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May 01, 2004

High altitude deserts - Lhasa to Zhangmu

Tibetan toilets are legendary among travellers, and as we found out, they deserve to be. They reach levels of filth, stinkiness, discomfort and/or simple bad plumbing that are seen in few other places in the world. During long days of driving in Land Cruisers over dusty, bumpy roads, the members of the tour group started to bond by swapping the inevitable toilet stories. Jeanette had managed to drop her toilet roll into the hole while in mid-squat, and to prevent it blocking up the primitive plumbing system had selflessly stuck her hand down into the mire to retrieve it; Gwen's problem was with a powerful but mis-directed flushing mechanism, that propelled the toilet's contents up out of the pan, under the door, and across the bathroom floor; Bob, who stands well over six feet tall, complained that to use a squat toilet he had to assume a posture similar to that of a giraffe bending down to drink. Most of our toilet stops, however, were out in the open, in the bracing air of the mountains. High altitude causes the body to become dehydrated, and we were all drinking huge quantities of water - three litres a day or more - to try and stave off the effects of altitude sickness. Barely an hour went by without one or more of the Land Cruisers making a comfort stop; the boys would line up with their backs to the road, the girls would try to find a secluded spot behind a gravel mound or small hill. Usually it turned out to be less secluded than they thought, to the entertainment of the passing Chinese truck drivers.

Continue reading "High altitude deserts - Lhasa to Zhangmu"

Posted by Steve at 07:12 AM
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April 29, 2004


"For many years the 14th Dalai Lama and his 'government-in-exile' have been distorting the policy for Tibet followed by the Central Government." The seat-back magazine, "China's Tibet", on the flight from Chengdu to Lhasa, went on to bombard the reader with numbers and statistics: the mileage of new roads built in the Tibet Autonomous Region; the increase in GDP; grain production tonnages; the sums of money spent on new TV and radio broadcast facilities. There was an article about the jail in Lhasa's old town where, before the "liberation" of Tibet, prisoners suffered horrendous tortures, all of which were approved by the Dalai Lama; another showcased the improvement in the lives of Tibetan nomads, who now live in cosy houses instead of their flimsy old tents; a historical feature traced China's rule over Tibet back to antiquity, finding many precedents and justifications for the current occupation. Criticisms of China's policy towards Tibet from "splittist factions" were "obviously lies". I was sure that it wasn't just the gloopy bowl of rice congee I'd had for breakfast that was making me feel slightly nauseous.

Continue reading "Lhasa"

Posted by Steve at 10:25 AM
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April 01, 2004

Random walks around Thailand

The popular backpackers' route from Luang Phabang to the Thai border is a two-day slow-boat journey up the river. This was the way I'd originally intended to cross from Laos to Thailand, but by the time I returned to Luang Phabang from Phonsavan (and the Plain of Jars) I had already taken so many boat rides, and so many long bus journeys that I just couldn't face the prospect of another two days sitting around on deck. So I decided to splash out a bit, and treated myself to a flight to Chiang Mai. I had finished the Indochina Loop, the classic "Gringo Trail" through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos that I had started in Hanoi last December, and now I had a few weeks to play about with until my flight to China in early April.

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Posted by Steve at 11:36 AM
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March 02, 2004

Muang Ngoi and Phonsavan

The debris of the Vietnam war is scattered all over Laos. When I walked up the river bank from the boat landing in Muang Ngoi, I was welcomed by a great big bomb, sitting with its tail fins sticking up in the air, in the garden of a restaurant. Along the main street, sections of bomb casing were being used as fence posts, or laid on the ground and filled with soil to make plant pots. At first I was surprised that bomb remnants should look so undamaged - but then realised that these were cluster bomb casings, which split apart while the bomb is falling. The casing falls to earth intact, while the hundreds of explosive mini-bombs, bombis, BLU's (Bomb Light Units), or whatever they're called, are scattered over a wide area. Some of them still lie unexploded in the fields around Muang Ngoi, and when I walked to nearby villages I saw many posters warning the residents of the dangers of picking them up. Despite the warnings, of course, there are still casualties.

Continue reading "Muang Ngoi and Phonsavan"

Posted by Steve at 06:33 AM
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February 25, 2004

Carry on up the Mekong - Phnom Penh to Luang Phabang

From Phnom Penh, I followed the course of the Mekong river north, and the scenery became more beautiful the farther I went. My first stop was Kratie, where I hired a boat to take me out into the middle of the river to see the famous freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins, which live in the waters around Kampi, a few kilometres outside town, and in very few other places in the world. I was only expecting to see a few of them, if I was lucky, but when the boat driver turned off the engine and let the boat drift with the current, they were easy to spot. Sometimes just one or two, sometimes pods of five or six all surfacing together. The number of dolphins has dropped in recent years, but the efforts of an Australian conservation group, and the fact that the dolphins are a tourist attraction, might just be enough to protect them. The next day I sat on the roof of a large, crowded boat for the trip upriver to Stung Treng, and for the final stretch to the Lao border, I squeezed myself into a tiny speedboat, with only four or five other tourists. We bounced along the water at what seemed like an enormous speed, as the driver dodged around rocks and floating branches. Along the river bank, and on sandbars in the middle of the river, the trees that are partly submerged during the wet season stood high and dry - their roots and branches bent and trailed away in the direction of the current, as if they were frozen in time during a violent storm. After about an hour we reached the immigration post, and crossed over into Laos.

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Posted by Steve at 07:32 AM
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February 02, 2004

Angkor Wat and the Killing Fields

It was only on my third or fourth day at the temples of Angkor Wat that I started to appreciate how they are more than just a tourist attraction - they are at the heart of Cambodian national pride and identity. The level of technological skill and organisational ability required to construct the city of Angkor is evidence of the level of advancement of the ancient Khmner civilisation - according to contemporary accounts (from around the 13th century), Angkor was one of the most magnificent cities in the world. Today, walking around the ruins, it becomes easy to understand why the modern Cambodians draw a sense of prestige from the fact that they are the descendents of a great people. And what also starts to become clear is the degree of dislocation and devastation that must have been felt when the Khmer Rouge came to power and declared "Year Zero": history was dead, everything that went before was to be destroyed. The past was forbidden.

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Posted by Steve at 03:40 AM
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January 20, 2004

Ho Chi Minh City

Just when you think that the traffic in Ho Chi Minh city can't possibly get any crazier, there's Cholon. The city's Chinatown, Cholon has all of the noise, crowds and chaos that you find in the other districts - but intensified, concentrated, as if a whole metropolis has been compressed into an impossibly small space. At its heart is the central market building, surrounded by a network of narrow roads containing countless street stalls. Here, the workings of the city's commercial life are stripped bare and exposed on the streets; everyone is buying, selling, bargaining, transporting goods from one place to another. Around the market, motorbikes swarm through the streets and become trapped in narrow bottlenecks. Competing with them for space are tuk-tuks, cyclos, the occasional car, and bicycles garlanded with trussed-up live chickens and ducks. The noise is overwhelming, the smell worse; the exhaust fumes combine with the odours from the market: slabs of raw liver, dried shrimp, fish sauce, drying meat, and the piles of rotting vegetable scraps on the ground. If the stench doesn't ruin your appetite, there are plenty of food vendors around, some of which operate a beautifully efficient "production line" approach. At the end of the line, the vendor serves up plates of fried rice with duck; to the left is a dead duck being chopped up on a slab; further on is a whole dead duck in a pot of boiling water, about to be plucked; and live ducks sit at the other end of the line, looking completely oblivious to what is going on next to them.

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Posted by Steve at 06:29 AM
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January 10, 2004


South of Hoi An the Open Tour bus route separates into two branches, one continuing down the coast, the other heading inland. I took the latter, up into the central highlands to Dalat. During the French colonial days, Dalat was portrayed as something like an alpine resort, with pine forests, clear lakes, and a refreshingly cool climate. The villas of French administrators and officials can still be seen around the town, although today most of them are owned by the Vietnamese Communist party. In the Dalat Palace Hotel, vintage advertising posters from the 1920's and 30's offer the discerning traveller a piece of Europe in the heart of Indochina, with golf courses, cable cars, and fine food and wine.

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Posted by Steve at 02:26 PM
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January 04, 2004

Hanoi to Hoi An

To reach the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, you take a cyclo from the centre of Hanoi, past government buildings and a statue of Lenin, to the main entrance of the compound. You buy your ticket and leave your bags at the office, but are allowed to keep hold of your cameras and valuables. You are led into a waiting room where a video about Ho's life is playing; it's in Vietnamese, but you can guess at what the voiceover is saying. A guard calls out, and everyone in the waiting room files along to another booth where you leave your camera. The guards usher people into a neat line. You wonder how many more stages you need to pass through before you get to the man himself, and for some reason are reminded of going to visit Santa's grotto in a department store when you were a kid. Eventually, you enter the inner sanctum, and file past Uncle Ho in his glass case, remembering to keep your hands out of your pockets and to maintain a suitably reverential demeanor. You wonder whether it's really him in the box, or, as some suspect, a waxwork. You emerge from the gloom of the interior into the glaring sunlight that beats down on the parade ground outside, and look back at the mausoleum - a monolithic block of cold grey marble. As your eyes adjust to the brightness you recall television pictures of massed ranks of rocket launchers and armoured cars strutting past during the May Day parades. Or was that Red Square?

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Posted by Steve at 09:44 AM
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December 13, 2003


Tuan, our guide, chartered a clunky Russian jeep to take us a few kilometres out of Sapa to the starting point of the trek. Despite his earlier reassurances, the trails down to Ban Ho village were treacherous. Going down was not so bad at first, once I had become accustomed to falling over and getting covered in mud. But when the descent got steeper it became as slippery as a ski slope, and I had the same problem as any novice skier: there was no way to stop a slide once it had started. Soon the inevitable happened, and after yet another slip I found myself skidding and bouncing uncontrollably down the hill on my arse. It actually felt quite good - it took a lot less energy than walking, and I didn't have to worry about falling over any more. I was getting muddy, but I was muddy already. Just occasionally I needed to put a foot to the right or left to keep me on course, but after a while I started to sit back and enjoy the ride. The sky was misty and grey, but I could still see across the valley to the terraced paddy-fields on the far side, and down to the river below. The river was getting closer. More accurately, a ledge was getting closer, beyond which was a drop into the river. I half-thought about letting myself go over the edge - at least the water would clean off some of the mud - but came to my senses in time and by grabbing hold of bushes and clumps of grass managed to stop the slide just short of the ledge. I walked the rest of the way down to the river without a single slip, and felt sure that the worst must be over.

Continue reading "Sapa"

Posted by Steve at 10:31 AM
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