Burma and Britain, Past and Future

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MANDALAY. The Irrawaddy River. Yangon, formerly Rangoon. Wonderfully evocative names, aren’t they? I think of heat rising from the banks of a wide river; golden, towering pagodas; and bustling street markets colour dashed and culture steeped. But I also think of elephants tugging timber, workers loading steamers and men in linens drinking gin & tonics on hot, hot nights. Burma existed in my imagination – exists even now, having been there – as much as a product of Empire as a product of Asia. In Yangon, the buildings of Empire are all still there, decaying, repurposed, divided, lived in, empty, rat filled; all of the above, all at once. How to square splendour and decay, empire’s legacy and Burma’s future – my own sense of being British with the tragedy of what happened here, is happening here?

Yeah, I like setting myself up to fail.

As I’ve recounted in a previous post, we arrived in Yangon from Tokyo (could two cities ever be so different?). The streets were thick with traffic – banged up cars, buses without doors, and scooters that had seen better days. And it was hot. Heat rose in waves from the asphalt, forcing its way into the cracks in the road, the spaces where your skin touched your clothes and the opening-closing gaps between your heels and your flip flops. Brow mopping was de rigeur, parasols mandatory – unless you were white, in which case you just baked and sweated, and generally brought the shabby elegance of the place down, letting it drip off your hair and run down your neck. People sat in tea shops and on street corners, seeking shade wherever they could. Old women sat on the pavement selling mangoes, a man stood at a stall preparing betel nuts to chew for the taxi drivers that pulled up at the side of the road.

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A seamstress in Yangon’s central market, Bogyoke Market (or Scott Market as it was known under British rule).

I had a cold – a rotten, clingy affair that made me sniffle whilst I shuffled along the busy streets, cursing my preponderance of snot that seemed so out of place in such tropical climes, regretting that I hadn’t offered BK-C more sympathy when she had suffered from the same thing in Japan but ten days before. I spent one day cossetted in bed in the hostel, thankful for the air conditioning but cursing the frequent power cuts. The rest of the time we spent wandering the streets.

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The Sule Pagoda is an important, sacred site for Buddhists and a defining landmark of downtown Yangon. A pagoda has been on that site for centuries, and parts of the current structure date back to the fifteenth century. Demonstrating their usual regard for Other Peoples’ Cultures, when the British arrived they built a roundabout around the pagoda, which remains today. Beat that, Swindon.

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WE VISITED THE famous Shwedagon Pagoda, the iconic landmark of the city that is a must see for visitors. Or we tried to, anyway. It was early evening, our intention having been to get there to witness the setting sun reflected on its golden spire, but having failed to appreciate how long it would take to walk there. On the way, walking up Shwedagon Pagoda Road, we’d passed grand old colonial houses lining the street, most behind barbed wire and with expensive looking cars outside, a few run down and abandoned. By the time that we arrived, the sun had already dipped beyond the horizon. We left our shoes at an overmanned desk at street level and walked up the wide, grand corridor that leads to the entrance of the Pagoda. There were a handful of other tourists ambling alongside us, as well as a few small groups of Indian naval officers and sailors in spotless, perfectly creased white trousers and shirts. As we’d walked around the city earlier in the day, we’d seen dozens of the sailors in the markets, shops and streets, as well as clustering around ATMs, arguing about the exchange rate. When we reached the entrance to the Pagoda itself there was a desk, behind which sat two officials. One looked at us and tapped a sign that said Entry for Foreigners: 8,000 Kyatt. That’s $8 or about £5. Not a huge amount by my own reckoning – probably what I’d pay for a beer in London – but it was a steep price by Burmese standards, and money that goes entirely to the military junta. Plus, we were on a budget. No doubt, though, we would have paid and gone in if, at that moment, two of the Indian Navy guys hadn’t strolled past the desk unchallenged.

“Aren’t you going to charge them as well?” I asked.
“No.”
“But they’re foreigners, too. Look,” I said, pointing, “they’ve even got the Indian flag stitched to the arms of their shirts.”
The official looked at me, blinked once. “Yes,” he said, “but they’re officers.”
“Well how do you know that we’re not officers?”
“Are you?”
“…no.”

So we left in an indignant huff, railing against the unfairness of the situation but also feeling a little bit self-righteous because we’d refused to give our money to the Government, money that either went into the pockets of generals or funded state repression of the Myanmar people. I’m sure that the Indian officers had a lovely time at the Shwedagon Pagoda, though.

So this is the night time view from Vista Bar. Much better to enjoy the pagoda with a drink in your hand than pay to go in. Right?

So this is the night time view from Vista Bar. Much better to enjoy the pagoda with a drink in your hand than pay to go in. Right?

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ON OUR FINAL day in Yangon, we went on what must have been one of the best walking tours we’ve ever done, with Free Yangon Walks. The tour (which consisted of just us) was led by an Australian, Gino, the confident, garrulous, remarkable founder of this enterprise (when we took the tour with him it was his first week and he was the sole guide, offering free walks every day). Gino showed us many of the old buildings and took us through the history of each, as well as offering an insight into the broader history of Burma.

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Having exhausted its own forests of oak, Britain wanted Burma for its teak. Without wood, the Royal Navy wouldn’t have its ships. And without ships, Britain wouldn’t have its empire. So over the period of 60 years and three wars, the British conquered the country; by 1886 the whole of Burma was administered as a part of India. With the timber companies came banks, hotels, and office buildings, along with investment in the country’s infrastructure. Not that the infrastructure needed to ship teak from the north to the south was particularly sophisticated. Felled trees were dried and then piled up in the dry season by the side of rivers; when the rainy season came, they were floated downriver, until they reached the wide expanse of the Irrawaddy. There, they were lashed together into giant, makeshift rafts that men lived aboard and piloted down to the shipping and timber merchants of Yangon.

Walking along Yangon’s riverfront and the streets leading up to it, those buildings are still there, the paint peeled, the brickwork fallen away, and the floors – still tiled with beautiful, nineteenth century tiles made in the long dead factories of Manchester and Stoke-on-Trent – are stained with the red marks of betel nut, where chewers have spat. The flooring alone of some of those buildings is probably now worth millions of pounds. For the most part, people live, work and walk upon them in poverty.

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The Burmese people – or, more correctly, the patchwork of different ethnic groups that occupy modern day Myanmar, the largest of which are called the Bamar, whom Burma was named after – are culturally distinct from the Siamese to the north and east, now in modern day Thailand, along with the Chinese and Indian groups that they share borders with. Prior to British rule, the literacy rate in the country was remarkably high for that time, at 60% (compared to about 75% in Britain), and there was a thriving culture of writing and theatrical performances. Even today, the Burmese love to read, and all along our travels in Myanmar we saw stalls selling used books in Burmese. This might not sound odd, but it stands apart from most other places we’ve visited in South East Asia. In Laos, for instance, a comparably poor country, there is no tradition of reading, and very few Laotians read for pleasure.

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SO THE BRITISH came and built the stunning buildings that I enjoyed seeing as a tourist, giving me the thrill of seeing something so British somewhere else, so out of place, and they built railways and roads and schools, and educational opportunities for women increased enormously (literacy rates among women were about 5% previously)… but of course the British also played ethnic groups against one another in order to maintain control, brought institutional racism, put down rebellions with bloody massacres and, naturally, shipped a large portion of the country’s natural resources to Britain for fat profits.

In George Orwell’s Burmese Days, his novel based upon his experiences as a colonial policeman in Burma, the characters are all venal, selfish, destructive people that lord over the locals as well as making each others’ lives hell. Empire corrupts and damages everything, including the imperialists themselves. This all encompassing corruption is also mirrored in Amitav Ghosh’s excellent novel about colonial Burma, India and Malaysia – The Glass Palace. The British sit in their teak camps pining after the rolling fields and craggy highlands of their home, drinking and worrying about when they’ll die of malaria.

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The Irrawaddy.

Before Burma gained independence in 1948 things looked like they might work out alright because of a driven, charismatic, inclusive leader called Aung San – the father of Aung San Suu Kyi. Unfortunately, he was murdered by political rivals in 1947. The country then limped along as a Republic, still riven by ethnic infighting, until the military coup in 1962 gave the country the repressive junta that still rules it today.

Throughout our time in Burma, I felt uncomfortably colonial. Every time we walked into a hotel or hostel reception, the trio of beautiful Burmese women who were inevitably sat behind the desk always stood, and remained standing the entire time I was in the room. “Please, sit down,” I’d entreat them, but they never listened. We asked a postcard seller that we spoke to what Burmese people thought of the British (he initiated the conversation on politics – more on that in a future post). “I’m scared to tell you,” he said. I pressed him, and he told us that “Burmese people, they are afraid of two people: the British, and the Japanese.” When we visited the cooler, mountain climes of Pyin Oo Lwin (or “the hill station,” after its imperial designation, as it’s still known), there were punnets of strawberries for sale everywhere, and lots of stalls were selling jams and fruit wines. It was all weirdly familiar, comforting and uncomfortable, all at once.

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You don’t see many houses with chimneys in Burma.

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SO: AS A RESULT I’ve been struggling recently with my sense of national identity. These are the kind of existential indulgences that one embarks upon when taking a year off work. Here’s the thing: the British really screwed over Burma – and a load of other places – but my own sense of Britain and its place in the world, as being active in world politics, as being a multi-cultural nation with links across the globe, as being – in some sense – a good thing, is predicated upon this history of Empire. Also, I might add, the impending referendum on Scottish independence is playing into my general anxieties. What’s British if a part of it leaves? Those people building the banks and railways in Burma were Scottish and Welsh as well as English. Not a history to be celebrated, but it is a shared history.

Looking up at those impressive, familiar colonial buildings in Burma (and Malaysia) it’s easy to forget the bloodshed and hatred that went alongside them, and just to feel excited as I experience a strange sense of belonging, like seeing my own history reflected back from an unexpected place. Weird isn’t it? There’s a whole body of academic studies on this, of course, called postcolonialism and this kind of musing doesn’t really stand up to any kind of academic scrutiny – but equally the sensation of seeing yourself reflected in the remnants of Empire can’t quite be captured in a beautifully footnoted, double spaced essay.

Britain isn’t empire, but a sense of nation can encompass the bad with the good, conflict with agreement, making something that’s worthwhile today, without having to forgive, accept or condone the things in the past that would fall far short of the nation today. The challenge, for Britain, is to build something out of all these pieces.

In The Glass Palace, towards the end of the book, one of the Burmese characters talks about why he believes Aung San Suu Kyi will work for Burma:

“[…] she’s the only one who seems to understand what the place of politics is… what it ought to be… that while misrule and tyranny must be resisted, so too must politics itself… that it cannot be allowed to cannibalise all of life, all of existence. To me this is the most terrible indignity of our condition – not just in Burma, but in many other places too… that politics has invaded everything, spared nothing… religion, art, family… it has taken over everything… there is no escape from it… and yet, what could be more trivial in the end?”

So, I can’t say that I’ve found any answers to my existential questions. But I can say that sometimes we find parts of ourselves in the most unexpected places. And, also, that I will be very sad if Scotland leaves the United Kingdom.

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This post was written and uploaded in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia.

NEXT TIME: More Burma, less Britain. 

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On Writing and Food in Penang

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WHEN I WAS perhaps 4 or 5, I entered a competition on Saturday morning television to win a Lego pirate ship. It was the sort of competition where you had to put your address on a postcard and send it in, and then the next week they would, live on TV, draw the winning postcard out of a huge, stuffed postal sack. Gordon the Gopher may have been involved. Despite the evidence from the postal sack that the odds were stacked against me, I was convinced that I was going to win. When I was younger, I’d entered another competition and won a video about dolphins, so it stood to reason that I’d win this one too.

I got up early, as I did every Saturday, to watch the draw. I didn’t win. So I went upstairs to climb onto my parents’ bed, wake them up, and tell them that I hadn’t won. What I remember most about that event is my own sense of bewilderment at my parent’s lack of surprise (“oh dear, maybe next time”). In that bewilderment was the germ of an idea that the world might not be set up for me to win at everything.

Whenever I enter a competition now, I still think about that Lego pirate ship and my parents’ lack of surprise. Yes, I know, this is in danger of getting a little twee – so I’ll get to the point.

I recently entered the Daily Telegraph’s Just Back From… weekly travel writing competition. I did not win. They have a very large postal sack, and a very high quality of entrants. But it didn’t stop me checking my emails incessantly – the 21st century equivalent of getting up to watch the draw. As with the Lego pirate ship, though, there are still lessons to be learned, plans about how it could be better written – I’m sure you don’t need me to spell it out for you. This isn’t Oprah. Anyway, this was my entry.

“Murdered at Panghore by a gang of Chinese Robbers,” reads the headstone of Christopher Henry Lloyd, who met his unfortunate demise in 1876. Strewn about me are the tumbledown graves of two centuries of sailors, merchants, and civil servants, all buried in George Town’s protestant graveyard. Here the usual tragedy of cemeteries is made up by a global crowd of those who were just passing through (“James Winlock, Midshipman, US Navy, Died At Sea, 1876 Aged 21”) and those who tied their livelihoods to the tropical island of Penang (“To the memory of Anne, widow of George Herne, late of Trelawny, Jamaica, who departed this life at Caledonia Estate”).

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Long term readers of this blog will remember my delight in visiting old graveyards. Everybody needs a hobby.

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“Do you have a flag? No? Well then you can’t have this island. It’s mine. I claimed it. With my flag.”

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Life in holey death.

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I didn’t see the gravestones of any elderly sailors.

The indelible pen of British colonialism marks George Town, but leaving the graveyard and heading for the Chinese Clan Jetties, it is the multiculturalism of the town that seems empire’s most enduring legacy. At the entrance to the Lee Jetty, I watch a woman in improbably high heels set light to a paper money pile, sending the offering to her ancestors. Walking on, I peer curiously into the neatly arrayed houses, incense burning outside some, barnacles clinging to the silted stilts of all. Water laps, the sun shines and it is calm here; the only thing troubling me being the sweet, strangely tantalising rotting chicken smell of durian fruit coming from one of the houses. My stomach growls, and I realise that I’m the best thing to be in Penang: hungry.

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The problem with adding pictures to something solely intended for print is that it exposes your artistic embellishments. Those highheels aren’t “improbably” high at all. And, now I come to think about it, “improbably high heels” is a terrible cliche. Damn.

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I’ve seen Speed 2. I know how this ends.

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I really miss crab sandwiches.

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 A short walk from the jetties and I’m in Little India, my lunchtime destination. I feel out of place eating with a fork and spoon, so I join other diners in getting messy with my hands by dipping rice balls into ten different curries, arrayed in tiny bowls on a banana leaf, meat free and deliciously spiced. Iced tea sweetened with condensed milk provides a mercifully cooling counterpoint to the whole meal, and afterwards I sit back, watching tri-shaws cycle past, listening to the frantic sitar music of the sarong shop opposite, and wandering how on earth I will ever move again.

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There’s no such thing as a small portion of rice in Malaysia.

Eventually I do, and spend the afternoon bouncing between Churches, Mosques and Confucian Temples. Not nearly soon enough, it’s dinner-time and I’m seated at a hawker stall. I dine on Assam Laksa and grilled stingray, the Laksa a sour, tangy and fishy noodle soup famous in Malayan cuisine, the stingray doused in a spicy, sweet rub and popular, judging by the queue, with most of George Town.

Trav18-12“One. More. Drink.” orders the old Chinese lady serving me, wrapping me on my knuckles with a set of chopsticks to emphasise her point, and baring her single tooth in what I hope is a grin. I give it some thought. “Well, I suppose I could have another carrot juice, and perhaps some of those satay skewers…” Things have moved on in George Town since the days of Chinese robbers – today the only person lightening my wallet is myself, as I stand up to see what else I can possibly eat.

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(The winning entry, in case you’re interested, can be found here).

This post was written in Solo, Java, Indonesia, and uploaded in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. The competition entry was written in George Town, Penang, Malaysia, in the downstairs cafe of our wonderful hotel – Lang Hoose.

(Food) Courting Kafka in Penang

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A FUNNY THING happened on the way to the food court. We’d just arrived in George Town, Penang, Malaysia, and were venturing out of our hotel to seek some dinner. As we passed by two cars parked on the side of the road, we saw a small, elderly lady sat on the ground between them. Are you alright? we asked. No, she said, she’d fallen down and couldn’t get back up again. We helped her up. She was using an umbrella as a walking stick. Holding it in front of her, she gripped it with quiet ferocity – less to support her weight, it seemed, and more as a futile handhold to stop her from falling backwards, which she was in perpetual danger of doing. It was clear that she wouldn’t be going far. Can you walk? No. My leg. It doesn’t work. Where are you going? The coffee shop. She pointed to a small food court about a hundred meters away. My husband usually takes me, but he’s at work. I see.

It was still light, and there were other people about. Eventually, a woman from the car rental place opposite came to see what was going on – why an increasingly desperate looking white male was standing with both hands on the back of this little old Malay lady, whilst his wife waved at passing vehicles. The car rental lady got her car and drove our charge to the coffee shop. We went to have dinner. So: situation resolved?

No.

At the food court we ate Char Kway Teow, which is like a Malaysian version of Phad Thai. It was delicious. This is irrelevant to the story, but I just mention it in passing.

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On the way back to our hotel, we passed the same elderly lady standing in the road. Hello! We called. Hello! Found your feet again! Glad to see you moving about! I cannot move. Oh. My leg. It does not work. Oh. Ok.

So, once again, we resumed our positions. Each of us linked arms with her. Can you walk like this, if we support you? Maybe. She managed two steps. I cannot. Ok. How far away is your home? Down there. She pointed along the street.

By this point it was dark, and there wasn’t really anyone around. Cars and scooters passed us every now and then, but their drivers studiously ignored us.

You carry me. Carry you? Yes.

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I knelt down – she was quite small, the top of her head just coming up to my chest – and went as if to give her a piggy back. BK-C pointed out that quite apart from sheer indignity of this for the lady, she wasn’t in any position to climb onto my back. So I lifted her up in my arms instead. She was as heavy as a sack of lead, or perhaps I was as weak as someone who hadn’t been to the gym for five months. I am scared, she said to me. Me too.

I managed perhaps ten or fifteen metres like this before I had to put her down. We were outside the car rental place again, but it appeared to be closed. I deposited the lady next to a car, where she stood holding onto the rear windscreen wiper, me supporting her back with my arms. At this point, BK-C went to a local business that had its shutters down but from which a light could be seen. She managed to coax the reluctant owner out onto the street, where he joined us so that he could contribute nothing whatsoever to the incident, except wringing his hands and talking to the lady in Malay. (“She says she cannot move. It’s her leg.”). There was talk of flagging a car down, though the Malay business owner seemed very reluctant to do so. We were also apprehensive about the task as we spoke no Malay; we’d only just arrived in George Town from the tourist haven of Langkawi and at this point we hadn’t appreciated how widely English was spoken in Malaysia. Besides which, it was dark, we were in a strange town, and the cars were driving fast.

Trav17-5 We were joined by a young Malay man who had been working in the car rental office. He volunteered that he wasn’t able to help because he was working. Nevertheless, he stood there with us and discussed the situation. What was to be done? It was a pickle certainly. If only there were someone with a car.

The elderly lady was leaning further and further back, and holding her up was becoming an increasingly strenuous task. Moreover, my bladder was becoming increasingly full.

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The owner of the car that she was gripping onto arrived. There was a conversation in Malay. He was unable to help. I think that he had to wash his hair or something. He drove off, the old lady and me breathing in his car fumes as its back window slipped from her grasp.

Minutes ticked by. The lady didn’t get any lighter. I know this, because it was just me holding her up. Then I spotted that there were dozens of plastic chairs stacked outside our non-helper’s business. I suggested that perhaps we might retrieve one for the lady to sit down on. He went to get one. Upon returning, he placed the chair down on the ground about a metre away from my charge, and gestured that I should manoeuvre the lady into the chair. I gestured that he should bring the chair to the lady. A short period of competing gesticulation ensued. Mohammed and the mountain were mentioned. BK-C took the chair and placed it behind the lady. She sat down.

Eventually, a tall, wiry, old Indian man walked by carrying big bags of shopping. There was another conversation in Malay. He walked off. I was led to believe that he would be returning.

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Some time passed. Then I saw a cyclist approaching from down the street. It was the wiry Indian man. He dismounted and indicated that we could put the lady onto the back, where there was a flat ledge above the wheel for carrying bags. She expressed some reservations about this arrangement. Is there a car? No. I am scared. Yes, but this is the only way you’re going to get back. We’ve been here for over half an hour. We’ll hold you. We won’t let you fall. I might piss myself if I have to stand here any longer.

The wiry man and I lifted her onto the back, and walked the bike down the street, one on each side, one hand on the lady, one hand on the handlebars. Our two other helpers wished us luck and waved us a cheery goodbye.

After a few streets, we reached the lady’s house. Our cycling saviour shouted inside and a younger woman came out, whereupon she immediately began berating the elderly lady in Malay. We helped her off the bike, and walked her to the doorstep. Do you want to come in for a drink? she asked, as we bodily handed her over to the younger woman.  No. No thank you. I just want to go back to the hotel and urinate like there’s no tomorrow.

After that, we took a different route to and from the food court.

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I HAVE BEEN READING…

Now For Then: How To Face The Digital Future Without Fear, Ben Hammersley
My Ear At His Heart: Reading My Father, Hanif Kureishi

I HAVE ALSO CONSUMED…

The Economist, (recent issues)
The Paris Review, No. 209, Summer 2014
Neil Gaiman: Keynote Address 2012, Neil Gaiman, The University of the Arts
The Psychology of Your Future SelfDan Gilbert, Ted.com
Buddhist Economics: How To Stop Prioritizing Goods Over People and Consumption Over Creative Activity, Maria Popova, quoting the work of E.F. Schumocher, brainpickings.org
The Shape of Days, Austin Kleon, austinkleon.com
Impressions of Poverty, Richard Davies, AS I PLEASE, criticaldispatches.com
…and way too much of the Lonely Planet Guide to Indonesia (& LP Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei).

This post was written and uploaded in Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia.

NEXT TIME:

I get more in depth about the food we ate when we arrived at the food court.

Six Months of Travel: Things To Remember, To Learn, To Forget

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“Did you know that ‘but’ means ‘no’?”

It was evening, and we were sitting in the common area of our guest house, an open structure with chairs, benches and a pool table, sat on the edge of the beach. Two locals were potting poolballs in exactly the way I had failed to a moment ago. Every so often, bats raced over our heads as they flew through the common room to eat the bugs that clustered, suicidally, around the lights. There was the sound of waves breaking. BK-C and I were arguing about education policy with a Dutch life coach. She had just interrupted my reasoned and, if I may say, elegant, riposte to her previous argument, to deliver to me this tiny bit of life coaching.

I really hate people telling me what to think, especially through the medium of meaningless clichés. I took a deep breath, had a sip of my gin & tonic, and carried on: “but what you’re not taking into account…”

That’s it. End of story. I was very restrained. Why have I just recounted this tale of me being a little bit of an arse to an otherwise very nice lady? Well, mainly it’s because I’ve just discovered that it’s actually very difficult to start a post summarising a long period of travel without resorting to meaningless clichés, grand generalisations, or speculations about what you may or may not be thinking/expecting/visualising. Travelling, in other words, is a lot like the rest of life. There are highs and lows. There are good days and bad days. Life is not, in fact, a beach everyday. Ok, maybe every other day.  And maybe there have been some phenomenal experiences that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. But the point is, I’m going to have to use some sub-headings here. Maybe even a list.

Things to Remember

THERE HAVE BEEN distinct phases to our travel. We travelled from Bangkok, into Cambodia, up through Vietnam, through Laos, back into northern Thailand, and back down to Bangkok. I think of this as Stage 1.

I’ve previously written about our time in Vietnam and Cambodia, so let me just select a few things from Laos and northern Thailand. In Laos, we visited Luang Prabang, which is a city of much culture, history and wonderful temples. We got up early, when it was still dark, and went to watch the giving of alms, where long lines of orange robed monks took offerings of rice from the devout kneeling at the side of the road. Then we wandered around the morning market, sampling all kinds of new foods, before ending at a local coffee shop where we drank coffee strong enough to bring back the dead, sweetened with condensed milk. This is one of my favourite memories.

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It’s hard to make generalisations about an entire people, but of course we all do, and I’m not making an exception for the people of Laos, who were unfailingly lovely. We travelled up the Mekong River from Luang Prabang into northern Thailand; rocks loomed out of the cold morning mist, and we huddled underneath blankets as our junk boat cut through the water. Eventually, the sun burnt away the mist and we were left seeking shade as dense jungle swept by on either side of this wide, wide river. That evening, we docked at a tiny village in the middle of the jungle, for our homestay. As we walked up the dusty hill amongst the houses on stilts, people came to their doorways to stare, in silence; young children in raggedy, dirty T-shirts hid from us; a dog, panting in the heat, watched us, her teats gorged and hanging, two puppies playing underneath her; we looked behind, and a straggling group of older children had begun to follow us. I have never felt more foreign than at that moment. That night, we saw stars like I have never seen before. Two other guys and I broke the awkwardness of no common language with our hosts by making shadow puppets on the wall for their kids, the mother smiling on. Then we fell asleep on the floor, under mosquito nets, wrapped in the utter, utter silence of the night time village.

Trav16-6 Trav16-7 Trav16-5 Trav16-9 Trav16-8IN MAE HONG SONG, northern Thailand, we were two of the few westerners in the sleepy town, and ate phad thai omelettes sitting on the floor, looking out over a lake where the brightly illuminated pagoda was reflected. Later, we bought hand woven textiles from a little old Karen woman at the night market, the prices embarrassingly cheap.

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The next day, we hired a guide and hiked through what seemed to be unspoilt jungle to reach two local villages, one of the Hmong people, the other of the Karen people. There was no trail, there was no path – just hacking our way through head high bamboo. Yes, we ran out of water towards the end, and yes we had to remind ourselves that we were having fun – but it’s not these things that I remember, it’s the children playing with a kite made out of the plastic bags, the wrinkled faces of the old women as they watched us wander about the village, the constant fear of standing on a snake amidst the bamboo…

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FROM THAILAND WE flew to Hong Kong, and spent a month in China. This was Stage 2. China gets a stage all to itself because it’s so big and because at times it was something of a trial. I’ve written extensively about the country, so I won’t recount it all again here except to say that hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge was one of the best treks I’ve ever done.

Trav10-16  WE FLEW FROM Shanghai to Taipei, and spent three weeks in Taiwan. Then we flew to Tokyo, and spent three weeks in Japan. After that, it was to Yangon for three weeks in Myanmar. This was Stage 3. We were travelling fast, we saw a lot and we had some of the best and most memorable experiences of the trip so far. I intend to write more about all three countries (I took a lot of notes and a lot of photographs), so I’ll just pick one thing from each place.

At the southern tip of Taiwan is the national park of Kenting, a beautiful expanse of rolling hills, cliffs and coasts that has much in common with the south west of England, except that it’s tropical. We had no transport of our own while we were there, but Vincent, the wonderful owner of our hostel, took pity on us and drove us around the coast to show us his favourite places. He gave up a successful career as a web designer in Taipei and Beijing so that he could open a business in Kenting and spend his time surfing. We reaped the rewards of his choice.

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IN JAPAN, WE had the luck to visit during sakura, cherry blossom time, and the trees were bright and bristling with flowers, the petals shivering in the wind. On our first full day we travelled to Kyoto on the Shinkansen, bullet train, and after checking in at our Capsule Ryokan hotel (all tatami floors and folding floor futons), we hot footed it to the Toji Temple, where a monthly flea market was just starting to close. There, we darted between stalls to look at people’s wares even as they were packing them up; BK-C bought vintage kimonos and antique washi paper, whilst I, inexplicably, bought a hand painted Union Jack flag from the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics. Then we went into the gardens of the Toji Temple, and had our first taste of why Japanese gardens and temples are so famous the world over. We’ve visited a lot of temples whilst we’ve been traveling. It’s fair to say that we’ve become a little jaded (in fact, the worst kind of traveller – the constant comparers: “yeah, this is ok, but it’s not as good as Wat Pho in Bangkok.” Or “yeah I could climb those steps to go and watch the sunset from the top of the temple, but it’s not going to be as breathtaking as that place in Luang Prabang. Why bother?”). But I never got bored of visiting Japanese temples. Their elegant aesthetic, the precise beauty of their gardens, the quiet contemplation of sitting on the tatami floor – I fell in love with all of this.

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IN BURMA, WE visited Bagan, a vast, scrubby plain where, from the 9th to the 13th centuries, Burmese kings vied to build increasingly magnificent temples, and where over 2,000 of those temples remain today. We hired electric bikes and zoomed about the plain in the 40 degree heat, slipping and sliding in the sand, visiting whatever temples took our fancy. Although there were plenty of tourists at the bigger temples, most were deserted, and we explored them Indiana Jones style, with torch and whip. Ok, maybe not the whip, but certainly the torch. On the walls of many remained 1,000 year old drawings, and it is a remarkable feeling to stand alone in the dark, quiet and relative cool of one of these temples and to stare upon the doings of people long dead, the pictures drawn before Chaucer put quill to vellum to pen the Canterbury Tales, even before Richard I sat on the English throne. There is no glass, no grill between you and these incredibly precious paintings, just air and your own sense of wonder. I shall name our firstborn Indiana.

Trav16-24 Trav16-23 Trav16-25THEN WE FLEW back to Thailand, visited a couple of islands, and headed south into Malaysia, where we’ve been for the past month. Malaysia has had the most consistently great food of the trip. Because of the uniquely cosmopolitan make up of the country, you can eat Indian curry for breakfast, Chinese food for lunch, and Malay food for dinner – and every time you’re eating the local cuisine. Increasingly, as we travel, I find myself spending less time – or sometimes no time – reading the ‘sights’ part of the Lonely Planet, and instead spending hours salivating over the ‘eating’ section, in order to plan what restaurants and street stalls we’re going to visit. Eating is a pleasure, everyday; seeing temples is not.

Trav16-26 Trav16-27On Saturday, we arrived in Singapore. Next, we’re travelling to Indonesia. When we leave Indonesia, in September, that will be the end of Stage 4. Stage 5 will be Australia and New Zealand. We return on 2 January, 2015. I’m sure that won’t be a downer.

Things to Forget

Inevitably, and yet also in a way that surprises me, every time, life is not a montage of edited highlights, even when travelling full time. As I write this it is a Sunday, and BK-C and I are sat in our room, spending the day writing and reading. It’s our first day in Singapore, and we’re spending it indoors. We travelled really fast in the first five months, and it takes a toll. You have to have down time. After a while of spending two or three nights in a place you start to crave continuity. And you realise that you can’t go on walking into furniture in the middle of the night when you get up to go the toilet. Eventually you’ll fracture something (once I thought I had, and lay in bed, in the darkness, suffering in silence and wondering what lie I could tell to my friends and family about how I fractured my leg).

BK-C and I seem to measure everything in the domestic: could we live here? Would we want that table in our house? Would we get better service here if we were regulars? It’s different for other travellers, of course, but for us one of the most important things about a place we visit is where we stay. Our room has to be somewhere where we can spend time, where we can lie on the bed and read, or pretend to write and instead stare out of the window. For other travellers it’s about meeting other people, the location of the accommodation, the availability of wifi… and of course all of those things are important to us, but if a room is nice, then none of the other things really matter. Every place must feel like a little home. This means, of course, that if we don’t like our accommodation then it can colour our entire experience of a place. In Langkawi, our room was a dirty box with no window, and thus the whole island was a downer for us. At times like this our friends and family seem a long, long way away, and we wonder why we’re here (similarly, you feel very alone when you’re sat on the toilet at 4am for what is the tenth time that night, in your guesthouse’s little shared bathroom that, as you’re going to realise later, has open topped walls abutting the common room).

However much you try and keep in touch with home, there are things that you miss. Two sets of friends have got engaged whilst we’ve been out travelling: both sets are getting married before we’ll return. My father-in-law’s cancer has come back. My granddad has died. Two sets of friends have had babies. Many more children of friends have changed alarmingly quickly (I mean, is that normal? Shouldn’t they stay in stasis or something until we get back?). England still haven’t won the world cup. Again.

Things to Learn

This wouldn’t be a self-reflective post on a travel blog if I didn’t have a list of all the things that I’ve learnt whilst we’ve been away. So here it is.

  • The place where we sleep is also the place where we read, and thus it must be nice; or we must make it nice through the medium of post it notes on the walls, filled with lists of things to do and quotes from inspiring people. Yes, we are losers, but I knew that before we came travelling and so it has no place on this list.
  • Our favourite places have history and culture and a creative scene.
  • Don’t let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t take your phone, your ipad, your laptop with you: they’re wrong.
  • It’s heartbreaking not to be able to attend your grandad’s funeral.
  • I scream like a girl when I see a cockroach. Every time.
  • Gaffa tape is one of the most useful things you can travel with.
  • You can never eat too many chinese dumplings.
  • It’s still hard to make time to do all the things you want to do, even when staying in a hut on tropical beach (this must be what retired people feel like).
  • British humour isn’t universal. Or, there are a lot of people in the world who just don’t understand how funny I am.
  • Mutton is delicious, and should be used more in Britain.
  • I’m still not very good at relaxing.
  • Condensed milk in coffee is ace.
  • Indian food makes a fantastic breakfast. A curry trumps a full English, any day.
  • Sitting on a chair designed for primary school children doesn’t in any way affect your ability to enjoy your food.
  • You don’t always need to plan, and things will work out.
  • But it’s still better to plan. I’m not a hippy, for goodness sake.
  • Don’t send text messages to people at home telling them what a killer time you’re having on your tropical island. They’re either asleep or at work when you send them, and both seem to make people grumpy.
  • Bigger mosquitoes are easier to kill than small ones.
  • Tea without milk is good, often better than tea with milk (I’m looking at you, Lipton Tea).
  • Tiger Balm is the most effective thing to put on bites. Try it.
  • Except ant bites, for which nothing works. Wear mittens in bed.
  • Writing everyday makes me happy. So maybe I am a little bit of a hippy, after all.

Final Words

THIS IS THE bit where I end with some wise and meaningful words. Like the beginning, though, it’s difficult not to stray into clichés and platitudes. The learning that comes from travelling is lots of little pieces of wisdom that accrete over time, like the lint in your tumble dryer. So, I’ll just settle for this: it’s been amazing.

But I can’t wait for what the next six months will bring.

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What I’ve Been Reading For The Past Six Months

 Ferried over rough seas, bounced at the back of minivans, perched on mounds of luggage, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my kindle over the past six months. This is what I’ve read, in no particular order:

Wool, Hugh Howey
Great House, Nicole Krause
– Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China, Paul Theroux
– The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss
– The Wise Man’s Fear, Patrick Rothfuss
– Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s, Graham Stewart
– Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s, Alwyn W. Turner
MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood
– 1Q84, Haruki Murakami
– Road of Bones: The Epic Siege of Kohima 1944, Fergal Keane
– Show Your Work!, Austin Kleon
– The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
– Dance, Dance, Dance, Haruki Murakami
– The Collected Short Stories of Anton Chekov, Vol. 1, Anton Chekov, (Constance Garnett translations)
– The Glass Palace
, Amitav Ghosh
– Life After Life, Kate Atkinson
– Reading Like a Writer: A Guide For People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, Francine Prose
– On The Steel Breeze, Alastair Reynolds
– The Complete Short Stories, Franz Kafka, Vintage Classics
– Burmese Days, George Orwell
– How To Shit Around The World: The Art of Staying Clean and Healthy While Travelling, Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth
– A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony, Hector Garcia
– Hiroshima, John Hersey

This post was written in Juara, Pulau Tioman, Malaysia, and Singapore. It was uploaded in Singapore.

NEXT TIME: The street food of Penang. Almost definitely this time. No more travel montages.

Hell is a Tropical Island: Or, Why I Am An Awful Backpacker

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IT’S BEEN A while since I last posted, I know. In Burma it was because access to the internet was patchy at best, and that was without the regular power cuts; but since then? It’s because I’ve been gripped by a terrible apathy: Tropicalislanditis.

Normally, I’m never without my little notebook – I write down things we see, what people say and how I feel. It’s all recorded for you, dear internet, so that I can reproduce it in what I tell myself is a witty, urbane manner. Ok, so it’s for me too, so that I can feel slightly smug about it all (although I’d probably feel a lot smugger if I was quicker at posting stuff on this blog). But since Burma, I’ve been without my notebook.

Let me explain: after leaving the 42 degrees heat and 80% humidity of Mandalay we travelled to Ko Samui, an island off the east coast of Thailand. There we met both sets of parents, and spent a blissful ten days with our family in a resort with a private beach, smoked salmon for breakfast, and eye watering prices in the restaurant. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to stay in one place for so long. Needless to say, we did very little beyond reading, eating, drinking and playing pool.

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After that we parted with our parents and headed over to the west coast of Thailand to the little island of Ko Lanta, where we got a fantastic deal on a bungalow right on the beach, and I celebrated my 31st birthday. Then we took a very circuitous minivan, car, ferry, taxi route to travel south to the Malaysian island of Langkawi. And here we are now, sitting in Starbucks to use the wifi, whilst outside it rains.

Here’s the thing though: we’re bored. Worse: we’re bored and WE CAN’T BE BOTHERED. It’s the worst combination. Yes, you’re right, that is the sound of tiny violins being played, or perhaps the drip drip of your heart bleeding for us. Tropical islands are wonderful places to relax, but they are not great places to do things. I mean, I could probably go and rent a jet ski and make some heroic charge towards the swimmers paddling close to the shore, but my chest isn’t quite chiselled enough, my skin not quite bronzed enough, nor my wrist not quite braceleted enough for that particular brand of hedonism.

YOU’VE FELT THIS before – those of you with children, cast your mind back, those of you who are retired, stop pretending that reading the paper in the morning is being busy – it’s Sunday early afternoon and the day stretches out before you, a wonderful expanse of Not Working, the morning behind you as a leisurely lounge on the sofa. You could do anything, absolutely anything, yet you can’t quite rouse yourself to leave the sofa. You feel vaguely anxious that you’re not making the most of this precious free time, yet you want to take the opportunity to relax; you’re bored, but the TV or the radio or that book is keeping you glued down; and you realise that you slightly despise yourself both for doing nothing and for thinking that you should do something other than relaxing. You only really start to unwind in the evening because by then you don’t have the anxiety of time pressing down on you, and you end up going to bed late, only to wake up completely unrefreshed on Monday morning but having achieved absolutely nothing – nothing – with your weekend.

That’s pretty much what it’s like being on a tropical island all the time. Although it’s possible that I may be missing the point.

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I haven’t even bothered to break out my big camera since we left Burma. That’s why I’m showing you a picture of a pineapple right now – I don’t have any decent photos, just what I’ve been snapping on my phone. Still, who knew pineapples grew on the ground like this? Not me.

I like to find solace by tormenting the local wildlife.

I like to find solace by tormenting the local wildlife.

YESTERDAY, THINGS REACHED a crisis point. We didn’t set an alarm, and when we did rouse ourselves, we just lounged about in our tiny, cramped, windowless yet air-conditioned room in the guesthouse we’re occupying, caught in a paroxysm of apathic homesickness, looking at facebook pictures of how friends at home are re-decorating their houses, building new garden sheds, or Having Fun Without Us. We didn’t want to go to the beach, because it was stiflingly hot; there was no one else in our guesthouse to socialise with, probably because the rooms are like prison cells; and we didn’t want to wander the streets of the town we’re in because this is tourist central and I don’t want to buy another pair of board shorts, thank you, or eat at your overpriced and yet underspiced restaurant. We had a long, soul searching discussion about why we’re travelling, what we’re getting out of it, and when did we become so bitter and ungrateful? (actually, I’ve always been bitter, but I’m generally better at hiding it). Then we realised it was time to take things in hand: so we went to buy some stationery.

After some initial horizon scanning, we identified the things that were important to us in life and travelling, tabulated the data to identify what could/couldn’t achieve whilst travelling, and then set a colour coded schedule for the coming weeks with some overarching strategic objectives. What else would you do in this situation?

After some initial horizon scanning, we identified the things that were important to us in life and travelling, tabulated the data to identify what we could/couldn’t achieve whilst travelling, and then set a colour coded schedule for the coming weeks with some overarching strategic objectives. What else would you do in this situation?

The problem is, we’re kind of inbetween most other people we meet who are travelling. There’s the early twenty-somethings who (with some notable exceptions amongst the people we’ve met) generally want to get drunk and wear as little clothing as possible; and then there’s the older travellers, generally in their 50s or 60s, who are either very well travelled and just Better At Life than us, or instead credulous and herding together for protection. There aren’t really many people in between. Apparently all the 30-somethings are at home having, well, homes and families and things. If you want to put a label on us, then I think that we fall into the flashpackers category, although it’s a bit of a loose term.

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Both BK-C and I are on career breaks. There are definite things that we want to achieve – apart from seeing the world, of course – whilst we travel. For me, it’s my writing. For BK-C, it’s to eat a lot of different foods and talk to a lot of different people. Maybe it’s because your thirties are the first time that you start to feel the grains of your life slipping past, but it’s hard to find the right balance between doing things and not doing things – too many experiences in too short a time and you quickly become tired and jaded, doing too little over too long a time and you soon become bored and apathetic. Right now, we’re in the latter; at the end of Burma, we were in the former. So now we’ve got colour coded goals, we’ve got plans about when to get up, when to lie in, and – of course – where we’re going to go. Yeah we’re probably massive losers, but tomorrow we’re heading to George Town, on Penang, the food capital of Malaysia, and honestly? I can’t wait to get up off the sofa.

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This post was written and uploaded on Pulau Langkawi, Malaysia.

NEXT TIME: Normal service is resumed and I actually write something about the places we’ve been. I’ve got posts about Burma and my final China post stacked up, so expect something on them. I’m also dying to write about Malaysian food, but I’ll save that until after George Town. 

Burma: First Impressions

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IN A DEPARTURE from the norm, arriving in Burma has moved me to blog about it immediately – no two month wait for me to get round to writing up my notes this time. If you’ve been following my blog, then you’ll most recently have been reading about my time in China. Since then I’ve been to Taiwan and Japan, but don’t worry about that – save to note that the particular, efficient, tech-loving and rule abiding nature of Japan is a world away from Myanmar (yes, that’s right, I am using the country’s old and new names interchangeably – deal with it).

ON THE FLIGHT from Kuala Lumpur, where we’d just been for a 12 hour layover, there were many different faces – Indian sub-continent, East Asian, Thai, Burmese (the largest ethnic group in Burma), European. A reflection of the ethnic diversity of both Burma, and (no doubt) Malaysia, along with the increasing popularity of Burma as a tourist destination (I read that in 2013 300,000 tourists visited the country; this year it is estimated that 1 million will visit). There was also a group of Muslims returning to Yangon after having been on Hajj. One older lady sat staring out of the window, fondling a set of prayer beads, her lips soundlessly mouthing suras. Her prayers were interrupted every so often by epic belches that caused the few Europeans (all French except us) to turn round in their seats. She would go from silent prayer to holy burp back to silent prayer as if nothing had happened. Later, she swapped seats and ended up next to BK-C, who she showed pictures of her grand daughter. I passed in and out of sleep, glad that it was BK-C attempting to explain that we had no faith when the lady asked if we were Christians.

Arriving in Yangon airport was a lesson in how quickly Myanmar is changing. At the time of writing, the most current Lonely Planet guide was published in November 2011, and so much crucial information is out of date (another guide is due to be published in July 2014). The guide is very clear that getting a visa on arrival is impossible, though the first thing that we saw when we landed was a booth with a big sign above it saying VISA ON ARRIVAL, with a big queue in front. We’d got our visa in Bangkok, probably the best and quickest place to get it (if you’re planning on doing the same, then I recommend twotravelaholics comprehensive explanation of the process). I don’t know how the visa on arrival works, but solely on the strength of an advert on the front of the tourist map we were given, I think that you can arrange it through the website myanmarvisa.com. It looks to be about three times as expensive as getting one in Bangkok.

Similarly, the LP is adamant that it’s impossible to withdraw money from ATMs in the country, noting that you should bring enough US dollars to last your trip and that you should change them on the black market, where the rate is ten times better than the official one. At the airport there were huge billboards advertising that one particular bank now allows you to withdraw money at its ATMs using Mastercard; we’ve also heard that it’s possible to withdraw money on other cards (though have done neither ourselves yet). This morning, we asked at our hostel about changing US dollars into the local Kyat, and were pointed to an exchange booth on the opposite side of the street: it had a big digital sign saying that it exchanged US Dollars and Euros, and it gave a decent rate (i.e. nearly the rate that XE.com shows). I understand from the hostel that the rate is the same everywhere – so I presume that they’ve brought the official rate up to cut out the black market. Finally, there’s a decent internet connection, and wifi, in our (admittedly very new) hostel, when everything that we’d read said that what internet we’d find would be slow. So from just spending 24 hours in the country it’s obvious that the place is changing rapidly, in concrete everyday ways that should impact on people’s lives.

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BUT THESE CHANGES don’t make Burma any the less striking upon arrival. The taxi ride from the airport made me feel like I’d stepped into a Hunter S. Thompson book. It was dark, about 8pm, and the heat was still oppressive. Sweat beaded around my hairline, and the air felt hot in my lungs. “Hey brother,” said the taxi driver, as he lazily began tailgating the car in front at approximately 100mph, “you want the air conditioning on? It’s one dollar extra.” Looking at the circa 1985 standard issue fans that he had in the dashboard, we declined. No seatbelt, erratic driving, weaving in and out of traffic, plenty of horn honking – we weren’t in Japan anymore. The world whooshed by in series of typical SE Asian vignettes – people eating outside on plastic furniture, flashing neon lights above shabby shops, vehicles parked on the pavement. We passed the scene of an accident, where a woman lay on her side on the tarmac, unmoving. Two men in helmets stood above her, waving their arms. I told myself that she was just in the recovery position, and then she was out of sight.

Stopped in traffic, I saw the driver of the taxi next to us open his door and spit out a long red line of spittle. This was from chewing betel nut, a mild stimulant, which is apparently done in all of SE Asia but I’ve never actually seen myself. A young girl, carrying her baby brother in her arms, walked amongst the cars stopped at the lights. She stood next to my window, and looked in. I gently shook my head at her, heart wrenching inside, and she turned and walked off.

A man washes leaves to wrap betel nuts in, for selling.

A man washes leaves to wrap betel nuts in, for selling.

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As we got further into the centre of Yangon, the usual SE Asia scenes took on a different, older cast, as they were all conducted in front of run down buildings that looked like they hadn’t seen any maintenance since the British left in 1948. I’ve seen plenty in Central America that fits the term “faded colonial splendour”, but this was the first time in Asia.

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Unlike the rest of SE Asia, western clothing hasn’t taken over, and so most people – men and women – still wear longyis, sarong-type wraparound skirts. They probably make it easier to get back up again when you trip over the holes in the pavement.

Breakfast the next morning was mohinga (a kind of curry noodle soup), served by a laughing Burmese lady, eaten sitting on plastic chairs on the side of the street, and washed down with endless refills of green tea. We walked around, looking at the old buildings, avoiding the holes in the pavement, speaking to the locals – feeling happy to be in Burma.

Breakfast: it was 62 pence, for both of us. And it was delicious.

Breakfast: it was 62 pence, for both of us. And it was delicious.

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The Dangers of Peach Blossom (And Other Tales of Vietnam)

DEAR INTERNET, I’M sorry that I haven’t written in a while. I’ve been busy, you see, in Bangkok and Hong Kong. Also, the Chinese Government has been trying to suppress my writing. Yes, WordPress is blocked in China, along with Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and a number of other dangerous sites. I’m joining you now only through internet sorcery, via a server based somewhere in Japan.

The Great Firewall of China is not that sophisticated, however, as it only blocks wordpress.com, not all wordpress sites. The upshot of this is that when I recently changed over to be elsewhereunderwritten.com rather than elsewhereunderwritten.wordpress.com I exposed myself to an extra ONE BILLION potential readers. Welcome, new Chinese readers! I’m still awaiting the spike in blog stats. I expect it’ll come soon, though. WordPress hosted sites can’t handle over a million hits in a day, so please remember to form an orderly queue… (yes I know, there’s no such thing in China, but please do try). I’d offer a few words of welcome, but I think that I’d struggle to put it better than the tourism board of Yangshuo, Guangxi Province, in this sign that we saw earlier in the week:

Trav7-1 IF THIS WERE an Indiana Jones movie (and frankly I’m sad it’s not), you’d be seeing a red line snaking over a map right now. Over the past seven weeks we’ve travelled from Bangkok, Thailand, through Cambodia, into southern Vietnam, up through Vietnam to Hanoi in the north, from Hanoi to Vientiane in Laos, through Laos, travelling up the Mekong River from Luang Prabang back into northern Thailand. Once there we hung out for a week in Chiang Mai, then went to a couple of other places in northern Thailand before getting a 16 hour overnight bus down to Bangkok, where we buzzed around a lot to try and fit in as much as possible before flying to Hong Kong. In Hong Kong we pretty much did the same thing, except with more clothes on (because it was cold, get your mind out of the gutter). From HK we crossed the border into mainland China and got an overnight train from Shenzhen to Guilin, where we are as I write this post (postscript – from Guilin we flew to Kunming, Yunnan Province and after a couple of days in Kunming we travelled by bus to Dali, also in Yunnan Province. We’ve had unreliable internet so it’s taken me a while to upload this post). All caught up? Good.

Last time I promised a round up of Vietnam, after having covered only the south. I’ve had to buy an external portable hard disk because I didn’t have enough room for all the photos I’ve been taking (with 1TB of extra storage, I should be ok now – thank you Pantip Plaza, Bangkok). Today I went through those photos and picked some of the highlights from Vietnam.

WE WERE IN Vietnam for close to three weeks, and very much on a well trodden tourist trail. From Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) and the Mekong Delta in the south we headed north to the beach resort of Nha Trang, arriving at 5.30am off the overnight train to be greeted by a rainy city and wild waves at the seafront. Later, we explored the city, the rain having stopped but the sky still overcast. Nha Trang did little to endear itself to us – the long beach was pretty, certainly, but just a few streets away from the seafront the town turned into an ugly scrawl of dirty streets, snarling mopeds and touristed-out locals. When we’re somewhere new we like to walk around to get a sense of the place, usually straying far away from the haunts recommended in the guidebook. In Nha Trang we were happy to return to the seafront.

There’s one direct flight from Nha Trang International airport, and that’s to Russia. It is the beach destination in Vietnam if you’re from Russia. Consequently the town is an odd mix of western backpackers and high spending Russian vacationers, glued together by Vietnamese touts, pimps and tuc tuc drivers (who are often the same person). But if the sun’s out, you’re drinking, and you ignore the touts and pimps, then Nha Trang is a fun place to be. Yes, I did have an awful sunburn and a Hollywood star hangover when we left.

An overnight bus to Hoi An sorted me right out. Rather than simply a reclining chair, each passenger had a sort of plastic sarcophagus which you inserted your legs in up to the waist, and then leaned back into what felt like one half of a sun lounger. The sarcophagus combined with the stacking of passengers bunkbed style created a cosy, I’ll-never-get-out-of-here-if-we-crash kind of a feeling, and (once I’d gotten over the series of RTA scenarios that paraded through my mind) I quickly fell into a deep sleep.

In Hoi An it was raining, but just off the bus and walking through the old town, it was already lovelier than Nha Trang, even in the wet. From the 16th through to the 18th centuries the city was the most important trading port in south east Asia, with merchants from China, Japan and Europe. Towards the end of the 18th century, the river leading from the port to the sea silted up and trade moved elsewhere. When commerce ebbed away from the city it remained largely unchanged in architecture, and mostly untouched by the modernisation that was sweeping the rest of Vietnam. The town remains a wonderful jumble of old Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese building styles, pretty even in the rain.

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Tourism and tailoring are the two chief enterprises of Hoi An. So after a shower and some breakfast we headed over to get some clothes made. For what else does one do in Hoi An? The city is awash with tailors, so many that without the advice of tour guide I would have struggled to have known which to use (if you’re going there yourself, we used Yaly – slightly more expensive than some others but they were extremely professional, knowledgeable, and produced clothes of excellent quality). You can get a tailored suit made in 24 hours, thanks – I was assured – not to a sweat shop but to an army of 300 tailors all paid a fair wage. I was measured for a suit on the morning of the first day, alterations were made in the afternoon of the second day and it was ready by that evening. It cost me £100. As I took my top off to try on the shirt that I’d also purchased, my tailor stared at my burnt red-raw chest. “Ah,” she said, “you go to Nha Trang.”

Banh bao vac, or White Rose, is a local speciality. Essentially, it’s a version of Chinese dumplings, brought to the city by Chinese traders. Delicious, but far from filling. In Vietnam, as in the rest of SE Asia, the price of a dish in a restaurant usually bears little or no connection with its size or complexity. You can order something for £4 – a lot in SE Asia – and end up with the tiniest amount, whilst your neighbour spends the same amount and gets a feast. These are menus priced by people who eat not at restaurant but on the street, where dishes are much, much cheaper. Wherever possible, eat on the street in SE Asia – the food is better, cheaper and more authentic.

Banh bao vac, or White Rose, is a local speciality in Hoi An. Essentially, it’s a version of Chinese dumplings, brought to the city by Chinese traders. Delicious, but far from filling. In Vietnam, as in the rest of SE Asia, the price of a dish in a restaurant usually bears little or no connection with its size or complexity. You can order something for £4 – a lot in SE Asia – and end up with the tiniest amount, whilst your neighbour spends the same amount and gets a feast. These are menus priced by people who eat not at restaurant but on the street, where dishes are much, much cheaper. Wherever possible, eat on the street in SE Asia – the food is better, cheaper and more authentic.

The riverside is beautiful by night, but – as with so much else in Vietnam – it is ruined by noise. On one side of the river bars compete for business with loud music, making a walk along the riverside an ear-splitting cacophonic experience where it’s better not to linger.

The riverside is beautiful by night, but – as with so much else in Vietnam – it is ruined by noise. On one side of the river bars compete for business with loud music, making a walk along the riverside an ear-splitting cacophonic experience where it’s better not to linger.

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After Hoi An, it was an 8 hour bus journey to Hue (pronounced “Hway”), former imperial capital of Vietnam. Along the way we stopped off at a place called Marble Mountain – a complex of pagodas, shrines and caves on top of a (very small, more cliff-like) mountain. Perhaps it was because the sun was out, perhaps it was because at the top of the mountain we were away from the sound of horns, but it felt like the prettiest place in Vietnam. We were there for an all-too short hour – and only at the end did we discover the vast cave with stairs carved down to its floor, a giant stone Buddha set against one wall, illuminated only by a single beam of sun from a hole in the roof. It was a serene interlude from the madness that is Vietnam.

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WE WERE IN Hue for less than 24 hours. We arrived in the evening and wandered down neon-lighted streets lined by budget clothes stores pulsing with young Vietnamese, getting bemused looks from most we passed. We tried some clothes on and didn’t buy them. We drank some Vietnamese wine, which was slightly less than awful. We ate some Western food and regretted it. We looked at some statues and tried to work out what they were commemorating. We looked at some art, intended to come back the next day and buy it, and then didn’t. Instead we went to a ruined tomb and got lost. In short, we had wonderful time doing all of the things that one does in a foreign city.

We visited the tomb of a former Emperor, an hour and a half cruise down the Perfume River on a little boat that was also a family’s home. When we eventually moored up, the driver of the boat pointed us up a muddy track and offered a few words in Vietnamese that none of us understood. At some point, we took a wrong turn. We reached the Tomb an hour later, after tramping through muddy fields whilst bare footed farmers standing knee deep in rice paddies laughed at us.

We visited the tomb of a former Emperor, an hour and a half cruise down the Perfume River on a little boat that was also a family’s home. When we eventually moored up, the driver of the boat pointed us up a muddy track and offered a few words in Vietnamese that none of us understood. At some point, we took a wrong turn. We reached the Tomb an hour later, after tramping through muddy fields whilst bare footed farmers standing knee deep in rice paddies laughed at us.

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 During the Vietnam-American War, Hue was captured briefly by the North during the infamous Tet Offensive. During the three and half weeks that the Vietcong held the city they massacred over 2,500 civilians as a ‘blood debt’ for fighting against the VC. The USA and the South Vietnamese responded by battering the city with bombs and artillery and dropping napalm on the Imperial Palace. Today, there is little left of it – just the outlines of where buildings used to be. By the end of the offensive, about 10,000 people had died in Hue, most of them civilians.

During the Vietnam-American War, Hue was captured briefly by the North during the infamous Tet Offensive. During the three and half weeks that the Vietcong held the city they massacred over 2,500 civilians as a ‘blood debt’ for fighting against the VC. The USA and the South Vietnamese responded by battering the city with bombs and artillery and dropping napalm on the Imperial Palace. Today, there is little left of it – just the outlines of where buildings used to be. By the end of the offensive, about 10,000 people had died in Hue, most of them civilians.

HALONG BAY IS a place that everyone raves about. Read any travel article about Vietnam, and it’s likely to get a glossy double page photo. I felt that I’d read the legend of how it was formed about a million times before I even went there. So I was thoroughly prepared for it to be overhyped. It wasn’t.

We sailed out in clear blue skies, the sun gently warming our bare feet even as we wore fleeces on top against the wind. Within half an hour we (and, it has to be said, about thirty other boats) were sailing inbetween looming limestone Karsts – giant fragments of islands, their sides sheer cliffs, their tops verdant green. They seemed to be endless, disappearing off into the horizon forever. If you are in Vietnam, then I urge you to go there, and to stay overnight on a boat in the bay. You won’t want to leave.

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AND THEN IT was Hanoi, capital of Vietnam and our last destination in the country. The old town is a mass of small streets and seething mopeds. It’s a fascinating place to walk around, each street dedicated to a particular trade so that there are streets of carpenters, streets of toy shops, even streets dedicated to packaging, cardboard boxes spilling out into the road.

What no one tells you about Hanoi, though, is that you haven’t got time to look into the shops or soak up the atmosphere because you’re TOO BUSY TRYING NOT TO DIE under the wheels of a moped. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, in SE Asia pavements are for parking, not walking, so you find yourself stumbling down the narrow roads spending all your time watching where the mopeds are and then – WHOOSH one speeds past you from behind and you are inches from death. It’s like when you’re on the London Underground at rush hour at the edge of the platform with the crowd five people deep behind you and then the train slams past you and you think, if someone just nudged me forward right now… In Hanoi, it’s like that all the time.

Rush hour is out of control: nowhere is safe, as mopeds mount the pavement (what little of it there is left to walk on) to get past. It was worse when we were there because it was just before Tet, Vietnamese New Year, when everyone gets a peach blossom tree for their home or business. Inevitably, these are transported strapped to the back of a moped. So if the vehicle itself doesn’t get you, you’re just as likely to get whipped by the branches of a tree as it whizzes by.

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A peach blossom tree outside the Temple of Literature in Hanoi.

A peach blossom tree, for Tet, outside the Temple of Literature in Hanoi.

An official looking man stands amidst the chaos, presumably after having given up trying to direct it.

An official looking man stands amidst the chaos, presumably after having given up trying to direct it.

But survive the gauntlet of motorised death then Hanoi is a wonderful city, best enjoyed from a tiny plastic chair on the side of the street (NOT at rush hour) drinking a Bia Hoi, or fresh beer – beer that is brewed freshly everyday and retails at about 12p (20c) a glass. At that price, what could possibly go wrong? Just don’t try walking home after a beer too many.

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And that, dear internet, was Vietnam for me.

Join me, next time, when I’ll write more words about some different things. There will also be pictures for those bored of the words.

This post was written in Guilin, Guangxi Province, and Kunming, Yunnan Province, China. It was finally uploaded in Dali, Yunnan Province, China, after a great deal of patience and numerous rounds of green tea.

Remnants of a War Fought in Vietnam

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THE LANGUAGE IS so loaded: Fall of Saigon, Liberation of Saigon. All or nothing descriptors that it’s hard to square. The Vietnam/American war is familiar to me, of course, from so many Hollywood films, so much cultural pastiche (the “/American” added on only, let’s be honest, since I’ve been to Vietnam – where of course it’s called only “the American war”). I thought of it when we first decided to go to Vietnam – but I wasn’t thinking of the war, I was thinking of its cultural imprint. With the exception of the two world wars, it’s hard to think of a war so fictionalised in the West.

So I was surprised, if it’s possible to be so, at my own surprise upon meeting people who had fought in the war – on both sides – and seeing the lasting impact on people living in Vietnam today (and Laos and Cambodia), even people who weren’t born when the war happened.

There are noticeably more amputees in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos (typically begging on the street) than in any other country I’ve visited. According to estimates by the Vietnam Government, unexploded ordinance from the war still contaminates one-fifth of the country’s total land area, with somewhere between in 350,000 and 600,000 tons of ordinance left to clear. When the Vietcong spilled into Cambodia and Laos to move south, explosive ordinance was also dropped there. In Cambodia, the US dropped more than a million tons of bombs, amounting to at least 26 million individual submunitions (i.e. parts of cluster bombs), of which it is estimated that between 1.9 million and 5.8 million still remain today. Laos suffered heavier bombing than either Cambodia or Vietnam, and is still the world’s most contaminated country from unexploded ordinance. Over two million tons were dropped on Laos, including over 270 million submunitions. There are no reliable estimates of how many unexploded bombs remain in the country today, but about 300 people a year die in Laos from leftover ordinance. There are no statistics on how many people lose limbs every year.

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“HAND GUNS, RIFLES, they don’t scare me,” Vien, who fought on the side of the south, told me. “Landmines do. You don’t know: just walking along and – boom!” The USA weren’t the only ones using explosive ordinance in the war – the Vietcongs did too (though, it must be noted, the vast majority of the remaining unexploded bombs were dropped by the USA; and, where the Vietcong did use explosives, it was often salvaged from unexploded American bombs). The favoured Vietcong tactic was to set traps in the jungle, surrounded by landmines. If a soldier was caught in the trap, any attempt at rescue would likely trigger one of the landmines, or else attract the attention of a sniper. When we were in Ho Chi Minh City, we visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, where you can see recreations of the bamboo traps used by the Vietcong.

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The Cu Chi Tunnels were underground tunnels used by the Vietcong to evade detection and to move closer to Saigon. Today, they are a monumental tourist trap, where you can go and join hundreds of others watching mechanised models of Vietcong soldiers making traps, disarming bombs, and generally taking on the American imperialists. As with most war-related tourist attractions in Vietnam, the accompanying narrative was a little one sided (incidentally, if you’re reading this and considering going yourself, I wouldn’t bother – it’s a 3 hour trip to get there, including a compulsory stop at a ‘handicrafts’ workshop’, to go and see a bunch of tunnels). There’s also a shooting range, where you can buy ammunition and have a go at shooting an AK47 or an M16, pretending that you’re shooting soldiers of either side, depending on your preference. It’s all in good taste, I’m sure.

Our guide for the Cu Chi Tunnels, Hong, fought on the side of the North, and took great delight in showing us his scars from gunshot wounds on the bus on the way there, alongside telling us about his wife who was 20 years younger than him, at 45. She weighed 84kg, which is 14kg more than him. Such are the things that you must tell people, apparently, to fill up a three hour bus journey.

“I must decide, my father told me, who you fight for,” said Hong. “So I chose the VCs, and fought for the north.” He was in the army from 1967 – 1974, and was shot twice in that period, spending time in hospitals before returning to the front line both times. Hong enjoyed making (very realistic, it has to be said) impressions of the different guns used in the war. Although I would probably file his dramatic re-enactments of skirmishes under the same bad-taste category as the AK-47 shooting range.

The Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh City was the former residence and seat of power of the South. Today, it is preserved exactly as it was on the day that the North Vietnamese tanks broke through the gates to the palace. It's all 60s architecture with a creepy sense throughout that someone just left.

The Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh City was the former residence and seat of power of the South. Today, it is preserved exactly as it was on the day that the North Vietnamese tanks broke through the gates to the palace. It’s all 60s architecture with a creepy sense throughout that someone just left.

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LATER, WE SPOKE to Vien about what it was like fighting his countrymen. “It was a horrible war,” he told us. “Everyday, I lost two or three men. I don’t want to shoot people, and I don’t want to get shot. I have a family, they have a family. But if you don’t shoot in the field, then you die. You’ve got to shoot to survive.”
Earlier in the trip we’d seen Vien greeting one of his friends. “He used to be my enemy,” he’d told us, “but now he’s my friend.” So when I asked him how things were now between the North and the South, I was expecting a less hostile answer. “I still don’t like the north,” he said. “They come to the south, but they don’t own it, and they bring their families.”

Vien’s unforgiving answer is perhaps more understandable in his generation: he saw a vision of a different Vietnam, fought for it, and lost. When I’d asked him what the loudspeakers on so many telegraph posts in rural Vietnam were, he’d smiled at me and said: “They’re for propaganda. Bullshit.” Vietnam is a communist country (though anyone seeing the unrestrained capitalism of the country and the entrepreneurial spirit of so many Vietnamese would be forgiven for raising their eyebrows at this fact) with one party, one vision. But those who fought on the side of the south still live here. It’s a distinction which is becoming less relevant, but it still lives on.

The bunker in the Independence Palace is full of echoing hallways. It didn't provide much protection when the tanks rolled in.

The bunker in the Independence Palace is full of echoing hallways and cold war paranoia. It didn’t provide much protection when the tanks rolled in.

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THERE ARE ALSO more visible signs of the war, and not just amputees: I saw at least 4 people born after the war with profound disfigurements, caused by Agent Orange, the chemical used by the US during the war to clear large swathes of foliage. These disfigurements are profound and debilitating – people born with half a face, no arms, a head three times the size it should be. In the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, there is a gallery devoted to the victims of this chemical, people still being born today because it accumulated and settled in the bodies of their parents. I toured that exhibition, wandering past portrait after portrait with my fellow visitors in something deeper than museum-silence. I also visited the exhibition of photographs from the war, taken by a collection of photo-journalists (mostly western), many of whom were killed during the war. After that, I couldn’t face the rest of the museum. Loitering in the lobby, gathering myself after the exhibitions, I saw two Americans (recognised by their accents), both old enough to have fought in the war. One wore a Canada top, the other an England football top, too tight and obviously borrowed. They hovered, awkward and sombre, and one wrote a message in the visitor’s book, before leaving.

WHEN IN HANOI, in the North, we visited the very cool Cong Caphe, and drank Vietnamese coffee. Cong Caphe was on three floors, decked out in military surplus and Vietnam-American war era antiques. It was Vietnam-war chic, the war more kitsch than profound – appealing to a younger crowd. Teenagers hung out on the 70s furniture, all glued to their smart phones. The place was war-influenced, but different – something re-purposed for today. It felt a long way away from Vien’s comments about the north/south relationship.

The youth of today.

The youth of today.

The Vietnam war: now it's cool, like Che Guevara and Communist propaganda posters.

The Vietnam war: now it’s cool, like Che Guevara and Communist propaganda posters.

With great coffee too.

With great coffee too.

My time in Vietnam gave a brief, surface-deep experience of the war’s legacy, and I certainly don’t claim any expert knowledge in the field. The experience was enough, though, to see past the Hollywoodisation of the war; but it was also enough to grasp why this war has had such a long life in books, films and as the theme for trendy cafés. As Tim O’Brien writes in his novel of the Vietnam war, The Things They Carried:

“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil […] But this too is true: stories can save us.” 

― Tim O’BrienThe Things They Carried

[Sources: Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor and UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office]

In this post I have changed the names of people to protect their anonymity.

This post was written in Chiang Mai, Pai and Mae Hong Song, Northern Thailand.

[Because I am so so far behind in writing about the places I’ve been…..
NEXT TIME: Vietnam Roundup]

Cycling in the Mekong Delta: Or The Long Reach of the Limerick Fire & Rescue Service

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OUR FIRST DAY in the Mekong Delta ended in what we would all have been afraid to do in HCMC – going for a bike ride. “My back brake doesn’t work,” I told the owner of the rickety city bike that I’d been handed. He took hold of both handlebars, grasped the brakes, and demonstrated to me that “yes, but the front brake works.” We both laughed over my stupidity, and with a slap on my back I was on my way. Our group pedalled sedately along the road towards the village, passing shacks and farms, people waving at us from the roadside, mopeds honking at us from the road. It was nearly peaceful.

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Yes the roads were a little narrow and yes the mopeds came a little close, but we Definitely Felt Safe All Of The Time.

At the entrance to the village proper, we stopped atop a bridge to take photos of the river. As I am prone to doing, I lingered a little longer to get a few more pictures. Then, packing away my gear, I rode off in pursuit of the rest of the group. I wasn’t the last to leave the bridge, but within  a few minutes of cycling into the village I was completely lost, without a single one of my fellow cyclists in sight. Perhaps I was distracted by the dog’s head on the barbeque that I saw, making me miss the hairpin turning just after the bridge that everyone had made. Perhaps I should just have been paying more attention. Either way, I was untroubled as I cycled through the market, dodging shoppers and moped drivers. Fortunately breaking the highway code in Vietnam didn’t mark me out as clueless, and I was keen to promote an image of confidence to anyone who may have been watching, so I cycled on – secure in the knowledge that I would eventually meet the rest of my group and that the final person on the bridge would soon catch up. The road curved round, I followed it, and soon I was out of the centre of the village and cycling along a dirt path bordered on one side by the river, and the other by people’s houses. I will admit to feeling some uncertainty at this point, but I cycled on – I really don’t know why. Then I saw a bridge crossing the river – a narrow, concrete affair with no sides – and I figured that I probably needed to go across to get back, as I’d already crossed the river once, right?

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So I dismounted, and walked across with the bike, and you will be surprised to hear that I didn’t fall in. No, instead I reached the other side and cycled on for a full two minutes along an uneven, partially flagstoned path, before finally stopping. I was outside somebody’s house, a low brick structure with a corrugated iron roof. A dog regarded me cooly from beside the entrance. My unease began to peak – I was alone, in Vietnam, without a single word of Vietnamese except “thank you.” I paused to take in the situation, gripping my ineffectual rear brake in thought. The dog came over and began sniffing me. I tried mentally to map which way I should have gone, where I went wrong. Perhaps triggered by the scent of its barbecued cousin, the dog began to growl. It bared its teeth at me. I may have uttered the words “nice dog.” Whatever I said, it was clearly ineffectual as the dog ran towards me and I pedalled pedalled pedalled back the way I came. I didn’t pause to see how long it chased me for, but as I pedalled I thought to myself how thankful I was that I’d paid for that rabies vaccination.

And then, miraculously, I saw two figures cycling towards me – Colum, a fellow traveller and a firefighter in the Limerick Fire and Rescue Service, closely followed by BK-C. “We’re the search party,” shouted Colum. “Great,” I replied, “what took you so long?” (or that’s the reply the wittier version of me would have given – in fact I was gushingly grateful and happy at seeing people I knew).

And that’s the time that I got rescued by an Irish firefighter in the Mekong Delta. After that, I felt ready for anything that Vietnam could throw at me.

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NEXT TIME: I learn about the war in Vietnam.

This post was written in Vang Vieng, Laos.

Ho Chi Minh City & The Mekong Delta

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HO CHI MINH City (also known as Saigon, its pre Vietnam-American war name, or simply abbreviated to HCMC) and the Mekong Delta: two very different places with a lot in common. HCMC is a sprawling, urban rush, whilst the Mekong Delta is a peaceful, rural area of farms and waterways. But both play an important part in Vietnam – Saigon drives the country’s economy and the Mekong Delta feeds the nation’s people. Both are some of the most densely populated areas in Vietnam, with the sky scrapers and streets of Saigon contrasting with the farms, fruit trees and rice paddies tightly packed into the Delta. And both share a common Southern Vietnamese heritage, a separation in attitude and history from the North that is still felt by many Vietnamese today. As people are fond of saying in Vietnam (of just about anything) – it’s same same, but different.

HCMC WAS OUR first stop in Vietnam. It topped the steadily rising crescendo of beeping horns that we’ve experienced as we’ve worked our way through Thailand and Cambodia. The streets are notoriously busy, thick with mopeds and the occasional car. Crossing the street in HCMC – or indeed anywhere in Vietnam – is one of those travelling rites of passage that is so often written about as to be cliché. There are ‘pedestrian crossings’, but no one stops at them; there are red lights, but these are optional; and there are pavements, but these are mostly for mopeds, so what the hell do you think you’re doing walking on them? In Hanoi, where I am as write this, we were at a busy intersection of a main road, waiting for a less-fatal opportunity to plunge across the road, when two distressed looking American ladies came up to us. “Have you crossed the road here?” they asked.
“We’ve never crossed the road here, specifically,” I replied, “but yes we’ve crossed the road in Hanoi.”
“Oh that’s great,” one of the women enthused, “we just got here. Can we cross with you guys?”
“Sure,” I said, gripping BK-C’s hand tightly whilst subtly attempting to position her as a human shield between myself and the oncoming traffic, “we’ll go over after this red bus… ready…and go.”
And we strode out into the road, in front of a battalion of buzzing mopeds which all beeped obligingly, either to tell us that they’d seen us and would drive around us, or that they were going to collide with us (I’m never sure which). We reached the other side in one piece, the American women deliriously happy that they’d survived their first road crossing. All such crossings are thus in Vietnam.

After you...

After you…

These are the drivers that had their lights on...

These are the drivers that had their lights on.

School children practice badminton in a park in HCMC. Badminton is big out here - it's common for courts to be marked on the streets. Perhaps the absence of mopeds driving across the court at the 2012 Olympics is why Vietnam's one Olympian badminton player failed to advance past the elimination rounds.

School children practice badminton in a park in HCMC. Badminton is big out here – it’s common for courts to be marked on the streets. Perhaps the absence of mopeds driving across the court at the 2012 Olympics is why Vietnam’s one Olympian badminton player failed to advance past the elimination rounds.

AFTER THE CITY, Mekong Delta was wonderfully quiet and horn free. We visited a market with our guide, Vien, and marvelled at the diversity and plentitude of the produce, most of which we needed Vien to identify for us. Vegetables, fruits, fish, snakes, chickens, flowers – it was all there.

The Vietnamese take their dried shrimp very seriously.

The Vietnamese take their dried shrimp very seriously.

A Vietnamese lady doing her daily produce shop. The marvel is that I saw ladies like this also crossing the road unscathed in HCMC.

A Vietnamese lady doing her daily produce shop. The marvel is that I saw ladies like this also crossing the road unscathed in HCMC.

I can't testify to the animal welfare standards in Vietnam - but at least they're not battery farmed.

I can’t testify to the animal welfare standards in Vietnam – but at least they’re not battery farmed.

A member of our tour group is a hit with the local women.

A member of our tour group is a hit with the local women.

I have no idea what the person in the top right hand corner of this photo is wearing.

A fruit seller watches a bag seller pass by.

Banana flowers, delicious in salads.

Banana flowers, delicious in salads.

In the Mekong Delta, intensively farmed and super self-sufficient, nothing is left to waste. The water hyacinth, Vien explained, typifies this approach. It is encouraged to grow by the side of the river, to prevent erosion; it is dried and then weaved into baskets; used as feed for animals; as a fertiliser; and finally its leaves are laid on the ground in the dry season to keep the moisture in the soil.

Over the course of a day and a half we also visited a fruit farm, a bonsai farm, a pottery, a floating market and a handicrafts market. Although there were a few tourists in some places, they where overwhelmingly thronging with locals. The impression that I was left with was of a highly efficient, complex and, above all, successful agricultural economy. Even the rolling pin in the handicrafts market used to make sesame snap was recycled – it was an old shell casing.

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NEXT TIME: I go cycling in the Mekong Delta. Hilarity ensues.

This post was written in Hanoi, Vietnam and Vang Vieng, Laos.