When you join a team the leader of which is a rock chick with her own band and with a soft spot for hard motorbikes, you can more or less expect your life to take unexpected turns from time to time. I work as an English teacher. I have tattoos and so does my boss but what we show our students is not our ink.... We show them the way and help them open the door of the land of many opportunities and a whole new world of freedom.
With the first third of teachers clutching bags of goodies on their laps and securely loaded into Lucy’s all purpose vehicle it was clear that this was to be an evening to remember. Whizzing through the streets of Prague alive with all pre-Christmas shopping madness and the peak of afternoon commute rush we were making our way to an unknown location hidden somewhere in the dark alleys, a world away from the pulsating heart of the city, yet a mere 10 minute drive from our lair. The evening chill was in the air but the urn full of hot water was soon to be loaded with the second “serving” of teachers and later skilfully mixed with some of the bottled goodies carried with love on our laps. Our feet were starting to tingle with excitement but it wasn’t because we were on our way to get a pedicure done… Far from it, actually!
Tom greeted us with a handshake and a peck on the cheek, a faceless silhouette embraced by a huge roaring fire giving out more heat than we could ever absorb - winter or not. Only when he turned his body sideways were we able to gaze upon his friendly face, disheveled hair and notice his bare feet, fully in harmony with the frozen ground underneath. Two extremes. Sub zero temperatures and the mother of all fires. My feet felt extra snuggly in my wooly socks and warm winter boots.
I should be slowly getting to the point, I agree. What’s all this random talk about frozen ground, fire and feet got to do with a bunch of hot griotka sipping people? Well, some companies take part in traditional pre Christmas office merriness, but we are different. So…..when Lucy suggested that we should all strengthen our characters by a little bit of good old fire walking, she received a little reluctant but unanimous YES from all of us crazy English teachers. And so the date was set and we all mentally prepared for “another day at the office” and a Christmas party far less ordinary.
I can’t speak for anybody but myself but my initial gut reaction to Lucy’s idea of fun was a neutral-positive one. Don’t get me wrong, I am not the hard-to-please kind, quite the opposite actually but I would expect to feel at least some apprehension or fear - alas no, pure calm and a surface unrippled by doubts or worries. I guess I have my mother to worry on my behalf, hence I never told her about this until it was over and done with. I have to be kind to that old woman.
Later, in full numbers and gathered around the fire, Tom told us all to grab two pieces of wood each - logs chopped previously for this special event. Those pieces of wood were to represent our fears and doubts and were to be thrown into the hungry orange flames. When the roaring fire consumed our insecurities we turned our thoughts to the positive realms and focused on what we wanted to achieve in the near future, leaving our shortcomings - imaginary or not - burning down to red coals.
Tom mingled in the international English speaking crowd throwing in words of wisdom and ensuring us that walking over hot coals was actually physically possible, all matters of hippie-ness aside. Apparently a thin layer of sweat is created on the surface of the souls of one’s feet and if moving with a sufficient speed - not running too fast and not lingering in one spot for too long - it’s possible to cross the burning path unscathed and unblistered, maybe only with those brave feet as black as the cooling coal. We were also ensured that out of the hundreds of walkers he had had throughout the years, some of them children as young as 4, none had been harmed in any way and indeed there was neither a first aid kit in sight, nor any other emergency procedures in place. In fact I had my first lesson the next day at 7am! Surely Lucy wouldn’t risk the reputation of her company by sending a teacher with smouldering feet, or would she?
I had no doubts and slowly the time came when we were asked to take our shoes off and get familiar with the frozen ground under our feet. This was somewhat unpleasant and I longed for some warmth on my feet and so did my colleagues. To any outside observers, had there been any, we would have looked like a bunch of crazy people dancing a wobbly one legged dance, arms outstretched for balance, taking turns in keeping our feet as close to the fire as possible to get some warmth back in but not to get scorched by the flames. All the while Tom kept busy building a glow-in-the dark runway made of hot coals.
With stories of encouragement told, Tom’s magic drum drumming and couple of griotkas down it was time to get down to business.
Before Tom even had the chance to perform the lead walk over the glowing path he had created just seconds ago, Mark had seized his opportunity and set off leaving black footprints in the hot coals, confidently and briskly walking over and surviving in one piece; arms outstretched in a winning gesture, big white-toothed grin in the dark. This set the mood in the team and we all took our turns tingling with excitement and a small dose of fear-respect of the glowing path in front of us.
To cut a long story short, we all did it. We walked on 600 degrees of hot coals glowing in the dark supported by our peers. We made our feet very dirty but our minds and visions were clear. We felt no pain, we gained no blisters, no burns, no harm. Our eyes focused forward, not looking down, we all walked on the hot coals, most of us repeatedly. It was a buzz and we’ve been buzzing ever since. No task is too big or scary for us now - watch out! We’ve walked on fire!
When the big pile of burning coals was all distributed and walked on and cooled down it was time to clean our feet with a supply of wet wipes, put our shoes back on and head to the pub to wash it all down with a well deserved beer or few. Having spent quite some time by the fire we soaked up the smokey smell and our aroma was extending well beyond our collective personal space. With those beers down, full of yummy food and Christmas presents delivered we then headed to our respective homes in various directions. I appreciated the extended space around me in the underground thanks to my fiery smell. Luckily I was merry enough not to care at all. Upon my arrival at home the door of the bedroom was promptly locked and threatened never to be opened again if I refused to wash. So I let the warm water take away the smells of the fire and the night but the sensation and achievement of something most people only watch on TV and never dream of doing has remained. I have filed it in the adventurous department of my life stories and useful party tricks.
So I dare you to cast your own fears into the fire and then bravely walk over them. It’s magic.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year
Only the best to you and those you hold dear
May you always be rightly paired
And illnesses and misfortunes spared
Bring your bright ideas into the world
In return fill your pockets with gold
And never, EVER, allow yourself to get old!
For youth has no age
Life is a stage - what a crazy thing!
So run out there, leave all your doubts aside
Cast them into the fire
Do what makes your heart sing
What you desire
With all the right creatures by your side
Bright red-orange rose hips show their boldness against the cobalt blue sky.
Quiet early mornings are paling out in the east. It’s cold.
Distant murmur of a highway carries on the waves of the liquid indigo coloured hour of the early morning.
Only one or two windows shimmer like gold in the darkness. I am gold.
Head slightly thick from burcak, but happy nonetheless.
Somebody is spilling bags of pink velvet over the horizon.
Seconds of time on my wall are the only reminder of reality. Tick-tock.
Crunchy breakfast and lifesaving tea in a pretty ceramic mug.
Other times I am mesmerised by the bleak and gentle patterns of the resting fields and lonely trees covered in wispy blankets of fog.
Muddy footprints and golden leaves cover the ground, sticking to my shoes. My toes are fighting the cold.
Silhouettes of trees are fading away into the distance as the forest enjoys a soothing face mask of rain and mist after a long dry summer.
Tales of sadness and melancholy are told by crying moss and droplets of rain in my hair.
Teardrops stick to the bark of trees, like diamonds.
Chilling wind and a promise of a nice cup of something steamy and hot.
The need to snuggle in a warm and cosy bed for a little longer. It’s still dark outside, who wants to get up??!! Definitely not me, I’ll hibernate this winter!
“Madam….” she leans closer towards me over the check-in counter and I can see her precisely drawn eyebrows, the very berry lipstick which clashes violently with the bleached tone of her skin and the pale yellow uniform….”your bags are 32.9kg in total" she continues in a whisper. “Your airline only allows 30kg, madam”.
Why, thanks for that reminder, I of course know that.
“Yes” I say, "it’s eight years of living in Cambodia, you see” and I try to charm her with a pathetic smile hoping that it will work the magic and she’ll let me get away with my packing sins. But she’s tough and I end up discarding one pair of fairly heavy hand made leather shoes, they clearly were made in Cambodia to stay in Cambodia, near Angkor, the place of their birth. The only consolation is the fact that during the period of the last however many years I did not wear these hand made shoes in question once. Money well spent yet again. I also take my travel tripod out of my main luggage, reassemble it in one piece again and strap it to one of my hand luggages which, I am sure, in combination with the other must weigh good 18kg….. With moderate reduction of weight achieved I am finally let off to pass the joyful crew of Cambodian customs. I wish I could take photos with my eyes: blink and snap, I have you, Mr High Ranking Official, with your eyes closed and nodding off while the queue of those who are leaving the Kingdom of Wonder is growing steadily.
My Official practices his friendliness by screaming at a confused Chinese tourist in a mixture of angry vocabulary and snorts not belonging to any language in particular. Then it’s my turn and because I know the drill of leaving my fingerprints on files every time I depart and come back, I am released with a mere grunt and a thud of “departed" stamp in my passport.
I would not leave in any other way than with a bang, so seeing a dramatic sunset spilling across the western sky sends the corners of my mouth upwards and the few dotted planes on the tarmac of Siem Reap International Airport become giant bird-like silhouettes in an apocalyptic movie. The fact that our plane is delayed means one thing - a storm somewhere between Siem Reap and Bangkok. Indeed, in a few minutes the darkening drama of the sky is criss-crossed with angry flashes of lightning promising a great, end-of-the day wet season show. We are seated, seat belts securely fastened, hand luggage stowed in the overhead locker or under the seat in front of us, window shades up, armrests down and seats upright - ready for take off. My Spanish co-traveller looks nervously out of the window and by now the contours of all outside objects are smudged by horizontal streams of rain reminiscent of a very de-saturated Monet painting. He quickly mutters a prayer and I see his right hand fly over his chest in a cross-like fashion, top to bottom, left to right. It’s nice of him to send good wishes to us all.
It’s a bumpy and somewhat noisy take-off and I wonder if I am the only one who’s questioning the strange noises coming from underneath while seeing my life flashing in front of my eyes. Or could that be the lightning? I can't be sure. But then we reach cruising altitude, burping churning clouds are left underneath us and we are smoothly cruising to Bangkok.
Here’s it’s a pure “joy" of a four-hour wait but as a seasoned traveller I amuse myself by endless people watching, the occasional stroll on the polished floors and swapping one seat for another trying to find the spot with optimal temperature - it’s always either too hot or in a direct blast of an arctic blizzard from mighty aircon units.
A nervous-flyer friend of mine wished me an uneventful flight and that’s exactly the category of flights where my journey from Bangkok to Dubai would fit. Two wines down, several attempts of watching a movie and aching neck from embarrassing dozing positions, the giant metal bird brings all two floors of passengers safely to glitzy Dubai where everything is big and triple shiny, giving me a head spin. Then I figure out that coffee may fix some of my issues and I head to purchase one such concoction. Disappointing in taste and strength, I think of the many Foxy coffees I’ve had which sent my heart racing after the first sip. Shoes too big to fill one could say! Needless to say I pay a price which would fetch a small house in the Cambodian countryside and am given local currency back for my US$ payment - I call this a lose/lose situation but at least by now the caffein is already starting to kick in.
Dear Dubai, yes you, who look like an enormous sea of glittering diamonds from the sky, I have a bone to pick with you. Why are your toilet seats heated or have I just dreamt it? Why? And why does the drinking water fountain spit tepid liquid? Not hot enough to make tea, just unpleasant warm, yuck! And why do I get my hands scalded by water nearing the boiling point in the restrooms? Mind boggles. It’s 35 degrees Celsius outside at 5am and the guts of your airport are only just a wee bit cooler I estimate. Absolutely no need to heat things up!
While roaming the long corridors searching for available and working plugs I finally find a seat next to a source of power for my juice-hungry devices - but the seat is not mine for long. I get pushed out by a small boy who assumes that it’s OK to press his butt cheeks next to mine. Under more caffeinated circumstances I’d probably laugh but this morning I let the cheeky bugger have the seat, move away with a grunt (I eat kids for breakfast!) and hope he doesn’t grow up thinking it’s OK to push people (read women) around. I don’t want to generalise but….
It’s an endless parade of weird and wonderful outfits here presented by people of all shapes, sizes, ages and skin tones. There are overwhelming hair dos and hair completely hidden, huge eyes made up with tonnes of heavy make up, men clad in white, corporate suites and the occasional dreadlock and elephant pants too. Oh and did I mention unruly children? By now my tepid water I tanked into my bottle has cooled down to a room temperature which must be good 25 degrees, so it still tastes like &^%*. I am on my way to Gate C23 where my flight to Prague takes off in about 2 hours.
And that’s all easy and pretty uneventful too - how flights should be. The waiting game with my two heavy pieces of luggage is a winning one as both turn up, even though there is a good gap between them. I wonder what their journey has been and am grateful that I don’t have to fill in forms for lost luggage. Once more I am violently thrown into the life I once knew, then I got to know it again and before the day is over, Cambodia seems like a distant dream. It’s amazing how quickly we adapt to new situations and circumstances.
And now - sleep. Horizontal, undisturbed sleep on terra firma - until next time Cambodia, you shall remain in my heart forever.
“If only you knew” said the slogan on one of the airport luggage trolleys accompanied by images of something as iconically Czech as rolling hills, forests, castles, medieval cities…. and I had no heart to read further as I was on my way out. I was leaving Prague behind with all its charms, bridges and looming towers, leaving it for who knows how long this time. I never know how long it’s going to be until the next visit and last time my period of absence from my home reached two years. Quite a long time may I say. Long enough to miss a couple of relatives by a few months and never see them again, long enough to notice the increasing snow in mother’s hair or father's head becoming shinier by the day. Nobody is getting any younger, time flies and if my infrequent visits of homeland ever taught me anything, finding the time to smell the roses would be it.
Picking up a local paper while sitting on a metal chair waiting for the call to board was a bad move. The weekend magazine addition seemed to focus on cycling and wine, two of my great passions, in one instance both at the same time: Cycling Wine Tours!!! It seems that drinking and riding is a fine combination on small country roads in my homeland! My heart cried out some more. Why did I not learn about cycling the Moravian hills and sampling local grape produce a little earlier??? I would have put the wise words of advice and all the research behind the article to a good use!
I had landed five weeks earlier with visions of perfect holiday, the perfect summer break. What followed can only be described as Ode to Summer as I remember it. Amazingly long days when 8PM is almost too early to think about dinner (my Italian friend will approve!). Fragrant mornings with sun appearing on the horizon like a giant red Strepsil, the murmur of a distant highway promising adventures of discovering new places. Deep dark forests offering the temptation of blueberries and wild strawberries by the handful. Buzz of insect and the smell of pine needles. A cold pint somewhere in a small country pub (beer cycling!!). Cycling alone, conquering hills for the sheer exhilarating reward of 50km/h downhill ride and possibly some flies in the teeth. It’s hard to stop grinning you see…..
Hello, April….Fast forward one year… and we’re back in Siem Reap where nothing much has changed...
Just as I finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic where the lady of my dreams talks about the power of actually finishing things (amongst other great wisdoms), I came across this old unfinished piece of my writing. An Ode to the Czech Summer. Perfect timing I say, I now have mere 29 days (and yes, I am counting days) to the departure to my homeland. This time my sabbatical amounts to two and a half months away from the Cambodian dust bowl. I am off to test the home waters and see what living again in the land of beer and knedliky would be like. I, for the first time ever, no longer feel that going home would be a failure or an embarrassing act showing that I have somehow returned with my (proverbial) tail between my legs. Showing to who? I don’t really know and I no longer care because nobody else really cares either about much more than themselves and what other people think of them....
Hence me going through the drawers and clearing out “old crap” (that’s a technical term by the way) and undergoing a self prescribed cleansing process in my current life, while at the same time providing endless entertainment for my cat. From initially moving to Cambodia with a little more than a backpack I am now surrounded by mountains of things but thankfully they are just things.
Should I stay or should I go? I have grown roots in this place and I am comfortable. I know countless friendly souls in this town and this is what makes living here great. My photography business is going well despite the low season which is upon us. BUT it’s now again the time of year when the temperatures climb to astronomical heights and power is often taken away from the people. Literally. Thank you, oh capable electricity board, for picking the hottest months for maintenance (or whatever you want to call this exercise) of the crumbling system. Thank you. It’s the time of year when the flip side of my “love affair” with Cambodia rears its ugly head more often than I would like. My swear word dictionary is quite impressive. It’s when I start to look further and seek other challenges and adventures. It’s been far too long. The world is a big place and I surely was not born to be stuck somewhere for too long, or was I?
After 8 or so years in the Kingdom there's a possibility that I have finally reached my expiry period, my best before date. The can that contains me and my sanity is ready to explode.
Of course there are positives, always! The wonderful, eclectic collection of people from all walks of life and corners of the globe who are doing amazing things with their lives is one giant ball of positive energy right there. Random over-coffee conversations. Lasting and fleeing friendships. People….
Watch this space. All will be revealed in July when I return to deal with reality and decide which direction my next steps will take.
And here we have July. It’s deliciously grey and windy with violent ribbons of rain falling at 45 degrees obstructing the view of my neighbours’ property. Nothing much to look at anyway, although they have gone all the way to triumph Joe Bloggs next door and have built two floors higher….
The mountains of “crap” have been reduced to just a few heaps, many friends have (perhaps unwillingly) gained more crap to their heap, I have shredded more paper than an office shredder on steroids and two of my four luggages are already packed. Once again I am counting the days to my departure and this time it’s final. I have my first time ever one way ticket out of Cambodia two days before my yearly visa expires.
The two and a half months in the country of my birth have worked their magic. There have been once again cobbled streets, mystical castles, archways, old buildings and trams that run every three minutes - so running to catch one makes you look like a fool in the eyes of locals. There have been friends - old and new, those people who care the most and mostly too much (parents we call them), there have been days of blossoming trees and days when you can hear the grass grow. There has been cold that gets to your bones but what better excuse can a girl have than that to buy a few pairs of boots? Also worth mentioning are crazy 1st world extravaganzas such as drinking water running from your tap and also flushing your toilet, working public transport system and no tuk tuk in sight, acceptable education and the fact that if you break your leg, there will be somebody qualified enough to fix it for you. And power. Power to the people!
While I will miss Cambodia and its charms, this time it’s a no brainer that I am almost over-ripe to leave and start the next chapter in my life. I will forever be grateful for the lessons learned here and for the kaleidoscope of friends collected while living and working here. The next challenge is to see how many of them can come and visit me in Prague, for I am the best guide to the most charming watering holes in the capital and beyond. There’s nothing like the local knowledge!
The time has come for me to leave Cambodia and head back to my homeland. End of July marks the spot.
Here's what needed to come out even though I am a reluctant poet wannabe:
I wanted to travel light
But it is not to be
Several suitcases of stuff
Will accompany me
On a journey across the globe
Back to the place where I once roamed
Golden fields of corn
Stretch as far as the eye can see
I know where I am going
But I know not where I'll be
In a few years from now
When some more grey appear
In the frizz of my curly mop
But do you know what?
I don’t even care, I won’t stop
As long as there’s much fresh air
and that skilled somebody to dye my hair.
Cobbled streets unfit for heels
More than fair share of unhealthy meals
Pubs in the country with no end to beers
And green mossy forests roaming with deers
New adventures in the distance
Oh, how I long for that different light
To colour my photos fresh
And nowhere in sight piles of trash
Give me rain
Give me fog
Give me some breeze
I don’t even care if I freeze
Give me no noise
Well earned mountains of cash and no reason to sneeze
Impatient, I feel my feet start to itch
But wait, there seems to be a glitch
Who broke my heart in two?
Thousand pieces? Who?
As many pieces as the homes I’ve had
As many pieces as dear friends I’ve met
Hellos, goodbyes, much fun in the sun we’ve had
But none of this has to come to an end
I’ve soaked up all the tropics’ sun
It’s stored within me
I’ll release it on a winter’s day
Bright and wild to chase the darkness away
That’s how it’s going to be
Melting the blues
Loving my Muse
Feeling fancy free and footloose
When in Yangon….wear closed shoes, that’s almost all you should ever need to know. I have given next to no attention to reading pre-arrival information or learning anything about Myanmar and life therein, therefore I am not sure if guide books mention that closed footwear is a good idea when visiting the country. It was lucky that I didn’t care for my friends’ comments about rubber Crocs; they served me very well throughout the trip.
I initially almost abandoned the idea of going to Myanmar - through being busy and lazy to commit to something new. But soon enough my butt was kicked in the right direction as it needed to be and I was perspiring cold sweat awaiting the arrival of my Myanmar visa several hours before my flight was due to take off. Skin of teeth got a new meaning right there and then.
A joint venture of two Czechs in a country totally new to both of them - I was finally not a tour guide nor the knowledgeable one with (almost) all the answers like I was for Tomas in Cambodia. I was wide eyed and grinning from ear to ear with new sights, sounds, tastes and smells. A LOT of smells.
To answer the questions upon my return what Myanmar was like I came up with the following Annalogy: Myanmar is as if India and Thailand had a baby together and Nepal was watching the baby being made, Cambodia then later came to assist with the delivery. It’s a mixture of all that was somehow known to me but in different combinations and flavours. But maybe the most exciting thing was to finally explore somewhere new again and realise how much I missed travelling!
With just one week we had to decide on a skeleton itinerary and the rest was left to fate. Yangon, Inle Lake and Bagan - no prizes were won for inventing anything groundbreaking or new, nevertheless we managed to squeeze in the essentials and a little bit more.
Tomas shoots medium format black and white film on a vintage tank of a camera - Pentacon 6, very old school! I took with me my trusty Fuji X100T and my Olympus TG-4 in order to give my back a break from carrying heavy pro gear during the two weeks preceding this trip - did I say I was busy?! I can’t praise those two cameras enough - so light yet versatile and the results are pretty damn good, even if I say so myself. I have never been the “spray and pray” shooting kind but having Tomas with me made me think of taking photos differently. With just 12 shots per each roll of film he thinks carefully before he presses the shutter button, driven by a motto: "if it’s crap, don’t waste film on it" which is as straightforward as it gets. I remained somewhere in the middle - shooting overall “touristy" scenes with a little more thought and trying to move beyond the obvious and capture the spirit of each place on a different level.
Late evening Yangon welcomed us with polluted air full of burning plastic and car fumes and it was cold. Travelling at top speed in one of the rickety taxis with steering wheel on the wrong side (like most vehicles in Myanmar) was hair raising and construction trucks were overtaking us with speed previously unseen on Cambodian roads. White knuckled we arrived at our hotel and passed out, face buried in the map of Yangon planning the next day’s adventure.
I can easily call myself a seasoned traveller in Asia and not much will surprise me; Tomas - on the other hand - was a virgin in these lands so he endlessly amused me during the entire trip with his remarks and comments on the daily happenings around us. It was also nice to get back into the mother-tongue puns and jokes, a good training for my visit later this year.
Daunted by the thickening traffic we decided to start our first day by walking through the busy residential and shopping streets towards the train station and then the golden Schwedagon Pagoda. The combination of dodging red coloured betel nut spit “adorning” every square inch of walking space and visiting pagodas bare feet as custom dictates again puts emphasis on why my Crocs were the best footwear I could have chosen - no socks, easily slipped on and off and closed toes, perfect for all aspects of exploration in Yangon.
We zigzagged through the streets where million and one things were happening, always and at any given time. Spaces so crammed with goods for sale that IKEA could take lessons on storage, weird and wonderful stalls full of food items we shied away from knowing the delicate stomach of a freshly departed European would not have handled the feast; and honking horns of traffic drowning other noises and the hustle and bustle of the city. I had a blast with my camera taking in all the living urban decay and the colourful, varied faces of the locals filling the streets, giving red-toothed smiles and nods in our general direction.
Yangon initially filled me with a giddy spirit of being happy and exploring something new but two nights were about my limit and then it was time to move to Heho and from there to a sleepy town of Nyaung Shwe pretty much on the banks of Inle Lake.
To get to Inle Lake one must first survive either a long uncomfortable bus drive (which we declined at the mere thought of it) or the flight with regional airlines on board of one of the very ageing ATR72s. I am not a nervous flyer but having listened to Tom’s stories of his near death experience on one of those metal birds in Europe, I was weary. Apart from the slam landing it was a smooth flight though along with lovely smiling attendants and even a small snack served. An hour well spent showing us vast views of forested hills and not much at all in terms of human settlements. The first night we dined in a local establishment drinking copious amounts of Myanmar beer (which we deemed to be the best in Asia among locally produced beers as it had body, substance and volume) and wondered how far from sewerage should one be, according to EU laws, to be able to prepare and consume food. I think we would have failed miserably if we cared.
Our primary goal in Inle Lake was to see and photograph the legendary fishermen with their trademark baskets and skilled one leg paddling while balancing on the other. Did we succeed? I say mildly. We saw the fishermen but they were not in action. Their baskets were resting on the boat and they were paddling lazily but there was not much else happening. It could have been due to the season and lack of fish or us getting to the lake later in the day. I guess I will never know. Tom promised me, though, that he would find a boat somewhere in Czech, take it on a big lake, bring with him a laundry basket and couple of paddles and recreate the scene for me. If I ever see the result, you will be the first to know.
Inle Lake isn’t just those fishermen with laundry baskets, luckily, so we had a blast on rickety old bicycles circumnavigating half of the lake on quiet roads and being taken across it with our bikes loaded on one of the boats. We also managed to find some amazing pagodas with saffron clad monks, walk past over-head-towering sugar cane fields and forests with red-leafed trees and blue skies above. We then finished the day by sampling locally produced wine in a vineyard overlooking a stunning valley just as the sun was setting. While we didn’t reckon much to the wine apart from the Sauvignon Blanc out of the selection given to taste, we knew that cold Myanmar beer was waiting for us downtown and after all, somebody needed to support the local economy! We do take our beer duties seriously as Czech customs dictate.
Looking back, the highlight of our stay in Inle Lake has to be my travelling buddy suddenly abandoning his bicycle (and me!) and heading towards the edge of the lake and then disappearing into one of the wooden houses on stillts. He was lulled by drums and being a musician, he couldn’t resist exploring where the mystery sounds were coming from. When I didn’t see him return for a few minutes but the tempo of the previously painful drumming changed to something that actually had rhythm and juice, I decided to investigate. I found Tom sitting behind what appeared to be a brand new drum kit with some bits of protecting plastic still hanging off it, rocking a tune, his long haired head bobbing up and down. Then he was handed an untunable electric guitar.... Needless to say, he absolutely stole the thunder from the old fellow who was smashing the drums just minutes before - either inspiring him to become a real rock star or putting him off playing for life. I hope it was the former as Myanmar music really has some catching up to do. We then crossed our legs on the floor, accepted the strong tea which was offered and with no shared English or Burmese communication denominator we “chatted" about life and this and that before finally boarding our boat to cross the lake.
Then it was time to leave the freezing Inle Lake and head towards the cherry on the cake - Bagan. With the aim to see some of the countryside between the destinations we opted for a bus journey this time, in the daylight hours abandoning the thought of ever getting onto one of those plentiful night buses. Rightfully so. If I am going plunge into a ravine and die, which is likely on those hairpin bumpy mountain roads, then at least I want to see that ravine as I plunge into it head first. This luckily didn’t happen to us but we did see a bunch of villagers gathered on the edge of a cliff nervously looking over into the deep unknown. There were skid tracks leading into the hairpin bend but never coming out. I don’t want to know the fate of those in the unlucky vehicle. It was better not to look and I was constantly reminded of some of my high altitude Indian journeys through the dangerous Himalayan passes. Maybe the night bus would have actually been better, on valium. But then we wouldn’t have seen that it’s possible to be overtaken by an elephant - admittedly, the giant was strapped to a trailer towed by a vehicle but still, what a sight. Every night our intake of Myanmar beer was well deserved.
I loved Bagan immediately. One could say that I’ve been spoiled living on the doorstep of the largest religious monument ever built - Angkor Wat - but let’s face it, everything eventually gets old. Bagan breathed a gust of fresh air into my over-templed mind and temple-tired photographic eye. Well, actually, the air wasn’t very fresh, pollution from burning plastic is alive and well all over Myanmar and in combination with dry season’s tons of sand and dust it was a challenge to breathe freely sometimes. I am not complaining though, visually it was the best we could ask for. Riding our electric scooters through the temple park before the crack of dawn - freezing cold - with full moon to our left and sunrise waiting to spill over the sky, the morning “fog” added to the atmosphere of our shots from one of the well known vantage points. As everybody, we waited for the famous balloons of Bagan to take off and when they did, our mission was complete. Once this box was ticked we just cruised through the desert, visited many scattered temples and enjoyed the freedom of movement or getting stuck in the sand.
Like in any destination in Myanmar we visited, we found the food options to be a little on the limited and greasy side. New Bagan was no exception, so when we stumbled upon an Italian pizza place with a proper wood burner oven we were in heaven. I am not ashamed to say that we ate there three times in a row and yet again, supported the country’s economy by sampling Myanmar beer in copious quantities. Somebody’s gotta do it. Another establishment worth mentioning is the One Owl Grill in Nyuang Shwe which might as well be labelled the best on our trip. While rice and curries are fine, there comes a time when the body of any traveller starts to seek something more familiar and less made with rice. One Owl Grill was just that - middle east inspired tapas and wonderful close to home options, hence it was always bursting in seams.
All good things must come to an end, sadly. One week was hardly enough to get a teasing taste of this wonderful country which has so much more to offer. There is no doubt I will be back. Next time I will try to learn a little more than just a “hello” in the local lingo which might enhance my experience. It also showed me that my Khmer language skills, however poor and limited, are in fact plenty to have a small chit chat with the locals here in Cambodia and get the occasional nod of approval.
Oh, and you may wonder why I named this piece Monk’s Heels… Well. On our last day in Bagan we had lunch in a local restaurant. As an appetiser and mouth freshener we were served small flat circles of dried tamarind paste, delicious by the way. People like Tom have a lively imagination and our sweet treat was compared to the shavings on the heels of monks who walk barefoot on the ground stained by betel nut. Yes, I know. Bon appetite.
Both my Muse and I were tossing and turning restlessly as the dim outline of my window started to grow brighter. My Muse questioned my rather heavy dinner choice of a spicy Indian feast the previous night but she also had worries of her own vaguely recalling a promise to Yosef to enlighten the masses on what the term Street Photography meant to us. Me. When it became clear that sleep was no longer a possibility and roughly at the time when streams of tuktuks, cars and buses head to Angkor Wat to experience the legendary sunrise I made myself (and my Muse) a nice cup of tea and set to work.
I don’t know why Yosef picked me as I don’t consider myself in any way a Street Photography Master although I do rarely leave my house without at least one device capable of recording images. Many smart and articulate articles (pun!) have been written about street photography, the approach and the gear so, intimidated, I will look at the topic more or less from the pondering angle and see where that takes us.
Some of you in the colourful 52Frames community know that I live in Cambodia where I run my own photography business - well, the term “business” could be slightly overrated, it’s more a one woman band marching to the beat of her own drum somehow making money doing the thing she loves!
Wow, Cambodia, you gasp! Exotic and pulsating with that relentless energy and slight madness of all Asian lands where towns and cities awake with honking of horns and cries of chickens, steam rising from giant rice pots and dishes made of those chickens too slow in the waking-up process. Now, I can’t lie to you and tell you that I often roam the streets at the crack of dawn enjoying the amazing photo opportunities arising on every corner, no - I am in bed, but I do know that early morning is indeed a very special time of day here in the far east (or far west - depends where you are, reader!). The photographer or the curious observer are both rewarded with cooler temperatures, golden light and the smell in the air which will always remind me of summer holidays. Here life happens in the morning or at least more so than in the middle of a hot day when many take to the national sport of extreme hammocking elsewhere known as siesta. Mind you, that’s good to photograph too!
To me Cambodia no longer holds the exotic stamp and mystery of the unexplored. But saying that I am bored here would be a bit blaze as well. It’s been my home for over 6 years now. I live here and my eyes are accustomed to the bizarre scenes. I do still chuckle at the array of overloaded vehicles and get excited at the sight of monks in their bright orange robes but I admit that at times I would rather spend hours in a nice, cool pine forest taking photos of moss and cones or get lost in the cobbled streets of Europe. I confirm the theory that the grass is always greener on the other side - unless you change your point of view.
I am a believer that there is ALWAYS something to photograph be it in nature or out on the street. Our 52Frames challenges help us along nicely and channel our vision to a specific topic each week. I sort of wish our Street Photography challenge came along earlier in the year when I was in fact lost in the cobbled streets of the Czech Republic (my other home, the original one) or when I went to Bali and explored something completely different and very new.
So here we have the dilemma - the new versus the old and ingrained. What makes for more interesting photography topic and what’s the advantage? Knowing your surroundings like the back of your own hand or photographing something new with completely fresh eyes? In the end it’s the viewer who decides what they like but who’s judging us, anyway?
I find that there is a difference in our outlook on these various known and new places. Having analysed the style of my photography from a new place versus the familiar one I notice that when I am somewhere new I take more wide angle shots recording the overall look of the location, the views, the mood. On my home turf I can be seen taking a photo of a droplet of water on a blade of grass while the temples of Angkor are getting the view of my back. Go figure. It really confuses the locals….Gentle tap on my shoulder: “Madam, the temple is THAT way!"
When it comes to people photography I find this task much easier here in Asia. Life is, in some aspects, so much more colourful, yet simpler here. It happens outside, in plain view, sometimes leaving little to the imagination. There are local customs and traditions, there is everyday life, there are messy shops and markets, there is traffic with no rules, there are monks, people planting rice, people harvesting rice, conical hats, cheeky kids with the biggest grins and the list goes on.
Ever since the purchase of my Fuji X100T I pretty much retired my big and bulky Canon DSLRs (7D and 6D) - for street photography and general walk around purpose anyway. My big camera buddies and their lenses will always have a place in my working life but I value the benefits of travelling light more and more these days. There is something liberating in the simplicity of having just one small tool with you. You make it work and you confirm that the best camera is the one that you have with you. You learn to know your settings (and change them fast) and your limitations. You use your legs for zoom if you have to and get closer to people, say hi and show them the photo you took. You have the advantage of being discreet and kind enough not to poke too much glass into people’s faces. You sit and you wait and see what street life brings you. Or you move with the flow.
While shooting life in Cambodia, rather than being in Aperture Mode I often switch to Shutter Priority to either be ready for those fleeing moments of crazy situations that never repeat or slow down to pan some amusing traffic action and get creative. Of course there are situations when Aperture Priority will be better suited such as mulling around in dimly lit markets or taking portraits of people in their natural environment. Mind you, "snapping people" fast is sometimes essential before the dreaded “V” sign makes appearance. So you are stuck between what you know you should do (politely ask for permission) and what you actually want to do (take that candid shot of the person there and then). It’s a fine line where, with a zoom lens you can get away with that candid shot and your “subject” unaware that you took a photo of them whereas with a prime lens (no zoom) you will have to use your little legs to get closer and articulate your way around taking the desired shot. I use a mixture of body language and my embarrassingly basic Khmer language skills to obtain permission followed by a short chat and showing my “models” how beautiful they are (admittedly not so easy if you shoot film!). It’s always appreciated and mostly received with giggles and in good spirits.
The 52 Frames Street Photography challenge took place a while back now but it came around at precisely the right time after all - when I was travelling around Cambodia on a motorbike. It was a mixture of different shapes and sizes of the familiar with a dollop of something special and unknown on the top. The cherry on the cake. I was at home but outside my comfort zone at the same time. So I put on my tourist goggles and snapped away.
"You could have at least made a sound. A beep - isn’t it what you do? All these months looking for you. Coming to believe that you were stolen, from the balcony, hanging there, just like that - trying to dry.
Instead you kept lying still, silent, listening to our doubts, theories and finally - resignation. We wrote you off."
One of the many Murphy’s laws which in fact run our world, says that if you want to find something that is lost you need to start looking for something else. I would say that this very law, along with the one speaking of the strength of wind and ferocity of rain relating directly to the amount of money spent at the hairdresser, is the one that haunts me.
“I’ll just put this in a safe place and WILL remember where it is.” Not so. My brain is able to retain the information only for as long as I actually see the object. Once out of sight it vanishes into thin air and then into complete oblivion if longer period of time passes. Such items are keys, small camera equipment, chargers, cables and memory cards as well as personal items. Once it was a jar of coffee, other time credit cards, numerous times my passport and occasionally a lip balm. The lip balm issue is easily fixed - I now have have as many lip balms as I have bags, which is quite a few. My phone alone is worth a separate chapter.
The item in question which reappeared into the world today is a GPS device. Once submerged in water during one crazy expedition or another and thought unusable it was given one last chance to dry. It hung on the balcony in the sun for a few days. Then it found its way on the bedside table where it lay for several days. It then received orders from above (me) to clear off and stop being in the way. It was put in a box saved from one camera purchase or another (because these may come in handy one day) and slid under the bed (read: somewhere safe and obvious) along with the other boxes. There it lay dormant and undisturbed - aside maybe from by the cat - for months. Nine months to be precise.
Today, while rummaging under the bed looking for another box containing my spare handbags (and lip balms) I came across the camera box. It felt heavy in my hand and surely should have been empty! Only it wasn’t. I witnessed the rebirth of the GPS. Smug, it looked at me and smiled from behind the bag of silica gel balls. "Well, nice to see you too! You look rather well!? Was it a good hibernation? Between the cables and User Guides and other items previously thought lost to the world?"
A friend of mine recently returned from her two months holiday (aren’t some people lucky!?) only to be faced with the frustration of trying to find a crucial key to get to her valuables. Having turned her place upside down on day two of frustration she finally heard her kitchen calling. The key was not in the fridge as you may have suspected but rather in the jar with her tea bags. Well, of course, smart hiding place! One will make a cup of tea sooner or later, won’t one?
These stories of lost and (sometimes) found items were told over dinner with a friend visiting us from Australia. Half way through our various encounters his gaze became distant as he tried to remember where he put his car keys after he left. Essential piece of information to have specially when rushing home to check if you have closed the windows or unplugged the iron….
What have you lost and found? Where is your favourite hiding place which is oh so obvious? Do you have tricks to trick your memory? Please share!
WARNING: NOT FOR THOSE EASILY OFFENDED BY COUPLE OF PEPPERY WORDS!
Recently a friend of mine posted a link to an amazing site: beanunfucker.com where I subsequently spent about an hour reading everything, became their Facebook fan, Instagram fan and signed up for their newsletter. Now, I never do this. But these guys are cool. Warning - there is and will be some strong, non-politically correct lingo and I love them for that as well.
There has always been an element of the tree hugger in me and I have always cared about the environment, even before the images of a lonely polar bear on a floating meter square of broken ice started to appear as the symbol of global warming and before all this became kinda “popular”.
Give huge thanks to the (Czech) communist regime of my youth where waste just….wasn’t. We, at times, queued for items (exotic or not) so then we made sure we would eat them, AND the wrapper (kidding). Beer and wine and soft drinks came in glass bottles which were returnable. That’s how we made pocket money - from dad’s empty beer bottles. Milk came in bottles too. Newspapers, cardboard and metal waste were collected and recycled in bulk, and you could make a penny (Crown) or two while doing so. Non-edible food scraps went to the chickens or in the compost heap and needless to say, most seasonal veggies came from the garden. Meat wasn’t eaten daily, because it just….wasn’t. We inherited clothes from our older brothers, sisters, cousins and my grandma made us fancy “Adidas-style” shorts from Russian flags (don’t ask me where she got those flags from, but I am not kidding). Our arses were the most beautifully clad in PE lessons at school.
Then things changed and stuff became stuff and there was plenty of it. Wrapped in plastic, at least twice. And then it was everywhere so we had to do something with it.
I welcomed the sight of recycling containers and bins and happily separated glass, plastic and metal waste and made sure that they were clean. I held myself back from strangling morons who would whinge about having to wash their cans of tuna before they put those in the appropriately coloured bin and those selfish morons who would refuse to recycle altogether.
And then I moved to Cambodia (via roundabouts). From relatively clean Europe I was suddenly ankle deep in plastic because everything comes wrapped in plastic here and people don’t see living amongst it a problem - yet. I witnessed (and still do) people carelessly toss rubbish out of car windows or while walking, old and young alike. I was (and still am) in shock and I know most foreign visitors are as well. But let’s not get into it here - how fucked up Cambodia is rubbish-wise. Let’s talk about unfucking it instead.
So, this beanunfucker.com is all about paying attention to what you do in relation to your environment and slowly, step by step changing your attitude, starting with small baby steps - such as turning your computer off if unattended or having shorter showers - all very valid points. (excuse me while I go and turn off the light in the kitchen because there is nobody there!) None of these actions will limit your lifestyle in any way, so why the fuck not?
While many improvements can still be made on my part, I consider myself a fairly successful unfucker. I separate my recyclables although it may all be a wasted effort considering my location and the available infrastructure here. I cycle almost everywhere. I take short, cold showers and use the amazing invention that the “bum-gun” indeed is instead of toilet paper. I bring my own shopping bags to markets and shops. I refuse to drink from plastic straws. I turn shit off (see above). Most of my clothes and household items are at least second hand. I don’t stuff my face with meat everyday. I put used coffee grind and tea bags into plant pots. On the other hand I am a fucker for having a cat (so some plastic bags are needed for the clean up operations) and I fly on holiday when I can. But at least I recycle my beer cans so that counts, right?
How unfucked are you?
Does it happen to you too?
You walk into your kitchen, with a clear intention and … blank. I bet I am not the only one. Retracing a few steps usually helps, or, in extreme circumstances returning to the point of origin of your thought (if you can remember THAT) should do the trick. Too bad if you have a big house and your kitchen is in the left wing and you find yourself at the bottom of the estate by the pool.
No such problem in my compact size apartment.
Likely, you will look inside your fridge and stare for a while.
Should we blame our memory with holes like Emmental cheese (emMENTAL!) or it is simply because we get distracted by million other things going on in our heads and around our heads? I don’t know. Maybe it’s a convenient combination of both elements with a dash of dizziness, early onset of Alzheimer and dementia. I should not joke about such things, I should focus on what I am doing instead.
Today, when we spend more time online than ever before, we (I think) have taken the “what have I come here for?” (accompanied by vigorous chin scratching) to a new level.
The path to online oblivion and weird and wonderful sites where we had no intention going is a winding one. It leads us away from our intentions and procrastination blossoms. But it’s all so INTERESTING! Exactly. But... I got distracted. Looking for how you call a word that contains another word (like emMENTAL)... It seems that it could be called a Kangaroo word but sites of different origins suggest that it's only a word which carries another word of the same meaning without mixing up any of the letters. Unless you are mental about cheese I don't think it applies. I digress....
How can I suddenly be looking at the list of best 25 countries to live in when I initially started with a reply to an e-mail relating to food photography? Why am I looking at the worst haircuts ever inflicted upon children by their parents or ponder over which 5 vegetables could burn my stomach fat - with no effort or exercise, of course!? Why? Click baiting is the most evil thing on the internet and it takes us away from our intentions. But even as simple task as adding a link to your e-mail can steer you away from your intended direction. It’s suddenly dark outside, your tea is cold and that e-mail is still sitting there, waiting to be finished and sent. And I am still to draft a note to my parers who think I have long ago perished, having been eaten by a crocodile in the jungle. Yes, that's their vision of Cambodia.
Facebook is even worse. It sucks us in and drags us face first (Coincidence? I think not!) through the perfect, wonderful, colourful and successful lives of all our friends, leaving us feeling empty inside, disappointed with our own lack of achievements. Time to remedy that, so you post your bit about the next holiday (guilty), the food you have eaten (guilty), the funny quirks of your cat (guilty), who also has her own facebook page (guilty) and you’re spiralling downward into the black hole fast. Then your friends come online and you chat (guilty), gossip (guilty) and time is running out - the days are short, life is short! It’s even shorter when we spend it online because we slouch, forget to breathe, hide indoors away from fresh air (OK, this one does’t apply to Cambodia) and forget how to interact with human beings.
I have once deleted my Facebook account. Gasp! Yes, for whole 3 months. It was the most refreshing thing I have ever done and I felt free. There were no messages, no annoyingly perfect lives of others and no knowing what was going on until a human friend actually told you face to face or over the phone.
Then I came back. Facebook is an important tool for my photography business and staying connected with the world which is not immediately around me. Lately, it has become more a business tool than a teenage hangout. I don’t know where teenagers hang out because a/ I am not a teenager b/ I wouldn’t want to be and c/ I don’t care.
“I am not on Facebook” still raises eyebrows but I think we are more tolerant to the thought that it all may end one day and we will most likely just get a chip implanted into our brain, never leave our beds, only eat vegetables that make us thin, communicate through thought only and dream of what it would be like to live in one of those amazing places - like Siem Reap for instance.
My first date with Eddie was short and sweet and … incomplete. Let’s say we ran into some problems having to do with Cambodian bureaucracy.
Today I had a second date with Eddie and we had a much better time. All issues have been remedied.
He’s a nice kind of fellow. Talkative, with a matter-of-fact sense of humour and he’s grounded. In a way. One has to be, having lived in Cambodia for more than a decade and being considered part of the inventory. On the other hand, he’s not grounded so much as he most likely spends more time in the air than on terra firma.
Now, of course, dates with Eddie were no ordinary dates. Eddie took me flying!
Microlight flight has been on my Cambodia Bucket List for as long as it has been on the scene but somehow I never got to do it. Despite the fact that I worked in tourism for 3 years. Yes, old boss, if you are reading this, take note :)
I have heard much good feedback and could not wait to jump on board with my camera. Eddie is an accomplished photographer and aside from breathtaking aerial shots of all things Cambodia (which are worthy a coffee table book or two!) he also takes great photos of wildlife - big and small - be it from the air or with feet planted firmly on the ground, stuck in bushes or knee deep in mud. I am a big fan of his work.
I was lucky to be able to join Eddie on his private expedition hence we covered an unusual route. I was lucky that I could have borrowed a lens that almost tipped us over the microlight weight limit and gave my arms a good workout throughout the flight. For gear heads: I was shooting with a Canon 6D and Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5 - 5.6L IS II USM lens stripped off the lens hood and camera off the eye piece to remain as streamline as possible. Still, manipulating with this roughly 2.5kg beast in a confined space I could get photography registered as extreme sport after just an hour. And I was only joking about the weight limit, we had plenty of room for more pies.
The exhilarating feeling when taking off is probably the closest to my dreams of flying, without the flapping hands and maybe just a bit faster. What precedes is a safety check of runway, machine warm up, strapping of my body into the cocoon pod neatly tucked behind the pilot’s seat, placement of headphones and microphone finished off with a helmet with full-face visor and throwing my slip on sandals overboard (read: Eddie’s car which is locked) because anything that could potentially fall out and hit the propeller in the back would be trouble. Big trouble. So I was flying barefoot. It doesn’t get any more free than that! The grin remains on my face just thinking about it. Cellphone photos, unless your device is somehow glued to your hand or strapped to your wrist like a point-and-shoot camera, are out of question.
Eddie would know everything about the different faces of Cambodia in different seasons. The rainy season has its obvious draws with everything green, whereas now, during the tail end of the dry season we fly over patchwork of cappuccino coloured plots of land, cows roaming in the dust and looking up, the lake shrunk to its lowest levels in years which is a worrying thought. The edges of its murky waters are lined with giant arrow-like fish traps making for a great photo opportunity. In the already bright morning light the scene is almost devoid of colour but there are soft hues of pinks, oranges, greens and many shades of milky brown. People are small dots recognisable by distinctive waving gestures. Eddie always waves back and I do too when I am not too busy shooting and taking the scenery in.
So, is shooting easy from the up there? Not really. Well, it’s easier with smaller cameras, medium sized lenses and point-and-shoots. But with a long lens and a very confined space plus obstacles in the form of wires and other controlling gear, gadgets and devices it’s hard to frame and compose the scene. Also considering that Eddie’s microlight, which I have renamed Giggly (see registration on wing), travels at roughly 110km/h it can be compared to shooting from a fast moving speed boat. So it’s essential to “crank up” the shooting speed to roughly 1/1250 sec or faster if zooming in to eliminate shake as much as possible, while leaving all other settings for the camera to decide. Also don't forget to activate your image stabiliser. Because most cameras have their shutter button on the right it’s generally easier to shoot scenes to your left and Eddie is well aware of this making his flight path the most convenient for your photographic needs. The fact that full head gear is worn makes it hard to frame the scene through the viewfinder so often I had to adopt the point and shoot approach with only a tiny fraction of the scene visible through the viewfinder from about 10 cm away from my right eye. But the benefits of having such a long lens outweigh the limitations by a long shot - pun intended. The zoom cuts out scenes nicely, showing all the interesting patterns on the ground, gets closer to people and their habitats but it’s also possible to still get a decent wide angle shot when focusing on the horizon at 100mm. Small point-and-shoots and wide angle lenses will have the limitations of losing all the interesting details and not being able to get to the scenic stuff close enough.
Needless to say, it’s important that you arrange your settings and focus buttons on your lens before take off. There is little room for fiddling about and if you don’t know your camera well enough to change shutter speed by a simple scroll of your finger, learn it first before you go up and try to shoot - if photography is your main objective. If you just want to take things in with your eyes, that’s just fine!
We travelled approximately 120km during one hour and some minutes as a bonus thanks to Eddie’s clock running 15 minutes fast. A clever way to buy some time! We waved to the smiling faces of Kompong Khleang and Kompong Phluk, flew over thickets of greenery, which, shaped as rectangles, suggested the presence of ancient temples or remains thereof. The maximum height achievable in local conditions is 250 meters but often we would be cruising at much lower altitude, not only seeing but also smelling the thick waters of the lake! That’s what I call enhanced experience!
One hour in the air allows for a pretty good look at what surrounds us here in Siem Reap. It’s a way of getting your revenge on this pancake-like land with only a few hills breaking up the monotonous straight line as far as the eye can see. Shorter flights will offer a taster of Cambodia from air with varied routes in all directions, the lake being Eddie’s favourite. You are likely to see temples, herds of buffaloes, solitary cows, patches of rice fields in different stages of planting, harvest or rest, vibrant fishing communities on stilts or afloat and get a tingling buzz of adrenalin in your limbs when you touch the ground again. I fear it’s very addictive, this sort of thing.
Hurry up and book a flight. The fish traps will disappear soon as the seasons are about to change. Mind you, you can’t really lose. Later, with rains, the land will be soaked and glistening in the sunshine, shoots of young rice blinding your eyes with incredibly vibrant green and you may have to de-saturate your photos in processing to make it more believable.
Direct bookings can be made via email@example.com or by telephone on +855 (0)92 533 269.
I have granted several important people in my life the right to smack me in the gob if I ever mention getting another pair of shoes. Ever.
I bought a pair of Birkenstocks when in Europe and find them extremely comfortable and easy to slip on and off which immediately had me thinking that another pair would be a great idea. Because you can’t have too much of a good thing, right? So I already started to browse the internet for different models and think of a suitable mule to bring them over.
But it is not to be.
The magnitude of my shoe issue was revealed today.
I have a handy shoe rack outside my apartment where I keep most of my shoes, easy to reach and grab on the go. While I was away, two months’ worth of dust and dead insect have settled on them; the rack is of the woven rattan variety and therefore exposed to all elements of Cambodia including dust from nearby building sites.
My shoes deserve better and so today I decided to clean my footwear and I refuse to call this procrastination. It may well be, though.
I resisted to count how many pairs of flip flops, slip-ons, Mary-Janes, Crocs (sorry, Fashion Police, but they have moved on and developed models that actually look good and you can wear them in the mud when it actually DOES rain here…), trainers, boots and other shoes I have. It’s too daunting to admit that once I came with a backpack of essentials and some years down the line I have so much $**t that I could easily fill a container… A rough guess would be around 25 pairs. I wear maybe 5 at most and only one pair at a time. Mind you, not always. I have been known to stumble out of my apartment early in the morning and one glance at my feet pumping the pedals of my bicycle two blocks from my house showed my right foot in a pink Havaiana and my left was clad in a green flip flop of the same make and fit. Easy mistake in dim light. Such a trend setter….
At least I got my left and right right, right?
My issue doesn’t stop with shoes. Handbags are fairly high on the list and I blame Sakura (the second hand store just around the corner from my house). I also blame Sakura for my wardrobe bursting in seams and my recent trip to Czech could also have something to do with it. I purged and gave away two bags of things, even from the kitchen cabinets just recently, trying to offload on the material stuff and breathe easier, but the next day I went to Sakura… again. I confessed once and I will do it again - I am a Sakuraholic.
But who is there to judge us how much stuff we should surround ourselves with (or in)? Compared to the standards of the “village elders” aka my parents I live a very simplistic lifestyle. They are mostly surrounded by books and while there is nothing wrong with that, on the contrary actually, their issue is with space alone - not a single book can be moved out of place as the whole structure would be destroyed and nothing would ever fit again. Thanks to this “system” I can, even after decades of leaving home, safely find my favourite books which are still in their same old place.
I often work from home and find that disorder and too much “busy” space around me leaves me unable to concentrate. So I clean and tidy up and procrastinate. When working from an office I can deal with “creative mess” no problem. So there is a clear divide between personal and working life.
The internet and other media bombard us with conflicting information - how to reduce clutter in our lives, how to master this Japanese art of keeping your space “clean” and the next thing you read is about embracing all your clutter and loving it the way it deserves. Bottom line - we are all different and if you are happy in your environment, why change it, why conform, why follow some trend when it’s in conflict with your inner peace?
My fridge is the leading example of minimalism. I should change that but we have power cuts.
I collect earrings. And jewellery in general.
I have very few books because they exist in non paper form.
I have TV but never watch it so that should be the next thing out of the door.
I have a soft spot for cups and mugs, specially with dots, but the cat breaks them so I steer clear.
I rotate my wardrobe and unworn items find their way to donation bins.
I have two feet and around 25 pairs of shoes. So what?
I am a (reluctant) slave of technology - but about that…. some other time.
….the thing is, I can’t run to save my life. I can barely run to catch the bus and thankfully I have never been chased by a wild beast. The bus catching issue relates to my life outside the Kingdom, and we are all safe here in the Kingdom when it comes to beasts because, well, they have all been eaten. Here in the Kingdom we also don’t have to (or should not have to) run to and/or from anything. For this we have the never-ending line of tuk-tuks forming on every corner backed up by their moto driving friends all keen to take passengers. Despite of this I do see people running. Crazy souls. In the heat, sweating, dripping messes. Some of them run along the river, some on the busy roads taking in lungs full of dust and exhaust fumes, risking their life to end up under the wheels of a Lexus or Hummer driven by evil lunatics on mobile phones. The bravest run during the hours us mere mortals are either sleeping or finishing our last drink as the sky starts to grow pale in the east.
One early the morning I saw a couple of people running the gravel paths of the Royal Gardens. Nothing extraordinary here you may say and actually, what a pleasant place to go for a jog! But, to my amusement these sporty souls were running backwards! Was it to see how far they have already run as one friend explained with a cheeky grin on his face? Maybe! And well done for not falling over, evidently they have their route memorised or maybe they have eyes in the back of their heads.
Some run really fast. Some are barely making their legs move dragging their feet behind (I sympathise with those). Some seem to have a steady pace and I bet they can go forever, effortlessly, without any evident marks of sweat (I hate these the most). The question looming in my head, every time I encounter a runner, is: have they just left their house and are they therefore full of energy and therefore running so fast? Are they at the end of their resources and thus barely surviving? What stage of their run are they at? I always (used to) look like I was dying, absolutely not mastering the art of breathing, not knowing how to carry on through “the wall”, puffing, bulging eyes, stitch hurting like a bitch (it rhymes!), face the colour of a boiling lobster and death on the tip of my tongue which was on the top of my chest. I find very little that is enjoyable in running. But it must have been fun watching me….
There is a funny relationship between me and running. Scarred from early school attempts to tackle the compulsory 1,5km oval within a given time limit and almost always failing I still have periods when I secretly fancy becoming a runner. They grow scarcer and scarcer the older I grow, though... And I find that these feelings overcome me only when I find myself in cooler climates. Here in Cambodia sweat comes naturally so why bother producing more? Still, I would kind of like to belong to the community of runners. Going for run to clear ones head, to exercise, to become fit. That sort of thing. But then I always have something better to do, like spend endless hours online.
I can sprint. No, let me rephrase - in my younger years I COULD sprint. I played basketball and I could make it through a game because it wasn’t just about running around. I dread treadmills. They should be called dreadmills and I could count on the fingers of one hand how many times I have engaged in the funny activity of running on a moving rubber belt, indoors, trying to listen to music or mindlessly watch some nonsense on TV. I am simply not a gym girl, it’s as plain as that.
I am an outdoors girl. I will walk, I will cycle and I will swim and there are almost no limits to how long for or how far. But running and I are not friends. So I hereby invite all of you crazy runners out there to share your secrets with me. What is it that you get out of it? How do you keep going? When does it become fun and not just a survival instinct? What do you think about when you run? Do you run alone or with a friend? Should I wear not one but two sports bras at one time to prevent myself being knocked out by my …ehrm, knockers?
Who knows, one of you might inspire me enough to maybe even buy a new pair of running shoes. The old ones (which were still “like” new) fell apart due to lack of use, crappy glue, suspected fake Adidas badge (despite having been bought in the official Adidas store) and the climate. Or maybe only just because of lack of use.
.....needless to say, I have absolutely no images related to running.....
In the spirit of old school days, very much upon return from my holidays (I am sitting at the airport drinking a very expensive beer), I feel obliged to summarise the happenings of the past month and a half.
I don’t often go all gooey and positive on you lot but right now it has to be done.
So, what did I do on holiday?
I hung out with my family, ate their food and drank their wine. A fair share of wine. And beer. But that was the plan, you see….
I ordered sunshine and I had sunshine. I wanted fog and I got fog. Then the gentle spring rains came to remind me of the true frizz in my hair. The days were long and evenings fragrant with promises of great things to come. Great things always come and money gets printed daily, so what do we worry about?
I shopped for bargains and struggled with choice - again.
I found good tea and drank gallons of it, the rest of the crop is in my suitcase. It is not Czech tea, just for the record.
I hiked and cycled and hiked again and got lost in the woods. Then I found myself. Or my way should I say.
I saw deer, snakes, woodpeckers, hares and met a few friendly pussycats.
I got sandblasted on the beach - this, also, wasn't in Czech. I went to Norfolk briefly, which is not in Czech but the in UK.
I drank beer with my bare feet in the grass watching the lazy river flow in the afternoon sunshine.
I drowned myself in violently yellow fields of oilseed rape and sneezed all over it.
I smelled lilac and rolled in grass full of daisies and dandelions.
I ate sausages cooked over open fire.
I met new, very cool people. I ate cheese with them washed down with some beer and wine, just so you know.
I saw old friends for reminiscing sessions.
I saw old friends and planned our future.
I laughed A LOT.
I scaled old city streets and explored castle ruins.
I nearly broke Instagram with my daily load of snapshots of everything for which I would like to apologise.
I breathed clean fresh air.
I slept under the stars.
I did a lot by myself and had a blast, enjoying every moment and had a really good “me time”.
I recharged my batteries and brought some earplugs with me.
Bring it on, Cambodia!
It was a glorious sunny Sunday in Spindleruv Mlyn. The sky was high and blue with a few fluffy white clouds. The world through my new polarised sunnies showed itself in crispy green colours of spring dotted with a full palette of new flowers and eager butterflies. I came to Krkonose with my brother and his daughter to breathe some fresh mountain air and to stretch our city legs a bit. Not that I needed to escape anything since it’s only been a couple of weeks into my homeland visit but I would never say no to the mountains.
While the young ones decided to splash in the (indoor) pool, I, nursing my newly acquired cold, stuck with a stroll in the steep streets. I was basking in the sunshine remembering my teens when Gabi and I planned our lives in the exact spot more than half of our lifetimes ago. Needless to say, our dreams turned into something completely different as tends to happen in life. In my mind I gave a forgiving smile to those naive ideals we both had at the time and blinked away the stinging sensation in my eyes.
But where exactly am I going with these lines?
As I was navigating downhill to my right I spotted a bunch of workers digging trenches for phone lines or cables of sorts. To break the silence, the stares and to be polite I greeted them. They nodded back and kept on curiously watching me. I know manual labourers from the Roma community are viewed as close to second class citizens here in the Czech Republic. I don't operate that way. They are working for their living so good on them. There are plenty of those of paler skin colour who prefer to take benefits, breed and take more benefits so I'll give kudos to those who work anytime.
But something fundamental, something ingrained in the Czech nature revealed itself to me that day, in the bright spring sunshine. When I commented on how beautiful the day was, the workers replied "Madam, we can't buy much with that. Maybe you could give us a hand?" I laughed and walked on but kept on thinking about what it actually meant.
My diagnosis is “consumerism with pessimistic tendencies” and it’s applicable to the folks nationwide.
Are people really only measuring their happiness by the amount of things that they can buy? Would I receive a very different reply to my comment in, say, the UK, Australia or Cambodia (random choice of countries where I spent considerable amount of time)? I’d like to think so. Locals would nod and reply along the lines of "Lovely, indeed!” or “Too right, mate”. Cambodians would giggle and most likely offer you a tuk-tuk ride because you can’t be serious wanting to walk in this heat, can you?
But consumerism is the king in the “western world” - I have no blinkers on my eyes and I see that “shopping” is a perfectly acceptable weekend activity and “hitting” the Mall passes as a fine choice of things to do in one’s spare time. Shelves are breaking under the weight of goods and endless variations of the same product and I continue to struggle to choose. How can there be fifteen types of shampoo of any given brand? Considering that most products are made in a big pot somewhere where labour is cheap, then transported in big tankers and later housed in appealing bottles with sparkling labels - I think the industry has us under the thumb and there is no way out. Unless I move to the mountains with my imaginary goats and real wine.
Back to my sunny Sunday, though. Why being negative is the "go to" place of my fellow countrymen? I'd like to think that I'm different. I'm quite happy grinning (and sneezing) into the fields of bright yellow oil seed rape or blue skies with fluffy white clouds. Early spring green makes me giddy and so does fog, rain and sunshine. Maybe it's because I've been deprived and seasons in Cambodia stay for a while and weather doesn’t really vary that much. Maybe it’s because I have learned to appreciate the everyday beauty and stop and smell the roses. Maybe it’s because I see things. Maybe it’s because I changed the way I think about things. And maybe it’s because life is too damn short to be miserable. So cheer up, surround yourself with people who make you happy, get out there, do the things that you love and …..
I am off!
...thirty-six waking hours later I found myself spat by the metal tube at Vaclav Havel International Airport - formerly known as Ruzynē, and bewilderedly joined my brother, my dad and my niece to fall in the car and tackle the last hour on four wheels via one much needed coffee stop which made me less of a zombie for the remainder of the journey home.
When I said I wanted to be cold my wish was heard and granted. Thoughts do become things, so choose the good ones - a well meant piece of advice by the Universe. The lazy mercury in my parent’s old outdoor thermometer doesn’t like to climb much over zero in the mornings and by the evening, having traveled to maybe 8 or 10 during the day, it’s down to zero again and falling. It’s absolutely brilliant. I can see my breath and the air is so crisp that it cuts right through to my bones. Newly emerging leaves shiver all the way down to their chlorophyll and my ears hurt. I find that it’s hard to speak as my face is frozen and although there is a glimmer of hope in the eyes of the locals that spring is already here, I think they are crazy! But it’s the greatest thing not to be sweating at all!
spring flowers shivering in the cold
Living in constant heat can leave a mark on your sanity. There are temporary (and expensive) measures to cool yourself down but in the end the heat always wins. It is true that old bones creak a fair bit less in hot and humid climates, but it is also true that one sweats like a piggie, there is no point making any effort appearance-wise as your face will melt and hair become one cluttered mess sticking to your neck and all in all, mentally, it’s just plain exhausting.
The cold can also get to you but carefully stacked and thought out layers make all the difference. You can wrap up warm and keep warm by moving, drinking mulled wine (not both at the same time advisably) or sleeping under several blankets.
Ehrm.... yes, I do take photos of other people's laundry....
But what does Karma Laundry got to do with it? What IS this Karma Laundry???
Well, as the name suggests, using Karma Laundry - you get what you deserve! In Cambodia, as we know, it’s pretty normal not owning a washing machine but instead drop off dirty laundry nearby and support the local economy by providing jobs to our neighbours, sweet little ladies who do a pretty decent job cleaning our garments and linen for little money. Mostly I get back what I drop off, only occasionally, despite their sophisticated tagging and labelling system using coloured strings, an item arrives which leaves me baffled. If I get back tiny little shorts big enough to cover only part of one leg, should I take it that sliming down is advised by the laundry committee? I never bought this towel with bright green dinosaur on it! And, wait a minute, where is my favourite purple top? I return the items which I have not purchased and sometimes I get back other bits and pieces returned by others so mostly it works pretty well. Let’s face it, despite lamenting that “I have nothing to wear” my wardrobe is pretty full (of mainly black things) and I can hardly track if an item or two have gone missing.
Having said that, I did notice that I was missing some items in the course of the last year. Randomly I would think of my blue speckled singlet or the light cotton shirt I remember having and being ideal for hot tropical days. I assumed that Karma Laundry took them away from me and it was too late to do anything about it. Damn you, Karma Laundry!
Then I climbed up a chair and took a cardboard box full of my clothing leftovers from my mum’s cupboard, the same box we stored up there when I was leaving their place almost two years ago at the end of a hot summer. Out kept coming items I immediately recognised and there were many of them! Some I didn’t even recognise! Why did I even bother to come with a suitcase full of things at all? I could have easily turned up with a toothbrush and a credit card! To my delight I found enough clothes never to have to go shopping again, and to my horror I found underwear - previously discarded as unsightly and “use in emergency situations only!", being in much better shape than the items still residing in my current wardrobe. I think I will go shopping after all.
I am so sorry, Karma Laundry, you did not deserve my assumption that you retained my items! Please forgive me and let’s be friends again, OK?
It’s been one of these years again.
People have come, stayed and gone. Entered our lives, became friends, shared laughs and heartaches, created our little close-knit community and then, one day, the time for them to move on came and they were gone. Just like that.
I was once part of an "Anna pack" - there were four of us. Three of the four Annas were tall, three were curly, three were working in tourism and three had a surname beginning with B. Needless to say all Annas were good friends. You can imagine that it was hard to refer to us individually so we had to invent nicknames. The Annarchy times are long gone now. The Russian is living her life in Bali, McK is now a Phnom Penh resident and Baldie will soon be a Londoner once again. The photo Anna, me, is all that is left of what was once great and powerful - see below!
Many chins have been scratched and many articles written on the topic of the transient nature of our lives in Cambodia as expats. Those of us who have resided in the Kingdom for more than couple of years tend to be wary of strangers and tend to dish out particles of our fragile selves in carefully measured doses - only to those who deserve our time. If you think that it’s cold nosed, unfriendly and downright big headed and snobbish, wait until you are countlessly asked the same questions over and over again: "Hey, what’s your name?” “Where are you from and how long have you been here?” "Wow - do you like it?” Let me think about that for a moment. And while I was thinking the person had moved on. Energy saved.
"Are you going to stay here forever?" is another good one. I wonder why “forever” becomes such an issue with people when they encounter you living in a country different to where you were born/brought up. I can hardly imagine Mr Smith walking out one morning on his street, greeting his next door neighbour: “John, in all seriousness, do you think you are going to stay here forever?” It’s a funny one. John will probably shrug and say “I dunno, mate, is everything alright?” and will have a worrying expression on his face. I say the same. I dunno. I have not mastered “forever” yet.
The fact is that we live and work in a holiday town, a small town that attracts a huge number of visitors who are gone in a few days. Siem Reap, though, is also a place where many (mostly) young people find themselves wanting to stay. The vibe must be very strong and many end up being teachers, others wind up with the many NGOs or even pick up a “proper” job in tourism. Teachers, don’t hate me - for those of you who stay beyond the one month period and manage to sustainably teach the Cambodian youth more than ABC I have a huge respect. For the rest? Read a little on “voluntourism" and why it’s not such a great idea.
And so we chat, we click and find common ground and similar sense of humour and learn about our friends’ varied backgrounds. We are a creative, unusual and adventurous crowd. We don’t (at least for now) belong to the drudgery of “nine-to-five” boring jobs back home, cold winters, tax returns, and the daily grind of “their” rat race. We mostly don’t own a car or know what the latest fashion is. Some of us have health insurance. We live a simple life and take pleasure in socialising with our friends. We really, really, really appreciate air conditioning and wonder how we are ever going to afford our drinking habits back home - IF we ever go back that is.
Well, here we go. I have been counting the days to my departure to my “homeland” which is kind of fitting. We are celebrating Khmer New Year during which many locals return to their homeland. It seems that everybody’s homeland is in my neighbourhood though and I am not entirely happy about it. That aside, my time to fly out (not forever) has come around rather quickly. It seems that the anticipation of great things to come grants more pleasure than the event itself. I feel, instead of elated sense of happiness that my day is finally here, the need to put a handbrake on and slow things down a bit. How can I be here now and in a few hours in a completely different country, time zone, weather …. It’s kind of scary. The rose tinted glasses of anticipation of great things are similar to the rose tinted glasses of memories. When reality hits it normally takes a few days to find your bearings and get your sense of “normalness” back.
Why do you do this to me, Cambodia? Why do you dish up the finest, breeziest mornings with blue skies and fluffy white clouds just before I am to depart to cooler climates? Why do I feel that I am going to miss something great here?
I am going to miss my friends and my cat. The comfort of my apartment. My freedom and independence. My work even! I will be cold. But that’s what I wanted, isn’t it? With cheese on top. Yes! Suck it up and get on that plane!
And for those who have done it with no return ticket? Have a nice life!
Warning: the text below may be stating the obvious.
Some people have their bucket list, I have a list of buckets. The big blue one in my spare bathroom, the big red one under the kitchen sink and various other small ones scattered throughout the apartment. Full of water in case the power goes off and there is not a trickle to wash the sweat off or rinse off dishes before the ants beat me to it.
It’s that time of year again when insanity hangs in the thick air, slowly swirling in the rhythm of lazy fans, cicadas are screaming (because they too are hot??) and power bills reach new astronomical heights. My a/c pony gets a good run for his money - hang on, MY money! While my family on the other side of the globe are slipping on ice and counting the days to see the first blade of grass appear from under the snow, I am slowly losing my will to live and the only acceptable way of cooling down the system is an ice cold beer or two.
Cold showers are no longer possible and sometimes showers alone are not possible due to power cuts and hence the buckets. Only recently I discovered that my landlord, for reasons unknown, removed the water tank from the roof so when power goes off so does my water supply. The same water tank I fought so hard for three hot seasons ago.
When we do have water, it’s the hot variety of the liquid of life. And I mean almost scolding hot. It’s “town water” running through the veins of my house. Before it hits my taps it sits in a silver tank on the roof below in the sweltering heat. Then it travels through sun exposed pipes reaching dangerously high temperatures. Luke warm is the coolest on the “Vanna house water scale” and there is nothing that can be done about it.
In the town of million and one hotels there is always the possibility to dip into one of the pools but that too resembles floating in a womb so not much refreshment there. Can somebody give me a giant ice bucket? Or maybe I should hang out with the ice delivery man every morning, he has the coolest job in the country.
With my holiday looming, the arrival into a country where current temperature doesn’t even reach double digits is a very sweet promise of good days ahead. On the other hand, having searched my wardrobe high and low I can only find a few items with long sleeves so there is a slight worry that my extremities may freeze off in about two weeks’ time. Let’s see.
But at least there won’t be ants. Not like here where I am certain I in fact live in a giant ant nest around which Vanna carefully constructed his apartment block. They come from every crack in the tiles, walls and through gaps in doors and windows. I have tried mechanical barriers (blue tack - in the long run ineffective and also unsightly), chemical warfare with questionable results, weapons of mass destruction but I think I am fighting a losing battle here.
I block them from one end and they come back from the other. They don’t even come for food, although the cat drops plenty. Once I have found a floating ant nest in one of my buckets. The big red one under the kitchen sink. Explain that to me. Is it all on purpose?
So, as mother nature starts to tease us with fluffy cloud formations, wind picking up speed and light changing colour, we long for the rains already having forgotten how much we wanted them to stop last year. Or something like that. Greener grass on the other side of the fence and all that jazz. Please, just pretty please, make it rain! Everything will be just a bit more bearable. The dust from the thousands of building sites in town needs to be washed away and we need to start afresh. But we still have at least another dry month to go, temperatures will rise a little more to keep us dripping, celebrations of Khmer New Year will commence shortly with decibels out of control and all of the above were precisely the deciding factors for my (return) ticket to freedom, cold air, misty mornings, cold rain, fog, cheese and beer. Happy holidays to me!
Although they are not just for Christmas, it really was meant to be for only a few weeks. I swear. The intention was always there. Until she was old enough. Old enough for what? I don’t know...
When I talked to one of my guests about Squeaky recently (needless to say that she does have her own facebook page...), they asked how many did I have? Alarmed I wondered if I was starting to display the signs of a crazy cat lady already…. Only one, just one, I replied….
This whole kitty business started when four little fluffs literally fell out of the ceiling in our shared office here in Siem Reap. Their mother wasn’t in sight at that time. She never made it back and nor did the three weak kittens who we just couldn’t keep alive despite our best combined efforts. Nothing replaces mum’s warm fur and steady flow of milk. What we had was straws, cow milk and not a lot of knowledge how to tend to two week old abandoned kittens.
And so mother nature played her cruel role once again, survival of the fittest in plain sight. What I saw that day was a tiny disheveled skinny creature behind glass doors, standing on her back legs, front paws outstretched, screaming for her chance of survival with her last sibling dead next to her. My heart broke and she came home with me that evening in a tiny basket. There is not a doubt that with her two paws in the grave she would not have made it through the night.
I never planned to have pet(s) in Cambodia. It’s a huge responsibility, they limit one’s freedom and with the transient nature of our expats’ community, nobody is able to put an accurate label on the length of their planned stay. But that’s just an excuse anyway, isn’t it? Can those of us who love animals be responsible pet owners here for at least some time before our turn to leave the Kingdom of Wonder comes? Is it better to give creatures loving and safe home for at least some time of their life rather than leave them to fend for themselves in the wide open? To have them neutered and vaccinated? A question for a long debate, no doubt. However, at times of rescue these serious questions are pushed aside and replaced by more pressing issues: will she make it through the night?
And so Squeaky was (re)born. Huge blue eyes, protruding belly, skinny legs, almost full tail with only a small kink at the end of it and broken whiskers. Estimated two or three weeks old maximum. Fed by a tiny bottle purchased in Angkor Market (one really has to wonder what gems they stock!) and eventually kitty pouches full of mashed up fish, she grew slowly losing the smell of sour milk. Biting and goofing all along and doing so still.
Now the whiskers have grown back and kitty doesn’t fit into the palm of anyone’s hand anymore. She smells fresh, like straw and summer. Sweet sweet kitty….. But... my arms look like I have been self harming for years. The reality is that kitty has sank a few teeth and claws into my flesh while playing rough as torties do. And I tease her so it's almost half deserved.
She’s been fully vaccinated and now is on the waiting list to have her lady bits taken out to prevent any more kitties being born should she manage to escape the fortress of my apartment one day. I pray to gods of fur that her kitty desires don’t overtake her before the spaying can be done.
I was once somebody who would turn her nose up at people letting their animals sleep in bed with them and suddenly I find something soft and furry pressing against my bum at night, keeping me warm. Warmer that I would need or want to be. Only when the cat (and the ants) have been fed can the kettle be put on the boil in the morning. Something somewhere went wrong and all control has been lost.
My collection of Sakura nicknacks is diminishing and the kitchen cupboard is becoming bare - well sort of. Some items were broken and some removed as prevention. Cat owners will understand that prevention is better than breakage. We are finally getting to the point, see? Thanks to my cat I am becoming an involuntary minimalist.
Hoarding breakables just make no sense and I am learning the hard way. I still think, though, that having working lights DOES make perfect sense but the cat thinks otherwise, light now shattered, hint of glee in kitty’s eyes… Mind you, I could have misinterpreted it for all I know. She could have been saying how very sorry she was for being clumsy…..
She likes showers (thanks to ambitious parents’ training), kitchen sponges, biting all extremities of the human body, tissues, brooms and mops, plastic bags and all bags really, anything string related, hair ties, meowing at corners, running around like a crazy rabbit, blueberry yoghurt pots to lick and suckling on bedsheets in the morning. And fish, lots of fish.
It’s a funny furry daughter of mine with golden green eyes and catitude and it’s hard to imagine my life without her. Awwwww. Crazy cat lady you say? I am half way there and proud of it!
When the management of Rainbow Lodge contacted me to discuss the possibility of running a long weekend photography workshop on their premises I was immediately interested. Not only because anything away from Angkor is a very welcome change for me but also because I had never visited that particular corner of Cambodia.
I now have some order in my formerly messy thoughts - it’s finally clear to me that Koh Kong is a province as well as the main town in the province and just off the coast nearby there is also the Koh Kong island. Tatai is the name of a small town from where boats carry passengers upstream the Tatai river all the way to Rainbow Lodge. Simple! The Rainbow Lodge is a charming property just a few steps off the Tatai river bank and a short boat ride from the Tatai settlement.
life along the quiet river...
Having flown to Phnom Penh and then continued by road, the views start to get interesting roughly from where the national road #4 forks off to Sihanoukville. We veer off to the right and follow the newly resurfaced road #48. Although secondary in ranking, it beats the main communication in the country, the road #6, by a long shot. A very long shot. Leaving the populated areas of Phnom Penh and surroundings behind with plastic littered everywhere the views are now starting to reveal elevation, misty mountains in the distance and an absolute lack of human presence. How very lovely. And from then on it just keeps getting better. The clouds are gently rolling in with a faint promise of rain and we do get a few teasing drops here and there, the light is soft and golden, the tarmac is smooth under our wheels and I am humming (in my head) to my favourite tunes.
Tatai valley unravels its beauty to us just as we reach the Tatai settlement and the bridge which marks our disembarkation point and the last stage of the journey - a short boat ride upstream the Tatai river. Some ten minutes later the boat engine is suddenly quiet and when I finally put my bags down at the bar/check in area at the Rainbow Lodge it seems that somebody turned off the volume to everything and even my breathing and thinking are way too loud for this scenery.
peaceful views and rolling hills...
There is so much to do at the Rainbow Lodge! Making friends and being social is just part of it but if you seek solitude and your own company, your retreat can be just that. There are kayaks which you can take up and down the river, you may want to take advantage of the many interesting tours on offer or just indulge in extreme hammocking with emerald green views of the jungle.
My June and September photography workshops will consist of several exciting components. We will travel by boat, venture to the waterfall which, by the time June comes, will be full of roaring waters and become the perfect place to learn the “milky water” tricks and give your tripod the workout it needs. Alfresco breakfast in the waterfall vicinity is planned for later in the morning. We will visit the spooky mangrove forests and the surrounding colourful fishing villages, set our foot in the jungle and watch it come alive with all its vibrant sights, smells and sounds of the green season. Just across the river there are settlements nestled among emerald rice fields and fringed off by the mountains behind. You name it, we have it: birds, water buffaloes, rice planting and harvest in different stages, friendly hellos from local inhabitants, orange flashes of monk robes, everything that spells Cambodia - minus the temples. And that’s a bonus, right?
waterfalls, jungle and photography...
The beauty of this place, to me, is in its remoteness, peace and quiet and the comfort of the accommodation along with friendly approach of the owners, tasty meals and - surprisingly - a comprehensive selection of wines! The owners are attentive, knowledgeable and happy to help with just about anything. All three daily meals are included in the price of the accommodation and very very tasty!
This time my trip was pretty intense exploring all the sites suitable for photography and the verdict is that they all are! It will be a great break for all the busy city folk who have called Cambodia their home for some time and for first time visitors alike.
mangroves, villages, fishing and jungle...
Watch this space - all will be revealed soon.
Perhaps the most important thing to mention is that the Rainbow Lodge Photo Workshop will be open to all photography enthusiasts regardless of their level of skill or the gear they bring. With maximum of 8 participating photographers I will ensure that all get my personal attention and together we will prove that the best camera is the one that you have with you!
The Rainbow Lodge team have an array of exciting, affordable day trips available for non participating partners and friends so nobody will get bored!
Save the date - the first workshop dates are 12th to the 15th June 2015 inclusive and more details will follow soon.
Follow us on Facebook to get the latest updates hot straight from the oven!
For those who just can't wait, inquiries can be made at firstname.lastname@example.org
and finally... some more reflections...
Collaboration with Katy (Did) and Stephane (De Greef).
Having glanced at the 52 Frames list of themes for the year in January I knew immediately that week 38 was going to be a collaboration with some serious insect flavour.
Meet Your Neighbours (MYN) is a fascinating project where wildlife lovers and photographers from around the globe record the beauty of the often unseen forms of life, your miniature neighbours, things that you may step on without knowing while walking in your own garden or picking up groceries. Some of them may be in your groceries, better not think about that too much though.
There is a trick to MYN – only the highest quality photographs make it through the selection and are showcased. They are no ordinary photographs either. These images are more a study of the subjects, every single detail accentuated by the fact that these “neighbours” are being photographed on white background, without the visual distraction of their natural habitat. They are treated well, kept alive and carefully released back where they were collected. Let me tell you, after viewing some of those photographs you realise that Science Fiction invented absolutely nothing. Mother Nature had it all before and more.
It's a photography/nature project which, admittedly, is only executable with certain specialised camera gear and a lot of improvisation on the grass root level – you needn't excuse the pun, it was intended! Apart from the gear issue there is also something called skill. Skill in capturing and taming your subject, skill in producing a technically outstanding photograph and skill in setting up the whole studio including some inventive strategies for home made diffusing systems – be it indoors or out in the open.
Stephane has been “neighbourising” anything and everything in the bug world, from different species of ants to amazing torpedo-like moths, snails, frogs, crickets, flies, wasps and many other creatures I lack vocabulary for. I have no intention to break into the MYN world with all its intricacies and need for fancy gear but I am fascinated by nature and often do macro photography in the critters' natural environment with a very basic set up.
And so it was settled. We would collaborate trying to recreate a shot worthy the Meet Your Neighbours project.
Let's have a look at the list of ingredients I had for my shoot – all borrowed from Stephane, the grand bug master and a seasoned MYN shooter:
Studio / support equipment:
Katydids are sometimes also called bush crickets and indeed fall into the confusing pot of grasshoppers, katydids and crickets. What is the difference? Well, grasshoppers have short antennae, simple as that and of course those impressive thighs enabling them to leap into great heights. Katydids have long antennae and their wings are folded on their backs in an upside down V whereas crickets, also with long antennae, have their wings folded fashionably flat. Here you have it, you have (maybe) learned something new, just like I did.
Our model, let's call her Katy, came to the office with us, settled in the tupperware box, all anxieties aside. I think she knew she was going to serve the greater good and eventually also become famous.
The pure white background is achieved by placing the subject on a semi-transparent white perspex plastic sheet which is suspended in the air with the help of whatever stabiliser you can find or make up. We used two chairs and balanced the sheet on the edge (see photo of set up). The crucial key to getting your subject float in the negative white space is backlighting synchronised with fill flash as well. So here we are going to start the story of the Master and the Slave (flash). The master twin flash was mounted on the camera with appropriate diffusion and the slave flash was placed under the subject facing directly upward – that's the reason our perspex had to be suspended, with enough space underneath for the slave to fit and do its job. Both master and slave were set on ¼ of their full power. The camera settings were managed manually at f/13 to achieve as much detail as possible, 1/180 sec to eliminate any shake or movement of the subject and ISO, after couple of tests, was set on 250. Speaking of tests, with any live subject it's a risky business that they actually don't like the lime light and try to escape. Hence you, the photographer, must have all settings correctly in place and be ready to shoot. It's a matter of a simple test on an object similar in colour and size to the real deal – in our case a leaf and a blade of grass.
When happy with the settings the model is finally placed in the middle of the white perspex and shooting may begin. With the Image Stabiliser on and Manual Focus selected it's a matter of focusing on the eyes, making sure that the subject is wholly surrounded by the white space and all its body parts are in the frame. Now, of course we can take things a little more artistically and get really up close and personal but MYN is really about showing the whole creature from all angles – from top, profile and sometimes even upside down. Various body parts and markings will help scientists identify the species. Something to note for those willing to give this photo shoot a go: when you shoot the bug the DOF is very shallow, so the best approach is to be perpendicular to the axis of the creature, so that it's all in focus from “head to toe”.
Apart from all the technicalities and set up challenges, may I say that the whole apparatus is very heavy and after a few minutes of shooting my arms were aching. One has to shoot with confidence yet with calm and not disturb the animal too much, work efficiently and fast. Each shot should be reviewed before one gets carried away. It's worth checking all the settings and tweak all details in camera as much as possible to ensure that only basic processing tricks are applied. In the eyes of science there is little space for games with colour, saturation or vibrance. The final result should be as close to what the eye sees as possible, otherwise, with your finger on the saturation slider you could easily create a new species! Exciting but no, don't do it. Don't play with the emotions of the entomologists out there, they harness special powers and could send harm your way.
Some of you may ask what is the whole point of MYN? I have gone to the source and asked the master himself. What he said was this:
“Meet Your Neighbours (MYN) is a worldwide photographic initiative created in 2009 by Niall Benvie (UK) and Clay Bolt (USA). The project is dedicated to reconnecting people with the wildlife on their own doorsteps: common species, both plants and animals, are photographed in their natural ecosystem, but using a field studio with a white background. The resulting images are very artistic and highlight details usually missed on classic nature photography.
This project borrows techniques designed for fashion shoot, with backlighting and softboxes, and applies them to Nature photography. But instead of bringing the models in, you bring the studio out! Photographers usually design their own field studio, and bring it to the natural environment where the bugs are normally encountered. It allows taking professional shots of the subject before releasing it, unharmed, in the exact same place.”
And so there you have it. When did you last look “closer”? Also, I hope you like what I did with my katydid.
Photowalking is the act of walking with a camera for the main purpose of taking pictures of things that the photographer may find interesting.
It is often a communal activity organised by camera clubs, online forums or commercial organisations, sometimes in the form of a walking tour. Often the aim is to practice and improve one's own photography skills rather than a specific focus on documentary photography.
While the camera need not be a digital camera, in practice the low cost of digital photography and the ease of digital photo processing and online photo sharing allow a casual approach in photowalking.
While related to street photography, photowalking is differentiated by its impetus to photograph things of interest rather than people specifically. As with any walking that may go a few miles or kilometers, photowalking can also promote physical fitness.
…. the thing is, there is so much more to Siem Reap than “just” the temples. Trust me, I am a photographer. It doesn't matter if you just arrived or have lived here for half a decade. The lively streets of our little town provide countless source of entertainment – at least for me. How long have I wanted to get a picture of pigs bellies up on the back of a moto? Or other weird and wonderful methods of transportation for that matter.... It's all there, on two, three or more wheels, carrying variable loads and countless passengers. My collection is growing steadily ever since I got inspired by a wonderful book called Carrying Cambodia still for sale today (Monument Books for those who are interested). But it all requires a bit of patience, being in the right place at the right time and being ready with your camera or phone.
People photography can be daunting and so can venturing into a local market armed only with your limited two-word Khmer vocabulary and your camera. There is safety in numbers though and with the right approach and attitude there is a possibility to capture real local gems. From the gory meat section not suitable for vegetarians nor the faint hearted via the fish quarters one can wander past nail and hair salons all the way to the cooked food court and with a bit of courage try some of the items on offer. I always go for the puffy spongy pancakes sold by 10 for just over 50c.
Then we have our colourful pagodas. Local knowledge claims one of them to be at least 400 years old and that is OLD. One would think that after five years in the kingdom of wonder I would be immune to the sight of orange clad monks but no, I'm still clicking away. And the same goes for conical hats bobbing up and down with rice harvest....I can't help it, it just spells Asia.
Now, with our riverfront so nice and green and kept it's actually a pleasure to stroll in the early morning hours when the temperature is still relatively cool and local happenings are in full swing. Taking photographs in a new, exotic place is almost always easy – everything is new and photo-worthy. But what if I was to drag you out of your snuggly bed on a Sunday morning and take you on a short photo walk through the town you have called home for some time? Would you come? Come on, you know you want to! No big bulky equipment is necessary, your phone or pocket compact camera will do a perfectly good job - wait a minute, YOU will do a good job of it. With a few hints and tips on composition and possibly discovering what all these buttons do, you can create amazing images.
My photo walks will run on selected Sundays through the streets of Siem Reap with variable routes and topics. Next one will be Siem Reap in monochrome. In the pipelines I also have some evening walks focusing on low light photography, use of tripod, playing with shutter speed and all that jazz. Locals and visitors alike are welcome so I'm looking forward to seeing you there!
In today's world where everything moves fast (aside from 5PM traffic) and results are expected instantly, it's a relief to know that some of us are finding the way back to slow food.
Mamma Shop, Simone's newly refurbished eatery in sunshine colours suggests that he sets his clock back according to the olden days of Nonnas and Mammas. With cheeky demeanour and sparkle in his eyes he rolls his sleeves up and gets stuck in – flour and egg is the basic recipe of the magic called home made pasta. His hearty pizzas with generous toppings are also fabulous but more and more he puts emphasis on the traditional way of making pasta – this, after all, sets him aside from others in town also serving Italian food.
I remember that my own grandmother – or babička if you like – used to be in the same league and this sets me right back. Flour dusted wooden board, rolling pin, balls of dough and a lot of fun.
Today I am hanging out with young Patrick from Kunming in the southern Chinese province of Yunnan full of beautiful, mystical sugarloaf mountains. Patrick is spending just under a month in Cambodia learning the ropes of photography under the wing of locally based shutterbugs with different backgrounds and styles of work. What a great experience! By the end of his trip he will have learned a lot about natural and artificial lighting, the ins and outs of studio shooting and portraiture, nature and macro photography and with me he will go through the process of commercial shoots for a restaurant and/or business.
Through discussion of the expected photo shoot result the general knowledge of Italians and their love affair with food is confirmed. Our shots are to convey the value of slow cooked, home made dishes and that patience in Mamma shop is rewarded with delicious traditional meals that any Mamma or Nonna would be proud to present to their families in the heart of Italy.
Simone's legacy of skilful pasta making has been passed on to his Cambodian staff who are champion pasta makers and a great team altogether.
Our challenge is low light, fast moving subjects (those girls are like machines!) and hot environment. Patrick is learning that photography is hardly ever as glamorous as most believe. We try to find the best angles to capture the “behind the scenes of home made pasta” and admire the skill and precision of the Mamma team. Simone occasionally steps in and shows that pasta making business is by no means only women's business; his hands lovingly create many wonderful shapes and the passion for slow food shows.
“It is a family affair” he says in his sing-song voice. In Italy, we learn, pasta making is a group activity where folks get together and create. Many deals are sealed around tables laden with slow home cooked meals and often, the longer it takes to consume the feast the better the outcome of the business deal. No wonder siesta (or riposo) is such an integral part of Italian day structure – this food business is a hard work on all fronts! As a reward for our work we get to eat our subjects and this is definitely the highlight of our day – perfect timing for lunch!
If you are looking for the authentic taste of Italy and have not been to Mamma Shop yet – do yourself a favour and treat your tastebuds to something special. My personal favourite are the gnocchi with tomato and mozzarella sauce.... May I add that the gnocchi are also filled with cheese. Yum!
Written for Soul Hair Design, Siem Reap.
“Hi Deb, any chance of a quick chop chop today, please?”
“Sure, darling” echoes from the other end of the line and I am booked in for 4:30.
It’s been a while…. A few months at least with some brave self-hair-mutilation interventions. Will she notice? Of course she will. I casually glance in the mirror and my hair has never looked so long and good. Are you kidding me? “Maybe you should cancel the appointment” the little voice in my head whispers. It’s a mixture of an optical illusion brought up by the dim light in my bathroom and my mind playing tricks on me, I am sure. I am in a severe need of professional help and I know it. The appointment remains firmly in my diary.
I can’t put my finger on why I am so hesitant having my hair cut. There were times when I would put the visit of a hairdresser in the same category as the visit of a dentist. The roots (excuse the pun) must lie deep in my past. Having grown up with only a few straight, wispy strands by the age of 10 I was getting used to the bowl cut but far from loving it. Mousy brownness wouldn’t help my looks in those days either but what can one do at the age of 10? Not much. Back in the “commy” days there was little room for individuality and both my hair and my mum knew it.
Everything changed around the time the Velvet Revolution was making waves and democracy slowly established its presence in the very heart of Europe. My hair, following the rebellious mood hanging heavily in the air and my own puberty hormones, suddenly – I swear it was overnight – embarked on its own unruly journey. The ever so popular “undercut”, the trademark of the late 80’s along with leggings and fluro-fashion found many fans in the rows of my friends and naturally, I followed in (shell) suit. The result was something resembling a full head of cauliflower. These days I am wiser and I know my limits. Back in the 80’s I cried my eyes out and got zero sympathy from my mother who found it quite amusing and thought I got exactly what I asked for. I guess from then on I was scarred for life.
So, no more undercuts, I said to myself. In fact, I am trying to grow my hair long but it’s just not happening or I am too impatient. Who knows? And what is the point anyway? Here in the tropics I mostly end up wearing it up otherwise it feels like having a mop on the top of my head with trickles of sweat forming rivers in the middle of my back. But one should at least try to keep up appearances...
The minute she touches my hair and starts massaging my scalp with sweet smelling shampoo I am in heaven. When I am rich and famous I am going to employ my own hairdresser, that's a promise. Then my locks get covered in another sweet smelling substance and my scalp massaged some more. If I was a cat I would be purring. The rain, which started coming down gently some minutes ago is now hammering on the roof with such force that even a loud conversation is impossible. I drift, relax and let Deb do her magic. She's not taking off much, just the dead ends. Snip snip. It will make my life easier and I won't have to deal with a dead mouse in the bathroom every time I wash my hair. Then out come the GHDs, my frizz gets smoothed out and I am almost ready to go.
Murphy's Law clearly states that the level of effort and time spent at the salon will be destroyed by equally powerful force summoned by all weather Gods out there and the howling wind and drumming rain is confirming just that. I glance for the last time at my smooth curtain of hair and sigh. Before I get completely soaked and covered in mud from head to toe I will have the rare opportunity to prove to Deb that I simply missed my profession by picking up a camera rather than a pair of scissors or better, a brush and a hair dye. The hairdressers' own roots get covered and I hope I passed with flying colours.
Written for Soul Hair Design, Siem Reap
anna bella betts
Never still, always on the move, looking for the perfect capture... Cambodia is currently my home, presenting endless opportunities....
In this blog you will find no profound wisdom.
Just accounts of daily life, sometimes about photography, often about wine, occasionally about travel adventures and sometimes about nothing at all.