Saturday, 30 December 2017

Part V - Vietnam 2, Laos and Chiang Mai

Our next stop was Ninh Bin; gateway to another UNESCO site of outstanding natural ruddy gorgeousness. Massive towers of rock with sheer faces rise out of mangrove for miles around; Limestone Karst formations if you're asking (you weren't). The best way to experience this landscape is a three hour rowing boat trip with one of the many local women waiting on the river bank. Our tiny engine looked well into her 60s which is incredible considering how far she propelled five adults. 

We spent the afternoon gliding quietly through shallow, crystal clear waters in the shadow of (and beneath) these monstrously magnificent rock formations. One reason why you aren't allowed to row your own boat is the many grottos you pass through. The knowledge and skill required to navigate them is impressive. It's amazing approaching the narrow slivers of black, separating the water from the spiky limestone above. You can't quite believe you're going to fit in and sure enough we spend most of the time with our heads flattened to the boat dodging stalactites and grazing the damp walls as our elderly companion shrieks useless Vietnamese instructions, all the while with an hysterical grin on her face. 

Thought of the Day: 
I thought I was polite in England. Out here my politeness is off the scale. It's ridiculous. I'm often falling over myself desperate to ingratiate myself to the locals. 'Thank you thank you thank you', with a smile so wide my ears grimace. I imagine it's that I just want to be a good ambassador for the UK. What worries me is that, here in former French Indochina, I don't even need to be an imperialist apologist. So what will I be like in Myanmar, a former British colony...? The inherited guilt factor might result in a go-nuclear smile that could rip my face in half, much like it did in the 80s for Zippy of Rainbow fame. It doesn't Bungle the bear thinking about. 

Anyway, some of these tunnels are >250m long and the few lights strung up along their length cast the interior in a spooky hue, made more magical by the rhythmic echoes of her oars gently pressing through the oily black water; the only audible sound. We were then treated to breathtaking juxtapositions at each tunnel exit. The gloomy claustrophobia of these subterranean rivers, where the weight of ten thousand tons just inches above is palpable makes the squinting brightness and neck straining landscape of the mountainous lagoons even more impressive. 

Translation of the day:
'Please do not flush toilet paper or sanitary napkins in the toilet bowl'. Personally I would follow this up with 'Hey Vietnam, if you are going to recycle paper towel products, please use them as napkins first, sanitary towels second, not vice versa. 
Yours sanitarily, 
Department of Sanitation & Napkins'. 

Update: Grace has just informed me that many older signs in England also use the term 'sanitary napkins'. It still sounds odd to me. I'm leaving it in. 

We also scootered the 50km from Ninh Binh to the oldest National Park in Vietnam. A hilly climb through dense jungle brought us to a 1,000 year old tree which really was impressively girthy. I reckon approximately 1,000 rings in cross section. It made me look so small, can you believe? 

I've actually become a bit obsessed with Asian trees. They are so much bigger than their temperate European cousins and come in some really interesting shapes. Forget uniform simple cylinders, my favourites have trunks like 5m diameter Starfruits in cross section. They are also usually decorated in helical vines, which snake up the trunks and through the forest like massive unbiblical cords connecting something with I don't know what. Come to think of it, what is vine? What does vine connect to and what is vine's purpose? I've never witnessed vine's end. Perhaps there reside a crock 'o' gold. I guess we'll never know. 

As with National Parks the world over, base camp really gets your hopes up with massive posters exhibiting all the parks' sexiest beasts. The country's most awesome mammals, reptiles and birds which you will definitely never ever see no matter how long you spend there. I wager even this park's guides have never witnessed its Leopards, Civets or Pangolins. What's the point in protecting them if no one ever sees them? Here's an idea, why not round them all up, put them in small cages and bring them to the city so we can all see. No Oliver! That's what they want you to think.  

The highlight of the park was the Primate Rescue Centre and the Tortoise Rescue Centre. Unsurprisingly these magnificent animals are hunted to near extinction in SE Asia. Their various body parts selling for thousands of dollars a piece. For instance, we met six of the last remaining 65 Golden Headed Langurs in the entire world. According to our guide, one particularly cruel and gruesome ritual still practiced in parts of China and Vietnam involves a sedated monkey and a round table with a small hole in the middle. The animal is placed under said table, it's cranium partially exposed through the hole. It is then scalped and the brains are spooned directly from the head. This beyond fresh, beyond belief culinary experience is supposed to make the diner more intelligent. Or, exacerbate their psychosis perhaps? 

The park was also home to a Prehistoric Man Cave. Unfortunately this ancient den did not, as suggested, contain an 8,000 year old plasma screen and Sony PlayStation. It was in fact empty, except for a family of Vitamin D deficient crickets. At first I was confused when studying the map. There was no prehistoric womans' cave plotted. However, I then remembered that women hadn't been invented till a few hundreds years later, when a British chap called Adam ate a rack of ribs which caused him to excrete, amongst other things, a different type of man called Eva, from Germany. 
I think. 
Something like that. 

Traveling through north Vietnam by bus, the booming economy is clearly evident, most impressively,  the massive investment in infrastructure. It made me think about the big cities we've passed through recently and how their economies are predominantly manufacturing based. The millions of tons of plastic tat sold in thousands of Asian markets annually. And where this crap will all inevitably end up, in the ground or in the oceans. Just one of the numerous ways in which homoerectus is leaving its filthy size 7 billion carbon boot print on nearly every landscape this Earth has offered us. As Agent Smith so eloquently put it in 1999's blockbuster The Matrix, 'You move to another area, and you multiply, and you multiply, until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet'. 
Mic drop? No? Ok. 

Did you know, as a result of the widespread agriculturalisation (not a word) and industrialisation (a word) of the planet, our natural environment has been so irrevocably affected by humans that Earth has left the post-glacial Holocene epoch (most recent geological time period) and we are now living in the recently coined 'Anthropocene' time period. An alien geologist landing on Earth in the distant future will find the fossilised underground infrastructure (tunnels and foundations) of our drowned cities and all sorts of weird and wonderful rock types, infected with man-made pollutants; the melted down and resolidifed residue of mankind's relatively short lived tenure. 

This leads me on to a new, yet completely irrelevant feature: Donald's Trump of The Week. 
That's right, completely unrelated to our trip. 
Olly shrugs, 'bite me'.
So this week's mouth fart sees Donald turn his attention to the natural environment, not for the first time of course. He's gone and reduced the size of two National Parks by 84% and 50% in a massively controversial move he labeled 'uncontroversial'. Classic Trump. Effectively he's eradicated millions of hectares of Native American land. Yet another almost unprecedented presidential policy the like of which hasn't been seen for 50 years. 

Moving on to Cat Ba Island we found a wonderful backpacker haven. We assumed Halong Bay's world famous UNESCO protected landscape would be the highlight of the region but we hardly bothered leaving our hostel. A reliable source had recommended Woodstock Beach Camp and they were spot on. Essentially a huge wooden hut with a private beach where the many pets and hammocks roam free. Our days and nights quickly filled up; camp fires, games, family dinners and a kitten petting zoo. We made some Dutch friends and really settled into island life. 

I've never felt so British as the first day at Woodstock when Grace and I were getting ready for dinner.  Timon, our Dutch dorm mate, had just reeled off the symptoms of his dicky tummy before returning to the en suite for the umpteenth time. There was an awkward 20 second silence before Grace had the genius idea of playing some music on her phone to drown out the sounds a mortified Timon would inevitably begin emitting at any moment. Incredibly, just 30 seconds into the tune 'who is this?' echoed out from the toilet. At first I just ignored it, assuming he was on the phone. However, the question was then repeated, personalised and followed up with 'it's awesome'. And so it dawned on me. I was about to have a conversation with a freak, a truly continental European. A man who knows nothing of the phrase 'I just wanted the earth to open and swallow me up'. As both Timon and the conversation continued to flow we had to stifle our giggles. 

One evening a bunch of local men showed up at the our very western hostel bar. For the next hour a faux fun / uneasy atmosphere held the venue hostage as the inebriated group flirted with the female staff, who forced painted on smiles. They stayed for one round then headed off. It was then that barman Temo gave us the low down. Every so often these off duty cops show up and drink for free. They play the expat staff by offering massive tips, then taking them back, then offering them again. On the surface and from a distance it could be misconstrued as harmless fun but it's actually a darker power game forced upon the hosts by a bent police force wielding little actual power. Woodstock's owner is a well connected Vietnamese land owner known to the local authorities as a guy who brings in a lot of foreign money via his lucrative hostel. The frustrated local police don't like Woodstock's multicultural, uber chilled ethos so they do what they can; steal a few drinks. 

SE Asian Fruit Watch:
a) The Dragonfruit's stunningly exotic appearance is writing cheques its bland mush interior can't cash. 
b) The Duran looks like a coconut that has had a horrific allergic reaction and smells like a tupaware of perishable packed lunch left out in the sun for a few days. 
c) The apparently innocent banana is nothing short of a pandemic in SE Asia. It has permeated every corner of society and arrives on pretty much every breakfast plate with an air of misplaced arrogance. How can a fruit which, more than any other is so frequently rotten under the skin, be so popular!? 
d) Starfruit. Star of the show by name. Third fruit from the left by every other measure. 

For posterity mainly I feel it necessary to mention that we did of course take a boat trip through Halong Bay; the single reason why tourists visit this region. In the event, the overcast, almost cold conditions did sour the experience somewhat. That said, the landscape was indeed stunning, the floating village was romantic and the steep spikey rock climb to Monkey Island's summit in flip flops* was an unexpected achievement we were both genuinely proud of, receiving verbal back pats from several fellow climbers. 
*did no read the small print. 

Thought of the Day: In each country so far, non wedding day wedding photos have been a frequent sight. At every landmark we visit, there's a photo shoot going on, complete with professional lighting. In Cambodia there was even a guy burning kindling upwind to create a pop star smoke effect in shot downwind. On our Ninh Binh boat trip we rounded a corner and found a bride and groom struggling to remain standing on a very narrow and wobbly rowing boat whilst the photographer and his entourage tried to remain afloat on another equally unsteady boat. So I've just woken up from an accidental nap on Woodstock's beach and surprise surprise there's a pair at it again. It's become quite comical how these situations keep cropping up in unexpected places. Today's bride and groom are wearing a floor length dress and suit respectively, no surprises there. But why are they posing in knee deep water? For that classic Vietnamese amphibious legs vibe that symbolises a long and happy marriage? 

We crossed into a misty  mountainous Laos without incident and headed for Luang Prabang, finally reaching this beautiful town a fun filled 27hrs after leaving Hanoi. Disembarking for the final time, the sense of relief was off the chart. I even found myself sincerely thanking the coach crew, the very men who had presided over my torture.

It's hard not to be enamored with Luang Prabang. It's beautiful French architecture houses numerous tastefully decorated cafes and restaurants and the intricately painted golden temples are standardly stunning. The issue is, in recent years LP has been diagnosed with a chronic case of UNESCO syndrome. Ironically, by bringing the town under its protective umbrella, UNESCO classification has seen tourism explode and as per usual, not in a good way. The now exorbitant property prices have left ordinary Prabangers out in the cold. The reason why every eatery looks so inviting is because it has been taken over by a wealthy western expat who knows exactly what the middle class tourists want to see. In the words of one journalist, 'Luang Prabang has lost its soul'. 

Translation of the Day:
More toilet signage I'm afraid. 
'Please do not throw tissues', (fine) 'sanitary towels', (fine) 'stockings', (bit weird) 'or any other debris in toilet'. 
Ok so this particular toilet has had such a problem in the past with people flushing their unwanted socks down it, that the authorities have considered 'other debris' too vague a category and have instead specifically named socks as a top three blockage item. Given the time of year, it could alternatively be a festive themed sign. Which begs the question, do the handful of Christians that live in Laos traditionally open their Christmas stockings in public toilets? 
Find out next time on InternationalRescue1718.  

In Prabang we hired our poshest ride yet, a Honda Scoopy. Up to this point I had always regarded Scoopy owners with envy, from behind the handlebars of our several Honda Waves; the poor man's Scoopy. I was pleased to find our upgrade didn't disappoint. She sported beautiful plus size model curves and purred like hostel kittens past. 

This gorgeous ride delivered us to the most incredible waterfalls I have ever seen. And I've seen upwards of four.
I've seen five. 
For hundreds of horizontal meters, water cascades over rounded terraces of beige limestone. This rock type is particularly soluble, giving the water an invitingly milky opaque turquoise appearance. Even stubbing my toe on a submerged boulder couldn't dent my enjoyment of that most heavenly of swims. Needless to say we got a bit snap happy with the cameras. 

Right about now you may be thinking, 'hmm Olly's blog posts usually wrap up right about now. He's covered geology, he's shoe-horned in some irrelevant trivia, he's written the odd joke, what more is there?' Well I'm afraid to say folks, it's a Christmas special, so today's yarn is a smidgen longer. Plus I haven't referred to a war yet: 

Of course, with my background, no discussion on Laos would be complete without mentioning the fact that this country holds the unfortunate accolade of most bombed country on the planet per capita. During the Vietnam War (final box ticked) the US attacked Vietnamese supply lines through Laos, on an unprecedented scale. The total tonnage of bombs dropped works out as one B-52 bomb load (30 ish tonnes!) every eight minutes for nine years straight...

Today, some 80 million items which failed to function as designed litter Laos's countryside. The vast majority are cluster munitions; fragile fist sized explosives that if mishandled can detonate with horrific consequences. Tragically, this deadly legacy has killed >20,000 Lao civilians since the end of the war. #criminalUSA. 

Thought of the Day:
One of my favourite deserts - cheesecake - is translated quite literally in SE Asia. On two occasions now we have been presented with a square of sponge à la disappointment, simply topped with grated cheese. Weird. I don't know whether they are just pandering to what they consider to be strange western tastes or they have actually adopted this bipolar treat as their own, having not bothered to check the recipe first. I'm surprised they don't just serve up two slabs of cheddar sandwiching a layer of jam. 
Hang on, Mental Note: sandwich jam between cheddar when you get back to England. 
Yours sanitarily

From LP we took the two day slow boat to one of Thailand's land border crossings. Essentially 18 hours of slaloming the epically wide Mekong River at speeds in excess of no miles an hour. The landscape remained hilly jungle throughout and the riverbed was unusually uneven, being littered with huge bus sized chunks of rock towering out of the water. Their oblique angled sedimentary bedding (geology grad for life) and shiny silvery surface suggested a passage of travel from the heavens, giving them an unworldly, meteoric appearance.

At the mid-point, the boat docked and we were then required to find accommodation for night. Not hard as the hotel salesmen and saleswomen are already waiting on the river bank, ready to swoop in for the accommodating kill. Our salesperson turned out to be a 
nine year old girl with a ring binder containing photos depicting suspiciously luxurious hotel rooms. Without a hint of sarcasm our Scottish friend Caid shouted to another friend, 'we're going to go with this lady'. That made me smile. I mean SE Asian women are generally quite small but come on. 

Having crossed the border and attached ourselves to three 20 somethings from our boat we were immediately stranded, with no taxis willing or big enough to drive us to Chiang Mai at that late hour. Eventually one local man (not even a taxi driver) agreed to take us. With four of us squeezed into the back three seats, we embarked on a terrifying roller coaster ride. Our retired F1 driver completed the trip in a face melting two hours, with Google Maps calculating the drive at nearly double that. 'Don't tell my parents guys' Olly cried. 

In Chiang Mai Grace and I ticked off a traveling biggy; a day in the life of a rescued Elephant. As in we spent the day with rescued elephants, not dressed up as them. Having done our homework we knew to pick an ethical rescue centre - Happy Elephants. Back in 2005 I had spent some time close to African elephants whilst working on a game reserve, however I had never popped on my swimming cozy and actually frolicked in a river with a group of these amazing creatures, including a baby. That was a real (surreal) highlight. 

Throughout the day we fed our group of four giants hundreds of bananas and sugar canes. There was a scary moment when the bright yellow banana sized float attached to my waterproof GoPro camera nearly got snatched out of my hands by an inquisitive and powerful trunk. 

Unbeknown to me, Elephant dung has a few applications. Happy Elephants actually sell dung in a number of gift forms; bookmarks, statuettes, etc. The rescue centre that is, not friendly entrepreneurial elephants. I can't say I wasn't tempted to make a purchase; 'Thanks for the present Olly, it's shit'.

Congratulations reader, you have endured the entire Christmas Special. As a token of my appreciation, please find attached a BUPA voucher for 36 Franks, to be redeemed at all participating branches of Woolworths. 
Good luck. 

Have a Christmas (belated) and a New Year. 
Lots of love,


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