Indochina

I arrived in Bangkok a few days ahead of the Ramblers Worldwide Holidays Tour. Thailand, in local language, means Land of the Free and indeed it has never been colonised by a foreign power in recent times. The independent country of Siam was formed in the 13th century. They inherited traditions from earlier great civilisations, such as the Khmer and the Cham, and their trading prowess began to attract European powers such as the Portuguese and the Dutch. However it was the Burmese who overthrew them and destroyed their capital at Ayuthaya in 1350. Later the Thais managed to rebuild their nation with a new capital at Bangkok, where I now found myself once again.

I am always received here with great acclaim when the immigration officers see that I was born in Liverpool, home of their favourite football team. The Beatles are another of their passions, and I often get free drinks when they question me to discover that I was at school with Paul McCartney and George Harrison. The story that I don’t tell them is when I had an encounter with their king. Years ago, whilst at university I sped around the corner of a building and ran straight into a guest being shown around. The guy happened to be the much younger king of Thailand, and I knocked him flying.

It’s always good to meet and talk to the Thais, who always seem to have a genuine concern for the well being of others. This is probably a result of their ingrained faith in Buddhism, which provides strong guidelines as to how they should live. As with nearby countries, many young men enrol as monks and so receive further education from the order. Then they leave, but retain an affiliation for the rest of their lives, so resulting in a good deal of influential power over the people from the monastic orders.

After a few days of visiting the royal palace, a few markets, some museums and art galleries, I joined the rest of the folk on the Ramblers Worldwide Holidays tour of Indochina. Soon we were on our way to Chiang Rai in the north of the country, where some of my fellow trippers took to elephant rides. However, of course, this was the area were poppies used to be grown in abundance for the feeding of the opium trade. Although no doubt a little might still go on, it is in the museums that one is now made aware of the practice. Indeed I saw all kinds of instruments which were used to smoke the stuff. We, however, were soon boarded on to a bus bound for the small town of Chiang Khong, which nestles magically on the Mekong River.

There was something of a charm as we ate our meal in a restaurant on a balcony overlong the water. However we had to rise early the following morning to make the crossing over to Laos. This entailed us making our way down the steep muddy slopes of the river, fortunately dry mud at that time of the year, and then balancing ourselves on a narrow plank to board the long canoe style boat which would take us across to the other side. Fortunately other folk carried our luggage aboard, otherwise I’m sure we would have witnessed some amusing scenes as a few of us might have got very wet.

After struggling up the opposite bank, we were met by a charming young lady official who took out temperature to make sure we didn’t have a cold or any other horrible infection. I suppose we might have been sent back to Thailand if we failed this test, but fortunately all us were declared fit and well. Of course, we still had to hang around for over an hour until our entry visas were sorted, but eventually were under way in a large boat, making progress along the grand river.

The cruise was a real highlight of the tour with a splendid lunch being served aboard as we plied along. It was a bit scary at times when we noticed ourselves passing through a few strewn rocks in fast currents, but the boat crew seemed confident in what they were doing. The bigger worry was making sure that we had enough sun tan lotion on us, in the hot sunshine.

We stopped at a Lao mountain village, where the folk lived at subsistence level in their wooden houses, built on stilts. Hens and cows with small vegetable plots surrounded each abode. Indeed it all looked idyllic until one realised that health and education facilities were somewhat limited. We visited the village school and met smiling kids with their teacher. In colonial days, the French invested very little into the country, which still remains the poorest in the region. The basic literacy rate is still about fifty per cent. It’s true that primary education is provided for all children from age 5 to 9, but the government can only afford to provide them with a teacher for half a day per week. This is not only because of cost, but also because after training fresh teachers, they often opt to go abroad to earn more money. Secondary education can be had in private schools, for those who can afford the fees, but of course there’s always the monasteries for those who join the Buddhist order. The village primary kids, however, were overjoyed with notebooks and pencils we provided for them. Actually the primary children do get the chance of attending the local Sunday school, but it was so hot on the day we visited one that we found the teacher fast asleep on the grass.

It was a two-day cruise to the old capital city of Luang Probang so we had to spend the night in a hotel in the mountain village of Pakbend. This is not for the faint hearted because there is no mains electricity supply here, which means that there is only cold water, even in the showers. A generator kept the lighting going up to ten o’clock, after which there was complete darkness unless you remembered to bring a torch. I needed to get up in the night, and I accidentally knocked into a tap on a pipe in the bathroom of my en suite abode. It came off and water came pouring out at vast speed all over the place. The tap seemed to be broken and my torch light was not sufficient to search, as I tried, to find a master tap. I ran in panic to the hotel reception but no-one was there. Eventually I found a cleaning lady, and she came and turned a master control, leaving me to paddle my way back to bed.I managed to recover sufficiently in the morning to eat a good breakfast on a hotel balcony overlooking the river, and soon we were on our way by boat towards Luang Probang. The city was founded by the great Khmer empire in the 7th century, but it didn’t survive for long. Then in the 19th century, the French rebuilt the place, which still retains much of its colonial architecture. Indeed, it was voted as the world’s top city by readers of Wanderlust. It really is worth all the effort of the journey in order to see and experience this place, so full of beautifully preserved French houses, cafes and markets. Up until he was deposed by the communist regime, after the Vietnam/American war in 1975, the king lived in the magnificent palace, again built by the French. Indeed Luang Probang is a very special place for the Lao people, even though it is no longer their capital.

Another day when we toured the local mountain area we saw waterfalls and wildlife and then were faced with a long bus ride along bumpy mountain roads. However, after a couple of hours, the driver stopped because the engine was overheating. Upon inspection, he discovered that the radiator was completely empty of water, so he poured in a fresh supply from a large plastic carrier which he had. This would have been fine except that, a few miles further along the road, he discovered that all the water had disappeared out the radiator again. A hose had developed a leak, which didn’t help the situation. It was a real problem now because he had no more water and we were stuck on a lonesome mountain road, miles from anywhere, and out of mobile phone accessibility. Our Ramblers Worldwide Holidays guide, being as usual very resourceful, solved the problem by asking us to volunteer our supplies of drinking water, after the driver wrapped a dirty cloth around the leaking hose. It got us to the next village, just. Here the local folk were only too eager to help; well I suppose that’s the only way that folk in those areas manage to survive – by helping each other. There was no garage, but a better temporary repair was made of the hose and we were replenished with water supplies.

Not knowing how late we would be at our destination, our guide suggested we perhaps might like to buy some substantial food at lunch time, and meanwhile he managed to warn the hotel manager that we would be coming – eventually. In the event, we arrived at the town of Vang Veng, which is a kind of mini Las Vagas, at about nine o’clock in the evening. The hotel had prepared for us a superb meal of Lao specialities for us. It really was delightful with the food, as was usually the case, cooked in coconut juices, but we just couldn’t eat much of it because we had filled our stomachs at the lunch stop. The hotel manager, who played a guitar whilst singing 60s songs for us, was clearly upset. He thought that we didn’t like Lao food, and so the next night we were served with fish, chips and peas, and we were all looking forward to a really good Lao meal.

Breakfast was taken on a balcony overlooking the river. There was much entertainment because all the local taxis drove into the water to have a car wash. Although there was toll bridge, the lorry drivers preferred to drive through the river to cross to the other side in order to save the money. Needless to say, one such lorry got stuck in the middle, which caused great jollity. The villages were clearly used to this, because various vehicles arrived with tow ropes, and eventually the vehicle was brought to safety. Then we went for a walk, crossing a swaying bamboo footbridge. We then proceeded to walk up a fair size hill, where we visited some caves, where invading Chinese once hid.

Everywhere we went, the children were always smiling. However we were told that the Lao people didn’t smile for years, after the Vietnam/American war, because over a million of their people were killed in the carpet bombing provoked partly by some of their folk helping to support the Viet Cong in the south of the country. Nowadays they are a relatively free people although we gathered that criticism of the government or its policies was not looked upon too kindly.The final part of our journey in Laos was by bus to the capital at Vientiane. I gather it was a den of vice and gambling under the French; so much so that the communists wanted to move the capital away from here. However the only other obvious place was Luang Probang and that had too many associations with the old royal family. Furthermore the mountain folk had supported the monarchy and did not want a communist regime. Each of them wanted to continue owning their own little piece of land for their subsistence living, whereas the communists were aiming at making land ownership illegal. The tribal support for the old regime led to reprisals from the communist government, resulting in many mountain folk fleeing to Thailand.

In the end, the new regime decided to rebuild Vientiane as a new capital city. Of course that meant that today it is now a place with dull concrete houses, shops and offices. However there is a grand palace and the museums are good to visit. Our local Lao guide, called Tui, was a splendid character, who seemed to be known by everyone here, in his home town. He hardly ever stopped eating, especially was he wandered past the many food stalls on the streets or in the markets, but he looked very fit in spite of this. Perhaps his superb sense of humour kept him in good shape.

In the evening, we were entertained in a restaurant with a floor show. This consisted of young performers, dressed in colourful traditional Lao costumes dancing to music of their culture, accompanied by folk playing a variety of old fashioned instruments, including the khaen. This is a type of mouth organ, made of bamboo pipes, and dates back to the bronze age. Lao legend has it that the khaen was created by a woman trying to reproduce the sound of a bird, so that she could hear it without taking the trouble to walk into the forest. Many centuries ago, it crossed the ocean to South America, where it developed into the Andean pipe flute, and the khaen is possibly the ancestor of our western harmonica and the pipe organ. Indeed it is probably the oldest musical instrument in the world.

Lao people are very superstitious and believe in evil sprits. We took part in the ceremony of the sukwan, where a monk mixed a concoction of herbs and spices in a bowl, which he then blessed in front of an altar. I then had to kneel before him, and hold out my left arm. He proceeded to dip a small length of white string into the mixture, which the people believe has turned the string into a khwan, a guardian spirit. The string was then tied around my wrist, which I had to wear for three days to keep the evil spirits at bay.

It was time to leave Laos after a final evening meal with entertainment. The next day, we flew to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Of course, we suffered all the paraphernalia of immigration and visas when leaving Laos and entering another country, but our Ramblers WH guide did most of the work for us. We arrived in the late afternoon and, after a short familiarisation walk, we settled into our hotel.

Up to the 6th century AD, this land was called Funan, and the folk here became rich on the proceeds of passing trade between India and China. Eventually it grew into the Khmer empire in the 9th century. They built extensive irrigation canals, thousands of fine temples and a capital city at Angkor. However nearly everything was destroyed by the invading Siamese in 1432. The Khmer retreated and eventually formed a new capital at Phnom Penh.

Owing to later invasions from the Vietnamese on another front, Cambodia would have disappeared off the map, were it not for the French finally settling their borders. The European colonists developed a grand reparation scheme of many of the old temples and, as with Laos, they sent some lucky guys for a further education in Paris – one being Pol Pot. It was from France that these folk returned with a yen for communism, and after the Vietnam/American war, Pol Pot took over the regime in Cambodia. The problem was that his idea was to rid the nation of all professional people and put an end to land ownership. So teachers, doctors, lawyers, etc were rounded up and tortured in a former school, turned into a prison. This was followed by death sentences in the killing fields just outside the city.

Phnom Penh is actually an attractive city and we were taken on a magical evening dinner cruise on the river. However the visit was somewhat dulled by our local guide insisting that we should visit the prison and killing fields of the Pol Pot regime. Of course, it left a lump in my throat, especially when I saw discarded clothing of the victims. It was a terrible mass genocide, ended eventually by Pol Pot’s former friends, the Viet Cong, invading the country. Cambodia had a rich economy after the French left in the 1950s, but it was a wreck of a country after Pol Pot had control. Now, however, the nation is looking forward, and it was good to see new buildings and gardens around Phnom Penn.

Apart from the musical concerts we had in the restaurants, we began to wonder if it was actually worth coming to Cambodia. However our views were completely changed after the bus ride to the old capital of Angkor, now called Siem Reap. This was a real gem of a place, in spite of all the road works causing dust clouds as we wandered near our hotel. Of course it was all those temples that made it all worthwhile. Of course the greatest of these was Angkor Watt, which claims to be the largest surviving religious building in the world.

The surrounding moat at Angkor Watt is sufficient to put any European palace or castle to shame. It is simply magnificent. The three levels of long galleries portray intricate stone carvings on their walls, depicting stories of the Khmer civilisation and of their belief in the after-life. The most famous of these reliefs was the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, which displayed 88 demons and 92 gods with crested helmets, churning up the sea to extract the elixir of immortality. To me, the art was on a par with Sistine Chapel. We spent several hours here, never tiring of the place.

We visited other temples and royal complexes around Siem Reap. There was simply no time to visit them all, even though every one we saw was stunning. Of course, I couldn’t help learning about the beliefs of the ancient Khmer, beginning with Hinduism and their conversion to Buddhism.

Today the young folk of Cambodia no longer regard their monarch as a god king, like their parents once did. They hate the stories of the Pol pot regime and his Khmer Rouge with all the suffering that had affected almost family in the land. Indeed they wonder why the king did nothing to try to prevent Pol Pot from taking control, and yet they like him as a compassionate guy. However of course the youngsters are now busy using the Internet and 21st century technology, and will drive the nation to a better future, under the cooperation of ASEAN, the ten member Association of South East Asian Countries – like an EU of the area.
It was time to say goodbye and the rest of the group flew to Bangkok and then on to London, although we did have one lady from Vancouver. I caught a plane to Vietnam where, in a few days time, I was due to join a Ramblers Worldwide Holidays tour of that country.