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A journey in numbers


View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

After 7 countries and 119 days on the road, we've reached the final blog entry - it's hard to believe we've written 52 of these things! Rather than trying to sum up our journey in words, I've compiled a few stats to tell the story.

8,788

Kilometres travelled, according to our Travellerspoint map. The real total will be even higher because we didn't travel as the crow flies on the overland routes.

7,343

Photos taken, to answer all those who've asked the question. This doesn't include the 4,000 photos we deleted along the way! 266 of these have been published on the blog.

14

Modes of transport used, including plane, bus, train, car, mountain bike, motorcycle, junk boat, longtail boat, dive boat, speedboat, tuk tuk, truck, songthaew and kayak.

Kayaking in a Malaysian mangrove swamp

Kayaking in a Malaysian mangrove swamp

964

The combined cost of all our visas and trekking permits, in US dollars. Over two thirds of this went straight into the coffers of the Nepalese government, so I like to think we gave their GDP figures a little boost in 2011.

4.5

The average speed in mph of the bus from Dhadingbesi to Arughat Bazaar (which we abandoned at nightfall after it became stuck in a quagmire).

5,450

The highest altitude of the trip (in metres), just above the Thorung La. We crossed three passes over 5000m on our five-week trek in the Nepal Himalaya.

0

Number of public conveniences in the Nepalese village of Phu. We later found out from some trekking companions that there was another lodge in the village which did have a toilet, but unfortunately the owners don't appear to have capitalized on this USP.

Looking down on the village of Phu

Looking down on the village of Phu

6.9

Magnitude of the earthquake which struck the Himalayas on 18 September 2011, the day we flew to Kathmandu. It was the second largest quake ever recorded in the region, causing at least 111 deaths and widespread damage. The quake was centred on north Sikkim, a region we visited 6 weeks later.

4:30

The earliest wake up call of the trip, in Dzongri, Sikkim. After seven consecutive days of trekking in a cloud, it was a make or break moment. "Good weather," said our guide outside the tent, not quite believing it himself.

200

Estimated maximum population of wild snow leopards in the whole of India, according to WWF, making it even more remarkable that I saw fresh snow leopard tracks in Sikkim.

Tracks of a snow leopard on the Goecha La in Sikkim

Tracks of a snow leopard on the Goecha La in Sikkim

7%

Average annual growth rate of the Vietnamese economy from 1981 to 2010, 30 unbroken years of boom with only 3 years of less than 5% growth. Quite incredible statistics for a country which was the third poorest in the world after the Vietnam War.

1,200

Kilometres in the saddle on our epic three-week mountain bike trip through Vietnam and Laos with Red Spokes. The longest day was about 120km and the toughest had 45km of hill climbs.

American Chris on the road in Laos

American Chris on the road in Laos

10

Kilometres travelled in the Red Spokes support vehicle. It's not that we'd gone soft - the Vietnamese closed the road while they carried out some roadworks, and by the time it reopened, it was getting dark!

4

The maximum distance in kilometres of continuous climbing on a bicycle without going up a hill, in Red Spokes parlance. Anything up to this point is a mere undulation.

8.11%

Gradient quoted on a road sign in northwest Vietnam. Funnily enough as we rounded the previous bend I had remarked to Jen "This feels like an 8.11%er to me!"

The most precise roadsign in Vietnam

The most precise roadsign in Vietnam

6,670,000

The largest withdrawal amount entered on an ATM keypad. No, it's not a typo. This was in Vietnamese dong, and is equivalent to about 200 pounds sterling. The traveller in Vietnam is wise to pack an expandable wallet.

14

Varieties of Asian beer sampled. They were Everest, Gorkha (Nepal), Kingfisher (India), Bia Hanoi, Bia Larue (Vietnam), Beerlao (Laos), Cambodia, Klang, Angkor, Anchor (Cambodia), Singha, Chang, Leo (Thailand) and Tiger (Malaysia). Beerlao goes down easiest.

7,500

The cheapest bottle of Beerlao in Luang Prabang, in Laotian kip. There are 12,500 kip to the pound and there's more than a pint in the bottle!

300

Casualties annually in Laos due to unexploded ordnance (UXO). More than half are children, and most are killed or maimed by cluster bombs. These and other chilling statistics we learned on a visit to Cope, a charity which provides prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation to UXO victims.

1860

The year French explorer Henri Mouhot "discovered" the temples of Angkor. In fact they were well known to the local Khmer people and had been visited by other westerners before Mouhot. We were two of the 1.6 million tourists to visit the temple complex in 2011, a year-on-year rise of 23%.

2

Our longest flight "delay" in hours. What really happened was that Bangkok Airways cancelled our flight out of Siem Reap and put us on the last flight of the day, but of course they couldn't admit to that.

0

Rice-free days in Southeast Asia. Fried rice, steamed rice, sticky rice - it's all the same after two months.

160

Estimated age in millions of years of Khao Sok National Park's jungle, the oldest tropical forest on Earth. That makes it around 100 million years older than the Amazon rainforest.

10

Number of leech attacks during a two-minute walk through the jungle of Khao Sok. We had left the relatively leech-free stream bed and followed some tapir tracks through the forest to shortcut a bend in the stream.

100

Decibels of sound produced by a calling gibbon. Gibbon calls can travel more than 2 miles over the forest, and at our rafthouse in Khlong Seang I stood on the decking listening to four groups calling from different parts of the forest.

5

Years of hard training by the bar staff of Koh Lanta's Bamboo Bay Resort to perfect their fire dancing routine. And boy, did it show!

Firedancer at the Bamboo Bay Resort

Firedancer at the Bamboo Bay Resort

80

Maximum weight in pounds of a jackfruit, the world's largest fruit, which is found throughout Thailand and Malaysia. The orange flesh is similar in taste to papaya.

The jackfruit - try putting this in your lunchbox

The jackfruit - try putting this in your lunchbox

-32

Temperature drop in degrees Celsius between Langkawi, Malaysia and Manchester, UK on the day of our return home. Brrrrr!

The sun sets on our blog

The sun sets on our blog

We've had great fun writing about some of our experiences, but now the time has come to call time on our travel blog. Thanks to everyone who has been following us and to all those who have commented on Travellerspoint or liked us on Facebook! I hope we can resurrect the Parsons on Tour blog soon...

Posted by Chris Parsons 13:05 Archived in Nepal Tagged india cambodia thailand malaysia vietnam laos nepal statistics Comments (0)

Going places


View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

Six countries in four months. Too much to take in? Too rushed? It certainly felt on occasions like we were stuck on a travel treadmill; a hamster's wheel of bus stations, taxi rides and departure lounges. On the flipside, he who leaves the wedding early cherry-picks the tastiest morsels from the buffet. And the sheer variety of places and modes of travel we encountered gave the engineer in me pause for thought. How can these countries develop their increasingly strained transport systems to meet the needs of their upwardly mobile populations?

In Kathmandu, the scale of the challenge is clear. In the tourist district of Thamel there are no pavements, so pedestrians are forced to share the streets with the Maruti-Suzuki taxis, motorbikes and tuk-tuks. Anyone carrying out a risk assessment would stay in their hotel, but despite the odds a functioning system has evolved which seems to minimise collisions. It relies on the drivers and tuk-tuk wallahs knowing the width of their vehicles to the exact millimetre, and on everyone knowing the significance of a sharp toot on the horn: "Look out, I'm coming through!" However, during the festival of Tihar there is an interesting reversal. The crowds take to the streets to dance, sing and play instruments, and no amount of horn-tooting can shift them.

Kathmandu street scene

Kathmandu street scene

Nonetheless, outside the old city the roads were still thronged with cars. At a busy intersection near the former Royal Palace, the Tata buses and Ashok trucks lined up six abreast alongside taxis and bikes at the traffic lights, revving their engines. In the midst of it all stood a traffic policeman, his manic hand-waving and whistle-blowing clearly taking precedence over the lights. There was only one problem though: cows don't follow orders.

On to West Bengal, where there's no doubt that Kolkata's transport system has benefited from an injection of order courtesy of the British Empire. The city centre was re-planned during the early nineteenth century to incorporate wide, traffic-friendly boulevards. Today, these streets are fought over by the usual jumble of traffic, people and animals common to modern Indian cities, plus, uniquely on our travels, trams. And like other great world cities, Kolkata has its own special taxi. The Hindustan Ambassador is produced locally to a 1950s design based on the Morris Oxford, and not a lot has changed since. Bench seats and central instrument panels are standard features; optional extras (based on our limited experience) include brakes, windows and door handles.

Ambassadors and buses in Kolkata

Ambassadors and buses in Kolkata

Kolkatans are tolerant drivers, though this may be due in part to the sluggish Ambassadors forcing traffic to move at a sedate pace. Moreover, the local authority has successfully promoted the practice of cutting the engine at traffic lights on both economic and environmental grounds. The first time we experienced this was strange to say the least. We were becalmed in queuing traffic, listening to conversations taking place in other cars (those without windows, at least). Moving off again is also a leisurely affair, for acceleration is not a gift bestowed on the Ambassador by its makers. In fact, so accustomed did I become to slow-moving vehicles that I made a misjudgement when wandering down one of Kolkata's railway lines and, like Matt Damon in The Bourne Supremacy, had to take evasive action to avoid a speeding train.

The Kolkata to Hanoi leg of our journey would have been time-consuming and logistically challenging overland, so we opted to fly via Bangkok. There were no alarms, but more than a few surprises. Kolkata, a city of 14.1 million people (thanks, Wikipedia) has an international airport with two departure gates. Bangkok airport has the world's most expensive Toblerones and a Leicester City FC shop. AirAsia is very good airline; Vietnam Airlines is even better.

Arriving in Hanoi felt like an evolutionary leap forward – smooth roads, lane markings, modern cars and not a cow in sight. If Katie Melua ever writes a sequel to Nine Million Bicycles, this is where she should come, for the Vietnamese have a love affair with motorbikes, and in the city’s Old Quarter, the moped is king. Flush with their recently acquired wealth, a bike is the affordable luxury most people crave. Thousands of scooters swarm daily along the narrow streets, weaving their way between the tourists, street vendors and stray dogs. Pavements have been sacrificed as bike parks and shiny new Yamahas, Hondas and Vespas gleam at the countless dealerships.

A motorcycle dealership in northwest Vietnam

A motorcycle dealership in northwest Vietnam

Walking the Old Quarter's narrow streets was daunting at first, especially crossing the road. There are no lights, no pedestrian crossings, no road markings even. But then we realised there are no accidents, because just like Kathmandu, Hanoi has devised its own system of unwritten road rules. When you step out into the road, you notice that traffic weaves naturally round you without appearing to slow down. Providing you continue to cross without changing speed or direction, nothing will hit you. This involves a fair amount of trust, but the Vietnamese are well practiced at avoiding each other. Just take a look at this brilliant time lapse video for proof.

Vietnam's economy is booming and new roads are under construction all over the north. But sometimes the heavy hand of communism overrides common sense, resulting in incongruous sights like empty six-lane highways running through middle-of-nowhere towns and giant phallic monuments presiding over roundabouts.

Cyclists dwarfed by a roundabout monument in Vietnam - but what is it?

Cyclists dwarfed by a roundabout monument in Vietnam - but what is it?

Across the border in Laos, we cycled for the best part of a week down the busiest road in the country. Of course, it was only when we got there that our tour leader revealed this fact. But there was no thought of us demanding a refund, for the Lao version of the M1 is more like an English country B-road. Apart from the occasional tourist bus blazing past, the bulk of the passing traffic was made up of chugging tractors, grumpy water buffalo and schoolchildren waving from bicycles. Luang Prabang also deserves a mention as a traffic-free haven, thanks to its location on a loop of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It was refreshing to be in a city where the boat and the bicycle are the commonest forms of transport. And as we proved, with a boat and a mountain bike, you can go pretty much anywhere in Laos.

Our bikes go on a boat trip on the Nam Ou River

Our bikes go on a boat trip on the Nam Ou River

A common feature of Vietnamese and Lao mountain roads is their relatively gentle gradients. The steepest climbs were 10%, tolerable even with tired legs at the end of a long ascent on the bike. It would be nice to think that this was purely for the benefit of us humble cyclists, but I suspect the knackered old buses, trucks and tractors would die on anything steeper. There are no such problems for the Thais with their sleek, modern cars and superbikes, so they build their mountain roads accordingly. We found this out the hard way on the 100km Samoeng Loop to the west of Chiang Mai. It's a killer on a mountain bike!

Nowhere are the citizens of Asia more mobile than in Bangkok, a city which beats most European counterparts hands down in the futuristic transport stakes. My home town of Birmingham has Spaghetti Junction: Bangkok is Spaghetti City.

A bright pink Toyota Corolla whisked us from the airport to our downtown hotel along elevated highways which snaked between the skyscrapers. We cowered in the back while Thailand's answer to Sebastian Vettel took the racing line around every bend, reaching speeds which would have been unthinkable in Calcutta or Kathmandu. These highways are just one layer of spaghetti; above them runs the Skytrain, below them the city streets, and beneath the surface the Metro. Like a steep Himalayan gorge or a tropical rainforest, Bangkok is a truly three-dimensional environment.

A tuk tuk on the streets of Luang Prabang

A tuk tuk on the streets of Luang Prabang

It’s also home to the most unscrupulous tuk-tuk drivers on the entire continent. While the rest of the city zooms past at high speed, these guys go out of their way to make your journey as slow and stressful as possible. Our first attempt ended up with us abandoning the tuk-tuk within a minute of getting on board, as the driver stopped and drew us a picture showing us where he was going to take us (which was not where we had asked him to go). All our subsequent enquiries of tuk-tuk drivers were met with disinterest, incomprehension or an astronomical fare and a refusal to negotiate. It was nearly enough to persuade me to buy one of the ubiquitous "No tuk-tuk. Not today. Not tomorrow." T-shirts. But not quite, because elsewhere in Asia, tuk-tuk drivers had been our friends. Yes, they're pushy and they overcharge, but they are part of the fabric of life here and contribute to the buzz of the city streets.

Boats on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok

Boats on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok

Bangkok's busy riverboat taxis are another means of getting around the city. And as our travels led us further south to the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, more of our time was spent on the water. Our boat to Koh Rong in Cambodia was delayed by three hours because of high winds and an absent captain. A substitute skipper was found, but it was not long into the journey before we were questioning whether he had ever left dry land before. He skilfully steered the boat so that the waves hit us broadside, drenching those at the stern, and then did his best to ram the pier several times before, to our great relief, we finally moored. The locals did not go fishing in such conditions, for theirs were the most basic boats I'd ever seen, constructed from nothing more than a rectangular board of expanded polystyrene.

A longtail boat bobbing in a turquoise sea is the quintessential image of southern Thailand. The noise of its engine may cut through the deepest of sleep (fact-checked personally) and there may never less than an inch of water in the hull, but I grew rather fond of longtails. I particularly liked watching the boat captains nimbly steering their crafts through narrow channels or off the edge of a reef. Any change in direction or raising of the propeller requires strength, agility and timing as the captain uses his body weight as a counterbalance to the pivoting engine, stepping neatly over (or under) the swinging tiller.

Longtail boat engine

Longtail boat engine

Less charming, but certainly quicker in a straight line, are the modern speedboats which carry island-hopping tourists down the Andaman Coast. If you're picturing luxury and decadence, think again, for in my experience they rival Nepalese buses in the unbearability stakes. On the first trip, I had to sit on the floor. On the second, I squeezed into the front of the boat on top of a pile of rucksacks. On the third, a one-hour crossing from Koh Lipe to Langkawi, I was relieved to finally get a seat. My mood soon darkened as we left the harbour and picked up speed. The sea was choppy, and if the boat caught a wave at the wrong moment it landed on the surface of the water with such force that it felt as though our spines were being crushed. The only lesson I can take away from this experience is that speedboats, like Nepalese buses and Bangkok tuk-tuks, are best avoided at all costs.

A Thai speedboat anchored off a reef at Koh Rok

A Thai speedboat anchored off a reef at Koh Rok

To conclude this blog entry I decided I had to go back to bikes and two favourite photos from the end of our trip. There are no cars on Koh Lipe, only scooters. You might think the local police would have been embarrassed to be photographed on their 100cc Honda, but far from it. They smiled, they waved and they still managed to look cool. It was all very Southeast Asian and I loved it. And then, not a minute later, we stumbled across a second photo opportunity, the little boy playing on his dad’s scooter. How can your heart not melt!

Cuts are biting in Koh Lipe's police department

Cuts are biting in Koh Lipe's police department


Baby biker, Koh Lipe

Baby biker, Koh Lipe

Posted by Chris Parsons 14:39 Tagged boats bikes india cambodia thailand vietnam laos transport nepal Comments (0)

Scenes from the local market


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A few snaps from the street stalls and food markets of Southeast Asia, places rich in gastronomic interest and photographic opportunity.

Hanoi ladies queuing for their snails

Hanoi ladies queuing for their snails


Early morning shoppers in Sapa market

Early morning shoppers in Sapa market


Mekong River fish in bamboo baskets

Mekong River fish in bamboo baskets


Crowds at Luang Prabang food market

Crowds at Luang Prabang food market


Fancy a frog kebab

Fancy a frog kebab


Lao drive-through

Lao drive-through


The morning catch drying by the roadside

The morning catch drying by the roadside


A stallholder tends to the veg display

A stallholder tends to the veg display


Another formidable Thai lady serving up fast food

Another formidable Thai lady serving up fast food


Chicken yoga

Chicken yoga

Posted by Chris Parsons 16:22 Archived in Laos Tagged thailand vietnam laos Comments (0)

Wildlife blog #2: Big trouble in Indochina


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The wildlife of Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) is fascinating. This region lies at the crossroads between the Indian, Chinese and Sundaic ecological zones, and the fauna and flora is likewise transitional. There are representatives from all three neighbouring regions, plus some rare endemics (species unique to Indochina) with mysterious names. Ever heard of a kouprey? How about a saola?

Sadly, much of this incredible biodiversity is in peril. The all-too-familiar causes are poaching and habitat loss, driven by uncontrolled development in Vietnam and the sinister black market in trafficking animals to China. As if that weren't bad enough, dam construction on the Mekong River threatens to disrupt the ecology of the most important natural waterway in Southeast Asia.

One of the region's most bizarre creatures, the giant long-legged cave centipede

One of the region's most bizarre creatures, the giant long-legged cave centipede


The dramatic karst scenery of Van Long Nature Reserve, North Vietnam

The dramatic karst scenery of Van Long Nature Reserve, North Vietnam

In Cuc Phuong National Park, a few hours' drive from Hanoi, we visited two conservation facilities which are fighting a losing battle to save species on the road to extinction. The Endangered Primate Rescue Center takes in monkeys and gibbons saved from the illegal wildlife trade, studies and breeds them in captivity and rehabilitates them for release back to the wild. The neighbouring Turtle Conservation Center does the equivalent for freshwater turtles, a prized delicacy on Chinese dinner tables. Both centres have collections of astonishingly rare animals, so valuable that they're targeted by the traffickers, and round-the-clock security is required.

Our tour of the primate centre was conducted by an impatient local guide, and was unfortunately over in 20 minutes. In that time we (very briefly) saw some of the world's rarest monkeys – Francois' langurs, Cat Ba langurs, black-, grey- and red-shanked douc langurs and gibbons. There's nothing pretty about the cage enclosures, but there is a two-hectare "semi-wild" enclosure (currently occupied by a group of Delacour's langurs) which is the monkeys' final home before release back to the wild.

The turtle tour was much better, thanks to our effervescent German volunteer guide. (Both centres are part-funded by Frankfurt Zoological Society, an example of the valuable contribution zoos can make to wildlife conservation.) We learned that there are just four known living specimens of the Swinhoe's soft-shelled turtle (a giant freshwater species weighing up to 200kg) left in the world. One lives in Hoan Kiem Lake in the middle of Hanoi and is revered by the locals. A Chinese zoo houses a breeding pair but they are producing infertile eggs. A fourth individual was recently caught in a reservoir in central Vietnam. Conservationists raced to the scene and persuaded the jubilant fisherman to release it, which was no mean feat as it was worth a minor fortune to him. Thanks to an intensive education programme, local villages now jealously guard "their" turtle. It may all be in vain as the only realistic prognosis for this species is extinction.

Jen handles one of the lucky guests at the Turtle Conservation Center

Jen handles one of the lucky guests at the Turtle Conservation Center

For some creatures, it's already too late. After we left the UK in September, it was reported that the last Javan rhino in Vietnam had been shot by poachers. A tiny population of rhinos clings on in a single Javanese national park. There are unconfirmed reports that Sumatran rhinos (the world's next rarest species) still inhabit Vietnam's forests, but the likelihood is that they became locally extinct in the early twentieth century.

Having blasted most of their wildlife out of the forests, the Vietnamese poachers are now moving into Laos and Cambodia (where habitat and wildlife is still recovering after being ravaged by the USA’s napalm bombing during the Vietnam War). A Laotian king once called his realm the "Land of a Million Elephants" – now there are only a thousand or so wild elephants left. Cambodia is blessed not only with verdant forests, but some of the world's most important wetlands. We had planned to visit one, the Preak Toal Bird Sanctuary near Siem Reap, which is home to millions of overwintering herons, storks and pelicans. That is, until we heard the price for a day trip. US$150 each? I like my birds, but even I balked at that!

The wildest thing we saw in Laos

The wildest thing we saw in Laos

More often than not, the animals we did see turned up in the least wild places – in our bedrooms, bathrooms and on our dinner table (see Food Blog #3). Local markets are also good places to come across wildlife that has met, or is about to meet, a sticky end. Luang Prabang had a morning food market where we found squirrels, frogs, caged birds and a monkey alongside the usual chickens, ducks and fish. There's a craze for keeping songbirds in cages in Southeast Asia. At the holy wats of Luang Prabang, you can purchase small birds in bamboo cages for instant release into the wild, which is believed to bestow good luck. It might be good luck for the bird which regains its freedom, and good business for the impoverished trader who maintains her livelihood this way, but by trying to help you are perpetuating a cruel trade and condemning many more birds to trapping in the future. We stopped for a photograph, but that was all.

Caged birds for sale in Luang Prabang

Caged birds for sale in Luang Prabang

Having said all this, there were places in Indochina where we saw real wildlife in the wild. In Cuc Phuong National Park in Vietnam, we ventured into a limestone cave and were freaked out by the giant cave crickets, spiders and long-legged centipedes, not to mention the bats flying round our heads. We traveled extensively by boat through the waterways of north Vietnam's karst landscape, and got great sightings of kingfishers on the banks. And in Cambodia, the jungly islands off the south coast still hum with insects, and the seas with reef fish. The future may be bleak, but it's not entirely hopeless.

Common kingfisher in Ninh Binh Province, Vietnam

Common kingfisher in Ninh Binh Province, Vietnam


Striped sea catfish in the waters off Koh Rong, Cambodia

Striped sea catfish in the waters off Koh Rong, Cambodia

Posted by Chris Parsons 14:28 Archived in Vietnam Tagged wildlife cambodia vietnam laos indochina Comments (0)

What's wat


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This blog is inspired by a bar in Siem Reap called Angkor What?

- "Look at that wat!"
- "That what?"
- "No, that wat."
- "Oh, the wat."
- "Yes, and what a wat."
- "Very nice. So, what wat's that wat?"
- "Well, I'll tell you what."
- "What?"
- "I know what's a wat and what's not a wat, but I don't know what wat's what."
- "You what?"

The Royal Palace Museum in Luang Prabang - what you might call high wattage

The Royal Palace Museum in Luang Prabang - what you might call high wattage


The ornate interior of Wat Xieng Thong

The ornate interior of Wat Xieng Thong


Golden statues on Phoussy Hill in Luang Prabang

Golden statues on Phoussy Hill in Luang Prabang


A dawn ritual - donating breakfast to the monks

A dawn ritual - donating breakfast to the monks


The West Gate of Angkor Wat

The West Gate of Angkor Wat


Wat Doi Suthep's golden chedi is one of the most sacred places in northern Thailand

Wat Doi Suthep's golden chedi is one of the most sacred places in northern Thailand


A monk gives Doi Suthep's holy elephant a fresh lick of paint

A monk gives Doi Suthep's holy elephant a fresh lick of paint


A pile of shoes outside a Chiang Mai wat

A pile of shoes outside a Chiang Mai wat


Scaffolders working on a chedi in Chiang Mai. Note the lack of hard hats and bamboo scaffolding.

Scaffolders working on a chedi in Chiang Mai. Note the lack of hard hats and bamboo scaffolding.

Posted by Chris Parsons 23:42 Archived in Laos Tagged temples cambodia thailand buddhism laos monks wats Comments (2)

Mission Impossible: South-East Asia


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In Chiang Mai we went to the local multiplex to watch the preposterous but highly entertaining Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, in which Tom Cruise saves the world from a madman bent on starting a nuclear war. It seems likely that a fifth film in the series will be made, and our experiences in South East Asia have given me a few ideas for the producers....

Scene 1:
The movie opens in Hanoi, Vietnam, where IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is being chased through the Old Quarter by the communist police. Suddenly he comes to the main highway on the edge of the district, and is confronted by a moving wall of cars, buses, mopeds, tuk-tuks, trucks and bicycles. His mission? Cross the road. Cruise sets off at a run but sees a bus on collision course and makes a fatal mistake - he changes direction. Confused drivers screech to a halt on all sides, blocking his escape. Meanwhile, the commies march purposefully into the moving traffic, and like Moses crossing the Red Sea, it parts around them. Ethan Hunt is captured.

Scene 2:
Cruise is in custody in Sapa, a Vietnamese town near the Chinese border. An American agent is valuable property, and the Viets want to do a deal with the Chinese military. When his captors are distracted by the 5:30am tai chi public service broadcast, he makes a daring escape. But he hasn't reckoned with the local Hmong ladies who lie in wait and chase him down the road, sweeping him up in a chorus of "You buy from meee?", "You come to my village?" and "I follow you all day!" Resistance is futile, and Cruise is marched down to the 'ethnic' hilltribe village to purchase some hand-woven garments from an old crone in a funny hat.

Smiling with our Hmong kidnappers at Sapa

Smiling with our Hmong kidnappers at Sapa

Scene 3:
Ethan Hunt has made it to the Vietnam-Laos border, but the police are still on his tail. His new mission? To secure a Laos visa in less than 3 hours. But what's this? The border guards have closed the visa office and gone for a mid-morning 'lunch'. Not even IMF can pull strings here, leaving Cruise high and dry. His only option is to retire to the adjacent cafe and order some coffee and snacks while he waits nervously. But little does he know the cafe is owned by the visa officials, and as soon as he hands over his money the border reopens, and he is swept through in a wave of euphoria.

Form filling at the Vietnam-Laos border

Form filling at the Vietnam-Laos border

Scene 4:
Cruise is in Laos and is safe for the time being. IMF pages him with another mission - he's being redeployed to the town of Vang Vieng to save it from rampant British backpackers. This being Laos, the usual IMF sign-off has been modified to "This message will self-destruct when it feels like it." He leaps aboard the nearest vehicle to race to the scene, but unfortunately it's a squeaking, creaking Laotian bicycle. Moreover, because Cruise is only 4 foot 3, he has to stand on the pedals and ride in the manner of the local kids. (This scene should provide some much-needed light relief).

Scene 5:
Ethan Hunt spots a crowd of backpackers on the river and ditches the bike. There follows a high-octane, fast and furious chase scene down river, showcasing the latest extreme sport, tubing. (The tubes drift lazily with the current, so some bombastic music and clever editing will be required here.) But what's this? Cruise has been lassooed by a riverside bar and hauled to the bank. He is forced to down several bottles of lao lao, smoke strange substances and bop along to bad Eurodance in his bermuda shorts. He blacks out.

Scene 6:
Cruise suddenly comes to his senses. His GPS phone pinpoints his location as Chiang Mai, Thailand. The backpackers must have brought him here. He needs IMF to pull him out of here sharpish. But it's Christmas Day, the Night Market is in full swing and 15 million Thais are here to part with their baht. He's hemmed in on all sides, forced to file past the same handful of stalls repeated ad nauseum: wooden elephants, paper lanterns, silk scarves, knock-off DVDs and "I love Chiang Mai" t-shirts. Suddenly a woman approaches - at least he thinks it's a woman, but it's hard to tell under her heavy make-up. "Hello sir," she says in a suspiciously deep voice, "you wanna some fun tonight?" This could be Ethan Hunt's most daring mission yet... (to be continued)

Crowds doing the Sunday shuffle in Chiang Mai

Crowds doing the Sunday shuffle in Chiang Mai

It's only a start, but I think it's got all the ingredients of a classic summer blockbuster, plus a ladyboy. Tom will love it!

On a separate subject, Jen and I are about to disappear into the Thai rainforest for a few days, to spend New Year in the company of some gibbons. No, not British backpackers, real gibbons. So we'd like to say a slightly premature Happy New Year to everybody - have a great New Year's Eve wherever you are. We'll be blogging again in 2012!

Posted by Chris Parsons 03:48 Archived in Thailand Tagged thailand vietnam laos christmas backpackers hmong visas Comments (2)

Step away from the turkey...

...and feast your eyes on this!

In case you were wondering what Vietnam and Laos were like to travel through, here are some photos of the beautiful scenery. Enjoy.

Vietnam

We visited Van Long National Park on a three day tour from Hanoi before meeting up with the Redspokes group

We visited Van Long National Park on a three day tour from Hanoi before meeting up with the Redspokes group

A beautiful sunset in Van Long National Park

A beautiful sunset in Van Long National Park

A morning waddle in Ninm Binh province

A morning waddle in Ninm Binh province

A misty morning in North West Vietnam

A misty morning in North West Vietnam

Our first day of sunshine on the bikes? Sunrise over Tu Le

Our first day of sunshine on the bikes? Sunrise over Tu Le

The hills around Sapa

The hills around Sapa

The new road over-caters for its users in North West Vietnam

The new road over-caters for its users in North West Vietnam

A girl cycles the 10 kilometre hill that should have been 5!

A girl cycles the 10 kilometre hill that should have been 5!

Rice fields near Lai Chau

Rice fields near Lai Chau

The peaceful river valley approaching Muong Lai

The peaceful river valley approaching Muong Lai

All change: a brand new bridge to go with a rebuilt town (Muong Lai) following flooding for a hydro-electric scheme

All change: a brand new bridge to go with a rebuilt town (Muong Lai) following flooding for a hydro-electric scheme

A buffalo marks the route!

A buffalo marks the route!

Laos

Laotian mountains from the Nam Ou river - our first taste of Laos

Laotian mountains from the Nam Ou river - our first taste of Laos

The Nam Ou river, which later joins the Mekong

The Nam Ou river, which later joins the Mekong

The Mekong winds through the mountains

The Mekong winds through the mountains

The back up bus catches us up...

The back up bus catches us up...

Dusk in the mountains after an afternoon lounging in the hot springs

Dusk in the mountains after an afternoon lounging in the hot springs

December haymaking

December haymaking

Sunset in Vang Vieng

Sunset in Vang Vieng

Locals at a fishing village

Locals at a fishing village

Flatter lands approaching Vientiane

Flatter lands approaching Vientiane

Big skys on the road to Vientiane

Big skys on the road to Vientiane

Posted by jparsons 09:50 Archived in Vietnam Tagged landscapes vietnam laos Comments (2)

Food blog #3: Un voyage gourmand en Vietnam et Laos

Fried grasshoppers

Fried grasshoppers

One of the highlights of our trip so far has been the things we have "consumed" en route. Our journey into Vietnam and Laos, with a cycling appetite to boot, only served to increase the appeal of the local delicacies on offer. To whet your appetite, here is our top 10 of some of the food items we mostly dared to try...

#10 Morning Glory
What is the story, I hear you ask...? Well this green vegetable, best described as a cross between spinach, broccoli and cabbage, turned up consistently on our plates throughout Vietnam and Laos. It was fried. It was in soup. It was in curry. It may even have made it into the spring rolls. After about a week of consistently appearing on our dinner table, it began to yield a morning glory groan from the group. It's not that we don't like it. But it's Morning Glory! Chris and I thought that we'd made our escape on a desert island off the coast of Cambodia, but what should we find at the one and only restaurant: a new combination: Morning Glory in Oyster Sauce!

#9 Peanuts, unripened
It sounds unlikely, but in a small village near Tu Le, some local women offered us unripe monkey nuts, in the shell. Curious, we acceped the kind offer...They are eaten whole, shell included, dipped in a sauce made from salt, lime, garlic and fresh corriander. They certainly made my taste buds zing, but had to be washed down abruptly with some local sweets!

#8 Cobra Wine (with full length cobra)
We happened upon this interesting tipple in Muong Lai: a large glass flagon of the strong stuff, complete with coiled cobra inside. According to Phong, our Vietnamese guide, this drink "makes you strong". He wasn't referring to cycling. At $500 for the whole flagon (including cobra) we could all think of cheaper ways to achieve the same effect... At Tu Le, we tried a less venomous alternative: Bee Wine. This was exactly as described above, except there was an entire graveyard of bees nestling at the bottom of this flagon. Oh, and you could purchase by the glass, mouthful of bees excluded.

A sticky end...

A sticky end...

#7 Roast Dog
So I was quietly ambling through a village south of Hanoi when I had my first encounter with dog (the kind which didn't involve being chased). Two of the said woofters were being roasted on an open fire at the side of the road. One of my cycling buddies (who shall remain nameless) later asked me how I knew it was dog. The only honest answer I could give was that it basically looked like one, with the fur singed off and a spit stuck up its arse. It was clearly a dog. Or should I say an 'ex-dog'. I later learned from David, our tour leader, that this must have meant that it was "dog time of the month". What he really meant to say was that for two weeks in the month the Vietnamese consider it bad luck to eat it, for the other two weeks it is good luck (this works the other way around for the dog of course). In Sapa, two of our group, David and John, joined Phong on an excursion to sample dog "five ways", or so it sounded from their descriptions of the feast. Fortunately I was held up in a pizza restaurant at the time, otherwise I would have taken my turn at exacting revenge! In case you're wondering, it tastes like chicken.

#6 Mekong Riverweed
This is a must for anyone travelling near the Mekong. I know it sounds unappetizing, but this is a genuinely tasty snack. Sold like paper, in A4 sheets in the local markets, it is then fried and sprinkled with sesame seeds. I got my first tasting courtesy of Chris Morfas' laotian pizza on our first night in Luang Prabang - thanks buddy! Yum!

#5 Tarte au chocolat
One of the advantages of travelling through countries the French invaded, is the quality of baked goods on offer, and the Baguette au Chocolate cafe in Sapa did a wicked line in patisserie. Our rest days from the bike were generally characterised by a need to forage for cake, and it didn't take Chris and I long to bring home one of these tarts! Delicious crispy pastry, with a goey chocolatey filling: so good it had the rest of the group drooling when I stopped to savour my purchase at one of our tea stops. I was guilt free though - those without cake had ridden straight past the shop that morning on a steep incline out of Sapa. The bike had wanted to stop, I had wanted to stop, and the tart was shouting my name!

[i]Tarte au chocolat!

Tarte au chocolat!

#4 Grasshoppers
Now we're getting to the business end of this blog entry. Phong introduced us to this local snack in Tu Le. Phong seemed to operate on a principle of "if it flies, it fries", and so I was somewhat surprised to find only grasshoppers on my plate that evening. One hopper would have been sufficient. But with a wry smile, Phong enthusiastically uptipped the bowl into mine, adding some serious crunch to my noodles. The only way I can describe the taste of a grasshopper is that there were notable overtones of the farmyard (thank you Oz Clarke). I passed on the opportunity for seconds.

Phong, our grasshopper man

Phong, our grasshopper man

#3 Silkworms
Of the weird things I've eaten, this comes pretty far up the list. As Phong waggled one of these in front of my nose in Tu Le, I recoiled in horror: this was becoming a bush tucker trial for only the hardiest of the group, would I survive? Silkworms look like witchetty grubs, and in my imagination this one was already crawling down my throat. After a moment to let my stomach settle, and make an objective decision, I thought 'what the hell' and gave one a try. Fried silkworm tastes a lot better than it looks. It is the texture of a soft-ish jelly bean, and is a lot less "farmyard" than the hoppers.

#2 Beer Lao
No blog of mine on conspicuous consumption could be complete without mentioning this old favourite. Beer Lao was the perfect way to quench a cyclist's thirst on a hot day, and also one of the few straightforward ways I found to understand the relative spending power of Dong and Kips (beer has its uses...) It was great for group bonding, and is now being sorely missed in Cambodia! However, when combined with a bicycle and the merest of "undulations" Beer Lao also had a tendancy to lead to the debilitating condition known as "beer legs", reducing performance (on the bike) by upwards of 50%... As a footnote to this particular entry, I have just spent the evening with Chris Morfas in Siem Reap where we managed to find genuine bottles of Beer Lao. Never has a beer tasted so good, and the reminiscing gone on so long (apologies to the restaurant staff at the Khmer Kitchen).

By far the best thirst quencher of the trip so far

By far the best thirst quencher of the trip so far

#1 Lao Lao
So good they named it twice! Those on our trip will know why this is number 1...It looks like water, tastes like water, comes in a water bottle, and like water comes hangover free (Dominique and I tested this theory on an entire bottle of the stuff one night, and woke up the following morning unscathed. We think). But this where the resemblance ends. At anywhere between 5 and 10 times the strength of a Beer Lao, Lao Lao is efficient stuff, leading one to become swiftly and seriously squiffy. It was the forger of some great friendships, and comedy moments, but drinker beware: it can lead to "crambling". Let the good times roll!

A not so innocent bottle...

A not so innocent bottle...

What happened today Dominique?
This morning you hardly did speak
Perhaps you should vow
To stay off the Lao Lao
And no crambling for the rest of the week

Dominique and I get squiffy

Dominique and I get squiffy

Posted by jparsons 04:28 Archived in Laos Tagged food vietnam laos cycling Comments (1)

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