28 Feb 2015

War And Peace

4 Comments Kanchanaburi, Thailand



We spent the first two nights in Thailand at the best riverside guesthouse in Kanchanaburi. We know this because the sign says: Best Riverside Guesthouse, so it has to be true. At 480 baht (about AUD$19/night including breakfast) it is not bad — warm water, a flushing toilet and aircon would have been a bonus. There is a toilet in the room, but I have no idea how it works. There is no flush button. By magic, I guess. There is a small bucket nearby. The room is clean, very clean. The Best Riverside Guesthouse is a floating guesthouse on the River Kwai; every time a boat passes, the room sways back and forth. It is lulling, soporific even. The outside walls are a lurid green adventure playground for all the local lizards. There is a small terrace over the river.

About four kilometres up the road is the River Kwai Bridge, the reason for our visit.

After recently seeing the excellent and harrowing film,The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth, and having that whistling song from the older 50s film The Bridge On The River Kwai stuck in my head from the moment we decided to come, we hit the road on foot.

The air was fragrant with Frangipani, however after four kilometres of trudging in 38 degree heat and high humidity, all the while feeling like being trapped in a sauna, all we could smell was our own sweat.

We arrived at the railway bridge drenched and walked across. It is a beautiful spot — serene. Even the chintzy melodic Thai music blaring from the local temple loudspeaker added to the calm. What happened before is impossible to fathom: the Australian, English, Dutch and other prisoners of war who suffered and died here in the worst possible conditions in Japanese WWII POW camps, slaving on the construction of the Thai/Burma railway.

On the way back we stopped at the JEATH war museum. It is in an odd building and the collection is poorly curated. On the ground floor there is a slapdash collection of instruments of war: bombs, guns, vehicles, etcetera, and terrible photographs, while upstairs there is a large life sized wall mural of all the pretty Miss Thailand winners up to the Thai year 2535 (1992). This juxtaposition is bizarre but somehow befitting — the beauty and the horror.

Then we visited the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, which is also beautiful and lovingly tended as cemeteries go, with different species of flowering plants between each of the headstones — approximately 7,000 POWs died in this region.

Afterwards, whether from heatstroke or an overwhelming sense of despondency, we collapsed in a cool (of the temperature kind) coffee shop and had a tall iced coffee. A puddle of sweat formed on the floor at Paul’s feet. I could practically swim in it.

For our last night before we return to Perth, we have moved to a place that is not as clean as the Best Riverside Guesthouse, but it has a blue over-chlorinated pool to plunge into every 10 minutes, air-conditioning and the real clincher, a flushing toilet.





25 Feb 2015

Sagacious Sapa Saunterer (and other small stories)

4 Comments Ha Long Bay, Hanoi, Kanchanaburi, Sapa, Thailand, Vietnam

Greetings from Thailand. A lovely ladyboy sold me a ticket on the bus to Kanchanaburi. It was only when she barked “110 Baht” that I realised. The taxi from the airport to the bus station took longer than the actual flight from Hanoi to Bangkok.

So here I am on the bus … all the curtains are closed to keep out the mid-afternoon sun and heat, so there is nothing to look at. I thought I may as well pop up a blog post about the last week or so in Vietnam.


Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Typical Hanoi Streetscape

Hanoi Water Puppet Theatre

Hard at work - Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi

Smiling not allowed

In the grounds of the Presidential Palace

Kiddie chairs everywhere


On Hanoi. Hanoi is lovely with its beautiful lakes, pretty gardens and wonderful French architecture. It is not as manic as Ho Chi Minh, but crossing the road is still an exercise requiring concentration and nerves of steel. It was Tet (the Vietnamese Chinese New Year) and lots of things were closed, however being a big city, meant plenty of things were still open. I like Vietnamese food. It is clean and tasty and not overly complicated. I have even acquired a taste for Vietnamese coffee made with sweetened condensed milk. It grows on you. And street restaurants are the best, sitting on tiny plastic kiddies stools and sipping back hot bowls of Pho. Yum! The simple things in life.

Ha Long bay is the most incredible seascape. I know EVERYONE goes there and at night when you are sitting up on deck with the hundreds of stunning Ha Long islands jutting up from nowhere, climbing skywards, and all around you are boatloads of people doing the exact same thing, it shouldn’t feel as otherworldly as it does; but it does. A surreal sensation swept over me. I felt almost spiritual. Paul felt like a beer.

Ha Long Bay


Ha Long Islands

Cat Ba craziness

Cat Ba bungalows are nothing special — it’s the location that is magic. They are basic huts on platforms, wedged on a sand beach before the mountain shoots up vertical and inaccessible. It is New Year’s Eve (my second for the year) and at midnight they plan to let off three tiny fireworks. We are sitting around a campfire on the beach after an afternoon of kayaking around the island. Midnight seems hours away and it is. When it arrives we are fast asleep and the three small fireworks are over almost as soon as they began. We barely stir.

Of the whole Ha Long/Cat Ba experience, cruising back to the mainland during a thick fog was possibly the best moment. Visibility was almost zero. The sea was like a sheet of glass and if not for gentle throb of the diesel engines, there was almost total silence — one minute an island appears, the next it is gone, disappearing in the thick fog.

Sapa — I had never heard of Sapa until I started doing research for this trip. And what a surprise! An overnight clack-clack sleeper train. Aren’t they the best? And then a 35km bus journey up a treacherous looking mountain in a mini-bus. We arrived at the Summit hotel and they fed us breakfast, allowed us to unpack our bags and pack just our barest essentials. We are off trekking.

Our guide, Sam, from the local Mong tribe assured us it was an easy trek, but I suspected she was lying. I have an innate ability to spot these things. About an hour into the trek when we are slipping on muddy footholds, crossing the narrow steep mud walls of rice paddies, and stopping for pigs, cows, oxen, wild dogs and ducks, it dawned on me, I was right. Every time we ask Sam how long it will take she adds another half hour to the time. She had a nice smile. I really wanted to believe her.

Five hours later when we arrived at the Homestay, which is more of a refuge than a Homestay: we share a room, fifteen of us lying side by side, each bed a hard mattress on the floor inches from the next. Most of us are dirty and tired, too lazy to shower in the so-so shower. But it was worth it. The Sapa landscape: the rice paddies, the mountains; the tribal villages; and even the village folk who have tagged along, smiled at us along the way and helped us when the trek got tough, then implored us to buy their handmade wares; they were all wonderful.

The next day we do it all again.

As I sit on the bus, Paul tells me it hurts to even think about his legs. Oh the moaning, will it ever stop?



At the end of a long day nothing beats a piggy-back ride



15 Nov 2014

Saigon Special

2 Comments Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

Amidst an ever-changing skyline, history leaves its imprint on the streets of Ho Chi Minh. Firstly, there is some beautiful French colonial architecture and then a rather more distressing architecture of a different kind, people with deformities, missing limbs etcetera.

It was with that mindset that we entered the War Remnants Museum and it did not disappoint. I walked out of there with knots in my stomach, sickened at the thought of what man can inflict on another in the name of an ideal. Pedro shook his head and said, “I need a beer,” and grabbed one from a guy with a cool-box on the side of the road.

Ho Chi Minh streets are abuzz with taxis, motorbikes, bicycles and other contraptions ferrying a never ending procession of people from here to there. We look for a gap in traffic. Ha ha ha there is none and step across the road. Miraculously we arrive at the other side. And we wait for Pedro (eyes rolling)!!!

We shop at Saigon Square bargaining with the best of them on ‘genuine‘ fake copies of original designer goods. We fall for the trap, hoarding things we neither need nor want.

The colourful street-front shop houses are deceptive. Outside they wear the weathering of the tropics, while inside they are designer chic coffee shops and bars with fit-outs that would not look out of place in London or Manhattan. We lull away hours inside in the cool refrigerated air sipping cups of coffee or Saigon Special beers until we have forgotten what it is like outside.

The Vietnamese smile a lot and they are very friendly, yes even friendlier than a Galway bar full of mad Irishmen at happy hour.

We crave the tastes of the street and we venture to the outskirts of District 1 where the locals eat. We sit on low plastic child-sized stools out on the footpath. Clams, clams and more clams. In a mad dash for the loo I realise that knotted feeling I have been experiencing is not knots but food poisoning. Urghhhh! We fall like dominos. First me, then Paul … and later that day Andrew, until Pedro is the last man standing.


The art of crossing the road 'Pedro-style'


Good coffee




05 Nov 2014

A Big Hole

4 Comments Mallorca, Spain

Sa Foradada is a very special place and for that reason alone it was worth returning to Mallorca for a final few days.

There are only two ways to get to Sa Foradada (a Mallorquin word which roughly translated means ‘the hole in the rock’), by boat or on foot. While our forty metre motor yacht was on the dock undergoing a final cut and polish (in our wildest dreams!), we chose the latter option. It is a steep forty-five minute walk down a dirt track, a teasing walk, offering glimpses of one of the most spectacular spots ever.

But first lunch!

At the bottom there is a restaurant, a chiringiti (beach shack) that has a reputation for some of the best seafood paella on the island. They cook it the way it should be cooked: outside, over a fire, in heavy cast iron pans, slowly — made with love. They have been preparing paella like this for four decades; first the father and now the daughter. The paella is delicious and worth the wait! It is the final lunch of the season before the chiringiti closes for the winter. We are lucky, they had planned to close two weeks earlier but the weather has played in our favour. After we pay the bill and the camarero (waiter) proudly shows us his brag book, photos of him alongside his more recent customers: Rafa Nadal, Bruce Springsteen … and now, the shutter clicks, one more for his collection — a bulbous alpaca!

After lunch we head down to the water. There are perhaps a dozen of us down there, wading in the cool clear water, smiling and laughing. I dip my head under the water and even without googles I can see the bottom. It is that clear. We bask on our towels for a while like beached whales and head back for a final swim. The paella is still heavy in our stomachs. The sun descends and we contemplate the long slow walk up.





04 Nov 2014

Green, Grey, Gorgeous, Gabbling, Good-Times, Guinness … Gutter — Galway

Comments Off on Green, Grey, Gorgeous, Gabbling, Good-Times, Guinness … Gutter — Galway Galway, Ireland

Nothing like a lick of paint to add some colour on a grey ol' day

Brave bathers jump from here all year around - absolutely mad

Like I said, absolutely bonkers


During the days we go out driving. First to the Connemara district where we were struck by the sheer beauty of the landscape. On another day we drive out to the Cliffs of Moher — stunning. Late in the afternoons we return to Galway.

Even on a cold day (really … they are all cold days) the buskers are out, fiddling, singing, dancing and playing guitar, up to their usual antics. In Galway, busking is the norm. The sky may be mostly grey, however the streets with their colourful shopfronts and myriad bars are awash with people. On the streets people’s faces are stony, chiseled hard from the cold. Inside, it is a different story as we remove layer upon layer and push our way through the bowels of yet another bar. Their are smiles and laughter, jaws loosened by Guinness, Galway Hooker, Smithwicks or anything else you’d care to drink, even, heaven forbid, wine.

Galway is a funny place. I haven’t laughed so hard in ages. There was an Aussie and Irishman and an Alpaca … well two Italians, a Spaniard, an Aussie and an Alpaca actually, but never mind!

We settle down for the night. It is simply another night in Galway. It is only ever minutes before someone comes over for a chat. The Irish like to chat, to tell a story. They treat you like an old friend, mentioning people you don’t know as if you have known them all your life. Half of them are bonkers; the other half I am not so sure about.

It can be raining and icy outside and someone will say, “Nice day today.”

As the night progresses the musicians arrive — the craic begins. At first a guitarist, then a fiddler and later a flautist. Within the hour, sitting amongst us are several Uilleann (elbow) pipers, four flautists and a banjo player. There is no stage. They sit alongside the patrons on low stools, matching us drink for drink, merrily playing away. The music that emanates is warm and cheery and familiar and not overly loud — traditional Irish tunes. We tap along and sip our beers.

It is the same in bars all over Galway.

As the night progresses, more people come over for a chat. I was right, they are all bonkers!

One guy is trying to chat up our friend Barbara. He is Irish – Liam. They talk for several minutes. Barbara has a thick distinctive Spanish accent and speaks in slow, not quite perfect English. Marie-Laura, Paul and I lean in closer to listen. After about five minutes, we have to pull ourselves from the floor where we have fallen in fits of laughter. In a dead serious tone he has asked her if she is Irish. Over the coming days we bump into him three more times.

Later, another inebriated guy comes over to chat to Barbara. He tells her she is beautiful, coughs heavily into his hand, reaches to shake her hand and then instead leans down to kiss it. Most of his teeth are missing and his words emerge as a sort of Guinness-infused whistle.

After he has gone, another guy staggers over.

“Don’t worry about him,” he says. “He is a prick when he is drunk.” He pauses then adds. “You don’t want to see him when he is sober. When he is sober he is an absolute c**t.”

When it is all said and done, we put on our scarves and jackets and head out onto the streets. It is graduation time and the streets are full of students. The boys are sharply dressed in waistcoats or suits and the girls are dressed in not much at all. They stagger and sway and prop each other up.

One student is standing proud (more leaning ever lower against a bar window) tugging on his elastic braces and shouting to two girls who have emerged from a bar on the opposite side of the road. They turn and look at him and he shouts again and again. “Engineer … engineer … engineer ...” with drunken determination until they have turned the corner and are out of sight.

On the river walk home, we pass all the familiar round yellow lifesavers hanging on poles every 50 metres or so. They are there for a reason, to throw to your drunken mate who has had a skinful, slipped and fallen in. No laughing matter! It happens all the time.

We step around the staggerers, the pools of vomit, the lone busker singing out of tune. A passerby looks into the busker’s guitar case scattered with coins and says loudly, “You have a lot of money in there. Can I have some?”

The busker continues playing but stops singing briefly and nonchalantly says, “Not tonight. It’s rent day tomorrow,” and returns to his discordant strain.

We make our way home. And the next night we do it all again.

Pass us a lifesaver will you buddy?


In the bars everyone makes an ass of themselves

Road narrows