Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

I am not a Morning Person

It is 6 am and we have just arrived, via nighttrain, in Chengdu. We started drinking at 12.50 yesterday afternoon, but thankfully trailed off as we neared 22.30. As opposed to the 'I spy' of the last train (I nearly broke a bottle and slit my wrists), we played charades last night. Fun though.
The night before we had a do-it-yourself meal in the Muslim Quarter. Lots of skewers and rolls of meat which we dowsed in either a spicy or non-spicy side of a boiling large pot.. Then, before heading off yesterday, I wandered through the Muslim Quarter market with Daniel, browsing the stalls etc.. Crazy stuff; Mao watches, little red books, Saddam Hussein playing cards, etc.. All in all Xi'an deserves a good browse. It is a big and interesting city.
Anyhow people are crowding for the computer, and my breakfast has arrived, so I'd better leave off. Suffice to say we see pandas in an hour or so. So long.

Friday, March 30, 2007


Have to run as we are going shopping and eating in Xi'an's Muslim Quarter, but it has been a fabulous town.

I had to do some laundry in a local hostel yesterday, so I ended up bringing one of the trainee leaders, Rachael up to see it, and to have a drink, last night. Very pleasant chat. Ireland and indeed all of the European countries seem to be lumped together in the Chinese consciousness. It is a little heartbreaking to hear how she would like to travel, but cannot do so, at least not easily.

Collecting my laundry today I found the whole restaurant and bar removed, apparently for renovations.

We went to see the Terracotta Warriors this morning. 2,200 years old! Wow!

This afternoon we cycled around Xi'an's city walls. Despite a polluted haze, the heat was lovely and the experience very pleasant. It brought me back to my childhood summers when I'd speed down the road on my bike to keep cool.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Up-to-date and up to Xi'an

Over the remaining three days or so in Bangkok, the group met as much as it could, but people were leaving and by the final nights there was just Zoe, Helen, Charles, a new recruit from another group, Tet, and me. One memorable night, Helen, Zoe, Tet and I found a student bar and got drunk while playing 'Shithead'. Then a nightclub where a crazy Thai woman, who had spent six months in Dublin, loved my accent and dragged us off to a cool nightclub in the middle of nowhere. There were a lot of UN outcasts there, so much so that I felt like I had walked into some lost Graham Greene novel. Good night. Eventually though I got my flight to Beijing and now here I am, no longer in Beijing, but Xi'an.
Two days ago a mixup with taxis saw me in the Summer Palace with Deirdre. The weather has been incredible and the day was excellent. Just how big this place is, I cannot exaggerate.
Yesterday we visited Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Maybe in time I will write more on these. Last night we had a nighttrain to Xi'an and now I must fly back to the hotel to join the others for dinner.

Just like I remembered it

On our very first night, we visited an Italian restaurant very familar to Charles just off the Khao San Road. The owner, a South African Indian (!), personally took our orders. Naturally they got my order wrong. Charles then took us to his favourite bar, the fifth best bar in the world according to a poster they have, a kerbside kiosk and a collection of plastic chairs. I have drunk in these places before and outside of the fact they had far less choice of beers than others, and they charged a little more, there was nothing to distinguish this pathway establishment from the others. Still we drank.
To get home we needed a taxi, two of them. Charles gave our taxidriver directions. Chinatown, he told him. Chinatown the driver repeated. He repeated it several times. Chinatown. He set off in what seemed to be the opposite direction. Chinatown, we told him. Yes, Chinatown, he replied. We drove on. And on. This did not look like Chinatown. It did not look at all familiar. I said stop. We showed him the hotel card again. He studied it and then nodding drove on. Things got worse. We pushed the card at him again, but he made noises like it was all alien to him. Eventually I could take no more. "For goodness sake, it's Chinatown!" I could hear the ghost of Jake Gittes laughing over my shoulder. Whatever about hotels, or strange roads, Bangkok's Chinatown is famous. Every taxi driver knows where it is. This was just willful swindling and I wasn't having it. He got the message, I think, certainly we soon turned in a better direction and began to see Chinese characters on the signs around us. Still he had to ring the hotel, twice, before we eventually made it, half an hour after the others.
The next morning I had a lie in! After all the early mornings we have had this was a real luxury. Nice.
Changing to my hotel near the Khao San Road almost looked like it might be a repetition of the night before. I was with Rebecca who had a hotel not far from mine. Despite some worrying turns, we made it, just in time for lunch, lunch at the Italian place, where this time they forgot my order altogether. Don't you just love Bangkok!
Missing orders

Back in Bangkok - Homecoming

There had been some rumblings of thunder the night before and we awoke to find that it had rained. No problem, it freshened up things. It relieved the dull dry red of the road as we drove along on our way to Bangkok. In fact it more than relieved it, it transformed it.
We were to get one minibus to the Thai border where we were to be picked up by two Thai buses. However, two hours in, our bus was forced to stop behind a line of traffic. Another Intrepid group was stopped behind us. Charles got out to find out what the story was. I got out too, to 'shoot rabbits' as the Vietnamese euphemism is for going to the toilet. After only a few steps I found my sandals sinking in the wet road. I walked on more carefully and found a little roadside place with a toilet. Running through a yard to avoid the cloying clay I sunk down all the more. My feet became those of a terracotta soldier. Still I shot a rabbit.
When I returned I found that things were not too good. We could go forward, the road was too bad and vehicles were not able to get any traction. Charles made the call; we would have to return and get a plane. Considering that Charles had been recommending sports bras to the women while travelling this road (very bumpy), it did not meet with any resistance.
Flying back meant we arrived in Bangkok a little earlier than we might otherwise have done. The two minibuses that should have met us at the border now met us at the airport. I think Phil described them as porno limousines; certainly they went a little over the top on the lighting and gilding. Still no one was complaining. The leatherette seats were comfy and we were where we should be. Love it or hate it (and you should know my feelings on that), we were in Bangkok, and damn it if it didn't feel like home.

Watch out! Rolex about!

We were up early again the next day for more temples. Yes, more, there are that many, and each one worth a visit. I should say in Angkor Wat itself we scaled a very steep stairway to get to the highest temple. Hand over hand I kept looking at the steps as I crawled up, but once I got to the top and stared at what I'd climbed, I shook a little. Getting down was helped by a handrail, but it was still scary, and in case you think I jest, one tour guide had died running down those steps (he was showing off his karate skills). That had been a while before our visit, of course.
We left our delightful guide at lunchtime. She was 23 and bubbly, but there was a suspicion by some members of our group that she wasn't giving us the full story. For instance, our guide in Phnom Pehn had told us about the education system and how students would have to pay their teacher in order to attend school (an obligatory bribe required because public service jobs pay so lowly). Alannt didn't know what we were talking about when we raised this, though she did admit there was a payment for chalk.
The battery in my watch had died, and, as it is a good piece of work, I decided to leave it until I got home before having the battery replaced. Instead I went into the market and sought out a cheap fake Rolex. I soon found one and bargained badly until I got it for 15 dollars or so. I walked away, took it from the wrapper and try it on. Suddenly the pin in the clasp flew off. I stared around the ground of the market searching for it. Suddenly a little old man tapped me on the shoulder and pointed behind me. There it was. I took it up and tried to replace it. It zipped off again. This time, I looked behind me and found it quickly. I contemplated. This is what you get for getting a fake watch. I deserved this. Still I payed for a working watch. Summoning up my righteous anger I went back to the stall.
They were not overly surprised to see me. Taking it from me they confidently strove to show me my mistake. The pin flew off. Getting it back, they tried again. Zip! This time they couldn't get it back and resigned to fixing it up they got out the screwdrivers and a new pin and worked at it until it stuck. And it did. It is on my wrist as I write.
Next I went to have some photographs burnt. I found a Kodak place and handed in my card. Instead of sending me away to come back later, they sat me down. Unfortunate as my camera takes hours to download. The guy doing it soon discovered this for himself and started working on another, Photoshop-based job, while the files were copied. I recognised what he was trying to do, and before I knew where I was we were swapping ideas on how to achieve something. It was fun, but just a little bit like work.
I had arranged to meet Anabel so that we could share a tuktuk home. While I waited at the ordained place, I was accosted by the usual little urchin. "Where are you from?" "Ireland," I replied. "Conas a ta tu?" he countered. "What?" He was speaking Irish to me and before I knew where I was he was quoting the most up-to-date statistics on Ireland to me. Quite apart from this 8 year-old having perfect English, he had some Irish and geographical knowledge as his disposal too. Impressive. Of course, this is not unusual, and I had heard of kids speaking Irish well before this; it was just strange to encounter it.
In the evening we went to such traditional dancing while we ate. Having never learnt my lesson, I again chose some crab for my meal. Naturally, there was no cracker, but they had smashed it enough to make it edible, though messy. Am I not always messy? Anyhow the dancing went on while we ate. Dainty little women in traditional costume played coquettes to the strapping lads. It was only later we realised how dainty they were, when, stripped of their makeup and in workaday clothes, they trooped past us. They were kids! Certainly not out of their teens. Great dancers.
More drink, a brief goodbye to Tamsin and Phoebe and home. Our trip was nearing its end. The next day we were to drive to Bangkok.

The Return of the Tempestuous Two

In trying to get up to date I am going to have to be more brief (isn't that what I always say?). Anyhow next day we arose at 4.30 to get to Angkor Wat to see sunrise. We had a lovely little Cambodian guide, Alannt, who met us in the lobby dark and early.

There were crowds there, but we still managed to get a cup of coffee while we waited for the lazy sun to rise. I could wax lyrical about the whole experience, but thankfully I won't as everything they have said about Angkor Wat is true; words cannot describe it. Amazing, wonderful, an astounding feat of construction. the thing is Angkor Wat is only one of many temples in the area and each seems to be more stunning than the last. You'll just have to see it.

After lunch we visited the Landmine Museum. You can just get more and more angry in this place. A 19 year-old with a leg blown off described the work of the museum's founder, a former Khmer Rouge soldier who used to set the mines, but who now finds and disposes of them with none of the elaborate equipment of some of his better funded peers. Our guide showed us the many sickening weapons that kill many Cambodians every year, weapons made by Russia, China, Vietnam, and America (the Bouncing Betty is a particularly nasty bomb), weapons that blew off his leg and killed his brother and sister. Remember whatever about the usual suspects, America still refuses to sign the Ottawa Convention, the convention that bans the use of mines. Nice one, USA.
In the afternoon we visited more temples. I am not being flippant when I say these are just too amazing for words. They really are that good.
Dinner in the Soup Dragon, and I thought I finally met my match. I ordered two dishes, but was brought out five. I struggled but I acquited myself honourably.
most of the others went back to the hotel, but Zoe, Helen, Sian, Rebecca, Charles and I went to the Angkor What Bar. After my brief abstinence I was thirsty. We got the tail-end of Happy Hour and suffered a couple of truly awful cocktails. Still the beer helped me recover. Then suddenly who should walk in only Phoebe, yes, Phoebe from Koh Lanta, looking every bit as sexy as there. And what was more Tamsin was just outside. Better and better. Unfortunately I think some of my shine had worn off and at this stage they had generated a firm male following. We chatted for a bit, but then they are young and I left them to dance with their entourage.

It was close to 1, when we got back and I was in just the right self-pitying mood to cut loose on the blog. And I did, writing the most revolting maudlin shite you will thankfully never have the pain of reading. Luckily the powercuts which had been plaguing the hotel the last two days chose to intervene at this point, wiping my blog and saving the world. You are all lucky, you hear!

Paddy's Day in Siem Reap

It was Saint Patrick's Day. Charles had pointed out one of at least two Irish bars in the town, but any traditional celebrating was unlikely for me. Why? Firstly, we would arise at 4.30 the next morning to visit Angkor Wat. Secondly, although I had not held backing on my eating one iota, my stomach was still a little uneasy and I had started taking some antibiotics. I was determined to give them a head start and resist alcohol.

Whatever about alcohol, protection against mosquitoes cannot be resisted. I was sick of deet, but now I had a brand new long-sleeved shirt, purchased in Phnom Pehn. Chuffed, I took out the bag, stripped off the wrapping and stared at the two short sleeves. Doh!

Before dinner we went to a free 'concert' held by Beatocello, a Swiss doctor who runs a special children's hospital. Dr. Beat "Beatocello" Richner came to Cambodia in the 70's, but had to flee when Pol Pot came to power. Returning at the invitation of the King, he set up a number of hospitals where Cambodian children could get expert care at no cost. Considering that national hospitals usually do charge, and too much for the everyday Cambodian, his hospitals (there is one in Phnom Pehn as well) are extremely popularly in Cambodia. Not so the rest of the world.

For some reason, Beatocello used to be a circus performer, a cello playing clown. His concert then is ostensibly a Bach recital, interspersed with his musings on his Cambodian experience. In actuality it is a highly political (and quite grim) rant and call for help. Beatocello believes that no child should suffer second rate service, whether they live in the Third World or not. He feels the Cambodian disaster is largely the result of Western interference and we have a debt to pay. Unfortunately the WHO, and Save the Children, and pretty much every other charitable organisation around the world seems to disagree with him on the first belief. Apparently Princess Anne (or Margaret, I never remember those people), the head of Save the Children, told him Cambodia cannot afford state of the art facilities and so should not have them. Brainscanning equipment is apparently not needed in Cambodia. Also cheap drugs, labelled as dangerous by the West twenty years ago, are still being recommended for Third World countries, and indeed are being manufactured (by a French company) solely for the Third World. Is this right or fair? Beatocello doesn't think so, and neither do I. The world is wealthy enough, regardless of individual countries, and I see no reason why one set of children should be privileged above another. As Beatocello told us ad nauseum, while the western world went into hysterics over SARS, Cambodia was suffering an epidemic of Hemorrhagic Dengue Fever, an epidemic that saw thousands of children die (as opposed to the handful of SARS victims). The only way to treat Dengue was to use the clean blood testing laboratory that he had fought for and that the rest of the world felt was an extravagance. The long and the short of it was that he wanted our money or our blood, as blood transfusions were essential in treating Dengue.

This was not a fun show, but it was well worth attending, and for what it's worth his playing wasn't too bad either.

After this sobering event, we went for a local dish that is effectively shepherd's pie. Personally I didn't go to Cambodia to eat shepherd's pie and I opted for something different, a fish curry and a chicken thing, I think. And I resisted the alcohol.

Siem Reap and the City of Floating Children

The next morning we travelled to Siem Reap. Arriving at our impressive hotel early, our rooms were not ready. With nothing better to do (well, actually there was quite a lot of better things we could have done,m but we didn't), we dove in the pool. Nice.

Lunch found us in The Red Piano Bar, a place steeped in the mystic lore of Angelina Jolie. Apparently there is a scene in 'Tomb Raider' that was filmed in Angkor Wat, and, while filming in Siem Reap, Angelina had 'invented' a cocktail (an uninteresting mix of gin, citrus and something else) in this very bar. Incongruously beside images of the Muppet Show's Waldorf and Statler, pictures of Jolie graced the wall and made an appetising accompaniment to our meal. However, Aunty Sian, well versed in the movie business in many ways, assured us that Angelina's cellulite had to be digitally removed in post-production. Ah, well.

In the afternoon we visited the Floating Village, a place that was to take us into the heart of Cambodian poverty. Situated on Cambodia's largest lake, this community of fishermen and merchants, live entirely on the water, many growing plants and vegetables in makeshift floating gardens. To get there though, we had to pass some more extreme poverty. Along the road we passed the traditional Cambodian wooden huts on stilts. Naked children ran around while mothers cooked on crude clay mounds. This was a stereotypical Third World image, and one which threw the concept of tourist into a cauldron of debate. After all what right had we with our travellers cheques and digital cameras, our comfortable homes to fly home to, what right had we to be here staring as Cambodians picked the nits out of each other's hair? Of course it was our dollars that were meant to be going towards alleviating this poverty, but to me it seemed an unreal economic connection. Certainly it seemed hard to imagine a future life for the many children there other than the one of their parents.

We arrived at our boat, a barge, one of many tens of boats, resting in a filthy, foul-smelling creek of black water. I was distressed to see fishing lines and nets cast into this mess. Setting off we soon came to more healthily brown, muddy water. Men swam around fixing nets and narrowly missing the many barges that powered up and down the creek. It was a scene straight from Conrad. I was struck by the genius of Coppola in transposing 'Heart of Darkness' from the Belgian Congo to Vietnam and his 'Apocalypse Now'. Each place a colonial nightmare, the mix of environment and politics seemed to me far closer together than the many miles that separated them would suggest.

The lake, still muddy, opened out before us with a gift of relief. The village, such as it was, was dotted across the horizon and, as we powered ahead, we passed homes, gardens, workshops and people. Besides the standard canoes we were used to, many moved around in makeshift coracles, round tubs, while the children floated by quite easily in basins. It wasn't long before a canoe of young girls drew up alongside us selling soft drinks and fruit (mostly bananas). I have been able to resist such sorties in the past, but this time I bought a can of drink from a persuasive mite. When she had gone, I stared at the can uncertainly, not really wanting to bring my lips close to it. Thankfully another boat soon came alongside and rather than target me with more goods, one child asked to take the can off my hands. She put it away, no doubt intending to sell it later.

Passing a church, we pulled up at a crocodile farm, a crocodile farm and fish museum, and souvenir shop, and lookout point. A shallow, fish-filled pit of water constituted the fish museum, and every so often a young girl would shovel a plate of whitebait in. The fish would lash up in a frenzy showering anyone (such as yours truly) in the vicinity. I made my way up to the lookout instead. All around the lake stretched while around this floating superstore, more shop/boats and basins were fighting to pull alongside in search of a few dollars more. Naturally we were not the only tourists there and the pickings were great. Once we got back in our boat, we ourselves were targeted once more. I argued merrily with one little child and her friends laughed and waved as we pulled away. She, I am afraid to say, scowled. Six and already a professional marketeer, she was angry at the lost sale. What was in store for her? The world is full of children.

Foreigners corresponding in a Club

With mosquito heaven, aka Siem Reip, ahead of us, I thought a long sleeve shirt might be in order, so I got one when we got back to the hotel. All the best brands were available forged there, so I picked up a fancy pants shirt, if such a thing exists. Now mosquitoes, do your worse! Ha, ha, what little I knew.

We stopped into the Foreign Correspondents Club on the way to dinner. This is something of a historical landmark given that foreign journalists congregated here before having to flee Pol Pot making it a kind of outpost of resistance in that terrible time. Historical or not we had some rather horrible cocktails (my first one had a soapy aftertaste)- and they took such a long time to arrive too! - mixed in with some rather good ones (we took Happy Hour as an opportunity to experiment...with many). We stood on the top floor overlooking the river. The view was as Asian/colonial as you could get. Locals gathered by the riverside, while tourists drank in the French-style bars and restaurants. The sun, first a glowing red, sank and left the lanterns along the street to themselves and the geckos. As they winked on, the handy little lizards became silhouetted in the glare. Then the bats flew out. It was a wonderful time of day.

Dinner was in another charity style restaurant, this time an NGO (Non Government Operation) more closely related to orphans. After a mighty fine meal, the kids were trotted out. I have to confess to feeling a mite queasy at these kind of things, but it does give the kids a chance to practise their English, and donations naturally go up afterwards. The street urchins, for the most part sellers of photocopied books, did not wish to be excluded from the fun and before we knew it we were surrounded by doe-eyed monsters. Sarah expressed an interest in the Lonely Planet for Thailand and alienated one little mite by buying it from another while she went off to track it down. Naturally I got into arm and thumb-wrestling, being beaten repeatedly by hordes of the creatures. Phil sat in a corner teaching some other kid chords on the guitar.

It was tiring, but a wonderful antidote to the darkness earlier in the day.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Back to Phnom Pehn

Back to Phnom Pehn.

Our first night in Phnom Pehn we visited a nearby restaurant for, in my case, a local fish dish (alok?) and some more frogs legs. There were less frogs legs this time, four to be exact, but very big and probably all from the same frog given that two were bigger than the other. Lovely!

Dinner was followed by a dvd screening detailing Cambodia's turbulent recent history. Not exactly anyone's idea of fun, but I think we all felt we needed to get a handle on what was still implicit all around us. The dvd, however, quite apart from being somewhat shoddily put together, was also a little flexible with the truth, probably understandably so given that most of the major players are not only still around, but in government.

There are a lot of histories of Cambodia online, so I won't go into detail, but effectively what we learnt went something like this:

The French, who ruled Cambodia, installed what they thought would be a puppet king, King Sihanouk. Sihanouk, however, far from doing what they wanted achieved independence for his country in the fifties and ruled merrily (well, almost) until the Vietnam War. He allowed the Vietnamese Communists cross his borders in their war with the South, much to the ire of the Americans. The Americans bombed southern Cambodia in their 'Secret War', killing many thousands of Cambodians in their attempts to kill many thousands of Vietnamese. There was a coup to oust Sihanouk and install a more Western-flavoured government. Sihanouk fled to the open arms of China, the obvious santuary of a monarchy. Meanwhile Pol Pot was building his army in the forests. Sihanouk allied himself with Pol Pot in order to oust the new government and together oust it they did, in 1975. Amid the celebrations in Phnom Pehn, Pol Pot's soldiers told the people to leave the city, ostensibly for a few days, either to remove any remaining opposition or because American bombing raids were expected. 'A few days' became years. Banks and markets were destroyed. All professionals such as doctors and teachers were killed. The entire population was effectively forced to work on rice production. Pol Pot's plan was to create a totally agricultural state, to do consciously to his country what the Americans wanted to do, through the use of weaponry, to Vietnam ("...bomb them back to the stone age"). It is a cliche to talk of the sheer evil of Pol Pot, but do consider that his army, the Khmer Rouge, were for the most part composed of teenagers. 1.7 million directly died at their hands. Another 1.3 million or more died from starvation and disease. Eventually, the Russian-flavoured Vietnamese, reacting against the China-flavoured Pol Pot's incursions into Western Vietnam, invaded and 'liberated' the people in 1979, forcing Pol Pot to flee to the jungles on the Thai border. This 'liberation' involved more forced labour and thousands more deaths. Eventually the Vietnamese were negotiated with into leaving. At present many of the Khmer Rouge's former members, including the prime minister, Hun Sen, are in office. King Sihanouk denies involvement in, or even knowledge of, any of the genocide, but there are a lot of indications that he was more deeply involved than he confesses.

Just to put things in perspective, 50% of the country's population are under 17. Several generations simply disappeared.

The next morning I revisited the Royal Palace. It was hardly worth the effort as much of it is off limits. The Museum was next, and though small, had a lot of wonderful sculpture. Getting into the museum proved to be something of an ordeal, however, as I only had a 50 dollar note (although the Real is the official currency, everyone uses US dollars, and indeed atms issue them). No one, least of all the ticket office, had change. I ended up having to buy a drink in a cafe, Friends, to get change. Friends was were we met for lunch and, like Cula in Hanoi, is a kind of charity cafe where street kids are taught to cook etc.. Lunch was good.

There was some trouble though. The day before Rebecca had tried to get out some money and had her card swallowed by the machine. To get it back she needed to show her passport. Still no card was forthcoming though and, the crowning disaster, when she got back to the hotel she found that she had lost her passport. With Charles help she went to the British Embassy, but she needed a police report. The police said it would take three days - too long - unless of course a 35 dollar bribe was paid. It was and Rebecca got a temporary passport. However, she and Charles missed our afternoon, a visit to a prison and the Killing Fields.

We had an excellent guide, but he was constantly looking over his shoulder. The prison he brought us to had originally been a school, but rooms had been halved into torture cells, tiny sleeping cells had been erected in others. Climbing frames had been turned into torture devices (hanging people and immersing them in barrels of fetid water). The tortures were detailed. The photographs of prisoners and prison guards were everywhere. The guards, dressed in the Khmer Rouge's black, were invariably children. Apparently these kids, torturers, orphans who had often turned in their own parents, were killed themselves each year by the next batch of recruits, presumably because they knew too much.

This was not a happy place. I was not a happy man. I exited the place and the first thing to confront me was a horribly burnt beggar, his glassy eyeballs fully exposed by his shrunken pink flesh. I was caught off guard and did not know where to look or what to do. I turned back into the prison and waited for a group to leave.

Next we went to the Killing Fields. There is a large funerary tower, a stupa, full of the skulls of those bodies exhumed. Some carboard signs by some of the bones say 'Teenage Girl', '60 Year-old Senile Man', etc.. Around the stupa, there are trees and grass, with pathways of parched earth threading hollows in the ground. These are the pits into which live prisoners were thrown. Sparing the use of bullets, prisoners were often hit on the back of the head with a spade and fell forward still alive, then to be buried. A nearby 'Magic Tree' had a loudspeaker to play music intended to drown out the sound of screams and moans. Another tree was used for hanging raped women and beating their infants to death. Walking along the pathways, we tried to avoid standing on the cloth and bone that still protrudes. This is only part of the fields used, the part that has been excavated. The rest will remain untouched.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Back to Beijing

Just to keep things up to date, today we walked a 10 kilometre stretch of the Great Wall of China. This wall is not level. It is almost entirely comprised of steps, most of which go upwards. It was a hard, but thoroughly enjoyed hike and the Wall itself deserves its reputation. Do not underestimate the size either. It crawls along the crest of a long mountain range, sometimes well preserved and sometimes in bricks, but inexorable in its progression. Sometimes the steps disappear and one must scale a slippery path, or inch gingerly down a downward slope, but it is a truly amazing feat of construction. Our leader, Nigel, raved about the day's weather. Apparently it was the clearest sky and warmest sunshine he had ever had in visiting the trip. Certainly I sweated profusely. More to the point the views were incredible.

Anyhow I cannot write any more as this keyboard is driving me crazy. Although I can touch type I still occasionally need to see the keys and this keyboard has no letters visible (and a faulty space bar). I will conclude by describing my group. As I suspected there are some Irish, a couple, Deborah and Ger, Deborah from Belfast and Ger from Dublin. There are a few couples: Jane and Andy from England for instance. And Pat and Jill from Oz. There are a few Aussies: Nigel the tour leader for instance, two girls travelling together, and Daniel, from Melbourne, the only other single male, who shares my room. Daniel has never travelled before, though he is 25. There are 4 people in their 60's, Jill and Pat, Jill's sister and their friend, Deirdre. Then there are two female trainee leaders, Haiko from Germany and Rachel (Chan Chan) from China. Constantly I have a feeling of deja vu; I seem to recognise a lot of these people from somewhere else. It reminds me of a movie, a type of precursor to 'Final Destination' made by Barry Norman's dad, Leslie (The Night My Number Came Up). It concerned a guy who dreamed of a plane crash and then awoke to meet everyone from his dream waiting for him at the airport. Having said that, Pat looks familiar (I have worked out) because he looks like Ken Loach. Perhaps the others just remind me of other minor celebrities. Anyway it is very different from my last group and I am not sure I am entirely comfortable yet as groups within the group are already pre-formed (couples, family groupings) and the dynamic we had before will not happen here. Still everyone is nice enough and though there will be no wild nights (Nigel prefers a cup of tea and a good book), it should be an adventure.

Reading-wise I have finished 'The Quiet American' and have started Dick's 'A Maze of Death'. Greene's book was pretty polished and said what it had to say well. There is a certain distance in his writing that doesn't allow a huge amount of empathy, but that is not to say it is cold. He highlights very legitimate aspects of human inner life, and that is not always pretty. Dick's book is somewhat bizarre (which of his books isn't?), bringing in his religious preoccupations in a very original way. In its own way, it actually deals with much of the human territory Greene did in his book; personal obsession, unwillingness to accept responsibility and the problems of engagement with others, to name but three similar concerns.

Oh, by the way, my blog cannot be read in China.

Anyhow enough! My craziness is increasing.

Phnom Penh

Getting to the bus station we were assaulted by lots of frivers wanting our custom. Luckily we had our minibus handy and got to our hotel with the minimum of fuss.

Phnom Penh lies on the confluence of three major rivers, one of which being the Mekong. Looking over the river wall you see a lot of rubbish strewn around the banks, though this scarcely detracts from the splendour of the sight. The long street that follows this riverside is very much like a seaside esplanade and overall there is a seaside air to the place.

It was late in the day but we had been told that we would have time to get to the Royal Palace. Most of the others had money to extract from the atm so Annabel and I went on. She planned to visit the museum, I wanted the Palace so we parted ways. The Palace entrance, when I finally arrived, was crowded with touts and beggars and a soldier. Apparently there was a state visit organised and the place was shutting early, that is right then. A tout helpfully supported me in my attempt to get by the soldier and it was just as well as the Silver Pagoda, part of the compound but separate to the palace,was still open. What's more my ticket would get me in to the Royal Palace the next day if I so chose. I went in.

This was very similar to the temples in Bangkok only without the visitors. They even had an Emerald Buddha, a corollary to the one in Thailand. With more time, as fewer visitors, I was able to really take this in this time. For instance, one golden Buddha was studded with over 2,000 diamonds. There was a lot of wealth here, and beauty.

I took my time and enhoyed it all the more for that. Afterwards I walked out to a huge monument to the Vietnam-Cambodia 'friendship'. Very close by naked infants played around on less than imposing streets, but all in all this was a far cry from Laos' capital, Vientiane. This was a real capital city.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


I will continue chronologically very soon. At this point I just wanted to let anyone who is interested know that I am now in Beijing. I have left Bangkok behind once and for all (though it tried to give me stomach trouble via the prawn meal on Thai Air, just as a going away present). Yesterday though I finally got to China and I have to say that I like it.
The operative word in Beijing is BIG. It even has it in it: Beijing. Sure you have cities like New York, which are tall, and sprawl, but Beijing has space, and grace. As I drove in from the airport, the sun setting, the road lined with thousands of birch trees, I was immediately reminded of home. Maybe it is because it is a little like the Ireland I left, an autumnal place. Despite coming into Spring, the trees were bare, what buds they had looking brown in the golden light. It looked peaceful and not at all the dirty, polluted place I had been expecting. Then getting into the city itself, with it's huge wide roads and bigger buildings, the similarities with Ireland ended and Europe began. Berlin in particular sprung to mind. Beijing is not, however, just as pale copy of somewhere else, it is very much its own city and perhaps more imposing than any I have yet seen. Mingled with all the big flashing stores and companies were older buildings, still large, but more decrepit. The more I saw the more I realised that these were coming down, they weren't part of the current plan and the future demanded something more. Indeed today I walked along many streets where whole blocks had been demolished and work was well afoot erecting new scenery. I am not entirely sure what this says but at one point I saw two workers washing the dust off the metal fencing around a construction site.
My hotel is fine and last night I had my room to myself. My tour has a full contigent though and this time I will be sharing with someone else as the numbers of men and women are more balanced. By the look of the names on the board they are predominantly English, though a few Irish might be on board too.
I took the time given me and, after a brief trip outside to eat some noodles, watched 'The Illusionist'. Not bad, but missing something. I might as well commit a blasphemy and confess that I think Edward Norton is not quite the genius actor he has been made out to be. In particular his whining voice doesn't make him a convincing leading man. I suspect it was this voice that necessitated Paul Giamatti (usually another high pitched actor) to adopt a strange, uncharacteristic baritone. Anyhow Philip Glass reuses his usual themes without much harm and the flickering cinematography gives the movie a distinctive style, but there just isn't enough chemistry between the leads to make one care.
This morning I got a map and went to the Temple of Heaven and Earth. Beijing being big I had a lot of walking. I wanted to though - it helps me get to grips with the place - and deliberately avoided using the subway or bus (though I'll admit I was nervous of either).
One thing I had been expecting on the streets was spitting. Given that I was feeling a little congested I thought, well, when in Beijing and hawked up with everyone else. Being me though I missed the path and got the wall, the wall with the mural, the mural of the soldiers holding the Chinese flag. I took a doubletake staring horrified at the mucus filled glob on the wall. I could feel the cameras that I knew were there all zooming in. I could hear the click of that button that was even then sending out tens of police cars. I knew any moment the people around me would rise in affronted anger. I muttered apologies and walked as fast as I could to the Temple.
Anyhow despite thousands of visitors the Temple, or rather temples, for it is a compound of many buildings dedicated by Ming emperors to appeasing the gods at harvest time, are wonderfully calm. Very well preserved too for temples over 500 years old. I suspect there has been a lot of restoration work and indeed the Palace of Fasting, in the compound was off limits due to ongoing work.
An observation for what it's worth. Having seen very few Americans in my travels, I am now encountering them everywhere. An American woman at the reception desk when I arrived confessed that she usually claims to be Canadian when asked as she's not proud of her country's current foreign policy (and perception).
I'd better get back to my hotel now. Another observation though. The Internet cafe I find myself in is a bit creepy. After six flights of stairs in a rundown building I finally found the tucked away cafe. There were three people in it, the manager and two foreigners (Americans?). When I tried I was denied access to wikipedia. I hope this gets published.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Entering Cambodia

We left Ho Chi Minh, and Vietnam, sadly, getting a public bus to Phnom Penh. The border crossing was far smoother than entering Vietnam from Laos, though the passport inspector shouted freely at local passengers and favoured me with extremely dirty looks. I wasn't sure whether he really hated me on sight or was trying to stifle a laugh (I don't think laughing figured in his life though) and the thought of wasting the rest of my life away in a Vietnamese jail for laughing at him did cross my mind. Instead I got through. We crossed through some noman's land where casinos were growing like gaudy mushrooms (only for the foreigners we were told) and entered Cambodia.

Again we were thrown back to a time of bamboo huts and dirt roads. The poverty was immediately obvious. Also obvious were the frequent signs denoting the offices of the Cambodian People's Party and FUNCINPEC, the ruling political parties. Corruption in Cambodia is in an entirely different league to Vietnam with these parties not only stealing, but not too worried when members of the opposition, the Sam Rainsy Party, are murdered. Naturally theywould have nothing to do with these deaths.

Leaving Saigon

Despite all the gloom inspired by Vietnamese history, we visited the local market, Ben Thanh Market for dinner. Everything was very reasonable, so I tried to stuff myself with a couple of seafood dishes. Needless to say I failed in the stuffing department, but I was content. Afterwards I wandered the markets avoiding the fashion suggestions of Sabrina, Rebecca and Yung.

As it happens I resolved the broken cd player problem to a degree, buying a cheap portable mp3/cd/dvd player. It is pretty difficult to navigate music wise, has a short battery life and is clunky, but it plugs into the tv, reads dvds (including burnt files) and works. Of course I naturally stayed away from those very cheap, totally illegal dvds they sold in the same department store. I especially stayed away from Tom Twyker's new film 'Perfume' and Edward Norton in 'The Illusionist'. If I had them I would probably watch them in the next few days.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Eternal Recurrence

In contrast to the circus of the Cu Chi Tunnels, the War Remnants Museum in Saigon was a far more sobering experience. In the afternoon after a little shopping I walked by many of the sights we had seen on our nighttime excursion, this time my camera batteries holding out. It was a pleasant stroll and I felt a good deal more relaxed entering the museum.

In the courtyard are a number of heavy army vehicles, from tanks to fighter planes. It is only when you enter the main exhibition area that the experience really darkens. Malformed foetuses, the results of Agent Orange, are held in jars. Across the walls pictures of the dead, maimed and mutilated bear witness to the experience of the Vietnam people. Naturally nothing goes against the party line and there are ample examples of American bashing (and whatever excuses you make, rightfully so), but the overall impression is not one of propaganda. Instead after the many printed stories of ordinary men and women, the pictures of protestors in America as well as other countries, the numerous images of journalists killed in the line of duty, and the recreated tiger cells used by the Diem regime, one gets a corrective to the constant images of the Vienamese as portrayed in Western culture. So often they are portrayed as inhuman guerillas, the Other, the alien. Here the Americans become the alien, the Other. You might expect this to leave you burning with indignation at the West. No. Instead both brands of propaganda cancel each other out and one leaves with a hearthy disgust of all things human. It is easy to think that that happened back then, and could never happen now, nor ever in my country. Thirty years ago, I was only born then! Thirty years ago, that's all. Then you look at what has happened since then. Consider Serbia and Croatia. Consider Africa. Consider a small rock like Ireland. We are a sad and sorry species.

Of course, the only way forward is to be optimistic. To be cynical about the whole thing will only allow it to continue. I tried hard to be optimistic. I forgot I'd be going to Cambodia.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Saigon - A Troubling Day

Before we reached Saigon, Charles had given us a scary account of the Cu Chi tunnels. Whether you were claustrophobic or not, they could be a bit too much. As a result everyone was reluctant to go, but after being reassured that there was more to see than the tunnels, we all opted to go. It was a morning I could have done without.

Our guide, Victor, was the son of a South Vietnamese soldier who had died in the 80's as a result of his exposure to Agent Orange. It was clear he was fully reconciled with the North and without spouting the party line, nevertheless echoed their sentiments. This interweaved with tales of wooing women with motorbikes ('You have a luxury bike, you get a luxury woman. A cheap bike, you get a cheap woman'). So far, so good. Before we got to the tunnels though we stopped off at a lacquer work workshop for handicapped workers. We weren't the only ones there; it seems to be a popular stopping off point for guides with foreigners. Spending nearly thirty minutes there I came out with gifts I thought were handmade, but were actually vastly marked-up souvenir fare. When we got to the tunnels, I found the same items at a quarter of the price. Also when we got to the tunnels, Victor confessed that he had 'forgotten' his guide's license, and if we were asked, he was just our 'friend'. We weren't asked. Instead we were rushed in to a tourist infested forest. Rapidly, we moved from displays of various traps used on the Americans (folding chair traps, armpit traps, door traps) to abandoned tanks to the shop. The shop nestled beside a driving range where curious tourists (and they were there) could try out AK47s etc.. These shooters were given ear protection; the tourists in the shop were not. I suppose we were fortunate taht when no one wanted to shoot anything our guide pushed us on. On, on, always on in this Disneyland with guns. There was even a 'Pirates of the Caribbean'-style weapons workshop with animatronic Vietcong flicked into motion by switch. Eventually we came to some tunnels. I went first, curious to see these passageways. I wasn't the only one curious and two Australians in front of me were barely moving. It was hot, I was getting angry, and yes, I was wondering how I'd feel midway through this, the longest tunnel, shuffling every few minutes at this snail's pace. I got out. Already a legion of pensionpackers were queueing up to get in. I got my chance though. A shorter tunnel lay next on the tour with no one apparently in it. I shuffled through. It was small, though widened for tourists, but not uncomfortably so.

All in all though, I hated the place. There is no sense of respect or dignity to the place. Instead it is a rushed celebration of pain and death. I could have skipped it without missing anything but a sad, bad experience.


It is a real pity we only spent two nights in Saigon, aka Ho Chi Minh City, as it is even moreso than Hanoi, a real city, and very European. This is the financial powerhouse of Vietnam, and it shows. It is also a treasure trove of sites infamous from more turbulent times, with places like the Rex Hotel (used by the CIA) and the Continental (used by press and Graham Greene in his novel, 'The Quiet American'). To get a little taster we hired cyclos (bicycle rickshaws) and toured the city. It seemed like a harmless jaunt on paper, but cycling through raging traffic with me on front, was almost scarier than the motorbikes of Hue. Nevertheless my cyclist driver, Ou, got me to Notre Dame Cathedral, the GPO, the Reunification Palace, the Opera House, etc. intact, and it was good to see them lit up at night.

I began to feel a little bit of a stomach ache and feared I was coming down with the same thing Phil had, but I have never let that deter me from a good meal, so I joined the others for dinner in the backpacker area. Good or not it took forever to prepare, time I spent chatting to Sabrina. Everyone seems to be a film buff, and she was no exception, so we had a pleasant few hours.

Hoi An Shopping

Freed from the odium of a tailor appointment, not needing to finalise any purchases, I took the free time given to me and went shopping. The fact is I cannot haggle. I am a marketeer's dream customer and I know I made many a seller happy that day.

At one point I took some time out to cross the bridge into the residential part of town. I passed by narrow houses with tv's blaring karaoke style singing. Doors were open everywhere. Two little boys followed me for a while asking me if I wanted to take their picture ('One dollar'). Another couple of kids cried out 'Money! Money!' as I came in sight, but when I refused they showed me their toy remote controlled car. I left these families to their privacy, and shopped on.

The Long Dark Read after Breakfast

Next morning I took a dip in the hotel pool and read for an hour, finishing 'The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul'. I have to say that I was disappointed. While Adams's jigsaw-type style might work on a cosmic canvas, but the London backdrop just highlights how silly the whole thing is. Not funny mind, just silly. I know that detective stories, even comic fantasy ones, are more about uncovering a pre-existing story than progressing the detective's own, but in this case, it's just not worth it. The story is too wild and weak to be believeable even in a fantasy context. Dirk Gently himself is no Arthur Dent, and quite apart from the fact that his role is minimal, he is simply not likeable enough to care about. Then there are the supposedly funny digressions (the eagle in the house, the fridge) that seem more like padding for an unwisely ambitious short story. And as to the ending! Yes, I was disappointed. Sad, given that it was his last completed book.

Hoi An - Beaches and Suncream...oh, and Toothpaste

Hoi An takes up three days of our tour. It is a very pleasant, very relaxed corner of Vietnam just on the cusp of tourism greatness, ie. commercial destruction. At the moment though it boasts some good restaurants, cheap tailoring, a scenic Old Quarter, and a beach, oh what a beach.

The reason such a sleepy destination eats up three of our days, when Saigon uses two and Phnom Pehn just two nights, is because of the tailoring. In order for the group to get measured, fitted and purchase their suits, dresses etc. (and remember there are nine women in my group), three days only just cuts it. The thoughts of lugging around a suit, no matter how cheap, or even sending it home, depressed me, so I spent all the time the others took in the "Wonderful Anna's", to read by the pool, explore the town and laze by that beach (and oh, what a beach).

Outside our hotel a masked woman - who told me she loved me! - in her sixties, hired me out a bicycle and I braved the long, dusty road to get to the beach. Did I mention the beach? Five km away from the centre of town, it is well worth the easy ride down (the others opted for motorbike taxis etc.). When I got there I was stopped and directed to a bike park. It was just as well I was stopped as my brakes didn't work so well. Flat ride down or not, I was dripping in the heat, but I resisted the charms of the crone by the bike park offering me water. Maybe later. She was to be the first of a whole battalion of vendors I would encounter. But again, about that beach.

It goes on and on for miles. Golden sand, really. No rocks, no pebbles, not even any shells, just a wide sand beach. With palm trees along the fringe. And thatched sunshades with free deckchairs. And a beautiful roaring, but shallow sea. I laughed. Not only was it not crowded (relatively few people ever seemed to be there), I don't believe it could be, well not until Hoi An achieves touristic greatness.

Ambling along I was accosted by many a vendor. When I refused their beads or fruit, they'd say, 'Maybe later' and tell me their name ('Nuna', 'Maadi') so that I could call on them specifically (from all the other hundreds) later when I discovered I really did need beads. Almost as in your face were the deckchair girls, each pulling me to their line of chairs and pouting when I moved on. Eventually I settled on one chair and sighed back in the shade.

I lounged there for four hours or so, occasionally swimming with a Dutch girl, Christine, who worked in a local resort, or reading, or EATING. One of the conditions of the free deckchairs is that you buy a drink or meal (hence the scrambling for initial business) from the restaurants behind (a lot less intrusive than Koh Lanta). As it was lunchtime, I had no problem buying a crab in tamarind sauce. The full crab was delivered and the sauce on my fingers tasted delectable. Unfortunately no crab cracker came with the dish, so I had to be inventive with my fork and spoon, chopsticks, fingers and teeth. A few vendors stayed at a respectful distance while I ate, but were back as promised later. One young girl spent ten minutes explaining that my not wanting beads wasn't the point; she was bored, and I should entertain her by buying something. You probably expect me to have bowed under such pressure, but I resisted, each of us agreeing that I would have a swim, think about it, and get back to her if I changed my mind. I didn't.

Although I stayed in the shade reading, my swimming with Christine necessarily involved venturing into the open. Although I put suncream on my body, I forgot my face, and later I looked a little bit lobsterish. Not too unusual for me.

Later also involved a cookery course.

We had eaten a beautiful fish in banana leaves dish the night before and the restaurant offered a cookery course. Zoe, Yung and I joined a Northern Irish girl, Alison, and an English girl, Emily, for a course teaching us the finer points of making mackerel in banana leaves, spring rolls, squid with lemongrass, beef with lemongrass, etc.. All was going well until, using some outsize chopsticks (we all were) I accidentally let a spring roll slip into the oil. There was very little splash, but what there was hit Emily on the hands. There was a shout, a curse and Lee, our teacher came running with the toothpaste (a good substitute for burn cream). Whatever about Emily, I was traumatised. As it happened her hands were fine, but I was a subdued cook from then on, and enjoyed the feast we cooked up a little less than I would have liked.

I needed to calm down, so when we met the others for their dinner, I hit the cocktails. Passiona Rhumba, comprised of tequila, passionfruit and lime, is a discovery I made that I'd particularly recommend.

Making our way home in the darkened streets, where the markets had been that day, we tried to avoid the cockroaches and rats. An interesting day.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

R and R

We have spent today travelling to a lazy, seaside town called Hoi An. The weather in Hanoi had been cold, actually cold, Hue had been slightly warmer, but once we broke through the mountains today we once more entered summer. We even had a toilet stop at China Bay, an incredible beach from the little I saw of it. Unfortunately Phil has been fairly ill and getting worse all day. Once we arrived we sent for the doctor and I have to hear yet how he is.

We have three relaxing days here. Besides the sun, the sand and the relaxation, there is some sort of Scandanavian Psychology course going on at the hotel and the pool was surrounded by tall Nordic blonde women. Actually some rather fetching, bronzed Irish girls have just left the Internet cafe. It might be a night to go out on the town.

Zoe's Birthday

We had hopes of a royal banquet for dinner, where we would elect a king and queen and all dress up, but for one reason or another this didn't happen. Instead we ended up in a grungy bar eating pasta or, in my case, Vietnamese beef curry. It was Zoe's 25th birthday, so there was also a lot of alcohol and birthday cake. We survived, though coming home Zoe insisted on riding a cyclo (bicycle rickshaw) and we had a slight disagreement with the cyclo driver as a result. All worked out well and we went to bed early.

Hooray for Hue

A night train from Hanoi took us to Hue. Sharing a sleeping carriage with Zoe, Helen and Charles, we proceeded to get plastered, the girls and Charles on whiskey, me on cans of lager. Zoe's birthday was the next day, so she and Helen and cutting out coloured card and making up decorations. All very colourful.

All very tired, the next day. Nevertheless we couldn't hang around. Although the traffic was not as bad here, it was still crazy, and we were booked into a day long motorcycle tour. At 10.30, we donned our blue helmets (our drivers wore combat caps with the Vietnamese red star) and headed out on the road. Within fifteen minutes my bike was faced with a tricycle heaped with around thirty metal air-conditioning pipes, a tricycle lacking any brakes, as it transpired. My driver beeped angrily, but the cyclist continued speeding towards us. I'm not sure if he even saw us, he certainly didn't try to avoid us. At the last minute we narrowly cut around him, and I mean narrowly. A moment later there was a loud metallic crash. Helen's bike had not been so lucky. Looking back we could see her sprawled over the road, the bike and driver over her. Thankfully she herself was luckier. Shocked though she was, she suffered a sore elbow and a cut palm. It is a measure of her character that once her cut was bandaged, she got right back on that bike. The tricyclist tried to apologise, and with cops appearing from everywhere he certainly didn't want to make a fuss. Heaping up the metal pipes he just went back on his way. Ten minutes later another bicycle fell at that exact spot. We saddled up and drove out.

After that mishap, the rest of the day was amazing. I suppose the adrenaline pumping through our systems helped; it was scary. But it was beautiful too. We saw the remains of the original royal citadel (11 kilometres of perimeter). We went into the country and had lunch in a monastery, two orphaned kids (training to be monks themselves) making fart noises with their armpits. The kids everywhere were incredible. I am not sure if there is some government directive ordering children to welcome foreigners, but everywhere we went schoolkids scrambled to the road to greet us with 'Hello', waves or high fives. I confess a tear came to my eye. Infants who shouldn't have been able to speak their own language laughed 'hello's at us. To counteract this sacharine sentimentality, I saw one kid point meaningfully at another and run away. Pointing in Vietnam is the equivalent of giving the finger.

On we sped visiting a hat weaver (you know those conical hats), the king's R and R resort (and now grave), Vietnam's oldest pagoda, incense stick rollers, etc., etc. A lot of these ruins, impressive though they are, are less than two hundred years old. War has reduced everything in this ravaged country.

After nearly seven hours on the road, we made it home, everybody safe.

Hanoi Sights

A few other sights seen in Hanoi included the Temple of Literature, one of Vietnam's oldest universities, the Museum of History, and the Museum of the Revolution.

The Temple of Literature is one big tribute to that wily old Chinese wisecracker, Confucius. Never a favourite of mine, he went down very well in the Orient, and apparently even Uncle Ho gave him a go. Before there were any schools, the wealthy could come here to learn how to be gentlemen (a contradiction in terms really).

The Museum of History recounts much of Vietnamese history up to the French period. Nice building though it is, it isn't a patch on some of its counterparts in Europe, though there are some nice Champa pieces (though where they got their representation of a lion I'll never know). Also their representations of the 'mythical bird', the Garuda, make you realise male preoccupations with female anatomy haven't changed much in millenia.

The Museum of the Revolution is harder stuff altogether. Comprised mainly of photographs it gives a jigsaw view of events since the arrival of the French to the departure of the USA. True, there is obviously party spin to everything, and Saint Ho gets a lot of press (confusingly using his many alias without any real explanation), but sometimes the pictures speak for themselves; a grinning Tricky Dicky (Vice-President at the time) inspects French troops in 1954; French-Japanese troops deal out some massacres; British troops arrive to support the French colonial effort; American soldiers train the South Vietnamese (again in the 50's). The same old culprits for the same old reasons. Nevertheless I saw at least one celebratory picture of North Vietnamese communists that had obviously been altered for some reason, with certain figures inexpertly painted in. Nothing is ever simple.

Oh, and there are a lot of weddings here. Quite apart from the many wedding shops, there were two bridal couples posing on the steps of the Opera House. (Later in Hue I saw a fetching bride, looking very cheesed off, being deposited alone by the side of the road by a moped).

Water Puppets and Frogs Legs

One of the traditional highlights of Hanoi is the Water Puppet Theatre. Derived from an ancient rural entertainment performed at harvest time, this involves puppeteers operating behind a screen with a large pool of water in front. Using sticks stretching out under the water, they manipulate puppets of varying sophistication and enact a mixture of fable and old legend.

Although tourism is a relatively new phenomenon here, the Vietnamese are very clued in to the demands of tourists. In order to take photographs or use a video camera and additional ticket must be bought (costing as much as admission, I think). To compensate a paper fan, smelling like recycled toilet paper (which it probably is), is freely available to all as a souvenir. Also, given that so many of the audience will be French, announcements are made in Vietnamese, English and French.

Beginning the show, the musicians and singers, who sit to the left of the stage, perform a few old classics, like 'Yow, Yow, Yow' (actually I may not have that title right there). I was enthralled by a solo played on the Đàn bầu (monochord zither), the sound of which makes the theremin almost defunct (were it not already almost defunct). Soon though we got on to the meat and potatoes of the performance. Things did not start auspiciously. Something resembling a Cabbagepatch doll arose from the water and bobbed around chattering incomprehensively. Once the comedy act was over, however, the following vignettes involving fish, dragons, swimmers, fishermen, kings and phoenixes made a nicely diverting few hours.

Dinner then offered me another opportunity to tick my culinary list; I finally got to have frogs legs! And they were lovely. Naturally like chicken, but very succulent chicken. It's just a pity there is so little meat on them, though I wisely ordered a plate of crab to fill the gap.

Making a Spectacle of Myself

Hanoi, Hanoi, Hanoi. I could almost live here. Many streets are taken up by a particular product, so one has Paint Street, Shop Mannikin Avenue, Broken Electrical Appliance Alley, etc.. I found Spectacle Street sharing the same space as Book Lane. We had heard tales of low cost glasses, so this was a real find, and yes, glasses were cheap. I got a pair of big name (ie. fake) glasses with hardened lenses etc. etc. for 67 dollars. I was chuffed. People seemed to like them too, so much so in fact that I seemed to start a trend. Everyone wanted to get a new pair and we set out en masse for the wonderful street the next day. I was a little crestfallen, however, when Phil got the same pair as me day for less than half the price. Still 67 dollars for a pair of glasses ain't bad, and I myself got another pair for half that myself. I had been struggling with the scratches on my old pair for a long while too.

Saying Hello to Uncle Ho

I said before how the further one went from Bangkok that better things became. That still holds true. I love Hanoi. Love it. The French, monstrous though they were to this country, at least left them with tree lined boulevards, and this is strangely one of the most western eastern cities I have encountered. And this occidentalism is not forced. This country is on the up. It is wealthy and with wealth comes wealthy ways. Inevitably some of these ways are western. Yet it remains staunchly Vietnamese. We came across one small shop selling propaganda posters, somw posters celebrating the thousand odd American fighter planes downed in the war. Just down the road was a Buddhist temple. Neatly combining Russian and Vietnamese, however, is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

Uncle Ho, as he is affectionately known here, didn't want to be embalmed. He was a shrewd man and knew the danger of making saints of your heroes. Before he died he asked that he be cremated and his ashes spread across the country. He also asked that there be no retaliations on the South Vietnamese. He saw the importance of looking to the future, not dwelling on the past (unlike a lot of Irish 'patriots' I could mention). He was ignored on both counts. Granted he died while the war was still in full swing (1969) and perhaps a sainted hero seemed necessary for the war effort. It was the wrong thing to do though.

Today his embalmed body lies in a horrible soviet-designed grey block of rock. Thousands flock to pay him homage. We were only a few of the multitude. As we queued to enter a double-file procession of elderly veterans trooped to the entrance. Unlike many similar war veteran visits around the world, this group was comprised of women as much as men. Looking at their old faces you had to wonder at what they had seen. You had to respect them. I thought of my own WWII veteran grandfather. They fought like him and they fought just as great an enemy.

Entering the mausoleum is an ordeal. You must wear the right clothes (no t-shirts), surrender your bags, take no pictures, keep your hands out of your pocket, SHOW RESPECT. There is a part of all of us that when ordered to do something automatically feels the mischievous need to do the reverse. As I came to the doorway into the well guarded crypt, the need to laugh almost erupted. But there was nothing to laugh at. That was just a suicidal instinct, the kind of wild desire to throw yourself off a bridge that Freud called the Thanatos instinct. There was definitely no reason to laugh. I felt more anger that the thin old body in the glass case had been denied its final wish. It was just the body of an old man and I was reminded again of my grandparents.

I have thought about my grandparents a lot of late, both living and dead. I suppose it is seeing so many close-knit families around this country. The old are everywhere, as indeed are the very young. But there is not the same separation of children and elders that we get back home. You see infants working with gummy mouthed grannies on every path, full families clustered around the counters of makeshift grocery shops. And these people, these elders, have seen such lives. As have our own.

We paid a visit to the presidential compound where once again (AGAIN) I ranted to Phil about the fraud that was communism in the 20th Century. Certainly Vietnam is about as communist as Tony Blair. Quite apart from the oppression, the lack of free speech, the absence of democracy, the ridiculous paraphernalia, this is a market driven economy with entrepreneurs on every street corner. What is worse, and again apart from the corruption, education is not free. Not only must one pay for university, you even have to pay for some classes if you want to get anywhere.

We took a look at the One-pillar Pagoda and as we left I saw 'The Quiet American' on a bookstand. I had wanted to read this given its provenance, and also I have finished 'The Sex Lives of Cannibals' and am well through Douglas Adams's 'The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul', so I handed over the two dollars very swiftly. I then noticed the full thing is photocopied. I still struggle with this. Wow! Anyway I don't think Penguin Books will miss the extra coppers.

Hanoi - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Avoidance

Hanoi is insane. If ever there were any rules of the road in this country, they were forgotten many years ago. Traffic freely intermingles, with bikes often from three roads converging in one nightmarish nexus and no attention paid to traffic lights. This is not an exaggeration. I have seen bikes coming from opposite directions in the same lane, merrily beeping (always beeping) and gracefully winding around each other. Naturally crossing the road could invoke catatonia. The only answer, paradoxical though it might sound, is to ignore the traffic. Just walk, don't even look at it. Walk! The bikes will magically weave around you. There is a nervous cost to this strategy - we all felt exhausted at the end of each day - but it will get you across the road.

I cannot believe I am alive!

Driven to Corruption

Our problems with the driver had escalated all the way to Halong and the following day we had a new driver, though the old one still remained with us, just to occupy a seat. This less sullen, more smiling character, was a far more winning pilot, so we were all a little crestfallen when a policeman pulled him over for speeding. Of course, he hadn't been speeding. Cars and bikes had been passing us. However, the police here, whenever they need to supplement their pay packet, call on the traffic for funding. We were threatened with having our minibus impounded overnight (and what would we do then?), so our driver paid the bribe and we were on our way. Bribing is part of the day to day machinery here. It disgusts the locals as much as it disgusted us, but the reality is if you want to go about your daily life, drive, go to the hospital, visit the dentist, whatever, you will have to pay a bribe.

En route to Hanoi, we stopped off at a ceramic factory, where Phil demonstrated what he learnt at art school.

Halong Bay

Our first day in Vietnam was spent in Binh Ninh. There isn't too much to do in this city except get acclimatised to the manic motorbikes. Charles wasn't too happy when the driver left us to get our own bags at the hotel. In effect this meant 'left it to me'. I had no problem, but this was to be only one grievance in a long line of problems with the driver.

I made the most of this one night stay and when I saw goat on the menu I had to order it. Nothing too special, I am afraid.

The next day, however, was spent far more idyllically. Bypassing Hanoi, we went instead to Halong Bay for a boat ride. The port was packed when we arrived, both with boats and tourists. By lunchtime we were settled on our boat and tucking in to a seafood lunch. Then, as we chugged out into some of the world's most fantastic scenery, all foliage speckled limestone pillars and islets, all we had to do was relax. True, the weather wasn't the best. It was hazy and things got cool soon. Nevertheless everyone felt it warm enough to sit up on deck and read and gaze at the view. To me it brought back memories of Milford Sound and sailing around the icebergs of the Antarctic. It was that special. People do live here, on boats and floating platforms, we saw many families, but with the outspread Asian sails of their vessels, this just added to the whole picturesque effect.

We stopped off twice, once to visit some large caves, and second to climb to the top of Tetop Island. Halong means 'Descending Dragon', a beast that once saved the locals from the Chinese and stayed on having enjoyed the scenery. The caves seem the perfect lair for such a beast. Steep stairs, usually blocked by obese tourists, lead up a cliff face into this vast limestone crypt. Inexplicably bins shaped like penguins crop up everywhere, while the garish lighting sometimes makes you suspect this is some huge Hollywood set. It is a measure of the Vietnamese humour that one rocky outcrop shaped like an erect phallus is lit up red. Everyone entering is told to look for the 'red rock'. Hmmmm. Nevertheless it is worth the visit.

Tetop Island is named after a visiting Russian dignitary (a former astronaut, I believe). A beach, probably nice in warmer weather, greeted us, but Phil, Annabel and I bypassed it and the local music bar and walked to the small pagoda on the crest of the island's hill. It was something like 400 steps, and there were times I sought an oxygen mask, but it was an enjoyable climb and the view that rewarded us was good. Again unwelcome tourists (you know, not us, the bad ones) made it very crowded though.

Once back on board the boat, a sinsing was attempted on the top deck. With scarcely any light, Phil strummed on a guitar while everyone resorted to humming corny songs once they realised no one knew any lyrics. Zoe, on the sunchair beside me, read using a torch strapped to her head. By strategically tilting my book I managed to read 'Cannibals' by the residual light. Eventually though we all gave up and went for dinner.

After dinner, the Vietnamese showed once more how 'Carry On'-style humour is universal as we watched a dvd of 'hilarious' ads and Internet videos. Zoe dug 'Over the Hedge' out of her rucksack which filled up the rest of the evening.

Next morning we left at 8.

T's History Lesson

Our Vietnamese guide, T, joined us at the border. He was a strange fish, more comfortable out of his clothes than in (once we got to Halong Bay and the boat, he walked around most of the time in his boxers). His history lessons were interesting. Although he didn't leave anything out, he didn't necessarily tell us everything, or that was the impression I got. What I think I mean is that he told us the events without colouring it too much with the way people felt about it all.

The Irish think they got it bad in the colonial stakes (and they did), but the Vietnamese, a once truly powerful nation, were colonised by a whole range of invaders, first the Chinese. Fighting their way to independence, they battled off many other invaders, incorporating some, such as the Champa. Then the French came along. You don't think too much about the French when it comes to colonialism. The English, sure, the Belgians, of course, but the French? The reality is they created the terrible legacy of 20th Century Indochina. From the middle 19th Century to the 1950's, they oppressed the Vietnamese people despite so many rebellions, it makes the Irish look like potato farmers. In the end the French brought in Japanese (right after WWII!!!!) and British forces to help them cling on to power. And then when they did pull out, because they couldn't afford to carry on their regime, they bring in the Americans to really wreak havoc.

The less said about the Americans the better. Some Americans (and I have heard some Irish who fought in the Vietnam War with the US) still think that war was justified. Just come here. Look at these wonderful people and consider what was inflicted on them, by a foreign power that supported an unjust (rightwing) regime. I won't make any great claims for the Communists, but there is a very real affection for Ho Chi Minh here and it is with good reason. Even people who have problems with the Party talk of Uncle Ho with respect. Again I am sure the communists were no saints, but they had been the only real resistance to the French for nearly half a century and did have a lot of popular support. Anyhow poeple more qualified to talk of this subject are out there, I can only give my impressions.

A Musical Disaster

While travelling by minibus, groups get to talking about everything, though usually centering on health and malaria tablets. One of our more mundane, though exceptional, topics was about our music devices. Most people carry ipods; I don't. I have an ancient MP3/WMA/CD playing cd walkman that has more battery life and the potential to play more music than any smaller player. Of course, it also means carting around a mountain of cds. In the face of the obvious superiority of everyone else's devices I extolled the virtues of this monstrosity. The conversation calmed down. I settled down to listen to a mp3 cd. Or I would have done had my monstrosity worked, for yes, just then my player broke (I have since worked out that the motor on the lenshead isn't working). At least I had my mobile phone, a limited, but serviceable mp3 device. Being prepared for electronic failure, however, I should not have been surprised to find that that wouldn't work either, because it didn't. No matter how I plugged in the earphones, the music wouldn't come through them. After half an hour of trying to clean the socket, I suddenly realised that for some reason I was plugging the headphones into the power socket, not the sound port. Unconsciously prepared for musical failure I had ensured it. I plugged the headphones in and kept quiet. I'll get an mp3 player soon.

Dogs, Pigs, Fridges and Cows.

Vietnam is markedly different to Laos. Although we initially drove into some wonderful mountain scenery, cloud lying below us, jungles rising above us, we soon descended into a far more densely populated and busy country. Instead of bamboo huts on stilts, the predominant architectural style is thin, tall and concrete. When I say thin, I mean a room wide, and when I say tall, I mean four stories. The houses do go back a bit, but height is almost a status symbol here. Given that more houses will probably be built beside these stand-alone steeples, everyone wanting to build by the main road, only the fronts are painted and few windows line the sides. These houses are everywhere and so the impression is less of a series of towns, than one long stretch of habitation. The exception to this are the huge rice fields, laced with irrigation canals and electricity pylons, that space out the dwellings and which seem to go on all the way to the horizon.

Another feature omnipresent in Vietnam is the red flag, mostly studded with the national gold star, but occasionally boasting a hammer and sickle. These people are (rightfully) proud of their nation having seen off the Chinese, the French and of course the Americans.

Traffic too is a lot busier. Somewhat similar to Thailand, every time someone wants to pass someone else they beep. At least that's the way it seemed at first. The reality is they beep for everything, often, I am convinced, just for the joy of beeping. Naturally it is noisy. Not helping matters are the vehicles themselves. Although some trucks and an occasional car will travel the roads, here the motorbike is all powerful. People use them to transport everything, sometimes whole families, but often whole households. We passed numerous bikes carrying huge cages filled sometimes with pigs, sometimes with dogs, all destined for the same fate (the pot). At one point I saw a man with two fridge boxes on the back of his vehicle. I thought, they can't really contain fridges, not really. Not long after we passed another guy with a cow, yes, a cow, alive and squashed into a wire cage, racing ahead of us. The fridge idea didn't seem so crazy to me then.

Vietnam - The Border Crossing

Crossing the border into Vietnam involved first getting out of Laos. Naturally soldiers were everywhere. We stood by the side of the road while Charles got some of the paperwork done. Across from where we stood an Iraqi family were attempting the crossing in the opposite direction and naturally incurred some additional 'red tape'. No doubt a lot more bribes than we were paying were involved. Meanwhile two European girls were being left behind as their bus drove into the no-man's land between the two borders. They ran screaming as the bus disappeared, but had to come back anyhow to get their paperwork finished. They need not have worried. The Vietnam border guards are not quite so efficient as their laos counterparts.

After a half hour wait we eventually got to the Vietnam border control. Although the entry tax is 20 dollars, they charge an additional 5 to cover their personal inconvenience, unofficially of course. To demonstrate how worthy of such bonuses they are they spend up to four times the length of time 'processing' you as the Laos guards, and indeed as we arrived a Frenchman was complaining bitterly about his two hour wait 'for nothing'. Merde! What were we in for? I studied the dead bugs on the window sill while Charles tried to avoid having to give them his watch (they liked it and insisted on telling him so). Obviously the wait was too much for even the non-human visitors to the building (I might point out the Vietnam toilets looked far more impressive than the Laos ones, but they harboured an attendent who insisted on groping everyone - from Charles to Helen - who lurked in his domain). Even this activity soon bored me and I ended up playing 'Shithead', a card game, with Zoe and Helen, awaiting my turn to go up to an official with more photo id. My trusty cinema card worked in this respect and, Charles' watch intact, we passed through the metal detectors, more barriers, and into our new bus.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

No Place like Home Stay

Last night was the home stay.

After travelling most of the day we stopped in a small village close to the Vietnam border right on the river (the Nam Song River, I think). It has to be said the scenery on the way was special, with limestone pinnacles erupting from deep valleys of lush forest. The pinnacles themselves were dark grey rock, vertical channels worn down their faces. Despite the fact I was sleepy and dozing most of the time, the sight did wake me up.

The family we were staying with had a room devoted to six of us, the other six staying in another family house across from us. I can understood the worry about avian flu as all families live with poultry running around their legs. Our family appeared to be very nice, with very many children including a cute little 1 year old. However, they tended to keep to themselves. Only the grandfather, paralysed down his right side by a stroke, and his wife really paid us much of a smile.

In the hour around sundown we travelled out in three B52 bomb boats. These vessels, crafted from the discarded fuel casings of B52s, were thin rocket shaped boats. I was the last to get a lifejacket, being the only real non-swimmer, and it was as well I did as things could get rocky. Annabel and Sarah shared my boat and our pilot was the last to leave and the first to return, never venturing further than the other boats and probably unhappy at getting the remaining three passengers, fare being paid by passenger and the others each having four. Nevertheless, sunset was stunning, while the river itself was wonderfully relaxing.

Our meal was cooked not by the family but by our guide, and was lovely.

Sleeping was uneven disturbed by roosters from three on (a common occurrence in this neck of the woods). As it was we were up for breakfast at 6 and on the road at 6.30.

The border at Vietnam was interesting and will wait until my next post.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Chili Poisoning and the Art of Tuktuk Maintenance

After my excellent encounter with Luang Prabang cuisine, I scaled the heights of Mount Phousi. Despite the spelling the pronunciation is 'pussy' and it causes Charles no end of embarassment. What's more it has prompted the local massage parlour, which naturally takes its name from the location, to take the 's' out of Phousi in their signs. One way or the other, Mount Phousi, is the highest point in the city and an impressive stupa (building to hold ashes) surmounts its height. Midway up the steep stairs, I passed the redheaded girl again conscious that in my panting state I was not to be seen at my best. I bought my ticket and prepared to scale the next set of steps. Helpfully on one side of the stairs someone had written '139 steps climbed', while on the other side, '190 steps to go'. Thanks. A trio of young monks greeted me with a snigger halfway up this set, but with a nudge to each other, they ignored me in preference of the redhead and her pal who were on the steps behind me. I suppose I couldn't blame them. Superior in my knowledge that monks were mere men after all, I puffed up to the top.

The view was amazing. The Mekong wound down reflecting sunlight from one direction, while a tributary river snaked down on the opposite side. Temples, fields and crowded streets could be seen silently going about their business on all sides. Somewhere a gecko chirped to a lazy frenzy before subsiding. I was happy. Step lead away from the top to various other sites, including a standing and reclining Buddha, a holy cave (concrete roofed) and 'The Imprint of the Buddha's Foot'. I was intrigued by this supposedly authentic mark of the great man and hurried past some of the lesser sights to see what I expected to be an elaborately displayed footprint. Eventually I got to the location. Outside the small building housing the sacred imprint, a young monk read aloud while reclining on a wall. With the river behind him, it was a classic photograph. However, we had been warned about taking pictures of monks without asking, so I passed him by. The footprint had to be seen. I stuck my head in the little room. There was a huge depression in the floor, but no footprint. At least that's what I thought. As I stared at the curved hole, it struck me that at one end were five grooves that could be toes. Yes, folks, the Buddha's footprint was six foot long. Hmmmmm.

Outside another monk had joined the first. Although he had a book, he wasn't reading, just staring picturesquely off into the distance. I took a chance and asked him if I could take their photo. With a grin, he said yes and stood there, still grinning, ruining whatever spontaneity had attracted me to the shot in the first place. Ah, well.

Dinner was at the hotel and was to be a barbeque. It was okay, though the extent of the barbeque was a sauce coated chicken fillet and I was crazy about the rest of the spread. However, there was Beer Lao and where there was Beer Lao there was joy. Phil (Dolby), who has been carting a guitar around with him, is, it turns out, the former frontman of a band called Death by Milkfloat. Around at the time of The Wonderstuff and Pop will eat Itself, he had not one, but two sessions on the John Peel show. I was very impressed and his account of wild gigs around the UK (Joe Strummer let him use his guitar and amp!) was further proof of a band on the cusp at an exciting time in British music.

Zooey, then told me of her escapades working for an American summer camp. She's had some bad luck and her account of her neighbour ransacking her house while she was in the US, was particularly unpleasant. the night though was a drunken success, however, we had a 4.30 early wake up to feed the monks.

It is an unlikely tourist attraction, but giving alms to the monks at daybreak, usually in the form of sticky rice, draws so many tourists as to exclude the local townspeople from what is a centuries old tradition. Now the locals supply chairs and wooden canisters of rice to bleary-eyed, snap happy idiots like us. To our credit we had no seats, not even a kneeling mat, unless we brought it ourselves. Getting to the main street before anyone else, we claimed our spot on the pavement. Beside us locals unfolded a long mat, on which they placed a long string of rice pots and a parallel line of blue, plastic seats. Just before the sun rose, the inevitable busload of Japanese tourists arrived to take their places. To be fair the woman at one end, sitting beside me, was from Thailand and she replenished her stock of rice many times from vendors, as well as supplementing it with flowers and what looked like stuffed vineleaves (Mekong weed again). A flurry of orange robes down the street, alerted us to the oncoming monks. Holding large metal pots, they file past the kneeling tourists, opening their pots enough to accept a little ball of sticky rice. Once upon a time this constituted one of their (2) main meals; nowadays, though I am sure some is eaten, it mostly goes to feed the hens. (For those of you wondering, I made a point of washing the deet from my hands before rolling my offerings.) It gets very frenetic with the hundreds of monks zipping past and wanting their rice NOW! In the end I was grabbing handfuls and throwing it into the nearest pot, something that depleted my meagre resources very quickly. I stepped away from the line and watched as more sensible tourists doled out their rice more frugally.

Breakfast in Joma's, bacon and eggs and strong black coffee.

At 10.30 we checked out and went to the airport for a 30 minute flight to Laos' capital city, Vientiane. The plane was a 50 seater, propeller job, but, despite some shaking, it got us there without disturbing my napping too much. When we exited, the supposed 32 degree heat (it seemed a lot hotter) drove us quickly into the shade.

Vientiane, may not be as pretty as Luang Prabang, but it is just as laid back, and seems very small. The town centre, taken up by roadworks and a non-functioning fountain, is no Trafalgar, probably being the quietest capital city heart I have ever encountered (even with the very industriously pursued roadworks; they would give Irish council workers a bit of a shock).

Having passed on my sandwich at lunch (possible butter), I was hungry and went in search of frogs legs in a restaurant famed for stir-fried frogs legs. I found the place, the Riverside Restaurant, beside a very depleted Mekong (the dry bed of the river seemed to stretch for miles). There indeed on the menu was 'Stirfried Basil Leaves and Frogs Legs'. Lovely! I ordered. Suddenly there was confusion. the waiter called for help. Another man, with scarcely more English, informed me frogs were off. I was devastated, but went for squid and shrimp. As I sipped my fresh lemonade a tiny frog hopped by my table. A tear dropped from my eye.

After a visit to an Internet cafe, I didn't have much time before we were to meet up. I came back to the hotel, met the others and promptly made my way back to the Riverside Restaurant where Charles thought it might be nice to have a riverside beer. It was. Some ants menaced our wooden table for a while, but the waiting staff, equipped with an anti-ant can, soon put a stop to that.

Our next port of call, a restaurant with live music, promised a happy hour of 2 dollar cocktails. Dinner first though. I ordered the Lao feast, another meal with a bit of everything; fish soup, beef salad, rice, Lao whiskey, corn dessert. Very soon into my hearthy attack on this food, I suffered an accident that was to ruin my subsequent eating; I ate a full chili. All of it, seeds and all. My mouth erupted, but that was dealt with within five minutes. More fatally my stomach revolted and though I drank lots of beer and downed much sticky rice, I never got my appetite back. The Lao whiskey too, made from rice, was particularly potent. Naturally in my delicate state I had to down it in one swallow. If nothing else, all this masochism justified my resorting to mint juleps. Gradually these nursed me back to alcoholic health. The hotel closed its doors at 11.30, so the night was cut short early.

Breakfast in a lovely French cafe this morning betokened a good day. But it was hot. Pairing up with Sian and Sarah, we walked to the Black Stupa, then wandered the Morning Market, then the Putaxai, a kind of replica of the Arc de Triomphe made from US donated concrete originally intended to make an airport (hence the unofficial title, 'The Vertical Runway'). It was getting really hot then, so we took a tuktuk to our final destination, the Golden Stupa, Pha That Luang. The tuktuk driver initially gave us a wild quote of 70000 kip, but our threat to walk away, brought it down to a more reasonable 15000. The other passenger in the tuktuk, wanting to get to the Thai Embassey, had to watch his watch sadly as our driver passed it bySitting beneath a tree, eating a Magnum while waiting for it to open was a memorable few minutes. The stupa itself is all gold and cloisters. The tranquility of the place was the real winning point for me though, and I was glad we took the trouble to get there.

A tuktuk back and I dozed for a while. Forcing myself to get up and out, I spurned the local cafes for one of the riverside stalls. In the end I plumped for some barbequed pork. Behind the stall were around twenty tyres spray-painted gold and supporting plywood tables. The old Thai-style triangular cushions and thin pillows gave me something to sit on. It was all very basic, very fly-ridden and very tasty. The owner himself served me, asking me often if all was well and whether I'd like to buy some homemade ice cream. I resisted the ice cream, but thanked him for his attention.

And so now I sit at a pc. All is up-to-date.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Better and Better, Better and Better

Our second day in Luang Prabang began with a trek through hilly country to a picturesque waterfall. Taking two tuktuks into the country, we had to get out and walk at one point as the tuktuks couldn't climb a steep hill with us in them. Chan cut a figure in a fake leather black jacket, strange attire for formidably hot weather. This weather continued and when we actually started the real hike, I found myself blinded by the sweat dripping down my glasses.

Again just a short note about the people. They really are one of the most friendly people on the planet. Everywhere we drove, past huts on stilts, past open-sided schoolrooms, past fields, the children invariably waved and shouted 'Sabai Dii' after us. The hill people, the Hmong, who speak a different language to most Lao, often practise animism, and who have been something of a thorn in the Government's side, are being gradually resettled in the low lands. At our starting point, a new school was being built for the Hmong, albeit one that would teach them the official language.

The trek, though it was up and down some steep hills, was fairly easy, certainly to me after all my Oz and NZ trekking. The countryside we passed through was mostly agricultural land or well spaced forest. Often I saw large and exotic butterflies (several Red Admirals and many more unusual ones) weaving through the leaves . We all enjoyed the exercise.

Before we got to the waterfall, we stopped in a little village for a snack in the local market. This rural shopping centre was a circular collection of thatched stalls and dining areas surrounding a wide tuktuk park. I had a pancake with chocolate, milo and coconut, but had scarcely time to enjoy it as we headed to the falls.

The waterfall was stunning. It was a two-tiered affair with one high cascade plummeting down to one plateau before feeding the second fall. The water in the pools it fed were a limpid green. Naturally we took time over our photo shoots. Then, swimming togs in hand, we made our way to a large pool for a swim. It may have been a hot day, but that water was COLD. Zooey led the way and I followed next, but it was a struggle for us all to get in. Not being a strong swimmer I stuck in the one area while most of the others swim to the sunlit waters across the other side. French tourists (this being a former French colony, there are always French tourists) swung into the centre from a small stick swing. Yes, I wished I could brave the water more bravely, but with a bit of practice I hope to soon.

Next we viewed some wildlife, specifically Asian Black Bears in the Bear Rescue Centre, and Phet the tiger, a cub saved from poachers which has grown up in captivity. The bears were particularly interesting. As we neared their enclosure I though for a moment I was watching chimpanzees. They are incredibly agile, climbing, fighting, crawling through hoops with an almost human grace. Very dark, they are distinctive in that a pale V adorns their chest, and although solitary animals in the wild, the many young cubs seemed to be getting on well. Phet was a little too lazy tae too much of our attention, though a yawn that looked like a roar and a sudden bout of pacing gave us something for our cameras. We ended up devoting more time to the game of hide a seek the bear keepers had set up with the bear cubs food. Putting fruit and veg in various holes and crannies, all the time watched by the young bears from the door of their house, the keepers then let the bears loose to find the food, which they do very quickly.

For lunch, in order to distribute the foreign dollar fairly throughout the community, we broke up into groups and ate at different stalls in the market. I joined Sian and Sarah. Sian, it turns out, has more than one connection with the movie business and aspirations to be a writer. Sarah, ironically given the rough and ready nature of our lunch, is a food safety consultant. We all paused at that confession and stared at our meals, but my chicken and bamboo was surprisingly tasty and doesn't seem to have had any side effects.

That night after some pizza (Luang Prabang pizza in my case, with Lao sausage and Mekong weed), internet and stall browsing, I met up with Alastair and Lynn again. As before Charles, Sian and Rebecca joined us and we ended up drinking till they kicked us out, which was only 12. The intrepid members of the party chose to walk home. When we arrived at the guesthouse, the gate was locked. Luckily we had Sian, who climbed over to open the way.

Next day was a free day and so I took it easy, eating breakfast of rice soup on my verandah at 10. Then some reading ('The Sex Life of Cannibals', a book recommended by, and borrowed from, Helen and Phil) while I waited for enough people to gather to warrant a tuktuk into town. Just when Yuong and Annabel were set to go though, it bucketed rain, giving me another half an hour reading. When we did finally get into town, we had a coffee then went to view the Xieng Thong temple. This is justly celebrated and very tranquil. I really felt all troubles melting away as I knelt in the main temple staring at the Buddha, the ngars (guardian serpents) and ornate decoration. A cute French redhead was wandering around too, something which gave me pause for thought.

I had read a recommendation for a local French restaurant called the Elephant restaurant, a location worthy of splurging in (it is very expensive by Laos standards with a full meal maybe even costing 20 dollars). Finding it now I took an hour to splurge with sticky rice, fish in banana leaves, beef bouillon with spring onion, minced pork, pork on a stick, chicken salad, stirfried Chinese mushrooms, and fried Mekong riverweed, with ginger ice cream and fruit salad (papaya, mango, etc.) to follow and a glass of dry white wine to accompany. I was a happy man.

In my next installment: the ruins, the Buddha's footprint, the BBQ, Death by Milkfloat, feeding the monks, plane to Vientiane, and whatever happens next.