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Our Maths Hell

17 Feb

Pile of ShacklesSo, four Mondays into our trip, and the home-schooling thing has hit a major speedbump. It’s the long division that’s killing both of us.

It’s a lovely sunny day in Phnom Penh, and we are encamped in the bar-restaurant opposite our guesthouse, using their internet, swigging lemon juice and sweating.

“So what is the next step?,” I say, with weary patience. He makes cow-eyes at me.

“We need to work out the tens now,” I say, in my best I-Am-A-Very-Nice-Patient-Person-And-Excellent-Mother-Who-In-No-Way-Needs-A-Large-Gin-And-Tonic falsetto.  Continue reading

Kampot Pepper

17 Feb

Now, there are roughly as many “world’s finest peppercorns” in Asia as there are “world’s best mangos”– think chillis in Texas or cheeses in Europe. You don’t have to go far in any Western foodie store to find a dazzling range of peppercorns with literature as flowery as the back of a wine bottle.

But Kampot pepper is pretty special. From the flatlands around the lovely riverside town of Kampot, it may not have featured on the Spice Route, but is undergoing a well-merited revival.

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Why Do Flies Have Eyes?

15 Feb

I’ve been wondering why we spent so much time in Kampot. It’s a lovely provincial capital, set around a river, with the beginnings of a promenade, easy to navigate, beautifully chilled, lots of countryside, plus gorgeous caves, but it isn’t somewhere I’d have pulled off a map as a destination, and I’d never have thought we’d spend the big end of a week there.

I think it’s something about the pace. On our last night, we went down to the river to watch the fishing boats racing down to the sea, an extended spectacle given the average longtail engine is held together with string and hope.

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Mr. Toilet

15 Feb

The Phnom Penh riverside has been beautified of late. Glamorous pagoda-styled buildings in hues of red and yellow send serpentine corner eaves skywards like dragon’s breath, competing with the Royal Palace opposite. Much of the pavement is actually paving, rather than a colourful mix of dirt and plastic, and every side street is tarmaced to the max.

The breeze off the Tonle Sap both cools and and mitigates the general scent of garbage, burning and decaying, that permeates the city. There is even a pedestrian promenade! And grass!

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Virachey National Park

15 Feb

Virachey National ParkVirachey National Park sprawls across northeastern Cambodia, right up to the borders with Vietnam and Laos.

Within it is a fraction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the network of camouflaged roads along which North Vietnamese forces transported troops and supplies to the south during the American War, and deep in the unexplored interior are endangered species including cloudy leopards and black bear.

At the national park headquarters in the provincial capital, Ban Lung, an establishment whose grandiose scale belies the fact that salaries have not been paid since the development budget ran out, we pack up faux-US Army camouflage bedding and embark on the trip to the boundary. Continue reading

Bus Journey from Hell #1

13 Feb

We’ve been relatively lucky with buses, so far, if you take squat toilets and a fine coating of red dust, AKA a Ratanakiri suntan, as part of the experience, though it would be fair to say that I’m more adventurous on the roadside food front than Z.

Anywise, it took us twelve hours to get from Phnom Penh to Ban Lung in the north-east. About two hours in, a young woman boarded with her 18-month old son and 5-year-old daughter.

The bus was beyond full, but the conductor, who spoke some English, saw a bright side. Continue reading

S-21: Genocide for Beginners

13 Feb

Tuol Sleng Prison, Phnom Penh, Cambodia“Kneel down, mum,” Z says. “Close your eyes.”

He fumbles with my hair. We are in the courtyard of Tuol Sleng prison, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, AKA S-21, where teenage true believers tortured and killed over 16,000 people, from babies to geriatrics.

On a concrete bench under a papaya tree a crimson-clad monk sits contemplating, Nokia in hand. The place is very still. Continue reading

Poachers and Gamekeepers

5 Feb

young monk, bokor wat, bokor national park, cambodia

“You want beer party now?”

As we wandered the haunted hotel by torchlight, Saa’s invitation kind of broke the mood.

The Bokor Hill Station, a French colonial ghost town in Bokor National Park, Cambodia, is film-set spooky. Western explorers discovered the area in 1917, then a road and a beautiful art deco hill station followed during the 20s.

At the Bokor Grand Hotel and Casino, gamblers lost fortunes then threw themselves from the verandah into the ravine below.

As it happens, having hiked ten miles uphill with the prospect of more of the same tomorrow, I didn’t fancy a beer party. Z son did. But only if he was allowed to drink beer. Continue reading

Tree, Not Try

5 Feb

Tree knows the Bokor National Park better than most. After all, he lived in the forest for two years.

“My life was not a good one,” he says. “I was born in 1958. Until I was twelve, life was good. Then Nixon bomb my country and the trouble start.”

His family were prosperous peasants. They owned their own land, and Tree went to school at the temple.

“With the bombs, we had to hide in the forest. Then the Khmer Rouge kill my family, and I live in the forest alone,” he says. Continue reading

Does My Mum Look Big in This?

5 Feb
Boys With Their Toys

Z and friends outside the Kampot Caves

“I think you should wear something a little more slimming tomorrow, mum,” was tactfully meant.

“God, mum, your tummy sticks out almost as far as your bum and your bum is MASSIVE. Where’s your phone? I’ll take a picture and show you,” came straight out of the Viz Spoilt Bastard handbook.

I think, on balance, the kinder version was crueller, although the beauty of utter rudeness is that one can respond with high dudgeon/childish insults/patronising therapy-lite explanations about how “It doesn’t make Mummy feel very good when you say those sorts of things” (no shit, Sherlock). Continue reading