Tag Archives: village

Day 10: 19 January, HK

Today I embark on a little excursion which I had been putting off for a while. I get the ferry from Central to Park Island (formerly Ma Wan), a 3o minute ride. The island lies beneath the motorway from Lantau and Tsing Ma bridge. There is no private transportation access, and it is home to a modern private residential development, and some dumb looking attraction called Noah’s Ark. I’m here to walk past all this crap and find the original village of Ma Wan on the western shore. There are some paths over the hill with “private property signs” which lead down to the main street, which snakes past some wharves, rotting old stilt houses hanging over the beach, a little temple, a ghostly children’s play area and the shells of windowless empty shells of abandoned houses. The street lights still work…The villagers were forcibly ejected to make way and increase the prestige for the new luxury developments. Some locals still fish from the beach and use empty houses as bolt holes. I explore a couple of houses, and climb up flights of stairs onto their flat roofs.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI miss the ferry to Tsuen Wan, as I’m engaged in a chat with KK. This leaves no alternative but to get the ferry back to Central, which is a pity as I had wanted to go somewhere new. In Admiralty I find a vegetarian “cafe” which sells fusion food and I have an interesting ¬†laksa risotto. I walk up Hollywood Rd to Man Mo temple, and take in the smokey atmosphere before waking back east through the antiques streets to the mid -central escalators. On the way I come across another calligraphy stand: same political party, same process of writing out good wishes slogans. I pass by Central, a building that captivated me last trip with its many mirrored surfaces. I spend a while exploring the optical effects with my camera and get some great shots.

It’s the end of the work day. Under an elevated walkway is a busy Chinese medicine shop, with workers following recipes to source ingredients from walls of labelled wooden drawers then weigh them out with hand balances. At the door a man is selling herbal teas from vast metal urns. I try one. It is acrid but feels good. I sense this is an old and traditional shop….but when I looked for it on Google Street view later, I saw an empty concrete shell, suggesting that it hasn’t been around for very long at all.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have an anxious hunt for a recommended restaurant on the 23rd floor of a block in Wan Chai/Causeway Bay. Anxious as my phone battery has run out, and then because my Octopus card is empty so I can’t go anywhere else as it’s late. I’m the last customer in this buddhist place and I feel like a curio or inconvenience to the staff. Anyway the food is good, in spite of the hidden charges!

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People Sangkhlaburi

Children are brushing the verge in front of their school with straw brushes, like a little militarised unit. The Thais seem to be obsessed with brushing up leaves. Maybe it's meditative.

A group of orange clad monks, two white robed shaven headed nuns in tow. They move graciously and with dignity in public presence. When it gets dark I pass them on the second bridge smoking and browsing their phones.

Small boys diving from the flat bridge still in their khaki school shorts. The older ones are plunging from the 30m mon bridge.

In the market a woman with bad teeth chews on a cheroot and tries to sell me some sweets. I buy a bag of black rice from another mon woman, yellow ash daubs on her face.

At dusk a raft boat is towed out into the lake. Full of monks. Maybe going for a few days of peaceful meditation afloat on the water.

Two boys play a kind of cricket. Wickets a kind of tripod of twigs. The ball is a punctured yellow plastic one, the bad a stick. One of them is wearing a Man Utd shirt.

On the flat bridge a small group of Thais are dangling string with balls of bread in one of the gaps between the bamboo struts. Small children look on at their fishing.

In the dark on the bridge a teenager is listening to some western rock music on YouTube.

A policeman on a garishly lit Harley revs up illuminating the banana pancake man. His small daughter is standing on a box fingering the balls of dough.

I see women making handicrafts in doorways, whilst the men swing in hammocks.

Sangkhlaburi day 2

Quite a chilly sleep, thankfully the karaoke on the other side of the creek stopped by 11.

I'm quite excited to get up for sunrise over the lake. Monks on the bindi baht are crossing the bridge. Long tail drivers are prepping their boats and cruising out into the golden water. A schoolboy dressed in Boy Scout type uniform is with his mother selling little fish in bags of water, to be released for merit making. I guess that's his job before school. I forget how early it is. 6 am? 7 am? The village is getting up. Mon women with yellow ash daubed faces with baskets balanced on their heads are selling tea and snacks. Across another small bridge, under which locals are tilling their vegetable gardens, I'm now in a more rustic environment of typical mon houses, bamboo platforms with thin woven walls. There are a lot of women with babies. At a store I drink some water and a guy on a motorbike generously offers to take me to the wat. It's burmese and very ornate. On the land next to it is a campsite. Tents for monks. There is a road which is strewn with dry leaves, rustling in the cooling breeze. This leads to a gilded stupa, next to which is a souvenir market. Here I see a small group of monks committing taboos: handling money, smoking, shouting to each other. Buying food and ice creams…I understood their food was from donations. In the road a small mangey pup has just died. A pack of adult equally scrawny and few ridden dogs aggressively police the small corpse.

 

 

 

 

Burma

I’m back from 5 hours in Burma and it felt like a lifetime. Being in Mae Sot feels like the height of developed civilisation. The so-called friendship bridge is reached by following a long straight highway with trucks parked up along the sides. I initially don’t take the crossing and instead cruise the area under the bridge, the backside is all churned up and there is debris in the bushes from the recent 2 meter high flood waters. On the riverbank behind the concrete emabankment and behind a coil of barbed wire are a few makeshift stalls, the holders calling out to me offering their wares: Viagra, cigarettes, sectors. I’m guessing that they are in no man’s land behind the wire. On dry land is a covered market with many stalls selling finely carved Buddhas and teak furniture which young lads are polishing.

At the bridge I’m approached by a dark skinned guy with a scarred swelling on his neck. Not so skinny and quite smartly dressed in a shirt and long trousers. I’m immediately suspicious that he is a fake guide, working for the government in Burma. I’ve read about these guys. He shows me where I can park my bike and escorts me out of Thailand and onto the bridge where Burma looms. 300m away. He tells me he meets with foreigners to practise his English. Entering Burma is swift, I pass under a gazebo where some uniformed border agents are lounging around. I’m shown a tree stump which I believed to be where I should sit, but as I move to do so they all laugh at me. I was supposed to stand on it so they could frisk me. I’m ushered into an office then another by a series of well fed smiling white uniformed immigration officers, one of which welcomes me and asks for my 500 baht, which will go straight into the governments pocket. Heis civil, and I am fawning. They take my passport as guarantee that I will return and give me a laminated card with the number 3 printed on it to redeem it. I learn later in the whole day only 8 foreigners have crossed here.

Once off the bridge I’m in the town centre. A main drag not unlike poor Thailand. With food stalls and various uniformed figures sitting around. The side streets are unpaved, muddy, under water, the houses wooden shacks on stilts. My escort is called Mike and I attempt to suss him out by pushing him to talk about the government, police, religion. I realise he is genuine. He doesn’t have faith in the police, and tells me at length how they failed to get back his stolen motorbike even though he had identified the thief. He is critical of the army, the government. Laments the inequality in society, but forever remains optimistic. I ask him if he is afraid about speaking out. We sit on the polished teak floor of the pray hall at the pagoda and I wonder if anyone is overhearing our conversation. He says he is not afraid and not worried. I discover later that this is not entirely true. He deplores the medical service in Burma. His 18 month old son died recently as a result of disease caused by the flood. Later he shows me his picture. He also lost his brother in law recently too. Liver failure. Alcohol.

The pagoda is lively, kids playing and running through. Like all these poor places, it is opulent and a very stark contrast to the hovels that most people are used to. Mike takes me to his house. The roads are mud and puddles, shacks that serve as shops, barber shops, phone call centres. It’s very much third world. His house is on stilts, rattan sheet walls, very thin, plastic mats on the floor, it is squalid and I feel slightly ill at ease inside. There a no chairs, no tables, no kitchen, no bathroom. There is a tv, and electricity which is hooked up from a neighbouring rich house which is kind of like an electricity hub. There are kids playing in the mud outside, chickens running around, a pig snorting in a cage. The path is sandbags. His house too was deluged by the recent flood water. He shows me a book that has passed through many many hands. An Oxfam guide to health in a place where there is no doctor. It describes among other things how to deliver a baby. He tells me malaria is a problem here and how he has had it.

His young kids arrive then disappear again, left to their own devices, at 9 and 5. no school today.

I need a pee, but am wary to ask, as there doesn’t look like there is anywhere. He says he will take me to a friend’s house where I can relieve myself. This turns out to be a sort of cafe…some benches, a table a fridge, some young guys, one a transsexual, I later learn, sitting around bored looking, smiling, passing an unrelenting nothingness of existence. I use the toilet, I drink some water. Mike talks a lot. He is quite repetitive and is becoming a bit boring. His English isn’t so easy to follow and typically he doesn’t listen or ask questions. Still I am very grateful to him. He has no job, and lives hand to mouth. He has shown me things I would not have had the courage to explore myself. Back on the road we have some betel nut rolled in a leaf, given free by the stall holder. It’s bitter, crunchy, a bit aromatic, chewing it supposedly cleanses the mouth. It produces red juice, which a user spits periodically. This stuff turns your tongue red and blackens your teeth with extended use. I saw many cases of this. The people are gracious, not shy to having their photo taken. A couple of oddballs walk up to me and welcome me. One guy is wearing a pith helmet has a long beard and is carrying a plastic toy machine gun.

We take lunch near the bridge. Numerous dishes all very tasty: mushrooms, bamboo shoots, a bitter green vegetable, rice and a pile of assorted leaves.

After lunch the trouble starts that turns this stimulating trip into a confusing and bittersweet adventure. Mike takes me into a room off the Main Street, through a curtain. The room is full of young men clustered around big flat video games with multiple players. Kind of shoot up games which I think they are gambling on. My presence is noticed but nobody is perturbed…until I take a couple of overall pictures. Suddenly Mike is by me, and a tough looking guy in a pit helmet with narrow mean eyes grabs his arm and takes him up a flight of stairs at the back of the room. I sense something has gone wrong. I feel uncomfortable. I edge out of the room and stand by the doorway. One of the players invites me to join, I indicate I’m just watching. Mike appears some minutes later no longer looking relaxed. The mean guy walks with him to the door, a scene develops as this guy looks at me madly and is obviously berating me. I do the usual hands raised in submission, humilty and apology, I’m just an ignorant foreigner. Mike walks me away from the place and around the block, under the bridge. He says this guy is Karen army and that they control the betting in these places. This guy had a gun and threatened Mike because of my photographic activities. I am aware that all this has not diffused. Mike is very bothered. I’m blaming myself, when perhaps Mike is blaming himself. I then gather that his wife, who I hadn’t met, is also in that place. Mike tells me he has to go and get her. I wait across the street. When he appears five minutes later he is with his wife who is hysterical and shouting and doesn’t acknowledge me. Is she mad at me? I decide I should return to Thailand now. There are other people now surrounding us as she carries on shouting and Mike is in heated debate with some other sympathetic guys. Apparently the mean Karen mafia guy assaulted his wife with a chair. He hit her! Mike speaks to the police, but what can they do? He says I should do something about his situation, but what does he mean and what can I do. On the bridge he engages the police, customs, immigration officials. They listen, but don’t act. None of them speak English. In the end Mike suggests that I report this. What does this entail? The guards get a blank piece of paper on which I write my name, date of birth and fathers name. Nothing will happen….pointless…….I have now seen how terrible things a in Burma. Organised crime, police are powerless, or corrupt, or turn a blind eye. The victims are the poor. The foreigner walks away back to his own better life.

Mike sees me through customs. I redeem my ticket to get back my passport. The genial customs official delightedly tells me that it is now possible to visit all of Burma. Something I know is not true. Not even the Burmese are free to travel throughout heir own country. On the bridge we exchange phone numbers. Mike had wanted me to buy a Burmese SIM card from the stall at customs. A cut price rate for foreigners. Unavailable to Burmese. The stall is closed. I give him 500 baht for his guidance and I cross back to Thailand in the strong sunlight. looking back I do not see the big slimy dog shit that I subsequently step in. Sums it all up nicely.

I feel relieved to be back in Thailand. This is a place I at least understand a little. Burma scared me.

On the way back to Mae Sot I call in at a large temple complex, Burmese style, novices playing that game like volleyball where you use a rattan ball and your feet. Workmen building a path to the reclining Buddha. The idiot sweeping up. Two monks smoking cheroots in the doorway to the mirrored Buddha hall.

I’m exhausted.

Day 19 – Cycling up Route 13

Once more I didn’t get up at dawn, and anyway a bit bad-tempered after being woken up and kept awake by noisy neighbours, but still haven’t put a face to the din.

I rent a mountain bike, as yesterday’s one-speed heavy iron thing was useless for rough roads and hills. After buying some stuffed beyond capacity baguettes for breakfast and a picnic later I ask at tourist information for a good local map. What I get is useless and pointless.

Ive read about Route 13 and I missed it on the bus as it was dark. It goes all the way to Vientiane, which is 384km, but I’m not going to do that. It winds gently up the mountains and for a main road it is rather low-key, poorly finished and with no markings.

After about 30 minutes I come to a turning marked Tadhong Waterfall and take the steep dusty mud road/track, passing a couple of locals with sling shots, searching for food, some small houses and a boy doing something with large planks of wood, possibly preparing them for seasoning. It’s hot and I’m not sure how far I will have to go, but 20 minutes later I descend to a pond and a cluster of buildings labelled Snack Bar. Nobody there, just a local standing on the crumbling brick bridge.

The surroundings are beautiful, mountains all around, lilac coloured bushes a waterfall gently falling over the rocks. A woman appears from the shacks and sells me a ticket for 10,000 kip, which seems a lot just to stand at this clearing but she explains there are more falls higher up.

I take the wrong path immediately, and find myself climbing the side of the mountain through semi-cultivated slopes and past the workers’ shacks. As ai limb the view becomes more dramatic. The trodden path (not well beaten) takes me higher into the forest. There are hundreds of twisty vortex-like spider webs at knee height in the grass and bushes, and some spiders too.

Many types of butterflies, yellow, dirt colour, a red and white one the size of a child’s hand, 15cm long green dragonflies, blue-black ones near the water courses, and dirt coloured jumping cricket-like insects about 6cm long, hopping all over the place. And no people, just me.

Over the top of the mountain the path flattens then descends a little leaving the forest and I see it doesn’t lead to a waterfall, but a village, I later learn is called Ban Huay Ton. Seeing this remote village brings a moment of excitement. It looks just like the places I read about: remote, undeveloped, poor and not used to falangs.

I hesitate about proceeding, knowing I will be stared at and feel like the stupid whiteman looking at the natives, but I know I cant miss this opportunity. The approach is strewn with waste and on the edge of the settlement a small girl of about 6 or 7 is crouching and learning to weave the grass panels that are used for the walls of the huts. Her sister works behind her.

The village comprises about 25 similar houses with thatched roofs and grass panel walls, on stilts with wood stored underneath. This space is also used for keeping animals and has a platform for sitting on in the shade. There is a lot of sitting around: 4 boys are being taught something by a teacher: a woman standing on a small mound in front of them. Kids playing in an empty oil drum, another with an old bicycle tyre, some chase a skinny half-plucked chicken.

They are all shoe-less and have old dirty, some ripped, clothes. There is a gathering of people, mostly kids watching a truck unloading some stone. 2 monks also. Smoking. I know this is taboo. The place has 2 stores, which are just houses with big open window counters holding soft drinks and tissues.

Only the kids call out Sabaidee, the adults respond to me, but I’m tolerated rather than welcome. Anyway nobody objects to being photographed. There is electricity and there are a few satellite dishes. There is a dust road and motorbikes. I don’t think these people travel far, and I wonder what they make of and feel about the world they view on their TVs. I regret not having anything to give the kids. That was titillation, and leaves me a bit sad and awkward. Like going to a zoo.

The route back over the hill takes me through more forest and I’m passed by some locals who are not very responsive. Eventually I find the initial goal: a series of pools linked together by little cascades, sparkling in the dappled light shooting through the canopy. Its soothing, beautiful, peaceful.

Back at the Snack Bar pond area, a man is fishing with a rod, and a couple are wading the stream searching for something with a large net.

I return to Route 13 and carry on up the mountains away from Luang Prabang. It’s a joy to have a good bike. I’ve never ridden a bike that makes such big hills effortless. After passing through a number of villages and 30 minutes later, I decide that I should turn back..though, to be honest I just wanted to keep on going. The scenery is so awesome and the watching of everyday life so engrossing.

Back in town I go to the UXO visitors’ centre. This is an information centre run by UXO Laos, who are an NGO who are systematically removing all the unexploded ordinance left over from the Second Indo-China War. Laos had more bombs dropped on it than the total number of bombs dropped in the entire Second World War. The poorest areas were worst hit and the carpet bombing and use of chemical weapons is still having a significant effect on the people there. Lives being taken, children being maimed, livelihoods lost. Last year there were still 300 incidences of injury or fatality. This is 4 decades on and there are victims who weren’t even alive when these things were dropped. One of the biggest problems are cluster bombs. These are now illegal. The Americans dropped thousands of these. The casing breaks apart in mid-air scattering 400-600 mini-bombies, brightly coloured (nice for kids) and the size of a grapefruit. 30% of these never exploded. When one goes off anyone within 30m of it faces injury or worse. These are being dug up, found almost day by day..in school fields, paddy fields. I read that it will take another 100 years to completely remove all these bombs. Another problem is that poverty drives the locals to trade bombs and bomb casings as scrap metal. This is out-lawed but not enforced. This trip was really emotional and it made me angry to see that the USA isn’t more involved in righting this affront to humanity.

Another evening of shakes, crepes, and cycling in the cool dark evening. Ive found this part of the trip a bit solitary. Couples here, groups of friends with money, families, retired people. Anyway, I’m doing what I want to, and I was getting bored with the traveller’s chat: where are you from/where have you been/where are you going next?

I’m looking forward to being with someone: Cyrus and wonder how he will respond to this kind of travelling. 7pm here feels like 1am!