26 January, 2009

Photos from the Galle Literary Festival 2009, in sunny Sri Lanka

What a magic venue to hold a literary festival! First I'll whizz you around on a whirlwind tour of the 17th century Dutch fort to give you a feel for the location. Location matters.

First, the lighthouse and mosque on the southern tip:

...and again, but viewed from the centre of the fort:

Typical Fort streetscapes - with the ubiquitous Bajaj tuk-tuk:

...and old fortified ramparts dating from colonial times:

...but minus cannon emplacements. Note the Bajaj tuk-tuk with surfboard:

Goats wander at will, and a bullock snoozes next to its cart:

Locals go about their fishy business. Galle is nothing if not a fishing town, and a place where old TATA buses go to die:

Kandyan dancers seemed to pop up everywhere we went...

...as did the ubiquitous feral cows, scavenging food scraps from bins and drains:

Our festival activities began with a recreational tour of tiny Taprobane Island, now owned by the festival organiser. It has been the haunt of past writers and luminaries, viz, Paul Bowles, Robin Maugham, Arthur C. Clarke [..."where I escaped the tyranny of the typewriter"], Gore Vidal, and latterly graced by no less than Marie Burrows:

We waded accross at low tide, blissfully unaware that we would later have to return when the water was waist-deep. Tricked... but OK cool ;-) ...no 18-foot tsunamis today. As we entered the house, Marie and I had an extremely weird feeling of deja vu... the design and dimensions, if not the material, was nearly identical with our former octagonal house in North Queensland, but Taprobane was an island, not perched on the summit of a mountain. Another minor difference was that Taprobane Island can be rented for eleven hundred pounds per night. Yup folks, that's 1,100 British quid per night, minimum 3 weeks... oh well, heck, there is a pool...

The first function was the official Festival opening, held at the humble birthplace [photo below] of the venerated late Srilankan writer/scholar Martin Wickramasinge, south of Galle at Koggala:

This was followed by a nosh-up at a massive hotel/resort aptly named 'The Fortress', allegedly built by a well-connected Srilankan politician with an unaccountably huge amount of cash to fling around. Say no more, nudge nudge... or else. There is a palpable atmosphere of politically-generated fear in Srilanka, and non-conforming journalists are at risk of their lives. President Rajapakse's cronies offer policy concerning the LTTE as a "with-us-or-against-us" thing, Weapons of Press Distortion, copy-catted from Amerkin-style poltix, viz:

Then on day 2 began a feast of events which left us literally breathless and stimulated. In the photo below, Marie heads off to lunch after listening to travel-writer Colin Thubron recounting anecdotes of his travels along the Silk Road:

Through this main gate of the Galle Fort are the district legal offices and Courts. Marie could observe the environment in which her great-grandfather, a respected (and feared) Srilankan KC from Colombo, might well have visited. The Great Family Tradition survives in diasporic reincarnation - Marie's sister Catherine has also attained dizzying heights in the Silk trade in outback Orstraya.

(Hmm, in fact, I might hire Catherine to protect us from unwelcome attention from goats begging for food at Hikkaduwa station, en route from Galle to Colombo.)

I have no idea why this goat had "DONATED TO OXFAM" branded on its rump:

Here's the sleepy Galle Magistrates Court, in a dusty lane just inside the gate:

It is ironic in the extreme that we, as Australians with Queen Elizabeth still anachronistically lodged as Head-of-State, have to visit a long independent ex-British colony to hear English spoken as it oughta. The likes of Pico Iyer and M. J. Akbar are politically astute thinkers, both incredidbly articulate with incisive wits. As a humble photo-blogger, I was in awe.

Here's Marie at a workshop, sitting between balding photo-bloggers:

Germaine Greer spoke about writing taboos, sex, and censorship. During this speech she claimed that older men were more media-visible and accepted than older women. She commented that whiskery old men with dodgy prostates are perceived as cuddly and cute. (I confess, I felt a momentary impulse to ask a parallel question about about wizened old post-hysterectomy women... but the urge receded, conveniently). I was sitting next to Thomas Keneally at the time, and Germaine seemed to glare accusingly at us both... eek. Germaine specifically cited the plight of Australia's Aboriginal men as one subject that is taboo in Australian public debate.

A standing ovation for Germaine Greer

After the session, Germaine and Thomas hugged and both shed tears of rage and compassion for Aboriginal Australians. It also happened to be Germaine's 70th birthday... but she didn't seem particularly invisible:

A more humorous, if considerably more prosaic facet of the Srilankan literary tradition can be observed in my photo of a geriatric glue-pot in the Galle post-office. Couldn't resist photographing the generations of stamp perforations, assorted paper fragments, papr-clips, and even biros embedded like flies frozen in amber. Also check out the classy cardboard desk protector:

Inspired, we brought home a metre-high pile of books from the GLF Bookshop, but expertly spread the weight so there were no excess baggage charges. More luck than magic - it pays to arrive late to check-in: airline staff are in a hurry:

For confirmed GLF junkies, there are more photos and atrocities here .

14 January, 2009

Touring LAOS: Khong Lor is better than Luangprabang, Vientiane or Vangvieng

After a day's energetic caving and canoeing, Marie pigs out.

It's back to Show-and-Tell diary confession mode again. We've just returned from 12 daze in LAOS, which were, well, OK ...sort of. "Did" Vientiane, Luangprabang, Vangvieng ...and Tam Lot Khong Lor, the highlight.

Never heard of Tam Lot Khong Lor? It's a fantastic river cave, 7 kilometres long flowing darkly under a mountain from one side clear through to the other. Spectacular. If you appreciate Things Natural, make sure you get your body there before you die, but don't forget to take powerful torches and shoes suitable for stony riverbeds. There be dragons.

In the next pic, we emerge blinking into daylight at the far end of the cave after an hour of travel by motorized long-tail canoe:

Getting to the cave is not as difficult as it used to be, as there are now sealed roads more or less) all the way to the village of Ban Nahin, 5 hours east of Vientiane. That's probably because investors can see that the Khong Lor cave is one of the as-yet-unexploited tourist drawcards of Laos, and are sinking money into it hand over fist (shame, really). Some small-scale 'resorts' are appearing, such as Sala Hin Boun, and they all offer canoe tours of the Nam Song river and its exceptional cave.

We were told by the Lao canoeist that French archaeologists had recently installed the electric wiring to the cathedral-like limestone cavern. (I rather suspect that the Lao translation of 'archaeologist' = 'investor').

The surrounding limestone 'karst' mountains are pure Martian in their jagged black unreality. Ridiculous! Mountains and rocks don't usually behave like this:

On the other hand, if Nature just isn't your Thing, hop on a minibus to Vanvieng for karaoke, steakburgers and BeerLao. Join the hordes of prat-packers (especially young-ish Austrayans on long leashes) who delight in the Bachanalian excesses that Laos affords them. Vangvieng is fast becoming the new Bali, where you can laze around all day/night and watch re-run episodes of Friends, Home & Away, or Transporter3. Hey, why bother leaving home??

Vangvieng is wall-to-wall bars. Fairylights + music = instant bar. Even when tourists go tubing on rented inner-tubes down the rivers, they discover numerous riverside bars on the way. Thus they arrive pissed as newts when they finally stagger towards the "Give Pizza a Chance" restaurants at dusk. Ganja and/or magic mushroom shakes are also available for the asking... It seems to be a badge of honour to buy something at every bar, and to remember (in unnecessarily loud voices) which cocktail you bought at each one.

After dark, wobble around Vangvieng's main street in bare-chested gangs, swigging ostentatiously from bottles of BeerLao, bragging about your tubing feats and displaying your fake tatts. And - of course - your newly-attached braided hair. "Conversation" is hardly about intelligent content, but mostly about establishing social pecking-order between friends.

.................... Er, which country are we in??

Do try Lao coffee, at least once, I dare you. It's a remarkable facsimile of Crude Oil. Other local menu delights included:

......... Urine Horse Egg wit a condiments ginger
......... Beer ice-cream
......... Currywurst

......... Yogurt, fruit and muslim
......... Clup sandwich

......... Fired edds

For a vast collection of even weirder Asian menu items, visit my celebrated
Asian Menu Blooper List It has been assembled over many years, accompanied by frequent bouts of helpless giggling... and puzzled waiters.

This link will open in a new window so you can easily click out and get back here to FunkyPix2.

Spot the Hammer and Sickle flag cowering among the Capitalist accoutrements

There's so much frenetic building development in parts of Vangvieng that in some places you can no longer see the views of the mountains. Free Enterprise gone mad. Ironic for a Socialist/Communist country which still flies the Hammer and Sickle flag on government buildings. At least they had the good sense to ban McDonalds and Starbucks etc.

Views, you ask? Sure, there is delightful scenery around Vangvieng if you can tear yourself away from gastronomy:

We escaped Vangvieng via a ghastly 7.5 hour white-knuckle "VIP" bus ride to Luangprabang, the former French "hill-station". Beware - Luangprabang's changing for the worse: opium and ganja are now surreptitiously but frequently offered on the street by Lao tuk-tuk drivers. There is more cheating on bus fares/tours etc, and accomodation/food has become quite expensive by comparison to home in Chiangmai.

Check out all the electricity being used in the main restaurant/shopping street these days. Back in December 2006, there was only a tiny handful of lights. I note there are still no public street-lights: the government knows it can rely on the private sector to get on with the job. In this recent pic, Nicolette doesn't even need a torch:

Oh, and ah yes, Vientiane. A fine place to spend a night in order to break a trip to somewhere else. Here are some requisite photos of the Pratuxai, the Laotian competitor to Paris' Arc de Triomphe:

This was built by the Lao authorities using concrete supplied
by the CIA and intended for a new military runway.

Nic felt too tired to climb to the top. Shame - here's some of what she missed... the stairs up to the uppermost turret:

Loved the frequent examples of Chinglish:

Welcome to our newly gust house open with fully services waiting for tourist with sincerely. Relax with us you, will realize the luxurious and comfortable, you will be impressive and great.
You can enjoy the cool beerlao and delicious of Lao with the spectacular of Mekong river.

Vientiane - city never totally damaged from the frame. Vientiane was abandoned and remained as a small hill of the wild dog's excrements. What was the small hill of the wild dog's excrements looked like? No one can describe about it. Even though, we close or open our eyes, we can see only the dark, we can not imagine what it is looked like.

Could you imagine how pleasures are, sitting under a rainforest tree, watching elephant among the beauty nature of Laos. You will see the real elephant living. Feeding to the elephant with your own hand...
The offer to train as an elephant mahout was almost too much for Nic to resist, particularly after she read the following in a tourist info sheet:

Mahout is elephant whisperer. Whenever become mahout means married with elephant. Share of living, working, grief and glad. Once of lifetime for joy of life. Be mahout and Died would be glory of life.
...and the parting word: the Lao airlines announcement after landing back in Chiangmai:

We wish you enjoy your fright to Chiangmai
where the loca time is 2 past 15 pm's.

There are many more pix - and movies - of the trip on Nic's blog here.