Friday, December 05, 2003

Kind hearts & Kidney Stones

Apparently, passing a Kidney stone is more painful than giving birth. This is the fun that I was having yesterday.

A week into my new job working as an accounts assistant at Seeboard, I leave work early complaining of a back ache. As i drive home, the pain is getting progressively worse. When I get home I have a lie down and wonder if a shower might help, then decide that an ambulance might be better placed to help as I writhe about in pain. The ambulance arrives just about as I start vomiting. As I'm taken down to the Ambulance Joanne faints, because of low blood pressure, and is helped down too. They give me some gas (as they do with pregnant women) but that doesn't help much. In fact I start hyperventila5ting and my hands lock up. When I get to the hospital they use me as a pin-cushion for a bit before they're happy they've injected me right, and give me some morphine which makes everything nice and woozy. Nap time.

Well that was the worst of it over, I have some X-Rays and blood tests, and I must have passed the stone at some point - which can be as small as just a wee spec of sand. My mum happens to be in the area, visiting the student house so is able to drop by the hospital, which is only good and right when you're poorly.

Amanda's wedding snapshots

Joanne has added a selection of about 60 of the best of the photos from the disposable cameras on the tables at Amanda's wedding reception to my online photoalbum:

http://www.photoaccess.com/share/guest.jsp?ID=A92D2328B86
&cb=PA


If you have a fast enough computer, the best way to look at them is in a
slideshow - click on launch viewer, then slideshow.
There's lots of Amanda, Chris, the bridesmaids, Tony, Penny, Peter, Me & Jo,
Sumit, Sue, David, Tom, Rebecca, Rob & Erica and a scattering of others as
well.

Tom's Testimonial

People saying nice things about me would definitely appear in my top 10 of things that I like people to say about me.

"Seddon taught me everything I know. Hail him. He brings tha bling to all he touches, much like a gangsta Midas. I now want to become a hiphop hiker and say of myself "I put the 'bling' into 'rambling'." I digress. But this is the stuff that Mark is made of. What a legend. "

From Friendster http://www.friendster.com/user.jsp?id=1178417

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Kill Bill

iam experimenting with not using capital letters and any other surploufous punctuation. and using words like surploufous. its quite a difficult habit to break.

i went to see kill bill on monday. i tried to use a pizza hut voucher (that theyve bin advertising it reccently - you buy this meal deal and get a free cinema ticket), but apparently you need the receipt as well, so i couldnt go in. the facists. kill bill was disapointing in the extreme. it is quite slow and i found myself bored, and wishing the film over. it wasnt helped by jo practically falling asleep. i think i had expectaions of it being a very fast moving film, so when it dragged on it jarred. also, i had only read good reviews, so wasn't prepared for it not blowing me away. also, was a bit tired, jo really wasn't into the film, the cinema smelled and had bad sound so that didnt help.
still, lord of the rings is out soon. hurrah.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

URE History, Seddon

I notice that you can still visit the URE webiste, frozen in time.

Mark & Tom

Tom D's Birthday

Went to Tom Davies' birthday, which was about as close to a flashmob as I've gotten to. Eat lots of sweets and do odd things with Mirrors in the Tate Modern

Dear Special Person,

You are cordially invited to - nay, press-ganged into...

"Tom Davies and Joanna Gamper's Up-Until-Now-Highly-Secret-Twenty-Fourth
Birthday Celebrations!"


All activities happen between 12.24noon and 3am on SATURDAY 25th OCTOBER.
One may participate in as much or as little of the events as is practical.


LOCATION 1 - Tate Modern, South Bank (nearest tube - Waterloo)
TIME - 12.24noon precisely

At 12.24, meet on the bridge in the centre of the Turbine Hall. You must
bring with you:-

- A small pocket or compact MIRROR. Alternatively, bring WHATEVER MIRROR YOU
CAN CARRY

- A bag containing SWEETS. The amount of sweets must be THE AMOUNT YOU WOULD
LIKE TO EAT. Feel free to bring more than you would like to eat. The type of
the sweets does not matter; Haribo would be ideal, but be inventive. These
sweets must be EDIBLE and not have any MEAT INGREDIENTS for our vegetarian
contingent. Not that sweets tend to have meat in them, but there we go.

You will receive further information on the bridge in the Turbine Hall.
Please bring with you a MIRROR and your SWEETS.

=====================================================

LOCATION 2 - A pub near the Tate Modern
TIME - sometime between three and six pm

After leaving location 1, we will progress to one of the South Bank's more
reasonable pubs or bars. If you wish to join us at this point, call Tom when
you get to the South Bank.

=====================================================

LOCATION 3 - Your choice
TIME - between six and nine pm

Six til nine are the officially designated food and changing hours.
Depending on how close you live to London, you are welcome to go home, eat
and change in preparation for Location 4, or to stay with us, eat in town
and change in some toilets, like a superhero or Harrison Ford in the
Fugitive.

=====================================================

LOCATION 4 - "Mind Fluid", Sosho, 2 Tabernacle Street, EC2
Nearest tube - Old Street
Map here -
http://www.streetmap.co.uk/newmap.srf?x=532939&y=182383&z=1&sv=tabernacle+street&st=6&tl=Tabernacle+Street,+London,+EC2a&searchp=newsearch.srf&mapp=newmap.srf)
TIME - before nine pm til 3am

Here is the description of the disturbingly-named "Mind Fluid" from Time
Out:-

"Kev Beadle and guest Abi Clarke (Soul Jazz Soundsystem) present the best
funky breaks, Latino and anything with soul at this stylish two-floor
restaurant-club-bar."

This is FREE BEFORE NINE PM and the THREE POUNDS AFTER 9PM. We'll be there
before nine, for we are cheapskates and struggling artists. The night goes
on til three am. Come and go as you please. We know nothing about this club,
but it sounds cool.

============================================================


God bless you all, and feel special, for this opportunity comes only once.
IT SHALL NOT BE AWARDED AGAIN IN THIS LIFE OR THE NEXT!!!

Sunday, October 19, 2003

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Bos, birthdays, Bailey & Bush

3 Weekends ago:
Jo drags me along to see Craig David. They kept us waiting for a long while but it was still enjoyable. Jo’s a big fan & I used to take the piss, but he’s quite tuneful. He finished off the night with Artful Dodger Rewind - when the crowd say Bo Selecta! and everyone was shouting “selecta” which was quite funny.

2 Weekends ago:
My brother Peter’s birthday, so I pop to London for a visit. He’s 22 now, which makes me feel old. Jo bought him a really camp pink candle that sets of all kinds of pyrotechnics and plays a tune.

Last weekend:
Went to see Bill Bailey on Saturday afternoon which was great. He’s down as part of the Brighton Comedy Festival. He started mocking the west country accent (where he’s from) saying how no one takes you seriously, then started singing songs like phylis Nelson - 'move closer' in a west country styleee. Apparently he went up for the part of Gimli the Dwarf in Lord of the Rings, and thought he was making a fool of himself, doing the voice in a westcountry accent, only to find that everyone in the film has the accent. He also did a hilarious new national anthem for the UK which involved doing the song 'zippidee doo dah' in a Portishead style. He also did a bit
of 'Drum & Bush' (Drum & Bass using sound bytes from G.Bush).

Also have started reading Micheal Moore's latest book - 'Dude! Where's my country?' which criticized Bush Jr. Very readable.

Monday, October 13, 2003

Radiohead

Funky & freaky : American School Kids draw to Radiohead.

ambigram-matic

A ambigram is a way of writing a word so it says something when it is also turned upside down. And http://www.ambigram.matic.com/ambigram.htm does it for you!

I tried it for markseddon , so that it would say joannebeer upside-down - since they are both 10 letters long. Works ok.


pretty funky stuff - never heard of it before today!

Friday, September 19, 2003

Talk Like a Pirate Day

Talk Like a Pirate Day only comes once a year (on September 19th), this year it falls on Friday. On talk like a pirate day, everyone talks as if they were a pirate. For instance, instead of saying something like this:


The commitee has decided to reallocate your time to the filing group. We look forward to the exciting new synergies between these departments.

You would say this:


Aye matey, those scalawags in their fine breeches want ye' to move o'er with the scurvy dogs yonder. If ye' don't come back with some fine booty, we be keelhaulin' you next morn!

Translate your work into pirate speak:
http://www.talklikeapirateday.com/translate/index.php

Your pirate name is:

Black Jack Kidd

Like anyone confronted with the harshness of robbery on the high seas, you can be pessimistic at times. Even though you're not always the traditional swaggering gallant, your steadiness and planning make you a fine, reliable pirate. Arr!

And finally, a cute pirate dog!

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Blaine

Blaine entered the box, hanging near Tower Bridge, on Friday night,
saying: "I can only hope for the best and expect the worse." But he may not
have been prepared for the great British sense of humour.

Tony Montana, manager of the Riverside Refreshments van parked just 50
yards from Blaine said: "If he doesn't like it, that's tough. We can't
move the smell." Can't move the smell? from a MOBILE burger van?? Hmm,
maybe all the money he's making is weighing it down - Montana has extended his opening hours as Blaine's stunt has seen his takings exceed £1,000 a day as more and more come to take a look themselves.

Have a look at this - Blaine's predicament as a metaphor for renting a flat in london.

Tom Davies adds (and I'm sure he won't mind the quote):
I went to see Blaine last night.

So far, the darkest thing has been the NAPPIES.

He has a supply of NAPPIES, presumably for the opening overs of the
fast... so, the shit is with him in the box in the first few days and then...
WHERE DOES IT GO? Does it just stay in the corner? Or does it give him
ammunition to lob at the egg chuckers. It was an insane atmosphere down there...

really weird people hanging around looking bored. It reminded me a lot of the
Summer Solstice at Stonehenge, but with less druids.

Plus I met this girl from my floor in Birks there. Weird shit, man.


Also Danny went and had a look. He thought it would be a good idea to sing some songs to Blaine, but people only knew Christmas carols, so they had to make do with that.

So far, the best thing: flying a cheeseburger attached to a remote control helicopter.



Wednesday, September 03, 2003

My Sisters Wedding

Recent happenings: watching "Finding Nemo" (it’s fin-tastic) , and The Red Arrows at Eastbourne. I got sore knees from standing about at the Notting Hill carnival , where we met Andy & Reshma (friends we made travelling in Vietnam and Cambodia). While I was down in London I raided the loft and dug out my old Amiga games which I’ve stuck on ebay. And they’re not doing too badly. Wooza.

A few weeks ago, I was all set to go with moving into a nice flat in Church Road, and with great expectations for a management accountancy trainee role that I had interviewed for. On almost the same day, the flat had fallen through (after it was taken off the market) and the employer decided to re-advertise the position that I’d applied for. (though they said that they liked me a lot).

Needless to say, I was a bit down at that point. We’d looked at quite a few places before we found the flat we wanted to move into, and the prospect of going through it all again, with only a couple of weeks before we had to move out was not a happy one. But things turned out ok. After blitzing the agencies, and seeing almost every available flat in our price range, we found a lovely purpose built flat in hove, very near Brighton centre. Big rooms, a dual aspect living room and residents parking with no waiting list. Huzzah. And then Reed contacts me about a temping job at Parker Pens (doing purchase ordering). I’m given the job to start on the day that we move into our new flat. Poor Jo is left on her own to move furniture with a white van man. Up 4 flights of stairs. Poor fella.

Well, the long awaited wedding of my sister Amanda has come and gone. My brother Peter picked up Italian friends Carla & Arigo from Stansted early in the morning, but they missed their flight and he had to wait for hours, before driving all the way to Brighton. On Friday there was the wedding rehearsal. It was the first time that I’d been in All Saints church, and I was amazed – it was more like a cathedral – all grand stonework & stained glass. Amanda’s godfather Lindsay was doing the service. The last time he was in Brighton was when he was when he married my parents almost 30 years ago. Afterwards we had a meal and found out that the best man, Chris Dwyer’s girlfriend Ayesha who played Queen Jamilia from Star Wars Attack of the Clones.

The day itself when by ver quickly, I was rushing about ferrying people to and fro, eating at the soup station that my mum had set up, cleaning the wedding car and attaching the ribbon. As an usher I directed people to their seats and don’t think I did too badly. The service itself was lovely, and Amanda looked every part the princess. There was a potential You’ve Been Framed moment when Nisha (one of the bridesmaids) caught her high heel on Amanda’s trail. But the situation was rescued before it was too comic. The reception was half an hour away at Slaugham Manor. We were worried about the weather, predictions were for heavy rain, but it was just perfect, and the place was very picturesque with a bridge over a little river and ruins of the manor house making it a great place for the wedding photos. The speeches were nice, and my dad included my only suggestion of a joke, which got a laugh which made me happy. Then there was a little disco, and I did the good son job bit of dancing with the older ladies with grace and drinking whiskey with Sumit at the free bar. Nice. We give a lift to Chris and Amanda to their hotel, only for them to find out that their room (the wedding suite) has been double booked. Fortunately, by their friends who don’t mind being turfed out of their hotel room. They don’t have to pay for their room – bonus. Wake up with headache.

Friday, August 22, 2003

My New Travel Website

It's http://www.geocities.com/markandjostravels
All it has so far is my write up of California, but over the next few weeks i'll add more, including scans of photos.

Sunday, August 17, 2003

Recent reading

Or rather, what I'd like to read. But haven't got the books yet.

David Boyle has written 2 interesting sounding books:
The Tyranny of Numbers: Why Counting Can't Make Us Happy
Authenticity: Brands, Fakes, Spin and the Lust for Real Life

In a similar vien, I'd like to watch Near Dark which has just come out on DVD.

Monday, August 11, 2003

Mid August Update

Nice weather at the moment. But I'm glad that I'm not in London baking on the tube with my face in the armpit of some sweaty buisnessman. Brightons the perfect place for it as well - going on the beach etc. It doesn't get too hot too, because of the nice sea breeze. I've had almost a full year of sunshine - havent really needed to wear a coat since i was skiing in New Zealand...

Jo is doing her new job, as well as a lot of study for CIMA so is a bit tired to do too much raving at the moment. I'm still looking for a job, but last week I focused on sorting out a place to stay when we have to leave this house at the end of August (when the students move in). After seeing a few nice places (which went before we could get them) and several more scummy flats we found a lovely flat in hove, near the beach and just a couple of roads along from where we are now. So, very happy with that.

Last weekend we went to london, cos my future brother in law Chris was borrowing the brighton house for his stag weekend. Plus it was my sister's hen night and jo went along for that. Amanda's friends are a bit ra-ra and for some reason the girl that organised it thought that going to a hard house warehouse rave would be an appropriate venue. Amanda was not especially amused... Also, The friday night before, my pigface of a brother turned up at 4am unannounced with a bunch of his scummy mates for an inpromptu after party. We didn't get much sleep and Jo was going out the next night for the hen night. Not especially fun...

I'm feeling a bit better as my new computer is finally working. But on the down side was stressed out by my mum, who was down to brighton for a the last week and had a go at me because she did my washing up.

On the weekend Jo Clift came down to Brighton with Emma and stayed with Pleb. We met up on Saturday and realising that Linda and Kris were back from there travels, we arranged an improptu Exeter reunion. On Sunday we all met up at the Wetherspoons in Brighton center - Me, Jo, Emma, Pleb, Linda, Kris, plus Alex Harris and Chris Patterson. Weirdly, despite living in the same city for about 3 years, this was the 1st time Chris, Alex and Pleb got together!

Monday, August 04, 2003

From: Mark Hitchins

On my site, i've got a form that says : "On your site, I think that you should add:" with a submit button.

Mark Hitchins thinks I should add: 37 naked androids, heavily involved in a twenty year long piece of avant-garde performance art.

Weirdly, this was going to be the very next thing that I was going to add.

Postscript to the previous entry. Yesterday i bought 4 packets of fruit pastles. I think thats evidence enough that Rowntrees advertising works.

Thursday, July 31, 2003

Does the search for the rowntree continue?

As we all know, the ads for Rowntree's gummy sweet products feature a boy's adventures in a magical world. Each of the ads ended with "the search for the Rowntree continues..."

I havent seen any ads recently. Was it concluded? I demand to know.

Well, you can start your own magical adventure in this Shockwave Search for the Rowntree.

Some other people have been doing their own search for Rowntree.

If you search for Rowntree at Amazon you could find out how to study better.

If you were searching for Jean Rowntree, I hate to break it to you...

On the nestlr Website though it says:
There will be a new competition every month until further notice. The first closing date will be midnight on 31st March 2001 and winners will be notified by e-mail by 14th April 2001. Thereafter the closing dates will be at midnight on the last day of each month and winners will be notified within 28 days.

So..um...I guess the search for the rowntree continues until further notice. Magical!

An update from me - I'm now living in Brighton

Been a while since I did an update, so here we go…

I'm now in Hove (Brighton). Jo and I are staying at my Gran's old house. My mum lets it out to students during term time, so it is free to use during the summer. It means we've got until the end of August to find the next place to stay cos we have to move out when the stinky students arrive in September. So the house rental search is on…

Ive also got a new car, which I bought before we left London. It is a purple Fiat Bravo and a boomin' stereo.

Jo is working for Kimberly Clark doing an accountancy role. She was commuting to Brighton for a week from London, but now that she's here its just a quick bus ride there. She is using her newfound time to nag me. I am still job hunting, looking for an Accountancy role, with study support for CIMA.

Jo was walking around the lanes in Brighton during her lunch hour,
thinking to herself how nice it was to be down by the sea, with lots of trendy shops, when a seagul pooped on her head. I tried not to laugh when she phoned me.

Jo's mum came down for a visit. It was at the same time that my mum was here, and we wondered how they'd get on. We needn't have worried - they went out for a walk along the seafront and came back with a nice armchair which they'd found sitting on the pavement. Seemed a bit nice to be throwing away. Sandra then won my mum’s admiration forever by washing the net curtains.

We’ve been up to Devils Dyke (a nice area for walks), and passed a place called the "Dyke's Tavern". (Wonder what sort of
clientelle they attract?) It’s a bit like Dartmoor (kind of) and is a cool prace to get away too. Jo finished off her film by taking a picture of some bullocks. I said bullocks.

I went to my cousin Erica's wedding the other weekend. Which was fun. I find out lots of things about my cousin which I disn’t know about before. She is into Larping (live action role playing) and was wearing a big golden cloak. They were playing all kinds of sci fi music during the ceremony, like the wedding theme from star wars (I think), and bizzarely that horrific bit of scary style classical music that goes da da da da! da da da daaa da da-da (by Wagner or Beethoven maybe?). It might have been on the omen soundtrack.
The best man made jokes about different versions of windows in his speech. Which is petty geeky. There was a man who had a funny beard and danced a little bit like a space invader and a girl who had a bit of a larp style floaty dress, but she got it twisted, and she was dancing about, unaware of the fact that she was showing off her big granny knickers.

Have just watched Bruce Willis' new film Tears of the Sun and found
it...hmm... warmotional. I give it 2 eggs and a half. wobble.
Other films I’ve been catching up on include; Bruce Almighty, Cats and Dogs (disappointing), Treasure Planet (better than I was expecting), Reign of Fire (brainless fun, terrible accent from Christian Bale), Tigerland (colin farel is bloody everywhere).

I want to see the Hulk. Though then there is terminator 3 that i have
to see. Although, will probably end up seeing some daft foreign film
with Jo like Respiro or Waverider.

http://www.silencethemusical.com/ looks cool, but I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet. .

This optical illusion is very freaky.
http://www.starkitten.com/08/yay.jpg
Its given me a headache.

Type "weapons of mass destruction" or "French military victories"
into the Google search box, and hit the "I feel lucky"
button...

If you haven’t yet heard my masterpiece, check out http://www.geocities.com/bob_chinem/Greeneggs.wma to download Green Eggs and ham in real live Born Freaky Stylers audio. Probably takes a fair while as i'm not used to all this net audio stuff.

Can I get a re-wind!

Mark

Saturday, June 21, 2003

Ashley Amos net update

Bored on the net I did a search for old bangers and ash face.

Tom came in at first place with his shrine. Damn his eyes. Description: The Ashley Amos Shrine. In friendly competition with Mark Seddon’s Ashley shrine.
My Ashley site came in at second place. Description: Ashley Amos All bow down before the man they call Amos! Set up to rival Tom Davies’ shrine.
Nice to see we're both very self-referential.

Also, this from the guild election site. What a photo to use. He looks severely constipated.

On The Times website a certain Ashley Amos from Sevenoaks, Kent asks:
How difficult was it to take a section of the media to court whilst enjoying a high profile role within that same industry?
This must be him?

A BBC talking point website on the subject of a German professor who has carried out a public autopsy as part of a controversial art exhibition in London features a post from Ashley Amos, Exeter, UK
When I was editing the student newspaper at university, we covered a visit by Prof. Von Hagens' Bodyworlds exhibition to campus. It was judged a rather macabre indulgence by the majority of students who had a look around. Despite that however, few could walk past the exhibition without taking a closer look. People like Prof. Von Hagens are playing on the dark recesses of our curiosity.
The ever quotable Ash has part of his text highlighted: " People like Von Hagens are playing on the dark recesses of our curiosity "

And thus endeth my search.


Friday, June 13, 2003

Shout outs - new feature!

Nicking the Idea from Tom, I have added a "Shout Out" link at the bottom of each blog entry. He before me, nicked it from Klink Family http://www.klinkfamily.com/blogout/blogout.html

Click on it and leave your own witty comments.

Update for May/June

I'm living at home in London at the moment, Jo is staying here too. It's a little bit weird living back home with my parents after such a long time away (abroad and at living at Exeter). It's quite convenient, I can use the computer to look for jobs, it's not too bad getting into London and my parents generally leave me to do what I want. I don't know how long we'll stay here for - I guess once we get jobs we'll start looking for somewhere. In fact, we'll brobably be going to stay in Brighton over the summer.

My sister Amanda is buying a house in Dulwich nearby, and will be staying here for a bit too, while she gets her new house up to scratch. So all of the Seddon family will be staying back at the house for the first time since who knows when? Probably when Amanda left for university 8 or so year ago.

We've been back over a month now. We went down to see Jo's familly in Devon (mum in Torquay and dad in Dartmouth). The first 'night out' when we got back to England was a night in Torquay. Loads of girls were really dressed up, trying to do the Christina Aguilera 'Dirrty' look, with long blonde hair with black bits showing through, and tiny skirts (despite it being frikkin freezing outside). It was Jo's birthday a couple of weeks ago and we went to see 'Jery Springer the Opera' in London, which was absolutely hilarious. A very bizzare combination of Opera and Jerry Springer shenanigans. This weekend just gone, we went down to see Will Jelbert for his birthday. It was fun & we saw some of the old Reuters peeps.

Other than that, I've applying for jobs (and watching lots of DVDs). We've finally got all of our photos developed, so I'm making a start at scanning some of them onto the computer, and making a website for our travels.

Something funny that happened to me...
I get this entry in my guest book:

How strange... Just as im revising for my IT A level, i decide to type in dulwich college is utter shit in a search engine and what should come up, but Mark Seddon's site!

It's from Tom, the brother of my friend Charlotte, which just goes to show what a small world it is, but also what a weird site i have. Funnier though, is that i've got the google search engine thinking that Dulwich college is utter shite too http://www.googlism.com/what_is/d/dulwich_college/ .
Have you had a look at www.googalism.com ?
If you ask who is tom davies? One of the results is "tom davies is the new champion of the male age" . Brilliant.

Joke:

A woman has twins, and gives them up for adoption. One
of them goes to a family in Egypt and is named Amal.

The other goes to a family in Spain, who name him
Juan. Years later, Juan sends a picture of himself
to his mum.

Upon receiving the picture, she tells her husband
that she wished she also had a picture of Amal.

Her husband responds, "But they are twins.
If you've seen Juan, you've seen Amal."

Sunday, May 25, 2003

Music from ads: http://www.hmv.co.uk/hmv/HTML/TVAD.html
Something that would be useful to an annoying person like me.

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Clearing out my mailbox, I found this little gem that I thought I'd share:

Whilst bored in the library, I thought I'd compose a piece using the
word "set" as many times as possible. It has more meanings than any other
words in the English language. Hope it amuses you in some way.

Danny.


All was set for the International Badger Tennis Championships, at the
Amplegrove Set, set right in the heart of the South-West London
countryside. Greg Rusedski Badger had been given a new tennis set for Christmas, and
was confident of victory, but Tim Henman Badger had set up a scheme whereby
his victory was practically set in stone. At the start of the first set,
Tim Henman Badger set about his evil plan, but some would say he'd set
himself an impossible task, since it was Greg Rusedski Badger who set the
agenda, winning paws down. Then, as Greg Rusedski Badger set his racket on the
ground so as to tie his shoelace, quite unexpectedly, the Sun set and
the arena was thrown into darkness. Thankfully, Cliff Richard Badger was on
hand to do a live set and entertain the masses, who were gathered in the
badgers' set. Little did he know that they had only just finished building the
set for such spontaneous sets, and the last coat of paint hadn't quite set,
so he soon had a pink splodge on his posterior. He performed a set of
poems which had been set to music by Elton John Badger, but alas, Tim Henman
Badger had set his Explosives-R-Us dynamite set to go off half an hour
into proceedings, and the place was set alight. Tim Henman Badger had been
dead set on victory, but turned out to be the biggest loser of them all,
when a panda car picked him up, and set off for the local prison.

Sunday, April 27, 2003

Hello,

My updates really have been getting more and more spaced out. In a temporal sense of the word. My last group email was from Phnom Penh in Cambodia almost 5 weeks ago. After the harrowing visit to the Killing Fields, we decided it was time to chill out a little & went on a trip to Sihanoukville on the coast. Where am I now? You’ll just have to read until the end of this mail to find out. Or scroll down like a cheat.

Sihanoukville is on the Southwest coast of Cambodia, and we stay by the pleasant Ocheuteal Beach. We get motos down to the beach, and stay at a place that was reasonably priced and near the beach. The fact that it didn’t have a roof didn’t bother us too much. It’s a phenomenon that we saw a few times. Instead of building a whole hotel, and then open it up, which would take a long time, they build and finish the ground floor and open the hotel as a work in progress. Its weird – the ground floor looks perfectly normal – plasterwork and paint all done but the upper floors are just the skeletons of wooden scaffolding.

There’s another beach – Victory Beach that most of the backpackers go to which we’d heard some fairly rotten reports about – that it was dirty and that the hawkers on the beach can be pretty aggressive. Thankfully, the beach we were on was lovely. There were little huts along the beach selling food, and in exchange for buying a couple of things, you could use their deckchairs and sunshades. Local girls walked along the beach selling fruit. One girl gets me to promise to buy a fruit salad if she beats me at noughts and crosses. After drawing many times, I’m eventually distracted and loose. I’m thus forced to buy a delicious fruit salad, freshly prepared by the girl chopping up the fruit on the beach. Tough times.

We stop back at Phnom Penh for a day en route to Siem Reap. We get the express boat across Tone Sap lake. I spend most of the 5-hour journey watching films (Street Fighter) that have been bizarrely dubbed into Cambodian and bollywood tunes. We stop at a smelly floating village where we get a smaller boat to the shore. We have moto drivers waiting for us, and we’re driven down a dirt track to our Guesthouse in Siem Reap centre. Which is next to another half built hotel.

Siem Reap is where the famous temples of Angkor are situated. We get a 3-day pass to explore them, and hire moto drivers to drive us around. On our first afternoon there we climb up to Phnom Bakheng. It’s somewhat magical watching sunset from this ruined hilltop temple alongside the monks and elephants.

Our first day’s tour proper begins at the fortified city of Ankor Thom. We stop at the south gate and then onto The Bayon. It looks like a ruined temple from a distance, but close up it is absolutely amazing. It has 54 stone towers decorated with faces looking in 4 directions (the ones that are in all the pictures). We also see Baphuon and Terrace of Elephants, but the weather isn’t bet suited for sight seeing – the heat makes it a little unpleasant, and so we have a siesta before heading back out again. We go to the awe inspiring Angkor Wat. We climb up the very steep steps and pause to reflect that you could never possibly do anything so precarious in the UK. We chat to some monks at the top of the temple, and they don’t appear to be obsessed by Jo’s boobs for a change. On the way back we see lots of wild monkeys playing by the side of the road. Monkeys, monks, elephants, ruins and beautiful ruins; it’s a clichĂ©, but still amazing.

My temptation to get up early to see one of the temples at sunrise is defeated by the reality that I’d have to get up at 4am or so. Instead we get up at a civilised hour and do what is known as the small circuit. At one of the ruined temples a shifty looking policeman (well his uniform says police on it anyway) approaches us. We’re a little concerned as the thin blue line is a little more blurry in this country. He offers to sell us a police badge for $5, and we politely decline. Another 2 policemen try and sell us various parts of their uniforms before the day is over. The highlight is seeing the ruined Ta Prom; a big rambling temple from 12th century that has been left to nature to take over, tentacle-like roots of huge trees engulf the stonework. Broken stone blocks many of the entrances, and I felt as if I were in a computer game, negotiating a maze. Indeed, some of the film “Tomb Raider” was filmed here. We also climb Ta Keo, a temple with lots of steep narrow steps that rises 50 metres upwards.

Well that was Cambodia, and next we were going back to Thailand. We took a crappy beaten up minibus with no aircon down bumpy dirt roads and across bridges of dubious quality down to Poipet on the boarder. During the journey my bag almost falls out of the back of the bus after a Dutch girl thoughtfully opened the window for it. Poipet is described by guidebooks as “a hole”, so I wasn’t expecting much. Thankfully our border crossing was mercifully brief and we were soon on a new aircon bus on the other side of the border, being served snacks, as we headed along a smooth motorway towards Bangkok.

We stay near the Khaosan road (backpacker central), and Bangkok seems a much less intimidating place this time around, now that 3 months of SE Asia have hardened us a little. We have 18 days left in Thailand, and we discuss what we should do next. Our choices are made harder by the fact that Songkran festival is coming up on 13th April and lasts 3 days or longer in some places, and isn’t a good time to be travelling around. It is basically the New Years celebration with a water theme. Monks wash their Buddha images, and everyone else goes crazy, throwing water and flour at people. These days a lot of Thais use big supersoaker waterguns as part of the celebratory water fights. Unfortunately there are a lot of accidents, with drunk driving and lax road safety contributing to the many deaths. When children are throwing bags of water at drunken motorcyclists who don’t wear helmets will inevitably have tragic consequences.

One of the places we think about going to, but don’t is Kanchanaburi, famous as the location of Death Bridge- bridge on the river Kwai. Nearby is The Tiger Temple, where tigers roam free under the watchful eye of the temple’s abbot, who keeps them calm while a pack of tourists tentatively stroke and photograph the fearsome creatures. The tigers were born in captivity, abandoned and rescued by the monks as cubs. A sign at the entrance informs visitors that the authorities bear no responsibility for injury or death. Could just be a matter of time.

We do however, go on a day trip to Ayuthaya, a former Thai capital until it was practically destroyed by the Burmese in 1767, and famous for its hundreds of Temples. We start at Golden Mound Chedi, a giant white stupa and we already are feeling the oppressive Thai summer heat as we climb to the top. We explore Shrilankan; Burmese and Cambodian style temples, including Wat Phutthansawan with a large reclining Buddha. Next is Wat Phra Si Sanphet, a large ruined complex and Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit that houses a large golden seated Buddha. We have a breather at a place that gives elephant rides. A problem facing Asian countries is what to do with the elephants that were once used in industries such as logging. They can’t be returned to the wild – and there isn’t often much of a wild for them to return to. The solution is to use the elephants in tourism – giving rides, and also as rides for the people protecting elephants in the wild from poachers. Is it cruel? I’m not sure – their keepers seem to love and take care of them, they seem well fed and have access to shade, and I’m not sure what the alternative would be. There is a really cute baby elephant there that does tricks, posing for photos and standing on her head. When we stop for lunch, we discover that a Japanese guy from our tour is missing, and despite waiting for a long time and searching for him, he doesn’t turn up. Before we head back, we see a European style Buddhist temple, looking very much like a church, complete with stained glass window. Several hours later when we get back to Khaosan road, we see the nutter of a Japanese man that had disappeared earlier walking down the road, in a new set of clothes. Maybe he got hot and decided to go back on his own steam. Who knows?

We decide to take a long trip to a beach on an island, and opt for Ko Pha-Ngan. You can get an overnight bus there from Khaosan, but we opt for a more adventurous route. We get the morning train (the overnight trains all sold out because of the holidays) from Bangkok south to Surat Tani. From there we get a songthow gown to the pier to catch a ferry. Unfortunately there are only 2 day ferries and they both leave in the morning. We have to wait for 5 hours to catch the night ferry that leaves at 11pm. The food vendors at Bat Dan pier seem to be more interested in selling themselves than in selling their food, and spend several hours putting on makeup, and they try to massively overcharge us for our meagre snack, which is a little upsetting. As we wait on the boat, I read “Neither Here Nor There” by Bill Bryson and it strikes me what a boring old git he is – blowing every minor incident out of proportion, always finding something to grumble about, and never venturing anywhere more adventurous than Europe or America.

On the night ferry to Ko Pha-Ngan there’s a roomful of people sleeping on mattresses on the floor, and I don’t sleep well. There’s a big Thai guy in the middle of the deck who seems to be staring at me (one of the crew?), and he makes me feel very unsettled and not really in the mood for a deep sleep. Unlike Jo, who hits me when I wake her up at 5am when we arrive. We get a ride to the North of the Island to Hat Khom beach and stay in a place called Coral Bay. I work out that our journey has taken almost 22 hours, and take a well-deserved nap. That evening we take a walk over the rocks to get to the neighbouring beach to check out the town and to buy a hammock. Along the way we see the most perfect sunset that makes me think I have stepped into some saccharine painting. Unfortunately the sun setting also means that it is dark when we attempt to get back, which involves negotiating the same rocks that we scrambled over on the way there; Jo slips and gets a nasty cut on the back of her leg. Fortunately she has over a week of lying on the beach doing nothing in which to recover. Which is what we did. Our routine consisted of breakfast (normally a banana pancake), followed by lounging around on the beach or in the hammock, reading a book and then having something nice for tea. You can live very comfortably for £4 a day. Which means you could pack it all in, and live for 2 years on 3 thousand pounds in a cabin on a pristine island beach.

So a few days on we repeat the exodus to Bangkok, stopping at Ko Samui and taking the night train back this time. An odd job is that of the guy that has to wake everyone up in the morning on the night train, and turn them out of bed so he can clean them up. An old northern guy on the train isn’t happy at all about being woken up early in the morning and gets into a bit of an altercation with the “wake up” fellow, who gets the railway policeman to have a word with him, handcuffs at the ready. Trouble is averted when a Thai guy brokers peace talks in which it is agreed that if the old fella says sorry then the matter will be dropped. When I was little, and didn’t want to get up in the morning, my dad would throw my duvet on the floor. In Thailand, it seems that they fetch the police instead.

We have a few days to Spend in Bangkok before we leave for London, and much of it is spent shopping. We visit the busy Chatuchak weekend market. It is massive, selling anything and everything, with over 9,000 stalls and attracting about 300,000 people. I’d like to explore it properly, but the oppressive heat means that we evacuate to the air-conditioned charms of the MBK shopping centre where I stock up on monkey themed t-shirts.

Our last day in Bangkok is spent killing time waiting for our flight. We bar hop around khaosan road, watching movies and drinking Cokes. By the time we get our flight at midnight I’m not looking forward to the in-flight movies quite so much, having watched 3 movies already that day. But end up watching 3 more films by the time we get to London anyway. Sars free, I might add.

So that is where I am now – London, home of dangermouse etc, as I catch up with various things that I missed in the last year; congestion charges, television programmes such as “Your Face or Mine”, my brother looking like a grown up and other assorted oddness. I’m staying in London for the moment, job-hunting, though will be visiting Devon for a bit (going down this Thursday).

That’s it then. Looking forward to catching up with people. Let me know if you know of any decent jobs! I've got acess to a computer, so I've got absolutley no excuse for not replying to your mails, so write back and let me know what you're up to!

End of captain’s log.

Mark

Monday, March 24, 2003

Jo's last update:

hi guys

Well its been a while since i last wrote, and i dont know where to
start. So much happens in such a short space of time. I have written
45 pages in my diary since i last wrote so i will try not to repeat
it all here!!

We are now in Cambodia, and have travelled right the way down the
coast of vietnam - for 30 pounds! After Hanoi City, we went to Hue
and took a trip up the perfume River to see the Royal tombs. Then
we moved onto gorgeous Hoi An. A really cute little chinesey town
with great food and really friendly people. Only trouble was, in this
tiny town of 65000 people, there were 200 tailors, all with a copy
of the Next Catalogue copying absolutely everything, shoes you name
it. So we went a bit mad, in fact very mad (18 kilos) and in the end
it was a case of get me out of here before i spend any more money.
Then we took a very bumpy 14hr bus ride down to the beach resort of
Nha Trang. Not my favourite place i have to say. A bit like benidorm
only dirtier, so we just spent a day at the mineral baths and got
the hell outta there. Then we went on to Dalat in the mountains
where we hired an old russian army jeep and driver for the day. That
was really cool (literally i havent been so cold since we were in
New Zealand). Dalat is really kitsch - its where all the vietnamese
go on thier honeymoons and there is a mini Eiffel Tower and swan
boats on the lake. You get the picture.

After Dalat, we got the bus down to Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh
City). After all the scare mongering in Lonely Planet, Saigon wasnt
nearly as bad as we expected. In fact it was quite nice. The city
is twice as big as Hanoi with 7 million people, although Hanoi is
the capital. We went to the 'War Remnants Museum'. (If you are
faint hearted move to the next paragraph). This has to be the most
shocking museum I have ever visited, even worse than the
concentration camp in Germany. There was the usual display of tanks
and bombs. But then there were pictures of US soldiers dragging
people along behind thier tanks til thier death; carrying out
chinese water torture; dropping people out of helicopters after
they'd refused to cooperate. Then there were pictures showing the
devastating affects of Agent Orange. (The americans sprayed 70
million tonnes on Vietnam and this defoliant contains a highly
carcenogenic and mutagenic chemical which is still found in the
food chain today). Picture after picture of mutilated children and
adults. Some just looked like aliens. Two jars containing deformed
babies, and pictures of maternity wards with shelves full of jars
of deformed babies. What wasnt bombed or poisoned was bulldozed -
cemetaries, villages, rice paddies. There were also pictures of the
My Lai Massacre. Here, the US decided to 'teach the villagers a
lesson' for cooperating with the Viet Cong (communist forces).
There were severe consequences for not doing so. In one day, 3
companies of american infantry massacred 500 fleeing and unarmed
civilians. They met no resistance at any time. The only american
injured, shot himself in the foot to get himself let off.
Villagers were herded into a ditch and mowed down by machine guns.
Women were gang raped and pregnant women, newborn babies and old
people were not spared. There were also pictures illustrating how
the war ahd sent some people over the edge: GIs smiling to have
thier photo taken while holding dead heads in thier hands; another
GI looking satisfied carrying the tattered remains of a head and
shoulders in one hand. It showed the four US students that got shot
while protesting against the war in the 1960s. And also 4 people
(3 US, 1 Japanese) who burnt themselves to death in front of the US
embassy.

In Saigon, among other things, we visited the Reunification Palace,
where the communist tanks crashed through the palace gates in 1975
to show that North Vietnam had finally won control of southern
Vietnam to form a new independent and unified country. Before the
war, southern vietnam was a puppet government run by the US. The
palace is now beautifully preserved as on that day when they ousted
the US elected president and dictator. One heroic pilot who bombed
the palace prior to its invasion, is now a pilot for Vietnam
Airlines!The previous president was so hated that his own army
bombed the palace, and so he ordered that a new palace be built with
a bomb shelter underneath (which we visited). As a anti-communist
and catholic, he was repressive about religous practices and as a
result, a monk famously set off the trend of self immolations by
burning himself to death here at the end of the sixties. (We also
saw a picture of this in the Ho Chi Minh City Museum - spoilt my
tea!). We also took a day trip where we visited a Cao Dai temple
midday meditation. Caodaism is a new religion which combines
Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, native vietnamese spirtualism,
chirstianity and islam! Then we visited the Cu Chi tunnels - a
250km network of underground tunnels built under the jungle used by
the Viet Cong communist forces during the war. It was amazing, we
were walking through the forest and suddenly this guy would pull up
a tiny trap door in the floor and jump down it and expect us to
follow!! The tunnels had been made bigger for foreigners, but i was
still bent over double and then squatting down shuffeling along on
my feet in some parts. It was really hot and dark and there were
bats down there too! The tunnels were amazing, what looked like
termite mounds above the ground disguised air holes for breathing.
They were three storeys deep in some places and even had a hospital
and a weapons factory.

After the Cu Chi tunnels, we made our way to Cambodia via a three
day
tour of the Mekong Delta. This is the southernmost region of Vietnam
and one of the biggest rivers/deltas in the world. Most of the
people
live on floating villages on the river, or beside it. We spent most
of our three days hopping from one boat to another. Everyone was
really friendly and i felt like royalty because we had to wave to
kids everywhere we looked, doing backflips to impress us and having
thier evening baths in the river with thier clothes on. Then we
caught the boat as far as we could to Phnom Penh - capital of
Cambodia. We have found a really lovely guesthouse right on the
edge of a lake where we can sit in hammocks and watch the sunset.
But today we took a trip to the Killing Fields and the S21 Prison
used by the Khmer Rouge... The killing fields were just horrific. We
were walking along and there were bits of bone and clothing sticking
out of the path underneath us, where the executioners had hardly
bothered to cover over the graves. There were 126 mass graves, and
they only uncovered 86. In the middle was a big memorial stupa -
8000 skulls piled high behind a glass wall as high as a four storey
house. Then we went to the S21 Prison, which used to be a high
school but Pol Pot and his regime turned it into a prison where
victims were tortured and later taken to the Killing Fields. Just
horrific.

Well on that happy note, I dont really have much other news. I will
be home a month from today and I am looking forward to coming home
but i know this time is just going to fly by.

So take care, and I'll see you soon - Jo x
Once again, I've had a mail slippage. It's been 3 weeks since I sent a big update on what I've been up to. So you won’t know for instance that I have now seen the oddest thing to date being transported on the back of a mortorbike: a coffin (I presume it was empty). Now, as I write this I feel pretty rough. Not really sure what's wrong with me- feel a bit tired out with a cough, runny nose, and it's really hot here which can be unpleasant at times. I'm sure it's nothing though.
I left my story in Hue, shortly after Maggie Thatcher and myself had disenbarked from the train. We visit the Kinh Thanh moated citadel and its forbidden purple city, which was almost entirely destroyed during the Tet Offensive in the war. The following day we take a boat trip down the purfume river to see some of the Royal Tombs; 1. Thein Mu Pagoda, a famous 21 metre octagonal tower, 2. Take a scary motorbike ride down a dirt path to the Tomb of tu Duc, an amazing complex which was never even used as a tomb, 3. Tomb of Minh Mang – up and own lots of steps in this serene complex.
Pop fact: I read about a lady who had hired a driver for the day. She said to him “Ok, I’m going for lunch now, so you can take a break now, but be back at 1pm to take me to the Tomb of Tu Duc.” He looks back at her, not understanding, so she clarifies: ‘1pm. Tu Duc”. She goes to have lunch, then at 1pm, her driver comes back, presenting her with 2 live ducks.
We continue on minibus to Hue, up the scary Hai Van pass, where the sheer cliffs don’t deter the drivers from continuing to overtake around blind corners. Driving here can really be a hair raising experience. We are sucked into staying in lovely Hoi An for several days. It is a clothes shopping mecca – over 200 tailors who can nock you up a suit within a few hours for 20 – 30 dollars. Jo goes shopping mad, and I get in the mood as well, getting a couple of nice tailored suits (and the rest). The tailors all have Next catalogs for you to browse thru and look for styles that you like the look of. The town in some ways is like some bizzare tailored next shop- the catalogues themselves are traded for almost $100! When we leave we post back a massive box of clothes back – the postage cost is a lot, but worth it.
We do some half harted ‘tourism’ in Hoi An, in between shopping bouts – we check out the famous Japanese Covered Bridge, Quan Cong’s temple and pretty Phuc Kien Fujian assembly hall. We also visit the ruined temples of Myson, but I think “ruins fatigue” has already begun to set in. It is “women’s day” in vietnam on this day, so lots of hatted women are wandering about, looking at the ruins, while the men do all the work.
Getting to Nha Trang involves a long 14 hour bus journey. The city itself isn’t much – a bit like a dirty version of Surfers Paradise. It’s dirty, with lots of beggars and touts on the beach. We see on guy with no arms or legs hobbling along the beach begging. One place that we ate at had rats running freely around the place. Jo comments to me that maybe that’s why my pizza had such an interesting flavour. Lovely.
The colder climate in the mountainous Dalat makes a pleasant change. We take in a packed day tour of the town, taking in the Truc Lam meditation Centre, Prenn Waterfalls (with infamous “Dalat Cowboys” – vietnamese dressed up as cowboys, who give tourists rides on their horses), Linh Phoc Pagoda (wth a giant dragon made out of beer bottles, a funny monk in a wooly hat that followed us, and a buddah statue with a crayzy neon halo), Dalat Flower Garden, the peculiarly kitch “Valley of Love” , the countercultural “Cray Guest House” with rooms in very bizzar shapes”, and Emperor Bao Dai’s summer palace. The very sad thing about Dalt, however, is that almost all of these attractions had their own mini- zoos with a motley collection of wild animals in pathetically small bare cages. Particularly sad was a malayan sun bear that we saw. He had a bare concret enclosure, with metal bars reaching up to the roof. He did the most amazing thig, climbing up the walls, across the wire mesh roof, and then sliding down the pole in the middle, fireman style. Jo was particularly taken with him, and as the poor thing rwached out to us in despiration through the bars, Jo stroked its paw.
We continued our bus trek on to Ho Chi Minh city, the centre of which is still called Saigon by most. I didn’t know what to expect here, hearing stories of a really hectic city, with pickpockets etc – but at no time did I feel unsafe. Though in some parts of the city, the amount of motorcyle traffic is to be seen to be believed. There’s 3 million bikes, I believe, with road accidents claiming many lives a week.
We take a cyclo to the War Remnants Museum (formely American & Chinese war crimes museum), which is not for the faint hearted. I was surprised by the (relative) lack of anti-american bias considering. More than anything the museum showed the surrering that can result from war. However, some of the specifics of the war; the My Lai Massacre (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/vietnam/trenches/mylai.html) , the use of Agent orange biological weapons, daisy cutter bombs etc was just terrible. The worst thing was probably seeing the mutated babies that were in jars.
The Reunification palace is famous as the place where NVA tanks crashed through the gates in 1975, before raining their flag, showing finally that Saigon had fallen. The brilliantly preserved buildig is, with bomb shelters etc is fascinating. Our guide wears an Ao Dai, which is the national vietnamese dress for women, and are very popular amongst school students & non-agricultuaral workers & they really are the most graceful piece of clothing. We also visit the hectic Chinese “cholon” district of the city to see the Thien Hau Pagoda, which was very active and we almost chocked on the massive amounts of incense being burnt.
We have a day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, a quite unique structure: a series of tunnels built in the hard earth of the district, from where the VC fought an intense guerrila campaign – and was the scene of some of the most intense fighting/bombing/poisoning in the war, as the stategic position was just a little ouside Saigon. As a claustophopbic, I was a little anxious about venturing down theunderground tunnels, but I was able to go through some. I backed out of going through one tunnel that stretches for 120 metres, and you have to crawl through, but managed the rest.
On the same day, we visit the Cao Dai Holy See, the centre of a peculiar religion with 3 million Vietnamese followers. It is based on incorporating most of the main religions, with its own “crossing over” style twist, where seances are regularly held, the result of which means that French Writer is one of their main figureheads. We see the midday service, with lots of bowing and chanting.
The next day we are woken early to the big band sound of a funeral procession outside our hotel, but we needed an early start for our 3 day trip to the Meknog Delta anyway. Our tour starts with a tour of some of the islands in the Mekong rinver – we stop at Mekong river where we see coconut tofees being made, taste local fruits and hear traditional song. We take a rowing boat thru the jungle, alongside lots of mudskippers. Fortunately seeing no snakes, but we do see a dead dogfloating buy us at one stage. We see a bee keeping villageand have honey hea. Our boat arrives at Can Tho as the sun sets, passing the most amazing scenery, with lots of local villagers waving at us, often as they bathe in the river.
The following morning we cruise to Cai Rang floating market, the biggest in the lower river. They sell their produce onlarge boats, with a bamboo pole with the fruit dangling down signaling what they are selling. Vendors in smaller boats try and sell us drinks, one of which is a bootleg verision of Redbull called “Cow Butt”. I kid not. We see rice noodles being made and stop to climb a mokey bridge ( a precarious bamboo bridge made by locals to cross the river – these are dying out as they are being replaced by concrete bridges). We go for a walk to see the Thot Not Sork Sanctuary, and are followed by lots of local children, that grab our hands, and make jewelry out of leaves, in the hope that we will buy them a coke. We finish the day at Chau Doc and climb Sam Mountain in time to see the sunset across the landscape of the Cavern Pagoda, over the paddy fields to the Cambodian border.
After another early start we see a floating village and fish farm and Cham village, where encounter some more kiddies begging “one pen! One pen!. Weleave the tour and begin our boat journey to Cambodia. We get stamped out of Vietnam, and continue on to the Camboadian border post, where we get stmped in (13 stamps). It was suprisingly stress free. I feared a frontier style outpost with greasy guards with droopy moustaches who would try their damdest to extort money out of us.
We’re now stying in a nice place overlooking the lake in Phnom Penh, where we’ve been able to catch up on the news via satelite TV. Yesterday was a hectic day, and not an easy one to take in. We Visited the Killing Fields of Choeung Uk, where 17,000 of the prisoners of s-21 were sent to be executed between 1975-78. There are about 130 mass graves, ony 80 of which have been dug up. In the middle is a glass memorial stupa that is filled bith skulls, bones and clothing. Walking round you can see rags of clothing and bones sticking up through the ground. It was a deeply upsetting place to be, even more so because of the many children begging – a continual drone of “some monee , wateer…” . I felt it was too soon for the site to be turned into some sort of grim tourist attraction, and deeply uncomfortable bing there. The day continued with a trip to The Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide (formerly prison s-21) which documents the role of the prison in the killing of 3 million Cambodian during the rule of the Khmer Rouge. On the drive back, we pass a man who is probably the most disfiguerd that I have ever seen. I can’t even look. To top off the day, we watch the film “The Killing Fields”. We had both read the book, and were a little dissapointed by the film, which was limited, I believe, by it’s length. At present I’m still reading “Decent Interval”, a history of the fall of Saigon, written by Cia’s Chief Stategy analyst in Vietnam Frank Snepp, a book that is banned in the West.
Well, that’s about it. Off to Snookyville (spelt differently) on the coast for a couple of days R&R. Hope all is well. Write to me & I’ll try my best to reply.
Back to the studio,
Mark Seddon, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Thursday, March 06, 2003

Jo but together this history of Vietnam which i thought i'd share:

Hi guys

I don’t know if you are interested, but I have been reading a lot
about Vietnamese history lately and I thought I might write something
about it. Before I ever started reading about Vietnam, my main
thoughts concerning the country were of the Vietnam war and I really
didn’t know a lot about that either. So in case you were wanting to
know more read on..

Vietnam has had one long struggle for independence. They were
dominated first by the Chinese for 10 centuries. They regained their
independence, but today still has a strong influence in Vietnamese
politics, as the Vietnamese fear future subjugation and invasions
from this massive neighbour. In the 18th century the French took
over. They lived wealthy lives and kept the Vietnamese in poverty –
sending patriots and insurgents into their jail (later became the POW
camp in Hanoi). However just as the Chinese have introduced new
ideas, concepts & technology, the French brought with them new
architectural styles and cuisine. So in the country today it looks a
bit like china with French buildings in places. You can get freshly
baked baguettes everywhere, and French is as widely spoken as is
English.

The Vietnamese wanted independence from the French, and at that time
Ho Chi Minh was inspired by the Russian Revolution. Ho went on to
form the Indochinese communist party in 1930. Then WWII broke out and
Japan invaded. The French accepted their occupation and so were
allowed to continue governing, but there were ousted by the Japanese
in 1945, when the allied victory in Europe was becoming a certainty.
The Japanese forced farmers to move out of rice farming and start
producing industrial crops, but this combined with floods and
breaches in the lands irrigation system, caused a famine which killed
2 million people in north Vietnam.

Once Japan was defeated, Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh, a group
formed by the Indochinese communist party for revolutions, started to
take control of as much territory as possible before the allies
arrived. But then they still had a decade long guerrilla war for
independence against the French. At the same time, the US became
concerned about the world-wide spread of communism and its ‘domino
affect’ through south east Asia. So the US supported the French by
giving them massive amounts of aid. The Vietnamese defeated the
French, but then broke into a civil war between north Vietnam, which
was mainly Buddhist and communist, and south Vietnam, which was
mainly catholic and anti-Communist. In the early 1960s the Viet Cong
(southern communist movement) joined forces with the Viet Minh (Ho
Chi Minh’s group from the north). They mounted several coup de etats
and overcame the southern Vietnamese government.

In 1961 JFK was elected president, and brought the issue of
containment of communism to the forefront of US Foreign Policy. 3.4m
Americans served in the Vietnam war, expending 15 m tonnes of
ammunition. The war cost America US$165 bn. By comparison, twice as
many lives were lost as in the Korean War, which cost US$18bn. The
Vietnam war killed approximately 4m/10% of the Vietnamese
population. Incidentally, China and the USSR, who supplied all the
weapons to north Vietnam and the Viet Cong never suffered a single
casualty!

The USA also engaged in deliberate destruction of the environment in
order to stifle the operations of the Viet Cong hiding in the
forests. Aeroplanes sprayed 72m litres of the herbicide ‘Agent
Orange’ on inland forests and mangrove swamps. The deforestation
caused, is enough to supply Vietnam’s timber harvesters for 30
years. The chemical used in Agent Orange is dioxin, which is highly
carcinogenic and mutagenic. Even today this chemical is still found
in the food chain and breast milk. It is not proven, but suspected
that there is a strong link between the level of exposure to dioxin
and the number of birth defects and still births. Many who were
exposed have developed cancer, and as a result, many US soldiers are
now filing lawsuits for compensation. Since the war, a lot of
animals have been blown up by landmines, or were shot by the
Vietnamese who found ammunition and over hunted.

In 1968 Ho Chi Minh died of a heart attack and the Americans started
bombing the part of the Ho Chi Minh trail in Cambodia. The American
people lost faith in president Nixon and the US withdrew with the
1973 Paris Peace Agreement (which the Vietnamese broke and raided
Saigon). The next year the country became the Socialist Republic of
Vietnam. Despite reunification, there was still tension between
north and south Vietnam, and the communist party packed many unwanted
southerners off to ‘re-education camps’ (little more than forced
labour camps), and stripped the southerners of their wealth. Although
unified there is still a strong divide today.

In 1978, they began fighting in Cambodia against the Khmer Rouge
forces and Pol Pot’s genocidal regime. But then china supporting
Cambodia, decided to invade northern Vietnam. With china’s
encouragement Vietnam was ostracised internationally and the US
placed an embargo on Vietnam. Vietnam grew weak and its economic
support dried up as the USSR dissolved. It withdrew from Cambodia in
1989.

So the peace here is relatively new. Vietnam has had one long
struggle for independence. The Vietnam war was seen to change the
psyche of the Americans and the way they dealt with foreign affairs,
but to the Vietnamese it was just one more war in a long history of
wars. Hence the Vietnamese call it the ‘American War’. The
Vietnamese have a wonderful analogy about themselves: - They are like
a house with an open door located on each of its four walls. The wind
can blow from any direction, and when the wind is gone, the house
still stands but retains none of the wind. Invaders have come from
many directions, but through it all, Vietnam has retained its own
national characteristics. There is also an analogy about the
Americans based on the story of the good Samaritan from the bible. In
the original story there is someone in need of help and the good
Samaritan crosses the road to help. In the American version, the
Samaritan sees someone being bashed by a robber, so the American
Samaritan runs over to help, but by this time the robber has run away
and he ends up beating the victim. But seriously, in Vietnam today,
there is little open resentment towards foreigners, even Americans.
That is not to say, they haven’t suffered. But the people are really
friendly, helpful and willing to learn. We have had several chats
with people who have approached us because they want to practice
their English and are curious about us. As a closed communist
system, foreigners have only been allowed into the country since the
1980s, but they are now trying to incorporate laissez-faire ideas.
Most shops sell identical goods, but you can still haggle, and most
places operate freely. But as a foreigner you still get
charged ‘foreigner fares’ for train fares and entry to attractions
etc which are usually about 4 times the price a Vietnamese would pay.
Foreigners are also still prohibited to visit some areas of the
country and travel on some types of transport.

Well if you are still reading I hope it has been of some use. I hope
I didn’t offend anyone. I am certainly no historian, and I may well
have got my facts a bit muddled, but I tried!

Cheers, Jo.

Sunday, March 02, 2003

It really is a daunting task to sit down and write one of these mails. Trying to cram almost 3 weeks of news into a piece of writing that is interesting and keeps the right amount of conciseness (is that a word) to be relevant isn’t easy. As I look at my diary and all of the things we’ve seen and done, I know I’m going to be doing a fair old bit of typing.

My last major update was from Luang Prabang in Laos. It’s funny to see the French influence (as a result of the colonialism) in a place that is so different to France. Many people speak French (the post office is called “la poste”), the architecture is very French, people eat baguettes, and play boulle in the street. One other thing you notice in Laos is the distinct lack of the chains and logos that you get so used to – no MacDees here. Apart from cars, the only recognizable logos are Pepsi (who I presume have a deal with the govt), and Shell. And most of all, throughout Asia, you actually see children and old people everywhere. The extended family is most important, so every shop will have its own scampering kid, and grinning shrunken old granny (not hidden away in daycare or nursing homes). Everywhere you look seems like a postcard view. Almost all Lao men become monks/novices for at least a short time, so everywhere you see monks dressed in their brightly coloured orange robes (often chatting up western females). I only wish I had a better camera with which to capture it all.

Valentines day comes around whilst we’re in Laung Prabang and I tell Jo I’ll get her anything she wants. We saw in an Asian magazine the suggestion that you could buy your loved one a bag of maltesers as a present, but Jo didn’t go for this option. Jo decides to rent a motorbike for the afternoon, and convinces me to get on the back (something I’m not overly keen on). It’s better than I feared, and it’s quite fun pootling about the Laos countryside. Towards the end though, on a muddy stretch, Jo slips and we fall off. Not hurt, but Jo bruises her pride.

The next day we visit the gorgeous Kuang Si Waterfall. I’m not a waterfall fan. But this was pretty spectacular. I hike to the top & knacker myself out, while Jo relaxes in the pool at the base.

As nice and Peaceful as Laos is, it can be frustrating that nothing much is going on.
Jo: “I’m bored.”
Mark: “You should learn to appreciate the slower pace of life.”
Jo: “I have, and now I’m bored.”

We fly to Vientiane. We fly because the week before a group of bandits ambushed a convoy on the road, killing several people, and so we thought it best to go by road. How much safer we are in the Lao Air aircraft is dubious – they don’t publish a safety record & much navigation is done by sight. But anyhoo, it all worked out ok, so that’s fine. We also flew on to Hanoi afterwards, but that was more out of laziness than anything else. We felt vindicated afterwards though, when some people we met who did Vientiane-Hanoi by land said the 25 hour ride on bumpy Lao roads was horrible.

We couldn’t get into Vietnam until the date given on our visa, so we kicked our heels in Vientiane for a few days. One magazine I read said to give the place 2 days, and that includes plenty of time to recover from hangovers, so we didn’t have a whole bunch to do, but discovered some nice restaurants. Which was nice.

One excursion was to the propaganda filled Lao National History Museum (formerly Revolutionary Museum) which documents the glorious peoples struggle to become one of the poorest countries on earth. Naturally we visit some more Buddhist temples; Haw Pha Kaew (which originally housed the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, was burnt and rebuilt in the 1930s), and Pha That Luang, a giant golden stupa and most important national monument in Laos.

One day we go to Xieng Khaun Buddha Park, which is definitely worth a trip. It’s a bizarre collection of cement Buddhist/Hindu sculpture. This includes a weird giant sculpture that symbolizes heaven & hell, which you can climb to the top of. A monk guides us, and he thoughtfully allows Jo (who is wearing a skirt) to go in front of him as we climb up the steep steps.

On the Twenty First of February it is my birthday and I am now TWENTY FIVE. Wow. However, I get news from England that my Gran has died. She was ill for quite some time, but still it was hard to receive the news when I was so far home, and on the last leg of my trip. I’m not expected home for the funeral, and I don’t think I could have got home in time even if I tried. As you might imagine, I wasn’t exactly in a celebrating mood.

We get the plane to Hanoi, Vietnam and enter a whole new world. Vietnam was opened up to capitalist ventures and tourism is now pretty well established. People speak English, and there are plenty of good cheap hotels. The Vietnamese are friendly, even to Americans. It’s on the streets where the real culture shock occurs. There are lots of beggars & postcard sellers (who also sell photocopied lonely planet guides), shoe shine boys, motorbike taxi drivers, cyclo drivers (a bit like a rickshaw) and shop keepers all vying for your attention. And then there’s the traffic. The roads are filled with so many motorbikes, all beeping incessantly. Crossing the roads is an interesting experience – you just go for it, walking at a steady pace, letting the bikes weave their way around you. The noise and the intensity of it all really gets to you, and we regularly have to try and find a quiet cafĂ© or something to hydrate, and get out of the noise.

List time – Interesting things being transported on ikkle motorbikes: 4 people at a time, a pane of glass, live pigs in a crate, plumbing pipes 3 times the length of the bike, a massive television set, huge bags carrying any manner of things, live chickens dangling off the handlebars.

Actually, our first experience of Hanoi was a scam. We asked our taxi at the airport to take us to a hotel, and he knows where we mean. On the drive there he’s on the mobile phone to a few people – which we don’t really think about. We get to a hotel, the hoteliers grab our bags and take them inside, meanwhile Jo is distracted by the Taxi driver demanding double the fare we agreed on, and I get a little boy beggar in my face (I never see him again). By the time we realise it isn’t the hotel we asked for, it’s a little late. In any case the hotel has decent, cheap rooms, so we’re not too fussed & stay there. Good scam they’ve got going though.

We stay in Hanoi’s Old Quarter (which is supposedly over 1000 yrs old) and explore it a lot. It is famous for it’s 36 streets that each specialize in certain things – gravestones, herbs, shoes and so on. There are a lot of lovely things being sold here, and it’s all so tempting. We try and limit ourselves, as we can’t go lugging masses on our backs & post is pretty expensive. We do however, buy some lovely “Gucci” glasses for a steal and stock up on plenty of CDs and DVDs (including a lot of very recent ones like Chicago).

We visit Hoa Lo Prison, which was affectionately known by the American prisoners of war as “the Hanoi Hilton”, and stop at the Temple of Literature. In the evening we see the water puppet show (basically punch and judy in a pool). It’s Hanoi’s most famous cultural item, and is very cool, these puppets perform on top of a pool of water, with the puppeteers working behind a screen, waist deep in water. The way the puppets come to life is amazing.

Ho Chi Minh is the theme of one day’s touring – we go to the Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, where he is kept, embalmed, for people to see. It’s closed (it being a Friday), and so we miss out on that, but I wasn’t too keen on seeing that morbid spectacle anyway. We have a look at Uncle Ho’s Stilt House and the nearby One Pillar Pagoda. It was built in 1049, and destroyed as a last spiteful act by the departing French in 1954 (it has since been rebuilt). Most museums etc have a long 2 hour lunch break, and we get to the Ho Chi Minh museum as it is about to close. Our poor guide gives us a high speed tour. He really has to work to fit it all in, and the pace, and his difficulty with English leaves him a sweaty stressed out wreck at the end. It was good value though, and give him a 2$ donation “to the museum”.

They also eat some weird stuff here. This includes; snakes wine (there is a whole village north of Hanoi that specializes in it), dragonflies, dog (it is auspicious to eat the dog at certain times of the month, and is very popular – in one part of Hanoi there is a long stretch of road devoted to dog restaurants), cats (now illegal, but this has driven up the price, meaning that many farmers sell their cats for the money and then have to catch the rats in their fields themselves), rats (see previous), tortoise, pigeon.

Halong bay is an UNESCO world heritage site, and meant to be one of the most spectacular sights in Vietnam, so we go on a 2 day tour in a small group. Our ride out there is an experience in itself, seeing the amazingly green rice paddies, the workers in their conical hats (yes they DO wear them), the waterbuffalos etc. We see the Amazing/Surprising cave, with lovely limestone formations, beautifully lit up. The most surprising thing about the cave for me was the jarring sight of rubbish bins shaped like penguins that were placed at 10 meter intervals. I mean, it’s nice they want to keep it tidy – but just how much rubbish can you accumulate in an isolated limestone cave? It boat cruise is lovely and relaxing after Hectic Hanoi (the ceaseless noise can be really Hanoying). We see lots of beautiful fishing boats, Junks and Kamikaze kids in tiny boats that career into the touring boats, and then try and sell their goods. We pass the biggest floating village that has 700 people in 90 houses, and even has a floating school. Peculiarly, many of these floating houses have TVs and dogs (maybe for a snack?)

We’re now in Hue. Hue to go – I’m almost at the end of my mail! We got the overnight train, sleeping in a cabin with 6 people. We were on the lower bunks and the poor Vietnamese in our cabin had to clamber up to the heavens to get into their bunks above us. We were worried that the “hard sleeper” train experience would be a nightmare, but it was ok. We even had a guy touting his hotel to us, and offering a free minibus service there. The hotel was in the Bible (lonely planet) so we thought it sounded ok. He wanted a name, so he could have it written on a board when we got to Hue & Jo thoughtfully said that her name was “Maggie Thatcher”. When our train rolled into Hue and we got out to the exit, there were hoards of taxi drivers trying to get our attention & a policeman was beating them back with a truncheon. Sure enough, in the crowd was a sign saying “Maggie Thatcher”. Our hotel still hasn’t asked for any id from us, so if we were to leave without paying, I wonder if a certain Iron Lady would be welcome in Hue.

Next stop: Hoi An. Can’t think of any puns now. I’ll hoi an think of one for next time.

All the best, Mark
Jo's written some lovely mails about the last couple of weeks, so I'll post them here as well:

I have a feeling this is going to be a long one, so you might want to
save it for a rainy day...

Well the last time I wrote we were in Bangkok and had just been to Ko
Chang. Since then we caught the overnight train to Chiang Mai in
Northern Thailand. The train was really cool we had bunk beds and
around bedtime a little man came around and made up our beds with
clean sheets and a blanket. 15 hrs later we arrived in Chiang Mai -
the second largest city in Thailand. Chiang Mai was a lot smaller
than Bangkok and way cheaper which was a relief because Bangkok was
starting to get very noisy – and generally a bit ‘in ya face!’. While
in Chiang Mai we had a walk around all the main temples and got
chatting to some teenage monks. They were sitting outside their
university near the temple and asked us if we would like to join in
Monk-chat!! They got us to help us with their homework and wouldn’t
stop staring at my boobs, which was a bit embarrassing! They were
novices – all monks are novices until they are 20yrs old. Most men
spend some time as a monk at some point in their lives. A bit like
military service in other countries, Buddhist people have to do some
religious service! They are homeless and have no belongings. So they
go round doing their alms every morning where the local people give
them food. While we were in Chiang Mai we also took some time out for
a Thai massage. It was quite relaxing if only for the fact that we
were laid on a soft mattress under a fan and we had been sleeping on
mattresses like rocks for the past week or so! But the next day we
had a couple of bruises where they had overdone it! We also visited
the Night markets, which were absolutely amazing – you could come to
Thailand for the shopping alone! We also visited a local market that
was part of a big festival in Chiang Mai where they were selling
fried cockroaches, beetles and maggots – hmm nice!

We also went on a one-day hill tribe trek from Chiang Mai. I already
had my reservations about going because this area is very over-
trekked and has become more like a human zoo. So we decided to go on
a one-day trek as opposed to the 2 and 7-day treks offered.
Nevertheless when we finally trekked through the mountain to visit
our first hill tribe, (Hmong people) I was horrified to see a little
market, houses selling coke and a guy who had given up his house &
turned it into a museum labeling everything in English, all for the
benefit of the tourists. I felt like an intruder. The Hmong people
are from china and are semi-nomadic because they move from
mountaintop to mountaintop slashing and burning the foliage staying
wherever the conditions are best for growing opium. After the Hmong
Village we bought tiny bananas from them to feed to the elephants we
were about to ride. It feels a bit like feeding a wet vacuum nozzle!
And a particularly intimidating elephant chased me. We had a bumpy
ride up and down through the forest and through a river and then had
lunch at a local eatery. After that we visited a village of White
Karen people. There are four types of Karen tribe, and the more
familiar long- necked tribe lives in a different area. The white
Karen people live in lowlands and practice crop rotation, so they do
not need to live on the top of mountains. The Karen village was a
lot less touristy, and there were piglets, chicks and puppies running
round everywhere. They build their houses on stilts and for hygiene
they keep all their animals underneath. This means that if
mosquitoes come and bite the animals in the night, they get itchy and
scratch themselves on the stilts supporting the houses and this lets
the people know that there are mozzies about! After the Karen Village
we went to an ice- cold waterfall and I was the only person to jump
in apart from the tour leader who was busy having a shower and
shampooing his hair! After the waterfall we went bamboo rafting down
the river, which was fun. We got a bit wet going through the rapids,
and our driver told me that he could see by my eyes and smile that I
have a good heart – which was nice!

After Chiang Mai we took the bus to Chiang Khong on the border of
Thailand and took a little ferry over the river/border to Laos. Laos
was already amazingly different to Thailand. Totally unspoilt and way
less developed. The only traffic tends to be pushbikes and the odd
scooter. Its a bit like an Asian version of new Zealand – with only
5 million people in Laos compared to 60m in Thailand and 78m in
Vietnam.
Laos has not had an easy time. It is basically a massive area of
hundreds of different tribes that have been unified into one country.
When the Thais and Vietnamese were not ruling or fighting over it, it
was colonized by the French. Then after they finally gained
independence in 1953, the US began bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail in
Eastern Laos as part of the Vietnam War in 1964. By the time a
ceasefire came in ’73 Laos was the most bombed country in the history
of warfare. To be here and see how gentle these people really are it
is truly saddening. In 1975 a guy called Pathet Lao took over and
created a communist state - the People’s Democratic? Republic. He
exiled the king and his family to a cave somewhere in Northern Lao
never to be seen or heard from again, and 10% of the population left
the country. They turned his palace into a museum. We visited it
yesterday and it was very spooky. Strangely though, Laotians are not
used to living in an anti-monarchist society and so they have started
giving portraits of the Thai king pride of place in their homes. (In
Thailand there are pictures of the King everywhere, down the streets,
businesses – you even have to stand in the cinema before the film
starts while they play the national anthem and images of the King).
Fearing Thailand breathing down its neck the Lao government is not
very happy about this, so even though it is communist and anti-
monarchist it has started paying tribute to a notoriously bloody
Khmer-trained 14th century king. It has erected a statue of him in
the capital Vientiane and created a national holiday, all by way of
redirecting its people’s affections! Very strange... Currently Lao
citizens do no have the right to change their government. By the
early ‘90s the economy had reached a new low with 500% depreciation
in the Kip so they decided to open up the country to tourism. Its
unbelievable, you need a brick sized wad of cash to get through the
night!

Our first journey in Laos was to take a two-day boat journey down the
Mekong River to the world heritage listed city of Luang Prabang. We
took a slow boat and chugged down past beautiful mountains and
villages. There were herds of buffalo in the water. The first day
took six hours. The toilet was right at the back of the boat and you
had to climb over people and bags and then tip toe over a plank past
the uncovered engine. The toilet was a hole in the floor in a little
cabin 2ft square and 3ft high! A bit of an awkward affair when you
have to crouch down and the door’s flapping open every time the boat
sways! At the end of the day we reached a tiny village of Pakbeng. As
the boat docked chaos ensued as herds of tiny 7yr old children rushed
onto the boat to drag off our rucksacks. Some of them had one on the
front and one on the back! We were met by a nice young lady who took
us to her family house that had guest rooms upstairs. It was probably
the most basic place I have ever stayed. But I just thought of it
like camping and I think its good to live like they do if only for
one night. In our room we had a bed made of bamboo, a corrugated iron
roof and a few scraps of lino on the floor. At 3.30am we got woken up
by cockerels and the cafe playing music at 6am to wake up the
westerners. The toilet was down a ladder into the muddy backyard
where there was a bamboo cubicle with no roof (I later discovered it
was viewable from upstairs!!). There were chickens running around
everywhere and they had lit a fire on the stove to cook breakfast.
Most bizarre. The boat left again at 8am and it was bloody freezing
because of the morning mist blocking out the sun. I don’t know how I
am going to cope with the cold when I get back to England! This
journey took about 12 hours and we stopped off on the way to service
local villages picking up rice, monks and old ladies etc. We also
stopped at a place called Pak Ou caves where the Laotians hid
thousands of Buddhist images to protect them during the Vietnam War.
We had a bit of a palava here because some American show off had been
up on the roof and the driver demanded that he paid US$100, which of
course he wouldn’t pay. So then the American asked everyone on the
boat to pay US$1 each for stopping at the caves. The driver got
commission for this and would have stopped anyway, but he was so
angry he was at bursting point and he wasn’t leaving until he had got
as much money as he could out of the situation. Then the boat driver
next door saw what was going on so he ordered that the American get
on his boat and ask all those passengers for money as well!!
Honestly..

Jo's next mail continues...

The last time I wrote we had just caught the boat to the sleepy
riverside town of Luang Prabang. We spent a very relaxing week there,
our routine mostly consisted of getting woken by noisy chickens,
having a mooch around the beautiful 15th century temples and French
colonial houses, having a massage at the red cross, eating out and
watching movies in the evenings while chilling in hammocks in a bar.
Originally the Kingdom of Laos was called ‘Lan Xang’ (Land of a
million elephants) and Luang Prabang was the capital of this kingdom
until 1545. Even after this time it was considered the main source of
monarchic power – until the king was booted out of his palace but the
current communist prime minister Pathet Lao in 1975. One day, we
visited his palace – now a museum – and it was quite eery as there
was no mention of where the king is now or what happened to him.

One evening we went to see a ballet performed by Lao ethnic minority
groups. It was very bizarre with Hmong people rolling around in the
mud doing roly-poly while playing some kind of flute. Another group
danced around while they lifted up a clay pot in their teeth that was
filled with 2 buckets of water – I couldn’t even lift the pot with my
hands! At the beginning of the ballet we were welcomed with a ‘Baci
Ceremony’. This is a ritual performed in phii (spirit) worship found
in Laos, which is now illegal, but is the dominant non-Buddhist
religion. In this ceremony the 32 guardian spirits of the body are
bound to the guest of honor by white strings tied around the wrist.
We didn’t think much of it as it was only string, but the next day a
tiny old hmong woman stopped dead in her path starring at us because
the wrist bands came from a pagan ritual. On the way home from dinner
that night we were also offered Opium on the street. (Don’t get me
wrong, its really not a dodgy place, I just thought it was strange
that we could buy it if we wanted to). Luang Prabang always seemed to
have a smokey air too, due to the Hmong people in the surrounding
hills practicing ‘slash & burn’ techniques – used to prepare the land
for opium crops. In the long term this is not good for the land
because it causes soil erosion and flash flooding.

On valentines day, Mark said I could have anything I wanted, so much
to his disappointment I decided we should hire a motorbike. I had
never ridden a motorbike with gears before and I was really pleased
that I managed to ride around the town and surrounding countryside
afternoon. (Luang Prabang is really quiet – rush hour is when the
kids come out of school on their bicycles). However we had had a
torrential downpour that morning and the place we had to return the
motorbike to was on an unsealed road and we had had a torrential
downpour that morning…. Yes, we ended up in the mud.. I was only
doing 5mph and we slipped. The only thing hurt was my pride, when
were covered in mud and got laughed at by the locals. Felt a bit
guilty too because I bent the wing mirror a bit, and the guy just got
his screw driver out and everything was fine. But its not like a big
multinational hire car company that can afford a few scratches. Laos
is still one of the poorest countries in the world with an average
annual income of US$260. 80% of the country lives of the land
working in agriculture, fishing and forestry. It really makes no
sense for Laos to be a communist economy, as it still just a lot of
tribal groups living off the land with no real need for a currency.
Most of the manufactured goods here, are imported from Thailand
untaxed and traded freely on the black market, as is foreign currency.

After Luang Prabang we flew to the capital Vientiane. On our way
through the top of Laos we discovered that an incident had occurred a
few days before on the road we were planning to travel on. Hmong
bandits came out onto the highway and shot everyone in the area and
stripped them of their belongings. They killed 10 people and at the
time we were about to go there the army were still looking for them.
So we flew. It really was 6 of one, and half a dozen of the other
because Lao Aviation doesn’t publish its safety record. Apparently
they fly by sight, so if they cant find a hole in the cloud, they go
back down and land and refuel, wait a while and then give it another
go! Needless to say there was no flashy safety demonstration before
take-off and my seatbelt kept undoing itself, but apart from that I
was fine! Unfortunately, flying meant that we were then stuck in
Vientiane for a week. We couldn’t go to Vietnam before our visa
started. Vientiane was pretty boring really, about two days really
would have been enough. We did go to Buddha park though, which was
great and made our stay in Vientiane worthwhile. Its basically a
meadow full of cement sculptures of Buddhist and Hindu figures. Some
were a bit spooky and there were lots of monks around again, winking
at me, touching my arm etc – they really are a funny bunch. One monk
took us inside this massive bowl shaped building, inside there were
different levels full of figures representing heaven or hell. There
were loads of cobwebs and it was pretty spooky, we climbed out
through a tiny hole in the top and could see over the whole park. Our
monk guide was getting a bit weird though, insisting that I climb up
before him ( I had a skirt on!). We left Vientiane and flew to Hanoi
in Vietnam with Lao Aviation. This flight was a little more shakey
than the last and I vowed to stick to land from then on! I will spare
you the details but when we got on the runway, where in normal
circumstances aeroplanes fire up the engines in reverse, this didn’t
happen and it felt like we were still doing 200 mph on the runway!
Luckily the runway was pretty long.

Hanoi was VERY different to sleepy Laos. Since the 2nd Century BC,
Vietnam was dominated by China for 10 centuries. The Chinese
influence is very apparent and Vietnam feels much more Chinese than
Asian. There are no more Buddhist monks wondering around everywhere,
lots of beautiful green rice paddies and people wearing conical
bamboo hats. The temple architecture appears to be very Chinese too -
as oppose to the Thai temples we have seen in Thailand and Laos.
(Temple fatigue has set in quite heavily). There were motorbikes
everywhere. 90% of the traffic is scooters and it never stops. You
just have to walk into the road and they all drive round you! Takes a
bit of getting used to. There are lots of very narrow tall buildings
everywhere because the government used to tax houses according to
their width on the street. So we had to go up and down 8 flights of
stairs to our hotel room. It is probably the best place we have been
so far. For once we have had communication problems, and have had to
resort to sign language and pointing at maps. The food is the best we
have had so far too, and I have finally had to get used to eating
with chopsticks. However, I should note that we have seen a few
strange additions to the menu, such as: - spicy pork ears, roast
pigeon, chickens’ feet salad, fried tortoise. Just outside of Hanoi
there are also 60 or so dog meat restaurants – apparently its
particularly auspicious to eat dog meat in the second half of the
lunar month. Although they only breed these Chinese looking dogs for
their meat. But you never see dogs roaming the streets – in Laos they
were everywhere. At the markets they also sell delicacies such as
fried dragonflies and boiled rats. Cat meat is now illegal but many
families sell their cats for the money ( poor kitty!), then they have
to go out into the rice paddies and catch the rats themselves (which
they also bring to market to sell). After working for WSPA (World
Society for the Protection of Animals) we both notice animal cruelty
much more. It is endless, I have seen ten pigs in a cage, squashed
and piled on top of each other snorting through the cage, while being
carried on the back of a moped. I saw another woman with twenty or
so live chickens tied to the handlebars of her bicycle by their feet.
Anyway moving on…

We stayed in the Old Quarter in Hanoi, which is 1000 years old. There
are 36 streets and each street sells one item. Of the more
interesting of the streets were Buddhist Statues & Alters street;
Herb Street – selling bags of dried seahorses, dried starfish,
lizards on sticks, fried caterpillars and snake wine containing dead
snakes; Ghost money street – used for burning at Buddhist ceremonies
& funerals. The shopping is amazing. Mark and I both had a new pair
of Gucci eyeglasses made for 20 GBP! And they were expensive, you can
get them for 8 pounds! They are really nice. They rip anything off
here! You can buy photocopied books, DVDs that are only just in the
cinemas, you name it they copy it!

While in Hanoi we also visited the famous Water Puppets (Punch & Judy
in a pool). They were really cool. 11 puppeteers stand in waist deep
water behind a bamboo screen and operate the puppets. The art form
is about 1000 years old and was started by rice farmers in flooded
fields. The puppets look like they are walking on water. There are
fire breathing dragons with fireworks, and a little fisherman sat on
his boat smoking an opium bong with real smoke! We also visited the
Hoa Lao Prison which was built by the French to house Vietnamese
patriots and insurgents during the colonial period. There were
guillotines and exhibits about French cruelty and repression. Then
after the Vietnamese communist resistance gained independence from
the French, it was used as an American POW camp during what they call
the ‘American War’ (not Vietnam war). The Americans used to call this
place the Hanoi Hilton and they were treated very well, given
adequate food, shelter and clothing and then returned to America
after the war despite the untold crimes committed against their
people. I think this has to do with Buddhism.

We also took a two day trip from Hanoi down to Halong Bay (another
World Heritage Site). Halong Bay is one of the natural wonders of
Vietnam and is famous for its 3000 limestone formations, caves and
grottos rising from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Halong
Bay covers an area of 1500 sq. km and is comparable to Milford sound
in NZ but on a larger scale. We went to an Amazing Cave, so called
because it is amazing and probably the most impressive cave I have
ever seen. Not that caves are anything to get excited about. We
cruised around the bay till it got dark – our headlight was a guy
sitting on the bow with a torch. And we had a nice cabin and slept on
the boat overnight. There are lots of floating villages, and we
visited the largest, where 700 people live in 90 houses (floating
beach huts). If they are rich that is, if they are poor they live on
their fishing boats. These people had a floating school, and dogs! (I
said they probably got fatter for eating through lack of exercise –
poor doggies!). The bay was stunning and sooo peaceful, a much needed
break after the hustle and bustle of Hanoi.

When we got back to Hanoi, we visited Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.
Luckily for us it was closed – I didn’t really want to see his
embalmed corpse anyway! We saw his house and rushed around his museum
in half an hour before they shut for their standard two hour lunch
break. We hired a guide and the poor boy was sweating under the time
pressure and language problems! Then last night we caught the
overnight train to Hue. So I am a bit tired… With that in mind I
think I’ll leave it there.

Take care, Jo x