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Mandalay, Pyin U Lwin and Hsipaw

semi-overcast 32 °C

"On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin' fishes play,
And the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the bay."
The road that Kipling took may well have been filled with romance but sadly there is little left in Mandalay itself. The town is an urban sprawl with little of note to attract the visitor. All the best sights are on the edges of the city and a prohibitively expensive taxi ride away for a single traveller. And so I confined my sightseeing to the busy streets near my hotel. One of them was called Onion Street, possibly because little else but onions was sold there.
Wandering these streets it was not difficult to see why Myanmar is the poorest of the south east Asian countries. Many people in this country live on less than US$2 a day and the injustice of this becomes even more apparent when you discover that 29% of Myanmar's annual budget is spent on the military; more than on health and education combined. The delightful people of this fascinating country have suffered under the military dictatorship for over 50 years and though things are improving the pace of change is slow. Whether the elections later this year will bring real democracy is doubtful as the constitution is such so weighted that the military will always maintain a controlling influence.
While researching Kipling's poem I discovered that he also had a very high regard for Burmese women, praising their openness and extolling their virtues. I guess I'm not the first to notice.
I left Mandalay by the 4:00 am train after a pillion ride through dark and deserted streets. I've observed the local women riding pillion side saddle, perching there, hands free, with not a care in the world, while I hang on to anything I can, every muscle in my body tensed, waiting for disaster to strike. I am becoming a little more confident but it's an experience I'd much prefer to go without. The train set off on time, which seems to be the norm in my experience at least, but had only been going for about ten minutes when we came to a halt. It was still dark and from the open windows came the sound of raised voices and the bleating of goats. On looking out of the windows I saw a group of men trying to load a herd of 200 plus goats into the wagon behind my carriage. The goats were not at all happy with this situation and had to be dragged up a ramp by their ears or back legs or hit with a stick to force them to comply. Perhaps they had some foreboding of what awaited them at journey's end. What had at first sight seemed to be just a colourful part of Burmese life was in fact a little unsettling.
Some eight hours later, after a slightly more comfortable train ride than my last experience, we arrived Pyin U Lwin where I parted company with the goats, climbed onto the back of yet another motorbike, and headed off to find a room.
Pyin U Lwin is the former summer capital of British Burma and at about 1000 feet above sea level is a relief from the stifling heat of the plains. In fact on my first night there I slept beneath a blanket. During my three days there the rain fell in torrents for several hours at a time with just enough breaks for me to be able to escape my hotel and do a little sight-seeing and find restaurants. There are a few remaining colonial style houses on the edges of town but I doubt any returning imperialists would recognise much of what is there now, other than, perhaps, the immaculately tended and extensive botanical gardens. They may also remember the charming miniature "stage coaches" which serve as taxis.

Train journeys in Burma are slow at the best of times but are usually filled with incident. The trip from Pyin U Lwin to Hsipaw was no exception. At each station the train was greeted by vendors selling a variety of snacks and fruit. There are also platform food stalls offering delicious curries and rice which they serve up in polystyrene containers for hungry passengers to consume on board.
Three to four hours out of Pyin Oo Lwin the train slowed to walking pace as it crossed the spectacular Gokteik Viaduct and heads and cameras protruded from the open windows to take in and record the grandeur of the setting.
Everything seemed to be going well and the journey had been very enjoyable but with about 20 miles to go there was a loud bang and the guard came rushing into my carriage and stuck his head out of the window. I quickly followed suit and discovered that the last wagon on the train had derailed. On closer inspection, having climbed down from my carriage and walked back along the track, I saw that it had ripped up the sleepers and buckled the track for over 100 metres behind us. Fortunately, this was the only wagon to derail and the goats in the wagon ahead (not the same herd as my previous journey, I hope) were unharmed though judging by the look on their faces a little more bemused than usual.

From somewhere three or four policeman appeared. They must have been travelling in ordinary class, as we were now in the middle of nowhere, and one of them suggested that the backpackers on the train, about ten of us, might want to cross a field to the road and hitchhike as the train might be stuck there for some time. Seeing little alternative we shouldered our packs and set off across a ploughed field towards the road some 300 metres away only to discover that we would have to cross a stream to reach our objective. Luckily, there were quite a few bamboo poles lying nearby and it was suggested we build a bridge. I struggled out of my backpack in order to lend a hand only to discover that the younger members of our group thought three poles would be quite sufficient and with the help of one of the policeman who stood knee deep in the muddy water offering a hand for support had already started to cross. Seeing no alternative and unwilling to play the wimp I took off my shoes, threw them to the other side of the stream and with my heart in my mouth crossed tentatively to the other side and scrambled up the bank. Five of us had crossed when for some reason, which remains unclear, it was suggested that it might be a better course of action to return to the train and await rescue. This didn't seem a very good idea to those of us who had already crossed the stream and so we decided to hitch while those who had yet to cross returned across the field. Within a few minutes our friendly police officer, who insisted it was his duty to get wet and muddy in order to help the foreigners, had flagged down a pickup truck and we had chambered aboard and were on our way. How I wish all policemen were as public spirited as the man who came to our rescue.

There wasn't a great deal to see in Hsipaw. It's really known as a centre for trekking to outlying villages and much as I'd have liked to have seen them I decided that trekking in the heat was just too much for my aged body and so, reluctantly, I decided to give it a miss.
Hsipaw is a pleasant and lively town with a riverside, a large and interesting market and, like everywhere I've been in Burma, a friendly atmosphere.
I did manage a walk to the outskirts of town and the Bamboo Monastery which had very little bamboo but lots of corrugated iron but, nevertheless, with it's ruined stupas (they call it Little Bagan) was a very pleasant spot.
On the way back down a dirt track I unexpectedly stumbled on Mrs Popcorn ' s garden. She's an elderly Burmese who speaks excellent English and serves up the most delicious fruit salads and juices using many ingredients she grows herself. Her fried beans with pickled leaves were worth the journey to Hsipaw by themselves!

Posted by MalcolmB 05:23 Archived in Myanmar Comments (3)

Inle Lake and Mawlamyine

sunny 36 °C

I arrived in Nyaung Shwe, a small town on the edge of Inle Lake, after a thirteen hour overnight bus journey from Hsipaw. I quickly found a hotel and collapsed onto my bed, eventually venturing out for a very late breakfast of pineapple and mango pancake, coffee and fruit juice. If I needed restoring that did the trick. The rest of the day was spent just wandering around a rather scruffy but lively and likeable little town and drinking beer in a bar owned by a Frenchman called "The French Touch". I also booked a trip on the lake for the princely sum of 23,000 kyat (£15) for a whole day. Little did I suspect what an amazing experience lay in store. (So wonderful, in fact, that I hired the boat and boatman again. (The following description is an amalgamation of both days.)
I arrived at the boat quay at 7:30 am , was introduced to Josu my boat driver who was in his early twenties, took my seat in the middle of the boat and off we went down the long, wide canal towards the lake. The boats are long and narrow with a shallow draft and are powered by very noisy but powerful engines which propel them across the water at up to 30 mph.
Josu and his boat

As we hurtled across the lake cormorants, egrets and green and black dragonflies skimmed across the silver-grey surface in front of us and the surrouding hills took on more definition as the sun rose higher in the sky and the haze dispersed. The lake is about 22 miles long and seven wide but it is often impossible to tell where water ends and dry land begins. Much of the lake is covered with floating gardens which grow all sorts of vegetables hydroponically and narrow canals fore maze like inroads between verdant banks as they twist and turn towards the shore. At the end of one of these, after passing under spindly bamboo bridges, we reached the village market. This moves from village to village around the lake on a five day cycle and while there are a few stalls selling tourist souvenirs the markets are largely for the benefit of the local people who belong to a myriad of different tribes and travel large distances to attend. Bullocks, having delivered goods to market, now wait patiently to be re-hitched and pull their owners purchases homeward. Porters carry heavy baskets slung from bamboo poles across their shoulders and the food stalls do a roaring trade as people pause to eat and exchange news. Further up the hillside and reached by long, covered collonades are the temples, surrounded by smaller stupas and the focal point of the area. Once the day's trading is done many will make the long walk up the hillside to kneel before the Buddha and give thanks for a successful morning's business.

Throughout the day Josu and I travelled from stilt village to stilt village. The people who inhabit them are entirely dependent on the lake for their living. There are, of course, a few concessions to tourism and some of the workshops I visited are imports from some distance away. For instance, there were the famous girafe necked women with brass rings encircling their necks who sat at weaving looms and beautiful girls who rolled cheroots and sold them to tourists for vastly inflated prices. There were, however, other workshops such as the blacksmiths and the rice toddy distillery (that stuff was strong) that were probably indigenous. Lake life is utterly fascinating and people go about their their business, washing clothes and themselves, tending their children and their crops, travelling from place to place much as they must have done for hundreds of years. Religion, of course plays a very important part in their lives and we visited several temples. One of the most important contains five small Buddha statues which may have once been recognisable as such but now, owing to the custom of covering them in gold leaf, have become amorphous blobs. Only men are allowed to apply the gold leaf and this discrimination against women in some temples is one of the the few jarring notes I have encountered.
Another temple rejoices in the delightful soubriquet "Jumping Cat Temple". Sadly the cats no longer perform as the monk who taught them to jump through hoops has died and his cat training skills have passed with him. There's a gap in the market there for some enterprising soul!
On the way back to Nyaung Shwe we took time to observe the fishermen more closely. They use different techniques in search of their catch. Some cast nets while propelling their punt-like boats by standing on one leg while the other is wrapped around the oar and with a circular motion the boat is moved forward. Others use the flat of their oar to strike the surface of the water, thus stunning fish which will float obligingly to the surface. Still others use a cone shaped frame covered in a net which they quickly lower into the water, hopefully trapping a fish inside. They then repeatedly plunge a five-pronged spear through a hole in the top hoping to impale the poor creature.
These two magical days have had a dream like quality and are among the highlights of my travels. They have reinforced my high regard for the people of this truly amazing and beautiful country. There really is nowhere else quite like it.

It seems a shame to end this entry on an anticlimax because Mawlamyine certainly does not not deserve it. But few places could compare with Inle Lake. Mawlamyine (formerly Moulmein in the days of the Raj) is a vibrant riverside city close to the sea with a mixed population of Burmese, Indians and Chinese. It has a wealth of colonial architecture including a rather forbidding looking prison that is believed to be the scene for George Orwell's essay "A hanging". He served as a policeman here during the twenties and his experiences did much to help form his later political perspective.
Surely coincidentally, the room I ended up in on my first night in the city would have served well as a prison cell. The hotel I wanted to use was fully booked so the Breeze Guest House was the next option. From the outside the facade which overlooked the river was pleasant enough but once in the gloomy interior all pretence at grandeur was immediately dispelled. The two floors had been dived up with plywood sheets to cram in as many windowless rooms as possible. Mine consisted of a single bed with a thin but very lumpy mattress, and a small bedside table upon which sat a fan. This was plugged in to the only socket in the room so charginging a phone, tablet or camera meant unplugging the fan and stifling in the overwhelming heat. The room had obviously not had a thorough clean in ages and whether the sheet had been changed since the last occupant, or even the one before, was questionable. On top of this the shared bathrooms had toilets which failed to flush properly. All this for the grossly overpriced sum of 8500 kyat (£5.32). On the plus side there were no bed-bugs; I'm sure they would have found this place beneath their dignity.
Mawlamyine Prison...
... and the Breeze Guest House - spot the difference!

However, Mawlamyine was not all bad and, in fact, the city was the scene of one of the most enjoyable meals I have ever had. Having read about Beer Station Number 2 in the Lonely Planet I headed off there for a couple of beers before looking for somewhere else for dinner. However as my beer consumption went up the inclination to move went down and not expecting much I decided that the food in this place would be worth a try. I wandered over to the two large glass - fronted refrigerators which were packed with various items kebabed on wooden skewers. I chose the fattest, juiciest prawns I have ever seen, a few other seafood items (which the waiter's limited English and my total lack of Burmese failed to identify), half a dozen eggs which were no larger tnan the end of your thumb, ladies fingers or bindi and mushrooms which turned out to be the tastiest that have ever passed my lips. The whole meal was one taste sensation after another, perfectly accompanied by a few more draught Tiger beers and I walked back to my guest house with a warm glow in stomach and head and in the right frame of mind to face the rigours of my cell. The following morning I checked again with the other hotel and, as luck would have it, they had a vacancy, a large, spotlessly clean double room with en-suite shower and toilet, a view over the street, a TV (which I didn't watch) and all for a little more than twice the price of the "Black Hole".
And so ended my time in Burma. At 7.30 am on Saturday 30th May I was picked up at my hotel and driven the five hours to the border. I was expecting this journey to be in a mini - bus, possibly with some other travellers, but it turned out to be just me, a driver and a rather old Toyota estate car. This cost 15,000 kyat (£9.40) and how they made any profit out of this is beyond me, especially as the driver would need to stay overnight in Myawaddy, the border town, before returning the following day, hopefully with another fare. Trips to the border are only permitted on alternative days owing to the narrowness of the poorly maintained road over the hills. I was dropped off near the Burmese border post where I presented my documents and was signed out. I then walked the 400 metres across the Friendship Bridge in the blazing afternoon sun to the Thai border post where, after a couple of cursory questions, a 30 day visa for Thailand was stamped into my passport.

Posted by MalcolmB 17:21 Archived in Myanmar Comments (2)

Thailand (second visit)

Mae Sot, Sukhotai, Chiang Mai, Pai, Mai Hong Son, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Phayao, Phrae, Nong Khai

semi-overcast 35 °C

As soon as one crosses the border it becomes immediately apparent that there is a huge gulf in the development and the culture of the two countries. Gone are the elegantly dressed Burmese women and in their place are Thai girls in western clothes showing large amounts of skin. The buildings are newer, the roads are wider and in far better condition. The cars are more up to date and there are fewer motorbikes, though the motorbike is still king of the road.
There are though many similarities and some of Thailand's forms of public still hark back to an earlier age. One of these is the song-taa-ou, a covered pickup truck with bench seats in the back and enough room for ten to twelve passengers. These usually ply regular routes but often wait until they are full or nearly full before setting off. The problem with them is one can't be totally sure where they're going and unless the driver or a passenger speaks English one could end up anywhere. Other forms of transport are the tuk-tuks and in Sukothai, a rather charming open sided bus which took me on my own the 12 kilometres from the new city to the old to view the ruins.


Once in the old city I hired a bicycle and spent a very enjoyable few hours discovering some beautiful Buddha images among the crumbling brickwork.

I had spent my first night back in Thailand at the border town of Mae Sot which boasted little in the way of sightseeing but was the base for many foreign NGO workers who try to control the people trafficking across the border from the more remote Burmese villages. Hence, there are quite a few bars and restaurants that cater for European appetites and in one of these run by a very large and extremely miserable Canadian I indulged in fish and chips, English style. Despite the surly attitude with which it was slapped onto my table by the afore mentioned ex-pat and the absence of malt vinegar, it was rather good. Perhaps the chef is happier in his work than his employer seems to be.
I then spent a couple of nights in Sukhotai, exploring the ruins and taking things easy before taking the long bus ride to to the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thailand's second largest city. Despite its large size Chiang Mai has a very laid-back feel and attracts tourists in large numbers. The original "old city" at it's centre is about a square mile in area and is surrounded by a water filled moat and the remains of crumbling city walls.
Inside this perimeter is a maze of streets and narrow lanes or sois containing some beautiful temples and a wealth of guest houses, bars, restaurants and cafes. Apart from the temples there are few buildings more than 40 or 50 years old but nevertheless it has an undefinable but definite appeal.
Though there seem to be as many tourists as locals in Chiang Mai this as nothing compared to Pai, a small town a three hour mini-bus ride away to the north along a twisting, winding road through some beautiful hilly scenery. A few years ago Pai was little more than a village but it has now expanded to cater to the mass of young tourists who arrive in search of paradise. Here I spent most of three days swinging in a hammock on the porch of my bamboo bungalow watching a fisherman casting his net into the shallow river that ran past my door and making the occasional trip into the town for breakfast or dinner.

When I finally got over my bout of extreme idleness I travelled on to Mai Hong Son and after a couple of days in that very pleasant Thai border town which had very few tourists, from there back to Chiang Mai. Just to prove that travelling isn't all fun the mini bus journey through the mountains on winding roads with dozens of hairpin bends was one of the worst journeys I've ever had to endure. For the first hour things weren't too bad as there were only three of us on the back seat; me, a young Thai girl who seized the opportunity to practice her English and a rather large lady who somehow managed to cram herself into a very small space. Then, we were joined by another young Thai girl and her year-old baby and the mini-bus began to climb into the hills. Each time we cornered we were thrown from one side to the other and it wasn't long before the young mother was throwing up into a plastic bag while her baby sucked obliviously and contentedly at her breast . On my other side, the young girl, having exhausted her English, somehow managed to fall asleep with her head on my shoulder. To add to the discomfort, the air-con was totally ineffective and wherever body parts touched was soon sweating copiously. This continued for four of the six hour journey and as if things couldn't get any worse the kind women in the seat in front of us decided that she could best help by giving the baby a chocolate biscuit. Of course, much of this ended up smeared all over my shorts. Never have I been so happy to reach a destination as I was that day!

My next stop was Chiang Rai from where i had hoped to get a longtail boat to Tha Thon near the Burmese border. Unfortunately, due to the low river levels these weren't running, but i only discovered this after walking the mile or so, complete with luggage and in hot and humid conditions, from my guest house to the boat pier. This may not seem much, but in this heat it's quite far enough and so i was delighted when I was offered a pillion ride back into town. Perhaps the first time I have willingly climbed onto the back of a motor bike. This disappointment of the cancelled boat meant a change of plan and so i headed south, stopping in Phayao and Phrae before finally reaching Nong Khai where I would cross the Mekong into Laos.
Nong Khai is perhaps the most scenic of all the Thai towns I've visited. It lies on the banks of the Mekong just a few miles from Vientiane and though there is not a great deal to see (with the exception of the remarkable sculpture park) it is a pleasant place to stroll around and possesses the best guest house, run by a slightly eccentric Englishman called Julian, that I've stayed at so far. He is one of the few ex-pats I've come across that has a purpose in life. Most seem to be sad and pathetic men in their fifties and sixties who hang around in bars together or sit wordlessly with their Thai brides in the restaurants. Their lives appear to have little direction and they seem to be bored stiff. One such individual, a Scot, turned up with his wife for a drink in the guest house garden. Completely ignoring her, he began a conversation with a Swedish couple at a nearby table. I couldn't help overhearing as he began to expound his neo-fascist theories on the Second World War. According to him it was the Russians who murdered 6 million Jews, not the Nazis, they had not killed the mentally and physically disabled and there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz or any other camps. I tried my best to ignore him but as he rambled on I just had to interrupt and challenge him in my usual confrontational style. Eventually this shut him up. Later, after he had gone (dragging along the wife he had neglected all afternoon) I apologised to the Swedish couple for interrupting, but they were only too happy that I had done so and we quickly struck up a friendship.
Time passed easily at the guest house - the garden was comfortably furnished , the food was good, the beer ice - cold and the sunsets over the river among the best I've ever seen. And so it was with more than a little regret that I finally took my leave and climbed aboard a tuk-tuk bound for the Friendship Bridge to Laos.

Sunset over the Mekong at Nong Khai



Posted by MalcolmB 02:17 Archived in Thailand Comments (4)

Laos - 1

Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, Pak Beng, Houay Xai

semi-overcast 33 °C

I'm not sure why I feel such anxiety when I cross borders or arrive at immigration control. I don't think I fit the profile of a drug smuggler or people trafficker, but nevertheless, there is always a nervousness that something will go wrong and you will be refused entry, dragged into a featureless room and given the third degree. So it is always with a sense of relief when the paperwork is done, the passport is stamped and returned and you are sent on your way. Crossing into Laos was much the same, and having refused the exhorbitantly overpriced offers of the song-taa-ou and tuk-tuk drivers I boarded the number 14 bus and headed into Vientiane. Half an hour later I arrived at the central bus terminal and having once more ignored the requests for my custom set off to walk the mile to my pre-booked hotel. This allowed me to form a few impressions of what is one of the smallest capital cities in the world. It certainly doesn't feel like a capital city - there are few buildings taller than two or three stories and apart from three or four main streets the traffic is light.

I had only planned to stay a couple of days in Vientiane but having hired a bicycle and cycled to the Vietnamese Consulate I was informed that visa issuing protocols had recently changed and rather than being able to apply for a same day visa, as promised by the Lonely Planet, I would have to wait one whole working day before the process could be completed. As this was a Friday it meant that I couldn't collect my visa until 5 pm on the following Monday. So I stumped up my $70 US, handed over my passport and set off on my bike to explore the city. This didn't take long as there are only a couple of things worth the description of tourist attraction. One being the triumphal arch which was built with money that was donated by America which was intended to go towards developing the airport. It has therefore acquired the nickname "the Vertical Runway".

The "Vertical Runway" and my bicycle

One other place of note was an extremely sobering visit to the COPE centre http://copelaos.org which is dedicated to rehabilitating the victims of the UXOs or unexploded ordnance which still maim or kill hundreds of people every year. It has a small visitor centre which tells the story of America's secret war in which they tried to stop the infiltration of North Vietnamese soldiers into the south via the Ho Chi Minh trail through eastern Laos by carpet bombing it and attempting to destroy anything that moved. During a nine year period over two million tons of bombs (usually anti-personel cluster bombs) were dropped on Laos, killing and injuring innocent civilians as well as the intended targets. The tragic legacy, though, is that approximately 30% of the ordnance failed to explode and is still lying in the forests of eastern Laos. This means that there is an awful lot of scrap metal just lying around and the temptation for impoverished people, often children, to collect and sell it is often greater than the fear of injury. Unfortunately, over 100 people a year are still killed or severely injured by exploding UXOS. Please do look at their website.

For a hungry traveller craving a taste of home, Vientiane is a godsend. Thanks to it's colonial past there is a strong French influence and this is reflected in the quality and type of food available. A more than welcome change from rice and noodles! Perhaps the best of it is the baguettes, stuffed full of all sorts of delicious goodies.

My next stop was Vang Vieng, a four hour minivan trip north. Until 2012 VV had the reputation as the party capital of SE Asia where drunkeness and anything goes behaviour was the norm for many of it's young visitors. Then most of the bars along the river were closed by the government and VV returned to slightly calmer ways. Nevertheless, it is still full of young people intent on a good time. Despite it's beautiful setting on a river surrounded by limestone karsts, I hated it and left the following morning for Luang Prabang.

Where Vang Vieng is brash and noisy, Luang Prabang is calm and sophisticated and fully deserving of it's reputation as one of the must see sites in SE Asia. Set high above the banks of the Mekong it boasts great hotels and restaurants and is a magnet for tourists. As yet another place where it's so easy to relax and watch the world go by I stayed far longer than I intended.


Travelling by road in Laos is at it's best uncomfortable and at its worst a test of sanity and stamina . Buses and minivans are almost always packed as full as possible with passengers and luggage and often refuse to begin a journey until they are full, regardless of the timetable. On a journey from Muang Sing to Luang Nam Tha the bus even had child sized bamboo chairs in the aisle. People were climbing over each other to get on and off yet there are never any complaints. Another mini bus journey from Udomxai to Nong Khiaw was due to take 4 hours and leave at 9.00 am. It is essential to get to a bus station as early as possible in order to grab the best seats, late comers are guaranteed an even more uncomfortable time than the early birds, and so I arrived at 8.15 to find half of the 12 seats already spoken for. Nevertheless I managed to a fairly decent seat and settled down to wait for departure. At 9.45 we finally set off, the driver having given up any hope of filling the last two places, After a mile or two we stopped for fuel and after another few miles stopped again for ten minutes while the driver's papers were checked at a police road block. Then just as I was beginning to think there couldn't be any more delays we drew to a halt at the end of a long line of stationary traffic and waited and waited and waited. Eventually a few large trucks laden with road building materials went past followed by an earth mover on caterpillar tracks. I thought there must have a landslide, a common occurrence in the rainy season, but when we at last got moving again, after nearly an hour's delay, the truth became quickly apparent. The road was undergoing an almost total rebuild and so for the next four hours or more I was thrown around the inside of the mini bus as it hit pot hole after pot hole with bone jarring regularity.
The alternative, when available, is to travel by river. The journey up the Mekong from Luang Prabang to Houay Xai takes two days with an overnight stop at a guest house in Pak Beng. On buying my ticket I had been told I'd be picked up from my guest house between 7.30 and 8.30 am. By 8.20 with still no sigh of a tuk-tuk I was beginning to get a little worried as the boat was due to leave from a pier a few miles north of town at 9.00. I asked the manageress of my guest house to ring the travel agent and she was assured a tuk-tuk was on it's way. Fifteen minutes late it arrived and we then hurtled through the streets to the pier. Fortunately the boat was waiting for me and no sooner had I chambered aboard than off we went. The boat was packed with a mixture of locals and tourists and huge amounts of baggage but after some shuffling up and rearrangin a place was found for me near the front of the boat. I had read that the front was the best place to be but wasn't sure why until I went to the toilet at the back. The engine noise was deafening and I thanked my lucky stars that despite being the last to board I'd still managed to get one of the best seats. The next two days were a joy as I watched the scenery slip by and chatted to some of the passengers. At one point, having dozed off, I was awakened by excited voices and looked down to see a catfish flapping around on the floor of the boat. I assumed it must have jumped aboard but one of the men opposite me bundled it into a plastic bag and stuffed it under his seat I realised that it was his dinner that had momentarily escaped.

Occasionally we pulled into the bank to disembark passengers and the shopping they'd done in Luang Prabang (including the catfish which was still wriggling) but sadly sites of village life were rare as they were set away from the river and possible flooding and usually screened by trees. There was also little in the way of bird life and other river traffic which surprised me. However the ever changing landscape was never less than beautiful and sometimes stunning.

Posted by MalcolmB 22:02 Archived in Laos Comments (3)

Laos - 2

Houay Xai, Luang Nam Tha, Muang Sing, Udomxai, Nong Khiaw, Muang Ngoi, Luang Prabang

semi-overcast 30 °C

Houay Xai, the end of my boat journey, is a small town on the border crossing with Thailand. As such this is it's raison d'etre and there is nothing to see and so I took another long and uncomfortable minvan ride to Luang Nam Tha which is set in a large flat valley surrounded by imposing and thickly forested hills. Again there is little see here but the encircling countryside was said to be very beautiful and so I hired a motorbike and helmet in order to see it. Few people in Laos, especially in the remoter ares bother with helmets and nor surprisingly it has one of the worst records for motorbike deaths in the world. It's over 30 years since I've driven a bike, so being just a little nervous, I hired an automatic for the grand sum of 60,000 kip plus 20,000 for fuel (£6.40) and set out for the highways and byways.
It's rice planting season in northern Laos and the paddy fields were full of water and the fresh green of newly planted shoots. Occasionally I would come across fields in the process of being ploughed and gangs of women, backs bent and shaded by sun hats and umbrellas, up to their calves in mud while planting.

Rice planters near Luang Nam Tha

I spent a wonderful day circling the town, sometimes going up into the hills and also visiting a couple of stupas before returning the bike in the late afternoon, literally seconds before the heavens opened and a deluge began. Perfect timing to end a perfect day!

The next day it was back in a minivan for the six hour trip to Muang Sing near the northern border with Burma and China. The road snaked up into the hills and it wasn't long before the three "ethnic" tribeswomen were throwing up into plastic bags and making the most incredibly disgusting noises as they did so. Half way through the journey we stopped for a toilet break and these three lowered their trousers and peed at the side of the road in full view of everyone and without showing the slightest embarrassment. I thought about taking a photo but decided this may be bit indelicate. I regret my sensitivity now for although their clothing was western their headdresses were covered with silver bells, silver keys and silver coins, one of which had Britannia on it and I can only assume was a British crown, possibly from the days of Britain's brief foray into these parts in Victoria times.

As the minivan pulled into Muang Sing I fervently hoped that this down at heel town wasn't the end of the journey, but of course I knew from its size that it was. Like Luang Nam Tha it was in a flat valley surrounded by hills but I quickly discovered that, as the guidebooks said, very few tourists ventured this far and the town had very few tourist amenities. Nevertheless, I found a comfortable hotel, but failed to find a decent restaurant and had to make do with fried cabbage and ancient mushrooms with cold sticky rice. Unappetising, but filling. The town, like so many in SE Asia was set out on a grid system but at least half the roads were pot-holed dirt tracks. There wasn't much to see but it was an authentic Laos town with all that that entails. The market was the most interesting I've seen so far with bags of frogs and large bowls full of eels and fish (all still alive and kicking) as well as the usual vegetable and meat stalls. I again hired a motorbike, this time with gears, and after a few minutes practice, headed off to the hills. I even got to within a hundred yards of the Chinese border but decided that was close enough. You can never be too careful at border crossings! It is so much better being at the controls than sitting on the back at someone else's mercy.

From Muang Sing another minivan took me to Udomxai from where the ride from hell started as already described in my last post. However, the journey was worth it just for the fabulous scenery that awaited me on arrival at the small town of Nong Khiaw.

On the road to Nong Khiaw
Panorama of Nong Khiaw
Nong Khiaw

After three nights there I headed to the town's boat pier and chambered a very crowded small boat and with legs entrapped by bags of vegetables made the 90 minute trip upriver to Muang Ngoi which was even more idyllic. A 500 metre dirt road running parallel to the river is the centre of town. Tracks spur off down to the river and homes, restaurants and guesthouses cling to the bank. But that's all there is. The road goes nowhere at either end and the only way in or out is by boat.

Muang Ngoi High Street
The boat pier looking north
The village massage parlour

I had intended to take the river further north for six hours to Muang Khua where I would pick up the bus to Vietnam, but on arriving at the boat pier at 8.45 am I soon realised that realised that I was the only one wanting to head in that direction and so there would be no boat. On asking if there would be one the following day the best answer I could get was, "Maybe". So I had the choice of waiting another day or returning the way I'd come. To be on the safe side, as my visa had only four days left on it, I chose the latter and returned first by boat and then by minivan all the way to Luang Prabang from where I knew I could get a 24 hour sleeper bus to Hanoi if the worst came to the worst. Fortunately, it didn't come to that as there was a minivan that left Luang Prabang every other day bound for Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam and so at 5.30 am I arrived at the bus station and set off north once more. Ironically, part of the ten hour trip was along the same stretch of road as the journey from hell already described, but this time in reverse.
After a great deal of discomfort we finally reached the border and checked out of Laos at the laid back and chaotic control post and then into Vietnam at the far more efficient and officious Vietnamese equivalent.

Posted by MalcolmB 08:04 Archived in Laos Comments (3)

Vietnam 1

Dien Bien Phu, Sapa

overcast 25 °C

I had heard that the roads in Vietnam were far better than those in Laos but the twenty odd mile journey from the border to Dien Bien Phu showed this to be untrue. However, after a lot more bumping and bouncing we eventually arrived in Dien Bien Phu and together with an American man and a French Canadian girl, Corine, I'd met on the minivan and a Dutch couple we'd met at the border I quickly found a room that on later inspection proved to be the dirtiest I'd seen for some time. It was cheap, however, and once we'd dropped our bags and had a quick shower the five of us set out to find some food. This proved far from easy, but we eventually fetched up in a local restaurant and sampled the local fare which, sadly, was rather disappointing.
The following morning it was pouring with rain but undeterred we (minus the American who wanted to do his own thing) spent the day wandering around the city, taking in the museum which tells the story of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, and getting thoroughly soaked.

My first day in Vietnam

At 5.30 pm after a quick change of clothes, the four of us climbed aboard a sleeper bus bound for Sapa. This turned into more of an experience than any of us had bargained for. There were three rows of seats, two high, which didn't fully recline so that each person's legs were beneath the seat of the person in front, and two aisles between them. My seat was on the top near the rear of the bus and was easy enough to reach by walking up the aisle. However, when I looked down a few minutes later the aisle was filled with reclining bodies taking up every inch of space and meaning that to traverse the bus one had to clamber monkey style above them. A feat at which the bus's conductor was extremely adept.

My three companions, Corine, Martin and Susanah on the sleeper bus to Sapa

Although the seats were fairly comfortable and the road not too bumpy, (perhaps the roads aren't too bad after all) sleep was hard to come by as every 20 minutes or so the lights would be switched on for no apparent reason and the retching sounds of another passenger throwing up were loud enough to wake the dead. It seemed that this was a sleeper bus on which they were determined no one would sleep. Eventually though, things settled down and I fell asleep only to be awakened at 5.00 am as we reached Sapa. Almost in a stupor I stumbled off the bus into the pouring rain, grabbed my pack which had been unceremoniously dumped in a very muddy puddle at the side of the road and was now filthy, both front and back, and huddled in the shelter of a doorway with the others. We had now been joined by a French Canadian couple, Will and Claudia, and three ethnic women who were waiting for the bus now tried to interest us in a trek and homestay at their village. At five in the morning, in the dark and pouring rain, negotiating a trek was the last thing we needed and so we bundled ourselves into a couple of taxis and found a hostel and booked a dorm for the six of us. Unfortunately, it wasn't available until 1.00 pm and so leaving our packs in the lobby we waited until it got light and then set off to find breakfast at the market on the other side of town. Here we met three lovey ladies who with their infectious smiles and good humour convinced Corine and I to do a trek and homestay with them the following day.

Mama G'hung, Ling and unknown lady, our guides and hostesses

We arranged to meet at our hostel at 9.00am and went on our way to explore the rest of the town which is set at about 1500 metres amid a mountainous landscape of which Fansipan at 3143 metres is the highest point in Vietnam. The town began life in the early twentieth century as a French hill station and has developed into a tourist magnet that draws Vietnamese and Chinese holiday makers as well as numerous western backpackers. Sapa and the surrounding area comprises several ethnic groups. Firstly there are the Vietnamese who have migrated here to take advantage of the opportunities that tourism provides and now own and run almost all the local businesses. Then there are the ethnic minorities such as the Red Dao and the H'mong (pronounced mong) who are divided into different tribes: the Black H'mong named for their almost black indigo died costumes and the Flower H'mong who wear far brighter colours. These tribes, who have been here for many centuries, farm the surrounding mountainsides and supplement their incomes by wandering the streets selling handicrafts and arranging treks to their villages. Of course, it's the women and sometimes their children who do this - the men are nowhere to be seen but that may just be because they no longer wear traditional dres and are difficult to distinguish from the crowd.

Red Dao women selling at the roadside

Black H'mong women at the market


After wandering aimlessly for a few hours, we eventually gained access to our dorm and gratefully and exhaustedly tumbled into our bunks where we all slept till late afternoon. After dinner that evening we took part in a pub quiz at the hostel which Marain, Will and I actually won.

The following morning Corine and I said goodbye to those of our group who were awake, stored our packs in the luggage room and went outside to meet our guides. We then met up with another couple, strangely enough, also French Canadians, and their guide. Of the last eight people I've met five were from Quebec. The place must be almost empty. Fairly soon we began to climb into the hills and as my legs began to ache and my breathing became more laboured I promised myself - not for the first time - that this would be my final trek. However, after a couple of hours the path began to level out and the views were more than enough to compensate for the pain.


As we progressed it transpired that Ling and Mama G'hung (pronounced shung) had misheard my name and now thought that I was called Mountain. They thought this was hilarious and it became even more so when I told them I had two sons. From that moment on I became Papa Mountain and they took great delight in introducing me as such to everyone we met. We finally arrived at their village in the late afternoon and the French Canadian couple went off to their homestay leaving Corine and I to relax at ours while our hostesses prepared dinner. The house we were to stay in was very basic with almost no amenities. Water was diverted from a nearby waterfall and the "bathroom" consisted of an ouside squat toilet reached by some very slippery steps and only partially screened from public view by a piece of sacking. Flushing was achieved by means of a pan of water from a nearby barrel. Cooking was done on an open fire inside the house and beds were to found wherever there was space. It's unlikely that the bedding on mine had been changed any time in the past two or three months.

Mama G'hung's house

Soon after dark dinner was served at a small round table and six of us clustered around to enjoy rice, pumpkin, tofu and tomato, morning glory and wild mushrooms. When we had eaten our fill Papa G'hung disappeared for a few minutes only to reappear with a plastic bottle full of happy water, a locally brewed rice wine rather like the Japanese sake.

Papa G'hung and his water pipe

He filled our small porcelain cups and I sipped slowly at mine, quickly realising that this was strong stuff and that etiquette demanded that it be downed in one as Papa G'hung demonstrated. After a few minutes pause our cups were refilled and having clanked cups and wished everyone "chukah" or cheers we knocked them back. This process continued until the bottle was empty upon which Papa G'hung went off to find another. The happy water kept flowing, the laughter grew louder and eventually the second bottle was drained. Papa suggested that we have just one more and then bed. I thought he meant one more cupful, but he actually meant one more bottle. Somehow we managed to drain this and staggered off to our respective beds.

Last man standing!

Of course, I woke the following morning with a raging hangover, but this was unlike any hangover I've had before, and I've had one or two with which to compare. When I tried to stand the room began to spin violently and I knew there was no way I could continue the trek. So while Corine went off to explore more of the valley I tried to sleep while family life went on around me. Around three in the afternoon I felt well enough to join the family who were just finishing lunch and were most of the way through another bottle of happy water which they insisted I partake of. I sipped tentatively as they finished the bottle and then took my leave of them. No doubt another bottle was produced after I left as Corine later told me that when she returned from her day's trekking they'd completely forgotten to prepare dinner. I returned the ten kilometres to Sapa on the back of a motorbike, swerving around the potholes, occasionally hitting them, and clinging on for dear life. After 40 minutes of unimaginable terror we drew up outside my hostel and offering a prayer of thanks I dismounted and sought the refuge and comfort of my bunk.
I had hoped to spend a day or two renting a motor bike and exploring more of the area but each morning I woke up experiencing the kind of giddiness you get after spinning in a circle. As the day wore on the symptoms diminished to the point that I felt fine. However, each morning they returned with the same worrying intensity. It was very similar to the symptoms I'd had during my bout of food poisoning in Chiang Mai a couple of months before and I began to suspect that as I'd been having similar but far milder symptoms since then something remained in my system that was occasionally triggered by something I ate or drank.
After three more nights in Sapa I decided to leave and caught the night sleeper train to Hanoi. It pulled into Hanoi station at 4.30 am this morning (31st July) and I am delighted to report that when I awoke the dizziness had almost entirely disappeared.

Posted by MalcolmB 06:01 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Vietnam 2


rain 28 °C

(Having arrived in Hanoi at 4.30 am it was still pitch black and surprise, surprise, raining steadily. I therefore decide that my best course of action would be to wait at the station until it got light and hopefully stopped raining. And so it wasn't until about 6.30 that I arrived at my hotel and woke the night porter. Unsurprisingly, my room was still occupied and I was told it might not be ready for me until one in the afternoon. Leaving my pack I decided to go and find some breakfast and explore the Old Quarter of the city and having done that i ended up at a pavement cafe where I had a couple of beers while watching the traffic . The cafe is on a crossroads where the traffic converges from five directions. It is mainly motorbikes and cars with the odd bus and bicycle. There are no traffic lights and giving way is not something anyone does unless absolutely essential. Somehow everyone seems to be able to pick a path through the mêlée and with a few twists and turns if necessary they emerge unscathed on the other side of the junction. It reminds me of the stunts performed by teams of police motrcyclists that you sometimes see at events in the UK. It also never ceases to amaze me just how much you can load onto a motorbike, whether it be four or five people or loads that reach a ridiculous height or width and seem to defy the laws of physics. On one I saw a large cage of chickens with two ducks sitting nonchalantly on top as it weaved through the chaos.


As a pedestrian, crossing the road is usually a leap of faith. Standing at the roadside and waiting is not an option as the stream of traffic is relentless. Instead one ventures slowly out looking for spaces to advance into as the traffic weaves around you. As long as you stand still when necessary and advance when you can everything seems to be fine. Whatever you do though, do not step backwards as this confuses everyone and disaster can result. Like many Asian cities, walking anywhere is fraught with danger. Eyes must be constantly focused on the ground in order to avoid the million and one hazards that lie in wait for the unwary. Pavements are often obstructed by all manner of obstacles, whether it be parked cars and motorbikes or pavement cafes and holes in the ground, and so walking on the side of the road as the traffic speeds by is often the lesser of two evils.

The following day I decided to pay a visit to Ho Chi Minh. Unfortunately, he wasn't at home, or rather, he was, but not accepting visitors. If I'd done a little research I would have known that the mausoleum where his body is preserved in formaldehyde is only open between 8.00 and 11.00am and having indulged in a late and leisurely breakfast I had arrived too late.

To make matters worse it then began to rain, a heavy persistent downpour that soon had the streets awash with water. Judging from the leaden grey sky and the occasional clap of thunder it would rain for quite some time and so I decided that I may as well walk back to my hotel. Despite having an umbrella I was soaked to the skin, but after a hot shower and change of clothes it was out again, this time for a haircut and then a few beers and some people and traffic watching.


On Sunday morning (2nd August) I paid another visit to Uncle Ho, this time finding him at home. I joined the fast moving queue of Vietnamese pilgrims and curious tourists wrapped in plastic raincoats and huddled under umbrellas and shuffled into the Soviet style mausoleum and past the great leader's body. in and out in less than two minutes. Ho lies in a glass casket with a light shining down on him. He looks more ĺike a waxwork than a human being but I guess that if you've been pickled for 40 old years that's only natural. Apparently, Ho wanted a simple cremation on his death but now suffers the indignity of being the centre piece of what amounts to a freak show for gawping tourists such as myself. Most of the visitors though are Vietnamese and I'm sure that many of those are there to revere him although the lightheartedness of the queue would suggest they are in the minority. To keep Ho's body in the best possible condition the mausoleum is closed for two months a year while he is sent to Russia for maintenance. A sad end for a truly great man.

Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum

There aren't many must see sights in Hanoi but there a couple more worthy of mention. Firstly, the Hao Lo prison which was built by the French to imprison Vietnamese revolutionaries. What's left of it is grim and depressing and it takes little imagination to appreciate the sufferings of kit's inmates. One exhibit is a guillotine used to execute many of the revolutionaries. During the Vietnam War or the American War as they call it here the prison was used to incarcerate some of the American aircrew who were shot down and captured. Among these was John McCain, a US Senator and former presidential candidate. For them, the prison became known as the "Hanoi Hilton" and although the conditions under which they were confined were undoubtedly tough they were far better than those endured by their Vietnamese predecessors.

Hao Lo Prison - the "Hanoi Hilton"

The second sight of note is the Temple of Literature, a temple dedicated to Confucius and one of the few places of any antiquity.



Despite its relative lack of tourist attractions Hanoi is a wonderful city. It has an energy and vibrancy and much of life is lived on the street which means it is always fascinating. The Old Quarter is a maze of narrow, traffic clogged streets where the old and new ways of doing things exist side by side.


According to BBC World Service weather report I saw, much of northern Vietnam has had over a metre of rain within the past week causing flooding in some areas. However there is also a plus side as the rain has the effect of bringing down the temperature dramatically. The Last few days in Sapa and Hanoi have been in the mid twenties - very pleasant and a huge relief from the baking temps and humidity I've still not really acclimatised to.

Posted by MalcolmB 20:11 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Vietnam 3

Cat Ba Island, Phong Nha, Hue, Da Nang and Saigon

sunny 34 °C

After a four hour bus ride from Hanoi to Haiphong, followed by a 40 minute journey from the city centre to the harbour, a 30 minute trip by ferry to the island and then another 30 minute bus trip I finally arrived in a damp and driizzly Cat Ba Town. The town has sprung up from almost nothing in the last ten years or so, purely to cater for the growing tourist trade. As such it nothing but hotels, restaurants, bars and travel agencies. Strangely though, the place seemed almost deserted as I walked along the front that evening in search of food. It was the same the following day which again was raining, frustrating my plan to hire a motor bike and see the island. There was hardly anyone to be seen other than a few locals waiting morosely for business that was almost non-existent.


I decided to book a boat trip for the following day, hoping there would be enough people - six - to make it viable. Fortunately, there were nine of us who turned up the next morning and set off in a large boat that could cater for 48. After a rainy start the clouds began to break up and it turned into a beautiful day. The scenery was spectacular as we sailed slowly through the thousands of limestone islands that make up Lan Ha and Ha Long bays. Just before lunch we stopped for a swim, leaping off the boat's top deck into the clear, warm water. Surely the most idyllic setting I've ever swum in. After a delicious seafood lunch we all climbed into kayaks and spent a couple of hours exploring, paddling though caves (one of which was 200 metres long, pitch black and with a roof just a few inches above our heads) and into hidden lagoons totally isolated from the outside world. We spent the rest of the day.drifting through the islands and sunbathing, finally returning to harbour at sunset. Over a beer I logged on to the Internet and discovered that England had reduced the Ausies to 49 for 9! Could a day be any more perfect? And now that the sun had reappeared so too had the tourists. The town had miraculously come back to life.


The following day I hired a motorbike to explore the island. Truth to tell there wasn't a great deal to see other than the scenery and a cave that was used as a hospital by the Viet Cong during the war. Concrete rooms had been built inside the cave but despite this water dripped constantly through the ceiling. It must have been an extremely depressing place in which to recover from injuries. The island has only two main roads. Cat Ba Town and the ferry port lie at the ends of one of them, but I was unable to reach the end of the other. I'd already ridden through floodwater a foot deep on couple of occasions but on entering a village a few miles from roads end it quickly became clear that the floodwater here was at least chest deep as evidenced by the tourist who was wading through it with a suitcase in his head. Why he didn't use the boats that were ferrying people from one side of the flood to the other, I have no idea, but I guess he had his reasons.


I left Cat Ba at eight the next morning - bus, boat, bus and then another bus to Ninh Binh where I had hoped to jump almost immediately onto yet another bus for Phong Nha. However, there was nothing until eight that evening which meant killing 6 hours in a town with nothing to do. Long waits like this are not unusual though and I have become very good at waiting patiently while the time slips slowly by. In this case I sat at a cafe drinking Coca Cola and observing the comings and goings at the nearby train station. Eventually, I boarded a sleeper bus and arrived in Phong Nha at four the next morning where I tumbled exhausted into bed at the nearest guesthouse to catch up on my sleep. On venturing out for breakfast I was greeted by a cloudless blue sky and the kind of searing heat I hadn't experienced for a week or two. Everything and anything takes an effort of will and the smallest patch of shade is sought as one walks down the street. The area around Phong Nha is a national park and boasts the largest and longest caves in the world. The limestone karsts of this region date back some 400 million years and are riddled with caves and underground rivers. Many have only recently been discovered and large parts of them are still to be fully explored. Due to the intense heat I decided to visit the nearest cave rather than the largest which would have involved some trekking and, with a few other people encountered at the ticket office, hired a boat to take us along the river to the Phong Nha cave The first part of the trip took us past jagged karsts, wallowing water buffalo and the occasional church steeple (strangely enough churches are far more in evidence than pagodas or temples in Vietnam). Then as we approached the low opening to the cave the engine was cut and the two women crew members manned (or should that be womanned) the oars and paddled the boat along the first 600 metres of the underground river. Oddly enough, the male crew member sat down and did nothing! Apparently the underground part of the river is over eight kilometres in length but only the first part is open to the public. That, however, is more than enough for one to be completely awestruck by the scale of the cathedral like spaces of the caverns and the incredible rock formations that have been created over millions of years.


At eight the following morning I took the local bus, complete with goat which was trussed up and stowed behind the rear seats from where it complained loudly and plaintively, to Dong Hoi where again there was a long wait of four and a half hours before the train to Hue departed. Vietnamese trains have many different classes including hard seat, hard sleeper, soft seat and soft sleeper among others. The only available tickets were in hard seat class and as what I had thought would be a four hour journey turned into one of seven hours I gained a thorough understanding of why the wooden slats upon which I squirmed were so called. On the plus side it was incredibly cheap - just 59 dong (£1.80) for a journey of about 170 kilometres.
Hue turned out to be a pleasant city with a well developed tourist enclave which unfortunately does have a seedy side. On a short walk around the block near my hotel I was repeatedly offered drugs or the services of a "lady" or ladyboy by pimps on motorbikes. Hue was once a capital of Vietnam and at the beginning of the 19th century an imperial city, rather like the forbidden city in Beijing, was built here for the ruling Nyugen dynasty. Sadly much of it was destroyed, firstly in battles between the French and Vietnamese as France tried to reassert it's control of the country after WWII and by American bombing in 1968. Some building did survive though and others are being restored.

Could this be what inspired the design of our old phone boxes?

From Hue an eight hour bus ride took me to the very modern and obviously prosperous city of Danang. For the tourist there is very little to essential here but I needed to extend my visa and had discovered on the Internet that it could be easily done at the immigration office. On arriving there the following morning the woman I spoke to ummed and ahhed and then asking me to wait disappeared for few minutes. On her return she passed me a very small piece of paper with a name on it. "This is the name of a travel agent who will help you apply," she said.
"Is there an address?" I asked.
"You can find it on the Internet," she replied.
"Is it in Danang?" I then enquired.
"No, it's in Hanoi," she said.
I couldn't believe my ears. Apparently I had to go back to Hanoi because it was the nearest large town to where I had crossed the border from Laos. Why I had to use the services of a travel agency I never did work out. Vietnamese bureaucracy can be complex and extremely frustrating and as the rules keep changing there is very little reliable information to be found on the Web and the guidebooks are all out of date. After informing the poor woman, who was only following procedures, that if Vietnam wanted to encourage tourists to visit it was going the wrong way about it I stormed out in a huff leaving her silly piece of paper on the counter. There was no way I was going to retrace my steps all the way back to Hanoi and so after a bit of thinking I decided to try my luck in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City, but almost nobody calls it that). If I couldn't extend my visa there I could always make the relatively short hop over the border to Cambodia and perhaps return at a later date. It would mean skipping a few places that were on my itinerary but I could do them later. And so I booked a train ticket for 1.15 pm the following day, this time in soft seat class and my mood was considerably lightened on discovering I was entitled to a 20% discount due to my venerable age.
And so after yet another train ride, this time of 14 hours but in considerably more comfort , I arrived in Saigon at 6.00 am the next morning (Saturday 15th August) , and jumped in a taxi for Pham Ngu Lao, a collection of streets and alleys that makes up the backpacker area of Saigon.


Later that morning I set off to find a travel agent (there are literally dozens in Pham Ngu Lao) that could help with my visa application. Some told me it would cost $75 US and take 7 working days, meaning I'd be stuck in Saigon or 10 days or more, others were considerably cheaper but still needed anything from 5 to ten working days. Eventually though, I found one that quoted $65 US and only 2 days. With not a little trepidation I handed over the readies and my passport and said a little prayer. Ever since losing my passport in India I've hated letting it out of my sight. But - ye of little faith - when I returned on the Tuesday there was my passport duly stamped with a new visa allowing me another month in a country that I am growing rather fond of.
Although Hanoi is he capital Saigon makes it look somewhat provincial in comparison. It has undergone a lot of rebuilding in recent years with its fair share of skycrapers, but there are still many old and beautiful buildings from the time of the French which make it an intriguing mixture and in spite of the huge number of motorbikes one in which walking is a pleasure. Of course, one can't think of Saigon without thinking of its troubled past and there are many landmarks which evoke this, such as the hotel where Graham Green often stayed and the cafe where much of his novel, "The Quiet American" is set. There is also the bar in which foreign correspondents would gather just before Saigon fell to the Vet Cong in 1975. All this contributes to a city which is dynamic and enterprising but still maintains strong links with its past.


Posted by MalcolmB 22:52 Archived in Vietnam Comments (4)

Vietnam 4

Nha Trang, Dalat, Hoi An, Saigon, Can Tho, Rach Gia and Phu Quoc

semi-overcast 20 °C

After four nights in Saigon I decided to head back north, taking a bus north to Nha Trang where I hoped to find a small and relaxing sea-side town where I could spend a few days on the beach. Unfortunately, Nha Trang is a fairly large city and its beach is the sort that is packed with sun loungers and parasols. It is also full of Russian tourists and try as I might I find them very difficult to warm to them. Nevertheless, for the three days I spent there I hired a sunbed and stretched out in the shade and took the occasional swim.

Nha Trang beach with storm approaching

I had hoped that the seawater would help to clear up the sores which have appeared on my lower right leg. I'm not entirely sure where I picked them up but over the last few days what started as mosquito bites have become infected and developed into tropical ulcers which are extremely painful. I thought about putting a photo of them on here but they really aren't very nice to look at. They are about an inch and a half in diameter where the skin has been eaten away exposing raw flesh. They constantly exude a nasty, sticky pus and refuse to form a scab that stays on. Sorry about the gory details. Anyway, the salt water didn't help and so I decided to come to Dalat which at 1500 metres above sea level has a climate similar in nature to an averge English summer. In fact, it's so cool that most of the locals wear jackets even during the day and in the evenings so do I!
I managed to hobble around the town for the first day and do a little sight seeing and buy some new sandals but it soon became apparent that the ulcers weren't getting any better and so the next morning I pitched up at the local hospital's emergency department . I had come expecting a long wait, but immediately was seen by a very attractive nurse who whisked me off to see a doctor, where another nurse cleaned and bandaged them, and then to the pharmacy to pick up the three different antibiotics and the iodine, swabs and bandages that he prescribed.
Two days later the wounds seem to be a little better, but are still very painful. Further bulletins to come.

Avocados 3 to 4 times bigger than you get in Sainsburys

Health bulletin: Four days later and I'm delighted to report the antibiotics and the iodine have done the trick. The wounds have dried up and are healing nicely. The only downside is the pain I have just below the calf in both legs which makes walking any distance impossible. I can only think it's a side effect of the abs. As the days pass, though, the pain is easing and hopefully in a few more days I'll be back to full fitness.

After a four hour bus ride back to Nha Trang and then a twelve hour overnight sleeper bus I arrived in Hoi An at six in the morning. It seems that whether you travel by bus or train average speeds only reach 20 to 25 miles an hour and journey times are therfore very long. Travelling overnight is very popular but the downside is that you often arrive at your destination in the very early morning. Unlike me, however, the Vietnamese like to start their day early and by 6.30 am or so things are usually in full swing. It is usually possible to check in at a hotel soon after you arrive and this I did, falling into bed and catching a bit more sleep. Sleeper busses are OK but they have been designed for the generally rather small Vietnamese and it's impossible to stretch out fully. The berths are also on the narrow side. and getting a decent night's sleep is not easy.
Hoi An is an absolute delight. It sits on a river a couple of miles inland from the sea and was once a very important trading port with a large Chinese community. However, as it's harbour began to silt up it lost its prominence and became a forgotten backwater as other towns along the coast took its trade. As they began to develop into modern cities, Hoi An remained unchanged, retaining the architecture which contributes so much to its character. Today it survives on tourism and although most of the buildings in the old quarter are connected to the tourist trade there is still plenty of authentic local life such as the market and food hall to give it a lived in feel. Another huge plus is that all motorised traffic, including the confounded motorbike, is banned from the old quarter for much of the day, thus making walking the streets, where soothing piano music is broadcast over the PA system, a pleasure.


Hoi An has a reputation as one of the best places in the country for food and so far it has lived up to its billing. Sad to say I have found the food in Vietnam a bit disappointing. Perhaps I order the wrong things or am not being adventurous enough, but I have had very few really enjoyable meals so far. Hoi An has been a different story though, and I seem to spend most of my time wandering from cafe to restaurant and back again sampling the fruit juices and goodies, especially the seafood. The food hall is especially rewarding. Next to market, whose traders it mainly caters to, it contains a couple of dozen small open kitchens where one sits at a metal bench to eat the cheap but delicious food on offer. There are a few dishes that most of the stalls have in common but some kitchens will have dishes that are not sold by all and it's possible to order from different stalls and they will bring your food to wherever you are sitting.


There is also a beautiful beach just two or three miles from town and I reach this in 20 minutes on a hired bicycle. The Banyan is the penultimate beach shack bar/restaurant before the beach becomes undeveloped and it is here that I lay my weary body down on a sunbed in the shade of a parasol, occasionally venturing into the water or to the bar for a beer. This area of the beach only becomes busy in the late afternoon and so for most of the day I share yards and yards of sand with just a handful of others.


I could quite happily spend longer in Hoi An but feel that I must see more of the country, especially the Mekong Delta, and so I make plans to travel back to Saigon. The sleeping bus leaves at 6.00 pm and, I am assured, is direct to Saigon and takes 21 hours. In the event the journey takes 25 hours and I have to change buses in Nha Trang where with a few others I spend four hours, from 4.00 am until 8.00 am, waiting on a pavement for the connection. I do however manage to grab a quick breakfast of fried squid and french fries at a nearby restaurant which has just opened for the early morning trade. Finally I arrive in Saigon at seven in the evening in the middle of a heavy thunderstorm which drenches me to the skin with seconds of alighting from the bus and reclaiming my pack. There is nothing for it but to trudge through the streets in search of hotel. Finding the first two I try fully booked I end up paying twice as much as I would like just to get out of the rain. Next time I'll pay a little more and take the sleeper train!
The next day I board a bus to Can Tho, the largest city in the delta. In this area the land is criss-crossed by large and small rivers and canals as the Mekong divides into countless tributaries (not the right word, I know) as it nears the coast. I hire a boat and boatman and set off in the dark at 5.00 am for the floating market a few miles down stream. An occasional drizzle seems to dampen the spirits of the traders and much of their produce is covered in plastic sheeting which unfortunately obscures any colour there might otherwise be as the dawn breaks.


We also visit a noodle factory where I observe the fascinating process of turning rice flour into noodles and cruise sedately between verdant
rice paddies and banana trees.


I had hoped to to travel by boat between various towns in the delta but due to faster and cheaper buses there are now very few ferries left, and none it would seem going where I want to go, and so I decide instead to head for the island of Phu Quoc which is just off the coast. Despite leaving Can Tho early in the morning I miss the last hydrofoil to the island and am forced to spend the night in Rach Gia. I quickly come to dislike the place intensely. There are more more motorbikes racing through the streets than anywhere else I've been and I tramp around the town for ages before I find a Vietnamese restaurant that has pictures of its menu so that I have some idea of what I'm ordering. I go for a Thai hot pot which involves me cooking tofu and vegetables and a few other things I can't identify in a boiling and seething broth at my table. The hot pot lives up to its name and because of its spiciness I am am unable to eat much of it. Despite this I am still overcharged on the bill. This seems to be common practice in Rach Gia where everywhere I go the price is inflated to tourist level.
I am glad to board the boat at 8.00 am the next morning for the four hour trip to Phu Quoc, but half way across the sky begins to darken and before long the rain is lashing down. This turns out to be the beginning of Tropical storm Vamco which innudates much of south-east Asia and lasts for almost a week bringing thunderstorms, strong winds and rainfall as heavy as I've ever seen. Any plans I had of spending some time on the beach go out of the window as the wind blows and the waves crash violently onto the shoreline. There are breaks in the rain though, and I manage to spend one day exploring the south of the island by motorbike. An Thoi at it's southern most point has a large harbour crammed with fishing boats and locals sorting and packing their catch.

For those of you having difficulty imagining me on a motorbike

But this day is an exception and as the rain continues much of my time is spent either in a bar or reading in my room which is becoming increasingly damp to the point where water begins to drip through the ceiling. Being the low season in this part of Vietnam there are only a handful of tourists around, either Vietnamese or westerners, and the area I am staying in resembles a ghost town. On some occasions I am the only person in a bar, outnumbered six to one by the staff. It's a very strange feeling.

And so my time in Vietnam comes to a wet and slightly miserable end, but overall, considering that this is the rainy season, I have been very lucky with the weather during the last two months. I have come to love Vietnam with its many varied landscapes and it's people who have been charming, friendly and hospitable. I am sad to leave but time moves on and visas expire.
Health bulletin: thankfully my tropical ulcers have completely healed and the pain in my legs has gone leaving me fully mobile but with some scars which will probably remain as souvenirs of an otherwise wonderful visit to a truly amazing country.

Posted by MalcolmB 17:57 Archived in Vietnam Comments (4)

Cambodia 1

Kep, Kampot, Sihanoukville (Otres Beach), Phnom Penh


On crossing the border into Cambodia it quickly becomes apparent that there is a huge gulf in the prosperity of the two countries. The quality of he roads deteriorates and there is less traffic. The houses are more likely to be the traditional wooden type on stilts rather than the concrete boxes with ornate balconies which are becoming prevalent over much of SE Asia and are favoured by those who have the means to rebuild.


Whereas Vietnam was very clean the piles of rubble and rubbish in the streets of Cambodia testify to the poverty of many of its people. It is a truism that wherever one finds deprivation there will also be garbage. In many areas of Phnom Penh, for example, the stench of decaying refuse can be overpowering.
Despite this there are many positives and endearing aspects. One of these is the fondness Cambodia has for quirky statues, many of which can be seen at roundabouts. Some of these celebrate ordinary people such as the salt workers near Kampot...


while the reasoning behind others is a little more obscure. For example, the naked lady who looks out to sea in Kep is regularly draped in clothing to preserve her modesty by the more conservative members of the town, and just as regularly disrobed by those who are not so prudish.


In keeping with their statues Kep and Kampot were strange places. Kep existed entirely for the tourist trade - Cambodian and Vietnamese rather than western - and consisted of a small central bus station and a few restaurants near the man-made beach and very little else other than hotels and guest houses set back from the coast road. The town's only claim to fame seems to be the Crab Market and the large number of shanty type seafood restaurants that have sprung up beside it.


Kampot has a large number of expats, many of them men of middling years who seem to be on their own. This was unusual as they didn't seem to fit the normal profile of men with Asian wives and girlfriends or travellers, but then I read somewhere that the area has far more than its fair share of paedophiles. It became difficult not to look at these men and wonder about their motives for being there. I was glad to leave and and head for a couple of days on the beach new Sihanoukville. The great advantage of travelling in low season is that while the weather might be a bit on the damp side at times there are far less tourists around. This was certainly the case at Otres Beach where I had the place almost to myself. Bliss!


Rested (not that I really needed it) and refreshed I headed for the chaotic urban buzz that is Phnom Penh. More than anywhere I've been, one becomes aware of the struggle to make a living. Motorbike and tuk-tuk drivers constantly importune for custom and offer more dubious services. I had read that that the touts in Cambodia were a problem but have found that a smile and a polite, "No thank you," is almost always enough to repulse their attentions. Compared to their counterparts in India they are amateurs.

Phnom Penh cyclo drivers wait for custom

Phnom Penh architecture

Wednesday 30th September - Just how does one write about a day such as this. A million thoughts are running through my mind and my emotions are in turmoil. Tears keep springing to my eyes as I sit here and try to rationalise what I have seen and heard today. Today was my sixth day in Phnom Penh and subconsciously I think I've been putting off a visit to the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Prison or S-21 as it was known. I knew I had to go there. But why? Was it to satisfy an unhealthy goulish curiousity? Undoubtedly, this was part of my motivation. Was it to indulge in the sickening 21st century phenonemon of wallowing in the grief of others and getting a kick out of believing it's our own (e.g. Princess Diana)? Grief tourism, I believe it's called. I sincerely hope not. Or was it part of a need to understand the lessons of history and in a very small way bear witness and gain a greater understanding of the past. I hope this was my main reason.

I arrived at the killing fields on the edge of Phnom Penh after a 30 minute tuk-tuk ride and was immediately struck by a sense of quiet peacefulness. Despite the number of visitors there were no voices to be heard and the only sounds were those of birds. At first, as I followed the recommended route and listened to the audio guide it was difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the horrors that had unfolded here less than 40 years ago. But as I listened in my earphones to the testimony of survivors, and sometimes the perpetrators, of unspeakable crimes, pictures began to form in my head. And then I found something that shook me. Lying next to the dirt path was what looked like a tooth. Surely not, I thought. I looked closer and there was no doubt. That's what it was. As I continued my tour it became clear that this was far from extraordinary. Every now and then I would see pieces of cloth and bone fragments that had somehow worked their way to the surface, escaping the mass graves into which thousands had been brutally committed. The reality of what had happened at this terrible place began to become clearer. Never more so than when I reached the "killing tree" and discovered that here babies had been swung by the legs and had their brains dashed out against its trunk before being cast into one of the many burial pits. And then there was the central stupa, a memorial to the dead, which houses the skulls and bones of many of the 20,000 victims that were murdered at this site alone. They are stacked rack above rack, many bearing the evidence of how their owners were bludgeoned to death.

The "Killing Tree" next to a burial pit
The depressions are excavated mass graves
Remnants of clothing emerge from the soil while the sign urges visitors to avoid treading on bones
A small fraction of the 8,000+ skulls in the memorial stupa, below

A few miles away and actually in Phnom Penh is Tuol Sleng prison which was also known as S-21. It was formerly a school built in 1962 and its four almost identical buildings could be described as a concrete monstrosity. How glibly we use such words, for true monstrosity is what happened within the almost featureless rooms which must once have echoed to the voices of eager and excited children. Here, thousands were imprisoned in intolerable conditions. Here, those suspected of disloyalty and treason to the regime, were whipped and beaten, electrocuted and had their toe and finger nails ripped out until they confessed their "crimes" against the revolution and implicated others. Only then were they sent by truck to the killing field down the road where their skulls would be smashed by an axe, a hoe, or a bamboo staff or metal pole and their lifeless bodies tipped into a pit with dozens of others.

Prison Block A - one of four similar blocks. The gallows in the foreground was used to hoist prisoners up by their wrists which were tied behind theit backs. If they lost consciousness they were revived by having their heads immersed in the water filled pots below and the process would continue.

Many of re former classrooms were divided into cells about 9 feet long by two and a half feet wide - no bed, just wooden walls and a concrete floor.

Later in the afternoon, just as I was about to leave, I came across a room in which a lecture was about to start. I decided to stay and after a few minutes wait an old man with a beautiful face walked to the front and began to speak, his words being trabslated into English through an interpreter. His name was Chum Mei and I watched and listened as he recounted his experiences of being tortured, of having his nails ripped out and electrodes stuck in his ears. He broke down in tears as he talked about his wife and four children who were arrested at the sametime as him and who he never saw again. But the most memorable thing he spoke about was how given different circumstances perhaps the roles could have been reversed and he could so easily have been the torturer rather than the victim.


And so, much as I grieve for the victims of these terrible acts I can't help thinking about the prepetrators. Not so much the ideologues like Pol Pot, Hitler and Stalin, but the ordinary men who actually did the killing for them. For surely the man who smashed the skulls of babies into a tree trunk near Phnom Penh is the same man who herded Jews into the gas chambers of Auschwitz, who callously shot Muslims at Srebrenica, who beheads innocent journalists and aid workers in Syria and Iraq. If so, just what is it that these ordinary men, probably men much like me, have in common? Is it an unquestioning belief in a dogma, a religion, a political system? Is it that they belive that theirs is the only "truth" and all those that fall outside it or fail to conform should be treated with intolerance?
Travelling through Asia I have often been moved by the beauty and simplicity of the many Buddhist temples and images i have seen and I am coming to believe that there is a truth, and that following this would make the world a far, far better place. While I don't think I could ever become a Buddhist - I can't believe in reincarnation or Nirvana - the Buddha's teaching that we should show compassion for all things is surely the one tenet that should guide us all.
And so I now find myself expanding a religious creed, something, which as a confirmed atheist, I never thought I would do. But days such as this make you re-examine and refine your own beliefs.

Posted by MalcolmB 03:47 Archived in Cambodia Comments (2)

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