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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Van

Despite what you may be thinking I'm not still stuck in Viet Nam somewhere around Hoi An - I'm now actually living the high life as certifiable Trailer Trash! That's right Myra and I are living it large in the back of a Mercedes Sprinter van; we'd always hoped that the dream would come true one day but never really imagined that it would!

We now spend our evenings driving around Australian suburbia scoping out potential caravan 'sites' while trying not to attract too much attention. Unfortunately our really loud 'BEEP BEEP! Danger Will Robinson' vehicle reversing warning noise is a bit of a give away!

In fact we're now real bottom of the barrel hobos - huddled in the back of our van, parked outside some random Aussie's house 'borrowing' some of their Wi-Fi to update our blogs and send some mails.

So, unbelievably after nearly six months on the road we're down to our final two weeks or thereabouts before touching down in New Zealand. As some of you may have noticed my blog has been a little bit patchy over the last couple of weeks (ahem!) so hopefully I'll be able to add a few extra entries to it over the coming weeks to include some of the amazing adventures you didn't hear about in the original run - some sort of Director's Special Overlong Edition or something.

There'll be plenty of tall tales to follow of the adventures we have in our travelling squat - will I decide to get a mullet and settle down in the country music capital of Australia, Tamworth? - will Myra decide to dress up in a Bovine one-piece jumpsuit and drive us to Moobal? Stay tuned to find out more!

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Little Trouble In Big China

It turns out that the Red Pandas win hands down in the wrestling match due to the B&W ones being too lazy to show up for the competition! In fact they're so darn lazy that they spend over 23 and a half hours a day eating and sleeping, only managing half an hour for 'play'.

The sad thing is though that they've pretty much evolved into an evolutionary cul-de-sac; needing to consume such massive amounts of low energy food (bamboo) that they can not spare the energy to move let alone mate. Leaving the sanctuary that afternoon you couldn't help but feel that the world will be lucky to still have the B&W beasties roaming about in one or two hundred years.

With our panda check box filled in we moved along to Xi'an and Jim Beam's hostel. Unfortunately complementary bottles of his namesake weren't available on demand - baah! But he did manage to organise a handy trip to see all the sites around the locale including The Warriors.

The Warriors, as it turned out was not the tribute to the late Seventies New York gangland movie I had expected, but rather an amazing collection of Terracotta ones!

The site is divided into three major finds; the smallest of which holds about 40 clay figures and the largest containing several thousand. On entering Site 1, the largest, you are confronted with row upon row of uniquely carved terracotta people, interspersed with horses and chariots.

Unfortunately many of the delicate models were damaged ages ago when the wooden roof that originally encased the structure collapsed. In fact only the first seven or eight rows or warriors are untouched by the passage of time. Although it has to be said that the partially eroded ones are almost funkier as they have a 'Jason and the Argonauts' Ray Harryhousen feel to them!

Our next stop was a wee town called Han Shan which is home to a fantastic mountain top temple which is reached by a twisting, turning trail leading up through a valley to the final run of dangerously steep steps! And I do mean steep! Maybe an incline of 80 degrees or so! Luckily there's a metal chain that runs the length of the summit staircase and there's a steady stream of people coming behind you to break your fall!

On the way to the top we passed many elderly men hauling massive loads of refreshments to the vendors at the peak, maybe eight or nine 24 packs of 500 ml bottles arranged over their shoulders in a barbell fashion with a piece of wood. It made me feel a little wussy complaining about my wee backpack! The route to the top is really incredible as you pass umpteen houses carved into the rockface (how deep, I'm not sure) and ancient steps etched into the cliffside. A job for Chuck Norris if ever there was one!

Another sixteen hour train journey and we arrived in Ping Yao - in complete darkness! This ancient walled city has evidently decided to keep it very old school and has opted against street lights. 12:30 at night and we were finding our way to a hostel for the night by touch alone.

The wee city is great though, the perimeter of the enclosed section is only about six kilometres and we rambled around the base of the wall in a hour or two. Unfortunately the wall is being renovated at the moment and you can't walk around it, but you can still pop up on top and see some of the nasty defensive weapons they used to keep Vikings and other raiders at bay.

It's the first city that really feels 'Chinese' or at least the image of China that you're sold at home. Very narrow streets, with vendors selling all kinds of weird and wonderful things along them. There are also tens of old houses, temples and museums to visit. If you're after the China you see in school books and old television programmes then this is the place for you!

So after the quiet, quintessentially Chinese city of Ping Yao it was on to the sprawling Megapolis of Beijing. The rate of development in the heart of China is truly staggering with tales of entire areas of the city being completely demolished and rebuilt year on year.

The first thing that you notice, as was the case with all of the other 'small' (4 million+) cities we'd visited, is how amazingly 'western' it is. Everything that you would expect to find in any European or American city is there: McDonalds, Pizza Hut, KFC ... there's even a Starbucks in the Forbidden City!

It's the one thing that has been a little surprising, although maybe it was just silly to think that a massive power like China would somehow resist the lure of free market capitalism - but they certainly have embraced it! The most shocking thing being Mao's mausoleum: once you pass through the chamber containing his body you emerge into one of the tackiest shops I've ever seen. And although I reckoned that Mao would be turning in his grave if he could see this - he clearly wasn't.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

M & G - eocache!

Just a wee entry to let you know that the little map has finally been updated! Woohoo! The roaming Myra and Graham geocache is trackable once again!

Sunday, May 14, 2006


The following blog entry has been deemed too capitalist in its views and opinions and has been heavily edited from its original 12,000 word content to its current form by the People's Republic of China's Extreme Blog Sanctions Unit. The remaining content is presented in both Chinese and English at the same time in the language of the People: Chinglish.

"China is good of best in planet welcomes you much in thank."

Please be remembering that:

"No blog reading while working.
No working while blog reading.
Notice the safety."


Disco Inferno

Where to stay amongst the glitse, the glamour and the marble tiled underground people ways of Hong Kong? Given that the Y.M.C.A. is sixty bucks a night we needed something a little lower market, something like, oh I don't know, the Ballymun Flats perhaps? Enter Chungking and Mirador Mansions (either our first experience of Chinglish or used in the loosest possible sense)! Offering the finest in air conduit views from a blackened window on the twelfth floor we knew we'd found home!

Although at only twenty U.S. dollars a night (by far the most expensive and smallest accommodation so far) we couldn't complain too much and settled in to spend a couple of days relaxing and wandering while organising the Chinese leg of our journey.

The mansions are not actually on Hong Kong island itself, but lie on the tip of the peninsula touching it, in a place called Kowloon. Despite hearing tales of the marvels and splendours of the island, I think that Kowloon is actually a little more fancy smancy. The only way to describe it is as one massive harbour-wide Brown Thomas store, complete with subterranean interconnecting passage-ways.

If you find yourself in Hong Kong with nothing to do around 7:59 any night of the week mosey on over the harbour front on the Kowloon side to see the spectacular light show. Before arriving there we had pictured a sort of mini-fireworks display from the tops of the island buildings; we were wrong. Instead the buildings themselves are lined with L.E.D.s, lights, lasers and all manner of flashing and strobing gizmos!

At times it's hard to appreciate the scale of the choreographed light presentation - it's not a Sony! The only thing I could see missing was an option to play a game of Tetris on a building guarded by a massive King (or Donkey) Kong!

We also managed to nab three geocaches hidden amongst the hills and parks (my Chiang Mai Fakenstock sandals only just up to the job!). A big thanks to Mairead for introducing us to this funky game! As a bonus we discovered two special items (one with a giant iguana attached) which are tracked on www.geocaching.com so we could find out how they arrived in China! Hopefully we'll be able to drop them off somewhere interesting.

A glass of milk and before I knew it we were passing through emigration at a Ferry Terminal to continue on to the airport to catch a flight to Chengdu to watch some B&W versus Red Panda wrestling action ...

The Cave

Stumbling through the labyrinth of narrow, narrow streets, each one more similar than the last, in the wee hours of the morning, we randomly chose the Fortuan Hotel as home for the next few days. Seemingly staffed by people from the Basil Fawlty school of hoteliery we spent most of our time there trying to fend off one iteration of Manuel after the next!

Hanoi itself is essentially in a permanent state of rapid gridlock with motorbikes, cars, bicycles and people weaving in and out of each other. Closing your eyes and using the Force is really the only way to navigate from one footpath to the next. And even then you've got to move back onto the road as the footpaths are actually used as convenient motorbike parking spaces!

The big thing that we wanted to see around Hanoi was Ha Long Bay, which is where they might have shot 'The Man With The Golden Gun' - but didn't (it was filmed somewhere in Southern Thailand I think!). Unfortunately this involved boats and I've got a bit of a Mr. T-esque thing with boats instead of planes (he's becoming a little bit of a mascot for this trip!) so the fear was starting to grow little by little as the harbour loomed into view.

One delicious glass of milk later found us adrift amongst the vast expanse of wee islands in the bay. Seemingly there are over two thousand islands, nine hundred of them named, strewn across the seascape. Our guide for the trip pointed out some of the more funky ones; one shaped like a duck, one like warring giants and another like a rock. A relaxing way to while away a few hours and luckily for me, remarkably calm!

The highlight of our two days spent as pirates aboard the junk (not named for any resemblance to the classic Chinese boats ;) was when we pulled ashore on a large island with two HUGE caves! These caves were so good that I'm going to break my traditional blog style of no pictures, other than Beakerludes, and show y'all the amazing lighting that they had set up!

Tomorrow we set sail for Hong Kong (by train!) - Yeargh me hearties!

Good Morning, Viet Nam!

Too afraid to mention anything about fools or pitying them and nervously eyeing around for any signs or apparitions of the Big T himself Myra and I waited for the 6:40 Sawngthaew to the border to roar into life. Before long we were rumbling along the dusty, twisting roads to Na Meo with a motley bunch of other foreigners making a break for it.

Three short hours on and I was trying to play it cool with the border guards hoping that they didn't notice the bead of sweat trickling down my forehead and that the saches of Laos coffee buried deep down in my bag were actually coffee!

After a wee bit of wandering we hoped on the bus to Hanoi - ten minutes later we were sitting on the side of a hill watching the bus driver trying to work some magic on the smoking engine. After two hours of chilling and watching the locals join in with the engine by chopping bamboo into makeshift pipes we were underway.

Eight hours, a dead dog, pig and hen saw us in Thanh Hoa - the midway point. Chucked out into the rain and with no sign of the connecting bus they had tried to swindle us for we took it in turns to try flag down buses.

A few moments after agreeing a price for the journey and boarding the bus that continued to Hanoi the conductor and his cronies (the rest of the bus) began hassling us for more money. We all managed to resist coughing up any dough for over hour, arguing the whole time to the amusement of the locals. Eventually with the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere and the other passengers making moves to throw our bags from the bus we bargained an 'agreeable' figure.

Just after midnight the bus pulled into Hanoi bus station. Even more haggling and stand-offs ensued with the local taxi mafia until we managed to cut a half decent price. We'd been warned that the Vietnamese typically charge foreigners 400% or more than the state issued (local) fares. With the police turning a blind eye to it all there's not a whole lot that you can do but try stand your ground and haggle like your life depended on it: thank goodness for Myra - the Hagglenator!

Monday, April 17, 2006


... again for something completely different - a Beakerlude!

'Golden Daze'

'Veakerovski Lenin'

'Beaker Lee'



... same Beaker-time, same Beaker-channel!

Sunday, April 09, 2006

"I pity the fool ..."

The final night in Phonsavanh proved to be one of the most exciting things to happen while we were there! Not what you might be thinking, but rather, an evening of non-stop thunder and lightning! The flashes and booms continued for hours on end with only two or three seconds between house racking rumbles and forks of blinding white light! Myra acted tough while I whimpered in the corner.

The following morning as we sat eating breakfast, sheltering from the persistent drizzle, I noticed a large săwngthăew pass by, packed to Sri Lankan legal limits and destined for Xam Neua. "Ah, the early bus", I thought to myself and then to Myra (in a Mr. T accent), "I pity the fool who takes a săwngthăew to Xam Neua!". You see, we were on our way to catch the 8:00 standard bus to Xam Neua.

Half an hour later, standing in the drizzle at the local bus depot, the ghostly image of Mr. T apparates before me laughing "Ha! I pity the fool who pities the fool who takes a săwngthăew to Xam Neua!" ... Bah!

The good news though is that the journey turned out to be a bit of a picnic and plenty of good olde fashioned oirish craic as we ended up sharing the trip with two other Irish backpackers; Finbarr and Kathryn.

Eight and quarter hours squished into the back of a 8 person vehicle with 15 others, with the last hour spent sitting on a travel pillow (ah, the relief!), and we arrived into dusty Xam Neua. Looking in the mirror a little while afterwards and I discovered that I'd become a panda thanks to the grimy roads - my best tan of the trip so far!

We'd only just managed to change back into being polar bears before we'd bumped into Tony, the local N.G.O. worker for the region, who, as it turned out, only lives a couple of miles down the road from Myra in the Kingdom. Over a few brewskis he filled us in on just about everything you could wish to know about Laos and Viet-Nam! We even found out that the guy who wrote the Laos section of the Lonely Planet has never even been to this region, despite writing a very indepth review of all there was to do - we weren't surprised!

The main tourist oriented trip in and around Xam Neua is the caves at Viang Xai which were used by the Lao resistance forces during the war. The caves themselves are huge and at any given point during the bombardment up to 23,000 people were living in them!

Within the caves are offices, hospitals, housing, shelters and any other conceivable thing that you might need to mount a resistive movement. Well worth the short 40 minute săwngthăew trip advertised in the Lonely Planet - which somehow actually took an hour and forty five minutes to do!

Jars of Friendsombies

Surrounded by hordes of circling Friendsombies we fled for the local bus stop on the far side of the airstrip. In the distance the low rumbling engine of the Louang Probang bus could be heard. Slowly it wound around the village hillsides. Just moments from certain zombification and it braked frantically, the driver pulling us aboard - we had escaped the zombifing curse of Vang Viang!

But not the machine gun wielding bus conductors; we weren't long coughing up the dough for the trip! The mission for Louang Probang, and we chose to accept it, was to visit some of the local temples and plan a route through China and the various sites we wanted to see; apparently they have a rather large wall there or something that's worth visiting.

Temples, wats (including one with a disco ball elephant's head!) and another visit to the yummy Joma cafe and we'd ticked all the boxes on our todo list - it was time to venture into 'The Plain of Jars' (PoJs)!

The PoJs is located around 8 hours weaving and winding from Louang Probang in a wee spot called Phonsavanh. The jars themselves lie in the heart of this region, which was the most heavily bombed area in Laos. As a little bit of scary trivia: More bombs were dropped on Laos by the United States than over Germany in the whole of the second world war; averaging one plane-load of bombs every eight minutes for nine years.

Unfortunately the legacy of this blanket bombing lives on as approximately 30% of the bombs did not explode on impact, effectively carpeting the landscape in a layer of mines. You see, most of the ordinance dropped were cluster bombs which open while descending and scatter tens of mini-bombs which arm themselves after they've dropped a certain distance. The trouble is though that the Americans often flew low due to heavy cloud coverage but proceeded to drop their payload regardless of the fact that the bombs would not have sufficient time to arm prior to impact, meaning they arm after crashing to earth and lie dormant until disturbed.

To further add to the tragedy, the Vietnamese are offering (a paltry sum of) money for the retrieval of scrap metal thus encouraging the locals to scour the land for UneXploded Ordinance (UXO). The week before we arrived four children were killed while searching for metal fragments, all too common an occurrence according to our guide.

That the jars themselves remain mostly intact is no small miracle. There are hundreds of them scattered around several sites in the region, although only three of the sites have been sufficiently cleared of ordinance to be opened to the public. Even these three are only sub-surface cleared along narrow paths lined with M.A.G. (the British Mines Advisory Group) markers.

It's quite an unusual experience to be threading a path through a potential mine field and it's hard to forget that straying too far from the M.A.G. white and red brick road could lead to a grisly end.

The jars are really worth seeing though, with some of them towering several feet over our heads! Careful examination of the jars and their sub-surface suggests that they were used as funerary urns, though the people that created them and their history have long since been lost to the passage of time.

Next stop: Xam Neua and the heart of the Laos resistance movement!

The River Mild

After several nervous hours of continuous subtle glances over my shoulder to the back of the bus, where our machine gun wielding conductor sat, followed by renewed checking of the validity of my ticket, it was with a sigh of relief that the dusty disused airstrip that heralded Vang Viang rolled into view. Back up on top of the bus to retrieve our bags from amongst the chickens and pigs strapped to the roof and off into the heart of the village to find some accommodation.

Dust devils and possibly a couple of Tazs too abound throughout the village as they've recently decided to pave the country! In fact, Vientiane, the capital, has only had fully paved roads in the central district for the last 5 years. It makes for some interesting late night strolls through the village though; avoiding open sewers, cauldron holes, trenches and the occasional specially prepared tourist hole (usually with a complimentary tourist at the bottom!).

The village itself may well be the set of an Asian version of 'Shaun of the Dead'; tourists lying semi-conscious in a zombified state in front of massive televisions watching repeat episodes of Friends non-stop. All that can be heard above the rumble of the television is a 'waaaww...' - there's definitely a Sumatran Rat Monkey to be found somewhere in the Village.

Deciding that the village wasn't safe for prolonged exposure, one nibble by the zombies and you're nobbled (doomed to Friends-itise for the rest of your days), we packed our daybags (more of a plastic sac really!) and headed for the hills.

Two days of trekking, caving and rafting ensued. Along the way we were thwarted by some rather huge oxen (Dr. Evilox and mini-Evilox) and were forced to do a wee funky traverse around a rock face to continue to the summit.

The region around Vang Viang is full of really special rock formations; spinning around you'd think that a foul mooded Zeus had hurtled hundreds of limestone chunks at the land. And where you have limestone you usually have caves!

Climbing aboard an inflatable tractor tyre we bobbed our way into the opening of a kilometre deep cave tunnel. Splashing along using our flip-flops as paddles we explored the underground maze for an hour; occasionally stopping for a quick game of soak the other cavers!

We also visited three or four other caves on our journey; some having separate entrances and exits, others having 30+ metre high stalagmites and stalagtites! Vang Viang is a potholers paradise and I'm sure that in years to come the whole area will be a mecca for cavers and climbers the world over.

The final day of the expedition saw Myra become Meryl Streep and me a kind hearted Kevin Bacon as we hit the River Wild! When I say wild, I of course mean relatively tame, but still lots of fun none the less! After working out how to stop ourselves continuously paddling in circles we faced all the dangers the river had to offer: rapids, tubers, swimming tourists, sky-diving swing jumpers and offers of Beer Chang!

A few swishing, swoshing hours in the kayak later and we were pulling into the shore beside the local bus driver, who was busy hosing down and scrubbing the bus in the very same river!

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

A Smashing Pumpkin

So it was a toss between a slow two day boat to Laos, a fast speed boat with a reported 10% mortality rate or fly in with Laos Airlines (no published safety records and most western embassies advising against flying with them). Tough choice, no doubt about it!

In the end Laos airlines won the game of Russian Roulette and before long we touched down in Vientiane. Almost immediately we knew that we'd left the western world of Thailand behind and were in for a real treat of traditional backpacking.

Although Vientiane is the capital city of Laos you'd never know it for the large amounts of tumbleweed drifting across the quiet country lanes. The only grandiose avenue in the entire town is a copy of the Champs d'Elysees finishing in a mound of concrete destined to be an airport runway but, due to a mistake on the shipping address invoice no doubt, ended up being a rather funky Arc du Triumph.

We rented some bicycles for a day and visited most of the temples to be found in and around the centre. Most of them came complete with snoozing attendants. One even had a resident team of football crazed monk novices who continuously hammered a football, squash style, off the temple; using some spirit houses for goal posts.

The following day we set off to see the 'Bull Whipping French Colonials', the 'Japanese Fascists' and the 'Imperialist Americans and their Puppets' in the Vientiane Revolutionary Museum. The museum has two floors; the first takes you from the dawn of man and his eternal struggle with the cave woman stealing tyranosauruses and what not to the end of that period. From there the tours jumps to the second floor and immediately to the late 19th century (nothing much seemed to have happened in the meantime!).

Here the museum goes into quite a lot of detail on how the Lao people suffered immensely under the various foreign powers that arrived to try (ab)use the country. You come away from the exhibition a little overloaded with information, but with a good feeling for the injustice and plight of the people.

After some fairly sobering information in the museum we decided that it was time for some more fun and funky things, so without further ado we commandeered a Tuk-Tuk and set off for the 'Buddha Park'!

The park was created in the late 1950s by a self-styled holy man who claimed to be a disciple of a cave-dwelling Hindu hermit in Viet-Nam! And after visiting the garden one can only imagine that '60s drug induced experimentalism arrived early in Laos!

The park is home to a staggering number of weird and wonderful concrete creations - my favourite being a huge pumpkin shaped representation of hell, earth and heaven. The pumpkin plastered monstrosity houses three internal floors that are discovered by entering through the mouth of an ogre! After making your way past skeletons, demons, serpents and all kinds of grisly ways to meet an unfortunate end you pop out on top of the pumpkin through another demon's mouth!

Standing on top of the 20 metre high pumpkin gives a great vantage point to take in the pure weirdness of the rest of the park. Unfortunately for our enlightened friend he was forced to flee to northern Thailand after the revolution and never managed to complete the complex.

Within The Woods

The 4x4 shuddered to a stop, a small trail of white smoke issuing from the engine. We shouldered our backpacks, tightened our shoelaces, checked our bush-knives then hastily dumped it all in the jeep, threw on our flip-flops and rambled the 100 odd yards over to our first stop - the long neck and big ear tribe!

Unfortunately, although it was really interesting to see the women, the 'village' felt all to much like a human-zoo of some kind. The village simply consisted of a single line of stalls where the women wove their shoals and wraps. There was definitely a sense that the village existed solely for the tourist market and that, perhaps, without it the tradition of wearing all the jewelry would simply fade away.

Feeling a little weary from our 100 yard trail walk we all sat down for a good feed which turned out to be a rather yummy mix of fried vegetable rice and some fresh pineapples! After which the real trek began ... doo, doo, doooooo ...

We spent the rest of the day slashing and burning a path through the thick rain forests of upper Thailand. Chainsaws in hand, well bamboo sticks anyway, we quickly carved a route through forest, tea-plantations and streams to the first of our village stop-overs : The Blue Lahu.

Upon approaching the village we were passed by two local youths on a 50cc motorbike wearing Adidas silkas shell jackets and brandishing some mobile phones - I was beginning to think that the remote, simple village life described in the Lonely Planet may have been a little romantic!

A few moments later and we were shown to our accommodation for the evening - a rather funky wee stilt-supported hut overlooking the village piggery. Although the villagers led a comparatively simple life to that which we had left behind in Chiang Mai, they by no means lead the Amazonial life the guide books would lead you to believe.

Coke Cola, Oreos and all manner of goodies were freely available from the local shop and in the end I guess the hill tribes are really more a collection of people who have chosen to continue to live a rural way of life; away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

We awoke to the quaint sound of pigs gently squealing their God darn ... Anyway! Another solid day in the saddle ensued, by which, of course, I mean walking. Up, up and some more up before a wee bit of down. But that was really just nature's excuse to give us even more up!

Luckily though our mysterious guide, known only as M, was a bit of a dab hand at the old cooking and had been busy while we'd been snoozing whipping up some yummy lunch and wrapping it all up in some palm leaves! A short rest to munch our way through this feast and we were back on track for our second stop: The Black Lahu.

Now, it turns out that, as was the case with the Blue Lahu, the Black Lahu aren't actually painted black from head to toe. They do, however, make some rather funky bamboo huts for their visitors to stay in, complete with a kitchen in the corner and a bundle of cooks to boot!

After a mighty feast the evening before and some well deserved snoozing we began our third and final day - The Neph Day! Our agenda for the day was simply to race our fellow trekkers around on elephants and rafts! By nitro boosting our neph with bananas we were able to tear away into the lead and hit the rafting section ahead of the rest.

Some careful splashing of the opposition on the way down the rapids allowed us to hold on to the lead and we hit the lazy bamboo raft with plenty of time to spare. A wee bit of lunch and it was time to motor back to Chiang Mai ...