|East End Girl – before my travels|
When I started my journey across Asia back in December 2011, I had no real plans, ideas or expectations. I knew that I wanted to make some big changes because, although I had been living a very comfortable and fulfilled life in London (on the surface, at least), I was in search of something deeper. And so it was that I, in that clichéd sort of a way, dropped it all and went off to India, that magical place which has stolen the hearts of so many seekers before me. I sat in temples. I worshipped the deities alongside thousands of devout Indians. I undertook an Ayurvedic detoxification of my body. I even learnt to stand on my head.
|Embracing my natural beauty in Rishikesh|
Stripped of make up, high heels, my pink vintage car and all of the props I had previously needed to make myself feel good, I began to open up to my inner beauty. The gorgeous people that I met reflected this and, as my heart gradually began to open up and I began to trust and surrender, amazing things started to happen. Significant people began to enter my life at times when I needed them, reinforcing the lessons that I was seemingly receiving from the universe. Ryan, a gorgeous scientist from Ohio with whom I spent a brief but life changing week in a community in Auroville, taught me that I could be attractive and sexy whilst shovelling my own poo, wearing no make up and sporting hairy legs. Jason Stewart who facilitated a one week workshop in NVC or Non Violent Communication made me examine my need to be ‘sexy’, seeking validation from others for my outer appearance. This was a belief that no longer served me and, in realising this, I let it go.
|Attuning to Shakti energy at Agama|
I had made a resolution at the beginning of my journey to preserve my female energy. In other words, I would undertake voluntary celibacy. (Thank you Liz Cirelli for the inspiration!) I wanted to be able to focus on my spiritual development without distraction and to ‘sublimate’ the energy upwards, directing it instead, for higher purposes. This is actually a Tantric method for attaining spiritual enlightenment. Tantrics believe that the female ‘Shakti’ energy we have residing in our base or muladhara chakra is incredibly powerful as it has the potential to create the entire universe. Instead of releasing this energy or wasting it in casual encounters, it should instead be directed upwards – towards our heart chakra (responsible for pure, unconditional love), our throat chakra (for creativity and expression), our third eye chakra (for meditation and contemplation) and ultimately towards our sahasrara chakra – the seat of the soul – which can take us to oneness or bliss.
|Through the eyes shines the soul|
In India, a land where alcohol is scarce and culture is overtly desexualised, it wasn’t difficult to begin to start living in these elevated chakras, especially when surrounded by seeking souls on similar missions. I began to realise how wonderful it can be to live a life in higher aspiration and I felt my inner beauty radiate out. Back home, the most common compliments I received on my appearance were on my legs. In India, everyone noticed my eyes – “flame yellow”, “olive with burnt sienna” – it was as if the new found luminescence of my soul was shining through. And yes, I was tested. Notably by the Israeli man I met in Kodaikanal who gave me whiskey, the too good looking to be true Indian I met before my ten day Vipassana meditation and yet another drop dead gorgeous Indian I shared many late night chais and cuddles with in Dharamsala. But I was not led into temptation. I stayed true to my word and to myself. After being dumped at the Indo Nepali border by a silver-tongued Sagittarius I had promised my heart to, I looked my video camera in the lens and vowed out loud that “no more, am I attracting worthless men into my life”.
|China – the ‘Eat’ chapter|
After months of subsisting off rice and dalh, when I rocked up in China my ardent devotion turned to another one of my great passions. Food. And indulge I did in everything from whole steamed fish in garlic and ginger, to Yunnan bacon, yak cheese, home made dumplings, Peking duck, eggplant cooked every which way, muscles, pork, French beans, Szechuan style shrimp, black carp, sushi, smoothies, salmon – you name it. Me and my friend Will went on a gastronomic tour of Shanghai, Beijing, Anhui and Hainan dining in some of the finest food establishments through to shopping malls, street food stalls, hutong eateries and local Chinese restaurants. The theme continued in Vietnam where I not only enjoyed all of my favourite Vietnamese dishes (mango salad, fried spring rolls, deep fried squid) but I also took a couple of cookery classes and learnt how to make them too.
And then came Thailand. I’ve always been a bit of a clairvoyant and I had had a psychic feeling that this might be the place to experience the ‘Love’ chapter – as did my friend Sandra Pearson (yes Sand, you win the £100 bet!) By this point it was August and I was feeling ready to move on – to take my spiritual progress to the next level. I had already planned to take 2 x courses in Tantra in Thailand and was curious to understand how spirituality and sexuality could become ‘bedfellows’. The workshops that I took on the ‘fantasy island’ of Koh Phangan were life changing. I had always sensed a resonance with tantra and here at the Agama school, I found the path for me. You can read all about my tantric journey here.
|Scorpio Pie looking delicious|
During my time on the island I decided that, although I had enjoyed my time focusing on my self and my spiritual practice, I wanted to be able to open again into love. I had a brief romance with a wonderful soul, Phil. And then I met Ian Marshall – Scorpio Pie, Pisces Iscariot. One night as I was making my way back from a yoga class at the Agama school I met him at a fruit juice stand. I immediately noticed him because I liked his glasses and his attitude. He was intelligent and a little bit bristly.. and he was wearing a nice orange shirt. Unfortunately at the time, I think that his affections were elsewhere. But that was OK, so were mine.
|Hear no evil…Ian, Flora and me at Three Monkeys bar|
After a month of hard core yogi activity, I was beginning to tire a little of the community and its hard line ways. So one night I headed along the little beach where I lived to a tiny little reggae bar the Three Monkeys with the intention to have a few beers and a good time. Little did I know what was about to take place. My friend Jonny introduced me to a whole crowd of gorgeous individuals who had been gathering at the Three Monkeys every night, enjoying each other’s company and being creative. Amongst them was Ian. We connected immediately over our discussion of the school (he was studying yoga there too). As the night progressed I think we realised we were falling for each other.
|Our beach hut|
A slightly furtive courtship ensued whilst we navigated getting to know each other in such an intense environment. The day after meeting him properly I moved beach huts so that I was almost next door to him. Then we effectively moved in together (we had to sleep in my place because he had a rather large lizard living under his bed who decided to come out whenever I was around – we thought that she was jealous!) After an idyllic couple of weeks together and with the rest of our loving crew from Three Monkeys, my dad came out to the island for a holiday. As I suspected, he and Ian clicked right away and we had fun exploring Ko Phangan on motorbikes, eating lots of delicious food and sunning ourselves on the beach and in the pool.
|Ian and Dad hit it off immediately|
Dad had a friend living in Chiang Mai and had got his return flight booked out of there. About a week before we were due to leave, Ian decided to leave with us because he had an exciting writing project up in Chiang Mai – working on a cookery book with a chef. And so it came to pass that within a few weeks of knowing each other, we had moved in together, travelled up Thailand and Ian had met my dad! Things happen fast in backpacker circles. I’ll be writing more about my adventures in Chiang Mai shortly, but once dad left I moved in with Ian and I don’t think I have felt happier, healthier or slept better in my life. Things were perfect.
|Enjoying the other side of the island – holiday within a holiday|
Those who have known me for a very long time understand that, after the breakdown of a long term relationship many years ago, I haven’t had much luck with men. Sure, I’ve had some interesting experiences – some horrific ones too. In fact, I could write a book about the trials, tribulations and disasters that I’ve had – too many to list out here. My little red heart has certainly been bashed, bruised and broken. And through all of it, I could not understand why I couldn’t find the one thing that I was looking for – someone who understood me in my entirety – from the hard exteriors of my wild party girl, through to my soppy emotional heart – the girl that liked listening to the radio and cuddles. The girl that wanted a canal boat, a dog and children – as well as the one that needed the glitz, glamour and raciness of life in the fast lane.
In summer 2011, long before I went away I was driving me and my friend Kate home from a festival and she told me to just ask for it. To just ask for what I wanted. And so I did. I compiled a list – a man who loved me for all of me. Someone who was sexy, kind, intelligent, funny and spiritual. It may have taken time, but one year later, that is exactly what I got.
|At one of our local cafes in Ko Phangan|
|On the road again – travelling up to Chiang Mai|
Ian is a really interesting person. He has studied Buddhism, Hinduism and tantra and he has been travelling the world for a long time. He’s a writer and has a blog. It turns out that we had not only travelled to many of the same places in India but that we had also been there – on one occasion in the same room at a satsang – at the same time. We both went to University in Sheffield, we both studied English literature. We both used to live in London and work in the broadcasting industry. We share the same taste in music although he is a little older than me – but he doesn’t look it or act it either. Most importantly we share the same values and dedication to a spiritual path – although equally we are both willing to fall off it. He is very funny and clever and eloquent but he’s also understated and quite humble – the contrast to my alter ego party personality. It doesn’t feel like relationships or romances I’ve had before – affairs that have caused me to to weep oceans of tears, waste thousands of words in conversation with friends or on email – trying to understand the inside of the heads of these men who broke my heart. There’s no dramas – it all just, well – it works.
Ian and I have been together nearly 6 months now and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting his family and friends, who unsurprisingly, are my kind of people. He took to my friends like a duck to water and now he’s part of my life. I’m very grateful for his being part of it and it feels so lovely to have such a supportive partner. We’re planning a future together and it is exciting.
And so, once more to spirituality – which is what this journey was all about. Way back in early 2012, I prayed to a 65 foot statue of Shiva to send me my man. And Lord Shiva – he of the cosmic dance, stamped his foot and delivered this man to me. The man of my dreams at long long last. Thank you. Thank you and Om Namah Shivay!
|Koh Phangan – the fantasy island where I lived.
Photo courtesy of the gorgeously talented Clara Jansen
In Cambodia I fell ill again. Very ill. In fact so ill that I was trapped in a hotel room for several days, unable even to clamber down the 4 flights of stairs to get fresh water. I paid a Khmer man in the corridor to go and fetch me some. He came back with a bottle half filled. I couldn’t trust it. I didn’t drink water for 2 days and I watched myself waste away in the mirror as ants crawled up the walls. Losing weight was supposed to be a good thing but my cheeks were sunken and even my (formerly rather buxom) chest began to wither and sag. I felt alone and scared. I had to get out of Cambodia but I was trapped on a border town without my passport (on a last minute whim I had paid someone to send it back to Phnom Penh to get a 2 month Thai visa stamped in). Yet again I had to trust that it would come back to me on a local bus. I had to hope that I would get better. The days were drawing nearer to a course I had signed up to in Thailand. I held my breath. The passport arrived as promised.
|The beach that I would come to live on on KPN photo c/o Clara again|
|View from my beach hut on Koh Phangan|
I spent a very uncomfortable day completely nil by mouth crossing the border into Thailand. Luckily I was amused by some very drunken boys from Devon, here on holiday. “I work in a pub and I drink in a pub. My life is great” said one of them, proudly. I told them I was doing a tantra course in Thailand and they oscillated between being fascinated and making crude jokes. It was to become the first of many conversations I would have about the definition of tantra which, clearly, is universally misunderstood. My first time in Bangkok was again spent sick and mostly inside a hotel room, punctuated only by a trip to hospital. In the end I had to fly down to Ko Phangan because I was too weak to travel by train.
|Channelling the Goddess|
A long day ensued taking in a bus and boat to Ko Phangan but as the sun was setting emblazoned across a purple and azure sky, the ferry glided over glass waters to the island. Triangular shaped smokey coloured mountains sulked in the background. The gulf islands of Thailand are quite possibly one the most sensationally beautiful places on earth. I wandered about the dusky air of the ferry, rocking with the motion of the boat and pondered how this was a dream come true for me to finally be here. And the next two months would be blissful, living on a beach and doing yoga every day.
The reason I had come all of this way was to enrol on a tantra course at the Agama School of yoga. Nobody had recommended it to me, I had simply found it on a Google search late one night on the Chinese island of Hainan. Tantra had come up for me a few times in India but I hadn’t felt ready for it back then. After months of deprivation or ‘tapas’, I now felt grounded enough in my spirituality to be able to start indulging my senses again. After all those months of sitting in ashrams and meditating, how to start living a normal life again? I believed that tantra was the answer.
|The Shiva Hall at Agama, being prepared for a Tantric ritual|
I didn’t know it at the time but I had stumbled upon a gem with the school. The Sanskrit word ‘Agama’ is the name of a collection of scriptures which teach the practices of tantra, the most ancient science of India and the root from which the other Indian religions have sprung. Lord Shiva himself, who lived as a great master around 7,000 years ago was one of the proponents of tantra, along with the Aryan nomad tribes who invaded India from the North West. They brought with them the notion of non-dualism which is this: we are inseparable from the divine – we are expressions of God, as is everything around us. “I am that.” We came from God and we can return to God and this is enlightenment.
|Shakti Power with Lyonne, another Tantric yogini|
I have a lot to say on the matter of tantra, some of which is impossible or inappropriate to include here (please feel free to email me personally if you want to know more). It is a difficult subject to paraphrase but I will try my best. Tantra can be divided into two paths – the Right Handed Path and the Left Handed Path. Christ sat at the right hand of God. In India, the right hand is used for prayer and devotion. The Right Handed Path is that which takes you straight to the divine. Jesus was capable of this, Buddha was capable of this however most human beings, limited by working out karmas and bound by samskaras (imprints left by actions in previous lives), are not. Most religions emphasise deprivation of the senses to get closer to God – through fasting, celibacy and asceticism. However the tantrics believed that it was possible to use the senses in order to transcend them.
|More beautiful Shaktis|
The left handed path offers an approach whereby the human body can be used as a tool to overcome itself, to attain ‘one-ness’ with the divine. The tantrics believed that in the age of Kali Yuga (the age of vice) in which we live, the left handed path is the only realistic path for people born into a life of materialism who are unable or unwilling to give it all up. Tantra provides a healthy route to enlightenment without complete renunciation – it basically involves bringing latent energy from our base chakras (associated with low, physical desires) into higher chakras associated with unconditional love, devotion, expression, intellect, creativity, knowledge and soul. I took to it immediately. The course itself was extremely well presented and inspirational. I was hugely affected by the teachings and the meditations which were so powerful I was often either in tears or flying out of my seat. Having been a reiki healer and member of the Usui reiki network for several years, I was well versed in using energy and I found the techniques of moving it upwards came naturally to me. Being an earthy, sensual woman, I had plenty of energy to use in the first place (a pre requisite for being a tantrica). At last I could use it for something positive.
|Me and Joel, one of my gorgeous Shivas|
The left handed path prescribes many ways of reaching enlightenment and although much smaller emphasis is given to it in the Shastra (the tantric scriptures) one route is sexuality. The sacred union of Shiva (masculine) and Shakti (feminine). The theory is that polarity exists in this entire universe – night and day, good and bad, yin and yang, black and white, male and female, Shiva and Shakti. Shakti represents energy, creation, manifestation, everything on this earth. Shiva is the consciousness which witnesses the action. Shiva is the eye and Shakti is the storm. Without Shiva, Shakti is nothing. Without Shakti, Shiva is nothing. In tantra, the point at which these two forces unite is the point at which Brahma or ‘oneness’ can be achieved. It is not only a beautiful notion but a beautiful and sacred practice which is completely undermined by ignorant modern-day interpretations based on new age derivations and activities of celebrities such as Sting.
|In the ‘yab yum’ with my teacher Assaf who I later
ran a workshop with in Goa
To get to the goal requires not only a very high level of purity of body and mind, but rigorous physical and spiritual training that demands an enormous amount of readiness and preparation. There are two pillars in tantra – sublimation (the raising of the energy) and transfiguration of yourself and your partner – to see them and yourself as an incarnation of the divine and to be as devoted to them as you are to God himself. Ram Dass has put this much bRetter than I ever could so I shall defer to him on this one: “It’s all about making love. Make love in beauty, in joy, in seeing each other in truth…Let the man worship woman as God, the Holy Mother, the Divine Shakti, the Mana, the Food of Life, the Sustainer of Being, Isis, Astarte, the Good Earth, Terrible Kali and Herself – All of It. She is all of it. Let the woman worship man as God, the Son, the Sun, the Father, the Lite of Her Life, the Creator, the Provider, as Jesus, as Ram, as Shiva, as Krishna, as all of them and Himself. Surrender and die to one another. Become one. The glorious Mystic rose in the garden of the heavenly Father, Permeate the universe, fill it, become it, for this is the union beyond duality. O Holy Family. This is the seat of the practice.”
|My beach hut home|
And so it was that I lived in a little hut on the beach replete with hammock to swing in as the waves lapped nearby.. Paradise. I enrolled not only on the Tantra 1 and Tantra 2 courses, but a month long intensive yoga training course (6 days per week), which incorporated asana practice, meditation initiation and lessons, esoteric and mystical teaching, philosophy, laya yoga, lessons in a yogic lifestyle and kriyas (cleansing practices). I also embarked on a 10 day detox in which I ate nothing but brown rice and steamed vegetables and avoided all sugar (even toothpaste) to attempt to rid myself of the parasite that kept thwarting me.
|Nicola, my new friend enjoying raw food made with
love by Sabrina at Wake Up Bar, Chaloklum
It was tough work but I was helped greatly by my fairy godmother Sabrina of Wake Up restaurant who prepared my raw food with love for the duration). With all of this healing work and yet more devotion to spirituality, things came up but on the whole, life was peachy. Tantra had given me a new and wonderful outlook on life and myself. I appeared to magnetise several men whilst on the island, including a gorgeous 22 year old German who became my tantric partner and together we enjoyed intense and beautiful practice. It had been a long time and I entered into love with him fully, consciously, joyfully and spiritually.
But it wasn’t all a walk in the park and, as with most communities, I found some of the aspects of the Agama ‘way’ challenging. Some of the members of the community were hard core non-drinking, non-smoking yogis who advocated ‘urine therapy’ (the daily drinking of one’s own urine) and eating only ‘yang foods’ such as brown rice. I don’t have anything against the lifestyle choices of others, but again I defer to Ram Dass on this when it comes to enforced asceticism “you cannot rip the skin from the snake, the snake will shed it’s skin when it’s ready”. Nevertheless, with one notable exception (more on this later) the majority of my time on the island was also spent in sobriety.
What I found more difficult was the encouragement of polyamoury within the community. Whilst I find the concepts of non ownership and unconditional love something to aspire to, I couldn’t help but feeling that there were a few people on the island indulging in ‘red tantra’ – i.e. sex for the sake of sex. In this way, the ego is indulged, not surpassed and it is very easy to fall into the usual sense-pleasure games under the thin guise of ‘spirituality’. They do say the tantric path is a slippery one after all. Although at times tempted, I did manage to successfully avoid getting dragged in. Another of my concerns focused around the ubiquitousness of sexual healing and the occasional unscrupulousness of certain people purporting to be healers whose motives might not be entirely pure. Thankfully the instances of this were peripheral and rare, but nonetheless it was something that I was conscious of and had occasional concerns for those more vulnerable than myself.
Despite this, however, my time on the island was nothing short of transformational. I am now a fully fledged and initiated tantrica and I went on from this to not only complete a tantric yoga teacher training course, but found my own company which runs tantric workshops. We have just launched our first event in Goa which was a great success – you can read all about it on my website and our Facebook page. Perhaps most importantly, I learned what it truly is to be a woman. To surrender. To devote myself to the Divine. To be a good partner. To love myself. And I was about to open myself to such riches that I could not have previously dreamt possible before. For this, I have my lover, Phil to thank, I have my new friends to thank (Johnny, Nicola, Lauren) and I have Agama. Although I don’t necessarily sign up to all of their teachings, I think I have found my path.
To be continued…
|Entertaining a village full of Khmer children in a Muslim settlement outside Battambang|
|Khmer BBQ! Squid and chilly sauce at Phsar Thmey Central Market|
|Stunning Khmer architecture at the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh|
|Beautiful Buildings in The Royal Palace of Cambodia|
|The atmospheric indoor Russian market in Phnom Penh|
|Tasty and cheap street food in Phnom Penh|
|My lovely friend Tim Tim, professional clown, yoga buddy & street food dining companion|
|The ‘best iced coffee in Phnom Penh! in the Russian Market. They actually have their own Facebook page|
|And this is the reason why it’s so good… It is full of sticky, sweet, condensed milk! Half a tin of the stuff!|
|Horrific images of forced evacuations, one of the Khmer Rouge’s first and most radical moves to enslave citizens as peasants in work camps in order to create an ‘ideal’ communist society|
|Choeung Ek Memorial at one of the many Killing Fields or execution sites…full of the skulls of victims of the Khmer Rouge|
|Pretty in Pink in Phnom Penh|
|Me and Dana – my HCMC partner in crime, reunited in Happy 11 Backpackers|
|Buddha statues in a temple around Battambang|
|Receiving a massage from the craggy hands of a blind Khmer woman. Life changing.|
|Just some of the 216 giant faces of King Jayavarman VII at Bayon Temples, Siem Reap|
|Crowds gather for sunrise at the infamous Angkor Watt temple|
|The sun beginning to peep out behind Angkor Watt|
|The incredible temple of Ta Promh, being swallowed up by jungle, was used as a film set for ‘Tomb Raider’|
|Exquisite bas relief from Angkor Watt temple depicting the infamous ‘churning of the ocean of milk’ story of Hindu cosmology in which gods and demons churn the ocean for 1,000yrs to release amritam the nectar of immortality|
|Action shot! Filming in the back of a tuk tuk|
|There are huge communities of Vietnamese, Khmer, Chinese and Cham people living on the Mekong Delta, either on boats or on structures like these on stilts and making their living as farmers and fishermen|
|Cast and crew|
|Tegan, my little miss sunshine & Saigon roomie|
On my first night alone again in HCMC I sat and reflected on the previous fortnight. I had had a blast with my friend but I was determined to get back on the spiritual path and devote myself to moderation once more. That night as I settled into my bunk bed and listened to the sounds of the streets outside, I felt alone. In fact, I felt lonely. I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going next in the world and I felt the need to bounce ideas around. I logged into Thorntree – the Lonely Planet forum for travellers – and linked in with a lively online discussion group who were all bemoaning how ‘touristy’ HCMC was and ‘full of chavvy backpackers’. I suggested that, from time to time we all suffer from this particular malaise – thinking, mistakenly, that we long term backpackers are ‘above’ the traveller scene. I suggested to the guys online that we greet everyone with a broad smile and an open heart – whether authentic local or white westerner. After all, you never know what experience is awaiting you.
|Dana, my new BFF|
Deciding that to practice what I preach, I headed out of the winding alleyway to the street beer bars in the Pham Ngu Lao area. I would recommend to anyone going to Saigon to spend at least one night at one of these street-side bars, where the atmosphere is possibly the best of any drinking establishment I have frequented (and believe me, I have patronised a few). Everyone huddles together on tiny kindergarten sized plastic seats and all proceedings are overseen (at Cafe 100 at least) by an formidable Vietnamese woman in her 80s. This lady stands up all night and ensures that you are seated and have a beer in your hand within approximately 30 seconds of your arrival. At no point will you be empty handed – and with the beer cheaper than water, what better way to refresh?
|The elderly woman who oversees proceedings at Cafe 100|
However, drinking on the streets in Vietnam is actually illegal and, at periodic intervals, the ‘chair police’ patrol the road. The police drive, inexplicably, in the back of a pick up truck with sun umbrellas over the top and slowly cruise the street. As soon as the patron of the establishment notices their appearance, all customers are ushered up to standing and there is a kick-bollocks scramble to stack the chairs up. The bars are usually full to bursting, with patrons spilling out onto the streets, but once the police are there we have to crowd onto the pavement. This nightly ritual is hilariously pointless…The police know that everyone is sitting on the plastic seats on the road but they continue their drive by and so, every half an hour the game of musical chairs begins again. Other spectacular sights in Pham Ngu Lao include dancing prostitutes who erect giant speakers and dance through the streets, promoting their wares and a man who swallows a live snake then spits it out (and a load of black stuff) onto the floor. Rank.
|Feeling the love with Rogier (young Dutch!)|
I planned to order one drink and hopefully have banter with other travellers. Within moments of ordering my 12,000 Dong beer (that’s about 30 pence to me and you), a group of travellers started to assemble around me and squeeze into the miniature plastic chairs and tables. I found myself sitting next to Dana, a fellow sassy, sexy solo female traveller. We both bonded over our mutual travels in China and in Asia. And so, one beer turned into many and the scene changed to group bonding, yoga asanas in the street (who knew I could do a head stand in my mini skirt when drunk) and onwards to what would affectionately later become known later as ‘Gang Rape Bar’. My one beer had turned into an all night bender that even my former media girl self would have been proud of.
|Cafe 100, where the beer is cheaper than water|
|Our lovely drinking crew|
|John – my new male BFF|
I sailed into the Saigon Youth Hostel at 7am in the morning and was kindly handed a cheese baguette (the French influence still lives on), had a quick shower and turned around immediately to head out to my Cu Chi Tunnel tour. I had already booked and missed one trip (due to having my handbag snatched – another story and sadly not an uncommon occurrence in HCMC) and was determined not to let anything, not even lack of sleep prevent me from going this time. However, I’m not the alcoholic I once was and soon began to feel the after effects of the all nighter. I staggered to the tour office and tried to persuade the agent that I was only fit for a half day not the full day tour (a staggering 8 hrs which took in Tay Ninh temple, too). But he wasn’t having any of it – I had paid for the full day and the full day I would do.
|The drunken Irish guy (inappropriately, still drinking beer!)|
I fell asleep outside the office – a crumpled mess on a bench – and was woken up by a tour guide who came to escort me to my bus. En route I fell in with a lovely chap called John and I instantly liked him. When we got to the bus stand, however, John was ushered onto the half day bus and I was left standing there in the already scorching sunlight, hungover, feeling like ‘death and loss’ and alone once more. As I watched the bus pull away the woman shot me a sunny smile and waved me on. I jumped shouting “I MANIFESTED THIS!”Much to the amusement of my fellow passengers. I stumbled to my seat then began to insult (in an affectionate kind of way) an Irish guy who was sitting next to me. Turns out he was as drunk as I was and we both managed to amuse the rest of the bus until I passed out, exhausted, thus missing the entire commentary by the tour guide.
|Putting on a brave face…|
The extensive network of underground in the Cu Chi district of Saigon which were used by the Viet Cong guerilla fighters during the Vietnam War are now one of the major tourist attractions around Saigon and many tour operators run buses there several times per day. Whilst it seems inappropriate to visit such an ‘attraction’, you have to hand it to the Vietnamese – a race who has been invaded and pillaged from all corners – for managing to turn their tumultuous past into something positive. The network of tunnels which spans 250km, were built with the bare hands of Vietnamese people during the French occupation but were expanded to provide a competitive advantage over the Americans in the 1960s. They played a major role in the Vietnamese winning the war with several military campaigns based there including the Tet Offensive in 1968. The tunnels originally stretched from the Cambodian border to what was then Saigon and remain as a testament to the fighting spirit, resilience and ingenuity of the people of Vietnam.
|OMG I’m going in…|
|Beer fear: don’t try this on a hangover!|
Entire communities of Vietnamese Cong fighters subsisted in these tunnels which were only a couple of feet in height and width: living, working, educating their children and even giving birth in there as well as planning deadly attacks on US forces and the South Vietnamese. In addition, American soldiers were deployed into the tunnels. In a horrific spin on hide and seek they would try and find the Vietnamese before they found them…Scary stuff, especially as the VC had the place booby trapped to buggery. Many of these grisly traps still exist and are on display as part of the site’s attractions today. The Americans or ‘tunnel rats’ who had the misfortune to be enter the tunnels coined the phrase ‘black echo’ to describe the way life down there. Rats, scorpions, parasites, vermin and disease was rife, especially malaria which was second only to battle wounds as a major cause of death. As part of the ‘attraction’ at Cu Chi, visitors are able to enter the sections of the tunnels – ranging from 150 feet to 650 feet in length and crawl through the dank, claustrophobic network.
|Me and John: getting tanked up!|
This part is definitely the hardest thing about Cu Chi. Many of the tourists that I was with started to enter the tunnels then bolted, having changed their mind. A lot of people couldn’t even go down there. I am proud to say that, although it took me a couple of attempts and much hyperventilating, with the help of some other awesome chicks on the tour, I made it through the entire 650 foot network. Fortunately, there are several ‘get out’ points where, if you need to exit due to panic, you can. We emerged sweaty but triumphant, much to the admiration of many of the boys who had not been able to stomach it. Note to self though, going underground at Cu Chi tunnels is pretty difficult at the best of times, never mind the morning after the night before, on no sleep whatsoever and feeling plenty of beer fear! I think the photos speak for themselves!
|I’m a lover, not a fighter. Honest!|
The other activities at Cu Chi included bomb craters, booby traps, scarily life-like mannequins of VC soldiers and a few abandoned tanks that were available for clambering on. There was even the option to shoot an AK47 or a M16 machine gun. Of course I got on board, despite the fact that I was blatantly still drunk. It took me back to the days when I earned my striped as a corporal in the army cadets! We rocked around the site, our merry tour group, including the Irish lads who were still inappropriately drinking beer and eating bags of crisps. Our cheeky faced tour guide didn’t seem to mind our irreverent attitude, however, he was just pleased we were having fun. Once again, I had to admire the Vietnamese for their sense of humour and philosophical outlook, despite the atrocities of their recent past.
|Lanterns in the quaint streets of Hoi An|
And so our bus full of love and wonderful people drove back to the backpackers district of Saigon and we all chatted nineteen to the dozen. As well as John, there was the articulate Phi, yet another American (based in Cali, no less) and Shona, a wonderful English girl with whom I shared more than a few things in common. The Irish lads, who had provided us with so much amusement, finally dozed off to sleep and John and I talked and talked about everything from art to Hinduism to life and everything. In fact, we couldn’t stop talking and even though I was completely exhausted, so inspiring and energising was his company that we spent the rest of the day and evening together, chatting over coffee. He drew me a one page map of Vietnam in my notepad (the only piece of cartographical reference I had to rely on) and we vowed to meet again in Cambodia to continue where we left off in a week’s time. the universe had spoken. I made plans.
|White rose dumplings, a Hoi An speciality|
However, I had a few more things that I wanted to explore in Vietnam before my visa was due to run out, so I flew up to Hoi An, a beautifully preserved South East Asian port town that is now a listed UNESCO heritage sight in the Quang Nam province. I spent a day sightseeing, wandering through ancient streets with buildings tangled with bougainvillea and visiting many colourful temples and pagodas. I watched some traditional Vietnamese dancing and feasted on delicious local treats, including the legendary white rose dumplings made up to resemble tiny roses. I also reconvened with Phi and Sho (a coincidence that the combination of both their names = mine?) and we enjoyed some girly time together including more gastronomic delights, street food and even some Vietnamese wine.
|Getting ready to burn rubber|
Tommy, one of the guys in our Saigon drinking massive, had told me about a motorbike drive he and Johnny (a fellow scouser) had done, which had featured on Top Gear. Not wanting to miss out, I managed to find myself two willing lads to accompany me on Vietnam’s most beautiful drive – from Hoi An to Hue over the mountain road. You might remember that Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond did this drive on Top Gear. If not, you can watch the clip here. Driving along the coast road with the wind in my hair, I really felt as if I was finally ‘doing Vietnam’.
|The boys, taking in the view|
Having made the spectacular drive over the mountains, I nearly got separated from the boys on the way back and thankfully caught up with them at a roadside stop. I didn’t have a mobile phone, or a map and although I’m a good driver, am rubbish at directions and was relying on them to get me back. Unfortunately, they were both as terrified as me (if not more) and on the way home we lost our nerve and had to come back through the city – not a good move as we were sharing lanes with up to 60 other bikes at a time and negotiating horrendous traffic. We ended up following a bus back to Hoi An! Not so rock n roll. But the drive has inspired me to go back and drive the length of the country next time, on Highway 1. I’m looking for potential biker buddies to accompany me…so let me know if you’re keen!
|Sampling the local cuisine in Ben Thanh market|
I found my way down a typical, winding dark lane off Pham Ngu Lao to My My Art House, a tall narrow building (apparently there is a law in Vietnam which dictates that the wider the building the higher the tax and so most of them are built in this precariously vertical fashion). I was greeted by the very camp, friendly patron and harrumphed my backpack up 6 flights of tiny stairs to my shared dorm. Back in the real world. I was waiting for a friend to meet me and I was reluctant to get started on tourism until she arrived. So for two or 3 days I immediately got stuck into FOOD, one of my main passions and the chief inspiration for my trip to Vietnam.
|Mango salad – one of my all time favourite dishes|
Hailing from Hackney (in recent years) where there is a huge Vietnamese community and ensuing proliferation of restaurants, I had become a fan of the cuisine. In Saigon (although it was officially renamed as HCMC in 1976 most people still prefer to call it by its previous name) I feasted upon shrimps in tamarind sauce, mango salad, spring rolls and squid from street stalls, tiny cafés and the wonderful Ben Thanh market. Ohhh and let’s not forget Vietnamese iced coffee…made with condensed milk, the sickly sweet stuff is perhaps one of the world’s greatest hangover cures and is best enjoyed local-style – on the pavement, sitting at a tiny folding metal table on an even tinier plastic chair. It is a great vantage point from which to sit and watch the city – at 8 million people the biggest in Vietnam – bustle by.
|Cocktails by the pool in Legend Hotel|
My friend Sandra* arrived from London and we checked into the salubrious Legend Hotel, a good base from which to explore the more cosmopolitan and upmarket part of town (definitely not one for the backpacker budget, especially the fabulous bars around the Hai Ba Trung area). Having spent most of the previous 7 months in the developing world it was a complete contrast for me and I enjoyed the opportunity to indulge in luxury, eating rich meals and having a few cocktails by the pool whilst catching up with Sandra.
|Newspaper cuttings in the War Remnants Museum|
Keen to hit the sights, one of our first stops was the War Remnants Museum. Previously known as the Museum of Chinese & American War Crimes, it (as the name might infer) gives a rather one-sided but candid and shocking insight into the suffering of the victims of the Vietnam War. The ground floor is dedicated to the international anti war movement and I was surprised to see just how many countries spoke out in protest.
|The iconic image of the ‘Napalm Girl’|
The displays, however, became increasingly more distressing and by the time I arrived at the third floor, a gallery dedicated to the victims of Agent Orange chemical warfare, I embarrassingly burst into tears and sobbed in the middle of the room. I was ready to run by the time we reached the exhibits outside – an array of torture devices such as guillotines and the ‘tiger cages’ used to house Viet Cong prisoners in the French and South Vietnamese prisons on Phu Quoc and Con Son Islands. Hideous. After months and months of spiritual development, raising my own energetic vibration and connecting to the universal source of divine love, I was shocked and horrified to witness the worst of what man is capable of inflicting on man. Later, when I went to bed I was beset with flashbacks and nightmares of the horrific images that I had seen.
|Prayers in the pagodas of Cholon|
A more civilised afternoon was spent exploring the colourful Chinese pagodas around Cholon, seeing an exhausting array of temples including one dedicated to the goddess of fertility (we both prayed that one day I will have babies!) We also enjoyed channelling 007… “we’ve been expecting you, Mr. Bond” in the marvellously retro and shagadelic Reunification Palace. This was the home of the South Vietnamese president and site of the end of the war when a North Vietnamese army tank crashed through its gates during the fall of Saigon. Sandra and I both used to work together in the broadcasting industry and we thought our colleagues would like the various bits of transmission equipment on display in the basement.
|Mosquito coils in the Chinese pagodas in Cholon|
|Retro vibes in Reunification Palace|
We took an obligatory tour out to see the Mekong Delta where we got to see the process of making rice papers and sweets, take a boat trip along the river and listen to traditional Vietnamese music. However, the whole experience was marred by the fact that it completely lacked authenticity, instead feeling as if we were on a souvenir-purchasing conveyor belt, hastily packed from one sales opportunity to the next.
|Messing about on the Mekong|
|The birthday girl – looking fabulous as always|
It happened to be Sandra’s birthday (52 and fabulous – you would never be able to tell) during her time with me in Vietnam and we certainly celebrated in style. We were awakened by one of the hotel staff bringing in a birthday breakfast of champagne and cake. After polishing this off we arrived at our cooking class at Hoa Tuc Restaurant rather tipsy. Still, being domestic goddesses, we managed to rustle up cha gio sai (fried Saigon spring rolls with traditional nuoc mam dipping sauce), goi ga bap chuoi (shredded banana blossoms salad with chicken, peanuts and deep fried shallots- presented in a banana leaf) and, of course pho-bo the traditional Vietnamese dish of beef noodles soup. Delicious – even though I say say myself! We spent the rest of the day relaxing by the pool before yet more champagne and cake…high tea in our hotel room which started out gracefully then ended with both of us dancing around to Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ in the bathroom in our bikinis. Oh dear.
|Playing Nigella in Hoa Tuc cookery class|
|Here’s one I made earlier – Goi ga bap chuoi|
One of the ‘must dos’ in Saigon is to try out one of it’s many rooftop bars and no expense was spared on Sandra’s birthday. Although we had previously enjoyed a ‘sundowner’ at the much-vaunted Rex Hotel (famous hack hangout, back in the day), it paled in comparison with the Chill Sky Bar located on the 26th floor of the AB financial Tower. There we quaffed eye wateringly expensive margaritas (Sandra’s signature cocktail) but it was undoubtedly worth it for the stunning aerial view over the whole of Saigon whose flat topography means that you can enjoy a glittering vista for miles around. A perfect spot to dance the night away.
|Celebrating in style at the Chill Skybar|
|Tea party in the bath, anyone?|
After all that eating, drinking and sightseeing we needed a rest so decamped from our beautiful room at Legend to go and relax on the beach in Mui Ne for a few days. On arrival at the leafy, boutique Mia Resort we were treated to chilled green tea served in beautiful porcelain cups. A tranquil few days was spent relaxing by the pool, sunbathing on the pristine white sand beach and enjoying treatments in the spa. We did venture out once or twice but found that none of the restaurants matched up to the excellence (or the seabass) of the Mia restaurant – and with everything else at our fingertips, why would we leave? After several days of beach relaxation, Sandra departed for London and I reluctantly left behind our fabulous 4 star resort to return to a bunk bed in a 4 bed dormitory at Saigon Youth Hostel. Well, what comes up must come down, I suppose. Asceticism would follow the decadence of the previous fortnight.. Or so I thought…
|The pristine beach at Mia resort, Mui Ne|
*Thanks, Sandy P, for the holiday of a lifetime and all your kindness, generosity and support with my future travel decision-making and the Edventure Nepal campaign fundraiser
|The Chinese flag is ceremoniously raised & lowered
every day by a guard of honour in Tiananmen Square
I had plans for China. Big plans. But the Universe continued to play a few tricks on me and all of them, it seems, were made to be broken. The country itself had hitherto been uninteresting but I was attracted by the draw of two very special people – my friend Will, based in Shanghai and working for Tesco and ‘American Mark’, a PhD scholar who was living in the Gansu province. Mark was studying how certain aspects of Chinese culture and social structure helped to support co-operation between individuals and he was doing this in the context of an industrial co-operative. I was going to join him there. It would be a unique opportunity to experience the full gamut of capitalism and communism which I thought summed up modern day China rather elegantly.
|Marching towards progress –
Communist scupture in Tiananmen Square
However, a few days before my arrival I received a brief email from Mark imparting the unexpected news that he was to leave China immediately with no knowledge of if or when he would return. I was concerned by the uncharacteristically brief tone of his message and it turns out I had reason to be. It transpires that the Chinese government were in a particularly edgy mood at the time. Tensions were building between Beijing and Washington after the Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng escaped house arrest from his village in north eastern China and took refuge in the US embassy. Potentially one of the victims of this fallout, Mark, under suspicion of espionage from the Chinese government, had endured a 13hr interrogation by soldiers with AK47s in a Chinese military camp before being promptly extradited.*
|The eerily beautific face of Mao is lit at night,
lending it an ethereal glow
I had resigned myself to the fact that the Universe wished to divest me of travelling companions at this particular time (how ironic, given that all the time I was in India I had craved solitude…now that I actually wanted company it was being removed from me at every opportunity.) I planned to undertake an epic trip, heading up to Datong to see the Buddhist caves and a hanging monastery, on to Pingyao, the oldest walled town in China with Will and then continue on alone along the Silk Road. But it was not meant to be. After a day or two of sightseeing in Beijing which entailed walking for miles over vast areas, negotiating thousands of steps on the metro, my knackered legs well and truly gave out on me. I was physically unable to walk any more. And so the rest of the trip was spent recuperating and receiving treatment at a Chinese hospital. I must be the only person who has spent a significant amount of time in Beijing and not even made it to the Great Wall!
|The Forbidden City|
Fortunately, before my legs gave out I was able to do the prerequisite tour of the incredible Forbidden City, the iconic imperial palace of the Ming dynasty and home to the Chinese emperors for 500 years. The complex consists of 980 buildings and spans a staggering 720,000 square metres… no wonder my legs were fooked after that! The site was so huge that it was difficult to snap photographs, never mind take it all in. But Will and I managed to find the perfect spot to enjoy a panoramic view over the city – sipping cocktails and wine at the Yin Bar, a classy establishment on top of the Emperor Hotel.
|Panoramic views of the Forbidden City at sunset from Yin Bar|
|Red lanterns in ‘Ghost Street’|
Our gastronomic tour continued with visits to the Beijing night food market. The less said about this the better really..I was groped not once but twice and we had some nasty interactions with unscrupulous stall holders who tried to rip us off. Perhaps one of our most memorable and tasty meals was had down ‘Ghost Street’. Strung with hundreds of red Chinese lanterns and stretching over one kilometre, Gui Je (as it is officially known) is Beijing’s most famous eating street. It is populated with more than 200 restaurants open 24hrs and serving all kinds of Chinese cuisine including the infamous and delicious Peking Duck. This dish can also, bizarrely, be found in vegetarian version in most restaurants – fashioned out of tofu (I think) but bearing a very close resemblance to the real deal – skin and all.
|Will looking bookish at the Bookworm Cafe|
Speaking of vegetarianism, we also enjoyed a fabulous and flamboyant feed at the Pure Lotus, a vegetarian restaurant with a twist. The only way I can describe this is like ‘Alice on acid’ – although given that it is a Buddhist restaurant ran by monks, there are no chemical influences at all – not even alcohol served. Sumptuous dishes made from fruit, flowers, vegetables and all kinds of goodness were served up flamboyantly on enormous leaves, in silver art nouveau dishes. Glittering chandeliers hung from the ceiling and monks in jazzed up, sequinned garb, flitted between the tables.
|Art in Book worm Cafe|
However, our favourite hang out became the Bookworm Cafe – a restaurant, library, bookshop and events space all rolled into one. Here Will and I enjoyed some ‘Slow Boat’ real ale on draught (wow! for the first time in 7 months!) and marvelled at their single malt whiskey selection. It was a beautiful place to relax with your nose in one of the many good books adorning the shelves and get lost in the art they had on display. Another little gem we came across was the 12 SQM bar, once famous for being the smallest bar in Beijing and now a gorgeous little atmospheric pub with a great selection of booze. The Ozzy barman was very friendly and a meeting of the local book club was in full swing during our visit.
We stayed at an excellent hostel called Red Lantern House, a traditional Chinese courtyard house set in a sleepy Hutong – narrow streets or alleyways traditionally lined with courtyard houses and common in Beijing. I enjoyed hobbling around the Hutong and taking in the local life – carts full of melons trundling along, street vendors selling everything from fresh ginger to dates, nuts and ‘1,000 year old’ preserved eggs. Some of my most wonderful, human interactions in China were in the Hutong. Despite having no shared language at all, smiles and gestures melted hearts and opened doors. It was lovely to wander around at night as stall holders barbecued in the street, people sat peeling vegetables and old men played cards.
|My legs during moxybustion. YUK!|
A serendipitous discovery was that the best Chinese alternative medicine hospital was located just around the corner from Red Lantern. Here I received massage, acupuncture, electric wave therapy and moxybustion (cupping) every day. This was the first time I had tried any of these treatments and it was certainly an experience, having to lie there whilst a doctor poked sticks into my legs. However, I felt grateful that I was able to get such comprehensive treatment so easily and I felt that it all added to the authenticity of the experience. From Beijing. Will and I took advantage of his corporate air miles and flew to the not-so-Chinese tropical island of Hainan (still part of China but off the mainland). There we lay on our backs on the beach for a week, enjoying fresh coconuts and sunshine. Well, even yogis need a holiday sometimes, don’t they?
|“I’ve got a lovely pair of coconuts” in Hainan|
*Luckily, Mark escaped unharmed and has now been allowed back into China, where he continues to pursue his studies…