It’s been a big day. A good day. Ten-and-a-half hours of travel has seen me travel from Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital. It’s only a few hundred kilometres but it took an overloaded bus, two “speed” boats (read two old wooden boats without a life jacket between them) and a tuk tuk to get me to a US$30 hotel in the heart of Phnom Pehn. It’s cheap, cheerful, clean and safe. And breakfast is included. Winning!
We clambered onto the “speed boat” an hour past its designated departure time and off we went south on Tonle Sap, a huge freshwater lake that is the lifeblood of Cambodia’s fishing industry.
Fast forward the EIGHT HOUR boat ride, give or take a boat change in the middle of the lake during which their was NO communication from the skipper as to why and how, and I find myself wandering the streets after dark in the centre of the bustling Phnom Penh. It being DARK is an important piece of information in this story.
Making up for a long day.
Sun-kissed and tired, I really am a sight to behold. So bad I actually put makeup on to go wandering in the DARK. And a dress. A $10 dress I bought in Siem Reap, made in Thailand. My thighs have rarely had the opportunity to rub together during the past month’s travelling so wearing a dress makes a nice change from the long shorts and hiking boots that are my staple adventure wardrobe. It’s only the second time I’ve worn makeup on this trip so one could say I’ve gone all-out to look human-like today.
Cue the jovial call from a young tuk tuk driver which I belly laughed at as I walked past on the opposite side of road.
YOU LOOK LIKE A MOVIE STAR!
My blonde hair often attracts looks here in Asia (even had a lady take a photo of me from behind in Malaysia), even if I am middle aged. It’s freshly washed and has grown substantially of late so it’s bouncing on my shoulders tonight. (As much as fine hair with split ends that hasn’t seen product or a hair dryer for a month can bounce). I even washed it using my Aussie shampoo. No cheap hotel shampoo for me tonight! #classy #fluffy
I continued to exchange polite banter with said tuk tuk driver as I walked away. “How long you been here? How long you stay? You from Australiaaaaaa?
They can be annoying but they’re only trying to make a living. Once you engage with them other than a ‘no, thank you’, they smell blood and an opportunity to play tour guide. It may be a tuk tuk eat tuk tuk world here in Cambodia but the drivers remain polite and jovial if knocked back with a smile.
Nek minnit the young, chatty and cheeky driver is behind me. He’d turned the ignition on in his tuk tuk and sped the 30 metres now between us faster than you can “Asian gastro”.
He was vying to be my tour guide and played a hard, knowledgeable game. He suggested he would take me to the killing fields and the genocide museum. Short but good looking and charming I told him he was being cheeky and was playing me. With a glint in his eye he knew he had me.
So Tom is meeting me at my hotel at 11:30 tomorrow where, for US$20, I’m not only sure to learn about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime, but also have a lot of laughs getting to know a young lad working hard to make a living on the tough, competitive streets of Cambodia.
Oh, and he invited me for a beer tonight. I declined but did wonder if he’s moonlighting as a gigolo. He’s certainly got what it takes. Too bad I’ll be wearing my long shorts, hiking boots and no makeup tomorrow.
Plastic bottles, plastic bags and the stench of rubbish greeted us as we left a suburban train station in Kuala Lumpur to spend a few hours at one of Malaysia’s most revered Hindu temples and natural attractions, Batu Caves. It was a sign of things to come as we made our way past filthy souvenir stalls, more rubbish and tacky attractions to the temple. The Malaysian Hindu women were dressed to the nines in their elegant, colourful and immacuate saris, but their overwhelming beauty was tarnished by the litter they passed as they made the trek up 272 steps of the temple which has been built into the side of a huge and impressive limestone range and cave system.
The Hindus removed their shoes for their pilgrimage while the tourists kept theirs on. As we climbed past a huge gold statue of Lord Murugan, the pavement and steps were wet and dirty rubbish, thieving monkeys persecuted those carrying food and roosters strutted wherever those chose. The magnificence of the huge cave, now with a cement floor and railings, the partly vegetated cave walls, and the beautiful statues embeded in the cave’s natural ledges were interuppted by the souvenir shop selling clocks with flashing lights that played Hindu chants, minature versions of the statue which stood so valiantly at the entrance to this great contradiction and hundreds of trinkets to remind the traveller of their visit to Kuala Lumpur. My memory won’t be of the Hindu god of war. It will be of filth.
It was obvious religion was cashing-in on both tourists and pilgrims. As a non-Hindu, I felt like I was western, white privileged voyeur. I was invading a special place I had little understanding of. But like most tourists, “it was cool to see”. It was something encouraged by the locals, keen to make a buck.
My cynicism and sentiment was echoed by a woman I met in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands.
“There is corruption here and religion has sold out too,” she scorned as she explained the unregulated and poorly planned development that dominated this once peaceful and beautiful part of the world. Monstrous blocks of ugly flats encroach on mountainous rainforest that I had a glorious time hiking through in Tanah Rata. Highrise apartments spoil the views of guesthouses that have been operating for decades, nestled unobstrusively into a hill. A local businessman alleges a mammoth sum of US$100,000 would have been made to the person or people responsible for the approval of a large apartment block nearby. He shrugs forlornly as he tells me he’s lived in the small town all his life.
Effective waste management is non-existant in south east Asia. And the use of plastic bottles is rampant, with no effort to even acknowledge the problems they cause let alone to manage them. They and plastic bags litter roadsides, streams, culvets, gutters, yards, roads, bloody everywhere.
Bottled drinking water is provided in all hotel rooms with only some of those hotels providing opportunities to refill them with filtered water. You see, few people drink the tap water. And with the ever-increasing number of tourists flocking to these cheap holiday destinations the plastic problem is a looming disaster for both the environment and tourism.
It’s not only visitors contributing to south east Asia’s plastic pollution. Gifts from the locals to their Gods also contribute. A shrine on every corner is littered with food and drink gifts in plastic – chips, cokes, sweets.
I’m not sure which God would appreciate the destruction of the natural environment and I’m at a loss to understand why people so dedicated to their God and religion would let any place of worship get so ugly. South east Asia is an incredibly beautiful part of the world. You’ve just got to look past the plastic.
In Cambodia my local guide explains “it’s a cultural thing” as I question him about the litter strewn at a pretty lotus farm not far from Siem Reap.
“As a child we were allowed to throw it by the roadside. Everybody did it. It’s only now, as an adult, that I realise how bad it is. But not many people care. The plastic will last 400 years, you know.”
I queried the role of government in offering waste management options as I explained the large emphasis that Australian local governments place on managing waste. He looked at me gob-smacked as he said there was no rubbish collection, no waste management, and no litter education, let alone recycling options.
Another guide told me it is each household’s responsibility to manage their rubbish. As a result most of it is burned in piles that sit close to each house, contributing to toxic dioxin emmissions and the stink of those villages that tourists pay big tourist dollars to see. Even as I sat on a small boat to tour the remote floating villages on the floodpains of Tonle Sap lake at the floating community Kompong Khleang, my tour was interupted twice as the boat’s skipper struggled to remove the pastic bags that has enveloped the boat’s propeller.
But all is not lost. There is a very small movement starting to bubble in the dirty and polluted streets of Cambodia. Driven by international interest there is evidence that at least some people recognise the looming disaster. There is at least one campaign encouraging businesses to join the “war on waste”.
Refill Not Landfill is working to minimise the one-use plastic bottles that the initiative says amounts to “355,000 bottles discarded by tourists every day”. It aims to offer refilling opportunities but, during my travels throughout Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia, I saw few establishments that offered a filtered water refill opportunity.
Cambodia is an evolving tourist mecca, with predictions tourism numbers will more than double to 10 million per year in just a few years. Any waste initiative will only work if more business come on board, and quickly.
By far one of the most encouraging example of waste management education in Cambodia is by non-government organisation HUSK. Funded by a popular local tourism venture that offers guided tours, HUSK has built two schools made of plastic water bottles. Yes, the school walls are made of bottles filled with plastic bags covered by a concrete render. The local community in Kompheim was paid for their plastic rubbish and, with the help of generous western donors, a school was born. The locals call it the plastic bottle school. I call it a good place to start.
South east Asia has a monstrous plastic problem. As tourism continues to boom it’s a problem getting worse by the day. It’s not going to go away until governments offer waste solutions for their people. The plastic problem is threatening the health of villagers, their agricultural production and their tourism lifeblood.
It’s a beautiful part of the world, filled with lovely people, great adventures and memorable experiences. But, for me, what I will remember about the month I spent in south east Asia is poor countries drowning in plastic thanks to ignorant and allegedly corrupt governments who would rather count their short-term tourist dollars instead of encouraging the long-term economic, agricultural and ecological prosperity of their people.
These are just some of the comments made by Australian friends when I mentioned my upcoming holiday to Singapore. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Sure, chewing gum is a no-no, but there’s a reason for that. My second observation of this amazing city was its order and cleanliness. Everything has its place. There’s no rubbish in the gutters, the grass on roadside verges is mown and edged, even the cars and trucks are clean. All of them.
It costs ten of thousands of dollars to put a car on the road here in Singapore. Cars must be less than 10 years old and there’s no shortage of high-end vehicles. But cars aren’t a necessity here. Public transport is nothing short of brilliant. If Singapore is a 10/10, Australia’s transport system is a 4. There is no graffiti, there’s no rubbish on train platforms, everything is well signed, the ticketing system is easy and efficient, buses and trains are frequent, on-time and very cheap.
I made my first observation as I caught the train from Changi airport to my friend’s place near Outram Park station. (The journey only cost me $3.50. In Australia, the train from my dad’s place to Brisbane airport costs about $23.) I was the only one wearing sunglasses. For some reason few Singaporeans wear sunnies. They also rarely seem to wear hats or caps. (It’s funny the things you notice …)
I feel safe here despite police being rarely seen. I’m told that if there’s any sign of trouble they come from nowhere. There are CCTV cameras everywhere and there’s little doubt there are many eyes watching the day-to-day activities of residents and visitors alike. As a result, crime is very low. It’s a very safe city to wander, any time of day. As a keen walker I’m happy to report there are footpaths along every road: Clean, easy to traverse footpaths, possibly another legacy of the enormous cost of owning a car in Singapore. Taxis are plentiful and Uber is well-utilised here too. I can also report that Singaporean drivers are heaps better at reverse parking than Australians. Hands down.
So let’s address the most common misconception about Singapore, the one about it being a terribly expensive holiday destination.
Look, if you want to shop and get pissed repeatedly on your Asian holiday, don’t come to Singapore. While the range of shops and size of shopping strips blow Australia’s out of the water, there’s little that’s a lot cheaper here. The range is larger but you’re still paying similar costs for shoes and clothing in shopping malls. And if you want to have a few wines with lunch after a morning’s shopping, you’re in for a shock. Booze is bloody expensive here so grab your bottle of Moet or Johnny Walker duty-free in Singapore airport. In fact, in my many wanderings around this city, I haven’t even spied a bottle shop. Corner stores sell some alcohol, as do some bars, but the range is limited and the cost rather large. A Johnny Walker black label on the rocks will cost at least $13, a beer around $15. I guess it’s the Government’s way of making sure alcohol isn’t the bogan problem it is in Australia or other Aussie favourite holiday destinations like Bali or Phuket.
BUT if you want an interesting holiday and an adventure that doesn’t involve shops and bars, Singapore is a great option. There is so much history here, some of it confronting, but fascinating none the less. It is far from “soulless” as was described to me before I ventured here.
Fort Canning Park is worth several hours of your time, even if you’re not a history buff. Close to public transport, this now-beautiful parklands with sprawling lawns and stunning heritage-listed trees is an iconic hilltop landmark which has witnessed many of Singapore’s historical milestones. “The hill once sited the palaces of 14th century Malay Kings and served as the Headquarters of the Far East Command Centre and British Army Barracks. The decision to surrender Singapore to the Japanese on 15 February 1942 was also made on the hill, in the Underground Far East Command Centre, commonly known as Battle Box.” There is even a fantastic display of artefacts that were unearthed on the site in the 1980s.
And the great history walks don’t finish there. Fort Siloso is the only restored coastal gun battery of 12 such batteries which made up “Fortress Singapore” at the start of World War II. It’s an awesome walk through beautiful grounds with beautiful views of the harbour and all the ships awaiting loading at Singapore’s huge port. Fort Silosa is a fantastic, free military museum full of surprises.
Singapore is a melting pot of cultures and food. Yes, dining at a nice restaurant can come at a price, but there is an enormous range of inexpensive options if you’re happy to eat like the locals. My first meal here cost $5 at the Tiong Bahru markets – a divine Hainanese chicken cooked on the spot.
I decided against the $4.50 mixed pig’s organ porridge and the $5 fried intestine porridge. Maybe next time.
Groceries can be expensive so it’s often cheaper to grab your lunch from one of the many local eateries. All fruit and vegetables are imported and I was surprised by their freshness and quality. Depending on what you’re buying and where, the price of produce is comparable to that of Australia.
Yoga classes are abundant here but they are expensive. A couple of drop-in classes near where I’m staying cost around $30. So I decided against a downward dog and instead found a great meditation centre called Kadampa where I did an $8 beginner meditation class.
A very fun day out is at Sensosa, an island resort very popular with tourists. As well as Fort Silosa, it houses a golf course, more than a dozen top of the range resort-type hotels, Universal Studios, aquarium, beaches, bars and restaurants, nature walks and a stack of adventure activities. You could easily spend a couple of days there and prices are fair.
The best free activity remains standing in awe of the high density housing, tall highrises and mind-boggling construction techniques, with washing hanging on washing lines that stretch from highrise windows thirty stories up. There’s no room for broken pegs in Singapore. And there’s no room for pre-conceived ideas either. Come here with an open mind and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
It’s become increasingly obvious there are many people who are keen to be a prepared for the inevitable, even though that may not be any time soon. They also want to take the pressure off their loved ones when the time comes. Western society typically labels any talk about death and funerals ‘morbid’ but, thankfully, that antiquated idea is slowly changing. You see, the first edition of The Bottom Drawer Book has sold out and I get emails from people telling me how it has helped them.
“Our 22 year old son is dying and while we have generally discussed his wishes, this book will make things easier. I have ordered 4 books for all the family so we can all sit down and fill in our books together so that our beautifully amazing son won’t be the only one making the hard decisions and we can make it light-hearted and fun. Thank you for making a difficult discussion so much easier.”
I’m not going to lie. I cried when I got that email. Humbled almost beyond comprehension, it made me so glad I followed through on a crazy idea to write an after death action plan.
Three years later and the second edition is out. There are only a couple of changes.
Advance care plans
I’ve included a section on Living Wills. In other words, these are simply your plans for your future medical care.
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners estimates one in four of us will not be able to make medical care decisions as we near our end of life. That’s where what’s called ‘advance care plans’ come in. It’s a list of your wishes, including who you want to talk to your doctors on your behalf, if you’re too out of it to make any sense. Your plan can outline what procedures you want or don’t want eg. do you want to be resuscitated? Do you want feeding tubes removed? It can outline where you’d prefer to die and even if you want your dog or cat with you.
While advance care plans aren’t necessarily legally binding they will help your doctors and family make health care decisions if you can’t. Each Australian state and territory have different regulations and terminology when it comes to care plans and health directives so ask your GP or local health care about them. There’s also some good information online. This website HERE has links to each state’s documents. There’s also info about appointing an enduring power of attorney or enduring guardian. The person or people you nominate for this job can make financial, lifestyle and health decisions on your behalf if you’re not well enough too.
Facebook legacy contacts
The second edition of The Bottom Drawer Book also includes some updated information from Facebook about what happens to your Facebook page if you die. As mentioned in the first edition, you can choose to have your page deleted or memorialised. Having your page memorialised means your page becomes somewhere your friends can share memories and leave comment. Facebook has now also introduced the ability for you to nominate a legacy contact who takes control of parts of your Facebook page. That person won’t be able to see your messages or delete any of your content or friends, but they can post updates (such as funeral information), change your profile picture and accept friend requests.
We live so much of our life online these days that when we die there’s an awful lot of information, photos, blogs, videos etc that will be left orbiting cyber space. You have the ability to manage what happens to all that stuff. All it takes is a little preparation, and that’s where The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan comes in. It costs $18.95 which includes delivery within Australia.
Quite simply, Territory Day is a day when you get to ‘blow shit up for five hours’.
The day is a day of self-governance celebrations. On 1 July 1978 the NT became its own Territory and has been telling the States to piss off ever since.
It’s a day where fireworks are legal. Pop up fireworks stores appear EVERYWHERE on July 1 and fireworks can be set off anywhere from 6pm – parties, parks, street corners, functions, ANYWHERE.
This is year I’m celebrating the extraordinary way of living life in the NT in Alice Springs. July 1 coincides with the Alice Spings show this year, one of the best country shows I’ve ever been to, if not the best. Big, friendly crowds, an assortment of activities, great facilities, and with the incredible backdrop of the great MacDonnell Ranges.
I’ve been listening to BANG, BANG, WIZZZZZ, CRACK, BANG since 4pm. The Alice Springs night sky has been filled with joyous colours and patterns, laughter and excited screams for hours. Sure, people get hurt, things catch fire, and people drink too much, but Territory Day is a wonderful experience. It’s friendly and slightly insane and has to be seen to be believed.
It is a undoubtedly a bucket list activity. Put it on your list. And, while you’re at it, add Alice Springs to the list.
Isabella Britton is a go-getter. She’s a 21 year old cattle station cook in remote western Queensland. She also studies an agribusiness degree full time.
While her Facebook page What Bella Baked Next may appear to be a food blog, the page is about connecting with people from the kitchen at Alderley Station, north of Boulia.
“I wanted to show people what I was up to in rural Australia because some people, city people, don’t understand what I get up to everyday,” she said.
“I want to share with them and show them. I’m passionate about living this way. You can’t beat the lifestyle, the experiences, the work ethic. Everything changes when you come out here.”
She juggles her fulltime online studies while cooking for about a dozen hungry mouths, spending three hours each afternoon doing her university work.
She’s lucky. The internet access on the remote station is reliable, allowing her to access the University of New England’s curriculum, lectures and tutorials online without any problems. This is not the case for many, many people in regional Australia.
Keen to enter the live export industry upon completion of her three-year degree, Bella is majoring in marketing and management.
“I want to help negotiate trade [deals]. It fascinates me when agents come and they’re on the phone constantly negotiating deals. I’d love to be involved in that,” she said.
Bella admits the Alderley Station kitchen can be a lonely place when the station hands are out in the heat and the dust.
“They come in for dinner after a long day and they’re telling stories about what happened and sharing a yarn,” she said.
“Those fellas work very hard, I know they do, and I just want them to come home at the end of the day and say, ‘Thanks for doing that for me, Bella’.
“They’re very polite and I’m grateful for that because it helps me stay motivated.”
What Bella Baked Next is fast becoming an online hub for sharing recipe and kitchen tips.
“It’s great to be able to connect with these people who have been doing it a lot longer than I have,” she said.
Bella credits her mother and grandmothers for her interest in cooking, calling them “fantastic cooks”.
She believed putting love into her food made her a good a cook.
“I imagine that if I was eating it, I would want someone to respect the food and what I was about to eat,” she said.
Station hand Martin Bolton chuckled as he said he could taste the love.
“She does well keeping all of us happy. It’s the best feed I’ve ever had,” he said.
“She puts a lot of time and effort into everything. She puts a lot of heart into her food.”
I tasted that love for the bush and her station team when I ate dinner with them all. Bella’s lasagne went down a treat. The ringers went back for seconds, washed their own plates, and said “thanks for that, Bella. It was yum”.
Looking after 15,000 cattle is a big job. On Alderley Station in remote western Queensland, a team of station hands joins the bosses for breakfast even before the birds have started stirring.
The sound of a diesel generator that powers the station’s few houses and workshops breaks the early morning silence — a sign that the boss is awake and the workers should be too.
The generator chews through about 1200 litres of diesel a month. It’s turned off overnight, leaving the property with no power. When I got up to pee in the middle of the night I was thankful for my trusty torch.
It was 6am when I joined the team for breakfast. The station’s owners, Frank and Radha Blacket are my age. They dine with their team which isn’t that common. Often cattle station managers and bosses tend to do their own thing. But this couple is very hands on and accessible.
The work for the day was dished out at breakfast. Some of the team will spend the day putting in a cattle grid and servicing the motorbikes, while a few ringers will join the boss mustering. About 1000 cows and calves needed to be brought into the yards. It will take most of the day.
The Blackets own three properties in the Boulia region in western Queensland, totalling more than half a million hectares.
The number of cattle is forever fluctuating, with stock being bought and sold all the time.
“We run Charbray cattle because they’re versatile. They can go to live export and they can go to the southern, domestic market as well,” Mr Blacket said.
Prices dictate where the cattle are sold. The Blackets’ biggest market recently has been the live export trade.
“They’ve needed a lot of cattle and we’ve been able to supply them,” Mr Blacket said. “Sometimes they want emergency loads so we can supply them pretty quick.”
Mrs Blacket does not only spend time in the station office crunching numbers and doing deals. Like her husband, she is hands-on, often behind the wheel of a road train, trucking her cattle to market.
“We’re in a good position to be able to go to whichever market is paying the premium at the time,” she said.
Despite Alderley Station being closer to Townsville Port than Darwin, the Blackets’ cattle are exported to Indonesia from Darwin. That’s a 1,850km on a truck from the property at Boulia to Darwin Port.
The rowdy ringers.
Meal times on Alderley Station can be a fun, loud affair. The station cook, Bella, is a 21 year old studying an agribusiness degree via distance ed. She’s one hell of a cook and the ten station hands are big fans of her work. (A blog about Bella is coming.)
Most of the ringers (station hands) are young guys who love the lifestyle and sense of family at the station. They’re a rowdy mob – sitting together laughing, spinning yarns, teasing and even flirting with the guest who’s twice their age!
Dillon Fox, from Boonah in Queensland, is a carpenter by trade. Keen for a change, he joined his brother on Alderley Station five months ago and has not been fazed by the long working days on the property.
“It’s a good lifestyle. You don’t really notice it as work,” he said. “We’ll have a few days when the work slows down, go to a campdraft or something.”
Martin Bolton is helping Dillon put up a new fence. Once working in property development earthworks, he has recently taken a new career path.
“Out here we get a go at everything — cattle, welding, tyre fitting. You’ve got to be an all-rounder here,” said Marty. “It’s good to learn different things.”
Away from the wind and the hot sun, Ethan Tindale relaxes with a beer after dinner. Originally a Townsville lad, he is happy living and working in western Queensland.
“The people, the community — it’s like being a big family,” he said.
“You know everyone in town and once you get accepted here it’s a really comfortable place to live.”