Saturday, October 6, 2012
Sunday, May 20, 2012
A journey by Louise Taylor (author of article) and Merrin Pearse
Wednesday 28 March 2012 – Hong Kong to Bangkok
Merrin set off as usual for on the 8:05 ferry with the one difference from a normal work day being he had packed a small backpack ready to embark on our next Asian adventure holiday (with a few business meetings thrown in) at the end of the day. I set off later in the day on the 3M Bus from Mui Wo to Tung Chung then on the S1 bus to the airport for our Air Asia flight to Bangkok leaving at 8:50pm. Once again our flight was delayed. Air Asia may have good discounted fares (US$265) but in our experience delayed departures also seem to be a feature of this airline. We arrived in Bangkok at 1:30am local time and managed to locate the meet and greet people for our hotel transfer, which was very quick as the hotel we were staying at the “Thong Ta Resort” http://www.thongtaresortbangkok.com is very near the airport. Although the name says “resort” the reality of the situation is that it’s a good basic hotel that one could get to easily on the late arriving budget airline flights. Cost per night US$30 (booked via www.agoda.com).
Thursday 29 March 2012 – Bangkok to Vientiane
After enjoying the hotel breakfast of eggs, bread and fruit plus a flouro coloured orange “juice” the van from Sirivatana Interprint Company arrived to drive us to the first business meeting of the trip. I have been working with Odyssey Publications on a series of maps of the Mekong River. The first map produced was of Laos on one side, the second with Myanmar and the third an overarching strip map of the Mekong River. All maps in the series have a map of the whole Mekong Basin on the reverse side. I was keen to meet the rep that I have been working with from Sirivatana. After a quick meeting with Khun Cherdsak we set off for a tour of the factory. The place is vast with hundreds of people employed on the various printing machines, cutting, folding, collating magazines, books (including pop up books) and of course our large format maps. Following the factory tour Cherdsak and his wife, who also works in the factory management group took us for a delicious traditional Thai lunch at a riverside restaurant.
We were then driven from the factory, which is about an hour southeast of Bangkok to the next business meeting with the CEO of Asian Trails, a tour company operating widely in South East Asia. True to form we were held up in traffic trying to get off the expressway into downtown Bangkok, but Luzi and his colleague Claudio were obviously not too worried that we were a little late as they were happy to purchase 3000 copies of a customised map.
Following that meeting we set off on the Sky Train to the river and did a boat trip up to the Royal Palace. Wandered around for a bit and then negotiated a tuk-tuk ride for 100฿ (US$3.20) to the train station. (The first driver we asked wanted 300฿)! We had booked 2nd class tickets 1530฿ (US$49 for 2) on the Internet for the overnight train from Bangkok to Nong Khai which is just south of the border of Laos near Vientiane. 1st class tickets did not seem to be available on the Internet however thankfully we were able to upgrade at the station for an additional ฿1118 US$35. The Thai trains were not quite up to the standard of some of the overnight Chinese trains that we have travelled on so we were pleased to have been able to upgrade to the first class compartment. This was a private compartment for two with a seat that folded to form the bottom bunk, the top bunk also folding down to create two comfortable but not flash beds and bedding. The conductor came around after the train got going and made the beds up. It was all very civilised! If you are travelling with family there is a door to the adjoining compartment that can be opened to form a 4 berth cabin.
Friday 30 March 2012 – Vientiane
As the train was a late leaving Bangkok we were didn’t arrive in Nong Khai until 9:30 the next morning. We bought tickets for a little local train (40฿ US$1.25) that takes you from across the Mekong and into Laos. Before boarding the train you go through Thai customs at the train station then on alighting at Thanaleng station on the Laos side of the border you go through the Lao customs at the station. We had already arranged Lao Visa’s in Hong Kong so only had to fill in the entry form but it was also possible to pay for Visa’s on entry. All very laid back and easy. There were taxi and tuk-tuk touts at the station offering their services to drive you into Vientiane (about 20 minutes). We took the taxi van option and shared the 400฿ (US$12.65) with a fellow traveller. All up the cost overland from Bangkok to Vientiane was US$96 for both of us versus over US$500 if we had flown!
We had again pre booked our hotel via Agoda so on our arrival in downtown Vientiane we checked in to Vayakorn Guesthouse http://www.vayakorn.com/ (US$33.60) per night, which is a good basic hotel situated in the centre of the city. We checked with the reception staff to find the locations of the 3 business meetings planned for this afternoon. The first of which was at the Mekong River Commission. Their headquarters are in a stunning new Lao style building (which the Lao government provided for their use) overlooking the Mekong River. We ate a lunch of local Lao food at an elevated restaurant with views over the rather dry Mekong River then went next door to meet with the Mekong River Commission CEO to talk maps.
We ended up walking for about 30 minutes (in the heat) to the next meeting at LANITH - the Lao National Institute of Tourism Hospitality then went upstairs to LNTA - Lao National Tourism Administration, to catch up with the person whom I had been in direct contact with when producing the Laos map. After concluding the business end of our trip we set off sightseeing in Vientiane. It is a reasonably low- rise city with quite a few colonial buildings. We visited Putaxai Monument, which sits in the middle of a large roundabout. Unfortunately it was too late in the day to go up to the top for the view. Poked around an interesting Stuppa on the way back to our hotel also forming a roundabout in the middle of a not so busy road.
The main attraction in Vientiane for us has to be the influence the French have had on the food. As we were walking around we stumbled upon amazing wine shops selling wines from all over the world at very reasonable prices but the real highlight of our short stay in Vientiane had to be dining in French cafes and bistros. That evening we met a friend at a Bistro, La Terrasse just down the street from our hotel and enjoyed the wonderful French cuisine and wine for just US$25 for both.
Sat 31 March 2012 Vientiane – Luang Prabang
Continuing on from the fine dining of last night we started our day with a wonderful breakfast of fresh butter croissants and jam sitting at outside tables of a really cool French café called La Barasson, again just down the road from our hotel. The croissants were so good that we were forced to buy takeaway almond croissants and pain au chocolate to enjoy later in the day!
After a leisurely breakfast it was back to the hotel for a final pack then a taxi (US$7) to the airport. Our original plan was to skip Vientiane and fly into Luang Prabang from Bangkok but when the business meetings became part of the trip I negotiated an airfare between Vientiane and Luang Prabang to be included as part of the payment. We caught the 45-minute flight (US$174.40 for 2) from Vientiane to Luang Prabang arriving at our pre booked (via Agoda 2 nights US112) guesthouse, My Dream Resort, www.mydreamresort.com which had been recommended to us by a friend who had recently stayed there around lunchtime. A lovely new guesthouse just across the Nam Khan River so not in the middle of town but close enough, 5 minutes by bike back across the cycle and motorcycle bridge or about 10 minutes via the bamboo walking bridge that is erected during the dry season only. The bamboo bridge only operates in the dry season, as the river is too high in the wet season. Consequently it is rebuilt each year so there is a small charge to cross covering its upkeep.
We had a beer by the pool sheltering from a tropical downpour, which fortunately moved away before we set off on our bikes to have diner at Tamarind Restaurant. As we hadn’t booked at this popular fine dining restaurant we sat across the road with a view down to the Nam Khan River. The set meal of traditional Lao food was fantastic. On our way back to the guesthouse we cycled past the colourful night market which was in full swing on a closed off road offering traditional Lao handcrafts and edible treats.
Sun 1 April 2012 – Luang Prabang
We had checked out Tam Nak Lao yesterday, a traditional Lao restaurant that is owned by friends of our friend Chris Seabrook, to see if we could book in for their famous cooking classes. Unfortunately, being Sunday the cooking school was not running so we decided to book in for dinner instead.
We crossed the Mekong River today … absolutely had to be done. Were going to catch one of the river taxis but a local convinced us to let him take us in his long boat. So in we jump to this narrow very low boat with a small diesel engine manned by dad and chief bailer his 3 year old son (probably a bit older than that but he was very small). Of course this is one of the things that we had been warned not to do on the Mekong but all went well. We arrived on the other side unscathed and paid our 20,000 Kip (US$2.5) for the privilege. A bit over priced but hey!!!
Set off walking along the “road” which was little more than a track, between the rows of village houses eventually coming to Chompheth Temple. There was a ceremony with locals praying with monks inside the temple so we stood at the door and discreetly watched. We had entered the village from the back entrance. On approaching the square beside the temple itself we were hailed by a group of local kids selling entry tickets, which they said included a cave tour. We dully paid the 10,000 Kip (US$1.25) each and set off with our guides several small boys and girls armed with torches for inside the cave. It was really interesting … several caverns with sleeping quarters for some monks. After climbing up to Buddha shrines inside the cave and poking about with the kids we followed them back to the cavern entrance … kids running ahead and pretending to lock us in thinking that was a great joke!!! We set off back down the road we had come and crossed back over the river this time on a local car ferry. Lunched at another riverside restaurant then set off on the bikes for Phosy Market, a local market selling everything … meat, veggies, clothing, electronics etc. Poked around this for a bit then cycled to Ock Pop Tok www.ockpoptok.com a weaving centre and café. Did the free tour of the weaving centre and enjoyed a fruit juice at the café then headed back to the guesthouse. In the afternoon went for a cycle down the guesthouse road in the opposite direction from town and found local woodworking shops, weavers and paper makers. On the way back we stumbled on a dirt track that ended at the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. There we were surprised to find a “bar” … a bamboo shack selling Beer Lao, outside of which were log seats and tables so we sat there and enjoyed a beer while watching the sun set over the Mekong.
Set off for dinner at Tam Nak Lao. Chris had unbeknown to us informed the owners that we would be dining there. Sinthana and his lovely wife ended up joining us for dinner and as well as adding some Lao delicacies to our chosen meal they insisted we not pay for the meal. Totally unexpected! We decided in lieu of paying we would donate US$50 to the charity that Chris and restaurant owners support. www.lao-kids.org
Mon 2 April 2012 – Luang Prabang to Phonsavanh
The Guesthouse had organised a taxi to the bus station. On arrival we were dismayed to see that rather than the “VIP Tourist” bus we had been expecting our bus was very much in the local transportation category. We managed to secure the front seats booked by our hotel, but occupied by a local when we first got on the bus. The fare cost us 95,000 Kip each (US$12) but would have been 15,000 Kip cheaper if we had purchased our own tickets from the bus station. While waiting for departure we chatted to Aussie’s Robert (retired dad) and Kane (30 something son) who were also heading to The Plain of Jars. Finally the bus set off … once the conductor had closed the door by wedging a knotted bit of rope to hold it semi closed. The bus chugged at about naught kilometres per hour up the first hill … this didn’t bode well for the rest of the trip!!!
The first stop was on the side of the road for everyone to clamber off to find a tree to squat under. Yep, no such thing as a toilet on board! Most of the trip was mountainous with the bus cruising up and down and along high ridgelines then dropping way down into river valleys. There would have been spectacular views however because it is the dry season and there is a lot of slash and burn agriculture, the air is very hazy. Actually for our whole time in Laos the air was extremely smoky from this constant burning of the bush on the mountainsides. We stopped for lunch at a village down in a river valley where we ate soup, veggies and rice in a local restaurant about 5 hours into the trip.
Arrived in Phonsavanh after about 8 hours on the road. Robert and Kane were also planning a trip out to The Plain of Jars tomorrow so we shared a taxi into the town and all checked in to the rather large Soviet style Xiengkhouang Hotel. (It was actually Vietnamese built and owned). Phonsavanh is a rather uninspiring town, really only a stepping off point for tours to The Plain of Jars sights that are open to tourists. We wandered around the local fresh market then found a café to hang out in until dinner.
Tue 3 April 2012 – Phonsavanh
Today the four of us set off in our minivan complete with driver and guide for a tour to the three main plains sites that are open to the public. There are actually about 25 sights where these huge stone jars are found randomly scattered but only about 6 sights are open to the public owing to the huge number of UXO (Unexploded Ordinance) still buried in the surrounding farms, relics from the Vietnam War (locally referred to as the American War). Sadly in Laos about three people per day are still killed or maimed by UXO’s. Ordinance clearing is carried out by organisations such as http://www.maginternational.org/. NZAid provided funds for the clearance of the three Jar sites that we visited.
First stop was Site 1 which as we had got to relatively early had only a couple of other tourists poking around the up to 2m high jars made of stone quarried about 25km away. Nobody quite knows the why the jars are scattered over this area or exactly the reason they were made. One theory is that they were used as burial jars but nobody knows for sure. Drove a further 20km on a dirt road to Site 3, which is on a small hill in the middle of a farm. The jars are on the top of the hill so there are nice views of the surrounding farmland from this site. Our lunch stop (choice of noodles or rice) was at a local restaurant just down the road then it was off to Site 2 another hill location with great views out over the valley. Last stop of the tour was to the ruins of a 700 year old Buddha and to a Stuppa on a hill.
Wed 4 April 2012 – Phonsavanh to Viengxay
Arrived at the Phonsavanh bus station and to our dismay the bus situation had deteriorated significantly with todays transport being a “real” local bus – 260,000 Kip (US$32 for 2). This was a 20 seater complete with slatted vinyl seats and seat backs (fortunately some padding on them) both front and back door back open throughout the journey and of course the other natural air conditioning feature, open windows. We set off a little after 8am in a relatively empty bus with three other Westerners but soon it filled to overflowing with people sitting on produce sacks in the aisle and squashed into every available seat. At about 8:20 we pulled into the local square back in Phonsavanh (basically next to the hotel) where the top of the bus was loaded up with veggies etc … no goats but later there were live chickens in little oval chicken sized baskets, added to the cargo on the roof. Merrin helped one of the ladies loading her goods on the roof of the bus and for his efforts was given some green mangoes … very yummy! Finally left town at 9am and trundled off up, up, up and down those mountains again. Merrin spent most of the trip literally hanging out the front or back door … and loving every minute of it! After 9 hours we arrived in Sam Neua just in time for the heavens to open. The five of us Westerners negotiated a Tuk Tuk 50,000 Kip each (US$12) to take us the 30km extra distance to Viengxay where we checked in to a local guesthouse just across the road from The Vienxay Caves office, the aim being to head there the next morning for a tour of the Vienxay Caves (cost 60,000 Kip plus bike hire of 15,000 kip each (US$9).
Thu 5 April 2012 – Viengxay
The Viengxay area is a limestone karst landscape with lots of pretty humpy hills rising up from the plains. The reason this area is famous is because the natural caves (also enhanced with concrete structures) which, were used by the Pathet Lao political group and locals (about 23,000 people) during the American War. They were helping the Vietcong with supplies in and out of Vietnam (the border being only about 50km away) hence the heavy bombardment of Loas by the American during the war.
We set off for breakfast at the local market. A cute old lady took a liking to me and proceeded to grab me by the hips and pinch my bumJ Breakfast consisted of some very good sugar doughnuts and the last of the green mangoes. Our cave tour was from 9am–12pm. The sites are quite widespread so we jumped on our old hired bicycles and cycled off in pursuit of our guide for the morning, a young Lao girl. She didn’t speak much English, just pointed us in the right direction and told us which number we were at so we could listen to the history of each part of the caves that we were in on the audio equipment we were given. The caves housed a school, a hospital, bakeries, shops and even a large theatre/entertainment area so all in all they were very interesting to visit. In the afternoon we said goodbye to our travelling companions and went for a walk around the area eventually hanging out at a lakeside café drinking beer Lao and watching the sunset behind the limestone hills.
Fri 6 April 2012 – Vienxay to Hanoi
The guesthouse owner had arranged for the bus across into Vietnam to come to the Guesthouse to pick us up. This was supposed to arrive anytime after 8:30am. At 7:30 we headed up the road to stock up on more sugar doughnuts for breaky. Took them back to the guesthouse to eat and drink with complimentary tea and ate while we waited for the bus. At about 9:15am we were getting a bit jittery, as the bus had not arrived … needn’t have bothered being nervous as it trundled along on Lao time at about 9:30. Our intention was to travel to Thanh Hoa on the coast and about 200km south of Hanoi but when the bus arrived it had Hanoi as a destination so we paid the driver to go all the way to Hanoi and cost 600,000 Kip for both of us (US$80). The buses we have travelled on for this trip were getting progressively more local. This one was an 18 seater, was quite roomy to start with a couple of seats each but as the journey progressed it became a 25 seater.
We set off and travelled the 50km to the border of Vietnam at Nam Soi, and crossed with no issues even though we were a day later than our prepaid Visa allowed. Visas for Vietnam have to be prearranged, especially for entry at remote border crossings. (although you can get an Internet permit to purchase Visa’s on arrival when flying into major Vietnamese cities). Just over on the Vietnamese side of the border we lunched at a café with locals and the other bus passengers most of whom seemed to be Vietnamese returning home from whatever business they had in Laos. We wended our way around more limestone hills following a large river, which at one point had huge wooden waterwheels no doubt used for farming purposes. The countryside on the Vietnamese side of the border was stunning – much greener than in Laos. We soon came off a high plateau travelling down beside terraced rice paddies and bamboo groves finally getting down to lower more plain like farmland.
Our next stop was a tea stop for the driver and a toilet stop for us … in a concrete bunker like structure with no roof and just a trough at one end in which to hover over … sharing the experience with other bus passengers!!! After 10 hours of travelling we arrived in Thanh Hoa and got off the bus for what we thought was a rest … but no we were shunted on to the back seats of a second bus, which was heading to Hanoi. This vehicle seemed a much better deal with real aircon and plush fabric covered seats. It wasn’t long before our feelings of security in this plush interior gave way to ones of terror as our mad bus driver proceeded to overtake, undertake and generally take on all of the oncoming traffic as if he ruled the highway. It didn’t matter that the highway was chocka block with traffic in both directions. Our driver was hell bent on being in front of all vehicles travelling to Hanoi. Being in the back seat meant we were frequently airborne and only narrowly missed having our heads pummelled against the roof!!! We stopped for dinner at a roadside café and even with this half hour stop we managed the approx. 200km journey in about 2.5 hours. We were literally dumped on the side of the highway about 5km outside Hanoi city centre and were immediately set upon by motorcycle and taxi touts. Once we had worked out where we were we took the taxi option in what turned out to be one of the rip off cabs. We insisted he use the meter, which he did however the meter proceeded to click over at an alarming rate so that the fare ended up being an exorbitant 500,000 Dong (US$24). We had got to where we wanted to be, in the old town near Hoan Kiem Lake so off we wandered checking out a few hotels and finally settling on the Green Mango, which we booked for two nights 2,541,000 Dong (US$120). www.greenmango.vn
Sat 7 April 2012 – Hanoi
After a good nights sleep (finally having got to bed at about 11:30pm) we had a late start with a cooked breakfast (included in the room price) sitting at a table at the front of the hotel where we could look out at the goings on in the street outside. It was raining and a bit cool when we set off to explore the city. We headed off around the Lake and ended up at the upstairs Café L’etage with a view out over the southern end of the lake. The owners were lovely and helpfully gave us some good information about buses from Hanoi to the border with China. From there we wandered the streets checking out the shops. Picked up a double hooded rain cape for my sister and brother in-law to wear when they go out on their Harley in the rain, complete with clear plastic for the headlightJ Had lunch at a roadside café then went back to the hotel to organise our bus to China tomorrow. Set off and found Fanny’s Ice Cream parlour (which had just opened when we last visited Hanoi 18 years ago) and indulged in one of their monstrous ice creams! After more walking (necessary after the ice cream) and sightseeing we found an upstairs balcony bar and drank a nostalgic 333 beer then headed back to the hotel for dinner. Yep, Hanoi was all about food and beverages!
Sun 8 April 2012 – Hanoi – Pingxiang
Had breakfast at the hotel then headed out on foot for further exploration. Found the bustling indoor market selling everything from clothing to fresh fruit, vegetables and meat. Got back to the hotel in time to check out and wait for our bus, which arrived right on time to pick us up at 12:30pm, 240,000 Dong (US$12) for both. This bus journey was far more relaxed and roomy, just a 15 seater with about 10 passengers … luxuryJ. The countryside was beautiful, first flat land with rice paddies then for the last 60 or so km we were back into the limestone pop up hill landscape. Fruit trees and corn were planted on the steep sides and in order for the villagers to get produce from the top there was a steel cable pulley system down to homes at the bottom of the hills. We arrived at the Dong Dang border crossing at about 4pm. One of our fellow passengers was going directly on the sleeper bus to Guangzhou so we decided to do the same. From the border we shared a taxi to Pingxiang the Chinese town nearest the border and with her help purchased tickets for the bus ¥440 (US$70) for both. Went off and found a restaurant for dinner then back to the bus for 7:30 departure. The sleeper buses have upper and lower bunks in three rows. They are of course built for Chinese people so were narrow and not long enough for either Merrin or I but do come equipped with pillows and blankets. Can’t say that either of us overly enjoyed the experience but it had to be done … once!
Mon 9 April 2012 Guangzhou – Lantau Island
We arrived at a bus station somewhere in Guangzhou! The third person we spoke to understood enough English to give directions on how we could get to the metro, which was about a 15 minute walk away. Once we found the metro we easily found our way to Guangzhou East railway station and by just after 8am we were on a train to Shenzhen arriving at 9:30am … far too early for shopping! The Mani-Pedi shop opened at 10:00am so we both indulged. Picked up Anna’s clothes from the tailor and went for lunch at “Melissa’s” Dim Sum restaurant. Can’t remember the actual name of the restaurant but Melissa is a waitress/usher at the restaurant and every time we have been to this restaurant she is there with her friendly smile and good English skills to help with our choices from the Dim Sum menu.
Thursday, December 16, 2010
It was time to once again make the most of our multiple entry visa into China before expiry in April, so we headed off on a weekend adventure to the limestone karst area around Guilin.
Louise was voted number one travel agent, so it was up to her to research where to go, and how to get there! She decided on Guilin, as she knew about the magnificent karst landscape and had been hankering to get there for a while. Overnight trains run from Shenzhen to Guilin (train # T38) so we decided to try out China Rails’ sleeper trains. For the outward journey we bought tickets via China Travel Service, who of course charge you an extra HKD$100 for privilege, but as we were booking overnight sleepers we decided to be safe rather than sorry.
After catching separate MTR trains to the border (Merrin could not leave work too early) Louise was tasked with securing tickets for the overnight train back on Sunday evening from Guilin to Guangzhou. She was very proud of being persistent in the face of severe provocation. The ticket office lady trying to book the late train, (T40 leaving at 21:23 that actually goes through to Shenzhen) but Louise had done her homework and knew there was an earlier train, the K38, departing Guilin at 18:28 arriving Guangzhou at 6am, which Louise insisted on booking. From Guangzhou we could catch a fast intercity train to Shenzhen (but not all the way to Hung Hom as trains direct to Hong Kong leave from Guangzhou East railway station and we were at Guangzhou Railway Station). This would then allow Merrin to be at work at a reasonable hour on Monday morning. The moral of this story is that it is easy to book your own tickets in spite of a total lack of Putonghua and the ticket office staff having very little English! But, it is best that you do know in advance the train number and departure time!
There are two types of sleeper carriages on Chinese trains. We had booked the “soft sleepers”, which are four berth cabins shared with whoever. We were lucky that the train was not full so had no other people in our cabin. We have to say that we would hate to know what the hard sleepers are like. These so-called soft sleepers were hard enough! The hard sleepers are 6 berth cabins with no cabin doors. They all open directly to the carriage corridor and they certainly look to have very thin beds! We spoke to an English couple on our way back who had taken the plunge and traveled on the hard sleepers. They said they got absolutely no sleep, as their four other cabin mates were up and down the beds, holding loud conversations, with lights going on and off all night! They were certainly a good advertisement for not taking the hard sleepers as they looked absolutely shattered!!
We arrived in Guilin after a reasonable sleep on Friday 3 Dec. Well, Merrin, who can sleep anywhere of course had a wonderful nights rest. Louise found sleeping on the train rather like camping … every time there was a need to roll over she woke with a stiff back that was hauled into a new position, which was potentially meant to be more comfy, but the reality was, it wasn’t! It was also absolutely freezing in our cabin so even as we sat and ate our railway meal consisting of rice and a variety of pickled and stir-fried dishes, we were totally wrapped in the bedding.
It was a lovely crisp morning in Guilin. The front of the railway station was buzzing with food hawker stalls and travel touts. We were immediately approached by several touts all offering a ride in “their” bus to Yangshuo. We decided to take up an offer of 18 RMB and set off after a few minutes. With the distance of 67km between Guilin and Yangshuo we estimated it would take just over an hour to get there! What we didn’t bank on was that we would do a slow crawl through town with the “conductor” hanging out the door touting for more business. At the first stop (still outside the station) as we waited for about 15 minutes for prospective passengers, we watched a lady making some sort of egg pancake. Merrin decided to get off and buy one … it was delicious – a pancake filled with egg and a pickled cabbage mixture. We limped our way out of the city continuing to stop for more passengers and in one instance, for the driver to buy his lunch to eat while driving. It eventually took us an hour just to get to the outskirts of Guilin and just under two hours to Yangshuo!!!
Along the way we passed between the limestone hills marching off into the distance and along side the road, an ever-ending procession of white tree trunks. Instead of road markers the lower trunks of the trees were all painted white! Once in Yangshuo, we decided that we would walk the 5kms to our accommodation – The Giggling Tree, run by a young Dutch couple and nestled in the Yangshuo countryside. Armed with a computer printout map (not to scale) from The Giggling Tree’s website and a small town map photocopied from an old Lonely Planet guide we set off. In the wrong direction! Yes, the surveyor and the cartographer could not find their way. In our defense, it was a bit silly trying to navigate by two entirely different “not to scale” maps. After getting some guidance from locals (about 5kms out of town in the wrong direction) we turned back and found a cab!
The detour did offer a few gems, like the table on the side of the road laid out with false teeth and orthodontic aids, complete with customers having their dental work attended to on the footpath, and outside the doctors surgery 3 patients happily sitting on chairs attached to a drip to their hands or feet (goodness knows what for)! Also passed an ancient shed where a man and woman were making noodles using a hand roller through which they were feeding the “wet” dough then adding the dry dough as they went. The resulting noodles were hanging on bamboo poles in the yard with a fan blowing at them to dry them off.
The Giggling Tree (http://www.gigglingtree.com/) is in the Yangshuo countryside surrounded by the famous karst landscape - everywhere you look. The guesthouse is in converted old traditional farm buildings built of yellow clay bricks. We stayed in an upstairs room overlooking the sunny courtyard costing only 210 Yuan per night (off peak season). Once we had settled in we went out to the courtyard to order lunch and sit and enjoy the afternoon sun. (Both of us were a little tired after our wee walk in the countryside on the other side of town). After our snooze in the sun we set off on foot to explore the village and surrounding area.
We wandered towards the Yulong River. As we neared the river we could her chatter and commotion. It turned out that this was one of the main areas for launching the bamboo rafts, which you can hire to take you down river with bikes on the back, so that you can cycle back up the valley. Naturally the locals were very keen for us to go for a jaunt. We declined and sat with a beer to watch them going about their daily business which seemed to feature a lot of laughter over gambling games etc as there are not too many tourists around because the high season has finished. We then wandered off up the river and watched a man wash his buffalo in the river, and another plowing his field with his buffalo. It is a very simple way of life here and it was really great to be staying in the countryside rather than in the busy touristy town to witness the Chinese lifestyle of old. Like when we stopped for a cold drink at a roadside shop which had the butcher next to it cutting up “things”, across the street was a fish farmer chopping up fish as people ordered them and kids riding and walking home from school.
That night we had cocktails on the terrace overlooking the stunning Yangshuo countryside followed by a lovely dinner in the restaurant. Although the day temperatures were in the early twenties at night it was quite cool so we adjourned to the common room for a very yummy Dutch Apple Pie dessert by the fire and chatted to other travelers.
The next morning we set off early (7am) on hired bikes in order to take in the early morning scenery. Great idea, but boy was it cold out and about at this time of the morning. Our hands were absolutely freezing as we cycled along. The scenery was magnificent, in the early morning misty light though. We cycled along rough tracks between rice paddies, through villages, one of which had a funeral procession complete with firecrackers and on to the Dragon Bridge to cross the river and cycle back the other side. It was a great ride and because we left early there were very few other tourists about.
Back at the Giggling Tree we tucked into some breaky before heading off on the bikes along the river in the other direction. We made it back to civilization aka the main road and cycled along to Moon Hill. This is one of the few limestone hills that you can climb in the area (for a fee of course) and despite all the tourist information saying that climbing to the top was not allowed there was a 69 year old lady pointing you up the side track to the top, hoping that that you will buy a cold drink from her on the way back down. It is an arch shape (hence the name) and the views from top were wonderful.
From there we cycled along the main road and into Yangshuo town for a late lunch. Cycling along the city streets avoiding other bikes, 3 wheeler taxi bikes, cars and buses was fun, as was experiencing the tourist chaos that is Xi Lu or West St – a cobbled street full of restaurants and shops that is the main tourist part of town.
We cycled back to the Giggling Tree and met up with a British couple, Karen and Paul with whom we planned to go the famous Li River Light Show near Yangshuo town. We all jumped in a taxi and headed off to the show. It is on every night (sometimes twice a night) and was absolutely packed when we got there. The show is set on the Li River and has 600 locals as part of the cast. It is a re-enactment of village life in the area with lights popping up around the vast stage that comprises of the river bank and boats or platforms on the river. The show was choreographed by the guy who produced the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. It was pretty amazing, especially with the back drop of karst mountains lit up as part of the show.
After the hour long show we headed to town for dinner. Chose a BBQ restaurant where you get to choose your ingredients from a table at the front. Not easy when none of the bamboo skewers of meat are recognizable! We chose a plateful of prawn, meat, tofu and veggie skewers and off they went to the BBQ out back to be cooked with a spicy marinade. The result was not bad although the meat we thought was chicken did not taste or resemble chicken on the plate. Who knows what it was!
The next day (Sunday) we chilled out at the Giggling Tree for the morning and then as something different ordered one of the 3 wheeled taxi bikes to take us to the bus station to go back to Guilin. It was fun bouncing along in the open cab over the rough dirt road then whizzing along the paved roads into the town. He dropped us off at Xi Lu and we wandered off to find some lunch. Had some very yummy fried pork balls served around a plate of omelet and another fried dish that we thought was veggie but turned out to be pork based as well. Sat on a street corner table and watched the restaurant owner’s wee boy playing with a bubble maker in the street. Actually Louise was watching and photographing while Merrin was joining in the game!
We set off to the bus stop and in a repeat of the in ward journey, it took about an hour to leave town, which was a surprise as when we left the bus station all the seats were already full. But where there is money to be made by carrying more people it will be! We cruised the streets heading out of town picking up more and more people who were given small plastic stools to sit on in the isle, so that by the time we were heading up the highway there was more than a full load on the bus and a very happy bus conductor counting his stash of Yuan! The other amusing part of this bus journey was that while Merrin happily occupied the front seat next to the driver, Louise, sitting a couple of rows back got to watch King Kong on the video screen. Very bizarre , the Chinese guy in the next seat and Louise chuckling away in tandem at the ridiculous antics that had been filmed in NZ but with the white actors speaking Chinese!
We had an hour and half to spare once we got to Guilin so we wandered the streets briefly taking in some of the sights of this city of 1.3 million people. Rather than eat the train food we bought hawker food from outside the station and beers to take on the train with us. Once again we were reacquainted with the hard “soft” sleepers. Actually the sleeper trains are really not that bad and a good way to travel long distances in China. This time we had one other cabin mate get in at a station down the line to sleep on the top bunk. At 5:30am we had the wake up call from the guard to ensure we were ready to leave the train in Guangzhou. Bought our tickets for the next train to Shenzhen (which might actually be the first one of the day at 7am) then had a brief walk around outside the station before boarding for the just over one hour long journey to Shenzhen which gets up to 200 kph. At Shenzhen we walked straight across the border and on to the MTR in Hong Kong, for Merrin to head to work and for Louise to head to Fuel Espresso in IFC for a coffee fix before heading home on the Lantau Ferry.
Thursday, May 6, 2010
Got asked the other day the following question:
What is/are the root cause/s of the Global Environmental Crisis?
How can they be addressed?
Here are my thoughts. I would love to hear yours either here or on facebook via
The root causes of the global environmental crisis stem from the disconnect of people from acknowledging they are part of nature and environmental cycles rather than being separate from or able to control nature.
In the business world there is a growing discussion that measuring a business’s success in terms of profit and shareholder dividends alone is no longer good enough. When assessing the sustainability of the business and the risks it faces, investors can take into account more the impact the operation has on the local communities and the natural resources it is dependent on. Countries continue to use the measure of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to show the health of the country and how well it is progressing. GDP does not take into account what is being produced (money spent on recovering from natural disasters and building more military arsenal adds to GDP just as providing housing and producing food does) or what effect it has on nature (clear felling forests for the timber adds to GDP however no account is taken for the loss of biodiversity or ecosystem services that the forest provides, such as producing oxygen).
It is measures like GDP that have driven the growth in consumerism where more goods are being purchased and hence need to be produced,therefore raising the GDP of an economy. Marketing leads people to believe that more “things” will make them happy and show them to be successful in their communities, however this does not necessarily lead to a healthy and happy community. People need to appreciate those “things” from a perspective of what has been utilised to produce them.
We can address this disconnect by raising awareness of the interconnectedness and reliance we as the human species have on a healthy planet. Educating people in what is involved in producing food and goods so that they choose options that have a lower embedded energy, along with a lower social and environmental cost, will help reconnect people to their place in nature. This will lead to more meaningful measures of success being adopted such as Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) or Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW) rather than GDP, thus allowing a further break from the current connection between consuming more “things” as measures of success.
Looking at our planning and design requirements in all aspects of life is another way to address the crisis. By giving more consideration to the production processes of products to enable them to be reused and recycled can reduce our environmental impact. Moving back to producing products that have longer design life expectancy rather than adhering to a replacement system and finally, by designing products so that the output from one process becomes the input in another process while utilising nature to assist the cycles and hence reduce the energy required in the production process, are all solutions to addressing the global environmental crisis.
Overall we need to think more strategically around sustainability issues taking into account in our management of the 5 major types of capital being: human capital, financial capital, natural capital, produced and social capital.
In conclusion, the key to addressing the global environmental crisis is having a longer term perspective that revitalises the role humans play in generating sustainable growth that does not disproportionately disadvantage ecosystems or human cultures.
Sunday, April 25, 2010
Memorial Walk of Goodwin Escape Route
In memory of Lt Cmdr R B Goodwin RNZNVR
Lt Commander Ralph Goodwin, of the Royal New Zealand Navy Volunteer Reserve, was a patient in Hong Kong’s Queen Mary Hospital on Christmas Day in 1941 recuperating from a leg wound sustained in action while in defence of Hong Kong, when the surrender of Hong Kong to the Japanese made him a Prisoner of War.
Escape was always on his mind, but he had to wait for nearly two and a half years until July 1944, before he was able to break out from Sham Shui Po Camp where he had been interned. The story of his incredible trek to friendly forces in China, and his four month journey home to New Zealand reads like something out of the Boys Own Paper! His story is well told in his [now out-of-print] book “Hong Kong Escape”.
“ … New Zealander, a lieutenant in the RNZNVR (R. B. Goodwin), had been wounded in the defence of Hong Kong and was unable to attempt escape in the early period when the Japanese hold on the territory was comparatively loose. His escape in July 1944 was a supreme feat of nerve and endurance. Lieutenant Goodwin has himself graphically described his adventure in his book Hongkong Escape. This was one of the few escapes made with virtually no co-operation from fellow prisoners and no prearranged help from outside, indeed, the escaper felt he had more to fear from some fellow prisoners than from the Japanese”. (New Zealand Electronic Text Centre, Victoria University of Wellington)
[Walk Leader Gordon Andreassend 3rd from left - photo of walkers by Grace Cheung]
On ANZAC Day 2010 (Sunday 25 April 2010) a walk by 14 Kiwi and Ozzie “escapees” retraced the approximate route he took during the first four days of his escape. The walk was about 11km and took five hours, started near the Water Treatment Works on Cheung Yuen Road (below Kowloon Reception Reservoir) and finished at Tai Wai, near Shatin. The walk leader was long time Hong Kong Kiwi Gordon Andreassend.
Here is a map of the route we walked that gives great views of Hong Kong harbour and the surrounding high peaks.
You can look at the route on Google Maps for better quality information
View Goodwin Escape Route in Hong Kong in a larger map
The Goodwin Escape – July, 1944.
Lt. Commander Ralph Goodwin was a NZ naval officer, serving on a Motor Torpedo Boat in Hong Kong when he was wounded in December 1941. He was in Queen Mary Hospital on Christmas Day when the British forces surrendered to the Japanese. As a P.O.W. he endured 30 months in captivity, but escape was always in his mind. In May, 1944 he was transferred to Sham Shui Po Camp, and he realized that this camp provided his best opportunity to make an escape. He quickly made his preparations, and on July 16, taking advantage of a moonless, wet night, he made his break. Here are the details of his first 4 nights and days on the run. He had to wait for midnight, when the perimeter lights were switched off.
July 17 – Midnight to Dawn.
Risking death in climbing the electrified perimeter fence, he reached the sea and swam to Castle Peak Road at Lai Chi Kok. He climbed up into the Kowloon foothills and made his way through rugged terrain until he had to take shelter in a clump of trees as dawn approached.
July 17 - Dawn to dusk (Day 1)
He spent a most uncomfortable day on the slope of a hill, wet and exhausted. He ate some of his limited food and remained hidden throughout the day.
July 17 and 18 – Dusk to Dawn.
At sunset he continued inland, through ravines and hills in what he assumed to be the general direction of Shatin. Japanese patrols were searching the hills, and he moved as quickly as possible over ridges and gullies until a break in the clouds enabled him to see an inlet of HK Harbour - probably Gin Drinkers Bay.
He had travelled too far west, as his goal was Tolo Harbour at Shatin. He changed direction and headed on a more easterly course, until the approach of dawn forced him to seek shelter for the day.
July 18 - Dawn to Dusk (Day 2)
Shelter was difficult to find as dawn approached, and he spent the day in a water course listening to the sound of searchers nearby. During the day he decided to abandon his original plan to swim to freedom via Tolo Harbour – and threw away life jackets and other items to lighten his pack. He would walk to China.
July 18 and 19 - Dusk to Dawn.
As darkness fell, he made for higher ground and continued towards the east as the rain fell heavily. He sighted two buildings and moved away from them through a swampy area until he found a well-used track that led to a rough area something like a worksite. He continued on in a direction he assumed would lead to Shatin, and daylight found him on a ridge with very little cover. He quickly looked for a hiding place, and settled on a shallow excavation where he could lie for the day.
July 19 - Dawn to Dusk (Day 3)
Increasing daylight showed that his hiding place was not well-concealed, but did command a good view – so he decided to remain there. His vantage point was perfect in that he could see the length of the Shing Mun River from the Shing Mun Dam to the road and railway near Shatin. He was able to plan his route down the Shing Mun Valley. Intending to move slightly to get a better view, he was startled by a rifle shot being fired at a bird by a Japanese soldier he had not seen, standing just above his hiding place. He hid deeper in his shallow pit and reflected on the prophecy of a fortune-teller who had told him that his life would be saved by a bird. His gratitude to that winged saviour, was matched only by his gratefulness that the soldier’s shot had missed its mark, a fate that he, as a larger and closer target would not have enjoyed.
July 19 and 20 – Dusk to Dawn.
At nightfall he set off briskly down the slope towards the Shing Mun River, heading toward a track he had seen on the opposite side. He waded over the river and headed downstream. He made good progress, and eventually arrived at a clump of bamboo at the lower reaches of the river. There were houses nearby and as daylight was fast approaching, he pushed as far as possible into the bamboo, to find a rather uncomfortable resting place for the day. A woman cutting bamboo could have ended his flight right there.
July 20 – Dawn to Dusk (Day 4)
He was delighted to see as the light improved that he was very close to Tai Po Road – the route he had decided to take for his escape over the Chinese border. The walk by night to safety took another 7 days.
“There would be a definite route to follow after the heart-breaking cross-country struggle, in which I had maintained little sense of direction, and throughout which, even in the daytime, I had little idea of my exact location.”
Goodwin’s words taken from his book “Hongkong Escape”, which was used as the basis for retracing his escape route, sums up the situation most precisely. This book, now about 50 years out of print is a most enthralling read, and gives full details of his 4 month journey from Hong Kong to New Zealand.
Sunday, March 14, 2010
This book review of Tim Flannery’s “Throwim Way Leg” was written for The Sustainable Future Institute (http://www.sustainablefuture.info/) which is an independent think tank specialising in research and policy analysis that is based in Wellington, New Zealand.
What an intriguing and enlightening adventure that Tim Flannery takes you on in “Throwim Way Leg”. While Tim’s personal experiences covered in the book are during the 1980’s and 1990’s New Guinea, the pace of change he saw during that period is similar to what other countries have experienced over much longer periods, if not centuries.
The finding of new species almost daily makes great reading, however it is particularly poignant to note that the local helpers just want to eat these new wonders, even if it has taken days or months to find just one specimen. During his travels, Flannery is introduced to new concepts of viewing the relationships between people and the planet. The different groups of people that Tim lived with while working in both the Papua and Irian Jaya parts of New Guinea could well be teaching the people of the “developed” world how the “modern” world could live.
From reading one gets a sense of how little we actually still know of our fellow planet’s inhabitants, whether they be flora or fauna. The grandeur of the Papuan landscape with towering cliffs, glacial capped mountain (at the equator) and raging rivers that disappear down what Tim describes as possibly the largest “plug hole on earth” are all part of a wonderfully wet and forest clad landscape. This landscape is slowly being removed through “modern progress” such as forestry and mining. Tim encounters very different approaches to the way locals are involved and treated by the large corporations.
The Tree Kangaroos are a strong part of the story, as they were the focus of the 15 trips Tim made primarily to research them. Tim’s discoveries are amazing. No wonder these tree dwelling Kangaroos are on the verge of extinction, some being so friendly that they would walk up to people! A very easy meal they then become.
Those fortunate to experience the forests and highlands of New Guinea obviously obtain new perspectives on the sustainability of our planet, as fellow writer-scientist and thinker Jared Diamond also explored the this region of the world. So enjoy another perspective on the great writing talent that Tim is. While having only read The Weather Makers before Throwim Way Leg I am now off to explore more of Tim’s writings!
My thanks to Robert Gibson in Hong Kong for bringing this wonderful book to my attention.
The publisher details of the book can be found at http://textpublishing.com.au/books-and-authors/book/throwim-way-leg/
Saturday, March 13, 2010
Discovered this interesting book that I am yet to read, certainly would like to read the books it reviews.
As described on Amazon:
This title draws together in one volume some of the best thinking to date on the pressing social and environmental challenges we face as a society.
It includes profiles of the Top 50 Sustainability Books, as voted for by the University of Cambridge Programme for Industry's alumni network of over 2,000 senior leaders from around the world. In addition, many of the authors share their most recent reflections on the state of the world and the ongoing attempts by business, government and civil society to create a more sustainable future.
Many of these authors have become household names in the environmental, social and economic justice movements - from Rachel Carson, Ralph Nader and E.F. Schumacher to Vandana Shiva, Muhammad Yunus and Al Gore. Others, such as Aldo Leopold, Thomas Berry and Manfred Max-Neef, are relatively undiscovered gems, whose work should be much more widely known. The profiled books tackle our most vexing global challenges, including globalisation ("Globalization and Its Discontents", "No Logo"), climate change ("Heat", "The Economics of Climate Change") and poverty ("The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid", "Development as Freedom").
Some of these featured thought-leaders are highly critical of the status quo (e.g. David Korten, Eric Schlosser and Joel Bakan), while others suggest evolutionary ways forward (e.g. Amory Lovins, Hunter Lovins, Paul Hawken and Jonathon Porritt). Some place their faith in technological solutions (e.g. Janine Benyus, Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker), while others are upbeat about the potential of business to be a force for good (e.g. John Elkington, Ricardo Semler, William McDonough and Michael Braungart).
By featuring these and other seminal thinkers, "The Top 50 Sustainability Books" distils a remarkable collective intelligence - one that provides devastating evidence of the problems we face as a global society, yet also inspiring examples of innovative solutions; it explores our deepest fears and our highest hopes for the future.
It is a must-read for anyone who wants to tap into the wisdom of our age.
Polly Courtice, Director, Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership
THE TOP 50 SUSTAINABILITY BOOKS
1 A Sand County Almanac Aldo Leopold (1949)
2 Silent Spring Rachel Carson (1962)
3 Unsafe At Any Speed Ralph Nader (1965)
4 The Population Bomb Paul L. Ehrlich (1968)
5 Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth R. Buckminster Fuller (1969)
6 The Limits to Growth Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers and William W. Behrens III (1972)
7 Small Is Beautiful E.F. Schumacher (1973)
8 Gaia James Lovelock (1979)
9 The Turning Point Fritjof Capra (1982)
10 Our Common Future (‘The Brundtland Report’) World Commission onEnvironment and Development (1987)
11 The Dream of the Earth Thomas Berry (1988)
12 A Fate Worse Than Debt Susan George (1988)
13 Staying Alive
14 Blueprint for a Green Economy David Pearce, Anil
15 For the Common Good Herman Daly and John B. Cobb Jr (1989)
16 Human Scale Development Manfred Max-Neef (1989)
17 Changing Course Stephan Schmidheiny and Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD) (1992)
18 The Ecology of Commerce Paul Hawken (1993)
19 Maverick Ricardo Semler (1993)
20 When Corporations Rule the World David C. Korten (1995)
21 Biomimicry Janine M. Benyus (1997)
22 Cannibals with Forks John Elkington (1997)
23 The Hungry Spirit Charles Handy (1997)
24 Banker to the Poor Muhammad Yunus (1998)
25 The Crisis of Global Capitalism George Soros (1998)
26 Factor Four Ernst von Weizsäcker, Amory B. Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins (1998)
27 False Dawn John Gray (1998)
28 Development as Freedom Amartya Sen (1999)
29 No Logo Naomi Klein (1999)
30 Natural Capitalism Paul Hawken, Amory B. Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins (1999)
31 Business as Unusual Anita Roddick (2000)
32 The Mystery of Capital Hernando de Soto (2000)
33 The Civil Corporation Simon Zadek (2001)
34 Fast Food Nation Eric Schlosser (2001)
35 The Skeptical Environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg (2001)
36 Cradle to Cradle William McDonough and Michael Braungart (2002)
37 Globalization and its Discontents Joseph E. Stiglitz (2002)
38 The Corporation Joel Bakan (2004)
39 Presence Peter Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski and Betty Sue Flowers (2004)
40 The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid C.K. Prahalad (2004)
41 The River Runs Black Elizabeth C. Economy (2004)
42 Capitalism as if the World Matters Jonathon Porritt (2005)
43 Capitalism at the Crossroads Stuart L. Hart (2005)
44 Collapse Jared Diamond (2005)
45 The End of Poverty Jeffrey D. Sachs (2005)
46 The Chaos Point Ervin Laszlo (2006)
47 Heat George Monbiot (2006)
48 An Inconvenient Truth Al Gore (2006)
49 When the Rivers Run Dry Fred Pearce (2006)
50 The Economics of Climate Change Nicholas Stern (2007)
Mike Peirce, Deputy Director, Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership
About the author