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Published: April 2nd 2012
We leave the beguiling chaos of the city behind us and board a local bus from Phnom Penn to the coast. The bus stations in Cambodia normally just consist of an office on the main road - the buses pull up in their dozens outside, and if you're lucky they'll have an A4 piece of paper stuck in the window with the destination written on so you know which one to get on!
We grab some breakfast from one of the nearby stalls selling everything from curries & rice to doughnuts & juice. Other fruit sellers swarm the area, but I scan the crowd for a coffee stand keen for my regular morning fix. Disappointingly there's no coffee being sold here... Woman selling those battery powered fluffy dogs that do somersaults that you had when you were a child, yes, but no coffee. Of course that's what everyone wants to buy at a busy bus station at 7am isn't it? Unsuprisingly she's not getting many punters...
We set off for the 4hour journey on the typical old leather seated bus complete with 70s patterned curtains drawn to keep the blazing sun out. The buses in Cambodia haven't been nearly
as crowded as in Laos and despite being a bit old & rickety, none of our journeys here have been unpleasant. The buses always have a two man team - there's of course the driver and then a young lad that hops on and off getting people's luggage from underneath and checking people's tickets. They're always friendly & helpful and always wait patiently if you're the last one back on the bus if you've had to spend a bit longer on the toilet than anticipated due to the Khmer curry you had the night before! They all have they're signature traditional Cambodian music blaring out so loud you can't hear you're iPod and you can forget about going to sleep, and if you're really
lucky you might even get a TV screen that is guaranteed to be playing Cambodian Karaoke, which no-one ever sings along to but sits and watches intently in silence as if it were a gripping documentary. Such are the joys of bus travel in Asia.
We arrive at Sihnaoukville early afternoon and head straight to Otres Beach, 4km out of town. Hearing other traveller's opinions of Sihanoukville we've found the general consensus that it's "a
bit of a shithole" and Otres Beach is "by far the nicest place to go". I'm all for finding things out for myself but when 7 or 8 people have said exactly the same thing you tend to pay attention.
And we're not disappointed. 2 months since I was last on a beach, it feels so good to feel the sea breeze and to swim in the bright turquoise water as opposed to the Mekong that's been my bathing pool for far too long.
I decide to book a boat to the beautiful nearby island of Koh Rong, and as Mikkel & Mel are both headed back to Thailand we realise it's our last night together after being travelling buddies for a good 5 weeks, so we find a nice spot in a bar by the water and, joined by Depressing Canadian Jason (who we met at the caves and bumped into yet again) and a couple of English guys, we set out to have a few farewell drinks.
No sooner than I have a sip of wine, I feel my phone vibrate - it's a text from my Dad, a text that in the back of
my mind I've always known I would receive at some point...a text that reads "Hi Chrissy, can you call as soon as you get this. Thanks Luv Dad" (only my parents are allowed to call me Chrissy and I love the way my dad always signs off texts with "luv dad" - like I don't know who it's from). I call straight away knowing exactly what it is. My beautiful Nan of 93 years old has passed away. Suddenly I've never felt so far away from home and I have an absolute need to be back there with my family. My Dad & brother generously offer to pay for my flight home if I want to go back for the funeral but no one expects me to and they leave the decision with me to think about so after a long teary conversation with everyone, remembering all the good times and sending a million hugs down the phone, I hang up and get an early night, shattered from all the emotion.
The next morning, as originally planned, I decide to still go to the island of Koh Rong, as right now I just want to be on my own
with my own thoughts, chill out and read a book for a few days and make a decision about what to do. I get picked up by the man who sold me the boat ticket and he takes me to the harbour on the back of his motorbike. It's not the easiest thing trying to balance 15kg on your back while going up a steep bumpy track while trying to hang on to the waist of a skinny Cambodian man being careful not to pull him off as well, but we get there in one piece just in time for the boat leaving. I climb aboard and doing so smack my head on a metal bar which, more due to the shock than any pain I burst into tears. Of course it's not really to do with the fact I hit my head, I'm crying for my Nan and it's just something I suppose we need to do when we lose a loved one. I put on my iPod, face out to sea, the wind in my hair and I cry for the 2 whole hours that the boat takes, the tears just keep on coming. It hurts like hell,
that pain you only get from losing someone you care so much about. The extra heartache of not being back home with my family making it even harder.
The boat gets to Koh Rong island and we all hop off to find ourselves at a deserted group of beach huts. From the photos I'd seen I knew it would be quiet but not this
quiet!... Then we are told that if we want to go to the other side of the island to where there are a few bars and more guesthouses we have to take another boat that's an extra 10$!! It's a scam!! Of course they're hoping you stay in this one place in an overpriced hut with overpriced food but if you choose not to, they still get money out of you for taking you to the other side!... Cheeky Fuckers!! Of course I'm far from in the mood to tolerate any of this so after having a go at the boat man and calling him a god knows what, I spit my dummy out the pram, decide to cut my losses and tell him I'll get the boat straight back to the mainland. I may
have spent $15 already but I'll be dammed if they're getting anymore money out of me! The robbing bastards!
I wait a couple of hours for the return boat, with who else but Depressing Canadian Jason for company, who also took the boat to the island and has decided to go straight back. For once, he is the perfect company - I'm upset and feeling sad for obvious reasons but I don't want anyone to cheer me up - not yet... I'm not ready. I just need to be miserable today and Jason, man of few words, shares my mood. I don't feel like I have to be my usual chatty self, I don't have to entertain him with conversation, we both just sit there depressed for a while and for those 2 hours, ironically I couldn't have wished for a better companion.
We take the boat back and all the while my mind is too-ing & fro-ing like a pendulum whether to go back for the funeral or not. My family are flying out to see me in Singapore for my birthday the day after so I will see them soon enough anyway. In the end I
decide to stay and telling my family they're happy with my decision.
The next day I get up early, have a long swim in the calm blue water and settle down with my book & pen to write a poem for my Nan that I'm going to send over to be read at her funeral. I lay there on my sun bed, smiling at all the happy memories and within less than an hour I've written a 20 verse poem, without even shedding a tear. Today I'm happy - Nan had a long amazing life and if I live to be 93 I'll be more than greatful! I email it over to my brother and he promises to read it out and do me proud.
If you want to read the poem, it's at the end of this blog, but it's a long one, and I realise it won't really mean a lot to most people! But still, it's there if you care to have a look...
After a few days on the beach I head to Kampot, a quiet riverside town. As there's not much going on I take a day tour to look
at the salt fields, peppercorn plantations & Cambodian countryside. There's a small group of 3 of us and after a gentle drive through the villages we wind up at some caves. As soon as we jump out the car 4 kids come running over to us smiling & laughing "Hello, where you from?" one girl latches on to me "Oh I know England, capital London..." I recognise the familiar schpeil but she continues.."You have boyfriend?... Why not?" to which the only appropriate answer I can think of is to ask her the same question..."Because boys smell" she says bluntly. I laugh and agree with her. She shows us the way to the caves, chatting all the way, showing us the crops they grow; spinach, chives, parsley etc - she is 7 years old and her english is astounding! Better than most adults I have met in Asia and to top it off she also speaks a fair bit of French... Much more than me anyway!
We get to the caves and despite them being small they are still interesting. The children continue to show us various nooks and crevaces in the cave before revealing a "secret" way down. This
involves climbing down through the darkness between jagged rocks to reach the bottom of the cave which is also the exit. I'm not sure and am about to take the stairs as the easy way back but Helene, a French girl in my group decides to be more daring so I join her. The children are saying "It's easy it's easy!" as they leap from rock to rock in bare feet, the youngest a four year old boy who is making me nervous everytime he balances on some narrow ledge on one leg, my natural instincts wanting pick him up and tell him it's bloody well dangerous! So off I go, climbing down step by step into the darkness. I get to one tricky bit and start to slip, so one girl takes my bag, another my bottle of water, another my flip flops... How ridiculous that these tiny kids, not older than 8 years old are helping me through this cave! Shining their torches to lead the way and pointing at the best ledges to put each foot on, we finally reach the bottom and are thrust into daylight again. Now I suppose I should be embarassed but these
kids are amazing! I tip them generously (which for me is HUGE, the tight Yorkshire lass that I am) and they're worth every cent. Of course they do this 20 times a day in the hope of getting tips from the falangs, but unlike city kids, they never ask you for money, they never beg, they're quite happy skipping along, practising they're English and being mini tour guides... And if they earn a few dollars doing it then all the better.
We leave the caves for the deserted seaside town of Kep and head to the crab market to watch women in their droves collecting crabs from their nets in the sea, straight to the restaurants lining the sea front. I of course opt for the traditional dish of Crab with Kampot peppercorns which, though messy to eat is delicious! Then after a short boat ride to the beautiful Rabbit Island and a few hours sunbathing I head back into Kep to find a place to stay for my last 2 nights on the beach. I come across a lovely little hotel called Kululuku and despite the rooms being expensive (a whole ten dollars a night!) it's a nice
place, has a small but perfect pool and a tiny private beach in it's back garden.
Today is the day of my Nan's funeral so at 6pm Cambodian time (11am back in the UK) I have something very
important to do... I order a large brandy & lemonade, my Nan's favourite drink, and take it down to the beach, along with a reef & candle that I've made and my poem to read. I draw a note in the sand - "RIP Nan" and as the sun sets I read the poem aloud before setting the candle & reef out to sea. Of course, inevitably the tide is coming in and so does the reef, the flowers being pulled apart by the lapping waves but I don't think Nan would mind, and I'm sure she'd be laughing as just then a crab pinches my toe and I run out of the sea screaming! I watch the sun disappear into the sea and as night falls I see just one shiny twinkling star... Maybe it's my Nan saying thankyou... Or maybe it was just the North star but I like the former theory.
I return to the terrace by
the hotel and in doing so pass by the pool where I see a big fat woman laid face down in the water... Shit! I think, is she dead?? Then she lifts her head to the side, takes a breath, before returning to her floating corpse like position, which she remains in for the next hour or so. Didn't make a friend there but never mind... Sometimes people are just too weird...
After my last day chilling on the beach, I catch a bus back into the chaos of Phnom Penn, and pretty chuffed with my self-navigation skills, manage to walk straight to the place I want to be from the bus station without a tuk tuk driver or even having to consult a map. I have half a day left in this city and am toying with the idea of either a visit to the Killing Fields or a cocktail & a pedicure... Hmmm... But since I'll be getting some serious luxury in the next week or so when my parents visit, I decide to go to the Killing Fields, feeling a sense of duty almost to teach myself a bit more about the damning history of this
country & the Khmer Rouge. Of course it isn't exactly a nice place to visit but actually is a really peaceful memorial ground, despite the carved wooden signs indicating where each mass grave is situated, the most horrific being that of the hundreds of children that were murdered, many of them by their heads being smacked around a tree, where fragments of bone are still being found. It's horrendous, and being there, learning this history, again brings home just how appalling Pol Pot's regime was. And yet what amazes me still is many Cambodian's willingness to share or tell these stories - they are not ashamed of their past but more proud that they made it through such terrible times and subsequently so appreciatingly happy with the present, their warmness and friendliness shining through in their smiles.
I take the 40 minute tuk tuk journey back into the city centre and see a very different Phnom Penn to the one I saw a few weeks ago. In the centre there's lots of new, shiny buildings amongst typical old market stalls, guesthouses, bars & clubs. But this is the outskirts - they are busy, chaotic and polluted to say the
least! I scramble for my scarf to cover my face from all the dirt & fumes as we zip in and out of trucks loaded to the rafters with people, motorbikes & cars. We make it back and after getting a shower before heading out for dinner it's one of those moments where you rub a wet wipe over your face and the tissue is just covered in thick black dirt...nice!!
It's pouring with rain that evening so I head to the nearest bar for drinks & food and get chatting to a Beligian guy named Dries. My good intentions of an early night go out the window as he twists my rubber arm and we head to a live music pub for a bit of good old rock!...Several mojitos later, I get in at 3am, waking up the door boy at the guesthouse to let me in, only to wake him up 3 hours later to let me out to leave at 6am to catch my flight... Cursing myself for this regular pattern of seeming to be hungover everytime I get on a flight! But never mind, I'm in the tuk tuk on the way to the airport,
breeze in my hair & big grin on my face! It's been an emotional rollercoaster these last two weeks, but Cambodia has been amazing, only a few days until I see my family and I'm on my way to the Malaysian Grand Prix! Life has never been more exciting!!
Poem: My Nan
Everytime we went to visit
We'd get to the top of the hill in the car
I'd wind down the window and shout "Nanna will you put the kettle on!"
Amazed she could hear that far
Then we'd have our "Elevenses"
Of tea or juice with a blue riband
Or sometimes crinkly chips - "Nanna's Chips"
The best chips in the land!
I loved going to stay with Nan
We'd play games of which I'd never tire
Like Sevens with Cards or jigsaw puzzles
Throwing our sweet wrappers on the log fire
She liked fererro rocher & Turkish delight
But her favourite were Jelly Babies
She said the black ones were best cos they were boys
And had an extra bit on than the ladies
We'd snuggle up on the sofa
And with her nails she'd scratch our
Let us stay up way past our bedtime
Watching films, eating late night snacks
Then she'd put us to bed
Tuck us in nice & tight
Say the lords prayer
God Bless, and good night
Then the next morning
We'd climb in with her,
The electric blanket warm & toasty,
And her stories she would share
She'd cook us all breakfast
The best eggy bread ever!
We'd joke there was arsenic in it
And she'd say "don't be clever!"
Her pantry always full
She would bake & bake like mad
Lemon curd & jam tarts, ground rice
And apple pies for my dad
And the bottles & bottles
Of dandelion wine
She'd send us off collecting leaves
In the summer sunshine
Her dinners were legendary
10 of us all enjoying her cooking
Nan's roast beef & perfect yorkies
And Grandad's rice pudding
Always the business woman
Selling her plants
We'd help out with the till
And dye up Pampass Grass
We'd help make the chutney
The onions stinging our eyes
"You know what do" She'd say
"Run round the house three times!"
At Christmas time we'd go round and decorate,
Hanging baubles & tinsel from the wall
She'd bring us presents of toys or clothes,
But always, guaranteed, everytime, a big pack of toilet roll.
When we got older
I'd take her out in my car
For fish & chips or an icecream
And paint her nails in Fuschia
And I'll never forget the advice
She gave me about men
"Never run around after a man"
"Let them run around after you instead"
She loved us all dearly
And told us everyday
Nan we will miss you so much
Forever in our hearts you will stay
I will miss you squeezing my hand
Your smile, your laughter & fun,
I will miss asking "who cocked your hair up?"
Everytime you had it done
I will miss you introducing me
As your "beautiful granddaughter" again & again
To all the lovely carers
Whom with all you made good friends
And when i'm old and the time comes for me to join you,
No matter where your heaven is
I'll shout "Nanna will you put the kettle on!"
And we'll meet up for Elevenses.
I love you Nan xxx
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