Thailand/Burma

Day One, Bangkok

Our hotel, a basic concrete block near the airport, is almost flooded out. Heavy late-monsoon rains have dumped multiple inches across the city, and our location, formerly farmland, now covered with hundreds of thousands of tons of impermeable concrete, cannot drain the water away fast enough.

The hotel is therefore surrounded by a sea of foul brown water. A football-pitch between it and the main road is knee-deep, and cars are up to their bumpers as they slowly approach.

In the evening a new storm arrives, filling the air with lashing water, frantically churning the field below our window, making the street light reflections dance crazily as gusts of wind chase around on its boiling surface.

Before dawn I watch a man slowly setting up his stall on the edge of the field by the light of a lantern. He hangs bananas and obscure plastic-wrapped packages, oblivious to the fact that to get to him, shoppers would have to wade through 30 feet of sewage, when other stalls are more easily accessible.

I hope he has a good day.

Later: We arrive in Rangoon, and make it through immigration, though it is after dark by the time we clear customs and find a ride. We pass by the Shwedagon Pagoda, which positively glows as it looms up out of the darkness. As we pass its south entrance and head away from it towards the river, a curious effect occurs: through some foreshortening, as we head downhill, the main stupa seems to grow massively, becoming larger and taller and more magnificent as we get further away from it. This continues for some time, and is quite breath-taking as the smooth gold cone rises further and further into the velvety night sky.

Later we find a bar, supposedly one of the best in town. It reminds me of a miners’ bar in Australia: no women, crap on the floors, hugely drunk men with brick-sized wads of cash, instantly-appearing beers, sport on the TV (Sunderland-Arsenal) and a faint but unmistakable air of menace. I loved it; Susan not so sure. Then at nine o’clock they called last orders, and everyone stumbled meekly off into the night.

Monday, Rangoon

What to say about Rangoon? It’s shattered, pulverised, mashed. It’s lying panting on its side like a sick dog, waiting to be put out of its misery.

Actually, it’s not that bad. But it’s not a well city. It reminds me strongly of Calcutta: rotting gently like a carcass in the steamy heat, buildings crumbling, sprouting bushes from old colonnades, mould creeping across formerly grand facades, pavements like ploughed fields of concrete, sewage-stench, pye dogs limping hopefully between trash heaps.

It is an industrious city, in a tropical way. There are stalls everywhere, small merchants selling sandals and umbrellas, pirated DVDs, oranges and asparagus, laminated maps, ukuleles, newspapers, phone calls, towels and longyis, notebooks, plates and cutlery, lottery tickets and beads. But few of the stalls open early; the main market doesn’t rouse itself until past 10 o’clock and doesn’t really swing into action until after lunch. Then it knocks off at about five. Bars shut at nine, and the city goes quiet.

Or at least relatively quiet. The incessant rain hammers on every cheap corrugated surface throughout the city. Strange cries carry through the darkness. At four, we are woken by a chanting in the street. Peering out, a group of six or eight people, men, and some children, are gathered under umbrellas chanting, singsong-fashion, at a doorway. It might perhaps be the Lord’s Prayer in Burmese. It is punctuated by strikes on a large bell, which booms metallically up and down the street. At some unseen signal, the group turns away from the silent doorway, and floats up the street out of sight.

Later a nearby muezzin takes his predawn chance to call the faithful to prayer. Twenty minutes later he is at it again. Thanking them all for coming, perhaps? Really, don’t mention it…

Tuesday

More thoughts on Burmese entrepreneurism: on the way to the bus station we pass stalls in their hundreds, and I notice a kind of weird specialism. Many of them sell only one thing.

That’s not unusual, you might say. Shoe shops, for instance, sell nothing but shoes. But here in Burma, the shop will sell only one kind of shoe, in one size, like a PVC black brogue in a size nine. Need an eight? Over the road. Or 1800cc engine head gaskets. Want a two-litre one? Four stores down. This seems to extend to all sorts of goods: dust whisks and exhaust pipes and toothbrushes and bike tires, typewriter ribbons and ladles. Specialism gone mad.

Perhaps oddest of all: under a flyover is a row of five stalls, all offering the same thing: tennis racket covers. All the same size, all cheap-looking, all branded with the Yonex logo. The competition must be fierce, one imagines. But you can’t help noticing that dirt-poor Burma doesn’t seem to be overly burdened with tennis courts; nor, for that matter, are the streets thronged with people carrying naked tennis rackets. Business, one imagines, must be tough. You can’t help but admire their optimism.

If I were a Burmese businessman, I’d set up a shock absorber shop. Looking at the astonishingly monstered state of the roads –  potholes you could bury a dog in – you’d make a killing.

Except for the road to Mandalay. This modern four-lane superhighway cuts whip-straight across the plains, unspooling for dozens of miles ahead into the distance, flat and untroubled as the surface of a lake. And untroubled by traffic too: never have I seen an emptier road in Asia, or, indeed, anywhere else. In fifty miles we see one pickup truck and one moped. We cruise serenely up the center of the road, like kings. Somewhere, a lot of traffic is clogging a potholed track.

Later, perhaps inevitably, our stately progress is halted when the gearbox goes, and we spend four hours waiting at the side of the ghost highway. It is a beautifully made road (hand-levelled poured concrete slabs, 8mm expansion joints, reflecting cats’ eyes fixed with Phillips head screws – it was a long four hours). For most of the wait we had a choice between standing outside the bus in the steady rain, or sitting in the fug inside watching Burmese musical slapstick acts on the huge TV at colossal volume, and trying to look as if we were enjoying it.  A tough call.

Wednesday

Mandalay, when the sun rises, turns out to be delightful. We’ve blagged the highest room in the hotel, and we can immediately get a sense of the city from our windows: low-slung, dusty, edged with mountains to the east, and punctuated by an enormous hill just to the north.

We take a taxi to Mandalay Hill, then a pickup truck speeds us madly to the summit, tearing round hairpin bends and throwing us across the flatbed. Fun, but a little bruising.

From the temple at the summit, once we’ve paid all the surcharges (entrance is free, but cameras are 500 kyat, and sandal storage is ‘a donation’), the scale of the city becomes apparent and easily comprehensible. The vast square of jungle in the centre of the city is the City Palace; a mile to each side, ringed by a 70 foot moat and five-metre walls, it slumbers peacefully in the heat.

To the east, the Irawaddy eases its way towards the sea. It must, in the past, have carved out the vast floodplain on which Mandalay stands, leaving only the more stubborn outcropping we’re standing on rising up. To the east, the Shan Mountains rise abruptly out of the plain, their ranks regressing into the distance, higher and mistier, like an illustration from a painted scroll. From them, and beyond, come the rubies, jade and heroin that are the economic lifeblood of the city, and they look dangerously romantic.

The city proper isn’t much to look at; the buildings are mostly four and five storey Chinese-style blocks, with a few large and ghastly-looking ‘international’ hotels. There is a golf course and a racetrack surprisingly close to the centre; great swathes of green amidst the concrete and tiling. Perhaps not so surprising, though certainly noticeable, is the amount of stupas rising up above Mandalay: in any direction you look there will be a dozen or more golden spires lofting upwards. It is impossible to find a view without them.

The walk down from the summit of Mandalay Hill passes through half a dozen supernumerary temples; cats lie on the cool tiled floors and elderly temple guardians peer at you gently as you pass, sandals in hand, in awkward reverence.

That night we find a bar, and sample Mandalay Beer, which is strong but refreshing, and rather good. There is also Mandalay Rum, which is unsophisticated, but also rather good. I sleep well.

Thursday

The jade market is curious; full of rows and rows of young men polishing little slabs of jade, and hard-faced Chinese merchants looking sourly through bags of the stuff placed anxiously in front of them. The Chinese are not popular, according to our guide, but they are very intelligent, he concedes. Dozens of stalls display the same goods: trays of bangles, strings of prayer beads, little buddhas, flat discs with a central hole for hanging around the neck. They all look much the same to me, and I leave, happily, empty-handed.

In the cool of the early evening, the roof of the Royal City Hotel is a lovely place to be. I sit at a table, alone, looking east, towards the Shan Mountains, which glow green where the fitful and distant sun hits them. Closer, the jumble of houses is punctuated with palm trees and stupas.

From the streets below comes the sound of old diesel engines, horns, metal being hammered, dogs barking, schoolchildren chanting something by rote, motorcycles and more horns. The warm wind soothes its way across the rooftops. A French couple who are following us arrive on the roof.

They were on our flight from Bangkok, they chose the same Rangoon hotel, and, mysteriously, chose the same hotel in Mandalay. They come to the roof at dusk to smoke huge and pungent cigars. It appears to be the only interesting thing about them. I wonder if they’ll magically manifest themselves in Hsipaw tomorrow.

Friday

The day begins crammed into the back seat of Burma’s oldest taxi, next to a surly Chinese kid who tries to smoke until Susan stops him. For half an hour we arrow through the paddy fields until abruptly, we meet the hills and start to climb. Quickly we rise up above the Irrawaddy’s floodplain, up a dizzying series of hairpins and switchbacks, with Mandalay receding into the far distance.

The air becomes cooler, although no cleaner, as we pass dozens of superloaded China-bound lorries belching quite astonishing amounts of thick black smoke, often directly in through the taxi’s windows.

At the summit, the road falls back down on to a broad plateau rolling away for miles. It looks lush and fertile, with thick banks of vegetation lining the road, with fields of corn and papaya and banana climbing up the low hillsides and massive gnarled trees, festooned with nat shrines, every few hundred yards.

At one point, we are halted by a bamboo pole across the road, and a woman waving a green flag. From out of the bushes emerges a train, its blue and red engine incongruous against the all-pervading green. It is, presumably, the only train of the day, the Lashio-Mandalay Express. By my reckoning it is running about five hours late.

Hsipaw, when we reach it, starts inauspiciously, with no room at the inn (“Chinese businessman take all” the owner whispers conspiratorially). We walk across town in the heat, before eventually finding a room, which is large and cool and has the BBC news on the television. Refreshed, we set out to explore, and are immediately captivated.

Hsipaw is nestled along one side of an “S” of the Dottarwaddy River, and encircled by the peaks of looming mountains. We find a coffee house on the banks of the river, which has cafetiers and proper coffee. We sit on a broad verandah and gaze across the river at cornfields and orange groves. The occasional longboat passes, the captains waving as we sit, enraptured. The soft afternoon light glazes the scene golden, smoke rises from distant fires and golden stupas peep shyly from the foliage on the hillsides. All is quite perfect.

Susan suggests that the Black House Coffee Shop is so named because they only serve black coffee. Twice we ask for milk, only to be told that they don’t have any. “It goes off,” the owner explains. “We can’t keep it for very long.” A curious attitude for a restrauteur. I drink my coffee black, so I’m perfectly happy.

“Celebrity lookalike dwarf porn star eaten by badger” – a headline just read to me by Susan

Some details of a day trip offered by our hotel in Hsipaw:

“Pass through the plantations of pineapple, papaya, orange which are widely grown along the way to the monastery

Learn interesting thing at the monastery and return to the jetty to again boat ride to the river confluence at which swimming is available on the individual wish

On the way back of boat ride, go visit to a SHAN village which has typical houses with a small charming”

A small charming indeed.

Saturday

An almost absurdly magical day.

Went to the post office to send some postcards. Two counters, one manned by a sleepy cat. The two ladies at the other one were forced to admit that they had no stamps. At all. We all laughed.

Then later we walked to a waterfall, apparently one of the highlights of a visit to Hsipaw (or HipShaw, as Susan keeps calling it).

The walk starts a little inauspiciously (“through the Chinese cemetery, then turn right at the place where rubbish is burning”). From the brow of the hill, we can see the waterfall in the distance, a ribbon of white against the sea of green.

We cross the plain towards the distant escarpment, through fields of corn and sugar cane, along the edges of paddy fields. Water burbles merrily along ancient irrigation channels, and we cross old stone bridges and negotiate bamboo poles laid across the streams, passing thatched houses on stilts where women shuck corn to dry in the fierce sun and children and chickens totter to and fro.

At one point a rainbow arcs across the sky to the east. Iridescent butterflies in electric blue and black and blood red dragonflies waft across our path, and Susan points out that it is like being in a fairy tale. We both start looking out for unicorns.

The waterfall, when we finally reach it, is magnificent, thick skeins of water feathering out of the sky, filling the air with cool water. It plunges into a boiling pool which we gingerly insert ourselves into, shielding our eyes from the horizontal rain it throws up. Below us, on the valley floor, miles of green sleeps in the sunshine. Farmers guide their water buffalo across their little verdant patches of rich wet earth, the whole visible world a harmony of green warmth and peace. The problems of the world (air crash in Nevada, fresh fighting in Libya, floods in Pakistan) seem astonishingly far away. There is nowhere I’d rather be.

Seems slightly odd to be sitting surrounded by paddy fields, reading Dickens (The Old Curiosity Shop) on an iPad. But it works. Also reading a book about walking across London. I can’t think of anything more fruitless.

Sunday

Some phrases I have learned:

Ming la ba – hello

Che zoo bay – thank you

Yaa baa day – no problem/you’re welcome

Shay mey – can I have the bill please?

Da da – goodbye

The above seem to cover most eventualities.

After my earlier comments on tennis, it turns out that Hsipaw is a hotbed of tennis. We play a game with a character we’ve bumped into a few times, a garrulous old man who tells us within minutes of our first meeting almost everything about his life: his marital status, his daughter’s monthly income, what he eats for breakfast, how long he meditates for and the secret of a happy life (stay fit and do good things). What he doesn’t mention is that he used to be a Shan State tennis champion in 1972, and still plays every single day at Hsipaw’s Dudhtawaddy Tennis Club, a rather forlorn concrete court tucked away behind a huge tree on the main road.

Mr Tennis, as we quickly christen him, is extremely good at tennis, and incredibly polite and enthusiastic, and as Susan and I flail around the court, sweating and red-faced, he keeps up a string of encouraging cries. “Oh, good shot!” if we manage to return the ball. “Nice try! Top work! Great forehand!” And all the while he is barely breaking a sweat, swatting the ball casually across the net, smiling innocently as he adds a wicked topspin or plays a devilish chip shot without even looking at the ball. He is 64. I feel 64.

Some things I have learned: 1) It is difficult to wash your shirts and socks by hand with a pint of fabric softener. And I don’t even think my shirts are any softer. 2) Little Women and Little House on the Prairie are not the same thing. Saw some of a film of Little Women, and was surprised to discover it was full of German philosophers, rather than children fetchin’ water and eatin’ vittles in Kansas or somewhere. Not a fact that will make much difference, really.

I discover an amusing bar for a nightcap, on a corner of the main street. Quickly I’m friends with everybody, even though their English is about as rudimentary as my Burmese. We discuss politics (“Burma government not good”), food, beer, and football. One of the boys who works there has a partial mohican, which turns out to be in honour of the Spurs striker Emmanuel Adebayor. For some complicated linguistic reason to do with Burmese diminutives (he’s quite a small chap) they call him AdebayGor. Every time I shout ‘AdebayGor’ the whole place dissolves with merriment. After a few drinks it seems only natural to punctuate the conversation by pointing at the lad and shouting ‘AdebayGor!’ It never fails to work, and we have a hilarious time.

We also discuss music, and they are fantastically pleased when I tell them I love the Burmese heavy metal band Iron Cross. The second night they arrange a guitar for me, with rusty strings and a warped neck, and I’m forced to concede that I don’t actually know all that many Iron Cross songs off the top of my head (I’d never heard of them until a week ago). Still, a singalong seems inevitable, until Susan appears and marches me off home. My new friends – farmers, labourers, who probably earn as much in a month as I can in an hour, refuse to let me pay for my beer or cheroots. I am humbled.

Sunday, Monday, Tuesday

Fall more in love with Hsipaw. Meet lots of lovely locals: Madame Bode who runs the curry house by the police station and presses custard apples into our hands, and all her extended family, father and laughing son, and grandchildren running amongst the tables. Madam Popcorn, selling the worst fruit juices in Asia to supplement her teacher’s pension. She is amazingly eager to please, offering us plates of pickled tea-leaves (an acquired taste) and bean brittle. Apparently she makes popcorn in a small cannon, but now is not the season, she tells us sorrowfully.

And the local I love more than any other: Mr Book. He, obviously, runs the town book stall, which has four books in English, including the ubiquitous ‘Burmese Days’ in a pirated edition.

He takes us behind his shop where he sits amongst piles of books and papers, dogs and cats sleeping in the heat, and tells us a series of untranslatable Burmese jokes, and details the state his country is in. It turns out he is the local NLD party secretary, and he’s quite happy to talk about the Burma situation (only because the government spy who listens over the wall to his conversations is on holiday; otherwise he tells us he wouldn’t say a thing.)

We spend a couple of hours with him a couple of times, and come away profoundly depressed by his recitation of a litany of corruption, torture, kleptocracy, lies and evil. But he is also sane, happy, upbeat and more cheerful than he ought to be. He shows us a list of restrictions that have been placed on him, and annually renewed. They include not talking about politics, and not donating stationery to local schools. All of which he cheerfully flouts.

Talking to him is deeply moving. This dear country needs people like him. He won’t take any money from us.

Wednesday

The journey from Hsipaw to Mandalay was in equal parts fascinating and horrendous. The train left almost an hour late, then set off at not much above walking pace, swaying alarmingly from side to side, and causing all the heads in our compartment to swing in unison, like a forest of giant metronomes.

The man opposite us, a farmer of some sort taking several mysterious boxes to Mandalay to sell, alternately smoked and spat, while intermittently excavating between his teeth with a long and grimy fingernail, and spitting his finds out of the window.

In fact, ejecting things out of the window was to become a theme of the day, with everyone except Susan and I gaily chucking everything they could lay their hands on out of their windows: cheroot ends and whiskey bottles, chicken bones and banana peels, scraps of newspaper and handfuls of cold rice, paan juice and plastic bags by the dozen. It would have given Bill Bryson a hemorrhage. Rats scuttled between our feet, gleaning any undefenestrated droppings.

Outside the train, all was beautiful, as we recross the Shan Plateau, once more through the corn plots and rice paddies, bananas and orange groves. The vegetation grew right up to the train, and slapped alarmingly through the windows, but adding a cut vegetation aroma to the mint, woodsmoke, tamarind and clove scents that mingled with the ever-present tobacco with top-notes of urine that permeated the carriage.

The little train stopped often, mostly for no appreciable reason, sometimes at stations where crowds of women with head baskets of fruit or fried chicken or noodles would parade up and down below our windows, doing a surprisingly brisk trade, for the Burmese truly love to eat. Leftovers would be merrily flung outside, to be fought over by the scabby dogs who slunk between the train’s wheels in wait.

 

At some stops, patent medicine men would get on and embark loudly on their sing-song sales patter, holding up various small dried objects with pride, and offering the carriage little chips of wood and palmfuls of sour-looking powder to try. We were even offered some, and Susan said it eased her painful neck. I would have thought not sitting opposite Captain Phlegm would have been more efficacious in the neck pain easing department, but there was nothing we could do about that.

The highlight was the GokTeik Viaduct, a silvery lattice that angled across the gorge of the same name. Built by the Pennsylvania Steel Company in 1903, it was for many years the second-highest railway bridge in the world. Only a foot wider on each side than the tracks themselves, and with no railings or guards of any sort, you felt precariously exposed. The forest quickly fell away, and suddenly we were a thousand feet above the valley floor, where a muddy brown torrent boiled between jagged boulders, and the canopy of the trees looked like a distant patchy lawn seen through half-closed eyes. In fact, Susan’s eyes were half closed for most of the way across. It was a satisfyingly frightening few minutes.

The train eventually limped in to Pwin Oo Lwin, about three hours late, and we found a pickup truck to take us to Mandalay, perched uncomfortably amongst sacks of rice and mountains of green bananas. Hot, dusty, bruised and very dirty, we finally reached Mandalay and cold beer and a burger. All in all, a most satisfactory day’s travelling.

 

Thursday

“This was a wide, wide track — for the humble followers of the camp of wealth pitch their tents round about it for many a mile — but its character was still the same. Damp rotten houses, many to let, many yet building, many half-built and mouldering away – lodgings, where it would be hard to tell which needed pity most, those who let or those who came to take —children, scantily fed and clothed, spread over every street, and sprawling in the dust — scolding mothers, stamping their slipshod feet with noisy threats upon the pavement — shabby fathers, hurrying with dispirited looks to the occupation which brought them ‘daily bread’ and little more — mangling-women, washer-women, cobblers, tailors, chandlers, driving their trades in parlours and kitchens and back room and garrets, and sometimes all of them under the same roof — brick-fields skirting gardens paled with staves of old casks, or timber pillaged from houses burnt down, and blackened and blistered by the flames — mounds of dock-weed, nettles, coarse grass and oyster-shells, heaped in rank confusion — small dissenting chapels to teach, with no lack of illustration, the miseries of Earth, and plenty of new churches, erected with a little superfluous wealth, to show the way to Heaven.

Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop

Read in Rangoon, 2011

Vietnam

Monday

The first thing you notice is the cars. They’re not old. There are Mercedes, Audis, Range Rovers. I even see a couple of Porsches. And there are no potholes. I’d forgotten how smooth a road could be.

Then the clothes. The Vietnamese dress as if they’d been given a choice about what they wanted to wear, unlike the Burmese, who look like they wear whatever they can find.

And of course, it turns out that they can choose: every other shop in Hanoi seems to be a boutique of some sort. And every other shop is an art gallery, full of rather beautiful paintings and ceramics. Hanoi is packed full of travel writers’ clichés: bustling, vibrant, pulsating, hectic, buzzing, lively. Crossing the road is an act of faith as mopeds weave in uncountable numbers, swarming up and down the rainy streets.

The Old Quarter is divided into small commercial areas according to trades, so there is Thread Street, Card Street, Padlock Street and so on. If you want a pair of sunglasses, Sunglass Street has nothing but: dozens of shops stocked with thousands of pairs. It must make comparison shopping very easy.

We eat in an old traditional-style Vietnamese restaurant which is, quite simply sensational. Barbecued pork balls on a bed of vermicelli noodles with coriander, mint and sweet vinegar, curried beef, spring rolls and dumplings, all explosively flavourful, each taste distinct and beautiful. We eat like kings, for a pittance. I think this is going to be a great country.

It is quite rainy, though. Delighted-looking umbrella sales people accost me on every street corner, and are mystified at my refusal to buy. “I hate umbrellas” I say. “A terrible childhood incident.” They shake their heads at the weird foreigner sheltering under an awning, and eventually wander off.

Wednesday

Actually not entirely sure what day it is. What a nice thing to be able to write. Also haven’t used a mobile phone for about three weeks now. Or any sort of a phone.

Hanoi is a sensational city for travellers. Not too hot, cheap, civilised, quite mad but quite cultured, cheap beer, reasonable coffee, fabulous people-watching, speedy internet, astonishing food, pretty girls. I could go on. Susan is off doing a cooking course at the moment, which sounds like fun – they take you round the street market first to teach you what to look for in yer Vietnamese produce. I should probably be doing it too, but I’m happy for Susan to possess that particular skill set.

Got chatting to a hawker on the street about the photocopied books he was selling. Everything in the country was copied, he said. “If you have a copy machine you will be a rich man.”

Vietnamese is a confusing language. It looks recognisable at first glance, using as it does roman characters; it takes a moment to decipher it and know you understand nothing. And it is so studded with accents and diacriticals that every sentence looks like its undergoing acupuncture.

Was propositioned by a prostitute on a bicycle as I sat at a roadside cafe having a nightcap. A door-to-door whore.

Thursday

Went to the produce market this morning, which was bursting at the seams with exotica: sacks of dried mushrooms and chilies and garlic, mad fruits and herbs; fish and poor de-shelled turtles, frogs and crabs. There were cages of little puppies and kittens. Apparently you buy one and take it home and enjoy it as a puppy. Then you kill it and eat it. This seems to me to be rather Vietnamese. Cuddly and fun, but at the same time possessed of a steely practicality. I quite like it.

On the night train from Hanoi to Hue, we share a compartment with some rather odd Germans. They don’t seem to be pleased to be sharing with us, and spend the first couple of hours standing, huddled conspiratorially in the corridor, muttering. We roll our eyes and invent ways of making them even more uncomfortable.

Then they complain that the aircon isn’t working properly (which it isn’t), which we take to be a ploy to get moved to another compartment. Eventually, after much summoning of train staff and pointing at the aircon vents, it gets fixed. The couple then put extra clothes on, and pull heavy down skiing jackets out of their rucksacks. (Why would you have such a thing in steamy Vietnam? I just can’t imagine.) then they zip the up all the way, to their noses, and pull the hoods on, down to their eyes. They lie like mediaeval sarcophagi statues, hands fixed on their chests as if at prayer. The bloke wears socks with L and R stitched onto the left and right, respectively.

Friday

Hue is sedate compared to Hanoi, and a bit dull. Tourists everywhere, which is depressing, many young and getting hammered on cheap drink deals while listening to AC/DC at top volume. Actually, that bit is ok.

We go to the Imperial Hotel, which has a rooftop bar, 16 floors up, which is deserted. The city spreads out below us bisected by the broad sweep of the Perfume River just below us. The city’s few neon lights glow cheerfully off the water. It is quite magical.

The next morning, on closer inspection, the Perfume River is less poetic: a sluggish brown thing, studded with slowly churning branches and other debris. The city is foully humid, windless and damp. We walk a sensational distance to the Citadel, where lots of the old imperial relics are too be found, and arrive, bathed in sweat and fairly out of sorts. A sign asks us for money for admittance. The conversation goes like this:

Me: “Sod that. I’m not paying to look at some old Chinesey crap. Lets go and have a beer.”

Susan: “OK.”

So we push off again. The entrance charge was 15 cents.

The eponymous Nina, of the restaurant much-hymned in various online guides, turns out to be an absolute treasure. At one point we praise her banana pancake (which was wonderful). She beams with shy pride, and explains how she made it. Except she gets overexcited and keeps waving her hands around her face with excitement as she tries to explain the quantities of flour. She is a poppet.

One of the most popular drinks on the menu at the DMZ Bar is a Flaming B52. I can’t tell if this is fabulously ironic or very knowing, considering Hue’s recent history. We spent an hour today in a gallery, which had an artist who specialised in works made out of shot-down US B-52’s. Perhaps the drink is a subtle riposte to the American would-be colonial oppressors. Although considering who’s buying and who’s serving, I’m not sure who’s winning that fight.

Sunday

Have rather gone off Hue, after accepting a drink from some guys on a street corner and regaining consciousness considerably poorer. See Hue and Cry, I now think.

Monday

We took a ride on the back of a pair of motorcycles from Hue to Hoi An. Through the tail end of Typhoon Nesat, which killed several hundred across Asia. It very nearly killed us.

The rain was unrelenting, and was, due to our velocity, practically horizontal, so rather like getting a five-hour dermabrasion session. We kept adding layers of plastic ponchos: they worked as well as wearing a poncho in a five-hour-long carwash would have been. It was a difficult trip to put a brave face on.

We went over the probably quite stunning Something or Other Pass, curling up through the mountains with the sea falling away beneath us: visibility was perhaps 30 feet, and the road was a sheet of water. Susan was better tempered than I’d any right to expect, but neither of us were happy, as it was an expensive way to travel dangerously and uncomfortably. Oh well.

Hoi An however was a treat: nestled on a spit of land, it is a jewel of old Chinese buildings, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, all bobbing lanterns and old temples, car-free streets and masses of Australian tourists. God knows what its like in high season. Now, though, it is charming, and we like it very much. Millions of tailors, who are about to get an October Bonus via Shepherd’s Bush, and amazing restaurants.

The Pork Report

I am practically totally convinced that Vietnamese food is the best in the world. It makes Thai food seem like Scottish cuisine; Italian like Turkish.

The guiding principle seems to be in a balance of contrasting flavours and textures. So each mouthful goes off like a series of cannon bursts of taste in the mouth. And they love their pork.

In Hanoi, one of the most famous dishes is called Bun Cha, which is sold at every street corner. Barbecued pork with cold vermicelli and a handful of assorted herbs: mint, coriander, god knows what else. You take a chopstick-full of pork and noodles and herbs, garnish with chili and vinegar and eat. And adore. The balance of sweet and sour, hot and crunchy and soft and cold is utterly entrancing – every mouthful is an absolute pleasure.

Banh Mi are still my favourite. Vietnamese baguettes, which are made with 30 percent rice flour, are crispy and light beyond belief. (When I was first presented with one, I thought it was absurdly large. Two minutes later I was picking the last few crumbs out of my beard.) When filed with hot roast pork, pickled radishes and carrots, coriander, chili sauce and mayonnaise, they transcend the simple idea of a sandwich, and move into the realms of ambrosia.

I am writing this on my terrace. All of a sudden half-a-dozen Australians have just appeared by the pool, and have now discussed Vietnamese food for half an hour, without stopping, raving about garlic and chilies and spring onions and the tuna and prawns. I’m inclined to hate them, but they seem to appreciate the food as much as I do, and they’re not wrong.

Sunday

Ho Chi Minh City. It’s easier to call it Saigon; all the locals seem to. Saigon is like Hanoi on steroids: sometimes only a cliché will do. The traffic is madness. There can be 300 motorcycles at a junction, and when the lights change they pour past, their little whiffly engines combining into a huge soft snarl. If crossing the road in Hanoi is an act of faith in a benevolent destiny, then crossing the road here is like believing in the sun-god Ra. Except that it seems to work. You step out into the traffic, and it magically parts. If you stop, or lose your nerve, your faith, you’d be pranged in an instant, but if you believe and keep moving, you’ll make it unscathed to the other side. It is quite exhilarating, as the bikes wreathe blithely past you, to realise how close you are to be visiting a hospital, and yet to be fine.

Saigon is also blessed with some super-attractive women, sitting statuesquely on their scooters in their ao dais, or sashaying down the street in heels showing off their impossibly long legs. It’s not innocent, but there is nothing slutty about it either. It’s all rather cheering.

Had dinner with an old friend last night, which was arranged by a women he had met a week before. She booked a table at a place where George W Bush had dined when he was last in town. Our hearts sank; huge carved wooden chairs, thick napery and lacquer chopstick boxes. We could barely bear to look at the prices. They were astronomical. And the food was dull.

Monday

Went to the Museum of War Remnants (which used to be the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes). Around the perimeter were old American tanks and helicopters, which looked surprisingly primitive. Inside, the highlight was an exhibition of war photos by photographers who’d been killed in the region, including Robert Capa, Sean Flynn and Larry Burrows.

It was breathtaking, and very moving. Some of the shots were famous, all were extraordinarily evocative. God, what a stupid and painful war. And Agent Orange? That was also not a good thing. I hadn’t known that there were also Agents Pink, Blue, White, Green and so on, with varying levels of carcinogenic chemicals. It makes the whole thing sound like the plot of a Quentin Tarantino movie, but not in a good way. Operation Ranch Hand, they called it. Sick, I call it.

Off for more banh mi shortly, then a big dinner at a temple to street foods. Then Phnom Penh tomorrow morning. I’ll be truly sad to leave this wonderful country.

 

Cambodia

Tuesday

The bus from Ho Chi Minh City takes hours. Once inside Cambodia, the shops mutate into dusty shacks, the dogs look thinner…

As I was typing that, a drunk Welshman appeared on my balcony and peered over my shoulder.

“That’s a very odd sentence,” he pronounced, peering owlishly at the screen. “Why are you writing that?”

I didn’t really have an answer.

Dawn was glorious from our balcony: the Mekong a sinuous sheet of burnished pewter in front of us. The bus to Siem Reap less enjoyable. A banh mi woman made me return my sandwich because of an infinitesimal tear on my $10 note, then I ripped my shirt on a van doorway, then realised I’d left my new suit back at the hotel. Still, the Cambodian countryside is as deafeningly green as ever, and the driving an exercise in controlled terror.

Siem Reap is flooded, the streets shin-deep in frowsy brown water. Shops are barricaded with sandbags: lightning flares across the distant sky. No one seems to care.

Thursday

Went to Doctor Feet this evening, one of hundreds of fish pedicure places (one advertises itself as having ’no piranhas’). A surprisingly pleasant experience, a bit like having pins and needles, as scores of little fishes apply themselves gnawingly to your extremities.

Saturday

Angkor is just as extraordinary as before. Bayon is, I think, my favourite. The great towers dark and craggy, rearing up to the sky. It takes a moment to notice the huge faces gazing serenely in all four directions, a faint smile playing across their lips. They have been here for 800 years, peacefully watching civilizations rise and fall, patient and knowing through hundreds of generations, unsleeping in the rain and the deep heat, bearing silent and unjudging witness in the jungle. It fills me with awareness of something profound, some deep emotional resonance. I’m not given to gushing about the magic qualities of places, but there is something here I can’t explain.

Sunday

The floods, which had almost disappeared, have returned with a vengeance, and crossing roads means being knee-deep in turbid brown water. Susan hates it; I don’t mind it: it’s quite warm, and if you don’t think too hard about overflowing cess pits and phlegm it’s not entirely unpleasant.

It is, however, unpleasant for the locals. Businesses are barricaded behind ranks of sandbags and their owners gaze disconsolately at cigarette packets bobbing blithely past their empty shops and restaurants. The tuk-tuks, up to their axles, plough like little tugs through the water, sending bow waves across the pavements: the flatness of the tarmac below means the waves travel long distances, and you can be standing quietly on a pavement minding your own business when a truck a hundred yards away sends a wave that tops your ankles, much to your surprise.

And amongst it all, the Cambodians continue to laugh and smile. Their extraordinary sangfroid and good humour is a lesson to us all. If this was England, there would be emergency airlifts, breathless TV news stories, and a government enquiry to discover who was responsible. We talked to an Australian couple this morning who employ about 100 locals in a couple of hotels. They mentioned that they have one woman, a cleaner, who walks a mile through neck-high water, then cycles 16 kilometres to get to work. She hasn’t missed a minute of work, let alone asked for a day off.

Thursday

We’re staying, in Phnom Penh, in what is basically a knocking shop. The bar in the lobby (both those nouns truly overstate what the hotel offers) is a place where white-haired 65-year-old London cabbie-types unashamedly discuss the finer points of bar-girl etiquette, and voice loud dissatisfaction when they feel shortchanged. The girls who sit with them in the bar are uniformly stunning: svelte and comely sloe-eyed houris in skin-tight jeans and leopard-print tops, ‘girls in parodies of fashion’, looking, to my practiced eye, bored out of their minds.

What is most shocking is the sense of entitlement the geezers, uniformly badly dressed and unattractive, seem to feel that their money gives them. Perhaps it does. This is sex at its transactional worst, and I don’t like it.

As I type this, a German man comes and sits at the next table, with a stunning Khmer woman. He is shaved bald, sweaty, and wears a brown short-sleeved shirt and ugly shorts: she is in an ankle-length dress, and looks like a million dollars. They exchange almost no words as he sucks down his beers. She cleans her toenails.

Friday

On the wide boulevard that hugs the river, we watch the evening draw on. A genuinely pleasant breeze glides off the river, and the lights from the opposite flank wink cheerfully.

At several points on the promenade, men assemble boom boxes, and play lively electropop at top volume. Locals gather in rows, and do dance-aerobics, backs to the gleaming river, facing the sluggish traffic. Hundreds of them, for no apparent reason, dancing in the gloaming. I watch, entranced, trying to make a metaphor out of it all, and failing miserably.

It is, however, joyful, uninhibited, unselfconscious, cheery and enormous fun. Old folk, off-duty bar girls, children, teenagers in baseball caps and hoodies: everyone seems to appreciate it. Susan joins in for a while, and declares it ‘a good workout’. I love it.

Saturday

Walking along the beach at Sihanoukville, under the starlight, is at times slightly odd. The water is as warm as the air, so you can’t tell if a wave has washed over your feet, until walking becomes more difficult, and you stumble. It is great.

Monday

We arrive in Kampot, which is a jewel. I seem to have an affinity for old colonial towns: perhaps everyone does. The mixture of faded grandeur and the Asian quotidian happening cheerfully amongst it is almost unbearably romantic.

Kampot is nestled between the sea and the Elephant Mountains, an old French possession, with huge boulevards and promenades along the sleepy river. The palm trees are the tallest structures; everything dozes gently in the steam and the heat.

Sun sets over the mountains, which apparently rise to 3,500 feet, and slowly disappear into gunsmoke blue, then grey, standing against the fuchsia of the sky.

Locals come to watch the sunset from the east bank of the river, which pleases me. A flotilla of fishing boats chug off for a night’s fishing, the gentle phut of moped engines and the symphony of crickets colours the air. I like Kampot. It is also home to Cambodia’s famous pepper, grown just outside town, which is awesome.

Tuesday

Susan, to a confused waitress: “So what’s in your banana pancake?”

Wednesday

Kampot is absurdly cool. Today we rented a moped and headed up into the Elephant Mountains, looking for the old French hill station of Bokor. The road rises quickly from the plain, and is almost brand new. It curves up and back on itself through the thick jungle, the air cooling by the minute. At the top, ragged curtains of cloud waft past, and the jungle is reduced to stunted bushes, rather like something Scottish. The hill station is bleak and grey and undergoing huge repairs; they are also building a vast casino. It breaks the heart.

On the way down, we spot something, like a shredded lorry tire or a length of rope, lying in the road. As we approach, one end of it starts to rise up from the tarmac. It is, of course, a king cobra, maybe a dozen feet long, which blows out its hood as we pass, perhaps three feet away. Susan has a minor fit of excitement, but as we turn to go back and take a closer look, it oils off into the undergrowth. Probably for the best.

Most of the way down I turn the engine off and we coast, surprisingly fast and almost completely silently, swooping through the hairpins and gliding down the straights towards the wide blue sea.

Thursday

We rent the bike again, and head off into the Kampot hinterland, chuntering up dirt roads, through rice paddies and sugarcane fields, past little stilted houses with a cow tethered outside, red and yellow flowers clustered around the doorways, chubby infants waving from the path. Farmers stop and cheerily show us their cabbages piled high and precariously strapped to bicycles. Gaggles of schoolchildren pass, waving and smiling and shouting ‘hello’. Quite magical.

Kep is also magical. Thickly forested hills run down to the sea where vast ruined mansions nestle. They are all French-built, in a Modernist style, with clean stark lines and planes. The Khmer Rouge era saw them trashed, and they have rotted in the heat ever since, although they were all claimed by army officers a few years back, and are worth large fortunes.

The sea at Kep is almost lake-like in its somnolence and paper-flatness. Sitting in the lovely Sailing Club, we watch a swimmer miles out, head distantly bobbing. Then, suddenly, she bursts out of the water, and we can see the water only reaches her knees. An oddly dislocating moment, a real-life optical illusion.

Our second Kep hotel looks straight out over Rabbit Island. I suggest that it might actually be named after the Jewish primate of nearby Siam, and really be called Rabbi Thailand. Susan doesn’t laugh. I fear she may be ill.

Our hotel is brand new – only half the rooms are inhabitable. There is a huge flat-screen TV, but closer investigation reveals it has no power cables or remote controls. “Television?” I ask the owner. “Oh, not yet,” she smiles back. Not an insurmountable loss, really.

Turns out I was right, and Susan is fearsomely, unhappily ill. Sunset not half so fun without her.

Monday

Back to Kampot. There is a festival to mark the king’s father’s birthday At the Durian Roundabout (most major road junctions are marked with statues which are easily recognisable to widely illiterate people; white horses, salt collectors, rhinos, mermaids) there is a show of Khmer dancing and singing, on a stage across one angle of the roundabout. Almost without exception, everyone on the crowd is on a moped. There must have been 500 mopeds. A good idea: you get something to sit on. Not a good idea when you want to leave, as everyone has to help you shuffle and manouvre the bike out of the mass of others. It takes an age.

Friday

At the Rainbow Lodge, in the Cardamom Mountains. We are woken, shortly before 0500hrs, by a frantic erratic banging on the roof of our bungalow. After it refuses to just go away, a bleary-eyed inspection reveals a pair of tokay geckos chasing each other exuberantly across the ceiling. Each is about 18 inches in length, and an eau-de-nil colour with electric blue stripes. You can’t be annoyed at a thing like that waking you up.

Saturday

The past few days have disappeared in a haze of happiness. Swimming in the broad, gentle river; gazing at the stunning green of the jungle foaming and tumbling down the hills into the water; watching geckos hunt on the ceiling and butterflies waft through the thick bushes; listening to the crickets work themselves into a frenzy.

Monday

Bangkok was a mess; sandbags everywhere, the stench of sewage heavy in the air, cars parked for miles on motorway flyovers to avoid the water, shops and restaurants running low on essential supplies, including, worryingly, beer. Thailand still seems a little charmless after Cambodia: our hotel is a couple of minutes walk from a 24-hour drive-through McDonalds. But it would be wrong to tell the Thais they shouldn’t have the fruits of modernity just because I don’t like it. But there are no McDonalds in Cambodia. One day there will be, I’m sure.

Sitting on the plane back to the UK now; we’ve been travelling for about 16 hours, and have another four or five to go. Missing Asia already, even before braving the Tube and Hammersmith on a November evening, and finding out what the would-be burglars did to our flat and dealing with the inevitable mound of post.

I’m not missing mosquito bites on my feet and ankles, and … er, I can’t think of much else. The blazing heat in the middle of the day, I suppose. Tiny hotel bars of soap the size of matchbooks.

Things I miss already include the tons of fruit, the beer, the sensationally friendly people of Cambodia, butterflies, the smells of cooking and flowers perfuming the air, Vietnamese food, shrines to household gods, amazingly cheap everything, a sense of optimism. I can’t wait to get back, and to start living.

 

 

 

 

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