Travels in Asia Part 5 – Laos and Vietnam I

I had been planning to write about my travels in Asia in chronological order, which would have meant writing about Taiwan, or Japan, or Singapore next. And while they are all lovely places to visit (or, in Singapore’s case, a place to visit) I didn’t fancy writing about them just yet. Because, like the Devil with his tunes, Laos and Vietnam have all the best stories.

Back in the spring of 2008 I spent a month or so travelling up through Laos and down through Vietnam, after working in Thailand for the previous six. And while Thailand had been a huge roll-call of experiences – my first time in Asia, my first time attempting to teach English, my first time having the roof of my mouth blown off with Tom Yam soup, my first time using a squat toilet (probably in conjunction with the Tom Yam)… All stories for another day. But after so long Thailand had grown quite familiar. Even our wooden, lakeside shack in rural Chonburi had started to feel like home.

So, in the last week of March, a small band of former volunteer English teachers (very Gap-Yah, I know, but honestly it wasn’t – we were nowhere near posh enough) took a Tuk-Tuk over the Mekong River to Vientiane – capital of Laos.

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The first indication that we weren’t in Kansas anymore was the taxi that picked us up on the border – the old, blue air-con less Cadillac in the picture above. Incidentally, look at that gorgeous hair. Oh to be 21 again. Or was I 22? Anyway, the Cadillac ferried us into Vientiane  – a city so compact and serene that it didn’t really feel like a capital at all. Everything about it was on such a small scale, especially when compared to neighbouring Bangkok, including their take on the Arc de Triomphe (below), which was minuscule compared to its French cousin and topped with local-style Stupas. Even the nearest town to our wooden shack in Thailand – Sri Racha (of hot sauce fame) – was a frenetic metropolis by comparison.

On our first evening in Laos, we watched the sun set over the Mekong below (that’s Thailand on the other side) and enjoyed our first taste of Beer Lao – a true king amongst lager beers that’s very hard to track down outside of Laos. It’s almost worth making a return trip all these years later, for one more sip.

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I struggle to remember much about our couple of days in Vientiane – it’s coming up for 9 years now – but I have an overriding memory of French-style apartment blocks and bakeries selling real French bread, a colonial legacy and a godsend after months of the sweet, bleached stuff sold in Thai cafes. We wandered the streets, chomped on baguettes, downed Beer Lao and at one point visited the city swimming pool, which had a ‘stranger’s back garden‘ vibe complete with grass verges and portacabin changing rooms. I had to keep reminding myself: Vientiane is a capital city, Vientiane is a capital city…

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And then we hit the road again… We were about five months into constant moving, constant interminable bus journeys and constant living out of a backpack and it had somehow become normal. Thai long-distance buses were always relatively comfortable with reclining seats and TVs blasting out karaoke videos at a decibel level comparable to a 747 in mid take-off. And Thailand had motorways and service stations and, after a while, the novelty wore off as one road blended into the next one, and you might as well have been shooting down the M6 just outside Coventry.

But catching a bus in Laos was next -level stuff. Lao buses must have looked at Thai buses in the way that middle-aged former punks look at themselves in the mirror, thinking Jesus you’ve sold out and shaking their head sorrowfully. On our first journey out of Vientiane, the seats didn’t recline, the suspension seemed somewhat lacking and air-conditioning was but a gleam in its inventor’s eye when this particular bus rolled off the production line. I remember it was busy and our group got split up – few people can afford a car in Laos – and a very nice lady started passing out oranges to various children and relatives, and then me. Moments later I heard a commotion behind me as people rushed to lift their bags from the floor, away from a torrent of liquid running down the aisle. The source of which turned out to be a few rows behind me, where a couple were sitting with a huge drawstring bag full of live chickens. Meanwhile the scenery was breathtaking – see the sharp, staccato peaks in the picture above – and very different from the flat plains of central Thailand.

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And you know how I mentioned service stations earlier – well, these here were the Lao version: thatched shelters where people hawked fresh fruit and drinks. While that road in the picture – that dusty, unmarked trail – is one of the main thoroughfares through the country, the Laotian M1 if you will, running from the capital to the ancient city of Luang Prabang, where we were headed. But we had one stop to make before then…

And so we arrived in Vang Vieng – a town so synonymous with backpacker twattery that my earlier claims of oh we weren’t Gap-yahs or anything like that may prove difficult to maintain. But we were young – if that’s any excuse. And we’d spent several months in rural Thailand, far removed from the banana-pancake trail, doing proper cultural stuff in a shack with no air-con or running water and a squat-toilet with monitor lizards for company. So perhaps we deserved a few days drinking whisky from buckets and watching re-runs of Friends…

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Because that’s essentially why people go to Vang Vieng. Or I should say ‘went’, as a lot of the wonkily assembled bamboo bars and cafes that used to line the river were pulled down in 2012 after the government grew sick of tourists drowning and locals getting hooked on the drugs that they were supposed to be selling. The minute we arrived on a huge, disused air-strip (above) we realised that Vang Vieng wasn’t much of a place – the town itself was pretty insignificant and had only expanded when the tourists began to arrive in the ’90s. The one thing everyone goes there to do – aside from the buckets and the drugs and the Friends – is ‘tubing’: floating down the river on an inner-tube, taking in the dramatic karst scenery and being pulled in (literally – the owners threw ropes out to drag you over) to every bar en route.

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Looking back it was great fun – no use me denying it in an attempt to come across as a latter-day Karl Baedeker – and yes that picture below is me, presumably well-refreshed, doing my best Peter Pan pose as I plunge from a rope-swing. And for an afternoon it was brilliant being able to float down a tropical river, with music blaring from among the trees, and kids of bar owners shouting at you with the little English that they knew – usually ‘Hey you, let’s get fucking wasted’. But once you had grown bored of tubing there truly was nothing else to do in Vang Vieng other than get drunk, or high, and watch bloody Friends. We probably only stayed there a couple of nights, though it felt longer. And then there were the douchebros. Oh, the douchebros. Dude, this mushroom shake is so fucking epic… But were we really any better? I can’t speak for the rest of my group but I certainly adapted to my surroundings – by lounging on beanbags, drinking lots of Beer Lao and enjoying ‘Special Pizza’ – ‘special’ meaning it had copious amounts of weed sprinkled atop. Though this does mean that I can claim to have taken drugs in a country where such offences are punishable by death, and thus pretend for a second that I’m Keith Richards.

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Actually, the worst thing we did in Vang Vieng, beyond the drinking and the drugs, and I blame the douchebag atmosphere and the pizza entirely for this, was to run away from a restaurant without paying. I still feel bad about it to this day, although in our defence it was down to a massive tropical storm hitting in a very unexpected manner. Or maybe it was expected, we weren’t really checking weather forecasts on a daily basis you see, but it was like something out of a disaster movie.

One moment we were eating dinner, the next we were thrown into pitch black. An ominous moaning sound began to grow. A stuffy silence spread. Then the wind hit all at once, barreling down the street, knocking bins and shop signs over, and seeming as if it was going to rip the roof off our restaurant. So we, along with most other people it has to be said, panicked and ran outside where, no word of a lie, I was almost picked up by the gale-force winds. In true disaster movie fashion I narrowly dodged a falling billboard (really, this genuinely happened – and definitely not post-‘special’ pizza) as we started to battle against the storm, up the street to our hotel. Dust was flying all around, getting everywhere, when suddenly the rain came – bible style. Having lived in Thailand for six months I knew what tropical rain was like – sudden and heavy – but this was unlike anything we’d seen before. Soaked in seconds, we eventually dragged ourselves back to the hotel and spent the rest of the night watching the storm. That is until the room started to flood and we turned our attention to rescuing our stuff. So, we hadn’t intended not to pay, and I don’t think we actually managed to eat very much of the meal, but the worst bit was the next morning when we walked past the same restaurant, as the owner was having a post-typhoon tidy up. We could have gone in and paid, it would have after all totalled something like 70HKD, but we didn’t. The owner gave us a look along the lines of You were in here last night, weren’t you – you little scrotes? But our consciences went un-pricked and we walked on.

Looking back, every Google result from a Vang Vieng 2016 search refers to a blog, or an article, or Trip Advisor, either bemoaning or exulting in how much quieter it is now, and how much safer, since the bars were demolished and the town cleaned up. So to have visited back in 2008, at the height of the rope swings and the mysterious buckets of booze and the mushroom shakes and ‘special’ pizzas, does give my travels a slight edge, a slight last-days-of-Rome glamour to them. But it was a horrible little place, Vang Vieng, and you could see it very clearly if you stopped tubing and drinking and partying for just one second to look around you.

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Luang Prabang was everything that Vang Vieng wasn’t – picturesque streets, ancient temples, a river with boats rather than inflatable tubes. Despite being a city it had a village feel, and whole days could be spent wandering narrow lanes lined with palm trees and wooden houses. As with Vientiane the French colonial influence was strong, but Luang Prabang has a history stretching back centuries and everywhere you turned there were orange-robed monks quietly moving from temple to temple. We were there for the local New Year celebrations, Songkran in Thai, when groups of children would jump out from behind walls or parked cars and douse you with buckets of water. Technically this was to symbolically cleanse you of your sins of the past year, but all we cared about was how refreshing it felt in temperatures pushing 40 degrees C.

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We cruised on the Mekong and visited a cave full of Buddhas (below) hacked into the river bank. But we also, as you inevitably do after months of travelling, sought out a few home comforts and somehow ended up in the local bowling alley one evening. Laos was actually subject to a curfew imposed by the military government (not that we’d noticed this in Vang Vieng) and everything shut around 9pm. A party town Luang Prabang was not. But then there was something magical about wandering early back to our hostel along silent, misty streets.

Years later, when I read George Orwell’s ‘Burmese Days’ – the ultimate expat book – I immediately used Luang Prabang to imagine the fictional Kyauktada. It just had that feel, despite being an ancient capital and fairly large city, of being a sleepy outpost at the end of the world.

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Something that I had completely forgotten about until I went back through the photos of this trip was the afternoon that we spent swimming in a series of waterfalls, a short tuk-tuk trip out of the city centre. Again I couldn’t resist the rope-swing (above), although there were no waterside bars to help with Dutch courage. At one point it started to pour with rain, and we found tonnes of leeches on our legs while drying off, but it was all so incredibly exotic and tropical that we didn’t care.

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But then, as an aside, our tuk-tuk back to the city took us on a detour – tuk-tuk drivers do enjoy taking it upon themselves to act as ad-hoc tour guides – past a tribal village. By this point, after a lot of travelling in the north of Thailand we were well aware that ‘tribal village’ often meant ‘shacks in a clearing with chickens running loose while children beg’. This time was no different – and we didn’t stay long. Long enough, however, to enjoy watching a group of Australians (above) roam the village, snapping incredibly close-up shots of the kids (and chickens), and generally behaving like voyeuristic weirdos. At one point – captured in the above picture – the woman crouching was offering a sweet to the little girl in front of her but withholding it for several minutes until her boyfriend had got his camera ready to capture her moment of selflessness for posterity. Not that there was anything particularly unusual in this scene – there was always an uneasy sense of trespass when we visited these villages and wandered between people’s washing lines – but looking back on it now this picture does some up the strange and rather uncomfortable relationship the village people had with their Western visitors.

We had intended to leave Luang Prabang and cross over into Vietnam by overnight bus. A local travel agent sold us a ticket to Hanoi telling us that it was a very picturesque, 16-hour journey. We did wonder if 16 hours on an overnight bus might be stretching it slightly but we were, as I mentioned earlier, accustomed to the luxurious Thai-version of overnight bus and we thought it would be an ‘experience’. When you’re 21 it’s all about the ‘experience’. And so, one balmy early April evening, we turned up to wait for our border-bound bus.

The bus was late, but then everything was late in Laos. Late enough, though, to have us nervously wondering. Lots of local buses – that looked much like red, US style school buses – came and went from the station. But nothing that looked in any way equipped enough for a 16-hour international journey. And then one of the red school buses pulled in next to us. On the roof, under a tarpaulin, bags were piled upon bags piled upon bags, with a man sat astride them like a mahout upon his elephant. Except this mahout had a gun. The conductor started gesturing for us to get on and, as the situation dawned, we looked inside the bus. There was no room. Not simply no seats; but no room. People were already standing right along the aisle and hanging out the doors. It looked genuinely impossible to fit one of us on – let alone six. But they tried. The conductor, who also had a rifle swinging from under his coat, started clearing a path while his colleague began launching our backpacks onto the roof. I was maybe the third onto the bus and got no further than the driver’s seat. The other three behind me never made it on. Ahead of us, one of my companions had already started having a panic attack and fair enough – I’ve braved the Hong Kong MTR at rush hour and still never seen a scene more sardine-like than this. The thought of a half-hour journey on this vehicle was scary. The thought of 16 hours was truly horrifying. But the worst bit of it all was the locals who’d already reserved precious seats trying to get up and offer them to us – to these rich foreigners who were staring at their bus in shock and revulsion. I’m still touched by that gesture. But we backed our way off, had our bags returned by the weary mahout, and ran to book the next plane to Hanoi.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if we’d braved the bus to Hanoi. That evening, after begging our hostel for another night’s stay, we researched the overnight journey from Luang Prabang on a painfully slow internet connection. The results that came back included tales of massive delays, midnight plunges down ravines and (seriously)… highwaymen. Yes, Dick Turpin still haunts the highways of Laos. That explained the rifles at least. But then I wonder if all the people on that bus were actually heading for Vietnam… Perhaps if we’d gritted it out for an hour or so everyone would have got off at the local IKEA and we’d have had the bus to ourselves for the next 15. We’ll never know. The next morning we boarded a plane to Hanoi and bade farewell to Laos.

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It was fitting that our attempts to reach Vietnam took an almost disastrous turn. I should state right here, contrary to what I will henceforth go on to write, that I loved Vietnam. But Jesus – what a crazy country. Upon arriving at the airport, our taxi driver pulled the old trick of completely disregarding our directions and choosing a ‘very nice’ hotel for us – that cost a bomb and was miles outside the city centre. And this seemed to set the tone for our three-week stay in Vietnam. We were basically walking dollar signs.

But, while I won’t hear a bad word said against the ‘Nam, I confess that I struggled to fall in love with Hanoi. After the laid-back bliss of Laos, and Luang Prabang especially, Hanoi was a noisy, fumey, dirty mega-city. And the scooters. Oh, the scooters. The way their little engines and exhausts bored their way into your brain. Every pedestrian crossing was flanked by a wall of revving scooters, often with families of four, or huge wide-screen TVs, or fridges, perched on the back.

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But I did like the feel of the place. The architecture was even more European than Vientiane, with old colonial style tenements providing a big contrast to the Thai cities that we had spent the previous months in. After finding a second hotel that was more conveniently located and more reasonably priced, we spent a couple of days in the capital of Vietnam. We gorged on baguettes for lunch and pho noodles for dinner. We drank Saigon Beer (no Beer Lao but still highly recommended) in tiny bars and tried to avoid the dog meat markets. And we planned our route through this fascinating new country, starting with a journey to Sapa, way up on the Chinese border.

To be continued…

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Travels in Asia Part 4 – Malaysian Malaise

DSC_0450That up there is an island off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, in Malaysia. It looks lovely, and tropical, and lush… and it was. We spent a day hopping on and off boats, bouncing around a little archipelago, snorkeling and lounging in the sun.

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These pictures were taken a few miles down the coast from Kota Kinabalu, in Northern Borneo. We took a boat out along a marshy estuary to see some proboscis monkeys from very far away. At sunset the clouds started to tower and roll, and then hundreds of fireflies lit the river banks as we returned to shore.

This afternoon was especially memorable for members of the Chinese tour group, with whom we shared the boat, trying to grab said fireflies and sing to them. Which made a French family also on the boat very angry – every time a firefly landed in someone’s palm they would shout: “You’re killing them!!”. Meanwhile our guide made very half-hearted appeals for them to stop, obviously deadened by many years of being ignored by Chinese tourists.

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I went to Kota Kinabalu in 2013, while this sun-drenched beauty of a picture was taken way back in 2008, on my first visit to peninsular Malaysia (the bit that sticks down under Thailand). This bunch of Indonesian women asked for a picture with me on the beach in Penang, possibly the first ever instance of me being photographed simply for being a westerner.

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And then, of course, there’s Kuala Lumpur. It has iconic towers – although it’s a bit of a swizz that the viewing deck on the Petronas towers is barely halfway up – for views I’d try the KL tower. It has its Chinatown, little India and colossal mosques – where I had to don a dashing purple gown to cover my arms and legs and gain admittance.

So, after all these memories, its hard to explain why I didn’t fall for Malaysia in the same way I fell for other south-east Asian countries. Maybe it’s because I visited it after the rush of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam? Perhaps I had beach bar/temple/hazy sunset fatigue?

I had done river cruises along the Mekong, been on beaches in Thailand, seen sunsets on Halong Bay, and I’ve climbed tall(er) buildings in Japan, China and even here in Hong Kong . Maybe if I’d arrived in Malaysia first, fresh off the plane from the cold routine of home, then it would have gained a much more special place in my mind.

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But then, these pictures show another side of Malaysia – one that I’ve never seen replicated in another country. The Cameron Highlands, with it’s tea plantations, its rolling hills, low-hanging clouds and refreshing climate. We ate curry on huge banana leaves, mixing the spices and meats with our hands, and tried teas both familiar and strange.

The buildings had the feel of an old colonial outpost – which of course it was – and there were even red pillar boxes dotted around the winding slopes.

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And then I look at pictures like this one. We’re back in Kota Kinabalu, following a late afternoon downpour. As the sun drops, bloated and orange, and the rain hangs in the air, I think that perhaps I’ve been a little harsh on Malaysia. One day I’ll give it another chance.

Travels in Asia Part 3 – The Mainland

Like a barnacle clinging on to the belly of the Kraken, Hong Kong is dwarfed in every imaginable way by China – physically, culturally, politically, populationally (?) Just look us up on a map – we are a ragged mole on the underside of a monster. A previously benign mole that has recently started to cause said monster discomfort and irritation. It would probably have us lanced, if it could. We were lanced (kind of), for 150 years or so, but recently became re-attached. And it’s fair to say that the replantation process hasn’t gone terribly smoothly.

To wrap this tortured metaphor up, Hong Kong and China have a ‘difficult’ relationship. China is the overbearing tiger-parent and Hong Kong the kid who wants to make a go of his band rather than enter medical school. But, apart from the descendants of the 4000 residents who were quietly going about their business in 1840 when the British turned up, every ‘local’ Hong Konger is Chinese, they (or their descendants) moved here at some point in the past couple of centuries. But their relationships with the mother-country are far from straight forward.

And from the second you step over the border from Hong Kong, you begin to understand why. Because China is, and this is true in every sense of the word, a different country.

My first short foray in to China was to Guangzhou, two hours inland from Hong Kong, which I wrote about here and here. It was an interesting weekend, coinciding as it did with National Day celebrations and a visit to Chinese A&E with a fractured elbow. Since then, I’ve been a further three times and now, instead of the regular, boring ‘went here, did this, wasn’t it funny’ travelogue, here is China – in pictures…

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The Forbidden City, Beijing. Seat of dynastic power for centuries (if not millenia – China is old) but forbidden no longer – as proven by the many thousands of people flooding through on this hot summer day. On the other side of the road is Tiananmen Square, where something once happened to some people (well, one never knows who’s reading around here…)

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Women offering their daughters for marriage, in a park in Beijing. I am reliably informed that the signs in front of these women are personal ads for their dangerously old (i.e. over 30), unmarried daughters. Interested parties could drop by and get the lucky girl’s contact details. What a story to tell the grand kids!

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People doing a traditional ribbon dance, near the Temple of Heaven, Beijing.

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The Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium. We went to see it at sunset, when it lights up (as you can see here). But we got caught in an almighty downpour and had to shelter in the souvenir shop where, five years after the main event, they were still flogging 2008 Olympics tat. I bought a pocket fan that glows as it spins….

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People feeding bears Sprite, Beijing Zoo.

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View over Kunming Lake from the Summer Palace. When the Emperors weren’t lording it over their subjects by not letting them into the Forbidden City, they were taking the waters out here.

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A bowl of lower intestines, upper intestines or maybe colon. General tripe, really. Not that you can’t get this in Hong Kong, but at least here it’s usually served in a soup, or hot-pot, or with noodles… It felt like the sauce here was deliberately served on the side, with the suggestion that ‘you should really be enjoying your unidentified stomachy bits as God intended but here’s a bowl of sauce if you insist, you pleb’.

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Some wall or other.

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Of course, it’s not any old wall. Just the ruddy Great Wall. Of China! We hiked 10 kilometres of it on an unbelievably hot and humid day. Note if you will the dark sweat stains on my grey t-shirt (not part of the design). That night I had a particularly memorable spot of heat and dehydration related diarrhea.

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Old men having an impromptu hot-pot in a public park, Beijing, while waiting for the rain to go off.

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You know how people will try to tell you that they went to Italy and were disappointed by the pizza, or that the curry in India wasn’t spicy enough… Well, if anyone ever says that they went to Beijing and thought the Peking Duck was nice, but not a patch on their local ‘Nine Dragons’ takeaway, then they are big fat liars.

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Bejing Railway station at sunset in all its Communist-chic splendour.

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Me reclining, Dowager Empress style, by the West Lake in Hangzhou. In 42 degree heat. Our visit coincided with the hottest August in 150 years… We just managed to take the picture before the camera melted.

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One of the best (or worst, depending on who you ask) things about being a Westerner in China, even a very run of the mill Westerner, is the all the attention, darling. From double takes in the street, to laughing babies, to requests for pictures. On this afternoon in Hangzhou, one couple asked and the floodgates opened: at least 5 photos in as many minutes. Whereas, in Hong Kong, I could stage a recreation of Michelangelo’s David in Central, at rush hour, and still be unable to draw people’s eyes away from their phones.

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Two views over the West Lake – inspiration for centuries worth of poems and fables – at midday and sunset.

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The local train to Shanghai. Why is that man standing on the seat? Well, why not?

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Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai. Lots of Koi and terrapins. Testament perhaps to the Japanese influence in the city.

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Either side of the Huangpu River. The first, Pudong, is where the richest people in China compete to build the tallest skyscrapers. It’s home to something like the 2nd and 3rd tallest buildings in the world. The second, the Bund, has been home to all the banks that made Shanghai the megalopolis that it is for over a century. If you squint, and ignore the hulking great towers across the water, it’s like walking down a major boulevard in a European capital.

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The only way to cross said Huangpu river – The Bund Sightseeing Tunnel. It’s supposed to be a journey to the centre of the earth, accompanied by strange lights and sounds, but it’s not really. It’s bizarre. The phrase ‘Only in China…’ has never been so apt.

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A Bladerunner-y view across Shanghai, the undisputed biggest city on the planet, at sunset.

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Xiao Long Bao. See the entry above on Peking Duck. The ‘Nine Dragons’ could never.

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Old couples dancing in the French Concession. ‘Pictures tell a thousand words’ and so on. I recently made a vow to visit the Mainland at least once a year. When you’re not there, running around regular old Hong Kong, you want… the unpredictability of China. But after a week or so of being there you start to want the predictability of Hong Kong. Such is China: you want it, and miss it, until you have it. A bit like McDonald’s.

Travels in Asia Part 2 – I’ve Got Seoul, But I’m Not a Soldier

My second most recent Asian vacation was to Seoul, capital of South Korea: Asia’s official number one exporter of ‘soft-power’.

I went to Seoul as a stop-over on a mammoth journey to visit friends in Washington DC. It was a chance to visit a new country, albeit one that felt very familiar. Hong Kong is crazy about Korea: K-POP, K-fashion, K-movies and even K-BBQ… The Korean wave has washed right over this city.

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One thing that always hits me when I arrive in a city that’s not Hong Kong is a sense of “Wow, there’s so much space! I can see the sky! I don’t want to use my umbrella as a club to clear the crowds.” London, Shanghai, Bangkok… its always the same. Nowhere on earth is as crowded as the centre of Hong Kong, and that’s a fact. But Seoul seemed that little bit more low-rise even than other cities of its size and standing. It’s huge, and I was never under the impression that it was a small place, but it just had so much space to sprawl lazily out along the Han River. The first thing I did was hunt out some toppoki – the rice cakes in a creamy, spicy sauce seen below. They’re basically thick, short noodles, and are complete comfort food.

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Seoul was one of the few places to which I have traveled alone, and spent the entire time there by myself. OK, my ‘entire’ time there was all of two days. But still. It’s the sort of thing one should do, travelling alone, if one reads the travel section of middle-brow newspapers, and I’m not against it. You really get to know oneself, you know? Plenty of times I’ve been travelling with someone and wished intensely for just five minutes of solitude. But two days of me is my limit. After two days I start to realise that I don’t want to get to know myself any more, and would like to get to know someone else.

When you are travelling alone you do a lot of walking too. I trekked all over Seoul, along the surprisingly bleak riverbanks and up the tower in Namsan Park, following a stream that runs below street level all the way to Dongdaemun, the city’s ancient eastern gate. My wanderings also took me to a fish market, as my wanderings often do, called Noryangjin because I have a thing for seeing giant squid writhing under a fisherman’s scalpel.

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It could be because the K-pop stars all look so plastic, and have futuristic silver hair, and wear clothes that look like what we mere mortals will be wearing in the year 2115, but I expected the capital of this country to be more teeming and gleaming. More in my face. Just a little more… cutting edge. Maybe I didn’t do it justice. Two days were not enough, perhaps. Maybe I’ve just got big-Asian-city fatigue and can’t tell my Tokyos from my Taipeis. But Seoul didn’t quite stand out from the crowd.

Travels in Asia Part 1 – Meditations on Myanmar

2015 marks a full eight years since I first set foot on East Asian soil. That 2007 morning, stepping out from Suvarnabhumi Airport, on the outskirts of Bangkok, the first thing that hit me was (and I know that this is far from being an original thought – every visitor to the far east since Marco Polo has had this thought to the point of ridiculous cliché – but still)… the humidity. Clichéd yet true: humidity gives the tropical air an edge that you can’t quite place: a scent, a texture, a tone…

Anyway, I’m setting myself a project for this year: to write a bit about all ten countries that I’ve visited in this part of the world. Some of which I spent a couple of days in; some several weeks. Some I’ve been to just once; some a number of times. It won’t be in a travel guide-y, ‘this hotel puts the booty in boutique’ kind of way (though if Lonely Planet see this and fancy commissioning me to go off doing that kind of thing then I would take it into very careful consideration). It’ll be more of a ‘here’s what I got up to in this place and here’s some pictures in case you can’t be bothered reading’ kind of thing.

So, starting with my most recent trip, let’s head off to Myanmar…

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I arrived in Yangon, capital of Myanmar, late on Christmas Eve, 2014. The taxi ride from the airport took us along quiet, surprisingly modern looking streets. It wasn’t until we were a couple of blocks away from our city-centre hotel that the buildings started to get a little crumbly and foreign. It’s always a little disconcerting to get your first impressions of a place in the dark, as when you emerge from your hotel the next day you almost have to re-assess the place again. On Christmas morning, we were woken up by vendors strolling up and down the narrow street outside, calling out their wares in a sing-song voice, baskets perched on their heads.

The city itself is compact and walkable. It’s like every south east Asian city in that every few metres along the pavement there’s something going on: something cooking, something being sold, someone shouting, welding, spitting, begging or sleeping. There’s also an inevitable colonial feel to the city in the beautiful, tumbledown apartment blocks. I became very aware that we were closer to Bangladesh and India than we were to China or Japan – the street scenes, the smells, even the Burmese alphabet; all had a very sub-continental feel to them. The country it was most similar to was Thailand but even this is an overly simple comparison. I quickly noticed that there was just something very different about Myanmar, compared to the rest of South East Asia.

On our first evening we traveled to Shwedagon Pagoda in the north of the city- the holiest site in a country not short of holy sites. It was a shame that the main pagoda was covered in tarpaulin and bamboo scaffolding (ancient religious sites need their maintenance, I guess) but there was still atmosphere to spare as the sun set in a tropical haze.

It was here that I also had my first experience of the local longyi: the traditional Burmese dress (being sported very handsomely in the photo below). Except that unlike, say, the kilt or the leiderhosen, which are only worn on a daily basis by staunch nationalists or the mentally negligible (one and the same, you might add), the longyi is far from an ornamental national outfit. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that 50% of men we saw going about their daily business were wearing one. It’s basically an over sized skirt that you draw in and tie around your waist. We were slightly corralled in to buying one at the pagoda, on account of our scandalous knee length shorts, but I’ve become determined to get my money’s worth from it ever since and can now regularly be seen lounging around the sofa longyi-ed up.

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Best bit in Yangon? Surely, realising that these cords with clips on the end, dangling down in front of apartment blocks, are how Yangonians (?) receive their mail:

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But we quickly realised that Burmese food isn’t the main reason to rush over here. It’s not that it’s bad, as such. More that it’s just a bit bland. And very oily. The cuisine mainly consists of curries that, considering Burma has India to its left and Thailand to its right, could be better.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a connoisseur of overnight train journeys, and the 16 hour journey from Yangon to Bagan was a vintage trip. Slowly winding our way through the sprawl of the capital, in the orange glow of late Boxing Day afternoon, we saw markets, football matches and laundries all spread across the tracks as we rocked along. ‘Rocked’ being the operative verb here, as the ancient train swayed wildly, like a drunken uncle, any time it picked up speed (though that wasn’t very often).

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The family on the bunks opposite shared their oranges and tried out their English (and, bizarrely, their Japanese) on us. Street urchins stuck their heads in the window when the train stopped – overcharging us for lukewarm Myanmar Beer. This was the only occasion when we could claim to have been ripped-off in Burma, but it was done with a cheeky smile. Other than this, all we had to do that night was watch the plains roll past until darkness fell, before lying back and falling asleep to the train’s rhythm. That’s why I love overnight trains: nowhere to go, nothing needing done; just sit back and wait to arrive somewhere new.

Plus, we arrived in to Bagan only an hour and a half late! I read an article reporting that Bagan was one of the 50 most ‘untouched’ tourist destinations in the world. Though having been I’d say that if she’s not yet been touched, she’s certainly been batting her eyelashes and flicking her hair in the direction of tourists. But the temples were gorgeous, and sufficiently dispersed across several miles of dusty countryside that it never seemed crowded. We saw herds of buffalo being driven from one stupa to another, by bony old herders with broad-brimmed hats. Rickety truckloads of locals, in marked contrast to the air-conditioned taxis that the foreign tourists were using, bustled between temples on a pilgrimage of sorts. In the distance, always just out of sight, the broad Irrawaddy River traced a sweeping curve.

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But the village in which we stayed, Nyaung U, seemed to exist solely for foreigners. The usual mix of handicraft stores and faux-Western restaurants. Perhaps it’s inevitable in somewhere that’s not so much a town as a place which just happens to have lots of ancient crumbling ruins. There wasn’t much here to start with, and what has sprung up is catering to the tourists. ‘Untouched’ it certainly wasn’t. Still, we barely covered a tenth of the total number of temples in two days, and sometimes it was nice just to pull our electric bikes over in a patch of untouched scrubland. The only time it got really crowded was at sunset (see above).

For our last stop in Burma we braved an internal flight on a twin propeller-prop (nowhere near as terrifying or Indiana Jonesy as I expected) and touched down at Heho Airport, which serves Inle Lake. The lake is perched some 3000 feet above sea level and, along with Bagan, makes up the two greatest hits of Burmese tourism.

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There wasn’t a single glimpse of the famous lake during the taxi ride from the airport to Nyaungshwe, the town with all the nicest guesthouses (but which was also slightly going down the ‘pizza and wifi here’ route). Our first afternoon there also passed without seeing the lake, but we chartered a boat for the next morning and watched that day’s sightseers puttering home on their long-tail boats. Anticipation mounting, we boarded a narrow boat at 7.30am the next day and cruised off down Apocalypse Now style tributaries, with trees overhanging the banks and thick weeds floating by. Finally, we burst around a corner and met Inle Lake in all it’s misty morning beauty.

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It was a fine last stop in Myanmar, though our guide insisted on taking us to various floating workshops/tourist traps selling silk, cigarettes and tat. We also went to a temple where those blobs in the picture above are actually statues of Buddha that have been covered in tons of gold leaf over the centuries by pilgrims, and yet another temple at which we were promised rare ‘jumping cats’ (apparently the monks have have ample time on their hands to teach them tricks) but saw only the more common ‘lounging in the sun cats’. But the most interesting part of the day was simply scooting about in our boat, amongst fishermen, gardeners and villagers for whom life is centred around the lake.

From there we took another flight back to Yangon and spent an underwhelming New Year’s Eve in Yangon International Airport. An indifferent ending to a very different kind of trip.