Category Archives: Travel

Villa Tinto

Just a quick plug for anyone looking to visit a small, family-run winery in the Barossa Valley, South Australia.

I can highly recommend Villa Tinto. Wine is obviously a passion for Albert, and I only wish my visit had coincided with one of his, apparently, near-legendary asados. They have two small vineyards, and the whole wine-making process takes place on site. Total turn-out is about 1,200 cases a year.

Of course, it is worth visiting a few of the larger ones too. Peter Lehmann does a really nice cheese platter for lunch with your wine tasting, and the smell as you enter the cellar where Seppeltsfield’s mature their port is wonderful (although they aren’t allowed to call it port as it isn’t made in Portugal, just “tawny”).

War Memorial of Korea

November 1st, 2009.

This entry has taken a long time to publish. This is not because it is some great feat of literature, it is because I am no great blogger, and can rarely be bothered to upload two things that I managed to (mostly) write in consecutive days. On with the tale…

After yesterday’s trip to the DMZ, someone mentioned that the War Museum in Seoul was quite good, so my plan for the day was to arrive in Seoul Station and walk south to spend an hour or so there before walking back up past the station to Insa-dong and Palace district. I hadn’t read up anything on the museum beforehand – the Rough Guide has its location on the overview map of Seoul, but it isn’t mentioned in the index, and I couldn’t find anything in the city’s chapter in the book.

Memorial to the foreign forces killed in the Korean War
Memorial to the foreign forces killed in the Korean War

I arrived at the museum complex from the rear, which turned out to be fortunate, but I’ll explain why later. The first building I came across was the Museum Wedding Hall. Odd, but perhaps there’s some play on unification there. Next, I climbed the steps and was confronted with tablet after tablet of the names of US fallen. 33,642 US soldiers were killed in action in the Korean War, and all of their names are listed, state by state, on bronze plates. Towards one end of the hall are the plates with other nationalities, including 1,042 British, 724 Turkish and 516 Canadians. These are all outnumbered by the stone plaques listing the Korean dead from the war and other conflicts. 170,585 names in small gold letters carved into polished black stone.

War Memorial of Korea
War Memorial of Korea
Entering the museum that forms part of the memorial, the first things I saw were a dusty small plane, helicopter and a couple of mannequins with parachutes suspended from the rafters in a large atrium. Directly below them, on the basement floor, is a children’s play area with bouncy castles, and entertainers dressed up in colourful cartoon costumes from what I assume must be the Korean equivalent of the Teletubbies. Starting to think this was going to be a disappointment, I headed for the first of the three rooms covering the Korean War. It starts off with some astounding documents and gets better.
Japanese Surrender Document from 1945
Japanese Surrender Document from 1945
The Japanese surrender document from 1945 is where the story of the Korean war begins, and the exhibition does a splendid job of explaining how the Soviets took control of Korea north of the 38th parallel (38° north), whilst the US took control south of that line. Quite a bit of the explanatory text is only in Korean, but some is in English, as are the videos, and the displays contain a number of original documents that were written in English. There are also English audio guides. The displays then go on to give an account of the progress of the war, with several scenes reconstructed, and plenty of exhibits. The third room describes the role of the various UN participants. Whilst the US was by far the largest contributor, many other countries also had forces involved in the war. Greece, Ethiopia, Colombia to name but three.
Marking the participation of UN forces.
Marking the participation of UN forces.

'Teardrop' of dog-tags. Memorial to the UN soldiers killed in the Korean War.
'Teardrop' of dog-tags. Memorial to the UN soldiers killed in the Korean War.

Moving on from the Korean War, the museum describes the wars that have made up the history of the Korean peninsula, from the days of the Three Kingdoms, starting in 67 B.C. and continuing to the 7th Century A.D. They all have plenty of accompanying exhibits that would fascinate anyone interested in military history, from swords with constellations carved into the blade, through “cannon arrows” to parts of the “Tripitaka Koreana.” About this point I’d noted down “Excellent museum!” in my notebook.

Sword with the constellations embossed on the blade.
Sword with the constellations embossed on the blade.

The exhibits go on to tell the story of Republic of Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War, before finishing off, as I thought, with displays to mark the UN roles that the ROK (Republic of Korea) forces have participated in. I thought that was a fitting end the museum, then I realised I hadn’t finished yet. As I walked around in an increasing state of bewilderment I came across a shooting rage with air rifles (I was a bit dazed, so I politely refused), models of Little Boy and Fat Man (the atomic bombs dropped on Japan), a reconstruction of some of the superstructure of a naval ship, and when I looked out of the window from the cafe on the third floor, I saw a huge array of military hardware outside – landing craft, helicopters, artillery, and a variety of aircraft from propeller-driven trainers through to a B-52 Stratofortress.

B-52 Stratofortress
B-52 Stratofortress
Military Hardware
Military Hardware

At this point I was feeling very disorientated. The museum had moved from being a fitting and sober memorial of the war to a show of military strength, then I remembered the Korean War is not over. There has been a ceasefire in operation since 1953, but the war is still ongoing and each side needs to demonstrate to the other how strong they are, but also perhaps to reassure their citizens that should the ceasefire fail, you will be safe, defended by the might of ROK armed forces.

The names of Korean war-dead.
The names of Korean war-dead.

Past most of the display of military hardware, and back toward the main entrance to the memorial that would have shown me what I was in for had I not decided to enter from the side door, are a number of statues and memorials including the Statue of Brothers, symbolising the division of Korea.

Statue of Brothers
Statue of Brothers

I didn’t get to the palace district until after sunset.

War Memorial of Korea
War Memorial of Korea

The Demilitarised Zone

October 31st, 2009.

Sign at Camp Kim, USO base in Seoul.
Sign at Camp Kim, USO base in Seoul.

My base in Korea was Daejeon, but as the “must-see” tourist trap, I mean trip, leaves from Seoul at 07:00, I’d stayed a night in the capital so I could be at Camp Kim, a US military base and home of USO Korea who arranged the tour that I joined, for the start. When I arrived at 6:45am there were already a dozen people assembled and two coaches waiting, so any thoughts I might have had that this was to be a bit of an adventure in the back of a troop truck were quickly disabused. I checked in at the USO office and boarded one of the buses, both of which filled up. The other clients appeared to be a mix of young travellers, veterans coming back for a visit with their family, and one US soldier on his final three weeks in country before heading home. The group was overwhelmingly American, but that could be explained by my choice of tour organiser.

Beating the morning traffic we were soon out of the city and travelling north along the banks of the River Han. The heavily fortified banks of the river Han. Tall barbed wire fences with manned guardposts every couple of hundred metres to prevent “infiltrators” heading downriver into the land of the free. On the way, the Korean tour guide told us some facts about the country. Of a population of 70 million, 48 million live in the South, and 22 million in the North. The average income in South Korea is US$20,000. In North Korea it is US$1,400. However, when it comes to the military, North Korea spends 30% of its GDP on it, and there are 1,200,000 active service members compared to 800,000 in the South. To travel beyond your own neighbourhood in North Korea you need permission, and houses only get electricity for 4-5 hours during the day. When the sun sets, the country goes dark.

As the Han River gives way to the Imjin River then the country on the other side of the border changes from the Republic of Korea, to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. At the same time, the single high fence topped with barbed wire changes into several layers of fence, all topped with barbed wire and with brightly coloured stones wedged between the links so guards can easily tell if the fence has been disturbed as the stones will fall out. The guard posts change from small towers, to wider, more substantial concrete buildings capable of holding more than just a couple of sentries.

Unification Bridge, although unification is not as close as it once may have been.
Unification Bridge, although unification is not as close as it once may have been.

Soon enough we reached the first checkpoint as we entered the demilitarised zone. This is off limits to most Koreans, with the exception of those that live and work there. After the checkpoint is the Unification Bridge. These days it is sorely misnamed as the bus has to weave its way through fences that are put there to slow down the little traffic that is allowed to use it. For a brief period earlier this decade there was also a Unification Train that ran from South Korea to an industrial city in the North. It used to head up in the morning with raw materials, and ship products south again in the evening. The service hasn’t been running since about this time last year.

Just after the bridge we have a rest stop for some coffee from a vending machine (which wasn’t all that bad), and a chance to buy some essentials. Dried sweet potatoes, Hershey bars, dried fish, scarves with a map of North Korea. The sort of thing you can find at your local corner store. Back on the bus and it is a short hop to Camp Bonifas. Camp Bonifas is named after a US soldier that was killed in what is referred to as the “Axe Murder Incident” of 1976.

In those days, the Joint Security Area, had guardposts for both sides located on either side of the actual border, the MDL (Military Demarcation Line). A large Poplar tree was blocking the view from one of the UN’s posts, so three soldiers were sent to trim it. They were attacked with axes by a number of North Korean soldiers and two of them were killed. One of those was a Captain Bonifas.

As we entered the camp, our bus was boarded by a US soldier, one of the UN force here, who checked our passports, although I’m not sure what he was looking for, except whether or not we were Korean. He introduced himself as Specialist Pollard who was to be our armed escort for the tour. “Armed” in this case means a handgun, as that is all that is allowed within the JSA (Joint Security Area).

Ballinger Hall, Camp Bonifas.
Ballinger Hall, Camp Bonifas.

The next stop was Ballinger Hall for our briefing on the history of the conflict and the formation of the JSA by Staff Sergeant Merill. This is where we were told about the Axe Murder Incident and about the competition between the sides for the tallest flagpost with the largest flag. The current holder is the North, which has a flagpole 150m high holding a flag that is 31m long.

The Axe Murder Incident
The Axe Murder Incident
Gijungdong
Gijungdong

The trip through the demilitarised zone from Camp Bonifas to the JSA takes us past the South Korean village of Daeseongdong. The farmers here have more land than most farmers in the rest of the country, but have to put up with being back in the village by sunset, and in their own homes by midnight. Why would they want to do this? Not only is the sale of their crop guaranteed by the government, but they earn US$80,000 to US$100,000 each. Needless to say that with a farming salary that large, only descendants of people living in the village are allowed to stay there and farm. Most of the farmers also have flats in Seoul where they go for the weekend.

Just before reaching the JSA we passed another handful of small buildings. This is the rapid response force, ready to jump into action should something happen. 24 hours a day, they are prepared and can be at the border within 90 seconds of being called. The record is 45 seconds. I can’t decide whether it would be a job as dull as dishwater, always being ready, but hopefully only rarely being called, or something that would drive you insane, always being tense, prepared, ready to drop whatever you were doing and run to the jeeps that would race up to who-knows-what.

When we reached the JSA, we were shepherded into Friendship Hall. Specialist Pollard told us that this was built by the South to allow families split across the border to meet, before being taken back to their own countries. However, the North never participated, so all it is used for is tour groups and a meeting room. The other side of the hall is the border. Steps lead down from Friendship Hall to a road that crosses in front of it. On the other side of the road are a number of single storey buildings called “Conference Row.” Two grey buildings on the western side are uninhabited, they used to be used by the Czech and Polish armies and monitored the JSA for North Korea. The next three are blue and under the control of the UN. The final building on the right is grey again, with tasteful net curtains in the window. This is the one we were told to keep an eye on, as now and again the North Koreans would pull the curtains to one side and point at us, or make throat-slitting actions. Running between the buildings, half-way along them, is a raised bit of concrete marking the MDL, the division between North and South. South of the line are pebbles, so the sound of footsteps can be heard, North it is sand.

Conference Row in the Joint Security Area.
Conference Row in the Joint Security Area.

It was across this line in 1984 that a Russian visitor to North Korea sprinted down to the sunken gardens south of the MDL, shouting that he wanted to defect, and causing a brief firefight that cost the life of one South Korean guard and three North Koreans. He was allowed to stay, as handing him back would have been a certain death penalty.

On the southern ends of the buildings, two South Korean soldiers stood, facing north, and half-obscured by the buildings to present less of a target. They were apparently there for our safety, and perhaps a bit of show too, but on a border with so much history of violence, I’d rather they were there than not. On the northern side a single soldier stood at the entrance to their equivalent of Friendship Hall, binoculars to his eyes. Several other pairs of eyes were assuredly watching us.

A bit of Sergio Leone music in the background wouldn't go amiss here.
A bit of Sergio Leone music in the background wouldn't go amiss here.

As Specialist Pollard told us some of the history and answered our questions, and whilst we were standing in two rows at the top of the steps leading down to the road, a handful of North Korean soldiers came down from the building on their side of the line and took it in turns to have their photograph taken with the South, and us, in the background. I assumed this was a fairly normal occurrence and the same soldiers do the same thing to each of the tour groups, perhaps mocking them. However, we were told it doesn’t happen all that often, and it could have been some soldiers towards the end of their 10 years of national service. Of course, perhaps they were allowed to do it on the condition they took the photographs when we were there too.

Say "kimchee!"
Say "kimchee!"

We then headed into the central building. Inside there are five polished tables, surrounded by chairs with leather upholstery, the sort of table and chairs you’d expect to find in a building that government ministers meet at. On the central table was a single, modestly sized UN flag. Above the southern door a frame with a collection of UN flags. This is all the national symbolism that is allowed in the room after previous episodes of meetings being held up whilst each side had to bring in a flag that was bigger than the other, and some instances of flags being defaced. At the far end of the room were two South Korean soliders, stock still, but looking like a taut spring, ready to strike. These soldiers are some of the cream of the South Korean army, experts in martial arts. They wear dark glasses to avoid eye contact with the enemy. After a barked order from Specialist Pollard, one of the soldiers moved to the head of the central table, and we had a few minutes to look around the room and cross the border into North Korea. It seems strange that walking from one side of a room to the other can feel so different, and perhaps the only reason it did was the build-up we’d been given, but there was a sense of being somewhere new, in an environment we weren’t fully in control of.

Conference room straddling the border between North and South Korea
Conference room straddling the border between North and South Korea
ROK Guard and the UN flag on the Military Demarcation Line (taken from North Korea)
ROK Guard and the UN flag on the Military Demarcation Line (taken from North Korea)

Next on the trip was supposed to be the Bridge of No Return. At the end of the war, both sides lined up prisoners of war, who were told they could go to either the north or the south, but once they chose, they could not go back. However, it was closed for renovation work.

The road to the next stop, Dora Observatory winds in a zig-zag up a hill. Either side of the road is fenced off with frequent signs warning of landmines. This is the place where we were supposed to have been able to glimpse into North Korea. At least, into the ‘propaganda’ village of Gijungdong, with its wide roads, 150m flagpole, and no inhabitants. Surely, if propaganda is your aim, then you’d build a town of narrow roads and flashing neon, like the centre of most Asian cities?

Some way back from the wall with a row binoculars (insert KRW500) is a yellow line that marks the limit at which you’re allowed to take photographs. Take any beyond that line and there are soldiers running backwards and forwards ensuring you delete them from your camera. Not that there was anything to take a photo of, the rain had started to pour down and fog had closed right in so all we could see was drab and grey. I didn’t know North Korea had such a command over the weather.

North Korea. So secretive they can even control the weather to stop you seeing in.
North Korea. So secretive they can even control the weather to stop you seeing in.

After lunch, the final stop on the tour was the “Third Tunnel,” so called because it was the third tunnel under the border to be discovered. So far four have been found, the first in 1974, another in 1975, the one we were visiting was found in 1978, and a fourth was discovered in 1990. They’re labelled “Infiltration Tunnels” by the South, as the suspicion is that they would have been used to bring an army into to the south. The suspicion is that there are more to be discovered.

Entrance to the Third Infiltration Tunnel
Entrance to the Third Infiltration Tunnel

The tunnel is another “no photography” zone. At the top I’d noticed other visitors emerging out of breath and dripping with sweat. The reason was less that the tunnel was stuffy and chlaustrophobic, but more to do with it being accessed through a 250m long passageway that descends 71m. Steep enough on the way down, never mind the return. The tunnels are much taller and wider than the ones I’d previously visited in Cu-Chi, outside Saigon, but I was still grateful for the hard hat, which I dinged on the supporting scaffolding and jagged roof several times.

Construction of the tunnels was an impressive feat, a two metre by two meter swathe cut through solid granite. If there had been seismic detectors deployed in the DMZ, they would certainly have picked up the amount of blasting that must have been necessary. We were told that through each of the tunnels the North would have been able to get 30,000 infiltrators an hour. That’s an impressive figure considering it means more than 8 per second. Even two by two, that is four rows of people passing a point every second.

After walking down the tunnel for about 170m we reached a steel door, with considerable amount of barbed wire in front of it, and a small window. All I saw through the window were more steel doors and more barbed wire.

To round off the trip we were shown a film that described the tunnels, their discovery, and the benfits of the DMZ as a wildlife resort and tourist destination. It played heavily on unification, something which may have felt within grasp when it was made a few years ago, but is temporarily further away. The train it was proud of, which I mentioned earlier, no longer runs.

Thank You for Visting the Demilitarised Zone.
Thank You for Visting the Demilitarised Zone.

On the bus back we were shown another film, “Korean War in Color” (their spelling). It spent about 75 minutes on the first two years, and the other 15 on the final two years, which might sound an odd balance, but seems to reflect on the progress of the war.

If only every airport was a bit more like London City.

I hate Heathrow Airport. There, I said it.

This sentiment may come as no surprise to those that use it frequently (I use it fairly regularly, but nowhere near as much as some), but I’ve held out a long time before admitting it. I like what airports represent, people coming and going, whether it is for business, a short trip, or maybe the start of a new life elsewhere, and during endless hours at Heathrow I’ve held onto that, but it has to be said, Heathrow is a bad airport.

Arriving back to Terminal 5 from a relatively short flight from Stockholm on Saturday, we landed 25 minutes early, which is a minor miracle in itself as it meant we weren’t stacked over Epping or Oxford. However, our gate wasn’t free yet, so we had to sit on the apron for 15 minutes with the engines running whilst we waited to pull up to the terminal. When we did reach the gate, it was a domestic gate rather than an international one, so we had to disembark from the rear of the plane into a fleet of buses via steps that took another ten minutes to arrive, and always sway disturbingly. The bus then has to take a circuitous route to the correct entry doors. Next is the nightmare of the immigration queue. I’m sure the most efficient way of doing this, or at least the one that feels fairest, is a single snaking queue which is strictly first-in-first-out to a bank of desks, but instead Terminal 5 opts to have queues for each desk. There were only two desks open for UK/EU passport holders, and it looks like a couple of jumbos arrived at about the same time we did, so the queues backed up, more desks eventually opened, at which point it is a disorganised rush to get to the front of the new queues. Surely queuing for desks is a solved problem? Are there studies somewhere that show individual queues are the best solution? I’d like to see them, especially when the person two in front of you has appeared at the UK/EU desk with a US passport. The last airport I went to that was as bad as the spanking new Terminal 5 was in Havana.

From touching down 25 minutes early, it was 30 minutes after the scheduled arrival time that I was sitting on the Heathrow Express (where I had to wait another 10 minutes for it to leave). Probably the only more expensive train ride than Heathrow Express is the Arlanda Express. In total I spent £72 on train tickets between Paddington and Heathrow, then between Arlanda and Stockholm. That’s somewhere in the region of £1 per minute of travelling. Add on the tube tickets and journeys totalling fewer than 100 miles as the crow flies, cost £80. 80 pence per mile compared with the flights that cost 9.4 pence per mile (that is on a full service airline, BA, but cheap economy class tickets).

The thing is that this wasn’t an exceptional journey. Often you’re waiting for a long time to land at Heathrow, which I didn’t this time, or you’re waiting a long time for your luggage, which again I wasn’t this time (probably because it had taken so long to finally reach baggage reclaim). They must know it is bad, there are enough people wandering around with clipboards asking for feedback. If as much effort went into improving the service as it does asking our opinion, I’m sure it could be a much better airport. Equally, I’m sure that the folk on the ground do as good a job as they can, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were a bit demoralised if they have to take a bit of stick from the passengers.

That’s just arriving back, I’m resisting the temptation to comment on security and the trip out. Of course, in the scheme of things, spending too much time at airports is not a bad problem to have, but it niggles when you feel it could be done so much better.

¡Viva España!

Like many people, I grew up with an image of the Costa del Sol. TV programmes showing 1980s package holidays in Torremolinos and countless programmes on late night ITV since then (not that I watch late night ITV of course). The tales of streets populated by bars and Fish and Chip shops to serve the holidaymakers and ex-patriates has meant it never really bubbled to the top of my “to see” list. Further east, yes, Granada and the Alhambra is still high up on that list, but the Costa del Sol could wait until I retired.

Or until I had a meeting there, which is what happened recently.

This year’s TERENA Networking Conference was held in the University of Malaga in early June, and I appear to have wrongly stereotyped the city. Once I stopped unaccountably giggling at being confronted with road signs to “Torremolinos,” it is a beautiful city with polished, cobbled streets, a mighty cathedral, a huge castle — as befits a city on a hill leading to the sea, and of course a bullring. Whilst I didn’t see a bullfight, we did have a social event consisting of a barbeque inside the bullring, which was a wonderful structure. It looked like a 1920s or 1930s building with a concrete base and iron and wooden upper tier.

I’ve only been to Madrid and Barcelona before, but I love Spain. I love the history, the culture, the food, but in addition to the view of the Costa del Sol, I also had a stereotyped view of Spanish government. I think I have to re-evaluate that too. The streets were clean, and the conference organisers had even worked with the municipal transport company to put WiFi on the bus route from the centre of the city, where everyone was staying, to the University campus to the west and information on the dot matrix signs at the bus stops. We have a UK networking event in Manchester next year. I wonder what the chances of a similar feat are? The host of that was also at the Malaga meeting and is going to give it a try.

I also flew into Larnaca for a meeting in Nicosia a few weeks ago. Where next? Magaluf? Mind you, if the talk on climate change that was presented at the conference is anything to go by, that whole region could be close to uninhabitable in a century.

Manila

Now that I’d arrived in Manila, what did I do?

Most of the time was, of course, work related. However I did have a day or so the weekend before the meeting started, and a couple of hours in the odd evening to wander around.

The meeting hotel, the Sofitel Philippine Plaza, is a little to the south of the centre of Manila, but being a cheap backpacker at heart, I thought I would walk up to the city to try to see some more of the local environment. As soon as I stepped past the security guards at the bottom of the ramp up to the hotel’s entrance, taxis were hooting their horns and stopping, or at least slowing down. It isn’t hard, is it? If I have my hand out shouting “TAXI!”, it means I want a taxi. If I’m walking down the street, it is safe to assume that is what I want to do. Tootling your horn (no, that isn’t a euphemism, I’ll get to that in a minute) and stopping beside me isn’t suddenly going to make me change my mode of transport. Anyway, rant over.

Well, first rant. Taxi drivers pale into insignificance compared to the other thing that tarnishes my images of some countries — prostitution. Or at least the assumption that because I am white, I am looking for an Asian woman to sleep with (or in some cases, an Asian boy). Only two taxi-toots out of the hotel I hear a “hey, hey” to see a woman pointing at me then at herself, and this was before 11am. I walked on, my opinion of Manila already slightly dented.

It was hot and humid, and in my rush to pack, three things I’d forgotten were sun-cream, sunglasses, and a cap to shade my face (the latter being as much for everyone else’s benefit as my own). I put those top of my list of things to buy as I wandered around with little firm idea of where in particular I was going to go once I reached “the city.”

Like much of Asia, Manila loves its shopping malls. The first one I stopped in was a slightly older affair, with plenty of dirt around the edges. Not the gleaming polished marble floors you expect from the name. I had a quick walk around, but as shops don’t open until about 10am, everything was still being set up, so I went back out. The most common form of mass public transit in Manila is the jeepney. This is a small bus with open sides and highly decorated, ploughing the streets of the capital on well-known routes which are displayed in the front window and often painted on the sides. What I hadn’t been expecting were the sheer number of them. On some streets there were as many jeepneys, which can hold perhaps 20 people, as you’d see Hackney Cabs on a London street in rush hour.

I let them pass and continued up. The next area I went through contained lots and lots of “KTV” bars, I assume the acronym stands for Karaoke TV. I knew that karaoke is popular in Asia, which is odd given how easily embarrassed locals get, but there were an awful lot of KTV places on A. Mabini, which I found quite curious. Further up was another mall, but this one was the gleaming, polished marble monolith that I’d expected. Inside it was massive, and I spent a little while wandering around trying to get a grasp of its geography before giving up and reverting to type with an iced latte in the ‘Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf,’ whose sister branch in Kota Kinabalu I’ve frequented on more than one occasion. It didn’t take long before another guy sidled up and said he was waiting for his wife, then letting on that he’d let me sleep with her, and when I tried to be polite he offered younger partners, at which point politeness went out of the window and I looked to see if there was a policeman around before just walking away.

There are quite a few western men with Filipino women in Manila, and it may be wrong to comment on that straight after the previous paragraph, because I’d like to believe that most of them are in love and fighting just that kind of prejudice, but after spending some time travelling around Thailand, I can’t help but wonder that for some, even if it is a tiny minority, it isn’t quite the whole story.

A little while later, cooler, but still lacking sun-cream, sunglasses, a cap, and a lens cleaning kit for my camera (something else I’d realised I had forgotten whilst taking photos of the spectacular sunset from the hotel the previous evening), I left the mall and walked back to the hotel. The hotel had a pool and bar facing west to Manila Bay, and most evenings provided the sort of sunset that I’d been missing for the past five years.

When the sun had set, I decided to try again and headed out along a similar route looking for some food. The karaoke bars had now taken a much seedier edge, with women in short skirts standing outside and men (or should that be ‘pimps’) trying to persuade me to try their bar. I rapidly tired of that and turned back to the hotel down a different road which had families out playing in the street. It didn’t look seedy, but it did feel a little edgy as I stood out like a sore thumb, and the families were obviously poor.

The following day I decided to be a little more organised and started off by catching a cab to the “Mall of Asia.” Supposedly this is the third largest mall in the world, and it didn’t take me long to find a baseball cap at Adidas, sun-cream from Watson’s pharmacist, and more coffee from another ‘Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf.’ About half the shops in MoA appear to be food outlets. The taxi cost less than £1, so I wasn’t worried about splashing out on that mode of transport, and did so again to take me straight up to Fort Santiago at Intramuros.

Intramuros is the only remaining area of Manila that still has a significant amount of colonial architecture, most of the rest having been destroyed by bombs, earthquakes, or Imelda Marcos’ zealous redevelopment plans, and Fort Santiago is the location of several significant events over the country’s history. After wandering around a bit more of Intramuros and nearby bits of Manila, I caught another cab back to the hotel.

Breakfast at the hotel was something worth getting up for. The largest breakfast buffet I’ve seen, and I’ve seen quite a few. Almost every nationality was represented with miso soup, sushi, steamed pork balls, eggs, omlettes, bacon and sausages, rice, pastries, cooked meats and lots of juicy, succulent, fruit. If you have a yearning for a good breakfast, this is the place to go. Only slightly let down by the random tea and coffee service. Then again, there was plenty of fruit juice if you can do without a morning coffee.

This probably doesn’t paint all that nice a picture of Manila, but it is worth remembering that as with most countries, you don’t get fair impression of them from just their capital city. I’d still love to come back to the Philippines at some point and explore some of the 7,000 islands, climb some of the volcanos and settle back in a hammock on the sandy beaches. This was, after all, just a work trip with a disproportionate number of hours spent inside windowless conference rooms of an air-conditioned hotel.

Manila (or at least getting to it)

I’d been looking forward to this since it was booked, a trip to Manila in the Philippines for APRICOT 2009, the Asia-Pacific network operator’s forum. I’d wanted to go for a while, so when one of the programme committee suggested I submit a talk on our recent backbone upgrades to 40Gbit/s, I jumped at the chance. It was my first time heading back to South-East Asia since April 4th, 2004. I can be so precise about the date as that was the day I returned from my year away.

Preparation had been to my usual minimal level. I’d taken the day before I left as vacation to give me a chance to pack, but I still went into the office for a videoconference and checked my email before just buying some travel guides, heading home and getting ready to go out with George in the evening. An evening which was supposed to finish early, but which to no great surprise finished at the usual time.

As I was going to be away for the best part of three weeks in tropical Asia, I didn’t want to carry a heavy coat with me. I’d made that mistake before, and somebody that works in the Holiday Inn, Bangkok, will have picked up a nice North Face fleece in April 2003, so I left for the airport through a chilly London in just a polo shirt with a t-shirt underneath to save some space in my case, which was already packed with a bunch of shirts and t-shirts to save on the number of expensive hotel laundry jobs. Whilst later than I’d expected (a phrase you may recall I used frequently on travel updates during my year away) and having to use the tube all the way as it was easier to get to the now unloved terminal 4, I was still there in plenty of time.

Terminal 4, now that only a handful of airlines use it following BA’s move to ‘T5,’ is a much nicer place. It is still the same building, still just as tatty, and some of the shops have closed, but the restaurants that are open now have spare seats, and there is room to wander around. The flight to Hong Kong was twelve hours of average economy-class flying in Qantas. Nothing special to report, but the on-demand video system helped me while the hours away with ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona,’ ‘Australia‘ and ‘Body of Lies.’ The hot chocolate with marshmallows was also a nice change, and made up for the shoddy food service where the wine didn’t arrive until after I’d finished my meal.

At Hong Kong I had to deal with the Philippines Airlines transfer desk, as my bags had only been checked as far as Hong Kong, but they dealt with everything painlessly and I didn’t have to go through immigration and re-check my bags, as I’d originally been expecting.

The flight from Hong Kong to Manila was on a Philippine Airlines 747. It looked very much like it had been bought from British Airways, as it had the same blue seat coverings and grey designs on the outside of the galley and WC walls. The flight was quite empty, so there was plenty of room to stretch out, just a shame it was on this two and a half hour segment rather than the previous twelve hour one. Immigration in Manila was far easier than I’d been expecting. I just handed my passport to the official, he stamped it and handed it back. Two european-looking chaps in the queue next to me didn’t have such luck and I overheard them being told they needed to pay for a visa. I didn’t catch which country it said on their passport though. I waited at the baggage carousel with some trepidation, still not being entirely sure my case had made it on the plane, but sure enough, there it was. Unusually, I had to show my baggage claim ticket as I exited the hall, to prove the case I had was mine, but soon enough I was in a taxi and heading to the hotel.

The journey was relatively short, but the traffic was an experience. Traffic lights have phases that last several minutes, junctions with traffic policemen have phases that last even longer. Cars drift from lane to lane, and whilst there is liberal use of the horn, it isn’t excessive, but still there are few badly dented cars on the roads. I’m still not sure I’d want to drive a car through Manila, much less a scooter or motorcycle. The journey cost the princely sum of PHP180, just under £2.60. A bargain for the entertainment it provided, especially as the driver spoke a bit of English and I was able to ascertain he’d been brought up in Pasay (the area of Manila between the airport and the hotel) and had recently changed to being a taxi driver from driving private company cars.

After all that drivel, I have now arrived in Manila. I suffer from jet-lag far worse on eastwards journeys than I do on westwards, so after I checked in, I did a brief ‘wow’ from my balcony at the view of Manila bay and the warm, humid, welcoming embrace of South-East Asian air, before heading back into the air-conditioned room and collapsing into bed, with the lights still on and partially clothed, and sleeping.

I’ll continue in another post.