A Travellerspoint blog

New York

A week's stopover in New York while on my way to Mexico

snow 10 °C

Wednesday 24 January 2007

Snow in London (quite a bit at Gatwick and points south of London) meant that my flight was an hour late, but we arrived at Newark only 10 minutes late. A bus to the Port Authority for only $7 (senior discount) has to one of the great bargains of this journey. To my friend Jack’s for drinks then dinner at the Sapphire, his lovely local Indian restaurant. My good friend Sherwood (Woody) was visiting from Washington and the three of us had a great evening.

I was raving about the biography of Bayard Rustin which I finished just before coming on holiday and it turns out that Jack had met him at a Peace Workshop (Jack was a Conscientious Objector during the war and Rustin was too).

Thursday 25 January
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I went to the newly refurbished Pierpoint Morgan Library (they seem to prefer to be called the Morgan Library these days). I did not care for the new link connecting existing buildings (designed by Renzo Piano). It seemed very industrial in character ; lots of steel trusses and a glass roof which seemed to be very effective in collecting leaves and other debris. The collection is impressive and in particular, an exhibition of Saul Steinberg (most famous for his New Yorker covers) was an eye opener. His collages were special ; but my favourites were bogus passports and legal documents in which he painted all the detail of visas, entry/exit stamps. There was a fun map of Manhattan with areas in different colours labeled Burgundy, Perrier, Grappa … indicating their favourite tipple.

This neighbourhood (Madison Avenue at 36th Street) still retains a lot of character .. an eclectic mix of shops, old fashioned coffee shops .. though I found no bar. Huge luxury condos are wiping out much of the character of the West Side (especially from the 50s to Columbus Circle).

Friday 26 January

The International Center for Photography had an exhibition on Cartier Brisson which I found disappointing .. working photos more of interest to the researcher than me. The unexpected treat here was a small exhibition on the German Weimar cinema which included a showing of Louise Brooks (from Wichita, Kansas) in Pandora’s Box (silent film made in 1929). I had heard of her but never show any of her movies. It is easy to see why she is so highly regarded ; while some of the actors were indulging in melodrama, she seemed totally credible.

Saturday

To the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the Glitter and Doom exhibition of German artists form the Weimar Republic era. This included works by Dix, Grosz, Beckmann and some of the paintings were striking in their candour. No wonder Hitler wanted them burned.

There was also an exhibition (Americans in Paris) which I had planned to see, but there were too many people (4 and 5 deep in many rooms), so I gave that a miss and went instead to an exhibition of Luis Comfort Tiffany, the stained glass artist. This dealt primarily with the grand country home (Laurelton) which he designed. There were many striking things, but I was most impressed with panels called Magnolias, in which the support for the glass looked like branches of a tree and the magnolias were in very subtle colours.

Sunday 28 January

Museum of the City of New York (Upper 5th Avenue at 103rd Street) for (1) more Saul Steinberg … (2) black fashion from the 1920s to hip hop and (3) a very informative video on the development of New York. Synchronicity: I bought Jack the Bayard Rustin biography and what should I see in one display case but 5 walking canes which had belonged to Rustin – he apparently always fashionably dressed in a formal manner.
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The museum also had a great painting by Childe Hassan, my favourite American Impressionist .. titled Union Square, it captures a late rainy early evening with people walking through the park.

Woody took us to O’Neals, an excellent restaurant near Jack’s apartment. I had London Broil .. a dish I never see on a London menu. There is a large striking mural on the end wall of the restaurant ; the subject is ballet dancers (there are said to be 33 of them, mostly from nearby Lincoln Center’s but it also includes the O'Neal family, the restaurant manager and the maitre d’). It was painted in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s when the place was known as ONeal’s Balloon.

Monday 29 January
Everyday matters .. the Internet, laundry, packing .. with an early night for my 4am departure for Newark Airport and Guadalajara (Not my choice .. the airline changed the time after I booked) .. the $70 taxi wiped out all my savings from the trip into Manhattan! The nice part is that I arrived in Guadalajara early afternoon and not 11pm as originally scheduled.

Practical details

Radio City Apartments on West 49th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues, proved to be excellent value for money at $109 a night ($134 with tax) for a studio including a full kitchen. Street noise a slight problem (but this is common in Manhattan), but location and transport links excellent.

Morgan Library
225 Madison Avneue at 36th Street
http://www.themorgan.org/expansion/default.asp

O’Neals,
49 West 64th Street
tel: (2120 787 4663

International Center for Photography
1133 Avenue of the Americas, NYC
(6th Avenue at 43rd Street)

Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue
(5th Avenue at 103rd Street)

Posted by MarshallC 02:30 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Laos

Highlight of this trip was the boat trip from Laos to Thailand on the Mekong River

sunny 30 °C

Travel Notes : Laos March 2005
Early trip to airport to join Bangkok Airways flight to Laos. It was on time and I got to Luang Prabang at 1pm, got my visa on arrival ($30 for 15 days) and checked into the Sayo Guest House in the center of town. It is slightly overpriced ($25 a night .. it would be $12 in Thailand) for a large room with all mod cons in the former servants’ quarters at the rear of the colonial style house (rooms in the main house $35 to $40). I spent nearly a week in Luang Prabang last year and my main purpose in coming here this time was to catch the boat which takes two days upriver on the Mekong River to Thailand.

One of the treats of Luang Prabang is to have drinks at sunset along the Mekong River .. I followed this by dinner at a smart restaurant .. Coleurs … had an interesting stew of local vegetables and mushrooms. The food is not as spicy as in Thailand but the flavours are intense.
I walked around town and noticed many changes compared with a year ago. There are many more Internet shops and tour offices and fewer places selling the things local people need. Perhaps most alarming is that the colourful local Dara market is closed for redevelopment. The old building appears to be under restoration but somehow I fear that the new improved market will be selling tourist trinkets instead of barbed wire and agrochemicals. Closing the market also means that many of the quiet corners of the town are now taken over by the tribal people selling handicrafts (they used to be located one the fringes of Dara Market).
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My favourite spot, a small park where the two rivers converge was a delightful place last year but now has lots of stalls selling textiles and tourist crap. I did manage to find a quiet spot to write up my journal only to be interrupted by a young man (16 years old) who seemed plausible enough at first until I realized it is the same story I have been hearing in that part of the world for years. Claimed to be a novice in a nearby temple until a week ago when the head monk threw him out because his family did not send food or money
(a Thai friend later told me this is most unlikely). Anyway, he was looking for someone to pay for his English lessons… father dead, mother in remote village 3 hours away .. not enough to eat (but I note he had all the most up to date clothing and a cell phone). I finally got rid of him. I am not saying there were not con artists last year, just that I did not encounter any …
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Perhaps it was not my day.. my sunset drink was ruined by a party of 10 senior age Germans arguing about how to divide the meager bill for their Cokes and drinking water. A young Australian couple sitting near me were getting angry because these people were disturbing the peace and quiet and also blocking the view of the sunset as half of them stood around the table arguing. Finally I exercised my schoolboy German and said ‘Sitzen Sie sich, Bitte (Seat down … Please). One man came over to me as if to start an argument when the young Australian fellow made his views known in more forceful terms, supporting me. The German scampered and they sat down but still ignored the sunset .. their tour guide finally came and led them away. I thought of Noel Coward’s song ..
Why do the wrong people travel?
Travel they say improves the mind,
An irritating platitude
Which frankly, entre nous
Is very far from true.
Personally I’ve yet to find
That longitude and latitude
Can educate those scores
Of monumental bores
Who travel in groups and herds and troupes
Of various breeds and both sexes, till the whole world reels
To shouts and squeals
And the click of Rolliflexes.
Why do the wrong people travel When the right people stay back home?
Noel Coward (from Sail Away)

By the way, this roadside restaurant is part of the Boungnosang Guest House – my favourite spot for sunset drinks and the best spring rolls ever! Not greasy, paper thin pastry, tasty veggie filling … and less than a dollar for a ample portion of three spring rolls.
Dinner at the Elephant .. a posh French restaurant near the Villa Santi. Unfortunately they have scrapped the Laotian meals they had last year and it now seems to feature meat in various forms including wild game (deer, wild boar). The highlight was the watercress soup .. it was such a deep green colour that I suspected additives but when I saw it in the market next day I realised it was genuine and recalled that this part of Laos is known for its watercress. I followed it with spicy sausages …. The place was packed with tourists living it up .. while dear by local standards (main course US $8 to $12) it seems cheap for the French in particular .. the quality and atmosphere are excellent.
Friday 11 March
I was having breakfast at the Luang Prabang Bakery when Gary came along. His wife Nao joined us with a complicated story about tax and labour law problems ; all of which she placed at his doorstep. Because she tore up their marriage license in a fit a pique, they may have to get married again .. cheaper than paying the bribe to get a copy of the first license. What a country! What a marriage!
Drinks in the evening with Gary at Nao’s Place (previously the Bakery Bar). The police now insist on 11pm closing. So I got home early and in good shape to join the boat tour next morning.
Saturday 12 March
The monks were doing their begging round when I walked to the boat landing. Mostly older local people have cooked rice ready which they add to the begging bowls which the monks carry. There were 100 monks (young and old ..) so that is a lot of rice. Some enterprising local tribal women tried to sell me rice to give to the monks but I did not think it was appropriate. This is an interesting custom and while I am fairly sure it is not their sole source of food, it keeps the monks grounded and well connected to the local population .. I wonder how well priests or Church or England vicars would do if that were the custom in England?.
The boat is nice .. it was designed for 34 people and as there are only 14 of us, there is a lot of room to spread out. We had breakfast after setting out .. enjoying dawn on the Mekong River. The haze in nearby mountains makes it look very much like one of those Chinese paintings. Our plan is a two day trip to Thailand – 160 kms ( 99 miles) the first day, overnight at a hotel which belongs to the boat company, then 140 kms ( 86 miles) the second day.
We were going 16 to 20 miles an hour and were being passed by the high speedboats which carry 6 passengers. These are long narrow boats with an auto engine mounted at the rear (usually a VW engine, I was told) with a propeller welded to the driveshaft . The noise from these high speed boats is deafening. They travel at nearly 45 miles an hour and have a poor safety record.
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I was expecting something special from this trip and certainly was not disappointed, This is a remote part of South East Asia; there were no towns of any size and only a few villages. The river has rugged rock formations on each bank (and sometimes rugged rock rapids), with steep hills which often turn into mountains. There is a great deal of white sand forming banks and when the rocks protrude from the sand, it looks like a Japanese garden (OK .. before you complain .. I should say it looks like my idea of a Japanese garden). Some of rocks are a rose colour but my attempts to catch this in a photo failed. An hour from Luang Prabang we stopped at the Buddha caves .. I was hear last year but this time it was not so overrun with people. I noticed a statue of Buddha with hand folded across his stomach ; this was new to me and the guide said it represented reflection. I wonder if this one is a Lao invention, cannot recall seeing it in Thailand.
Back on the river there seems to be another boat every 20 minutes or so including a cargo boat carrying logs which had a huge satellite dish on top .. somehow I suspect that this is not for picking up CNN or Lao television .. I smell nefarious activity, We met the sister boat in our fleet and it was packed .. this made me realize how lucky we are to have so much space.
We stopped at a ‘Whisky Village’ where hill tribes make some local hooch. This firewater is sold in cities as Lao Lao (I had some at Gary’s birthday party last year). The village has 36 families – mostly agricultural workers (or possibly poppy growers?). They had clean drinking water from several communal taps in the village and there is a primary school ; the adjacent village has a secondary school. This place did not have the 'human zoo’ feeling that I have seen in similar places in Thailand, but it still makes me uncomfortable. These people set up tables and perhaps 20 women are trying to sell handicrafts or antiques, but none of my group is interested … I donated to the school fund which I felt justified taking up their time but basically I think these people might be better off not getting involved with these boat tour groups.
I never tired of watching the river, the rock formations and marveling at the skill of the captain to negotiate some very tricky rapids – quite treacherous in places. There are many narrow gaps to negotiate and he did this for 10 hours with only the occasional break. We arrive at our overnight stop (Pakbeng) at 6:30 pm. The hotel is very atmospheric with rattan and bamboo huts with all mod cons, smart design, lovely linens on the bed. Probably best described as elegant rustic if that makes any sense. We were the only guests there and had a nice dinner .. I chatted with several people from the boat and especially with a French speaking Canadian mother / daughter team who sang the praises of Montreal in summer … music festivals all summer long...
Early to bed but the countryside is so noisy that I did not get to sleep until late. It was a shame that we had so little time to enjoy this hotel .. lovely setting and well designed. It was dark shortly after we arrived and we had to be up for 6:30 breakfast.
Sunday 13 March
No electricity when I got up at 6:00 and I had to shower and shave with aid of a torch (flashlight) but of course, the power came back on just before I left the room. Breakfast a weird affair .. too sweet! The drink which looked like apple juice was very sweet – could it be diluted honey? Mango was OK but accompanied by rice with coconut .. more sweet!
Back on the river .. I wish I knew more about the geology of this region. Most rivers (and certainly places like the Grand Canyon or Copper Canyon) look as though water (and possible wind) have eroded the soil and cut through layers rock and soil. This river has such jagged rocks that it looks more like the fissure of an earthquake which then filled with water. Extraordinary landscape. There were very few rounded rocks (the type you normally see in a river).
Every mile or so we saw people fishing or working in plots along the river. It was odd to see small (say 6 or 8 years old) kids playing right at the edge of this fast flowing river without an adult nearby. I guess these kids can swim by the time they can walk. This got me to thinking about the quality of life issue – although these people are poor, the kids have a freedom which is lost in the ‘civilised world’ where parents do not let children out of their sight.
We passed a logging camp with working elephants – very picturesque until you look up and see how the mountain side has been gouged with no apparent attempts at replanting. Surely this will mean more erosion, more mud in the river. More silting up, etc.
We stopped at another village which really set me to thinking about the effect of tourism on these people. Much of the stuff they are selling is brought in, they dress in their tribal costume to create some sense of authenticity (most of the people in the village who were not selling wore normal western clothing).
Why can’t I just travel and not start analyzing everything? Reminds me of the New Yorker cartoon .. lady to a travel agent ‘ We just want a vacation – we don’t want to learn anything’.
4 hours from Pakbeng and the landscape changes .. the mountains are now off in the distance and the river banks flatten out to a broad plain. The rugged rocks are not as frequent and the whole effect is less dramatic. There is still interest because now there are more towns and eventually we reach the Thai border on the left … quite a contrast in posterity to the Lao side on the right.
I spoke to the guide about my one disappointment – we saw no giant catfish (Mekong catfish are huge .. 2 to 3 meters long and up to 300 kilos in weight). He said they are bottom feeders and are rarely seen and it is no longer legal to catch them so very few people have seen any for years.
We arrive a Housie Xai around 5:15 pm. There as a fairly hectic trip through Lao immigration , a ferry across to the Thai side and entry procedures there. Two days of being coddled has its effect – it was a rude shock to have to deal with reality again.
I came to Singapore to check out the much talked about liberalization of the city since Lee Yuan Yew gave up direct control. It certainly is a more open city and the contrast with Bangkok rather marked. As Bangkok becomes more Victorian (alcohol sales in Bangkok now limited like the bad old days in Britain. Sales from 11am to 2pm and then again from 5pm to 11pm. Bars to close at midnight except for certain designated entertainment zones) Singapore swings until late (3 am in most cases) and there seem to be an amasing number of thinly disguised brothels (Talk Cock Sing Song along from my hotel was one that caught my eye). Yet most of the city seems devoted to its favourite activity – the making and spending of money.
Tuesday 29 March
Afterthoughts and Facts
• Mekong River
BBC Radio announced that Laotian dam project have been given OK by World Bank in spite of big questions aver the environmental (and indeed economic) impact
• Birds on the Mekong
"I was struck by the absence of bird life ; I saw none, and only occasionally did a bird’s cry filter from the forest above me to the left. …. It was eerie that one hears more birdcalls in New York’s Central Park than outside a Laotian village".
Pages 149 - 150. The River’s Tale by Edward Gargan.

Practical Details
Sao Guest House
Luang Prabang
$25 per night (over priced but this is an expensive town for Laos)
Boat trio (deluxe)
Luang Say Cruises
Sakarine Road, Luang Prabank, Laos
I booked this two days before departure .. only $170 because they have so few takers on what they consider the return trip …. Normal fare is $300 plus a $50 single supplement coming downriver from Thailand to Laos.

Posted by MarshallC 08:03 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Mexico 2005

From Mexicio City north to Copper Canyon,, and some time in Puerto Vallarta

semi-overcast 15 °C

Hight Points

• La Quemada (near Zacatecas) an unexpected surprise. 5 level city (200 to 1200 AD) built on a mountain by the Indians who later moved to found Mexico City.

Low Points

• Mexico City’s crowds – often overwhelming and sometimes frightening. 18 million people and it often feels it.

• The wintery conditions in the Copper Canyon.

• Creel – a real pit – it makes me think that in future I shouldn’t trust the Lonely Planet guides so readily.


This was a freebie – an Airmiles trip on KLM from Amsterdam to Mexico City. Michael Natzke came from San Francisco to spend 4 days because he was keen to see Mexico City. My arrival was much better than my last trip to Mexico City (in the early 1980’s) when I arrived late in the evening. On this occasion I arrived mid afternoon and using the authorised taxi service from the airport got to the hotel quickly. The Metropol Hotel is in a great location and much more deluxe than I expected. Large room with a view of – earthquake damaged buildings. This area was the center of the huge earthquake in 1985 and there are still buildings which have not been rebuilt since then. One author calls Mexico City ‘post apocalyptic’ which is a good description, Its problems : poor water supply, inadequate sewage systems, and pollution make it a crazy place for people to live – and yet the people continue to pour in … the figure of 22 million is bandied about but the official population is 15 million making it the 7th or 8th largest city in the world. Unofficial population is 18 million.

I tried to meet Michael at the airport but due to poor signs, I got lost in the airport and missed him. Found him later at his hotel and was very concerned because he had such a terrible cold. Luckily his condition improved a bit before he returned to San Francisco.

http://www.mna.inah.gob.mx/muse1/mna/muse1/muna/mna_ing/main.html
We went to the Museum of Anthropology which is simply one of the finest museums I have ever seen ; the collection is fantastic but the 1960’s buildings are classic and a real delight. Because of my trip to Yucatan and a much better knowledge about the history of Mexico, I enjoyed it more than on my previous visit. One thing Michael and I enjoyed .. each building has an adjoining outside area – some with significant archeological buildings or artifacts ; others landscaped in a pleasing way. In either case, a good place for Michael to have his ciggie and for both of us to get fresh air and some sunshine. We had lunch in the terrace restaurant there – very good value in a great setting. That evening we looked for a restaurant in Michael’s neighborhood and ended up in a ‘European’ place which specialized in food from Alsace – we each had charcuterie – a huge platter of sauerkraut and pork in various forms. One plate would have been enough for the two us – delicious and authentic (Michael lived in Strasbourg and knows the real thing). A pianist with good musical taste added just that extra note to the evening.

On Sunday we went to the zoo – interesting collection but the part we enjoyed most was the landscaping. Perhaps not as spectacular as San Diego Zoo, but well landscaped and a feeling of being natural. It felt miles away from the pressure of the city. Michael returned to San Francisco on Monday ; I spent the day on a combination of chores and sightseeing around the Cathedral area.

On Tuesday I took the first of my many coach trips – First Class bus to Guadalajara. Altogether I traveled more than 2000 miles on the Mexican bus system. Excellent terminals, for the most part, clean and well managed. Spacious buses and good baggage control made travel easy and in a couple of cases, downright posh. As much room as you get in Business Class on an airplane. Down side is a video blaring away and air conditioning cold enough to chill meat! One company (ETN) had ear phones so I could ignore the video – others were so loud and violent that I got a headache from them.

I found the good old Number 616 bus at Guadalajara Bus Terminal and took the cheap (35 US cents) bus ride into the city. I was feeling quite smug until I tried to find the San Francisco Plaza Hotel .. someone had ‘moved it’. Well, my memory let me down and it was two blocks away from where I left it. Great place – old colonial style place with huge rooms and lovely interior courtyards and tiled walls. A welcome addition since my last visit was an electric heater in the room,. So I was very comfortable. Although I enjoyed Guadalajara and saw more of the ‘sights’ – I found it more polluted than Mexico City. The fantastic murals by Jose Orozco in the classic museum (Hospicio Cabanas) amazed me ; the centrepiece - Man on Fire – defies description or photographing, but is beautiful and mysterious. The Regional Museum with its amazing collection of early ceramics in a building which is fascinating make this city a must. The elevation (4500 feet; 1500 metres) means that it was cold at night but by late morning the sun made it comfortable for walking and touring.
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Next stop was Mazatlan. I gave up on the old Hotel Belmar which really was too grim the last time I stayed there and opted for the expensive ($40 or £22 a night) Hotel La Siesta and was very happy with my room which had a balcony overlooking Olas Altos Beach .. a lively 5 or 6 block stretch. The Ladies Bar in the Belmar is as scruffy as ever and like a scene out of Starwars – its customers have a beat look and attitude and was great fun. The city has improved the promenade along the beach and connected it with the main beach where all the fancy hotels are located, so there is a great walk which can be as much as 5 miles if you are up to it.

Saturday night in the nearby plaza was great fun. It was decorated as part of the buildup to Mardi Gras and tables were set in the centre of the plaza for a private party. I was lucky enough to grab a table at a restaurant and ate dinner while watching the arrival of the sells in fancy dress. Lots of live music of all kinds and a general festive atmosphere.
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My favourite hamburger joint in Mazatlan (Thorney’s) has closed, but there are plenty of places to eat and drink. I’m told that the place is dying – it simply does not attract the tourists the way it did years ago. On the other hand, the area around Olas Altos seems to be moving upmarket ; it is close to the centre of the city and has interesting art galleries, a theatre and a fairly large expat community. A visit to the hotel strip seemed to indicate they were eager for business even though this should be peak season. Several hotels were offering rooms for $30 a night. There is not much to see in Mazatlan, so I was ready for the bus journey to Los Mochis after my 3 days there.

Los Mochis is spread out and my map reading skills failed me, so I walked for ages before finding a taxi to take me to the Hotel Montecarlo. The place looked OK but the room was cold and there was only a trickle of water – hot or cold – even though the plumbing was all quite new. My plans for an early night were disturbed by a wedding party (or a successful drug deal from the looks of some of the party) which went on until well after 3am. They did not look like the sort of people you tell to pipe down – and when the alarm went at 4:30 am I was glad to clear out of the place.

The main goal of my trip to this part of Mexico was to visit the Copper Canyon – (Barrranca del Cobre in Spanish). This is a series of six massive interconnected canyons in the Sierra Madre mountain range. The canyon system is said to be four times larger than the Grand Canyon in the USA; four of its six canyons are deeper than the Grand Canyon. I had to take all this on trust because I simply looked down into it – any thoughts of exploring were out of the question because of the cold wet weather. CHEPE (Ferrocarril Chihuhua al Pacifico) connects Los Mochis near the Pacific Coast to Chihuahua, 393 miles (655 km) to the northeast. It has 87 tunnels and climbs from near sea level to 8000 feet (2400 metres).

The train station for CHEPE is about 4 miles outside the city and looked desolate but a few people came in and at 6am we boarded the train. Nice clean train ; (it was First Class – there is an Economical service which leaves an hour later but it makes many more stops and is not recommended). There is a smart dining car and after a good breakfast I began to feel better. The early part of the journey is through flatlands and I slept for a hour or so but luckily woke up as we entered the most interesting part of the journey. Many more people (mostly in tour groups) joined the train at La Fuerte about 3 hours from Los Mochis; this avoids the flat farmland and does not require such an early start.
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As the train gains altitude, the scenery becomes very intriguing. There are mountains in the distance and miles of forest – oak trees according to the book I was reading – but interspersed with cacti and dogwood (both rose and white). There was also a tree with red bark which I could not identify. The rivers were flooded, in some cases creating huge lakes – there has been a lot of rain this year. By 10 am, the train was going up steeply and doubling back as we climbed. The highlight of the trip is a town called Divisadero which is right on the rim of a huge canyon. This is clearly the place to stay – the hotel there is posh - $175 a day with meals – but if I do this trip again this where I would stay.

Weird Scene

CHEPE relies heavily on freight and one of the most astounding scene was a series of 15 or 20 flatbed rail cars with US and Canadian RVs (Recreational Vehicles) on them, the owners proudly sitting in front of their vehicle in portable chairs. I saw two convoys of these which were in marked contrast to the regular freight train which had very poor Mexicans huddled in the freight cars – ragged and poor. I guess the RV owners chose to go by train both for the scenic journey and to avoid the long drive from the high plateau to the Pacific.

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I went on another 3 hours to a town called Creel which was recommended by the Lonely Plant guide for its range of cheap hotels. They did not mention the stray dogs, the people who looked furtive and unfriendly – altogether a rough and unpleasant place. The fact that the train was 3 hours late, it was dark and driving cold rain did not help matters. My first choice hotel was closed up tight so I went to Casa Margarita which turned out to be a fire trap posing as a hotel. $20 a night included meals and I had a good but basic dinner (cheese on everything ; this is Mexico) ; a short walk revealed no bright lights or place for a drink and the crowd of backpackers in the hotel were not friendly so it was early to bed. The gas heater kept making booming sounds during the night which combined with the pouring rain to keep me awake. After a quick coffee in the morning I walked through driving cold rain to the bus station and asked where the next bus was going … luckily it was to Chihuahua (a major city on the high plateau).

Weird Scene

This bus was not one of the First Class ones and was very crowded and made lots of stops. There was a strange (American, I think) ‘family’ .. a blonde man in his 50s was clearly in charge; he was with one man and 4 women, all in their 20s. The younger people consulted him throughout the trip and he had a strange habit of raising his right arm and fist in the air. His T shirt message was NOT TO YIELD and SERVING THE MISSION. Is this a cult? Bad vibes .. or was this just the Creel Effect?

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I checked into the Chihuahua’s best hotel and relaxed after a hot bath. Creature comforts never looked and felt so good. Chihuahua is a cowboy centre and there seem to be dozens (hundreds) of places selling outlandish cowboy boots (camp bright pink and fuschia with winklepicker toes .. I loved them), saddles, all types of cowboy getup. I thought the place was fun. Sunday evening was amazing – the whole city seemed to congregate in the plaza for an old fashioned promenade – young and old – all walking about the enjoying themselves until well after 11pm. It was also the site for a ceremony the next day when the flag was lowered at 6pm (not sure if this was a special occasion) – The music included kids playing recorders ; the Municipal Band dressed in black wool overcoats over beige trousers and looking vaguely like London skinheads, and finally a military drum and bugle corps.

.The cathedral is impressive and very restrained by Mexican standards the tasteful stone interior and small beautiful floral arrangements on the side alters made the place feel more loved than some of the gilded and gaudy places in Mexico City. The three real sights were (1) the small ancient church dedicated to Hildago – simple and impressive – (2) the Pancho Villa Museum – a hilarious place. It was like a small castle but very quaint inside with French furniture and rather twee murals on the walls. I found it difficult to imagine Pancho Villa in a bourgeois setting like this but there was his pistol holder hanging from the brass matrimonial bed. I gather than one of his many wives lived here and although he visited the place, his main home was a ranch outside Parral.. The museum had a lot of interesting photographs, including those of the gun toting women who joined Pancho Villa’s army as they moved south to capture Zacatecas. Chihuahua was also famous because earlier revolutionaries (Hidalgo ; Jaurez) were here.

(3) The other place of interest is a Art Nouveau home (Quinta Gameros) on a grand scale, built in 1907. It would look right at home in Paris – really a huge mansion.. The story is that a rich man built it for his bride to be, but she fell in love with the architect and married him instead. There were only a few rooms with original furniture but the bathroom had all the original Art Nouveau ceramic tiles, a mad circular antique shower and lovely light fittings. The other room was a child’s bedroom with bed, dresser and walls all decorated in a Little Red Riding Hood motif. I doubt if I could have slept there – the wolf seemed to be everywhere – what a curious choice of theme. Many of the rooms were filled with rather indifferent modern paintings but the building was still well worth the visit.

My next stop, Parral, is a very out of the way place .. about 150 miles from Chihuahua with only cattle country and small towns en route (and few towns at that). It rained during the journey and at one point a man got on and played his guitar and sang sorrowful songs. Because all the Mexicans gave him some coins, I did too and then he got off the bus at a remote crossroads – I gather that is how he makes his living. One of the most fantastic things I saw was a low level cactus which was distinctly purple in colour – maybe this is commonplace but I had never seen one. All my attempts to photograph failed.

Parral (official name is Hildago del Parral) is a mellow town of 110,000 most famous for Pancho Villa being assassinated there in 1923. It was founded in 1631 and while there is not much of interest there, it has a nice feel about it and the people and polite and leisurely. Hotel Acosta is a family run place with 1950’s décor and fittings .. a nice little place with friendly staff. There were also a couple of cute restuarants with 1950s décor and a fun bar at a place called Calipso.

I particularly enjoyed a huge funeral there on the Saturday – not sure who the deceased was, but there were at least 10 pickup trucks filled with huge floral displays – 6 feet in diameter - waiting outside the church for the trip to the cemetery. What a send off ; nice day for the floral trade. Also interesting that women were wearing rather smart casual gear and no hats – the days of ladies covering their heads in Catholic churches seems to have passed (where was I when that happened?).

I stopped in a hardware shop to buy some locks and the man insisted on getting his wife who spoke English. I am glad he did – she lived in London for several years during the 1970s and spoke excellent English. She was interested in my travels in Mexico and very curious about what I was doing in Parral. We had a half hour chat and I brought her up to date on things in London.

Weird Scene

I thought I saw nuns in Parral but it turned out to be young Mennonite women wearing white kerchiefs on their head. They were standing at an intersection, selling cheese. Mennonite cheese is apparently highly regarded in these parts. These people moved here from America and I have seen them in bus terminals – the men in bib overalls and the women usually wearing black .. odd that they should end up here.

  • ********

In both Chihuahua and Parral, the role of the Indians is not quite as simple as the guidebooks would have you think. Yes, they are dressed with great colour and often selling handicrafts, but they were also begging at banks, in bars and appearing very much like gypsies. They clearly were not popular with the local population. Sad, since they are striking handsome people and many of them have a natural dignity.

The next bus journey was 6 hours to Durango – another cowboy city. This is a place with many fine buildings and more character than Chihuahua. I stayed in a converted mansion which housed a restaurant I was keen to eat in – until I found that the a la carte menu had been replaced by one of those ‘all you can eat’ formulae. It was a carnivore delight Brazilian place with waiters carrying beef in all forms all over the place while people stuffed themselves silly – very off putting. I found a nearby Italian place and had a good pasta – it had great style and a fun crowd, so I enjoyed it. Alas, the hotel room was cold and I had to pile blankets and wear several layers of clothing. This cold weather was getting to be a real bore!

Durango was noteworthy because of the lack of guns. One of the things which is disconcerting about Mexico is that you see guns everywhere – usually in the hands of private security people – even the CHEPE train had a man wearing dark glasses carrying a serious looking automatic weapon. Guadalajara was filled with guns, but not so many in evidence in Puerto Vallarta.

My next stop was Zacatecas ; a city of 115,000 which was founded in 1548 and with a fine Baroque Cathedral and many beautiful colonial buildings. UNESCO designated it a heritage city and pumped funds into it, so it caters well for tourists and has at least 10 museums. It rained while I was there which spoiled it a bit for me, but between showers I walked around the lively market, saw several of the buildings and generally enjoyed the great atmosphere. There is a mountain (La Bufa) dominating the skyline and a cable car connects it with the city – a fun ride. The mountain is flood lit at night and I had a excellent view of it from my hotel room (a very nice place – Hotel Condesa ).

In common with most places I had visited, there were no interesting bars in Zacatecas. With all those plazas and beautiful buildings, it was crying out for a bar with a terrace to people watch. This is odd thing about Mexico – it is very puritanical about bars – you can rarely see into them from the street and have to go past a screen to see what type of place you are about to enter. Puerto Vallarta is an exception and there are more bars with a terrace (or at least open to the street).

I booked a tour of the city which included a trip to a nearby town known for its silver mines. Some deep level mines are still operating but when the Spanish came, the silver was in veins near the surface which could be easily scooped out and this accounts for the prosperity of the region. One small town looked picturesque from above and I asked the guide to take me down there. He was somewhat reluctant and I learned why. Although it looked charming from a distance, it was very poor and the people looked almost desperate – he said that most of the men in the place were working in the United States and the families had broken down and it had problems with drugs and violence. We did not stop and it was one of the few places I saw in Mexico which I really found menacing.

The next day I went on another trip – some 30 miles outside Zacatecas to an archeological site – La Quemada. There were 5 of us and the guide was knowledgeable, so I enjoyed this tour. This turned out to be the most pleasant surprise of my trip. I knew nothing of the place but it is impressive and has a informative small museum with a fascinating video which explained that the Indians who lived there from 200 to 1200 AD, then abandoned the site and later moved on to found Mexico City. The site is on a mountain which provides a natural lookout from which you can see for miles in every direction – an impressive military site. The city is on 5 levels – we climbed up to the 3rd level which was about 200 steps and quite vertigo making enough for me. Level 1 had a marketplace where the local people came to trade goods; Level 2 had the court where ballgames were played, overlooked by a small pyramid; level 3 was where human sacrifices were carried out and through a niche in the wall, the priests could display the heads to the population below. Level 4 was the religious center and Level 5 for astronomy. The structures were made of dry stone walling – no cement used. Often it was difficult to tell which parts of the mountain were natural and which man made. Apparently the population of the city was only 500 but there were 10 to 15 thousand people living in the plains below it who provided the food and effort to keep the place going. While it is not as impressive in architectural terms as the Mayan ruins in Yucatan, I still found it interesting and it had a a great sense of atmosphere because of its impressive setting.

Things began to speeded up after I left Zacatecas .. I went to Guadalajara and stayed at a dreary hotel near the bus terminal so I could catch an early bus to Puerto Vallarta. This was Primera Plus – a really deluxe company with a fine bus. In Puerto Vallarta I stayed at Hotel Rosita, right on the sea at the north end of the Malecon, the lively strip of bars and restaurants. I did not have a sea view but the hotel has fine public spaces on the ground floor which were conducive to reading and relaxing. I received a great reception from Ken and Gary who have a condominium there. Ken’s sister Brenda and her daughter Laura were visiting and they were fun gals – we all hit it off and had lots of laughs. That is, until I tipped over. I was coming home around midnight and made the mistake of trying to jump up a low wall to the promenade, I lost my balance and fell down into the cobble stone street, just managing to catch myself with my right hand. I landed on the right side of my chest and hip. At first I thought I’d cracked some ribs but I think I just pulled muscles – in any case it cramped my style and it was still sore when I got back to London. Naturally I blamed myself for being so silly – I should have waited until I got to some stairs or a ramp before going up to the promenade. No permanent damage done .. but any fall is a serious matter and it was a shock to my system.

I had some bad memories in Puerto Vallarta during two of my previous visits there when Ken Johnson was so ill ( and when I had pneumonia) but I laid those ghosts to rest and enjoyed it – it was nice to be with lots of English speaking people again (or in my case, English listeners) and the whole restaurant/bar scene is simpatico. Ken and Gary cooked a great dinner on Sunday evening (delicious salmon) and gave a fun Mardi Gras party and we finally had a evening out going to the art galleries followed by a good dinner. Eating outdoors at 9 pm is such a treat … the weather has lovely.

The return journey to Amsterdam was taxing – in part due to my painful chest … but also because I had a boring 4 hours in Mexico City airport which has no seats (I ended up sitting on the floor), no restaurants (until you get past immigration into the Departure lounge). In any case, it was good to get to my Amsterdam hotel and after a shower, have a quick drink with my friend Andrew Watt before an early night. I left my hotel in Puerto Vallarta at 10am Thursday morning and checked into the Amsterdam hotel at 4pm Friday, so it is no wonder that I slept 12 hours that night.

Practical Details

Hotel Metropol
Luis Moya 39
Zona Centro
Mexico City
$42 per night (very nice hotel near Alameda Plaza)

Hotel San Francisco Plaza
Degollado,267
Guadalajara
$38 per night

Hotel La Siesta
Olas Altos, 11
Mazatlan
$40 for seaview room with balcony

Hotel Margarita Plaza
Creel
($10 but not recommended ; seemed like a firetrap to me)

Hotel Plaza Cathedral
Hotel Posada San Jose Constitucion , 102 Sur
Durango
$35 per night (might be OK in summer .. no heat and too cold in winter)

Hotel Rosita
Paseo Diaz Ordaz 901
Puerto Vallarta
$47 per night

Hotel Serena
At Guadalajara Airport
$40
(I thought this was an overpriced dump ; if possible, stay in the city)

Posted by MarshallC 07:38 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Cambodia

One of the wonders of the world - Angor Wat and one of the saddest places I've seen in SE Asia, Phnom Phenh

sunny 32 °C

Travel Notes : Thailand and Cambodia November 2005

Highlights

• Cambodia – my first trip there and I found it both easier traveling than I expected but more disturbing than either Thailand or Laos due to a surplus of beggars and an aggressive attitude by many of the people.

• Angkor Wat – words fail me ; it certainly deserves all its praise as a Wonder of the World. It is an extremely impressive place which I thoroughly enjoyed.

• Safety – I was alarmed by the poor safety standards (indeed, total lack of standards) in Cambodia.

• Bangkok – many improvements but still a long way to go. Pollution and traffic jams seem to be back after a slight respite when the rapid transport systems were first opened a few years ago.

• Increased prices for the Thai people – transport in particular - cause a general sense of discontent in the country. There was even talk of a coup but I think it was just that – talk.
(I was wrong .. there was a military coup in 2006).

• Thai Airways –it really is a superior airline .. the food and service were good, especially compared to the rather blunt service provided by KLM.

I spent a week in Bangkok, then went to Cambodia for two weeks and had a final week in Bangkok before returning to London on 30 November. Thai Airways – I was lucky to get a non stop London/Bangkok return journey for £480 (it is normally closer to £600 this time of year). I was even luckier to have a vacant seat next to me on both outbound/inbound legs of the journey. The cheaper than normal prices and empty seats are an indication of how tourism in Thailand has been hit by (1) the tsunami after effects (2) the bird flu scare and (3) competition from Vietnam and China.

Trouble on arrival in Bangkok when the airport ‘approved’ taxi driver did not use his meter and overcharged me for the journey to the hotel. This is the first year that this has happened. I suspect it is due in part to the squeeze being put on taxi drivers because of the increase in petrol (gas) prices, but no one likes being cheated, so I have written to the Tourist Authority of Thailand .. I await a response.

The Hotel Malaysia as welcoming as ever … many of the usual suspects there (the gathering of International White Trash, as my friend Tom Childs used to say). Nice room with cable TV, a large fridge, and air conditioning for just over £10 ($17) a night. Having a Deluxe room meant that I had my own coffee maker and the fridge allowed me to keep fruit, so I had breakfast in my room and did not have to face the world until I was fed and watered. Now that the underground station is nearby, the hotel has become far more convenient.

I did many of the usual things in Bangkok, most of which I have reported before (river taxi trip, went to Lumpini Park, etc.). This time I was searching for semi precious stones or gems for my friend Helen’s jewelry making hobby and that took me into Chinatown and the crowded markets there. Not much luck in finding anything really special for Helen (although she was pleased with a couple of items I got for her), but I had fun as I went through the markets. The chaos of it is slightly overwhelming but the variety of goods in fascinating and it is ‘real Thailand’.

I also found a new (to me) area which specializes in timber and wood carving – (Bang Sue, not really a tourist area, it seems to be a wholesale operation for Thai businesses). There was a lively general market in the same area with beautiful vegetables and fruit, fresh fish, clothing and all sorts of general merchandise. The place was exceptionally clean and orderly (especially in comparison to Chinatown) and while I wanted to take photos, I felt that it was not appropriate since the place was not a tourist attraction and the people were so sweet and curious about what I was doing there. I think that the camera can be a way of treating people as objects and am very wary of photographing them.

The Bangkok property boom continues … building sites all over the place and new apartments/condominiums being built in spite of a glut of property on the market. The relationship between the cost of property and rental values is crazy (buying property is expensive while rents are very cheap and would not cover the cost of a mortgage).
A crash seems inevitable but I have been saying that for years about London and it has not happened. I guess I simply underestimate the amount of spare cash that is floating around the globe.

Eating is always a treat in Bangkok and the outdoor restaurant near the hotel (Just One) is still excellent and cheap. I had many good meals in Bangkok. One of my favourite places, Mizu’s Kitchen in Patpong, is still outstanding value for money (it would not pass many people’s hygiene standards but a little dirt never hurt anyone). I wish I could get their breaded shrimp here (especially at less than £2 a platter).

On to Cambodia. Because of its recent past and the fact that it is such a poor country, I was amazed to find that it is an easy place to deal with. Siem Reap, the town nearest Angkor Wat has a population of 85,000 but the part of interest to me was very compact and I walked most of the time. The Golden Banana Guest House (which I located over the Internet) was a delight. 16 rooms, most in a traditional style; hot water and air conditioning and extremely clean. Breakfast was included and I particularly liked the large bowl with 4 or 5 fruits and good black coffee which started my day.

The owner (Kee) lived in Australia for 6 years and speaks excellent English .. most of the staff spoke good English. I liked the fact that all sorts of information was available about how to visit the local sights, and while the hotel had taxi/tourist/driver contacts there was no pressure to use them. I did my usual freelance thing and found a tuk tuk * driver near the old bridge who took me out to the ruins and waited while I did my sightseeing - $8 for 4 hours, which seemed good value.

  • (in Cambodia, they are small cabs hitched to a motorcycle, not exactly like the purpose built tuk tuk of Thailand)

It seems odd that a Communist country is so lax about currency controls but bills could be paid in the local currency (riels – 4,000 to a dollar), Thai Baht or US Dollars. Many prices are set in US Dollars and that seemed to be the currency of favour. Luckily I was prepared for this and had a stash of smallish US bills. In general the prices were higher than Thailand and many places seem to think that a dollar was a low price .. a few things were priced at 50 cents, but that was rare. I am certain that the local people don’t pay as much (although I saw a lot of them dealing in US Dollars). In any case, it was all still fairly cheap by Western standards, so I did not lose sleep over it.

There are lots and lots of foreign owned businesses in Siem Reap (bars/restaurants) and a bewildering choice of restaurants serving Italian, Indian, French, American, Chinese food – in fact, most everything but Cambodian food. Coffee and bread are much better than in Thailand (I suspect this is the French influence since this was a French colony and they are now back there in a big way). There are many very posh hotels with rooms from $200 to $400 – most of the major chains were represented : Meridien, Sofitel, Raffles.

I met an American architect working on the extension of a 12 room hotel where the rates were $800 a night. It was so posh it did not have a sign on the low white wall enclosing it. I confirmed this price with the owner of my guest house, it is apparently the place for movie stars and seriously rich people.
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Angkor Wat is actually only one temple complex out of a extensive set of them. The 100 or so temples were built during the 9th and 14th Century when the Khmer civilization was at its peak. The ruins are spread over an area about 40 miles wide and are linked in style to other Khmer temples hundreds of miles away. This Khmer civilization included much of present day Thailand and Vietnam, and stretched up into southern China. Angkor Wat was said to have been a city of over a million people when London had a population of 50,000.
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The closest thing I have seen to compare it with are the Mayan ruins in Mexico’s Yucatan, but the Khmer ruins and both more extensive and elaborate. Many people warned of fatigue (‘templed out”) but I found sufficient variety in the ruins to sustain my interest. Some places appeared to be for ceremonial purposes (Terrace of the Leper King and Terrace of the Elephants); others were royal residences (Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom); there was also a huge moated complex (Neak Pean) and an impressive monastery (Preah Khan).

Perhaps one of the best features of the whole complex is that it is surrounded by forests (jungles?) and there are pleasant walks between many of the temples. Signs are in good taste and new development within the park kept to a minimum, so it is a very high quality environment.
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While Angkor Wat is impressive, my personal favourites were Bayon .. a ‘temple mountain’ with 56 stone towers which have (or had) the face of the king. Bayon also has nearly a mile of bas reliefs on the external walls; they tell the story of various wars and royal adventures. … and Ta Prohm, a monastery which was over run with trees and vegetation which has only been cleared up enough to make the place safe (relatively speaking) for tourists. It is a haunting beautiful place which gives one an idea of what the French must have seen when they ‘discovered’ the temples in the 1860s.

I had a week long pass and went out sightseeing 5 days (not continuous – I had a couple of rest days) before running out of steam. Walking and climbing in the 90 degrees plus heat and burning sun were exhausting. I did not get to see the outlying sights such as Banteay Srey and the Roulos Group (said by fellow guests at the Golden Banana to be impressive). That is sufficient reason to return to Siem Reap on another occasion.
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I stayed in Siem Reap for 9 nights and had allowed far more time than the usual visitor because I assumed this would be my only visit to Angkor Wat, but now that I have seen it, I think a return trip is in order. I must make it before I get much older. It is a testing place .. climbing and walking on rough surfaces .. and even for one like me who loves heat, it was physically demanding. Some of the climbs (Angkor Wat itself) were simply too daunting for me.

I was very lucky to be in Cambodia at the time of the water festival (called Loy Kratong in Thailand). The people place small ‘boats’ (about the size of a dinner place in most cases) on the water, lighting a candle on the boat before pushing it out into the river. I have seen the festival in Thailand but the setting in Siem Reap was more impressive because there were so many people. The river was calm so most of the boats stayed afloat. There were fairy lights in the trees and later fireworks which added that extra touch. During the afternoon and early evening there were boat races on the river and the local people were actively supporting their favourite teams. I liked it because it was all so casual and there were thousands of ordinary Cambodian people enjoying themselves – this did not have the touch of the Tourist Organisation or some TV production company.

This was in marked contrast to the boat races in Phomn Penh which are big business. Over a million people attend over the 3 day festival and the city was packed when I arrived on the last day of the races. There were huge chaotic crowds along the river and the whole proceedings seems to be on all the local TV channels. The King was there handing out prizes and it was all great fun. Fireworks bring out the kid in me … they were really fantastic. I was glad to have paid extra for a riverside room in the hotel (FCC - Foreign Correspondents’ Club) ; I had an excellent viewing point.

Just as well that I had some good times in Phnom Penh because I was certainly miserable because of the severe sunburn that I got on my boat trip from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.

Lake Tonle Sap varies in size with the seasons but after the rains (when I was there) it is nearly 16,000 square kilometers (which makes it only slightly smaller than Lake Ontario’s 18,000 square kilometers). My 5 hour boat trip went the length of the lake; the trip is over 150 miles.

We now go into the HOW COULD YOU BE SO STUPID mode. In spite of reading about the hazards of these boat trips, I stupidly thought that the $25 I paid for the Mekong Express Boat would ensure some degree of comfort and safety. The advertisement in the local guide showed a sleek boat with seating on the top which was covered ; individual cushioned seating and international safety standards were promised. I had originally planned to take a $6 bus to Phnom Penh but Kee at the guest house warned that because many streets would be closed in Phnom Penh for the boat races, it might be difficult to get from the bus station to the hotel. The boat landing in Phnom Penh was close to my hotel so I opted to pay the extra and get some comfort and an interesting ride.

Imagine my surprise when we got a few miles outside Siem Reap to a ferry landing where the boat was not the one pictured .. the indoor seating looked claustrophobic. There were 120 people on a boat designed for 40 people ; no safety equipment in evidence and I ended up crammed hip to hip with about 80 people on the roof of the boat, exposed to the sun (my sun cream was not accessible and I was so stunned by the whole situation that I did not take the initiative to ask someone for some). After about 20 minutes of going through colorful water villages (in which the locals live in houseboats on houses built on stilts in rather vile murky water), I realized that we were going the entire length of this lake .. and for at least 3 hours there was only water, water everywhere … no land in sight. I tried not to dwell on the whole thing but could see fright in the eyes of many of my fellow passengers – all foreigners from what I could see – it is too expensive for Cambodians (and probably they have better sense). I was certainly glad when we finally saw land – even though we had another 2 hours to go before reaching Phnom Penh. In spite of all my attempts to cover my head, my arms were sunburned and the reflection off the water scorched my face. By evening time I was uncomfortable and by next morning in such a state (possibly a little heat exhaustion or sunstroke?) that I stayed in for the day. A couple of days later, I still could not stand the sun even with thick layers of sun screen applied. Oh well - I survived!

At least I was not staying in some fleabag. Pricey by Asian standards ($60 a night) the FCC was a real delight. My room was minimalist style with a huge bed and the bathroom very smart. One special feature .. the mini bar did not contain those miniatures of booze, but full litres of gin, vodka, rum and whisky (all well known brand names - $28 per litre bottle) with lashings of tonic, soda, etc. There was a large balcony with table and chairs, excellent for viewing the river activity. The rivers Tonle Sap and Mekong merge in Phnom Penh to create a vast river.

The bar at the FCC is on the second floor in a corner of the building open to the air .. large ceiling fans and huge leather chairs in part of it provide the colonial feel which makes it special. Tables at the rear overlook the National Museum and Royal Palace. Food is quite international and fairly good (if a bit pricey by local standards) and there were many serious drinkers in addition to those who came to see and be seen. I soon became friendly with many of the staff as I nursed my sunburn with Tiger beer and the occasional rum/coke.

The hotel is in a excellent location with lots of restaurants and bars nearby, so I did not have to deal with the local taxi/tuk tuk drivers who looked a fairly unsavoury lot (although in fairness, my taxi driver to the airport was nice enough).

The collection in the National Museum is impressive and it brought home the fact that the Khmer civilization was Hindu/Indian and not Buddhist. The statues of Shiva and Vishnu predominated (there were Buddhist statues from later eras). The statues were striking because the figures were far more masculine than much of Thai sculpture. Massive arms and legs, big bellies and rather war like stances are in contrast with the more delicate androgynous Thai sculpture of Sukothai, for example. The museum was fairly orderly but an annoying feature was that instead of keepers or security people there were women trying to get donations for their shrines of incense and flowers. I found them disconcerting and ignored them.

One area had arts and crafts including two beautiful wooden items – a lovely cabin for a boat with carved louver windows, and an 18th Century loom of beautiful light construction. Each member of the loom frame had interesting carvings and the whole thing created an impressive lightweight but robust structure (approximately 15 feet long and 6 feet high).

I found the Royal Palace a bit of a disappointment – it seems to be a copy of the Emerald Buddha compound in Bangkok (except there were just a few buildings in Phnom Penh). It was populated almost exclusively by tourists, and had none of the sense of wonder that the busy temples in Bangkok have.

I decided that I knew enough about the mass murders in Cambodia and give the Killing Fields and Torture Museum a miss.

From the time I arrived in Phnom Penh (and because of the boat race we did not arrive at the convenient passenger terminal but at a muddy mucky site downriver), I found many of the people aggressive and unpleasant compared to people in either Thailand or Laos. The porter who brought my suitcase off the boat nearly had a fist fight with the taxi driver I selected (the porter was trying to steer me to a driver of his choice). Even a hefty tip for the porter did not shut him up.

There was tension bordering on violence on the streets; the nasty looking police at roadblocks were more keen to collect bribes from those allowed through the roadblock than to help me find my hotel. There is a sense of lawlessness in the city which I did not experience in Siem Reap. In fairness, poverty can breed such activity but I suspect there may be underlying factors associated with the years of brutality that these people experienced under the Khmer Rouge when several million people were killed in horrible prison camps or following interrogation.

I am generally case hardened when it comes to beggars, but Cambodia presents a case which got to me. After thinking about it, I believe it is because there are so many victims of land mines. Some of these people are in terrible state and are trying to make a living by selling books or postcards – others simply wander around the city begging. I tried my usual technique of giving money to the first two beggars I encountered in a day (my logic being that I cannot give to all .. so the early bird gets the worm). But there always seemed to be a case which seemed so pathetic that I gave more money later in the day. Eventually the begging and constant badgering by people wanting you to buy trinkets or take a tour resulted in compassion fatigue (or at least that’s how it affected me).

A negative thing about Phnom Penh is that the place is dirty; except for the museum /palace area the, the streets are piled with rubbish. I had the distinct impression that many of the people were quite dirty compared to Thais (on the other hand, most people seem dirty compared to Thais who seem to be obsessed with cleanliness) So it was with some pleasure that I took a taxi to the smart new airport in Phnom Penh and while I thought
the $25 Departure tax a bit stiff after the $25 visa fee on entry, I was happy to be on the Bangkok Airways flight back to Bangkok.

Bangkok for a another week - more of the same .. shopping, sightseeing, eating and drinking. After reading the Bangkok Post for several weeks, I realized that there is great unrest in Thailand. The government (in common with many governments in the world) seems intent of ‘privatizing’ everything and there is a big argument going about the proposed sale of the government electricity supplier to private companies. As I recently read in another context, ‘Most Egyptians believe the country is being plundered for the enrichment of the elite that owe allegiance to foreign powers’ – substitute Thais for Egyptians and I think that describes the situation. In addition, Thailand’s Prime Minster Thaksin is a megalomaniac who cannot abide criticism and it appears that there could be problems ahead. There was even talk of a coup … and there is always the big question of what happens when the King dies (he is 78 this year and has a history of heart problems).

The week passed quickly and before I knew it I was on Thai Airways flight back to London. The security arrangements at Bangkok Airport had resulted in a letter to the Editor of the Nation (English language newspaper in Thailand) which I saw after I had boarded my flight. I certainly can confirm the writer’s view that security at the airport is far too lax .. something I noticed on my trip to Cambodia earlier in the month.

The Nation – Bangkok English language newspaper

30 November 2005

Too easy for troublemakers to enter Bangkok airport

Recently, my partner and I travelled from Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport to Macau. Amid all the so-called security increases since the 9/11 attacks, I sadly must conclude that there still is a huge security breach at the Bangkok airport.

Airport authorities make great efforts to ensure no weapons or bombs can be taken onto aeroplanes, but what about the terminal itself? In Bangkok, there is no watertight security whatsoever from the moment you step into the departure hall until you reach the gate area.

Although the check-in luggage is screened, one could easily walk with a bag packed with explosives through the terminal and detonate it. There are security guards with hand-held scanners at the entrances, but they only check people randomly. In Thailand there is a clear danger of terrorist attacks, not only because of the many tourists here, but also because of a potential spread of insurgency terror from the southern provinces.

If a terrorist’s aim is to kill as many people as possible, an explosion in a packed terminal could prove much more effective than in an aeroplane.

When will the authorities realise it’s a ticking time bomb?

LS Bergman

Europe bound flights from Bangkok normally arrive at midnight or in the early hours and arrive in Europe early morning. This was the first time I took a daytime flight. There are two flights a day with Thai Airways and I was on the afternoon flight leaving at 1330 hours and arriving London at 1930 hours. An unexpected benefit was daytime views of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. As it happened, my flight reading was the Report of the September 11 Commission and I was struck by how illogical the US military position was when they said they dare not over fly Afghanistan to try to kill Osama Bin Ladin (this was in the period following the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania but prior to September 11). Even to my aging eyes, any man made structures stood out clearly in that bleak desert terrain which provides no ground cover. I suspect that there was a lack of will rather than any real technical or military basis for their argument. I am angry that while Bin Ladin is still hiding down there more than 3 years after September 11, we (USA and UK) have got involved in this Iraq sideshow which has only served to destabilise the world and Al Qaeda are still at large.

Sounds like that has little to do with my trip and I will get off my soapbox now.

Practical Details

Golden Banana Guest House
Kum Sala Komreuk, Krom10
Siem Reap
$18 a night
(note: This place has expanded and now has a boutique hotel with swimming pool)

FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club
363 Sisowath Quay
Phnom Penh

Warning: My advice is do not take the Mekong Express boat (Siem Reap to PP ; it is dangerious)

Posted by MarshallC 07:19 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Tenerife

My first trip to this fascinating island

sunny -17 °C

Travel Notes Tenerife September 2006
One week 12 -18 September

Summary

Positive Points

• Puerto Cruz may be fairly tourist, but because so many of the people were Spanish (at least in the city centre) it feels different. It certainly is not like a resort where the British or Germans dominate.

• Food in the restaurants did not seem to be anything special (and was not cheap) but going to the supermarket was a real treat. Lovely fruit and vegetables, so I enjoyed have the small kitchen in my studio and cooked a lot. Beer is cheaper than in the UK or Majorca .. 2 Euros for a pint of the local (decent) beer, Dorada.

• Transport was the best aspect of this holiday. The intercity bus station is only 5 minutes walk from my studio and buses go to all parts of the island. The bus fleet is smart and clean, the station well marked. By buying a prepaid ticket (Bus Bono) fares are ½ the cash fare, so it is cheap to travel around.

• Cheap .. a charter flight for £150 and a studio for £12 a night means that this is one of the cheapest holidays I have had in years. Even Mexico is more expensive.

Negative Points

• Weather – this may be due to the time of the year, but the weather was extremely changeable with lots of clouds and it rained for short periods several times during the week. The temperature still stayed high, so as least it was not cold.

• While plants were profuse and beautiful, I found the Botanical Gardens a big disappointment – too small and cramped.

Tough charter flight! It has been years since I went on a charter flight ;India in 1999 was a killer and Mexico 2000 not much better but they were long haul. In spite of lots of travel, I was not really geared up for the rigors of a 4 hour flight to the Canary Islands.

I’m certain that the hassle is due in part to the increased security, long lines to check in (typical of charter flights) even longer lines to get through security. I enjoyed my pint (or was it three?) when I got to the airside pub. Kids, horrible screaming kids .. indeed, babies (shouldn’t that be against the law?). And Tattoos .. I consider all tattoos vulgar but these were hideous, poorly executed .. and those were on the women .. those on the men were unspeakable.

But I got there and found the transport from the airport very easy indeed. Public bus 341 to Santa Cruz for 5.70 Euros and a change of level in the very modern bus station for a non-stop bus to Puerto Cruz for 4.10 Euros.

Marina Apartments did not get the best reviews (mostly due to noise) but at £12 a night .. I was willing to give it a go. Pleasant surprise! Nice studio apartment (remember, I lived in Jenner House for years) ; this was about the same size. Balcony large (12 x 12 feet at least with great views : city plaza, the major volcanic mountain and little slice of the local beach. I cooked in most of the time .. heavenly fruit and vegetables there (meat not so good and I am not all that adept at cooking fish … perhaps that is a project for my next visit.)
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Maybe I was just lucky in getting the studio that I did ; Marina Apartments is a large building that wraps around the main square (Plaza Charco), facing the square on one side, the Atlantic Ocean on the one side and finally onto the pedestrian street (Calle San Juan). Perhaps a pedestrian side studio on a lower floor would not be so appealing, but for the price … Studio clean and well appointed .. I grew to like the place once I learned how to fend off the mosquitoes .. (more anon .. just to make certain you keep reading).

Noise was the biggest complaint in reviews of Marina Apartments but I think that these came from country bumpkins. Noise .. yes .. but the normal noise associated with a city centre .. perhaps they should have gone to the country..
Great location, bars, plaza, supermarket, liquor store, Internet shops .. even a church in case I had a major change of heart. Puerto Cruz is definitely a tourist area, but it has lots of space, many small parks and open spaces, a few old churches, exotic (if you come from Danville Illinois) plants and trees, mountains in the background and the Atlantic on the other side. Altogether a very nice little city.

Mosquitoes were an unexpected problem .. too hot there to keep the door closed and at night the mosquitoes came in (not in huge numbers, but why do they insist on buzzing in my ear before chewing on me?). I finally sorted this .. . when you open the door, pull the flimsy curtain over it, it lets air through but seems to keep out the mozzies. Alas, I am a slow learner and it was the 4th night before I figured this out (I was looking for a gun shop to kill the little buggers!). Perhaps irrational, but being close to Africa (Morocco is 120 km away) .. I was thinking of malaria. Please do not ask me to explain how I can be so relaxed about malaria where it is a real risk (Laos, Cambodia, Thailand) and worry in Tenerife. Dizzy or what?
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The extinct (we hope ) volcano (Mount Teide) dominates the view and is a terrific backdrop for the city (in fact, most of the island). At 3,718 metres (2.3 miles … 12,198 feet) Mt Teide is the highest point in the whole of Spain. So from my balcony, I had a view of the volcano along with my breakfast of beautiful fruit (I gave up on their bananas.. peaches, melons and nectarines were much better).

Wednesday

Took the bus to Santa Cruz to visit the Museum of Nature and Man.
I am glad I read my “required reading” from my friend Richard prior to my trip because the labels were almost all in Spanish. I had a good understating of the importance of volcanic action to the very development of the Canary Islands. The islands are said to have developed in greatly different eras but are related in some way to the same volcanic action which formed the Azores and Madeira. (The theory of Atlantis seems to be out of favour here). A very high quality museum and it makes me want to do more investigation about the Guanches (the indigenous people) and their pottery .. it seems very primitive compared to similar SE Asian work .. Do I have the wrong Century?

Mummification .. the Gaunche practiced mummification and this reinforces the idea that there were links with Egypt. Research needed on how widespread the practice of mummification is /was. (research by me .. I am sure some one has written about it)

The objects which intrigued me the most were primitive mills for grain .. two stones about the size of a Frizzbe .. the top one has a hole to place the grain .. and other hole in which a stick is inserted, so the top disc can be moved around (against the lower disc). Efficient.. and yet not clearly dated .. I need to do some research on these. One might come in handy when I have to go self sufficient (perhaps making my own rum should have higher priority).

The public market in Santa Cruz is called Our Lady of Africa (Mercado Nuestra Senora de Africa) after a nearby church. It is a fantastic place with great fruit and vegetables, flowers and lots of tat .. but a good balance and not miles of Chinese junk.

Back in Puerto Cruz I walked around the less touristy areas (very clean, attractive) and encountered a funeral (reminded me of the great funeral in Parrel, Mexico). This one was fascinating because most of the mourners had just come along in their ordinary casual dress (the men, that is … no that many women in evidence). The hearse was an ordinary van simply covered (every inch/centimeter of it) in flowers and just then my digital camera let me done .. out of batteries. The image is there in my befuddled head if anyone can think of a non evasive means of extracting it. This neighborhood was reassuring and made me realize this city is worth many visits .. there is life beyond the obvious tourist spots. (I really do not require the funeral fix).

Thursday Very menacing dark clouds over Puerto Cruz but Mt Teide stood out as a beacon - bathed in sunlight. I thought I might have a day of quite reading but by the time I returned from shopping, the sun was out, the sky blue and clouds had blown away.. Why didn’t I realize that being on the Atlantic meant such dramatic changes in climate were possible? I went to the Botanical Garden (up the hill by bus.. just a little too steep for me to climb). There are trees from everywhere in the tropics/semi tropics, lots of palms trees, ferns, bamboos and several exotic plants : bromeliads, heliobores. The whole place is criss crossed with small paths set out in geometric form .. very narrow and slightly claustrophobic. At the top of the gardens there is a pond with lilies with great view of Mt Teide. Quite a relaxing and special place.
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The high light was a huge tree .. the sign says it is Ficus Macrophyluss (Lord Howe). I tried to get a photograph of it, but like so much of these gardens .. there was not enough space.

[ subsequent research reveals that it is a type of banyan .. ]
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On Lord Howe Island (east of New Guinea) grows another large banyan, Ficus macrophylla var. columnaris. According to I.J. Condit (Ficus: The Exotic Species, 1969), single large tree may cover more than one acre. In 1874, Ferdinand von Mueller, director of the Melbourne Botanic Garden, described this species as "One of the most magnificent productions in the whole empire of plants...The pendulous air roots, when they touch the ground, gradually swell into columns of the same dimensions as the older ones which have already become converted into stems, so that it is not apparent which was the original trunk; ...and thus it is impossible to say whence the tree comes or whither it goes."
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I walked back into Puerto Cruz .. many hotels, bars, restaurants, but with enough space between them and adequate garden areas to make it all pleasing. This is urban; everything is within walking distance and the ocean is always nearby and the mountains visible in the distance. It seems to be a place for Spanish tourists, in fact, I encountered few British (and no Americans) here. The main group of non-Spanish tourists are German .. there are German bakeries, bars, restaurants. In fact, the Spanish tourist factor on the island makes it attractive .. they are relaxed and easy people to get on with. One case was when I went to the post office .. three customers and 4 counters open but only after a few minutes did I realize that I had to take a ticket .. and the Spanish man in front of me ( same dilemma) gave them a good natured ribbing.. How Ridiculous (I think he said).. it all ended in smiles from both the Spanish man, the counter staff and me. I guess the system of tickets is in place for busy times but seemed totally bureaucratic with so few customers.

Tenerife is cheaper than Majorca .. a beer is 2 Euros a pint ; 1.80 per bottle .. in Majorca 3 Euros for a pint ; 2.30 a bottle. The priciest thing I saw in the markets was lettuce …iceberg lettuce was 3.80 per head .. then I realized that lettuce is an exotic here .. melons were dirt cheap and delicious .. change your starter was the message.

I could go on and on (and on) about the intercity bus service. There is a timetable which covers most of the island, the buses themselves are a smart modern fleet .. (for the airport/ main routes the driver can open and close the storage bins for luggage from his seat, so you don’t have the groans that you get with Greyhound in America when the driver has to get outside and open the storage areas).

Colourful natives .. the locals are easy going ; how nice to be someplace where young people wear smart casual clothes, either the USA Ghetto styles have not reached here or have been rejected. Not nearly as much public kissing as you see on the mainland .. people greet each other with smiles but kisses seem to be reserved for very few people. Religion still appear to be strong .. I keep seeing these people out side my favourite bar (The Frigate, right at the harbour) crossing themselves and when I check it out, there is small shrine (from 1992 ; to the Virgin Mary and ships) mounted in the wall.

Tenerife poses the same question that I have about Majorca.. so many apartments are lifeless .. how much capital is tied up in this place by foreigners who only visit occasionally. Luckily, the city is small enough that it does not seem dead, but it must be an aggravation to the locals who cannot hope to purchase property if they work at an ordinary job.

Locals (including men) use an umbrella even when there is simply a mist .. how people in Newcastle would hoot at that. Up there, only females use umbrellas and only when it is really pouring with rain. Soft Canarians is what they would say in North Shields.

Hey .. this climate is on speed .. first a blowing gale and then .. dead calm. One minute clouds and fog, the next sunlight! I thought the English climate changeable, but this wins hands down.

Friday

Took the bus to Icod de los Vinos to see the Drago Tree .. one of the most unusual sights in the islands (and where else in the world would I find one). Its age is estimated from 300 to 1,000 years .. in any case, it looks very healthy so I guess it is good for another 300 or 1000 years. The tree has an unusual shape … bare truck and at the top ¼ branches and leaves which form a triangle. Apparently it has blood red sap which was very valuable as a dye centuries ago. Icod is a nice little town and only part of it seems touristy (near the Dragon Tree) .. There are two bus services to Icod (one Express, the other Local) and I took the local bus which goes through all the small villages which cling to the mountains along the coast. Several tunnels and many blind curves and other adventure points.

Saturday
Rain while I was having breakfast but this soon cleared so I went off to La Laguna, the university town which is almost a suburb of Santa Cruz. A very attractive town with lots of fine old buildings, and there must be tight regulations on shop signs because what were once probably residential streets have shops and bars but with no projecting or bold signs. It gives you the feeling of having ‘discovered’ a bar or café. A picturesque market on the main square is in a lovely old building …... the flower sellers in the entrance put on a great display.
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Work is going on to put in a tram service between Santa Cruz and La Laguna .. I wonder if this will change the character of the latter. I noticed that on this project and others there was no sign of EU funding .. every project in Majorca has the EU symbol plastered all over it. On my return to Gatwick, I learned (when I tried to go through the EU customs line and was stopped) that the Canary islands are part of Spain but a Freeport, not part of the EU. I wonder what the history of that decision is?

The Canary Islands are in the news in the UK because of ‘illegal immigrants’ from Africa but they were not to be seen during my visit. There were a few Africans selling trinkets (not nearly as many as in Nice or Barcelona) and I saw only one African working on a construction site. Most of the workers appear to be Spanish ; the cleaning ladies in my building were smart, elegant Spanish ladies.

Sunday
Day off with quiet reading due to rain and limited bus services. On Monday (in spite of rain and ominous clouds) I took the bus to Garachico, a very old town which is ‘frozen’ in the 17th Century because volcanic activity and earthquakes ruined the port and restricted access. It has a beautiful square surrounded by impressive old buildings. Not much life there even now .. but it was a murky day.
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I backtracked to Icod to catch a bus to Playa Americas. This hour and a half trip goes along the eastern slopes of Mt Teide, the huge extinct volcano which dominates the island. I just caught glimpses of it through the clouds and occasional rain. I would like to do the journey on a fine day but on this occasion the mist added to the sense of mystery and remoteness of this place. We went up and up .. probably to 2000 metres – 6,500 feet (Mt Teide is 3718 metres) from sea level, so it was an adventure. The valleys are fairly lush and there are several small thriving towns. It was a real shock when we descended on the southeast corner of the island into the vast beach complex – Los Cristianos ; Las Americas ; Costa Adeje) - this is ugly overdevelopment at its worst. I was happy to spend only a few minutes in Playa Americas bus station before catching a bus to Santa Cruz and then back to Puerto Cruz.

Going home

Easy journey back to airport – nonstop bus from Puerto Cruz – and after a long wait, an easy flight home. There was a little more space on this flight and I got two seats right at the rear of the plane and managed to stretch my legs a bit.

Posted by MarshallC 08:19 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

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