Hello from Haputale

I’m in Haputale, a small town in the highlands in the south of Sri Lanka and am wearing a jumper for the first time since arriving in the country. I don’t think I’ve ever sweated as much as I have over the last week and a half so experiencing some cool weather really makes for a nice change.

We’ve just finished two days of walking through the nearby tea plantations. Other than the fields of tea bushes, it’s surprising how many eucalyptus trees there are here. Somehow they made their way over here during British colonial times. Life does not seem to have chained much for the tea puckers since the British left. It’s a pretty basic existence; maybe a lot less complicated but with a lot less options.

Here are some pics that I took on my phone camera over the last week.

  

 

Happy to get a seat on one of the public buses

 
 

Polonnaruwa, the capital after Aunuradhapura was abandoned

  

How to have your photo taken at a Sri Lankan buddhist temple (even ruined ones); shoes off, and definitely not posing!

 
 

At Sigiriya, the capital in the 5th century AD

  

The stairs leading to the top of Sigiriya

Temple of the Tooth, Kandy

  

Crazy acrobatics in Kandy

 

Looking out over the tea plantations

  

Foggy Haputale

 

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Tuk-tuk rides with optional extras

The travel gods must have been smiling on me when I made my way from Kuala  Lumpur to Sri Lanka on Friday. Going through security for the boarding lounge for my flight, I was refused entry. The reason being: “seating issue”. Oh well, there goes my window seat, I mused. At least it’s a short flight. I did end up losing my window seat, but this was more than made up for when the mythical business class upgrade was bestowed upon me for the first, and probably last, time.

First look at Sri Lanka

I spent my first few days in Negombo, which is predominantly a tourist town due to the fact that it’s on the coast and is 15 minutes drive from the airport. It has historically been a port town, with successions of Portuguese, Dutch and British traders setting up shop here. Each of these countries has left their own unique mark on the town; the Portuguese leaving Cathedrals and Catholicism; the Dutch leaving canals for transporting cinnamon to the harbour; and the British left a prison. 

Ruins of the old fort built by 17th century Dutch traders

There are tuk-tuks aplenty on the streets of Negombo. The drivers, like tuk-tuk drivers elsewhere in Asia are always keen to give you a ride, ask where you’re going even if you turn down their offer, and sometimes even follow you for a while in case you happen to change your mind.

And then there’s the up-selling. I had already experienced this on the way into town from the airport, and the next day had got a tuk-tuk ride back to my hotel after going for a walk 20 minutes up the road. Around the time we were getting to the hotel, the driver suggested going for a ride to the harbour, and I could just pay him a bit extra at the end. This ended up being a good 1 1/2 hour detour on top of the original trip.

We started off by paying a visit to the old Dutch fort just across from the prison, where visiting hours were apparently in progress. Then we checked out the Fish Market, which is surrounded by rows of fish drying in the sun. We were immediately met by Joachim, who introduced himself as a local fisherman and part-time cooking show guest star. He says that he was on a Rick Stein show a few years back. Not sure if it’s true, but it’s a good story. I’ll have to re-watch that episode.

With Joachim, Negombo’s go-to guy for cooking show producers

Fish are salted and dried to preserve them for the journey inland

The last stop was at one of Negombo’s Buddhist temples. My driver, who was a really nice guy, was keen to get some king prawns from the fish market and have me over for dinner the following night. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to take our relationship to the next level just yet, plus I had a tour orientation to attend, but I made sure that the extended trip was worth his while when I finally got dropped off.

A buddhist temple in Negombo

 

Having lunch today was a mistake

I thought it might be fun to resurrect my old travel blog!

I’m in Kuala Lumpur and have just done a tour of the city’s finest street food joints and farmers’ markets. There is so much tasty food to try here and it is definitely helpful to have a local who knows what to order and can tell you what you’re eating. Sometimes after the fact, in the case of the tongue soup.

But I really shouldn’t have bothered with lunch earlier today. I think I may have overeaten…

  
Who is this guy and what is he doing behind my stall?

Mmm, tongue…

  
The KL farmers’ market is a bit more in your face than the ones back in Australia. 

    
    
   

  

Tasty insects

In lieu of one of the more lengthy posts which I haven’t quite got around to writing lately, here are some photos of me eating a cricket.

Once you get over the texture, which is disturbingly… insect-like, they’re actually not that bad. The one I ate looked like it had been either grilled or roasted, and it had a sort of smoky, nutty flavour.

The cricket encounter occurred a few nights back on our first night in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Siem Reap’s main raison d’etre is Angkor Wat, and the constant flow of tourists that it attracts.

This would apply to Cambodia in general, but particularly in Siem Reap it’s hard to ignore the stark difference between the conditions of the western tourists and that of many of the residents. We visited a school started by New Hope Cambodia, a charity project to provide some of the city’s most underprivileged children with an education. It was started by a very motivated local guy who sold his small tuk-tuk business in 2007 to build a small classroom in what seems to double as both a slum and red-light district on the outskirts of town. It has since grown and acquired a new and much larger building with more modern classrooms, a medical centre, as well as a small restaurant (where I tried the cricket). Many of the classes are taught by volunteers from abroad. I spoke to one guy who had just arrived from the UK to teach English for a few months, as well as an Australian who volunteered there for much of last year. I was impressed; it’s great to see a small, grassroots organisation starting up, attracting an enthusiastic bunch of followers, and growing within such a short period of time.

Cruising Along the Mekong

Our boat is the one on the right.

We’re currently cruising down the Mekong River in a long wooden boat. There’s mostly wilderness on either side but occasionally we pass hill tribe villages, vegetable gardens or fishermen hurling their nets into the water. We got onto the boat at around 8:30 this morning in Luang Prabang, where we had been staying for the last three nights. The mornings can be really chilly, and we had to wait a while before enough of the fog had cleared off the river so that our captain could see clearly enough to avoid the rocks. About an hour after leaving, we stopped at a cave by the side of the river which is full of Buddha images, but now I think we’re travelling non-stop to Pak Beng, where we’ll stay the night before a second day’s travel to the other side of the Laos-Thai border.

There’s not a great deal to do on the boat other than to sit back and enjoy the scenery, but for a few of us that’s not such a bad thing right now. The night before last I woke up at around 3am with the chills and the feeling of molten lava roiling around in my stomach and it became clear that I had eaten something dodgy the night before. It turned out the next day that 3 of our group had the same experience, with another falling ill last night. For all of yesterday I didn’t want to do much besides sleep, although I did manage to make it out of the hotel room by about 5:30 to get some supplies for the boat ride. Most of us, including the three who fell ill, ate at the same place last night; a little street stall that was selling barbecue and a “buffet”, which they would quickly stir fry for you. So they were basically selling reheated food. I think I’m going to avoid those places in the future…

Since the last update we’ve been to Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, which are both tourist towns but complete polar opposites in terms of the types of attractions on offer as well as the people that visit them.

The traditional Laotian activity of chilling out to endless episodes of Friends.

The good burghers of Vang Vieng have clearly decided that their best chance of success lies in becoming Laos’ answer to Kuta beach. Its big attraction is tubing, which involves hiring an inner tube and taking a tuk tuk ride about 3km up the river. From there, you just let the current carry you along the river, stopping at some of the many bars along the way. The bars all sell drinks in buckets and if you like a bit of pot with your tiger whisky and coke apparently you just have to ask for the “Happy Menu”. They also offer attractions like the Slide of Death, which you can ride from the top of one of the bars into the often shallow water five or so metres below, as well as a couple of flying foxes. So if you want some first-had experience of Third World medical practices, and want to have some cheap thrills beforehand, Vang Vieng is the place to be.

There’s all sorts of interesting people-watching to be done there. Some of us were lucky enough to get an impromptu performance one night as we were sitting down for a coffee on one of the main streets when we saw a girl stop by the side of the road, shove her fingers down her throat and then spew up in the gutter while her friend helpfully held her hair back before walking off. It really is a party town!

Kayaking on the Nam Song River

Aside from all that, I enjoyed Vang Vieng. The scenery is amazing, with limestone karst mountains on the other side of the Nam Song river, and while most of the restaurants and bars are kind of low-rent, they’re still pretty nice places to hang out in for a while, especially if you find one with a nice view. Half of them have big screen TVs playing episode after episode of Friends, while the others have branched out to show Family Guy instead. We also spent a day tubing through a cave and kayaking down the river, which has been one of the highlights so far.

So that’s Vang Vieng. I haven’t got to Luang Prabang yet but this post is getting a bit long, and there’s scenery that needs to be appreciated so maybe I’ll leave it for later.

P.S. I wrote this post a few days ago on January 18; strangely enough the boat didn’t have wi-fi on board (?!). We’ve since crossed over into Thailand and are in Chiang Mai. I’m starting my 3-day trek among the hill tribe villages tomorrow. Apparently it’s going to be freezing at night so I’ve managed to get myself a pair of very trendy blue trakky daks from the local market. Pics to follow…

There’s a Dong in my pocket

Actually there are many of them. Hundreds of thousands in fact. Thankfully, under the circumstances, they’re all rather small.

At the Temple of Literature, Hanoi

Okay, maybe that joke’s been done a few times before. 🙂 The currency of Vietnam is called the Dong, and it appears to have suffered from some inflation over the years. One Dong is worth about AUD$0.00005. That’s 20,000 Dong per Australian dollar. Now we’re in Laos, where the local currency is called the Kip, a name which seems to suit the laid back vibe of the place pretty well. Kip… sounds like a decent sort of currency you could have a beer or two with.

Our tour’s been going for a few days now. After a couple of days of driving (12 hours yesterday and 7 the day before) we’ve made it to Vientiane. Yesterday we started the day in Vinh, Vietnam, and made our way along the Ho Chi Minh trail, up the mountains to the border crossing. It had been cold and wet since I arrived in Hanoi a week ago and it was very foggy and rainy at the border. It quickly warmed up once we made it through with our Lao visas and headed down the other side of the mountains and I saw the sun for the first time in a week. The weather is a good 10 degrees warmer in Laos than in North Vietnam, which is a welcome change.

As well as the weather, the change in scenery from Vietnam to Laos is pretty dramatic. Perhaps it was partly the weather, but some of the countryside in Vietnam is pretty bleak; and besides the rice paddies being ploughed by water buffalo, there are signs of industry everywhere. The spectacle of rows of spectacular limestone karsts rising up from the ground are marred by the sight of giant factories jutting out right beside them, and rubbish is strewn by the roadside along the length of the highway. The landscape that we saw once we made our way into Laos looks more like wilderness and is quite spectacular.

Laos is quite a bit further behind in the development stakes than Vietnam, which goes some of the way in explaining why its countryside looks relatively pristine. Many of the houses we passed on the highway were made purely out of wood, and the roadside stores are completely open to the elements, with a few pillars sticking out of a concrete slab to hold up the roof, a rear wall and not much else.

Our bus was having some braking problems so we went for a wander around one of the towns. With the red dirt and corrugated iron roofs, the place almost looked like outback Australia. People seem pretty relaxed and friendly; like the hillbillies of Asia. According to Lonely Planet, LPDR stands for “Lao People’s Democratic Republic”, as well as “Laos, please don’t rush”.

Today we spent the day looking around Vientiane, Laos’ capital. We visited Wat Si Saket, a Buddhist temple, a “Buddha Park” where I got to have a chat with a novice monk trying to brush up his English, as well as the local replica of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe. The story behind the arch is that the Americans gave the Laotians concrete to build an
airstrip while they were helping to wreak havoc in Indochina in the 60s. The Lao government decided they weren’t too keen on the whole airstrip idea and thought “bugger this whole airstrip idea for a joke, why don’t we make a nice triumphal arch instead”. After a few years their concrete being misused, the Americans put a stop to the arch in 1968 and it remains unfinished to this day. We also visited a centre that helps to rehabilitate people who lose limbs when triggering unexploded bombs that were dropped on the country during the Vietnam war. It’s not all that well-known but more bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War than were dropped during the entire Second World War.

Tomorrow we head for Vang Vieng, where I hear that an Australian died yesterday in a tubing accident. According to the New Zealand Herald, “if teenagers ruled the world, it might resemble Vang Vieng”. I’ve heard that the tubing experience includes lots of free alcohol, which might have something to do with the high injury and death rate. Anyway, maybe I’ll find something other than tubing to do while I’m there.

Visiting Uncle Ho

The other day I went to visit the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary leader of North Vietnamese independence movement who fought off the French after World War II, established a communist republic, and led the war against the Americans for the South until his death in 1969. Ho Chi Minh or “Uncle Ho”, as he is affectionately known, is still a hero to his countrymen.

Uncle Ho wanted to be cremated after his death but the Politburo that became his successor in government were unable to bring themselves to carry out his wish. Instead, in his honour they built a giant granite mausoleum where his body lies in state in the style of Lenin and Mao Tse Tung. Still one of the holiest of holy sites in Vietnam, his body attracts a constant stream of visitors. To visit, we had to queue up for about 20 minutes before passing through a metal detector and a bag scanner. Cameras are strictly prohibited and a sign helpfully advises us that firearms and explosive devices must be left outside the mausoleum. Once you get through the security checks it’s all over pretty quickly. You file up the stairs, passing a number of silent, white-suited ceremonial guards, then enter the darkened chamber. A guard stands at each corner of the glass cabinet where Ho Chi Minh’s body lies bathed in an ethereal light; his white goatee perhaps the most recognisable aspect of his embalmed body.

Until recently, Uncle Ho’s body used to take an annual holiday to Russia for a few months of maintenance. This is no longer necessary, however some have speculated that the contract for the upkeep may have passed to Madame Tussauds.

While he’s still highly revered, it’s interesting to speculate on how Ho Chi Minh’s legacy is perceived by today’s Vietnamese, most of whom were born after the end of the war in 1975. On the one hand, Vietnam is a united country, no longer subservient to a colonial power, waging war against itself or fighting off a military superpower. It’s people are also becoming more prosperous as their living standards gradually catch up with those of the West. On the other hand, like the other parts of Asia that are growing their way out of mere subsistence, they are doing so in a way that is far removed from communist ideals that were supposed to be the country’s saviour.

In some ways, Vietnam seems to be embracing a free-for-all, Wild West style of capitalism, at least at the grassroots level. I’ve been wandering around the Old Quarter of Hanoi and it’s amazing how many little businesses there are, most of them extremely small and highly specialised. Some of them occupy pokey shop spaces, some make do with a patch of footpath and a few tiny plastic tables and chairs, and some are completely mobile, operating out of a couple of baskets in dogged pursuit of the odd customer who can’t get away quickly enough. The equipment that many of the stalls operate with is extremely rudimentary and the hygiene standards appear decidedly questionable. At a rough guess I’d say that around 9 out of 10 of the food sellers would be immediately shut down if the Australian health authorities were let loose here. A lot of the shops selling consumer goods would also quickly go out of business under the standards of the developed world, with stringent intellectual property laws putting an end to the cheap knock-offs of designer label goods.

Still, everything is really cheap, which is a good thing for the locals who get by on a national average income of $3.20 a day. A large segment of Hanoi’s population is made up of young people who move away from their rural home to the big city for a few years. Here, they can no doubt get higher paying jobs which allow them to finance their big city lifestyle, complete with motor scooter and western-style fashion accessories.

I got to thinking about all of this when I visited the night market last night. It runs down a length of street for maybe half a kilometre. The street is full of mostly young pedestrians (almost everyone seems to be in their early 20s around here), with roadblocks managing to keep out most of the scooter traffic. One or two of them manage to sneak in to menace the crowd as they weave their way through. Hundreds of stalls are lined up under brightly glowing fluorescent bulbs, selling all of the things that you expect to see at a market and possibly a few more. Nothing is particularly remarkable; most of the things on sale are a mass-produced and a bit tacky. It’s hard to imagine that anyone is making a great living out of selling this stuff, with so many of the stalls competing to sell the same trinkets and the incessant bargaining to keep margins pared back to a minimum.

The people visiting these markets don’t really conform to the idealised images in the propaganda posters of their parents’ era. They’re not spending their days toiling away in the fields and they appear to have a much greater enthusiasm for consumer goods than bumper harvets and the exceeding of production quotas. The things that that grandchildren of the revolution spend their disposable income on are of questionable relevance to their development as patriotic citizens and fulfilled human beings. What would the frugal Uncle Ho have made of all this variety and the waste of resources involved in bringing it about? How exactly would a worker benefit from having access to several hundreds of designs of a basic necessity such as underwear?

The stretch of road near the end of the stalls widens a little, creating some welcome open space. A woman is selling things that look like flying glowstics and hurls one into the air, giving the place a carnival-like atmosphere. A generation or so from now, it’s likely that this part of town will have lost some of its chaotic character. The local authority will probably be cracking down on all sorts of uncivilised behaviour, improving hygiene standards, reducing pollution, enforcing building codes and maybe even building a decent public transport system. Some enterprising developers, perhaps from a part of Asia that is further down the path of modernisation, might see an opportunity to build some giant shopping malls, drawing traffic away from the Old Quarter. The area will become more gentrified, and maybe it will become a fashionable location for a new class of urban professionals to build their designer pieds a tèrre. The people of the area will have a higher standard of living and enjoy safer, more predictible lives.

On the down-side, for Hanoi to become another boring, sterile city of shopping malls and high-rise buildings will do little to sustain the vibrancy of the region. While Hanoi’s rapid embrace of modernisation will improve the lives of its residents dramatically, hopefully it will still retain a at least a little of the dangerous, chaotic element that makes it such an interesting place to be right now.