All of Us

Sadly I have to report that I haven’t yet found a way out of this disturbing parallel universe. Meanwhile this dark version of history keeps getting worse. I don’t have words to describe the baleful destruction, divisiveness and stupidity playing out on both sides of the Atlantic at the moment.

Instead I’ve found a hiding place, though it’s not perfect. News of various dystopian events keeps leaking through. But I’m trying to stay here and hide my head in books for as long as possible.

Back when I was in Hanoi I felt a similar desire to hide from a chaotic world. Once, when I was trying to cross a wide, busy road by the lake, I simply gave up and retreated into a nearby café instead. 

The staff greeted me with a wholly un-Vietnamese level of enthusiasm. Unlike the other Southeast Asian countries I visited, I found that on the whole Vietnamese people were less ready to smile, and often spoke with a sort of abrupt familiarity bordering on rudeness. Paradoxically this made me like them all the more. It reminded me of Russia, where people go out of their way to help you whilst bossing you around in a hectoring, peremptory tone. The classic example is when a Russian lady in Moscow refused to believe I didn’t have the right change until she snatched up my purse and tipped all the money out to count it. Courtesy is all very well but it’s also quite othering. I felt less alien, more at home, in Vietnam than anywhere else in that part of the world.

At some point in the past Vietnam taxed buildings based on the width of the street frontage. This resulted in a weird architecture of long, thin buildings shaped like cereal boxes, with the thinnest side presented to the street. The Note Café was in one of these buildings, made up of a small footprint and a lot of floors and stairs. You order on the ground floor and are ushered up to sit in one of the rooms above. 

As I puffed up the steep stairs I realised I’d inadvertently stumbled into a very unusual establishment. The whole café is covered in colourful notes, plastered all over the walls, the windows, the doors, the chairs and tables and even the light fittings, all offering up brief messages from past visitors. The effect is overwhelming. Over time hundreds of messages have built up into layers of little drawings, jokes, signatures, multilingual greetings, bad spellings, bland deepitudes, hopes, dreams, fears, heartfelt confessions and expressions of love. 

Being a cynical, world-weary, tired traveller, still recovering from a horrendous sleeper bus trip (I told you not to ask me about it), my first thought was this is a gimmick. But as I sat there, sipping a glorious iced Vietnamese coffee, the sheer accumulation of messages won me round. How often, when you’re sitting somewhere, do you think about all the other people who have been there before you? The world contains almost seven and a half billion people. Hanoi has a population of seven and a half million, and over 800,000 people visited Vietnam last year. Most of the time people pass through places without leaving a trace, but here you could look around and see their presence – and more than that, you could glimpse their thoughts, their personalities, their hopes and dreams fluttering on the walls. I was moved to see how many people used the ephemeral anonymity of a Post-It to unburden themselves to a community of equally transient souls.

Then, several weeks and adventures later, I found myself in the Mahamuni Pagoda in Mandalay, Burma, sitting on the floor and drinking some vile and violently blue ‘lemonade’. People kept coming up to talk to me while I sat there, including a strange self-important monk who offered to give me a tour of the place in terms that made it clear that it was not optional. He whizzed me round, telling me the age and weight in kilos of all the statues and gongs, ordering some small novices to recite something to me and finishing off by offering a long and bizarre blessing (“… and peace, good health, and don’t drink too much alcohol, and many happy returns.”)

This pagoda houses one of the three most holy Buddhist shrines in Burma, along with the golden stupa of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon and the Golden Rock of Kyaiktiyo: the Mahamuni Buddha, a highly venerated golden statue. Men (though not women) can magnify the power of their prayers by applying a little square of gold leaf to it. Mandalay is therefore the centre of gold leaf production in Burma. I visited a traditional tourist trap of a factory while I was there. 

Men hammered packets of gold into exquisitely thin, fragile leaf. It looked like hard work. Then, at the pagoda, other men carefully applied these slender leaves to the Mahamuni Buddha, praying all the while. 

Over time, these devotions have altered the form of the statue itself, covered its most accessible parts in a thick layer of gold-leaf mounds, as if parts of it had been swathed in giant gold sheepskin. Gold bubbles out from the statue towards the kneeling worshippers before it, countless layers of shimmering devotions.

These two places where you can see the combined traces of our individual humanity have been on my mind ever since I visited them. They seem to say, even in the face of recent events: here we are. All of us, familiar and alien to each other, pinning up our thoughts on the walls for others to see; distorting the shape of the very things we worship with the layered weight of our fragile golden prayers.

Help! My Plane Touched Down in a Dystopian Parallel Universe

John Martin, ‘The Great Day of His Wrath’

Have you read The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, or Dominion (C.J. Sansom)? Two works of alternative reality science fiction in which the points on the railway of history are switched another way, throwing humanity down the wrong track.

Well, I say science fiction, but this has just happened to me. Somehow on the return journey from my Boat Trip I managed to slip through the veil separating parallel dimensions, and now I seemed to be trapped in a worrisome iteration of the world in which a hate-filled idiot with the attention span and skin colour of a goldfish is about to become the next US President.

It sounds far-fetched, I know, but bear with me. I think the dimension-hop occurred at the moment my flight from Muscat to London hit the cold, wet tarmac of Heathrow – it was a bit of a bumpy landing, come to think of it. When I left Bangkok, fourteen hours earlier, I was definitely still in my own dimension. After ten weeks on the road I was ready to come home. Although I’ve only got as far as Hanoi on this blog, my complete itinerary turned out to be thus:

Thailand – Bangkok, Chiang Mai

Laos – slow boat, Luang Prabang

Vietnam – Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Hue, Hoi An

Cambodia – Siem Reap, Koh Rong Samloem, Phnom Penh

Burma – Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, Kalaw, Inle Lake, Kyaitiyo, Mawlamyine

Bangkok again, then home.

(I’ll write up my impressions of the rest of the trip in due course – hopefully once I’ve found the portal back to a less terrifying version of reality.)

John Martin, ‘Pandemonium’

I was flying with Oman Air via Muscat, a route and airline I would thoroughly recommend. It was very cheap and all my flights were relatively empty, allowing me to stretch out over several seats and get a decent amount of sleep. During the brief stop in Muscat I checked my phone and everything seemed normal. I think the polls had closed in some parts of the US but not in others. Weirdly enough, I ended up listening to a radio interview my boyfriend did about the current threat to Hornsey Town Hall. That was strange: sitting on the marble floor of the airport, surrounding by tall men in elegant white dishdashas and embroidered skullcaps, listening to David talking to Vanessa Feltz.

Then I boarded the second, eight-hour flight. My sense of time stretched to snapping point between the Bangkok time I’d left, the Oman time I was now on and the time it would be in London. I went back to sleep, waking hours later to find the steward had thoughtfully wedged an array of juices and snacks into the seat pocket in front of me.

The view from my window as the plane landed.

Then it happened. We landed with a bump in dark Heathrow. As soon as we’d stopped I checked the news. Everyone around me was doing the same.

“Good God, he’s ahead in the Electoral College,” I said, smiling, assuming it was one of those election night blips.

“He’s really far ahead,” the guy in the row opposite me said, frowning at his phone.

A woman behind us overheard, gave a little scream and pulled out her own phone. There was none of the usual pushy scramble for the overhead lockers, or pointless queue in the aisles while the plane doors were still locked; everyone was frozen in their seats, eyes on little glowing screens, or huddled around each other’s phones.

A deep silence descended on the plane.

At some point I refreshed the New York Times and it went from a 95% chance of the orange vandal winning to the news of him having won. Someone barked at me to put my phone away so I did, impatiently pulling it back out as soon as I could. I went through the incoming results with a couple who had obviously been following the race very closely; we whistled through our teeth as the news from the swing states. My hand was trembling violently as I held up my phone so we could all see the red-stained electoral map.

Then I looked up and realised with a tremendous jolt that I was standing at the baggage carousel and I’d been there for several minutes. I didn’t even have any checked baggage to collect. I’d registered passport control only as an instruction to put my phone away.

I said goodbye to the shocked couple and slipped away. Heathrow was quiet. Everyone looked stunned. My feet found their way down to the underground while I frantically searched through every news outlet I could think of, as if looking for the one that would say ‘just kidding!’ and all would be well. Everyone on the tube was silent, shocked, glued to their phones. People were actually making eye contact, an extremity of London commuter communication, equivalent in other cultures to people grabbing each other by the shoulders and yelling ‘what the hell is going on?!’ in their faces.

Then we went underground and lost internet connection. I looked around and realised, properly, that I was home: my ten-week journey had ended. But it was around then that I began to suspect that in a wider sense, I wasn’t home: I had landed in the wrong dimension, and my journey into this paranoid, debased, ignorant world had only just begun.

Thoughts on Solo Travel

“Where from?” the lady asks, trotting along to keep up with me. I can only see her eyes. She’s wearing trainers, trousers, a hoodie with the hood up and the sleeves stretched down over her hands, a floral face mask like a surgical mask, and a large conical straw hat on top of her hood. Vietnamese women don’t go in for sunscreen – instead they cover up.

“England,” I said, not breaking my stride, knowing that this was the prelude to a sales pitch.

“Oh! Lovely jubbly!” she said triumphantly.

“Yes.” I wished, not for the first time, that I could have a quick word with whoever introduced that cloying phrase to the collective English vocabulary of Vietnam.

“You here alone?”


“So brave!”

I have a variation of this conversation almost every day, but I don’t feel brave. If anything I’d say I feel selfish. Disappearing for two and a half months to travel wherever I want, spending each day exactly as I please. I can let ordinary mealtimes slide into my natural preference for a mid-morning brunch and a mid-afternoon tea. I can spend an entire day in a café, or, in the case of Luang Prabang, an entire week café-hopping. I can arbitrarily skip whole cities (Vientiane, Saigon) in favour of a slower pace of travel. It’s an amazing sense of freedom.

I miss my boyfriend and my Mum and all my lovely people, and I’m glad I have my phone here so I’m usually just a couple of taps away from contacting someone. Whenever I’ve needed help or advice it’s been there. I’ve had plenty of moments when I’ve been somewhere and thought “oh, So-And-So would love this,” and wished that person was there so I could share it with them. But short of bringing an entire entourage with me everywhere I go, I will always miss someone when I’m away.

I miss my people, but I haven’t particularly felt lonely. Admittedly, I am a complete introvert- I was 100% thus on a Myers-Briggs test (INFJ). I’m perfectly happy on my own, reading or writing or just watching the world go by. I do love people, but you don’t half tire me out if I’m around you all the time, especially in large groups.

Also, as someone who attempts to write, I need frequent bouts of solitude so that I can stare gormlessly into the middle distance, mouth hanging half open if I’m not careful, waiting for words to arrange themselves in my head so I can write them down. One of the things I’ve most loved about this trip is having long uninterrupted hours to write.

Even though I’m happy on my own, I think I would feel lonely if solitude was my only choice. It certainly isn’t. If you want to surround yourself with people, travel alone. It’s so ridiculously easy to get chatting to other travellers it makes me wonder why it can be so hard at home. All you need to do is to walk into the communal area of a hostel, or a friendly café or bar, and a conversation will find you. I’ve never had trouble finding company when I’ve sought it out.

The only significant downside to solo travel has been not having anyone to watch my stuff when I’m in transit and I want to go to the bathroom or pop into a shop. This can be a real pain in the arse. I’m glad I’ve packed light.

On the positive side, more than just the dizzying freedom to indulge your idiosyncrasies, the best thing about solo travel is how deeply you become immersed in the country you’re in. When you travel with someone, no matter how hard you might try you always carry around a little bubble of your own culture with you and view everything from within it. I’ve found I get into far more conversations with locals if I’m alone- people make more of an effort to come and chat to you, to check you’re all right. I also get “looked after” a lot: people press bottles of water and bits of food on me. Yesterday a lady brought me a fried egg, having decided that I wasn’t having a big enough breakfast. They also open up more. I don’t think I’ve gone a single day without having at least one interesting, surprising conversation with someone- today it was a man worrying about bringing up his six children. 

Society attached a stigma to the whole concept of being alone. It goes against the idea that humans are social animals. This is true, and loneliness and isolation are horrible problems in modern life, especially among older people. But while humans are social creatures, we are not herd animals, no matter how hard a lot of modern culture and politics seems to want us to be.

Solitude is seen as something to be avoided at all costs, and seeking it out is therefore suspect. This goes right back to mankind’s earliest societies, precarious hunter-gatherer bands of thirty souls where internal conflict could spell disaster, and everyone really did need to stick together. Rules and taboos emerged as a force to protect these fragile structures, and have embedded themselves in societies ever since.

Though human societies have become a lot bigger and more complex, you can still see echoes of these unconscious forces at work. But instincts which helped protect ancient micro-societies can act as a destructive force in our own world. A force which tell people that those outside their perceived group are “others”, threats which must be repelled even if they are terrified children in Calais camps. A force telling people to build a wall and make “others” pay. These kneejerk forces privilege conformity, and people who are driven by them read any small difference as a threat. It’s a short step from a threat to a taboo, and though we like to think we’ve evolved, modern life is still full of these unconscious, meaningless taboos.

All this is a longwinded way of saying that people who think it’s weird if another person is harmlessly eating alone in a restaurant or travelling by themselves are unevolved creatures who aren’t worth worrying about. If you want to travel solo, set aside all such received opinion and go for it. Find out who you are when no one you know is watching. You’ll have a brilliant time.

(There’s an absolute wealth of advice for solo travellers on this website.)

Hanoi Howl

(Never speak to me of the sleeper bus.)

I arrived in Hanoi at the worst possible time, late at night in the middle of the Full Moon celebrations. My taxi got as far as Hoan Kiem Lake, which was a miracle in itself, then became hopelessly enmeshed in a loud chaotic crush of people and cars and motorbikes and mopeds, so many mopeds, a tightly woven net of mechanised humanity which closed in all around us.

The taxi driver bore it quite cheerfully for a while. He added his own contribution to the cacophonous revelry by blasting out a techno track with sampled parts of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech over a pneumatic drill of a beat. I stared out of the window as the song battered my eardrums and thought ‘I Have A Nightmare.’

Then the driver’s mood switched, and he snapped off the music and kicked us out of the car, myself and two young German boys, ejecting us into the middle of a multi-lane street jammed rigid with people and cars and more motorbikes and mopeds than I have ever seen in my life nor ever wish to see again.

I don’t have any photos of this as I was too preoccupied at the time by questions of my immediate survival. The Germans were two of the four people with whom I’d spent the last 26 hours lying flat on a claustrophobic shelf of dentist-chair-like contraptions as we were flung around at the back of the sleeper bus (don’t ask me about the sleeper bus). They got out the other side of the cab and edged round to the back to get their backpacks. I already had mine in hand. By the time they got round the back of the car, mere metres away, they were already entirely cut off from me by a tight group of mopeds. We waved goodbye and the traffic swallowed them up. I never saw them again.

I shouldered my bag and limped stiffly through any available gap in the traffic, weaving my way towards the curb, though it was itself so blocked by parked mopeds I fared little better when I got there. I had instantly given up the idea of finding the hotel the taxi was supposed to take us to; instead my mind was occupied by a single atavistic urge to find somewhere to hide and hide there. I worked my way from hotel to guesthouse until I found something I could afford that wasn’t fully booked, then followed a tiny lady up four flights of steep stairs to a small bare room and locked myself away.

The next morning I woke up feeling a lot better, though I was still tired, bruised and achey from the battering horror of the bus (never shall I speak of it). Google Maps showed me that I was only about ten minutes away from the Box Hotel, the one I wanted to be in, so I checked out and steeled myself for another sortie into the streets.

Mopeds! Mopeds! Nightmare of Mopeds! The whole city charging on mopeds! Motorbikes carrying families of four! Mopeds mounting the pavement to drive into shops! Pavements crusted with mopeds, forcing you to walk in streets of screaming mopeds! Motorbikes that want to take you for a ride! Hello Lady! Moto!

I managed to make it first to the travel agency where I booked a boat trip to Ha Long Bay, and then round the corner to the Box Hotel. The volume of traffic and level of mayhem wasn’t nearly as bad as the night before, but I was far from comfortable in the streets. By the time I got to the Box the desire to hide was back in force.

The Box Hotel is ideal in this respect. It’s a cross between a hostel and a capsule hotel. They have dorm rooms, but you can also have your own private box, which I did: a wood-lined, high-ceilinged miniature room a lot like a sleeping compartment on a train, with two bunks, a couple of small cupboards and blissful air conditioning. After the chaos of the streets it felt as calm and safe as a sensory deprivation tank. I loved it.

“You go for walk now?” asked the lady who showed me my room. She had the haunted, blank look of the profoundly sleep-deprived. 

“I think I’ll unpack first,” I said, not wanting to face the chaos again just yet.

“Okay, but first you go. Room not ready. We clean.”

“I see.” I left reluctantly. 

“Not taking long.” She spoke in a toneless way that matched the blank sleepwalking look on her face. I suspected she had been at the front desk all night.

“It’s fine, I’ll go for a coffee.”

“Coffee here. Free tea coffee, you take.”

“Thank you.”

“You are beautiful.”

She was behind me as we went back downstairs. I glanced round uncertainly. “Sorry?”

“I think you are beautiful,” she repeated, her voice as flat as ever. Then she smiled, and her tired face lit up with life.

“Well,” I said, being English.

She showed me to the coffee pot and disappeared back upstairs.
I had gone to sleep the night before with wet unbrushed hair and woken up with an extravagantly strange cowlick hairstyle. My arms and legs were spotted with bruises from the bus and the short perilous walk from one hotel to the next had already poached me in sweat. Never in my life have I felt less beautiful. And yet never have I felt better for hearing it said. I drank a coffee in the lobby, and then, because it was overbrewed and awful, and because I was full of newfound confidence, I strode back out into the streets in search of a better cup.

Café Crawl

From the moment I first walked around Luang Prabang I felt at home. It was familiar to me, as though I’d lived there for years. I suppose this was down to the familiar French influence on the architecture, with elegant shuttered villas lining the quiet streets, tucked in between the gold-leaf temples and lush banana trees. But more than that, there’s something about the atmosphere of the place that made me feel completely at ease. 

Perhaps it was also because I felt like I’d stumbled into the setting of a lost Graham Greene novel, some half-forgotten colonial outpost sinking in mellow decrepitude into the banks of the Mekong – although the city’s history is far richer than that impression implies. 

Luang Prabang has a fair number of wats to explore, a couple of museums and a handful of caves and waterfalls for day trips into the countryside. You can occupy yourself fairly well with sightseeing for a couple of days at least.

Whatever you choose to do, the real joy of the place lies in not doing much at all. The pace of life is deliciously slow. I spent most of my time there sitting in cafés, reading and writing or just watching the street. Watching a bubbling handful of sparrows dare each other to dart forward and steal crumbs from beneath the tables. Watching a tuk tuk driver pull up short of where he wanted to park, dismount and manhandle his tuk tuk towards the curb. Watching young novice monks straying through the courtyard of the wat opposite, eating ice cream. Watching dragonflies sketch their secret messages in the humid air. 

My favourite café in Luang Prabang is Le Banneton, which has also made it on to my very short list of favourite cafés in the whole world. I practically moved into the place, establishing such a firm base camp at my favourite table that I could wander off for a while without settling the bill, run a few errands, stop for a chat and come back to find they’d kept my table and set out a fresh glass of ice water to greet my return.

If I wasn’t at Le Banneton or just wandering along Sakkaline Street, I was probably at L’Etranger, especially in the evening. Every town should have a L’Etranger. It’s a place where solitary bookish types can go and feel instantly at home. I was so comfortable there I once fell asleep on the sofa in their haven of an upstairs room, a shoes-off sanctuary where they show free films every evening as long as you buy a drink or your dinner. They have a great selection of tea, but like most aspects of Luang Prabang the main draw is the atmosphere of the place. I felt like I was part of a international family of book lovers. 

I did very little in Luang Prabang, though I wrote a lot, and I did manage to find my way to Big Brother Mouse before I left. This was the real highlight of my time in the city. I wish I’d made it there sooner. Big Brother Mouse is a charity devoted to promoting literacy, and to teaching English. Volunteers are asked to come to their open sessions, one starting at 9am and one at 5pm, to help local teenagers practice their English. 

I went to the 9am session and loved every minute of it. Naturally the teenagers were all late, but when they eventually showed up they were all eager to learn. I would strongly recommend bringing a bottle of water, because I talked myself hoarse over the two hour session, trying to explain what words like “habit”, “inevitably” and “judgemental” meant as simply as possible, and trying without much success to improve their pronunciation. You don’t need any teaching experience to come, and you don’t need to prepare anything. The students bring along their endless lists of vocabulary, and conversations arise of their own accord. 

Some of the older, more fluent boys wanted to learn more slang, so I’m afraid I offered up a few choice London phrases, much to the disapproval of another volunteer. One boy in particular absolutely relished slang, and had his own homemade vocabulary list of it in his notebook. (“Can I say ‘I like your tongue-in-cheek?'” he asked me earnestly.)

But most of them were far more serious about it, soaking up new words with great intensity. It was a delight to meet them all.

A landslide meant I was in the city for a day longer than I intended, as my bus was cancelled. Although it threw off my carefully managed budget of Lao kip, I found myself thinking that if I was going to get stranded anywhere in the world, I couldn’t find a place that suited me better than Luang Prabang.

The Slow Boat to Luang Prabang

Once upon a time some intrepid travellers ventured on to the slow, low-slung, heavy cargo boats that furrow their way through the dun-coloured waters of the Mekong in northern Laos. What a voyage that must have been, chugging along to Luang Prabang, squashed on to wooden benches among sacks of rice and livestock. Inevitably, word got out about this route, and someone sniffed an opportunity. It’s now a well-worn path on the Southeast Asia backpacking trail. 

Don’t let anyone convince you to join an organised tour. It’s ridiculously cheap and easy to do this trip independently. As soon as you get to the Lao border town of Huay Xai you will find yourself clicking into the well-oiled machine of the slow boat, sweeping you downstream.

There are alternatives to this trip. The first is to do the route in reverse, from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai, but this is upriver, and will increase your time on the boat from seven to nine hours a day. The second option is the speed boat. This is twice the cost of the slow boat but takes half as long, only one day instead of two. But the Mekong is a treacherous river to navigate, and there have been fatalities on speed boat trips. You’ll be in an open boat, strapped into a life jacket and helmet for seven hours, bucketing along at a frantic pace. A couple of speed boats passed us on the first day of our slow boat, the occupants drenched already from their own spray and powering noisily into the driving rain. They looked utterly miserable. Meanwhile we were puttering along on a boat with a snack shop and a not-unreasonable toilet on board. You can also take a bus or, if you have no imagination at all, a plane.

The day before my boat trip began I met a lovely intrepid English couple, Laura and Scott. That night we got chatting to an Israeli guy who was getting the speed boat and who was as horrified at the thought of spending two days on the slow boat as we were by risking life and limb on his option. As we debated the options, a strange figure lurched up the corridor towards us and threw himself into a seat, unburdening himself of a stream-of-consciousness monologue about how he’d just accidentally smoked an opium cigarette, mistaking it for a spliff. “I was feeling so tired earlier but now I feel really great,” he announced, with a hint of unwarranted surprise in his voice. He was German. “Do you hate me?” he asked the Israeli guy, making us all cringe. 

“No,” the Israeli man said.

“That’s okay then.” But a moment later he added, “Seriously, though, so sorry for that shit.” 

Having thus apologised for the Holocaust he thankfully moved on to other topics. After a while we were joined by an older French man who was so ridiculously French he appeared to be a send-up. We talked about travel and Brexit, and it was our turn to apologise. 

The next morning we were wondering what the German guy was going to be like when he wasn’t on opium. To my delight he was the same unfiltered person.

The boat left more or less on time and we began to wind our way slowly down the sweeping curves of the Mekong. The river was wide and brown, so shallow in places you could see the water bubbling over the rocks below. The land was one long hymn to the colour green. Blue-green hills swelled up in the distance, covered in forest which crowded right to the river’s edge, interspersed with the glowing green leaves of banana plantations and the ludicrous neon green of paddy fields. Yellow butterflies glittered among the trees. It was magnificent.

Every so often the boat would stop at a tiny village where bamboo huts on stilts clung to the steep banks of the river. Although most of the boat was given over to the far more lucrative business of transporting tourists, its function as a cargo boat still remained.

Whenever we stopped we would temporarily brush up against a different, timeless world. We travellers would put down our iPhones or our Kindles and watch as naked or tatterdemalion children skidded and scampered down to greet the boat, only to be pulled up short by last-minute shyness. A whole family came out to receive a motorbike. Someone came on board carrying a cardboard box which squealed in a panic-stricken, heart-rending way. Then our skipper would take his long bamboo pole and shove us back into the strong river flow.

During the evening in Huay Xai we asked our Israeli companion about his newly-completed National Service. With the help of Google Translate on his phone, he said they had a ‘parable’ for it: eating a pizza. The first few slices of pizza slip down easily. That was the first year. Then the next few slices were harder, and the next harder still, until the last slice- the last months of the three year stint- which are very difficult to swallow. “And then you never want to eat pizza again.” 

Though obviously on a completely different scale, the pizza parable also applies to the slow boat. The first day slipped past effortlessly. I barely did anything apart from watching the scenery. We spent the night in Pakbeng, in a guesthouse with an extraordinary view. 

The next morning passed fairly swiftly, although I found myself looking ahead more, planning what I’d do in Luang Prabang. The afternoon was slow going, the hours more difficult to digest even though the scenery grew more spectacular as we drew closer to Luang Prabang. 

Then suddenly we were there. The boats all stop outside Luang Prabang, seemingly just to give the local tuk-tuk drivers the opportunity to fleece tourists. One short ride later and I was in Luang Prabang, clambering stiffly out of the back of the tuk-tuk and still feeling the motion of the boat in my legs. It had been a blissful few days.

Almsgiving Misgivings in Luang Prabang

One of the most famous things to do in Luang Prabang is to watch the daily almsgiving ceremony at dawn, in which lines of monks walk down the street to receive offerings of food from locals sitting on low stools or kneeling on the pavement. Tourists are asked not to give alms unless it is meaningful to them – if they have a good understanding of the ceremony and particularly if they are practising Buddhists. If you come to observe you are expected to dress appropriately and maintain a respectful distance from the monks. Most people stand on the other side of the road. 

Sadly these humble expectations have proved too much to ask of some tourists, who have been known to crowd around the monks as though they’re watching feeding time at a zoo. 

“The problem is the tour buses,” one local man told me. “Big crowds coming to see it all together, all wanting pictures.” Running low on English, he mimicked a lot of elbowing. It was especially bad in the high season, he said.

“What do you think then?” I asked him. “Should I go?”

“Oh yes,” he said, nodding enthusiastically. “It’s beautiful.”

I thought about it for a while then decided I definitely wasn’t going to go. I didn’t want to be part of the circus. Then by chance I woke up extremely early the following day and without really thinking about it I found myself heading down to the main street, in damp trousers as I’d washed them, my only culturally appropriate legwear, the night before. Curiosity had triumphed.

It wasn’t a circus. Not many people were there, and the onlookers behaved well, standing back on the other side of the road as the monks filed slowly and silently past, accepting food from reverential almsgivers.

I only saw one total idiot. He was a middle aged English man who stood very close and was filming the whole thing on his ipad. I was very tempted to snatch the device from his hands and snap it over my knee. In my view he was not only being ignorant and disrespectful, but racist. A middle class, middle aged white man such as he would never dream of shoving a camera in someone’s face while they were taking communion in church, but clearly he thought this Buddhist ceremony wasn’t worthy of the same consideration.

I also saw a couple I recognised from the slow boat actually giving alms, but they appeared to be doing so in a respectful way. Obviously it’s impossible to know someone’s motives from across the street, but they clearly weren’t taking the piss.

I still have mixed feelings about it. I took some photos from a distance of the monks walking down the road but not of them receiving alms, then wondered if this was a meaningless distinction. I’m not going to post them here. I think tours should certainly be banned from visiting and twats such as the ipad man should be instantly deported. But I’m glad I went in the end, and most of the people I saw there were silent, not intruding, and clearly as moved as I was by the sight of streams of young orange-robed novices and dignified, graceful older monks lowering simple iron bowls to accept handfuls of rice, and by the chanted prayers that followed.

Unexploded Paradise

When I arrived in Luang Prabang it was still sizzling after a visit from Barack Obama, who flash-fried the town with his presence only hours before my own unremarkable arrival. During his visit Obama gave a speech in which he acknowledged the US’s secret war in Laos and its ongoing legacy of UXO, the unexploded ordnance left buried across the country. It contaminates a quarter of Laos’s villages, exploding when people plough their fields. During the secret war the US dropped over two million tonnes of bombs on Laos. “We’re happy Obama came here and said these things,” one young man told me, “because a lot of people are dead.”

I saw some of these bombs up close in the main backpacker bar, Utopia. The bar lies on the banks of the Nam Khan river, just before it joins the Mekong. It wasn’t far from my hotel at all, but it’s hidden up such a maze of back alleys I was sure I was completely lost up until the moment I stumbled through its gates. 

Night doesn’t so much fall in Luang Prabang as collapse over the town as if exhausted by the heat. It was very dark by the time I got to the bar, and it was only lit by a few handfuls of guttering candles. It wasn’t until later, when I went to inspect the establishment’s facilities, that I noticed the outlines of great bombs looming out of the darkness. 

I went back to Utopia a few days later and saw the rusty bombshells in daylight. Utopia is certainly a backpacker paradise, a lotos-eating, hazy sort of place where people spend whole days lying on the cushion-covered deck by the river, maintaining a steady buzz with cans of Beer Lao. I ate a lot of chicken satay and checked my email. 

Yet spiked through this paradise were the bombs. Bombs served as barbecues. Bombs stood on shelves like giant mantelpiece ornaments.

It reminded me of a time years ago when Mum and I were on a day trip in Croatia. Our coach rumbled slowly down broken roads which cut through ravishing meadows of tall soft grass and colourful wildflowers thickly growing everywhere you looked, growing in greater abundance and variety than I could ever have imagined. We stopped at a roadside stall offering sun-warmed honey and I said to our guide, whose name was, of all things, Elvis, that I’d never seen such beautiful wildflowers before.

“Yes,” Elvis said. “There are still landmines in the fields so the farmers can’t work them, and the flowers grow.”

I’ve never been more humbly silenced. The bombs in Utopia were different, of course: neutralised and artfully arranged as decoration. I still can’t decide what I think of them. In Croatia the bombs had created a completely inaccessible, fragile paradise, as dazzling as it was deadly. In Utopia the bombs were so stunningly incongruous they seemed to defy explanation, an amazing achievement for such unambiguous objects. A single bomb might have been a monument to the dead, but this jaunty set lacked any sense of poignancy. They seemed more like a joke. Were they scenic bombs? Ironic bombs? Were they there to laugh at war, or were they laughing at us, the lotos-eaters? Or did they simply say, here we are. You can’t have paradise without us.

Paradise is slippery at the best of times. I’m writing this from Koh Rong Samloem, a so-called paradise island in Cambodia, a place of white sand and palm trees. It is wonderfully peaceful and beautiful here, although each day is punctuated with spectacular thunderstorms and tropical showers. On the way here a woman I met was horrified to hear I was planning to stay for six nights – not long enough in my book, but she kept asking “what will you do there?”  What I saw as peace she considered to be an unimaginable lack of entertainment.

Before here I was in Siem Reap, where an intricate carving on the walls of Angkor Wat shows the various heavens and hells of Hinduism. Hell was seething with detailed activity, with demons and struggling souls. Heaven was a bunch of people standing repetitively under trees. We struggle to picture perfection, even while we seek it.

We’ve been bombing our way to paradise for decades now, whether it be the homemade bomb and heavenly paradise of some young deluded terrorist or the industrial, mass-produced bomb and political paradise of arrogant, war-hungry nations. Countrysides are saturated with bombs. People answer bombings with bombs. And where has it led us, ask the rusty, hollow bombs of Utopia? Nowhere.

Bread & Breath

“Meditation is bread.”

At first my heat-saturated brain groped for the metaphor. Meditation as nourishment for the mind. Then I frowned.

“Do you mean breath?”

The novice monk nodded. “Yes, bread. Controlling monkey mind, always trying to have, always wants. Just focus on bread.”

Then, of course, I became headily aware of my own breath. We were sitting under an awning in Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai, engaged in ‘Monk Chat’. He was telling me about his life as a novice monk and I was theoretically helping him with his English. I wasn’t intending to join them as it seemed rather contrived – people were asking stilted questions like “so what does Buddhism mean to you?” – but we got chatting about a dog that had sprawled out asleep under the awning so there I was, listening to my bread.

I read somewhere – and would dearly love to remember where – about breath being the key to life but also the key image of a happy life. You can’t live without balancing breathing in with letting breath go. Each breath out makes way for the next one in. Happiness is also a balance of drawing in and letting go, without getting stuck in either state. The same balance was in our conversation, both of us teaching and being taught at the same time. In the same breath.

The monk was from Laos, and had come to Chiang Mai to study. He wanted to become fluent in English and get a job in the tourist industry at home. I was struggling to get to grips with how monasteries seemed to double as colleges, having seen loads of shaven-headed, orange-robed teenage boys as I travelled around. Partly, the monk said, it was because there isn’t much choice if you want an education. (We didn’t discuss what options girls have.) But the discipline of monastic life also aids study. Meditation improves concentration and control over distracting thoughts. Boys enter monasteries to learn specific subjects, but also to master their own minds.

Back in Bangkok I put a little video clip on Instagram of raindrops falling on my balcony and instantly being absorbed by the hot planks. I loved the pattern of appearances and disappearances it made. It strikes me now that this is another image of a quiet mind, absorbing each fresh impression to make room for new ones. 

To me, travel is all about finding tiny moments like these. Breathing out the familiar to take in something new; then letting it fade, and making space for whatever comes next.

Avoiding the Elephant

The elephant is the national symbol of Thailand, and as such it is virtually unavoidable. I have no idea what the UK’s national symbol is, although post-Brexit I would like to propose something along the lines of an ostrich. But Thailand seems to take its symbolism seriously, so you find elephants everywhere. Elephant lamps, statues, elephants on lighters, fridge magnets and almost every piece of clothing I saw, including the ubiquitous “elephant trousers”. These are colourful, billowy, patterned trousers sold in their thousands in the area around Khao San Road, and they’re the official uniform of backpackers of all genders. 

My suspicion is that, like those other crimes against fashion, Crocs, elephant trousers have flourished because they fill a comfortable niche. The loose, crotch-down-to-the-knees design makes them good for hot weather. The elephant-spattered patterns disguise travel stains and the cheap price and ubiquity means that it’s not a big deal if they vanish into the arbitrary abyss of hostel laundries.

But they just look horrible. Nothing short of a safari shirt and a pith helmet could mark a person out more as a tourist. I dislike them so much it has made it hard for me to take anyone seriously if they’re clad thus, which is ridiculous, because I’ve met and liked a dozen people on this trip who have turned out to possess a pair. My aversion to these trousers has now coloured my view of anything else decorated with elephants. I ended up going to great lengths to find an elephant-free sarong in the Night Market in Chiang Mai.

Hemingway said writers need a shock-proof shit detector. For better or worse, I was born with a hypersensitive cliché detector instead. I have such an overblown aversion to clichés that my detector tends to give me a lot of false positives. 

It’s not a good thing to have. For example, it put me off travelling to Southeast Asia for years. Rightly or wrongly, it puts me off Apple products, bicycles, tattoos, Moleskine notebooks, anything ‘artisan’, Jeremy Corbyn and music festivals. It’s made me a very late, reluctant adopter of some things I actually later enjoy. 

What is a cliché to me? Something which has become overburdened with stale meaning. Something that has become a box to tick, a personality accessory. Something so encrusted with common connotations it becomes impossible to know your own authentic response to it. Although, on the plus side, my dislike of cliché makes me immune to received opinions, I still know it’s unhelpful to have my behaviour dictated by avoiding rather than embracing certain things.

Even though I’ve been proved wrong on a number of occasions I still tend to make snap judgements about elephant-trouser-wearers. There’s a certain kind of traveller in Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand, who make me shudder just to look at them. They talk about ‘doing’ a place, a horrid construction which has unintended yet appropriate connotations of violation. They wear elephants on their trousers then go for rides on elephants’ backs, without educating themselves about what these poor creatures are subjected to for the sake of tourism. The hostels they patronise overflow with the sort of adolescent hedonism of freshers’ week at university. They seem to be travelling only in order to get drunk and ‘do’ one another. 

Luckily these sorts of people tend to cluster together, and can easily be avoided. The one advantage to elephant trousers is that you can see these people coming (and I’m sure the local con artists feel the same way). But my mistake lies in thinking all elephant-trouser-wearers are like that. All the arses I’ve met here have worn them, but that doesn’t mean that everyone who wears those trousers is an arse.

Nevertheless it has put me off decorative elephants completely. I spent ages that night back in Chiang Mai, roaming around the huge, kaleidoscopic night market looking for elephant-free sarongs. 

The night market is a fantastic place, though it’s virtually impossible to come away empty-handed. I bought far more than I intended, though as someone later pointed out I hardly spent any money in the process. 

On my way out I was scolding myself for my lack of restraint when I spotted yet another interesting shop. It was like a museum, heaving with handmade, fair trade things made by different hill tribes. Each item had a hefty description of the makers’ tribe and the symbolism of the patterns and objects they produced. It was fascinating. I could have spent an absolute fortune in there. In the end I succumbed to the temptation of a gold and bubblegum pink Ganesha amulet. On my last big trip I bought a tiny brass Ganesha and made it home safely, so I was hoping to renew my contract with this wonderfully lurid piece, which is about half the size of a pack of cards:

I absolutely love it. 

It wasn’t until I got back to my room that I realised I had, after all, bought myself an elephant. 

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