The way back home.

To my surprise the train at Rovaneimi station was a double decker one. In Europe these trains seemed to be for commuter travel through cities and suburbs, not an overnight trip through most of Finland to Helsinki. Never mind, it was a welcome sight. I hadn’t booked overnight sleeping and I had the feeling this train would be more comfortable.

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It was. Not a perfect nights sleep but one of comfortable dozing in more space than usual while a country swept by. One of forests, distant stretches of water, the odd town station, all under a night sky that seemed to hang on to the last vestiges of summer dusk in a disorientating way, making it hard to guess what time it was.

Tampere. Morning showed it to be a town by a big lake with a few hills. A good place for exercise and long hikes. Last stop before the Finnish capital Helsinki. Geographically I was heading in the right direction for home after reaching the Arctic circle but the biggest objective of the journey was the World Science Fiction convention in Helsinki. It’s nice to get to a gathering of friends with similar interests a long way from home. Only well after that would I be heading for home in earnest.

How would I find the hotel I was staying at? It was by the railway I was on, on the way into the city centre. And there it was! Odd though as the street plan I had made it look further back from the track.

I found out why when I got to the city centre after reviving myself with a station breakfast. I walked out into a centre of imposing buildings with company logos on them and milling crowds. Time was lost working out why my bank card didn’t work. Some obscure European way of doing things. Luckily that was eventually circumvented; but it became clear from enquiries and a map that the hotel I’d seen was too far north. There must a chain with 2 of them in similar positions near railway stations to add muddle to the situation. The one I wanted was opposite the convention centre on the other side of the railway and I went a stop too far trying to find it. Luckily there was only one main line out of Helsinki centre to the north and I learned that it was the first stop.

It was best to sign in at the convention centre before my room was made ready. Tired by now I threaded my way through a modern architectural complex before asking directions. I’d very nearly made it anyway!

Within a few hours of arrival I’d met just about every one of my friends. Unusual for a convention the size of a Worldcon. Including Martin, an old convention hand, whom I would be travelling back some of the way with.

After that it was time to find my hotel. It was a challenge. It was on the other side of the railway area which was a massive no mans land of building sites and cranes. Going through the station led nowhere and the only ways across were bridges about ½ a mile away either way. A tiring trek with the backpack but I found the hotel on the other side. It seemed almost as tiring as hiking all the way up that Norwegian valley. Cities can exhaust one more than a country hike.

The convention settled into routine. One of exploring convention attractions, attending panel conversations and maybe the odd film, conversations with friends over midday drinks, more of the same in the afternoon, drifting around looking for friends, evening meals out and more drinking and parties.

I build – or did build and maybe will again someday – planets. Model ones that were shown in convention art shows. I hadn’t done that for some time but still contributed by appearing on the odd panel. There were 2 this time.

There could be a problem with one of them since it was on early American space exploration which I wasn’t an expert on and I was the only panel member apart from the American heading it. Luckily we met and levelled with each other beforehand so I became more or less his assistant; proving myself surprisingly useful when his equipment proved to be a pain and I was lucky enough to find help quickly.

The other was much more my scene since I’m not only into planets but the natural world. Forests in SF and fantasy was the theme. It was probably arranged with the kind of forests one finds in Finland in mind, but I was able to expand that with the jungles I’d been through, having photos which could be passed round the audience. The rest of the panel was large and composed entirely of women.

One other surprise occurred near the end of the convention at a large meeting along the lines of ‘how the hell are we going to cope with Brexit?’ Right at the end I found the only friend I hadn’t seen during the convention sitting next to me. He’d unwittingly disguised himself by growing a beard. Living in the Czech republic as a Brit abroad he’d suffered from Brexit and we had a good conversation about its problems including the unfortunate surprises of friends who’d turned out to be rabid Brexiteers.

The whole convention affair terminated with a crowded party on the ground floor of my hotel – as luck would have it – and a smaller gathering of friends in my room along with a representative of Finland; a youth who was made welcome.

I got over any hangover on the morning after by hiking to the center of Helsinki. Better than it sounded for there was more or less a green corridor stretching from across the road from the hotel the whole way there. Plus the morning was one of stunning sunshine. It began with a minor climb up a rock outcrop right across the road from the hotel, followed by leafy green woods with exercise apparatus by the path I tried out. A kind of playground for grown ups perhaps. Further in funfair attractions projected above the trees like an futuristic construction, then there was a walk between the railway and a lake and Canada Geese near another exercise area on a sunlit meadow flanked on both sides by the city. There was also an entrance to an underground car park bored through solid rock. I found out later there was a whole complex of that sort of thing below Helsinki.

I linked up with Martin and a friend of his from Yorkshire who looked younger than his age, early 70’s. We shared a hotel room in one of those places where you never saw any staff and had to remember number combinations to get into the place. That was why it was cheap.

We were in Helsinki for another day or so and I had a look at the botanical gardens, amazed to find cacti growing outside. The weather was brilliant but surely the whole lot would be covered by snow in winter. They were moved into the protection of hothouses then.

There was a museum with a memorable mockup of a coal age forest. Photos I took looked quite atmospheric, almost like the real thing.

In the evening we met another SF fan by accident: a woman we knew who’d missed her plane in Iceland after too much shopping? I think that was it. She didn’t seem bothered about it as we discussed it over a drink. For me it had the feel of the casual jet set making the most of whatever time we had left.

In the morning it was time to head south on the ferry to Tallinn: capital of Estonia.

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I reached the docks on foot by passing a giant sculpture of a naked figure with an outsized head. He was watering the plants with an everlasting piss. Yup! Can’t think of any other way to describe it. What with the Oslo sculpture park it was tempting to jump to conclusions regarding the ‘mores’ of this region, or lack of the ones found in Britain maybe. Goodo.

After waiting in a disused terminal for awhile under the impression it was the right one – its age should have been a clue – I hiked further and found the right one. Luckily I’d allowed myself plenty of time.

Martin showed up. We headed up an escalator, along galleries giving a scenic view of the docks and the city, and boarded the ferry.

Helsinki was left behind as we glided out between the peninsulas and islets of the Finnish coast on which people were enjoying themselves during the brief summer months. I wondered what it was like here in winter? Just about the only views of Helsinki I’d seen was on ‘Billion Dollar Brain’ with Michael Caine, where it was a city in snow and ice.

Norway, Sweden, Finland. The Scandinavian coast is incredibly fragmented around these countries but that of the Baltic States is more even. Estonia and its capital Tallinn, was just over the horizon. Martin had got a hotel within walkable distance of the docks. It was a relief to find it. He’d got a really good deal here for though comparitively cheap it was still modern with luxurious dining and bar areas and – most of all – good clean spacious rooms.

That evening we found a theme pub very near the hotel: ‘Scotland Yard’. Full of split levels and police regalia of the antique sort. The mini skirted waitresses were adorned with handcuffs. The exception to the theme was a very big fish tank forming a backdrop to the entertainment which that evening consisted of a woman with a guitar, whom we agreed was very good, as we drank and ate in that correct order. We were going to enjoy ourselves in Tallinn and would go there again.

The following 3 days were a time of real pleasurable relaxation. Often aided by alcohol. On the 2nd day I didn’t even bother leaving the hotel. Sometimes I just like completely ‘vegging out’ as it were. Martin observed that either I did nothing at all or moved really quickly, meaning whether I was walking or not. He had nerve damage to a leg and walked slowly. I reassured him by saying I welcomed a gentle stroll for a change rather than bombing along which is how I often walk. Fast.

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Beyond Scotland Yard and a strip of park was the city proper. Not one of high rises and futuristic architecture but a preserved old city complete with city walls. Even the buskers played classical instruments. Tallin was tailor made for the tourists but authentic. Pleasures here were a museum housing a model of the old city and big ones of a house and ship, a garden on the other side of the city with sculptures and artwork that included a half sunken car or two. And of course, bars and restaurants. Ones with massive slabs of polished wood for tables and benches and a tastfully photographed lifesized nude on the wall. Medieval ones with candles on the tables. Ones consisting of rows of tables outside staffed by ethnically dressed Baltic maidens where I remember the honey beer and cinammon beer served in earthenware jugs as being dee-elicious! Another memorable place was an old house on the edge of the old city converted into a restaurant with hippy like décor where we had at least one evening meal.

There were modern parts to Tallinn as well. ‘Attention. This is a self-driving bus’ was the wording on a yellow notice I saw near Scotland Yard. Then I saw it: a driverless vehicle like a cross between a tiny bus and a car. It was my first sight of a driverless vehicle, plus the reminder of how widely English was accepted and how lucky the British were in consequence when travelling. Then I found a district near the hotel going the other way from Scotland Yard, the Rotermann Quarter, that reminded me of the surrealist artist De Chirico who painted architectural scenes in stark light and shadow. But even he didn’t create the angles of the architecture, pavement intersections and gradients here. An ornate dress in a shop window added to the surreal feel.

One final modern aspect. On a few occasions jets roared and thundered overhead. Russia was close and these were probably exercises for that reason. I’d wondered – what with Putin – whether heading for the Baltic States that summer was like heading for Poland in the summer of 1939? Just before invasion! Happily this wasn’t so.

On the other side of the walled city was a small train terminus. Martin was going to take one of the ultramodern trains to Tartu in the east of Estonia. To sample the architecture maybe and the beer of course! He would continue sampling the beer throughout Europe until after I was back at school in September; by which time he would be getting close to home.

I on the other hand could be running out of money soon, since not only had Scandinavia been one of the most expensive parts of this planet but there had been all those adventures on the other side of Asia. It was time to bid Martin farewell and make a break for home. Bus was the cheapest way of doing that from here. The bus station was a fair hike past a modern high rise complex on the other side of the Rotermann quarter.

I’d no idea of how good bus transport was in this part of the world so I’d bought a seat to Riga before I found there was a bus going all the way to Warsaw! Too late to get that changed though.

They were certainly comfortable enough and gave an easy journey out of Tallinn and it’s suburbs and into the pine forested plains of Estonia, which seemed to occupy most of the country. There wasn’t much agricultural land until well into Latvia, which didn’t appear to have an obvious border. The road ran along the Gulf of Riga but was screened off from it by more forest.

Riga itself – the capital of Latvia – was more like something out of the Communist Bloc than Tallinn, with a little of the 1950’s thrown in: judging by a house height advertising hoarding on the side of an office block. It featured a couple where the man was dressed in suit and tie as though for a prestigious position in that time and the woman was in a coat designed like a flared gown, common then but hardly seen now. Elsewhere was a Stalinist structure – ‘The Latvian Academy of Sciences’ – where the architecture resembled Moscow University. I’d seen a similar tower in Warsaw imposed by the Russians.

The bus station was by the big river flowing through the city. It turned out I could stay the night there very cheaply! Bound to be a dorm I thought but no: a single room! Rough and ready with no TV, a view of a roof only and a a toilet down a corridor but these were trifling issues and I was in no mood to grumble. Not only that, when I tried to find a bus to Warsaw I found I could get one all the way to Berlin! So the next stage of the journey would be down to Germany. From there it would be an easy ride to Brussels, then home. I hadn’t realised such a comprehensive bus network extended through eastern Europe with comfortable buses at that. I was impressed by that and remained so.

Across a creek from the bus station was a massive building with 4 curved hangar like structures. It was the Central Market Hall of Riga. The hangar like structures were actually old Zeppelin hangars. That’s the bit of Riga I explored on foot.

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Late next morning the next bus pulled out of Riga along the wide river and across a bridge where there was a good view of the TV tower. A red and white soaring tower, over 1,000 feet. Like an SF 1950’s magazine illustration of how an alien spaceship might be imagined then.

South of Riga towards the Lithuanian border the forests gave way to a great rolling agricultural plain extending across Lithuania. An industrial spoil heap was the most memorable terrain feature and that must have been well into that country. Again the border seemed non existent.

The odd storm gave a spectacular edge to some photos I took while on the move. The last major town was reached before the Polish border: Kaunas. By another big river with wooded bluffs on the other side.

Onward towards Poland. I caught sight of a signpost for ‘Vilkaviskis’ at a crossroads. I can see now from its location on Google Earth that the bus was on the right road.

Around the Polish border the landscape became hummocky with small hills, seemingly without a pattern. Nice scenery actually and I wondered if this area was some huge terminal moraine of an ice age ice sheet. What was now the Baltic Sea had been a central region for them.

Poland was crossed in a night. I remember entering Warsaw, then leaving it without actually seeing it, just sketchy streetlit scenes with buildings mostly hidden by night, in between sleeping comfortably but fitfully. Never mind. I’d seen Warsaw and much of Poland 4 years ago.

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Dawn found the bus and me at the Oder River, the German Polish Border. It was also the last river before Berlin and the site of the last stand of Nazi Germany against the Russian hordes near the end of World War 2. A small city, ‘Frankfurt an der Oder’ could be seen to the north. Early morning sunlight was on its high rises. Then into Germany was a wind farm. Its futuristic sight rising above the morning mist on the meadows.

I’d been in Germany before but not to Berlin so there was that excitment of discovery, heightened by a city with such a notorious past. The bus was skirting the it from the south, coming up to the bus terminus on the western side. Should see Templehof Airport then. There was an airport but it looked modern and Templehof was back to the Nazi’s and beyond. Perhaps it was being refurbished. It was a new airport though for there was Templehof further on, looking like a field.

A motorway led past both and cut through Berlin until we swung up into an inner suburb of Berlin, very near the main road west out of the city from the Tiergarten. The bus terminal was here End of journey. Charlottenburg. Could be a dangerous place a passenger warned me. Now what?

I wanted some time in Berlin for I’d never seen it before. Better be prepared to shell out the readies for a few nights at a hotel then. First thing though was to find a hotel! To get over the long journey, lack of proper sleep and shower. I could be easy meat for anyone up to no good when in this condition. But where?

The chances were the centre was more expensive but it was where I wanted to be because not only were the sights there but I felt it might be less of a problem than the inner suburbs regarding possible muggings. Also I’d saved money on buses and accomodation all the way from Tallinn; so I not only had enough for a central hotel – within reason – but from here on I could make a more expensive bolt for the Channel and home by train. So it was to be a hotel near some central station terminal. Like Paddington or Waterloo.

I got out of the bus terminal, across a major road and round a corner by a modern complex. There was a U-Bahn station around here. The Berlin underground train system. When I found a map within it didn’t seem to display any kind of terminus station in central Berlin. Better make for the knot of lines by Berlin Zoo. That looked major and was on my side of the centre.

When I got there it was a certainly a big station with opportunities for breakfast. With one of the sights of Berlin in sight: the monument of ruin that was the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. Still couldn’t resolve the rail station issue though so maybe ask at a hotel. The one I found myself at turned out to be the Waldorf Astoria! To say I wasn’t dressed for that was an understatement and one of the staff was approaching in anticipation that I shouldn’t be there, very likely. Still if I was as courteous as possible… The result was good: one of the strange aspects of this city was that there were no rail terminals indeed, but I could easily get to the Berlin Hauptbahnhof on the northern edge of the centre from the station I’d just left and once there could catch a train anywhere, I was informed in friendly fashion. As a joke I thought I might as well ask how much the cheapest room was at the Waldorf and – sharing my sense of humour – the man told me. It was out of my league but he gave me a map for nothing and we parted on good terms.

The Hauptbahnhof was one of the most amazing buildings I’d seen. The great glass & metal structure was built in 2006.  5 levels I think with trains running through 4 of them. It was half mainline station and half shopping centre with a touch of Escher thrown in; what with escalators, levels, railway lines and trains criss crossing each other above and below, with shops every which way one looked. Enquiries here led to the home run of the journey being a train to Cologne, then Brussels, then back to Blighty. The time the train departed was a surprise on the good side: around midnight tomorrow night, which meant I only needed a hotel for tonight.

Another good surprise was the hotel. Next to the Hauptbahnhof it was budget enough to be a glorified youth hostel with a young clientele. That didn’t mean there wasn’t a bar cum cafeteria I could sample the local beer at. It went down very well after which I found my room had a view of a glassed over section of the station, complete with passing trains. The sound insulation was effective though and I caught up on sleep soundly.

In the afternoon the weather was ok so I ventured out for some sightseeing. The Spree River, probably slightly less wide than the Thames at Reading, was on the other side of an open plaza from the Hauptbahnhof. Their seemed to be a fondness for more open space – plaza or park – linking this up with the Tiergarten immediately to the south. Quite right too, and because of this the Reichstag with its glass dome could be seen from a distance. Up close though I found it to be a tourist trap with huge queus outside and up there under the dome one could make out throngs of tiny figures, tourists who had got in, looking like an exhibit in an insect house at a zoo.

It would take all day to get up there so I soon found myself at the sandstone hued edifice of the Brandenburg Gate. Parthenon like columns with a chariot on top but without a temple behind. Instead it was the main thoroughfare of the Unter den Linden running through the heart of what was East Berlin, flanked by modern architecture and opulent establishments. What a change from the ruin this neighbourhood must have been at the end of World War 2 and half a century of Communist rule when one couldn’t walk where I’d just strolled.

Striking off from that towards the Spree River I had a break for a frankfurter, then paralled the Unter den Linden east. I was heading for the TV tower past an extremely baroque building: the Berlin Cathedral. When in a strange city go up a high tower to get a good idea of the layout, plus a good view of course, but when I got there it was walled off by tourists again.

I consoled myself with a visit to a museum on the way back. Along with honest depictions of the Nazi regime there was a map display there of the way European countries had changed shape, fragmented, formed up and occasionally disappeared according to the perspective of history, each periods political geography fading in and out. I’d heard of the German psyche being affected by the geographical position of Germany being at the centre of Europe, being beset by dangers on all sides. The Thirty Years War, unification under Bismark, the lead up to the First World War and the excesses of the Nazi regime all owed something to this. Without justifying what had happened here the map made the German position more understandable.

Berlin wasn’t just a city one should visit in relation to the horrors of recent history though. This was a city for architects. There was a great range of architectural style here from ornate historical buildings and the monumental ones of the 20th century to the ultramodern Hauptbahnhof, the adapted Reichstag, and building design along the Spree River that belonged in the latest architectural magazine.

The most striking thing about the interior architecture though was the theme of high ceilings and massively high doors found in the museum and other buildings throughout the city, especially administrative ones favoured by those who had been in favour of Hitler. Look at war films set in Berlin. There was a feeling through that of the individual being dwarfed by the state.

One day in Berlin. Sounds like a film title. The sun seemed to be smiling on this city as I passed over the Spree River again, past the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate. Instead of the Unter den Linden this time it was the Wilhelmstrasse which went in the general direction of Hitlers’ bunker. I never found that but found just about everything else.

Starting with the British Embassy, complete with flags and security.

Carrying on down the street I saw a balloon rise into the air. It was a big one rising to a considerable height. Being completely free I walked in its direction. There were people in it. There was open space on the left and a green space where it could land. Could it be?

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Yes it was a novel way one could see this city from a height! For a fee you could get on a circular meshed in walk below the balloons’ base, see the ground falling away below and views opening up acrosss Berlin, its buildings losing their detail into speckled suburban expanses, bounded by the muted green horizons of the north German plain on every side. To the north west the top of the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag and Hauptbahnhof were in line, next to that the dark green mass of the Tiergarten stretched westward. In the good weather it looked idyllic and there probably was something of a renaissance going on down there. After all the Nazi’s and World War 2 were fading into the depths of history and the Russians had gone too; leaving a re-unified city, capital of a re-unified country at the heart of a prosperous Europe.

Right below though were reminders of how bad things had been. Across the street was a building that looked regimented out of 5 to 6 story grey office blocks. Now the German Ministry of Finance it had been built in the 1930’s as the ‘Air Ministry’, headquarters of the Luftwaffe. From Google Earth it seems that Goering had a bunker near there. Unexplored.

Right by that was a section of still standing Berlin Wall. The other side of that was used as a linear display of associated grim depictions, beyond that within a bare space without a blade of grass was ‘The Museum of Terror’. Site of the former headquarters of the Gestapo and SS.

A relief from that was the Tiergarten. Comparable in size to Hyde Park but narrower and longer. Bisected down its length by a main road with a massive roundabout and ‘Victory Column’ – commemorating Bismarks’ wars of unifying Germany near its west end. The Tiergarten is saved from its traffic by being mostly trees, unlike Hyde Park which is mostly grass. Within I found woodland walks leading to sunlit glades to chill out in, with small lakes and ponds nearby, instead of the Serpentine.

The zoo was at its south west corner. What a comprehensive zoo it was too judging by the photos I took: dated representations of Dinosaurs at its entrance, gavials in a sunken enclosure like a hothouse with a pond thrown in, lizards, snakes, a salamander, frogs, toads, an axotolotl, tortoises, tropical fish hanging out on a coral reef, bison, a seal blissfully sunning itself on a rock just big enough for it, a beaver, antelope, monkeys and bears. I would have got round to the big cats and others but I only got there in the mid afternoon.

The angel on top of the Victory Column seemed to beckon towards the oncoming sunset as the low angled sun made her a brilliant gold. The Brandenburg gate Reichstag were highligted in a similar way as I made my way back through the Tiergarten and past the curved architectural masterpiece of the Kongresshalle. ‘Art Without Death’ was being exhibited there. Seemed to sum up the mood in this city somehow.

Back in the Hauptbahnhof something I’d never seen in a station before got started after nightfall. A small orchestra with a violin, cello, concertina and piano were playing classical dance music and a couple were dancing to that bordered by a watching crowd. You could have a birds eye view of that from the next level up as I did. Later couples started dancing around the continuing event. Art without death indeed.

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The train home left from the upper level. The level I saw from my window last night; where the multicurved roof housed platform and signs flooded with the brilliant starkness of night lighting. Berlin beyond was simplified into the odd muted stack of city lights. Towards the western end was a big ‘Bombardier’ sign heralding the company making trains, and an English word in the middle of Berlin.

The train to Cologne was the worst endurance ride of the trip what with attempting to sleep in a fully lit carriage, but I was feeling better around Brussels and a pigeon welcomed me home by eyeing my breakfast at Waterloo Station.

© D Angus 05 18

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Scandinavia and Europe 2017

Further North Than Before.

I thought I’d organised everything for the summer holidays trip, but it’s surprising what one can overlook. Or what I can overlook.

Like my electric razor. Realising this on the bus halfway to the next town meant a return bus ride and an infuriated with myself hard walk to back my place. Even when I got there I still forgot my travelling alarm clock.

And the delay led to one “looking at” a £20 increase in the train fare which kicked in at Reading just in time for late afternoon commuters and myself, I was told by the fellow there I normally got on well with. A train avoiding that by going the long way round had just left of course and the next one wasn’t due for an hour. A friend I was staying with for a day or so wouldn’t appreciate that so I coughed up and left quickly before I said too many nasty things. Don’t you hate the market forces morality of the commercial world? The mentality of vultures picking out the easy meat or making the most of one mistake.

My friend picked me up at Swindon and from that evening in Faringdon I was able to relax – beginning with a pub and pub quiz – and mull over the journey to come. Although I’d travelled worldwide I’d never been further north overland than the north coast of Scotland. This time though I was doing Scandinavia and the Baltic states; flying to Bergen, Norway; then making my way to Oslo, Sweden and Stockholm. Originally I was going to cross the Baltic Sea by ferry to Finland but Mike, my travel agent friend had calculated on a complicated deal that led to a cheaper result going all the way round the top of the Baltic as far as the Arctic Circle! Had my doubts but it was undeniably an adventure and I was supposed to like adventures. Anyway from there I’d travel down through Finland to Helsinki where the world science fiction convention was. The journey was pinned on that. There I’d meet up with a friend, then travel some distance at least back towards home with him. Together or alone that would mean a journey through the Baltic states and central Europe.

The first part of that journey involved bus rides on my free bus pass to Heathrow Airport. The plane wasn’t leaving until the days end so I should be okay as long as I got going in the morning. All went well until I reached Reading where I learned there was no bus to Maidenhead because the railway went there and I would have to do more of a dog leg through Bracknell. The Bracknell bus was late. Which enabled me to miss the one leaving there for Heathrow and the next one would arrive at Heathrow uncomfortably close to the plane leaving. So to speed things up I took a train to the Thames where – thankfully without too much trouble – I linked up with a bus. Trouble was the bus peeled off into a housing estate with Heathrow almost in sight; that’s the problem with local buses. And it was a particularly grotty housing estate, but the bus seemed to enjoy it, taking ages to get through it. It was like some weird law of physics: the closer one is to ones destination the more time or ones ability to move seems to slow down.

By the time Heathrow was reached it was worthwhile keeping in mind that Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy saying; ‘Don’t Panic’ while calmly considering what to do about a missed plane. It worked since the plane was delayed. Very delayed. Which led happily to a enjoyable session at a bar conversing with an Irish lady who declared herself to be an evil Celtic princess. Her plane was earlier so after a good while she left while – under the influence of a few – I considered a free layed on stopover by the culpable plane company in a Copenhagen hotel. Happily I was staying in Bergen for a day so a days delay didn’t matter.

Eventually I finished my drink and decided to amble over to wherever the embarkation lounge was but my flight was in red! Last warning for departure! The amble became a marathon stampede but I still got there earlier than other similarly flustered people who could well have had the same alcoholic idea as me.

The plane had no onboard entertainment system and it became dark outside so the flight across the North Sea tended to be one to be endured.

There was no stopover in Copenhagen. Instead there was another flight to Bergen, also without onboard entertainment, to be endured.

Bergen Airport reminded me of the one at Puerto Princesa, the Philippines: an expanded village hall. This time in the dead hours of night with no staff. I managed to find a small group of people waiting for the bus I was supposed to get on. A hotel by the airport could have been booked instead, which I judged prudent after a flight to a place one hadn’t experienced before, especially in the black confusing region of half past one am., but Mike had insisted on lining me up for a long wait and a long bus ride to a cheaper place.

The bus came. I waited patiently while others got on. Then the driver declared the bus was full up, no more room, goodbye. WHAT! Marooned I texted Mike along the lines of WTF didn’t you listen when I said I wanted an airport hotel!? Then I realised there would be another bus although I had to wait another hour.

Luckily there were night staff at the cheapo hotel who told me that not only would there be a snack breakfast outside the door of my single room in the morning but I could have a lie in.

Another day dawns and with that things seemed to improve when I got up well after dawn. Sure enough there was an okay breakfast deposited in a bag outside the door.

Outside it was overcast but dry. I had a look to the left along the street. The first crossroads was a broad thoroughfare with a tall steepled church on a ridge to the right and the other stretch leading towards the docks or one of them which was where I should be tomorrow at dawn. Later I found that the other end was a major shopping precinct complete with band playing. For the time being though I went back to the hotel, to the right and right again, navigating through the backstreets of Bergen finding a small park formed out of the grounds of what looked like a city hall sitting on a low knoll; but it was actually an Art Nouveau theatre. And there in front was a statue of the great Norwegian playwright himself: Ibsen. The sculptor had given him a forbidding scowl. Well I guess he was controversial in the sense of his plays dealing with hypocritical morality but just then it looked as though he was outraged at the seagull squatting on his head. Plus it seemed a safe bet that the bird didn’t get the message of his work.

Time spent on reconnaisance is never wasted. That’s what a fellow who’d been in Sandhurst told me and I found the dock where I was to embark easily enough. It was not more than a quarter of a mile from where I was staying but distances seem longer in an unknown place.

Then it was across the end of the dock inlet, lunch in a place overlooking that and up to a station. A mountain railway took me straight up to the top of what would be a called a mountain in Britain but would be more of a steep hill in Norway. Except it wasn’t so much a hill as the edge of a hummocky forested plateau with small lakes. A very handy recreation area for the locals complete with cafeteria tourist complex with a great view out over Bergen.

Mike had advised me to come up here and going somewhere high – usually a tower or skyscaper but in this case a mini mountain – was the best way to see the layout of whatever city was being visited for the fist time. It was only about 1,000 ft up but Bergen was laid out like a model below. Docks, city centre, park with big formal lake and fountain near where I was staying, main road leading back out through the suburbs and around the hills to the airport and far beyond: where I’d come from. The UK. Bergen was pretty unspoilt in fact in the sense that there were few if any high rises and plenty of attractive, solid older buidlings.

 

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Having taken the easy way to the top I could walk back down. Down a wide track that zigzagged down a steep forested slope past mossy boulders and wildflowers, past art exhibits near the town that were somewhat makeshift. Still down through the alleys and backstreets of white clapboard houses hugging the bottom of the plateau slopes.

There was a natural history museum near the big church I’d seen but it began to rain. Then I found – in the rain – that the dam place was being refurbished. Refurbishments are the enemy of the tourist and I retreated to my room but not before slipping outside the church when seeking shelter and bruising myself on its masonry.

There was also a challenge to meet tomorrow. I had no alarm clock and had been told I couldn’t depend on the staff to wake me up since it was half hotel half hostel. I got an early night trusting to luck I’d be up and at the dock in time to catch the boat early tomorrow morning.

It worked. I was up very early with the early dawn at this latitude, having not trusted myself to go back into a doze and get up on time. So often a cause of oversleeping. The drawback of course was that nowhere was open and when I got there I had to shelter under a small eave from an intermittent drizzle.

For a long time I was the only one there but little by little others showed up the terminus was opened up and at long last we were allowed on board the boat. Opportunities for photography? Most of it was enclosed but there was still a good view, plus an exposed deck at the back for those who could brave the elements.

The route was northwards along a coast composed of mountainous or rocky peninsulas and islands, occasionally wooded with the odd villa with a view. One of those regions where one wonders what it would be like to live there. It was impossible to tell what was island or mainland.

Long ago I’d been inspired to begin modelling planets by Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’s Slartibartfast: an old father time type of man who was part of an industry that actually built planets, including the Earth! So the story goes. Slartibartfast had – it was said – won an award for designing the coast of Norway. He had a thing about fiords. I had a thing about eccentric tales like that and planets, including seeing as much of this one as I could on my limited funds. So at some point Norway was a must. So now I was finally here in Norway.

And approaching one of the most spectacular fiords of all. Under a sombre sky the rock masses cladding the mountains and hills had become especially gaunt. Perhaps forbidding but the landscape had definitely taken on a look of bastions guarding the gateway to something. The boat curved right towards the east and into Sogne Fiord.

The 2 biggest fiords in southern Norway are Hardanger Fiord and Sogne Fiord. Hardanger Fiord slices into the mainland and back again at an angle and no doubt possesses scenic wonders including a spot where a massive slab of rock projects outward over what looks like a fatal precipice, a dizzy drop and view. Judging by photographs tourists seem to like walking along it and sitting on the edge for some reason: to wind up health and safety perhaps, or is it just tourism advertising? Anyway unlike Hardanger Fiord Sogne Fiord snakes and branches – like some root pushing through soil – right into the heart of the biggest mountain mass in Norway. When I saw this in a school atlas I wanted to go there decades before I ever heard of Slartibartfast.

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The further the boat proceeded though this massive fiord the more the weather brightened up but the spectacular scenery was everywhere; with snow on the central mountains and even the sighting of a glacier high up there. The forested lower slopes plunging into the fiord left little room for settlements: sitting on lighter green aprons of relatively level agricultural land hugging the fiordside or nestling in the woods along the shore, pylon lines hung between them across a branch of the fiord as insubstantial as single strands of a cobweb under construction. The boat was a bus of sorts, calling at minor village docks around the branches of this enormous deep flooded valley. There were also mountain streams and waterfalls: thin silvery trails of cold cascading water finding their way down mountainside and falling into the fiord, seen from miles away.

This kind of scene would have been the home of those troublesome Vikings. Although sheltered,being hemmed in by mountains everywhere meant cramped opportunities for population growth, farming and even transport. It was much easier to build boats and travel between local shores rather than along them or up and down the high steep slopes between arms of the fiord. Expand the scope of boat transport and one could get a lot out of Russian rivers in one direction and that big fertile island across the sea in the other. As our British ancestors realised to their cost.

All awe-inspiring of course. No wonder Slartibartfast loved fiords. What would it be like to live here with that landscape becoming a background to ones daily life? It’s not that I was about to find out but I was going to stop for a night in a valley right in the heart of this terrain with a day’s adventure in this land after that.

The end of the voyage was a place called Flam which was at the end of a long side fiord stretching to the south. There I was picked up by a woman with a chalet for hire that Mike had already made arrangements with and – after picking up a few provisions – driven a couple of miles up this classic glacially carved ‘U’ shaped valley and up a short slope by track to a wooden chalet. Behind that was a railway. Mike had also given me exhaustive detail on the timetable of this line that went from Flam all the way up the valley to the main line from Bergen to Oslo, but I didn’t pay much attention. I wanted to get some hiking in.

The following morning I was up by 8. A train going by just up the slope behind my wooden hut helped to wake me. It had been a pleasant enough night in the chalet and now I was ready, Hopefully there wouldn’t be much of an incline until near the end.

Almost immediately there was. A massive forested rocky hill across the valley floor around which the valley river thundered over rapids and the lane climbed. Probably a terminal moraine from the glacier that had carved out this steep to sheer sided trench of a valley, so it should flatten out on the other side.

It didn’t. There was though a huge plume of a waterfall some way ahead to the right looking like something straight out of Yosemite National Park. The ongoing incline was tough exercise but it’s what I wanted. Unlike my tropical cave adventure the year before I had a heavy backpack and at least 9 miles to hike with a really steep climb out of the valley at the end; but on the other hand this wasn’t the tropics during summer and there was no terrain underfoot to conquer, difficult or otherwise, just a lane that would turn out to be mostly quiet. The weather was cloudy but showed signs of brightening. The scenery was breathtaking, cloud or no cloud, like Sogne Fiord. In fact the drifting cloud obscuring the valley slopes added to a sense of mystery about the place that I liked. The lane continued more or less uphill mostly through forest. Later it crossed the river just before it disappeared into a shoulder of rock, reappearing on the other side in a foaming torrent. Somehow the railway became apparent again on the other side from where it was.

It was the waterfalls that made this place truly magical though. None as big as the first one I saw but white trails of cascades down sheer rock and steep slopes glimpsed through forest mist and cloud. More substantial ones like long living bridal veils and heavy torrents thundering down on the rocks below. One dwarfed a small home the size of one of the smaller UK ones on the other side of a pasture. Fancy having that at the bottom of your back garden!

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It was like walking through a fairytale. There were enough waterfalls here for Rivendell. Then I realised where I was. Middle Earth of course! If this wasn’t Rivendell it was very likely the Misty Mountains what with all the cloud and mist which was clearing now. Because I was in my 60’s it was my ambition to wind up like Gandalf: to still be capable of hacking it through the Misty Mountains despite being ancient. Now here I was putting in a seriously good attempt to fulfill that fantasy.

The lane continued up the valley, still mostly uphill, splitting when it seemed to drop down to a settlement by the river, the alternative being almost a track which became a lane again going past a opened platformed station. Not to be found in Middle Earth perhaps. Now and then trains went by on what must be one of the most scenic railways anywhere, each engine looking like one of the intercities back in Britain.

Further on was a steep climb and a picnic spot with a long view back down the valley through clearing weather. A water and snack break with a view for me. A French family showed up in a car asking whether this was the way to Flam. As the only way down this valley was this lane which ended there directions were simple: follow it until you can’t go any further because of the boats and driving into the fiord.

The lane leveled out and dropping down in a few places while cyclists and the odd car or even hiker came past, nearly all from the other direction downhill it seemed. I was the only idiot hiking up this valley, not that I cared. I’d became camera happy of course. As well as the scenery one can get fascinated in the terrific detail and miniature worlds of moss, lichen and rock. I even found what looked like an ammonite high up on a rock overhang. Most if not all the rock around here was old enough to predate the Dinosaurs but Ammonites lived as far back as the Devonian period beyond the Coal Age: when these mountains were formed in an upthrust caused by seas disappearing between closing continents and ancient sediments changing into mountains perhaps higher than the Himalayas. So I could have been looking at one of the oldest specimens.

Speaking of rock the road went through it at some point I’ve forgotten in an unlit tunnel. Luckily it was straight with light at the other end guiding me.

Finally I crossed a roaring rocky river into the flat sunlit upper end of the valley which held another experience like Middle Earth. A beautiful stream with wildflowers perfect for soaking ones feet in with a meadow beyond. Where a solitary tree golden with sunlight appeared to be one of legendary magic much sought after. That’s the way it looked in stunning contrast to the mountain wall beyond black with shadow.

I took a photo but got rid of it when returning home because of a blemish caused by sunlight; because I was fed up with having to doctor so many from SE Asia on Photoshop because of overcast skies, being underground or pollution. I didn’t want more but I regretted that decision, later finding a handful of others in the same state. Like fishing, the best photos always seem to be the ones that got away.

Just over the stream was a grass roofed place offering local produce. Perfect when faced with a tough climb and no food. I had a chunk of goats cheese: sweet but salty. Could have given a doctor a fit if one had borderline high blood pressure as I did; but exercise was also good for one in that condition and I was about to get plenty more which would work off the cheese.

Just beyond that I met the goats. Some of them sitting amongst a jumble of quarried rocks. It didn’t look comfortable but their white tawny and black fur was actually an effective camouflage. One on the lane took too much of a liking to me, sauntering up behind my bum and following me for some distance.

Then it was across another bridge over roaring rocky waters to an extreme zig zag climb up the lane which had become a track at the back end of the valley. I expected a bare exposed mountain slope but instead it was wooded with insubstantial trees like birch, allowing plenty of shrubs, bracken and wildflowers below them. So one couldn’t tell how many hairpin bends there were above. A stream churned by below on the right in a series of waterfalls. I was soon sweating more than usual and incautiously drank some water dripping down a mossy rock face: it tasted gritty but I had no ill effects. The hairpins went on. Always another one above. I became aware that this could be dangerous not only for cars but for cyclists. Some braked in what looked like plenty of time only to skid down the loose grit and gradient of the track.

Eventually I could see a structure sheltering a railway above. Then a house of sorts. Must be near the top. Some time after that it levelled out quite suddenly around a bend with a danger notice for cyclists there: a mountain stream stretched through birch and shrubbery to an uphill sparse scatter of a handful of houses, with mountains patched by snow beyond. That could be Myrdal; where I should be able to catch a train to the rest of Norway. I celebrated with a footbath in the stream.

The station was up on the left. Strangely for such a bare hamlet it was the most substantial thing there, with booking office, waiting room and restaurant area. I had to wait a long time for the train for the nearest town to the east and I didn’t know how expensive a hotel would be; but it was now near the days end and the hike just completed rivalled my SE Asian experiences in toughness and exhaustion so I wanted luxury now at any cost.

The train I was in threaded it’s way past a lake and barren tundra piebald with patches and swathes of snow. On some high ground the snow coalesced to form a small icecap seemingly with hardly any division between that and a sky pale with cloud. Everything else was rock, moss, grass and an occasional stream or lake. This was not a mountain range in the sense of jagged fold mountain peaks and ridges, more of a high bare rocky plateau of hilly granite masses cut into by the occasional gorge, being very old hard rock, worn down, then uplifted again for more erosion.

As soon as a depression became wide enough for the railway to follow it into a valley there was more vegetation with some trees; also the town where I was going to look for a hotel.

There was a small but snug one right on the station. Perfect, or it would have been but for it being booked out. What now, what with it raining? Then I was directed to a more expensive one under a railway bridge and up a short slope. As soon as I saw it my heart quailed on the price. A massive white wedding cake edifice sprawled before me. It looked as though they’d custom built it for a visit by Donald Trump!

When I got there it was indeed a luxury hotel, converted from a hospital I later found, but the price – considering the grandiose nature of the place – was surprisingly reasonable. As for my room it was just about the best one I would stay in on this trip. Landed on my feet again. All the luxury I wanted after that hard climb.

Next day I was on another train going onwards down the valley chiselled into a trench through descending uplands to other valleys leading to Oslo. Like travelling through a Norwegian geography lesson: forests, pylon lines, a power station and lake narrowing into a river, broadening into a lake, more lakes, more agriculture, farms and settlements the closer the train got to Oslo. Finally a succession of lakes and towns joined up by housing estates, flats on a forested ridge and Olso itself.

The city centre of the Norwegian capital was like many other city centres: high rises, a maelstrom of roads and traffic skirting modern buildings, half of them being refurbished. Where I was headed was on the northern edge of that by a small river landscaped like a sunken winding canal, I found it despite heavy backpack, wind and occasional rain.

I was going from one extreme to another. Luxury hotel to hostel, but it would really be cheap and tomorrow I was off to Sweden. Another expensive Scandinavian country. Meanwhile since it was early afternoon I could have a look round.

 

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I knew where I was headed, getting a bus most of the way there and walking back. Frogner Park to the west. A remarkable place for 2 reasons: it was largely a sculpture park. It showed up in one of SF writer Ian Banks ‘Culture’ novels, ‘The State of the Art.’ The sculptures were the work of Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland and consisted of 212 statues of nude stocky humans, apart from a few man sized monsters grappling with a few of them. The layout is along an axis with a huge lawn and sundial at one end, a bridge at the other, a fountain and a formal garden tiered plateau in the middle, on which stands a monolith covered with human shapes writhing their way to the top. Below and besides flights of steps are many more of them sitting, though some are wrestling. Running, wrestling, dancing, hugging, statues holding hands. Naked grey forms engaged in these pursuits are everywhere along the central axis.

I liked the abandonment of inhibition; though I wasn’t sure about the message.

The bridge was where 2 of the characters in ‘The State of the Art’ met. Both were from an alien galactic civilisation known as the ‘Culture’ surveying planet Earth. The culture was a civilisation many of us would find desirable enough to dream about. I felt I’d fit in well. One of the characters felt he didn’t and wanted to live in the deeply flawed existence that could be found on planet Earth. The other, a woman, was horrified by this, trying to persuade him out of it by going over what he was giving up and the disadvantages he would gain here from the irksome to the soul destroying, to the crippling that are familiar to most of us citizens of Earth.

The sky in the story had that clarity of cloudless blue that hinted of great stretches of unspoiled wilderness and arctic sea to the north. While I was there though it was overcast and hemmed in with rolling cloud. It was almost as though the sculpted statues owed something of their existence to it.

A walk back through a suburban neighbourhood led to ‘The Rudolf Steiner University College’ which was at the corner of the academically named thoroughfare of ‘Professor Dahls Gate.’ Professor Dahl was a political theorist at Yale University. Rudolf Steiner – perhaps better known – could be called a free thinker. Architect, social reformer and philosopher with an interest in linking science with spirituality. Despite dying in 1925 he was influential in post WW1 Germany. Not surprisingly Adolf Hitler and the Nazis didn’t like him and Steiner – on hearing about Hitler’s attempted coup at Munich – prophesized correctly that he and the Nazis would be disastrous for the country.

My walk continued through a less salubrious neighbourhood where one abandoned building sported a graffiti display of flames and skulls with ‘WE KNOW YOUR CAPITALISTIC PARADISE’ and ‘RESISTANCE IS PRICELESS.’ An anarchist movement with a good command of English set against the stoic solidity of Scandinavian society? Then it was across another park to the city proper.

Another day another country. Sweden. More forested and less hilly than the Norway around Oslo from now on. I was heading by train for one of the bigger Swedish lakes. Lake Vanern. Unlike many Scandinavian lakes it was more of an expanse than a valley flooded strip and I wondered if one could see the other side? There was a town on its northern edge, Karlstad, which should be big enough for me to find a place for a few nights. I intended to get more hiking in.

Karlstad was a town well endowed with shops on a grid street plan with a river on the northern edge of its centre. I hiked beside a motorway where it crossed the river and ahead on rising ground was a hostel, but the closer I got the more I realised it wasn’t like an ordinary hostel. The imposing main building and what was behind looked like a University campus! I was sweaty from hiking in the sunshine so I was relieved at its size. Ought to be a place to stay at here. I relaxed and had a meal at a cafeteria waiting for opening time.

To my disbelief the whole lot was booked up! Phone calls though led to a place back in the town centre. Back I hiked. I preferred not being tied down by booking places once I got into one of my journeys proper so this was one of the drawbacks I had to take a chance on.

The ‘hotel’ in the town centre wasn’t cheap but it was one of the more interesting places I’d stayed in. Actually a combined mini hotel along a windowless corridor leading from a fully fledged restaurant and theatre, which added to the colourful furnishings. The room was also windowless but it was nothing like the holes in the wall I’d stayed at in SE Asia. Very modern and spotless and self contained. The theatre was closed but the restaurant wasn’t. Neither was the bar. I relaxed, having a conversation with the blonde Swedish barmaid, complimenting her on her fluent English. The English are so lucky our language is so widely spoken abroad.

In due course there was a hike down to the lake. The town itself wasn’t on its shore. One had to take a bus down through a muddle of river, access roads and further settlement to get within striking distance of where I wanted to hike: what was a blemish of detail on the map was a forested peninsula sticking out into the lakes’ immensity.

I was dropped off and stayed at the bus shelter; it began to rain and I hadn’t brought along the right gear for that. My instincts for the weather though were correct in the long term so I didn’t have to wait there too long before it gradually brightened into the sunny day I would be hiking through.

Then I got lost, something I actually enjoy as a navigational challenge and regarding chance encounters; unless discovering after awhile that one’s wandered around in a circle. Never mind, the weather was holding and I found the right road south.

The road was quiet with nothing more than an occasional car or gentle decline and incline. The weather developed into sunny and stable, bringing bright colour into a lot of pine woodland with the odd picturesque property I was hiking past. Very pleasant and easier too when contrasted against that tough Norwegian climb.

There was a school at one point with a lifelike representation of a child for a warning roadsign set on a bend. An idea worth taking up perhaps and I recorded it all with my camera.

It was best to get off the road though if I wanted to see the lake, a side lane took me to a glimpse of it stretching to what looked like a port in the distance with the lakeshore stretching further before going south. But it was a dead end and it was back to hiking through forested lanes.

Further along the peninsula one could get more views south if reaching the lake. This time I had more luck. There was a bit more rain but I could hide under the trees and it didn’t last. There was an uninhabited hut and further on a tiny inlet with a motor boat. Out in the immensity of the lake the clouds were back lit by the sun. There was a wind farm out there but also there was a real expanse where – yes I was right – one could see nothing but lake without a sign of the other side.

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The sunlight dazzled the lake and the sheets of ancient rock ground down by ice age ice sheets. It was everywhere here. I got some brilliant photos of all this and a few of the miniature strange landscapes of rock, moss, lichen and pockets of vegetation growing in crevices.

There were also properties. I became aware that I was working my way around the back of what could well be private patches of lakeshore, finding a small sandy beach used as a volleyball or badminton court at one place, complete with net. Some of the houses were very stylish and a gentleman approached me. I tried explaining – lost or whatever- and he was a gentleman being very relaxed about it. Thanking him I made it clear I was going back inland, turning back at that point. Then I came across the remains of a small Slow Worm in the lane. They were this far north.

That was the part of Sweden I took time to explore. The rest of it fairly flew by. I’d planned to spend at least a night in Stockholm but Mike had found a special deal for a night train so I had more or less an afternoon in Stockholm after views sweeping by of Swedish countryside between Lake Vanern and the city.

Impressions of Stockholm. A city of solid to ornate buildings. Although the masonry ranged from white to brick red the overall impression of colour was brown under an overcast sky. I don’t remember any high rises. Scandinavian cities all seemed to have a character of traditional solidity. It was also a city of waterways being close to the Baltic, the coastline of which had a fragmented nature. I’d checked Google Earth for ferry routes to Finland from Stockholm and they had to thread their way through an incredible mess of outcrops of land emerging from the sea for want of a better description. Anything from islands to shards of rock with a few trees on.

I headed for an Abba exhibition but it was grossly overpriced so I did a nearby museum.

I had a shared sleeping compartment of 3 berths on the train. Oh well I’d done China and Vietnam in such a fashion and it was likely to be less of an ordeal than that. I was first there and chose the bottom bunk.

The train moved out of the station and nobody had joined. Surely this couldn’t last I thought as the train rolled north through farming plains and woods towards Uppsala.

It didn’t but that was still interesting; because the youngish guy who joined me at one station was not only black and from Tanzania but somehow he’d wound up working in a power station in this part of the world. He had a bag of provisions that included beer and kindly offered me some! All I could repay him with was conversation – such as visiting Tanzania when I was 28 – while the beer was giving me a feeling of euphoric unreality that things were going this well.

Sadly it couldn’t last. Suddenly my friend took it into his head that he couldn’t sleep on the top bunk and before I could finish saying something like “Hold on maybe we can work out someth” he’d swept up his bag saying he’d find somewhere else and left the compartment closing the door. Extraordinary fellow.

Oh well. On my own again and it was darkening outside. Time for bed for lack of any better idea.

Then when I was sliding off the edge of conciousness into the darkness of sleep the door suddenly opened. We’d just gone through another station and my “Wha’s this?” was completely ignored by a guard who sounded as though he was telling a big bearded man that this was his compartment. Both seemed to make a point of completely ignoring me in fact; the beard exuding a spirit of disappoval that I existed. Like some sort of mental halitosis. And the negative atmosphere wasn’t all because when he chose the middle bunk I was almost closed off from the compartment. It was like sleeping in a coffin.

Although it was still more comfortable than overnight Asian train journeys this journey developed into one of the more difficult ones I’d undertaken. There were complications along the route threading through the forests and lakes of northern Sweden. I’ve forgotten the names of the towns and stations involved but I was supposed to get a bus, another train and another bus into

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Finland. The morning begain with a stuck train while a Swedish argument between the train driver and a station controller was heard over the intercom as to what track the train should be on. It didn’t help that I needed the loo, hoping there’d be enough time at the station before the bus left.

Only just. One also had to pay for the loo by card since cash was virtually outlawed in Sweden. Try doing that in a hurry while trying to follow instructions in an incomprehensible language.

Only just made the bus after doing that. So did the disapproving beard whose presence was to be endured until Finland. Then there was a text conversation with Mike about progress and instructions. Had I claimed my special nitpicking bus deal which was the whole financial point of the journey round the top of the Baltic?

I’d forgotten; what with all the fun of Swedish arguments and toilets!

There followed a text debate that stretched across the border all the way up to my Finland destination, getting heated by then. Mike sent 3 texts for every one I sent. I was wearing my fingers out, not my idea of fun and I didn’t come abroad for this. But I was kept busy while in a train with a view to the rear, normally a treat for me, while getting a deal that came close to breaking even and small savings that might have made the difference after all but I’ve no memory of the details, catching sight of an Ikea superstore at the last bus station in Sweden, just about catching sight of the Baltic or rather an inlet. It’s difficult to see because of the indented nature of the coastline. And finally a more relaxed train ride once inside Finland up to Rovaneimi.

Rovaneimi was over 66° north. Almost on the Arctic Circle. What struck me when I got there was how much of it looked like a converted industrial estate. I had to register at a posh hotel to get a room in a cheaper one up the road but for a change there was no hassle and half a miles’ hike up a gentle gradient got me there. Rovaneimi was actually the capital of Lapland but it was just about shirtsleeves weather and it was surprising how lush the surroundings looked, at this time of year at least. A view over a duel carriageway in the evening light could have been on the edge of of town in Britain, but for there being much less traffic and more forest.

The following day I visited a museum complex from where the Aurora Borealis could be seen during winter through its glass roof. Forest ecology and management was prominent and was a big thing in Finland, understandably. The town centre at least was new because the Germans had destroyed it during the war although Finland was on the same side, at least to begin with. The most surprising thing was still something I haven’t got to the bottom of. According to a map the river and lake system at Rovaneimi – 60 miles from the Baltic now – was the edge of the Baltic in the 1600’s! The town was in a similar geographical situation to Portsmouth now. Scandinavia has been rising ever since the Baltic Ice Sheet melted but I wondered if the date was a misprint?

My fascination with the museum and lakeside park led me to cut it fine with getting food – Mike had warned me – for the next stop. By the time I saw a supermarket I was almost running for the bus.

Across the river 4 miles to the north east was ‘the official home of Santa Claus’. The ultimate family tourist village.

4 miles further on and just above the Arctic circle was my furtherst point north. A bus stop across the road from a holiday camp by a lake. A comfortable chalet with a television and reading matter for me, a laundry and even a sauna. But the sauna was used my middle aged couples instead of the Scandinavian blondes Mike had tried to tempt me there with and remnants left by the previous occupants comprised all the food. Never mind. Although that meant a fast of over a day, that and the solitude would be good for me, amidst the lakeside forests and birchwoods. There was still a lot of forest with even some fields on the other side of the road. No sign of tundra. And as the photo from my bedroom shows;- the evening light in the middle of the night when I was light headed anyway from lack of food was an interesting experience.

© D Angus 03 18

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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?

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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.

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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.

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

EXCUSE ME I WANT TO GET OUT OF THIS AIRPORT WOULD YOU PLEASE HELP ME THANK YOU!”

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

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