Volunteer week with turtles

Ecoteer Turtle Conservation, Perhentian Island, Malaysia.

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I came across this volunteering opportunity completely by chance and it sounded like a perfect way to get involved with marine turtle nesting and at the same time experience living in a small fishing village.

For those of you tracking my travels, the Ecoteer project is based on Pulau Kecil, the smaller of the two Perhentian islands off the north east coast of Malaysia, accessible by a 40 minute speedboat ride from the small port of Kuala Besut. I journeyed there from Kota Bharu, a town further north which has an interesting history, the Japanese having occupied it (poor show from the British not defending it better) until the Malay Emergency in 1948. In KB I also experienced my first live football match when I was given a ticket to the match between arch rivals Kelantan and Terrenganu, two neighbouring provinces. It was a needle match with lots of tribal drumming, hysterical girls shouting for their heartthrobs and tons of food of dubious provenance. Luckily the locals won 3-0. As usual I was the only westerner but I’m used to that by now.

Perhentian Kecil (kecil means small, besut means big) actually has a fair size – population c.2,000. The men are fishermen or snorkel-tour operators whilst the women run shops and restaurants. There are 167 children at primary school with 18 teachers. Older children go to school on the mainland from Sunday to Thursday, at a cost of £5 a month. The village is 100% muslim and has a huge Mosque built into the sea. In the village it was no bare shoulders or knees but on the beach it was more relaxed but still modest.

Turtle House is home base. My initial impression was that I’d walked into student digs. Scruffy sofas, empty coffee cups, overflowing ashtrays, laptops and interns scatted everywhere and nothing in the fridge. That impression didn’t change in the four days in spent in the house but it didn’t matter; I had a nice roommate from Germany, my bed was clean and comfortable and we were out working on the project or relaxing on the beach all day.

After the volunteer initiation of having to jump off the jetty, the first thing I had to master was free-diving to a depth of about 5-6 metres in order to be able to photograph turtles. Easier said than done. On dry land I can hold my breath for about 90 seconds. However, 30 seconds after I dived down I felt like my lungs were going to explode and I had to come up for air. Also my ears refused to equalise. Fortunately the intern helping me master the skill was very patient and counselled going into a sort of meditative state, reminding myself that I had sufficient breath to clear my ears and sit on the sea bed for the 3-4 seconds needed to take a photo. I cracked it on day 2 and even managed to take a photo of a turtle.

Turtle surveys take place morning and afternoon and involve a 30 minute kayak across open water (South China Sea) to and from the bay where they are most likely to be found. All photos are logged, turtles identified and the research fed back to Plymouth Uni where data is being analysed for frequency of sitings, increase/decrease in population etc.

Like a human thumb, a turtle face has unique markings through which it can identified and named. In addition there may be a metal tag on one of the feet to aid identification. If a turtle can’t be identified there’s understandably much excitement. On one of my free-dives we thought we saw a new turtle but it was swimming too fast to be photographed. Let’s hope it stays around.

In addition to turtle surveys, volunteers help with beach clean-ups. There had recently been an oil spill with chunks of oil floating around off shore. One morning oil washed up onto the village beach so we raced down and collected sack loads of the goopy stuff before it started to melt in the intense heat. The damage isn’t yet known but they believe it isn’t catastrophic.

The most rewarding part of the volunteer programme is the 3-night night patrol on a secluded beach. We were 5 – two interns and three volunteers staying in a wooden hut next to a resident team of fishermen from the Perhentian Fisheries department who visit the local beaches every night collecting turtle eggs and placing them in the beach hatchery.

Starting at 9pm we patrolled the beach – a stretch of about 500m, with rocks which had to be climbed over in the dark at high tide, at hourly intervals through to dawn (6:30am), looking for turtles coming on shore to lay their eggs.

There had been no nestings the 3-day patrol preceding mine, making me hopeful I’d see some action. I was in for a treat…….

Night one I witnessed my first turtle crawling up the beach at 11pm. It’s a slow process because of the sheer weight of the turtle. If you happen to miss her crawling along you can easily see the tracks lit by the night sky because they are like tractor tracks.

Once the turtle crawls up the beach you stay with her for the duration of her nesting. Firstly she finds a suitable place to dig her pit, typically in the undergrowth at the back of the beach. Whilst this was happening we sat on the warm rocks listening to the rhythmic lapping of the sea and marvelling at shooting stars. Digging the pit can take more than an hour.

Once done the turtle digs a chamber in which to lay her eggs. Once she starts laying she goes into a trance like state and it is at this point that we could approach, using a red light torch (bright white light is a no-no). The trick is to collect the eggs as they are pushed out, but depending on the depth of the chamber and the angle of the turtle’s tail this isn’t always possible. On this occasion were were joined by two of the fisherman who are experts and so we were able to collect all 100 eggs over a laying period of about 30 mins. We then took measurements – this beauty was 106cm x 95cm. We also photographed both the right and left side of her face for identification purposes and finally we noted the features her carapace. This was a green turtle, the most common in the area.

Once she has finished laying her eggs the turtle starts to cover the pit. Never mind if you’re still doing measurements or scooping up eggs she’ll sweep the sand and send it flying everywhere! Covering the pit takes a further hour and then the slow crawl back into the sea 30 mins or so more. Round trip total 3 hours.

It was such an exhilarating, magical experience that I didn’t feel at all tired, which was just as well because low and behold another turtle came on shore. This one did what is known in the business as a ‘false crawl’ i.e. crawling up the beach, having a look around and then crawling back.

Amazingly a third turtle came on shore at 3:30am and this one completed the full circle, crawling back into the sea at 6:15am. For some reason she only laid 27 eggs. We marked the spot of the chamber and, in case of poachers, the interns stayed by the pit until daylight until, with the help of the fishermen, they could dig up the pit to search for more eggs. We didn’t find any. Our supposition is that the tail, which is very sensitive, struck a tree root or some rough coral and the turtle came out of her trance-like and the process stopped. I took her measurements (a fraction bigger than the previous one) and also took the photos.

Apart from spending daylight hours eating, sleeping, reading in a hammock and snorkelling with reef sharks (!) we carried out ‘tourist awareness’ walks which involved walking along the beach advising people to wear a life jacket when in the water (too many incidents of boatmen not seeing snorkelers with shockingly regular fatal consequences); not to wear fins because of inadvertently damaging the coral or kicking a turtle; to dispose of plastic bags as they can blow into the sea and be eaten by turtles; not to grab a turtle for a selfie (yes there are some idiots who do this). We also had to make sure everyone was picked up by a boatman by 4pm so as to calm the waters in expectation of a turtle crawl. Everyone was very receptive and also interested to learn about the Ecoteer/Fisheries programme.

Night two was quiet with no turtle activity. Night three we were two volunteers and the project leader, a young Malay woman who has an excellent relationship with the fisherman which meant we had more interaction with them and learned lots about turtle behaviour.

We spotted our first turtle at 9:30pm. She managed to wedge herself under the root of a tree so we had to leave the eggs (90) until the morning. Meanwhile, another turtle came ashore, had a look around and crawled back. She was followed by another turtle who helpfully chose to dig her pit in easily accessible sand. I lay by her pit until 4am. Whilst the two nesting turtles were doing their thing, turtle number two came back and we were quite literally surrounded. She had another look around and crawled away again. The fisherman think she eventually laid her eggs on an adjoining beach because they collected two more lays on their morning sweep round the area.

I was incredibly lucky to have another very active evening. Total: 4 nestings and 3 false crawls. The number of eggs depends on if it’s the first, second or third lay in the nesting season. First lay tends to be around 180, second around 120 and third around 80. All of ours were likely to be third nesting.

The morning I left the beach I watched the ‘senior’ fisherman (we were nicknamed granny and grandpa!) dig false chambers in the hatchery in which to place the fragile, golf ball -size eggs. They will take 6 weeks to hatch and will then be released at night. Normally only one in 1000 survives. Years later, having swum to far off places, those females who survive will return to lay their own eggs, thus completing the cycle.

 

Back at the village it was Labour Day so everyone was off work. I sat in a cafe by the jetty eating a breakfast of Roti and lentils and sweet tea to keep me awake. I was joined by the fisherman whom I happily treated to breakfast.

It was a memorable week; learning how to free-dive; swimming alongside turtles trying to snap a photo; helping with a beach clean-up; spreading turtle awareness and best of all having hands-on experience of their fascinating nesting ritual.

I can’t say sleeping on the beach is something I’d want to do regularly and even sleeping in a hammock or on the hut floor wasn’t the best, but for three nights it was fine and actually, as you can see, there wasn’t much sleep to be had!

 

Interesting facts:

The sex of the turtle egg depends on the temperature of the sand. Heat produces females, milder weather males.

Selling turtle meat is illegal but selling the carapace (made into jewellery, boxes, combs) isn’t.
Poaching turtle eggs is illegal and yet selling turtle eggs isn’t. Neither law makes any sense.

Next stop Vietnam

 

 

Another day, another border crossing, this time from Tay Trang in Laos into Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam. I decided to go for the 15-day visa-less entry which meant strategic planning (my favourite pastime), to cover my want-to-see list.

Vietnamese history is fascinating. A country having been constantly invaded, ‘resilient’ defines the people, who are more commercially-minded than their neighbours Laos and Cambodia but who are also, in the main, as friendly. I had been wondering if I would encounter the openness of the young people that I had so loved in Myanmar and here they were shouting ‘hello’ running across the street to practice their English.

In 1954 a major battle took place in Dien Bien Phu – a 57 day siege in which 3,000 French soldiers lost their lives and 25,000 Viet Minh lost theirs. Despite these heavy losses the Viet Minh captured a further 10,000 soldiers and the French army capitulated. This resulted in the end of more than 100 years of French colonial rule. So DBP, now the provincial capital, is a big deal in Vietnamese history and has an impressive war museum, cemetery, reconstructed bunkers etc. Standing by an enormous crater, I was fortunate to meet a Vietnamese man whose father had fought jn the war as had the father of the Frenchman with whom I was travelling.

No sooner had the Vietnamese said au revoir to the French than the US started its assault on north Vietnam. This war is so recent that everyone I talked to had a story to tell; a woman whose father, as a young doctor, spent the war in a military hospital in HaNoi; a man whose father was in intelligence and a couple of tour guides who had seen active service.

What I hadn’t appreciated was the depth to which the country and in many cases families, had been bitterly divided – those living in the south supporting the US in fighting against the communist north led by Ho Chi Minh (affectionately referred to as Uncle Ho). Jay, a young man in his early 30s told me that his uncle had fought with the US against his own brother (Jay’s father). He subsequently spent 10 years in jail and on release was to be deported to the States but died just before. Whilst the war had ripped Jay’s family apart he said that his generation needed to move on with their lives and in this spirit American tourists are welcomed, as is American investment.

Most travellers head north from DBP to Sapa for trekking and home stays with the locals. As a result it’s crowded and has inflated prices, I’d also heard the area was experiencing bad weather. I therefore decided to head towards HaNoi, stopping along the way in the tiny village of Pom Choong near Mai Chau, which promised mountains, paddy fields, rivers and authentic home-stays in stilt houses, minus hoards of tourists. Leaving DBP at 4am I had the worst bus journey of my travels so far. Scheduled to take 7 hours it took 10 and involved being pulled over by the police (a regular occurrence), a flat tire, numerous stops to pick up and drop off locals and a service station lunch with worrying amounts of rice wine being consumed.

The scenery, though less dramatic and less densely forested than in Laos, was interesting, as was people watching and luckily, when I finally arrived, Pom Choong didn’t disappoint. I found a home-stay with a welcoming couple, a sweet 7 year old daughter with whom I played hop scotch and grand mother’s footsteps, a couple of ubiquitous roosters and gorgeous views. 3 nights B&B plus dinner £15! It was a perfect stay with lots of R&R, a massage from a septuagenarian with magical hands and a road trip with a really nice father and son from Sydney – they on their own motor bikes and me, having sworn off riding myself, on the back of a local man’s bike, who have invited me to stay when I get to Australia. The son has a place in the Bondi Beach area and the father in the Blue Mountains. How lucky am I.

I visited a forest area thick with bamboo where there are several factories producing chopsticks. I’ve never stopped to think how these humble utensils are made so it was fascinating to wach the process and to see thousands upon thousands of chopstick ready to be exported around the world.

Only 3 hours or so from HaNoi I would really recommend Pom Choong and its neighbour Ban Lac. Could I say the same about HaNoi? I think I could, but only in the same way that a capital city is worth visiting for a couple of days. The highlights for me were the world-famous water puppet show with traditional music and magical tales with dragons, turtles, rice farmers, a royal barge and fireworks thrilling adults and children alike, and the excellent museum of Fine Arts packed full of interesting carvings, sculptures, lacquer, silk and woodcut paintings from C11-19th and C20th art with a definite European influence.

There was a bit of a queue (mainly school children), at the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, but it was nothing compared to the queue in Tiananmen Square to see Mao Tse Tung. That queue I declined to join but Uncle Ho is so revered and every aspect of recent history revolves around him that I decided it would be worth the wait. Flanked by guards dressed in white who could have been waxworks, it felt bizarre filing past him but actually, in so doing I was able to understand he power of the man.

HaNoi also gave more my first soaking in 3 months as there was a short torrential downpour which caught me out. The soaking was compounded by the Old Quarter being a rabbit warren of identical streets making it tricky to find the way back to my hotel…..every time!

And so, on to misty Halong Bay for an overnight cruise. It’s a bit of a mission (4hours each way) on an uninteresting road and, being a major tourist attraction, it’s pretty crowded. I’ve seen a lot of soaring karst mountains from China through Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia. Guilin in China in particular is very similar. Having said that the mountains rising up from the sea bed are impressive, my cabin was quite luxurious and I got to learn two new skills. Firstly kayaking, which at the ripe old age of 58 I have never done but is actually a doddle (unless you’re careering down a rapid) and secondly nighttime squid fishing over the side of the boat, which is amusing fir about half an hour and you get to fry the catch. I also had pleasant cruising mates, in particular a German couple who at the age of 72 and 79 were intrepid travellers. I nick named them Indiana Jones and Lara Croft which they loved.

A bit of trivia. No one knows the exact number of mountains, with new ones regularly popping up so the government decided to go for 1,969 – the year Uncle Ho died.

My first experience of a Vietnamese sleeper bus was quite something. Luckily I’m small which meant I fitted perfectly into a ‘pod’ on the top deck but I saw blokes bent double with legs and arms everywhere, and of course the bus was overfull so there were people kipping on the floor!

I usually enjoy chaotic travel but the bus driver was bad tempered and then at a drop-off point an apoplectic Aussie hauled a local off the bus after his daughter said he had groped her. This is the first time I’ve come across any unpleasantness.

My final two stops in Vietnam were the old capital city of Hue and laid back Hoi An. The dramatic coastal road between the two which takes in a tiny village with a stunning ancient Japanese bridge on which children sit with their English teacher striking up conversations people like me (smart idea), ascends the famous Top Gear featured hairpin mountain and winds past fields with chill-making remnants of American bunkers including a dilapidated checkpoint, bizarrely now a popular spot to pose in wedding gear. In fact, anywhere there is a special view you’ll find Asians in wedding regalia. I have yet to work out if they’re actual weddings or photo shoots or just a fun pastime as in ‘hey, let’s dress up as a bride and groom today, drive to xxxxx and takes some photos’.

But I digress. Both Hue and Hoi An were a delight; the former with its royal palace and tombs, incense production, elegant women in traditional Ao Dai (tight fitting long silk tunic worn over  pants) and conical hat (containing a poem) and student buskers; the latter with Gaudiesque temples, culinary delicacies like rose dumplings, boutique shops and its famous lantern-strung streets. Hoi An also has deserted ‘secret’ beaches from which bowl-boat fisherman ply their ade and countryside strewn with marshes and paddy fields, all accessible from my excellent Irish – yes Irish, hostel.

Searching the internet for somewhere to stay I found Paddy’s, which had only opened two weeks previously and offered weary travellers a decent sized swimming pool, a full sized pool table, Fox sport and menu which included spag bol, bangers & mash, fish & chips and Strongbow! A yearning for good old Blighty overcame me and I booked in. The people staying at the hostel were all very good fun and I hooked up with a Kiwi and a French woman for daytime beaching and nighttime sorties into town.

The only random experience I had was waking in the middle of the night to find a bloke peeing up against the curtain. I guess making it to the bathroom was just too much of an effort! I can hear your gasps of disbelief but it was actually quite amusing.

My flight out of Vietnam was from Danang to Kuala Lumpur. Danang is a burgeoning city, now the third largest in the country. Several of the major hotel chains (Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton etc) have built 5 star beach-front resorts at which the likes of the Beckhams stay for $2000 a night. Apparently they venture into the city for a spot of local culture but prefer to lying by their personal pool. I prefer my more authentic way of travelling but I bet no-one pees on their floor!

I enjoyed Vietnam enormously and saw masses in 2 weeks without rushing. It’s rich in history and culture and after three months of full-on Theravada Buddhism,  it was interesting to find myself in a country whose religion is structured on the folk doctrines of Confucius, Taoism from China and Mahayana Buddhism. What is also noticable is that whilst Vietnam is communist, the way of life is infact closer to socialist.

I’m now off to Malaysia to meet some of Simon’s (son-in-law) numerous relatives. I can’t wait to stay in a family home.

Laos by boat

 

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With Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand I spent a considerable amount of time plotting my itinerary, which involved tricky decisions about which provinces to visit, which ‘must see’ things to include etc. all within the confines of visa restrictions.

With Laos my itinerary was determined by what my wounded body would allow me to do. Sadly, on crossing the border I had to forego the famous Gibbon Experience: two adrenaline-filled days traversing the jungle canopy on ziplines and sleeping in a tree house surrounded by gibbons. Instead I embarked on two-day boat ride down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang and treated myself to a superior cruise with just 8 people in a lovely wooden boat as opposed to the 70-80 people crammed onto the public boat.

Good decision! The boat was very comfortable, crew delightful and the plentiful regional food delicious. My fellow travellers included a couple who work for the Arts Council so we had lots to talk about, including our mutual respect for my beloved Tricycle Theatre and several mutual colleagues.

The Mekong is a narrower river than the Irrawaddy (my trip from Mandalay to Bagan) and there is more life on the riverbank. Over the course of two days we travelled 310km enjoying National Geographic scenery; mountains, farmland, hillside villages and children playing or fishing on the riverbank. There were also lots of water buffalo bathing and grazing – roaming free as farmers replace them with machines.

One of our stops along the river was to visit a remote Khmu village. The Khmu are the largest minority ethnic group in northern Laos. Agriculturalists who practice animism, they live and work communally storing rice in elevated buildings with unusual mice traps and apparently practicing magic. The villagers were clearly very poor and dint loom all that happy with their lot.

By contrast, further downriver we stopped off at a Maung village where they make Lao Khao (a.k.a. Moonshine) from fermented sticky rice. We watched the process then drank the blow-your-head-off result. This villages were very different from the Khmus. They were better off, sunnier and more welcoming, inviting us to play boules – a throw back to French colonisation, and eat with them. I reckon the air is filled with whisky vapours, making everyone permanently high.

We docked in Luang Prabang at sunset on Easter Day and I had my first glimpse of this sophisticated town with tourists wearing chinos and polo shirts!

Visiting the charming night market I was struck by how quiet the market was and how gentle the female stall holders were – quite a contrast to the noisy, more commercially-minded Thais. Even the night food street, heaving with diners was less frenetic than in other places…….. oh and the fish baked in lemon grass was sublime.

Historic Luang Prabang is perfect respite for weary travellers. It offers lovely treelined streets filled with magnolia and bougainvillea, artisan shops and cafes. It also has a fabulous palace and several beautiful temples. In Laos the structures are made of wood with dramatic sloping roofs sweeping almost to ground. Typically painted red or black with gold writings and carvings many are covered in intricate glass mosaics making them real works of art.

I haven’t exactly been burning the candle both ends but in LP I went to a open air screening of ‘Chang’ a silent movie made in 1925 with incredible live footage of villagers being chased by tigers, marauding elephants, monkeys up to monkey business and live folk music. The film went missing for 60 years and there is no record of the equipment used to get such amazing footage. David Attenborough would be mightily impressed. I met a mice bunch of people there and shared a few beers.
I also went to a traditional story telling theatre to hear legends of Luang Prabang; how Phu Si hill got its name and the shaping of the two mountains, to the accompaniment of an evocative bamboo instrument called a Khene. It’s been decades since anyone has told me a ‘Once upon a time’ and it was engrossing.

My only excursion outside the city was to Tat Kuang Si waterfall deep in a forest. The drive was through roads with teak trees as far as the eye could see and on arrival I came face to face with Moon Bears (of which no mention in the guidebook). They are friendly enough when behind a fence but, no surprises, they can be quite vicious.

I’m a bit sceptical of must-see waterfalls. Like caves, every major province in every country boast stunning examples of both but in reality they usually disappoint. Tat Kuang Si was the exception. The water flows over limestone , the particles collecting calcium carbonate which reflects the light making the water shimmer a chalky turquoise blue. Unable to get my dressing wet (knee wound became infected and I had to get a course of antibiotics from the doctor), I couldn’t swim in the natural pools but I enjoyed watching youngsters diving off high board taking selfies.

Before leaving LP I crossed the rickety bamboo bridge linking the north and south of the town and took a short stroll. Goodness knows how, but I managed to loose my wallet. Honestly, the two things you tell your kids not to do is ride a motorbike and loose their money. Well in true gap-year style I managed to screw up on both within a week!

We are heading into low season now so everywhere is a bit less crowded which is nice, but it continues to be extremely hot and hazy.

The next leg of my journey towards the Vietnam border was by Sorngtaaou (half minivan/half Tuk Tuk). I wasn’t expecting a 3:5 hour journey bumping along on a bench with my leg hanging out the back but once again the scenery was spectacular, mainly following the course of the Nam Ou river so the time passed quickly. My destination was the delightful village of Nong Khiaw, a starting point for travellers travelling north, nestled along the banks of the river.

Simple boats transport locals and intrepid travellers up river to Nuang Ngoi, another delightful stop-over village and thus on to Nuang Khua, the final stop before the border. I was fortunate to be in a boat with 5 locals who generously shared their lunch of rice, beef and fiery sauce with me in exchange for crisps and nuts. One of our party was carrying a sack which he kept a tight hold on the whole way. I was told it contained a horn but of what animal I didn’t dare ask.

The river was scattered with locals harpoon fishing or prospecting for gold, children swimming and playing naked, strange pink buffalo mooching around and all against a backdrop of soaring karst mountains and azure blue skies. The only negative was a couple of areas of deforestation to make way for hydroelectric stations being built with Chinese investment. Enough said.

We had to keep shifting side to balance the boat as we navigated rapids and boulders. Luckily we had an expert at the helm and it was exhilarating. Not so another boat with 18 people packed in. They hit a rock which gouged a hole in the side and had had to bail out quick smart. Stranded on the rocks, we took half of them in out boat and arranged for another boat to come and collect the others. At one point I got completely drenched but apart from that it was yet another stunning journey.

Nuang Khau was a bit of a dump, providing the only below-par room I stayed in in Laos. There was also a huge wedding to which the whole community had been invited so there was nowhere to eat apart from a noodle stall where randomly I met two Frenchmen my age who I subsequently crossed the border with. Every cloud has a silver lining n’est ce pas?

So that was it for Laos. Just 8 days travelling in a ‘V’ shape from west to east. I enjoyed Luang Prabang and I absolutely loved travelling along the Mekong and the Nam Ou, visiting places off the tourist trail and meeting little known ethnic minorities. To be honest I didn’t want to go to Vientiane or Vang Vieng anyway, so apart from the frustration of being semi-immobile I felt I’d had an authentic experience of the country.

Next up Vietnam which is going to be SO different.

With Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand I spent a considerable amount of time plotting my itinerary, which involved tricky decisions about which provinces to visit, which ‘must see’ things to include etc. all within the confines of visa restrictions.

With Laos my itinerary was determined by what my wounded body would allow me to do. Sadly, on crossing the border I had to forego the famous Gibbon Experience: two adrenaline-filled days traversing the jungle canopy on ziplines and sleeping in a tree house surrounded by gibbons. Instead I embarked on two-day boat ride down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang and treated myself to a superior cruise with just 8 people in a lovely wooden boat as opposed to the 70-80 people crammed onto the public boat.

Good decision! The boat was very comfortable, crew delightful and the plentiful regional food delicious. My fellow travellers included a couple who work for the Arts Council so we had lots to talk about, including our mutual respect for my beloved Tricycle Theatre and several mutual colleagues.

The Mekong is a narrower river than the Irrawaddy (my trip from Mandalay to Bagan) and there is more life on the riverbank. Over the course of two days we travelled 310km enjoying National Geographic scenery; mountains, farmland, hillside villages and children playing or fishing on the riverbank. There were also lots of water buffalo bathing and grazing – roaming free as farmers replace them with machines.

One of our stops along the river was to visit a remote Khmu village. The Khmu are the largest minority ethnic group in northern Laos. Agriculturalists who practice animism, they live and work communally storing rice in elevated buildings with unusual mice traps and apparently practicing magic. The villagers were clearly very poor and dint loom all that happy with their lot.

By contrast, further downriver we stopped off at a Maung village where they make Lao Khao (a.k.a. Moonshine) from fermented sticky rice. We watched the process then drank the blow-your-head-off result. This villages were very different from the Khmus. They were better off, sunnier and more welcoming, inviting us to play boules – a throw back to French colonisation, and eat with them. I reckon the air is filled with whisky vapours, making everyone permanently high.

We docked in Luang Prabang at sunset on Easter Day and I had my first glimpse of this sophisticated town with tourists wearing chinos and polo shirts!

Visiting the charming night market I was struck by how quiet the market was and how gentle the female stall holders were – quite a contrast to the noisy, more commercially-minded Thais. Even the night food street, heaving with diners was less frenetic than in other places…….. oh and the fish baked in lemon grass was sublime.

Historic Luang Prabang is perfect respite for weary travellers. It offers lovely treelined streets filled with magnolia and bougainvillea, artisan shops and cafes. It also has a fabulous palace and several beautiful temples. In Laos the structures are made of wood with dramatic sloping roofs sweeping almost to ground. Typically painted red or black with gold writings and carvings many are covered in intricate glass mosaics making them real works of art.

I haven’t exactly been burning the candle both ends but in LP I went to a open air screening of ‘Chang’ a silent movie made in 1925 with incredible live footage of villagers being chased by tigers, marauding elephants, monkeys up to monkey business and live folk music. The film went missing for 60 years and there is no record of the equipment used to get such amazing footage. David Attenborough would be mightily impressed. I met a mice bunch of people there and shared a few beers.
I also went to a traditional story telling theatre to hear legends of Luang Prabang; how Phu Si hill got its name and the shaping of the two mountains, to the accompaniment of an evocative bamboo instrument called a Khene. It’s been decades since anyone has told me a ‘Once upon a time’ and it was engrossing.

My only excursion outside the city was to Tat Kuang Si waterfall deep in a forest. The drive was through roads with teak trees as far as the eye could see and on arrival I came face to face with Moon Bears (of which no mention in the guidebook). They are friendly enough when behind a fence but, no surprises, they can be quite vicious.

I’m a bit sceptical of must-see waterfalls. Like caves, every major province in every country boast stunning examples of both but in reality they usually disappoint. Tat Kuang Si was the exception. The water flows over limestone , the particles collecting calcium carbonate which reflects the light making the water shimmer a chalky turquoise blue. Unable to get my dressing wet (knee wound became infected and I had to get a course of antibiotics from the doctor), I couldn’t swim in the natural pools but I enjoyed watching youngsters diving off high board taking selfies.

Before leaving LP I crossed the rickety bamboo bridge linking the north and south of the town and took a short stroll. Goodness knows how, but I managed to loose my wallet. Honestly, the two things you tell your kids not to do is ride a motorbike and loose their money. Well in true gap-year style I managed to screw up on both within a week!

We are heading into low season now so everywhere is a bit less crowded which is nice, but it continues to be extremely hot and hazy.

The next leg of my journey towards the Vietnam border was by Sorngtaaou (half minivan/half Tuk Tuk). I wasn’t expecting a 3:5 hour journey bumping along on a bench with my leg hanging out the back but once again the scenery was spectacular, mainly following the course of the Nam Ou river so the time passed quickly. My destination was the delightful village of Nong Khiaw, a starting point for travellers travelling north, nestled along the banks of the river.

Simple boats transport locals and intrepid travellers up river to Nuang Ngoi, another delightful stop-over village and thus on to Nuang Khua, the final stop before the border. I was fortunate to be in a boat with 5 locals who generously shared their lunch of rice, beef and fiery sauce with me in exchange for crisps and nuts. One of our party was carrying a sack which he kept a tight hold on the whole way. I was told it contained a horn but of what animal I didn’t dare ask.

The river was scattered with locals harpoon fishing or prospecting for gold, children swimming and playing naked, strange pink buffalo mooching around and all against a backdrop of soaring karst mountains and azure blue skies. The only negative was a couple of areas of deforestation to make way for hydroelectric stations being built with Chinese investment. Enough said.

We had to keep shifting side to balance the boat as we navigated rapids and boulders. Luckily we had an expert at the helm and it was exhilarating. Not so another boat with 18 people packed in. They hit a rock which gouged a hole in the side and had had to bail out quick smart. Stranded on the rocks, we took half of them in out boat and arranged for another boat to come and collect the others. At one point I got completely drenched but apart from that it was yet another stunning journey.

Nuang Khau was a bit of a dump, providing the only below-par room I stayed in in Laos. There was also a huge wedding to which the whole community had been invited so there was nowhere to eat apart from a noodle stall where randomly I met two Frenchmen my age who I subsequently crossed the border with. Every cloud has a silver lining n’est ce pas?

So that was it for Laos. Just 8 days travelling in a ‘V’ shape from west to east. I enjoyed Luang Prabang and I absolutely loved travelling along the Mekong and the Nam Ou, visiting places off the tourist trail and meeting little known ethnic minorities. To be honest I didn’t want to go to Vientiane or Vang Vieng anyway, so apart from the frustration of being semi-immobile I felt I’d had an authentic experience of the country.

 

Next up Vietnam which is going to be SO different.

Time for Thailand

Crossing the border from Cambodia into Thailand was quite a palaver. There is an extensive no man’s land on either side, huge queues at passport control (despite not needed a visa) and then chaos finding the onward bus to Bangkok to match the colour of sticker id been allocated. Many hot hours later I arrived in the centre of Bangkok and after the tranquility of sleepy Battambong felt like I’d landed on another planet. Khau San Road is a neon lit, music pumping, scantily clad waitress luring, tourist trap. Luckily I was met by a friend of my brand new son-in-law who took me for dinner and drove me to my hotel.

Thankfully the hotel I had chosen in the historic quarter was quiet with a pleasant courtyard and a pretty pond full of humungous carp. The friendly staff gave me a dark blue cold drink which is made from the Butterfly Pea flower. It’s delicious and apparently good for maintaining healthy eyes (very important to us macular degeneration suffering Greenwoods), but despite searching for it all over the city I couldn’t find anywhere to buy it.

I decided to limit my sightseeing to the historic quarter which covers the amazing Royal Palace (puts Mandalay & Phnom Penh in the shade); Wat Pho (gives the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon a run for is money), the Nam Chao Phyara river throbbing with water-traffic and the obligatory sunset on Golden Mount.

Some less touristy things I did were to visit the night flower market which was a riot of colours and unbelievably cheap. As it happened to coincide with Mother’s Day in the UK I felt I should give someone a gift so bought the sweet receptionist at my hotel an orchid for about 50p; to stroll through a shopping mall bursting with bolts of silk of every colour and pattern, ending up at a Bangkok’s main Sikh Temple when I was invited to join the congregation for a simple lunch, sitting on the floor in silence; to discover ASEAN cultural centre and the Siam Museum which satisfied my thirst for knowledge of SEAsia and Thailand without being too taxing.

There’s an irritating scam in Bangkok whereby TukTuk drivers give you false information. For example I was told Golden Mount was closed on Sundays and that I should go with this man to some laughing Buddha and again I was told it would cost me £25 to take a boat upstream because there were no public boats until 4pm (it was 10am), whereas I found the public pier and a ticket for 25p. Beware!

 

I’m trying to avoid airports if I possibly can but I decided to fly to Chiang Mai because after the heat of Bangkok and two months in the road I felt I needed a bit of a rest, plus bizarrely its cheaper than the bus or the train. In a flash I was checking into Riverside House which was to be my home for a whole week. Huge excitement when I discovered I had a massive bed, a view of the garden and pool and best of all a wardrobe into which i could finally out my clothes.

Apart from being an epicentre for mosquitos, Chiang Mai is a charming town/small city with an impressive moat and city walls from behind which the Lanna kings ruled northern Thailand from the 13-15 century. With hanging lanterns, municipal flowers, ‘walking’ street filled with local crafts and tons of good places to eat, CM is perfect for recharging the batteries. I whiled away the week visiting the city sights in the morning and reading by the pool in the afternoon as the thermometer climbed to 39 degrees in an unusual heatwave.

The only down side to where I was staying was that it didn’t have any nightlife which either meant very early bed or making my own entertainment. Here’s how I occupied myself: A couple of evenings wandering round the markets and grabbing street food, a couple of yoga classes (maybe one day I’ll get to enjoy it), a manicure and pedicure, cycling round town seeing all the temples lit up, an NGO dance and fashion show for the Shan people who have crossed the border from Myanmar and need help integrating. It was a bit chaotic with long gaps between acts and horror of horrors, there was no ‘ask’. It was as much as I could do to stop the fundraiser in me from jumping up and doing i for them.

As you can imagine by now I’m a bit of an expert of local markets. Chiang Mai’s most famous market is called Warorot. My mission was to find Butterfly Pea and a pair of XXL white cotton knickers (white dress requiring the latter) both of which turned out to be impossible – Oh for M&S. However, after some hilarious charades and pictograms I found a bath plug in a plumbers merchants so at last I’m able to soak my clothes thus avoiding laundries shrinking, losing or turning whites the colours of the rainbow.

Chiang Mai gave me my first exposure to the H’mong tribe. I particularly like their clothes and accessories. The older women wear bright colours and heavy weaves typically in raw cotton or linen using geometric patterns and patchwork, the young less so, other than back in their villages.

The other thing I enjoyed was ‘monk chat’. Certain temples, of which there are dozens, advertise the opportunity to sit under a tree and chat to a monk. I had been fortunate enough to witness the service when a novice monk is ordained. He goes from processing round the temple wearing white and collecting then distributing coins to approaching the abbot on his knees, accepting the saffron robe and alms-bowl, retreating on his knees and returning clad in his new garments, all to constant chanting. His proud family were watching, mother with tears in her eyes, father clutching wads of money. It was a very spiritual experience.

I also stumbled upon what I thought was a marriage but turned out to be a funeral (should have twigged as everyone was dressed in white), for a senior abbot complete with dragons and a live band playing great traditional music. Being ever curious I made my way round the back of the temple and found myself immersed in crowd of people distributing food and drink and all too keen to encourage me to join in. It always pays to be a bit nosy because you never know what delights you may find!

I therefore used my chat-time to find out more about Buddhist rituals and way of life generally, to which I find myself increasingly drawn.

I had one day of feeling completely wiped out; headache, tired limbs, nausea, not wanting to eat. I reckoned it was heat exhaustion so I stocked up on rehydration tablets and slept. I also finished reading a gruelling book about human trafficking – Boys for Sale by Marc Finks. Not a book for the faint-hearted.

Batteries suitably re-charged it was time to spend my week with the elephants at ‘Journey to Freedom’. I’ve written a separate blog about this. If you missed it it’s at wanderingminstrel.org: Understanding Elephants.

On returning to Chiang Mai after the most amazing week, I immediately had a 90 minute Thai massage. It was blissful. I had in mind to climb a reasonable size mountain during my travels in Thailand. So I planned a few days in Chiang Dao to climb the 2200m limestone Doi (peak), followed by a short hop to Tha Ton to take the river boat to Chiang Mai then on to cross the border into Laos.

Best laid plans and all that……I was thwarted on both counts, the Doi because of forest fires and the river because of lack of water, both caused by the unseasonal drought.

Revising my plans I visited a 14km Tham (cave) with impressive stalactites or is it mites(?) and then organised for a guide by the name of Tan to take me bird watching in the nature park at the foot of the fiery mountain. We saw humming birds and nut hatches, swifts and birds he couldn’t identify, plus lots of lovely butterflies and we also walked through an coffee plantation – Arabica coffee growing well in central and northern Thailand. It was lovely and cool under the forest canopy but sadly all the bears, monkeys and tigers disappeared about 10 years ago. Tan invited me to his home for lunch where his hairdresser-slash-aerobics teacher wife sang songs to me Karaoke-style, her favourite being the Celine Dion song from Titanic ‘Near, far, wherever you are etc’. Tan told me she had no idea what the words meant but she was blissfully ignorant. She also showed me her aerobics moves with instructions in English like ‘grapevine’. It was all a bit surreal.

If you ever find yourself in Chiang Dao, stay at Dreamhouse guesthouse owned by Oy and her son Ou. It’s a rural idyll. Nothing but birdsong, stunning views and simple meals and if you’re lucky, the chance to exchange stories with Oy who is one of the wisest and most serene people I have ever met. We talked of loosing loved ones (her daughter in a car accident when she was 20 and her husband after a long illness a few years ago), the complexities of families (her brother is dying but his new wife won’t left the family visit), providing for those we leave behind and the power of meditation which guides us to be content with a simple life and not trying to change things or people. I treasure those conversations.

With no water in the river it was a local bus to Chiang Rai for the penultimate leg of my journey. I had a 2 hour stop in Fang which the Lonely Plant doesn’t rate but it happened to be market day and it was one of the best local markets I’ve been to so far with lots of women in traditional dress and a huge variety of stalls. And guess what? I found Butterly Pea AND white knickers. What a result!

The mountain road from Fang to Chiang Rai had the most dramatic scenery I encountered in Thailand. With a backdrop of huge mountains, fertile valleys, farms and shambolic villages, there is nothing I like more than to don the headphones and listen to some cracking music watching the scenery roll by. Thanks bro’ for the excellent compilations.

Chiang Rai is very different from Chiang Mai. It has two major attractions, Wat Rong Khun a.k.a.the White Temple and Baan Dum a.k.a. the Black House – often referred to as Heaven and Hell respectively. They are unhelpfully 13k outside of the city centre in opposite directions so the best way to visit them is to hire a motorbike.

Rong Khun simmers like a million stars but when you get up close it’s in fact white paint with glass mosaic. A work in progress by the famous artist-come-architect Chalermchai Kositoipat the main temple has stunning murals and there’s a gallery full of his beautiful celestial paintings. Hopefully my photos give you an idea of how beautiful it is.

So that was heaven, and now for hell – my own personal hell. On the road to the Black House I came off my bike thanks to a driver pulling out in front of me. I scrapped my keen and elbow pretty badly and naturally I was shaken but thankfully no more than that and yes, I was wearing a helmet. The driver stuck around until he saw I was ok then on my way back into town I passed a military hospital so i thought it prudent to get checked out. I was seen straight away by 6 nurses all giggling as a screamed at the pain of having the wounds cleaned and dressed. Total time in the hospital 30 minutes, total bill £5. Who says the NHS is the best in the world!

So I never made it to the Black House. I limped back to the city where I picked up an £80 bill for damage to the bike only for the owner to tell me that in Thai law the driver who caused the accident should have paid. Hey ho. I reckon in the UK the bill would have been £800 so I should count myself lucky.

Unable to do anything too active while my wounds healed I decided to take a few road and boat trips. I therefore headed to Chiang Khong and then across the border into Laos, of which more in my next blog.

To sum up my time in Thailand. Like it or not, Bangkok has to be done and the palace really is spectacular, the countryside in the north is beautiful, the people are engaging, the food is pretty good and my week with the elephants was an amazing experience. I met some exceptional locals, typically on local buses, and after my accident everyone was very kind but I didn’t meet any fellow travellers for more than a passing meal. I can’t comment on the islands because I didn’t go south, preferring to save my island experiences for my future travels to the less touristic spots in Indonesia and Malaysia but I regret not visiting the Bridge over the River Kwai, death railway and the British WWII cemetery in Kanchanaburi which is only a couple of hours from Bangkok. I’m not sure how that wasn’t on my radar but it’s a good excuse to come back, next time hopefully without any traumas!

 

Understanding Elephants

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I have never had the opportunity to study a wild animal in its natural habitat in any depth. I once experienced a week on safari in Kenya, where interaction was limited to observing from a jeep. I also spent a week on an Arctic expedition, where I was fortunate enough to see polar bears, though naturally through long lense binoculars.

Travelling around SE Asia it is impossible not to come into contact with the world’s largest land mammal – the elephant. However, the way you choose to interact with them varies considerably.

In all ASEAN countries there are countless opportunities to ride an elephant, wash them, watch them perform tricks at the circus, buy paintings they make using their trunks and see them dressed up for festival parades and in Myanmar you can visit a logging station where elephants are made to drag huge teak wood logs from way up in the mountains all day long.

None of these options appealed to me because they all force elephants into unnatural activities, where they are made to suffer and frequently suffer horrific injuries. What I wanted was to gain a better understanding of an elephant’s character and behaviours in as natural an environment as possible.

During my research I came across Elephant Nature Park (elephantnaturepark.org) in Chiang Mai Province, Thailand. Founded in 2003 by the diminutive powerhouse that is Lek Chailert, ENP is home to some 70 elephants all of whom she has rescued from sustained abuse and the resulting physical, mental and emotional injuries. There are opportunities to volunteer at ENP for anything from a couple of days to several weeks and, from the reviews I read, the experience looked great.

But that still wasn’t exactly what I wanted because the elephants were contained, albeit in a huge park. Then I read about Lek’s other programme “Journey to Freedom”. For centuries the Karen tribe has cared for elephants in the jungle. Through unemployment, they were forced to lease their elephants to trekking camps and elephant tourist shows. Now four elephants had been returned to their natural habitat in Non Ngae Pu village, just outside Doi Inthanon National Park.

Journey to Freedom offers a small group of volunteers daily interaction with these elephants, whilst the volunteers also embed themselves in this small hill tribe community through helping teach English to the village children and helping with local agricultural projects.

I tell you – the information on the website sells itself way, way short.

The week that I and five fellow volunteers spent living at one with nature, taking cold showers in a tin hut flanked by water buffalo, sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a simple bamboo hut (nicknamed Hotel California), eating meals round a blazing log fire, gazing at the night sky filled with brilliant stars, was magical.

We were awoken at 5:30 every morning by a cacophony of cockerels, swiftly followed by the meowing of four 3-week old kittens. After the suffocating heat and pollution of Chiang Mai city, the cool of the early morning air was refreshing and there’s nothing like banana pancakes and locally grown pineapple, watermelon and strawberries to start the day.

Our guide for the week was Yo – man passionate about saving elephants and forceful in his low opinion of businessmen who a) are only interested in making money out of elephants and don’t care for their wellbeing and b) don’t respect nature, destroying the forest at a rate that is damaging the whole eco-system. His assistant Jo was quieter on the subject but coming from the Karen community clearly loved nature and was also an excellent vegetarian cook. Our young intern Arnon was desperate to learn English and would therefore sit next to me and repeat everything I said as well as say random words that he looked up on Google translate – perfect for eye spy! They were an incongruous team who between them looked after us superbly.

Our first encounter with the four elephants who were to be our companions for the week, was directly after we arrived at our camp. We trekked through the jungle for a little while and then came the sound of branches breaking before the moment I will never forget; a huge grey trunk thrashing in the thick vegetation. As my eyes began to focus, I saw two big elephants and two smaller one coming towards me. My heart began to beat faster and I was pretty nervous about how I was going to ‘introduce’ myself to these massive beasts. I mean to say you can’t just go up to them and give them a pat!

I had been give a big bunch of bananas and told to slowly approach each elephant saying their name and proffering a banana. All well and good except when they simultaneously decided to converge on me and I was surrounded by trunks probing for the bananas, legs and feet the size of tree trunks centimetres from my tiny feet, bodies towering over me and doleful yes staring into mine.

Whilst I said each name and tried to put the bananas one by one in each trunk it ended up in a bit of a free for all and in a frenetic couple of minutes all my bananas had disappeared into their enormous mouths. I can only imagine what the elephant mahouts (carers) were thinking. They must have been laughing whilst at the same time being ready to deal with any potential threat to our safety.

My respect for the mahouts grew each day. They dedicate their lives to looking after their elephant (one mahout per animal) and know them like they would know their child. Each elephants has their distinct personality, which has been affected by the life they will have been exposed to.

Our four friends were: Mae Yui, a 30 year old female who, as a result of ten years working for a trekking company for long hours on a poor diet had sustained serious injuries including problems with her knees and joints. Mae Yui had produced two calves, one boy who was sold and can’t be traced and one girl who ENP had managed to find and reunite with Mae Yui.

This was 5 year old Mebai who had been subjected to the cruelest treatment to forget her mother and then trained to perform tricks in the circus before Lek paid to have her set free. Now reunited with her mother and the bond having slowly re-formed, they rarely leave each other’s side which is a beautiful thing to see.

Next there was 32 year old Boon Sri who had lost one calf and was now 8 months (of a total of between 18-22 months) pregnant. She had been used to carry tourists on her back all day long in the searing heat, and as a result of a badly fitting carriage and overweight passengers, she had developed a massive lump behind her neck which eventually made it impossible for her to continue working. No longer of use to her owner she was rescued by ENP and is now living happily as nanny to Mebai (every calf has a nanny who is their protector) and friend to Mae Yui, who in turn will be nanny to Boob Sri’s calf.

The last elephant was 6 year old bull Erawan. His life had been spent producing paintings, which involves his owner sticking a nail into the flesh behind the ears to force the trunk (with paint on the end) to go left, right, up, down to make the patterns. The result is huge cysts behind the ears and severe mental problems.

Having met the elephants we walked with them for a while, as they roamed free, eating copious amounts of vegetation. On average an elephant in the wild eats 250kg and drinks 200 litres a day, and poos and pees every hour. In captivity they have a nutrient and fibre poor diet and often only relieve themselves once a day. It was a humbling experience, seeing these gentle giants wander freely, with the occasional warning from their mahout if they (usually the little ones) misbehaved.

So each day we trekked to find the herd and spent time walking with them, then periods sitting in the undergrowth watching them interacting. Interestingly with all that freedom and space, they prefer to be close to each other because they are sociable, tactile and protective, which is why it’s so cruel to separate them. I observed that when they sense danger or hear a strange noise their ears become rigid and they make a low growing noise and trumpeting in the early morning is similar to us stretching.

When not interacting with our new friends, we were kept busy. We spent a morning machetteing (sp?) one tonne i.e.two truck loads of ‘may tau la’ (tall thick vegetation) to feed to the elephants. When they arrived at the camp that afternoon, they were so hot and tired that they made a beeline for the pond and wallowed happily in the mud for ages before chomping their way through the fruits of our labour. By now I was feeling much more confident around these gentle giants, touching them, feeding them and sitting close by them. I never imagined they would be such fun to get to know.

Another day in the forest we watched the adult females pull down enormous banana trees and then delicately feel with their trunks before ripping up the roots. Having then all but stripped the fallen tree bare they would move on, at which point Erawan would appear to enjoy the leftovers without having to do any of the hard work! He was definitely my favourite and his mahout called me ‘sister’.

The hardest task we were given was to shift about 150 heavy bags of rich soil (slung across our backs) down a narrow forest path and then to fill small pots with the soil in preparation for the planting of 200,000 Arabica coffee plants to be distributed amongst the local people to cultivate and eventually sell. A great example of helping the local community’s self-sustainability. We could equally have been helping the farm women pick strawberries which grow in abundance in the area.

Every day around 4:30pm we would drive to a local Karen or Hmong village school to help the children speak English. I had fun with the younger children playing counting and alphabet games, singing and drawing and even teaching them the hokey kokey, whilst teaching the older children to put together simple sentences. The children were super-keen and joined in everything which made it very rewarding. We also bought lots of educational materials for a kindergarten and, having helped serve lunch to the impeccably behaved children, presented our gifts to the lovely headteacher, who was overcome with gratitude. Such a simple, easy thing for us to do.

All too soon it was time to leave the camp. After five life-changing days we attended a ceremony to be blessed by the 97 year old village elder and to receive a friendship necklace, a longevity bracelet and health and happiness sweets from him. Again we were given bunches of banana to say our goodbyes to the elephants and this time I confidently pushed each one away to ensure I fed each of them….and then Erawan ate my happiness naughty boy! Found farewells all round, we climbed onto the back of the truck to make our bumpy way back to civilisation.

We spent our final 24 hours at the ENP. After the solitude of the forest it was a shock to be surrounded by hoards of people on one-day visits but interesting to talk to some of the volunteers who had been at the Park all week. Yo also introduced us to several of the herds and told us their personal stories. These included elephants maimed from stepping on landmines; blinded by Bangkok’s neon lights as they were used to beg or perform tricks on the street; a dislocated hip as a result of being hit by a lorry; smashed legs from logging; broken ankles from chains, severed nipples, and so the list goes on.

What is so uplifting is that each of these elephants is now each is leading a peaceful life cared for by an army of volunteers, their designated mahout and the indefatigable Lek who will be told about an elephant that either needs rescuing or who’s owner no longer wants them, will negotiate a price to have them released from service and then slowly integrate them into the safety of the Park. As you can imagine this is very expensive and like all charities, money is always tight. The organisation is now working cross-border in Myanmar and Cambodia and slowly but surely trekking establishments and businesses are learning how to better care for their elephants. In addition, ENP is him to hundreds of abused or abandoned dogs and cats.

Just as we were leaving ENP to return to city I met Lek. She was radiant and buzzing, having returned from 2-day trek to reintroduce two elephants into a hill tribe community. She thanked me profusely for supporting ENP by volunteering at Journey to Freedom, and both she and Yo asked me to spread the word.

So that’s what I’m doing now. If you find yourself in Chiang Mai, spend a week volunteering with ENP. I promise it will change your life. And meanwhile, don’t support enterprises which harm elephants. You owe it to yourself, and more importantly to them, to take responsibility for their welfare.

If you want to support ENP go to elephantnaturepark.org

 

 

Travelling through Cambodia

 

I began my journey through Cambodia in Phnom Penh where I spent one of the most intense days of my life.

I was aware of the Khmer Rouge and of Pol Pot’s brutal regime but to be honest I didn’t know in any great detail about the mass genocide in which an estimated 2m people out of a population of just 8m were brutally tortured then murdered between 1975-79.

I had the horrors of those mass killings graphically brought home as I visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – a former school which became the notorious S21 prison, and continued on to Choeung Ek Extermination Centre (Killing Field) outside the city, where mass graves and human remains (teeth, bones, clothes) continue to be unearthed, especially after heavy rains.

The only other occasion where I have been surrounded by other people but everyone is walking around in total silence lost in their own thoughts was when I visited Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. There I openly wept at the incomprehensible acts of violence that one human being could inflict upon another, here I was numbed thinking about the crude weapons (often farm implements) and bare hands they used to kill their helpless victims. Just look at the photo I took of the killing tree.

There is a moment on the audio when you are invited to stroll along a shaded path and listen to a piece of music composed in memory of the dead. It’s haunting yet strangely beautiful.

Because these horrific events happened in the recent past, everyone over the ago of 40 has a story of family suffering tell and, for me, this tragedy seemed to effect the whole mood and feel of the Cambodia. Older people feel that the heart that has been ripped out of the country will never mend, others complain about how difficult it is to earn a decent wage, how poor they are and thus how difficult it is to provide for their family. It’s understandable but depressing.

After my week with Guy’s Trust (see previous blog ‘building a school in Kampot’), my fellow volunteers asked me where I was going. They were surprised when I said I had no idea but that’s the beauty of extended travel with only yourself to think about, you don’t need an immediate plan.

So I kicked back in Kampot, which I hadn’t yet him time to visit properly, strolling about town, enjoying the riverside views and the abundance of cafes selling good coffee and baguettes which are a throwback to French colonisation. There are some interesting things to see in the area so once again I organised a motorbike guide as I really enjoy this quick, open-air way of taking in the sites.

I’ve never considered how salt is ‘harvested’. I realise it comes from the sea (doh!) but I didn’t know how it was dried and collected. I was amazed to see women smaller than me carrying two huge buckets of salt balanced across their tiny shoulders to deposit in a shed from where it would be taken to be cleaned before being exported. My guide had worked on the salt flats when he was younger and told me they do this backbreaking work 6 days a week for $4-5 a day.

Having learned about salt it was time to learn about pepper. Chefs around the world are familiar with Kampot pepper. There are numerous farms in the region – the one I visited being an organic one owned by a Dutchman. The plants produce black, red or white peppers and each plant is watered and harvested by hand which is why the end product is pricey. I actually like the sweet green peppers which are fresh, undried and great with crab – the next leg of my motorcycle diary day.

I hopped on a boat from Kep to tiny Rabbit Island and stepped off onto a lovely beach in a sheltered bay. There was only enough time for a delicious green pepper crab lunch, a swim and a bit of a sunbath before heading back to the mainland, but it was a fun thing to do.

Still undecided where to go next I woke up in the middle of the night with a flash of inspiration. I’ve had a PADI license for 28 years, having taking up diving when my children were very small as a means of having my own space for a few hours and of going someway towards fulfilling my desire to be a female Jacques Cousteau.

However, my last dive was 12 years ago so I decided to head along the coast to do a refresher course, the logic being that the diving isn’t brilliant in Cambodia and therefore it’s a good place to spend half a day in a swimming pool and a day doing two simple dives so that when I hit the major dive sites in Borneo and Indonesia I don’t waste any time. Cunning plan hey.

I found a great Khmer hut in a place called Otres Beach1 (yes there’s an Otres Beach 2), which is a red sand street with a few shops and shacks and a gorgeous long white-sand beach fringed with palms and mangroves on one side and clear blue water – warmer than the water which typically dribbles out of my showers, on the other. With comfy cushions in beach bars playing chilled out music and friendly fellow travellers, it was heaven.

I completed my diving without too much bother and whilst some equipment and rules have changed, in underwater sign language ‘shark’ remains unchanged. There was a fair bit of marine life at beautiful Koh Rong island; anemones, giant sponges, Puffa fish, Angel fish, Palm coral etc which I enjoyed but I had trouble equalising the pressure in ears which made me feel sick. I hope this won’t affect all my dives.

Once again I woke in middle of the night, this time not with a brainwave but by the sound of rain, yes RAIN lashing down. At first I thought my fan was on too loudly, then I felt a drip on my bed and realised the roof was leaking! A quick dash to shove all my things under the bed, move my position away from the drip and back to sleep. In the morning clear blue skies and 35 degrees again.

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Otres Beach 1

Leaving my beach idyll I headed for Siem Reap and the mighty temples of Angkor.

I began by cycling round the town of Siem Reap which most people find dirty and noisy but which I found attractive and buzzy in a rather bizarre, Las Vegas. There’s the usual central market but also boutique shops and artisan enterprises, and a Pagoda set in a large courtyard with unusual sculptures, a long boat, a monastery, where I sat and listened to monks chanting, 3 or 4 pretty bridges linking the right and left banks of a not particularly lovely canal and scores of glitzy 5* hotels whisking wealthy tourists to the temples.

As I cycled around I found myself at Angkor Children’s Hospital visitor centre which I initially thought it was tourist information. I chatted to a volunteer about the hospital and watched a video about its founder and his mission to reduce the number of infant and child mortalities from preventable diseases like malaria, dysentery, HIV, dengue fever.

20 minutes later I found myself giving blood!

200-300 children a day attend the hospital which is also a training centre that sends paediatricians into rural community hospitals to enable children to be treated locally and not make the perilous journey which often results in death.

Until very recently a staggering 65,000 children died every year, 1:5 under five years old. Mortality rates are slowly improving through this remarkable hospital and its sister hospital in Phnom Penh but these are the only two children’s hospitals for the whole country.

As an aside, the checks before I was able to give blood were very thorough. Blood pressure (lower than its been for 25 years), haemoglobin (fine), exposure to Zika virus (nil), age (just the right side of 60), last time I gave blood (a shamefully long time ago). And my prize for being a good girl, a can of Coke, biscuits and a very nice T-shirt. Giving blood is vital in countries like Cambodia so if you’re travelling and see a hospital, stop and ask if they need your blood. I bet they do.

And so to the temples to which I dedicated 2.5 days. First up was the mighty Angkor Wat for (yet another) sunrise. Unfortunately it was a bit cloudy therefore I didn’t see any of the amazing pinks and purples you see in the books but the reflection in the water was still special.

Like Bagan in Myanmar there are countless temples (Wats) and Chedi (stupas) some more impressive than others. More are in a ruined state than I imagined and I don’t know, but somehow they lacked the magic of Bagan. Maybe it’s because they are more spread out and the area is more overgrown so you don’t get the amazing vistas, maybe it’s because they were overrun with loud Chinese tourists, maybe I was suffering from temple overload or maybe I’m still in love with Myanmar. My guess is it’s the latter.

The highlight of my time in Siem Reap was attending Rebecca’s wedding via FaceTime. My darling daughter and fiancé Simon decided to tie the knot a few weeks previously and luckily I was able to be with them. In fact I had pole position because the camera was facing them so I could see and hear everything perfectly. It was actually very moving sitting in my room, headphones on, concentrating on them. Of course I missed out on the champagne and the celebration lunch but I was happy that James and David were with Becca and that it was such a happy occasion.

Hooray for modern technology.

Of course I visited the massive Tonle Sap lake which is the source of all the fish in Cambodia and which rises an amazing 7 metres during the rainy season. This means the villages are built on vast stilts – hard to image such a change in way of living year in year out but once agin it was cloudy so this time sunset was a bit of a damp squib.

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Being led astray

I was fortunate to be invited to dinner by So, who I had met through Guy’s Trust. His wife made traditional Fish Amok with coconut and lemon grass wrapped in banana leaf and steamed. I chatted to their 14 year old super-bright daughter who wants to live in Paris, drank blow-your-head off ice wine with the village elders and listened to So as he told me that despite his father and all his brothers being killed under Pol Pot’s regime, he loves Pol Pot; that he was a puppet of Ho Chi Minh and that one day the history books will tell the truth. You can imagine how difficult this was to comprehend.

I was now at a bit of a crossroads. From Siem Reap I could head east and eventually enter Laos through the Mekong River or I could head west and enter Thailand at the land border.

I decided to go west, taking a bus to Battambang and checking into Family Ganesha guest house with pink lace mosquito net and hello kitty pillow case! What do you want for $4.50, and in fact it was the friendliest place I stayed in Cambodia and I wished I’d embraced the full-on backpacker scene earlier.

Everyone has to do at least one cookery class in SE Asia. I did mine here and really enjoyed going to the market to buy the ingredients, leaning how to make 4 traditional dishes (including Fish Amok) and eating the fruits of my labour. The fact that I won’t be near a kitchen for another 10 months is unimportant.

My last day in Cambodia was good fun. Battembang, like Kampot still retains its faded French charm, including plentiful cafes selling good coffee and chocolate cake, and it also has the famous Bamboo Train. The train is basically planks of bamboo on iron rollers like a raft, all of which can be dismantled and taken off when one ‘carriage’ needs to pass another on the single track. They whizz along at 20kpm which when you’re only a few centimetres off the track is damn fast. Having enjoyed that experience I then went to the circus and had a thoroughly good time being a child again!

So it was time to leave Cambodia. I spent a 3 weeks here getting to know people, exploring the culture, the countryside and the towns and villages. Naturally the highlight was the amazing experience of building the school with Guy’s Trust but on top of that I had some great times by the sea, at the temples and in small towns soaking up everything in my usual sponge-like way.

The country is slowly mending and there is undoubtedly wealth; the sheer number of people driving Lexus cars surprised me, especially as petrol is 80p a litre.

I didn’t interact with as many locals as I did in Myanmar, the children and young people walking around are more reserved but look happy and the adults in the places I visited weren’t so open to chatting.

One thing you notice is quite lot of people who have lost limbs as the result of being victims of land mines of which there are many more undiscovered on the borders with both Thailand and Vietnam. A number of the male victims have become musicians, sitting outside the temples playing traditional music. I would have liked to talk to them.

To end on a more upbeat note, it was wedding season and so everywhere I travelled there were celebrations. It seems the man has to save up about $2,500 to give to his bride’s family. This can take several years but the bride’s family pay for the wedding which lasts 2-3 days. On the day of Becca and Simon’s wedding they were naturally in my thoughts and fortuitously there was a couple at my favourite temple having their photos taken as I passed by. Serendipity indeed.

I’m off to cross into Thailand now. I’ll be will be back in touch soon, meanwhile I really must find out what’s happening in the world. Feel free to update me and apologies for the random order of the photos!

Ginny

 

 

Building a school in Cambodia

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Am I the only person unaware that there are two airports in Bangkok and that they’re an hour’s drive apart? This meant that my connection from Yangon to Phnom Penh was very disconnected. I had 2:5 hrs to exit BKK and check in at DMK. Having learned to sharpen my elbows on a recent visit to China, I decided to be very un-British and queue jump, push and shove, bribe the cab drive with untold riches and smile madly. Nett result; I made it to the departure gate as the flight was called which meant I had time to buy an ice cream, which I’d been craving for a month, before collapsing in my seat, nerves shot to pieces and £50 poorer!

The traffic in Phnom Penh is a sight to behold. Cars jostling with tuk tuks, motor bikes and bicycles, each vying for that tiny gap as they weave their individual paths. There are almost no traffic lights but somehow the traffic keeps flowing and when it gets too congested motor bikes simply mount the pavement sending pedestrians flying like skittles.

I was in PP to meet up with 20+ other people, who like me, were volunteering with Guy’s Trust to help in the construction of a primary school in a small village about 20 minutes from Kampot. The school has a catchment of 300 children who attend in shifts; the little ones from 7-11am and the older ones from 1-5pm. One teacher has 50 children per classroom.

I have never worked on a building site – no surprise there – and don’t usually do anything more strenuous in 35 degrees (not even tennis) than sip Pimms, so my body was in for a shock. However, despite being the hottest and dirtiest I’ve been in my life, it was undoubtedly one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.

We arrived at the school to a warm welcome from children lining the path, waving flags and clapping. Dancers and musicians led the way to the veranda where we were officially welcomed by the head teacher, her staff and our site foreman who was probably thinking ‘this is going to be a nightmare’. Fresh coconut and sun hats were distributed and our tasks began.

They ranged from heavy duty digging with pick axes and spades, to rubble shifting, metal work, plumbing, concrete filling and brick laying. This is a big site and therefore, despite hours of hard labour, progress was slow, expect in two specific areas.

Firstly the playground which I worked on most of the time. We transformed an area of compacted earth to a sandy area with swings, ropes and see saws. The sheer joy on the kids faces and their infectious laughter was lovely to witness.

Secondly basins. The school didn’t have anywhere for the children to wash their hands or brush their teeth – a post-break time ritual for the little ones. With some simple plumbing and the construction of brick stacks we installed four basins, which allowed for the water to go straight into the flower beds. Ingenious.

One of the highlights of the day was lunch! A team of cooks miraculously produced the most delicious meals cooked on open fires. We had loads of fresh vegetables, meats, fish, rice, noodles and even chips. Exotic fruits were always available  and also interesting ‘treats’ like coconut paste and sesame steamed in banana leaf. Sugarcane and steamed rice in coconut palms etc.

Regular breaks were essential to re-apply sunscreen, re-hydrate and cool down. They also afforded the opportunity to interact with the children. I went into all the classrooms with my penny whistle and children volunteered to come to the front to sing a nursery rhyme, followed by much cheering and clapping. A favourite was ABC which the whole class joined in with. I also taught them a few hand-banging-on-the-table games (you know, the ones where you have to down a shot if you get it wrong!), and tried to learn to count to ten in Khmer which caused much amusement.

I must mention Guy’s Trust in-country NGO partner Action Aid. The young volunteers were great fun, mucked in with all the tasks and were essential go-betweens to the builders and teachers.

Over the course of our time at the school the teachers, and the head teacher in particular became much warmer towards us whilst the children became much bolder. This meant that when it came time to leave the send off was a highly emotional occasion.

As we left, we gave every child a T-shirt (some more like dresses) and in return they gave each of us a personal, hand drawn thank you card. As we took the last walk down the path the cheering, high-fiving and laughter was deafening. Hugs all rounds and promises to come back to see the finished school, we climbed into the bus, exhausted, reflective and totally elated.

For Tony, Vicky and Alex the project was clearly an emotional roller coaster.  The pride at bringing to fruition months of planning and fundraising to build this the forth school in Guy’s memory and the joy at seeing friends old and new working towards the same goal was evident to us all.  And whilst there was naturally great sadness at having to leave somewhere that would be for ever linked to their son, what an amazing gift to be able to bring new opportunities to hundreds of children, their families and the wider community.

I would like to once again say a massive thank everyone who so generously sponsored me.  And if you didn’t but would lie to, or even feel moved to give again, We have been asked if we could help raise money for books and other teaching materials, and for some of the older children who live some distance away, bicycles.

If you’d like to make a donation please go to: https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/virginiagreenwood1

That’s it for now.  My next update will be all about my adventures in Cambodia….

Ginny x

 

 

 

26 days in Myanmar

imageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageI’m sitting on a bus on my way from Mawlamyine to Yangon, the last of my long distance journeys around Myanmar.

It had been my intention to write a bi-weekly blog but the internet fluctuates between patchy to non-existent with slim chance of uploading photos. Perhaps this is just as well because it has given me the space to observe and absorb day-to-day life in this golden country.

I’d been warned that Myanmar wouldn’t be the most straightforward country from which to embark on my year-long travels because the path is less well-trodden and it is emerging from years of oppression. However, I thought that by throwing myself in at the deep end I’d quickly discover how well I’d cope with the challenges of deciding where to visit, finding transport to get there and accommodation on arrival.

Most places can be reached by train (slow and infrequent but enjoyable stopping for trackside meals, on one occasion shared with manacled convicts), bus (comfortable and direct but always freezing cold with loud music and cheeses soaps) or shared taxis which are a riot with granny, mum, baby, shopping, chickens etc.

This is a wonderful country. Diverse in culture and traditions where Buddhism permeates the soul, shaping people’s lives through the teachings of Buddha. This makes the Burmese people rich spiritually but poor personally because they constantly give their money to monks seeking alms and at the myriad of pagodas and shrines which pepper the entire landscape.

I got into the habit of making a daily donation and when nice things happened to me that day, which they regularly did, I tipped a nod to Buddha. That’s not to say that I expected a return on my investment, it was more that I enjoyed striking the bell outside the shrine three times after making my donation! I would have loved to be able to capture the specific tone and reverberations of the scores of bells I struck. ‘The bells of Myanmar’; a project for another visit.

Despite their material poverty, the Burmese are the sunniest, kindest, most industrious people I have ever met. The women are especially lovely, the young giggling uncontrollably when a foreigner speaks to them, older women offering food and silent company for free. The men I met always went out of their way to help me with directions, to protect me from barking dogs (of which there are thousands) and even made an effort not to spit the red juice from the betel they constantly chew, at my feet.

As for the children – they are adorable. They’re always smiling and laughing, they wave and shout “mingalaba”, which is hello and therefore the first word a foreigner must learn, and never ask for anything except a photo with us which results in more smiles and laughter. They dress brilliantly, Angry Bird onesies being my favourite look.

Education is very important, and from the classes I observed, are mainly taught by repeated chanting which builds to a crescendo then drops again at the start of a new sentence. In rural schools teachers are often teenagers and mothers themselves. My only sadness was not seeing any dancing or hearing and traditional music.

Almost every child will spend time in a monastery which is why when you see a procession of monks or nuns they descend like organ stops until you get to the pint sized, shaven-headed novice monks and nuns in terracotta and pink robes respectively.

The country prides itself on the many family businesses that use the abundance of natural resources (teak, jade, gold, silver, bamboo, stone, enamel, cotton, silk) to make Buddhas, houses, clothes, jewellery, works of art, souvenirs.

Their is no shortage of water and the soil is fertile which means that fruit and veggies are plentiful, and whilst Myanmar is no longer the rice bowl of SE Asia it once was, there are swathes of countryside covered in rice fields.

There is concern that natural resources and water are not being properly managed but as with so many of their problems, the people put their faith in their beloved First Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi to makes everything ok.

My first few days in Yangon were hard going. It was very hot and like any big city it was noisy, polluted, over crowded and dirty. I can’t say I warmed to it, apart from the astounding Shwedagon Pagoda, where I fell asleep on the floor in the heat of the day, and found 3 days more than enough.

Living in the sprawling metropolis of London, I want to spend this year enjoying the calmer atmosphere and simpler living that comes will town and village life and by being close to water as much as possible.

Having said that my next stop was Mandalay. Another big city, but here the roads are wider and, save the dust which pervades the entire country, the air cleaner with the countryside easily accessible.

I was lucky to find a wonderful guide called Mr. Saw who sped me round the sights of this once thriving, now somewhat faded, capital city and the surrounding towns of Inwa, Amarapura and Sagaing Hill on the back of his motorbike. Along the way he explained the fundamentals of Buddhism and also helpfully told me that every city has its own style of pagoda, with the main pagoda having a unique tower, a bell and a monastery. This useful bit of information meant that as I travelled around I was able to differentiate between the minority Mon, Shan, Paluang, Pa O, Intha and Karin designs and, more interestingly, the people who come from states with their distinctive traditions, dress, crafts.

Mr. Saw kindly invited me to his home to meet his wife and five children and to enjoy a meal. The last time I ate with a family was in southern India where we all ate together. Not so on this occasion. Mrs. Saw had made a huge feast which I proceeded to eat with the family watching me. Close to exploding, I insisted they join me in eating honey cake and fruit. I had wanted to take Mrs. Saw flowers but Mr.Saw told me flowers could only be given to Buddha so I took my penny whistle and played a few tunes which amused us all. Later I discovered it was Mother’s Day and felt bad that Mrs.Saw had spent most of the day in the kitchen. This was the first of many experiences of Myanmar generosity, the last being just now when the man I was sitting next to at the bus station picked up the tab for my breakfast….jus like that.

And so the days sometimes drifted and sometimes flew by. Hiking in the cool mountains of Hsipaw, sleeping in a traditional minority village home; sailing gently down the Irrawaddy River to the magnificent stupas of Bagan; crossing the hills of Kalaw to serene Inle Lake with its floating gardens and acrobatic fishermen, heading south to laid back Hpa-An and the old colonial city of Mawlamyine, watching sunrise and sunset in stunning locations, getting there on foot, by canoe, e- bike and push bike and even horse and cart. All experiences I will treasure.

But what of my fellow travellers? Organised tours (only visible at major sites) are popular with South Koreans, Americans and the French, whereas solo travellers like me who venture to remoter places are predominantly from Europe, with the majority being French and very few being from the UK.

I was slightly apprehensive that, despite being an extrovert, I would find it difficult to meet people travelling alone. I needn’t have worried. It’s easy to hook up when you want or need to. Of the people I spent the occasional day or two with, they were universally good company. In particular a delightful Italian woman, three lovely Catalan women, a charming Swiss man and a crazy Canadian man, all roughly my age and five young men who were my fellow trekkers and called me Mum!

I only shared a room once and actually both the room and the communal bathroom were cleaner than some of the over-price single rooms I took. I plan to do more of this because, experiencing extended travel for the first time, I like the camraderie of hostels plus it saves a load of money – though I’m not sure I’m ready for dormitory sleeping yet! It also results in randomly bumping into people again, which I had been told would happen but somehow didn’t believe. When it does happen, what had been fleeting encounters become greetings like long lost friends and a mandatory Myanmar beer or two.

Now back in Yangon, where I began my journey 26 days ago, it’s Union Day – a major celebration which brings together the different states. I returned to the river to watch the sunset and eat street food, only this time with more knowledge about what to choose, the ability to say please and thank you and the confidence to negotiate a good price.

I am proud of what I’ve achieved; navigating my way round a complicated country, making friends, avoiding an upset stomach (though suffering badly cracked feet from having to walk bare foot and a bizarre rash on my fingers); not loosing anything (there has already been some ruthless jettisoning of things from my rucksack) and coming in under budget.

I haven’t felt lonely or afraid and only once or twice craved the things you can’t get here i.e. dark chocolate, red wine and a proper cup of tea!

I feel a great sense of warmth for the Burmese people, they have suffered greatly for many years but now, the young in particular, are pinning their hopes on Aung San Suu Kyi delivering them a better, fairer and more prosperous future. Naturally with the military still holding so many seats this will require a willingness to change which will inevitably take more time than the young naively hope for but it’s important to believe.

Personally I feel they should keep more money for themselves. The pagodas and shrines are dripping with gold, people buy gold leaf to place on the Buddhas and eagerly give their meagre earnings away. I frequently witnessed them queue to see a holy relic and then simply throw money at it without actually stopping to take a proper look. However, it’s the Buddhist way and perhaps it’s better than our western, materialistic society.

Were it not for the restriction of a 28 day visa I would have loved to travel further north and down to the southern archipelago before developers start to build island resorts. What better reason to come back to this remarkable country, knowing a warm welcome and many undiscovered treasures await me.