Paradise Almost Lost

All hiking posts, Cambodia, Hiking, Kep, Cambodia

So speak out loud of the
Things you are proud
And if you love this coast
Keep it clean as it evolves
Cos the way that it shines
May just dwindle with time
With the changes it will confront
Xavier RuddMessages

Some of your people can’t hear it
The cries of the Earth
Some of your people can’t feel it
The way that it hurts
Nahko – Great Spirit

Koh Ta Kiev, a Cambodian island

Koh Ta Kiev, a Cambodian island

Tina Turner’s Private Dancer blasts out of the stereo, taking me back to my childhood, when me and my sisters were subjected to Tina Turner on a daily basis. The sand is white and the sea as warm as bath water. I’m on Otres beach, Sihanoukville’s more tame tourist spot.

“Massage? Pedicure? Oh! Hair removal!!!” a woman says, pointing at my legs. Maybe I’m the first western woman that she’s ever seen who doesn’t remove the hair from their legs. I politely decline her offer.

Five minutes later another woman approaches. “Bracelet? Oh! Hair!” she says, looking at my legs.
“No thanks.”
“Where are you from?” she asks.
“England.”
“You have a nice body. English people are fat.”

For the next hour, more people approach me, all analysing my legs and deciding that I really need to remove my hairs. I think about discussing patriarchy, sexism, and the pressure that women are under to conform to a particular image of beauty. I want to tell them how unfair it all is. But then I realise that these women are just trying to make money, and it must be really frustrating for them to see the hairs on my legs and then not be allowed to do anything about it!

“Well done for not shaving your body hair,” a French woman says to me. “Me and my friend tried it for one week and felt too self-conscious.”

There’s also children selling things. They’re cheeky and funny and when I last came to Cambodia, me and my friends bought lots of books off of them. This time, I’ve decided not to give the kids any money. Travelfish says why here and here.

After the tenth woman comments on how hairy my legs are, I decide that Otres beach is not a good place to relax and do meditation!

I take a boat to the relatively unknown island of Koh Ta Kiev. The total population on the whole island must be about twenty or thirty people – a fishing village which I don’t see, and a couple of beach hut-style guesthouses.

Deliveries arrive at the island

Deliveries arrive at the island

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The view of the sun setting over another island from Koh Ta Kiev

The view of the sun setting over another island from Koh Ta Kiev

Alone on one of Koh Ta Kiev's beach...soon to be changed forever

Alone on one of Koh Ta Kiev’s beach…soon to be changed forever

I walk in the rainforest, all alone as beautiful massive wild hornbill birds fly overhead. The island is famous for its many species of birds. The trail is completely overgrown and l get lost. Afterwards I find out that nobody has walked on my route for months and months.

Lost in the jungle, I laugh as I come across this carving on a tree

Lost in the jungle, I laugh as I come across this carving on a tree

As with everywhere I visit, this untouched, perfect island is set to be destroyed. The Cambodian government has leased half of the island to a French company and half of the island to a Chinese company. Whilst the French company has, so far, done nothing to ‘develop’ Koh Ta Kiev, the Chinese company has already chopped down and logged trees, and a huge, ugly road has been bulldozed through the forest.

The company is called KSKW, and is owned by Ni Zhaoxing, President of China’s ZhongRong Group. They boast about their plans on their website. I’m told by locals that they plan to build a huge resort, with a golf course and casino for the rich. During my stay on the island, the company come to collect rent from the beach hut-style guest houses. It’s really sad to think of the destruction that is to come, and the inevitable death of the beautiful wildlife.

The start of the destruction of Koh Ta Kiev - a road through the rainforest

The start of the destruction of Koh Ta Kiev – a road through the rainforest

As I walk along the deserted beach (there’s literally no-one around: the island is so unspoilt!), with thousands of crabs scurrying across the sand and rocks, I’m shocked by how much plastic washes up here. Every day, piles and piles of plastic wash ashore on an island with barely any people living on it. As humans, we’re completely disgraceful, abusing and destroying our land and our seas without a second thought.  I guiltily acknowledge all of the plastic that I use and casually discard on a daily basis, knowing that it’s not biodegradable. I vow, there and then, to cut down on the plastic I buy, and to try to wean myself off of plastic completely.

Plastic plastic plastic

Plastic plastic plastic

More plastic. It stretches around the whole perimeter of the island

More plastic. It stretches around the whole perimeter of the island

Inspirational plastic-free activist Beth Terry summarises on her website why plastic is so toxic, both to the oceans and sea creatures, and to our own health.

A few days later I head back to the mainland and travel to Kep, and it becomes my favourite place in the country! I really, really love this small town and the locals are so friendly. Kep’s full of delapidated French colonial villas, ruined by the Khmer Rouge, and there’s wild monkeys.

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One reason why I love Kep is because there’s a MARKED HIKING TRAIL through the jungle! There’s no need for guides, and there’s no one in Kep trying to sell me a tour of the national park. And so I embark on a small, 8km trek alone. At the start of the trail there’s a warning: ‘DIFFICULT: ONLY FOR EXPERIENCED WALKERS’, mostly because you need to use ropes to haul yourself up rocks. “Fine,” I think, “I’m an experienced hiker.” There’s also a big photo of a scorpion on the warning sign.

The route map and warning signs at the start of the hike, kindly marked out by Led Zep cafe in Kep :)

The route map and warning signs at the start of the hike, kindly marked out by Led Zep cafe in Kep 🙂

I walk happily uphill, looking out for birds and monkeys. However, within minutes I realise that there are thousands of spiders in this jungle, and hundreds of them want to cast their webs across the trail. Each web seems to be at the exact same height as my face, and I spit cobwebs out of my mouth every two or three metres.

“Lucky that I’m not scared of spiders,” I think to myself.

But then I stop suddenly.

The biggest web ever, which reaches from the ground to my head height, stretches across the small dirt trail. Visions of Shelob from Lord Of The Rings come to my mind. I hack down the web with a stick (sorry spider, but there’s no other option!) and I walk on.

One minute later I see it.

The biggest spider that I have EVER seen in my life: the size of my hand, yellow and black in colour, sitting on a web at my head’s height. Petrified, I duck beneath the web. “What if I’d been looking at the ground, searching for scorpions?” I think to myself. “That spider would have landed on my head!”

For the rest of the trail, I nervously thrash a stick in the air, cutting down webs in front of me.

The next day, I hitchhike with a beautiful family to the Vietnam border (they go far out of their way to take me to the border), and I’m so happy that I visited amazing Kep with its wonderful people, old mansions, monkeys and even its giant spiders.

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Laos: Rainforest, Rapids and Remote Villages…and asking myself the question: “Is backpacking bad?”

All hiking posts, Hiking, Laos, Nam Ha, Laos
hiking in the beautiful Nam Ha region of northern Laos

hiking in the beautiful Nam Ha region of northern Laos

Beautiful Laos!! It’s wonderful to be back here. Everything’s how I remember it: small wooden houses, smiley and friendly people, and the happiest children in the world.

Within a few hours of being here, I’m troubled by the language and attitude that some backpackers have towards Laos: an attitude of western superiority, so ingrained in us that we don’t realise that we have this attitude at all. I explain to someone that his use of the words ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ is condescending. Another person says, “These people [Lao villagers] don’t want to continue living in the Stone Age.”  Someone else talks about a western organisation that is “helping Lao people to help themselves.” Does this westerner think that Lao people are in such a dire situation that they can only “help themselves” out of their pitiful existence with the help of western institutions?

Luang Namtha is a town in the north of Laos, famous for the Nam Ha protected rainforest and river. I meet some other backpackers and we hire out motorbikes and explore the beautiful countryside and villages. Children smile, wave, and shout “Sabadeeeeeeee!” and adults greet us kindly. 

The beauty and the beastliness of Yunnan province, China

China, Hiking, Hitchhiking
Rooftops in Nuodeng, Yunnan province

Rooftops in Nuodeng, Yunnan province

I’m ill. I lay in bed with a fever, shivering but sweating. I ache. I groan. Chris showers me with sympathy. In my sick delirium, I search the internet to diagnose myself. I read about all of the possible diseases I could have, and all of them fit my symptoms. Why oh why didn’t I look into getting some vaccinations before coming here? Is my disdain for pharmaceutical companies really worth getting sick for? I decide that I definitely have dengue fever. Then I look up malaria risks in China. Every province has a low-to-zero risk, except for Yunnan province, where I am laying ill. It has a high risk. That’s it. I have malaria. I instruct Chris to go to the chemist, buy me some rehydration salts (my answer to every single illness, no matter what the symptoms, whilst on the road) and to find out if there’s a doctor or hospital nearby. He comes back with the news that there’s only a doctor specialising in Chinese medicine in the town. Aaaaaagggghhh, I’m going to die here, I think.