Thursday, February 25, 2010

Swimming with sharks

A couple of weeks ago I wrote some libertarian nonsense about how the motorcyclists of southeast Asia can get by quite happily without crash helmets, and only just stopped short of concluding that their UK counterparts should fling theirs aside in a James Dean-like show of bravado. That was before I rode a motorbike myself, obviously...

As anticipated, I’d moved to another hotel in Kratie, but only after making a slight dick of myself at the one I was storming out of. The annoying woman who ran it tried to overcharge me for the room and the meal I‘d had, which was enough to get me worked up into a lather about what a thief she was and how dare she try to sneak into my room when she thought I was out etc.

This was stupid of me because (a) it’s bad form to lose your temper in a culture that revolves around the concept of saving face and (b) her English wasn’t up to it. The second we’d sorted the finances out, she grinned at me and asked: “You want something to eat?”

As it turned out, the other hotel was so much nicer (my room had a telly, with BBC World!) that I stayed for two whole days, not doing much at all. I went on the internet quite a lot, trying to resolve some problems my laptop has (I knew I should have taken it back to the shop when these became apparent within 48 hours of me buying it - oh well, it’ll still be under guarantee when I get back). And I decided I’d better do the only remotely touristy thing it’s possible to do in Kratie, which is to go and look at dolphins.

These marvellous mammals - endangered freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins, no less - live about 20km away in a stretch of the River Mekong that flows through a place called Kampie. To get there, I had to take a moto, ie ride on the back of someone’s motorbike. The hotel’s fixer, a young man who speaks very good English, told me his brother could take me there but that said sibling lived in a village about 5km away. So Mr Fixit took me to this settlement on the back of his motorbike.

It was a new and moderately alarming experience for me. I mean, I’d owned a moped in the mid-1990s for the purposes of work, but riding on the back of a motorbike? Mr Fixit giggled as I nervously put my arms around the front of his abdomen and clasped my hands together. Within five minutes, more out of embarrassment than confidence, I’d moved my hands to my thighs, all the while thinking: “Oh lordy. I wish I was wearing a crash helmet right now.”

At Kampie I was taken out on a boat, which I had to myself. Every now and then the young man piloting it would say: “Hello,” and point in the general direction of a ripple he’d spotted. A couple of minutes later, what usually happened was this: I’d hear a snort from the dolphin’s blowhole and catch a glimpse of its back and dorsal fins as I wheeled around. This was the best I could hope for, quite honestly, although I had been nursing the forlorn hope that at least one would pop its head out of the water right next to my boat, ideally clapping its flippers together and chittering So Long and Thanks for All the Fish from that abysmal Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy film.

Returning to Kratie I found I’d become quite relaxed about this moto-riding lark. What sticks in my mind more vividly is the sight of two glamorous teenage girls we overtook, evidently on their way to some kind of school prom night. Heavily made up and wearing gold lame evening dresses, they made an incongruous spectacle - the elder girl concentrating on the road while her sister sat side-saddle behind her, nonchalantly playing with her own hair.

Yesterday I moved on to Siem Reap, the town that lies on the doorstep of Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s premier tourist attraction. It took nine hours and involved one change of bus. On the first bus, however, there was a problem: I’d been assigned a seat next to a Cambodian man who’d brought along his daughter (aged about eight, I guess) despite having only the one ticket.

We managed for awhile with the girl sitting on her father’s knee, but after a refreshment stop the guy started to take the piss somewhat. I returned to the bus to find that father and daughter were sitting next to each other, leaving me with half a seat to play with. In rather less than an hour my right buttock could take no more and I had to insist, through the medium of sign language, that they shove up. This of course made me feel like a mean-spirited scumsucker.

I’ve felt like that several times since I arrived in Siem Reap, as it’s a tourist trap that sends foreigners on guilt trips with suspicious regularity.

A young tuk-tuk driver brings me from the bus station into town and finds me a guest house that isn’t full, despite it being high season and the late afternoon. “I would like to drive you to the temple tomorrow,” he says. “Only $20 a day.” I demur, not wanting to be bounced into making transport arrangements too hastily. “But I’m not working at the bus station after today,” he says. “What am I going to do?”

I’m looking at T-shirts on a market stall. The stallholder is trying to get me to haggle but I’m not that keen. “Sir, I’d be so grateful,” he says. “Business has been very bad lately.”

As I’m leaving my guest house this morning, another tuk-tuk driver asks me for work. Again, I’m not ready. “I just lost my job two weeks ago,” he says.

Three sob stories in 24 hours versus none in the less touristed towns I’ve been to? Sounds like a ploy to me. Sounds like bullshit.

No, make that four, because this afternoon I was followed by a good ten minutes by a little boy who repeated the same phrase ad nauseam: “Please, I want to buy some food.”

Was he genuine or an Artful Dodger? I’ve heard that there are Fagins here and naturally it puts me in mind of Slumdog Millionaire. So, after our first contact, I didn’t even glance down at this dirty, raggedy kid. I just carried on walking and blanked him. The word ‘buy’ was significant, I thought. It’s a scam. Got to be.

But I didn’t know for sure.

I hope Angkor Wat is as amazing as they say, because in some ways Siem Reap is making me feel like shit.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Up tempo

I really like Cambodia. I know it’s only my third day here but I think it’s a great little place. And I haven’t seen any tourist attractions yet.

Crossing the border was fairly painless, notwithstanding the fact that the officials there are notoriously corrupt and insist on $1 “for stamps”. The Cambodians are noted for this but I got stung by the Laotians too, which suggests I look older, more respectable and richer than my backpacker associates. Still, I’m not going to complain about $2. As a British guy on the bus pointed out, for people who speak fluent English the civil servants’ salary probably amounts to peanuts.

Once our bus had left the checkpoint, we were treated to some video entertainment consisting of a glossy promotional film set to a jaunty jingle. “Cambodia! Cambodia! Kingdom of wonders. We serve you best.” The lyrics weren’t going badly until that last part.

Unlike most visitors, who head straight for the bright lights of Phnom Penh and the historic spectacle of Angkor Wat, I opted to spend a couple of nights in the nondescript border town of Stung Treng. Having sat through ten minutes of Nicolas Cage doing his moody stone-face routine on a DVD of Bangkok Dangerous, I was desperate to get off the bus in any case.

Initially I did little beyond settling in but then yesterday I hired a bike and followed a town tourist trail an official had given me. Considering there isn’t really anything to see, I was impressed by the document’s professional layout and fluent English - it had obviously been edited by a native speaker, unlike the “kingdom of wonders“ song. But, looking for a particular temple, my map-reading skills failed me (as they often do) and led me into the surrounding villages to the west of town.

Man, what a blessing in disguise that was. I loved it out there. I mean, the Laotians were nice enough and all that but the Cambodians have been conspicuously friendly and welcoming ever since I got here. They just seem to have more zip. Wherever I went people waved and said hello, especially the kids, who throughout this southeast Asian trip have been eager to have their photographs taken at every opportunity.

This time, though, I thought I’d record some camcorder footage and play it back to them. Oh, the smiles and squeals of delight! It made me grin too, watching it back as I stitched the clips together on my laptop. I hadn’t noticed when one little girl among friends had said to me: “Hello rich man.”

After that it was back into town, then to the eastern outskirts to visit Mekong Blue, a project that trains and employs vulnerable women to weave freshly-spun silk, which it then sells as ties, scarves etc. I didn’t buy any myself but chose to help the cause by having lunch in its pricy restaurant.

Now, I can’t objectively argue that Stung Treng is a better place to visit than the temply city of Luang Prabang, for instance, but I do know I’ll have happier memories of Stung Treng. Why? Expectations, I guess. Most of the places I visited in Laos were hyped up in advance, often by my guidebook, and consequently turned out to be a bit of an anticlimax. Conversely, I had no expectations of Stung Treng and was very pleasantly surprised by it (leaving aside its four or five power cuts a day).

Again, the Cambodians are just delightful. This sentiment was echoed by a French Canadian I was chatting with last night, who fell in love with the country as soon as he arrived and decided to extend his stay - touring Cambodia by motorbike - from one month to two. Given how appalling their recent history has been, and the hardships they still face, their transparent joie de vivre kind of surprises me, though. I look at the over-50s - people who might be just ten years older than me - and think: “Christ, what must you have lived through?”

Today I rose early to catch the 7.15am bus to Kratie (pronounced ‘Kracheh’), a city a couple of hours to the south that in some ways is like a larger version of Stung Treng. Both have a sea-front-like Mekong riverside, a very welcoming ambiance and a bustling, earthy market.

In common with most of southeast Asia, they also have very few cars and an awful lot of motorbikes.

I’m not sure about the guest house I’m staying in, however. When I got off the bus today, I agreed to go with a moto-driving tout to this hotel and restaurant close by. (A moto is a common mode of public transport in Cambodia, although this was my first experience of it. You sit on the back of someone’s motorbike, basically.)

I quite liked the room he showed me and agreed to stay, but the woman who runs it irritates the hell out of me. She speaks in an incomprehensible jumble of Khmer and English, paws my shoulder when she’s talking to me, bares her horrible gold teeth when she smiles and pushily keeps asking when I’m going to eat in the restaurant or go on a day trip.

In normal circumstances this might be bearable but this afternoon, while I was resting in my room, she tried to unlock the door from the outside, thinking I was still out. I opened it and she gave me some bullshit about checking the taps in the bathroom, but I’m pretty certain she’d come for a good old mooch. It’s a good thing I’m paranoid to begin with and keep most of my stuff locked in my case. No doubt tomorrow I’ll be moving to new accommodation.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Freaky coincidence of the day

An Asian man in a remote part of Laos, waiting for the bus to Cambodia in a shirt with my hometown on it.

I may as well say it. Small world!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Nothing to write home about

Just north of Laos’s border with Cambodia are the so-called 4,000 islands of the Mekong River, which is where I am at the moment. Of course there aren’t really 4,000 islands. There’s a big one, Don Khong, several smaller ones and thousands of islets, rocks and sandbars. Well, those are the words my guidebook uses. I don‘t really know what a sandbar looks like.

I’m on Don Khong, which is a very sleepy indeed but a crazy, happening place compared to the smaller islands, so I believe. There are a couple of places providing expensive internet connections, if I’m lucky and the wind is blowing the right way, and more importantly a bank, as I was running out of Lao kip when I got here. When it comes to buildings generally, it’s a bit like Australia - they’ve only done round the edges - although in this instance the interior is given over to agriculture.

Yesterday I went cycling around the island. It was OK. I quite enjoyed it. I mustn’t have put enough sunscreen on my arms because now they’re burnt and I’m having a day indoors, reading and having my laundry done. All in all, I think I’m going to look back on Laos as a laidback, charming little country that gave me a pleasant four weeks but didn’t fire me up very much.

I might do a day trip to some of the other islands tomorrow, then maybe have another day of dossing around so I can use up my kip (which can’t be exchanged outside Laos), then take a bus to Cambodia. Yeah, that sounds good.

There are numerous people whose journey is paralleling mine and I keep seeing them wherever I go. Since I arrived on Don Khong I’ve struck up an acquaintance with a couple of women who’ve been travelling together (Caroline, who’s 61 and English and Vanessa, a Brazilian in her 20s) and they did the day trip yesterday. Trouble is, their boat sprang a leak and ran aground on an islet - or maybe a sandbar, I wouldn’t know - and they were shipwrecked for an hour till local fishermen came to rescue them.

I’m sure I’d freak out if that happened to me. I’d be a total wuss. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. But at least I’d have a story to dine out on.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Don't believe the hype

After weeks in northern Laos it felt like a leap to suddenly come south but at least I did so in a way to remember: aboard a sleeper bus. On one of a fleet of these double decker-sized, luridly coloured vehicles - some with ‘King of Bus’ emblazoned across the windshield - I made the ten-hour journey from Vientiane in a comfortable upper berth, which I had to share with a young man from Sweden.

It was quite a pleasant mode of transport actually, though not one I expect to take off in the UK any time soon. If one of them rolled over into a ditch there’d be carnage, and you can’t exactly wear a seatbelt when you’re lying in bed.

It’s amazing how health and safety considerations don’t apply so much here. You see teenagers riding three to a motorbike, without helmets or any kind of protective gear, and not one headline screaming Something Must Be Done. I’m not advocating that we should adopt a similar attitude to risk, though. For one thing, I’ve no idea what their accident statistics are, and for another, I can't tell yet whether there’s some Buddhist brand of fatalism at work.

Anyway, the bus rolled into Pakse, in the far south, at 6.30am (I’m skipping south central Laos because transport options and the tourist infrastructure are limited). That was two days ago. I considered staying in the city awhile but a couple of hours of wandering around, getting hotter and more exasperated as I realised there were few real sights and no budget accommodation, convinced me to go to the town of Champasak instead.

I walked to what my guidebook described as Pakse’s ferry landing. It was a man with a long motorboat moored right next to the shore, about to set off with some other travellers. Our destination, a 90-minute ride away, was a regional powerhouse many centuries ago but is now little more than a 4km-long settlement along the banks of the Mekong. Sorry, did I say 90 minutes? About an hour into our journey, we had to add another ten to allow the boatman to bail water from the bottom of the boat.

These days Champasak attracts an increasing number of backpackers because it is just 8km away from one of southern Laos’s few tourist attractions, the ancient temple of Wat Phou. There are very few facilities in the town but it’s unspoilt, friendly and cheap. I stayed in a family-run guest house owned by a very affable guy who I found yesterday morning pottering around in his garage, with a row of bikes standing ready to be hired to tourists. If he has enough visitors to make his business viable - and it looks as though he does - I imagine he has quite a nice, relaxed life.

In 40 minutes I’d reached the Lingaparvata mountain, where the Khmers (ancient Cambodians who venerated Hindu and Buddhist deities) chose to base their temple. Why? Because it supposedly looked like a phallus.

Hmm. Can’t see it myself.

Although the site dates from the sixth century, most of the ruins are from the 12th, including these two segregated palaces for male and female pilgrims.

After climbing quite a few steps - and boy, was climbing a lot easier in my 30s (about 18 months ago) - I came to a temple decorated with stone lintels depicting scenes from Hindu mythology. These are the most exquisite in Laos and predate the Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia, blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda etcetera etcetera etcetera.

It was all very interesting, but if I’d known what it was like in advance I’m not sure I’d have gone out of my way to come here. Call me cynical (heh heh), but sometimes I think that when guidebooks rave about such places for page after page, it’s because the alternative is to write: “You know what? It’s not all that great. But come on, we have to describe something as ‘top of your southern Laos must-see list’. The alternative is to skim over the mediocre stuff, which might comprise most of a country’s tourist attractions, and to make the book half as long.”

Perhaps I’m being unfair. The temple was fairly Indiana Jones-ish, being at the top of a flight of steps halfway up a mountain in the middle of a jungle. And Champasak is a nice place, if you can stand the humidity and the insects, particularly at night when you‘re sitting in a restaurant and swatting them away from your face. And I did enjoy the cycle ride back, as it gave me another of those ‘ooh, I do love my travels’ moments (maybe riding a bike in southeast Asia releases my endorphins or something).

Also, there’s a place called the crocodile stone that may or may not have been used for human sacrifice at one time.

With that small rush of pleasure that accompanies being a smartarse, I decided I’d rename it the crocodile rock for my own amusement.

Now I’m somewhere else, on a tropical island just north of Cambodia - but that’s another story. In the meantime, happy Chinese new year!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Best. Crackpot. Ever.

Laos has thrown up a delightful surprise. You remember I was whingeing recently that it’s lacking in spectacle, specifically giant Buddhas? I spoke too soon.

This is Buddha Park, which I visited today on a local bus from the capital, Vientiane. (Now that was an experience. I had to smile watching the passengers fill most of the available floor-space with personal luggage and commercial freight, be it groceries, bedding, household items or sacks of cement.)

I fell in love with Buddha Park the minute I got off the bus. It’s exactly the kind of stupendously bonkers place that appeals to me.

The park was started in the 1950s by a religious maniac and artist who, having married Hinduism and Buddhism together in his mind, set about sculpting his own eccentric view of the cosmos.

The result is a hideous reinforced concrete nightmare that reminded me of an equally quirky and tasteless site in Singapore called Tiger Balm Gardens.

Buddha Park’s creator left Laos following the communist revolution of the 1970s and settled in Thailand, where he created a similar attraction just across the border. I wish I’d gone there. In fact, if it wasn’t going to screw up my visas royally, I’d probably go there tomorrow.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Luang Prabang experience







And a temple artist who clearly enjoyed himself too much painting Buddhist hell.

Desperate for a change of scene, I’ve just been on a day trip. This morning I travelled by boat

to the Pak Ou Cave, containing… well, OK, more images of the Buddha.

Thousands of the little Buddhas, in fact.

Ten minutes before I was due to board the boat again, I suddenly realised there was a second cave, up a steep flight of steps, and nearly killed myself running up them. This one was fairly pathetic, which might explain why they haven’t bothered to light it, and the POV video footage of me stumbling into its gloomy interior gasping for breath plays like a deleted scene from Halloween.

In all honesty the first cave wasn’t much cop either, but it does draw the tourists in so I’m thinking of emulating it when I get back to the UK. All I have to do is find a secluded cave somewhere, fill it full of old jackets with furry hoods and call it the Parka Cave. Or perhaps I could exhibit used cardboard milk cartons and call it the Tetrapak Cave. There must be thousands of people as daft as me, willing to shell out good money to see a load of old tat in a cave, I reckon.

Oh well, never mind. My afternoon at the Kouang Si waterfall and bear sanctuary was delightful in comparison.

Here I go again, chasing waterfalls. However, these were more spectacular than the Erawan falls in Thailand and I even had time to climb to the top and have a paddle.

In my happier frame of mind, it occurred to me how churlish I’d been about Pak Ou, Luang Prabang and possibly the whole of Laos. Compared with most people, I’m having the time of my life.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Thought for food

So there we were, heading north from Vang Vieng in a minivan, when this woman appeared at the side of the road. We must have been about a third of the way through our six-hour journey and for the most part it had been a never-ending twisty-turny strip of tarmac, winding its way through forgettable countryside and the occasional mountain pass. Now we’d come to some kind of village and a woman with a giant rat on the end of a leash.

Was it a rat? No, not on second glance, but it was definitely rodent-like. Some kind of gopher thing, then? Maybe. And it wasn’t a leash exactly, more like a thick piece of string. In any event, our driver had pulled over and was negotiating a price for the animal. A minute or two later it was stowed in the back of the vehicle, behind our luggage. It didn’t look like a pet so presumably he was going to kill it and eat it.

A couple of minutes after that he stopped again, this time for a woman clutching a dead bird by the throat. It seemed like we were passing through Lao’s answer to Billingsgate meat market. Gasping, we Westerners craned forward for a closer look. Some of us got our cameras out (not me, it was buried too far down in my bag). With a full complement of passengers and two meals taken care of, the driver was having a good day.

Of course it’s not for me to judge the culinary habits and business practices of people in Laos, so I won’t, despite being slightly haunted by the thought of how that gopher thing must have met its end. Come to think of it, I don’t suppose I’d enjoy visiting a British slaughterhouse either. The point I‘m making, I suppose, is that the Laotians are more open and honest about the whole process of killing and eating other animals, whereas our society sanitises it.

At the moment I’m in Luang Prabang, the former capital of Laos, now designated a Unesco world heritage site. It’s a charming place but the restaurants cost a bomb. Luckily there are alternatives in the shape of open-air market stalls. Street food, in other words. Last night, shortly after I’d arrived, I ate at a site consisting of a dozen small plastic tables, each with four chairs, arranged next to a stall doling out a cold buffet of rice, noodles, spring rolls and various tasty foodstuffs I‘ve yet to identify. It was doing a roaring trade among the backpacker set, quite rightly.

This business runs only in the evenings so for lunch today I visited one of the many smaller stalls close to my guest house. Here I bought a chicken, mayonnaise and salad baguette, watching warily as the stallholder made it, as every time she lifted the cellophane from a tray of ingredients, a cloud of flies would swarm around it.

Feeling thirsty, I was drawn to a neighbouring stall selling fruit shakes and asked the woman there for a pineapple juice. Having handed over the money, I noticed another swarm of flies hovering just above the lid of her blender. The woman then began putting my drink together, reaching down for a bucket of ice. “Oh Christ,” I thought. “Not ice. How do I know it’s clean? Was it made from boiled water? I might as well drink a cup of Lao tap water now. Oh well, I’ve paid her 40p so I suppose I’ll have to risk it.”

It was delicious and, to the best of my knowledge, harmless. My maxim that if it’s good enough for the locals, it’s good enough for me, seems to be paying off so far, although I do draw the line at clubbed-to-death rodents.

I was reminded of Adventure Capitalist, a book I read last year by the American investment genius Jim Rogers. With his oodles of money, Rogers occasionally turns his back on the Wall Street scene and travels the world for years at a time, once by motorbike (detailed in his book Investment Biker) and once by specially-designed car (described in this book I was reading). His journeys are often dangerous, set world records and provide him with close-to-the-ground information that inform his global investments later on. Anyway, in his book Rogers notes that the only times his travelling companion/girlfriend got food poisoning was after eating at five-star restaurants. I’ll take that as a good omen.

Oh, and as for Luang Prabang… it’s all right, I suppose. My guidebook suggests it’s some kind of spellbinding Xanadu but from what I’ve seen today it’s really just a quaint old city with lots of nice temples. I’ll hang around for a while longer but whatever tentative plans I had for venturing further north, to more out-of-the-way places, have been discarded. In the days to come I’ll be going back to Vang Vieng and Vientiane before dropping in on some places of interest in the south and pressing on to the Cambodian border.

Don’t get me wrong: I like Laos and I’m glad I came here. It just hasn’t grabbed me in quite the way I’d hoped (the shallow, touristy side of my brain keeps asking: “WHERE ARE THE GIANT BUDDHAS?”) and the word-of-mouth I got from folks in the minivan was that Cambodia’s great and Vietnam is fabulous. Admittedly none of them had actually been to Vietnam, but that’s what they’d heard and I believe them.