Saturday, 20 April 2013

How to do good in Cambodia - without really trying

When I was in Cambodia a couple of months ago, I noticed two things: the country wears its dark past on its sleeve, and there's an incredible array of ways to help. So many ways, in fact, that I wondered if it would be possible to NGO-hop across the country, helping as any tourist might just by visiting certain shops, restaurants and such.

That became the guiding principle for my 10-day trip there, and it made me love Cambodia even more than I already did.

My latest piece for the Sydney Morning Herald, the cover story in this weekend's travel section, is about the rise of charitable tourism in Cambodia. Here's an excerpt:

S-21 survivor Bou Meng
Assisted development

Every country has a dark side. Cambodia's is just more visible than most, and more recent - decades of civil war, genocide and foreign occupation that ended only in 1993 - but that's part of its appeal. The country's uniqueness lies in its stories and the spirit of its people. And, increasingly, tourism is playing a part in its recovery ...

Behind the welcoming smiles of the Cambodians you meet there, however, it's impossible to ignore the signs that all is still not well. 

You see people with limbs stolen by landmines. Anyone over about 40 - a tuk-tuk driver, a vendor at Phnom Penh's Russian Market - remembers the Khmer Rouge's brutal regime (1975-1979). There is widespread poverty, child abuse and HIV infection (Cambodia has the highest incidence of HIV in south-east Asia). 

Then there are places such as the Killing Fields, just outside Phnom Penh, that break your heart and inspire you to help in some way. Read the full story here.

I've also just finished reading Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing S. Ngor, the Cambodian doctor who lived through the Khmer Rouge years, just, before being forced to flee over the border to Thailand with hundreds of thousands of other Cambodian refugees. 

He eventually moved to the US, to Los Angeles, and by chance happened to land the role of Cambodian translator Dith Pran in The Killing Fields (1984), for which he won an Academy Award. (A classic movie, by the way, winner of three Academy Awards and directed by Roland Joffe.)

It's a compelling book, beautifully co-written by journalist and historian Roger Warner, and has been called "the best book on Cambodia that has ever been published". 

If you haven't yet been to Cambodia, go. And before you do, see The Killing Fields and read Ngor's book. It'll give you a greater understanding of this beautiful little country and the humanity of its people.

You can learn more about Dr Ngor through the Dr Haing S. Ngor Foundation website.

Have you been to Cambodia? How did it affect you?

Friday, 5 April 2013

"Road" testing Australia's newest coastal walk

Australia has more than its fair share of multi-day walks – not all of them in Tasmania. Sure there’s the Overland Track, the Bay of Fires walk and the Maria Island Walk (all in Tassie). But there’s also the Jatbula Trail in the Northern Territory, the Arkaba Walk in South Australia, the Great Ocean Walk in Victoria and the Royal National Park Coast Track just south of Sydney. (Links go to my stories about these walks.)

Follow that emu
Now there's a new one to add to the list: Yuraygir Coastal Walk, a 65-kilometre odyssey along the longest stretch of undeveloped coastline in New South Wales. 

Follow the emu-print track markers south from Angourie Surfing Reserve, near Yamba in northern NSW, and four days later you'll reach Red Rock, just north of Coffs Harbour - without ever leaving Yuraygir National Park.

It opened in 2010 and it’s not a new track as such, joining up previously unconnected walking and 4WD tracks, but it's just now finding its stride. A couple of weeks ago I got to road-test it, so to speak.*

Life really is a beach
What was it like? Except for a sprinkling of rain on our first night (and a double rainbow!) we walked under cobalt-blue skies. Mostly on long beaches where we swapped boots and walking shoes for sandals, then took those off to go barefoot. Day 2, the longest day, consists almost entirely of beach-walking, on just two beaches, both about 10km long. 

Headland-bashing at high tide
There were grassy headlands where eastern grey kangaroos stopped grazing to watch us and hopped, like Qantas logos in motion, along the cliff edge. 

We clambered around rocky sea cliffs, careful to stay out of reach of the sea's wildness. We leaped over tea-stained creeks that ran across the beach to the surf. Sometimes, a local (invariably named Bob) with a tinnie was on hand to ferry us across a deep river. On day 4, we stripped down to our togs (swimmers) and waded across a stream, carrying our packs on our heads.

National park with a view
Recent flooding rains had left their marks on the beaches, which only made them more interesting. Washed-up bottles (with no messages). Logs and sticks swept downriver into natural obstacle courses. Bluebottles tangled up like last year’s Christmas lights. Even tiny pumice stones – where had they blown in from? 

It's an odd national park in that the coastline it's protecting, beautiful as it is, isn't entirely unspoiled. There was sand mining here until the 1970s, then non-native plants such as bitou bush were introduced to stabilise the dunes (they're now being controlled as a feral species). And we walked through fishing villages with rustic names like Brooms Head and Diggers Camp. 

Kayaking Wooli's waters
We saw a goanna. And birds galore - particularly when we kicked off our walking shoes to go kayaking on Wooli (that's wool-eye) River one afternoon. There were eastern ospreys diving for their dinner, three kinds of cormorant (pied, great and little black, spotted by our Patagonia-based bird expert, Marcus Loane). Royal spoonbills! A jabiru! A whimbrel! (A new one for me.)

It wasn’t all walking. We swam in the surf every day. Did our bit for feral species control by cane-toading late one night (filling a hessian sack with more than 100 toads, which humanely met their ends in a freezer later); this is the southernmost limit of cane toads on the east coast, for now. 

We went beach-fishing with two locals, Bruce and another Bob. And “surf rafting” at Minnie Waters (which involves paddling an inflatable raft headlong into waves before turning around and surfing to shore like shipwreck survivors). And camped in grassy NPWS campgrounds along the way.

Another magnificent NSW beach
The verdict: the scenery might not be as dazzling as it is in coastal Tasmania, and it doesn't vary much in four days, but I loved exploring a little known part of New South Wales, my home state. And isn't it amazing that we have so much undisturbed coastline at places like Yuraygir, in Australia's most populous state? 

Most of all I loved walking beside the sea for four whole days, seeing it wild and wind-tossed, breathing in the salt air and blowing away the cobwebs of city-living. Those are my three cheers for Yuraygir.

*This was another carbon neutral trip. Not only did my companions and I travel 65km on foot, I offset my flights to Ballina and back from Coffs Harbour with Climate Friendly.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

20 reasons to visit Okinawa

Thinking of 20 reasons to visit a place isn't always easy. (Why 20, you ask? When that's what an editor asks for, that's what she must have.)

I thought I'd top out at about 10 when I had to write about Okinawa, the "Hawaii of Japan", recently for The Sun-Herald. I mean, it's pretty and tropical and there's great diving and it gets cherry blossoms in January and ... before I knew it, I'd reached #20. Here are my three favourites and a link to the full story.

Rocky islands off Miyako Island
1. Islands. Okinawa is made up of more than 160 islands, 49 of them inhabited, stretching 1000 kilometres south-west from Kyushu to Taiwan. Twenty-five of the islands are accessible by plane (see JAL's Okinawa Island Pass) or ferry: the 14 Kerama islands (which include Okinawa Island), the four Miyako Islands and, only 120 kilometres from Taiwan, the seven Yaeyama Islands, which include the jungle-clad Iriomote Island, often called the "Galapagos of Japan".

The Karate Kevin,
and me
2. Karate. Remember The Karate Kid back in (gulp) 1984? It was no Hollywood screenwriter's whim that Mr Miyagi came from Okinawa. Karate originated in Okinawa - known as the Ryukyu Kingdom until it became part of Japan in 1879 - when the Ryukyu king banned weapons, forcing locals to defend themselves with their bare hands. It spread to mainland Japan in the early 1900s, then to the rest of the world, but Okinawa remains the best place to learn authentic karate-do (literally "way of the open hand").

I had a brief lesson myself, at Murasakimura cultural village which has English-speaking instructors - like Kevin Chaplin, from the UK, pictured here - and a one-hour lesson costs $26 including a stiff white outfit and novice's black belt.

92-year-old Yoheina Shigu,
from Mibaru village
3. Old ladies. Talk about the wisdom of the ages. Okinawan women have the longest life expectancy in the world (86 years; Okinawan men live to about 78) and they live longest in Ogimi.

This village in northern Okinawa Island has 139 women (and 33 men) over the age of 90. The oldest woman to live here was 114 when she died a few years ago. Want whatever they're having? Order a Longevity Lunch at Emi no mise (literally "Emi's shop"), a restaurant in Ogimi that specialises in set meals of life-prolonging local foods such as seaweed, goya (a cucumber-like vegetable), tofu and tumeric. Oh, and Okinawa's old people don't drink coffee or alcohol, or smoke. I'm just saying...

Read the full story here.