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  1. My good friends H and I had been asking me to take them to Laos since I first began my prolonged visits to the capital, Vientiane, in 2013,  when my son and family moved there. Until this year I had seen relatively little of the country apart from short visits to Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng and places near Vientiane. So I decided to start my 11 week 2015 stay by arranging a 10-day tour of the country with H and I.

    Here are just a few facts about Laos, which is roughly the size of the UK but with only seven million inhabitants. A land-locked,  mountainous, forested country, through which the mighty Mekong flows, it used to be called Lan Xang, Land of a Million Elephants. Sadly, there are now only about a thousand in total wild and captive elephants left. Some are still used for logging, but many now earn their living by giving rides to tourists. Apart from elephants, Laos is probably best known for two things: firstly for Luang Prabang, the glorious ancient capital, A UNESCO World Heritage site, rich in picturesque temples, old wooden houses and lush vegetation.  Secondly for the fact that, thanks to the American war with neighbouring Vietnam, Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world. The Americans rained over 270 million missiles down on it, and left a terrible legacy of unexploded bombs which still kill or maim scores of villagers every year.

    I booked our tour through LaosMood,  a tour company based in Vientiane, upon my son’s recommendation, as he has dealings with them through his work. They provided a car, a driver and a guide for each leg of the journey, as well as booking all the hotels and organising excursions.

    We started off by driving to Vang Vieng, some three hours north of Vientiane. VV is celebrated for its spectacular, cave-dotted karst mountains, their feet kissed by the gurgling Nam Song River. Unforunately it has also fallen into disrepute due to young backpackers who go there to test their independence from parental control by consuming large quantities of alcohol, dabbling in drugs (though the government has clamped down on this) and then tubing down the river in an inebriated state. This has resulted in enough fatalities to make Vang Vieng the most dangerous place in Laos for tourists, although the situation is meant to be improving.

    We, however, were billeted in a nice hotel right on the river some way out of town. Here are some memorable scenes from Vang Vieng and its surroundings.

    Slash and burn agricultural methods, destroying the mountainside. Rubber plantations replacing the natural forest.


     A fishing village. Fish stocks are being depleted due to new dams built largely by the  Chinese. Now farmed fish is brought into the market instead.


    Buffalo skin – a delicacy. First put into the fire to crispen and remove hair then use in soups and so on.


     Kayaking is, like tubing, big tourist business on the Nam Song river.


    Shadowy creatures!


    What do you think you’re staring at, kid?


    Hot monks!


     From our hotel, theThavonsouk Resort


    Salvaged UXOs make good vehicle width limiters


    Tokay: a huge gecko (up to 12 inches) with an amazing and very loud voice – starts off like a football rattle and turns into a cuckoo!


    Morning mountains across the Nam Song river


    View from my hotel window


  2. Before I switch off and become a temporary recluse in order to prepare my two Indian Art talks for the Guildford Institute in October, I feel I must say a word or two about Berlin. By rights I should be blogging Laos first, but the six weeks I spent in Vientiane (the Lao capital) this summer is too big a topic to tackle at the moment. Since it was a visit to family, it will take me some time to extract the ‘travelogue’ parts from the personal.

    Berlin is also personal, but in a different way.  I returned on Friday after a five-day visit with my friend of many recent adventures, who, staying true to the pseudonym I gave her in my Burmese and Sri Lankan accounts (see my e-books) I shall continue to call Poppy.

    Berlin is in many ways my ancestral home. It’s the city where my mother was brought up in her parents’ restaurant, where my father studied and where he worked in the 1930s after the Nazis had stolen his factory.  It is where my sister was born: it’s the city from which they fled to England in 1939. It is the city from which my grandmother was deported to her death in a concentration camp in 1943. You will understand that my feelings about Berlin are not straightforward.

    I have been there countless times since my first childhood visit in 1956. I still have family in East Berlin: cousins caught on what most of them considered ‘the wrong side’ (but a few regarded as the right side…) when Germany was carved up in 1945.

    The Berlin Effect shaped my childhood and that of my own children, for we took them there too.  The horror-film thrill of negotiating Checkpoint Charlie, the Friedrichstrasse rail crossing or the border crossing at Helmstedt, holding one’s breath, praying that my irascible father would not lose his cool with the GDR border guards; the heavy, coal-filled odour that seemed to drop from the sky as soon as we touched East German territory.  The cold, invasive feeling of fear. In the 1980s I even took groups from the Surrey school where I taught, and I regard these as my most valuable contribution to British education. The lesson of Berlin was a lesson that changed lives, made you grow up quickly and jolted you from your safe and secure complacency.

    The Nazis and the Wall are both history now.  But has Berlin weathered the storm? How has this city dealt with its past? Has it swept its shame aside, obliterated all evidence of the evil associated with it or does it exist in a state of self-righteous paranoia? 

    Nothing of the kind. I cannot begin to describe the miracle of this city. It has turned its terrible history (for which, let us not forget, Germans living today were not responsible) into a moving, all-pervading lesson for humanity, while at the same time creating something of immense modern beauty.  

    Its past is all around. You can’t avoid learning the lessons of history. The new glass Norman Foster Dome on the Reichstag replaces the one burnt out in 1933, thus catapulting into existence Hitler’s reign of terror. ; a new memorial park to the Sinti and Roma people murdered by the Nazis; the monumental , grim, thought-provoking holocaust memorial : the Berlin Wall Memorial Park at Bernauerstrasse; the magnificent Jewish Museum and the reconstructed golden dome of the Oranienburgerstrasse synagogue burnt down by the Nazis. Then there are the crosses on the river bank of failed would-be escapees from East to West, the architectural marvel of Potsdamer Platz, so recently a pile of rubble, the Brandenburg Gate freed from years in no-man’s land.







    There are other wonders too. The Museums are fabulous, there are two superb zoos and don't forget that the city is practically surrounded by lakes and waterways.




    Too much to write about here.   Go to Berlin.  See for yourself.