A Railay Nice Place

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I jumped out of the longtail boat at the West Beach, where the luxury travellers stay, and walked through the jungle to other side of the island.

I had hoped to get accommodation here, in Railay, a small peninsula cut off from mainland Krabi by limestone cliffs; but there was nothing left at the cheaper end, so I had to settle for a bungalow in Nopparat Thara at the other side of Ao Nang. It was only a short boat ride away.

It was a peaceful walk through the jungle with the sound of the birds and red and black butterflies, as big as my hand, flashing by, and the occasional cave to nose around. Cicadas of some sort way up in the trees made an unworldly metallic sound, pa-poing, pa-poing, pa-poing.

It was trippy as hell, and that suited Railay East, where the trail emerged. There is still a hint, there, of the semi-mythical hippie retreat which grizzled old travellers reminisce about when they complain of how Thailand has been ruined in the last 20, or 30, or 40, or however many years have passed since the first time they went.

I felt overdressed, there, in a Beer Chang singlet and fake Havianas. The other travellers wore nothing but faded fisherman’s trousers and tattoos. Several had dreads and most had luxuriant beards – even the girls – and this was at least a year before everyone had a beard.

Hip hop and reggae wafted from the bars; ganja smoke wafted from everywhere. There is usually a subtle but strict segregation between travellers and Thais, unless they are working in the tourist trade or dating farangs; but in Railay East they all sat and smoked together.

It might have been a backpacker paradise, had the beach not been a disaster of mud, mangroves and pipes.

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walked through the jungle again to Phra Nang in the southwestern corner, where there is a lovely squiggle of beach framed by limestone karsts of bronze and grey overhung with trees.

It has supposedly been ranked among the top ten beaches in the world, but that is a bit meaningless because no one has been to them all. “The Ten Best…” is usually just the ten the writer knows about.  It was nice enough, though, to persuade me to stop, sit down on the sand and take it all in.

There were climbers on the karsts out in the bay, without ropes. It was a long way to fall if they slipped off a hold, but the sea below was deep enough to catch them. There were more climbers upside down on overhangs above the beach with instructors shouting encouragement from the ground. The more I watched them, the more I wanted a go.

But there was not much left of the afternoon by then. The sun slipped down and the light began to fade and I made my way back to the West Beach.  There was a long queue for the longtail boats, but a guy tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out into the surf to a boatman – presumably his mate – whom he said was going to Ao Nang and would give me a lift.

I jumped the queue and waded out until the water was up past my waist and grabbed the rail of the boat with both hands and vaulted in.

I planned to go back to Railay the next day but it was New Year’s Eve, and on New Year’s Day I didn’t feel like doing very much at all, and the day after that I left for Bangkok. I eventually went climbing in Laos, three countries later, and – much more recently – took it up seriously. I am at the climbing gym twice a week, now, when I am not travelling, and all because of that afternoon in Railay.

© Richard Senior 2016

Gyeongju: Two Days in the Museum without Walls

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There are two or three blocks of forgettable shops south of the station, then a sudden lake of yellow rapeseed.

Narrow paths have been cut into the rape field and happy young couples stroll through the flowers, stopping to smile and make peace signs for cameras at the ends of poles they hold at arm’s length. The field is floodlit at night and more couples stream in and flashtubes pop across the field like a diorama of a battle.

Beyond the rape field, behind trees, older couples march along paths through the forest to a stream with their ski poles and sunhats and leisure wear as vivid as the yellow of the rapeseed and the blue of the sky. There are hazy mountains in the middle distance and the keenest start early and hike to them.

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Gyeongju was the capital of the ancient Silla kingdom which ruled Korea for a thousand years from the first century BCE. The walking trails criss-cross the site of Banwolseong Fortress and there are fragments of the old walls in the undergrowth. The hourglass-shaped Cheomseongdae Observatory is still intact after fourteen centuries and sits, surreally, in the middle of a park.

The kings and their treasures are buried in two dozen grassy hillocks, like a much-simplified form of the Egyptian pyramids. One has been opened up so that visitors can look inside and the whole complex has been modelled into a park with quiet paths between trees and azalea bushes and traditional music piped in through hidden speakers, which gives it a dreamlike quality.

The same music plays, to the same effect, in the grounds of the royal palace. The pavilions and ornamental lake have been rebuilt and the gardens restored and you could stroll there happily for hours, at least if you were not being followed around by a school party repeatedly saying “hello” and “how are you?” because they wanted to practice their English and those seemed to be the only words they knew. It is wonderfully ethereal at night, when the pavilions are lit up and reflect in the lake.

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Gyeongju is known, with justification, as ‘the museum without walls’. I filled a day looking at temples and tombs, pagodas and wooden hanok houses and walking along trails through the forest. I planned to hike Mount Namsan, as well, but it turned out to be a lot further away than it looked and I gave up on the idea before I got there.

I set out early next morning on a bike which I borrowed from the guest house. It was a cheap, Chinese-made thing with brakes to trap fingers, sharp edges to scratch and protruding parts to bruise. It was a vicious cycle.

The shifter for the back hub refused to shift. The other had four positions for three gears. The first just made it click annoyingly, the second took me back to where I started, the third made the crank spin like a propeller, and the fourth made the chain come off.

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What I had taken, from the map, to be a quiet country road was actually a busy highway; it ran alongside the railway and sloped forever uphill. But there were cherry blossoms, white herons and mountains as well as the concrete, cars and trains.

I guessed that it would take around half an hour, an hour at the most, to ride to Bulguksa Temple, but it apparently takes longer than that in the car. The incline seemed slight but never let up until the turn off for Bulguksa, when it became a long, steep hill. Each sign implied that Bulguksa was round the next corner, or the one after that, and it began to feel like chasing a rainbow.

I got there in the end, though, and it is a splendid temple with pagodas, bridges, statues and intricately carved, gloriously painted roofs set in a forest you could lose yourself in for a day; but it was Saturday and brimming with day-trippers – of course, I was one of them – and instead of the serenity you expect at a Buddhist temple, there was the stress of a big city at rush hour.

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It would have been too easy to freewheel down the hill and follow my tyre tracks back to Gyeongju, and instead I took the long way round, up yet another hill, and hoped that it would lead into town. Eventually it did.

© Richard Senior 2015

Ko Phi-Phi: On Irony Island

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Phi-Phi was a quiet island of Muslim fishermen, until the travellers arrived.

There were only a few at first, but then their friends came and their friends’ friends and their friends’ friends’ younger brothers, who came with a bunch of people they had met on Samui, and a few crates of beer and a big bag of weed and some music. It could not be accused of being quiet now.

Loh Dalum Beach is still beautiful, so long as you keep looking out to sea. Behind you, there is a line of bars with big sound systems and bigger neon signs. There is EDM at Slinky, dubstep at Stones and reggae at the Chillout Bar.

Sometime around nine, the DJ’s jerk up the volume and bare-chested performers run onto the stage and juggle with burning batons. One swings two burning balls connected by a chain around his torso and between his legs. Then two of them douse a rope in petrol, light it and swing it with increasing speed and invite volunteers to skip with it. Plenty try. Buckets make you do things like that.

When the sun starts to set, every guesthouse and restaurant on the way to the beach brings out a tray of plastic buckets like children use for sandcastles. Each contains a packet of straws, a quarter bottle of Sang Som whisky, a Coke and an energy drink. The idea is to tip all the drinks in the bucket and suck them up through the straw until you are hammered enough to skip with a burning rope.

The Coke and the energy drink keep you alert when, by rights, you should be asleep in a corner and you think you are fine and get another bucket and then it is sometime in the afternoon the next day.

Slinky has a stage on the beach so you can look out to sea as you dance. There is a dead tree in front of it with its trunk stripped, its branches lopped off and two slats of wood nailed to the top to make a platform just big enough to stand on.

Throughout the night, when I was there, travellers tried to climb to the top of the tree to dance on the platform in front of the crowd. A Scandinavian guy powered himself up in three fluid movements, an Irish guy got partway up then slithered to a giggling heap on the sand, and an English girl squeezed herself half onto the platform but could neither stand up nor climb down and stayed where she was, with her arms and legs waving uselessly.

It is all good fun and an essential stop on the Banana Pancake Trail; but when the effects of the buckets have finally worn off, you might start to imagine it from a local’s perspective. “It puts money in their economy,” some travellers shrug.

Yet there is disquiet back home if a Polish shop opens on the high street, and outrage if planning consent is given for a mosque. Professionally intolerant columnists write another 2,000 inflammatory words, and badly-spelled bigotry is circulated on Facebook. Meanwhile, in Thailand, the children and grandchildren of the angry people have taken a sleepy island and made it into a version of Ibiza.

It is partly Leonardo DiCaprio’s fault. The Beach was filmed on Ko Phi-Phi Le, even though it was set in the Lower Gulf Islands on the opposite coast. It is a fifth of the size of the main island, Phi-Phi Don, which itself is only five miles by two, and as stunningly beautiful as the book says it should be.

It is a bit less busy than Times Square, and slightly more relaxing than the running of the bulls. Boats crowd into the tiny bay, dripping oil into the lovely cyan water. The roar of the motors echoes around the cliffs. Thousands of feet kick the pristine sand into a lunar landscape disaster. Tourists excited to be standing where DiCaprio stood let crisp packets drop and blow about the beach until they get stuck into crevices. They pose for their Facebook profile shots and a wave snatches up their Sprite bottles and bobs them out to sea.

In all the noise and confusion, irony slips by unnoticed.

© Richard Senior 2015

Peru between the Sights

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It was a dark restobar with a wobbly iron staircase, terracotta floor tiles and stacked Coca Cola crates.

Two old men were having a one-sided fight outside. The first lurched onto the street and hit the other on the shoulder in the way that you might greet a friend. The second took it badly, started shouting and pummelling the drunk man’s shoulders. He kicked him in the arse and he fell over and lay as helpless as a beetle on its back. A policeman saw them, strode over, helped the drunk man up and sent both of them on their way.

Aguas Calientes began, a century ago, as a camp for railway workers and still looks as if it might be abandoned on half a day’s notice. The buildings seem to have been put up in a hurry and occupied before they were finished. The only road out leads up to the mountains. The railroad alone links the town to the rest of Peru.

The tracks serve as the high street and shops and restaurants open straight onto the platform. When the train approaches, a man in a cap strolls out of a bar and onto the track and waves a red flag and pedestrians shuffle aside. The train passes and whistles and the man with the flag goes back to his drink and the pedestrians pick up their journey.

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I had reached Aguas Calientes the hard way, via the Inca Trail, and seen a glimpse of Machu Picchu at the end. I got back on the bus to the mountains in the morning to see it properly.

There had been a landslide a few days earlier and there were rocks the size of houses at the side of the road. A team was working to clear them but progress was slow; sledgehammers made little impression on rocks of that size. There were more rocks overhanging the road and it seemed as if a sneeze might dislodge them and if one had fallen with the bus underneath there would have been nowhere for the driver to swerve.

There was a boulder in the middle of the road near the top, blocking it to traffic. The bus stopped and disgorged the passengers and we walked round the corner, up the hill, to another bus which took us the last few hundred yards.

Around lunchtime, then, I took the two buses back to Aguas Calientes and bustled onto a train to Ollantaytambo, just as it was about to leave, and gazed out the window at the angry river, an Amazon tributary, and the verdant mountains either side, and adobe villages with political slogans painted on walls, and Quechua ladies leading llamas, and tethered donkeys and free-ranging pigs, and a dog trying to face down a bull which was roped to the ground from a ring in its nose.

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The station was a chaos of bewildered travellers and persistent vendors:

“¡Taxi! ¡Taxi! ¡Cusco! ¡ Taxi!”

“¡Choc-o-late!”

“¡Cusco-Cusco-Cusco!”

“¡Empanadas!”

“¡Taxi, amigo! ¡Taxi!”

I forced my way through and got on a bus to Cuzco. I had stayed there before but had only seen the Centro Historico and the scenic route out past the Incan ruins of Saqsaywaman. The western suburbs are nothing like that, with rubble and weeds where the pavements should be and houses of unpainted concrete and rusty rebar sticking out of roofs and people buying provisions through bars on the doors of the shops.

As so often, the bits which the tourists see have little to do with the lives of ordinary people who live there.

© Richard Senior 2015

Picton Picked On

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I spent the night in Picton because that was where the ferry docked.

It is on the same sort of scale as the arse-end-of-nowhere village I grew up in, with about half a dozen streets and a harbour. Notable people who have lived there are said to include the 37th-to-last man to be hanged in New Zealand. It has at least one heritage building, and Katherine Mansfield wrote a short story, The Voyage, about people leaving it for Wellington.

My hostel had the air of a seafront hotel in winter. I had a four-bed dorm to myself. A clock ticked oppressively in the communal room. A Japanese guy, sitting alone, was working his way through a big box of beers and there were two rows of empties on the table. There was a European guy at the other side of the room, ignoring him. He mimed deep concentration on his book as I walked in, so he could get away without saying hello. The Japanese guy was too distracted by the beer. We three seemed to be the only guests.

It felt wrong, somehow, to make noise in the kitchen, so I cooked as if someone were sleeping nearby, ate quickly and had an early night; I was asleep well before ten.

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I was full of energy and cheer in the morning, then, and went for a run around Picton. It did not take long. Once I had showered and changed and tidied my backpack to kill some more time, there was nothing to do but check out and walk slowly to the bus interchange. There was still plenty of time to see the hulk of the tall ship, Edwin Fox, before I caught my bus.

It was built in Calcutta in 1853 (Edwin Fox, that is, not the bus) and took troops to the Crimea, convicts to Australia and migrants to New Zealand before it was retired and used as a bunker for coal. It was left to rot on a beach for decades and it is in a shocking state now. But that makes it more interesting, to my mind, than a carefully-restored ship on which the only original thing is the name.

It is claimed as the Oldest Merchant Sailing Ship in the World and the Ninth Oldest Ship Afloat, but I find it hard to believe assertions like that because they rarely turn out to be true.

I was bored enough to check the point, this time, and sure enough a quick Google search threw up a merchant sailing ship named Charles W Morgan which was built twelve years before Edwin Fox and still sails around New England. Edwin Fox, moreover, is in a dry dock, so it is not afloat at all, let alone the ninth oldest ship afloat.

But none of that matters much. It is an interesting old ship, and they ought just to leave it that.

© Richard Senior 2015

Night Bus to Bangkok   

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They told me that the trains were all fully-booked, but I had heard that before in Thailand.

It usually just means that you have to go out the station and down a side street to an agent who will – for a price – get a ticket biked over from goodness knows where. But the crowds who had flocked south to spend New Year’s Eve on the beach were now going home and, this time, the trains really were fully-booked. All that the fast-talking agents could offer was a seat on the VIP Bus.

A minibus collected me from Nopparat Thara in the middle of the afternoon and dropped me at the interchange in Krabi Town, where a confusion of travellers sat hugging their backpacks with fluorescent dots on their singlets.

Buses came and buses went. The staff shouted, flung their arms in the air and darted about. Travellers got up, looked around uncertainly, and hurried to the bus, but most were turned back because their fluorescent dots were not the right colour.

Orange was the wrong colour several times, until, eventually, a bus came to take me as far as Surat Thani on the opposite coast, where I arrived in a tropical storm. The rain drummed on the tin-sheet roof as I waited; water advanced across the floor. Travellers lifted their feet and hoisted their backpacks onto spare seats.

The VIP bus was a big six-wheeled, double-decker coach with luridly airbrushed flanks, similar to the one below. There were no frills beyond reclining seats and curtains to pull across the windows.

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I could no more sleep on a bus than compose a piano concerto, but that was okay because I had a pile of books for the journey. Then the driver turned off the roof lights and I flicked the switch for the reading lamp and nothing happened. Twelve hours, then, of lampposts, signs and crash barriers.

It was sometime around midnight, I think, when we pulled into the services with dozens of similar buses, all heading north to Bangkok and beyond. I threaded between them and went inside, then realised I had no idea which bus was mine. I had a feeling it was red, but it might have been blue, unless that was the one I had taken to Surat Thani, and I thought it was somewhere around halfway down the third, or fourth, or possibly fifth, line of buses, but several had come and several had gone in the meantime. I blundered from bus to bus, looking for clues, and found mine largely by chance. It was yellow.

Hours later, when I was about the only passenger still awake, we pulled into a lay-by behind a van, and I could see people milling about and hear conversation and lockers being opened and shut but could not work out what was happening. I thought it was the police, then I thought it was hijackers, then we set off again and I thought no more about it.

At something to five, I spotted tuk-tuks and temples and then the roof lights came on and the woman doled out hot towels and we stopped and the doors hissed open.

The bus was supposed to run to Khao San Road, the main street of the backpacker ghetto, but the place we stopped looked alien to me in the pre-dawn gloom through the fog of a sleepless night. I was mobbed by tuk-tuk drivers clamouring for business when I tried to get my bearings, so I ducked down an alley between rows of closed shops and came out into another road and tried again to work out where I was.

What street’s this?” I asked another traveller.

Khao San Road, man.”

I had walked down it dozens of times, but from early in the morning to late at night, it had always been crowded with travellers and hawkers and tuk-tuks and taxis and big neon signs and bustling bars; and now in the silent early hours, with everything shut and the lights all off and the travellers sleeping and tuk-tuk drivers busy with buses arriving a block away, it was an altogether different street.

I checked into a guesthouse and opened my backpack and saw that the string I never bother to fasten had been neatly tied in a bow, and I worked out, then, why we had stopped in the lay-by.

© Richard Senior 2015

Bus image: By Flying Pharmacist (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A Typical Ko Tao Day

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The beach is empty in the early morning, although the sun is hot enough to enjoy. Coconut palms stretch over the sand to the sea. Longtail boats are anchored in a line a little way out from the shore and, beyond them, more randomly, are the bigger dive boats. Fish writhe in the shallows. An eagle circles overhead. You claim your spot and open your book.

Sometime around ten, a guy wanders out from the dive school, barefoot and shirtless, cracks up a Marlboro and starts to set up for the day. He is a farang but he has been there long enough to synchronise to the local pace. He does everything casually, as if it is not really work. But then why should he rush? Why should anyone rush? He wades out to the boat, grabs the anchor chain and drags it ashore, then loads it with oxygen bottles.

The instructor arrives with a class of laughing students. They try on their masks and startle themselves when they experiment with the oxygen tap. They assemble in the boat and motor out of sight.

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You go back to your book and stay on the beach and colour evenly on each side. The divers come back around six in the evening, still laughing, and repair to loungers in front of the beach bars and balance bottles of Singha on the sand and fuss with Rizlas. The bars play muted dubstep or reggae until the sun has gone and they crank up the volume and the BPM’s and start the fire show.

You stay on the sideline with a bottle of Singha and watch as they set up a limbo pole, douse it in petrol and set it alight. The Thais from the bar, shirts off to show off their tattoos and six-packs, duck under it easily and invite the farangs to have a go. They start a raggedy, giggling line and lurch towards the burning pole and stagger and stumble under it, except one guy in Ray Bans at midnight who slides a cigarette into his mouth and pauses to light it on the pole as he slips underneath.

You’re crazy doing that,” you tell him. But he insists that he only smokes five a day.

© Richard Senior 2015

Escape to Alcatraz

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It is only a mile and a half from the mainland, but the water is cold and the tides are strong, and the authorities were confident that no one would escape from what would become the world’s most notorious prison.

There is still a stern warning as you approach by boat from Pier 33 about the penalty for procuring or concealing escapes, but the old sign is rotten and the letters have faded and it is half a century since Alcatraz closed.

Winds howl across the island, gulls screech overhead. The perimeter fence is threadbare with rust. Paint is flaking, windows are broken, lichen is overwhelming the walls. The concrete is cracked and crumbling in the old recreation yard.

Knowledge of the outside world is what we tell you,” declared the Warden in Escape from Alcatraz, “…your world will be everything that happens in this building”. But the outside world was teasingly close. The recreation yard overlooked the Golden Gate Bridge. Music and party voices drifted over the water. It is hardly surprising that three dozen inmates tried to escape, in two dozen separate attempts. The only surprise is that there were not more.

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 “No one has ever escaped from Alcatraz,” said the Warden in the movie, “and no one ever will”. But on 11 June 1962, three bank robbers crawled through holes they had spent a year chiselling into the walls of their cells with spoons, into a service corridor, up a ventilation shaft, onto the roof, down the prison wall and over the fence. They left dummy heads made of toilet paper, soap and hair in their beds to fool the guards – which it did until morning – and paddled away in a dinghy made out of raincoats. They were never found, nor heard of again.

The movie implies that they got away. Some believe that they did. The evidence they rely on is flimsy, but so is the evidence the authorities relied on to conclude that the escapees drowned. The official version meant that the Warden could carry on boasting that no one had ever escaped from Alcatraz: it saved its reputation with the public. Yet within less than a year it had closed for good.

Native American activists occupied the island in 1969; they stayed for nineteen months. Faded ‘Red Power’ slogans are still plainly visible on the prison block and watchtower. The Warden’s quarters are now just a shell, after they were gutted by a fire which got out of hand during the occupation, or – say conspiracy theorists – which was started deliberately by saboteurs out to discredit the activists.

Everything on Alcatraz looks to have been left as it was when the last of the inmates departed, or when the occupation ended. It has not, as so often, been repainted, remodelled and rebuilt until you wonder if anything you see is much older than things which you have in the back of the shed at home.

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The cells, five feet by nine feet, are kitted out as they were with a bunk, a tiny cold-water sink and toilet, and a few are left open so you can step inside. You can wander down the wings, known as Michigan Avenue, Broadway, Park Avenue and the Sunset Strip, into the cavernous dining room secretly fitted with tear gas canisters, and the kitchen with the breakfast menu for the last day the prison was open, assorted dry cereals, steamed whole wheat, scrambled egg, milk, stewed fruit, toast, bread, and butter, and out into the recreation yard.

There are none of those stupid interactive exhibits which kids run round trying to break. You are not subjected to tabloid-style propaganda about evil inmates and hero guards and told that crime does not pay and that prison works. There is an audio guide but it is a lot more interesting than they usually are, with a well-thought mix of information – neither dumbed-down nor sensationalised – and accounts by ex-prisoners and guards. Mostly, though, you are just left alone to explore at your own pace and work things out for yourself.

© Richard Senior 2015

Vang Vieng: The Town Travellers Conquered

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I got the last seat in the minibus going to Vang Vieng. A bossy woman of somewhere around sixty sat in the front with the driver. She scolded him for using his phone at the wheel and told him to put it away, which he did, but drove the rest of the way with his foot to the floor in revenge. We barrelled through villages at motorway speeds, leaped bumps in the road and felt the g-force on the corners as the tyres screamed in panic.

When we stopped for a welcome toilet break, a young backpacker told the woman she should have kept quiet, but she said that it was the height of arrogance to tell people how to behave. Hang on a minute…everyone else thought, but kept quiet.

Sixty years after France lost its Indochinese empire, forty years after the US pulled out of Southeast Asia, travellers have recolonised this sleepy town armed with nothing more warlike than elephant print trousers and back-to-front baseball caps. They have turned it into an adventure playground.

There are karsts to climb, and cave systems to explore, and the rapidly flowing Nam Song River to float along on an inner tube with a Beerlao in one hand and a joint in the other, as if relaxing on a beanbag at home. There are ‘happy shakes’ and ‘happy pizzas,’ garnished with ganja, ya ba or magic mushrooms, and bars where eating is cheating and water is for washing in and drinks are to be downed in one. And this in a nation so conservative that pop music and jeans were once illegal and sex outside marriage still is.

Every fourth building downtown is a guest house; every tenth is an internet café. The stores in between are bureaux de change, souvenir shops and places to make an “over seacall” or buy a “busticker” to the next destination. The locals shop at stores in villages way out of town or at stalls set up on the old Air America runway, unused by planes since the covert war was abandoned in the middle seventies.

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There is an Australian steakhouse, a French bistro, a kosher restaurant and an Irish pub, which does stews and roasts in the tropical heat, and there are dozens of places to go for a burger, or an English breakfast, and to watch an episode of Friends as you eat.

Wherever you go, there is a hubbub of British, American and Australian English, and English spoken with the accents of other rich countries. Sometimes you hear Spanish, sometimes Russian, sometimes Korean, but rarely Lao.

I am no better than the other travellers: I climbed rock faces, crawled through caves and got hammered; I would have gone tubing, as well, if I were more of a swimmer and less of a coward. But it was hard not to feel ashamed to be part of it all.

Yet, if not tourism, what? A third of Laos’ population lives on less than a dollar a day. Just the other side of the river, across the bridges of bamboo and twine which creak and wobble as you walk on them but which, nonetheless, you share with scooters and cars, it is a world away from the imported culture of Europe and North America which dominates downtown: a world of subsistence farming, of thatched huts, children running naked, women kneeling at the river beating clothes on the rocks, and bent old men pushing older carts, which past generations pushed before them.

It is a scene unchanged since long before Vang Vieng was somewhere you Must Go Before You Die, before it appeared in a profusion of odd-numbered lists, before the first travellers discovered it; before the Pathet Lao came to power, before the CIA sought to influence local wars; before the French folded Laos into their Indochinese empire; before the Burmese and Siamese invaded.

This is the real Laos. Travellers see it briefly from their rented scooters as they hurtle out to the further-flung caves.

© Richard Senior 2015

Thank You for Flying with the Bangkok Helicopter

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It was evening rush hour in Bangkok. The offices emptied of workers and they swarmed on the transport hubs. Motorcycle taxi drivers sat in a line on their bikes at the ends of the sois. Meter cabs worked the main streets. The queues for the buses at the Victory Monument were as long and unruly as they are in London when the Tube drivers strike and there are dozens of applicants for every place on each bus.

I didn’t know which bus to catch to get back to Banglamphu, so I shuttled between stops, and forced my way to the front of each queue in the hope of finding a route map or someone who could tell me where to go; but there was never a route map and no one told me where to go, or at least not in a good way.

I waited to see if the crowds would thin out, but they swelled instead and I gave up on the idea of catching a bus and walked to the main road and flagged down a taxi. “Khao San Road?” I said, and he abruptly drove off by way of reply. The next two ignored me and drove past, and several after that already had fares, so I gave up on the idea of taking a taxi, as well.

That left what is known locally as the Bangkok helicopter: the fastest, most dangerous way to get across town. I approached a knot of drivers and interrupted their sniggering conversation and asked the one who had a spare helmet clipped to his bike if he could take me to Khao San Road. He quoted an inflated price and I tried to haggle but it was a waste of time so I agreed and got on the bike.

I asked for the helmet but he waved a dismissive arm and roared off while I tried to insist. It is illegal in Bangkok to ride without a helmet and I would have been the one to be fined if we were stopped; farangs are easy targets and assumed to be good for the money. I had more immediate anxieties, though, than the risk of being handed a fixed penalty.

I held onto my hat and bag with one hand and gripped the handle with the other. I have no idea what speed we were doing on the expressway, and nor had the driver because the speedo was broken; but it was comfortably above the speed limit. Everyone busts the speed limit in Bangkok if their cars or bikes or trucks will go fast enough. It is so widely ignored the police barely try to enforce it.

The driver kept up the speed as the streets became narrower and busier, ducking through traffic, overtaking a bus, undertaking a truck, carving up a taxi, mounting pavements, weaving to the front of queues at the lights and setting off shortly before they changed, ignoring the horn concerto which the other drivers performed. It seemed to me to be more of an adrenalin sport than a mode of transport. All it would take is a car to swap lanes without warning, a passenger to fling open a door at the lights, a pedestrian to step out between buses.

But locals, as ever, seem relaxed. It is, for them, just a convenient way to get to the office, or school. You see kids of ten or eleven on the back of motorbike taxis, and office girls side-saddle, using the time to finish their make-up. Only the cost would deter them from using the Bangkok helicopter: not the danger.

© Richard Senior 2015