Tag 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.

Pix temple

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.

In praise of roommates and random conversations

By Alison Bate

My French roommate Julien is practising his Occitan, a language I’d never heard of until he moved in four months ago.

Julien and the Occitan flag

Julien and the Occitan flag

Julien is from Toulouse and he showed me a beautiful YouTube video called Mon Pais, accompanied by a rousing patriotic song. The language of Occitan sounds like a cross between French and Spanish which, of course, it is.

Glorious snowcapped mountains, sweeping white beaches and unbearably cute limestone villages in southern France floated by as Occitan subtitles spread across the screen.

Meanwhile in our apartment, the red and yellow flag of Occitan has pride of place next to Julien’s computer. I made the mistake of saying: “It looks a bit like the Crusades flag.” He visibly blanched and rushed to correct me “No, it’s the opposite of that,” he said, launching into an extended history of Occitan. I quickly apologised.

The other day, I bought two colorful cups from the crockery bicycle woman, to supplement our meagre selection. When I returned to our apartment, Julien immediately grabbed the red one. “Ah, the colour of Occitan,” he cried.

“Of course, that’s why I chose it,” I murmured.

In the evenings, Julien often plays a strategy game called Europa Universalis, which starts in medieval times and seems to involve colonising the world. He’s the president of Occitan, of course, centred on his home town of Toulouse. “I’m going to take Canada next,” he warned, knowing I live in Vancouver.

When I came home from work, true enough, the whole of Canada belonged to him, as well as the U.S.

“I hope you’re a benevolent dictator,” I said.

“Of course and I’m not a dictator. The Americans just asked for freedom and I’ve given it to them.”

The Occitan phase seems to have faded and Julien’s moved on to another strategy game, set in the wilds of Manitoba, where he is fiercely defending his cabin from attacks by wolves.

The headless pig

Living in Hanoi, I’ve learned a lot from my roommates. Before Julien, I shared with two very different friends in this same apartment.

First there was Sarah, a British friend who loved shopping in the local markets in Nghi Tam and Au Co. I’d return after teaching at night to home-cooked dhal or glass noodle salad and long monologues about the wonderful bitter melon or okra she’d bought that day.

In particular, I recall Sarah’s misadventures with a headless pig. I’d been away for New Year’s on vacation and when I returned, she told me about her time over New Year’s Eve.

On January 1, she had a stinking hangover and vague memories of dragging colleagues onto the dance floor surfaced.  “Shouldn’t have caned it last night,” she told herself, before deciding: “Food, healthy food – that’s what I need.”

She left the apartment and headed down the alley to the street market. She bought her usuals – tomatoes, cukes and garlic – and some tofu so fresh it was still steaming.  Then it was time to get some meat.

The meat lady was a youngish woman, hair tied back in a ponytail, and wearing a dirty beige cotton shirt. She didn’t have much on offer, but a lot of women were hanging around expectantly and Sarah waited, too.

Suddenly a man on a motorbike pulled up beside the meat lady with a headless pig straddled on the back, riding pillion, its trotters on either side of the seat.  The driver plonked it down, still bleeding, and the meat lady calmly proceeded to cut it up. Sarah rubbed her hands, excited to buy meat clearly so fresh. She ended up with a kilo of pork for 70,000 dong and went home well pleased at getting such a good deal.

Back home, she settled in and began making a Chinese pork stew with star annise. She started cooking the meat, but whenever she checked it was still tough. Three and a half hours later, it was still chewy. She finally gave up.

“It was diabolical and then I had to eat it for the whole week,” she told me.

“Such a shame there was none left when I got back,” I said.

Going upmarket

After Sarah left Hanoi, an Aussie friend – Chris – moved in and the apartment went decidedly more upmarket. An electric kettle, toaster and proper wine glasses appeared in short order, and Chris hung a huge maroon fan on the wall as a centrepiece. Textile pieces from ethnic tribes around Sapa followed suit, as well as local lacquer paintings of Vietnamese women in conical hats.

Pix Chris on her bike

Biking with Chris near West Lake

We biked around West Lake, she learned to ride a Honda Cub and the conversations changed, too. Instead of food and students (Sarah and I were both teachers), our talks turned to sexual trafficking in Vietnam and the crappy Australian government.

After a visit to Ha Giang province, Chris told me how some of the older local men complained about the revealing dresses worn by women returned from China after being sexually trafficked. As though it was their fault!

Chris is from Adelaide and we both complained about our governments: Canada had Stephen Harper at the time and Australia had Tony Abbott, who made even Stephen Harper mellow by comparison.  I learned all about the damage Abbott was causing to those who needed social services and the cruelty of offshore detention camps such as Nauru.

Chris is back in South Australia but returned for a visit to Hanoi earlier this year, full of envy that Canada now has a more socialist government headed by Justin Trudeau, with a gender-balanced cabinet and ministers with real-life experience. And Australia? Well, Australia has Malcolm Turnbull. Say no more.

Random knowledge

When I was in my early thirties, a Canadian friend about the same age moved into his own place. “Having roommates is something you grow out of,” he told me with absolute certainty.

Clearly, I haven’t.  Living overseas, roommates are especially important buffers and have added greatly to my enjoyment and comfort.  I’ve also picked up copious amounts of random knowledge from hanging out around other people’s brains.

How else would I learn about Occitan, ladies’ fingers and Australian offshore detention camps?

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



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

Friday night in Hanoi

Kids watching the flag-folding ceremony at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi

Kids watching the flag-folding ceremony at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi

It’s Friday night in Hanoi and the Mausoleum is like a gigantic playground.

Barefoot toddlers and pre-schoolers run around in circles, dads hoist kids on their shoulders, and moms guard strollers, teddy bears and surplus clothes.

Shrieks of laughter fill the night air, a pleasant change from the impatient beep-beeps in the background from motorbikers on nearby Hung Vuong Street

The Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, which holds the embalmed remains of the former president, is lit up in pinkish red, like an empty opera stage just before a performance.

Kids and parents playing at the Mausoleum on Friday night.

Kids and parents playing at the Mausoleum on Friday night.

The field in front is also floodlit, adding to the dramatic air, and criss-crossed with paths full of young people walking in T-shirts, shorts and capris and the occasional older woman wearing loose pyjamas.

Suddenly a whistle blows and the crisply-pressed white uniformed guards move into action, gently clearing the square of toddlers and their parents and pushing the crowd back into the grassy area.

But they don’t leave. On a path parallel to the square, the kids sit down and their parents stand behind them, all in a row, all clearly waiting for something to happen.

Martial music begins to play, and the adults sing along. Then from the left, a troop of the white uniformed guards marches three-by-three across the square toward the giant flag in front o the mausoleum. The flag is slowly lowered to triumphal music and folded away by one of the guards.

The crowd slowly drifts over to the motorbike park, and dad and mom drive off with their little kids squashed between them on the back of the motorbike. The square empties quickly and Ho Chi Minh is left in peace again.

(Posted April 17, 2012 by Alison Bate)

Sufi dancers in Omdurman

Pix Sufi dancers in Omdurman


Sufi dancers in Omdurman

It seemed an indelicate way to arrive at a religious ceremony. We bumped in, out and around gravestones set in desert scrub, before pulling up in the minivan in front of a huge circle of men in white robes.

The pounding beat got louder as we walked to the edges of the circle and saw what they were all watching: green, red and leopard-clothed mystics swirling and dancing in a hypnotic fashion in the middle of the circle.

Their faces told the story: blissful is the only way to describe it. The bumpy ride forgotten, all things forgotten but the compelling dancing, chanting and smiling faces.

It was Friday evening in Omdurman and I’d never seen the Sufi dancers before, despite living in Sudan for five months in 2007. At the time it seemed too touristy, and a long way to go on my one day off a week. Big mistake. Continue reading

pix of man in Kassala

10 travel tips for Sudan

1. Take lots of US dollars in cash, in fact everything you’ll need, as none of your western ATMs or credit cards will be accepted.

2. Change money on the black market, not in banks or official exchanges. As of Dec.1, 2011 you’ll get about 4.2 Sudanese pounds to $1 US on the black market, compared with only about 2.75 SP to the dollar officially.
To change money in downtown Khartoum, the moneychangers’ area is near the Al Kabir mosque, on the northeast side, where they also sell cellphones, ones that likely fell off the back of a truck. Just wander along and you’ll hear plenty of murmurings of: “Change dollars?”

3. If you are travel light or backpacking, don’t bother with a big towel (you’ll dry quickly without one) or lots of soap, toothpaste etc (all readily available and cheap).

4. If you like reading, bring a few books or your e-Reader as pickings are pretty slim for English books, and more likely of the deadly “Elements Of English Grammar” kind.

5. If you want to meet up with local people, everyone uses a cellphone in Sudan and they’re really useful. A cheap cellphone is about $10 US, then pick up a Zain SIM card for about 5 SP ($1.25 US) and a 10 SP top-up card (about $2.50). Continue reading

Coffee and lamb fright in Kassala

Pix Alison Bate and Sudanese man in Kassala

Drinking Ethiopian coffee in Kassala, East Sudan

By Alison Bate

I went to look at the striking Taka Mountains yesterday, but as is the way in Sudan, never quite made it, sidetracked by friendly people at the street cafes.

I’m in a cute little town called Kassala, a long, eight-hour bus ride east of Khartoum. The bare mountains rise up suddenly out of the desert and pulled me toward them. I was heading there when I wandered by a store selling all kinds of luscious desserts. I bought a Sudanese baklava, which you order by weight (so I couldn’t just get one), and sat down to eat them. Continue reading

Khartoum at dawn

I ‘ve just arrived in Khartoum after a four-year gap, and this morning between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m., it was pretty magical.

Pix Khartoum shepherds

Khartoum shepherds feed their flock in the early morning

After a sleepless, jetlagged night, I went up to the rooftop of the Bougainvilla Guest House, where I’m staying.

It was still dark, the moon and stars were out, and a cool breeze swept across the patio. Four or five mosques started competing with each other, and the mullahs’ prayers bounced all around the darkened city.

I stayed up there until the skies began to lighten, and the sun landed on the concrete buildings below and little birds with fanned tails flitted around the dirt streets. Khartoum by day is a hot and dusty city, so it was neat to see it this way.

No one in the city seemed in a hurry to wake up. A donkey cart and driver ambled across the dirt square below, and the air smelled of burnt sand. I wandered along one of the streets, where a few sleepy people were heading to work.

And after breakfast I’ll have all the fun of sorting out registering with the police and getting a SIM card.

(Posted Sat. Nov.19, 2011 by Alison Bate)

Selecting tech toys for my trip to Sudan

I can pack a backpack or suitcase for a trip in under an hour, but deciding what tech toys to take is another ballgame altogether.

I spent a ridiculous amount of time researching cellphones and agonizing about whether to take my beloved Macbook with me.

I’m meeting various friends in Khartoum, and everyone uses cellphones there. But of course, many Canadian cellphones (sigh) – including my own – don’t work outside North America. The cellphone with my Telus account doesn’t even have a SIM card, and I foolishly gave away my old unlocked FIDO phone, which would work overseas. I toyed with buying one of Future Shop or 7/11 ‘s unlocked phones, but all the online research drained my limited shopping energy.

So while in Bahrain on a second tedious eight-hour stopover, I bought a $27 US Nokia 1616. Hopefully, it’ll work with a Sudanese SIM card. I’m sure it will – the Sudanese seem to do cellphones better than Canada.

As for my MacBook, I couldn’t face worrying about losing it (and all my pix and personal data). So two days before leaving, I bought a cheapo HP 10.1” Intel Atom N455 Netbook for $249 plus tax from Nanaimo’s Future Shop. Asked them to load Skype and VLC to save time, and set up the Arabic version too. My friend David kindly installed a spare copy of Microsoft Office, and I was all set to go.

My other toy – definitely an indulgence – is a Zoom H4Ns digital recorder that cost $319 plus tax from Tom Lee’s store in downtown Vancouver. It replaces my fancy Sony minidisc recorder, which is basically obsolete after four years of minimal use, and had annoying proprietary software that never worked. The new Zoom seems to download MP3s easily via a USB port. Thank you, Zoom.

And, of course, when I got to Khartoum (just last night) all I wanted to do was write longhand in a ruled notebook . . .

(Posted Saturday, Nov.19, 2011 by Alison Bate)