Monday 13 December 2010

Joe Cocozza is on holiday

No doubt this will sound ridiculous, and is borderline inflammatory to those of you as deep in snow as you are in work, but I need a holiday.

Galavanting around the world is exhausting. Physically, because you sleep in different places, are constantly moving, and busying yourself, because with so few days in each place you feel obliged to squeeze every last drop out of them. Mentally, because you are always thinking and planning - where to go next, how to get there, where to sleep, what to do. And emotionally, because you are miles away from home, alone, fatigued by those other considerations, and wondering how and why you can transcribe what happens every day into some form of meaningful narrative. And that's before you even begin to think about the future; about what happens when a certain plane lands at Heathrow airport one chilly Saturday morning in February.

It's okay, I'm not after sympathy, and I certainly wouldn't deserve or expect it. Not because I am extremely privileged to be in a position to enjoy these experiences at such negligible cost, but because I am in fact already on holiday. I flew up to Brisbane on Thursday, and spent my birthday with two extremely dear friends, Colin and Margot, and their seven month old daughter, Frankie, who is ridiculously beautiful, smiley and friendly.

On Friday we drove up to Sunshine Beach, Noosa, and for the last few days we've been eating great food and swimming in the sea, joined by more friends, for more good times. It rained all day today, but that didn't stop us - Colin, Lofty and I swimming in the sea anyway, the only ones out there, then standing in the street as it lashed down, playing spoof in our swimmers to work out who would go and get the key for the hot tub.

Right now I'm sat on the balcony sipping a nicely mixed Tanqueray and tonic, listening to the roar of the Pacific Ocean barely metres away. I've been circumnavigating it one way or another for most of the last ten months, never really that far away, and to hear those big waves rolling in when I wake takes me back to all those days and nights I hugged its shores. Holidays are great, but travelling will always be greater.

Thursday 9 December 2010

Hong Kong Revisited

There have been plenty of times in the past year when I've outrun the blog. When the time, will or ability to write were lacking. Take this week for example - last Friday morning I left Phnom Penh and arrived, via Bangkok, back in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong doesn't really count as travelling any more. I've been there more times than any other place outside England, and reintroduced myself on this occasion in the same fashion as all the previous ones; hitting the ground running and getting phenomenally shitfaced. I somehow managed to string a 4am and a 5am finish together, in defiance of my advancing years, and at 11am on Sunday morning was reluctantly boarding a junk from Central pier as my body fought the onset of a brutal hangover. Half an hour later I had turned pale green as the waves shook my insides. Only by finally jumping into an icy sea did I trick myself into a brief recovery, soon side swiped by a premature Tsing Tao and the inevitable remorse.

In between all of this nonsense, I managed to eat a few fantastic meals, catch up with some old friends, meet some new ones and have a generally great time. I've always wrestled with my feelings for Hong Kong, or rather they've wrestled with each other. I love it, hate it, fear it and am in awe of it. Last time I was here, I realised I loved it. I loved it but could never live in it. This time, I'm thinking maybe I'd fancy that challenge one day.

By Tuesday morning I'd shaken off the various hangovers and headed back to the world's greatest cookery teacher, Martha Sherpa, for another day of Chinese food. By the time we'd knocked up spare ribs, poached chicken, beef chow mein, fish in chilli garlic sauce and stir fry pork chop, it was time for me to board the Airport Express once more.

I was hot and tired from the kitchen, but a shower and champagne with a beer chaser straightened me out just in time for the Final Call. For the fourth time since I left last February, and the last before I board the plane home the one coming, a change of continent; at the end of nine long hours, Australia awaits.

Friday 3 December 2010

Take off yours hoes please

A selection of my favourite signs from Asia:







Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh used to be known as The Pearl of Asia, which makes it sound more like a dodgy Chinese restaurant than a capital city. But it seems deserving enough of some kind of romantic moniker, rebounding from a turbulent recent past with considerable optimism to embrace the 21st century.

It's a nice city to walk around. I'm staying down by the riverside (with all the other tourists) which is pleasant enough. Flags flutter in the stiff breeze, and when the temperature finally drops, kids play football on the promenade and couples (boy/girl, boy/boy, boy/ladyboy) walk hand in hand or sit and stare out over the river.

Phnom Penh commerce

Phnom Penh transport

Like other cities in Asia, there's a real buzz and energy coming off the streets, and not just from the rotting market detritus or occasional badly ventilated sewer. It's busy, but not Hanoi busy. The people are friendly, but not Laos friendly. But that energy that makes cities interesting and exciting, is usually the result of contrast and clashes. Rich meets poor, east meets west. And the result of that meeting is not always pleasant.

There is a huge, yawning gap between rich and poor. The hotels, bars and restaurants are incredibly expensive compared to elsewhere in the region, but still busy. The money is flowing in then; plenty of 4x4s on the roads, designer boutiques and flash French restaurants testify to that. But among them are the symptoms of an extreme poverty. The market next to my hotel is a thriving hub of commerce by day, and a home to street families by night.

Street market by day, home by night

In Siem Reap, the landmine victims were either booksellers, hobbling about flogging glued together photocopies of guidebooks, or in bands playing traditional music. In Phnom Penh they just beg, and any success they might encounter only serves to encourage others; children, mothers with babies.

I've sounded off about the sex-industry in Asia before, but when you turn onto a street and the bars are called things like The Pussycat and Beers and Babes, where fat, old white guys hang out with young Cambodian girls, the stench of it invades your nostrils. It is one route out of poverty, for sure, but one created by economic exploitation levering a chasm of moral and ethical ambiguity amongst impoverished locals. And no-one seems to bat an eyelid.

I still like the place, in spite of all this. It has soul. But I've been speaking to my brother, who was here eight years ago, and it sounds as if that soul might be diminishing in the scramble for dollars. Maybe that's the way all developing cities go if they're left to their own devices.

Thursday 2 December 2010


Tuol Svay Prey was a High School in Phnom Penh until April 17th 1975, when it became a prison, designated S-21 by the Khmer Rouge.

Classrooms were divided into cells one and a half metres square, to hold the enemies of the revolution; peasants, workers, technicians, engineers, doctors, teachers, students, monks, ministers, soldiers, foreigners, people who wore spectacles. The purpose of their incarceration was to extract confessions by means of torture in order to justify their subsequent execution.

Of the 20,000 people who passed through Tuol Sleng, only seven survived. Each prisoner was photographed, but there are no names to match them, just faces. Human lives reduced to a single moment in time, and it's as though the camera captured just one emotion on each face; confusion, fear, anger, surprise, terror, defiance. Others are just shell shocked, some are even smiling. As a whole, the banks of faces become a palette of human emotions, staring out from beyond the grave.

They weren't executed in Tuol Sleng, but were driven to a Killing Field at Choeung Ek, 15km away, where they were beaten to death with bamboo sticks, hoes and shovels, in order to save bullets. A loudspeaker hung from a tree playing party music to drown out the screams as the pummelled bodies were thrown into mass graves. Babies were smashed against trees in front of their mothers before they were raped and bludgeoned. There were 343 Killing Fields like this is Cambodia, with over 19,000 mass graves, and between them they accounted for somewhere between 1.5 and 2.5 million deaths. No-one knows.

Just under 9,000 bodies have been excavated at Choeung Ek, and their skulls are displayed in a shrine, seventeen storeys high. After heavy rain, more bones and remnants of clothes work their way to the surface, and are collected and preserved. Many of the graves burst open, a result of the gases built up within the corpses they were designed to conceal.

Pol Pot survived for twenty years after these atrocities were committed, dying under house arrest. The first trial of a Khmer Rouge official began in 2009, resulting in a 35-year prison sentence for Comrade Duch, despite his admission to the torture and murder of thousands of Tuol Sleng inmates. Four more await trial, but the hundreds, or thousands, of Khmer Rouge footsoldiers responsible for carrying out their orders, guilty of murder, torture and rape, are living normal lives in Cambodian society today.

Tuesday 30 November 2010


Writing about Angkor is a bit like visiting it; you don't know where to begin. It is ancient, vast and spectacular; you see, think and feel so many things in the furiously busy days you devote to it, that by the end you are completely knackered. But here goes...

The Khmer empire flourished in what is now Cambodia from the 9th to the 13th century AD. They were skilled and intelligent people; extremely efficient farmers and irrigators, and with the surplus wealth their talent generated, they built Angkor; the greatest pre-industrial city to have existed anywhere in the world.

Angkor Wat is the largest and most famous of the temples to have survived, but it is only one of many. Each of them is a model of the universe; the central prasat or tower representing the cosmic mountain, the dwelling place of the Gods. From this centre the rest of the world, continents and oceans, fan out in an orderly fashion, in contrast to the primordial chaos.

The remains speak of different aspects of Khmer beliefs and techniques, shining light on the specific areas that they best articulate. Angkor Wat's size is matched for impact by the breathtaking detail of the stonework. Bas reliefs cover the five and a half kilometre perimeter wall, intricate carvings on every stone.

Angkor Wat from the south-west pool

Titillatingly detailed carvings, Angkor Wat

The temple of Banteay Srei holds the finest examples of carving, detailed and wonderfully preserved. Less well preserved, but in many ways more fascinating are those found at Kbal Spean, carved into the banks and bed of a mountain stream by the hermits who lived there. The extraordinary patience and craftsmanship required to create them testify to the strength of the Khmer faith, and how deeply it reached into the most unlikely places.

Riverbed carvings at Kbal Spean

Carvings at Banteay Srei

Elsewhere, the irresistible power of nature stamps its authority over the decaying buildings. Ta Prohm is the best example of a temple left at the mercy of the jungle, and looks today how most of the sites would have appeared to the first Europeans; overgrown, crumbling and unspeakably beautiful. Walking around it, picking your way over tree trunks, roots and piles of rubble, you feel closer to the essence of the temples, and the strange wilderness in which they fell into disrepair and abandon.

The east gopura at Ta Som

The jungle entwines the temple of Ta Prohm

I thought perhaps Ta Prohm would be my favourite, but it was usurped by an unsung hero, in the shape of Banteay Samré. It is in remarkable condition, the entire structure intact, and relatively small; so small that each enclosure is tightly shuffled to the next, making the incredible symmetry and structural perfection much easier to admire. And there is the added joy that comes from being able to leap across the narrow gaps from one continent to the next.

The sun's getting low in the sky, and with the walls so close to one another and the shadows long and crisp, Banteay Samré becomes a canvas of darkness and light. I doubt it is as spectacular as sunrise over Angkor Wat, but it is subtle and beautiful to see the little Khmer universe divided up like this. The light seems so important in Angkor; enhancing so many different qualities as it works its way around, shifting its focus to the tiniest corners and breathing life and detail into them.

Darkness and Light, Banteay Samré

Colonnettes in Angkor Wat

The Khmers placed lakes and ponds to reflect the temples and the world that surrounds them, multiplying their glory and wonder. A similar effect can occur inside the temples; when doorways line up in succession, or in long galleries the senses cannot count or measure. The impression they create hints at infinity; the multiplication of the world and an irresistible magnetism draws you inside or along.

It's hard to truly envisage Angkor in its prime, and whenever you begin to grasp the size and scale of the city, it becomes almost overpowering. For every stone still standing, hundreds lie scattered all around you.

The Khmers built monuments to the order and structure of the universe, and then the universe clawed so much of it back, leaving a fraction of what once stood remaining. But so spectacular are those pillars that still reach above the water, that they hint at a world we can't really comprehend. To be lost in it, in the heat, dust and sweat, and to puzzle over it, is a joy and a privilege that should not be missed.

Sunday 28 November 2010

Moving on

I left Laos last Thursday, in perfect Laotian style, on a propellor plane that took off half an hour early when it became apparent that all passengers were present and correct. I could easily have stayed a lot longer; no doubt now that it is my favourite country in this part of, if not all, the world.

When I look back on the last month, I might find it hard to fish out memories of the two weeks I spent in Vietnam. Instead I will think of the country I first glimpsed from the bank of the Mekong in Chiang Khong, Thailand, wondering if it could really be so different. It began then, with a moonrise, and ended with a sunset. In between just seemed like one long, glorious day.

Since then, I have been in Siem Reap, Cambodia. There's only one reason it's on the map; Angkor Wat. Over two million punters pour through this little town every year, and it struggles to retain its spirit in the face of the onslaught. Time is short now, and sadly I will only see here and Phnom Penh in Cambodia, which is a bit like not really seeing Cambodia at all.

I've been feeling a little disjointed these past few days. It could be Laos withdrawal, it could be the intense tourist overload, the heat, temple fatigue. Or it could be that another part of the trip is drawing to a close, another continent looming. Or more than that, it could be the fact that in the distance, so small I can hardly see it, but big enough for me to know it's there, I think I can make out a tiny speck of tunnel at the end of the light.

Wednesday 24 November 2010


Shortly after half past seven in the morning, freshly showered and my fast inadequately broken by a plate of fruit, a stale baguette and a cup of crap coffee, I squeezed into a well worn crash helmet, fired up my brilliantly named Suzuki Smash 110 and slipped conspicuously into the stream of early morning traffic snaking its way around the busy streets of Pakse.

Riding into the rising sun, and the rising ground of the Bolaven Plateau that sits 1,300 metres above sea level, one by one my co-riders disappeared from the highway and I found myself again in glorious isolation. An hour or so and fifty kilometres later (either the speedo or the milestones were lying, since I never dropped below sixty), in the remote town (read village) of Paksong, I finally pulled up and prised my numb buttcheeks from the saddle. There was a sign by the side of the road. It said Coffee.

The French introduced coffee to the Bolaven Plateau in the nineteenth century. After a brief lull when the Americans bombed the crap out of the place in the 60s and 70s, production is booming again, and almost everyone in Paksong is involved in the business to some extent. Coffee trees grow by the side of the main road, and in plantations that back onto people's simple houses.

A Dutchman, whose passport says Cornelius but has been called "Coffee" since he was a toddler, lives here with his Laotian wife, herself from a long line of coffee growers, and runs tours and workshops for the bean loving tourist, as well as offering a cup of his finest to anyone passing through.

In the morning we wander around, look at coffee trees and learn from Coffee the whole process of cultivation, harvest and production. Out the back of his house family members pour berries into an old tomato skinning machine, and wade around in the resulting beans, before they are laid out to dry. There are different ways of doing this - some are cleaned in water, some are not, absorbing more flavour as a result.

Freshly picked coffee berries

Beans from the berries

Drying in the sun

Coffee hand picks the best beans and hand roasts them in an old wok. Since the green beans come from different plantations, have been processed differently, and roasted in individual batches, there is no consistency to the result. Actually that's not true - the only consistency is that the coffee is of an exceptionally high standard, and the differences are the real beauty of this method.

Green beans in the wok

He teaches me to wok roast. As well as the basic technique for keeping them moving around, it's a question of understanding the different stages and recognising how the colours, aromas and sounds change. Somewhere between a light and medium roast, the now browned, fragrant beans are stylishly cooled. They're best a week or so after roasting, but I haven't got that long, so we grind a few and I sip the satisfying fruits of my labour.

Cool your beans

This is coffee with character, like fine wine. Every single cup produced in this way is an expression of something else; the beans; where they're from, how many there are. The weather; how the wind blows over the wok, how much moisture in the air, how hot it is. The roaster; what mood they're in, how they stir and for how long. How quickly they're cooled, how they're ground. If you want the same taste every time you drink a cup of coffee, try Nescafe Gold Blend. It's nothing if not consistent.

Small World

Well that didn't take long. I rocked up at Savannakhet bus station just before 8am to discover the 8am is actually at 9am. Oh well, je ne regrette rien. I ended up sat next to an incredibly beautiful Laotian girl for my troubles, one of a group of trainee midwives heading to Pakse for some exams. Their teacher was sitting in front of me and immediately set about trying to marry us off to one another, which made for an entertaining five and a half hour journey.

As if that wasn't enough, every time we stopped (and we stopped many times) we were boarded by marauding women and children waving bottles of water, barbecued chicken, boiled eggs, bags of sticky rice and beef jerky. Hilarious scenes ensued as they clambered over the plastic stools in the aisle whenever we took off with them still on board. The toilet stops were no less amusing, men and women filing neatly into the bushes to splash their boots.

After wandering around Pakse, busier than other towns along the way but with Laotian charm surviving intact, I took myself down to the confluence of the Mekong and the Se Don to watch the sunset. Another English guy turned up a few minutes later, and we drank our Beerlaos together. It took about ten seconds to establish that we had been to the same Sixth Form, at the same time, and though we didn't exactly know each other, we shared plenty of friends in common and had both been at one of them's wedding last year. It had to happen sooner or later in a world this big.

Tuesday 23 November 2010


Eco-tourism is the new big thing in Southern Laos. Having donated my English skills to the local Eco Guide Unit, I thought I should probably take on one of their treks as well and get a look at the nearby Dong Natad Protected Area.

The obligatory tuk-tuk carried my shaken remains out of town for a good forty minutes to our first stop, a salt factory. They pump 55% saline water out of the ground and either leave it to dry in the sun, or boil it in big wood burning trays. All of which makes for some nice photographs, but I'm struggling to find the environmental angle.

The trek through the forest is interesting, but I find myself in a strange mood, and am really struggling to engage. We walk, occasionally talk, and they point out things you can eat, enormous termite mounds, and trees that the locals draw oil from for their lanterns. Again, I don't really see how burning holes in trees in order to get fuel is an environmentally sustainable practice, but maybe I'm missing something.

The forest is beautiful, but it's less daunting and alien than the one I trekked in Thailand. Hallowe'en style cobwebs adorn every tiny branch, and an assortment of strange insects threaten me at every turn.

These ants smell of vinegar if you crush them in your hands (not very Buddhist?), earning the nickname sour ants, and their eggs are a delicacy apparently, though I don't get to try. The morning redeems itself by arriving at a splendid lake, where we stop for lunch and I put my guide in his place in a stone skimming contest (growing up in Worthing has its advantages).

I'll have to confess to being slightly underwhelmed by the whole experience, but these are early days, for the whole idea of taking tourists into this area, and for the guides and villagers who facilitate it.

What I discovered was the role eco-tourism has in educating local people about the importance of preserving their natural environment. Most things boil down to economics, and if you live in a forest and can make more money chopping it down than leaving it where it is, then that is probably what you're going to do. Tourism offers an alternative though. The local Eco Guide Unit goes into the villages and explains how to gather NTFP (Non-Timber Forest Products), puts up signs and rubbish bins and educates the locals in how to use them. It will take time, a lot of time.

But the ball is rolling at least, and in a few years things should be a lot better. In the meantime, if you're passing through, your patronage will help them get off the ground, and maybe even pay for a few lightbulbs so they can stop bleeding the trees dry...


You may have gathered by now that I'm growing rather fond of Laos. You are also probably sick of hearing me gushing on about its cheerful, languid population, decaying architectural glory and overwhelming air of gentle serenity. But we haven't been to Savannakhet yet.

My first interaction with the locals came when two kids quietly approached me as I took a picture of the Catholic church (the only building in town not in a state of utter disrepair), and started looking at my camera. I pointed it, shot, and showed them the picture on the back. The result was a sort of shuddering laugh of total disbelief, shrinking nervously away from me, as if I had just performed some twisted kind of black magic.

When I walked back a couple of hours later they were still pushing each other round in circles on their tricycle, and had apparently recovered from the shock.

Shops and homes spill out onto the streets, where kids play as grandparents sit and watch and mums and dads quietly tinker about. Again, there is that wonderfully calming sense of a place just ticking along, doing what it needs to get by, and never anything more. Of course, there is absolutely bugger all to do here except watch these warm, hypnotic scenes playing themselves out before you, but who cares?

I looked over the balcony just after sunset, and saw a kid of maybe four or five strolling down the street, past a stray dog licking itself and someone sweeping the front of their shop, all of them with an extraordinary economy of movement. High above the rooftops that teeter on the edges of crumbling walls, a makeshift kite danced its way across the full moon, watched by invisible but audible children, shrieking in the nearby square, as I reclined, took another sip of Beerlao and sighed contentedly.

Monday 22 November 2010

Language barrier

Hmmm, let's see now: shall I get the express bus at 8.30 in the morning, or the local bus at 10.30? Shortly after 7.30 I was regretting my decision, as I was rudely awoken by everyone less lazy than me clattering down the stairs with their suitcases and shouting unnecessarily at one another.

The boot was on the other foot at 10.15 though when, replenished by the extra sleep after their hostile interruption, I arrived at Tha Khaek bus station to find them all slumped miserably on uncomfortable wooden benches where they had spent the last two hours or so since the express bus had been cancelled. I try not to be smug for too long, since doing so has a habit of returning to kick me in the ass, but I'll indulge myself on this one: Ha-ha. Suckers.

I've just finished reading a brilliant book called Iron and Silk by an American named Mark Salzman. It's a wonderful collection of observations and recollections from his time in China in the early 80s, none of which would have been possible had he not actually spoken the language. Swapping seats during the ride to Savannakhet when I lost the feeling in both my legs, I found myself next to a Laotian guy who spoke a bit of English and was keen to chat. "I teach you Lao", he unwittingly offered, as I reluctantly unplucked the headphones.

Within a couple of hours he had managed to teach me how to say "Good Luck" and "Help!" in addition to "Hello" and "Thank you very much" which I already proudly boasted among my armoury. But I now have some interesting phonetic pronunciation notes scrawled across the back of my Lonely Planet, and a printed e-ticket decorated with various scribblings, including an enormous "I love you" in Lao that could make check-in interesting.

As soon as I got to my guest house in Savannakhet I took a stroll around town, and within five minutes I'd been accosted by a guy from the local Eco-Tourism unit. He was trying to respond to a series of lengthy questions from a Dutch company that is providing funding for them, and was struggling with the English. An hour or so later, and I can't help thinking that the recipient of his lyrical reply might not wonder if he'd had a bit of passing help, but somehow it seemed the right thing to do.

All of which led me to reflect that speaking a native language does far more than make life easier for you. It creates the opportunity to engage with locals and gain their trust, respect and understanding. It gives you the confidence to approach people and make allowances for the offence you dread causing them. It makes every second of the time you invest there rewarding and enriching.

I think back to conversations with taxi drivers and strangers in South America, where my fledgling Spanish was pathetic, but still enough, and dearly wish I could speak Lao.

Sunday 21 November 2010

Full Throttle

The bus ride from Vientiane to Tha Khaek was a surprisingly comfortable and uneventful way to pass five and a half hours. Especially compared to the minutes preceding them, when the driver of our sawng thaew (half tuk-tuk, half pick up truck), realising his passengers had missed the bus, decided to pursue it instead, eventually catching up with it about twenty rickety minutes into its journey and flagging it down on the main road.

Not a lot really goes on in Tha Khaek. It sits on the Mekong, entertaining travellers using the nearby border, or stopping on their way north and south, like me. No-one really stays here for too long, but plenty use it as a base for touring inland. Renting a motorbike entails a long walk, and I get the last one, which has definitely seen better days. I rattle my way east, through fields punctuated by limestone karsts and pools of emerald green water; a kind of Halong Bay on land, but I have it all to myself.

The towering rock formations shelter a number of impressive caves. I pull over at one and am immediately accosted by three kids, who offer to be my guide. On our way through the thin jungle, they pull long serrated leaves from plants, and sword fight with them. Sensing my disappointment at being left out, they procure one for me, which then entitles them to attack me whenever they wish. At the cave, I'm taking pictures, and when I turn round they've picked up my guide book and are looking at the pictures. They point at every white guy in there and ask if it is me.

Pretty much everyone I pass on the bike waves and yells sa-bai-dii. Kids especially; often I can't actually see them, they're rolling in mud or up a tree or something, but I hear them and shout back as I trundle on by. The scenery, the pure colours that surround me and the unbridled joy of shouting and waving at people leave me completely elated. It's a sense heightened by my solitude, and that wonderful feeling you get of being on an open road and completely in control of your own destiny.

Then the throttle cable snaps. It could be worse; I passed some houses half a mile back, so push my untrustworthy steed through the dust. Luckily enough, one of them is a shop, specialising, amongst other things (most other things), in motorcycle repair. The guy comes out, followed tentatively, one at a time, by his kids, each of whom stares at me then runs away laughing. As he dismantles the front of the bike, I watch a chicken pecking his way through the house and pissing all over the floor. Unbelievably, he cheerfully produces a replacement cable, which he supplies and fits for the princely sum of 20,000 kip (£1.60 or $2.50). I buy him a Beerlao as well and carry on where I left off.

By now the sun has dropped a little further, and the light is incredible. I ride the eight kilometres or so back to the main road pretty slowly, soaking up the golden light and thinking how great life is when you strip it back to its purest form. I get a few lungfuls of dust for my trouble, but in all honesty, they only make me more certain.

Friday 19 November 2010


It wasn't quite so much a "secret hint" that finally led me to Vientiane, more of a persistent niggle. Only my lackadaisical planning kept me away on my first trip to Laos, and there was a kind of symmetry to the fact that some Laotian nonchalance should combine with it to shorten my time in Vietnam and bring me back.

At no point does Vientiane ever feel like a city. It's busier than Luang Prabang, and exhibits a few more trappings of modernity, but compared to say Hanoi, it is a mere sleepy village. The bars, restaurants and guesthouses cluster around the centre of town. In between them, sumptuous golden temples sit snugly, and bouganvillea hauls itself lazily over over the walls.

Old colonial buildings and villas line the streets, in varying stages of decay. The Lao National Museum resides in one such place, black streaks and the stains of time obscuring it's once white walls. Inside, a series of interesting but dusty exhibits share space with a pretty impressive range of semi-automatic weapons, and photographs with captions like Comrade So-and-so single handedly captures American Imperialists. Apart from one old lady on the front desk, there don't appear to be any other people here, until towards the end I hear excited voices and the now familiar clinking of petanques, as the entire staff play boules and drink Beerlao in the shady courtyard out back. Behind it, the National Stadium has a kind of Escape to Victory feel to it.

There's enough traffic to kick up a few fumes. Jacked up tuk-tuks where you sit on a bench at a 30º angle and try not to slide out the back, a few mopeds, and vintage VW Beetles. I would say there is a "heavy" police and military presence, but that would imply some level of intimidation or a sense of lurking oppression. There are a lot of them, and they do have guns slung across their backs, but half of them are asleep and the other half are directing traffic at every intersection, in complete contradiction to the perfectly functioning traffic lights.

From the Presidential Palace a wide Parisian boulevard stretches north to Patuxay, a sort of poor man's Arc de Triomphe, made entirely out of cement that was meant for a new runway. It has a kind of cracked charm to it, interrupted only by the few floors of market stalls hidden inside it's upper levels.

The French influence doesn't stop with wide streets and pointless arches. Everywhere you go you can smell freshly baked baguettes and croissants. The coffee here is as good as I have drunk for months. The women are beautiful and elegant. Nearly all of them wear Lao skirts, or sinhs, of long, narrow, delicately patterned silk. According to the Vientiane Times, the styles
..not only represent the variety and abundance of our natural resources, but also the inner hearts and minds of the people, expressed through their gentle manner, attitude and behaviour.
Continuing the long walk out of town, past women selling lottery tickets and street food vendors, you eventually arrive at Laos's most important site, Pha That Luang. It dates from the 3rd century but has been constantly rebuilt over the years as it fell into ruin or was plundered during wartime. It's current incarnation is glorious. It strikes me that most of the buildings are allowed to fall into gentle decline and no one seems to mind, except for the temples, the people's pride and joy.

The clues are there I suppose; Presidential Palace, wide avenues, triumphant arch, symbolic temples, superfluous security. It might not feel like a city, but it is the Capital. The white guys in suits, too; embassy staff and NGO workers, I guess. They mingle effortlessly with the orange robed monks and flip-flopped backpackers in the tapestry of Vientiane's streets. This is whole heartedly a place in which to sit quietly, drink coffee or beer and watch the world as it trickles past at its own sedate pace, pausing occasionally perhaps, to join you for a few moments over a pastis, before sliding gently on by.