Enforced Spontaneity in Cambodia

With Chanty at the monkey temple

With Chanty at the monkey temple

It never crossed our minds a week earlier, when we spontaneously decided to take advantage of yet another Malaysian bank holiday, that we’d land in Cambodia at the start of its biggest bank holiday. Malaysia gets so many bank holidays that we are always going away during religious festivals and it has never seemed to impact our trip at all. That is until this one.

We’d visited Siem Riep two years earlier and had enjoyed a blisteringly hot and action-packed few days visiting all the temples we could squeeze into the time available so had no real desire to go there again. One thing we really wanted to do though, was to take the 10-hour boat trip down the Siem Riep River to where the Tonle Sap River joins the Mekong at Phnom Penh. Ian did his usual assiduous research and booked us a trip on the safest boat there was. We received an automated confirmation and immediately booked our flights into Siem Riep and out of Phnom Penh four days later.

Then our boat trip was cancelled. No explanation.

The Internet informed us that some of the boats also offering this trip were liable to sink, but Ian battled on and secured us an alternative, albeit rather basic trip with a man who appeared to be named Fat Sock. I was wary. Socks have a reputation for holes. We were going to stay at the utterly fabulous Shinta Mani Club hotel again. It really had been too gorgeous last time for us to stay anywhere else. I still remembered the wonderful seven course dinners seated on double-bed swing-seats over the lotus-strewn water. And the buy-one-get-one-free happy hours. We asked the hotel to try and source us a boat too. If anyone could manage it, they could.

Within minutes of landing in Arrivals we were reminded of the constant easy smiles of the Cambodian people, the visa-on-arrival chaps who mess about, the immigration officials who make you feel welcome. We were glad to be back in the Kingdom of Cambodia.

As we freshened our hands on the jasmine-scented cold towels we were greeted with at the hotel and sat down to enjoy our welcome drinks of pink champagne, we remained confident.

“I’m sorry, Jo, Ian,” said the receptionist with a jaw-breaking smile. “I could not find a boat. Big Buddhist holiday until Monday.” We were heading back to KL on Monday. Whoops! Still, there was always Fat Sock. We asked Smiley to call Fat Sock and check he wasn’t likely to let us sink. Our options had reduced to one.

An hour later as we drank our surprise cocktails Smiley returned. “Sorry, Jo, Ian. No boat.”

So there we were in Siem Riep, where we had been before, with no way of going on the river after all. A taxi would cost $100 but a local bus would cost $15. Realising our saving would more than cover a swing-seat dinner we opted for the bus.

Our bus left at the crack of dawn (to me anyway) and was packed with tourists like us. The GiantIbis was comfortable and cool and provided plenty of bathroom stops. The best thing was that they showed films the whole way that, though not silent exactly, could be followed without being able to hear a word. The 1972 French comedy Les Charlots Les Fous du Stade was delicious in childish French slapstick .The whole bus erupted in guffaws. This was much better than a taxi.

We were determined to get on the river and thanks to onboard wifi booked a sunset cruise with a company called Cambo Cruise. Five hours later we arrived in the capital ahead of time. Roads were quiet because of the holiday. At least there was an upside. By five pm we were on a boat. With the cool breeze in our hair and another welcome drink in our hands we were entertained by Khmer music as we sailed past illuminated pagodas and temples out to towards the sunset. We clinked glasses. Local holiday or not, we’d made it.

The next day we decided to get up early and see the Royal Palace, the museum and Silver Pagoda and headed off along the waterfront. Stopping outside the palace we thought it looked rather quiet. A smiling Cambodian wearing a gorgeous silk scarf that was brown like liver, approached us.

“Everything closed,” he said. “Big holiday. All the peoples gone to the country to see their family. Only open two o’ clock.” That was five hours away. “I take you round city, show you beautiful buildings?” he asked, gesturing to his covered tuk-tuk.

An arch near the monkey temple

An arch near the monkey temple

It looked like this was our only option, besides we rather fancied spending time in the shade. In the end our driver, who wanted us to call him John, though his name was Chanthy, proved to be an excellent guide with a good command of English. He led us the finest and most unexpected of sites and not down back-alleys to visit his cousin who had a carpet shop as some are wont to do.

bundling fake money for offerings at the temple

bundling fake money for offerings at Wat Phnom


A local happily stealing longan fruit from a tree at the temple

A local happily stealing longan fruit from a tree at Wat Phnom

We visited an ice-making factory, saw little-known temples, visited the splendid pagoda at Wat Phnom and ultimately agreed to stay with him until the palace opened again. It is really not like us to be so spontaneous, but on this trip, with nothing going according to plan it seemed rather exciting. Who knew what would unfold?

The car ferry

The car ferry

In the end, what unfolded was a captivating day. John took us not to tourist boats and ferries but on the local car ferry. Not roll-on-roll off, he had to reverse his tuk-tuk on board up a ramp after bumping down a steep pot-holed track. After ten minutes on the river we were on land. Crossing a bridge, John noticed something we had to see.


Cow bath-time

Three white cows were being bathed in the river. Their two handlers scrubbed broad handfuls of dried grass over their skin as they wallowed. Soon after, we bumped down a track between padi fields and banana plantations to the Silk Farm Community Project. Here, widowed, single or separated women work long hours for little pay to weave silk from the silkworms that feed there on mulberry bushes.

Welcome gusets

Welcome gusets

Silk cocoons resting

Silk cocoons resting

The looms were quiet today because of the holiday, of course, but our tour was no less fascinating. I looked for a scarf like John’s in the shop but they had none of this style today.

The farm is not contrived in any way. It is a real project doing real good for the community. Alongside the farm, by the river they have fenced off a rectangle of river to make a safe swimming pool for locals and made houses, swings and picnic places for relaxation. We decided to try some chopped wood apple, dipped in a mixture of chilli, sugar and salt. After all, that’s what the locals were eating. It was remarkably tasty, and, indeed, hard as wood.

Wood apples

Wood apples

Being a holiday, it was packed with people having fun with their families. We could see why Cambodians love to return to their families in the country for their holidays leaving the cities deserted.


Rest rooms!

As we bumped back down the track, John stopped the truck beside a large tree where a group of young girls clustered. He called out to them. The large black bin bags that had balanced on the back of their motorscooters suddenly appeared in the tuk-tuk and they rifled through them enthusiastically. John explained I wanted a brown scarf like his.

“I have!” exclaimed the smiliest, jolliest of the bunch. She pulled out a scarf just like John’s – only it was pale pink. Not my colour I’m afraid. Her face fell.

“Look!” called another girl, pulling out scarf after scarf, none were brown and none were the raw silk of John’s I had so admired, speckled with embroidered flowers. Eventually some like his did emerge in red, in black, in white. I never wear black or white but after all their effort and good humour I’d have to buy something. Maybe the red one?

The jolly one, the one with the pink scarf, kept waving it at me and smiling coyly. “Please buy?” she weedled. “My last one. Please?”

I shook my head.

“Surely you can buy a pink scarf for someone?” Ian tried. The girls were so beguiling, they had an infectious, childlike appeal that was hard to resist. Maybe it was because their brand of hustle was done with such good humour? Ms Jolly turned her back and rustled in her bag.

Ms Jolly was turning round again towards us. Bursting out laughing she thrust something else at us. “Here!” she said as if this, at last was a brown raw silk scarf. It was a pale blue string hammock.

I decided to buy three scarves in the end, though they were not brown, from the other girls. They’d make lovely presents.

I also bought the pink scarf.

“I have brown one at my house,” said Ms Jolly as John restarted his engine and Ian put his wallet back in his bag. “Two minutes!” And before we knew it she’d joined us in the tuk-tuk. It appeared we were giving her a lift home. Ian and I were getting good at this spontaneity lark and gladly let ourselves be led to a dusty, enclosure, where three palm-roofed stilted houses stood by the river. Here, our saleswoman it appeared, looked after her four children and lived with other members of her family and a collection of dogs.

There was no brown scarf of course, but I did buy a nice green one and another completely different one from her younger sister, who stuck out her bottom lip and pleaded that we buy just one from her too.

After giving our scarfseller another lift, this time back to the ferry, we said goodbye. The experience had been uplifting in the extreme. We were converted. Spontaneous trips were much more fun than pre-booked organised ones. We’d so enjoyed our time with John that we booked him for our airport run the next day, which he did punctually and with good grace despite driving rain. We had also asked him if he could help us get some Vietnamese mint so I could make more spring rolls once back in KL. The next day, on the way to the airport, he pulled in off the road and a pretty girl was waiting with a choice of three mints wrapped in a banana leaf for us. No charge.




If you’d like to book Chanthy aka John too, his email is chanthy.phnompenh @ gmail.com

On our last trip we had just seen Sue Perkins’ BBC Documentary about her journey on the Mekong. She had quoted Joseph Mussomeli, the former US Ambassador to Cambodia’s words: ‘You will fall in love with it and eventually it will break your heart,’ those words rang in our ears throughout the trip. I expected much the same to happen this time.



The next day we joined The Killing Fields and S-21 tour we had pre-booked via the Internet, wishing we’d been able to do it with John instead.

Despite the rising heat I was chilled the moment I set foot in the former high school that became a torture camp for intellectuals during the war and where thousands were murdered once they had been forced to write false confessions. Only a handful survived.

Contemplating beside trees at S-21

Contemplating beside trees at S-21

brickcells-s-21 woodcellss-21 barbedwires-21

On April 17 1975, when I was 14 years old, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh and within 24-hours a million people had been forced into the country. This time their trips to the country were not happy occasions. Instead of swing-seats they endured either the swing of the spades they were forced to wield in the labour camps or the swing of the blows of the Brothers of Angkor, the Organisation, that would shove them barely alive but starving into a mass grave. During the three years, eight months and 20 days of the Cambodian Genocide, Cambodia lost a quarter of its population to genocide.

A mass grave

A mass grave

The Killing Tree

The Killing Tree

mass grave lies beneath

Of the millions who died, only a few thousand bodies have been found in mass graves. Here lies yet another. Every few weeks more bones and rags come to the surface.


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Eating Vietnam

Spring rolls and mango juice

Spring rolls and mango juice

We love travel and whenever we visit a new place eating is high on our agenda. As you know, I love everything about food – planning it, shopping for it, cooking it, sharing it and writing about it.

Like most people I have more cookbooks and travel guides than any other kinds of books. We always buy a travel guide before we visit a place and Ian actually takes the time to look at it carefully and make plans before we get on the flight. I just look at the pretty book jacket and feel the anticipation of a new country. But before our trip to Vietnam I already knew how much I was going to love the food and bought a cookbook before we went. I was looking forward to trying the noodle soup they eat there called pho. Actually, no, not pho, that means city. Vietnamese is a language with six tones and those diacritics make a difference. I’m actually talking about phở, which is pronounced a bit like we would say ‘fur’ – like this. Sorry, I digress, but it’s interesting, right? To me, anyway.

So, before we went to Vietnam we bought two books – one on the the country and one on the food – and I did not look at either of them despite the fact that I am fascinated by both aspects. Ian is the detailed one, the diver who knows the value of ‘plan the dive and dive the plan’ so he booked us a tour in Ho Chi Minh and that motorbike tour in Hoi An I just wrote about. Meanwhile, I decided I should get my act together and at least plan something. So, for the first time ever on holiday I chose to do a one day cookery course. TripAdvisor threw up a place in Hoi An called Green Bamboo as the best of its kind there and judging by the reviews and photos it looked a good one. Mind you, with classes of 12 to 14 most days and each person cooking a different dish that we’d all get to sample, the thought of that amount of food was daunting. We chose our dishes in advance. I picked the Vietnamese staple I really wanted to learn – the fresh spring roll. Ian picked the traditional phở, with beef.

Van with yam, Hoi An

Van with yam, Hoi An

To begin, Van presented us each with a conical hat and a plastic shopping basket and took us to market to buy (and carry) all the ingredients we’d need. Smart move, I thought. It was a wonderful introduction to the food staples of the country. Later, back at her villa, we all stood around a large kitchen island and shredded our vegetables. Quite how Van managed to give us all individual attention I don’t know, but she did. Expertly choreographing the time, we each had our spot in the limelight so we could watch and learn how to do each dish and not just our own.

Ian griddles

Ian griddles

The phở, it seemed, being made with a broth, had to go on first. Ian was in the hotseat. He was presented with a pair of ginormous chopsticks with which to turn his garlic on the griddle and lift his bones into the bubbling water. Who’d have thought chopsticks would be so much more dextrous than the metal tongs I tend to use?

My ingredients

My ingredients

My dipping sauce

My dipping sauce

That rice paper pancake

That rice paper pancake

My dish was easiest it seemed so I was next. I only had to make a sauce from fish sauce, lime, sugar, chilli and garlic, grate in a ton of raw veg, cook a bit of tofu, pork and some prawns, soak some rice pancakes, place the filling in the pancake, add some aniseedy Vietnamese mint, roll it up neatly (!), poke in a pretty stem of coriander and a chive at the end, roll some more, put it carefully on a plate beside some dipping sauce and hey presto! My dish was the first to ‘go live’ and, hungry, we all stopped to eat a couple each. Delish. As I cooked, Ian was in charge of photographs. He forgot to take a photo of my finished masterpiece so please refer to one someone else made earlier at a market in Ho Chi Minh City at the top of this blog for the right kind of idea.

Now the beers could come out. Yes, at Green Bamboo, they offer free beer and as I was done for the day, I hopped onto a high stool, cracked open a can and watched the others work, interrupted every 20 minutes or so to sample another dish. And so we learned how to make rice pancakes, green papaya salad, barbecued pork, meat patties, fishcakes, more salads and curries, eating as we went. After six dishes Ian and I decided to share the remaining samples. Everyone else managed alone, though it beats me how they did it. 12 courses between 10 am and 3 pm was a marathon. Van claims that after the class she cooks and eats dinner with her family too. You can see in the photo how slim she looks on it.

Ian's beef noodle soup

Ian’s beef noodle soup (I did remember to take a picture of his finished dish… ahem)

Then, as we began, so too we ended with Ian and his soup. It was delicious, of course, spicy from chilli, garlicky, gingery and rich from stock, cinnamon, star anise and chinese apples. At the end of the day Van presented us with a homemade cookbook of the most popular dishes, the peeler you need for shredding all those raw veg and some massive chopsticks. We didn’t eat again that day.

Our day with Van taught us exactly what to order to eat during the rest of our stay in Vietnam. For both of us that meant more fresh spring rolls and more phở.

So, it seems, a cooking course is a brilliant thing to do on holiday. It made the remainder of our Vietnamese eating adventures all the more exciting.

Back home I sat down eagerly to look at the cookbook I’d bought on a whim before the trip. It was rubbish. Van’s will be much more useful.


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Zen and the art of touring Vietnam


It’s many moons since I owned a full set of motorcycle leathers and my own crash helmet. It’s several decades since I rode pillion through north Norfolk lanes thick with the smell of strawberries. I was more than a little apprehensive when Ian booked a full day trip on motorbikes on the Hai Van (aka Top Gear ) Pass from Hoi An to Hue in Central Vietnam. However, one of my father’s favourite sayings is: ‘there is nothing worth doing that does not contain an element of risk’ and so this rang in my ears as I was compelled to accept the challenge.

A week before our trip Ian sat me down to watch Clarkson, Hammond and May jibe, mock and banter their way over the rolling, winding and treacherous road dressed in outrageous Hoi An-tailored suits and carrying ludicrous souvenirs strapped to the back of their motorcycles. Richard Hammond had a wooden galleon in full sail. May, a plaster statue. I watched in horror as rocks shifted and they almost slipped down the cliffside when forced to pull over by the approach of an oncoming truck. Hence my apprehension.

Mr Thong, owner of a company called EasyRider based in Hoi An, met us at La Residencia hotel at 7 am. He would lead the excursion, with his smiley young assistant his pillion. Tin was chief helmet putter-onner and taker-offer and minder of the bikes and bags while we headed off on mini-tours.

Our Mr Thong was a breath of fresh air: friendly; careful; helpful; fun. He’d leap up the steps to a site he must visit several times a week as if thrilled to be there again. Our trip would take us several hours and cover over 100 km. Each time there was an opportunity for a bit of a history lecture or a photograph, he’d stop, merrily take expert photographs of us and wait patiently while we explored.


Mounting a motorbike is a bit like mounting a horse. One foot on the stirrup and throw the other leg over. Gliding past beaches backdropped by royal blue skies spotted with white and silver clouds it took minutes for me to let go my grip on Ian’s midriff, grip gently with my thighs and relax. Watching the scene shift gently from shores peppered with round bamboo basket boats and larger mango boats, to fishermen hauling in white nets, roadside shacks, papaya, palm and acacia trees, padi fields, stalls selling pho noodle soup, durian, mangosteen and honey, lulled me into a deep state of relaxation and reverie. Thus soothed, my mind looped and swirled into a meditative state I had only otherwise enjoyed when sailing. As our beautiful world, crammed with the miracles of nature slid past, a delicious dreamlike state descended. I felt inspired, found myself able to contemplate things that felt unattainable in normal life.

marblemountaindoorwayssmall buddhamarblemountainsmall

Our first stop was the Marble Mountain, outside Da Nang. Here, surrounded by views stretching out to sea, lake and river, the tropical flora, stone pagodas and doorways, caves lit by dimmed lights were home to Buddhas they have created an area of unimaginable calm.

“I can’t remember when I felt so relaxed,” I said.

“Zen and the art…” said Ian appositely.

It was an amazing day, despite the growing heat. I had not realised that being on a bike is actually the coolest (and the coolest) I have ever been outdoors in this part of the world. Who knew? And as I leaned into the bends I found myself considering actually owning a moped one day. Mad fool that I am I even suggested it to Ian!


The Hai Van Pass did not disappoint, with views down past the palms and papayas to the azure sea. I was also delighted to see that since that hairy Top Gear show they had installed a crash barrier and widened the road.


A seafood lunch beside a lake was followed by a detour past a fishing village and views that stunned me with the clarity of the light later when looking at the photos I’d snapped on my phone, this time without sunglasses.


Now, if Ian had told me in advance that I’d spend the best part of 10 hours in the saddle I’d probably have been less enthusiastic about the trip, but Mr Thong ensured we had plenty of stops and detours along the way so that it wasn’t until the sun began to set around five and we visited the beautiful citadel at Hue that I realised I was shattered. I could not walk another step, so, I found a bench under a tree and had 40-winks, something I have never done before in my life. Was it all that fresh air? Or was it the exhaustion of clinging on with my thighs or the fact that my phone told me I’d actually walked more than 10 miles on those detours?

As darkness fell and Mr Thong presented us with half moons of fresh pomelo and yet another bottle of necessary water the thought of riding all that way back in the dark was less than attractive. Fortunately for our jolly Mr Thong no adjustment to the plan is too much trouble. He had organised us a minivan all to ourselves in which to travel the three hours home to Hoi An with the indulgence of the full length of a row of seats each. Mr Thong and Tin would ride the bikes home and at seven the next morning they would do the trip all over again with another set of guests.

But Mr Thong told us that he feels very lucky indeed to have this job. He also told us that he spent his childhood in a concentration camp.

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Who’s ein Berliner?

With Sam and Malou at the food festival

With Sam and Malou at the food festival

One of the disadvantages of choosing a lifestyle that forces your children to ‘grow up global’ is that there is every chance they will end up living in a different country from you.

One of the advantages of choosing a lifestyle that forces your children to ‘grow up global’ is that there is every chance they will end up living in a different country from you.

Which is why I have just had the good fortune to spend a weekend in Berlin with Sam, who has been living there for almost a year.

Last time I visited, it was as a family with hard-to-please teenagers. We did, inevitably, the typical tourist things – the open-top bus tour, Unter Den Linden, Checkpoint Charlie, the Holocaust Memorial, the Olympic arena, Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag. We ate synthetic sausages with curry sauce and drank green beer. This time I came alone and did none of those things, staying, as Sam advised in a leafy, cobbledy rather Parisian area called Bergmannkiez. Instead of picking a cloned Ibis or Travelodge, I went for a hotel with curved staircases, high ceilings and wide windows that open inwards. Hotel Riehmers is a stone’s throw from Mehringdamm U-bahn and peaceful walks along the Landwehrkanal canal. It’s where Berliners live.

view from the hotel

view from the hotel

It is always a privilege to visit a place with a local. It lets you step into their life for a while, eat what and where they eat, visit their favourite cinema, discover a festival they read about online and take much more interesting routes, on foot, to much more interesting places.

Sam took me to the Mitte district and to Do You Read Me, a shop that sells hundreds of short-run magazines I’d never set eyes on before. One had a washing up sponge in a clear plastic bag taped to the cover and just contained photographs of sponge art. Another was called Toilet Paper, then there was the very cool Flaneur, that focuses on a city per issue. Fascinated by food and writing as I am, to find a beautiful magazine called Lucky Peach, that contained over a hundred pages dedicated to the Vietnamese soup, pho, was irresistible. The shop was packed with browsers. This was clearly a cool place to be. Increasingly, I too found the city to be cool – übercool.

9stumble stones 2stumblestones

It was between the covers of Flaneur that I learned about Stolpersteine, or stumble stones, a 1992 initiative by a German artist, Gunter Demnig, to preserve the memories of the 55,000 Jews deported from the area. Small square brass plaques have been cemented into the pavement on the thresholds of the buildings from which these people were taken. The stumble stones almost trip you up, but somehow don’t. Instead they force you not to simply walk on by, oblivious. On each a name, a concentration camp, and, mostly, the date of death, fixed forever amongst the cobbles and the fag ends.

Musicians at the market

Musicians at the market

Just as Berlin is about those who left, it is also about those who came. Most recently, the refugees. Like Sam, they have been here about a year. What they have achieved is remarkable. A Food Festival, held in an old market hall at the seedy end of Kreuzberg, was dedicated to refugee food initiatives. There were those who were making iced mate, selling it in bottles with labels promoting the cause, meals with rice, lots of rice, freekeh, stuffed vegetables, lamb and delicately spiced chicken wings. There were dishes rich with aubergine and tomatoes, vegan tacos, Syrian style, dairy free cookies, Japanese black sesame ice cream served with waffles, spinach dried and fried til it looked and almost tasted like seaweed and a fine range of flatbreads. A group of musicians pitched up and began to play, soon drawing a crowd of people of all nationalities, singing, clapping, tapping and smiling along with the music. There was a flyer for a concert by the Syrian Expat Philharmonic lying on the table we shared with some Americans. When rain began to pour in through the ceiling, two resourceful locals found a wheely bin and raced to place it beneath the unexpected waterfall.


The Spree

The Spree

As we wandered miles through the streets, along the canal, through fleamarkets, round art exhibitions and past hundreds of people eating at coloured tables outside cafes, I heard a range of languages being spoken. When they closed Kantstrasse around 7.30 pm we stood, listening to the sound of the tabor being drummed and watched as rivers of rollerbladers took to the road. The day before the same had happened with cyclists.

Overlooking the Spree

Overlooking the Spree

It seems that it is on the street that today’s Berliner is found. It is here that they bring their music and their food, their language, sport, graffiti-art and soul. And still there, among the cobbles and the fag ends the memories of those who went before still linger.





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The art of sitting

Sitting for Stamford Portrait Class

Sitting for Stamford Portrait Class

I’ve never been much good at doing nothing but I know it’s good for me. Nevertheless, the older I’ve got, and the wiser (!), the more I recognise the value of mindfulness. But it’s harder than ever these days since the SmartPhone. Whereas I once would have sat in a waiting room in contemplation, it is now nigh on impossible not to reach for my phone and flick through Facebook while I wait. It is harder than ever to allow my mind to wander freely.

Then my mother asked me to sit for her portrait-drawing class. I must admit I was dreading it. I am not good at sitting in one position for long. I’m a leg-crosser and uncrosser, a fidget. I also can’t stop myself from staring at people. Still, it was only an hour or so, and I thought it might do me good.

So, this morning, I joined her at the Indoor Bowls Club and allowed myself to be positioned in a wicker chair, as you would move one of those wooden articulated artist’s dummies into position. One leg bent, one straight, one hand on the chair arm, the other on a knee, slightly to the side, with my face tipped just so. My view was of a no smoking sign on a window, just above the head of a lady with a striped top. As silence fell, and 10 grey heads bent over sketchpads, the 45 minutes ahead of me looked interminable. How was I going to pass the time?

The no smoking sign soon lost its appeal, but then I noticed the sprinkler that was turning pirhouettes on the perfect green lawn outside. The branches of the yew trees arched upwards, arms in first position and a grey pigeon darted in and out of the lilacs. Was it building a nest or feeding young? He flew exactly the same route, diagonally, over and over. It was not long before I was mesmerised.

There was no wind. A weak sun warmed the windows and I began to listen. The tea urn had been gurgling unnoticed until it went silent, which was when the clock’s tick lurched into focus. To my left a bangle, sounding silver, clanged repeatedly against the formica table-top like birdsong. Pencils switched positions in a wooden box with the call of a kookaburra. Sleeves brushed artpaper, bottoms squeaked against the plastic upholstery of discarded dining chairs. Feet shuffled. Mine could not. I tried to meditate, counting five breaths in and eight out, but with my eyes open it was impossible. Despite my narrow line of sight I kept my gaze straight. My senses became fascinated by the infinite sounds and sights that filled the poet in me with a richness of inspiration I rarely feel. Was the shadow to my left a painter who was standing up? Who wore the bangle? Was something pale and yellow moving on the green? If I were blind, would it be even better? Likewise, if I were deaf?

An itch began to the left of my mouth. I could not scratch it and so, impotent, switched my thoughts back to the pigeon until I realised the itch had moved to my eyebrow, where again I had to leave it be until it disappeared. I managed to surpress both a sneeze and a cough. Was this a metaphor for dealing with mosquito bites and anxious thoughts, best left alone to dissipate alone?

My left hand filled with pins and needles. The tension in my neck burned hot as chilli. I tried to concentrate on my ear instead and soon it was aflame and thus my neck and hand left my attention. The wind picked up. The sky went grey. The clock still ticked loudly and the ladies began to whisper and stretch their arthritic arms.

ARTCLASS1Time for coffee and a welcome walkabout. Some went out into the sunshine for cigarettes with their furry-kettle coffee and milk chocolate digestives. Some perused the second-hand book stall. Some, like me, noticed that the sprinkler had stopped and instead a chap with a mower and a mongrel took over the lawn.

Again, I was placed back in position for another half an hour. It flew so fast I hardly had time to notice a thing. I had reached the peaceful place that comes after deep relaxation.

I was handed £15, yet, frankly, I’d have paid for the lesson in mindfulness. The poet’s inspiration I had received by simply being forced to sit completely still for three-quarters of an hour was priceless. I was also given two remarkable portraits to take home.

If you too struggle with mindfulness or meditation, then maybe you too should try to sit for an art class?


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The shifting sands of the expat empty nest

It’s taken me almost five years to write about my empty nest. It’s a surprise, particularly to me, someone who has no compunction about revealing my vulnerability. It is five years now since Josh left home for university and seven since Sam left before him.

Living in the Netherlands at the time, both our boys moved to London a month after receiving their A Level results, as is the British way. So, when they left they moved abroad. We’d already been there five or six years. We had great friends, fulfilling work and felt totally at home. Their absence did not leave the gaping hole I had been anticipating. What’s more, their proximity meant we saw them often. I always remember hearing ‘Superwoman’ Shirley Conran speak at the Savoy. She told us women with kids not to put our lives on hold for the children because one day they would leave home and then, where would we be? I think I did a pretty good job of retaining my professional identity to avoid this. Maybe too good?

I knew I was not unaffected by the loss of young men raiding my fridge frighteningly fast, but I thought I was coping fairly well. Also, I was kind of waiting for things to settle down to a new normal. Only, that hasn’t happened. My empty nest keeps changing. It changes size and shape month on month. Like the sand dunes in Dubai it moves and shifts, gently morphing imperceptibly into something new.

Then, almost three years ago, Ian and I moved to Kuala Lumpur and left both boys in Europe. After 28 years on the move we’re used to being a short plane ride from family and friends but being a long-haul flight from our offspring was a big deal. I think this was when my empty nest really hit home.

Moving to Malaysia was a different story in other respects too. Here we were in our fifties and with no social network, no support group and for the first time in decades I was not going to set up a business locally. I would keep working but do so wholly online. So no women’s business networks for me. No school gates. No clients. No kids.

It was time for me to take note of what I’d been preaching for years and put my own advice into practice. It was all very well having a huge global network – now I needed a local one more than ever. And that has taken time. Being defined for so many years by my work I was distinctly uneasy at coffee mornings. I didn’t do morning events; that was when I worked. I preferred evening business clubs with an inspiring speaker and networking with people like me. I tell you, it’s been a learning and what’s more, it’s been slow going. Where it used to take me a year when the kids were at home, to settle in a new place, this time it’s honestly taken two. As usual I’ve set up a writers’ circle. I contribute to the British women’s club magazine and have made friends via a yoga class and the condo we lived in for the first two years. Oh how glad I am that this empty nester picked a condo to start with. I’ve even joined a book club!

Apart from the impossible time zone difference between SE Asia and Germany, where Sam is now living, there have been unexpected benefits to our new childfree status. We go away every bank holiday weekend, usually taking a low cost airline somewhere pretty exotic. In fact, I wrote this on the plane to the Margaret River knowing that we wouldn’t return home to a kitchen sink full of dirty dishes, dirty plates in bedrooms and the dishwasher still needing to be unloaded.

By living somewhere exotic and having lots of wonderful friends who also find their nests empty, instead of the weekend visits with the family we used to enjoy, they come for a week, or two, or even three and we get to go on more trips with them too.

These days, now the boys are grown up, we also get to go visit them in their own exotic locations. Josh is now in Jogjakarta and, as I said, Sam is in Berlin.

The biggest surprise has been the joy of hosting young strangers in our house. We regularly open the door to a range of lovely young people we have never or scarcely met before. This is the age of the backpacker, the perpetual traveller, the wwoofer and couchsurfer.  It usually begins with a Whatsapp message from Sam or Josh asking whether we are in on such and such a date. Then they say they have a friend who just happens to be coming through KL and on a tight budget and… and…

kitchen help

kitchen help

And so they visit and in a flash our nest is full of life and smelly feet again. We enjoy the company. In a way they become proxy children. They arrive, rather smelly, turtled with backpacks, yet without agenda, history or emotional baggage. They ask our advice. They listen to us. Recently, Geraint, an Aussie cycling from Down Under to England, called in on his way through, with the British cyclist called Tristan, he’d met en route. After I had frog-marched them to the washing machine, they asked if they could help cook dinner, lay the table, wash up. Ian and I went out for a while and when we returned home, they had mopped the kitchen floor. A week later and Josh popped home and ‘accidentally’ brought his French friend Léandre with him. Overnight, we ran out of pillows.

Entertaining one of ours and a spare!

Entertaining one of ours and a spare!

Nests, I realise, have different degrees of emptiness. Making sure they, like beds, never get completely cold, is definitely my preferred coping mechanism. I feel privileged that the kids consider us ‘okay’ enough to spend time with their friends and welcome the fillip these impromptu visits provide.


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No worries on our first ever trip Down Under

Forest of Karri trees

Forest of Karri trees

We didn’t see a single kangaroo. Nor a wallaby. Nor a possum. Not a single bush hat strung with corks and though we found lots of gum trees there was not a koala in sight. Was this really Australia?

I never really believed I’d go Down Under. Although I have plenty of Australian friends and knew from the way their accents made them sound like they were always smiling that their country might be fun, but part of me also doubted it really existed. I’d seen the YouTube clip where a Brit is taught the Aussie a lot of useful words. A can of beer, becomes a ‘tinnie’. A cool box, an ‘eskie’, a booze shop, a ‘bottleshop’ or ‘bottle-o’ , a laptop a ‘lappy’ and so on. I reckoned I’d cope without the aid of Google Translate, but still, setting foot in the land of Aborigines I expected an alien nation. A land made up of surf dudes who called their women Sheila and women who looked like Kylie Minogue.

I never expected it to be that clean. I never expected the road signs to actually help us to find where we were going, nor the maps to work.  But they did, which was a jolly good job because our SatNav didn’t. Our first night took us to a B&B run by a lady called Kandy, with a K,  called Greenskape. I was not hopeful. That first night, Kandy suggested we head to the Tavern in the town of Capel for dinner as most places closed at seven in the winter. It looked like a Little Chef, shared the parking lot with a bottle-o  and was entered though a bar filled with darts players, their eyes fixed to a big screen showing footie. When I saw a door marked with the word Lounge, I relaxed. But the lounge, decorated in shades of mint green and terracotta and with plastic flowers on the paper-covered tables did not bode well. Our waitress had a curly perm and tattoos peeked out from the sleeves of her fleece. I think her name too, began with a K. We asked for a table for two, casting our eyes round the cold, soulless, empty room.

“No worries!” she said perkily.

We asked for the menu.

“No worries!” she said perkily.

We ordered fish and chips.

“No worries!” she said and when the fish was fresh and meaty and the beer served scarily cold we knew for sure we really were in Australia.

The following morning Kandy served us homemade granola and a range of homemade jams, concocted by her husband, Peter, in the ‘thermie’ – that ubiquitous pricey piece of kitchen counter kit it seems no self-respecting Aussie household is without. Apparently it takes the place of 12 other pieces of equipment and is able to cook, steam, blend, whisk and weigh all in the same small space. And so we learned that Aussies are not only civilised and eat healthily but streets ahead of the Brits, not least because they fine any citizen who does not vote in an election.



The vines on the slope

The vines on the slope

We were making for Margaret River, a wine region that lies a few hours south of Perth and is found in the very southernmost, westernmost tip of the country, its well-drained slopes blown by the breezes from both the Indian and Southern Oceans. A terroir I had never heard of until recently, we were lucky sods in that I’d recently met a vineyard owner who asked her estate manager to give us a private tour. Despite the drizzle, the Cabernet Merlots and Cabernet Sauvignon we sampled that lunchtime were the finest of our whole trip. Our guide, Col, even let Ian have a go at pruning, which was possibly rather stupid of him as he’d had a glass of wine and wasn’t wearing his glasses!  Col taught us so much, not least the fact that vineyards appear to offer great investment potential and a lifetime supply of great wine. But not until we had driven as south as we could, through the Boranup forest to Augusta and its lighthouse, to work up a thirst.

LIghthouse at Augusta

LIghthouse at Augusta

Convinced that we now needed to sample a few more varieties of wine, just to be sure the first one really was the best we signed ourselves up on a day-long Bushtucker tour.

Our leader was called Bart, had the lean physique, tan and long tawny hair of the surfer and wore the hat we’d expected – minus the corks.  A jolly fellow, he drove our yellow bus between three fine wineries (aka wine-o), with nutty names like Woody Nook and Knotting Hill and looked on while we got quietly sozzled on at least 8 wines in each place, then five beers in a brewery (no, they did not do anything other than freezing cold beer, shame on them but at least we managed to sit by a fire), cheeses in a dairy, chocolate in a choccy place and then, now nicely bonded with the rest of our party, goodness knows how many spirits at a place I can’t even remember the name of. Bemoaning our lack of roo activity, Bart told us we’d not be disappointed at the spirit place as we’d be bound to catch sight of the drop bears. Kirsten and Morgan tittered behind us in the bus.

“They fall out of trees onto tourists,” he warned. “Somehow they know to avoid the locals.”

“That’s because we know to put Vegemite behind our ears,” said Kristen.

“Oh dear,” I said, merrily into the swing of things. “I only have Marmite on me!”

Morgan tutted. “Drop bears can tell the difference.”

As we arrived at the distillery, Bart warned us. “Now, Steve, the guy here, may be offensive. He doesn’t mean anything but he has a very dry sense of humour. Very non-PC and permanently pissed. Oh, and watch out for those drop bears!”

Ian gets into the groove at Knotting Hill

Ian gets into the groove at Knotting Hill

Walking, or should I say, weaving, in the drizzle towards the bar, Bart indicated the gum tree above his head. We looked up and sure enough, there on the branches were a collection of white bears, nailed on and ready to drop. Spirits remained high as we approached the bar and the notorious Steve. He poured glasses fast, holding two at a time down firmly with his large hand, flattening his fingers against the wood to stop them shaking.

“Where are you from?” he asked us.


And from that moment he referred to us as Brexit and shook his head. The Irish and the Scottish chaps were accused of drinking too fast, the Malaysians of being too slow. Nevertheless at a rate of about a glass every two minutes, some of which had to be downed in one, looked like a brown tequila sunrise and tasted like Irish coffee, others had recently won awards, we did as we were told. It all went by in a flash of hilarity and then, seven hours after we had started we were back in the tranquility of our hotel and desperate for cups of tea. I think I had five in a row.

We spent two nights at the Basildene Manor in the town of Margaret River. A 19-room mansion, it stands in rolling grounds filled with peppermint trees (no, not another of Bart’s jokes, it is a kind of eucalyptus) and a variety of wild parrots. They serve a breakfast like no other, with a range of spiced and fresh fruits in a glorious conservatory overlooking the garden. But it was not just the breakfast that set it apart. I have never before stayed in a hotel that while it serves no meals apart from breakfast, expects the guests to make themselves at home in the two firelit lounges and the conservatory. You can bring your own food, order in a pizza or drink the wine you bought during the day. Glasses and board games are provided. Tea and coffee are permanently available as are homemade cake and fresh fruit.

Basildene Manor's glorious garden

Basildene Manor’s glorious garden

Our final night was spent in the wetlands of Busselton in a B&B called Martin Fields. Ironically, the owner, Pattricia, was Malaysian! Our view was exceptional, as were the local sausages.

Martin Fields

Martin Fields

We only spent four nights here in total, leaving Malaysia for the Hari Raya celebration that comes at the end of Ramadan. But in this short time we fell a little in love in Western Australia. Without exception, we found the natives to be warm, welcoming and amusing. The landscape, made up of more gum trees than I knew existed is fairly flat and very green, somewhat shrubby and gorsey with expansive Norfolk pines, funny squat walking haystacks with black trunks that we discovered are called grass trees and the grey leaved wattles, dripping with yellow laburnum-like blooms. The sunsets flamed amber and the weather was more changeable than the Netherlands, moving from sunshine to showers several times an hour. Middle-aged women are mostly blond and may have piercings. Young man look splendid in wet suits and still jump the waves in the winter, wandering barefoot, sleek as neoprene seals.

The grass tree

The grass tree

Everyone, but everyone, seems to be smiling.

But we did not see a single kangaroo.



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The trouble with the tropics

is it me, or is it hot out here?I suggest men and the faint-hearted now look away…

When we first arrived in Malaysia I’d look at the number of umbrellas that the Asian women used here when it wasn’t raining and hurrumph. How vain were they to protect their already gorgeous olive skin from the sun?  You’d never get me doing that!

So there was I, with what my doctor calls Type A skin (which basically means the vulnerable, moley, freckly, blotchy kind that never goes a decent brown) and told to wear sunblock ‘”every day. I mean it. Even if it’s not sunny. Even in the car.” But he didn’t tell me to use an umbrella.

Being a good girl I did as I was told and always put some on my face before going out. OK, maybe not if I’m popping out in the car to a mall, but always if I am going to be exposed for more than a minute or two. If I sunbathe, which I do only rarely because it’s boring, I wear factor 50 and sit under a sunshade. If I have to wander about for any length of time I wear a hat, even though it makes my head sweat.

But now it seems I’ve reached ‘a certain age’ and it is as if someone has put on the central heating. Everywhere. Inside the shops. In the car, with the fan full on. In the middle of the night when the a/c is on arctic and Ian’s wearing winceyette pyjamas. What’s worse I am getting sweatier and sweatier, yes, even with deoderant. I have developed the habit of pressing my arms against my sides whenever I meet someone. I wear nothing with a waistband that clings to my waist. I realize that trousers are cooler than skirts because the feel of my damp thighs touching is frankly, revolting. Sorry, folks TMI. But it’s true. Until recently I had no idea how much a forehead nor the tops of feet, can perspire. I’m sure menopause must be bad enough for women in a Norwegian winter, but out here, with the temperature in the 90s and humidity often up near 100% it’s not funny.

Maybe it’s not just me?

Recently, we hosted a couple of chaps who were cycling from Australia to the UK. They arrived on my doorstep, complaining of prickly heat, left their putrid shoes outside (thank God), availed themselves of my washing machine and flung themselves up against the air conditioner.

“We’ve had this painful rash night and day for four days,” said Tristan. “We looked it up on the Internet and the advice for getting rid of it was to be in an air conditioned room until we could get completely cool. We’re on the road or camping out all the time so it’s impossible.”

“You’ll enjoy our pool, then?” I suggested, telling them to make themselves at home and giving them pool towels.

Two days later and they had still not left the house unless it was dark. Not even to swim.

“We can’t,” said Geraint. “The moment we step outside the prickly heat comes back.”

It took them three days to recover. I know how they felt.

It is equally hard for me to cool down to the core for any length of time living here and particularly with this dodgy internal thermostat I seem to be landed with at the moment. I wish all it would take for me to recover was three days indoors. I too only swim when the pool is in the shade. The water is cold and for the first time in my life as a complete wuss, I’m delighted.

Luckily there are measures I can take to help myself cool down without recourse (yet) to standard HRT. And while Dr Christiane Northrup’s book, The Wisdom of Menopause is packed with advice I’m testing my own brand of Heating Reduction Therapy…


my HRT kit

20 ways to reduce what the Chinese call call ‘body heatiness’

  1. I now drink iced coffee and wait til my builder’s tea is cold before I dare drink it.
  2. I’ve started drinking sage tea (sounds disgusting, but actually it’s rather nice).
  3. Always one famed for an asbestos mouth and wolfing my food, I wait til it’s stopped steaming before daring to take a bite.
  4. I keep my hair off my neck. I had no idea that the back of my neck would suffer most from this midlife affliction. Now I ensure there is always a hair clip or a bobble in my pocket.
  5. I’m trying to exercise more, so there’s a fitbit step counter in my pocket.
  6. I’m cutting down on sugar and try to satisfy the craving with a date.
  7. I always bags the seat under the fan or nearest the a/c if I eat out.
  8. I know that it is wise to keep a wet towel in the freezer. Oh the bliss of it on the back of that pesky neck. Sometimes I keep a wet towel beside the bed too! Oh, take tissues or a small handtowel out with me. I think of them as my ‘mop’.
  9. I put the a/c on in a room a few minutes before I spend time in it.
  10. Not only do I have pairs of reading specs in every room of the house these days, but now I have a fan too. And, more important of all, there’s one in my handbag at all times.
  11. I engineer Ian to agree to holiday destinations that are experiencing winter if at all possible.
  12. I’m embracing every alternative remedy that others swear by (yes, I did check with an expert that I’m not going to overdose!) and wait patiently for them to take effect:  geranium essential oil in the dimples in my lower back, clary sage and geranium oil on my soles, wild yam gel rubbed into my wobbly bits.
  13. I’ve discovered vodka has a less adverse effect on me than wine (yay!). And yes, I am cutting down on booze too. And yes, it does make a difference. Bugger.
  14. I put ice (to cool down) and soda water (no sugar) in the vodka!
  15. I’m following my wise consul, Siv Harestad’s, body reflexology treatment three times a week. You can find it here on YouTube.
  16. I’m doing a grounding yoga practice, as recommended by my friend and yoga teacher, Cecilia Gotherstrom, as often as I can.
  17. I have a Headspace meditation App on the iPad and use it.
  18. I’ve booked in for a six-session program of acupuncture with the wonderful Mrs Ju. I’m two sessions in and hopeful. Honestly, she said it would only take six!
  19. I also use a thing called a Ladycare magnet but you’ll have to look up what I do with it because explaining is maybe way TMI.
  20. And finally, you guessed it? I now take an umbrella whatever the weather and use it. You can get them with a UV protective layer and you know, it does make a difference.

So maybe, the women who carry umbrellas are not protecting their skin after all?

Oh, and by the way… I’m still hot!

PS the Chinese swear by chrysanthemum tea. Shall I check it out?

PPS Please share your own remedies with me. 20 life changes appear not to be enough.

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Blue for the EU

Happy accident?

Happy accident?

June 25th 2016

It was a blue day yesterday.

With Sam living in Berlin and desperately wanting Britain to stay in the EU and the majority of bones in my body agreeing with him, I spent the final minutes of the referendum vote-counting in Boudoir nail parlour. I’d been given a manicure and pedicure as a birthday present and decided for the first time ever to take iPad and headphones with me. We’re seven hours ahead of the UK here. Over there it was 3.30am. I wanted to see and hear the action unfold. I’d been confident we’d remain, albeit by a narrow margin and wanted to know the outcome immediately.

I don’t normally do manicures. This is because I find it hard to be without the use of my hands for very long and am so uncoordinated that it is nigh on impossible for me to manoeuvre my drying nails so that the wet polish does not smudge. This means, I can’t drink the free drinks that came with my generous gift. I can’t answer my phone. I can’t turn the pages of one of those vacuous magazines that take five seconds to flick through and I can’t scratch my nose. I’m one of those people who can’t look at something at the side of the road while I’m driving because if I do, the steering wheel miraculously turns along with my head. So, if I have my nails done I need to sit still a statue, eyes down.

The situation made a perfect opportunity to sit down, plug in and watch BBC Live before the polish descended. I know how hopeless I am so picked a pale pink varnish for my finger-nails and then for no particular reason, other than that my dress yesterday was navy and white, chose a blue for my nails.  Then it was eyes down. I have no idea what the two nail technicians must have thought (yes, you get nails and toes done simultaneously here) as I couldn’t help myself emit a series of groans, sighs and mild expletives from the moment Brexit had just 377,000 to go to secure a victory. My heart was sinking fast. I’d lived in France and the Netherlands for ten years of my life. I spoke some French, German and Dutch. I had friends living all over EU, most of whom were not British. I felt more European than British in many ways. I’d certainly spent more of my adult life on the continent than in England. As a mostly-expat I feel more ‘at home’ among internationals and those who recognize that their passport does not define who they are. Yet I am British and our exit from the EU made me feel like I was betraying my friends, being a hypocrite, a traitor.

I was alone in the salon. When the vote was final I could not bear to look at the screen. I glanced towards my fingers. Instead of the innocuous pale colour I’d chosen, they were bright primary blue! After the initial horror I saw the irony. All they needed were some circles of stars and I’d be able to wear my heart on my toes. I shrugged and told the nail girl that it was okay. I was happy to make a statement today.

As my mood sank into a dark hole I decided there was nothing for it but a spot of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers on James Cordon’s Carpool Karaoke and this time could not contain my laughter. The show finished and my nails were done. I’d taken my mind off the country I was born in for a few minutes.

Four expats came into the salon and sat down.

“Oh God, what about Brexit?” was the first thing to be said. My mother thinks it will be like a divorce, messy. My accountant says we ‘are in interesting times’. My old friend says she wants to leave Britain now.

I’m not sure the future’s bright for our children though my toes certainly are. Like them, I’m rather bluer than I’d hoped.



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Silent in Sandakan

Sandakan Bay

Sandakan Bay

Many confuse Sandakan with Samarkand for no other reason than the names sound similar. I knew Sandakan as the Land Below the Wind, thanks to the writings of American author, Agnes Keith in the early part of the last century. Ian knew Sandakan as the location of WWII allied Prisoner of War camps and the start of many forced death marches from Sandakan to Ranau. Marches of POWs that left only the six who managed to escape alive out of more than two thousand is cited to be the single worst atrocity suffered by Australian servicemen at that time. We both knew that this was the place to go to explore both the Orang Utan Sanctuary at Sepilok and the wildlife of the Kinabatangan River and that it was two and a half hours away from KL, in Sabah, back on our beloved Borneo.

The sign

The sign

We flew to Kota Kinabalu and hired a car, driving the five hours or so across the country to Sandakan. Much of our journey took the Sandakan Death March route. Breaking for lunch at Ranau, we visited the tea plantation and discovered the poignant Quailey’s Hill memorial to those who lost their lives and that overlooked the lush landscape.

View from Quailey Memorial, Ranau

View from Quailey Memorial, Ranau

With thoughts of cruelty in our minds we drove the rest of the way in silence, incredulous that such a gentle landscape, peppered with kampong-style houses on stilts, banana, mango, coconut and papaya trees swaying in the breeze beneath a wide blue sky, could have seen such horror.

We stayed at the Four Points by Sheraton hotel, located slap bang on the waterfront in Sandakan, with a view over the Sulu Sea to a string of islands in one direction and overlooked by Agnes Keith’s house behind.

View up to Agnes Keith's house from Sheraton

View up to Agnes Keith’s house from Sheraton (you can glimpse it behind the trees towards the top)

Sandakan feels stuck in a fifties time warp. Many buildings remain and few, apart from our hotel, rose higher than three or four storeys. Like I said, it’s a gentle landscape and one that feeds my soul. Somehow it feels a couple of degrees cooler and less humid here than KL and though Keith claims it lies ‘beneath the wind’, we enjoyed surprising wafts of cool air that crept up unexpectedly.

Of course our first day had to be spent with the orang utans and we arrived at opening time the next day. As a rehabilitation centre for motherless babies, the wounded and abused, it’s another gentle place and our silence was requested as we wandered the board walks, necks on swivels craning to look closer at any rustle among the leaves. We saw plenty of macacs at feeding time and a lone orang utan swinging calmly on manmade ropes made to resemble liana and that had been strung around the viewing area. But it was in the nursery that we witnessed magic in action as humans taught their young and timid charges to climb, swing, and forage for food just like their mothers would have done. At lunch time the youngsters held out their hands ring-a-roses style to be escorted off for nap time.

It was about now that I was too thirsty to stay and follow the trail, but Ian and our friends, Paul and Helen, were keen and so I bid them goodbye and headed off for a large a/c unit and a big bottle of water in the café. Of course this was the time that the wanderers came upon a lounging female, flopped on her back, chilling against a pile of leaves. Not only that but she soon found herself an entourage and gamely led them off down the track and posed for selfies. Typical.

Ian and his new BFF

Ian and his new BFF

After a quick detour to the canopy walk (yay, no stairs to climb!) at the Rainforest Discovery Centre, we opted to go straight to Agnes Keith’s house and miss out the sunbear centre en route. There is something for the whole family in Sandakan.

English Tea Garden

English Tea Garden

Beside her house, renovated only a few years ago, stands a Cameron Highlands style, black-and-white English Tea House, that serves excellent fish and chips by the way, and cold beer too on terraces that have stonking views across the harbor to the sea. We could not resist.

What expats eat on holiday

What expats eat on holiday

Her house, for me, the highlight of our weekend, did not disappoint. Keith lived here from 1934 to 1952 with her husband, Harry, Conservator of Forests, and a pet orang utan. Only, it was here that Ian’s Sandakan and mine combined. I have also read her second book, Three Came Home, that tells part two of her astounding story. In 1942 Agnes, Harry and their young son, George were captured, along with many of their friends, and interned at the POW camp over on Berhala Island, by the Japanese. And though, against all odds – malaria, typhoid, near-starvation – they survived, and, after the war and few years in Canada, returned to the same spot. The Japanese had commandeered their house and the family returned to find it destroyed. However, at her request, a new one was built on the same spot. Keith found the new house to be haunted by the old. I’d have been haunted by the silence, save for birdsong and the horror of recent painful memories within the reach of my sight.

Agnes and Harry Keith's house

Agnes and Harry Keith’s house

Visiting the Sandakan Memorial Park on the way to Sukau on the Kintabatangan River was a given. We simply had to go, despite only having a spare half hour. It was so worth it. Again, silence seemed to be in order as we wandered the green, meandering park, looking up at the soaring trees where, then, only a few protruded from the devastation. As I searched the air for birdsong, I was reminded of Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and how, when life was nothing but bleak, the sight of a bird and the sound of it singing could lift spirits. I hoped those desperate men found moments of brightness in their tragic lives, felled like trees years before their time.


Sandakan War Memorial

Sandakan War Memorial

Agnes’ War

What have they seen,
these soaring trees?
The leaf-litter, heaped
like piles of bones,
pushed to the edge of our rememberering.
Trunks, hacked short,
like the futures
of those
brave young men,
who came to fight
for their Australian homeland and their lives.
Here in Sandakan,
flowers bloom red
as blood.
Sunlight filters gently down
through straight-backed trees,
bathing us in silence, sorrow.
We march forwards,
because we choose,
towards the flat black stone
that is their memorial.
How then, did Agnes feel,
standing on the thick green lawns
of a house haunted by ghosts of people whom she never knew?
Did she look down across the Sulu Sea,
past wide acacias, palms and pines
to Berhala Island, where,
interned, she suffered and was starved?
For her no days of death march
that slaughtered thousands and
left only six alive.
Her journey east to Sarawak’s Kucing
robbed her of the light behind her eyes,
but not the drive
to write this down
for us
Scraps of paper, sewn
into her toddler’s toys,
her fragile hems and soft worn seams,
stitched truth and death
into the corners of her desperate life
so that now we stand
on her beloved hill
and look down
and out
and back.
Lest we forget.

Sandakan May 2016


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