A Bridge Over Troubled Water.

The boys arrived in Sangkhom, a small town further along the Mekong, with just a little trepidation. They had visited the friendly workaday settlement four years previously, and had loved it for it’s exquisite ordinariness.

Paul rarely liked to journey backwards, much preferring the surprise and adventure of the soi less travelled. Quite often somewhere revisited had lost the very essence of why one returned, tarnishing both the return trip and the original stay. It was always a risk.

Fortunately very little had changed in Sangkhom.

On pulling in to the two-horse town they’d noticed a new ATM outside the local supermarket but that seemed about it. Fortune still seemed to smile down sunnily on this little stretch of the great river.

At first sight at least.

They were, however, to discover that was certainly not the case. The real riverine tale being a steady stream of sadness and survival.

As they entered the little ‘Buoy’s Guest House’ and crossed the precarious rickety bridge to the small island to which their dilapidated hut creakily clung, the familiarity of their surroundings were at once entrancing. Paul recognised the even tinier shack across from what was to be theirs on this occasion, and was immediately reminded of an evening they’d shared on it’s verandah with a gregarious Gallic couple. They’d inhaled some herbal tobacco together and laughed into the star-studded night as Paul hazily revisited his schoolboy French.

The fat yellow dog was also still padding around amicably, although her hips now appeared to have seen better days. Paul knew the feeling!

And Buoy, the smiling, ebullient proprietress, was still there to welcome them effusively into her home. No need to show passports on checking in. And beers and such were to be taken from the open fridge and written down into book number ten. The number of their shack.

Probably far too frequently!

Paul and Andrew adored an honesty bar. It was so refreshing in every way.

But something at ‘The Buoy Guest House’ was not the same!

The Boys had arrived on a rather special day. It happened to be the very day on which they’d fallen for each others dubious charms, twenty-six long years ago.

Paul thought of it as a milestone, though he was well aware his partner sometimes considered it more of a millstone!

They celebrated in the afternoon with bottles of honest beer and some honest downtime.

The earth didn’t move, but their shaky accommodation certainly did!

 

Later that day, as the boys bravely crossed the bridge of sticks back to the main house, they twigged! It was a different bridge. It was longer and lower than before.

It also leant a little to the left, much like Paul!

 

They then spotted the crooked concrete pylons which had once held up the restaurant. Unevenly sprouting from the river bank like a contemporary Stonehenge.

And the main house, they now realised, was half the size it had been on their previous visit. They knew at once, the earth had certainly moved for Buoy.

They discovered this joyous and spirited lady was also marking an anniversary, yet not the kind most people were eager  to reach. She explained that three years before she had lost her husband to a massive stroke, and shortly afterwards, half of her home to the mighty river in a single stroke.

The wet season had brought with it tragedy,  her husband and livelihood went violently downstream to join that great spiritual estruary.

It was heartbreaking, as the boys learnt how the Mekong had changed it’s mood during the last few years, growing angrier and more ferocious than ever before. Buoy, having lived on the river all her life, had never witnessed the ‘Mae Nam Khong’, as it is known in Thai, behave in such a torrid way. She was certain the current situation was due to global warming. But there were darker forces at work too.

As the Mekong snaked it’s way down from the Tibetan plateau, through China, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, before escaping into the sea via the majestic delta in Vietnam, it’s ancient course was being irrevocably altered.

There was now a veritable deluge of huge hydro-electric damns. Great ‘green’ projects that did very little to help the farmers on the verdant plains downstream.

As the Chinese government intermittently flushed these monstrous constructions in their own national interest, little interest was being shown to the thousands of villages who saw their once fertile fields inundated with mud and thereby rendered useless.

Masses of farmers had flooded to join the urban mass in the growing cities of Bangkok and Phnom Pen to work as building labourers.

Growing condos instead of cabbages!

It seemed the vegetables making the big decisions upstream didn’t give a damn.

They could only build them!

Paul also discovered that there was an ambitious plan afoot, headed by none other than China, to blast a vast channel through the Mekong all the way from Yunnan, a province in it’s south west, right down to Luang Prabang in Laos. Thus creating an artificial,  all season waterway capable of carrying 500 ton cargo vessels.

He thought of the incongruity of these giant ships which were to set a course and dwarf the beautiful Buddhist temples, he and Andrew had previously delighted in, situated along the shoreline.  Gigantic steel river monsters washing away thousands of years of antediluvian  beauty in an instant with their giant wake.

A tsunami of slime and greed!

He wished the world would awaken to the disaster that was already taking place. Mankind was getting itself into very deep water.  He’d read of the growing consensus which predicted that in just ten years time the natural habitat of the mighty Mekong would be entirely washed away. Completely destroyed. And there would be no way to turn back the tide once this precious waterway had been dynamited to damnation!

A turbulent point that has got much of the Thai population,who will be affected by this blasted idea, close to boiling point.

Things had certainly changed beneath the surface in Sangkhom, and right along the Mekong’s exotic serpentine journey. And now it was beginning to bite back.

Paul knew one only had to listen to Buoy to realise the evidence didn’t need any buoying up. The rising waters and their now frequent tempestuousness were proof in themselves that the plimsol line had been crossed.

He was, for once, very glad he had trekked backwards, as it had enabled him look forwards. But the future was not bright. It was not orange. It was sludge grey and stultifying.

He silently cursed the Chinese and the equally ignorant President ‘Chump’ for their reckless and shortsighted view on the level of the disaster. They were ignorantly allowing this watershed moment to drift on by  He was sure they would rue the day when they had tampered with the globe’s natural plumbing. They, after all, would also be submerged when the waters rose.

And Paul knew for certain that he would not be drowning in pity on their behalf.

Neither would the beautiful buoyant Buoy.

Damn fools.

What Lies Beneath.

Paul woke at 5am and clattered clumsily across the blindingly black room in the ‘See View’ guest house. He fell heavily over a ruck-sack and into something incredibly noisy before accidentally hitting the light switch. A harsh fluorescence flooded the cell like space and for a moment he thought he was in prison. He tried to remember what crime he’d perpetrated, but then saw his life sentence laying unstirred on the concrete based thing the hotel called a bed. Oh yes, that was it, he and Andrew had checked in the previous night.

The name of their lodgings was a puzzlement to them both. It was quite usual for the Thais to misspell relatively ordinary English words with an unabashed oriental enthusiasm, but surely even they were aware that Chiang Khan, on the banks of the yogic Mekong, was nowhere near the sea.

It was a complete mystery.

Until Paul, at that most unnatural of hours, clattered up the three iron staircases to the rooftop and realised there was certainly a view to see.

The boarding house had been most aptly named.

Marching majestically into the distance were the Luang Prabang mountains of Laos. Highly imposing on a precious metal dawn. Jagged with eastern mysticism.

At their forest-slippered feet rolled the mighty Mekong, appearing deep and murky, unwilling to reveal her inner depths. Who knew what lay lurking beneath her somnolent surface?

As he shivered amongst this mysterious  beauty, Paul remembered the tales he’d heard of the giant Naga who reputedly called these waters  home. As the haunting geography enveloped him he believed every one of those shaggy serpent stories.

He found the moment beautifully chilling.

And a more than a little chilly!

He and his husband had not expected this part of the world to be so bloody cold. This was probably the reason Andrew, who was normally and early riser in every way, was still nestled beneath his two quilts in block ‘H’! This, despite Paul having woken the rest of the institution with his pre-dawn fumbling.

He was not a natural morning person. A yawner rather than a dawner!

Andrew was the lark, in voice as well as habit. Paul was more of your wise old owl, with a little less of the old and lacking most of the wisdom. Although, this particular daybreak, he had been clever enough to get up to witness the sun doing the same. And when that eastern star eventually peeped glaringly over the searing summit in the distance, Paul understood, for one wondrous moment, just why those stupid people who rose with the sun did it.

He sat on the roof for sometime, joined only by birdsong and the harmony of Laotian Buddhist monks, whose chants wafted piously across the enchanted serpent’s waterway.

A deep gong was struck three times somewhere in the depths of the dark woods, creating a cloud of sound that was quite simply divine, in every meaning of that overused word.

Moments like this were incredibly rare, especially for Paul, whose usual life was a heady concoction of an altogether different type of music along with some very high heels. The only queen standing tall this morning was Mother Nature herself, and she was resplendent.

A tear of pure joy made it’s lacrimose journey onto Paul’s cheek. He was most moved. And he’d not even been drinking!

Morning had broken him.

Cat Stevens would have been thrilled!

Later that day, after a mystifying meal of three-way pork noodle soup and a bottle of ‘Chang’ lager, Paul and Andrew foolishly hit the motorway on bicycles and hit reality at the same time.

Andrew’s bike quite clearly had a not so slow puncture and Paul seemed to be using a set of wheels which had once belonged to a toddler. Each time he tried to make a rotation he bashed his knee painfully on the inoperative gear lever, forcing him to cycle with just one leg. A feat he’d never tried with one foot before!

In time the boys fortunately found a small lane which took them away from the highway and onto a quiet path running alongside the Mekong. They rode for sometime in silence apart from the appalling mechanical noises emanating from their ill-chosen transport. Rabbits, birds and even people fled into the distance as they heard the clanking metallic machinations of the ‘falang’ heading their way. It made for a clear bicycle lane if nothing else.

As Paul was nearly decapitated by two electrical wires, strung at a diminutive eastern level, Andrew shouted over to him.

‘Paul. Look!’

Paul found it difficult as he was still mid-duck, negotiating the garrotting chords, and his wheels were now skidding across the dry red dust most precariously. He came to an unglamorous and painful shudder to where Andrew had stopped.

Before either of them could speak a booming voice came out of nowhere.

‘Welcome, welcome’, screeched the highly amplified vocal, ‘you want make a donation? Thank you for coming.’

The boys realised independently they had stumbled, or rather, skidded into the grounds of a wat; a Thai temple. The voice which was calling them on was not that of The Buddha, but belonged to a tiny woman who was sat behind a tacky knick-knack stacked counter under a corrugated plastic roof.

Paul was going to cycle cynically onward, bypassing the small woman and her kitsch religious ware. He’d been stung on many an occasion during one of their eastern odysseys, and often returned to the west with a backpack stuffed with neon Buddha pencil sharpeners and the like, much to Andrew’s dislike.

To Paul’s surprise his partner immediately made his way over to the stall of naffness, which he now saw was adjacent to a small shrine containing a large seated golden icon. He was confused, perhaps Andrew, normally the darker of the two of them, had actually seen the light.

Paul wheeled his machine over to watch this most unexpected moment of enlightenment.

Andrew placed a note into the donation box and was presented with three incense sticks and a small piece of gold leaf by the small woman with the big mic.

‘Put on Buddha’ she instructed.

She then turned to Paul tapping the box for offerings,

‘And you?’ She asked.

Paul knew he was ‘Bahtless’ having let Andrew play the role of cashier for that day. He always knew having a wad of something gave his partner pleasure, and he was more than happy to be unsullied with dirty cash.

‘I have no money’ Paul replied pathetically, tapping his empty pockets to demonstrate his temporary poverty, ‘I’m with him.’

The little woman smiled a large smile. But only with her mouth! Her eyes said ‘fuck you!’

Paul watched as Andrew removed his shoes and entered the makeshift shrine. He attempted to light the joss sticks, but then paused,

‘Video me’ he said, passing the mobile phone over to his partner.

Paul realised that Andrew was not actually on the path to enlightenment, more ‘The Road To Rio’, and did as he was told.

It was camera, lights, inaction, as Andrew bumbled around with the paraphernalia he’d been given. Once his sticks were alight Andrew tore a fragment from his golden sheet and pressed it against the Buddha.

‘Don’t push too hard’ shrieked their guide.

‘That’s what I always tell him’ Paul cheekily responded.

‘Yes. Yes’ she said. Not quite reading from the same chant sheet!

As they bade their ‘Kon Khun Kraps’ and took their leave, Paul asked Andrew why he’d decided to participate in the mini ritual. It was most unusual he  thought, it was difficult enough to get his partner to Christmas midnight mass, and that was half-cut!

‘I found it on the floor’ Andrew explained, ‘the twenty note. That’s why I shouted to you, but as soon as I picked it up she called me over.’

‘She probably saw you’.

‘No she didn’t it was much too far away. She’d never have seen. It was synchronicity. It was meant to be’.

‘Wow’ said Paul, ‘maybe.’

Both of them believed sometimes things were meant to be. They had no idea why!

He was reminded of that we’ll known Thai adage,

Find some Baht and pick it up,

All day long you have good luck,

Give the Baht to sour old bitch,

Buddha make you very rich!

Or something along those lines.

They cycled onwards, and upwards, onto the road and headed back towards the motorway.

‘Did you keep the rest of the gold?’ Asked Paul. Superstitiously hoping  his partner would give him a slither for good fortune.

‘Yeah’ said Andrew, ‘it’s in my wall….’ He suddenly stopped short. ‘Shit! I’ve left my wallet back there.’

It seemed Andrew had made a much larger donation than intended.

He whizzed around, as nifty as a teenage BMX champion,and peddled  furiously back to the little lady with the big Buddha and even bigger attitude. Of course, his belongings were still where he’d left them.

That was usually the case, in northern Thailand at least.

The Boys continued on along the main road until they hit the pretty town centre of Chiang Khan. Old style Thai wooden houses were cobbled together along a planked promenade adjacent to the river. It seemed as if each and every one had been turned into a guest house and each was as full as a travellers’ flop house on Bangkok’s infamous Khao San Road.

The night market was similarly crowded. It’s stalls awash with riverine creatures pulled from the Mekong, some entirely unknown to Andrew and Paul. Monsters which they’d only seen before on ‘Dr Who’.

There were crabs as small as pennies and rats as big as ponies.

It seemed as though anything that moved was ripe for the barbie. And amongst this exotic epicurean crematorium there were people.

Hundreds of them.

Milling, meandering and munching their way through the millipedes
and mudlarks.

It was a colourful site – almost too much so.

For alongside the stalls of inscrutable insects and tenebrous tendons stood row after row of gift shop each selling cuddly versions of the very things that had been cremated alongside.

One could cuddle a cute chicken and chomp on a coddled cock simultaneously. Not something even Andrew was guilty of thought Paul. He paused for thought. Then reconsidered!

The following day the entire town had emptied. The shops were shuttered and the sellers had wheeled away their carts. It was practically a ghost town. A studio set which was waiting for the cast to return from an extended lunch. Only they wouldn’t – not until the following week-end.

It was most eerie.

The Boys found themselves in the dark on a silent rooftop at 9pm. There was absolutely nothing to do. The distant rippling of the Mekong was the only soundtrack, pierced occasionally by the insolent barking of a stray hound.

Once or twice Paul thought he heard the enigmatic splash of something unfathomable surfacing and then diving beneath the ink-black water. It was slightly unnerving, perhaps that was why everyone had disappeared so quickly. Maybe they knew something he didn’t. But then how could they? This serpentine river flowed with such deep impenetrability that no-one could know for sure what secrets really slithered beneath her slumberous surface.

Paul hoped that it stayed that way. The world, after all, was now so much less surprising than it once was. Wouldn’t it be a good thing if some things remained inexplicable?

He joined Andrew in their uncomfortable room, comforted by the fact that sometimes the unknown is just as pleasing as the known. It brings with it magic and mystery and pure imagination.

He planned to wake early the next day to once again watch the sun rise from her mountainous mattress. That was a certainty, but he drifted off content in the knowledge that not everything was. Some hidden depths remained just that.

But maybe, if he looked hard enough he may catch just a glimpse of the Naga serpent as she disappeared elegantly into the unfathomable deep, just as the sun’s golden noise woke the shallow world.

The mysteries of life were so appealing here in the east. For once, he didn’t need to know everything. That, he knew.

It was all very deep.

Just like the mighty, mysterious Mekong.

As Paul lay in that dreamy state between wakefulness and sleep, he thought he heard a great splash in the soporific water outside.

He was far too languorous to investigate.

Instead he simply believed.

Splash! Splash ……

 

 

 

Bangkok Bound – Yet Not Gagged.

Well, The Lola Boys have hit Bangkok, and after no sleep and a hideous incident involving two Chavs and a disgruntled pensioner in row twenty-three on our Boeing out, we feel like doing the same!  We were belted in by the  Captain far too frequently, when it was quite obvious the only turbulence was onboard!

Perhaps that was the point.

Our gorgeous stewardess was no doubt wishing all of the idiots would make a quick exit via the emergency door.  What one would call a very hard Brexit at thirty-six thousand feet.  Yet oh so effective!

It never used to be like this on British Airways!

Therefore we’ve arrived in Thailand buggered! We only hope we don’t leave in the same manner.

But we know it takes time to adapt to this most steamy of conurbations. Bangkok, oriental city where the nights ain’t pretty etc. etc. etc….. as Yul Brynner once said.

And they certainly weren’t last night!

I shan’t go into full detail, suffice to say that the expensive probiotics  I purchased for us prior to departure have not yet kicked in. Last night’s dinner was what is known as fast food – and that was on the way out! At least that’s what Andrew told me.

Four hours later I have awoken in a malarial sweat in a ‘queen size’ bed. I can only imagine ‘Her Majesty’ must have been a dwarf as the thing can hardly contain us!

We are staying in a less than salubrious part of the city in a hotel full of less than polite Chinese. They really possess no charm, although they do have volume. And I don’t mean follicularly!

To make matters worse, I look like the love child of the late Joan Rivers and the even later Liberace, and Andrew is rocking the Yoko Oh No look! We really should attempt to dilute our airborne Bloody Marys with something less sanguineous next time – perhaps the odd G & T.

Air rage and lymphatic drainage simply do not mix.

Added to this unglamorous start it’s bloody pissing it down here!

So my hair can’t even disguise the B.A. look with which I landed.  Bloody awful. Needless to say, there will be no selfies quite yet. Not of the photographic kind.

Still, we ain’t here to cabaret, only to ‘cabaret’, so who cares?

Far too often I have been spotted in ‘Mercadona’ post-show, usually by someone who’s never bothered to see it, and told how rough I look.  I usually blame it on the Andalusian lighting and laugh it off instead of issuing a swift fuck off as I would like. Here, in this eclectic city there is no need for such fake civility, as round every corner there’s a rogue or vagabond colouring the pavement, so I simply blend in.

Well – almost!

So still feeling somewhat jaded we head into one of the inclement city sois and sit beneath a scruffy tarpaulin to feast on a fabulous lunch. Incendiary as well as impressive.  Especially at less than two quid for both of us.

Our spirits lifted we then stop off for a back, neck and shoulder massage, which inevitably includes more body parts than described. Although my masseuse was only two foot six she had the strength and attitude of Mike Tyson. I have left both battered and relaxed. Much like a dead cod!

And now I lounge by the overcast pool, sinking a cheeky ‘Chang’, and trying to hear myself think and Blog,  as the over sixties synchronised swimming team of Shanghai scream and splash noisily just feet away.

How can such little women make such a large sound? And displace so much water! I’m soaked. Truly extraordinary.

But I’m beginning to feel comfortable. Refreshed even. Maybe it’s the beer, or perhaps the massage. The soaking I’ve just had from Madame Mao could have helped. Yet I have a strange inkling it maybe The Orient beginning to work her eastern magic. That or someone has slipped something naughty into my drink.

As daylight switches off and the moon waxes into sight I suddenly feel grounded but excited too. More than ready to don my rucksack and head for the hills.

I do hope Andrew Hill feels the same. Hopefully the probiotics have kicked in. Or it could be a long night in a very small bed.

And not for the first time!

 

 

 

It’s Been A Long Haul!

Well – we’re off! And not before time. Andrew and I have spent the last nine days painting and decorating! We are, what’s the technical term, oh yeah, knackered ! We are both in need of extensive renovation. We have muscles aching we never knew existed. Who had any idea of the wrist action required whilst undercoating ? And we both have an impressive wrist action! Thank Michelangelo we had our lovely family along at times to help with the ceilings – I doubt even he could have made a better job ! But we shall gloss over all that (forgive me), as we have travelling to be getting on with.

We are currently at Terminal 5, and I am in terminal trouble, after having left our iPhone in the Uber cab. Needless to say it has not yet materialised. With my head full of vinyl silk and soaked in emulsion, I forgot that I’d given it to the driver to charge. At the end of our journey last night, he then charged off with it. So instead of brushing on eggshell, I am currently walking on it!

Still, onwards and upwards – literally.

We hit the western skies at 1500 hrs, heading due East. I have a real adventure planned, although I may be a solo traveller if the bloody phone doesn’t re-appear, or if ‘im indoors’ discovers how many overnight buses and dodgy trains I’ve got lined up.

We are heading back to The Mekong, that oh so mystic river, but this time to places we haven,t visited, and rarely does anyone else. It’s gonna be fun, and strange. I do hope you come along for the ride. It won’t all be plain sailing – but it’ll be one hell of a voyage. So wish us a ‘Bonne’ one of those as we set off to celebrate our twenty-six years of bedded bliss together somewhere exotic and slightly frightening.

But first, where is that sodding phone? Hardly what one would call an Uber service!

Perhaps we should both just get plastered!

The Last Word From A Lost World!

A Final Blog!

We leave Hanoi, the frenetic Vietnamese capital, with heavy hearts and even weightier rucksacks due to the ridiculous oriental trinketry I have unwisely failed to resist! imageThe shopping is amazing here, each twisting lane presenting a cornucopia of merchandise to lighten one’s purse and darken one’s load. I envisage some lively conversations between Mr Kennedy and I as we hit the open road with a few extra bronze Buddhas as travelling companions. Not to mention the deceptively heavy, lacquered ‘Tintin In Vietnam’ picture, which I’ve managed to secrete into a secret section of one of the backpacks. I don’t think he’s noticed it yet !!!

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imageAt the moment we are enjoying a brief honeymoon period, after having spent a week many miles apart. Reunification in North Vietnam has been a marvellous exercise. Absence doesn’t just make the heart grow fonder!

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But enough of that, the Vietnamese frown on open displays of affection, even though they are an extremely tolerant society. And why not? It certainly shows more decorum. There are some things that should stay well and truly behind the iron curtain that undoubtedly still exists here.

I do not, however, believe this includes the pastime of blogging. This literary hobby surely constitutes a freedom of speech, a privilege, we in The West, take absolutely for granted. To have one’s voice silenced through the actions of Vietnam’s communist government is insidious, and, if I may say, a little rude! Now we are safely out of range of the ruling party’s heavy-handed iron fist I am able, without fear of recrimination, to say what I truly feel.

This is a great nation. It’s people are resilient, hard-working and proud. They possess a sharp intelligence and a sometimes ferocious wit. They are entrepreneurial and yet keenly socially conscious as well. The family and it’s inherently decent values are paramount to them. They can be deadly serious and then collapse into fits of genuine laughter at the drop of a chopstick. Their national character, contrary to much of what I have read on the internet, is imbued with an incandescent array of colour. It is nothing short of tragic that these fine and decent people have been saddled with a colourless and humourless ‘parliament’, with all the attraction of Ho Chi Minh’s lifeless, embalmed corpse.

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It is true that many still revere their mummified former leader. But going by most of the lively conversations in which I have engaged with the local population, this deference seems mainly due to the miracle he performed by kicking out the French colonialists, and not in any part an admiration of his Soviet style policies. Plus, a little whitewashing of historical fact and a lot of brainwashing, a despicable act, that is compulsorily carried out in schools nationwide ! It seems the government doesn’t think this bright and erudite country has the brains to think for itself. Or have a say in how it is governed.

A leadership which governs in this arbitrary and undemocratic manner certainly doesn’t get my vote !

The manipulation of the country’s media, which is entirely run by the state, is a parlous state of affairs. These so-called Socialists should be red-faced with embarrassment and shame. It is a credit to the population that this wonderful land is awash with smiling optimism despite not having the right to put a cross in a box. Those brave souls who have the courage to speak out against such political tyranny and end up with enforced room service at the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ get my endorsement. These are the real politicians. The genuine heroes. Not the tin-pot generals and ‘yes men’ who are unelected to such elevated seats of power. Who are so paranoid about maintaining absolute control that they think it necessary to block a silly Western cabaret artiste from making a few wry comments online. They make me gag!

I believe the situation is calm here now as the economic conditions within Vietnam are equally as placid. But there is a definite underlying political tension here, and not a definite underlying pension! If the currency of the ‘Dong’ starts going for a song, the populace may start to sing an altogether different tune. A revolutionary ditty which will have those ruling generals running for cover to the Viet Cong’s many wartime tunnels, holding on to their tin pot hats as they go. I, for one, will be cheering from the sidelines, if this beautiful nation takes hold of her own reigns, and canters gracefully towards the winning post. After spending an utterly incredible month getting to know the good folk of Vietnam, I believe the odds are more than even, and the going, exceptionally good. I can’t wait for the starting pistol to begin the grand nation.

And so we say farewell to this exotic part of the world, happy in the knowledge that this country has won our hearts and leaving her makes us sad, so it is good mourning Vietnam.

We have now pushed on even further from home.

Our plan was to visit China, but the thought of being gagged and monitored for another extended period, by another paranoid and ultra bureaucratic totalitarian regime, seems little more than a voluntary prison sentence, rather than an exotic adventure. So we have decided to avoid the risk of getting caught in the censorious jaws of the giant red dragon and have instead headed south for our first ever visit to Indonesia.

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We have arrived in Bali for ‘Nyepi’ – the fantastic Balinese festival of spirits, where titanic, garish monsters are paraded through the streets in order to scare off any real demons who may be contemplating a Vietnamese style takeover.

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It was a vibrant and noisy start to our exploration of the south seas. The tribal drumming and rhythmic chants have certainly helped us to shake of the constraints of any residual authoritarianism.

Although, ironically, we have been silenced once again on this trip, but by an altogether different authority. Today is known here as ‘The Day Of Silence.’ Not a human being on this exotic isle is allowed to stir or take to the streets. This is to fool the angry gods into thinking the place is uninhabited, so that they go on their demonic ways and leave Bali in peace.

We have been forbidden to leave our home stay by the charming family with whom we share it. We can eat only what we are provided with and must keep noise to a minimum. Andrew is thrilled as he doesn’t have to contend with my constant chatter for at least a day. Surprisingly, being such a keen exponent of the art of conversation, I am not finding this a hardship, especially as we are currently residing in a true paradise, south of the equator.

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Home

And so to comply with local tradition, I have decided to remain silent for the rest of the day, in fact, for the rest of this trip, which means it is time to bring this blog to a close.

Our trip so far has been everything we could have wished for and more. Asia continues to enthrall and fascinate. The sophistication and sheer beauty of Thailand, with it’s arcane rituals and brilliant cuisine. Stunning Cambodia, where the people are as warm as the land they inhabit. And, of course, unforgettable Vietnam. A country of such unique culture and timelessness, that has resisted all attempts to be reshaped by the aggressive chiselling of foreign and domestic sculptors. Defiantly and proudly retaining her ancient form, fecund with spirituality and mysticism. We have been most fortunate and are more than grateful to have been welcomed into these gerontogeous climes with so much sincere hospitality.

We now plan to venture into deepest, darkest Indonesia. Traversing that evocatively invisible borderline we call the world’s equator.

And for once, I’m not gonna shoot my mouth off !

What happens south of the border – stays south of the border!

That is, until I release my first book of our adventures ….

The Lola Boys Out East !

Unavailable in all good bookstores.

But it should be ready for the dodgy ones early next year!

The Solo Adventures Of A Forty-Something Teenage Detective!

Dong Hoi

imageI set out from my ‘bijoux’ guest house in the small, provincial, untouristic town of Dong Hoi and headed for the incongruously psychedelic bridge which crossed the Nhat Li river.

There was not a lot to see here, the town once being the main staging post for the Viet Cong during the war, it’s environs had been completely razed to the ground. image

The main sights being the bombed out church, preserved as yet another reminder of yet another U.S. war crime, and the bridge, an excellent example of a Vietnamese architect’s draw crime!

The only other vaguely historical point of interest was the remains of an ancient gate which had once been the entrance to an impressive citadel.

Sadly this was unmaintained and littered with rubbish, including a few used syringes.

Apparently this unassuming little conurbation lies on the main heroin smuggling route. The locals say the brown stuff arrives on boats and is then transported overland into Laos, just twenty miles west of here. This would explain the small underbelly of the populace which I have noticed on my meanderings – wandering aimlessly, dazed and confused. I mean them, as well as me. I had assumed there was a small underfunded, psychiatric unit nearby, I now knew better.

imageI crossed the funky bridge, grey and wan in it’s daytime attire and headed for the sandy spit which I’d espied from attic room days earlier. From there it had appeared close by – just a cough and a spit on a bicylce. However, as it transpired, the journey was more akin to. A case of full blown pnuemonia!

As the essential early morning Vietnamese coffee kicked in violently, I found myself pedalling furiously through the narrow lanes. The bike had ten gears apparently, although the other nine I had tried were refusing to co-operate. The bike and I were most definitely not in tandem.

After what seemed like a very short time, I found myself alongside an extremely quiet stretch of beach. Sand dunes rolled out for as far as the eye could see, and all I could hear was the noisy roar of the implacid South China Sea, crashing ferociously sounding like an oriental timpani section as it met the beach.

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The sea itself was unswimmable, the current quite unmanageable, even for a cross channel veteran such as David Walliams. I had been warned to venture in by Vanh, my lovely guest house owner. Had she not been so forthcoming with her coastguardly advice, I would still not have been remotely tempted. Though impressive, majestic even, this remote stretch of ocean is terribly uninviting. The South China Sea can be incredibly agressive at times. Perhaps this great part of the Western Pacific is rebelling in response to China’s recent agression in this maritime region. That great nation seems intent on claiming most of these waters for herself, even those far from it’s shores, much to the chagrin of Vietnam and the other numerous countries who share the it’s coastline. It seems the sea is not the only part of this region with a disturbingl and dangerous undercurrent!

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Greedy,greedy!

I was interrupted from my high-brow geo-political reverie by four young lads, who were visiting the beautiful, if deadly beach on a day trip. Do, Hi, Cok and Wi, who on mass sounded suspiciously like Donald Duck’s nephews, were having a quacking time. (Apologies!) despite the weather. And of course they went quackers when the chance of having a snap with an odd looking westerner materialised. They wanted nothing more than to beach bond with the bleach blonde who had washed up on their tumultuous shoreline. I was more than happy to oblige, they were such sweet and gentle guys, as they always seem to be in this country.

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If the youth are anything to go by, surely only good things can happen here in the future.
I left the beach and cycled onto a road that was under construction. I went for some time at considerable speed, now having re-discovered the art of changing gears on a bicycle. The wind in my hair, the sun attempting to light up my face, it felt great. I was out alone, rucksacked and rebellious, ignoring the boringly dry guidebook and heading for adventure. I’d found at least half of my inner TinTin for which I’d been searching. Now for the remainder.

Then, from what seemed like no-where, two angry hounds from hell, sprung up from the side of the deserted highway and gave chase. I stood on the pedals in an attempt to accelerate away, but neither the bike nor my quadriceps responded quite as quickly as they had once done. image

One of the vicious looking curs, a mean yellow thing, who looked as if he’d swallowed a box of washing powder, made bold!

It went directly for my right ankle. For a moment he caught the bottom of my jeans between his sizeable jaws and I wobbled unsteadily. Physically and mentally! I kicked out hard, there was a yelp, I did not look back as the bike suddenly kicked itself into gear and I was free. My heart was pounding, my thoughts racing faster than the guy in the yellow jersey on the Tour De France. ‘What ifs’ abounded. Not least, what if I’d been bitten?!

Especially as Andrew and I had declined the offer of a series of Rabies shots prior to setting off for eastern climes. The jabs were so expensive and the risks seemingly so distant then, as we sat comfortably ensconced in the tropical nurse’s spotless, Gibraltar surgery.

She had kindly warned us of a recent outbreak in Saigon, but we’d not been swayed. I was now busy wondering if we’d been barking mad to make such a decision when I heard loud voices coming from behind. My initial thought was that I’d raised the heckles of the mean, yellow dog’s owner and he was chastising me, even giving chase! I didn’t wait to find out, but moved up through the gears as fast as I could and turned down a sandy path just beyond some camouflaging scrub, hoping I would lose any possible pursuants.

I could hear more angry shouts, now growing more urgent, I turned to look over my shoulder. To my surprise, instead of an oriental peasant with a shovel and a pissed off mutt, there stood behind me two very serious looking men in army green uniform, with two very serious looking guns by their sides. There was not a dog or serf in sight! I slammed on the brakes, and shot them an apologetic and confused touristy look. I knew I’d obviously made a transgression somehow, perhaps they’d read the blog! I was not in such adventurous mood as to try and outride two Viet army personel who appeared highly concerned and highly armed! I did want to trigger a Viet wrong!

I turned the bike around and made my way towards them.
“No! No!” They were shrieking. Holding up their arms, and thankfully not their arms, in a crossed position in the air.
“No! No! Not allow!”
As I reached the two guys there urgency did not diminish. The taller of the two was making strange noises and waving his arms in an expansive gesture. For a moment he looked as though he was doing the dance that accompanied the Y.M.C.A., I could have giggled with nerves, I was scared enough, instead I maintained composure. He continued on with his Village People  routine and with the noises, which I could now discern as ‘Boom’, ‘Bersh’, ‘Boc Boc’, etc.
It was then I twigged!

There was obviously unexploded ordinance here. I nad been warned by Vanh, and am usually very sensible under such circumstances, but ‘The Hounds Of The Baskervilles’ had put me off my pace and I’d obviously gone further off road than I had realised.
“I’m sorry, so sorry” I apologised, smiling manically. Teeth usually make a difference here.
“Thankyou, thankyou. Cam Un. Cam un.” A little bit of the local lingo goes a long way too.

At once their stern attitude changed. They were not angry with me, only concerned for my physical welfare. They smiled broadly and laughed hard. The three of us shared a moment of nervous hilarity as we shook hands and giggled energetically at the thought of me being blown to smithereens!

They were so nice, they even directed me on an alternative route, avoiding the brutish canines and the U.X.B. I was most grateful.

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After another ten minutes of riding, my crotch and I needed a break. I stopped on the deserted road and took some water.

I marvelled at the construction of all the infrastructure surrounding me, and wondered at the lack of people.

Just who exactly were they putting all this structure ‘infra’!

There was nobody here!

Other than a guy on a black moped who nad been putting along very slowly ahead of me for the last ten minutes or so. Every now and then he would come to a halt, and glance, rather too conspicuously, in his rear view mirrors, seemingly to check my position.

I passed him a couple of times as he remained inexplicably stationary at the side of the deserted highway, giving him a wide berth and attempting to look confident and butch, as my late father had always dispondantly encouraged. Each time, the shrouded rider would start up again and accelerate further down the road, stopping a couple of hundred yards in front of me, looking once more to his mirrors. After about quarter of an hour of this strange duel, I began to grow a little apprehensive. What with the the mad dogs, the leftover bombs and now this mysterious biker, everything was becoming a little too ‘Herge’ – even for my liking!

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My ‘Tin’ was definitely rattled.

I was alone, at least five miles from anywhere, and it felt like five hundred. There was nothing for it but too stand my ground. Dig deep and mine the other half of my Tintin spirit – discover my true metal.

I took out the mobile phone I’d had the foresight to pocket prior to venturing out and held it very obviously in my hand. I then pretended to make a phone call, shouting ridiculously loudly to ensure the masked motorcyclist could hear me. I then clicked the phone into camera mode, stood tall on the bike, and pedalled directly towards the suspected highwayman. I stopped abruptly, about twenty feet from him, lifted the camera high into the air, and took a photograph. I then put the phone back into my pocket and continued to ride past the guy, smiling confidently as I did so. As he was masked I could not tell if he reciprocated, although I had my doubts!

I cycled on, I did not look back for fear of appearing insecure. I kept my pace slow and measured – for once dad would have been proud.

After a couple of minutes, I stopped. Climbed out of the saddle and kicked on my bike-stand in the manner I imagine John Wayne would have done in a similar showdown. As I did so I clumsily bashed my ankle bone into the bike frame in a style more akin to ‘Blazing Saddles’! I tried hard not to react, but it bloody hurt. I then opened my rucksack, took out my water, and nonchalantly took a swig, missing my mouth entirely, and throwing most of the H2O into my left eye! I glanced over, as surreptitiously as I could with the one that could still focus, in the biker’s direction. He had begun to move towards me again – I held my nerve. I could hear the soundtrack of ‘The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly’ reverberating around my head at great speed.

“Duddle Uddle Urr – Durr Durr Durr”!!!

And then, suddenly, as quickly as he had appeared, the ghost-rider made a broad u-turn and crossed to the opposite lane. He then rode directly away from me. Calm and deliberate, without so much as a nod of his helmet.

We had, at last, parted company.

Not before time!

I waited a good twenty minutes, or so it seemed. The battery in the phone was exhausted, I had know way of knowing for certain. The photograph I had snapped of my shady biker friend in order to expose him, had been it’s final exposure!

I made my way calmly back towards the town, feeling partially relieved, and, egocentrically, a little proud of myself that I had managed to deter a possible highway robbery, or perhaps something worse! Either that, or my paranoid western sensibilities had got the better of me, and I had scared a poor Vietnamese joyrider witless, with an intriguing game of cat and mouse!

My gut feeling, however, points towards the former.

This country feels, and is, incredibly safe, doubtless due in some part to the fear instilled into the local population by the Vietnamese state should they dare to commit a crime. The gaols here are notoriously unreformed – Elizabeth Fry would have had a field day!

But narcotics can take away one’s fear of reprisal, and with the underlying drugs issue here unresolved, I wonder if I’d just been unlucky enough to encounter one of the few desperate local junkies out on the empty highway.

As I neared the river, a motorcycle pulled up directly alongside me.
‘Blistering Barnacles!’ I nearly jumped out of my skin!
But immediately I was greeted with a benign, smiling hello. It was Linh, one of the student waitresses employed at the small cafe opposite my hotel. She just wanted to ride beside me and chat, practicing her English as we went. I was more than happy to have her with me as we rode back towards civilisation.

“What is you name?” She asked, beaming. Innocent and guileless and with innate charm.
“Tintin” I wanted to answer. But I knew this was unfair. Cruel even, and the joke would have been lost.
“Paul”, I said, returning the smile. “It’s Paul”.
But I knew, that deep down inside, it was Tintin again. If even just for a few exciting moments.

And as the sun broke through the haze for the first time in days, so did my teenage self. I was delighted to know that the boy detective deep inside of me, almost suffocated by the trials and tribulations of adulthood, was most definitely alive and kicking, and it felt utterly brilliant.

Although, I think that may be enough solo adventure for one comic’s trip !

Tomorrow I head for Hanoi to meet up with my old partner in ryhme.
The double act is to be reunited.

But I shall always be grateful for this week I spent alone. Thankful for the hounds, the unexploded ordinance and the angel from hell, which provided me with just enough danger to resuscitate my inner child.

Now he’s been given the kiss of life, I may invite him out to play more often.

“Come on Snowy. Walkies”!

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Two Go To Devil’s Island!

Con Son, also known as Indochina’s Devil’s Island, is the main isle of the remote archipelago of Con Dao, lurking quietly,  far out in the turquoise South China Sea, just off the coast of southern Vietnam. Today, it is mainly visited by northern Vietnamese war veterans, who had once been incarcerated here during the infamous American campaign last century. They come to pay respects to their fallen colleagues and, I imagine, in an attempt to reconcile themselves with the brutality they were forced to endure here.

It was The French who built most of the prisons in this beautiful place, during their colonisation of the country. The lock-ups were used to keep those natives who had the audacity to rebel against France’s colonial ambitions. Almost twenty years after The French were kicked out, the United States put the jails to bad use once more, when they transferred Viet Cong fighters here to be imprisoned in the infamous ‘Tiger Cages’.

This is a ‘Tiger Cage’ !

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A pit with a barred grill as a ceiling, so that the guards, like demented circus trainers, could stab at the inmates below with thick bamboo poles. These torturers also threw lime onto their captives to blind them and scorch their skin.

imageFor those ‘lucky’ enough to avoid these hellish holes, an altogether different abode awaited. Known as solariums, these were stone cells, completely open to the fierce sunlight. Made to share these compounds with hundreds of others, naked and without room to even lay down, these men and women literally baked alive under the punishing, equatorial sun.

The Americans denied the existence of these killing rooms, much like the waterboading which took place at Guantanamo Bay. But, in 1970, they were forced to admit their cruelty. A journalist, on a controlled congressional visit to the gaol, had in his posession a secret map, drawn by an ex-con, and detailing the whereabouts of the rumoured ‘Tiger Cages’. He managed to break off from the main group, and following a path leading behind a vegetable plot, used as camouflage, he discovered these brutal cells. ‘Life’ magazine then published his photos for the world to see.

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America was shamed and forced to apologise.  Just another example that none of the participants in that fatal conflict conducted themselves with anything near flying colours.  The Geneva Convention was torn up and fed to the big cats.

It was a very eerie visit.  To walk through a gate, leaving paradise feet behind, and to be confronted by a genuine house of horror.  The atmosphere was a heavy as the iron manacles which still lay on the hard stone floors.  It was difficult to remember we were in an exotic heaven when surrounded by such barbaric history.  The imaginative evil to which Man is able to stoop during war is beyond imagination.

We were pleased to leave !

Not before giving one of the guards a disrespectful hand to lighten our mood. A shameful act for a shameful place!

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Thankfully, the rest of the island is a delight. Cobalt blue waters, emerald mountains, abundant wildlife, and best of all, no Starbucks in sight !  It would be very interesting to return in ten years time, to see if Ronald Macdonald has kept his grubby hands of the place.  Perhaps the heavy red glove of the communist government will hold back any of his commercial clowning.  Although, having just spent six days in Saigon, I very much doubt it.  Change maybe at a glacial pace here, but at some point the floodwaters of commerce will surely overrun the islet’s innocent defences.  Paradise, after all, never endures !

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imageWe took a motorbike to see the rest of the island.  It was glorious, the ride, however, was not.  I hadn’t ridden for several years, and saddled with a hungover hunk, by the name of Andrew Kennedy, riding pillion, we must have looked like ‘George And Mildred’ as we wobbled precariously along the precipitous roads.

imageWe stopped for lunch at a local village, or rather, the only other village!  Our hosts were so polite and engaging, that we thought it churlish to refuse their fishy offering.  The ‘head chef’ sat with us and prepared the frightful feast.  He seemed to take a shine to me, and I was therefore offered all the best bits of this marine meal.  First, he fed me a fish eye, which glared at me angrily before he chopsticked it into my gob.  Then, I sampled some gill and something quite unrecognisable that came from the fish’s midrift.  Finally, with a flourish, I was presented with a type of organ, which flapped between the sticks before it slithered down my gullet.  It was most unappealing.

Andrew looked on, with barely suppressed hilarity, as he escaped most of this fishy torture.  He was, however, offered the head of the creature to munch on, as a digestif.  Our cook was taking no prisoners when it came to his selection of menu!

A day later, and I can still taste the overdose of iron in my mouth.  It is like I have had a flagon of fish liver force fed.  A faceful !  I doubt I shall ever be able to contemplate a plate of cod and chips again !

In the evening, still with bass breath, we joined the local game of Bingo.  A manic affair, run by two terribly stern looking drag queens, resembling camp guards from the tv show ‘Tenko’!

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imageThe numbers were sung, at lightning speed, by a flat singer in sequins.  Without the help of the charming ‘Miss Hassan’ lookalike, we would have been lost.  She kindly handed Andrew a white piece of chalk with which to cross off his numbers.  He misunderstood, and much to everyones amusement, he put the chalk into his mouth and began to chew, thinking it was a sweet.  He spat it out once he eventually realised his inedible error, but at least it had got rid of the flavour of fish bonce that was still lingering on his palate.

Needless to say, we didn’t win!

I think something fishy may have been going on here too, as the same man won three cases of Tiger beer in a row.

We had to buy ours!

It was a fun night, and the bottled Tiger and the Bingo cage, helped to erase the memory of our visit to the other ‘Tiger Cages’ the previous day, which was most definitely the pits !

Tomorrow we head for the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

But we shall not forget Con Dao, with it’s beauty and bestiality.  It is a place where nature still roars at her most magnificent.

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