February 25, 2009


The next morning, P had a series of meetings so I decided to do what I’d done years ago on my gap year abroad (though it wasn’t called that then) and explore. Exiting the hotel, I immediately noticed outside a couple of over-priced, air-conditioned taxis promising guests a heat- and dust-free trip from hotel to monument.

Walking out on to the main street, I had my first introduction to the primary local mode of transport when a smiling, sweet-faced young man approached me. "You want to go to Angkor?" he tentatively asked. Travelling on my own in Europe nowadays, I wouldn’t consider for a second accepting a ride from an unlicensed carrier but something about Cambodia and its simple, unpretentious people (unlike its new hotels) was beginning to draw out my long-buried, innate sense of recklessness.

"Is moto ok?" he asked. I was rather clueless as to what transport he might be referring to, but since I’m not fussy (and tend, as I’ve said, towards reckless) of course I said yes. He led me to a small motorcycle, jammed my large bag stuffed with guide books in the front and, handbag strapped across my back, we were off. I was in heaven. Wahoo!

Over the next several days while P was in meetings, I went everywhere I didn't walk by "moto". Don't expect a helmet, no one wears one. Going through an intersection in Siem Reap is truly an experience; dozens of motorcycles (some of them piled with whole families, children clinging to parents’ waists), no traffic lights, horns blaring and generally no stopping. It's live theatre! Oh, and occasionally you need to look out for monkeys.

You can always travel by Tuk Tuk if you really don't want to moto (open, 3 wheels, slow, toxic fumes, makes a tremendous, unending "tuk,tuk,tuk" noise, hence the name) but that's not my first choice! And forget about taxis, they’re over-priced and could never reawaken that giddy recklessness of youth.

February 22, 2009


That same, first evening we were due to meet some business friends of P’s for dinner. Notwithstanding we were both more than usually jet-lagged, this normally would have been an event to which we’d have really looked forward. The opportunity to catch up with a couple of friends who’d emigrated some years before and we hadn’t seen since.

I say 'normally' advisedly. For, in the meantime, I’d hit a problem. A big problem. Namely that my trousers and top were drenched, my suitcase had gone AWOL at Siem Reap airport and the hotel 'boutique' (selling, judging from its window display, mainly national costume) was closed for the night. Well, apart from throwing my arms in the air and screaming like a banshee, was there anything I could do? After much brain racking and picking, basically, er, no. Then, when all seemed lost, a Blue Peter moment! Or rather Michael Winner suddenly came to mind in that Siem Reap hotel room. (Siem Reap and Michael Winner together in the same sentence? Yes, I admit, an unlikely pairing). But why not make use of his favourite wheeze - the hotel hairdryer? (Does he keep falling into pools of water too, I couldn’t help wondering?)

Anyway, to cut a long (and extremely wet) story short, I managed to get the clothes dry enough so that they didn’t, well, cling. Yes, they still looked a bit damp and extremely crinkled (no, there was no time to iron too) but I tried to pass this off as the latest avant-garde Rei Kawakubo creation. If our friends noticed, they were too polite to comment and the evening went off quite well - or as well as can be expected in the circumstances.

Back at the hotel, P was about to have another laugh at my expense with the photo when he suddenly caught sight of a small parcel on his pillow. Far East hotels are in the habit of leaving bedside gifts at night - usually chocolates but I’ve come across anything from sashimi to a box of candles and even a miniature croquet set. (Had, I wondered, John Prescott once stayed there?)

Feeling peckish, P popped into his mouth one of the small conical, chocolate-coloured tidbits and started chewing - and, almost immediately, choking furiously. Spitting it out in panic, he glanced more closely at the tiny label on the parcel. No, those delicious-looking conical tidbits weren’t chocolates after all. Though the label simply read ‘lemongrass’ (British-style Health and Safety regulations have some way to go in Cambodia), a closer examination revealed them to be… miniature lemon grass-scented incense sticks.

It was some while before I got to sleep that night - for laughing…

February 18, 2009


No sooner had I crossed the hotel’s threshold and checked in than I carried on walking straight into a small, infinity ‘water feature’ in the middle of the reception area, falling headlong into its infinity, water splashing up and over other guests who were almost as taken aback as me.

My explanation is that, having just arrived tired and frazzled after a particularly "turbulent" 10 hour flight from the UK, I was suffering from jet lag and the worst place for an infinity pool - ornamental or otherwise - is in the middle of a reception area receiving jet-lagged guests!

I’ve never seen P take a photo so speedily - so determined was he to retain for posterity the image of my staggering partially clothed out of the pool since a number of clothes and I parted company in the process. Not quite an Ursula Andress moment from Dr No - but nonetheless as close, I suppose, as I’ll (or he’ll) ever get…

I’ve rarely seen P so bemused and, armed with the photo, determined not to let slip any opportunity to remind me of the "incident" as he called it. In fact, I thought I’d never live it down until, later that evening, it was P’s turn to even the score.

Ha! Revenge is sweet! Particularly as I'd been feeling a bit miserable in advance of an imminent, unwelcome anniversary. No, not our wedding anniversary. Something altogether more sombre. But more on both in the following posts.

February 14, 2009


Cambodia is, in many ways, an amazing country. Its centuries-old heritage may be its fortune, but its focus is very much on the future. Specifically on making the country as accessible as possible to the rather better-heeled tourist - if the preponderance of recently constructed five star hotels lining the road from Siem Reap airport is anything to go by. Certainly there are few guest houses of the type available everywhere in Thailand. Clearly, it’s the high net worth individuals of the world whom the government are keen to attract - though arguably a risky strategy in the midst of a world-wide credit crunch affecting even Russian gazillionaires.

We drive off in a people-carrier, from the airport, past virtually empty hotels, past more building sites and then down a road which leads to a rather ritzy plaza, and a few minutes later, one of the city’s afore-mentioned grand hotels. We pass through a graceful arched entrance, down a driveway flanked with palm-trees beyond which there are landscaped lawns fringed with fluorescent bougainvillea and hibiscus, and arrive at an ostentatious marble and glass doorway where doormen and porters are already jumping to attention. But not for us. Rather for that insufferably smug, immaculately dressed and coiffed couple who had emerged ahead of us from the plane - from First.

After dropping them off, together with their exquisite matching Louis Vuitton luggage, the people carrier eventually presses on to our hotel. After weaving our way through more building sites, we finally come to a stop at a low-rise building bordered by tropical shrubs.

But wait. What’s going on over there in the flower beds? On closer inspection, it turns out to be a man with what looks like a rocket launcher - he has an engine on his back and a large tubular canon in his hand - spraying what look like neat carcinogens into the air.

It's insecticide, I assume, for the malaria-bearing mosquitoes prevalent throughout the country, but the huge clouds of smoke give the impression that the hotel has come under attack from al-Qaeda (which, given Cambodia’s own bloody Pol Pot past, is a slightly unnerving first encounter). And when the fumes finally clear, it's not immediately obvious whether it might be better if they hadn't. But more on that in the next post.

February 11, 2009


Speaking about jet lag, our return journey from Bangkok on Quantas last month provided us with one of our worst experiences. A major factor was the departure delay which had us sitting in the aircraft at the gate for over an hour. Due for a 12.30 a.m. take-off which didn’t in fact happen until 01.45 a.m., the pilot took every opportunity to reassure us he was confident he would nonetheless make up time en route.

Even before boarding, our curiosity had been aroused by the extremely unusual sight of the flight crew`- captain and three officers - worriedly pouring over notebooks for over an hour at the boarding gate. At any moment we expected to hear the flight was cancelled. Eventually, however, the pilot gathered up all his possessions and trooped out in the direction of the plane followed in single file in order of seniority by the others. Mother hen followed by her chicks.

On board at last, it was then announced an "engineering problem" would need to be sorted. Whether this had anything to do with the crew’s earlier anxious conferring, we’ll never know. In any event, this took so long to "sort" that we missed our take-off slot and had to hang around while the "company" tried to negotiate another. Eventually, we did take off, arriving very tired and over an hour late at Heathrow and, due to the snow-bound M23, missing our Easyjet connection to Malaga at Gatwick by just 10 minutes!

In fact, I learned a long time ago never to trust the spurious reassurances you often get from air crews. The plane starts bumping around, the masks drop down and some smirking trolley dolly tells you "don’t worry, bit of turbulence" – and then you see her crossing herself as she straps herself in. The pilots are sometimes more honest. Years ago as a seven year old child, on a flight to Malta in an ancient Imperial Airways turbo prop in a mini tornado, the pilot calmly announced over the intercom: "Ladies and gentlemen, we will soon be landing at Luqa airport. Or quite near it."

Actually, "quite near" turned out to be a couple of hundred miles away in another continent - Tunis, North Africa. The nearest spot the pilot could put down the old crate with any degree of safety before running out of fuel - and shattered windows and even more shattered nerves.

Talk about flying by the seat of your pants! Such a terrifying experience at such a tender age is something, believe me, you never forget. And now every time I hear, in flight, the word "turbulence", my face turns pallid and my knuckles go chalk-white clenching the arm rests as my mind immediately defaults to that great aircraft in the sky where you’re forever in transit. Permanently surrounded in Dante's secret tenth ring of hell by those trolley dollies and their pesky perma-smile reassurances.

February 7, 2009


Notwithstanding the difference in customs indicated in a previous post and my on-going jet lag, I’m already making plans for travel early in the year for there are two celebrations I simply can’t miss. And both uniquely Spanish in character.

The better known of the two, Semana Santa, starts on April 5 in Granada. We all know that the Spanish can party, but they have a serene, reflective side, too, and you’ll see it here during Holy Week. A succession of solemn but strangely uplifting torchlit processions fills the streets around the Alhambra, with hooded marchers, images of Christ strewn with jewels and flamenco devotional songs.

But it’s the second festival, Las Fallas, that starts on March 16 in Valencia, that I’m looking forward to more. The citizens of Valencia are a feisty bunch, but they’re creative with it. You’ll see the results during this festival based around 700 ninots, huge papier-mâché caricatures of public figures - including a large number of politicians - that are lampooned, ridiculed, stuffed with fireworks and ceremonially burnt on March 19. It’s shockingly loud.

Just think if such a bonfire of the vanities took place in Britain? Which public figures would be the first to go up in flames? Answers on a postcard please.

No, make that several postcards…

February 4, 2009


Just back from trips to the UK, Cambodia, Laos and Northern Thailand - and what a difference in temperatures! As far as the UK leg was concerned, yes it was cold. Very cold. Our flights delayed and cancelled due to unprecedented snowfalls. But then it can get cold here too. The snowfall in Barcelona and Almeria just before Christmas made the headlines on British TV - mainly for its uniqueness.

Living inland in Spain, of course, is a very different matter from living on the coast which any new residents will have found this winter. Granada, when the wind blows straight down off the Sierra Nevada, can be colder by far than, say, Birmingham on a cold February day. And as for those villages perched on hilltops - like Comares, just to give one instance - the narrow streets and whitewashed walls might be ideal for keeping out the heat in summer, but they must have been extremely damp and chilly this winter.

Though I doubt that any UK residents would have had much sympathy this past week...