Special stop press post – Daisy and the water puppets – Ha Noi, Vietnam

I’ve been badgering Daisy to write more blogs, and here’s her fantastic thoughts on the water puppet show in Hanoi (and her soppy father). Note the fronted adverbial that Mummy has had to teach her this week, despite not knowing what one was until she dragged her way through the national curriculum. Homeschooling has its moments…

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We went to a water puppets show, and we saw fairies dancing in water. Before the fairies danced, the dragons were a total rush. They squirted fire and the peacocks squirted water. Puppets started to pick the rice slowly and plant it. Then the fishermen came and one put its basket on the other fisherman’s head.     Then we asked for a wooden fairy but daddy said “NO!” So I cried and cried most of the night.

The next morning (when I had hardly slept), we went to the airport and daddy had bought the fairies and said “they followed me back”. The fairies now live with grandma and granddad till I get back.

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Written by Daisy

Laos: Things to do in Luang Prabang with children (and their grandparents)

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“Hot, with monks”. My sister said that my pre-visit description of Laos’ most famous city was uninspiring, and she may have been right. It reminds me rather of Ford Prefect’s tag for the world when he visited in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: ‘mostly harmless’.

I fear I undersold it. Post visit, I’d go for “beautiful, ethereal and relaxing” – but I don’t want to wax too lyrical. You might go, after all, and it is very pretty as it is, without any more visitors.

On the offchance though, that you do decide to make the trip, here are my top tips for taking your children and your parents, to Laos’ World Heritage Site.

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1.Have a fruit shake

Have one now! The night market is rammed with stalls that will blend up an amazing range of fruit into delicious fruit drinks. I liked lime, mint and soda. Clover came up with a variety of combinations that she was always rather disappointed by. Daisy stuck with what she knew. But yes, it’s hot, and they are under 80p each –so have one now. We didn’t try the ones with ‘local rum’ in – but if the children are cranky, why not? (for you, not them, obviously). When you’ve got your shake, you can do some souvenir shopping – nice handicrafts… I’m still regretting the beautiful bedspread I didn’t buy to bring home, but it’s such a long time until we get back!

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  1. Visit the ‘Buddha who needs the toilet’

It’s a long trip up the mountain to Laos’ most holy Wat, on the beautiful Mount Phousi that watches over the city. Go near sunset, and although you’ll share it with lots of tourists, and their cameras, it won’t matter as you marvel at the surreally perfect valley below you, with smoke issuing from a hundred chimneys.

With children though, you won’t get into too many religious reveries. Daisy dubbed one of the holiest images – Buddha with his hands crossed in front of him as “the Buddha who needs the toilet”, while his friend the ‘Stop it I don’t like it Buddha’ (with his hands up in a warning gesture similar to that taught at the girls’ school nursery) also garnered much mirth.

It was on our trip up the mountain that Clover’s beloved Ever After High dolly, Blondie Locks, lost one of her (bizarrely removable) hands. We’ve told her it is now being venerated as a holy relic, but I’m not sure she believes us – so if you find a small plastic hand on your visit, do mail it back to us.

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  1. Eat Laos tapas

Sounds unpromising, but is delicious. Try Khaiphaen, a social enterprise project that trains local people. It was all fabulous, even the river weed. In fact, all the food was good – the French influence means I had some of the best croissants ever (including those in France) at Le Banneton Cafe. Relax with a beer (not with breakfast) and watch what passes for crowds going by – i.e. a few dogs, hundreds of monks and a couple of German tourists.

  1. See the monks

Obviously, see the monks. They go by early (my Dad dubbed them ‘birdfart monks’) with their offering baskets, and the locals give them the rice they need for the day. You’re asked only to contribute if ‘the gesture would be meaningful to you’ so we didn’t. Nor did we get the children up. The Apple Guesthouse – a delightfully friendly place – was right by the corner so we left the kids in bed, and spared ourselves the inevitable grumbling.

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  1. Go round the temples at sunset

Very pretty. The kids will grumble, obviously, but don’t heed them. They’ll get into it soon enough, especially trying to distract the younger monks – who are about the same age as Daisy. Unlike Christian monks, throughout most of South East Asia being a Buddhist monk is a normal rite of passage. Almost all boys do it at least once, and in the least developed countries, like Laos, it is the only chance of an education for most (shame about the girls – we only saw nuns in Myanmar). Tiny monks might look ethereal, but they love to see small children to distract them from their chanting. Daisy and Clover are apparently hilarious – if you’re a monk.

 

  1. Do some Monk Chat

On this note, do chat with the monks – they are all learning English and hang out because they are keen to practise. We met some who told us that Luang Prabang was now far too busy and noisy (true, I did see at least ten cars). They must never visit Hanoi – or indeed London. If you are a girl, don’t touch the monks though – they don’t like it (on religious grounds, not personal preference!). Mum is even considering an offer to come back and teach some monks this winter – she’s a retired primary teacher. She should go for it – Laos is lovely – and winter is so cold at home.

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  1. Take the Shompoo Cruise

You’ll be reluctant to leave Luang Prabang, so you may as well do it in style. The Shompoo Cruise takes a necessary journey (a boat up the Mekong back to Thailand- or indeed to Thailand if that’s how you arrive) and turns it into a massive treat. We were the only four people on our boat, with delicious food, relaxing cushions and a fantastic view of Laos riverside life. You’ll stop overnight at Pak Beng – which is a little odd – mainly Laos karaoke, rain and stray dogs, but the Shompoo Cruise will be a relaxing end to a relaxing trip. Thanks Luang Prabang!

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Vietnam III: Hue, Halong Bay and Hanoi (in which we continue to only visit places beginning with H)

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From Hoi An we took the ‘scenic’ coastal train journey to the Imperial City of Hue – as recommended by the marvellous Man in Seat 61 (an invaluable website if you ever want to travel by train almost anywhere there is a network).
At least, it would have been scenic if the train conductor had allowed us to open the curtains, but she was very clear that this would ‘let the sun in’. Even the Vietnamese customers looked baffled. In my more rebellious moments I peeked behind the curtains to view China Beach, where the American soldiers in Vietnam came for R&R and several other breathtaking coastal views.

The rest of the time we munched on our growing collection of not-very-tasty Vietnamese snacks. I admire Paul’s desire to sample all that is on offer at the Vietnamese convenience stores, but some has been much better than others. Notable failures include durian candy in pastry (durian is a fruit so smelly that most places have a sign up featuring a red circle and a durian fruit with a line through it), and a type of sweet that I can only conclude is made out of sesame seeds, sugar and PVA glue (keeps the children quiet for a while anyway).

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Our next stop, Hue, used to be the capital of Vietnam, and is based on the charmingly named Perfume River. It’s a pleasant place. We stay at the Jade Hotel – at a cost of £17 a night for four, where the most notable thing is the fact that the loo roll has to wear a little smoking jacket in red velvet with a tassel. We continue our favourite SE Asia quest – the search for tonic water. Mum and Dad bought two bottles of gin out with them, but the tonic to go with them is hard to come by. Found some in the end, which was pleasing.

Hue was Vietnam’s imperial capital, so when we’re not swigging gin in the Jade Hotel’s retro bedrooms (sadly not wearing our own smoking jackets) we venture out to see the imperial palace, city walls and ‘forbidden purple city’ (based on the one in China). I wish I could come up with a more cultural view on Hue than ‘nice dragons’ – but I’m afraid that really is the best conclusion I can give you – think I must be pagoda’d out. Nice ice cream too – always a bonus when it’s quite so swelteringly hot.

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We also took a boat trip on the Perfume River with Madeleine and Phil, which was interesting, but also hot. The river is studded with assorted mausoleums (great for hide and seek, it turns out), and we also had a very authentic chicken lunch (spot the head in the middle) on the boat itself. Madeleine and Phil were staying in a very nice hotel, with a pool, where Charlie Chaplin had been on his honeymoon. He had good taste, it was lovely (and we got to use the pool too for a fee).

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Not sure Hue was the girl’s favourite place, but they did enjoy seeing their Grandmere, plus a fantastic authentic dinner with Binh, who runs the charity Phil set up for students in Vietnam, which took place in such a downpour that the lights went out.

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From the river, to the sea. We took a cruise (get us) on Ha Long Bay, on a very plush boat called The Treasure Junk. Moving on from hotels where (toilet roll smoking jackets notwithstanding) the level of luxury was fairly ow, being upgraded to a suite was a bit of a shock. The girls got to grips with the somewhat over-fierce Jacuzzi, and soaked the floor, and we got to grips with gin and tonics on the private deck. It was proper posh.

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Ha Long Bay is a beautiful area full of limestone karsts, with nearly two thousand islands in a small area. We went kayaking and swimming, with our improbably-named guide, Kevin, and did early morning T’ai Chi on the deck (without laughing too much).

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We also visited a pearl farm where we learned how oysters have bits of pearldust inserted into their ovaries in the hope that they’ll create pearls around them. Ouch. I can’t claim this level of oyster abuse made me want to buy any pearls (though the girls were predictably keen) but it was really interesting.

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Then came a whirlwind trip to Hanoi, staying at the fantastically-named Boss Legend Hotel – the girls will remember it only for a swimming pool full of coloured balls but we also enjoyed (and endured) Hanoi’s crazy motorcycles and buzzing street life. Not really enough time to do Vietnam’s capital, but just enough time to whet the appetite for more. Vietnam, we’ll be back.

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Vietnam II: Dancing dragons – and I’m not talking about my mother-in-law

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I tried to get Paul to write this edition of the blog – but he informs me “you won’t like it – I’ll just talk about what I’ve eaten, and the weather”. If his teenage diaries are anything to go by this is certainly the case, so I’d better do it instead.

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When I last wrote, we were heading on a Vietnamese night train from Saigon to Da Nang – which didn’t prove quite the relaxing experience we’d hoped for. Let’s be clear. We love night trains and we’re not picky. Second class AC on the Indian trains was scarcely private and comfortable, and the Thai trains had their moments too (not least the guard who positively revelled in shouting “you wake up NOW at 5am). So what was wrong with the Vietnamese trains? First problem – they don’t appear to change the sheets. This is disgusting. Thai and Indian trains launder everything to pristine whiteness, so it was a bit of a shock. And we were too dazed to realise at first, otherwise our handy silk sleeping bags would have come into play. Problem two, although everyone is supposed to have a bunk or a seat, there also appeared to be a large contingent of people who have paid to sit on a small plastic stool anywhere they can find a place. This turned out, in one case, to be our small compartment, where a lady spent some quality time alternatively trying to stroke the children, admire our laptops and set up camp on the narrow strip of floor between the bunks.

Personal space is a constant issue when we’re travelling. Not Paul and mine particularly, but the girls’. While it is fair enough that many countries are not quite so ‘touch me not’ with other people’s children as the British, how much leeway should we allow? How can we make sure the girls are still comfortable?

In India, we allowed old ladies to poke and prod them a little – but drew the line at the man who pulled Daisy onto his knee and started rocking her like a baby. I wasn’t too keen on this Vietnamese lady, either? Paranoid, perhaps? But I don’t want the girls to feel that we didn’t protect them from being pushed around. It’s a fine line to tread.

Vietnamese lady ejected from our compartment – and only feeling slightly guilty – we slumbered grubbily on the way to Da Nang. At around 6am a revolutionary song began blaring out of a speaker that we’d not noticed. Fortunately we were rescued by Clover who nonchalantly mentioned she’d turn it down and then promptly did so, somehow. The train got in just past noon, giving us, and Mum and Dad plenty of time to hang around reading books until it arrived. We were grateful for the pick up arranged by Jolie, the eponymous owner of Jolie Homestay, to take us to our next destination, Hoi An.

What can I say about Hoi An? Pretty – and pretty much on everyone’s tourist itinerary, it has lanterns, old buildings, tailors and the beach. After the bustle of Ho Chi Minh city it is a seriously good place for R&R. We’d rushed to get down there to meet Paul’s Mum, who is staying in Hoi An with her friend Phil, partly on holiday and partly visiting students from the educational charity he runs.

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What we hadn’t realised is that we’d arrived just in time for full moon, and the annual dragon festival. The town was packed in the evening with dancing ‘dragons and unicorns’ such as you might expect to see at Chinese new year. This made it a little tricky to get around, but very entertaining.

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We were grateful to be staying a little way out, where the only dragons we saw were of the very junior variety – young children practising their dancing in return for a few coins – a little like carolsinging at home.

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What else did we do in Hoi An? Well I’m afraid to admit we didn’t go to a single historic building. We had some clothes made – great fun – and I now have the first pair of black trousers to ever fit me perfectly. We went to the beach – once at Madeleine and Phil’s very chichi five-star resort, and once at the slightly more shabby (but very charming) An Bang beach – where we hung out until the full moon rose and ate very fine fish.

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In fact, we ate very well in general. Hoi An is truly relaxing (apart from in the evenings at a dragon dance festival). Got to hope those newly tailored clothes will still fit after some wonderful meals.

Some geography from the children

Because you can’t go to South East Asia with your Geography graduate of a father without doing a map or two, here are the girls’ effort on our SE Asia tour. I think they’re great. “New dresses” should definitely be a symbol on all Ordnance Survey Maps. Much better than all those Stone Age Tumuli anyway.

Clover’s is the coloured map, and Daisy’s the one with the Mekong (in blue) running right through it.

More words on our trip soon, I promise.

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Vietnam I: (Don’t) Miss Saigon

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The heat is on in Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City as it’s now called) when we arrive, over the border late at night on the five hour ‘Giant Ibis’ bus. It’s an inauspicious start involving bad food at a border café and almost being fleeced by a taxi driver. Once again I find myself grumpy about the whole changing countries thing – I love Cambodia, why on earth do I want to go to Vietnam? Though I’m not quite as grumpy as the lady below, who really didn’t like it when Paul took her picture. DSC03164DSC03208 DSC03209

HCM city is quite a contrast to Phnom Penh – the commercial hub of a commercial country, with high rises, fast motorbikes and luxury malls.

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Vietnam is still a communist country, of course, and it’s odd to see the hammer & sickle flag quite so close to the Burberry store, while the face of ‘Uncle Ho’ beams down at you from a thousand banners.

So we move from Pol Pot to the series of wars that have defined Vietnam’s recent history. We visit the War Remnants Museum, seeing the full might of American machinery that was pitted against the Vietnamese Communists in the 1960s. Huge tanks, Chinooks and jets are ranged around the edges of the museum. “How could they have lost, when they had all this?” Daisy asks. We’re about to find out.

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We take a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, where the Viet Cong fought the US, hiding in a series of tunnels, sometimes four stories deep. It’s a treat of a trip, by speedboat no less, but the site paid tribute to the fierce determination and ingenuity of the Viet Cong (mainly fighters from the North) and their Southern supporters. The tunnels contained everything from war rooms with long tables, to special kitchens which dispersed the smoke from cooking through a series of pipes, so that the Americans thought it was just mist on the mountains. Our guide showed a series of ingenious traps made of wood, spikes, and natural predators (scorpions and snakes) which took out unwary Americans. “It was best to injure them,” the guide explains. “Then the other soldiers had to look after them, and couldn’t fight”. Pragmatic lot, the Vietnamese.

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Unlike the War Museum, which has (rightly, I think) been criticised for being propaganda personified, our guide to the Cu Chi Tunnels took a more balanced view. “You’re only seeing the Vietnamese side,” she points out. I explain to the girls that where the victors tell the story, the other side doesn’t get a say. Clover is still bemused: “why did America fight in Vietnam in the first place?” she asks.

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You can see how the American lads must have been terrified. Despite defoliating the thick jungle with Agent Orange, the tunnels allowed the Viet Cong to appear practically from nowhere. What with unfriendly terrain, malaria and guerrilla warfare techniques, it was a bitter enough conflict for all concerned.

Squeezing ourselves into the tunnels (although specially widened for fat tourists like us) made us realise just how claustrophobic it must have been.

Here’s Daisy’s take on the experience…

We went to the Cu Chi tunnels and we saw loads of traps. first we saw a bamboo trap, which was a trap with sharp pieces of bamboo which had on top a thing where you walked on it and it fell down . We also saw a folding chair trap which is a kind of thing that you sit on … and get trapped. As well as that we saw a stick trap which had sharp sticks that stick out when you fall in it.

One of the tunnels was made bigger for tourists but I still had to duck down tiny. I wouldn’t have liked living there.  

We also tried a root called tapioca, it tasted better with peanut dip.  

(Written by Daisy)                          

Oh, and Dad and Paul got to shoot a machine gun – with real bullets….which made them very excited.

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After the tunnels, because we like to temper justice with mercy, and education with fun, we indulged in one of my favourite travelling-with-children pastimes, and paid £10 to go and swim in the five-star-hotel round the corner. Since we’d already checked out of our hotel, the poor staff had to cope with us six vagrants AND our luggage for an entire four hours. The girls played in the water– they are now swimming like (somewhat ungainly) fish after so much time in the pool – and Mum and Dad relaxed. They are learning that, with a trip like ours, there is always a come down after a luxury experience. In this case it was the Vietnamese night train from Saigon to Da Nang. But more of that another day.

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Cambodia III: Phnom Penh: Killing fields, and killing time

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It is amazing how fast human beings adapt to whatever they are doing, and for us, travelling has become the day-to-day norm. We now expect to be packing up, moving on, sleeping in a different bed every couple of nights.

The children are quick at making a routine as soon as we arrive anywhere– setting out their things, fighting over who gets which side of the bed – the usual kid stuff. They are good at lifts – Daisy always knows whether she needs a keycard or not to get to the floor she wants – and professionals at scavenging at a hotel buffet, finding Cartoon Network in every hotel that has a telly, hailing a tuk tuk and wiping their bottoms ‘the hose way’ (as Daisy calls it) – covering the bathroom in water in the process.

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I can only assume they’ll be sought-after companions when they finally come to have teenage Gap Years – they already manage a veneer of world-weary travel sophistication that their mother struggles to replicate.

Hotel living is strange though. Will we always expect our toiletries to come in tiny, tiny bottles, and our tea, made in a dinky little kettle, to come with coffee whitener?   Will I ever be able to work out where the bathroomis,  or find the bedside lamp when I wake up in the night? Sometimes I can’t even remember which country I’m in, so it seems unlikely.

Because South East Asia is so cheap, we can afford a level of comfort that makes the whole thing very pleasant, so perhaps it’s no wonder that we’re enjoying the lifestyle so much. We’ll be slumming it much more when Mum and Dad go, so we need to enjoy it while we can.

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While travelling has become the norm, however, there are some places that jolt you out of this new ‘comfort zone’. Sometimes it is because they are uncomfortable, but often it is just sheer incredulity that you are there at all.

For me Phnom Penh afforded some of these moments. The capital city, which I’ve seen on the news so often, was not somewhere I’d ever expected to go. So the night we arrived, floating in the swimming pool under the stars in a beautiful hotel behind the Prime Minister’s residence, was one of those surreal moments when I thought ‘I can’t believe we’re really doing this’ – and felt so very fortunate. Obviously, this transcendental moment was interrupted by the girls squabbling over who had the top bunk, but you can’t have everything.

Phnom Penh is a city on the up, but it hasn’t quite made it there yet. In some places the roads are metalled, but the main road between the capital and second city, Battambang, peters out into dust somewhere in the Phnom Penh suburbs. There are few traffic lights, which creates a bit of an ‘every man for himself’ atmosphere, not to mention some traffic jams that the police seem to have completely given up on – they tend to stand in the middle of them on their phones looking completely defeated.

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As a capital, PP couldn’t be more different to Bangkok and Delhi (and later Ha Noi), but the construction work around the edges of the city, including the first shopping malls, indicate that it won’t be this way for long. We enjoy it while it lasts, complete with old world charm, tuk tuk rides, and a night out at one of the trendiest bars I’ve been to in a while – where we are clearly sitting right next to a delegation from the UN. Dad wears his crocs (our time in Phnom Penh is marked by some impressive downpours) and the manager keeps addressing me as Madame Rosemary, which makes me sound as if I run a brothel, but at least we’re out, and there are cocktails. Thanks to the Kabiki, our highly, highly recommended hotel with a babysitting service, the whole thing goes very smoothly.

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I confess that, in Phnom Penh, the children barely leave the hotel, which has lots of the things they like, including a children’s menu, free toy elephants, three-day-old kittens, a swimming pool and the aforementioned bunk beds (just like home). It also has other travelling families from the UK and America, so they are delighted to have some partners in crime for swimming races and diving, and we are delighted to swap tips. It’s easy to feel like a bit of a freak/reprobate when travelling with your children, so it’s good to realise you’re not alone.

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We leave the hotel though. I take Mum for her first-ever pedicure, at a spa that trains at-risk women. Bonus, I get to feel good and help a charity – and the whole hour only costs £7 each. My feet are working hard at the moment – scarcely out of sandals and tramping round all sorts of places with bags – so I’m sure they appreciated the attention. The link is here if you happen to be going to Phnom Penh – my feet would definitely recommend it.

In a totally ridiculous juxtaposition, Paul, Dad and I then took a trip to the Killing Fields. This place, a boneshaking ride outside the city, was where supposed traitors to Pol Pot’s regime were taken, brutally hacked to death with farm implements (proper weapons were too expensive, apparently), and then pushed into mass graves.

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20,000 people were killed here between 1975 and 1978, including babies, women and children, to the accompaniment of blaring revolutionary music to drown out the screams and conceal what was really happening.

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The Killing Fields are now peaceful, with butterflies and green trees, and a tall white stupa (like a memorial temple) in the middle filled with some of the skulls and bones of the dead. As you walk around, though, particularly after the rain, you are reminded not to tread on the other bones and bits of cloth that are still surfacing from the mass graves.

I see scraps of children’s clothes, and plenty of bits of bone – but it’s not at all grisly, thanks to the superb audio guide provided, that allows you to walk around the site at your own pace. The recording, made by one of the survivors of Pol Pot’s regime, who first explains his own story, reminds you that virtually every Cambodian you deal with of my age or above will have his or her own tale of this bizarre and terrible time.

He explains how Pol Pot’s unshakeable belief in a Communism that pitted impure city dwellers against heroic peasantry led him to empty the cities of all of their inhabitants. This purge involved killing so-called ‘intellectuals’ for such crimes as wearing glasses, having soft hands, or being a teacher or doctor. With family units broken up, and everyone forced to work in female, male or child agricultural units with an emphasis on rice production for export, thousands upon thousands died of starvation and disease.

Pot (real name Saloth Sar), in the manner of many dictators, grew more and more paranoid, and the number of killings escalated as members of his Khmers Rouges party (known as Angkar) tortured many into false confessions in a former secondary school in Phnom Penh. The Killing Field we visit is just one of many. Most have been left undisturbed. The numbers are terrifying.

In all of this, the West scarcely covered itself with glory. It is uncomfortable to be reminded, while standing in front of a tree where Angkar members killed babies by throwing them against the branches, that even when Pol Pot was forced into hiding after the Vietnamese liberated Cambodia, Britain and the US still recognised the Khmers Rouges as the official government of Vietnam – such was the dislike of Vietnamese communism, and the determination to stop it spreading.

The audio guide suggests that Pol Pot’s revolution wouldn’t have been possible in the first place if the country had not been bombed so heavily during the American war with Vietnam that there was little strength or cohesion amongst the people.

Lots to think about. Sobering to remember that almost everyone in Cambodia is a survivor – and thrilling to see the country rebuilding itself, despite other issues with poverty, lack of democracy, people trafficking and, when we visited, massive flooding that is hardly going to be helped by the explosion in construction work.

Recovery is a long road, with the Cambodian equivalent of the Truth & Reconciliation Committee still ongoing, and the countryside littered with unexploded ordnance.

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It’s a sobering note on which to leave Cambodia, but as we travel on, by land, through the Vietnam border towards Ho Chi Minh City, I get the feeling that if we pass this way again, we will be in a very different place. Cambodia is changing faster than almost anywhere I’ve visited. I pray that it, and all of its people, will rise.

ENDS

Battambang: Slow boats and slow living

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With Tropical Storm Vamco still dogging our steps, taking the Slow Boat to Battambang (that definitely deserves capitals) was always going to be a brave choice.

To be honest, there’s no easy way to get to Cambodia’s second-largest city, particularly in the rain. The roads are bad, and the boats are ponderous, and it doesn’t matter which mode of transport you choose, you know that Cambodians are so keen to tell you what you want to hear that they will have shaved at least an hour or so off the true arrival time.

So you pay your money, and take your choice. And about ten minutes into your journey, you realise that you are just too old to be a backpacker anymore. Your bus picks you up from the guesthouse half an hour later than the insane 6am departure time, meaning that you are already a bit cross. You are then driven to another (very slightly larger) bus, at which point a slightly terrifying older lady attempts to cram many more people than are necessary into the bus. The children (glumly) sit on laps. Dad is ready to kill the older lady with a machete. Just as well he doesn’t have one.

The bus continues over what could only be described as roads by the very charitable. At one point it nearly tips over, the holes are so big. It rains. Do you begin to get the idea that I am not enjoying this very much so far?

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The boat, when we finally arrive at it, looks nothing like it does in the picture. Wooden bench seats (though thankfully not overcrowded) are not exactly the picture of comfort. The rain comes through the windows. Brightly, you point out the floating villages along the river – but the children are too wet to be interested. The noise from the engine continues, and even the real backpackers begin to look glum.

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Eight hours, it takes to get between Siem Reap and Battambang, including a stop at a floating house that is optimistically described as a “Western-style hotel”. “Do you think this rice was cooked in purified water?” asks Mum. I laugh. Hollowly.

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Did I mention it was raining? When we finally arrive in Battambang, the muddy slope up which we had to drag our bags was barely passable. My poor old backpack is still exceptionally muddy weeks after. Never have we been so pleased to arrive at a hotel – and it turns out the Sanctuary Hotel is well named. Nice pool, good food, and a separate room for the children – that’s basically Nirvana in my world at the moment.

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We’d chosen Battambang because there is still basically nothing to do there. Cambodia’s second city (after Phnom Penh) was the last hold out during the Khmers Rouges era, hiding them up in the mountains long after the Vietnamese took the rest of the country, so it’s unsurprising it has taken a little longer to recover from Pol Pot’s regime. The countryside about it is still littered with landmines, but the city itself is beautifully sleepy.

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There’s little more to do than swim, visit the market and ‘indulge’ in the rigours of home education. Mum teaches Clover joined-up writing, and we get the laundry done. I catch up on my backlog of articles too.

Life on the road, we are learning, necessitates pit-stops where everyone can chill, and since your hair keeps growing (and greying) while you travel, the usual personal admin is necessary too. Here’s a valuable lesson for anyone travelling to SE Asia – a dollar is too little to spend on a haircut, so two haircuts for a dollar was never going to be a wild success. Sorry Daisy and Clover, it will grow back. We’ve been keen to keep the girls’ hair short while we travel, with the result that everyone thinks we have twin boys – and acts terrifically surprised when we point out they are girls, with two years between them.

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The hairdressers might be bad, but there are many good things about Battambang. Excellent noodles, at under $2 per person, were a high point. Feeling closer to a less touristy part of Cambodia was another. The people were wonderful.

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Paul and Daisy took a trip to the bat cave– not just amazing for the one million plus bats that come out all at once at sunset – but also moving because it was where the Khmers Rouges killed their victims. It’s also known as the Killing Cave, and they’ve kept a few skulls down there to remember.

Explaining about Cambodia’s past is tricky with the children. They’ve seen the results of landmines on people in Siem Reap, and in Battambang the recent past seems even nearer. Daisy wants to know why, and Clover doesn’t want to talk about it. Both fair responses, I guess.

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It’s always hard to know how much to expose children to, especially in SE Asia, where the past atrocities are very much present. It seems to me unbelievable how recently Cambodia imploded under Pol Pot, and the statistics are almost unbearable to realise. This makes it very hard to explain to the girls. Even if they take a tiny bit of understanding back with them, though, I think it has to be a good thing.

This week’s book recommendation: Pol Pot, The History of a Nightmare. Sad and illuminating. Not one for the kids!