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.

Thursday 18 November 2010

Choices choices

How do you decide where to eat? Read reviews? Guide books? Tripadvisor?

Most of the time I try to follow my instincts. You get a feel by reading menus, looking at a place, smelling it. If a menu features curry of the day as well as pasta of the day I guarantee you the food is going to be shit. If you walk into a Ramen joint in Tokyo and you can smell pigs, leave quietly.

But there are a lot of restaurants in Vientiane, I only have four nights, and I don't want to miss anything good. There's a strong French influence in town, so I'd like to strike some kind of balance between that and the local food.

Guide books are of limited use. Frommers is usually pretty reliable for restaurants, but things, and chefs, change more often than they print a new edition. The Lonely Planet can be a bit hit and miss - it's not written by food critics after all. But often it's all you have to go on. Two nights ago, I sided with the Lonely Planet. Here's what they say about Le Vendome:
Dripping in ivy and candlelit atmosphere, this hidden gem played host to journos during the Secret War. Souffles, pates, salads plus a good wine selection. Timeless.
I'll admit to being seduced by the image of khaki shirted writers sipping gin and tonics and flirting with each others' wives as the bombs rained down. And I interpreted timeless as a tender compliment. Here's what I wrote:

Dripping in ivy? Yes. The chef? A genius, succeeding where so many others have failed. He appears to have invented some sort of time machine, and is timelessly churning out French bistro food straight from the 1970s. An appalling sauce accompanies my steak. Greasy, oversalty fries and an unforgivable squiggle of marie-rose sauce on the edge of my plate. A bizarre and disgusting medley of badly cooked, lukewarm vegetables watches on. Desperate. Waste of a bullet.
Last night I used my own initiative and plumped for Makphet. It's a non-profit restaurant that only employs street kids, training them in the kitchen and hospitality in general. I can relax, with no expectations of the food and just appreciate the fact that they're doing the Lord's work. My old friend the Lonely Planet sticks to the salient information:
Described as a training restaurant run by street kids
(Described? As in is?) and
Newly located in a biscuit-coloured villa
I walked past it three times before I realised. First time I was looking for a bourbon, then a custard cream, then a pink wafer, before instantly recognising its unmistakable garibaldiness.

But on with the food. I start with rare buffalo fillet, thinly sliced and wrapped around julienned vegetables with a tamarind dip. Golden parcels of pork and dried shrimp come with a lime, fish sauce, chilli and peanut dip. They're both exceptionally good; fresh, simple, perfectly balanced and beautifully presented. Main course of stir fried chicken with young bamboo and mushrooms doesn't disappoint.

Later on, I'm walking home around about the time the Makphet kids are knocking off for the night. There must be at least fifty of them. They're all laughing and joking with each other as they get on their little bikes, still in their greasy uniforms, and ride off home together. That's how I'd describe it anyway. Awesome.

Tripadvisor? I think that may merit a separate post another time, when I've had a few more drinks and am in the mood for a proper rant. The bottom line is, know who you can trust...

Tuesday 16 November 2010


I've done some pretty stupid things over the last few months. Things like asking for Loperamide instead of Loratadine in the pharmacy, and constipating myself for three days instead of mitigating an allergic reaction to some particularly fierce mosquito bites. Or turning up to board a flight to Vietnam and discovering you actually need a visa before they let you in.

'Plan' might be stretching it a bit, so let's say my 'intention', having arrived in Hanoi two weeks ago, was to spend a month travelling south to Saigon before crossing over into Cambodia. The visa I hurriedly mustered in Luang Prabang gave me 14 days instead of 30, scuppering any hopes of reaching Saigon.

One thing you get better at on the road is reading the signals; understanding your own instincts and how you react to things. Knowing where to eat, drink, sleep. When to keep driving, when to stop. How, when you make mistakes, wrong turns, to accept and incorporate them, and see where they lead. When you don't really know where you're going anyway, you've got nothing to lose.

I could have got a visa extension for Vietnam. I'd have had to stick around in Hanoi for an extra four days, right when I was loving it least. As the days tick by and the unmentionable looms ever larger, time is a more precious resource than ever. My own stupidity might have ripped up the plan and chucked it out the window, but you roll with your own punches. So I decided that there was more than a smattering of Providence in all this and booked a flight to Vientiane instead. Vientiane, the capital of Laos, the country that two weeks ago, I'd wished I didn't have to leave.

Flying back to Laos from Hanoi, we hovered in our little propeller plane above a sea of meringue towards the setting sun, orange and pink in the distance. It was almost dark when we stooped down to land. I got my visa on arrival from some cheerful immigration staff, and from the moment I stepped off the plane, right up until the seconds in which I type these words, the smile has barely left my face.

I just need to find a pharmacy, that's all.

This renewed a contemplation, which had often come to my thoughts in former time....how, when we were in a quandary (as we call it), a doubt or hesitation whether to go this way or that way, a secret hint shall direct us this way, when we intend to go another way - nay, when sense, our own inclination, and perhaps business, has called to go the other way, yet a strange impression upon the mind, from we know not what springs, and by we know not what power, shall overrule us to go this way; and it shall afterwards appear, that had we gone that way which we would have gone, and even to our imagination ought to have gone, we should have been ruined and lost. Upon these, and many like reflections, I afterwards made it a certain rule with me, that whenever I found those secret hints, or pressings of my mind, to doing or not doing anything that presented, or to going this way or that way, I never failed to obey the secret dictate; though I knew no other reason for it, than that such a pressure or such a hint hung upon my mind.
- Robinson Crusoe

Monday 15 November 2010

Friend or Phở

I like Vietnamese food, but must confess to having been a little disappointed over the past couple of weeks. Restaurants, street vendors; some good, some bad, nothing brilliant.

The most famous Vietnamese dish must be phở - noodle soup. I used to slink off down Huong Viet on Englefield Road and eat bowls of the stuff for lunch on my days off. Yet despite being a Hanoi specialty, the best pho on this trip was in Tempe, Arizona. Until last Thursday that is, when it was surpassed by one I made myself.

Cooking classes are ten a penny in Hoi An. Most places offer classes whenever you feel like it, but I plumped for Red Bridge Restaurant. The day began with a visit to an organic garden outside of town. Some 200 families maintain it as a co-operative, and they grow just about everything here. Each tiny rectangle of land is hand cultivated, and their combined effect is one of great tranquility, like a giant Zen Garden being meticulously raked.

Not so tranquil is the market we visit next, but the produce is extremely fresh, and it's a lot cleaner than some I've been to in this part of the world. They also have the weirdest chicken trussing technique I've seen so far. As with everywhere else in South East Asia, nearly everyone working here is a woman, and the butchers are exclusively female.

Good pho is all about good stock. We brown beef shins over a charcoal fire, as well as grilling shallots, onion and ginger. All are then blanched to remove the smokiness before going in the pot with all the spices. While that simmers, we prep the pickle, veg and herbs, and make the rice noodles from scratch. With the right kit and a bit of patience it's fairly simple, and a lot more rewarding than taking them out of a packet.

The result is divine, as good as any I've had, and now I've got the recipe. I chalk up another dish on the menu that has been slowly writing itself in my mind these last few months.

We also make a fish claypot, a chicken and banana flower salad and lemongrass shrimp in banana leaves. The latter is extremely good and will be added to my barbecue repertoire just as soon as I've grown the banana tree. The fish is basically Cha Ca, another Hanoi specialty. Mackerel marinaded in turmeric, cooked with dill and spring onion then topped with peanuts. There's even a street called Cha Ca in Hanoi, where establishments of varying quality purport to be the original Cha Ca La Vong, a fifth generation restaurant selling nothing but, though viciously overpriced.

Hoi An has its own local dishes, the best of which is Cao Lau; thick, doughy noodles served in broth with sliced pork and rice paper crutons. White Rose are small open dumplings made from the same batter; both are only available in Hoi An, since the water used to make them has to come from the nearby Ba Le well. So insulted would they be if you attempted to make them without it, they all refuse to show you how they're made.

This is all well and good, but I'm getting the impression that I was spoilt in London. I know other cities have big Vietnamese communities, and anyone from Melbourne will tell you how great the food is down Victoria Street, but there's a dingy little community centre in Hackney where the chairs are uncomfortable, the staff unfriendly, the service unpredictable and the food way, way better than anything I've had in the homeland.

Sunday 14 November 2010

Hanoi: a tale of two cities

I won't lie. I didn't lie. It must have been obvious. I don't like Hanoi. I'll live - dust myself on, keep going. It doesn't matter.

Except it does matter. And for one reason; someone I've only met a few times, a subversive hard-smoking chain-drinking German philosopher poet journo, who I instinctively like and respect, told me it's his favourite city in the world. And that's been bothering me, because I must have missed something. So I came back.

Every city has a skin. Some are easier to puncture than others, but you can't understand the place until you're through. You need to be in the right frame of mind, and have the right approach. If you're in London and New York and you don't talk to anyone, you won't get through. If you're in Hanoi and you don't look beyond the mopeds, you won't either.

The first thing I do in a new city is go for a walk. I'll walk for hours, trying to get my bearings; not just the geography, but the soul of a place too. I walked for two days in Hanoi trying to get a grip, but to no avail. On Saturday night I pulled up a small plastic chair outside a Bia Hoi joint, and realised where I'd been going wrong. I'd never thought to stand still.

There are two cities in Hanoi; the one that's moving and the one that's not. The former washes in and around the latter. It is manic but magical. When you are moving with it, you're just another molecule being flushed through the pipes. You don't really see the other city; it passes by in a blur. So I sat and drank my beer and watched in wonder and realised what a great place Hanoi really is. How unlikely yet perfect is its harmony; the order resurrected daily from the chaos, unchoreographed, unfeasible and so irrefutably human in all its joyous complexity. Mopeds and all.

I'm glad I came back. Thanks Frank.

Friday 12 November 2010

Go on Mỹ Sơn

And behold, for on the morning of the seventh day He woke, and there was no more rain.

But be careful what you wish for. It turns out that as well as dampening my spirits, the rain has been keeping hordes of tourists locked up in the resorts that circle the old town. Now they roam free; it's like some activists busted out the denizens of the local zoo, and the charming side of Hoi An that shone through the drizzle is suddenly overrun.

The locals have stepped things up a gear too, and are competing fiercely for the extra dollars. Walking down the street being greeted by each person trying to flog me something, I feel obliged to offer cheery replies. From every shadow, alleyway and shop front comes another salutation and entreaty to buy something else I don't want.
Keep walking...
-Hello please
-Hello thank you
Next one:
-You want buy something from my shop?
-No thank you
From behind a tailor's dummy:
-You want buy nice clothes mister?
-No thank you
-Taxi for you?
-No thanks

-Boat trip for you my friend?
-No thanks, I get sea sick
Still walking...
-Motorbike tour?
Keep going...
-No thank you, I've already eaten
-Massage for you sir?
-No I'm fine thanks
-You want eat in my restaurant
-No thank you, not hungry

-Nice shoes for you mister?
-Don't wear shoes, thank you
-Hire motorbike?
-No thanks
Keep walking. Stop. Turn back...
-How much for half day?
I hand over the cash (about £2.50) and he hands over the keys, together with a crash helmet that offers about as much protection as, and is slightly less fetching than, an upturned salad bowl. With a hand scribbled map stuffed in my pocket, I set about getting as far away as I can in as short a time possible.

Okay, so it's not Hanoi or Saigon, but it's still crazy. Oncoming trucks and buses, dust, fumes, people carrying trees on their bicycles. Cows, dogs, chickens, old women, kids. It's like playing Paperboy but in real life and a lot faster. I get the hang of it after a few tentative minutes. The trick is not to ride too fast, and to remember that you only need the throttle, brake and the horn. Other extras, like mirrors and indicators, are completely superfluous.

Settled into the rhythm of things, I really begin to enjoy myself. In the hour and a bit I'm on the road, I don't see a single other tourist. And by the time I reach my destination, the ancient Cham temple complex of Mỹ Sơn they've all left there for the day as well. I'm in stunning surroundings, wandering in and out of the ruins, and there is not a soul to be seen; just invisible crickets and frogs for company.

It's probably not the most visually impressive of the many historic sites I've been to on my travels, but it's still impressive. The temples and tombs date from between the 4th and 14th centuries. For a thousand years, this was the greatest religious site in the Kingdom of Champa, a once great seafaring empire that controlled central and southern Vietnam but was eventually squeezed out by the north. In 1969 the site was subjected to US carpet bombing, and remains surrounded by unexploded ordinance. It's hard to tell what accounts for this, but most of the statues I see have been decapitated.

It happens to all Great empires in the end.

Thursday 11 November 2010

Hoi An. More Rain.

It came as rather a pleasant surprise to wake Tuesday morning in Hue and find that it had finally stopped raining. It was still grey and bleak and miserable, but at least it was dry. At 10am, I took a car south to Hoi An. It's a spectacular drive; Bach Ma National Park on one side, the South China Sea on the other, and incredible scenery squeezed in between. Or so I'm told; thanks to an almost impervious mist, I could barely make out the windscreen wipers.

By the time I arrived in Hoi An it was bucketing down again, on a Biblical scale. The cloud completely unbroken, the sun fallen from the sky and an almost fantastical amount of rain dropping from the Heavens. Luckily I'd brought the poncho with me, and we reunited once again as I set out about town. Hoi An is a pleasant little place; an extremely old town centre with a high concentration of tourists, and it's famous for food and tailoring.

The clothes shops and tailors are a bit of a joke. There are hundreds of them, each capable of turning round suits within 48 hours, and pretty much everything else within 24. They stock vast ranges of fabric, the quality of which I am not qualified to judge, but I would be fairly sceptical of those Made in Italy tags. I suspect that in the past you could get a really nice suit made here, but today there are just too many outlets for them to all be any good. I'm not about to try and second guess, though I hardly need a suit made anyway these days. But I do need to eat every now and then.

I instinctively like it here, but the rain is a persistent menace, and it's hard to really enjoy a place in these conditions. I'm realising how lucky I have been so far; those one off moments, like Iguazu, Machu Picchu, Yosemite - they could all have been screwed by the weather but weren't. But that won't stop me moaning about it now.

It's not just the fact that it's raining; it is being inundated by the conviction that is just never going to end. Even when it does occasionally stop for a few moments, it somehow still manages to feel like it is actually raining, and if you ever get confident, or stupid, enough to proclaim that it isn't, and even venture out sans poncho, you get very wet, very quickly.

There's only one way to break the spell, and that's to get as far away from here as I can. The people will thank me for it, I'm sure.

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Hue. Rain.

There were moments in the last three days in Hue when I dared to believe it might, and even a very fleeting hiatus when it seemed as though it actually did, stop raining, but none of them undermined the sense of perpetual inundation. In Merquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, it rains in Macondo for four years straight, and I think a similar fate may have befallen this ancient city.

Being English, I refuse to yield, and stoically venture forth in my giant poncho (designed for motorcyclists, with a large clear square at the front for the headlights that aligns neatly with my groin area and precludes any surreptitious ball-scratching). When I find somewhere to get out of the rain and have a coffee, I feel like I am sat in a wind shelter on some dreary seafront; a pebble beach, incessant drizzle, and nothing to engage my interest but soggy sandwiches and a packet of pulverised mini-cheddars, washed down with luke-warm coffee from a tartan thermos.

On the basis that I haven't travelled around the world to sit in misery, I decide to skip town. But first, and somewhat reluctantly I have to confess, to take a tour of the city and visit a few historical sites (Hue being the ancient capital and all that). My surprise was matched only by my delight.

The tomb of Tu Duc, the last de facto emperor of Vietnam, is a sprawling place, lying peacefully on the outskirts of Hue. The complex of buildings was completed in 1867, a good sixteen years before his death. Tu Duc passed most of those remaining years loafing around the place; hunting, fishing, writing poetry, picking flowers and screwing concubines, whilst natural disaster and famine ravaged his empire, by then under French colonial rule.

The extraordinary serenity of this ivory tower belies the brutality with which it was built and the lives lost in its construction. Tu Duc might have had dandyish habits, but he was an evil bastard too. His body doesn't lie here, but in an unknown location in Hue, and the 200 men who interred him there were subsequently beheaded to preserve the secret.

The pristine reflections of the trees in the water suggest two worlds; one real, the other imagined. I'm glad it's raining - the mist and drizzle frame and complement the eeriness and, as I walk about, the line between those two realms blurs. The old concubine's pavilion is as haunting a place as I have been. Ghosts, if I believed in them, would skitter across the lake.

Tu Duc's life was wrought with contradictions. He was well aware of his failings as an Emperor, and castigated himself by renouncing hunting (!), penning self-critical verse and beseeching forgiveness at the ancestral altar. He felt cursed too, rendered sterile by smallpox, heirless and unloved. The torment of his soul permeates this strange, beautiful place, where sadness smiles and joy weeps.

Maybe that's why it won't stop bloody raining.