History is Written by the Victors

So said Winston Churchill and of course it is true.

Yesterday Jan 21st 46 years ago the Viet Cong began a series of attacks close to the Cambodia border having travelled down the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos. The idea was to draw the American troops out of the cities to handle them. It was the start of the Tet offence that changed the way the U.S. public viewed the war and bought about it’s conclusion several years later.

For some time the American army had been telling the public at home and their own troops that the Viet Cong had taken such a beating they were no longer able to mount a large attack. General Westmoreland was fighting to a simple tactic . If he could kill more Viet Cong than they were able to recruit and train then he would win the war. The only two unknowns he had unfortunately were that he had little idea how many Viet Cong were being recruited nor how many were actually already in their Army.

The Tet offensive was yet again a massive defeat for the Viet Cong but the idea that they could put over 80,000 troops in the field and attack most major towns including seizing the consulate building in the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon with ease put paid to the story the war was being won.

The U.S. public started to really believe they were in an unwinnable war and so too did many of the troops.

To mark the date I took a trip some 85 kms out of Saigon to visit the Cu Chi tunnels and see how the Viet Cong moved around areas underground .

The tunnels were started in the 1940’s by farmers wanting to store their crops but were first used militarily during the independence war against the French after the French retook Vietnam at the end of WWII .

The Viet Cong then really developed the tunnel system in the area and at their peak there were some 200 kms of tunnels on three depth levels.

On arrival you are led down into a large bunker and then sit through a film of the victors history of the war on a large screen. Afterwards a guy with one of those 5 foot long pointers that you see in WWII movies when the chap in charge says “gather around gentlemen ” and the points out on a large chart the objectives, did the same thing showing where the tunnels were and where the American troops were and how they were continually out fought and thought.

Then we started the tour. First the bobby traps built to maim but not kill the U.S. troops so demoralising them.

Boobytrap Cu Chi Tunnels

Leg Bobby trap Cu Chi Tunnels

Covered with leaves and twigs these did terrible damage to feet and legs.

The tunnels were incredibly small and today most Vietnamese wouldn’t be able to fit into them and move around the way their fathers, mothers and grandparents did . This is a typical entrance

Tunnel Enterance Cu Chi

My guide’s shoe almost covers the door .

The area was chosen because the soil is mainly clay giving the walls and more importantly the ceiling strength . By building three levels they were able to bobby trap tunnels and offer up dead end tunnels . The two lower levels could withstand heavy bombing and shelling as well as drain off monsoon rains into the Saigon River . There were cookhouses, dormitories, command rooms and weapon store rooms all underground and connected by tunnels. All very Great Eascape.

I crawled through 25 metres of tunnel almost on all fours just to see what it was like

Tunnel Cu Chi

That is my small Vietnamese guide in front just standing up to go up a tunnel to the next level. It was tight even though these had been expanded for westerners and a little claustrophobic in the darkened areas.

But I passed the test and was taken for a slap up meal  of ……….roots

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The root is in fact something most of us had at primary school for lunch and hated with a vengeance. Tapioca pudding . Here they just peel it and cut it into pieces and dip in peanut sauce. Quite nice really with a cup of tea.

Why didn’t my dinner lady do that .

Bombed Egg with Fried Cork

One of the delights of travelling abroad is to view the english version menus on display outside the restaurants to entice the English speaking foreigner into through their portals. The heading is one clearly tasty dish that would have us all beating a path to their door.

I can get the pork instead of cork but bombed egg I guess is scrambled ? Even down in Puglia where we live in Italy they are guilty of this type of stuff Ears from pasta with turnip I saw in Ostuni for orrichiete con rape ( ear shaped pasta with the green tops of the italian type of turnip plant ). British friends there have offered to do the translation but too often the owner who is proud of how much his son or daughter has learnt at school insists on using them rather than a native speaker. Personally I have never seen the same thing in an Italian or Thai restaurant in the UK so maybe by moving they lose that need to use a family member with a school  dictionary.

We went to the city again last night and returned to the Riverside Market. They cook everything fresh and insist they never use MSG . It has been amazing in restaurants in Chiang Mai how seemingly quickly food arrives after ordering. There seems time merely for the waitress to get to the kitchen before she is back with the entire order with nary a sign of a wok used in anger. Whether by design or not at The Riverside Market you wait a goodly time and the food arrives piping hot and tasting as if it has  dropped out of the wok unto the plate a minute ago. Plus no sleepless nights with MSG.

Iron Bridge Chiang Mai

The view is great from the restaurant veranda . This is the iron bridge across the river where the lights change colour every couple of minutes and all through the evening two guys on the bridge sell hot air lanterns which they launch and we punters get to watch them float up into the night sky. The lanterns drop fireworks and leave a fiery glow in the air. Now my old iPhone can’t do it justice but here goes. Trust me it’s a lantern with a tail of firework.

Lanterns in Sky Chiang Mai

At one time there can 15 or 20 in the sky floating gently away on the light breeze.

Hey we moved hotels yesterday as well to the Opium Serviced Apartments. These really are great and very modern ( only built last year)  This is our living area

Opium Living Area

Then we have a separate bedroom

Opium Sep Bedroom

a kitchen area with dining seats for two

Opium Kitchen

and what is really great a balcony to sit out on the a couple of chairs and a table. Essential for that final nightcap of the night.

Opium balcony

I have to say the staff are really great and really helpful. We are already fixed up with transport to the jungle camp some 3 hrs away and a girl and 2 of the other guests sorted out this Macbook Air which seems to have troubles after connecting to the Grand Napat internet link.

We are paying £44 a night with breakfast so it seems a really good deal. The problem for long stayers ( monthly rate £27 a night) is that the pool is small and never gets the sun so a) it is still really cold and b) for sun worshippers like me I would have to move my bed lounger into the car park and sit out there where it shines all day. For many especially those Brits that wrapped their kids in burka type swimwear I know it is no problem but I am like the Italians if the sun is out you sit in it.

As an old Asia hand we don’t use the hotel for our dobbying  ( laundry ) as they often farm it out and use a local anyway. So I went in search of place this morning . Imagine my delight that there is one at the end of the road called Snow White ( ahh) . It is 10 baht a kilo (10 p) they charge and iron the lot. My load isn’t in this picture but you can see the drying process they also

Snow White laundry

The street is full of bars and stalls to buy stir fry so tonight we aren’t straying far from home.

Loi Krathong

Where do the days go ? No sooner had we checked in than here we are checking out again. seems incredible that a week has gone by. Back to Ban Krut railway station taking bets on how late the train would be . Still it wasn’t raining so at least we wouldn’t get wet waiting in the open air waiting room by the ticket desk.

Ban Krut Train Station

Okay it’s not Paddington Station or Grand Central but it does have a certain rustic charm. We bought bananas from a stall nearby and were ready for the long wait. the train after all had left the deep south at 10.15 that morning on it’s way to us. 2.20 came and went but then an announcement seemed to galvinize the locals waiting into frenzied activity and down the track she came.

Train arrives Ban Krut

 

This one was just 2 carriages instead of the 3 coming down so all very cosy. No I’m not going through it all again but just to add one thing. Each carriage apart from having one stewardess also has one cleaner. His/her job is to collect empties and then clean the carriage floor every 20 mins or so. Amazing really in this day and age to have someone with a mop and bucket keeping everything nice. She is supposed to do the loos as well but that bit has evidently dropped of the job description list of duties and who can blame her !

We were rocking along almost on time for an hour or so and then stopped first for a long third class only train to crawl by going the other way ( single track) which at least explains how most of the population gets around the country but rather segregates don’t you think ?

Then again to allow the Eastern and Oriental Luxury train to canter by. This very smart train travels from Singapore to Bangkok and back carrying passengers in olde worlde luxury at a fair old price. At the rear as they went past is an observation area and I was able to raise a hand ( honestly) to them as they gathered to see how the other half live.

By the time we arrived in Bangkok we were 45 minutes late which to be honest was far better than I thought we might have been.

There were however no taxis which was amazing given that about 80% of the traffic in Bangkok seems to be taxis. An English guy in front of us explained that it was the Loi Krathong festival and the whole of the river area was in gridlock. Eventually one bowled up and refused to take the English guy as his hotel was alongside the river. He gave way to us and we piled in . Silom Road I said in my now fluent Thai having had a week in an hotel where no one spoke english. Where ? he asked so i had to show the piece of paper. 100 baht he said. Meter I counter being an old Asia hand. Get out of the cab he said look at the line. 100 baht the old Asia hand muttered feeling rather small.

Five minutes later we were outside the Siri Sathorn Apartments and i was handing over the note to the grinning cab driver.

We thought we would give these apartments a try and they are superb . Large one bedroom, living area , separate kitchen places with everything very new and modern.

The really great thing is the breakfast voucher can be used for the lunch or dinner buffet it you don’t feel like breakfast. Now that is clever I think.

We found a bar around the corner and ordered the beers. The lady owner was making very ornate baskets made with banana leaves and placing a candle in each one. She explained to us that when she closed she and all her family were going down to the river to launch they baskets after lighting the candles. Why I asked. We Buddhists believe that we confess all our sins to the basket and then set it afloat and it sails away with all of this years sins in it.

I have to say that beats the confessional and you get a trip to the river too. Mind you she then told us that over 300,000 people were down there

Internet

On my other blog I do a fair amount of complaining about internet speeds and simple access to the net down in Puglia. Well The Cabochon Hotel in Bangkok really was no better than some of the off days the net has there. Watching paint dry comes to mind and after getting the last post away I was unable to get enough connection to do anymore.

I had hoped that our journey south might improve things and I could catch up but we have been without connection until today .

The Cabochon tries to capture the era of the old large houses in Bangkok circa 1920 with lots of teak and ceiling fans. Fondly I imagined that perhaps the service too would reflect that bygone era and so with hope in my heart I went to reception to ask about trains south from Bangkok. I had said to Geraldine that I would probably tell them what I wanted and they would despatch a lad to the train station to queue and collect the tickets while we enjoyed the rather fine roof top pool.

Cabochon hotel BKK Roof top pool

The very friendly reception guy listen to my request with interest and  turned away to I thought issue a stream of instructions to a likely lad nearby finishing with the Thai equivalent of “and make it snappy”.

How wrong I was instead he reached for a skytrain map and a map of the metro. He spread them on the desk and pointed out where we were and how far we had to walk. Then where we could change on to the metro and finally , proudly pointed to the main railway station and said that is where you buy tickets. To  try to save a little face for my return to our room I did ask if there might be someone around who might complete the task. Ah he said we used to be able to make bookings for guests on the Thai Train website but no longer. As I went back into the elevator I unkindly thought that maybe they still could if they had a decent internet connection.

So up the steep stairs we went and found the Skytrain. Actually thinking about that they would be steep wouldn’t they if you call your train line by that name. Clutching my new map I went to the ticket desk and asked for the connecting stop. It seems you can’t interchange tickets between the two. Rather strangely they gave me change to go back to the ticket machine with to get the ticket.

The connection was easy and on the metro the ticket office issues the tickets rather than give you a fist full of change. So 20 minutes later we emerged from the bowels of the metro up into the main train station Hua Lampong .

Now I have to tell you that unlike many other main train line station experiences this really was a piece of cake. The information desk is positioned almost in front to the main entrance making them and you unable not to link up. The super friendly Thai attendent asked where we were going and sent us to a window that had no line in front of it. in fact almost all the windows had not a soul in front of them. The clerk happily printed off the tickets , went through all the information on it with us and we were heading back down to the metro 5 minutes after emerging from it.

That night faith was also restored when we found several small streets off our main drag filled with stalls selling Thai food with the bonus of an happy hour bar almost alongside.

Street Stall

I know lousy quality but I had been to happy hour and am using one of the oldest iPhones known to man.

Our room at the Cabochon has a balcony unlike the more more swanky rooms that use the space as an enclosed sitting room . Ours overlooked the car park for the local Toyota dealer that was at the back of his on street showroom. About 10 people spent their entire day there cleaning the cars and trucks both inside and out. Given that we were still in the throws of the tail end of the Typhoon that did such devastation to the Philippines it seemed an almost pointless task as once they were clean it rained and they started again. However one thing that really upset them was the trees on our side of the fence that dropped their leaves on the cars every time the wind blew and trust me it blew.

By Saturday they had had enough and moved all the cars away which as I sat watching this with my morning cuppa seemed sensible. I of course am however used to Health and Safety. Not these guys, quite quickly up climber a lad with an huge machette to give the trees a going over. no ropes, no luminous jackets, no briefing of al the workers on the dangers of standing under trees being cut etc.  Boy did he make short work of it too though I think if I was 30 feet up a tree with a concrete car park under it hanging on by one hand while hacking and hewing with the other I might have tried to get it done fast. He was a very friendly guy and posed for the camera .

Tree Feller

One Night in Bangkok

The hectic life in Hong Kong has rather precluded any blogging . Suffice to say my daughter and son-in-law did a great job looking after us oldies poor things and the social whirl was exceptional.  I will return to the week in Hong Kong while we while away severn nights down at a coastal resort in Thailand.

So yesterday we boarded an Air Asia flight to Bangkok feeling somewhat hung over after an excellent evening eating Peking duck three ways and then doing the final round of bars in the Soho area .

Air Asia are a rather strange low cost carrier in that whilst their air fares are amazingly cheap when compared to the national carriers of the various S.E. countries their on board offering is completely different. You can order full meals on line if you so wish and there is a choice but also a fee to pay as well. However if you decide not to there is non of the hard sell tactics of say Ryanair nor the constant trolley work of cabin crew on other LCC airlines. Seats are allocated easily at check in as the on line seats are either emergency exit  or the first 7 odd rows  and they try hard to sit you together.

On board the trolleys come out to serve the few that have ordered the full meal and provide them with drinks and then retreat behind the ubiquitous aircraft galley curtain. The non orderers are left to use the call button to summon assistance and drinks ( no alcohol) and snacks are hand carried to your seat on a tray and monies taken. All savagely civilised. One very commercial but quite clever idea they have had is to sell each overhead locker door for advertising. It is actually quite colourful and rather reminds you of sitting on the London underground starring at the ads.

I haven’t been to Bangkok since 1989 having avoided it on my last few visits to Thailand so the drive into town was eye opening. The place like so many other S.E. Asia cities has grown upwards with apartment blocks and office towers sprouting like mushrooms everywhere you look.

We booked the Cabochon hotel as it looks like an old colonial place with lots of character and nicely tucked away from the main streets . It is indeed like a colonial place but was only built last year so though all the furnishings and even the light switches are from old houses the rest of the place works like a 21st century hotel.

Now schadenfreuders amongst you will be delighted to know that just after our arrival ( I have talked before about our effect on the weather in countries worldwide), the heavens opened and it started to rain cats, dogs and anything else that came to hand. We were at the time enjoying the happy hour twofers offered by the hotel ( buy one get one free) and were little concerned until I saw the price of the food in the restaurant. It is always the trouble when you get deals on hotels that are normally expensive as the rest of the clientele barely glance at the menu price as they order whilst the dealers get a certain look of horror and fear on their faces as they pretend to study the food choices. I quickly decided that umbrellas were the solution so off we set to sample the delights of the city.

Now the last time here the problem was finding places that were farang friendly in terms of heat as in the number of chilli in each dish as everywhere served Thai food apart from the odd hotel restaurant. How things have changed. Up and down our part of the Sukanvit Road we went past pizza places, tapas places, burger joints, wine bars, English and Irish pubs serving fish and chips and hundreds of Japanese restaurants.What was as amazing was every place was full of thai locals munching away and swilling down glasses of wine a drink almost unknown here in 1989. The search was exacerbated by the fact that motorbikes and mopeds are allowed to use the pavement as a kind of cycle lane and so you spend more time looking both in front and behind you on the pavement for them. Finally one glanced Geraldine a blow as it went by and with her soaking wet feet, damp trousers and now a bruised arm my quest quickly came to an halt. Enough she said and we repaired to the nearest restaurant. Anything spicy I asked in hope, maybe something Thai. The waiter looked astonished as if we had asked for the crown jewels for nothing. No he said but if you want something with a bit of a kick then try our spaghetti arrabata the chef puts a little dried chilli in it.

All this way from Puglia to Thailand to be offered  an italian dish as the really spicy dish on the menu. Foolishly we declined and ate probably the worst burgers we have ever eaten .  Thai cooks certainly in this restaurant don’t do western food.but clearly no one has told the local patrons who were hoovering it down. Maybe a Thai in London feels the same about Thai food in a Thai place there ?

Hong Kong

I am sitting in an Italian deli that is just across the road from my daughter’s flat drinking a cappuccino . It is considerably more than I pay back in Puglia for the same product however my South China Morning News costs much less than any of the Italian papers at home.

The weekend has been an hectic social whirl but everyone has now returned to work and the apartment is quiet. The expat life here is not for the feint hearted with almost every street seemingly crammed with bars and restaurants teeming with party goers. Meals out are de-rigour and drinks before and after the norm. It is not something i could manage every weekend but I’m sure my parents said the same thing years ago when they visited us in various places around the world.

Two things catch my eye in the paper. One is an article bemoaning the fact that children are becoming less well behaved. It is they feel because both parents in this highly competitive and expensive place to live are working and employing nannies. These nannies keen to keep their jobs allow the kids total freedom and the parents equally looking for a quiet life at weekends do likewise. The result is screaming kids having tantrums all over the place. I would better describe it as Italian male syndrome . These guys have seen nothing on some of the youngsters i see everyday in Puglia screaming their hearts out while their parents not any nanny cover them in kisses.

The other more serious item is the destruction of the old Hong Kong by an organisation called The Urban Renewal Authority which is a quasi-governmental, profit-making body, formed in 2001 to promote and undertake urban regeneration in Hong Kong. On Saurday we spent an hour wandering about a street market called the Graham Street market .

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It is crowded and you are hit by shopping bags and find lots of bottlenecks because of the crush of humanity trying to move around.

More Market Hong Kong

but boy do you get a feeling of being somewhere very foreign and very different with dried fish stalls, chinese vegetable stalls and spice stalls. The smells, the people, the atmosphere is fabulous and with the old buildings all around it is very Hong Kong as you would expect to find it.

But don’t delay getting here to see it ‘cos the URA are knocking it all down with all the buildings as well to make way for some huge tower blocks and an hotel. They were to have built a new market for the traders as part of the redevelopment but that has been quietly shelved and another huge tower block will go up in its place.

Hong Kong is rapidly going the way Singapore went years ago. Singapore are now regretting doing what they did and seem intent on rebuilding replicas of what used to be there.  Loads of resorts in Spain are doing likewise but the URA seem oblivious to the lessons that others have learnt the hard way. People even non tourist residents like a mix of old and new and heritage is important. The Kinks got it right

We flew in on Turkish airlines via Istanbul from Rome. I bought their economy plus product which they call comfort class and let me tell you they are not mocking. it is fantastic. Huge seats reminiscent of Business Class seats before the airlines introduced beds with loads of legroom. The 777 was configured 2/3/2 across and we got one of the two seaters. The service can only be described as outstanding . Attentive crew who really couldn’t do enough for you. The meals were all served with real napkins, glass glasses and china plates. The drinks were served from the bottle  as was the wine and they were all premium brands. Quite nicely from my point of view the crew were also heavy handed and so sleep came easily. However the seats were so comfortable that even without the generous whisky measures sleep would have been easy.

Istanbul airport as a stop over is good as they have loads of security staff so the queues to get into the transit lounge are minimal . The actual huge transit lounge is rather like being in a massive bazaar with more duty free areas than I have ever seen but prices were higher than our local Auchan supermarket so easily left for others. We did find the bar and had a pint of Efes beer for a price that literally made my eyes water. That was till we got here to Hong Kong and now it seemed that they were giving it away in Istanbul !!

For Puglia readers here is a tip. For some reason ( senility) I got fixated on Rome as a departure point. It was not until we took off from there to go to Istanbul that Geraldine leaned over and showed me the Turkish Airlines route map and guess what they also fly from  Naples !!

So my entire drive to Rome, the night stop there  and the food poisoning was for nought we could have driven to Naples in 3 hours and flown away.

Well you live an learn in this world don’t you.

On The Road Again

“O Tiber! Father Tiber!
  To whom the Romans pray,
A Roman’s life, a Roman’s arms,
  Take thou in charge this day!”  
So he spake, and, speaking, sheathed
  The good sword by his side,
And, with his harness on his back,
  Plunged headlong in the tide.
This Horatius at the Bridge by Lord Macauly and it is here because I stayed at the Tiber Hotel on Wednesday night. i am now in Hong kong and feeling very jet lagged as I write this post.

I am aslo having a load of trouble with this new WordPress format and will change it tomorrow when i am more awake !

The drive from Martina Franca to Rome was  shall we say exciting as always. The A16 from Bari to Naples is two lane on either side so makes for some fun antics on the drive. It is more complicated at the moment with every viaduct in Campania having one lane closed for strengthening. Many of you will remember the horrific coach crash on July 28th when 38 people died. The coach plunged over a bridge and dropped 30 metres ( 98 feet ) into a ravine. A few days after the coach owners were arrested as were the road construction company that had apparently not carried out strengthening works in 2005 that they had charged Campania for. I read in August that the coach driver was not over the drink drive limit but hear no more about the construction company. However given that every viaduct is now undergoing work I guess we can assume it wasn’t done before.

The A1 from Naples to Rome goes the way the Allied armies hoped to go in 1943 straight up the west side of the Apennines . There are few exits and is boring motoring. Ours was enlivened somewhat by the fuel low gauge suddenly coming on when the tank gauge showed a quarter full. Quite soon the needle started to race down towards empty and the next services and exit was 57 kms away. So i went from racing past everything ( almost) in sight to crawling along on the inside lane while everything roared back past us. At 70 kph in 5th gear we made the fuel stop. However the delay put us on the southern around Rome  beltway after dark and at the height of the rush hour. Not for the faint hearted let me say and leave it at that.

The Hotel Tiber is a brand new hotel almost on the beach at Fiumincino and is functional. We thene managed to commit the cardinal sin of tourist abroad when we went out for dinner and wandered into a fish restaurant alongside a harbour. The sin was compounded when they said that there were no menus and hence no prices. “I make you something and you enjoy” said the chef. Wine I enquired vino della casa. No he said and took me to a cellar. Now this is when the wise man thanks him and says sorry we made a mistake and heads for the door. Did i ? Not a chance. Luckily my choice of wine at least quickly convinced him this might not be someone for fleecing as i insisted on a cheap ( kind of) Sicilian wine. I then insisted that we were happy with Spaghetti Vongole and luckily he gave up on us a crowds of Rome politicians arrived to order seafood like it was going out of fashion .

I have never seen such a demonstration of conspicuous consumption and it was all paid for by the Italian tax payer. Plate after plate of oysters, prawns, lobsters and fish was carried out of the kitchen with bottle after bottle of Prosecco . A few clams were €16 so you can imagine the bills later that evening. Outside drivers ( there are 670,000 on the Italian State payroll ) sat in cars ( over 900,000 on the payroll ) waiting to whisk them back to their houses in Rome. As a contrast we had coffee and grappa that night in a small fisherman’s bar full of Arab and Sri Lankan migrants as well as a few local Italians . They were playing fruit machines and buying lottery tickets

To add insult to injury I was up all night as one of the vongule got it’s own back on me. I won’t tell you what I wished for for those politicians many of whom ate them too.

I therefore spent a quiet day on Thursday waiting for the flight feeling sorry for myself and receiving scant sympathy from Geraldine. There is little to do in Fiumicino and The Tiber tossed us out at this new hoteliers time of 1100 hrs just like it tossed young Horatius back out all those years ago.

Click here to read the whole poem. I read it at primary school and like so many of those poems we had to learn can still quote lots of it. Lars Porsena  who started the war with Rome in the poem came from Clusium as I learnt by heart years ago. However I stopped a few years ago in Chiusi near Florence for a night and was delighted to find that Chiusi was in fact Clusium. the poem came alive for me again. But then I fell asleep with jet lag zzzzzzz