Recently, I’ve been on the trail of vanilla, the magical spice that flavours our cakes, custards and ice creams. Along the way, the trail took me to Madagascar, where they produce the finest vanilla in the world. It’s called ‘Bourbon vanilla’, after the former name of nearby Reunion Island.
Did you know that vanilla comes from an orchid (vanilla planifolia)? That its flower has to be pollinated by hand in order for the vanilla pod to grow? That the pod must be picked on a particular day of its growth, and then go through various stages of conditioning for almost a year before it is ready to use?
I didn’t know any of this; I didn’t even know what a vanilla pod looked like, but I found out pretty quickly before boarding a plane to Antananarivo (better known as Tana), Madagascar’s crazy capital.
Y'all know Wikipedia, dontcha? That wonderful bastion of philanthropy, the so-called ‘free’ encyclopaedia staffed by selfless sharers of essential information—one of the world’s ten most popular websites, written by the people, for the people?
Well, I got news for you—Wikipedia is wicked, and I don’t mean that in a ‘so bad it’s good’ way. I mean wicked, as in nasty, calculating and, worst of all, corrupt.
When I was about seven years old, my Dad took me to the cinema to see a film called ‘Dunkirk’ starring John Mills and Richard Attenborough, about the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of British soldiers from the beach at Dunkirk as the Germans overran France in the Second World War. It was one of the first times I had been to the cinema, and the film made a strong impression on me, particularly the scenes of helpless, terrified soldiers trying to take cover in the sand dunes as German planes dropped bombs on them and strafed them with machine-gun fire.
There’s an element of serendipity to my current job—writing the text for a photo book on Vietnam called Journey through Vietnam. Some years ago when I was working on a souvenir book on Thailand (Portrait of Thailand, published by New Holland, UK), I proposed a similar book on Vietnam, since at the time I had visited all regions of the country and felt I had enough strong images to make a good job of it.
I’m sure I’m not the only photographer who has watched with dismay as online stock photo (or microstock) libraries have mushroomed over recent years. Why dismay? Well, I used to sell my travel stories to clients as a package of words and images, of which the images would often be worth half or more of the fee. Yet since these image libraries have expanded to cover every destination and topic under the sun, and since their images are available for use at US$1 or less, most publications I work for now want me to provide text only, which means I’ve lost about half my previous income.
Usually when I travel, I’m updating a guidebook, so I’m rushing around from dawn to late, checking hotels and restaurants for inclusion in the next edition of the guide. But a few weeks ago I lucked out, spending ten days on a Pandaw cruise around Ha Long Bay and the Red River Delta in Vietnam in order to write and photograph a story about it for the company’s magazine, as it was a new route that they wanted to publicise.
Loved it! Sprawled on a sun lounger, taking in the endless change of view, from towering karst outcrops to container cranes, brick kilns, fields of rice and passion fruit, locals waving from the riverbank. Wandering around small villages, watching water puppet shows, seeing conical hats made, listening to traditional songs sung by teenagers. Writing a few notes about the experience and getting to know my fellow passengers, gorging on gourmet food three times a day. Following are a few images from the trip.
If you want to read the full story, take a Pandaw cruise and read it in the Pandaw Magazine while aboard, or sign up as a subscriber on their website—www.pandaw.com.
"Goodbye hello!”…reminds me of an old Beatles song, but the website hola.org is something much more insidious than anything we knew when we used to go round singing “I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello”.
A friend recommended it as a useful site that would enable me to watch programmes on the BBC iPlayer, which is generally not available outside the UK, as well as any other websites that are generally blocked in the land where I live—Thailand.
Being a sucker for anything that makes life a bit easier or more fun, I downloaded it and for a couple of weeks enjoyed my new-found freedom—watching the final of Wimbledon tennis and a few insightful documentaries—but then the trouble began.
I love reading. Like many people (though perhaps a dwindling number), I find no greater stimulus for the imagination than reading a good novel. Yet each time I finish a book, I face a problem—what will I read next? The problem stems from the fact that the older I get, the longer the list of books I want to read gets, but the time I have left to read them is inevitably getting shorter. So each time I start a new one, it means that something on my list has to be cut out.
To be a successful guidebook writer, you need not only good research and writing skills, but also a good sense of direction. This is one area of the job in which I normally feel quite confident, as I spent a few years driving minicabs in London as well as driving buses for London Transport, and I reckon if you can find your way around London, you can find your way anywhere.
When I’m on the road researching a guidebook update, I often have a list of 30 or more hotels, restaurants, bars, spas, pharmacies and so on that I need to locate each day in order to decide if they are worth recommending for the new edition of the guide. With the help of maps in the guidebook and online, I usually manage OK, but sometimes things go wildly wrong, and I always get messed up in Mae Sot.
In November 2014 I finally got to visit a country that’s been on my ‘to do’ list for decades—Burma, or if you prefer, Myanmar. Though I’ve lived very close for many years. I’ve not been able to visit as I’m on a press visa in Thailand, and the powers-that-be in Burma don't issue visas to members of the press, but the introduction of e-visas in October 2014 suddenly opened the possibility. Then new flights opened between Chiang Mai (my home town) and Rangoon (Yangon), as well as Mandalay, so I found myself packing my bags and chanting the words of Kipling’s poem:
“No! You won’t ‘eed nothin’ else
But them spicy garlic smells,
An’ the sunshine an’ the palm trees an’ the tinkly temple bells;
On the road to Mandalay…”
I spent two days in Rangoon, two in Bagan, two at Inle Lake and four around Mandalay and had a fine old time, being reminded every day just how different Burma is to everywhere else. And in an effort to capture the diversity of the place, I’m posting the following images from the trip.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.