Thursday, 13 December 2012

Patrick Moore RIP

My life long interest in astronomy resulted in a life long interest in some interesting people. One of those, very interesting people, was Patrick Moore. Moore spent his entire life as an amateur astronomer and a populariser of the subject. With a mildly eccentric demeanour he entertained generations of young people, and more than a few older.

Having said that he never struck me as a particular helpful source of information. I found neither his books nor his long dialogues on the subject that useful, however, I always found him an interesting subject to observe, if never entirely sure just what he was up to. This, combined with his rather varied and equally eccentric political views, made him someone to occasionally pay attention to, but never take too seriously.

With all that, however, Patrick Moore, you were a fun fellow, you lived a long life, doing what you wanted. RIP.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Larry Hagman — sorry to learn of your passing

Larry Hagman, an actor, man who made people happy. I first saw you in "I Dream of Genie" (as many of us did). Then I occasionally watched you in "Dallas". A good actor, and a good man. You leave behind many good memories in the minds of many people. RIP.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Backpacking Around the World

I am not a dorm person by natural inclination. Normally, I prefer a private room, and in most sea countries a good private room can be had in the $15-$20 per night price range, however, not so in the City of the Merlion. Here a basic private room will start in the $50 plus price range. Not overly exorbitant, but a price to avoid if travelling for an extended periods of time, however, there is an alternative to the hotel scene. This is a backpacker hostel.

Once, hostels were non-existent in Sing. It was high-class tourism or nothing, now, fortunately, this has changed. There are now a host of backpacker hostels in the city. Most of these cluster near the lower income areas. These areas include "Little India" and "China Town". As you walk through the streets of these locales you will see buildings dating back to colonial days, in a traditional design, two or three stories high, intermixed with the occasional 7-11, and the somewhat jarring appearance of a pub with the name "Prince of Wales", or something similar.

Finding a good backpackers can be done the old fashioned way, asking fellow travellers—always a good source of advice. There are also a host of websites which list and decribe backpackers. Also of course, there is the pedestrian alternative of simply arriving in Sing, disembarking from your conveyance, and then walking through the backpacker areas, and judging what you can see.

From my somewhat limited experience most of these places are good. They all supply a similar service, it is the trimmings, and extra assistance that transforms a good hostel into a great hostel.

A Sing backpacker will cost you in the region of sing$20 plus a night. For this you will receive a bunk bed in a dorm. This will be a long room, with maybe four, five, or a dozen or more two level high bunk beds. There will be a common shower/toilet facility here, and a common area.

This might sound a tad bleak, but the right hostel, approached with the correct frame of mind, is a fun and itneresting place. Think of your bunk as simply a place to sleep and to leave your clothes and gear. A quiet zone. There are always lockers for your valuables (if there is no locker keep on looking). Follow a fairly obvious protocol in the dorms. Keep the noise down, clean up after yourself, and keep your gear tidy. Most of these places are co-ed, so, if you are awoken at 3am by two newly arrived Norwegian girls changing clothes and getting into their bunk, try not to oggle.

The place to do stuff, socialise, eat & drink, play computers, is the common area. This is usually usually filled with seats, tables, bean bags, books, fridge, microwave, a few computer terminals, and wifi is always present.

After spending a day or two in a hostel you will notice a rather charming informality. People lay on been bags sleeping, others chat to their family in friend in different languages over Skype. People arrive and depart at all hours from everywhere to anywhere else. Brief and intense friendships can form in moments, blossom, and then fade as people travel away. A varied and rich slice of life.

Some things to know about hostels. These points apply in general, but of course, variations on a theme ensue.

a. aircon, aircon in the dorms is usually not in use during the daylight hours. This keeps costs down and reinforces the idea that a bunk is simply a place to crash, not to live.

b. a few books, a lending library, a big tv, public access computers, a few decorations on the wall—these are the little things that make a good hostel.

c. don't panic if you see someone's feet projecting into your shower stall from the neighbhouring stall. Most likely drunk, not dead.

d. sex—not in your dorm, not on the roof. The only good place for sex in a hostel is in the shower stall—try and do it when others are not using. Everyone will know what what is going on.

e. expect to see many of your fellow backpackers staring into their computers, playing with their mobile phones, twittering, facebooking, generally living online.

A time in a backpacker is recommended for all travellers. Sing is a good place to start. Bon Voyage.

Your first view of Sing,
entering from Malaysia

Buildings of Sing

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Neil Armstrong 1930-2012. The First Man on the Moon.

I remember it well, High School, the scratchy radio voice and the blurry black and white image. The long wait, and then Neil Armstrong spoke those globally famous words as he stepped onto the Lunar surface. July 20th 1969. A life that will be remembered as long as humans still value their past and their accomplishments. RIP.

Ban Chiang Archaeological World Heritage Site

Lots of signs along the way.
tourist shop opposite the museum.

reproduction pots on sale.
Ban Chiang is an archeological site located in the Udon Thani Province of northern Thailand. The site is of importance as it contains the archaeological remains of the only known south east Asian culture to independently develop an agrarian culture. Prior to the discovery of Ban Chiang it was genuinely assumed that agricultural knowledge was transferred into south east Asia from India and China. This was not the case. Due to this unique role the site played in the region, Ban Chiang is considered to be the most important archaeological site in the Kingdom of Thailand. In 1992, in recognition of its importance in south east Asian cultural development, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The earliest evidence shows that the area was settled by a hunter-gatherer people in the fourth millennium BCE. These people possessed the rudiments of a settled, agricultural society: domesticated animals and a knowledge of agriculture. These people abandoned their earlier lifestyle and became farmers, tilling the soil for their food. Over the next three millennia their technology slowly progressed through a Bronze to an Iron Age, and, along the way these people created an elaborate material culture, distinguished by a range of attractive earthen ware pottery that has become iconic in the region (and reproductions of which can be purchased in tourist shops). By c. 500 BCE wet rice cultivation had become widespread. These new found technologies spread from Ban Chiang to what is now northern Thailand and northern Laos, and perhaps further. In 1992, due to the significance of Ban Chiang in south east Asian cultural history, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

main road museum entrance.

world heritage marker.

museum entrance.

The site was abandoned c. 300 CE, however, in the intervening centuries the site has been settled and re-settled. It is now a modern Thai village, the village of Bang Chiang. The presence of the village has somewhat hampered excavation work, however, the area surrounding the village, plus the major site within the village, a modern Thai Buddhist temple, are available and both have provided a great deal of material.

The site was long known to contain ancient artefacts, however, it was in 1966, due to one of those serendipitous discoveries that occasionally do occur, that the significance of the site was realised. Steve Young, a Harvard anthropology student, who was living in the Bang Chiang village, tripped over a tree root, fell, and saw the exposed tops of pottery jars. This quickly led to an introductory dig, that became an ongoing project, which saw the development of the current site. The dig was given prominence in 1972 when the King of Thailand, Rama IX, visited the village and suggested to the Thai Fine Arts Department (responsible for historical research in the Kingdom), that research be undertaken at Ban Chiang.


entrance lobby.

plan of museum grounds.

In 1975 the original museum building was constructed on the western side of the village (17.407 103.2365). A new and better museum was completed on the same site in 2006, with the original used for admin. The new museum is much larger and well displays the long history of the site and culture. The museum contains a sizeable quantity of artefacts from the various digs, presented in a chronological order, also displays and diorama. If this interests you I strongly suggest a visit to the Udon City museum, in the provincial capital. This museum also has a wide range of artefacts and displays from Ban Chiang.

There is one archaeological site open to the public, this was the first identified. This lies within the grounds of a Buddhist temple on the eastern side of the village, Wat Pho Sri Nai (17.4082 103.2432). This dig is now on display within an enclosed shelter. The temple and museum are separated by a 500m walk through the the village. Between the two is a tourism office where tourist advice, and a full range of tourist trinkets, are available.

diorama of the dig site.

the iconic, original, earthen wear pots.
original site publication on display.

lots of information.

diorama of original dig work office.

info about dating.

closeup of diorama.
The village itself is a quiet, even sleepy affair. As I walked along the small streets I heard locals speaking to each other saying "falang" (foreigner)—few foreign visitors here. I hope that in the future the archaeological site received greater prominence and attracts more tourists. Recommended for anyone of an historical persuasion.

When I visited, a weekday, there were a batch of Thai High School students visiting, but less that a dozen other tourists. Also, as far as I could gather, there are no organised visits or tours of the museum from the provincial capital. While the Ban Chiang is interesting, well presented, and certainly worth a visit, it seems that few go to the trouble to do so.

The easiest way to reach Ban Chiang is to take a bus from Udon Thani city to the neighbouring provincial capital of Sakhon Nakhon, and tell the driver that you wish to alight at Ban Chiang. This trip will cost you 40 baht ($1+), and consume slightly less than an hour of your time. Keep an eye on where you are going, the driver might just forget your drop off, however, do not worry, there is a large blue sign stretched above the road to the site. From the turn off there are tuk tuks waiting to take you to the museum and back, all for the princely sum of 120 bath (~$4—I gave my driver a 20 baht tip). Returning to Udon is easy enough, at the drop off point is a bus stop. Simply wait there for the next bus to come along heading west, flag it down, and hop on. It is a busy route, I had to wait about 2 minutes. Great fun.

One of the original and larger pots.

the temple with the original dig.

info about the dig.

original dig site on display.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Harry Harrison—sorry to hear of your passing

Harry Harrison, an amusing name. I can remember the first time I saw the name on the shelves of my High School library, when I first came across the Deathworld series. This fascinating read began a long friendship, his books, my reading. I met Harrison when he came to Perth for a Swancon. An interesting and witty man, always ready with a story. Mr Harrison, you have left a long and lasting legacy, which will entertain many generations to come. RIP (1925-2012).

Sunday, 12 August 2012

The City of Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars.

Behave !

Phonsavan is a city in northern Laos, ~170kms as the crow flies north from Vientiane, and the capital of the Laos province of Xieng Khouang. A land of rice, green hills, a very small quantity of local industry, and one major tourist attraction.

The city can be reached by automobile or aircraft. From Vientiane a bus journey on the long, winding, hilly, and sometimes non-existent road will take ~12 hours. There are regular and low cost buses available for this trip.  You can take a bus from the official bus station, the "Northern Bus Station" on the western side of Vientiane, or from the informal bus station found next to the Lao National Museum in the town centre. Cost is around $10 for an aircon bus. If you are unsure any tuk tuk driver in town will set take you where you need to go. If you take the bus route I suggest a stop over in the town of Vang Vieng, unless you are in a big hurry.

Time immemorial, growing rice.

Older, wooden style house.

New house, on the outskirts of town. Cost $20,000.

Upon my arrival I was approached by the usual gaggle of guys offering accommodation. I stayed at the "Nice Guesthouse", in the town centre. With a name like that how could things go wrong?   I even took a room without aircon. One night in a private room costs 60,000 Kip ($7).

My guesthouse
Phonsavan is a not overly large city, approximately 35,000 people call it home. During the Vietnam War the USA airforce bombed the province extensively, turning the green hills of the province into the most heavily bombarded area of the world, per capita. In addition massive quantities of defoliants and herbicides were also dropped here. The devestation was so great that the then capital, Muang Khoun, was abandoned. It was in the 1970s that the City of Phonsavan was constructed. The province has slowly recovered and is now moderately busy and prosperous.

In the streets of this city you will see lots of small buildings, numerous guest houses, a multitude of small restaurants, and more than a few tour companies. An oddly amusing and ironic feature of the town is the use of bomb shells as decorative and utilitarian devices. Several restaurants and cafes have bomb shells at their entrance, several fences in town are constructed from bomb cases, and these shells are even used as garden planters.

Outside the tourist office. Eye catching !

One of the local markets.

Unlike Vang Vieng, my previous stop in Laos, Phonsavan has a local economy separate from tourism. Locals live and work in the city itself. Many of the buildings look old, but there is a smattering of new construction, including a new multi-story hotel in the centre of the city. The streets are mildly busy with motorbikes, cars and trucks, and tuk tuks.

UXB exhibit / shop.

"Craters" restaurant.

Locals, cruising around town.

Phonsavan itself has few attractions. To the east there are two war memorials, one for Vietnamese and the other for Lao troops, who fell during the war. There is a small shopfront UXO-Visitor Information Center, where various locally produced artefacts are on sale, with part of the proceeds in aid of bomb victims. There are several local markets. Outside the city there is an
increasing variety of potential tourist

destinations. To help you find your way, a little to the east of the town centre, is an excellent tourist information office, where maps, phamphlets and displays can be found. A visit here is recommended.

I visited the city in August, the rainy season, and it was rainy. Every afternoon there was rain, and the rain continued into the evening. Not really that bad, but Phonsavan has a cool climate. At night I almost felt cold! The temperature was in the high teens—for south east Asia, this is practically the arctic.

The local watermelon.

Vietnam / Laos war memorial.

Getting around town is easy enough. It is a small town, so walking across town takes no more than half an hour. If you are in a hurry take one of the many tuk tuks.

Local public transport.

Your vehicle around town.

A local restaurant.

Looking down the main street.

The Plain of Jars

Looking at section B of site 1, from a nearby small hill.

The "King Jar", largest jar on site.

The main attraction of the city and province is the "Plain of Jars". These are a group of sites where ancient stone jars, dating to between 500 BCE to 500 CE, are scattered across the landscape. The jars themselves range in size from 1m to 3m metres tall, and a metre or less in diameter. They are found on the lower slopes of hills, and possibly indicate the position of ancient villages. There are currently 88 sites positively identified, with site 1 being the main site, closest to Phonsavan and with the most jars. Your tour will start here. The number of jars varies, some sites have only 1 jar, a few 100+. The stone for the jars comes from a quarry site on a hill ~8kms due east of site 1.
Entrance, buy your ticket here!

First view of site 1
Not a great deal of research has been carried out on the Jars to date, however, there is a strong push to have the Plain declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, possibly within two years. This would assist with their preservation and raise their tourist profile. To achieve this will require further bomb clearance—UXBs are visible as you wander through site 1—also direct international flights and other infrastructure improvements. Best wishes.

Evidently, as they have raised lips, suggesting the use of covers, the jars were intended to store goods of some type. They may also have been used for mortuary purposes, the production of whisky (so I was told), or ... something else. It is most likely that they were used for a multitude of purposes and functions.

Unfortunately, as I visited during the rainy season there was lots of rain and mud. Thus only site 1 was accessible, however, site 1 was worth the visit. Apparently October is the best month to visit.

Your first view will be of the ticket office, 10,000 Kip ($1) to enter. The ticket office is also a shop (surprise) selling themed items. There are aluminium spoons and other knick knacks made from recovered bomb fragments, also t-shirts, silk handbags, etc. Nothing very expensive. Worth buying a stack of stuff for gifts for the folks back home.

Then, to the Jars! You walk maybe 50m up a slight hill, and there you are—the Jars! The jars are a dark grey in colour, they come in various sizes, but most here are 1m-2m tall. Most also rest at an angle, showing their years. Site 1 runs in a curved line due eastwards covering maybe 500m, an easy walk. There is an impressive range of jars. Site 1 has the only non-grey coloured jar, a dark orange colour. Also, site 1 has the only jar with a carving. This is known as the "Frog Man".

This carving is maybe 60cm tall on one side of the jar, facing due west. It is not overly visible, being a bare outline. The man has his arms and legs bent, thus the "frog".
"Frog carving"

Site 1 is broken into two segments. The first is reached directly from the entrance, the second is approximately 100m due east down a short road. Between the two is a cave. This cave has a recent interesting history. During the bombing campaign of the Vietnam War locals hid here from the devastation. Two holes were made in the cave roof to permit cooking smoke to escape.

The lid jar.

close up of lid.
One disturbing and sad aspect of the four decade old bombing campaign is that children still search through the bomb craters for fragments. These fragments are made into souvenirs for tourists. This is a dangerous activity. I am not sure who is responsible, the parents for allowing this, but families need money, or ... who?

Reaching the jars requires a guide and transport. Everywhere around town there are booking agents, even the convenience stores. Prices are in the $20-$30 for a group tour, depending on the itinerary.

The city and the Jars are certainly worth a look, if you happen to find yourself in northern Laos with a few days to spare.

jars of all shapes and sizes.

coloured jar.

cave entrance.

inside cave.

mine clearance marker,
walk only within these boundary stones.