Monday, 21 May 2012

This is my life

When you travel for an extended period of time, you do a surprising amount of mundane things.  When spending hours and hours on uncomfortable journeys or wondering when there will be a clean room with hot water again, you can forget why this travelling lark was such a great idea.  But then suddenly you realise that you are having one of those "Wow, this is my life and I'm living it!" moments.  Some are high-adrenalin but others are more contemplative.  As a conclusion to my trip, here are some of the selected highlights of when I sat back, grinned and thought... "Yes, this is why I'm here".

  • Arriving into Istanbul by train, the Bosphorus glistening in the early morning sunshine.
  • Exploring Syrrhus archeological site in northern Syria - just me, John, our driver and a French archaeologist
  • The locals' hamam in Damascus -  the building was 800 years old and no English was spoken
  • Enjoying the silence and solitude of the hiking trails of the Dana National Reserve in Jordan
  • Spending an hour with the Sabyinyo gorilla family in Rwanda
  • Serengeti Balloon ride, lying waiting for the balloon to tip upright and take off
  • Driving through the early evening sunshine in the Serengeti, head out of the top of the jeep scanning the "endless plains"
  • Helicopter ride (front seat) over Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
  • Okavango Delta, Botswana - being poled through the reeds on a hot day
  • Listening to the lions roaring at night at the campsite waterhole in Etosha National Park, Namibia
  • Standing at the Cape of Good Hope - the south-western most point of Africa and a long way from London
  • Eating fresh fish and drinking cold beer all afternoon at the fish market in Maputo, Mozambique
  • Attempting, and failing, to cross the Lowari pass (northern Pakistan) by jeep in the dark, due to landslides.
  • Stepping off the side of the hill at Sarangkot to (tandem!) paraglide above Pokhara, Nepal
  • Enjoying the majesty of the Himalayas, in particular the Annapurna mountain range from the viewpoint just below Poon Hill
  • Lying in the meditation room at Sadhana Yoga, watching the paragliders against the deep blue sky
  • Gazing at Mount Everest on the overland journey (Friendship Highway) from Kathmandu to Lhasa
  • Idling away my time on Koh Rong island off the Cambodian coast.  Swim, eat, read, snooze, swim, read, eat, take a stroll, swim, beer, eat, play cards, sleep...
  • The wind in my hair on the back of an Easy Rider motorbike for five days from Dalat to Danang, Vietnam
  • Crossing the Gokteik Viaduct in northern Burma; standing at the open door at the end of the carriage
  • Watching the sunset from the top of the ferry while travelling down the Irrawaddy River from Katha to Mandalay
  • Pathein to Chaung Tha in Burma - sitting in the front seat of the bus watching chickens being  thrown up to an empty wicker basket
  • Watching the leopardess teach her cubs to hunt a wild boar in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka
  • Enjoying the view from Ella's Rock over the tea plantations in Ella, Sri Lanka after the long tough climb.
  • Watching the fishermen haul in their catch on Uppuveli Beach (near Trincomalee, Sri Lanka), with a cold beer in hand

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Idling Irrawaddy Days

“Arrive Wednesday 5pm” was as much English as the man at the ferry ticket office was willing to offer.  For $7 this seemed like a bargain.  Laden with our new blankets and plastic floor mats (local bamboo appears to have gone out of fashion and has been replaced by Thai imports), we boarded our ferry for the three day/two night “cruise” from Katha to Mandalay.  The first task at hand was to secure our spot on deck.  At first, the crew wanted to ignore our deck tickets and install us in a cabin but we insisted and were led up to the main deck.  The whole purpose of the trip was to live amongst the locals and watch the world go by on the banks of the Irrawaddy.  We hadn’t realised though, that as far as the locals were concerned, we were the entertainment…

These government ferries run several times a week.  An “express” had left that morning which would only take two days and one night but we were on the slow boat.  They carry passengers and a lot of produce along the Irrawaddy, on a route which is ill-served by buses or other forms of transport.  The ferry had spent all afternoon in port loading goods onto the lower deck.  One of the crew led us to the corner of the main deck and offered us a raised wooden frame.  With its excellent vantage point, we snapped it up and settled into our new home.  A lady soon came to see us and, with her small amount of English, informed us that she ran the kitchen selling rice and noodle dishes.  Perfect!

We had hoped to be the only foreigners on board but in the end were joined by two Germans, an Austrian and an Australian.  They were instructed to take up position on the floor near us.  It makes the staring game a lot easier if all the foreigners sit together…  As they were far less prepared than us, the captain’s wife went off and found some old mats for them to use.

We departed from Katha just after 5pm, in time to enjoy our first sunset on board.  We didn’t go far before we stopped to collect more people and goods and this carried on until the early hours, finally anchoring around 1am.  After a hearty meal of vegetable fried rice, we curled up in our sleep sheets and blankets.  We enjoyed some interaction with the locals, discussing where we were all going to and coming from, taking their photos and the local face paint “tanakha” was brought out for Lynn to try.  Our neighbours were two lovely giggling ladies and two very fashionable boys in their early twenties.  The boys would have fitted right in in Soho or the East Village: white jeans, blue jeans, skinny shorts with tartan rim, a selection of belts, ripped t-shirts, winklepicker boots... and the occasional longyi.  For the rest of the trip, they changed outfits at least five times a day. 

The thick blankets performed admirably in the cold of the night, so much so that we missed the loading of three large wooden benches and the arrival of a lot more people onto the main deck.  It didn’t take long in the morning for the locals to realise that these lovely wooden benches were a perfect viewing position in the “stare and laugh at the foreigners” game.  As everything we did caused great amusement, it seemed only right to provide as much entertainment as possible.  Rather than going and sitting in the kitchen area, I brought our breakfast of rice with nuts and tea leaf salad back to the bed along with a flask of tea.  Stepping up onto our bed and over the flask caused the audience to collapse in hysterics.

Although very misty, we set sail around 8.30am but by 10am we had stopped again.  We were beginning to fully understand why this was referred to as the slow boat.  To enjoy this journey, you really must be able to switch off from any sense of time and sit back and absorb the sights around you.  A few good books help too…

In the end the loading at this stop took four hours and the porters’ work was back-breaking.  A group of very lean men set about loading ~50 oil drums onto the bottom deck.  Each one required the guidance of two men down a wooden plank.  The oil drum was definitely in charge, the men there to do their best to guide the drum onto the ferry.  A huge thud was heard each time a drum landed on board.  A bamboo pole was then inserted into the two handles on top of the drum, placed onto the shoulders of two men and lifted into its storage position.  Hundreds of big bags of rice followed along with other sundries – bananas, wooden planks.  The sand on the bank deteriorated with each load and remedial work had to be continually carried out to prevent a landslide.  Fascinating viewing.

Late afternoon we stopped at a busy small town where some of our new friends left us.  As we pulled in alongside a very similar ferry, we spotted two fellow travellers, Kristiaan and Klaus, who we had met in Katha.  They had been due to remain in Katha for another couple of days but it turned out that an “express” had left that morning and they had both decided to jump on board.  We were a little amused that they had left only that morning and had still reached this town ahead of us.  We only unloaded a small amount of produce at this stop and were soon on our way again.  After a beautiful sunset and another vegetable fried rice for dinner (we had mimed for plain rice and vegetables…oh well), we were ready for bed at 6.05pm.  The boat continued to stop and load more produce and people until midnight.  Sometimes we would simply anchor in the middle of the river and a small boat would pull up alongside and pass over their produce.

The 2nd night was much warmer than the first and we woke to a beautiful sunny morning.  The boat set off by 8am and we seemed to be making excellent progress.  This progress was suddenly halted mid morning when we had to stop and provide assistance to the “express” boat which had become stuck on a sandbank in the middle of the river.  The captains spoke for a couple of hours by radio and in the end we moved slowly around them, seemingly creating sufficient agitation in the water and sand to free them.  I will admit that it was a little upsetting to see them steam past us about an hour laterJ.  Kristiaan and Klaus waved.

We had been due to arrive into port in Mandalay that afternoon at around 5pm but it became clear as the afternoon progressed, and we continued to stop at every small village, that another night on board was likely.  Our friends (the fashion victims) told us that we would likely arrive into Mandalay at around 9am the next morning.  A brief “but I really need a shower*, preferably hot” moment was solved by watching sunset from the top of the boat.  Those foreigners without cosy blankets looked like they might cry whilst we smugly considered the extra cost benefit from another night of usage.

We were much reduced in passenger numbers by now as we had been unloading people all afternoon, often just onto a random section of isolated beach.  Come nightfall, the wooden benches reached their destination and our audience had to find new positions for monitoring our funny foreign habits.  There was quite a party atmosphere as everyone on our side of the boat had been together for several days.  A much quieter night ensued though as we were no longer loading people or goods.

Of course we didn’t arrive into Mandalay at 9am but at 1pm!  We donated our blankets and mats to those who looked like they needed them more than us and enjoyed one last meal from the kitchen.  With so much more room on deck, we played with the cook’s young children and some of the shyer teenagers suddenly discovered a love of posing for the camera.  After four days, it felt sad to disembark.  If you would like time to stand still for a short time, there is little better to recommend than the slow boat from Katha to Mandalay.  It is helpful in Burma to remember that for much of the country (unlike the developed cities of Rangoon and Mandalay), small scale agriculture is the way of life.  All you see along the banks of the river are farms and pagodas.  Boats of all shapes and sizes chug up and down the river, creating connections.

We decided to walk the hour into town to re-introduce a sense of exercise into our lives, slightly annoying the trishaw drivers at the port.  About halfway into town, a trishaw driver approached me to see if we needed a ride.  “No thank you,” I said, “we’re walking”.  “Have you just come off the Katha boat?” he asked, before cycling off laughing.  When we later bumped into Kristiaan for a beer, we were happy to discover that the “express” ferry had in fact only reach Mandalay one hour before we did!  Not so fast after all; exactly as it should be.

* I would like to note that whilst the foreigners may not have showered for four days, all the locals took a wash each day in the river using their longyi for discretion.

Irrawaddy / Ayeyarwaddy = same same

An accidental day trip to Kachin State

“It’ll be here in an hour – this is Myanmar!” the nice man had exclaimed when I wondered when our train might arrive.  I laughed, “It’s really not so different in England!”  We boarded the 4.30pm train from Mandalay to Katha just over an hour late.  Upper Class was not quite so “upper” on this train, which was a shame as the journey to Naba (for Katha) was overnight.  Nevertheless, in preparation for our ferry journey back to Mandalay, we had new blankets so warmth would not be an issue.  Despite the lack of reclining seats, we consoled ourselves by ordering from the menu: our dinner would be delivered directly to us in our seats (playing safe with vegetable fried rice).  We could even buy beer.

The experience was quite different to the ‘Mandalay – Hsipaw’ line.  The carriage was full of vendors moving up and down filling the air with the call for their wares, nuns were collecting alms and we no longer had an attentive conductor keen to ensure our comfort.  The train progressed very bumpily through the pitch black night – only an occasional farmer’s roaring fire was visible.  The uncomfortable nature of the seating meant that the night passed very slowly.  Finally sitting up at 6.50am (just before our scheduled arrival time), I figured we had at least another hour to go (due to the late departure) but maybe longer as the train had stopped for long periods in the night.  When I enquired of some of our fellow passengers, they said “Naba?  About another three hours”.

This train journey was supposed to be uneventful and simply the easiest way to travel to Katha.  Unlike the Hsipaw train, we would be travelling mainly in the dark.  However, an unheard of event (Myanmar Railways making up time) changed the course of our day.  It turned out that we had arrived at and left Naba earlier than planned.  The conductor had not thought to point this out (perhaps because, the night before, we had seen no reason why he should move us to inferior seats so that a man in black velvet flipflops could have ours).  I perhaps should have guessed some time later when one of the vendors on the train insisted on giving me a “Kachin State” breakfast – coconut rice steamed in a bamboo pole (yummie!).  After 60 years of conflict, the Kachin State army had signed a ceasefire with the Burmese government earlier in the week – we were not supposed to be in Kachin State*…

Weary with so little sleep, we ordered breakfast and went back to our books, very keen for the train journey to be over.  Finally, 3 ½ hours later, we were told that we had arrived at Naba and we should disembark.  Climbing down onto the platform, something seemed not quite right.  For a start, the station sign read “Namma”.  A keen motorbike driver wanted to take us somewhere for 1000 kyat but there were blank faces when we mentioned ‘bus’ & ‘Katha’.  No-one spoke much English but everyone wanted to help!  A lot of life takes place at railway stations and there were plenty of people milling around, not seemingly intending to travel anywhere.  We had just livened up their Sunday.

Our train now long departed, it was eventually understood that we wanted Naba, not Namma, and everyone pointed back in the direction from where we had come.  We were escorted to station master’s office, sat down in the VIP waiting area, and the situation explained.  The station master (who had a good smattering of English) scratched his head and went into his office to start making calls.  The local military guard (in a hoodie) looked at us in a bemused way.  It was beginning to dawn on us that we were over 3 hours into Kachin State, possibly four hours beyond our original destination.

Our original platform helpers hung around to stare and smile at the funny white people.  Suddenly, plates were brought in and a variety of nuts and sunflower seeds laid out for us!  The high school English teacher was summoned to the station to act as translator.  He said not to worry; the station master would sort everything out for us.  To be honest, we weren’t worried at all, we thought the whole thing really rather amusing.  I could see the anecdote unfolding before my eyes.  In the meantime, some cakes arrived for our pleasure.

Fortunately, one daytime stopping train goes back down from Myitkyina to Mandalay each day and it was due in 1 ½ hours.  There was an earlier express train that came through but they didn’t stop that for us J  I did wonder at one point!  The school teacher was very kind but did keep telling us that it was not safe for us to be there.  We were to remain in the VIP waiting area until the train arrived.  Word of our presence went round the village and one by one, the villages came to stare and giggle at us from the door.  As the school teacher told us, “You are very strange looking to them.  We never see foreigners here.”

Not unpredictably in Burma, our passports** were requested, but amusingly all they wrote down was: Rooney/Liverpool, Shaffer/Texas.  This led to the obligatory football conversation.  The military man then gave the school teacher questions to ask us to ascertain why we were here and did our “got off the train at the wrong stop” story add up.  Journalists and NGO workers are not well loved by the Burmese authorities.  I saw the school teacher write two questions down in the exercise book he was given.  He looked uncomfortable so I steered the conversation to answer the questions – “What was our purpose in Burma?”, “Where are their cases?”  Efficiently, we had left our main rucksacks in Mandalay as they would be superfluous on the ferry.  As such, we were only carrying a small day pack each and two very large blanket bags!

We pulled out our itinerary (scribbled on a sheet of paper) and Burma guide book.  The station master took the guide book away and took a long look through – we were never sure if this was simple curiosity or if he was looking for something more sinister?!  Our military friend watched over his shoulder.  We discussed our route around Burma and in the end this all seemed enough to convince them that we were simply travellers trying to get to Katha.

Afterwards, the military guard gave the school teacher permission to take us outside the train station into the village’s main square.  Hearing of our plight, one of the food vendors had decided that she would like to meet us and present us with some complimentary special Kachin State food: she cooked us up some banana fritters and fried dough rings with a molasses sauce on the side.  We took them back to the waiting room to enjoy on the train (due any minute now).

The lovely school teacher remained with us, occasionally shaking his head and telling us that it was not safe for us to travel in this region.  I asked if he was able to travel around the area (his home town was 10 miles away) but in the presence of the military guard, I had obviously asked the wrong question.  He lowered his eyes and we quickly changed the subject.  An hour late, the “down” train arrived.  Shortly before it arrived, our military man disappeared, changed out of his hoodie and reappeared on the platform in his full uniform carrying a large gun.  Along with four more junior soldiers, they stood on each side of the track awaiting the train.  We wondered if this happened for all trains but realised that we hadn’t seen this when our original train had arrived.

As the train pulled in, we were requested to remain in the VIP seating area whilst the station master went off to view our seats and speak to the conductor (we were not charged a new fare).  We were happy to travel back in standard class (hard upright wooden seats) but the station master deemed this unsuitable for foreigners and secured the last two Upper Class seats for us (nice reclining airline seats again).  As we were escorted onto the train, a prisoner was escorted off the train by the five armed military guards.

There was no way we would be allowed to miss our station again and so four hours later when we arrived back into Naba, the friendly conductor came to make sure that we did indeed disembark.  He enjoyed telling the story to a few of the local passengers and they all laughed heartily at our expense.  We smiled and shrugged our shoulders as we waved goodbye.  Once off the train at the right stop, travelling to Katha is really easy peasy.  A bus awaits each train and for a few pence, it transports you the 16 miles to Katha in a just under an hour!  We arrived in the dark and once we had picked from the two guesthouses in Katha which accept foreigners, there was nothing to do but enjoy beer and noodles from the night market.  All the locals were very excited about the big game on TV that evening (Arsenal vs Man Utd) but we simply needed a very good night’s sleep.

Katha itself is a very sleepy place.  It has no internet connection and sees maybe 20-30 tourists each week in the high season.  Life revolves around the markets and the arrivals and departures of the government ferries which come and go various times each week.  To foreigners, it is most famous as being the place where George Orwell was stationed with the British army and on which he based his book ‘Burmese Days’.  The following morning, we wandered around and checked out old the British Officer’s Club, the Tennis Club next door and what we think was Joss’ house.

After this quick tour, we purchased floor mats for the ferry as we had heard that it gets very cold sleeping on the deck.  Added to the lovely big blankets we had bought in Mandalay, we predicted that we would be toasty!  Shopping completed, we retired to a riverside beer station to while away the time until the ferry’s departure at 5pm.  We had an excellent vantage point for watching the locals come to bathe in their longyis in the river and the water taxis load and unload continual streams of passengers and motorbikes.
Finally the loading of our ferry was complete, we were nicely relaxed and it was time to drift off down river.

* Tourists are allowed to travel by train into the Kachin State, but only to disembark at Myitkyina (approx another six hours from Namma).  Once you arrive in Myitkina, you are forbidden to travel on anywhere else and buses will not let you board.  The only way back out is the long train journey back to Katha/Mandalay!

** In Burma, each foreigner has to be registered each evening at the local immigration service.  Only licensed hotels can accept foreigners and they must send over an updated guest list each night.

The “131 Up”: Mandalay to Hsipaw

The 3am wake-up was brutal.  It felt even worse when we realised that the hotel had not booked us a taxi to the train station as requested.  The night porter suggested we walk a couple of blocks and we would find one.  Really?  At 3.15am?  Inevitably we ended up walking the 30 minutes to the station through the empty streets of Mandalay.

As we got closer to the station, we started to see signs of life.  What is less visible during waking hours is just how many people live on the streets on the ramp leading up to the station and on the station platforms themselves.  During the day, this is camouflaged by market vendors outside the station and travellers on the platforms.

We boarded our train and in no time were buying onion and potato bhajis through the window of our “Upper Class” carriage.  The carriage was fairly comfortable and kitted out with business class seats from a long-ago refitted aircraft.  The reclining seats still had the foot rests attached to the back and the trays in the arms.  Despite the bad press for Myanmar Railways departure times, the "131 Up" left Mandalay just after 4am, heading out into the darkness.  Our carriage was very quiet as all the locals curled up on the seats under the blankets they had thoughtfully brought with them.  As the windows were all open, it was chilly.  Just before departure a 40 year old monk jumped on board and couldn’t resist the idea of sitting next to me for a chat.

While the rest of the carriage slept, he talked to us about his 15 years in a monastery in Thailand and then read our palms (I’m guaranteed a long life apparently).  As Lynn drifted off to sleep in the seat opposite, the monk informed me of his preference for foreign women over Burmese women.  I might have felt more disposed towards him if he hadn’t stood up every ten minutes to lean over me and spit red betel juice out of the window.  I was keen now to enjoy a little snooze myself but first I had to make clear to my new friend that he couldn’t curl up on my shoulder to go to sleep.

At 8am we pulled into Pyin Oo Lwin (an old British hill station), our monk said his farewells and there was an influx of eight foreigners of varying nationalities (8am being a far more civilised time to join a train!).  We munched on the delicious red rice and chick pea stew that a silent monk had presented to us whilst contemplating the day ahead and the crossing of the Gokteik Viaduct.  The train line we were on was built by the British a long time ago.  When faced with an impossible valley to cross, they simply commissioned the Pennsylvanian Steel Company to build the world’s second highest railway viaduct.  Built in 1901, this viaduct has remained in service ever since despite having only received some “remedial work” in the 1990s.  I think that the good people of Pennsylvania can be very proud at this feat of engineering.

We made our way slowly up through the glorious countryside, enjoying the life along the tracks: the endless neat vegetable patches, the golden wheat fields, the pagodas and the children waving as the train went by…  This is the slow life: the 131 miles from Mandalay to Hsipaw takes a leisurely 12 hours.  With all the windows open and the sun beating down, you can still work on your tan whilst enjoying the gentle breeze.  The train does rock a lot and you do wonder if you are going to get thrown off the track but in the end, you just get thrown out of your seat from time to time!  The answer is to just relax and enjoy the slightly fairground nature of the journey.

The train conductor was very proud of the Upper Class carriage and kept it spotless as passengers came and went.  This is a man in tune with his foreign passengers – they are on this train to cross the Gokteik Viaduct.  For the ten to fifteen minutes before arriving at the Gokteik Viaduct, you start to get glimpses of this magnificent structure and I will admit that it does look ever so fragile!  The train pulls into Gokteik station before the crossing in order to change gear.  During the stop, you are encouraged to jump down from the train to take a good look and a few photos.  Our conductor positively insisted that we go through this rite of passage.  Shortly afterwards, we started to crawl across.  We, the foreigners, were captivated whilst the locals mainly read their books or slept.  The conductor gestured to me to follow him and he lead me to the end of the carriage where I could stand at the open door and look straight down – I held on very tight!  This is a truly awesome experience – in the original, not the over-used - sense of the word.  I sat back smiling for the rest of our journey to Hsipaw.

Hsipaw is a small dusty town from where you can trek up to various Palaung villages.  With rented bikes for a day, we roamed around town and then in the mid afternoon headed up to the Sunset Hill to read our books and enjoy the view and the silence.  A monastery lies at the top and shortly after we arrived, a monk came out to see us with a visitor’s book.  We filled in our details but as he walked away, he suddenly spun around: “Rooney?! Manchester United?”  “No, Liverpool!”  He walked away tickled but appeared again ten minutes later with a flask of tea and some glasses.

The next day we trekked up the Palaung village of Pankam with our guide “Mr Bean”.  Here, we stayed with a family in a long house, were invited in for tea by another family, read our books at sunset under the Banyan tree (my Aung Sang Suu Kyi book caused Mr Bean much bafflement) and enjoyed the scandal of a night wedding between a young girl and a previously married man.

Before we knew it, we were back in Hsipaw.  It was early morning again and we were setting off by train to complete the return journey over the Gokteik Viaduct…

Friday, 13 January 2012

Forty Eight Hours in Burma

A handful of observations about Burma, acquired in my first 48 hours:
  • Despite the Western media portrayal, Burma feel s fairly developed.  I was expecting Kathmandu, not six lane highways and clean streets.
  • There are no motorbikes in Rangoon (Yangon)… begging the question, is this really Asia? Normal moto service is resumed in Mandalay.
  • Cars drive on the right but so many of the steering wheels are also on the right… car manufacturing has never caught up with the 1970s overnight road lane switch.
  • In the middle of roads and roundabouts, there is manicured foliage.
  • 75% of all cars are white*
  • Your man on the street does not have a mobile phone… unheard of in even the poorest African country.  SIMs are available for $500-1000. If you get caught out and about and need to make a call, ladies sit with landline phones by the side of the road.
  • Dagon Extra Strong contains 8% alcohol.  I may stick to the Myanmar draft else risk becoming far too animated.
  • Street food rocks; particularly those little butter nutty pancakes, hot out of the pan…
  • I’m legally allowed to go to Hsipaw on the train via the Gokteik Viaduct.  My train hero, Paul Theroux, managed it in 1975 but only with a soldier escort and on the sly.
  • When you turn on the sink tap, water comes out of a hole in the wall onto the floor… ok maybe that’s just our hotel J
  • Burma is proving to be a very friendly place.  Parents encourage their young children to stop what they are doing to say hello to us.  Teenagers think we are hilarious and post-hello, disappear off giggling.
  • When away from the tourist streets, everyone has a smile and a hello for us.  One man walking past simply said “Thank you”.

* Source: Cath Statistics Ltd

Thursday, 5 January 2012

The Dangers of Hoi An

This entry was to be called “Vietnamese Efficiency” but I am writing this from a delayed train J  In defence of the Vietnamese Railways, this is the first of five long distance trains which has left late, and it may yet make up the lost 40 minutes.  The other journeys (9-16 hours) arrived spot on time, or even early.  For all the pick-ups and drop offs we have required throughout Vietnam, everything has gone to plan.

Vietnamese trains have carried me all the way up to 3km short of the Chinese border (Lao Cai for Sapa) and are now whizzing me past empty rice fields back to Saigon.  So many of the countries I have visited this year have been having unseasonal weather (rain during dry season, monsoons carrying on a month beyond normal etc…) and Vietnam has been no exception.  Whilst luck has most definitely not been on our side, we have “enjoyed” thoroughly awful weather!  The phrases “I think it might be brightening up…”, “I see some blue over there in the distance…” have been heard one too many times.

Our schedule has been go-go-go.  From Kep in Cambodia to Phu Quoc island, then up through the Mekong Delta via a home stay in Can Tho and then the craziness of Saigon.  From here to Dalat followed by a five day motorbike journey from Dalat to Danang.  Train up to Hanoi, continuing up to Sapa for Christmas, back to Hanoi and out to Halong Bay before another overnight train bringing us to the Imperial City of Hue and then our New Year four day “low cost chill out” near the beach in the sleepy old-world village of Hoi An.

With the beach only 6km away by £1-a-day bike hire, we dreamed of happy days reading on the pristine sand with the occasional dip into the clear blue ocean… but then the rain started.  This is when life became dangerous for the budget.  There are not too many things to in Hoi An in the rain, apart from… shopping (and cookery courses).  Between personal tailoring, art, and silk lanterns, there are sufficient opportunities to put a severe dent in a girl’s budget.  As this is high season in Vietnam, our train sleepers to Saigon were already booked and couldn’t be changed.  We caved into the dangers of Hoi An.

Three days and six fittings later, I had three new dresses, a pair of trousers and a shirt (at a very reasonable price, thank you J ).  In addition to this rucksack-refresh, I had acquired two leaf paintings and an un-confess-able number of silk lanterns of all shapes, sizes and colours.  As the rucksack needing packing again shortly, a trip to the Post Office was looming.  A recce trip suggested that three month seamail option was surprisingly affordable.

With time to kill on our last morning, we donned our rain coats and boots and headed downstairs to brave the torrential downpour and head up to the Post Office.  For the first time, the hotel manager proved useful and not intent on over-charging us for a service.  If we would like to sit down and wait five minutes, she would call and ask the Post Office staff to come to the hotel and arrange our packages… at no extra cost!  We didn’t quite believe it but sat down and waited.

Quite literally five minutes later, two ladies arrived on a moped, carrying a selection of free boxes and a blue bag with all the requirements for a mini-Post Office.  The blue VNPT rain coat helped to give them away!  Taking a quick look at our purchases they set to work creating boxes in the right shape and size whilst we busied ourselves with the paperwork.  They had a dizzying array of tape guns with them – brown tape to cover the box, blue VNPT-branded tape for the edges and clear tape to cover the address labels.  The magic blue bag also contained a set of metal weighing scales… all very Mary Poppins.

Before long we had paid (they had even brought change in both dollars and dong…) and the two ladies were reloading everything onto their moped (never underestimate what the Vietnamese will load onto their bikes) and our flying Post Office had left.  We sat, slightly bemused, wondering how we would spend the morning now that our main errand had been dealt with so efficiently.  We idled with our books, wallets locked away, not trusting ourselves to venture onto the streets of Hoi An again.  Our boxes had sailed.

"Service with a smile": that'll be my box on the lady's knees at the back...  Lynn's at the front, with the magic blue bag on top of it.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The Art of Idleness

I’m not very good at being idle but it seems like a skill that should be relatively easy to acquire during a year-long sabbatical.  However, nine months in, I realized that I really hadn't spent much time doing “nothing”.  If not engaged in travelling (due to the amount of “bumping” involved in journeying in developing countries, this cannot be considered idle time!) or fitting in lots of sightseeing and activities then one is usually planning ahead and working out where to go next, how to get there, where to stay, how long to stay, what to do and how to do it.  Even when seemingly doing ‘nothing’, my brain is working on a mental to-do list and generally trying to find the answers to the meaning of life (all of them, all at once).

The Oxford English Dictionary gives a couple of good descriptions of ‘idleness’:

“Idleness – a state of inaction; inactivity”
“Idleness – characterized by inaction or absence of significant activity”

I quite like the second one – “significant” being the operative word.  It also offers “laziness; indolence” but I find these to be far too judgemental and derogatory.  In our busier and busier lives, “idleness” seems like a luxury, but one which could allow us to regain control for short periods of time and give the poor old brain a welcome rest.  If meditation isn’t my thing then maybe selective ‘idleness’ can be.

In the beautiful, laid-back and friendly environment of Cambodia, it seemed time to give this a go.  The project started in Sihanoukville but really came into its own on a paradise-style island called Koh Rong.  In my beach bungalow in Sihanoukville, I set myself the task of not doing anything all day (apart from eat and read) and, more significantly, not to feel any guilt.  The experiment went pretty well (the laptop remained largely turned off) but as I didn’t actually like Sihanoukville (some great views but utterly lacking in charm), it wasn’t the place to continue putting the theory into practice.

Koh Rong is an island 30 miles off the coast of Cambodia and takes 2-3 hours by boat, depending on the weather.  It is a small island with a handful of villages, and in the main village there are about 75 local families.  Koh Rong has only had tourist development on it for a couple of years and the four “resorts” are small low- keys affairs aimed at the lower end of the market (bungalows from $15-$45 dollars).  One boat runs back and forwards to the mainland each day, weather depending.  If you arrive without a room reservation and everything is full, there is no way back that day but a couple of enterprising locals have basic guesthouses or one of the expats might find you an unfinished building to sleep in.

Idling seemed to come very naturally for me at Monkey Island resort and my experiment made great strides forward.  I sacrificed an “en-suite” bathroom for a sea front bungalow so that I could lie in my hammock and watch the sea and sky unimpeded by man-made structures.  Life is simple on the island.  There is no mains electricity and the resort’s generator only comes on for lights from dusk until midnight (they use a car battery during the day for the bar/restaurant, recharged in the evening).  With no fan or aircon, you don’t linger long in bed after sunrise and so I quickly settled into a routine beginning with an early morning swim followed by some quality time in my hammock before heading off the 20m to the restaurant for breakfast.

The gentle rhythm of the rest of the day involved mainly swimming, reading, gazing, snoozing, eating (repeatedly, in a variety of orders) as well as watching the local entertainment. In the mornings, the local children would scamper around in the water laughing and splashing and then in the afternoon, a little black dog would practice his favourite game of winding up the water buffalo, resulting in the odd chase up the beach.

I had attempted to idle elsewhere but in the end I concluded that it was easy to idle on the island as the conditions were just right:
1.       Everyone around you is also living in a relaxed manner
2.       The limited decisions required were only based on a couple of options: “Stripy t-shirt or blue sundress over my bikini?”, “Daily squid special or vegetable curry?”, “Breakfast now or swim first?”, “Fresh lime juice or a beer?”, “Stroll to the other lovely beach or just stay here?”, “Read book or gaze out at the view?”
3.       Everything is padlock-able (every traveller worth their salt has an assortment of combination padlocks) and so there is no need to carry a key.
4.       No electricity means no wifi and so any random thoughts worth capturing were jotted down with old-fashioned pen and paper and put aside to be used at a later date (i.e. now)

I enjoyed watching the new backpackers arrive off the boat each afternoon, from the comfort of my hammock.  They would stop along the beach and shake their heads in wonder, gazing at the paradise they had chosen. Often, the water buffalo would be taking his afternoon bathe.  The only thing to do when you arrive is to throw your cossie on and sprint into the clear blue, shallow warm water.  Once they had finished their swims, I would head into the water for my sunset hour bathe.  I don’t think I’ve spent so long in the water since France in early 90s.

In my four days on the Koh Rong, I did manage a challenging jungle hike/climb to the other side of the island to the reward of a magnificent empty beach and a water taxi home.  And, whilst my brain may have been idle of any daily concerns, I have been working my way through this year’s Man Booker short list.  This intellectual pursuit feels like utter luxury and fitted perfectly into the idleness agenda.  With only “The Sisters Brothers” left on the list, I concur with the judges; Julian Barnes' “The Sense of an Ending” is still my favourite.

Returning to the mainland, I worked my way down the coast via Kampot to an eco-retreat/organic farm up among the pepper farms near Kep.  There is plenty to do and see in this area and so it was time for a new type of idling: integrating it into days that also contained significant activity.  Many of the people who come out to the Vine Retreat are expats looking to escape the craziness of Phnom Penh (they quickly become repeat customers).  Whilst I’ve been here, there has been a fascinating mix of people: short & long term travellers, Phnom Penh expats and local NGO workers.  Whilst lying by the pool, I often hear day visitors exclaiming from the balcony, “ooh, c’est magnifique…”.

I instantly felt at home here.  I think that there is something very comforting about leaving your shoes outside on the rack with everyone else’s (guests & staff) and wandering around barefoot.  There are eight simple guest rooms (excellent mattresses and sheets) and two floors full of places to sit and relax – you can choose from the long communal table, hammocks, floor cushions and, my personal favourite, the raised cushioned benches along the outside of the balcony.  These overlook the garden and swimming pool, as well as the local pepper farms and hills, and on a clear day, Vietnam.  While having an aperitif with your book, the resident cat might come and curl up on your lap.

I seem to need time and space for idling and lots of natural light and fresh air.  These are in plentiful supply at the Vine Retreat and again, there is a pleasing lack of choice!  In the evening, you can have their daily set menu (sourced from their organic vegetable garden and fruit trees) and so the only question is, what time would you like it?  It obviously helps that the incredibly friendly staff make your bed every day, serve you lovely healthy food and often pop by with a glass of water and an encouraging word.

Here I have managed to fit in a day trip to Kampot, a visit to the local village & NGO, a tour of the farm and pepper plantation, a good early morning hike up a local hill in addition to hours of interesting conversation with other guests, dips in the pool and yet more reading.  If I make tentative plans then they inevitably change as I go with the flow and take the opportunities that present themselves.  I haven’t felt guilty in days.

So, what is the point of all this idling and have I mastered it?  I’ve definitely improved!  It’s good for the spirit.  If achievable in spurts in a busy city lifestyle, then it has the potential to hand back control.  I think I might need a hammock in London…

Idling photos:

Want to know more about idling?  I recently enjoyed Tom Hodgkinson’s book “How to be Idle” which is described as:
“an antidote to the work-obsessed culture which puts so many obstacles between ourselves and our dreams. Hodgkinson presents us with a laid-back argument for a new contract between routine and chaos, an argument for experiencing life to the full and living in the moment”.