Tag Archives: Asia

How to tell you’re in Europe

Last Sunday, I got up at 6 in the morning. And went to the airport. To pick up my mother in law. Yes, I know, I am a hero. But to be honest – I didn’t mind at all. I was actually awake from 5 – my daughter got her first tooth and told us all about how it feels at 5 in the morning. My mother in law is a darling, so I am happy to do her a favour. Sunday morning is about the only time the roads in a small European country are empty, so driving is actually fun. And finally – I like airports. Being at an airport and seeing all the people coming and going, backpackers, business travellers, organized groups, sports teams, gives me that travelling sensation – and when I’m not the one flying, I can have the joys of travel without the drawbacks like carrying (and losing) luggage or going through security.

Besides – I was going to Schiphol, the brightest, most organized, cleanest airport in Europe. And cleanliness is important. You can easily determine the level of a country’s culture and civilization. Forget about HDI, GNH and GDP. Just check the cleanliness of its public toilets. A country where the public toilets are kept clean, obviously cares about the health, well-being and comfort of its people. Of course, clean toilets by themselves are not enough. Its what we scientists call “a necessary yet insufficient condition”. But as a first approximation its a good indication for the quality of life in a country.

Speaking of which, public toilets also de-facto demarcate the borders of Europe. As you probably know, the border between Europe and Asia is poorly defined and has shifted repeatedly in the past centuries. Well, its actually very easy to tell whether you’re in Europe or in Asia. Enter a public toilet. If you have to squat – you’re in Asia. If you can sit – you’re in Europe. If you don’t have to hesitate whether you can sit safely – you’re in a developed European country. Have a nice stay.

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Laid back Laos

Sunset on the Mekong

Sunset on the Mekong

The party began already at the train station. Huge stacks of Beer Lao were being loaded into the train. The Lao association of Civil Engineers and Architects was sharing the night train to Bangkok with us and they made sure they’d travel in style – Lao style. Within minutes from departure the beer cans and bags of chips were being distributed to everyone within reach, including conductors and Thai border guards.

Morning alms in Luang Prabang

Morning alms in Luang Prabang

Communication with the increasingly drunken engineers and their secretaries (Lao professional associations travel as real communists – all or none) was somewhat difficult. Until one of the engineers started apologized for his poor English and sighed: “if only someone could speak Russian…”. To which I could only reply by saying “Так что ж ты раньше молчал?” (“why didn’t you just say so before?”). Seldom have I seen a person become happier at the sound of the Russian language. Apparently, he has studied in Kiev in the 80’s and was rather proficient in my native tongue. Although his Russian was a bit rusty after two decades, several beers and a bit of practice made wonders and we were soon singing Russian songs together as the night train rolled through the Thai countryside.

A solar panel in front of every hut in every village

A solar panel in front of every hut in every village

Unfortunately for him, the beer and the constant switching from Russian to English to Lao also made him lose focus. In a slip of the tongue he has mentioned his wife. Before we could blink, one of the women in the party was beating him on the head with her purse. She was kind enough to explain to us what we already understood: “The bastard told me – he not married!” Apparently, he was working his charms on her the whole evening, and was making considerable progress. Until that fatal slip of the tongue. Fortunately, Lao are laid-back, cheerful people, and the whole incident was over in seconds and cheered to by another round of Bee Lao. For all I know, they might have ended up in the same bed after all. I didn’t stay awake long enough to find out – we’ve had a busy schedule in Bangkok for the next day.

P.S. Apparently, the “tubing” party in Vang Vieng has been shut down – hurray!

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Vietnam – living the technicolor life

I have promised to do my best to write personal stories about our Grand Tour Around the World. Well, here’s Vietnam – a colourful story in 12 pictures.

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“Cambodia – putting things into perspective”

Tonlé Sap lake, on the way to Battambang

Tonlé Sap lake, on the way to Battambang

The boat trip from Siem Reap to Battambang was a real highlight. Battambang wasn’t. Within five minutes of arrival it was clear to us that our only goal here was to get out of Battambang as soon as possible. There was an old woman running a snack shack at the Psar Nat market. Getting dinner proved to be challenging though, as even using all our limbs together didn’t make it clear to her that we just want to eat, and don’t really care what. She just stared at us, politely smiling, ignoring our most basic signs (like actually pointing at food and imitating moving it to your mouth). Fortunately, we were rescued by Hassan. As he explained, he is the sweeper/guard/manager/customer service attendant of Psar Nat. He sat with us for a drink and we’ve had a little chat as the market was closing. As his name suggests, Hassan is a Cham Muslim, which means he probably lost most of his family in the Khmer Rouge genocide. Today, Hassan earns about 50 dollars a month at the market, and his dream in life is to become a motor riksha (tuk tuk) driver – then he’d be able to make perhaps as much as 150 dollars a month. For me (and perhaps for you) it is not much. For Hassan its a world of difference.

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Cambodia has a lot to offer, as the pictures clearly show. But it is also the most confronting country I’ve been to. I think that Hassan’s story about his ambitions in life summarizes the feeling you get in Cambodia – it tends to put your cozy Western life back into perspective. I hereby claim the rights for the new slogan for the Cambodian tourism industry. It has a catchy, original sound to it – “Cambodia – putting things into perspective”.

At the killing fields outside Phnom Pehn

At the killing fields outside Phnom Pehn

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Why some businesses are a success while others are not

Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok, Thailand

While travelling, I’ve read quite a few books. Usually I was able to swap them in hostels or buy cheaply at second-hand book stores. As a reader I am not very picky, and will go for anything printed. Especially when on the road for months on end. So not everything I’ve read was of high grade. However, every now and then I was able to get some quality books. Like “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations”, a book that discusses the burning topic of Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor. The main point of the book is that climate, natural resources or luck are just not enough to answer that question. Culture, ethics and science are all involved as well. Of course, all the basic principles that contribute to the wealth of nations apply to businesses as well. The main factor in success is knowing your customers, and being ready to go the extra mile to provide quality service. Here’s an example of how it should be done.

We stayed in Bangkok for just a few days, before embarking on a classical SE-Asia tour through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. From Laos we went back to Thailand, for a couple of weeks of diving at Ko Phi Phi, but not before we’ve spent a day on Khao San Road, getting massages and doing some shopping. We’ve arrived on a night train from Laos, and were rather dirty and tired.

We went to Donna Guesthouse, where we’ve stayed two months before, hoping we’d be able to rent a room for the day, just to store our bags and use the shower. We never got the chance to ask. The owner immediately recognized us (mind you we were there more than two months before, for just 3 or 4 nights, and its in Khao San Road, the most touristy place in Thailand!), asked how our trip was, and for how long we were going to be in Bangkok.

When he heard we were leaving the same evening, he offered us to store the bags at the place and use the shower, refused to receive money for such a minor service and insisted to provide us with towels as well. In essence, he treated us as friends rather than as a chance to earn a couple of coins. Its been almost two years since, but I remember that small encounter as one of the most positive things I’ve experienced while travelling and if anybody asks me about a tip for a good place to stay in Bangkok I say without hesitation – Donna Guesthouse.

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Celebrating Nepal

There are mountains and there are Mountains – the Himalaya

My knee was not doing well. On a regular day that wouldn’t be a problem. But when you’re on the first day of a hike around Annapurna, with more than two weeks and a 5.5 km high pass ahead of you, the perspectives look bad. Our guide was assigned with finding us a porter, just for a couple of days, until my knee got better. He found Raju. You never know when and how you will strike gold. To cut the long story short, at some point the guide turned out to be a “guide”, upon which we sent him home and his tasks were fully overtaken by Raju.

Prayer wheels in Manang

We teamed up with another couple of hikers, led by Raju’s soulmate Bill (a typical Nepali name, isn’t it?). Every morning one of them would start out early to the next village, to get us a place to sleep. Every evening in the hotel I’d check the ubiquitous Lonely Planet that would say “if you can, try to get a place in Hotel X, if possible in room Y, that’s the best possible spot”.  And every time, without failure, that would be the hotel we were in, and that was the room we’ve got. Which was especially impressive, considering we were hiking in the busiest period in the history of Around Annapurna trek.

Hotel Forest Camp

Once the hike was over we were no longer employers-employees but friends. The guys invited us to their village of Bhulebhule, to celebrate Tihar. We were of course more than happy to accept the invitation. After all, Bhulebhule was just 5 hours bus drive and 3 hours hiking away – just around the corner! And to think that nowadays I rarely go the The Hague because its so far away – more than half hour by train.

Thorong La, 5416 meters above sea level, literally the highpoint of the whole trip

In Bhulebhule we got the best room in house – the one with the bed. The room was also equipped with a goat, a cat and sometimes with a chicken. We were obviously the guests of honour. The guys took us on a tour of the village, which included the giant swing, the giant spider, the rice fields and the raksi brewery. And in the evening we went dancing. Bill danced best.

Giant spider

Back home after the dances we were treated to a performance of the local quire, that came up the hill especially for us. Unfortunately, they were rather tipsy after performing the whole day at a neighbouring village, and kept falling asleep while singing. I would enjoy the show very much if I wasn’t that tired myself. It was impossible to tell them that we’re way too tired to enjoy the singing without sounding insulting and they kept singing as it would be rude to leave us without entertainment at such an important festival. So we kept each other in a stranglehold of politeness until forever. To this day I don’t know how we broke that vicious circle, but at some point I did get some sleep.

Tihar breakfast

On the fifth day of Tihar brothers and sisters exchange tika’s and gifts

The next morning started understandably late. It was the day of the Bhai Tika, the day when, according to Wikipedia, “a fantastic Tihar feast takes place”. Fantastic is an understatement. Let’s just say that the first course at breakfast was a full glass of raksi and for dessert we, the guests of honour, were treated a special treat, a local delicacy – a beehive. With (dead) bees in it. I am prepared to go a long way to broaden my horizons, and I’ve eaten the dessert, but when offered a second serving I’ve done my best to show how full my belly is and how there’s absolutely no room for more delicacies.

It was time to leave, towards more hiking and new adventures. Raju and Bill walked with us for a while, and we waved goodbye, as they called “don’t forget us”. We won’t. Here they are:

Raju (right) and Bill

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The India experience

Guide books about India are full of stories of the weirdest touts that await the inexperienced traveller. So when an Indian fellow approached us in our hotel in Delhi with a request, we were a bit cautious. He was blind (dark glasses, walking stick, the whole nine yards) and he was wondering whether we would be so kind as to accompany him to the Swiss embassy the next day, to help arrange his visa. We bravely decided that in case of trouble the two of us can handle one old blind old guy, and the next morning we were waiting at the lobby at 7 am, still a bit surprised but very curious as to what the day shall bring.

Long story short, the blind man turned out to be a travelling yogi, a philosopher and a poet, who travels around the world giving lectures and workshops on the meaning of life, a man with a wonderful of sense of humour, of profound wisdom and of great depth. Less than 48 hours after arrival to India, we were right in a middle of what could be one of Rudyard Kypling’s novels – hanging out with a blind wandering guru.

This little episode demonstrates perfectly how India is… different. Different than anything you have seen, than everything you’ve been told about it, different than you’ve imagined. Every time I think about the month we’ve spent there, I am amazed how saturated our India experience has been. There is a million stories to tell about it, but India is a place you can’t describe. You need to experience it. Like we did:

P.S. So far I haven’t used any of the tags I’ve assigned to this post. India is different.

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