Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Make a Note in Your Diary

I am now enjoying a short break in the UK catching up with friends and family.

I will be setting off on my travels again on the 5th May when I fly to Rome to start a cruise around the Adriatic taking in Italy, Greece and Croatia.

Please join me then.....


Friday, April 9, 2010

April 9th - Singapore

So, today we leave the ship after 2 months of boiling weather, freezing weather, and now boiling weather again. We've seen some fantastic places, eaten way too much great food, walked the Great Wall, seen the Terracotta Warriors (just lucky Tracy), been part of the revolution in Bangkok (by mistake), and seen monkeys dressed up like prostitutes - who could ask for more from a trip?

We had about 5 hours in Singapore before our transfer to the airport, so we decided to go to Little India, and sample the British national dish - curry. Little India is one of the more atmospheric parts of Singapore to explore - with its smells and sights, you could almost imagine that you were back in the Sub-Continent, if only it weren't so spotlessly clean.

We went first to the colourful Hindu Sri Veeramakaliamman temple, where lots of people were praying devoutly and getting blessed. As we watched, one of the priests beckoned us over, and annointed us with some white powder on our foreheads, telling us we would be '"double lucky" today.

Tracy then fell in love with India, and decided we were going to move there, and went all ethnic with her retail therapy, buying bangles and toe rings. Then we came to the main event - a curry lunch. We went to a restaurant full with locals, and I had an enormous vegetarian biriyani, with popodoms, chapatis and 4 different dishes, while Tracy had a veggie dhosa, with lots of dips to smother it in. It was way too much food, but somehow we managed it - fantastic value too, at about £5 for the 2 of us.

Having eaten all this food, we weren't up to any more sightseeing, which was just as well because we had to go to the airport 6 hours before our flight leaves. So, we have just spent the last 5 hours in a lounge, using their wifi and drinking Tiger beer.

Feeling a little dehydrated as we wait to board the plane......

Thursday, April 8, 2010

April 7th – Ko Samui

Ko Samui is an island paradise of white golden beaches and laid back resorts, but, not having the skin for a day of lying on the beach, I opted for the "eco safari", where we would get to ride an elephant in the jungle, and see some monkeys.

The elephant ride was good, although it was a lot more bumpy and uncomfortable than I remember from my last elephant ride (am I getting old?), and then we ended up at the place where they do the animal shows.

Unfortunately, the Thais seem to think that Westerners like seeing wild animals perform demeaning tricks, rather than just giving them a showcase for their incredible skills and intelligence. The elephant show wasn't too bad, although the deafening europop backing track and hideous ringmaster bellowing out indecipherable inanities made you feel pretty uneasy about the spectacle of dancing baby elephants. Even so, they seemed well looked after, and the elephants were incredibly cute.

But, then we went to the monkey show. My heart sank when I saw the monkeys dressed up in ridiculous spangly dresses, and I could scarcely believe it when I saw that the female one had been made up with face powder and lipstick, to look like a simian geisha – who in their right mind would think it was a good idea to make a monkey look like a badly dressed prostitute? The show was fairly degrading and the monkeys looked pretty unwilling to take part – it was all quite depressing. Tracy has refused to demean the monkeys further, by showing you pictures of them looking stupid and miserable.

Anyway, we moved on, everyone pretty taken aback by this "entertainment", and we went to have lunch in a restaurant in a beautiful spot overlooking the sea, the hot weather cooled by lovely sea breezes.

I did a bit of exploring in Na Thon, the town where we were anchored off (a fairly scruffy-looking, but laid back place), and I spent my last baht on a couple of cheap T-shirts.

Tonight, we had the White Party – an outdoor sensory overload of thumping music, laser lights and toned men in skimpy white trunks. We took in the action of the frantic dancing from the deck above, and by 3am, with the party still raging, we turned in. Apparently, it was still going at 6am – not expecting too many to turn up for my lecture tomorrow.

April 6th – Bangkok, The Day After

It was nice to wake up and see that Bangkok hadn't been burned to the ground in the protests, so we ventured into the heat for some sightseeing that didn't involve anyone in red shirts. We got a taxi to the National Museum, only to annoyingly find that it shuts on Tuesdays. In Bangkok, there are normally conmen who try to convince you that the tourist sight you're heading to is shut, but for some reason, there were people there trying to convince us that the Museum was open. Very odd.

Anyway, we got over our disappointment by going to Wat Matahat – as this is the centre of Buddhist learning in South East Asia, there were lots of stalls outside selling Buddhist paraphernalia, and oddly, a few stalls where they'll fit your new dentures in the street. The complex was surrounded by 156 large golden statues of the seated Buddha, and lying asleep in front of them, there were loads of red shirts taking a rest from a hard days work overthrowing the government.

From here, we decided to miss out on a bit of the traffic by taking a water bus down the wide Chao Phraya River. It would have been a good sightseeing opportunity, as we motored past the Grand Palace and various riverside temples, if only the river bus hadn't been so ridiculously overcrowded that all you could see was the person crammed into your body space.

Before we got our cab back to the ship, we popped down a little alley, and were surprised to see a Romanesque Catholic Cathedral sitting there. It was built by the French when they had Colonial ambitions here in South East Asia, but the Thai monarchy cleverly managed to avoid getting swallowed up into the French Empire in Indochina.

April 5th – Bangkok is Revolting

Well, the city isn't revolting, but the people seem to be planning a revolution.

In my lecture yesterday, I told people about the current political unrest in Bangkok, and advised them to stay away from the political demonstrations that are currently beginning to paralyse the city. Unfortunately, I didn't really heed my own advice, and twice today we found ourselves right in the middle of the protests, surrounded by thousands of red-shirted demonstrators and uneasy-looking riot police looking on from the sidelines.

The protests are trying to get the Parliament dissolved, because they feel that the current government were put in place by illegal means. The red-shirts are mainly from the poorest sections of society and from the countryside, while the yellow-shirts who make up the government's supporters, generally come from the urban middle and upper classes.

The current round of protests have been going on peacefully for the past few weeks, but in the last couple of days, things have heated up, as the red-shirts have decided to set up barricades around Bangkok's upmarket shopping area, and to bring the city to a standstill. For a city that's almost always in a state of constant gridlock anyway, that's not too hard a task – today the traffic was hideous, and the crowds were huge, which combined with temperatures just below 100 degrees, you got a sense that it wouldn't take much for things to boil over.

So, into this combustible situation, stumbles the supposedly travel-wise Destination Lecturer and his wife, oblivious to the risks involved. We decided that the best thing to do was to ignore the situation and carry on regardless, so we kept to our planned sightseeing route. We first went to the much-revered Erawan Shrine, which just happened to be right next to the main speech-making stage of the demonstrators. So, we took our photos of the shrine trying to zone out the deafening rabble rousing speeches, and the frenzied cheers of the crowds, and we then walked as quickly as possible away from the epicentre, to our next temple, about 500 yards away.

This temple, Wat Patum, was a tranquil oasis of calm in amongst the tumult and roadblocks going on in the streets outside, and so we sat in the temple's peaceful garden trying to plan an activity that didn't involve a re-enactment of the storming of the Winter Palace or the Peasant's Revolt.

So, we went to the Pratanam Market – a wholesale clothes market, where we were told that there were bargains galore. It was refreshing to find a clothes market which wasn't full of the usual fare of cheap knock offs, but instead was full of original designs. Unfortunately for us, the original designs, were mostly made for the locals, who are not only much smaller than us, but also seem to prefer very short skirts and brighter colours than our conservative 40-something tastes.

Our next bright idea, was to go to the Thai Boxing stadium, for a night of controlled rather than uncontrolled violence, so we got a river bus down one of the narrow canals, and emerged from the water, right into the second epicentre of the demonstrations, where red-shirted people were flocking to from all directions. In fact, the atmosphere wasn't really menacing – it was like a cross between the Glastonbury Festival (Woodstock for Americans), the pre-match atmosphere of a big football match, and the peaceful bit before the anti-globalisation riots take off. However, the fact that they all dutifully stood to silent attention while the National Anthem was played, was quite reassuring.

In spite of this, we decided that the most prudent thing to do, would be to get the hell out there – easier said than done. Traffic was at a standstill, so it took an age to find a cab, and then we had to get him to agree to take us to the other side of town. After a lot of cajoling, we went on our way, to find that every street we wanted to go down was roadblocked – it must have taken half an hour to finally find a way out of there, in which time we were beginning to think we'd never make it out.

But, eventually we escaped, and he took us to our target restaurant, evocatively named "Cabbages and Condoms". In spite of the bizarre name, it was a standard Thai restaurant, which had the theme of promoting birth control and safe sex. Anyway, it was a lovely meal, although Tracy's tofu curry almost blew her head off.

April 4 – Extremely Hot Chi Minh City

It just keeps getting hotter – 96 degrees today.

From the centre of town, we decided to walk to one of HCMC's most famous Chinese temples, the Jade Emperor Pagoda. The heavy humidity meant that we were sweating buckets, but it was nice to walk through a section of town that we hadn't explored before. As we walked, it was obvious that free enterprise is alive and well in this Communist country – the lines of busy motorbike and bicycle repair shops on one road went on forever. It's nice to see a society where they still recycle everything (although out of necessity rather than ecological reasons), and where it still makes sense to repair something, rather than replace it.

We arrived at the temple, where the air was thick with pungent smoke from the many joss sticks, and we saw lots of ornate statues and vivid woodcarvings of people's descent into hell – looking incredibly similar to paintings of the Last Judgement from Medieval Europe. Outside the temple, there were two ponds – one alive with tortoises scrambling over each other's backs, and another, where people come to release goldfish. At the temple entrance, vendors are helpfully selling goldfish to the worshippers – presumably they scoop up all the fish that have just been released, ready to be sold again. More recycling in action.

All this walking and sweating meant that we had worked up a decent appetite, so we went to our new favourite restaurant, Quan An Ngon, for some more delicious street food in a refined old colonial building. As ever, we ordered way to much, and as ever, we managed to plough our way through the whole lot.

Our final task was to get rid of our last Dongs with some retail therapy, but we felt it was too hot to deal with the hassle of the Ben Thanh market, so we went to the air conditioned mall instead. The mall is almost as full of knock offs as the market, but it was a more pleasant environment to do our haggling. I don't think we're very good at haggling – the vendors either seem disgusted at the low prices we offer and won't even engage in any haggling, telling us to go away; or they bite our hands off at our first offer, and we're left with a nagging sensation that we've paid well over the odds.

Anyway, we've fallen in love with Vietnam all over again. We don't know when we're going to be coming back here next, but it will be interesting to see how much it will have changed – will it be full of skyscrapers and shopping malls like the Chinese cities we've visited? Or will it become seedy and over-touristed like parts of Bangkok? Hopefully neither.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

April 2 – Nha Trang

Today the ship came into the beach resort of Nha Trang in Central Vietnam, to enable the passengers to work on their tans. The place definitely has a fantastic long beach of white sand lapped by turquoise waters, but it was so hot, I can't believe that anybody was able to stay in the sun for too long.

Not being beach people, we opted for the "city tour" – not an easy thing, to fill four hours of touring, in a place of few sights as such. The most interesting sight were the Cham Towers at Po Nagar, just a short drive from the city. They are brick-built 8th century Hindu towers to the God Shiva, that have now been converted into Buddhist shrines. The atmosphere inside the airless towers was like a sauna and they were thick with smoke from the incense sticks - you came out literally dripping with sweat.

To add to the overheating feeling, we then visited a reclining pagoda at the top of 100 steps, lined by a crack squad of beggars and hawkers who followed us all the way round, blowing tuneless whistles, limping and whining.

To cool down, we trooped off to the beach for a cooling cocoanut and (very cheap) beer, before dipping our toes in the sea.

The posh resort hotels are just beginning to spring up in Nha Trang and the town is growing quickly - I hope they don't allow this place to be ruined.

April 1 – Hué

It's been nice to head south, away from the wet or freezing weather of China, Japan and Korea, but now it's gone the other way – it's too hot!

From Da Nang, I took the ship's tour to the refined Imperial capital of Hué – about a 2 and a half hour drive from the ship. At Hué, Vietnam's extravagant Emperors built an enormous Citadel, based on the Forbidden City in Beijing, surrounded by an enormous moat, and a huge wall that was a whopping 20 metres thick, and then filled it with opulent palaces and colourful pavilions.

Unfortunately, Hué was also a scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War, which meant that much of the Imperial City was sadly destroyed. Inside the walls, where once there'd have been scores of magnificent palaces, there were now just green fields – although the four or five palaces which did manage to survive the fighting, and have since been restored, do give a hint of just how impressive this place would have been. Of course, a huge portrait of the much-revered (and omnipresent) Ho Chi Minh, looms over the main gateway into the Citadel, just to remind you that this Imperial extravagance is a thing of the past (the Last Emperor abdicated in 1945).

From here we went to the Mausoleum of the Emperor Tu Duc – the man who allowed (or was powerless to prevent) the French to move in on Vietnam, and who was more concerned with creating monuments than protecting his people. It must be said that the Mausoleum that he created for himself is a fantastic sight – nestled in pine-clad hills, its many moss-covered pavilions set amongst tranquil reflective pools. At the mausoleum, the slightly melancholy and dilapidated atmosphere was lifted by a school party of hundreds of noisy kids who were desperate to say "hello".

March 30 - Hong Kong

As one cruise ends, so another cruise begins, as we got a new set of passengers for our final cruise of the Far East.

We decided to follow some of the guided walks on the tourist brochures, and we took the Star Ferry over to Hong Kong Island, to explore the historic district of Wan Chai. When you get there, it's pretty hard to see that this is one of the first parts of Hong Kong to be settled back in the 1840s, because pretty much anything over 20 or 30 years has been knocked down to make way for a modern skyscraper or mall. In fact, for the first 200 yards or so inland, you're walking on new territory that's been reclaimed from Hong Kong's harbour over the years – it was interesting to see on the map, how the shoreline kept receding over the course of the 140 years of British rule.

As we wandered, we stumbled across the odd Victorian building that's managed to survive the relentless march of modernity, and the odd street market selling unrecognisable body parts of livestock, to remind us of times gone by.

This being Hong Kong, we did an obligatory spot of retail therapy as we walked back to the Central District, to get the ferry back to Kowloon and the ship.