Category Archives: Travel

The eerie past at Bokor Hill

By Alison Bate

I went up a mountain today, and came down much the wiser.

It was a glorious sunny day in Kampot, too hot as usual, and I hoped it would be cooler at the top of the mountain.

As we started up the winding road to Bokor Hill station, our Cambodian driver/guide said casually: “My grand-grandfather helped build this road. Nearly 1,000 people died during construction.”

Whoa. I stopped gazing at the view as he explained that harsh working conditions, backbreaking labour and malaria all took their toll on the prisoners/indentured servants before the road was finally completed in 1925.

We learnt some chilling history about the plateau. After the inauspicious start building the road, Bokor became a pleasant retreat for the French colonials and King Sihanouk to escape the relentless heat in Cambodia. But a few years after they left, the Khmer Rouge moved in and planted thousands of land mines at the base of the mountain to protect themselves and ventured out to intimidate and massacre the villagers below.

pix old church

The old Catholic church at Bokor in 2017

It took the Vietnamese invading Cambodia to bring about the end Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. The two sides fought at the top of Bokor Hill, trading fire between the Palace Hotel and Casino (pictured above) and the old Catholic Church (right). The Vietnamese eventually succeeded but outstayed their welcome, remaining in Cambodia for 10 years after toppling the Khmer Rouge.

Afterward, the starving villagers came up to plunder anything they could get hold of, stripping away wood and fittings from the sturdy buildings. The road fell into disrepair and the buildings continued crumbling.

Even on a sunny day, it’s still spooky to see the derelict Palace Hotel and Casino, the old Catholic Church and the graffitti-covered remnants of the Black Palace, the summer palace for the Cambodian royal family.

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Temple at the top of Bokor Hill (Pix: Alison Bate)

There’s been a renaissance of sorts. A good tarmac road up the mountain was rebuilt in 2003 and at the very top, temples are being repaired and have a wonderful view to the coast and beyond, with Phu Quoc island visible offshore. Sadly, new buildings nearby jar horribly with the faded beauty of the older buildings and classic temples. The Sokha Thansur Resort hotel is soulless and a new convention centre  under construction looks like a giant aircraft hangar.

It’s the scenery and history that attracts tourists like myself for day trips from Kampot, just 36 kilometres away, and from the beach scene at Sihanoukville.

Halfway down the mountain, it started to pour and we laughed in sympathy as our minibus driver let out two young Germans to meet a dripping guide, ready to hike the rest of the way. Like many other visitors, they’d come over from the beaches at Sihanoukville to see Bokor Hill Station. Bracketing beaches and hiking with learning about Cambodia’s terrible past.

Later in the week, I was in Phnom Penh, deciding what to visit. On Trip Advisor, the top two most popular things to see were the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (the Killing Fields) and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, code-named S-21.

I went to S-21, a high school converted into a prison and interrogation centre by the Khmer Rouge. At least 12,000 people died here and only a handful survived between 1975 and 1979. The buildings were remarkably similar to a high school I’d taught at in Hanoi, Vietnam the previous year — French colonial cookie-cutter school, I imagine.

It seemed ghoulish to be visiting these places. But then I looked around at the continuous stream of mostly 20-something backpackers listening intently to the audio guides as they walking quietly around the buildings or sat on benches.

A generation who weren’t born when the Khmer Rouge killed one-quarter of Cambodia’s population. Learning and bearing witness. I came away saddened but heartened at the same time.

Coffee in Hanoi

I’m returning to Vietnam on vacation next month, and that got me thinking about the many hours I’ve spent in coffee shops in Hanoi, especially one on Ngu Xa in Truc Bach…

By Alison Bate

 The cafe owner smiles the smile of many mornings as she brings over my iced coffee and green tea chaser. I lean forward in my bamboo chair to stir the two-tone Nau Da, digging down with the long-handled spoon to mix in the condensed milk, navigating around the lumps of ice. The mixture curdles and sometimes looks like a work of art and other times a sludgy mess.

I take a sip of Nau Da and the chocolatey taste spreads inside my mouth, and an involuntary smile outside. A sip of the green Tra Da clears my palette and my mind.


A guardian at Cafe Pho, Hanoi (Photo by Alisher Sharip)

At the back of the Cafe Pho, the family shrine is graced with orange gladioli, three cans of Sprite, a blue tin of cookies, sticks of burned incense and other offerings. In another corner, a Ho Phap guardian casts a benign eye over the customers. The cat is not around today.

It’s 9 a.m, and the Cafe Pho on Ngu Xa is filling up. Two young guys read Bong Da sports newspaper and, less predictably, Phu Nu women’s newspaper. Others watch soccer on VTV3.

I watch as a triangular pattern continues all morning, with three businesses working in unison. A thirty-something couple and their two young boys have ordered Pho Ga and the owner yells their order up the street. The family could sit on small plastic stools at the chicken noodle stall a few doors away but choose to relax here in comfortable chairs. We watch as steaming bowls of the broth are brought down the street. The parents squeeze on fresh lime and add dipping and chilli sauce onto the noodles. Everyone tucks in.

Afterward, a woman in navy-and-white striped shirt comes over from across the street and rounds up empty noodle bowls. Back in front of her open room, she sends the white bowls along a bucket assembly line. Slops into dark blue container, pre-wash in white bucket, soapy wash in silver galvanized bowl, and rinse in sky-blue bowl. Finally, the clean bowls are stacked to dry in a pink meshed basket. Half-hidden behind her, two men sort herbs and bits of meat.

Now the woman in the striped shirt and her colleague are carrying the clean bowls in a pink basket to the Pho Ga stall at the top of Ngu Xa and return with the empty basket.

Above the little stores, songbirds chirp away in their pretty prisons, trapped in cages hung from precarious phone cables. Their tweets a pleasant backdrop to the revving of motorbikes, the clang of cutlery and the smell of wet noodles.

This evening, I’ll be teaching, but the morning is mine, all mine. I pull out Chapter 12 of my novel and begin writing.

Note: An earlier version appeared in Word Vietnam magazine in November 2014

Morning in Kalaw, Myanmar

By 6 a.m, I’m on the third floor patio of my hotel, listening to loudspeaker chants wafting over still-dark streets. I wrap my jacket around me and descend to the empty streets and head for the market.

Woman and child in Kalaw

Women and children in Myanmar often use natural suncream from the Thanaka plant

Outside the golden stupa, barefoot monks sing for their supper as they line up and move slowly past the village women, holding out black alms bowls. Many of the women wear thick toques or bobble-hats decorated with pom-poms against the morning chill. A row of lit sticks makes the simple ceremony curiously moving.

I sit in a little teashop afterward, eating a chapati still warm from the fire, along with side dishes of potato and onion chutney and a hot sauce. The cafe owner brings me sweet milky tea and a separate glass of green tea to wash it down.

Today it’s big market day in Kalaw and men in longhis or long skirts and women with checked headscarves are pouring into town on motorbikes or sitting on top of their produce packed into open-sided trucks. The women’s cheeks and noses are covered with a thick white paste from the Thanatka plant, which acts as a natural suncream.

A little later, macho men on their motorbikes hang around the tree, smoking and gossiping.

BlogBikersKalawWhen I return to the Golden Kalaw Hotel, three westerners in their 20s are huddled over smart phones in the little reception area, , trying to make the most of the spotty Wifi in Myanmar. ‘Look up! Go outside and see what you are missing!” I feel like saying.

But then I go to my bedroom and check to see that my iPad is charging properly.


Rich red earth north of Kalaw, Myanmar



General Giap goes home

By Alison Bate

Crowds pressed in to try and see the funeral procession of General Vo Nguyen Giap in Hanoi on Oct.12, 2013.

Crowds press in to try and see the funeral procession in Hanoi Sunday.

The body of General Giap was escorted from Hanoi to his home town in Quang Binh province for burial.

A woman tries to hand over chrysanthemum flowers to an officer for placing with other wreaths in Hanoi Sunday.

A woman tries to hand over chrysanthemum flowers to an officer for placing with other wreaths in Hanoi Sunday.

An officer holds a poster commemorating General Giap on Hoang Dieu, Hanoi on Sunday.

An officer holds a poster commemorating General Giap on Hoang Dieu, Hanoi on Sunday.

From Darfur to Salt Lake City

I had just boarded the ferry at Horseshoe Bay in Canada when my cellphone rang.

The line crackled and it took a while to realize who it was.

“Is that you, Mohammed*?

“Yes! I am here! I am so happy – everyone is so kind.”

“Where are you?”

I learned he was finally in Salt Lake City in the western U.S. It was the end of five long years in limbo in Turkey, desperately waiting to find a country that would take him in.

I first met Mohammed in the dusty desert capital of Khartoum in Sudan. It was 2007, and I was teaching English there. He was one of my more advanced students, always working hard to improve his English.

I left Sudan and the school later that year but kept in touch with Mohammed by email and Facebook. He completed his studies at Sudan University of Science & Technology, but had a difficult time in Khartoum and his time in Darfur before that is his story to tell, not mine.

The next thing I knew, it was 2008 and he’d fled to Turkey as an asylum seeker. Two years later, he received formal recognition as a refugee. However, Turkey only gives temporary asylum to refugees from non-European Union countries. So, like many others, Mohammed was stuck waiting for another country to take him in.

I tried to get him accepted by Canada, but had no luck with the United Nations refugee agency in Vancouver. In the end, it was the U.S. that accepted him.

Last week, five long years after he fled Sudan, Mohammed arrived in the United States to begin his new life.

Welcome to North America, Mohammed, and may your future be bright.

*NOTE: Mohammed is not his real name

[Posted by Alison Bate on Sept. 29, 2013]

Pix Alison Bate

Writing in Hanoi

Author and writing instructor Julie Ferguson asked me to write a guest blog about my experience writing a novel while living overseas. Here’s the article in full:

Hanoi is a surprisingly good place to write a book.

The capital of Vietnam boasts good coffee shops with Wifi, teaching jobs where you don’t have to work too hard to cover rent, and the jostle of 3.5 million other motorbikes that stimulates creativity.

It’s a total contrast to my home on Bowen Island in western Canada, where deer roam the yard and only the whining of chainsaws breaks the peace.

Writing in two very different settings, I’ve realised that wherever I live there are other writers around to help during the long, lonely journey of working on a first draft.

My roommate Tom introduced me to the Hanoi Writers Collective in April 2012, and throughout the next 12 months, the expat group became the lifeline that kept my novel moving along.

We were a mixed bunch, coming from different countries and writing in very different genres. Andy Engelson was writing an epic novel based in the U.S. Pacific Northwest; Diederik Prakke, about Buddhists in love; Mary Croy and Liz Burgess, sci-fi for young adults; Charlotte Adams, poetry; and Linda Mazur, a nonfiction study of the early Vietnamese architects in Hanoi.

And I was (and still am!) writing a novel set in modern Sudan, where I taught in 2007 and re-visited in 2011. Our members also attended Noi Ha Noi, where Vietnamese and English-speaking poets, writers, and storytellers read their work in their native language. The Vietnamese poetry was then translated into English and vice versa. A tough challenge for the translators!

Our main writing group met every two weeks and we took it in turns to bring in a writing prompt, free-write for 20 minutes or so, then read our poetry or prose out loud. Afterward, we critiqued each other’s work, emailed to others in advance. (Ed: not all groups follow this format.)

From these sessions, I learned:

* Even if colleagues write in a very different genre, you can still help each other. Poets helped me appreciate the sounds of words and creative writers encouraged me to use my imagination.

* If at least two people make the same suggestion, it’s a good idea to explore it. For example, my novel was originally written  in third person from one point of view, but is now told from three points of view. It’s much stronger, as a result.

* Meeting regularly encouraged me to write a new chapter each time, and actually finish it – instead of lazily writing “snappy ending goes here”.

* If there isn’t a writing group where you live, you can always start one. I’ve spent the summer back on Bowen Island and a small group of us are now sharing our writing.

I’m heading back to Hanoi shortly, and look forward to reconnecting with the other writers – and keeping the novel moving toward the finish line.

Sailing in Pelegrin in the Gulf Islands

Gabriola Pass without an engine

“You won’t get any thanks for this, you realize?”

My brother-in-law John is talking to Mickey, a Gabriola Island buddy with a 35-foot sailboat and the willingness to tow us home.

“Not the damsels-in-distress routine, you mean?”

“God, no, that’s not going to work. Won’t go over at all well.”

Gill and I are on her veteran Martin 29 sailboat, with a dead engine and limping in light to zero winds back to Degnen Bay after four nights in the Gulf Islands in Canada.

The rusty but usually reliable Volvo engine, circa 1974, had a couple of starting hiccups before we set sail. But nothing that Gill – my twin sister – didn’t think a good engine run wouldn’t solve.

The first day, we beat south on “Pelegrin” from Gabriola to Prevost, a quiet island opposite Saltspring.  A steady five-knot SE kept us sailing and happy all day, before dropping anchor in Glenthorne Passage around 7pm. The biggest decision of the day? How much carrot cake to eat.

Our engine woes began the second day. Continue reading

Ten things I’ll miss about Hanoi

Liz, one of my colleagues at work, asked me last night what I’ll miss about living in Hanoi. It’s the people I’ll miss the most when I leave next month, of course. But I’ve also grown to love, in a strange sort of way, the following:

Tall and thin houses in Hanoi –  to beat the tax on the width frontage

Tall and thin– to beat the tax on the width frontage

* Motorbikes in the living room.

* Jockey-cap motorbike helmets designed to fall apart at the slightest accident

* Tall thin houses

* Impossibly thin motorbike cops

* Just throwing the garbage in the alley for the recycle ladies to collect

* Cafe sua da – good iced coffee for under a dollar

* Fresh pineapple for sale with all the hard work taken care of – cut up and ready to eat

* Fresh fruit shakes made out of bananas and pineapple

* Students with the same name in one class: three Thao’s, three Hoa’s, two Nguyen’s, etc

* “When my grandpa was a boy, He was a lot like me…” and other Family and Friends gems

* And, of course, the rat in the photocopier

Preparing the Tet trees in Hanoi

Au Co workers in Hanoi take a quick break from moving and hauling kumquat trees for Tet

Au Co workers in Hanoi take a quick break from moving and hauling kumquat trees for Tet

Quite a balancing act

A tough balancing act, taking a kumquat tree home in Hanoi, Vietnam

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Not so easy loading a heavy peach tree onto a motorbike

I live in Au Co, near the orchards and flower market, and the main road right now is a manic mess of motorbikes, flower sellers on bikes, and walking and moving trees.

It’s just days before Tet and everyone in Hanoi is buying a kumquat tree for good luck in the coming Lunar New Year. Kumquats look like really cute baby mandarin orange trees, and according to one of my Vietnamese colleagues, it’s very important the tree has “good posture”. Not standing up straight, but a pretty shape.These trees are typically carried to their new homes by stern-looking motorbike drivers, miraculously balancing them on the backs of their bikes.

The branches of pink-blossomed peach trees are also popular and I’ve even seen heavily-bonsai’d dragon fruit trees on the move.

More and more lilies and chrysanthemums are emerging for sale in little side lots, along the sides of roads and as a sideline. Even the juice bar near the school I work at has started selling small trees and flowers out front.

Continue reading

Pix motorbikes in hanoi

No. 132 passes the motorbike test in Hanoi

By Alison Bate

I’m finally legal, after five months of zoom-zooming around Hanoi.

Yesterday, I went to pick up my Vietnamese motorbike license, after a long, tortuous but entertaining ride.

Like nearly everyone here in Hanoi, I’ve broken rules that I wouldn’t dream of flouting in Canada. I’ve ridden my Yamaha Nuovo daily without a license and without insurance; I’ve carried passengers without a helmet; and occasionally even ridden the wrong way down main roads. All because that’s what the Hanoians do, and it’s simply the best way to get around the city.

It’s a nerve-wracking experience at first, driving on the crazy, noisy no-rules streets. After a while, though, you get used the rhythm of the traffic and learn to never look back.

I’ve never been stopped by the police and if I had been, the advice was simple: pretend you don’t speak any Vietnamese. As most of the police don’t speak English, either, they are very reluctant to stop westerners or Tays, as we are called.

But now, after endless paperwork, getting a Vietnamese car license, a battery of photos, a medical and a figure-of-eight driving test, I’m finally legal.

Ten days ago, I joined four other colleagues at Language Link for the final big hurdle: the practical test.
Continue reading