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.