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Laos Vegas

Laos (Oct 2011)

In October 2011 myself and several other friends went on a motorbike ride through the western half and northern parts of Laos, after a very eventful couple of weeks travelling over rocks, mud, dust & rain we arrived at the northern most part of Laos on the border with China, we came over a small hill and in the middle of nowhere was this small city (Golden Boten City) with no-one in it, as it turns out there had been a city of casinos, flashing lights, gaming, lady-boys & all of the night life, all shut down overnight and vacated, and no one there but the military guarding it, it was a sight of contrasts, to see such a modern city of buildings some brand new, three up to nine, ten stories high and no-one in them.

I attempted to enter one of the casinos so that I could see the inside and hopefully photograph it, however as I went to enter two guards stopped me from entering, so no inside photos sorry.

Apparently many gamblers would go missing due to bad debts, bodies were reported to be found in the Mekong river, the place had turned into a crime capital, the Chinese Government cut off the supply of power to the city, in an effort to close the place down, eventually forcing the Laos Government to act on shutting it down, about two months before we got there!!

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I searched the internet post my return and found this article on the Forbes Asia Magazine website, you may be interested in reading of the cities history. I have copied the artical and placed it below, just in case the link is not working. Additional Information Ref: http://www.forbes.com/global/2011/0808/companies-laos-china-economy-gambling-gangsters-bungle-jungle.html

Bungle In The Jungle

Ron Gluckman07.27.11, 06:00 PM EDT
Forbes Asia Magazine dated August 08, 2011

The idea was a Chinese economic colony in the Lao wilderness, and that was okay with Laos. Then the gamblers, hookers and gangsters took over, and that was not okay with China.


The pink buildings were meant to serve as hotels and office space in Boten. Shops and housing in front were razed to make way for a new marketplace.

Across Asia, once-backward regions have surged in the boom that’s lifted millions out of poverty–monuments to the Asian economic miracle. But there have been grand schemes that went spectacularly wrong. Few compare with Golden Boten City, a project that promised a beehive of economic activity in northern Laos by the Chinese border, but today sits lonely and desolate.

Route 3 in the Lao highlands cuts through rubber plantations and forests, a vast carpet of greenery interrupted only by tiny villages–groups of shacks on stilts and tribal people in bright blue, red and black garments. Then suddenly there’s a clearing–and the surreal sight of a dozen enormous buildings erupting from the plateau in blistering shades of pink, orange and yellow.

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This is Golden Boten City, a “Paradise for Freedom and Development,” as the investment brochures called it. In 2003 a developer leased the 21-squarekilometer site from Laos for 99 years, and buildings started going up the next year. The plan called for a trade zone in what was expected to be a key growth corridor, with road and rail links from southern China to ports as far away as Bangkok and Singapore. Drawings depict a golf course, a resort and apartment blocks along picturesque lakes and lagoons. Instead, Boten quickly became a Gold Rush-style boomtown and, like many such towns, renowned for gambling, crime and bustling brothels.

At Boten’s peak thousands of people each day poured across the border from China’s Yunnan Province, thanks to unprecedented visa-free access. As gaming halls proliferated, rows of shops sprouted–a ramshackle market serving Sin City. A dozen lingerie shops catered to battalions of Chinese prostitutes, with the finest choice of stiletto heels in Laos. Pharmacies stocked sex potions alongside racks of X-rated DVDs and containers of bile from black bears fresh from a hilltop factory and used in traditional Chinese medicine. Next door to the factory was a massive pink entertainment hall that boasted transvestite shows. The ladyboys hailed from Thailand but everything else came from China: the beer, the police and practically all the dealers, even the currency that made it all possible. Hotel signs were in Chinese, and Boten’s clocks didn’t run at Laos’ sleepy pace, but were set an hour ahead to China time. Boten was completely a Chinese colony.

Then, just as fast as gamblers from China turned this remote site into the Macau of the jungle, Golden Boten City melted down. Stories in the Chinese media talked about hostages held over gambling debts. Residents told FORBES ASIA of bodies dumped in the river. China cut off electricity and telecom service to the enclave and started requiring visas. “We heard reports of killings, of people disappearing,” an official of Golden Boten City Ltd., the developer, told FORBES ASIA during a visit in May. (The developer said it didn’t run the casinos; that was done by several little-known operators from abroad.) “We don’t disagree that there have been problems here, but we are working to correct them.”

Days later the last casinos shut down. The shops closed for a lack of customers, leaving behind a huge supply of stiletto heels along with a giant picture of American actor George Clooney gazing forlornly from an unopened luxury goods emporium, one of a half-dozen grandiose structures that had been completed but now stand unused. The bears were still packed in cages, milked of bile, but the ladyboys returned to Thailand, and Boten was left a ghost town.

The man behind Golden Boten City is Huang Minxuan, 56, who had been involved in a casino in Myanmar before it was shut down in a crackdown by Beijing on just-over-the-border gambling. (Gambling is banned in China outside of Macau.) Originally from Fujian Province, he operated a business in Yunnan for some years before registering a slew of companies in Hong Kong in 1997 and 1998–all long dissolved–and gaining Hong Kong citizenship; he’s still the honorary chairman of the Fujian Chamber of Commerce in Yunnan.

Huang says between $200 million and $300 million was spent on Boten, but he doesn’t say where it came from or how much of it was his money. Chinese media reports indicate that he served as the executive director of a Hong Kong company that pumped $36 million into the project when it began, but no record of the company can be found. The second-in-command, George Huang, 55, a Taiwanese national who worked with Huang Minxuan at the Myanmar casino, has said small investments came from Thailand, Singapore, the U.K., Russia and Ukraine. George could not be contacted; he is believed to have left for a job in Thailand after Boten collapsed.

Casinos began sprouting in Myanmar along the Chinese border in the 1990s, and eventually up to a hundred were operating. Most were modest in scale, sometimes featuring a hotel, but all followed the same formula: deploy fleets of boats to ferry gamblers along the Mekong River, mainly from China but also Thailand. But in Boten, the Huangs had grander designs. Laos had been eyeing the Myanmar tourist traffic and started touting its special economic zones to investors. “I was talked into the idea,” says Huang Minxuan.

Leave it all Behind

Laos (Oct 2011)

I planned yet another bike trip travelling around the northern parts of Laos, the trip would last about two weeks and cover from Vientiane upto the Chinese border and back down to Luang Prabang, during the trip I had planned for our group to spend two nights & one day in a tree house in the middle of the jungle forest with the Gibbons.  As part of the trip we had to take a ride in a four wheel drive for about 1.5hrs, to a small town, then cross a flooded river and proceed by four wheel drive another hour up into the mountains, bumping and bogging our way to what they called base camp.

At base camp the end of the road, we were required to carry our gear and walk the rest of the way, which was about an hour & half walk to get to the main camp, so off we went.  In my backpack I had several lenses and cameras, and few cloths, probably 15kgs, no worries off we went, up & up & up, stinking hot & humid with no breeze, because of the jungle & foret, by the time I got to the main camp, I can honestly say I was very tired and glad to be there, I was just glad that there was not another hill to climb, I was ready to lay down, however unbeknown to me, this was only the main camp no where near where we were staying, surprise, I’ll say.

After a short rest we then had to put some “zipline” gear on, as there were a number of ziplines, “flying foxes” that we were going to go to get to our treehouse, this was another hour and a half further up, so off we went, up hill down dale, I just could not understand why we would struggle up that hill only to have to struggle down it again, this went on & on forever it seemed, with the ocassional releif of a zipline ride, where you would latch onto a steel rope and traverse across the valleys, sometimes 300 meters, and about 100 meters above the ground, but the cool wind while you were zipping accross was a great releif, then you would unclip and start climbing up the next hill, this went on for an hour & a half, and I remember when climbing one of the last climbs, I was seriously considering LEAVING MY GEAR THERE, I was prepared to loose it, I will buy it again I thought, I had had enough, I couldn’t climb another step, I was exausted.

Well a bit of a rest, and some very slow steps, got me through, just as well because I can honestly say this was the first time I had ever considered dumping my gear, I am glad I didn’t though.

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The Fifty Grand Thud

Hamilton Island, QLD (Mar 2011)

Have you ever had one of those moments when you feel that time slows down so much that each second seems like a minute, well I have had yet another one, I had walked out before dawn, in the dark several hundred meters from the Hamilton Island beach sand into Cat’s Eye Bay at low tide to photograph the mornings sunrise, as the tide goes out it exposes a semi-muddy sandy flat that is easy enough to walk on, so off I go with camera & tripod in hand out to where the tide had receded too, which would have been several hundred meters, once I had got to the point where the water was, I set-up my camera & tripod and waited for the pending twilight & sunrise.

Well as it does every other day up came the sun and I was busily capturing as many variations of the event that I could, during this period however mother nature was slowly & quietly encircling me with the ocean, whilst I was aware of this happening, I just continued to photograph the sunrise for a while thinking that that’s OK, I can walk through that water no problems, anyway eventually I decided to pick my gear and leave.

As the camera was still mounted on the tripod, whilst turned looking behind me I did my normal check to tighten the clamps on my tripod to ensure that they were all tight, I then picked up my camera bag (a pelican case, full of other lenses etc), callapsed the tripod, threw it over my shoulder and headed off back to the beach, as I said earlier, I was surrounded by water at this stage, so I had to travel through about half a meter (20″) of sea water, then just as I got about 2-3 meters out of the water back onto the muddy-sandy flats that were rapidly being flooded, I heard a flat “THUD”, I remember just stopping, not looking around, just thinking to myself, “I hope that wasn’t what I think it was!”, sure enough when I turned around there it was, my brand new, one week old Phase One (extremely expensive) camera laying in the mud, upside down !!!.

My heart stopped, I remember thinking what do I put down first to rescue the camera, anyway, I dropped the case, it was waterproof, lay the tripod on the case and picked up the camera, frantically tying to dry it, stop the seawater penetrating it anymore than it had already, I hurriedly walked back to the beach, when I got there, I dismantle the camera, the Phase One have a separate back, body & lens, so pulled it all apart and cleaned it as best as I could.

The end result, was that the lens & back were OK, just needed cleaning, but the camera was a right-off!!.

Just as well for me I was insured, but unbeknown to me, I had under insured the camera body big time, so this created a bit a problem, however my various suppliers PPIB (The Insurance Company) & L&P Digital (The Australian Camera Distributer) & Phase One (The Camera Manufacturer) combined their efforts to put things right, I truly  appreciated their combined efforts, thanks.

This website and its content is copyright of JDP Online Pty Ltd – © 2011.  All rights reserved.

Digital Diver

Cambodia (Sep 2010)

Some of my other passions is travelling to other countries, photographing the different cultures, and one of my favorite ways to do this is riding motorbike through the country I am visiting, on this particular adventure we were riding in Cambodia, following the Mekong river north, upto the Laos border, you need to appreciate where we were was in the most northern back blocks of the country, we saw no other foreigners at all.  Our guide had decided to take us through some very muddy jungle areas, right on the Laos border, the track was one car width wide, with deep wheel tracks carved into the road by four wheel drive trucks, and full of muddy water.

One of our guys had decided that he could not ride through this part of the trip, so we needed one of us to ride his bike forward, then go back and get him as a double on the bike, this as it turned out was my job, off I went to retrieve our mate, you couldn’t ride on the edges of the road, or make a new track as we were in amongst the landmine areas of Cambodia, we saw many areas that were cleared of mines as they would be marked with signs, however none in the area where we were, so anyway on the way back whilst doubling him, I had no other option but to use the centre of the road which of course had been cut up by four wheel drives etc, as an avid addicted photographer I would carry a video camera in my lower right leg pocket of the cargo jeans, and a Nikon D300s around my neck whilst riding, thats right exposed to the elements.

Anyway as I was coming back doubling my mate, riding in these tracks the sides of the track hit the gear shift lever on the bike and put it into neutral, thus no motion and we quickly stopped, with my mate hanging on down we went, into the muddy waters of Cambodia, I was unable to get the bike off me for about ten seconds, it seemed longer than that though, and of course we fell to the right, so I submersed my Sony HD Video camera, for all of that time, and also the Nikon went for a bath as well, DIGITAL DIVING !!.

So here I am laying in the mud & water with a bike and a mate tangled up with me, drowning two cameras, I was unable to get the Sony out of my pocket, but was able to hold the Nikon up out of the water shortly after it had been submerced, after we able to get up, I was busily tring to dry the cameras out, the Sony was dead, end of story for it, but to my amazement the Nikon despite all of the mud and water on it came to life. I spent the following night with my toothbrush cleaning both cameras up, scrubbing them clean to get rid of the mud, the lens on the Nikon a 18-200mm VRII whilst work OK, had some problems focusing at certain focal lengths, it would hunt and be a bit slow, but the camera is fine, still works perferectly beleive it or not, and I continue to use it on trip even now!

The Sony on the other hand, I refused to let it die, so my plan was that I would dried it out in the sun when ever I could, and put it on the battery charger all night, this would heat it up internally, and hopefully dry it out on the inside, well after the third day I got a result, it started, I could not beleive it, how good was this, it would even record, I had to open the front shutter cover myself, as it was still full of dirt that I could not get rid of, but the camera did would, incredable! I might point out that as soon as the air tempreture cooled down a bit it would fail again, so it became unreiable, time to replace it.

This website and its content is copyright of JDP Online Pty Ltd – © 2011.  All rights reserved.

Bac Ha Bingle

Vietnam (Sep 2009)

Our group of four had been in Vietnam for about a week when we arrived in Hanoi, the “northern capital” of Vietnam, where we hired motorbikes to go on a ride up through the north lands of Vietnam, the vistas & culture were fantastic, such a beautiful place that just made the ride that much more special, any way we had ridden through all sorts of weather including dust, mud & rain, and even a typhoon, so we thought that we had seen our fair share of dramas, but this was not to be the case!

We had just travelled down from a small city high up in the mountains named Sapa, see it’s story here, and ridden through this almighty storm that turned out to be a typhoon, so we arrived at Lao Cai right on the Chinese border cold & soaking wet, and quite uncomfortable, but this is all part of bike riding, so after literally empting the water out of our boots, we sat down to what the locals called coffee, now I am neither a brewster or a coffee connoisseur, but this one was memorably awful, we joked that you could probably stand the spoon up in it, anyway the much needed warm drink and caffeine hit was a failure, so after a short rest we put all of our soaking wet gear back on and headed out.

The first thing we had to do was to cross the Song Hong river which is right on the border between the two countries, Vietnam & China, anyway the traffic jam on this bridge was second to none, we waited foe a period with no progress at all, then one the guys noticed that the locals were using the side walkways as a motorbike roadway, it was just wide enough for the bike handle bars not to hit, so we decided all to give it a go, we were laughing, we were on our way and everyone else were still stopped, jammed in what we thought would be another hour or so, this was a great idea I remember thinking, however sometimes good things come to an abrupt end, you have to appreciate that the walking pert of the bridge was of course full of pedestrians and you could not see the other side due to all of the people, so when we got about half way across the bridge it all came to a stop, there was apparently some locals that had the same idea coming from the other side, and when we all met in the middle there was nowhere to go, someone had to reverse, whilst this was sorted out fairly quickly by the other side withdrawing, it took what seemed to be forever for him to reverse back, meanwhile the traffic on the bridge had cleared and was flowing well, but we were stuck on the sidewalk.

Anyway with that behind us, we set of to Bac Ha, a small village further north-east along the Chinese border, things were going well the weather had cleared, the road was great, up into the mountains again, making plenty of progress, a big change to the previous couple of days, but just then of course, one of our guys happened to go a bit wide on a hairpin right-hand bend, this put him in the direct path of an oncoming van, he was fair in the middle of the van’s path, so he had to take evasive action, he choose to go wider on to the right side of the van, this of course put him direct in line for the excavated wall of the mountain, that was just solid sharp rock, whilst he did pretty well in reducing speed and angle, however the inevitable happen, he hit the wall, down he went, I was right there saw, I the whole thing (I later joked with him that my only regret was that I didn’t get it on the video), he was lucky to be alive and not to have hit the van head-on.

We had a local Vietnamese guy as our guide with us “Luke”, he was great, he was on the phone straight away, getting an Ambulance, and speaking to the people in the van, we all of a sudden had twenty locals there & two truck loads of police, I think they were on exercises some where, they stopped had a look and kept going, we were about fifty kilometers from town, so it became a long wait, eventually the ambulance turned up, it was a small van similar to the one our friend “Phil” had almost hit, very basic inside, had a stretcher inside, and a small box of medical stuff and a small bottle of oxygen, well at this point after several hours, Phil was drifting in & out of conscenious, the doctor had given him a painkiller needle and attended to his broken arm, then we loaded him into the Ambulance and off they went, meanwhile Luke our guide had waved down a truck to ferry Phil’s smashed up bike back to Lao Cai which was where the hospital was.

We got to the hospital, unloaded Phil, no staff you have to do everything yourself here, so we the remains of our group became the nurses, we carried him in on the stretcher, whilst Luke negotiated with the reception about what had to be done, you have to pay cash upfront, there were a lot of sick and injured people already waiting, it was by this time getting late, so we decided to offer a bit more money to the hospital, (some might call it a bribe), but it was accepted and progressed us up through the queue, into the x-ray room we went, there was a radiologist there and no-one else, so I became the assistant, I had to hold Pills arm in the correct position while the radiologist hid behind a protective screen, what about me I thought?

Anyway I assisted with the x-rays, holding Phil’s arm in the various positions require, and of course Phil was letting me know about the pain every time I moved his arm with louder than normal grunts & screams, he was oviously in a bit of pain, I of course am up against the very machine that is taking these images, and after several images, I had a panic attack, as I still had my video camera on me, are my movies that I had taken over the last few weeks still OK, phew, they are, thank heavens I thought.

Meanwhile Luke had gone downtown to buy the medical supplies needed for Phil’s arm whilst the other two guys were busy ferrying the bikes to the train and to have them shipped back to Hanoi, as our bike trip was over, getting the bikes to the train was a story in itself but not now, Luke returned with the supplies to strap Phil’s arm up, while this was being done he had organised an 8 seater van to take us back to Hanoi as we had to get Phil to a proper hospital to get his arm fixed, eight hours later, we arrived in Hanoi, at the French hospital, 4:00am, very tired, hungry & dirty.

This website and its content is copyright of JDP Online Pty Ltd – © 2011.  All rights reserved.

Sapa Sanctuary

Vietnam (Sep 2009)

I invited several of my friends to come with me on a bike trip to see the sights of Vietnam, after spending some time in the southern parts of the country, we travelled north to Hanoi, we arrived in Hanoi at about 4.00am in the morning on the train from Hue (Central Vietnam, pronounced “way”), which I might add was a story in itself, but we did arrive safely despite being very tired, cranky, sore & hungry.  Anyway I had previously arranged to hire some motor bikes & a guide from a local motorbike business to take us for a 10 day ride up into the isolated northern mountainous regions of the country, to experience the fantastic scenery, local culture & cuisine, as you could probably appreciate you cannot carry much on a small 250cc trail bike, so each of us had a smaller bag in which we had to pack our gear into, and then strap it onto the bikes rear rack, which was done, Myself, being the photographer of the group, carry a handy cam camera, a small compac digital and a Nikon D300s with 18-200 lens on it, plus all of the chargers, cables, spare batteries, memory cards etc for each camera, this of course reduces much needed valuable room for your cloths, etc but I always seem to manage to get by with what I pack, I will say that the cameras, all three of them I carry on me, the video fits neatly into one of the side leg pockets of my cargo jeans, the compac in the other side leg pocket and the Nikon I hang around my neck, all day and often into the night.

Once packed, we were ready to go, and if you have ever ridden a bike in Vietnam you will know the meaning of organized chaos, there are just thousands of vehicles, pushbikes, motorbikes, trucks you name it, going in every direction, but somehow they seem to get to where they are going without to many bingles, but for us it was an experience.  Eventually we got out of Hanoi, and started heading north.

We rode through the fertile low areas just north of Hanoi, across many creeks & rivers, through the terraced rice paddies and up and down the mountains, on about the second night, we had the pleasure to stay at a village farmhouse that was setup to accommodate about 15-20 people, we arrived mid afternoon and was glad to have a rest, warn shower and a beer, there were five of us, and we felt right at home, then across the rice paddies we could see another group of bike riders coming towards us to also stay the night at the farm stay accommodation, which was great, we had a great evening swapping stories and having beers, they were from all over the world including the UK, USA & Australia to name a few, they were heading to Danang, which is where we had been about five days earlier, anyway the next morning we said our goodbye’s and left to go further north whilst they headed south.

After several days of riding we started to climb up into the high mountains, the roads got winder, and they also got narrower, in some cases you would come across landslides that had taken half the road away, disappearing into the valleys below, there where no safety fences on the sides of the roads, just straight down, thousands of feet in most cases, anyway we kept climbing deeper & further up the mountain ranges, At one on the places we stayed at we saw on the TV devastating floods in the Philippines from a typhoon that had hit it, and that it had tracked towards Danang where our other bike friends were going too, we could not understand the words but a picture is self explanatory, we found out later over emails that they were in the middle of the typhoon when it hit Denang, they were flooded, and had some great footage on YouTube.

Anyway back to us, we could see the weather getting worse where we were, heavy cloud building up, extremely humid, all of the signs of a pending storm forming and then it started raining, and I mean really raining & wind, it would have made any tropical island proud, the rain was that heavy, you could not see the road, visibility was reduced to about 10 meters I kid you not, we were kept very mindful of the landslides by our guide, and also about the shear drops, and of course the on-coming traffic, but we just had to keep going to reach our destination for the night, which was a place called Sapa, located at the top of the mountains about 6,000+ feet above sea level around 30 kilometers further on, does not sound far but on a good sunny day that would be at least an hour or more ride, but in this stuff who knows?

Even though we each had a plastic pancho type rain coat that we bought a few days earlier for about a dollar, we were soaking wet & very cold, but we eventually got there, to Sapa I mean, we arrived late in the afternoon, managed to get to the hotel and get showered and into some dry cloths, “SAPA SANCTUARY” at last we thought, this was the biggest town we had been to in a week, it even had hot showers and some food that we could recognize, like good old chips, and even a hamburger, admittedly it was made out of buffalo meat but it was great.  That night the rain just pelted down, it had to be the heaviest rain I have been in, it just poured and poured, the next morning it was still raining, we had breakfast, and discussed what would be our stratergy, would we keep going in the rain or would we wait it out, we were about to make the desicion to wait it out, then the rain eased and the sky cleared, beauty, lets go we all said, so we loaded up the bikes, fueled up and started heading out down the mountains towards the Chinese border at Lao Cai.

We got about 10 kilometers out of Sapa, and I could see this really strange fog /cloud coming up the valley at us, we were well above it, but it was coming straight up the valley towards us, in a wedge shape, you could see the rain starting underneath it and the trees getting knocked around with the wind, then just like before, down came the rain & wind, just as heavy as the day before, another day soaked to the skin, as it turned out, we were riding through the same Typhoon that had come across from the Philippines, and the eye had passed directly overhead of Sapa, a very hairy & memorable experience, but would not undo it.

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The Train Ride

Vietnam (Sep 2009)

I had planned a trip to Vietnam with a number of friends, four of us in total, I had spent many day & hours planning the trip, searching the web for places of interest to visit throughtout Vietnam, keeping in mine the various timeframes and places that we had to be on certain dates during our visit.  As I do my planning I always feel that we can rest when we get back, so I like to fill as many hours as possible doind as many things as we can, this of course leads to a very interesting but exhusting trip, so I try to break it up every 5 days or so with a “day off” to catch our breath.

So part of my plan was that after the first stint of hard touristing in the South of the country, we would fly from Ho-Chi-Min City to Danang very early in the morning and without any pre-planned arrangements we would have to make our way to Hue, about 100klm to the North, by 3:00pm the following day (an easy enough thing to do you would think but that is another story), to catch a train that would take us to Hanoi, a fourteen hour relaxing train trip.

I had spend some time investigating the trains services in Vietnam, and decided to book our tickets on the overnight train from Hue to Hanio, the website showed some basic info on the trains, cabins etc, so I booked an air conditioned four birth cabin for the four of us in the “First Class” car of the train, this would take care of the sleeping and guess what, the website mentioned that there was a restarunt car and another drinks car with a bar, Wow we were set, this is going to be fun, so I promoted this to the others and we were all looking forward to the train trip, can’t wait.

Anyway despite the the various events of getting to Hue, which almost put all of us into either the hospital or the morgue, we did make it to Hue later that day, and we spent the following morning looking around Hue.

Three O’clock arrived and it was time to catch the train, the train was late but it did eventually arrive, there were people evrywhere waiting to get on the train, and although we had our tickets we were getting concerned about will we get on, it took us a while to find our cabin, as the signage was all in Vietnamese and very difficult to try and understand any instructions that we were given, as we were looking for the First Class car, it was there alright but

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End of the Road

Oman (Nov 2008)

Myself & two Australian friends went on a self designed tour / trip around some of the Middle-Eastern countries in late 2008, We arrived in Dubai, UAE, where I had made arrangements to stay with my friend that worked in Dubai, after a couple of days looking around Dubai, we decided to head of to Oman, which is a country that is split into three seperate parts, one South, one East & one North of UAE, the part we wanted to go to was the one to the North, so we headed off accross the desert to a town on the coast of the Gulf of Oman located at the border of UAE & Oman named “Dibba”, it was a nice quiet place, lot of fishing boats and fisherman, and one of the most noticable things about this area was that the women were wearing a metal burka, it must be very hot with these on.

Anyway, we had a look around the town and then headed further north through the border crossing, no passpost stamps, they just had a look at our passports and waved us through?  The desert changed from a vast golden sandy desert to huge shale mountains, with a rare bush or small windswept tree, the availability of water seemed to be totally absent, yet there were people living there, in places that most would consider inhabitable. The landscape whilst baron, dry & almost greyscale, remains to me as one of the most memorable vistas I can recall, it had it’s own beuaty in some sort of way that causes it to just simply remain at the forefront of my mind.

The road gradually got worse, the rough single-lane dirt road followed a small dried out river bed meandering ever upwards into the mountains, and on several occasions we would pass through an area that seemed as if it were man made, the mountain walls on the side of the road, where the river had carved it’s way through some time in the past would go straight up for hundred meters, it just felt eerie, and I am sure the other guys with me were also thinking will these walls cave in as we are going through, I know I did at first, but you got used to it.

After about an two and a half hours, we came upon a military camp, literally in the middle of nowhere, as we approached the camp we could see a patrol boom-gate in the distance set in the closed position, with the road continuing on past the camp and further into the mountains, we had estimated at this stage we were about half way to our destination, Khasab, a medium sized fishing town located on the northern coastline of the Straight of Hormuz, which is the body of water between Oman & Iran, anyway by the time we had reached the boom-gate a sentry was there waiting for us, with an AK-47 machine-gun in hand and whilst we thought he was happy to see some new faces he was determined not to let us through, despite our arguing in english which he did not understand, and his return verbals in arbaric which we could not understand, stalemate, at this point another a couple of soldiers had turned up with great interest, all carrying some form of weapons on them, looking at us, looking in the vehicle, this was getting uncomfortable, time for us to leave, so we decided to put our tail bewteen our legs and get out of there, END OF THE ROAD.

From there we travelled back to Dibba, and then again accross the desert to the Al Qir on the western side of UAE to go accross the boarder into Oman again, we eventually arrived in Khasab just on dark, too late to go spear fishing in the fjords, which was the plan, so we decided to stay at a local hotel for the night, all four of us in one room, it is often booked out due to the visa requirements of UAE, people work in UAE, and go over the border for a night and back to UAE the next day, so having many people in one room seemed standard there.

Anyway the following day, we hired a local fisherman and travelled out in the Straight of Hormuz, a very different place indeed, but that’s another story, we all had  great time and got back to Dubai safely.

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I will take the Donkey

Jordan (Jul 2008)

If you have ever been to Petra in Jordan you will understand & appreciate this one, we decided to hire a car in Jordan which was a job in itself if you don’t speak Arabic which we don’t, with the intention of driving around the country in a clockwise direction, we started going up to the northern border with Syria, and then proceeded down the Jordan valley to the Dead Sea, meandering in & out, up and down the mountain ranges and points of interests along the way, with one of our prime destinations being the ancient Petra Archaeological Park, where the Nabataeans, an industrious Arab people in centuries past had sculptured & carved out tombs, alters, temples, streets, and even a 3,000 seat roman style theatre from the solid rock walls & floors of the surrounding mountains & valleys several thousand years ago!.

Anyway, we arrived at the gates of Petra the evening before we intended to visit the historic site, so we stayed at the Movenpic Hotel which just happens to be about one hundred meters from the front gate of the Petra Archaeological Park, as I was aware that I would need to be there first thing if I wanted to get photos of the site without  other people in them, so the following morning we got up early and went the entry gate to be first in line, which we were, the gate/ticket office was signed to open at 6.00am however  it did not open until much later, during which time we had decided to go and have some breakfast, upon our return the park was opened and people everywhere, I was not happy, because I thought that my photo opportunities had just been taken away, anyway we bought the ticket and proceeded through the gates into the park, people everywhere, we knew that there was a several kilometre walk to the first site being the “Treasury” through the canyon walls, called the Siq, so I though the best way to get to the front of the crowd was to hire a couple of the horse & carriage’s to get there a bit quicker than the rest.

After some negotiations, we managed to hire two of these horse & carriages, and away we went, not at a trot, but at a steady gallop!!, the horse & drivers of these carriages were obviously well versed in the navigation of getting there, as they were missing the walls of the canyon by what seemed to be millimetres, however despite the close shaves we arrived safely at the “Treasury”, made famous by the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” starring actor Harrison Ford, what an amazing sight, a precision sculpture carved out of the raw rock walls of the mountains, inside the temple, the natural colours of the rock were amazing.

From here we ventured further into the park past the roman style theatre, along the ancient streets to the base of the long climb up the rock stairs to go to the “Monastery”, just as we were about to commence the climb of the 800 plus stairs a young Arab boy came out from one of the tombs, he spoke good basic English and offered us to hire one or more of his donkeys to ride up to the Monastery, the other two guys with me declined, however I decided to take him up on his offer, so I said to the other guys I’ll take the Donkey, see you up there, as they commenced the climb, the young lad saddled my donkey.

The young boy Muhammad, was nine years old, orphaned and had lived in the tombs all of his life as did his parents, apparently they were indigenes to the area, he had three donkeys and had taken over the donkey hire business from his dad, after he has passed away, he stated that he had been doing this trip up and down to the Monastery for as long as he could remember, and suggested that it had been since the age of three, his three donkeys all had names, the one he selected for me he had named “Jackson” after the singer (Michael),  so once saddled we set off up the mountains to the Monastery.

I was surprised at the agility of the donkey, as well as his seemly disregard to danger, at some points the stairs that had been chiselled out of the bare rock were on the very extremities of the mountain without any rails or safety fences, perhaps only a meter wide which seems to be plenty wide enough, but when there is a straight drop down of hundred or more meters it seemed very narrow, the pathway up to the Monastery was probably several kilometres from where I had hire the donkey, there were apparently about 850 steps of various heights and as mentioned some of the pathway was on the outside of the mountain, some of which would “zigzag” up the side of the mountain

As I rode my trusty steed, along the pathway, you could hear the steady clippity-clop, clippity-clop of his hooves on the bare rock echoing through-out the canyons in the dense morning air, and when he would come to a point that caused him (the donkey) to change direction, he would stop & pause as if he had had enough of carrying this heavy load up the hill, and take in a big breath, and exhale whilst dropping his ears, it just reminded me of the donkey in the “Shrek” movies, he undoubtedly had a personality, anyway I arrived safely at the top of the Monastery before the others, fresh and ready to go, but I can’t say that for the other when they arrived, so take the donkey if you go, it was great.

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All Fogged Up

China (Jul 2007)

Myself & my wife travelled across China in a clockwise direction, starting from Guilin in central southern China, moving east to Shanghai, north to Beijing, then south-west to Xian & Chengdu, then east again to Chongqing, where I had made arrangements for us to go on a boat cruise down the mighty Yangtze river from Chongqing to the Three Georges Dam, Yichang over several days.

We had a great time cruising the river, and each day the boat would stop at various places where you could get off and go and see the local culture and historic sites which were amazing, China is so rich in ancient history.

Anyway one of the photography highlights on the cruise is seeing the sunrise at a point on the river where the walls of the mountains are very close together, known as the “Three Gorges”, which is where the dam derives it’s name from I am told, and on a clear day (normally in winter) the sunrise view is apparently fantastic, however not overly fantastic on the day we were there. So in anticipation of the upcoming sunrise, the morning before I planned to get up very early, before dawn to get myself organized and find the best vantage point on the boat, take note of where & when other people/photographers would most likely turn up and want to stand to watch the sunrise.

The next morning, I woke early as planned, got up, got my camera gear all ready, and headed of up to the top viewing deck of the boat, a position that I thought would be the best vantage point for a sunrise photo, the slowly but surely we saw the pre-dawn light happening, and progressively getting lighter & lighter, by this time several other people had arrived and a few other photographers to see the sunrise, and it was at this point I decided it was time to start capturing the sunrise, so I had set up my camera ready to go, I bent down slightly to look through the view finder to take my first shot and to my amazement & shock I could not see anything, just fog, my camera was “ALL FOGGED UP”, I could not understand it, it was fine 15 minutes ago, I cleaned the viewfinder, the front lens element, I took the lens off and cleaned the rear element, nothing, still fogged up, I remember thinking that I must have allowed water to somehow get into the lens and it was ruined, my $1,800 lens was useless, what am I going to do?

It was at this time I noticed several others cleaning their lens and checking their cameras, it then dawned on me that I had taken my camera gear from the air conditioned cabin out into the hot humid summer air of China, this caused the lens to fog-up and of course once the temperature of the camera equipment had equalized with the outside temperature, all was fine, however I had missed the sunrise, but had learn’t the lesson.

With the above experience in mind, I took precautions the following night, I wrapped my camera and lens up in a blanket with several coatings, I then placed it inside of a carry case, with the plan that I would get up in the middle of the night and turn off the air conditioning, I did this the following night, and when I woke before dawn, I got my gear and headed up to the top deck to photograph the entrance to the gorges, as I waited for the sunrise, I could see lots of other people coming up to see the event as well, I had the best position, and I was prepared for it.

As the predawn light started to appear, more & more people turned up, to the point where I thought that half the boat was up there, it didn’t worry me however because I had secured a position where no-one could get in my road, and I had a clear shot of the pending vista, anyway as the morning light brightened and the sun rose I was happily taking photographs, no fog, because I had done my homework, however I cannot say the same for the others, everyone else had the same problem that I had had the day before, their cameras were all fogged up, and thus no photos, and of course were very disappointed, so remember this lesson, it will save you a lot of heartache.

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