Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Is Laos so different from Cambodia?

I thought you went to Laos, I hear you say. (Well, I don't, but you know what I mean.) My recent book, Bombs and Butterflies, is all about my trip to Laos last winter. So why the chatter about Cambodia?

Well, the cobra came up, so to speak, so I wrote about that. And I couldn't do that without pointing out that there was so much more to Cambodia than snakes and temples. But you're right - so here are some thoughts about Laos.

Laos and Cambodia are neighbours. They both wrestle the dialogue between ancient ways of thinking and the urgency of western ideas. They have both experienced trauma in living memory - trauma that runs far deeper than most of us could possibly imagine.

And yet, in spite of all that, Laos is hugely different. To begin with, Cambodia has had to come terms with Khmer murdering Khmer. They slaughtered their own people in their millions. Some of those who survived are traumatised - but they have had many children. And it is the children, young people now, who work their socks off to rebuild the country. Killing fields, they say - pah! Look to the future. I was in Phnom Penh for Independence Day and every young person in the city was in the central park, speakers blaring, dancing, singing, Rocking all over the World. It felt like a joyful two fingers to the past - they have a country to rebuild and no one is going to stop them.

In contrast, the devastation in Laos came from the air - from American bombing. Raids were sent into to Laos every eight minutes for nine years. (Can you begin to imagine that?). They responded by closing their borders, for forty years. Why wouldn't they? Who was there left to trust? Slowly, with the support of China, they are beginning to allow the rest of the world to peer through their doorways.

As a visitor (I hope I was a visitor, and not simply a tourist), it takes time to meet people, to find a language we both understand, to begin to engage with their experiences - which makes sense in view of such recent devastation. I found them to be kind and generous, and quietly welcoming. A young woman at a Homestay, who carried my luggage and helped me up and down the steps (I'm ancient by Laotian standards) even offered to wash my feet. It was humbling, when she knew nothing about me other than the colour of my skin, that she should go to such lengths to show hospitality.

And the countryside is astonishingly beautiful: mountains, rich with heavy green, impenetrable to the likes of me but no doubt a metropolis of wild life. There are villages reachable only by river - what better way to travel. And so many quiet corners to contemplate this lovely country and its brave people.

As some of you know, my camera was stolen just before I left, and so I have no pictures. But Laura Zera has also been to Laos, and came back with some wonderful photos that are on her blog - over two whole posts!! Here and here. She has given me permission to use her pictures on this blog - but that feels unfair, given that she took them and has been so generous. So do go and have a look. (And you can find Laura on twitter - @laurazera - she's some fascinating mental health stuff as well as the travelling. What a woman!)

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Cambodia is much more than Angkor Wat

Most tourists fly into Siem Reap, spend a couple of days traipsing round temples of Angkor Wat at the end of which they've seen barely a fraction of what's there, and fly out again to the beaches of Vietnam or the temples of Thailand.

They miss the rest of the country - and they miss meeting some of the bravest, most resourceful people I have ever known. They have had the worst thing happen to them - a third of their population was massacred by the Khmer Rouge. Now they must rebuild their country, beginning with absolutely nothing. And they're doing it - with courage, and humour, and extraordinary generosity.

I have folders and folders of photos, and finding just a few to show you has been almost impossible. But I've found a few, to give you a flavour of how some people live:

These homes on stilts are common all over south-eat Asia. They look flimsy, but keep nasties on the ground and well away from people when they are sleeping, and flood water can run away beneath them when the monsoons come. They also provide shade on the hottest days.

I have no idea what this woman is cooking, but she was having such fun doing it:

Here are children sorting chillies (spare a thought for them, next time you have a curry):

But it's not all work:

There are beaches, and temples, and jungle. The Tonle Sap - the huge lake that covers much of the middle of the country - is stunning beautiful. Rice grows on the flood plain - a sweet green that fills the paddy fields. There are markets - only one or two with trinkets for tourists, for these are markets for local people, with sacks of spices and heaps of rice,

And when the day is done, you can always sit and contemplate the Mekong:

One day ... I'll go back.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Now I really will tell you about the cobra

Beng Melea is seventy kilometres away from the main sites at Angkor Wat. I went in a tuk tuk. For those who've never met a tuk tuk, it's like a motor bike with little carriage on the back. It has a plastic roof, and decorative tassels to make it pretty, but nothing to protect the passenger from wind, or dust, or even determined rain.

After seventy miles my face looked like Cher's - pinned back, and with a complete coating of dust. I recovered with a soft drink, and then took the wide path towards the temple, past the board which told me which parts of the site to avoid as it is still littered with land mines, past the group of disabled musicians (the way most land mine victims make a living), past the monks, and towards the huge main gate.

A man approached from the right, determined to be my guide. I tried, politely, to tell him I was happy on my own, but he was undeterred. Oh well, it's only a tip he needs. So I followed him into the temple ...

... to find that it has not been excavated. There is a polite boardwalk for tour groups, but nothing to stop anyone crawling through doorways, or clambering over rocks, to explore the place for themselves. My guide leapt over a large crack in a pathway, held his hand out to help me over, and we were off - through pitch-black hallways, over fallen trees, along precipices.

He even took a photograph, to prove I was there:

Once he had his tip, I did it all over again - well, wouldn't you? It was like playing Indiana Jones - though there were times when I looked at a narrow ledge and reminded myself that just because I was allowed to climb all over this doesn't mean I have to. But it was such fun, like finding the place for myself, for the very first time. Do you recall that feeling, as a child, that you really could do this dangerous thing by yourself - climb up that cliff, or swim a whole length, or walk in the river and feel water round your knees? Well, it was like that, all rolled into one.

This shows you the boardwalk, and the sort of things I was climbing over:

And this the sight that greeted me when I peered across the top of a wall:

I was crawling through here:

when I saw a passing guide talking with his group. He was muttering about the history of the place, and how it was discovered in the 1960s, and plans to excavate and clear the land mines.

And then: 'A cobra lives under there,' he said, pointing to the rock beneath my knees. 'But it only comes out at night.'

(Note to daughters. This was much less dangerous than the tiger. The tiger was awake!)

Sunday, 18 August 2013

About the cobra

It's been a busy weekend - at the same time as looking after my granddaughter (oh the joys of learning to use scissors ...) I've been at the ebook festival. If you missed my posts, you can find them here - scroll down the righthand side and click on the travel writing link, and they should appear.

I hinted at my encounter with a cobra in my last post here, so I thought I'd better tell you all about it.

How much do you know about Angkor Wat?  You've probably seen pictures of the main temple, with its huge walls (you'll just have to imagine it without scaffolding - it needs attention as so much is falling down):

And the astonishing carvings on the walls, from huge heads like this (it must be twenty feet tall, at least):

 to images of the gods, some of which are much ruder than this:

But there are hundreds of temples - some small and intimate, and others enormous. Some no more than a central edifice, while others have vast walkways where people would live or traders would bring their wares to market. Many have 'libraries' - though I don't suppose you came with your ticket and went away with a book, and most are closed up now.

Most were built by successive emperors, who needed to prove their prowess by building a bigger, more extravagant, more lavish temple with the tallest (did anyone mention phallic?) towers. Does that matter? Not any more, for Angkor Wat is one of the most astonishing sites I've ever visited.

Some are falling down, with trees growing through walls:

And some, at first glance, little more than heaps of rubble:

And then, seventy kilometres away, is Beng Melea. But this post is long enough. I'll tell you about Beng Melea (and its cobra) on Thursday. Promise.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Don't we all do foolish things sometimes?

A little foolishness today, and antidote to the excitement at the ebook festival.

The lovely Val Poore has been blogging about steering boats down canals, which has involved a close shave or two, and I've admitted a little carelessness of my own from time to time in the comments. Write about them, she said.

Oh heck ... do I have to write about the day I tried to back down a narrow passageway, didn't get it quite right and took off both wing mirrors ... the day I overdid the wine and tried to carry a blown-up lilo through a door, taking a run at it, veering from the straight and narrow till those watching were crying with laughter (my memory of this, mercifully, is blurred by the wine!).

Don't we all do stuff like this? There you are, in a crowded cafe, and really want ketchup on your chips and shake the bottle without checking the cap ... to find the woman behind has a her best cream jacket over the back of her chair (and no sense of humour). Or this is the moment you simply have to prune that shrub, so on with the gloves and out with the loppers and there you are, in the middle of the thing, and a branch falls on your head and you're stuck. Now what? you think. Will someone come to the front door and decide she simply has to ask the neighbours if she can come in through their houses just in case I'm stuck inside a shrub?

I suppose not many of us have tried to close a window in the middle of the night with a cyclone raging outside. Or slithered down a rock face onto a beach in Australia to admire the sunset without wondering how to get up again. Or played explorers in old temple near Angkor Wat and crawled through a doorway to hear a passing guide say there was a cobra under the stone beneath my knees.

I know those were a bit extreme. We don't get cyclones or cobras in the UK. But surely we all do daft things sometimes? (Please, admit some of yours, so I don't feel quite such a wally!)

Sunday, 11 August 2013

It's that time again!

It's time for the e-book festival again. Cally Phillips has been working her socks off for months, to bring this wonderful, online festival to you - free! There are fiction people and life writing people and poets and bloggers and playwrites and comedy writers and spiritual writers and teachers of creative writing and digital publishers and

and a travel writer!!!!!!!

Yes, I've got a slot there this year - but not till next weekend, so you'll have to wait for that. (A resident travel writer - how about that for a contradiction in terms!)

Today is Day One - so I'm going to shut up now, so you can go and see what's going on over there.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Looking up

As you know, a week or so ago, I was in Lille, and in spite of my falling-down bathroom I still have things about Lille I want to write about. I love cities - and not just the obvious things, the cafes and museums and art galleries, the theatres, the general confusion of who is working and who simply enjoying themselves.

I love the corners, the bits we don't often look at, the alleyways (which often whiff a bit) and courtyards with the shock of bougainvillea falling down a staircase. And sometimes - I look up.

In Lille, I looked up, to find many wonderful attic windows which set me thinking: who lives up there?

This, I decide, is home to a poet. She works in a restaurant, and by the time she gets home her hands are raw from hours spent peeling vegetables or washing up but nothing can keep her from her poems. She plays with words all night, falling asleep when the cock crows and waking just in time to struggle back to work.

That little window, right at the top ... three student musicians live there. They have one stove, and no fire, so in the winter they must huddle together for their fingers are too cold even to play a trumpet. But in the summer, when the sun shines, sometimes they open the window and glorious music sweeps across the square below and passersby stop, listen, know that they are hearing something precious.

A young lawyer lives here. He pours over his books till his eyes ache. One day, he promises himself, he will earn enough to own this building, and then he will replace this dreadful modern glass with its ancient counterpart and the building will be at peace with itself again.

Look behind the windows - and onto the roof. That look-out tells a story more terrible than any fiction.

For this is Northern France.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

It will huff and will puff, and my house will fall down ...

My lovely house needed painting, like houses do. Well, old houses do - those of you with modern windows and modern doors will have no idea what I'm talking about. But my house was built in the 1830s, and has sash windows with original wobbly glass and a door that needs a strategic knee against it to turn the key.

The windows were flakey, and door bubbling a bit, so it was time to call in the painter. He took one look at the back of the house, stroked his chin, and muttered about it being a bit high. Three storeys, I concede, is a bit high. So it was time to phone the scaffolder who - to his credit - did exactly what he said he would do, just a day or so earlier.

Then the painter began his sanding, and stripping, and shaking his head - keeping his biggest frown for a bit of wood that goes along one side of the little extension to house the bathroom. It's rotten, he said, it will have to come off; you need a new one. I don't have the tools, he said, or the knowledge ...

So then my son-in-law came, with his hammers and strength and, with a yank and splattering of dust and the buzz of a few surprised bees, off came the bit of wood. And then, my son-in-law stroked his chin ... and shook his head ... and stroked his chin again.

You might have a problem, he said. I think a structural engineer should look at this.

I nodded, as if I might know what a structural engineer is.

Let me take photos, he said, I'll send them off to C, and he'll know the best thing to do.

I passed him the camera.

I wish I hadn't looked at the photos of a crumbly steel beam, that should be holding up my bathroom.

It might be fine, he said. It's not going to fall down immediately. And if it does need sorting out, they'll shore up the house and put a new one in - easy as pie. (Does he know how long it is since I last made a pie?)

In the cold light of day, this is an inconvenience - that's all it is. No one is hurt, or ill, or starving. No sons are marching off to war, no daughters deflowered. And the chances are high that all will be well for a long time - and I will be worm-food long before my bathroom falls off its trolley. But at two in the morning, when the wind blew and the rain battered my windows - that's when the house in my head ended up a heap of bricks in the garden.

So if anyone has techniques to stop me making the night-time mountains out of day time molehills, then please let me know.