Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Big Move

So what does one do after one's children have been abducted?

One moves on to another orphanage of course (whilst keeping up the visits with the other younguns). The new orphanage is in Narayanthan, just up from my old stomping ground in Hattigauda. We have 29 kids ranging in age from 4 to 12. Quite a difference from the old place. They are little ruffians that require a bit of taming but I'm sure I'm up to the task. Living with 29 kids and a Nepali manager should be and interesting wee challenge, and as the new place is the one that we helped set up, I've already met some of the locals.

Not bad for a couple of days on the job!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Kathmandu Kristmas

It was an interesting afternoon and evening. A call home in the morning, followed by a glorious afternoon spent having a beer or two in the sun, and topped off with a traditional Christmas BLT at a local restaurant. Complete with Santa.

This was pretty much how the VSN volunteers spent their Christmas Day. Of course plenty of us were crook aswell. Not hungover. Fair dinkum crook. Dinner saw quite a few of us having to disappear to the toilet after every drink or after we'd had a bite to eat. Santa (James) got hounded by the Nepali kids at the restaurant for presents, but all the adults thought it was great, and a lot of "Merry Christmas"'s were being thrown about the place.

The sun drenched afternoon on the roof of our hotel was most reminiscent of home. It was scorching up there, and the beers were going down like water. (In my case it was just water, anything else resulted in a hurried dash downstairs to the loo). Will had bought some fake snow and the stuff was getting sprayed around like crazy. Course with it ending up in people's drinks, spraying it over the table was a quick way to get yelled at or hit. More than once was a lamentation at the lack of a barbie and some steak, the vegetarians among us however did not share the despair of the carnivorous few.

A disappointing dinner at Northfield's, the company was great, the service lethargic at best and the food way below average, was followed by a night on the town. Again a much abbreviated one due to the abundant illnesses floating about. Santa proved to be as great a hit on the dance floor as he had in the restaurant, and with little persuading managed to get us into a club for free.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 22, 2006


Where once you fail, so shall you try again. That at least was the thinking of the Umbrella Foundation, when they "rescued" our kids the Wednesday before Christmas. (By the way they excel at creative writing)

The Boys El Luchador and his sidekick Bay and Badrush Saran

Now they are a very well funded and very well connected organization here in Nepal. And there is no doubt that they provide excellent facilities for the kids, but what happened that Wednesday night amounted to nothing short of kidnapping.

I rocked up to the orphanage to find a vast majority of the kids in a state of near panic, and discovered that the manager and his wife had been imprisoned. The kids had been told at school that they were to be "taken" that day and had been detained at school for that purpose. The principal of their school (wisely) decided that the school should not be involved and sent them home.
My fellow cohort James, I was later to learn had also been at the school trying to find out what was going on. He arrived at the orphanage just when all the drama began to happen.

I had been trying to tell the kids that they wouldn't be going because there had been rumours almost every week since the last time there had been a rescue attempt. But around 5pm ish, a very angry adolescent girl pointed out two very officious looking people and exclaimed "See! See!", in a tone that only an indignant juvenile can manage. They then disappeared for some chiya and were quickly replaced by two government officials and a dude who looked like he'd just walked off the set of the Nepali remake of "The Bodyguard". With his earpiece in and phone at the ready, shades on, arrogant swagger, he was not quite as smooth as Kevin Costner but he was trying, hard. Turns out he was a reporter.

Rajani Gurung Anita Rai Sunita Nepali Sushila Rai Anita Tamang Eman Gurung

The government dudes introduced themselves and wanted a quick tour of the premises. I obliged. All the while trying to calm down a dozen children or more. Most of whom loudly proclaiming their unwillingness to leave. Upon asking said officials if the kids were going to be taken or not, I received "Maybe", "We are unsure about the situation" and more such bollocks. Politicians everywhere can never give a straight answer.

So now we had, me, the kids, two government lackies (one of whom was apparently a "Head of Division"), the reporter, the police had arrived (minus their weapons this time) with the manager and his wife in tow, James, and the entire village looking on.
There was still no sign of any representative of from the Umbrella Foundation. It was starting to get dark, the kids had started cooking the evening meal, the police were standing over them whilst they were trying to pack, there were tears, there was a lot of anger and confusion (not only from the kids). Oh, and there was no transport as yet.

We had to witness most of the hardest parts from James' room opposite the orphanage. When it was pitch black our hungry kids got packed into taxis to be taken to their new homes. It was at this point that a rep from Umbrella rocked up. On his phone. Throwing namaste around at the kids like he'd known them forever. But, where was he when a couple of sisters started screaming? Where was he when they clung to the pillars of the house because they did not want to go? Where was he when they had to be escorted by the alleged "enemy" (the manager's wife) out to the waiting taxis? Not in bloody sight. That's where.

Karmalal Soni Gurung Krishna Sarina Gurung Deepak Hilal and Som

Oh and as we didn't know about the "rescue" do you think Umbrella tried to find out any pertinent information with regards to medical history/allergies/problems that may be plaguing the kids? Of course they bloody didn't. Too wrapped up in being the "Knight in Shining friggin Amour" they were. We were later to learn that said representative had sent out an email declaring that the kids had been "happy" to see him and that they had been "liberated". Yes I'm sure screaming and crying fearful children can always be seen as "happy to be liberated".

It was a crap night that saw me and James head into Thamel and get right royally plastered. Can't remember much of what happened after the "liberation", but the actual event is still a very vivid memory.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Nepali Nuptuals

A beautiful day. Music and dancing. Prayer and ceremony. Lots of food. Lots of colour. A Nepali wedding in a nutshell.

the happy coupleAnd it is a whole day affair. Starting early in the morning, people arriving bearing gifts, the caterers have been cooking their wee hearts out since first light, kids running around, women fussing over the bride, decorations up and about. Sounds "same same" as a European wedding yes? However, there are a few differences:

(i) the bride is sequestered in a room until the groom arrives
(ii) the bride can't speak to anyone or show any happiness or emotion
(iii) the groom can socialize to his little hearts content, so long as he performs the ceremonies properly
(iv) the bride makes an appearance after the groom has arrived (around lunchtime) is there to receive gifts, then buggers off back to her seclusion, only to reappear some hours later to actually "get married", then seclusion again.
(v) guests can rock up and eat the whole day (they don't even have to bring a gift or know the couple) cool huh?!

So we had a band heralding the arrival of the groom at about lunchtime. He looked quite dashing all decked out in his traditional Nepali garb, although I personally thought the excess of pink was a bit too much. The bride was equally eye catching in her red sari and veil. Bits of gold adorning her ears and nose, her eyes dark with kajal (khol), lips ruby red and exceedingly demure.

The wedding we went to was of a rich family. The food was great and abundant. The gifts never ending, and ranging from small bowls to a fridge (quite uncommon in the average Nepali house). The guests happy. The music infectious. The dancing continuous.

Sometime around sundown the groom left (I can only assume the bride went with him as I didn't see her leave but neither did I see her again). The band played on.

All in all it was a pretty cool afternoon. My host family had fun. The orphanage kids had a decent feed and got to run around and see how "the other half live". I got to experience a different part of Nepali culture. Ramro chha!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The White House

the White HouseNot the famous office of the Clinton-Lewinsky escapades, but the new home of some orphans under new guardianship of VSN (the organisation I'm with over here).

Now the kids aren't from my orphanage but another whose manager was/is under suspicion of child trafficking. Fun, fun, fun to be had here with errant managers!
So the preparation of the house was left to those with a bit of extra time on their hands. Its a huuuge house. Three floors and untold space. Feel sorry for the volunteers - these kids are gonna run wild! Although the plus side for the volunteers is that there is a pretty cool temple close by and untold chhiya places. Not too shabby really. There is a little garden oasis of sorts aswell- a four star hotel/resort that you can chill out in and listen to the birds in the avary or watch the carp in the ponds. Surprisingly enough although its on a main road, its really quiet inside. Nice.

Three days we spent there getting the place ready. And of course it wouldn't be a truely Kiwi (Nepali) affair without a fair bit of drama....

First: the lino was supposed to be laid on a Tuesday so it would be ready for the Wednesday big furniture arrival. Nepal being a somewhat superstitious country, Tuesday lino laying posed a bit of a problem. You see with a new house, you can't do anything on a Tuesday 'coz its bad luck. Sweetaz. Respect the culture. No problems.

Second: the lino is layed and all the manchester (bedding/linen) and the metal beds have been bought in. Problem was; the glue for the lino was utter shite and it didn't hold the lino down at all. By the time we rocked up to do some work, the lino was buckled and in some places was coming up. Sweetaz we can work round that or try fix it or just rip it up and have no lino at all. Myself, I was in favour of the latter. Turns out so were the powers that be, corse they had to discuss through all the various channels and wotnot first.

Third: the situation at the old home has gone to hell in a hand basket and the moving day has been postponed for one day.

the common areaFourth: the moving day. The second floor's lino has been ripped up but a piece is still needed to cover part of the floor for the cushions to be put on. Taking the initiative and assuming that the lino was now not at all useful, I cut a piece to fit the area. Well! You would have thought I'd just killed someone with all the kafuffle that ensued. But tough. T'was done. T'was sorted.

Fourth (part II): at the old home; two of our reps were cornered by the manager of the home and a number of other recruits, and told to pay the back rent or the kids had to be returned. One of our reps is a Brahmin (highest Nepali caste) so he didn't get pushed around, but the other, a wee Irish chap did get the odd shove or two. However, unlike our orphanage debacle no armed police showed up, and our reps left unarmed and without paying the rent.
The kids moved into their new home. There was a collective sigh of relief.

So how does one conclude a somewhat eventful day? Getting toasted at K-Too! (a Thamel steakhouse) of course! Drunken frivolity cures all. Huzzah!

Friday, November 24, 2006

How to Liven Up a Tuesday Night

Its dark. There are armed police. A restless crowd. TV cameras. Newspaper journalists. Government officials. Drunks hurling insults and fists. Frightened children looking on.
Am I describing a riot? No. I am giving you an idea of the bungled "rescue" attempt by another organisation for the children at the orphanage where I am. The organisation that I am with have been trying to get the kids moved for some time now. It all came to a head on Tuesday night.

I arrived to find a houseful of adult Nepali men and women surrounding and talking to the kids- those who had come home from school anyway. Once in the house I was bombarded with questions from people who didn't bother to tell me who they were. Bluntness is something I am familiar with so I demanded to know the name and occupation of anyone who wanted to talk to me or the kids. Turns out the only ones really interested in talking to me were the journos. The government didn't appear too phased that the kids were distressed, or in giving me any information at all.
The younger ones were the ones who bore the brunt of the confusion. Nobody seeing fit to inform them what was going on til quite late in the play. The older ones arriving home from school in dribs and drabs asked questions and were able to help the younger ones out a bit.

I was told to "counsel" the kids and get them to move out. OK. Fine. Any bloody ideas how I'm gonna do that when I don't speak their language, they are frightened and angry, they've been living with the same people for up to eight years, trust them more (although the manager is a drunk), and have been indoctrinated with his perversion of the truth? No problem. I'll have them ready in ten minutes! Seriously. Not all government officials can be that blase to the plight of minors.
Needless to say none of the kids moved. There were a few contributing factors though:

(1) some of the older boys bully the younger kids into doing what the manager wants as they are his favourites
(2) they were told that at the new organisation's home they would get beaten
(3) they would be split up
(4) their families would not know where they were.

As far as I am aware (and the other organisation has yet to inform us what the deal is) their families will know where they are and they will not get beaten. This of course the kids didn't believe.

So all this kafuffle happened on Tuesday. We were told they'd be back on Wednesday to get the kids. Wednesday was a national holiday 'cos the Maoists and the government signed some papers. So we were told Thursday. They didn't show. Friday comes and the manager announces to the kids that he's ringing Umbrella (the organisation "rescuing" the kids) and telling them to come pick the kids up. Its the longest I've ever seen him sober since I started here. It's Friday avo now and still they haven't shown. We were told by our NGO that Umbrella will come tomorrow. Saturday. Slight problem. Saturday is a holy day in Nepal and no-one works. So we're guessing maybe Sunday. What has all this mucking around done to the kids? Well they live in a constant state of limbo. Do we pack? Do we go to school? Do we wait to be taken? Yeah this constant state of the unkown is doing them a whole lot of good. Although the manager is a drunk, they don't get enough nutrients, they are not well provided for, under him the kids knew where they stood. Now their anger is growing toward Umbrella and especially the younger ones are vehemently refusing to move. Sigh.

Yay! Come to Nepal and experience the joy of... Nepali culture and bureaucracy. Seemingly different but somehow so, "same same".

Friday, November 10, 2006

It's a Dog's Life

Kathmandu is the City of Stray Dogs. They are everywhere. And in varying states of imminent death on legs. Some of them seem quite happy with their lot in life (perhaps they're young and know no better, yet) playing tag with the cars and escaping unhurt. Others are like the young fellow whose story follows...

A rather bedraggled looking black bitzer shuffles across the road. Looking half heartedly in either direction for cars. There are blasts of the horn, yells and whistles, (he's trying to cross the road that happens to be one of the major drop off points for buses coming into town. I know its a "he" 'coz he's missing the requesite drooping teats that all the females have) but on he goes heedless of any danger. Turns out "the end" is what he's after. When he's made it across the busy part of the street, he looks first one way and then the other, then as if to say "I give up", he crumples to the ground- with dignity of course- and awaits the enevitable.
Trouble is, in Nepal they don't make a habit of running over animals on purpose. So he lies there, patiently, and waits. When there's a blast of the horn, he lifts his head, has a look, defies the driver to do something about him and drops it back down. The driver yelling and probably swearing goes round the dog and for good measure blasts his horn some more deafening anyone in the vicinity.
This is Ratna Park.

Dunno what happened to him. But it was a funny poignant moment that is not only a dog's fate. I've seen a calf do the same on a main highway, and the ensuing traffic jam 'coz trucks couldn't get past. This is some feat I might add as in Nepal there are no lanes or any kind of road rules, if you can pass someone you do, if you can't, you pass anyway honking your horn so the on coming traffic will get out of your way. Quite something when you're on what amounts to a single lane road and you're trying to be three abreast.
No need to splash out on roller coasters here, just jump into any vehicle for your white-knuckled ride. Good fun!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Oh Tihar!

Bright Lights. Big Bangs. Music. Dancing. Welcome to Tihar.
A whole week of festivities. With the loudest and brightest occuring last Saturday night (21 Oct) and last Monday (23 Oct). The houses in the villages have been decorated. The shops in the city have been decorated. Garlands of flowers adorn the doorways to any establishment, and a bright powder display lit by candles draws your eye earthward. The occasional banging firecracker punctuating the relentless noise of the evening.

Both nights saw the young (and the young at heart or the just plain merry) out and about singing and dancing and earning a few bob. In Kathmandu some of the youngsters were most impressive in their displays. Dressed in Newari costume and doing a wee dance all in time while they chanted something that made all the adults smile indulgingly and part with their hard earned rupee. Some other little whipper snappers however saw the great chance at giving a halfpie attempt and fleecing foreigners for their dough. Very entrepaneureal. I myself was involved in one of these halfpie attempts; a very merry hotel employee dragged me outside and got me to chant the "chorus" while he did most of the work. I in turn dragged anybody within grabbing distance into this little escapade. The poor chaps in the shop next to the hotel got the full brunt of this half baked Nepali/Kiwi performance, and to their credit just burst into laughter (while trying to coach me on the finer language points). Barefoot as I was, I scarpered before I could be lead anywhere else. My cohort was so full of drink I think he barely noticed. In Bistachhap by comparison it was all about the fun. We volunteers joining in and making right clowns of ourselves as the onlookers and indeed at times, fellow participants couldn't contain their delighted (or perhaps disbelieving) chuckles. What can I say? We aim to please! A group of older gents were taking part aswell, armed with guitar and smiles a plenty, they went from house to house, their number constantly growing, having a ball and earning quite a few pennies. Which they then donated to the local temple. The lads were still wearing their smiles the next morning. Good on 'em!

The last day of Tihar is celbrated by sisters "protecting" their brothers with Bhai Tikka. Its a chance for girls to "spoil" their brothers with a small short ceremony which everyone looks forward to and can participate in (including yours truely- yay!). The ceremony itsself involves the sister drawing a cirlce around her brother(s) with oil and water. Incense is burnt and tikka (powdered dye) is applied to the forhead, sometimes dyed rice is also applied. The sister then offers a garland of dried flowers, and a plate of food and the brothers give her money. Its awesome to see and be a part of, 'corse its also cool to check out everyone else's tikka to see who got the best one!

Both in the villages and in Kathmandu, Newar girls were wearing their traditional dress. They look amazing. Absolutely beautiful. Very regal. Unfortuatley as is the case the world over, the boys venture out in what they deem to be "cool". Forgoing traditional attire for modern garb. Next to the girls they look rather shabby. Yay the girls!!

Saturday, October 21, 2006

2 Weeks in Rural Nepal

So I've been placed out with my host family in a wee village called Bistachhap. Compared to some of the villages we passed on our hike in Nagarkot though, Bistachhap is a town. Its surrounded by lush hills, terraced with various agriculture endeavours, accesible only by brave bus drivers or crazy motorcycle owners, or the even braver pedestrian. Its a hilly, rocky, uneven dirt track that brings the adventurous here.

The village has four chiyya pasal (tea shops come Four Square or corner Dairy), a tailor's, a school, two orphages (in reality more of a children's home) and a whole lot of children. Life is slow and dictated by the hours of daylight. At first light the women are up and heading out to the fields or somewhere, perhaps doing a bit of cleaning and getting brekkie ready first. The men soon follow (or the kids) heading to the community tap to get the morning or daily supply of water. Morning ritual also includes pujaar (prayer/worship), which involves walking around the house with incense and ringing a bell, and I think also "annointing" the house with coloured powder. My family do this at round half seven so its a nice alarm, others though are doing it way earlier. As its only a wee village, once the sun goes down its all over red rover. Dinner then maybe some TV is the usual. Lights are commonly out by 2130.

If you are a guest in a Nepali house, you generally eat first. Alone. Or with the lady of the house watching over you and making sure your plate is constantly full. Dinner is usually a quiet affair as the ladies don't often speak English and your Nepali is pidgin at best. If your family has a small kitchen (where dinner is served on the floor and you eat with your hands) you get booted out so the rest of the family can eat. Fair enough. Bit tough though if you're used to chatting with the whanau (family) or friends whilst dining. Sigh.

So far Rural Nepal agrees with me. Lots of nature. Lots of accomodating locals to practice pidgin Nepali on. Lots of chhiya. The occasional thrill ride that doubles as a bus journey into Kathmandu.


Monday, October 16, 2006

An Escape from the Crowds

We decided to get out of the big smoke for a wee while. Me and three other intrepid travellers headed out into the Kathmandu valley to a little spot called Nagarkot. And the view that we had was amazing! The whole valley floor pretty much just laid out before us, in all its wonderfully lush green glory.

We supped quite early, lazed the afternoon away watching a hawk circle some unseen prey and enjoyed a quiet beer in the waning sun. A simply superb afternoon spent. The other three lovelies decided to head to the lookout point to witness the sun setting behind the hills. I napped. Well I mean once you've seen one sunset you've seen them all no?
Darkness descended rapidly and as Nagarkot is not really a "happening" place, we were safely tucked up in bed by 8pm. Real party goers! Our room was only 200 NRs (NZD4.00 approx), and was very much in the manner of "you get what you pay for". It served its purpose though, and for 50NRs each one couldn't really argue. The plumbing and the bathroom in general were a bit suspect so we all decided to be pooh for a day.

The next morning saw us woken at 0530 because some of our party wanted to witness the sunrise. Myself and Katie stayed put in the warm hotel room and were able to see an awesome sunrise. It was amazing to see the valley absolutely shrouded in mist and then that mist turning a golden red as the sun rose higher and higher. It was perhaps only the third sunrise I've ever seen but by far the most spectacular.
When the foolish two arrived back from their trek up the hill, we decided to breakfast. The food was mediocre but the view was sublime. The himalyas teased us for a bit, playing hide and seek with the clouds, until we got one mountain top fully exposed for all of a minute if that. It was enough. Breakfast with a view. Wonderful!!

Bellies full, we headed down into the valley. With the intention initially for a couple of hours hike. The further down we went, the more lost we became. Oh we met some locals, saw some villages, wandered through rice fields (and I got some cool photos) but we had no idea where we were actually heading. A local came to our rescue and lead us in the right direction... for a fee. We were on our way though so the nominal fee didn't dampen our enthusiasm.

Breakfast with a view. A four hour hike. An hour spent squished in the armpits of a woman standing beside my seat on the bus. An escape from the crowds.
Worth it? Abso-bloody-lutely!

Friday, October 06, 2006

Seven Days in Kathmandu

The comfy bed was a ruse. I thought I had found a good guesthouse. I found a manager who had no time for complaints from a budget traveller. So after a very public yelling match, I departed my guesthouse for cheaper pastures and better service.
An unusual intro to a city renowned for its beauty and friendly locals I'd wager!

Three other voulnteers arrived around the time I did and we set off to explore the city together. Myself and the young Bashful Billy gave not a thought to being lost in a foreign city. Our company however was a little more nervous and asked constantly where we were. "Who knows?", was our constant answer and in the end they gave up and accepted their fate. Poor sods.

Kathmandu is indeed a charming city. Ringed by hills with the constant laughter from kids flying their kites in the street or from the roofs of their abodes. The locked wooden doorways enticing the imagination as to what lies beyond, the various wares on display in the market area, the cobbled roads, or, the dusty uneven ones, the old woman peeking from her doorway, men sitting on their "stoop" watching the world wander by. What can I say? Its a city after my own heart- slow, easy paced, relaxed.

Now those of you who know me, know I don't walk fast. It could be said I don't even walk. I stroll. And lets face it; strolling is a great way to see a place and meet the people. And so it was that during our wander around the city, I was enevitably left behind or lost by my companions. They were most patient though. And listened intently when I related the latest tale of the person I'd just met or the photo I'd just taken. They've also learnt that punctuality is not something I'm familiar with. Oh I have a watch. A very nice one. But its more of an ornament than an effective timepiece.

I've not seen many of the tourist sights, figuring I'm here for a while so why rush? I have however, managed to meet quite a few characters, (including one chap who was flying so high on whatever illicit substance he had ingested that day, that he babbled and stumbled his way from tourist to tourist trying to peddle his "natural" high) to see a funeral which reminded me of a Maori Tangi and read two or three books.

So my seven days in Kathmandu. A relaxed wander, a relaxed chat with the locals, a relaxed smile and walk-by to the ever persistant shop owners.
Relaxed. Sums it all up really.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

A very smelly arrival

It was terrible. I mean the stink that was upon me would have made even the most polite company wince and take three or four steps toward fresh air. But what can be done? When one travels for two and a half days on public transport, showers are not really a top priority. Arriving with all your belongings, or simply arriving at the destination is "first most important".

To begin at the beginning of this somewhat adventurous tale...

I departed a once shared hotel room in the afternoon of the 27 September. A typical sunny Indian day was waiting for me outside. The well dressed porter had deposited my hulking backpack into the summoned rickshaw, the driver of which then proceeded to have an argument with the front desk man about the price I was to be charged to get to the train station. I found it quite amusing and was in no hurry, so let them carry on whilst I enjoyed the sunshine. A price was agreed upon (which of course I didn't have) and then the wee porter demanded a tip. Well the poor chap was out of luck. I had no small change and was buggered if I was going to part with 50 INR for a service I neither requested nor wanted. Yes I know, I'm a scrooge. He attempted to chase me in my departing vehicle but his boss chastised him and he let the matter drop. Whew!

The driver deciding I was obviously fluent in his native toungue, started a conversation. My translation:
Driver: "hindi hindi hindi 70 rupees, hindi hindi hindi"
Me: "Old Delhi Station"
Driver: "hindi hindi hindi 70 rupees, hindi hindi hindi. Ok? hindi hindi"
Me: "Old Delhi Station"
And thus it continued for most of the journey. Sigh.
But he got me there, well he got me opposite there. I had to cross the most congested road I had seen anywhere in the world, with perhaps the most kamikaze drivers of the universe, with my backpack, hoping like hell that no bugger decided they could squeeze past me and knock me flying. I chucked him 100 INR, way more than was necessary (mostly 'cos I was happy to be away from the incessant babbling) and ventured across the road.

I made it. Huzzah! However beads of perspiration were already trickling down my body and I was seriously looking forward to my AC berth. With plenty of time to spare I ambled round the station looking for my platform, ignoring the stares and the heat.
One thing I have discovered about Indian train stations is that if someone (a man) is wearing a uniform and looks officious, chances are he can't help you. Or, he can send you in the wrong direction. With my written Hindi skills being not up to scratch I enlisted the help of a family gent to point me in the right direction. He honestly couldn't help me but did give me the best useful advice I've received at a station; "Check the number on the train, its between the destinations". Man! Where was this guy a few train stations ago? Anyhoo to double check I asked the uniformed contingent. One chappy even got out his spectacles to scrutinise my ticket. After much discussion they decided the train opposite the one I was fixing to board, was the one I should be on. So off I trundled to find my carriage. Perspiration was so heavy now that my shins were leaking.

I breathed an incredibly audible sigh of relief when I found my berth and the AC cooled my heated flesh. A kindly Nepali chap befriended me and let me sit on his berth for meals and a chat (I was on the top berth where sitting is a luxury only the under 5's can enjoy). It was a most uneventful train trip, passed mainly horizontly in the fast asleep position.

Arriving in Gorakhpur (3 hours from Nepal border), the heat blasted us once more, resulting in yet more perspiration rivlets. The kindly Nepali chap showed me where to catch the bus to Sonauli (the border town) and hurried off to meet his business colleagues. When the bus arrived there was a mad dash to be first onboard. I soon realised why. There was nowhere to store your luggage. Accordingly it was piled whereever it could fit. I plonked my now quite pungent self next to a quiet couple and settled myself in for what I assumed would be the sweatiest ride of my life. I really should learn to stop with the assuming. Aside from looking at bollocks and arse for three hours, and getting more arse rubs than I ever would have wanted, it was an endurable event.

My kindly Nepali friend beat me there, and ushered me through immigration and put me on a bus bound for Kathmandu. At which point we parted company, he leaving me with an invite to partake in the local major festival with his family, and me agreeing to call him. Bag stowed beneath the rickety rusty bus, I collapsed into my front seat and prepared for a long dusty and uncomfortable journey. Long it was. Dusty it was not. Uncomfortable, only for a short time. And it was crowded. Three to some seats, masses on the roof, the leftovers sitting or standing in the aisle. It was great! But the Aussie couple behind me were getting PO'd. Not getting that everything on this continent runs on a "bums in seats" mentality for public transport or that time is relative. ie. You get there when you get there, don't believe people when they say it'll take X amount of hours. It won't. I was settled. I was poo. But I was happy. I had a seat and a hotel room waiting for me. It had been promised. It was in the bag.

It was a lie. We got to Kathmandu at five in the morning and arrived at our hotels (the Aussies 'n me) to find them locked. After gaining entry to the Potala Guesthouse, I was told that there were no budget rooms left. But after two and a half days of travelling in stinking hot weather, do you think I gave a toss? Not on your nelly! I took the room on offer and jumped into the shower. It was cold! Which would have been nice if it was the middle of the day, but it was early morning. I was dog-tired but I was clean, so I dragged my flagging body to the bed. Omigod! What a bed! Comfy, clean sheets, a huge blanket, after trains and buses it was pure endulgence.

After counting sheep for all of 2 seconds, I slipped into la-la land. Heavenly.

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Long Kiss Goodnight

And so it came to pass that the adventures of the delictable duo came to an end here in the bustling cosmopolitan that is Delhi.
Unlike any of our previous travels, there was no drama getting here from Jaipur. There was a pushy taxi driver who was bummed we didn't book into his hotel, but no seat-of-your-pants-almost-missing-the-plane type of adventure. Sigh.

Delhi itself is quite a spectacle. We were staying in an area called Pahar Ganj. And due to our lack of research, we had no idea which of the three Delhi train stations we had to get off at (turns out we got off one stop early). Nor that Pahar Ganj is quite a big area, divided by a road that clearly puts Indian Nationals on one side and Foreign Nationals on the other. We were in the Indian Nationals part of town. Quite a nice change it must be said. There were no beggars, the rickshaw drivers didn't hound you, and the food was reasonably cheap. Cross the divide though, and it was the total opposite. Although both sides of the road did share the obligatory cow herd, cow turd and manic horn-blaring that seems to accompany any stay in an Indian metropolis.

We didn't make it to any of Delhi's sights. Instead preferring to wander the bustling streets of Pahar Ganj. Shop owners yelling, music blaring, the occasional street performance, cows ambling, dogs scratching that insatiable itch, continuously jumping out of the way of the hurtling motorcyclist or the crabby rickshaw driver, sucking up the fumes that follow any vehicle here, kids and women begging, men lounging over one another. Ah, a typical day in the Ganj.

Ended with a long kiss goodbye.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

How's the Serenity?

Leaving Jaipur, we headed out into the veritable wilderness. Not a soul on our bus spoke enough English to communicate more than the standard greetings. It was a lovely change to have people just help, rather than try to get something from us. We had no idea where this wee village was and when the conductor motioned for us to get off, I was a little sceptical about his knowledge of our destination. But ushered of the bus we were, with the help of those wanting our seats, and we made our way towards the nearest collection of men. An older chap came to our aid and pointed us down the road. The only road it turned out. Our enquiry about a taxi received the standard head-wobbly-shaking response. We figured this meant "no joy chum". So off we toddled in the searing heat. I mistakenly believing that there were at least a couple of hotels to choose from. Turns out there's only one. The Samode Palace. Which as the name suggests, is not cheap.

Anyhoo, we trundled up the drive way thingy and through the gate. Ginormous ruddy thing with the obligatory spikey door. But the security guard who showed us through gave us a smile (almost hidden behind his superb handle bar moustache) and a bow. For a moment I was shot back to my time in Ol' Nippon when this was a regular occurence. Boy we got some stares though. Can you imagine? This opulent palace place, where all the staff are in spick 'n span uniforms, speaking in very polite tones, used to people turning up in cars or buses, and seeing us walking with backpacks not suitcases to reception. I think they thought we were lost. However they got over their initial shock and confusion with quite admirable speed, and offered us seats and a cool towel and refreshing drink.

Once they realised we were here to stay, they sorted us out, showed us to our room and explained all the amenities. As we are a couple of water rats and it was stinking hot, the only thing we were concerned with was the pool. Oh and what a pool. Just the right temperature, just the right length, just perfect. Our toilet window overlooked it if you peered out at just the right angle. A loo with a view- who woulda thunk it?

The only place to eat in the wee village, was the palace. The only place to drink, was the palace. So to dinner it was, in our best shorts and t-shirts with jandals (flipflops) to spiffy it up. Well we were in a palace, an effort had to be made!

The next morning saw us up the nearby hill to get a peek at the local fort. It was closed. It was hot. It was swim time. A day spent by the pool, in the sauna, in the pool, in the jacuzzi, looking at the gym equipment and back to the pool.

This holiday life is tough...

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Jolly Jaipur

Leaving the Taj behind us, we made for Jaipur in Rajasthan. A lovely desert state that perhaps is one of the richest in India. The train journey was much less adventurous than the Calcutta-Agra episode. Sitting side by side with families piled high, belongings fitting wherever possible, everyone making way for the sleepy child to rest (or sprawl) on the bench seats.

The rickshaw (tuk tuk) drivers abound as they hound you to use their services. Its kind of like at school when in PE "captains" had to pick teams. You can picture it can't you? People jumping up and down waving their hands frantically trying to get your attention and yelling "Pick me! Pick me!". As there is an abundance of these poor souls crying for attention, the tourist can weild some degree of power. Tourists with power? Yipee! So you bargain. Hard. Because there is always someone who will agree to your price. Our young chap, very well spoken and very polite managed to get us to agree to a city tour the following day. He was a very good tourguide. Moonlighting as an avangelistic philosopher. I know, strange huh? But this in a nutshell is India. A place of wonderful contradictions, packaged very nicely in good manners.

In previous posts I have mentioned Indian traffic. Jaipur gave us the modern world of technology, the eco friendly transport, and the historic method all in one. Camels mixed with cycle carts, mixed with mopeds or scooters, mixed with horse-drawn vheicles, mixed with pedistrians, mixed with belching-black-plumes-of-exhaust-multicoloured trucks, mixed with ox-drawn carts, mixed with new and late model cars. Throw in the camel snorts, the swaying ox heads, the horn-honking and the yelling, and this is a day in the traffic of the old city of Jaipur. Somewhat more noisy than the traffic of yesteryear me thinks.
The old city is wonderful. A long main street absolutely packed with stalls or shops selling everything that Rajasthan is famous for.

So we spent a week in Jaipur. Chillin' out. Doing not much. Venturing out to the local tourist haunts. Eating very well and suffering no consequences. Wo-hoo! We were most unpopular with auto-rickshaw drivers when they discovered we'd been in Jaipur for a week and did no longer fancy hearing "Can I just say one thing?", or "My friend has a good shop. You look one minute. No charge".

So we escaped to a little village, Samod. In the middle of nowhere. Wonderful!!

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Taj Mahal...

My impression of the Taj Mahal.
Its big. Its white. Its overrun with tourists (Indian). Its overpriced.
Oh no doubt if one is architectually or romantically inclined there are definite pluses to paying a visit. I am not really partial to either inclination. Admiring a well kept and peaceful escape from the masses? Now that I am partial to. The garden surrounding the Taj is a wonderfully luscious green space that has many trees under which one can escape the sun. Simply superb! We met some young girls in the garden and that visit was their sixth or seventh time. They informed us that there's not much to see inside and the only reason they came so often was because there's nothing else to do in Agra. I suspect also that as people (Indian Nationals) under 15 years of age (as they were) get in for free, played a bit part in their frequent visitations. So bearing in mind what the girls had said, we made for the big marble edifice. As it is a Mosque one has to "de-shoe" or use the shoe covers that come complimentary with the Foreign Nationals ticket. The marble was nice and cool, but getting to the marble involved quite a "hotstep" across the baked red sand stone. So amid the squealing of young girls and women, the stiffled grunts of men, a mad dash or nonchalant stroll (depending on your disposition) was made to the foot of the marble structure. The Taj itself took a sum total of ten minutes to explore. Wandering around admiring the hard work and feeling sorry for the chaps that possibly went blind due to all the intricate work; marble inlay, carving etc. But the whole mystism thing completely passed me by. I was not moved by the dedication of the Emperor to his missus. Nor the deeply devout aspect. Nor the time it took to build. I was however moved by the price (INR 750, USD15 approx) and the distinct lack of Western tourists. It was actually quite nice to be far outnumbered by the locals at this fabled site. It must also be said that it was wonderful to see the locals sweating buckets in the heat aswell. Makes one feel almost empowered by the knowledge that people who live here can still succumb to the heat. Hurrah!

The Agra Fort was pretty interesting. Its red colour was lovely. The history impressive. And the view... Well, magnifique!! You could see the Taj across the river. What a view to wake up to! In those days minus the smog it must have been quite sublime. And although there was no lush green area, the fort was still a cool place to just chill. Mixed red stones with an extrodinarily white marble mosque palace thing. With the sun shining on it, it damn near seared your retina. Again here we Westerners were far outnumbered by the local toursits.

We also managed to take in the "Baby Taj". Built before the Taj, you can see a similar set out here as with the bigger, later version. The tomb in the middle flanked by buildings on either side, and surrounded by a wall. The work is not quite as detailed as it much bigger cousin, but for me just as interesting, just as good a spot to chill, and minus the hordes of tourists. Although probably a quarter of the size of the Taj, more time was spent just wandering here. Lack of hype, lack of knowledge, lack of toursits, equals a morning well spent and enjoyed.

Inside the walls of the monuments hawkers are not allowed. But beware: upon entering and exiting said monuments you run a gauntlet of them. Making up for their absense within. One thing I did find adorable however, was the attempt to sell us "filim" for our cameras. It was just precious. Oh and the kids outside these monuments have learnt how to look pitiful, on the verge of tears, or any number of emotions that might make you part with your money or anything else they deem valuable, at the drop of a hat. Oscar winning performances, most of 'em.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Case of The Missing Ticket...

Ok, so you buy a ticket (Calcutta to Agra). Everything is going swimmingly. Then you eat one dodgey meal and montezuma's revenge errupts all over the place and you have to cancel your tickets. No problem. Lose the cost of one ticket but hey, least you have a bed and a sanitary toilet in your hotel to deal with all of the violent explosions coming from your body, not whatever the train has to offer. And lets face it, the facilities on any public train in any country are less than desirable for dealing with the volume of liquid we were talking about.

A doctor's visit, some drugs and a day later, tickets were purchased again. The lovely chaps at our hotel- Ashreen Guesthouse, kept our luggage for the day, and wished us well. Train station arrival no biggy. Our tickets had "confirmed" handwritten on them, so we didn't bother checking with the ticket office or any other officials. Instead opting for the help of a "friendly" local. He seemed very officious. Directing us about and even showing us our beds (we were in the sleeper car). He was a quaint older gent, very polite and very helpful.

Can you guess where this is heading?

We deposited our packs etc, under our berths and set ourselves up to endure the twenty some odd hour journey. We got lots of stares, but not a lot of conversation. That was until the conductor came round. He asked for our ticket and I confidently produced it. Confidence quickly shattered when it was handed back and our neighbour pointed out that it was a cancelled ticket. Where the bloody hell was our ticket? A frantic search ensued (frantic being relative of course, I mean when have I ever done anything frantically) whilst the conductor went about his duties further down the train. Well no ticket was forthcoming. We had lost it. How, neither of us knew, but we had a sneaking suspicion that the polite helpful older chap had palmed the real ticket and left us with the dud. So we had to pay the conductor the price of two new tickets plus the penalty, which strangely enough was about INR100 (USD2.00 approx) more than the price of two tickets alone from the travel agent. Well you pay for the convenience don't you?

So by the end of this little kafuffle, we could have been in the deluxe AC sleeper class for all the money that we shelled out. Blast it!

Just goes to show, you are green, no matter how long you've been on the road.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Goodness Gracious Me...

Arriving in Calcutta was wonderfully chaotic and nerve-racking. We joined forces with a couple of Japanese chaps to grab a taxi from the airport into town. Some dodgy older dude from unknown origins had given us advice which turned out to pretty good. He however failed to mention that taking a Calcutta taxi meant seeing your life flash before your eyes in many different montage speeds. By the third or fourth time he had just missed that wall, or that bus, or that other taxi, or that huge gutter, the montages start to take on an aspect of a housewife who'd forgotten something on the grocery list. Yes not fleeting glimpses of what might have been, but exclamations of "bugger", "oh yeah" and "shit". Quite an introduction to the sub-continent. All of this was accompanied by the almost deafening constant blaring of vehicular warning devices. Yes, horns. A lot of horns. Which came in three volumes: loud, super loud, and sonic-boom-you-have-no-eardrums-left loud. How the locals have anything near normal hearing levels is an absolute credit to selective hearing.

Yet in spite of the cacophony of claxons and road chaos, our driver deposited us at our desired destination and left us to the mercy of the hotel hawkers. We were knackered after spending the night in Bangkok Airport and arriving at 0630 so we crashed at the first hotel on offer. Our Japanese mates went on a proper search. Our abode was not too bad- 200 INR (Indian Rupees- approx USD4.50), but was lacking a toilet seat and the pillows looked to have been around since the Brits first arrived. However the bed was comfy, there was a fan and the door locked. We did meet a most persistent chap who demanded a tip for cleaning the floor, a right pain in the proverbial. When we checked out he demanded yet more for no work done and very successfully managing to piss us right off. Gotta admire the persistance tho'- he chased us down four flights of stairs to see if we'd give in. We did not.

I like Calcutta. Aside from the constant fumes in the air, the people thus far have been very friendly and pretty cool. It is however very noticeable all the men. Men are everywhere. There is nary a woman in sight. 'Cept for us Westerners that is. And we stick out. Obviously.

India so far... bloody hot, friendly, not for the naive or easily sucked in.

I'm loving it!

Thursday, August 31, 2006

One Night in Bangkok

Ok so maybe more than that, but having all your favourite fast food joints and hi-speed internet finally, kinda leads to sensory overload.

We stayed near the legendary Khao San Road in a nice wee place called Lamphu House, not too shabby for rocking up at check out time to see if they had any spare rooms. We witnessed many people come along looking for a room and finding absolutely no joy. It was a bit of a hassle to get here tho'. When we arrived from the border it was still raining so we jumped into a tuk-tuk and got him to take us to his "friend's" place for the night. Ok so I can be anal about where I would like to stay, but staying somewhere that has holes in the walls of the corridor, supplies no bloody loo paper and just generally smacks of dodginess, just ain't me. But then again for USD6 (with private bathroom) can you complain? One probably shouldn't but this one certainly did. So after he had tried us out on two of his mates' places, we found another place and he upped his fare. Bloody typical!

Anyway, we got our room and as it was still early headed out to see what the whole hoopla was about Khao San Rd. Not really much to say. A big market (like that's something new), loads of bars/restaurants and a whole bunch of young ones out on the prowl. Fair dues, but we left them to it. Preferring the sedate granny-esque stroll through the street. Finished off by Burger King...

Mmmmm... Chicken 'n Cheese Sandwhich.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

WRC: Cambodia Style

It was bloody fantastic let me tell ya! We were on a bus (more of a bonafide mini-bus this time) with all the gear stowed in the back seat and heading to the Cambodia/Thailand border. The road heading out of Siem Reap was not bad, had some rather large potholes which after the rain of the previous night, could quite easily have been mistaken for the local paddling pool or pond. 4WD's would be more of a neccessity than a luxury here. I felt for the passengers in the numerous Toyota Camry that were making the same journey.

Once we were in the countryside the fun really started. Our bus making some quite horrific metal on metal scraping/crunching/"help I'm seriously falling apart here" noises. A ride that was roller-coaster esque but without the safety guarantee. Wasn't really that much of an ordeal however, and in terms of our recent border crossing experiences, really quite tame.
Although... When we arrived at the Thai border, it started to rain. Hard. Resulting in mini swimming pools that required traversing in order to actually get into Thailand. So shoes off, pants (trousers) hiked up, and 20kg pack on back, a semi shuffle-waddle-dash was made from building to building or cover to cover. Having been stranded at the border by anyone who knew where we should head once in Thailand, wandering in the rain was the only option. Eventually, soaked but laughing, we found our bus stop and waited. Upon querying our guide as to when the bus would leave for Bangkok, I received "When 10 more people arrive" as an answer. Well fair enough then. No time soon then huh?

Sunday, August 27, 2006

1000 steps to heaven

Well at least it bloody felt that way! Welcome to Angkor- a city of temples that involve incredibly steep steps. These steps also being in various states of disrepair and varying degrees of width, sometimes big enough for just your little toe, and sometimes big enough for your whole foot. It was really the luck of the draw. But it was also an amazing thing to see. The sheer amount of stone that was involved is mind-boggling. And with no visible quarry in the area, the whole act of transportating the stones and building these huge structures warrants at least some admiration.

So our first night at Angkor was on top of some hill- supposedly the best view for the sunset- however the clouds were having none of it. Stubbornly staying put til well after the sun went down. But it was all good, 'cos we had bought a three day pass and if you buy your ticket after 1700 you get a free sunset, then the ticket starts the next day. So the next day we were up bright and earlier (before the sun) in order to be at Angkor Wat to witness a supposedly spectacular sunrise. Shoulda known better. Cloudy at night, we should have guessed it would be cloudy in the morning. So we could see behind the clouds that the sun was actually rising, but there was no real sunrise. Never mind, had some brekkie then began the days trekking round temples in earnest.

Turns out once you've seen one temple, you've pretty much seen them all. The only thing that changes is height, location, state of disrepair, size and carvings. Might sound like a lot but really its not. So come lunchtime, I was knackered, but kept on the move. I dunno how many temples we saw that first day but it was alot.

Day 2 saw us have a sleep in (by not much tho') and still more temples. Our tuktuk driver directing where to go and we just numbling following him. Bit of excitment for the day tho'- we stopped at his "friend's" restaurant and he started playing cards. Turned out he was quite good and skunked the other drivers out of some money! Not a bad effort! I decided I'd utilise him and make him earn his money and take me back for another sunset, this time at Angkor Wat. But my plans were thwarted again. A beautiful day, quickly turned overcast and then just before sunset, the heavens opened! I got a bit wet, the driver got soaked and that was the end of our Angkor adventure.

Favourite temples: Ta Phrom, Angkor Wat and the young fulla liked Takeo.
Angkor is very worth a visit, but a bit like the Louvre; overwhelming in the extreme.
My advice: take it easy, have a beer, saying "Nah" to the kids (selling all manner of things) gets rid off them quicker than "No Thankyou", take lots of small riel (Cambodian currency) or USD1's, because everything is "2 for wahn darlah".

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Mini Pattaya Beach...

At least that is my opinion (knowing Pattaya Beach by reputation only) of the Riverside in Phnom Penh. As far as the eye can see there are open air cafes, bars, hotels and of course Girlie Bars. The riverside wouldn't look out of place in any Western city in the world. Not really my cup of tea, but did manage to have a Neenish Tart from the Kiwi Bakery!! Bloody Kiwis, they're everywhere!!

Enjoyed Phnom Penh, it has a bit of a grizzly history which is of course a major tourist attraction. So we jumped on the banwagon. Nothing like bearing witness to the atrocities of the past now is there? S21 (Tuol Sleng Museum) is where one such public display of horror is visited by the multitudes. It hasn't been watered down too much, I mean the blood has been washed away but that's about it. Unfortunately thanks to modern day news broadcasts, and the fact that I am generally quite a cynical lass, I felt quite immune to the horrors these poor blighters went through. We didn't make it too the Killing Fields, the bridge was out, but got to experience the nice bumpy ride out and back. As a positive sign that Cambodians are trying to move past the horrors of yesteryear, just opposite the S21 Museum is a great little restaurant- Friends, friendly staff and fantastic food. A great cause aswell.

On a much more pleasant and relaxed note, we managed to get to the Royal Palace and the National Museum, but they didn't toot my whistle either. But they were an excellent way to escape the heat of the midday sun, and of course check out some less violent history.

After being on an Island with bugger-all people, a city was a jarring shock to the system. So we stuck to the major tourist haunts and got outta there quick smart. By Boat to Siem Reap. At 7 o'clock in the morning! Man these early mornings are definitely not holiday material!!

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Highway to Hell

We didn't want to leave. We shouldn't have.
However good sense won out over intuition and we purchased tickets to get us from Don Det to Phnom Penh. We were told it would be by mini bus. Fine by us. Unfortunately we made the unforgivable mistake of assuming. Turns out mini bus in Lao means a van or mini van. A 14 seater mind you, but a van all the same. Now imagine (or remember) all those sporting events you went to with your school team, how big the van was, how much gear you had (equipment included) and how the roads were. Let me fill you in on how much more comfortable that travel was to our jaunt.

Ok, so we have 14 people who need to fit into 12 seats because luggage has taken up two and there's no roof rack. There were complaints but we were told it would only be a 20min journey. People doubled up and they cranked on the AC. Not too bad a start. The road was hazardous but bearable.
We arrived at a border town to have all our luggage packed into another van, with a roof rack. However our 14 had just been joined by another load of people. Choas ensued. There were two vans full of gear and people and 6 more needing seats. Our drivers tried to get us all to bunch up but our mainland European counterparts were having none of it. Finally the drivers relented and two cars were produced from thin air. Making more assumptions we were on our way, relatively comfortable and secure in our belief that it would be non-stop and hassle free from there on in.

Well the border crossing was indeed hassle free. Got the visa, got the stamp, paid the "processing fee" and officially entered Cambodia.
The fun began in earnest. We had to switch vehicles 'cos some girls travelling together had been split up. No biggy. The road and the driver were bloody hilarious. It was a "new" road but had no apparent markings or signage, but it did have alot of potholes. How that guy (the driver) still has shocks I'll never know. The way he just plowed through those holes had to be seen to be believed. I was suitably impressed. Thought his car may give out at any moment but impressed nevertheless.

Arriving in one piece at the river crossing, the heavens decided to open up to cool us off. Stung Treng is the border town where we stopped for lunch and got packed into yet another vehicle. With a roof rack and not enough seats. Confusion was the order of the day here aswell. One poor chap had his ticket checked and rechecked, people going to Phonm Penh and Kampong Cham were told to get in one bus, then told to get off, the Siem Reap lot the same and so it went on, til we were all lumped together on the one bus with 8 people still needing seats. Another company arrived and we got rid of 2 people from our van, there were arguments in "half-speak" (broken English- of which now after teaching the language I'm completely fluent in), and the other company agreed to take more of our group.
By now we had wisely done away with the assuming and were just hoping to get there.

At Kampong Cham we lost a few more people and could finally stretch out. It was crapmed for me- short-ass that I am- so I really felt for the six foot Dutch chick behind me.
Our driver felt that he needed to test our patience just a bit more. So he stopped for a bit of a drink and picked up 3 more passengers. Unfortunately for him, none of us were moving, so they crammed two in beside me and my mate and the third in the front seat. They bitched and they moaned but we didn't give a toss. I momentarily felt bad, but then fell asleep.
We got into Phnom Penh no worries and our Italian counterpart took over and directed our very unlucky driver towards the riverside and away from any potential commission he would have made. Again I felt momentarily bad. But I quickly got over standing under a hot shower and jumping into a clean bed.

Hellish journey but Heavenly end.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Simple Life

Such a grand thing. No electricity. No traffic. No plumbing. No worries.
Don Det is where the simple life is the only way of life.

It was great being in a place that ran on daylight hours. The locals got up with the sun and if they didn't have a restaurant, went to bed not long after the sun went down. At our guesthouse the generator was run from sunset til about 2230. It was pure heaven. We stayed at Mr Tho's Bungalows. Four bungalows on a bank of the Mekong. Hammocks provided. Relaxation assured. A restaurant on hand whenever one felt the hunger pangs get the better of them.
Ning (Mr Tho's daughter) was in charge although it was a family affair; her hubby and brothers helping out, her young son providing entertainment and her elderly aunty picking up the slack. As in Vietnam though, it appeared that the women were the only ones who did any real work, the men preferring to watch the back of their eyelids, or pilot the boat to and fro. I'm sure they did more but I personally was not privvy to it.

So our typical day went thus... Waking up with the rooster. Maybe getting up for the sunrise or just going back to sleep. Hearing the locals head off to market in their boats at about 630am. The temple accross the river donging its bell for morning prayer. Breakfast whenever you decided now was the time. Lazing in the hammocks on the verandah of your bungalow. Reading books. Watching the world float by. Taking a dip in the Mekong when you got too hot. Maybe occasionally heading out to explore. Appreciating that apart from the odd tour van the only thing resembling a traffic jam was a water buffalo who stubbornly refused to move til he/she was good and ready. And the heaviest traffic being said buffalo.

I took time out from hammock appreciation to check out Buddhism Lao style by participating in the local temple's morning prayer (and having my preconceptions about Buddhist monks being quickly dispatched). These monks weren't vegetarian, they quite happily chucked a cat around when it was searching for tidbits from the brekkie table and they weren't sombre during what I assumed was prayer. The young fullas (there were only seven monks in this temple with an approximate median age of 20ish) were smiling and laughing throughout. Made quite a difference from the few "Church Parade" experiences I had as a young Brownie which were a sombre affair. So a condensed version of a morning at the temple: prayer, offerings from worshippers (breakfast), chillin' while the monks eat, prayer, finish. Quite a relaxing morning of worship and a bit of an eye opener for a heathen such as myself. Throughly enjoyed it!

So other than this one dalliance from the usual, we spent 11 nights in the aforementioned do-nothing manner.
7 books read. Hammocks well used. Many swims taken. Many a beer consumed. USD5 a day. Total.


Monday, August 07, 2006

Paradise Awaits...

One more day we spent in Vientiane. Hiring more wee scooter things, and going about the place at night. Turns out once the lights go out, the populace has some fun. Not in the "drunken sports fan" or "teenager/university student on the prowl" kinda way, but a "lets just enjoy the night in a relaxed fashion with someone I want to be with" kinda way. The park around the Memorial Monument (L'Arc de Triomphe) was positively teeming with families and couples, and people out to do a few laps. Running that is. It was quite a nice thing to see. (the whole family/couple/spending time together thing not the running part)

Anyway the following afternoon we were southbound onboard a VIP bus. Yep for USD15 we got to travel in some style. An almost fully reclining seat, blanket, free water, dinner and a movie. Kinda like a "drive thru movie" date but you didn't need a car.
Arriving in Pakse, getting off the bus proved to be quite an ordeal. There were a multitude of bus drivers, tuk-tuk drivers and god-knows-what drivers, all vying for your money. Walking off with your bag if you let it go. Gave "running the gauntlet" a new meaning. We were gonna stay the night but in the face of all the bustling drivers, we instead made a dash for a bus headed towards our final Lao destination. Don Det. All the blogs we had read referred to it as paradise.

So bags safely stowed on top of a rickety bus, sitting in seats that rocked with every motion, and garbage rolling round the floor doing its upmost to stick to your feet, we began our "3 hour" journey. Turns out time is relative in Lao. Bit like Maori time. Things start when they start, and you get there when you get there.
Being a public bus (of sorts) it stopped often, with young fullas outside trying to sell you food. At one point our driver got hungry so stopped the bus, got off and had a feed. Fine by me, I tried to get some sleep, valiantly ignoring the ants that were tickling my arms and legs in their search for food.

We finally arrived at the ferry "port" (bank with boats anchored by string to a tree or a peg in the ground) and were soon dashing across the Mekong to the small island in the area that is known as 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don).
And it is a small island. Walking across it takes bout half an hour. Course if I were to walk it, it would probably take twice that.
Scorching sun, heavenly hammocks, R'n R. Perfect. Paradise.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Sights and Sounds of Vientiane

Hiring a wee motorbike or scooter is a must-do in any SE Asia country I reckon. Having no fear of course is also a bonus. But getting in there and revving it up with the locals is a ball!
Walking around Vientiane is recommended by the guide books and that is good fun, but also limiting due to the heat. I mean when the sun ain't burning a hole through you, the humidity is doing its best to make sure you melt into a puddle on the sidewalk.
Renting a bike gives you the illusion of a not-so-hot day and is cheaper than taking a tuk-tuk (I think, and offers the freedom to explore outside of the city.

So mechanical steed acquired we were on our way. To where exactly we had no real idea, just a general direction. Passing the Friendship Bridge (border crossing Thailand/Lao) and some very dusty and potholy kilometres later we bumped into Buddha Park. A most interesting if slightly surreal collection of concrete statues depicting various Hindu/Buddhist deities. It being a lovely day we decided to chill with all the Buddhas under the vast canopy of a lovely old tree.

Relaxed and with the sun heading towards the horizon we sped our way back into town and discovered that Vientiane has a mini Champs Elysee. With the Victory Monument (L'Arc de Triomphe) at one end and the Presidential Palace at the other. Well of course this discovery meant we had to do a lap (a la Audrey and Gregory in "Roman Holiday" minus the "Rome" part) and all was going swimmingly until we stopped to take the obligatory photo and got a puncture. Well the romance is most quickly extinguished when you have to push your uncooperative transport to the nearest fixer-upper. Thankfully with the kind help of some school girls (giggling at our misfortune) and the friendly smiles of locals we found a place that could do the job no worries. They supplied us with cold drinks, fixed our steed and sent us on our way. The girls waving and smiling at us as we passed them by, we headed back to the "strip" to complete our "Roman Holiday" re-inaction.

Continuing the theme of Italy in Lao with a Kiwi flavour, we discovered a Scandanavian Bakery that made excellent pizza. Dinner. Pizza and beer.

Friday, August 04, 2006

The Gods have forsaken me...

The Digital Gods that is. Seems I have inadvertantly brassed them off, resulting in first; my iPod going kaput and second; horror of all horrors... my camera went ka-phuct!

Yes! My baby, my joy has gone! I feel bereft without it... What to do, what to do?
A tangi (funeral) will be held and messages of condolences greatly appreciated.

So unfortunately until my grief has been overcome there will be no more digital delights accompaning (?) this witty prose. (unless of course the young fulla deems me worthy of his photographic philanthrapy).

Right! Nuff said. It's beer o'clock!

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Hoi An to Vientiane

After the peace and quiet of Halong Bay, the boisterous bustle of a quaint little seaside town was quite unexpected.
Hoi An had been the recipient of many plaudits from various sources. However the place did nothing for me at all. Maybe we caught it at the wrong time. Maybe all the charming people who our sources had met had vacated the town for the time we were there. Maybe we had the wrong vibe about us, which in turn made everyone we met a dickhead. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.
There was a bright spot though; walking down a dusty street we heard "Hey Bro!" from the opposite side of the road. Music to the young fullas ears it were. So the obligatory Maori greeting was exchanged (eyebrows and head raised in greeting fashion) a couple of cheeky grins and a few words. Unfortunately we couldn't stop as we had to catch our bus, but 'twas a lovely moment.

Now as you have probably ascertained by this point, exiting a country smoothly is not our forte and so why would this time be any different? The bus was late but it had aircon. Of course as we were leaving the country there had to be a mini drama. No disappointment there! We had sent our passports away to the Lao consulate to get a visa. The travel company said no problem, they'll be back here in time for the bus. We went to the company in the morning just to check everything was ok. He told us that they would arrive at 5pm. We pointed out that the bus was at 2pm so that wasn't really a good thing. A phone call was made and an assurance said documents would be in our possession by 1340. Well appointed time came and went. Our bus arrived at 1430 (ish) as did our passports. So documents in hand and a "contract" not a ticket, we boarded the bus for Lao.

There was some confusion as to where the passengers for Vientian were supposed to be let off. Some passengers thought one thing, the drivers thought something else. It was a funny sight to see. Eventually we were reached the drop off point for the connecting bus. As our "contract" had been taken from us at an earlier point, you can imagine the apprehension with which we waited for the bus. Nothing like waiting in the middle of nowhere at 3 o'clock in the morning to bloster spirits either!! Never fear! The bus arrived as promised and was totally overloaded with god-knows-what in dubiously leaking cardboard boxes. But we were on our way! Lao here we come!

Arriving in Lao was a similar mini drama. We were hurtling along windy mountain roads (akin to the Kaimai's before upgrades) at a speed which seemed certain to plummet us to our explosive deaths, when we arrived quite abruptly at the Vietnam/Lao border. Which didn't open for another hour. And who's loos were all locked. Joy! Not a great hassle though, had a bit of a kip (nap), left Vietnam after paying the processing fee or "payment for stamp" as its officially called (USD1), walked down the hill and waited for our bus.

On the Lao side payment of the same official fee was made, we got our stamp and boarded the bus. The Lao countryside is quite beautiful from the border into the capital Vientian. Lots of thatched wooden houses, mountains and of course the rice fields. We stopped a few hours into Lao and were informed that this was our last scheduled stop. There were to be no more stops unless you specifically requested them. Well no one requested it but we did have quite a long stop. The tyre blew. The entire tread was shredded. Now considering the speed and way the driver was driving and that it was overloaded, it was no real surprise. Provided some good photo ops though! And alot of us took the time to visit the nearby bushes for relief. It was quite a sight to behold. Four skinny wee chaps trying their bestest to get these huge tyres off the bus, bouncing on the wheel wrench thingy. Replacing the blow out with the spare that looked equally dodgy was not as big a drama as I had expected... Sigh...
So on to Vientiane. No more dramas. Found a place to sleep easily. Had a shower. Ate dinner on the banks of the Mekong River looking across to Thailand. Bliss...

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Halong Bay

Our hotel provided tours to Halong Bay (a UNESCO world heritage site). A bay. That meant water. That meant a swum. Huzzah!
The journey out to the bay was by a mostly air-conditioned mini-bus, going along at a most moderate pace. It's quite something to be in a vehice with a large engine, on the motorway, and be passed by scooters let me tell you. Making the obligatory stop for "toilet needs" aka "buy these souvenirs", we clambered out of the mini-bus and realised how stinking hot it really was. C'mon the Bay!

Arriving at the marina, we were greeted by the sight of many an old junket both unloading passengers and preparing for the new. Ah, what cramped chaos! However with very little ado we were pointed in the direction of a particularly glorious ship and left to our own devices.
Shortly after departure, a delightful luncheon was served. Rice abounded with the odd veg and a sumptuous steamed fish. What better way to start the expedition, bellies full, faces beaming, witty conversation, eager expection.
First stop on the exploration of the Bay was a cave. A big cave. Apparently quite famous and well visited and well loved. I'm a cave snob. I expect caves to be dark and gloomy and well... a bit scary. This one was lit up with pretty colours. Visitors were thoughtfully catered for with a cobbled path to follow, complete with stairs and safety railing. To my oh-so-cynical eye the rocks beside said path looked suspiciously like concrete. And as it was beer o'clock we informed our wee guide that we were heading back to our wooden ship and would wait for him and the rest of our group there. Leave it to the Maori and the Irish to mutiny for drink!
We got back to the mini-marina near the cave only to discover that our junket had made way for others and was now too far to sensibly leap onboard. Enterprising as we Maori and Irish are (or is it that we just enjoy shinnanigans?), we spotted that our ship was accesible via two others. Not observing any kind of nautical ettiquette, we baorded the first ship, informed the staff we were just passing through, and clambered over his and the next boat to get to ours. The staff on our boat were most surprised to see us and panicked. They thought that they had buggered up and our group was back early. We tried to explain, but it was lost in translation, so we settled down to cold beers and awaited the arrival of the intrepid cave explorers.
The rest of the day was passed with more cold beers and whining about the lack of a swim (a la kids in cars- "are we there yet?").
Finally we arrived at the designated swimming area. And in true maori style we were the first in and the last out. The young fulla managing to educate everyone on the value of knowing where he is before he decides to bomb off the top level of the boat. The Vietnamese loved it though and tried abismally to get him back more than once. The Aussie was full of admiration for technique and the landlocked Europeans had never seen anything like it and took many a photo. With dinner and sunset approaching we were asked to get out and have a shower. Yeah we couldn't believe it either and chose to ignore the advice. That was until a dastardly jellyfish decided to join the party. With little fanfare he/she/it wrapped my wrist with its tentacles and left wonderfully round welts to remind me of its passing. Bugger!
So we boarded, had a lovely dinner and watched a colourful sunset. A most glorious ending to the day!

The Old Quarter

Hello Hanoi!
It was an eleven hour journey in a train with quaint wooden seats circa 1930. The "air conditioning" was from the same era- antiquated metal fans that kept breaking down and provided little or no respite from the heat. But the seats were so cool! I felt all I needed was some long beads and a wee hat, a constricting brazier and a fluttering fan to totally fit the 30's feel about the place. Wonderful!
We made the acquaintance of an Irish couple and passed the time playing cards and bargaining with the hawkers. One wee thing (hawker) was named Nga. She looked all of 14 or 15 years old and did her best to rid us of our money. We did end up with a whole lot of water and a whole lot of laughs. It was a great introduction to Vietnamese people. Lots of laughing and haggling. We ended up selling them (Nga and company) boxes of Pringles and fake Pringles. They thought it was great! They were buying things off us and the Irish. And the buggers had the cheek to try and haggle us! By gum!
We bade farewell to Nga and company halfway to Hanoi. Unfortunately with them left the laughing hawkers aswell. The next lot were by comparison quite a surly bunch.
So arriving in Hanoi at 2130 (ish) with no where to stay and no idea where to go was quite an adventure. Me being a stingy bugger, made our company take a moto (motobike taxi) to the hotel the Irish were staying in. We were overcharged (big surprise) but the Irish were extorted. What should have cost them 20,000 dong (USD1.50 approx) and taken 5 minutes, cost them 70,000 dong and took 15 minutes. Beware, beware, beware!
You will always find a bed in Hanoi though. There are hotels EVERYWHERE. So we stayed in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. Pretty cool place. Loads of shops, loads of traffic, loads of people. Good cheap food and beer.
Starting to need a swum though...