Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Guangzhou Seven

I don't think anyone from our touring party was looking forward to the trip from Vietnam to Mongolia. Three flights, three countries and the best part of a full day's travel.
If only it had proved that simple.
The odyssey began with me being jolted from my sleep at 4.30am. Ouch. An hour and a half later we were checking in for the flight to Guangzhou. Getting the instruments onto the plane was the first of a few challenges we were to face. We won in the end. The flight was smooth; the chap next to us heard us chatting and became an instant fan. He took a photo of himself with Peter Guitar and me.
Guangzhou was where the fun really began. We were installed into a nice lounge while we waited patiently for our flight. What could possibly go wrong?
Firstly, we were bumped onto a later flight. This would mean that we would have to be efficient in Beijing if we were to make our connection. An hour before boarding we were told that the flight had been cancelled due to extreme weather. No more flights until morning. It looked like we'd be sleeping in the airport. More by luck than skill, we found out that the airline was willing to put us up. We travelled to a very nice hotel, enjoyed dinner out on the street, and managed about four hours sleep before being ferried back to the airport before dawn.

We flew to Beijing, already half-a-day behind schedule. We inquired as to the viability of our Mongolian Air tickets, and we were all but assured we'd be ok to fly to Ulaanbaatar. At 10.00 that evening. Great.
Airports are wonderful places to kill time. More boring than a budget speech, and more expensive than an angry ex-wife.
Somewhat bloodied but unbowed, the seven of us lined up to be first to check-in when the gate opened. And, of course, when we told them of the assurances we'd received they didn't want to know.
Eventually, someone in control explained that they'd try and get us on but couldn't guarantee anything. The plane was fully booked and we would be relying on no-shows.
We waited patiently, if a little angry and worried, for another four hours. During that time we were informed that 35 people hadn't shown up, so our hopes of escaping China were raised. About 20 late-comers showed up in one go, adding to our stress levels.
Sometime after 10.00pm, we were told we'd made it onto the flight. We joined the millions of sheep, sorry, people at passport control and security, and made it to the gate not long before the flight's doors were scheduled to shut. Hooray. Only one small problem - there was no plane in sight.

After all that, it transpired that our plane had been diverted due to weather. It wouldn't be leaving at 11.55.
It did show up, hours later, and we finally took off at 5.30. Two hours later we arrived, a somewhat bedraggled-looking bunch, at Chinggis Khaan airport. We had been in transit for over 48 hours.
Hello Mongolia!


Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Holiday in Cambodia: Siem Reap

Our second Cambodian destination was the popular tourist town of Siem Reap. After another long bus ride (albeit in a well-appointed coach), we were piled into tuk-tuks supplied by our hosts and whisked away to our luxurious accommodation at FCC Angkor. What a beautiful place!
The gig that night was outdoors, up on a stage, playing to FCC's usual Saturday night revellers. The number of patrons dwindled as the night went on, but we still gave it the old mach schau, despite knowing we had to get up at 4.00am for a very special morning. Most of us were in bed by midnight.
I have had a passionate, if sometimes wavering, philosophical and academic interest in Buddhism for 30+ years. Initially stimulated by the beat poets, my thirst for knowledge and my desire to practise has continued to grow. So, the prospect of a visit to Angkor Wat was something I was a little excited about. Even the grim reality of sleep deprivation couldn't dampen my ardour.
We made our way out on a convoy of tuk-tuks. In the darkness, I could see an increasing number of headlights as we closed in on Angkor Wat. All roads lead to Rome and all that.

We made our way in, past what seemed like hundreds of hawkers, and stood quietly gazing at the temple as night turned to day. It was overcast so there was no sunrise to speak of, but it was still a magical experience.
The place is a cash bonanza for Cambodia. Millions of people must visit every year, with each foreigner stumping up USD$37 for the privilege. Locals get in for free.
I was happy to pay. Sure, it was hard to ignore the immodestly dressed, the smokers and the shouty-types, but I tried to drink in the splendour of the place and think about what it must have been like when it was a going concern. Breathtaking.

We also visited the 216 faces of the Bayon Temple, and finshed off our morning at Ta Prohm; both locations were equally magnificent.

In the afternoon we had a heart-warming visit to the 'Music for Everyone' school, a place where local kids can learn to sing and play. It runs on fumes, and would be a worthy cause to support. We also went out to 60 Road Studios, which looks a very impressive music-creation space.
Our second, and final, Cambodian show was at Triangle Restaurant Lounge Bar. We were once again made to feel very special, with food and drink being laid on for all. It was another good performance; PlanB has hit its straps, of that you can be sure.
I'm glad we played Siem Reap; the shows were great and we were treated very well.
I'm even more glad that I got to Angkor Wat.

Holiday in Cambodia: Phnom Penh

We only spent three and a half days in Cambodia but, boy, we did our best to do justice to the place.
To my relatively naive eyes Phnom Penh seemed older, poorer and dirtier than Saigon.  I loved the place almost immediately. We caught tuk-tuks and rode through the dusty, dusky Thursday evening air. The Velkommen Guest House, at one end of yet another chaotic, pungent street, was run by a pleasant, chatty Norwegian geezer. My room was big enough to host a five-a-side match.
We enjoyed Khmer and Thai food on our first night, before heading to Sharky Bar to say hello. We met Ben, who presides over the venue, and enjoyed a few cold beers while we discussed our Friday gig. The staff made us feel special and we had a very pleasant session before disappearing into the Cambodian darkness.

For most people, Fridays are full of optimism; the weekend beckons. For us, this particular Friday was a little short on wide-eyed happiness. We took tuk-tuks out to the harrowing killing fields of the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre where we were exposed to the most barbarous elements of humanity. We also visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), and it is fair to say that we were emotionally spent by the time we returned to the hotel. I'm glad I went, but I was happy to leave when I did.

After soundchecking at Sharky, a few of us went for a wander around the markets. Clothes first, then the food markets. I wouldn't recommend the meat unless you want flies with that.

The Sharky gig was probably the best of the tour so far. It is an anglo-themed bar, but the clientele was probably an even mix of Cambodians and ex-pats. Sharky had been promoting us for months; they'd even organised a radio interview for Sneaky and me last weekend. I think the publicity drive worked. It was their biggest crowd in months, and we responded. There was lots of dancing and singing along among the masses. Rich the sound guy, Packo and Ben looked after us very well. Everything about the show seemed to work, and we raged through our three sets as if our lives depended on it.

Just one of those nights.