Plum Village

July 2007

Out of the mud the lotus blooms

“Hurry UP!” my friend Anna cried in Catalan, as I answered the door carrying a bag of recycling in one hand and my rucksack in the other. “We’re going to be late and you’ll miss your train!” Anna had kindly offered to drive me to Cerbère train station over the border in France, where I would catch an early morning train to Narbonne and from there to Ste Foy La Grande in the Dordogne. We walked towards her car but I stopped at the recycling bins and calmly proceeded to separate the rubbish into different bins piece by piece. Anna laughed and asked me if I really needed to go on a mindfulness retreat when I was already pretty zen about recycling the rubbish. We left Girona and sped along the main road to France. We turned right at Figueres to reach the coast road. Anna gripped the wheel, a determined look on her face as she drove at high speed along the straight and deserted road. “Oh look how beautiful everything is”, I cried, as the early morning light shone on the surrounding landscape. “I don’t have time to look at anything now!” she replied through clenched teeth. “I’ll look at it on the way back, when I have time.”

In July 2007 I made the wise decision to spend a week on a Zen Buddhist retreat with the monks and nuns of Plum Village, founded in 1982 by the Vietnamese Zen Master and Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong, a Buddhist nun. I say ‘wise’ because it was a life-changing week in so many ways. Inspired by friends in Girona who had been before, I had read some of Thay‘s* works and wanted to experience his dharma talks first hand. But the retreat was much more than a series of dharma talks. It was a week of intense personal therapy accompanied by community life, much love and many laughs.

Plum Village, or Le Village des Pruniers, as it is called, is situated in the south west corner of France, near Sainte Foy La Grande in the Dordogne.  The community, or sangha of monks and nuns is divided into three “hamlets” or small settlements, which are up to 18 kilometres apart. The 65 monks, led by Thich Nhat Hanh, live and work in Upper Hamlet. 40 nuns, under the guidance of Sister Chan Khong, are based in New Hamlet, and 40 more sisters can be found in Lower Hamlet. The vast majority of the sangha is Vietnamese and there is a predominance of women. I was placed in New Hamlet, along with other single women, some couples and families. All single men are housed in Upper Hamlet and families can be found in any of the hamlets. Children are welcome on the summer retreat and the first hour of the daily dharma talk is addressed to them. Then they can leave and play while the adults sit for a further hour of more challenging Buddhist teachings.

On arrival at New Hamlet, we were divided into families. My group of about 15 women and one man (part of a couple) were French, American, Canadian, Dutch and British. We were housed in a dormitory building about 500m down the road from the hamlet. It was a lovely old rustic house set in a beautiful, large garden and had stunning views over the fields of poppies and sunflowers. Our dormitory was basic but clean and we shared two bathrooms. The American couple had their own double room. As the group was French and English speaking, I was nominated the group interpreter, a job I thoroughly enjoyed.

Our family was chosen to peel, chop and prepare all the vegetables required for the meals. This was our working meditation and every family was given a daily task. Other families had to clean toilets, wash pots, or prepare the meditation hall etc. The family was more than just working meditation, however. We had daily meetings and discussions, led by a sister, during which we could ask questions, share problems or doubts. Our family soon became incredibly close. I can’t say it was a serious family! We were constantly joking and roaring with laughter. Some of the day was to be spent in silence and we were often very frustrated back in the dormitory when silence was required after 10pm. None of us went to bed that early and it was a difficult task. That silence had to reign until the following day after breakfast.

Here is a typical day in Plum Village:

  • 5:00am: Rise (in silence)
  • 6:00am: Sitting and Walking meditation (in silence)
  • 7:30am: Breakfast (in silence)
  • 9:00am: Dharma Talk / Class / Presentation / Mindful work period
  • 11:30am: Walking meditation
  • 12:30pm: Lunch
  • 1:30pm: Rest
  • 3:00pm: Working meditation
  • 5:30pm: Sitting meditation
  • 6:30pm: Optional dinner
  • 8:00pm: Personal study, Happiness Meeting, Beginning Anew
  • 10:00pm: Noble silence begins
  • 10:30pm: Lights out

On my first morning at breakfast, I was sat across the table from a woman I hadn’t seen for about 12 years and with whom I had lost all contact. Winship is an American dancer, who had lived with her French girlfriend in Reims, the capital of Champagne, in north eastern France. Her girlfriend and mine were teacher training together there, after passing the CAPES, the open competition exam that allows you to enter the French Education system. We often spent time together and after my relationship ended, I corresponded with them for a while and then we drifted apart. Winship and I saw each other over the breakfast table and the look of shocked and excited recognition we shared was unforgettable! However we couldn’t speak as breakfast was taking place in silence! It was a meal of smiles, hand gestures and looks of disbelief. After breakfast, when we could at last embrace and scream hysterically, Winship took me to her tent and showed me her two sleeping daughters! She was now married to a African Muslim man! How lives can change! While she got her girls, aged 7 and 18 months, dressed and fed, I tried to take in all her news. She had eventually left Reims and her girlfriend and over the years had travelled extensively, then had lived and worked in Africa. She was now running a dance company in Lyon, France, where African dance and culture was at the base of her art.

So now I had a second family and carried the little one in my arms into the coach, which was to take us to our first dharma talk by Thay in Upper Hamlet. My other family were open-mouthed. “Where on earth did you find her?” they all asked as I grabbed a seat with Winship and her older daughter. The little one was sick on the coach and a lot of cleaning up was required but we eventually got to the meditation hall and sat by the podium, much to the envy of my other family, who were all near the back. Suddenly acquiring two children had its advantages as all children and their carers were asked to sit right at the front for the dharma talks. For the rest of the week I practically sat at Thay’s feet and it felt like I was in the front row of a Rolling Stones concert; a very privileged place to be!

On our only free afternoon, Winship and I caught up with our news and I was able to tell her some more about my break-up. This in itself was therapeutic. I had not thought about it for a long time but I saw that some pain was still there and needed to be dealt with. Thanks to Sister Chang Kong’s therapy sessions of touching the earth, I was also able to do some work on my maternal great grandfather who had been so brutal to his wife and children and whom my grandmother, mother and I had always hated. I eventually accepted him as part of me and understood the joy of walking with all my ancestors. Walking meditation was a special delight when Thay took the lead. Hundreds of us, old and young, followed him through the grounds to the lotus pond, where we sat in meditation. There he seemed to look deeply and compassionately at each and every one of us several times.  This was a very special moment for all of us.

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Thay walking with the children 2014

The soul received its nourishment but the body was not forgotten! Every evening a sister led a session of bamboo stick meditation and we bent and stretched our bodies around our sticks and felt supple and pain-free. The food at Plum Village was worthy of a Michelin star! Totally vegetarian but not vegan, we were regaled with a wonderful fusion of French and Vietnamese food, with a plethora French of cheeses! I have heard that Plum Village is now strictly vegan but I am sure that even, sans fromage, the food is delicious. Organic produce was grown by the sangha in the hamlets’ vegetable gardens and their own hens laid the eggs we ate. Every ingredient was fresh and tasty and it was a joy to offer gratitude to the animal, farmer, cook, sunlight and rain that had produced this food for us. It was not a prayer to a god and nothing like saying “grace”. It was “just” mindful chewing and swallowing in the present moment and an appreciation of the source of the food.

“A very important exercise is to eat in silence and calmness, even if only for a few minutes. It keeps us away from distractions that get in the way of having real contact with our food” Thich Nhat Hanh

Plum Village encourages a state of mindfulness throughout the retreat. It does this by sounding gongs and bells at random times of the day. Whatever you are doing at that moment, whether walking, talking, eating etc, you should stop in your tracks and take three mindful breaths, bringing you back to the present moment. During a meal the clock would sometimes strike and this was another opportunity to stop and breathe. Before the dharma talk, Thay would sound the gong three times to bring us into the here and now so we could focus on his words.

All these years later, several aspects of the week stand out in my mind. First was the presence of Sister Chan Khong herself. Her official story is told below but the daily contact with this wonderful Sister was an absolute pleasure. She would lead the evening’s meditation and relaxation sessions and tell us hilarious stories that had us laughing out loud. She told us anecdotes of her young womanhood in Vietnam; how, at 16, she wanted to look like Audrey Hepburn and hated her nose. She wanted the boys to notice her but felt unattractive. Then she started to collect rice from rich people and distribute it to the poor, thus attracting the attention of all the boys around her. Her loveliness had come from helping others and forgetting about herself.

Sister Chan Khong

Sister Chan Khong had the most mischievous of personalities. Apparently when translating for Thay, she would add an anecdote or two and sometimes, make fun of him, to the hilarity of all concerned. She was like a Buddhist stand-up comic, although one that sat down to tell her stories and jokes. Then she would burst into song. Her songs were phenomenal. They would be in Vietnamese, French or English and would be about the small, simple things in life that make us happy. “When I go to the toilet, I am happy”, she would croon, in the three languages. Some women would be snoring at this point, in full relaxation mode!

As well as Total Relaxation, Sister Chan Khong was behind the Touching the Earth ceremonies and Beginning Anew group sessions. This is her dharma in action. One thing she organised in New Hamlet was an Honour Your Parents ceremony. On this day we were handed small paper roses to pin onto our clothes. The rose was red if your parent was alive and white if they were dead. They asked a 10-year-old boy to give out the roses. One of his roses was white as he had just lost his father and he and his mum had come on the retreat to mourn. They often cried and held each other. This 10-year-old child who already had a white rose and the vast number of young sisters from Vietnam who wore two white roses was a real awakening for me, aged 50 and with two red roses. The Honour Your Parents ceremony involved touching the earth and was very moving. There were speeches, music, poetry and sketches about parents. Some were very sad and people expressed the pain and abuse that their parents had inflicted on them. Not all of it was happy and celebratory. But the touching the earth ceremony allows you to let go of your suffering as well as acknowledge the love and care your parents have given to you and how dear and precious they are. After the ceremony I kept those two red roses pinned to the inside of my rucksack and travelled all over the world with my parents! Now one of those roses would be white and I treasure the red rose my mum represents. I know that eventually all of us are left with white roses. However those roses are none the uglier for being white. They remind us that we will always have our loved ones around us as long as we are alive because they are in our hearts and minds and our very DNA.

On the penultimate day, we took our meal and tea with Thay and the sangha. After this we were invited to a question and answer session with Thay in Upper Hamlet. Many people had written their questions on a piece of paper and then the questions were chosen at random. Amanda, a British woman in my family, was one of them. A beautiful soul from Oxford who worked with refugees and asylum seekers, she asked Thay what could be done to stop people being so negative towards refugees and immigrants and how the press could be a force to bring that change about. She said that the British press was currently encouraging people to turn against refugees and asylum seekers. Thay said that the only way to open people’s hearts to the suffering of others is to present their stories one by one. He said that if the press took responsibility for their actions, they would also film a Palestinian Muslim and an Israeli Jew laughing, smiling and talking at the market as well as people firing shots and throwing stones. If they also showed the good things happening in the world we would have less fear and more love.

Since the war in Syria and the mass immigration into Europe a few years ago, I have been even more aware of the truth of Thay‘s words. If a film or article focuses on one victim or family group from the conflict, I have been better able to sympathise and empathise. A million immigrants entering Germany in a short space of time can arouse some people’s compassion (witness the Germans who stood and applauded as the refugees poured into their country) but a great many were terrified and had the impression they were being overrun. British politicians and journalists used divisive words like UK prime minister David Cameron, who referred to migrants as “a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain because Britain has got jobs, it’s got a growing economy.” Right-wing media followed suit; the columnist Katie Hopkins, for example, referred to migrants as “cockroaches”. This paved the way for a right wing backlash, which ultimately led the the Brexit vote in 2016.

When we were on the tiny Greek island of Meis in 2015, Mum and I saw a mass of Syrian refugees wandering up and down the harbour area, dressed in dark clothes and contrasting shockingly with the brightly dressed, coffee drinking tourists lounging on the terraces of cafes and restaurants. But it wasn’t until I had returned from a walk and met up with Mum that my compassion kicked in. Mum had been sitting on a bench when a family of Syrians walked past. The father stopped and touched his heart and said, “Syria”. My mum smiled at them all warmly and said, “good luck” and they hurried on. There was a world of communication in that short exchange. Mum couldn’t tell me the story without tears and I have never been able to retell it without my voice cracking with emotion. I know that, had we been able, Mum and I would have taken that family into our home that very day. This was Thay‘s answer in action.

Thay suffered a brain haemorrhage in November 2014 and was flown to Bordeaux University Hospital for months of stroke rehabilitation. In 2015, he flew to San Francisco for more rehabilitation and returned to Plum Village in 2016. In 2018, he communicated to his senior disciples by hand gestures, nodding and shaking his head that he wished to return to Vietnam. At the age of 92, he is living his remaining days in Tu Hieu Temple, in Hue, central Vietnam, the temple he entered as a 16-year-old novice in 1942. He has finally returned to his roots after a lifetime of activism, fighting for peace and change. In his beloved temple, he continues to live among and walk with his sangha. 

When he first returned to Vietnam in 2005, after four decades of exile, Thich Nhat Hanh said:

“There is no religion, no doctrine higher than brotherhood and sisterhood.

Outside the temple we too must nurture our brother and sisterhoods, our sanghas, because, without them, we are exiles, not only from our own countries but from our own hearts, minds and bodies.

“Breathing in, I know I am breathing in,

Breathing out, I know I am breathing out”

Thich Nhat Hanh’s 92nd birthday

 

*”Thay” is the name given to Thich Nhat Hanh by his friends and followers. It means ‘master’ or ‘teacher’

Thich Nhat Hanh’s biography

Thich Nhat Hanh

Sister Chan Khong’s biography

The Life and Teachings of Sister Chan Khong

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Is Thailand

March 30th 2019

Just another day in Paradise

We have been raging at Thailand recently. Last week’s elections were rigged and the military government, who held a coup back in 2014, have regained control in several acts of subterfuge. The pollution from fires as farmers burn their crops in the north have turned our little corner of Thailand into a veritable Armageddon. We have been walking around in masks looking like characters from a science fiction film set in a post-apocalypse world.  For days on end we have been the most polluted city in the world, above the likes of Delhi! Our only conversation has been whether we have fitted a special anti-PM2.5 filter on our air conditioning units (I haven’t). We mutter the acronym AQI (Air Quality Index) and fall back at the rising numbers. Those PM2.5 fine particles will be embedded in our minds and bodies forever. Of course we have kept all our doors and windows shut and hope that we won’t be affected.

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This mask is useless against the fine PM2.5 particles in the air. Children are especially vulnerable and schools have been closed.

Today I woke up to find the smog even thicker than usual and the air quality rating probably right off the charts. After all we have already had an AQI of over 500 and witnessed colours above red that we hadn’t known existed; purple and then brown! The safety level is 50. I didn’t dare look online to check.

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At least it’s not 500!

I put on my N95 mask and cycled off to meet a friend for coffee in the “safe” air conditioned Wawee coffee shop. I stayed after she had left and finished Barnaby Rudge, a 700-page novel about the late 18th Century Gordon Riots in London. The mob of up to 60,000 people attacked and burned down Catholic churches and chapels, breweries, taverns, and distilleries were plundered, and the houses of Catholics and magistrates set on fire. The rioters broke into four London prisons allowing the inmates to escape. Take that you French révolutionnaires with your puny Bastille! These riots were not for a cause célèbre however, only a Protestant attempt to rid Britain of “Popery” and curtail rights for Catholics. There was no “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” about any of it. Just a wild desire to run riot, get drunk and cause mayhem.

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Wawee Bistro and coffee shop with air conditioning!

Leaving the coffee shop and walking to the traditional open-sided and fronted Blue Shop noodle restaurant nearby, I sat down to a bowl of my favourite noodle soup. Over to one side, the cooks stand over huge steaming pots of broth and mounds of beef and pork in different forms. I always order the stewed beef with the small size of three rice noodle sizes on offer. The bowl contains a lot more besides; small cubes of crisp, fatty pork skin, chopped greens and herbs, small cloves of garlic still in their skins and poured over the lot, the most delicious broth imaginable, made from an ancient family recipe. I dug out my chopsticks from the cutlery box, grabbed a spoon and tucked in. The Thai way of eating noodles is to scoop up a bunch of them in your chopsticks and place them slowly and delicately onto the spoon. It is this you eat from. The Chinese tourists flock to this restaurant because the essence of this soup is Chinese. It has no Thai spices or flavourings, The couple’s ancient family recipe probably emigrated to Thailand with their Chinese ancestors. The Chinese way of eating noodles is entirely different. Up to the mouth comes the bowl and the chopsticks hoist up a great clump of noodles, which are slurped in an ungainly fashion into the mouth. In this mere act of noodle eating, the cultural differences between the Thais and Chinese can be seen.

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Left, stewed beef noodle soup. On the right, beef balls have been added. Water is free but some people order drinks, like iced Thai tea (top)

Reflecting on this, I cycled back to my room. The cleaners has just finished their weekly clean and the floor and all the surfaces were spotless and smelled heavenly. The bed boasted crisp white sheets and pillowcases, two snowy white towels were folded on the bed and in the bathroom everything shone. I thanked the two cleaners profusely. One of them works from 7am to 5pm in the hotel, then moves to a restaurant just down the soi, where she clears tables and washes dishes all night. I often ask her if she’s tired. She always says no and she always looks fabulous.

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My room is spotlessly cleaned once a week

Later I cycled off to my dentist appointment at Chiang Mai Gate, the south gate of the Old City. As I crossed the moat on my bicycle, I saw an amazing spectacle. About twelve young boys dressed in bright, exotic costumes atop tiny prancing  ponies were being led along the street by adult relatives. At the front of the procession was a band of monks and at the back, musicians played the typical Lanna or northern Thai instruments with much banging of drums and clashing of cymbals. It was so loud that the poor ponies looked ready to bolt or rear in terror. The boys, all dressed up to look like Prince Rahula, Buddha’s son, wore rouge, lipstick and wonderful headgear. Their demeanour was regal, like their costumes and they tried not to panic as their little ponies pranced and danced. Women from the nearby market, aprons on, rushed across the moat to give out 100, 50 and 20-baht notes and soon the boys were tucking wads of notes into their horses’ bridles.

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A typical Poy Sang Long parade

Poy Sang Long is a rite of passage ceremony that takes place at this time of year in neighbouring Shan State (occupied by Burma). The Shan, known in Thailand as Thai Yai, brought this rite of passage across the border into northern Thailand. During the festival, dozens of boys are brought by their families to the temples, where they will become novice monks, making merit for themselves and their families and learning Buddhist teachings. The festival goes on for three days and after the first day of temple rituals, when their eyebrows and head are shaved, the boys’ feet must not touch the ground, so ponies and male relatives, who act as substitute horses, carry them around and parade them through the streets. This is what I saw. A splendid riot of colour and sound. I had no camera on me to record the experience and went to my dentist appointment thinking I may have dreamt it!

A monk shaves a novice’s head and eyebrows

Tonight when I went out for my supper, the air was a little more bearable and a gentle breeze was blowing. Most people had taken off their masks but I wasn’t sure it was safe and kept mine on. I walked to my favourite salad restaurant, a modern, glass-fronted affair with air conditioning, and ordered my daily salad of crisp mixed lettuce leaves, five salad ingredients of choice and a dressing for £1.60. I received impeccable service as usual. I have been a fan of Salad Concept since its creation, when two Thai sisters felt they needed to feed their father, who had cancer, fresh, healthy fruit and vegetables. Olive oil and balsamic vinegar bottles are brought to my table when my salad is served. I even have a membership card that gives me a 10% reduction!

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I left the restaurant and took a long way home, meandering slowly through the sois, which are empty and peaceful now that most of the tourists have gone home or south, away from the pollution. I stopped to stare at details I had never seen in my fourteen years of coming to Chiang Mai. I passed a newly painted wall, where clouds, hearts, rainbows and a sun were colourfully portrayed on a background of turquoise, adding to the already vibrant street art scene in the old city. I gazed up at the frangipani trees in full bloom, sporting fragrant white or dark pink flowers. Further on, I was stopped in my tracks by a heady, tropical scent and buried my nose in a bush packed with beautiful pink and white blossoms. It was intoxicating and I could have stayed there for hours.

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Soi 5 Ratchadamneun. The laundry woman’s shack is further down on the right

Further down the soi I passed the laundry woman’s shack. She lives and works in the tiny, makeshift room, her bed and TV at one end and the laundry at the other. In the daytime, she hangs the clothes on a rack outside to dry in the sun. Her handwritten sign says, “Laundry 40B/kg”. Her light and TV were on and the door open but there was no-one inside. I reached the main Ratchadamneun road. It was silent. No cars or traffic of any kind disturbed the peace. Then I saw the laundry woman. In the 14 years I have been coming here, she has always worn the same clothes; a tee-shirt and a sarong wrapped around her waist. Her hair has always been grey and cut in the same short style. I used to think she was old, very old, but in truth she looks exactly the same as she did 14 years ago. The difference is that I look older now and I wonder if we might not be very different in age! She sat with a friend at the side of the main road and together they watched the event taking place in the silent street. Runners were sprinting up one side of Ratchadamneun road, turning at Tha Pae Gate and running down the other side. It was the Chiang Mai Night Marathon! I saw one or two farangs but the vast majority were fit Thais, men and women of all ages, who bravely faced the pollution and heat, even at 10pm, to compete in the race. It was like a dream; a trickle of runners passing up and down the silent street, while a lone middle-aged woman, of the old Thai school, dressed in a sensible below-the-knee skirt and blouse, stood outside her house on Ratchadamneun road and applauded each runner as he or she passed by. I stood and watched her for a while as she clapped every single runner, a happy and encouraging smile on her gentle face. However, she probably wouldn’t have stayed until 3am, when the marathon ended! The runners acknowledged her support with a respectful and grateful wai as they passed.

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I reached the top of Ratchadamneun road and was serenaded by the musician who plays nightly for the diners and beer drinkers in an open courtyard. Tonight only one table was occupied. As he played his guitar and sang a beautiful ballad, my heart just swelled with love. Love for my adopted city and the people in it. It may be full of poisonous air at the moment and it may be part of a corrupt political system but This is Thailand, a land of unexpected surprises and never-ending entertainment, of beauty in hidden corners and brave, hard-working people with big hearts.

 

A Poy Sang Long parade in Chiang Mai. Here adults are substitute horses:

https://www.msn.com/es-xl/video/viral/buddhist-poy-sang-long-festival-in-chiang-mai-thailand/vi-AAacNfY

Article from The Nation on Chiang Mai pollution March 30th 2019

http://www.nationmultimedia.com/detail/national/30366833

PM2.5 particles are smaller than 2.5 micrometres (0.0025 mm) in diameter. Often described as fine particles, they are up to 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

wai: a Thai gesture of greeting, respect and thanks. The nearer the nose, the more respect you show. Here a younger person “wais” higher as s/he is greeting or thanking an elder.

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The moat, Old City, Chiang Mai. The ancient city of Chiang Mai was founded in 1296AD, at which time it became the capital of the Lanna Kingdom. The large square moat and adjacent walls and gates were built to defend the city against the ever threatening Burmese army. Today, the moat still surrounds the original Old City, and parts of it’s ancient walls and gates are also still standing.

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Halong Bay

March 2007

Close encounters with the Vietnamese – at last!

Larry and I had returned to Hanoi after our trip south. We were no longer staying in the hilariously named hotel, Man Dung, but had moved to a hotel nearby in “Sausage Street”, not its official name of course, but where many sausages were made and cooked in small eateries throughout the day and night.

We soon found ourselves at a travel agency making enquiries about cruises on Halong Bay, 103 miles east of Hanoi. This agency was recommended by the Lonely Planet and of course, there were two agencies of the same name in the same street. The Vietnamese peruse the Lonely Planet avidly and when they see something that’s recommended, they instantly set up a copy cat business with the same name to steal the custom! We were therefore obliged to investigate both travel agencies and over lunch in a pleasant restaurant, decided on a package costing $53 for two nights and three days. This would give us a cruise around Halong Bay on a beautiful wooden boat, with full board, a variety of interesting excursions and transport to and from Hanoi. In 2007 53$ was worth £27! Eight dollars (£4) of that price was for a single supplement. The woman in the office asked us why we didn’t share a room to save money. I told her that we had different religions, which caused Larry to burst out laughing as it was the last answer he expected to hear!

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Map showing Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island

On the first day of Spring, 21st of March, a minibus picked us up from our hotel and we found ourselves squashed inside like sardines. One of our two young male guides sat on my feet on the floor of the van and dug his elbows into my lap every time he turned round to speak! I was fortunate to be sitting next to a lovely Vietnamese women called Huyen, aged 43, who was travelling with her American partner, Steve. Steve was 49 like me and, unlike me, had come with 5 enormous pieces of luggage which had to be rammed into the boot with our small packs. Huyen had a 16-year-old daughter and an elderly, ill mother living with her in Saigon, where she owned a laundry business, open from 10am to 10pm. No-one can say Asian women have it easy! Huyen and Steve had not known each other long but were trying to get married. The Vietnamese cannot leave the country for any reason apart from marrying a foreigner. Steve was very eccentric but slowly become likeable as the trip progressed. I was sure Huyen saw the relationship as a passport to an easier life for her and her two female dependents.

Huyen shared a lot of inside knowledge about Vietnam and the Vietnamese with me and I was happy at last to be speaking to a local and asking questions about her daily life. I learned, for example, that workers earn only 75-100$ (£38-£50) a month and that there are no pensions. Huyen told me the subsidy time* in Vietnam had been unbearable and that life was so much better now. She said that even the Vietnamese are cheated and scammed if they’re not careful so she advised me not to shop at the markets but in supermarkets, where everything is priced visibly and fairly. When we talked about women and self-image she said she felt ugly.  She was, however, an attractive woman. Vietnam is a macho society, even though women run businesses and seem to be in control of their lives.

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Vietnamese women seem to be in control of their lives

At the port there were many tour groups milling around and a plethora of boats waiting to be boarded. We were surprised how organised it was and we were taken to our boat quickly and efficiently. There were 16 of us in our group: four Swedes, four Americans, two British, one Japanese, one Swiss, one Canadian and one Vietnamese. Steve, Larry, Huyen and myself were the oldest passengers. The boat was a beautiful wooden junk with three decks and magnificent sails. After a passable lunch, we rested on the top deck. Unfortunately the weather was cool and foggy and the visibility practically nil, although we were afforded romantic and mysterious glimpses of the karst scenery as we glided silently through the water.

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Walking through the beautifully lit caves of Halong Bay

Our first excursion was a walk through a wonderful cave system, all of which was beautifully and magically lit, with rock formations depicting animals and scenes and rough paths underfoot. Back on the boat, Larry and I were informed that we had to spend the first night in a hotel but on the second night we would sleep on the boat. They had overbooked for the first night. I was furious at first but then I thought about how cold it was on the boat and that a hotel room would probably be more comfortable. The rest of the day passed pleasantly and the scenery was stunning. Apart from the four loud Americans, our fellow passengers were delightful. Some of them kayaked and Steve went snorkelling. He was carrying  all his snorkelling gear in one of those five huge suitcases, as well as a complete set of sophisticated photographic equipment.

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A view of Halong Bay from the caves

As evening approached, we sailed on to Cat Ba island. Four of us; Larry and I and two young Swedes, were dropped off at the Princes Hotel (3 stars) right by the sea. It was heaven after a day on the boat! Larry and I were given two adjacent rooms on the seventh floor, each of which would have cost 25$, including breakfast. However, when I tried to close my window, the pane of glass fell out and smashed into smithereens seven floors below! I hope to god it didn’t kill or injure anyone! I went downstairs to inform reception and was given a new room; a suite containing a lounge area, a huge bedroom with two beds, a luxurious bathroom, TV and minibar. I ran a bath. The hot water ran out quickly but nevertheless managed to warm me up after a chilly day on the water. Over dinner in the hotel dining room, the four of us became acquainted and enjoyed a tasty meal with a wide variety of seafood. So far we seemed to be having chips with every meal, but they were surprisingly delicious! Either they thought all westerners ate chips twice a day or this was a remanent of the French occupation, like baguettes and La Vache Qui Rit cheese. After dinner, Larry and I went for a short walk down to the sea front and then, back in my room, I munched my way through a 15,000 dong (50p) Snickers bar from the minibar while watching French TV. What luxury! And all for £27!

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The sea front on Cat Ba Island

The night, alas, was short as the alarm was set for 6.15am and breakfast was at 7am. The tasty buffet breakfast did not include chips. We we were taken to the jetty at 7.45am and then waited for a small boat to take us out to our wooden junk. The rest of the group had had a reasonable night but there were reports of rats scampering about, there had been no hot water or showers and the breakfast was “boring”. How lucky we were! And to think I had almost had a hissy fit over it! Knowing what would await us if we spent the second night on the boat, we begged our guide to let us have another night at the hotel. He kindly made two phone calls and on the second call, received the good news. He said,”I told them you were very friendly and a little bit old so you wouldn’t be able to sleep on the boat.” When I told Kevin this later, he teased me for the rest of the trip. Kevin is a British English teacher who lives in Japan and is married to a lovely Japanese woman called Yuki. We shared the same British sense of humour and had a good laugh together.

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A wooden junk in full sail on Halong Bay

Our second day was perfect. The Swedes and loud Americans had left and four lovely young Germans had taken their place. Larry and I, Steve and Huyen, Kevin and Yuki made up the group. The weather had improved and we had better visibility. We sailed over to a small island, where we did a two-hour walk through scenery which reminded me of the Norwegian fjords. We stopped for a break in a beautiful village full of friendly local people. We sat with our drinks on the village square, made jokes and chatted. The locals waved and smiled as they passed and children stared at us, giggling. We returned to our boat, which now felt like home. As we continued on our journey, we passed many floating villages, where whole communities live and work. They keep pigs, chickens and dogs and grow vegetables. The children play on the floating platforms and splash about in the sea.

Our two guides were becoming more open and friendly as the days passed and we learned some things about them and their lives, as they did ours. One of them told me he and his brother were paying 500,000 dong (30$/£15) per month in rent and his university fees were about 1 million dong (60$/£30) per month. His parents earned 5 million dong (300$/£150) between them in a cement factory and sent the boys a million dong per month. As this wasn’t enough to survive, our guide had taken this job to earn some extra money.  The two lads spent much of our free time sitting with Larry and me as we were the “elders” and they felt we had much life experience to share. They asked us what we treasured most in life, what advice we would give them for their lives, as well as how to behave towards women that they liked! I became the mouthpiece of womankind! What do women want? “Thoughtfulness, sensitivity, hygiene”, I said, because our mentees were grubby and smelly. Later on, Larry sat on the beach with one guide and said, “listen, if you work with western tourists and want to seduce a Vietnamese woman, you have to take a shower everyday, wash your hair, change your clothes and brush your teeth.” Many Vietnamese men and certainly our guides, have greasy, unwashed hair, dirty clothes, bad teeth and breath. Vietnamese women are much cleaner. The following day we noticed that the two guides had washed and changed their clothes. They no longer smelled and had brushed their teeth. Those Vietnamese women they have relationships with should be eternally grateful to Larry and I but I really hope it wasn’t just a flash in the pan.

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Floating villages, Halong Bay

After our hike, we sailed to another island and had lunch on the beach. We were the only tour group left after two others packed up and left. The crew set up long tables near the shore and served us lunch. The food that was brought out from that tiny galley kitchen was impressive. The dishes were always the same; fried rice, pork and the ubiquitous chips, but they were consistently tasty. The cook looked about 12 years old! After lunch we walked, read and some of us went kayaking again. Back on the boat, we sailed to Monkey Island, where three cheeky monkeys came through the forest to stare at us and eat our bananas. All too soon, we were taken back to Cat Ba island for a second night at the hotel. I was in the same luxurious suite. I had another hot bath and went down to dinner at 7pm. Fed up with the same pork dishes on the menu, Larry and I asked for an omelette. I told the waiter we didn’t eat pork as we were Muslims and this produced another guffaw of laughter from Larry! After dinner we walked along the seafront, where people were strolling around and relaxing. It felt very un-Vietnamese and reminded me of some coastal towns on the Mediterranean. We were back at the hotel by 9pm. I watched French TV and slept very well. I was getting used to this 3-star life! My hotel room in “Sausage Street” was small, damp and dark. How would I cope with it after this?

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Monkey island, Halong Bay

On the third and final day, we went through the same morning routine and were taken back to the boat, where the rest of the group had spent the night. They all looked pretty rough and unkempt by now and must have envied Larry and I a great deal! Relaxing on loungers on the top deck, we sailed through the mist, not wanting our heavenly cruise to end. We disembarked at the port and waited for our minivan to appear. Two men came up to Steve, offering to polish his shoes and he accepted. He took them off and they proceeded to polish them half-heartedly. However, while no-one was looking, they stuffed glue and a pair of new inner soles into his shoes and tried to charge him for them, saying his soles were broken! Of course! They were graduates from the Night School for Scammers! Steve told them he didn’t want or need new inner soles so they pulled them out angrily! Huyen handed over $30,000 (£1) and the scammers were furious as they wanted much more. It was a very expensive shoe shine! In Hanoi Larry had been charged 10,000 dong and the man had done a good job. I was surprised at Huyen’s lack of assertiveness and ability to bargain. She was Vietnamese after all! I have since wondered if the northern Vietnamese don’t despise their southern compatriots as much as they hate western tourists!

The minivan was comfortable and we all had seats. Steve’s five huge bags were stashed away in the boot. We stopped in a small town for lunch and were driven back to Hanoi, where we said goodbye to the rest of the group and our guides. It wasn’t easy as we had become so close on that beautiful wooden boat. We had glided through the mist together until the outside world had melted away. We had laughed, joked, talked and eaten together. We had also learned something about each other’s lives and cultures and it was this I treasured the most.

I often wonder what happened to Huyen and the two guides. I had become very fond of them. They had given me an insight into the Vietnamese character and way of life and I felt a great deal of compassion for them because that life was hard. However, they possessed amazing resilience and a determination to do better, which I admired. My trip to Halong Bay will be etched in my memory like a dream; shrouded in mist and pierced by rays of sunshine, laughter and love.

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Halong Bay on a sunny day
  • the subsidy period: Bao Cap was the name given to the Vietnamese economy between 1975 and 1986. It was the post-war transition to a socialist economy. During this period, food, goods, and services were purchased with coupons or food stamps. Those with a position in government received more coupons and had access to special shops. Those without special status could expect to spend almost a day waiting in queues to buy rice and other basic commodities. Everything was controlled by the government. Having a bicycle, even one that was old and broken, was considered a luxury. Bao cap was a period during which the courage and intelligence of millions of people were suppressed and liberty was removed from people’s lives. It was a dramatic period, and a profound lesson in the law of social development. In 1986 Vietnam launched a political and economic renewal campaign (Doi Moi) that introduced reforms intended to facilitate the transition from a centrally planned economy to a form of market socialism officially termed “Socialist-oriented market economy”.

 

Hoi An

March 2007

Graduates of the Night School for Scammers

Larry and I had been walking and cycling together around the pretty riverside town of Hoi An for a few days and had fallen in love with the old town with its brightly coloured shop houses, the bustling riverside fish market and the beautiful cycle ride along the river to the beach.

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Hoi An old town

Hoi An. I had heard about the central Vietnamese town from my Chiang Mai friend, Michele, who had recently been to Vietnam. She was full of praise for Hoi An and I wrote in my notebook, “Hoi An, great tailors”. She herself had had several items of clothing made there and was thoroughly pleased with them.

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When Larry and I had first arrived and settled in our rooms, we walked to the old town to explore and had not been that impressed with the tailor shops, whose displays looked frumpish and about 40 years out of date. We entered one shop and were accosted by a hysterically happy Danish woman, who insisted we admired the dress she’d just had made. As she twirled and preened in front of us, we were shocked at how badly made the dress was and wondered if the tailors didn’t slip something in their customers’ drinks before they tried on their finished articles!

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Yaly is one of the top tailor shops in Hoi An

We were astounded by the plethora of tailor and shoemaker’s shops in Hoi An and the amount of shouting, coaxing and sales pressure we received just walking down the street! It soon became a hassle and we got fed up with it very quickly. I was still hoping to have a cotton tunic made but had not yet found any fabric I liked or the right tailor to make it.

On our fourth day, Larry and I decided to go our separate ways and meet up for supper in the evening. I had started the day in a jovial mood. I returned to my favourite coffee place, a large open-air garden cafe run by sweet, young waitresses, whom I had chatted to during my daily morning coffee visits. I was a novelty there as there were never any tourists to be seen. Vietnamese workers would come there in the morning with their newspapers or groups of friends would sit and chat. It was the perfect place to read or write my diary for an hour or so and the coffee was excellent.

My happy mood soon dissipated when I tried to buy a few things at the covered market. No tourist seemed to dare venture inside it and I was stared at and treated like an alien. Not one stallholder told me the real price of anything and when I insisted on paying the local price for some washing powder, they literally threw the change at me! I was looking for a pyjamas but didn’t find any, in spite of the fact that Vietnamese women live and die in them at all times of the day and night.

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Vietnamese women live and die in their pyjamas

The reason pyjamas had suddenly become important is that I sleep naked and the previous afternoon had taken a shower and had lain down on my bed for a nap, wrapped in just a small towel. Suddenly a female employee appeared at my window and announced she wanted to change the bathroom fan! I opened the door to find her with a repairman and rushed into the bathroom to throw on my clothes. As he worked, the employee and her friend the cleaning woman bounced around on my bed and walked around the room, pointing at my stuff and giggling their heads off. I told them in a sarcastic voice to go and get some more friends so that we could have a party and they scuttled out. Luckily the repairman was more discreet but I didn’t want to get caught out again. Unfortunately I didn’t find the pyjamas I was looking for. I had stepped off the tourist conveyor belt and infiltrated their very separate world. Washing powder was all I ended up with.

I had planned to cycle to the beach after lunch and on the way I stopped at a shoemaker’s shop and asked them to renew the velcro on my walking sandals. Now these sandals meant everything to me, They were my number one back-up walking and evening sandals for the 700-km walk across Spain on the Camino de Santiago, which I had completed in September of 2005. As my feet swelled, my well-worn, trusty walking boots became more uncomfortable and blisters and broken blood vessels around my heels caused me great pain. Without more ado, I slung my boots onto the back of my rucksack, put on my sandals and didn’t look back. They were cool and comfortable and I remained blister-free from then on.

So it was time to change the velcro, which had started to weaken and pull apart when I walked. How difficult could it be, I thought, for a shoemaker to replace some velcro? I was soon to find out. I paid a 40,000 dong deposit and would pay the remaining balance of 20,000 that evening, when they would be ready. But it didn’t end there. The sales girl lured me into the tailor shop next door, which she said belonged to her “sister”. I chose some thin cotton material for a tunic and paid the 100,000 dong deposit. It would also be ready that evening. The “sister” hugged me and told me I had beautiful eyes, which is part of the sales patter in Vietnam, probably learned at the Night School for Scammers.

Feeling mildly pleased that I had killed two birds with one stone and that I too would perhaps be able to return to Chiang Mai and recommend Hoi An for its “great tailors”, I took my bike and cycled to the beach, a delightful ride along the river. There I saw another scam in operation. As I parked my bike for 2,000 dong, a Scandinavian couple were causing a rumpus. They had given the “car park attendant” a 50,000 dong note and he had not given them change, saying he had received the correct amount. The couple were furious but could prove nothing.

I sat on the beach under my parasol and drank a refreshing lemon juice but was harassed every five minutes by the women sellers hawking their wares up and down the beach. They ranged from wizened old women with no teeth selling fruit, to young women who would sit next to you and whine about their babies at home, “who had a bad cough, couldn’t sleep, needed milk, couldn’t go to school as fees were 300,000 dong a month etc etc” whilst displaying their jewellery items.

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A vendor hawks her wares on a beach near Hoi An

After stopping for a coffee by the river on the way back to Hoi An, I returned to the shoemaker’s to collect my sandals. They looked nice but as soon as I took one step, the velcro peeled apart. It was the weakest type of velcro I had ever seen and I was furious. At times like these I remind myself of Basil Fawlty, ranting and raving in full hissy fit mode. I marched around, sandal straps flapping, explaining in a loud voice that these were my walking sandals, I climbed mountains and walked across countries in them and how DARE they insult me by replacing good enough velcro with something less effective! Oh dear! I was making them lose face by the second. “Shhhhh!, they hissed, “now you be QUIET!” I obediently fell silent. Then I insisted they change the velcro again for something strong and effective. They told me to come back the next day.

With a feeling of impending doom, I went next door to pick up my tunic. It looked like a nylon petticoat. It was badly made and didn’t fit me at all. It was also so flimsy you could see right through it. I asked for my money back without the Basil Fawlty rant and of course they refused. I told them to keep the tunic and the money and stomped out. I considered it a donation to the Vietnamese economy. 100,000 dong is, after all, only £3.30. But I had learned my lesson. While other tourists swan happily around the town with bags full of tailor-made clothes, I am destined to be ripped off and disappointed. I made a decision that, from that day on, I would only spend my money on food, drink and transport.

After my morning coffee the following day, I went back to the shoemaker’s and picked up my sandals, now supplied with strong velcro. I was pleased with the result and paid the remaining 20,000 dong without trying them on. Later, when I got them home I noticed that both soles had been deeply slashed several times with a sharp knife and my favourite sandals were now completely unwearable. Never forget that the Vietnamese have remained unbeaten throughout their long history and they weren’t going to let me be the exception. There was a new war waging in Vietnam; the war against tourists. I threw my favourite sandals away in defeat.

Later that evening the woman at my hotel burst into dramatic tears when Larry and I refused to pay the full amount for a train ticket until we had received it and seen its true price. We had to pay a hefty commission on top of the ticket price and could no longer trust anyone’s word when it came to money. The weeping and wailing continued. I didn’t slash the soles of her shoes but her Oscar performance was commendable. I was not the only Basil Fawlty in Hoi An, it seemed!

In spite of these stories, Hoi An is a pleasant little town if you stay out of the way of tailors, shoemakers, car park attendants, beach hawkers, hotel workers and market stall holders. As I was eager to return one day, I set off looking for pleasant long-term accommodation in the nearby streets. In one attractive guest house I asked the price. It was 8$ per night. “How much would it cost if I stayed long term?” I asked the receptionist. “9$ a night”, she answered. “Why?” I asked, puzzled. “Because we wouldn’t be able to rent it to anyone else while you were in the room”, she replied.

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Hoi An is a pleasant little town

At that point I gave up fighting the Vietnamese graduates of the Night School for Scammers. The mighty American and Chinese empires had failed to conquer the Vietnamese and so had I.  I didn’t like them very much but I admired their tenacity.

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The riverside in Hoi An

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ninh Binh

March 2007

The Halong Bay of the rice paddies

Larry and I caught the night train from Danang and early the following morning arrived in the small town of Ninh Binh, about 100km south of Hanoi in northern Vietnam. The journey was thoroughly unpleasant, thanks to two Australian women who entered our carriage flaunting the smelliest, filthiest feet imaginable. It practically made me retch. The sheets and pillowcases were dirty to match and I slept inside my silk sleeping bag. It was a miracle that I slept at all!

Our arrival in Ninh Binh, a Vietnamese backwater devoid of tourists, was just as shocking. In the drizzle and damp, we found two dubious guest houses near the train station and took one of them. We chose the 4th and top floor, hoping that it would render more light and air but the musty, damp rooms were none too clean and the sheets and duvets stank even more than those Australian feet!

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Map showing Ninh Binh in northern Vietnam

With a population of 130,000 Ninh Binh is a dusty and musty, grey and dreary backwater. However, on the positive side, there is a distinct lack of four-wheeled traffic on the wide roads, which is quite impressive in noisy, traffic-clogged, horn-honking Vietnam! We explored our neighbourhood, walking past the market and through streets selling nothing but bananas. We saw Soviet style blocks of flats and a barber cutting men’s hair on the pavement. A man led his buffalo through the streets, creating a rural atmosphere in an ugly, urban environment. We were looking for a place to eat but none of the tiny, dark corner restaurants selling local food looked clean or appetising enough. In retrospect this was smart thinking as I have since discovered there are numerous dog-meat restaurants scattered throughout the town. At the only decent-looking eatery, we feasted on bread and La Vache Qui Rit cheese and then booked an afternoon motorbike tour for 8$ each, excluding entry fees and the cost of the boat trip. Our tour would take us to Hoa Lu and then onto Tam Coc for a sampan boat ride to the caves. On the return trip we would visit a couple of pagodas.

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We set off on our respective bikes at 1.30pm, seated behind our drivers, who drove through the back streets of Ninh Binh and out into the fields and villages. So this was the Ninh Binh the guide books raved about! The ugly city melted away into the most splendid karst landscapes of limestone rocks, emerald green paddy fields and small, rural villages, where we were offered a fascinating glimpse of people going about their daily lives. In the rice fields, the farmers (women for the most part) worked solidly and swiftly to plant new rice, bent double and up to their knees in water and mud. They all wore the iconic Vietnamese conical hat to protect their faces from the sun, even though the day was dull.

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Emerald rice fields and karst scenery around Ninh Binh city

We stopped in Hoa Lu, an ancient capital city. There was nothing remaining of its former glory but it was in a very beautiful spot among the karst mountains. They don’t call it the Halong Bay of the rice paddies for nothing! We walked around to stretch our legs. Unfortunately it wasn’t a photographer’s dream that day as the sky was grey and the light poor. We climbed back on the bikes and rode on to Tam Coc for our 6km boat ride.

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A sampan boat ride in Tam Coc, Ninh Binh

At the wharf a sampan boat was waiting for us. We climbed in and joined our boat crew of two. The man did the serious rowing, while the woman, who spoke French and had a pile of wares for sale, occasionally rowed with one oar. We were dreading the sales pitch and hassle but on the way up the river and through the caves all was peaceful. However, as we exited the cave, a myriad of drinks vendors suddenly appeared and we were asked to buy a drink for our female rower, the “thirsty madame”. It is of course a scam. The “thirsty madame” just passes the unopened bottle or can back to the vendors, who sell it all over again!

We came back the same way and it was pleasant to be one of the last tourist boats on the water, rather than part of the steady stream of sampans which ferry tourists up and down the river all day long. The stunning limestone rocks towered above us and farmers waved as they worked in the fields along the river bank. Several boat women passed us, rowing impressively with their feet. How relaxing it all was! We knew it couldn’t last, however. Our “thirsty madame” soon brought out the embroidered tablecloths and the non-stop sales patter began. Larry bought a small cloth containing an embroidered scene for $2. I bought nothing.

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A woman rows with her feet on the way back to the wharf in Tam Coc

All the tourists were whisked back to Hanoi on their tour buses as soon as they had disembarked. Larry and I were the only ones who were brave or stupid enough to stay in Ninh Binh, it seemed! Our motorbikes picked us up at the wharf and drove us off to the two pagodas. Larry went into the first one alone while I went for a walk. Everywhere I went I was accosted by small schoolgirls who could just about pronounce “hello” and “dollar”. This was sad and annoying at the same time. It was also so very Vietnam.

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Tam Coc caves, Ninh Binh

We returned to our hotel and climbed up the four flights to our musty, unpleasant rooms to wash off the day’s grime, then met downstairs, hoping to find Ninh Binh’s poshest hotel that we had read about in the guide book. We rented bicycles for 10,000 dong each and although the day was nearly over, it was money well spent, as the hotel turned out to be quite a long way across town. We arrived at the hotel, which looked and smelled clean and fresh and we both had a delicious chicken dish with rice and a disappointingly soggy salad. We even shared a banana pancake! Then, entering into the spirit of things, we went up to the sixth floor to drink tea (or in Larry’s case, neat Pernod!) and watch the 1992 French film ‘Indochine’, starring Catherine Deneuve and set in the Vietnam of colonial Indochina during the 1930s to 1950s. We sat there for as long as we could to avoid returning to our smelly, damp rooms. We decided to eat all our meals at the ‘posh’ hotel from then on. It would bring a little je ne sais quoi to our otherwise miserable living conditions! The menu was in English and seemed quite varied. We assumed the food was prepared hygienically. It was, after all, a posh hotel!

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Farmer with her buffalo, Ninh Binh

We hired bicycles again the following day and after brunch at the posh hotel, took off into the countryside, following the same route that we had taken the previous day on our motorbikes. This time we were able to stop and interact with people, mainly older women and children. People were curious about us and friendly. What a change! We were even waved at by some unruly children who were hanging out of the school windows as we cycled past and whose teachers came out and invited us inside to watch some singing and dancing. The little ones were all grubby and a bit vacant looking. I found it faintly disturbing but they were very sweet and innocent except for the bratty, loutish group of older boys, who were pushing the small kids around and even slapped a little boy across the face, making him cry. I comforted him and showed him my photos. I think he was a little simple and an easy target. That upset me and I was very glad to go. The education system didn’t seem very advanced in that part of Vietnam.

We continued to Hoa Lu and stopped for coffee and to take photos of the women rice farmers and their buffaloes. We also stopped to talk to three rude and arrogant 11-year-old girls who were fishing in the irrigation canals which run alongside the rice paddies. They seemed to be just as unfriendly and impudent as the older boys we had had the misfortune to meet earlier at the school. As we cycled back to town, we got caught in the rain and were soaking wet by the time we arrived at our guest house. Oh god, the misery of  taking off wet clothes in the damp room and having to cope with the still-wet hand-washed clothes on the washing line on the roof! It’s a wonder we had any dry clothes left to wear!

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The Halong Bay of the rice paddies

It was still raining as we cycled out to the hotel to have our dinner and on the way we bought plastic macs from a woman in a small shop opposite the guest house. She hugged me and told me I was beautiful but the Vietnamese are as hard as nails and the only time a compliment or affection is given, it is to sell a product, even one as cheap and ugly as a plastic mac! The mac smelled as if it had been fried in old, used cooking oil and wearing it made me feel like I was on holiday in England, traipsing around in the rain at the seaside. Wearing a plastic mac really is the most miserable physical sensation. We returned to our posh hotel, which was getting less posh by the second. I had “vegetable spring rolls” which contained exactly the same stringy, boiled greens as Larry had on his plate of “mixed vegetables”. Talk about losing your appetite. It brought to mind the famous Monty Python ‘Spam’ sketch, except in this Vietnamese version, the Spam became boiled water spinach!

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The waiter hovered near our table, meticulously picking his nose, ears and never-brushed, rotten green teeth. If the sight of that wasn’t off-putting enough, he then proceeded to carry a plate of bread over to us with the other hand pressed firmly down on top of it. Perhaps he thought he would trip and the bread would slide off the plate. Whatever he thought, we didn’t touch it. We hardly touched the rest of the meal. So much for hygiene in the poshest hotel in town. There was no film being shown on the 6th floor and nowhere to spend the evening. The rain continued to pour down.

It was time to leave Ninh Binh.

 

 

I am the eggman (goo goo g’joob)

January 2005

Brian tiene huevos *

Irish Brian, Canadian Gary and I met during our first Chiang Mai Walking Group hike on January 15, 2005. Being staunch atheists, we had stuck together to avoid the God Squad that seemed make up most of the group that day; a squad that included Christian missionaries, bible translators and smugglers. Yes smugglers of bibles into China!

The three of us became better acquainted on our second hike, which was mysteriously sans bible bashers. We spent eight hours exploring the area outside Chiang Mai’s moat, including the zoo, the university campus and the wonderful sois of Nimmanhaemin street. Being ‘moat dwellers’, it was a grand adventure to leave the comfort of the old town and venture forth into unknown territory. We should have been clad in sackcloth with hairy feet and gnarled wooden walking sticks, like the hobbits who left the Shire.

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A peaceful corner of Chiang Mai University (Mo Cho) campus

The following day, Sunday 23 January, Brian, Gary and I walked to the Chiang Mai-Lamphun bus stop on the other side of the Ping river and took the 14-baht (20p) bus down the beautiful yang na tree-lined road to Lamphun. It was the boys’ first visit to this little moat town, once a northern capital, but I had been before. Near the bus station, where I had been laughed at for ordering a bottle of water, we visited a wat and then walked around Lamphun’s moat, something that we ‘moat dwellers’ enjoyed immensely. The fourth side of the moat runs parallel to the river and there we visited the famous Wat Phra That Haripunchai. In spite of the searing heat, we managed to wander around the temple grounds for a couple of hours and at lunchtime were pleased to find a restaurant in a shady spot across the river.

We sat at an outside table and a man appeared, ostensibly our waiter. No-one spoke English and we had to get by on our very basic Thai, although in Gary’s case it was non-existent. Off to a bad start, I ordered one soda and got two bottles and a bucket of ice! Thankfully the menu was in Thai and English and I chose two recognisable and dependable dishes; shrimp with mushrooms and vegetable tempura, although I could have had “fried grizzle” or “boiled tendons”.  It wasn’t the most inspiring menu in the world for a trio of spoilt westerners living in Chiang Mai, where all culinary tastes are catered for!

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All Yang Na trees along the old Lamphun Road were officially declared protected trees by Thailand’s Ministry of Culture in January 2018

Brian had the brilliant idea of ordering “100-year-old eggs”, insisting they weren’t eggs at all, but a euphemism for prawns! The waiter said it was indeed khai (egg)  but he also kept repeating kung (prawn) so Brian conveniently ignored the egg part. The cook then came out to double check that the “100-year-old eggs” dish was indeed what Brian had requested. From this we concluded that no farang in the history of Lamphun tourism had ever ordered this. The suspense was killing us! When it appeared on the table, we all stared down at the plate, on which several wedges of of smelly, dark green, slimy boiled egg sat next to some Thai basil and two prawns! Brian pretended the egg was edible for a few nibbly bites but after a larger mouthful, he nearly retched and put his fork down in defeat. It took him an age to swallow that last mouthful, while Gary and I roared with laughter.

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‘100-year-old eggs’ or ‘century eggs’

Both my dishes came as described on the menu but were practically tasteless. Gary’s dish of “roast pork belly” never came at all and we had to summon the ‘waiter’ three more times to remind him of the order. Each time he disappeared back inside the restaurant and made himself invisible. Eventually, ages after Brian and I had finished eating, a strange dish was delivered to the table. What was supposed to be belly pork was “a cross between octopus and meat” according to Gary. It was wrinkly grizzly stuff in a tasteless sauce. I was the clear winner of this challenge, but I had played safe. Feeling decidedly dejected with our attempts to have a successful meal, we took the bus home, glad that we didn’t have to eat in Lamphun on a regular basis.

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The Chiang Mai-Lamphun bus. 14 baht (20p) for a 20-km ride

On Sunday, January 30, exactly a week later, Brian and I headed off on another adventure. We rented a motorbike, planning to visit the hot springs in San Kamphaeng, 36km from Chiang Mai. We set off on our trusty steed with cheap crash helmets wobbling loosely and dangerously on our heads. It was wonderful to escape the fumes and noise of Chiang Mai and sail off into the countryside. The sun was beating down and Brian was driving slowly and carefully past beautiful scenery. We had lunch in a resort restaurant, overlooking the flower-filled gardens. I had fried rice with prawns and Thai basil. Brian, always the gastronomic loser on Sundays, it seemed, had steamed vegetables with a nam prik dip.

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Nam prik num and steamed vegetables

After walking around the gardens and admiring the trees and flowers, we drove on to the hot springs, where we paid a 30 baht (40p) entrance fee. The extensive grounds were dotted with many natural mineral pools of varying temperatures. We sat with our feet in a channel of warm sulphurous water, a very soothing and pleasant experience. We decided not to rent an individual pool for a whole body soak and instead gravitated over to the extremely hot “egg boiling pool”, where the water is a natural 105 degrees centigrade. Brian bought a basket of 15 small speckled eggs for 20 baht and immersed them in the boiling bath for 15 minutes until they were hard-boiled. While I did some yoga stretching on the grass, he proceeded to eat about ten of the boiled eggs in quick succession. The steamed vegetables had not filled much of a hole and he was ravenous. The smell of the sulphurous water and the hard boiled eggs was torture for me but Brian the ‘egg man’ enjoyed them.

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Baskets of eggs boiling in San Kamphaeng hot springs

We drove back to Chiang Mai through the mountains and teak forests. We were looking for a famous waterfall, but it turned out to be a mere trickle in the dry season. We were not disappointed however. The fresh evening smells of the forest and fields were wonderful, as was the sight of the bright red sun setting over the mountains. Brian probably wasn’t aware of this as, by now, he was feeling queasy and most of the ride back to Chiang Mai was punctuated by his loud belching. When he got to his guest house he promptly ran upstairs and threw up in his bathroom.

Brian didn’t eat a thing at the Sunday market that evening but I wolfed down a plate of my favourite green curry with chicken and noodles for 10 baht (12p). We then had a massage at our regular place in the temple grounds, next to the food stalls. Brian had developed a fondness for his masseuse and went on to fall in love with her and she with him. That day I had my first Thai massage experience with a male masseur, whose unfortunate name was Bum. Needless to say I did not fall in love with him. He was extremely strong and, I thought, very effective at sorting out my left shoulder and scapula problem. However, in retrospect, I think he damaged my left rotator cuff for life. He also massaged my feet so hard, I couldn’t walk without pain for weeks.

At least he didn’t force me to eat eggs.

 

*Brian is brave (literally “has eggs” but “has balls” in colloquial Spanish).

The Beatles released the song, “I am the Walrus” in November 1967. The walrus refers to Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter” from the book Through the Looking Glass. It’s believed that the “egg man” is a nod to the character of Humpty Dumpty in the same  book,  But what of “goo goo ga joob” (also transcribed as “goo goo goo joob” or “goo goo g’joob“)?  According to Beatles lore, “goo goo ga joob” are “the last words uttered by Humpty Dumpty before his fall.

Dipterocarpus alatus trees, known as the queens of the Thai forest, shoot to the top of the canopy and can live over 700 years. Their Thai name Yang Na is a composite of two words, Yang meaning resin or rubber and Na meaning rice-fields. This tree is often found in and around rice-fields and is well adapted to handling periodic flooding. It has a tight canopy that casts very little shade and a deep root system that does not compete with the rice plant roots. It does a good job of collecting nutrients that are washed down into the soil and when it loses most of its leaves during the dry season, these nutrients are then placed back on top of the soil ready for the rice plants to use when needed.

In the traditional method, 100-year-old eggs or century eggs are made by mixing wood ash, salt, tea, and quicklime with earth/mud and then covering the eggs with this mixture. The muddy eggs are rolled in rice husks so that they do not stick to each other. They are left to sit for 3 months, or more, during this time the egg white turns golden in colour and the yolk becomes a greyish green. Once preserved this way the eggs can last for a year. Modern methods of preparation have sped up the process but the traditional method is often preferred and still in use today.

Nam prik num is a popular chilli paste dip, made from young chillies called prik num (Northern Thai dialect). The chillies are long and light green. The chilli paste is thick, moist and fibrous as a result of pounding together a mixture of roasted young chillies, aubergines, shallots, garlic, coriander leaves, lime juice and fish sauce. Nam Prik Num is generally eaten with steamed and raw vegetables and sticky rice.

The rotator cuff is made up of muscles and tendons that keep the ball (head) of your upper-arm bone (humerus) in your shoulder socket. It also helps you raise and rotate your arm.

Life in one of the oldest settlements in the world 1

My new home in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico

1. Departure: February 2nd 2018

The 12-hour night flight from Heathrow to Mexico City was a little squashed. I had been on better planes. The PA system didn’t work and our private screens kept freezing and rebooting. In the end mine was completely dead and so I slept instead. The evening meal was mediocre but the breakfast hit the spot and I asked for a second one! I knew I would be travelling on for another 10 hours or so and wanted plenty of food inside of me. I also grabbed biscuits, peanuts and crisps from the self-service trolley.

Mexico!

I was on my way to a new country and a new continent! I had, I must admit, been to the States just once, when I spent a month in Portland with Larry. And it was this very same Larry that had said to me in Thailand the previous year, “I am going to spend the next winter season in Mexico and it would be great if you could come over and join me for some of the time.”

Now Larry and I had met in Chiang Mai 13 years before and the idea that he was thinking of abandoning our precious Asia for Mexico made me sad but also very curious. So after booking a flight to Thailand from November to the end of January, I booked another for Mexico from February 2nd to April 19th.

Larry had made his home way down in the south of Mexico in a magical state called Oaxaca and he wasn’t even living in the capital of the same name! No, he was renting a little house on a Zapotec family compound in a tiny rug-weaving village called Teotitlán del Valle, almost 30km east of the capital. Teotitlán is part of an area containing some of the world’s oldest inhabited settlements dating back over 8,000 years!

Teotitlán or Teocaltitlán, means “Land of the Gods” in the Náhuatl language of the Aztecs. The Zapotecs founded Teotitlán in 1465. These Zapotecs probably arrived in the central valleys of Oaxaca in the 2nd century AD. Weaving in this village dates to 500 BC. The earliest weavings used cotton and ixtle and utilized the backstrap loom. Teotitlán would pay its financial tribute to the Aztecs in weavings.

Today’s weavers use peddle looms introduced by the Dominicans.The fabric of choice is wool. This is due to the introduction of sheep in the valley by Juan López de Zárate in the 1500s.

Lying at the base of the Sierra Juarez in Oaxaca’s Central Valley, Teotitlán is embraced by these high mountains and itself lies over 1,600m above sea level. This geographical elevation is known as the ‘high desert’.

Larry had been to Teotitlán with a friend back in the 80’s when it was a poor village of great talent but no money. He remembers visiting a humble Zapotec family home, barely more than a shack, with the rug weaving on one side, headed by Edmundo the father, and a modest adjoining eaterie, run by Alicia the mother. They were helped by their four children; two sons and two daughters. Larry was so impressed by the quality and standard of their work that he promised to help them set up an export business. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Today the family is wealthy beyond measure! The two sons have large houses, several cars, elegant rug showrooms and restaurants of their own and travel to the USA and beyond to sell their rugs. Alicia and Edmundo no longer have to weave but hire local Zapotec weavers to work on their looms at home or on the compound. However, they still live a simple and humble life, while their grandchildren study to be vets and doctors in the big cities. Recently Alicia and Edmundo had decided to become landlords to visiting foreign tourists and hired an architect to design and build two adjoining ‘casitas‘, or little houses, fronted by a shared verandah, on their compound. Larry had been living in one of them since October. I was to have the other one for a month.

I knew all of this and yet could not picture any of it as I flew in my cramped and broken plane across the Atlantic to Mexico.

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Hope against Hope

January 2019

Precious pachyderms or cash cows?

Hope, an orphaned baby elephant, was one year old in March 2002, when Lek and her team discovered him in a narrow cage at a trekking camp in the mountains, 11 hours away from Chiang Mai. His owner had contacted the team as he couldn’t afford to the medical treatment his elephant needed. Baby Hope was depressed and frightened. He was underweight and had liver-flukes and parasites, which had infected his blood. These were the conditions that had killed his mother. At first Hope refused the milk and comfort that the team tried to offer him. His owner couldn’t afford the formula milk that would keep him alive and Lek offered to take him. She named him Hope and spent many days and nights trying to win his confidence. He eventually fell in love with Lek, as she did with him. He would always be her very special elephant. After eight months with Lek, Hope’s owner asked to have him back but Lek did not want him to be subjected to a life of hardship and toil in a trekking camp. Two western donors allowed Lek to buy him from the owner and thus gave Hope his “freedom”.

He would be bottle fed over the following years and grow into a fine bull elephant. He is now 16 years old, has never worked a day in his life, has never had his spirit broken and  is trained using only positive reinforcement techniques.

Lek wrote in 2002:

As his name suggests, he is our Hope and we will see him grow up as a free elephant and a real king of the jungle.”

Hope and LekLek and Hope

When I first visited the Elephant Nature Park in November 2009 with my friend, Jenny Ward, I didn’t know much about Lek and her work with Thai elephants. I learnt a great deal about her and her rescued elephants that day and it was a turning point in my life.

Sangduen Lek Chailert was born in 1961 in a hill tribe village in northern Thailand, two hours north of Chiang Mai. Her grandfather was the village shaman and through him she learned to love and respect all animals. He also taught her to heal injured animals that were brought to them, including elephants. Lek has spent her entire life fighting for the rights of her beloved elephants, the national symbol of Thailand, and trying to change both Thai and tourists’ attitudes to them. In her struggle over the years she has gained many honorary awards including Thailand’s Woman of the Year in 2012.

While Sangduen Chailert’s nickname is “Lek,” meaning “small”, there is nothing small about her except her stature. As founder of Save Elephant Foundation, which operates Elephant Nature Park, Surin Project, Journey to Freedom and more, Lek has been instrumental in leading the charge to change the way Asian elephants are treated in Southeast Asia. In 2010, Chailert was named one of six Women Heroes of Global Conservation and was invited to Washington by Hilary Clinton. She was also named one of Time magazine’s “Heroes of Asia” in 2005 and the Ford Foundation’s “Hero of the Planet” in 2001. Documentaries about her work have been made by the BBC, Discovery, Animal Planet and National Geographic and as a result, Lek is now a world-renowned authority on elephant welfare and conservation. Her work has spread into the elephant camps of Burma and Cambodia as well as other parts of Thailand.

I first came to Thailand in 1990 and went on a magnificent trek in the mountains, many hours north of Chiang Mai, a wondrously unforgettable four-day, three-night experience. In those days there was no electricity or running water in the three remote hill tribe villages we stayed in, eating and sleeping with Hmong, Karen and Akha people, who live at different altitudes. The Hmong lived in the highest part of the mountain and grew opium. Our host lay on his side and smoked opium all night long while we tried to settle down on our mats in the same hut. The women, of course, did all the work, fetching water and making a fire for breakfast early in the morning. They tilled the fields by day and sewed by candlelight deep into the night. We walked for many hours a day over tough terrain and through thick, lush jungle and when we came to the Karen village on the river, we were given an elephant ride. The Karen are known for their relationship with working (logging) elephants and are therefore often employed as mahouts in the elephant camps around Chiang Mai. My first elephant ride through the jungle was an amazing experience and thoroughly enjoyable! The mahouts carried a metal hook to keep the elephants under control and we were told that it didn’t hurt them and was necessary for everyone’s safety.

I rode an elephant once when I visited a Karen village near Chiang Rai in 1996 and once again in 2007, after I had come to Thailand to live. That last time was extremely special to me as I rode a beautiful 7-year-old female bareback without a saddle. It wasn’t until I went to the Elephant Nature Park in 2009 and saw the documentary showing how wild elephants are broken in that I realised what a cruel person I had been. According to the horrifying documentary, which has all the tourists in tears, elephants literally have their spirits broken and extreme cruelty inflicted on them in the process of being broken in, which can go on for days. When you know how intelligent, sociable and sensitive these magnificent creatures are, you will never again in your life ride on an elephant’s back and will discourage everyone else from doing so. Lek has been so influential in this that most western tourists are now choosing to go to elephants camps with no riding, painting, football or logging demonstrations. This has led to the rise of camps offering an alternative way of relating to elephants. The Chinese unfortunately are still in Disneyland as far as animals are concerned and have very little notion of animal rights. They are still going to hideous ‘factory’ camps, where elephants are chained and spent their days transporting tourists up and down on hard ground. Our hiking group once passed through one of these elephant factories and I was depressed for days.

When I first came to Chiang Mai and up until about 5 years ago, a poor weary and depressed elephant would do the rounds of the moat with her owners after dark and beg for “snacks” of bananas and sugar cane, which could be purchased from the owners. These poor creatures walking the streets of Thailand would have found the tarmac roads painful to their feet and the noise, lights and traffic excruciatingly stressful. Animal rights activists and the Thai government have at last made this cruel and heartless practice illegal and certainly in Chiang Mai we no longer see this pitiful sight on our streets.

On my two visits to Elephant Nature Park, in 2009 and 2013, I helped bathe the elephants in the river, fed them buckets of snacks (mainly bananas and sugar cane) and heard about their sad lives before their rescue. I learned about the terrible practice of breaking them in. I also learned that Hope was naughty and needed two mahouts. We never met Hope because he was, I imagine, a danger to the tourists. Our educational, thoroughly enjoyable day cost us a massive 2,500 baht, which at today’s exchange rate would be £65. The Park is packed with tourists every day of the year, all feeling self-righteous because we are giving our money to a “good cause”. I even left a considerable sum of money to ENP in my will.

Lek employs Burmese Karen mahouts and their families and presumably they receive work permits which allow them to stay in Thailand. It seems as if she is giving everyone a chance. No mahout can use a hook or ride on the elephant; positive reinforcement techniques and encouragement are used instead.

The Park also provides a natural environment for dogs, cats, buffaloes and many other rescued animals. Lek relies on the work of western volunteers, who pay large sums of money to help out, alongside her Burmese Karen workers. As all visitors receive a vegetarian buffet lunch and the volunteers need a place to stay, the Burmese Karen women are busily employed as domestic workers.

In 2012, when Navann was born to his mother, Sri Prae, Hope became a father. I must have seen Navaan when I went to ENP in February 2013 and I remember Lek lying and sitting with him. It was a very tender scene. Navann is now 6 years old and turning into a fine bull, with the same cheeky personality as his father.  It is a privilege to watch Lek interact with her elephants and it is not for nothing that she is known as the elephant whisperer.

Lek with NavannNavann 2 months got cuddle from Lek

On December 28th, just a week or so ago, something unspeakably tragic happened at Elephant Nature Park. Hope killed his beloved Karen mahout, a family man with years of mahout experience. They were extremely close and the mahout called Hope his “son”.  Hope was in musth or must and during these periods, the bull can be extremely violent and  often murderous, due to a 600% increase in testosterone. During musth, captive bull elephants are isolated and often given sedatives. I do believe that Hope was isolated in 2013 when I visited.

Looking into this tragedy, I came across other news articles of mahout deaths in Elephant Nature Park. I also came across the website of the Swedish “elephant expert” Dan Koehl. What I read in his blog about the goings-on in Elephant Nature Park was truly worrying. He claims many mahouts have been killed at ENP over the years. After visiting in 2011 he noticed that the elephants are chained after the tourists go home at 5pm until 8am the following day. They spend too much time in water and mud to please the tourists, who like to watch them playing and this negatively affects the elephants’ skin and feet. Foot and skin conditions go untreated, he claims, and took photos to prove it. They eat far too many snacks and not enough branches or roughage as they don’t spend time in the forest. The mahouts are not supposed to use hooks but sharp instruments have been seen. The mahouts work under very difficult conditions and receive low wages. In other words they and their families are exploited by Lek. Elephants carry tuberculosis and western tourists, who are also living in Disneyland, are very fond of kissing them and receiving trunk kisses on their faces. There is a risk of transmission but this is not pointed out to the tourists. He claims that the elephants have never been tested for tuberculosis. He also claims that Lek’s foundation is not transparent and wonders how the millions of dollars received annually from day tourists, volunteers and donors alike are spent.

I include Koehl’s blog here and it is worth a read. According to Lek’s fans this man is a liar and foul supporter of the breaking-in method, but Koehl maintains that this method is not always used and that Lek and her film crew set up the terrible scenes of torture for the documentary that is watched by every visitor to ENP. In short Koehl maintains Lek and her entire Nature Park is a scam.

We are strange animals, we human apes. We tend to believe everything that is presented to us and as westerners we have this terribly naive faith that other cultures feel and behave as we do. Animal rights activists in the west can be ridiculously gullible. These elephants are NOT free, they are NOT roaming in the wild, they are still captive elephants. I have seen enough of the lying and pretence in Thailand in my 14 years of living here to know that things are not always as they seem.

I will never know the truth and as a result, I am removing my legacy to ENP from my will. It has made me think about all the charities I have chosen to bequeath money to when I die and whether or not they are worth supporting. It has also made me wonder how the Park will handle bulls like Navann when they too are in musth and how many mahouts will have to die in the future.

As his name suggests, he is our Hope and we will see him grow up as a free elephant and a real king of the jungle.”

I now see Lek’s quote about Hope in an entirely different light. Hope was and never will be free and there is no jungle for him to rule over; only a cage and isolation from the herd. He will live and die in a glorified zoo in a pretty setting by the river, all for the childish enjoyment of western tourists and a never-ending stream of cash for the Foundation.

Image may contain: people standing, tree, plant, grass, outdoor and nature

Image may contain: people standing, tree, plant, grass, outdoor and natureI am holding a hook but thankfully didn’t have to use it. December 12th 2007, my last elephant ride.

 

 

 

The findings and recommendations of a 2011 study carried out at ENP by Carol Buckley, founder of Elephant Aid International. The results look gloomy indeed and it is difficult to imagine that the great elephant lover Lek was in charge of these elephants and their mahouts.

Click to access ENP_Report2011.pdf

Dan Koehl’s blog summary of his 2011 visit to  ENP:

http://dankoehl.blogspot.com/2016/03/my-visit-to-sangduen-lek-chailert-and.html

From Lek’s ENP website:

“About Save Elephant Foundation: A Thai non-profit organization, Save Elephant Foundation is dedicated to providing care and assistance to Thailand’s captive elephant population. It operates through a multifaceted approach which involves local community outreach, rescue and rehabilitation programs and educational ecotourism operations. Its projects include: Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for more than 30 elephants, which is consistently ranked as one of Chiang Mai’s top attractions by Trip Advisor; Journey to Freedom; Surin Project; Jumbo Express; Elephant Haven; and more. For additional information about Save Elephant Foundation, please visit its Web site, www.saveelephant.org. Facebook: www.facebook.com/saveelephantfoundation

Read about musth in bull elephants:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musth

Rats!

January 2019

They say we are never more than a metre way from a rat. Rats prefer to hide, given enough space. The problem is that in Thailand, those rats frequently live among humans in plain sight, so we can conclude there is a national rat infestation, especially in the old, poorer quarters, open markets and street food areas and, naturally, around water.

When rats are part of of the natural environment, they don’t seem quite as repulsive. The first time I got intimate with rats was in 1991 whilst staying on one of the Malysian Perhentian islands, where rats live in the coconut trees. A group of us were talking and laughing one evening with only a petrol lamp for light as there was no electricity on the island. Everywhere else was pitch black. One of the young women started to have a fit and stuttered, “ra ra ra raaaaaa” as one of those rodents jumped onto her shoulder and scampered down her back. The hairs on the back of our necks stood on end for the rest of the evening! A few days later I woke up in my wooden hut to find rat poo scattered all over my pillow. It/they had eaten my soap and obviously had been near my face but I wasn’t too perturbed, unlike ‘Bob’ from the Netherlands, who recently wrote this review of a hotel room in the Perhentians:

“We had rats in the room, the room was not cleaned and the neighbours were eleven local people who were screaming all night.”

I ask you, Bob, which was worse, the rats in your room or the humans outside it?

My second memorable encounter with a rat was in 1995-6 on my third trip to Thailand. For three weeks, over Xmas and New Year, I travelled alone from Bangkok to Ayutthaya and from there, north to Lampang, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Chiang Saen in the Golden Triangle. In those days I loved to pamper myself when I was in Thailand and every day of that trip would either have a massage or a hair wash. For about 50p the hairdresser would shampoo and rinse your hair 3 times and, between the two, give you three head massages; kneading, scraping and pummelling your scalp until you fell into a semi-coma.  Hairdressers and barbers, like restaurants, shops and massage parlours were all on the ground floor of wooden or concrete ‘shop houses’ and door-less. Open to the street and sometimes part of the family home, you were on show as you had your hair washed or nails manicured. People would pass by and chat with the hairdresser or come in to sit and stare for a while. There is no privacy in Asia. Pampering is a public affair.

I was in one of the afore-mentioned towns having a hair wash one dark evening when out of the corner of my eye I saw a huge rat ran across the room and disappear into the darkness of the street. I made a noise but I managed not to jump out of my seat and onto a chair. I wasn’t sure if it had been a large rat or a small cat. The hairdresser put me right. “Mickey Mouse!” she said nonchalantly, as she continued to scrape her long, sharp nails across my scalp.

When I came to live in Thailand in 2004 I stayed on Moonmuang soi 6, which was a beautiful soi in those days, full of wooden houses, lush green trees and plants, colourful,  sweet-smelling flowers and the odd little restaurant, massage parlour and guest house. At the Moonmuang end of soi 6 is Somphet market, a small, predominantly fresh food market used by locals and tourists alike. In those days, women sat on the soi selling pungent dried fish, waving the flies away with a fly swatter all day long. Live eel-like fish wriggled in basins of water. Fragrant fresh red, green and yellow curry pastes were scooped up and weighed from big china bowls and small snacks were fried and grilled, releasing delicious aromas. The neighbourhood’s cookery school instructors would bring their apron-clad students, each carrying a straw basket, to the market to teach the names of herbs and spices and fill their baskets for the day’s cooking.

When darkness started to fall, at around 6pm, the market was closed up but continued to be inhabited by some stall-holders, who had built little bedrooms out of corrugated iron and cloth inside the fenced off market and from these tiny quarters shuffling and snoring noises could sometimes be heard. Somphet market’s night-time inhabitants then showed their faces and a plethora of rats and cockroaches would scurry and crawl their way along the length of the market and across the soi in gay abandon, much to the revulsion of passing tourists. At night you could smell the rats even if you didn’t see them. You could smell them around the corner into Moonmuang road, where the night-time food stalls were set up and serving food from the time the market closed until 2am. There were several cats on duty along that road and around the closed market but I am not sure of they were much of a deterrent as the rats looked as big as they did.

One night I was cycling down soi 6 and as I came level with Somphet market, a rat crossed my path, swerved and and brushed against my foot. I swear I could feel the sensation of that fur a good 15 minutes later! My friend Brian had told me of a time he was walking along the main Moonmuang road near soi 6 and passed a pile of black plastic rubbish bags, which had been left against a lamppost for the nightly refuse collection. As he walked past the bags, a rat emerged and ran over his foot. He was wearing flip flops so he too was repulsed by the physical sensation. I still cannot walk past a pile of black rubbish bags without thinking of Brian and will step into the road to avoid walking anywhere near them.

All those years ago, my Thai friend Hon ran a small restaurant on soi 6 called Nice Kitchen. Her sister was next door in a restaurant called Brown Rice. I lived in the guest house across the soi and spent a lot of my mealtimes in Nice Kitchen, where I met many of the people who would become my long-term friends and short-term lovers and without whom, in spite of its utter loveliness, Chiang Mai would not have become home.

One evening in 2005, I was chatting to Hon in her kitchen next to the closed dining area of her restaurant. A rat scooted across the floor and she carried on talking, probably hoping I hadn’t seen it. Not long afterwards, at my next close-up encounter with a rat, I was also with Hon and this time it was impossible to ignore it. Hon and I were having a delicious khao soi in the recently demolished old wooden restaurant AUM. AUM was a wonderfully atmospheric vegetarian restaurant just south of Tha Pae Gate, where you sat on cushions and ate at low tables. The food was excellent and tofu khao soi was one of the specialities. The row of wooden buildings on each side of the restaurant sold clothes, snacks and CD’s and housed a massage parlour but the wooden building immediately next to AUM was being demolished and, unbeknown to us at the time, about to become a glass and concrete building with doors, windows and air-conditioning. It was one of the first modern restaurant/coffee bars in the old city. Black Canyon Coffee still stands on the corner to this day and is very popular. As I walked through the doors of AUM I could smell a rat! Did you know a rat urinates every few minutes or so and dribbles its urine all over the place, leaving a horrendous smell in its wake? That smell assaults our noses many times a day in Chiang Mai, where the rats, like the people, are outdoorsy types.

We went upstairs and sat on a cushion at one of the low wooden tables near the stairs and were served our khao soi. I tucked in hungrily. That smell still bothered me however, and I turned my head to the stairway to see a massive rat staring back at me. It came boldly up the last few stairs and sat down very close to our table. At this point two things happened. I leapt up in the manner of a female character in a Tom and Jerry cartoon  and screamed at the top of my voice, “Jesus Christ! A rat!” I didn’t jump onto the table as the two bowls of khao soi were taking up the space. As I was having a fit, Hon stayed seated and calmly rapped twice on the table. Apparently this was to scare the rat away! The proprietor rushed up the stairs to see what all the fuss was about. “A rat! Next to the table!” I cried! The rat, of course, was long gone. She shrugged her shoulders and told us to come downstairs and finish our food there. We sat at the new table on proper chairs but I couldn’t eat a morsel. My appetite had completely disappeared. Of course, I realised then, the place was infested with rats as their nests and cosy little homes in the wooden building next door were being disturbed and destroyed and they were free to wander into the restaurant at their will.

Sometimes even the Thais get fed up with rats. About 5 years ago, I was living on the south side of the old city, where there is a market much bigger and more important than Somphet. Chiang Mai Gate market is a bustling indoor and outdoor market with hundreds of stalls and thousands of customers. At night after the market closes, a plethora of food stalls are set up and woks are busy frying, pots of soup boiling and knives chopping. There is oil and grease and a smattering of food waste everywhere and the rats are out in force, especially around the drains and gutters. Sometimes you have to step over and around them. One day I saw a new poster on the walls and in the streets around Chiang Mai Gate market. There was going to be a Rats Killing Day (sic) in May. Each dead rat presented (to whom?) would earn the rat-catcher 5 baht (about 10p at the time). Now can you honestly imagine the scene as hundreds of men (as I am sure they would be men) queued to have their sacks of dead rats counted by the officials? The smell, the sight, the sheer horror of the scene is perhaps best left to the imagination. I was heartily glad I wouldn’t be there in May. But knowing the Thais, they would make a festival of it and there would be speeches and music, laughter and lots of food! There would also be hoards of live rats only a metre away from the party, waiting for night to fall…

Image may contain: outdoorPoster for Rats Killing Day (sic), Chiang Mai Gate

Khao Soi: Khao soi or khao soy is a delicious curry dish served widely in Myanmar, Laos and northern Thailand. It is possible that it is simply a corruption of the Burmese word for noodles which is just “khao swè”. Northern Thai khao soi is a soup-like dish made with a mix of deep-fried crispy egg noodles and boiled egg noodles, pickled mustard greens, shallots, lime, ground chillies fried in oil, and meat in a curry sauce containing coconut milk. The curry is somewhat similar to that of yellow or massaman curry but of a thinner consistency. It is popular as a street dish eaten by Thai people in northern Thailand, though not frequently served in Thai restaurants abroad.

There is some reason to believe that the Thai version of khao soi was influenced by Chinese Muslim cuisine and was therefore likely served with chicken or beef.

Merry Misogyny!

December 2018

How sexist was your Xmas?

Feeling obliged to be in the spirit of something called Xmas on December 24th, I told a friend I would join her for a live music evening in one of the Chiang Mai bars, which shall remain nameless.

She hadn’t yet arrived when I rolled up on my bike but someone I vaguely knew caught my eye and I sat down with him and pretended to feel comfortable. I must give credit to three things before I continue. The Thai woman who runs the bar is a treasure and welcomes everyone warmly, making them feel right at home. She runs a tight ship and the customers are under surveillance for any untoward behaviour. Secondly she cooks up a mean western beef and vegetable stew, fragrant with wine and herbs, every Xmas Eve and you are invited to help yourself to the free, piping hot food all night long. Third, the live music, provided by the customers themselves, is usually excellent. Musical instruments are available to all those who can strum and blow and even the less musical have rattles and bells to shake in time to the beat.

So far so good.

It is a tiny bar and therefore exudes an air of intimacy. Most of the regulars are men of a certain age who live in Chiang Mai and are married (or not) to young Thai women. And what sweet, elfin women they are next to the grizzled, ugly old souls who could be their grandfathers. However, let’s not be judgmental. I have lived in Thailand long enough to know that these “relationships” can be mutually beneficial and that Thai women often feel safer with a farang man than with one of their own nationality. Thai men can be lazy, drunken, unfaithful and violent. Western men have money and are often better partners. Besides, if they are much older, all the better. They will die when you are still in your prime and you will inherit the dosh. Meanwhile your family is taken care of; houses are built, grandma has her operation and a new buffalo is purchased when the old one dies.

For the farang man, his ego is all aflame. The little eye candy girl hangs onto his arm and spoon-feeds him the food she has cooked and cut up just for him. She does his washing, keeps him clean and tidy and sees to his every need. As Louis Theroux noted in a recent documentary on Thai Brides, Thai woman never have a headache! They can be poked and piston-ed and not a murmur of dissent! How convenient that 70% of Thai woman don’t know what an orgasm is!* They watch western films and learn how to fake it. I have heard them through the walls! It’s a great performance and the man wouldn’t have clue whether it’s genuine or not. He is all ego and testicles.

The music was excellent. Two men strummed guitars and sang in harmony. I sang along. I ordered a glass of wine from one of the cute Thai waitresses, all dressed up in scanty father Xmas clothes, little hats and red and white attire. I already felt uncomfortable.

My female friend arrived and I thought things would improve. However three things happened over the course of the evening. My friend introduced me to “two cool dudes”, one of whom was called Randy. “Pleased to meet you, he says, shaking my hand. “I’m Randy and I’m really randy.”  I’m randy too”, says Lenny, the other “cool dude”, as he shakes my hand. “And so am I”, says the voice of another guy behind me. All three were Americans in their late 60’s to early 70’s.

Oh.

Later I heard the English man behind me tell a “really hilarious” joke to the supposedly “randy” guy who hadn’t shaken my hand. Did he know it? It was the best joke ever told by the “brilliant” comedian Billy Connolly. A man kills his wife and buries her with her bum sticking out “so he can park his bike in it”. The “randy” guy starts to wonder how rotten her bum would get stuck out there in the air. Horrified and sick, I switch off and listen to the guitarists instead. I have been swaying along to a lovely melody. I tune into the words. “I shot my baby down by the river” over and over again, as the crowd tapped their feet and hummed along, smiles on their faces, beer and wine in hand. What a jolly Xmas Eve!

I finished my drink and left.

 

 

 

*Durex Global Sex Survey 2008

Billy Conolly’s “wife joke” told on the Parkinson show in 1975, made him famous. He went on to receive a knighthood from the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 2017 “for his services to entertainment and charity”.

The Crime of Femicide:

USA

*On average, 2.5 women are murdered by an intimate partner each day in the United States. (2015 statistics)

*homicides in which the victim to offender relationship could be identified, 93 percent of female victims (1,450 out of 1,551) were murdered by a male they knew.
 
*Fourteen times as many females were murdered by a male they knew (1,450 victims) than were killed by male strangers (101 victims).
 
*For victims who knew their offenders, 64 percent (928) of female homicide victims were wives or intimate acquaintances of their killers.
 

UK

The Femicide Census, conducted by Women’s Aid and the campaigner  Karen Ingala Smith found that of the 139 women known to have been killed by men in the UK last year (2017) 105 (76%) knew their killer. Thirty women were killed by strangers, with 21 of the 30 killed in terrorist attacks.

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/dec/18/femicide-in-uk-76-of-women-killed-by-men-in-2017-knew-their-killer

Spain

On International Women’s Day, March 8th 2017, millions of women marched in cities across Spain, demanding an end to gender violence

https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/03/murdered-women-spain-tackles-femicide-rates-170319132509999.html

Louis Theroux’s documentary, “Thai Brides”:

https://documentaryheaven.com/thai-brides-louis-theroux/