Trekking in the jungles of Chi phat in the Cardamom Mountains

Breaking free of the busy traffic in Phnom Penh required patience, but we were heading for the Cardamom Mountains for 4 nights staying with the Chi phat community so I was excited, even if the morning would be spent on the road travelling.

After three hours of driving on roads undergoing reconstruction, we reached the turn off – a dirt track which lead 17km deep into the jungle to the Preak Piphot River where we hopped onto the boat to cross to the small village of Chi Phat, on the other side.

This was my first time in a rainforest and I hoped for a great introduction to the Cardamom mountains and also to staying in a jungle community. I wasn’t disappointed.

Chi Phat as a community is an interesting place. Originally wealthy from illegal logging the community was supported by Wildlife Alliance in 2007 to set up community based environmental tourism (CBET) in the Cardamom Mountains, one of Asia’s last untouched rainforests. It is run as a commune in which all the money generated from tourism goes directly to the village and where everyone in the village has a role in the success of the community.

Families deliver a specific set of services running guesthouses, or being guides, cooks, or taxi drivers on their mopeds; while CBET runs the community’s reception area, gear rental for trekkers and coordinates service management. Wildlife Alliance continues to provide international marketing and on-the-job training in the community, based around the forestry project.

It felt great to know I was contributing to the success of the village and the protection of the local environment at the same time as having an adventure.

DSCF7645 DSCF7740 DSCF7739 DSCF7738 DSCF7734

Whilst in Chi Phat I stayed with a family in a basic but lovely room and in the afternoon the grandson came to play and ask for the bananas his grandmother had left for us.

DSCF7653 DSCF7649

IMG_1939

Having found myself in a nice home with a nice room, I thought this jungle malarkey was going to be lovely. Especially when that afternoon we were take to see the community’s forestry project to learn about the reforesting taking place in the area.

The Wildlife Alliance is still working in the area, supporting the community to ensure that the lost woodland is replaced and the workers here earn more money raising saplings than construction workers in Phnom Penh; ensuring people are not lost from the village to the bright lights of the city.

DSCF7660 DSCF7664

I had been warned though that it wasn’t entirely going to be tranquil as this little fella and his friends get quite loud at night in the woodland.

DSCF7666

We then went up to see the area of land which is planned to be reforested; it was only then that it became clear the extent of the damage that had been done to the Cardamom Mountain area as logging was underway and how vital communities like Chi Phat would be to the future protection of the landscape.

DSCF7675 DSCF7676

My idyllic time quickly ended though. It was a hot night in the house under my mosquito net and even the rain in the night didn’t cool the temperature. I also had a fright when a huge flying beetle swooped into the room like a helicopter and stopped on my net for a while. But that was nothing compared to what was to come.

The following morning we had a tasty Khmer breakfast on the boat as we headed up the Preak Piphot River for over an hour. It was early and the idyllic morning was just a cover what was to come.

DSCF7685 DSCF7687 DSCF7694 DSCF7697

Once we disembarked the jungle consumed us. The humidity was unbearable and in no time at all we were all dripping in sweat. By 11am when we stopped for lunch I was feeling well and truly tortured by the jungle, having spent all morning flicking leeches from my feet. There is only one way to reduce number that climb up your boots (there’s no avoiding them!) and that’s walking quickly – incredibly difficult in high humidity. I understand now the idea of a jungle driving you to madness. I’ve never been so happy to stick my feet in a river while lunch was cooked.

DSCF7702 DSCF7703

Leech bites are like being stung by a wasp; only gross. One had managed to latch on for long enough that it had grown from its tiny size to that of a slug. I didn’t get an after picture; I was too busy flicking him off and looking horrified at the blood all over my socks. Yes, boots and socks are no challenge to a leech. The foot photo is from the day after when I’d regained my composure and could consider myself sane.

DSCF7717 the day after the bite

After bathing my feet and a lunch cooked by the guys consisting of ample rice and vegetables, washed down with coffee; we trudged on. The path was drier and we kept the pace fast to try to avoid the leeches getting on us.

It was around 4pm when we arrived at our hut for the night at Antong Prang – a small clearing in the jungle where there was a long drop toilet and two huts for hanging hammocks to sleep.

After the terror of the hike we threw off our inhibitions as quick as our clothes to be able to wash in the river, hidden from the guides.

As the rain arrived at 5pm we were having dinner; it didn’t take long for us to end up zipped into our hammocks and attempting to sleep early. As fast as the rain came down, the thunder boomed: it was going to be a long night.

IMG_1945

As it was I slept surprisingly well; though I did slip into the middle of the hammock a few times. As we had breakfast we compare leech bites and continued our quick march to get back to Chi Phat village.

The walk took us past a clearing which might be good for wildlife spotting, but we didn’t see anything.

DSCF7707

Later that day we did find these critters!

DSCF7713 DSCF7719

We finally made it to the waterfall near the village where it was a joy to swim with our clothes on and feel refreshed again. Despite the mental torture I loved visiting Chi Phat and would recommend it to anyone – they organise a lot of different activities you don’t have to trek with the leeches!

DSCF7654

The floating village of Phoum Kandal and Wat Oudong

Lying in bed wrapped in a cotton sheet I watch sunrise in Battambang. Through the blind the sky is turning from reds to yellows.

The dull whirr of the air conditioning, the buzz of insects waking, the occasional motorbike whining by and horns beeping; and below it all is the quiet, mourning melody of a Khmer guitar playing a sad stirring tune.

The sky is blue and the sun is up, the traffic is building as cars beep and drive by the hotel. Voices call and the music disappears into the background, drowned out by the sounds of the day.

We left Battambang early, heading for Phnom Penh. The drive was long and so we stopped en-route at Phoum Kandal, a Vietnamese floating village on Tonle Sap. We caught a local boat to visit the village. Unlikely Mechrey I’d visited a few days before, this floating village was along the lake edge rather than out in the depths of the lake. It was also clear that there was a divide between the poor and extreme poor even in the floating village.

DSCF7608 DSCF7607 DSCF7605 DSCF7617 DSCF7610 DSCF7614

From Phoum Kandal we travelled on to Oudong to visit the Wat on the hillside.

The area of Oudong was the old capital of Cambodia, before it moved to Phnom Penh in the 19th Century. The limestone hillside of Phnom Oudong and its Wat is now the official resting place of the Buddha’s bones possessed by Cambodia and the three large stupas house the remains of three Cambodian kings.

Unlike some of the newer temples I’d visited which are becoming in need of a little love; Wat Oudong was being restored with funding from UNESCO when I visited.

Phnom Oudong is worth visiting there are fantastic views from the top across Oudong and out to Phnom Penh.

DSCF7620 DSCF7623 DSCF7635 DSCF7632 DSCF7630  DSCF7638DSCF7636 DSCF7640 DSCF7639

Battambang – temples and markets or guns and grenades

Having spent an amazing week in Siem Reap it was sad to leave the friendly buzz of the town behind and head off towards Battambang. The 3 hour drive took us past mile after mile of rice fields, making it clear why this part of Cambodia is the main area for rice production in the country.

It was also clear that local ‘delicacies’ were going to be more common; we stopped by the roadside to buy bamboo-sticky rice and also found these dishes. Being a vegetarian provided a great excuse to avoid trying them!

DSCF7486 DSCF7489

Before we arrived in Battambang we visited Wat Banan temple. To reach the temple you have to climb 300 or so steps up the hillside. Arriving at the height of the midday sunshine it was a slow walk.

DSCF7493 DSCF7491

Wat Banan is still used as a Buddhist temple but I did feel a bit disappointed as the quiet temple is quite dilapidated.

DSCF7497 DSCF7501

DSCF7506

We then headed to Wat Sampeau, a beautiful golden modern temple on the top of Phnom Sampeau – a limestone mountain which is considered sacred by Buddhists locally. Being the only high point in the vast plains of rice fields there are fantastic views and really cute Macac monkeys. The beauty of the temple, with its mixed history of Cambodian and Chinese Buddhism, hides the horrific past during the Khmer Rouge where the hillside’s caves were used as ‘killing caves’.

DSCF7508 DSCF7509 DSCF7507 DSCF7534 DSCF7533 DSCF7532 DSCF7525 DSCF7523 DSCF7520 DSCF7530

When we finally arrived in Battambang it seemed less of a cosmopolitan town than Siem Reap, and the Khamara hotel reminded me of Soviet buildings, in its style and imposing size. It didn’t help that it had eight huge, shiny and expensive Range Rovers parked outside, and this sign on the back of my bathroom door only added to the feeling that I was staying in a border town frequented by Thai drug barons.

10676192_10152951478598854_5109201430362321258_n IMG_1933My impression changed the following day, when we cycled through the town centre, along the river with its old French colonial buildings and then on the back roads of town passed small markets and homes. (The oranges – or greens! – were amazingly sweet).

DSCF7574 DSCF7575

DSCF7550 DSCF7551 DSCF7563 DSCF7566 DSCF7569 DSCF7554

We arrived at the oldest home in the town to see traditional Khmer architecture. The house we visited was 90 years old and had been owned by the same family since it was built. However, its history was incredibly sad, and I found it hard not to cry as the old lady told us her tale with tears in her eyes and her niece translated.

During the Khmer Rouge  all homes were taken by the regime and this one was used as a communal kitchen. The old lady’s children left for Phnom Penh with her husband and she fled with other family members to the countryside. After the war she was able to get her home back and her husband returned but without the children; she waited for years for them to come home. Eventually her husband left her to start a new family with her friend.

DSCF7561

As I cycled on, thinking about the horrors of the past that people have had to live through, we arrived at the fish market where the overwhelming smell brought me to the present.

DSCF7578 DSCF7582 DSCF7584

As a vegetarian I was immensely grateful for not having to worry about hygiene in the market. Though I have to concede there is very little waste in the process; the leftovers are left to ferment in large barrels to make the famous Khmer fish paste that is added to curries. I can’t describe the smell, only to say that even now just thinking about it I can smell the overwhelming stench. A word of caution that despite it being easy to eat in Cambodia as a vegetarian, you need to check curries don’t have the fish paste still added to them.

Thankfully, the final stop on the bicycles was a small home where we saw a lady making rice paper.

DSCF7585 DSCF7586DSCF7587

Cycling and Kayaking Tonle Sap

Yet another scorching hot morning to cycle out of Siem Reap and traffic dodge – this time heading 18km away to Tonle Sap Lake for a day of kayaking and seeing the floating villages. If the cycling in the crazy traffic hadn’t been daunting enough my kayaking skills were non-existent so the day was always going to be an interesting one.

Heading south out of Siem Reap we took highway 6. I tried to get a photo as it was actually fun and surreal to be on a mountain bike cycling up a 6 lane highway out of town but I was also trying to concentrate on not hitting anyone – or anything – so its a bit wonky. The traffic system is confusing to say the least; there is a dual carriage way in the centre apparently for faster vehicles, with two lanes either side of it intended for slower vehicles travelling both directions. The rules are quite flexible I discovered when we pulled out on to the centre dual carriageway alongside a wagon.

DSCF7330

Eventually we turned off and headed South taking a more typical red dusty road out of town towards the lake. It soon became apparent why we had mountain bikes as the roads are uneven and stony; this is one of the better ones.

DSCF7337

As we headed down through the rice fields down past farms and homes, the heat and taste of dust became more overwhelming, but at least the smells of car exhaust and waste rotting by the side of the street had been replaced with the aroma of spices and fresh air.

The route to Tonle Sap Lake takes you past mile after mile of rice fields and cattle grazing; past small markets and homes, with children waving and shouting hello as their parent cook and clean, and dogs are sleeping or scratching fleas by the side of the road. Best of all there is little traffic so the cycling is great, allowing us to stop to take photos.

DSCF7341 DSCF7342 DSCF7349 DSCF7341

Arriving at a small village at the edge of Tonle Sap lake we left our bikes and headed out on the lake on a small boat, towards Mechrey, a small floating village, out in the lake. Its much smaller than the popular Chong Khneas, but our guide favoured this village for it not being over developed or commercial and much cleaner.

Tonle Sap Lake is a fascinating place. The lake is unmissable on the map of Cambodia and is the largest freshwater lake in Asia. Our guide explained that it also has a unique phenomenon as during the wet season the heavy monsoon rains flowing down the Mekong River near Phnom Penh forces the flow from the Tonle Sap river to change direction and to flow back into the lake, increasing its size from 2,500km2 to 12,000km2. This creates important habitats for both birds, mammals and fish around the mangrove forests, making it a UNESCO biosphere.

Once we arrived at Mechrey Village we swapped the power boat for kayaks and headed out around the mangroves.

DSCF7374 DSCF7370

Paddling around the village felt a bit voyeuristic, watching people go about their daily lives, but it was interesting to see the village and how people live and was certainly an antidote to temples. Children laugh and play in the water and families cook and clean, all waving at us as we passed. I really recommend you get out on to the Lake and visit one of the smaller floating villages to see a different way of life in the Cambodian countryside, not yet spoilt by tourism.

DSCF7378 DSCF7384 DSCF7365 DSCF7369

Once back on dry land we cycled back via the back roads and lanes, to Wat Athvea temple just on the outskirts of town.

The cycling in the afternoon heat was scorching and incredibly dusty. Despite its lack of carvings and half finished apsaras, Wat Athvea temple is still worth seeing due to its distance from the Angkor site it is almost unvisited by tourists. However, this does mean it lacks the maintenance and restoration that Angkor has benefited from.

DSCF7389 DSCF7396 DSCF7393

Autumn on Bleaklow

I should have gone cycling on Saturday in training for my next big trip. But I’m not a cyclist at heart, so when a friend asked if I wanted to go hill walking it didn’t take long for me to say yes. Especially when I saw the forecast was going to be sunny.  I’d never been up Bleaklow in the sunshine before.

Bleaklow, in the Peak District, is about 30 minutes drive over country lanes from my house. The typical weather I endure is dense fog and rain, but instead on Saturday I had glorious sunshine, although it was cold and windy.

We parked at the car park at Torside Reservoir, next to the Longdendale Trail. This is a section of the longer Trans-Pennine Trail, which is a fantastic long distance route for cyclists and walkers. Our route for the day was to head up Wildboar Clough to check out a mini scramble up the river before heading across the fell top to the summit cairn. From the Trans-Pennine Trail track we clambered over a couple of rickety stiles and through the woodland on a path that is clearly little used.

We soon found that the river, while being a great route to handrail up  or down the hill in the mist and fog, is largely full of green damp and slippy boulders, making a walk hard work and a bit lethal. As we’d both started to slide on the rocks, we decided to head away from the riverbed and up the grassy sides of the clough avoiding the scramble and the potential catastrophe.

There was a lovely view from the top of the river though. IMG_1812

From here we enjoyed a bog trot to get onto the Pennine Way which we then followed to the cairn marking the summit. Bleaklow summit is a bit of a non event, as a huge plateau larger than its neighbour Kinder Scout (but lower) it is a featureless terrain which can test even the best navigators in poor visibility.

At this point, with time on our side we decided to carry on to High Shelf Stones trig point – while this is not the summit top of the plateau (and busy as close to the Snake Pass road) it is considered a top in its own right and worth a wander over to as it has great views out across Manchester and beyond. However, on Saturday it was windy and cold so we had a look at the aircraft wreckage as we passed it and hid behind rocks near the trig point for lunch.

IMG_1789 IMG_1792 IMG_1794 IMG_1798

The aircraft wreckage on Bleaklow is some of the most complete and extensive that I have seen in the Peak District but it is certainly not the only one around as the area is littered with wreckages.

From High Shelf Stones we contoured around to Dog Rocks and then turned right and headed directly across the moors thankfully not bog trotting. We crossed the line of newly restored grouse butts to pick up the Pennine Way trail and head back to the cars in the valley below. The whole walk took about 5 hours, including a lunch and a lovely 15 minutes lying in the heather gazing at the blue sky.

Wet and Windy in the Nephins

After a long lie in and a stereotypical Irish morning of sitting around talking and drinking copious amounts of tea we finally headed out into the grey skies.

We’d been talking and drinking tea for so long that it only left us the afternoon for a walk, so we drove up to Newport and headed into the Nephin Mountains for a walk around the Letterkeen Loop.

As it was, the weather turned into a howling gale and sideways rain so a walk over the peaks wouldn’t have been a good idea anyway.

The Letterkeen loop is 12km and starts at the car park near the Altaconey River. Its not a long walk but a great loop to do in an afternoon or for a day out with children. Its also perfect for getting out into the wild areas of the Nephins without having to walk too far.

IMG_1550

We headed anticlockwise starting on the well made track of the Western Way, which winds through the woodland next to the river.

IMG_1476 IMG_1482 IMG_1483

After about 3km there is a path junction to the left which heads up round the side of the fell and heads northeast towards the Bangor Way.

IMG_1490 IMG_1493

It was at this point the wind and rain became heavy so we were grateful for the nearby shelter on the hill, where we quickly headed for a lunch stop.

IMG_1500 IMG_1505 IMG_1503

Heading back along the Bangor trail the track is less defined and in the rain it had become a bog trot. It reminded me of walking in the Pennines back home!

IMG_1510 (1) IMG_1530 (1) IMG_1545

Cycling Westport’s Greenway

I’m not much of a cyclist (if you hadn’t noticed). But I do like a challenge and completing routes of any description and I love saying yes to opportunities thrown at me. So when friends I met in Corsica suggested meeting up and cycling The Great Western Greenway in Ireland, I wasn’t going to refuse.

This was my first trip to Ireland and my first trip somewhere which had been built around the idea of cycling and not hiking.

The Great Western Greenway runs around Clew Bay in County Mayo, from Achill Island in the west around the north of the bay to Westport. It spans 42km in length but is broken down into 3 shorter chunks making it possible for families to use too. Or blokes on a pub crawl cycling trip too as we found later. As it was originally a railway line which closed in 1937 this makes it perfect as a cycle route as not too many hills.

We hired bike from Clew Bay bike hire as they do a bus service to drop you at Achill so you can cycle back. They also have a cabin at Mulranny and a shop in Newport if you need repairs or give up and need a lift back.

Despite the horrendous wind and rain we’d booked the bikes so we headed out. Its an hours drive to Achill along the coast road and we were all thinking how we’d made a mistake having got up very early Sunday morning to spend the day cycling in the rain. The Scottish couple also on the bus who were new to cycling and thought it would be a nice route to do must have thought about changing their mind too.

We left Achill after a coffee at 11.20am. The first bit of the Greenway is along the road for 1km before you reach the off road track to follow to Mulranny 13km later.

IMG_1350 IMG_1353IMG_1357 IMG_1360

I can imagine how on a gorgeous sunny day the views of the Atlantic sea and the bay would be fantastic. However Sunday was a day of rain and 30+mph winds. Useful initially as we headed from Achill as we didn’t have to pedal hard, but as we turned around the headland the wind was at our side and meant leaning into the wind in order to stay upright. Challenging! (It is at this point I apologise for the photos as I didn’t stop to take them!)

IMG_1366 IMG_1379 IMG_1382 IMG_1386 IMG_1397 IMG_1399 IMG_1407

We reached Mulranny an hour later and after swapping one bike and having my handlebars realigned at the shops bike station, it was raining hard so we dived in the Mulranny Hotel for a coffee and a cake, which I can certainly recommend!

Almost an hour later we emerged and continued on to Newport. Though 18km this section is easy going too, and some great views despite the weather. On a clear day the bay must look fantastic from the Greenway.

IMG_1412 IMG_1416 IMG_1418  IMG_1444 IMG_1446 IMG_1451

Sections of the route closer to Newport are still being improved so while the route is very much off road already it is set to be even better in the future. Just as you reach Newport the Greenway route hops onto the road to cycle into town.

We reached Newport in an hour and 5 mins and treated ourselves to a long lunch in the Grainne Uaile pub in the centre of Newport. I loved find out the story of Grainne Uaile otherwise known as Grace O’Malley, a headstrong female pirate queen who ruled Mayo’s islands.

By the time we’d eaten and chatted it was 4.20pm and going dark so we headed to Westport as quick as cycling into a headwind would allow. The Greenway along this section is 11km and includes some cycling on the road as well as next to the road on the trail. This is also the hilliest section with a long drag of a hill to get up and down to reach Westport. Not what you want at the end of the day!

IMG_1461

The route is then on the road, passed a medical factory to reach the main road. From here we crossed the road and turned right to pick up an off road path to take us round the back of Westport centre and back to the cycle shop, an hour after leaving Newport.

3 hours 5 minutes cycling time – not bad to say we don’t cycle regularly!

Limestone in Crummack Dale

Its hard to find peace and quiet in the Yorkshire Dales at the weekend unless the weather is horrible. Despite heading out from Clapham, a favourite starting point for walkers heading to the top of Ingleborough, if you avoid the hill top its possible to find peace and also some fantastic limestone pavements, which in my opinion are more impressive than those at Malham Cove.

Following the track up the river from Clapham you head through woodland and Trow Gill, a narrow ravine. As the path appears out of the top of the ravine follow it onwards to the access point for Gaping Gill one of the largest caves in the UK at 98m deep. Twice a year the cave is open to the general public through the caving clubs.

IMG_0975

IMG_0981   IMG_0976

From here head across the moorland towards Juniper Gulf, another popular caving point.

IMG_0984

To head around Crummack dale it is necessary to climb over the fence and head across towards the limestone towards the Pennine Bridleway.

IMG_0990 IMG_0987

Follow this only a little way as to see the full splendour of Crummack dale you need to skirt around Moughton Scars heading southeast, eventually up towards the trig point.

IMG_1012 IMG_1009 IMG_1002 IMG_1015

The reason I think that Crummack dale is more impressive the Malham Cove is for the expanse of limestone pavement which is far larger than that at Malham, and as you stand near the trig point looking back at Moughton Scar you can see the impact of glaciation and erosion on a large scale. Its also a hell of a lot quieter, I didn’t see anyone once I past the Pennine Bridleway.

From the trig point head down hill, cross the Dales High Way and head across fields to walk below Norber, passing the erratics left by the ice age, to head back to Clapham.

IMG_1023 IMG_1025 IMG_1029

Wandering down the Irwell

Manchester. Not somewhere I would have ever thought I’d write about on here. To start with its not my definition of an adventure since I spent 7 years at the universities there. Manchester is the city I feel at home in, if a country girl is ever going to feel at home in a city.

Nevertheless I found myself out on a city walk run by new manchester walks on Saturday and explored the Irwell, a bit of the city I’ve never really explored before.

We met at Manchester Victoria station which has my favourite map in a building –

IMG_0800

I hadn’t realised though that this map was originally an advertising poster for the rail company which explains why the line between Manchester and Sheffield doesn’t exist on it. It doesn’t explain why there are stations for Meltham and Holmfirth despite neither of these places having rail lines!

Fun facts learnt:

– Victoria station once had the longest platform in Europe when Victoria had an adjacent station called Exchange, run by a rival company, and the platforms joined.

– Arches on the wall at the Irwell near the station are originally boat access point from a ticket office which was underground near the Cathedral. During the war these were used as air raid shelters.

IMG_0803 IMG_0801  IMG_0802

– Mr Brotherton was one of the founders of the Vegetarian Society

IMG_0809 IMG_0810

– New Bailey near Salford Station is the site of the last public hanging in Britain in 1867,  for three men who were responsible for shooting a police officer. Their deaths were gruesome as only one died immediately from hanging so it was decided that executions would no longer be done in public.

– The old building next to the People’s History Museum was the pump house talking water from the Rochdale Canal for powering trams in the city and nearby buildings as well as the town hall clock.

IMG_0811

– Spinningfields is not named after the textile industry (prevalent in the city) but from the name of a copse of trees in the area.

IMG_0807

– Bees are the symbol of Manchester representing the industrial nature of the city, and the City’s crest represents the trade it did with the rest of the world. Salford’s crest emulates its relationship with Manchester as the hub of industrious working and packing.

IMG_0820

– The name of the Irwell river comes from ‘ere well, meaning good wishes for trade.

IMG_0814 IMG_0813 IMG_0824