Archive for October, 2011

Nick’ Smith travels ‘A Circular road to Cambodia’, Daily Telegraph, 1st October 2011

October 5, 2011

From the bustling streets of Ho Chi Minh City to the awe-inspiring grandeur of Angkor Wat, Indochina is a feast for the traveller. Nick Smith tries to get his breath back…

Temple in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo: Nick Smith

Temple in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo: Nick Smith

Picture four million mopeds, scooters and motorcycles. Now picture all of them carrying at least two people, sometimes an entire family, sometimes even a cow. Behind the boxes, packing cases, crates, string bags, bundles of bamboo, building materials, fresh market produce and cages of chickens there are the drivers. These are the unsung heroes who thread through the congested arteries of an oriental metropolis with the precision and grace of a ballet dancer. This is Ho Chi Minh City and it’s magnificent.

The best thing about Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as you’ll end up calling it, is simply being there. You can visit the reconstructed Cu Chi tunnels where the Viet Cong held out during the war. You can visit the War Remnants Museum and marvel at the tenacity of a nation that’s brought itself back from the brink of untold horror. But the best thing is to just wander the crowded streets, or attempt to master the dangerous art of crossing the road. Or you can do as I did and stop for a dish of local noodle soup called pho and read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American in the city where it was written.

Saigon is the starting point for my escorted tour around Indochina, an anticlockwise journey that will take me through Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. We’ve only got eleven days, but my guide ­– an outdoorsy Australian called Dave – tells me we can just about do it. He knows this because, having turned his back on the banking industry to do ‘something more interesting with my life,’ he does it for a living with regional specialists Travel Indochina. Dave knows this part of the world inside out, from the mind-boggling array of currencies to an equally varied, but much more interesting, range of cuisine.

Village life hasn't changed much in the Mekong Delta. Photo: Nick SMith

Village life hasn't changed much in the Mekong Delta. Photo: Nick Smith

None more interesting than one of Vietnam’s real specialities, kopi luwak, which I drank in a café in Hanoi after an evening watching the world famous Water Puppets, that enact scenes of ancient history. ‘Weasel Coffee,’ as it is sometimes known, is probably the most expensive coffee in the world, and once you’ve sampled its subtle undertones of chocolate and toasted hazelnut, you’ll never want Starbucks again. If you don’t know how it’s made, you might want to keep it that way, as the manufacturing process starts with fresh beans negotiating their way through the digestive tract of a civet. This supposedly causes a chemical reaction that breaks down the beans’ enzymes, unleashing their full flavour.

From Hanoi it’s a short drive east to one of Vietnam’s most iconic landscapes. Halong Bay is where immense monolithic limestone karsts rise out of the mist like gravestones in a gothic churchyard. As you sail among them in a traditional junk there’s a couple of essential stop-offs, including the Lau Dai caves, followed by a sharp mountain hike for what’s possibly the best view on earth. It’s an ethereal experience and one to be lingered over. But all too quickly the time comes for us to enter the altogether different world of Luang Prabang in Laos.

Monks of the Mekong

Perched on the banks of the mighty Mekong River, encircled by vertiginous mountains, Luang Prabang has a quiet, undiscovered charm. Traditional wooden Lao houses and boutique guesthouses blend in with sumptuous ancient Buddhist temples. The air is rich with fragrances of oleander, jasmine and bougainvillea.

Monks in saffron-dyed robes in Luang Prabang walk along the street collecting alms. Photo: Nick SMith

Monks in saffron-dyed robes in Luang Prabang walk along the street collecting alms. Photo: Nick Smith

Laos is a tiny speck of a forgotten land, often overlooked by today’s busy box-ticking tourist. It’s not an obvious destination in its own right, and so it’s a real bonus to find it playing such a spellbinding cameo on an escorted tour. Once there you soon realise that this is one of the most picturesque places imaginable. It’s also incredibly informal and stress-free. Tempered by the cooling effect of the Mekong and the fresh breezes that come down from the forests, this is the ultimate antidote to bustling Vietnam. Roadside restaurants and cafés serve exquisite steamed fish in banana leaves, sticky rice or spicy pan-fried noodles.

One of Luang Prabang’s most striking temples is the dramatic and serene Wat Mai. Its beauty is such that when the Chinese invaded Laos a century ago, they refused to destroy it. At Wat Mai a young monk tells us about the daily routine and rituals of his life in Buddhism. As we leave him to his meditations, we’re invited to play a quick game of petanque, the local sport, before heading for Wat Pha Bhat Tai. Here, to the sound of monks chanting, we watch the sun set over the sandbanks of the Mekong, fishermen casting their nets.

But the real highlight of any stay in Luang Prabang is a pilgrimage to watch the monks collecting alms. In the early morning light they walk along the street gathering offerings of rice, sweets and coins from locals, whose duty it is to feed them. After the monk ritual, and with a whole day still ahead of us, we return to the river to take a traditional barge upstream to the mysterious ‘cave of a thousand Buddhas’. At Pak Ou we disembark and climb a steep staircase cut through the rock to reach grottos high in a cliff-face. We are rewarded with the stunning sight of thousands of effigies festooned with garlands of flowers and dusted with the ash of thousands of incense burners.

Luang Prabang is paradise for travel photographers who will find the monks in their saffron-dyed robes, the ceramic and gilt ornamentation of the temples and brightly coloured tuk-tuks irresistible. But Laos is as much about its arts and crafts as it is its culture, and the seemingly endless night market that lines the main street is as good as any in the world. Superb juniper paper goods, silver work and silk scarves provide all the retail therapy you could ever need.

Sunrise over the temples

It was with bags groaning that we flew south to Cambodia, where at Siem Reap we tumbled out of the plane into a flat landscape punctuated by rice paddies and coconut palms. Of course, everyone who goes to Cambodia will visit the legendary temple complex of Angkor Wat and you will too. This was where Dave really showed off his local knowledge by smuggling his group in through the lesser-used eastern gate, which meant we were able to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat’s famous quincunx of sandstone towers far away from the crowds.

Sunset over Angkor Wat during on the vernal equinox. Photo: Nick Smith

Sunset over Angkor Wat during on the vernal equinox. Photo: Nick Smith

Provided you’re prepared to step off the beaten path, you could spend weeks wandering among the lonely, deserted ruins and hardly see another person. But most, constrained by time, will stick to the well-trodden tourist circuit, which is spectacular in its own right. There is a bewildering array of carvings, friezes, and bas-reliefs set among the silk-cotton trees whose buttresses weave their way in and out of the tumbled masonry. Sadly there are times when much of the mystique is lost, the spell broken by the continual reminder that we’re on the ‘Tomb Raider’ movie set. But it’s part of the fun, and watching crowds of Japanese and German tourists pose for their hero shots in front of the iconic architecture is a welcome break from the occasional ‘temple fatigue’ that can afflict even the most dedicated amateur archaeologist.

Although it is the beating heart of Cambodia, there’s more to this country than Angkor Wat. But to find out what really makes the country tick, you’ll need to visit the artisanal silk producers, where hand-spun and dyed textiles make wonderful souvenirs. There’s also a fascinating local ballet performed in traditional costume, which is a far cry from Saddlers Wells. At the end of the performance less reserved members of the audience jump up on stage to have their photo taken with the dancers. It’s about as surreal as you can get, as is the Dr Fish foot massage in the night market, where for a few thousand Riel (about two dollars American) you can have the dead skin chewed off your feet by hundreds of ravenous flesh-eating gouramis.

Limestone caves in Halong Bay, Vietnam. Photo: Nick Smith

Limestone caves in Halong Bay, Vietnam. Photo: Nick Smith

The length of time you can keep your feet in the communal pool is something of a badge of honour, as the sensation of being eaten alive is not a pleasant one. I managed to last for half and hour, before the hungry shoal moved on to a new punter with (presumably) tastier feet. I left with a definite sense of regret that this unorthodox massage has reached its end. As I dawdled back to my hotel drenched by a tropical rainstorm I discovered a new spring in my step.

With refreshed feet, the following day we set off for a day’s sailing on Tonlé Sap – the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia – where we encountered the famous floating villages. The dramatic rise and fall of the shoreline with the seasons means that many of the local fishermen live in houses on stilts. But some go one better and build floating homes that cluster together in drifting communities. We sailed out to Chong Kneas where life is identical to any other fishing village, only it’s all on water. The children paddle themselves to floating school in buckets and are called ‘bucket kids’. There’s a floating pig farm, a bar, a bookshop and even a souvenir stall where we cram to bursting point the last spaces in our luggage.

Floating village on Tonle Sap, Cambodia. Photo: Nick Smith

Floating village on Tonle Sap, Cambodia. Photo: Nick Smith

It’s impossible to visit Indochina without feeling the ever-present shadow of imperialism and invasion. History has been more unkind to this region than most and yet hope and regeneration seems to radiate from all corners, nowhere more so than Ho Chi Minh City. You could spend a year in Indochina and still feel that you’d only scratched the surface. But a whistle-stop adventure in this part of the world will leave you with a feeling that seems to be so rare in travel today. That you will simply have to come back again and start all over again.

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Nick Smith interviews Pangaea Expedition leader Mike Horn in the Explorers Journal, Summer 2011

October 3, 2011

Pangaea’s Progress

Explorer Mike Horn is now at the mid-point of his epic Pangaea expedition, a four-year enterprise that will cross all seven continents without using motorised transport. Explorers Journal contributing editor Nick Smith caught up with Mike in the Gobi Desert. If it’s Mongolia it must be camels…

Leader of the Pangaea expedition, explorer Mike Horn. Photo: Nick Smith

Leader of the Pangaea Expedition, global explorer Mike Horn, in Mongolia. Photo: Nick Smith

Sitting in a tent in the Gobi Desert Mike Horn describes what he does as ‘normal. It’s just normal.’ At the mid-point of his four-year Pangaea expedition he’s taking a well-earned breather from weeks of camel trekking in the blazing sun. We’re planning our route for the day on a map spread out before us on a makeshift table strewn with coffee cups. The idea is to meet the camel wranglers, saddle up and trek westward through the Mongolian Steppe. It feels anything but normal.

I’ve flown in from London to join Horn on part of his Asia leg of his expedition, changing planes at Paris, Moscow and finally Ulan Bator, where I hop onto an old Soviet military helicopter and fly a further four hours west into the desert. As we make our descent into the fabled Singing Dunes I reckon I’ve been in the air for 24 hours and so it’s nice to be greeted by a woman in a red jacket offering me a chilled glass of champagne. Horn’s sponsor – the house of G.H.Mumm ­– is holding a press conference to update the world’s press on Pangaea’s progress.

Mumm Champagne makes its mark on Mongolia's Gobi Desert as sponsor of Mike Horn's Pangaea Expedition. Photo: Nick Smith

Mumm Champagne makes its mark in Mongolia as sponsor of the Pangaea Expedition. Photo: Nick Smith

Horn is one of the world’s highest profile adventure-style explorers and his exploits are legendary. One of the reasons for his visibility is that he embraces the triangular relationship between exploration, sponsorship and media, regarding it as healthy and symbiotic. He’s all about the message, telling me that exploration may once have been about discovering new lands and mapping the world, but now it’s about communicating environmental issues. To do that you need a financial means of propulsion and a media conduit to the wider public.

But before we can get down to the interviews and photo shoots there’s some real work to do, because Mike Horn likes to share his experiences rather than just talk about them. ‘How can you understand what I do unless you share part of that experience with me.’ An opportunity too good to miss, I make the token gesture of swatting a few flies off me, take a swig of water and with the early morning sun on our backs we wander through the Singing Dunes.

Local camel wranglers preparing to set off in the morning, Gobi Desert, Mongolia. Photo: Nick Smith

Local camel wranglers preparing to set off in the morning, Gobi Desert, Mongolia. Photo: Nick Smith

Nick Smith: How did the Pangaea project come about?

Mike Horn: When I walked around the Arctic Circle I had a lot of time to think. That’s when I developed the project. Without noise pollution or visual pollution your mind is your own and you can pull projects together very quickly without being disturbed. After 20 years of exploration I’ve seen a lot of changes in the environment: polar bears being killed by grizzly bears, birds migrating in the Arctic that shouldn’t be there. I’ve seen brown polar bears, and the changes in Antarctica with the ice shelves breaking up.

It bothered me a little bit that I wasn’t doing anything and that my playground was being destroyed. That’s when I thought I’d like to reunite the world through a project called Pangaea, referring back to a time 250 million years ago when there was this one pristine supercontinent. I thought it’s impossible to put the continents back together, but you can put people together. And they can be used to channel data about the state of the environment.

NS: What resources did you need at the beginning of the project?

MH: The biggest untapped source of energy today is our youth. I am from an age of consumerism, but my two daughters are young enough to change the way their generation thinks. We are consuming, but they can conserve. As a boy I dreamed that I could go on a boat with Jean Cousteau. But I was never given the opportunity. I am now giving that opportunity to young people around the world who would like to experience the beauty of nature. I wrote down three key words: Explore, learn and act. The exploration is to go out and find the beauty of the planet. The learning part is to find out how to conserve that beauty for future generations. And the action is to work backwards to erase the human footprint on that beauty. And that’s what the project is about.

NS: Who can take part in the Pangaea expedition?

MH: Any kid between 15 and 20 years old can apply. Our team in the office goes through all the thousands of applications. It’s like American Idol: there are interviews, they have to post videos online and so on. I’m aiming to work with influential kids that will be the leaders of tomorrow. People who can change industry, politics, the world. We select 24 and they get put through a strenuous further selection process of communications training and then wilderness survival in the Alps. At the end of this process we filter out 12 – two from each inhabited continent – to join me on my expedition. Having these people with me gives me the chance to communicate with the whole world from the Gobi Desert.

Early morning start rounding up the camels in the Gobi desert in preparation for trekking with global explorer Mike Horn. Photo: Nick Smith

Rounding up the camels in the Gobi desert in preparation for trekking with global explorer Mike Horn. Photo: Nick Smith

NS: How does the expedition translate into tangible scientific fieldwork?

MH: When the young explorers get home, they get posted out and start on the ‘act’ programme where we reconstruct coral, clear the garbage out of the ocean, plant trees and so on. We have three pillars: biodiversity, social community services and water. All the projects based on these pillars are sustainable. We don’t just go in there once. These are five to ten year projects, and we are giving the youth a starting point to rebuild the world.

NS: What effect will Pangaea have on the Gobi Desert?

MH: We’ve taken soil samples to give us an indication of the fertility of the region. We’ve looked at water here, which is one of the biggest problems. Then we looked at the desert people who are living here, vegetation dispersal and over-grazing. We’ll give all that information to the university of Munich in Germany, which will examine how we can scientifically work with the youth in Mongolia to save the ground water and to prevent overgrazing. Then our young explorers come back to help to implement the project.

NS: Why do you put such an emphasis on media coverage for Pangaea?

MH: We don’t get our money from governments. My personal sponsors fund this expedition and so we want to give something back to them. But more important is the idea that we can somehow tell our stories to guys in the bars back home. If you walk into a bar the one thing you can guarantee is most people will be speaking about what’s in the newspapers, on TV or on the internet. The platform is there for us, and we need to create a buzz. And this is basically to what explorers do today. We go out, find knowledge and share that knowledge.

For further information on the Pangaea Expedition 2008-12 visit Mike Horn’s official site

Explorer Mike Horn toasting the Pangaea Expedition in Mongolia with a glass of Mumm Champagne. Photo: Nick Smith

Mike Horn toasting the Pangaea Expedition in Mongolia with a glass of Mumm Champagne. Photo: Nick Smith

A small toast to a century of exploration…

When Captain Jean-Baptiste Charcot became the first Frenchman to set foot on Antarctica, he celebrated in true style with a bottle of champagne, a newspaper and his trusty pipe. The year was 1904 and the bottle was a gift from his friend Georges Mumm, head of the Champagne house that sponsored the explorer’s Français expedition. The famous toast on the ice shelf lent Charcot’s expedition was immortalised in one of the great expedition photographs from the Heroic Age. For Charcot there was a synergy between his fine wine of choice and the pioneering values of his adventures.

A century later the association lives on. In May 2008 Mike Horn set sail from Monaco under the watchful eye of Prince Albert, on one of the most ambitious journeys of discovery undertaken in recent years. Spanning four years, Pangaea will – if all goes well – take him through the North and South poles, far-flung desert islands and the oceans of the world, as a celebration of ‘the beauty of planet Earth.’

Horn teamed up with Mumm Champagne to help spread an environmental message through a co-ordinated press offensive that would use every type of media available to him. Ever mindful of the significance of Charcot’s iconic toast in Antarctica, Horn and Mumm prepared to celebrate each successful leg of the trip with an exceptional ‘Explorer Experience’ – a champagne-paired dinner where press photographers would be able to reinterpret digitally the classic photo taken a century ago.

Author Nick Smith acknowledges the role Mumm Champagne played in getting him to Mongolia to report on the Pangaea Expedition

Author Nick Smith acknowledges the role Mumm Champagne played in getting him to Mongolia to report on the Pangaea Expedition

Horn’s ‘Explorer Experience’ in the Gobi Desert was the exact midpoint of the expedition. So far he has hosted dinners on an ice shelf in Greenland, a sand bar on the Great Barrier Reef and in Antarctica. Next up, he will head for the top of the world when his next field press conference will be held as close to the geographic North Pole as logistics will allow. This will be followed by expeditions into the Amazonian rainforest and the wilderness of Siberia. He says: ‘we’re all explorers today. There is no message other than we must take positive action to save the planet. And we must do it today.’

This article first appeared in the Summer 2011 edition of the Explorers Journal, the magazine of the Explorers Club in New York.