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.

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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