Egg Coffee in Vietnam

After a hard night’s drinking in Hanoi, we decided to go in search of some coffee. Vietnam is one of the biggest coffee exporters in the world after all.

Egg coffee ca phe trung in Cafe Pho Co coffee shop, Hanoi, Vietnam

A creamy, frothy “egg coffee” (ca phe trung) in Vietnam

Ruth had heard about Vietnamese “egg coffee” from The Coffee Trail with Simon Reeve and I remembered reading John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, in which he meets a stranger on the road and brews him the perfect coffee by adding egg:

“I cracked an egg and cupped out the yolk and dropped white and shells into the pot, for I know nothing that polishes coffee and makes it shine like that.”

We looked in a lot of coffee shops, including the multiple-terraced Highlands Coffee and City View Cafe, but none of them had it. About to give up and wandering aimlessly down Hàng Gai in the Old Quarter, we spotted a faded sign that read “Radio Coffee” above a thin, ill-lit alley-esque corridor that opened into a courtyard resembling an old lady’s living room, complete with rusty sewing machine and dusty china dolls. Some kid came out of a side-door and – still unsure whether we were in somebody’s house – we asked if they had egg coffee.

They did.

We climbed up two storeys on a rickety spiral staircase where you had to dodge dripping water, and emerged on a two-tiered terrace with beautiful views of Hoàn Kiếm lake, with the whole place to ourselves.

View of Hoan Kiem lake from Cafe Pho Co coffee shop terrace in Hanoi, Vietnam

The view of Hoan Kiem lake from Cafe Pho Co

Now I’m not a great coffee lover at the best of times and the idea of raw egg in my drink (with the obvious exception of a pisco sour) was a little off-putting, but the Drinking Traveller’ll drink anything once, and when the egg coffee (cà phê trung in Vietnamese) arrived, it was absolutely amazing: creamy, sweet and frothy. I couldn’t wait to get another one and would definitely recommend it to anyone.

The place started to fill up until there was barely a table free. Afterwards we found out that this place was Cafe Phố Cổ, which appears in Lonely Planet as:

“One of Hanoi’s best-kept secrets, this place has plum views over Hoan Kiem Lake. Enter through the silk shop, and continue through the antique-bedecked courtyard up to the top floor for the mother of all vistas. You’ll need to order coffee and snacks before tackling the final winding staircase. For something deliciously different, try the caphe trung da, coffee topped with a silkily smooth beaten egg white.”

And, if you’re still not satisfied, there’s always bia trung (egg beer)!

Categories: Asia, Travel Stories, Vietnam | Tags: | Leave a comment

How to Get Drunk for a Pound? Bia Hoi in Hanoi!

Last year, stuck in the office, writing for a travel company but not travelling, it was Vietnam (and Indonesia, but we’ll get to that) that got me dreaming of the road again. Last time I was in South East Asia I met all kinds of people singing Vietnam’s praises – I remember standing on the beach in Ko Phi Phi, four in the morning, with Coomer, listening to one such guy’s stories of remote, idyllic beaches and Vietnamese mothers trying to marry their daughters to him. But alas, I didn’t have a visa for Vietnam on that trip.

Nam Can border, Vietnam

Waiting for dawn at the Nam Can Lao-Vietnamese border.

This time, armed with visas and fresh out of Laos, we found ourselves on a “sleeper bus”, bound, through lush green karst mountains and rice terraces, for Hanoi.

Vietnam sleeper bus

Partying it up on the “sleeper buses” of Vietnam

Green karst mountain road in North Vietnam

Winding through the Vietnamese countryside

Hanoi is one of the most fascinating, yet liveable cities I’ve ever spent time in. Being never far from the coast, Vietnam has an element of French sophistication and charm that didn’t necessarily penetrate as deep as Laos or Cambodia. Beneath this is one of Asia’s most interesting cultures. These blends superbly, resulting in stunning visuals, amazing food (from baguettes to snake meat) and crazy nights.

Vietnamese Bia Hà Nội beer and phở noodle soup

Bia Hà Nội and phở – a classic and delicious Vietnamese meal

Dropped off in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter (Hoàn Kiếm) with the rest of the backpackers, we got our bearings and made our way to our accommodation through the hive of beeping, speeding motorcycles.

Where to Stay in Hanoi?

We stayed in Hanoi Lucky Guesthouse 2 on Hàng Mã. It was really affordable, super clean (though not without the telltale traces of the unavoidable North Vietnam damp) and with (almost too) friendly staff and even a few (virused up) internet terminals. (Don’t expect Facebook. This is the Socialist Republic of Vietnam afterall.) The only reason I might not recommend this place is that we ended up doing the same 10 to 15 minute walk, to where the action is, over and over. Also, be careful, as there seem to be at least two Lucky Guesthouses, Lucky Hotels, Hostels and so on. Fake hotels are apparently an issue in Vietnam.

The Vietnam Backpackers’ Downtown Hostel might be a bit rowdy (and pricey) for some, but that’s the area you probably want to be closer to.

The Motorbike Pub and scooter rental shop in Hanoi, Vietnam

The Motorbike Pub – just one of Hanoi’s cool bars – also rents scooters

Hanoi’s 36 Streets

Ask anyone why they loved Vietnam and what their favourite place was and it’s almost always the “36 streets”. Basically, the idea is that, since the 13th century, each street was dedicated to selling one thing, from sugar to silk.

Vietnamese rice picking hat, 36 streets in Hanoi Old Quarter

Rice pickin’ hats and bicycles in the 36 streets, Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Actually, believe it or not, a lot’s changed since the 13th century and, to me, all the streets seem to sell the same tat. Coffin Street (Lo Su) didn’t have a single coffin in sight and Hat Street seemed to be about the only place in the vicinity where you couldn’t buy a novelty conical rice pickin’ hat.

Ta Hien, Hanoi Old Quarter, Vietnam

Ta Hien – a typical scooter-lined street in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Even so, the 36 streets are still one of the coolest areas of town, especially if, like me, you like your nightlife. Head for “Beer Hơi Corner” at the crossroads of Tạ Hiện and Lương Ngọc Quyến. This is also the epicentre of the Old Quarter’s nightlife, with the best action, restaurants, bars and party hostels on those and the surrounding streets: Hàng BuồmĐào Duy Từ and Mã Mây.

Bia hoi beer corner on Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen in Hanoi, Vietnam

The “bia hơi corner” on Tạ Hiện and Lương Ngọc Quyến

The “Cheapest Beer in the World”!

Bia hoi beer corner, Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi’s “beer corner” is one of the most popular drinking spots in the city.

Bia hơi is Vietnamese draft beer. It is freshly brewed every day, an extremely refreshing lager, and costs only 5000 Vietnamese Dong (and sometimes even cheaper in local areas). At the time of writing, that’s 14 pence or 24 US cents, so, at seven glasses of beer, you really can get drunk for a pound!

Bia hoi for 5000 Vietnamese Dong sign

Bia hơi is only 5000 Dong (14 pence) at the beer corner!

Bia hoi at Hanoi beer corner, Vietnam

Starting the night at the beer corner

For those of you who like to think you can handle more than seven beers before the word “drunk” be brought into play, I apologise. For you, this post should be called “how to get drunk for two pounds”. I don’t think there’re many people out there who think 14 beers for two pounds is a bad deal. So you can see why Vietnam earns its reputation for producing “the cheapest beer in the world”.

Drinking bia hoi beer in Hanoi, Vietnam

Me and Andre drinking bia hơi at the “after hours” bar.

On our second night at the beer corner we met a crazy German guy called Andre. I asked him, “Who brews it? Do we know?”

“Nope. Nobody knows.”

“So, it’s like…mystery beer?”

“Exactly. Mystery beer.”

In fact, in typical South East Asian style, bia hơi production is completely unregulated, informal and not monitored by…well, anyone. Even the alcohol content is unknown (though it’s typically low; around 3%).

After the bia hơi corner bars closed down (curfew), me, Ruth and Andre dashed off in the piss-pouring rain, knocked at a garage door down the road and continued drinking there. By the by, we met a couple of Canadian girls on their way home from a big night who decided to get in a beer with us…only as soon as it was poured, they had to down it as the cops showed up and got stuck into a shouting match with the owners. Sometimes it’s easy to forget there’s a curfew. We also ended up meeting a couple of Israeli guys who knew Kayla and Marion from our Laos adventures. Small world, is the travelling circuit.

Mess after bia hoi

The after-mess…

Other Vietnamese Beers

If you don’t fancy drinking the unknown, you don’t have to fork out much more to get a good-quality bottled beer. The Vietmanese love their beer. Compared to Laos’ one brewery, there are seemingly infinite Vietnamese brews. Here are just a few to look out for:

  • Bia Hà Nội
  • Saigon (Green)
  • Saigon (Red)
  • Huda
  • 333
  • Halida
  • Truc Bach
  • Bia Huế
  • Larue

For more beers from around the world, see my list of world drinks.

Oh and don’t forget Hanoi is much bigger than the Old Quarter. There’s a French Quarter, West Side and so on, plus plenty of snake restaurants, where you can try drinking “snake whisky”.

The next day, we went in search of some much needed coffee.

Categories: Asia, Travel Stories, Vietnam | Tags: | 3 Comments

Lao-Lao in Laos: Luang Prabang & the “Whisky Village”

Luang Prabang in Laos is one of my all time favourite towns: a laid-back backpacker town in the middle of the green Lao hill country, perfect for meeting fellow travellers.

Last time I was here, I woke up on the banks of the Mekong, wearing a pair of bowling shoes, so I was interested to see what was in store for us this time.

Nam Khan River in Luang Prabang, Laos

The Nam Khan: one of two major rivers that shape Luang Prabang

Bar-restaurant on Kingkitsarath Road, Luang Prabang, Laos

Me, Nevo and Jess in Lao Lao Garden or some such bar on Kingkitsarath back in ’09

Where to Stay in Luang Prabang?

Back in 2009, SpicyLaos Backpackers was the cheap, sociable hangout doing the word-of-mouth rounds in South East Asia and I had an amazing time there. The backpacker scene in Laos isn’t quite as it used to be. SpicyLaos is now Lemon Laos Backpackers. “Same same, but different”, they say. I say it’s had it’s day, but then again, what do I know.

This time we stayed in Khammany Inn Guest House, where rooms are surprisingly clean and can be had for somewhere between £1 – 2 per person.

Phou Si

Just like the first time I rolled into Luang Prabang, we (me, Ruth and Adam) grabbed baguettes (a Laos speciality, an improvement even on those of their ex-colonial rulers, the French) and dragon-fruit/mango smoothies from the corner of Kitsalat and Sisavangvong, blitzed the Night Market and started the short hike up Phou Si, a sacred hill in the centre of Luang Prabang.

Buddhist Shrine at Mount Phousi in Luang Prabang, Laos

A Buddhist shrine on the trail up Mount Phou Si in Luang Prabang

Phou Si is home to several Buddhist shrines and temples and the trail winds steeply up through lush greenery to the top, where you’ll find the golden stupa of Wat Chom Si…and, especially at sunset, shitloads of tourists with cameras.

We took out our cameras and got busy.

On Mount Phousi in Luang Prabang, Laos

Me atop Mount Phou Si in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo by Adam.

Sunset from Mount Phousi in Luang Prabang, Laos

The view from Mount Phou Si at sunset

Going Out Drinking in Luang Prabang

Later we hit the town. The epicentre of the bar-restaurant scene in Luang Prabang is on Kingkitsarath Road. Many will give you a free shot of something or other just for walking in. Some are shitty, some are good, but Lao Lao Garden is probably the favourite. Fairy lights and trailing threads blend almost imperceptibly with the natural vines hanging down from the trees above the outdoor seating. There’s bamboo aplenty and the marquees make this a pleasant hangout whether the sun’s shining or the rain’s coming down hard (as it was for us).

In Lao Lao Garden Restaurant, Luang Prabang

Me and Adam caught trying fruit flavoured rice wine in Lao Lao Garden restaurant

We settled in for a night of Beerlaos, fruit flavoured rice wine and, as it progressed, several glasses of straight lao-Lao (Laotian rice whisky. The first “lao” means alcohol and the second “Lao” means Laotian or from Laos…In case you thought they were just repeating the same word.)

Apparently a Beerlao – even at only £1 – is equivalent to your average Lao’s weekly salary, which, as well as making you feel guilty, makes you realise that lao-Lao (the local’s booze of choice) is by far the most cost-effective way of drinking in Laos. Little did we know we were about to discover for ourselves, firsthand, how it is made…

That night Ruth got a message from our old friend Marion from Vang Vieng asking if we wanted to go with her, Kayla and some other travellers on a river boat up the Mekong to the Buddhist caves. I vaguely remember mumbling something to the effect of “yes” and then passing out for good.

The next day we met up with the others (Marion, Kayla, Kush, Irene and Matt) at the dock. Anticipating a long day, I came armed with a beer. It was when somebody mentioned a “whisky village” that I started to get really excited.

Mekong River Boat to Pak Ou Caves and Ban Xang Hai Whisky Village near Luang Prabang, Laos

We set sail on the Mekong, beer in hand as usual. Destination? The “Whisky Village”! Oh, and some caves…

The journey up the Mekong was a pleasant one, with the cool air blowing off the water, and the Pak Ou Buddhist caves were unlike anything I’d ever seen before. (Unfortunately, photos don’t come out well in that darkness, so you’ll just have to go see for yourself.)

Boat at Pak Ou Caves on Mekong River near Luang Prabang, Laos

Our boat on the Mekong river, docking at the Pak Ou Buddhist caves

Climb to Pak Ou Caves near Luang Prabang, Laos

Steep steps climb through the jungle to the upper cave at Pak Ou.

The caves contain literally thousands of Buddhas of all shapes and sizes. The upper cave, past a long rest-house where locals were sleeping on the floor (and I was tempted to join them) and up another steep hill, is the fat Buddha, who, Marion told me, was too good-looking to achieve enlightenment, so made himself fat to rid himself of the vice of pride. A noble effort.

Mekong Dock at Ban Xang Hai Whisky Village near Luang Prabang, Laos

Adam on the banks of the Mekong at Ban Xang Hai

After Pak Ou, we docked at a village called Ban Xang Hai, put on the map for its production of lao-Lao.

Buddhist temple in Ban Xang Hai whisky village near Luang Prabang, Laos

Buddhist temple in Ban Xang Hai “whisky” village

After wandering the village, we came to what passes for a “distillery”.

The Lao-Lao Fermentation & Distillation Process

1. Soak sticky rice overnight or for at least five hours.

2. Steam it until cooked and firm.

Sticky Rice for Lao Lao at Ban Xang Hai Whisky Village near Luang Prabang, Laos

Sticky Rice awaiting its transformation into lao-Lao at the “Whisky Village”.

3. Wash it in the river.

4. Combine with rice powder and yeast.

5. Place in open-air containers.

6. Add water.

7. Leave to ferment for five to ten days.

Sticky rice fermenting in eartherware pots in Ban Xang Hai whisky village for lao-Lao distillation

Sticky rice ferments in eartherware pots before distillation

8. Add more water.

6. Leave to ferment for another five to six days.

Lao Lao Rice Distillery in Ban Xang Hai Whisky Village near Luang Prabang, Laos

The lao-Lao “distillery” in Ban Xang Hai “Whisky Village”. A serious operation.

7. Transfer to a distiller known as a mo tom lao (effectively just an old metal drum).

8. A consistent temperature must be maintained by constantly adding wood to the fire beneath the mo, patching holes and wrapping it in banana fibre or cotton.

Mo Tom Lao Distiller at Ban Xang Hai Whisky Village near Luang Prabang, Laos

The “mo tom lao” distiller must be kept at the same temperature throughout or the rice burns and the lao-Lao is ruined.

9. Extract alcohol vapour into a “recycled” bottle.

10. Replace with cold water every five to seven minutes.

11. When distillation is complete, mix all bottles together and stir to ensure an even alcohol content.

12. Send it out!

Snake whisky lao-Lao in Vang Vieng, Laos

Snake “whisky” produced at the “Whisky Village” of Ban Xang Hai

You can see me finally pluck up the courage to drink snake “whisky” on Youtube.

After being plied with free samples, we decided to give back to the local economy by stopping at a local shop and buying a round of beers. We sat in the shade around a table of pineapples and whiled away the time shooting the breeze and sharing travel stories…

Drinking Beerlao in Ban Xang Hai Whisky Village near Luang Prabang, Laos

The thirsty travellers stop to drink Beerlao at a local shop in the ‘Whisky Village”. Photo by Marion.

…until our boat driver came looking for us.

Later that Night

We all met up, along with Theresa from Vang Vieng, at Utopia - the main backpacker haunt in Luang Prabang with its lounge seating and volleyball court.

Volleyball Court at Utopia Bar, Luang Prabang, Laos

The volleyball court at Utopia. I remembered thee well.

Utopia brought back a lot of memories for me. Last time I was there, with Jess, a bunch of Americans and Pheung from SpicyLaos, we played volleyball, drank too many cocktails, met Nevo, a great Israeli guy, at some point moved to Lao Lao Garden, drank more cocktails and met three more (not so great) Israelis intent on shagging Jess and the American girls.

Luang Prabang, as with most places in Laos, has a curfew at around midnight. However, there is one place that, for some mysterious reason, is exempt from this rule and therefore has become something of a backpacker legend…the bowling alley! This night in Luang Prabang ended, as most do, with the bowling alley on the outskirts of town.

There was a drunken tuk tuk journey, people were met and forgotten, Beerlao was consumed en mass

Chinese Mafia Bowling Alley in Luang Prabang, Laos

I don’t remember taking this, but this is what a “Chinese mafia” run bowling alley looks like.

…and at around 3.45am, I woke up to find myself passed out on the banks of the Mekong (well, actually a tributary thereof), still in the (mud-caped) bowling shoes.

There is never any shortage of tuk tuks in the bowling alley car park, so, as soon as I’d figured out where I was, I fell into one…

…and woke up the next day in my bed in SpicyLaos with no memory of the journey home.

I’d agreed to meet Jess that day to go to the Kuang Si waterfalls, so with a terrible hangover we were soon being trundled along a dirt road in the back of a pick-up. I remember listening to the stories of an Australian girl who’d been travelling for 10 years and been turned around at the Iraq border, and it was here that I saw my first water-buffalo wallowing in the mud.

Jess told me all about what I’d missed last night – namely the three Israeli guys breaking into our hostel, trying to get into the girls’ rooms and having to be kicked out by the staff.

Rope Swing at Kuang Si Waterfalls near Luang Prabang, Laos

Trying out the rope swing at Kuang Si waterfalls. Hangover forgotten. Photo by Jess.

The waterfalls were beautiful with their opaque, turquoise water tumbling over rocks golden in the patches of sunlight. A dip in that cool water was the best hangover cure I’ve ever had.

I climbed up the slippery mud track to the top, where I discovered a lone Buddhist monk bathing in the serene blue pools and dappled shade. The view of the surrounding Laos countryside – the green hills I love so much – was astounding, and I lingered as long as I could.

Buddhist Monk Bathing at Kuang Si Waterfalls near Luang Prabang, Laos

A Buddhist monk bathing at the top of the Kuang Si waterfalls

Kuang Si Waterfalls near Luang Prabang, Laos

I climbed out on a precarious tree branch to get this view overhanging the Kuang Si waterfalls.

Kuang Si Waterfalls near Luang Prabang, Laos

Beautiful Laos, from the top of the Kuang Si falls

Bamboo Plumbing at Kuang Si Waterfalls near Luang Prabang, Laos

Bamboo plumbing at the Kuang Si waterfalls

After messing around on the rope-swing and generally relaxing at the falls, we visited the black bear sanctuary next-door.

Black Bear Sanctuary near Kuang Si Waterfalls, Laos

There’s a black bear sanctuary next to the Kuang Si falls.

Stick Insect at Kuang Si Waterfalls near Luang Prabang, Laos

Stick insect?

Back in town, I had something to take care of. I walked to the bowling alley (about 50 minutes) to return the bowling shoes and get my boots…Only when I got there, my boots were where I’d left them, but I’d become awfully attached to the bowling shoes.

I walked out with both. I’d been told last night that the bowling alley is owned by the Chinese mafia, which would explain the late closing times, so I was shitting myself as I made off wearing stolen mafia goods.

Yes, it’s stealing. No, I don’t care. Those babies went on to be the most well-travelled bowling shoes that ever came into this world. They out-lived those boots, and another set, and I’ve even climbed mountains in them. They did finally pass away, in some exotic nation that escapes me. May they rest in peace.

Other Things to Do in Luang Prabang

The other waterfalls are the Tad Sae falls. I’ve never been, but I hear they’re equally amazing.

There’s a temple called Wat Xieng Thong that sadly didn’t make it into this story but which blew me away. There’s also Wat Wisunalat, which isn’t so impressive, but makes for a good reason to explore Luang Prabang.

Bridge over the Nam Khan River in Luang Prabang, Laos

A kid silhouetted on a bridge over the Nam Khan

Back in the present day, we said all our goodbyes, bundled Adam into a tuk tuk and a bus to Thailand, and set off ourselves for Vietnam.

Tuk Tuk in Luang Prabang, Laos

Adam was whisked off in a tuk tuk, never to be seen again.

Categories: Asia, Laos, Travel Stories | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos

I fell in love with Laos years ago, for its empty, tranquil landscapes of rolling, green hills, blue skies reflected in rivers, lakes and turquoise swimming holes at the feet of waterfalls. Since then, it’s always held a spot in my top three favourite places and I promised myself I’d come back.

Green and blue Laos landscapein Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng, Laos

On that first visit, I “did” Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Don Det (Si Phan Don; the “Four-thousand Islands”) but avoided the tubing at Vang Vieng because I’d heard from everyone I met that it was just full of British twats with a deathwish.

I’m not sure at what point I realised I was a British twat with a deathwish, but whatever, I wasn’t going to miss out this time.

In the meantime, I’d also learnt to appreciate the joys to be had drifting slowly along a river with a bottle of wine and a cigar in hand, when I stayed with Alexia in Las Cruces, New Mexico and me, her and Dylan rafted “the Rio”.

Rafting or tubing the Rio Grande from Las Cruces, New Mexico

“Oh Rio, Rio, dance across the dusty land!” Dylan, Alexia and Yours Truly

Back to the present day, after a couple of weekends of drunken debauchery and Game of Thrones with Adam, who now lives in Bangkok, Ruth flew in from the UK and the three of us decided to head for Laos.

We took the night train from Bangkok to Nong Khai, on which we drank Cabernet Sauvignon and French brandy and quite fittingly met Marion for the first time.

On the Bangkok to Nong Khai, Laos night train

Ruth on the overnight train from Bangkok to Nong Khai (the Laos border)

We crossed into Laos and, with everyone keen to get clear of Vientiane – one of the most boring (or peaceful, depending on your point of view) capitals on the planet – we got on a local bus headed for Vang Vieng.

A couple of hours out of Vientiane the road climbs into the hills and sweeps through the lush, green vistas that I remember. I couldn’t help but be pleased when Adam, who’d been highly skeptical, turned to me and said “Roy, you were right. It is beautiful.” It may be the first thing we’ve ever agreed on. To be honest, with all the beautiful places I’ve seen in the interval, I was afraid Laos wouldn’t compete anymore, but I can now say with some surety, it still holds its own.

The occasional new, concrete building seems to have appeared amidst the wooden shacks and villages and the buses, decommissioned and donated by Japan and South Korea, are much more comfortable and carry less chickens than I recall, but Laos remains a rustic, laid-back place.

Where to Stay in Vang Vieng?

We’d booked a night in Pan’s Place, which is perfectly nice. Lonely Planet, who’ve been paid for the listing, describe the owner as an “old hippy from New Zealand”. I’d only go as far as to say he’s an “old guy from New Zealand”. When they were full, on the second night, we moved to Vang Vieng Guesthouse. Both are on the main street (Banh Vieng Keo) and are ridiculously cheap, considering the relatively high standard of the rooms - £1-2 per person. You shouldn’t struggle to find a good place.

What to Do in Vang Vieng?

There’s not a huge amount to “do” in Vang Vieng, with the obvious exception of:

  • Tubing
  • Exploring
  • Eating baguettes
  • Watching Friends
  • Drinking
Wooden bridge and karst mountains in Vang Vieng, Laos

Exploring the wooden bridges and karst mountains of Vang Vieng

Hot air balloon and Nam Song (Xong) river, Vang Vieng, Laos

Hot air balloon rising over the Nam Song river

Red flowers, karst mountains and river in Laos

Beautiful Laos!

Watching Friends in the TV bars, Vang Vieng, Laos

Chilling in the TV bars of Vang Vieng, where pirated Friends DVDs play incessantly

Where to Drink in Vang Vieng?

As well as the “tubing bars” along the river, and the more-than-weekly “jungle parties”, there’re also plenty of cool places in town:

  • Jaidee’s – Great place. Sociable lounge seating. Great music, drinks and food. Recommended to us by Tim and Jenny and where we met Rachel, Jacob, Shaun and the rest of the crew.
  • VIVAThe (only) place to be in Vang Vieng when all the other bars close. Open ’til 2am or later. Dancefloor. Also has rooms. For obvious reasons, I can’t remember much else about it.
  • The Moon Pub – On the other side of the old airstrip/bus station. Loud. Mostly local crowd. Seems a bit sketchy, but probably isn’t.
  • Full Moon Bar – Down by the riverside. Free shots of Tiger “whisky”. Cocktails. Pool table. This place actually is sketchy, but in the good way.
  • Luang Prabang Bakery Bar – Not great or cheap but there’s something to be said for drinking in a “bakery”.
  • Milan Happy Pizza/DK3 – The pizza’s neither good, nor bad. Comfortable lounge seating. On the main street.
  • Gary’s Irish Bar/The Rising Sun – We spent an entire day in here playing pool when the rains hit town. The bar actually flooded. Food’s amazing, plenty of drinks offers and Gary’s a great guy.
  • Kangaroo Sunset Bar – Another popular place on the same street as Gary’s and with similar drinks deals.

At least three of these places have “happy menus” with extra pages offering Mushrooms, marijuana and opium teas, joints, shakes and pizzas. In all my travels it’s the first time I’ve ever seen opium openly advertised on a menu.

Drinking a Beerlao, Laos favourite, most popular beer

Drinking a Beerlao, Laos’ favourite beer

Cheers! Shots

Free shots in Full Moon Bar

Inside Full Moon Bar, Vang Vieng, Laos

Ruth and Adam chillin’ in Full Moon Bar

Street dogs and feral girl

We met Tim and Jenny playing with two street pups on a hill.

In Vang Vieng bar

Rachel and Jacob in Jaidee’s

In VIVA, Vang Vieng, Laos - open until 2am

Ruth came prepared to VIVA

Tubing!

The “Tubing Office” has a complete monopoly on the tubing thing in Vang Vieng. It’s not hard to find. Everyone you ask will know where it is.

First, if you haven’t got one already, pick up a waterproof “tubing pouch”. They sell them just up the road from the office, for 10,000 Lao kip (less than £1), and they’ll keep your camera/phone and cash safe.

Tubing pouches, Vang Vieng, Laos

Me and Adam proudly showing off our new “tubing pouches”.

The “tubes” are actually old truck tyres. It’ll cost you 50,000 kip (£4), plus a 60,000 kip deposit, which you’ll get back in full if you deliver the tube intact by 6pm. This is almost impossible, unless you start early and it’s the wet (rainy) season. If you get it back by 8pm you’ll get some of your deposit back. After 8pm, you’ll get nothing and the tube is, in theory, yours – though in practise I think you’d be lucky to leave town with it.

If there’s more than three of you, which there almost always will be, you’ll get a free transfer to the starting bar, where you’ll get a free shot (of Tiger – the watery but quite pleasant Lao “whisky” brand). Also available are Beerlao and Nam Khong (that other Lao beer).

These bars are, as I was warned, patronised almost exclusively by rowdy, white, English-speaking 18-to-30-somethings, but it only takes a beer or two before you’re a part of the party.

First starting tubing bar, Vang Vieng

Let’s get this party started!

For those who want it, there’s beer-pong, volleyball, basketball, hammocks, caves, music and dancing. It’s like a club in the West, only it takes place during the day, in the jungle, is surrounded by beautiful scenery and is infinitely better. Some may complain, but for me, this is something close to paradise.

Up until recently (2012, I think) the number of bars along the river was well into double figures, plus all the associated dive-boards, rope-swings, zip-lines and even something called “Death Slide”, but way too many people were dying on a monthly basis, so they shut down all but four bars…although I’m not sure if their counting is quite up to scratch as, after the first two bars, we encountered the sign for “Second Bar”.

We were smoking a sweet cigar from Myanmar, when we ran into Marion again. She introduced us to Kayla and Theresa – three very cool girls who we would continue to bump into throughout our trip through Laos.

I love Lao sign and volleyball net at third tubing bar in Vang Vieng, Laos

Ruth and Adam at the Third Bar

The Drinking Traveller tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos

Rollin’ on the river

Girl tubing the Nam Song river, Laos

Ruth tubing the Nam Song river, Laos

Roy tubing in Laos

Just laying back and enjoying the serenity of nature…and alcohol.

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Captain Adam sailing the Nam Song river, with Marion, Kayla and Theresa passing by behind

Drinking on hammocks in last tubing bar

By the last bar, things were beginning to get a little out-of-hand…

We passed the occasional concrete platform and wooden structure jutting out of the jungle – the remnants of the other bars, torn down.

As the sun began to set, we tied up to a convoy of Yanks.

A tuk-tuk driver kept appearing on the bank at various intervals, shining his torch in the gathering darkness. Eventually, the group accepted his offer, while me and Adam, determined to finish what we’d started, ploughed on into the blackness.

It was the shoulder between wet and dry seasons and the current was still slow. We had to paddle with our flip-flops (sandals; thongs) on our hands, and even tried running along the river bed, but to no avail.

It was only now that it dawned on us; maybe Ruth hadn’t got on the tuk-tuk with them, maybe she was still on the river looking for us.

After what felt like hours, unable now to see Adam, I ran aground on some rocks and pulled myself ashore, only to see the “Tubers Stop Here” sign. If I hadn’t happened to stop there, we’d have sailed right past Vang Vieng. I called to Adam in the darkness and his voice came back, surprisingly distant.

We trudged back through the town, wet, exhausted and still pretty drunk, to get roughly half of our deposits back and find Ruth sitting comfortably in the TV lounge below our hostel, watching Friends, of course.

Categories: Asia, Laos, Travel Stories | Tags: , | 1 Comment

Red Mountain Winery & Vineyards, Inle Lake, Myanmar

France, Italy, California… Burma? When listing the world’s fine wine regions, probably the last place you expect to hear is Myanmar. However, Myanmar does in fact boast its own wineries - all two of them.

Both are located in the Inle Lake region in southern Shan state:

  • The Myammar Vineyard Estate (Myanmar’s first winery and home to Aythaya wines)
  • The Red Mountain Estate Winery & Vineyards

Getting to Inle Lake from Mandalay

After Yangon, the Taukkyan War Cemetery and Bagan, I was in Mandalay – the closest major city (and airport) to Inle Lake. From Mandalay bus station there are (at least) four companies that offer buses to Inle Lake, but only one had a departure that evening, for 15,000 Kyat ($15 USD; £9 GBP). I read that if you’re coming from Yangon, the bus should cost anything from 11,000 to 20,000, and also that all buses go to Shwenyaung Junction or Taunggyi, where you have to grab a pick-up or taxi to Nyaungshwe. However, this may’ve changed, because my bus dropped me directly in Nyaungshwe

Inle Lake

I arrived in the early hours, still dark, shouldered my bag and with no particular place to go, and ignoring the offers of waiting taxi-drivers, headed into the dark, silent streets of Nyaungshwe. I passed sleeping guesthouses and shuttered restaurants, silent temples and empty plots, gangs of street dogs - the streets are theirs at this hour – and watched the sky lighten.

I found a place I’d heard about called “Gypsy Inn” but was enjoying the cool, night air too much and continued to walk along the canal-side. A couple of boats started their motors and set off in the murky pre-dawn to I don’t know where. A boat office was just opening (because they do sunrise tours) and I stopped in to inquire about a boat. I was quoted 20,000 for the day and was in the process of digging out my journal, where I’d written how much I should expect to pay (15,000) when a guy appeared and asked me if I wanted to split his boat. He’d booked it yesterday for 17,000 and hadn’t been able to find anyone else.

“Sure. Why not?”

“I’m Paddy, by the way.”

Paddy told me how Inle Lake is a bit of a tourist trap, with these boat tours designed to take you to various “workshops” where you’re then expected to buy something. He’d already carefully chosen his destinations, based on the recommendations of other travellers he’d met and from what he’d read, and the boat-driver had agreed not to pull any unwanted shit.

We blazed up the canal, past fully laden boats and out onto the lake.

Passing boat at dawn on Inle Lake, Myanmar

Cruising out of the canal and across the lake in the chilly morning air

The breeze coming off the water chilled me through, but this was the first (and maybe last) time I’d been cold in months, so I didn’t bother to get out a jacket.

Dawn in boat at Inle Lake, Myanmar

Stopping in the middle of the lake to watch the sunset

We went out to the middle of the lake, where the driver shut the engine off and we sat drifting in the silence watching the sun slowly lift. Dotted about us were fishermen standing on the backs of their boats and rowing with their leg wrapped around the oar. Paddy told me this style of rowing developed here, in isolation, and is unique to Inle Lake and the Shan region.

Stand up rowing fishermen on Inle Lake, Shan State, Myanmar

They row and steer with their leg while standing to fish!

Sunrise on Inle Lake, Myanmar

Sunrise on Inle Lake!

Welsh guy on a boat on Inle Lake, Burma

Paddy enjoying the view

An indeterminate amount of time passed and then we broke from the mesmerising view and gunned past large patches of green vines growing on the water and wooden houses on stilts. We slid into another canal, our driver negotiating tight bends and jumping bamboo dams. Old people sat on the banks and kids swam in the water and waved at us and we waved back. We passed other boats, but no other tourists at this hour.

Buddhist temple stupas in Indein, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Heading towards Indein

Indein floating market five-day rotation cycle, Inle Lake

The (not) floating market in Indein – part of a five-day rotation cycle at Inle Lake

First stop was the floating market. Due to the sheer size of the lake, the market is on a five-day rotating schedule, appearing in a different town each day. Today it was in the village of Indein, which, sadly, meant it wasn’t “floating” after all.

Paddy is Welsh, speaks Welsh, English, French, dabbles in Korean, Burmese and just about every other language he encounters. He was one of those travellers – the kind I used to pride myself on being when I was still full of enthusiasm and curiosity about the world – the kind that makes an effort to learn a bit of the local language and interact with the people. It can be annoying sometimes, but it does make the experience of travelling so much more enriching.

He knelt down at a stall and negotiated the price of a watermelon, laughing with the stall-keepers, then we went and ordered what some locals were eating and sat down to our breakfast. Apparently it was “mixed tofu” (to hpu thouk) and was delicious, and cheap. We bought some rice from a kid to go on the side and Paddy picked up some random green vegetable he’d seen.

Breakfast of mixed tofu, to hpu thouk, shan tofu and rice at Indein market

Delicious “mixed tofu” breakfast with rice

We whiled away half an hour or so on the wooden benches chatting with an old local couple, then set off again. Everywhere we went, the children said “hello”, Paddy said “hello” back in Burmese, they said “oh, you speak Burmese” (in Burmese), “a little” (in Burmese), something else in Burmese, “sorry, I don’t understand” (in Burmese)…”bye bye”, “bye bye” - accompanied by a lot of giggling and smiling throughout.

Buddhist stupas at temple in Indein, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Buddhist stupas we spotted from the canal and which Paddy later insisted we find

We’d seen some impressive golden stupas from the boat so on the way back, Paddy asked if we could make an impromtu stop. We waded out into the river, walked barefoot through mud, across wooden and bamboo bridges, through the grounds of a Buddhist monastry, through a local village on stilts and eventually found the stupas.

Wooden bmboo bridge in Indein, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Exploring the village

As well as the golden ones, we found fields and fields of crumbling stone ones, inside which could be seen ancient stone Buddhas and centuries-old carvings. In my opinion it was more impressive than Bagan, but it always feels that way when you randomly stumble across something incredible, instead of going in search of something hyped up in the guidebooks.

Random Buddhist stupas, temple and monastery in Indein, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Some random Buddhist stupas we found

Crumbling Burmese stupas, Inle Lake, Burma

Crumbling stupas as impressive as Bagan

Buddhist monastery with drum in Indein, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Buddhist monastery in Indein

When we got back, the boat was caught on a drift and we had to wade in and help our driver push the boat and rock it from side to side until we were in free, open water again.

Young Burmese girls working at cheroot cigar-making factory, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Girls working at the “cheroot” cigar-making factory after school, apparently

Next stop was a handmade “cheroot” cigar factory, where we smoked sweet cigars (made from tobacco, honey, rice, tamarind, banana, anise and so on). Paddy asked for a cleaver and bowl, cut up his watermelon and shared it with me, our driver and the staff of the factory. Again, we all chatted for a bit, then we split 20 sweet cigars for 1000 each and were on our way again.

Burmese lunch

Paddy and our boat-driver invited to eat lunch with a group of local ladies

We stopped at a boat-building factory where a couple of boats-in-progress were perched on beams and suspiciously little boat-building was going on. Because it was unlikely we would want to buy a boat (although I did haggle) they had a table of wooden handicrafts to buy instead. I decided to get out of there and wait for Paddy, who’d mysteriously disappeared into the village.

I heard my name and, when I turned around, Paddy was gesturing for me to cross the bridge. He’d somehow got us and our boat-driver invited to a local celebration.

We sat down and chatted with a couple of ladies while they plied us with food: more mixed tofu, beef, rice, noodles and so on. It turned out the celebration was in aid of one of the ladies’ nephew becoming a novice monk. When it was time to go, we each put 1000 Kyat in the donation pots – still one of the cheapest and best lunches I’ve ever had.

Burmese celebration for becoming a novice Buddhist monk in Myanmar

Invited to the celebration for her nephew becoming a novice Buddhist monk

Board game in Burma, South East Asia

Playing this random game with the boat-builders

We played some crazy, air-hockey-esque board game with the boat-builders and then travelled through the “floating gardens”, where tomato plants lay on the lake in vast floating fields. Apparently there are so many of them that, from the air, much of the lake is indistinguishable from land.

Floating Gardens, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Paddy at the “floating gardens”

Burmese boat-driver at floating tomato grdens, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Our boat-driver exhausted after a long day’s work

Finally, we stopped into the Nga Hpe Kyaung (Jumping Cat Monastery) – so named because in their spare time the monks taught the cats to jump and do tricks. However, there are “no more jumping cats”, we were told.

Instead Paddy got down and bowed to a living Buddha, who was laying up on a pedestal with a cheesy grin on his face. Fuck that, I thought, and strolled aimlessly around the monastery. When I came back, he was having tea with a bunch of fellow worshippers. All across Myanmar temples are used for sleeping, picnicking, playing board games and just generally getting out of the heat.

We’d been out on the lake for almost eight hours. When we got back they tried to cheekily change the agreed price because the lady had offered me 20,000 but we weren’t having any of it.

Getting to the Red Mountain Winery

Back at Paddy’s guest house (I wish I could remember what it was called) the guy on reception was great and let me have his own bicycle for the afternoon.

I said goodbye to Paddy, took off and cycled the three kilometres out of town, took the right, along the winding road, up a gradual gradient, swung a left at the “Red Mountain Estate” sign and powered up the not-so-gradual gradient, with rolling vineyards on either side, to arrive at the winery red as an ember and soaked through with sweat. (It would all pay off on the way back.)

Wine Tasting at the Red Mountain Estate

Up at the winery, you can choose from an air-conditioned interior, or an outdoor seating area perched on the hillside overlooking the lake (if you’re lucky) and the surrounding countryside.

Wine tasting deal at Red Mountain Winery & Vineyards, Nyaung-shwe, Inle Lake, Myanmar includes sauvignon blanc, Rosé d'Inlé, shiraz-tempranillo blend & Late Harvest white

The reward! Wine tasting deal at Red Mountain Winery & Vineyards, Nyaung-shwe

They offer a range of wines and good-quality (though not cheap) food (including European cheeses), but probably the best way to sample the goods is the wine-tasting deal, which includes four different wines for only 2000 Kyat.

I tried the…

  • Sauvignon Blanc – This is the favorite of the French vintner and I think I have to agree, despite the fact that it’s supposed to be dry yet was in fact very sweet (just the way I like it). It’s fresh, fruity and has a little something of fresh-cut grass about it.
  • Rosé d’Inlé – Made from Shiraz/Syrah, this one was a bit too dry and citrusy for my liking, but I’m sure some would love it.
  • Shiraz-Tempranillo – Made from 70% Shiraz and 30% Tempranillo grapes, this blend was supposed to taste of vanilla, dark chocolate and morrello cherries, but was actually the most disappointing of the bunch. The overbearing flavour was of tannins and I’m pretty sure this one needs some aging.
  • Late Harvest – This was another sweet white, this time made from 60% Muscat Petit Grain and 40% Sauvignon Blanc. It had a heady aroma of melon, lychee and maybe a hint of banana, coupled with the strong sugars and alcohol.

In my humble, completely unprofessional opinion, Red Mountain have some very promising wines and some below-average ones. Considering this is one of only two wineries in Myanmar, I was very impressed. All, except maybe the red, were vibrant in colour and the whole scene – growing gradually tipsy on the side of a hill as the sun set – made for the perfect end to an incredible day.

Later I flew back down the hill at God-knows how many miles an hour, returned the bike and jumped on another night-bus, Yangon bound.

Categories: Asia, Myanmar, Travel Stories | 4 Comments

Journey to the Taukkyan War Cemetery, Myanmar

This is kind of a personal one for me.

In the Second World War, my grandad’s brother was killed in Burma, and buried there. Now, 70 years later, I happened to be passing through the region and decided to find out where his grave is and to make the journey.

After some research, I found Corporal Ronald Harry Duffield, of the Royal Berkshires’ 1st Batallion, “Son of Harry and Amy Duffield, of Polegate, Sussex” in the roll of honour for Taukkyan War Cemetery. He was there. Plot 17, row J, grave 16.

After the war, Burma entered into a long period of instability and unrest. Taukkyan War Cemetery was created in 1951 by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to consolidate graves from a number of civil, cantonment and battlefield cemeteries around the country, as well as roadside graves and isolated jungle spots, when it became clear they could not be otherwise looked after. At this point, Ron would have been relocated from a battlefield cemetery in Mandalay.

I was surprised to find that the Taukkyan War Cemetery was the most highly-rated of all “attractions in Yangon (Rangoon)” on TripAdvisor (now second, after the golden Shwedagon Pagoda) but I suppose this could be for a few reasons. Maybe Yangon is completely bereft of things to do, but I now know that this couldn’t be further from the truth. More plausible is that, with the political situation in Myanmar in recent years and the subsequent difficulties for those wanting to travel the country, the majority of foreign tourists were put off, unless of course they had a very good reason…like visiting the grave of a loved one.

Also, it’s not exactly the kind of place you’d give a bad review to, is it?

How to Get to the Taukkyan War Cemetery?

Taukkyan is a township just North of Yangon – less than 20 miles, I think – on the main Pyay Road, PY1.

To get there, I took a local bus from the corner of Anawratha Road and Phone Gyi Street (between 12th and 13th) to the junction of Insein Road and Pyay for 200 Kyat (12 pence) then walked through the local neighbourhood that lies between the two and picked up a lain ka (shared pick-up; songthaew in Thailand and Laos) to Taukkyan for 500.

As with almost everywhere in Myanmar, you’ll get a lot of attention from the locals. Many of the women and even some of the men wore a kind of yellow face paint smeared on their cheeks.

The woman next to me on the cramped pick-up threw up in the heat. When she got off and the driver tried to get me to move up, I just shook my head. Everyone on the bus could see why, but the driver – standing outside – couldn’t see the milky-white vomit. While angrily gesturing to me where I should sit, he ended up putting his hand in it. Then he understood.

When you arrive in Taukkyan, don’t do what I did, which, when I couldn’t see any sign of the cemetery, was to ask directions from a taxi driver, who said (as they all do in these parts) that he knew where it was and could take me for 1000. He drove me (in his non-air-conditioned cab, sporadically hocking and spitting blood-red liquid into a rancid-smelling plastic bottle filled with what looked like melted chocolate, but was actually the remains of chewing tobacco or tea leaves) out into the countryside - through a toll booth - for half an hour or so, at which point I was getting pretty skeptical and asked again. He assured me that, yes, he knew where it was, only to pull over two minutes down the road to make some calls. He eventually put me on the phone to someone and what followed was a series of exchanges to the effect of:

“What? Where? We don’t know what that place is.”

And then when they did figure it out:

“Oh, my friend has made a mistake. It is actually the other way…very far. You will have to pay him 20,000 Kyat to take you there.”

He wanted 10,000 just to go back and, when I said no, tried to leave me in the middle of nowhere to find another ride. I refused to get out of the car until he took me back to where he’d picked me up – prepared to trash his cab and come to blows if necessary - and thus followed a tense, silent, 40 minute drive back the way we’d come.

When we got back to Taukkyan, I asked to be dropped off immediately, but he insisted on driving me another 30 seconds round the corner, where the cemetery miraculously came into view. I realised it was almost certainly a scam. He’d known exactly where it was the whole time.

He asked for 8000, then 5000. I gave him what I’d seen him hand over for tolls and a meager estimate for fuel and I told him to fuck off.

So, anyway, the cemetery is directly next to the village, just back on the road from Yangon, on the right as you come in. I’d have seen it on the way, but for the packed pick-up and the fact that I’d been sitting on the left-hand side.

I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that Burmese people are dicks. They’re lovely. He was the only one.

The Cemetery

The cemetery is such a peaceful place and so incredibly well-maintained that it seems to be a favoured hangout for the locals. One or two families picnicked in the grass, couples lounged romantically amongst the graves and children played nearby. At least Ron has plenty of company, I thought.

Their Name Liveth for Evermore inscription at Taukkyan War Cemetery

Entering the cemetery…

The land on which this cemetery stands is the gift of the Burmese people for the perpetual resting place of the sailors soldiers and airmen who are honoured here

The cemetery is a gift from the Burmese people and maintained by the War Graves Commission

Taukkyan War Cemetery and Rangoon Memorial, Yangon, Myanmar

Taukkyan War Cemetery: a tranquil resting place.

Hedge tunnel at Taukkyan War Cemetery, Myanmar

Strolling the well-maintained and peaceful grounds

One kid came up to me and asked if he could have some water. (I was carrying the last of a 5 litre container.) I downed all I needed and gave him the bottle with the rest. He thanked me and ran off with it, content.

Later his friends came up to me and apologised for him, saying he was crazy sometimes.

“No problem.”

Taukkyan is the biggest of the three war cemeteries in Myanmar. It is currently home to:

  • 6,374 Commonwealth graves from World War Two (867 of which are unidentified)
  • 52 from World War One
  • The “Rangoon Memorial” to almost 27,000 with no known grave
  • The “Taukkyan Cremation Memorial” for over 1,000 servicemen who were cremated according to their faith
  • The “Taukkyan Memorial” for 45 whose graves couldn’t be maintained
A soldier of the 1939 - 1945 war, known unto God grave inscription at Taukkyan War Cemetery

Taukkyan houses 867 unidentified graves.

Rangoon Cremation Memorial, Taukkyan, Myanmar

The Rangoon Cremation Memorial

The Rangoon Memorial at Taukkyan War Cemetery, Myanmar

The Rangoon Memorial

Rangoon Memorial register at Taukkyan War Cemetery

The Rangoon Memorial register found in a safe built into the rock

The Rangoon Memorial at Taukkyan War Cemetery, Myanmar

The Rangoon Memorial pillars, with over 27,000 names inscribed

I located the plot and, as I grew close, had to gulp down the suspense that seemed to gather in my throat.

Plot 17 row J grave 16 at Taukkyan War Cemetery

Locating plot 17, row J

I’m not usually effected by sentimental things like this, but as I reached the grave I couldn’t help but feel something.

I took off my shoes and socks as a mark of respect (as is the custom here in Myanmar and other Asian nations) and sat in the soft grass beside the grave.

Ron's grave at Taukkyan War Cemetery

Somehow Ron had got the nicest flowers on the plot.

Here I was, less than six feet from a man I’d never met but who’d shared my blood and had known my grandad in his youth just as I’ve known my grandad in my youth…six decades later.

I should have been more moved than I was, but it’s hard to feel sad in such a pleasant setting. All things considered, Ron has found an ideal resting place in the end.

Grave of Corporal Ronald Harry Duffield, Royal Berkshires, First Battalion at Taukkyan War Cemetery, Burma

Ron’s grave. Eerily only one initial different from mine.

Ron & Pa

I don’t know much about my great-uncle Ron. I do know that they grew up together in London’s East End and that my grandad, Pa, once threw sticky orange juice down Ron’s back while he was driving, then the war broke out, and he never got the chance to apologise. Ever since then, he and Hen (my grandma) have lived by a “no regrets” rule – any dispute is resolved that day before bed, no ill-feeling is allowed to continue into another day (because you never know if you’ll get one) – and that’s the system by which they raised their three boys (my dad and uncles) and which I believe has filtered through to me.

Pa never saw his brother again.

One night, when stationed somewhere and put on night watch duty, he happened to take a look at the roster and see that his brother had been there just the night before.

Ron was killed in the battle of Fort Dufferin, on 15th March 1945, just a few months before the end of the war.

He was 24 – two years younger than I am now.

Mandalay Palace (formerly Fort Dufferin), Mandalay

Mandalay Palace (originally Mya Nan San Kyaw (meaning “the Famed, Royal, Emerald Palace”) and renamed Fort Dufferin under British rule) was built in Mandalay by King Mindon when he founded Mandalay in 1857.

yangon-bagan-mandalay-inle-lake-myanmar-burma 048

The plan of Mandalay Palace prior to the Second World War

It served as the royal residence of Mindon, and later King Thibaw – the last two kings of Burma – until the Third Anglo-Burmese War, when the British took control of Burma, captured the royal family and renamed the palace Fort Dufferin.

The Battle for Fort Dufferin, Mandalay, Burma, 1945

The Battle for Fort Dufferin. Source: www.ourstory.info

The palace was almost completely destroyed in the war, with the exception of only the watchtower and the royal mint (the birthplace of the first Burmese coin and used as a bakery for British troops). It was rebuilt in the ’90s and I was lucky enough to visit while in Mandalay.

The Watchtower - one of only two buildings to survive allied bombing

The Watchtower…

Fort Dufferin Watchtower, Mandalay Palace

…One of only two buildings to survive allied bombing

Steps ascending Mandalay Palace watchtower

View of Mandalay Palace while ascending the watchtower

View from Fort Dufferin watchtower, Mandalay Palace

“All along the watchtower…”

Mandalay Palace panorama

A panorama of Mandalay Palace

Old photo of Burmese princess

A surviving photo of one of the Burmese princesses, prior to British rule

Ancient Burmese script carved in stone

Sorry if this is upside-down – my ancient Burmese script isn’t what it used to be.

Mandalay Palace grounds empty

Strolling the ghost-town that was once Mandalay Palace

Inside dark empty rooms in Mandalay Palace

Walking through dark, empty rooms, once residence to the King and Queen

Burmese King Thibaw and Queen at Mandalay Palace, Myanmar

Ghosts? The last King and Queen of Burma stroll their palace grounds.

A Happy Ending

After the war, Pa stepped off a train in Polegate – a small town in the South East of England, that he’d never been to or even heard of before, but where his family had moved while he was at war in North Africa, the Balkans, Brindisi… – and here he met Hen, started the family I grew up with and they’re still there today, happily married.

Categories: Asia, Myanmar, Travel Stories | 7 Comments

A Brief “Taste of Cincinnati”

This post is dedicated to the happy couples Zack and Eva Coomer and Zach and Rachel Huffman. On this date, one year ago, I was at Zack and Eva’s marriage celebration, and so this is my weird way of saying “Happy Anniversary!” Also, don’t get divorced, because this took me a few hours to write and it would suck if it was devalued in any way. (Winky face.)

So once upon a time, back when I had something vaguely resembling a stable, full-time job (writing for the travel industry) I found out two of my best buds (both Yanks; both called Zachary) were getting married (not to each other) and so made the rash decision to jump on a plane, crash one couple’s wedding (actually I was invited, but “crash” sounds so much cooler) and wish the other the best with theirs.

After a couple of nights haunting the bars of Logan Square and Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago with Couchsurfers Sara, Kori and a couple of German kids, I took a Greyhound down to Cincinnati…

…except they kicked us off for an unscheduled stop in Indianapolis. The driver told us we may or may not have an hour before we set off again for Cincinnati. I was asleep for half of this speech, so it’s also possible I got it all completely wrong.

Fuck it, I thought, I’ll chance it, and took to the streets in search of a cold beer.

At first there was nothing but a couple of boarded-up fast-food outlets and I got the feeling the Greyhound station and I were way out of town, then I turned the corner onto Meridian and a big sign says “Wholesale District: Welcome to the Main Event!” and it turns out I’m smack-bang in the middle of Indianapolis’ nightlife district and things are beginning to hot up for the evening.

I know this because a guy cycled past me and said something like, “Saturday…Gon’ be busy tonight.”

“Oh yeah?”

He braked and waited for me to catch up alongside.

Cycling beside me, he told me he’d just come from work, which he obviously immediately forgot because in more or less the same breath he was telling me his wife thought he was at work today. I asked him where was a good place to drink and he said he’d take me if I’d be so kind as to buy him a beer. A bit cheeky, I thought, but hey, this is America.

After talking some more bullshit, we got to a place called “Killroy’s”. “Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “Being that my name’s Roy, I’m not all that happy about the name.” He didn’t get the joke and even got a bit arsey about it, insulted that I didn’t like his choice of bar. “Nevermind,” I said and went to go in.

“Oh no, I can’t go in there.”

“Why not?”

“No, it’s too expensive. I can get a forty down the street for less…”

I went inside…where beer was $7, plus tax and tip, and, truth be told, I was a bit pissed off at the guy for assuming I wouldn’t prefer sitting on a backstreet somewhere sharing a couple of forties.

I ordered a large pizza, which also seemed ridiculously expensive, until it arrived – all 20 inches of it – and I had to run for the bus carrying a box the size of a pavement slab.

As I slipped into the greyhound station a guy was coming out and held the door open for me.

“Cheers, mate.”

“Wait, what?

“What?”

“What’d you just say?”

“I said ‘cheers…mate’.”

We stared each other down, me wondering what the hell he thought I’d said, then I remembered I had a bus to catch and didn’t have time for this shit. Fuck sake! Curse this quiet voice and British accent!

I made a lot of friends on that next bus, as you do when you start giving out copious amounts of free pizza, then slept all the way to Cincinnati.

Now almost midnight, walking from the Greyhound station through downtown Cincinnati, I got stopped by a group of homeless people. A short woman scoots over to me in an old-style wheelchair and asks if I can spare any change. That fucker and his forty got the last I was willing to give for one day so I offered her a slice of pizza instead.

“Oh, no, thank you.”

“You sure?”

“I wouldn’t be able to chew it. Can’t eat solids. Hurts too much ’cause of my teeth. But God bless you for offering.” Poor, sad characters of the downtown American night – I’d forgotten all about you in my absence.

I arrived at John’s place (one of those old red-brick, city-centre tenements you see in the movies, with a fire-escape and everything) in OTR, ditched my stuff and we headed out to an old, live music pub called MOTR to catch the tail end of a gig. This place has been around for decades and the OTR (Over-the-Rhine) district – so named by the large German population in the 19th and early 20th centuries – is undergoing a huge renaissance. It’s the historical, cultural and artistic heart and soul of Cincinnati, with shit-loads of urban Italianate architecture and the most pre-prohibition breweries in the world. Walking around, I felt like I was in Bugsy Malone or Al Capone (even though I’m pretty sure neither of them had anything to do with Cincinnati).

We talked about hopping trains, Nepal (who knew I’d be there within the year) and a beautiful place in nearby Kentucky called “Red River Gorge”. Later I crashed on the fold-out sofa-bed amongst collages and cat-fur.

I woke early (for once) but John was already out on some sunrise errand. I text Zack in a suitably creepy manner to say I was in town, poked through some John Muir and Aldous Huxley I found, ate some more pizza, and only then realised Zack would have no idea who that message was from.

Later, Zack picked me up and we cruised over to the venue to check out their sound system, which Zack suspected wouldn’t be up to his needs. On the way we relived old Japan stories, caught up, and I told him I was thinking of starting a website about drinking and travel. (A couple of weeks later the Drinking Traveller was born.)

After that we drove over to his mum’s (sorry, “mom’s”) place, where I met the Coomer clan and the Aussie contingent and the house was a hive of activity. My usual shy, sobre self, I tried to disappear into the background and busied myself helping to arrange flowers and listening to what I can only describe as ‘woman-talk’, while Zack got on it and made us frozen margaritas or strawberry daiquiris. (I forget which.)

Here was Eva, my old friend from Japan days and I almost didn’t recognise her, it seemed so long ago, and Rachel, Zack’s sister who’d come out and partied with us in Japan back when she was still a “minor” in the US.

Zack suggested we go and pick up Chinese for all the hard-workers so we jumped back in the car. There was some confusion from his nan, who (quite astutely) wondered why he wanted to go to a Chinese all the way across town when there was a perfectly good one just round the corner. This mystery was solved when we got in the car. The Chinese across town had a free ping pong table where Zack’s mates Lamar, Cameron and Brandon (I think) were already waiting. The whole thing was a cover. We spent the afternoon playing table tennis while the girls got everything ready.

“We’d only get in their way,” Zack justified (and, to be fair, he was probably right).

The funniest part was we then had to go back to the one just round the corner from the house to grab his nan’s egg rolls. I’m not sure if the girls ever knew about this. Oh well. Sorry, Zack.

I got dropped off at John’s and then later strolled the couple of blocks to the Millennium Hotel, where everyone else was staying. I headed straight for the bar and got a pint in. Soon our crowd started to assemble in the lobby and I was joined by Melanie, another familiar face from Japan days. Cameron and the guys were handing out cans of Yuengling by the crate-load and insisting we oblige, which we did.

With all the posse together, and several beers later, we marched through “Cincy” in the hot, June-afternoon sun en route to the Baseball stadium to watch the Cincinnati Reds kick Chicago a new arsehole. Apparently drinking alcohol on the streets is illegal here, but that didn’t seem to have much sway with us.

At the stadium I met Zack’s very cool dad, cousins and another batch of friends and family, too many to name or number.

The game was spectacular! Beers were $9.25, but there was a flask of Jack or two doing the rounds. I bought Zack’s dad a beer, which he promptly repaid…twice, locking us in a series of rounds – a reciprocal bond that would last the night through and see us both blitzed by the time all was said and done.

Cincinati Reds vs Chicago Baseball Game

Me and Zack at the game. (Photos by Rachel C.)

As the last of the blinding sunshine disappeared over the rim of the stadium, suddenly, through it, came the ball – right at us! It all happened so fast. Everyone leapt up. I gripped my beer firmly with both hands. Zack made a grab for the meteorite of a ball but it ricocheted off his thumb into the lap of Brandon, the best-man, in the row behind, leaving the groom with nothing but a busted hand…Although I’m sure his hand was the last thing he’d need on his wedding night.

Catching the ball at Cincinati Reds vs Chicago baseball game

Brandon gets the ball!

Some bell-ends next to us were banging on about “Mustache May!” and a fight almost broke out between the mustache twats and some of our guys over something about a seat (although clearly actually about the fact they didn’t catch the ball) and so a friendly security guard was sent over to sit with and watch over us. I offered him some beer but sadly he couldn’t partake while “on duty”.

Baseball game security guard

With our “friendly security guard” at the game. (Photos by Melanie.)

On top of all this, the Reds won, though I’m told this was kind of a foregone conclusion.

After the game, me and Mr Coomer Sr. lost the others in the crowd and ended up in a huge American sports bar/club amidst deafening music, people dancing on tables (actually, I think that might’ve been me) and coloured lights flying about in the madness.

We ran into Pat and another guy from the game (Ryan?), got some more drinks in and went outside to the smoking area, from where, later, we saw Zack, Eva, Melanie, Rachel and the rest appear in the queue. I climbed some kind of pole and screamed some kind of welcome sufficient to embarrass all involved, not to mention anyone in the immediate vicinity.

The rest of the night’s a blur, but I know it involved lots of dancing, shots, a proper, Japan-worthy reunion with Eva, me picking up Melanie and dropping us both on the glass-covered dance-floor, and that we were still in there at about 3am. As they say in the States, we “closed out the bar”!

Back at the Millennium, and walking-paralytic, me and Melanie were determined to make use of the roof-top pool. Sadly it was locked, despite my continued efforts to make it “not-locked” by falling against the glass doors.

Runing around the maze of corridors on unknown floors I somehow ran into a wall.

After wiping the blood from my nose I ended up passing out in Melanie’s room, where I dreamt I tried to make it with her (at least, I hope it was a dream) (she assures me it must have been).

I was still there when she woke up in the morning…

…and again at 1pm when she got back from her spa morning with the girls. (So, I missed the golf day…which, in hindsight, was obviously always going to happen.)

I dragged myself up and staggered out of the room, into an elevator and out into the sun-baked streets of Cincinnati. Back at John’s, I ate radishes and beet houmous with him and a friend then, when they went cycling, I tried to get some sleep…but couldn’t.

I decided to hit Findlay Market – the oldest continuously running market in the US – and was chowing down on a German sausage when I got a text from Josh, another friend from Cincy. He was having a pool party and wanted to know if I was coming over.

Half an hour later I was walking past a swanky block of flats in Clifton, prepared to walk another hour up the hill thanks to Google Maps, when I heard my name being shouted.

There was Josh, unloading a keg from his car.

Last time I saw Josh was from the roof in Nagoya, strutting drunkenly across the street, when me and Matthieu took a pop-shot at him with a firework. It whizzed past his head and exploded just down the street. Realising what’d happened, he came running into the building like a man possessed, vaulting onto the roof in one motion like only a very drunk person would have the balls to.

Luckily me and Matthieu had made it down just in time and were hiding in kitchen cupboards.

“Ah…so that was you!”

We carried the keg up to his apartment, where I met a great bunch: Jamey, Tyler, his girlfriend, some guy who’s cemented himself in my memory as “Pedro”, an old hippy-esque couple and so on.

Nowadays, Josh had landed a job with an international beer distributor and so had procured plenty of cheap booze, including the affore-mentioned keg…

Only problem was when we tried to tap it, we couldn’t. We cracked open a few cans while we tried to figure it out. The guys tried everything, even improvising some kind of rubber-band situation, but nothing worked. It was decided that the tap was at fault, so some of us bundled into the car and headed for a store where you can rent taps. On the way I saw my host and his buddy heading out of town on their bikes. It’s a small world, Cincinnati.

Back at the party, the new tap wasn’t working either. Everybody had a go, but to no avail. In the fine print we read that one keg in 400 was faulty. Josh had bought that keg. Luckily there were other drinks. The hippies brought weed. At some point we ended up walking through “Taste of Cincinnati” – a giant annual food festival downtown, which luckily corresponded with my visit and where I ran into Lamar and Cameron, who said they’d be at a place called Neon’s later.

Driving back, Josh called a girl he’d met recently, when smashed, and we scoured the streets looking for her.

“I think that’s her!” Said Josh, and we pulled up. The girl was walking along in a giant shabby grey fur coat, stiletto heels, dyed blonde hair, big black shades and a little dog under her arm.

“Wow, is Josh bringing a hooker to the party?” Came from the backseat.

With our new friend squeezed in the back we drove back to the party, where we made the best of things in spite of the keg situation, I got drunk for another night on the trot and we all swam, dove and generally larked about.

Josh had recently spent time in Colorado (ski season?) and told me all about the micro-brewery trails and generally about the craft beer revolution happening in the States at this time.

Though I’m not sure when he arrived, there was now a guy called Cliff. “Let’s hit the town!” Somebody said, so me, Cliff and (I wish I knew her name) the hooker walked down while the others took cabs. Down in town, things started to blur again. The hooker disappeared, me and Cliff went to Neon’s I think, I had a look around for Lamar, Cameron and anyone else from the wedding party, Cliff split, I met up with Jamey and Tyler in another bar, brought three bottles of something called “Hudy” for $2 a piece plus the obligatory $2 tip, or so says a receipt I found the next morning. I remember talking Hunter S. Thompson and Will S. Burroughs and making plans to go with the guys to Red River Gorge.

Then I’m with Josh and a new girl called Lauren and we go back and laugh and use the pool again and and watch the sunrise over Cincinnati and I’m pretty sure at one point we were all laying in a hammock together, poor Lauren sandwiched in the middle.

I woke up on the sofa. Lauren was gone. I found Josh, still on the hammock, and woke him to say goodbye.

Then I had a wedding to get to! I rushed back, showered, changed into my Primark suit and headed for the hotel, where of course I went once again to the bar and once again ordered in a pint.

This time I was spotted by and reunited with Vanessa, the last of the Japan crew to arrive, all the way from Australia, with her boyfriend Michael. We all bundled into a school bus hired for the occasion and the drinking songs commenced.

American yellow school bus

All aboard the school bus… (Photos by Vanessa.)

Inside an American school bus

On the bus to Pattison Lodge and Gazebo!

I’ll skip over most of the details of the wedding, because I blog about drinking and travel, not weddings, and because a picture says 1000 words, and also because I was so hungover I couldn’t feel my face, but I will say that it was the best wedding (or marriage celebration) I’ve ever been to.

Wedding kiss

The happy couple…smoochin’ (Photos by…I don’t know. Eva, who took these?)

Amusing entries in the wedding guest book

I swear, this wasn’t me. I was framed! (Sorry, Eva.)

Piggyback ride

Cameron just doesn’t want to let go.

Bride and girls at wedding

The Ramen Girls: Melanie, Eva and Vanessa

Drunk at a wedding

Michael and Crissy looking suitably tipsy

The location (Pattison Lodge) was beautiful, surrounded by tranquil woodlands, a sentiment which I tried to express through my frequent threats to “go lay down in the woods and die”. The music was taken care of by the very talented Coomers – a family of musicians, and Zack managed to rig up a sound-system that did the job. We tossed beanbags in the sun. I met Damein – Rachel’s musician boyfriend, a girl called Crissy, a guy called Boutet (Booty?) and Annie, who I’d met before when Zack and I once crashed in her hotel room in Chicago and who wasn’t best pleased with me as I apparently licked her face several times. Then “food trucks” showed up, serving the best pizza I’ve ever had (Fireside Pizza Wagon!)

Highlights (at least, from where I was standing), included the open bar, Boutet dunking his head in a bucket of ice-water, several times, both of us pouring beer and wine simultaneously down our throats, dancing with Melanie, Vanessa, Mike and, well, everyone really, and the ride back, culminating in Boutet falling out of the back of the moving bus.

Bohemian Rhapsody formation

Me, Boutet, Rachel and Damein somehow ending up in Bohemian Rhapsody formation

Couple eating bread lady and tramp style.

Rachel and Damein…Lady and Tramp

Dunking head in ice water

Cold down there, Booty?

Wedding dance floor

Murder on the dance-floor

Dancing at a wedding

Dancing with Melanie and Vanessa…Would you invite this nut-job to your wedding?

Guys dancing

Zack and Lamar’s last dance…maybe

We went to a club across from the hotel to dance the night away. Lamar and his cousin Brandon (who by sheer coincidence was also in Japan with us) were up on the tables, dancing with several scantily clad ladies.

Sweating profusely, me and Melanie went up to Vanessa and Mike’s room to say goodbye, then I walked her to the Greyhound station (presumably because I knew the way, not because I was on such good terms with the local homeless population) and saw her onto a bus to Detroit for some epic music festival.

I had to fight the urge to go back to the club with all of my being, but it was now somehow gone 4am, so I crept into John’s, crashed for an hour, almost dreamt through my alarm (5.30am), left a note for my very open-minded and understanding host and hit the road on a bus of my own…

…arriving in Lexington, Kentucky, the dirtiest, worst-smelling bum in town, which is saying something considering the looks of some of the people hanging around the Greyhound station.

Actually, Lexington’s a pretty cool place. Zach and Rachel arrived shortly and we drove to Red River Gorge. (I’d got a text the morning of the wedding from “Rachel” – I assumed Zack’s sister – asking if I wanted to go with them to some Civil War sites in Kentucky. Jesus, I thought. Your brother’s about to celebrate his marriage and you’re fucking off to Kentucky! Turns out it was this Rachel, so I suggested the Gorge instead, as I’d heard so many good things.)

We hiked to a stream and felt the water pour over our faces from strange, immense rock-formations the likes of which I’d never seen. Ah, nature…the world’s greatest hangover cure!

Afterwards, afraid of bears and mountain lions, we got back in the car, Lexington bound. They took me to a great craft brewery called West Sixth, where you can sit out in the sun on – you guessed it – West 6th Street. Shame they only had their “Dead Heat Wheat” available, but that was fine since it turned out to be a good beer. Oh yeah, and we ate “beer cheese”, which is also very good.

We spent the rest of the day eating “square pizza” and wandering around (mostly in and out of bars). Zack was my drinking buddy of choice in Japan (together we earned quite a reputation) and his now-wife Rachel is a suitable match. They had a system in place so that they could drive that evening, but, whatever the system was, it didn’t make much sense to me; they both seemed to be drinking a lot, which was really nice of them (provided they didn’t die in a car crash on the way home…which, I should probably point out, they didn’t).

Eventually they had to head for home and I found myself in a Taco Bell (because I didn’t have enough dollars for the strip club opposite) writing shitty poetry after several days with barely any sleep and way too much booze.

Several buses, planes, trains and all the gaps in between saw me back home in Brighton.

I made a lot of good friends on that trip, and spent some quality time with old ones. I can’t wait to come back and visit, “y’all”!

Categories: America, Travel Stories, USA | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

“I like to touch her when somebody else is watching…”

Here’s another typical Drinking Traveller story for most of you not to believe and for the rest of you to shake your heads and say, “oh Roy”.

Truth be told, I’m beginning to feel a bit like John McClane when he says, “How can the same shit keep happening to the same guy?” except with me its sexual deviants instead of international terrorists.

For those levelling that same question at me, all I can suggest in way of an answer is that maybe strange things just happen to strange people who roam alone through strange cities at strange hours of the night, as has been my wont ever since I was 13 or thereabouts.

I was just about to post that after two months travelling India and its close neighbours, I was ready to trade hard-to-come-by beers, 10 o’clock curfews and non-existent sexuality for Thailand: land of vice, where alcohol comes in buckets, you can’t walk down the street without seeing a go-go show and it’s common practice to dance on the beach ’til dawn…

…when something happened that completely changed this opinion of India – and yet, I suppose in a way, kind of proved it correct too.

Now, before I go on, I should probably start with some kind of explanation. You may be wondering why I would post something like this. You might be thinking I’m some kind of attention-seeker, exhibitionist. Quite the opposite. It’s going to take a lot of courage and self-doubt before I finally push the “publish” button on this.

But when I set out to bring you the Drinking Traveller last June, it wasn’t to tell you about the history or architecture of the Taj Mahal. It was to tell the truth about what the world is like, to show places we don’t always get the chance to see and to tell the stories that I knew would come, as they always do, and which (in my opinion, at least) are what travel is all about. As my friend Graham (of Inside Other Places) once said, there are few better ways to learn about a culture than by getting drunk with the locals.

Turn back now – reserve this story for my “private” collection – and I may as well close down this whole site. When it comes to honesty, it’s all or nothing. To omit is to deceive, and to deceive is obviously to lie.

So, if you’re my mum, or have some other reason not to want to hear the more explicit details of my travels, I recommend this be your last paragraph.

I was told before I left (also by Graham) that some successful writer, when asked the secret to becoming a successful writer, said “two dead parents”. Now I understand, but I won’t go as far as to agree. Instead we’ll get around this problem like so:

Parental advisory logo. Explicit content symbol sign

Yes, I’m aware I’m subverting this for a use other than that for which it was intended. Sue me.

Whenever you see it, consider yourself warned.

So anyway, I was in Someplace Else and it was one of those great nights where you get high off great music (in this case, the Monkberries live) and only a couple of beers, dance for hours and feel totally free and not a touch self-conscious.

After the ‘pub’ I hit a club. For the safety of the persons involved, I’ll withhold the name of the club, though for anyone who knows Kolkata (Calcutta) it should be glaringly obvious. I’ll also keep secret the names of those in question, but that’s more because I’ve forgotten them.

I decided to take a breather and went upstairs to a lounge area partially overlooking the dance-floor and filled with huge sofas more like beds and covered in soft cushions. After a quick examination for vomit, I lay back content and watched the scene.

This was the first place in India I’d seen local girls out on the town. I’d already warmed to Kolkata and sometimes even caught myself feeling I was in London, Paris or some American city.

After a while this young couple came and sat next to me. (The sofas were so big and I’d been in India long enough to forget about any concept of personal space.)

I noticed out of the corner of my eye the guy slip his hand into the girls black dress and I smiled to myself. I figured they were drunk and had just hooked up.

Then the guy leaned across and asked the usual question: “What country do you come from?”

“England.”

“This is my wife…”

Sure.

“I like to touch her when someone else is watching. It gives us a kick … Do you mind?”

“Go ahead. Nothing I haven’t seen before,” I laughed and kicked back again with my beer and a good vantage point as he ran his hand under his wife’s dress and produced a big, dark breast – surprisingly big considering her slim build – then sucking on the nipple, pausing sporadically to check the coast was clear, which it never was, but it was dark and everyone was drunk and absorbed in their own business.

They’d been married 10 years – I couldn’t believe it, considering how young they looked – and had two kids, the guy proudly gestured.

“After so many years of marriage,” the guy explained, “you need little kicks like this. Especially here in India.”

I said I’d been here two months and hadn’t seen anything remotely sexual: no porn, no strip-clubs, not even so much as a short skirt or a low-cut top. He nodded like a man who comprehends all too well. For me, two months. For them, a lifetime.

After a while, as local couples danced around us like a striptease, they asked when I was leaving.

“India?”

“No, here.”

I held up my beer, indicating about a fifth remaining.

“We’ll go soon too.”

They offered to drop me back at my hotel. I said “thank you, but it’s not far”.

“It can be very dangerous in this city at this time,” he offered as a limp excuse, and then, “I want to touch my wife in the car. Would you like to watch?”

What was I supposed to say? Now, those who know me best know that given the choice between the boring and normal and the risky and unknown, I’ll always choose the risk. In situations like this there is – for me at least – only fear and curiosity, and what kind of person would I be if I gave in to fear? It’s my curse, but it’s also what qualifies me to write this blog.

Waiting for the valet, I asked the wife how they met.

“Here we used to have arranged marriages, so…”

I imagined these two, innocent children brought together by their families, 10 years later cruising the streets picking up Westerners to satisfy their sexual desires. I almost couldn’t keep a straight face.

“Would you like to see her pussy?” asked the guy as he drove.

“Touch me!” Said his wife. She took my hands and moved them over her breasts, down her back, up the insides of her legs. “Us Indian girls just love to be touched by the foreigners.” She slid off her underwear.

“You’re not jealous?” I asked the husband.

“Why should I be jealous? I’ll get the benefits when I get home.”

“Tell me something dirty I can do to her,” he kept saying.

“I really don’t know,” I said. “I think you’re fast running out of things you can do.” Not the answer they wanted of course but, to me, speeding around the backstreets of Kolkata while a random foreigner in the back-seat feels up and fingers your wife already seemed pretty out-there.

“Stop the car!” She yelled at her husband. “Why are you…all this moving around. Stop, just stop the car.”

“It’s too dangerous…If someone sees…”

“What happens if someone sees?” I asked.

“It’s very bad…You cannot do these things in India.”

Every corner we turned there were men sleeping on the street, on pallets, over the boots and bonnets of yellow taxis, and on the few streets that were dark and empty, when they tried to pull over and switch off the lights, packs of street dogs began to bark and chase the car, making a scene and they had to drive on.

“There are so many people in this country,” I said to fill the void.

“Yes. There are so many people in this country,” he repeated back as though it were a sudden revelation, a fact he’d struggled with his whole life without even knowing it, and only now realising that it wasn’t this way elsewhere.

“Do you like India?” Asked the wife.

I said it’s okay, can be pretty dirty.

“Yes, it’s dirty,” she said. “And there are many uneducated people here. They are getting educated now, but it will take time.”

“Would you like to watch her give me a blow-job?”

“Er. That’s okay. That’s not really my thing.”

All the time the girl is asking, “would you like to climb in front with me? Would you like to fuck me?”

“Um. As nice as that sounds…”

Then, at about the perfect time, there was a loud honk from behind and car headlights lit up the back windscreen.

I sat back, she pulled her dress back up and he stammered something about “the police” and sped off, weaving through the network of tight alleys.

I didn’t risk turning around to confirm whether it was the cops and, by the time I did look back, we’d lost them.

“I think you’d better drop me.”

They agreed.

Back at my hotel the bastards had locked the gate. I found and rang a buzzer over and over but I suspect it didn’t work. I shook the gate, but it was too heavy to make a noise. I looked at the chain – a couple of links seemed to have been replaced by thinner ones, gold in colour, but there were no gaps and the padlock was locked solid. I said (then shouted), “hello! Hello!” But no-one came. I could even see people laying about sleeping in the yard, in the reception – one guy only a few metres away. Finally I decided to swing the gate again – this time hard enough to make a loud clang. I pulled them back as far as I could then swung them forward with all I had, at which point the chain smashed off (as if this story wasn’t unbelievable enough already) and I walked in just as a guy was coming out of the office to see what all the fuss was about. I didn’t say anything – just walked past, muttering to myself, “fucking arseholes!”

I watched Open Season 2 (I’d seen the first one that morning so it seemed only right) (both are shit) then lay down on my hard board of a bed, without sheets, looking up at the whirling fan in my hot, sticky, stained skid-row Sudder Street hotel and only one thought kept passing through my mind:

What the fuck just happened?

Categories: Asia, India, Travel Stories | 2 Comments

The Happy Valley Tea Estate in Darjeeling, India

This may come as a shock to some, but, as I mentioned in my recent post about lassi, I do occasionally partake in the drinking of non-alcoholic beverages.

In fact, I’m a big tea fan. For starters, I’m British, also fell in love with mate in Argentina and Paraguay and, while we were busy poisoning our livers in Japan, a teetotal friend even convinced me to join the university’s “Tea Ceremony Club” – a proposition I ridiculed for months, until I realised he’d landed a gold mine: a club consisting entirely of hot Japanese student girls. Consequently, I developed a strong extra-curricular interest in “the way of tea”.

But that was Japan and this is India…

Path through Darjeeling tea fields

Darjeeling is over 2000m above sea level, in the Himalayan foothills.

To be honest, even if I had preferred to stick with alcohol in Darjeeling, I would’ve been hard pressed. A 10pm curfew means nightlife in Darjeeling is effectively non-existent, with the exception of Joey’s pub – the evening hangout of foreigners in Darjeeling (while the typical daytime hangout is Glenary’s bakery)…but, even then, you only have a short window, with Joey’s only opening at six (and not really picking up until 8, 8.30pm) – and Gatty’s, which will generally stay open as long as you want to keep buying drinks…if you can find it.

Gatty's Cafe bar in Darjeeling, West Bengal, India

With the guys at Gatty’s. This is the “before” photo. The “after” doesn’t bear thinking about.

Basically, I could drink my heart out and still wake up and enjoy the next day.

Everyone’s heard of Darjeeling tea, and the Happy Valley Tea Estate produces the finest of the fine. The estate is home to around 100 hectares of tea plantation and the world’s highest tea factory, at around 2000m above sea level.

Happy Valley tea factory highest in the world

The Happy Valley tea factory – highest in the world!

The best part is the tour is free. You are free to walk around the cool tree-lined paths of the tranquil tea fields, watching the pluckers, before a member of staff guides you through the various stages of the factory line, explaining each process in depth, how black, green and white teas are made from the same leaves, and, finally, why Darjeeling tea is so superior to “that Assam shit”. (I’m paraphrasing.) (Also, I like Assam tea.)

Happy Valley Estate tea plantation field path

Wandering the tranquil Happy Valley tea fields

The Darjeeling Tea Making Process

Some of these stages are integral to the production of tea, while others (and the order in which they’re carried out) are what make Darjeeling tea, and more specifically Happy Valley tea unique.

Tea leaves and bushes at Happy Valley tea fields

Some of these tea buses are 150 years old

  1. Plucking takes place in the fields between 7am and 11am and then later from 1pm to 4pm. The factory is only operational until 12 noon, so leaves picked in the afternoon are processed the next day.
  2. Withering removes approximately 65% of the moisture and softens them ready for rolling. This is done by placing the tea on wooden beds which are heated with hot air. The tea leaves are extremely sensitive in this state and absorb odours, so you can’t get too close to them.
  3. Rolling brings out more moisture and darkens the leaves in colour. Leaves are rolled for about 45 minutes.
  4. Oxidation or fermentation only applies to black tea. Here the leaves get even darker, which produces a stronger flavour.
  5. Drying or heating is the process of removing the final moisture from the leaves.
  6. Manual sorting doesn’t apply to all the leaves, but you can observe local women kneeling amongst baskets of tea leaves, sorting them.
  7. Cutting is pretty self-explanatory. The leaves are cut into different sizes.
  8. Grading is then done automatically using machines that filter the leaves. The four grades are: whole leaves, broken leaves, fannings and tea dust. Whole leaves make a “light cup”, which is why Darjeeling tea is best enjoyed without milk.
  9. Packing can then take place. Tea from Happy Valley is only available in Germany, Japan and the UK, with Harrods being the major (in fact, the only) place to get it. You can also buy it here at the factory of course, though I was surprised that there was no pressure to do so.

How to Get to Happy Valley Tea Estate?

Jeeps from Darjeeling town cost around 400 to 600 rupees and can be shared between up to eight people, though if it’s not too hot or wet I’d recommend walking. It’s a nice walk and takes around 15 to 30 minutes.

When to Go?

Opening times are 8am to 4pm, Tuesday to Saturday, though it’s best in season (March to November) and in the mornings (before 12 noon) when the plucking takes place and the factory is in full swing.

Happy Valley tea plantation pluckers

The Happy Valley tea pluckers on their lunch break

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Pokhara Nightlife Guide

Nightlife in Pokhara is characterised by an 11pm curfew, so if you’re in a bar and it’s getting near to 11, don’t leave. The police then make their way down the strip, so by 11.30 most bars have kicked out. By midnight it’s a ghost-town. (If you want to know how to break the curfew, read this post.)

The main Lakeside strip in Pokhara, Nepal

All the action in Pokhara takes place Lakeside, on the main drag – Lakeside marg. In addition to one of the best collections of Western style restaurants and bars in India and Nepal, you also have several Nepali “dance bars” peppered into the mix.

There are lots of shops selling the standard Nepali beers: Everest, Gorkha and Nepal Ice, don’t expect to drink them beside the lake after dark without being moved on by the cops. You’ll probably have to drink them at your hotel.

Pokhara also has an excellent (though often hit-or-miss) live music scene, with some very talented local musicians playing both local and international music.

Live Music Venues in Pokhara

Sometimes it seems like the Pokhara music scene is stuck in the 80s. Expect to hear the likes of Bon Jovi, Pink Floyd and Guns n’ Roses on a daily basis. I stayed 10 nights and heard the latter’s rendition of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” no less than 17 times. (Yes, I counted.)

A live Nepalese band rocks Busy Bee

Some of the restaurants play more relaxed, sit-down, acoustic stuff while you eat, but when it comes to live music there are really three main contenders.

Bar/Venue Description
Busy Bee Easily the biggest and most popular restaurant, bar, club and live music venue in town. Good food and 2-4-1 happy hour cocktails.
Club Amsterdam Everyone has their personal favourite of the three and this is mine. I happened to see a better quality and selection of music in here. Like Busy Bee but quieter. Also happy hour cocktails.
The Blues Bar Tucked just off the strip on a little side road, the Blues Bar is an old Pokhara institution. It attracts an older and, in my opinion, cooler crowd, of course has great music and offers a less main-stream, but not inferior, drinks selection: whiskies, other spirits, alcoholic teas…

Best thing about travelling alone? 2-4-1 cocktail happy hour in Busy Bee

What’s with the “Dance Bars” in Pokhara?

These are a strange affair. On the one hand, the clientele is pretty much entirely young Nepalese, guys and girls, and the live dance show on stage usually features a man and a woman, both fully clothed in Nepalese dress and dancing to Nepalese music.

On the other hand, you’re likely to be approached by flirtatious women who’ll try to persuade you to buy them drinks (for example a ridiculously overpriced glass of wine) in exchange for their unsolicited company. These girls are almost always plastered – no doubt the result of all those free drinks – and I have it on good authority that as the night draws to a close, other services are offered.

(Stripping is illegal in Nepal, which may have something to do with all this.)

I’ve heard horror stories about their Thamel (Kathmandu) counterparts, but all in all, I saw nothing to convince me these places were inherently dodgy.  If, like me, you feel it’s a side of Nepalese culture you’d like to experience, just exercise caution. Obviously it should go without saying, never order anything without seeing a menu.

Recommended Restaurants in Pokhara

Here’s a few of my favourite hang outs:

  • It was pretty universally agreed amongst our group in Pokhara that Lemon Tree did the best food in town (including the best breakfast) and you get free peanuts with your ice-cold beer.
  • Double view does a great “rum steak” and, as the name suggests, commands views of both the lake and the strip, to suit your mood.
  • Lotus corner. I love this place, though the owners are Syrian so I’m pretty sure you can’t get an alcoholic drink in there.
  • Merhaba is a Turkish restaurant up at the northern end of the strip and the only place outside Turkey I’ve ever been able to find an İskender kebap…and a good one at that! Recommended to us by a Pokhara regular.

Where to Stay in Pokhara?

As I always like to point out, this is a nightlife guide, not an accommodation guide, but if you want a sociable hostel in Pokhara, these two have dorms and had the best rates in town.

  • Hotel Celesty Inn has dorms for 400 Nepali rupees, plus service charge, tax, or whatever.
  • Hotel Angel is the cheaper of the two at 300 rupees in total. For some reason it has a constant flow of Chinese people coming by word of mouth, most of them hitchhiking via Tibet.

 

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