Sunday 6 July 2008

Back in the UK

Some of you may know I returned (as scheduled) to the UK on 11th June. I've been off the radar since then, trying to readjust (not easy) and find a job. Sorry for those of you who may have been waiting for a post. I have quite a lot I still need to cover on the blog and look forward to doing so in the coming weeks.
The last few weeks of my trip in Vietnam, Cambodia and back into Thailand were really great. I met some good people and had a lot of fun and felt it was far more important to get the most out of the time, than sit at a computer, so here I am.
If any of you know of any vacancies in the "little work, for good pay and major holidays sector" please let me know.
Here I am with my nephew and niece, who seem quite pleased to have me home.

Monday 2 June 2008


Jenny and I flew from Vientiene (Laos' capital), Aretha was catching a bus to Bangkok so we parted ways. We arrived quite late in the evening and knew which hotel we wanted to stay at, City Gate. We'd read of a scam in our guidebooks, that sure enough happened. Our driver drove us to a different hotel and had one of his hotel owning friends run out and say "That hotel is full", while pointing at a hotel clearly called Joy Hotel, "but I have a hotel that is even better".
We told him we had a reservation for City Gate, and Jenny pointed out we could read the sign for the Joy Hotel. Without any argument the driver took us to the real City Gate Hotel.
Stepping onto the balcony (yes you get a lot for your $) the following morning to survey the view, I expected to see Pierce Brosnan riding a motorbike handcuffed to a sexy accomplice, chased by bad guys. It looked just like a film set. Tiny, narrow streets, chaotic buildings, strong smells of food and authentic extras everywhere!

Jenny and I took a wander around the Old Quarter. One of Hanoi's most famous attraction's is the Ho Chi Minh Complex, this holds his body (his dying wishes were to be cremated), a museum, his preserved house on stilts and the Presidential Palace. Every year Ho Chi Minh's body is sent to Russia (or is that the Waxwork Museum in Great Yarmouth?) for "work" to be done.

Jenny at the Palace.

The complex has so much protocol, along with the strangest opening hours, it closes at 11am for an extended lunch. Because of the sheer size of the complex it's difficult to see everything in the time allocated.
We filed around the "body" shielded by a glass case, everyone thinking "it's a great likeness, can't possibly be the work of Great Yarmouth. Maybe London?"
There is one of the strangest museums I've ever visited within the complex, of course the Ho Chi Minh Museum. I was hoping to be informed, feeling rather ignorant about the man himself, but instead found baffling exhibits such as an artist's representation of Ho Chi Minh's brain, a giant bowl of fruit on a table levered onto two legs and many photographs of middle aged Vietnamese citizens holding get togethers overseas.

A representation of Ho Chi Minh's brain, of course...


Vietnam is famed for it's water puppetry shows, by who I'm not sure. We went to see an evening show. On the stage in front of us was a small pool of water, framed by a wooden set and to the left a small orchestra. The show began with some traditional music, including a zither and then one very small, old looking puppet, with paint flecks hanging precariously on, appeared in the water.
Jenny and I shot each other nervous glances, "we paid how much for this?"
In fact it was pretty good, it was all in Vietnamese so I have no idea what was going on, but it involved dragons, fire, fishermen, turtles and swords. At just over 40 minutes it was the perfect length.

Friday 30 May 2008

Vang Vieng and a tale of tubing

Laos really has some of the best place names. Vang Vieng is a tiny travellers hangout. There is no significant cultural reason to visit the town. It has grown as an important stop on any backpackers tour of South East Asia because of one thing, tubing. I'm not sure how this started out, but Vang Vieng is beside a river and someone decided what better way to spend a day than floating on a giant inner tube, stopping at makeshift bars along the way, eventually arriving back in the small, welcoming town of Vang Vieng.
I met a girl from Warrington Jenny (again not far from my hometown), on the bus from Luang Prabang, so myself Jenny and Aretha all checked into a hotel together. I was glad to have such great company, I don't think Vang Vieng would be any fun on your own. Sarah and Jodi (who I originally met on the cookery course in Chiang Mai) where already in town, so we arranged to go tubing together. We also managed to meet up with three Irish girls Aretha had been travelling with.
First though we had a day relaxing. Vang Vieng is famed for its restaurants and bars that show episodes of Friends, continually. You can walk down the small main street and hear any character from any number of episodes sprouting dialogue. Yes it gets annoying after a while. Thankfully we found a restaurant showing Family Guy (Kev - I take back what I said, I see why you like it so much) and settled in for the night.
The Lonely Planet's advice for tubing is simple, don't get off your head and you'll be okay. I like that simple, concise advice.

The view from the back of our hotel.

We were all concerned when we were assigned numbers, which where then drawn onto our hands. Was this to identify us when our bodies were dragged from the river?

Numbered and ready to go, if a little nervous...

We set off in a tuk-tuk, Sarah and I volunteered to hang onto the back, as it looked like fun.

Holding on to the tuk-tuk with my giant arm!

Standing (l-r) Jodi and Sarah, sitting (l-r) Jenny and Aretha - all ready to go.

The river looked quite fast moving, but once your on the tube you realise it isn't and by the end of the day it couldn't have felt slower. The river isn't very deep, as the wet season hasn't kicked off yet.
As well as bars along the river, there are also huge rope swings and platforms to jump off.
We had a really good day, but found the last bar is just too bar from town, we floated (very slowly) for about minutes before we reached the end. There must be about bars, but as no maps are provided it's hard to know when to stop. Towards the end, without any bars or music is possible to appreciate some of the amazing scenery, it reminded me of Peru, mountainous and green.
Vang Vieng also has a lot of bucket bars, they inventively sell buckets of alcohol. I had a great time in Vang Vieng and it was largely due to the people I spent my time with.

Back on dry ground

Luang Prabang, Laos

Laos is the most heavily bombed country in history and yet arriving in the UNESCO protected city of Luang Prabang it was hard to believe. It's a tiny place, with a handicraft market taking up most of the centre each night, yet without the frenzy of a Thai market. There are plenty of tourists, yet it feels so laid back. In S.E. Asia Laos has a reputation as being quite a lazy nation, if something isn't fun they don't see why you should do it.
Luang Prabang is bordered by the Nam Song and the Mekong rivers, it's streets are lined with colonial buildings, vintage cars and Buddhist monks.
While in Luang Prabang I bumped into Aretha (who I originally met in Thailand) we would end up travelling through Laos together, with others we met on the way. It was a lot of fun.
My time in Luang Prabang was chilled out, wandering through the market and visiting temples with great views of the city.

Views from the top of Luang Prabang out towards the Nam Song river.

Dinner on the Mekong at Sunset

Luang Prabang street scene

Thursday 29 May 2008

Elephant Foundation

I made a visit to the Elephant Foundation, outside Chiang Mai, after Jesse told me it was a really great place. I had thought it was a little expensive, compared with other day activities, but I was soon to learn it would be the best 2,500 Baht I would spend in Thailand.
Lek (Thai for tiny) is a diminutive woman as the name suggests. She grew up in a hill tribe and when she was 5, her grandfather was paid for some work in Elephant. Yes that was one live, fully grown Elephant. He gave his granddaughter the Elephant as a gift, as all good grandfathers do. Lek looked after the Elephant and learned how to take care of it. She developed a keen interest in Elephants. They are an important part of Thai culture and their image is revered countrywide. However for a long time Elephants were used by logging companies to haul heavy loads up rugged terrain. This practise was eventually banned in Thailand, but it is still legal in Myanmar. Disturbed by the mistreatment of Elephants, Lek saved enough money to buy her first abused Elephant. You see even malnourished, traumatised Elephants are worth something to their owners. Lek paid (if memory serves) $1,500 and from there became a committed protector of Elephants. Lek has since managed to buy tens of Elephants and currently has 31 at her Elephant Foundation.

Mud Bath

Lek's Elephant Foundation sits in a lush river valley, surrounded by mountains and forests. She is able to fund the operation by donations from the public, daytrippers like myself and a series of volunteers. A wealthy Texan bought the land for her a few years ago. Lek addressed the group I was with (about 40 tourists) and told us how many people in the past have promised money and then not been able to provide. So when this particular guy said he'd come up with the money, she didn't get too excited.

Bath time for the Elephants

Part of the day, involved helping to feed the Elephants and helping bathe them in the river. We were introduced to the Elephants at feeding time, the first shock was seeing an Elephant who'd been blinded while logging in Myanmar. Apparently she had been pregnant and forced to carry on hauling heavy loads up a mountainside. This eventually led to her loosing her baby, she gave birth at the top of the hill, and the baby fell to the bottom. From that day she refused to work. So her owners stabbed her in the eyes. This is a tactic often used to make Elephants work. It seems crazy and completely counter-productive, but I would continue to hear of this kind of brutality all day.
Another Elephant walked with a terrible limp, the result of standing on a land mine in Myanmar. However they had been forced to carry on working gruelling days, until Lek was able to buy the Elephant. Other Elephants had been rescued from carrying tourists. Elephant trekking is very popular in Thailand, unfortunately few places feed the Elephants enough, or give them enough rest.
Unfortunately no Elephants had been rescued from the streets of Chiang Mai or Bangkok. This is a profitable business, with one Elephant in Bangkok owned by a politician. This makes it even more difficult to get the government to change the laws. At the moment Elephants have no protection as they are classed as livestock. While out for a drink with Jodi and Sarah in a bar in Chiang Mai, an Elephant suddenly appeared from nowhere and charged up to the bar. The owner then fed it. It amazed me that tourists collected around the Elephant (obviously in distress) and took photo's and then paid the handler. If tourists stop supporting this practice then no Elephants would walk the streets. As Elephants have extremely sensitive soles, the vibrations of traffic sends them into a sensory overload.
But all this mistreatment palled, when we viewed footage showing how Elephants are "domesticated" in Thailand. It's an age old practice and any working Elephant will have been put through it.
Babies are taken from their mothers (this will be the first time they have been more than a trunk's distance from them) and forced into what are known as "crushing cages". Just as the name suggests, the Elephants are crushed, with no room to move. Once in place they are stabbed with sticks decorated with nails, and beaten. They are expected to learn to lift their legs and bring their feet down in tiny hoops. This is all while they are confined, can't see their own feet, are terrified and in pain. Female Elephants are kept in this state (the abuse goes on for hours, as every male in the village joins in) for 3 days, until they are broken. Unfortunately it takes 7 days to "break" a male. Sadly the abuse doesn't stop once they are freed from the crusher, they are continually beaten to keep them "in line".
Traditional Thai's believe this is the only way to domesticate a wild Elephant. However Lek has two Elephants at her Foundation who haven't been through this barbaric ritual (they were orphaned), yet they are not a danger. With love and attention Lek has trained them, so they are not a threat, as much as an Elephant can be to a human.

Lek with Hope, who she "domesticated" without any force.

Lek purchased a wild piece of land, know as Elephant heaven, unlike I first imagined this isn't some kind of mass grave, but rather a place the Elephants go for a night out. It's so they can learn about nature, as after all they are no longer wild.
Unfortunately sometimes the mistreatment has become so ingrained, much work must be done to rehabilitate the Elephants. One Elephant was so used to the chain around her leg, when it was removed she wouldn't eat.
Lek has high hopes for the future, she has built relationships with trekking companies, so along with a vet she can check the progress of the working Elephants. It was great to hear her talk and see how one person's actions can make a difference.

Friday 23 May 2008

Good Luck Dave

I want to say a quick good luck to my brother-in-law Dave, who is competing in his first Iron Man competition tomorrow. This is how he'll be spending his Saturday,

3.8km swim starting at 7:00am in the morning

180km bike ride around the Island

42.195km run

Yes that's a marathon to finish the day. Dave will be doing all this in the heat of Lanzarote. Once again good luck Dave!

Muay Thai (Thai Boxing)

Jesse and I went to the local stadium in Chiang Mai to see a series of Muay Thai fights, which after a 50 minute walk didn't feel so local anymore. We thankfully arrived late, I'm not sure what the warm up entertainment consists of, but am quite happy to never find out. The second of eight fights was underway, by the end of the night it did feel a little like an endurance test for the crowd too.

Give it to him ref!

As our minds wandered and the beer kicked in it became difficult to really say who was winning. When there was a bit of excitement (a fighter was stretchered off) we both could have done with an instant replay to see what had happened, for that matter the fighter could have too. A guy came over the PA to tell all the nice tourists that the guy would be fine, while we could still see him out cold in the corner of the room.
It was also disconcerting that everytime new fighters entered the ring the Benny Hill music was played, I have no idea why. Another unique experience.