Is immoral to lie to a monk?

“We’re married” she said to the novice with the tattoos and the orange robe. Buddhist novice monks in Laos usually start in their early teens but he’d waited until he was 32. Carrie didn’t know if an unmarried couple would seem immoral to him. Monks and temples are everywhere in Laos. We met several novice monks later in our trip, I think it’s safe to say that most of them wouldn’t take offence to us not being married.

We arrived in Laos from Bangkok, after a fairly good night’s sleep on a Thai sleeper train. Our friend Jo celebrated one year of living in Vientiane while we were there visiting her. Our ten days in Laos were an excellent mixture of living the ex-pat life with Jo’s ex-pat friends, getting an insight into Laos with Jo’s Lao friends and having a thoroughly good time as tourists in Vientiane and ViangVeng. We arrived at a busy time, we saw the end of Buddhist Lent (early-morning ceremonies in Jo’s local temple, That Luang, which is the most important temple in the country). And, Vientiane was a busy carnival for most of our time there because of dragon-boat races and an annual candle-floating ceremony on the Mekong River. On top of that, our visit was just in time for the build-up to the world stone-skimming championships, to be held in Laos for the first time. Thanks Jo for your hospitality (not to mention being our guide for 10 days).

We took a four-hour bus trip from Vientiane to Viang Veng, a backpacker mecca set in fantastic limestone hills. The surrounding countryside reminded us of Yangshuo in China; we spent our three days there enjoying kayaking, caving, cycling and swimming. Jo managed to book us the best room in the best hotel in town,Elephant Crossing.

On leaving Laos we headed to Khao Lak in southern Thailand, where we’d booked three days of diving with South Siam Divers.Khao Lak is a string of beach-side villages which were one of the hardest hit parts if Thailand in the 2004 tsunami. A lot of the area has been rebuilt and there’s still a lot of work in progress, but on the fringes you can still see occasional buildings which were damaged by the wave. There’s now a comprehensive warning system and signposted escape routes in case it happens again. Most tourists in Khao Lak seem to be German, and a lot of dive companies and some of the hotels and restaurants here are German-owned or run. Jai Restaurant and Bungalows is our recommendation for eating and sleeping in Khao Lak.

The trip with South Siam Divers was on a live-aboard boat which took us to some world-class dive sites around the Similan Islands. I packed eleven dives into three days and we saw a great variety of underwater life and landscape. Highlights for me were the enormous quantity and variety of reef-fish which surrounded us on some dives, and the White Tip Sharks which we saw several times.

Tonight we leave Khao Lak for a final couple of days shopping and sight-seeing in Bangkok (where we’ll meet up with Jo again to find out how she’s managed to hospitalise her brother)before we fly back to London.

Same but different

Hong Kong is part of China, but it’s not. It’s a ‘special administrative zone’ of China (as are Taiwan and Macau, I think). The Chinese from the mainland need a visa to get here, we British don’t need a visa but having left the mainland we’d need another Chinese visa if I wanted to go back. Hong Kong has its own currency, the Phooey, which subdivides into 100 MMJs (mild mannered janitors). Or something like that. It’s a globalized city, lots of Chinese but lots of other Asians, Europeans and Americans too. A sky-scraper skyline that rivals New York, with cultural diversity and prices to match. If you’ve been to a big western city and you’ve been to mainland China then you probably don’t need to spend time in Hong Kong, there’s not too much new for you to see.

After Hong Kong we came to Macau, a mixture of Lisbon (Portuguese influence), Las Vegas (mega-casinos) and China. Architecture, signs and food are a mixture of Portuguese and Chinese (although few people speak Portuguese). The city is dominated by casinos – step inside the new Venetian and you could easily be in the Vegas original. Local population 450 thousand, visitors last year 22 million, and the casino market is only just getting going – serving an international clientele who jet in from Asia for the weekend as well as the growing Chinese wealthy middle class.

Goodbye China, we’ll be in Thailand in 6 hours.

We heard that China was a difficult place for independent travel. I can well believe it was, but things have changed. Buying train tickets was slightly bothersome, and things are changing so quickly that the Lonely Planet published in March 20o7 is already well out of date (actually I think it’s at least their poor research and slow publishing process that’s the real problem – try a Rough Guide instead). Other than that we found China fairly easy, very friendly and very safe. Get here before the crowds (ie. before the 2008 Beijing Olympics).

Shanghai to Ping’an

We arrived in Shanghai after a night in a hard sleeper. The hard sleeper was 2 bunk beds 3 high in each compartment. We got in the train late evening and were woken up by the carriage guard early in the morning, we had high expectations of Shanghai after enjoying Beijing but unfortunately typhoon Wipha was also arriving in Shanghai and heavy rain greeted us at the station.

Shanghai seems like a very modern city we were staying just out side the centre of the city and got the metro in everyday. The signs and tickets machines are in English which made it easy to use. Shanghai is mostly like being in canary wharf, most buildings in the centre were built within the last 15 years, and everything is very organised, it’s full of Starbucks and KFC’s. The river divides the city in two and the west bank opposite the Bund was farmland 20 years ago. we visited the urban planning museum which has a 3d map of the city, about a 1/4 is still in planning stage. I’m not sure what the people who live in the city think of being moved out from the centre to be replaced by office tower blocks and hotels. we have been told that a lot of the office blocks are still empty. “In Shanghai you need to ring the restaurant before you go, not to reserve a table but to check it’s not been knocked down”.

To escape from Shanghai we headed to Hangzhou a town built around a lake we accidentally booked a hostel in the middle of the flower gardens on the west of the lake. Garden Guest House. The hostel is in an old house probably the first place with character we have stayed in china, it was surrounded by gardens, rivers and typical Chinese bridge. everyone hires bikes to get round the lake so we joined in, unfortunately they are single-gear bikes with tiny wheels and short saddles. here we visited the tea museum and took part in tea tasting, we were shown the correct process for making tea, no dunking a tea bag here. We had to try the local green tea from the dragon well tea village but to me it tasted like fish.

We were in Hangzhou for the mid Autumn festival, which takes place in the full moon in September, you are suppose to eat moon cakes and watch the moon. We joined in sitting by the lake to watch the moon, and drinking the local “great wall” wine. The best you can say it was drinkable, and it got better as we went through the bottle. Moon cakes are dense hard Chinese pastry, with various fillings, as we can’t read Chinese we got a pick and mix of small cakes at the local supermarket and discovered the filings can range from meaty (type unknown) to fruit.

Then onwards, to Yangshuo, a painless 24 hours by ‘hard’ sleeper train from Shanghai. This feels like a tourist town: hotels, bars, lots of organised trips and activities to book, people selling tat,Internet cafes. The town is busy with domestic (Chinese) tourists – unlike the Thai towns of which it reminds me, where you’d only find western tourists. We’ve hired mountain bikes and a tandem to take us through the paddy fields, climbed the limestone karstswhich give the area a very distinctive landscape and kayaked down the Li River past water buffalo and fishermen. It’s Golden Week in China, the second biggest national holiday of the year; the town is packed but as soon as you get out of the centre things are far less busy and if you cycle to villages half an hour away things are very sleepy indeed. We stayed at the YangshuoCulture House, highly recommended (not least because of theexcellent Mr Wei and the amazing diners).

Something strange that we’ve noticed everywhere in China… little kids in ‘split-pants’ instead of nappies. All the toddlers here are wearing trousers which are open from the front, through the legs to the back. Hard to imaging? Here’s a couple of photos 1 2, it looks very odd when you see this on the street or in a supermarket! I read that nappies are catching on in Beijing but we didn’t notice any. Meantime the Chinese have a different way of potty-training their kids, which involved whistling in their ears when they’re supposed to ‘go’.

Now we’re in Ping’an, a hill village on the largest rice-paddy terraces in the world. My first thought was that it feels a lot like an alpine ski village without the snow – wooden chalets on steep slopes, a few conifers and a smell of wood smoke. We’re here for a couple of days to explore the area, then to Hong Kong…