Last minute news from your own unreliable correspondent.

Mind the what on the what year?

Monday, 21 July 2008

Fly Away Home

I write to you all from Bangkok Airport, an hour before I embark on the final leg of my journey- first to Japan for three hours, then Copenhagen for one, then to England for hours too numerous to count. I can't say I'm best pleased that my travels are coming to an end. The trip has been, to put it mildly 'a blast'. However, as my funds are about to run dry and as I need to earn a bit more so I can eat food at Uni, perhaps it's for the best.
So, where does that leave this blog? Well fear not- I've still got a whole journal full of my Jungle adventures to post yet. And after that.. Who can say? Who dares to dream? Thanks for reading.
(This entry was going to be longer, but I'm about to run out of internet time and I've already run out of Baht.)

Friday, 18 July 2008

Get the picture

Yesterday, while biking up some mountain or other, I caught a rare and wonderful site. A very small kitten, sitting on the back of a very big labrador on the balcony of a very queint mountain shack. It was a million dollar shot. The scene was so cute it would have sold postcards the world over.

A few meters up from the happy cross species couple sat a middle aged woman doing the washing up. I mimed 'camera' at her, but she shook her head. Thinking she didn't understand, I took out my Camera and pointed to it. She started shaking her head more rapidly and gesticulating wildly. Flummoxed I pointed it at the cat and dog. She let out a loud groan and half dived towards them, ready to take the bullet. Worried I would send the poor dear into cardiac arrest, I put the Camera back in my backpack and cycled despondantly onwards.

I later found out that many of Sapa's mountain tribes beleave that a Camera will steal a peice of your soul. Apparently they take animal souls also. By the time I'd left, pictureless, the mountain woman was in quite a state. A bad day for both of us. I guess ignorance isn't always bliss...

Wednesday, 16 July 2008


Surrounding Sapa are the Hoang Lien Mountains, nicknamed the Tonkinese Alps by the French. These mountains include Fansipan which at 3143m is Vietnam's highest peak... The peak is accessible all year to those in good shape and properly equipped, but don't underestimate the challenge. It is very wet, can be perilously slipery and generally cold, so you must be prepared... The round trip usually takes three to four days; some very fit and experienced hikers have made it in two days, but this is rare.

Or so quoth the Lonely Planet. We headed out for the top of Fansipan on monday at 9am reached the peak at 2pm and returned (frustratingly) the next day at 11am after only 9 1/2 hours of hiking with Justin and Kyle making it in 8 & 3/4. To accompany us on our trek we hired a guide to guide us and a porter to carry vegetables. A porter may be considered cheating but, as things turned out, it was lucky we took him. Our guide ditched us at first camp- a mere hour into the adventure- claiming that we were too fast for him. Now there's value for money...

After an hours break at base our steadfast porter ditched his bags of veg and milk and trotted on up the mountain with us as our new guide. He may not have spoken English, but without the load he easily matched our pace, showed no signs of tiring, knew the way like the back of his hand and most importantly didn't chicken out before he was a third of the way up!

The final ascent the the summit was hard, especially as Kyle and Justin were both stronger and fitter than me but a Snickers and a generous portion of peanuts kept me going and we scaled the mountain slightly before two.

'I'll look at the view after I've finished this level...'

The real challenge for me was the descent. I'm not too good at descents- my lack of co-ordination makes putting my feet in a place that won't leave me with (further) permanent brain damage quite a challenge. I spend half the time carefully planning my next step, 40% in painful free-fall and the remaining 10% recovering from the painful free-fall.

Justin and Kyle bounded down at an incredible speed, while I was left stumbling after the guide. This was coupled with the frustration that we had to get back by half past four if we wanted to make the climb in a single day. J + K arrived in camp at five, while I turned up at five fifteen, roaring for the final hours descent (and knowing that if we waited another day, my knees would be agony). Sadly our wimpy guide dissuaded us from making the final climb, claiming that it would be dark within half an hour. Despite my protestations (the last section of the climb was obviously marked, only an hour in duration and would have been easy to do with torches), the guide wouldn't budge and finally convinced us to stay for the night. It got dark two hours later. Methinks he wanted his dinner...

The next morning my knees were agony and it had rained so much during the night that our route had to be extended by two km to avoid the river. I could hardly walk and the final hobble took two excruciating hours- an hour more than it would have the day before. Disappointed but triumphant we headed back the the hotel for a slapup meal. 9 1/2 hours was tough, but four days? That's surely only for Fansipansies!

Rice wine with apple syrup- a tough end to a tough climb.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Gandering at the Minh

Hello from Hanoi. Today we took a proper gander at a couple of Hanoi's more 'govermentally prepared' sights and glimpsed the hard laboured fruits of the regime's tourism board. I've been too lazy to write a blog entry myself, but here's something pinched from one of Justin's e-mails.

Despite the fatigue, we've had a fun-filled day of communist adventures, starting with a visit to the stuffed corpse of Ho Chi Minh. They've got him shacked up in a plain grey square building (basically communism in building form) with a half-mile long cue of visitors tailing from the entrance, lined up in double file and marched at a steady pace in, around the taxonomised corpse, and out in silence, no smiling. Grim stuff. Uncle Ho was in ship shape though, especially for a man who's been dead for 40years. [D's note: Obviously his yearly three month holiday in Russia does him a world of good. His forehead was polished and his suit was dead fashionable! The poor guy never wanted to be given the communist embalming treatment (perhaps he thought it was a bit stuffy), but if he could see himself now, maybe he'd change have a change of heart.]

We've just got back from the Prison Museum of Hoa Lo, the place where John McCain and a bunch of American POW's were tortured and/or killed in horrific unsanitary conditions. Terrible museum, but the propaganda was unbelieveable. Half of the compound was set up to paint an ugly image of the french colonialists, who ran the prison to house vietnamese revolutionaries in the 1st half of the 20th century, while the second half showed images of grinning American POWs eating christmas dinner, playing billiards, even (the audacity is immesurable) recieving souvineirs upon their departure (!), amongst other rediculous items of blatant propaganda. Hilarious, yet chilling.

Today we head up to Sapa, the town at the foot of Fansipan (Phan Xi Păng), aboard the night train. The sleeper carriges were already fully booked so we were left with 15$ economy tickets. Tonight we'll be roosting with the roosters (or if the bridges are in bad nick, maybe kiping with the kippers). We plan to scale the mountain, so expect more news about our misguided preperations soon!

Friday, 11 July 2008

A stitch in time (New! Now spelt right!)

Our route through Vietnam has been pretty much planned for us as we took the economical option and bought an open night bus ticket up the coast, heading from Saigon to Mui Ne to Nah Trang to Hoi An to Hue and finally to Hanoi. This may be restrictive but the destinations so far have been pretty terrific.

Our last stop was Hoi An, a small, quint tailoring town by the sea. There are over 200 tailors in Hoi An and the price of a best-material, made-to-measure garment is so low you'd have to have a stitch loose not to get something made. I'm not the clothes buying type (frankly it gives me the shivers) but even I somehow ended up with a Tux, 3 shirts, a detective coat and- the gild on the lily- a tweed jacket. On top of my new threads I also picked up a nasty virus and, when I subsequently decided to return home early from the bar, spent a rather nasty night wandering around a pitch black Hoi An in a feverish delirium wondering were the heck my hotel was. This ordeal included a panicked moneyless quest for water as Nationwide decided to suddenly cut my debit card off and a 'thrilling' chase by rabid (or maybe very libidinous) dogs.

I write to you now from the historic town of Hue (Hue-ey) where I've spend a nice day wandering the ruins of an old dynastic castle and looking at tanks captured from Vietnamese puppet soldiers during the War. Tomorrow will be another day of fun frolicking around the 'Hue area' (with possible tombs if I can convince Justin, who for some unfathomable reason finds tombs boring) followed by a night of cruel toil on the 14 hour bus journey to the capital. I wonder if my excessive new wardrobe will fit on the bus...

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Commencing operations in 'Nam

As you can see I haven't managed to type up the jungle journal yet. Of course I mean too, but whenever I look at the massed pages of scruffy writing I my desire to tell the world deserts me and I put the darned book back in my bag. I'll get round to it eventually. That aside, I'm in Vietnam now and have been for the last couple of days. Our first port of call was Ho Chi Minh City (also know as Saigon). I think Saigon has to qualify as my favorite South East Asian city so far. It had a cheery, bustling *almost* cosmopolitan atmosphere, full of that 'Parisian colonial charm' the Lonely Planet is always harping on about.

What food we tasted was excellent and the prices were about half those in Cambodge ( surprisingly!). They also had milk products, real milk products, which I'd been craving for a while. Cambodian yogurt just didn't cut it.

Regrettably we only got to spend half a day with Ho Chi Minh as our night bus left at eight (Oh how I love night buses..)

I now write to you from the pleasant seaside town of Mui Ne, which has crystal waters, shimmering sands and wavy palms (etc. etc...)- We've already visited the local dunes for a spot of 'Dune Boarding" (four local kids pushed us down steep sand banks on thin pieces of plastic) and got a 'LEONIDAS' haircut for Justin at 'Toni and Tuan' (due to the dangers of copyright infringement, Guy gets the brushoff in 'Nam). I think this picture sums up both activities nicely:

This is not madness- this is VIETNAM!

Next we jouney on to Nha Trang and then Hoi An (both also by nightbus). What excepting happenings and riviting adventures and await us there? As always.. watch THIS space.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Jungle Japes

You haven't heard much from me for the last two weeks because I've been on an Elephant trek in the deep dark heart of Cambodia's Botum Sikor National Park. It was an ultimately unsuccessful Elephant trek, sure, but while there were no actual Elephants, there were fun times and Jungle japes to be had. Who could ask for anything more?

I kept a journal while I was there, which I hope I'll soon be able to *convert to blog*. However, at the moment things are a bit hectic (Justin has come down with mystery fever, hopefully not Dengue) and I haven't the time or strength for deciphering my own handwriting.

Watch this space.

(In the meantime, BBC News 24 tells me Firefox 3 is out- Download that and tell me what it's like!)

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Excuse the Gap

I haven't had the chance to write for a few days as things have been pretty darn busy and internet has been pretty darn expensive. Justin, Katie and I have spent the last few days in a town called Vang Vieng, the friends capital of South East Asia.

Activities in VV included Tubing (going down a very dirty river on a fairly dirty tire inner tube), drinking and watching films. That wasn't too exciting and both Katie and Justin managed to loose their Cameras (+ I think my Ipod may have bought it...) but on the other hand:


Tuesday, 3 June 2008

On the road to Luang Prabang

I've spent quite a lot of time on buses recently, but the last twenty four hours have been the most 'hardcore' yet. We left Pakse at 8pm yesterday on the 'night bus'- an aircon bus with beds.

We'd expected a bed each but soon discovered it was two to a bunk. A rather apprehensive game of Rocks-Paper-Scissors decided that Justin would have to sleep next to a stranger while Katie and I shared. However, the Lao girl who was to share with Justin was less than happy about this arrangement and I soon wound up snuggled a bit too close to comfort in a very small bed with the very chunky Justin and our very big very blue guitar.

When the bus started, the cramping became the least of my worries. The quality of the road did nasty things to my stomach and the location of the air conditioning valve did even nastier things to my feet. As you can imagine, I didn't get much sleep that night. Justin and I managed to ignore the pain by listening to episode after episode of 'the now show' and we giggled uncontrollably far into the night. Not so pleasant for the other passengers but it was the only thing that kept me sane.

We arrived at Vientiane at 6am and an hour and a half later boarded the next bus for the ELEVEN HOUR journey to Luang Prabang. There was literally nowhere to sleep on this second bus and the air conditioning was so powerful that the temperature was into the minuses. If we hadn't been dressed for tropical climates it wouldn't have been so bad, but wearing a T-Shirt in a below freezing bus with nowhere to sleep sent us all into primal rage.

Our mood wasn't improved by the onboard entertainment where a rather ugly Laos Woman sang song upon song about her failed relationships of the past (almost invariably starting with a handsome chap knocking her over Noting Hill style and almost invariable ending with him being stupid/unfaithful/blown up).

Luckily the scenery outside the bus was absolutely stunning and odd shaped, green mountain ranges of Laos were both beautiful and haunting.

And they will be even more so tomorrow after some (much needed) sleep!

Saturday, 31 May 2008

Doin' Laos

The last couple of days have been spent on the 4000 islands- a collection of far less than 4000 Islands on the Mekong river. Electricity was from 6-10, there was no internet, we went on treks (i.e walks, but quite hot), traveled in boats and ate fresh Laos farm produce. It was all very healthy and idyllic.

I'm now in Pakse which is a dusty town in the heart of coffee growing territory. We traveled here in some very dubious vehicles- first a rickety canoe with a tacked on motor, then a very cramped bus with a lizard, some chickens and two piglets in a big brown bag.

It was great fun! Wish you were here. All of you.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Off to Laos (a brief update)

I spent the last few days in Siem Reip looking round the Angkor temples, which were frankly amazing. The magnitude and intricacy of some of those structures defies belief and jumping round the ancient rocks made me feel quite the young Indiana Jones. I did have a few reservations. It was a bit touristified in certain areas (although not nearly as bad as it could have been) and, on top of that, outside every temple we were accosted by hundreds of junk-selling small children. I also wish I knew far more of the history of Angkor than I do. Maybe something to study next year? I'll have to have another read of the Archaeology syllabus.

Today was filled by a rather taxing eight hour bus ride to Kratie- an old, middle-of-nowhere, colonial town close to the Laos boarder. Tomorrow we head of to Laos to read text books on an Island. My 'nerdy' ideal of heaven really.

I'd like to write more but am totally blasted from the bus journey. Also, the price of the internet goes up every 15 minutes and while half an hour is more than enough for a blog entry I hate the 'rushed' feeling.

 My camera is filled with good temple pictures, so hopefully I'll find an easy way to upload those in the near future. I'll try and write again soon but I don't know if I'll have web access on the islands so can make no promises!

Friday, 23 May 2008

Khmer Red

Most countries have not been without their share of atrocities but Cambodia's amoung the worst. From 1975-1979 Pol Pot's brutal regime stormed Cambodia, imprisoning, killing and forcing the luckier people into 'collective farms' /labour camps. The crimes meriting death applied to almost everyone (scroll down to "Alleged Crimes against humanity" for the blow by blow account) and 2,000,000 out of the countries 7 million population had either starved to death, worked to death of been executed by the time of the Khmer Rouge's fall.

As one of the categories fit for execution was 'former urban dwellers' the people of Cambodia's capital Phnom Pehn bore the brunt of the Rouge's genocide. The entire population of the city was shipped out to the killing fields and, if lucky, shot or imprisoned/executed in one of Pehn's detention camps. Yesterday I visited Toul Sleng, the biggest and most infamous camp in the city. To say the experience was harrowing is to cheapen it.

Once a school, Toul Sleng was converted into a prison camp at the beginning of the regime and soon became the head quarters of 'S-21', the Khmer Rouge secret police. The few large school buildings, neatly placed round two square courtyards were deceptively pretty. Flowers, tall palms and sunshine disguised the horrors within. Though most of the school was split into minature cells, the rooms in the first building remained unconverted and must have been used for the more important inmates. Their status obviously didn't help them end and next to each bed was a black and white photo of it's inhabitant's fate. I shan't go into any details about these pictures but if they had been coloured I wouldn't have been able to look at them. Less important prisoners were housed in the second building which had been completely restructured by the Rouge into hundreds of tiny dank cells. On the walls of some were tallys counting the number of days imprisoned. Mercifully, few of the tallys ran very long....

The buildings on the second courtyard were mainly dedicated to photographs of the hundreds murdered. The killing ended less than 30 years ago and the rows of reasonably modern looking hair cuts really brought home the fact that these were real people. A fact further driven in by the piles of discarded clothes and finally the shelves of mutilated human skulls. Three rooms on, I heard a guide telling the story of the execution of her family and her deportation to the country, next were all the torture devices collected from the facility, then came paintings done by one of Sleng's seven survivors depicting thumb screw torture, inmates being hung with hooks from their flesh, upside down corpses stacked in jars, one with his hips and legs completely removed, teams of blindfolded men being led to their destruction and other scenes too dreadful to remember. Perhaps thankfull this was a bit too much for the lass I'd taken with me and she rushed on ahead meaning I didn't have time to give the captions much attention.

There was a film which I would also have liked to stay longer and watch. Such horrors should be seen, should be remembered. Alas I was dragged away- hell hath no fury than a woman horrified. Should have done movies and theme parks I guess...

This was yesterday. Today I had a massage by the blind, bought a casio watch with disco lights and tomorrow I'm off to marvel at Ankor Wat- all very happy and not at all genocidal. I hope that's cheered you up.
Yossarian Lives