149 Hours

How long could you go for without social media? Hands up I confess I’m an addict. On my recent trip to mainland China I decided to try and find out how long I could last without my daily fixes……..

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How long could you go for without social media?

Hands up I confess I’m an addict. Be it Facebook, Instagram, Line or Twitter I love a bit of social nosiness. But it’s not just nosiness (although that has a great deal to do with it if I’m being honest), since becoming an expat I have become increasingly reliant on it for most of my interactions with friends and family. Gone are the days of letters and phone calls, it’s all instant messaging and photo sharing.

On my recent trip to mainland China I decided to try and find out how long I could last without my daily fixes. If you are confused as to why traveling to mainland China and connectivity issues are related then a quick google search for ‘The great Firewall’ will enlighten you sufficiently.

I could have bought a VPN subscription to bypass the great firewall but the more I considered it the more I became determined to try. I almost lost my resolve when I found out that WordPress was also on the list of dishonour, but as hubby has a VPN ( he’s there working for 3 months not just a measly 6 days so going without reliable connection to ‘the outside’ for him is out of the question ), I figured if I REALLY couldn’t manage I could always hijack his connection for an hour or so.
The fact that just the thought of going google-less ( as well as all the other things) for such a short time was worrying me was actually an incentive to try and do it. We are so connected these days, but the need for instant gratification and information is almost all consuming at times so it was time to try and take a vacation the old fashioned way and tell people about my trip when I came back.

So how did I get on ?
Well it wasn’t easy and there were times when I was cursing my decision ( like when I couldn’t find a decent map of the city, and when my total lack of mandarin speaking left me floundering and googling would have been so much easier ), but I didn’t crack. Not even a sneaky look at Facebook when hubby got in from work.

But the day to day business of my trip made me realise how much we ‘momentise’ our lives. Walking around seeing unfamiliar and amusing things and framing them in terms of a tweet or a status update, taking a picture and instantly thinking how we can hashtag it on Instagram.

During the week I made a series of notes to remind myself of key thoughts or events I may want to draw on for blogging and as I was doing this I realised that what I was actually doing was updating my status and tweeting without sending.

I’m not really sure if I learned anything about myself from this other than what I already kind of knew;

My name is Hillywilly and I’m a social network addict.

I lasted 149 hours without a social media fix.

But by heavens, it’s good to be back.

My week in unsent social media;

Sunday
15. 45
Just sent my last Facebook update before flying behind the great firewall. Wuhan here I come.

16.05
Not really what you want to see at the airport just before you board…. What the…..???

At the boarding gate ... eek
At the boarding gate … eek

16.20
Despite widespread mutterings in the terminal no panic on the ground and smoke now clearing. Time to board then…

21.40
Properly I will never* complain about it being too warm in Thailand again. I’m B*****d freezing. We’ve come from a fairly consistent 30degrees to a horribly rainy 6.
(*until its mid burning season and 41 anyway )

Monday
11am
So…..cold……

12.20
Small one can barely move due to the number of layers she’s wearing. Her slipper boots are a triumph of warmth over style but she has just declared she never taking them off.

Small one is loving her 'sloots' ( slipper boots!)
Small one is loving her ‘sloots’ ( slipper boots!)

17.00
Taking in the spectacle and wonder of a truly foreign city would be much more spectacular and wonderful if I didn’t have a running commentry of sighs and ‘so what’s’ accompanying me.

17.30
Wuhan. Taking onesiewearing to the next level #carrefour #shoppinginpyjamas

Are those pyjamas? Yes, yes they are
Are those pyjamas? Yes, yes they are

 

Shopping in PJ's is a thing here...
Shopping in PJ’s is a thing here…

19.25
WHY are cucumber flavour crisps not a thing everywhere? #gamechanger

My Husband and child do not share my enthusiasm. More for me !

21.45
When the biggest quandary of the day is deciding if you like the steam room more than the sauna while sitting in the hotel hot tub you know it’s been a good day.

Tuesday
10.45
Getting used to the cold ……. Kind of

12.30
High end shopping with hubby. Just passed a Junior Versace store.
Junior.
Versace.

Luxury Malls  ( no pyjama wearing here)
Luxury Malls
( no pyjama wearing here)

18.30
Small person scored big time shopping with daddy. ( not in junior Versace ) Big persons feet are still too big for Asia it seems 😦

18.50
To add insult to injury I’m getting emails from Facebook and Twitter telling me I have pending notifications.

20.30
Family spa night abandoned as ‘spa is closed for males’
Oh well.

Wednesday
8.20
Starting the day with a bubble bath is both a wonderful and terrible thing.

9.45
I made the horrifying discovery that I have nasal hair.
Scary big man type nasal hair. WHEN DID THAT HAPPEN? I look like the BFG!!

10am
Is there anything more painful than tweezing nose hair. Painful but necessary.
I still look like the BFG, just slightly less hairy.

13.00
Dragging an extremely reluctant small person out sightseeing this afternoon.

15.30
A small white person looking through binoculars at the view across the Yangtze River is getting more photographed than the view across the Yangtze River.

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Who watches the watchers?

 

16.50
The yellow crane tower is beautiful and some incredible views of the city sprawling in all directions around it. And birdsong. It’s funny what you miss.
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17.30
Found a random flower festival in front of a magnificent building ( as yet unknown)

18.45
Had to have an emergency stop in mcD’s to get some wifi and try ( in vain) get a proper map of the city. Guess NONE of the cabbies know ANY PLACE ‘over the bridge’.

2020.
Finally back at the apartment. 3 hours standing in the cold to find a cabbie who had a clue where we were going. It was around a 10 minute drive. Small one refuses to go exploring with me again.

Completely shattered. My feet officially hate me.

Thursday
03.20
Sounds like the man on the digger outside the hotel has finished his digging. At last. Only another 3 and a bit hours till he gets to start again.

08.45
Ah. Rain then. Cold cold rain.

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The extremely impressive Han Theatre Building

11.30
Very excited. Off to the Han Theatre to see what hubby’s been up to for the last couple of months.

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The Architecture becomes the entertainment at night.

12.35
Unfortunately I’m not allowed to give anything away about what’s going on inside the building, but WOW!!
It may have its issues but it’s stunning. Very proud of my boy.

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Fresh handmade dumplings and gyoza. Unbelievably good.

13.45
Finally got some real proper Chinese food. Glorious handmade dumplings and chow mien to die for. That little back street noodle joint must have had a good few months since the production crew found it, and deservedly so.
The little man was both delighted and  slightly hysterical watching moo using a hastily rustled up spoon to eat her noodles after a valiant effort with chopsticks.

15.50
I can feel a blister on my little toe. Probably shouldn’t have worn my brand new boots ( shoes in my size-in Asia-squee!) for a shopping excursion  on Han Street but apparently my trainers have a leak. #wetsocks

16.45
Oh the profound joy at finding a western toilet at just the right moment. #notsquat

18.30
A serendipitous coffee stop. Walked into Starbucks just as hubby was ordering his dinner break cuppa. #makeminealatte

19.30
No transport drama tonight. Time for tea then hot tub methinks.

21.25
My feet have gone from simple hatred of me to outright loathing. Oh how they long to be back in flip flops.

Friday
09.00
Ah China. Where even the simplest of internet related tasks are made hugely difficult. #onlinecheckinfail

12.30
Lunch with hubby again 🙂 #makingthemostofit

15.45
Small person going lego crazy in the mall #makingthemostofit

17.00
Back at the apartment to pack. While I shall miss hubby for the next 3 weeks I’m looking forward to seeing the sun again. And the sky for that matter.

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On further inspection the sign proclaiming them to be ‘ALIVE FISH’ was not entirely accurate…..

18.30
Someone out to catch some dinner. Literally. ( not for us!)

21.00
Finally finished packing. Only had to buy one extra case. #oops

Saturday
06.20
Rather spectacular thunderstorm going on right now. Hope its over by take off time.

09.55
Arrived at airport for check-in. Have to wait another hour before we are allowed in.

10.00
Free airport wifi, great.
Oh you have to have a Chinese mobile number to register, not so great.

11.04
Checked in, through security to quite possibly the worst provisioned departure lounge. Oh well, coffee on the plane then.

12.10
It’s not a bus people. You don’t just get to pick where you sit. See that number on your boarding pass that says ‘seat number’. It’s a bit of a clue.

12.21
SIT DOWN! You can’t just get up and wander about when we are on the way to the runway. You just can’t. Ok? Ok.

12.29.
I can see sky. Hello sky, I’ve missed you.

15.55
Bugger bugger bugger bugger.
Swapped seats with small one halfway through the flight. Failed to remember to check my original seat pocket as I left the plane. 1 lost purse. #seat20B #iamanidiot

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Thank you , Thank you , Thank you. And did I mention, Thank you?

16.25
Air Asia staff are my new heroes. Hurried to my connecting gate in DMK and reported my stupidity. Check in staff called the landing gate and had the plane checked (twice!) until my purse was found. Thank you thank you thank you.
With apologies to the passengers en route to Wuhan who were delayed ( only slightly) because some idiot had to have the plane searched.

18.40
The most glorious sunset for our arrival home. Thank you Mother Nature #welcomehome

Pink Wings
Pink Wings
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Landing at CNX Chiang Mai. Good to be home.

 

19.20
I’m almost reluctant to get back online. Almost. Unpacking and a g&t first I think. And flip flops. Definitely flip flops.

There will be more of my Wuhan wanderings in due course (and in more detail!), but for now its time to go and check my Facebook page.

Jer Gan Mài

Remember

At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month many millions of people around the world stop whatever they are doing.

Stop to take a moment from their hectic lives to pay their respects to the fallen. To those who paid the ultimate price to ensure that our busy lives can continue day by day with hardly a beat missed.

The 11th November 1918 saw the signing of the armistice treaty that officially brought an end to World War 1.

One year later in the grounds of Buckingham palace King George V hosted the first service of remembrance to commemorate the signing of the treaty and this became a national tradition. Two minutes silence is observed, the first minute is a time for reflection and give thanks for those who sacrificed so much, and the second is a time to draw your thoughts back to the living, to those who were left behind, the families who lost so much.

In 1939 the traditional armistice day services were moved to the closest Sunday to the 11th in order that production for the next Great War would not be interrupted. This continues to this day, although in recent years the focus has once again shifted back to the day itself.

 

RBL Paper Poppy
RBL Paper Poppy

Inspired by the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ written in 1915 by Major John McCrae,  the poppy has become a symbolic item worn by many as a mark of respect for those who perished and those who still serve. In the United Kingdom, remembrance poppies are sold by The Royal British Legion (RBL). This is a charity providing financial, social, political and emotional support to those who have served or who are currently serving in the British Armed Forces, and their dependents.

This year is the 100 year anniversary of the commencement of world war 1 and there have been many events organised in commemoration of this. By far the most striking is an instillation at the Tower of London titled ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red‘,  designed and created by Tom Piper and ceramic artistPaul Cummins   There are 888,246 ceramic poppies that cover the lawns of the tower, one for each of the British and commonwealth lives that were lost in the conflict. The last of which was placed there today by a 13 year old army cadet.

The many people that I know that have seen it have all been moved in different ways by the piece, I have only seen it in photographs, but have been similarly moved. The sheer scale of the piece brings into sharp focus just how many lives were lost.

Photograph used with kind permission of Michael P Mulcahy of Innercitylifelondon
Photograph used with kind permission of Michael P Mulcahy of Innercitylifelondon*

 

There has been much controversy in recent years about the political nature of wearing a poppy, but for me it is not a political statement, but a personal one. It gives a focus to my thoughts and I have a deep and emotional attachment to it.

During my life as an ex-pat it has become quite a mission to secure my remembrance day poppy. Although the poppy is a recognised symbol in mainland Europe, actually finding one was nigh impossible.

When we lived in France it was a simple matter of asking my mother to pop some in the post, but the mail delivery here in Thailand has proved to be somewhat hit and miss. And last years were hastily cobbled together from craft paper and pins. This year I was a little more organised and made crochet poppies to wear.

Crochet Poppies
Crochet Poppies

This morning I made sure that my hustle and bustle was completed in time for me to head to a local park where I could spend a contemplative few minutes in the tranquility of the flower garden alone with my thoughts. But it turns out I was not alone. There was an elderly gentleman who approached me as i meandered along to the coffee shop. He stopped me and in very broken English told me I looked sad and asked if I was ok. In VERY broken thai I told him I was fine and we sat and had a conversation only made difficult by the language barrier. My thai lessons are going well but I’m not yet up to discussing the geo-political nature of global conflict, so I did the best I could to explain why I was here and what my wooly poppy was for. It took a while, but the understanding in his eyes spoke more than words. When we parted he took my hand and said;  “War is bad, you remember- is very good”

 

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Jer Gan Mai

 

*I am a huge fan of this exceptionaly talented urban photographer. Please take a moment to look at the work of Michael P Mulcahy at Innercitylifelondon.

 

Loi Krathong

November the 6th was the full moon day of the twelfth month in the Buddhist calendar. It is a very special day, particularly in the Lanna kingdoms in the North of Thailand. It is the festival day of Loi Krathong.  Now as with any good Thai festival (particularly one that falls near a weekend) it has extended itself from one day ( the day of the full moon) , to 3 days of parades, contests, sky lanterns and, much to my dogs dismay, extremely loud fireworks.

The origins of loi Krathong are to be found in the ancient Hindi religious texts some of which have been wholeheartedly embraced by the wonderful mish-mash that is thai Buddhism. The basic idea is that you give an offering to the river goddess to thank her for life sustaining water and apologise for any harm you may have caused to the water.
The name itself is a literal instruction for the event. Loi meaning ‘to float’ and Krathong which is ‘a basket that floats’. So during loi Krathong you should float a basket that floats.
The simple krathongs are made from banana tree stems wrapped in banana leaves and decorated with flowers, incense and a candle. It is also traditional to put something of yourself in the basket so the goddess knows who exactly the offering is from. Locks of hair and fingernail clippings are the preferred items of choice. The baskets are made and filled, then taken to the riverbank, lit and launched and your offering of appeasement to the river goddess is carried downstream. ( Quite how launching hundreds of thousands of floral tributes, that will soon become nothing more than litter, into an already polluted waterway is seen as an appropriate apology for polluting the river is up for debate, but not right here or right now).

My very own Krathong
My very own Krathong

The process of making a krathong has developed into a true artform. I am rather proud of the one I laboured over today in my Thai culture class, but as pretty as it is, it pales into insignificance when put beside just about any other one you can buy from the numerous vendors throughout the city. To watch the nimble fingers manipulating the banana leaves into such delicate,  intricate and beautiful sculptures is a joy to behold. And that’s even before they start getting fancy with the flowers. But a Krathong can also be as simple as a banana leaf ‘boat’ with a single flower inside. There are also now some made from a dough like substance filled with fish food that breaks down in the water and feed the fish as they go, which I think is a rather splendid idea.

Small Person and her 'fish food' Krathong
Small Person and her ‘fish food’ Krathong
Launching my Krathong into the Ping River
Launching my Krathong into the Ping River

Over the years the festivities have of course grown and have become a major tourist draw. Despite Thailand’s many problems, over the last year in particular, which has seen a vast drop in tourist numbers it has been estimated that an additional 200,000 people will be in this city alone for the festivities.

Of course Chiang Mai has an additional draw besides the Krathong.
In the northern or Lanna kingdoms of Thailand we have the YI Peng festival as well. Ye Peng (  directly translated from the Lanna language it means ‘second full moon day’ ), is a festival of light. The origins are rather hazy but most scholars agree that this was again taken from an a incident Hindu ceremony which was incorporated into Buddhism many centuries ago. As Chiang Mai was the ancient capital of the Lanna kingdoms it is a focal point for the celebration.
During Ye Peng people will decorate their homes and businesses with khom fai and khom thew which are small decorative paper lanterns and lanterns on sticks illuminated by small candles. This is a time for making merit at the temples and offering your hopes and prayers to Buddha for the coming months.

 

Loi Thew
Loi Thew

But the main attraction are the khom loi, hundreds of thousands of paper lanterns released into the night sky. The main spiritual purpose of the lantern release is one of cleansing. It is said that you speak all your troubles and woes as the lantern slowly inflates and as it takes off into the sky, so does your burden. Whether your troubles really do float off into the distance is I suppose a matter of opinion, but for one night at least it is a soothing thought.
It is a sight that I will never tire of seeing and one that I find both mesmerizing and deeply moving. I once again feel blessed to have been a small part of it.

Up up and away.
Up up and away.
Let your troubles drift away
Let your troubles drift away

Jer Gan Mai.

Break For The Border

A rundown on my visa run to Laos.

Monday
8am

This is what 8.am on a Monday morning at the Thai consulate in Vientiane looks like.

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Technically it’s outside the consulate as the gates haven’t opened yet. There are probably already about 200 people here. It’s going to be a long morning…… Thankfully I booked myself into the hotel just across the road from the consulate so I had a bellyful of breakfast to keep me contented in the queue. Although even if you don’t get to eat before you arrive there are a multitude of enterprising street stalls to meet your needs for a modest fee. ( you can also pick up application forms, photocopies and photographs on the street outside should you wish to.)
And a side note here- it’s rainy season people, if it’s not actually raining, it will be- bring an umbrella.
We are all here waiting for our magic number. When the gates open we will all patiently file through and wait to be given a queue number, then we will all patiently wait until our number is called so we can shuffle to the numbered windows and submit our visa application. Then we will all go, clutching our magic numbers, to another building where we will all patiently wait until our number is called again and we will pay.

Then we get to leave, but not with our passports, we will all have to patiently wait till tomorrow afternoon to get into another queue to see if our visa requests have been granted and then we can pick up our passports and run to the border. But that’s tomorrow …..

9am

Well the magic number for today is 204 and this is what will determine just how long I have to sit here. At least 2 hours I’d say.

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It is always wise to bring something to entertain yourself with. Thankfully this is something I already know so I have my ipad, my crochet and a book, just in case.

10am

We are still only at numbers 91-100….
It always amazes me how unprepared some people are when they turn up to get a visa. It’s really not that difficult to find out what you will need before you get here and yet droves of people turn up without the first clue.

You need a filled out visa form, supporting paperwork depending on what type of visa you require, 2 passport photographs ( with a white background ), a photocopy of your passport pages and all relevant entry and exit stamps and most importantly the correct fee in the correct currency ( Thai Baht in this case ). I know that you can get the forms and the photos at the consulate but It’s really not that difficult. And as I mentioned above, even if you have none of these things before you arrive the street vendors can supply you with everything before you come rough the gates. And yet in front of me in the queue was a young chap with nothing other than a hangover and a can of beer……

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He had decided that he needed a 1 year education visa but had failed to realise that you have to actually register and pay for the course before you apply for your visa. He quickly decided to try for a 60 day tourist visa instead.

11am

191-200 have just been called, I’m almost there…..
My crochet has been garnering a lot of interest and I have just taught a young Filipino lady how to crochet a miniature top hat. As you do.

12 pm

My number was called at just after 11am. I submitted my application
and went through my supporting documents with the rather stern looking Thai official. He seemed, if not happy, at least content that all was in order and I took my ticket through to the payment hall. I’m still here. This is usually the quick bit. Today it is not. Monday is always the busiest day here and if you have the choice and flexibility on days then I would recommend mid week. This time round I did not and today was really the only choice. Bummer.
Mr unprepared is now touting around the waiting room asking if anyone can change his KIP to BAHT as he thought you could pay the fee in local currency……. He really didn’t think this through.

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12.30 pm

4 and a half hours later and I have my receipt in hand ready to take back tomorrow afternoon and retrieve my passport. That was a long long wait. Last time with small one we were done by 11, but tighter restrictions on the issuing of Thailand visas has clearly added a little time to each application.
I hate being without my passport, it really unsettles me. Particularly when I’m waiting for something as important as this.

Tuesday
1.34 pm

My manicure in town took a little longer than I expected it to ( I know…first world problems, but there really isn’t much else to do in downtown Vientiane in the morning as I discovered when I arrived in an almost deserted city centre after breakfast ), so I hopped out the back of a tuk-tuk and in through the consulate gates long past the time for getting a decent queue number.

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137. Sigh.

2pm

Mr underprepared from yesterday morning has just rocked up at the counter and is trying to explain that he has lost his receipt and is extremely cross that he will have to wait till the crowd has thinned out till he gets dealt with.
There really is no hope for some people.

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2.15pm

The young Filipino lady I met yesterday has just showed me a selection of multi-coloured miniature top hats that she made this morning. 🙂 I have no idea why she would need so many but she seems very happy with them anyway……

2.30pm

137 came up at 2.24pm – woohoo!! There was a slightly nervy moment when it turned out that my passport was not in amongst the general assortment on the desk and I must admit that a little bit of wee nearly came out as I watched the lady go across to a smaller pile all with notes attached to the front. She read the note and scrutinised both my photo and my face. She crumpled the noted and shook her head and advised me that there was no problem just that one of her colleagues yesterday had flagged up that that I didn’t look anything like the picture. She complimented my new haircut, handed me back my passport and wished me a pleasant day. While I was a little intrigued to see how mr unprepared made out it was not enough to keep me from skipping out the gates and across the road to my hotel to pick up my bag.

2.50pm

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I am writing this in the back of a rickety tuk tuk on the way to the Laos – Thailand border. I’m holding on VERY tightly as it seems our journey has turned into a race with another tuk heading the same way.

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I can’t tell you what speed we are going as the vehicle has no speedo, nor any other working instrumentation, but I do know that while we may not have the horse power to beat his friend on the flat when it comes to any incline, however slight, we have him nailed as he has 3 strapping young Aussie lads in the back of his and I am, once again, flying solo.

Jer Gan Mài

A Lesson In Perspective

My long long wait at the consulate this morning ( more of which to come) was by anyone’s standards awful, sitting around for 2 and a half hours to hand in some papers and another hour and a bit to pay for the privilege made me a little grumpy.

But boy did I give myself a lesson in perspective this afternoon.

Without a small one in tow I was able to visit a place that I wanted to see last time round but was unable to due to point blank refusal and tiredness of said small person.

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COPE visitors centre is located within the grounds of the Vientiane rehabilitation centre. COPE is a non profit organisation that, amongst other things, provides prosthetic limbs and support for victims of unexploded ordinance (UXO) in Laos. The fact that this organisation is so desperately needed is a shame on the western world.

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Now while I don’t have the best grasp of recent history I do credit myself with a little knowledge of the Vietnam war. I’ve been to the movies. But what I learned recently was both surprising and shocking. This afternoon reduced me to teary mess.

Now what has the Vietnam war got to do with Laos ? It’s a different country which was neutral and not directly involved in the war. Yes, it borders Vietnam, but it wasn’t involved was it?

Horribly the answer to that question is an emphatic yes. But not through its own choice. The Vietnamese troops used Laos as a supply corridor and as such it was considered by the US army as an ally and therefore a legitimate target. Despite agreements made and ratified by the Geneva convention the US army dropped more bombs on Laos between the years 1964 and 1973 than were used by all troops combined in the Second World War. It is estimated ( using the US army’s own statistics ) that more than 2 million tons of ordinance were dropped on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions, equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. A country that wasn’t supposed to be involved in the war.

The US army used the reasoning that they were destroying the supply lines of the Vietnamese troops to justify the bombing in what they called ‘ the other theatre’. Even if it were only that it would be atrocious, what I learned today is that If a plane missed its designated target in Vietnam it was under orders to use one of the ‘free drop zones’ in the north of Laos to divest itself of its payload as it was unsafe for it to land fully loaded.

It is estimated that around 70% of these bombs detonated as they should have at the time, which means that around 30% didn’t. 30% of unexploded cluster bombs still on the ground. That’s an approximate 80 million explosives primed and ready to explode when they are discovered. EIGHTY MILLION.

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Since the end of the war ( that Laos was NOT in ) over 20,000 people have been killed. Over 8,000 of those were children.

It has been dubbed ‘The secret war’ as many of these details have only come to light in the west in last 20 years.

The legacy of these unconscionable acts is that 1/3 of the land mass of Laos is deemed to be unsafe due to the high presence of UXO. 1/3 of the landmass. That is a HUGE amount of land that could potentially kill you. As over 70 % of the population is dependent on farming not just as a living, but to feed their families the amount of families that risk death and disability by the simple act of ploughing a field, or lighting a fire to cook is phenomenal.

The trade in scrap metal is big business in Laos, many people supplement their small incomes by selling scrap metal to foundries. Due to the vast amounts of ordinance dropped during the war there are a lot of metal fragments to be found in the overgrown wilderness. It was this that reduced me to a watery mess this afternoon as I watched the story, told just a few years ago, of a small boy who went out looking for scrap with his friends so that he could afford to buy a present for his mothers birthday.
Both of his friends died instantly when they found an unexploded cluster bomb. Hamm, the little boy in question, was badly injured but none of the hospitals nearby had any supplies that could help him and he died in agony several hours later. He was 9. The same age as my little girl.

Laos is an extremely poor developing nation, something that is easy to forget when sitting in a terrace bar in the capital city, and there just isn’t the money available to clear the huge swathes of contaminated land. 50 years after the end of he war and just 1% of the land has been declared safe. Until 100% of this land has been cleared the economic and social development of this country is effectively stalled.

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There are many organisations that are trying their best to do this and deal with the fallout, but without funding there is little that can be done.

I will add some links at the bottom of this post and if you feel so inclined then please donate if you can. If you can’t then at least spread the word so more people can know what is happening today, now, because of a 50 year old conflict that continues to claim innocent victims ruin the lives of generations.

Jer Gan Mài

COPE Laos

legacies of war

UXO Laos

MAG international

Flying Solo

I’m oddly unenthusiastic about this trip.

I’m off to Vientiane in Laos to apply for my one year Thai Visa.
The reason I’m going to Laos is that you cannot apply for an education visa inside Thailand. It has to be done a a consulate or embassy on foreign soil and Laos is the most convenient .
No. I don’t know why I have to leave the country either, but I do, so here I am at the airport waiting to board my flight for Udon Thani. Yes I know I said I’m going to Vientiane but it is half the price to get a flight to Udon Thani and cross the ‘ Friendship Bridge’ into Laos from Thailand by bus.

Ah visa runs……

I’ve been to Vientiane before, last year when small one needed her Education Visa. And as much as I was looking forward to it I really didn’t have a good time.

When you first do a visa run there is always an element of confusion and chaos as you are not really sure of the procedures or which lines you need to stand in to get the right forms and such, add to that a very tired and confused 8 year old and it’s a joy I can tell you.

There are a few oddities at the Laos border crossing that its worth being aware of before you go.

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1- while you can pay the visa fee in thai baht the preferred currency, and cheapest option by far, is US dollars. 35 of them to be precise. Unless it’s a weekend when you will be asked to pay an extra dollar for ‘overtime’. ( T he irony of the preferred currency being the US dollar in Laos is not lost on me and if you have even the smallest grasp of Laos/ US history it should not be lost on you either ).

2- the Laos visa on arrival form is available to download online. Don’t bother. The actual form given to you is a very particular and specific size and any other sizes are not accepted. It really doesn’t take long to fill in the correct one.

3- it is advisable to ensure that the bills that you use to pay the visa fee are spotlessly clean and un wrinkled. This may sound silly but, I can assure you after the near fiasco we had last time, border officials will refuse to accept any bills that have even the tiniest smudge or wrinkle. I have been told that ‘some’ will accept blemished bills, but it’s really not worth the risk of either being refused entry or being stuck with a blemished $100 bill that can only be exchanged in one particular branch of one particular bank in the whole of Vientiane.

4- Be warned that once you are across the bridge you will be at the mercy of the local taxi drivers. You will, unless you happen to be with a local, get overcharged. It will cost you a minimum of $15 to get to Vientiane city.
However; Before you leave Thailand as you wait to get your passport stamped you may be offered a taxi into the city for around $10. It could be a wise move to take this offer as the price rises once you are across. If you are very fortunate the driver will accompany you through the crossing process and magically produce all the forms you need so you can fill them in on the way over the bridge ( there is a mandatory 20 baht bus fare for the bus that actually takes you across the actual friendship bridge ) . This only applies if you get a seat. It is usual for the bus to be packed far beyond normal capacity

Once the formalities of the crossing and taxi negotiation have been completed it is a short ride to the city itself. A city which is peculiarly similar to most other northern thai cities, yet in many ways starkly different.

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At first glance Vientiane seems like a vibrant multicultural city, but most of this is an illusion due to the huge numbers of ‘visa-runners’ who are simply passing through.

As little as 5 years ago it was still considered to be somewhat quirky to visit this cheap and cheerful corner of communist south east Asia, but the taxi drivers and street vendors soon got wise to the sheer volume of tourists passing through on visa runs for various other SEA countries and prices have been driven up to such a high that it is comparable cost wise more with western nations than eastern. There is also an unusually high level of aggressive street begging with many reports of people being followed around the city for hours at a time by groups of ragged looking children.

It was not children that spooked small person on our last visit, but a clearly unfortunate man who saw us having lunch in a side street cafe and decided to help himself to small ones bottle of pop from the table. Despite being chased out of the cafe by the owner he waited for us to finish and followed us down the road wailing and begging for money.
Now I’m not heartless and clearly he had suffered much in his life, but when he started tugging on my bag from behind it was more than time to flag down an overpriced taxi and get out of Dodge.
Of course i cannot blame people for trying to exploit the ‘rich white tourist’, but it has gone so far now that many people, myself included, will only come back to this city because they have to rather than because they want to.

Which is a great shame as I’m sure the city has many charms and wonderful sights to see, but to be honest after my last trip here I’m really not that inclined to seek them out.

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It’s now around 5 hours since I started this blog post and I am ensconced in the comfort of my hotel room with a take away dish of delicious smelling mystery food and a couple of cans of beer Lao. The rain is thundering down outside and ensconced I shall stay till the early morning sees me take my place in the first of many lines at the Thai Consulate. Once that is done and dusted I will try to walk around the city with fresh eyes and see the beauty that is here rather than relive the disappointment of the last trip.

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Wish me luck.

Jer Gan Mai

A Small Act of Kindness

I am interrupting my European travelogue for something VERY special. ( it will continue after this post )

Now those of you who follow my blog will understand my reasons for the interruption. If you are new to this page I would humbly suggest reading a post from April of this year before continuing to help better understand just how important this is to me.

Today something quite wonderful happened that reaffirmed my belief that I live in the best city, with the kindest people, in the world.

It was not long after I’d dropped small person off at the school bus this morning and I was back at home pottering around in the kitchen when my phone rang. When I saw it was small person calling my Immediate reaction was to check and see if the Matilda was in her box. ( Our adventurous hedgehog had a recently stowed away in small persons school bag and had an excursion ). Thankfully she was in and the cage lid was closed.
But what could possibly be wrong? She must have only just arrived. Was she sick?

Of course these thoughts were fleeting as I answered the call to an extremely excited 9year old.

“Mum, mum, mum, you will NEVER guess what’s happened!”
“So tell me then…”
“Well I just got to school and one of the secretaries told me that she had something for me and I should wait outside…”
“So what was it?”
“Well she went inside ,then she came back outside and guess what she had?”
“I don’t know…. Tell me, please?”
“She had the bag”
“Which bag?”
“Your bag!”
“My bag?”
“Yes, your bag, THE bag!”
“WHAT?”
“The bag that you left in the songtheaw, your bag, it’s here!”
“But that’s impossible, how?”
“My student ID was in the front pocket of the bag. ( On a side note I was wondering where that had gone, I just assumed it was somewhere in the mess of drawers in her bedroom). The driver must have found it in the pocket and brought it back to the school so they could give it back to me.”
“But that’s amazing, that’s so brilliant and kind. Did the driver leave his name so we could say thank you?”
“I don’t think so, they didn’t say so. He just dropped it off when he was going past.”

I said my goodbyes to small person with the firm promise that she would remember to bring my bag home with her. Of course she’s as absent minded as her mother and left the bag in her classroom when she came home, but it matters not. My smelly frayed old bag has been returned and I could not be happier or more amazed.

The driver could have no idea that an empty bag could have been so missed or mean so much. It was worth very little in monetary terms, probably less than the cost of the fuel he used to get it back to the school, but in terms of memory and feelings it is beyond price. But with no thought of reward, I’m not even able to say thank you, he brought my bag back to me and he will never know how much his seemingly small act of kindness means.

When you do something nice, when you perform one small selfless gesture, when you give something of yourself with no expectation of thanks or reward you often have no idea of the consequences of your actions. Even what you consider to be the smallest most insignificant thing could bring so much happiness to a stranger or a friend. So as a way of saying thanks to this lovely, lovely songtheaw driver I’d like to ask you all a favour.
It’s not a big thing, it won’t take much for you do, but please I’d be honoured if you would.
Just do something nice for no reason. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture, it can be as simple as giving up your seat on a crowded train, holding open a door, even a kind word can sometimes be the most precious gift.
So after you’ve read this, be it an hour a day or a week, just do something nice for a friend or a stranger. You have no idea how much joy you might bring.

Jer Gan Mài.