Sunday, 26 March 2017

The Dog of Bruges

One of my favourite memories of Bruges was the Dog of Bruges. He has since passed away, but I will always remember him watching the tourists barges as they drifted past his window.


Like Venice, the canals of Bruges make it impossible to walk in a straight line; I found it simplest to follow a canal. The Groenerei (or Green Canal) is one of the old town’s major waterways, and was only two bridges away from my hotel. As I walked along I was surprised to see a golden retriever pawing at a window of the Côté Canal Hotel.

The delightful canals of Bruges

Unseen hands opened the window and spread out a quilt, and the dog made himself quite comfortable lying across the windowsill, soaking up the sun as he watched the world go by.

How could you not fall in love with this town?

I hadn’t yet heard of the famous Dog of Bruges. Every morning he settled into place as the tourist boats started up for the day. Apart from appearing in the photos of every tourist who passed, he even starred in both TV commercials and movies (including a two second cameo for In Bruges). 

May I start now?

I know I'll return to Bruges, such a delightful discovery, but I'm glad to have seen this lovely dog, who took such delight in all who passed by.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Watching the Dawn at Angkor Wat

Just before dawn

          The strangest part was walking in the dark, using the torches on our phone to light the way. All I could hear were our footsteps, and the noises of the jungle – plus the occasional swearing as someone tripped in the dark
          I’d woken before dawn, and left my hotel in Siam Reap before the sun rose. Most tourists reach Angkor Wat via the front entrance, where a grand causeway stretches over a wide moat. Instead, my guide led me in from the east, where thick tree roots stretched across our path. Suddenly the jungle cleared and the temple rose before me: a black shadow against a dark blue sky, the grandeur of a world long gone.

A temple hidden in the jungle

          As Homer once wrote about another vanished world, Dawn comes early, with rosy fingers. As she does so Angkor Wat rose from the darkness. Hundreds of people stood around me, yet in the darkness I stood alone, watching the temple emerge along with the past. My guide had me to the edge of an ancient library pool, where the reflection of the temple floated amongst the lotus flowers. A light rain fell, and Angkor Wat rippled across the water.
          As dawn comes, so does the heat. I took my time exploring the temple complex. Ankor Wat means temple city, and it really cannot be explored in a day. Built at the height of the Angkor Empire, Angkor Wat reflects the artistic splendour and achievements of the time. Despite the hoards of tourists, I easily found places to sit by myself, or wander along empty stone corridors and try to imagine how the place must have been in its heyday, with the moats full of water and the temples overflowing with locals, monks and royalty.

An empty corridor

          As the sun rose ever higher and the humidity bordered on overwhelming, I took a ride in a hot-air balloon. The size of the temple complex is quite staggering, larger than can be appreciated when wandering it by foot in the heat of the day. The vastness of the jungle stretched in all directions below me and in the distance, other temples peeped from amongst the trees.
What lingers most in my memory is the atmosphere. Despite all the hype, despite the tourists jostling for the best view, Angkor Wat remains a place beyond my imagination. The mere sight at dawn brought the sense of the distant past, so that it stood beside me in the darkness of that jungle.

View from on high

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Exploring the Mekong - My Own Heart of Darkness

Exploring the Mekong

The river washed away the humidity of the wet-season. A soft breeze drifted over the water, granting some relief from the heat. Our little wooden boat putted further and further upstream as a wall of green closed around us. Civilisation seemed far away.
In Heart of Darkness, Conrad described the Congo as a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land.” The same can be said of the Mekong. Rising in China, it flows through six countries before blossoming into the Mekong Delta, a web of waterways in southern Vietnam covering some 60,000 square kilometres.

Exploring the Mekong

    Our boat soon left the main waterway behind, and we entered that mesh of intersecting waterways. Yesterday I had been in Hoi An; now I had lost all sense of direction, and wondered how our driver would ever find where we were headed, let alone the way back. Each little ‘water road’ looked the same. Local houses opened straight onto the water, kids splashed amongst the mangroves, and women did their washing on the banks, piles of bright clothes beside them or stretched on poles to dry. Wooden boats lay drawn up amongst the mangroves or tied to a hidden jetty. Not a car was to be heard. Fishing nets were strung through the water, or hung on trees, drying.
The waterways became ever more narrow. Aside from the occasional glimpse of a house or a mooring, the known world seemed forgotten. A maze of tiny water-alleys opened off on either side of the river, and the heat of the day closed down around us. The only sounds were of the river lapping lazily against the boat, the buzz of dragon-flies or the splash of a walking fish. Masses of hyacinths adorned the riverbanks, and the vegetation smothered old houses and forgotten boat sheds. Kingfishers darted amongst the greenery. At times the water was so shallow the river bed was easily visible hence the long, narrow boats with their shallow draft.

Exploring the Mekong

In the middle of nowhere our boat pulled into the bank to some forgotten stairs. At their top stood a house built of the most beautiful dark wood, with the front room, full of intricate carvings, dedicated to the family ancestors. The family had prepared lunch for us. (Some places offer overnight stays; apparently the fireflies are spectacular once darkness falls.)
Sitting on a large open verandah to catch the breezes, our meal began with deep fried elephant fish, served upright and held in place with chopsticks. Despite the forbidding appearance, the flesh had a very delicate flavour. Our host quickly shredded the fish with chopsticks, and used it to make rice paper rolls. Next came prawns, pork with rice, then a platter of fresh fruit.
As the others snoozed in some hammocks I went for a short stroll. Following a winding dirt path a stones throw from the river, I often couldnt see the water through the deep undergrowth. A turn in the path, and I was lost to view; its easy to understand how people wander into the jungle never to be seen again.

Exploring the Mekong

Later we headed further upstream, only this time in a tiny boat rowed by a lady who, much like a gondolier, stood at the back wielding two oars. As we drifted along the heavens opened, and a tropical shower left us drenched within a few minutes. It just as quickly passed, and soon we sat steaming in the heat.

We returned to our main boat and so cruised onto Can Tho. Later that evening we caught a boat from the hotel into town (a five minute ride in darkness). Bobbing lights marked where other boats lay on the expanse of black water. A tropical storm rolled in as we dined on a balcony overlooking the Mekong, and I watched the black clouds billowing over the horizon. Soon sheets of lightening filled the sky. I never found Kurtz, but even as we sipped on cocktails part of me remained in the wilderness, deep in a Vietnamese heart of darkness.

Exploring the Mekong

The Literary Traveller: In Heart of Darkness, Conrad described the Congo as “a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land.” The same can be said of the Mekong. Reading Heart of Darkness while cruising this network of waterways, it is easy to understand how the rules and decorums of the 'civilised' world become increasing irrelevant the further you travel along the river. To stay on the river overnight and listen to the sounds of the jungle, is to hear the primeval world which so intrigued Marlow, and captured the mind and soul of Kurtz.

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