Beauty and the Bombs – Nong Khiaw, Laos

 

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D: What’s wrong?

D leans the bicycles up against a fence and joins L at the start of the footpath.

P1050374L: I’ve been reading the signs.

D: I know – it looks fab. “Great panorama”. “360 degree viewpoint”. Can’t wait!

L: No. The other signs. “Dangerous.” “Unexploded bombs still in this area”. “One of the most bombed areas in Laos.”

D: Oh. Those signs.

L: Yes.

D: Right.

L: Yes.

D: Well come on then! It also says “Don’t get off the path.” So we won’t. We’ll be fine! He sets cheerfully off between the bamboo-fenced vegetable plots, and is soon out of sight behind a clump of banana trees.

***

P1050371They arrive in Nong Khiaw the previous day, after a four hour minibus ride on quiet, mostly good roads sprinkled with a few potholes of the size that you drive into, and then out of again. The little village straddles the Nam Ou River and the scenery is so magnificent that they just want to choke and fall over.

L: It’s too much. I can’t cope. I can’t fit it all into my eyes!

They walk along the riverbank to find their hotel. They have decided to splash out on the best place in town, at a whopping USD$50/night, and have nervously paid in advance. At the Nong Khiaw Riverside they are given glasses of iced lemongrass & ginger tea, and a room key. L opens the door to their room.P1050289

L: Holy moly!

D: What? Is it awful?

L: it’s another basket. D’you think you can you bear it?

Their bungalow stands on stilts on the riverbank. The walls and ceiling are of woven leaf matting, and the floor is of wood. The room is stylishly decorated, has a four poster bed and smells sweetly of straw. A huge set of French doors fills one wall and leads to a wooden balcony looking over the river. Opposite, a mountain juts out of the water and straight up to touch the sky 1100 metres above.   It is awesomely beautiful.

P1050294D: I think I can bear it.

They spend the rest of the day on the balcony. D studies the guidebook while L gawps and takes photos of the view.

D: What shall we do?

L: (not listening) Astonishing. Smile please.

D: We could kayak.

L: (not listening) So gorgeous. Actually, don’t smile.

D: Or go for a bike ride.

L: (not listening) Just fantastic.   Maybe you look better from the back.

D: Or a walk.

L: (not listening) Extraordinary. Or not in the photo at all.

***

P1050313The narrow path climbs steeply through the forest, ducking under madly spiralling vines. They manage not to step on any bombs. At the top, they are in thick cloud, swirling around them. There is nothing whatsoever to see.

L: Oh no.

D: Just wait.

L: All this way up….

D: Just wait.

They wait, resting in the bamboo shelter perched on top of the mountain.

D: About the bombs.

L: Yes.

D: You’ve been Googling.

L: I have.

D: So who were Laos at war with when the bombs were dropped?

L: Nobody really. It was during the Vietnam War, in which officially Laos was neutral.

P1050320D: Officially?

L: Well, some of them were helping out a bit.

D: Who were they helping?

L: The CIA. Is the cloud clearing yet?

D: What? No. Did you say CIA?

L: Yup. Hold on a minute. What d’you know about the Vietnam War?

D: Blimey. In a nutshell? Here goes. Vietnam. Long thin country, running north to south. Line across the middle. North of the line is North Vietnam, which is communist. South of the line is South Vietnam which is not communist and is supported by the US. North Vietnam want to take South Vietnam and turn it communist. The US want very badly to stop them so that communism doesn’t spread.

L: Right. So the communist North Vietnamese had a network of vital supply routes through the jungle known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. To move their equipment and soldiers down south to fight the Americans and South Vietnamese.

D: I’ve heard of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

L: Well, a lot of the Trail was actually over the border, in Laos, and not in Vietnam at all. The US was keen to shut it down, and they asked Laos for help. So local people living in the mountains near the border were trained up by the CIA to help the Americans disrupt movement along the Ho Chi Minh trail, rescue any US airmen shot down, and protect an important radar base.

P1050422D: OK. But who dropped all the bombs on Laos?

L: The Americans. Any gaps in the cloud?

D: Not yet. What d’you mean, the Americans? You’ve just said Laos was helping them!

L: I know, but the US were freaking out about the potential spread of communism. They did everything they could to stop it, including bombing the hell out of both the Ho Chi Minh Trail and anywhere else in Laos they thought might have a communist in it. It was supposed to be a secret, because of Laos being a neutral country. It’s known as the Secret War.

D: When was this?

L: 1964-73. The US dropped over 2 million tonnes of bombs. Equivalent to a planeload every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. Making Laos the most heavily bombed country in history.

D: God Almighty! Or Buddha.

L: Quite.

D: It must have been the world’s worst kept secret. There are gaps though.

L: In my facts?

D: Undoubtedly. But also in the cloud.

P1050339The sun is melting the white layers into wisps to reveal the vivid blue sky behind.   The signs were right – they have 360 degree views of the most bombed, and surely one of the most beautiful, countries in the world. There is space all around them, into which they feel they could fly. On every horizon lush green mountain ridges jut and soar, cut through by fertile valleys, rice paddies, and the lazy curves of the coffee-coloured Nam Ou River, laid out below their feet.

L tries to speak, but nothing comes out.

L: I’ve got no superlatives left. I used them all up yesterday.

D doesn’t need words. Just looking is making his soul sing.

***

On the way back down they are equally careful not to step off the path.P1050372

L: Apparently 30% of the bombs didn’t explode. That’s 80 million bombs. Even now people get killed by them every year. And it stops them being able to farm their land safely. Something like 25% of villages in Laos are still unsafe.

D: Are they being cleared up?

L: Yes, but it’s the most unimaginably enormous task. The US have spent over $100 million in Laos over the last 20 years on unexploded ordnance (UXO) clearance, and there are a bunch of agencies and local teams out here doing nothing else, but it barely scratches the surface. Hold on, I’ve got a quote somewhere.

She stops, and taps her phone.

L: Here. So, Obama has just pledged another $90 million for UXO clearance over the next 3 years.  But even that’s not nearly enough. A Mines Advisory Group director reacted to the news by saying: “Before the President’s announcement I feared that the UXO operation in Laos would take hundreds of years. Now I am optimistic this can be reduced to decades.”

D: Decades.

L: Decades.

***

They cycle on out into the countryside.

L: You find it. I’ll tell you about it.

D stops on a corner and wheels his bike onto the gravel verge.

P1050417D: We’re here. Tham Pha Thok.

L: Where? I can’t see it.

D: I think that’s sort of the point.

He leads the way across a stream and through a meadow, heading straight for a rocky mountain rising sheer out of the flat valley.

D: There.

L: No. Can’t see a thing.

D: You’re not looking at it properly.

They are approached by three small boys, who take charge. In impressive English they introduce themselves as Lee, Bia and Guan and announce that they are 10 years old. Lee has a head torch. He leads the way up a steep flight of stairs and into a large cave, 30 metres above the ground. It consists of a wide gallery stretching back several hundred metres, with smaller caverns opening off it, several of them striped with natural light chinking in from fissures in the cliff-side.

P1050393L: This was lived in by villagers, and also by a lot of the provincial government, during all those years of bombing. You can almost imagine it, can’t you? It’s a good safe spot – completely invisible from the outside, and close to a stream.

The boys head deeper in and illuminate various pitch-black room-sized dug-outs to the sides. One area is labelled “Governor”, and another “Provisional Government Chairman”.

D: Tricky place to have an office.

Lee, Bia and Guan scamper back down the steps, but their tour isn’t over. They are beckoned around the foot of the cliff on a tiny overgrown path. They reach the entrance to another, much smaller cave, and clamber between boulders, squeezing through a crack in the rocks.   They look around the small space.P1050410

L: Blimey. This was where the region’s main bank was based. For six years!

Before they leave, D takes on the role of banker, and reaches into his wallet to pay the diminutive guides. He pulls out a note and starts to hand it over. The boys’ eyes light up.

D: Hang on, that’s got too many noughts on it!

It disappears swiftly back into his wallet, and is replaced by three more, each with one less zero. One for each boy. They stare at him solemnly for quite some time, waiting for the larger note to reappear. It doesn’t. They shrug their shoulders and dart away down the footpath into the woods.

***

The village school is putting on a Cultural Evening. They cycle there at dusk, and are earnestly led around the back of the school building to a stage area by several boys in traditional dress. Half a dozen performances are introduced by two tiny people, one girl and one boy. They take turns. One reads a long introduction in Lao from the laminated sheet they are clutching. The other then frowns and studies the sheet carefully before announcing in English “And now a song. Please enjoy.” It seems that whatever the Lao description of the different performances might be, the English translation is the same. Each time, the foreign audience wait eagerly to be told what is coming. “And now a song. Please enjoy.”P1050501

The performances are in fact dances, not songs.   The children are wearing traditional clothing representing different ethnic groups.   Sometimes a group of girls will dance, and sometimes they dance in boy-girl pairs, which makes them all giggle and blush. Their bare feet pat softly on the floor and they hold themselves gracefully upright. Most of the dancing is done by their hands, twisting at the wrist, palm up, palm down. It is beautifully elegant, dignified and poised.

***

The Nam Ou River and surrounding scenery is even more spectacular from a kayak. The water is smooth and slow-flowing. Their guide is called Big. As they paddle gently down the river, side by side, he tells them he used to be a monk.P1050487

L: Gosh – how long for?

Big: 6 years. From 12 to 18. They put me through secondary school. It’s a good education. But it’s not a life for me.

L: No?

Big: No. One day I met a friend in the street. He was wearing a fine suit. So I stopped being a monk.

L: Because of the suit?

Big: Of course! So that I too could enjoy clothes and music and food and girls.  At college.

He tells us that his family come from a hill village four hours from here.

Big: It is very remote. My village only got electricity last year.

He points towards the sandy shore. Vegetables grow in neat rows on the banks and several small boats are moored up. Glimpsed through the trees there are houses with woven-leaf walls and palm-thatch roofs. Big explains aspects of village life.

P1050443Big: See? This village too, has got electricity now. Just last year. Like my village.

Big: The firewood there stacked up. Used for cooking.

Big: Rice mats. All the rice is laid out to dry in the sun. Before the husks come off.

Big: They keep bees, for honey. In those hollowed out tree trunks on the side of that house. See?

Big: The water point. All the village get their water from this place. For washing, for laundry, for cooking, for drinking.

L: And for toilets?

Big laughs.

Big: No. For that they have the forest.

They drift on downstream into the setting sun. Water buffalo bask on the banks and wallow in the shallows. A family drive their cattle and pigs to down to the shore to drink in the cool of the late afternoon. Three teenage girls run down a beach and into the water, whooping and splashing, ducking like dolphins, fully clothed. The sun drops lower. The river glitters silver. The mountains line up in layers, from greys to blues to black.

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Listening to the Rice Grow, Luang Prabang, Laos

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L: “The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians tend the rice, and the Lao listen to it grow.” According to a Frenchman. According to the guide book.

D: Beautiful. How does that answer my question?

L: You asked what Laos is like. That’s your answer. It’s really laid back. Avoiding stress is a national past-time.

D looks out of the plane window at the unending ridges of forested mountains below, ribboned with occasional silvery rivers and orange dirt tracks.

D: it’s all so empty. Where are all the houses and towns and things?

L: There aren’t very many. It’s about the same size as the UK but only has 10% of the people.

D ponders this.

D: Wait a minute. What have the French got to do with it?

L: They were in charge for a bit. They went home in the 1950s, leaving behind some nice buildings and the recipe for a decent baguette.

***

Their arrival at Luang Prabang airport is, predictably, stress free. They drift calmly through the visa queue and out to an efficient booth organising taxis at reasonable prices. D spots a cashpoint in the small terminal building. He returns, looking very pleased with himself.

D: (whispering) I’m a millionaire!

P1040930Twenty minutes later, they are stepping out of their flip-flops at the foot of the stairs leading to the Mekong Charm Guesthouse.   They are welcomed warmly with watermelon juice, then led barefoot across squeaky varnished wood flooring to their first-floor room – a gleaming dark-wood box with windows on two sides and a balcony.

L: It’s charming! And we can see the Mekong!

D: Don’t sound so surprised. Surely the clue’s in the name.

L: Of course, but you never know how much artistic licence has been sprinkled on a name.

P1040911They are here for 4 nights and love everything about it. The bed is huge and comfortable, the room so eccentrically dark they find clothes from the wardrobe with a torch, and the shower, with luxury shower head, tremendous pressure and masses of hot water, is designed to wash the entire bathroom floor before draining in the opposite corner, under the sink.

They sit on their balcony in the golden light of the afternoon sun with cans of Beer Lao. The temperature is perfect, somewhere in the mid 20s. Just across the road, beyond the palm trees, the Mekong River slips by silently, fast-moving and coffee-coloured.

L: (tapping her phone) It’s one of the great rivers of the world. 12th largest, it says here. Feeds millions of people, not just in Laos but from China to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

D: Must be quite useful for transportation too, especially here where the roads are famously bad. Let’s do a boat trip.

They watch a long narrow passenger boat careening sideways down the river, battling the current as it struggles to turn around.

L: (doubtfully) Let’s.

***

P1040988Luang Prabang is seriously low key. There are no high rise buildings – from above, the French colonial architecture seems to just melt back into the surrounding jungle. There are lots of tourists, of the quiet, earnest sort.

L: I keep thinking I recognise people. They all look as though they could be friends of our parents.

D: I know just what you mean.

Much of the town is stretched along a tongue of land between two rivers – the Mekong on one side and the smaller Nam Khan on the other. After dark, the riverside streets are peaceful and empty of vehicles. This is when Sisavangvong Road comes gently to life. P1040992Running down the centre of the tongue, it has restaurants and shops and every evening a huge outdoor market selling brightly coloured textiles, crafts and good quality souvenirs. Further on there is street food – aromatic grilled meats seasoned with lemongrass, freshly pressed fruit juices and smoothies, and melt-in-the-mouth coconut pancakes served in little boats of banana-leaves. People stroll, chat, shop and eat. There is no traffic and no loud music.

***

D: Oh God. More wats?

L: Oh Buddha.

D: What?

L: Oh Buddha. Not God.

D: Whatever.

L: One wat.

D: One what?

L: One wat. We’ll just visit one wat. You’ll love it.

They set off, watching a group of orange-robed monks pass by. They are a common sight in the streets of Luang Prabang.

D: Don’t touch one.

L: Don’t be weird! I wasn’t going to touch one!

D: I’m just saying. Don’t. it’s not allowed.

L: People aren’t allowed to touch monks?

D: Women. Women aren’t allowed to touch monks.

L: Right. I’ll bear that in mind. Thanks for that. Really.

D: They collect alms at dawn. People give them rice and vegetables. Not money. It’s how they survive. I saw them on my run this morning. Look though – some of them are just kids.

L: Most Lao boys become a Buddhist monk for a time, I think. Often it’s the only affordable way for them to get a decent education. Of course, even in the monasteries the government makes sure everything’s taught to proper Marxist principles.  P1050075

D: What?

L: It’s communist. Laos, I mean.

D: It doesn’t feel very communist, does it?

L: I don’t know what communist should feel like. But it’s been that way since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Same time as Cambodia and Vietnam. I’ve just been reading about it. I’m a political encyclopaedia. Ask me anything. But you’d better be quick – I’ll have forgotten it all again by tomorrow.

D: Is communism working here?

L: I gather they’ve eased up a lot since the beginning. To start with, to get everything under control, they quickly restricted freedom of speech and group gatherings and nationalised the economy. People who weren’t on board were sent to “re-education camps” where conditions were really hard. Lots of people who didn’t want to live under communist rule fled the country – about 10% of the population in total. Including pretty much all of the educated classes.

D: If there was no-one left with an education, wasn’t that a bit of a setback for the country’s development?

L: Yes. And the sums didn’t add up. So 4 years later, people were allowed to start farming their own land again, instead of just working for government cooperatives. And private enterprise was permitted.

P1050101D: Did things pick up?

L: Not enough. But in the mid 80s they took a leaf out of China’s book, opening up the economy to the rest of the world, but still keeping a tight hold on political power.

D: So still a one party dictatorship?

L: Yes, but now with inward foreign investment. China has come in and built roads, dams, and plantations to grow food and timber to take home. But Laos is still really poor. Something like three quarters of the population are subsistence farmers surviving on about $2 a day. The country’s still heavily dependent on foreign aid.

***

Wat Xieng Thong has beautiful tiered roofs sweeping close to the ground, and gigantic green-jewelled glass lotus buds each side of the entrance steps. They walk straight past.

L: We’ll start with the garage.

They stop in front of a smaller temple clad entirely in gold. Elaborate decorations and scenes are worked into the façade. They shade their eyes, dazzled by the glare of the sun bouncing off the glittering surface.

L: Behold. The garage.

Inside it is just as ornate. The red walls are covered in technicolour mirror-shard mosaics, and a platoon of slender Buddhas stand to attention at the back of the room. L is entranced.

P1040951D: Never mind all that. What on earth is this?

The rest of the temple is filled with a golden chariot. Seven golden nagas rear up, waving bright red tongues. Behind them on the carriage are several towering golden urns.

L: They’re funeral urns. For Lao royalty.

D: Are there any?

L: Any what?

D: Any royalty.

L: Not any more. Royalty and communism aren’t much of a natural match.

D: No. I see that.

L: When the Marxist government took over in ’75, they arrested the royal family.

D: Oh.

L: But then they were worried that the royals would escape from house arrest and lead a resistance.

D: Right.

L: So the king, queen and crown prince were sent off to re-education camps where they worked in the fields. Until they eventually died. Probably of malnutrition or malaria. Nobody much knows.

D: That seems like an ignominious end to an era.

L: I don’t know what that means. But probably.

D: How long had there been an established Lao royal family – until then?

L:   650 years.

P1040968They wander through the grounds. Several of the smaller temples, and the rear wall of the main temple, are decorated with more mosaic scenes of vivid coloured glass.   There are armies and elephants, temples and trees, owls and peacocks. The designs are both simple and complex and all of them beautiful.

The following day they find more of these stunning coloured glass mosaics in the public rooms of the Royal Palace, in stark contrast to the adjoining austere private quarters of the last royal family, also on display, and in use until their arrest.

***

They do the done thing. Phu Si is a stand-alone hummock a hundred metres high, right in the middle of town. It’s a must at sunset. They start in good time, climbing the 329 steps to the top. Plenty of others have the same idea. Women are selling tiny birds in tiny cages – one bird to a cage.

L: Poor things. To eat?

D: To set free at the top.

On the summit is a small temple and a concrete platform from which to admire the views. And approximately 500 people. It is so crammed that they literally cannot move. A forest of selfie-sticks sprouts above the crowd. Of all those here for the sunset, 90% cannot see a thing.

D: Bloody hell! Retreat! Retreat!

He squeezes a sweaty path through to the steps on the other side of the platform, and they make their escape back down. During the descent they pass several hundred more people going up.

P1050166There is still time. A rickety bamboo footbridge bridge crosses the river from the tip of the town’s tongue to the overgrown bank beyond. This is the mouth of the Nam Khan, where it joins the mighty Mekong. On the far side there is no-one, apart from a woman sitting on a bamboo platform. Beside her, miraculously, is a cool-box.

D: Sabaidee. Two Beer Lao please.

They take the cans to the smooth rocks jutting out into the mouth of the river. Downstream the evening sun is glinting off the river. On the spit of sand opposite, kids skim stones and a couple are posing for wedding photos. Half a dozen long narrow passenger boats are dawdling out on the Mekong, full of camera-poised passengers, waiting for sunset.  The water turns golden, the land turns black. It couldn’t be any more lovely.

***

At breakfast, D gets up and crosses the room to get more coffee.

They are told that the fresh pineapple juice is off the menu. There has been a power cut.

D starts looking uncomfortable. Eventually he speaks.

D: (whispering) I think it was me.

L: What was you?

D: (whispering) Shush! Me that broke the electricity.

L: How was it you?

D: (whispering) I lifted the lid on the coffee machine.

***

P1050019They find a boatman to take them across the Mekong and upstream a little way. The sloping river banks are neatly planted with lush green vegetable gardens.

D: All these plots are seasonal. In a few months’ time they’ll be underwater.

L: Does the river level really change that much?

D: Apparently it can rise 10 metres or more during the rainy season. And when it falls again, it leaves behind this amazingly rich silt. Great for growing stuff.

The boatman picks a cautious route to the far shore, avoiding the constantly shifting mudbanks. They disembark and climb to the top of a flight of rough steps.

D: You said one!

L: I said one what?

D: Precisely.

L: One what?

D: Yes, one wat. Which we saw yesterday. This is another one.

L: This one’s only tiny. It hardly counts. It’s got pictures in.

P1050031In a clearing is a garden, pretty with bougainvillea, in which stands a small plain temple and a couple of cottages. Orange robes hang drying from windowsills. Under a tree, two young monks are playing with a puppy. Inside the temple they find the uneven walls painted with dramatic scenes: a great gale, a fierce battle, and a desperate shipwreck complete with sharks.

As they are leaving, two small children approach, carrying torches. They lead the way along a track in the woods, up a steep flight of stone steps, and into a cave.   Here they helpfully wave their torches at a Buddha shrine, a stalactite, and what might or might not be a bat. D duly thanks them and pays them for their guiding service. They take the money and look at him, disappointed. L adds a boiled sweet each to their takings and they grin happily and scamper off.

Further along the woodland trail they come across another long flight of steps. At the top two crumbling stupas pierce the skyline, and beyond is another rural temple, a garden, a cottage, and wonderful views of the Mekong below. Monks are busy building something – an extension perhaps, guided by a skeletally thin old man. A middle-aged man sits in front of the temple speaking to a tourist seeking words of wisdom.

Tourist: So, tell me, how long have you been a monk?

Monk: Ten days. I’m just taking a few weeks away from my business.

P1050072The trail becomes wider and turns concrete as they enter the village of Ban Xieng Maen. Bamboo, wood and palm leaf dwellings line the track, single rooms with corrugated iron roofs and satellite dishes. Chickens scratch in the dust, dogs roam busily and cheerful children wave in greeting.

L: (waving) Sabaidee!

Children: Sabaidee! Hello falang!

The village has a smart well-funded temple, several small shops and, at the far end, where the road again widens but returns to beaten earth, a food market. Fruit and vegetables are displayed under ramshackle shelters, and dishes are being freshly cooked on barbecues and in large cauldrons.

P1050078The road descends to the river where a ferry is arriving. Two tuk-tuk drivers are waiting for customers, dozing in hammocks slung in the back. The rusty twin-hulled barge reaches the shore. It has ramps protruding each side like wings.  An SUV and cluster of mopeds rattle over the ramp and off, and another cluster rattle on. Garden chairs and benches are set around the edges and at each prow is a small shrine, with a food offering wrapped in banana leaves and marigolds.

D: Stop staring! He’s half your age!

L can’t take her eyes off the skipper.

L: It’s not him. It’s his hat. He’s got the most beautiful hat.

D: I’m not looking. We can’t both stare. You stop looking so that I can. We’ll take it in turns.

D takes a look at the young man in a burgundy woollen hat with knitted brim and large sequinned flower.

D: OK, you’re right. It is a splendid hat.

***

Ock Pop Tok produces some of Laos’s most beautiful silk-woven textiles. Their Living Crafts Centre in Luang Prabang is also a perfect spot for lunch by the river. Within the grounds they run weaving courses and explain the process from start to finish.

P1050107L: Did you know the silkworm makes a cocoon from one continuous line of silk thread, so it can turn itself into a moth?

D: I did not.

L: Or that the silk gets boiled to make it soft?

D: Nope.

L: Or that the most amazingly vivid colours can be made with natural dyes using stuff like leaves, bark, roots, rocks and rusty nails?

D: Not even.

L: Or that indigo dye is sort of alive – with bacteria I think – and you need to put chillis on the lid to keep the spirits from coming and spoiling it?

D: I need my lunch now.

***

Dinner at Tamarind Restaurant, Luang Prabang:

  • Dried bamboo nibbles
  • Lao-lao rice whisky flavoured with tamarind, honey and lime
  • Pumpkin and mushroom soup with mint and lemongrass
  • Lao herby sausages
  • Dried crispy buffalo skin
  • Dried crispy river weed with sesame seeds
  • Sticky rice to roll into little balls in your fingers and dip into sauces of tomato, chilli and smoked aubergineP1050180
  • Stir fried green pumpkin
  • Chicken wrapped in lemongrass with peanut sauce
  • Fish wrapped in banana leaf, stewed with herbs and chilli
  • Sweet purple sticky rice with tamarind sauce and fresh coconut shavings
  • “Cat poo” cookies – sweet, deep fried and caramelised
  • Lao coffee, black with layer of sweet condensed milk at the bottom of the glass
  • Location by Riverbank
  • Sound-track by Frogs
  • Lighting by Moon

Enough said.

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Two Mountains – Northern Thailand

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D&L have a craving. They need to get high.

At 2565 metres, Doi Inthanon is Thailand’s tallest mountain, and has a road leading right to the top. Its wooded flanks form a National Park with some impressive waterfalls and good swimming spots along the way. P1040634Near the summit are a pair of modern temples set amongst immaculately tended gardens and dedicated to the King and Queen. It is popular with locals, and on a sunny Saturday there are lots of visitors, flocking here from Chiang Mai to enjoy the views and the cool air. At the top it is a mere 17 degrees, and Thais are bundled up in thick jackets, scarves and hats.

They follow a concrete path a short distance from the car park to a large wooden sign proclaiming that they have arrived at the Highest Spot in Thailand.P1040637

L: Quick, take a photo.

D: This is all wrong. I’m not happy.

L: What’s the matter?

D:  We’re not properly at the top.   The slope carries on rising behind the sign. And the path goes up two steps just over there!

He stomps off, unconvinced, and stops 50 metres further on, at a wooden walkway from which the ground drops slightly in all directions. He nods seriously, satisfied.

D: THIS is the Highest Spot in Thailand. Take a photo.

***

P1040706They drive north, to Chiang Dao, searching for a “proper” mountain. One without a car park on top. Chiang Dao’s mountain, Doi Luang, is rocky and steep with great scenery and varied vegetation. At 2175 metres it is Thailand’s third highest summit, and apparently the country’s best mountain hike. Most people do it in two days, camping for a night just below the summit. But there is only a small weather window – one day of sunshine – before the rains promise to return.

L: Can we really do it all in one day?

D: 1100 metres up, and the same down again. 15 kilometres. Piece of cake. As long as we start early.

L: But I’ve hardly done more than climb the stairs in a year. What if I don’t make it?

D: You’ll make it.

L: You can’t just leave me behind on the mountain. There are tigers. And cobras.

D: Really, you’ll make it.

They arrive in the village late afternoon, and head to the park office to get their permits. They find the office open, and walk in.

Woman: We’re closed.

D: But can we just….

Woman: We’re closed. Come back tomorrow. 8 o’clock.

L: (muttering) So much for starting early. I’ll never make it. We’ll be benighted. With the tigers.

D: Don’t worry, I know where the walk starts. We’ll take a quick look this evening and see if we can get in on our own. If so, we can start really early tomorrow.

They drive to the edge of the village. From here a small road winds up to a pass at 1100 metres. The walk starts from the pass, while the road continues down into the next valley and beyond, towards the Myanmar border.   They are stopped by a park guard at a road barrier. Local through traffic is waved on, tourists heading up the mountain are not.

Guard: Where are you going?

D: (who can’t tell lies) Just…..on…..

The guard takes a close look at them. They are clearly going up and not passing through.

Guard: It’s closed.

D: But the road….?

Guard: Go back to the park office. Tomorrow 8 o’clock.

L: (muttering)   Benighted. With the cobras.

***

P1040711They return to their room, appropriately known as The Nest. Their little bamboo cabin is tucked into the undergrowth at the far corner of a lush garden. It is charming and smells of damp straw.

D: We’re sleeping in a basket.

As darkness falls, the crickets start up, and the soaring outline of the mountain stands silhouetted against an indigo sky. It is very peaceful and utterly beautiful. They head to the Nest’s excellent restaurant for dinner and order Thai red curry.

Waitress: Mild, farang (foreigner), or hot?

The couple behind them have just confidently ordered a farang-strength dish but they err on the side of caution and opt for mild. It arrives. They tuck in. It is delicious. But sweat beads on their foreheads. Chilli sears their mouths and throats. Their noses start to run.

D: My eyes! Even my eyes are burning.

***

The following morning at the park office they spot another couple of about their age. They have a day pack. The woman is wearing sandals.

D: Ha ha! She can’t be walking up the mountain in those!

L: Don’t be silly. She’ll change in a minute.

While L fills in a form, D practices his social skills.

D: Ha ha! Great walking shoes!

The woman smiles at him frostily and continues her conversation in Dutch.

They explain to the park official that they want to do the walk in one day.

D: And we don’t need the transport up to the pass. We have our own car.

Official: You must have the transport.

D: And we don’t need a guide.

Official: You must have a guide.

Everyone stands there, looking a bit cross. The Dutch couple look at their watches. They already have their paperwork, having booked and paid the day before.

Official: You can go with them. They have a guide.

It is clear that no-one is delighted by this arrangement. The Dutch pair are not expecting to join other people. However what they all have in common is that they want to get started. D quickly gives them half of the guide and transport fees and everyone cheers up.

L: I expect they’re worried about being stranded up there after dark too. With the tigers and the cobras.

D: I’m sure they are.

Chai arrives and introduces himself as their guide. He bundles the four of them into the open back of an SUV and they head off up to the pass. The woman is still wearing sandals, the thin straps decorated with little sparkly studs. She sees L staring.

Woman: (defensively) They’re walking sandals.

At the pass, L & D carefully adjust their telescopic walking poles. Chai offers a bamboo stick to the other two, and sets off at a quick march. Louie and Sandals charge after him. To her dismay, despite her sensible footwear, L can hardly keep up.   Fortunately they soon reach a long, steep, muddy climb, and Sandals adjusts her speed.P1040721

Sandals: I’m sorry I’m so slow.

She picks her way sure-footedly up the incline in her crisp cream chinos, golden drop earrings swinging.

L: (red faced and puffing) Thank goodness – I can’t walk any faster!

A kilometre or so later, the steep mud gives way to a lush valley undulating gently upwards, with thickly forested slopes and rocky cliffs rising to each side.   They pass through swathes of elephant grass towering over their heads, an abandoned banana grove, a forest of giant bamboo, patches of jungle, clearings and around great moss-covered limestone boulders. They feel as though they have been shrunk to the size of insects as they make their way through the ever-changing super-sized scenery.

They are the first hikers heading up that day, ahead of any others, but are soon overtaken by porters skipping up the mountain in flip-flops, bent double under enormous weights of drinking water and food for those planning to camp. They encounter 30-40 hikers coming down, in dribs and drabs, all of them young Thais, and none accompanied by guides.

Chai is also wearing flip-flops.

Chai: Easier than shoes.

L: Yes, but you’re a mountain man!

Chai: Yes – a mountain man!   But only sometimes.

P1040731As his wiry frame treads nimbly up the uneven path he tells them that he only guides hikes when he can be spared from his father’s farm. The two of them work the land entirely by hand, except for ploughing, producing 5 crops a year – 2 of rice and 3 of carrots and cauliflower. They sell their produce not only locally but also in Chiang Mai and sometimes even in Bangkok.

L: So, really, you’re a farmer.

Chai: (scowling) No, no, I don’t like farming.

L: Oh.

Chai spreads his arms wide and grins hugely.

Chai: I’m a fisherman! Freedom!

He explains that his real love is line-fishing and the sea. During the hot season, he heads down to Krabi where he has a traditional longtail boat, and goes to sea alone for several days at a time. He says he once caught a 72kg fish which he sold for 60,000 bhat. L works it out. GBP £1,500 goes a long way in this part of the world.

Below the summit they arrive at a sloping open area of tall coarse grass, where tents have been pitched for the season on the flattest patches across the hillside. They stop for lunch and Chai unrolls a bamboo mat for them all to sit on. They gratefully take off their shoes and dig out their packaged snacks while Chai unwraps slices of black pudding, and tasty-looking pieces of cooked chicken, pork and beef, which he scoops up in lettuce leaves and eats with his fingers. L frets silently because Sandals is sitting with her bare feet, which are now understandably pretty grubby, pointing at Chai and his lunch. L has read that this is disrespectful in Thai culture and checks that her own, and D’s, feet are suitably positioned not to cause offence. She fidgets and tries to share her concerns with D, telepathically, with the aid of facial expressions and blinking.

L: ……!

D:……?

L:……..!!!

D:…….? Have you got hiccups? Here. Drink some water.

L:……..!

Chai seems to take no notice and munches happily.

After lunch, there is a final half hour to the top – a steep rocky scramble. Louie gets summit fever and charges ahead. Eventually they join him.P1040763

Louie: Great, isn’t it?

The top is enveloped in cloud.

D: Great!

Sandals: Super!

L: (muttering) Why are we all pretending? We’ve struggled all the way up here and can’t see a thing!

D: (muttering) Just smile. Don’t spoil it. Be nice.

Sandals: And we are so lucky to have the place to ourselves!

L: (muttering) Hardly surprising – there’s nothing….oww!

D has inadvertently stepped on her foot. And apparently not noticed. He remains standing on it. Quite firmly.

They stay up there for half an hour or so, Chai dozing, three of them relaxing and chatting, and L darting from one side of the summit to the other, trying in vain to capture brief tantalising glimpses of long reaching views and valleys far below, as the cloud around them swirls and shifts.P1040764

On their descent, they pass clumps of cheerful Thai youth coming up to camp overnight. Then they come across a Thai boy aged about 20, sitting on a rock, all alone, with one bare bandaged foot and a pale face tense with pain. Chai stops to speak to him. They learn that he has re-twisted an existing injury and that his friends have all carried on up to the camp.

He begins to weep silently. He has however had a fortunate encounter. Louie is a physiotherapist and crouches down to examine the foot. D is carrying a first aid kit – undoubtedly the only one on the mountain – and dispenses an elastic bandage and anti-inflammatory painkillers. Louie gently and expertly bandages the foot. They all inspect his handiwork, and watch as the toes turn blue.

L: Err…. is that normal?

Louie speaks firmly to the boy.

Louie: It’s only for walking. When you get up to the camp, take all the bandages off and elevate your foot. And rest.

They reluctantly leave him to hobble painfully upwards, while they head on down. L is furious.

L: Well, it’s clear that only farangs are made to pay for a guide for this walk. I don’t care about that. I’m glad we’ve got a guide. But seeing as that poor boy doesn’t have one, I can’t believe his friends left him there, all on his own!

D: You’ve gone all shouty. And squeaky.

L: Sorry.

Chai shrugs his shoulders dismissively.

Chai: Bangkok. They come from Bangkok. That’s what they’re like.

He tells them he was once in Bangkok, and hungry, with only 25 bhat (GBP £0.70) in his pocket. All the street meals cost 30 bhat. He asked time and again at the food stalls if he could buy a meal for 25 bhat – a smaller portion, or without the meat perhaps, but was turned away.

Chai: No! They all said no. In Chiang Mai, if you are hungry or others are hungry, you share food and make new friends!P1040774

The last kilometre back down the steep slippery mud slope is hard work and very slow. Sandals skids and sits down. D does the same. Louie gets base fever and strides ahead. They find him lounging in the back of the SUV, dreaming of beer. On the drive home, all congratulations go to Sandals and her sandals, for a remarkable achievement. She looks quietly pleased and admits she’s probably walked quite far enough for one day.

***

The following morning the rain sets in before breakfast. The mountain disappears into cloud and curtains of water pour off the roof of their little basket cabin. They snuggle down in bed, grateful not to be in a tent up the hill.

Deep inside the mountain, and accessed from the village, they visit Chiang Dao Cave. Inside it is warm and dry.   A series of Buddha shrines mark their progress as they wander through the tunnels. Branching off the lit route are numerous dark passages. There are signs warning people not to explore on their own in case they never make it back out. D is tempted. L is not.

Sitting next to a golden Buddha they come across a tiny woman clutching a gas lantern. With hand signals she offers to guide them, and gestures into an ominous-looking black tunnel. D is keen. L is not. P1040804She lights the lamp and dives into the dark. They follow the glow of the lantern into a series of huge caverns and past weird-shaped rock formations, punctuated with her little cries of “slippery!” and “watch your head!”. Every cavern seemingly has multiple tunnels leading to and from it. It’s a real maze. They come to a halt and she waves her lantern at a small hole in the wall, less than a metre square. She smiles. L smiles back and shares the joke, agreeing.

L: Ha ha! No – I don’t think we want to go through there!

D: Actually, I think we’re going through there.

L: Oh.

The tiny guide is half D’s size, tucks herself neatly into the hole and disappears out of sight. With the lantern. D & L stand in the cavern which is now getting rather dark.

L: Crap! Well, follow her then! Or we’ll never find our way out. We’ll just stumble around in the dark till we die.

D: But I’m not even sure I’ll fit. Here – take the day pack.

He passes the rucksack to L and squeezes into the hole. L follows, hot on his heels. They wriggle through several tight spaces, folding themselves double and sideways, until they are reunited with the lantern and its owner in a larger open cavern, grinning from ear to ear from their mini-adventure. The journey continues through several more caverns and down a steep set of steps before rejoining an electric-lit tunnel, where they are free to wander once more on their own. They discover further shrines and admire stalactites lit in pink and blue.

L: That’s better. I think I like my caves nicely lit in multi-colours.

D: How can you say that! Dark is best.

They pass more black apertures and more signs warning of the dire dangers of exploring the unlit tunnels independently. L points at a dark hole in the wall, the size of dustbin-lid.

L: Be my guest. I’ll just wait here. No really. Please. Off you go. I don’t mind. Follow your heart. Dark is best.

D: Thanks. Maybe tomorrow. Shut up.

P1040743

Exploring Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

p1040526-chiang-mai

The guidebook describes Chiang Mai as “a country retreat”, “blissfully calm and laid-back”, “a place to relax after the chaos of Bangkok”, and a “sleepy country town”. D & L are therefore startled to   find the historic centre bustling with tourists and tourist restaurants and tourist services and cars and taxis and motorbikes. It is busier, noisier and scruffier than the languid idyll they had imagined.

As they settle in for a few days, so does a wet weather front. They buy umbrellas and hear that they are better off where they are in the north, while southern Thailand is beset by floods. They explore using a map of the town, its idiosyncratic lack of detail and scale keeping them guessing, paddling down quiet alleys they might otherwise have ignored.

***

In the evening it is raining so they don’t go far. On the first corner they find an empty table at Henry’s Restaurant. It’s not mentioned on any recommended restaurant lists they’ve seen. It has half a dozen tables and is artfully decorated with Buddhas and driftwood and sequined cushions. The table bases have ancient sewing machine pedals. They are approached by a woman in a floor length leopard-print dress. She is possibly 4 months pregnant. She looks crossly at them. From their table they squint at the menu board which is out on the street.p1040902-henry

L: Umm… hello. Pad Thai please.

Woman: No.

L: Oh.

Woman: Kao Soi. I recommend.

L: OK, thanks. And two small beers.

Woman: No.

L: Oh.

Woman: Only large.

She gestures at the next table, where two women are drinking out of enormous plastic beakers.

L: Right. One large beer, then, and two glasses.

Woman: No.

L: Oh.

Woman: Only large glasses.

They are soon each drinking an enormous plastic beaker of beer. The Kao Soi arrives in an earthenware pot – fragrant Thai chicken curry soup, gently spicy, and crunchy with fried noodles and beansprouts. It is delicious.

D: I object.

L: (slurping) To what?

D: To my cutlery. I don’t want a spoon and a fork.  I want proper chopsticks. I want to eat like a local.

L: You want to eat like a local? Take the spoon in your right hand and the fork in your left. They don’t use chopsticks in Thailand.

D: Oh. How come we had them in Bangkok?

L: We were in Chinatown.

D: Oh. Are you sure?

L: Look around you.

D: Oh. In that case, I withdraw my objection.

L: Good.

D: Good.

Later they walk home.

L: D’you think Henry’s her husband?

D: What are you talking about?

L: Henry’s Restaurant. Where we’ve just been. The lady in the leopard-print dress – d’you think Henry’s her husband?

D: I’m pretty sure that WAS Henry.

L: What are YOU talking about? She was pregnant!

D: She might have had a bit of a beer belly.

L: No.

D: Yes.

L: Really?

D: Yes.

L: Anyway, she was splendidly grumpy and her Kao Soi was heavenly. Can we go back?

***

L: Oh, dear, d’you know Chiang Mai has over 300 temples?

D: Holy crap! And how many hills?

L: Err…one.

D: I vote for the hill.

L: But it’s got two temples on it.

D: Can’t be helped. It’s high time we went for a walk.

It’s drizzling, but that’s not going to stop them heading for Doi Suthep, the highest bit of ground around, even if it is swallowed in cloud.   They hop into the back of a songtaew, the red shared taxi trucks that ply the streets of Chiang Mai. On the western edge of town, beyond the University, is the start of a pilgrimage path, but they’ve failed to explain properly where they want to go, and the taxi driver heads the wrong way. D slides along the bench seat and knocks on the glass partition but communication is impossible. He jumps out at each red traffic light to discuss the route through the driver’s window. Eventually he gets into the cab beside the driver and map-reads. They reach the edge of town, where the forest takes over, and hop out.

The path winds up through the trees, dripping with rain, past overgrown viewpoints and trickling cascades. Every so often, strips of orange cloth, resembling monks’ robes, are tied around trees to line the way.   Thick in the cloud and deep in the forest, they arrive at Wat Pha Lat. A cluster of temples loom out of the mist, linked by stairways lined with enormous serpents and other fantastical guardians. Orange-robed stone monks meditate beside a stream which pools and then trickles its way down the limestone face of the hillside. Buddhist chanting can be heard from within a candlelit wat. It’s wonderfully atmospheric and almost deserted.p1040585

L: The snakes on the stairs are called nagas. They’re based on cobras and sometimes they have seven heads.

D: What are they doing?

L: Protecting the Buddha and the temples.

D: It’s a great place for a picnic, isn’t it?

It’s now properly raining. L looks sceptical.

L: Maybe not today.

D: No. Come on then.

p1040596They pick up the path again, which is now smaller and much steeper, slick with mud. They climb slowly upwards through the forest, panting. The ground glitters with flakes of quartz washed clean by the rain, and they find a steep flight of mud-carved stairs. The world is silent save for their breathing and the patter of water on leaves.

An hour or so later, they meet the road, and have no option but to follow it. It is busy with traffic, wheels hissing on the wet surface. Two corners on and the road widens, suddenly teeming with cars and minibuses struggling to park, roadside stalls selling food and souvenirs, hundreds of sightseers in bright plastic capes, and lines of taxis waiting to take them back to town. It’s an unromantic climax to the walk. A long flight of naga-lined stairs leads the sodden crowds up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. At the top, as a reward for the climb, are broad shady terraces from which to admire the views, but today there is nothing to be seen.  p1040598

D: This is one of the country’s most sacred temples. A bit of the Buddha’s shoulder bone is buried here.

L: Who’s the white elephant?

D: He’s very important. A monk brought the fragment of Buddha’s shoulder all the way from Sukhothai in the 14th century, but somewhere on the journey the bone broke into two bits. One half was put onto the elephant who wandered around the forests until it died.

L: Right here?

D: Yes. So this is where they built the temple and buried the shoulder bone.

Back at the foot of the steps they are lured towards a queue of shared songtaew taxis.

Driver: Chiangmai-Chiangmai-Chiangmai! Chiang Mai?

D: Yes.

They get into the back and join 6 other people. There’s not too much space, but it’s fine. They wait.

Driver: Chiangmai-Chiangmai-Chiangmai! Chiang Mai?

Two more people get in. They all budge up. Two more get in. Everybody squeezes along. Three more are encouraged to join them. Everyone does their best, but one has no option but to stand outside on the rear step and hang on. Which he does as the taxi hurtles its way back down the mountain’s seven miles of roller-coaster curves and dips. The road is still wet but at least it’s stopped raining.

***

They can’t put it off any longer. Today is temples day.

D: This one’s my favourite, even though it’s the smallest.

L: That’s not fair – I wasn’t even allowed in!

In a tiny chapel in the extensive grounds of Wat Chedi Luang, is the city pillar supposedly raised during the founding of Chiang Mai in 1296.

L: So? What took you so long?

D: I couldn’t actually find the pillar.

L: Oh. So what did you find?

D: In the middle there was a sort of wedding cake affair with a standing Buddha on top.

L: OK…..

D: And very cool stuff going on, on the walls.p1040547

L: What cool stuff?

D: I have no idea, but it looked very exciting.

D’s photos show a burst of floor-to-ceiling technicolour. There are cutlass-wielding demons tearing through a forest, people paying homage to a prince, hunting scenes, processions and crowds praying to the Buddha, all with the Wat faithfully reproduced in the background.

D: I could have stayed in there for longer. But I suddenly remembered you were standing out here. In the rain.

L: Thanks for that.

On they go. Just next door.

L: Well, this one’s my favourite.

p1040530They have reached Wat Phan Tao, which is built entirely of teak. Inside, the dark wood ceiling is supported by huge wooden pillars, and on the altar a huge golden Buddha glows in the gloom. Lines of copper alms bowls fill one aisle, making music as the devout drop their pennies.   Outside, an artificial island is decorated with prayer ribbons and lanterns, and an orange Buddha sits in meditation guarded by several of the town’s stray dogs who have taken up residence. It is a fiercely protected piece of canine real estate, and interlopers are seen off with growls and yelps.

It is time for lunch.

They find a café. Their sandwiches arrive with a side salad curiously topped with a glacé cherry, but no cutlery. L speaks to the waiter:

L: Please can I have a fork?

The waiter looks puzzled and faintly shocked.

L: I need a fork. Please can you give me a fork?

The waiter looks scandalised. D comes to the rescue.

D: Or a spoon?

Comprehension floods over the waiter’s face. He beams and returns with a spoon. And a fork.

L: What was all that about? You’d think I’d said something desperately rude.

D: I can’t think what, for fork’s sake…

It is time. For more temples. They are on a mission.

It’s dusk by the time they finally splash their way south to Wat Sri Suphan, in the city’s silversmith’s quarter.

L: (grumbling) This is absolutely the last one. And it’d better be worth it. I’m soaking.

They walk through the gates.

L: Blimey. That’s amazing!

They stand in the rain and stare. For once, there’s not a glimmer of gold to be seen. Instead, the entire temple is crafted of silver.

L: Is it actual silver, d’you reckon?

D: Mostly nickel and aluminium, I think. Or maybe zinc?

L: Still. It’s astonishing.

It is intricate and elaborate and beautiful and twiddly and prickly. There are statues and bass-reliefs and decorative panels, from ground level to the topmost spires of the roof, all in gleaming silver.

L: Not again! Says here, according to Lanna Belief, I’m not allowed in. Apparently ladies entering inside this area may deteriorate the place or otherwise the lady herself!

D: That’s probably best avoided.

L: In you go. I’ll just stand here. In the rain. Like last time.p1040885

D disappears happily into the welcoming glow of the interior. L walks around the outside. The whole temple is set on a sea of turquoise ceramic tiles, lapping at the foundations like wavelets.   On the outer walls there are panels showing ships and temples, forests and seas and animals and people. The whole of the rear of the building is one enormous silver mural. Along the sides are small panels of great sites of the world. L spots the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Colosseum, the Great Wall of China, and even Stonehenge. From the roof, great silver dragons stretch their wings as though about to take flight.

D re-emerges.   The interior too is clad floor to ceiling in silver. Except for the Buddha at the altar, which is gold. Flanking the inside of the doorway, the walls show terrifying skulls, and a demon swallowing a crowd of people. Dozens of little backlit niches display delicate filigree work.

Outdoors the silver continues, still catching the last glimmers of light as darkness descends. A great silver Buddha sits draped in silver robes, in front of the temple. Nearby is a large banner in tribute to the late King Bhumibol, set in a decorative silver frame. And surreally, to one side the Hindu elephant god Ganesha shelters under an elaborate silver umbrella accompanied by two gigantic mice – one silver, one gold.

D: This is definitely my favourite.

L: Mine too. Even without going in. But it’s time for crisps. And beer. And a bath. We are so done.

***

Before they leave Chiang-Mai, they return for dinner at Henry’s. She scowls in welcome as they sit down and obediently order Kao Soi and two enormous plastic beakers of beer. A couple with a child arrive and hover at the entrance.   They ask to see the menu and Henry explains crossly to them that the menu is the blackboard right in front of them, in the street. They try to sit at an outside table, but Henry won’t allow it and makes them sit indoors. They sit, disgruntled. They ask to see the menu. Henry has had enough and scolds them loudly.p1040905

Henry: Look, you two! I’ve told you already! The menu is on the board outside!

She has gone too far. The family get up and leave.

Henry: (muttering) Crazy. They’re crazy!

Half way through the meal, Henry decides, unprompted, that an announcement needs to be made. She goes from table to table, telling each of her diners separately.

Henry: You want toilet? No toilet! Go over the road! In the temple.

Everyone is fine. No-one needs to go.

She comes to clear their table and peers into the earthenware pot of Kao Soi. She looks at L accusingly.

Henry: You didn’t like it?

L: I loved it!

Henry: You didn’t finish it!

L: I did – look!

L pokes around nervously in the pot to show that there is no morsel of chicken or beansprout or noodle remaining. Only a centimetre of broth.

Henry looks at them in disdain, picks up the pot and stalks off.

L: I love Henry! And her Kao Soi. How can you not? She is so terrifying and excellent. Don’t you love Henry?

D: Yes, I love Henry too.

p1040900-cm-phantao-island

 

Cycling around Sukhothai, Thailand

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It is time to leave Bangkok. They take a taxi to the metro, and a metro to the bus station. The bus station is nowhere to be found. They ask, and are offered a taxi.

D: That’s ridiculous. It must be around here somewhere. We’ll keep looking.

They take a taxi to the bus station.

Mo Chit bus station has different counters selling tickets to different destinations. There are 59 counters on the ground floor, and 58 on the first floor. Thankfully none on the second floor, but a further 112 on the third floor.

L:   Blimey – any idea which counter we need?

D: Err….I’ll ask. We’ll probably need a taxi to reach it.

They flag down a passing official and are pointed to a counter, which miraculously is right where they are standing. Less surprisingly, considering the number of counters, there are no queues.

The journey to Sukhothai takes 7 hours. The landscape is flat and carpeted with rice paddies resembling vibrant green meadows or waterlogged lawns or bare muddy swamps. Along the roadside, suburban houses intermingle with tin-roofed wooden shacks. Some are homes, others garages, workshops, barns, shops, restaurants, bars, roadside stalls, bus shelters, shaded rest areas, or outhouses. Most are in use, a few are abandoned and half dismantled, the materials used to build another shack next door.

They cadge a lift to their hotel in a tuk-tuk piled high with a tour group’s luggage. They’ve picked the place for its proximity to the temples, and the pool.   They climb out of the tuk-tuk, and are greeted enthusiastically with a smile, a cold drink and a banana cupcake. They are still in the car park, holding their bags.

L: Lovely, thank you. Delicious. Umm, D, can you just hold my cupcake while I take my rucksack off?

D: (mumbling through cake crumbs) Sure, if you hold my drink.

L: Thanks. But can you hold my drink too? And your drink? And your cupcake? And my cupcake? And the day pack? But don’t put the laptop bag down in that puddle.

They check in, admire the polished wood floors of their large room, agree that the smell of drains from the bathroom really isn’t that strong and that they don’t need wifi anyway, and head off to the bar for a drink. The wooden deck of the restaurant sits over a lily pond, and as dusk falls they listen happily to the frogs and slap mosquitos from their bare arms and ankles.

***

The next morning is sunny, the temperature pushing 30 degrees. They are on a mission. The ruined temples of central Thailand’s Sukhothai are all that remains of the capital of a vast 13th century kingdom. Although the ancient city walls are under 2km square, there are nearly 200 ruins dotted around a much wider area. They stop at the Historical Park entrance to hire bicycles for the day.p1040512-2

D: Right, it’s 30 bhat per bike.

L: Hold on a minute. Don’t do anything hasty. We may need to bargain. Let me work it out. Oh. That’s 75 pence. Go ahead.

They start with the museum, where they find a vast table with a 3D plan of the site and surrounding countryside, and buttons to press to show the location of each temple in little red lights. They press all the buttons.

L: Who was Ram-kam-haeng? This museum’s named after him.

D: He was the king who really put this place on the map. He didn’t found it, but he massively expanded the kingdom. And encouraged Theravada Buddhism here. And invented Thai writing.

L: The squiggles?

D: The squiggles. And after he died, the empire was never quite the same again.

In one corner of the museum, through an open doorway, they spot an unremarkable flight of carpeted stairs. Despite appearances, it does not lead to the museum’s administration office. Above the doorway, a large sign proclaims “The Mystic Tunnel-like Stairway Corridor”.p1040460

L: How exciting! Follow me.

At the top of the stairs is a blank wall.

L: Oh. That’s it. Is it a joke? I don’t understand. It’s not very mystic, or tunnel-like. It’s not even a corridor! Just a stairway. And it doesn’t go anywhere!

D: What’s on the walls?

L: Just copies of some drawings or engravings.

D: (reading a sign) They’re pictures of the life of Buddha – the oldest existing examples of Thai drawing – and they were discovered in a mystic tunnel-like stairway corridor at one of the temples here.

L: Let’s go and find the real one.

D: Let’s.

The Historical Park is immaculate and peaceful. There are plenty of visitors, but no great crowds. Great avenues of trees and clumps of forest provide ample shade and many of the temples are surrounded by moats with water-lilies. Shrines and incense sticks and votive candles decorate steps and ledges. After all the glitter and gold and architectural twiddles of Bangkok’s temples, this is a world apart, of warm bare brick and stone and grass and water and smooth unadorned grey statues. It’s a great big drink for the soul.

Right at the centre of the site is Wat Mahathat.

D: This is the biggest and most important temple. It’s got over 200 chedis and….p1040461

L: What’s a chedi?

D: It’s a stupa.

L: Yes, but what IS one?

D: It’s a bell shaped tower – you’ve seen them at the temples in Bangkok.

L: Yes, but what ACTUALLY is it?

D: Oh, I see what you mean.   Of course. Umm…I don’t ACTUALLY know.

L: Oh.

D: I will in a minute. (He taps his phone). Got it. It’s where you put relics of important people.

L: Thank you. Carry on.

D: Thank you. I shall.

L: Thank you. Please do.

D: Shut up now.p1040470

The chedis lie scattered across the landscape like huge bells. Amongst the temple columns they admire the beauty of two great seated Buddhas, serene with eyes closed, the elongated fingers of their elegant right hands pointing down to the earth, while their left hands are relaxed, palm up, in their laps. Nearby are two towering standing Buddhas, 9 metres tall, with graceful oversized hands reaching to their knees.

They cycle slowly along the quiet lanes criss-crossing the park, stopping to marvel at the immense single chedi of Wat Sa Si rising from the centre of its reservoir moat, the beautiful, but much restored elephants at the base of Wat Sorasak, and the prickly domes of the originally Hindu Wat Si Sawai.

They head out past the crumbling city walls and dry moat before finding what they are looking for.p1040494

L: He’s staring.

D: I think he’s just got mossy eyelids.

At the end of the causeway crossing a moat is the square stone building of Wat Si Chum. In the centre of the facing wall is a narrow vertical slit running almost the full height of its 15 metre façade. Through the slit, a gigantic face is visible. They approach, and pass through the entrance into an open-roofed courtyard which is entirely filled with a colossal seated Buddha. He fills the space like Alice in Wonderland after knocking back the growing potion, and looks sleepily down at them through half closed eyes.

L: He really is the biggest, most beautiful Buddha. Just look at him.p1040497

D: (tapping his phone) He’s 15 metres high.

L: (not listening) He’s so beautiful.

D: And 11 metres wide.

L: (not listening) He’s just so lovely.

Two visitors kneel at his feet, hands in prayer, before rising, lighting incense sticks and leaving him a bunch of marigolds.

L: He’s got gorgeous golden nail varnish.

The Buddha’s left hand is cupped gently in his lap, thumb nail gleaming. The long slender fingers of his right hand flow down from his knee like a waterfall towards the earth, and have been gilded in gold leaf by visiting worshippers.   It is silent within the walls and the air is heady with incense.p1040498

D: I’ve found the Mystic Tunnel-Like Stairway Corridor!

L: (not listening) D’you think the circle of sky above his head looks a bit like heaven?

D: But the gate’s locked.

L: (not listening) His pose shows his moment of enlightenment.

D: It’s where they found all the drawings of the life of Buddha.

L: (not listening) Don’t you think he looks enlightened, with his head in the sky like that, so that you can hardly look at him? It’s like staring at the sun.

D: The corridor’s supposed to run through the inside of the walls. Apparently the kings used to hide in here and speak to the people through a hole. Everyone listening thought it was the Buddha talking.

L: (not listening) I think I’m feeling a bit enlightened. I wish I had some marigolds.

D: I’m trying to photograph him for you, but I can only get little bits of him in. We’ll have to put him together later, like a jigsaw.

L: (not listening) Take a photo.

They head on out into the countryside. L’s state of enlightenment does not seem conducive to riding a bicycle. D stops and waits in exasperation.

L: What! It’s hot!

D: But you’re going so slowly!

They reach the foot of a hill, and a stone-paved footpath leading up it. L looks unconvinced.p1040505

L: It’s miles!

D: It’s a very small hill indeed.

Minutes later they are at the top. There is a tall and crumbling standing Buddha with his right hand raised in a posture of fearlessness, and a view back across miles of flat forested plains, but surprisingly not a single one of Sukhothai’s other 192 ruins are visible.

D: This is Wat Saphan Hin. King Ramkamhaeng used to ride up here on his white elephant to worship the Buddha. It’s twelve and a half metres high.

L: Gosh! The elephant?

D: The Buddha. It was called Ruchakhari.

L: The Buddha?

D: The elephant.

On their way back, D stops and points at the verge.p1040507

D: That’s disappointing. Fly-tipping.

L: But they’re all shrines. This must be where shrines go to die.

Little broken temples lie higgledy-piggledy in the long grass, guarded by a tiger with no head. It seems an undignified end for objects once worshipped.

p10404662

Impressions of Bangkok

 

p1040379-1

Food Glorious Food?

On their first morning in Bangkok, L & D make their way down to the hotel breakfast room.

L: But I’m not very hungry.

D: I’m not surprised. It’s two o’clock in the morning in England. Your appetite’s probably still fast asleep.

From the breakfast buffet come powerful wafts of prawn curry, and a group of Asian guests enthusiastically load up their plates. L looks queasy, and retreats to the furthest corner with a bowl of fruit and some coffee.

Later they walk through Chinatown’s maze of bustling and aromatic market alleys. Tiny shops, some no larger than booths, line both sides, selling clothing, jewellery, toys, household goods and a variety of surprisingly unrecognisable food. The crowds are thick, slow moving, and they shuffle with the flow, under awnings which meet overhead and shut out the light. The stalls each have their own odour – fishy or pungent or sweet or spicy or earthy. Fruit is stacked high, large and small, prickly and knobbly and smooth, yellow and orange and pink and purple and green and brown. Most of it they cannot put a name to – little of it is to be found in Sainsbury’s.   Raw fish and meat is laid out on tabletops. Plastic bags of liquid contain indecipherable delicacies. There are sacks of spices, and bags of dried mushrooms, dried shrimp, dried fruit. D grimaces.  p1040291

D: Pig face.

L: Charming.

D: Not you. I just saw one.

L: A pig face?

D: Yes.

L: On a pig?

D: No. On its own. Spread out flat and cooked.

L: Oh.

L looks dubiously at a butcher’s counter.

L: D’you think they have Food Hygiene Certificates?

D: Don’t be ridiculous. Anyway, it’s fine. The meat’s all butchered and sold so fast that it doesn’t have time to go off. Same goes for street food. It’s a well known fact that you’re far more likely to get ill from a hotel buffet than from anything off a busy street cart, where the food’s fresh, thoroughly cooked and doesn’t sit around long enough to do any harm.

L: OK then. Now all we have to do is learn to recognise what we might actually be eating.

D: We’ll just ask.

L: In our fluent Thai. Or maybe Mandarin.

D: Ah. Good point. We’ll read the signs and ask Google Translate then.

L: Everything’s written in squiggles.

D: Um. So it is.

L: Trial and error then?

D: Trial and error. When shall we start?

L: Maybe tomorrow.

D: You said that yesterday.

L: In the meantime, can I have some crisps?

D: As long as none of them are octopus flavoured.

L: Of course not. Which would you prefer – seaweed, cuttlefish or lasagne?

 

Bangkok’s Waterways Three Ways

The Chao Phraya River meanders its way along the southern and western edges of the city and provides a useful transportation alternative to Bangkok’s busy streets. The wide expanse of puddle coloured water is busy with passenger ferries, tourist boats and great commercial barge-trains: four vessels strung together nose to tail.   Scraps of polystyrene and wisps of plastic bob on the surface, mingling with water hyacinths, and an egret drifts by, long legs wobbling to balance on its own tiny plywood island.

They join the tail end of a patient crowd standing on a floating platform waiting to catch a ferry. From a loudspeaker above their heads comes an assault of hysterical-sounding shouting. They listen obediently, but in puzzlement, as it is all in Thai. A ferry arrives and the loudspeaker’s tone cranks up a notch. Some people shuffle forward, some stand still, and others create a faster moving bypass along one edge of the pontoon.

L: Shall we go, shuffle or stay where we are, do you think?

D has the advantage of being taller than the crowd and peers over the sea of heads.

D: That’s not our boat, it’s pointing downstream.

The ferry departs and an upstream one arrives. The amplified voice reaches new heights of excitement and apparent fury without pausing for breath. They join the bypass queue, leaving the noise behind, to be greeted by a bellowing operative hustling them impatiently onto the boat, and another on board shouting wearily at people to move along. The pair continue to yell and berate the passengers until the boat is full to bursting. D & L are thoroughly scolded for not having the correct change for their tickets, and again for standing in the way of the safety rope, which is eventually slung across the gangway as the ferry gets going.

D: (grinning from ear to ear) This is great, isn’t it?

L:  (squashed between a ladder, two Korean tourists and D’s back) Take a photo.

***

 

They book a short trip on a long-tail boat to explore the canals.

Many of the smaller boats on the Chao Phraya are traditional Thai long-tails. These narrow wooden vessels have high curving bows and brightly painted rainbow striped topsides. Designed for fishing or moving goods and people along Asia’s coastline and rivers, today they are mostly filled with up to a dozen tourists, perched on wooden bench seats and shaded by a canopy overhead. Propulsion is provided by an immense pivoting truck engine mounted near the stern, with super-long tiller and drive shaft protruding fore and aft.  p1040394

The man in the booth takes their money and ushers them to a bench overlooking the river. The sun is shining and families are strolling the waterfront, stopping to photograph each other next to a large smiling pink plastic elephant at the entrance to the jetty.

Man: 5 minutes.

He gets out his mobile phone and makes a call. Then another. And a third. He smiles at them and rushes off to the end of the jetty where he taps his phone some more and looks eagerly up and down the river.  After a while he rushes back.

Man: 5 minutes. Sit.

They are already sitting, so they carry on. The man scampers back to the jetty, energetically making more phone calls and peering keenly at the river. Eventually he returns, looking tremendously pleased with himself.

Man: 5 minutes. Yes!

A battered longtail arrives, its faded rainbow topsides flaking, and they embark, admiring the immense rusted hulk of engine and its matching skipper, both past their prime since the 1950s.  They are the only passengers. The engine chokes unwillingly to life and they are off.

The boat is fast and the river is choppy. L grins as the spray splashes her.

D: Try not to get too much river water in your mouth. It may not be very clean.

L: Oh. Will I get typhoid?

D: Probably not. Only if you drink it.

L inspects the damage.

L: I’ve got some on my arm. Might I get arm typhoid?

D: Err…no.

L: What about foot typhoid?

D: Not even.

L: I’ll probably be alright then.

D: You probably will.

***

Back on dry land, they head for their next stretch of water. A narrow canal – the Klong Saen Saeb – runs east-west through the centre of the city. To reach it they find themselves strolling the famous Kao San Road. Around their base in Chinatown they hardly see another Western face, but now they are in Bangkok’s Backpacker Land. The street is wall to wall bars and restaurants and tour operators and B&Bs and massage parlours and souvenir shops. There is Western food and drink and music and signs all written in English. They spot a tattooed youth asleep on a pub table, and further on another one out cold in a car seat on the pavement. It is nearly lunchtime but it is also the first of January and some people have clearly been celebrating hard. L pauses to buy a pair of thin cotton trousers patterned with elephants – as comfortable cover-up clothing for visiting temples. (She later discovers that every backpacker in Asia has a pair of these trousers, probably purchased right here.) They walk on, feeling intrepid that they have chosen not to be based here surrounded by the familiar, and conveniently forgetting that their own slice of Bangkok authenticity comes with a bewildering inability to communicate and a fear of all things edible.

***

Despite the fact that the canal water-bus shuttles to and fro between some of the city’s most famous sites – from the Golden Mount viewpoint, to the historic Jim Thompson House, the shopping streets of Sukhumvit and the sex on tap on Soi 3 – almost all the passengers are locals. They step down into the boat.p1040443

L: Great, there’s masses of room.

They pick a spot. More people get on. They move to the far side of the boat, out of the way. More people get on. They budge up. More people get on. They shuffle closer.   More people get on. Once the boat is sufficiently bulging and no-one aboard can move, they set off. The narrow stretch of water is faced with ramshackle homes built of tin and wood and breezeblocks. A young man skips nimbly around the outside rim of the boat, holding on to a rope and reaching in to collect fares from outstretched hands.

L: Why’s he wearing a climbing helmet?

D: I have no idea.

The fare collector continues his circuit of the boat, his back to the direction of travel, as the waterbus rumbles along the narrow channel. He reaches them and leans in to hand them a ticket. Without warning, he suddenly ducks, and they are all thrown into darkness. The boat plunges under a low bridge, and he avoids decapitation at the last second purely by instinct and the skin of his teeth, as he must do dozens of times a day, without looking.

D: That’ll be why he’s wearing a hard hat.

 

All Buddhas Great and Small

Waves of sightseers ripple through the grounds and courtyards of Wat Pho, below the ornately decorated bell-shaped temple spires, or stupas, brightening a flat grey sky with their golden tiles and pastel mosaics seemingly crafted from fistfuls of sugared almonds.   Through a doorway, past a towering demon-like guardian statue, they enter a silent gallery of lifesized golden Buddhas, seated in contemplation on pedestals of brightly coloured jewels.p1040307

L: There’s something very calming about them, isn’t there? Look at the body language – how relaxed their shoulders are, and their beautiful hands.

D: Hold on – why are they so thin? I thought Buddha was a jolly fat fellow.

L: Wrong! They’re two different people. The laughing fat one isn’t the founder of Buddhism at all. He’s a chap called Budei, a kindly Chinese Buddhist monk who has become a symbol of luck and wealth. He was known as a sort of year-round Santa Claus figure, protecting children and handing out presents. His laughing shows contentment, and his belly, abundance. He’s revered as a holy man, and is often called the Laughing Buddha, but he’s not THE Buddha.

D: Right. So do all proper Buddhas look like these ones, then?

L: Not quite. He has a few different postures, all of which mean something.

D: Like what?

L: So – all these ones are seated cross legged with the right hand pointing down to touch the earth and the left hand palm upwards in the lap, showing Buddha’s moment of enlightenment.p1040320

They continue into an elaborately decorated lofty temple. To their left is a long wall of gold.

L: (squeaking) He’s ENORMOUS!

D: (tapping at his phone) He’s 46 metres long and 15 metres high, to be precise.

They crane their necks to admire the famous and serenely Reclining Buddha, leaning on one elbow and looking relaxed, his body stretching away down the length of the temple.

L: He’s amazing – take a photo.

D: (grumbling) He’s much too big. I can only fit small bits of him into the camera.

L: He’s very beautiful.

D: So what does his reclining posture mean?

L: He’s ready to go into Nirvana, or Heaven, having finished all his cycles of birth and death and reincarnation. What’s that noise?

D: What noise?

L: That rhythmic chinking sound.

D: Builders? Dripping water? Pigeons? Music?

They look around, hunting the source.

L: Found it!

On the other side of the temple is a long line of copper bowls. 108 of them. People are working their way along the line carefully dropping a coin into each one.

L: What are they?

D: Alms bowls. For monks. It’s both giving charity and earning merit, or good karma. And 108 seems to be a lucky number.

On their way out, they admire the magnificent soles of the Reclining Buddha’s feet, decorated with 108 exquisite panels of inlaid mother-of-pearl, many of which are temporarily shrouded behind canvas and scaffolding for restoration.

D: Right, come on. Let’s go and find the Emerald Buddha. Follow me.

As they walk towards the Grand Palace, the streets fill with people dressed in black, all heading the same way. The country is in mourning. There is a road block ahead and a long trailing queue, many thousands of people standing quietly in line, holding photographs. There are traffic closures, security searches, appropriate clothing checks and free water points for the mourners.  p1040332

All over Bangkok, every public building and many private ones display black and white ribbons, memorials, banners and billboards with the image of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has died after reigning for 70 years. He is resting in the Grand Palace, where people are flocking to pay their respects.

They part company from the crowds, heading for a discreet corner of the palace where a tourist entrance allows access to the temple of the Emerald Buddha.

D: This Buddha’s seen as the country’s protector and has been revered for nearly 600 years. It’s probably Thailand’s most important Buddha image.

L: Where exactly is it?

D: Not sure. There’ll be signs. Start looking.

They roam around a compound dotted with buildings and temples and milling with tourists waving selfie-sticks. They join a queue off to one side, but all that happens is that security staff tie a ribbon to their day-pack. They keep searching.

L: Is it actually emerald?

D: No, but it is green. Jade or jasper I think.

The crowds are heading in all directions, offering no clues. They come across a ticket office, away to one side, but all that happens is that they are sold a ticket and waved away again. Any signs to be found are written in squiggles. They find however that they have inadvertently been swept into a current of people all moving the same way.

D: (confidently) It must be along here.

They are funnelled through a ticket checkpoint and disgorged into an inner compound. There are no signs and the crowd start once more unhelpfully milling about taking photos of themselves.

L: Come and see these fantastic frescoes! What’s going on?

The walls of the compound are decorated in finely painted images of vivid landscapes, ornate temples, golden warriors and a fierce looking army of demons or monkeys.

D: (tapping his phone) It’s the story of the Ramayana.p1040335

L: Which is….?

D: I haven’t got the faintest idea.   Hold on a sec.

L admires the delicately gilded chariots and dragons and eight-armed archers, against a background of forests and rocky cliffs and threatening skies.

D:   Here we are. It’s a massively long and ancient epic Hindu poem with 24,000 verses.

L: Blimey. What’s it about? The extremely very short version.

D: Right. A prince, banished by his father, travelling across India with his wife and brother. Wife gets kidnapped by demon king, lots of fighting to get her back, and they return home where he becomes king. Happy ending.

L: But why is it in the temple?

D: The story’s full of philosophy and ethics and portrays ideals in behaviour – ideal father, brother, wife, king etc, and ideal goals in life. Apparently we’ll come across it all over South East Asia and India.

The frescoes lead them around the cloisters, away from the tour groups and self-portrait photographers who swirl around the centre. Temples are dotted around the compound, stunningly decorated in golden and jewel coloured mosaics, most of them closed. The sheer acreage of gold leaf is staggering.p1040343

L: So where’s the Emerald Buddha?

They drift past the front of a temple. Thirty people stand at the foot of some steps leading up to a doorway.   They hold their cameras over their heads, pointed through the door. Not only is entrance forbidden, but so is access up the steps. A blank-faced guard eyes them all suspiciously. The interior of the temple is in darkness but at the back, glowing out of the gloom is a seated figure on an altar. It is the Emerald Buddha.

L: (squeaking) But he’s TINY!

D: (tapping at his phone). He’s 66 centimetres high and 48 centimetres wide, to be precise.

L: Oh.

D: And he’s meditating.

L: Oh.

D: And he has three outfits, which he wears depending on the season. And only the King can change them for him.

L brightens.

L: That’s very fashionable of him. Which one’s he wearing now?

D: I can’t tell. He’s too small and far away.

L: Oh. Have we got any crisps?

 

No Sex Please, We’re British

L: So have we seen Bangkok?

D:   Some. Of course there’s lots more we could do.

L: Like what?

D: Well, your sister recommended a ping pong show.

L:   Did she indeed? Um, I think she might have been joking.

D: But I can’t find it in the guidebook. I don’t know what one is.

L: No. You clearly don’t.

D: I’ll Google it, shall I?

L: You do that.

D: (tapping his phone) Oh. Right. Err… No.

L: No?

D: No.

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Bangkok Bound: From Here to There

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Chapter 1 – The Grand Plan

L has spent months reading guide books to Thailand, to Vietnam, to Laos and Cambodia, cross checking information with websites and making colour coded lists on Excel. She has bought travel insurance and booked appointments with doctors and dentists. She has signed up for Motorcycle Compulsory Basic Training (or How to Ride a Moped without Killing Yourself), and stood in long Christmas post-office queues to obtain International Driving Permits. She has also bought sufficient quantities of toiletries for every eventuality, to last the full three months, in case there are no shops in South East Asia.

D: So how do the visas work?

L: To which country?

D: All of them. Any of them.

L: Umm… I can’t remember.

D: Will we need malaria tablets?

L: Err… I’m not sure.

D: Will my mobile phone work?

L: Where?

D: Over there.

L: I don’t know.

D: Do we need local currency or can we use dollars? What shape are the plug sockets? Will there be ice-cream?

L: I’d better check.

D: How hot will it be? Shall I pack a jumper?

L: It depends.

D: On what?

L: On where we go. There are four whole countries, with cities and beaches and mountains and rivers and plains.

D: Oh.

L: Yes.

D: So where are we going?

L: When?

D: When we go. For the three months. Where will we be?

L: Every day?

D: (generously) Well, not every day of course. Just in general. Most days.

L: I don’t know.

D: Oh. But we’re going next week.

L: I know. But there’s quite a lot of it, and I’ve read so much that I’ve forgotten most of it.

D: Ah.

L: Yes.

D: What’s that enormous pile of stuff?

L: That’s just going in our wash-bag. Actually into five wash-bags. For travelling and living and spares. And sun protection. And first aid.

D: Great. Umm…. So who’s going to be carrying all that?

L: Oh, there should be plenty of room in your rucksack.

D: Right. Is it time?

L: Time?

D: Time I showed an interest and got involved a bit?

L: Yes. I think maybe it’s time.

 

Chapter 2 – Just Like Business Class

L: I can’t believe you’re so mean. It’s a twelve hour flight!

D: Very funny. Assuming, just for the sake of argument, that we don’t win the lottery this week, you must agree that we are possibly – just possibly – better off not spending £2,000 on a Business Class upgrade just so that you can lie down for a few hours. Anyway, I don’t need to sleep – my time is too valuable – I’ve got to watch all the films.

***

L: Right. Done. I should get a good night’s kip.

D: Done? What have you done? How much have you spent?

L: Not much.

D: How much?

L: Sixty quid.

D: Each?

L: Between us.

D: On what?

L: A double bed in our own en-suite room.

D: On the plane?

L: For sixty quid? Hardly. In Abu Dhabi. I’ve booked flights with a nine hour overnight stop-over to break up the journey half way through. We’ll get a blissful 7 hours sleep in an airport hotel. It’ll be just like travelling Business Class!

D: Just like.

***

L: (At Heathrow Airport) Our flight is a bit delayed. As we’ve got time, I might just pop into Boots and buy some more shampoo. And body lotion. And mouthwash.

D: No. Just no. If you buy it, you carry it, everywhere we go, for the next three months.

L: Oh. That seems highly unreasonable, doesn’t it?

D: Does it?

L: Doesn’t it?

D: Does it.

L: Maybe we can manage without.

***

L: (At Abu Dhabi Airport) That didn’t go quite as planned, but we had a tremendously comfortable two hours sleep, didn’t we?

D: (Yawning) Tremendous.

L: I thought you didn’t need to sleep? Isn’t your time too valuable?

D: I’ve changed my mind. And two hours is worse than not sleeping at all. I need coffee. It’s an emergency.

 

Chapter 3 – Bangkok Bewilderment

D: (tapping his phone) Nice temperature. 27 degrees at 9pm.

L: Bangkok’s so clean!

D: We’ve only seen the airport.

L: And the metro.

They are standing on a gleaming underground platform. A train arrives. They are organised into lines by ferocious female station guards blowing whistles. The train doors open. The guards look threateningly at their neatly formed queues, daring anyone to move. Everyone obediently stands still. The guards check all the carriages for abandoned bags and other security threats, before once more launching into loud whistle blowing and impatient arm waving to herd the politely waiting passengers onto the train.

At the other end of the journey they walk for 15 p1040381minutes through the darkened city to their hotel. Traffic is light and the streets feel safe. A lurid pink golf-buggy with an enormous chrome exhaust pulls up beside them.

Driver: Tuk-tuk?

They shake their heads, declining, not knowing yet how these things work. They walk on to the hotel and leave their bags before heading out for something to eat.

Yaowarat Street is one of Bangkok’s main thoroughfares through Chinatown, and is busy and brightly lit with a profusion of neon signs. Taxis, buses and tuk-tuks trundle by, and mopeds weave amongst them. Street food carts block pavements and overflow into the street, and pedestrians stroll calmly, perusing the choices and effortlessly side-stepping the moving traffic.

p1040384D: Here’s your chance.

L: For what?

D: To try the street food. You’ve been telling everyone for months how much you were looking forward to it.

L: Yum! Absolutely!

They join the throngs, past the unfamiliar stench of the durian fruit displays, the pungent aromas of fermented fish, the stalls cooking up shrimp and fish and squid, the pots of steaming curry and soup bobbing with unidentifiable chunks of meat and vegetables, the unrefrigerated raw pork and chicken threaded onto skewers and cooked over hot flames, the clusters of child sized plastic tables and chairs, the buckets on the ground brimming with greasy water and used plates, the bags of food waste leaning up against lamp-posts, the litter and puddles in the gutter, the mingled smells of barbecues and diesel and fish-sauce and burnt sugar and drains and spices and hot rice and incense. It is their first hour in Asia. It is all a bit overwhelming.

L: Umm. Would you mind awfully if we did street food tomorrow instead?

They head meekly to a mini-market where they buy beer, and crisps, and shame-facedly, Pot Noodles, and return to their room.   D opens two beers.

D: Crap.

L: What?

D: Chuck me a towel, can you? I’ve just knocked a full glass of beer onto the carpet.

L: Never mind. Have some crisps. Ha ha – look at the picture – maybe they’re octopus flavoured!

D: Hilarious. That’s the brand.

L: Right.

D: Crap.

L: What?

D: They’re octopus flavoured.

L stirs the Pot Noodles. A powerful waft of curry fills the room. They tuck in.

D: Blimey. That’s spicy!

L: Are you crying?

p1040392D: No! Of course not. Maybe just a little bit. Is it hot in here?

L: I’ll open the window.

L: (after a lot of fiddling and rattling) It’s locked shut so we can’t fall out. We’re on the 11th floor.

Far below, the river of lights and traffic and people still surges through Chinatown, as they give in to bewilderment, jetlag and lack of sleep , and go to bed, wrapped in a miasma of curry, octopus and beer-soaked pub carpets.

p1040449

The Neighbour – Samara, Costa Rica

 

P1020326

D: There’s something in our hammock.

L: Like what?

L is in the bathroom, rinsing sand and salt and tangles from her hair. D is looking apprehensively out of the living room window.

D: Not sure. It’s wriggling.

L: Is it an animal? Or a bird?

D: No, more of a small human.

L: Like a child?

D: Yes, there’s a child in our hammock.

L: Well I didn’t put it there. What sort of child?

D: A short one. With yellow hair. And no clothes on.

L: Oh. I expect that’s alright. It’s hardly going to catch cold. What’s it doing?

D: Swinging.

L:   Does it look lost? Or miserable?

D: No. It’s singing. In French.

L: Well in that case, you’ll have to deal with it. I don’t speak French.

D reluctantly heads outdoors to investigate.

They have been in the house for five weeks.   They took a risk – booking it, and paying the rent in advance, before seeing the place, but it suits them well. They had been looking for somewhere to live and work for a couple of months, in the sun, away from the gloomy British winter. And on Google Earth, the village of Samara, on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, looked just right. Not too big and not too small, with a huge safe swimming beach.

And so it has proved. They run along the beach in the early mornings. It is only a short walk back from the supermarket, laden with pineapples, melons and beer. The five minute stroll to the sea takes them past the bakery, a concrete footbridge guarded by four sunbathing iguanas, and the best steakhouse in town.

The house itself is hidden from the road by a thick hibiscus hedge, at which a hummingbird feeds at breakfast. The single storey building, red roofed and yellow painted, is divided into two small apartments, sharing a tiled front terrace and a gravelled back yard. Tall slender trees growing on the steeply rising slope behind the house provide afternoon shade in the yard, and are a popular meeting place for howler monkeys at four in the morning.   It’s not perfect – the bank and the trees and the hedge also shelter the house from any breezes. It is very hot. Right after moving in, they shared the outdoor space for a few days with a Canadian couple, who couldn’t take the heat and fled to Spain. Since then, they have had the place to themselves.   Until now.

D returns and reports his findings through the bathroom door.

D: It belongs next door.

L: Good.

D: But it’s bored.

L: Right.

D: And hot.

L: Yes. Where is it now?

D: In our fridge.

L: What d’you mean, in our fridge?

D: It likes the cool air. I haven’t shut the door or anything. It just sort of climbed in.

L: Oh.

D: It’s fine. Except for the dirty footprints. And I think it stood on the ham.

●●●●

It is morning. D chats with the neighbours while L chops melon, banana and pineapple into two bowls. She brings them out onto the terrace. D joins her and they eat their breakfast. The neighbours are also having breakfast. The child leaves its family and wanders over, sitting contentedly on the floor at their feet, eating bread and chocolate spread. There is chocolate on its cheek. And on its elbow.

D: It wants to go to the beach.

L: With us?

D: Its mother suggested it.

L: But we could be anybody.

D: But we’re not. We’re us.

L: Yes, but how does she know?

D: She can tell. She’s that sort of person.

L: OK. But what if we break it?

D: She says it’s good in the sea. It likes diving through waves.

L: That’s alright then. Can it swim?

D: I assume so.

L: Let’s check.

D: It looks like a swimmer.

L: Let’s check.

D: I bet it swims like a fish.

L: Let’s check.

D goes next door to ask, and returns.

L: All OK? It can swim?

D: Um, no. No, it can’t.

L:   Right. We’d better remember that.

●●●●

It is evening. They are preparing to sit out on the terrace, with beer and peanuts. Appetising cooking smells are coming from next door. The child runs between the two terraces, waving a stainless steel pole.

Child: Shlack!

L: What’s that pole?

D: It’s not a pole. It’s a light sabre.

Child: Shlack!

D: Could you bring me a drink?

Child: Shlack, shlack!

D: I would get it myself, but it’s chopped off my legs.

L: I see.

●●●●

It is morning. They are sitting on the terrace with their bowls of fruit and mugs of coffee. The child spots them. Today it is clutching a slice of cheese on toast.

Child: Salut.

D: Hello.

Child: Qu’est ce que tu fais?

D: Eating my breakfast.

Child: Et après?

D: Then I’m going to drink my coffee.

Child: Et après?

D: Brush my teeth.

Child: Et après?

D: Do some work.

Child: Et après?

D: Have lunch.

Child: Et après?

D: Do some more work.

Child: Et après?

D: Go to the beach.

Child: Can I come to the beach?

●●●●

It is evening. They are on the terrace with beer and peanuts. The neighbours are playing a guitar rather beautifully, but the child is unappreciative and trots over to join them.

Child: Salut.

D: Hello.

Child: How do you say hello in Arabic?

D: I don’t know.

Child: But maman says you’re a translator.

D: I am, but not in Arabic.

Child: Oh. How do you say hello in Japanese?

D: I don’t know.

Child: Oh. How do you say hello in Chinese?

D: I don’t know.

Child: Oh. How do you say hello in Russian?

D: I don’t know. I don’t translate ALL languages.

Child: Oh. Why not?

●●●●

It is morning. L is chopping the fruit, D is on the terrace drinking coffee.   The child is running laps of the building and timing itself on an ipad. It dashes past and stops, panting.

Child: Salut.

D: Hello.

Maman: Breakfast!

Child: Oh. I’m just going to have my breakfast.

D: Right.

Child: I’ll be back.

D: Right.

Child: En 1 heure.

D: OK.

Child: Actually, en 1 seconde.

D: Fine.

Child: No, en 5 minutes.

D: Good.

Child: En 30 secondes.

D: OK.

Child: En 10 secondes.

D: OK.

Child: En 20 minutes.

D: OK.

Child: En 5 secondes.

D: OK.

Child: En 20 secondes.

D: See you later.

Later…..

Child: Salut. I’m back, can we go to the beach?

●●●●

It is evening. On the terrace. There is beer and peanuts. There is no sign of the child.

D: They’re leaving tomorrow.

L: Oh. I’m going to miss our little friend.

D: Yes. Except for the light sabre.

L:   Careful with your big feet kicking the table – you’re spilling our drinks.

D: It’s not me. It’s our little friend. It’s under the table.

L: Oh. What’s it doing?

D: I think it’s stuck.

L: Should we do something?

D: I don’t think so. It doesn’t seem to mind.

Child: Shlack!

P1030165-2 (2)

On Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Ometepe 2 - first

L: Poor things! They’re entirely covered in bandages!

D: Not entirely – only the right hand half of them.

L: They must be SO sore.

L and D are drinking beer, their feet in the hotel pool, watching the sun sink into Lake Nicaragua and paint the horizon gold. Nearby, a couple have arrived, limping slowly to a pair of loungers and easing very gingerly into them. Once settled, they explain to their friends that they don’t think they’ll be quite up to the horse-riding booked for the following morning. They can hardly move.

L: Perhaps Ometepe’s not the place to learn to ride a scooter after all.

D: Perhaps not.

L: Maybe the ditches and speed bumps and potholes and pedestrians and hens and dogs and cows and horses and pigs and bicycles make things tricky.

D: Maybe.

L: Shall we get taxis instead?

D: Let’s.

The following morning….

A 4WD utility vehicle arrives. The driver greets them cheerfully, introduces himself, and ushers them into the car.

L: (whispering) How romantic – he’s called Byron!

D: I heard.

L: (whispering) And he called me chica!

D: I heard that too.

They set off along the island’s one road, paralleling the lake. The surface is stony and ridged, making for a bumpy ride, and progress is slow. A woman at the roadside waves, and they stop. Two small children clamber up into the open back of the vehicle. They remain standing, holding on tight, the little boy protected from the bumps and lurches by the encircling body of his big sister. They stop again, to let the children off at their auntie’s house.

Byron points out monkeys in the trees and answers their questions.

Byron: The brick to build the houses is made here on the island. With mud from the lake.

Ometepe 2 - boat by lakeL: Does everyone get their drinking water from the lake?

Byron: No, the lake’s not used for drinking, though it could be.   On this side, water comes from a crater lake high up on Volcan Maderas, and over by Concepción there are wells.

L: And is there always enough water?

Byron: Yes, though 2014 was very dry. The rainy season didn’t really happen. The government told us to stop keeping chickens for food, as they use a lot of water. They told us to eat iguanas instead.

L: And did you?

Byron: Si, iguana meat is good. But there’s always plenty to eat on the island. The soil is so fertile – it’s the volcanic ash.

D: Is it a problem when Concepción erupts?

Byron: No. Every five years or so, up it goes, and the government tells us all to evacuate the island.

L: Blimey. And do you?

Byron:   No. Nobody takes any notice.

Byron drops them off at the foot of the hill. It is still early, just after 8am. They want to be the first. They follow a farm track, then a footpath for about 3km, through pastures and forest, ascending a flank of Volcan Maderas. They pass a rock painted with an arrow and the words “1 km”. There are caupuchin and howler monkeys in the trees. Magpie jays chatter overhead and a brilliant blue morpho butterfly flits by. They see no-one, but there’s no time to waste. The path ends at a dry river bed, strewn with boulders and enclosed by tall cliffs.Ometepe 2 - to San Ramon

L: Oh. We’ve done about 1km since the rock. Where is it?

D: Just along here. Follow me.

They pick their way up the stream bed, over gravel and rocks and around boulders and small trees. Until it becomes impassable.

L: Are we lost?

D: No. It’s just along here.

They climb out of the stream bed and follow a steep, rocky footpath winding through the woods. And on.

L: This is the world’s longest kilometre. Or we’re lost.

D: We’re not lost. It’s just along here.

L:   You keep saying that. I’ll just stay here. Can I have a biscuit?

D: But I can hear it.

L: Oh.

Ometepe 2 - San RamonJust around the next corner they arrive. The San Ramon Waterfall cascades down the mountain from 40 metres above, ending in a shallow pool. It is so tall and so sheer that they have to tilt their heads backwards, further and further, necks cricking, just to see the top. Moss and tiny ferns line the cliff wall and wet rock glistens in the sunlight. They have the place entirely to themselves, like one big awesome secret. They stand under the waterfall happily, wade in the pool and admire. They sit on a rock, drying off and eating biscuits. Soon a woman arrives with her son, aged about ten. The secret’s out. It’s time to leave.

On the steep scramble down, they meet four people.

People: Are we nearly there?

L: Not far – about 10 minutes.

In the river bed they meet two more.

People: Are we nearly there?

L: Not far – about 20 minutes.

On the path through the forest they meet more, and more, and more.

People: Are we nearly there?

L: Not far – about 25 minutes, half an hour, 40 minutes.

They come across a clump of tethered horses. They meet a school group of girls taking selfies. Back on the track, people are parking, getting out of cars. Motorbikes arrive. In all they count 57 people heading to the waterfall. A long way down, a red faced man is wrestling his way up the uneven surface on a scooter. He stops, sweating.

Man: Is it much further? Will I make it on this?

D: Ummm….maybe. There are other cars and motorbikes up there. Not sure about scooters. You can drive to within a kilometre of the falls.

L: (under her breath) The world’s longest kilometre.

L worries for the rest of the day that the man will skid and fall and end up covered in bandages.

D: He’ll be fine. He’d only hurt himself on one side anyway.

Later….

Ometepe 2 - laundry in lakeThey are kayaking along the lakeshore. Women stand in the shallows doing their laundry on rock platforms built for the purpose. Toddlers play on the shore. A fisherman sits on the gunwale of his boat, mending nets. From time to time a rustic wooden dwelling is visible amongst a clump of palm trees at the water’s edge. But mostly the shore is given over to forest and pastures. They spot herons, kingfishers, egrets and ospreys.

The River Istiam is at its lowest. They find the narrow mouth, almost hidden in reeds at the edge of the lake, and glide silently along the shallow muddy stream.   Their guide is a young islander, and he knows his stuff. He reels off the names of the birds as they pass, spotting the invisible, time and again.

Ometepe 2 - great egretGuide: Look, a great egret, and next to him a great blue heron.

D fumbles for the camera.

Guide: There, a green heron.

L: Take a photo!

D: Missed it.

Guide: Look, turtles.

L: Where?

He points. A cluster of sharp little noses poke above the surface and disappear. He scoops up a turtle on the end of his paddle to show them.

Ometepe 2 - kayakingL: Take a photo!

D: Damn, missed it.

Guide: Look, caiman.

D: Where?

But it is gone. They look in vain for the caimans that they know are there, lurking out of sight.

Guide: Look, iguana.

D: Where?

L: There, stupid. It’s enormous! Even I can see that one. Right above your head on that branch.

Guide: In the reeds there. A little blue heron.

Ometepe 2 - kayakGuide: On the bank. Black necked stilt birds.

They watch them pick their long-legged way through the mud.

L: Take a photo!

D: Crap, missed them.

Guide: Green kingfisher.

Guide: Kingfisher.

Guide: Kingfisher.

The area is bursting with water birds. They can’t look in all directions at once. They drift past water lilies, duck under overhanging trees and around the spreading roots of mangroves. They pass just one other kayak – other than that the river is empty. And apart from the occasional lap of water against paddle, and the noise of the birds around them, it is completely silent.Ometepe 2 - cows

On their return, they pull their kayak up the beach. A herd of cows ambles past them and down to the shore, all amongst the boats, and into the lake for a drink.

They walk back to the hotel.

L: There’s the man! Oh, I’m so happy!

D: What man?

L: The man on the scooter. He’s still in one piece.

The next morning….

Byron is back, and he’s on a mission. He collects them at 4.45am. They need to make their way across the island to catch the first ferry at 6am. The journey takes a good hour in the daylight.   But at this hour it is still pitch dark. They hurtle along the unpaved, stony, rutted road, accelerating at every opportunity and breaking hard at the drainage ditches, the speedbumps, and the potholes. Every so often, objects loom suddenly into view, without warning, lit up by the car’s headlights. At considerable speed they swerve to avoid a cow, two pigs, a horse, several dogs, a cat, two cows, more dogs, another horse, a bicycle without lights, more dogs, pedestrians without lights, another dog, another bicycle without lights, a horse, a man sleeping by the roadside, a dog, a bicycle without lights, a motorbike without rear lights, pedestrians, a dog, two more motorbikes without rear lights.

They arrive at 5.55am. Byron is triumphant. L is a wreck. D is carsick. They are really sorry to leave.

Ometepe 2 - last

 

A Scorpion in the Promised Land – Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Ometepe 1 - first

L: Why have we stopped?

Ometepe 1 - driveThe minibus is full. Every seat is taken and the roof is piled high with rucksacks and surfboards. It is heading south from the city of Leon, through flat dry landscapes reminiscent of Australian outback, towards Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific surfing town of San Juan del Sur.

The driver gets out and crosses the road to a ramshackle food-stall. He returns with his lunch and sets off again, the bus now filling with mouth-watering wafts of hot barbecued meat. Fifteen bellies growl with hunger. There are hours of this journey left yet.

The roads are straight and paved. Every so often they pass a flat-bed wooden cart drawn by a skinny pony. Rural dwellings are scattered along the roadside, with walls of wooden planks and roofs of tin, each with their separate outhouse a few metres away – wood-framed and sheathed in tarpaulin or corrugated iron. Hens peck in the dust and livestock stands in the shade.

When they reach the dock, the ferry is loading. Half a dozen vehicles squeeze on to the tiny aft deck. The rest of the space is for foot passengers. They find a spot at the railing on the upper deck, next to a tall gringo. 20 kilometres across Lake Nicaragua rise the perfect twin cones of Volcanoes Concepción and Maderas, on the island of Ometepe.

The American: It’s something, isn’t it?

D: Yes. It certainly is.

Ometepe 1 - ferryThe American: She can get lively from time to time.

D: Which one? Concepción?

They look at the taller of the two volcanoes.

The American: Yeah. She grumbles and smokes and spits ash every coupla years. She’s about due now. Beer?

D: Err, no thanks.

The American cracks open a can and drinks deeply.

The American: Been here 18 months, and that view still gets me, every time.

D: Is it a good place to be?

The American: The best. Got two Nica kids in the local school system – getting a good education, and it’s free. And you know what? No uniform, so no poverty barrier – all the kids get to go. Island feels like a real community – everyone’s proud of where they live, and they care, you know? That it’s safe and clean and friendly, so it stays that way. Best place on earth.

D: I heard a Chinese company’s about build a canal here bigger than the Panama Canal – going right across the lake and past the island. Are people worried about that?

The American: Nah. Personally, don’t think it’ll ever happen. The guy just lost all his money in the stock market crash. But if it does? Sure there’d be plenty of short term disruption. And sure it could change life completely for the islanders. But in the grand scheme of things – would that be a bad thing? Don’t think so. It’s progress. Opportunity.   Across a region where opportunity doesn’t come along every day.

D: But the environmental impact….?

The American: Sure. There’s that. Don’t have much time for the tree huggers myself. Beer?

D: Err, no thanks.

The American opens another can.

D: Nicaragua seems to have a thing about becoming bigger and better than Costa Rica. I suppose the canal would help with that.

The American: Lived in both countries over the last 20 years. Nicaragua’s too Nicaraguan, man!

D: What d’you mean?

The American: Don’t get me wrong – it’s a good thing. In some ways, Costa Rica’s sorta lost its cultural identity. Sorta sold out to the US. Nica’ll never do that. Way too much national identity. Sure, the country’s getting more stable, the infrastructure’s getting better, the tourist bucks’re getting bigger, inward investment’s getting stronger. But, if you ask me, Nica’ll never be CR, man. Being a Tico (Costa Rican) is about attitude and way of life. Being a Nica is about blood and history and hard-won freedom. Goes deep.Ometepe 1 - croc

The ferry is approaching the island. The American picks up his bag.

The American: Nice meeting you, man. Big croc – see him?

He points at a huge log floating in the harbour, which blinks and disappears.

D: Gosh – is that really….?

The American has gone.

Ometepe 1 - ConcepcionThey disembark and find a taxi. The driver gives them a map of the island. There is one road, shaped like a pair of spectacles, circling the foot of the two volcanoes and joining up in the middle. Two thirds of it is unpaved. The landscape is stunning – the volcanic soil rich and fertile. Lush green pastures, woods and plantain groves spread like skirts around the bare cone of Volcan Concepción, whilst lower Volcan Maderas rises as a thickly wooded clump of peaks and ridges and gullies. Along the road, vivid splashes of bougainvillea tumble over garden fences. Ometepe 1 - beachHouses are of brightly painted breezeblock, or brick, or wood, with corrugated iron roofs. Sun glints off the clean waters of the lake whose shores include long swathes of sandy beach. The taxi slows frequently, easing across drainage ditches and speed bumps. The traffic is heavy – there are mopeds and bicycles, there are pedestrians, families, children, and men carrying huge tree branches home for fuel. There are chickens, and dogs, and cows, and horses and pigs. There are almost no other cars.

They visit the Ojo de Agua – a local favourite. The spring-fed swimming pools are surrounded by forest. Ometepe 1 - Ojo de AquaThe water is cool, clear and blue. Families sit around the edge, in or out of the water, picnicking and drinking pipa fria through straws – cold coconut water straight from the shell. A few swim solemn lengths. At one end is a tightrope – teenagers wobble and flail for seconds before crashing headlong into the water. At the other end is a rope swing. Fathers and sons climb into a tree, launch themselves out over the pool and let go. The boys flip and somersault to cheers and applause, the men hit the water heavily, swamping those at the edge who squeal in delighted protest.

Later, they walk through the gardens and orchards of the hilltop Ecolodge Porvenir, hunting for petroglyphs.

L: Some of these rock carvings are over a thousand years old, maybe even older. No-one really knows. There’s more than 1700 of them across the island, and they’re still being discovered. The ones here are still pretty much where they were found.

They study the soft swirls and circles, spirals and doodles, carved into boulders.

L: That pair of spirals could be the island.

D: Who did them?

L: Possibly the Nicaraos. Or the Nahuas from Mexico before that. No-one really knows. But “Ometepe” means “two hills” in Nahua. It was seen as a sort of promised land, and you can see why, with all this sunshine and fresh water and fertile soil. This half of the island, under the peaks of Maderas, was the place of the sun, whilst Concepción was brother of the moon.

Ometepe 1 - man with hairThey walk on, distracted from their search by trees dangling breadfruit, gourds, cocoa pods and other exotic mysteries. D looks sceptically at a lively looking fellow with his stone-carved hair on end and a monkey at his side.

D: Are you sure the dates are right? He’s excellent but he looks a bit frivolous to me.

L: Mmm…he does, but some of the carvings might be serious and symbolic whilst others could be more like graffiti, like your friend here. No-one really knows.

Ometepe 1 - petroglyphD: Humph. Oh, come over here. This’s more like it!

They stop at a huge boulder. It is elaborately decorated with depictions of a monkey, a fish and other symbols – maybe a bird, a river, a snake.

D: What does it all actually mean? Does anyone really know?

L: Err, no. Memories. Stories recorded for future generations. All the way down the line to us, standing here now. Makes you feel connected, doesn’t it? Part of the place somehow.

D: Makes me feel a bit thirsty.

L: Oh. OK.

On the way out, they pass a couple earnestly discussing the importance of fertility symbols and phallic engravings left by ancient civilisations, as they study a nearby rock.

L: (whispering) That’s not phallic. That’s a crocodile.

D: (whispering) Is it though? It’s all open to interpretation. No-one really knows.

L: (loudly) It’s got teeth.

 

Their hotel is small, with beautiful hillside gardens looking west across the lake. There is a magnificent sunset to be seen from the infinity pool and a gigantic brown scorpion in their room. L waves at a housekeeper who is emerging from a nearby building.Ometepe 1 - scorpion

L: Ummm… disculpe, està un scorpione muy grande en el habitacion.

The housekeeper looks baffled, and comes to take a look.

Housekeeper: Ay, un alacran!

L: Es peligroso? Is it dangerous?

Housekeeper: Si.

The creature is in the top corner, where wall meets ceiling. Its body is close to 3 inches long, its tail at least that again. The three of them look up at it doubtfully. The housekeeper fetches her broom. As the tallest, D takes it and prepares to brush the scorpion off the wall. The housekeeper shakes her head.

Housekeeper: No, no!

She turns the broom around, so the handle is pointing upwards, makes vicious beating motions, and hands it back to him. D understands that she requires the scorpion to be killed and him to do it.   He gamely reaches up and pins it to the wall with the broom handle. It thrashes energetically, waving its full length of tail. D applies more pressure. The scorpion thrashes harder. This goes on for some time. On the far side of the room, L flaps her hands and climbs onto a chair. D and the scorpion continue to wrestle on opposite ends of the broom handle. The scorpion wins, wriggles free and drops to the floor. L shrieks helpfully. The housekeeper picks up a shoe and hands it to D. He hits the scorpion, repeatedly, and squashes it. The housekeeper is pleased and impressed. D is a bit queasy. They inspect the remnants.

Housekeeper: Ay, muy grande!

She picks it up in a paper napkin and disposes of it. D and the housekeeper smile at each other and shake hands triumphantly. L climbs down off her chair.

L: Beer?

D: Definitely.

Ometepe 1 - last