On the road from Mandalay
“It’s a win-win situation;” joked motorbike rider Win Win as we shook hands on our deal, “you take picture of beautiful Burma and I buy medicine to make my mother well”.
And that’s pretty much how it turned out, apart from losing Win Win at critical moments of the trip. He had a maddening habit of forgetting when he was supposed to pick me up, leaving me fuming at times when I thought he had abandoned me altogether.
We were standing on the steps of the 79 Living Hotel in Mandalay, and after some friendly haggling, we agreed that I would give Win Win eighty US dollars and he would take me everywhere I wanted to go on his motorbike for the next three days. My hitlist included the ancient cities around Mandalay, the hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin to the east and the cave temples at Po Win Taung, way out west, and Win Win knew them all, so off we went.
A collection of short stories
Back in the 1980s, I studied an M.A in English (Emphasis: Creative Writing) at San Francisco State University. As part of the requirement for the degree, I wrote a collection of short stories called In Transit.
I recently pulled out a copy of this long-forgotten work, dusted off its yellowing pages, and have decided to share these stories on my website. They are mostly based on my own experiences and observations in Africa, South America and the USA, mixed with a heavy dose of imagination to be able to call it fiction. You’ll find these stories in a new section of my website called Short Stories, which I’ll be adding to as I dictate/transcribe the stories. I have begun with four stories, all set in Africa, and below is the first one--Beyond the End of the Road. I’ll be glad of any feedback that you would care to give. Happy reading!
Lost and found in the Sahara
I stood, literally, at the end of the road. The fresh tarmac ended in a neat ledge above the golden sand, and a clear blue sky pressed down on all horizons. From here, tyre tracks fanned out southwards into the vastness of the Sahara. It was only mid-morning, but already the sand burned my toes, which stuck out of my sandals. I pulled my pack under the sparse shade of a tree beside the last petrol station for 400 kilometres. All was silent, except for the rustle of leaves in a limp breeze.
Every journey has its point of no return and this had to be mine. I had followed the thin vein of my dream, a red line on a Michelin map of Africa, to where the road ended and the dust began. Beyond lay mystery—the infinite spaces of the Central Sahara, the biggest sandpit in the world and ghost of lush forests in former ages.
I had arrived the night before at In Salah just in time to see the bus pull out for Tamanrasset, the next stop on my route. The official told me the next bus was not for ten days. I wandered around the oasis. Mosquitoes droned above a stagnant pond surrounded by crumbling mudhuts and sagging palms. I walked out into the desert before lying down to sleep on my mat. In Salah—if God wills it. If God wills it, I will get a ride out of here tomorrow. If He wills not, then I will not either.
Enigmatic expressions on faces at the Bayon hint at a long-lost knowledge.
I was sorting through my images recently, looking for some good shots of Angkor to upload to image banks, when I was struck yet again by that blissful smile on the faces that gaze down from the towers of the Bayon, the centrepiece of Angkor Thom in Cambodia.
Originally over fifty towers featured four faces looking in the cardinal directions. Now only 37 towers remain, yet wherever you wander in the Bayon, these faces are looking at you.
Dancing in the desert
Way back in 1975, I embarked on a life of adventure. My first move was to leave my native England and take a job as a volunteer teacher in Sudan. I was part of a group of 50 native English speakers who were hired by the Sudanese government to improve the level of English in high schools throughout the country. I was assigned to teach in Sennar, a town on the Blue Nile to the south of Khartoum.
I was supposed to spend a few days in Khartoum for orientation before taking a train to Sennar, but what with attempted coups and a heavy rain season, I had to spend a month in the capital before any trains started running. When I eventually got on the train and set out on my big adventure, I had plenty of time to write, so I got out my pen and began to scrawl the following words.
The Sudanese Shuffle
we were waiting for the train
which was waiting for us
until the train had waited for us
we had been waiting for the train
for some days now
when we started.
we were starting in the train
when we stopped and waited
and went again
and when we went
we hardly went at all
while the wheels rolled around
at the onset.
after the onset we set out
to the desert and all its dreams,
while the wheels would roll round
and then stop, and then sound
like they’d never be starting again.
Just as slow now as slowness can get
And we still haven’t quite got there yet.
Back when I was a bus driver for London Transport, I used to drive the number 47 between Catford and Shoreditch, crossing over the River Thames at London Bridge. Crossing the bridge several times each day, I developed a fondness for this huge span of granite that connected the different worlds of south and north London. However, as I passed back and forth, the bridge was being taken apart to be sold to a rich American, so the story went.
Many years later, when I was touring around the USA, I passed a turn-off signposted to the bridge, and my curiosity drew me to look at its new location in deepest Arizona. I found the bridge was the focal point of a tourist village at the entrance to Lake Haversu City, a far cry from the grimy streets of London.
Still later, when I penned several travelogues recounting my quirky travel adventures, I reflected on my different experiences of the bridge on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. London Bridge Revisited is one of the stories in the collection called Searching for Shangri-La, which is available as an ebook or paperback on Amazon.
I have also posted the story on this site, and if you’re curious to know what it’s like to drive a bus in London or visit a tourist village in Arizona, click here to read or listen to the ten-minute tale.
I love working as a travel writer, especially when it involves complimentary rooms in 5-star hotels. The trouble is, I’m not really a 5-star person, and I don’t feel comfortable with people bowing and scraping before me as if I’m in some way superior.
A recent experience in Myanmar reminded me of this discomfort. The awkwardness began when the porter brought my bags to my luxurious room, pointed out the controls for the air-con and TV, then hovered in the doorway. Having just arrived in the country and withdrawn cash from an ATM, I only had large notes in my pocket, which I was loath to part with for a tip. After an icy moment, the porter left empty-handed.
One of my difficulties with 5-star living is that the fees I am paid for my work do not allow for expensive treats such as a drink from the minibar or a meal ordered through room service. If I succumb to one or two such indulgences, it costs me as much as a night in a budget hotel, somehow negating the benefit of a free night’s sleep. Sometimes I have found myself in 5-star resorts far from any restaurants or shops and have had little choice but to eat in the hotel restaurant, my stomach churning at the thought of what it is costing me.
One of the many reasons that I love living in Chiang Mai is the nearby presence of Doi Suthep, the city’s ‘guardian mountain’, which rises about 1600 metres above sea level. The most popular place on the mountain is the temple called Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which sits at an elevation of around 1300 metres and on a clear day offers sweeping views of the city and valley below.
While this temple is one of the must-see sights of Chiang Mai for visitors, there’s a place I much prefer to go to enjoy the mountain’s tranquil, natural surroundings. It’s a trail that leads up the mountain about 300 metres, taking about an hour, and ends at a dramatic waterfall that runs all year. I never fail to finish that walk in a better mood than I started.
It’s almost like a religious experience, because when you click the ‘confirm’ button, it’s a moment of profound import, which will largely determine whether the arrows beside your team’s name will be green or red after the next round of games, showing that you’ve gone up or down in the league. I’m talking about making fantasy football transfers, the most exciting aspect of playing this silly but fun game.
First, you have to keep an eye on all the games in an English Premier League gameweek. That’s 10 games, lasting around 2 hours each—20 hours. As you watch, you need to evaluate the performance of all players on the pitch—around 25 players per game, so that’s 250 players, and make a mental note of any players that impress you. Those of us who don’t have time to study things so carefully settle for an hour-long roundup of the gameweek’s highlights.
Then, you have to decide which of your players you want to kick out of your team—those that are performing badly and those who are injured or suspended for whatever reason, as they are not going to win you any points.
Next, you need to look at the upcoming fixtures and decide which of the players that you plan to transfer in have a good chance of scoring, keeping a clean sheet and so on.
After that, you have to look at the value of those players you fancy drafting in to your team, as all fantasy managers have a limited budget of £100 million, though this figure can be increased by careful buying and selling.
Finally, and perhaps most critically, you need to decide how many transfers you’ll make. Everyone is allowed one free transfer a week, and if you make more, you forfeit 4 points for each player brought in. If your hunch is correct and these newly transferred players perform well, it’s worth the risk, but if not, you end up cursing yourself for taking the chance.
It may be a silly game, but it has around 6 million players who all spend the weekend cheering and swearing as they watch their players performing well or badly. And besides, it provides a welcome distraction from the constant stream of bad news from the so-called real world.
I recently went on a trip to the Myeik (aka Mergui) Archipelago, in the Andaman Sea off the south coast of Myanmar (Burma). It's a place I had long wanted to visit, ever since reading Siamese White by Maurice Collis (check it out—a great read!). I spent five days in the company of a group of adventurous travellers, cruising around the archipelago, which consists of over 800 islands, mostly uninhabited.
It wasn't a perfect voyage, due largely to stormy weather, as it was the beginning of the monsoon season, but it was a wonderful break from work and my growing dependence on electronic gadgets—phone, laptop etc. I had a great time photographing deserted beaches, villages of Moken people (sea nomads) and, of course, stormy weather.
A story of mine about the archipelago will appear in the July/August issue of Fah Thai, Bangkok Airways inflight magazine, so if you happen to be on one of their flights in that time, look out for it. In the meantime, here's a small selection of images from my trip to give you a taste of this magical place.
Life is tough for us folks who live in Chiang Mai, former capital of the Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields (Lan Na). The problem is that there are so many festivals and ceremonies to celebrate that we never get time to rest, and it seems we’re out dancing in the streets almost every day.
Take this week for instance. Traffic was brought to a standstill by the Poy Sang Long parade, which snaked its way around the perimeter of the old city moat. Poy Sang Long is a Shan ordination ceremony, which is accompanied by plenty of singing and dancing.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.