Up the Mekong to Angkor Wat.

By a fluke I’d managed to get through to England on a phone in the lobby of the basic hotel we’d been stopping over in. My friend in England could tell the woman looking after my place how I was doing. After the initial surprise it was a case of where was I?

A town on the Mekong Delta.” was my reply. I think it was here I saw a Buddhist shrine lit up in the same way as Christmas is celebrated, but the tropical night gave a bizarre feel to it.

Was I well? “Never been better!” was my reply. I’d come through real trials of strength and stamina and felt fine and ready for anything. A captain in complete control. Master of my fate for a change.

And I’d also like to say, I’ve just had grilled rat!”

And the response to that was a measured sentiment of ‘Ye-es, I see’. She knew what I was like. Someone who – when getting over the hilarity of seeing that on the menu – wonders what kind of lunatic would have that? Then thinks of the person looking at the menu and decides ‘I know one’.

It had seemed to take a long time to cook it. Or catch it. While I kept myself going with beer.


It was very well done – to the point of some of it being charred – but I’d trust the rat rather than the cold hot dog I had the following morning. The morning view from the balcony outside my room was of vendors laying out vegetables and fruit across the street with only a few scooters and bicycles for the noise, under ad hoc architecture one room wide. Anything from modern to corrugated iron. Basic hole in the wall hotels were the accomodation on these tourist trips; together with eateries serving unusual cuisine such as rat, or where geckos running around the ceiling and walls kept one company.

The plan from here was my version of ‘Apocalypse Now’. A journey as far as possible up the Mekong river system. Up the Mekong into Cambodia and its capital, Phnom Penh. From there up a tributary to a lake in the middle of the country. A town lay almost on its northern shore and beyond that was the fabled city of Angkor Wat.

This could have commenced by river from the town I was in but because of the complicated nature of the journey around the Mekong delta it was awhile before I realised we were going up a parallel road to the next river town instead; complete with the usual two wheeled traffic mayhem threatened by 4 wheeled idiots behaving like bullies blaring their horns while overtaking on the inside. The whole tedious stretch being flanked by hovels and flat vistas. What a swindle.


At the next town the boat turned out to be a ‘tourist express boat’ with an open and closed section and a powerful engine. The open section had been claimed by a party of Italians but once we got underway though I found I could still get photos from behind the boat windows despite the engine’s roar and flying spray. I’d been on one big tropical river before in my life, the Congo, and that was a much more stately ferry cruise through a region of outright jungle and isolated villages. There were similar broad level horizons here of huge expanses of water and stretches of tropical vegetation including some impressive trees, but amongst this was much more habitation, more river traffic, and often it was just agriculture; sheer sided riverbanks higher than a man barring one from seeing more than the edge of a maize or banana tree field, with odd farm workers and cattle.

The journey led up out of the delta to the even broader main river and the Cambodian border. The first experience there was a wait in a riverside waiting room come cafeteria. Where I got to know the Italians who became really friendly when I told them I was against Brexit. They were a young crowd including a bevy of slim attractive women, surprisingly stylish in that climate. We dissected Brexit and I got a laugh of popular support when I told them we ought to form a new European parliament. Then we took each others photos by the boat and inside the customs compound, we’ d be swapping them by email after returning home.

The customs compound was the most laid back customs post I’d been through. Where trees shaded several shrines and an ornamental pond with water lilies, with a view of the river beyond. The ultimate relaxed atmosphere was given to the customs office itself by a dog lying in the dust in front of it pretending to be dead; as they are wont to do in this part of the world perhaps. So: the most pleasant border crossing I’d had in all my travels. What of the rest of Cambodia?

Beyond Vietnam 243

The river scenery continued as it had before but with more temples. Russet brick red to sandy coloured steep gabled buildings were often in sight as we progressed northwards; with the odd spire, ornate embellishments on their roofs and on poles occasionally placed around the buildings. Cambodia was a land of temples in fact. The obvious claim to fame being Angkor Wat but I saw many before reaching there.

More in the way of industry, river traffic, refinery and dock, meant that the capital was near. Eventually its occasional high rise showed up on the horizon with a tropical thunderstorm as a backdrop. There was a palacial hotel, another temple and then the disembarkation point. Nearby was a showboat affair. The sort of craft I had been hoping to proceed up the Mekong on. Never mind there was still the tributary to the central lake and Angkor Wat.


After 2 stays in a windowless room I wanted something better. There were hotels and establishments one could stay at everywhere but somehow the prices were always more than I was expecting.

I’d been fending off taxi drivers and the like which wasn’t easy in the sweltering heat with a large, medium and small backpack plus camera bag. I gave in with a tricycle ‘tuk tuk’ driver. It was the cleanest machine I’d seen, all smart red paint and chrome with comfortable seats. He assured me of a good place and we set off through the narrow cluttered streets.

The room was actually the worst I’d stayed in. Windowless, grim, a bathroom that was really a converted space under the stairs; one had to bend one’s head when going to the lavatory. There was also a loose electrical fitting by the ‘bathroom’. It was probably a firetrap what with the kitchen below, close to the stairs with no other way out it seemed. So why stay there? Well apart from the lure of spending less money the downstairs part of this establishment was roomy with comfortable furniture – especially by the street – and a menu for just about anything it seemed, in English! I was expecting a language hassle in Cambodia similar to mainland China but it was extraordinary how considerate the Cambodians were what with printing so much in my hometongue. There was also the company. The people running the place were nice and the clientele included an ex Parachute regiment fellow from Aldershot about to get a job and an American hippy from Tenessee. Both were pleasant company to booze with and the parachute guy pointed out that at least the place was secure: usually a concern when travelling and especially so in parts of the world such as this. A bank of CCTV screens hung over us in full view which posed a deterrant for thieves.

Things were not going well though. At the top of the street was a travel agent. The response to my proposed journey to Angkor Wat by river and lake was a statement that the river was too shallow so no boats were going up. That was the biggest disappointment on this SE Asian oddysey: having to accept a truncated version of the river journey across the Cambodian border and give up on the rest of it, getting there by bus instead.

Then there was the museum. I wanted to check that out because I’d been given an Indiana Jones type mission by the woman I’d regaled with the grilled rat. See what I could find regarding astronomical influences on Angkor Wat. The sort of thing I relished! Together with the Chinese limestone landscape, cave adventure, getting through the Chu Chi tunnels and the river journey. It was another adventure to chalk up. Except I found nothing on astronomy being connected to Angkor Wat in the museum although there was a lot in there on the place.

Thought I’d check out the palace near the river too but that was closed for a special celebration. So I photographed the ornate exterior surroundings, a spire within topped by faces peering in 4 directions like an oriental version of ‘1984’ and – with maximum zoom – a shot of a sentry on a mobile phone.

Back drinking with my friends from Aldershot and Tennessee in easy chairs by the street I made the mistake of spending money in connection with a street vendor or maybe even being generous to Buddhist monks; I’ve forgotten. Occasionaly they were to be seen in their bright robes and one knew they were near when there was an atmosphere of calm and respect replacing the usual 3rd world city hubbub. Anyway word must have got round quickly for in no time our small party was crashed almost literally by a woman in a motorised wheelchair riding up like a pocket tank with a ‘don’t you dare reject me’ expression and boxing me in between the seats. Part of her armoured vehicle so to speak consisted of books. She was selling them and although I didn’t care for her technique I thought I’d better buy one. It turned out to be a good buy. I’d already bought a book in Hanoi about a Vietnamese man’s bicycle odyssey through his own country which gave one insights about the place. Same thing here since it was about Cambodia after the end of the Khmer Rouge’s brutal reign. According to the book things had not improved much because of the venal nature of the government, bribery and corruption being endemic. Many – particularly in the country – still living as they have done for a long time, suffering from dysentery by siting latrines in trenches near water supplies for example. One thing that did happen was a big aid effort from the United Nations and that accounts for English being in widespread use here on notices and on the menu I saw.


I made a foray by tourist taxi north of the capital to the ‘mountain’ of Phnom Udong. Much of what was here was destroyed by American bombing and the Khmer Rouge. Still an impressive array of Buddhist shrines and temples; many of which were ‘stupas’: pagoda like towers of circular design like colossal bells rising above the foliage of a low isolated wooded ridge.

I didn’t realise it at the time but the town of Udong was actually the former Cambodian captial! Udong being Cambodian for ‘victorious’. Something of a misnomer since it was named thus during Cambodia’s decline but several kings were crowned here. Henri Mouhot; the French naturalist and explorer who alerted the west to the ruins of Angkor Wat, gave this description in 1864.

‘Udong’, the present capital of Cambodia, is situated north-east of Komput, and is four miles and a half from that arm of the Mekong which forms the great lake…Every moment I met mandarins, either borne in litters or on foot, followed by a crowd of slaves carrying various articles; some, yellow or scarlet parasols, more or less large according to the rank of the person; others, boxes with betel. I also encountered horsemen, mounted on pretty, spirited little animals, richly caparisoned and covered with bells, ambling along, while a troop of attendants, covered with dust and sweltering with heat, ran after them. Light carts, drawn by a couple of small oxen, trotting along rapidly and noisily, were here and there to be seen. Occasionally a large elephant passed majestically by.”

Phnom Udong proved a steep enough climb in the heat up flights of steps through the wooded slopes. Flights of steps would lead up and down along this ridge reminding me of a majestic staircase leading up a sacred mountain in Japan through a forest. I thought at the time that it would’t be a bad way to end one’s life when one was old – as I now was – ascending that mountain to expire. Now I was just glad it was a lesser extreme, what with the heat.

There was a view of Kandal temple below: more a temple complex with a small formal lake, perhaps used as a reservoir. Rather oddly I haven’t been able to find out anything about it on the internet. Some reason for secrecy or upstaged by Angkor Wat?

The first stupas on Phnom Udong were massive stone affairs but little tended, judging by the odd plant growing heroicly out of cracks in them. The main stupa though was the biggest, further on, on the highest point on the ridge with grand staircases leading up to balustraded terraces and a very ornate ghostly white edifice guarded by elephants.

Beyond Vietnam 366_edited-2

There was a terrific view of the great flat plain which makes up most of Cambodia. As well as woods, settlement and agriculture there were flooded areas near the river. It reminded me of the horizons of Africa where plains seemed to stretch in the same limitless fashion as seas do. On Google Earth I’ve seen great stretches of water in this region. It’s as though most of Cambodia’s natural state was a vast swamp. Not so unlikely when Michelin maps of overland travel through Africa showed vast forested areas of this in the Congo Basin. Sometimes I saw it: waist high water everywhere in the jungle going on for mile after mile.

Buddhist stupas were built for a variety of reasons and could be classified by form and function as follows:-

    Relic stupas, in which the remains of Buddha, his disciples and saints could be interred.

    Object stupas, in which belongings of the above were interred, such as robes, begging bowls and scriptures.

     Commemorative stupas, to record and celebrate with respect the lives of Buddha and his disciples.

     Symbolic stupas, built to symbolise aspects of Buddhism.

     Votive stupas, where visits are commemorated or spiritual beliefs are sought.

Towards the other end of the ridge downhill were more of the older or less well cared for sort. At least one of these had the serene but watchful faces carved into the top of the structure like the one back at the palace. Their was also a temple with huge gold Buddha statues and paintings of lush colours depicting paradise and wisdom presumably, within its dark interior.

The descent lead past a tiger growling from the wooded edge of the track of all things. Not a real one of course but a vividly painted mock up. On the opposite side one could see another religious complex through the trees; which turned out to be a another temple and stupa complex laid out like an outsize cemetery.

After that I was to rendevous with the driver near a gateway where a line of hundreds of identical lifesize gold statues of devotees led one up a road to another temple. The taxi didn’t show up but this place probably had a beneficial effect: somehow I was laid back enough to find help at a local establishment, make contact with the driver and even get a ride to him on the back of a scooter.


Back in Phnom Penh I seemed to be pressured by the locals to see ‘The Killing Fields’. I’d been persuaded by a friend to go to Auschwitz 3 years ago and neither were the sort of thing I normally wanted to explore. I felt that there was a ghoulish element exhibited when hordes of tourists wandered in and out of these places at will when so many were previously trapped into a terrible fate there without hope of escape. There was another side to this though. A Jewish friend was in favour of a visit to Auschwitz because it was a result of evil that should be recorded so that – hopefully – a variant of that was less likely to happen again. Maybe the Cambodians felt the same way.

So I found myself taken with a group to a ‘Genocidal Centre’ a few miles south of town. It was a former orchard known as Choeung Ek. Now it was a mass grave of a small proportion of the victims of the Khmer Rouge. Nevertheless 8.895 bodies were there, killed between 1975 and 1979.

What was I doing then? Nearly starving in Capetown but soldiering on against the odds to win an all important contract and get a steady job at the same time. It felt like victory after a Boer War seige and I worked flat out at both successfully but that was marred by the failure of falling in love disastrously. What followed that was an expedition across the whole of Africa: some very tough days and nights but also some fantastic sights, adventures and achievements; ending with a return home to family and friends in the UK.

That time wasn’t without at least one trial I regretted but whatever went wrong then couldn’t equal or even approach what I was witnessing now. We were given headsets and told to proceed through a series of numbered exhibits where whatever atrocity that took place there would be described to us.

Shelters – welcome in the heat – presented us with printed information and in one case bone fragments. They could be also seen if one looked carefully within fenced off areas where the mass graves were. The grounds were laid out like something like a cross between a park and an open air zoo. At the rear was a large pond screened by trees, a variation on the grave theme I think. There was also a view back towards the city across flooded rice fields beyond a wire fence with a boy there looking into the grounds as though he wanted to get in. How many doomed souls would have been looking with longing the other way?

The victims included political prisoners but there were many others. Khmer Rouge executed almost anyone suspected of connections with the former government or foreign governments, or being intellectual or just professional, for God’s sake! Even Buddhist monks too – normally revered and beyond reproach let alone extermination – were also for the chop.

20,000 similar mass grave sites throughhout the Cambodia have revealed at least 1,386,734 victims. Estimates of the total vary wildly from 1.7 to 2 million, to 3.42 million out of something like 8 million Cambodians. That could easily be a comparable ratio to Britons killed by the Black Death when it was killing at least a third of the population of the British Isles.

What surprised me was just how many were killed without being shot. The Nazis who killed a million Jews at Auschwitz alone preferred the industrialised method of Zyklon B gas to machine guns to achieve their total. But here the Khmer Rouge bumped off so many using only farm implements or sharpened bamboo sticks to save ammunition. A palm tree in the grounds was notable for parts of it being used in this way. Children and infants had their heads bashed against trees. There was a ‘Magic Tree’ in the grounds too, where loud music was played to drown the cries and moans of those being dispatched.

Beyond Vietnam 404

‘This Genocidal Centre’ had a memorial: a modern Buddhist style tower whose acrylic glass sides revealed 5,000 skulls. What could one say or think? There they rested stacked up on shelves. Housed inside a white tower that seemed to symbolise an ascent up to far brighter heavens after the Hell they’d endured.


The bus up to Angkor Wat crossed the tributary of the Mekong I’d planned to explore, passed a new housing estate on the left hinting at or pretending there was going to be a brighter future for the country and kept going across the Cambodian plain. Brilliant green with the rice paddies like some never ending seamed garden lawn from an alien culture. Studded with mop headed palms and the odd home on stilts. Probably still with those disease spreading trench latrines. The route wound northwards towards the fabled destination. There was a town where I had to look for a place to stay just south of there. Krong Siem Reap. There seemed to be more motor vehicles on the roads in Cambodia than in Vietnam but I was told it was such a status thing; poor families remortgaged their homes to buy them.

I thought the bus would drop us in the centre and I could sort this out on foot despite the heat and my near crippling load of luggage but the ‘terminus’ was in a southern suburb: an overpopulated raucusly noisy broad urban street without a blade of grass flanked by buildings of the more decrepit sort with no relief from this scene in sight. Like I imagined part of a city in India would be, a part that one wouldn’t want to get stuck in. After 3 rooms without a bloody window since Song Doong Cave I needed a hotel verging on luxurious and it was obvious there was nothing like that here. It was also obvious that more money had to be spent on a ‘Tuk Tuk’ (a motorised tricycle combination) if I was going to get out of this hole.

After this bad introduction to Siem Reap things improved. Back on the road again in the one of these conveyances there was the surprise relief of a belt of trees up ahead where the centre of town should be. It was parkland along the river running through the middle of town and the centre was on the other side. The town centre road running parallel to the river was a definite impovement on what I’d seen and the driver – being asked to find me an inexpensive luxury hotel – managed to do just that! Up an alley was a multi storey one. The cheapest rooms there were right at the top, suiting me perfectly and this time I got a nice room with a real view out over the rooftops. Saw some impressive storms up there.

Right below was a swimming pool too. The paving beside it was being refurbished so one was obliged to walk barefooted on some rough stuff but after the caves plus the places I’d gone through was I going to complain? Come on this was just cushy by comparison! The pool came complete with towels, loungers, bar and restaurant area anyway. My first sampling of the bar’s alcohol led to a chat with an Australian and I had some pleasant times there. Even taking on the role of a DJ behind the counter when I was taught by the staff how to. My choices were popular. Being under the influence seemed to help.

I should have quit when I was ahead with the ‘Tuk Tuks’ though. When I’d been out walking and had a problem finding the alley to the hotel I asked one of them for help. He took me across the road and I found myself with a problem driver who insisted on taking the wrong road. Calling a halt to this outside a huge hotel I found those inside no better at directions. And this was their home town! It was a long hike back in the heat but persistence paid off in rediscovering my hotel. Must have been in sore need of a beer when I got there.

By now I was aware that Siem Reap was a town of many hotels. And not just any old hotels at that, but huge prestigious luxury ones! At odds with Cambodia as a whole it indicated there was a lot of serious money spent here beefing up the tourist industry for Angkor Wat. Clearly it was felt that this World Heritage Site was Cambodia’s main asset for reviving some of it’s fortunes. I say that because Angkor Wat had been the centre of an empire that had expanded Cambodia’s borders through Thailand, Vietnam and down the Malay peninsula when Europe was going through its Dark Ages into the medieval stage.

The museum showed some of that. It was bigger than the one in Phnom Penh. But again I could find little if anything on how astronomy might have influenced the design and construction of the wonder just to the north of here. The closest thing I could find to that was the alignment of the temples and earthworks: either north south or east west. Angkor Wat was not just one temple but a city sized complex and 2 massive rectangular reservoirs west and east of the main complex spread the affair out to 7 miles across! Add to that the associated suburban and village architecture, farming and trade routes which didn’t endure – although some traces can be seen on Google Earth – and you have one major civilised region for that time.

Beyond Vietnam 523_edited-1

First though I went to see the ‘Floating Village’ on the shore of ‘Tonle Sap Lake’: the lake I’d hoped to use as an approach to Siem Riep after coming upriver from Phnom Penh. Instead I saw how low the water level was in what was supposed to be the wet season! As can be seen from the photograph this meant that the dwellings built to cope with this resembled tree houses! I couldn’t help but take global warming seriously when I saw this. Later I was pleased to find a electric scooter hire shop in Siem Riep town centre. The name is ‘Greenbike’ with a green colour scheme for the premises and machines.

We got there in the back of a truck which bounced down some rough tracks near the village, reminding me of my crossing of Africa. The village was extensive with a school. We were paddled around a dark swamp during which I had a Cambodian children’s exercise book pressed upon me by a hawker. I later passed it on to my Special Needs school. They’ve come to regard me as the hardy explorer type. The lake itself had no shoreline; like much of the Congo river. A vast grey plain of water encroached upon the vegetation under an overcast sky.


And so to Angkor Wat. I joined a tour group hoping to glean some astronomical information from the guide but when he inflicted a sermon asserting that people considered victims of the Khmer Rouge had been killed by the invading Vietnamese instead it seemed obvious one couldn’t trust anything he said. He probably had relatives who were Khmer Rouge anyway.

Beyond Vietnam 918

The name ‘Angkor Wat’ means ‘Capital Temple’. In a sense that name describes the place well. It was certainly a capital city of temples. The first day’s exploring was spent not at Angkor Wat itself but subsidiary ones around the complex. I saw much, including stone elephants guarding corners of the temple, rectangular carved recesses known as ‘false doors’ in temple towers shaped like giant pineapples or fircones, partially eroded faces and carvings giving the appearance of half rock half sculpture that reminded me of scenes depicted by the German surrealist painter Max Ernst and flights of steps leading up through striking ruins that reminded me of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ by Led Zeppelin. Most of the flights of steps were too steep for the tourists apparently: the stone ones could be seen under wooden ones constructed on a gentler gradient. Although it spoilt the effect in some ways it was necessary I guess. The ruins of Angkor Wat weren’t the challenge the rockpiles of Son Doong Cave had been but a fall amidst all this masonry could still result in broken bones. Anyway, the steps were steep because the approach to the Gods wasn’t supposed to be easy; as I’d expected and experienced in Son Doong Cave. No pain no gain. That was the trouble with tourism: everything arranged but the striving and the acheivement lacking as a result.

I’d noticed ‘nagas’, first coming across them down at Udong: sculpted hydralike snake like creatures rearing up like cobras complete with hood behind them, guarding the entrances to various temples. They represented a mythical race of half human half cobra shape shifters who were commanded to weed out overpopulated regions of the truly evil or those who were due to die prematurely. So the legends say.

Most of the building material was sandstone transported from kilometres away. The architecture was square in plan or nearly so, laid out in concentric fashion (squares within squares) or subdivided from the outer moats and walls through terraces, galleries, courtyards and subsidiary towers to a central tower or point. Sometimes one had to climb, sometimes the going was level but always there seemed to be an entrance half way along each edge leading straight to the centre. Around each temple were often the hollows of moats. Those with water were often carpeted with water lilies in flower too.

At the end of the first day I was dropped off to climb Phnom Bakeng, the only hill in the area to watch the sunset. The track going round the hill to go up it past another temple tower in the jungle. The top was impressive enough: a steep climb to the summit of a truncated pyramid of a temple, but the view west was obscured by jungle and the best of it over the western reservoir was at a stopping point half way down. I got established there early enough before the place became a crush of tourists. The 2 big reservoirs of Angkor Wat were 5 miles long but only about half the western one appeared to hold water. A great sheet of it stretching out below the horizon beyond a knoll which was yet another temple. Over a mile across. What a civilization this must have been to create something like this from religion and hard manpower work. Hence the fascination of archaeology: filling in the details to build up the picture of a mysterious alternative world such as this which one could then time travel to.

Beyond Vietnam 776

Ones reward for patience was the foreground foliage fading its details into a darker hue along with middle distance while the reservoir became a horizontal gleam of light under a sky losing its blue hue and glare, which coalesced smaller back and back towards sunset behind solid cloud. Eventually – when everything apart from the man made lake was black silhouette – it was a spectacular tropical one of burnished gold and copper, with lightning occasionally flashing in the mountain of cloud. There was a storm developing but I managed to get back before it hit.


The second day was Angkor Wat itself which I reached by tuk tuk, which became my way of getting up there when I gave up on guides. The area was forested not so much with the jungle I’d seen elsewhere but with grandly tall pale trunked trees. Although they belonged in a tropical rain forest they reminded me of Redwoods in their majesty. Below them on grassy swards by the road were occasional animals such as monkeys investigating whether the tourists had anything worth stealing. I also saw while in this area Water Buffalo, a white cow and a huge pig crossing the road.

Angkor Wat itself was a vast place – the largest religious monument in the world in fact – bordered by a square of moats that were more like lakes. It was planned on the Khmer version of the Universe; with it’s central tower representing Mt Meru: the central mountain of Hindu faith, the courtyards being continents and the moats the surrounding ocean.

The entrance to the main causeway leading across the moat was flanked not only by the nagas but also lions. How could an ancient SE Asian civilisation know about lions? Because at that time they were more widespread stretching across the Middle East to India and the temple was originally Hindu; constructed in the 12th century.

Within the outer walls and carved on the masonry are 3,000 ‘asparas’. These heavenly ladies and intricate bas reliefs depicting historical events and mythology. They’ve more or less survived through the ravages of time (bat urine and droppings) and a mistaken attempt to clean the temple complex with chemicals which damaged them. They were designed to be viewed in an anticlockwise direction which has similarities to ancient Hindu funeral rites, giving rise to the view that Angkor Wat was used both as a temple and a mausoleum.

The dimensions of Angkor Wat parallel the lengths of the 4 ages of classical Hindu thought. So walking through to the central tower can be thought of as a journey back in time. If one doesn’t feel that way there one could in other temples of the complex. Wherever the axial east/west north/south corridors – leading to the centre of a temple – are level one can peer down a vista of distant doorways beyond doorways: a glimpse of time perhaps, or passing through into other linked worlds, infinity and all that.

The central tower was besieged by a massive queue of tourists. Sod that for a game of soldiers, so I thought I’d take a roundabout route back, exploring near the moat and discovered a Buddhist academy complete with orange robed priests. One of them gave me the option of staying and attending a session but I had to regretfully decline. Inwardly cursing running out of time because of the rendevous with my tuk tuk driver.


The 3rd day brought wonders I relished more than yesterday. Beyond the main Angkor Wat was a forested area with wonders in hiding. There was that pavilion housing a statue of Buddha the size of a Dinosaur; complete with respectful offerings.

There was the sight of a causeway in the jungle leading to a man made mountain. A massive pile of a temple around which tourists moved like ants. Its tiers and heights composed not so much of sculpted carvings but blocks of stone reminding me of Inca constructions. At the very top was the incongrous frame of a doorway standing on its own appearing to be an entrance to nowhere, unless it was Heaven or some other existence, though most likely it had been the entrance to surmounting architecture lost over time. This edifice had the feel of Indiana Jones to it for I wondered what – if anything – was concealed within? Also it was awhile before I could find it on a map, so I could fool myself it had only just been discovered.

The best adventure for me though was Ta Prohm temple. Not a huge temple but big and strange enough to be used as a location for that Lara Croft film ‘Tomb Raider’. That should be a clue as to how spectacular it was. It was the trees that did it. Silk Cotton tree, Strangler Fig, I’m not sure which I saw. That was what these gigantic adversaries were supposed to be but either way it was the stuff of science fiction! Roots spreading octopus-like in vegetable tentacles, some as thick as a man or more, over and sometimes through masonry. A drama of mans’ construction versus life that will not be denied played out on a vast vegetable span of time, alien in its scale. Most of these trees were forest giants that seemed intent on smothering, squeezing, heaving and ripping apart the temple.

Beyond Vietnam 777_edited-1

This was one place where I had to get a photo of myself for scale. One was taken of me in what was practically a cave entrance formed by 2 massive roots, one with a joint in it suggesting bone articulation. Although the tree I was under was sawn up so that only those roots and the buttress base remained the cloister it sat on had sagged under the weight. Also another giant was close behind growing up at an angle so it looked as though the photo had caught it on the move to exact crushing revenge! Imagine a planet with this sort of thing speeded up: stuff of imagination.


And so the time came for the final journey to Thailand, Bangkok airport and home. A smooth bus ride to the border broken only by a cavernous underpopulated rest stop: probably an overestimation for the tourists.

The Thai border was chaotic in total contrast to that and the Cambodian one on the Mekong. Building construction hammering away in the heat. Totally built up anyway with confusion over where we were going. An obstacle course of one queue after another, checkpoints and officialdom. A woman returning to London swore. I gave some medication to a Vietnamese girl who had a graze. Beyond this was a straight road with bus stops that were simple by comparison.

I had to wait in an office of a minor outfit though for my lift. Which proved to be a roundabout one through the countryside of farming land and occasional hills.

I’d been worn down by my adventures perhaps; I had a bug and wasn’t feeling 100%. The journey itself though wasn’t unenjoyable. That is until we sped past the turning to my destination and kept going too far into the end of the day to drop off one person in the middle of a town I can only call Traffic Crap Central. Endless jams. Traffic lights that seemed to remain on red for half an hour. Aggravations such as a coach doing a ‘U’ turn into our queue just ahead with an air of ‘you don’t Mind if I muscle in delaying you even further do you?’ It was dark when we left.

Then when my destination was finally reached it turned out to be the opposite end of town from the luxury hotel I was aiming for. “Oh Shit!” That lined me up for the sort of debate over a taxi fare I love to hate.

But my luck I’d trusted to in not booking a room at the hotel was in. They had a good room available on the ground floor and the receptionist even remembered me from last year. Bit by bit I got sorted out and recovered from the bug soon afterwards.

It was a stay I extended, going up to the airport on the last day. For 5 days I was able to do nothing much apart from sleep, surf TV, drink, read, doze again and – when I felt energetic enough – walk a few feet beyond my sliding window for a nice swim in the luxury hotel swimming pool. Well why not? What with an odyssey of over a month coping with all sorts of situations, including lugging luggage around while lost in China, tackling the world’s biggest cave and crawling through the Chu Chi tunnels, all in the relentless heat of a tropical summer, I’d trained up for and gone through the toughest physical challenges in that heat achieving outstanding adventures that demanded courage, discipline, strength of stamina and spirit despite being 66! It might just have equalled some aspects of a military campaign.

So that qualified me for a stretch of ‘R & R’ Marine style.

© D. Angus 01 18

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Rest of Vietnam.

On my way to breakfast I met the lady from Singapore. We exchanged contact details and agreed to link up in Ho Chi Minh City.

I hoped I’d find the others – or some of them – at breakfast but everyone had gone and I had a deserted meal.

Cheap accomodation had been arranged for me in Dong Hoi and after breakfast rail travel to Ho Chi Minh city was organised, together with a taxi to the station tomorrow morning. I needed to travel sooner rather than later to be on time for the link up before my remaining link to the expedtion flew back to Singapore.

I was picked up at midday and taken to another hotel on the seafront much more central than the last one. The room was windowless, taking me aback a bit, but it was only for one night and hadn’t I so recently spent 4 nights underground? Besides: the buddhist shrine by reception appealed to my sense of humour, what with the beer cans included in the offerings there. Shrines like this were throughout Vietnam: a fat jubilant figure on top of an ornately carved polished wooden furnishing embellished with coloured lightbulbs, surrounded by figurines trinkets food flowers and yes;- beer cans.

After nightfall I took a few photos outside and returned to find 2 Irish women with a tale of being ripped off by a taxi driver. That driver who took me to the hotel, the one with the unreadable meter and now this. 3 incidents in the same town I thought.

And there was still a taxi ride to the station in the morning. It went well enough, as far as the station. Trouble free in fact to the point where I thought I’d tip the driver when we got there. That was when he insisted I hadn’t already paid and the whole thing descended into an incomprehensible argument which the **** seemed to be enjoying! Then a crowd was gathering and I was running out of time so I had to pay twice! One of them got me in the end.

If the railway system had been halfway as complicated as Chinese ones I wouldn’t have made it but being Vietnamese it was doable.

Goodbye Dong Hoi: the record town for rotten taxi drivers; at least as far as my travels were concerned. The opposite end of the scale from the cave porters whom I had the highest regard for. Later I read that taxi tipping wasn’t normally done it Vietnam it seemed.

I had the middle bunk in a six bunk cabin with a family in there and it was going to be a seriously long haul down to the south. On the face of it more of an ordeal than the night train out of China, but the youngsters again were good to me; cheering me out of the black mood I was in. They were teenagers, brother and sister.

I think at one stage the brother was ribbing the sister about having a crush on me. That was around the time she played me a pop song though her ipad or whatever, that I happened to love. I could of course be wrong about the crush but then there was that girl in China who told me I was handsome. Mindblowing but nice. It seemed the same in Asia as in Europe: the younger folk being kinder than older folk.

Vietnam 521

After the town’s colourful frenetic suburbs gave way to a parallel road and the rice paddies farms and tropical copses of a coastal plain the railway ascended into winding views of secluded beaches and bush covered headlands by a sunlit azure and turquoise sea, where the forested inland mountains came down to the coast.

Later on clouds gathered over the mountains and the scenery slid towards subdued hues, night and the south of Vietnam. There was a town too with a pagoda and a white statue of what looked like a Buddhist Goddess beyond as tall as an office block. But I can’t swear to that since this was a country of more than one religion.

A peculiarity of the landscape here were the graves. They’d crop up literally anywhere, from formal graveyards, to groups of them on the edges of towns or farms, to solitary ones. In fields for example. Often it seemed they’d just be determined wherever the occupant fell.

A recording on the train intercom brought me round. This city was ‘growing up’ it proclaimed, as an early morning landscape of scruffy suburb and urban wastes slid past the window. Much was made of how whatever lay outside was maturing and moving fast in the right direction. Well, we would see. Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City, or still Saigon, depending on one’s politics.

At the station I thought I might get a photo of the engine and got to the front while wondering about the risk of doing that in this country. I couldn’t get the camera ready in time to sneak off a surreptitious spot before the engine driver spotted me and didn’t like it. Then a guy in uniform casually strolled past me. I’ve got to say that if the intention was to dissuade me without arresting me it was very well done. The signal was get out while one still can.

Like Hanoi the city station was a lot smaller than the equivalents in London and as for China… Anyway the plan was to get through a few backstreets between the station and a main road slicing diagonally across the city centre. Since I wanted to save money and there was a backpacker district at its other end indicated by a gathering of map symbols one should head in that direction while taking note of hotels on the main road.

It worked better than I imagined for while making my way through a jungle of shabby buildings I came across a small neat cheap hotel just before the main road. Ideal for purpose. Only one problem: my room was another windowless one. Still, after the sweaty night on board the train and paying an extra charge to get in early I showered and caught up on sleep well enough.

Like Hanoi Ho Chi Minh City was full of 2 wheeled traffic rather than 4. I’d thought Hanoi was bad enough but this place was just unreal. When I tried to cross the main road to get something to eat I just couldn’t find an opening in the never ending stream of mopeds, scooters and motorbikes. I had to be helped across like a little old lady by a policeman!

Vietnam 636_edited-1

The following day the further I went in all the heat the madder it became. I saw things I could hardly believe. Entire families on one scooter. A mother texting while driving while her small son in a spanking new communist uniform stood in the footwell eyes front! Did I really see that? A roundabout was devoid of any right of way apart from wedges of traffic gaining ascendancy by threatening collision, although there were police and traffic signs, largely ignored. Organised total chaos! But somehow I didn’t see an accident in this city. Everyone on wheels seemed to understand some invisible code.

The breaking point for me was when there was a jam at a junction, one scooter getting bored with this deciding to outflank the problem by driving on the pavement, followed by a horde of them! Nowhere was safe. That reminded me of something and I became insane myself with the utter mad hilarity of it all; regaling European passers by by mimicing a relevant bit of Ben Eltons ‘The Young Ones’. Where there’s a television advert involving a manic road safety guy whose message is along the lines of ‘imagine this overripe tomato is an old lady and (something else soft and squishy) is a young boy’, then he whips out a hammer and whacks them into a mess, the sentiment being: ‘Think once. Think twice. Think! Don’t drive on the pavement!

Absolutely mental!

The pavements were not so safe anyway, what with commercial concerns making an obstacle course of them by extending their wares out to the road, all in true S.E. Asian fashion. Add the odd rat – I saw one scuttle under some goods – and the odd tiny bonfire – like some token religious sacrifice – because there are no litter bins, and the pavements had their own problems.

Amidst all this wandered the occasional old Vietnamese lady selling her wares or going about her business in the traditional way;- in a broad conical hat with her items in baskets either side connected by a pole across here shoulders, or pushing a bicycle converted into a mini kiosk.

Locals helped me across the roads again until I learned to watch out for them crossing and tag along; although when I tried old fashioned gallantry with two Vietnamese ladies by standing between them and the oncoming hordes I was promptly shoved to the other side and controlled like some errant child. I think we shared the same sense of humour though, judging by our laughter as we parted!

I got down to the the other end through a more opulent centre complete with ‘Starbucks’ and a few parks. Across that was the backpacker district with tourist centres. Not being familiar with the country I arranged a trip in one and had a nice long conversation with the girl there. I wanted to get back quickly though because I’d tried to contact the woman without success from Singapore who was on the caving trip and who might meet me here.

So of course I got lost getting back, retraced my steps, then a guy rolled his scooter out just in time to block me while he could see I was in a hurry. “Wait” was his sentiment with a cheery smile. “No!” was mine which seemed to surprise him but I’d spotted a gap and bypassed him.

All to no avail. When I got back I realised I’d left the paper with her phone number on it at the tourist office. We managed to communicate by email when I got home but it wasn’t the same.

Morning and I was ready, but where’s the taxi? It’s late. Late enough to phone the tourist office where I’d had that conversation with that nice girl. It all amounted to nothing I learned. No I didn’t want to go down there on the back of a bike! (Fer Chrissake I take some risks but that was flirting with death!) A taxi was the lesser of 2 evils and I had to get one fast! This sort of arranged misunderstanding could be a normal hazard in this part of the world.

The taxi was one of the better ones and when we’d threaded our way down that road I’d walked yesterday – yes through that insanity of traffic – I found the operators in a laid back mood about my late arrival. There was still time I was assured and I was led through several alleyways to where the group was to depart.

I’m writing this nearly a year later and don’t remember much about the sequence of sights in and around the city. There were a fair number in the Mekong Delta region which is where Ho Chi Minh city was on the edge of. The backpacker district was used by the tour operators as a district wide post office with tourists being sorted and moved around like parcels in a complex way to the embarkation point through alleys and streets choked with traffic and people. But these guys had expertise and somehow it worked.

Vietnam 620

The main purpose of heading out of town was to see the Chu Chi Tunnels. The Vietcong had become experts of concealment through tunneling and this place was the prime example. It was up towards the Cambodian border which necessitated a long drive along shanty sided roads full of 2 wheel traffic and accidents on the verge of happening, but I only saw the aftermath of one of them.

Tunnels of concealment were begun across Vietnam in response not to the Vietnam war but to earlier French Indochina hostilities. By the time the Vietnam war got going they were an enormous network of not only tunnels but underground hospitals, sheltering places, shrines, everything a community needs in fact to keep going. They kept being extended and the Chu Chi Tunnels were only a part of the whole thing, although these tunnels were a major nest of trouble for the Americans and served as a base for the Tet offensive.

The tunnels themselves had become the focus of an outdoor museum complex set in bivouacs and bunkers in a wood. There were token American weapons such as a helicopter and a derelict tank, a display of the kind of ordinance dropped on the Vietcong and examples of booby traps. Surprising how punji stakes and variations on that could be laid out in such a variety of ways. They had to be coped with not only on the surface but undergound too by ‘The Tunnel Rats’: a unit formed by the Americans to get into the tunnels and flush out the Vietcong and the NVA.

There was a firing range where one could fire weapons such as a Kalashnikov and a machine gun using live ammunition. One had to buy the bullets so several of us formed up to do that, then the group fell apart when it was realised how expensive they were. By then firing had started with a deafening noise which didn’t help any fallback plan and after checking the prices myself I decided it was more trouble than it was worth.

Sampling the tunnels turned out to be much more of a success! Entrances could be anywhere, within a hut or a camouflaged piece of nondescript ground. The Vietnamese tended to be slim and smaller than the average westerner so the tunnels tended to be tiny. Some had been enlarged 30% for the tourists but getting through was still a daunting proposition. Hadn’t I just been through a fantastic ordeal of a cave system though? I was up for it and down I went! One had to make progress on all fours and could never see far but there was always a lamp on the edge of the tunnel floor in front for guidance and light. Once in awhile there was a way out to the left but I kept going. Not so easy with the heat which wasn’t left behind and was – if anything – intensified by the cramped spaces I was crawling through. Plus there was no shoring up of these tunnels, it was all bare earth, which according to one report I read was firm enough for this. Let’s hope the report was right now that I wasn’t sure how far down I was. What must it have been like to be bombed in these tunnels?! From time to time there were sudden drops or ascents of a few feet in height. There were people crawling along behind me. I announced I was going to stop for a water break and – having clambered up it – sat on one of the ascents for that purpose. “Right who have we got?” 2 guys were following came the response from the tunnel at my feet. The end was not far beyond that. The verdict when we emerged was that out of 10 trying this most had left at the earlier exit points and 3 of us had made it through the whole 120 metre length. Not bad!

An associated sight in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon was the ‘War Remnants Museum’ down some quieter tree shaded streets. Where I got a thumbs up on the camera from a guy who sold me a coconut and where the American influence remained, in the form of ‘COWBOY JACK’s’: an ‘American Dining’ establishment with ‘Chicago Pizza’ and so on. The museum was a modern building with impressive weaponry out front;- helicopter, tank and self propelled gun, proclaimed as being very destructive, but within the emphasis seemed to be on the personal effects of war rather than weapons and tactics. Although I’m interested in the latter the former is just as valid if not more so and one needs to be reminded that ‘war is hell’ really. The closest thing I saw to hell in there was a gallery of photographs of victims of ‘Agent Orange’. The controversial defoliant used in the Vietnam war. Since returning I’ve seen large bare patches of terrain on Google Earth near the coast, like miniature deserts that seem too big to be coastal sand dune areas, but the victims, many of which were unborn…. Hideous diseases, growths and deformities. Only a modern artists depiction of the denizens of hell comes close.

The Vietnam war was a distant conflict on the other side of the globe when I was a teenager. One could still feel it as a threat at that time though since it was heavily televised, people got very worked up about it what with demonstrations not only in the US but in London outside the American embassy. It seemed something one felt lucky not to be part of if living in Britain, especially if you were a teenager near the age where one could be called up. Now I seen more of the reality of it, in a country that seemed to be recovering well compared to where it was.

From hell to attempts at heaven. One being a ‘Cao Dai’ temple and its grounds, which stretched into the far distance along tree lined straight broad roads. This was a religion native to Vietnam itself and although it had millions of followers the temple complex at Tay Ninh was surprisingly impressive, in terms of the resources that must have been needed.

Vietnam 593

The grounds were massive, the design of the entrances guarding the long straight roads across the wooded grounds to similar gateways at vanishing point were orientally ornate, but it was the colour that really got to me. The main temple seemed to possess the opposite approach to religion from the brooding grey solidity of the European structures I’d been used to. The Catholic churches I’d seen in north Vietnam were colourful in the sense of being sandy yellow but here:- puffy clouds in a pastel blue sky decorated the ceiling down the length of the aisle, yellow walls and blue balconies flanked the worshippers and there were many pink columns, each with writhing black dragons, with red bellies and mouths. Was exuberant the right word to use here?

A Cao Dai website included in it’s worldview the statement that ‘Cao Dai’ does not seek to create a ‘grey world’. No kidding! What that meant was a world where all religions were the same. Instead they were in favour of harmony between beliefs. Something to be approved of. The colours of some of the worshippers robes emphasized this, namely the priests at the front of the congregation. Yellow signified Buddhism, blue for Taoism and red for Christianity. These were the 3 principal colours of Cao Dai. This belief system was also broadminded regarding its saints, which included figures as diverse as Confucius and Muhammed and as unlikely as Julius Caesar and Victor Hugo. I’m not making this up.

Similarly, aspects of these religions were incorporated into Cao Dai. Ethics from Confucianism, karma and rebirth from Buddhism and organisation from Catholicism.

The words ‘Cao Dai’ were in fact a Taoist epithet for ‘High Tower’. In otherwords the supreme god. Represented by a divine eye in a triangle, which appeared in the windows of the temples and on a huge sphere the congregation faced.

One had to remove footwear at the edge of a broad paved apron surrounding the temple. Once inside though one was encouraged to take photographs from a respectful distance at the rear or upstairs in a gallery. Surrounding gardens and small colourful towers offered pause for reflection.

Beyond Vietnam 011

Vin Trang Pagoda in large garden in the My Phong commune of My Tho town was another attempt to create heaven. This was a land of giants in a garden. Gigantic statues of 3 deities: one 50 feet high, one reclining and an accurately named My Tho Buddha (fat white giant) were around the pagoda. This was not actually the ‘Gautama Buddha’ who founded the religion and taught balance between sensuality and severe asceticism. My Tho Buddha was the eptitome of contentment and abundance. Poor but somehow fat; whereas many in the surrounding shanties of this region were poor and thin. In fact it was difficult to find anyone overweight in this part of the world who lived here.

Vin Trang Pagoda was constructed in 19th century. It’s not a Chinese pagoda, tower shaped but was rather like a miniature palace, embellished with every kind of ornate woodwork, carving and statuary; more or less surrounded by very well kept gardens: exotic vegetation, flowers, pot plants and pools.

The day I saw it was one where the enervating heat seemed to be relieved a little by a wind producing blue skies and white clouds, matching the white of the statues. This gave an outsize mystical quality to the place for the gigantic brilliant white statues almost seemed to have materialised from the brilliant white clouds above, like gods who’d decided to visit the temporal world on condition that they could do so in the comfort – bear in mind the gardens – of a pocket of paradise. Or were the clouds their thoughts? One was directly over the head of one.

Outside this lay a heavily populated corner of Asia with its problems and perils. Often it seems that the poorer the country is the more dominant the religion is. I don’t believe it’s solely down to ignorance. It might also be a manifestation of a collective attempt to realise the kind of existence very difficult if not impossible to achieve in this life.

Beyond Vietnam 113

Not long after that we were taken through ‘the floating market’. A conurbation of barges with big eyes painted on the front of most of them to ward off evil; or maybe the odd bad deal involving dodgy produce. There was so much of it being exchanged here. A guy next to me in the tourist boat summed it all up: “don’t ask me how but somehow it all seems to work.”

This was all in the Mekong Delta; a level land of rivers huge and small, the bigger ones crossed by elongated graceful modern bridges. People, two wheeled traffic, palm trees and dwellings ornate and scruffy were everywhere and my memory of that now is a kaleidoscope of many things: a market cum restaurant area where the fish to be eaten were in a moat and displayed in tanks, including a pair of pike. A cruise up a palm fringed creek. A agricultural garden where rice paper was made and there were toads, an island with a restaurant where there was a downpour and crocodiles, since it was a farm of them.

Beyond Vietnam 201

There was a wildfowl reserve where one was led on a stroll across a canal misty with heat haze and canoed around swamps choked with water weed to spot the birds. For me the swamp vegetation and the haunted feel of the waterlogged woods were just as much of an attraction.

A wind in this region seemed to produce a cooler feel to this part of the journey; relatively anyway. Maybe because the delta stuck out into the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea. The irony was that the hottest part of my journey had been the furthest north, a heatwave in China, and this felt like the coolest, the furthest south I was going towards the equator. Now I was heading north again.

© D Angus 06 17







Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

More trials of a tourist: China/Vietnam.

And so the time came to leave Yangshuo. The bus I was in passed the park I’d wandered through part of; there was a pagoda up there under the karst cliffs. I should have explored all that instead of going to all the tourist traps but the heat made hiking a challenge and what can a tourist do if not anywhere for long enough? Time and money and so much to see exerted a straitjacket discipline in which one had to make choices appearing unwise in retrospect.

The bus went up the dust storm highway. Which just continued since the whole road seemed under construction despite a toll road running parallel. I got the feeling China was where Germany was in the 1930’s building autobahns and demanding territory aggressively. What amounted to a vehicle assault course lasted all the way up to Guilin.

It was a relief to get back to the Sapphire Hotel and my room, until I got there. They’d looked after my left luggage but when I tried to open up the room the key wouldn’t work, then I realised I’d been moved to a different room just as a man opened the door. Apologies and a luggage burdened trek to the new room. Which turned out to be much smaller and basic with no separate room for the bathroom. Plus a hall mirror positioned for a splendid view of oneself on the loo unless leaning sideways! Was this because of my earlier chaotic unseemly arrival? I was assured that because it was the weekend demand had increased but I couldn’t shake that feeling of a fiendish oriental plot.


On the last day I tried a nearby idyllic limestone hill by the river named after an elephants trunk but there was the usual barrier and turnstile rubbish so I tried the river I thought I was at when I first arrived in the town. Much nicer being more a series of landscaped lakes with wooded bouldered shores one could walk around freely. There were 2 full sized pagodas for the sun and the moon in a lake. I was surprised to find a pop group half way along the shore with a negro singer. Incongruous details like that and a row of knee high stone pigs across the entrance cropped up here, now and then.


Now for another rail journey to get out of China but the feeling of suffering a discreet penalty was back again the morning I left. There were always taxi’s in front of the hotel and I was resorting to one to get down to the station without getting drenched in sweat again. Although the daily smearing on of sunblock cream & insect repellant created a thin layer of slime over one anyway.

By the time I left there were no taxi’s. I tried explaining by any means what I wanted to staff and the travel bureau lady but couldn’t surmount a wall of incomprehension. Was it feigned? My father might have called it ‘dumb insolence’ – as he did with me sometimes – and would have lost his temper with them. In a way I did, giving up on them and making for the main road where there would be a bus.

The main road looked different somehow, but a bus came. Now for the bridge over one of the rivers. We crossed it. Now according to the street map I bought there should be a curve to the left, then the railway to the right. Nothing there. Then I realised: I’d gone down the wrong street from the hotel when exasperated, taken a bus in the opposite direction and now I was was lost again! Now I’d have to endure more and more persperation well before I reached the station and 2 train journeys: one of them overnight.

I got on another bus. There was a stop on the route map that looked as though it could be the station but the bus driver seemed to deny that. Got off. No buses seemed to be going there. Eventually I got on one anyway to encounter the driver of the first bus I’d taken, who still wasn’t going to the station. Got off and found myself at a crossroads where there was a travel agent. That was my chance as someone there should speak English but the only one there was a novice girl assuring me with a sick smile that she didn’t! Outside again into the furnace weather dehydrating in my sweat with all the heat and luggage. I tried to find a taxi, succeeding on the 2nd try. The taxi driver was a woman who raised my hopes a little; although she didn’t speak any English either she seemed to know where the station was.

We got there. I decided to let her keep the change which amounted to about 24% of the fare. What the hell: she’d done the job and had saved my bacon in doing so. A solid thumbs up from me broke the language barrier, she got that message with a smile. Just wait ’till I get the luggage out. Now for the station and hopefully the end of the trouble.

It was only the end of round 1 though. Round 2 began in the relentless sun outside the station because the ticket office and more barriers were there. In the small ticket office were 3 Chinese including a girl on the end whom I thought might be an airhead so I chose the guy at the other end. Perusal of my stuff extended into incomprehension and he sought the girl for help. The ticket for the first half of my journey was missing!

Luckily for me I was wrong about the girl, so never trust first impressions. She knew just enough English and was helpful enough to save the situation: despite being a Chinese official and despite me disagreeing “No I’m keeping my luggage with me I don’t want it stolen” – when she told me to leave it at the small office;- and me tactlessly complaining “And I can do without these barriers.” First she tried to put me on a sleeper that would take me all the way through but I would have to pay twice, but that was booked anyway. Then we found the train booked that I was supposed to be on so now – although I’d have had to pay for that one – there was no train available for my journey! On the face of it. Somehow she could overcome that by offering me a matchbox sized piece of paper with her writing as official proof that I was being covered for the cost of the missing ticket provided I present that in Nanning, where I was to change. “Oh yeah, I can just see myself showing them that and them not accepting that” was my ungrateful response. She could still see I had a point. We wound up in an office where I was invited to sit down next to a fan: a lifesaver! I had time to recover for while conferring with colleagues she laboriously wrote instructions in Chinese and English on to a larger A5 sized piece of paper. After which I was told to present this to the ticket officer on the train, who’d verify it for those I had to contact in Nanning, where I was to change and catch the sleeper to Vietnam. I was now in a fit enough state to appreciate how good this woman was and thanked her, but could I pull it off?

Round 3 began when the train was flying along and a uniform got close enough to my seat. Taking one look at my paper he passed it to a woman in uniform behind him like a soccer player making a sudden pass to avoid trouble. She took one look and I could tell she wasn’t pleased. Obviously she felt lumbered by this and she exacted revenge, summoning me out of my seat to follow her: I quickly gathered up the medium backpack and camera bag, the big one should be OK on the rack as long as the train didn’t reach a station, I had a fear of someone disembarking there with it. She led the way without looking round to see if I was keeping up, through the next carriage, then the next, then another! Was she going to take me through the whole train? She did just about! After I’d lost count of carriages we arrived at a lunch counter where her colleagues were. Then they proceeded into conference over the vital paper while complaining and joking about me in Chinese. I was patient and compliant: the best way right now I felt to get their co-operation.

But the train was slowing, we were approaching a station and to hell with this! My big backpack might be at risk. My agitation got through to a young official who relayed it to the effect that they’d had their fun with me, did what they thought was right to the paper which was handed back and I was allowed to return to my seat.

The big backpack was there so I was able to relax for the 2nd part of the journey to Nanning. The train fairly hurtled along at up to 209 kilometres an hour according to an electronic message over a door. One had to credit this marvel of Chinese technology although it made photography through the window difficult, the foreground always being blurred.


We were still in limestone country judging by the karst hills and the odd whiteish rock faces, although by now they tended to be more like triangles than towers. The interplay of these, farmland, the odd village, town or river I never got tired of, but eventually the karst ranges became more distant or subsided into hills, often cloaked in plantations of trees which had the shape of conifers although they were broadleaved. A city with wasteland in the foreground swung into view. Nanning and round 4.

It didn’t begin well as there seemed to be no choice but to join a departing crowd slowly moving down the biggest subway I’d seen which led right out of the station. Then I realised there were more barriers ahead; but these might work in my favour for once, if there was an official there who understood anything. There was, along with portable telephone contact to other officials; resulting in me being led up a side ramp I hadn’t seen to the rest of the station. At a counter in the main hall I was told to wait.

The paperwork arrived signifying that I’d satisfied their concerns without needing to pay anything. I’d won round 4 and this trial!


Now all I had to do was ascend an escalator to an upstairs waiting hall until marshalled for the sleeper train to Hanoi in Vietnam. While there I nearly ruined everything while trying to find something to eat: a well wisher alerted me to leaving my green folder behind with all the travel papers inside! Thanking her profusely I thought of my sentiment when saving that guy’s passport back at Heathrow.

The latest crisis might be over but I still had the endurance course of a night journey in a cramped sleeper caked in old sweat and interrupted by potentially difficult borders in the middle of the night. There were 4 berths with almost certainly other people. I got there first hoping for a lower bunk but I had an upper one. I tried filling in the departure card form that I’d carried all the way through China before anyone else showed up. That alone would get me out of China now. A Chinese family arrived whose father curtly told me in Chinese – one could go a lot on tone – to make room for them. He was just as curtly told to wait until I’d finished the card. He must have understood my tone too.

Once on a top bunk I realised that I had access to a space over the corridor outside the compartment: it was effectively a shelf difficult to reach which would do nicely for my luggage and security concerns. Pressing myself down on the bunk I could just make out what was outside the window of the train that was on its way now, but couldn’t be bothered with photos. The father and I didn’t say much to each other at all but the kids were friendly. I even ventured down the corridor now and then for a better view and the loo, though I’d made sure in Nanning that I didn’t need to use that much.


The border. A change from trying to sleep on the bunk. I’d hoped the customs officers would come on board and we wouldn’t have to get up but no; a border is a place for maximum inconvenience to be imposed. I stepped down from the train and one of the last representatives of China was there: a trooper in camouflage uniform and helmet, starkly lit along with the train and track, as one could only be at this time of night. That and walking alongside the train to the customs post brought on the feel of a war film or spy thriller. The scene was set, the action was about to happen. I had the sense of adventure again and it wasn’t so bad. When we were processed without the kind of crises I’d endured I began to feel like James Bond again, cooly controlled in a potentially hazardous situation.

Goodbye China but we still had to get into Vietnam. A few hours later I had a repeat of that experience, gather one’s clobber, get off the train with everyone else and make ones sleepy but garishly lit way to a customs post in a small station. An isolated world defined by stark artificial lighting, the black void of the night hiding everything else. This time though there were several Vietnamese personnel in olive green uniforms keeping an eye on us, the most sinister looking one near me.


Eventually I became aware that it was light outside and could abandon the uncomfortable struggle to submerge into a shallow doze. The train was entering the outskirts of Hanoi. The first building I saw through the window and overcast dawn light was a curious affair: only one room wide with 2 more on top of it. There seemed to be a faint French style about it – the whole region was a former French colony – but it was like seeing a block of flats edge on with the windows in the wrong place. There were a few more of them here and there, the greenery of disused land and foliage beside the tracks and a muggy looking street or 2 stretching away. The train ground to a halt. I’d made it out of China to what was the capital of the former North Vietnam.

Well, more or less. I still had much of the city to cross to reach the booked hotel because the present railway gauge didn’t go any further, Vietnam having a different gauge. That most likely meant a taxi. When I got out of the train and tried to take a photo the camera view was blurred with condensation from the difference between the train air conditioning and outside temperature: already getting excessive even at dawn. By the time I’d got a photo everyone had gone but there was the usual persistant driver on the make next to me: I gave in and we got to his car.

It was a similar language situation to China, the barest understanding of what one wanted though luckily I could show him the hotel on the map. We drove down a succession of dingy but broad streets and across a big river. Good. He’d headed in the right direction and I’d be close enough to walk now but for the weather. We got to the corner of a big park occupied by a lake but after that his sense of geography failed him; luckily mine remained good as I won the struggle to guide him round the streets beyond to the one near the alley to the hotel. It could have been worse, the fare was not excessive.

When a hotel with the name ‘Hanoi Luxury Hotel’ is down a picturesque but festering alley one fears the worst but it was better than expected. It looked nice enough and I was expected though there was the inevitable confusion and delay down to their limited knowledge of English and less knowledge of Vietnamese on my part. It was early so they needed to get the room ready. I worked out a safe place with them for my luggage and walked off to have a look at Hanoi.

Most of the buildings were not high rises but lower, old or makeshift. The place laboured under the kind of heat one could feel if close to an open oven. A typhoon had been reported on a Chinese weather forecast heading for the Hanoi region but it hadn’t arrived or done the job of clearing the air. Hanoi lay in a miasma of heat haze and pollution presumably: a kind of diffuse mist of grime ridden vapour and traffic fumes through which the sun could still just shine. Talk about a semi breathable atmosphere on another planet.


I tried to check out the station I’d be at tomorrow. Its approach couldn’t be more different to Chinese railways. A single track I wasn’t even sure was useable entered the station area from the north amidst everyone and everything: people wandering at will plus various wares being sold alongside the track with none of the security officials and barriers found everywhere in China. Beyond the gates on the other side of the road weeds grew around the track as it headed into the station yard. I struck down the far side and found an entrance. I continued thinking I could get all the way round but a belated glance at the map told me it wasn’t worth it. By then the road had narrowed into a lane like the one to my hotel. It was being used as a rat run by anything on two wheels.

There were all kinds of vehicles in this city but most of it was two wheeled. Masses of scooters, motorbikes and mopeds awaited at traffic lights to descend on one like the hordes of Genghis Khan with cavalier disregard for road safety. Some of them wore bandit style masks to guard against pollution. The pavements reminded me of the Philippines: an obstacle course of people, impromptu cooking enterprises, wares also such as motorbikes, depending on whoever owned the property one was passing.


Still Hanoi had a kind of decrepit charm, with a fair amount of vegetation around: trees and narrow fronted buildings occasionally festooned with tropical foliage. I walked back to the park I’d been driven past. Most parks here were occupied by lakes judging by that and Google Earth. Westerners were more apparent here in Vietnam than in China: I had a conversation with an Australian woman in the park. After the park I tried striking out towards the big river but was blocked by a motorbike infested main road backed up by an elevated motroway.

Back at the hotel I relaxed in my room from the heat and the miasma. Luxurious enough for me with a high ceiling, probably the French influence. Wooden shutters opened up to a good view of the rooftops and sunset.



Now for the final train ride to Dong Hoi down the coast, which was going to be the start of my next theatre of operations. A taxi took me by a roundabout route to the side of the station I hadn’t explored. It was more grandiose but still smaller than city stations at home, let alone China. I had that feeling again of ‘from one extreme to the other’: no steel barriers and it was easier to get the ticket sorted. Then I came across a can of ‘Birds Nest White Fungus Drink’. With a title like that I just had to try it. Just about drinkable and almost certainly better for one than a coke.

When the train came it was old with wooden seats and gently rocked and swayed when leaving the station, indicating a badly maintained track! So different from China again. That was the start of a slower journey through Vietnam though the train could gather speed when feeling confident enough. On the plus side were some Europeans travelling with me including a Dutch couple I conversed with a few seats back.

Mile after mile of suburb slid by, composed for the most part of those narrow houses I mentioned, like entering the end of a small block of flats or as one writer put it;- like entering the side of a house with the proportions of a matchbox. This would prove to be the residential style throughout Vietnam; the height of them determined by how much money one had I guess.

The miasma looked like extending itself likewise to Dong Hoi. Solidifying into a November like gloom. That and shooting through a dirty window made photography difficult again. Another problem was power cables and the supporting poles. There were black strands and masses of them in the towns of SE Asia resembling half completed gigantic sinister cobwebs enveloping the streets. When travelling by train they’d be swooping and slicing across the scenery most of the time, so one had to be quick and lucky to get that good shot and not to have a bloody pole bisecting the photo too.

It was going to take a day to get down to Dong Hoi though that was still well within what used to be North Vietnam. Eventually we were leaving the Hanoi region behind as houses, stores and street enterprises, filling stations and factories coalesced into towns and shrunk into villages, revealing flat rice paddies, the odd river and later those limestone hills come mountains again. Here and there these islands of rocky precipitous jungle would be gouged out into the bare rock of a quarry. I’d seen that in China too.


There were more farms, jungled areas and hills the further south one got. One real surprise were what looked like large brightly hued churches. Particularly one sandy coloured temple beyond some fields with workers like peasants in medieval times. It was within a curve of the track so here was one place easy to photograph. It was a church I later found. Catholicism has a surprising following in Vietnam.

The train arrived in Dong Hoi after nightfall. As it did so 2 German women aked if they could share a taxi and fare with me. Only too happy to oblige! We were all going to seafront residences and found a cab with a meter just outside the station. The young driver drove us down a long main street to where they were dropped off first. I had to get to the northern edge of town. Come to think of it the fare looked twice as much as a Hanoi fare.

We got there and settled up; but then the driver seemed agitated. I just got my luggage up the steps and into the hotel hoping he’d just go away after my long journey but he came in too, to dedicate a softly spoken campaign of incessant whispering agitation to the reception woman. According to her he’d made the mistake of giving me too much change. I so did not need or deserve this! There’s something about this kind of squalid little situation with some taxi drivers that I just hate: where you’re obliged to give them the benefit of the doubt – some of them do play on that – over who’s being ripped off, feeling guilty if resisting, feeling a fool if giving way. I was on the point of giving him money to get rid of him when the phone rang and it was for me!

Incredibly Mike – my travel agent friend who organised this part of my journey – was ringing during the middle of this to check on how I was doing. I admired his timing and told him why. Oh he’s just trying it on was Mike’s response. His opinion had the weight of experience, having travelled in this region and marrying a Philippine wife.

That stiffened my resolve. Mike would have just stonewalled him but after that conversation I was enraged enough with this pest to let him have it by threatening him with the police unless he left! I had the feeling of being in a colonial war commanding ranks of riflemen to “FIRE!” Over and over again. Until the attacking enemy was dispersed. At first nobody moved but faced with superior willpower – if not firepower – the persistant creep was shot up repeatedly with loud derision, during which he lost his persistence, faltered gradually and finally sidled off into the night and defeat. Mike later told me that calling the police was risky since the driver’s brother in law might be in charge but it worked!

So having proved that I could behave like an SS bastard to reception and the echoing expanses of the hotel I had a smooth registration and got up to my room. I’d sooner have handled things otherwise but not when this kind of deceitful sob story is forced upon one. Besides, if this perpetrator had been innocent against the odds the harsh response might teach him to be more careful.

The room was very comfortable apart from a bath with no shower. That mattered little. Sometimes it’s nice to just lie in a bath after times of stress.


The view from my hotel window in the early morning. Across the road a wood of small pines stretched along the sand, hiding the sea. Strange to see pines in the tropics but such a setting seemed to guarantee that laid back sand in shoes lifestyle found by the seashore.

I made peace with the reception woman and got the laundry logistics going. Breakfast was nice and unhurried: a small gecko on the wall kept me company.

Time to relax with a swim on a free day before it all happened tomorrow. A deserted beach meant no worries about possesions. Warm water with a nice swell and no jellyfish or sharks led to a nice swim. There wasn’t even a need for a towel afterwards: despite being soaking wet one was dry in 5 minutes in the dense heat.

I hiked into the town of Dong Hoi unencumbered with luggage. Always carry sufficient bottled water though and wear a hat. A string of small enterprises lay along the wooded strip: anything from a tarpaulin over stuff to eat & drink to small but substantial buildings to eat at or stay in. One had a huge ornately carved dark wood chair fit for an emperor.

In town I had a drink with a woman running a recommended seafront hostel, searched for stuff I needed along the main street and fended off another attempted rip off from a taxi driver on the way back. An unreadable meter and a leer indicating I was an idiot, not him, led to a premature pull over and a shortened hike back.

Then it was dozing & surfing TV in my room until evening, when I had a beer at one of the places in the wood. We didn’t speak each others lingo but everything was cool.

The day I’d been looking forward to for almost a year was finally here. The expedition would pick me up in the early afternoon and I spent the last few hours downstairs with my gear. Like the marine commander in ‘Aliens’ I wanted this meeting to go “by the book, by the numbers.”

There was confusion over whether I’d paid the hotel bill or not. The reception woman’s knowledge of English was patchy so I explained using Vietnamese where I could in a friendly fashion, helpfully, painstakingly, with the help of a calender and the voucher for this hotel. They’d always been proof enough and the whole thing seemed settled.

After awhile she approached me again to say that someone on the phone wanted to talk to me. It was a woman dealing with whether I’d paid the bill or not. Any irritation was tempered by an opportunity to deal with the problem clearly because she spoke fluent English. We sorted it. The reception woman went back to work making phone calls.

Then the same thing happened again. Now this was seriously bad! The expedition could show up any time now and to crown it all I had to find a 9 digit number demanded by a call centre operative of the inimical sort. I found one on the voucher and laboriously read it out, wrong number, what the/no wait there’s another one right under the first and read it out dutifully, after which I was ordered to find another 4 digit number! I couldn’t find that and cancelled a further booking I had with the hotel in retaliation. “Don’t talk to me like that.” “I’m talking like that because the expedition’s HERE!” Their vehicle had just arrived and an occupant was entering the hotel, but I was told to wait while help was found elsewhere in the centre!

(A quick break in the action here to suggest that all focused, committed call centre captains of industry management types train their staff not to throw customers heated concerns back in their faces by the ‘don’t talk to me like that’ line. The flack staff are getting results from your organisation’s rituals being dumped upon customers, usually on top of problems they already have with the product or service anyway. So try using that positive thinking you’re always on about to train staff to look at it from the customer’s point of view for a change!)

By now my anger was volcanic. First impressions can be important to others even if they aren’t with me and the expedition contact had arrived to find me bitterly fighting allegations of an unpaid bill! It was bad enough having to deal with call crap centres – the compulsory crap imposed by them offended the rebel in me – but this was the ultimate outrageous sacrilege! To have a great adventure involving months of preparation put on hold and maybe jeopardised – if I missed the expedition briefing I’d be barred – by the sort of whirlpool of tedious, debilitating, mundane garbage I thought I’d left behind on the other side of this planet!

I’m sorry.” “So you should be!”

The simpering apology from the reception woman deserved an unforgiving response because those phone calls she’d being making were really her persistence in repeatedly presenting this unjust problem to me – regardless of what I did – until she’d finally arranged the worst start possible! Like an utterly faithfull dog retrieving and returning a slimy stick one just wants to get rid of. Later I wondered if it was revenge for me hammering that corrupt taxi driver when I arrived but Mike – my travel agent friend – was certain it was just incompetence.

Instead of finding help the call centre cow had hung up on me and the argument was circular but it became apparent that we weren’t actually being prevented from leaving. We did so with me apologising profusely to the guy picking me up and the one expedition member in the vehicle doubting it would do any good. They and the expedition had nothing to do with this hotel.

My luck changed with these guys. The fellow in the vehicle spoke good English and changed the subject with a conversation about the mystical aspects of archaeology. While I had doubts about some of that it was more sensible by far to play along with him after what had just happened. The slim Vietnamese who’d picked me up introduced himself as ‘Vu.’ He looked young but many do here. He was sympathetic to the point where he later told me that (instead of judging people as often happens in the west) he empathised with customers in trouble. I couldn’t have hoped for a better man and both of them brought me round to a better frame of mind.

The surroundings and even the weather helped too the further away we got from Dong Hoi. We swung off a main road into a lane leading to a road taking us into the freedom of countryside, hills and mountains. Meanwhile the air seemed to be clearing from heat haze to clouds in a whiteish sky about to become blue. The road stretched ahead and the entrance to the national park was proclaimed ahead, in huge letters up a mountain, reminding me of Mount Rushmore.

Up a valley, through a straggling village and we were at the expedition base come hotel, being received in a very friendly manner. A different world entirely from the troublesome establishment I’d just come from. Before long I had telephone contact with Mike and gave him the news in a nonchalant fashion:- “Well I had a flaming row when I got there and a flaming row when I left. Shame because it was a nice enough hotel otherwise.” I was past caring about his consternation over dealing with it.

Reviewing the sweaty battles of endurance in China and Vietnam plus taxi drivers and a call centre I concluded – since I was on blood pressure tablets – that if I’d had a latent heart attack or stroke problem I’d be dead! That simple. So I was well set for the adventure of a lifetime.

© D Angus   05 17

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

2016: preparations.

Preparations for 2016 actually began in October 2015, when I found I’d been accepted for an expedition to a place less people had been to than had been up Everest. Hiking in 4 hot countries with uphill climbs and a jungle river had proved decisive. It was a real triumph for someone of my age but I felt “you’re in the army now!” And got the training going with much more exercise and tapes to grasp the basics of 3 languages. Where was I going? To keep the suspense up more will be revealed….much later.

2016 started with a dire January: flu wiped out much of the exercise and a previous good trading record was marred by a record loss; which set an unshakeable trend of bad luck though the losses weren’t as heavy. The only good thing about January was a good time at my place with the SF book club. It was my choice and my planetary mapwork was appreciated.

Winter in fact was a time of bad luck everywhere and an ending I didn’t need: I would have to go on to blood pressure tablets though at least it was the minimum dose.

Spring brought improvement and change.

After the programming fiasco of the last Easter SF convention I expected very little from its successor in Manchester apart from getting drunk with a few friends. The wet weather seemed to bear this out when I arrived in Manchester after nightfall making the place look like ‘Blade Runner.’ The weather improved though and so did my luck. The only thing this convention was disorganised at was letting programme participants know they were participating in programmes. The result was the best convention surprise I’d had;- finding when I arrived that I was on a panel. On Sunday morning though when the Saturday night drunks were sleeping it off or coping with breakfast. Shouldn’t be a major event then, but the advantage would be it being a laid back affair. Wrong! It was in the main hall which was packed with people – plus spotlights – who’d come to hear the exalted and I was one of them! It was a thoroughly good event but there was more. A creative writer buttonholed me afterwards to discuss a planet he was going to write about and wanted me as consultant. One hears all sorts of ideas at conventions which usually disappear afterwards especially if money is involved. This one didn’t though and I found myself receiving my first payment for consultancy work!

Meanwhile my writing was suddenly making progress. A creative writing lecturer had become interested in my Chernobyl article, a friend of his compared me to Ballard – an SF author it was an unexpected honour to be compared to – and the word was I should be paid for that kind of article. I was invited to read some of it out in person for the great and the good at a university do. Very heartening!

Otherwise Diana – the woman whose acquaintance led to Terraforming Mars for the Chicago planetarium at the turn of the millenium (The Great Martian War) and who was the reason I’d come to live in Rowner – had quit America and returned to Britain for good. Her mother had died, the same woman who’d given me invaluable support in finding my present home and who’d had the idea of saving the neighbourhood from a new housing estate by buying shares. I’d wound up being the only person able to buy them in 2014 and had become a local hero.

I was also looking after a cat. A couple well regarded in SF circles had broken up, the woman was moving into our area. Molly the cat was hers and and arrived amidst a fragrant pong of cat poo. Caught short in transit. I was given a fortune in cat food plus cat litter and Molly became my companion for summer while the woman was going through the throes of buying and selling property.

I’d started indoor climbing and found the blood pressure tablets did not hinder things; including a successful tackling of ‘the pain train’ which was an overhang traverse. I thought the name was that of a punk rocker band.

Then there was the every 2nd year sponsored walk for my special needs school. This time up the ‘Shipwrights Way’ from Portsmouth Dockyard round Southsea seafront then north up through Havant, Petersfield, Liss, Liphook, past Bordon, then finally to Alice Holt Forest and Bentley railway station on its northern edge. There were supposed to be sculptures on the route and I wondered if they were still there?

It was really all part of the training for the great adventure to come so whereas I usually devote several articles to a walk I’m squeezing this one into ‘preparations.’ It was 50 miles long anyway as opposed to 65 and fairly uneventful.

I had a few ice creams hiking along the long Southsea seafront for the weather was sunny and warm with the promise of heat to come. I seem to bring this weather out every time I go on a sponsored walk.

Shipwrights Way 022

Southsea also had its museums. The Royal Marines one was handy for reminding me of toughness of spirit and body and what I’d already achieved with that.

The ferry to Hayling Island – where Shipwrights Way went – was closed so I had to remain on the Portsmouth side of the muddy marshy wastes between. By the time I’d got round that I was tired and grateful to reach Havant for it was late. I’d started after 2 in the afternoon after getting the kids home from school.

It was the latest I’d get home for I was up at the crack of dawn for the rest of the journey; catching the first bus down to the harbour then across on the Gosport ferry for the train which would take me to Havant, Petersfield and Liphook just short of Haslemere. North of Havant station was a vast council estate. On the other side of that and clear of it by just a mile was Rowlands Castle: a lovely village around a long green with a Shipwrights way sculpture. Proof that they existed. Very nice breakfast there too; salmon on toast.

Shipwrights Way 127

Then it was a long hike up a long dry valley to Queen Elizabeth Country Park on top of the South Downs. Got lost here twice because Shipwrights Way twisted about here and the Park consisted of forest. Not around when the Romans were farming this area I found.

Shipwrights Way 139

Eventually there was a good South Downs view with what seemed to be a hanging valley: a landform usually associated with glaciated terrain. See the Lake District and Scotland. The way descended through an overgrown chalk quarry anyway to a lovely duckpond and village; Buriton. Then later Petersfield.

Next day I had off for the new boots I was trying out were wearing through a toe. Later I found the arrangement I had to return them if this sort of thing happened would be reneged upon by the head of the footwear department. Meanwhile the company concerned had got into trouble through mistreating workers. He didn’t like being reminded of that so I took care to hammer him on that target especially! Such is my loathing of commercial crap; regardless of whether it happens to me or anyone else at all.

Next day was a good test of mapwork: finding my way north east from Petersfield along the railway line through varied terrain;- wooded, almost suburban, minor roads and paths but without much in the way of hills.

Lunch was at a pub where I impressed the landlady enough with my endeavor and adventures for her to give me a fiver. First time anyone has donated en route. The only other company was a girl working there and revising for GCSE’s and a local character later who’d had some bad luck rolling cars. I advised stock car racing which was well received.

Shipwrights Way 202

The landlady told me to photograph their monkey puzzle tree on the other side of the pub when leaving. Helicopters used it for navigation when heading for army country nearby she told me. I could see why for it looked as tall as a redwood with an umbrella of dark foliage on top.

Shipwrights Way 214

Restricted areas lay to the north. What I call army country. The one I trekked along the edge of sat on the steepest ridge since the South Downs, forested with heathland below. The sort of wild looking place that sported danger notices where I wondered if a helpful Alsatian or Labrador had ever trotted back to its owner with a mortar bomb in its jaws?

This was part of the same broken up escarpment which formed Leith Hill too. It was older rock than chalk so in theory one could say it was Dinosaur country too.

After that it was downhill to a well kept pond and estate. I only realised when I reached the gates at the other end it was supposed to be private. Goodo.

I had to wait for an hour for the train back from Liphook.

The day after that I had off for the weather was deteriorating.

The day after that was little better but it was the last day I had.

Not long after leaving Liphook I began to feel I needed the loo. Because it was so early nothing was open so I had to walk miles and miles down the backlanes under pressure – of a sort – until eventually – when desperate – I discovered a leisure centre at Bordon. Even then it was hidden in the centre of a school and the only gents toilet was occupied! Lucky there was a disabled loo next door that wasn’t.

Shipwrights Way 238

After that it became a nature walk through woods which were a strip following a stream amidst housing estates it seemed. One of the Shipwrights Way sculptures was there. A toad which seemed to be on silent vigil guarding the limited natural sanctity of the place.

Much of the route from Petersfield had seemed to be a jumble of fields, woods, streams, the odd pond and nature trails amidst houses great and small, on gently rolling terrain.

The ground rose again though to Alice Holt Forest. A little known but substantial forest south west of Farnham. This was where the timbers for the old warships at Portsmouth had come from. Hence the significance of that and Shipwrights Way. The trail I was to follow stretched for 3½ miles through it. Journey’s end was on the other side.

There was a childrens party in there amidst habitations made from branches in a clearing. Then I heard more noise. A whole tribe of council house people were wandering up a trail crossing mine in a small valley. I pressed on ahead of them up to flat high ground where there was comparative civilization: a car park, visitors centre and cafe where I had a good chat with an old couple. My luck was in for while this was going on under cover there was a downpour outside, which stopped when I got going again.

Shipwrights Way 259

Last of all? Downhill through the woods to a little railway halt called Bentley station right on the northern edge of the forest. The train arrived and I was on my way home. Except that one stop up the line there was a points failure at Aldershot with only a bus to get us there. Except the one I spotted was going to Haslemere, only one stop up the line from Liphook, a short cut across a big corner plus the chance of catching a mainline train rather than one that stopped at every station! Another sponsored hike successfully done.

After that? There was the disaster of Brexit on June 23rd. Guess which way I voted. But I also hadn’t got any foreign currency by then for the next great journey.

Wednesday 20th July. School’s just broken up for the summer holidays and in a few hours I’ll be leaving. There’s that feeling I often have: of canoeing down a river through a gorge with the current increasing and a great thundering noise up ahead. Soon I’ll be shooting the rapids. Taking off from Heathrow for adventures in strange foreign worlds.

© D Angus 07 16.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Thailand: last stop before home.

That should be the Vietnam coast down there.

I like looking out of plane windows: a whole new visual perspective on the world. Landscape, geological features, man made features, weather and fantastic cloudscapes. Unless onboard entertainment – such as a good film – provides sufficient diversion. Most people preferred any media thing, or sleep. Sometimes one had to be careful when looking out of a window to avoid being thought antisocial.

There were big regular features down there miles across it seemed; some arrangement of earthworks, hard to tell if they were ramparts or moats or both. That wasn’t Angkor Wat by any chance? We should be over Cambodia. Reckon it was! But by the time the camera was clicking only a small part of it was visible, which didn’t show up on the photos.

Thailand became visible in long strips of fields set in what looked like a huge plain. It reminded me of Poland. The plane was descending towards Bangkok so I got a good look at what was below. Canals seemed to take the place of roads and some, many perhaps, of the fields were actually small rectangular lakes. The fretted grey outline of the city itself was on the slanting horizon now as the plane descended towards the airport east of the city and the fields were turning into industrial or housing estates.

Bangkok airport was huge with a space age design. Despite that I found the meeting point for the lift to the hotel easily. People were helpful and we were soon on our way.

It was a short journey to the hotel but still interesting. There was a motorway with flyovers giving a view of built up and industrial areas just as there are in most countries with big international airports. On the other hand an extensive affair with many pagodas at a corner of the airport resembled a temple, maybe. It was a hotel and restaurant complex. We were also driving under the odd big blue ornately shaped gold embroidered banner erected gantry fashion over the road. At the centre was a portrait of a regal looking lady with statements either side in Thai and English: ‘LONG LIVE THE QUEEN 12 TH AUGUST 2015′. A recent development then. A shrine was also a base for another similarly adorned portrait of her shaped like a giant teardrop. Gold embellishments also adorned poles at regular intervals. Likewise there were statues with the same hue at regular intervals along the sides of the motorway I later realised. Some at least were bare breasted. It conjured up a parallel world feeling. One of the experiences of travel. Some things being surprisingly similar to the world one saw at home, others outlandish or intriguing. Would Britain have developed as differently had history taken a different course.

The hotel overall was in a similar league to the one at El Nido. A modern block, a postage stamp of a swimming pool but there was a dining area with alcohol available and a Thai massage room. My room was a typical hotel room but the bed was more comfortable than those in Indonesia and the Philippines because this Thai hotel at least supplied slimmed down duvets – the best way I can describe them – rather than sheets. Air conditioning by the way worked fine. So did the TV.

The opposite kind of fortune had seemed to await me in Thailand as opposed to the Philippines: instead of a tropical paradise where I’d get high with friends I’d be on my own in a big city, a friend in Thailand being on holiday with his family while I was here. The Philippines had been a disappointment. Maybe it would work the other way round here.

Bangkok 3190

I was on the 4th floor and so had a good view. Not one of a tropical paradise like in the Philippines admittedly. The neighbourhood was hardly salubrious with ad hoc modern architecture, some industry and shanties and a small sewage farm, I found later. It was still interesting. In the foreground was undergrowth and a big irregularly shaped swampy pond or small lake lengthening into the distance which – for some reason – I thought would be a good place to dump bodies. Later I realised it was an overgrown version of the bodies of water I’d seen from the air. Beyond that was the airport. One could pick off planes landing with photographs.


On my first full day in Thailand I started to explore Bangkok, getting a lift from the hotel to the nearest metro station. It was going to be simpler coming back to go one stop further to the airport and get transport from there for walking was hard in the tropical heat.

The metro train here was elevated so one had a grandstand view of the suburbs going into the city. There were more of those city block sized lakes, often overlooked by flats. Maybe they were fish farms.

To begin with I hadn’t a plan apart from getting to the centre and having a look round; but then I spotted a snake centre on a map and headed for that: across a road junction surrounded by skyscrapers and clogged with traffic, down into an underground metro then up again at a corner of a park. There was a small shrine there.

Bangkok 256

One would see these shrines all over Bangkok and elsewhere. Looking like miniature temples: beautifully maintained dolls house temples, with gold embellishments and offerings such as flowers and figurines. They’d crop up anywhere from outside a prestigious establishment to a building site outside my hotel. The resemblance I felt they had to dolls houses wasn’t too far from the truth. ‘Spirit houses’ are what these structures were known as. And they were there to house spirits of all sorts: wayward ghosts, local spirits and Hindu deities to name a few, although 97% of Thais are Buddhists. The building site near the hotel was significant too: their chief function was to re-house spirits made homeless by demolition and modern construction, to give the perpetrators the best chance of health, wealth and prosperity! Or the spirits – of the malingering droput variety perhaps – could bring about dodgy consequences. Yes I’m serious! But I’m not explaining this to mock a culture as being rubbish; it’s more in a ‘spirit’ of whimsical humour and delight at the things an alien culture can come up with. My final observations? Weird though it may seem it’s not such a bad idea compared against the absurd excesses of ‘market forces.’ Shame some of this sentiment can’t be used to better the lot of those humans – and other living things – disturbed by developers; whom I hope may be plagued by unappeased spirits.

Onward down a straight road to the snake centre on the right. The entrance was guarded by a herd of small carved elephants on a lawn, beyond that a large pond in front of an imposing building. Part of a hospital complex? I was entering the ‘Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute’ established in 1912, originally to distribute rabies vaccine after a princess had died of rabies infection. It was later placed under the supervision of the Thai Red Cross Society and in 1923 became a snake farm. This lay beyond the imposing building.

Many tourists went there and I was just one of them again but what the hell? I was fascinated by snakes from a very young age: their sinuous shapes and movement, the extraordinary patterns and colours of their scaly bodies and the notoriety of many. There were many snakes here including some of the most notorious and as luck turned out I was not to be completely on my own. Some time was spent with a girl from south London – small world – who kept a few snakes and was just as interested in a place like this.

The structures I noticed most of all amidst the tropical greenery were as follows:-

A high lenghty mesh enclosed space like an aviary; securely thorough in its construction. It needed to be. The ‘aviary’ was actually a King Cobra enclosure.

An intriguing affair under a roof with open sides with a walkways and pits as curved and sinuous as the snakes within.

There was another building beyond with 2 floors of vivarium exhibits and an auditorium with an area walled off by glass. That was where the milking of King Cobra’s took place. A team of white coated staff demostrated this. I’d seen it before while illustrating 4 reptiles in a smaller snake park near Johannesburg: the head of the snake securely held, mouth opened, fangs puncturing the polythene top of the beaker, or funnel in this case. The length of the King Cobra though was always impressive and it was here. It’s one of the world’s largest poisonous snakes, in excess of 13 feet. The Bushmaster of South America rivals it in length and the Black Mamba, though the mamba weighs less; while Diamondback Rattlesnakes may match the King Cobra in weight but not in length.

There were the other notable snakes of this region too of course. The medium sized banded krait, Russels viper, surprisingly small but size is no indicator of potency of venom, certainly in this case. Pythons, tree snakes and water snakes. In some ways the most memorable was a non poisonous snake which could extend most of its length up the glass of it’s enclosure in a ceaseless effort to venture beyond. I couldn’t stop taking photographs.

Snake Farm 283

The afternoon snake handling show? Okay it was for the tourists but it was spectacular, especially the methods and the close proximity of deadly snakes to people on seats a short way above. The King Cobra was the star of course. It’s banded brown beige length rearing up in regal manner as it faced its admirers with the flattened ‘v’ of the underscales resembling livery. It seemed to strike a pose of formal royal enquiry: ‘You seek an audience? To discuss matters of death?’ The handler catching it certainly seemed to want that: his hand circling slowly over the snakes head to grab it behind. What was to stop the reptile just striking forward? Only animal psychology it seemed.

Other snakes? There were other Cobras, ‘Monocled Cobra’s’ with a single patch on the rear of the hood whereas Spectacled Cobras in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Riki Tiki Tavi’ had 2 on the tops of a ‘V’ marking. There was a snake that was camouflaged to look like a Krait but was non poisonous, like the Coral Snake and the Milk Snake which had very similar markings. The Krait itself was incredibly unaggressive, to the point where the handler could handle it freely; I know it’s odd to think of snakes having temperaments but the Boomslang is reputed to be similar whereas the Mamba is highly strung. Like the ‘Copperhead Racer,’ its snazzy markings like a villian’s shirt, its upper length zig zagged like a spring about to bounce forward and hit the handler with open threatening jaws. Then there was a Pit Viper at home on a small branch, a fragment of its natural habitat; like other tree snakes it looked as though someone had tipped a can of bright green paint over it.

Finally there was the python handling. I couldn’t resist.

Afterward I wandered – slowly because of the heat – around a large park near the spirit house I’d seen; mostly lawn and lakes but with huge tropical trees and stands of spectacular vegetation. Some distance away on the other side of the park was the shrine where the bomb had gone off that I’d seen on TV in the Philippines. I’d no wish to go there; to do so just for the bomb would be ghoulish. This incident became known as the Bangkok Bomb; killing far fewer people than the Bali Bomb. It was still mass murder and personally I’d have no regrets if the perpetrators of such crimes were assassinated by cobras. I particularly felt for one Chinese relative, who had to identify the mutilated bodies of his entire family!

It was easy to get back to the airport. The terminus the other way had the suggestive name of ‘Bang Sue.’ A district of accidents and legal complications or – more likely for many I think – the neighbourhood of a very liberated and popular lady perhaps? Suggestive place names are one of the attractions of travel. Anyway it was easy to get from the airport to the hotel too; where I had a good evenings conversation and drinking session with an American couple from Hawaii.


Back into Bangkok again after a good nights sleep. This time it was to be a river trip.

I tried comparing the suburbs here to the ones at home around London. The stations on this line at least were hangar like spaces up flights of steps. Residential architecture was more regimented it seemed with an imposing view of pylons beyond. Maybe there were no real upmarket areas between the city and the airport 15 miles to the east, but Google Earth displays similar looking places elsewhere around Bangkok. The houses and flats did indeed look like the Thai version of housing estates with no hills or difference in ground level for relief. On the other hand there was the odd temple – doubtless many of those spirit houses too – and more artificial lakes here. Wonder if it was better to have fishing as a hobby here and if so what would one catch?

Other unusual things? Trees on modern highrises, on a few occasions. While approving of the apparent awareness of green issues I wondered how their root system was coped with? At the other end of the scale was the advertising covering some of the metro trains. Although not a fan of advertising I liked the novelty of the futuristic technology. Alternative Britain again: a juxtaposition of science and shrines.

I got to the river embarkation point and realised that by chance I was witnessing the site of a Bangkok bomb after all! Or to put it accurately the one that hadn’t killed anyone. There were 2 bombs and the one not exploded at the shrine went off under a bridge at the landing stage I’d got to, Sathon pier, when people were walking over it. The bomb exploded like a submerged geyser giving them a fright and a shower of water, which might even have been funny had it not been potentially lethal.

River Cruise 367

The Chayo Praya River flowed through the city like the Thames but it was wider, flowing more than 231 miles from upcountry. Every kind of boat was on it. From sleek palatial tourist vessels to long craft like the one I’d been on in Indonesia, though some of those were as fast as speedboats, sending up a spray from their outboard motors. There was a train of massive barges with a guy relaxing in a hammock on one of them. There were too, many identical boats with ornate roofs on them, like a cross between a boat and a house. One is in the photograph here.

All in the architectural hotchpotch of a 3rd world city: surviving pockets of riverside slums balanced precariously on pole foundations, old colonial buildings, temples like giant embellished bells or with ornate roof structures, the inevitable modern blocks from the ‘Assumption College’ to towering prestigious hotels and a high rise or 2 that was straight out of a science fiction illustration.

The prize though was Wat Arun or ‘Temple of Dawn.’ The name on its own was good enough to go for but from the photos I’d seen it was an amazing structure;– like an colossal gold bell with an ornate handle for its tower. Something like that was a must for an adventurer. Should be opposite the palace and coming up soon.

But as the boat came round the river bend I couldn’t help exclaiming “Oh CRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAPP!!!!”

It might as well be vandalised for there was the ruinous scribble of scaffolding all over it! Just like the Parthenon it was bloody refurbishments all over again. The curse of my adventures. What with the heat I was too demotivated to go to the palace instead – the boat didn’t stop there anyway – and – amidst photography, changes of transport and a meal – made my way back to the airport and hotel.

After a kip to regain strength I went on a wander around the neighbourhood and came across 2 Siamese kittens playing outside a shanty. The family there were pleased to see how delighted I was with them. It took me back. When I was a teenager my family had a dynasty of Siamese cats and I wondered then whether I’d ever get to the country they originated from? Now I’d made it here I their presence reminded me in a comforting way of the adolesence I’d had: long ago in a faraway land I was on my way back to.


More or less. I still had some days left and took a bus next morning to Pattaya Beach. Motorway all the way across a plain although there were some hills skirted and palm plantations on the approach to the destination. The driving was better in Thailand than in the Philippines. More like Bali. The Buddhism influence perhaps?

I’d rolled the dice with the hotel picking a cheap one without knowing what it would be like. A base to be endured maybe, until I could return to the relative luxury of the one in Bangkok. Here was a real surprise though for it turned out to be a massive luxury affair with open air lounge, landscaped swimming pool, spectacular tropical plants everywhere. Plus a penthouse type suite for me with open plan shower and balcony with table. A hotel good enough for James Bond and the equal of the one I’d used as a base for the Komodo Dragon adventure. My room was better in fact but for some reason this hotel didn’t have a bar. Not that that mattered much for there were restaurants and stores in the neighbourhood. Of course it couldn’t match the view and sunsets at the Indonesian luxury place either, though the Pattaya view wasn’t bad: a smaller Bangkok with distant hills.

Pattaya 461

The only reason I could see for the price being the way it was was the distance from the beach; a good mile if not more. Some distance away from the action. What Pattaya Beach is notorious for was along the beach area in the side streets leading back into town.

Bar girls. Prostitutes. Hardly ideal and undesirable to many. I’m going to disappoint those who expect me to moralise further along those lines though. Sex slaves? To blanket ‘the world’s oldest profession’ with that assertion is like saying they’re all ‘healers’ which is how one science fiction writer described them in his novel. Many are neither though they both exist within the profession. Criminalise the clients? Well along with the slobs and the psychos disabled people would be criminalised and those who’ve been unlucky in love or those whose only crime is being unable to fit into the accepted way of doing things. As for the accepted way of doing things? The puritanical extremes of political correctness and pressures upon one’s time have largely killed off the art of socialising and flirting, isolating many into many lost souls out there. Enough for internet dating agencies to be as numerous as flies around dung, making a killing out of a basic need being frustrated, without truly satisfying that need in many cases, isolating the lonely more than ever. And if one’s going to attack what goes on in Pattaya Beach on the basis of money the whole system needs to be overhauled;- such as material status, mortgage slavery and money problems being a major cause of relationship breakups. I guess I’m probably in danger of being attacked in the quagmire of sexual moralising I’ve got myself into now; but despite sooner being elsewhere to keep my mouth shut would be abandoning the principle of freedom of speech, which I’m dead against doing. My parents were involved in a world war that had something to do with that. So if this attracts the attention of moral fascists out there I can only say:- ‘Go ahead, make my day.’

Well Pattaya Beach held other attractions such as wind surfing, excursions to offshore islands and elephant rides out of town. I chose a mini-expedition through the tropical heat to ‘The Sanctuary of Truth.’ A sanctimonious name possibly but interesting.

The beach itself was a healthy sight in the morning, with a person practising yoga on a stretch of sand clear of people, with a backdrop of windsurfer parachutes out in the bay beyond. There were so many of them.

The northern headland was right by there, with the Sanctuary of Truth on the other side. Hiking off into the back streets around there I found myself passing a forest of condominiums and hotels. It felt like a forest for the buildings were towering and opulent. One even looked as though it had a mosque on top. At another a security vehicle appeared right behind me as I was taking a photo. Well those upmarket towers made for spectacular compositions.

I risked irritating the security profession further by following a lane down to the shoreline and finding myself wandering along the back edges of properties. It seemed to alternate between public and private. Something of an obstacle course but doable so I risked it and wasn’t challenged, getting good shots of people fishing on a quay, rounding a headland and then there it was in the distance on a flat promontory.

Being backlit by the sun gave it a dark look and sinister air amidst the heat and horizontal empty expanses of beach, sea and coastline. Like something out of Mordor in its desert wastes. But the alien spiky look to it reminded me of something else. The castle of the ‘Skeksis’ in ‘The Dark Crystal.’ Surrounding walls resembling battlements could be made out. I was getting into this now!

Getting away from the beach through the labyrinthine levels of a luxury hotel I was able to walk down a lane which went to the proper entrance. A wooded slope was some distance beyond with the temple – for that was what it was – beyond that. The closer I got to it the more intricate it appeared but there was one problem. The racket of my old enemy refurbishments again! There was no sign of scaffolding though.

At the bottom of the slope were wooden carvings of deities and elephants. There for rides, I was tempted but wanted to be careful with money being not far from this Asian oddysey’s end. Besides it would have been a diversion for across a small lake affair was the temple itself which by now looked fantastic. The whole thing looked as though a mass of carvings had taken over a palace, rising in an ornate triangle of roofs and towers surmounted by mythical figures to a point about 105 metres up.

A closer look across an ornamental lake affair revealed refurbishment. In just one corner of this structure. Although it was noisy and there were a few people with hard hats around this was bearable and what I was about to see made one forget about that. I found a workshop as big as a barn with an impressive model of the place – still higher and bigger than people around it – and carvers working away within. Later I learned from a woman who’d lived near Pattaya that it was a never ending job and the refurbishments were part of that.

Sanctuary of Truth 512

The place itself was a vision in the true sense of the word. One of bizarre splendour. As though a surrealist painting had become architecture. Deities, elephants, monkeys, serpents, gargoyles, massive heads. All together and on top of each other. The feeling that it had not so much been carved but grown somehow got out of control inside the temple. It reminded me of the film ‘Alien’ since there was an extruded look about the bizzare chaotic profusion of carvings. Another weird aspect was the wood seeming to have an almost golden glow in some parts and I wasn’t sure whether I was looking at heaven or hell what with the visual impact and the subject matter but I could appreciate – as an artist – the dedication and the work that had gone into all of this apart from which there was the achievement which was utterly fascinating. It was as though they’d managed to solidify a vision of someone who’d been on a hashish trip or whatever. Like, some amazing stuff man! I wondered what one would feel if smoking a joint in here?

No wonder Christian missionaries had been freaked out by this sort of thing. ‘Thou shalt not make graven images’ and so on, apart from the potent competition. The deities consisting mostly of bare breasted ladies didn’t help either although personally I welcomed them as warding off of the evil excesses of puritanism. I really felt as though I was getting to grips with a culture that was truly alien.

It seemed to be mostly Buddist inspired but there was also some Hindu influence in the carvings and because of a tolerant aspect: for all religions and philosophies were regarded as being one way or another to an enlightenment and heaven. Something else to annoy the Christians or Muslims. This place was constructed as a reflection of an ‘Ancient Vision of Earth,’ a manifestation of Heaven on Earth. It’s halls encompassed such things as the Universe, love, truth, even the family.

‘Humans are only dust in the universe and will ultimately become one with it.’

‘Physical beings deteriorate, ravaged by time, but truth and goodness are immortal.’

These were a few of the ‘truths’ I found written here.

Meanwhile one of the many apertures in this place framed the distant manifestation of materialist values: the massive hotels and condominiums.


Time to continue my existance before I became dust. If fate or God or whatever would allow me to get home. A bus back to the airport hotel. A night or two there and then the final 2 flights back from the space age airport with massive Thai scupltures of warriors, deities and a golden dragon.

I’d hoped to see the Himalayas but was sitting on the wrong side of the plane as we crossed northern India.

Afghanistan 475

Eventually there were mountains but they were mostly arid although high enough in some places to have snow. It looked like Afghanistan to me. I hoped not to see a surface to air missile coming up from below.

Much further on the remains of the Aral Sea lay below. A huge abstact of wasteland and remaining lake muted with haze.

There were large squalls verging on storms as we came in to land at Moscow. The need to get photos of the dramatic effects overcame trepidation, over a landscape of forest and pale blocks of flats. A citadel of grey towers in the distance by a storm appeared to be the fabled city itself.

The airport appeared dowdy after Bangkok. More like Manila. But there was a grandstand view of Aeroflot planes and others set against a spectacular sky.


The weather at Heathrow seemed also tricky judging by the lights in the night below being obscured by various masses of darkness which must be cloud and the long time it took to land.

I had to hurry to make the bus and wasn’t even in the right terminal, having to take a train and I went down the wrong corridor. When I eventually made the ‘express’ it made a sick joke of its name by doing absolutely nothing for too long!

The bus had just left 5 minutes ago the woman at the terminal told me and there wasn’t another one.

I’ve been on 13 flights and this is the first time” “It’s not my fault!”

Typical. Some staff in my home country have a bad habit of taking things personally and I left before I really lost it with her. 13 flights going without a hitch only to miss the last bus home in this bloody country. Welcome home! Typical!

I had to get out of the airport and grin and bear the cost of a hotel for the night but got into a limbo of traipsing down endless subways and corridors seeking a sign that led to salvation.

The attitude of the staff here didn’t improve. Eventually I came across a knot of them standing in the middle of a vast hall chatting. But they were having their social get together and made a point of completely ignoring me!


That should get their attention short of assaulting them! For what that was worth. I was directed back to where I’d come from, landing back at the bus terminal again. Luckily the woman I’d offended had gone home.

Someone informed me of the obvious. There were local buses too and that was all I needed to get me out of here.

The bus deposited me across a dark expanse of main road from the hotels.

The first one was of prestigious size and appearance but seemed to have forgotten – what with that concern – to actually provide a bloody entrance. There was a rear one but I gave this pretentious place the finger and trudged across a dark traffic haunted waste to the next.

That turned out to be the hotel hosting a science fiction convention I’d attended. It seemed as busy in the middle of the night as it would be during the day and there was a long queue but when I got to the desk the black guy and I hit it off. He appeared entertained by my tales instead of offended and my tales became full of humour. Best of all this place was quite cheaper than I’d thought an airport hotel would be so I decided to pay them for a sumptuous breakfast too.

Now for a drink to end my travels and travails at a bar I’d drunk at before with friends at the convention. After that surfing the room TV and the bed for the night was utter luxury.


© D Angus 05 16

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Philippines: paradise lost.

I woke up as the plane was landing at Manila airport.

I was on my way to a tropical paradise but I regarded Manila – or rather parts of it – as a circle of hell. It looked like that as the rising sun struggled with choking clouds and was only able to give a dim ruddy hue to the scene: the brightest objects being a few aircraft and the dark blocks of the city silhouetted amidst the gloom beyond.

Here for 6 hours. Mike had thought that unwise. He didn’t like Manila airport and it was one of the less interesting ones around, but I wasn’t bothered, had a relaxing massage – not the bar girl sort but literally a massage – and thought about where I was going.

5 years ago I’d discovered a tropical paradise on the island of Palawan. This pencil shaped jungled mountan range of an island lies between Borneo and the rest of the Philippines. It had been a land bridge connecting both. I’d spotted the paradise on the internet one night when I couldn’t sleep: a land of impossible beauty, of coconut palm coves under fantastic rock formations, turquoise seas crying out to be swam in, coral reefs and so on. It became a who dares wins triumph. After a hair raising 200 mile drive it was not only as good as it looked but a woman travelling in the same vehicle turned out to be a local girl. She and her husband had the hotel room next to me and befriended me. We – and another friend or two – had a brilliant time together and I swore someday I’d return.

We hadn’t stayed in touch but I’d managed to regain contact to find that by a fantastic stroke of luck one of their trips back there was coinciding with my arrival. We would celebrate our reunion and my Komodo Dragon success in drunken revelry at that beach restaurant again with sand under the tables, torches above and the South China sea for restaurant décor! We could go island hopping too again. Absolutely brilliant!

Manila airport had long since brightened into sunny weather with the odd titanic thundercloud by the time I took off again. The spectacular cloud formations were not enough to obscure the azure sea below which matched the sky, apart from small islands outlined by white beaches and the exquisite turqoise of shallow water marking a reef. Turqoise is my favourite colour, reminding me of what was to come.

Puerto Princesa airport was still a landing strip in the jungle virtually in the city but there were signs of it being extended. Puerto Princesa was the biggest town on Palawan, halfway up its length, similar in size to Gosport.

The hotel was within walking distance from the airport. I was shown to the rear past tropical trees to my room, which was large but windowless. Same league as the hotel near the Bali bomb then. No problem, tomorrow I’d be heading north to that paradise.

For old times sake I took a walk around town. Puerto Princesa prides itself on being a city within a forest. The suburbs certainly were. Maybe I hadn’t seen enough tropical vegetation in Indonesia but it seemed more lush, more diverse, more spectacular here. I love exotic vegetation. Everything seemed further though and boy was it hot! Again the water I was carrying was a life saver. The centre seemed the same frenetic scene and I rounded off the day after nightfall with a massive pizza and beer on the rooftop part of a restaurant. Quicksilver geckos on a white wall with creepers made for photos – when you were lucky enough to get them – that looked like designs involving lizards.

The morning of departure and I didn’t have to get up early. When the combi transport arrived it looked smart and professional so with any luck it should be a safer ride than the last time I was here. And I wasn’t on my own. The van was full and a New Zealander and his friend a Canadian in the 2nd row provided good company. We were all set and moved out joining the slow traffic through the north of Puerto Princesa.

Up there was a reminder of dangerous driving with a car upended into a ditch in the suburbs. Soon we would hit the open road.

Then out of the blue a problem pulled us over and killed the progress I was enjoying! Somebody had waited until we were almost out of town before telling us they needed a cashpoint. Why was this our problem? Why didn’t the driver or everyone in the vehicle say ‘well it’s too late now’ or ‘grow up and get organised?’ I tried a furtive few words towards this effect but the consensus was that of dutiful acceptance and a ‘U’ turn to crawl back the wrong way looking for a cashpoint. It was like a dream gone bad.

Those responsible were at the rear: a tall young bearded dickhead with the look of ‘why shouldn’t I have the right to do this if it suits me?’ And of course someone like that is never without a girfriend! The little woman, who for all I knew was the cause of this.

We found a cashpoint at a supermarket and they did their dismal zombie routine with the difficulties of technology while I photographed a dog lying under a truck who – judging by its expression – felt the same about existence just then as me.

I must have been successful in sinking into a state of apathy for we were back on the road for awhile before I realised we were still going the wrong way! “They couldn’t get the cashpoint to work.” the New Zealander informed me.

I can’t remember loathing a couple so much. The reason being that something much more crucial was at stake here than whether I was annoyed or not: life and death.

For Philippine driving can be dangerous. And because of this idiocy our driver would very likely make up for lost time by driving like a maniac up that road to the north. Those two would probably make all the difference between a successful trip and death or serious injury for most of us while they were relatively safe in the rear.

They really made a job of it too. We were obliged to crawl back almost to the centre of town to waste another yawnworthy amount of tme. It was all to no avail when we were finally heading in the right direction. The other cashpoint hadn’t co-operated with those cretins either. With any luck there were no cashpoints where we were going. There weren’t last time.

The car in the ditch was passed; an omen of our very near future?

It was very nearly worse than that! I was absolutely right about the driver making up for lost time. Instead of a ride to enjoy it was a white knuckle one. One place that sticks in my mind was where the New Zealander said “don’t overtake:” on a blind bend with none of the vehicles being overtaken giving way. One vehicle coming the other way then would have meant a dreadful collision! Lives ruined and the end of this story very likely.

Philippines 052

The further north one went the more the driving seemed to settle down or maybe there was less traffic to overtake. Apart from motorbikes and once in awhile something more spectacular such as that crowded bus where they were hanging on to a goat at the rear.

Or maybe the scenery was a balm for the nerves. Almost all forest actually apart from the odd rice paddy, settlement, glimpse of green mountains or the sea. But what forest: lush shades of green rain forest, jungle plants with huge leaves, coconut palms, stands of tall forest giants. Last time I was here they called it the last frontier. Man doesn’t surround nature here like in the UK. It’s the other way round.

We had lunch at a place with a view of the sea just south of the few towns on the route. Almost half way there.

The journey went on to the north. 5 years ago there were roadworks, then a dirt road writhing through the jungled hills to the destination. This time there were still roadworks now and then with tarred road in between. Resurfacing probably.

There had been a mountain across an inlet of sea, bigger than anything else. The Canadian said he’d already seen it. We were getting close. After awhile the sea could be seen to the west this time; almost there. The town was extending southward! Much of it a building site of what would become small modern hotels and the like. The commercial world was catching up with paradise. I hoped it wasn’t going to be for the worse.

We were at the bus station! Previously a bare patch of ground above the town. There was still bare ground but a few service buildings too. Despite another dangerous journey I’d made it back to paradise anyway and was jubilant! I assured people I could make it on foot from here, even in the heat, for the town proper – El Nido – was hemmed into a ½ mile triangle of ground by hills and the sea. It would have fitted into my part of the housing estate I was in back home.

Out on to the road I realised the bus station had been shifted further from the town centre. It looked like ½ a mile to the next bend instead of to the beach; but I footslogged on.

Slowly on my triumpal return I entered familiar territory: the towering limestone precipice on the left, El Nido with its narrow shanty flanked streets had been ramshackle but seemed dingier now, a glimpse of the sea at the end of a street, turn right and there’s the Asylum Bar, very close now to the police station under the big trees opposite the hotel.

I checked in to the same single storey hotel I’d checked into 5 years ago. The room was supposed to be more luxurious than the last time I was here but it was more interesting; seemingly catering for women with flowery arrangements and trashy romantic thriller paperbacks. TV worked okay anyway.

Philippines 047

At the back it was just as it was 5 years ago. Sand underfoot. Hammock, white chairs, fence and entrance to the beach under those palms. Fantastic view beyond. Perfect.

Time for a beer in paradise, up at the little palm thatched cafeteria/bar to the left where one also had breakfast. While there I could see some of those beach restaurant tables along the beach to the right. The ‘Seaslug.’ Where we’d eaten out 5 years ago and where we were supposed to meet, at 7 I thought. A man there looked as though he was waiting for someone. It just might be my friend! It was 5pm now, maybe I’d got the time wrong. Beer bottle in hand I descended from the bar and sauntered along the beach.

It was! The German husband. A good reunion, more beer! They’d checked the hotel register and seen my name there so they knew – barring accidents – I should arrive. We were supposed to meet at 5 after all.

The others turned up. The woman looked younger, I told her. I was re-introduced to the teenage daughter, now in her 20’s, a German relative and 2 children who just been christened. It was all happening quickly now but there’d be time as I was here for 5 days.

For awhile we drank and chatted. Discussing Greece and Syria. Reminiscing about an American at the hotel misbehaving and the police inviting him across the road for a chat.

Then there was a chunk of bad news. There’d be no island hopping. Commercial firms had the place sewn up and although my friends had local contacts none of those could help with trips to the islands. Sometimes I just hate the moneygrabbing commercial world.

Then suddenly it was all over. They had to go home for an evening meal and put the children to bed. Don’t worry they knew where I was. So although the sunset was still fabulous I was on my own with: ‘well, not quite the kind of reunion I’d been banking on.’

Philippines 042

The following day I decided to just relax and plan. There was going to be another meeting late that afternoon. I had another massage. Bona fide parlours were common from here to Thailand I found. I also must have spent some time loafing and swimming at the beach. Unfortunately I also picked up a cold. The kind of bunged up one that’s ongoing.

My German friend was also vulnerable to that he told me, when we eventually met for a beer. It was because the Europeans weren’t used to this climate, although the last time I was here I’d had no problems. Happily there was more conversation: not so happily much of it was about things that were wrong here. There was an increased environmental tax but not even litter bins had resulted from it. This used to be a backpackers paradise but what with that and the boat trips being sown up it had become a centre of commercial corruption. Shit. Just another case of commercial crap imposing itself on everything again. There was though also the violence. I knew that the Philippines could be a violent place but wasn’t sufficiently educated. I’d checked out wanted posters at the police station involving 2 local political leaders: they were both wanted for murder! My friend more than equalled this by informing me that most of his wife’s relatives had died violently and he’d witnessed a murder in broad daylight in Puerto Princesa where someone walked past him and shot a man in front! It was a row over a traffic accident. I’d witnessed the aftermath of one when I’d hiked around town a few days ago. Given the state of driving here there was plenty of scope for more of that sort of trouble.

By the way his wife had to go to Puerto Princesa tomorrow and back again in one day! For a dental appointment apparently. I wished her luck!

Then I was on my own again for the evening except for those unwanted thoughts along the lines of ‘was it something I said?’ It was more likely the need to look after young children – a major game changer – and maybe limited finances too. Whatever the reason things weren’t shaping up like last time and compared to then something was wrong, sadly.

The following day I went on an cruise around Bacuit Bay. On to one of the outrigger boats which were everywhere in El Nido bay like giant versions of insects that lived on a pond’s surface.

Just like last time it was off with a group through a watery gap between the main island and a few domed mountains tapering down to a spike of a headland. Beyond lay Bacuit Bay: a deep wide one littered with small islands or mountain sized lumps of old hard limestone, often jagged, clothed in tropical vegetation wherever it had a chance. The few longest islands, mini mountain ranges, lay to seaward. This was the land of impossible beauty I’d seen on the internet.

Before long there was a casualty though. Maybe the weather was windier than last time for my white floppy hat blew off, landing in the sea. The crew thought it could be retrieved but by the time they’d swung the boat around and returned to the rescue there was no sign of it. Like the clock on Skyros another old comrade had become a fatality of this campaign, sinking into the indigo deeps of Davy Jones locker.

Philippines 136_edited-1

I got some photos of what kind of heaven this place could be, but there were fewer opportunities than last time when it was sunnier.

Philippines 132

A typhoon was approaching the northern edge of the Philippines, the opposite end of the archipelago from El Nido, but it had the effect of sucking in cloud from a wide region, some of it across El Nido.

And this time I was bringing a cold along. Like a typical British tourist perhaps. When we snorkelled I didn’t seem to be as good at swimming as last time. 5 years older perhaps but there was also the cold.

I was dismayed at the state of the coral. There was a distressing amount of it broken up into fragments although there were still some spectacular formations. 5 years ago there was an odd clump of white coral in an otherwise spectacular alien fish city of a ‘seascape?’ Small fish had been everywhere, each one a masterpiece of design and colour.

After this I tended to give the swimming a miss – unlike last time when I swam at every opportunity – feeling too weak and trying to sunbathe, except it was cloudy when I wanted to.

Back in El Nido I tried to find another hat, settling for a turquoise one in the end.

The following day brought an improvement. I got up early to explore some of the northern tip of Palawan, something I didn’t get round to last time. El Nido was almost there but there was an airfield just to the north of the town to start with. Then more in the way of cultivation amidst the jungle hills.

Transport was a tricycle and driver. Motorbike covered metal sidecar combinations: they were everywhere in the Philippines, often gaily coloured with original names on them: ‘Rich Anna’ and ‘Bam – Kids’ to name a few. The streets of Puerto Princesa were crawling with them and when there was traffic in El Nido it was usually tricycles.

The country going north was more picturesque than spectacular; good for some good shots of water buffalo and egrets in the rice paddies. There was also a long idyllic beach and stretch of coconut palms with rock outcrops offshore that just managed to be islets with trees and even habitation in one case. There was a price on this beach sightseeing though and I realised I was running low on cash.

I hoped it wouldn’t be a problem for an expedition to a waterfall on the way back. Where the English is partial – as it is in the Philippines – misunderstandings occur more easily.

We stopped for a break I thought, by a hut with dog in the road and a pig lying under some shrubbery. By the time I’d photo’d the pig a small wiry lady of indeterminate age was right behind me. She would be the guide to the waterfall. We set off smartly but I still couldn’t get a price out ot the driver for this.

Relax and enjoy: this little expedition which developed into a memorable trek. The first bit involved crossing a jungle stream, or river, depending on what one wanted to call it. Beyond was an exploration of the richness of Philippine plant life: giant bamboo, over a wall into a palm grove, rain forest giants.

Philippines 183

We recrossed the river many times. Boulder and rock strewn it was adding up to the kind of adventure I enjoy. Plus opportunities to take each other’s photos.

My guide was a character. Chatty and strong willed she insisted on holding my hand aloft to ease my passage; as though we were always about to enter a ball as a regal dancing couple. The one time I managed to assure her I was okay and walk unaided I promptly tripped over a root. A source of merciless humour from then on. The way had become hillier with many roots. According to her I was tired and slow. Well I had the cold still but I didn’t feel as bad as yesterday, whereas she’d done this for most of her life so was probably fit in a way that was unknown in the world I came from; where every 2nd person of any age either seems to have something wrong with them, or knows someone who has.

The waterfall when we reached it was small but beautiful in its own way with a handy rock pool to bathe in. Not to be missed in the heat one had to get used to. There was a butterfly there too.

On the way back I took a pictorial record of a small tree with a intriguing bark patterns. It had a kind of small fruit – my guide showed me – like a lemon. If only we lived in the kind of world enabling people to have more time to explore more – at the cost of living rough at least some of the time to suit the environment – to appreciate the natural world.

At the end of the trip though I was obliged to guess the right amount to offer the guide and got it wrong. It was 3 times as much! Luckily I had just enough cash but the damage was done. As soon as she had the money she walked off abruptly marring an otherwise good experience.

My response to the shitty debate about being ripped off or ripping them off and so on ad nauseum is I just don’t like haggling at the best of times and it goes against the grain for me to do it in 3rd world countries where nearly everyone is bound to be a dammed sight poorer than the tourist. On the other hand – although I’m not normally one to interfere in the local way of doing things – the locals here at least might make life easier for everyone including themselves by getting their heads around being clear on price when dealing with tourists. If I have any advice for tourists it’s get a clear price if possible.

Another day another adventure hopefully. I wanted to take a longer boat trip to photo an incredible rock formation in the sea that was so undercut by erosion it almost looked as though it was hovering above the waves! Like one of the islets in the sky creations from the fantasy artist Roger Dean. Trees and a rock structure resembling a roof added to my fantasy. I’d photo’d it 5 years ago but the images weren’t good and this time I still had 2 days to play with.

Philippines 167

The typhoon though had taken up residence on the northern edge of the Philippines and although we were nowhere near the storm itself it was managing to reel in a endless belt of cloud and rain and murk right across Palawan. And another effect of the commercial world muscling into El Nido was a tight control on boat trips. Mine was disallowed. Not that I would have missed much. I consoled myself with the odd photo of the bay misty with rain, like a Chinese print.

I got through one of the trashy novels from cover to cover, loafing in the hammock when the rain was elsewhere, in bed when it was not. There was trouble where I was going as well. A few bombs had gone off in Bangkok, killing 30 people at a shrine.

In the afternoon and evening amidst beers I went on patrol up and down the beach hoping to spot my friends, to no avail. Never mind. Still a day left. Surely they wouldn’t let me go without one last meetup.

The last day was a repetition of the one just gone. Lousy weather. No boat trip. No friends. Maybe there’d been a tragedy on the road to Puerto Princesa but I was never to find out for it was as though they’d just vanished.

It was so different from the island hopping, swimming, singing and revelry in the tropical evenings 5 years ago and seemed to prove what my father had told me about it being a mistake to follow up on a good experience as the 2nd can’t match it. I remain unconvinced believing that to be negative thinking. Attempting to reinforce success in this way involves risk of course but it could even be better the 2nd time or another good memory to help ward off the dross in life we all have to put up with at some stage or other.

There was – however – no getting around the fact that although last time I felt nothing could go wrong in El Nido this time it was a case of nothing going really right.

At least the return drive to Puerto Princesa was okay, the cold had nearly gone and out of the 13 plane flights there were now only 4 to go.

© D Angus 01 16

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Indonesia: here be Dragons!

“I’ve already paid!”…….“I paid at the desk back at the airport!”……..“That was what I was told to do!”

And I was pissed off! Hardly surprising when after a flight across the planet starting yesterday afternoon the taxi to the hotel was – predictably – twice as much as I was told it would be, the driver didn’t want me and took a route through town in the tropical night that – when I got my bearings – I had reason to believe was deliberately lengthy. All this after a long flight when one feels tired and disorientated in an unknown place after nightfall. This was a weak link in my journey through 4 countries. Taxis were usually more expensive than one was led to believe and potential trouble. Mike – a genius otherwise with travel plans – couldn’t understand this and had lined me up for a situation I despised. And as for being accused of not paying; well that was the last squalid straw! The driver was forced to learn fast that I was in the mood for a fight, gave in and left.

The hotel was not a luxury one I’d hoped for but would have been ‘interesting’ in other circumstances. It seemed to be composed of converted colonial bungalows up a back street staffed by teenagers. I knew a few words of Indonesian for courtesy’s sake and they knew more English so one could just about communicate, but that was another problem to be coped with. I was led to my room through a confusion of light and shadow, raised levels, the odd exotic plant and a small swimming pool, starkly illuminated or in black shadow in the hot tropical night.

My room appeared to be one small league up from the Athens hostel. Looking bare with basic old furniture. The TV reception was bad enough for it to be almost as unworkable as the Greek one. At least the room was big with a double bed. Last time I was in the Philippines they just had sheets on beds being a tropical country. Same thing here. So one could actually get cold if the air conditioning was on all night. Another way was by using the shower here which was just a nozzle in the same tiled room as the toilet. I tackled that with humour imagining I was being harangued by Michael Caine;- “Ow can you be bladdy cold you’re in the bladdy tropics fer Chrissake!”

There was no room safe but there was a small cafeteria at the other end of the space I’d walked through. At last I was able to unwind as long as I kept my stuff within sight.

Never mind, the main plan was holding. I’d wondered what the flight was going to do regarding the Middle East and Isis held territory? But the route was south then east across the arid masses of rock that passed for mountains in Sinai and Saudi Arabia, before flying into the night through the Empty Quarter until the plane was over Abu Dhabi, it’s pinprick city lights and tentacles of more light along the outlying highways in the night making it look like a bejewelled organism in outer space. During the long wait there I’d resigned myself to the dead weight of the largely useless laptop in my cabin max – which could have held a paperback – for the whole journey; it resolutely didn’t delete junk emails. Court martial and set a date for execution by hammer on my return then. Onward across India to SE Asia, somehow sleeping while hurtling through the atmosphere 1,000s of feet up until dawn over Java. The volcano that had closed 4 airports in this region had quietened down, the airports were open, so Jakarta airport was okay apart from an obstacle course of customs and security, but there was time for it was another long wait for the plane to Bali; hence the arrival after nightfall. I’d got here on schedule with all my stuff – apart from my old alarm clock which had joined Rupert Brooke on Skyros Island – and there’d been no problem with baggage at the airports. Now for a good night’s sleep before the challenge of tomorrow.

Easier said than done. It sounded as though we were next door to the centre of Bali nightlife: between a karaoke bar and the biggest disco in town. I got to sleep by imagining – then dreaming – that the pandemonium was the awesome WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP of those native drums and delirious chanting when that actress was being sacrificed to the monster gorilla in that film King Kong. Well the film was set near Indonesia on an island off Sumatra and where I was going in the next few days would be the closest anyone could get to that.
Thousands of feet up again the following day; but this time it’s on a propeller driven plane and although it looks gleaming and efficient it belongs – like the one that got me to Greece – to another of the world’s ten most unsafe airlines, giving an Indiana Jones feel to the adventure! Especially as when I get to my destination I’ve got to get to a harbour as soon as possible after checking into the hotel to hassle for a trip to the island. A chancy operation but Mike told me it could be done. There might be an opportunity to arrange this at the hotel anyway. I’d given the whole thing up for lost when the original trip fell through and the price was hiked by $300 dollars so I was doing it now quite literally on a wing and a prayer and there was no guarrantee that I’d find any dragons when I got to the island. Komodo Island. Komodo Dragons. Hence the title of this journal. Yes that was the reason why I was in Indonesia, to fulfill one of my boyhood ambitions – after watching David Attenborough – and have a cracking good adventure while doing so!

It felt like that as the plane descended over steep hills set in an endless sea, very close over one of them to land on Flores;- one of the main long islands along the chain of them from Sumatra to New Guinea, the western end of which was going to be the base for this exploit.

There was an easy link up with the drive to the hotel and on the way the driver told me he could contact a friend who ran trips out there. I was ahead of the game but wanted to check out the hotel.

The hotel this time was luxury jackpot! No trips to the island though so I gave the green light to the driver. His friend came, agreements were made, money changed hands, hands were shaken.

Indonesia 012

By the time I’d sorted myself out sunset was on it’s way. Out by the pool with a beer or 2, the sun silhouetting boats that looked as though they could have sailed out of a film, I felt my luck was in!

Up and downstairs in the hotel lobby at the for the rendezvous at 6 am. A few night staff were lounging below the wall TV or asleep on a sofa. Dawn had arisen.

The guy taking me to harbour hadn’t though. The time for departure came and went with no appearance. Don’t panic.

By quarter past I felt the pressure – not of panic but anger – rising inside me.

By half past I was doing something about it by trying to get the staff to do something. Communication – though difficult – was not impossible. The whole thing had been a long shot and I had to hassle hard before the trip left without me.

Eventually a driver turned up to take me to the harbour. The fellow supposed to meet me had had an accident. Now it was a battle against fate and would we still make the boat?

Down at the ramshackle harbour the boat for the journey was still there thank God! But I was the only one going! And the boat itself:-…. Not a sleek tourist vessel but a narrow long craft decked out in blue and pink. I hoped the crew of 2 weren’t as frivolous or were going to kidnap me. Sulawesi island to the north was reported as being unsafe and north of that were the Muslims of Mindanao in the Philippines where the police kidnap tourists, so I’d heard. The guide was a skinny teenage girl, of 17 – she told me later – but the tour uniform and cheer found in tour guides anywhere was reassuring and I’d wanted adventure anyway, which by its nature was supposed to involve risk.

Kchunk kchunk jalopy jalopy jalopy rrrrrrrracket! went the boat’s engine, giving it all it had got to the point of breaking down by the overwhelming sound of it; as the boat edged out of the harbour, edgeways it seemed to me, although that was probably down to where I was sitting, nevertheless it looked as though we were taking on the sea crossing slightly sideways and would we make it without breaking down, sinking or exploding? It was 30 miles each way, littered with reefs and the odd whirlpool, I later learned.

The harbour shrank into its proper perspective astern: dwarfed by the immensity of nature, although the hotel was too tall for its surroundings really. The immensity of nature this time was an emerging moutain range to the south with small islands everywhere and the odd fishing village, one of them had a mosque. 100 million years ago some present day mountain ranges looked not unlike this: a chain of volcanic and mountainous islands emerging from under the sea.

The thrill of adventure took me over. Here I was on a rickety boat in the hands of people I’d never seen before that I had to trust to get me there and back again, through unknown waters. (Well it felt like it.) As for ‘there’ it was the haunt of dangerous – almost mythical – dragons. And not a health and safety official for thousands of miles! Absolutely bloody brilliant!

So was the scenery. Rumpled convoluted hills and mountains of all sizes, some conical indicating volcanoes, or piebald with shadowy valleys, tawny grassland scorched by dark areas of previous fires, stretches of trees and tufts of palms; ascending up to the dark bulk of primeval mountains to the south, all the more awesome with overhanging mountain ranges of cloud. It was easy now to imagine this sort of scene in the Jurassic or Cretaceous.

Here be dragons! There were some on Rinca Island which we were passing now, about the same size as Komodo Island. But Komodo Island had more so the best chance of seeing them was there. And it was further so being the kind of nut I am it had to be Komodo Island.

Not that Rinca should be underestimated. A party of scuba divers had become beseiged for a night on the island by the Komodo dragons there. Further incidents involved an old woman who was bitten on her leg and a guy who actually survived a dragon that had ‘stealthily entered the house and suddenly jumped on to the victim!’

Yes this region was one place where that ancient call to adventure ‘here be dragons’ had some truth to it. Rumours of dragons and a ‘land crocodile’ led to the discovery of Komodo Dragons by Europeans around 1910. They weren’t fire breathing or the size of Dinosaurs but were undisputably awesome animals – whopping big for lizards – and dangerous. The first zoo in Europe to have the honour of exhibiting Komodo Dragons was actually London Zoo in 1927. Since then their spectacular size and primeval nature have made them favourite zoo attractions. The film ‘King Kong’ released in 1933 was inspired by an early expedition to Komodo Island.

And now I was on my way there! We had something to eat and the sea became rough which only added to my delight while the crew and guide became concerned about spray drenching me. No worries I explained: my smile was that of ‘a crazy old man’ who’d refused to grow up and was really in his element now.

Indonesia 063

Komodo Island. Like Rinca it was tawny with grassland over sawtoothed mountains. ‘Here be dragons!’ I tried to spot any for it was mostly open country. We were navigating a minute part of the biggest tropical island archipelago on this planet, so one would imagine the scenery being carpeted in jungle but the trees here were mostly woods hugging the shore or clustered up valleys and defiles, with tall mop like palms on the hills. A friend has remarked since that the crumpled terrain spotted with clumps and scatters of trees looked ‘made up.’ Maybe it was a climate anomaly. It looked sufficiently alien for dragons anyway and I even wondered if they’d been ripping up too many trees?

Round a headland was a village beyond a bay. I’d heard that one here was supposed to have a wall of stakes round it to stop the dragons from getting in, just like in King Kong!

There was a long jetty within the bay. I had a perilous moment getting myself and camera over the gap between the prow of the boat and the jetty. A national park existed here to protect the Komodo Dragons and the place had the trappings of controlled conservation: an ornamental wall with sculpted dragons on it, bare tidy spaces under trees and around huts and a lodge with massive photos of the dragons and maps.

There were introductions to a young lad who was a park guide and then the head of the park, at least in that area. I had time to comment on whether there was a wall around the village I’d seen, like in King Kong, prompting laughter from the head which indicated it was folklore for the tourists. Then we were interrupted by someone saying there was a dragon nearby!

It was a very young one crossing a sunlit patch of rough ground, with striking markings in contrast to the duller hues of the adults I’d seen on photos. The size of a monitor lizard and looking exactly like that. Logical since Komodo Dragons are really giant monitor lizards. Oh well – I thought taking the photos – at least you got here and got a result. Very likely wouldn’t see any others though. So that was the joke;- I’d come this far to see a baby dragon.

Further on though was confusion. I was warned to avoid an adult lying across a path! Sure enough I could see a big prone form dozing across a path amidst the dappled shadow of the trees but there was something odd about it’s sprawled posture; indicating it could be stuffed. On the other hand reptiles looking inert to the point of being dead could suddenly move very quickly and these were dangerous animals. It became apparent though that this was a wind up for the tourists.

But then the real thing came round the corner of a hut! Just as long or longer than a 6ft. man definitely, skin like chain mail, the grey bulk of it much bigger than a lizard ought to be, one felt. An adult Komodo Dragon for real! But everyone seemed to take it so matter of factly. To me it was like a Stegosaurus showing up with nobody seeming to care! It was probably there for the mud wallow at that corner with water in it but before long people were getting close to it. It was amazing how close people could get to it. Too close in my opinion.

There had been a lot of argument over whether these animals were actually poisonous. Two glands in the lower jaw secreting proteins inhibiting blood clotting and causing paralysis seem like enough evidence to me.

The Komodo Dragon was a female, I was told. One of the tourists knelt to take a photo of her from the front less than her length away from him. If that animal had lunged forward the way I felt it could have it would have had him! But she just lay there in repose, as though enjoying being admired.

Indonesia 108_edited-1

My turn came and I was motioned closer by the park guide who had a long branch ending in a fork. If I’d have seen the ‘U’ tube I’ve watched since returning home;- of a Komodo Dragon belting after a deer for an astonishing distance I wouldn’t have got as close as I did; but I was to be photographed with a Komodo Dragon, something I really prized. In theory I had more chance of getting away than the foolhardy tourist in front of her for if she became frisky I was near the tail as opposed to the head and it’s not easy for a lizard to turn around. The photo above captures one of the more memorable – not to mention fantastic – days of my life and how incredible it is that these monsters seem to have become so used to people around them. Nevertheless I felt that there could be accidents waiting to happen here.

I lined up the camea on this lady dragon from the side at a safe distance, I thought, intent on getting ‘portraits’.  But before my eye, through the viewfinder, her mouth actually broadened into a smile!  An unnerving experience.  What the hell was going throuh her reptilian brain?  Was she actually pleased or sizing me up as food or even ‘giving me the eye’?!  She didn’t try to attack so maybe I should just take perverse satisfaction in having this effect on an animal such as this.

The park guide, tour guide and me made our way inland. In the bank of a dried up watercourse he pointed out a hole under a tree that reminded me of badger burrows I’d seen in Gosport. Only this one was created by a Komodo Dragon. They retire to their burrows at night to retain body temperature and can stay cool by day within them.

My encounter with a female dragon would have been a good enough result I guess but the story wasn’t over yet when we moved on I found! There was a bridge over the watercourse with another dragon at this end of it! A handful of tourists were milling around again seemingly unaware of the potential danger while another park guide stood guard with another forked branch. I wondered if it could stop this Komodo Dragon for it seemed a bit bigger, stouter, longer. It was a male, I was told.

As we drew close it decided to lurch on to the bridge and I got a rear shot of it with a man on the other side transfixed by the prospect of a great photo of this thing lumbering towards him. A woman who originally had the same feeling gave in to common sense and legged it; also included in my photo of the whole thing. Luckily he got out of the way in time too.

Then there was the ultimate surreal walk of my life! A well maintained path led off into the jungle and this Komodo Dragon seemed to prefer the smoothness of it to the natural habitat on either side. So it started walking up the path with a patient plodding manner, with a steady regular flip of its paws, and kept on lumbering onward, and kept on. While we followed respectfully behind it as it dictated our speed, nobody being foolish enough to overtake. Like traffic behaving itself when a police car’s in front. In a sense it did police me at one spot when it took a short break and I got too close for its comfort. A cock of the head meant “watch it!” I retreated. It’s not every day you get told what to do by a lizard.

Indonesia 133

Yes it certainly was surreal ‘being led up the garden path’ as it were, by one of the more dangerous animals on this planet who’d obliged us by taking on the role of an veteran guide with an unhurried casual manner; because he’d led so many dumb tourists before.

After what felt like a long way the park guide drew level with this Komodo Dragon on a space by a flimsy sapling and motioned me forward. I passed with nothing between me and this monster lizard but the sapling and the guide with an inadequate looking stick. The dragon was taking another break lying in the middle of the path and was as close as the door into the room – not a big one – where I’m typing this now. The guides and me got beyond him. Other tourists and guides remained behind.

This walk didn’t lead to more spectacular dragons but there were still discoveries. I’d thought the Komodo Dragon’s main diet was buffalo but it was mostly deer. Now and then we could see them in the underbrush of the dry woodland we were passing through.

We went up a steep hill. Nothing more than a spur of bigger hills and central mountains. There was a good view of the bay though and a name hinting at volcanism: Sulphurea Hill. A dragon had taken a dump there. I was invited to survey a soggy grey/brown ball of a turd with milky issue around it.

The woodland below held more deer, some spectacular palms and tree ferns, but was mostly dry forest: a profusion of bare trunks and branches and little enough greenery for it to begin to resemble winter woodland in England. Except it was hot and we were really in the dry season here. This part of the East Indies is a region of monsoon forest which we were walking through, cloud forest on the mountains and savannah. Photos taken after the monsoon show this country green enough to resemble a island sized park, with mountains and beaches thrown in.

It was in these woods that the 2 guides I was with told me they were really boyfriend and girlfriend. So: my lust for adventure had become the girl guide’s ticket to get over to the island and see him. I approved, for it’s nice when a lunatic enterprise of mine happens to work out benevolently for others involved. Back at the beach I left them alone for a bit by buying a T shirt with a dragon on it.

Again that worrying step across camera ruining deep sea water from a stable jetty to a rocking boat. Made it; but there was one more stop on the way back.

It was snorkelling over a coral reef, a spectacular one. Colours, shapes and size. And every tropical fish a jewel of colour. I couldn’t admire it for long though for the life jacket chafed me raw under both arms.

On the way back I decided to tip the 2 boat crew members to their delight and shaking of hands. I’d already done likewise to the guides. Why not? This enterprise had been run on quite literally a wing and a prayer and had turned out to be a real who dares wins triumph against the odds: a journey across half the planet on a schedule with no margin for error, to hunt dangerous monsters with a camera, with no guarantee of seeing any. I’d seen 3; it had been a good hunt!

It was such a good result that even a theft didn’t mar it. Back at the dock on Flores I took a last photo of the boat, then found the tour guide had made off with my Komodo T shirt which was in her bag. Oh well, I was thinking of tipping her more anyway since she’d been with me all the time; so that solved that problem. Neat! Photos were the real trophies I came for anyway.

And it wasn’t over yet. The organiser who’d had the motorbike accident was there and announced that despite that he would kindly take me back to the hotel on the back of his motorbike! He considerately showed me his injury too, a bloody scrape on the shin. All this while a tropical thunderstorm had built up and was about to break gave a ‘this is getting better and better!’ feel to the situation. I could tough out the rain (Ow can you be bladdy cold you’re in the bladdy tropics) so I tried to get it across to him;- forget the rain! Just drive safely and get me to the hotel in one piece!

It must have worked for although it was a wobbly ride it wasn’t that fast. The rain started but only became a downpour on the entrance drive to the hotel. Like any good adventure there was suspense right to the triumphal end.

The rain was soon over in time for more photos of the sun sinking into the sea while downing celebratory beers to honour what must be one of the more fantastic days of my life. A hairy, cockeyed,surreal and comical cracking good adventure!


Back in Bali there was some confusion with the hotel over my lift there from the airport. Maybe Mike had a point after all preferring the taxis. When I eventually got back to the hotel I still had plenty of time to chill out. This included a quick foray up the back street to the main tourist drag and a photo each way before popping back to my quarters. There was some sort of monument to the right at a junction but otherwise it was a crowded garish tourism scene with the odd tropical plant.


The plane taking me to the next country wasn’t taking off until well after nightfall on my last day in Indonesia so Mike had managed to line up a one day tour of Bali; an island I’d felt guilty about overlooking in my haste to hunt dragons. For it is a beautiful island.

The trip arranged for me was better organised than the dragon venture, with a rendevous that went according to plan, with a spruced up air conditioned combi. Again though I was the only one going.

The Guide was a Catholic. Indonesia is mostly Muslim. Bali is the biggest enclave of Hinduism outside of India, but it’s a Hinduism influenced by Buddism and ancient beliefs. There’s a religious ritual for everything here but they’re observed more in the spirit of celebration than duty. The Balinese are also prolifically creative. The result is an artistic powerhouse inspired by their religious beliefs.

It’s as though their religion was not only tolerant to other beliefs but a visionary drug if their art was anything to go by. Anything from masonry to fabric was utilised for fantastically intricate and frequently colourful work. The costumes of the Barong dance being a good example with the monster in particular taking on aspects of a LSD induced vision. That was the first example of Bali creativity we visited: a dance which was also a play about the struggle between good and evil. The plot was chaotically entertaining and the ‘gamelan’ orchestra of xylophones, gongs, chimes, percussion and flutes really got one into the atmosphere of it.

To be honest a lot of it was a tourist trap. One was taken to several craft centres where one was ‘encouraged’ not to just admire but to buy stuff. Wasn’t my original plan but it all looked beautifully made and I became interested enough to acquire a shirt of lurid swirling marine colours depicting a kraken in a storm. It actually became very useful for it was a lightweight but distinguished addition to my T shirts to the point of women admiring it, I found. I was less interested in a silver ring but the woman at that craft centre was expert at the hard sell, though she only succeeded at the cost of some haggling, which I was only good at because initially I didn’t want it; but I’m still wearing it. I managed to avoid taking woodwork on board – though it was the same striking standard – being concerned about the trees needed to make a store of woodcraft.

Perhaps I shouldn’t worry. Bali is much more a typical tropical island than Komodo. Though it was city, habitation then rice paddy cultivation as we drove inland one could see lush tropical vegetation where there was the slightest chance for it to grow back towards a jungle again. Then there were the standards here. I’m probably wrong but did the psychology brought about by small temples or offerings to the gods at almost every home help to curb commercial excesses denuding the island of trees? The driving too, didn’t seem bad compared to many 3rd world countries, more laid back perhaps. I’m not normally a fan of organised religion which could be responsible for a lot of evil but maybe Bali could show the world how it should be done if one’s going to have that kind of society.

Then there were the ‘Penjors.’ My internet research has only just revealed the correct name and explanations in broken English. Indonesian flags were everywhere through the outlying suburbs and villages because of yet another festival tomorrow. Along with these were upright bamboo poles outside every house drooping over the road, embellished with ‘coconut, small shrine, snack, fruits, paddy and many more’ so the description goes. Penjors: an example of the fusion of art and religion here, these weird looking 10 metre long lengths of bamboo tree had become religious artifacts through a competition for artistic excellence. They were burned after a month to symbolise a break with anger and emotion. An answer to rioting and crime? Get rid of those urges through ritualised vandalism perhaps?

Indonesia 317

The Bali temples could look like fragments of heaven; with tropical paradise vegetation, pagodas and pyramidal roofed structures, exotic statues. One was on a clifftop, another on a great rock set in the sea, another in a volcanic lake. We saw 2 others which were sited at springs; of holy water in at least one case. Water gushed into rectangular pools inhabited by large fish but at certain times of year people bathed there. One of those -Goa Gaja – included a cave, the entrance of which was sculpted into a mouth big enough to swallow the devoted and others.

It was worth noting the sarongs around the statues at the entrance and elsewhere. They were supplied at the temple entrances. The laundry logistics of my lightning campaign had led to me running out of jeans and track suits by now so I was wearing shorts. Not to be advised when touring these parts of Bali. The Balinese often prefer legs to be covered.

One structure kept being repeated: an open gateway between 2 identical edifices scuplted to a greater extent or less on 3 sides of each edifice with the outer side sloped or rounded. By contrast it was sheer and unembellished where one walked through. The guide explained that they symbolised a mystical mountain one passed through.

The volcanic mountains to the north were sacred in fact. Treated like gods with the kind of respect shown to volcanic eruptions. Dead flat to begin with the ground gradually rose towards the volcanic terrain forming the spine of the island. Gullies became surprisingly deep and filled with jungle. More numerous too the further north one went, broadening into valleys, forming ascending ridges between.

Eventually we were on high ground and at a restaurant where I could have a break and a meal. It was a meal with a view. A grandstand view of the volcanic forces shaping this planet.

Indonesia 281_edited-1

Right before me was a panorama of curving escarpment to the left, volcano with barren slopes around which a road ran, including through a village, right in front, large lake under more escarpment and mountains over to the right, rain forest with the odd habitation in the foreground. I had this grandstand view which I could photograph at leisure between mouthfuls of delicious food because the restaurant was sited on the edge of the escarpment which was actually a ‘caldera’ wall; formed when a volcano blows its top off or slumps inward, maybe sometimes both. Either way I was on the edge of what was once a much bigger volcano.

The volcano before me – Batur – was more than one volcano. One on it’s southern flank had erupted the most recently on this side and I could see the lava flows. The guide told me it had erupted in 1922, the year my father was born. Research shows it’s erupted many times since, sometimes every several decades, sometimes through several consecutive years. One last thing: the alignment of this volcanic complex marks a fissure system pointing towards the restaurant where I was.

Furthest to the right – to the east – a great domed cone of a mountain loomed above the clouds and the landscape. Mount Agung. The name means ‘paramount.’ It was Bali’s most sacred mountain and the highest at 3,142 metres. It erupted less frequently than Batur but its 1963/4 eruption was one of the largest in the 20th century with many fatalities.

On the return journey I was shown a cocoa plantation where – on a covered gallery with benches and a view of rain forest – one could sample various high grade cocoa beans and associated foodstuffs. I spotted an old friend: a papaya or pawpaw tree.

We returned past increasing settlement, endless bamboo penjors, motorbikes and a fortune in artistic craftwork stretching across half the island. The guide – impressed with my knowledge of calderas and pawpaws – chatted. I’d overlooked one thing though that had been right under my nose.

Indonesia 057

“You know you’re next to where the Bali bomb went off?” No I didn’t! But hang on, there was a monument just to the right of where the backstreet to my hotel came out. So that’s its site! I’d wondered how close I was to that event but somehow hadn’t cottoned on to the monument’s significance. The land plot opposite the monument used to be the site of the nightclub and hadn’t been rebuilt since then.

In 2002 the ‘Bali Bomb’ – 3 bombs including 1 main one – killed 202 people from 21 countries. Most were Australian and there were 28 Britons. The trouble was the force of the bomb igniting and exploding nearby cars, one man remarked back at the hotel. The swimming pool there might well have been used to soak burn victims, swimming pools were. If this horrific crime was intended to stop tourism it’s been a complete failure.

Nightfall. Time to go but there was a problem represented by a youth whose nervous giggle was truly irritating. I gathered despite the language barrier that the car taking me to the airport had left 10 minutes earlier than the agreed time to pick up someone else. Why? But I waited without losing it despite not being sure of when the plane was going. This approach led absolutely nowhere with no result but the irritating giggle. My car was stuck on the main road somewhere. Finallly I made it clear that I was infuriated, took off with my gear on foot, followed by the giggle on a motorbike who caught up with me at the main road. It was jammed solid! But there they were!

It took ages to get out of there but reaching a the huge exotic statue on the junction near the airport was a good sign. When we got close enough to the right building I fled.

The plane wasn’t taking off until the early hours. Strange how arguments at the beginning and end of my Indonesian foray had bracketed what had actually turned out to be a brilliant success! And I was over half way with the 13 plane flights. 6 to go. Next stop: celebrating my success with friends.

© D. Angus 01 16

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments