Sunday, November 28, 2010

My Favourite Run

I am reliably informed that Runner's World has a regular column entitled ‘My Favourite Run’.

I don’t know for sure, as until recently I regarded running as a good walk spoiled (even more so than golf). Frankly, I’m about as likely to read the above publication as subscribe to Volleyball Asia or Cock-Fighting Cambodia.

Until now. Don’t get me wrong, football will always be the best game in the world - the beautiful game, and the only truly global sport. Apart from running I suppose, in that most people run at some point - but neither lazy loping nor serious scuttling really count as sport, do they?

My Damascene conversion happened on the unholy road from the provincial town of Sisophon to my village of Thmar Puok. The rainy season was in its final throwing-down as we passed the High School. Kids were literally swimming after the ball on the only ‘football pitch’ in town.

Clearly I had to find another way to exercise away my occasional cakes and ale. In Cambodia football is for swimmers, badminton for schoolgirls and cycling for bone-shaking fetishists. Reluctantly, I resolved to run.

Back in mid-February I had a great motivation to do some light training – the pleasure of completing the Phnom Penh 5k with my beautiful valentine. I guess the organisers didn’t have much choice of date, but starting at 2pm in the heart of hot season seemed designed to test the strongest of relationships.

A further challenge was the requirement to run the whole course alongside your partner. And to cross the line together holding hands, gazing into each others eyes, and looking very much in love. Katja and I share modest competitive streaks, and luckily our 5th place out of 50 couples made the podium, as a prize was the minimum demanded by my valentine. The reward was a romantic meal in the city’s Country Club and big brownie-points for boyfriend. Surely this had to be my favorite run?

But now the challenge doubles – in just a few days time it’s the Angkor 10km run. One of the amazing perks of volunteering in such a beautiful place as Cambodia is to run in a World Heritage Site, past - in fact through - ancient, awe-inspiring temples. The route starts at the iconic Angkor Wat, winds past the enigmatically smiling Bayon heads, and explores the remarkable Khmer city of Angkor Thom. Wouldn’t this be anyone’s favourite run?

Yet in athletics - I am reliably informed - there is always room for an underdog. Now that I have overcome my aversion to 5.30am starts, faced off the snarling dogs (I think there’s still sleep in their eyes too), and learned to laugh off the howling derision of my fellow villagers – well, now I think I might just be learning to love running here. And when I watched the sun rise over the misty green rice fields this morning, even my hardened heart melted and I had to admit – this might be my favourite run of all.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Health & Safety Nightmare?

It’s nothing short of hilarious for the crowds lining Phnom Penh’s riverfront for the annual water festival.

Amongst the beautifully painted dragon boats, the proud crews carrying the hopes of their village, and the throngs of expectant spectators on the bank, a strange phenomenon appears: a boat full of westerners! What’s more, they have little idea how to row, and look utterly ridiculous – as if the bright orange t-shirts aren’t enough, the fools have donned luminous life-jackets - what a joke!

Safety has a similarly low priority just getting to the riverfront. Jumping on a motorbike taxi is quick and easy, but us volunteers are more careful, not least because of our organisation's strict safety rules. Drivers do sometimes wear helmets - but only to avoid giving the police an excuse to fine them. The rest of the family perch perilously behind them with bare heads (and arms, and feet). In a country where life is cheap and the humidity intense, do you really think people worry about donning a hot and heavy safety helmet?

The journey from the provincial town to my village is similarly risky. There is no bus service, and driving a moto up the bumpy mud road is scary even for a hardened Cambodian. So we wait a few hours to cram into a ‘shared taxi’. This ordinary Toyota Camrey car carries an extraordinary load - in addition to ricebags in the boot and boxes on the roof, there are 6 people in the back and 4 in the front! The driver twists forward from his shared seat to control the wheel. It’s a tough job, which may be why he calms his nerves with a little rice wine. In these circumstances, do you honestly think anyone thinks about safety belts?

And if it’s dangerous for motor vehicles, spare a thought for the ordinary pedestrian. Clearly no one else has! There are a few pavements in cities like Phnom Penh, and they have a variety of purposes: a great place for your food stall, or space to tie up your hammock. Parking of motos takes precedence though, complete with wire or string to ensure no pesky pedestrians get in the way. And of course if you have a Lexus then you can park it anywhere, and where better then a nice spot of sidewalk? All of which pushes ordinary people in the path of oncoming traffic, or into the gutter. Now what is the point in man-hole covers again?

So basically health and safety is non-existent in Cambodia.

Some visitors actually celebrate this. After all, aren’t westerners far too controlled and regulated? Cambodia is the last ‘free’ country, away from the interfering reach of authorities. If there are a few guns and drugs, a bit of child abuse and general anarchy on the roads, maybe this is the price we pay to be truly free?

Well, back to our boat. The 2010 water festival in Cambodia will not be remembered for the bright dragon boats, the proud crews or the joy of the winning team.

Tragically, it will be mourned for the deaths of hundreds of Cambodians, apparently crushed on a bridge to the new Diamond Island City area of Phnom Penh.

No doubt over the coming weeks there will be much soul-searching in Cambodia about how such a terrible thing can happen. Hopefully people will be brave enough to tell the truth – that if you have such a blatant disregard for the well-being of your fellow people then there is a tragedy waiting to happen. It should not have taken the deaths of so many innocent people to make the authorities here take health and safety seriously. Hopefully at least now they will – we’ll see.

As the hilarity turns to sadness, perhaps people here may wonder if the fools in the helmets and life jackets weren’t so stupid after all?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Birds

Collecting my new binoculars from the shop in Denby Dale, I casually mentioned the purchase was for a trip to Cambodia.

Knowing that the manager of the shop (a proper 'twitcher', unlike me) can be a little forward with his opinions, I dreaded the inevitable question about which bird book I'd be taking. Before the full title had passed my lips, he retorted “throw it in the bin!”.

I tried to explain that I was travelling light and that my 'pocket' guide was a compromise between quality and weight – I was backtracking in the face of the expert. So off I went to Cambodia with my excellent (and very lightweight) Zeiss binoculars, and my small but 'rubbish' bird book. I'll prove him wrong I thought...

My kind of birding is as a background interest to whatever else I'm doing at the time. It can be an interesting hobby – a typical male 'tick box' activity, plus the randomness to keep us birders on our toes. The great thing about going to the other side of the world is that an entirely new set of boxes present themselves, and you have no idea what you might see!

Urban, rural, plains, hills, tropical rainforest, coast, wetlands, rivers, a huge lake (the Tonle Sap), plantations, and huge expanses of rice paddy fields like the Norfolk Broads with rice - my three weeks in Cambodia had a fantastic mix. All these places I wanted to see anyway, but they also provided a wide variety of habitats – and therefore birds.

For me
birding is part and parcel of the whole purpose of the holiday – to help restore and relax. It was sometimes difficult to have long enough to identify spots when zooming around the country on buses, taxis and tuk tuks. However, the slower pace of walking, cycling and the classic long boat trip between Battambang and Siem Reap - and even simply sitting by the pool in Phnom Penh or on Oly's balcony with a cold beer - provided ideal opportunities for a little 'spotting'.

This relaxed approach worked a treat on two particularoccasions. Firstly, when I walked the perimeter wall of the huge Angkor Thom. Because the wall is 8 metres high (and 13km long) I was effectively up in the forest canopy, with a huge moat to my left throughout. That day, in solitude, I had the pleasure of seeing Greater Racket Tailed Drongo, Black Crested Bulbul, and most dazzling, Golden Oriole. The second occasion, on my last day in Oly's village Thmar Puok, was on a cycle around the beautiful surrounding countryside. That day I was lucky to come across not one, but a whole family of Green Bee-eaters. The above photo can't fully show their dazzling the lime green chests, one of the most stunning colours I have ever seen.

One advantage of taking this hobby around the world is that bird families are often recognisable in different countries. For example, Flycatchers are present in Cambodia as in the UK, and because each family exhibits common characteristics in terms of size, shape and even behaviour, it helps with identification. The black beady eye and the return flight to the same perch after, you guessed it, catching a fly, helped me identify an Asian Brown Flycatcher (again, sat on a balcony sipping a cool beer – are you starting to see the attraction?).

I went to Cambodia with no expectations about what I may or may not see, as the nature of birding dictates, however as is usually the case when travelling to somewhere that contrasts so much with home, I wasn't at all disappointed.

The guy at the binoculars shop was right about the book though...