Surfacing again after several months of "radio silence". The latest posts should bring things up to date. I have now moved back to the UK into the somewhat surreal world that is Flete House. I am planning to head off up the Mekong and Red Rivers in Vietnam and Laos later this month. 2023 has arrived so Happy New Year !!
I had booked myself into a very nice hotel in Chang Mai for one night before I was due to board an evening flight to Bangkok and from there overnight to London and due to arrive at dawn on Monday. However after a quick bout of Temple, pagoda and Stupas I decided to spend a few hour by the pool.
Received an email alerting me to the fact that my flight from Chiang Mai had been rescheduled so that I would not make the connection to London. So several hours booking myself onto flight the next day and hotel at Chiang Mai Airport. All very tedious as was the 13 hour daytime flight to Heathrow!! Arrived late evening and checked into hotel at Heathrow before driving through freezing fog to Flete on Tuesday morning.
Max collected from Kennels on Wednesday morning. Very happy to be home (Me & Max).
Thai Airways now added to my sh1t list of airlines. Appalling service, uncomfortable seat, inedible food and eye watering cost for business class !
Will publish this and probably write an “epilogue” in due course. R
The final leg of the cruise was spent traversing more rapids and venturing upstream until the low water level caused by those Chinese dams was as far as we could go. Thailand on the left bank and Laos on the right. A few km upstream of the Friendship Bridge we moored up and went through a somewhat tedious process of exiting Laos and entering Thailand. A minibus back to the Friendship Bridge to depart from Laos, A bus across the bridge and Thai immigration before another minibus ride back to the Laos Pandaw which has now moored on the Thai side of the river after a 100m repositioning.
A last night on board with a farewell from the staff and crew, some Thai dancing and a final, somewhat subdued “last supper” on board.
Disembarked early the next morning for a final excursion to the Golden Triangle and an Opium Museum. The Golden “Triangle” is a pretty murky part of the world where Myanmar (Burma), Laos and Thailand meet, and with a couple of “disputed” territories, is where the majority of the worlds Heroin and more recently Methamphetamine is produced. The Myanmar military seems be be the major benefactor here but the UK. and US both have a lot to answer for! The UK for having started the Opium trade in the 19th century, and indeed fought wars over it. The US for supporting and enabling it during the Vietnam war etc.
A final Thai Lunch, a group photo and then lots of farewells as we all headed off to either Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai and either home or to continue travelling to a variety of destinations. I headed for Chang Mai – a 5 hr ride in a minibus to start the long haul back to Blighty.
He headed upstream from Luang Prabang for two days cruising through stunning scenery and very little in the way of population. The river fluctuated between wide and shallow to narrow and fast flowing. This involved negotiating many sets of rapids and eddies and on several occasions we were virtually stationary as our three engines, driving three propellers of various sizes, struggled to make headway. Before we knew it the captain pulled over to the bank and announced that we might have cracked a propeller so they needed to get the engineering department to go over the side for an inspection as the worst rapids were yet to come !
The inspection confirmed that it was somewhat more than cracked ! However our ever resourceful Pandaw crew somehow had it replaced and we were underway again in just over an hour.
With a major set of rapids still to come the Captain wasn’t taking any chances and a series of ropes were deployed and tethered to a large tree with a view to using the ships winches to tow us if required.
We made it without resorting to winches and soon crossed paths with one of our “sister ships” Champa Pandaw heading downstream with a “cargo” of French tourists on board.
A couple of excursions to remote local villages with many fascinated, and on the whole smiley and enthusiastic people. All living off the land and river,
Many locals along the banks panning for gold. And quite a number of major mining operations along the way. Some very dramatic sections of the river….
Stunning scenery all the way. We finally made it to a sand bar “beach” where cocktails, a barbecue and even dancing to an old Elvis album. I was not a participant but a great effort by the crew after their very energetic day with the rapids
Luang Prebang was the royal capital of Laos until the communist takeover in 1975. It was once the administrative capital of Laos and an old French colonial town on the banks of the Mekong and it’s tributary, the Nam Khan . A great vibe and very popular with backpackers and adventurous travellers. Lots of boutique hotels, shops, spas, cafes and restaurants. Also numerous temples (wats) and palaces all accessible by foot or tuk-tuk, as well as a thriving night market. The locals still continue a traditional rural lifestyle involving farming and trading.
We arrived at our mooring in the centre of town for 3 nights of exploring the town and surrounding area.
A slightly strange ceremony and blessing on board on evening followed by some traditional Laotian dancing before I ventured out for the first of two delicious dinners in the local restaurants.
Checked out the Night market but resisted the temptation to buy anything. Having spent most of last year downsizing prior to my move back to the UK, the last thing I need is any more global clutter ! Visited “the worlds best silk workshop” interesting but overpriced.
Set off upriver through stunning scenery to another remote village selling local “whisky” in bottles containing the obligatory snakes, spiders and scorpions and a vast assortment of silk and cotton textiles etc.
Okay it’s a fair cop I did buy a few scarves to support the local community and maybe keep me warm once I get back to Devon !
Transferred to a long boat for a visit to an amazing set of caves containing thousands of Buddha statues. Accessed by approx 300 steps which got the calf muscles whinging a bit, but great views back over the river.
Back to the Mothership for a last few days cruising before crossing over into Thailand and the long trip home …..
Having made it to the Laos Pandaw as the sun went down we awoke to thick fog which delayed our departure until it cleared. Unfortunately this meant that we were unable to stop at Pak Lao – an old French colonial outpost. So we spent the day cruising up the spectacular Mekong River.
We stopped of during the afternoon to stretch our legs and visit a local village. Very friendly locals who must have thought that we were from another planet. Very remote and seemingly self sufficient with an assortment of livestock including pigs and chickens etc.
Various photos of village life – including a rack of dried rat – a local delicacy apparently. Lots on dogs and puppies running around and way too much talk about how they are also on the menu.
After clearing the dam/locks we dropped in on another village. A different ethnic group and a very different vibe. No electricity and a pretty low standard of living compared to the previous village. Prone to discrimination due to them having allied themselves and fought along side the US forces during the “secret war” that never happened in the late sixties.
Cruised on up the river/lake to Muang Khay Village on the way to Luang Prebang. Visited a stunning series of waterfalls with a bear sanctuary attached. Followed by a visit to a dismal Butterfly Farm followed by an even more tedious visit to a buffalo, rabbit and pig farm. A paint drying exhibition would have been more interesting !!!!!
Cruised on upstream and moored at Luang Prabang for a 2 night stay. Details and Photos to follow….
The Mekong River is one of the longest and most powerful rivers in the World. Starting in Tibet, it flows for 2700 miles through China, into Laos, through Cambodia and Vietnam to the Mekong Delta and into the South China Sea. For millennia the fertile silt that it has generated has supported the many communities and civilisations along its banks. The rice production alone has fed entire populations as well as supporting the economy with exports of rice across the planet. The fishing industry also has been a major contributor to feeding and supporting the entire indochinese peninsular. The river is both spectacular and powerful and supports an entire ecosystem that has evolved around it’s bountiful waters. The Delta itself, which produces a considerable quantity of the worlds rice harvest, relies on its flow to hold back the incursion of salt water which would/will render it infertile.
The Chinese have already built literally dozens of dams along the Mekong in China and its many tributaries. The first major dam has already been built in Laos to generate electricity to sell to Thailand. Many more are planned with construction work already underway in several locations. Entire villages and communities had been forced to relocate to higher ground and their entire way of life disrupted.
Many of the dams upstream are rumoured to be built/planned with no locks thus rendering them unnavigable. So from a purely selfish point of view this will put an end to river cruising. However far more importantly it will be another nail in the coffin of Mother Earth, and do untold damage to the livelihood of the local population!!
Below is the only dam that we will encounter on this trip. It’s impact on the river that we have so far encountered has been in evidence since we arrived in Vientiane.
The Captain heads off to check the water levels and put markers in where there is a hazardous submerged tree
Then through the large double lock to the upriver stretch of the river that is now a lake all the way to our next stop at Luang Prabang.
OK Rant over !!!!! I’m too old to become an eco warrior! Back to Pandaw, cruising and excursions……
After a night in Hanoi – Still in the throws of Chinese New Year mayhem – we flew from Hanoi to Vientiane. What a contrast !!! Ten degrees warmer and a totally different vibe altogether. Nine of us from the N Vietnam cruise joined up with about 10 new recruits for the next leg of this adventure.
An afternoon with a whistle stop tour of some of the temples and landmarks of Vientiane which used to be the French capital of Laos when the French ran Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
The Mekong is one of the worlds greatest rivers flowing from Tibet, through China into Laos and on through Cambodia and Vietnam to the South China Sea. Thanks to numerous dams that the Chinese and now the Laotians have built to generate electricity to sell to Thailand and others, the water level has been reduced to a very large trickle during the “dry” season. As a result the Pandaw boat cannot get down to Vientiane so we were up at dawn for a 3 hour bus ride to get us to a very long longboat which will take us up river for six hours to join the Laos Pandaw – our home for the next 10 days.
A delicious Laotian/Thai lunch cooked and prepared onboard by our Pandaw crew. A minor problem with the gearbox – soon overcome and we were off…..
Definitely the highlight of the trip so far we are cruising up the river with Thailand on the left back and Laos on the right. Apparently there are plans to build a further 3 hydroelectric dams along this stretch of the river alone. This will make it more navigable but destroy the character of this mighty river as well as destroying the bountiful fish and fertile silt that the local inhabitants depend upon ! It does not bode well !
Arrived at the Laos Pandaw just as the sun was setting. A somewhat chaotic arrival and introductory briefing then dinner and an early night after a couple hectic days getting here.
This latest adventure was booked pre-covid and has been postponed and rescheduled several times. In retrospect January is not the best time to visit North Vietnam as it is mid winter here and somewhat colder than anticipated! Also the entire region has been celebrating the Chinese New Year which means that virtually everywhere is closed !! Pandaw have done their best to keep us entertained with twice daily excursions to a myriad of villages that would normally be thriving but are currently not !! All of the temples that we have visited are heaving with the locals making offerings and praying for happiness and prosperity in the New Year and at times it has felt as though we are intruding on their devotions.
The previous post has been updated with photos from the various excursions etc.
Tomorrow we transfer to Vientiane for our 10 day cruise on the Upper Mekong. It should be at least 10 degrees warmer and a lot more scenic and lush that the rather drab and industrial vistas that we have been cruising through in North Vietnam. Also New Year celebrations and shut down should be over so local life should be getting back to normal!!
Drove up to Heathrow from Flete with plenty of time to spare and checked in for my Thai Airlines flight to Hanoi via Bangkok. A very tight connection in Bangkok, made even tighter by delayed departure from Heathrow. I made it with minutes to spare but, not surprisingly, my luggage didn’t !! Fortunately it arrived on the first flight the following morning so I just had time to head back to the airport, collect my bag, and hook up with some other folk for the 3 hr drive to Halong Bay where I boarded the Angkor Pandaw – “ home” for the next 10 days – and first leg of my 2023 Pandaw adventure through Northern Vietnam and it’s rivers and waterways.
Increasingly evident was the huge impact that Covid has had on the global tourist business. This effected almost every aspect of my journey. The Thai Airways plane was looking very “tired” with service to match, though the staff did their best to paper “over the cracks”. The Vietnamese tourist industry, that had been booming when I last visited a few years ago, has been decimated as the entire country had sealed itself off from the outside (covid ridden) world for over two years. Businesses and hotels have closed and hundreds of river cruise and tourist ships have been mothballed or abandoned. Pandaw who were already reeling from having to close down their operations in Myanmar had gone through having to go into administration and are only just re-emerging. Only able to run 2 or 3 of their ships in Vietnam & Cambodia they are clearly under new management and some dramatic cost cutting as a result. However their team/crew are doing their best and as is the Pandaw way it’s more of an adventure !
It’s unseasonably cold and after some sun on the first day it has taken everyone by surprise with heaters on in the cabins so not much deck life ! Only 17 passengers – A motley bunch of fellow passengers including 4 Aussies, 2 Canadians, 2 US, 2 Germans and an assortment of Brits
Two days cruising around the stunning Halong Bay. Much less crowded than my previous visit but as spectacular as ever. A visit to a local village where preparations were underway for Chinese New Year which included the demise and dismembering of a Water Buffalo for the impending feasting…
A briefing from our tour guide followed by a wander through the village with rice wine tasting. And yes the second jar from the right contains a variety of dead snakes. Not for the faint hearted but needless to say the Aussies were the only takers ! A local dog in attendance was soon distracted by the dead meat on offer.
A visit to a floating fish farm with some massive fish and a resident dog.
Then a ride in a Sampan through one of the many limestone caves. Only our intrepid Aussies took the kayak option !
Heading Up River
We left Halong Bay and headed up one of the many rivers that we traversed en route to the Red River and ultimately Hanoi towards the end of this leg. Very industrial with much shipbuilding and rusty hulks and barges lining both banks
Another excursion to a local village to see the local market and a less than dazzling water puppet show. All this while being followed by a local TV crew trying to give tourism a much need boost. Yours truly, as the tallest of our team was coerced into giving an interview while trying to keep warm and enthuse accordingly.
As usual the locals were fascinated and their usual smiley selves!,
Various excursions along the way to villages and Temples. All a bit of a blur……some photos to give you an idea.
A canal caving trip..
A Catholic Temple !
Temples and other stuff
Mayhem as the whole country grinds to a somewhat manic halt as they all celebrate Chinese New Year and we ultimately head back to the insanity that is Hanoi !!
Got back from my curtailed Danube Cruise in late June and then set about some major downsizing in preparation for my move to Devon at the end of August. This also involved some gut wrenching decisions regarding my canine family as I realised that realistically I can only cope with one dog when I get to Flete.
June though August involved daily trips to the tip, and local animal charity shops as I discovered just how much “stuff” I had accumulated over the course of the past 50 years. I had to be totally ruthless as I got rid of LPs, CDs, DVDs and Books etc. Not to mention all of the Gardening and Workshop machinery (JCB, Trailers, Mowers and a plethora of “Boys Toys”) which all had to go.
I had accepted an offer for VLS from an Anglo/Polish family who were planning to move in on 1st September. I also managed to sell one of my two apartments at Selwo One. So more furniture and “stuff” to get rid of !!
Meanwhile my new “Home” at Flete House in Devon was being transformed by the tireless Susanna who had undertaken the job of total redecoration and overseeing and coordinating various other contractors. Daily WhatsApp calls and photos galore as I tried to make sure that everthing would “fit”. No mean feat in a Grade One listed building and the challenges of a 7m high vaulted ceiling with original William Morris Wallpaper etc. Scaffolding and Access Towers for months. The Estate Agents brochure shown below gives an idea as to what was involved !!………….
August involved much box-packing and many more trips to the tip. I knew that I was in trouble when I had packed and sealed the 80th box! More of that later……….
My old mate Roger Tompkins flew in from NZ, on his biennial world tour to lend much appreciated moral and physical support as the September deadline loomed. The Spanish removals company did an amazing job of packing all the furniture and boxes while Roger and I got on with preparing for the handover of VLS to the new owners and our impending trip through Spain to my new life in Devon.
Now about those Dogs
I had made a gut wrenching decision that I would realistically only be able to accomodate and deal with one canine companion in my new life in Devon. After much debate and vacillation, I decided that Max (my male Spanish Mastin) would accompany me on the journey into the next chapter of my life.
This prospect caused me endless sleepless nights as I struggled to imagine losing the other three and having to find new homes for them.
My mate Louise agreed to take Bella (from whence she had come originally 10 years ago). Tragically she crossed the “Rainbow Bridge” a few days before the handover, not totally unexpected as she was 15 and had been a core member of my pack since my Bull Terrier phase.
RIP Bells. You were much loved and will be sorely missed.
The new owners of VLS had fallen for Hurley (my most recent “rescue”) and agreed to take him as part of the deal.
Finding a solution for Daisy (my female Mastin) was the hardest to cope with as she and Max had both been rescued within a few months of each other and were seemingly inseparable. I put the word out and my very old mate Charlotte (who lives 20 miles from where I was heading in Devon) offered and agreed to take Daisy. Posh Pets (my Spanish Kennels) agreed to deliver her to the UK. A huge relief !!!
Having taken Hurley and Daisy to Posh Pets while VLS was dismantled, Roger & I set about stripping VLS back to the bare essentials before we set off with Max for the road trip through Spain to the UK. Max seemed to take it all in his stride as he had never been on a lengthy car journey before. A few pit/pee stops on the way and 700 km later we arrived in Salamanca and checked into a wonderful 5-star dog friendly hotel. Max was impeccably behaved and introduced himself to every tree and lamppost that he could find.
The next morning, we set off for Santander to catch the 24 hour ferry across to Plymouth. I should mention at this point that I couldn’t have picked a worse weekend to travel, as not only is it the end of the Spanish August shutdown but also involved a UK Bank Holiday and the end of the school holidays, so the ferry was full to capacity. Max oversaw the canine mayhem on the Dog Deck with am imperious look on his face and 24 hours later we were back in Blighty. A short detour to drop Max at a kennels outside Salcombe and Roger and I headed to Flete where the removals truck was due to arrive the following morning.
Arrival at Flete House
Susanna had done an amazing job !! The apartment was painted and clean and the removals truck arrived on schedule. 10 days of mayhem ensued while everything was umpacked, sorted and installed. Pretty much everything fitted. Max moved in, Roger headed off to London, onto Canada and back to New Zealand, and slowly but surely the transformation of the old Music Room/Chapel was complete.
Before and After….
So here I am and its 2023. So Happy New Year !!
A much delayed (Covid etc) trip to North Vietnam and Laos with Pandaw along the Red and Day Rivers (Vietnam) and the Mekong through Laos starts on 12th Jan (next week !!). As usual Wi-Fi will doubtless be sporadic but will do my best to issue Blog updates when possible