Posts Tagged ‘Daily Telegraph’

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.

Nick Smith’s feature ‘The Roads from Damascus’ – from the Daily Telegraph, 23rd January 2010

January 22, 2010

The Roads from Damascus

With its crusader citadels, exquisite mosques and desolate ruins, all of Syria worth is well worth a visit. Nick Smith takes to the highways

Bedouin women selling taditional woven textiles among the ruins of the ruined desert caravan city of Palmyra. Photo: Nick Smith

Bedouin women selling taditional woven textiles among the ruins of the ancient desert caravan city of Palmyra, Syria. Photo: Nick Smith

As the sun sets over Damascus, its last rays shine their golden light along the Street Called Straight. Lined with coffee bars, trendy boutiques and antique shops, in the early evening this part of the Old Town exudes a metropolitan air. But it’s also steeped in Syria’s religious history. At every junction there’s a mosque or a church, and as the Old Town starts to come to life, my guide tells me that this Roman road – the Via Recta – is the only thoroughfare mentioned by name in the Bible. Bound up in the story of the conversion of St Paul, the Street Called Straight is where pilgrims, travelers and the curious congregate to start exploring this exhilarating city.

By the time night has fallen, I’m sitting in a restaurant high on Mount Qasioun tucking into a mezze of humus, grilled aubergines, olives and flat bread all sloshed down with Syrian sweet white wine. I’ve been given a table at a panoramic window, where the view of the world’s oldest city is breathtaking. With no modern skyscrapers or financial district to get in the way, Damascus is an unbroken sea of green lights, each denoting one of the city’s 2,000 mosques.

The most lovely of all is the Umayyad mosque, the fourth holiest site in Islam and understandably known as the Grand Mosque of Damascus. At one time the largest building in the world, it’s famous for being the resting place of John the Baptist’s head (three other sites contest this) and the place where Jesus Christ will reappear at the end of the world. There’s the tomb of Saladin, and there are exquisite golden mosaics. But for all this grandeur, as the clouds of pigeons circulate around the great open courtyard, it’s a functioning mosque, where you can walk among hundreds of Damascenes going about their normal daily prayer.

Guiding me through Syria is Amelia Stewart, who runs a desert adventure and cultural travel company, Simoon. What with all the Christian architecture, Roman ruins and other archaeological sites, she tells me there’s plenty to keep you busy. ‘But you’ve also got to take time to soak up the landscapes, try out the fabulous Syrian restaurants and sample the local wine.’ One of the best reasons for visiting Syria, Amelia explains, is because you’re often literally tumbling over ruins, even in a fortnight ‘you can really get the flavour of the place.’

From Damascus we head for the Krac des Chevaliers, a mediaeval crusader fortress once described by T E Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia – as ‘perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world.’ It’s easy to see why he was so impressed. This imposing edifice once controlled the road from Antioch to Beirut, standing as sentinel to the eastern Mediterranean, from which the occupying Christians could scour the landscape for Muslim armies mustering in the valleys below.

All too quickly, we’re heading north across broken, stony terrain deep into northern Syria, where the highlight is the Church of St Simeon Stylites. Simeon was an early Christian aesthete, who in order to remove himself from the conventions of the material world sat on top of a pillar for 37 years. Not much of the pillar remains today, but the ruins of the church, set in a pine wood in these ancient rocky hillsides is one of the more important diversions en route to Aleppo. At Syria’s second city a gargantuan citadel presides over the old town, protected by ‘murder holes’, vents above the gateways through which boiling oil was poured on to its attackers.

Almost a century ago T.E. Lawrence travelled through Syria on foot, pausing to take part in archaeological digs. He stayed in Aleppo at Baron’s before famously leaving this ‘beautiful hotel’ without paying his bill. Today, with its threadbare Turkish carpets, leather club chairs and elegantly rotating brass fans, it looks as though it’s hardly changed since Lawrence’s day. But it worked its faded charm upon Agatha Christie who wrote Murder on the Orient Express while staying here, accompanying her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan on his expeditions.

No visit to Syria can be complete without visiting the desolate, haunting ruins of the ancient caravan city of Palmyra. Only partially restored, it has an apocalyptic ‘cities in dust’ atmosphere that only increases as you wander through the broken stones at night. A Unesco-listed World Heritage Site, it’s probably unique in that you can walk among the ruins unhindered. There are no fences, guards or ‘keep out’ signs – only a photographer’s paradise as the tower tombs and arcades of pillars cast their long shadows in the pale desert sunrise.

After Palmyra it’s time to complete the circle and return to Damascus, back to the Street Called Straight, the rooftop restaurants and the atmospheric late-night bars. I decide to pay a final visit to the House of Saint Ananias, where it’s claimed, St Paul was baptized. But on my way I’m stopped by a man who asks me into his trinket shop for tea. He tells me he once played the part of St Paul in a movie version of the saint’s life. We drink glasses of sweet tea and he tells me the his story and lists the places I should visit – the Armenian Church, the Jewish quarter, the shrine of Saint George. As we say goodbye, I look ruefully at the ‘traditional damascene dagger’ he’s sold me, and wonder how much of his story is true.

Way to go

1) Simoon Travel offers an 11-day ‘Highlights of Syria’ tour. Departing 5th March 2010, starting at £2695 pp. Includes flights, transfers, accommodation, guides. For further information phone +44 207 622 6263, or www.simoontravel.com

2) bmi offers daily flights from Heathrow to Damascus. Return flights are from just £353 (economy) and £1168 (Business) including taxes. For further information visit www.flybmi.com

Nick Smith’s feature on North-West Passage exhibition at National Maritime Museum is in the Daily Telegraph today… (original text)

May 16, 2009

Route masters

A new exhibition on the North-West Passage retrace the routes of the early explorers who gallantly searched for a shortcut to the East. By Nick Smith

In the 16th century, England was looking for a sea-route between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans that would enable merchant ships to ply their trade with China. Martin Frobisher was the first of our explorers to weigh anchor and set sail in the hope of discovering a navigable route across the top of the New World through the Arctic sea ice.

Frobisher spent three voyages trying to discover the passage he was convinced existed. Each time he failed, ending up in what is now North-eastern Canada as so many did after him. And yet, such were the potential commercial rewards involved, the search for the passage became a national obsession.

Despite his failure, Frobisher didn’t return empty handed. In 1576 he brought back to Britain several hundred tons of what he believed to be gold-bearing ore. A leading Italian alchemist confirmed Frobisher’s suspicion and Queen Elizabeth I promptly ordered the seafarer back for more. The existing samples were considered so valuable that they were kept at the Tower of London under quadruple locks. That they turned out to be worthless – quite literally fool’s gold – did not deter a stream of British explorers who had their sights set on the more important goal of the passage itself.

In the 19th century – the Golden Age of North-West Passage exploration – great naval officers such as Sir James Clarke Ross, Sir William Parry and Sir John Franklin all tried and failed. But by now more than commercial gain was at stake – the pride and prestige of a nation depended on success, especially as Russia was now interested in the route for strategic military reasons. The matter was finally settled at the dawn of the 20th Century, when in 1906 Norway’s greatest explorer became the first to forge a way through. His name was Roald Amundsen, Britannia’s nemesis, the man who was to beat Captain Scott to the South Pole five years later.

It is this search for the shortcut to the orient that is the subject of a new exhibition, North-West Passage: An Arctic Obsession at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. One of the curators is Claire Warrior, who has assembled the display of 120 exhibits – paintings, letters, maps and artefacts – from the museum’s priceless polar collection. ‘In some ways it’s a fictive concept’ says Claire, ‘because there’s no such thing as the North-West passage. There are lots of passages. The trouble is that they used to be heavily blocked with ice, and so for the British it was a question of trying to find a route through that was most easily navigable.’

The exhibition focuses mainly on the 19th century, and examines some extraordinary stories. But it is John Franklin’s tale that best typifies the isolation of those early days of the North-West Passage. For two winters, Franklin’s ships Erebus and Terror were trapped in the ice as one of the great tragedies in British exploration unfolded.

‘Franklin probably died on board the ship’, says Claire, ‘but his body has never been found.’ The rest of the crew abandoned ship, started to walk for the mainland, and were never seen again. Some skeletons have been found along with evidence of cannibalism, ‘but nobody really knows – and that’s the attractive thing about the Franklin mysteries – nobody really knows what happened.’

Franklin’s wife Jane decided that she’d find out for herself and dedicated much of the rest of her life searching for her lost husband, coordinating several rescue missions that were valuable cartographic and surveying ventures in themselves. She was not alone in thinking that Franklin must have survived. ‘People were convinced that this expedition couldn’t have failed. It was so well equipped. It had the creature comforts, it had the tinned food,’ says Claire. But six years later Jane was still writing letters to Franklin. One of the most poignant exhibits on show is a letter in Jane’s hand that starts: ‘My dearest love. Should this letter ever be opened by you after the many I have written to you in vain, it will be a happiness indeed. You must always have felt that I would never rest till I had more tidings of you. It is my mission upon earth, it keeps me alive…’

The final irony of the Franklin expedition is that it may have been the ‘creature comforts’ that killed the men. Recent forensic evidence has revealed that the 8,000 tins of food the expedition had on board were sealed with solder containing high levels of lead. If their supplies were contaminated, lead poisoning would have accelerated the men’s deaths.

There’s no longer as much ice in the North-West Passage as in Franklin’s day, which means adventurous types can follow the routes of Franklin and Amundsen in near clear seas during the summer. As you sail from Resolute Bay through the straits, islands and waterways that bear the names of the most heroic of Arctic explorers, you’ll see polar bears and musk oxen, white whales, narwhal and northern seals. Cruising in the lonely northern waters offers a taste of what Franklin and his contemporaries endured, although it’s almost certain that lead poisoning and cannibalism will be off the menu.

North-West Passage: An Arctic Obsession is running at the National Maritime Museum from 23rd May 2009 – 3rd January 2010, admission free (see www.nmm.ac.uk)

 

 

 

Ends all]

Nick Smith’s recent Daily Telegraph article on traveling through Iran (full text)

May 14, 2009

Priceless Persia

Modern Iran can provide a desert adventure with a real difference. Nick Smith spent a fortnight driving across old Persia, soaking up the ruins, mosques and bazaars

My first encounter with Iran was reading Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, a classic that for many still defines the romance of Persia. Byron travelled to that most famous of ruined desert cities – Persepolis – and described in minute architectural detail the splendours of Iran’s great mosques in Esfahan and Yazd. Oxiana has proved so enduringly popular that Iran has become an imperative for the adventurous traveller. Anyone wishing to sample the splendours that await should pay a visit to the British Museum’s current exhibition Shah ‘Abbas: The Remaking of Iran.

As a destination Iran can match the grand scale archaeology of ancient Egypt or Jordan, the souks and bazaars of Morocco or Tunisia, or the deserts of northern Africa. And yet, unlike these tried and tested destinations, Iran is blissfully free of package tourists. You will often find that you have archaeological sites all to yourself. Sadly too many people are put off travelling through this exquisite country because of concerns over safety.

My tour of Iran started before I even got to Heathrow. As I packed I listened to Radio 4’s Excess Baggage where John McCarthy discussed Iran with Amelia Stewart of Simoon Travel, a specialist in the region. We’ve all got the wrong idea, said Amelia. These days Iran is safe for everyone. Even women? Especially women. It’s always a good idea to check the Foreign Office ‘travel advisories’ before going anywhere further afield than Spain, but there’s hardly ever any need for special caution when it comes to Iran.

By pure coincidence Amelia was to be my guide for my fortnight in Iran. We met at Tehran before flying south to Shiraz to begin our winding journey across the high salt deserts of old Persia. This ancient Iranian capital city, despite its name, no longer exports fruity red wines, but is now famous for its serene rose gardens, the imposing architecture of the Regent’s Mosque and for being home to the tombs of the great Persian poets Hafiz and Sa’di. Most tours of Iran start in Shiraz because of its proximity to Persepolis, the ruined summer capital of Darius the Great. The bas-reliefs of the procession of the tributary nations on the stairway of the Apandana are a glorious reminder of the achievements of the ancient world.

After Persepolis my tour moved to the tombs at Naqsh-e Rostam, one of the most important Achaemenian and Sasanian sites in the country. Four immense royal tombs have been hewn out of a sheer cliff face in a feat of civil engineering to rival the Pyramids at Giza. Opposite lies the Cube of Zoroaster, thought by archaeologists to be another royal tomb or fire temple. We visited more Zoroastrian sites in Yazd where a sacred flame has burned uninterrupted for 1,500 years. Just outside today’s modern city are the gruesome Towers of Silence where bodies of the dead were, until the 1970s, left exposed to the sky to be picked clean by vultures and crows.

Threading our way through the great mountainous expanse of the Dasht-e Lut desert we stopped for the night at a restored Silk Road caravanserai at Zeinoddin. Here we drank cups of tea sweetened with saffron sugar before experiencing Iranian cuisine in all its glory. A local dish called fesenjan, a type of bitter stew made with pomegranates and walnuts, is served with rice and slices of watermelon, dates, cherries, peaches and dried apples. It’s all washed down with doogh, a refreshing mint flavoured yoghurt drink.

All roads it seems lead to Isfahan, one of the great cities of the Islamic world and the capital of the founding father of modern Iran, Shah ‘Abbas. Isfahan’s Royal Square boasts the two most glorious mosques in Iran – those of Shaykh Lutfallah and Masjid-i Shah – as well as the magnificent Ali Qapu palace. For the souvenir hunter the labyrinthine bazaar sell carpets, silverware and antiques. Horse-drawn carriages take tourists on trips around the city, while side roads dotted with comfortable teahouses drift down to the river where herons and egrets fish at sunset by Isfahan’s famous bridges.

Travelling in the Islamic world requires some knowledge of the basic etiquette, but you might be surprised by how liberal day-to-day Iran can be. Iran – or Persia as you will end up calling it – is relaxed to the point of being laid back, and the people are the friendliest you will meet anywhere. Complete strangers will ply you with tea and invitations to their houses. The only thing a Westerner could ever possibly feel uncomfortable about is the feeling of being overwhelmed by the generosity of the local people.

’70 Great British Pubs’ in the Daily Telegraph

April 4, 2009

If only we all had time machines we could go back to yesterday and buy copies of the Daily Telegraph in which there was a supplement called ’70 Great British Pubs’ – I wrote the sections on London and the Home Counties – a product of extensive field research over the past two decades. I didn’t write the South Wales piece – someone else had snagged that – but it did interestingly feature the Uplands Tavern in Swansea, where I used to waste my indolent youth. The article said that its most famous drinker was Dylan Thomas, although I’d argue that in the grand scheme of things Osama Bin-Laden is better known. Bin-Laden of course studied at the West Glamorgan Institute of Higher Education (‘Wiggy’) in Mount Pleasant, and according to Simon Reeve, in his book about international terrorism called ‘The New Jackals’, the young Osama used to like to go to the Uplands Tavern for a game of pool. Reeve tells me that when he went to Swansea to do a spot of fact-checking for his book the person behind the bar had never heard of Bin-Laden or Al-Qaeda. I appreciate that this all sounds very silly, just like a typical internet conspiracy theory, but for those wishing to check it out I recommend Simon’s book… and yes it is the same Simon Reeve that did the popular BBC travelogues including Capricorn.