Rajasthan

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Rajasthan is bristling with pride in its heritage of Rajas and princes fighting for peace and power. Every major city has its own fort, and I’m not talking about the 10th century Motte and Bailey mock up we’ve got near Stansted Airport. Each one is a goliath of sandstone rising out of the desert, impossible to attack but each an irresistible prize and threat to neighbouring Rajas. The fort in Udaipur was still used to house a royal family until the 1950s. Where outside, sandstone blocks the size of estate cars tessellate  perfectly to create buttresses, inside are mirrored tiles and coloured glass cut to create glittering, lavish interiors. The Rajas definitely liked their bling.

Souvenir shops sell ornamental Damascan knives showing the concentric rippling of each hammered layer. I resisted the urge to buy my own piece of what I imagined was the closest thing to Valyrian Steel, but the Game of Thrones comparisons were all around us. George R R Martin could learn a thing or two from Rajasthan. Near the entrance to the fort in Udiapur is a list of the brave and glorious dead who had defended the Rajput. This included the tale of one brave warrior during a battle who lost his leg, but undeterred, carried on swinging his sword from his cousin’s shoulders. There are depictions of the Raja cutting both his adversary and horse in two in one viscious swipe of the scimitar. Fort entrances and gateways all had clearly visible murder holes through which hot tar or arrows could be rained down on the treacherous. Each room and walkway was sided with complicated stone lattice panels, enough to balance the light and heat from outside, but also to keep princesses inside hidden from view.

In Udaipur we also found a tailor visited by Bill Nighy, Judy Dench and Maggie Smith whilst filming Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Bill was charming, we were told by the proud tailor, Judy also, but Maggie apparently was a bit cool. Perhaps she was just getting in to her reluctant and slightly racist role in the film.

With all this epic history and richness going on, it was hard not to remember Akash’s advice to me before we left; ‘Find somewhere romantic in India and propose.’ For all those interested in Jaisalmere and the answers to questions including, ‘did he get down on one knee?’ Rose has written a separate post.

Mid-way through Rajasthan we hit Jodhpur, the blue city so called because most of the buildings clustered around the fort are so painted – associated with the holy Brahmin caste. Only a short stop here, but nowhere in Rajasthan is without drama. Whilst it was a relief to no longer be treated as a curiosity, the familiarity of the vendors, hawkers and tuk tuk drivers had its own stresses. Playing on your desire to be nice and polite, it was almost impossible to ignore calls of ‘Hey my friend, yes please can I ask you something?’ or ‘Yes how are you? Which country?’ Even the slightest sliver of eye contact elicited a lightning quick follow-up question and before you knew it, you were ensconced in some sort of frustrated John Cleese routine. Entering conversation meant either buying something you didn’t want or pissing someone off because you talked to them then didn’t buy anything. The other option was to just ignore everyone who spoke to you, which is the last thing you want to do when travelling.

Rose and I went to hang out in the more tranquil Pushkar for a week.  Because it is a highly religious spot, it gets a steady stream of Indian tourists, which totally takes the pressure off western travellers. Vendors are much more chilled and so we took this opportunity of hassle free shopping to buy enough rugs and ornaments to decorate our house several times over.

A shopping trip to us, but to the faithful, this is a mecca. Our hostel lady made us sign an agreement not to ‘engage in disgusting bedroom practices’ nor to ‘walk around in half-naked position’ whilst in town. She then explained we had to wait to use the shower because they needed to clean the monkey shit from the water tank but not to worry as it would take only five minutes. This was not a job I thought should be rushed so we went to explore this holy city built around a holy lake, created around springs formed from petals that fell from Brahma’s lotus flower when he was used it to slay the demon Vajranabha. (Of the main religions, Hinduism must surely have the best stories). The view of all this is particularly stunning from a temple on the hill where you can see how the whole city sits neatly in the valley surrounded by arid desert.

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The obvious thing to do here is to get a blessing at the lake. We went along with two people from our hostel and the hotel owner who would perform this ritual. All was well with the Om Shiva chanting, the red and yellow paste on our faces and bracelets on our wrists, but then came the inevitable donation time. We were more than happy to make a generous donation to the temple, a sentiment ingrained when our man got us to repeat after him, “I Luke (repeat) freely give (repeat) 600 rupees (repeat) to the temple (repeat)” and then “I Rose (repeat) freely give (repeat) 600 rupees (erm, actually that was for both of us) hmm ok. Our man then took the money away and returned to ask now how much we would like to kindly give to him personally for making the ceremony. This was beginning to feel a bit like booking a Ryan Air flight. It worsened when our man explained he was able to do the blessing only because he was a Brahmin. “How do you become a Brahmin?” one of our group asked as I cringed in to my offering plate. Whilst it was one of the most eye-wateringly stupid questions I’ve ever heard, it reminded me how ridiculous a religious principle I find it that by right of birth some people get more opportunities than others.

And then the complete opposite happened. Whilst walking home one night we ran in to a cacophonous procession taking up the whole street. Ladies in beautiful matching dresses carrying huge lamps. Electricity cables between them led to a man in a decorated carriage hammering out excitable riffs on an amplified keyboard just behind a brass band, immaculate in white suits and red hats. Behind was a mele of dancers and drummers followed finally by a very handsome young man in spectacular white traditional garb mounted on a jewelled and armoured white horse, prancing to the music and occasionally rearing. They dragged us in to the throng and made Rose and I dance and bang drums and have their photos taken with us to help celebrate their cousin’s wedding.  It felt like being in a video promoting Indian tourism. Once that had passed, we stopped to stare at a cow with five legs, but only quickly because its owner tried to charge us 100 rupees for doing so.

We finished off in Jaipur with another magnificent sandstone fort and another white one floating in the middle of a lake. After three weeks in Rajasthan, the daily struggle of heat, noise and mania was wearing me thin, but there is no place like it.

 

Crazy Cochinos and Goan psy-trance hippies

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Being a white person in India is like being a minor celebrity painted bright green. It goes beyond mere curiosity. You get to jump to the front of every queue, children jump up and down with excitement, shouting and waving as you go by on your motorbike, and strangers stop and ask to have their photo taken with you . . . with your own camera.

And being a woman in India is even stranger. Covered pretty much ankle to neck, I still got suggestive stares. On the other hand, when I was with Luke it was as though I had disappeared. Auto drivers would address Luke, even if I answered their questions. When making a hospital visit to get my rabies jab, Luke had to force the doctor to address me and not him. Hospital forms required me to give the name of my ‘husband or father’. Err… what if I have neither? Who would I ‘belong’ to then?

At the same time people will fall over themselves to help you out. We waited at a bus station for the next long distance connection to somewhere in Kerala, and a man ran round the corner and said ‘You are going to Fort Cochin? Your bus is here.’  And when the layers of social formality are stripped, nowhere else have we found people more open about themselves and their lives.

Travelling away from the traditional Tamil Nadu in to a more modern and wealthier Kerala was like moving through time, or at least through several socio-economic layers. Mud huts by the side of the road were replaced by shopping malls, and I caught my first glimpse of a woman wearing – shock of shocks – a knee length skirt. The minute you think you have an idea about India all you have to do is move 200 miles and it is an entirely different story.

Fort Cochin is a beautiful ex-Portugese colonial town on the sea, full of pebbled streets, tiny boutique hotels on every corner, cafes selling choco-frappe-lattes and there was even an actual bar here! Yes the beers cost more than your meal, but they were cold and no one thought you were a heathen for wanting one.

Luke got stopped in the street one warm evening by ‘John’ a member of the production team for a small Keralan film about the struggle for home rule, in which Luke was asked to play an English police captain from 1941. Being a teacher of history and politics this was very exciting, and had nothing at all to do with the fact he got to oversee his own band of Indian soldiers and order them to savagely beat the pacifist salt-marchers. As Luke set off for an early start to spend the day standing in the sweltering heat wearing an oversized wool uniform, I set myself up in a colonial courtyard-turned café drinking iced tea and waited to be ‘spotted’.

To celebrate the end of filming, John invited us out for a wild Keralan-style Saturday night on the town with his film crew buddies. Apparently there was a five star hotel, celebrity-type party kicking off in the neighbouring town. This exclusive event charged a hefty 1000 rupee entrance fee – but John and his boys would get in for free if they took some ‘white people’. Curious about this arrangement, I put on a nice frock to look my best in readiness for the glitterati of South India.

We started the party off with a bottle of vodka in the back of the people carrier and got acquainted with John’s wolf pack. Like John, they were mainly middle aged and balding, one sporting a bushy moustache whose enormity was matched only by its owner’s belly. ‘So Luke, you can help us find some women, yes?’ John asked expectantly after some hurried chat with his colleagues. Alarmed at the fact Luke was obviously expected to act as some sort of honey trap, I volunteered to approach some tourists to see if there were any biters. The lovely Owen and Sian (teachers from Crouch End) gamely agreed to accompany us.

I grew up in Croydon and so have been to a number of pretty strange clubs in my time, but as nights out go, this was by far and away the weirdest. Problem number one was that Sian and I were the only women. Imagine forty sober (because no one could afford a beer) but excitable men of varied ages flinging themselves around a dark room pumped full of chart dance hits in a haze of dry ice and lasers. No one was having any fun, except John’s fat moustachioed friend, who circled me and Sian protectively whispering in our ears ‘you’re under MY protection tonight! Don’t worry ladies!’ and occasionally thrusting his stomach suggestively in our direction more or less in time to a Lady Gaga remix.

The next thing to do in Kerala is to hire a house boat and cruise the backwaters – a network of riverways lined by picturesque mangrove and palm tree scenery – in your own private rattan traditional boat.  Despite the relentless humidity, I strong armed Luke into our ‘romantic’ night on the water. It wasn’t entirely as advertised. Our ‘traditional’ houseboat’s décor seemed to have been copied from a photo of a Californian drug baron’s house in the 1970s. A florid paisley three piece suite furnished our lounge and the walls were adorned with fake wood panelling and orange doric pillars. The scenery was certainly picturesque, but our romantic evening was slightly spoilt by mooring up next to a public pathway where a crowd of barefoot local children and old men carrying sacks stared in on us as we sipped red wine and played with our new tablet computer, trying not to feel guilty. Around 8.30pm the cook and skipper came in to ask if we were ready for bed yet because, as they indicated without any English, they were clearly intending to sleep on the floor in the living room.

After our first, painless, long distance train we arrived bleary eyed and ready to party on the beaches of Goa. Goa is like nowhere else in India, it is more like a tiny pocket of the west. Girls sunbathe in thong bikinis, and bars pump psy-trance onto the beachside restaurants. Wild dogs roam the beaches, one of which bit me on the back of the leg as he aggressively defended a pile of rubbish situated beside our scooter. But after Luke’s attack in Vietnam, we were rabies preventing pros. We stumbled home and Luke scrubbed that bite with drunken fervour and iodine until it swelled to double size.

There was certainly a more relaxed attitude to everything here – but we wondered how local people reacted to the sight of Russian ladies’ bottoms peering out of neon g-strings? Marcos and Freda, a Swedish hippy couple noted that Indian men have a tendency to think that all western women are easy. ‘In the market two men came up to me and asked if they could be with Freda, as though she were an object that I would offer round!’ explained her boyfriend.

Now I admire a woman who wears whatever she wants, no matter what, but to be fair to the local people of Goa, Freda’s bold uniform of choice – tiny mini-skirt and see-through knitted bra – would probably turn heads in Camden on a Friday night. This is the girl who asked that we detour back to her flat on the way for a night out so she could change because she might ‘get cold later’. We all agreed immediately considering that she was wearing little more than three hankies sewn together with twine and the wind off the ocean. After waiting fifteen minutes she emerged from her room wearing exactly the same thing, but in leather. ‘Glad Freda’s wrapped up warm then’ said Luke.

Luke had been lusting steadily after Royal Enfields ever since we arrived in India, and decided a ten hour each way round trip to Hampi was the right time to get this fling out of the way. Luckily the Enfield is a machine built for long distance in comfort, and I even got to read my book on the spacious back seat whilst Luke spent some quality time with his new love.

Hampi is a sprawling wonder. A series of tumbled, ancient Hindu temples and monuments rising up from a landscape of boulders that look like toy blocks, chucked to the floor by a petulant giant. We staggered around in the sweltering, dry heat looking up in awe at these structures as the sunset cast a gorgeous magical light across the stone carvings (and giggling to ourselves at the occasional ‘kama sutra’ depiction on the walls).

India – Religion, fortresses and people; all right in your face

India is totally full-on Indian flavoured. Within the first two hours we came across rickshaws, dusty streets, beggars, smiles and head wobbles. Busses sport religious iconography depicting the three main religions, even the one that doesn’t believe in iconography, and cows walk placidly among the brutal noise, heat and haste. Immediately we were greeted with inquisition as random strangers asked “What time did you arrive today, what country are you from” and more often than you’d think, “what room number your hotel?” It was also goodbye to any sense of personal space. After a friendly old boy helped us negotiate the manic scrum to board a local bus, my neighbour squished up close, lifted his nearest leg and actually farted on my thigh. He didn’t even say “pardon me”. Well, you don’t go to Holland if you want hills.

Starting in Tamil Nadu we hit the relatively easy going Mamillaparam which was all colour and centuries old temples with small fishing boats battling with surf and catch. Despite being quite a traveller spot beer is in short supply. We managed to ‘score’ a bottle of Kingfisher served from a tea pot under the table. Apparently the new local police chief was ‘too honest’ to take the bribes needed to grant a booze licence. This was also the place to get used to eating with no cutlery – ok if you have a chapatti or naan, but not if you don’t.

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A dose of religion next in Tiruvanamalai, the site of a massive ashram where guru Sri Rama Maharashi apparently achieved ‘mukhti’ in 1950 after living in a nearby cave for 17 years. Following our three day meditation course in Bangkok, I now considered myself pretty much ‘at one’, but my idea of going for a quick half hour down the ashram was turned about when it became clear that this was full on chanting, idol worship, scripture style religion, not the fluffy, vaguely existential workshops we’d done in Thailand. Another moment of disenchantment occurred on an early morning mountain trail when a Sidhu made a great show of blessing Rose and I, then demanded 50 rupees. I gave him a banana and we were both disappointed. Later on we visited a shrine where another Sidhu was blessing people with holy water. I tried to get involved but didn’t really know what to do so just copied the man next to me as he put his hands palms together and placed a flower in his pocket, but I had to draw a line when he lay face down on the floor, nose and lips to the dirt, and started doing breast stroke. My brief flirtation with religion and spirituality was now at an end.

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After lustily eyeing up all the Royal Enfields, we managed to hire a bike to ride to a nearby fort. Unfortunately it was not a classic, chromed masterpiece, but a disappointingly labelled, ‘Bhaji’. More on Indian traffic later, but suffice to say; might is right, and on the Bhaji we were neither. We rode out to walk to the top of Fort Gingee, an almightily castle 1,000 feet from the desert floor – something like The Eyrie in Game of Thrones. It was a big schlep to the top in the ridiculous midday heat which eventually made us dehydrated and combined nicely with the onset of the inevitable Delhi belly.

Kodaikanal is a hill station popular with Indian tourists. Situated high up and out of the heat, it was not a bad spot for recuperation. Unable to appreciate its mountain charms, we were room bound for about four days, emerging only to ask the hotel staff for green tea and more plain dough balls from Domino’s Pizza. Yes, there really was a Domino’s Pizza, despite the fact there was only patchy running water, constant power cuts, and grime, poverty and sewerage everywhere you looked. This is a town where ‘Hot water available 24 hours’ means someone gets on a moped to fetch some wood, starts a fire to heat the water, then brings it to your room in a bucket. Once on the mend we found some local beauty spots where rich, smartly dressed Indian tourists from the North contrasted with their much poorer local cousins. At several sites, one of which was ‘suicide point’ (a 2,000 foot vertical drop) cute but aggressive monkeys posed and lurked, then jumped out and growled until we handed over our lunch food and walked away feeling slightly embarrassed.

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We left Kodai by the scenic route. Mr S took us on a guided walk down the misty mountain, home to lime trees, giant shells of cotton, aloe vera plants, jack fruit, rhododendron, cardamom pods, black pepper, wild buffalo the size of a small truck and a plant that only flowers every 12 years. After a day’s hike we reached a small town where we met with his wife, daughter and our luggage. We missed our connecting transport because Mr S insisted we stay for chai, but his hospitality was a treat. He was a really hard working, lovely guy supporting three kids in college and he gave us a bag of sweets for our onward journey, now three hours longer because we’d missed the bus.

Next stop was Munnar, another hill station, this one home to an endless sea of tea plantations. Here we met an exuberant character on holiday with his wife and kids from Rajasthan where he was in charge of the regional 3G network. (He guaranteed us “internet connectivity 100%”). Excited about our plans do a camel safari when we got to his neck of the woods, he advised us, “The camels in Rajasthan have it the golden coat. In festivals they are dancing. This is a very charming camel! Plus, when you are walking in the desert, he is not asking you for water.” This reminded me of several jokes about Welsh men and sheep, but turns the Rajasthanis are much more respectful of their pachyderms. They have camel fancy dress competitions where they cover them head to hoof in gold and multi-coloured bling for the much coveted title of Mr Desert for which the men also grow enormous moustaches.

Three weeks in India by now felt like three months. Our eyes, ears, noses were overloaded and we had feasted on as many moments of wonder and frustration as we’d had all trip. We headed for Kerala to relax and cruise the backwaters on a houseboat . . .

Hustling in Hanoi, motorbiking through Ha Giang and floating on Lan Ha Bay

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The Northern Hai Giang region of Vietnam, near the hiking mecca of Sapa, is apparently the place to go on a motorbike if you are feeling ‘intrepid’ or ‘adventurous’. Hooked by these trigger words like a Pavlovian dog, I began planning from Hanoi.

Before my adventure could begin, I had to get on good terms with this epic megacity.  Amid the dirt and hustle of the street, people hawk, haggle, and sleep. They eat squatting over pop-up kitchens of gas stoves, plastic stools with bowls filled with herbs and noodles, and drink home-brewed hooch cheek-by-jowel. Mopeds barrel and squish their way through the heaving streets in phalanxes 10 abreast in both directions on whatever side of the road they want heaped with babies, grandmothers, bamboo ladders and trees. They weave around pedestrians who have learned the only way to cross the road is to walk in to it without looking, and trust. At cross-roads traffic streams merge and cross as if controlled by accident avoidance software. And yet there is poise; a lake in the middle of the Old Quarter brings calm, and luxury can be bought in the form of fine silks, carvings and prints.

Amid the organising of bikes, train tickets, maps and route planning, an evening excursion with the Hanoi Backpacker’s Hostel took me to a snake farm. Here we ate five dishes of snake after having played with them, slit their throats and eaten the hearts from their writhing bodies. I opted out of the latter two activities, but was persuaded to drink snake blood vodka which made me vomit. It was after this ambitious night out, trying to keep up with drinking partners 15 years my junior, that I shakily gathered the necessary kit and road off to the train station to load the bike on to the night train to Sapa, the mountainous gateway to the North.

Apparently Sapa is gorgeous, but I wouldn’t have known as when I arrived at 5.30am it was covered in freezing fog. Before I could set off I needed a rabies injection from the local hospital and some warm clothes. It was so cold people were lighting fires of rubbish outside their houses to keep warm. Once inoculated and properly dressed, I discovered I had a flat tyre. Tough start.

It would take me two days riding to get to the edge of the Hai Giang region which on the Chinese boarder, but it was clear from early on that Lonely Planet was right; this was not a path oft-travelled. Nobody speaks English. In fact, not many people speak Vietnamese, they are mostly H’mong tribals. This, among other things, made navigation complicated. Plus my plan to use the iPhone as an emergency GPS completely tanked.

Pointing at the map and saying the name of the place I wanted to go was useless as most people had never seen one. It was often an object of wonder to those who could read and recognise place names. A group of school children in a café poured over it excitedly pointing at places they knew, clearly experiencing spatial recognition in a way they never had.

Vietnamese and H’mong are both tonal, so even saying the name of my destination often just flat out failed. ‘I want to go Coc Pai’  . . . local scratches head, ‘No Coc Pai’. What? Oh come on, yes Coc Pai, it’s the next bloody village, now which one of these eight roads (which are not on my map) leads there. ‘Hmmm. No Coc Pai.’ Really? It is on the map, here. ‘Ahhh, Coghc Bay!!!.’ That’s what I said! Isn’t it? This also meant that I had to gesticulate for food and eat whatever was put in front of me – mostly pho, a gruel water with noodles, herbs and floating bits of animal carcass.

Despite communication difficulties, people often went out of their way to help, sometimes offering a hot cup of tea or just somewhere to sit down. Finding myself lost on a dirt trail on the first day, an immaculately dressed Pang allowed me to follow. I skittered, stalled and fishtailed my way up muddy hills, whilst my guide literally floated serenely over the mud and rocks on his tiny scooter, not once putting his foot down to dirty his shiny black shoes, his neat office trousers remaining spotless throughout. I could barely keep up despite my machine’s rather ambitious decals depicting Paris-Dakar Rally credentials I clearly lacked. At one point Pang stopped to tie up some loose telephone wiring to a tree, standing on my shoulders to do so. I was glad to have helped as he later felt obliged to rescue me from a mud pit in to which I had inexplicably careened.

By the time I reached the start of the Ha Giang loop, I needed a boost. On cue, a helpful hotelier called Chung appeared. Scooting around Ha Giang town on his beautifully restored Russian Minsk two-stroke, we got the travel permits I needed and revised my route. The journey would take me to places called Tam Sum, Yenh Minh, Don Van, Meo Vac and Long Cu, where they have a 50m square Vietnamese flag which flaps proudly at the Chinese boarder.

From here the scenery was nothing short of spectacular. The region is loaded with towering mountains all covered in mist, and triangular limestone karsts jutting up from sublime looking valley floors. Narrow tracks cling to the steep contours and wind their way up to high passes giving views in to yet more valleys and ranges carrying right off to the horizon. There were lakes, gorges, and small hamlets nestled in to mountain cols; way more than I’d bargained for.

Despite being remote, there were people everywhere: breaking rocks and hauling cement; on mopeds carrying pigs and farm equipment; and in freezing mud up to their knees ploughing rice paddies with buffalo. Vietnamese peasants are wiry and tough and it is no wonder they gave the Americans such a hard fight.

The towns along the way had something of the wild-west about them and Communism was much more visible. Hundreds of national flags line every dusty street in place of street lamps, and there is at least one grey and imposing looking building in each town. And you never went far between public officials in Soviet style uniforms checking permits and looking grave.

It was strange to be somewhere so void of other tourists. People treated me as a weird outsider cum visiting celebrity. Small children would sometimes run up to say hello, or else run away in fright. It was not uncommon for villagers to all stop what they were doing and either wave and smile or just gawp as I rode past. Not being around other Westerners meant I was spending a lot of alone time in dingy, creaky hotels watching local Vietnamese propaganda game shows where they give cows to peasants as prizes.

By the end, I had not had a conversation involving sentences with anyone for nearly a week and I’d been doing about 8-10 hours riding each day so I was battered. On my return to get the train back to Hanoi, I stopped off again at Sapa where the cloud had lifted to reveal a gorgeous sunny town with great views of the rice paddies cut like contour steps in to each mountain side.

After collapsing to sleep on the night train back to Hanoi I returned the battered bike, now with a broken speedometer, three puncture repairs, a cracked lugguage rack and a missing radiator panel, then had an epic English breakfast and found Rose. The concluding part to our Vietnamese trip was coming up.

Lan Ha Bay

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Halong Bay, is a must see in Vietnam. You might recognise the description of limestone columns (karsts) poking up from the sea, looking a bit like those floating mountains in Avatar, but on water. However, the nearby Lan Ha Bay is just as nice and much less busy, so there we went.

We spent two days on a lovely little wooden junk with Josey and Chantelle, a Canadian couple we’d met in Mui Ne and Hoi An. It was just the four of us, and having heard that visitors to the busier Halong are herded around like cattle, this was ideal.

All we did for two days was drop our jaws at the views, say ‘can you believe that’ quite a lot, shoot the breeze, and enjoy the fantastic company. The boat mama and papa whipped up outstanding food every mealtime, and we all got happily drunk after dinner sat out on deck admiring the stars.

Next morning we took a dip, and with the cliffs looming in the distance and the clear, still waters, it was a moment of pure calm. Our captain then took us kayaking through tunnels at the base of some of the karsts which led to hidden lagoons, from which there were more tunnels in to even more hidden lagoons. I didn’t find religion, but it was hard to believe nature had created it all just by accident.

Such a contrast to the screaming and hooting of Hanoi, it was the perfect way to end our month in Vietnam.

Vietnam – A capital, a colonial town and a crazy dog

Vietnam seems to be one of those places people either love or hate. After two laid back months in Thailand we were both ready for a change and to find out how the marmite of South East Asia would strike us.

Arriving at Ho Chi Minh airport there was obviously a more sombre Soviet-esque atmosphere about the place, with stern faced officials in unflattering green 1970s style uniforms. Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon – much more evocative) is frenetic and vibrant. In Vietnam the whole of life takes place on the side of the street. People wash their clothes, drink their coffees, prepare their food and even fall asleep alongside the flurry of mopeds that jostle their way along the streets honking and screeching.

Thailand, this was not. Vietnam is clearly edgier, nosier and less smiley. Having spent two months in the social equivalent of a pleasantly warm bath, a stern faced Vietnamese lady screaming ‘you – stand here now wait bus!’ in your ear, seemed a bit harsh. Luke found the bluntness and busy-ness of the Vietnamese people refreshing. In Thailand you get a lot of smiles on the surface but the non-confrontational approach can mask unspoken tensions. Vietnamese people usually say what they think.

Everywhere you look in Vietnam people are building something, fixing something, selling something, or else driving their five children plus chickens to school on their moped. These people are in a hurry. As a tour guide explained, Vietnam is the only communist country that has no free healthcare, no free schooling and no state support.  Communist only in name, her people fight hard to make a life for themselves in an emergent capitalist economy.

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What we both loved about Vietnam was the history; wave after wave of invading cultures have all left their mark. Saigon was soaked with the legacy of the American War (as it’s known in Vietnam – obvs) where GIs were stationed. The French brought a number of things to the country, the best of which is probably croissants and the fresh bread served on every street corner. Pork rind, soya sauce and salad with your crusty baguette madame? A surprisingly delicious combination. And the coffee is incredible. It’s crude oil thick and served in little glasses with sweetened condensed milk to make the creamiest kick you’ve ever had for breakfast.

We decided to visit the war remnants museum in HCMC (and not just to look at the helicopters and guns, Luke).  Even though it was not the most balanced exhibition you’ve ever seen, we all know who the imperialist dogs were anyway, and the depth and scope of suffering on the side of the Vietnamese was truly shocking – not something you’d likely see in Washington DC. We both left feeling very sad and affected. Plus, the consequences of chemical warfare are clear on the streets – it seemed every beggar was in a wheelchair and birth defects were not uncommon.

Then some exciting news; my friend and old housemate Yolanda and her boyfriend Dan were also in Vietnam by chance and we flew to Phu Quoc to spend a few days with them. Phu Quoc is a little golden island of the south west coast. After four months of friend and family deprivation, Yolanda and Dan were probably a bit overwhelmed with the outpouring of words, hugs and excitement that greeted them when we met up at the night market for freshly grilled fish and many, many beers. We had a brilliant couple of days together touring the island, getting lost on mopeds and watching reptiles being decapitated for snake blood vodka. It was over before we knew it, and Luke and I looked forward hungrily to the following month when we’d be seeing his parents and our mates from London.

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While Luke got on with some windsurfing in Mui Ne down south, I headed up to Hoi An – a beautiful, colonial town sitting on a little river. It’s about as picturesque as can be. It’s also THE place to have some cheap cheap tailor made Vietnamese clothes knocked out. Dresses were only $10-20, so of course I had a few things made – travelling is tough on a girl’s wardrobe after all. It soon proved addictive though. Once I’d had two dresses done, everywhere I went there were more of them taunting me with their beauty, and mine for only a few dollars! By the time I got to day five in Hoi An and hadn’t managed to do any sight-seeing because of the punishing schedule of dress fittings, I drew the line.

Then I received word that Luke had been bitten by a dog. The rabies jab costs £150 back home so we had decided against it. It’s fine, we thought, just no petting animals. Stay away from bats and monkeys, that kind of thing. What we didn’t prepare for was Luke getting bitten whilst out for a run. Vietnam has the second highest rate of rabid dogs in the world so Luke ended up with six trips to the hospital over the course of a month to get innoculated.

While I was in Hoi An, bicycling round the little cobbled streets and stopping to eat croissant at yellow fronted colonial mansions-turned-patisseries, I noticed something strange; all the women were pregnant. Well, at least 30-40%, which seemed abnormally high. There were pregnant women working in all the tailoring shops, in all the streetside cafes, in the hotels. Sometimes they were pregnant and holding a baby AND trailing two kids.

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This was all explained by a nice chat with a friendly taxi driver who was politely asking me a few questions about life in the UK. He then asked ‘are you married?’ I quickly explained I had a boyfriend, just to make sure he didn’t get the wrong idea. He smiled ‘In Vietnam, you cannot have boyfriend or girlfriend without you marry’ he said ‘parents would not allow. Here people marry very young.’ Ah so that’s why everyone was pregnant.

‘In Vietnam, if girl no marry by 25, she no easy find husband because man parents think she no have babies. But I think this not so good, to make marry so young. In UK is better – this try before you buy!’

I chuckled at this and explained western attitudes towards sex before marriage, allowing women like me to go to university and pursue a career before having children. He looked at me a bit strangely. He probably thought I was a total slut.

Parents in Phuket

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We finally met up with Mum and Dad in February after 5 months away from friends and family.  Skyping and emailing are all very well, but staying in the five-star Centara Grand on Karon Beach at their generosity was better. We have stayed in a couple swanky hotels in our travels so far, but nothing prepared us for this luxury. The beach was a gorgeous golden slab sprinkled with free recliners and the hotel itself boasted five pools, a gym, water slides and four restaurants.  And in case we got bored of that, there was a hot tub on our balcony.

Four days with the parents wasn’t enough, but we packed a lot in. We visited a Big Buddha, went on an elephant ride and then, at Mum’s suggestion caught a Lady Boy show curiously entitled ‘Simon Cabaret’. It was a three show a night affair full of glitter, neon and many flavours of crapness. The curtain had been up for less than a minute when Dad said, “I thought this would be truly awful, but I was wrong, it is so much worse than that.” Sparkling costumes and epic sets unfortunately could not mask the ill-rehearsed choreography, and the miming was worse than watching John Redwood trying to hum along to the Welsh National Anthem at the Conservative Party Conference. When one routine called for a sexy bend-over move, many of the dancers could not touch their toes without bending their knees so looked more like Grandad digging sprouts at the allotment than sexy sirens of the night. Mum and Rose loved it, Dad grumbled that it was of “zero cultural value” and I was stuck somewhere in between.

The following day we hired a catamaran and took it out to sea, but there were early signs that this trip would end in shame. As he cautiously eyed Dad and me, I found myself telling the rental man, “Don’t worry, we are both experienced sailors”; surely not a tempting of fate. Then I promised Mum at least five times that we would have her back on land after a quick ten minute spin before Dad and I went off alone. Heading out to sea was fine, but some very *ahem* complex and unseasonal currents meant getting a white knuckled Mum back to the beach took the best part of an hour. Sorry about that.

With the girls deposited beach-side, Dad and I had the boat to ourselves for some ‘proper’ sailing, whereupon I took the helm and, in full view of the Centara Grand sun bathers, promptly capsized.  This sort of thing used to be standard for Dad and me, but he is now a 62 year old OBE with better things to do with his time than to be flung off a catamaran. Whilst he didn’t complain about breaking his prescription sunglasses, I think he minded. Crucially though, we managed to right the boat and get back on board before the emergency response team arrived. But only just. ‘Thank you my good man. Everything is ship-shape and Bristol fashion, why do you ask?’

It was so much fun hanging out with them again but it was over far too soon.  Rose and I set off to meet friends in Koh Tao whilst Mum and Dad retired to the relaxation of the more secluded Centara Villas where, I am informed, after a round of golf Mum attended classes on napkin folding.

Peace of Pai

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Rattling through five countries had taken its toll and we needed to re-group. Pai seemed just the relaxed spot to help us transition into serious laid-back backpacker mode.

Pai, northern Thailand, is a small, beautiful town nestled in a mountain valley, welcoming travellers to stay in riverside bamboo huts, nip about on rented mopeds, drink wheatgrass shots and live in an idyll of bohemian chic.  There are a few waterfalls, elephant rides and some hot springs to visit, but these distractions are quickly dispensed with allowing time for the more serious businesses of self-discovery and enlightenment.

It took a week or two to find the right ‘home’ for the month. The manager of our first bungalow, Sarah, was a charismatic but tortured lady boy, whose lewd propositions soon became background noise and part of the daily banter. But we decided to decamp after she tried to set fire to a hammock belonging to Adam, a young Canadian from whom her advances had been politely spurned.

A few kilometres out of town we found our wooden hut with views across the valley at ‘Spirit lodge’, run by Bang and Hachamama, a dreadlocked Thai couple who smiled and mothered us and tried to feed us as often as they could.

We soon settled ourselves into a routine:

–          Pre-breakfast swim at the pool with chill-out soundtrack

–          Eggs and coffee at hippie café full of incense sticks and ethnic jingle jangles

–          Then select from one of following: meditating, guitar playing, hanging out with friends, hiking or visiting somewhere pretty

Pai is full of spiritual soul searchers and we met quite a few in our month’s stay there. But how to become just like them?

Rule 1 – Cultivate an existence incongruous with your past life

If you are going to be a true manana merchant you need to have at some point worshipped at the altar of Mammon. Take Mat, my guitar buddy who started each day with inverted yogic moves and ‘soul explosions’ in order to stimulate the pineal gland. Fiercely averse to making any plans at any time, his main ambition is to become ‘pure love’. Yet, until recently he was making serious money in Chicago real estate and driving a swanky convertible. Another friend – who for the purposes of anonymity we will call ‘Jimmy’ – was probably the gentlest, most unassuming person you could meet.  During our first week he could be found most evenings wandering around in a Tramadol induced stupor having dosed up to dull the pain of having his arm beautifully tattooed in an elaborate sleeve of Om symbols and Shivas.  Living with his Thai girlfriend and selling circular didgeridoos, he was heavily in to being a peaceful, meditative guy.  But before leaving for Thailand, he owned a successful ship brokerage company turning over $1.8m a year. And before that he made most of his money through armed robbery.

Rule 2 – Meditate

This, the first step to enlightenment, seems essential yet full of contradiction. My first session was with a tall, long haired German with a bony face and a judo outfit. First, I was told I would have to ‘unlearn’ everything I had ever learned, from school, parents and life. Anything less would have been closed minded, obviously. The next step was to release all thoughts of narrative and judgement. This went well until I started thinking, “Yes! I am awesome at meditating!” I just could not get the idea of following someone’s instructions, then being told that meditation is about not trying to achieve anything. I’ve always thought achieving things was good, but I now recognise this is all ego and judgement. Presumably this makes me an ideal candidate for Vader’s legions on the dark side of the force.

Rule 3 – Maintain the hypocrisies intrinsic to an alternative lifestyle

This rule was best exemplified by a German lady of a certain age who was also staying at Spirit Lodge. Sporting a long silver mane, beads, patchouli oil and all the rest, this former air hostess (see rule one) had some interesting ideas. First was that vertigo was a condition cultivated by ‘the machine’ to make us so scared that we buy more insurance. Fear of heights must be an entirely 20th century phenomenon. Later, when we compared broken ankles and requisite tablets and injections, she complained that it had taken at least 6 months to get all that ‘poison’ out of her body.  With no hint of irony, she referred to the cheap whisky she was swigging and her roll up smokes as ‘medicine’.

Despite my best efforts to adopt this way of life; concentrating on the now, realising that achieving things is simply ego, not being judgemental etc, it was not easy. So Rose and I set ourselves a few minor goals, one of which was to sing and play at an open mic night, encouraged by our friend Mat. Mat is one of the least technically able guitarists I’ve met and can hit most notes with the exception of the right one, but despite (or perhaps because of) this gave some seriously soulful performances that his crowd adored. Rose and I came at our performance from a less enlightened angle, agonising over every note and break. And it showed. But, although terrifying, open mics are a bit like giving a speech at a wedding. Everyone expects to enjoy it and unless you tell the bride she is too fat for her dress, people will still clap.

Pai is full of lovely people, locals and travellers, all just waiting to hang out with you. The scenery is gorgeous and the view across the valley to the mountains on the way to Spirit Lodge never failed to put a massive smile on my face. We left Pai with a heavy heart, but knew it was time to move on and so we dragged our egos onwards, neither scrubbed nor pampered.