Shopping in Myanmar

Bogyoke Aung San Market, windchimes

Bogyoke Aung San Market, windchimes

Myanmar is a real contradiction. It looks like a poor country but it has absolutely fabulous, high value resources. Go figure. When we travel, I always like to do my bit to support the local economy. When I was younger, that would be ‘acquiring ‘stuff”. Now my house is full of said ‘stuff’ I always plan to go away and just buy a few carefully selected items either as gifts or something we can use, preferably not too expensive or bulky. I have always loved rubies and would love to have found some to match the ones from my gran’s engagement ring, but really, I don’t even wear the stuff I have now, so we looked and drooled, but it stayed in the showcases. The Bogyoke Aung San Market in the road of the same name in Yangon, is a great place to look around. We did a reccee when we first arrived to see what was available and saw that there was a wide variety of lovely things to choose from, locally made. Not made in China! There was lacquerware which comes from Bagan, so we looked and identified some possibles in case we didn’t find what we wanted in Bagan. There were quite a few shops selling beautiful sandalwood items. Lovely, but I’ve already got more than one fan and the carvings were either too big or too fragile. We found a few shops selling fairly well made wooden items, useful stuff, and got a few business card boxes. Mother of pearl and freshwater pearls are found in abundance and there were quite a few stalls selling these, including one with a vest completely made out of pearls. USD500. It’s still there, probably, it didn’t come home with us. Lots of lovely little windchimes made from jade, not the jewellery quality of course, that jade was in other stalls which we steered well away from, just like we avoided the other jewellery stores selling gold and silver.  The windchimes were very pretty. We brought home a few of those.When we arrived in Bagan, we asked our hotel receptionist for a recommendation for a good lacquerware shop. There are apparently lots, because there is quite a bit of competition and the one we went to first as we approached old Bagan is in the company of quite a few such shop/ workshops. We were able to see how much work actually goes into the making of a lacquerware item – 18 layers of laquer, all added by hand and dried before the next is added. Carving is all done by hand, detailed and precise. Each piece, however small takes a few weeks to make and the smell of the lacquer and the closeness of the work is surely not good for the health. The prices on the pieces were not small, but having seen how they were made we appreciated the prices that were being asked, though I’m not sure how much actually went to the artisans. As we wandered round the temples, there were quite a few people selling all sorts of things. One chap had some beautiful puppets.

The puppet man

The puppet man

I would have been interested in years gone by, but now, beautiful as they were, I didn’t really want to carry them home. Someone near and dear to me however, spied the sand carvings. As we travelled down the Irrawaddy river the day before, our boat crew were constantly on the lookout for shallow parts where we could get stuck. Depth sticks and binoculars were their most important tools because the whole area is sandy – fine sand that blows from the west and falls into the river, changing its course and damaging buildings when it strikes with force. Some of this fine sand is collected by artists in Bagan and used in their artwork. We were fascinated by the beautiful carved paintings that are made by layering glue and sand and carved as they go. We now have one that we have to decide what to do with. :-). I didn’t do the buying. I just have to organise the ‘what to do with it’ part. I think I will make a table. That will be my next project. Our trip back to the market in Yangon the morning we left for home was therefore to collect previously identified items, the windchimes and some wooden handled mother of pearl fruit forks. Then a quick walk round to the lacquerware shop for a container to keep them in. As we came through the airport when we first arrived, we were caught in the Moneychanger queue behind a group of ladies off our flight who had all sorts of complicated requirements for the USD they were changing. They took ages and were sort of amusing. I’ll bet they spent most of their time shopping while their hubbies were at the golf course. I think we had more fun. 🙂


Myanmar – Don’t eat the Ulam!

Where we got sick.When you travel there is one rule you NEVER break, the one that says don’t eat it if it’s raw. Two of us broke that rule this time. Luckily we weren’t too badly affected me less so, and the Chinese medicine helped a lot, but that little reminder never hurts. What did we eat, well, Myanmar food is similar to what we’re used to, but different as well, in the way it’s eaten. Our horse-cart driver KoKo recommended us to a very nice little restaurant just near the Ananda Pagoda in Bagan as we said we wanted local food. Apparently lunch is the best meal for this, a number of small dishes served with rice, soup and a bowl of raw veggies with dipping sauces. We all ate the cooked dishes and a few of the raw veggies  Baby eggplants, ladies fingers and so on. The one that probably did us in was the pegaga, a leafy little fellow that was really delicious dipped in the sauce. We didn’t stop to think what the fertiliser might be and how it was applied.
Other than that, food was not a major problem. We ate local food in the hotel the first evening after we arrived, sharing the three set menus offering different main meat dishes and most of our other meals in Yangon were taken at Sakura, at a little cafe close to the Kyauktada Police Station in Sule Pagoda Road. They serve local / Thai food as well as some basic western dishes, local beer, great fruit drinks (the papaya juice is excellent) and coffee.

Helping with the maths.

Helping with the maths.

Mandalay was a bit more difficult. Not having much time in the city, we wanted somewhere near our hotel so we walked to a local shop recommended by the staff at the reception. It was what we’d know as a coffee shop / kopitiam / mamak stall, selling freshly made food and drinks. The pancakes sounded good so we ordered three banana ones. When they arrived, they were very like Malaysian murtabak, except much less oily and a little crispy. They were delicious and we ended up having mutton filled ones at a roadside stall later for dinner. At the second stall, the little boy taking our money tried to give us back too much change and was quite bemused when we explained the maths to him.
Apart from our lunchtime ‘adventure’ in Bagan, we enjoyed dinner at the Sunset restaurant along the river a few minutes walk from our hotel, the Thiri Malar. We were glad we had our trusty little torch, because there are no street lights and there were signs in our rooms warning us to stay on the paths because otherwise we many encounter snakes, scorpions and nasty prickles. We certainly heeded that advice. Our breakfast, eggs, toast and fruit with fresh pressed juice and tea / coffee was enjoyed on the rooftop terrance, admiring the view. There are pagodas everywhere and it is a very pleasant way to wake up and enjoy breakfast in the cool of the morning, even if your tummy is not completely happy. Before we left we had lunch just round the corner at the San Carlo restaurant. Home made pumpkin ravioli, spaghetti and hone pancake filled the cracks nicely before we set off on the train back to Yangon. The long distance trains do have restaurant cars, but we didn’t try them out. We ordered food from the one on the Yangon Mandalay run, which was fine, noodles, but we didn’t feel like rocking and rolling our way through the carriages in between to actually go there ourselves.

Myanmar by train

I love trains and when we’re travelling, if there are trains available, I’ll look at using them to get about, especially if I can save us a night’s accommodation in the process. However, the over-riding consideration is that they must go where we want them to go, and approximately when we want.
It was therefore with some trepidation that I factored two train trips into our much anticipated visit to Myanmar recently. Having read everything I could find, which wasn’t much and was mostly out of date or had lots of ‘can’t guarantee this is correct’ comments, I put on a brave face and convinced my travelling companions that all would be well.
I have to say that I pulled the correct straw out of the bundle. Phew. The trains ran where we wanted and when and had sleeper cars attached.

So. Here is the latest information on travelling by train in Myanmar as at January 2013.


Yangon Railway Station

First rule. You need to buy your tickets in your town of departure. Don’t panic, there should be seats available, at least our trains were not overbooked. The latest timetables and fares are posted below, it will cost you USD33 for a ticket Yangon to Mandalay, and despite it stating that Bagan to Yangon is USD50, we only had to pay USD40, plus $2 to the agent. You don’t go to the station to buy though. In Bagan, that is miles out of town and going there once is enough. You can buy your tickets from the agent in Nyaung U, your hotel should be able to point you in the right direction. In Yangon, the ticket office is a very dark building directly over the road (Bogyoke Aung San Road) from the Sakura Building. You will need your passport and nice crisp USD.


The ticket office, Yangon

Get to the station at least half an hour early and you can make yourself at home once you are able to board. There is a tourist’s waiting room in Bagan, but it looked like it had never been used and anyway, the platform was much more interesting. The trains are all pretty old and look like they are originally from Malaysia. At least the sockets in the Yangon / Mandalay ones were, they had SIRIM stickers. You will be hassled by chaps taking your dinner orders (7000Kyat) in Yangon, delivery at 7pm, but not in Bagan. You should take food and plenty of drinking water. We loaded up with individual packs of biscuits and fruit we bought at the market so we were fine. There is a restaurant car, but we didn’t actually go to investigate, though the food apparently came from there on the Yangon Mandalay journey. Take something warm, jackets, a sarong to wrap up in, extra socks. They give you a thin sheet, but it gets really cold and you will welcome every extra layer you can find. This is the cooler part of the year, mid-year might be the opposite. The trains aren’t air conditioned, it’s all natural aided by a ceiling fan if you need it. We didn’t.

You will get a free massage during the trip. You get rocked side to side, front to back and fishtailed. Or if you prefer, it messes with pitch, roll and yaw. But the ‘best’ is the up and down. NOT! Our carriage Yangon / Mandalay obviously had a faulty spring somewhere, so everytime there was any reasonably hefty bump, the up & down movement took on a life of its own and intensified. One of our group ended up with a nasty bruise on his hip as a result.

On the whole, I would have to say it was a positive experience. The toilets were reasonably clean (but take toilet paper) and I at least, managed to get some sleep once I got into the rhythm of the train. If you wake up in the middle of the night when you’re in a station, you can see all the local travellers getting on and off and as you get close to your destination in the morning, you will see lots of morning markets at the stations. In fact, many  tourists take the circular route round Yangon to see how the other half lives. If you’ve come in on the Bagan train, you’ve already seen this, at the right time of day, so you can save your $1 and put it towards a drink at The Strand hotel instead.

One note about the Mandalay station. If you have a big bag, negotiate for a taxi straight off the platform. Then you don’t have to carry your own bag down millions of steps with no directions.


In Full bloom

All the nasty storms were been having the last few afternoons do contribute to beautiful clear mornings, the sort that make me so glad I no longer spend them admiring them from inside my car on the long drive to work. So I took my phone out into the garden and started snapping. Most of the bouganvilla aren’t flowering, thanks to the great enthusiasm for order by someone near and dear to me who keeps cutting them into interesting shapes. However, the straggly red one that refuses to be treated that way is putting on a show. Many of the white flowers for some reason are shy at the moment. The lovely little pigeon orchids which grow on many of the trees, the very fragrant soft flower whose name I don’t know and the white frangipani, which has only a few blooms left, mostly on the ground, are all waiting for their moment I guess. To put that in perspective, I had the assistance of one small grey tabby. He was actually looking at the birds, all of whom were on to his plan, so they stayed well out of harm’s way. One flower I can’t get to appear is the hydrangea. I’ve got two from different people, which I’ve separated into a few pots and put in various positions – morning sun, full sun (burns the leaves) part shade. Still nothing. My little purple vanilla orchid, which used to flower regularly, seems to have gone on holiday as well, maybe it will reappear like the beautiful orange one, given to me at work years ago. One of my favourites is the very reliable lotus in the old bathtub. Unlike the fuller pink and white ones that don’t bloom so often, this one blooms whenever there’s full sun on the pond. It opens in the morning and closes towards noon, and lasts for a few days, unlike the others which look magnificent for a few hours and then start losing their leaves rapidly. As I was walking around, each flower reminded me of some particular person or event. Many of our plants have been with us for years and a few even came with us from our old house many years ago. I think of the people who gave me particular plants and the reason behind the gift. That always makes me smile. Especially when I think somethings has been lost, but it reappears, even more beautiful than it was before. For many of our orchids I have Chhin to thank. She was the one who would see the tree orchids in the gumtrees in the vacant land next door and climb up to retrieve a bit. She only did it when I wasn’t around and stopped it promptly when she met a snake looking back at her. She confessed that she slid down that tree VERY fast. Her other little trick was to watch out for orchid pots with ‘dead’ plants in them, thrown out quietly by the maids next door. She somehow managed to bring them back to life and once they were well established, would separate them in two and give back half to her friend who’d thrown it out and was thus very grateful. Everyone was a winner there. One of the plants we inherited when we bought this house was an unusual double hibiscus (bunga raya). It’s a deep rich red and the original is still where it was, but we’ve planted pieces around the garden in different places. It loves full sun and when in flower is really magnificent. None of my other bunga raya are nearly as prolific or beautiful. I could write a story about every photo here but that will take a while and make this very long. I do realise that writing about the flowers in my garden makes me sound like an old biddy. Well, too bad. Doesn’t matter what it is, if it’s beautiful, I’ll take a photo of it and write about it if I want to.



A Week in China

When a friend in Oz emailed us and asked if we’d be interested in a week in China for AUD99, we asked ‘What’s the catch?’. There wasn’t one unless you consider that that price was for ethnic Chinese only, everyone else paid double, you still needed to add tips and it was ground travel only. However, when we looked at the whistle stop itinerary (If it’s Tuesday, it must be Luxemburg’ sort of thing) we realised these were places we were planning to do on our own anyway so it seemed like a good idea to have a preview and spend time with good friends as well as meet some new people. In the end, there were eight of us, almost enough to fill a meal table and our guide added in one chap travelling alone who fitted right in. We flew in to Pudong airport and were met by our guide Wang Wang (Connie) who collected us all and took us back to the hotel. If we were travelling on our own, we wouldn’t pick a hotel so far out of town, but when you are with a group and arriving late, leaving early every day, it doesn’t really matter.Especially if it’s as nice as this one. I’ve stayed in some rather good hotels, but none has had a TV over the bath. Impressive. That was in all the rooms, not just the suite we were lucky to score that first evening. As soon as we settled ourselves in, we went out in search of dinner. This is the advantage of being out of town, in a part of town where ‘real people’ live. We found a wonderful little ‘hole in the wall’ where we had a great feed, including beer, for RMB165. As we walked back to our hotel, we chatted with a few of the locals, bought some fruit and noticed quite a few people out strolling in their pyjamas. Then we realised that they were heading to the public toilets well spaced along the street. A beautiful sunrise, breakfast and by 7.30 we were off on the road for a quick look around the old and new parts of Shanghai before stopping for a wander around the walking street, a collection of traditional style shops around a beautiful old temple set in a large garden. On the way back to the bus, we were amused by the performance of the peep show narrator. These shows are surprisingly popular, we saw a similar one in Xi’an, with queues of people waiting for a peep. The gardens are probably worth a look next time (start list) and so is the museum of jade, furniture, bronze and other beautiful things which again, we only had the chance to dip our toes into. (add to list) Arriving in Hangzhou late in the afternoon, we wandered around the gardens beside the beautiful West Lake smiling at the many couples out having their pre-wedding photos taken. We’ve seen lots of these, in the old mosque in Quanzhou, Gulangu in Xiamen and even the grasslands near the Jade Snow Mountain in Lijiang, but I always try to get a look at the shoes the bride is wearing. Because they’re covered in the photos, she has usually selected them for comfort so I’ve seen sneakers, boots and shoes in all the colours of the rainbow. After dinner at what is apparently the largest restaurant in Asia (the world?), 6000 people at a time, we headed off to the Acrobatic show, a traditional one with the amazing feats we’ve come to expect, but are no less skilled despite that. We really welcomed our beds that night. It was a long day. Off to the tea plantation in the morning to hear about the wonders, this time, of green tea. Then the selling. We now have a collection of Pu Ehr from Yunan, Oolong from Fujian and Green teas from Zhejiang so we’re prepared for all eventualities. The funny pointed roofs we’d seen all the way from Shanghai to Hangzhou petered out about halfway to Nanjing, our next stop. They are apparently this shape for feng shui reasons, some have silver balls of varying sizes on their spires and we even saw some topped by miniature Eiffel towers. :-). Nanjing is one place I’ve always wanted to visit and I would love to go back. (add to list!) Connie told us there is very little left of the old city sacked by the Japanese during the mid 1930s, and there are probably less than half the population who can claim to be real ‘Nanjing’ers’. Our local guide was certainly one of these, he’s actually a professor at one of the local universities and even to those of us who couldn’t understand Mandarin, the depth of his feelings about that period were clear. Connie was our ‘National Guide’ and we were joined in each city by a ‘local’ guide. This worked out well because most of the local guides spoke only Mandarin, so Connie, who speaks English, took the dozen or so of us ‘nons’ under her wing and gave us the low-down in English. Why would I go back? I know there is more to see. The two places we went were really just a taste. Dr Sun Yat Sen, the founder of the Republic, travelled extensively around Asia building support for a new China, even staying for a short time in Penang. When he died, he was buried as per his wish in Nanjing and we visited his mausoleum on a nearby hill.The Yangtze No 1 bridge is a testament to the tenacity of the people of this city. It was built by the people themselves, using whatever they could contribute and it is very ‘Great Leap Forward’ looking, especially with the statues at the start of the bridge proper. After leaving the bridge and lunch we headed for Suzhou, a beautiful city back towards Shanghai. There are more than 30 beautiful gardens in Suzhou, which have been in existence over many hundreds of years. Some are now hotels and I’d love to stay in one. We visited the Lingering Garden which is well named, you could sit for hours just relaxing. The windows are all different, with the patterns based on the ripples of the water in the lakes. Despite most of us feeling very tired after the long trip and cold bus, it was a welcome break before we took a cruise along the Grand Canal. Connie handed out delicious crispy dumplings to take the edge off our hunger (not! there was no shortage of food!) while we were serenaded by a singer singing traditional music. The final city before we headed back to Shanghai was Wuxi. We visited the amazing Lingshan Buddhist Complex with its massive Buddha and jaw dropping decoration in the Conference Centre. Impressive, but once was enough. We were also a source of some interest for a group of elderly local tourists, all wearing orange caps and led by a very enthusiastic guide. We were just as fascinated by them, especially the guide with her lilac parasol with a matching flag on top. I was far more impressed by the old Xiangfu temple in the same complex than with the Conference Centre. Regular people were there praying and leaving their wishes, and the Monks went about their business as they would without us being there. We said goodbye to Connie when we arrived back in Shanghai, but as we had arranged for the bus to take us to the airport after our extended stay closer to town, we were very happy to see her again as she was also going out to the airport. Would we recommend this holiday, organised by Nexus Holidays? Most definitely. You don’t have to shop if you don’t want to, though you have plenty of opportunity to do so – silk, jade, beautiful teapots. Make friends and if you go in a group of your own, even better. We were very happy with Connie, our guide. She spoke excellent English and clearly was proud to share her knowledge – she didn’t look like she was just ‘doing her job’. I’d also recommend staying on in Shanghai, or going elsewhere in the region or wider China. Our extra day somehow rounded up our holiday and we caught the underground trains, clean, efficient and inexpensive. We wandered around the back streets and ate local food, met a wonderful elderly lady out for a stroll and watched as a crab tried many times to escape from his bucket, only to chicken out each time. Whether you love or hate the design of the Pearl TV tower over the river from the Bund, it is worth the RMB150 to go up to the observation deck (including the lower glass floored one) and visit the Urban History museum back at ground level. A walk around the Bund at night and again in the morning is worth it, especially if you drop in to look at the entrance of the old HSBC Bank although the eagle eyed guard will stop you if you try to surreptitiously take any photos, even with a phone camera. Hangzhou, Suzhou and Nanjing are still on my list and we’re already planning our next foray. So many places to go, so much to see…..





A Look at Laos

We set off for Laos at the end of September with probably the minimum amount of preparation necessary for a self-planned visit. Cafe Le BannetonWe had booked rooms in Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang which we identified as the most important places to visit, given that we had only eight days. Based on the advice of previous travellers and our own reading of the topography as shown on Google Earth, we decided to catch the bus up north and fly back. Expensive, but well worth it, given that the bus ride back to Vientiane would be between nine and twelve hours or so in possibly cramped conditions. We are so glad we did, we had an extra day to scout around and we could still walk! We arrived in Vientiane nice and early in the morning and went straight to our hotel. Although our room wasn’t ready, we were able to leave our bags before going off to explore. Vientiane is really like a large country town, despite being the capital city of Laos. You can walk everywhere although it would be hot in mid-year. Not a major problem as there are tuk-tuks everywhere and you can negotiate the price downwards, or if you prefer, cool down with a cup of excellent coffee in one of the many coffee shops dotted everywhere. Or even better, cool off with the country’s most famous export – Lao beer. We contributed to the Lao economy in that area. As we wandered past the Presidential palace (undergoing the final touches of renovation for the upcoming Asean/EU meeting), the statue of the last King of Vientiane and the beautiful temples (Wats or Vats) we were shaded by lovely old trees, which all have labels telling you what they are. The King looks out over the Mekong river, towards Thailand, a stones-throw away. I had my wish, sitting on the banks of the Mekong sipping coffee with a bonus, the most delicious almond croissant. Then it was off again. You don’t have to worry too much when crossing the road anywhere in Laos – there’s very little traffic, even at ‘rush hour’.  In the evening we wandered through the night market. Like night markets everywhere, there was the good, bad and simply awful. The National Museum, VientianeHowever, some of the gems were the stall selling spoons and other items made from bombs, and the art student selling her work, lino prints on handmade paper. Breakfast the next morning was at the most wonderful Cafe Le Banneton. They do wonderful set menus of bacon eggs and croissants with good coffee. Or you can do a la carte if you prefer. Lunch we ate at the Tucky Noodle shop before booking our tickets to Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. A tip to fellow travellers. Don’t book both legs in Vientiane – you will pay less in Vang Vieng for the next leg. The morning spent at the local markets was well worth it, so much colour and we managed to buy some tasty bananas (i.e. not the commercial sort of tasteless ones from the supermarket) and sweet pomelo. After lunch it was off to the museum. The two museums we visited in Laos could not be more different. You can’t take photos inside, so I’ll have to describe what I mean. The museum in Vientiane is a lovely old colonial building which has seen better days, but would be good for many years if it could be ‘done up’. Sadly, I read in the local paper while we were there, that it will be torn down in a couple of years to make way for a high rise building and the museum will be relocated. The exhibits are an eclectic mix of archaeological, historial and propaganda with a lot of old photos of the war years which are really interesting, but they’re not well presented and the descriptions are a bit spotty. There are some fine examples of Bronze ware, particularly beautifully decorated drums and a selection of jars from the Plain of Jars. The different ethnic communities are also highlighted, with a good display of artifacts and costumes. But the display I liked best was the one in a heavily barred cupboard, secured by a couple of tiny locks. The items exhibited were some gold religious models and apparently they were stolen some years ago but fortunately recovered. The response was to lock them in this cupboard. I can’t recall if the cupboard itself was fixed to the floor, but there must be a better way to display what are rather beautiful items, so that people can admire them and remember them, rather than the ugly case that’s protecting them. The Palace Museum, Luang PrabangThe Palace Museum in Luang Prabang, however, is a study in contrasts. Reclaimed from the last king of Laos when he was deposed in 1975, the building was both a palace and a home, and it has been lovingly protected as a national treasure. While the whole museum was beautiful and well maintained and annotated, I specially enjoyed looking round the palace garage at the back. The cars, sadly have not been well cared for, but if you want to see a genuine Ford Edsel – there is one here! The 'Old Bridge', Luang PrabangLuang Prabang is a lovely city, a mix of elegant French and Lao influences. You can wander around and feel safe and we were lucky to go just at the end of the low season, paying about a third of what we would pay even a week later apparently, for our rooms. To get into the town we walked over the ‘Old bridge’, built about 40 years ago and restricted to pedestrians and bikes. It’s really high but we felt quite safe as the rails are high and you can look out, rather than down. The bridge crosses the Nam Khan river, a tributary of  the Mekong, which joins the big river just around the bend from where we stayed. Out along the Nam Khan are a number of waterfalls where you can swim in amazingly clean cold water and ride elephants. Everywhere in the city you are not far from the most important landmark – That Phousy, the golden stupa on the highest hill. The climb up the many steps is well worth the effort, and when you reach the top, you can pay a small amount for a small basket with a pair of birds (starlings perhaps?) who fly straight up to the tree above, no doubt to be ‘re-caught’ for the next round tomorrow. I’d call this a win-win situation. You feel good, the operator makes money and the birds are well fed. Our other great find in Laos was the sticky rice. Not sticky in the way we’re used to, but when you scoop it out of the little cane basket it’s served in it’s sticky, but the grains hold their shape when gravy is poured over. Delicious. We really enjoyed mealtimes. Breakfast French, lunch and dinner, Lao. Mention must be made of Vang Vieng. We were very glad we took advice to break our journey there as the mini bus ride is not for the faint hearted. People inside, bags on top.It’s not dangerous, the roads were pretty quiet, apart from the funny long wheelbase local transport and once in a while convoys of trucks from Kunming in China. It’s more that they are rather windy and the 151km Vientiane – Vang Vieng journey took us around three and a half hours. Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang (250km) took nearly 7 hours.

On the road – long wheel bases!

Our hotel was just over the road from the hospital and it apparently sees lots of visitors, some who leave in body bags as a result of accidents and other misadventures. Vang Vieng is a party town. As we walked from the bus to our hotel we passed numerous bars and shops selling t-shirts proclaiming that the wearer had indulged in one or more of a range of rather adventurous activities while in town. One of the favoured activities is to ride the river in a large inner tube, stopping off at the bars you pass on the way. We stayed at our hotel, the lovely Ban Sabai Resort, but we did help catch one hapless girl who didn’t stop in time. She had to walk all the way back feeling sheepish and carrying her tube. We were happy to just bounce around in the tiny pool and watch the dragon boat crews practicing in the river, the fishermen casting nets and the kids bringing the cows home before the sun set behind the karst hills over the river. In the morning, we watched the children going off to school in the long boats and a red hot air balloon gliding along the river. Patouxay MunumentBack in Vientiane, we spent the afternoon and evening exploring the Patouxay park and monument, the Lao answer to the Arc de Triumphe in Paris. The area was already well decorated in preparation for the upcoming international gathering, with many flags and lots of beautiful lighting. A quick trip down to the night market for some t-shirts and other little trinkets and breakfast the next morning at the Cafe le Banneton while collecting the pre-ordered almond croissants rounded of what proved to be a too short look at Laos.

Making a Pond Filter

When we decided to start putting ponds around the garden to fill empty spaces, it meant putting filters in to keep the water clean enough for the fish. That’s when I found out how expensive pond filters are. So I had a good look at the ones in the market and decided that I could do it myself, using easily obtainable materials and much less expensively. Apart from one for the big pond, for which we asked the fish shop man to help us get a big container made, the other things were easy to source. Ikea’s Trofast storage boxes come in different sizes, which all fit inside each other and they come with lids. You need one large and one medium sized tub and two lids. You need a plumbing fitting to go in the outlet hole of the big tub, and a length of PVC pipe to fit on the outside. You can get these from the hardware shop. If you want to use your filter in a larger pond with a bigger pump – i.e. you want to move more water, faster, you just increase the size of the fittings and pipe. If you want to be fancy, you can even drill holes along the long tube and make a little waterfall into your pond.  You can also add an extra layer if you want, because there is a smaller trofast tub that can go in the top.

To do the construction:

1. Establish where the filter will be sited. It must be level and it’s a good idea to make sure it has some shade, the plastic isn’t great in the sun and will weaken over time and crack. In the shade it will last for years. Mark the position of the ‘out’ hole on the large tub towards the bottom with a cross and use a circle saw to cut a hole that your plumbing connector will just fit through. Make sure you have rubber washers on each side so it won’t leak. This is not easy with a hand drill because it can slip easily. If you have access to a bench drill, that is much easier. You can also cut the hole with a blade (Stanley knife / box cutter) and then neaten it with the circle saw if need be.

2. Drill small holes all over the bottom of the smaller tub, especially around the little depression around the bottom and all over one of the lids. I used a 4mm bit, but you can use a different size if you wan to control the rate of flow differently.

3. Place the smaller tub inside the larger one and put the filter material inside. You can also put bio balls, limestone chips or other suitable filter materials.

4. Cut the edge of the lid with the holes and place it over the filter materials. This will spread the water out so all the filter material is being used.

5. Cover the filter with the second lid and place the filter on the prepared base. Put the inlet hose through the hole in the lid and turn on the pump. If you want to use the hose to fill the filter a bit first, you can admire your results faster.

6. This takes about half an hour if you have all the materials ready and the base already levelled.

Click on the pix below to see all the steps. You can return to the blog by clicking on the x at the top left hand corner. Feedback (and questions) are more than welcome.


1. For the big pond we needed a bigger filter both because of the volume of water and to cope with the fish. You need to choose the fish wisely. We thought that changing from tilapia would be good because they were fast swimmers and had lots of babies. We put in 5 Chinese Carp when they were about 15cm long, expecting to have them grow to about 25-30cm. They are very pretty fish with graceful flowing fins and tails and not violent swimmers. That part of the information from the fish shop man was true. However, he assured us that they wouldn’t have babies. Wrong. They had lots of babies and we ended up with 50. At that point we decided to take the lot out and relocate them where they didn’t have so much cover to breed and we’ve now got only 5 left. They are happily swimming about in a big tank with no filter or aeration, but lots of plants to protect them from the sun and the birds. Back to the filter. We had a large fibreglass tank made with 5 compartments. The inlet is at the top at one end and the outlet low down at the other end, on the side. The dividers are arranged so the water goes under the first, over the second and so on. There’s filter wool in the first four and the exit compartment has some limestone chips to clarify the water. The water flows out and over rocks placed to form a little waterfall. The space has to be prepared well first and lined with pond liner to make sure there is no leakage into the surrounding soil or you’ll end up with an empty pond very quickly. This filter is probably in need of a clean now, though the water is still very clear inside.

2. For the smaller filters made from Ikea Trofast, you can adjust various elements – the size of the holes in the inner tub (I’m using 4mm as a good guide) and the position of the outlet. If you place it higher, you have a deeper settlement area in the base of the big tub – I even find guppies that have survived the trip and grown in there! By adjusting the angle of the outlet pipe you can build up a higher level of water and control the flow, but you have to monitor this until you get it just right.

3. Select the right sized pump. Make sure the pump will lift the water to the height of the inlet and move the volume of water you need to ensure you can keep a good balance. If the pump is strong enough, you can also enlarge the diameter and lengthen the outlet pipe. Cap the end and make holes along the length so you get a waterfall effect. Play around with the adjustment until you get it right. Start with fewer holes than you want and add as you see it can maintain the volume.

4. If you can get a black tub for the large one, that seems to be the longest lasting, though probably still better to be in the shade.

Cleaning the filter

This is the least fun part of having a pond, especially if you also have fish in there. When we do the cleaning, we take everything out and toss the filter wool and other assorted filter material on the grass. Then we hose everything down so that all the gunge goes into the grass. The grass seems to love this. and it doesn’t really smell bad  although you will for a while after doing this if you get it on you. Wear old clothes! Leave everything out in the sun for a while unless you have two sets of everything. To empty the large tank, we siphon out most of the water after scrubbing down the sides to shift all the muck. It’s not necessary to empty everything as apparently research has shown it’s better to leave some of the old water and gunk in place to activate the next round of cleaning. For the smaller filters, they can be taken apart and given a good scrub before reassembly. For the tubing, you can get suitable brushes (like bottle brushes only thinner) or you can use a long stick with old cloth wrapped around it.

Good luck!

A little philosophical ramble.

I love travelling. I love travelling just about anywhere, even down the road or across the river. There’s always something to see and if I have my camera with me and there’s an opportunity, I try not to miss it. I think one skill I have developed is that I am never bored. If I have to wait for someone (not to be taken as permission to be late, dear friends and other loved ones, i.e. relatives), I like to watch what people around me are getting up to. My darling daughter tells me I’m nosey, but I prefer to call it ‘indulging in the study of life / lives. I suppose this is why my favourite type of photography is what’s loosely called ‘street photography’. I prefer to call it ‘capturing the moment’. As I become more confident with what my camera can do, I am also more confident about taking photos of people and things I see happening. I always try to get permission, either by a nod of the head or a word or two and have only ever been knocked back a few times, and only once rudely. Taking this type of photo can also be a gamble from a technical point of view as well. A photo taken from a bus window has a fifty/fifty chance of being in focus and correctly lit, but ones taken in markets are usually easier to compose and I usually end up with a whole lot of purchases, especially fruit. Lighting can be a problem though, especially if it’s an indoor market, or one under a coloured tarpaulin. One class of subjects never complains and sometimes they even pose for me. That’s my cats. I have seen certain of them stretch themselves with one eye open to see what I’m doing with the camera, just to ensure that he (or she) is nicely framed, or has the best side showing.

Here endeth the ramble for now. I will continue when I have something to add which fits the photos I want to insert.



Moving China – Fujian

Depending on whether you want to move people or rocks, or blocks or furniture, there’s a way to do it in China. The bicycle is still an important mode of transport, but beware the electric version – they can take you out very easily as they’re silent. The island of Gulangyu just over the river from Xiamen has a ‘no cars’ rule so everything is transported in wooden two wheeled carts or the smaller metal wheelbarrows seen elsewhere in China.

Moving people in China offers just as much variety. We’ve travelled on trains fast and slow, in buses, cars & vans both comfortable and ‘interesting’, ferries, motorcycles (very scary) and airlines we’d never heard of before. If you’ve left your affairs in order before you left home, it’s better to relax and try and get the ‘safest’ location and hope for the best. These examples are but a few of the methods we’ve seen, and there are many more yet to be shared.

Cats are great. Every family needs a few.

Teddy with Frangipani necklace

I grew up with cats, the first two of whom dad brought home in a saddlebag on the horse after he rescued them as kittens from the floods. There’ve been some in between, but until we were adopted by Duster No 1 years ago, I was never the one actually ‘in charge’. (To clarify – even if you say ‘my cat’, you are still not the boss.) Since we’ve lived in this house, we’ve had a few. Teddy arrived as a birthday present to me from the kids because they knew daddy wouldn’t let him stay otherwise. Teddy was smart. First thing he did when we brought him home was jump up on Robert’s lap and snuggle. End of discussion. Teddy was a real Aristo-cat. He did everything with style, and loved his personal decorations.

Though we said goodbye to Teddy just before Christmas 2009, we had 18 years of love  from him and he brought much joy into our lives. He had long accepted Miss Mouse into the family and approved the entry of Miss Duster before he went. He was a very special puss. One Christmas he went for the ‘restrained’ look. Once we started getting better looking Christmas trees, Teddy took on the responsibility of guarding it until it was time to say goodbye on the Twelfth night.Teddy Christmas bow.

Flamboyant was not a word in his vocabulary. He wasn’t bothered how gaudy or colourful, he loved to show off whatever we chose for him. Let it never be said either, that Teddy was just a Christmas puss. Flamboyant was not a word in his vocabulary. He wasn't bothered how gaudy or colourful, he loved to show off whatever we chose for him.Chinese New Year meant a garland of cherry blossom, or mini angpows or even just a big red bow would make him happy.

Teddy's cherry blossom necklace for Chinese New Year.









And for every day… well, if the frangipani wasn’t in bloom, even grass would do.