Holiday within a holiday

006 degrees 10.6′ 099 degrees 47.9’E Langkawi island, just south of Malaysia/Thailand border

After the rainforest-covered peaks of Borneo, the night city scape of Singapore was a bit of a shock. The five-day passage there was not without its adventures – close passes by enormous ships in the middle of the night, a squall that ripped the clew (corner that holds the rope) off our jib foresail and a very close encounter with a reef (“cruuuunch!”). Oops!
Not to mention becoming illegal immigrants for the night when we anchored without visas in Indonesia, a Malaysian warship hailing us on the radio because it apparently wanted to speak to us (we responded but they kept radio silence – weird) and a warning cast to be on the lookout for pirates in small boats (we did see two small, black boats weaving between the big cargo ships and oil tankers that were definitely not fishing boats).
But despite all that we made in to Danga Bay marina, a free marina crossed with a theme park and fun fair with a petting zoo – “Some zoos are educational. Ours is purely entertainment” – where we watched tigers roll over, a sun bear twirl a baton with its feet and a monkey holding aloft the flag of Malaysia ride a dog which was riding a horse which was kissing another dog perched on a platform.
Sadly, the surreptitious pictures I took didn’t come out all that well so you’ll just have to take my word for it or book a flight to Johor Bahru and pay RM10 to see it for yourself.
Tyrone, the skipper, and I took a trip to Cambodia to get a taste of Asian life away from the water.
Ah, Cambodia, where families of five squash onto one motorcycle, where there is a constant stream of school children pedalling serenely on sit-up-and-beg bicycles to and from school, immaculately clad in their uniforms of white shirts and navy trousers or straight skirts, where the shopkeepers wear pyjamas to work in the daytime, taking their toddler children with them to play on the floor, where there are whole animals spit roasting in the streets, women cook outside in huge pots perched on top of hand-moulded clay oven mounds, the land is flat as far as the eye can see and the rice paddies are the brightest green you can imagine.
From Siem Reap we spent three days exploring the Angkor temples which were built over a few hundred years starting from the 10th Century. Many started out as Hindu, paying homage to Shiva and Vishnu, but are now Buddhist, which is the main religion in Cambodia still.
Ohn, a tuk tuk driver who had cornered us while we were eating breakfast in a cafe when we first arrived, told us we should go for sunrise the first day. So at 5am we were climbing into our tuk tuk and heading out. As soon as we arrived at Sras Srang and got out of the carriage, it started. “Hello. What your name? Where you from?” A boy, about 10. “You come my place for coffee?” “No, we go watch sunrise” (my pidgeon is getting good). “You come after.” “Maybe.” “You come after for coffee because I am poor.” “OK”. Big mistake. “OK” to a Cambodian child skilled in hustling and marketing means “yes, definitely”. So when we didn’t go for coffee, we were “liars”, “stingy” and “smelly”. Charming!
The small ones would collar me while the older teenage girls and women would target Tyrone. As a strategy it was foolproof. “Hello madame. Where you from? England? Capital London. Population 9 million. You wan’ buy bracelet? Five for wan dolla. Six for wan dolla. Eight for one dolla. You buy from me not from her because I saw you first. You no wan’ now? I wait here for you and you buy when you come back, okaaay? I remember you, madame”.
It was relentless, wherever we went, and hard to deal with at first (as were the landmine victims) but when you think the average income for a farm worker in Cambodia is USD1.50 a day – and 85 per cent of the 16 million population are subsistence farmers – buying from these kids becomes more an act of charity than a purchase of something you actually want.
The most famous temple at Siem Reap is Angkor Wat, a massive complex with five peaks and a huge square moat. My favourite, though, was the spooky, tumble-down Ta Prohm, where part of the first Tomb Raider film was shot. There the havoc nature has wreaked on the ruins over nearly 1,000 years has been left for all to see and great trees, who know nothing of religious reverence, spill their roots over the sacred doorways of the temple and burrow their way between the great sandstone and laterite bricks.
After three days of climbing countless steps and admiring thousands of carvings, I was suffering from TFS (temple fatigue syndrome) so took myself off to a silk farm, Artisans d’Angkor. Here I saw the whole process from start to end: the mulberry trees in a plantation, the silk worms feasting on the mulberry leaves, their bright yellow cocoons laid out in a wheel, the cocoons bubbling in a vat of hot water to extract their silk threads, the threads being refined and spooled, then dyed and woven on looms to produce a length of raw silk or organza. Old bicycle wheels were used to wind the threads onto silk and the wooden looms were operated by hand, one woman to a loom. It reminded me of the lace-making machines in Nottingham – only those were 300 years old and in a museum. Here, this is how they work today. I left Cambodia with two silk scarves. One, bright pink with a gold pattern, cost USD4 in the market and is most likely made of polyester woven on a machine. The other cost USD29 at the silk farm and was made by hand by maybe 12 women using natural dye taken from the crushed shell of a beetle (bad vegetarian!).
From Siem Reap we took a very long and noisy boat ride up the river to Battambang, where we took another very noisy ride, albeit short, on the bamboo train. This is goes along the old railroad tracks and consists of two sets of wheels, with 2m x 2m bamboo platform on top, a lawnmower engine and a drive belt. You screech and rackety-rack your way along at 30mph until you reach another bamboo train, or Norrie as they are affectionately known locally, coming the other way. Then you eyeball them and they eyeball you until the Norrie with the lightest load gives way and its driver lifts off the platform, engine and two sets of wheels off the tracks to let the other past, reassembling again in a jiffy once his way is clear. It is mainly used for transporting grinning Western tourists a few miles up and down in a straight line but we gave a push to a farmer taking his crops to the village.
In Battambang we got our first exposure to the remnants of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s with a visit to a killing cave. The Khmer Rouge, in power from 1975 to 1979, believed the way to a prosperous Cambodia lay in making everyone work in the rice fields. To its members, the middle class was anathema, so it shut the cities and moved everyone to the countryside. Every Cambodian had to write his or her biography; middle class people and their families were executed, as was anyone who the regime deemed to be dissenters. That included small children. At Battambang we went to a killing cave, where the skulls of 1,000 people who had been thrown down to their deaths, were later found. In Phnom Penh we visited Tuol Sleng school which was used by the Khmer Rouge as a detention centre – people were shackled to iron bedframes in the classrooms and tortured. Then they were taken out of town to a longan orchard, bludgeoned to death to save on bullets, and buried in mass graves. We saw a tree, against the trunk of which children would be swung by their feet until their skulls fractured. Up to three million people died under the Khmer Rouge and four senior leaders, one a woman, are still standing trial today.
My last day in Cambodia I went to an orphanage, Lighthouse, in Phnom Penh, taking two sets of face paints with me. The 108 kids are aged between four and 17 and end up there either because their parents are dead, have HIV or are too poor to feed them. There are more boys at Lighthouse than girls because girls are deemed to be more useful in the home. Spiderman was the most popular request from the boys and the girls wanted hearts and flowers. Even more fun, it seemed, than my painting them was their painting me – I got two makeovers: scary clown and the Incredible Hulk crossed with Batman – and my iPhone. These kids are so deprived they cook out in the open on fire, sleep six to a bed and live off donated food but they all know how to work an iPhone better than I do.