A Travellerspoint blog

India: Delhi

'Work in Progress'

semi-overcast 42 °C
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John:....there was little that was particularly remarkable about the upright man sat outside the jeweller's shop in Khan Market. He looked to be in mid 60s, smartly turned out and with a well tended moustache shading his top lip. His security guard uniform was neatly pressed and the sort of thing we have grown accustomed to seeing throughout our travels. It was not even remarkable that he was armed; most security guards we have seen at banks and jewellery shops have been. What was remarkable was that he was armed with a vintage double barrelled shotgun; one adaptation up from a blunderbus. As old as this venerable weaponry was, it was polished 'museum shiny', just lacking a label telling us its provenance.

The Government car nudging its way through the grime of the Delhi traffic was just like any other such vehicle; white, a ministerial flag on the left front wing lifeless in the heat and stillness of the grindingly slow moving vehicles, shiny and polished with a driver in the front seat and a shaded, important looking person in the back. The difference was that although shiny and new, this car had few stylistic changes since its predecessors were manufactured in Morris Motors factory in Cowley many years ago. The Hindustan Motors Ambassador was the first car manufactured in India and like its two wheeled counterpart the Royal Enfield motorcycle Classic 500 appears, on the surface, to have been frozen in a bygone time. http://www.royalenfield.com/default.aspx has lots of interesting data on the Royal Enfield Motorcycle Company if you're interested. (Attempts to modernise the style of the bike look singularly unsuccessful to me).

For most of our travels around the city we take a Tuk Tuk. A three wheeled vehicle that makes the Reliant Robin I once owned look sophisticated. Originally built by an Italian company and now manufactured in India these are, essentially scooters with two back wheels and a covered in seat behind the driver. At a squeeze we can get three in. The cheapest motorised transport in the city with the benefit of not being totally closed in you can feel very close to what is going on. These vehicles are usually owned in large numbers by businessmen. The drivers have to pay the owners a daily fee to drive them, in the region of 300 rupees plus 100 for petrol. With a 15 - 20 minute journey costing around 50 rupees there isn't much of a margin for the drivers in this.

All the cliches about India have been over used and exhausted. The origins of the cliches are obvious however. Glimpses of bone grinding poverty are everywhere. A stop at the traffic lights will bring small numbers of children and adults to your vehicle with roses, electric fly swats, model aeroplanes, feather dusters; under the flyovers and in shady spots homeless people are sleeping rough on the ground. Shacks built by itinerent building labourers are thrown up by the side of the road, housing whole families and soon becoming small communities. When the building work is finished they may move on....when the building work is finished? There's an interesting concept.

There are so many unfinished building projects underway here in Delhi that it is hard to think of anything ever being finished. The current rush of building jobs in New Delhi has the Commonwealth Games as its focus. Due to take place just 6 months from now I can't even begin to imagine how they will be finished in time. In fact it will be a remarkable feat if all the pavements are intact before October. There cannot be a single intact pavement in the city. WORK IN PROGRESS is proclaimed on signs and hoardings that barely conceal the building sites dotted around New Delhi as everything from athlete's accomodation and stadia to metro stations and roads are being constructed or modernised. Ancient temples and other historical sites are being rennovated in the stultifying heat. Labouring seems to be a unisex activity with beanstick thin men stripped to the waste and blackened by the sun and, incongruously, slender women in beautifully coloured sahris mix concrete, carry bricks on their heads and lay kerbstones. The tools in use are basic. No or little mechanisation but lots of people working; and may be that's the point. Perhaps the anxiety about finishing anything is about "...and what would we do then?'

A gentle sand wedge shot from one such scene is the Delhi Golf Course (where one might see the occassional white ministerial Ambassador car) and the Delhi Public school...so close and yet the poor and very very wealthy almost invisible to each other, living in parrallel dimensions. An owner of a dress shop in the Hauz Khas village summed up his India when he told us that all of India is imeasurably better than it was a few years ago...."now you can sell people expensive things and next time they want something even more expensive". Delhi has a population of approximately 12 million of whom 4 million live in slum dwellings.

We have had a wonderful first week here in Delhi. Staying with our good friends Amanda and Matt has been a very gentle orientation to the city. We have been glad to avail ourselves of their experiences here, not to mention their air conditioned apartment, Amanda's workplace swimming pool and their kindness and generosity as hosts.

Our initial visits were to a very different side of Delhi to the poverty striken one described above. Lunch at the Canadian High Commission restaurant and dinner one evening at the Italian Embassy restaurant were luxuries that we could afford in our itinerary because we are in India for twelve weeks. I referred to the ANZAC day dawn ceremony in my previous posting; another very special occasion. Since then we have been planning the rest of our time in India and enjoying many of the sights, sounds and tastes of the capital city.

The civic plan for New Delhi was designed by Lutyens, variously described as architectural genius, buffoon and bigot (he claimed that Italians must have helped with the design of the Taj Mahal because the locals at the time wouldn't be clever enough). The drive in to the Civic Centre, Lutyen's masterpiece, from our temporary home takes us through the Diplomatic Enclave, past the huge embassies and High Commission buildings along Shanti Path. A few roundabouts later the full splendour of Lutyens plan is revealed. Spacious parkland and magnificent structures, the buildings are of Agra sandstone with darker rose pink at the base and paler stone at the top of the buildings to make them appear lighter. We have yet to explore this part of the city but will write it up in the next week or so.

We caught the semi-finals and the final of the Indian Premier League 20-20 competition soon after arriving here. Before seeing any cricket, the front pages of the Times of India and The Hindu and The Indian Express were full of scandal stories about alleged corruption in government circles, at the top of the IPL organisation and so on. The pantomime continued into the semi final we saw between Deccan and Chennai...rendered almost unwatchable on TV by the constant advertising and owing much to pantomime and Bollywood with dancers and singers getting plenty of coverage. With all the press speculation about 'baksheesh' and flawed bidding for teams it was not hard to speculate about whether or not catches were dropped 'to order' or by sheer bad fielding. Dropping several catches that my 2 year old grandson would have held I did wonder if the young man at gulley would be chastised or paid a bonus. The conspiracy theorist in me is hard to supress sometimes. Soap operas are huge over here and the 20-20 IPL seems almost to be another one...still exciting to watch but is it really cricket....?

The food has been a high spot of our first week. From the vegetarian North Indian restaurant in the Defense Colony to the South Indian restaurant in Hauz Khas the food has been outstanding. Masala Dosai, Dal, Rasam...all delicious. Apart from one evening meal our food has been largely vegetarian. We haven't missed eating meat at all when it hasn't been on the menu. I think I will devote a whole blog posting just to food; there is so much to write about it. One tale I will tell now is actually about beer....

In a restaurant I ordered what is probably the best Byriani that I have ever tasted and asked for a beer to go with it. "Domestic or overseas" asked the waiter. "Domestic please" I replied. "Fosters or Budweiser" the waiter continued. "No, domestic please, these are Australian and American beers". "No sir, they are brewed and bottled in India". I had a Fosters...it was dreadful, as predicted; just like it is back home.

Highlights of our monument and museum visiting so far; the truly magnificent Humayan's Tomb, set in acres of formal gardens and parkland and, like the rest of the city, the beneficiary of 'WORK IN PROGRESS' from the Commonwealth Games organisers. It was hard to hide the beauty of this building with a few workmen and a pile or two of stones. With our characteristic skill and timing we arrived mid morning and the heat was furnace like....

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From there to the understated jewel that is The Craft Museum. With that title I expected to see lots of people making things but on the contrary. There was some of that but the main part of the museum is a collection of fabrics, ceramics, frescos, wooden buildings, paintings, chariots that have been rescued from various parts of India. We highly recommend this as a place to visit and, having just visited the National Museum would say that if you can only visit one then the Craft Museum is the one to visit....having said that the minutely detailed, vividly coloured miniature paintings at the National Museum are stunning...

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...after that where else but into the pool!

If you are planning to visit India, I have found the following books really helpful:

India After Ghandi: Ramachandra Guha is a fairly hefty tome but surprisingly readable. It helps to explain the politics and other things that make India possible....against all the odds.
Shantaram: Gregory David Roberts...we haven't reached Mumbai yet but a ripping read about the other side of the city.
William Dalrymple: City of Djinns...is the story of Delhi. Beautifully written and very accessible. Could be used as the basis of a tour.
VS Naipul: An Area of Darkness/A Bend in the River...I haven't read these yet but illustrates what a great place India is for books. Delhi is filled to bursting with bookshops. The Indian Government has arranged with many publishers to sell 'Indian Editions' of books at a fraction of the overseas prices to beat the bootleggers.

In the next posting, our four big trips from Delhi. They have taken some planning but if they work out as planned each trip will be very special. From tigers to tea, camels to forts, mountains to the Ganges...all that and more. Lots of love and best wishes to family and friends.

Posted by JohnandJac 07:07 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

India: Delhi ANZAC Day

At the going down of the sun....we will remember them

sunny 35 °C
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John:....with bleary eyes all round we set off with our friends Matt and Amanda to the Delhi ANZAC Day memorial service. Up, shaved and shiny at 04:30 and in to our old Ambassador black and yellow taxi at 05:00 to get to the Delhi War Cemetery in Brar Square.

The Delhi ring road, almost empty this early on a Sunday morning, meant that the taxi driver only had to concentrate on directions and the appalling road surface. If the roads were empty lots of life was happening on the fringes of the road. Groups of people sitting on the kerbside talking, drinking tea, pushing heavily laden bicycles or just seemingly watching the traffic. As night lifted, we approached the cemetery, driving alongside the military barracks, past the military police and into the car park, bumping to a stop.

The annual ANZAC Day ceremony here in Delhi is jointly hosted by the Australia and New Zealand High Commissions. Those attending numbered around 50 or 60 and included staff from both High Commissions, military and/or diplomatic representatives from the Turkish, British, Canadian, Fijian, Papua New Guinea, United States and Indian communities. One or two others, like Jackie and me, visitors to Delhi travelling through. We collected our sprigs of rosemary to wear and took in our surroundings.

Promptly, at 05:30 we were called to order. This was as pleasant a time of day as there would be as far as the climate was concerned. Those wearing suits and uniforms didn't get too hot, those of us dressed more casually not too cold. In celebration the insects came out in large numbers but caused little damage. Those with the foresight to use insect spray were OK, the rest of us used our programmes to discreetly waft the bugs away.

The setting for the cemetery is peaceful; away from the mayhem and broken infrastructure that is much of Delhi. Beautifully kept and tended lawns, shady places under trees and characteristically regimented white marble gravestones are the main features of the cemetary, added to, for today, 4 crescents of chairs and a pulpit. From here the two High Commisioners gave their addresses, reflecting on the impact that the battles at Gallipoli had in shaping each country's identity, and the Reverend Ian Weatherell led the prayers.

Wreaths were laid by each of the official representatives, including the Indian Chiefs of Staff for the navy, army and air force.

The service lasted around 40 minutes. One of the most moving parts, for me, was when the Turkish Ambassador read the statement made by Turkey's leader Mustafa Ataturk after the battle:

"Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives (at Gallipoli). You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours.. You the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears. Your sons are now living in our bosom and are in peace. Having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well."

The service ended with The Last Post and Reveille played by Indian Army buglers, sandwiching the 1 minute silence. The only other noises, the rumble of a distant train, an occasional dog bark but most of all the dawn chorus from birds I have yet to learn the names of.

There are 15 ANZAC graves in the cemetery, eached marked today with a red poppy and a small bouquet of flowers. All from the 2nd World War and all from the Australian and New Zealand Air Forces.

At the conclusion of the Dawn Service we were invited back to the Australian High Commission for a 'Diggers' Breakfast' on the lawn; the full cooked breakfast enjoyed in the warming sun, tempered by the artificial breeze created by some very sizable fans. For those keeping the Diggers' traditions alive, Bundaberg Rum was served with (or without) coffee. As we enjoyed our breakfast some of the children entertained themselves by chasing the peacocks.

I have another India blog underway and will post it soon. Lots of love and best wishes to family and friends

Posted by JohnandJac 00:04 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Laos: Luang Prabang again

...and the party goes on

sunny 42 °C
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John:....re-reading my last posting, it really seemed to end on a gloomy note. The New Year Party in Luang Prabang moved into its second, third and fourth days following that posting; the local celebrants reclaiming their event from the overseas holiday jack-the-lads. The town went berserk, with the normally laid back, quietly conforming, courteous and shy Lao people taking the water cleansing thing very seriously. The singlet wearing Europeans/antipodeans who seemed to stake a claim on the whole thing at my last posting have now been totally subsumed within the whole event (of three or five days depending on whose programme you read). Let me summarise:

The Lao New Year celebrations take place over 3 days. Each day has special significance in the buddhist and Lao calender of festivals and celebrations. For example the middle day neither belongs to the outgoing year or the incoming year. Buddhas are paraded between temples. Monks, novices, beauty queens, hotel staff, a large papier mache donkey, martial arts practitioners, children dressed in formal Lao style, the devout and the unusual take part in not just one but two processions. The procession moves up the street on one day and back from whence it came the following day. During the procession, water is projected on to everybody taking part and some of the processional participants take their revenge. The festival involves religious ceremony, water battles through the streets, traditional dance, costumes, music ancient and modern, beer Lao and, according to custom, rain on the New Year Day.

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All of this happened, including the most extraordinary thunder, lightening and rain storms and so much more. This normally sleepy, to the outside eye, town full of French Colonial architecture and beautiful temples burst into noisy life as tourists Lao and international descended. Most left by the second day and now, two days later, the town has reverted to its normal quiet state. Given the three spectacular lightning and thunder storms that happened whilst we were in Luang Prabang there is no doubt that you have more chance of being hit by lightning than by a car or motorcycle.

Since the last blog we have enjoyed very fine Lao cuisine, markedly different from the Vietnamese and Cambodian food in the use of spices and herbs. I had a delicious chicken casserole, known locally as Or Lam. So fragrant and skillfully prepared that each taste was different as the ginger, cinnamon, dill, scallions and other herbs were taken up by the other ingredients. There were so many bits of aromatic wood in the sauce that I thought somebody had tossed their kindling in. Washed down with very cold beer Lao, easily the best beer in South East Asia, a perfect meal.

Other highlights included:

Crossing the Mekong to a sandbank where the Luang Pragang younger set were enjoying themselves during the New Year celebrations. As well as all the partying, a competition to build 'sand stupas' was held. In Buddhist lore it is suggested that if you build a stupa out of sand, every grain of sand is a sin forgiven.

I met up with Al, Jerry and Muriel, our friends from the elephant camp (sadly Mae Uak and her mahout couldn't make it) over there and before we knew it we had put a team of 3 into the tug of war competition. The only team that would take us on insisted on having four ("us Lao are only small against you farang") against our three. We were also pulling uphill for 2 of the 3 legs. We lost 2 - 1. The rope burns from the frayed nylon rope are a colourful reminder of the effort put in...great fun.

We rose early (05:30) on Sunday morning to watch the monks collecting alms from the local residents as they do every morning. This usually consists of sticky rice, cooked fresh that morning, a banana, that kind of thing. Each monk has a bowl into which the food is placed. We positioned ourselves some distance back from the proceedings, still close enough to enjoy the quiet dignity of the whole thing. Some children come in from the outlying villages to receive food from the monks if they have more than they need, each holding a small basket and waiting, kneeling, in line as the monks file past. A very moving experience in the stillness and coolest part of another pressure cooker hot day.

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We visited several beautiful temples on the Sunday. Wat Xieng Thong, probably the most beautiful temple in Luang Prabang, is located towards the end of the penninsula where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers meet. One of the older temples in Luang Prabang, it has a colourful history and even more colourful mosaic work covering much of the exterior of the main buildings. In particular the mosaic depiction of The Tree of Life at the back of the Temple and the numerous creatures from Lao and buddhist mythology. Also of interest is Wat Sensoukarahm with its painted depictions from buddhist mythology, deep red painted facades and gold stencil work. In amongst all the complexity of the art work and carving, it is sometimes the simple images and figures that stand out the most.

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The ethnology museum is a small but very well organised and interesting museum, celebrating the cultural diversity of Laos. The museum houses displays of ethnic clothing from the Khmer, H'mong, Akha, Mien, Lisu and other groups as well as CDs of folk music preserved by visiting villages and recording older people playing songs from their respective cultures. Some of the most beautiful music is the simplest, played on just a wooden flute or sung by solo voice without accompaniment. The shop sells goods made by villagers in their own communities as well as the above mentioned music. For anybody interested in music from the region there is a beautifully produced book 'Songs From Memory' with accompanying CD that I would strongly recomend.

Just before leaving Luang Prabang we visited the waterfalls at Tat Kuang Si. Located 35 km south of the town, we enjoyed the Tuk-Tuk drive out through the countryside, pausing on the way out to pick up an elderly gent with two small children returning to their village from Luang Prabang. We reached the waterfall's entrance, paid a nominal fee to get in and were immediately captivated by a large enclosure of Asian Black Bears. These lovely creatures have been rescued from poachers engaged in the lucrative and illegal trade of bears for the Chinese Medicine staple of bear bile.

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Sadly unable to be released because of their certain recapture by poachers these bears are destined to be here for a long time. The amount of mating activity going on in the enclosure while we were there suggests a relatively contented life however. We were surprised to see that we had spent an hour just watching these graceful animals climbing around the enclosures. Like the elephants we saw earlier in the week, we were struck by how such large creatures can move around so quietly; just the occasional purring/quiet growl now and again.

The falls themselves are lovely; tiered limestone terraces brimming with turquiose blue water filled from the main falls of around 50 metres in height. As we were leaving, families were coming into the park for their picnics and a swim in the river. A perfect way to spend a hot summers afternoon. The cicadas were loud, like chainsaws and the waterfall's gentle background noise was quite hypnotic.

We really enjoyed our time in Luang Prabang; a quiet, cultured, gentle place for most of the year. We were glad to have seen it in celebratory mode as well. Our last activity was to help a couple of young men with their reading practice. An excellent charity called Big Brother Mouse, founded by a retired publisher, produces, publishes and distributes english exercise books for local people wanting to learn English. My two men, SianXai and Vongvan were enthusiastic learners but struggled with pronouncing some of the letters. After a while we left the classroom and walked around the town finding a 'big , blue boat on the brown river' and a 'black bicycle with a basket'. They'll do really well because they work hard and consider every opportunity to learn a real privilege.

While I was doing that Jackie was endeavouring to re route our tickets from Mumbai to Delhi. As this was Laos New Year and there is no QANTAS office in Laos anyway she managed to get somebody in Sai Gon to do the necessary, or so we thought. On arrival in Bangkok airport it all fell to pieces. Thankfully a young guy at the Cathay Pacific desk considered it his personal duty to make sure nothing stopped us from getting on the correct flight. We were very grateful for his diligence. The poor people at the QANTAS and British Airways desk were having to sort out flights to Europe in the aftermath of the volcanic eruption in Iceland.

We are now in Delhi, India. This is the last leg of our round the world trip and what a place to end this big adventure. We have two and a half months here, travelling around the northern half of the country. The temperature in Delhi is approaching 42 degrees. The Lonely Planet guide says, of this region, 'You'd have to be crazy to visit at (this) time of the year'. The heat, unlike that of South East Asia, is dry so not quite as oppressive. Developing a strategy that allows us to not only see the places we want to see, but enjoy it as well will be an exciting challenge.

We both have a sense of India being a very different prospect from our previous stops on this epic journey. We will thoroughly enjoy planning our route through this part of the sub continent. We have our very good friends Amanda and Matt living here so our orientation will be relatively gentle. As soon as we have sorted out our itinerary I will post it here. By tomorrow we should have a mobile 'phone number here so I'll email that as soon as we have it.

In the mean time lots of love and best wishes to family and friends.

Posted by JohnandJac 04:36 Archived in Laos Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Laos: Luang Prabang

Another New Year

semi-overcast 38 °C
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John:...So farewell to Vientiane with a seriously spicy meal in the sweltering heat of early evening. I'm not sure if it was the spiciness of the food or the ambient temperature but at times it was a struggle to keep up with the fluid loss.

In the previous blog we were looking forward our trip to Luang Prabang and very pleasasnt it turned out to be (although 2 hours longer than we expected). Vientiane is not a large city so we were out into the countryside very quickly. Driving through dusty little villages gave us glimpses into family life, an elderly woman weaving under the stilted house while a younger man held a very new baby; a small but busy produce market here, men casting nets, hopefully, into murky waters. Passing the lake we saw rows of roadside stalls selling dried fish, either neatly tied by the tail in bunches of 5 or 6 or artisticly displayed on plates. They will have looked very appetising to people who enjoy roadside dried fish I'm sure.

Leaving the plain we climbed up into the hills, past enormous limestone Karsts rising out of the rice fields. Sluggish brown rivers provided temporary relief from the heat to little brown children as they splashed about playing the sort of watery games that children play all over the world. In amongst the beautiful scenery it became apparant that we were in the middle of an ecological calamity. Whole hillsides burned, trees felled and nothing left on the blackened earth but a newly constructed wooden hut here and there. I have no idea of the amount of jungle lost but it must be many thousands of acres. At one time this would have been habitat for tigers, elephants and other already threatened species.

Luang Prabang is the one time capital city of Laos, a function transferred to Vientiane long ago. It is a beautiful place, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, characterised by colonial French villas along the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and more temples and stupas than you can shake a stick at. The French legacy is easily found in the cuisine (pattiseries and French/Lao menus easy to find), excellent Lao coffee and abundance of French language books, schools and tourists. There is some irony in that this relatively neglected part of French Indochina should be the most overtly French place we have visited in our 3 months in South East Asia.

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This is a very important place in Lao Buddhism. Temple complexes are large, well maintained and extremely colourful. If the temples in Luang Prabang were jewellery they would be costume jewellery. Not as brash as bling but bigger and brighter than you might expect. Several temples are painted from floor to rafters with stories of the Buddha, the paintings bright with red, green, blue and gold coloured paint.....

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In a country of very poor people, gold paint is now as near to real gold as they will get although many of the older temples were once painted with real gold leaf, long since ransacked by marauders from Siam amongst other places.

The city is well populated with monks and novices, all very striking in their bright orange robes and severe haircuts. Some carry umbrellas to guard against the sun. Sometimes, if late for school, groups of novices can be seen speeding along the road on a Tuk Tuk. Several important rituals take place in the city. In one, the monks process along the main street at 06:00 when they receive alms from the people of the town. It seems that this ritual has been put at risk by non-buddhist tourists wanting to buy food and join in, complete with oversized camera. Local people have expressed concern that the whole thing is becoming ugly and commercial, turning it into the spiritual equivalent of feeding time at the zoo. We will get up at 06:00 to watch the procession from a discreet distance, sans camera, avec cafe Lao, and enjoy the gentleness of the occasion.

We are here during another festival, Lao New Year. Different from the January 1st New Year we enjoyed in Quito, the Chinese New Year in Hong Kong and the Vietnamese Tet which seemed to last, off-and-on, for much of our journey through Vietnam. Lots of processions and events surround the New Year in Laos. Spring cleaning of homes is one, The large Buddhas are taken from the temples and given a thorough wash each day for 3 days. Lots of excitement around the town as tomorrow is New Year Day and heralds the start of the Year of the Tiger (some 2 months vafter the YotT commenced in China). The washing theme extends to children andv adults who liberally douse passers by with water from buckets, water pistols, hose pipes and the like. It is possible to get hit 6 or more times in a stroll along the main street. As long as a) passport and b) camera/ipod etc are protected the drying time in this heat is about 45 seconds! If you are trying not to get wet then a study of your route is advised. Crossing the road will usually spare you but some of those really good, high powered pump action water pistols will still find you in the hands of a scruffy young gun-slinger with an eagle eye. The whole thing was much more fun than it probably reads and there was no malice in the soakings. Even the Police allowed themselves to get wet....although at the time of writing, the small children have gradually been replaced by tourists who know nothing of the custom, turning Luang Prabang into their own Costa Del Sol. Sadly the monks have disappeared from the street, the drum and bass has been turned up and many of the singlet clad young men have English accents.

On my previous posting I mentioned our change in itinerary. Not much more to say on that except that as Machu Piccu reopened in Peru the cost of fluctuations in the tourist numbers became apparant. The Peruvian tourist ministry estimates that it has lost at least 200 000 000 US dollars in cancellations. The current unrest in Bangkok will have had similarly dire consequences not just for the Thai tourist industry but for countries on the SE Asia loop like Cambodia and Laos. Estimated cancellations are already at 30-40 percent; a very big deal in a town as tourist dependent as Luang Prabang.

High on the list of things we wanted to do was spend some time with elephants. Several agencies in Luang Prabang advertise such excursions. We opted to go with a group, Elephant Village, who rescue elephants from the logging trade. These elephants have endured a hard life, often ill treated and sick and, at the end of their working lives either killed for their meat value or left to fend for themselves. Leaving Luang Prabang at 08:30 we drove the 15 kilometres south east to Ban Xieng Lom (Elephant Village). Without so much as a pause for a cup of tea we were all given our practical on how to direct an elephant if you are riding on its back. In reality we were all supervised throughout the two days by a Mahout, the individual handler allocated, for life sometimes, to an elephant. Pi Pi means forward, Si Si: left, How: stop and so on.

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Watching the Mahouts work with their elephants was, in itself, a fascinating experience but, over the two days, to feed, ride, take to the river for washing was absolutely wonderful. These animals are not as big as their African counterparts but make no mistake they are big. Standing next to one was, for me, the terrestrial equivalent of being next to a whale on the surface of the sea. All that power and intelligent strength in complete control. We were each allocated to a Mahout and an Elephant. My Mahout, Mr Sai had been with his elephant (34 years old) Mae Uak for the 5 years since her rescue. As we rode around he sang to her and chatted away. For our first day we took our elephants around the camp, down to the river for a drink and then across the river and back in to the jungle where they spend the night.

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At 05:30 the next day we were collected from our sleeping quarters overlooking the Nam Khan river and walked into the jungle to collect our elephants (the Mahouts were already there). One of the high points of the elephant day is the early morning wash in the river. First thing is the drink...trunks full of water sucked from the river and transferred to mouth. Then the steady advance into the river where the fun really begins. We were issued with stiff scrubbing brushes and as the elephants partially submerged we gave them a good scrub. If you have ever seen the pleasure on an elephants face when it scratches its back on a tree then that is close to what the morning wash is.

Feeding Mae Uak was an interesting experience. She did for a whole bunch of bananas in 4 minutes, not even peeling a single one! A pineapple went the same way as did sugar cane, melons and so on. Serenely munching away it was clear that this was an elephant with a discerning palate.

Unlike the other elephants Mae Uak liked to fully submerge (I suspect Mr Sai put her up to it), soaking us all in the process. Riding on the elephant's neck felt, at first, slightly precarious. After a while this gave way to the enjoyment of slow motion, amazingly quiet travel with the heat, the sound of insects and birds, the occasional rather dopey looking water buffalo crossing the trail and the quiet singing of Mr Sai to his elephant. The rhythm of the elephants' walk is reminiscent of some of the rhythms in Lao classical music. Laos used to be known as the Land of a Million Elephants. No wonder they became part of the Lao cultural fabric. Sadly now there are only 1600 left of which around 600 still work in the forestry trade. A wonderful experience in a lovely setting on the banks of the river.

In the mean time this normally serene place rocks along to alien beats and for me, a music fan, it is rather depressing.

Time to post this blog. Once again, a Happy New Year to you and yours. Lots of love to family and friends

Posted by JohnandJac 03:35 Archived in Laos Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Thailand: Itinerary change for family and friends

Short note re changed plans

semi-overcast 40 °C
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A change to our itinerary. Due to the rising tensions and now fatalities in the current unrest in Thailand we are going to skip this part of our trip and go to India from Laos. We still have to fly in to Bangkok but will fly on to Mumbai directly.

We were planning to stay in the north of Thailand but given the escalation of the conflict in Bangkok, we are concerned about this spreading across the country.

No hardship for us as we get to spend a little more time in Luang Prabang, Laos and a few more days in India.

Apologies to family and friends if you have received this message through the email network.

We're off to spend a couple of days at an elephant sanctuary in the jungle. We get an elephant each and amongst other things have to ride them down to the river for their wash and brush up!

John

Posted by JohnandJac 23:23 Archived in Laos Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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