Wednesday, 28 December 2011
Sunday, 25 December 2011
Monday, 7 November 2011
Friday, 21 October 2011
Tuesday, 18 October 2011
Saturday, 15 October 2011
|Cambodian breakfast in the red light zone|
Wednesday, 12 October 2011
Wednesday, 5 October 2011
Tuesday, 4 October 2011
|Siem Reap airport, in Niel's tuk-tuk|
Wednesday, 28 September 2011
A regañadientes fue que hicimos las maletas en Luang Prabang (Laos) y volamos a Cambodia. Llegamos a Siem Reap al hotel de una pareja británica. Antes de apresurarnos por conocer los templos de Angkor Wat nos dimos un día para disfrutar de esta pequeña ciudad determinada por hordas de turistas.
Saturday, 17 September 2011
|Pati and Oisin wait for a pineapple in Luang Prabang|
|Flying the Flag!|
Saturday, 10 September 2011
Tuesday, 6 September 2011
Monday, 5 September 2011
Este video dura 5 minutos y es de nuestra visita al sanctuario de elefantes cerca de Luang Prabang, durante la cual hicimos un breve paseo por la selva sentados en el "howdah" de una elefante viejita pero paciente.
Saturday, 27 August 2011
Frustratingly, the riverside park at the end of the street our hotel was on had a very well-equipped kids playground. Which was under about a foot of water. Oisin was undeterred, and when we arrived there in cabin fever desperation, wearing our Berghaus jackets for the first time since leaving the UK, carrying an umbrella and trying to get him to keep on the ridiculous plastic raincoat we had bought in Bangkok, he immediately stripped off to his boxers and joined the local kids in sliding down the plastic chute straight into a huge puddle. The screams of laughter were international – no translation was needed here.
The impromptu dip in the kids playground led us to contemplate a visit to the local swimming pool. First, a swimming costume would be needed for the child (this wasn’t unpreparedness – the last one was left behind in Cardiff as he would have outgrown it by now). We did the rounds of the shopping centre (“the” shopping centre – I think they only have one. You gotta love these one party state socialists.) We finally found one little unit that sold sports equipment and I immediately got distracted by a junior set of strap-on wheels that convert your shoes to roller-skates. After foolishly spending a laborious 15 minutes getting Oisin into them, he was delighted. But there was no way they were going to fit into our by now over-stretched rucksacks. Pati watched, staring silently with that “you dug the hole, you get yourself out of it” look on her face. We were at a potential make-or-break point in father-son relations. After such a long time getting him into the skates, how could I deny him? There was only one way out of the impasse – gratuitous bribery. The son of the shop-owner zoomed into the tiny unit atop a small scooter and Oisin’s eyes lit up. Not only that, but the wheels of the scooter lit up as well when it was moving. He had a couple of trial scoots around the arcade, we had a quick haggle, and the deal was done. The skates were forgotten: we had a whole new piece of luggage to travel with us.
The swimming pool was open air. I think I can say with certainty that it’s the first time I’ve been for a swim where the hammer and sickle fluttered proudly from a flagpole at the entrance. That felt like it adjusted the historical balance after I grew up going swimming in the Robinson Centre in Castlereagh – named after a proto-fascist who was born too late for Mosley and had to masquerade as a democratic politician. Whatever happened to him? The pool was watched over by what I hoped was a lifeguard, sitting smoking in a small tower. Then the rain started again. We splashed around until it felt like it was easing off, dried ourselves in the socialist changing rooms, and tried to return to the hotel huddling under our tiny umbrella. Halfway back, a Laotian boy of about twelve leapt out into the pavement in front of us. We’d not been asked for money yet in Laos, and we were wondering what his script would be. The usual “hello!” and “what’s your name?” were hollered at us with unusual vigour. Then he ran on ahead before turning back with a stick in his hand, pointing it at us with stabbing motions. I’ve only been in one other one party socialist state before in my life, so I was feeling a little out of my cultural depth, and wasn’t quite sure what might be in store with this pointy stick encounter. Oisin was beginning to make finger pistols and his “pisshhooo” shooting noises in return, while the twelve year old was roaring with laughter. Struggling to match his interrogatorial skills, I shouted back “what’s your name?”. He stopped mid-stride, turned to us and shouted “Harry Potter Laos!” Waving his stick at us one more time he was gone.
The scooter, it turns out, has been the best 18 quid I’ve spent in a very long time. Oisin happily exhausts himself up and down the banks of the Mekong while most of Vientiane’s promenaders stand and stare, and Pati and I get something approaching a walk. The next challenge is to impart some degree of road sense. There’s nothing quite like watching your son, about two hundred yards distant, deliriously oblivious to all and sundry on his new scooter, riding it straight into the heels of some unsuspecting Laotian couple. I’m not sure they’re keen on that sort of children’s behaviour in one party socialist states.
Wednesday, 24 August 2011
We placed our order and paid up. No receipt was issued, so there then ensued a period of anxiety while we wondered whether our immaculately made-up waiter was actually an employee of the Thai railways, or just someone who knew how to part unsuspecting gringos from their cash. You can’t be too careful…
Indian trains were not of the highest order, in terms of their interior accoutrements, but in the month we spent travelling on them, I don’t think any arrived more than an hour late. Even our first one from Delhi that left about two hours behind schedule made the time up overnight. In Thailand, on the other hand, the train was immaculately furnished with fully functioning adornments (should a toilet ever really qualify as an “adornment”?), and the trip north from Bangkok to Nong Khai on the border with Laos was supposed to take from 8.30pm to 8.30am. We breakfasted without haste. Once the air of anticipation dissipated we gave up and lunched, and then finally arrived around 1pm. Bored senseless. It’s the question of where your horizon of expectation lies. If we’d expected to spend seventeen hours on the train instead of the advertised twelve, we wouldn’t have allowed ourselves to get so pointlessly impatient so quickly.
Off one train and onto the next at Nong Khai. With our careful, trademark preparedness, we had run out of cash and didn’t even have the price of the Laos visa. The Thais have had people like us before, and have thoughfully installed an ATM in the railway station. (Yes, I give up, it’s an “ATM”. You won’t get anywhere if you ask for a cash machine. The only cash machines round here are the tourists.) While tuk-tuks and motos zip back and forward on either side our next train runs on tracks down the middle of Friendship Bridge, spanning the famous Mekong, and to the border point with Laos. Welcome to Laos, it’ll cost you ninety quid to get in. I nearly lost my temper with the woman behind the visa counter. Firstly, I had to bend double just to be able to hear her through the tiny window, and then to add insult to western injury, they had installed their little facial image camera at about the height of my navel. She demanded thirty quid each for us to get our three visas. No, the child wouldn’t go free. I had just heard her charge three Spaniards twenty quid each, so it seemed like a good idea to kick right off right there right then. She didn’t even bother to smile back and curtly informed me that different nationalities pay different visa prices. Just like it is back home. At this point I remembered that Laos is a one party socialist state, and while it is usually fruitless to argue with border guards in the west, it felt like a whole lot more risky a proposition in a one party state.
The Mekong. Another landmark river. It was broad, in full spate with monsoon rains, and flowing swiftly past the banks of Vientiane, the capital of Laos. I can’t think of anything except Apocalypse Now. It’s not even the right country, but then again, the conflict left its mark on the entire region. Laos is, per capita, the most cluster-bombed country in the world. The Americans dropped something like two million tonnes of cluster munitions onto Laos (they weren’t even officially at war) in an attempt to cut the supply routes that the North Vietnamese Army used during the Second Indochina War. With a failure rate on impact of about one third, Laotians calculate that there are still 80 million unexploded cluster bombs littering their country. If economics determined the war, economics continues to drive Laotians to risk losing life and limb – children gather bombs for their value as scrap metal, never knowing if they are duds or still live.
The COPE Centre in Vientiane tells the story of the “bombies” as they are known here, and fabricates prosthetic limbs for those that survive their encounter with the American legacy, as well as rehabilitating disabled victims and designing ingenious three-wheeled chairs for those that have only one complete arm remaining of their original four limbs. (The picture above shows a display of redundant homemade limbs fabricated in despair by bomb victims before they found their way to the COPE Centre. If you want to do a good deed today, follow the link and sponsor a leg for a Laotian.) It was a sobering visit, and one with its own particular challenges of how to explain to a three year old why little boys younger than him have only one leg. It seemed like it would be a good counter-balance to all his current enthusiasm for guns and killing things (thanks to too many hotel room tellies and too much Ben Ten). He took it all in, but it has generated its own discomfort in turn. The streets have a noticeable number of disabled people, usually asking for money, and when he spies them, Oisin now asks in a loud, innocent voice if they don’t have their arms or legs because they did step on a bomb in the ground and it did blow them up. I just hope his youth defrays any potential offence his enquiries might cause to those being so loudly discussed.
Tuesday, 23 August 2011
Sunday, 21 August 2011
Escribiré acerca de Tailandia cuando estemos allá de nuevo, cuando tenga la memoria fresca para hacerle justicia a todas las cosas hermosas de ese país. A veces cuando veo que Gareth publica mucho más cercano a la fecha de las visitas me dan ganas de llevar el mismo ritmo, pero no en este caso, la distancia que me dan Laos y Cambodia para ver a Tailandia en perspectiva ha permitido que no escriba un post impregnado de alabanzas al país que nos fascinó de entrada por hacer un contraste tan marcado con las dificultades que experimentamos en India. Pero como Tailandia es mucho más que una cuerda salvavidas me dejo las descripciones de ahí para cuando regresemos.
De Tailandia tomamos un "sleeping train" hasta la frontera con Laos. Un tren que se suponía iba a durar 12 horas (de 8pm a 8am) pero que duró como 17… al menos el tren era cómodo y tenía cocina a bordo (ay las comparaciones con India de nuevo!) pero igual no dormimos, Gareth ya explica en detalle en su post las razones.
Sobra decir lo mucho que disfruto esos microcosmos que son los trenes nocturnos. Me deleita observar a los que se toman el viaje tan enserio que hasta se ponen pijama de dos piezas, ver a las familias, incluyéndonos a nosotros mismos, haciendo el viaje hasta el baño a lavarse los dientes en manada, fijarme en pasajero solitario que le cuesta quedarse en su compartimento por más de una hora y sube y baja el pasillo con unos niveles de energía que disminuyen con la cercanía al destino. Y en el caso de este tren era una verdadera delicia ver pasar al mesero del vagón, un travesti rubio con un labial rosa que le combinaba di-vi-na-men-te con los zapaticos de charol beige, super amable con nosotros y adorable con Oisín. Había que verla deteniéndose a mitad del pasillo para cederle el paso a un parco policía ferrovial con un ligero movimiento de melena.
Llegamos a la frontera después del mediodía y la vuelta de la visa no involucro mucho más que llenar un formulario pequeño y pagar en ventanilla más de lo que habíamos previsto. El contraste con Tailandia se nota inmediatamente, la gente en general habla menos Ingles y hay un cierto desaceleramiento hipnotizador en las calles, como que las cosas se hacen a su tiempo y no antes. Después de cruzar la frontera compartimos un taxi con una japonesa preciosa de ojos verdes y con un bronceado tan bien establecido que delataba meses de estar viajando. Así llegamos a Vientiane, capital de Laos, la capital más relajada que yo he visto, tanto así que no parece capital. El libro de guía prometió con hipérboles una ciudad que todavía se experimenta el legado colonial francés, una ciudad que yo no encontré, la ciudad que encontramos es un lugar sosegado donde los carros van despacio y casi nunca emplean el pito, una ciudad que parece replicar el ritmo lento y constante de las aguas del Mekong.
Conocimos a una chica encantadora, Javiera, la segunda Chilena que encontramos en dos meses viajando sola. A Javiera la encontramos unos días más tarde cuando llegamos a Luang Prabang al norte de Laos lista para irse a un retiro de meditación de diez días. En nuestra primera noche de hotel en Luang Prabang en una casa de huéspedes de lo más simple y gris, encontré un libro de Herman Hesse que no había leído: Journey To The East. Como casi siempre que termino leyendo uno de sus libros, este llegó en un momento muy oportuno. El viaje nuestro ha estado desde el principio marcado por experiencias espirituales que siempre experimentamos de segunda mano. Todas esas manifestaciones de fe de terceros han ido despertando un interés en conocer más acerca del budismo. A esto hay que sumarle el libro maravilloso que nos regaló nuestro amigo Rick Hall antes de salir de Belfast (Blood Washing Blood) Así que por estos días de playa en la costa de Cambodia me entretengo leyendo las transcripciones de un seminario de un Rimpoche a un grupo de occidentales.
The thing about the officials in this country is that they wear the most improbably tight-fitting uniforms. It’s as if the costume designer from Chips sketched up the patterns for the Thai police force. What I can’t understand is that there is never so much as a pin prick of perspiration to be seen seeping through these figure-hugging black and grey garments. Is the major entry requirement for the Thai police an ability not to sweat no matter what the climatic conditions? When the monsoon rains come during the night, the next days are blessed with a clear blue sky and soaring temperatures. A heat of the sort that has me dripping as I leave the shower, to the point where it becomes senseless to towel off, for where does the bath water stop and my dehydration begin? Yet I slop out into the street, leaving a trail of untalcumed sweat drops spattering the pavement behind me, to find policemen directing traffic, or riding motorcycles, or patrolling the streets with not a damp patch to be seen between them. What catches me off-guard about this is that behind the high camp stretch pants, lycra shirts and mirror glasses, there doesn’t seem to be a macho authority swagger. Policemen fall over themselves to help us, to find someone to translate our questions (Pati’s questions, I still have a punk rocker’s aversion to talking to policemen), to indulge the child. I was struggling in the queue for the enquiry desk in Agra train station last month when an Indian police officer decided I needed some help with the decidedly unruly way that Indians “queue”. He produced his lathi, a bamboo pole about twice the size of my son, and proceeded to prod the locals brusquely into line. The moustache, the Frank Spencer beret and the paunch did nothing for the cut of his jib in my book, but his big stick and unquestioning swagger had the would-be enquirers in parade ground order in no time. I didn’t really feel the need to be grateful. I could have dealt with the jumbled queue (eventually). “Treat people like scum and they’ll start behaving like scum” said Robert Carlyle’s murderous character in a 16-year old episode of Cracker that we recently watched. I wonder if that logic would make much impact on the requisitioners of the Indian police lathi.
Now there is a full-on conversation taking place on the other side of my Thai Railways curtain. The unsteady American who appeared in Pati’s face about two hours ago, asking if she knew where the bar was, has returned, half bottle of Singha beer in hand, to join the conversation in Thai between the lovestruck wagon attendant and the fragrant grape seed oil Mata Hari. Pati explodes out of her top berth in mute frustration at not being able to sleep, and throws herself down in a sulk at the other end of my bunk. I put the laptop away and stick my head out into the aisle. “Any chance of taking the conversation somewhere else guys? It’s nearly midnight. Maybe the bar?” The American looks round at me over his shoulder and readies his reply. “The bar’s closed.” “There’s probably a good reason for that,” I smile back. The Thai Railways chap is looking embarrassed, grape seed girl is tantalisingly only half visible behind her own curtain, and the American is translating my points for them. I keep my head out in the aisle in as cheerful an impression of block-headed stubbornness as I can manage at midnight. The American struggles down the wagon, and the Thai suitor snuggles his bum back onto its perch – on top of our backpacks. I keep staring. He bows his head in another excruciating apology. I keep staring. He mutters something to the Mata HHari and finally moves off. I pull the curtain closed in relief and we prepare for another attempt at sleep. By the time I come back from the bathroom Pati is giggling to herself. The wagon attendant had returned and climbed into the berth with the grape seed girl. Looks like she had so much attention because she was his girlfriend all along.
Wednesday, 17 August 2011
Sadly, we packed and left the leafy surroundings of our gifted two nights in the boutique hotel of Phranakorn Nornlen. There had only been one aspect of our stay that had unnerved me: there were signs on various surfaces with the decree “No Sex Tourists”. Yet no matter how many times I read it, my brain kept putting a comma in and making it an exhortation to travelling celibacy on the part of foreign visitors.
We headed down the main street towards the centre of Bangkok, checking every hotel we could find along the way. The longer I spend with guide books in my hand, the less I trust them, as the recommendations from the Lonely Planet were either ludicrously expensive or ludicrously crap. We finally hit on a little villa on a side street next to one of the canals. Despite my four years in the Sherman Cymru scenic workshop, I’m very far from having anything like a passable knowledge of wood, sheets of cheap ply apart. The entire place was built out of a gorgeous dark hardwood – my guess is that it is teak, and the louvred window shutters and brightly polished floors were a joy to behold. Clearly, though, respectable Thai hotels don’t have any truck with “loving you long time” these days. The sign on the front door was even less specific than the last one – “No Thais Allowed Please”. Can you be racist against your own people?!
The streets outside were a riot of food stalls. The trouble is, being vegetarian means that I’m not really able to jump in without having a rough idea of what it is that is being dished up. So a lot of these places are a point and stare experience for me. Combined with an allergic partner who inflates at the mere mention of seafood, the two of us aren’t really the ideal gourmet explorers. Throw in a grumpy three year old who will eat any dish as long as it is spaghetti bolognese, and you have a recipe for culinary conservatism that is as frustrating as it is repetitive.
To redress the balance I hunted down May Kaidee’s veggie restaurant, and after a delicious massaman curry (followed by awe-inspiring vegetable tempura that the child refused to eat despite our pleas that it “was chips”), immediately signed up for her cooking class the next day. The morning started with a degree of disorganisation that anyone who has eaten in my kitchen will recognise as symptomatic of the type of cooking style I’m hoping to leave behind. I got up early to walk 45 minutes to the restaurant where I’d been told to present myself. After half an hour of sipping a bottle of water, they rustled up a bloke on a scooter who then drove me (I had my special protective baseball cap on, I didn’t need a helmet) back to the cookery school, which was at the bottom of the street where our guest house was. Well, a pointless brisk walk followed by casually dicing with death on the back of an underpowered scooter is as good a way as any to start a half day of Thai cooking.
May Kaidee then made her appearance. May is petite, beautiful, charming and bonkers in equal measures. And she can cook wonderfully. She appeared in full traditional Thai dress, and after a couple of hours of cooking instructions, had us all sit down to watch her dance for ten minutes. In the restaurant. While other people were eating their food. She then made the rest of us get up and follow her. At this point the bemused diners gave up on their dishes and just sat and filmed or photographed us. I loved her cooking school, but I think if the flyer had contained the sentence “class includes involuntary 20 minute Thai line dancing session in public view” I would have had serious doubts about attending.
The child obviously realised that things were careering out of control and that we had sought the advice of his grandmother, for his behaviour seemed to improve immediately following the 90 minutes I spent on the phone to Belfast. This probably has more to do with us finding a moment of solace in the wise words of his Nana, and getting a bit of perspective on our collective frustrations and fallibilities. Bangkok makes generous parenting easy. There is a huge park, with working children’s playground (some of the slides we had seen in India were a rusting metal kiddie deathtrap). There are shopping centres (no, not “malls”, shopping centres) with enormous children’s amusements areas. There are soft play centres. There are also lots of western style restaurants where there is an endless supply of tomato sauce. Now that we had taken a mental breather, our fight is no longer with our own son but rather his crack squirrel addiction to tomato sauce. A good friend of mine once requested tomato sauce before even sampling the dish that I had just laboriously concocted for him. We are no longer on speaking terms. I don’t want the same thing to happen to my son. If you see a small blond child forlornly wandering the streets of Bangkok, don’t give him tomato sauce no matter what he says.
Friday, 12 August 2011
Tuesday, 9 August 2011
Kids' superhero Ben 10 gets a poetic upgrade from a Chinese pirate in a Durbar Square toyshop!
On the river bus in Bangkok
Coconut curry by the roadside in Chinatown. Oisin couldn't even deal with the idea that I was eating this, much less try any of it himself.
There comes a point where you start to think "once you've seen one temple, you've seen them all". Especially if you're three.