A Flight Of Fancy!

When Paul gleaned from a terribly friendly gay couple back at the Mekong that one could take up lodgings on a military airbase in Thailand he knew it would take no persuasion to get Andrew onboard. ‘Wing 5’, a military base belonging to The Royal Thai Airforce, amazingly allowed tourists to stay at a hotel put in place for the airmen and their families.

As long as their was room of course.

Just over the runway and adjacent to the hotel was a gloriously unspoilt beach. Cleaned and swept by the cadets when they were not in the cockpit. In fact, as Paul had only spotted just one very small and very old banger of a plane in two days, he wondered if there was much real action at all.

Paul had always had a penchant for a snug uniform and a peak cap, perhaps due to his early years when being schooled at a naval ‘borstal’ in Waterloo. Most days it had felt much like ‘The Battle Of Waterloo’ He had loathed the violent establishment. But the hang-up for a touch of naval brass still clung to him like a tight flak suit.

Sadly, most of the airmen with whom they’d touched base seemed a little too young and too petite to trigger any flights of fancy.

They were more like fledglings. Aiming high, but quite obviously some had not yet left the ground. There was certainly no chance of shooting a bit of ‘Top Gun’ – but the recruits were very amiable none the less. Paul had been hoping for a touch of Val Kilmer. But on Wing 5 it was more a case of nice man rather than ‘Iceman’.

       He certainly wouldn’t cometh!

The boys had reached Prachuap Khiri Khan, a small Thai seaside town near the border with Myanmar, just a couple of days before they’d got their wings. They had taken a fantastic, if lethargic, sleeper train down to Bangkok. They’d spent a couple of hours at the almost majestic Huamphalong Station, before boarding another choo-choo to chug down the track to Prachuap. This journey had proved a little more turbulent.

Paul had secured he and his husband comfortable seats for the first part of the five-hour trip, the latter section, however, proved less ‘plane’ sailing.

The diminutive guard marched Paul swiftly along the platform of an unpronounceable station in the centre of the country at supersonic speed. He then made a sign for them to board the very front carriage of the train. He showed Paul to a nicely padded seat surrounded by a plethora of miserable Frenchmen.

‘One person here,’ he gestured, and then took Paul to the front of the engine and then disconcertingly pointed to the luggage compartment, into which a small seat, sans cushioning, had been squeezed.

‘You here’, he said.

‘Lovely’,  Paul replied smilingly, not meaning a word of it. It was, after all, just big enough for a small Buddhist monk who’d recently been on hunger strike. Not something Paul had done for a while. Starvation or monkdom, if he were to be totally candid!

When the time came the boys were instructed by the little ‘Hitleresque’ guard to take their luggage to their new compartment. They lumbered clumsily through the train, struggling with their rucksacks and oversized hand baggage, knocking out teeth and removing hairpieces as they went. On their arrival in cabin 1, they were greeted enthusiastically with sour faced contempt and no attempt by anyone to make a gangway through which they could walk. Paul spun sharply a couple of times, in feigned surprise, trying to bash a little bonhomie into the rude bastards – but rien!

All the French they had met this time in the east had, like a bad vin rouge, not travelled well. They were tannic and left a hideous aftertaste. Certainly not giving off the charming Gallic bouquet their French friends at home possessed. Paul assumed that they must have come from Paris! A city known for it’s lack of cordiality, even amongst it’s fellow countrymen.

There was certainly no ‘entente cordiale’ on this railway.

Andrew, (quelle surprise), was then shown to his roomy chair in club class, and Paul was led into the hold, forced to wedge himself between fourteen valises and a mop and bucket.

But he was more than content to be squashed in on his own rather than having to share the malodorous atmosphere of the main cabin.

When they eventually arrived at the little coastal town, frequented mostly by Thai tourists, they had failed to get any of the tuk-tuk drivers to understand them. This despite having the flight plan for their home-share written down in perfect Thai script. These guys were certainly not high flyers when it came to reading and writing.

Paul’s energetic semaphore didn’t help much either, and after ten minutes of polite, yet infuriating bemusement, the boys set out on foot to find their room for the night. They arrived, a couple of miles later and almost collapsed under the weight of their 23 kilo backpacks. Paul cursed himself inwardly for making sure they had both used all of their British Airways allowance. Andrew did the same, but in a less introverted fashion. Much like a bitchy, superannuated air stewardess.

Paul knew he’d overpacked!

A couple of mornings later, after having touched air base, Paul and Andrew made a pre-dawn trip to a Hill-top temple – minus baggage. They usually saw 4am from a vampiric perspective, yet in Thailand they rose as early as monks.

Or rather – monkeys. Because the particular shrine they were climbing towards had been taken over by two types of that primitive primate.

And they weren’t monkeying around.

Paul knew the pack had a fearsome reputation locally, often stealing visitor’s cameras and sunglasses, but he had no idea they were always so ill-tempered. Surely, he considered cheekily, these belligerent little bastards had also been shipped over from Paris!

Andrew managed to bypass the bothersome buggers, but after his third attempt, Paul aborted his climb. A huge, cantankerous git, had blocked his take-off each time, baring teeth and flying at him each time he took a step higher. The aggressive simian had taken an instant dislike to him, it was quite obvious. A clear case of air rage. As Paul attempted to front things out, the affronted ape took umbrage plus a large section of Paul’s curls, torn from his head in what was now an even clearer case of hair rage. Paul pushed the malevolent monkey from his shoulder, avoiding eye contact, which he knew was a no no. He shouted to Andrew for aid, but there was no response. He was obviously on another planet. The planet of the apes!

Only after another hard shove from Paul, and another paw-full of hair later did the monkey business cease.

Paul was slightly shaken. The creature had been in fight mode and he was unashamedly in flight mode. It was a little uncourageous he knew. Whatever, he wasn’t going to end up with a black arm after an unwelcome monkey bite, as he had once witnessed during one of he and Andrew’s previous oriental adventures.

And he wanted some hair left!

He made a sharp descent to ground level and waited on the tarmac for Andrew to do the same.

Once Andrew had made a safe landing, they then headed across the runway and to the stunning monkey-free beach called Ao Manao; Lime Bay in Thai. But there were no sour French faces on this stretch of track.

Just a couple of stunning gay porn stars from that wonderful country, restoring Paul’s faith in the place and providing a little ‘je ne sais quoi’ to the day.

The temperature as well as the libido was literally soaring now. The suffocating humidity practically saturating. Paul could feel what was left of his hair expanding exponentially on Wing 5.

It was following it’s very own flight path and would soon be in dangerous need of some hair traffic control.

But Paul knew there was nothing to be done folically  speaking down in the tropics. He knew he just had to fly with it. Even though he was well aware that his big, bouffant look did absolutely nothing for his husband’s landing gear.

He knew the best he could do was to fly solo.

Although the terribly charming couple of Parisian Red Devil’s made a tandem flight seem most appealing, their bodywork and precision of movement being deliciously aerobatic.

Vive La France !!!

Paul knew it was time to take off before he booked himself a very cute seat on Air France. And this time he would be in club.

Le Mile ‘Igh Club!!!

Wing 5 had certainly lived up to expectations. It was magnifique in every way.

But it was definitely time to take flight.

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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I Miss Saigon.

Her crown may be glitzier, her gown may have more sparkle, yet her face is almost unrecognizable. Lifted, filled and bulldozed to make up an entirely different visage to the one I met here, almost twenty years ago.

Lucky enough to be sailing and performing on The Q.E.2., we docked here, on the Saigon River,  on two magnificent occasions.  I recall such a colourful connurbation, full of oriental mystery, not to mention some mysterious orientals.

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My great friend, Becky and I, had a thrilling time, being pedalled around the ancient, incensed streets, by Ting, our trusty rickshaw pedlar. At once engulfed in narrow, smoky, lanes of boiling, mammoth pots containing unthinkable cuisine. Animals pulling carts of exotic produce, and children and chickens and dogs, and what seemed like a million other vibrant and virulent actors all adding to the richly foreign pantomime.  We fell in love, there and then, with Miss Saigon.

It was the Saigon I had imagined a few years before, when I saw Andrew at his brilliant best, starring in the show of the same name, at Drury Lane.

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Exhilarating, unnerving, dissarming.  And like Mr Kennedy, utterly enchanting.

And now, I have returned. I have searched in vain for this former enchantress.  The bygone Saigon.  But she just doesn’t want to show her hauntingly, nuanced face.

Sometimes, all cosmetic surgery seems to do,  is mask the true beauty, however uncompromising, that was once plain for all to see.  Seeing the change in Ho Chi Minh City today, does little to make my face lift!

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imageThere are still some character lines to be discovered here, if one looks hard enough.  Alleys of exuberant decadance, where a plethora of temptation and illicit goods, are available for the bad.  All at a haggled fee, of course.  Canals and rivulets of artful iniquity, flow like subtarreanean waterways ‘neath the town’s old boat race.  But these tributaries of tribulation are few and  far between.  The old laughter lines I remember, have been cunningly erased.  The warts expertedly excised.

Or just blasted into submission !

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And if you are lucky enough to spot one of the broken veins that reveal this city’s former bones, Lady Chi Minh turns, all too swiftly, to give you her good side once again.  Seemingly underconfident in her once, magnificent bone structure.

imageThe odd pocket of grand, French, colonialism can still be found, as one stumbles across a faded parade of shophouses, or a wan pastel mansion on a shady, tree lined avenue.  But there are less of these dinosaurs now,  crumbling discreetly, like antique, Gallic, gout-ridden, dukes.

Once splendid.

Now revolutionised.

Like the rest of the place!

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Despite the rampant, and sometimes, irritating commercialism that is ever present here, the city still feels like she’s had a rosy, red, facelift!

Her brash, near-perfect, Hollywood smile disguising some of her less palateble home-truths.

The Vietnamese government control every news outlet in this country. image Every television channel. All of the press is state managed too,  and the government imprisons anyone who dares to sling mud in it’s face.  Including bloggers !  At least a hundred writers were banged up last year for simply having a point of view.  Not such a pretty face now eh?

There are always several facets to every major world city.  So it is not surprising the reigning Miss Saigon is ever so slightly two faced.

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But I prefer the old, fading, beauty queen of a town, when I was a gentleman caller in my prime. She definitely wore too much slap, and was less, well, red!  But she had a surfeit of eastern promise and allowed her resident scribes much more expression.

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A Miss Saigon played by Norma Desmond.  Always ready for her close up – however revealing!

As much of my acquaintance will know, I am the first in line for a spot of Nivea and a touch of peroxide.  After all,  everybody can sometimes do with a little tarting up in some districts.  A little gentrification can do wonders for a tired surburban face.  But major surgery?

Is almost every, up and coming, oriental starlet of a city, destined to metamorphosize into every, ordinary, aging, L.A. Socialite ?

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Ageless. Devoid of character. Lifeless.

Yet it seems another urban, oriental, grand-dame is to slip disgracefully into old age.

Out with the ancestors. In with the new !

What a load of old botox!

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I miss Saigon!

I Miss Saigon.

 

Her crown maybe glitzier, her gown may have more sparkle. Yet her face is almost unrecognizable. Lifted, filled and bulldozed to make up an entirely different visage to the one I met here, almost twenty years ago.

Lucky enough to be sailing and performing on The Q.E.2., we docked here, on the Saigon River,  on two magnificent occasions.  I recall such a colourful connurbation, full of oriental mystery, not to mention some mysterious orientals.

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My great friend, Becky and I, had a thrilling time, being pedalled around the ancient, incensed streets, by Ting, our trusty rickshaw pedlar. At once engulfed in narrow, smoky, lanes of boiling, mammoth pots containing unthinkable cuisine. Animals pulling carts of exotic produce, and children and chickens and dogs, and what seemed like a million other vibrant and virulent actors all adding to the richly foreign pantomime.  We fell in love, there and then, with Miss Saigon.

It was the Saigon I had imagined a few years before, when I saw Andrew at his brilliant best, starring in the show of the same name, at Drury Lane.

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Exhilarating, unnerving, dissarming.  And like Mr Kennedy, utterly enchanting.

And now, I have returned. I have searched in vain for this former enchantress.  The bygone Saigon.  But she just doesn’t want to show her hauntingly, nuanced face.

Sometimes, all cosmetic surgery seems to do,  is mask the true beauty, however uncompromising, that was once plain for all to see.  Seeing the change in Ho Chi Minh City today, does little to make my face lift!

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imageThere are still some character lines to be discovered here, if one looks hard enough.  Alleys of exuberant decadance, where a plethora of temptation and illicit goods, are available for the bad.  All at a haggled fee, of course.  Canals and rivulets of artful iniquity, flow like subtarreanean waterways across the town’s old boat race.  But these tributaries of tribulation are few and  far between.  The old laughter lines I remember, have been cunningly erased.  The warts expertly excised.

Or just blasted into submission !

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And if you are lucky enough to spot one of the broken veins that reveal this city’s former bones, Lady Chi Minh turns, all too swiftly, to give you her good side once again.  Seemingly underconfident in her once, magnificent bone structure.

imageThe odd pocket of grand, French, colonialism can still be found, as one stumbles across a faded parade of shophouses, or a wan pastel mansion on a shady, tree lined avenue.  But there are less of these dinosaurs now,  crumbling discreetly, like antique, Gallic, gout-ridden, dukes.

Once splendid.

Now revolutionised.

Like the rest of the place!

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Despite the rampant, and sometimes, irritating commercialism that is ever present here, the city still feels like she’s had a rosy, red, facelift!

Her brash, near-perfect, Hollywood smile disguising some of her less palateble home-truths.

The Vietnamese government control every news outlet in this country. image Every television channel. All of the press is state managed too,  and the government imprisons anyone who dares to sling mud in it’s face.  Including bloggers !  At least a hundred writers were banged up last year for simply having a point of view.  Not such a pretty face now eh?

There are always several facets to every major world city.  So it is not surprising the reigning Miss Saigon is ever so slightly two faced.

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But I prefer the old, fading, beauty queen of a town, when I was a gentleman caller in my prime. She definitely wore too much slap, and was less, well, red!  But she had a surfeit of eastern promise and allowed her resident scribes much more expression.

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A Miss Saigon played by Norma Desmond.  Always ready for her close up – however revealing!

As much of my acquaintance will know, I am the first in line for a spot of Nivea and a touch of peroxide.  After all,  everybody can sometimes do with a little tarting up in some districts.  A little gentrification can do wonders for a tired surburban face.  But major surgery?

Is almost every, up and coming, oriental starlet of a city, destined to metamorphosize into every, ordinary, aging, L.A. Socialite ?

image

Ageless. Devoid of character. Lifeless.

Yet it seems another urban, oriental, grand-dame is to slip disgracefully into old age.

Out with the ancestors. In with the new !

What a load of old botox!

image

I miss Saigon!

Putting The Bang Into Battambang.

We came on the six hour bus to Battambang – Cambodia’s second city. Our only sustenance provided by two crickets and a stag beetle, courtesy of our new New Yorker pals Maria and Logan, seated just ahead of us.

Fried, of course.  The bugs that is, not the Americans.  Although some of the recent impoliteness we have witnessed, from our cousins across the pond, especially  when dealing with the Khmer natives, has left us wanting to dip them into boiling oil just like their beloved French Fries.

Behaviour which can only be described as implausible.  Making any special relationship, impossible.

We have, however, began to form a burgeoning friendship with the slightly scruffy Battambang.  It’s much more, how do you say? Cambodian.  Yes – that’s the word.

image

Here, every other Tuk-Tuk driver isn’t desperately trying to entice you with the fierce whisper of,

“Lady? Lady?  You want lady?”

Or,

“You want smoke?  Tina? Coke?”

By which I’m sure they meant the real thing and not ‘The Real Thing”!

image

 

It’s, shall we say, more family orientated here, much like the famous beverage.  Mafia families I’ve no doubt, but let’s not harp on about that or I may have to refuse that offer after all!

image

 

The city actually feels more like a small town – one in which Gary Cooper would have felt at home  – but still, a friendly, ordinary town.

image image image image

Our hotel has the imaginative name, The First Hotel.  I imagine it will be the first and the last time we stay in it.  We are rooming on the fifth floor and were hoping for a view – we got one!

image

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The Ritz, it ain’t, but then what can one expect for six dollar!  Hardly ‘Downton Abbey’, more downtown shabby!  The dowager countess would almost certainly not approve.  The ‘grounds’ are somewhat more charming.

 

That faded touch of French Indochine is spread rather thickly here, like a good Bearnaise sauce.  I have been won over by it’s particularly, parochial flavour and I shall miss the old madame when we have left.

I shall not, on the other hand, miss the hammering, screwing and sawing emanating from the five story building site, adjacent to the Hotel First.  Waking up to an energetic builder noisily drilling may sound appealing, but believe me, it does nothing but put the bang into Battambang.

Added to the noisy comings and goings of a local hooker, who is obviously doing a two for one deal, more bang for your buck up on the fifth floor, sleep has been rather erratic. But hey, a girl’s gotta make a living.  Had we realised the establishment also charges by the hour it may not have been our first choice.

In fact, this whole place comes to life at an ungodly hour.  From five-thirty, inappropriately loud music, thumps from the near distance and the french designed avenues erupt with an eastern joie de vivre, at an oriental volume.  Not to mention what sound like a thousand mopeds spluttering and coughing their way into the morning, like a huge pack of Gaulloise smoking dockers.

And, of course, le construction work!  Waking up has never been so noisy, yet so puzzlingly peaceful.  City sounds can be superbly soporific.

image

 

Andrew and I have done most things to do here.  We have taken a rickety, bone-banging, bamboo train through the searing heat of the countryside.  We have been lucky enough to witness six million bats make their nightly mass exodus from the giant limestone they call home.  Great swathes of flapping black, darkening the skies in almost biblical fashion.  Amazing.

Our Driver – Puffin’ Bill

 

imageimage

Andrew as batty as ever!

We also visited another cavernous wonder, only this one radiating more horror, than the  gigantically gothic batcave.  Known as ‘The Killing Cave’, this was the site where the monstrous Khmer Rouge would beat their prisoners half to death, before flinging them down through the large hole in the cave’s roof, onto the rocks far below.  For those wretched souls who survived the deadly drop and managed to crawl, with shattered limbs, to the surface, the fate that awaited them was to be kicked, nonchalantly by the Khmer cadre, back down the rocky scree, to join their dead friends and family amongst the stalag-like stalagnites.

Any visitor can never truly escape the recent,bloody past here in Cambodia, even when surrounded by such natural beauty.  Scratch the surface and Pol Pot and his gang of murderous clowns rear their ugly faces.

On a more positive note we saw some much less vicious clowning later on, when we attended the circus.  In all honesty it was more akin to a high school gym contest, only
with nicer costumes and the hint of a story.

image  image

The young, underpriviledged performers were so spirited and well meaning, the audience could not help but be enthused.  The charitable ringmaster who spins this big top is doing a great job, providing a much needed net for the local youngsters.  Helping to train the country’s budding artists, musicians, dancers and wannabee circus performers in their chosen profession.  Clevery juggling the books so that everything is provided for free for the kids that most need it.  In the words of Sir Tim Rice – Oh what a circus !

But my most abiding memory of this slightly shy and retiring city, will be the all too short time I have spent meandering along her riverside setting, basking in the tropical heat.  Stopping, only occasionally, for a Cambodian iced coffee or a stag beetle crepe.

In fact, the latter is not true.  I jest.  Since our last insect experience aboard the bus,  Andrew has not gone near another culinary creepy crawlie, for fear it should pierce his tongue again, making conversation an impossibility.

imageThis afternoon we have been marvellously marooned in a beautifully chic, family guest house in the colonial part of town.  Due, entirely, to La Biere Cambodie Andrew has insisted we try.  I am now suffering from the same magnificent malaise that is effecting him and cannot move.  When alcohol and heat meet, it is all to easy to sit and watch the world amble by, busy doing nothing.

I blame The French.

And The Cambodians.

But mostly, Andrew.  He has encouraged us both to sit and stagnate.

He may need a little help to get back into the saddle – something exotic to prick his palate.  Maybe stag beetle, rather than stagnation should be on the menu tonight.  And as it is dinner,

En Croute, of course.

Then en route, on course.

To the mighty Mekong Delta in deepest Vietnam.

We’ve been well and truly bitten by the travel bug again.  Only this one isn’t fried, it’s very much alive and kicking.

image

 

Putting The Bang Into Battambang.

We came on the six hour bus to Battambang – Cambodia’s second city. Our only sustenance provided by two crickets and a stag beetle, courtesy of our new New Yorker pals Maria and Logan, seated just ahead of us.

Fried, of course.  The bugs that is, not the Americans.  Although some of the recent impoliteness we have witnessed, from our cousins across the pond, especially  when dealing with the Khmer natives, has left us wanting to dip them into boiling oil just like their beloved French Fries.

Behaviour which can only be described as implausible.  Making any special relationship, impossible.

We have, however, began to form a burgeoning friendship with the slightly scruffy Battambang.  It’s much more, how do you say? Cambodian.  Yes – that’s the word.

image

Here, every other Tuk-Tuk driver isn’t desperately trying to entice you with the fierce whisper of,

“Lady? Lady?  You want lady?”

Or,

“You want smoke?  Tina? Coke?”

By which I’m sure they meant the real thing and not ‘The Real Thing”!

image

 

It’s, shall we say, more family orientated here, much like the famous beverage.  Mafia families I’ve no doubt, but let’s not harp on about that or I may have to refuse that offer after all!

image

 

The city actually feels more like a small town – one in which Gary Cooper would have felt at home  – but still, a friendly, ordinary town.

image image image image

Our hotel has the imaginative name, The First Hotel.  I imagine it will be the first and the last time we stay in it.  We are rooming on the fifth floor and were hoping for a view – we got one!

image

image

 

The Ritz, it ain’t, but then what can one expect for six dollar!  Hardly ‘Downton Abbey’, more downtown shabby!  The dowager countess would almost certainly not approve.  The ‘grounds’ are somewhat more charming.

 

That faded touch of French Indochine is spread rather thickly here, like a good Bearnaise sauce.  I have been won over by it’s particularly, parochial flavour and I shall miss the old madame when we have left.

I shall not, on the other hand, miss the hammering, screwing and sawing emanating from the five story building site, adjacent to the Hotel First.  Waking up to an energetic builder noisily drilling may sound appealing, but believe me, it does nothing but put the bang into Battambang.

Added to the noisy comings and goings of a local hooker, who is obviously doing a two for one deal, more bang for your buck up on the fifth floor, sleep has been rather erratic. But hey, a girl’s gotta make a living.  Had we realised the establishment also charges by the hour it may not have been our first choice.

In fact, this whole place comes to life at an ungodly hour.  From five-thirty, inappropriately loud music, thumps from the near distance and the french designed avenues erupt with an eastern joie de vivre, at an oriental volume.  Not to mention what sound like a thousand mopeds spluttering and coughing their way into the morning, like a huge pack of Gaulloise smoking dockers.

And, of course, le construction work!  Waking up has never been so noisy, yet so puzzlingly peaceful.  City sounds can be superbly soporific.

image

 

Andrew and I have done most things to do here.  We have taken a rickety, bone-banging, bamboo train through the searing heat of the countryside.  We have been lucky enough to witness six million bats make their nightly mass exodus from the giant limestone they call home.  Great swathes of flapping black, darkening the skies in almost biblical fashion.  Amazing.

Our Driver – Puffin’ Bill

 

imageimage

Andrew as batty as ever!

We also visited another cavernous wonder, only this one radiating more horror, than the  gigantically gothic batcave.  Known as ‘The Killing Cave’, this was the site where the monstrous Khmer Rouge would beat their prisoners half to death, before flinging them down through the large hole in the cave’s roof, onto the rocks far below.  For those wretched souls who survived the deadly drop and managed to crawl, with shattered limbs, to the surface, the fate that awaited them was to be kicked, nonchalantly by the Khmer cadre, back down the rocky scree, to join their dead friends and family amongst the stalag-like stalagnites.

Any visitor can never truly escape the recent,bloody past here in Cambodia, even when surrounded by such natural beauty.  Scratch the surface and Pol Pot and his gang of murderous clowns rear their ugly faces.

On a more positive note we saw some much less vicious clowning later on, when we attended the circus.  In all honesty it was more akin to a high school gym contest, only
with nicer costumes and the hint of a story.

image  image

The young, underpriviledged performers were so spirited and well meaning, the audience could not help but be enthused.  The charitable ringmaster who spins this big top is doing a great job, providing a much needed net for the local youngsters.  Helping to train the country’s budding artists, musicians, dancers and wannabee circus performers in their chosen profession.  Clevery juggling the books so that everything is provided for free for the kids that most need it.  In the words of Sir Tim Rice – Oh what a circus !

But my most abiding memory of this slightly shy and retiring city, will be the all too short time I have spent meandering along her riverside setting, basking in the tropical heat.  Stopping, only occasionally, for a Cambodian iced coffee or a stag beetle crepe.

In fact, the latter is not true.  I jest.  Since our last insect experience aboard the bus,  Andrew has not gone near another culinary creepy crawlie, for fear it should pierce his tongue again, making conversation an impossibility.

imageThis afternoon we have been marvellously marooned in a beautifully chic, family guest house in the colonial part of town.  Due, entirely, to La Biere Cambodie Andrew has insisted we try.  I am now suffering from the same magnificent malaise that is effecting him and cannot move.  When alcohol and heat meet, it is all to easy to sit and watch the world amble by, busy doing nothing.

I blame The French.

And The Cambodians.

But mostly, Andrew.  He has encouraged us both to sit and stagnate.

He may need a little help to get back into the saddle – something exotic to prick his palate.  Maybe stag beetle, rather than stagnation should be on the menu tonight.  And as it is dinner,

En Croute, of course.

Then en route, on course.

To the mighty Mekong Delta in deepest Vietnam.

We’ve been well and truly bitten by the travel bug again.  Only this one isn’t fried, it’s very much alive and kicking.

image