Friday, 15 March 2019

The Sky's The Limit

In Auckland, you can't miss the Sky Tower - it's massive.

It was opened in 1997 and at 328 metres high, is the tallest freestanding structure in the Southern Hemisphere. And tonight we're going to be eating at the top of it, following a recommendation from our next door (15 minutes walk away) neighbours, Sam and Mark. A ticket to go up the tower costs $32 (about 16 quid), but for an extra $53, you get a 3 course meal in the swanky revolving Orbit Restaurant. Sounds good, as long as you're not afraid of heights!

As we entered the lift and pressed the button to take us to the 51st floor, I could tell that Jus wasn't entirely happy. The lift only takes 40 seconds to zoom up to the top - the display telling you which level you're on flickers from number to number in a blur. It has a glass wall so you can see the buildings fly past, until very quickly there are no more buildings because you're higher than them. It also has a partly glazed floor, and the floor (i.e. the bit of ground we were previously standing on) gets further and further away pretty quickly if you stand on this window and look down. Justine was definitely not standing on the glass floor (memories of the last time she stood on a glass panel at the Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield, and her rather fruity language which left some former coal miners quite shocked, are still too raw). She wasn't keen on looking out of the side of the lift either - that was reminding her of the infamous Eiffel Tower lift experience. Instead she chose to focus on one of the uninteresting lift walls which gave the least indication of the speed we were moving at, or the altitude we were achieving.

We had a few minutes on the viewing platform which allowed me to look at the various viewpoints and take photographs, while Jus gingerly picked her way around, being careful not to get too close to the windows in case she fell out! I know she doesn't like heights, but this tower is only slightly higher above sea level than our house, and she don't usually get vertigo looking out of our windows.

Then it was time to go up a couple of floors to the restaurant. We had a table for two right next to the windows and while the floor rotated us 360 degrees per hour, we enjoyed a fantastic meal.

Afterwards we were able to return to the viewing deck and see the city at night. I was also able to persuade Jus to join me on one of the glass panels in the floor, and amazingly (perhaps a few glasses of wine had helped), she did... without swearing!!!

15th March 2019

So here we were - as far away from home as we'd ever been - in Auckland, New Zealand. We checked in to our hotel and went to explore. The weather was beautiful, the city seemed to have a nice vibe, and we weren't feeling the jet-lag too much. We wandered around and started to get our bearings, saw some schoolkids out protesting about climate change and saw some guys in a shop window having their heads shaved for charity. So far, so normal-ish.

Back at the hotel, we started to get ready to go out later and switched on the TV to find out what was going on in the world. To our shock, 475 miles south of us in this usually peaceful country, a horrific terrorist atrocity was occurring - to the disbelief of the news reporters on our screen.

Since then, so much has been said and written over here, and across the world, about what happened in Christchurch on New Zealand's Darkest Of Days. A quote from local author Michael King, written in 2003, and displayed on a cottage in which he used to write, sums up the solidarity with all their citizens that we've seen New Zealanders demonstrate during our short stay.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Trials and Travellations

And so, it's time to leave Hong Kong and head off to New Zealand. Our flight was due to leave at around 5pm, so we still had most of the day to do last minute Speedtouring. Dragging our cases around would be a pain though, but that's not a problem. The transport system is so joined-up that at Hong Kong Central Station, there's an airline check in desk. We were able to check in our cases, got our boarding cards and then were free to roam the city - you can't do that at Macclesfield station!

Unfortunately it had now started to rain quite heavily, so, after a quick stop to grab pasties at Hong Kong's equivalent of Greggs, we wandered around the Museum for a couple of hours and got ourselves a bit more educated. We learned about The Opium Wars, and how Hong Kong came to be leased to the British, the trials and tribulations which followed, including the brief occupation by Japan during World War 2 and the handover of control to China in 1997. It probably would have been useful to understand some of this at the beginning of our stay here, things might have made more sense, but hey, that's not how Speedtourism works!

We also learned about about the Bun Festival, a part of which was the Bun Snatching event. Young men would climb a 60 foot tower of bamboo scaffolding, covered in buns, and attempt to grab as high a bun as possible. This continued for many years, until, in the late 70s, one of the towers collapsed and over 100 people were injured. 3 bun towers were on display in the museum, and I considered scaling one, to grab a quick barmcake, but I was still full from my Greggs pastie, so I decided not to bother.

Finally we hopped on the Airport Express train, safe in the knowledge that we were all ready to step onto our flight, and our luggage would (hopefully) join us in Auckland...

It did.

The Mile High Pub (Quiz)

Thursday evening and we're on our flight from Hong Kong to Auckland. Things have moved on since our last long-haul flight. The entertainment system in our seats gave us the opportunity to learn Japanese, do guided meditations, learn about New Zealand wines, do a quiz or watch more films than one could shake a stick at. Normally on a Thursday night we'd be at The Moss Trooper with the mighty "Thanks For The Lend" Speed-Quizzing team, so we opted to take the quiz, whilst flying over the Philippines, at over 500 miles per hour - the ultimate Speed-Quiz. We did OK, though we were let down by our lack of knowledge about Kiwi TV celebrities.

After the quiz, and a bit of sleep, I binge-watched music documentary films - Montage of Heck (Kurt Cobain) and The Man From Mo Wax (James Lavelle, founder of Mo Wax records) - both excellent. Justine, on the other hand, opted to learn Japanese (the massive swot). So she can speak Japanese, very impressive... but does she know that the first LP released by Mo Wax was The Jazz Hip Jap Project compilation? That's the kind of knowledge that wins quizzes mate, not knowing how to speak other languages!

On our arrival at Auckland we had to fill in our immigration forms. Now we've got previous when it comes to entering countries round these parts. Some of you may recall the tale of Bouncer, the Australian sniffer dog who thought we were trying to sneak apples into his country. Well I'd done my research and knew that New Zealand Customs were very keen on not bringing stuff into their country which might have an impact on the environment, including soil, so I'd been really careful to clean the soles of my walking boots before we left the UK. But on our immigration form we had to tick a box to say whether we had any kind of outdoor equipment, including shoes, in our luggage. Did I have shoes in my case? Yes, I did. Do I really have to declare them? Well the signs warning me of a $400 fine for not declaring something were enough to convince me that I probably should, so I joined the "Something to declare" queue, ready to declare "my shoes". The customs officer was really friendly and didn't seem too worried about me being in possession of shoes, so a quick suitcase X-Ray and we were through.

But then, directly ahead of me, I spotted it - my worst fears had become reality. A small, cute (but don't let that fool you) puppy... let's call him Wellington. I had flashbacks to the harrowing events in Australia. What if Wellington detected peach residue in our bags, or even worse, that Jilly Cooper book I had in my rucksack, just in case the flight got really boring.

Thankfully, Wellington strolled right past us, without a second sniff, and instead started barking at the nice Columbian gentleman who'd been behind us in the queue. Wellington seemed really interested in the gentleman's 6 suitcases of flour. I assume he must have been a travelling baker.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Play That Junky Music...

Every night at 8pm the Hong Kong skyline is brought to life with a sound and light performance, much like the Blackpool Illuminations, but without the stag parties and hen nights. In theory we should have experienced this from the top of The Peak last night, but we couldn't hear anything from up there. So tonight we found ourselves a space, perched on a handrail, amongst the crowds on the Kowloon side of the harbour and watched as the skyscrapers flickered and glowed across the water. As the music started we realised why we couldn't hear it from a mile a way on top of a hill - we could barely hear it from here. Maybe they have to keep the noise down so they don't upset the neighbours. Still, as a couple of red-sailed junks bobbed across the water and the lights and quiet music did their thing, it was a pleasant enough way to spend 10 minutes before taking the ferry back across the harbour.

Buddhy Enormous

Day 3, and we took a ferry to Lantau Island, to see the Big Buddha.

It's a statue, of Buddha... and it's BIG!

From the bottom of the Buddha's stairs you can take a short walk through the woods along the "Wisdom Path". At the end of the path is a hill with 38 huge wooden pillars, arranged in a figure of 8 infinity symbol. All but one are engraved with verses from the Heart Sutra.

We loved it and left feeling both earnest and wise - whereas usually I feel more Eric and Morecambe!

On the way back we ended up at Tai O fishing village, where Justine decided we should try another of the interesting streetfoods on offer. This time Fishballs! All I can say is, if you're passing through Tai O and someone offers you a spicy fishball on a skewer, and you're not a massive fan of rubbery snacks which cause you to lose the ability to taste (or breathe), then perhaps give it a miss.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Sesame Street-Food

Whilst in Sham Shui Po, we went in search of a stall which featured in our guidebook. The stall seemed to be famous for little sweets or cakes which looked delicious in the photograph. We found the stall and bought 2 of these "cakes" from the friendly lady.

We got a red bean pudding and a black sesame cake.

We expected something really sugary and sweet, but got a real surprise when biting in to them - the red bean pudding was a kind of rubbery thing which tasted slightly of mashed up kidney beans, and the black sesame cake, tasted of sesame seeds and soil... mostly soil. It's probably just us though - the stall was recommended by Michelin, so I guess we're not sophisticated enough to appreciate it.

A Cocktail Of Two Cities

We slept like logs, whatever that means. I mean, logs are just bits of dead tree, so basically, we slept like bits of dead tree, but in a nice bed in a nice hotel, with a coffee machine and a flat screen TV and a view of the harbour and a wardrobe to hang our bark and our leaves up... see this is what jet-lag feels like. Anyway, on with the trip.

We had breakfast in a little place we'd seen on Trip Advisor which was near our hotel and sounded more authentic than Starbucks. We found a table and looked at the menu, which, quite reasonably, was full of strange Chinese symbols. If Ready Brek or Frosties were an option on this menu, I certainly couldn't spot them. The nice lady who came to take our order could tell we were confused and brought some special menus for us, which had the options in English. Still, no sign of Coco Pops though! So instead, Jus ordered condensed milk buns and a red bean and coconut ice smoothie (which was lumpy) and I had rice noodles in a ginger and spring onion broth, with a couple of fried eggs on top, and a cup of coffee with condensed milk... they really like condensed milk here. Now admittedly, this was no Weetabix, but it was all rather nice and we ordered more bits and bobs before moving on after a very filling, and cheap, breakfast.

After our breakfast, we took the Star Ferry over the harbour and joined a walking tour in Kowloon which dramatically demonstrated the difference between the shiny global financial centre of Hong Kong, and the day to day lives of people born here. Our guide took us on a tour of the sights which you wouldn't normally see.

We saw the Goldfish Market, where people came to buy, you guessed it, goldfish, because; 
(i) a goldfish swimming in water is very good feng shui, and 
(ii) space is so scarce that if you want a pet, a goldfish doesn't need much floor area to run around in.

We saw the Bird Market, full of caged birds which are sold by, and to, an elderly section of the Hong Kong population. Keeping birds used to be a popular activity and people would take their cages out into the parks, or bars and hang them on hooks while they socialised with their friends, and the birds socialised with each other. This hobby is less popular with younger people, partly from an animal-rights point of view, but also since the first occurrence of the H5N1 virus (bird flu) transferring to humans was recorded here in this very district of Hong Kong in 1997, there has been an understandable drop in enthusiasm for bird-keeping. 

We visited the Flower Market, which bloomed (sorry) after the British took control, due to a need for men to buy flowers for, shall we say, "ladies of the night" in this area of the city. This is why I never buy Justine flowers. I don't want to give the impression that I think she's a... well, you know...

We learned about the lack of space for housing and the various political and economic forces which had created a situation in which this country is the least affordable place in the world to buy a house. We visited a room above a laundry which was 10 square metres, just enough room for a bunk bed and a small table with an electric hotplate - no bathroom, and though this had a tiny window to let some air in, some internal rooms didn't even have that. The rent per month for this would have been 80% of the average person's salary. Some people have resorted to renting cages to live in (because they're cheaper), or even "coffin rooms" which are just big enough to lie down in. We've seen much, much poorer people on our travels, but they've either been poor countries or ones with "unusual" regimes. This is a hugely successful nation with a higher GDP per capita than that of the UK, but most of the population can barely afford to live in it.

The tour ended in the middle of the Sham Shui Po district, and we went into a small cafĂ© where we were squeezed on to a table with locals who were tucking in to bowls of noodles. We ordered something from the menu and two large bowls arrived, filled with broth and with dim sum parcels bobbing on the surface. The total cost of our evening meal, £5.60.

Later we returned to Hong Kong Island and visited a few bars. Our final stop was J Borowski, a bar we'd seen in a guide book and had caught our eye thanks to the amazing interiors created by industrial designer Ashley Sutton. Having just visited Iron Fairies a few doors up the road (another of his designs) which had hundreds of cast iron fairy figurines, scattered around the tables, and what can only described as mini furnaces with comfy seating benches inside, we felt we needed to see more.

This time the bar's curved ceiling and walls were decorated with hundreds of beetles - not John, Paul, George and Ringo - no, these were Steel Scarab Beetles (maybe a Fab Four tribute band from Sheffield?).

While Iron Fairies had been dark, busy and pumping with loud music, J Borowski felt quieter, more grown up, sophisticated. The barman explained that they don't have a cocktail menu. He simply asked us to describe the sort of things we liked and he would create a bespoke drink for each of us. Jus said she liked "chocolate, vodka, cream, men with a good sense of humour, Scandinavian design, and gin " but didn't like "whiskey or coffee or red wine or carrots or Michael McIntyre". I told him I like "dark rum, coffee, smoky (not Smokie, the band) whiskies, hoppy American style IPAs, port, gin and Radiohead", but don't like "tequila, absinthe, mango, liver, reality TV shows, Veuve Clicquot or John Smith's Extra Smooth". From this brief, getting to know you session, our cocktail psychologist was able to assess the precise ingredients for our perfect beverages and got straight to work.

As we sat and chilled out to the down-tempo acid-jazz beats, we watched him scurry back and forth picking bottles, sniffing their contents, adding and stirring, sometimes pouring only the tiniest drop, tasting every now and then until after about 10 minutes of pure entertainment, Justine's cocktail was done. He disappeared in to the back and Jus tried her drink. She thought it was quite nice!

He then reappeared with a freshly microwaved espresso and proceeded to build my drink. He melted some chocolate into the coffee, he added some whiskey, some chartreuse (I think), then it all got a bit difficult to follow. There was pouring from a height into a different vessel, and then back again presumably to strain it or aerate it, or just to look good. It might have had a bit of jam stirred in at one point, it was hard to tell, but finally it was poured into a little pot with a lid and then smoke blown through it with a custom-made mad-science smoking device. I was told to keep the lid on for a few seconds, then removed it and tasted it. It really was very good and didn't taste of liver or mango at all, but to be honest, even if it had just tasted like a Baileys with ice, the whole experience would have been worth it.

So we sat, in a very cool cocktail bar with some very cool music, drinking our made-to-measure liquid masterpieces and reflected on a day of contrasts in a city of contrasts, where the contrast between our spending for the day came to;

Dinner for two: £5.60
Cocktails for two: £86.50

Sorry Mum!

Monday, 11 March 2019

Hong Kong Queuey

Following our adventures in the US, Australia, Vietnam and so on, we're off on another trip, this time to New Zealand. The flight was via Hong Kong, so obviously we were going to take advantage and spend a few days there (a luxury, compared to a few of our "24 hours in..." tours).

Our trip started with a post-panto-party dash to Timperley. We went to bed at 2am, got up again at 8am and headed to the airport. On our arrival (8am HK time, midnight UK time), we checked in to the hotel, and went straight out Speedtouring™. We had a map and set off to explore. However, large parts of Hong Kong were being dug up and we kept finding ourselves unable to get to things. Add to that, the fact that the roads are busy and it's often not obvious how to get to the other side, and we were not making great progress, though to be fair we did manage to see 3 or 4 of the city's top building sites!

We had Octopus Cards (the equivalent of Oyster Cards) which were excellent and so we hopped on one of the vintage-style trams which allowed us to get a better look at our home for the next few days, and as we started to get our bearings it became easier to get around and we spent the day ticking off some of the sights.

One of the main attractions is the skyline - the lack of building land means everyone has to build upwards and one of the "must do" items for visitors is to go up "The Peak" (HK is surprisingly hilly) on The Peak Tram, a funicular railway. Unfortunately, the fact it is a "must do" means that everyone "must do" it and therefore the queues can be long. When we arrived at around 5:45pm, it looked like everyone "was doing" it. The queue (snaking back and forth under the bypass) looked horrific, but having made so much effort to get there we joined the back... and waited... and waited. Every now and again, a small batch of people were allowed across the road to join the other queue in the tram station. It became clear that priority was given to anyone from an organised bus tour, or who had purchased tickets for Madame Tussaud's (at the top of the hill?!?).

The queue moved very slowly and on at least 4 occasions we discussed giving up and leaving. But the longer we stayed, the more reluctant we became to throw away the time we'd already invested, so we stuck it out. After over 90 minutes we were near the front of the first part of the queue and almost ready to cross the road to get into the next queue. At this point, it became clear that there was another way to jump the queue, which was to suddenly appear in it as if you'd been there all along. I looked at the guy in front of me and thought, "hang on, he wasn't there a minute ago". Then he called his wife over, so she could push in too. Well, the politics of the last couple of years has, at times, left me feeling ashamed to be English, but, if there's one thing I do still believe in it's a properly observed, dignified, traditional English queue. I made it my sole objective for the rest of the evening to ensure that this couple did not, under any circumstances get on that tram before us.

We managed to get back in front of the queuebusters as we crossed the road, and joined the next queue (we could almost see the front of it now), but as we got closer to the platform, things spread out a little and I was struggling to hold off my competitors. I tried to make myself as wide as possible, but it was no use - these guys were clearly experienced queue-cheats and I just wasn't in their league. One of them sold me a dummy and that was it, they were past us, I'd lost!

We finally got on the tram after 2 hours in the queue and started to crawl up the side of The Peak at what felt like a 45 degree angle - the high-rise buildings on the side of the hill seemed to be toppling over as we looked out of the window. After 10 minutes or so we arrived at the top and (ignoring Madame Tussauds and the various tacky gift shops) we walked out to look at the view below. It was dark by now and it became clear why this is a "must do". We were high above even the highest skyscrapers in the city below and the view was spectacular.

Eventually we'd enjoyed the view enough and decided to make our way back down. Then we saw the queue for the return tram - it looked like we could be waiting another 2 hours! Forget that, we'll walk down, how hard could it be? So we set off along a footpath where a few other people were walking, but after 10 minutes, we realised that we were starting to go upwards - that can't be right. A bit of Google Map checking confirmed that we'd misunderstood the signs (a common problem for us in Hong Kong) and were actually doing a circular nature walk around the top of The Peak, in the dark. We could hear "the nature" but couldn't see much of it, so turned around and went back to find the actual road down the hill. To be honest, even with our detour and the walk back down the steep hill, it was probably quicker than queuing for the funicular, and eventually we arrived back at our hotel at 11pm.

We'd been going for 30 hours without sleep, sustained on a diet of seaweed and crab chilli crisps - hopefully after a good night's sleep we could resume our Speedtour.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

(Spring) Roll With It

This morning we are met at our hotel by a gentleman who's gong to teach us how to cook some local specialities. His name is Phouc and he bundles us into a taxi bound for the market in the middle of Hoi An while he follows behind on his scooter. Once inside the market he takes a few minutes to talk us through some of the foodstuffs on sale and picks up a few ingredients as he goes along. The market is fairly chaotic and noisy and you have to be careful not to step on someone whilst they're gutting a fish or cutting up durian fruit (possibly the most revolting smelling fruit in the world, described by some as smelling of raw sewage and gym socks, and explicitly banned by many hotels, including the one we'll be staying at in Saigon).

Once the ingredients have been purchased we leave the market and Phouc instructs us to jump onto bicycles, which he's obviously just hired, and follow him. This is totally unexpected - sure the traffic here is nothing like what we experienced in Hanoi, but its still Vietnam...they're still mental! However, we've very little choice as Phouc is already half way up the street, so we hop on, and pedal furiously after him. It doesn't take long before we're perfectly at home and are cycling along the very flat roads while people work in the paddy fields and the sun shines down.  Eventually we arrive at Phouc's house, by the river and next door to his family's market garden.

Before we can start cooking we're given bamboo conical hats and little brown tunics to put on, then we're taken next door to the garden where we're going to be expected to do some more work (he must have heard about our excellent efforts at the rice farm in Laos). He gets us helping his brother-in-law with a spot of digging and we mix a pile of nutritious seaweed in to the soil. Then we both get the opportunity to step knee deep into a water trough with a couple of massive watering cans hanging off a yoke on our shoulders, before stepping out and swinging the (now full and very heavy) watering cans over newly planted seeds, like some human sprinkler system. This proves hugely entertaining to a group of American tourists who've just arrived and I now feature on a good number of home movies, behaving like some kind of performing "limey" monkey!

Satisfied with our work in the fields, it's now time to go back to Phouc's house where he's lined up little bowls containing all the ingredients necessary to learn our first dish - deep fried pork spring rolls. It's just like a TV cookery show, as he talks us through the ingredients demonstrates how to mix everything up, fold the rice paper wrapping, roll everything up and then it's our turn. I simply copy what he just did, roll up my spring roll and I'm done - it wasn't difficult, but Phouc seems to think I'm some kind of genius and praises me to the heavens, while Jus (who as far as I can tell has done exactly the same as I have) gets told that hers isn't quite straight, or is not quite the right size. I'm clearly the golden boy and go on to produce some fabulous food which continues to gain rave reviews (he even brings his mate out from the back to show him what I've done). I feel bad for Justine, but maybe I am super-talented and just too modest to be able to see it myself.

Then two more guests arrive, but they've just come to eat, not to learn. In fact I think they'll be eating what we've just made. Wow, I'm a top chef who's conjuring up incredible delicacies in this makeshift restaurant for actual diners, paying customers! I'm Gordon Ramsey... No, I'm Heston Blumenthal (with hair... sort of). This is fantastic, maybe this is my new calling in life? Then the punters say hello. This just gets better and better. They're French! I'll show them a thing or two about so-called haute cuisine...have a taste of this "mes amis", good eh, you won't laugh at Le cuisine d'Anglaise in future will you?

Sorry, went off on one a bit there. As it turned out we ate the food we'd prepared and the other couple had the stuff that Phouc had done, though honestly, it wouldn't have mattered, ours was delicious and you really couldn't tell the difference.

After we'd eaten, we were all treated to an unexpected foot massage by a couple of ladies who's just turned up on scooters, which was a bit bizarre, and slightly alarming when my toes made a weird popping sound that made me think they were being removed from the rest of my foot. Fortunately they were still intact, which was good as we needed to pedal all the way back to town. I bet Heston Blumenthal doesn't get a foot massage at the end of his shift!

Hoi Ho, Hoi Ho, It's Off To Hoi An We Go

We're leaving Hanoi with its crazy noisy traffic and its crazy noisy propaganda speakers and its crazy little plastic dining chairs and its wonderful tai chi-ing pensioners and its inhabitants who approach you and ask if they can practice speaking English with you.

I'd forgotten to mention that, but Justine spent a good 20 minutes talking to a young girl who had wandered up. It seems that it's quite common for students to ask British or American (though quite how they could assist I can't imagine) tourists to spare a few minutes to chat - being able to speak English is a real boost to your earning potential here - it turns out that this girl was an attorney, which sounded pretty impressive to me, but without good English it seems her career choices are limited. So she wanted to practice with people what did speek good inglish, but in there abcess, she had to settul for us.

We were asked questions such as "what do you like about Vietnam" and "what is the weather like in England" and "what is your favourite colour" (it was like an interview with Smash Hits magazine - showing my age there). Jus patiently fielded these questions, (even making up a favourite colour) but found there were certain sounds that the Vietnamese find really difficult such as the "dr" in "drizzle". They don't have that sound in their language and I had to walk away and pretend to take photographs while Jus and her new friend slowly rehearsed the individual sounds and mouth shapes that are necessary to say "drizzle". And drizzle is a word they need - we'd read that the weather in Hanoi was comparable to a spring day in Europe, but we assumed that meant Siena or Seville, not Stockport! As a result we got pretty wet on day one as we hadn't bothered to pack anything waterproof.

Anyway back to our impromptu English school... I was able to provide some input when the interview turned to football, as (I think) she wanted to discuss Nani's red card against Real Madrid a few days earlier. This was a topic which I was able to speak about with great authority even though I'd not seen the game! At least I hope that's what we were discussing, otherwise I probably really confused her and set the poor girl's grasp of English back a good few years! It won't surprise anyone to hear that, despite my efforts to promote cup finalists Bradford City here, the Vietnamese are largely unfamiliar with teams lower down the football ladder such as The Bantams, Bradford Park Avenue or Manchester City.

So we leave Hanoi behind and fly to Hoi An (I assume most places in Vietnam are just anagrams of each other - must be a Communist thing) which is very small in comparison to Hanoi. It also gives us another stamp in the "Simon and Justine's UNESCO World Heritage Site Spotters Book". Eventually UNESCO are going to have to come up with a way of protecting those increasingly rare and endangered places on the planet which are NOT World Heritage Sites.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Hanoi Tannoy

All over Vietnam we keep seeing loudspeakers rigged to the tops of telegraph poles and wondering what they're for. Well today we found out, as we wandered around Hanoi to the sound of government announcements chattering from every street corner, echoing off buildings and making for a surreal atmosphere. The speakers are a legacy from the war era when they would warn people of impending air strikes and provide news from the front lines. But more than forty years on they continue to fire up at least twice a day, including a pleasant wake up call at around 5:30 in the morning, to tell citizens about the wonderful things the Communist Party has been up to! Sometimes the announcements are interspersed with rousing anthems to help everyone really appreciate how great things are. It seems that, to most locals, these speakers are an outdated nuisance, though few would dare say so, but to the Party officials they are an essential means of disseminating information to the people of Vietnam. The sound of a disembodied voice crackling out from these old speakers certainly makes the place feel Orwellian and though we found it fascinating to experience, we'd be the first to cut the wires if they put some up outside our bedroom window!

In other places we've heard loudspeakers put to an entirely different use, though we completely failed to notice until a guide pointed it out to us. "Can you hear the birds?" we were asked. We could. "They're not real" we were told and were directed to look up at the flat roof of a nearby building, on top of which a big box with rectangular slotted windows had been constructed. And from this box, the recording of bird song was being played. This attracts real birds into the box where they are trapped and presumably put in cages and sold (we've seen lots of birds in cages here).

We've also heard recorded messages blaring from bicycles, as women wearing bamboo conical hats and the obligatory face mask ride up and down the streets selling bananas or sticky rice from their impossibly large panniers. Kind of like ice cream vans, though I haven't heard the Match Of The Day theme blaring out anywhere here.

All this, on top of the noise of a thousand motorcycles and horns and people chattering away to each other while sitting on the street takes some getting used to, but as one translated announcement confirms, at least we're safe in the knowledge that "Reconstruction and reorganization of the Party has been done seriously and frankly, which has created more positive changes"...Which is nice.

Good Morning Vietnam

If you wander over to the the big lake in the middle of Hanoi, just after sunrise you'll be greeted by the sight of hundreds, if not thousands, of people preparing for the day ahead. Preparing, not with a Starbucks double-lattechino and choc-chip muffin, but by performing the ancient Chinese martial art of t'ai chi.

All around the lake the wide pavement is lined with trees and little garden areas where individuals, or more commonly, small groups of people slowly and gracefully twist their bodies in precise movements. Some of the groups of ladies are holding fans which they flick open in sync with certain movements, and many of these people must be in their 70s or beyond. There's clearly a real social aspect to it all as groups of friends meet each morning to perform these very calm but also highly technical manoeuvres.

In some areas badminton court markings have been painted on the pavement and nets are strung across so that locals can flick the odd shuttlecock backwards and forwards before breakfast. And in another corner a mini version of Los Angeles' Muscle Beach sees men doing push ups and lifting weights.

And by the looks of it, it all pays off. Everyone looks in good shape (especially the older folks) and we were struggling to remember having seen an overweight resident in our time here. Then again, when the local cuisine consists of fermented pork, deep fried tarantulas and soup eaten using chopsticks, maybe it's not surprising people are lean!

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Where The Eats Have No Name

So far on this trip we've played things pretty safe food-wise. We've eaten Thai, Cambodian and Laotian dishes, but we've done it in nice looking restaurants some of which I assume tailor the food to the tastes of tourists like ourselves. Tonight though, we're throwing ourselves into the street food experience, which in Hanoi (and most other places in this part of the world) is how the locals dine out. But rather than just nip down the first alleyway we find, point at something dead and unidentifiable and ask for it to be barbecued for our enjoyment by a craggy-faced local who hasn't washed his hands in...well...ever, we're engaging the services of Thanh, a young tour guide who lives and eats in this city.

We were a little apprehensive about what was in store as we'd heard plenty of tales from local people we'd met so far about some of the food they had eaten - worms, crickets, spiders, snake (and snake blood wine) etc. And given Justine's arachnophobia, her worst nightmare would be to come face to face with something she had so far only seen in a recipe book in Phnom Penh - deep fried tarantulas. The recipe went something like "first take 12 tarantulas, hit them with a frying pan to kill them" (I'm not making this up) "then remove the fangs, marinate in herbs and spices, deep fry, serve on skewers" (perhaps with a peppery side salad?) I'm trying to visualise the flirtatious Nigella Lawson smouldering her way through this, and I just don't see it. Then again it seems relatively quick (once you've found your tarantulas) so maybe it could find a place on Jamie Oliver's 15 minute meals. "Pahkker, laaahvley, look at these bad boys, whack em in the pan, bosh... deep fried tarantulas - great idea for school dinners too". Anyway, we're hoping spiders aren't on the menu.

First stop is a little stall serving tofu. We sit on the pavement on the standard street food furniture which consists of plastic chairs and a little plastic table, the sort of size that primary school kids would use. Now I'm not the tallest person I know by a long shot, but sitting down to eat with my knees touching my chin isn't something I'm used to. The tofu arrives but its not what I expected. I assumed it would be cubes of stuff, but this was liquid and looked a bit like a glass of milk which had been left out in the sun for a few days. Lumps of slime floated to the top, it didn't taste of much, but the texture of it was enough to make Justine's face contort into an expression that suggested she wasn't a huge fan. Not a great start. I ate most of mine (I'm English and don't like to seem rude to strangers, even if they have just given me a cup of sick to eat), and we moved on for the next course.

Here's where having a local guide pays off. If we'd have gone past the next place we'd have seen the insects climbing the walls and the old broken furniture and the cats rummaging through the bins in the kitchen area and kept going, but no, here's where we're going to eat Pho. Pho is a broth made from chicken or pork or beef or shrimp or "other things" with noodles and some meaty bits and lots of herbs like lemongrass and coriander and basil and its extremely popular. In fact it's what locals have for breakfast, sitting out on the pavement on their tiny chairs before going to work. We'd been pronouncing it "foe", but it turns out that in Hanoi it should be pronounced as if you're from Hull - "fur". We subsequently will learn that in Saigon it's pronounced differently again, and we are ridiculed for our Northern (Vietnamese) accents by the more sophisticated metropolitan Southerners - just like at home then! The Pho was delicious although eating noodle soup with chopsticks takes some doing - Thanh showed me the proper way to hold them (not how I'd been doing it) and it was marginally better, but we still had to resort to spoons near the end. So a glass of vomit and soup cooked in a kitchen that would probably get closed down by the council at home - what's next?

Well next is right up my street. Thanh asks if I like beer! Is the new Pope a Catholic? (He is, I've checked). So we're going to a place where they brew their own in steel barrels and serve it right on the street. We sit down on tiny plastic chairs again, but we're getting quite used to it by now and they kind of make sense - everyone huddles round a little table and watches the scooters whizz past just millimetres away and there's a real buzz about the place, it's very sociable. The beer is served and I'm hoping for something to contrast the endless stream of local lager which has been served everywhere we've been. There's been nothing particularly wrong with it but it has all been a bit "same same" (as they say round these parts). So perhaps a pint of something dark and brooding, a double chocolate stout perhaps, or a malty ale with bits of old barrel and hop husks floating in it? Unfortunately it just looked and tasted like everything had so far...same same. Didn't stop me accepting a refill mind. The food at this place sounded interesting - fermented pork skewers. I would never have considered fermenting pork (that just sounds like leaving it out for a long time until it goes off...really off) but they love it here. It was a bit like the middles of sausage rolls, uncooked and on a stick. It was OK but I'm not sure I'd order it again.

So on to our final stop where, having sat down on the obligatory plastic primary school chairs we receive a little hob with a griddle pan on top and we get to fry up our own food. Beef, pork, mushrooms, okra and various other bits were brought out to our prime position, right on the edge of the pavement on the corner of a busy crossroads.

Now this course was actually delicious and as we sat cooking and eating we completely forgot where we were. Over the course of the evening we'd become completely at home eating from places we'd never had tried, sitting in places we'd never have dared. The old part of Hanoi really started to make sense - even the traffic became a fascinating piece of dinner entertainment rather than a barrier to crossing the street. Thanh said that he loved eating in the old town because it was never dull, there's always something going on and I'd agree - you've never people watched until you've people watched from a vantage point 6 inches from the ground in the middle of a pavement. I doubt very much it will catch on at home though, can't imagine it working on Fox Corner in Shipley!

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Halong Way From Home

A "mere" four hours drive west of Hanoi takes us to Halong Bay where the South China Sea is dotted with almost two thousand steeply banked rocky islands and cliffs. We were here to spend a night on a boat out in the bay and to cruise around some of the stunning scenery of (yet another) UNESCO World Heritage Site. The harbour area is a bit of a worry.  It's a not particularly attractive mish mash of high-rise buildings, tourist buses and the noise and smells of a place whose purpose is to handle the large number of boats moored here. We're taken onto a little motorboat with 5 other passengers and given life jackets to wear as we head out to our boat "Prince IV" (which sounds to me like the project management methodology that you turn to when 1, 2 and 3 have failed*, or an album by the purple-pantalooned pop pixie - maybe it's just me, but I can't stop humming "When Doves Cry" for the rest of the trip).

Anyway, we set sail on Prince IV, I'm humming away happily, and as we leave the noise of the harbour behind, the view improves dramatically. We bob along through little bays and channels which cut through spectacular pillars of rock and craggy outcrops piercing the sea. Trees and vegetation cling to the walls, tropical rain forests grow on top and sea eagles circle and swoop for fish.

Some bits look like excellent hiding places for Bond villains, unsurprising really as both The Man With The Golden Gun and Tomorrow Never Dies feature scenes shot here. It's  good to hear that after navigating a few more rocks we are going to drop anchor and visit a cave on the next island and then go swimming and kayaking, so I'll be able to pretend I'm Bond. The cave we go to has stalagmites and stalactites which are formed, our guide informed us, by water dripping through the quacks in the cave ceiling. There were a lot of quacks and we did very well not to laugh every time he pointed out another quack. To be fair my pronunciation of the two Vietnamese words I've learned probably had him in stitches too.

After the cave with all the "quacks" we took a kayak around one of the big rocky outcrops and then bravely went for a swim in the freezing sea. Later we sailed off to another bay to watch the sunset (though the sun disappears behind a particularly big group of cliffs long before sunset time, in future the captain may wish to bear that in mind as I can't believe these rocks move and I'm pretty sure he knows where the sun is going to be).

Then we sat down to eat. We're accompanied on our boat by three French people who, quite understandably, speak French, mainly to each other and a bloke who retired from the US Navy and now lives in the Philippines with his very quiet Filipino girlfriend and regularly travels round Vietnam, visiting places for the first time since he was stationed there in the war. All perfectly nice people but without much in common and as a result the boat is a bit quiet. I feel sorry for the local tour guide who would have liked to have a big party after dinner with singing and dancing. Instead he found himself on the quietest trip he's done for years and after allowing him to indulge us with a few card tricks we all make our excuses at around 9pm and retire to our respective sleeping quarters.

When we wake the boat is already moving on through some more spectacular scenery on its way to one of the floating villages that have been constructed by fishing communities out here. The people who live in these villages spend their whole lives floating on the sea, the children attend a small school and the adults catch fish mend boats and nets and are do other fishermen stuff. We are transported around the village in little round bamboo coracles rowed by ladies in long gowns, conical hats and, inexplicably, the same kind of face masks we've seen everyone wearing when riding scooters round the cities. There's certainly no issue with dust or traffic pollution out here in Ha Long Bay, so what are they playing at? Well it turns out that the masks do have some dust and fume prevention role, but possibly the main reason they're worn both in the city and here is to protect the wearer from the sun. There is the attitude that very fair skin is more beautiful and the ladies in particular go to great lengths to cover themselves up. Very sensible in many ways what with all that dangerous UV stuff bombarding you, but it's very disconcerting when you see someone tearing towards you on a scooter and they're wearing a pack-a-mack with the hood up, sunglasses and a face mask - it always makes me think they're wearing a biohazard suit and that we're walking towards whatever it is that they're running away from.

After the village tour we returned to the boat for lunch (the food on board has been surprisingly good) and then it's back to the harbour, back on a minibus and the (Ha)long journey back to Hanoi.

* Don't get me started on a rant about project management methodologies, unless you've a few hours and a pair of earplugs to spare.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Uncle Ho

Ho Chi Minh, for those who don't know (and I knew almost nothing before coming here to be honest) led the Vietnamese through turbulent periods of French and Japanese rule and continually worked towards independence for his country. After World War II, Vietnam was divided into the communist north, with Ho Chi Minh in charge, and the not-communist south run by a relatively weak regime with the United States pulling the strings behind the scenes. "Uncle Ho" (they really did call him that) was determined to re-unite his country into a single independent communist state. I'm sure that I'll waffle on lots more about the subsequent civil and then international wars which broke out - our trip to Saigon will focus heavily on The Vietnam War. For now though, think of Ho Chi Minh as president, king, deity, and revolutionary hero, all rolled into one package.

I've been told by an ex-pat that a characteristic of some Vietnamese people is that whatever you ask for, they know better. He told the story of a friend who ordered a dining table with some intricate design carved on the surface, but eventually took delivery of a low level coffee table (because it looks better that way), and with a smooth polished surface (because what you asked for would be very difficult to keep clean). Nowhere is this characteristic more visibly demonstrated than at the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi. Before his death in 1969, Ho left express instructions that he should be cremated, as any burial space was a waste of productive land that could be used by the people. However, the remaining leaders of the country did the exact opposite - they decided that what he really would have wanted was a huge, imposing mausoleum in which his embalmed body could be put on display so that the good folk of Vietnam could come and pay their respects, forever.

The mausoleum is set high up on a plinth of marble steps and overlooks Ba Dinh Square, a huge open space of checkerboard lawns and a strip of tarmac wide and empty enough to land a 747 on. The building is a replica of the one that contains Lenin's embalmed body and the Vietnamese employed (and still employ) the services of the same Russian embalmers that worked on the Lenin job. It seems if you want some top notch embalming work, these guys are the ones to use - the Chinese might do it a little cheaper, but by all accounts, Chairman Mao is not looking as good as he should these days - as with many things, you get what you pay for.

Before we can get anywhere near Uncle Ho's mausoleum our bag is subjected to airport-style security measures. We then proceed onto the huge wide road and are directed by a white-uniformed soldier to a spot around 50 yards further up where another white-uniformed soldier indicates that we should wait. It's drizzling steadily and there are very few tourists around, but still... we have to wait. After a short while the guard beckons us to walk further up the runway where another guard indicates we need to wait once more... in the drizzle. To some extent we're lucky - we've read accounts of huge queues standing in the baking sun for hours waiting to be allowed into the mausoleum (and having to remove sun hats to show respect) so a bit of drizzle for a few minutes shouldn't harm us.

Soon a few eager Vietnamese tourists join our queue and it is time to be taken to see Uncle Ho. We are beckoned onto the red rubber carpeted steps and walk solemnly up through the huge doors into the mausoleum, watched closely by armed guards. Because we are standing side by side at the head of our procession we feel as if we are a pair of visiting dignitaries here to pay our respects. They really clamp down on people being disrespectful, (talking, smiling etc) but there's no question of that on our account - I feel as if I'm representing Great Britain at some state occasion, and apart from my scruffy appearance (I look like I've been dragged through Indochina, backwards), I reckon I'm doing a better job than Dave Cameron would ever do.

We walk up some stairs inside the building, turn right, up some more stairs, constantly under the scrutiny of soldiers and then we're in a large, dimly-lit room and as I look to the left there's a glass case, inside of which lies an old man with a bald head and long whispy beard. He's illuminated in a way that gives him a strange glow. It's very odd - I'm looking at Ho Chi Minh, one of the major Communist icons and a man who looms large in 20th Century world history, who died a year after I was born, and yet I  half expect to see him open his eyes, yawn, sit up, and ask what the hell we're doing in his bedroom!

Our walking pace is dictated by the guards around 3 sides of the room and after what seems like only a few seconds, we exit down another flight of "red carpeted" steps and emerge back outside the building. The whole thing probably lasted 60 seconds (a Ho Chi Minh-ute?), but it was one of the most fascinating, surreal and strangely moving experiences I've ever had.

This Could Get Hanoi-ing

In our time we've tried many potentially dangerous activities. We've abseiled down a cliff, climbed up a wall of ice, been rescued by the Jordanian army after a flash-flood, driven a car in Italy, scuba dived inside a World War II supply ship 30 metres below sea level, gone down various scary ski slopes, Justine has jumped out of a plane (with a parachute) and I've been in the away end at Elland Road (which I maintain is probably top of our "risk list", given the demeanour of the primitive life forms prowling around outside).

However... nothing (and I cannot emphasise this strongly enough), NOTHING that we've experienced so far could have prepared us for the ultimate in dangerous activities... attempting to cross the road in Vietnam.

The minibus journey from Hanoi airport gave us sufficient warning - the traffic here seems to be completely uncontrolled and in the 45 minutes it took to get to our hotel I have no idea how we didn't kill at least a few hundred motorcyclists, cyclists or pedestrians. Roads that are single carriageways become occupied by at least two lanes of cars and buses, but then the "space" that's left is filled with mopeds weaving in and out of each other, sometimes travelling in the opposite direction, often carrying multiple passengers (including babies), or transporting large loads of fruit or trees, or even a massive bass speaker (with what was probably a bass guitarist hanging off the back of that). It is insane.

We had read about the technique for crossing the road before we arrived and it seemed to be along the lines of "don't wait for a break in the traffic, there won't be one - just step out into the road and walk confidently across at a steady pace and the fast moving mental drivers will simply flow around you. Just don't suddenly speed up or slow down, otherwise they'll probably run you over". We stood at the side of the road for a few minutes, desperately hoping for a chance to run across, but none came so eventually we held hands, took a deep breath and stepped out. It's like playing the 70s arcade classic "Frogger", but for real.

Some of the bigger junctions have traffic lights with little green men just like at home, but in some ways these are worse. They're not universally obeyed, so you get lulled into a false sense of security as the traffic stops at the red light, you get halfway across the road and then swarms of mopeds laden with bananas and cyclists with entire florist shops strapped to their bikes come rushing through from the back of the queue, catching you completely by surprise and causing you to commit the potentially life-ending act of dodging out of the way. We nearly had to have words with a bus which decided that it couldn't be bothered obeying the red light and carried on coming towards us as we crossed. Justine employed her "hard stare" (don't be on the pointy-end of one of those by the way) and the driver stopped just in time.

So we got across, still in one piece and gradually became more confident, which is good because there is a very limited range of sights we could have visited from our hotel without crossing a road or two and paying for a taxi to take us from one side of the road to the other would have been extremely costly!

Monday, 11 March 2013

The Ricicle Works

As a couple of friends of mine (or "people I sit near, at work" as they would probably prefer to be called) will testify, I don't like the idea of getting muddy. Their constant attempts to get me to participate in the dubious activity of cyclocross racing have proved fruitless. For those unfamiliar with this so-called leisure pursuit, it essentially consists of running up, down and around a hilly park whilst carrying a bicycle, occasionally attempting to jump onto said bicycle, only to pedal into a muddy puddle, get stuck and fall off into the aforementioned puddle... for an hour... in the winter! Even though I own the necessary equipment for this (a cyclocross bike) and even though I will occasionally be willing to join them in riding 100 mile road events, I am not prepared to join the cyclocross gang and end up looking like a refugee from a lycra festival at Glastonbury. So this morning's activity in Laos is a little out of character for this mudophobe - we are going to a farm where we will learn how to plant, pick, and process rice - and we are likely to get very muddy.

The Living Land Farm is about 10 minutes drive from the centre of Luang Prabang and is a working farm which provides employment for people from the surrounding area. They grow rice in the paddy fields surrounded by spectacular mountainous scenery and have recently come up with the idea of obtaining free labour from workaholic holidaymakers like ourselves. We are welcomed warmly, given a brief introduction to the homemade tools used by the farmers and then we are straight into our rice experience.

Stage 1 - germinating the rice seeds. Some of the rice from the previous harvest is retained, still in its husk, and is planted and watered and begins to sprout. Once the sprouts have become little roots and long thin green leaves have appeared these little plants which now resemble tiny spring onions can be transferred to the paddy fields.

However, before we can do that, the waiting paddy (each of which is about the size of a tennis court, and separated by raised dams of clay soil) must be ploughed. This is where trousers get rolled up as far as possible, shoes and socks are removed and we prepare to step into the grey muddy water of our chosen paddy. After a quick introduction to Susan, a massive mud-encrusted water buffalo, Justine goes in,  knee deep in mud and assisted by one of the farmers, without whom she might easily fall headlong into the squelching clay. She is shown how to take hold of the plough, and told how to shout instructions at Susan who will be providing the tractor services for this particular job. Susan lurches forward, the plough carves a channel through the paddy and Jus attempts slurping footsteps along this channel, keeping the plough, and herself, mainly upright.

Then Susan stops. Why? The Lao word for "hey big cow-thing, please wait a moment" was never issued (at least not knowingly). It seems that Susan, having dragged Justine and the plough just a few paces through the mud bath has decided that a "comfort break" is required and we all have to wait as she (Susan, not Justine) answers nature's call. This is organic farming on the front-line, and I can tell by the expression on Justine's face that she's excited to be experiencing it at such close quarters. Meanwhile I make a mental note to always rinse rice before cooking it in future. Toilet stop complete, the ploughing resumes, Jus finishes her shift and  is helped out of the paddy looking as if she's wearing mud socks.

As there are only two of us on the trip we both get the opportunity to participate in each step, which I have to say I'm delighted about as I nervously step into the sloppy mud and assist Susan with some more ploughing. Thankfully I'm able to stay on my feet and complete my short but productive contribution to this paddy - another 2 hours and it would have been done but I don't want to deprive anyone of a job, especially as I'm not a member of the Laos Farmers Union.

So onto Stage 3, we climb knee deep into the next paddy (here's one they prepared earlier) and are shown how to plant the little rice shoots in the mud under the water. It seems amazing that these tiny plants will survive having their roots pushed into wet clay with just little green leaves poking out above the surface of the water. A process of regular draining, drying and refilling of the paddys by simply opening and re-sealing the surrounding clay dams encourages the rice plants to grow until eventually they are ready to harvest.

Before we can harvest, we need scythes, so it's a quick blacksmithery course as we operate the clever bamboo bellows, learn the bamboo bellow dance, learn the bamboo bellow song which accompanies the bamboo bellow dance and finally, when the red hot coals have softened our steel, we whack it as hard as possible with a hammer until it's flat and vaguely scythe-shaped. I say "vaguely"... this is the first time either of us has tried forging garden implements from scratch and though I like to think that with a little more work our efforts would make perfectly passable harvesting tools, we are handed "ones they've prepared earlier" for Stage 4. This involves a kind of Generation Game challenge in which we are shown the correct way to cut a bunch of rice plant stems (point the scythe down and pull it away from you for safety reasons) and then a method of wrapping the stems into a little sheaf - then we have to try doing it, and are surprisingly successful considering our novice status.Then we use nunchucks to take a load of rice sheafs and smash them onto a bamboo mat so that the rice grains are blasted off.

Having threshed the rice we waft the grains with big fans to blow away the useless empty husks. We take the good grains and toss them in a big bamboo pan to separate the husks and blow away even more unwanted bits. Then we pedal a machine which looks like a giant pestle and mortar attached to a cross-trainer to smash some of the grains up. Having "cross-trained" it's on to a kind of rowing machine which turns a big millstone, grinding the crushed grains to make rice flour. Now sweating profusely we push a massive sideways mangle to squeeze juice from sugar cane (something that's usually Susan's job but our presence meant she had the morning off). We feel like we've just spent an hour down at the gym so it's nice to hear that we're finally able to try eating some of our hard work and after an aperitif of sweet sugar cane juice, we're treated to a meal of steamed sticky rice, rice waffles, rice cakes, rice biscuits, rice wine (and probably a few other rice-based items that now slip my mind) along with salad and herbs from the allotment.

The whole experience was fascinating and enjoyable from start to end. And so impressed were they by my cross trainer exploits (must be down to my elite cycling physique) that I was even offered a job... 3 dollars a day and all the rice I can eat. If I didn't get so muddy, I'd consider it!

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Monk-y Business

Although it doesn't have Angkor's thousand Wats, Luang Prabang does pretty much have a temple on every corner and in these temples live monks. Apparently most men in Laos become a monk (at least temporarily) at some point in their lives. Some stick at it and others will go back to their normal lives after a short time. The monks are highly respected by the rest of the community and every morning, just after sunrise, they emerge in neat orange-robed lines and walk around the town, whilst the local people place sticky rice and other tidbits of food into their "little urns" (resisting a Morecambe and Wise gag there).

This custom of "giving alms" to the monks is a way for the people to improve their karma, and tourists can join in too, though we felt that it wasn't really appropriate - the sight of a group of American pensioners kneeling outside our hotel in anticipation of the monk parade just didn't quite look right, especially when one old lady did that "stretching your eyes to make them look 'slitty' thing", presumably so they'd think she was a local - reminding me of our very own national treasure of tact, Prince Philip!

The monks themselves observe the Theravada strand of Buddhism which encourages its followers to reject capitalism and focus on the "seven stages of purification". I assumed therefore, that they would lead very simple lives with none of the trappings of the modern world that I am so obsessed with, and yet we were amazed by the number of monks we saw who were walking around whilst on their iPhones! We even saw an orange-robed monk at Luang Prabang airport with Luis Vuitton hand luggage - it might have been fake knock-off Luis Vuitton he'd got from a guy down at the market, but all the same, you take my point.

One of the main attractions in Luang Prabang is the huge hill, Mount Phou Si, in the middle of town which has a shiny golden pointy thing on the top and which provides spectacular panoramic views. We climbed over 300 steps up the mountain, pausing regularly to get our breath back and also to look at the many statues of Buddah sitting or reclining in the gardens. One area had a Monday Buddah, a Tuesday Buddah, a Wedn... you get the idea - literally a different golden Buddah for each day of the week. It's like a Buddah theme park, "Buddahland" if you like.

And flying around these gardens were brightly coloured "buddahflies" (as I, probably very annoyingly, kept calling them). They really do like their Buddahs here, and there was even a very lifelike statue hidden in a cave, which scared the Nirvana out of me when I looked up and saw it. I don't know for sure who it was meant to be but... I Can't Believe It's Not Buddah! [sorry, I've been trying to crowbar that in to the blog for ages].

Saturday, 9 March 2013

The Historically Explosive Luang Pra-BANG!

After an interesting and enjoyable time in Cambodia, it's time to tick off the next country in our I-Spy Spotters Book of The World. We're off to Laos, and specifically the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Luang Prabang. Given that we live 10 minutes walk from another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Saltaire, we can sometimes get a bit blasé about visiting places around the world who proudly boast about their UNESCO status. We've been to the ancient city of Petra in Jordan, and seen the stunning treasury facade carved into the pink rocks, but did it have Salts Diner serving delicious home made burgers and a range of refreshing ales from the Saltaire Brewery? No it didn't. And we've "scuba'd" around The Great Barrier Reef, but failed to find a pub anywhere along its colourful coral watery depths to rival the cosy Fanny's Ale House. And The Medina of Marrakech was noisy and exciting and exotic, but does its railway station afford easy access to Skipton or Bradford Forster Square? Ha, thought not.

So you see, when it comes to UNESCO World Heritage Sites, we are quite demanding customers, and have much higher expectations than most tourists who might be impressed by, for example, a massive lump of red stone, sticking out of the desert, in the middle of "nowhere" (or Australia as it's sometimes known).

I've got to say though, Luang Prabang (aside from its funny name) is a very beautiful place, much quieter, calmer and more relaxed than anywhere we've been so far on this trip. Can't argue with UNESCO on this one. And you wouldn't have the slightest inkling that Laos is Communist. Actual Communism, not the wishy-washy pretending to be an open democratic multiparty free-market system whilst still making sure only one bloke ever wins the election for the last 30 years kind of "apologetic communism", as practiced in some countries. No Laos is openly and unashamedly single party, no elections, Chairman Mao-ist kind of Communist. It was dragged into the Vietnam War when the North Vietnamese used it as a supply route, and as a result was heavily bombed by the United States - It has been reported that Laos was hit by an average of one B‑52 bombload every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, between 1964 and 1973. U.S. bombers dropped more bombs on Laos in this period than were dropped during the whole of World War II. In fact it is reckoned that Laos is the most heavily bombed country per-capita in the world.

Wandering around Luang Prabang these days, you couldn't imagine a more chilled out, friendly, happy environment. The traffic mainly consists of cyclists, mopeds and Tuk-Tuks, none of which seem in much of a hurry to get anywhere and for the first time since we left home, crossing the road feels like a perfectly safe activity. Even the market traders are chilled out. We walked through the seemingly endless night market and actually enjoyed the experience of looking at things (including some interesting bottle openers made out of the shells of unexploded bombs which are still to be found in areas of the country). Not one person even vaguely suggested we might buy something from them, indeed, some stall holders seemed to be asleep! In most other places we'd be ensuring we avoid eye contact with anyone or anything, for fear of being dragged into a store, force-fed mint tea and not being released until we had paid a sizeable ransom, before emerging with a full-size elephant statue or a complete set of brightly coloured new carpets.

So, take UNESCO's advice and visit chilled-out Luang Prabang, a great advert for Communism.

Friday, 8 March 2013


The highlight of our visit to Siem Reap was not our visit to Angkor Wat, though that was certainly well worth seeing. But after a day sitting by the pool doing nothing (a holiday I believe some people call it) we travelled with our guide to visit the great lake of Tonle Sap. This lake feeds the river of the same name which flows down through Cambodia, eventually joining The Mekong in Phnom Penh. We'd already seen the lake as we flew from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap - it really is immense at 2700 square kilometres, which is equivalent to nearly 4000 football pitches (I think that's the sort of thing you're supposed to say when quoting big statistics like that, though the football pitches themselves would be very muddy indeed, probably unplayable). Currently it's the dry season so it's at its smallest - it will be 16,000 square kilometres in June when the rainy season starts - to put that into perspective, that's almost as big as Robbie Savage's ego!

The thing we've really come to see is not the lake but the villages in and around it. Higgledy-piggledy towns have grown up all along the banks of the river with wooden houses on huge stilts, some 10 metres tall, to ensure that they are not flooded, while other residences are on rafts which float on the fishy water.

It's like nowhere we've ever been before and as we are taken out in a boat ourselves we can see everything close up. On the river banks men stand with nets at the ready, dressed only in their underpants - I've heard of fly fishing", but I don't think this is quite what J.R. Hartley had in mind! Having cast their nets these scantily clad chaps wade waist, or sometimes neck deep into the river - something I've never seen Jack Charlton do dressed only in his Y-Fronts. Meanwhile other (fully dressed) fishermen jump into long boats with huge outboard motors and zoom up and down what is essentially "the high street".

After half an hour or so up the river everything opens out and we are on the lake which goes as far as the horizon and presumably further. And here there are thousands of houses, shops and even a school, floating in this watery city. I can't imagine a more bizarre place to live than in the middle of a huge lake where you have to row to the corner shop, swim to school and where staggering home from the pub is likely to end up landing you in the drink.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Power of a Thousand Wats

Every nation has one outstanding tourist attraction that is a "must see" for visitors. France has the Eiffel Tower, Brazil has the Christ The Redeemer Statue on Corcovado Mountain, China has its Great Wall, Germany - something to do with sausages probably and of course in England, Bradford's very own Valley Parade. In Cambodia, tourists flock to the town of Siem Reap, which exists almost exclusively because of the nearby ancient city of Angkor and its temples.

At 5am we were picked up by a driver and a guide who took us to see the sunrise over the most famous of these temples, Angkor Wat. I'm not entirely happy with the idea that there are two 5 O'Clocks in a day and was barely conscious as we rattled along the bumpy road and our cheerful guide gave us some historical details. The key points are that it was the seat of the Khmer Empire about 1200 years ago, until some Siamese hard-cases came along and the Angkor occupants legged it down south. The city gradually fell into ruins, was consumed by the jungle and largely forgotten about. It was in the 19th Century that the site was "re-discovered" by the French. Given the scale of the site, it must have been an amazing day for the person who took a stroll through the jungle (presumably with a baguette in one hand and a bottle of Piat D'Or in the other) before stumbling across an ancient city containing the biggest single religious monument in the world. "Zut Alors" I assume they exclaimed, before clearing an appropriate space for a long lunch of "pain, vin et Boursin".

Over 100 years later another famous archaeologist of French descent, Angelina Jolie, came here to film the documentary Lara Croft:Tomb Raider and when people saw this documentary they wanted to come and see the temples of Angkor too - two million people visit this place every year. Hence as the sun rises at an ungodly hour I find myself jostling for position at the edge of a lilly-covered lake which sits in front of the iconic Angkor Wat. It's not easy, there are a lot of people who must have risen even earlier than us to get here first and I have to settle for a position behind a posse of Japanese girls who are among the few people shorter than me, and hope my sunrise photographs are not affected too adversely by the paparazzi scrum I'm now part of. Despite all this it was worth it, and of the hundreds of photos taken, I'm expecting at least one to be OK.

Given the early start, we've pretty much explored Angkor Wat by 9am and our guide takes us back to the minibus so we can be driven to some of the other highlights - there are over a thousand temples spread around the 390 square mile site so it would be difficult to explore properly in a day without transport. For me the highlight was not Angkor Wat with its recognisable towers, but Ta Prohm, which still retains the "walking through the jungle, suddenly found this temple" feeling. Huge trees have twisted and burrowed their way through the walls of this little temple to the extent that both trees and stone have become permanently combined. This is a site which featured heavily in the Tomb Raider documentary and you can understand why, it's a fantastic sight.

By early afternoon, we've seen everything that our eyes and legs can handle and return to our hotel to chill out by the pool. And incredibly, as I sip my cold Angkor Beer I spot the famous archaeologist Angelina Jolie applying Ambre Solaire to her long adventurers legs, who'd have thought... oh wait, no it's not, it's the German bloke from the room next to us. No more Angkor Beer for me I think.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The Grand (but modest) Palace

Like Bangkok, Phnom Penh also has a grand palace. It's grand, there's no doubt about it, but its not as bling as the one in Bangkok, it feels more refined, spacious and regal - far less colourful and in-your-face. And because of that, visiting it, having already been to the one in Bangkok, felt a bit like enjoying a chilled glass of Chablis with David Attenborough immediately after coming in from an all-nighter spent downing Tequila Sunrises and pints of "Blastaway" with Austin Powers.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The Penh is mightier than the sword

The people of Cambodia are incredibly welcoming to tourists and genuinely appear to want people to come and see their country and then to tell their friends and families that it is a safe place to visit. Maybe it's down to the overwhelmingly Buddhist population, or maybe a recent history of genocide and conflict has caused an equal and opposite reaction, but everyone has been so (and I can't come up with a more appropriate word), nice.

I hope that things go in the right direction for them, there are certainly still issues. The current Prime Minister was a Khmer Rouge soldier, there seems to be the hint of dark forces in the shadows, a suspicion that neighbours and historic enemies Vietnam have much more influence within the country than people would like, even the implication that much of the revenue earned by Cambodia ends up in Vietnam. You get the feeling that Cambodia is a democracy on the outside but not on the inside, that it is not entirely free. Corruption and bribery are apparently a normal part of getting government officials to do things, and people are reluctant to talk politics in public.

One group is trying to use the power of performing arts to show visitors a much more positive side to Cambodia and aims to make people associate their country with art and culture, rather than its darker recent past. So "Cambodian Living Arts" puts on cultural performances in the grounds of The National Museum in which young people bring to life traditional Khmer arts and use them as a force for good. I am aware that I'm straying into middle-class Guardian-reader territory here, but if the cap fits...

So it came to pass that Justine persuaded me to attend one of the Plae Pakka performances called Mak Therng, half Khmer Opera, half ballet. Oh and... half pantomime. Musically this was... how to put this delicately... unlistenable. And that's coming from someone who wrote the cacophony that is "The Spirit of Bradford City", so I know a thing or two about discordant noise. The dancing was probably very good, but I'm a bloke, so I don't understand anything about that sort of thing... I'm not supposed to - it's not aimed at me. On the rare occasions I've seen Strictly Come Dancing, to hear Phil Tuffnell trade insults with Bruce Forsyth, or to look at Victoria Pendleton's legs, I have never had a clue what was going on - everyone seems to be doing things I couldn't do, even if I wanted to (which I don't) and when the judges declare the scores, I have no idea why they are good or bad. The rules are a complete mystery to me - a bit like Rugby Union in that respect.

Where was I? Oh yes, Mak Therng. Strange discordant music in a completely alien scale combined with dancing - it doesn't sound like a reason to leave happy hour at the Foreign Correspondents Club does it? But then you become immersed in the plot. There are subtitles displayed on a big screen above the stage (which is good, because my Khmer is coming along, but its not up to understanding light opera yet), and so the story is easy to follow.

Spoiler alert - if you're about to see
Mak Therng for the first time and don't want to hear the ending, stop reading now. Or if you're just bored, same advice.

Basically, a poor farmer is married to a hot girl who sells spices in the market. A bad dream involving dragons and stuff makes them worry that their blissful existence is not going to last and they're right. The King's son comes to the market (on the pull), spots hot wife, thinks "she'll do for me", drags her back off to the palace, two peacocks dance around a bit, before one of them gets shot.

I'm outraged at the Prince's arrogance, and from then on I have to stop myself from boo-ing every time he walks on.

Anyway, the farmer is not going to put up with this and manages to get an audience with the King who is also outraged that some geezer has nicked this bloke's wife, irrespective of how hot she is. It then becomes clear to the King that it is his son who is accused, but despite the family involvement, he is a fair and just king, so we are now flung into a courtroom drama.

There follows some slightly odd stuff where the plaintiff and the accused have to carry a drum around on a big stick, but the court finds in favour of the farmer, the Prince gets in a right old huff and thinking "if I can't have the hot wife, no one can", brutally murders her in full view. The King clearly feels let down by his spoilt brat of a son, orders his arrest, and they all live happily ever after... except the hot wife... and the farmer... and the Prince.

I don't know if they will succeed in exporting this to many other parts of the world, or if Cambodia will become known primarily for its performing arts, but I can honestly say it was the best Khmer Operaballetpanto I've ever seen.

The kid who didn't appreciate how lucky he was

Back in the days before Kim Wilde moved into landscape garden design, Cambodia was not a place that foreigners could visit (unless they were armed to the teeth and trying to overthrow the incumbent communist regime). People had been forcibly relocated from towns out into the country, separated from their families and required to produce rice at levels which would have been impossible to achieve even if the workforce were not starving and unhappy.

We were taken by our guide, Nara, one of the nicest, gentlest people we've ever met, to an area about 20 minutes drive from the city centre, along dusty, bumpy, and incredibly busy roads, through former rice fields now turned into clothing factories. When we arrived at Choeung Ek, we entered a compound which is now a museum of sorts. We were walking in to "The Killing Fields", one of many hundreds of sites in Cambodia where intellectuals, opponents of the Khmer Rouge, ethnic minorities, people who refused or were unable to farm, or simply innocent citizens who gave any reason to be disliked or suspected by local leaders, and their wives, husbands and children were brought. They were killed and dumped in mass graves. As we walked around the pathways there would be glimpses of bone which had become exposed by the feet of visitors and in display cases were vast amounts of items of clothing which had been found at the site.

This place was clearly intended to act as a memorial to honour the quarter of the population lost to the Khmer Rouge regime, but also, I think, to allow people to move forward. I found it incredible that Nara was able to show us around, but even more so when it became clear that as a child she had herself been forced by the regime to work all day and most of the night with very little food. She pointed out a small orange lizard which she says she used to catch, dry out and eat simply to try to survive, and she would steal sweet potatoes from the ground and eat them raw, all the time making sure that she wasn't spotted.

There were no schools, some of those had been turned into "security centres" (torture prisons to use the less euphemistic term) such as the infamous S-21 which we also visited and which has been kept as it was found when the Khmer Rouge were overthrown. There were no hospitals or medicine, there was the risk of malaria, and it became apparent that Nara and her Grandmother were probably the only members of her family who had survived that relatively short-lived period of her country's history. She doesn't know how old she is for sure but thinks she is a similar age to me, so while I was complaining about potted meat sandwiches in my school dinner lunchbox in the safe tranquility of Northern England she was trying to survive on dried lizard and a few hours sleep before being forced back into farm labour fearful of being one of the victims of The Killing Fields.

We finished by lighting incense and placing flowers at the large memorial, and for the first time on this, or any other trip, felt no desire to take photographs. The lasting image in both our minds didn't need to be digitally captured, we'll never forget, in a glass case containing rags and fragments of clothing, the sight of a small child's pair of purple shorts.