Wednesday, 28 December 2011

1am Xmas Day, Tunja

By 1am on Xmas day, after a big feed and plentiful drinks, the party was beginning to flag a little. So Pati's Uncle Juan decided to crank up the car stereo again. The music is a dance mix of Colombia's most famous vallenato artist, Diomedes Diaz. This was then followed by lots of shots of a Scotch whisky that I'd never seen before! It was closer to 3am before we finally got to bed.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Christmas Confessions

This blog's stuck in Cambodia, and confused friends keep asking where we are and what we are doing. Well, a confession: we arrived in Colombia at the end of October. After a trip through Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina. I've been putting off updating the blog for a variety of reasons, but mainly from sloth. And the longer away we got from the last blog post, in terms of time, distance and memory, the more it seemed like an irrelevance to anyone else to recount the events of the diminishing past. But I never intended to abandon the blog, and I don't intend to let the happenings of the last legs of our journey to Colombia fall by the wayside as my inadequate memory continues to disintegrate. So, a proposal for a protocol.

Monday, 7 November 2011

The Beach

Apparently there is a novel called The Beach, which has apparently spawned a film called, I believe, The Beach. My limited understanding of these cultural phenomena extends as far as having been told that the opening scene takes place in Khao San Road, Bangkok. This place, to the unfamiliar, is hard to describe in any fashion that does justice to the depths of its depravity. A wise man once told me, long before leaving the UK, that when we were in Bangkok we were not to stay anywhere near Khao San Road or I’d end up killing someone. What he didn’t say was that even wandering down a few blocks of it, with its cavernous British pubs, full of white backpackers, eating British food, drinking British beer and chatting happily to each other in English over the blare of British music about the delights that South East Asia has to offer, was cause enough for justifiable homicide. These people, apparently, are highly motivated to find the “perfect beach”, and this quest takes them to places like Sihanoukville. This, of course, is merely a jumping off point, for Sihanoukville is achingly uncool, with its crowds of other beach bums, hawking children, cocktail merchants and occasional beggar. I suspect that the perfect beach would be one that is populated by the minimum number of locals required to service the needs of a very small and self-selecting group of fairly wealthy gap year students with a high alcohol tolerance and a languid enthusiasm for adrenaline sports. Some sort of backpacker version of “terra nullis”, except with a well-stocked 7/11 hidden out of sight.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Broken Beach Bum

From Phnom Penh, with Silver safely back with his family, we headed further south to the coast. Sihanoukville, one of Cambodia’s leading tourist destinations, sits on the Gulf of Thailand and is blessed with a number of pretty beaches. We had originally thought about heading offshore to the island resorts that have recently opened up there, but lack of availability and our lack of confidence about what exactly awaited us in terms of childrens parks in the middle of an eco-reserve meant we took the safe option of the beachside hotel.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Flash in the Pan

In our voyage through this world of signs poorly translated into broken English, this has to be one of the most infelicitous yet. Found in the toilet of the bus from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, Cambodia. 

Hi-yo Silver!

True to their word, the guesthouse couriered Silver down to Phnom Penh to us, and we duly collected him from a local travel agent. Turns out Oisin had missed him after all - this was the biggest smile we'd had since his last plate of tomato sauce.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Missing Tiger

Cambodian breakfast in the red light zone
If first impressions count, our hotel in Phnom Penh got off to a bad start as the promised pick-up didn’t materialise at the bus depot when we arrived. Having found the hotel online, I had made the cunning move of not physically writing down the name and address, preferring to trust in the promise of a waiting tuk-tuk. With no easy access to the web at hand, we jumped in a taxi and headed off in search of my vaguest recollection of the street name.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011


From Siem Reap we took a bus south to Phnom Penh. An early start saw us stuff our backpacks and jump in the mini-bus that was doing the rounds of the hotels to hoover up the tourists with tickets for that morning’s bus. Needless to say, the big bus duly broke down. This one was quite exciting, for it was preceded by a pretty dramatic bump, and then a loud bang. The engineers amongst the passengers swiftly concluded that we’d suffered a blow-out, and the gash in the bus tyre was really quite spectacular. Getting off to stretch my legs, the thing that hit me was first the heat, then the fact that we were surrounded by water.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Angkor Wat photos

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Whole Lot of Rosie

Tuk-tuk at Siem Reap airport
Siem Reap airport, in Niel's tuk-tuk

Our tuk-tuk driver, Niel, turned out to be the kindest, most softly spoken person we’d bumped into in ages. This was despite the fact that we got off to a poor start. I approached him, recognising the name of the guest house I’d booked on the laminate that he held as we stepped out into the Cambodian rains. He smiled, and refused to take us as we weren’t of the surname written on his sign. Our language skills did not overlap to the degree that permitted jointly contemplating the notion that the guest house had forgotten to wipe the name of the previous pick-up off his laminate.

We passed an awkward, silent couple of minutes waiting to see if someone else on our flight had the surname password to get onboard Niel’s tuk-tuk while the other drivers progressively moved off with their various human cargoes. Once it became clear that there wasn’t anyone else left to take into Siem Reap, we laughed, gave up on our reluctant standoff, and were installed in his taxi. To Rosy GuestHouse. How could we resist the charms of a guest house called Rosy? “G”, the French chef/administrator, met us at the door and got straight down to business with an introduction to what lay ahead in the temple complex of Angkor Wat. We negotiated a day rate with Niel, and if there was a hustle here we couldn’t see it – he quoted what the hotel said would be the rate for a day’s driving and waiting around the enormous site, and his gentle nature deterred me from the formulaic haggling so beloved of wealthy backpackers. After a half-hearted wander round the centre of Siem Reap, with our hearts sinking at the idea that the town possesses a thoroughfare called “Pub Street”, we retired to our Rosy room, to the utter luxury of brilliant, crisp white sheets, more pillows than we could use, a flat screen television and a borrowed DVD of Spirited Away. Oisin was obsessed with the pool table in the bar, and the staff even treated him to his first ever pool lesson – plonked on top of the (already battered) table itself, pushing balls into the pockets with his hands, roaring with delight.

Dancing Apsaras
The next morning Niel was already waiting in the tuk-tuk across the road when we emerged for breakfast. Feeling slightly cornered I made a shy wave and disappeared off the balcony in search of eggs. And so, after breakfast, we were off to Angkor Wat. There is very little I can sensibly say about the place: I think it would be more honest to admit defeat and accept that it defies my limited powers of description. I think I’ve said before (Taj Mahal) that I’m sceptical when it comes to these “wonder of the world” places, the must-see, must-do boxes that have to be ticked in order to adequately impress one’s fellow workers on return from a suitably exotic holiday. But Angkor Wat rewarded our hesitant enthusiasm with an unanticipated experience that far surpassed our expectations, informed only by endless travel agent poster reproductions of stone faces. On top of that I got to wander round for two whole days play-acting Indiana Jones (hoping to bump into Lara Croft).

If I resign my literary skills in the face of a subject like Angkor Wat, I will at least offer up a small taste of how it taxed my limited photographic skills. From the crumbling stones temples frozen in the rooty grasp of the aptly named “strangler fig” trees and the endless gloomy corridors whose dank dark corners still carry the whiff of incense past to leaping “apsaras” (dancers) and immense, impassive carved faces, the complex drove Pati wild with frustration as I spent hours playing around with the settings on our little camera trying to capture that elusive defining image of the place. By lunchtime on the second day she’d had enough and spent the afternoon attempting an impromptu siesta in the back of Niel’s tuk-tuk while he chatted to the other drivers as Oisin and I explored the latest stop on our grand tour. Angkor Wat has, though, provided me with what I think is the photograph that I am most proud of so far on this journey, so any comments will be gratefully received.

Day three in Siem Reap was spent away from the temples. In a stab at being sensible parents and defusing any cabin fever before it crept up on us, Pati headed off for a boat tour of the floating villages on Tonle Sap lake, while Oisin and I walked to the local shopping centre, bought a rubber ring, and hit the pool in the hotel next door to Rosy. Sadly the rubber ring didn’t survive more than forty-five minutes of Oisin’s road-testing, neatly justifying my earlier refusal to spend more than a couple of dollars on it, despite earnest entreaties for the purchase of the floating Mickey Mouse palace with built-in mini (milk) bar. And it would never have fitted into our backpacks anyway. When we’re stuck for an argument to explain to the child why we won’t buy whatever the latest plea is for, “but it won’t fit into our luggage darling” usually ends up being trotted out. So far he hasn’t come back at us with a counter-suggestion that we should get bigger backpacks, but it’s only a matter of time…

Wednesday, 28 September 2011


Cambodia Rice Paddy
El problema del sureste Asiático es que todo parece acomodarse deliciosamente al ritmo que uno lleva, de manera que de un momento a otro uno echa raíces, establece afectos, se acostumbra a las transacciones tranquilas, al olor del árbol de frangipani, a la vista placida del rio Mekong, a las serenas plantaciones de arroz y a los estanques cubiertos de flores de loto. Y cuando uno empieza a disfrutar de esta suerte ya tiene que ir rehaciendo la maleta, porque es hora de irse.

A regañadientes fue que hicimos las maletas en Luang Prabang (Laos) y volamos a Cambodia. Llegamos a Siem Reap al hotel de una pareja británica. Antes de apresurarnos por conocer los templos de Angkor Wat nos dimos un día para disfrutar de esta pequeña ciudad determinada por hordas de turistas.

IMG_3961Las tiendas y restaurantes aquí tienen una fusión bien lograda entre sabores y texturas de Cambodia con comodidades y servicios occidentales. El mercado central con todos sus contrastes es el mejor lugar para experimentar la cultura local:  los peces inconformes con su nueva realidad dan sus últimos saltos inútiles en canastas de bambú, los sapos desollados y sin tripas se apilan uno sobre otro en bandejas metálicas con una exactitud casi geométrica, el olor perfumado de frutas – para mi desconocidas – le gana al almizcle de los pollos recién desplumados que con sus patas de uñas brillantes mantienen una imposible postura, como de cantante de góspel: relajada y orgullosa. El microcosmos del mercado se expande mientras uno camina, a veces es un caldo tibio que huele a galangal y jengibre, y otras veces una comparsa viva que ofrece de todo, manicure donde estilistas travestis, vestidos floridos con motivos Thai, bolsas de cemento recicladas y convertidas en accesorios de moda. Yo repetí mercado, me deje convencer en cada puesto y aunque haya querido quedarme más tiempo siempre quedaban los otros planes pendientes, así que seguimos con el recorrido que faltaba.

Los templos son magníficos, nos compramos un tiquete de tres días para poder recorrerlos bien y un amable señor de un rickshaw nos llevó de templo en templo durante dos días. Para la tarde del segundo día yo ya había tenido mi dosis necesaria de ruinas y me quede en el rickshaw haciendo la siesta mientras Oisin y Gareth exploraban solos. Como frente a otros lugares monumentales los recursos de mi imaginación fallan al intentar especular acerca del tipo de vida que se llevaba en estos sitios, pero los portales enormes, las caras gigantescas talladas en piedra, los pasadizos que conectan galerías, los lugares ceremoniales, y el detalle meticuloso de cada pieza sugieren un tejido complejo de relaciones sociales.  Es curioso imaginar que cuando Angkor Wat sostenía cómodamente a una población de más de un millón de habitantes, Londres apenas contaba con escasos trienta mil. Cada piedra cuenta historias, explicitas o tácitas del paso del tiempo y es un gusto ver que este lugar se ha mantenido firme y bien conservado.

De Siem Reap viajamos a Phnom Penh, capital de Cambodia, donde los estragos de la guerra están todavía presentes. Afortunadamente  Cambodia ha documentado la tragedia como parte de su deseo por reconstruir la memoria después de la devastación de la guerra civil. Una vez más hago comparaciones con mi país, y creo firmemente que es indispensable – para la sanidad colectiva – hacer ese ejercicio de documentación, entender donde está cada muerto, saber quién disparó cada bala, no tanto para elaborar rencores como para empezar a hacer un mapa coherente del tejido político de esa nación hecha de retazos. Visitamos el macabro museo del genocidio y uno de los campos de aniquilación y aunque son lugares tétricos lo enfrentan a uno con la realidad absurda de la guerra y permite ponerle rostros a las cifras.

Pero además de darnos una idea de lo que fue el conflicto en Cambodia, nuestra visita a Phnom Penh también nos permitió descansar un poco y planear nuestra visita al sur donde llegamos para unas merecidas vacaciones de playa. Inicialmente queríamos pasar unos días en el sur de Cambodia y regresar a Tailandia y pasar otros días de playa allí, pero después de llegar a Otres nos dimos cuenta que no hacía falta buscar más playas, habíamos llegado al lugar que queríamos.

La playa en Otres fue ideal, casi desierta, aguas tibias y tranquilas y lo mejor de todo conseguimos unas cabañas perfectas a menos de 20 metros del mar con todas las comodidades y a un buen precio. Pasamos ahí más de una semana, absorbiendo ávidos los rayos del sol y descansando, esta vez de verdad como no lo habíamos hecho durante el viaje. La playa está bordeada por casitas de bambú donde los residentes tienen restaurantes, y los dueños del restaurante más próximo a nuestro hotel fueron un encanto. La mayoría del tiempo que estábamos en la playa nuestro hijo estaba entretenido jugando con ellos, o en la hamaca con los niños, o haciendo castillos de arena con unas hermanas Alemanas de unos veinte años tan dulces que era fácil entender el magnetismo de Oisín hacia ellas.

Si salir de Laos nos costó trabajo, salir de Otres beach nos dolió, pero salimos un jueves, dejando atrás ese maravilloso lugar y su gente tan desinteresadamente generosa y empezamos el camino de regreso a Tailandia con la promesa del mercado de Chatuchak para el fin de semana.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Flying South

Pati and Oisin wait for a pineapple in Luang Prabang 
Luang Prabang’s lazy charms kept us entranced for a good few days, but with the clock ticking for our onward flight to the great family reunion in Australia, we knew we had to get a move on if we wanted to see more of the region. Our consummately ad hoc approach to planning means that by the time we sit down to arrange the next part of our journey it usually transpires that the time necessary for the journey has already been spent, carefree, doing anything but planning. After savouring the delights of Bangkok for an unconscionably protracted spell of ten whole days, Vietnam now had to be struck off the agenda. Ever since I had laid hold of the Lonely Planet guidebook (approximately seventeen weeks ago) I had nurtured an urge to see Halong Bay. This was no longer going to be possible. I’d seen the Bangkok metro and I should count myself lucky. On top of this, we had met several travellers who all told remarkably similar stories of rude treatment that bordered on the physically hostile in Vietnam. I’m perplexed. What possible historical reason could the Vietnamese have to harbour resentment against the West?

The urge to see more of the region was also slowly morphing into the urge not to see it all from the window of a “luxury” bus endowed with bottomless seats and a suspension assembly freecycled from the Wright Brothers. Sloth got the better of the argument, and we opted to fly out of Luang Prabang to Siem Reap in Cambodia. That and the fact that the trip overland would have taken at least three solid days of travelling through the rural south of Laos. Given that the guidebook’s advice about any potential health issues was “get over the border into Thailand as soon as possible for treatment”, it was easy to use the boy as an excuse not to explore the more remote reaches of the country. It also warned that you would be fleeced as a matter of course by the Cambodian border guards on the way into their country by land.

So with a strong sense of wanting to return to this little gem of a town, with its somnolent streets, lanterns swinging in the Mekong breeze, monastery roofs that sweep down near to the ground, traffic that rolled gently past at walking pace and smiling inhabitants, we packed and headed for the tiny airport. One short flight later, and we abruptly realised that we had been on an all-too-brief leave of absence from the capitalist west, and in Cambodia it returned with a vengeance.

Laos is one of those few countries where you belatedly realise that on Planet Earth there are still some places where not every last inch of public space has been devoured by the advertising industry. This was something that I had never even contemplated until I visited Havana in 1997 – the idea that you could walk the streets of a city without being bombarded by endless idiotic entreaties to purchase a limitless amount of superfluous garbage that did nothing much but shorten the lifespan of our planet. The fact hit me with such force that I felt like some redneck woken from a bad dream who was walking through a William Morris landscape. Siem Reap airport brought the capitalist bad dream back with an instant array of billboards and a cash machine that dispensed – the horror – US dollars.

Flying the Flag!
Laos has one of those irritating currencies that employ an enormous number of zeros. 50,000 kip sounds like a lot of money until you realise it won’t buy you dinner for the night. A typical trip to the cash machine left my wallet stuffed with something like two million kip. And the smallest denomination note, 500 kip, is worth about four pence. What on earth are they thinking of, printing four pence banknotes? Then my brain rouses itself from its millionaire stupor: it’s probably cheaper to print those notes than mint coins. Cambodia, on the other hand, has surrendered itself to the Evil Emprire. For reasons that elude me, it runs on a dual-currency set up where both local riels and US dollars are accepted nationwide. The local riels tend to be used in place of cents, as there are no American coins circulating, so your change from a ten dollar bill might be seven dollars and two thousand five hundred riels. Managing one exchange rate is bad enough, but having to do twice the work simultaneously is a recipe for financial mismanagement. Nevertheless dollars were procured, not least because that is all they accept as payment for their tourist visa. The visa official at the airport did a double-take at my passport photograph, the one where I look like I’ve just been released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, and scowled. My pulse began to quicken as I blanched at the prospect of the negotiations ahead of me now. He laughed and handed it over, and as the rain started to come down in biblical quantities, our tuk-tuk driver produced two umbrellas and jammed them into the canopy of the taxi to shield us from the spray. We had no view whatsoever of the road ahead, so fingers crossed the traffic was light. The only thing we could see was an astonishingly large illuminated billboard for a hitherto unknown to me brand of “quality blended [!] Scotch whisky”. Followed by another billboard. And another one. We had arrived in Cambodia but we were having troubling spying it between the gigantic hoardings plastered in images of suave, sub-James Bond, “quality blended whisky” drinkers. As a single malt aficionado Cambodia was bringing me unexpected problems.

Saturday, 10 September 2011


It is disarming how quickly the eye accustoms itself to the unfamiliar. On the bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang we slowly left a small city behind and drove through flooded paddy fields into the rural hinterland of Laos’ capital. The plains eventually gave way to mountain ranges, and the space available for human settlements steadily decreased. From a city of concrete and brick, we made our way into a landscape that was populated by villages composed of bamboo shacks on stilts. Easy. I’ve browsed copies of National Geographic in the dentist’s waiting room, I’ve seen The Human Planet online – bamboo shacks are nothing to get excited about. The eye accustoms itself, and we drive past family homes constructed of the flimsiest material that I can imagine, the cheapest, most readily available material, material that is easily replaced in the event of a storm or flood. Yet the ease with which the eye soaks up these new exotic visions elides some pretty obvious questions. How do you put running water into a bamboo shack? How do you put plumbing into a bamboo shack? My guess is that you don’t. Likewise I would guess that you don’t have a solid wall to screw an electrical socket to plug in your fridge and keep the food fresh. Who collects the rubbish from outside a bamboo shack up the side of a mountain? Maybe that is the reason behind the ever-present clouds of thin blue smoke, as the rubbish is burnt and the plastic releases its toxic stream of dioxins into the mountain air.

The bus pulls over outside a bigger shack where food is served and passengers can use a toilet. Children push their way onto the bus, balancing large metal dishes containing bags of sliced fruit and packets of something indeterminate and fried. The youngest are scarcely bigger than Oisin, and with a mischievous glint in their eye try to sell him some snacks. How lazily the eye welcomes the smiles and entreaties of the children to buy their wares, how quickly I have learnt to casually shrug off their badgering. Then I check the time. It’s a weekday and it’s just after lunchtime. Is it naïve to ask if these kids should be in school? The driver’s assistant on one of our longer bus trips was about thirteen years old, and wore a t-shirt with a striking graphic and the slogan “Stop Child Labour”. He took our back-breaking backpacks from us and loaded them into the hold. He didn’t seem to be a living embodiment of irony, so was his t-shirt just a freebie someone had given him, or did he no longer consider himself a child and was campaigning on behalf of his younger brethren? For the first time my conscience has me squirming in a bus seat as the boy stood on the steps of the bus and stared open-mouthed at Oisin watching some cartoon on our little netbook. His eyes don’t refocus so easily when confronted with the casual wealth of the western traveller child. Shall I let him know that I’ll write a hand-wringing piece about him on an internet blog that he’ll never see (would he be able to read it if he did?), or just send a donation to Oxfam and hope that a few pennies trickle down into his bamboo shack?

A scooter wobbles past us somewhere in Cambodia. An obese middle-aged Western man is driving, a petite Asian girl is clutching on to a small portion of his expansive girth. A couple on a scooter – my eye doesn’t blink. Then another, then another. A couple of laughing British men sit down at a table on the beach, followed by two dainty Cambodian women less than half their age, and then their siblings. The British men don’t bother to talk to the two women: do they even speak their language? The women, in turn, concern themselves with their smaller sisters and brothers. Presumably all will eat at the table of the unstinting British males – I try to stop myself wondering what price might be exacted later once the children are in bed. My eye is repelled by the endless succession of ugly white men towing pretty young Asian women behind them. I don’t know the numbers, but surely this many cases of “romantic love” are statistically improbable? We debate: Pati rankles at my view of the women as economic victims of predatory western males, while I can’t accept her view that they are still agents of their own destiny, even if hitching up with a flabby foreigner is the quickest way out of poverty for them.

Here’s the text from the restaurant in Luang Prabang that I mentioned in the last post. I don’t think it answers any of these questions. Maybe it prompted them.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Luang Prabang

We decided to bite the bullet and take a bus straight to Luang Prabang. It was slated as an eight hour trip, which meant it would be longer (why are travel agents the world over such inveterate liars?), but we allowed ourselves to be seduced by the “VIP bus” blather, and thought that it might not be a totally horrendous trip. It wasn’t horrendous, but the on-board toilet was the right size for hobbits, and if it had ever seen a VIP it must have been Keith Moon judging from the state of the decor. Oisin had his revenge on us by finally throwing up on a road trip, a mere six hours into the journey, but we think we got off lightly and it was probably the MSG for lunch. The scenery was, once again, spectacular. Laos is blessed with a strange type of mountain formation known as karst formations, which seem to rear up unprovoked out of the surrounding plains with nearly vertical sides and improbable round tops. Finally, a mountain horizon that resembled the waggly landscapes I used to draw in primary school. You know you’re in special countryside when there’s a motorcycle parked up at the side of the road, helmet hanging from wing mirror, with a bloke just standing gawping. Motorcyclists don’t usually stop for much else apart from a piss.

The downside of the karst formation’s shape is that there is no going over them – only round them. And round and round. Eventually part of the bus gave up, so we pulled over and got off to watch the driver and assistant empty out the least inspiring collection of hand tools that I’ve seen for quite a while, before proceeding to batter some key part of the rear suspension back into working shape.
We were only two hours “late” into Luang Prabang, although it was dark by the time we arrived, and the concept of a payphone in the bus terminal was a novelty to all those of whom I enquired as to its whereabouts. With what must be by now tiresome familiarity, we had over-prepared for this leg of the journey by not phoning any guesthouses at all, so now as it got dark and the rain came pouring down, Oisin and Pati huddled under the corrugated tin roof of the bus shelter while I blagged a mobile from a stall holder on the other side of the bus park. Half an hour of calls revealed that every decent hotel listed in the guide book was full, so we ended up in a wooden shack with torn lino on the floor and three single beds. One day we might learn some lessons, but that day is probably still a continent or two away.

Next day we set out early with the one aim of finding decent lodgings. And find them we did. A beautiful old colonial building right by the side of the Mekong, with a dusty antique shop on the ground floor and criminally cheap rooms upstairs – two double beds, aircon, satellite telly and private bathroom for about £7.  Their wifi was “broken”, but I was prepared to forgive them that as everywhere else in town seemed to have wifi coming out their ears. Luang Prabang is another UNESCO World Heritage site, sitting on a peninsula between the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers, with decaying French colonial villas in neat lines, interrupted only by disproportionate numbers of Buddhist monasteries.
After the rains of Vientiane, we were in the mood for a change of pace, and Luang Prabang fulfilled our needs amply. Scooter in hand, we wandered the few streets of the touristy end of the town, browsing impeccably tasteful handicraft shops, drinking good coffee and slowly succumbing to the fact that the local beer, Beer Lao, is really very good indeed. Beer Lao has a brand ubiquity that even Guinness would be proud of. Every backpacker and his dog seem to have a Beer Lao t-shirt on, doubtless encouraged by the fact that the logo is visually pleasing and hence makes for a good t-shirt (that and the price – the shirts cost about £1.50 here). For that very reason I fought shy of getting dragged in. But when I eventually gave it a sup, it rewarded my jaded taste buds in style. We promptly bought the t-shirt. In fact, we got one each. It took several hours of scouring the enchanting night market, but we finally found a Beer Lao t-shirt the right size for a three year old, so we are now the Beer Lao family. I’m still waiting to get a photo of the whole team, but as soon as I do it’ll be up here.

Just today I read a comment on Trip Advisor where a Canadian woman had posted a review of a place in Bangkok where she’d eaten and used the restaurant wifi. The staff refused to hand over her fifty baht change on the grounds she’d plugged her laptop in to the restaurant’s power supply and used electricity. Fifty baht is currently worth about one British pound. The Canadian wrote an appalling review of the place, denouncing the staff as thieves and explaining that she and her partner stood and argued for twenty minutes for their fifty baht. Twenty minutes arguing over a pound. Welcome to the ugly side of international travel. In Luang Prabang I came across an amazing text that was the last page in the menu of a reasonably unassuming bar where we stopped for food one afternoon. The waiter spotted me trying to sneak photos of it, paragraph by paragraph, with my mobile, and happily offered me my very own copy to take home and keep. I’ll put a copy of it up here in its entirety once I get it scanned, for I think it says far better than I could many things about what our presence means here on the other side of the world. And I might just email the link to the Trip Advisor reviewer. The bar is called Lao Lao Garden by the way, and their tempura is great.

Monday, 5 September 2011


This is a 5min video of our trip out of Luang Prabang to the nearby elephant sanctuary, which included a trek through a little bit of jungle in the howdah of a very forgiving lady elephant.

Este video dura 5 minutos y es de nuestra visita al sanctuario de elefantes cerca de Luang Prabang, durante la cual hicimos un breve paseo por la selva sentados en el "howdah" de una elefante viejita pero paciente.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Charlie Don’t Scoot

Vientiane turned out to be a bit of a wash-out. Not because we had high hopes that we failed to realise, rather that it rained more or less constantly the whole time we were there. And this time, when I say rain, I mean downpours that sting your skin with the ferocity with which they fall to earth. The first rain started the day after we arrived. It eased off a bit thirty six hours later, but by that time the both of us had had a bad reaction to something we’d eaten and spent a listless day trying to put off the child’s demands for entertainment. A conversation with a backpacker from Jersey brought the horrors of monosodium glutamate to our notice. She reeled off a long list of undesirable side effects – “and they add it to everything”. We started to retrospectively wonder about the irregular headaches and those occasional listless days spent in mild reaction to something disagreeable. Then we noticed that most touristy western food places had notes on the bottom of their menus to the effect that they cooked with bottled water and without MSG. No smoke without fire – it must be a “bad” thing.

Pati raincoat

Frustratingly, the riverside park at the end of the street our hotel was on had a very well-equipped kids playground. Which was under about a foot of water. Oisin was undeterred, and when we arrived there in cabin fever desperation, wearing our Berghaus jackets for the first time since leaving the UK, carrying an umbrella and trying to get him to keep on the ridiculous plastic raincoat we had bought in Bangkok, he immediately stripped off to his boxers and joined the local kids in sliding down the plastic chute straight into a huge puddle. The screams of laughter were international – no translation was needed here.


The impromptu dip in the kids playground led us to contemplate a visit to the local swimming pool. First, a swimming costume would be needed for the child (this wasn’t unpreparedness – the last one was left behind in Cardiff as he would have outgrown it by now). We did the rounds of the shopping centre (“the” shopping centre – I think they only have one. You gotta love these one party state socialists.) We finally found one little unit that sold sports equipment and I immediately got distracted by a junior set of strap-on wheels that convert your shoes to roller-skates. After foolishly spending a laborious 15 minutes getting Oisin into them, he was delighted. But there was no way they were going to fit into our by now over-stretched rucksacks. Pati watched, staring silently with that “you dug the hole, you get yourself out of it” look on her face. We were at a potential make-or-break point in father-son relations. After such a long time getting him into the skates, how could I deny him? There was only one way out of the impasse – gratuitous bribery. The son of the shop-owner zoomed into the tiny unit atop a small scooter and Oisin’s eyes lit up. Not only that, but the wheels of the scooter lit up as well when it was moving. He had a couple of trial scoots around the arcade, we had a quick haggle, and the deal was done. The skates were forgotten: we had a whole new piece of luggage to travel with us.

The swimming pool was open air. I think I can say with certainty that it’s the first time I’ve been for a swim where the hammer and sickle fluttered proudly from a flagpole at the entrance. That felt like it adjusted the historical balance after I grew up going swimming in the Robinson Centre in Castlereagh – named after a proto-fascist who was born too late for Mosley and had to masquerade as a democratic politician. Whatever happened to him? The pool was watched over by what I hoped was a lifeguard, sitting smoking in a small tower. Then the rain started again. We splashed around until it felt like it was easing off, dried ourselves in the socialist changing rooms, and tried to return to the hotel huddling under our tiny umbrella. Halfway back, a Laotian boy of about twelve leapt out into the pavement in front of us. We’d not been asked for money yet in Laos, and we were wondering what his script would be. The usual “hello!” and “what’s your name?” were hollered at us with unusual vigour. Then he ran on ahead before turning back with a stick in his hand, pointing it at us with stabbing motions. I’ve only been in one other one party socialist state before in my life, so I was feeling a little out of my cultural depth, and wasn’t quite sure what might be in store with this pointy stick encounter. Oisin was beginning to make finger pistols and his “pisshhooo” shooting noises in return, while the twelve year old was roaring with laughter. Struggling to match his interrogatorial skills, I shouted back “what’s your name?”. He stopped mid-stride, turned to us and shouted “Harry Potter Laos!” Waving his stick at us one more time he was gone.


The scooter, it turns out, has been the best 18 quid I’ve spent in a very long time. Oisin happily exhausts himself up and down the banks of the Mekong while most of Vientiane’s promenaders stand and stare, and Pati and I get something approaching a walk. The next challenge is to impart some degree of road sense. There’s nothing quite like watching your son, about two hundred yards distant, deliriously oblivious to all and sundry on his new scooter, riding it straight into the heels of some unsuspecting Laotian couple. I’m not sure they’re keen on that sort of children’s behaviour in one party socialist states.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Heart of Laos

I suspected that the timetable was not going to be followed to the letter when the uniformed buffet car waiter asked us if we wanted to order breakfast. “What time do you serve breakfast?” I asked somewhat perplexedly. “Oh, about 7.30, 8 o’clock.” “But the train arrives at 8.30,” I replied, yet more perplexed. Our transvestite waiter batted his eyelids at me in amused disbelief. “Oh no, the train won’t arrive at 8.30. Breakfast?”

We placed our order and paid up. No receipt was issued, so there then ensued a period of anxiety while we wondered whether our immaculately made-up waiter was actually an employee of the Thai railways, or just someone who knew how to part unsuspecting gringos from their cash. You can’t be too careful…

Indian trains were not of the highest order, in terms of their interior accoutrements, but in the month we spent travelling on them, I don’t think any arrived more than an hour late. Even our first one from Delhi that left about two hours behind schedule made the time up overnight. In Thailand, on the other hand, the train was immaculately furnished with fully functioning adornments (should a toilet ever really qualify as an “adornment”?), and the trip north from Bangkok to Nong Khai on the border with Laos was supposed to take from 8.30pm to 8.30am. We breakfasted without haste. Once the air of anticipation dissipated we gave up and lunched, and then finally arrived around 1pm. Bored senseless. It’s the question of where your horizon of expectation lies. If we’d expected to spend seventeen hours on the train instead of the advertised twelve, we wouldn’t have allowed ourselves to get so pointlessly impatient so quickly.

Off one train and onto the next at Nong Khai. With our careful, trademark preparedness, we had run out of cash and didn’t even have the price of the Laos visa. The Thais have had people like us before, and have thoughfully installed an ATM in the railway station. (Yes, I give up, it’s an “ATM”. You won’t get anywhere if you ask for a cash machine. The only cash machines round here are the tourists.) While tuk-tuks and motos zip back and forward on either side our next train runs on tracks down the middle of Friendship Bridge, spanning the famous Mekong, and to the border point with Laos. Welcome to Laos, it’ll cost you ninety quid to get in. I nearly lost my temper with the woman behind the visa counter. Firstly, I had to bend double just to be able to hear her through the tiny window, and then to add insult to western injury, they had installed their little facial image camera at about the height of my navel. She demanded thirty quid each for us to get our three visas. No, the child wouldn’t go free. I had just heard her charge three Spaniards twenty quid each, so it seemed like a good idea to kick right off right there right then. She didn’t even bother to smile back and curtly informed me that different nationalities pay different visa prices. Just like it is back home. At this point I remembered that Laos is a one party socialist state, and while it is usually fruitless to argue with border guards in the west, it felt like a whole lot more risky a proposition in a one party state.

The Mekong. Another landmark river. It was broad, in full spate with monsoon rains, and flowing swiftly past the banks of Vientiane, the capital of Laos. I can’t think of anything except Apocalypse Now. It’s not even the right country, but then again, the conflict left its mark on the entire region. Laos is, per capita, the most cluster-bombed country in the world. The Americans dropped something like two million tonnes of cluster munitions onto Laos (they weren’t even officially at war) in an attempt to cut the supply routes that the North Vietnamese Army used during the Second Indochina War. With a failure rate on impact of about one third, Laotians calculate that there are still 80 million unexploded cluster bombs littering their country. If economics determined the war, economics continues to drive Laotians to risk losing life and limb – children gather bombs for their value as scrap metal, never knowing if they are duds or still live.


The COPE Centre in Vientiane tells the story of the “bombies” as they are known here, and fabricates prosthetic limbs for those that survive their encounter with the American legacy, as well as rehabilitating disabled victims and designing ingenious three-wheeled chairs for those that have only one complete arm remaining of their original four limbs. (The picture above shows a display of redundant homemade limbs fabricated in despair by bomb victims before they found their way to the COPE Centre. If you want to do a good deed today, follow the link and sponsor a leg for a Laotian.) It was a sobering visit, and one with its own particular challenges of how to explain to a three year old why little boys younger than him have only one leg. It seemed like it would be a good counter-balance to all his current enthusiasm for guns and killing things (thanks to too many hotel room tellies and too much Ben Ten). He took it all in, but it has generated its own discomfort in turn. The streets have a noticeable number of disabled people, usually asking for money, and when he spies them, Oisin now asks in a loud, innocent voice if they don’t have their arms or legs because they did step on a bomb in the ground and it did blow them up. I just hope his youth defrays any potential offence his enquiries might cause to those being so loudly discussed.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Dancing on the Platform

Oisin shows off his flashy footwork waiting for the engine for our sleeper train to Laos.

Bangkok Scenes

Sunday, 21 August 2011


Escribiré acerca de Tailandia cuando estemos allá de nuevo, cuando tenga la memoria fresca para hacerle justicia a todas las cosas hermosas de ese país. A veces cuando veo que Gareth publica mucho más cercano a la fecha de las visitas me dan ganas de llevar el mismo ritmo, pero no en este caso, la distancia que me dan Laos y Cambodia para ver a Tailandia en perspectiva ha permitido que no escriba un post impregnado de alabanzas al país que nos fascinó de entrada por hacer un contraste tan marcado con las dificultades que experimentamos en India. Pero como Tailandia es mucho más que una cuerda salvavidas me dejo las descripciones de ahí para cuando regresemos.

De Tailandia tomamos un "sleeping train" hasta la frontera con Laos. Un tren que se suponía iba a durar 12 horas (de 8pm a 8am) pero que duró como 17… al menos el tren era cómodo y tenía cocina a bordo (ay las comparaciones con India de nuevo!) pero igual no dormimos, Gareth ya explica en detalle en su post las razones.

Sobra decir lo mucho que disfruto esos microcosmos que son los trenes nocturnos. Me deleita observar a los que se toman el viaje tan enserio que hasta se ponen pijama de dos piezas, ver a las familias, incluyéndonos a nosotros mismos, haciendo el viaje hasta el baño a lavarse los dientes en manada, fijarme en pasajero solitario que le cuesta quedarse en su compartimento por más de una hora y sube y baja el pasillo con unos niveles de energía que disminuyen con la cercanía al destino. Y en el caso de este tren era una verdadera delicia ver pasar al mesero del vagón, un travesti rubio con un labial rosa que le combinaba di-vi-na-men-te con los zapaticos de charol beige, super amable con nosotros y adorable con Oisín. Había que verla deteniéndose a mitad del pasillo para cederle el paso a un parco policía ferrovial con un ligero movimiento de melena.


Llegamos a la frontera después del mediodía y la vuelta de la visa no involucro mucho más que llenar un formulario pequeño y pagar en ventanilla más de lo que habíamos previsto. El contraste con Tailandia se nota inmediatamente, la gente en general habla menos Ingles y hay un cierto desaceleramiento hipnotizador en las calles, como que las cosas se hacen a su tiempo y no antes. Después de cruzar la frontera compartimos un taxi con una japonesa preciosa de ojos verdes y con un bronceado tan bien establecido que delataba meses de estar viajando. Así llegamos a Vientiane, capital de Laos, la capital más relajada que yo he visto, tanto así que no parece capital. El libro de guía prometió con hipérboles una ciudad que todavía se experimenta el legado colonial francés, una ciudad que yo no encontré, la ciudad que encontramos es un lugar sosegado donde los carros van despacio y casi nunca emplean el pito, una ciudad que parece replicar el ritmo lento y constante de las aguas del Mekong.


Conocimos a una chica encantadora, Javiera, la segunda Chilena que encontramos en dos meses viajando sola. A Javiera la encontramos unos días más tarde cuando llegamos a Luang Prabang al norte de Laos lista para irse a un retiro de meditación de diez días. En nuestra primera noche de hotel en Luang Prabang en una casa de huéspedes de lo más simple y gris, encontré un libro de Herman Hesse que no había leído: Journey To The East. Como casi siempre que termino leyendo uno de sus libros, este llegó en un momento muy oportuno. El viaje nuestro ha estado desde el principio marcado por experiencias espirituales que siempre experimentamos de segunda mano. Todas esas manifestaciones de fe de terceros han ido despertando un interés en conocer más acerca del budismo. A esto hay que sumarle el libro maravilloso que nos regaló nuestro amigo Rick Hall antes de salir de Belfast (Blood Washing Blood) Así que por estos días de playa en la costa de Cambodia me entretengo leyendo las transcripciones de un seminario de un Rimpoche a un grupo de occidentales.

Train to Nong Khai

It’s hard to believe the effect that one pretty young Thai girl can have on a whole gaggle of older men, but it’s nearly midnight and I’m sitting up on the sleeper train from Bangkok to Nong Khai on the Thai-Laos border, listening to the wagon attendant chat up this particular passenger. A few hours earlier the ticket inspectors came round. They hunt in threes, and they spent longer inspecting her ticket than they did on the rest of the wagon combined. She appears to be selling “grape seed oil”, from what I could read upside down on the laminated sheets that she produced every time she had someone’s, some man’s, attention – perhaps she is some sort of grape seed Mata Hari, luring unsuspecting Thai men to a good, if costly, oiling.

Oisin on Nong Khai train

The thing about the officials in this country is that they wear the most improbably tight-fitting uniforms. It’s as if the costume designer from Chips sketched up the patterns for the Thai police force. What I can’t understand is that there is never so much as a pin prick of perspiration to be seen seeping through these figure-hugging black and grey garments. Is the major entry requirement for the Thai police an ability not to sweat no matter what the climatic conditions? When the monsoon rains come during the night, the next days are blessed with a clear blue sky and soaring temperatures. A heat of the sort that has me dripping as I leave the shower, to the point where it becomes senseless to towel off, for where does the bath water stop and my dehydration begin? Yet I slop out into the street, leaving a trail of untalcumed sweat drops spattering the pavement behind me, to find policemen directing traffic, or riding motorcycles, or patrolling the streets with not a damp patch to be seen between them. What catches me off-guard about this is that behind the high camp stretch pants, lycra shirts and mirror glasses, there doesn’t seem to be a macho authority swagger. Policemen fall over themselves to help us, to find someone to translate our questions (Pati’s questions, I still have a punk rocker’s aversion to talking to policemen), to indulge the child. I was struggling in the queue for the enquiry desk in Agra train station last month when an Indian police officer decided I needed some help with the decidedly unruly way that Indians “queue”. He produced his lathi, a bamboo pole about twice the size of my son, and proceeded to prod the locals brusquely into line. The moustache, the Frank Spencer beret and the paunch did nothing for the cut of his jib in my book, but his big stick and unquestioning swagger had the would-be enquirers in parade ground order in no time. I didn’t really feel the need to be grateful. I could have dealt with the jumbled queue (eventually). “Treat people like scum and they’ll start behaving like scum” said Robert Carlyle’s murderous character in a 16-year old episode of Cracker that we recently watched. I wonder if that logic would make much impact on the requisitioners of the Indian police lathi.

Now there is a full-on conversation taking place on the other side of my Thai Railways curtain. The unsteady American who appeared in Pati’s face about two hours ago, asking if she knew where the bar was, has returned, half bottle of Singha beer in hand, to join the conversation in Thai between the lovestruck wagon attendant and the fragrant grape seed oil Mata Hari. Pati explodes out of her top berth in mute frustration at not being able to sleep, and throws herself down in a sulk at the other end of my bunk. I put the laptop away and stick my head out into the aisle. “Any chance of taking the conversation somewhere else guys? It’s nearly midnight. Maybe the bar?” The American looks round at me over his shoulder and readies his reply. “The bar’s closed.” “There’s probably a good reason for that,” I smile back. The Thai Railways chap is looking embarrassed, grape seed girl is tantalisingly only half visible behind her own curtain, and the American is translating my points for them. I keep my head out in the aisle in as cheerful an impression of block-headed stubbornness as I can manage at midnight. The American struggles down the wagon, and the Thai suitor snuggles his bum back onto its perch – on top of our backpacks. I keep staring. He bows his head in another excruciating apology. I keep staring. He mutters something to the Mata HHari and finally moves off. I pull the curtain closed in relief and we prepare for another attempt at sleep. By the time I come back from the bathroom Pati is giggling to herself. The wagon attendant had returned and climbed into the berth with the grape seed girl. Looks like she had so much attention because she was his girlfriend all along.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Bangkok Sauce

Sadly, we packed and left the leafy surroundings of our gifted two nights in the boutique hotel of Phranakorn Nornlen. There had only been one aspect of our stay that had unnerved me: there were signs on various surfaces with the decree “No Sex Tourists”. Yet no matter how many times I read it, my brain kept putting a comma in and making it an exhortation to travelling celibacy on the part of foreign visitors.


We headed down the main street towards the centre of Bangkok, checking every hotel we could find along the way. The longer I spend with guide books in my hand, the less I trust them, as the recommendations from the Lonely Planet were either ludicrously expensive or ludicrously crap. We finally hit on a little villa on a side street next to one of the canals. Despite my four years in the Sherman Cymru scenic workshop, I’m very far from having anything like a passable knowledge of wood, sheets of cheap ply apart. The entire place was built out of a gorgeous dark hardwood – my guess is that it is teak, and the louvred window shutters and brightly polished floors were a joy to behold. Clearly, though, respectable Thai hotels don’t have any truck with “loving you long time” these days. The sign on the front door was even less specific than the last one – “No Thais Allowed Please”. Can you be racist against your own people?!


The streets outside were a riot of food stalls. The trouble is, being vegetarian means that I’m not really able to jump in without having a rough idea of what it is that is being dished up. So a lot of these places are a point and stare experience for me. Combined with an allergic partner who inflates at the mere mention of seafood, the two of us aren’t really the ideal gourmet explorers. Throw in a grumpy three year old who will eat any dish as long as it is spaghetti bolognese, and you have a recipe for culinary conservatism that is as frustrating as it is repetitive.

To redress the balance I hunted down May Kaidee’s veggie restaurant, and after a delicious massaman curry (followed by awe-inspiring vegetable tempura that the child refused to eat despite our pleas that it “was chips”), immediately signed up for her cooking class the next day. The morning started with a degree of disorganisation that anyone who has eaten in my kitchen will recognise as symptomatic of the type of cooking style I’m hoping to leave behind. I got up early to walk 45 minutes to the restaurant where I’d been told to present myself. After half an hour of sipping a bottle of water, they rustled up a bloke on a scooter who then drove me (I had my special protective baseball cap on, I didn’t need a helmet) back to the cookery school, which was at the bottom of the street where our guest house was. Well, a pointless brisk walk followed by casually dicing with death on the back of an underpowered scooter is as good a way as any to start a half day of Thai cooking.

May Kaidee then made her appearance. May is petite, beautiful, charming and bonkers in equal measures. And she can cook wonderfully. She appeared in full traditional Thai dress, and after a couple of hours of cooking instructions, had us all sit down to watch her dance for ten minutes. In the restaurant. While other people were eating their food. She then made the rest of us get up and follow her. At this point the bemused diners gave up on their dishes and just sat and filmed or photographed us. I loved her cooking school, but I think if the flyer had contained the sentence “class includes involuntary 20 minute Thai line dancing session in public view” I would have had serious doubts about attending.


The child obviously realised that things were careering out of control and that we had sought the advice of his grandmother, for his behaviour seemed to improve immediately following the 90 minutes I spent on the phone to Belfast. This probably has more to do with us finding a moment of solace in the wise words of his Nana, and getting a bit of perspective on our collective frustrations and fallibilities. Bangkok makes generous parenting easy. There is a huge park, with working children’s playground (some of the slides we had seen in India were a rusting metal kiddie deathtrap). There are shopping centres (no, not “malls”, shopping centres) with enormous children’s amusements areas. There are soft play centres. There are also lots of western style restaurants where there is an endless supply of tomato sauce. Now that we had taken a mental breather, our fight is no longer with our own son but rather his crack squirrel addiction to tomato sauce. A good friend of mine once requested tomato sauce before even sampling the dish that I had just laboriously concocted for him. We are no longer on speaking terms. I don’t want the same thing to happen to my son. If you see a small blond child forlornly wandering the streets of Bangkok, don’t give him tomato sauce no matter what he says.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Two nights in Bangkok…

Bangkok. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand breath out.


Gleaming airport. Fast queues. Smiling immigration. Safe luggage. Working ATMs. Taxi rank (taxi rank!). Shiny car. Ice cold air con. Fast road. Toll booth. Skyscrapers. Megacity skyline. Neon dazzle. Megacity buzz. Stomachs tighten. Megacity promise.

The western world welcomed us back with open arms. After six weeks in India and Nepal Bangkok airport was first world familiar and yet strangely new. Even the immigration official had a smile, as he apologised after belatedly realising that I had a Thai visa and that he hadn’t stamped me in for the appropriate one month stay. The taxi drivers were waiting patiently outside in a huddle on the other side of crowd barriers, and kindly waved us to the booking desk where a chit was issued for our journey. The polished taxis were neatly lined up at identical 45 degree angles to the kerb, the driver charged us exactly what the guide book said the cost of the trip would be, and took us straight to our hotel door.

On the toll motorway into central Bangkok the skyline slowly grew as we approached it. Glittering spikes of advertising aimed their points at the lowering monsoon twilight – “Joy is BMW” glowed up the side of one tower in letters that must have been ten metres wide to be able to dominate an entire panorama with such ease. Billboards that would have had a desultory couple of floodlights pointed up at them at home were made of LCD screens here, with images so blinding in intensity that it was hard to believe they didn’t constitute a driving hazard for the passing traffic. And then a ramp, and down, down off the elevated motorway and suddenly the city revealed itself at first hand: handcarts jostle at the side of the road for space to sell every type of food imaginable, rickshaws weave in and out of the bigger vehicles, countdown clocks tick red at traffic lights so that drivers know how long they have to wait (and presumably don’t sit and gun their engines?), police and parked motorbikes stand and watch intersections, and of course the king. The King. His Maj.

Enormous images of the king appear at every turn in Bangkok. The king in official pose. The king going “casual”. The king taking photographs. The king watching us looking at him. The revolting orgy of sycophancy that was the “royal” wedding in London earlier this year made me think that the UK was a royal-obsessed country, but Thailand has a trick or two to teach us yet. If you’re reading this in the hope of some political, cultural or historical erudition concerning the countries we’re visiting, then you’ll be sadly disappointed. I have no idea what the king represents to the Thai people, but judging from the outside, he seems like a father-figure that everyone loves and who has successfully prevented his offspring from reading Freud. There are entire shops dedicated purely to the business of selling images of the king, and we’re not just talking about postcards – some of these things could be used to clad the side of a house. My prejudices get the better of me. I don’t like him. No matter what anyone says, a society that is functioning healthily needs a monarch like a fish needs a bicycle. Where was Elizabeth Windsor when Tottenham was burning, eh?


But I keep my feelings to myself (and resolve never to be caught out at the cinema in Thailand at 6pm when apparently they play the national anthem and everyone stands. As in, “everyone stands”). The hotel is an oasis of untrammelled delight in the middle of this megacity. A birthday present from two of the loveliest people in Cardiff, we have two nights in the place to gawp at the effortless Thai kitsch, the flawless cooking, the indefatigably hospitable staff, the kids play area. Even the plumbing is stupidly, unnecessarily pretty.


Oisin stares in mute disbelief – a kids play area. With other children! Take a child away from everything he has ever known, drag him halfway round the world to places where no one speaks his language, everyone seems to want to pull his cheeks off his face, and the unrecognisable food is largely inedible despite what your parents insist, and maroon him with precisely the very two bores who have spent most of his life shouting instructions at him and what do you get? You get a little boy who initially seems to be taking things in his stride, but by the time you get to Bangkok you have a little boy who is clearly not at ease but unable to articulate it, and who has two parents who expend far too much energy reacting against the bad behaviour and not enough time wondering where it is coming from. It’s not long before there are fisticuffs and tears in the play area, and we dive in (again) to drag him off and ask ourselves what is going on. There’s only one answer for an emergency like this, now that we’ve finally twigged that something more than simple naughtiness is afoot – a phone call to Nana.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Bangkok pics


Kids' superhero Ben 10 gets a poetic upgrade from a Chinese pirate in a Durbar Square toyshop!


On the river bus in Bangkok


My god


Coconut curry by the roadside in Chinatown. Oisin couldn't even deal with the idea that I was eating this, much less try any of it himself.


There comes a point where you start to think "once you've seen one temple, you've seen them all". Especially if you're three.