A Journey

Basil & Tracy's Travels Abroad

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Lost World

In the north of Laos it is possible to catch a glimpse of the lifestyle of various hill tribes. Villages, accessible only on foot by forest tracks, remain much the same as they have been for hundreds of years. We joined four Canadians a Dutchman and a Brit on a guided Nam Ha River trek that took us to visit a Khmu and a Lanten village.

Carrying our stripped-down packs (sleeping bag, toothbrush, water), we travel by pick-up truck to the trailhead, a Lanten village where we watch the local women (these tribes are matriarchal), wearing blue, homespun costumes, selling a pig to a lowlander from the town – a very serious business, and lucrative!

Lanten Pig Bargaining

Our guide, Phet, hires a villager who carries the lunch on his back in a bamboo basket with a wide strap around his forehead, and we set off.

Lanten Porter

Winding up and up through bamboo forests we see signs of foraging and hear voices deep in the thickets as women and the older girls dig for one of the staple foods of the people here – thick, starchy bamboo shoots, which they carry back to the village in the same baskets.

Bamboo Shoots

It is important to place a leaf as an offering on any termite hills near the trail to ensure good luck.

Termite Offering

Next begins a long, steep climb through open, upland forest with distant views over the surrounding country, pausing only for long draughts of water – with the added bonus of lightening your pack!


We arrive at the top, puffing and pink in the face, to collapse while a feast is laid out before us on a banana leaf table and the villager has a quick cigarette before heading back home. Climbing down is far more punishing than climbing up, and after the steep decent we arrive at our destination with aching, shaking knees – not a moment too soon!

Ban Nalan Huts

Ban Nalan Village

We are to spend the night in the visitor's house in the Khmu village of Ban Nalan on the banks of the Nam Ha and we are amused to find a western-style loo in its own special outhouse!!!

Farang Loo

When we arrive, Ban Nalam is almost deserted … only the elders remain, overseeing the small children and animals whilst the rest of the villagers are out foraging or tending the fields. Unlike other tribes, there is no tradition of weaving in the Khamu and so they wear bartered cotton sarongs.

Child Minding

Pig Feeding

Two of the local villages are being slowly dismantled and moved to a new site next to each other, where a school for both communities is planned (make the most of it, kids, you are in for a shock!). Piece by piece the houses (except for the rattan roofs) are carried to the new plot, so the village is smaller than it was.

Happy Pork

Accompanied by the children we drop everything and bask in the cool river – bliss! The kids soon produce homemade harpoon-guns and a net and the rest of the afternoon is spent catching dinner! Two snakes are spotted ­– one, long and thin and silver, climbs out of the river (!) and, when the children chase it, it shoots up a tree with shocking speed! Great sport is had trying to shake it down. Another is spotted swimming across the river, head held high, but is lost on the bank.

Little Boy

Boy with Harpoon

At dusk, villagers begin to arrive home laden with the fruits of the day’s labours and preparation of the evening meal begins. Lao food is amazing – lots of ginger, coriander, garlic, lemon-grass and chilli. Meat is often eaten raw and our carnivores are taken aback to find raw buffalo tripe on the menu – there are advantages to being veggie! A soup is prepared with the fish heads and guts, nothing wasted here. We also enjoy vegetables in broth, chilli dip, tomato and coriander curry, all served with generous handfuls of sticky-rice (tikky lie!) – the main staple food in Laos. Dinner is accompanied by the passing round of a small bamboo shot glass of home brewed rice liquor, smooth and strong, with toasts in many languages – shok di (good luck) in Lao.


How privileged we feel as we crawl into bed to the sound of a frog chorus and the call of a barking deer in the forest.

The day begins before dawn, when the ladies cook the day’s sticky-rice, steamed in a bamboo basket (what would we do without bamboo?!) and taken with them in a bamboo box. Daybreak finds them heading out of the village for another day’s work. We tuck into a breakfast of sticky-rice, spicy omelette and fresh chicken curry with the sound of thunder rolling around the valley.

Fresh Chicken

The day’s trek starts following the river along the valley and soon it begins to rain. After the heat of yesterday’s climb we are grateful for the cool freshness it brings. The first stop is the new, combined village, looking pristine with its freshly made roofs.

New Village

Our eyes nearly pop out of our heads when we see a woman roasting a squirrel over a fire!

Roasted Squirrel

Just as the sky opens, we arrive at Ban Nam Goi, the Lanten village. We take cover in a communal hut and people bring their wares for us to buy. Charming, brightly embroidered bags prepared from scraps of homespun fabric; little carvings and clay figures; and wristbands made from seeds are all produced and everyone is happy when we finally step out into the cloudy, steamy daylight.


Happy Kids

Lunch is eaten (they know how to keep you happy!) from a bamboo trough with bamboo spoons on the riverbank but unfortunately someone has nicked the bamboo raft normally used to cross the river, so it is time to roll up our trousers! Someone notices a bloodstain on their sock and it’s leech-alert! Small brown leeches have been awoken by the rain and can be seen blindly inching like caterpillars over the leaf litter towards you. Tuck your trousers into your socks and keep moving is the advice, which we all take pdq!



Most of today’s walk is to be three short(ish!) sharp ascents and descents through thick, virgin monsoon forest. We are overwhelmed by the mysterious, dark, dripping, place. Weird birdcalls echo around us, breaking the muffled, timeless silence – strange and wonderful and a bit unsettling, we feel as almost much out of our element here as we do under the sea.

Lost World

Heart of Darkness

We emerge, blinking into bananas and rice paddy and the spell is broken. Civilisation, a hot shower and a Beerlao beckon as we wearily clamber into a pick-up for the long, bumpy ride back to Luang Namtha.


Special thanks to Phet and Sieng our guides and Green Discovery.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Thai Favourites

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Travels in Thailand

Having spent a few days in Bangkok, we're now in Khao Lak on the western Andaman coast of Thailand. We're visiting Brian, a university friend of Jason's who is teaching in a school here.

Tracy is busy copy-editing so I have posted a few of our first photos from Thailand

Here's the link to the photos

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Heading South and East

We're flying to Thailand on Friday, planning to visit some beaches and islands then heading up north and across the border to Laos. Plan to be back in the UK in May.

Still have our Turkish travels to write up but here are the photos.

Have posted the last of the photos of our journey back through Europe from Turkey on Flickr here's the link.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year

Naples Christmas

We're now back at home in England for Christmas with the family. Planning to head off to Thailand in the New Year.

May the road rise to meet you
May the wind be at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face
May the rains fall soft upon your fields

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Latest Updates

Have now updated the Romanian and Bulgarian part of our travelogue, scroll down for the full story.

Our Turkish photos are now up to date on Flickr: Click here to see them

Turkish Delight

Here's a link to a few pictures which Jason took when he and Edd came out to visit us in Turkey. Needless to say we had a brilliant time together.

Turkish Delight

Campfire on the Beach

БЪΛГАРИЯ: Monasteries and Walnuts

The immediate necessity upon entering Бъλгария is to buy a Cyrillic roadmap! Navigating a new country’s road system is always challenging but becomes a farce when all the road signs you see are completely unintelligible! We have no idea at all where we are most of the time. We know where we think we are and where we want to be but ne’er the twain shall meet! We finally solve the problem by cross-referencing between two maps: one in English, with which we plan our route, and one in Cyrillic, with which we decipher the signposts. All of this adds to the sense of achievement when finally arriving at the intended destination.


Our first conquest is Ивaново (Ivanovo), a gorge just south of the border famous for its carved and painted Byzantine rock monasteries. Driving through farmland, between hedgerows laden with sloes, rosehips and wild clematis, we wind down to the main attraction, which is a church perched high on the side of the gorge, resplendent with beautiful 14th century frescoes: really stunning images.


More exciting for us, however, is the discovery that on the other side of the gorge, accessible only by foot or bicycle, there are many other unvisited sites to investigate. The next day sees us wobbling intrepidly into the wilds, feeling like explorers of the dark unknown.


In the still silence of the gorge, broken only by the warbling of water fowl, we spend a happy day scrabbling around the rocky cliffside, richly rewarded by the discovery of a series of more humble, but to us infinitely more exciting, painted rock churches.



This gorge is many miles long and has been inhabited since the 5th century. There are ancient villages in its fertile folds and the inevitable fortifications that wealth and power bring.


We follow the twisting roads, descending into the valley to investigate places of interest and find a perfect riverside place to stay for a few days, visited only by sheep with their shepherds and the occasional horse-drawn farm cart.


Basil is delighted to find that the local town of Russe has wireless internet across all of its centre. A cheap scratch card gives you an access code and 500 Mb of bandwidth. We spend a cosy evening online in our van whilst parked in a side street. Useful for visitors, but not sure about the long-term effects on the inhabitants.


Moving on towards Вeлико Tьрново (Veliko Tarnavo), central Bulgaria, we notice people carrying long poles over their shoulders. The traveller’s life is full of such mysteries, you can only speculate and wait for things to become clear. All is revealed when we see somebody bashing a tree and realise that he is gathering walnuts. The roads are lined with walnut trees and they yield sacks of nuts, we are soon part of the harvest frenzy!


We make a spontaneous decision to follow a signpost to another painted monastery and are delighted to find that Autumn, on the wheel of life depicted in one of its frescoes, is symbolised by someone bashing a walnut tree!


We are awed to meet one of the monks, a tiny, wizened man with long flowing white hair and beard. The monastery is a place of incredible calm and peace and productivity – definitely a good place to be in uncertain times in the past, and maybe now – makes you wonder.



We meet up with two Americans KC and Jonathan and Toby an Irishman who are heading our way. So our van is full again as we drive southeast to investigate the Black Sea coast, which is one of the routes into Turkey.


Stopping to visit another (!) convent, we are again struck by the tranquillity and strength of their simple lifestyle, but are told by one of the nuns that all of the sisters are very old and that no young people are joining them so their world is slowly fading into the past. She wants to know if people in the west are contented…

The Road South

The Black Sea coast is a mostly a destination for eastern European and Russian holidaymakers and the season is mostly over now. The weather cool and windy so we decide to move on towards Turkey, our American friends decide to stay but for Toby it’s Istanbul or bust. The three of us set off for the border…

Breb the Beautiful


Breb House

Breb is beautiful: carved wooden houses with shingle roofs and verandas, and a horse-drawn sledges hanging on the back of every barn – a reminder of the cold winters here, with deep snow for much of the time.

Behind the  Barn

Carved Gate

Some have fantastic carved gates, the size of which denotes the owner’s prestige in the village and they all have a privy in the garden. There are no roads in the village, just tracks, and the houses are spread out amongst their orchards and fields. Most people walk around the village stopping to greet neighbours on the way.

 Ancient and Modern

The houses have electricity but the water is piped down from the mountain to standpipes in the gardens, so, apart from this and the satellite dishes and wellies, everything is as it has been for hundreds of years.


They are practically self-sufficient: each household has a horse, a pig, a couple of cows some chicken and a nicely manured veggie patch! Also a couple of fields to grow hay for the winter. We watch the gradual bloom of ‘teletubby’ haystacks over the summer, every day more and more appear.

 Local Market

Apparently one cow will eat its way through four or five of these each year! The local market reflects this lifestyle, selling livestock, horseshoes, rakes and scythe blades.

 Breb Festival

The women wear traditional clothing – a knee-length skirt, full and tied at the waist, a blouse and flowery headscarf; men often wear funny little hats made from birch bark and felt homespun waistcoats. We are surprised to see many of the young people still embracing this.

 Friendly Faces

People are incredibly friendly here, – it’s difficult to believe that people who work so hard and have so few material possessions can be so cheerful, friendly, welcoming and generous – but it’s the same story the world over.

 In  Need of Some Repair

Duncan and Penny eventually find a couple of houses to buy, one of them  "in need of some repair" to the roof!


We spend a day up the road in Sapanta home to the "Merry Cemetery" where colourfully painted carved wooden gravestones depict a scene from the life of the deceased along with a witty limerick.


Here also we find a fantastic and newly constructed all wooden church, testimony to the woodworking skills that still exist.


The village is also hosting a festival of traditional music and dance from the region which climaxes with a stomping set from the gypsy band Taraful Codrisul.

Front Page News

The festival results in Basil appearing on the front page of the local newspaper along with local dignatories!

 Drum Bun

We wave goodbye to Penny, Duncan and the kids who catch an overnight train to Bucarest en route to the UK before heading on to Egypt for the winter.

 Wedding Band

We attend a wedding celebration, which starts at 8 o’clock in the evening. There is a live band playing traditional music – mad fiddles and accordions – and the villagers dance circle and line dances far into the night, and beyond, with 20 minute breaks every couple of hours for another course of food and liquid fuel. By 3 am we’ve had it and stagger back to bed. We’re amazed to hear them still singing and stamping at 7 o’clock the next morning and even more amazed when the party finally winds down at noon!!


We go to the traditional Giulesti festival in the village. It isn't a special event put on for tourists, just a good excuse for everybody to put on their Sunday best and enjoy the music and dancing.

Sunday Best

Here's a link to a short video we made of the dancing.

Lucia and Joanna

We shelter here, in the cool shade of apple trees, for August whilst forest fires rage over much of southern Europe. But, all good things come to an end, otherwise how could you move on to the next good thing – in our case Jason and Edwin coming to meet us in three week’s time in Istanbul!!

Fond farewells to Juan, Lucia and Joanna at Pension Lucia, where we have been parked; fond farewells to Breb, where we are sure that we will return, and – wagons roll. We emerge, blinking onto Romania’s shocking roads.

Maramures Mountains

Across the mountains of Maramures, stopping briefly here and there.

Local Style

We see more of the incredible richness and diversity of traditional buildings in Romania. Each area has its distinct styles. They are particularly fond of roof, window and veranda embellishments.

 Logging Train

We spend a long and somewhat smoky day on a wood-fired steam engine, chugging up and up a mountain logging trail alongside the river that they use to float the trees downstream. It is very beautiful and we afterwards hear that it features in Michael Palin’s latest TV travelogue, set in Eastern Europe.

 Forest Falls

Other days are spent visiting a couple of the spectacular waterfalls in the area: climbing up steep mountain tracks through beech and fir forests or wizzing over the tops of them on a ski-lift!

 Cool Wash

This water is put to good use lower down in the valley where it powers traditional wooden 'washing machines' - very impressive.

 Apple Spirit

Then down, down, down, between gardens with their apple, pear and plum trees laden with fruit (most of which will be distilled into the polenca of which the Romanians are so fond!)

 Crossing the Danube

... onto the plains and the long trek south past Bucharest and over the great River Danube to Bulgaria...