Thailand in a nutshell

The first thing to say about Bangkok is that it’s hot. Properly so. We decided to walk the 1.5 miles from the station to the Vivit hostel (yes, that’s not a misspell, we’re staying in a hostel and it’s fab) as there was no suitable subway and we didn’t (yet) want to trust a taxi/tuk-tuk. That almost killed C and we managed to find a cafe with air-conditioning to regroup before the final assault on the hostel – which, BTW, is fabulous. Small room, shared facilities, but clean and with breakfast and WiFi for under £20.

Second, like Thailand, Bangkok is enigmatic. There’s real poverty here; you can see it from the train windows. Tin shacks with corrugated roofs, gaps filled with plastic bags and kids washing in streams. There’s rubbish and plastic away from the main streets, but in and around the makeshift houses, pride seems to keep order. The electricity supply is a bird’s-nest of black wires and there are stand pipes for some.

 

And yet on the beaten track things are more first-world. Thailand is a military dictatorship, disguised by a unitary parliament. It is the only SE Asian country not to have been colonised and has held onto its monarchy through military coups and recent, brief flirtations with democracy (quickly overcome by military intervention). Yet there’s no sense of subjugation – unless you consider a large swathe of v poor people as disenfranchised and put upon. Literacy rates are in the high 90s and Buddhism attracts over 95% of the population, which probably makes them more chilled out than your ordinary dictatorship – and they love their king. When the last one died the country went into mourning for a whole year. His pictures and appropriate flags and bunting are everywhere.

And much of the city looks prosperous, especially the military buildings. There are trains and buses, taxis and a metro. There are 7-11s (all air-conditioned, a really helpful fact when you’re wandering around in an open-plan oven), and the palaces and temples are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. They’re like Disneyland meets Claire Accessorize. The photos only touch on the story.

Oh, and they don’t use the Gregorian calendar. Nope. They use Buddha’s calender which is 543 years ahead of the rest of us, which can be a bit confusing when you’re using booking.con.

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We walked out on Saturday night and found the main backpacking tourist areas and had supper. And on Sunday we did the palaces and temples, and a couple of river taxis … which ply the Chao Phraya River like demented waterboatmen. Fabulous. You must do the temples/palace if you come here, but if you’re really short of time visit the big gold lying down Buddha temple (it does have a proper name). It is special. And big. And lying down. And gold (leaf).

 

We spent late afternoon planning the next stage of our journey, which looks to be more adventurous still. But first …

… on Monday C and I broke away from Bex and Steven and caught an early train from a minor station in BK to Nam Toc, the end of the line for the poorly named Burma railway, as it travels through both Thailand and Burma. And, importantly, the bridge over the River Kwai (which isn’t actually the River Kwai and was called something else until the Thai government renamed it Kwai as the guy who wrote the book got the wrong river … which was difficult for tourist purposes … if you follow me), is definitely in Thailand.

Anyway we caught the train (£10 for both of us, return) that went to the bridge built by Allied PoWs and interned civilians during WW2.

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And it was fab. Up to Kanchanaburi (3 hours) the route is pretty dull; urban and busy. Beyond Kanchanaburi (a further 2 hours), where the train crosses the newly named Kwai on the same structure built in WW2, the landscape changes and it’s beautiful … arable land (cassava plants predominate, although C thinks they’re a cover for cannabis), crossed by mud-red tracks and well kept farmsteads. The railway cuts through these, as well as rocky and pointy, jungle covered hills, the viaduct at Wang Pho taking the biscuit.

In a suprise move to everyone we stayed on the train and then pottered  back home again. Yes it was a bit hot in 3rd class (no a/c, but that meant you had the windows open and could experience everything) and I got time to reflect on the many, many beautiful temples en route set against all the poor people living in squalor by the tracks … and my organised-religion hypocritometer ratched up the scale a bit. So I stopped reflecting.

 

And after a very ‘cool’ night out with Bex and Steven, that’s Thailand, I think. We’ve still got 3 weeks left but the plan is Cambodia (by train and taxi … could be interesting) for a week and then two weeks in Vietnam. Apparently the Cambodian border can be a bit tricky.

I’ll let you know

A final flourish

Our last day in Langkawi had an unexpected, but pleasant turn. We’d thought we’d potter around on the bike, catch a coffee at #Starbucks and then find a beach somewhere. Down at the pointy end of the island I metaphorically wandered around with £10 in hand in the hope that a fisherman would take us to one of the islands (broken, jungle-green teeth rising from turquoise gums – stunning). In the end we hopped on a 3-hour trip to three islands for £8 each.

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Wow. Welcome to Jurassic World. The boat, a fibreglass fishing outfit fitted with a Bugatti Veron engine, was quicker than any RIB I’ve been on. And the tour was fab. Two highlights were  the sea eagles diving and feeding right next to us, and, along the same lines, watching the monkeys sprint out from the jungle and feed from our neighbour’s picnic as they went for a swim on a quite delightful Robinson Crusoe island. We swam, but didn’t feed the monkeys as we’d only bought a few biccies, unlike our German friends. Just fab.

And then the great escape.

In incredibly slow time we took a Grab taxi (like Uber, if I’d ever used Uber) back to the port, caught the 3 pm ferry, wandered around Kuala Perlis (mainland ferry port, like Dover but 1/1000th of the size – but just as poor and shabby) before calling it a night back at our favourite Muslim hotel, which was even cheaper (£18 inc breakfast) and even more acceptable.

It’s worth pointing out, in case I die on you, that my heart hasn’t been right since we got off the plane from Heathrow. Thursday night was particularly bumpy, but I slept soundly, only woke once and was feeling refreshed – but not regular – the next morning. And for the record we’ve both lost our stomachs and currently can’t find them. Oh well.

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the Langkawi port is protected by a blooming big bird. Dover could learn a lesson here

Friday was the mad dash to catch the 5 pm sleeper from the only railway border crossing between Malaysia and Thailand, at Padang Besar. Another Grab and £12 lighter for a 40 km trip (there are no buses) and we were at station 8 hours before we needed to. But it’s about the journey, and we popped out of the station and found reliable WiFi at KFC and then twiddled our thumbs a bit.

Our 5 pm sleeper (2nd class, don’t you know, and easily workable) arrived at 5 pm and left at 5.03. By then we’d befriended a young Argentinian footballer (currently playing for a BK side but popping into Malaysia to get his visa renewed) and his girlfriend, a French Canadian couple and their two young kids who were spending 6 months travelling this part of the world (the kids, both under 8, had their own weighty back packs – respect), a Singaporean, post-national service trio who were, wait for it, bus and training it to Mongolia, and a young English couple who were on a 4-week break via Singapore (where her dad worked) … they were from Essex, his dad lives in Great Bentley where my folk live/lived. What a team.

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And what an adventure. I played cards with the Singaporeans whilst the waiter showed C the v basic menu which displayed 20 dishes in glorious technicolour, 18 of which were not available. We decided on our own pot noodles and some wine.

Sleep? More adventures. C wanted to sleep on the top bunk … I got the wider, bottom. I slept fitfully, woken by shuddering and bouncing – I think I had concussion where my brain had rattled against my skull. C the same, adamant that she had chosen the wrong bunk, but I’m not sure. But, and it’s a big but, C can now claim that she slept with an Argentine footballer (her quip, not mine). And checking googlemaps in the morning we were considerably closer to BK and woke to fab views.

More about Bangkok later, other than to say we met up with Bex and Steven as planned, and now the second leg of our adventure begins. Hurrah!

Malaysia – 2

Well that’s different. From KL the 9-hour coach journey (should have been 6, but it took us 2 to get out of the city) saw everything change a bit. The pointy, tree-covered rocks became a coastal plain. Light industry appeared alongside paddy fields. There were housing developments and shopping areas. It was more southern Italy than northern Malaysia. The coach was fine. We had, again, plenty of room and were able to spread ourselves out. We had a lunch stop, which was the Malaysian equivalent of Moto services and we didn’t feel the nine hours.
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We were destined for Kuala Perlis, an unknown to us, save it was a one-hour ferry to Langkawi, an island resort we had chosen off the map because it was the closest to the Thai border and the station that would allow us to take a second-class sleeper to Bangkok (yes, you read that right) on Friday night to meet Bex and Steven. We’d booked into the Putra Brasmana hotel, which is by the beach road and a 3-minute walk from the ferry terminal. The hotel was – and we were just getting used to this now – run by, and possibly for, the Muslim community. It was a reasonably tasteful high-rise that had seen better days (the heat always making things look and feel worse than they are). Inside was functional, if Spartan. There was no TV and no WiFi, but breakfast could be bought on the terrace (leading to a total of £23 all in) the next morning. We ate supper on the beach … Again all clearly Muslim locals or holiday makers. And then collapsed into bed.
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Now I’d like to make a point about religion. Those that know me, know that I have a problem with organised faith. I guess it’s having seen a bit of the world where all of the Gods have forsaken everyone. I have no problem with people having faith, if that helps them. What I cannot support is organised religion, of all colours. Where (mostly) men build temples, elicit money, subjugate the weak and the poor with tales of impending disaster, and then live in luxury with many wives … Or, in the case of the Catholics, the odd choir boy. [OK, I know this doesn’t apply to all clerics across the spectrum, but it is, trust me, the basis of all religions.] If I believed in a God, She would preach in the slums, bring down the temples to money and greed, and distribute the ensuing wealth accordingly. And She certainly wouldn’t let good people die unnecessarily, hiding behind the fact that ‘it was Her will’ working in a mysterious way. And, not to worry, they’re safely in heaven now (with, in some religions, 1000 virgins … Although I’m not sure that works for the recently departed women?). No, She would give the bad people a hard time, getting them to trip over chairs and chose the wrong shares to buy; they’d be the ones who bought houses in flood areas and buy second hand cars that were made up of two broke ones from previous crashes. Good people would get good interest rates, find lovely people to marry and discover bargains in the sales no one else had. That would be my God.
What has been surprising here is that, among the predominantly conservatively clothed and head scarfed-wearing women, there are many in complete purdah. Now, call me a scientist, but black is not a great colour in the sun. And a full-faced veil is not great for eating chips. I couldn’t not glance at the poor woman next to me having to lift her veil with one hand, whilst shovelling in chips with the other. BTW, her ‘man’ was in shorts and t-shirt (as are they all), and had no problem filling his face. This may be considered anti-Islamic and I can hear the fatwa being offered from where I’m typing, but all of the other Muslim ladies that we have met – and we’ve met a few – have all been smiling and happy. They seem to be enjoying their time whilst upholding their faith. And they are waitresses and probably doctors. And mothers, of course. No, sorry, I’m struggling with the burqa/yashmak combination. I guess having experienced it in far-away places, like Kabul, it seemed more natural there – or maybe I was preoccupied with other things. Here, on holiday, it seems anachronistic at the very least.
Anyhow. On, on.
We caught the ferry along with 300 identically dressed ‘Mr-DIY’ employees off for their 13th anniversary trip, picked up a taxi (£6.40) which took us to our hotel/villa. We’d provisionally booked for 2/4 nights as we had no idea if we would like it. In the end we’ve stayed for the duration. At £35 for a sea-view villa, which could be transported to the Maldives and cost you £350 a night, it’s perfect. There is no breakfast, but good WiFi, the beach is beautiful, but ‘boggy’, if that makes sense. The views of the sunsets and the sea eagles (yes, true) are magnificent. It’s secluded and isolated … Which we count as a good thing. The staff are lovely and the restaurant will knock you up a decent supper and soft drinks (no alcohol, sorry) for about a tenner. We’d got wind of the no alcohol rule and raided the ferry terminal’s duty-free shop. And, that was an unexpected bonus. Langkawi is a duty free island and, like across all Malaysia, you can buy alcohol, you just can’t seem to get it in hotels and restaurants. But here you can pick up a bottle of wine for £6 and a small can of beer for 60p. (£12 and £3 in a KL shop.) Result.
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We booked a moped for three days (£8 a day, cash, no paperwork and no insurance – about £1 a day for fuel. There are no markings but I’m pretty certain it’s a 125cc so you can get around the island easily) and the place is fab. Think Menorca, but hotter. It’s hilly and green. There are some good beaches, but there are also a lot of resorts, many exclusive. There’s an airport – indeed, our villa (Coconut Villa Resort) is right next to the airport, but you don’t notice. You can eat anywhere for next to nothing, if you’re happy to eat local, and there are supermarkets to get the essentials. The buildings are all a bit tired, but there are plenty of neon bars. In fact I’d say it was more like a Caribbean island – with it’s relaxed atmosphere and colourful paintwork … And calls to prayer …
On day one we did the cable car to the top of the main mountain (the steepest in the world, let me tell you – built by the Austrians, so we felt safe enough – £24 for both of us). On top there’s a canopy-height walkway with views over the Straits of Malacca and the Andaman Sea … Exquisite. If it weren’t for the loud Chinese tourists with selfie-sticks and bad-mannered children, you could touch the tree tops and hear the animals and insects talk to you.
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Next we drove to an unexpected gem: a waterfall up a short trail. The water fell over 100 metres straight down into a pool … Which you couldn’t not swim in. And then we found a lovely beach with a few people on it, bathed again and remarked at how lucky we were. Supper was a short cycle down to ‘the strip’, which could be any beach resort anywhere and ate our now staple chicken and rice for £8.
And that brings me onto ‘budget’. Leaving aside flights (£1800 all told) we have budgeted for £80 a day including travel and hotels. Those of you who read this drivel and remember some of it, will know that we have always (even now with the house) budgeted for £50 a day – that’s everything, less mortgages and insurances Currently on this trip we are in credit, but we have been lucky with staying with people and some v generous benefactors putting us up in hotels. But, having now forked off on our own and working strictly to the budget, I think we will do just fine. I’ll keep you abreast as we go.
Today was going to be a visit to the ‘best beach in Malaysia’. Well, we did that at the same time as a tropical squall. Wind and rain – and more wind and rain. It stayed ‘wet’ all day, but we managed another waterfall, another beach and a long trip around the island on the bike … Where we were reminded of how dangerous the roads can be. On one particularly windy, downhill bit we came across two accidents due to the slippery roads. Note to self …
I think that’s enough from me for now. Next post will be after the sleeper train to Bangkok experience. Mmm, looking forward to that.
I suppose I could finish on British politics. That about 87 people are choosing the next prime minister (come on, how does that work?), and they’re likely to chose someone who will not admit to how many children he has fathered from his three wives. I wasn’t serving when Mr Johnson was Foreign Secretary (I will not call him Boris, he is no friend of mine), so I can’t tell you what rumours there were about his competence. But if you believe just 10% of what’s out there we are getting a man who cares more about himself than he does the people. Sorry, my mistake, he does care about the Tory party which, apparently, will be scuppered if Brexit doesn’t go ahead. Really? Do we, the rest of us, really care about saving a political party for the sake of saving the nation?
I keep apologising about Brexit to anyone I meet over here. Ho hum.
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Follow Claire and Roland here: The Wanderlings
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Malaysia – one

The coach from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur was straightforward. Five hours, lots of room and a wee stop (£12 each). Travelling by bus allows you to see the sights and we did: palms for palm oil and the odd billboard selling tools, office equipment and sanitary stuff. It’s very green and very bumpy and very full of palm trees. Apparently they mine a lot of tin. And there’s oil, the crude stuff. But there’s also a lot of palms for palm oil.

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Our hosts in KL (parents of ex-students of ours) run a palm oil plantation or two. And he tells me that soya creates five times as much deforestation as palms, and you can’t use soya to replace diesel. What with the orangutans and everything it’s getting a bad press, but soya is worse, apparently. Anyhow, there’s miles and miles of it here.

We were booked into a v swanky colonial hotel, with pithe-helmeted doorsmen and more staff than I had tips for. Our first night was a drive-by tour of KL kindly provided by another ex-student who now works as a property developer in the city. And, wow. There’s been a lot of property developed in KL.

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The most iconic is the Petronas Towers, once the tallest building(s) in the world, but now dwarfed by that mad thing in Dubai. It only became clear in daylight, but KL is a busy, skyscraper city that’s doubling as a building site. It has more cranes than a paddy field. There are gihuge buildings everywhere – as far as the eye can see. And bigger ones are being built. None, however, will eclipse the extraordinary spectacle that is/are the Petronas Towers. After a local supper we took a fast lift to the 33rd floor of another tower, hoped to get a drink only to realise that it was ladies’ night (Teng and I were going to be lucky numbers wise, less so C). So whilst we didn’t stop we did manage to get a full-frontal of the towers. Mad, absolutely mad. We finally got our drink in a bar in another hotel high-rise. Again, fabulous views.

 

 

The next day was the full KL tour with driver and guide (thanks Mrs Gan). It was only then that we began to realise that KL isn’t Singapore. There are metaphorical and actual cracks in the pavement. The concrete looks more West African than West Byfleet. It’s a bit dirty. The workers don’t have that ordered efficiency of Singapore. A lot of it is half- finished. And everyone told us to watch out for petty, but determined crime.

Apparently much of the race for the skies is underpinned by backhanders – certainly the previous PM is being done for some serious corruption including a £41 million super yacht. And the new builds are not supported by appropriate infrastructure. It’s about being big and bold, but not so much integrated. As a result the traffic is like rush hour Naples … in 90% humidity. It’s trying very hard to be a first world country, but at only 70 years old, its ambition isn’t supported by a first world government. Yet. And there are gently simmering racial issues. The indigenous, Muslim Malays who hold the power, don’t quite see eye to eye with the centuries old Chinese Malaysians, who have the money. There’s the jealousy of the uber-rich Singapore who were, not so long ago, Malaysian. And the Thais who let the Japanese in during the second world war, are looked down on.

And I loved it (the place, not the racism).

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We did the palace where my day was made by a minibus-load of Chinese tourists who wanted their photograph taken with me. I think they mistook me for Harrison Ford, which happens a lot. We did the main Taoist temple, which is in an old bat cave (nunner, nunner, nunner, nunner, nunner, nunner, nunner, nunner … Batman!), up an unnecessarilyl  multicoloured flight of steps protected by a huge, gold God-type figure. We did a Chinese temple, and all of the old, central colonial buildings, finishing off at the old cricket square next to a Tudoresque private club which we weren’t allowed to go into. It was all very 1900s, but delightfully so, especially compared to the glass, steel and concrete superstructures that surrounded us.

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Exhausted but not out, we ran in the hotel’s gym, swum in the hotel’s terrace pool and, undaunted by the threat of being mugged, we walked and found a McDonald’s for fear of ending up looking like a grain of rice.

We also booked the next stage of our trip (so excited … I’m penning this on my phone in a coach heading north).

Our second full day was a trip to Malacca, down the coast from KL. Again a driver and guide were provided. We chose Malacca because my mum and dad were based there in the early 60s. It was fun and v provincial. We looked around the old colonial sites, visited a Malay/Chinese merchant’s house museum and then drove onto dad’s old barracks … which was strangely moving.

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And last night the Gans took us out for supper, finishing with coffee and pud in our hotel. It was a v chilled way to end our stay in KL.

Would we come again? We loved Singapore and could certainly see us stopping over for a day or so, if the bank balance allowed. KL? Other than to see the Gans, possibly not. It’s an inexpensive city with a gawpable skyline. There’s plenty of nightlife to make you feel special and shopping malls galore. The colonial history is fascinating, but that only needs to be told once.

So, maybe not.

And Malaysia? Mmmm. As we snake our way north through huge limestone gorges where the rainforest hasn’t been decimated for palm trees, to a ferry to an island off the northwest coast … possibly. And more of all that later. ‘Cos Malaysia also includes the northern half of Borneo where Bex has just come back from. We’ll see what she says.

(BTW, luxury coach – Cosmic Express! – from KL, 500 km north to Kuala Perlis is £12 each. Clean and efficient and leaves from a modern, 3-storey bus terminus the size of Watford.)

More of Malaysia next time.

Singapore. What’s that all about?

It’s all happening. First let me finish with Seoul. We spent Sunday morning with Bex having breakfast off her hill. And then, once she’d left for Borneo (I know, I know), we walked to the military memorial. Which was fab. Outside was a lovely commemoration to all of those who had died in the Korean War, plus a large display of tanks, planes and the odd warship (yes, that’s correct). They had a B52, which you may recall from watching the odd US war film as they bombed the begeezers out of everyone from Korea to Vietnam – and are now deployed to the Straits of Hormuz. Inside was a tasteful display of Korean military might … For me the floor that showed the details of the Korean War was the most informative and moving.
By the end we were shattered, having walked a distance again. We did some minor admin, woke at unearthly o’clock and tottered along to catch the bus to the airport.
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Singapore Airlines were efficient, if not as comfortable as Cathay Pacific, and we made it to Singapore mid-pm, took the metro to where Ollie and his fiancée, Faz, live (C’s nephew – he’s another teacher and she’s big in financial consultancy), and then we went out for the night.
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Singapore. Well, what’s that about? Think the Isle of White proclaiming independence from the UK (Singapore from Malaysia). Think Canary Wharf on steroids. Think Swiss efficiency (the transport minister resigned last year because the metro messed about for a day), with German cleanliness. Think Crazy Rich Asians. Think the best bits of Manhattan combined with the best bits of Monaco. Think big, yet tasteful; tall, but slender. Think no chewing gum – it’s banned. And you have it.
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Singapore used to be just a trading port. The southern apex of the trade route between India and China: the Gibraltar of south east Asia. Having snatched independence from Malaya (in the 60s?) it soon became a financial hub as well. And now it has decided that it wants to be a tourist destination to top the things it does well. The Marina Bay Hotel – you’ve got to see it to believe it – and the attached fabricated neon forest, is a draw of its own. The skyline, the old colonial buildings, the marina built on reclaimed land, the zoo, the high-end (and v expensive) shopping, the theme parks etc, etc, are all making it an attractive destination.
For the well off.
It is expensive. Alcohol is Norwayesque prohibitive. Eating out is not cheap. And I can’t tell you about the hotels as we were lucky and stayed with Ollie, but with limited real estate (there is no spare ground on the Isle of White/Singapore), I reckon they’re pricey.
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But you won’t beat the skyline anywhere. So it might be worth the mortgage.
On Tuesday we walked and walked, met up with one of C’s girls for lunch, and then walked some more. We had a delightful Greek supper out with Ollie and Faz (thank you both so much for your generosity!) and then picked up a coach on Wednesday – for one-fifth the price of a CO2 busting airplane – and headed off to Kuala Lumpur.
More of KL next time. We’ve been here for two nights, are staying for a third and leave on Saturday for an adventure and a half. Again, more next time.
All I will say is that, again, we have been v fortunate in that the mum and dad of the girl we caught up with in Singapore are KL-based. And, (in their words), by way of paying C and I back for looking after their two girls for six years we have been royally looked after, hotel included. More later.
The weather? Low to mid-30s. Some rain. Hot and humid, but workable if you shade-hop and drink plenty of water. And backpacking? Well I carry mine and pull C’s – her pelvic floor isn’t what it used to be. So far we’ve managed well enough.
Hurrah!
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Follow Claire and Roland here: The Wanderlings
Read Roland’s thriller – Unsuspecting Hero
and Facebook page: rolandtheauthor

Never forget

 

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We visited the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) on Friday. It is the c.10 km strip of land that separates north and south and has, as the title suggests, no soldiers in it. Although that hardly seems important when there are hundreds of thousands facing each other off a few centimetres just beyond the lines in the sand.

The Koreans, both sides, are still at war. Although you would have to look very hard to notice it here. And as they’ve done no proper fighting since 1953 you can begin to understand why they’re much more into K-pop than Kalashnikovs.

But … and this is my point, for people of my generation 1953 is not that long ago. My dad didn’t fight in the Korean War, but he could have. Out of a  British force of 15,000 soldiers we lost 1,109 dead with two and half thousand wounded. That’s no small excursion (the US lost close to 40,000 soldiers), and heartbreaking when you consider that many of those were only five years on from keeping their lives after the horrors of World War Two.

And it could have been so much worse. This little known war brought the world as close to World War Three as any time during the Cold War. Under the banner of the UN, at one point us lot (mostly, but not exclusively, the US, the UK – and the Commonwealth, Turkey (?) and 600,000 South Koreans – oh and 900 Belgians) were fighting almost one and a half million Chinese soldiers. Yes, we were fighting the Chinese.

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the unhingely-named Democratic Republic of North Korea in the far distance

In a nutshell it started because after World War Two a minor official in the US State Department drew an imaginary line on the 38th Parallel, carving up the Korean peninsular between Russia and the US, much like Germany was split into four zones: Russian, Brit, American and French. Neither Russia nor the US paid much attention to their assignments and in 1948 both north and south founded their own states and automatically started hating each other. The north’s army, funded by the Russians but supported with Chinese weaponry, turned south in 1953 on a route march, crossed the border and Seoul was taken 3 days later. In the following weeks the South Korean forces, with limited, but now v agitated US support, were almost pushed off the bottom of the country into the sea. It was that easy.

The US, now badged UN and led by commie-hating General MacArthur, landed a huge force well up on the left hand side of the peninsular (the Inchon Landings), and the war swung in the south’s favour. They pushed on north and were close to defeating the Chinese/North Koreans when Mao said enough was enough and applied the principle that quantity has a quality all of its own, throwing a million men at the problem.

And here was when common sense thankfully took hold. The Chinese halted their advance back on the 38th parallel and decided to stop the pendulum from swinging. World War Three was averted. Three years bitter (literally) entrenched warfare followed whilst an armistice (not a peace treaty) was signed. And since then both sides have been staring down the barrels of each other’s guns, whilst the US maintains its largest overseas deployment in the South and the North are close to having ‘the bomb’. You’ll be up to date with the latest between His Trumpkiness and Rocket Man … so I need not elaborate further.

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names of the lost civilians

My point, and it’s unsurprisingly political, is that we must do all we can to keep the peace before we find ourselves launched into another war which kills thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of our own soldiers. 1953 is pretty much within my lifetime. I’ll inevitably give you an overview of the Vietnam War in due course, which is definitely in my lifetime. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not a pacifist. Indeed, I would not be on speaking terms with Kim Jong-un and certainly would not give him the satisfaction of allowing him on the same world stage as me. And owning a highly competent and well equipped army is a massive deterrence, and we should definitely have one of those. What we shouldn’t be doing is breaking apart the international institutions which have kept the uneasy peace in this fractious world. The West’s strength has been its solidarity. The Soviet Bloc broke apart because it was held together for all the wrong reasons: fear and loathing. The EU and NATO are bonded together by the strength of cooperation and friendship. Our togetherness is what stops our adversaries from thinking they can snipe at any one of us. Disassemble that and who knows which lunatics are going to think they can pick a fight with an outlier.

Trump – and the rise of nationalism – ignores these lessons. Lessons of my lifetime. And, I guess, yours.  We live in a dangerous time.

Anyway, phew, enough of that. Other than the DMZ, what have we been up to?

We have walked (miles) and ran up some big hills. We have eaten well. And we have played indoor baseball and sung our hearts out in a v Korean karaoke booth. Today we are walking to the main war memorial in Seoul, Rebecca heads off to Borneo with the school and we must repack for Singapore.

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What a life.

Heart and Seoul

We’ve made it. Seoul via Hong Kong. We were remarkably well looked after by Cathay Pacific. The flight to HK was 11 hours and even in cattle class I had lots of leg room. The food was good and the in-flight entertainment was fab … I can recommend The Widows  and Beirut. Oh, and Free Solo, a 90-minute documentary about a mad American who climbs the highest vertical face in Yosemite National park … at 1000 metres. He climbs it without ropes and on his own. It’s heart in the mouth stuff and every child should be made to watch it – just to let them know what you can do if you put your mind to it.

Anyhow. It’s fab to see Rebecca and Steven (they’re both teachers at Dulwich College international) and great that they had today off with the Koreans celebrating their memorial day. We’re staying with them until Monday, when we fly to Singapore … we meet them again in Bangkok a week and a bit later at which point we pool resources and hoof it around SE Asia for almost 4 weeks. (Hurrah!) Between now and then Bex is heading to Brunei with the school (in their first year Steven has been to China and Phuket, Bex to Hong Kong and Japan – all looking after kids from the school). They have landed on their feet here, but they do both work really hard. We are v proud of them.

Today, struggling against the jet lag monkey on my shoulder (C was in much better fettle), we walked all over Seoul, a city built on a series of steep hills that would have defeated the Romans. The photos tell the story, so I shall recount a couple of observations instead.

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Inside the palace … hundreds dressed in their Sunday’s, all taking photos of each other

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all that’s left of old Seoul

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we didn’t climb this hill, but it felt like it

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climbed this, though

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drawn for us, the Ladley family motto: diligence will make you succeed

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Bex can confirm that when you go to this cafe you are joined by loads of cats

First, South Korea is hardly a tourist location. Any history and associated buildings were literally obliterated by Japanese occupation (no love lost there) in the first half of the 20th Century, and later by the Korean War (50 -53), so any architecture is very new. It has developed into a huge industrial nation (Samsung, LG, Kia, Hyundai etc) with the infrastructure struggling to keep up. It feels like a West African nation which has been given a shot of speed. There are plenty of classy new build skyscrapers, but you don’t have to look too hard to find a lot of quick-build concrete, smelly drains and badly erected electricity wires. There is no crime and the people are all lovely, if slightly reserved. The youngsters are into fashion and k-pop; they are delicate (boys and girls), but, again, lovely.

Seoul has things to offer. We did the main hill with its huge tower, the sprawling palace (we watched the non-military changing of the guard) and the very small and very twee ‘old Seoul’; a couple of delightful streets of immaculate wooden houses with tiled roofs.

On the way there I was accosted by an elderly lady who was part of a demonstration outside the American Embassy – they demonstrate a lot in Seoul, all peacefully. Bex reckons it’s a national past time. She wanted to tell me that they were protesting against Kim Jong-un, and that I was to tell Donald Trump that he was to assassinate the North Korean leader. I didn’t have the the heart to tell her that I knew some people and they had been given very clear instructions to do the same to His Dondaldness.

We’re off to the DMZ tomorrow, which should be fun! Until Sunday …