bus continued the remainder of its 7.5hr journey to Siem Reap, I couldn't help but check around my seat for any stowaway 8-legged Asylum seekers.......

Monday, 15 April 2013

... Indochina: The Cambodian Genocide


"The deliberate and systematic destruction of, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group."

I think we would be hard pressed to find anyone who has been to hell and back quite like the Cambodians (Khmers). From 1975 until 1979, via disease, execution, forced labour and starvation, Pol Pot (also known as Saloth Sar) and the Khmer Rouge systematically killed an estimated 1.7 MILLION Cambodians. For a better perspective on what is an horrific enough thought, that equalled about a quarter of Cambodia's population.

I suspect that the overwhelming numbers of dead in events such as genocide (or war for that matter) are very difficult for the human mind to even begin to acknowledge let alone understand.  This reminds me of a piece my favourite comic Eddie Izzard did in regards to mass murder:

"Pol Pot killed 1.7 million people. We can’t even deal with that! You know, we think if somebody kills someone, that’s murder, you go to prison. You kill 10 people, you go to Texas, they hit you with a brick, that’s what they do. 20 people, you go to a hospital, they look through a small window at you forever. And over that, we can’t deal with it, you know? Someone’s killed 100,000 people. We’re almost going, "Well done! You killed 100,000 people? You must get up very early in the morning. I can’t even get down the gym! Your diary must look odd: “Get up in the morning, death, death, death, death, death, death, death – lunch- death, death, death - afternoon tea – death, death, death – quick shower…"

The sentiment is absolutely spot on. One death is a tragedy, Over one million? It becomes a statistic.

Cambodia became known as the Democratic Kampuchea. The goal of the Khmer Rouge was to transform the entire country into some brainwashed peasant-dominated mess, forgetting anything and everything that had gone before. Entire populations of Phnom Penh and other towns were forced to march into the countryside. Ill? Tough. Old? Next excuse. Infirm? Get someone to carry you. There they became slaves enduring 12-15 hour work days in one massive slave-labour camp. Disobey? Immediate execution. No if's, and's or but's. If you managed to escape execution then death was always waiting in the form of disease, malaria, dysentery, even starvation. Meals consisted of watery rice porridge twice a day. You'd be lucky to find a single rice grain in it.

Intellectuals were targeted next. The majority of Cambodia's Buddhist monks were murdered and nearly all the Wats were destroyed or damaged. Under the pretense of a celebration at getting the country back from the oppressors beforehand, Cambodians who had gone to live aboard for work, study or both were invited back to their homeland. They were basically tricked back to their death. Education and intellect had the increasingly paranoid Pol Pot running scared. If you had smarts you were deemed as a threat. Wearing glasses was reason enough to be killed. You MUST be working with the CIA/KGB in Pol Pot's mind. And even if you weren't you would be tortured until you broke down and agreed just to make it stop. It stopping would typically come via death. My guide told me his father, an engineer, escaped death by pretending to be of low intellect. It saved his father and their family. His aunt & uncle were not so lucky. Pol Pot soon began turning on his own party members and soldiers, convinced that they were traitors.

Year Zero. The advent of Khmer Rouge rule.

Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot's nutjob of a security force and transformed into Security Prison 21 (S-21). A place of learning became a place of pain, suffering and death. The largest incarceration centre in Cambodia is where former classrooms became torture chambers that bore witness to the inhumanity of mankind. These days it is now Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Just like the Nazi's, the Khmer Rouge leaders meticulously kept a record of their pure evil acts and every prisoner that passed through this hell was photographed. The haunting photos are devastating to look at, faces staring eerily back at you. Men. Women. Children. You will see the small temporary cells that were built and the wire fencing put across the front of that building block to stop any suicide attempts. You will see clothing, skulls and bones. You will wonder what the darkened stains are on the floor tiles.

When the Vietnamese army liberated the practically-empty Phnom Penh on 7th January 1979, 3 years 8 months and 20 days later they found only 7 survivors in this chamber of horrors. All of whom had used their skills such as painting or photography to stay alive.

14km southwest of Phnom Penh is a place called Choeung Ek. Upon my arrival the sun was shining and the birds were singing. Such a cruel irony. Most of the 17000 that were held at S-21 were executed here at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. The Khmer Rouge didn't want to use their precious bullets and so people were bludgeoned to death. Children were smashed against the "Killing Tree" and thrown into a pond below. This tree is now covered in bracelets left in memoriam by visitors to the site.

The mass graves that have thus far been uncovered included bodies that underwent the most brutal of acts. There are literally human bones, jaws, skull fragments and clothing sticking out of the ground every where you go. Every time there's a heavy rain more rise to the surface and if that's not horrific enough there is still believed to be a huge area yet to be excavated. At the centre of the site there is a memorial that displays more than 8000 skulls of victims and their ragged clothing. By the time I finished at this site I felt like all the happiness had been sucked out of me. I had to come back to the hotel to shower, as if to wash my horror off.

Yet I believe these are vital historic sites to make sure that this terrible act has public awareness and that we learn from history. They are not for the faint of heart. You might find yourself wondering how on earth Pol Pot and his cronies managed to get away with this and what other blind eyes are still turning today.

What I saw today was, without question of a doubt, incredibly disturbing. The very essence of Cambodia lies in its people and their survival through something that I have spent today trying to grasp a concept of. I tried whilst visiting these sites and I had to choke back the tears. Prepare yourself emotionally and mentally. You will never be the same after you leave. I have never been more ashamed and disgusted in the human race than today upon seeing for myself the utter horror these innocent people became victims of.

Out of five Khmer Rouge leaders indicted by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC aka the Khmer Rouge Tribunal) in 2007, the court has so far completed just one case, sentencing former prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, whose alias is 'Duch', to life in jail. The trial continues although ill health and natural death are starting to appear as get-out-of-jail cards for these evil people.

Pol Pot however was never brought to trial. He died in 1998 allegedly due to heart failure the day that the Khmer Rouge had agreed to turn him over to an International Tribunal. His body was cremated on a pile of tires before it could be inspected raising suspicion of suicide. Coward.

To all the souls so tragically lost, Rest In Peace.