Back in time for tea

Travelling the world, hopefully with a cuppa in hand

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In a bit of hot water

At the smelly sulphurous pools

No need to worry, it was thermal mineral spring water. We’ve spent a rainy Saturday soaking in the outdoor thermal pools at De Bretts in Taupo. This part of New Zealand is well known for its volcanoes and geothermal energy. It’s slightly spooky driving along and seeing clouds of steam from vents in the ground. Today we got to see a geyser erupt as part of the biggest thermal park in the area. We wandered around through the smelly air and past bubbling cauldrons of sulphur and iron minerals. We also stopped off at a boiling mud pool looking just like chocolate fondue. Lou’s on a bit of a chocolate trip at the minute as we haven’t had any decent stuff for ages.

Since our last post, we’ve crossed over to the North Island (we spotted two dolphins from the ferry), spending a speedy 4 hours in the capital, Wellington, and continued the wine theme by heading over to the Martinborough and Hawkes Bay wine regions. Martinborough is famous for its pinot noir and we tried the Ata Rangi, Martinborough, Schubert and Canadoro wineries. The wineries here tended to be more expensive and charge for tastings. We particularly liked a peppery Syrah from Schubert but unfortunately it was above our price bracket at 35 GBP a bottle! In Hawkes Bay we went to Ngatawara, Church Road, Salvare, Bridge Pa, Brookfields, Craggy Range and Te Awa. We bought a lovely merlot from Salvare which we’ve enjoyed for the past couple of nights.

The Lady Knox Geyser in Wai-O-Tapu

Its not been completely about wine. We had a lovely night camping on a shingle beach after a fry-up supper with the waves booming through the night. We stopped off in Napier to admire the art-deco architecture. The town was rebuilt in the art-deco style after a massive earthquake in 1931. We spent slightly longer in Napier than planned as Jon left Chuck’s lights on. After standing around trying to attract a good Samaritan for a bit we got a jump start from a nice garage up the road and we were on our way again. We indulged Jon’s geeky side and stopped off at a reed organ museum in Woodville run by Rosalie and Milton at their home. They gave us a warm welcome and invited Jon to play anything he wanted from their collection of over eighty harmoniums and organs.

We were looking forward to trekking the Tongariro crossing, which takes you past an active volcano, but rain and gale force winds meant that transport to the startpoint was cancelled. Instead we’re heading up to Auckland tomorrow and then fly out to Rarotonga (one of the South Pacific Cook Islands) on Tuesday. We stocked up on beach reads at a hectic one-day charity book sale yesterday and are looking forward to the warmer weather, fingers crossed.

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COPEing with UXO in Laos

The COPE center in Laos, helping victims of unexploded ordnance

While in Vientiane in Laos we took some time out off our usual plodding about the streets and sightseeing in order to check out the visitor centre at COPE, the Cooperative Prosthetic Rehabilitation Center. They work with the victims of UXO or Unexploded Ordnance, providing them with locally produced prosthetics and other rehabilitation services. Laos is the most bombed country per capita in the world, and the countryside is strewn with millions bombs, particularly close to the Vietnam border.  Just walking around the cities in Laos, it is quite common to see people with missing limbs and it is just a tragic fact of life to the people living here. We found the centre really eye opening.  One of the exhibits we enjoyed listening to was a BBC Radio 4 podcast about kids foraging for UXO for its scrap metal value – you can listen to it here. There has always been a problem with children mistaking the colourful tennis ball-sized cluster bombs for toys, but over recent years with the increasing price of scrap metal, kids are actively collecting these dangerous munitions for their scrap value.  With a larger munition they could possibly feed their families for a couple of months, fetching around a dollar per kilo for the high quality weapons-grade steel.  Villagers often put the remains of munitions to inventive uses, using cluster bomb casings as supports for houses, cooking stoves, or converting aluminum bands to scythes for example.

Pineapple and BLU submunitions, basically ball bearings encased explosive

Cluster munitions have been used in every major conflict since the second world war and leave behind a dangerous legacy for the local population after the armies have left. No doubt everyone can remember the pictures of Princess Diana walking through a field of landmines, and it is this publicity that has gradually produced the new Convention on Cluster Munitions which bans the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions. It also places an obligation on states to clear affected areas after their previous use and assist victims. It entered into force last August (2010), and us Brits can be proud that the UK has fully signed up to it. Unfortunately many of the other large states, including the USA, India, China, Russia and Israel have still not signed up, but hopefully the moral pressure now placed on these countries will help prevent their further use.  As for the laborious clearing of the rusting timebombs in countries such as Laos, perhaps the money being spent by the USA in attempting to detect Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDS) being used against them by the Taliban in Afghanistan, will have the side effect of improving the accuracy and speed of UXO detection and clearance.  In Laos, one of the obstacles is the shortage of trained personnel and we sat through a movie where locals were being trained to international bomb clearance standards and forming their own clearance teams.

A cluster bomb opening

If you want to see or learn more, you can visit the COPE website and also browse a collection of photos by Sean Sutton on the problem of UXO here.

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Our top ten things to do in Hoi An

The Japanese bridge

We really enjoyed spending nearly a week in Hoi An and wanted to share the things we enjoyed most. So here’s our guide to the best of Hoi An, Jon and Lou style:

1. Get on your bike
In first place, we really loved the freedom to explore further afield and to visit the lovely beach. Lots of hotels and people on the street have bikes for hire at $1 a day. Cycling past paddy fields and witnessing everyday life of the people in Hoi An is something you need to leave the old town for.

2. Full moon celebrations
If you can, try to schedule your trip to coincide with a full moon. Hoi An celebrates by turning off all electric lights, banning bicycle and moped from the old town streets, leaving the town pedestrian-friendly and beautifully lit by lanterns. People float candles down the river to bring good luck to their families and the lanterns shops look amazing with all the bright colours blazing in the darkness. We got to watch some performances of traditional theatre and play Vietnamese bingo sung by two ‘callers’ accompanied by traditional instruments.

3. Take a cookery course
Learn how to make a selection of yummy Vietnamese dishes. Our cookery course took us on a market tour and showed us how to make fresh spring rolls, beef noodle soup, fish in a caramel sauce cooked in a clay pot and wilted spinach with garlic. If that’s making your mouth water,  we’ll add the recipes to our blog soon.

4. Get something tailored
Hoi An is the tailoring capital of Asia and every second shop wants to measure you up! It can be scary but once you take the plunge, you’ll find it addictive. We had lot of things made, split between three different tailoring shops. You can check TripAdvisor for recommendations or ones to avoid. There’s lots to say so we’ll post on this again separately.

5. Street food
We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner at street-side stalls nearly every day.  We loved the food, the variety and mingling with the locals while perched on tiny stools! Our favourite spot was eating down by the riverside, tucking into Cau Lau while watching the boats go by. We also tried some desserts, including one made with black beans and ginger and another made from black sesame seeds. They’re really good, think rice pudding but with beans.

Brightly coloured lanterns

6. Buy lanterns
There are shops on both sides of the river, all beautifully lit at night. It’s impossible to resist the colours of the fabrics and different shapes. Plus they’re really inexpensive so you can indulge yourself.

7. Happy feet
In addition to all the tailoring shops, there are also loads of places selling custom-made shoes to any size and design. The range is incredible and there’s unlimited scope for the imagination to run wild. I jumped at the chance to have some cherry red leather boots made and a pair of slinky slingbacks to match one of my new tailored dresses.

8. Take a boat ride
Best done at night, ideally on the full moon celebration so you can admire all the lanterns and floating candles. The lady we were with made Jon paddle the boat, earning his passage, and we had to bend very low to make it underneath the bridge. It’s a magical way to get a different perspective of Hoi An.

9. Explore the old town
Hoi An is one of the prettiest places we’ve seen. The old town lives up to its description of charming, with colonial buildings mixed with communal meeting houses.  We enjoyed just wandering around the streets and market, taking photos and checking out the food on offer at the different street stalls.

10. Cheap beer!
We spent a very enjoyable afternoon at one of the riverside restaurants, taking advantage of the very cheap fresh beer, less then 10p a glass! It’s cold, light, refreshing and very drinkable. We saw it being delivered in plastic bottles by a man on a moped.

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Pedal power in Cambodia

Freewheeling on our bikes

Our New Year coincided with a visit to Cambodia, primarily to visit Angkor Wat, but we’ve been surprised by the country too. We were expecting something more rustic and less discovered compared to Thailand but what we’ve found in Siem Reap is a tourist industry to rival Bangkok. One in every two visitors to Cambodia visits Angkor Wat so perhaps it’s not surprising that as the closest town to the site, Siem Reap is so bustling.

The temples (Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and many others) lie about 6km to the north of the town and we decided to hire bikes for a few days so we could explore under our own steam. Beating the crowds and the sunrise required two early starts, leaving before 5am, but cycling along the leafy roads in the cool air on our way to the temples is it’s own reward. We have to admit to being underwhelmed by our first day spent looking around Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, whether due to tiredness, the heat or lack of knowledge of the site’s history and meaning, we’re not sure, but we really enjoyed our second visit today. We focused on some of the more dilapidated temples including Ta Prohm and Preah Khan where the forest is beginning to swallow the buildings, with giant tree roots spanning walls and gripping columns.

Tomorrow we’re swapping the bikes for the bus as we travel to the capital, Phnom Penh, as the first stage of a two-day journey to reach Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. We’ll try to post another update from there. Happy New Year everyone!

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Monks, Monasteries and Momos in Tibet

We’re just back from 11 days in Tibet and wanted to share our impressions with you all. Photos to follow soon…

First impressions:
Stern Chinese officials at the border after the amazing friendship bridge; Meeting our friendly Tibetan guide Norbu and the rest of our tour group; Bright blue skies and huge desert-like vistas; Scary hairpin bends and roads stretching towards the horizon (Top Gear would love it); Freezing cold despite piles of blankets.

The people: Curious, especially of Lou; Welcoming, friendly and wanting to communicate with us; Older people brightly dressed in traditional clothing representing different parts of Tibet, trendy younger people in western style clothes; Fun-loving, partial to Lhasa beer and Chyang.

Devoutness: Prostrating pilgrims making their way to Lhasa from all over Tibet, circling religious temples, spinning prayer wheels, chanting and making offerings of butter, money and alcohol; Children with black smudges on their noses after praying for protection; Monks in scarlet robes vociferously debating and attending puja (worship); Shrines in every home.

Oppression: Implied in subtle and non-so-subtle ways; Web censorship e.g. Facebook and Youtube blocked; tales of spies planted into communities; Soldiers with rifles on the streets in Lhasa; Difficulty in obtaining passports for Tibetan people; The Chinese government attempting to control the direction of Buddhism and restricting numbers of monks; Religious leaders in exile in India.

Tibet was amazing from start to finish. We were touched by the welcome from the Tibetan people and encouraged by their resilience and dedication. We’re looking forward to learning more about the history of the Chinese occupation and cultural revolution now we’re free from restrictions on the web. From what we’ve seen, Chinese involvement in Tibet has provided better infrastructure, healthcare and education amongst other things. Lhasa feels like a booming capital city, but at the cost of eroding the Tibetan culture and heritage. Our hope would be for a freer, self-governing Tibet, but only time will tell. In the meantime did you know that you can sign up to the Dalai Lama’s page on Facebook.

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