Powerful Forces

“In order to avoid vengeance from Hoturapa’s family, Kupe and his own family left Hawaiiki in Kura’s canoe Matahorua. After some time of navigating, Kupe’s wife Hine Te Aparangi sighted the islands of New Zealand, which appeared as land lying beneath a cloud. Because of this, they named the islands Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud.” (history-nz.org)

Aotearoa is a land of earthquakes, glaciers, bubbling mud pools and active volcanoes. The Maori, arriving from the Pacific Islands in the 14th century, must have been awestruck by the landscapes they saw. In order to make sense of its spectacular geographical features, they made up myths and legends. In their animistic beliefs of the universe  there was no distinction between animate and inanimate objects or humans and other living creatures. All were involved in the organic processes of the cosmos. During my recent travels in New Zealand, I experienced the power of these natural forces – their destruction and their beauty – and learnt first hand the wisdom of the Maori’s beliefs in the interconnectedness of all phenomena.

I arrived in Christchurch slightly worried about being culture shocked after travelling in SE Asia for so long. I had come in late at night and awoke the next morning to discover that the back-packers hostel expected me to provide my own breakfast. No street stalls here. Like an alien from a distant galaxy I set off in search of food. I hadn’t gone far when I noticed several  vacant building lots, piles of rubble and houses with large red crosses taped on their windows. It was only when my path along the Avon River was barred by fences that it dawned on me. I was witnessing the destruction of the earthquake which had struck Christchurch almost exactly two years previously. I remembered the TV news reports of February 22nd 2011 but had quickly forgotten about them. New Zealand had seemed so far away then. Now I was shocked at the extent of the devastation and its effects on people’s lives. Measuring 6.3 magnitude the earthquake left 70,000 people homeless and claimed the lives of 185 people.

Anglican Cathedral area

Anglican Cathedral area

Shopping street awaits demolition

Shopping street awaits demolition





The Maori believe that the animus Ruaumoko is responsible for earthquakes as he stomps around angrily in the underworld beneath his mother. He is angry at being buried in the darkness and from time to time he attacks his brothers on the surface.






Still on South Island, I managed to get up close and personal to a couple of New Zealand’s 3,000 or so glaciers. I am not a skier and so venturing onto the ice of the Franz Josef glacier was a real thrill. Crawling  through dazzling blue ice tunnels, wandering amidst the seracs and peering down never ending crevasses gave a false sense of stability. In fact the ice descends at a rate of 7 metres a day which is extremely fast by glacial standards. The power of moving ice is evident all around in the shape of the valley and the “roche moutonnee” or “rock-sheep” – the rocks on either side which have been rounded by the glacier passing over them. This 12 km long glacier is unique in that its tongue extends down through temperate rainforest to less than 300 metres above sea level.  Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere meaning “The Tears of Hine Hukatere” is the Maori name for Franz Josef. Her tears flowed down the mountain and froze to form the glacier when her lover, Wawe, was swept away by an avalanche.

A week before arriving at Mount Cook/Aoraki there had been a major calving event on the Tasman Glacier. The latter is New Zealand’s largest and longest glacier which stretched 115 kms 22,000 to 16,000 years ago. Today it is 600 metres thick and 29 kms long. Eager to see the after effects of the calving we went to the terminal moraine area. When the 650 metre front face broke off the glacier it was the largest iceberg ever seen on the lake. It had broken into several icebergs 40-50 metres high above the water, which is what we could see. Below the water line was a further 200-250 metres of ice.

Icebergs on Tasman Glacier Terminal Lake

Icebergs on Tasman Glacier Terminal Lake

Franz Josef Glacier ice tunnel

Franz Josef Glacier ice tunnel













The Te Arawa people are the guardians or “kaitiaki” of the geothermal fields on North Island.  Legend tells of Te Pupu and Te Hoata, goddesses of fire, who travelled whale-like under the sea from Hawaiiki to help their brother Ngatoro-i-Rangi. Where they surfaced to spout they left part of their fire in geysers, hot springs and mud pools which remain in these areas today. Every geothermal area has traditional cultural and historic importance for the Maori and is used for bathing, cooking, medicines, dyes and ritual. I walked around Wai-O-Tapu (Sacred Waters)  an 18 sq.km area covered with collapsed craters, boiling pools of mud, geysers, hot springs and steaming fumaroles. The dazzling array of colours was due to a variety of mineral elements absorbed out of the rocks by magma-heated water – green, orange and purple caused by ferrous salts, antimony and manganese oxide respectively. All this thermal activity was associated with volcanic eruptions dating back 160,000 years. I read about the science in the “Thermal Wonderland” brochure but understood why for the Maori it had such spiritual significance.

Spring -  74 degrees C

Spring – 74 degrees C

Boiling mud pool

Boiling mud pool












New Zealand’s volcanoes are mostly clustered in the North Island – with the active ones in a line from the Bay of Plenty to just south of Lake Taupo. The Maori voyagers saw the volcanoes as being connected. They are in fact along the boundary where the Pacific plate meets and is sliding under the Indo-Australian plate. The legend explaining the volcanoes is again part of the legend of the fire goddesses. Their brother Ngatoro-i-Rangi, a medicine man, decided to climb Mount Tongariro with his slave Auruhoe to survey his newly won lands. He commanded his followers not to eat while he was away in order to give him strength on the cold mountain. They did not follow his orders however and broke their fast. Ngatoro and Auruhoe felt the freezing cold and he prayed to his sisters in Hawaiiki. As we know, they sent fire to help him which eventually burst through the summits of the mountains creating the volcanoes of Tongariro, Ngaruhoe and Ruapehu. The heat came too late to save Auruhoe and Ngatoro gave her body to the fire in the crater. Thus Ngauruhoe got its name – also known as Mount Doom to all Lord of the Rings fans.

These volcanoes are far from dormant and we were unable to complete  the full Tongariro Crossing or climb up to the summit ridge overlooking the crater lake of Mount Ruapehu. In August and November of 2012 there were eruptions in the Te Maari crater on Tongariro. It had been dormant for 100 years. When I was there, gas plumes were visible from a new hole in the mountain.  Ruapehu’s 1953 eruption caused 340,000 cubic metres of water to pour down the valley. This lahar smashed the main railway bridge at Tangiwai on Xmas Eve causing the death of 151 people. The National Park has come up with several ideas as to how to prevent the same thing happening but these have all been vetoed by the Maori people who own the land and do not wish to interfere with the animus/life force of the volcanoes. For now the crater lake is carefully monitored and due to recent activity, we were kept away from it. Signs warning people of the dangers of an eruption are placed in strategic places in the Whakapapa ski field which is directly underneath Ruapehu. In 1995 when there was a full scale eruption, there were hundreds of skiers on the mountain.

Given the powerful forces which are part of everyday life on both North and South Island it is perhaps not surprising that New Zealanders enjoy living life to the full and why Maori legends reflect their deep belief in the life-force of all things.

Mount Ngauruhoe/Mnt Doom

Mount Ngauruhoe/Mnt Doom

If you want to see my NZ photos, go to this site: https://picasaweb.google.com/112780009095358904804/2013NewZealand



Jars and Craters

I reached the top of a small rise in the midday heat and looked down. There before me was the first cluster of stone jars at site 1, Thong Hai Hin. An enormous 10 foot giant stood king-like over the lesser jars. Some were lolling  in drunken poses or had sunk into the earth becoming small flower gardens. Lichen patterns covered the stone, green water festered inside their bellies and holes punctured some of the thick granite walls. Then I noticed it – mimicking the circular shape of the jars’ openings – a huge grassy crater with a small notice on its rim in Lao  then English:  “Bomb craters during war in 1964-1973.”

Funerary jar 500 BC-800 AD
Plant pot

Bomb crater

When I read about the hundreds of  prehistoric jars scattered over the Xieng Khouang Plateau in Laos, strategically placed on high ground overlooking the valleys, I was determined to visit the sites. The stone jars were estimated to have been hewn between 500 BC and 800 AD and to have been used in funerary rites but very little was known about the people who made them or how  the stone was transported. The mystery surrounding the jars appealed to my imagination but little did I realise what was in store for me when I set out on the death-defying mini-bus journey to the main town closest to the sites.

After a sickening 7 hour cork screw ride from Luang Prabang, I found accommodation in the “wild west” town of Phonsavanh. With a couple of hours to spare before eating, I walked down the wind-swept  main street and wandered casually into the visitor information centre of  MAG (Mines Advisory Group). It was there that I experienced yet again the shame of my ignorance of  Asian history in the 20th century. I had been in Laos for a fortnight but knew nothing of the “banality of evil” meted out by the USA during their Secret War in Laos. Between 1964 and 1973 the US dropped more than 2 million tons of ordnance on Laos – the weight of 500,000 Asian elephants. They carried out 580,000 bombing missions which equates to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for 9 years. This makes Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history but the outside world knew nothing of it and the US government denied all knowledge of its operations. Even Congress was kept in the dark.

A farmer described his life before the bombings began;

” In my family there were 13 people – each one happy and content because the area was so bountiful and beautiful. In the evening, one could see the animals returning to their pens in a great unbroken herd after a day of searching for grass. When I would see that, I would feel content because these animals were my heart.”

As Nixon’s policy of “kill all, destroy all and burn all” was turning  the Plain of Jars into a wasteland, the 200,000 people who lived there had no idea who was bombing them or why. A Laos woman reported,

“I saw my cousin died in the field of death…I saw life and death for the people on account of the war of many air planes in the region of Xieng Khouang until there were no houses at all. And the cows and the buffaloes were dead. Until everything was levelled and you could see only the red, red ground. I think of this time and still I am afraid.”

The list of weapons used by US airmen from their bases in Thailand and South Vietnam defies belief –  napalm, white phosphorous, fragmentation bombs, cluster bombs, steel-arrowed flechette bombs (these cause more damage to the flesh when pulled out than when they enter the body), fibreglass  pellets ( designed not to show up on x rays) and tele guided missiles. Pilots returning to Thailand from Vietnam would dump their bombs on Laos villages rather than follow more time-consuming landing protocol needed if they had weapons on board. After 1968 when Lyndon Johnson stopped the bombing of North Vietnam, the planes were diverted to Laos and the bombing intensified. When questioned later about this he replied,

“Well, we had all those planes sitting around and just couldn’t let them stay there with nothing to do.”

It was Nixon’s policy of “removing the water from the fish” which meant separating the people from the revolutionary forces (Pathet Lao), that gradually revealed the truth. 20,000 refugees were placed in camps in the capital Vientiane and American journalists started to interview them. All spoke about the bombings and their stories were horrific. They had lived like animals in caves and holes in the ground for years. Thousands of civilians had been killed or injured and their way of life had been totally destroyed. The American historian Alfred MCoy concluded,

” We destroyed a small medieval civilisation. The Lao Theung civilisation of the Plain of Jars. We wiped it off the face of the planet.”

The history from 1964 to 1973 is only part of the story as I found out in the MAG office. Of the 2 million tons of ordnance that was dropped during the Secret War, 30% of it did not detonate  leaving one third of Laos still contaminated. Today and every day since the end of the war, one person has been killed by UXO (unexploded ordnance) in the province of Xieng Khouang. Cluster bombs, know as “bombies” by the locals, are small tennis ball sized bombs. When one explodes, it sends out 30 steel pellet-like bullets, killing everything in a 20 metre radius. One cluster bomb contains 670 of these bombies. Millions of them are still in the earth, in trees or logs. 40% of accidents happen to children who mistake them for balls and play with them.  Others are tempted to sell ordnance for scrap metal and are killed or injured in the process.  On a  board in the MAG office were recorded the number of casualties each month from UXO. There was a  list of about 12 people for the month of November 2012 giving their occupation, age and information about the accidents. The majority of adults were farmers who had suffered injuries hoeing or planting rice in their fields. Some had lost a limb or were blinded. The children had mainly suffered upper body injuries. Getting  treatment for these injuries is not easy in the rural areas because hospitals are far away and treatment can cost up to $200 – the annual per capita income for a rural family. 50,000 people were killed or injured as a result of UXO accidents between 1964 and 2008.

I learnt of a farmer who had lost his sight when a wood fire exploded as a “bombie” had been buried in a log 40 years previously. He was not able to look after his family and his wife had to work in the fields. He was constantly worried that she may unwittingly hit UXO. This is a constant fear for all people living in the areas bombed by the USA.  It also limits the country’s long-term development preventing people from developing the land and accessing basic services. I tried to imagine living my life constantly worried about cluster bombs – every time I went out to work, to do the shopping or went for a walk I might be blown up or badly injured. My children would be at risk as well every time they went out. The reality of the situation was brought home when I visited the main sites of the Plain of Jars. There were notices everywhere stating that visitors could only walk between the MAG white and red markers showing the safe areas.

MAG notice board at Site 1 Plain of Jars

Between 2004 and 2005 MAG in collaboration with UNESCO and NZAID cleared the Plain of Jars sites 1, 2 and 3 to encourage tourism in the area. MAG works closely with local communities and local government so that they can implement “primary development action” on the land they clear. They also train local staff including women to undertake clearance work. This organisation is doing wonderful work but it will take another 100 years to clear Loas of UXO at the current rate of clearance. Between 1996 and 2012 the US contributed $2.6 million per year for clearance which sounds generous until we remember that they spent $17 million per day for 9 years on bombing Laos.

Staying only on worn footpaths was wearying but brought home the constant daily danger facing the inhabitants of Xieng Khuang Province. I enjoyed visiting the three sites and saw hundreds of the stone jars. Cremated remains found in the jars suggest that they were funerary urns used over 2,000 years ago. It is incredible that so many of them remain intact despite the bombing. Their initial purpose is ironically fitting given the later tragic history of the Plain of Jars.

When I met up with Adisack, a Laotian friend in Vientiane, I was still upset and indignant at what I had learnt about the Secret War.

“It is terrible,” I said heatedly,” that it is going to take another 100 years to clear the UXO from the Plain of Jars. Think of all the people who are going to be killed or maimed in that time. Surely more needs to be done now.”

“Ah,” he replied quietly, ” you can tell you are a newcomer to Laos.”


The following links give more information about these issues:

  • topdocumentaryfilms.com/bombies-in-the-secret-war
  • youtube – The Most Secret Place on Earth (the CIA’s covert war)
  • legaciesofwar.org/voices
  • Voices from the Plain of Jars by Fred Branfman

To see my photos of Laos follow this link: https://picasaweb.google.com/112780009095358904804/2013Laos

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Tuk Tuk talk

Like taxi drivers in the West, the SE Asian tuk tuk drivers are eager to chat and are a mine of information.

Bhoun in Battambang enlightened me about the Cambodian education system which he had experienced first hand.

“Why” I asked him “do so many  schools seem to be closed or have lots of children playing outside the classrooms every time we go past one?”

“Because of corruption.” His answer was simple. Then he got very animated telling me about the various scams teachers get up to. Here are some he told me about.

  • They let the pupils go home early so that they can then charge high rates for extra lessons.
  • If you can afford to pay, you get a copy of the exam paper answers. This ensures you get a better job. The poor don’t get their papers marked fairly even if they have the right answers.
  • At school, the teacher used to sell her cakes which were more expensive than those outside the school. Those who did not buy the cakes got lower marks.
  • Poor children who were late for school were made to stand on a board for an hour. They had long journeys to get to school and had been up early doing their jobs before leaving. Wealthier children who were late were not punished.
  • Teachers used children to harvest their rice crops during school time.

This was enough to make me realise why he was so angry about his schooling. But it’s not the whole picture. Cambodian teachers earn about $20 a month and they are not paid regularly. To top up their salaries they charge “informal fees” which stops poorer children being sent to school. Most teachers have not even completed  secondary school so the quality of education is poor.

Of course, there are private schools where one can pay for a better education but this is way beyond the pockets of most people. With only 1.6% of GDP spent on education, one wonders what the future holds for the ever growing population. It also makes me hesitate before criticising the education system back home.

In the photo Bhoun was explaining to me how to make sticky bamboo rice. He would make an excellent teacher.

In Phnom Penh I learnt more about the madness of the Khmer Rouge and I wanted to know how people who had survived had been affected.  I asked my tuk tuk driver about his parent’s experience.

“They used to have a big house in Phnom Penh but then of course they had to leave with everyone else on April 17th 1975, the beginning of Year Zero.”

His whole family were forced to walk over 148 kilometres to the countryside around Kampot. City people were seen as the “new people” and Phnom Penh as” the great prostitute of the Mekong” and therefore it had to be evacuated. His mother survived the horrors but refused to go back to Phnom Penh to reclaim her house. She was afraid that the same thing could happen again. Her son, my tuk tuk driver, was saving up to try to move to Australia as he saw no future for his family in Cambodia.

In Siem Reap, near Angkor Wat, Naga my tuk tuk driver was very well educated and had taught English for a few years. However he could make better money being a tuk tuk driver but he still didn’t have enough to afford a bride.

“You have to pay a dowry to the bride’s family,” he explained. “This can be very expensive, let’s say about $5000 to $10,000.”

It’s hardly surprising that you often see the slogan, “no money no honey” blazoned on the tuk tuk.

Another driver I had in Siem Reap had very little English so we communicated by sign language. One Saturday I wanted to get visit Phnom Krom, a 9th century temple out near the  Tonle Sap lake. I knew he had children and so I suggested that they came along for the ride. The three of them made my day. They all bounced up the hill to see the temple with me and made sure that I was alright. The little three year old girl had no problems keeping up with her brothers but when strangers approached she quickly took hold of my hand. When they were questioned about their motives by the attendants, they just pointed at me.

For more photos of Cambodia go to


Encore Angkor

PART 1  Lunar New Year 1200

We sang as we paddled our wooden boats along the waterways from our village near the Western Baray, competing with the excited shrieks and laughter of our children. It felt good to be doing something pleasurable with the women but it was a pity that our husbands were not there to enjoy the outing. They were all away working by royal command. Naga, my husband, was building hospitals in various parts of the kingdom and we hadn’t seen him for months. Although there were mutterings of discontent as to the extent of the Deva Raja’s building programme, most of us understood the need for a strong Khmer empire in order to keep out the foreign invaders.

As we approached the mighty temple of the late King Suryavarman II, we all fell silent. The golden conical shaped towers of Angkor Wat shimmering in the late afternoon sun dazzled us.  We jostled for position to enter the South gate along with hundreds of other Kmers from far and near who were also going to the New Year celebrations. Soldiers in their long boats were checking everyone which made things worse. One even joked that he would throw the children to the crocodiles if we didn’t stop their moaning.

At last, we entered the city of Angkor Thom. What a sight to behold. Decorated wooden buildings stretched as far as the eye could see and above them rose the golden spires of the temples and palace. Crowds of people were making their way on foot or by water to the terraced area outside the palace. I bought some sweet sticky rice for the children from one of the myriad of food stalls along the way and threw some coins to a group of musicians. At last I got my first glimpse of Bayon, the king’s new state temple. It was so different from Angkor Wat but equally awe inspiring. Golden faces smiled down upon us from several stone towers, their red lips and precious gems sparkling in the dying rays of the sun.


“They look just like the Deva Raja himself” shouted my neighbour.

” If this new Buddhist religion inspires such kind faces, I’m all for it,” I replied.

I moored the boat once we got to the Terrace of the Elephants and walked with the children along the canals until we had a better view point. The huge platform on the backs of carved  lotus eating elephants was decorated with lanterns and flowers. Beautiful young dancers in fine silk sampots and glittering jewels entertained the crowds. I used to practice the Apsara hand gestures when I was young and had a secret wish to become a dancer. “Dream on,” my mother used to say.

Once darkness had fallen an air of expectancy gripped the crowd. Drums, gongs and cymbals announced the king’s arrival and the sight of him on his war elephant was spectacular. He wore a red sarong with a wicker breastplate and Garuda headdress. Sitting high in his golden howdah on silk cushions, I noticed that he had one leg tucked under him. Perhaps the rumours were true about his leprosy but he is an old man now and has fought in many battles. This New Year celebration could be his last. Loud cheers rose  from the crowd as he moved slowly centre stage. The royal family,dignitaries and foreign emissaries all offered him a  sompiah as he passed. About  the length of four long boats away from him was a scaffold in the shape of a stupa. It was covered in rockets and fireworks from China. I had never seen them before and had no idea what to expect. The king held up his hand and slaves lit the fuses with flaming torches. There was a pause and then the explosions began. They shook the ground so fiercely I thought I might lose my balance. My two children buried their heads in my sarong blocking their ears and crying. I remember looking up to see the reflection of the fire rockets in the golden towers of the Phimeanakas temple. It seemed as if the city was under attack and ablaze.

PART 2  January 1860

I was lucky enough this time to get the backing of an English organisation, the Royal Geographic Society, for my explorations in Indochina. The French government I am afraid to say showed no interest in my work. This second expedition is proving to be more about buildings than botany however so I hope they won’t object.

I have been following up various reports and documents about the ruins of an ancient civilization in Cambodia. Horse back seems to be the best way of getting around such a vast area and I have already recorded and sketched some of the incredible ruined temples and cities I have come across. Today I am riding out into the jungle again with a few natives who speak of a huge temple inhabited by Buddhist monks. It is January and the weather is scorching. I only hope we don’t have to hack our own paths.

As we emerged from the jungle on a small dusty path, there before me lay a sight of awe inspiring beauty.

“At the sight of this temple one feels one’s spirit crushed, one’s imagination surpassed. You look, admire and respect. One is silent. For where are the words to praise a work of art that has no equal anywhere in the world?”

Fascade of Angkor Wat by H MouhotPavillion of Angkor Wat by H Mouhot

Full of excitement and wonder I began to explore and make some sketches. I can’t believe the perfect balance and proportions of this vast temple. The architect was a genius. I suppose that it was built about the same time as the Roman empire and it certainly rivals anything built by them or the Greeks . What has become of the race who built it? Where are these civilized and enlightened people  now? Surely these simple monks are not their descendants. The present nation is barbaric and unenlightened and certainly knows nothing of the gods who built this temple.





Sketches of Angkor Wat by Henri Mouhot



Part3  December 2012

I sat at the top of one of the 12th century temples of the Preah Pithu group about a kilometre from the busy tourist magnet of the Bayon. I was completely alone. Cicadas had set up a monotonous high-pitched chorus and  palm leaves rustled in the breeze. The jungle  pressed in close eager to devour the temples. Pieces of carved stone lay everywhere, neglected and broken – silent witnesses to nine hundred years of Khmer history.  Anywhere else these temples alone would be worthy of conservation and heritage status but here in Angkor Thom they are not even on the tourist route.

With over three million tourists a year passing through Angkor Wat, the pressure on the monuments is huge. Most are processed sausage-like through the temples – Angkor Wat, the Bayon and Ta Prohm by lunchtime. I was lucky enough to have the time to do it slowly and over several days. There were times when the temples were crowded out but I just found a quiet place to sit and waited for them to move on. Tourist watching also made for good entertainment if one was in a forgiving mood. Risking broad generalisations, I found the Chinese as loud as ever (remember I had been living there for a year) totally destroying the atmosphere of mystery and wonder at Ta Prohm. They never tired of finding a new pose for every piece of stone or carving. Huge groups of Japanese in identical hats stopped for no one as they followed their tour guides like automatons. The Indians had expensive pieces of equipment and walked through the temples with the video lens glued to their face.

Many of the larger temples are not so much in a state of ruin as a state of repair. Since the end of the Khmer Rouge, the race is on to try to preserve them.RestorationHuge cranes and cohorts of workers are on site carrying out restoration work. Foreign experts, particularly the French who now claim Henri Mouhot as their own, are overseeing restoration work and training the Cambodians in  specialist preservation techniques. Given that there are over 1,000 temples on a site covering 390 square miles, there is plenty of work to keep them busy for a long time to come.

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Elemental Vietnam


Pitch black. I inch my way forward. Clay walls tighten around me and trigger my fear – claustrophobia. I’m forced to crouch down and shuffle along. Sweat stings my eyes. I want to retreat but I can’t turn round. I must go on. I try to control my breathing. My muscles ache. Then I see light and relief sweeps through me. I’m at the end of the tunnel.

I had only been in the Cu Chi tunnel for about 3 to 4 minutes and probably only covered about 50 metres, yet it seemed like hours. How was it possible that thousands of Viet Cong had managed to live underground in these tunnels for more than 10 years? The answer was simply that they had to. It was a poor, peasant army  faced with high-tech weaponry, helicopters, bombs and chemicals. The history of the tunnels is symbolic of the Vietnamese struggle against oppressors throughout its history – determined, inventive, daring, resilient and patient. The US only needed to read the history of past struggles against the Chinese, Kublai Khan, the French and the Japanese to understand this.

In the 1960’s the tunnels – 250 kms of them, stretched from HCMC (Saigon) to the Cambodian border. They enabled the Viet Cong to communicate with other VC controlled areas and to plan attacks such as those on Saigon and the Tet offensive in 1968. Wandering around the Cu Chi area, we learnt that the tunnels were several storeys deep with trap doors, living areas, storage areas, kitchens, weapons factories and command centres.  Fake ant hills concealed air holes, trap doors were camouflaged with leaves and logs and underwater entrances were built in rivers. There were even tunnel networks underneath the US military base at Dong Du and in US fortified encampments. This allowed the VC to mount surprise attacks and then to melt away without trace.

Once the US realised that the tunnels were so extensive, they carpet bombed the area. 420 km2 was turned into “the most bombed, shelled, gasses, defoliated and generally devastated area in the history of warfare.”  The US “tunnel rats” were brave men but the toll on the VC was enormous. Of the 16,000 cadres employed in the tunnels only 6,000 survived the war and thousands of civilians were killed.

” How do you find living in Vietnam, as an American?” I asked  a photographer who had lived there for 13 years. He said that he was nervous to begin with with but that he had never had anyone use it against him. “Once, I was taking some photographs near a village and an old couple showed me a cage next to their home. It was where they had both been tortured by US soldiers. They smiled as they showed me around and never once indicated any hostility towards me.”

Most modern Vietnamese just want to get on with their lives and support their families. Their wars are past history and they seem to be very forgiving.


With a 3451 km coastline and two major river deltas – the Red River and the Mekong – it was not difficult to get to water. Cycling the small dusty tracks of the Mekong Delta was a delight with  children rushing out to greet us with cries of “hello hello!”  All of life was lived on or near the water but flooding is becoming a real threat as deforestation in Cambodia is affecting the delicate balance of the Mekong River.

Tall poles adorned with pineapples, melons, potatoes and turnips  advertised what was on sale on each boat in  the Cai Rang floating market. It was early morning and I needed a coffee. I spotted a coffee seller in her boat and she swiftly drew up along side us and served me – coffee with condensed milk.

Coffee seller

The amphibious nature of some communities was even more obvious in Bai Tu Long Bay – the area of the famous karst formations in the Gulf of Tonkin. Whole villages live on the sea in floating houses complete with schools and shops. Each house had at least one guard dog which looked after the children when the parents were out fishing.

Swimming in the warm, clear seas off  Phu Quoc island in the Gulf of Thailand was idyllic but not for much longer. The international airport and tax free zone, complete with casinos and 5 star hotels, will soon spoil that.


A barrage of motorbikes surges towards me as I tentatively try crossing the road. I retreat and cover my face,  gasping for some clean air. I watch in awe as the drivers weave and wend their way through the mass of motorbikes. One driver is sporting a genuine looking American war helmet complete with an embroidered US eagle on the back. Drivers have to wear a helmet but not the other passengers. Babies, children and adults ride pillion without protection. Having run the gauntlet of a million bikes I think I’m safe on the pavement again. Not so. Several motorbikes use the pavement as a short cut without slowing down, missing me by a hair’s breadth. This is Ho Chi Minh City – vibrant, energetic and polluted.


The burnt out shell of  an imperial building stands stark in the midday sun. It is difficult to imagine Hue’s Forbidden Purple City in its heyday. Built in 1802, it was the palace of  the Nguyen emperors. Only 20 of its 148 buildings remain – all badly damaged by bombings and fire. First the French in 1885 stormed the palace, burnt the library and looted everything of value. Then the Americans, in 1968, used napalm on the imperial city and destroyed the town of Hue.

“We had to destroy the town in order to save it,”  remarked one US officer. This was part of the Tet offensive in which over 10,000 people died in Hue.

I wander around the overgrown ruins of palaces and temples in the Imperial enclosure until I come across the queen mother’s residence. I take refuge from the heat in her pleasure pavilion built over a lily pond. Eunuchs serve tea to the queen mother and her birthday guests. Music floats through the air and fish splash in the pond. The image fades, like a Vietnamese silk painting with illusive  figures and washed out colours, consumed by fire.

Queen mother's Pleasure Pavilion Hue

You can see more of my Vietnamese photos on https://picasaweb.google.com/112780009095358904804/VietnamNov2012


Dilemmas of a Western Trekker in Nepal

The dolorous chant of “Om Mani Padme Hum” competes with thumping pop music and live Nepalese drumming. Honking horns and the repeated call of “madam, madam”, as touts of various sorts try to catch my attention, add to the din.  Taxis, motor bikes, rickshaws and people all jostle for space on the narrow, winding streets. Small shop fronts display their wares – trekking gear, genuine Gurkha knives, 100% wool pashminas and richly symbolic Tibetan Thangka paintings. Scores of adventure companies advertise themselves on bill boards and in windows – trekking, rafting, canoeing, bungi jumping, safari trips and flights to see Everest. (This was something I had been considering prior to the fatal plane crash of 28th September whilst I was there.) Offers of massage and spa treatments do their utmost to entice the weary traveller off the street.

I feel a tug at my hand. Looking down, a small street urchin is showing me that he’s hungry and wants some food. I’m not one who usually gives to beggars but I am moved by the hunger in his eyes. I hesitate and try to withdraw my hand but he is determined. He tugs me towards the entrance of a supermarket and refuses to let go. I give in and follow. He boldly ignores the shouts of a stick-wielding guard and just points at me – his entry ticket. He has been saying “biscuits, biscuits,” but once we’re inside, he takes me straight to the shelves stocking Nestle’s powdered milk. “Baby” he says, rocking his arms. His mother needs milk for the baby. Now I am in another dilemma. Surely his mother can’t afford Nestle’s powdered milk, she would be too poor. Anyway, I have been campaigning against this multinational for years because of their marketing tactics for powdered milk in third world countries. Is this a scam? I refuse to buy the milk but instead buy him a large packet of biscuits. He runs out of the shop with them before I’ve even paid.

This is the Thamel area of Kathmandu. A chaotic assault on the senses when you first arrive and the beginning of many dilemmas facing a Western trekker.


Hinduism, Buddhism and Tourism are said to be Nepal’s three main religions. The first two co-exist harmoniously as do the 102 different castes and ethnic groups. When I first arrived I went walking in the valleys to the NE of Kathmandu. I didn’t see another foreigner for a week and stayed in the homes of the Tamang, Sherpa, Yolmo and Newari  people, all of whom had their own language. I was therefore surprised that the Civil War, which ended in 2006, had taken a huge toll on the lives of the majority of rural people.

“The Moaists would come late at night you see,” said the school master owner of one of the home stays. “Maybe 1 or 2 in the morning. Sometimes as many as 50 of them, demanding food. My wife would have to get up and feed them all. If we resisted we would have been beaten or killed. It was very frightening and we never knew when they were coming.”

Another woman told us of a nearby village where 21 people had been shot by the army – old people, women and children – accused of supporting the Maoists. The war, which lasted from 1996 to 2006, yes, that recent, took the lives of 17,800 people. I knew that there had been a problem with the Maoists demanding money from trekkers, but I had no idea as to the scale of the killing. It didn’t really affect the main tourist routes and hardly hit the headlines.

My guide was very gloomy about the prospects for young people. There was still no constitution, even though the Maoists had been voted into power in 2008. Corruption is rife and poverty the main reason why many Nepalese seek work abroad. “It is the money that they send home that’s keeping the country going,” he told me.

My first homestay in Khola Kharka

The main trek that I did was the Annapurna Circuit. It was a fantastic three week trek starting in Besi Sahar and following the Marsyangdi valley to the north of the Himalayan massif. We then crossed the Thorong La Pass at 5,416 m and  returned via the Kali Gandaki valley to finish in Naya Pul. The main dilemma facing trekkers in Nepal is one of responsibility for the people and the land. Being such a poor country, trekking numbers are not restricted – witness the number of people going up Everest this year.


I did my trip at the beginning of the season and didn’t find crowding a problem except for some obvious places near the pass or on Poon Hill. With the numbers of trekkers comes pollution and littering. I didn’t buy bottled water so as to avoid leaving plastic in the area but the Safe Drinking Water Stations weren’t particularly convenient or frequent. I asked for boiled water to fill my platypus each night but I’m not sure how many tea houses used kerosene or fuel-efficient stoves in the Annapurna region. Some of them advertised if they did but I was relying on the reputation of the travel company I booked with to have done their homework. Certainly on my first trip everyone cooked on clay stoves and used wood. The depletion of forests for firewood is a real problem and responsible for flooding lower down on the plains.

Another dilemma was what to give to the children. Obviously trekkers had been told to bring sweets with them and the common greeting from the children was “namaste sweets”, said all in one breath. This only added to the problem of bad teeth and they certainly didn’t have access to dentists . I gave my pen to one bright child in one of the homestays but then realised he didn’t have any paper to write on.

I wasn’t the only one facing dilemmas. During my stay in Kalopani, with spectacular views of Annapurna 1, Fang and Annapurna South, I met the ex minister of Foreign Affairs. It was his guest house and his constituency. He was a bright, extremely well educated  politician and told me that he had pushed for many years for the road to be built on the Western side of the Annapurna Circuit. Eventually it was given the go ahead. What he had not realised was that the trekkers would not like it. It’s not much fun having dust blowing into your face from buses and motor bikes when your walking. Therefore many trekkers ended the circuit in Jomsom and flew or drove down the remainder of the trail. This had resulted in many tea houses having to close because of lack of business. Mr Thakali was full of remorse and was now doing his utmost to create an alternative path, avoiding the road, trying to link up the existing paths on the other side of the river. He urged us to insist that our guide took us on it. Indeed we had to insist because it took longer and our guide had never used it before. Balancing the needs of the local community and tourism is always a tricky one.

Despite the constant dilemmas, I will not forget the breath taking views of peaks such as the Annapurnas, Ngadi Chuli (Manaslu 11), Dhaulagiri and Machapuchre (Fishtail). I will treasure the memories of moving from the lower tropical regions, where bougainvillea, poinsettia and marigold ran riot, through the “rodeo villages” of Bargachap and Chame, coming eventually to the dry, dusty Tibetan areas of Lower Pisang and Manang. Buddhist chortens, gompas and monasteries marked our way in the higher regions and fluttering prayer flags guided us safely over the snowy Thorong La Pass. It was a beautiful trek and I feel so lucky that I was able to complete a walk that I had dreamed of doing for so many years.

My final dilemma was to do with a bird. A frozen White Throated Kingfisher flew into the kitchen of our tea house in Ghorepani at 9,105 ft. He was way off course. What could we do for him? I warmed him up in gloved hands and we decided to carry him down to the river with us. After quite a long way, Dawa, our Sherpa, thought we should hide him in some rocks near a stream. We set him down and he hopped away for cover. Dawa noticed some people were watching us and told me that the kingfisher’s beak is highly sought after as a good luck talisman and that they would kill the bird. We pretended to walk on and then Dawa crept back to see if they had followed. Luckily they hadn’t and we just hope that the bird survived.


White Throated Kingfisher


To see my photos of the trek go to: https://picasaweb.google.com/112780009095358904804/AnnapurnaCircuit

Also photos of Kathmandu and other places: https://picasaweb.google.com/112780009095358904804/2012Nepal1KathmanduVillageTrail






Caught up in the chaos of Kathmandu, it’s difficult to believe that I left China three weeks ago. For the past year I have been working as a volunteer in Xi’an, that city of ancient dynasties, famed for it’s terracotta warriors. Many friends have been wondering what I was doing there and so I will try to explain as I reflect on my Chinese experience.

I had been placed by my organisation, VSO, with a local volunteer centre as its volunteer coordinator and specialist in the area of Special Educational Needs. At the beginning, it was not at all clear what was expected of me. In fact, I’m not sure if the organisation had much of a clue either. Once I realised this, I began visiting as many NGOs dealing with Special Needs children as I could. Then it became clearer what sort of problems and challenges they faced.

There were about 24 NGOs – “schools” for adults and children with special needs – that for the most part had been  started by a parent of a child with SEN. These children, about 400+ of them,  are not educated by the state and the NGOs struggle to find staff, resources and funds. Despite the standard of education in some of the NGOs, I was full of admiration for these selfless parents.  I would say that the level of SEN education is probably what it would have been like in Britain about 60+ years ago. Going into a classroom, one would see a group of children lined up on benches or at desks, being taught, by rote, something which was usually totally inappropriate. Physical restraint was common place and enjoyment in learning was not seen as important. I saw a small boy with Cerebral Palsy being forced to hold himself up with his arms whilst his legs were clamped down on a bench. Every time his arms gave way, he was forced back into position. This process went on for at least 20 minutes. Many painful exercises were seen as beneficial and there was a belief that they could cure or improve existing conditions.

I was surprised at the large numbers of severely Autistic children. Given the one child policy, it was seen as a real stigma on a family to have a child with SEN and it is one of the reasons that many  severely disabled children are abandoned as babies.  Most of the requests for help focussed on the creative arts. Knowledge about Western methods was gradually filtering through and so the task of providing art and music classes was important. My wonderful Chinese translator was an invaluable co-worker and we slowly put together a team of young, enthusiastic volunteers to work on short term projects in the areas of music and art. To make the projects sustainable, ideas and suggestions for improvement were written down and shared with the specific NGO. It was heartening to see the work of our art volunteer continuing after she had left. This was despite our first few disastrous attempts at getting the class to paint freely. We hadn’t had time to set up the classroom before 12 small children, representing every type of special need in the book,  came rushing in. Within minutes, the orderly classroom was covered in paint and water and soon the children looked like they had been dipped in paint. They had never worked with real paints before. Although we had asked the parents to provide aprons, they didn’t think their children could paint and so hadn’t bothered to pack any. The following week, they all had aprons.

You can see photos of the art project here:


We also recruited volunteers from the Xi’an Music Academy who were shocked to find so many children with SEN. Most normal children are completely unaware of SEN because they never come into contact with such children at school. Once they realised that the children had great difficulties communicating, they had to think carefully about the appropriateness of their lessons. I monitored the groups and was  impressed with the volunteers’ commitment and patience. Some photos of music volunteers:


A video of volunteers working with severe SEN children:


Another area that I got involved in was creating educational resources for the pupils, in particular those with Autism. I met a Chinese teacher from a local High School who thought it would be a good idea to get his students involved in volunteering. Eventually we got a volunteer group to make a set of Learning Boxes for one of the NGOs. It gave me an opportunity to do some teaching again and to talk to the students about SEN and disability.  This Friday afternoon activity lasted for about 6 months and it became a case study for using volunteers in a creative way to improve the education of Autistic and other SEN children. In fact, if VSO can secure funding, it might be rolled out to more NGOs in Xi’an and two other large cities.

The finished Learning Boxes

Various other resources that proved useful were a guide booklet about SEN for teachers and Volunteers, explaining the different types of SEN and how to help the pupils;  A  “Do’s and Don’ts” guide for anyone dealing with SEN children; Circle Time activities for SEN pupils; Social Stories; Communication Passports and a variety of practical tasks for pupils. It was also helpful to get feed back from the teachers who used the materials in order to improve them. It reminded me of the early days of Welsh medium education for SEN pupils where we had to make our own resources.

Apart from this work, there were various trainings for other volunteers and NGOs. During the year, we placed 74 volunteers for short and longer term projects. I was also asked to train other NGOs in Xi’an and Chongqin on Volunteer Management Systems, a subject about which I knew very little before my placement. There’s nothing like practical experience to make sense of the theory. Much of the Western models of Volunteer Management are not suitable for the Chinese context and needed adapting. I enjoyed turning dry theory into participatory workshops with enthusiastic and willing participators. One group’s efforts at advertising a job placement made me laugh. They were just like a group of kids as they collected pictures, drew slogans and waxed lyrical about the benefits of volunteering amid shrieks of laughter .

Despite all the problems that China has with the status of NGOs and the huge challenges in the area of SEN and mental disability, I have great faith in the young volunteers I met. They were concerned about making their society a fairer and more humane one. They really want to make a difference and were shocked to find that they knew so little of the plight of hundreds of children in their country. We made this video to promote the work of the Aileyi centre. It’s mostly in Mandarin but shows some of the projects I’ve mentioned:


As the summer arrived, I helped to organise two summer camps and  hope that this activity will continue each year. It was great to get the children out to the countryside. There is nothing like Storey Arms (an outdoor pursuits centre in the Brecon Beacon) in China, so we had to devise all our own activities. The highlight of one camp was sitting quietly by the river helping to collect pebbles for a boy with severe Cerebral Palsy. It took him ages to grip the pebble, aim and then throw it into the river with a big grin on his face. He would have stayed there all day if time had allowed.

Well, that’s a general summary of my year’s work. It was a fascinating, challenging experience. There are many things I miss – my Chinese and ex pat friends, the children and teachers at the NGOs, the parks where people walk backwards or bring their caged birds for an outing, street food like jiaoza and liang pian. It was not an easy year either – the pollution and millions of people make city living and travelling quite stressful. The language was a challenge as so few people actually spoke English although I had a translator in work. I just got used to remaining silent after work. Probably not a bad thing!

Now I’m in Nepal where the traffic is considerably worse than in China – I didn’t think that was possible. It is only a short flight from China but I feel as if I’m in a different universe. However, this will have to be the subject of another blog.

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