Monday, January 30, 2006

Indonesian Vignettes

Our time in Indonesia has been quite random so far. As have my sleeping patterns. Up at 4am this morning then slept for 4 hours this afternoon, so now I'm typing instead of going to bed at a sensible time.

Here are some of the choicest moments so far, I'll post about the splendours of our almost-dawn trip to Boro Budur and almost-noon trip to Parambanan next time.

The smallest, cutest, airport I've ever seen
Foreigners queue up to buy a 'Visa On Arrival' visa at a separate counter as the locals (South East Asians) form an enormous, snaking queue to the two actual immigration officers. Each VOA Visa takes what seems like an age to process, all the time the immigration queue is not moving. I finally get my VOA then the clerk tells me to go to the front of the queue. I push past all the waiting locals, lend my pen to the head immigration officer (so he can cross out the bit on the rubber stamp that says 'valid for 7 days' and write 'valid for 30 days' instead) and on (two metres) to the baggage reclaim. A counter separates we-without-bags from the flimsy looking girl with all the bags strewn around on the floor behind her. I give her my baggage tags (the stickers you always get given at check-in, but I've never had need for before today) and point out Harvey's bag (he's still queueing - remember the long and static queue for locals? And he was so happy before that Malaysians didn't need a visa!). Mine is nowhere to be seen. After some gesturing I manage both to convince her that I really do have two backpacks and that the missing one is green. She smiles a lot, then pushes over a green suitcase to reveal mine hiding underneath. Struggling a little she lifts it up and passes it over the counter to me - it's only 12kg. How does she manage the really heavy ones?

Real rain. The first we've seen this holiday. Man-sized drops of monsoon rain pour from the sky. But only for a few minutes, as the celestial orchestra goes through it's overture, warming up, as people on motorbikes and cyclo taxis cower under plastic sheeting we are warm and dry in our taxi from the airport.

A narrow alley and a wide courtyard
Our taxi turns into an incredibly narrow alley, less than twice the width of the car. The rain is still falling. We think this is the right street, but you're never sure when relying on a Rough Guide...

Halfway down the alley we stop. The driver sounds his horn and a smiling face appears, with an umbrella, to undo the gates. The gates open from what was a narrow and uninviting alley into a wide courtyard, surrouded by open fronted buildings. It's not the Ritz (the rooms are basic) but they have a pool, a variety of bizarrely ornate furniture, their own Gamelan orchestra room and very friendly staff, who inform us that it's Javanese (and muslim) new year's eve and there's a procession in town if we hurry.

The mysterious artifact
We found the procession in the end. It was just a crowd of people waiting when we arrived, and then they started. A man in what appeared to be a flowery skirt (not so unusual here - it was a batik sarong) and high heels (unusual everywhere) led the procession, walking slowly. Very slowly. Almost wedding march style.

Behind him came a variety of groups. A group of teenage martial artists in blue tracksuits. A group of men in sarongs walked barefoot on the wet roads. A group carrying an enormous spear, wrapped and horizontal, on their shoulders. A group carrying kris knives tucked into their belts. Near the back a group carried, sedan style, a glass box with curtains. We couldn't quite see what was inside. Harvey tried asking some of the locals, but nobody gave a clear answer - 'a weapon', 'the power', 'royal thing' were the mysterious half answers.

Two days later I saw a mention of the procession in the paper. Apparently it was a royal waistcoat.


Time to try and sleep - although we've got a lie in tomorrow. No need to get up until 8am.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Reflections on Cambodia

I don't have much time to type up explanations at the moment, but wireless broadband in Harvey's house is a luxury and we're flying to Indonesia tomorrow so I've just uploaded them for now. Will type something intelligent when I get a chance.

In summary, even though you cannot go far in Cambodia without being reminded about the horrors of the recent past, we really enjoyed our time in this country. There are beautiful buildings and countryside to warm the soul and capture the eye again after staring into the abyss of human possibility every time you find out more about the Khmer Rouge. There are beggars, often with less than the full compliment of limbs, everywhere (landmine victims, with no state support or benefits, what other choice do they have?) - but also children playing in the streets and people going out of their way to help you out. Surprisingly, there are even great bars and clubs in Phnom Penh - we had some fun nights out.

I believe that everyone should visit Cambodia. See the grandeurs of its past at Angkor, learn about the recent cultural and physical annihilation under the KR and see the steps people are taking to put the country back on track today.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Malaysia (truly Asia)

After spending all day yesterday in a room with no windows and feeling VERY ill, I dragged my sorry self out and on to a plane today and find myself in Kuala Lumpur. Still not feeling 100%, but first impressions are:
- it's very hot and sticky outside (33C and 70% humidity)
- it's very cold and breezy inside (fans and aircon everywhere)
- Harvey's family have a very nice house (with pool on the balcony)
- everyone here is obsessed by food (and I thought it was only Harvey)

I look forward to making a complete recovery soon so I can enjoy the culinary delights without plotting the course to the nearest facilities every 15 minutes or calculating whether the flavours are enough pleasure to justify another bout of stomach cramps...

German efficiency

Where would the world be without a little German efficiency every now and then? I know it's a stereotype, but sometimes it so true - and so useful! I'd just like publicly to thank Ralf for sending me a copy of all the emails I sent after I met him in Central Asia. All I'm missing now are the ones from before (ie. Uzbekistan).

To view these old messages, and relive my central asian and middle eastern wanderings, click the 'archive' links on the right of the page to view the 2002 and 2003 postings, or use these links:

October 2002

November 2002

April 2003

Thanks again, Ralf!

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


We began before the dawn of time. Beyond the very edge of the universe itself. In darkness, surrounded by the chattering of demons, we collected our thoughts and set off. Past the lions and snake-like seven headed naga we strode and on to the celestial causeway, barely visible by the light of distant stars.

We maintained our course, straight and true, on this bridge between the darkness beyond the universe and the universe itself. We crossed the oceans of dark, pausing at the very threshold of the world to see the first light lift the sky - allowing us, for the first time, to see our goal: Mount Meru, sacred mountain and home of the gods.

But, standing still at that threshold, the chattering demons once more began to gather and vex our souls. We had to press on. So, once more, we set off, striding in the half light, towards our goal. We neared the earthly continents and found a quiet spot to pause and witness the dawn of man, the sky like cold fire above the gods' abode.

In that early morning light we contemplated the beauty of creation, the continents, the central peaks, the majesty, the beauty and grandeur of it all. It awed us. It filled us. It drove us on. But we stood at the western edge, the side of death, and no way to enter the sphere of man's domain. So we passed to the south, navigating around the world, to enter from the East, the morning sun at our backs. And what greater wonders we beheld close up! How beautiful this creation, every man like a legend carved in stone.

I had lost my companion, but onward tread. Past the realm of man to the very foothills of the Mount. Call it what you will - Mt. Meru, Mt. Olympus, Valhalla, heaven... the names are many but, in physical form the imposing, fractal, splendour is pure joy to behold. Peaks upon peaks, each a smaller represention of the larger whole. Enormous, yet infinitely detailed.

I was now alone, but so close. The foothills were steep, like steps for a giant, but I could make it if I tried. So I shouldered my pack and began the climb - daring to go calling on the home of the gods themselves. As I ascended I dared not look down - from heaven to hell is but one unsure footstep - but up I scaled until...

Such splendour.

Corridors and courtyards, open spaces, the central peak. Everywhere I looked were angels, beautiful smiling angels with slim waists and firm flesh, dancing enticingly around. Such beauty, peace and tranquil, meditative, calm. I am in heaven.


Angkor Wat is no less than a representation of the universe itself. It's outer moat the ocean that surrounds the universe. The outer buildings represent the continents and the inner quincunx of towers is Mount Meru - which can be ascended by clambering up giant sized stairs. I have been to many places in the world, but the temples of Angkor are the most breathtaking I have ever seen.

It is enormous - the largest religious structure in the world. It is intricate - every tower adorned by angels, creatures and flowers, every wall carved in bas-relief. It is colourful - different colours at different times of day, as the sun proceeds across the sky. It is symbolic. It is spiritual - despite the crowds of tourists and lack of connection to the religious (Hindu) influence, the complex retains a sense of tranquility and calm.

And then there are the other temples. The eerie, smiling, faces of Bayon. The overgrown mysteries of Beng Mealea and Ta Promh. The intricate, detailed, beauty of Bantea Serai. All beautiful. All worth visiting. Photos cannot do justice, nor can words. I really am in heaven.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The temples of Angkor

A magical dawn - sun rise over Angkor Wat (see 'Heaven' below for more about this).

The dancing angels, or 'Apsaras', of Angkor are carved everywhere. The combination of grandeur and detail at Angkor is breathtaking, and there is not just one temple, but more than a dozen, spread over numerous sites and built in a number of different styles.

In my life I have been fortunate enough to visit many wonders, the combination of temples and buildings at Angkor is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful, most interesting and most moving.

Look at the details in these Apsaras - each has a different expression, many have different postures and hairstyles. And all this 1000 years ago when one million people lived in this complex - and London was struggling to count 40,000 inhabitants.

Angkor Wat was originally dedicated to the Hindu pantheon. Later kings adopted Buddhism and modified some of the carvings to match this change. When Angkor was abandoned, Angkor Wat became a Buddhist Monastery until it was 'rediscovered' by Henri Mouhot in the 19th century.

There is a constant struggle between man's fixed stone buildings and the ebb and flow of nature's jungle here. Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom have been cleared and cleaned up since their rediscovery, but others such as Ta Prom and Beng Mealea are still relatively overgrown (the latter is almost wild). It's fascinating to see how trees grow on, in and through brickwork when given a century or two to do their work.

As well as the enormous, grandiose, famous temples there are smaller (but equallly beautiful) temples all over the site and other types of construction too - like this enormous rectangular reservoir. Originally thought to be used for irrigation of nearby paddy fields, more recent studies have shown that there is no outlet for the water and archaeologists have concluded that there is no purpose, other than as monumental figurative expressions of the celestial oceans, for the reservoirs.

Friday, January 20, 2006

S-21 Toul Sleng prison

Preface: Harvey and I arrived in Phnom Penh a few hours ago. After a late lunch we decided to go to S-21, the former school that the Khmer Rouge turned into a detention centre.

Cambodia. I have read passing references in history books about Pol Pot. I have seen the documentaries about the Khmer Rouge, the killing fields and S-21. But visiting the scene of the crime... nothing has prepared me for that.

I have heard people talk of ill feelings from buildings and objects, usually people of particularly spiritual or religious inclination. I have always dismissed this as ludicrous, until now.

The feeling of eerieness, of suffering. The silent screams ringing in my ears - of prisoners long since tortured to death. All magnified, somehow made even worse by what we are reading. The guards were mainly aged 10-15. The torturers were from all parts and backgrounds. The prisoners were of all ages - babies killed instantly, children, adults and the aged held, starved, interrogated. And then killed.

Made worse by what we are seeing. Bed frames used to tie prisoners down, the implements of torture sitting silently, innocently, on the mesh. Floors stained black by blood. Photos of the victims, lying dead after interrogation on the very frames we now stand in front of. Barbarity, suffering and cruelty of the darkest kind.

And, as the regime became more and more rotten, and increasingly paranoid, not even party members and soldiers were safe. Trumped up charges of conspiracy or treason or planning to flee to a neighbouring country were enough to condemn a man. Or woman, or child.

The Khmer Rouge kept before and after photos and meticulous records of all of the prisoners. More than 12,000 in all, kept in small cells or chained together in mass dormitories. 30 people with their feet shackled to an iron bar, lying on the floor with their arms tied to a similar bar by their heads. Then another row and another - feet-to-feet, arms-to-arms - unable to move. Punished with electric shocks or lashes if they dared to talk or move without permission.

More than 12,000 prisoners. Perhaps a dozen survivors.

It used to be a school. It became the Khmer Rouge's main detention and interrogation centre. It is now a museum and an eerie, scary place - but children still play in the grounds and some boys were playing volleyball with the attendants at dusk.

Classrooms were turned into interrogation rooms. Each one with a single bed frame, to which the prisoners were tied. And tortured. As we walked through the rooms, our footsteps echoed loudly in the bare rooms - the reverberating cries generated when more than a dozen people were simultaneously interrogated here must have been unbearable to hear, restrained in the holding cells, waiting for your turn. Your turn to scream, and then die. Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate.

When the Vietnamese soldiers found Toul Sleng, they photographed what they found - a corpse on each bed, the implements of its torture strewn around the room. The museum now displays these artifacts in situ, along with a copy of each soul-sapping photo. The bodies of the 14 victims they found are buried in the school yard.

Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge kept detailed records of every person processed at Toul Sleng. This included before and after photos as well as biographical details and the prisoners' confessions.

The before photos are haunting, children and adults peering out from behind the glass of history. Racks and racks of them. The after photos are chilling - this museum has not been designed for a squeamish audience.

These long poles with shackles were used to pack the prisoners into the dormitories. Side by side, not allowed to move or talk, or drink or fight off the mosquitos. Hands of one row tied to the hands of the next.

This second photo is an artist's impression of the dorm.

Luxury. An individual holding cell. It's dark because the sun is setting outside. Harvey and I hurry on, seeing and reading what we can until there is nothing left. We leave in near silence, emotionally exhausted. Quietly appreciating anew that we were born in the years and countries that we were. These poor souls did not share our fortune.

The poisoned hill.

"Why?" I ask.
The building responds
with stony silence.
The dark, unflinching, empty


of the void.
It mocks me.
It mocks us all.
In its silence is the answer:
"There is no reason."
Why do we listen to the void?
How can we listen to the void?
How is its silence louder than
the screams of history?
If only man could remember,
and avoid.


Thursday, January 19, 2006

I have never...

I have never been moved to tears by a museum. Until now.

I am sitting in the grounds of Ho Chi Minh City's War Remnants Museum, trying to capture my thoughts on paper. What do I feel? Sadness, grief. Perhaps loss - a loss of innocence when faced with the aftermath of war (albeit only in photos and artifacts - I cannot even begin to imagine what it would be like in living colour).

Perhaps the two young boys I saw earlier sum it up best. They were running around in the grounds of the museum, amongst the howitzers, tanks and planes, impressed by the size and menacing presence of the power. Everything was so cool as they ran around, imitating the sound of gunfire with their voices. I saw them again less than an hour later, just after they had passed through a gallery of photographs. They were in a very different mood.

The gallery displayed photographs of soldiers torturing prisoners. The fun loving kids I had seen earlier were now clinging to their father's side. Subdued, and asking, "Daddy, how can they be so mean?" It wasn't so cool any more. Not when you see a soldier grinning as he holds up half a person that he just fired a grenade at. Nor when you see shell craters in the middle of villages, surrounded by dismembered bodies. Or the victims of toxic sprays and chemical weapons or - most tragically of all to me - the victims' children. Some born more than a decade after their father's exposure to Agent Orange, all hideously deformed.

So, I am lost. Morally lost and cast adrift. How can one human being decide that the pursuit of their cause, their will, their desire is worth inflicting such devastation so directly on another person?

There are many ills still in the world and many injustices. I know that I do not do all that I could to enrich the lives of others. I do not dedicate myself to bettering humanity. I know that there are probably things that I do that, if I investigated them and really sought the detailed truth, I would find harm other people in some way. There is so much that I - that we all - choose to ignore. And, through familiarity with this ignorance, I can understand this.

But to act directly... To order or carry out a massacre of the entire population of a village (such as Son My in Vietnam); to be involved in the production, decision process or act of spraying more than 20,000,000 litres of toxic chemicals over a country; to sanction the amputation, part by part, of a prisoner's limbs as an interrogation technique (if the photos, captions and war stories are to be believed as written here, one prisoner held during the war had one foot removed, then the other, then the rest of one leg, then the other leg - all to encourage him to talk). I cannot - do not want to - relate to these acts or possibilities, not on any level of shared humanity.

But... what if I, if any of us, were engaged in a war? Blinded by this, by a desire to bend our entire will, intellect and capacity to the realisation of a cause... Following that path, could I end up in this same state of mechanical action and moral destitution?

Through loss, my feelings pass into fear, then crystallise into rage. A blinding, consuming rage. And thus to revenge. And revenge needs a target. Logically it follows that 'America' did this, so America should be made to pay, to suffer in some way. My mind begins to spin... how could I act to help bring justice for these victims?

But it's only momentary. The briefest, fleeting thoughts. A path built not on logic, but on idiocy. Logic built on a lie. What has modern America to do with those who made these atrocious decisions three decades ago? What does some random American citizen have to do with the plight of a child born perhaps before they were? How would making anyone's lives worse improve the lot of myself, or anybody else? It does not. It can not. So, instead of some futile, childish, lash at onother innocent one must take, must be satisfied with, the more complex, and less satisfying, path.

These things are done. They cannot be undone, even though the horrific effects continue to this day. People that profited from these acts have paid some form of reparation (such as the compensation paid to US Veterans exposed to Agent Orange by the companies that supplied the chemicals to the US Army).

Bad things happened in the past and a line must be drawn underneath them. I can only act in the present and influence the future. I can only act directly in certain ways and should seek to do those things that I can to prevent repeat occurences of such events - if and when such opportunities arise. I make no pretences about being a selfish individualist - the most important things to me are my family and friends - but above all things must sit a general humanity: Primum non nocere. First (and above all), do no harm.

I think I should take solace in the words of the blinded dioxin victim in one of the short videos shown here. Three of his children died very young, with terminal birth defects. The fourth is deformed and badly disabled, unable to feed himself or look after himself. His father took him to a hospital in Russia where they performed several scans and quizzed the father about his possible exposure to dioxin before giving their diagnosis. "The best, the only, medicine we can prescribe is happiness," the father related with a smile.

If he and his son can learn to live with - and be happy with - what they have, surely we all can too.

Some images:

The BLU-82 Seismic Bomb (aka "Daisy Cutter").

Was used to create landing zones in the jungle - it can clear an area of 100m diameter (some sources say 100m radius) and inflicts damage over an area of 3km diameter. Still in use today as a 'shock and awe' weapon, the atmospheric impact and seismic effects inflict terror (as well as physical damage) to all people in the vicinity.

Death from above.

The A1 Skyraider was used to deliver the chemical weapon payloads and escort helicopters in the America-Vietnam war.

Destruction from below.

The D.7 E Bulldozer was used by the US Army in Vietnam for large scale 'ground clearing' projects - razing forests, orchards, ricefields and cemeteries to the ground and creating large areas of "no man's land". The US Army had more than 1400 bulldozers in Vietnam by 1969.

The civilian face of war

Victim of white phosphor bombs.

21 year old victim of a napalm bomb.

Nick Ut's Pullitzer Prize winning photograph of a little girl burned by a napalm bomb. Before delivering the film, he took the girl, called Phan Thi. Kim PhĂșc, to hospital. He was 21 years old when he witnessed these events, the girl is only 9.

The many victims of a stray bomb in Hanoi.

The My~ Lai Massacre. Wikipedia's article on this dark event is better written than I can so please use the link above instead.

The photo of the soldier I refered to above. Bunyo Ishikawa, a photographer during the war, wrote about this event in his book 'The war for the liberation of Vietnam':
The American soldier laughed satisfactorily while carrying a part of the body of a liberation soldier, that had just been hit by shells from a grenade launcher. In my feelings I wondered, 'Is he a moster or a human being?'

Second generation effects of the dioxin based weapons used by the US Army in Vietnam (the deformed are the children of the men originally exposed) . An international conference in Japan said:

"Dioxin is the most dangerous chemical ever developed by man. Doses capable of killing human beings and animals vary from entity to entity, but always in the range of 1 to 5 micrograms per kilogram of body weight. Prolonged effects may include symptoms of birth problems, cancer ..."

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Images of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Souvenirs for sale in the central market.

Traffic in HCMC is truly crazy. The first two pictures are of Harvey crossing the road, surrounded on all sides by traffic - cars and motos - streaming around him. Zebra crossings have absolutely no meaning or effect.

A 'bit' of modern art.

HCMC has Christian...


...and Buddhist temples. The vast majority of the population is Buddhist.

The Cu Chi tunnels

During the American war, the villagers of Cu Chi decided to resist their liberation and fought against the Americans that controlled much of the south of Vietnam. They literally went underground and dug out the now famous Cu Chi Tunnels.

The tunnels served as storerooms, workshops, kitchens, dormitories and command centres. They were small, cramped, dark and booby trapped - not an inviting place to chase the enemy - and gave the Vietnamese guerillas an enormous advantage in their struggles against the Americans.

Nothing there...

...unless you know where to look.

These small, dark holes are the uninviting entrances to the tunnels.

Imagine being an all-American GI, in full gear, being told to pursue the enemy down into these tunnels. The Vietnamese are much smaller (see the last photo here for an example of the size difference between us and our guide, or look at 'Harvey and his tailor' below) and made good use of this size difference.

The long-abandoned victim of a delay mine, this American tank was stopped in its tracks by the villagers. Notice the pitiful impressions left on the tank armour by the rifle rounds - and hence their use of tank-killing mines.

The mines were made from unexploded shells that the Americans fired at the villagers. They cut them up and reused the explosive charge, adding shrapnel shards for maximum effect.

Harvey emerges from the tunnels, sweating profusely. It's very hot down there, hot and dark and very uninviting. And we didn't even have to carry our own lights, or deal with enemy fire or scorpion-box booby traps, just crawl 100m on our hands and knees throught tunnels specially widened for the benefit of us oversized tourists.

The Cao Dai Holy See at Tay Ninh

What is this building?

It is the Holy See, the Vatican, of the Cao Dai religion.

What is the Cao Dai religion?

Rather than writing about the Cao Dai from a position of little knowledge, I found that someone else has done a very good job: article about the Cao Dai faith. Take a look if you'd like to find out more about this religion that incorporates all of the world's major faiths (from Confuscianism to Islam) and recognises Victor Hugo and Descartes amongst their principal saints.

It also explains a lot of what you will see in the pictures below, pictures that I have mainly chosen for their aesthetic value, infidel that I am. There is also a good wikipedia article on Cao Daism.

The cathedral is as lavishly decorated inside as it is outside. Notice the all-seeing eye covering the large globe near the main altar in the first picture.

Female and male worshippers are separated, women on the left and men on the right of the axis that runs through the main entrance at the back of the cathedral and the all-seeing eye at the front.

Different colours symbolise different faiths (the article goes into more detail) but basically yellow is for buddhism, blue for taoism and red for confuscianism.

The faithful pray inside the cathedral. The Cao Dai faithful pray four times a day - at 6am, 6pm, midnight and noon.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Hoi An Market

Some final images of Hoi An market before we fly south to Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon.

Markets and Tailors

I think she's having her grey hairs plucked out... if anyone knows better, please let me know - we saw it happening quite often around Vietnam.

There are not many chickens in Vietnam - this is one of only two times I've seen live birds for sale

Harvey and his camera

Harvey and his tailor

Me and my tailor. You can see that I needed a more ...defensive... stance than Harvey.

Tailors, tailors everywhere

Countryside near Hoi An, Vietnam

Images of the countryside surrounding Hoi An, including the beautiful beach 4km out of town, and the paddy fields and riverside bar we passed whilst cycling there.

My Son

From Hoi An a short bus ride will take you to My Son, the most impressive Cham site in Vietnam. I'll let the pictures do most of the talking:

Our stalkers - Stefan and Katja. Here we see them and Harvey doing their version of Cham traditional dancing (the Cham are doing it in a special tourist hall behind this unlikely trio). We left the Cham and their 100 spectators after 2 minutes to see the sites before the hordes descended.

There was a particular repetitive chanting that sounded uncannily like 'Ha Vey, Ha Vey'.

The eerie sacrificial altar. You can guess what the groove is for.

The faceless remains of the Cham gods, eroded by time to leave just an impression for future generations.

The Vietnamese Cham people came from Indonesia, and later Malaysia. Their religion was a form of Hinduism and the temples here feature Shiva and Ganesh amongst others.

The cry goes up. There's a superstar in town. Bigger than Beckham. Posher than Spice. It's... Ha Vey! Ha Vey!

We returned to Hoi An by boat, stopping at a small village along the way (that happened to have a big carpentry workshop). Harvey and I went for a wander instead of shopping for wooden chairs and statues, taking some photos as we strolled.

Women working at the quayside in Hoi An.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Images of Hoi An

1 & 2. Things for sale on the streets of Hoi An. Unfortunately I don't think I got any good photos of the fabric for sale in the covered markets (due to poor light).
3. Chinese lanterns
4. Chinese assembly house - where families or guilds used to meet and worship.
5. Bar food, Hoi An style: Gin & Tonic and fresh spring rolls.
6. Harvey in Lilliput
7. Street life. Living, breathing, hustle & bustle.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Hoi An - a shoppers' paradise

I tried on my suit today and it may, just about, have been worth $55 + Mr Xe's unique service charge. It will be finished tomorrow.

However, I can't help feeling that I've wasted a major opportunity here in Hoi An. It is a clothes shoppers paradise. Why? Because you show them a picture of what you want (they have piles and piles of Next Catalogues and back issues of Glamour and GQ), pick out a material (from the bolts of cloth, cotton, leather, corduroy or silk in the tailors' shops or the market), wait 24 hours and hey presto.

The only problem is that I don't tend to buy clothes from Next Catalogues. If only I'd brought some photos of that Zara coat that didn't quite fit or the Diesel slant-cut jeans I couldn't afford or the distressed casual jacket I was waiting to see in the sales...

I think I may have to settle for just my suit.

However, anyone who has ever shopped for clothes but not found the right fit or the right thing should come to Hoi An on holiday. There's an airport nearby, a beautiful beach (according to some of our fellow backpackers), historical ruins, cheap food ($3 for a posh meal, 50p on the cheap), cheap drinks (30p for gin and tonic during happy hour), sun, fun, more tailors that you'll ever need plus workshops that make handbags, shoes and other accessories.

Bring photos of all the clothes you ever wanted and go mad!

On board the Reunification Express

The 'Reunification Express' that runs the route from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City and back is no Orient Express, with its sparse beds and hole-in-the-floor loos. However, it does pass through some beautiful scenery on the way from Hue to Da Nang.

Friday, January 13, 2006

"How's your winkie?"

Asked Mr Xe just after I got my shorts back on.

"What do you think?" I replied.

"I think your winkie is hot and loose..."

I see...

I'm sure there were good professional reasons why I had to remove my T-shirt to be measured for a tailored suit (Mr Xe is the excellent but rampantly flirtatious gay tailor that I have... engaged... here in Hoi An). And then why he had to measure my chest eight times, each time stroking his hands around my back and across my left nipple.

Not to mention the joys of being led behind a screen, removing my shorts then being asked to remove my underpants as well. That was a step too far and I refused. Mr Xe took it in his stride, gave my bottom a slap and then took great pleasure in taking my inside leg measurements.

I hope the suit turns out well.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Images of Hue, Vietnam

1. Women cycling near the Citadel
2. Workers on a break, playing cards
3. Chinese architecture - Hue's Citadel was modelled on Beijing's Forbidden City
4. The Perfume River (or 'Pregnant River' in Vietnamese, according to one guide)
5. Statues in Thien Mu Pagoda, on the edge of town
6. Buddhist monks at Thien Mu Pagoda, former home of Thich Quang Duc
7. Buddhist monks in procession at an out-of town temple
8. Lottery ticket seller in Dong Ba market
9. Moped drivers on a back street inside the old walled city

Why I love travelling

The wind in my hair, the sun on my face, the scent of paddy-field mud filling my nose, the buzz of the motorbike motor playing a waking lullaby in my ears. The excitement of exploration. A general sense of well being fills me - right now, all is well with the world.


04:20 The guard bursts into our cell, shouting urgently in Vietnamese. I was asleep and it takes a moment to register that I'm not dreaming, and he really is there. I try to shake off the sleep and regain my wits. Where am I? I am blindfolded, lying in a 6'x6' cell with five other men, lacking the space even to stand up. The guard is still shouting at us but, from behind my blindfold, I do not have a view of his body language to aid my comprehension. I try to think what he could be saying - guards usually need to be understood and obeyed.

But I get ahead of myself.

22:18 We leave the hotel in a rush. We're almost 20 minutes behind schedule and rushing often leads to problems. We don't want problems this far from home. We jump into a taxi and tell the driver where we want to go. He gives us a blank stare. We try again, but he clearly doesn't speak English so we dredge our memories for some Vietnamese. Harvey tries "Ga Ha Noi". The driver nods and we speed off into the night.

22:35 Harvey panics. How could he have been so stupid? We take a moment to plan his escape... if he times it just right he can make it. But he's stopped at the gate by a female guard and returns to our cell.

23:18 The guard visits our cell and gives us each a plastic tag with our allocated number. He slams the door and returns to his office to process us at his leisure. There is a spirit of cameraderie in our cell and we chat before drifting off to sleep, exhausted, in the small hours of the morning.

04:20 See above.

05:15 With much shouting, the guard releases 3 of the inmates from our cell.

06:59 "Breakfast!" is delivered with a shout and a smile. Don't they know how early it is?

08:10 I get up, leave the cell sized sleeper-cabin and search for some hot water to add to my complimentary breakfast of chilli beef flavour instant noodles. I love the taste of MSG in the morning.

09:55 We cross the Ben Hai river which marked trhe centre of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) during the American War. At the time it was bombed, shelled and napalmed literally to death. Contamination meant that nothing grew there for more than a decade after the war. Now, though, it is green once more, although I think I prefer the super-processed breakfast noodles to the rice grown in those particular paddy fields.

10:57 We arrive in Hue, our destination.

22:13 - 'Ga' means 'train station'. I'm no philologist, but would hazard a guess that it's a remnant of the Vietnam's time under French rule.

22:35 - Panic due to realisation that he left his camera battery and charger plugged in at the hotel. We were already on the train and not allowed to leave.

23:18 - The plastic cards were swapped for our tickets. I guess they were so that the guard could wake us up/make sure people got off at the right stop.

04:20 - The wake up call.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Leaving Hanoi

We're leaving Hanoi in just over an hour, boarding the train to head south to Hue. After a day, today, of visiting Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum and associated museums and again wandering the back streets of Hanoi, what are my more vivid impressions of Hanoi and northern Vietnam?

Chaos. More specifically, traffic chaos. In the city bikes flow and flux everywhere. They invent their own contra flows down otherwise one-way streets and, enterprisingly, use the pavement as an extra lane when the standard lanes are full. Crossing major intersections is an exciting game, although I almost fell at the last hurdle and was 'kissed' by a bus this evening. I'm glad the driver was more alert than I was and hit the brakes.

On the road to and from Ha Long we saw that others were not so fortunate. I saw one moped-moped accident happen, one of the other people travelling with us saw a car hit a moped. From his description, I'm glad that I was dozing at the time. We also passed an upturned car. More than 7,000 people a year die on the roads here, mostly motorbike or moped drivers.

Utility. Every square foot of the city is used. Shops overflow their walls and spill out onto the streets where they mingle with street cafes and walking vendors. Pedestrians use the pavement and road, mingling with mopeds who, in turn, use the pavement when needed. This evening Harvey and I bought some food from a walking vendor who was passing us as we sat on stools outside a bar. The vendor had a look around for any other orders, then found 2 square feet of space to squat down (partly on the pavement, partly in the road), fan her coals and cook the food.

Gender equality. I have only noticed two professions that are dominated by a single sex. Moto (taxi) drivers seem to be almost uniquely male and walking vendors (carrying balance-baskets loaded with produce and/or equipment) almost exclusively female. Other than that, everything else is mixed.

Overcharging. It's everywhere, but not too bad. For example, the real price for a cut and prepared pineapple from a walking vendor seems to be about VND5,000 (less than 20p) but their opening gambits are anywhere from VND6,000 to VND20,000. My haggling skills honed in the carpet markets of Central Asia finally come in useful again :)

Taste. Everything tastes of something. Maybe it's MSG in the food, but everything from a beef noodle soup bought on the street to the oranges and pineapples have their own, real, taste to them. When you live in London for a while you forget how everything tastes similarly bland. I think your mind just fills in the gap where your tastebuds used to do the work and you taste 'memory of pineapple' instead of the real thing. The exception to this is the beer from the street-bars. I don't drink beer often, but one glass of the local brew is enough for me. Then again, for VND2,000 (5p) a glass, you can't expect an exposion of flavours.

That's all I've got time for right now - time to go and catch our 11pm train south to Hue. We foolishly went to the train station to buy our tickets (saving $5 each in the process) but hence missed out on the tickets on the earlier train that were block-booked by the local travel agencies. Ah well, the blog benefits from the chance to tap at a keyboard for a while!

I leave you with another Hanoi street scene, this time from 'Bamboo Street'. We also found Silk St, Tie and Suit St, Jumper St, Lampshade St and, most interestingly of all, 'Electrical Cable and Pedicure St'.

Ha Long Bay

"You'll know when you've done them, and you'll never forget. Followed by a romantic evening on board the boat."

I admit that I thought twice, at this point, about the wisdom of commiting myself to two 'romantic' days with Harvey amidst the splendour of Ha Long Bay, another of the eighth wonders of the natural world. (Just how many are there tied for eighth? I think I've visited at least three already...) But my brief hesitation melted away in the face of the innocent charms of the salesgirl, and we paid our money for the trip to "Ha Long Bay - two days, one night".

One early morning, a 3h bus ride and a brief tourist stop at a craft centre later we were at Ha Long City. A city in the throes of a redevelopment that will apparently create a forest of concrete-based hotels for the visiting masses. We saw the unfinished hotel shells along the new causeway. Perhaps the need for aggregate for the hotels is why they're quarrying a large proportion of the hills we passed on the way to Ha Long - hills just like those that everyone travels so far to see in the bay itself...

Bypassing the city itself we were whisked to the docks and onto our motorised junk-a-like. Ha Long bay is, indeed, beautiful. 3000 irregularly shaped limestone islands jutting from the milky blue waters of the sea, surrounding you, fading away into the distance, each potentially housing a temple, an underground cavern or a beach.

If the cloud cover was a little less that 100%, the weather slightly more sunny than 100% grey or the temperature a little higher than very chilly it would be truly stunning. Even in these conditions it was great. Imagine kayaking under a limestone arch into a silent lagoon, surrounded on all sides by forested cliffs. Not a sound to be heard but your own occasional paddling, which you try so hard to do quietly to avoid breaking the beautiful, solitary silence. Momentary bliss.

Kayaking back was a little more fraught... weaving between junks that seemed determined to mow us down. Still, it was a piece of cake compared to crossing the roads in Hanoi. On our return to the boat swimming seemed like the thing to do. I'm still not quite sure how I managed to swim around the two junks - 30m breast stroke, 30m back stroke and 50m doggy paddle I believe. I really should learn how to swim properly some day, although knowing that Harvey wouldn't be much help if I went under and that everyone else on the boat was too scared that the water was cold was a great motivator.

We spent a very cold night on the boat (in separate beds, despite Harvey originally opening the door to a double-bedded cabin and getting his hopes up before realising he had the wrong door and, incidentally, that all the keys worked in all the locks). Despite dreaming of sunshine, the following morning was similarly overcast but we had some early morning exertions on an island beach anyway before sailing on through the Bay and returning to Hanoi.

In short, then, Ha Long Bay is beautiful, but I'd recommend visiting when it's warmer and brighter. If you find yourself in northern Vietnam at this time of year (January to March) consider following an alternative recommendation we heard (but did not have time to try ourselves) - head to Sa Pa and go trekking amongst the paddy fields and minority villages instead of visiting Ha Long.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Greetings from Hanoi

A quick hello to share my first impressions, whilst I wait in the hotel for Harvey's arrival. It has free internet and a USB connection so you even get some photos this time. Don't expect such service every time!

Hanoi is a little like the Wild West. Only everyone drives a moto instead of riding a horse. Actually, the similarity stops there - the only guns I've seen are carried by guards on street corners, everyone seems very law abiding and respectful and we're in the East, not the West.

I'm staying in the Old Quarter, and it's an energetic, bustling, part of town. The shops overflow their entrance portals and spill onto the pavements, competing with the pedestrians, street diners and parked motos for a piece of real estate.

I've noticed white lines painted on the pavements in some parts, presumably to mark the limit to which the shops are allowed to overflow. They don't seem to pay much notice. To walk down the street you need to weave your way through all these pavement dwellers, but often there is no path other than to abandon the pavement and walk in the road.

The roads in this quater are narrow and winding (the original layout has been preserved since the time this was the ancient Merchant's Quarter). Motos, mopeds, cycles and cars weave around pedestrians and each other. Streets that you could barely fit one car down in the UK happily seem to support a two-way flow of traffic. Use of the horn is ubiquitous, but useful - it's good to hear when someone is about to run you down! I think the photo sums it up quite well, but remember that this was taken early this morning, during rush hour there's a LOT more going on.

Crossing smaller streets is simple, but last night I took a wander at rush hour and had to cross three lanes. I observed some locals and the method is deceptively simple:
Look both ways,
Observe the non-stop steady flow of traffic in both directions,
Hold your breath,
(Optionally, close your eyes)
And walk.

It seemed to work.

As I meandered around the lake (which form the centrepiece of downtown Hanoi), taking photos, I was aware of someone standing at my shoulder. I turned around to see someone looking over my shoulder, trying to see what I was doing (I was balancing the camera on a bench to take a long-exposure photo). Unfortunately, we didn't share a language, but I showed him the photo and his beaming smile, enormous camera around his neck and hearty thumping of the bench conveyed the message. As I got up to leave, he took my place and took his own version of the same photo.

This morning I explored the French Quarter (south of the lake) and the streets there are broader, tree-lined, avenues with bigger and grander buildings. A quick exploration of the Vietnamese Historical Museum, which covers everything from stone-age Vietnam to the modern era [the photo is of a relatively recent Buddhist icon]. A large section of one floor is dedicated to the Vietnamese defeat of the Mongols, with weapons, paintings depicting key scenes (including a water battle - I never knew that the Mongols had a navy!) and miniature battlefields populated with tiny warriors repelling the Horde.

Ah yes, I was also accosted by a horde of my own. A plucky schoolgirl said 'hello' and then fired a stream of questions at me as their classmates slowly gathered around, occasionally whispering questions to her so that she could translate and ask me. By the time she was finished I was surrounded. And Luan and her friends knew my entire itinerary, name (including spelling) and other vital statistics.

After all the history and bloodshed of the Historical Museum, I headed for the Museum of Vietnamese Women, only to find that they were leading armies in the 18th Century and helping defeat their enemies several hundred years before that by 'encouraging the enemy soldiers to get into their sleeping sacks' before the attack [by our army]' as the plaque read beneath the painting. Very enterprising. In the foyer of the museum is a statue of a 'powerful yet beautiful' woman with her right arm straight and right palm down (pushing all her troubles away) and a baby on her left shoulder. Done in red and gold it's very reminiscent of some of the Soviet Realism art, but the plaque says that it portrays the 'Vietnamese feminine ideal'. Perhaps she was the inspiration for Sidney Bristow as well.

Right, enough typing... although I do wonder where Harvey is, since his flight was supposed to land 2 hours ago. I'm reticent to go and explore too much more without him. I've saved Uncle Ho's Mausoleum et environs for him - I hope he appreciates the thought!

Friday, January 06, 2006

A pebble's life

I awaken, painfully. My lips are cracked, my throat parched. Eyes like boulders in their sockets. Water. I need water.

Where am I? Somewhere near Ashgabat. The deserts of Turkmenistan. The memories of 4 years ago combine with my dehydration conjure up an image. Of a pebble.

I think of this desert dwelling pebble, in the dry heat of the noon-day sun. Baking in the still air it clings to a recent memory of a cooling breeze tenderly tickling at its surface. It reminisces about the last day's rain that cooled its heat and penetrated to its core. And occasionally it remembers the oldest memory - or is it a dream, a fabricated false memory of a childhood experience never lived?

The dream is of its birth at the hands of the great Creator, in Whose cold hands it first gained consciousness as it was tossed and turned with its siblings until the jagged edges of adolescence were smoothed. When, how, did it leave that place? Was it ever really there? There is now no way to tell for sure, but it is the pebble's favourite memory so it clings to it nonetheless.

I slowly take a sip of water, savouring the sensation as the water rehydrates my lips, tongue, mouth and throat. Like a pebble in the rain. And I drift off, back into my fitful sleep.

A piercing scream. Somewhere behind me, I try to ignore it. The scream again. Continual, broken only by gasps for breath. I turn away, trying to focus instead on the verses of the Quran I can hear being sung in the background. The words mean nothing to me, but they help drown out the other, less palatable, background sounds. At some point the screaming stops, but still sleep does not visit me. I hear a short whoop of pleasure, a short giggle, presumably from the same direction as the earlier scream, but I am disoriented and tired and all I want is sleep.

Sleep. It used to be so easy for me. Get tired, close my eyes and drift to dreamland. From where, wherefore, has this insomnia invaded my mind? And I had thought the travel gods had been been smiling on me, my alloted personal space being three times more than the others, but it was teasingly sized. Just too small to stretch. Just the wrong size to lie down. A pillow just that little bit too hard. I cannot sleep.

5 hours sleep in Trinidad. 2 hours on the overnight flight to England. 5 hours in London. Now 2 more hours of dozing. I open my eyes again, adjust my position and notice that the plane has moved on from Ashgabat to the border of Pakistan, en route to Afghan airspace.

Maybe I'll get some sleep tomorrow.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Jet lag

It's 6:30 in the morning. I've been up since 4am. Which might make jetlag sense, except that I'm just back from Trinidad, which is 4 hours behind the UK, and barely slept at all on the plane last night. So I effectively woke up at midnight... Perhaps my body is anticipating being in Vietnam already (where 4am is 11am)?