Thursday, 5 December 2013

R.I.P Mr. Mandela



Back in 2008 while I traveled up from Cape Town through Southern Africa I had the chance not only to climb Table Mountain but also visit a site of importance to the world.













This site is none other then the former leper colony turned penitentiary of Robben Island.

















The world knows this place as the home for 27 years to Nelson Mandela, who today sadly passed and left us at the age of 95.

For my whole life I grew up seeing him on TV and hearing stories about him.

I remember seeing him released from prison and seeing him on the TV being sworn in as South Africa's first black president.

His legacy will live on as in death he will still have a massive presence in the worlds conscience.

It is not often you see the passing of someone so remarkable and great that the world mourns all as one. A collective tear drips from the eyes of the entire planet.

Nelson Mandela is someone who all school kids in the future should be made aware of. He will never have an equal and will never be forgotten.

When I stood in the drill yard at Robben Island it felt cold than it should. The sun seemed to disappear and the shadows ruled.
the quarry is a terrible sight on the island. The blinding sun would radiate off the white stones and cause irreparable damage to the eyes. Countless people suffered and suffered all in the name of apartheid. A dirty word and something that must never be repeated.

Robben island is frequented by cape penguins. They waddle along without a care in the world looking happy and silly. Somehow they seem so lost on this place that has seen so much suffering.

Looking back at the mainland from the island I could almost feel the struggle inmates must have felt. knowing that just across the waters were loved ones and friends and freedom. But between them was treacherous water, sharks, cold and guards with guns.

I looked at the island from the top of table Mountain. I was lucky that the table cloth cloud had lifted and my panoramic views were unspoiled and gorgeous.

From this side I could see why that island had made such a good prison. the African Alcatraz.


I never met the guy or saw him from afar. Nevertheless he made an impression on me and I sat down to read Long Walk to Freedom and have seen many of the biopics made about him.

Today is a day everyone should write in their diary 'Nelson Mandela sadly died'. A day of sadness in history but a day where everyone will remember him for the good he caused.

His statue in Parliament square I assume will be awash with flowers tomorrow.
Rest in peace Mr. Mandela, rest in peace.
The smiling face of Mr. Mandela can be seen in Brick lane






Friday, 29 November 2013

Animals, animals everywhere

The sun was so fierce on my head that it felt like it was penetrating through my thick hair and boiling my scalp.

The air so dry that when you perspired it instantly evaporated.

What started as a bitterly cold morning was now 'Mad dogs and Englishman' time of day as the African sun smashed down onto the parched ground.

I held on for dear life; fingers white from gripping as I stood peering out of the roof of a safari jeep; as it hammered along the dirt tracks worn by countless explorers, tourists, hunters and wardens before us.

Clouds of dust filled the air and the breeze that buffeted my face was as warm as when you open an oven.

To my left were hundreds of wildebeest and to my right I could see the giant outline of distant elephants slowly, methodically plodding along. Every so often stopping to snap a branch off with their trunks and devour what ever greenery there was on it.

The wildebeest fascinated me. They seem so ungainly and as if they are still learning to walk like a calf would.

Our jeep startled them and they in unison all started to run away. As soon as they reached a distance that they deemed safe they came to a stop.

Not a normal stop but a ridiculous one where their front legs stop and their hind quarters try and over take them!
Somehow they managed to come to an awkward stop and remain on all four hooves.

Here I was in the world famous Serengeti national Park in Tanzania and I felt as though I was inside an Attenborough documentary.

The wildlife was abundant and soon I would see every type of gazelle and antelope, buffalo, wild birds, warthogs and baboons.

Baboons sitting lazily in the shade their large red arses proudly pointing in our direction as they gingerly picked fleas from each other stared at them intently and then plopped them in their mouths.

They sat my the waters edge of a stream oblivious to the large crocodiles that basked warming their cold blood in the heat of the day.

I had arrived the day before and as our jeep drove away from civilization and into the wilderness where the landscape became more barren and wild I felt like I was on a true adventure.


After hours of driving along dirt roads with no sign of any human habitation you enter the world famous park through a large gateway.

It seems odd that this gate was there. It seemed out of place, but it was nice to pass through it and know that you had finally entered the famous, fabled and much wrote about place.

I could not resist getting a cheeky photo underneath it with no one around for miles and miles.


Out of all the animals I saw including lions which roamed so close to our jeep that I could zoom in on them in my camera.

Seeing what has been known as the king of the jungle or king of the Savannah as it should be called up so close and personal was a pure delight.

A lion walks so royally, majestically and each paw seems to hesitate a tiny microsecond before touching the ground as if the lions is checking to see if the ground is worth of a paw print.

But out of all the animals I saw there is one that really stole my heart. One animals so abundant and so over looked that people ignore their beauty.

To me this animals is why I came on this trip back in 2009. This animal is one of the many reasons I am in love with Africa and keep coming back to see her.

This animal is the humble, but beautiful zebra.

To be honest I am not sure why I like them so much but they make me smile and seem so fantastically designed. Those stripes are just so good that you cannot draw or sketch them perfectly and believe me I have tried.

The noises they make are truly wonderful. How do you describe it. Its somewhat a hybrid sound of a dog yapping mixed with some electro tone. I just love it.

The grunts of the wildebeest and the roars of the lions combined with the trumpet of the mighty elephant can be heard aloud. But the zebra is quiet until startled and then that made up silly noise erupts and a smile creeps across my face.

I have been in Africa for long periods of my life but one thing I always wanted to see and experience was the Serengeti.

Now I was finally here and I was loving the experience. Seeing animals that normally people would see only on the TV.

That evening we camped in an open area that could have been ravaged by lions but wasn't likely to be. However what it was likely to encounter was roaming herds of warthogs and zebras.

I woke in my tent and needed to empty my bladder badly. Normally I would have a bottle in the tent to avoid running into a warthog that will take a nice chunk out of your calf with its tusks. Sadly the bottle I had was full of water and I didn't want to waste it.

I opened the zip and wandered a small way from the tent. I had a torch in my hand and shone the beam through the thick black cold night.

The beam hit trees and bushes, the jeeps and other tents and then lit up in the eyes of several zebras looking confused back at me.

Bladder emptied it was back to sleep and a warm sleeping bag.

I woke in the morning after what I think was a wild pig snuffling into the side of the tent a few times and sending my head askew.

At this time of the morning the mist and dew is out, it is bitterly cold and you layer up.

Ii was cleaning my teeth outside when I heard some crashing. I looked up and a giant bull elephant had appeared in the camping ground.

He was about 100 yards away and happily munching away.

Some of the local Masai were sitting on their hunches in the bushes watching him. Had they been there all morning or night even?

This was another opportunity too good to miss and I edged closer stupidly to the elephant. The resulting photo was a classic but the guide and the Masai seemed a little peeved at me that I had done that.

As the day grew longer the heat rose and soon it was incredible.

With the sun beating down it was another chance to explore and see the animal magic that was waking for the day or in the case of the lions drifting off to sleep and panting heavily.

I truly love Africa.















Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The sacred pools of Paga

Have you ever fondled the tail of a crocodile?
That is not the sort of question you get asked that often, or ever even!

You can hardly describe a giant prehistoric beast with rows of evil looking teeth as an animal that you would want to cuddle up to.

Stories from Crocodile Dundee and travels in darkest Africa have told over the years of horrific crocodile attacks and near misses.

Therefore this picture of me holding a tail of one such beast needs explaining.


Way back in 2005-06 I was a volunteer teacher in Ghana. Because teachers get a bit of time off during the holidays I traveled the country.

One such trip saw me up near the Burkina Faso border in the small frontier town of Paga.

Paga is not too far from the capital of Ghana's Upper East Region of Bolgatanga.

Famous for one thing more than any. That of course is the famous crocodile pools of Paga.

It is a strange story of how Paga came to have these 'tame' crocodiles. One such story is that 1200 years ago a man called 'Naveh' was saved by a crocodile while out hunting.
Saved from what? whom or how it is unclear!

The locals of Paga which include both people either side of the border believe that the crocodiles contain the souls of deceased ancestors.

Therefore they believe that humans cannot be harmed by these crocs.

I arrived on a hot tro tro (mini bus) from Bolgantanga and stepped off stretching my legs after sitting next to a lady breastfeeding a baby who also had a months supply of vegetables on her lap.

I wandered down to the pools which are clearly signposted and unmissable as apart from crossing the border are the main reason people will come here.

Ok I thought, maybe it is slightly cruel to treat crocodiles as objects for photographs but curiosity got the better of me.
I also thought that maybe these crocs were not as docile as made out to be.

Standing on the edge of the pool but well out of of lunging crocodile attack distance I observed what was going on.

Locals would take someone to the pool after 'treating' the croc to a dead chicken which they threw at the beast.

The giant beast snapped greedily at the chicken and after chomping it down lay still in the sun soaking up the rays and heating its large body.

Being slightly dubious I wondered if maybe those chickens were in someway tranquilized or drugged in a way that made the crocs become docile.

Drugged or inhibited by friendly spirits never the less I paid my money to approach them and the man threw a chicken at a new beast that had emerged from the water.

'Do you want to lay him', the man said. I raised my eyebrows but knew he meant would I like to sit on its back.

Instead I held its tail in my hand as when I approached it started to move slowly and turned its large head so one eye was fixed on me.

Looking into that dead emotionless eye I knew this creature could rip me limb from limb if it wanted to.

'Sod sitting on that thing I though'. Instead I grabbed the tail and held it at arms length.

I could feel the beast move slowly and the muscles in the tail contract.

The man who asked me to 'lay' the crocodile approached and beckoned me to walk away.

Another massive crocodile was emerging from the water.

I followed the mans eyes and saw the lumbering shape slowly emerging from the shallows.

Definitely time to leave and I placed the tail back on the grass.

As I did the croc lurched forward and the tail swiped widely from side to side.

Checking to see the whereabouts of his mate I exited rather swiftly and walked to the safety of the red dirt road.

There were not many tourists there except a handful of us 'volunteer teachers' and one rather looking old lady. Locals must be used to scenes like this as apart from the man who fed the chickens there was no one paying any attention to us.


Later on I asked a few questions and got a few sketchy answers.

There were over 100 crocodiles in the pool at any time. No one seemed to know how many but as the pool was landlocked how did they come to be there?

That question drew a blank.

One observation I made however was that the locals do not fear these creatures. I saw an old lady washing her clothes in the shallows not 20 feet from the peering eyes of one crocodile peeping out of the water and creating a small ripple as he or she took breaths.

In some cases these crocodiles are treated as pets; it is very strange to see a man aimlessly wander past leading a donkey not five feet from a crocodile. He simply ignored it safe in the knowledge that he was safe. A strange sight to see.

Out of all the crocodiles in the world these are apparently and probably undoubtedly the most dare I say it 'tame'.

To be honest I believe it. Where else can you hold the tail of a 'wild' crocodile and live to tell the tale.

I am sure I wont be doing it anywhere else on my travels!













Monday, 18 November 2013

The White Desert





Back in 2011 I stood in the white desert in the pitch black. The hard rocky stone crunched under my feet as I tried to find a radio station on my little travel world receiver.
Suddenly through the static and sudden outburst of shouted Arabic I heard the dulcet tones of the BBC world service.
A voice came through the speaker and reached me sending me back to my days as an English teacher in Ghana where I would tune in everyday regularly.
The static crackled and then suddenly a voice as clear as day came through and the topic of conversation was the 'protests gathering momentum in Cairo'.
Then the voice and signal was lost in the desert and all became silent as I turned the radio off and walked back over to the camp fire where huddled under blankets a few Egyptians sat sipping tea with the other people from the three Toyota land cruisers that we had all crammed into.
The White desert is a beautiful lace. I sat and edged my way closer to the fire for warmth and reflected on a day of bumpy travel and magnificent landscapes.

The white desert also known as the Sahara el Beyda is a massive white sandy and chalky desert. Large chalky rocks have been shaped over the years by the winds and sands carried by them. Eroding them over time into brilliant shapes. Some are so large on top that they look like they will fall over and another one resembles a giant rabbit.

These rock formations where they are large on top are known as mushroom rocks and do resemble the fungi. We arrived bumpily off road and as I saw them a smile crept on to my face.
The desert certainly looked beautiful and when the sun was setting the large wind swept chalk rocks created long eerily glorious shadows that crept along the ground becoming more elongated as the sun sank below the horizon.

I sat staring into the hypnotic flames of the fire. The crackle of wood echoed through the surrounding deserts and if you strained your ears you could hear distant groups sitting around another camp fire chatting away.

There snippets of laughter and conversation became louder when the winds changed but still they seemed very far off in this giant expanse.
When you are in a desert the night becomes a treasure trove of stars. The sky lights up with twinkling beauty and you can lie on your back staring at them hoping to see a shooting star whiz into life and suddenly disappear again.

There is a calmness in a desert and a peace that I cannot find anywhere else. Especially at night after the searing heat of the day has been put away for the night.

The stillness and whistling melody of the winds can make you stand staring into the distance for hours on end. Lost in the thoughts running through your mind, time seems to stand still and nothing else matters as the stars twinkle overhead.

My mind went back to the voice on the radio and at that moment in time I wasn't concentrating on the Cairo riot madness that would be awaiting me and is another massive story entirely.Instead I was here in the present in a desert enjoying the stillness that engulfed me.


Nights can be cold in the desert as you wrap up and slowly as the fire urns down to embers migrate towards the coals in your sleeping bag.

The cold is worth every minute though as you wake to a glorious sunrise that slowly creeps alive revealing the wonder around you which were hidden by the cloak of darkness.

The sun chases away the shadow and the rock formations stand proud and un-moving. They look like at any moment their giant top heavy features will crumble and the small stack of chalk holding them up for centuries will suddenly give up and shatter.

The sun rises and with it the heat of the day starts to grow. The cold and stiff limbs that you have developed over the night are soon getting back to life and warming up and you shred layers of clothing worn from the evening around the fire.

The stillness is still there, but not as abundant. Coughs, splutters and the noise of a 4x4 starting up give a life to the atmosphere and it somehow seems like the desert is stirring.

The sun is now bright and you stare in wonder at the erosive power of time and wind. The rock formations look even more epic in the blazing sun which is now hot and sweaty.

Too much background noise take away something from the magical landscape so much so that I retreat into ipod mode to listen to some music that suits the surrounds.


I clamber back into the toyota and watch as the landscape moves and changes as we drive on. Onwards to the Western desert now. Another sandy slice of beauty.

I watch as after hours the last of the rock formations finally slip from view and enter the world of my memory, mind and imagination.







Sunday, 17 November 2013

The joy of maps




Maps, maps glorious maps. I can spend hours staring at every contour and place name near and far. 

Exotic sounding places that you dream of visiting and close your eyes to picture.
I have traveled near and far to see many of the places that I read on antiquated maps and still dream and desire of seeing more.

Maps have always enticed me, intrigued me and made me want to own them. 
Now as I get older I have acquired some. Some old, some new, some original and some reproduction. Some large, some small and some very large that they take up a whole wall and you clench your teeth when people touch it.
Maps adorn and embellish my house and I believe make it alive with the essence of travel and ancient cartographic beauty.

For me they are better than a photo of a place you have visited. They conjure up mystery and a wonder of what places are like.

To me the places I have visited come to life when I see their names on a map. Sighs, people, smells, tastes, experiences and inevitably a smile all return to me.

So many memories come flooding back and they are all contained within a map.

That piece of paper, parchment or canvas contains so many memories and emotions that no photo could ever conjure up.

For me a map is a true delight to the eye and memory.

I can stare at a map and my mind will transport me back to a place. Sometimes I am in Africa. Dusty, with a sun burnt nose teaching kids in a rundown classroom back in 2005.
Other times I am in the middle East standing at the top of a rocky outcrop looking out over the red sands at Wadi Rum. A scarf around my neck fluttering in the breeze.

Of course you can have a map related memory closer to home. Every time I see the name Pamplona my heart fastens and I remember the adrenaline rushes of running in front of bulls and the smell of sun stale sangria.

All this comes from a picture of a place on some paper.

Maps conjure up everything for me when to others they are merely prints.
To me a map is a story, a history, a glimpse into the past, present and future and mots important of all. A map is a tantalizing come and get me plea to travel again and again.




















Thursday, 17 October 2013

Looking back and wanting to do it all again!




Travel is the greatest thing I have ever done.


When I was young I stared at maps dreaming of the places with far-away names and exotic sounds that rolled off the tongue.

I would sit there learning capital cities and flags of all nations.

Then one day something brilliant happened. I grew up and went off to put pictures to those names.

Since that first moment as a solo traveller in the year 2000 aged 17 I have never looked back.

Back then I was a skinny little thing with eyes constantly readjusting to whatever I saw. Now I am still in awe at the wondrous things I see; but I see them with a mind that has seen a lot and still yearns to see more.

I look back at old pictures from trips past. Pangs of melancholia hit me and a feeling of wanting to do it all over again eats inside me insatiably.



This feeling in the pit of my stomach longs for me to travel again. I may have just got back, slung my backpack onto the floor and collapsed into a comfy chair with a cup of tea. Then suddenly that feeling strikes again and wills me to up sticks and travel again.

 Sometimes this can be seen as a hindrance as it has long kept me from having a 'proper job'. Now that I have a job that is full time and all-consuming travel and the feeling of uncontrollable longing to see more of the world hits even harder.

 
Therefore I have to treat it like a cake and have a slice at a time rather than disappear off for months on end like I used to do.

 
Now I have commitments, a house and a job and a rugby team who I seem to be mother to!


As time passes travel longings change and suit the times of your life. I don’t mean they become a longing for cruises when you get old. I mean that suddenly you seek thrills and danger as you get older and you want to see more cultured sides to the world. Then out of the blue you go on a crazy adventure that flies in the face of caution and all that I have said in this paragraph goes out the window.
I will never grow too old or too tired of travel. The world is a small place some say. In my opinion is it bloody massive and even if you have seen everywhere as the young Englishman in the news claims to have done so there is still  more to see.
In truth you can never truly see everything. But guess what, you can have a bloody brilliant time trying.
Cultures and countries will always throw something new at you. I never understood why people would holiday at the same resort every year. But I do a similar thing by going to Pamplona and Running with bulls each year.

Every time I go I see and experience new things and every time I return I long to go back.

 
I long to do it all over again.

Pick up my backpack and re-live my youth. Travel to those places that made me smile and I have great memories of.

Places such as Africa, Asia, the Middle East or whetrher it be in your own back yard.

Do it; explore and see the world. Become a modern day adventurer and explorer and follow those famous footsteps who went before you.

Travel to places new, old and places you would not normally consider.

Re-visit the past and your favourites and make new ones.


Would it be the same? Of course not; everything would be different as I am a different person than say when I saw getting pissed all the time and jumping off bridges in New Zealand.

Fun would be there but so would different opportunities and adventures.


That is why travelling will never become tiresome for me.

The world changes and so do people. Good places become bad, bad become good and things adapt.

 


If I had a child I would sit him down on my knee and give him one solid bit of advice.
 
See as much of the world as you can, I would say.
It will make you a better person, more aware more social and with a deeper understanding.
I urge everyone to travel and see our wonderful world. See all it has to offer.
Go to places that you are scared of and enjoy it. You never know what may happen while you are there!
 
Maybe I am still a big kid at heart because no matter what I find that I am drawn to and  still stare at maps!


Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Through the fridge

The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town





Imagine a bar hidden away only a stone’s throw from the bustling city and Liverpool Street station.

A hidden gem where you need a password to enter.

Well Imagine no more as such a place exists but it is now an open secret and has become a regular drinking haunt for many.

One day ages ago a friend of mine told me of a secret bar underneath a restaurant where you have to utter specific words and then you enter through a fridge to a world of milk and honey below.

I had to find this place for myself and from the very first moment I stepped into the fridge I was hooked.


I am of course talking about the bar underneath the Breakfast Club in Artillery Lane called the
Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town.

I entered the restaurant with some friends and was approached by a curvaceous and rather lovely waitress who asked us what we wanted. I as casual as I could said; “We are here to see the Mayor”.

With those magic words we were ushered over to a large white Smeg fridge. The door opened and instead of revealing milk, groceries and yogurts there was a flight of stairs that went down below.


We stepped into the fridge and the gloom and descended. As we did the noise of laughter and clinking of drinks grew louder. Every step we took the noises grew and soon we were at a door.

The door opened and lights illuminated us where we stood.
The Smeg fridge. The entrance to a new world!
We walked in and entered the Mayor.


From that moment I have made up countless excuses to show people I know that bar. Male, female, groups and even a gang of Aussie all entered the fridge and to their delight loved the experience.

The bar itself is decked out in old wooden panels. The tables’ and chairs are odd shaped and the d├ęcor is fantastic. A large moose head stand on the wall watching out over the punters and a sign saying ‘no heavy petting’ always raises an eyebrow.


The menu even has rules about the bar. For example if you leave you don’t come back out through the fridge, you leave via the toilets. It even politely asked you to play along and pretend you have been to the loos as you leave.

The toilets themselves are a joy. The men’s upstairs are wallpapered with skydiver cartoons. Over the years speech bubbles have been added and they are all about a skydiver called Barry being gay. “Did you know Barry was gay”, “Barry tried to touch me”, “I’m Barry” etc. You have to be careful to not pee on the floor as you crane your neck giggling and reading them.

Alternatively you can use the down stairs unisex loos which are plastered with old music posters from the 80s. Many of which you giggle at now but David Essex and Wet Wet Wet somehow suit these loos.

The menu is good too. The Mayor always reminds me of Spain and the Bull Run because you can get the big litre bottle of Cruz Campo cerveza which are sold in those parts.

Cocktails galore are on offer and I recommend the ones with a little absinthe or coffee in.


Every time I have been there I have wanted to go back.


This is a bar which grabs you and wants you to return.


There are so many London bars to choose from, but with its quirkiness and ideal central location I would highly recommend this one to all.

So maybe when you are in need of a little g and t to sooth your city shot nerves. Wander down Artillery lane and ask for the Mayor!


You never know, you may become hooked like me?



Sunday, 6 October 2013

Ta Prohm


Every so often you visit a place that blows you away.

It fills your mind with joy and wonderment and you cannot stop staring, exploring and soaking up the atmosphere.

One such place is the temple of Ta Prohm in Cambodia.

Cambodia is awash with beautiful temples from a bygone era. They litter the countryside in different states of ruin.
The more charming ones are those that were lost and re-discovered after years of abuse from Mother Nature.

Nature clawing her way back and re-taking the land she once occupied with dense forest.

Temple surrounded by large trees that have roots thicker than a man's torso wrestling through stone work distorting the buildings and the very foundations that they sit on.

There is something truly magnificent about seeing the slow power of nature that has inch by inch moved giants of stone and rock and created  a ruin that has such a strong character that it almost blows you away.

Ta Prohm is a short cycle ride or tuk tuk from the more famous Angkor Wat. A younger generation will know this temple from the Lara Croft Tomb raider films of the early 2000s.
A lot of jungle and temple scenes were filmed here in the heat and humidity of Cambodia.

I arrived in a tuk tuk from Siem Reap. Siem Reap is a brilliant city and gateway to the Angkor Archaeological park where you can visit numerous temples and send weeks upon weeks there and still not see it all.

I stepped off the tuk tuk and instantly thought I was gong to regret my visit here.
There were hundreds of Japanese tourists all over the place. All had masks on and many wore white gloves and matching baseball caps.
They all followed someone with a large pole with a red flag on it.

They were like a swarm of insects with cameras. They would descend on an area and click away before disappearing off to another area.
Then they all suddenly vanished.

They only came to see the famous part of a tree where the roots and the tree itself had grown through the entire wall.
They clicked away behind the security rope and then disappeared off to another temple.

Thus they left me all alone staring at this fantastic jungle ruin.


I almost had the place to myself; when I wandered round a corner I definitely did have it all to my lonesome.

I was in my element.
Because at the far reaches of this temple there are no rope barriers and the place is one massive climbing frame of exploration.

It was probably wrong of me to clamber over tumbled stones and giant roots penetrating the ground and making once straight walls look rippled. But I could not resist as I leaped from large boulder to boulder.
I stepped up on to ledges and peered through windows into the gloom.
Roots, branches and moss covered stones bigger then my house and Ii was in my element.

To me this was bliss. Here I was thousands of miles from home in a land where people smile and the sun beat down. Not only that but I was inside a world heritage monument and one I just did not want to leave.


I had t touch and feel the rocks, stones and roots. I needed to feel it tangibly with my fingers and feel part of the place.

This has been here for a long time, and will out live me. I was but a millisecond of its history but I wanted to saver it. Ta Prohm may see thousands of people a year and she may never remember me but I will never forget her and I wanted as much of her as I could greedily swallow up.

Ta Prohm was largely built in the late 12th and early 13th centuries and was originally called Rajavihara. She became a world heritage site as listed by UNESCO in 1992.

I looked at the stone and wondered how on Earth they built this back all those years a. The labour, power and effort must have been out of this world.

The jungle may be claiming her back but it is carefully managed and kept looking as it is for tourists who flock here and make it almost as visited as Angkor Wat.

My time was coming to an end here. I clambered round one last time taking in all I could muster. At one point I held a rock that had fallen from a wall. 
In the palm of my hand sat a piece of history and a piece of a monument that will fill my dreams for years to come.

I placed the rock down and walked off. Before jumping back into a tuk tuk I turned to gaze at her once more.
The sun was setting and the jungle gloom surrounding the temple.

One day I will see you again I thought as I put putted away, the tuk tuk belching out black smoke and ruining the tranquility!














Tuesday, 1 October 2013

A man called Aki Ra




The cool breeze rushed against my face and dried my mouth as I smiled. I sat back, relaxed and watched as the world went by. Small villages, buses full of school kids and tractors pulling gigantic loads.





Here I was in Cambodia travelling along a country road in a tuk tuk about an hour outside Siem Reap. The further we get from the city I start to notice red signs by the side of the road.

In Cambodia these red signs mean more danger than the usual road sign you will find in other corners of the globe.

These signs are embellished with a large white skull and cross bones and the words 'Danger Mines'.

Cambodia after years of genocide under the Khmer Rouge and the subsequent invasion by Vietnam unfortunately suffers from a terrible affliction to its countryside.

Namely that many parts of the country are riddled with landmines. Some areas have been cleared but the more rural lands are still a danger zone.

I was in a tuk tuk that I had hired to head to the Baphuon temple and the River of a thousand lingas (Kbal Speen) north of Siem Reap. While the tuk tuk chugged along belching smoke from behind and screaming as we went up inclines I knew where our next stop would be.

I had read about a landmine museum in a travelogue by a famous comedian and again in an old newspaper. This was not just any old museum by the side of the road. This museum was the home and work place of a man known by the name Aki Ra who dedicates his life to digging up and disarming landmines.



A noble thing to do. But what makes this man's story so more intriguing is that he laid many of them in the first place.


Aki Ra believes he was born in 1973. His family were killed by the Khmer Rouge while they ruled Cambodia and tried to bring the country back to what they called year one.

The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 79 ad in that time it is estimated that over 3 million people were killed.

 
I have been to the killing fields and seen the skulls in the stupa and seen the bones coming up to the surface after the rains. Cambodia has a dark history and one she is opening up about.

At the age of ten after living with a woman who had looked after him and other orphans Aki Ra was forced into the Khmer army and given a gun. He thus became a child soldier.

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
Imagine a ten year old with a rifle. I cannot picture it in my head but in countless countries children are still being forced to throw away their innocence and take up arms.


Forced to lay landmines he became quite good at it.

At the museum there is his story on a large board telling how he used to sleep in the forests surrounded by landmines that he had laid. He could only fall asleep when he felt safe by laying them to protect him from intruders while he dozed.

Finally after invasion and more military service in the Vietnamese army he left and became a civilian once more. Missing out on the majority of his childhood in the process.

He received UN training in landmine clearing and decided that he could clear the areas where he laid mines himself. Although he says that he has laid literally thousands of them.

He was armed with only a penknife and a stick and would sell de-fused mines to fund his work.

Later the old shell casings and mines would litter his house and people heard about him. They used to travel to his house and pay a dollar (the default currency of Cambodia) to see them.

That is how the landmine museum began.

Today the museum has a small dusty car park and you buy your ticket from a little old woman inside a large aviation fuel casing made into a ticket booth.

 
Once in you wander, look, read and see the thousands of shell casings that lay rusting on the ground or in display cases.

These things of horror, death and destruction litter the place inside and out.
It beggars belief how many of these evil things are still out there in the wilds waiting for an unsuspecting child’s foot to activate it.


I stood looking at the paintings on the walls which were quite graphic about what landmines can do to you. For children and others who cannot read art works where people had lost arms and legs are quite a strong message and warning.
 
Unfortunately Aki Ra was not there today as I walked through the courtyard with its centre piece of a greenhouse full to the brim of land mines.
It may be just me but there was an eerie silence over this place. Not as eerie as the Killing Fields or Sual Sleng prison in Phnom Penh where  the birds literally stop singing and the sounds of everyday life do not penetrate these places of death and suffering.
It seemed as if time was standing still as I gazed lost in thought at small pieces of metal that once buried in the ground can lie in waiting to pounce.
It does not discriminate; a land mine will kill anyone or thing that steps on it. Man, woman or child and even livestock.
 I was the only one in this museum and even though I had the place all to myself I felt odd and uneasy looking at the display case of false limbs given to survivors of landmine blasts.
 
Imagine if it was me I kept thinking over and over.
The sun had gone behind a cloud and the place grew dull. The heat was still sticky and wet but there was not breeze anymore.
I walked outside and lent on a railing looking down at a pile of hand grenades rusting in the tropical heat.
I am not sure how long I stayed reading signs and leaflets. Time seemed to have no meaning. I was en route back to Siem Reap after seeing some beautiful temples and now this had taken the wind out of my sails. I felt a little low that such a beautiful country can still cause so much pain.
Pain hidden in the dirt and the land.
It was time to leave as my tuk tuk driver was beeping me and wanted to get back to the bustling streets and pick up some more tourists dollars.
 
Leaving a donation in the box I clambered back in to the tuk tuk and we sped away.
The cool refreshing breeze livened me up a little and soon I was ready for more temples tomorrow and a few pints of Angkor beer in Pub Street tonight.
But lingering in my mind is what I had seen today and the wonderful work of Aki Ra.
He is facing his demons head on and I wish I could have met him to shake his hand.