Mekong meanderings

 

(As published in the July issue of Expat Parent)

 

Rusty runner Carolynne Dear flies to Laos to complete the most laid-back half-marathon of her career.

 

Seduced by a trip to a country I had never been to before and the promise of some great restaurants, interesting night markets and a massage, I bravely signed up for the Luang Prabang half marathon last summer.

After months of drawing up training schedules, discussing training schedules and occasionally actually getting out and actioning a training schedule, a group of us – all friends from Hong Kong but now living across Asia and Australia – nervously met at Chek Lap Kok one October morning, each clutching a pair of Asics running shoes and a Laos Lonely Planet guide.

First stop was Bangkok. There are no direct flights from Hong Kong to Luang Prabang – the options offered by Cathay were changes in Hanoi or the Thai capital. We opted for Bangkok and spent a night carb-loading and pretending not to drink alcohol (one beer couldn’t hurt, surely?) at the Hotel Novotel Suvarnabhumi Airport.

The next morning we were up bright and early and nervously sipping lattes at the breakfast bar. Too late now to regret not going on that final training run.

We jumped onto a two-hour Bangkok Airways flight to the Laotian capital, which afforded gorgeous views as it jetted over the hills of northern Thailand.

Walking across the baking apron to the airport terminal in the midday heat, I did wonder what I’d signed up for, but as we arrived at our boutique hotel, all fears temporarily evaporated at the site of a sparkling pool, landscaped gardens and a fabulous French colonial-inspired guest room.

Luang Prabang is variously described in the guidebooks as “languid and lovely”, “a unique place where time seems to stands still” and “a Unesco-protected gem… that has gained mythical status as a travellers’ Shangri-La”. It turned out to be all of those things and more.

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The stunning Apsara Rive Droite hotel – don’t leave without tasting their delicious homemade papaya jam.

Our gorgeous hotel, the Apsara Rive Droite, was located on the banks of the fast-flowing Nam Khan – Luang Prabang is at the sacred confluence of the Nam Khan and the mighty Mekong River.

The quickest way into town turned out to be on a tiny little motor-powered boat that spluttered against the current until it reached the opposite bank. It was quite a feat crawling in and out of the tiny vessel (particularly when you’ve just run 21kms), but it was also fun, and only broke down once during our visit.

The run itself is a relatively tiny event, organised by local volunteers, both Laotian and expat. There were just 17 participants registered in my category, five in another, which meant that some of us were guaranteed a podium position before we’d even started – not something we could say about most other running events we’d attended.

This year, monies raised are going towards Friends Without A Border, a non-profit organisation committed to providing free healthcare to children. Last year it built and opened a hospital in Luang Prabang, the Lao Friends Hospital for children, which has so far treated over 15,000 children.

There are three run distance options, as the course cleverly weaves through the town in 7km loops. Some of our group ran just one loop, some did 14km, but I had committed to 21km. We began at 6am after a cool and cloudy night, so conditions weren’t as hot as I had been fearing.

The course took us past crowds of cheering school children, bar owners proffering trays of drinks, beautiful old buildings and the swirling waters of the Nam Khan. It was hugely enjoyable with a really local vibe. It felt as if the whole town had turned out for the event, with middle-aged expat ladies frantically re-directing rickshaws and shop owners touting their wares on the roadside. There were gentle inclines and downward slopes to break the monotony and all in all it was a pleasure to run.

A couple of hours later we crawled back onto our river boat and were met on the other side by our cheery hotel manager. A beautiful al fresco breakfast table had been laid out for us overlooking the pool, with warm Laotian omelettes, baskets of French pastries, and yummy homemade papaya jam.

Later that morning and after a short snooze, the hotel arranged a car to take us up to the dramatic, menthol-coloured waterfalls of Tat Kuang Si.

We enjoyed lunch back in town at the Victoria Hotel overlooking the Mekong River and then it was time for our well deserved massages at the Dhammada spa.

That evening we staggered back across the Nam Khan for a delicious “mod Lao” dinner at chic eatery Tamarind and a wander around the Handicraft Night Market. When you’ve been used to haggling cut-throat discounts on Temple Street, the Laotian stallholders are positively dreamy in comparison – I had to patiently explain to one young girl that she had given me too much change.

But it’s a very gentle, sleepy town overall. Life ambles its way calmly along the dusty streets, the food was fabulous (and amazing value) and the locals very friendly. And the town’s Indochinese architecture is entirely deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage status.

There was just time the following morning to quietly regard the monks taking alms at sunrise and then we were back on a flight to Bangkok.

Luang Prabang is one of those unusual places that lives up to expectations and to all that is written about it in guides and brochures. I might have been cursing having to change flights initially, but part of me hopes this stunning town stays off the well-beaten tourist trail a while longer. It is absolutely charming and I shall definitely be back – possibly without my Asics next time though.

 

Run stats

This year’s half marathon takes place on Sunday Oct 23. Sign up at luangprabanghalfmarathon.com.

Monies raised this year will be going towards the Lao Friends Hospital for Children, fwab.org.

The Apsara Rive Droite boutique hotel can be contacted at theapsara.com.

Bangkok Airways flies from Hanoi and Bangkok to Luang Prabang, bangkokair.com.

Laotian restaurant Tamarind can be booked at tamarindlaos.com.

The Victoria XiengThong Palace Hotel can be contacted at xiengthongpalace.com.

The Dhammada is among one of the best massage spas in town, dhammada.com.

 

Run for the hills

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All the fun of the fair. Scarlet enjoys a well-earned full-sugar Coke and a spot of face painting at the end of the run.

We’re well hard, me and Scarlet. So on Saturday we hit the hills and ran a 4km trail run through the Clearwater Bay ranges for HK charity Hard As Nayls.

Not just any old trail run, it was billed as Clearwater Bay’s “toughest running event” no less. It was held across the whole weekend with family races on Saturday afternoon, culminating with a BBQ and drinks.

We’re a small expat community up here in the jungle and it was lovely to see so many friendly faces at the starting line. This is the second year the event has been held and was initially set-up last year as a memorial event for Andy Naylor, a popular local runner who trained along the very trails used in the races. Monies raised go to Andy’s family back in the UK.

We loved it (Scarlet particularly enjoyed the massive bowl of jelly beans on offer at the halfway water stop) and would definitely do it again (but not the 8km, said Scarlet).

The race started at the Tin Hau temple on Tai Miu Wan Pier and headed straight up the vertiginous slopes of High Junk Peak. The views across Clearwater Bay and Po Toi O from the top are fantastic, but we didn’t stop to gaze as Scarlet was off like a rocket, back down, along, up and down a bit more, and then back down onto the road and the jelly bean stop. There was then a couple of kms along Tai O Mun road, skirting around the Bay and back to Tai Miu Pier.

We loved the pork BBQ and the chicken wings – and you don’t often see a cool-box brimming with Tsing Tao on a race finish line, which I thought was a nice touch.

The following day the serious runners hit the trails, racing 10, 16 and 42(eek!)kms. But I was already booked to race in a dragon boat festival at Lamma so had to say no to the more hardcore options. But there’s always next year…

Check out http://www.hardasnayls.org about this time next year and have a go yourself.

 

 

 

 

Brolly brigade

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Doing rainy season in style. Thank you to Scarlet and Grace for modelling my beautiful new umbrella. 

And so we move into rainy season in Hong Kong. From April until about August, Hong Kong drip-dries as rainstorm after rainstorm rolls in – the wettest months with the most sustained rainfall are May and June. Spring in Hong Kong just doesn’t exist. One minute you’re shivering under a duvet, the next you’re sweating it out in a pair of wellies and a cagoule as humidity levels soar and the storm clouds converge.

Unfortunately the mountainous topography of the Territory and prolonged rainfall can quickly disintegrate into a high risk of landslip. In the early 1990s the government introduced a rainfall warning system following a deadly landslide at private residential estate, Baguio Villas, on Hong Kong Island.

After two days of heavy, sustained rain, the steep mountain slopes behind the complex were saturated. With only an old, Victorian masonry wall holding everything in place, the mud suddenly surged down a steep gully before crashing into Lower Baguio Villas at around 2pm on 8 May 1992. Residents reported blocks 43 and 44 physically shaking as tonnes of earth slammed into them, swamping apartments as high as the third floor.

Tragically a seven-year-old boy in one of the ground floor apartments, and a council engineer who had ironically been sent out to check on blocked drains at the complex, both lost their lives when the landslide hit. Hundreds of residents had to be evacuated, some not able to return until several months later.

Extensive work has since been carried out at Baguio to ensure such as incident never occurs again, and is one of the reasons many slopes have been concreted over and are constantly being maintained around the Territory.

It also heralded the introduction of the rainfall warning system. If more than 30mm of rain is falling or expected to fall in the next hour, the Amber signal is hoisted. 50mm means the Red warning goes up, and over 70mm sees a Black warning (the highest) raised, with residents being told to seek shelter or stay indoors. Taxis stop running and private drivers become uninsured. If the Black signal goes up first thing in the morning, the school buses cannot run and schools are subsequently shut. Many a night the kids have gone to bed, fingers crossed and praying for the rain to continue.

These days, HK Observatory runs a great app (MyObservatory) which alerts you to weather warnings, and also boasts an incredibly handy Rainfall Forecast, showing you exactly where rain is expected over the following two hour period. A saviour if you’re hosting an outdoor event at this soggy time of year.

And to finish a serious topic on a totally frivolous note, Kidnapped Bookshop in Sai Kung is selling some gorgeous Hong Kong-inspired brollies this season, designed by local artist Lorette Roberts. If you’re going to get rained on, at least do it in style.

Kidnapped is at 7 Man Nin St, Sai Kung. Lorette’s umbrellas can be viewed at http://www.loretteroberts.com.

Ginger jars and jujus

 

 

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Everyone’s doing the juju these days.

I love a good pop-up shop. It’s a great way of sourcing something a little bit different and a little bit quirky – basically not a big-name brand. It’s also nice to help a small business (usually run by a multi-tasking mummy) rather than a huge, anonymous conglomerate. Give me groovy over Gucci any day.

Yesterday’s event, run by Apartment 49 and hosted by my lovely friend Tara, was gorgeous. A HUGE product range (I was quite blown away) and Tara’s fabulous lounge room was absolutely buzzing with enthusiastic customers when I popped in just after midday. From clutches to coasters, ginger jars to jujus (more about them later), as well as bags, throws, rugs, tableware, ceramics, cushions and even pool floaties – it was a deliciously eclectic range of products. And as most of the items had been sourced in Oz, they were reasonably out-of-the-ordinary for us HK gals.

Georgina James of Elsie’s Kitchen was also hard at work behind the scenes, pulling quiches and all sorts of other yummy treats out of Tara’s oven for us shoppers.

I came away with some great bracelets for added sparkle at my next ladies lunch, and a one metre-long white oak cheese paddle that I can’t wait to whisk out the next time we have friends over for a BBQ – I am relishing the anticipated complements already.

 

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Pop-up shops are a great way of sourcing something a little bit different in HK.

 

My only regret is not splurging on a juju. These amazing pieces of feathery wall art (originally they were meant as head-ware) are made in Africa, and I really regret not buying one. I um-ed, and I ah-ed, and in the end I came away without one. Oh well, all is not lost. If I can’t get along to the next Apartment 49 pop-up, I am reliably informed they will soon be selling online. Happy days.

Apartment 49 can be found online at www.apartment49.com. Elsie’s Kitchen Catering can be reached on Facebook at elsieskitchenhk.

 

 

 

 

Soul-searching

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The bamboo structure rising through the mist in Hang Hau village car park. By this time tomorrow it will be a fully functioning Cantonese Opera hall.

I was meeting my good friend Sara for a long overdue run this morning. Our favourite route at the moment is a 2.5km cycle track that loops around the high rises and shopping malls of Hang Hau. However, when we rocked up at 7.30, the little carpark nearby at Hang Hau old village was roped off.

In an age where nothing much is sacred any more, I love that Chinese culture is still richly littered with festivals and tradition. Closing an entire car park or main street to build a temporary Cantonese Opera hall several times a year is considered perfectly acceptable.

These structures are made entirely of bamboo and are incredible to behold. They are whisked up in a matter of days, and deconstructed at the end of the festival with equal levels of lightening speed and dexterity. Apparently there are only a couple of companies in Hong Kong with the skill to construct them, so these guys must be working flat-out at certain times of the year.

With both Western and Eastern cultures on the go, Hong Kong allegedly boasts more public holidays per year than any other country. Looking at my calendar, I think this morning’s efforts are for the birthday of Tin Hau (the god of the sea), which falls on 29 April this year. Further festivities in 2016 will include Buddha’s Birthday, the Cheung Chau Bun Festival, Tuen Ng (a whole day off to watch the dragon boat racing), Establishment Day, Festival of the Hungry Ghost, the mid-autumn Moon Festival, Cheung Yeung (one of two designated grave-sweeping days, when families traditionally hit the mountains to honour the graves of deceased ancestors), not to mention Western favourites Christmas, Boxing Day and New Year (not to be confused with the three-day long festival of Chinese New Year that falls in January or February). And then we’re back to the Western chocolate-worshipping festival of Easter. All in all, it’s a pretty packed schedule.

Adding to the drama at the car park this morning was a surge in little old ladies paying their respects at the small altar by the carpark entrance. These small structures are found all over Hong Kong, where locals come to light an incense stick (sometimes even a small fire) and food (especially oranges) is left as an offering for deceased ancestors. Chinese religion revolves around the ritual veneration of ancestors and their ghosts or spirits, as well as various gods.

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Locals paying their respects at a permanent altar in the car park.  A full fire had been blazing in front of it a little while earlier.

Chinese festivals and traditions are a fascinating and very real part of life in Hong Kong. Last year I was lucky enough to interview a very talented and interesting Western artist, Theadora Whittington (www.theadorawhittington.com), who bases a lot of her work on this area of Chinese life. I have one of her colourful interpretations of the Cheung Chau Bun Festival currently hanging on my living room wall. Please see my Published Work section on this blog for the full interview.

 

 

 

Lions and legacies

 

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Poor Stephen is riddled with bullet holes from the Battle of Hong Kong in 1941. He has been faithfully guarding the entrance to HSBC since 1935.

There’s nothing like a good quality tour to get to know a city and this morning I joined a small group to learn more about Hong Kong’s war history, viewing a handful of key sites in Central and TST.

I ashamedly admit to a very basic understanding of what happened here from 1941 onwards. Growing up in Britain means my war  knowledge is almost totally European-based –  from the numerous school projects, field trips and discussions with grandparents to re-runs of Dad’s Army and The Great Escape. My grasp of the Pacific war is pretty much limited to Thursday nights in the 1980s watching the BBC’s shaky women’s prisoner of war drama, Tenko, with my mum.

So today’s World War II tour, organised by the Australian Association to tie-in with ANZAC Day next week, was both fascinating and tragic. We started in Statue Square in front of the Cenotaph and our enthusiastic tour guide, Jess Mizzi, talked us through the bloody advance of the Japanese, across the infamous Gin Drinkers’ line in the New Territories and on into Kowloon, culminating with the grisly Battle of Hong Kong for HK Island.

We paused outside the HSBC building to take a closer look at Stephen and Stitt, the bronze lions who have been guarding the bank since 1935. They are riddled with bullet holes from where they were caught in the crossfire when the Japanese arrived on the Island. They were sent to Japan to be melted down for the war effort, but were saved and sent back to Hong Kong when an American serviceman stumbled across them and realised where they had come from. Stitt appears on Hong Kong’s paper bills and it’s considered good luck to give their paws and noses a little stroke.

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St John’s Anglican cathedral continued with its service on Christmas Day, 1941, as the Battle of Hong Kong raged outside. After the surrender on Boxing Day, it was used by the occupying Japanese as a recreation hall.

It was then on to St John’s cathedral, which was used as a recreation hall by the Japanese, and finally across the harbour to the Peninsula Hotel. This stunning 1920s building was swiftly requisitioned by the Japanese as their HQ for the duration of the war, and it was here that the governor general, Sir Mark Aitchison Young, signed the surrender papers on Boxing Day, 1941.

It was a sobering couple of hours and we only scratched the surface of this truly horrific period of Hong Kong’s history. But I did feel I had at least begun to peel back another layer of this fascinating city.

The ANZAC Day morning service of remembrance will take place at The Cenotaph, Statue Square, Chater Road, Central at 6.15am, Monday 25 April. A service will also be held at the Australian International School Hong Kong, Norfolk Road, Kowloon Tong at 10.30am.

Our tour was lead by Hello Hong Kong (www.hellohongkong.com.au) and organised by the Australian Association of Hong Kong (www.ozhongkong.com). Hello Hong Kong runs a range of historical and foodie tours all over the Territory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jungle fever

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Scarlet relaxing in the Mighty Mini – next time we’ll be bouncing up those steps to the hiking trail.

Scarlet was off school sick today. Typically with these childhood illnesses, she was right as rain by midday and bored of reading Harry Potter. I was on a deadline for a story for Sai Kung Magazine and urgently needed photos of a local village so I could file the piece, so there was nothing else for it but to strap Scarlet into the convertible and motor off down the mountain.

The editor is running a rather lovely series at the moment, looking at New Territories villages local to the Sai Kung and Clearwater Bay areas. There are hundreds of them, so it’s a series that could be running for a while.

Next month is the turn of Tai Lam Wu, a tiny little place up in the hills, sort of just below Fei Ngo Shan (as the crow flies). The sun had come out so we cranked up RTHK on the radio and beetled down the mountain with the roof down. Scarlet even popped her sunnies on. We then took a sharp left off the highway into Ho Chung (a large village which had the dubious honour of hosting a bomb scare last year, you couldn’t move for tourist buses and Pearl TV vans for a while).

Anyway, all was tranquil today and the road wound its way through the rambling concrete jungle that is Ho Chung, past the derelict Asia TV studios, and then up, up, up into the glorious mountains. We passed banana trees, flittering butterflies, village dogs dozing in the sunshine and finally crossed the infamous “blue bridge” (a 12ft python lives underneath it apparently) and then we were there.

The village boasts just a few houses, but makes up for its size with oodles of charm and a fascinating history. It was even the focus of a 2011 Chinese indie film, Big Blue Lake. You can also access the wonderful Wilson Trail (stage 4) from steps at the far end. Anyway, we snapped away and you can read all about it in the May issue of Sai Kung magazine. The story’s not exactly a front-page scoop, but I love pootling about in out-of-the-way places, so, along with the sunshine, the afternoon really put a spring in my step and a smile on my face. And we were back in time for Scarlet to pop into school for her after-school sewing club. I know. Don’t say a word. I might be a reasonable writer, but I’m a terrible mother.

Chocolate, children & chilling out on a Saturday

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The finished result!

This recipe for Chocolate Star Bread is from an old copy of UK Good Housekeeping and works really well. Myself, my daughter Scarlet and her good friend Abbie spent a couple of hours putting it together. You will need: plain flour; dried active yeast; caster sugar; full-fat plain yoghurt; butter; egg; vegetable oil for greasing; Nutella; milk; hazelnuts.

Mix 2tsp of yeast, 75g of flour and 100ml warm water in a bowl, cover with cling-film and leave to bubble up for 15 mins. Send children out to play in the pool.

Add 75g yoghurt, 75g melted and cooled butter, 50g caster sugar, one beaten egg and one teaspoon of salt. Dry off your children and use them to knead the dough for ten minutes until it is springy, using a little flour if necessary. Place in a lightly greased bowl and cover with clingfilm. Send children back out to the pool for about an hour. Or until the dough has doubled in size and the kids have got bored with the pool floaties.

Gently warm 200g of Nutella in a bain maree (bowl over a a larger bowl of hot water) to loosen it up. Divide the dough into four and roll into four dinner plate sized circles. Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper and lay one circle on the tray. Spread a quarter of the chocolate over the dough. Place a second dough circle on top and spread with another quarter of the chocolate. Repeat with the remaining circles but leaving the fourth one plain. The girls took it in turns to spread/roll. Place a dinner plate on top of the dough pile and trim to a perfect circle.

Then, place a glass in the centre of the dough pile and press out a circular indentation without breaking the dough. Leaving this central circle intact, cut the outer dough into quarters to create four “petals”. Cut each petal into quarters to create 16 petals.

Lift a petal and gently twist three times. Twist the adjacent petal three times in the opposite direction, and continue twisting in alternate directions until you have twisted all sixteen petals. The girls were surprisingly good at this. Shoo the children into the lounge room and cover the tray with clingfilm. Leave the dough to rise for 45 minutes, or until the kids have finished two games of Snakes & Ladders and are begging to be allowed on Minecraft.

Preheat the oven to 180, brush the dough with milk and sprinkle the centre with hazelnuts (checking with your child’s playfriend for nut allergies first, obviously). Bake for about 20 minutes or until golden. The girls enjoyed sitting on the floor and gazing at the oven “Bake Off” style at this point.

Boil the kettle, make a cup of tea, put your feet up and let the kids go crazy with the i-pad. Your job as entertainer for the afternoon in done. Don’t forget to send the playfriend home with a few petals to share with her family – it makes you look like parent of the year and will pretty much guarantee a return invitation, leaving you with a child-free/one child-down Saturday to look forward to.

Many thanks to my friend Megan for lending me her delightful daughter Abbie for this shoot. She’s definitely on the “happy-to-have-over-anytime” friend list!