More from Malta: Church Stuff & More Church Stuff Plus I Figure Out That Thomas Cook is Not the Same Guy Who ‘Discovered’ America

My brother left a couple of things at home when he went back to uni over the weekend: a computer cable and a cold. Not one that’s bad enough to lie on the sofa declaring total uselessness, but bad enough that I would like to do that.

I promised more Malta photos, so here we go:

wristbone of St Paul in Valletta

This is St Paul’s wrist bone, apparently. It lives in St Paul’s Shipwreck Church in Valletta (not to be confused with St John’s Co Cathedral or St Paul’s Pro Cathedral, which are both also in Valletta). I can’t tell you how much I was hoping it would move as I looked at it and extend a golden middle finger.

Caravaggio portrait in Valletta

This is a Caravaggio painting, in St John’s Co Cathedral. I can’t remember what it’s called, nor the name of the other, much larger one that also lives in the cathedral. I don’t know what I’m looking at, art-wise, but Caravaggio’s paintings did make all the others in the cathedral look like they were done by small  children. Caravaggio was a member of the Knights of Malta for a bit – I think he got expelled for swashbucking and murder – but they got some cool paintings out of it so all’s well that ends well. Except for the murder victims.

Door Sign Reading 'Shalom' in Sliema Malta

Houses in Malta have names as well as/instead of numbers and this was my favourite. Other contenders: Joan d’Arc and America (a whole street had American-inspired street names, turned out the embassy was down the road I think).

Jesus and Mary painting in Gozo

I trotted around half a dozen cool museums in Gozo’s Citadel, because you pay something like 10 euros and get entrance to a bunch of places. One of them was a museum of Christian paintings and I shit you not, every Jesus had the face of a middle aged man. Cute lil chubby baby from the neck down, sensible accountant from the neck up.

In the time it’s taken to put this post together I’ve eaten half a pot of salsa, so I’m pleased to announce that my airways are clearer and that I will probably be suffering a digestive complaint in half an hour. You win some you lose some ahhahaaa.

RIGHT. ONTO OTHER BUSINESS.

First of all, can I just say that until today I thought that Thomas Cook (the man who started the late travel company) was the same man who explored then-unknown lands and got killed by angry local Hawaiians in the 18th century. I’m never sure how I feel about the ‘explorers’ of yore who went around invading places and enslaving local people, and I dunno if James Cook (explorer) was a slave-y explorer or just someone who liked going to new places.

Ah. I just figured out that the slave-y explorer I was thinking of was Christopher Columbus. James Cook was a completely different person. I THOUGHT I WAS WELL READ HOW DID I CONFLATE CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS WITH A DERBYSHIRE BUSINESSMAN.

This is a good opportunity to segue into my next item: I’m researching a new potential project and have put together a survey about it. If you have 3-5 minutes and have recently felt frustrated and/or hopeless when consuming the news, I’d appreciate your input. It’s completely anonymous and will let me know if my idea is worth pursuing. Clearly I need some help with my general knowledge, so please do take a minute to help me out…

Advertisements

Malta ft. Gozo ft. Lace Doilies

Hello from Sliema, Malta! I booked a holiday about five days after Fred died, because I think international travel is a better solution for emotional turmoil than drugs, and so far so good.

Malta is very beautiful, although to be completely honest I’m not in love with Sliema – it’s a bit too concrete-and-cranes for my liking, although the transport links are fantastic and it’s a thousand times cleaner than Southend. I’m writing this in a restaurant on Sliema sea front, one of those that could be picked up and put down anywhere in the Mediterranean and not look out of place. Aerosmith is playing, the football is on, the menu is entirely English language and suitable for people who want to eat the same way abroad as they do in the UK. I can’t complain, though: most Maltese food is pasta plus pasta plus pasta, which is still off limits to me.

I’m completely knackered this evening because I took a bus up to northern Malta this morning and caught the boat to Gozo, via Comino, then spent another thousand years forty minutes on a bus then used the hottest part of the day to wander around Gozo’s Citadel. I always seem to exercise more on holiday than at home (got lost in Valetta the other day and probably walked about six miles, door to door) so could I have another holiday, please.

GozoView over ruins at Gozo Citadel

Francesca in Gozo
I’ve just noticed that I bought that top in Thailand, the shorts in Vietnam and the hat in Zante. Probably better for the environment to buy cheap clothes from South East Asia when I’m in South East Asia than to order them off Boho or somewhere and have them delivered to England?

I’m going to sit here as long as my laptop battery lasts, because the girls in my hostel dorm are really into closing the windows and putting the fan as far away from the bunks as possible. There are four of us and it’s about 25 degrees here even at night. The air is cooler outside, and I’m at that point where I’m one bead of sweat away from hoping they all die in their sleep, so after the battery goes I will probably walk to a gelato place. There are millions of gelato places here. I had ‘Maltese flavour’ ice cream a couple of days ago, which I am still trying to figure out the ingredients of. I don’t want to Google it! Pistashios? Currents? Something Christmassy.

Tomorrow is my last day, so I am going shopping in Valletta. I don’t have any need for artisan glass, which is one of the main products here, and to be honest with you, if I buy another doily I will transform into my grandmother, but… lace is big here. And my grandmother was half Maltese, which explains why all the lace doilies I’ve seen look familiar. I also have two Maltese crosses to my name so I think that leaves… a shitty Chinese bracelet or henna tattoo. Kidding! I’ll come back with something lace, something with a cross on and realistically some olive soap. I actually already bought some from a little shop called The Soap Cafe, which is part of a Sliema independent shop co operative thing called Souvenirs That Don’t Suck, but another couple of nights in that dorm room and I’m going to need it.

I’m honestly dead on my feet so possibly I will skip the gelato and go back to my hostel – maybe I’m so tired I won’t actually notice how stuffy it is? I have a full day of getting lost in Valletta tomorrow, so I need my energy. The city is a fantastic rabbit warren of hilly roads and hidden walkways, it’s brilliant for stumbling on little places by accident. It’s a bit of a faff in terms of finding your way to the ferry port though, because Valletta actually juts out into the sea and there are two ports and look I thought I had the right one and an hour later I gave up on the road signs, used my phone and stumbled across a whole new bit of city.

Right. Gelato. See you in England!

Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai (watch out, watch out, there’s an incredibly cute set of elephant pictures about)

I started this post on 25th March 2017, when I got back from the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. Then I fell asleep, hung out in Chiang Mai and Pai for a few days, tootled off to Bangkok and flew back to Heathrow what a mistake so this post has spent the last two-plus years as a list of bullet points. But today is International Elephant Day, apparently, so here are some elephants.

an elephant in Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, eating watermelon

According to my bullet points, elephants consume 10% of their body weight each day. They can have many teeth in their lifetime (sets of teeth, presumably), and their lifespan in the same as humans’.

elephants in nature park behind a fence

I visited the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai as it it was the only one I could find without a single bad review. The elephants who live there are rescued from illegal logging or circuses; there are no fences; the elephants are pretty much allowed to do what they like. Some ‘sanctuaries’ that have rescued elephants from circuses or the like will employ the same methods of control (prodding them with hooks to get them to behave) and allow visitors to ride them, which apparently is bad for their backs.

None of that happens at the Elephant Nature Park. Our guide (whose name I did not record, my bad) explained that they only tempt the elephants with food, and if they aren’t interested then whatever, man, do you want to get trampled by an elephant? I am paraphrasing. Our group had fed an old lady elephant (who refused any food she didn’t like) and we trotted down a trail some distance away from another elephant. Our guide just said, ‘he’s not into people. We’ll leave him,’ and ta daa off we went.

elephant next to trees at Elephant Nature Park Thailand

elephant with leaves in its trunk

Fun fact: African elephants and Asian elephants are completely different species. I dunno which one Dumbo was because I only saw that film once, when I was maybe four, and it made me cry so much I’ve refused to go near it since. I have a feeling the picture book version I had did the same. Interestingly (thanks bullet points), if an elephant is kicking and moving its head back and forth, you’re seeing signs of neurosis, ie it’s gone mad. If you’ve seen an elephant in a circus or ridden one, it’s been broken as a young elephant in a process called ‘crushing’. They are tied with ropes and unable to move at all, prodded with nails or burnt until they can obey basic commands. Some zoos and circuses train the elephant to ‘draw’ with a paintbrush and sell the ‘art’ to tourists.

Gross.

elephant near river at Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai
I think this is the elephant who doesn’t do people. I WONDER WHY.

As part of the day, visitors get to help wash the elephants! They are well up for a bath, although it’s a bit more like throwing paint at a wall than it is helping someone wash their hair.

girl throwing water over elephant in river

Sometimes the humans missed the elephants and got each other… those knobbly bits on their heads denote age, if I remember correctly. We got the opportunity to pat the elephants too, if they liked people. I was not absolutely convinced it’s a good idea but, reader, it was. They’re all hairy!

girl next to elephant in Chiang Mai

You have to approach them from the front so they can see you.

Also, elephants like scratching posts. They enjoy dirt baths. They are incredibly, ridiculously, cute.

baby elephant with leaves in trunk

elephants playing in dirt mountain, Chiang Mai

I mentioned that the park didn’t really do fences. At one point a herd of water buffalo came wandering through and our guide just said something like, ‘oh, they’ve come in from the other side of the mountain.’ A few of the stray dogs who hang out there barked. The elephants did not take notice.

water buffalo and stray dog in Elephant Nature Park

My final bullet point is that the elephants may have hip or foot problems from logging (don’t we have machines to do that for us now?) so they can add that to their list of problems, which already includes ‘being used in bullshit circuses’ and ‘being killed for their ivory because for some reason it is fashionable to have stuff made from elephant teeth’. They are also facing habitat loss, because who isn’t these days.

On the off chance you ever visit northern Thailand, I highly recommend you visit the Elephant Nature Park. It’s absolutely lovely… and I recall the buffet being very tasty.

Want to help the elephants on this fine International Elephant Day? And on every single other day? Here’s what you can do:

  • Never get on an elephant for a ride
  • Don’t visit a circus that uses animals
  • Don’t buy ivory, even if it’s ‘antique’. I can’t remember the name of the show but I once saw an Attenborough programme in which someone pointed out that although the UK has banned ‘new’ ivory, if it is considered ‘antique’ then it’s fair game to sell… too bad no one really knows if a bit of ivory is antique or not!
  • Buy elephant coffee (no it isn’t made from elephant dung, although elephants are very important ecologically, as they spread seeds through their dung)
  • Sponsor an elephant (it’s my birthday soon hint hint)

I loved visiting South East Asia, but there are relatively few places I would jump at the chance to go back to. The Elephant Nature Park is definitely one of them.

Phuket & the Soi Dog Foundation, Thailand, ft. DOGS

I’ve been eating a lot of curry lately, because there is almost no limit to what you can put in a curry except perhaps cabbage, and between that and that one part of The Umbrella Academy that’s set in Vietnam, I feel like South East Asia is calling to me. My bank account isn’t on my side, so I might as well share pictures of dogs at the Soi Dog Foundation in Phuket, which I highly recommend to the whole of humanity because DOGS.

So I virtually live blogged the 40-odd hour journey out of Laos into Thailand. We took such a weird route out of Vientiane because one of the places on my list to see in Asia was the Soi Dog Foundation. Originally established by Dutch expatriate Margot Homburg, in 2003 she joined forces with British expats Gill and John Daley, who wanted to do something about the estimated 70,000 stray cats and dogs on Phuket. It’s grown into an internationally-renown shelter dedicated to sterilising and re-homing strays and, if I remember correctly, helped eradicate rabies from the island of Phuket completely. It was also instrumental in helping the abandoned pets and strays left over from the Boxing Day tsunami and is campaigning against Asia’s dog meat trade – I first heard of it from an online petition.

Phuket is a lot bigger than it looks, and the Soi Dog Foundation was way further from our hostel at Karon Beach than I realised. It took the entire morning to get there by bus – but Phuket is a lot like Spain in that it’s virtually set up for tourists, so the roads were fabulous, especially compared to Lao and Vietnamese roads. Also, Thai motorists drive on the right. So do the Maltese. Sensible people. Anyway, the shelter is a bit hidden from the bus stop, so I got a lift on a motorbike from a volunteer, which was useful as a local dog, ironically, was doing a great job of nipping the back of my legs when the bike pulled up (get your vaccinations, kids, rabies eradication or not!).

 

If you’re going to Soi Dog hoping to get your fix of dog cuddles, you’ll be disappointed (I was). These dogs see humans all day, every day, they do not give a shit when another one walks into their home, although most were more than happy to come and say hello. The shelter is separated into sections: old dogs, puppies, cattery, specially-designed dog hospital (they play the dogs music!), non-human-friendly dogs, etc. The staff, who are mostly volunteers, take you on a tour and do a fantastic job of explaining how everything works.

 

Can we have these posters in England too please?

 

I visited not long after Gill Daley died (her husband John is still involved full time) and really got a sense that this is the sort of place people come to volunteer at time after time, because it’s a lovely place to work. I wish I could have spent more time there – I didn’t realise how long the journey would be – and really recommend you take the time to visit if you’re on Phuket on holiday, or if you’re thinking of getting involved with stray dogs or opening a shelter (hint hint Zakynthos).

There wasn’t a lot else on Phuket that we wanted to see – there were, like, children with their parents and forks instead of chopsticks and I was in Peak Shitty Backpacker Mode at this point – so after saying hi to Big Buddha, Maxim and I headed to the islands, where we split up to look for clues see different parts of Thailand.

 

I think they are planning to paint Buddha eventually?

 

Sort of can’t believe how good my tan is in that photo. Also can’t remember if the statues were especially large of if I’ve just got to get used to the fact I’m smaller than I think I am…

I’m going to make another curry. Come back in 6-8 months to hear about Koh Tao and Koh Samui, and then one of my favourite parts of the trip: Chiang Mai and Pai.

Cool for the Summer

Ugh. UGH. I just glanced at the date and realised that in one month’s time I will be returning from my holiday. Which means in one month and one day, I will have nothing to look forward to except autumn, which is a tenuous thing to look forward to when a) this weather might last until October, and b) autumn is rarely as autumn-y as I’m expecting.

I mean, there are some other things to look forward to. It’s my birthday in September? I recently joined a cashback website and am interested to see if it makes me any cash? Life is actually pretty decent given that I’m living in a first-world country in a house with good plumbing? But still. I’m so excited for my holidayyyyyy that it’s hard to look past it. There will be (more) sun! There will be (non-Thames Estuary) sea! There will be tasty (not cooked by my mum or I) Greek food! Oh yeah I’m going to Greece what a surprise. Well I kind of have an excuse; a friend is celebrating her birthday in Zante, so I’m going to backpack from Corfu down to Kefalonia and then to Zante. It’s going to be My Family and Other Animals meets that time I went backpacking before. I’ve got extra packing cubes this time, and I know what I don’t need to take versus what I do. It really boils down to packing cubes.

Who else is going on holiday soon? Who has had a holiday recently? My uncle recently sent me photos of somewhere in the north of Scotland that apparently has its own micro-climate and I shit you not, I thought it was the Mediterranean. It wasn’t until I squinted at the mossy stone walls and distinctly rolling hills that I thought ‘could this actually be north of the boarder?’ I can’t remember the place’s name, but as soon as I remember it I’m adding it it the list (also: York, Malta, the Giant’s Causeway, Rome, Haworth in one of the Yorkshires where they Bronte sisters lived, Cornwall, eastern Greece, New Zealand).

I’m going to attempt a minor digital detox while I’m away, so fully expect some bullshit ramblings from me on my return about the joys of getting back to nature and interacting with other cultures. Maybe I’ll stay out there and avoid any potential crises and just finish dragonnovel underneath an olive tree or something. Use up my freedom of movement while I’ve still got it. Hm.

Lawrence Durrell in the Durrells 2016

Patuxai and Post Offices | Vientiane, Laos

What can I tell you about Vientiane, Laos? Not a lot, actually, because I was only there for a day. I think I mentioned the hellish journey out of the city once or twice… Anyway, what I did see was really nice!

Patuxai, Vientiane, Laos from outside

This is Patuxai, which is a war memorial dedicated to those who died fighting during Word War II and for Lao independence from France in the late 1940s. It was broadly inspired by the Arc de Triomphe (ironic) and was built between 1957 and 1968 with cement donated by the USA that was intended to build a new airport. Apparently some people still call it the ‘vertical runway’.

The mural on the ceiling is of the gods Vishnu, Brahma, and Indra, according to Wikipedia. I love a ceiling mural. If I ever own a house there will be some serious gold leaf-adorned illustration on the kitchen ceiling.

You can also go up on the roof (after walking through a couple of floors are not-quite-finished and mostly full of people selling souvenirs) and enjoy the view of the city. GOD IT WAS HOT. POSSIBLY MY MEMORIES ARE CLOUDED BY THE HELLISH JOURNEY THAT FOLLOWED THIS LITTLE EXCURSION.

The only other part of Vientiane that I really saw was a scrummy Indian restaurant which introduced me to the god blessed beverage of soda water with a slice of lemon, and the post office. Which looked like a post office. I should have taken a photo, in retrospect, because every post office I’ve ever been to abroad is nicer than the ones in Britain. The one in Hoi An in Vietnam had furniture decorated with mother of pearl. Saigon’s main post office looked like a train station. One in Barcelona boasted ceiling murals. The one in Southend is attached to a WH Smith and its main decoration is a glass case with limited edition stamps.

I feel a post dedicated entirely to post offices on the horizon.

I won’t mind if you don’t read it.

Next up in the occasional SE Asia series: Phuket and the Soi Dog Foundation!

Tubing & Chocolate Bars in Vang Vieng, Laos

How do I describe Vang Vieng, Laos? Well, it’s the one with the Friends bars. The one with the tubing. The one with the famous nightlife that got toned down a few years ago because backpackers kept accidentally dying. I’m going to be honest with you, reader, in case you’re a discerning tourist who neither drinks heavily nor enjoys Friends: you don’t absolutely need to visit Vang Vieng unless you really want to go tubing or have enough money to do an eco-tour type trip.

A brief bit of history: Vang Vieng had an infamous toxic party scene in the late 1990s and 2000s, because someone had the idea to rent old tyre tubes to backpackers who could spend a couple of hours floating on them down Nam Song, the Song River. Backpackers were well into the tubing, so a bunch of bars opened up along the riverbank for them to get sloshed and high while they took a break from bobbing along the fairly shallow but fairly speedy river. Unfortunately, it’s really easy to accidentally drown in fairly shallow but fairly speedy water, especially when you are wasted and especially when you have fallen from a shitty zipwire or dodgy rope swing. So in 2012, after pressure from a bunch of foreign ambassadors who were tired of dealing with the families of accidentally dead backpackers, Vang Vieng cleaned up its act. Most of the riverside bars are abandoned and there are signs in hostels saying ‘OI MATE IF YOU’RE CAUGHT WITH MARIJUANA THIS HOSTEL IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR 6 MILLION KIP FINE.’

6 million kip, by the way, is about $60. In Lao terms, 6 million kip is a shittonne of money. People still do all the drugs and booze, just quietly.

So, we went to Vang Vieng to go tubing. Well, I went tubing. Maxim got ill and didn’t, although he did have a pair of shoes stolen. I went tubing by myself and it was nice for the first 45 minutes, when I was being all zen and thinking cool thoughts – the landscape, like all of South East Asia, is breathtaking – but then I needed a wee and my waterproof bag was not as waterproof as advertised and dickbag tourists on kayaks kept splashing me then I almost got swept away by a feisty little current that showed its face about four metres from the part of the river where you’re supposed to get out. I watched one lady float on past, and I have always wondered what happened to her. Apparently the river empties into a reservoir, so at least she didn’t end up in the South China Sea.

So, if you’re not into the tubing, you’ll have to go for the eco tour stuff. I was too poor to, but according to The Guardian there are villas and farmhouse rooms to be rented, stunning treks to be undertaken lots of fancy food to eat.

It sounds like I’m bashing Vang Vieng: if you’re into tubing, it’s a must-visit! Unusually, I actually had a good time chilling out, writing to you guys and hanging out with people – there was this Aussie guy Travis who explained the intricacies of the Australian car industry, and a French guy, Pierre, who I will one day write into a book. I have a feeling Pierre is still in Vang Vieng right now, sleeping off moonshine and cursing at every other word.

The nicest thing about Laos for me was how quiet it is compared to Thailand or Vietnam: we saw the same two Canadian blokes in Luang Prabang, Phonsavan, Vang Vieng and Vientiane. An American guy from our hostel in Luang Prabang turned up in a cafe in Phonsavan. So did a Finnish guy. There is no fork option at the dinner table, only chopsticks and a little spoon, and the night is black as pitch.

The downside to the quiet was the provisions. I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned this, but Vietnam does not do cheese. There are Dairylea triangles and that is it. It does do American chocolate, though, and Kellogg’s. Thailand is full to the brim of 7-Elevens, which are full to the brim with overpriced Evian and Nature Valley bars. Cambodia had American chocolate, if I remember correctly. Laos’ food sticks in my mind for two reasons: one is the heavenly Indian food we had in Phonsavan and Vientiane. The other is that, although I remember seeing those Cadbury’s Dream bars for sale (remember them? In the Heroes boxes?), Lao chocolate is vile. I bought a locally-produced bar for the minivan from Vang Vieng to Vientiane, and it tasted like actual sawdust. I have never thrown away a chocolate bar before and hope never to again.

You live and learn, I guess.

Next up: Vientiane!

Are You Taller Than a Stone Jar? | Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars, Laos

Transcript of 1000 conversations I had when I told people I wanted to visit the Plain of Jars in Laos: ‘A plane of jars? Like an aeroplane full of jam jars?’ ‘Um, no. A valley full of ancient jars.’ ‘Oh. I’d like an aeroplane with jam jars.’

I read about the Plain of Jars in a book, and it was a pretty terrible book so I won’t waste your time by telling you what it’s called, but it piqued my interest so we took a trip out to the town of Phonsavan, which is my new reference for the phrase ‘in the middle of bloody nowhere’. The journey from Luang Prabang was long, dusty and included very few straight roads. Anyway, littered around Phonsavan are a couple of thousand stone jars. Some say they were used for burials. Some say they were big old wine containers. Some say aliens.

It’s probably not aliens.

 

If the giant dusty valley full of jars isn’t strange enough, the giant dusty valley is also full of craters. Look, there’s a jar… oh no it’s half a jar.

 

To cut a long story short, Phonsavan was carpet bombed during the Vietnam War. I mentioned in my post about Luang Prabang that Laos is the most bombed country in the world; that is essentially because there was a civil war there between 1963 and 1975 which was also a proxy war between America and Russia, hence the carpet bombing (both sides, which involved North Vietnam, South Vietnam, China, America and Thailand, plus the opposing Laos forces, wanted control of the Ho Chi Minh trail and Laotian pan handle. Wiki can explain it better than I can.) Literally nothing ever changes.

So, yeah, craters. Most of the valley has been cleared of UXOs but I must say the added risk of accidental death added a certain level of interest to the trip. For scale, by the way, I’m about 5’1″:

girl next to stone jar
I’m not sure whether me or the stone come off worse in this comparison.

Giant jars aside, Phonsavan is pretty quiet but very beautiful. It’s fairly remote by today’s standards (no listings on HostelWorld!) so we kind of winged it and found a really nice guest house with hot water and open air sinks. I really think brushing your teeth in the great outdoors sets you up for a productive day or good night’s sleep, although it helps if the great outdoors is at a balmy 20 degrees.

 

Coincidentally, while I was in South East Asia my friend Maria was in Japan for university, and on the group chat one day we were talking about bathrooms (I think I was excited because we had hot water) and Maria sent us a photo of a public toilet in Japan, which had more buttons and nice little additions then I have seen on any toilet, ever. I shared this photo:

toilet in bathroom in Phonsavan guest house

Next time in the Occasional South East Asia Diaries: Vang Vieng!