A wet and wild time in Bangkok

Thailand’s New Year festival Songkran could just as well be called sànùk – the local word for fun. Getting well and truly soaked is how this annual celebration is celebrated in Bangkok. Songkran starts on April 13 and lasts three hectic days that are one big splash.

Along Khao San Road – where farangs (foreigners) are most Songkran 8likely to get involved – participants arrive armed with water guns ranging in size and power from palm-sized pistols to fluorescent pump-action monsters.

Songkran means “change place” or “move”. It marks the day the sun shifts position in the zodiac. Songkran’s also a time for renewal, for spring cleaning, tidying up the past and beginning afresh. The H2O connection stems from the belief that water can wash away bad luck, particularly on such an auspicious occasion.

The first day of festival is Maha Songkran Day, marking the end of the old year. The following day is Wan Nao (literally ‘the day after’) and the third day is Wan Thaloeng Sok, the start of the New Year.

During the holidaySongkran Bangkok June thousands of Thai’s originally from the country but living in the city have the chance to return home and celebrate. Other than along hectic Khao San Road the rest of Bangkok can, for once, seem deserted which is a slightly eerie feeling.

By custom Songkran is a time for families to gather and pay respect to their elders. Children pour scented water over the hands of parents and grandparents and receive blessings for prosperity and good luck.

On Khao San, however, there’s no respect shown anyone. Lone sharpshooters roam the crowds dispensing squirts of chilled justice, which are actually most refreshing on a hot, humid day. Our group of doughty combatants make a stand beneath Lucky Beer signs. We assume battle position around a restaurant table dead centre in the cordoned-off street. It’s a bold but rash decision that renders us prime targets.

We retaliate furiously, age being of no consequence. A Thai toddler gets me unawares and is duly soaked in reply. He flees squealing with delight, then returns and prowls nearby, gun at the ready, waiting for a second chance.

Songkran 3A bearded Rambo farang appears in black bandanna, wrap sunglasses, beads around his neck and stripped to the waist showing off his tattoos. He’s obviously got American Sniper syndrome and with his monstrous pump-action water gun sets about spraying everyone in sight. “I’ve been here like five years, man … it’s amazing, so cool.”  We suspect he’s suffering equally from water on the brain.

Songkran 6

 

A brass band strikes up and at last the procession we’ve come to see begins led by a trio of young girls in traditional dress carrying a banner which reads: “Let’s splash and be blessed.” Miss Songkran passes by on a flower-strewn float. A priest blesses the crowd. The procession is beamed live on TV.

We return to base and order more water. A beautiful young girl appears beside me with a silver bowl and delicately pours scented water over my outstretched hands. It’s a disarming, touching traditional moment amid all the mayhem. But then that Thai youngster pops up again and exacts his gleeful revenge by squirting me square in the face. Sànùk! 

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A woodland escape

Way, way back in 1777, Samuel Johnson uttered his pithy and memorable quote that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”. Yet the modern British capital can be overwhelming at times, especially during the height of the tourist season when you almost have to push and shove to make headway along busy thoroughfares such as Oxford Street or to negotiate the crush of Covent Garden.

A Sunday newspaper article suggests fleeing this bedlam to what it calls “London’s satellite towns” – thereby drawing an immensely long bow to target distant locales such as Bath, Stratford-on-Avon and Warwick. The article misses the obvious. London has a remedy much closer to hand: a walk in the woods.

All it takes to escape city overload is a pair of stout legs and the will to stride away. Whenever in London, I always find time to wander peacefully through one of the city’s many green spaces.

I’m never short of appealing options. They include Hampstead Heath, Highgate Wood, Queens Wood, Alexandra Park, Regent’s Park, Greenwich, Wimbledon Common, Kew Gardens, Richmond Park …. even good old Hyde Park right in the city centre.

Tranquil Highgate Wood

Tranquil Highgate Wood

I usually stay in the city’s north so two of my favourite walks are on the Heath or into Highgate Wood. The latter is like a preserved slice of England’s past, filled with shady glades, ancient oaks and hornbeams. Once among the trees it’s easy to imagine what it was like when this sort of forest covered much of southern England.

I hear marvellous trilling birdsong. I glimpse bushy tailed squirrels scurrying between the branches and across the ground and occasionally I’ve sighted the slinking shape of a shy fox. Whether walking, or sitting and reading on a convenient park bench, I find Highgate Wood never fails to imbue a sense of deep and timeless tranquility. While here I really do experience the poet William Blake’s “green and pleasant land”.

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Map of Hampstead Heath

There are many access points to Hampstead Heath. One option that presents the best of this green treasure is to take a stroll from Gospel Oak tube station, cross over Parliament Hill Fields and head north following the paths beside the various Highgate ponds that eventually lead to Kenwood House.

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Kenwood House overlooking The Heath

Kenwood is a magnificent villa set on the Heath’s northernmost crest. Open to the public, it houses the Iveagh Bequest, an art collection that includes works by Rembrandt, Vermeer and Gainsborough. Open air summer concerts are held in the grounds.

The cafe is a good refuelling station perhaps before heading southwest back through the woods and across the Heath to eventually end up in Hampstead village.

Whatever the time of year, I believe a simple walk in the woods (or through any green space) provides the perfect antidote to urban stress. You might wish to try these other London possibilities:

London’s Green Spaces

Hidden gardens; green spaces

Large Parks of London

 

Harry’s outback jewel

There’s something about Harry, an eagerness to do things differently. That’s why he prefers exploring east of Alice Springs rather than head west.

Most 4WD tours in Australia’s Red Centre head into the West MacDonnell Ranges to locations such as Simpsons Gap and Standley Chasm, Ellery Creek Big Hole, Hermannsburg and the tropical oasis of Palm Valley.
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Harry in his element

But Harry Osborn would much rather take his guests into the East Macdonnell Ranges and not simply because fewer tourists go there but also because, out east lies Harry’s ‘hidden jewel’ – the remote and aptly-named Ruby Gap.

It’s located on Love’s Creek Station which also has one of the largest stands of river red gums in Central Australia.

Ruby Gap Nature Park lies 150 kilometres east of the Alice and it takes several hours of careful driving over rugged terrain to get there, the last bit of the journey along the dried-up bed of the Hale River. 

“Most people say I’m crazy to come way out here on a day trip,” says Harry, “but I get out here as often as possible. Even for a few hours it’s worth it.” 

 A particularly favourite spot is Glen Annie Gorge, a narrow winding cleft between towering walls of red rock where the sandy river bed snakes its way through these cliffs to form a large natural swimming hole.
Osborn track

The red road east

Harry says he rarely sees other visitors out here. Camping is allowed but much of the terrain is too rugged for most vehicles to negotiate.

On our return journey we make a diversion to Arltunga, the first town in Central Australia. In 1886 explorer David Lindsay reported rubies in the Hale River. But they turned out to be garnets.
A rich gold reef discovered at nearby White Range did, however, prompt a short lived gold-rush. 
Arltunga jail

Arltunga jail

At this ghost town I see old mining works and the remains of a post office, blacksmith shop and the 1912 police station and jail with it’s rusted iron door hanging off its hinges. 

We also pause beside the grave of stockman George King, buried 9 September, 1916, after falling from his horse. His remote resting place seems a fitting emblem of the tough and solitary life endured by pioneers in such unforgiving country.

All about Harry’s tours

Burma redux

Backpacking through Asia 30 years ago I had the chance to hop across the border from Thailand and spend a week in Burma. In those days a 7-day tourist visa was all anyone got. With such limited time it really meant having a razor-sharp focus on what I hoped to see and do.

myanmar mapA week wasn’t nearly long enough to explore the capital Rangoon (now Yangon) in the south before travelling north to Mandalay and from there take in Lake Inle and also visit Pagan (now Bagan). This was the traveller’s “Burma quartet” at the time. (Names may have changed since, but these four places remain core today to the country’s tourist industry.)

So something had to go. I made my choice: Rangoon to Mandalay, then west along the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwaddy) river to Pagan, which meant I missed seeing Lake Inle. I don’t regret my choice one bit as my visit to Pagan was brilliant. Now the country has opened up to the world I’ve inked Lake Inle on my ‘back-to-Burma’ itinerary.

Rangoon in the 1980s was pretty similar to what it is today, although the musty and faded Strand Hotel has since been overhauled and is now rather swish. In 1983 it was known for its dilapidated, rain-stained architecture and post-World War 2 colonial flavour. Taking tea or sipping a gin and tonic on the verandah was simply one of those things a traveller had to do. I couldn’t afford to stay there in 1983 and I certainly can’t now. Some things don’t change!

Rangoon’s main attraction 30 years ago was – and still is – the magnificent, golden Schwedagon Pagoda in the centre of town. I think it’s one of South East Asia’s most wondrous structures and I spent quite a portion of my precious time soaking up the Schwedagon’s sights and sounds. This magnificent temple is as much a community centre as place of worship.

Another priceless memory from those days is my overnight rail journey from Rangoon to Mandalay. The train was so crowded I ended up crawling under a wooden seat to sleep on the floor and was awoken at each station by the shouts of food vendors. The mellifluous, subliminal sounds of the Burmese language – a bubbling murmur or so it seemed in my semi-comatose state – remain imprinted in my memory.

Bagan

Bagan temples – photo: Nicholas Kenrick (Creative Commons)

Sunset seen from the top of the Schwesandaw pagoda in Bagan is yet another of my golden “Burma moments”. All thos years ago there were just seven foreign travellers up there marvelling at the amber sheen cast across the surrounding plain with its extensive array of temples and stupas with the landscape framed by the silvery glimmer of the river.

It most certainly was “mystical Myanmar” back then and I’m sure that it still is. I can’t wait to return.

Hairy power in a white Wyoming

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Photo: Continental Divide Dogsled Adventures

The dogs are howling like demented wolves. They are tethered to iron stakes driven into the frozen earth and seem as cursed a bunch of critters as ever was sired. Their howling shatters the morning peace in upcountry Togwotee in the state of Wyoming. 

Yet despite this tumult and their wild-eyed, scrawny appearance these noisy mutts are as happy and as fit as can be. Each dog is capable of running 150 kilometres a day, for days on end, in temperatures low enough to freeze bone marrow. The only thing they abhor is being left out of the team, missing the action. Hence their anguished lament, which translates as “Me! Me! Me!” 

The dogs have names like Junkyard, Sweetheart, Vodka and Six-pack. Many have odd-coloured eyes; one blue, the other brown, or maybe yellow or possibly green. Each dog is formed of compact muscle and tight sinew. None carry an excess gram of fat. All are pure-bred “Springsteens”, literally born to run.

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Photo: The Mountain Pulse.com

Amid all this noise, dog-driver Billy Snodgrass and his two handlers Dave and Esty select their sled teams. “You won’t be able to hear me talk for a while, not until we’re well under way,” says Billy.

“They’ll make such havoc you won’t believe, and they won’t stop ’til we’re some distance gawn. And I dunno quite where that’ll be … because they’ll just run like mad.” 

With a yell of Awright! he tugs the sled anchor from the ground and with a snatch-and-jerk we leap forward and begin bolting across white fields of snow. The dogs left behind in the kennels are howling their dismay. Those in front of me, pumping iron to pull us along, are baying with glee.

What Billy has failed to tell me is I may not be able to breathe for a while. As we gather speed the dogs burns up calories …. and begin expunging gas. For the first minutes of our headlong dash I ride a slipstream of noxious odours powerful enough to melt the frost off my balaclava. Meanwhile Billy is steering, standing behind me on the rear of the sled and laughing out loud.

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Riding the exhaust plume – Photo: Blair Waller

We power along a trail cut through the white wilderness, cracking a screaming pace downhill then dropping back to a working trot on inclines. Occasionally Billy brings us to a halt  “so the dogs can cool off.” It’s dire cold sitting in the sled so I ask to try my hand at steering, or mushing as it’s called.

Now this ain’t easy. Mushing is an art learned over time. When when going uphill I must balance one foot on a runner and drive my other foot into the snow to assist the dogs. I must lean correctly into turns and sharply shift my weight as we slide into bends.

Soon I’m left lying in the snow while the sled hurtles into the distance. Billy stops his dogs and waits for me to catch up. As I approach all the dogs turn their heads in unison and flash me wicked grins, their red tongues hanging loose. It’s a look of glee that says ‘Gotcha!’

 #  Togwotee (pronounced Tog-R-Tee) is north of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It’s a snowbound playground in winter with 13 metres or more of the finest powder snow falling annually on the Togwotee Pass. 

Click here for more information on Continental Divide Dogsled Adventures

A lament for Timbuktu

Who hasn’t dreamed of going to Timbuktu? When I was young this name alone stood for somewhere exotic and far, far away. For me certainly, and I would guess for many others, Timbuktu was the last word in adventurous travel. But these days Timbuktu is on my mind for all the wrong reasons, ever since 2012 when Tuareg rebels occupied this ancient town in central Mali and set about destroying many of its ancient shrines and mausoleums.

This cultural ransacking was reportedly renewed with even greater fervour as a reaction to subsequent French military support for the besieged Mali government. Right now things remain in limbo.

Read this latest report:  Timbuktu slowly turning to dust

All the above paints a dire future for what was once a fabled caravanserai and, for centuries, a centre of Islamic learning. It’s now highly unlikely I’ll ever go to Timbuktu. But in compensation Mali came to me in the form of enchanting Malian singer-guitarist Rokia Traoré.

She and her fellow musicians weave sinuous, soulful music. Such was the magical ambience of this graceful artist’s performance, I was transported to distant lands, mesmerised by the urgent, complicated, ever-shifting rhythms of Africa.

I’ve long been a fan of Malian music and admirer of Ali Farka Touré, Salif Keita, Toumani Diabaté, Oumou Sangaré and others. But being able to see, hear and and be deeply moved by Rokia Traoré in my home town was a special experience made all the more poignant by the situation existing in her own country.

Nothing brings people together as effectively as fine music. Nothing unites people more than travel, in both the physical and mental sense

Listen to this wonderful artist.

More about Rokia Traoré

A fun ride through Fiji’s salad bowl

_MG_0288Captain Sparrow thrusts the throttle forward to send our jet boat lunging up river through rolling brown water. Josh Ratukuna, our young skipper, styles himself from the Johnny Depp handbook, wearing cool bandana and wrap-around sunglasses.

It’s part of the fun of a high-speed thrill ride into the green heart of Fiji’s Sigatoka Valley.

We’re racing up the Sigatoka River exploring what’s known as Fiji’s ‘salad bowl’. The valley’s a prime source of fresh fruit and vegetables for locals and for hotels along Fiji’s Coral Coast. The half-day river ride is a great chance to see farms, plantations and gardens along the river bank and learn a bit about village life. It’s one of Fiji’s top tourist attractions.

The Sigatoka is the longest river on Fiji’s main island of Vitu Levu, flowing from deep within the hills of Navosa province to the sea at Kulukulu on the Coral Coast. Until the late 1950s, this was the only route inland and it took days to travel upriver from the coast to Navosa.

_MG_0291Not any more! We power round bends, passing farmers on horseback and cooling off in the river. Women washing clothes on the river bank merrily return our waves, apparently unfazed by our hasty, noisy progress. Josh regularly stops the boat in mid-river to chat about our surroundings and answer questions. The Sigatoka, he says, provides water for both drinking and crop irrigation and a bounty of fish, eels, prawns and fresh water mussels.

_MG_0338Our ride upriver takes us to Natawatawadi, one of six villages participating in the mini-safari program. Each village is paid a small sum to host the jet boat, which visits a different village on each journey to minimize visitor impact while also distributing income. In addition, visitors club together to raise a small donation.
After a brief introductory talk while sitting in the cool shade of the village church, we meet the village chief and elders in the community hall where lunch is waiting; plates of grilled chicken, fried vegetables, fresh fruits and orange cordial.
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Natawatawadi youngsters

As we eat we hear more about community culture and protocol and then participate in a traditional kava ceremony, sipping murky brown liquid from a wooden bowl. The kava numbs the lips and tongue a bit. Taken in quantity it’s soporific.

The villagers put on a short show of song and dance, after which we make our farewells and return to the river. As we clamber back into the jet boat I see a gleam come into Captain Sparrow’s eye. And soon our river ride gets frisky.

_MG_0346Choosing his moment, Josh yells a warning then flicks the throttle. A deft twist on the wheel and the boat dips its nose into the river and flicks around in a heart-stopping lurch and we’re all drenched in spray. It’s just like a fun park ride.

Our squeals echo off the high riverbank each time Captain Sparrow executes another stomach-churning pirouette. And so it goes  …. until he flicks back the throttle and we settle into a tranquil glide through fertile farmland.

 All about Fiji Travel