Haputale and Ella - 17-22 March 2019

I’ve arrived in Sri Lanka from Vietnam, a journey which took 10 different stages of transport to reach my Homestay in Haputale.

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One of the last pieces of the journey was a train from Colombo. This was about 230/240kms. The journey took all of 8 hours and takes you through some beautiful scenery through villages where the train runs up the middle of the street. It winds it’s way following contours, through tunnels and over small passes before dropping down into Haputale. Some signs along track say max 25km as the rails and sleepers are weak! As the train thumps, sways and jostles its way along it raises dust clouds from the track I guess by the movement in the sleepers on the clay base. The sleepers at least in some parts are being changed to concrete. Later I found when walking along a track after rain the sleepers squish and move about when I walked over them. Dear knows what happens with tons of train rumbling along. It explains some of the thumps I heard on my train ride.

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I arrived in Haputale and got a tuc tuc ride to White Monkey Dias Rest. This is a Homestay perched on the side of a valley at around 1400m above sea level. The views are amazing. This is an unusual place with a variety of places to stay in. They have a pet rooster which wakes you up quite early. The owner decided to get a hen for the rooster but it didn’t like the hen and fought with it. It was concluded that this was a bad idea and the hen had to go.

My room was a small bungalow overlooking  the valley and the jaw dropping view which went on for miles. Monkeys cheekily climb over the roof and stare in through the window.

This is a tea plantation area where Thomas Lipton has his factory. On a high point above the factory is Liptons Seat where he was renowned to sit and survey his massive estate.

I attempted a painting of a valley with tea plantations near the factory which had its problems. First I forgot to bring my paint thinners. Two local men on a motor bike agreed to go to Haputale and buy some. Then heavy rain started. My pre-arranged driver was soon to collect me so I left. So unfortunately this wasn’t a good start but  great scenery. They aren’t all publishable!

The second day was more successful and I decided to go for simplicity and stay all day at the Homestay and paint from the balcony. The area has many eucalyptus or gum trees which have been imported at some stage in the past. I painted this one which now looks like an Australian painting. The skyline has been significantly altered by these lofty trees dominating. I quite liked doing it as it made me think I was back in Aus!

Soon I had to leave this interesting and eclectic Homestay and go to Ella. I would love to have had more time to explore Haputale but must now keep on the move.  Finally I shared with some English tourists a sip of gin and tonic with a fresh picked lime from a tree.

Before I left I arranged to hire a driver for the 7 days between leaving Ella and the flight out of Colombo. As I had it confirmed by experience I would quickly loose hours and days with busses and trains and probably not reach the places I want to see.

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I arrived  in Ella by train. The journey took 90 minutes for a trip which should take max 30 minutes by car. The two towns are completely different in character. Gladly my Homestay was a little distance out of the town so I could relax on the balcony and enjoy another great view.

Having read about Ella I was forewarned. It was wall to wall cafes, restaurants, tuc tucs and short shorts. It was tourist mayhem and every spare piece of space in the town was either built on or being built on. It is completely over run by tourism and not special to the area but just like anywhere else. I dread to think what it’s going to be like in 20 years time.

On my first day in Ella I hired a tuc tuc to the nine arch bridge.

It is a good example of colonial railway construction and built in 1921.

(Credit Wikipedia) “Popular rumours suggest that when construction work commenced on the bridge, the Great War began between the empires of Europe and the steel assigned for this site was reallocated to Britain's War related projects at the battlefront. As a result, the work came to a standstill, leading the locals build the bridge with stone bricks and cement, but without steel”

While an important engineering construction it is just another tourist spot. Here the people undeterred by mud and tropical downpours are up and down and all over the train track, even entering the tunnel. Then the train would come along honking them off the track.

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I perched myself beside a hillside cafe and was immediately offered drinks etc. Of course I ordered something - a smoothie  but got a toasted sandwich thrown in and later some tea and biscuits.

The next morning I went to Mini Adams Peak intending to go up it but got sidetracked by a view of Ella Rock and a tree. What more could I ask for. I positioned myself amongst tea plants a short distance below the track. The official reason to get well off the track was to improve the composition but really I wanted away from tourists. But they still lined up to look and click. One cheeky clicker said ‘hello’ just to get  me to turn around so he could snap me. Cheeky!

These tuc tucs are great little things. They are like a motorbike in that they have handle bars, are 500 cc and low geared and sometimes seem to struggle on hills. They are everywhere. Some are customised with furry dashboards and pictures of pop idols everywhere inside. I used them often to save time hiking everywhere.

The drivers want to ask questions when you’re being driven along and it generally follows a set routine:

Where you from?

How many day Sri Lanka?

What you do tomorrow  - generally wanting repeat business.

Then they say.

Sri Lanka good?

If you say yes, very very good, great and all sorts of superlatives then they’re happy and the conversation dries up.

The importance of what you think of Sri Lanka is high up the priority rankings and these people love their country.

They gained independence in 1948 but when they talk about that the say ‘we got our freedom in 1948,.

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On my final day in Ella I walked the short distance up hill from my Homestay and had an amazing view of Ella Gap. It made a great composition for me. I was in the grounds of a smart hotel but I was standing amongst lots of soft plastic rubbish so much so I had to be mighty careful not to leave any of my belongings behind. If I had more time i would have headed further up the valley to get a different perspective of this great view. Oh well - another time.

That evening I had dinner out as often is the case and was noticing the Wi-fi codes used in homestays and restaurants. They must say something of the Sri Lankan’s attitude to life in general.  I have had - Good choice, Buy a drink and Have a nice day.

The next morning I am off to Tangalle with my driver and have mixed feelings about leaving. I could have easily stayed in Ella 2 or 3 more days but must now move on. Again some day.

Ben Tre City - 9 - 15 March 2019.

River and house.

River and house.

From Pho Quoc I made my way to the Meekon River delta area. The journey to Ben Tre from Ho Chi Minh City was a public bus after a taxi to one of the main bus depots. Some online advice was to take a transfer or taxi to avoid the stress of finding which bus to take - I like a challenge I thought. Famous last words. 

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Firstly the bus ticket office was a general rabble of people around it - no sense of any order. The speaking to the person behind the glass was a slit below the glass at my waist height. So this involved knee propping up my bag and semi crouching supporting myself by knee to get in a sort of limbo dance position to speak. Ticket bought and broad description as to where to go for the bus. After standing waiting for the bus at my third place and being redirected by who and ever I could find the bus arrived. This was a large modern bus with sort of beds to lie on. These beds were in 3 rows 2 high with 5 across at the back and 2 high. All quite civilised. The bus held 40 people. It eventually arrived in Ben Tre (I could tell from Google maps). I sat on a while and then was motioned off and into a mini bus which took me direct to the hotel. All for 70,000 dong. - about £2.50. 

My intention was to visit two areas in the delta area but on looking at maps and distances it seemed that staying in one place was better. The travel times were quite a lot so in Ben Tre city I remained for 6 nights. 

One of my first painting venues was this small thatch roofed house just off a small concrete lane. The area is a maze of such lanes and all generally well surfaced. They generally run alongside small channels and have many houses dotted along them. I have been told this is a wealthy area with its money haveing been generated from coconut revenues. You could say the roads are not paved in gold but coconuts.

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After a short while painting I was joined by the boy from the house. He was interested to watch and then made off bringing me a coconut to drink from a straw. Cutting the coconut was a masterly affair with the final part being cutting a small piece to act as a spoon to gouge out the young inner layer. Coconut is a natural laxative so after drinking three I wasn’t reaching for prunes for a few days.

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It just comes to mind the lovely nature of the Vietnamese people. I think this atribute is also common with others from nearby countries. When you pay at a restaurant and need change this is given to you with thumb and first finger of both hands together giving over the bank note. There are no coins in Vietnam. You then receive a small bow of respect and gratitude. Quite lovely people. 

 

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Another painting was again from along a lane with the view across of a house. The sun caught the roof sheeting which drew my attention to it. Again I was supplied with a coconut to drink - thankfully just one. 

The final painting was tall and narrow and of …. you’ve guessed - a coconut tree. I must say I didn’t take it terribly seriously and gave the sky an orangey sunset look and again what was I given by a local man who came past on a motorbike - yes a coconut to drink - just one I’m glad to say.

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On the penultimate day I took a private two hour river tour to see the narrow channels from the inside rather than from along them. I took this photo of a river boat with the eyes painted on the front. This is quite common and legend has it that these eyes are to fend off monsters and evil spirits. 

After the boat tour I prepared and sent a package of 14 paintings to send home.  I also did a stock take of remaining canvases and have 48 left - more than enough. So far I have painted 93 canvases and sent all home. I must say that quality of some done at the start of my trip in Australia and New Zealand was quite poor but got better. Before I came away I had done little practice and certainly little plein air work for about a year so this time of concerted effort and consistent painting is well overdue.

My Osprey 80L ruck sack is now 20.5kg and the 32L day sack is 7Kgs. The main bag is reducing in weight as paintings are sent home and some items which are deemed unnecessary are jetissoned. It’s a constant battle agains weight and bulk but I have learned a lot as to what I need and what to do without. Clothing gets severely limited and so far 2 T shirts have become rags for painting and then dumped before the next flight.

My time in Vietnam was about to come to an end.  It’s been 6 weeks and I must say I have enjoyed it. There is so much to see and more. There are areas I would love to come back to to explore so with only 6 weeks all I could do was to scratch the surface. 

People have asked what we have missed in our time away and in Asia. It’s been over 7 months so far. I miss sleeping in my own bed. Potatoes and butter with black pepper (mouth watering even typing that!), rain and probably much more besides.

Tomorrow I shall travel to Ho Chi Minh City or HCMC or Saigon. I need some more art materials as I don’t know when next I will find a shop. I had found a fairly good shop in Hanoi and stocked up but some of the colours they didn’t have.

I have borderline high hopes that the HCMC shop will have the quality I’m looking for as good paint is expensive and it might not be stocked here. From HCMC I have two flights to Sri Lanka and the adventure continues a little further.

 

 

 

Phu Quoc (On Lang Beach and Sao Beach) 2 - 8 March 2019

Eco Beach Resort 1. (10 x 8)

Eco Beach Resort 1. (10 x 8)

Bamboo Restaurant

Bamboo Restaurant

This journey to Phu Quoc was expected to involve 7 means of transport although one was deleted when the taxi came to the door of the Homestay in Lao Chai hamlet this removing the need for a motor bike transfer to the taxi. I took a mini bus to Lao Cai (not the same as Lao Chai!) and then the overnight train back to Hanoi. The mini bus trip to Loa Cai was a bit stressful as there were a lot of traffic jams and accidents along the road out of the mountains. But we arrived in good enough time. Then a taxi to the airport and after the flight a taxi to my first Homestay at Ong Lang beach. The accommodation was part of  someone’s house and a number of separate / small en suite rooms. My sandals were neatly left at the door of the room and all was good until the morning. How was I going to get about with only one sandal! There was now only one sandal sitting there. Slight concern and puzzlement ensued but who was going to steal a sandal! Logic then was called into play -  owners dog - quite young dog - running around and a bit silly - sandal found in the driveway. 

This area I discovered was mainly hotels and resorts along the beach and the best spots used up by them. I did manage to get on to these and did a few beach paintings. Another was at Bamboo Restaurant loacted beside a resort well protected by security. 

Eco Beach Resort 2 (7 x 5)

Eco Beach Resort 2 (7 x 5)

The room I  had at my Homestay had only one small high level window. It must have been only 2 square feet. “One foot in the Algarve” came to mind. Victor and Margaret Meldrew think they are in a prison cell with only a small window and no food or water.  Are you old enough to remember the episode?

Well my accommodation was much better than that but just one tiny high up window.

When there I ate between two restaurants / cafes. One was the sort of place where you get a table cloth and the other just aluminium tables and plastic chairs. More locals than tourists eating there. Eating in these local kitchen like paces in Vietnam is interesting. As a solo traveller they are a source of amusement and people watching. The “waitresses” tend to stomp around barking orders at their colleagues and there it a general sense of mayhem. Orders are taken and you rearely get a bill as such. Instead the amount owing is written on a scrap of paper or in a notebook just below another addition. You are then shown it. Cash tills are not really evident. Instead the money is stored in a plastic bag, pocket, or purse. You get the hint when it’s time to fork out so to speak.

In less professional restaurants often you are shown to the table, given the menu and more often that not the person waiting waits just there and hovers over you making inane suggestions. Often I would say something like “just give me 5 minutes”. I suppose that’s better than saying somthing else! They generally get the message and go away. There are then the what I would call ‘hustlers’ whose job is to whip perople up off the street. This is when you stop to read the menu on display on the street. Often at this point I walk on instead of reading more as sometimes they hustle too much. This seems to be the culture but is putting western people off.

Sao Beach

Sao Beach

Sao Beach

Sao Beach

Cash in Vietnam is king. Rarely did I  see credit cards being used. There are  quite a lot of ATM’s about in Vietnam. Often a row of a few in a glass enclosed building. In some places there are signs along the main drags advertising ATM. I soon discovered these were ATM’s but not with the ‘A’ for automatic. These were shops where you can get cash and pay 3% or so to draw cash. Fees are generally charged by the real ATM’s. If a card payment is taken they add a fee to the amount.

Sao Beach

Sao Beach

At Eco Beach resort at Ong lang beach I painted a 10”x 14”. Then I decided it wasn’t working and took the scissors to it. It was cut down and gave me  a 10 x 8 and a 7 x 5 after  some minor tweaking the next day. So what makes it work and not work? In this case there was too much going on and too much to focus your eye on to a state where you  don’t know what to look at and you are  confused. Anyway it works a bit better as two paintings rather than one.

Something about dogs. They are everywhere. I mentioned before the dogs prowling about the floating fish farms on Cat Ba island to protect the stock. The dogs in Asia are not qiite like western ones. Generally not the sort you would see at Crufts but an assortment of mongrels. The best comparisons I can use is the dogs in Ancient Greek days and paintings in the tombs of the Pharaohs.

My next area was nearer to Sao Beach. I was keen to capture more of the typical tree and beach scenes. I stayed in a small resort of little huts and houses. Some of these were like Hobbit houses and seemed quite new.  

Alas my time on Phu Quoc had to come to an end. I would love to have had time to explore it a bit more but must move on to the area of the Meekon River delta. 

 

 

 

Sapa and Lao Chai - Vietnam 22 February - 1 March 2019

From Hanoi I took the overnight train to Sapa. The chill factor was quite a surprise as it is at an altitude of 1500M and the temperatures at night were just hitting double figures. When I arrived I took a taxi ride to see if a painting venue could be found. After half an hour painting the beautiful vista of mountains and rice paddy fields all was changed to clouds and mist. What to do? Wait and see if it clears. In the short term try painting from the iPhone image I had just taken - not an option but still tried it. I soon gathered a line of immaculately dressed primary school girls all in their Black Hmong clothing standing watching me. Later a couple of young boys arrived who seemed not to attend school and were up to no good in a vacant old building nearby. Much banging and hammering etc.

Black Hmong girls returning from school.

Black Hmong girls returning from school.

After a while I decided enough is enough and made my way back to Sapa. 

That evening i decided to take a prowl around Sapa - the only issue was there was little visibility! The area was well and truly in the clouds and so must have been my head. I got lost! Much walking up one way and then another ensued till I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. A taxi was the means to solve the problem!

The next day I visited Cat Cat village where I constantly heard ‘hello motorbike’ and some ‘shopping today’ - ladies trying to sell their hand made bags etc.  The young lads here seem to half heartedly ask tourists if they want a motorbike taxi ride and the rest of the time they just hang about. 

Rubbish - still more and more of it. Plastic bags on the side of the road. Bottles and all sorts strewn everywhere. The attitude to it is from cradle to the grave and no one seems to care. After painting i found myself picking up small amounts of my own tissue, banana skins and the like - what am I doing. But still I had to do it. 

My Homestay just about visible with a green roof.

My Homestay just about visible with a green roof.

After some days I headed the short distance to the village of Lao Chai to stay with a couple in a small hamlet. Here the menu was all to evident and walking around. There were pigs (seemed pregnant at the time), ducks, roosters, hens and small chicks everywhere. In Hoi an market I had watched chickens being plucked while other live chickens were in a cage just beside looking on. What did they make of it, I wonder. Perhaps they understand much more than we realise.  

My Homestay was in a small hamlet cheek by jowl with the local people. The owners were amazing and looked after me very well providing a good breakfast and dinner in the evening.

A short distance from my Homestay I painted this one of two Black Hmong girls returning home from school arm in arm. They are immaculately dressed with colourful wrappings around their legs.

Hamlet Lao Chai

Hamlet Lao Chai

The rice Paddy fields were lovely things to paint with the small amount of water at that time of the year reflecting the light.  

In this area they number of children was all too evident. People seemed to have around 6-7 children but now it is closer to 2 each couple. There are a number of primary schools and various kindergartens etc. Also a large secondary school positioned on a hill commanding a wonderful view of the valley. What a view.

The secondary school and paddy fields

The secondary school and paddy fields

The school children when (loosely) old enough go to school by motorbike. The lane alongside the school was jammed with parked bikes. On this lane just above the school I positioned myself and painted the scene. What a view from a school. While here a motorbike trailing  an 8 or so metre plank at a fast speed around the bends came along narrowly missing my easel. A tourist then came along and photographed me from a variety of angles - he asked first - such a luxury to be asked.

The weather when I was in Lao Chai wasn’t good - generally low cloud and it was a su Reprise after a couple of days I realised the mountains had tops. 

Sadly my time in Lao Chai and Sapa had to come to an end. I am now making my way to PhU Quoc an island in the very south of Vietman near the border with Camobia. 

 

 

 

Hanoi - Vietnam 16-21 February 2019

We arrived safely in Hanoi from Cat Ba island. The journey involved a bus to a small port, a fast ferry to the mainland and then a bus to Hanoi. Efficiently the young lad doing the job of organising the trip took the address loacations of where each passenger was heading. Then he arranged these in a list and called each person to let them off at their hotel. I could see one passenger was creating a bit, the timings were all to schedule but he said he needed to be at ...... in ...... minutes. Why would you make your own time schedule so tight that you were in a panic at the end. Anyway the young lad calmly reinvented his list and dropped the creating passenger off in a timely fashion. 

From the moment of arriving in Hanoi we got the feeling we would like it. Somehow you just know. How does that happen. You like somewhere or you don’t and what makes that so. Anyway the rusticness is beguiling. They sense of order and chaos together is enchanting.

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The first thing apparent in Hanoi was busyness. So a bit now on transportation etc in Vietnam. First it seeems difficult to escape noise. Most transportation in towns and in the rural areas is by motorbike. The most I have seen so far is 5 people on a motor bike. They seem to be like a small saloon at home as far as their use is concerned. Often its a couple and 2 children on a bike. Sadly it is the children who end up with no helmet. Could be they so quickly grow out of them that the parents haven’t the cash to keep buying helmets. There is some sort of high tax on car buying or ownership which makes owning one something for the well off only. Police tour the streets in Hanoi and I had seen a bike confiscated for some misdemeanour and one owner seemed to be getting a ticket for bad parking. Motor bikes can carry a lot. Some have large crate-like-panniers at the back for loads. I have seen 2M tall garden type trees being transported and even in a rural area they were used to tow 8M long planks of wood through the narrow country lanes. The tooting of horns is everywhere. At home horns are often used as a sign of warning or even rage but here they seem to be advising just “I am here”. At each junction the horn is sounded as many junctions don’t have lights. Some roads appear to be one way but then you see a motor bike coming the other way and you realise its a 2 way road. But all seems to work on a self regulated way and we only saw a few near misses!

Crossing roads is fun (aka dangerous and scary). The rule seems to be keep going forward and never backwards or you will get hit from behind. Avoid and treat with respect anything larger than a motor bike. Pedestrian crossings are mainly to decorate the roads and have little or no significance in a presumption that you may expect cars etc to stop. Traffic lights are advisory and also decorative. 

Art shop

Art shop

Footpaths are bike parks and places for locals who live nearby in cramped surrounds to cook, chat and eat. Often outside quite plush offices and shops but they probably have been doing this long before the advent of the shops and offices. Often a small corridor is left for pedestrians to walk but more often than not you are on the road walking. 

Hanoi has an old quarter, a French quarter and the modern city of many millions of people. The old quarter has an historic gate entering it so I headed in that direction one wet grey day. I gathered myself together under a sort of shop awning but still got wet. I was a source of amusement to the local people in that area as it wasn’t really a tourist location. On the way back an umbrella for 50,000 dong was acquired (under £2) and so I avoided the rain. It wasn’t till I arrivied back at the hotel what had I mislaid - my canvas mounting board complete with painting. Hot footed I ran back trying to retrace in my mind what I had done and sure enough it was exactly where I had left it at the umbrella shop. Relief!

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Shops in Vietnam are conveniently arranged into genres along the same length of road. Our hotel was near what I called spectacle street and to get to the old gate where I painted a scene I passed along netting wire street, hardware street, packaging material street, and buttons and things like that street. All this makes total sense. The shops are very small and things in the shops are often not organised or well laid out. There is often a narrow passage inside where things just seem to spill around generally. No idea how you would find anything. But obviously it works. 

 

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One part of my things to do in Hanoi was to find art supplies. Might seeem easy but to find a suitable shop wasn’t. Eventually I found one which had nearly all I needed.

We took a trip to a part of Old Hanoi here where the train runs down a narrow street with houses a cafes along the side of the road.  This isn’t just a small train but a full sized one. There were various lines to tell you where not to cross and they were right. Eventually the train came at a fair speed and it was just there as i stood tummy-tucked-in on the side of the passage. I could easily have it brush past me if I ventured a foot more out. Then it was gone as soon as it passed. The cafes were then empty till the next intercity. Excitement over. 

Finding suitable painting subjects in Old Hanoi was difficult. Mostly were very busy places and not to mention the noise. Finding a piece of footpath one which to pitch my easel was heading for impossible and then being able to think about what i was trying to do was another matter. 

A busy street in Hanoi

A busy street in Hanoi

The historic old gate to Hanoi was a venue one rainy day. Even standing under a shop awning I ended up getting dripped over and quite wet.My ruck sack and brushes roll became sodden. However i persisted as I liked the composition.

The old town gate

The old town gate

After leaving that spot I purchased an umbrella for 50,000 dong. Just under £2. Then made my way some 15-20 minutes to the hotel. When I arrived, the hotel manager - Hannah asked what I had painted and then the blood must have drained from my face. I had mislaid my large canvas carrier and the painting I had just done. Hot footed I ran back whilst going over possible loosing places. Sure enough it was at the umbrella shop in the same place exactly. The shop keeper was aware it was there and looked after it. Such is the honesty in Vietnam.

My visit to Hanoi was nearing an end. The next place is Sapa in the mountains some 250 km away. The journey has been arranged by overnight sleeper train and then a minibus transfer to Sapa.

 

 

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