Under the sea, life is much better down where its wetter…


I put my head under the water, slowly, nervously. I took a deep breath in and then out came the bubbles floating to the surface. In front of me a pair of eyes was looking deep into my own, searching for answers. Is she ok? Is she panicking? My head broke the surface and out came my regulator. ‘How was it?’ ‘Strange, very strange!’

Ever since snorkelling in the Red Sea I had wanted to start exploring the underwater world. I wanted to relive my days as a mermaid, with little Nemo’s waving hello to me with their fins, giant parrot fish gliding past me and shoals of squid guiding my way. Scuba diving seemed the best way to be able to go on this journey. I have watched many documentaries about people diving and they appear so elegant underwater, like ballerinas, their fins gracefully pushing them through the endless expanse of blue. My reality was very different from the performances I had seen on TV. My first time diving in the sea I was more like an underwater clown than a graceful water ballerina. I jumped up and down and spun around, clumsily failing to keep my buoyancy controlled. The fish seemed more like a hazard than new friends, in the way of this out of control want-to-be mermaid. However, after a few deep breaths to calm the nerves, and some hand signals from my instructor, I managed to gain some composure and was finally able to propel myself through the water like the professionals. Well, I like to think I looked like a professional, the reality of that is probably very different. Everything was going swimmingly (no pun intended) and I said hello with a little nod of my head to the sea cucumbers, seahorses and to the lion fish, who I thankfully managed to keep my distance from. Time seems to pass very quickly under water and before I had a chance to start feeling relaxed and enjoying being in the new world I had jumped into it was time to resurface to the world from which I had escaped. On the surface I went back to being like a child immersed in water who doesn’t know how to swim. Trying to simulate emergency situations, blowing up a BCD manually with waves crashing over my head and weights pulling me down to the sea floor, is not easy. Somehow I managed to keep myself alive however death by drowning did start to feel very real at one point. But, like learning any new skill, all it takes is practice. So I powered through the course, nervously I admit, until on my fourth dive I had mastered all the actions I needed to perform in order to gain my certificate and I spent the last dive floating in the underwater world with my new marine friends. Sitting on the speedboat on the way back to land, the sun drying my skin, I felt a huge sense of relief that it was over, that I had managed to make it through the past four days without drowning and that I didn’t quit, even when I felt, quite literally, out of my depth. ‘We have a new PADI member everyone,’ shouted the dive master to my fellow scuba divers, ‘well done Mikaela, she’s a good fighter.’

‘Yes,’ I thought ‘I sure am.’


The truth is in the eyes. My time at the Elephant Nature Park and the reality of elephant tourism.


A few years ago, on my first trip to India, on the very first day, I was strolling along the street when an elephant came walking towards me, accompanied by a man adorned with an orange robe and a long, grey beard. The man was a Sadhu, a holy man. I was overwhelmed with happiness, I adore all animals but there is something truly special about elephants. I had my picture taken with this beautiful creature, gave the Sadhu money and walked away, ecstatic. It never occurred to me that this elephant would have been mistreated in anyway, in my ignorance I didn’t question how an elephant could be walking down a street with a man so calmly, as if it was natural.

A few days later I came across a lake where an elephant was bathing, again this elephant had a human companion. The man told me that for a small fee I could have a wash off the elephant, I just had to sit on her back and she would spray water on me with her trunk. Once again I was delighted at my chance to interact with these majestic animals. However, when I looked into her eyes I was greeted by sadness, she was exhausted. The eyes are said to be the windows to the soul and I could see that this elephant’s soul had been destroyed. I turned around at the sound of chatter, during my brief time with this broken elephant a line of tourists had formed, ready for their turn to sit on this poor animals back. It was then that I stopped to think about what was happening. I knew that this was not right; my feeling of delight had quickly been replaced by shame and guilt. I didn’t realise it at the time, like most people back then I was ignorant to how elephants are treated in order to tame them for the tourist industry, but I had been a part of this shameful treatment. Through participating in this activity I had been a part of the demand, and as long as there is a demand there will be a supply.

When I returned to the UK I started to do my research. I was horrified. I discovered that elephants are taken from the wild and beaten in the most horrific ways, with weapons made from a piece of wood with a hook on the end they are repeatedly stabbed, until the point they are broken and obey the demands of their human torturers in fear of further cruel treatment. I had caused this, as long as people like me travel to these countries where people will do whatever it takes to earn a bit of money, this treatment will continue to happen. My guilt and shame reached a whole new level. The more I researched the more I realised that I had been causing animals, such as elephants, to be taken from their natural environment in order to entertain humans. Of course I am not solely responsible, but I accept full responsibility in the part that I have played and I will live with the guilt of that, every day. As a child the only place I ever wanted to visit was the zoo, because at the zoo lived all my favourite animals, at the zoo I could watch the orang-utans, with their big round stomachs and saggy cheeks swinging from rope-to-rope. At the zoo I could watch the chimpanzees chasing each other and listen to their noisy chatter, at the zoo I could watch the elephants doing what they do best, eating. I never stopped to think about how these animals came to be in the zoo, and as I child I suppose I can be forgiven for not questioning this; however as an adult there is no excuse.

I tell this story so that you, the reader, know that I am guilty of this, too. This post is not about judging people for their actions, if you have had a ride on the back of an elephant or if you have swam with dolphins I am not criticising you, my intention is to educate people, like I have been educated, in the hope that one day we can put an end to using animals for our entertainment and they can all live their lives in their natural habitat.

Earlier this year, on a grey and cold March evening, whilst scrolling through social media, I stumbled across a photo detailing information about a place called The Elephant Nature Park, in Thailand. A country I was set to visit as part of my round the world trip. The post stated that the elephants there are rescued from the tourist industry and brought to the park so they can live out the rest of their days free from abuse, free from pain. I started to do my research, in order to make sure that it was genuine, that it was ethical and it was what it described on its website. Once I was reassured I immediately signed up to be a volunteer. And it was here that my real education in how elephants are treated truly began. After I, and over forty other volunteers, had spent the week picking up elephant poo, chopping grass and collecting hay from the surrounding farms and land, and preparing food for the animals, Lek, the founder of the park, gathered us all together in the conference room to watch a presentation she had put together. This beautiful, brave, strong woman had travelled throughout Asia to gather evidence on elephant abuse in order to fight their corner and show us, and the world, what really happens to these creatures, exactly how they are transported from their natural environment, in the wild, to wandering down the streets of Thailand begging and carrying tourists on their backs in the jungle. The tears flowed until I had nothing left inside as I watched the images on screen of injuries the elephants, like those I had spent the week with, had received at the hands of humans. As I watched the videos of baby elephants tied up in a small cage where they are unable to move and are repeatedly stabbed, over and over again until their spirit is broken, a process known as pajaan. And it’s not just the touristy industry, the next time you buy that beautiful wooden table from a furniture store just stop to think about how that wood was collected. In countries such as Myanmar elephants are used during illegal logging to horde the chopped down trees through the jungle, they are worked till they collapse from exhaustion, ropes burning into their skin. One resident at the park is a beautiful elephant named Jokia, she is completely blind. She was stabbed in both eyes when she refused to work at one of these illegal logging sites after she gave birth trying to pull trees up a hill and her baby, whilst still in its sack, rolled down the hill and died. Like humans, elephants grieve, they have been known to return to the exact spot where one of their family members has died, staying there for a few days to mourn. Imagine the heartache of losing your baby, and then imagine the pain you would feel if someone shot and blinded you in both eyes, simply because you were grieving. Humans are allowed to grieve; we are expected to grieve when we lose someone we love. If we are allowed to mourn someone we love in peace, why can’t elephants?

This is just one heart breaking story of just one elephant, there are many more. Travelling through Thailand I came across many elephant camps, some have a new selling tactic; they do not offer elephant riding. However, they offer elephant bathing, and if a female adult elephant is lying down in a river on her side for a long period of time whilst tourists throw water on her, then that elephant has been through the pajaan process, too. An elephant will bathe in the river when it wants to, it will stand in the water and spray itself from its trunk and when it has had enough it will move on. This is its natural behaviour. Therefore when you travel to countries like Thailand and you visit one of these places claiming to be a sanctuary please be careful, they are mindful that less people are wanting to ride elephants because they have been made aware of how unethical it is, but elephant bathing is still the same thing dressed up in a different way. The elephants have still been tortured and abused and they are still forced to do something they do not want to do to provide entertainment to tourists and to earn money for their captors. I have spoken to many people throughout my time here in Thailand discussing this topic. One young man told me how he visited one of these camps, one that did not offer riding. He thought he was visiting a genuine place where he could see these beautiful animals he was so fond of, instead he found that the mahouts were pushing the elephants down into the water and forcing them to stay there so tourists could wash them, he realised that this was not right, it was not ethical and not what he wanted to be a part of. If you are in Thailand and you want to see elephants then please do your research and find a place where the elephants are treated correctly, not where you bathe them or watch them perform tricks or sit on their backs. Day visits to the Elephant Nature Park are possible; you can spend the day watching the elephants as they roam, you can even feed them, believe me this experience is magical enough. Feeling the strength of their powerful trunk as they curl it around the bananas you give to them and watching them place the fruit straight into their mouths is a far happier and more rewarding moment between human and elephant than sitting on their backs walking through the jungle. This is not interacting with an elephant, this is humans dominating them, this is humans being the superior species that we think we are, when really we have to question, how superior are we? Humans torture innocent animals to show their strength and power and yet these tortured animals, even after the treatment they have received from our species, will still gently take food from your hand when they could crush every single bone, quite easily, if they wanted to. Who’s the superior one now? The forgiveness, compassion and love these animals have is awe inspiring. All it takes is to be compassionate and loving towards them and they will return these feelings back to you, tenfold.

At the park the majority of the elephants are not from the same herd, they have been rescued from different countries in South East Asia and brought together through circumstance and yet they have created a family. One day as I was looking out at the landscape, watching the water buffalo grazing, and the dogs lying in the shade escaping the midday heat, a baby elephant came walking from the river accompanied by two adult females. A small truck carrying hay slowly started to drive in the same direction, the baby didn’t like the noise of the truck and started to become slightly agitated, the two females ran to protect her, trumpeting loudly to the truck to back off, out of nowhere another female elephant came running around the corner and joined the other protectors. They covered her from all sides until she wasn’t visible, the truck wasn’t visible by then either, aware of the fears of the baby it had slowly headed in the opposite direction. This is how elephants are, they are so maternal, so loving, none of these adults are related to this baby, none of them are related to each other. But they love and they protect. I watched in wonder, in that moment I was overwhelmed with admiration for these creatures, if only more humans had the same loving spirit. I am aware that there have been instances when elephants have killed or injured humans; however these elephants have been treated in the most inhumane ways that really I am surprised that there are not more instances of elephant retaliation.

If, after this lengthy post, I still have your attention then thank you for reading. But more importantly I would now like to ask you for your help. The only way we can stop this happening to elephants, and to other animals around the world, is to stop the demands from tourists. The only way we can stop the demand is by educating people on the reality of what is happening to these poor creatures. You may be sat there thinking that you are just one person, a powerless person who individually can’t put a stop to animal cruelty. But I am here to tell you that you are powerful, you can share this post on your social media, you can educate your friends and family, show them the video below, spread the message. Then we will grow from individuals to a collection of people and that collection of people is strong enough to make changes.

Please click on the link below to watch a short video which documents how elephants are treated in order to suit the purposes of man.


Cruising the Mekong Delta into the open arms of the local hilltribes


It was time to leave Laos, but rather than fly out back to Thailand we were leaving on Laos time, slowly, slowly down the Mekong Delta. We hobbled down the river bank with our heavy backpacks and jumped, quite literally as the boats were quickly separating leaving a big gap to fall into the water, onto our long boat where we would spend two days sailing down the river, eight hours each day, with a stop off to overnight at a local village. We quickly settled into our seats and got comfortable for the long journey ahead. We powered down the muddy waters, with an endless expanse of green forest on either side, until we eventually reached a small beach area. We jumped off the boat again and hiked our way up into the hills eventually reaching a small village. In the village lived three different tribes, the Hmong, Khamu and Laos. We dropped our bags off at the chief’s house, the only house made from bricks and mortar, the others being wooden shacks, and went for a walk around our home for the night. As we started walking two new members joined our group, a beautiful young girl around eight and her naughty little brother who started swinging on a few members of the group as we made our way around the village. The little girl came to hold my hand as we walked past chickens, pigs and other children playing. When we arrived back at the chiefs house a feast of local Laos dishes had been prepared for us and after we enjoyed the best meal we had eaten in the country we set about handing out the socks we had bought for the children. One by one all the children from the village arrived and they stood, quietly and patiently, in line to receive their gift. The smiles on their faces when they received such a small gift that we take for granted was so humbling and their appreciation was overwhelming. After we handed out all the socks the children sang a thank you song in the local language for us and then came to play with us before it was time for us all to go to bed. One little girl pointed at my camera straight away so, through spontaneous sign language I asked if she wanted me to take her picture and she nodded her approval. She held up her new pair of pink socks and when I showed her the picture she started laughing which started off a whole hour of taking pictures and laughter. They were fascinated by seeing themselves on screen and when one member of the group started to show a little boy the photos she had taken of our trip so far he was amazed at all the things he was seeing on this tiny little device. Each time he came across an image that delighted him he would show it to the other children with animated chatter. We couldn’t understand what he was saying but it was clear from his body language that he was very excited about what he was seeing. One by one everyone’s iPhones came out as each child flicked through the photo libraries and compared images in excited voices. Photos were being shown to each other left right and centre until at one point two children showed each other an image on the different phones they were holding and it happened to be the exact same picture of a reclining Buddha statue that they had stumbled across at the same time. Of course this brought a round of enormous laughter from them both, and from the rest of us who were just as amazed as them at the coincidence. It was unfortunately soon time for bed as the sun had set and the village only has a few lights operated by solar power as they do not have electricity. The village sleeps when the sun goes down and wakes when it rises; it was exactly my kind of place. The group was separated into trios and we headed off to the homes of our hosts. A small woman with long, dark hair greeted us with a shy smile and showed us to our mats on the floor protected by mosquito nets. As a thank you we had bought a scarf for each host from the local night market and when we handed it to her she accepted it with a shy smile and nod. As we were getting ready for bed she came into the room, after opening her gift, giggling and smiling and nodding at us holding the scarf in her hand and then wrapping it around her neck and shoulders, you could see the sheer delight and gratefulness in the smile that touched her eyes. I asked her if she would like a photo, again through made up sign language, and she held up her finger to tell me to hold on one minute whilst she quickly fixed her hair. When she was ready she sat with a very sombre and serious look on her face and I quickly took the snap. I showed her the image and she fell into a fit of giggles again as she saw herself on my screen. ‘You look beautiful,’ I said and again she giggled away whilst bowing with her hands in prayer position to say thank you. Her reaction was the icing on the cake to what had been a brilliant evening spent with these warm and welcoming people.


The giving of alms to monks – Luang Prabang



Luang Prabang, a small quirky little town, filled with temples and little streets with cafes and shops that lead to the Mekong on one side and the Nam Khan River on the other. I liked this place immediately; it is definitely the nicest town in Laos. What makes this place so special, however, is the century’s old tradition of giving alms to monks, every morning before sunrise. I had read and seen photos of this practice, and I was excited to see it, however I didn’t just want to be another tourist with a camera. I wanted to pay my respects to this tradition, as opposed to treating it like a tourist attraction. The people that give the alms to monks are all lay Buddhists, who are not only local, but come from all over the world. But I wanted to take part, too, out of respect for the monks, the tradition and the religion, so I asked my Buddhist friend who I was travelling with if she would come with me so that if the monks wouldn’t accept the donation off me she would be able to place the food in their bowls instead. After some research we settled on bananas as our chosen food. A lot of people give sticky rice, however the monks won’t accept anything that has been contaminated or isn’t clean, with products such as insect repellent, so bananas seemed like a good alternative, even still we made sure not to have any products on our skin. We searched the market for a stall with enough bananas to feed all the monks. We eventually stumbled on a lady sat by the side of the road with a blanket full of the fruit we desired. ‘How much to buy them all?’ we asked. She looked at us like we were playing some kind of practical joke on her. It was 9pm and she had probably been sat there for hours trying to sell her products, all to no avail. Two tourists turning up and asking to buy all of them must have seemed inconceivable. We asked her again, ‘All?’ ‘Yes, all.’ Eventually she realised we were being very serious and she bagged up what felt like a truckload of bananas and we dragged them home ready for an early start in the morning.

The streets were shrouded in darkness as we made our way to sit outside the temple. We passed people sat by the side of the road on their blankets with their rice baskets and baskets of snacks. We found a spot and sat down on the cold, hard floor envious of the people more prepared than us sitting on their mats. We were so tired that we couldn’t speak; we had rolled out of bed and straight to the street, no time for our usual cup of coffee. We waited and waited and more and more tourists arrived as we sat on the ground surrounded by bags full of bananas, ourselves and the lay people on one side and the tourists on the other. After what seemed like hours we saw movement to our left, the process was starting. Shoes off, we kneeled on the ground, feet behind us and bananas at the ready. The monks came thick and fast, one by one they stood in front of me with their alms bowl as I tried to place the fruit in the very full bowls making sure not to touch the monks at the same time. At first we presumed we had bought too many bananas, however we ran out of the fruit when there was about five monks left in the line. We quickly collected our bags and ran to the opposite side of the street so as not to be in the way. The process had gone so fast, it seemed like we were throwing bananas everywhere, we just about kept up with the pace of the monks as they made their way down the busy streets. As we walked back to our hotel we both felt a sense of pride that we had actually participated and made a donation, as opposed to standing there pointing a camera.


Vang Vieng – Nature, balloons, caves and kayaks


I had expected that I would fall in love with Laos, that the scenery would blow me away and I wouldn’t want to leave this country. It had a lower population than the other countries I had visited and it was mainly rural, exactly my kind of place. After visiting the capital city of Vientiane, the first destination on my Laos list, I hadn’t been blown away as I had anticipated. That was, until, we approached the town of Vang Vieng and were confronted with cragged karst mountains covered in a thick forest of green trees. The town itself, Vang Vieng, is not impressive. In fact it is a very touristy little town, a backpacker haven. The countryside that surrounds the area, however, is beautiful and the best way to see it is from the height of a hot air balloon. Floating up into the sky in a little wicker basket, the heat from the flames warming my cold, tired skin was a wonderful feeling. Just as we climbed above the buildings the sun started to make its appearance above the mountains and the sky changed from grey to orange. The only sound from high on above was of the gas, pumping life into the roaring flames. Down below people started to go about their daily routines and Vang Vieng turned from a backpacker shanty town into a beautiful place. We had been warned that on a previous ride the hot air balloon had landed on some trees and as we made our descent, looming just above some houses, it appeared that we too would be making an unconventional landing. The children below, however, didn’t seem too concerned as they waved to us on their way to school. Eventually we did make it back safely to the runway, much to my dismay, landing on the trees sounded like a fun adventure. After we jumped out of our ride we headed up into the mountains to go tubing. I had expected to sit in a rubber ring and float down a river, relaxing and feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin. What our tubing adventure actually entailed was sitting in a rubber ring and pulling ourselves into a dark, limestone cave by a rope. The further we went in, the darker the cave, luckily our small head torches provided just enough light to be able to view the stalactites hanging down. As I pulled myself along I started to hum the tune to Indiana Jones, I had always wanted to be Indiana when I was a kid, finally it seemed like my desired occupation had become a reality and I was grateful that my idea of tubing had turned out to be the opposite of what we were doing, as cave exploring was much more fun. After we made it out of the darkness and back into the light we jumped into a kayak, two by two, and paddled our way down the Nam Song River. The view was amazing, the mountains rising up so high that trying to lean our heads back to look to the summit would mean an eventual capsize. The sun was beating down, and our skin was being cooled by the splashes of water from the paddles. On and on we paddled immersed in the nature of Laos, filled with happiness and excitement until, that was, we had been paddling for two hours and our arms and backs began to beg us to stop. But stopping was not possible until we reached our destination, and the more tired we got the more it seemed our destination was China. As we dragged our paddles through the water we passed people floating down the river in their rubber rings, relaxing with a beer in their hands. This type of tubing now seemed a lot more appealing again. ‘Do you want to swap?’ I asked one guy. ‘No, thanks,’ he replied ‘but you can have a drink of my beer if you paddle over here.’ As appealing as this was a detour only a minute to the right would set us back even further, if we stopped we would never start again. So on we went, through currents and dodging rocks, swinging from left to right, until finally, just like a mirage, the finish line came to view. We made it to the end, just.

The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison)


Ever since seeing the movie with the same name I had wanted to visit the Killing Fields, to pay my respects to the people that lost their lives there, and to learn about this dark period within the living memory of Cambodian history. The long drive through the countryside to Phnom Penh was a stark contrast to the place I was about to visit. On both sides of the road there was an endless expanse of the brightest green grass, combined with the most intense blue sky I have ever witnessed, on the horizon. Whiter than white fluffy balls of cotton floated in the sky. It was like I was looking at a photographic image and the saturation had been turned up, full. The countryside of Cambodia, combined with the friendliness of its people, is what makes this place so special. It is hard to believe that people who were faced with such an incredible view of beauty every day could find it in their hearts to be so cruel to people when all I felt, looking out at this landscape, was an unequivocal wave of love.

As we approached the Killing Fields our guide explained to us how his family had been affected and how many people he had lost during the Pol Pot regime, that’s when the reality started to hit home. This wasn’t just a tourist attraction, this was a place where unimaginable horror had occurred and innocent people, including women and children, had been brutally murdered. Seeing the skulls of the victims was an eerie experience; however there was an unexpected feeling of peace there, too. I made an offering of incense and flowers to the lost souls and walked around gently, eyes filled with tears as I saw bones and teeth in the ground and clothes of victims so small that they could only fit a baby. The stories of how the guards smashed baby’s heads against the tree trunks to kill them to save on ammunition was just too much to bear.

After the Killing Fields we made our way to the S-21 prison and walked around the cells hearing the stories of how the prisoners were treated. Unexpectedly, as we were leaving the site, we were approached by one of the very few survivors from this prison. His name is Chum Mey and, through a translator, he told us how he was treated by the guards. How they twisted off his toe nails with pliers and how he was made to lick his own urine from the floor if the very small bucket the prisoners were given as a toilet overflowed. It was awful to hear how this smiling old man was treated, how anyone could be so cruel to him. But it was also very uncomfortable to see him have to retell these unimaginable horrific stories over and over again to tourists as he stood taking photos and trying to sell his book. It seemed that he had become a tourist attraction when, in my opinion, this man should be able to live in peace for the rest of his life instead of having to relive those memories over and over again. And still it seems that our species hasn’t learnt from the horrors such as those that occurred during the Pol Pot regime, there is still no peace in the world. I only hope that one day there are no stories, like Chum Mey’s, to tell.

Angkor Wat, Angkor Not?!


There was nothing but darkness and tourists as we approached the steps by the waterside in front of Angkor Wat to watch the sunrise. Our intention was to get there early and try and get a good spot, a clear view of what we had come to see without a line of heads in front of us. I managed to squeeze through the building crowd and find a patch on the final step, next to the water’s edge. I would be eaten alive by the mosquitos that had invaded the waters, but it was a small price to pay, in my opinion.

Slowly the sun started to rise, quickly the crowds started to gather. And as I sat watching the sky change from black, to purple and pink to orange, the silhouette of Angkor Wat in full view, the excitement rose with anticipation at finally getting to explore this mysterious looking complex. I imagined myself as Lara Croft finding hidden pathways and tombs. After the sun had brought its glow to the watchers below it was time for this very disappointing tomb raider to adventure to Ta Prohm. Our guide, Hang, had explained to us that we would start with what is known as the Tomb Raider temple first and we would visit the actual Angkor Wat temple last.

Wondering around Ta Prohm was fascinating, and the site is sure to make anyone feel like an explorer who has found a hidden tomb in the middle of the jungle, even if no secret passageways appear underneath your feet. Aside from the few tourists and a few scaffolding bars holding parts of the complex up, it felt like we were the first intrepids to venture into this hidden jungle climbing frame. After exploring the area, whilst dodging huge spiders, and singing along to Johnny Cash with our guide we headed over to Angkor Thom, and the temple of Bayon. As we approached we spotted a group of mild and friendly macaques by the side of the road, they had obviously realised that being nice to tourists meant being fed a constant flux of bananas and lotus roots, a far cry easier than going out looking for food. We eventually dragged ourselves away from the friendly monkeys when we realised that the more time we spent with these adorable animals, the more people were arriving by the coach load.

Climbing up to Angkor Thom, the stairs made to fit the feet of a three year old, I was blown away by the sight in front of me. Hundreds of faces of the Buddha were watching me from every angle. Every carving, so intricate and clear, which, considering this building was made hundreds of years ago when modern tools were not available, was astounding. The time and dedication it took to build this is awe inspiring. However exploring hundreds of years old temples in the Cambodian humidity is not easy and by the time we had reached the top of the complex we were all slowly starting to lose our energy, heat exhaustion didn’t seem to be too far away. Alas we dragged ourselves to the main attraction, Angkor Wat; however by the time our fatigued bodies reached the temple we were absolutely worn out, we tourists didn’t even have the strength to take a photo, a sure sign that the energy and enthusiasm present only a few short hours ago had been sucked away completely. Angkor Wat had turned into Angkor Not. The complex, even though it’s the biggest of the temples, is far less impressive than Ta Prohm and Angkor Thom so we were grateful that we had seen the best (in our opinions) that the attraction had to offer before we lost all ability to lift our feet up off the ground. Despite our exhaustion we knew that if we didn’t drag ourselves up the very steep steps to the top of the building then we would always regret it, so, one by one, we pulled ourselves up step by step. The incredible 360 view of the area was a small comfort to us and I just about managed to muster enough energy for a few more photos, then it was time for these weary travellers to climb down and head straight to an ice cold air conditioned bus. The moral of the story, listen to all the guide books, don’t attempt Angkor Wat in one day, take your time, relax, explore without the risk of dying from Cambodia’s intense humidity levels.

Smiles through adversity – New Hope charity, Siem Reap


As we entered the slum area of Mondul 3, in Siem Reap, the children sitting by the side of the road greeted us with waves and ‘Hellos.’ The rocky, uneven surface of the roads slowed down our pace which provided a young boy just enough time to be able to jump on the back of the vehicle and come along for a ride. With the wind blowing in his hair, and eyes, he laughed, with a grin so wide that one couldn’t help but join in with the laughter, too. The further into the area we travelled the bumpier the ride became until, that was, we came to a halt and as I placed just one foot on the ground my hands were gripped by tiny fingers pulling me along to come and play. Surrounded by smiling faces I became a human climbing frame, with a child on my back and one swinging from my arms and one clinging to each leg. This was, without question, the friendliest, happiest greeting I had ever received and I instantly felt overwhelmed with joy. Some of these children had been born with HIV, some of them had parents who had tried to sell them for as little as $100 out of sheer poverty and desperation. Yet, despite all this, they were without doubt the happiest children I had ever met throughout my travels.

The young woman working for the charity gave a speech to explain the work they do however the children were more interested in distracting their new playmates and the sounds of their cheers and laughter drowned out the poor girl’s voice. We did our best to listen, however paying attention isn’t easy when your arms are swinging children up in the air and there is a child climbing up on to your head to try and reach the tree. After the unheard introduction the children performed some songs they had learnt during their English lessons and we were all soon joining in to ‘Heads, shoulders, knees and toes’.

When it was time to leave, in order to visit the new school building, we had to physically peel the children away from our bodies, which was hard as they were obviously having so much fun and didn’t want their new playmates to leave. Seeing the amazing work being done here was so uplifting, but there is still work to be done. If you are interested in helping this charity you can find more information at www.newhopecambodia.com


Praise to the Jewel in the Lotus – Seek, and you shall find.


Leaving a space where one feels happy and content is difficult. However, I had been apart from civilisation for too long, and I was running out of time in Nepal to accomplish my aim, to learn about Tibetan Buddhism. After lots of online research I found another monastery, tucked away in the hills of the Kathmandu Valley. It offered activities such as spending a full day in the presence of a monk, and one to one lessons on the religion, so of course I made a reservation at the hotel attached to it. Elated that I had finally found what I was looking for I headed back to the centre of Kathmandu to look into transportation to Dashinkali, the nearest village to the monastery. Now, usually this task would not prove difficult, with local buses and private taxis available on every street in Thamel. However, my time in Nepal coincides with the current fuel crisis, therefore getting to places that are off the beaten track is not so straight forward any more. The manager of the guest house that I was staying at called a few local drivers for me and they all quoted him very expensive prices. They had purchased fuel on the black market and of course with the increase in price come the increase in their charges, understandably. After several negotiations I managed to settle on a price and, feeling relieved, I arranged to meet the driver at ten o’clock the following morning, my studies were finally set to begin, or so I thought.

To my dismay the driver didn’t show up. I walked to the main street, backpack in tow, and within a fraction of a second I was fenced in at all sides by taxi drivers, my backpack had attracted them like honey attracts bees. I explained to them where I wanted to go and they all looked at me, frowning, and told me I would be better off getting the bus because it was just too much in fuel. So off to the bus station I went. Well, it’s not exactly what I would call a bus station; it’s more like a car park with people shouting out different destinations in rapid, musical speech. There is no ticket desk or timetable, no advice in sight. Now, as I unfortunately can’t speak Nepalese, with the exception of a few words that is, I had no idea which of these buses, if any, would be travelling to the village I needed to get to. So I approached each of the shouting men, who I presumed were the drivers, and asked them ‘Dashinkali?’, ‘No,’ were their replies. Eventually somebody took pity on the helpless backpacker wandering around lost in the bus park. ‘Where do you need to go?’ he asked. So I got out the map and the address of the monastery. It turns out that there are two villages that I could travel to that are near the monastery, Dashinkali and Pharphing, however there are no buses operating to either of these destinations. Feeling disappointed, and homeless, now that I was officially unable to travel to the place I had reserved to lay my head that night, I stood in the middle of the bus park trying to think of a plan B. So, I jumped into a taxi and headed to Boudhanath, which is an area in the Kathmandu Valley where the Tibetan refugees settled when they were exiled from their country, and it is also home to the revered Stupa. Here I didn’t have a teacher waiting for me but I would get to witness the devotees and pilgrims of the religion who come to circumnavigate the stupa and make offerings and prostrations. Wandering around the small streets, squeezing my way between tourists and locals, looking for a place to sleep that night, the weight of my bags seeming to get heavier and heavier, I heard someone calling, ‘You looking for a guesthouse?’ I turned around to be greeted by a huge smile attached to a monk who looked like he could be the Dalai Lama’s twin brother. ‘Yes,’ I replied. So, this helpful monk rescued the homeless pilgrim and proceeded to take me to a guesthouse that was, in his words, ‘very cheap.’

Boudhanath is an atmospheric marvel. The stupa, unfortunately, was heavily damaged in the earthquake but, thankfully, restoration work is currently taking place. Yet despite the damage to this place of worship the people still come from early morning to late evening. A constant flux of monks, nuns, pilgrims, devotees and tourists swirl, clockwise, around the stupa like a whirlwind. The melody of the chants, combined with the music and singing of the beggars, the smell of the heavily scented incense, mingled with the glow of the butter lamps, is intoxicating. Sitting from a roof top, looking out at the action, the mantra of ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ being carried through the air with every gentle nudge of a prayer wheel, and every little flutter of a prayer flag, you can feel the devotion in your bones. Even if you aren’t religious, or spiritual, or do not believe in the Buddha, the Dharma or any God, this sight will transfix you and being surrounded by it will move you, emotionally. However, despite the fact that I was witnessing Buddhism in practice, and I was immersed in the essence of faith, I still had that niggling urge telling me that I needed to learn more, to study, and as always the student within me won the argument. I was sitting drinking masala chai when, in my frantic search to find another place to learn, I stumbled across the website for the Kopan Monastery. There in big black bold letters, however, were the words DAY VISITS NOT POSSIBLE FROM THE 11TH NOVEMBER. Great, I thought, I bet its past that date. When travelling all days seem to roll into one so I didn’t know what date, or day of the week, it was. I checked the calendar on my phone, expecting to see that today was probably the 12th November. But, to my utter surprise, and when I say surprise I literally shouted out, ‘YES,’ and received lots of funny glares from those around me, the date was the 10th November, meaning that today was the last day possible for day visits. Feeling like I was finally receiving some luck on my quest I set off. I was greeted by welcoming, happy monks and lots of Namaste’s and enquiries as to where I was from. By the time I had arrived there, however, I had missed the Dharma speech, but I didn’t let this spoil my happiness, instead I headed straight to the book store. If I couldn’t find someone to teach me about Tibetan Buddhism in person then the Dalai Lama would have to teach me instead through the written word. Armed with my study books I wandered around the grounds, envious of the students that were rolling in for the month long retreat. Taking the opportunity to start my studying in the peaceful setting, I sat down and started to read. It wasn’t long before someone came and joined me at my table. A beautiful nun, skin golden from her time living in the sun, with warm, friendly eyes adorned with some very fine lines that made her seem even more welcoming. She radiated kindness. I watched her out of the corner of my eye as she turned her head to see what I was reading and then, with a smile which suggested she was happy with my reading material, sat back and closed her eyes. Intrigued by this woman, I struck up a conversation. She was from Australia and had been a nun for over thirty years, ‘Around about the time my hair started to go grey,’ she told me, laughing. I liked her immediately; she was exactly the sort of person I had wanted to meet here in Nepal. ‘Are you a Buddhist?’ she asked. So, I told her my story, how I have an interest in the religion and wanted to study it further here in Nepal. I told her all about my failed attempts and what had brought me here, to Kopan, buying books instead. She smiled with those loving, compassionate eyes and said ‘You know, one day, a teacher will just appear in front of you, and then everything will make sense.’ I smiled, in recognition of the lesson she was giving me with those few words. I needed to let go, everything always works out the way it should and when the time is right I will meet a teacher, just like she said. There was no point worrying, after all worry is just a waste of time, it doesn’t get us anywhere. ‘See you later,’ she said as she walked off to join the monks. ‘Yes, see you later,’ I replied and somehow I knew that I would see her later, I don’t know where or when, but I knew it wasn’t goodbye. She turned around, nodded at me and gave me another of her heart-warming smiles. I guess I did meet a teacher after all.

In stillness the world is restored – my time at the guest house of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery


As I climbed the one hundred steps in the midday sun, my life on my back, doubt was running through my mind. Surely it would have been easier to reserve a guest house somewhere closer, that wasn’t so difficult to get to? But, all my negativity quickly washed away when I eventually conquered the final step. I stood in the garden and looked down below at the city. Gone were the sounds of traffic, and the day to day heckles of city life. Up here, suspended above civilisation, I had found the tranquil oasis I had been desperately craving since my arrival in Kathmandu. I approached the desk at the reception, red faced and shiny, and dropped everything that was weighing me down. Feeling lighter I smiled at the two faces that were looking at me with expressions void of any emotion. I requested a room on the third floor after reading reviews which suggested that the rooms had the best views of Kathmandu, forgetting of course that it would mean carrying my bags up another fifty steps. I picked up my load again and dragged myself to my home for the next four days, feeling relieved that I could settle for a while and take some time to breathe, to recollect my thoughts and relax. I hadn’t stayed in one place for longer than two nights so far and it was time for me to sit and take in everything that I had experienced on this journey.

The purpose of my visit at the monastery was to hopefully learn about the lives of the monks and to understand more of Tibetan Buddhism. I have studied Buddhism, and I have a personal as well as an academic interest in the religion; however Tibetan Buddhism, which falls under the Mahayana branch, I know little of. Therefore I had planned to spend the remainder of my time in Nepal learning about it, and seeing the religion in practice. The guest house has a school for young novices behind it and as I was walking up the stairs I heard sing-song voices shouting ‘Hello, hello.’ Across, in a room with a glass-less window, in a grey, dull building covered in bamboo scaffolding, were the bald heads of three young smiling novices, adorned in their maroon and orange robes. ‘Hello,’ I shouted back and they responded in giggles. I settled in to my room feeling excited about the learning experience I was about to have. My stay, however, wasn’t the education I had hoped it would be as the older monk’s, ages ranging from late teens to late twenties, seemed to eye me with suspicion. I greeted them every day with smiles; however the smiles I received in return seemed wary. I understood their wariness, I must seem a strange being to these young men. A female, nearly thirty, single and here in a monastery, all alone. I imagine they were wondering what this strange person smiling at them all the time was doing there. I persisted in my efforts to try and befriend the monks however all I could manage from them was the odd, occasional smile. And any effort to try and have a conversation was responded in one word answers. However, despite the lack of interaction with the resident monks which I had hoped to have during my stay, my time there was not wasted. My four nights quickly turned into six as I settled into a relaxed, calm routine, which was exactly what I needed after being on the road, hopping from place to place, for the past couple of weeks. I assimilated to my surroundings and the time scales of my daily routine quickly started to mirror that of the monk’s schedule. I awoke in the mornings to the sound of ringing bells at six o’clock, however as no-one was there to tell me off I sneakily went back to sleep for an extra hour. The chatter of the young novices going about their daily lives at the school re-awoke my lazy eyes and the rest of my mornings would be spent sitting in the garden, under the trees, purple petals showering me, as if from heaven, every time a bird would stop for a rest from its journey. The sun would heat up my body for the day as I watched the butterflies flutter past me and the kites soar above the city against the backdrop of the Himalayas, smiling to myself at the beauty of life. I felt so much gratitude in those moments. Grateful to be alive, to be able to sit in such a magical setting contemplating life, living in the here and now. Occasionally a monk would burst into song, snapping me out of my meditation, and I would giggle to myself when he realised he had an audience and quickly stopped his outbursts. I’m like an alien to them, from faraway lands, sitting here smiling, either in deep thought, reading or writing. I would like to ask them their stories, how they chose this path, however I daren’t ask such a forward, personal question. Sometimes I would feel guilty with my mobile phone and my laptop, my attachments to the outside world, after all Buddhism teaches that desire creates suffering, and by becoming non-attached the cessation of suffering is possible. However, all the monks here have mobile phones, too, and like people back home in the west they walk around with their faces glued to the screen, not looking where they are going. Their material possession makes me feel better about occasionally having my fingers attached to my electrical devices. Every morning the setting created an inner peace within me so profound that I could not entertain the thought of leaving. I was exactly where I needed to be, and despite the wary monks around me, I felt at home in these surroundings. Occasionally the sound of someone shouting from afar would be carried through the air and then the thud, thud, thud of monkeys running away on the tin roofs of the buildings. Their attempted burglaries failed once more. They have attitude these monkeys, they climb and stalk around in gangs, like the teenagers in some parts of England, terrorising people. Evenings were spent listening to a chorus of chanting, laughter, song and music from the young novices. Sometimes there would be tears, like all young boys in schools I imagine they had a falling out over something trivial. Lights out at the monastery is ten o’clock, and this rule I did obediently adhere too, as going to bed early is never a problem for someone who loves sleep, as I do. Before our eyes closed and entered the dream state, however, the choir of the dogs of Kathmandu must first be heard. One howl, then another, and one by one what appeared to be every dog in the city would join in as if they were singing us all goodnight. On my last day in my paradise garden a wasp came buzzing over to me, very soon it was hovering near the eyelashes of my left eye, but the stillness within must have been reflecting outwardly, as after a long period of investigation it flew away, bored of this inanimate object that had once appeared interesting. So, although I hadn’t learned anything about Tibetan Buddhism at the monastery, I did learn to live in the present, to not be concerned about the future, or the past, because they do not exist. What matters is the here and now, and the here and now is an overwhelming feeling of total bliss, of stillness.