Catfish, no Mandala

Entering Hue, the walled former capital of Vietname

I stood on the edge of a double lane highway in southern Vietnam, screeching at a taxi driver who couldn’t care less, in a language he didn’t understand. Iain was inside the taxi, his left elbow swollen to the size of a small melon, his face pale with shock. He abruptly opened the door, to pace desperately beside the taxi.

Just an hour earlier, we’d been devouring lunch in a large outdoor restaurant in Vinh Long, with all its specialities out on display: fish in tanks, pigeons in cages and coiled snakes in a cement pit. Lunch had arrived piled on platters: pumpkin flowers stuffed with pork, beer-braised chicken and spicy beef salad, washed down with 555 beer. It was far too much food, ordered out of curiosity as much as hunger, and we left happy, to make our way to a home-stay on the Mekong Delta. Backpacks slung from our fronts and backs, we moved through the restaurant’s garden in monsoon drizzle, across a bridge of electric blue tiles, gleaming in the rain. “Careful,” Iain said, turning to me with his hand resting on a low banister, “It’s slippery.” Just at that moment he slid: down the bridge’s blue slope, down two blue steps at the end, and onto the ground. Loaded with thirty kilograms of luggage, his elbow broke the fall. Continue reading Catfish, no Mandala»

Along the Map’s Torn Edge

Lhagang Monastery, outside Tagong

Part I: Songs of Shambala

Dusk gently settled over Shangri-La. A mist rose off the grassland at the town’s edges, shot through by the day’s last beams of sunlight, while in its handful of squares, music started up and men and women gathered to dance. Standing in a wide circle, they moved through the same few steps but edged slowly clockwise, as if each person was a prayer wheel set spinning by pilgrims circumambulating a shrine.

There was dancing in the cobbled square at the centre of old Shangri-La and dancing below the hilltop temple, at the foot of granite stairs. There was dancing in the new town too, in the wide square presided over by a cultural hall, and by dancing Shangri-La gathered every evening around the traditions that had animated it. It gathered around Tibetan Buddhism and trade, which had passed along the Tea-Horse Trail through its cobbled square. In the square below Shangri-La’s temple, dancers were reminded of the wisdoms that overcame desire, hatred, delusion, pride and envy – the five poisons – by a five-pronged vajra glowing white on the temple’s roof, in the light of a level sun. Shangri-La gathered around its communist institutions too, at the cultural hall, and in all three squares the music was arcade-game techno with Tibetan vocals. It gave the traditional dances an atmosphere similar to Shanghai’s outdoor aerobics classes, where office workers exercised at the end of the day. Continue reading Along the Map’s Torn Edge»

Ancient Angkor: Stories in the Stone

Krishna and his sidekick Garuda

Angkor Wat’s pinecone-tower contours are already etched onto my mind when Iain and I cycle towards them in the crisp dawn air. You can’t avoid images of the temple in Siem Reap, where t-shirts, bags, hats, photographs, paintings, ink drawings and sculptures, all emblazoned with Angkor Wat, are sold virtually everywhere in the ruins’ nearest town. I stop my bicycle, chain it to Iain’s, and try to set the image in my head aside, to see this architectural representation of the Hindu universe through the cosmic lens that its Khmer designers intended. In the distance, the five pinecone towers become Mount Meru’s craggy peaks, silhouetted against the lilac morning sky. The sun is slowly rising over this universe, the primordial ocean is still calm, and a few visitors – mere specks – are moving toward the sacred mountain’s summit. I cross the ocean, represented by a moat, and stand at the bottom of a long causeway where stone naga serpents are stretched out on either side. Passing the nagas, I symbolically leave the realm of men and enter the world of the gods. Continue reading Ancient Angkor: Stories in the Stone»

Atrocity Tourism in Phnom Penh

Skulls in the Choeung Ek Memorial Stupa

It is a tree like many others. Neither old nor distinctively tall, it has rough, brittle bark and a pile of bricks at its base. Sticks of incense left unlit between the bricks might mark the tree out elsewhere, but not in Southeast Asia, where trees are the infrastructure of an Animist spirit world. What sets the tree apart here is a sign that reads, “KILLING TREE AGAINST WHICH EXECUTIONERS BEAT CHILDREN.”

You imagine it, while you read the sign. An infant still soft with baby fat is held by its legs and swung against the trunk of the tree repeatedly, until its skull cracks. The executioner is a country boy of seventeen without an education. A thorough indoctrination has failed to prepare him for the job of killing infants, but the boy obeys out of fear, and it is his horror you feel most keenly, after he has discarded the child with its mother in a mass grave. You want the words on the sign to be nonsensical – just words, like Noam Chomsky’s “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously” – because what they point to is black, bilious, mad. The tree on the other hand is ordinary, and it is its ordinariness that starts to work on you after a while, when you reach out to rub the rough bark, wondering how genocide could leave its blunt instrument unmarked. Continue reading Atrocity Tourism in Phnom Penh»

A Blood Buffet in the Cambodian Jungle

Hirudo orientalis has two heads, two sets of reproductive organs and nine pairs of testes. Hiding deep in Cambodia’s jungles, it waits for unsuspecting animals to sink its teeth into, using sensors to detect heat and movement and anaesthetic to mask the bite. Jaws in place, hirudo orientalis sends an anticoagulant into its host’s bloodstream and begins feeding, consuming up to five times its body mass in blood. Today, it’s mine it is sucking.

Four hirudo orientalis and their eight heads have already gnawed under my skin today and I see two more in my path, swaying back and forth between the wet leaves, waiting to flick-flack their way up to a blood buffet. The path I’m following has become a sandy stream which I march up, intermittently darting to the side to avoid the wriggling creatures. Fat drops of monsoon rain fall from a humid sky above my head, beating down on jungle leaf drums, rallying a leech army.

I scour the terrain, clutching a fistful of salt, pausing every few minutes to yank up my trousers and check for leeches that have found a way in. A sprinkle of salt and their dark brown bodies begin to twist, regurgitating their stomach contents into my wound before dropping to the jungle floor. “Keep moving!” Iain shouts, flicking one off the edge of my raincoat with a bottle, and we continue up the river – the “path,” our guide Sina calls it – wearing a layer of jungle detritus over our water-logged clothes. The wind gives a rustle-whoosh-hiss and, as if responding to an order, the rain pelts down harder. “Maybe it’ll stop after this shower,” I call back to Sina who is lagging behind. “Maybe no,” he replies, and we trudge deeper into the jungle. Continue reading A Blood Buffet in the Cambodian Jungle»

The Reincarnated Capital: A History

The Buddha at Wat Maha Pruettharam Worawihan, supposedly from Sukhothai

I didn’t recognise how well Bangkok aggregated people until my last afternoon in it, which felt like turning a book’s final page. Claire and I were walking off an Iranian lunch, prepared by a taciturn man from Tehran. His blend of aubergine and whey, called kashk-e bodenjoon, made me impatient to move on, to sample the delicacies of Central Asia and the Middle East. The restaurant was on the same street as a temple dedicated to Mariamman, the South Indian goddess of rain and disease, and we started our walk there, with incense and Hindu chants reconfiguring our thoughts. Thai Buddhists imitated their Indian cousins well, taking arati with bent knees and cupped hands, while Brahmins served up platters of coconuts and marigolds indifferently, like petty bureaucrats completing a chore. The priests, with hairy chests left bare, were a mark of the community’s vitality, of the connection it maintained with India. In Saigon, at another temple dedicated to Mariamman, with the same statuary and gopuram, coated in the same vinyl paint, Claire and I had found a Brahmin’s Vietnamese widow officiating, assisted by beardless, half-caste sons.

We made our way from the Hindu temple to the river haphazardly, without a map, and stopped at the Assumption Cathedral, with its icons of “Maria and Bambino, Thai style” and its chapel dedicated to the Thai martyr, Nicolas Bunkerd Kitbamrung. Pamphlets in English and Thai told the story of this “tireless missionary of the faith to his own people.” Born in 1895, Nicolas was ordained by Bangkok’s Portuguese bishop in 1926. Arrested in 1941 and accused “on false charges” of being an Allied spy, he was imprisoned and “deliberately infected with tuberculosis,” which killed him in 1944. Continue reading The Reincarnated Capital: A History»

A Sunday Service Among the Akha

A mostly Akha congregation sing a hymn at Mae Salong's Methodist church

The church was almost full. From my pew near the back, between two bulky headdresses, I could see a young Chinese woman with a pudding basin haircut and an open hymn book, standing on the stage. Beneath their various ornaments, the headdresses were simple cloth caps dyed blue-black with indigo, but fully embellished they must have weighed a couple of kilograms. Hemispheres of beaten silver, called chukhaw, were sewn onto the front and sides. Silver-plated trapezoids the size of cigar boxes had been attached to the backs, with lengths of coloured beads, dyed horse hair and feathered tassels hanging from them, amongst coins. Sitting behind the ladies wearing the headdresses, I could read King Edward Emperor, still visible on the silver. The monarch’s face was worn down and the coins were thin and dainty: rupees spent in Burma or India during the British Raj.

The woman at the front of the church greeted us in Chinese, “Dàjiā hǎo!” and I wondered whether the ladies in headdresses understood this phrase by now. They were Akha, one of the ethnic minorities that Thailand calls “hill tribes”, as was three quarters of the congregation. The other quarter was Chinese – except for two curiosities: Iain and I, trying hopelessly to blend in. Continue reading A Sunday Service Among the Akha»

China’s Forgotten Army

Chinese and Southeast Asian architecture in Mae Salong. A memorial to the Forgotten Army's dead is on the right, just across from a Burmese-influenced Thai wat.

In 1950, the Kuomintang’s 93rd Division fought its way out of China into Burma’s Shan State. The Chinese Civil War was already over: a year earlier, two million refugees had followed Chiang Kaishek to Taiwan. Mao’s Red Army was celebrating its victory, but the 93rd Division refused to surrender. It survived for twelve years in the jungles of the Shan State, in constant conflict with the Burmese Army. When China entered the Korean War, the 93rd Division was armed by the CIA and on seven occasions, between 1950 and 1953, it tried – and failed – to retake the Chinese province of Yunnan.

In 1961, the by now Forgotten Army was granted asylum in Thailand, on a hilltop in the Golden Triangle called Mae Salong. It had still not surrendered. To fund its military operations, the Forgotten Army grew poppies and turned Mae Salong into Southeast Asia’s largest heroin refinery. It was co-opted by Thailand to fight a Chinese-backed communist incursion and it was not until 1982 that the soldiers of the Forgotten Army put down their guns, after more than 40 years of war. For their service to Thailand, they were granted Thai citizenship. Zhan Dening was among them. We met him sitting outside his family home when we visited the hilltop town, which is now called Santikhiri, “The Hill of Peace,” and asked him to tell us his story. Continue reading China’s Forgotten Army»

Slow Boat Home to Luang Prabang

At the foot of Lasagongma Mountain, 5224 metres above sea level, the Mekong takes its first icy breaths. Under Tibet’s cobalt skies, it tumbles toward flatter earth, into tropical Southeast Asia, where it meets the ocean at Vietnam. It’s a journey of 4,350 kilometres through six countries, making the Mekong the world’s tenth longest river. It is Laos’ Mae Nam Khong, or Mother of Rivers. The title mother is bestowed on great rivers by both Thai and Lao people; perhaps unsurprisingly, the Khong in Mae Nam Khong is derived from the Sanskrit Ganga of Grandmother Ganges herself. The Mekong gives shape to Laos’ western border with Thailand, and divides it from Burma just north of the Golden Triangle, where opium and arms trading have been replaced by casinos and Chinese cargo. The river is Laos’ pulse and lifeblood. It is its backbone too, a line of defence that has helped the landlocked nation survive. I am sailing along the northern arc of the border between Thailand and Laos, following the Mekong from Chiang Kong back to my temporary home in Luang Prabang, and Iain. It is a two day passage on a Luang Say cruise, with days spent on the water and a night at a lodge halfway, in Pakbeng. Watching the scenery go by, taking photos – and a few notes – are all I plan to do. Thailand is on the river’s right bank, where a shrine gleams gold behind leaves of dull jade. Steps lead up to it, skirted by a banister sculpted into a writhing naga. The mythical serpent is a guardian of treasure, often associated with water. Thai flags flutter between the King’s flag of yellow silk. Across the river – in Laos – three women are bathing on the shore, wrapped in sarongs, beside a royal blue long-tail boat. Today’s laundry – trousers, sinhs, Hello Kitty sheets – blows in the breeze on the river bank. Further up the river other Lao people fish and unload sacks from wooden boats, dragging them onto pebbly shores. Continue reading Slow Boat Home to Luang Prabang»

Hike to Houy Fai Peak

Ban Houy Fai, with Houy Fai Peak in the background

Kham pointed across the river, at a peak like a rotten canine in the purple distance, with its tip hidden by a monsoon shroud. “That’s where we’re going,” he said, and led us down to dragon boats idling on the Nam Khan, waiting to take us from one riverbank to the other, into terrain that was emphatically blank on a Google map, but only fifteen kilometres east of Luang Prabang.

We were on a tour – a two day “fair trek” organised by a company called Tiger Trail. Kham was guiding Claire and I along with three women from Normandy to a village in the shadow of Houy Fai Peak, where we would sleep; in the morning, we would make our way back along a different trail. It was seven hours up and five hours down in muggy heat, through the sorts of rural areas where three quarters of Laos’ population live. Tiger Trail promised “authentic interactions with Khmu and Hmong villagers,” which rung like clumsy copy for a human zoo, but Laos is not a country of cities, towns and tubing: the majority of its people live in hard-to-reach villages, inaccessible without a guide or careful preparation, and Claire and I had succumbed to the choreography of a tour.

The river was full. Trees with fat, naked roots squeezed its banks, playing a game of chicken with the ochre current. The French explorer Henri Mouhot called the Nam Khan “a beautiful stream, which leads to some Laotian and savage villages bearing the name of Fie.” It was these “savages, with habitations…in the thickest parts of the forests, where they only can find a path,” that we were going to see, and when we arrived on the opposite bank, and started on our way, it was clear that we could have neither found nor followed the path ourselves. Continue reading Hike to Houy Fai Peak»

Paying Homage to Henri Mouhot

Caption in Mouhot's journal: Bivouac of M. Mouhot in the forests of Lao

When he at last succumbed to malarial fever, Henri Mouhot was just ten kilometres from Luang Prabang. He had tramped his way across mainland Southeast Asia for three years, between 1858 and 1861, living for months in the Cambodian jungle, amongst “the savage Stiens”, where tigers were such a constant menace that he slept with a loaded gun. He had visited the ruins at Angkor, which were being torn apart and swallowed in places by a resurgent jungle; locals told him the temples were built by gods or giants and Mouhot, with no knowledge of India, could not offer a more plausible explanation. When he penetrated the hardwood forests of Laos on the back of an elephant, he was the first white man in 25 years to enter the kingdom – or what was left of it after Thailand and Vietnam had casually picked Laos apart – and it was only at the very end that his health gave out. Around him, people regularly suffered from “the pestilential miasmata”, but he had a regimen – “abstinence, all but total, from wine and spirits, and drinking only tea, never cold water” – that he credited for his sustained good health.

Mouhot died on October 29, 1861, beside the Nam Khan River. He was 35. His servant Phrai sent Mouhot’s journals – “scribbled generally by the light of a torch, and on my knees at the foot of a tree, amidst interruptions of all sorts, of which the mosquitoes are not the least annoying” – to the French ambassador in Siam. Three years later they were published in two volumes, both of which are now in the public domain. In the preface, Mouhot’s brother thanks Phrai, who accompanied the explorer everywhere. “Phrai is delighted to attend me, and to run about the woods all day,” Mouhot wrote, soon after the two men met, “and I am not less pleased with our bargain, for his knowledge of the country, his activity, his intelligence, and attachment to me, are invaluable.” The bond between the two was so strong, by the end, that Mouhot worried Phrai might die for him, but he still referred to his servants as “boys” and wherever he went, Mouhot looked at Southeast Asia with a European’s jaundiced eye.

Caption in Mouhot's journal: Women of Laos

While Mouhot was in Cambodia in 1859, his countrymen were planting France’s tricolore in Saigon. By 1893, the French conquest of Indochina was complete; Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos had been incorporated into a French protectorate, and gunboat diplomacy had left Thailand with a territory reduced at every side. Mouhot was posthumously accused of being at the vanguard of European imperialism, but in spite of his stage-whispered assessments of Bangkok’s fortifications, he was mostly an old-fashioned naturalist, more interested in skinning monkeys and digging up worms than military conquest, and his colonial views were an inescapable – if inexcusable – product of his time. He collected and carefully packed specimens of plants and animals across the region, and classified hundreds of species for science. His journals are scattered with observations of geology, meteorology and anthropology, with a breadth of scientific knowledge that modern travel writers can only admire.

Mouhot was an old-fashioned Christian too, constantly worrying about Southeast Asia’s heathen soul. Religion gave him a network; it was also a bulwark against loneliness, because he stayed with missionaries everywhere except for Laos. They introduced him to government officials and tribal chiefs, who provided Mouhot with the oxen, ponies and elephants he needed to haul his baggage. “Their life,” he wrote of Southeast Asia’s missionaries, “is one of the hardest and most painful, and requires self-sacrifice more than any other. Exposed to the influence of pernicious climates, badly lodged, badly fed, far from their families and from their country, often ill and dying without help — such is the lot of these men.” Continue reading Paying Homage to Henri Mouhot»

Luang Prabang: The Elements of Heritage

The Mekong reflects dusk's eerie light

Luang Prabang is a riddle that photographs can solve. It is a town popular with tourists and a World Heritage site, but it rarely feels overrun. It is like a sprawling resort in places, with a commerce given over to foreign comforts, but it is not a colony on the Banana Pancake Trail. Instead, Luang Prabang is tranquil. The Mekong and its bubbling tributary, the Nam Khan, wrap around the historic district and meet at its eastern tip, punctuating time with the river sounds of Southeast Asia – with the hum of motorboats and squeals of swimming children, with the plop of hand nets and sploosh of oars. Bamboo groves and palm trees arch over its riverbanks, and the jungle has not yet been banished by urban sprawl; it covers the town protectively, and looking down from the limestone hills that surround the town, nothing but the golden tips of Buddhist stupas remain visible above the green fecundity of trees.

Wat That Luang

Luang Prabang is a riddle because it has no single wonder to leave you awestruck, but the town pries its way into your imagination all the same. It has the elegant temples of Southeast Asia, with roofs tiered like loose skin on the arch of a dragon’s back, but in and of themselves, its temples are not especially remarkable. It has novice monks moving between the duties of a carefully structured day, in ochre and saffron robes set off by the browns of teak, brick and rust, but monks are a part of life across the region. Its architecture is a blend of indigenous and French styles, with elements borrowed from Laos’ neighbours, but its mixture of timber and brick, shuttered windows and ornamental eaves can be found throughout old Indochina. Its animals are remarkable, especially its dogs; they are left to take themselves on walks, but stay friendly, greedily chasing after a stroke. There are cats too, with broken tails, and chickens clucking and pecking in vegetable patches on the river banks. Luang Prabang is not wholly urban, nor is it rural: it is a town of distinct parts and mingled pasts that has held onto its soul, and with photographs you can frame the elements of its heritage individually and start to unravel the riddle. Continue reading Luang Prabang: The Elements of Heritage»

An Alternative to Tubing in Vang Vieng

Girls at the Saelao project in Vang Vieng

Claire and I went to Vang Vieng to laze in a grove of Edenic green. It was a picture-perfect fantasy, conjured up by a postcard in Vientiane labelled Blue Lagoon, but we were curious too. Vang Vieng was where drug-addled backpackers bobbed downriver in tyre tubes, and its ugly reality did not come as a surprise when we arrived, or even a disappointment. The town pandered to the depths of hedonism, and its signboards promising cold beer, blaring hip hop and reruns of Family Guy and Friends were like a parody of Western culture, as if the joke was on us. It was laughable and dispiriting by turns, but on the day we rode out to find landlocked Laos’ Blue Lagoon, pedalling mountain bikes over a bamboo toll bridge and along a dusty track, into farmland, we found a reason to return to Vang Vieng.

Rain started pouring down in heavy, languid drops. The track became slippery, forcing us to pedal quickly through deep puddles, spraying mud. It covered us up to our necks in a layer of brown, like the buffaloes around us, wallowing idly in the paddy fields. There were signposts at intervals, pointing to caves with Buddha idols in their depths and a variety of Blue Lagoons; if we hadn’t stopped to play with a litter of puppies, we might have paid 20,000 kip for access to the wrong pool of water.

The puppies’ owner was a Thai man with a small homestead set beside the road, kilometres from the closest settlement. He said he had been a jungle monk at home, but now he was married to a Lao woman, and he meditated with her every evening, in their home of crooked logs without electric light. The couple had chickens and a garden planted with vegetables, basil, lemongrass, bananas and pineapples; the only food they bought was rice. They had placed three tables in the garden and optimistically opened a restaurant, where Claire and I promised to eat on our way back. We did, and the slices of pineapple served with our fried rice were sweet and soft, without a trace of stringy fibre. The Thai man warned us to ignore the signs to other pools, and pointed us in the direction of the postcard’s Blue Lagoon; it was about five kilometres away, he said, past a village and over two more bridges, where we saw children cavorting naked in the clear river water, and wondered why we were cycling further, our arms aching from the dirt road’s constant bumps. Continue reading An Alternative to Tubing in Vang Vieng»

Land of the Banana Pancake Eaters

They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-Eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return.

Homer, The Odyssey

Swings over the 'Blue Lagoon' in Vang Vieng, Laos

At first, the sheer ease of travelling in Southeast Asia came as a pleasant shock. After flying in from Calcutta, most of the cheap hotels in Bangkok seemed exceptionally clean, and were as affordable as their Indian equivalents. We didn’t need to trek halfway across the city to buy bus tickets from dingy ticket offices filled with aggressive queue jumpers; they were sold by agents for the same price. We spent our first month between Bangkok and an idyllic island in the Gulf of Thailand, without any of the familiar hassles and challenges of travel, and when our Thai visas expired, we continued into Laos. My thoughts often turned to India and the twelve months I’d spent travelling there, testing and tormenting myself on long sweaty journeys to vast, polluted cities where a concrete box with a creaky overhead fan was often all I could get for my money. Had all the hassles and challenges been worth it?

The day I arrived in Vang Vieng the answer slapped me in the face. Or, rather, a few dozen pairs of barely-bikinied breasts slapped me in the face, closely pursued by as many pairs of luminous shorts, emblazoned with Vang Vieng, In the Tubing.

Vang Vieng is famous – in Australia. To most eighteen year old backpackers – and like-minded twenty-somethings – Vang Vieng is the highlight of any coming-of-age jaunt around Southeast Asia. To other travellers, it is a small town in northern Laos where people hire rubber tubes and float down the Nam Song River, stopping at ramshackle bars along the riverbank to drink buckets of whiskey and coke, or truly test their endurance with opium-laced cocktails or a bucket of magic mushrooms blended with fruit juice, hoping to god they won’t need to swim. Several travellers die every year, most from drowning or cracking their skulls on a rock. There are several tragic stories of people swimming after runaway tubes, only to disappear in the current – for the sake of a seven dollar deposit. Some float their way to the end of the tubing course in the dark, having lost track of time, and are robbed by groups of teenage locals who pretend to be helping them ashore. Continue reading Land of the Banana Pancake Eaters»

Off the Record in Vientiane

Jonnee Green menthol cigarettes, made by the China-Laos Good Luck Tobacco Company

A man I met in Vientiane, who spoke eloquently about the city and how it had changed, initially gave short, guarded answers to my questions. When I promised not to quote him, he opened up, but I couldn’t fit what he said into my portrait of the Chinese people changing Laos without either revealing his identity or allowing faceless, out-of-context accusations to creep into my narrative. I’ve transcribed a part of my conversation with him instead, and published it below. Among other things, it contains some strong criticisms of the path Laos’ government has chosen; they may or may not be well founded, but are at least an indication of what some people in Vientiane think.

How has Vientiane changed in your lifetime?
In the eighties, there were no cars on the road, no restaurants, nothing. It was dead after six o’ clock. You could lie down on the main road.

Wow! It’s changed a lot. Is that all in the last twenty years?
Mostly in the last five years. The tallest building was the government office – seven storeys. Now there are all these high rise buildings under construction.

How do people feel about the changes?
They have mixed feelings.

Do they think that their quality of life has improved?
In what sense? Happiness? How do you measure this? Continue reading Off the Record in Vientiane»

The Chinese of Vientiane

The new Fude Temple in Vientiane

Part I: New Arrivals

On the banks of the Mekong in Vientiane, there is a Chinese temple that is empty for most of the day. The city’s children use its concrete parking lot to practice BMX and skateboard tricks, popping Ollies and kickflips in torn jeans and t-shirts with obscure English prints – like Your Momma Is My Bitch, on a podgy boy of about twelve. The dragons and roosters on the temple’s roof are coated in waterproof enamel, a layer of primary colour that is strikingly new, because Laos’ temples and monasteries are mostly dilapidated, with paint and mould peeling off their sun-bleached walls. Inside the temple, an electric pump pours water into a stone tank and a polished Buddha presides over the empty room. There is a plastic seat for an attendant beside the shrine, but when I visited even he wasn’t there. His pack of cigarettes, with a photograph on it of orchids bobbing on water in a copper bowl, was the only sign of ordinary life.

Opposite the temple, across the Mekong, is the Thai town of Phan Phrao. Phan Phrao was originally a part of Vientiane, but in 1887, when France drew up the borders of its new protectorate in Southeast Asia, the Mekong was used as a boundary. Vientiane was cut in half. If it had still been Laos’ capital, the French would have been guilty of exactly the sort of brash land grab for which European colonialism is reviled, but in 1887 Vientiane was not the capital of Laos. It had been annexed by Siam in 1779 and in 1827, during a rebellion, it was razed by a Siamese army. The Emerald Buddha was carried off with the spoils. It is now a talisman of the Thai kings, enshrined at the royal Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok.

At night, smugglers cross the river with products Laos cannot manufacture itself. It is a tempting run. Although Laos is a member of the ASEAN trading bloc, it imposes duties of up to 40 percent on imports from Thailand. The crossing is simple too, a straightforward A to B over unpatrolled water. The Mekong is a few hundred metres wide where it flows past Vientiane, but the water is sluggish and heavy with silt. On the Lao side, a wide sandbar called Don Chan Island halves the distance from riverbank to riverbank. Don Chan is, for the moment, just a strip of mud and scrub, but a joint venture with a Chinese company and 180 million dollars of cheap Chinese loans will soon transform it into an island of wealth, with apartments and offices, a shopping centre, a hotel, an entertainment complex, a medical centre and an international school.

Even my Lonely Planet guidebook, which I normally dismissed as a vapid guide to Southeast Asia’s banana pancake trail, contained a reference to the Chinese presence in the city. Fifty thousand labourers from China had moved in, it said, as part of a deal between the two countries’ governments. In return, China had built the city’s stadium for the Southeast Asian games, along with the road to it. A waiter at the Mekong View Café told me that the empty temple was built for these 50,000 new arrivals. It might have explained why nobody ever paid their respects to the deity inside: Laos had apparently reneged on the agreement, with the lame excuse that the wrong official had signed the papers. But my waiter had been wrong. Fude Temple was established in 1968, by immigrants from China’s Guangdong province; its parking lot was smooth and its coat of enamel still bright because as part of the redevelopment of the promenade along the Mekong – a project funded by Korea – the old temple had been knocked down and rebuilt. Continue reading The Chinese of Vientiane»

Night Train to Nong Khai

The 8pm express to Nong Khai was clattering its way out of Bangkok. Attendants in white uniforms with fat lapels moved through the sleeper cars, making passengers’ beds – snapping sheets, pillow slips and lime green curtains into place with military efficiency, and without the vaguest hint that they’d like a tip. The contrast with Indian trains was stark, but Claire and I were disappointed. Although we had only just embarked, our sleeper car was falling silent.

It was our first Thai train. We had bought beers – two cans of Leo, light by Thai standards at 5% – and curry pies. We had two new books, Bangkok 8 and From the Land of Green Ghosts, our first about Southeast Asia and, without discussing it, we had decided to celebrate this new transportation system, this new magic of A to B overland.

I had resigned myself to disappearing behind my curtain and reading when Claire spied life, past the end of our carriage. It was the dining car, and as we entered it we both cracked wide smiles. The car’s windows were flung open, allowing the full clang-clankclang-clank of wheels on track to knock through the carriage. Seventies funk was blaring, and the lights of a fluorescent city flooded in. The dining car was like a river boat, floating through a fantasy of urban Asia. It was in the city, but not of it. Continue reading Night Train to Nong Khai»

Thailand’s Quiet Island

Gentle waves and gentle light

I have a place where I can go, where the sound of silence is interrupted only by the buzzing of fish jaws munching on their coral lunch. Following the flow of the water, I pass giant white boulders and seaweed gardens, hovering above mauve coloured coral; bulbous mounds that resemble swollen brains. I get lost in this landscape of undulations and crevices, where, floating above fish homes, I feel like a guest – peering in, uninvited – more than I feel fear. Below me, and as far as I can see, are cities of rock and coral guarded by urchins of hypnotising beauty, with shiny black needles – porcupine pom-poms – protecting pearlescent blue beads.

This underwater world – a pocket of water in the vast Gulf of Thailand – was where I happily spent day after day in the ocean. Staggering sideways from the sea in flippers, I emerged onto an island that was, to me, serenity itself: Koh Mak, a retreat from noise and bustle, and from the mass tourism that has overwhelmed so many Thai islands. For me, it was also a retreat into rare moments of beauty, and into myself, where silence was the sound of the water curling its way up the sand. Each morning, I woke from soothing dreams and, with the smell of salt in my nostrils, walked across a patch of lawn and straight into the sea, a new day ahead of me. As the days went by and the sun imprinted itself on my skin, I began to slip further and further into a state of relaxation I’d never known before. I breathed this island with every breath and fell deeply in love with its calm. Continue reading Thailand’s Quiet Island»

Songkran Festival in Bangkok

Songkran in Bangkok 7

With only serendipity to thank, Iain and I have chanced upon a handful of Asia’s most remarkable festivals. We arrived in Trivandrum, India’s southernmost city, to find the world’s largest gathering of women boiling rice pudding on fires lit in the streets. We celebrated Holi, India’s Festival of Colours, amongst the ruins of the former Vijayanagara Empire, where we were so thoroughly coated in coloured powder and paint that our eyes blinked white against a mess of purple, pink and blue that covered our faces and hair completely. In China, we were invited to spend Spring Festival in a remote village in Jiangxi, where we drank homemade rice wine against the cold, but declined to eat the family dog. In April this year, we chanced upon Songkran, the Thai New Year festival, while in Bangkok. Also known as the Water Festival, Songkran’s three day water fights rivalled the mayhem of Holi.

Songkran is not unlike Holi: its origins are religious, and its modern day incarnation involves water, paint and intoxicants. Songkran is celebrated across Thailand, and the three day long public holiday often turns into a week-long event, particularly in the northern city of Chiangmai. Many Thais travel back to their hometown for the festival, where they may celebrate in a more traditional manner: by visiting a temple to witness images of Buddha being ritually bathed in fragrant water, and sprinkling – not pouring – water on their elders to bring them good fortune. Continue reading Songkran Festival in Bangkok»

A Letter from Thailand

A fish tank in Bangkok's Chinatown
When I found Letters from Thailand in a jumble of second hand books, amongst translations of best selling thrillers and trashy romances discarded at the end of a holiday, I didn’t notice A NOVEL printed in thin, white letters on its cover. It was a dull cover, of Chinese sweets stacked on red silk, and the title of the book, with the first word italicised, the second in low-caps and the third in caps – Letters from THAILAND – distracted me. I turned straight to the prologue, which was tragic.

The prologue described how a series of letters, written by a businessman in Bangkok, named Tan Suang U, arrived on the desk of General Sala Sinthuthawat of the Thai police. It was written by the general – or so I thought – and his elegant introduction, which warned that Thais might sometimes find the book insulting, but never boring, gave me an unjustified respect for Thailand’s police force.

In 1967, a censor in Shanghai defected from the Chinese Communist Party and arrived in Bangkok with a collection of other people’s private letters. The censor had started life and his habit of letter collecting as a mailman in rural China. Tan Suang U’s village was on his route and for some reason – perhaps because it contained money – the censor opened the son’s first letter, written to his mother in 1945, aboard a ship to Thailand. The son had left his village at night, in secret; on his way out, he left a scribbled farewell note on the kitchen table. The first letter, when I read it, was a mixture of remorse and excitement at the prospect of a new and maybe successful life outside of war-torn China. Only, the censor didn’t deliver the letter, and through every promotion and every move, he made sure that he received the 95 that followed and that Tan Suang U’s mother, who must have thought herself abandoned by an ungrateful son, received none of these letters from Thailand. Continue reading A Letter from Thailand»

Writer in Transit

Claire at work in an Indian hotel roomI don’t have a single journal entry about my three months in India. I didn’t write anything about my time there, except for a post about the dancer that didn’t dance, in a Bombay beer bar. The scene – a slice out of a furtive, alternative reality, swallowed up in Mumbai’s underworld – spoke to me, forming sentences in my head. But those brief moments of inspiration stood alone.

It wasn’t India that sucked all inspiration out of me; India has a habit of giving and taking in equal proportions. During my first few days in Mumbai, I was alive; I looked on the world with the open-eyed gaze of a traveller. I was experiencing a temporary – but intense – release of stress, having packed up my life in Shanghai. The last year had been the busiest period of my life to date: writing a book, teaching English to business people and studying Mandarin at a local college. Then came the great packing sessions – two of them. The first, just a few months before I left the country, was a move from the apartment where we had spent almost three years, into a much smaller space. When I left the smaller apartment – and Shanghai, for good – Iain was visiting family in South Africa. I packed up on my own, feeling completely overwhelmed, while working and tying up loose ends that appeared out of nowhere, as well as making last minute preparations for our trip. The visas and international bank accounts and immunisations were all forced to wait until the very last minute, when I ran around the city in the snow like a rare and ridiculous juggling act.

From the moment I walked out of the arrivals hall, India began to seep into my very being. I was immediately hit by that hot, tropical smell, infused with spices. The unruly trees and fleshy-leaved plants, the fragrant smoke from incense floating through the city, the frying cumin and the boiling cardamom: they all made my senses soar as I breathed in the warmth of a place that affects me like no other. Continue reading Writer in Transit»

The Curse of Gokarna

A scratched mural

Proceeding next to Gokarna celebrated over the three worlds, and which is situated, O best of kings, in the midst of the deep, and is reverenced by all the worlds, and where the gods headed by Brahma, and Rishis endued with wealth of asceticism, and spirits and Yakshas and Pisachas…worship the lord of Uma, one should worship Isana, fasting there for three nights. By this, one acquireth the merit of the horse-sacrifice, and the status of Ganapatya. By staying there for twelve nights, one’s soul is cleansed of all sins.

From The Mahabharata, written between 400 and 100 BCE

Part I: Arrival

Gokarna is a village growing awkwardly and uncomfortably into a town. It is in this sense an adolescent, unsure of itself in the modern world, but in every other sense Gokarna is old, with a history that stretches into the remotest parts of human memory. For most of this time, it has been a village of fishermen and farmers with a single distinction: a temple that is believed to contain the soul of Shiva. But India has entered a period of rapid change, and Gokarna is being pulled along with it.

Two thousand years ago, monsoon winds blew Roman trading ships across the Arabian Sea to the nearby port of Muziris, lost to history until 2006, and Indians have encountered foreign ideas and people along the Malabar Coast – the strip of tropical coastline that stretches south from Goa to Kanyakumari, at India’s tip – ever since. Christianity found its first Indian converts here in 52 CE. Jews fleeing the destruction of Jerusalem arrived in 70 CE. Islamic merchants brought news of their prophet in the seventh century, and Portugal established its trading posts at points along the Malabar Coast after Europeans first rounded the Cape. Continue reading The Curse of Gokarna»

Dawn on the Ganges

Sunrise silhouettes

Sunrise and sunset are when the Ganges is most magical and most alive, with activity and with ceremony. Varanasi’s intense heat hasn’t yet descended on the city; neither have the people who rely on the river’s draw to make a living. Sunrise and sunset are characterised by Hindus flocking to the river’s edge to undergo ritual washing, to make offerings, and to worship in an endless variety of ways. I doubt I will tire of sunrise on the Ganges any time soon; this was my third visit to Varanasi and, as I soaked up the sights and sounds, scribbling into my notebook, I knew that it would only be so long before I returned. These are the notes I took from the time the first light of day arrived, until around 10 o’clock later that morning. Some of the photos that Iain took during our visits are slotted in between my notes, with an only vague sense of order. I hope the notes and photos capture enough of the atmosphere to entice you into making the pilgrimage yourself. Continue reading Dawn on the Ganges»

Bubbling Over: Attukal Pongala

Brothers amidst the smoky ceremony

Trivandrum was winding down as I stumbled along a stony road, dazed, back to an empty room. Burnt objects were discarded on the ground, bricks were scattered randomly about. It looked as if the city had been subject to some form of warfare. The smell of smoke was strong and little flakes of ash floated down through the air. Drum beats, trumpets and shouting voices rang in my ears as I gradually moved back towards the city centre in a current of hundreds of other people. The sun and the sounds and the smoke of the day had left everyone exhausted; we all shuffled along amidst the day’s debris. I’d endured the sting of heavy smoke; my eyes had burned to see this world. And what felt like a mirage still drifted past me, but the colours and images were slower moving than at the climax of the afternoon. It had been an assault on the senses that can only happen in India, and I was still coming to the realisation that I had been witness to a rare and extraordinary spectacle.

Every year in India’s southernmost city, millions of women build millions of fires in the open street and cook a pot of rice on the flames. They travel to the city on slow trains or local buses crammed full, spend days guarding the bricks on which their fire will burn and, during a long day of sweltering heat and crowds and noise, remind the city of their strength and devotion, to both their families and Attukal Devi, the goddess to whom the Attukal Pongala Festival is dedicated. It is their belief in her powers – to bless, to help and to heal – that once a year transforms Trivandrum. Continue reading Bubbling Over: Attukal Pongala»

Varanasi’s Doorways

Mark Twain visited Varanasi in 1895, while following the equator around the world. “Benares” he wrote, referring to the city by its Raj era name, “is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Twain was almost right. Varanasi is old – older perhaps than any other city still inhabited by man – but the close, cluttered alleyways near the river, which Twain thought looked older than history, tradition and legend combined, have only taken shape over the last few hundred years. India’s Islamic rulers razed the city’s temples and persecuted its residents, culminating in the demolition of its holiest temple, Kashi Vishwanath, on the orders of Aurangzeb – last of the great Mughals – at the end of the seventeenth century. And yet, in the old city’s rhythms and its connection to the Ganges River, in its cobbled streets with roaming cows and its excess of mouldering shrines, there remain traces of the city established here three or four thousand years ago by the Aryans, when they first arrived in India.

Varanasi’s doorways echo this distant past. They are inconsistent: short, sunken and splattered with mud and dye, or raised, separated from the street by stairs and an elegant arch. They are made of metal sheets rusting gradually, or of wood, delicately carved but rotten, hanging loosely from a hinge. Continue reading Varanasi’s Doorways»

India’s Touts: Journal Entry, Day 75

Allahaba boatman

I wrote this while watching the World Cup semi final between India and Pakistan, hoping – in my anger – that Pakistan would win. They didn’t.

It has been a day of spitting mad anger over the difference between seventy and one hundred rupees. Although I promised myself – when we arrived in India, fresh after three years away – that I would not, I am again fighting over paltry sums of money. Claire and I might be careful, might watch ten rupees here and there, but our anger isn’t about the amounts we are asked to spend. We are angry because wherever we go, people expect us to give them money for nothing. In North India, we have been gaped at and gawked at and asked for photographs, but rarely treated like guests.

Today we went to Allahabad’s Sangam: the meeting point of the Yamuna, Ganges and mythical Saraswati. We were accosted by beggars as soon as we arrived, beggars that ignored every single passing local. There is a Mughal fort beside the Sangam. We went in. When I knelt to take a photograph of the afternoon light in a stone passageway, I was screamed at in Hindi by a beggar woman and a Brahmin, officiating at a nearby shrine. The only word I recognized, as it was yelled over and over again, was photo. Continue reading India’s Touts: Journal Entry, Day 75»

Rickshaw Art in a City Settled by God

A napping rickshaw wallah

Allahabad is a city at the meeting point of India’s two holiest rivers, the Yamuna and Ganges, as well as a third, mythical river, called the Saraswati. The waters swirl together at the Sangam, where boatmen row pilgrims out to perform kirtan. According to Swami Sivananda, a guru who spent his life on the Ganges, “even atheists will have faith in God if they do boat kirtan” – but Swami Sivananda didn’t have to deal with Allahabad’s touts and, although the city’s Persian name means ‘Settled by God’, Claire and I – when we passed through, following the Yamuna from Delhi – experienced a city of petty irritations and mercenary auto-rickshaw drivers, who unashamedly tried to charge us four or five times what an Indian would pay, and abused us when we protested.

Allahabad’s cycle-rickshaw wallahs were different. We woke two – asleep on the roadside, a field mouse scrambling over their blankets – when we left the city at 5am, to carry us with our bags to the station. Neither complained or charged any extra. Another cycled us from Moghul tombs to our hotel. He mopped the sweat from his arms and neck while we dug out our money, then refused the ten extra rupees we offered. The men were honest, as rustics often are, but were proud too – proud and perhaps poor enough to consider the extra money we offered a kind of charity, and accepting it a degradation.

I was fascinated by their vehicles. Cycle-rickshaws rattle along streets across Asia, carrying freight as well as people, but Allahabad’s cycle-rickshaws were special: rural landscapes and Bollywood starlets, as well as animals and symbols of luck were hand-painted onto the carriages. The armrests were carved in the shape of fish, and occasionally the whole carriage had been carved – hollowed out to more closely resemble an animal, or sculpted at the edges in decorative waves and columns. Heavy brass bells dangled from the rickshaws’ bottoms and tinsel was stuck in patterns to the canopies. The attention to form made these cycle-rickshaws – industrial objects by definition – seem pre-industrial. Although only a tool, to be used for hard, low-paid work, every rickshaw was unique, hand-crafted and, in its way, beautiful. Continue reading Rickshaw Art in a City Settled by God»

Ticking off the Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal is built on a platform, which raises it above the crowds and gives the sense that it is much larger that it really is

Claire and I visited the Taj Mahal on Monday morning. It was a departure for us: despite spending nine months in India four years ago, we decided to pass by the country’s most famous site. At the beginning of our journey to Cape Town, I wrote about our decision:

Pictures of the Taj were in every tourism office in India and on the walls of every hotel. Internet cafés used it as a desktop background on their PCs and we heard the story of its inspiration – Shah Jahan’s great love for Mumtaz Mahal, one of his nine wives – regularly. The Taj was, we were told, a tomb, a monument to love and a “teardrop upon the cheek of time”. Built on a platform, its walls, which foreign tourists paid almost 40 times as much as Indians to enter, were inlaid with precious and semi-precious gemstones. It was undeniably beautiful too: pure, feminine, but also intimidating – a building well suited to the memory of a queen. Still, I didn’t want to go to see it, to fight crowds and take photos imitating the hundreds I had already seen. I had made that mistake before in Cairo, where a dying horse and Russian girls in hot pants were a more immediate spectacle than the pyramids, and in Rome, where jostling crowds made the Sistine Chapel mundane.

There were crowds at the Taj Mahal on Monday, just after sunrise, but only where clichéd photos of the building’s reflection were taken, or inside the tomb, where men whooped past Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal’s cenotaphs, to hear their voices echo. There was spectacle too: a couple getting married amongst milling tourists and Japanese women in saris, dressed to match the Indian backdrop. But the Taj has large gardens. People thinned out soon after entering and it was possible to stroll quietly in the building’s shadow, through the mosque to its west and identical pavilion to its east, where audiences with the Great Moghul were held. Continue reading Ticking off the Taj Mahal»

Holi: India’s Festival of Colours

Holi revellers with Virupaksha Temple's gopuram in the background in the Two days ago, the Times of India’s Delhi insert included an article on the “ten dirtiest things crazy revellers had played Holi with.” It was impenetrable, like so much in India’s English newspapers, unless you knew something of the article’s context. The title was in Hindi, with a single English word: dirty. The article referred repeatedly to ‘playing colours’ with exotic substances like pakka rangchoona and dal. Anu, a Jain, told the story of being hit by an egg. ”I cannot even describe what I felt. The smell was disgusting and my clothes were soiled, but apart from that, I couldn’t bear to touch it. It was with great difficulty that I washed it off and disinfected my clothes.”

But, unlike just about everything else in the Delhi insert, Holi was familiar to me. I read about people smearing and slooshing beer, chocolate syrup, hair dye, Maggi noodles and shoe polish onto each other, when coloured powders and dyed water had run out, and understood. Claire and I were in India during Holi once before, among the ruins of Vijayanagara; the festival gave life to the historical wreckage, and stunned my senses so completely it was days before I felt like myself again.

Holi, I knew, was the Festival of Colours: a riotous, sensual carnival and day long abandonment of social mores, when people drink bang lassis and dance in the street. More than anything, it is an excuse to touch strangers: to rub colourful powder through another person’s hair and pour water over somebody else’s skin. Like the Christian Carnival, it is a day of sanctioned passions celebrated close to the spring equinox. Sin, during Holi, is ceremoniously burnt at the stake. The evening before the festival, all over India, drummers march through streets lit by a full moon. Wood and old furniture is collected in wheelbarrows at the households en route, and with every stop the procession grows. Men dance to the beat’s quick slap-slap-thwack and children cavort between their legs, some already coated in powder, their faces a mess of pinks, yellows and blues. The pile of wood is eventually built into an enormous bonfire and on it, a Guy representing the demoness Holika is burnt. Continue reading Holi: India’s Festival of Colours»

Murudeshwar and the Millionaire

Click here to be taken through to the Murudeshwar photo gallery Murudeshwar, a speck on maps of India’s Malabar Coast, is dominated by a colossal statue of the god Shiva and a gopuram – the world’s tallest – that resembles a concrete apartment block. It is an old place, connected to events in the Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic written four or five hundred years before the birth of Christ, but the gopuram and statue were built recently, by RN Shetty, Murudeshwar’s greatest success story and favourite son.

Rajeev, the chatty owner of a restaurant in nearby Gokarna, told me a version of RN Shetty’s life story when I said, while paying the bill, that Claire and I planned to visit Murudeshwar. “RN Shetty is the king of Murudeshwar,” Rajeev told me, waggling his head approvingly. “His parents were working on road construction, facilities building – this kind of work. They were often working in other parts, and when he was a boy, Shetty sometimes had no food. He ate the temple food – rice, bananas, these things.” Rajeev paused to hand me my change, but he was soon on the topic of Murudeshwar again. “The temple was on an island. When the water was low, you could cross, but when the water came high, you must sleep at the temple, and sometimes this Shetty, he slept there. At that time, he prayed to god. He said god, if you make me rich, I will build you a bridge, so that people can visit you at any time. Now Shetty is a self-made man and he and he has done many things for Murudeshwar.” Continue reading Murudeshwar and the Millionaire»

A Bombay Beer Bar

I started going to the beer bars because I was puzzled. I couldn’t figure out why men would want to spend colossal amounts of money there. On a good night a dancer in a Bombay bar can make twice as much as a high-class stripper in a New York bar. The difference is that the dancer in Bombay doesn’t have to sleep with the customers, is forbidden to touch them in the bar, and wears more clothes on her body than the average Bombay secretary does on the broad public street.
Suketu Mehta, Maximum City

It is almost 1am when Iain and I walk into a Bombay bar and awkwardly scan the room for a seat. All we see are benches arranged against the wall, facing in; there is one free, with a small table. In an empty space in the middle of the room, bow-tied waiters weave between three posing women. All eyes are on the women; we sit down and two of them move towards the back of the room, where a band is playing. The music is rhythmic and sensuous: a tabla drum – titter tap, titter tap with an echoing pop – and a singer’s long, low voice.

A woman is standing opposite me, in a blue silk sari. She is one of the dancing girls, but at the moment she isn’t dancing. I feel self conscious, sure that people are wondering why we’re here. There are only fifteen or so customers, and we are so conspicuous it’s awful. I try not to look at the ‘dancing’ woman, as though I have seen women like her in bars like this before. I want her to dance, to continue her performance. I feel we have interrupted the evening’s rhythm – created too much of a start by walking into this place. We are not just the only non-Indians, I am the only woman – at least the only woman who isn’t a performer. There’s a moment of relief: a waiter brings a menu, and I order two glasses of “liquor and soft drink”. Continue reading A Bombay Beer Bar»

One Minute at Attukal Pongala

Claire is writing a post about it, but in the meantime here is a short, shaky clip from the Attukal Pongala Festival. (That post is now up – it’s called Attukal Pongala: Bubbling Over.) Held annually in Trivandrum, the festival is attended by millions of women – 2.5 million in 2009, according to the Guinness Book of World Records – who travel to the southern city to cook sweet rice dishes in earthen pots as offerings to the goddess, Attukal Devi. Years ago, there was enough space for cooking fires outside the Attukal Devi Temple, but its growing popularity has spread the festival all over the city, where fires burn in every space imaginable.

It was tricky to photograph and move through Trivandrum’s narrow streets. Smoke from the fires, just lit, was irritating my eyes – as well as the women’s – and when I took this video there were more fires and pots inches behind me, which I had to be careful not to step on. The music was not added later; it was blaring from stacks of speakers placed on every street corner, playing Bollywood hits right after devotional songs or the words of an officiating Brahmin.

Cockroaches in Sleeper Class: Journal Entry – Day 4

Written on an overnight train from Mumbai to Gokarna.

There are cockroaches all over our train carriage. They are scuttling along the floor, crawling over the bunks and up the chains and metal struts that support them. I’m awake, sitting on a bed that a man and his young son are sharing, all three of us on a bunk not bigger than five by two feet.

I gave up my top bunk and with it the option of sleep, when, with the lights out and my head on our Lonely Planet, I felt a cockroach scamper across my face. The man who sat next to us through the afternoon, who instructed Claire and I to throw our rubbish out of the carriage window, is now happily asleep in my bed. He gave his up for the two women of a family that were intending to somehow squeeze, with the man and his son, into the five by two space I am sharing now.

The cockroaches are not big and hard shelled – adolescents perhaps, almost like fishmoths. But they get into everything, including your shoes, where they squirm between your toes. There are other animals moving through the train too. A rat just darted past the sliver of light I am using to see, and write, and what looked like a family of beetles – a big black bug followed by three or four smaller ones – just squared up to a cockroach beneath my legs. Continue reading Cockroaches in Sleeper Class: Journal Entry – Day 4»

Back on the road

We’re on the road again, at the beginning of our second overland journey – through India, Southeast Asia, China, Central Asia, the Middle East and East Africa – to our homes and families in Cape Town.

The journey did not begin smoothly. I missed my flight from Cape Town to Mumbai, which left Claire waiting at Hotel Samrat, irritated by my absent mindedness and wails from the karaoke bar downstairs. I have muddled up our transport arrangements before. We missed our first bus, from London to York, at the start of our last trip, but caught every other bus, flight, boat and train after that, all the way to Shanghai. I’ve chosen to interpret my error – mistaking the departure time of my connecting flight, from Johannesburg, for the departure time of my first flight, from Cape Town – as a good omen. Claire disagrees.

We’ve described this second journey as “Shanghai to Cape Town overland”, here and in conversations with friends. It’s a useful summary, but isn’t exactly true. A more accurate description of our route and still vague itinerary are now up. And if you haven’t read them yet, Claire and I have both updated our profiles, to reflect how our attitudes to travel have changed since we left the Spotted Cow, awkwardly carrying two clean, unfamiliar backpacks almost five years ago.

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