Friday 13 November 2009

Alex's Massages

You may not know that I am a bit of a massage afficionado. I have had weekly massages for sustained periods, particularly when I used to work in restaurants and have a very stiff neck and shoulders. Then the rigours of office posture didn't help things so much, so I used to have weeklies when I worked for Easily in Farringdon Rd.

Before this trip I'd had kinesiology, shiatsu, swedish and sports massage (over 100 in total, I guess), but little Thai massage. Apart from an amazing guy in the middle of a park in Madrid once. Though he might have been Chinese. Anyway, I digress...

So I was excited about coming to SE Asia and trying out some new styles at very reasonable cost. I was also interested in comparing styles and learning what each culture's specialty is. This has been more difficult, because they do seem pretty similar. I've had Thai that feels like Shiatsu at times, and vice versa. I have picked up a couple of things while I've been out here, but, I must admit, mainly from Wikipedia (which everyone knows is 100% infallible). For instance, I thought Shiatsu was Japanese, but it apparently originates from Traditional Chinese Medicine which was introduced to Japan and then adapted. Shiatsu generally uses pretty firm, deep finger pressure, but what I didn't know is that it is one of the only massage techniques to attend to the seven Chakras (apart from kinesiology, chakra massage and cranio-sacral therapy).

It's been hard to analyse the difference between Thai, Lao and Khmer styles, particularly because I only had one in Laos and several in Cambodia turned out to actually be Chinese. I get the impression the 3 are fairly similar, but also I think that, even within the same country, you can get quite different massage. The quality depends on the level of training and masseurs incorporate different elements and styles as they learn more - like anywhere in the world.

Standards vary - Thailand has the highest standard easily, it being being far more established along with tourism. Thai apparently massages along "sen" lines, 72,000 vessels through which "lom" (air) passes. The difference between Thai sen and say Chinese meridians is that sen are not connected to internal organs. The noticable thing about Thai is that some of it is more like an assisted yoga workout, with the masseur using various parts of their body to stretch you out e.g. sticking a foot almost into your groin to stretch out your thigh. Sometimes crossing over a leg for a deeper stretch, or sticking knees or feet into your back and pulling you back over it. I've had fingers, the flat bases of the palms, elbows, and even knees used for acupressure.

Thai has the cheapest quality massage, averaging at 3 or 4 dollars an hour. Cambodia is about twice the price, although you can find local massage for 5,000 Riel (just over one dollar) if you travel into the communities. I didn't try one of those unfortunately.

Anyway here is a little history of my massages so far on the trip. Admittedly this might be more for me than for you :)

1. Lamu island, Kenya
A young lady called Betty performed a fairly standard sports massage. Didn't notice any cultural oddities.

2. Vilankulos, Mozambique
A Zimbabwean lady gave me a fairly uninspiring sports massage.

3. Kao San Rd, Bangkok, Thailand
Here we go. First proper Thai massage. Lots of using feet to stretch me out. Also, first introduction to quite comprehensive head massage. Ears anyone? Pulling down quite hard on ear lobes.

4. Kao San Rd area, Bangkok, Thailand
I asked for oil - not always advisable in Thailand, they are generally better working without, but she was pretty good. And damn strong. First really quite scary back stretch. They don't pull any punches in Bangkok.

5. Kao San Rd area, Bangkok, Thailand
Good but not memorable for any particular reason.

6. Bang Saphan, Thailand
This was excellent. Think I went for oil again though, doh.

7. Chiang Mai, Thailand
This was very good indeed. So good I stayed for an extra hour of head massage. Some good head techniques used here that I had more of in Cambodia - the hair combing with fingers, scrunching and fluffing (not that fluffing). The finger in eye socket (next to nose) pull.

8. Akha hill tribe, Muang Sing, Laos
This was mental. And unexpected. We were in a remote hill tribe, in the chief's hut on stilts. Many of the village were in the room, drinking Lao Lao (rice whisky) with us and looking through the children's books we had brought for them. Then our guide said "Do you want a massage?". Our having agreed, everyone just stayed in the room and carried on doing what they were doing. Some young girls (about 12) came in, giggling. I had two just for me (4 hands). This was one of the hardest, most scary massages I have ever had. They would each use both hands to pump down on an area very strongly, particularly worrying on kneecaps. Also on the back, they would scrunch big pieces of skin and twist them round, which is something I have never had.
They laughed at my yelps. An experience.

9. Siem Reap, Cambodia
An expensive (20 dollar) oil session. Nothing special, but the luxury was pleasant.

10. Siem Reap, Cambodia
A blind guy who preferred Japanese shiatsu and Anma, so that's what he gave me. Very good, I stayed for another hour of foot massage. He only got one dollar out of the five I paid for each hour.

11. Pnomh Penh, Cambodia
A seven dollar job just down from the guest house. Advertised the masseurs as blind, but apparently that was the previous lot - these girls could all see. Not bad, nothing special or distinctive - although she did introduce me to the the eyebrow pinch, which I liked. Had a Khmer traditional, then a back and shoulder the next day.

12. Pnomh Penh, Cambodia
This was a $5 special from a local lady. Was a bit scared of lying down on the bed, not sure how sanitary it was. She was good, knew her stuff and quite hard. Did some back scrunching and deep acupressure. And for the very first time in my life, and a complete surprise, she cricked my neck - hard. I was so shocked I didn't let her do the other side.

13. Pnomh Penh, Cambodia
EXCELLENT. Chinese style apparently. Some intense use of elbows in the kidneys and bottom pressure points. Excellent head work - first time actually IN the ears! Crazy hair combing and fluffing. Eyebrow pinch. Had a couple with this woman ("girl 28").

14. Trat, Thailand
REALLY EXCELLENT. Very similar overall to the previous Chinese in Phnom Penh, but with added Thai stretching. I had learnt that the standard for Thai is 2 hours, so that's what I had. And then had another hour of foot. I had previously not given reflexology/foot massage it's dues - I will from now on, absolutely amazing. The nice woman, Lia, was quite gentle on the back and leg stretches, taking it real slow. Had 3 hours with Lia the first day, then an oil the next day and after we came back from Ko Kut, went back again for some really deep knot breaking down (bad bed) while Tania had a foot massage. Usually masseurs have used elbows when breaking down knots in my back but this guy (Lia's colleague) just used one finger. Particularly painful on the neck, but effective.
These people were really nice so I will put their details up. They give you great tea afterwards as well.

16. Ko Jum, Thailand
AMAZING! OK, it just so happens that my most recent is number one - so far. Mangon (on Long Beach, 300m from Joy bungalows) has everything that everyone else had - and more. Comprehensive on the acupressure and excellent use of palm bases as well as fingers. The use of the palms on the back was a revelation - I've never had anyone do that so well. Really hard continuous pressure (putting his whole weight behind it) over a significant area. Some people do it using their arm bones (ulnas) as rolling pins but this was better. And he knew how to use oil, just for the back (I told him I had some problems with my back and had sunburnt a bit). Terrific stretches, more variety than with anyone else. One brilliant position - pulling my arms back, with his feet in my back. Excellent head massage. Highly recommended, although not cheap (this is an island after all) at 300 Baht an hour. Speaks really good english.

So - what have I learnt. Definitely go for 2 hours, traditional Thai massage. Try and avoid oil unless you are having massage for an ailment. Enjoy!

Thursday 5 November 2009

Arrival in Laos with photos

Travelling comprises an endless series of mainly two decisions: where to stay and what to eat. To cut the number of decisions we need to make by half, and with total disregard for conventional traveller wisdom, we have taken to staying at the very first place we find, in this case the first guesthouse at the top of the road leading down to the port at Houayxai on the Laos side of the border crossing from Chiang Khong. Our guidebook for southeast Asia (Mark Elliot’s Graphic Guide to SouthEast Asia – an awesome book that takes a treasure-map approach to travel writing and refuses to promote any particular restaurant or hotel at the expense of those he simply hasn't had the opportunity to visit) is a 2003 edition and describes what you get for accommodation at three dollars a night as what one might expect for that price. At least seven years later, he’s half right: about three dollars is still the price, but we had a clean bed with bed linen, mosquito net, a fan and hardly any disease-ridden six-legged invaders.

We celebrated our first night in Laos with a curry (obviously), the dishes we ordered representing, very brightly, each of the colours of the Indian flag, which was probably the most authentic aspect of the meal. The place won’t be winning any awards for food, but the owner was a nice guy from Bombay who gave us some good advice about getting to Luang Namtha (the first stop on an itinerary that had, as usual, been planned for us by other travellers) – namely that it would be cheaper to take a tuk-tuk to the station to get our bus rather than the tourist bus from our guesthouse. The last bus I’d taken in Laos had been a very bumpy affair, which hardly mattered once we’d clambered onto the roof to see glorious views of Laos’ spectacular scenery. So, I was a bit disappointed this time when our bus’ roof was clearly intended for luggage only. Stupid improved roads. Boring comfortable buses. I slept nearly all the way.

Guidebooks don’t have much to say about Luang Namtha, other than it’s a good place to organise a hill-tribe trek from and, sure enough, it wasn’t that inspiring when we first arrived. The town is arranged around a long, wide main street lined with the usual farang guesthouses and bars and the ubiquitous whiteboards listing a variety of fruit shakes, pancakes and British, American or Israeli breakfasts. Hill tribe sellers wander up and down the street trying to sell you bracelets and necklaces and, if that doesn’t tickle your fancy, marijuana and opium. But barely 10 minutes away by scooter, heading north along the main road towards China and turning right at the first major junction to cross a bridge over a beautiful river (where, housed in a small sentry box, a policeman in a tightly fitting uniform prevents the taking of photos), you find yourself among rice paddies that stretch out to the bottom of ranges of hills that slide past each other as you ride by like layers in the pop-up books I used to get as a child. The sun and the clouds painted patterns all around that made me swear that never, ever again would I forget to take my camera anywhere. I couldn’t bear to look at how beautiful it all was.

Like everywhere in Laos, Luang Namtha has caves and waterfalls to visit that can be found along the same road, signposted on the left well before you reach the paddies. The stony track gradually made its way uphill, along a river and more paddies and what I thought was the biggest pig in the world, but what was, in fact, a pink buffalo (who knew?). Once we’d parked up and paid the 5,000 Kip entrance fee (37p), a gentle ascent up a wooded path led to a pretty waterfall where more locals than tourists were mucking about, fully clothed, in the water.

Surprisingly nice as it was, Luang Namtha was not our main destination; we’d come here to take a 1.5 hour bus ride even closer to the Chinese border and the well-known ‘traveller hub’ of Muang Sing where we planned to do some trekking. So, after three days (an extra day specifically to return to the rice paddies with my camera), that’s what we did.

Luang Namtha:

MAP: Laos, Cambodia and back into Thailand

Hello. Sorry it's been a while, we've been travelling you see. Here's one of my maps to act as an update. We were in Laos for September and Cambodia for October. Now we are back in Thailand and about to meet our good friends Nairoby (Nairi and Toby) in Bangkok.

I tend to leave the more detailed stuff to Tania - which maybe isn't fair because she also has all the thousands of pictures to manage - so her posts may appear before this one, I've saved some blank ones as drafts. Sorry, I'm getting overly technical.

Oh, I've shaved my head. And kept an amish beard. It's a reasonably "strong look".

Click on markers for info and drag map to follow our course.

Thailand, Up North

Going to Koh Tao was a mistake. Distinctly average and overpriced food and massive queues of hung-over and semi-naked tourists for the ham-and-cheese toasty machine at 7/11 made a poor impression of Thailand, and apparently the diving wasn’t all that (I guess after the whale sharks in Mozambique, most other things must seem quite … small). In the end, we couldn’t leave fast enough and decided to head straight up north. I was big enough to refrain from saying, “I told you so” (Ha! Of course I wasn’t).

We went to northeast Isaan, the other side of the Mekong from Laos, which Alex has already told you about. After Africa, it was a sight for thirsty eyes, where the heavy rains feed the forests and rice paddies with every type of green there is, from rich bottle shades to bright neon glowing in the sunlight. In fact, if the sun isn’t shining right, it’s tricky to take a picture of all the incessant green. The Mekong cuts through it; a great, sliding slick of rich brown striped at the edges by elegant, longtail boats. But at sunset, it transforms into a liquid mirror reflecting all the colours of the sky. People like me with cameras line the riverside path, adding our own percussion of shutter clicks to the soft beat of music floating over the Mekong from Laos.

Twice in Chiang Khan, we tried to find the golden Buddha visible from our guesthouse (a charming, wooden building with a balcony on the top floor called Fairytale Guesthouse) sitting atop a hill, admiring the view. But its position was so glaringly obvious, it seemed, that signposting had been considered entirely unnecessary. The first time, we completely missed the turning. The second time, we think we found it but a rainbow, brightly lit against the thundering sky behind it, signalled that we were in a race against time to beat the rain. We headed back with the glowering sky chasing us in the rear view mirror.

We got to a riverside restaurant just in time. A strong wind was shaking the window shutters and there was a buzz of activity as the restaurant owners quickly moved their flapping A-board sign indoors and secured the doors and windows. We saw the rain, an impenetrable grey, advancing along the Mekong with the preceding wind beating out the reflections of the river surface in front of it into a band of flat brown. My hair was whipping my face as I tried to capture the oddly two-dimensional effect. Finally, the rain was on us and we sat in the dark, waiting for our noodle soups, listening to the deafening clamour the rain was making above us on the corrugated iron roof. Out front, water cascaded from drains onto the street in front of the sheltering pedestrians and cyclists watching the storm. And then, as suddenly as it started, the noise softened, the grey lightened, journeys were resumed and through the now open door, we could see the storm continue its route along the river. “Wow,” we murmered, slurping our soups.

Leaving most of our stuff at Fairytale, we took a couple of days to explore the riverside, heading east from Chiang Khan, towards Pak Chom, something that has to be done independently as public buses aren’t interested in riverside views. So, we bumbled along on the fabulous, yellow scooter Foreign Legion Ian had lent us (he’d even bought an extra helmet for me, his only condition being that we return with it all), with me discretely flicking six-legged stowaways off the back of Alex’s shirt and speculating as to whether our heads have a gravitational pull as I watched flies buzzing round Alex’s helmet at 20mph as if we were stationary. I love being a passenger on a scooter. I did have a go myself for three minutes when I had a premonition that I would kill myself that way. Things feel much safer on the back of the seat behind my human shield called Alex.

Though very quiet, Chiang Khan is still farang-friendly, whereas Pak Chom seems to be where Thais go on holiday and apparently Thais expect a higher standard of accommodation than us backpackers, so, after a lovely afternoon exploring the tracks between fields of rice, maize and a meadow glowing with tiny blue flowers, we fell back on our bed complete with bed linen and flicked through the TV channels just because we could while our beers chilled in the fridge, marvelling at what you can get for 350 Baht. That night, we watched another downpour from a restaurant that had just finished serving food and chatted to the only English speaker, a local policeman who even offered to give us a tour of the area (sans handcuffs). For dinner, we had pancakes with egg and condensed milk and a sandwich filled with what turned out to be jam.

The next day we bumbled back along the river the way we’d come to return Foreign Legion Ian’s bike, who was delighted that we hadn’t nicked it. We sat outside with a few beers and watched the clouds gathering for some more action, and then he took us inside to show us his eye-popping collection of Pentax medium and large format photographic equipment, all neatly stowed away in a dry cabinet. They left me to play with his fish-eyes and tilt and shift lenses while the humidity reading on the dry cabinet slowly and steadily rose. I’m a big fan of digital photography, but this stuff, with its velvet-smooth focussing rings and deep and sure clunk-click noises is photography porn. When the humidity reading approached 70%, it was a race to get all the bodies, lenses, motor drives etc back in the cabinet before the moisture in the air ate it all alive. We drank tea while Foreign Legion Ian told us about his plans for a dramatic entrance to the digital world with a Pentax K7, 10-17, 18-55 and 50-200 while my mouth watered. I even spilt my tea.

After Chiang Khan, Chiang Rai felt like getting back on the tourist conveyor belt, but we weren’t too snobby to resist The Pizza Company, which left us feeling sick and a bit dirty. The night market was the most visually appealing of the many we’ve seen and it was great to have the excuse of buying presents to do a bit of shopping while sweet chilli sauce ran down my chin off weird and wonderful fried things on sticks.

By this point, somehow, we had spent some five weeks in Thailand and the horrible realisation dawned that we were running out of time to fit in all the things we wanted to our flight schedule before our year-long ticket expired, causing my hands to sweat. So, we headed for Laos in what felt like a bit of a rush.

Friday 11 September 2009

Chiang Khan

Chiang Khan is in North Isaan, right up against the meaty girth of the Mekhong river, looking across at Laos. The terrain is hilly and the views are even more dramatic when the skies are overcast and there is mist over the water. Since we were there in the peak of the rainy season, we had plenty of drama and the river was full to the brim.

Fortunately, we also had some beautiful sunshine, which made for idyllic days exploring the beautiful countryside 60 km either side of town. I love the countryside, even more perhaps than beach settings - the green grass, farmland and flowers put me in a reverie and I feel euphoria with every seven league stride. We saw everything, from mountain forest to verdant pasture. We scrambled around on endless dirt tracks through gorgeous fields that at times looked a bit like England. We met and spoke to a group of sculptists working on beautiful stone Buddha images. We watched a village game of petanques. We found some really quite luxurious bungalows at 350 Baht a night, in a really quite beautiful setting in Pak Chom, 50km to the east of Chiang Khan.

We met an interesting english guy called Ian, living in Chiang Khan. He has retired from the French Foreign legion. Now he lives alone and hates the world. We think he's just lonely. Nice guy, hard as nails, bit of a handful after a few beers and interestingly, a keen phtographer with a stash of classic exquipment. We were glad to meet him.

Accomodation, food and scooter hire are cheap in Chiang Khan. There are Buddha image stupas placed at altitiude in incredibly serene and picturesque settings. There’s a blissful lack of tourists.

Things may change of course. We had one splurge on a dinner in a Thai-French restaurant overlooking the awe-inspiring chocolate river from a hill on the western edge of the town. The owner kindly furnished us with smoke after dinner and told us of his plans for the site. The luxury bungalows are nearly finished, as is the 400 seater convention space, with snooker tables et al. In dry December and January the river sinks to expose a sand beach. He plans to hire out jetskis to residents, which quite frankly blew my mind.

As the sun set in orange and red over the hills of Laos and we listened to the lonely cd of Beatles covers, we considered how large-scale tourism would affect the vibe of the place. However, the owner - whose demeanour (and laugh) closely resembled Danny Devito’s Penguin in one of the batman films – had already spent 17 million baht and 20 years on the development of the place, so we reckon there’s a little while yet before that happens.

Definitely my favourite place in Thailand, so far…

Photos - firedancer on Koh Tao

Koh Tao: All creatures great and small (but mainly cats and dogs)

My continuing obstinacy in refusing to take up scuba diving in some of the world’s best diving locations meant I was on the look out for alternative activities in Koh Tao and chanced upon an advert in the island’s information leaflet for the Animal Clinic asking for volunteers. I don’t have any veterinary experience - I have trouble just saying the word - my main incentive was Puppies! Kittens!

My romantic notion of volunteering at an animal clinic was shattered on my first visit to see if I could help. When I walked in, the vet was standing over an unconscious dog splayed out on an operating table. With a scalpel in one hand and an internal organ covered in blood in the other, she said cheerily, “Hello, how can I help?” She said I could come back the following morning and I let her get back to reorganising the dog’s insides.

When I arrived the next day, I was introduced properly to Jae, the clinic vet, and volunteers Sarah and Will from the UK. Sarah had another year of veterinary studies to complete before qualifying, and Will was newly qualified. With a tiny puppy recovering from mange sat in my lap chewing happily on my fingers, they told me about the clinic’s work. Their biggest undertaking is to try to control Koh Tao’s population of stray dogs and cats by neutering them. Even dogs and cats that have owners need neutering because the freedom that Thailand’s domestic pets enjoy means that they can pop out for a shag whenever they want. With new kittens and puppies able to reproduce in as soon as six and eight months respectively, populations can increase dramatically. Yet, many pet owners have to be persuaded to agree and requiring payment has proved counterproductive to an effective strategy of persuasion. At almost 1000 baht per procedure, with always another neutering to be done, and with no one to pay for the strays, the clinic relies on fundraising and donations.

At about 10am, the phone rang and I was given my first task: to hop on the back of a motorbike and help bring a dog back to the clinic for spaying. Although she was a stray, she was friendly with the owners of a local restaurant who fed her regularly. Having found homes for her most recent litter of puppies, they’d contacted the clinic to have her neutered. So, one minute, she’d been having a lazy day basking in the sun and the next, Emily, another newly qualified vet from the UK, had injected her with a pre-med and she was about to be whisked away to have her womb removed. She would probably be using a new patch of ground to kip on from now on.
She wasn’t unconscious by the time we arrived, but she was drowsy so it was easy to get her into the trailer, wrapped up in a sheet, where she slumped against my leg. It sounds quite easy to hold on to a sedated dog in a motorbike trailer. It isn’t. I didn’t want to hurt her by pushing down too hard, which was going to be the least of her concerns that day, and not even a minute after setting off, the bike hit a bump. The energy of the jolt seemed to flow directly to the dog’s muscles and she sprang to life, leaped out of the trailer and my pathetic grasp and bolted off down the road with me running after her as usefully as a shadow. The more adrenalin an animal has, the more sedation they need and it was another half an hour and two injections before we could try to get her back in the trailer again. So, I wasn’t much good at helping with the dog, but I could at least ride Emily’s bike back to the clinic.

By the time I got back, our poor dog was out for the count, laid on her back, legs akimbo. Will was getting ready to operate while Emily explained the procedure. When a dog is spayed in the UK, a large hole is made so the vet can see exactly what’s going on and where stuff is. In Thailand, where even the domestic dogs tend to run around free all day, chasing cars and tourist buses, a big hole is far from practical. Without constant supervision, the stitches tend to come undone causing their insides to spill out. So, Jae teaches her vet volunteers to make a small hole and feel around for things instead. It’s similar to using a dark bag to remove film that’s got stuck in a camera, only instead of a dark bag, it’s a female animal, and instead of a film, it’s a uterus and a couple of ovaries.

The procedure itself sounds pretty straightforward; first you use a ligature to make a tie and stop the blood from gushing everywhere, then you make the cut. Tie and cut, tie and cut. Emily drew a diagram on a Post-It for me. But Will also explained that being a qualified vet is very different to being an experienced vet, and he was now required to perform the procedure blind. A further challenge was that he was a left-hander having to use right-handed tools. We all get stressed from time to time at work, but when you’re knuckle deep in intestines trying to tell a bladder apart from a stomach, the stakes are higher than usual. Emily, Sarah and I left him to it and went for lunch.

Doctors are known for a somewhat dark sense of humour. With what they have to do on the average day, I don’t blame them. A story that Sarah told me showed that vets are no different. A friend of hers was training as an agricultural vet and was down on a farm helping a sheep to give birth. With her tutor, she’d managed to get one of the lamb’s hoofs out and it was a question of using lambing ropes to pull the rest of it out. With the ropes tied round, she had to pull hard. After a good deal of pulling, there was still no movement and she was instructed to pull harder. She’d already been pulling as hard as seemed reasonable, but mustered the strength to pull with everything she had. With a final, massive heave, the movement they’d been looking for suddenly happened and she fell back, finding herself on the floor with a leg of lamb in her hands. The lamb had been dead for some time and had started to decompose and so the leg had been pulled free from the rest of the body. I knew it was wrong to laugh, but I absolutely cracked up, but with my hand over my mouth and my eyes screwed shut, much like I do when watching scenes with the accident-prone vet from The League of Gentleman (which I could not stop thinking about for the whole time I was in the clinic).

After lunch, our stray had been sewn back up and lay passed out on the floor, and there were another two spayings and a castration to be done. All vets and operating tables were occupied while a strange buzzer kept going off somewhere in the room making the whole scene feel like a real life game of Operation. Sarah couldn’t find her kitten’s ovaries and began to wonder if it was, in fact, a girl and Emily pulled something out of her kitten and wondered ‘What’s that?” All the frustrations, unpleasant surprises and worries I’ve felt during the average day at work were all crammed into every operation. The most use I could be was to keep little-mange-puppy, and another one who’d been castrated that morning while I was out losing dogs, from getting under the vets feet (literally) and fishing ovaries and testicles out of the bin.

As Emily tattooed her kitten’s ear so the clinic would know in the future that she’d already been spayed, she asked me if my day had inspired me to be a vet. Apart from the practicalities of being too old to start with all the studying, I have to say there is no way, frankly. I love animals, but you need a lot more than that to be a vet (it struck me that vets seem to like animals a lot more than most of the doctors I’ve met seem to like people). “I don’t know about being a vet,” I replied, “but I should find it easier to watch an 18 rated film”.

Thanks to everyone at Noistar Thai Animal Rescue Foundation, Koh Tao, for welcoming me to the clinic and letting me see all the hard work that you do. As I’ve mentioned, the foundation relies on donations. You can find out more about it and make a donation at

Thailand, down south: Bang Saphan

We hadn’t been on a beach since Mozambique – nearly 2 whole months!! - and were craving some beach action, which is what the south of Thailand does best. A friendly Canadian guy in Bangkok had recommended Bang Saphan as quietly and lovely so we decided to check it out. We’d mainly avoided the rain in Africa, but when we arrived at Bang Saphan’s deserted train station, the only tourists to alight, it was chucking it down. There’s something fascinating about beaches in Thailand’s windless rain. It hammers out the reflections on the water, creating a weirdly flat and matt surface, and transfers them to the saturated sand in a strange negative of its usual appearance. Actually, being in the sea at Bang Saphan is terrifying. It’s a thick, brown colour and disconcertingly warm, providing favourable living conditions for who knows what. Anything dipped below the surface disappears in the murk. I got in as far as my knees and freaked out when a shark (for all I know) brushed against my legs. Alex diligently had a dip every morning, the madman.   

We did find the farangs; they were all next door to our hut in Montri Libre’s Coco Bar– “the best bar in Thailand, sometimes” – all regular visitors to Bang Saphan over many years. Ray was an ex-Hell’s Angel from Newcastle whose fighting days, he assured us repeatedly, were over. He had stopped drinking, but had just started again for two weeks to celebrate his fiftieth birthday. Alan, Pete, Steve and Gareth were from Australia and had decided to drink even more than usual to celebrate Alan and Gareth’s fiftieth birthday. Derek and Sarah were from the UK and were still some way from fifty but determined to be last under the table. No one was remotely bothered about the colour of the sea or the rain lashing onto it. Montri, the barman, had seen it all a million times before and listened quietly with an expression of bemused amusement, pouring out more salted, freshly roasted peanuts whenever a plate approached empty. He invited us over for coffee one morning and showed us the photos of the Bang Saphan Olympics he’d arranged (and won by a clear margin) as we tried to find an artist he didn’t have in his CD collection. He wouldn’t let us pay for coffee.   

Without even realising it, we stayed a week. On our last night, we were invited to yet another fiftieth birthday party, Pete, another farang long-termer. Arriving at the bar, we saw a Thai cliché lining the bar: large, white, ageing men with hairpieces punching above their considerable weight with the Thai ladies accompanying them. But far from being the seedy arrangement one might have originally imagined, they were husbands and wives of twenty of thirty years with beautiful children that switched between Thai and English as easily as tunes on their iPod, with the beauty and culture of Thailand and the economic advantages of the UK to call their own.   

Perhaps, when the rain has stopped in Bang Spahan, the sea turns from impenetrable brown to something bluer. Perhaps it is possible to see the bottom. Otherwise, it’s more of a travelling destination than a holiday one, when you have just two or three weeks to cram in a year’s worth of blue sea and white sand. But if you are travelling and have the luxury of time, go to Bang Saphan, tell us what colour the sea is and, most importantly, say hello to Montri from us.

Arrival in Bangkok

I feel sorry for Thailand. People complain that it’s too touristy (Europeans have invented the word ‘touristic’) and with hordes of tourists marching past like they’re off to work on a Monday morning and street after street of businesses catering especially for them, I suppose it is. But it’s a beautiful country, has a world-renowned cuisine, an exchange rate that flatters western currencies and it’s been on the traveller circuit for so long that they’d be mad not to make the most of the pounds, euros and dollars that fly over. Actually, I find the tourists more of a problem than the tourism. In Africa, the foreigners we met had just finished volunteering for three months as a midwife, or were in the middle of a post-graduate placement investigating the prevention of water-borne diseases, or in the Peace Corps, or otherwise trying to help a little piece of the world. In Thailand, they’re mainly getting wasted and living empty drink cups everywhere. Some of the ‘land of smiles’ seem a little wan, but they usually make the effort.   

It only took ten hours to fly to Bangkok from Johannesburg, but it could have been the other end of the world. It was cold when we left South Africa –socks in bed - so arriving in Bangkok airport was like walking into the tropical house at Kew Gardens in the middle of January. Standing outside Arrivals adjusting to the heat, we realised that English had become practically useless. In Africa, we’d enjoyed trying to learn the various local languages for fun, but we’d rarely had to actually use them. Even road signs appear either European or, most personally incongruous, British, announcing Kisumu as casually as Kettering. In Thailand, the first country we’ve visited that has never been colonised (Thailand gave Laos and Cambodia, originally Thai territory, to France to prevent it), the Thais are as relaxed as the English about the need to speak international languages and also tend not to bother. I’d remembered travelling around Asia as easy, but we were going to have to make considerably more effort here than we’d had to in Africa.   

Actually, our taxi driver from Bangkok airport (taxi charges to Khao San Road vary between 400 and 1,800 Baht) spoke good enough English to give us a lecture about tuk-tuk drivers that lasted all the way to our guesthouse with a passion that went beyond the average road user’s hatred for all other road users. By now, we were so used to warnings, the telling and hearing of horror stories being in the top three of traveller pastimes (with eating and internet), we just rolled our eyes. But it was one of those usually unusual warnings that manifest themselves immediately. Tuk-tuk drivers will promise to take you wherever you want to go as long as you let them take you where they want you to go first. A gem shop, a tailor, a Thai cushion maker and definitely where you want to go next. Honest. I’m sure a proportion of farangs think of it as a convenient and, compared to back home, cheap way to spend the day touring the city and doing some shopping, otherwise it’s maddening. A pair of Dutch girls we met at the entrance to Dusit zoo at closing time had been trying to get there since the morning but their tuk-tuk driver had taken them on an unwanted all-day tour of the shops that would give him commission. And when you have finally managed to agree to ‘NO STOPS!’, you have to get the pronunciation exactly right: Koh San Road is a completely different thing to Khao (cow) San Road and no one will know what you’re on about.   

As is traditional for backpackers, Cow San Road was the first place we headed. The area had spread since my last visit, but it hadn’t changed. It’s lined with bars with big open fronts with whiteboards advertising prices for buckets of Sangsom (the local whisky that is actually a rum) and coke, pancakes and fruit shakes and the time at which they’ll be showing The Beach and filled with tourists slowly dissolving in the heat. They’re separated from the street by stalls selling clothes, gadgets with flashing LEDs, fabrics and trinkets, usually selling the same items at starting prices that never vary. The sound of croaking frogs has you checking your step until female traders wearing elaborate tribal hats, Burmese refugees we were told, pop up behind you selling wooden frogs with a ridged back that, when stroked with the accompanying wooden stick, emit the convincing croak, as well as silver bracelets, necklaces and, of course, tribal hats. After that comes the cigarette accessory trader selling lighters with built in torches, or cigarette cases with built in lighters that glow with a windproof, green flame (which we got for 150 baht, down from 700). Minding your own business having a beer and suddenly you find that another hat-wearing trader waiting in the wings has plonked another hat on your head and won’t take ‘sorry’ for an answer (“'sorry’ no buy me food!”). It will drive you mad soon enough, but it’s quite good fun before that and the area offers all the services a budget traveller looks for.   

Often, Bangkok is just a place to catch a bus, train or flight straight back out. Last time, we only left Khao San Road on our sixth and final visit to kill time while we waited for our flight home. We were sick of the crowds, the Sangsom buckets and circular conversations with tuk-tuk drivers and wandered off, accidentally discovering a whole new world. With Alex, I went to the Royal Palace for the first time. Wandering through the enormous temples and gardens, he turned to me and said, “I can’t believe you never came here before”. “After Vietnam, we were all templed out,” I answered, which was true, but I couldn’t believe it either. Many of the famous sites are visible from the Chao Phraya River and, at 13 baht per trip, cheaper than a biro back home, it’s a more economical and pleasant way to cross the city than using the pollution and traffic choked Bangkok streets. Our favourite stop is just after River City going south; a little alley on the left takes you to the food stalls where the locals go for lunch and, perhaps, the best pad kra pow in Southeast Asia. All the shops in Bangkok are grouped together. There’s the gold Buddha section, the metal pipe section, the coffin section, the miscellaneous engine parts section, the Chinese herb section, the digital still and video camera section. In Chinatown, a labyrinth of alleys sell everything you can think of and a bunch else besides, with flagrant disregard for the well guarded barrier at home between wholesale and retail; plastic feet for modelling flip-flops for sale were on sale next to flip-flops. We put our map back in the bag; it was no use in Chinatown.   

Bangkok (and Thailand as a whole, according to other travellers we’ve met) has a bad reputation for scamming and even TAT agents act more like touts than you might expect of representatives of the Thailand government’s Tourism Authority. A simple thing like visiting the Royal Grand Palace became something of a mission with people on the way telling us a variety of different things about opening hours and dress codes. A Thai guy outside the Grand Palace told us that 3.30pm was a bad time to visit when an incensed tourist stormed up and told us not to listen to him – the Palace was open and they were selling tickets. But when we’d been wandering around for an hour and a half, rushing around before closing time with so much more still to see, the Thai man’s advice started to make sense. A similar thing happened as we tried to find our way to the Farang Quarter: a couple of tuk-tuk drivers we asked for directions kept saying, “Embassy? You want embassy?” “No, no,” we replied pointing in exasperation at our English-written map, “Farang Quarter!” It was only later, on closer inspection of our guide-book, that we realised that the Farang Quarter is home to many of Bangkok’s embassies, (and maybe how it got its name). Overall, 95% of apparently spurious advice turned out to be well intentioned. (The other 5% will suck you dry, of course :) )   

Ten years seems a long time but, although individual places have changed or spread out, overall I was struck not by what had changed but what hadn’t. Even the dodgy guesthouse we stayed in ten years ago is still there, and the rooms cost about the same (we didn’t realise how dodgy it was last time, Alex took one look at the sign asking guests bringing back Thai ladies to pay for their sheets, shook his head at me and walked straight out). Bangkok is still crowded, smelly and hectic and I still love it.   

Ten years ago Now 
Ex rate to £1 60 Bt 54 Bt 
Big bottle of beer (in a bar)  60 Bt 60-90 Bt 
Starting price for double room 200+ Bt 300+ Bt 
Breakfast 20-40 Bt (bacon and eggs) 20-40 Bt (fruit)

Southeast Asia – The Sequel

I first went travelling (by which I mean that we would only book the return flight when we’d run out of money) nearly eleven years ago when the follower with the complicated user name on the right hand side (aka Ni) and I spent four months exploring Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. It was the best four months ever and destroyed my enthusiasm for holidays (by which I mean that you book your outbound and return flights at the same time) for several years. After six months, we had begun to feel at home in Africa and I was sad to leave, but one of the great things about travelling is that departures are only the end of the chapter, not the whole book and I was cheered up by the prospect of returning to Asia.   

There were plenty of good reasons for not returning to the countries I’d been to before: ten years is a long time for places I'd loved to become unrecognisable, I’d avoid boring Alex with endless observations of how things used to be and there were so many unvisited countries to see. But, actually, I was itching to return - and anyway, our flight schedule had already committed us to Thailand (which you’d have to be bloody-minded to avoid on a trip round Southeast Asia) and Vietnam (which made more sense at the time of booking than it did several months later when we came to working out the logistics).   

Thailand was Tourist Central even then, but we’d heard there were still opportunities to get away from the crowds, so it would be ‘same same but different’, I figured. I couldn’t imagine Laos having the ambition or inclination to change much. But Vietnam, my favourite, was only just starting to make the most of the tourists beginning to flood over the borders. Ni went back five years ago and had already warned me not to expect the same. So, my expectations were suitably managed and our flight schedule showed that persuading Alex to go had already been taken care of.

Tuesday 25 August 2009

Where we've been in Thailand

A whole new continent then. We got into Bangkok, Thailand on Friday 10th July 2009. We are currently in Chiang Rai, just about to head into Laos.

Here's where we've been, click on the markers to read about the places.

Sunday 2 August 2009

Music we've collected on the trip

Not a huge list, but it's good!

1. 17GB of music by the Congolese legend, Franco. My favourite is "Mario".

2. And the new Franco...
Zimbabwean Alick Macheso "Greatest Hits Live in Jo'burg" - this is absolute gold, what a band, such fun music.

3. A CD of Islamic prayer music to a solid conga beat, collected at the Maulid festival on Lamu, Kenya. Samples!

4. Some South African Kwaito and house on the "Tales of Tsotsi Beat" compilation

Last lot of photos from South Africa

Going to Blyde River Canyon, SA

Train from Jo'burg to Cape Town

Cape Town again

Cape Town aquarium


Staying in Soweto

Books we've been reading

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
English Passengers by Matthew Kneale
Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
After Tears by Niq Mhlongo
Exit Ghost by Philip Roth
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

The Cloud Garden by Tom Hart Dyke and Paul Wynder

Maybe more of a detailed critique later, but for now let's just say that English Passengers and the Poisonwood Bible are HIGHLY recommended.

Last bits in Africa – Cape Town, Garden Route, Eastern Cape, Jo'burg

The 5 days in Cape Town had been superb, from our visits to the Aquarium (sharks!) and Cape Peninsular (penguins!) to my solo, techno-fuelled walks in and around Long Street, City Bowl, Gardens, Lion’s Head, Signal Hill, Bo-Kaap, Green Point, Sea Point and Waterfront (made while Tania went through millions of pictures back in the room). Super-friendly customer service, terrific bars, food and sights, but we were slightly concerned that we were spending so much money compared to what we had been doing in Africa “proper”. Oh well, not long to go before cheapy cheap Asia, we thought...

From Cape Town we got a train to somewhat moneyed Stellenbosch for some wine, cheese and very pleasant views on one of the cheap day tours. (This would have been Mon 29 June.) From there we decided to hire a car and see how far we could get along the coastal Garden Route and into the Eastern Cape. After shopping around quite a bit (it would have been easier in Cape Town, doh) we found a steal - 800 Rand for a whole week! The car wasn't exactly new, in fact it was a 1990 Opal Rekord - one of those many vehicles I had never even known existed - but it worked and for 60 quid we thought we would give it a go. We only had 5 days before we had to be back in Cape Town for Trevor Jackson DJ-ing at The Assembly, the reason we had pushed our flight out of Africa back for the third time. We had originally planned to be out at the end of April, but ... things happened, you know? Beaches and sun happened, and Likoma Island and diving happened and well, we had overshot our original estimate by a whole two and a half months.

We stopped in Swellendam for a night, did a 3.5 hr hike the next morning in some lovely sunshine, then drove on to Mossel Bay where we stayed in the Santos Express converted train on the beach. The next day we made it to Tsitsikamma in the Eastern Cape, where they do “zip-line” canopy tours and happen to have the highest bungy in the world. The canopy tour was good fun, and more than a little scary. I had been all gung ho for it beforehand and Tania had been very sceptical (thinking it was part of my ongoing scheme to do away with her, making it look like an accident) but in the actual event I got increasingly petrified, whilst Tania was a beaming Lara Croft and had no problem at all with being suspended at 30m. Little trooper that she is...

At this juncture (best to say that in a female American voice, as if you were the voice of an advanced space computer), I should mention one of the most evil barmen I have ever come across. At Tsitsikamma Backpackers an insane fellow called Ray did things to his customers that were at best ill-advised, at worst illegal. He produced cocktails such as the "Kudu", named after a large antelope and spoken about in tones of solemn, mysterious awe. It tasted much like an alcoholic After Eight mint and there was an awful lot of it. There was also "Hiroshima", which involves four distinct containers and must be consumed in a very specific order. And that chilli-spiced local moonshine I was given as punishment, when I voiced my opinions on the evil genius’ work - not fair! Lovely bloke, though. Ray and Cindy - Tania and I wish you the very best in your new life together and thanks for taking such good care of us over two days.

We went from being 100% committed to doing the monster bungy at 10pm - having watched the day’s heroes’ videos, heard how you can’t even see the bottom of the gorge (some 220m below) and discussed the merits of going backwards - to feeling decidedly queasy in the morning and deciding on a nice cooked breakfast before we did anything. It was real windy that day too, so we … we totally pussied out and went to the nice safe National Park instead. Tsitsikamma is a great place to visit. The little town’s people are very friendly, the countryside wild and there are some cool things to do. Also the owner of the canopy tour company and the backpackers seems to be really actually committed to helping the local black community develop skills and improve its situation; as well as fight ever-present problems such as HIV.

So after spending a day longer than we planned in Tsitsikamma, due to Ray’s concoctions, we had to get back to Cape Town in one day. We took Route 62 on the way back, which is inland from the coastal N2 and less travelled, but beautiful with the hill’s covered in fynbos. Driving in SA is pretty special btw - you have never seen and felt such SPACE as this. We got back about 7pm and totally found our way to our chosen backpackers, thanks to the natural navigational aids that Cape Town so kindly provides. I felt unjustifiably proud of having driven in South Africa, as is my wont, and we delivered the vehicle back safely. Then we were ready to hit the club.

Good old Trev didn’t fail to deliver. After an admittedly shaky first mix, he aggressively dropped a million retro house and minimal afro-tinged bombs. It were right nice and kept us going till 3 in the morning which was very much a record in Africa where 8 o’clock bed had not been unusual and 1am had been the absolute limit. It’s the heat, you see. In the club we were amazed to bump into a couple of young professional Capetonians, Mike and Candice, that we had met in Tofo, Mozambique. Having swapped numbers, we hooked up in the afternoon of the next day and they very kindly put us up for a couple of nights. They live in a really cool flat in Vredehoek, which they rent extremely reasonably, and the experience taught us a bit about the level of quality of life thing over there, which is pretty desirable. It was a lovely finish to Cape Town and we got to see some places we might otherwise have missed, like little coastal town Fish Hoek (for Sunday lunch), near Muizenberg where Mike had done some surfing just before. The Cape Town area has a lot of really pretty out-of-the-way spots (in fact it doesn’t feel at all like a big city most of the time) and some very nice, open-minded people. And we had a perfect day to go up Table Mountain on the cable car, really clear and absolutely stunning – damn, we wished we had done the 3 day hike from Cape Point to there. Then an old friend of Tania’s from Fuji noticed a post on Facebook that led her to see the Cape Town photos on the blog and come back with a quick “Dude – are you in Cape Town? I live in Cape Town!!!”. This led to a lovely final evening with yet another Candice and her fella Matt, some great food and wine at another ridiculously good value property near Fish Hoek.

Finally it was time to organise the flight back to Jo’burg (£60 – internal flights are pretty cheap in SA, due to the relatively recent emergence of budget airlines there), stay a night in Soweto township (we drank in a shebeen and met some very friendly people), see the Apartheid Museum (a LOT of very interesting and thought-provoking information and more than once tear-jerking for both of us) and have a final dinner in Melville before getting on a luxurious plane to Bangkok, via Singapore. We’d been through some lifestyle changes in 5 and a half months in Africa, having gotten kinda basic in the middle and being brought back to European values somewhat by Southern Mozambique and SA. How different was this next phase going to be???

Customer Service in South Africa

Frankly, I have never known anything like it, not anywhere, not ever. Special mentions go to: Jackie at Xai-Xai in Johannesburg whose Flaming Senoritas we were powerless to refuse; Mike at Arnold’s in Cape Town who was happy to recommend us places to stay, give us directions and even call them on our behalf to check for availability. He would chat to us in quiet spells, rush off to do something important, and return to pick up the conversation from the exact point in the sentence he’d left it at. I’m afraid I can’t remember the name of the waitress who served us at Bukhara, one of Cape Town’s Indian restaurants, but she was just lovely (and once you've eaten ostrich tikka, all other meat falls into the shade). Sharon, our waitress at Mama Africa, was great fun and even let me fold napkins (the next morning, we found we had her mobile number somehow). And, of course, Rayno at Tsitsikamma, as Alex has already mentioned. A unique ‘completely f*** you up’ style of customer service, and it was funny watching him trying to operate the calculator to total up the bill the next morning. Mind you, I couldn’t even say calculator.

The funny thing is, some local South Africans we met told us they always complain about customer service. Which, I guess, just goes to show.

Cape Town

The backpacker we’d picked to stay in for our first night was A Sunflower Spot at Green Point, as near as dammit to the stadium being built for World Cup 2010. Nice clean rooms and a hot shower that would have been lovely even if we hadn’t been in such desperate need. After a good night’s sleep, we headed off to find breakfast and take care of a little essential traveller admin (assure parents still alive and well, Facebook, checking how much money we have left, asking the bank to please release our debit cards again) and found ourselves walking along Main Road which, without wanting to be mean, is about as inspiring as it sounds. “Wow, it’s like West Ealing,” we said. Looking left, however, we saw the side streets disappearing up steep slopes. To the right, we could make out giant waves breaking on the shore. Not exactly like West Ealing, then.

The name Table Mountain gave me cause to believe there would be one giant mountain that resembled a table overlooking the city. As we walked towards the centre, seeing huge rock formations peeking over the tops of the tower blocks, it was immediately apparent that we were not talking about one mountain. They were everywhere.

It didn’t take long to see why everyone insisted we come here, nor why friends from South Africa have been so excited about telling us where to go and what to do. Cape Town seems to sum up in one city everything that South Africa has to offer: natural beauty, mountains, ocean (two, actually), great food, delicious wine and customer service. OMG, the customer service.

Train from Johannesburg to Cape Town

The point of taking the Schoscholoza-Meyl train to Cape Town was to see the great wide-open spaces of the Karoo. A 26-hour journey, it would take us through its heart so, even though we didn’t have time to stop, at least we’d get to see it. As it turned out, I was asleep within 30 minutes of the train pulling out of the station. Which is Jackie’s fault.

Trains have to be the best way to travel. Comfortable, traffic free, environmentally friendly, and the only form of vehicular transport that lets you go for a walk. I do love roads, with their pure lines and perfect curves, but roads seem to accumulate the clutter of life – shops, more roads, people, cars – that train tracks don’t. A train scythes through naked country and makes you feel like you’re right in it, even if only for a moment.

When the train porter came round to all the cabins bringing our bedclothes for the night – two pillows, two sheets and three blankets, including a lovely big furry one - we thought they were overdoing it a bit. They were not. Winter in South Africa is bloody cold, and we were right in it, travelling through one of the coldest regions. Three blankets were nowhere near enough. It was only the next day, whilst twiddling absent-mindedly with a mysterious knob that said “ON / OFF” that we discovered our cabin’s heater.

As we thawed out, the rising sun was casting long shadows behind imposing mountains over a beautifully bleak landscape. Clear, blue sky. We were cross-country. And it was time for breakfast. I don’t really remember when the landscape changed. There’s a chance I was asleep. But quite suddenly, it seemed, we were clearly in wine country. You never seem to be far from a mountain range in South Africa. But now, instead of seeing them in the distance, they were all around us, interspersed, in a show of agricultural landscape gardening, by vineyards and fields alight with greens, reds and golds glowing under the setting sun.

It was night by the time the train pulled into Cape Town station. We knew Table Mountain was there, but we couldn’t see it. We would have to wait.

Saturday 4 July 2009

Night out in Johannesburg

After spending responsibly in the township, we decided to drink irresponsibly in Melville. Joburg’s reputation is, it could be said, the opposite of Cape Town’s, but Melville gave us a guess as to what the opposite of Joburg might be like. The area is packed with attractive bars, cosy looking restaurants and street vendors selling animals made from wires and beads. I bought a gecko, and probably 2 or 3 hours of the artist’s life, for about £1.50.

Maybe still missing ‘proper’ Africa, we picked a Mozambican styled restaurant called Xai-Xai where a waitress called Jackie laid on us the softest yet hardest sell of a drink I’ve ever been victim to. A Flaming Senorita, it was called. It involves liqueur, oranges and fire. It was very nice. She then plotted our onward route round Melville, telling us where we could find the best margarita, the liveliest dancing and the tastiest Mexican food so we didn’t have to think, which was lucky, what with all the drinks she kept fetching us.

If we had listened to everything we were told about Joburg before we arrived, we wouldn’t have stayed more than 5 minutes. Even the train station got a bad rap. “Take the train to Cape Town from Joburg, not the other way round,” someone warned us, “you don’t want to end your journey in Joburg’s train station,” she shivered. Fortunately, Dad has always advised caution wherever you go, but he described Joburg as just another big city. Yes, be careful and yes, go. After only two full days there, and this our last night before exploring the rest of SA, it was good to know that there’s more to it than guns and violent crime. And the train station is actually quite nice.

Malawi photos that should have gone up a while back - Beehive School, Likoma Island and Mango Drift, Nkhata Bay and Nkwazi Lodge

Sorry, these should have gone up ages ago! We were in Malawi in April and May.

Niall Dorey's Beehive School in Mzuzu, northern Malawi

Likoma Island and Mango Drift backpackers, Lake Malawi

Nkhata Bay and Nkwazi Lodge, Lake Malawi

Tuesday 23 June 2009

Photos - Soweto


The following day, we were to be guided round Soweto. ‘Township Tours’ are easy to find in Johannesburg and you can pay a lot of money to see poverty. Looking for a tour that wouldn’t feel like another safari and that might return the revenue generated to the community, we came across Taste of Africa. Run by Cedric, it offers tours, lodgings and home-stays in Soweto and uses public minibus taxis (minibuses which are called taxis – as opposed to metered taxis which are regular taxis) rather than a big coach to get around, reducing both the price and the insularity of the experience. Of the 270,000 visitors in Soweto every year, he told us, only 70,000 of them get off the bus on the way through, the rest taking pictures through the window.

As he waited with us, barefoot, to catch the minibus-taxi, he talked us through the basics of the hand gestures required. Pointing your index finger skyward indicates that you want to go to the city centre, pointing it downwards says that your stop is local. Holding up two, three, four or five fingers means various other things which depend on where you’re hailing the taxi from and is not a rude gesture, as was often supposed by road users that did not speak the language, Cedric told us. Once he’d waved us off, a fellow passenger saw the note he’d written for us with the name of our stop and shouted it over to the driver, who had already been told by Cedric and shouted back to us, “Don’t worry!” We thanked everyone for looking after us and another passenger assured us, with perhaps a little exasperation, “We’re hospitable people!”

A township is not a slum. A slum is an informal settlement where inhabitants may or may not have some kind of tenure security (and usually don’t) and live in obviously impoverished conditions. A township is “a suburb or city of predominantly black occupation, formerly officially designated for black occupation by apartheid” (Mac Dictionary) and, in the case of Soweto, plots are allocated to families and their future descendants. We were told that the population in Soweto could be as high as eight million. Instead of shacks made from mud and corrugated iron, a township has actual houses with bricks and windows. Like most areas, and perhaps we were naïve to be surprised, it has rich and poor parts. It’s easy to see the difference; the original government houses all have the same basic Monopoly design while the richer occupants have rebuilt their houses always in a different, and impressive, style. Probably the most impressive house belongs to Winnie Mandela, divorced from Nelson not long after his release from prison. “Wow, it’s…” I paused, trying to find the right word. “Big?” finished Eunice, our guide. It sure was.

Our first stop was in Orlando West, the part of Soweto where Nelson Mandela used to live. The clean and shiny museum that now stands on his previous address (now owned by Winnie Mandela with a 60R entrance fee that was a bit rich for us) is on a street nicknamed Beverly Hills and looks similar to the rich suburbs of Johannesburg, with the same high security fences, sprinkler systems and BMWs.

The date was June 16th, exactly 33 years to the day after the killing of thirteen-year-old Hector Pieterson, the first person to die when armed forces opened fire on a student demonstration protesting against the teaching of lessons in Afrikaans, ‘the language of the oppressor’. After visiting the museum commemorating his death and the history of the struggle it signifies, we stood on the spot where he died, behind which, in an obscene paradox to Hector’s sad yet optimistic symbol for student solidarity, autonomy and power, is the Coca-Cola branded sign for Orlando West High School.

We had lunch at the hostels that used to accommodate Johannesburg’s miners back when they still mined. For the same price as an adult single into Mandela House, we had two of the best meals we’ve had in Africa so far, including beers. Alex cooked the meat on the braai with all the men while I talked marriage with Eunice (don’t worry Le Poo, I put her straight x).

It was a valuable surprise to see that an area with the reputation of Soweto can become as desirable as Orlando West clearly is. It seems an audacious and satisfying response to the horrifying policies that first gave the area foundation. After the tour, we asked Cedric if he thought it was safe to visit Soweto without a guide. To our surprise, he said yes, that it was safer than Johannesburg, and that his ultimate ambition was for visitors like us to do exactly that. In fact, though, I would recommend a guide as it is easy to get lost and there are still areas in Soweto, like anywhere, where you don’t want to be an easy target. I would definitely recommend the flexibility of Taste of Africa’s tour and Cedric’s impressive philosophy and attitude towards tourism – he would rather you spent your money with Soweto’s businesses than on his own transport, making the cost at 200R per person at least half those of all the other tours we saw. Most of all, I would recommend that you get off the bus.