Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Around the mail in 15 mails - No.10 (Laos)

Kommunist Beer's Oresome

Laos, April 17 2005.

Ok Gang, let's join our cyber hands together in Laos, England, Greece, Switzerland and the U.S of A and sing "Should old acquaintances be forgot, And never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And auld lang syne?".

No, I'm not going mad - it's New Year here in South East Asia, to be specific, in Laos it's called Pii Mai (pronounced Pie My). It's the start of the lunar new year and the whole region goes bonkers for three days. Imagine Christmas, Thanks Giving and Oxi Day all rolled into one. Part of the 'fun' of it involves enormous water pistols, which everyone is armed to the teeth with. If you leave the confines of your guesthouse, you can expect to get wet, very wet indeed. The only sensible course of action is to arm yourself, stand firm and return fire. I've treated myself to a mini-arsenal, including a large pump action rifle with 3 litre water pack strapped to my back and two pistols. This gives me the advantage of being able to stand toe to toe with the 10 year old kids, let them discharge their entire rifle at me and then I draw my pistol and go in the for the kill - one close range head shot and they're running to their mothers (who by the way are more viscious than their children and prefer buckets of water to mere pistols) - ah I love the smell of water in the morning.

Today is day one and there are still three to go. A loose group of Mercenary tourists have formed a private army and we've taken to patrolling the streets and having mini battles with all-comers. It's quite extraordinary how we fight along stereotypical national lines. I know what I'm about to say may cause offence in some quarters and I'm acutely aware that one must never tar everybody with the same brush. Nevertheless, it was amusing to observe and worth sharing with you. Most fights followed the same pattern. The sole Englishman (yours truly) would invariably lead a charge at the beginning, get soaked and die a glorious but ultimately pointless death. The two Australians, would fight cannily alongside me, hardly ever get wet, wipe out half the opposition and wonder what all the fuss was about. The two French argued amongst themselves about who got the better gun and would, after five minutes drop out altogether and go and sulk in a cafe. The American (called Zak), was by far the coolest but alas, all he'd do was stay at the back and manically spray with his water pistol everywhere, normally hitting us in the back, rather than the locals in the front and saving the best till last, the one Italian, in the first sortie, got sprayed in the head, complained about messing his hair up, dropped out and was found later in the day, fighting for the other side!!!

Continuing the water theme - yesterday I went tubing. It was great fun. Basically, you hire a tractor tyre inner tube then get taken 5km's up river and dropped off. You sit in the tube and float down the river. Every 500 yards or so there is a man selling beer, so you stop, buy a beer and continue floating until the next beer point, where you exchange your empty for a full one and continue the journey. There are rapids in certain sections and it takes great skill to navigate your way through them without a) spilling your beer and b) getting your cigarette wet. All in all it was great fun although I admit the final kilometre went by in a bit of blur.

The beer in Laos is imaginatively called Beer Laos and it is generally recognised as being the best in South East Asia. I can confirm that it is. The hops are German, the yeast French and the water Laos. Carlsberg bought a share in the company and quickly dispatched it's experts to the country, to see how they could improve it. In every blind taste test Beer Laos won and Carlsberg grudgingly admitted that they couldn't improve it. So, when they advertise their own product "as probably the best lager in the world", they know full well that tucked away in the Communist controlled Peoples 'Democratic' Republic of Laos, there's a brewery knocking out a far superior product.

This is part two. Written a couple of days later.

I'm now in Luang Prabang, in Northern Laos. It's a lovely city (although city is a bit of a misnomer). A mixture of French colonial buildings and Buddhist temples, it has a very quiet feel to it and I'm looking forward to a few days rest and recuperation. The journey here was in yet another Toyota people carrier. The whole 6 hour trip was through hairpin bends on Route 13 (unlucky for some in a real way) - it's proper bandit country. It's a Hmong stronghold and it was the Hmong that sided with the American backed Democrats in the early 70's. Since the Communists claimed victory in the civil war in 1975, the two sides have waged a secret war with each other. Once in a while the Hmong get a trifle carried away and hold up cars and buses, in fact, last year couple of tourists got shot. You're warned about the risks before you travel, so it's up to you. I took the gamble on the basis that no rebel armed with a AK47 was going to mix it with a Englishman and his water pistol! It turned out that every mile or so there were armed rebels patrolling the road but in most cases, they just waved at us! The funniest bit was when we passed through a village and saw a boy raise his water pistol and fire at our people carrier and behind him was his Dad with his machine gun!

I'm going to draw to a close now (you lucky things). I had my first proper accident last night, involving a mosquito net, an ceiling fan and my right hand. Basically, I was standing on my bed trying to fix up the net. I momentarily forgot I was on the bed and when I shook the net, I heard this big crack/bang sound. A split second later, I realised it was my hand making contact with the fan. It took a few seconds for the old brain to figure out what happened and then the nauseating pain took over and a "Hells Teeth" or words to that effect was probably heard in Thailand. Fear not family, whilst the gash is deep, oozing, bruised and probably needs stitches it's all been fixed with a plaster and half a role of micropore. If my fingers keep swelling and the bleeding doesn't stop, I might go to a doctors! The waitresses took great pity on me this morning. When I explain what had happened they just laughed!

Lots of love to you all


Monday, 23 February 2009

Around the world in 15 mails - No.9 (Chiang Mai)

Kooking, Burma, Opium

Chiang Mai, April 6 2005

Pride comes before a fall and chilli's come before an evening in the smallest room in the house.

I spent last week in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. I have been traveling now for over two months and in all that time, have not been anywhere near a kitchen. I had started to get a bit twitchy and was desperate to get my hands on a knife and start chopping. As luck would have it, Chiang Mai is the Mecca of Thai cookery schools, so it was with great excitement that I enrolled on a one day cookery class at the most famous of all schools.

The class was run by Thailand's one and only celebrity chef. I admit that I didn't know him, although I am assured he has made tv programmes in Britain - some of you may have caught 'Thai Way" on that famous cable channel, UK Style!

My group of ten gastronomes were picked up in the city centre and taken to the school, situated some way out of the town, on a large farm. We were a motley crew of professional chefs, have-a-go-heroes and complete beginners and there was a 60 year age span. We were to cook five dishes and they were all the ones I had been sampling during my stay in this country. First we were given a presentation on Thai ingredients, then the first dish was cooked for us, after which we were led to our individual work stations to recreate them, after a fashion.

Thai's love chilli. They say it's an addiction and that every meal must have an element of heat, anything without it is regarded as bland and unworthy off their attention. They also like to show off this ability to endure terrifying heat. It was clear from the start that their showing off and my pride were not going to make for happy bed-fellows. The first dish, Tom Yum Keung (the shrimp soup I have mentioned in a previous epistle), calls for a good handful of chilli. When asked how hot we'd like it, most of the westerners cringed and said they didn't like spicy food. I was confused by this and a little embarrassed. It begged several questions - why were they in Thailand? Why were they doing a cookery class? Had they not already sampled Thai food etc?

In an effort not to let the Thai's think that all furungs are pathetic, I made sure I kept pace with the teacher and his assistants. I had five chilli's at my working station for the first dish, when asked if I wanted more (the question being asked with a knowing look) and having noted that most of my fellow students had actually handed back the majority of theirs, I naturally said that yes, I would like more. After we had created each dish, we then ate them and whilst everyone else quietly supped their soups, it was all I could do to stop myself suffocating and blacking out. Sweat ran off me freely, my throat was set on fire, my eyes turned to slits and it took a super-human effort to finish the dish, try to look nonchalant and state clearly and in a strong voice that it was just how I liked it!

This set a precedent for the rest of the day and it was an action I would later regret. All five dishes called for chilli and after my bravado, my workstation became a magnet for these beastly peppers - each time I returned to cook the next dish, there was a mountain of the things waiting for me and on each occasion, I forced myself to use every one of them. By 5pm, I was not a pretty sight, whilst my pride was intact, my digestive system was in tatters and my evening was spent sitting down.

All that said, it was a great day and a real highlight of the trip. I can't wait to cook these dishes for you all and i promise to go easy on the spice.

My planning was not well thought through, as at 5am the next morning, armed with immodium and several litres of water, I set off on a three hour journey in the back of a people-carrier for a day trip to the Golden Triangle. What an amazing corner of the world. At Mai Sai, the Mekong River divides Thailand, Burma, China and Laos and from the middle of the river, you can see all four countries. Quite incredible. We took a trip in a long tailed dragon boat, equipped with a 4litre Chevy engine. Skimming the waves, we shot up and down the river and stopped on the shores of three of the four countries. At the fourth, Laos, we were allowed to get off and enter the place, for a small fee. Greeting us there were the customary souvenir stalls and one of them sold the 'famous' Laos whisky. I was at the back of the group, as ever, lighting a cigarette and trying to snap my spine back into place after the boat trip. I noticed one after another of my day-tripper buddies refuse the offer of a shot whisky but when it got to my turn, I grasped the opportunity with both hands and it disappeared down my already mauled throat in the blink of an eye. It was an acquired taste and not one I want to repeat, although a second one followed the first, just to make sure I didn't like it. It was then that I saw the bottle it came from and
understood immediately why my chums had refused the offer. My palate prefers a single malt and i had just sampled a single snake. That's right folks, this whisky is bottled with a small cobra in the bottom, fangs bared and looking out at you with a slightly angry face. However, this was nothing compared to what happened later in the day.

After lunch we spent the afternoon with two hill tribes, the Yao and the Akha. Like most tribes in that part of the world, they hail from China and Tibet and have their own customs, language and tribal dress. It was an interesting and rewarding afternoon and I wished I could have spent more time with them. In fact, when I come back, as I undoubtedly will. I plan to do a proper trek into the mountains and spend a few days with them. Having learnt the art of opium cultivation, we walked to a quieter part of the village, where a couple of elders were huddled over a fire. There was a distinct smell of cooking meat but whilst I recognised the aroma, I couldn't quite put my finger on it. On arriving at said fire, it all became clear. Canine fans should stop reading now. Supper in the Yao tribe that night was going to be a brace of dogs. I thought I'd have to go to Korea or China, in order to decide whether or not I could muster the courage to eat Fido, I wasn't expecting to have to make the decision here. Not wanting to offend my hosts and with that bloody pride raising it's head again, the decision was made. I wont go into details, suffice to say, it's a little like a cross between chicken, rabbit and pork but with a stronger, well doggier flavour.

Over-doses of chilli, snake whiskey and dog - it was a strange few days folks.

I'm back in Bangkok now and will leave for Laos at the weekend. The real adventures start then.

Until next time. Love to you all and Tolly, any trouble from you on my return and it's up to the bar-b-q with you.


Around the mail in 15 mails - No.8 (Bangkok)

Kwitting Bankok's Orkward

Bangkok March 29 2005

Bonjour mon amis.

I've fallen in love. She's a big girl and some who know her regard her with a suspicious eye. She has a dodgy reputation and stories abound concerning her exploits. True to form, just as love blossoms between us, my fear of commitment rears its ugly head and I'm leaving, before things get too serious. Oh, her name is Bangkok.

I came to this city expecting only to pass through on my way to Laos. I have been in B'kok for 10 days now and it with deep regret that I board a train for Chiang Mai this evening. It is rather like when you allow yourself to get excited about a planned night out, only to be disappointed, compared to those spur of the moment evenings that turn out to be great fun and talked about for years after.

I moved away from the Business/Red Light district to the more fashionable 'traveler' hang-out of Banglampu and the Kao San Road. I checked in to a guesthouse recommended by the Aussie girls I met in Delhi and have been so comfortable, happy and relaxed that I have been unable to prise myself away from the place.

I've befriended one of the waitresses at the hotel. Nan (her name not her title) has the most amazing smile, one which lights up her whole face and I would challenge even the coldest of blood not to warm a little at the sight of her grin. After a day or two, we started going for beers when her shift finished and I've learnt some invaluable lessons about Thai girls:-

1) Never, ever, play pool against them, unless your name is Steve Davis and you can be certain of victory. We go to a pool bar called Gullivers each afternoon and the place is teeming with pool sharks. It's winner stays on and no quarter is given or asked for, as I learnt to my eternal shame. After playing a couple of games against Nan and winning fairly comfortably, her friend Suan was next to play me. After a little run of luck, I found I had only one ball and the black left to pot. In a moment of what in this day and age could be construed as rampant sexism but which at the time I felt was simple gallantry, I missed the crucial pot, to allow Suan at least one visit to the table. What a monumental mistake that was - she only needed one visit and cleared up in three minutes, leaving me stunned, speechless, hugely embarrassed and well and truly hustled. I vowed then to play to win and on each day since have done exactly that - and invariably lost.

2) They may, for the most part, be no more that 5ft 2 but boy can they drink. Do not go for a quick drink, unless you have 7 hours to spare and the capacity to drink enormous volumes of bottled lager, washed down with buckets of whiskey and rum. 100% humidity and raging hangovers are not a good mix and made especially worse when your drinking partners are up and working at 7am the next day with no noticeable ill effects from the previous nights exploits.

3) Do go for meals with your Thai friends but not if you're the eldest - at 33 I invariably am. Thai tradition dictates that the senior partner pays for the meal and that the youngest serves the food and drink. Being taken under their wings has given me an insight into Thailand/B'kok that few foreign tourists sadly probably don't get. Real Thai cuisine beats anything I've eaten in India - delicate but spicy soups (go and order Tom Yam Keung NOW), profusions of flavours, exceptional street stall grub and talking of grubs - deep fried bugs are not to be missed!

It is for the the reasons above and a number of others, that I've found parting with this city so tricky. If my left ventricle is London and my right Larissa then the squishy bit in the middle is B'kok.

My friend, Nan, has an extraordinarily sad story to tell, which makes her ever-smiling countenance even more surprising. She moved to Bangkok at the beginning of this year, having previously lived with her Grand-mother for 14 years on the island of Koh Phi Phi. If you're beginning to join the dots - you're heading in the right direction. Her 17 year old step-brother, at her suggestion, moved to Koh Phi Phi last October and died on 26th of December at the hands of the Tsunami. Nan and some of her friends escaped to the Mountains and the next day, returned to the beach. She searched in vain for her brother until some days later, one of her chums came to her with news that he'd been found. She had to endure identifying his body and two days later, she left vowing never to return. Her mother, who the step-brother left, refuses to talk to her, blaming her for his death, so she came to B'Kok, to get work and put it all behind her. It's a horrible story and has really brought home to me the suffering endured by so many. I don't have the words to comfort her, nor the experience to offer real help. That said, she remains stoical and continues to smile and see only the best in life. I hope it's not just a screen and that she's bottling it all up, only for it to explode at some point in the future. For the more cynical amongst you, I verified her story with others and know she's telling the truth and not just spinning a yarn to get rich 'furung' to spend lots of cash on her.

The above was written yesterday afternoon from Bangkok. I'm now sitting in v.smart internet cafe in Chaing Mai, after a glorious 13 hour train journey.

The 'glorious' is not sarcasm. It was a great journey and yet another example of how India could do so much better if it just tried a little harder(sounds a touch like my school reports!). Two good meals, friendly and attentive staff, comfortable bed, air-conditioning that worked a timetable that was honored and a hassle free arrival at Chaing Mai. You don't need to hear all this, suffice to say, I was tempted to stay on the train and go back to B'kok.

If you can bare to keep reading, I want to talk about Kanchanaburi. Perhaps, if you're short of time you should close the mail and come back to it at this point, later in the day!

A few days ago, I went on a trip to Kanchanaburi, to visit the bridge over the river kwai and pay my respects. I shouldn't have to tell any of you the story, but as is now customary, a little background knowledge follows (from my memory only, so factually, probably not quite correct).

In 1941 the British were sitting pretty, sipping pink gins at the Raffles hotel in Singapore and generally looking forward to a little fight with the Japanese, who it was felt, they could easily over-power. Certain in the knowledge that the enemy would attack from the sea (of course they would never attack over-land from the Malay peninsula), all their defenses pointed outwards. Sure enough, their foe swept through Thailand and Malaysia and arrived, over-land at Singapore's backdoor, via the aforementioned peninsula. The RAF were sent to sort them out, and were destroyed. The Navy were sent to sort out the RAFs mess, and were destroyed. The Japanese continued their attack Their 65,000 men were attacking a force of over 100,000+ plus several more thousands arriving by ship each day. WSC (that's Churchill to all but Dad and Colin) declared that Singapore must not fall and that it should be defended to the last - something along the line of officers falling with their men.

Singapore listened to this advise and promptly surrendered. 100,000 men were taken prisoner, a good many of them not even having fired a shot in anger. The Japanese, who believed in fighting to the death couldn't believe how a force almost twice as strong as theirs could fold so easily and exacted a terrible punishment on their prisoners. The building of the Burma - Thailand railway was one of those punishments. The Death railway was designed to connect Thailand and Burma, so the Japanese could supply their troops etc and it was to cross the River Kwai at Kanchanburi. The whole length of the railway was 450 miles long and 100,00 died building it (15,000 POWs, the rest Chinese, Thai & Malay civilians). By my reckoning that's 220 odd per mile.

Forget the film - Jack Hawkins doesn't fall on the detonator to blow the bridge up, against Alec Guinness's wishes. In fact, the Allies bombed it in mid-1945 but it was repaired shortly after. Also, it wasn't made of bamboo but with iron and concrete.

It was a strange day, not least because I had a 5am alarm! Seriously though, I found the Cemetery very thought-provoking and cannot begin to imagine how those poor devils suffered. It was interesting that the vast majority of visitors to the bridge itself appeared to be Japanese and many of them very elderly - you can't help wondering..........? I kept my dignity, although, if you'd been very close to me, you may have heard a quietly whistled tune has I marched across.

Later and against my wishes, we traveled several miles on the railway itself. I say against my wishes but I'm not sure I mean that. The Thai population use the railway on a daily basis and it has proven very useful to them. Let's not forget the enormous deprivations they suffered, so they should be able to use it to their advantage.

As a bit of light relief, in the afternoon I went on an Elephant trek. The rest of my party were paired off but I, as the odd one out (there were 7 off us and I was lingering at the back smoking a ciggie) was asked if I didn't mind going solo on the beast. I said I didn't mind and jumped on board and settled myself in the seat on Bobo's (the elephants name) back. Everyone else had a boy sitting in front of them steering it with a wicked hooked stick. After some gesticulating, it transpired that they wanted me to steer myself. Visions of Varanasi came into my head (you may recall the boat trip I took and was made to row the boat myself). They must either 'see me coming' or they say to themselves 'there's someone that can handle themselves'! So, I slipped down from the comfy seat to the less comfy back of the elephants head, was handed the stick and led off the procession, with my fellow tourists behind me. What an experience. In fairness, I did have a boy walking ten yards ahead of me, occasionally turning round to check I was alright. On reflection, I think they were getting me to steer as a joke and were intending to take over after a few meters but, and I kid you not, I took to it like a duck to water (or like an elephant to mud). Luckily, those few occasions in my childhood when I rode a horse were quite useful. Instead of thighs and feet, you tweak the animals left ear to go left and it's right - well that's obvious. If it comes to halt, you squeeze both knees into the side of its head. I loved it and, blowing my own trumpet, the wardens were pretty impressed "You good, you good"!! Bobo and I became good friends. I eschewed the pointy stick, in favour of my hands and squeezing my way through the jungle, I had an incident free and truly memorable journey! The only down side is the fact that I've rubbed about 5 layers of skin off my knees and have worn a hole in the seat of my trousers. Why can't they develop an Elephant moisturiser? Bobo's reward at the end was two bunches of bananas - which under different circumstances, would have kept me in breakfasts for two weeks.

I'll leave it there folks, I've tested your patience for long enough and if you're still reading, then I commend you. So it's Chiang Mai now and after B'Kok, as The Specials once sung, "This town's gonna be a ghost town'.

Think I might head back the B'kok in a few days and re-evaluate my travel

Lots of love to one and all.


Around the world in 15 mails - No.7 (Bangkok)

Kops Barter Outrageously

Bangkok, March 22 2005

Happy Easter to you all.

Eskimos rub noses with each other, the Maoris of New Zealand stick their tongues out, Mediterranean types kiss, the English prefer a firm handshake, whilst the Scots head butt each other. Thai girls in the Pat Pong district of Bangkok have an altogether different way of greeting people, involving an outstretched hand and the attempted shake of a more personal part of the male body. As hostesses of the numerous Go-Go bars, from their point of view I guess it's important for them to meet a new member!

It's been an incident packed few days here. On Sunday I visited an enormous market, the name escapes me - it began with C and had about 20 letters after
it. After trawling round it for several hours, I left and lit a cigarette on my way to the Sky train (more on that in a minute). After my final drag, I stubbed the fag out on the pavement and carried on my walk. Two policemen approached me, one clasped my arm and turned me round. I began to have visions of 10 years incarceration, followed by execution (I wouldn't have wanted a Sun newspaper campaign or Blair and his cronies pleading for clemency). After about 20 paces, the second policeman bent down and picked up my spent cigarette butt (he's picked from a group of about six other butts). He turned to me and said "illegal'. I stayed calm and made sure of the stiffest of stiff upper lips. I was taken to a hut where another cop explained my offence and told me I had to pay a 1000 baht fine. I looked in my wallet and realised that I didn't have a 1000 baht BUT in an out of character moment of quick thinking, I remembered that I still had 1000 rupees that I'd forgotten to exchange in India and which was completed valueless to me now. I asked if he'd except these notes and he said yes! The whole episode was conducted with great courtesy on both sides and each party separated feeling satisfied. They thought they'd squeezed cash out of a rich Westerner, I knew I'd off-loaded useless bank notes - everyone's a winner. What I did next was, on reflection, foolhardy but i was overcome with a feeling of civic duty. I set off on my walk again, twenty yards in front of the two arresting officers and every time i saw a tourist smoking, I went up to them and warned them not to stub the butts out, I think I must have deprived the coppers of 6,000 baht and it felt good!

The sky-train is brilliant. It's clean, easy to use, relatively cheap and gives great views of Bangkok. I want Ken Livingstone to develop one for London. Imagine whizzing by being able to look Big Ben square in the face or look down on Westminster. Flying down the Strand you could see Covent Garden from above on your left and the Thames stretched out on your right. I think it would be the perfect blend of 21st century science and London heritage.

Your intrepid reporter decided that as he was in Bangkok, he ought to see what all the fuss was about, regarding the 'skin-trade'. Every other couple on the streets of the area I first stayed in was one half middle-aged to elderly western man and the other half, very young Thai girl. In most cases there was at least a 30 year age difference between them as they wandered round the streets arm in arm. I didn't know whether to be morally outraged, disgusted, happy for them or just plain sad about the whole thing. The latter won the day.

A few nights ago I went for dinner and afterwards, with nothing better to do, went for a stroll into the Pat Pong district. There then followed a number of mistakes on my part. Mistake one was to walk into what can only a be described as a go-go bar shopping arcade (think London's Trocadero given over entirely to strip clubs). Avoiding (mostly) the over-familiar greetings, I meandered through the various levels and when I got to the top realised that I'd lost my bearings and would have to face the whole ordeal again. Tired, confused, thirsty and a touch curious, I decided to enter the Lions Den (mistake two). I went into a small bar with a stage in the middle and booths all around it. The hostess placed me in a booth about 2 feet from the stage and I ordered a whiskey and soda (mistake three). Shortly afterwards, the stage filled with scantily clad girls each with a numbered badge pinned to them. Number 11 was directly in front of me. I'm a naturally smiley person, which generally speaking in Thailand is a good thing because so are most locals and smiling can get you a long way. In this instant though, mistake four was to smile at number 11. When one is brought up in the tradition that 'Manners maketh Man', one feels that it's only right to smile at the girl who's gyrating two yards from ones face. It was either that or look into my ever decreasing W&S. I couldn't help wondering what one of my heroes, Bertie Wooster would have done in the same situation. When the dance finished, Number 11 left the stage and came and sat next to me. It then dawned on me that smiling was an invitation to join me. Mistake five was to offer number 11 a drink, then followed mistake 6 which was to ask her name. Her name and I kid ye not, was Wok, so I realised that this was only ever going to be a flash in the pan and to milk a pun, I'd jumped out of the frying pan and into to fire. Buying a drink and asking her name was tantamount to a marriage proposal. All that said, she spoke good(ish) English and we chatted for some time. It turned out that she came from a poor farming family up in the long-forgotten Khmer part of the North East of the country. Her father had died 5 years ago, her mother couldn't get much work and she had 3 younger brother. She'd been in Bangkok one year and was earning more in a night than her mother earned in 3 months. Most of what she was paid went home to the family. She would have preferred not to have been doing this job but realised that as she had no education and couldn't read or write (which was strange given that she spoke such good English), she had little choice and if she was honest, depending on the customer, she quite enjoyed it. We actually got on quite well! Enough of that, as rugby players say, what goes on on tour, stays on tour.

Sorry, this is turning into a War & Peace mail.

I want to retrace my steps and talk a little about Indian cuisine, which I realise omitted from my previous communication. One of the elements I was most looking forward to in my travels through India was the food and to be frank with you, I left a touch disappointed. Admittedly, for the most part I was eating in travellers hang-outs, not known for their Michelin stars but when I did go to more impressive restaurants, the food wasn't much better than you'd get in your local curry-house. Sure, the breads were fresher (next time you go to the Golden Bengal, order a roti rather than Naan), the tandoori marinades more fragrant and the daals (lentils - the staple of Indian cuisine), in a different class to the rubbish we get served up at

The flavours changed as I moved round the country. In the north, the fare was more akin to what you'd get served up at home - rich massala sauces, mutton, chicken and goat. This Mugali food stems from the Muslim Mogul period. Further south a more Hindi, vegetarian diet is preferred and this is the land of the Thali (pronounced Tarli). A plate or sometimes a large banana leaf with 3 or four small bowls containing daal, yoghurt, chutney and vegetable and a pile of steamed rice with chappatti. This was a real favourite and I couldn't get enough of them. They varied in quality but when you got a good one, you were close to Heaven! Kerala will be remembered for my birthday supper, that wonderful curried duck and fresh fish - easily the best meal I had and the only home (well boat) cooked one too. From Goa, I will remember Tandoori fish kebabs - huge chunks of fresh white fish, coated in a red spicy yoghurt marinade and cooked in the tandoor oven for 5
minutes. Served with a roti and eaten on the beach - bliss. The best drink was the Lassi, a curd and yoghurt based drink, either sweet, salty or fruity. A banana lassi and a chai sets you up nicely for the day. And talking of curds - why don't we have then anymore in England? I'm sure I recall my dearly departed gran separating her curds from her whey? I want to start a campaign to revive the forgotten techniques - getting cracking on that Mum.

Thai food is lovely, I haven't had enough to comment too much yet but two of
the meals I've had have beaten everything I'd tried in India.

Better dash now - have moved to the Travelers district of the Kao San road area. Better go an sit in a bar and try to look cool. Frankly, I'm not sure what's worse the hideousness of the Red light district and the aged curb-crawlers or the University drop out know it alls of the Kao San road - at the least the former had a sort of up front honesty about them!

Lots of love to one and all.


P.S. Not that any of you noticed, or indeed probably care but G.I. stands for Government Issue not General Issue - it caused me a sleepless night when

I realised my typing error - now I can rest easy!

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Around the world in 15 mails - No.6 (Kerala)

Keralan Backwaters Overwhelm

Allepey, March 3 2005

Ahoy there m'hearties with a ho ho ho and one too many bottles of rum.

Firstly, thank you very much for your messages wishing me a happy birthday - all gratefully received and appreciated.

I've turned a corner, both literally and metaphorically.

If I couldn't spend the day itself in the bosom of my family and friends, then a days cruise through the backwaters of Kerala has to be a pretty decent alternative. I was very lucky to be looked after so well but with the firm belief that one makes one's own luck, we must pick up the story on the day before.

I'd booked myself into an idyllic guesthouse, surrounded by water on three sides and only accessible by boat. It had the feel of a family home, indeed that was exactly what it was - owed by Americans of Indian origin and used as a guesthouse when they're not in occupation. There were no other guests, so it was just me and the endless stream of staff. On the morning before my
birthday, I'd planned to take the speedboat into town to have a nose around and buy some basic supplies. Standing on the jetty of the guesthouse, I noticed a 40ft, two tier cruise ship approach and eventually dock. The caretaker of the guesthouse was going to use this vessel to take some fresh tourist shots of the place and asked whether I'd like to come along for the ride. You bet! It turned out that the boat was the same one I was planning to use for my birthday cruise the next day. The Captain (Anthony) and First Mate (Thomas) were made aware that it was going to be my birthday the next day (not by me), so they suggested we had a little celebration, could I give
them 300 rupees for some rum?! They also offered to pick me up the following morning straight from the hotel, rather than me having to get into town for the proper embarkation point.

Dawn came up with rosy fingers (thanks Homer) and the boat came into view. On being piped aboard I was garlanded and applauded and told I had a special seat up with the Skipper! I should point out at this wasn't a private cruise. There were 25 or so other customers and I felt a little embarrassed about the attention I was receiving (hey ho, what could be done!). It was an
amazing day, at the lunch break I was seated with the crew and my lunch was covered by them (the tourists were all at the other end of the room and having to fork our 200 rupees each!). The second bottle of rum went down better than the first and life was good. During the afternoon I was asked if I liked duck and whether I'd like to join the Captain and his family that
evening for dinner - it just got better and better.

After we'd docked in Allepey a guesthouse was found for me, I showered and was then taken to Anthony's house. I met his children and brothers (all of them boatmen); they'd got the ducks but thought some fish would be good with it. Out came the traditional net, it was cast into the river (we were eating on the boat) and a catch of little whitebait/anchovy style fish was netted,
dispatched, washed and cooked within minutes - it doesn't get fresher than that folks - delicious. Another bottle of rum was acquired and dispensed with pretty quickly and then it was back to the hotel. I felt very privileged to be given a glimpse of a society that hadn't changed its
rituals since God was a boy. They even speak a Indyc style language, separate from Hindi or indeed anything else I've ever heard. If you ever find yourself down this way, 'Nani' is their word for thank you - I used it a lot.

It was a great day, a real defining moment of the trip and a memory I'll treasure for years to come.

I better go now, this Internet place is charging an awful lot, it's hot and I don't want to short out the computer with my sweat.

Toodle pip.

Love to all.


p.s Karin - Keralan backwater truly are one of the 100 places to see before
you die!

Around the world in 15 mails - No.5 (Kolkata)

Kweens Building Orflimits

Kolkata, February 19 2005

Whato my merry pranksters.

Just a quickie today (whehey I hear you cry). To be honest, the Internet cafe is the coolest place in this sweatbox that is Kolkata!

I've been thwarted twice in the last 48 hours and my saint-like patience is being sorely tested. Yesterday, in an effort to soak up some culture, I set off on a forced march to the Queen Victoria Memorial. The memorial was built by Lord Curzon (Viceroy of India) to commemorate the Empress Queen and its design is based on that of the Taj Mahal (if it ain't broke, don't fix it). After 45 minutes of traffic dodging, tout avoiding, beggar side-stepping madness I arrived at my destination, soggy but unbowed. Following a gentle stroll around the gardens I made for the entrance to the building itself. As I approached the ticket office an armed and uniformed security guard stepped out and told me that no bags were allowed inside. I asked if there was a locker room where I could leave my bag and Mr Guards response was simply to turn away.

After careful consideration and a survey of the defences, noting the 6 armed guards and the size of the building, it seemed obvious that there was only one course of action available to me. Recalling Wellingtons tactics during the Peninsular War, I decided that a 'forlorn hope' charge was called for. Wellington had 100,000 men, heavy siege batteries and a fair bit of experience. I, on the other hand, had my trusty swiss army knife, a melted wurthers original caramel and factor 20 sun cream as my only protection............With a glance up at Her Majesty for approval and whistling 'Nimrod' to myself, I set off on my charge. "Cannon to right of me, Cannon to left of me, Cannon in front of me, Volleyed and thundered; Stormed at with shot and shell, Boldly I rode and well, Into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of Hell, Rode erm, me" (yes, i know that was the Crimea)............................"Excuse me, are you open tomorrow? I'll come back without my bag".

Today, undeterred by yesterdays failure, I set out in the opposite direction, this time to Eden Gardens, probably India's most famous Cricket venue and rated 3 behind the MCG and Lords. Another 45 minute slog, yet more perspiring and the satisfaction of staring down a tout to the point where he turned round and was almost run over by a tram (you get your kicks where you can find them) and there I was, staring up at the stadium. I approached the 15 armed and uniformed guards and my happiest, smiliest face on this time I was almost man-handled away from the entrance. I asked when the next game was on and where I could get tickets and was basically told that there weren't any games on and I'd never get a ticket. After that parry, I riposted with a "can I speak to someone from the West Bengal Cricket Association please". "No" came the reply. Little did the Marxist guerrilla know that back in my hotel I had a letter of introduction and the name of West Bengals head honcho. When I go back as a guest of the president (I can dream), I'll point the would be Stalin out and have him strung up from the floodlights.

For the record Dad, much is said about the staff at Lords being surly and unhelpful. They are positively courteous compared with their Kolkatan cousins. Mind you, imagine if we armed the MCC guards with 1918 Lee Enfields.

I'm off now, I have to look up another venue I can be turned way from. I'm considering making it my objective to be turned away from as many tourist attractions as possible. Mind you, having been to Delhi, Agra and Calcutta there aren't many places left that I can go and not see.

Toodle pip old fruits.

Lot's of love.

Around the world in 15 mails - No.3 (Varanasi)

Killer Bacterial Organisms

Varanasi 9 February 2005

Hey Gang, me again.

So, here I am in Varanasi, birthplace place of Shiva (a Hindu God) and one of the 7 most sacred cities in India. I really like it here and am planning drop anchor for a while.

Varanasi is on the banks of the Ganges (Great Mother) river and 60,000 locals a day (not a week or a month, a day), come to the riverside to 'cleanse' themselves. Cleansing is anything but the case as 30 sewers continuously discharge themselves into the river and the river is septic! A
little biology follows - it's estimated that there are 1.5 faecal coliform bactieria per 100mls of water in the river. Safe bathing levels are 500 per 100mls!! Funny thing is that the locals leave the water to pee on the street next to it! Lastly, 400 million people live along the banks of the Ganges. All that aside, it's still good to look at from the roof top restaurant of my $7 per night hotel!

WARNING. The following paragraph deals with cremation, so those of a nervous disposition should move on to the next paragraph. Mind you, that's going to be about Cricket and thinking about it, the one after concerns firearms. So, most of you can switch off now!

One of the 'attractions' of Varanasi are the cremation rituals. I've have witnessed the whole operation for you - the things I do! To die in Varanasi is considered good luck and releases the individual from the birth/death cycle - this is called moksha. Given the state of the river, I guess
there'll never be a shortage of punters ('scuse the pun). Bodies are brought through the tiny alleys to the waterfront ghats (landing pier type structures) on bamboo stretchers. The families of the deceased then pay for the logs, each of which are carefully weighed to ensure the right temperature (Gas mark 6). The corpse, wrapped in different coloured foil depending on age and sex is dunked in the river and then placed on the fire. Ghee (clarified butter) is used to get the flames going and also to improve the smell (petrol is big no no). The body them smolders for a while before the heat really builds up and the cremation starts for proper. All of this is done in public (no photos allowed), there is little or no ceremony and it seems that every man involved has his own idea of how to get it going properly (macabre thought but think British or Greek men huddled round a bar-b-q). This doesn't just happen once a day - there's a steady stream of
corpses from dawn to dusk. People all over India, on the verge of death, get brought here to die. I thought I'd find it disturbing but actually, it's a very serene scene. Once the whole thing is reduced to ashes, it just sits there and the 'charcoal' blows away or, and this amused me, the ever present goats come and nibble what's left! Lastly, it's true what they say, think roast pork cooking, which in a veggie town, is most unfair because the inevitable happens and the gastric juices start working!

I've participated in my first game of cricket! All along the river bank, lads play on permanently marked out pitches. Dad, think Frinton, without the sand, sea, oh, well don't think Frinton (although, u can't buy a beer in either place!). I stood and watched the game for ten minutes, then a boy hit a lofted on-drive (very leg-side oriented given the river on the off-side) and I found myself underneath it. I breathed deep and watched the ball right into my hands. A great catch, followed by much jubilation. I was less jubilant as i realised the damp ball was soaked in Ganges septic muck, but hey ho, cricket transcends cleanliness. I had the honour of being offered the bat and then commenced a quick fire innings, including a straight-drive back past the bowler, a leg-glance into the sewer, a hoick into cow-corner (literally) and a pull through square leg (which I didn't top-edge Dad!). The innings came to an end when I tried to late-cut a straight ball, missed it (thankfully, as, if I'd connected, I'd have knocked the skull off smoldering body) and lost my leg-stump! I won't dwell on an over of pretty ropey medium pace. My excuse was that I was only using the tips of my fingers, so as not to make too much contact with the ball!

Ok, firearms, just a quick note really. Many of you know I have 'thing' for guns and India appears to be a mecca for them. We're are not talking modern guns - the older the better seems to be de-rigeur for Security officers everywhere. My favourites so far have been a short-magazined circa 1914 Lee Enfield 303, a Sten gun (didn't think they'd survived past 1945), used by the guard on the train and an evil looking elephant gun, used by an ATM guard in Delhi. This is a good point to mention my favourite sign so far. At Agra railway station, window 6 is for 'Foriegn Tourists, VIP's holy men and Freedom Fighters! I looked for Osama in the Q but alas, it was just me and a Buddist monk.

That's about it for now folks. Am going to stay in Varanasi for a while, it's hot and fun and the Aussie company is good.

So long, farewell, auf wiedersein, good bye.