Our days in Cambodia: exploring the Killing Fields

Our days in Cambodia: exploring the Killing Fields

The last couple of days my wife Marcie and I spent in Cambodia were spent exploring the Killing Fields. Even though the focus of this trip was about seeking fantastical inspiration by exploring the temple ruins of Angkor and exotic cultural experiences, we knew it was incumbent upon on to examine this aspect of Cambodia’s history. When it came to the Killing Fields, this was not about finding inspiration, but about increasing our awareness.

We made visits to two different sites related to the Killing Fields: the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, just outside of Phnom Penh, and the Tuol Sleng Prison Genocide Museum, which is located within the city itself.

Both visits were difficult experiences. That probably goes without saying, but our visits coincided with the storm coming out in the news of certain presidents referring to developing countries as “sh*thole countries.” There’s been a lot of debate about what was actually said, but to me, it’s not the specific words that matter—it’s the sentiment. And that unthinking, unfeeling attitude pervaded my thoughts as we trudged through the grounds where thousands—thousands—of people were killed because they did not fit a political leaders view of what fit. Men. Women. Children.

I had read quite a bit about the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia and, in preparation for our visit, had rewatched the 1984 film The Killing Fields. Still, nothing had prepared me for our visit.

I knew that there was a memorial “stupa” at the Choeung Ek Genocidal site, and that it was filled with the skulls and bones of victims. I had seen photos online. The ones below are the ones we took:





The bones and skulls have all been exhumed from the grounds. They are all real and grimly categorized by researchers who have tried to determine the sex of the victim and the means by which they were killed. There are over 5,000 skulls in the stupa.

So, yes, I was prepared to see the stupa. But what I didn’t know was that the grounds themselves are still scattered with human remains. It’s a testament to just how many people were slaughtered there between 1974 and 1979. Cambodia lost one-quarter of its population during the time and there are dozens of killing fields scattered throughout the country.

Choeung Ek was one of the main killing fields and because there are so many bodies buried there in mass graves, human remains are still rising to the surface. You can see them as you walk about—bones, clothes, teeth. They boil to the top of the ground, especially during the rains. It’s overwhelming, shocking, eerie, and heartbreaking to see them as you tour the place. There are not just one or two. They are everywhere.


There are so many in fact, that the caretakers go through every few months to gather the ones that come to the surface. There are many display cases throughout the site, containing rags and human remains, and even on top of the cases there are piles of bones and teeth, newly-discovered and waiting to be put away.

There are many specific horrors described on the tour. We found the ones involving children and babies especially difficult to comprehend and absorb. Actually, I’m not sure we have absorbed it yet.

And now? The site is quiet, green and peaceful. Chickens wander the grounds. There are cattle grazing beyond the fences. Blossoming flowers. The shallow depressions in the ground, the remnants of the mass graves and the scattering of bones and rags are the only things that reveal the tragic nature of the site.




After visiting Choeung Ek, we climbed into the tuk-tuk we had hired for the day and headed back into the city. We were actually meant to visit Tuol Sleng Prison afterwards, but when our driver pulled up, we just didn’t have it in us to do it. We had our driver take us back to our hotel and worked up the fortitude to visit the prison the following day.

Which we did.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is situated in one of the most famous prisons that was used during Pol Pot’s regime. It was once a high school, converted into a prison and torture chamber. People did die here, but that was never the regime’s intention. This was meant for detention and interrogation. It’s estimated that between 12,000 and 20,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng (also known as “S-21”). Many people, after torture, were sent to the Killing Fields to die. There are only twelve people confirmed to have survived the horrors of the prison.


I’m glad we went to Tuol Sleng, but I’m also glad we didn’t do it in the same day as Choeung Ek. It allowed us to manage it emotionally and to give us a fighting chance to absorb it.

Here, you can see the prison cells and torture chambers, many of them in the exact same condition as when they were first used.



Rooms once used to educate high school students were converted into individual or mass cells, hastily built with wood or bricks. Holes were punched crudely into the walls to allow guards to see down the entire chain of cells. Many of the floors are still stained with the result of gruesome torture.




There also many rooms in the buildings that showcase exhibits related to the genocide. One of the most overwhelming aspects are the photos—there are hundreds of them, the mugshots of the people who were detained there. Every single prison (man, women, and child) were photographed and catalogued. You can see into their eyes in the photos—going to Tuol Sleng, it’s impossibly to escape the grisly reality of the genocide.

And that is a good thing. Nothing about the prison—or Choeung Ek for that matter—is sanitized.

Marcie and I are still thinking about our visits to these places and trying to rectify the Killing Fields with our other experiences in Cambodia. We have found the people here so friendly, kind, and generous. How can this possibly be after having gone through such atrocity?

When we attended a show of cultural dancing, the host of the evening said that it was Cambodia’s hope to be known for its art, and not the Killing Fields. That made me ponder. In truth, the first thing that always popped into my head about Cambodia was the wonders of Angkor. And I think that will still be the case in the years to come. When I remember our time in that wonderful country, I think I will dwell on the temples first. But it is certainly hard to not think of what we saw at the Killing Fields.

My former student, Dona, is currently volunteering in Cambodia and learning more about it’s culture everyday. After parting with her, she messaged me to say, “I hope that you two had a good time in Cambodia and find inspiration but also knowledge on how this country has been shaped and continues to persevere. I hope you take back your learnings to the communities you meet everyday.”

Such a wise person (and isn’t it humbling when your student becomes the teacher?). Perhaps what I will take away from Cambodia is not a visual memory, but an emotional sentiment: Empathy.


Our days in Phnom Penh: culture, creativity, and a lot more cars

Our days in Phnom Penh: culture, creativity, and a lot more cars

We’ve ended our “inspircation” in Southeast Asia in the city of Phnom Penh. I’ve fallen behind on the daily blog, but not because we’ve been more busy—ironically, it’s because we’ve slowed down a bit and have been taking it a bit more easy.

We arrived her via bus from Siem Reap. We actually missed the pick-up from our hotel  by the van that would take us to the bus depot, so we had to jump into a tuk-tuk and race across the city. At one point, our driver suddenly pulled over and passed me the phone. Turned out it was the hotel calling, saying that they had forgotten to charge me for one of our tours that we had booked through them (at about that exact moment I had been wondering why our bill was so low). So we had to hurriedly arrange payment, then we were off again. We managed to catch our bus to Phnom Penh, though just barely.

The drive between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh is a leisurely four or five hours, with obligatory stops at markets and restaurants. The company we book through, Giant Ibis, has comfortable buses, fully air-conditioned and supplied with internet. We enjoyed watching the Cambodian countryside roll by—seemingly endless rice fields, herds of cattle, and massive flocks of domestic white ducks.



Once we arrived in Phnom Penh, we gathered our embarrassing amount of luggage, hired a tuk tuk and he took us through the city towards our hotel.

I have a former student living and volunteering in this city and, prior to our arrival, she had warned us it would be pretty wild. But we have cut our teeth on cities such as Bangkok and Hanoi, so we actually found Phnom Penh quite sedate by comparison.

To begin with, there is only 1.5 million people here (compared to Bangkok’s 8.3 million and Hanoi’s 7.5 million). There is no constant honking by the traffic and we wonder if this is at least partly due to the fact that there are a lot less scooters here. Cars are more prevalent. Don’t get me wrong—there are a lot of scooters here; it’s just nothing like Hanoi.

Once we settled into our hotel, we met up with my old student, Dona, and we got caught up while wandering the city. Dona was worried about how we might do crossing the traffic—but once again, it’s a breeze here compared to Bangkok or Hanoi.

The city has a very modern feel to it, especially at night, when all the lights are pulsing.



As you can see by the above photo, there is lots of space for pedestrians on the wide walkways between the avenues.

The next day, we met up with Dona again and checked out the city by natural light. I’ve found it to be a mixture of French colonial architecture, dilapidated buildings, and sheik modern architecture . . .




The people themselves are incredibly friendly and most everyone in the service industry (that includes people selling at the markets) speaks excellent English.

We spent the first part of the day exploring the Russian Market, which is a giant beehive of stalls and stores and, as far as I can tell, has nothing to do with Russia whatsoever. You can buy all sorts of good there, everything from sprocket wrenches to clothes. And, of course, food!

We bought some fruit on the street, including some that I’ve never heard of. For example, here’s something called “snake fruit.” It’s aptly named; just check out the husk:


It reminds me of one of Daenerys’s dragon eggs in Game of Thrones.

After the market, Dona expressed a desire to try a Cambodian photo shoot. We decided to indulge her, so made our way to a studio and arranged a shoot for that very day. Marcie and Dona were instantly whisked away to a make-up room where a pair of women began clucking away and working on their hair and faces. I didn’t get any such treatment—I just had to watch!


After this portion of the process, we were escorted to another room and dressed up in our costumes. Unfortunately, by body is decidedly not designed for traditional Cambodian clothing. The attendants had to make many adjustments to make it all fit.


Eventually (and by “eventually” I mean an hour and a half), we were ready for our shoot. We were positioned against a white background and the photograph began posing and positioning us and clicking the shots.

Afterwards, we were taken to the computer lab to see our shots and to select from the options. Here’s the final photos we chose, and how they turned out . . .









The removal of the costumes and the make-up was a lot quicker than the set up. In fact, Marcie and Dona showed their remnants for the rest of the night:


We had an amazing dinner in a restaurant situated on the Mekong River, and while the boats trundled past, we talked about art, literature, film and about Dona’s experiences living in the city and her attempts to learn Khmer. (For the record, I think her Khmer is pretty good!)

The following day, Marcie set out to visit Choeung Ek, the best known and most-visited site of the Killing Fields. I want to save a discussion of our visit there for a future post, but for now I just want to say that we quite enjoyed the tuk-tuk ride there and back, as it afforded us a closer look at the daily city life of the people.

Similar to Hanoi, the traffic we zipped in and out of was a mixture of modern cars, scooters, bicycles, and other tuk-tuks. Some people were laden with traditional wares, such as this banana peddler:


Other wares, are a bit less traditional:


As we left behind the city, the roads became less busy and we saw the humble homes and shops of the people, as well as a lot more children and old people, cycling about, engaging in their daily activities.



The thing we found the most heart-breaking about the countryside is the level of garbage. It’s everywhere. And I mean everywhere.


The above photo is just a typical sight that greeted us as we rode along in our tuk-tuk. It’s hard to imagine the level of effort it would take to clean-up this amount of garbage. It’s a typical aspect found in developing countries, but it still makes me feel despondent.

On our way back from the killing fields, we encountered rush hour traffic. Here’s a shot from the back of our tuk-tuk. Our driver was facing a wall of cars and scooters and he had to turn left through it all, against multiple competing streams of vehicles.


He did.

He handled it far better than we did.


Once we made it back to our hotel, we refreshed with a drink and dinner, then met Dona again, this time to see some traditional Cambodian dancing. I always love to see this type of cultural expression when we’re in a new country, as it is so deeply connected to the ancient lore and legends of a place.

The Cambodian dancing did not disappoint. We were mesmerized by the costumes and the way the female dancers’ fingers gently bent backwards in an arc.


In particular, I really enjoyed the enactment of the story of Hanuman, which I knew from my study of Indian mythology. Turns out, it migrated to Cambodia, and the dancers performed it with great aplomb—especially the actors who portrayed the monkeys. They wore colourful masks (reminding me a bit of the flying monkeys in 1939 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz film) and nimbly leapt about the stage and even into the aisles of the audience.



The next time I blog, I’ll post our experiences at the killing fields. To be honest, we’re still digesting it.



Exploring Cambodia, Day 5: Seeing a different way of life on the floating villages of Tonle Sap

Exploring Cambodia, Day 5: Seeing a different way of life on the floating villages of Tonle Sap

For the final full day of our “inspiration” in Siam Reap, Cambodia, my wife and I decided to take a day trip out to Tonle Sap to see the floating village of Kampong Phluk.

We booked the trip through our hotel and were picked up by a van that then drove us to connect with a bigger bus, and more tourists. As is the case with so many tours, we had one couple that seemed to be bungling along at every step of the way—and that included step 1, getting going! It took ten minutes for our guide (Sok) to track the couple down and then, at last, we were off into the Cambodian countryside.

The drive was about an hour and a half and along the way we could see a more rural part of the country, far removed from the gentrified tourist hub of Siem Reap. Along the way, Sok told us stories about what it was like to grow up in Cambodia. He said that he stayed in school as a child, even though his parents urged him to quit and work as a fisherman or a farmer. But he persisted in his education, learned English, and joined the burgeoning tourist trade.

Sok went onto say that Cambodians are quite thankful for the tourists, as it has raise the quality of life. This was actually something Marcie and I had talked about at great length—do the tourists like us or dread us? We had seen so many people treating the people poorly (read my post on what I dub the “poverty paparazzi“), but, according to Sok at least, we provide a positive outcome for the people. I hope that’s the truth.

We eventually arrived at the pier and were loaded into a boat. As we wound our way down the waterways, we could see many fishing boats, nets, and houses on stilts. It wasn’t a peaceful ride—our boat, and the many other ones just like it all run on grumpy petrol engines that growl and grunt the entire time.




Kompong Phluk is a five-hundred-year-old village situated on the Tonle Sap, the major lake and river system in Cambodia. In fact, Tonle Sap is the largest lake in Southeast Asia, and has been designated a UNESCO Biosphere site because of its wide range of endangered flora fauna.

The direction of the water in Tonle Sap changes twice a year, resulting in extreme highs and lows in the water level. During the dry season, the bed of water is completely dry. During the wet season, the water rises immensely. It’s for this reason that the houses are either built on stilts or on rafts of petroleum barrels.

95% of the economy during the wet season is based on fishing, the other 5% on farming. This changes to 50-50 during the dry season.

Once we landed at the village’s main dock, we were swarmed by children, keen to see and talk to all the strangers. Their English was quite strong and they were particularly interested in one girl in our group who was above average height. They kept pestering her to tell them her height and then they went on to wonder what type of job she had. It was quite amusing to watch!

We ventured down the dry and dusty streets, cognizant of the fact that it would be a water way at a different time of year. Right at the dock is a large Buddhist temple. Due to tourism, it’s being refurbished and looks in really great shape. You can see it below, in the distance, as I turned around halfway down the street to photograph it:


And this is the view that was in front of us:


All the kids in the village go to school, which is free. The expensive part is procuring supplies, so we made a donation when we came upon the kindergarten.


We also came upon a few woman sorting, cooking, and preparing shrimp.




Everyone in the village was really kind, welcoming us into their personals spaces and showing us around. You could even buy the dried shrimp by the bag full, so I suppose this was a little bit like touring the factory, then buying the product afterwards.

After about a half hour, our guide tried to round everyone up and get them back on our boat. Once again, this took some doing. There are many tourists boats and some of our party actually boarded the wrong boat at first, and we had to collect them and head off again.

We continued down the river towards the lake. All of the sudden, we were in a type of mangrove, surrounded by trees . . . and people.


We wondered what was going on, but all was quickly explained. For $10, we could take a boat through the mangroves for a short excursion and meet up with the main boat again before proceeding to the lake.

Marcie wasn’t sure about this at first, but eventually decided to give it a try—and a good thing, as this turned out to be the favourite part of the tour for both of us. Our guide adeptly paddles us through the trees and, even though there were so many of us, we soon in a long single file and felt quite peaceful. We could hear the jungle birds and, peering up into the tree canopies, I spotted a monkey leaping from branch to branch. That was pretty cool.




And then what happened? Suddenly, we came upon a slew of boats . . . we had just entered a floating village of corner stores. Seems like the obligatory stop at a halfway point of a tour to buy something happens even out here!


The interesting part of this situation was that every boat was designated to stop at a specific store. One of the boats ended up doubling up, leaving one of the stores without a customer. We heard about that—the woman at that store began yelling and wailing. I don’t speak Khmer, but I can imagine!

As for us, we didn’t want to buy anything for ourselves, but the woman at our boat-store was very friendly and spoke excellent English. So, in the end, we decided to buy a tea for our guide and that seemed to make everyone happy. One thing we have learned is that it’s a really good idea to have lots of small bills here. You can use American currency (in fact, I think it’s preferred), but you need them in one-dollar notes. Change is often an issue, even for something like a ten-dollar bill.

After we were finished visiting the store, our guide continued paddling . . .



. . . and eventually we arrived at a large floating restaurant. It was here where we could eat, drink, and watch the first hints of the sunset.


For some reason, there was a giant snake in a cage in the very middle of the restaurant. I’m not sure if it was for the tourists to gawk at or if it was eventually going to be on the menu (snake and crocodile regularly feature here).


Whatever the case, the thing was huge and I ended up feeling sorry for it, especially when one of the tourists began antagonizing it by poking it with a plastic straw.

At one point, I had to use the bathroom. That ended up being quite interesting. I had to navigate a narrow wooden walkway, about a foot wide, wall on my left, water on my right. The bathroom itself was rustic, with just a bowl and a nearby barrel with a ladle to scoop up water and do the flushing. That part was fine—it was the treacherous walk that I was worried about. I’m just clumsy enough to have ended up in that lake!

After this break, we were all loaded onto our boats again and trundled out into the lake to watch the sunset.

Once again, this took some doing—people were getting on the wrong boats and one couple (the same one who had delayed us at the very beginning of the trip) ended up forgetting their belongings on the restaurant, which meant we had to detour back there after the sunset so they could collect them.

As for the sunset itself . . . you can see the pics for yourself!




We had a great final day in Siem Reap and going on the tour allowed us to meet and connect with lots of people from all over the world (not only the people in the village, but our fellow tourists).

It’s quite humbling to see how so many people eke out an existence. Their homes and living spaces are so small. So many of us in the first world seem to wring our hands over wanting a detached house, or more space to fill with stuff, or this and that . . . and here’s just one tiny cross-section of people who live with so much less than the rest of us.

We’re going to miss Siem Reap, but look forward to our next stop: Phnom Penh!

Exploring Cambodia, Day 3 & 4: elephants, lions, and flying frogs

Exploring Cambodia, Day 3 & 4: elephants, lions, and flying frogs

My wife and I press forward on our “inspircation”—a holiday that is part vacation and part inspiration-finding for our 2018 projects. We spent Day 2 of our time in Cambodia trekking through some of the biggest temples in Angkor, but had preplanned to take Day 3 off from the temples and to hang around Siem Reap, explore the markets and the hotel pool.

We did this partly to rejuvenate physically, but also just mentally. Venturing through Angkor has been such an overwhelming experience—it’s hard to absorb everything. We felt that a day off in between would set us up to better appreciate a second day of exploration.

Poverty paparazzi

It’s not just the beauty here that is overwhelming, though. It’s also the poverty. Everywhere you go, whether it be temple or town, there are people trying to sell you something, people who are in desperate need. I’m not much of a shopper; I tend to buy one or two things every time I travel, and they’re rarely trinkets. And I’m not the kind of person who wears a T-shirt with the names of places I’ve been scrawled across the front. But here, every time you leave a temple, or, in the case of the town of Siem Reap, a restaurant, people scurry up to try and sell you their goods.

“Kind lady! Kind man? Something to buy? Something to buy? I have cheap price for you!” This is the common refrain we hear.

In many cases, those people are children. They are particularly hard to turn down. One thing that I have found particularly distressing is a penchant by tourists to photograph these children. In one case I saw an entire tour bus of people crowd around an infant boy, snapping shots at him like he was a celebrity and they were some sort of poverty paparazzi. It wasn’t that the boy was smiling, laughing, or doing something cute and precocious. He was stark naked, wandering around in the dust and dirt in his bare feet.

I guess the people found that . . . actually, I can’t even begin to imagine what was the mindset behind that episode. They clicked their photos then scurried off in a herd, leaving the boy exactly where he was, ambling around in the dust, his mother sitting nearby, slightly bewildered. Or perhaps she wasn’t bewildered at all. Perhaps she was just used to this sort of happening. But I can’t imagine she wanted it. It’s not like any o the herd gave her money for photographing her son. Her naked son.

It’s the norm here for the children in these “strip malls” of shops to be naked, at least from the bottom down. They might wear a T-shirt, and that’s it. Why someone would want to photograph a naked kid is beyond me. I find it disturbing on so many levels.

In another instance, a woman with a very expensive camera photographed a little girl trying to help her mom sell souvenirs outside a temple. She even clucked at her and tried to direct her pose, tried to make her smile. Then she sauntered off, pictures taken, without so much even looking at the girl’s wares, her mother, or even offering a dollar. It disgusted me, as if, somehow, this tourist felt the girl was just another part of the landscape for her to coax into her camera.

So, without bowing completely to western consumerism, which equally upsets me, Marcie and I have tried to buy what we truly need (hats, water) and what we truly want (a few items of clothing, a book, and odds and ends) from the locals, and we’ve endeavoured to tip well. Which, really isn’t hard to do when you can eat a meal for $5 and have a draught of beer for fifty cents.

The positive side I’ve tried to take from all of this is to admire the Cambodian people for their hard-working spirit and perseverance. It’s humbling. But, if you go to Cambodia, please just leave their kids alone!

That’s enough about my rant when it comes to how people treat other people. Time to talk more about temples . . .

Elephantine traffic

We had the same guide as the day before, Yam. He picked us up in his tuk-tuk at 9 am, which provided us with a much more leisurely start to our day compared to the 4:30 pick up two days previously, when we had set out to watch the sun rise at Angkor Wat.

This time, we got to whisk into the Angkor region in full daylight. In fact, our route took us past and through many of the temples we had already visited, including Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.


We had a “only-in-Asia” moment while passing through Angkor Thom. Yam had to pull out and pass an elephant!


We just didn’t pass giant mammals, though; we also passed beautiful countryside. Here you can see farmers and their livestock, going about their daily lives.

I was able to snap this photo from our tuk-tuk:


Notice how she is not naked. It’s called discretion, my dear poverty paparazzi. Oh, right. My rant was finished already.

Preah Khan

Even though our start was later, the weather was significantly cooler. The sky was clouded, so the sun wasn’t hammering at us as with our visit to the other temples. We hoped this would make our day a lot easier—and it did. The previous temple day had involved six bottles of water each, but on this day, we barely made it through one apiece!

Our first temple of the day was Preah Khan.


Near the entrance, we happened upon two flanking figures, each grasping the tails of cobras in their hands. I recognized this figure as Garuda, having seen many depictions of this mythical creature on my visits to Thailand.


Once we entered Preah Khan, we found it to be expansive, beautiful, and, in many sections, falling apart. There is a large crew installed there to conduct renovations, but part of the charm is to suddenly turn a corner and find rubble filling a doorway. To me, it just helps signify the passage of time, giving the place a sense of romance and adventure.







There weren’t as many tourists here as we had seen at previous temples and, because the site is so vast, we had plenty of opportunity to take photos without having to worry about getting in any one else’s way.



Inside the centre of the complex, we found an old monk providing blessings. Marcie was instantly attracted to her energy; despite her crooked frame and frail limbs, the monk was radiating positive energy, treating all passersby with her toothless grin.

Marcie received a blessing, which, now that I think about it, was a powerful moment for her that played out later in the day (more on that later). Suffice it to say for now, that part of this blessing involved the monk whisking away negative energy.


There was plenty of time and space here for me to find a quiet spot, take out my notebook, and do some brainstorming and note taking. I’m trying to capture as much inspiration to help aid the world building I need to do for my new book series, Zoone. Marcie snapped this photo of me “at work”:


And there is plenty of inspiration to be discovered here. Similar to other temples we have visited, there are many areas at Preah Khan where the trees have insinuated themselves into the stone walls and become permanent fixtures.




Those are the big-picture views, but here a few photos of the details I captured at this temple:




On the way out, we saw this solemn monkey. One of the guards was trying to coax him to take a banana, and the little fellow wouldn’t go for it. The guard finally tossed it to him and let him eat it at his leisure. Here’s my photo, taken from a distance. Thankfully, one of those poverty paparazzi weren’t around, or they might have tried to make him dance for their amusement. (Though I suppose I am guilty of photographing a naked monkey.)


Neak Pean

We met Yam on the East side of the temple (so didn’t have to backtrack through the entire temple), and he carried us away to our next stop: Neak Pean. This is a unique site, constructed on a man-made island, which means taking a long walkway across the water to reach it.


The views are stunning. The temple is in the middle of a pond on the island and while you can’t actually reach it, it offers some stunning perspectives.


One such perspective came from Marcie. If you have ever met my wife, then you know that she pretty much lives in her own world (we call it “Marce”—you can pronounce it “Mars” with a longer “s” sound at the end).

Here is basically how our conversation went at a holy Buddhist temple:

Marcie: Maybe we’ll see flying frogs.

Me: Those don’t exist.

Marcie: Yes, they do. I’ve seen them.

Me: No, you haven’t.

Marcie: I’m pretty sure I have.

Me: There’s no such thing as flying frogs.

Marcie: Well, there are flying squirrels.

Me: Those are two different things! One’s a rodent and one’s an amphibian.

Marcie: Well, I still think we’ll see one.

Which, incidentally, is why you can’t win an argument with my wife. Because if she decides something’s true, then it is. Then, once we were back at the hotel, I looked up flying frogs and it turns out they do exist. Sigh. I hate being wrong.

We trekked back along the bridge to reconnect with Yam. By this time the bridge was busier and it’s really not that wide—especially when there are herds of tourists all stopping, posing, and turning with giant bags on their backs. I’m surprised I didn’t see anyone plunge into the water. I’m surprised it wasn’t one of us.

At the end of the bridge, we ran the same gauntlet as before—a long line of merchants trying to sell us anything and everything. We had already bought a guidebook to Angkor, so we settled on the response of “we already have it!”


Ta Som

After Neak Pean, we headed to the beautiful temple Ta Som, sequestered in the jungle. The main entrance is capped by giant faces, similar to the ones we saw at Prasat Bayon.



Once you enter through the gate, there are a few different corners to explore. We realized that we had started developing a system to our explorations; instead of going straight through, we immediately branch off at our first opportunity and venture through the outskirts, slowly moving inward. This seems to be the opposite of what most visitors do, so gives us a bit more privacy and room to meander and contemplate.


I keep finding lonely brooms tucked away in different corners of the temples. I don’t know why they capture my attention . . . there’s just something whimsical and magical about an unused broom in such a location. (Hmm. Maybe there’s a story brewing here.)


At one point, Marcie got “low”; anyone with diabetes will understand the term. It means she suspected having low blood sugar, and so had to check her levels. She has to do this throughout the day, then make adjustments accordingly, either by giving herself insulin through her pump-injector or by eating and drinking.

I just snapped this photograph while she was checking her blood; even though you might be in the most magical place in the world, diabetes stops for no one! But, on the other hand, Marcie doesn’t stop for anyone either. Having Type-1 (or juvenile) diabetes has never prevent her from exploring, or taking on, the world!


Despite the fact that the temple is surrounded by walls, the trees are having their own say. This is no more apparent than at this gate, which has been oppressed by a giant strangler fig. We loved this image, and took (or had taken) many photos:




Beyond the tree, on either side, was a long wall, and the jungle. I ventured along it, leaving Marcie to rest at the gate, and found more trees reaching onto the wall, as if they were attempting to pluck the stones from the ground and devour them whole.


Then I came upon what looked like a gigantic (but, thankfully deserted) ant hill and decided I better whisk back into the temple before I got attacked by something. Like an ant. Or a monkey. Or maybe one of those trees!

East Mebon

After Ta Som, we took a short ride to the temple known as East Mebon. It was once surrounded by a moat, creating an artificial island, but now the surrounding area is dry. We ending up dubbing this the “elephant temple” for the statues of the magnificent creatures that are positioned on the four corners of the outer and inner walls.

As with Ta Som, we entered the main gate, climbed the stairs, then immediately veered to our left to explore the outskirts of the complex, thus avoiding the crowds and finding our own places of solitude. It was here where we found the first of our elephants.



The outer walls are lined with trees now, creating shady and romantic walkways.


Once again, there was time for me to sit, contemplate, and brainstorm. And what’s better than brainstorming next to an elephant? Marcie captured these photos of me—notice how I’m sitting out in the open, without even a hat. This is something I would have never been able to do when visiting the other temples, two days earlier. That’s how different the weather was. The temperature this day was perfect: warm and comfortable.



Eventually, we made our way into the inner city, taking in the turrets, doorways, and stairways.






Pre Rup

The next temple on our itinerary, Pre Rup, was similar to East Mebon in its architectural features, size, and layout—so much so, in fact, that I confess I’ve had trouble sorting out my photos between the two of them.

There are no elephants at Pre Rup (though many lions), which is one distinguishing feature. The other is that the jungle is not so close, offering a far more expansive view of the surrounding landscape.









This temple not only offered us spectacular views, but, for Marcie, an epiphany. Standing up there, high above the world, she was suddenly overcome with emotion and experienced what she described as a significant moment of clarity. I’ve had a similar experience many years ago on the Great Wall of China. I haven’t pressed Marcie, yet, on exactly what became clear for her—but I’m pretty sure it’s no coincidence that she had been blessed by that old monk only a few hours earlier!

Prasat Kravan

Our final temple of the day was a small one, Prasat Kravan. In some way, it was an anti-climatic finish to our day. Not only is the temple small, it was being swarmed by workers who were setting up for an event. We assumed the hubbub was for a wedding, but Yam informed us it was for a corporate VIP event.



Still, we found some interesting details, such as this inscription inside one of the door jambs, weathered by time:


And here’s a final parting shot of Marcie, summing up how we’ve felt at the end of our tour:


Our adventures aren’t quite done yet. We’re off to explore a floating village and then heading to the big city of Phnom Penh. More inspiration to come!





Exploring Cambodia, Day 2: Adventuring in Angkor

Exploring Cambodia, Day 2: Adventuring in Angkor

Yesterday, my wife Marcie and I continued our Southeast Asia “inspircation”—a vacation that involves research and inspiration-finding for our 2018 projects—by exploring the Angkor region near Siem Reap in Cambodia.

Our day began early. REALLY early. We set our alarms for 4:20 am and trudged wearily down the stairs to collect a pre-packed breakfast from our hotel, then clambered into our tuk-tuk, which we had arranged to tour us around for the day. Our driver was the same one who had taken us from the airport the previous evening—the ever-smiling Yam. He whisked us away into the dark and we found ourselves feeling a bit bewildered. We had been in Cambodia for less than a day and, here we were, wheeling towards adventure in the wee hours of morning.

Even at this time of day, the town was beginning to animate. People were setting up their stalls and the roads were already filled with traffic.


Yam took us to the visitor centre for Angkor, where we purchased our tickets. You can choose between one-day, three-day, and seven-day passes. Even though we intend to only spend two days exploring temples, we chose the three-day pass, just in case. Despite the early hour (by this time it was just after 5:00 am), the entire centre was swarming with tourists. Thankfully, the longest lines were for one-day passes. We hurriedly bought our tickets, then jumped back into our tuk-tuk and headed off to our first temple: Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world.

Originally constructed as a Hindu temple worshipping Vishu during the Khmer Empire, the site was gradually converted into a Buddhist temple near the end of the twelfth century. It’s now a UNESCO world heritage site.

Here is a map of the entire Angkor region. We ended up doing ten temples in the single day:


Angkor Wat

When Yam dropped us off at the entrance to Angkor Wat, we were so drowsy and out of sorts that we didn’t even really pay attention to where we were and simply wandered off into the darkness (which caused us a problem later in the morning, but more on that later). It was still pitch dark and we just did the lemming thing and followed after the dozens of people trekking towards the temple complex. It felt surreal, like we were wandering through a dream.

The reason why everyone starts the day so early at Angkor Wat is to experience the sun rising over the distinctive domes of the temple. Somehow in the lack of light, we found our way onto a stone ledge of an ancient structure and there we sat, waiting for the dawn, and munching on the miniature bananas that were in our pre-packed breakfast.

Eventually, magically, the temples began to resolve before us . . .




Once it was light enough, we scurried off our ledge and headed into the temples to do some exploring. It was only then that we were aware just how many people were around us. They were perched on the stones, standing on the lawns and bridges—they were everywhere, all watching the sunrise.


As we made our way through the structures, the sun continued to climb, offering us many different views of the light peeking over the temples.



No wonder everyone wants to visit the temple for this event; it’s mesmerizing!

We took countless photos of Angkor Wat and the truth is that none of them do our experience any justice. The scale, the detail, the wonder of it all is truly overwhelming.




By the way, that’s me at the top of the stairs in the above photo!






There are so many intricate details to discover:




Much of the grounds are strewn with rubble; this is a temple (as with all the temples in Angkor) that is a constant state of upkeep, repair, and restoration.




The temple is still surrounded by everyday life. In the temple itself, you can receive a blessing from a Buddhist monk:


And, in the jungle surrounding the temple, there are locals roaring around on scooters and bicycles, going about their usual activities.


There is another type of local at Angkor Wat: the monkeys. We saw our first sighting along a jungle path, but as we reemerged to the front side of the temple, we saw that they had appeared in bunches to beg treats from the tourists. They were pretty cute, especially the babies!




By the time we were done exploring Angkor Wat, it was sometime after 8am, which meant we had already spent several hours at the site. We set off to find Yam, first collecting some water along the way. The temperature was already above 30 degrees Celsius!

It was at this point that we encountered a problem: we couldn’t find Yam. Now that it was daylight, everything looked completely different (read: visible). We wandered up and down a busy line of vendors, past the tourists and countless tuk-tuks, seeking our driver. There was a bit of an argument about where to look next, but eventually we settled on retracing our path and this time we found Yam waving at us from a row of parked tuk-tuks. A quick greeting and we were happily on our way again.

Angkor Thom: Prasat Bayon

Angkor Thom is the most recent temple of the Khmer Empire, and includes many sites. The entrance gate and the first temple you encounter, Prasat Bayon, are absolutely amazing.

There we were on our tuk-tuk when, almost suddenly, magically, there appeared an enormous gate with giant faces at its peak. It felt like we were approaching the set of some movie—Indiana Jones or Jurassic World, perhaps. Then we realized the entire avenue—a broad bridge, was lined with large stone busts.

This bridge was teeming with people of the real variety, but Yam allowed us to quickly hop out of the tuk-tuk to snap some photos. Others we were able to take after we climbed back aboard our ride and were being driven through the gate itself.




A short ride past the gate and we reached Bayon—which Marcie and I immediately dubbed “face temple.” It’s what makes this temple so distinctive. Serene and smiling faces seem to greet you from every angle; each time I turned around, there was another one to contemplate. Every view, every perspective, was a picture of stone and interesting negative space.



Each of those domes you see in the photo below are hollow. Inside and looking straight up, I could see (and hear) bats fluttering. That only added to the exotic feeling of the place.



This was one of the busier temples we explored, mostly because the site features many cramped squares and avenues and all the tourists are competing to capture different photos. Also, we noticed an entire tour bus had arrived from the opposite side of the temple just after us—so it was kind of a perfect storm. Despite this, we were still able to find our own little corners to explore and to take photos.



Near the back of the temple, we were able to find some additional space. I took this opportunity to dig out my sketchbook and do some note-taking and brainstorming. The inspiration was coming fast and furious! This temple in particular was really helpful for the worlds I have to build for my new fantasy series, Zoone. Book 1 is already done and ready for release in 2019, but there are two more for me to write, and both contain a vast array of rich worlds that need to be distinctive and unique, while at the same time feeling like they belong to a real place. Visiting a realm like Angkor is the perfect fit for me during this part of the writing process.


In one section of the temple, we found a group of people in traditional costume. For the price of an American buck, we could take a photo with them. The line was long (if you could call it a line; it was more of a swarm), but we wriggled Marcie to the front and she eventually got her turn:


Angkor Thom: Baphuon

From Bayon, we made our way on foot to the next site, Baphuon. This temple was a lot less busy and had less-constricted grounds. By the time, we were starting to wear out, but we still managed to climb to the top. The stairs were wooden and built over the original stone steps, but they were so steep that they were very treacherous. I noticed many people climbing down backwards.



The climb was worth it; the view was amazing and we got a closer glimpse at some of the stones and details up there.


After climbing down, we followed the marked paths through the jungle, wandering past the remnants of stone walls and doorways, slowly being reclaimed by the trees. Once again, it felt like we wandering in the footsteps of some action-adventure hero like Tin Tin, Lara Croft, or Indiana Jones.


Angkor Thom: Phimeanakas

We soon reached Phimeanakas, a Hindu temple protected by statues of cat-like creatures (lions?) and, in days gone by, a moat.





This temple reminded me of one of my favourite childhood books and movies, The Jungle Book. There’s a scene in the 1967 animated film in which Bagheera, in an attempt to hide from the monkeys, pretends he’s a stone statue:


Angkor Thom: Terrace of Elephants

Another short walk, and we arrived at the aptly-named Terrace of Elephants. It was originally attached to Phimeanakas, but time and wear leave it as a stand-alone monument. It was once a terrace from which the Angkor’s king could watch his returning army.

The elephants of stone are quite delightful—look down the line of the photo, and you will notice their protruding tusks.


Another elephant, down below at the side of the terrace, emerges out of the brickwork.


Thommanon & Chau Say Tevoda

There was more to see at this site, but we decided to find Yam and carry on. Back on our tuk-tuk, and we headed to a pair of temples that now flank a modern road: Thommanon and Chau Say Tevoda.

If we had not already visited Ankor Wat and Angkor Thom, we might have found ourselves amazed by these sites, but we were feeling a little beaten down by over-stimulation—not to mention the heat. We took fewer photos here and contented ourselves with wandering around the structures.




There was a long strip of booths here, with locals entreating us to buy their wares. We were only interested in water!

Ta Keo Temple

At this point, we were feeling “templed out,” but Yam knows this plan like the spokes of his scooter, so he advised us that we should visit one more site before breaking for lunch. By this point, we had already been up for eight hours, hiking up and down staircases in the heat.

Still, we soldiered on and visited Ta Keo, a sandstone temple in a severe state of renovation.

07-takeo-feetWe wandered past the scaffolding, at which point Marcie declared she was going to sit out this climb. The steps were the original stone ones—and they were precariously steep. So, while Marcie rested at the bottom, I heaved myself to the top; witness my victory pose!


I wandered around the top of the temple, taking in the sights. I could see the street of “store fronts” below, the Cambodians getting on with their daily activities.


Once I climbed back down (carefully), Marcie had regained some energy. Not quite enough energy to climb all the way to the top, but at least halfway to pose:


I felt I needed to use the toilet at this point, so began wandering through the jungle path, following the directions of the “WC” (water closet) sign. After several minutes, I still hadn’t found the toilet and felt like I had perspired all my moisture, so I simply turned around and headed back. Marcie saw me make the about-face and, wondering what I was doing, snapped this picture of a defeated soul:


We crawled back onto our tuk-tuk, told Yam that we thought we could manage one more temple, but he smiled and said “time for a rest!” He drove us to a nearby restaurant where we sampled some Cambodian fare, drank some mango shakes, and tried to revitalize.

We were still feeling dehydrated, over-heated, and tired by the time we rejoined Yam after lunch, but  eventually our food and drink kicked in. And then we reached the next temple, which completely rejuvenated us . . .

Ta Prohm

This is one of the most popular temples in Angkor because of the giant trees growing out of, on top of, seemingly as part of, the stones.

I’ll concur with the masses—this temple is absolutely enchanting. The tree roots reach down like fingers to clutch and squeeze at the stones of Ta Prohm and it’s like visiting a land out of a book. I was once again reminded of The Jungle Book, though Ta Prohm could also be a planet you’d find in Star Wars.


It was such a magical and mesmerizing place, perfect for finding world-building inspiration—and, like I mentioned above—visiting here completely restored our energy. My camera and notebook were out, and my imagination was firing on all cylinders.








It really feels like the trees—and time itself—is winning her. Whatever the case, there is a lot of renovation being done to the temple, but I know they won’t be removing the trees. They are what give this place its enchanted ambience.

We eventually found a courtyard where the trees were not so prevalent and had fun taking some photos and getting a closer look at some of the stone reliefs.





Banteay Kdei

Yam wanted us to visit one more temple before ending our day, and by this point, we knew enough to trust him. So we let his whisk us off to Banteay Kdei, “Citadel of Monk Cells.”

Apparently, this is the temple where they filmed Tomb Raider. We were on our last legs at this point, but knowing this was our last stop of the day, we could enjoy exploring the grounds, snapping photos, and admiring the views and details.






By the time we made it back to our hotel, it was nearing 4:00 pm—so, it had been nearly a twelve-hour day with 24,000 steps (as recorded by Marcie’s iPhone), six bottles of water each, and many litres of sweat given to the earth.

We have a second day of temple touring planned, but for now will take a day off to relax, shop, and recreate in the tourist quarter of Siem Reap.


Exploring Cambodia, Day 1: Doctor Fish is in the house

Exploring Cambodia, Day 1: Doctor Fish is in the house

My wife Marcie and I are currently on an “inspircation” in Southeast Asia, in which we are exploring and finding inspiration for our 2018 projects. So far, we’ve been to Korea and Vietnam, and now we’ve moved on to Cambodia.

We arrived in the kingdom of Khmer yesterday after a short flight from Hanoi. We found the entry process to Cambodia much easier than that in Vietnam, and that probably had something to do with the fact that we flew directly to Siem Reap, rather than the big airport in Phnom Penh. We got off the plane, stood in a short line for customs, collected our luggage, then immediately met our driver.

Turns out the taxi that Marcie had arranged for us was a tuk-tuk. That was a surprise, but a pleasant one, as it immediately immersed us in the whole new world that is Cambodia. Soon, we were zipping along the roads and alleys of Siem Reap, spotting the locals going about their evening chores, selling their wares, transporting their goods, herding their kids. We had an embarrassingly amount of luggage with us (just because of all our travels), and it barely squeezed onto the tuk-tuk. We held onto it tight the whole way, especially on the corners.


The ride really was a pleasant one—and, after the hubbub of Hanoi—really quite sedate.

We arrived at our hotel, settled in, then decided to set out into the town to get some grub. We are located only a few minutes’ walk from the market and the pub street. That’s it’s actual name, and it fits. The street is lined with all sorts of restaurants, bars, and taverns, offering all sorts of local cuisine, as well as other international fare. We settled on a restaurant that offered Khmer-Mexican, which is really just a restaurant with a menu that is half Khmer, half Mexican. Which suited us perfectly—I went for the former, and Marcie went for the latter.

On the way back home, I decided to stop at one of the many “fish-foot” massage places. Called “Dr. Fish,” this is a type of massage in which you put your feet in a pool or tank of fish and let them nibble away your dead skin.


Marcie was horrified by the idea, but I had done it before in Korea, and decided to do it. (It was only three dollars for unlimited time!) The one thing about this Dr. Fish, though, was that it involved three different tanks. I started with the small fish, then moved up to progressively larger fish, until I had ones half the size of the foot sucking at my toes.

I will admit that I am slightly squeamish when it comes to fish. It seems so plague like when they are swarming around your ankles. In fact, my original experience with Dr. Fish in Korea was the inspiration for one of the characters in my forthcoming book, The Secret of Zoone. Fidget is plagued with a peculiar curse—as soon as she approaches water, slimy little tadpole-like and worm-like creatures appear and begin trying to gnaw at her flesh.




Last night’s definitely experience allowed me to commiserate with poor Fidget!

Our next day in Siem Reap was spent touring the different temples of the massive complex of Angkor Wat. But that demands a future blog post all of it’s own . . .


Exploring Vietnam: Finding inspiration at Ha Long Bay

Exploring Vietnam: Finding inspiration at Ha Long Bay

Day 5 and 6 of our continuing trip in Vietnam brought my wife and I to H Long Bay. This was a part of the trip I had been particularly looking forward to, not only for the pure pleasure of seeing the famous islands, but because I knew they would help inspire me for a world I’m building for my upcoming Zoone book series.

About Hạ Long Bay

Hạ Long Bay is a world heritage site containing 1,969 islands (our guide informed us that we could easily remember the number because 1969 was the year that Ho Chi Minh died). The islands are limestone cliffs topped with tropical forests, and they jut out of the water in numerous shapes.


The name Hạ Long means “Descending Dragon.” According to legend, in the early days of Vietnam, the people were invaded by an army from the north, via the sea. The people prayed for a miracle and a mother dragon, along with her children, descended to repel the attacking ships. The dragons gushed fire, but also jewels and jade, which became the islands that now sprinkle the emerald waters and form a natural barrier to protect Vietnam.

As the story goes, after defeating the invaders, the dragons fell in love with the realm and decided to settle in the bay. Where the mother dragon settled is now called Hạ Long, and where the children settled is Bái Tử Long Bay.


Getting to Hạ Long Bay

You can find places to book tours to Hạ Long Bay (and many other sites in northern Vietnam) on almost every street corner in Hanoi. Prices and quality vary. Most hotels will also offer to book tours as well, which is the avenue we took. Our friend Shaughnessy, who was staying at a different hotel, decided to book the same tour as us throughout hotel. So, the next morning, he got up with the first honking scooters to trek across town and meet us at our hotel, where the tour bus was coming to fetch us.

It is about a four-hour ride to Hạ Long Bay. The first part is spent navigating the busy streets of Hanoi, and then it’s out to the countryside. However, the same principles of driving in the city apply to the country—our bus driver would eagerly slip in and out of lanes of traffic (one of those lanes being the shoulder of the road) and would often pass vehicles without the slightest concern for the oncoming trucks speeding directly towards us! Having been to enough countries where this is the norm, I didn’t find this part too concerning, but others on the bus were gripping their seats a little tightly!

Our guide was named Viet An, but recommended we just call him “Andy” as foreigners usually bungled the pronunciation of his name. Along the way, he told us a few stories about Hanoi and gave us some advice about crossing the street. According to Andy, the smallest is always right on the streets of Hanoi; scooter beats car, and pedestrian beats scooter. The pedestrian is always right and scooters and cars will do everything to avoid hitting them. Not exactly our experience in Hanoi!

Speaking of scooters, we saw a lot of them on the arteries leading in and out of Hanoi, and many of them seated entire families. I noticed a bit of a system in terms of how the family is ordered:

  • If only a mother and child, the child goes in the front.
  • If mother and two children, the order is mother, smallest child, oldest child.
  • If entire family, the order is smallest child, father, next child, mother.

I saw a few variations on the above, but this seemed to be the main approach. What was even more fascinating was the number of riders who were sitting behind the driver of the scooter, completely asleep. The way the scooters swerve in and out of traffic . . . I thought for sure someone would fall enough. But, of course, they didn’t. What seems completely mind-boggling to the Western mind is just a way of life here.

Our journey to Hạ Long Bay included the obligatory half-hour stop at a giant tourist mall. We didn’t really care much to buy anything (well, except Marcie), but it was good to stretch our legs after being on the cramped bus for an hour and a half.

Eventually, we arrived at our destination. Despite it being low season, there were countless buses unloading at the piers, and swarms of tourists clamouring to get on their boats.

Marcie, Shaughnessy, and I instantly regretted not packing warmer clothing. The wind was up, there was a chill in the air, and rain was threatening. Thankfully, in Vietnam, there is a store pretty much everywhere for tourists, so we bought some fleeces at the pier (mine only cost $20).

Setting out into Hạ Long Bay

I find the problem with any tour is the busy itinerary. We were loaded onto our boat, assigned rooms, and fed lunch, and by that time our vessel was speeding towards our first stop on the tour. There was not a lot of time to rest, relax, and dwell on the gorgeous landscape!

Our boat had three decks and sufficient space for all the passengers. Our cabins included a large bed and our own private bathroom.


Of course, we didn’t intend to spend much time in our cabins anyway; as soon as we could, we set out onto the decks to gaze at the stunning rock formations.




I had always wanted to come to Hạ Long Bay, partially because I had seen its beautiful landscape in advertisements and film. The James Bond films, The Man with the Golden Gun and Tomorrow Never Dies were partially filmed here, as were the more recent movies Pan and King Kong: Skull Island.


So, between myths and movies, I feel there is a certain element of adventure invested in the island-cliffs of Hạ Long Bay. Shaughnessy and I kept an eye out for giant gorillas, but before long, the boat came to a stop: a place to go kayaking near a pearl farm harboured in a ring of islands. We were only given 40 minutes to kayak, so Marcie and I quickly hopped in our vessel and began fervently paddling to see as much as we could.



We made it far enough to see one of the famous islands with the head of an eagle (you can see it in the photo below, in between the two other island clusters).


The shacks you see on the left side of the photo are part of the pearl farm. A visit to the pearl farm is included in a three-day, two-night tour of Hạ Long Bay, but we had opted for a one-night tour, so did not get to visit the farm directly.

Then, back to our boat, and we were whisked off to Ti Top Island. The island got its name from Ghermann Titov, a Russian hero in the second World War. The beach has a crescent-shaped beach and series of steps that you can climb to the top.


We had just enough time to either go swimming or climbing, and we opted for climbing. Most of the other tourists made the same decision. There were scores of them ascending the mountain—at least to begin with. The way is steep, with over 400 steps, and not everyone could make it.

But, if you can make it, the view is spectacular.



We snapped many photos, but the sun soon started to set and I had noticed that there were no lights on the steep stairs coming up, so I urged Shaughnessy and Marcie to start heading down before it was pitch-dark. The stairs twist and turn, and there are railings, but the last thing we wanted was to go tumbling down and break something on an island too far from civilization.

At the bottom, we waited to be picked up by our taxi boat and watched visitors far braver than us go for a swim.


Then our taxi arrived, and we all piled on. It was at this point that I remembered that we had been brought over in two separate boat loads, but now, we loaded everyone onto the same taxi. The boat was really struggling to leave the island and some of the passengers at the back even hopped out to push us. Then the pilot frantically began moving us about to balance the boat.

Well, it was only a ten-minute ride, and we ultimately made it without incident. We watched Ti Top island disappear into the mist then arrived back at our main boat.


Fishing for squid

The night was free time, so while many people chatted or watched a movie on the main deck (unsurprisingly, they were showing King Kong: Skull Island), I decided to wander out and try my hand at squid fishing with our guide, Andy.

It was only he and I, and I quite enjoyed hanging with him and plying him with questions about Vietnam life.


We directed a giant light from the boat into the water to try and trick the squid to rising to the surface and snap at our lures. We had no such luck that night, but I did find out a lot about Vietnamese cuisine by picking Andy’s brain about the various things I had seen being sold on the streets of Hanoi. He explained to me recipes for preparing eels and these types of river worms that I had seen an old lady selling. Apparently the worms are fried up with onions and spices and made into a sort of patty.

He also told me there were many islands in Hạ Long Bay inhabited by monkeys. He said sometimes you could hear them shriek—but, though I kept my eyes and ears open, I found no hint of them during our tour, just like that elusive King Kong.

The boat children

The next morning, Marcie got up at 6 am to go do tae chi with Andy on the upper deck of the ship.


I wasn’t quite that earnest, so I wandered out to the bow of the ship and watched the islands in the mist. It was while I was lingering here, amidst the mist, that I heard a plaintive voice call out, “Something to buy? Something to buy?”

I peered over the edge of the ship and noticed a girl right below me, piloting a flat-bed boat full of snacks and drinks. It was a floating corner store! She was moving from cruiser to cruiser, offering her wares. It was a little to early for me to entertain a warm soda pop, so I thanked her and she set off to find custom at the next ship.


Afterwards, Andy explained to Marcie that this girl was one of the boat children. They live with their families on their junks. Traditionally, they make a living by fishing, but now they are clearly trying to adapt to the tourist industry. Andy said many of the children live their whole lives on the boats and receive no formal education, never learning to read or write. The government is now trying to instil regulations to make sure the children go to school. I found the situation fascinating and my mind began percolating with ideas for a story . . .

Hang Sửng Sốt Cave

After a hasty breakfast, we set out on another mini-tour, this time of Hang Sửng Sốt cave, a UNESCO world heritage site. Hang Sửng Sốt, which means “surprising” or “amazing”, is a giant network of caverns on Bo Hon Island. It was originally discovered by the French during their colonial rule, but then forgotten about and rediscovered in recent years by a Vietnamese fisherman trying to find haven from a storm.

Nowadays, it’s a busy tourist site! Andy got us there ahead of the morning rush, but even so, the place was still teeming with people.

The caves are huge, and photos don’t really do them any justice, but if you examine the two photos below, you will spot people in amidst the stalactites, and that might give you a sense of scale.



A path has been constructed through the caverns and everything is safe and well-lit, affording clear views of the alien-like rock formations. The guides eagerly point out the many shapes to be seen—this one looks like the mother dragon, this one looks like King Kong, and so forth.





The caves were unexpected inspiration for me. I had not really researched them beforehand, but I found them overwhelming in scope and scale and was instantly put into world-building mode. I kept kicking myself for having left my sketchbook on the boat. I consoled myself by snapping as many pictures as I could and then making a promise to myself to sketch as soon as I got back to my book.

It takes a good hour or so to go through the caves. There are many outcroppings that allow visitors to view the water. And, of course, on those outcroppings there are also souvenir stores! At the largest outcropping, you can see a pair of giant stone “feet” dangling off the edge. Perhaps some troll got caught daydreaming here at sunrise.


Here is a view of the bay from the outcropping, showing the pier where the water taxis dock after ferrying tourists from the larger ships.


Some time to brainstorm

After leaving the caves and returning to our main boat, I snatched up my sketchbook, flew to the top deck of the ship and began jotting down my thoughts and inspirations. I had the entire deck to myself and, to be honest, this was my favourite part of the entire tour. The boat was on the move, the islands were sailing solemnly past, and I had time to just be.



Well, that was it for our tour. The boat headed back to dock and it was back on the bus towards Hanoi. It was our last full day in this country.

I have loved my time in Vietnam. The people are inventive, hard-working, and earnest, carving existences for themselves in what would be impossible circumstances for most of us hailing from a western sentiment.

Farewell to Vietnam . . . and, now, on to Cambodia!