India travel map

Orienteering

Taru Villas, Bentota, Sri Lanka
A completely private getaway by the sea, on a beach with
perfect weather – it’s an archetypal dream destination. If it
also happens to be inspiringly stylish and blessed with great
service, it becomes somewhere you’re tempted not to tell your
friends about. Taru Villas is exactly that. Located just
outside the town of Bentota and a three-hour drive from
Colombo’s international airport, it’s the kind of place you can
imagine staying for long enough to write a book.

Apart from the very tangible benefit of being affordable,
Taru’s convincing combination of style, sand and service make
it worth the flight to Sri Lanka. But Taru Villas was
discovered not by visiting sunseekers but by a cosmopolitan
crowd from Colombo.

Nayantara Fonseka (better known as Taru) is a flamboyant
creative figure in the Sri Lankan fashion world. For years, she
and a few carloads of friends would make the
two-and-a-half-hour trek from the city on a Friday evening to
spend a relaxed, idyllic weekend on the coast. This became such
a fixture in Taru’s life that she pledged to take any
opportunity she could to pursue her passion for the property
and its location. One day it went up for lease – and that’s how
Taru got into the hotel business.

Even though the site itself was awkwardly long and narrow, the
original architect had been clever with the use of space, and
the buildings were arranged to avoid giving the impression of
being in a tunnel. The villas, set along a single wall, are
subtly oriented so that all of them face different directions.
This ensures total privacy, and for guests it’s like having
your own house.

To this already successful establishment, Taru has brought her
sense of style and hospitality. Taru Villas now has the colour,
warmth and character that is so often lacking from an
architect’s disciplined vision. Walls painted a musty shade of
pink are juxtaposed with plenty of white, and bright saffron
yellow is combined with black and white (a traditional colonial
Portuguese combination). More than anything, though, Taru
Villas is a triumph of simplicity. It’s not easy to make a
place look good with very little, but that’s exactly what Taru
has done to distinguish this little bolthole on the beach. It’s
a blend of good choice of colour, interesting selection of
furniture and the omnipresent avoidance of clutter.

The beach here reminded me more of Australia than Asia – it goes on for miles, and the water is
wild and woolly enough for some decent bodysurfing; the hotel
can even lend you a boogie-board. At Taru Villas you can escape
to one of Sri Lanka’s best beaches. And at this price, you can
go barefoot in the sand for as long as you like.

· Taru Villas, Bentota, Sri Lanka (tel: +94
034 2275618; email: taprobana@taruvillas.com). Room rates from
US$91 (£49).

Ibrik, Bangkok, Thailand
An ibrik is a small container for pouring coffee. It’s also the
smallest urban Hip Hotel in Asia, with three rooms and a café
on the banks of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River. Three rooms hardly
seem worth the effort – for the proprietor, that is. But for
the guest it’s a fantastic opportunity to experience the hustle
and bustle of Bangkok without feeling like one of thousands of
farang (foreign) tourists.

Ibrik’s guestrooms are spacious and decorated in a modern,
“look what I managed to do with my family hand- me-downs” kind
of way. They are also immaculately tidy and contemporary,
especially in the bathroom department. It’s like staying with a
cool friend on the river. The only other accommodation options
on the Chao Phraya consist of expensive institutional hotels
such as the Oriental; these may indulge you with four-star
luxury but cannot match Ibrik for raw, full-on authenticity.
The sheer magic of Ibrik is you can sit on your terrace, which
is literally hanging over the river, and watch this fascinating
city go by – without the claustrophobic feeling of being
trapped in your hotel room.

As might be expected of such an original inn, Ibrik is not a
product of hotel culture. It was the idea of three young,
like-minded creative types who could see a complete lack of
smaller, more colourful places to stay in this Asian
metropolis. Gobe Bunnag is a professional photographer, and the
house that is now Ibrik used to belong to friends of hers. When
the building came on the market, she and her partners saw their
window of opportunity. The interesting thing is that Ibrik
doesn’t feel like a three-room hotel at all. Perhaps it’s the
professional way it’s run, or the fact that the rooms are so
far apart, or the manner in which the café co-exists seamlessly
with the accommodation. In fact, it feels more like a hotel
with 20 rooms, and yet you have the distinct advantage of
knowing that you’ll never have to share the common areas with
more than five other people.

· Ibrik Resort, Bangkoknoi, Bangkok, Thailand
(+66 02 848 9220, email: info@ibrikresort.com). Room rates from Baht
3,200 (£46).

The Apsara, Luang Prabang, Laos
From a traveller’s point of view, it’s hard to think of a
destination with more to offer. Flanked by mountainous
limestone cliffs shrouded in mist, Luang Prabang is built on a
peninsula defined by the Mekong River on one side and its
tributary, the Khan River, on the other. The surrounding area
is still pristine in its sparsely inhabited agrarian purity,
and just outside of town you will come across Lao hill tribes.

For those with enough time on their hands, the journey by car
to Vientiane takes you through a slice of Asia most people will
never see: a countryside of waterfalls, rice paddies and
customs unchanged by the march of modernity. It was by way of
such a drive that Ivan Scholte first ended up in Luang Prabang.
A British expat who has been living in Asia for almost two
decades, his ambition was to own a hotel and restaurant, and it
was his discovery of Luang Prabang in 2000 that finally
cemented his resolve.

At the time there were no direct flights, and visitors
consisted mainly of backpackers. There were only two upmarket
hotels in town and just one upmarket restaurant (serving French
cuisine). Attracted by Luang Prabang’s size, sensuality and
sophistication, Scholte took over an existing guesthouse and
proceeded to transform it into a hotel to match his vision. The
result is The Apsara, named after the heavenly maidens carved
into the gallery walls of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. The hotel has
introduced a simple but street-wise sophistication to the
town’s accommodation options. Scholte brought interior designer
Niki Fairchild in from Bangkok to assist him with the design,
and what they’ve come up with ranks as the most chic place in
town. Both the restaurant and the rooms reflect a refined sense
of taste. The restaurant, for instance, features a polished
concrete floor, Chinese-style lanterns hung in multicoloured
clusters, a pair of sculptural Burmese offering boxes and a
handful of specially commissioned Thai paintings.

The rooms all have views of the river below from their colonial
terraces and it’s extremely affordable, but the best thing
about the Apsara is that it is smack bang in the middle of
town. All the cafès, temples and shops are within easy walking
distance, and if you’re up at 6am you can witness Luang
Prabang’s monks form a snaking, mile-long, saffron-coloured
queue as they go about collecting their daily alms. It’s one of
the few places in Asia, if not the world, where the town in
which you’re staying is the reason for spending time there.

· The Aspara, Luang Prabang, Laos (+856 071
212 420, email: info@theaspara.com). Room rates from US$55
(£30).

FCC, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Now is the time to travel to Cambodia to experience Angkor Wat.
The adjacent town of Siem Reap is still small, pretty and
unspoilt, the nearby international airport is only an hour’s
flight from Bangkok and, better still, the monuments are not
yet overwhelmed by tourists. Plus, just as importantly,
visitors have some interesting choices of accommodation.

FCC is for travellers who like their colonial atmosphere pared
down and contemporary. Set in the grounds of a former French
governer’s holiday home, it combines a shuttered two-storey
structure typical of French Indochina with modern bungalows
that face either the park or the pool. Polished con crete
floors, the odd fifties- inspired rattan chair, open-plan
bathrooms and splashes of Cambodian silk constitute the
decorative picture. Simple and coolly confident, FCC’s
interiors and bold geometric architecture make for an
unexpectedly attractive package. Central to the hotel is the
original French colonial building, which now houses a
restaurant, a shop and a couple of bars.

For travellers, the most tangible benefit of the new,
politically stable Cambodia is that the complex of Angkor is
once again open to visitors. It’s evident from the building
activity on the outskirts of Siem Reap that the government is
confident that Angkor will flourish as a destination. While
that’s good news for the Cambodian economy, it spells the end
of any chance of having the ruins to yourself. At the moment,
though, it’s still possible to wander around some of the
temples in relative peace. Consider, for instance, Ta Prohm,
the site that for many visitors leaves the strongest
impression. It’s a place of fantasy that brings out the Indiana
Jones in us all: overgrown by forest and entangled with the
gigantic, octopus-like roots of the kapok tree, Ta Prohm
provides an insight into what Frenchman Henri Mouhot and other
explorers must have felt when they first stumbled on to the
remains of the capital of what was once the mightiest empire in
Southeast Asia. Here you are free to discover the ruins on your
own, without guides, cassettes or roped-off areas.

At night, the scene transfers back to town. Aside from FCC’s
colonial charm and avant- garde architecture, it’s one of the
best hangouts in Siem Reap. There’s an outdoor bar with a
collection of art deco armchairs of the kind that used to
furnish every hall of commerce in the time of Chairman Mao; and
upstairs there are two restaurants under a formidable
installation of ceiling fans, where you can eat while watching
the town’s traffic of motorised rickshaws going back and forth.
From a historical, psychological and financial point of view,
FCC is an interesting approach to a hotel. The atmosphere
recalls a colonial setting, the style is confidently
contemporary and the prices belong to a forgotten era.

· FCC Angkor, Siem Reap (tel: +855 063 760
280; email: angkor@fcccambodia.com). Room rates from $90
(£48).

Cheong Fatt Tze, Penang, Malaysia
When Cheong Fatt Tze arrived in the Straits from Guandong
province in China in 1856, he was barely 16 and penniless. By
the time he passed away in 1916 at the age of 76, he had
amassed one of the greatest fortunes in the Orient.

With great wealth came great spoils. Cheong had eight wives and
many more houses, but his favourite residence was the mansion
he built on the island of Penang, in the bustling trading port
of George Town.

The so-called Blue House (due to its distinctive indigo-painted
exterior) was purpose-built to show off his financial prowess.
It was flamboyantly extravagant, with 38 rooms, five
courtyards, seven stair cases and – to counter the heat – 220
windows. It also reflected Cheong’s multicultural personality.
The layout was essentially Chinese, with strict adherence to
the discipline of feng shui; but the detail was engagingly
eclectic, with ceramic floor tiles from Stoke-on-Trent,
Scottish cast-iron balustrading, French Art Nouveau stained
glass windows, Chinese cut-and-paste porcelain, and Gothic
louvred teak windows.

But by the time local architect Laurence Loh and his wife Lim
discovered it, a total of 35 different families were living in
the once magnificent mansion. Six decades after the Rockefeller
of the East had passed away, Cheong Fatt Tze’s beautiful house
had become a lowly tenement.

Luckily for Penang, the story of the Blue House has a happy
ending. When the last of Cheong’s sons passed away, Loh and a
small syndicate were able to buy what was left of the house,
and set about the monumental task of restoring it to its former
glory.

But the best thing about the restoration is that, as a guest,
you can once more admire the flair and extravagance of one of
the Orient’s most flamboyant houses, and you don’t need an
invitation to stay here. Better still, you pay a lot less than
Cheong Fatt Tze would have been happy with.

· Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, George Town,
Penang, Malaysia (tel: +60 4262 5006; email: cftm@tm.net.my). Room rates form Ringgit 250
(£36).

· This is an edited extract from Hip Hotels:
Orient by Herbert Ypma, published by Thames & Hudson on
April 11 at £18.95.

Bangkok’s original hip hotel

India travel map

The festival

If you’re planning a trip to south east Asia next month, take a detour to the
tropical island of Bintan, 45 minutes by boat from Singapore,
which is to host ‘La Luna – Asia’s First Lunatic Dance Party of
2007’, on 26-27 May.

Nick Warren and Audio Fly will play, but there’ll be swimming,
beach volleyball and soccer too. Tickets cost £21, from
www.laluna-bintan.com.

Rooms at the luxury Nirwana Gardens Resort (www.nirwanagardens.com) cost from £50.

India travel map

The tour

Japan’s cities are well visited, but what about its coast? A
new small group tour of the little-known west coast is now
available with Inside Japan (0870 120 5600; www.insidejapantours.com), including
the two-mile sandbar known as the ‘bridge of heaven’, and the
sand dunes, stalactites and waterfalls in the ‘desert’ of
Tottori. The 13-night tour costs from £1,895 per person,
including flights from Heathrow.

India travel map

Let’s go for a spin – over the Himalayas

It’s a dazzling sight. Sixteen classic cars are parked around
the circular courtyard that houses the personal car collection
of the Maharana of Udaipur. But they don’t belong to him. Newly
shipped in from Europe, the cars are here to participate in the
Himalaya Rally, arranged by rally company Roarr. Ranging from a
1935 Rolls Royce to a 1967 Lotus Elan, they’re about to embark
on a 3,000-mile journey through India, Nepal and Bhutan.

Accommodation is a dot-to-dot of luxurious hotels and nature
reserves, with the final destination being the Oberoi Grand
Hotel in Kolkata. As the cars gleam in the Rajasthani sunset,
their owners, mostly self-made millionaires, and the eight
crew, gather for drinks at the Taj Lake Palace Hotel, in the
middle of Lake Pichola. I’m excited. My first time in India, my
first time on a car rally. Brilliant.

But isn’t this sheer madness? Why would anyone pay to drive
their precious classic car for 3,000 miles on the ruthlessly
busy, pot-holed and winding roads of the Himalayas? Why spend
10 hours in a car almost every day for a month rather than
cruise, say, the French Riviera? Even though I love cars and
travelling, I can’t understand this mystery. Hopefully my place
in the rally’s crew, as archivist and translator, will solve
it.

At the Lake Palace the participating 10 nationalities make a
hilariously mismatched crowd. Will the French – three
middle-aged men in cashmere sweaters, holding hands with their
bejewelled wives – get along with the pragmatic flat-shoed
Brits? Will the glamorous Italian couple daunt Australian
eccentric Rod Medew – or vice versa? And will Steve The
Mechanic, with his love of UFOs and conspiracy theories, drive
non-believers like me crazy on the road? But there’s a
wedding-crowd buzz because everyone’s happy and excited.

First though, a weekend in Udaipur. On Saturday night we have
cocktails with His Highness the Maharana in the private gardens
of his magical palace. Handsome, intelligent and laid-back,
he’s a serious car enthusiast.

On Sunday Bunty, our chief Indian mechanic, is celebrating the
opening of his garage in Udaipur and we’re all invited. During
the inaugural feast, Patrick Helfer, a Swiss participant, tells
me: ‘The great thing about a rally is that, because of the
cars’ needs, and the excitement they create, and because of the
intimate knowledge that rally organisers have of the places we
visit, we get involved at levels of life that most tourists
miss. Like this weekend: we’ve lunched with a mechanic’s family
and had cocktails with a king.’

Monday morning and time for the off. His Highness flags the
rally away to head through rural Rajasthan to Jodhpur’s Palace
Hotel. But some of us are left behind. Despite its Hollywood
charisma, the 1948 Bentley Special has fuelling problems, so
rally chief John Brigden has decided we should keep
participants Martyn and Jennie company while Bunty tries to get
their Bentley going. It’s ready by midnight.

At dawn we set off together to catch up with the rally at the
town of Gajner. It’s a great start, the gentle hills of
Rajasthan unfold before us and we’re excited because we’re
finally on the road. But disaster strikes. By midday, in the
searing heat of the Rajasthan desert, we’re standing around the
Bentley again. A wheel bearing has broken, so the car is going
nowhere until either the bearing is replaced – clearly
impossible here – or the car is towed away.

John considers shipping the Bentley back to England and hiring
a jeep for Martyn and Jennie to complete the rally. But,
understandably, Martyn wants to have his adventure in the
Bentley, so John asks the crucial question: ‘Bunty, can you fix
the wheel bearing?’ And Bunty, with a gentle wobble of his head
from side to side, says with quiet brown-eyed confidence: ‘Yes,
Mr John. I will make one.’ This incident opened my eyes to the
optimism and ingenuity of India.

It’s dark by the time we get to Bikaner in northern Rajasthan
and we get lost for a while in the crowds of cattle, bicycles,
people, donkeys and motorbikes. Smoke from welding shops and
roadside fires fills the air. It’s frustrating and
exhilarating. Back on the road we’ve only 20 miles to Gajner,
but it’s a dangerous drive. The windscreen is spattered with
bugs. No one dips their headlights in India, so we’re
constantly dazzled, and things loom out of the darkness with
out warning. Huge wooden-wheeled trailers pulled by camels have
no lights, and lorries 200 metres away turn out to be
three-wheeled rickshaws 10 metres away – coming towards us on
our side of the road.

We arrive 14 hours after we left Udaipur, in time for a
candle-lit supper in the desert where Rajasthani dancers and
musicians entertain us and dozens of fireworks light the sky. I
search for the photographer, Jaime, and eventually find him on
the other side of the dunes with a crowd of Indians listening
to the cricket world cup on the radio.

The next morning we drive up through the Himalayan foothills,
ignoring signs that read, ‘Don’t throw eatables for monkeys –
throw your money.’ We pass Rod and Cathy, flagged down in their
red Sunbeam Alpine by a crowd of Indians interested in their
car – a common occurrence. Lunch is at the Airplane Cafe, where
we gorge on masala dosas and our first distant sight of the
breathtaking, snow-capped Himalayas.

For the next few days we wind through cascades of mountain
terraces and villages to the hill stations. Everyone stares
because westerners never drive this way. A heartbreaking sight
is the transient workers and their children cracking rocks with
hammers for their meagre living, toddlers playing beside them.
At chai stops we meet monks in red robes eating crisps,
turbaned army officers wondering whether we have any whisky
(strong currency here) and children selling rhododendrons. We
freeze in snowy Dharamsala, party at the Oberoi Cecil Hotel in
Shimla, and have luxury massages at the snooty Ananda Spa near
Rishikesh. The rhythm of the road holds us fast.

Our second rest day is spent at the Corbett National Park,
tiger-spotting from the back of elephants wading through forest
undergrowth, and then from safari jeeps. But it’s only the
French – and Martyn and Jennie, who deserved it for their sheer
perseverance in the Bentley (still with us) – who are lucky
enough to see a tiger just 20 metres away. Rod, however is
elated: ‘Tigers? That’s nothing. I saw an ant!’

On the road to Binsar I spend a hilarious morning driving with
Steve The Mechanic, swapping life stories and not believing
anything the other one says. ‘So this woman you saw was 500ft
and green?’ But pretty soon we’re nursing the Bentley again,
which despite endless efforts, has to be towed up hairpin
mountain roads in a storm to Binsar. Jennie, with her suede
flying helmet and platinum bob, is like a 21st-century Amelia
Earhart, hanging out of our door shouting ‘left hand down, keep
tight,’ into the darkness to Martyn. The Bentley’s headlamps
are failing and, for obvious reasons, not least that their car
is attached to ours, she doesn’t want him to drive over the
edge. It’s an 800ft drop.

To the dizzying sound of Hindi music, we cross into Nepal over
a rickety bridge where grape sellers on bicycles, herds of
goats and families in rickshaws are waiting to cross into
India. The border con trol office is partially blocked by a
huge tree which clearly fell years ago but no one has bothered
to move.

Driving through the empty roads of Nepal we reach Royal Bardia
National Park at 10pm. We’re on the final stretch of jungle
dirt track when a pair of lights wink at us in the distance.
It’s the Dutch in their 1935 Bentley Derby Special, stuck in
the vast river bed we’re crossing. Exhausted though we are, we
stop to help. With Bengal tigers, wild elephants and
rhinoceroses roaming the park, we have to get them out, fast.

Despite the country clearly quaking under political unrest, and
one of our Mercedes being held by armed Maoists for a couple of
hours, we make it through Nepal safely. There’s a national
petrol strike, which means John has to find a way of securing
170 litres of petrol without causing a riot among the Nepalese
– but he does it. On our way through Darjeeling, we see ladies
in saris bobbing among the waist-high tea plants as though
treading water in some strange green ocean. We stop to listen
to their chatter and laughter, and to the hushed threshing
noise as their fingers nip the tips off the plants.

And at last … Bhutan. This is the first car rally the country
has ever hosted, so both we and the Bhutanese are excited. The
rally is officially blessed by the king’s sister and then we
drive up and up into Bhutan’s mist-shrouded forests and
waterfall-riven mountains watching the black-and-cream Rolls
Royce nosing its way around the hairpin bends.

In preparation for the new king’s coronation, the dirt roads
are being resurfaced, so we’re often overwhelmed by thick
yellow dust. A particularly bad spot is at Confluence Bridge,
where two huge rivers converge, and the entire rally – usually
thinned out across a day’s driving – is held up together, along
with miles of grumbling traffic. But Roarr has secured us a
police escort so we push through. Seeing the entire rally
speeding along dusty Bhutanese roads in a rush to get to Paro
before dark is even more exhilarating than tiger-spotting.

Over the next few days we ride by donkey up the mountain to the
Tiger’s Nest monastery to see the birthplace of Bhutanese
Buddhism, and visit the annual Paro festival, where the
Bhutanese gather beside the dzhong, or town fort, to watch
masked dancers and jesters. With elders and monks looking down
from wooden podiums and everyone wearing the compulsory
national dress, I feel like I’ve travelled back 500 years.

Finally, after rescuing two cars from a mountainside in the
middle of a thunderstorm, we leave Bhutan for the final
four-day leg through West Bengal. Our last day on the road is
sad, and India looks heart-wrenchingly beautiful but suddenly
here we all are, at the Oberoi Grand Hotel in Kolkata.

Minutes after we arrive the Indian press gather on the
forecourt to photograph the cars and talk to the drivers. We’re
smiling and triumphant that every person and car has made it –
even the Bentley, with the wheel bearing that Bunty made all
that time ago.

And as for the mystery of why people choose to do rallies? It
finally clicked the night the Dutch got lost on the river bed
at Royal Bardia. If they hadn’t , we’d have driven on,
oblivious to our surroundings, and piled into the bar for a
much-needed drink. But as it turned out, the Dutch duo of
Willelm and his chic sister, Will, were not alone that night.
Nepalese teenagers had come out of the jungle, thrilled at
finding the car and keen to help. Far from being distraught,
Will was elated. ‘We’ve been here a while but having a
marvellous time, yes,’ she said, clapping her hands.

By digging and pushing, everyone managed to heave the Bentley
out on to the right track again, to loud cheers. And so it was
that, surrounded by jungle kids, I helped a 1935 Bentley Derby
Special get going in a vast dry river bed, under a starry night
sky in Nepal.

So the real lure of a rally, despite all the fantastic scenery
and luxury hotels, is the magic of overcoming the problems and
obstacles with the help of other people. It’s knowing that bad
moments turn into great anecdotes. Which is why the self-made,
hard-working, determined and funny participants thrive on the
challenges rallies present. Cruising along the French Riviera
would just be too easy.

Essentials

Roarr (01732 740216; www.roarr.co.uk) runs a variety of
classic-car rallies in India and elsewhere. The next Himalaya
Rally will be in October and November 2008. There are 20 places
available, and it costs about pounds 20,000 for two people (you
provide the car, but the price includes shipping it to India
and almost everything else). If you don’t have your own classic
car, the organisers can arrange for you to hire one (prices
vary).

TAKE YOUR PLACE IN WACKY RACES

Lisbon-Dakar Rally

This is the latest incarnation of the famous Paris-Dakar race
that first ran in 1977. Competitors range from committed
amateurs to professional teams with multi-million pound
sponsorship from car manufacturers. The entry fee is pounds
8,700.

Distance: 3,750miles

Next race: 5-20 January 2008

Contact: 00 33 1 4133 1460; www.dakar.com

Gumball 3000, London-Istanbul-London

The car rally for the MTV generation. This year’s rally started
yesterday and visits Istanbul, Athens and Tirana, before
returning for a concert in London. Most participants drive
Ferraris or Lamborghinis, and are usually the super-rich,
sports car dealers or good at getting sponsorship. Entry costs
are £28,000 for driver and a passenger.

Distance: 3,000miles

Next race: August 2008 – the route will be London to Australia!

Contact: 020 8964 7878; www.gumball3000.com

Cannonball Run, London-Puerto Banus

While Lisbon-Dakar is a serious, gruelling race, this is all
about fun and reliving great moments from the 1981 film. The
cost is £1,350, with champagne at every pit stop and black-tie
finale.

Distance: 2,350miles

Next race: 3-7 September

Contact: 0870 803 2656; www.cannonballrunclassic.com

The Italian Job, Venice-Brighton

This 10-day rally for Minis raises money for NCH, the
children’s charity. You can live out your Michael Caine fantasy
on the roof-top track of the former Fiat factory in Turin.
Entry fee is pounds 500, but you raise as much as possible for
charity.

Distance: 3,000 miles

Next race: 26 October

Contact: 01273 418100; www.italianjob.com

India travel map

The biggest travel taboo: a holiday in Burma

Why you should go …

As the plane from Bangkok circled over water-logged fields
punctuated by gleaming bell-shaped temple roofs, I tried to
imagine life in the country below – bleak, cut off from the
world, and monitored by soldiers at every corner. How wrong I
was.

Myanmar (Burma’s name since 1989) has kept up with its Asian
tiger neighbours and satellite dishes shower the cities with
CNN and Korean soaps. It also wallows in natural resources:
gold, rubies, oil, gas and timber bring in hefty revenues, and
trade with China is booming. The capital’s businessmen wear
crisp white shirts and sarongs, and mutter into mobiles as they
trip over broken pavements in their flip-flops. Leprous
colonial facades stand beside characterless modern blocks. It’s
a strange, halfway, typically Asian world.

Then, as I tucked into breakfast at Yangon’s Traders’ Hotel, I
saw that my fellow guests were from Italy, Spain, France, the
US and the Far East – and most were tourists. Boycott? What
boycott? Officially, 660,000 foreigners came to Myanmar in
2005, of whom only 3.5 per cent were British. Our historical
links with Burma have encouraged most Britons to respect the
tourism boycott called for by Aung San Suu Kyi, the elected
leader held under house arrest by the ruling military
dictatorship – and that has included me.

In recent months, however, the arguments of the Free Burma
Coalition, a key opposition group, which now actively
encourages tourism for the sake of the people of Burma, have
received growing exposure and credence in the West, and this
prompted me to discuss a trip with Amrit Singh, the Burma-born
owner of UK-based tour operator TransIndus. Adamant that only a
tiny proportion – 2 per cent – of her costs in Myanmar actually
go to the government, she is also convinced that tourism can
only help the country on the path to democracy.

Despite the evocative lure of Rangoon (now redubbed Yangon),
Mandalay and the Irrawaddy river (very George Orwell; Burmese
Days is waved at you everywhere), you cannot ignore Burmese
politics. Suu Kyi is gagged, ethnic minorities are victimised
and censorship and forced labour are daily realities. Log on to
your hotel broadband and you cannot access Hotmail or Yahoo!;
switch on your mobile and nothing happens – Myanmar’s
government network operates without Sim cards. These controls
are just some of the reasons we are told not to go.

What has saved the Burmese spirit is an unwavering belief in
Theravada Buddhism. Keen to win brownie points for an upgraded
hereafter, they pile on the gold leaf (reducing one large
Buddha I saw to a formless blob), stuff donation boxes with
kyat notes and diligently construct pagodas. In no other
Buddhist country have I seen such dazzle, from Yangon’s
Shwedagon, where a bejewelled gold finial tops the massive
temple already dripping with 60 tonnes of gold, to Mandalay’s
Mahamuni Paya (paya means temple), where a 2,000-year-old
Buddha statue is lovingly regilded and even has its teeth
brushed – daily. At these historic paya, and at less grandiose
rural ones, I watched locals picnic, snooze and generally hang
out in the shady halls and terraces.

Bagan, a 90-minute flight north of the capital, is Myanmar’s
spectacular equivalent of Cambodia’s Angkor. A vast plain (from
whose core zone the locals were forcibly moved in 1990 to give
tourists a ‘cleaner’ image) is studded with some 4,000 pagodas,
temples and monasteries dating from the ninth-13th centuries.
Looting, neglect, floods, bats and, above all, an earthquake in
1975 have taken their toll, but restoration and Unesco have
also revived delicate frescoes depicting Buddha’s life,
reinstated 10 metre-high gilded statues and rebuilt crumbling
brick walls. Some now look just too perfect. Yet as my pony
cart (the local form of taxi) clip-clopped around the deserted
outlying structures, it felt so like a lost age of innocence
that it was too easy to forget the iniquities of today. Cattle
grazed, bullock carts rocked by, goatherds strolled through
peanut fields and beaming villagers strode past with yokes on
their shoulders.

That tranquillity evaporated when I entered the more imposing
royal temples of the central zone. I was stormed by women
stallholders thrusting lacquer boxes and temple chimes at me
and chanting dollar prices. These desperate tactics were in
high contrast to their beauty – Burmese women put any Western
starlet to shame, despite large yellow splodges daubed on their
faces. This is thanaka, a bark paste which acts as a natural
skin cream and which even men wear quite unselfconsciously –
making a crowd of Burmese look like they work in slapstick.

I followed my nose to a Banyan tree shading an outdoor kitchen
surrounded by children’s tables. Adult customers bent double on
their tiny stools were wolfing down lunch, so I followed suit.
This turned out to be gourmet gold – all for about 50p. I
sampled street meals elsewhere without any gastric revenge. Yet
again, my preconceptions were trashed; I had been told the food
was abysmal.

My next stop was Mandalay, home to 80 per cent of the country’s
monks. Temple-fatigue was setting in but nothing could beat the
sight of hundreds of monks, young and old, hopping on and off
buses on their morning food-rounds and, later, more than 1,000
of them patiently queueing for lunch at Mahagandhayon,
Myanmar’s largest monastery.

One night, as I looked for a taxi, a young monk started testing
his limited English. He ended up chaperoning me for the
evening, from a restaurant to the outrageous Moustache
Brothers, Mynamar’s only satirists. Banned in Burmese after a
performance at Suu Kyi’s house, they now perform nightly in
English in their family home – with backpackers as their
audience.

At Pindaya, a short flight away in the eastern Shan state, I
gawped at a gigantic cave packed with 8,000 or so effigies of
Buddha, before heading for a heaving marketplace. Danu, Pao and
Palaung, ethnic minorities – absent from the central plains –
filled the aisles and eating places, selling anything from
larvae (good for a fry-up I was told) to steak tartare served
on banana leaves. Women smoked little pipes and men chewed and
spat betel with a vengeance. With the help of my gentle guide,
Momo, interaction was easy and laced with giggles.

After this trip I feel strongly that Burma’s Big Brother needs
observers; the more informed foreigners who travel there the
better. As Lu Maw, the most voluble of Mandalay’s Moustache
Brothers, said: ‘We need many ears, many eyes. The regime is
rich – if tourists don’t come it makes no difference to them.
But it does to us.’

I heard this again and again – but only from people I spoke to
on their own: they live in terror of informers. As one monk
with magnificently betel-stained teeth and impeccable English
said mischievously: ‘Tourists are a smokeless industry. We like
them!’ Then: ‘I got that from Time magazine!’ There isn’t much
you can put past the Burmese, dictatorship or not.

· TransIndus (020 8566 3739; www.transindus.com) offers independent
11-day tours of Myanmar starting from £1,595, using privately
managed hotels, airlines and guides. For more on the Free Burma
Coalition: www.freeburmacoalition.org.

Why you must not go

Zoya Phan, a refugee from Burma and human
rights activist, argues it is the last place you should visit

I could hardly believe it the first time I heard someone tell
me that tourism helps ordinary people in Burma. I was just 14
when the army came to my village and opened fire without
warning, killing unarmed people. I can still remember the black
smoke in the sky behind us as we fled for our lives.

They attacked us because we were of the Karen ethnic minority.
For decades the Karen and other minorities had faced attacks
from the various regimes that have ruled Burma, but since the
1990s the ferocity and scale of the attacks has increased. What
had changed? The regime opened Burma to international trade,
investment, and tourism. The billions of dollars flooding into
the country did not benefit ordinary people. In fact the regime
reduced its spending on health and education. Instead it
doubled the size of the army and stepped up its attacks on the
people.

The dictatorship has identified tourism as a vital source of
income, with the hope that tourists can not only provide them
with the money for guns, but also bring greater respectability
to an illegitimate military regime. Human rights violations are
directly connected with tourism in other ways – thousands of
people have been forcibly driven from their homes in order to
beautify cities, suppress dissent and make way for tourist
facilities. Many of the roads and railways that tourists travel
on or the airports they pass through have been built using
forced labour.

Even the most fanatical advocates of tourism to Burma, such as
Lonely Planet’s Tony Wheeler, admit it is impossible to visit
Burma without the regime benefiting financially. I’ve seen the
consequences first hand: my village attacked, my friends
killed, women and children raped, villagers tortured. Your
tourism dollars help pay for that, so please, for now, stay
away.

· For more, see www.burmacampaign.org.uk, or call 020
7324 4710.

India travel map

The life of a Lao monk

India travel map

Five best … big adventures

1. Africa

Two trucks carrying around 30 paying punters plus a motley crew
of musicians set off from Johannesburg on Sept 26 on a 3,000km
journey to Malawi, arriving in time for the Lake of Stars
Festival of world music. Basically it’s a party on wheels. The
damage? £1,000 covers transport, game drives, meals, 17 nights’
accommodation and festival tickets. Excludes flights.

· Dragoman Overland (01728 861133, dragoman.com)

2. London-Sydney

In 12 weeks. En route, you’ll only get a fleeting glance at the
20 countries you pass through, but this surely beats the
24-hour flight. Oz Bus’s first departure on Sept 16 is full but
there’s a second on Sept 23 with more planned for 2008.

· £3,750 covers transport, accommodation and
meals, plus around £350 for visas. 020-8641 1443, oz-bus.com

3. Central Asia

A 950km bike trip starting in the Tien Shan mountains of
Kazakhstan, crossing mountain passes into Kirghizstan and
China’s Xinjiang province, finishing with a five-day descent of
the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan – this is no ride in the
park. You’ll need thighs of steel.

· £1,795 for 25 days, Aug 11-Sept 4. 017687
73966, keadventure.com

4. America

It’s the 50th anniversary of Kerouac’s On The Road this year.
To do your own road trip – without the hassles of map reading
or indeed driving – join Gap Year For Grown Ups’ small group
trip across six US states and 11 national parks.

· £1,210 for 28 days including, accommodation,
admission to all parks, but not flights. Departs San Francisco.
01892 701881, gapyearforgrownups.co.uk

5. Nepal

Give overcrowded Everest base camp and Annapurna a miss and
head for the spectacular Dhaulagiri Himal, an area
little-travelled by locals, let alone other trekkers. The
27-day trek goes around the world’s eighth highest peak and
over the Kali Gandakhi river valley, the deepest on earth. The
level is described as “challenging” and you’ll need a head for
heights for high pass crossings and a glacial traverse.

· Oct 8, £1,450 excl flights, 020-8545 9030,
worldexpeditions.com

India travel map

The Empire’s new clothes

The doorway into the building didn’t look obvious or welcoming.
It was dirty and half-hidden by a newspaper stall, but this was
the street number we had been given on a small scrap of paper.
My sister Liz, my cousin Lucie and I hauled Lucie’s
one-year-old baby, Max, up the two flights of narrow stairs in
his pushchair and squeezed into the lift, which rattled and
lurched.

It ground to a halt a few floors up: we got out on to a
corridor lined with cardboard boxes, and pushed the bell marked
‘Nanjing Silk Shop’. We were buzzed into a small room lined
with gaudily coloured pyjamas. A middle-aged man stuck his head
through a door, frowning. ‘Oh, sorry,’ my sister piped up,
rather bemused. ‘We thought this was for handbags.’

The man looked crosser and furrowed his brow. ‘Shhhhhhhhhhh!
Not loud,’ he implored, while shoving his hand up a pyjama leg
to retrieve a key, with which he opened another door and
beckoned us through. Inside was an Aladdin’s cave of dodgy
designer bags – Hermes, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Alexander
McQueen. The women’s eyes widened. I looked at Max and tried a
world-weary ‘here we go, mate’ shrug-with-eyebrow-raise combo,
a difficult thing to pull off with a one-year-old who has yet
to fully appreciate the joys of shopping with the fairer sex. I
sat in a corner, reading my guide book, bracing myself for the
inevitable wait. Never mind, it was good to be back in Hong
Kong.

It is 10 years this month since this little bit of empire was
handed back to China. I was there when 30 June 1997 turned into
1 July. When, in heavy rain, Prince Charles sailed off on HMS
Britannia. When People’s Liberation Army troops appeared as if
by magic outside the barracks on Hong Kong island at the stroke
of midnight. And when, the next day, the local residents,
realising the sky hadn’t fallen on their heads, did what they
always did in times of uncertainty. They went shopping.

I moved to Hong Kong, aged 15, with my parents in the early
1980s, and loved it from the start. It smelt. Touching down at
Kai Tak airport the ‘fragrant harbour’ (the colony’s name
translated from Cantonese) was anything but, the pong seeping
into the aircraft before we got to the terminal. But it was a
heady, beguiling concoction, a mix of traffic fumes, unknown
vegetables and spices and humidity, punctuated by a strange
language that sounded like air being let out of a whoopee
cushion mixed with a record playing backwards. And when the sun
went down and the neon lights came on, it was even more
magical, whether jostling with crowds outside the shops in Wan
Chai, crossing towards Kowloon on the Star Ferry or in the back
of one of the cheap, ubiquitous red-and-white taxis heading
through Mong Kok.

The food was unbelievably good for someone whose only taste of
oriental fare had been the monosodium-glutamated Yorkshire
interpretation. While my sister would eat only the decorative
carrot centre pieces that the restaurants displayed, I tucked
into anything and everything. ‘Chew first, find out later,’ was
my motto. Crispy chicken feet was the only snack I never took
to, but I’m sure there are plenty of Chinese who would have a
hard time with pork scratchings, so all’s fair in love and deep
frying.

My family came back to England a few years later, but I decided
I had to return for the handover. For one thing, I discovered
an unexpected stash of airmiles, and having missed out on the
Berlin Wall coming down (I watched events in Germany live from
a sofa in Scotland, in my pyjamas, munching Corn Flakes), I
wanted to be part of history.

Jet lag can be a blessing, and on the morning of 30 June 1997 I
was up very early, wide awake, although hung over. The local
expat community had decided that the best way to see out the
end of empire was to develop cirrhosis of the liver, but the
‘one last G&T on deck before the Titanic goes down’
mentality was not shared by the Hong Kong Chinese, the ones who
hadn’t bolted to Vancouver or Sydney at any rate. General
opinion, as voiced by the South China Morning Post, seemed to
be gratitude to the British for the rule of law, for allowing
the necessary conditions for prosperity to flourish, and for
chocolate HobNobs, but now, thanks awfully old bean, it was
time for us to go. The new rulers in Beijing may have been
communists, but they were Chinese communists, and blood is
thicker than party affiliation cards.

I jumped on one of the thin, rickety old trams (still my
favourite way to get around) and reached the Commonwealth War
Memorial near the Mandarin Oriental hotel, not far from the
skyscraper with hundreds of round windows known locally as ‘the
building of a thousand arseholes’ because of its bad feng-shui,
just as kilted Black Watch soldiers raised the Union Jack for
the last time. I felt a lump in my throat as a lone bugler
played. After a silence, then applause from the mainly gweilo
(non-Chinese) crowd, a lone home-counties voice cried: ‘Three
cheers for Hong Kong!’ to which only she seemed to reply.
Perhaps everyone else was too embarrassed, or caught up in the
moment, to respond. I imagined the owner of the voice in her
tweed skirt and head scarf, accompanied by two Jack Russells,
and realised that for this particular woman life was not going
to be the same in 24 hours.

Chinese leaders Jiang Zemin and Li Peng jetted into town as the
heavens started to open. The premier seemed to look like a
cross between James Bond’s arch rival, minus fluffy white cat,
and Benny Hill’s stereotyped Chinaman. (‘Waiter, this chicken
is rubbery.’ ‘Ah, fank you velly much, sir.’) As the Brits
departed with brass bands and pomp and circumstance, Mr Jiang
arrived to school children in pacamacs waving little red flags.

In the evening the festivities and fireworks began – and the
rain still came down. Midnight approached and all of a sudden
the crowd was counting down the last moments of colonial rule –
sap, gau, baat, chat, luk, ng, sei, saam, yi, yat, ling! It was
all over. I can’t remember if people cheered; most seemed a bit
numb. The police lined up and, together, removed their ‘royal’
Hong Kong police badges and replaced them with the emblems of
their new masters. I waved Prince Charles off, Union Jack in
one hand, bottle of champagne in the other, and headed to Lan
Kwai Fong, the party district, where the streets were bursting
with ‘Filth’ (‘Failed In London Try Hong Kong’ – always a bit
harsh, I felt).

Ten years on, I’m back (with my sister, visiting Lucie and her
family, who are living out here now) and the streets around Lan
Kwai Fong seem busier than ever, and there is still the heady
mix of fumes and spices and humidity. The Hong Kong Jockey Club
is no longer ‘Royal’, although, somewhat oddly, the Yacht Club
still is, and you can even find the Queen’s head on some
pre-1997 coins. The red postboxes have been painted green.

I ask a local what has altered over the past decade and, after
some head scratching, she replies that there is more of an
emphasis on learning Mandarin as a second language rather than
English, and that taxi drivers hardly speak the latter any
more, although I don’t recall that they ever did very well.
Afternoon tea is still being served at the Peninsula Hotel, and
across the still-not-very-fragrant harbour, the Mandarin
Oriental is doing the same. The latter has just had a
multi-million pound refurbishment, although it all seems dour
to me, and I much prefer the recently built Four Seasons
nearby, which is lighter, airier and altogether less stuffy.

I ask the tourist board what is new in Hong Kong. There seems
to be a bit of an embarrassed pause, which I take to mean ‘not
a lot’. There is a new cable car called Ngong Ping 360, which
whisks people across Tung Chung Bay up to the Big Buddha statue
on Lantau Island, but it is rather disappointing, not least
because Starbucks is one of the first things you see when you
get off. There is, however, a new son et lumiere show on Hong
Kong Island every evening at 8pm. This is spectacular, a
combination of lasers, music and lights within the skyscrapers,
flashing on and off. It makes up for the fact that during the
day the pollution is now so bad that there is no point taking
pictures from the harbour as the buildings appear as vague
ghost figures.

That aside, I’m rather satisfied when I get on the plane to
come home. All the things I used to love are still there. Of
course, you could spout on about the erosion of political
rights in Hong Kong over the past 10 years, but I’m not a
politician. The horse racing at Happy Valley is just as
boisterous and fun. The trams on Hong Kong Island still seem
like they are going to topple over, restaurants are still
raucous, and the Star Ferry crossing is still absolutely the
greatest journey in the world. People in the shops can still be
curt, the night markets still sell tat, and you can still find
fake handbags. Best of all, Hong Kong still smells – and I
wouldn’t have it any other way.

Essentials

Virgin Atlantic (0870 5747747; www.virginatlantic.com) flies daily
from Heathrow to Hong Kong from £427 return. More information
from the Hong Kong Tourism Board (020 7533 7100; www.discoverhongkong.com).

The Mandarin Oriental Hotel (00800 2828 3838; www.mandarinoriental.com) has doubles
from £162, including breakfast. The Four Seasons (00800
64886488; www.fourseasons.com) has
doubles from £296, also including breakfast.

India travel map

The Great Wall of Sound

For 20 years, I’ve been travelling around the world as a DJ:
Thailand, Columbia, Chile, India, Israel, Malaysia, Miami – you
name it, I’ve played there. Going to all these countries – and
through the contacts you make there – you seem to build up an
idea of what place is happening at a particular time. And right
now, nowhere is more exciting than China.

I’ve been going to China every year now for more than a decade.
I was there for the handover of Hong Kong in 1997. Everyone was
in a state of high panic, thinking there was going to be
drastic change overnight, with tanks and soldiers sweeping in
from the outskirts of town. I was working, playing a set
rounding off a party for 10,000 people in Kowloon Bay. There
was an air of chaos and pandemonium, and then, just like the
millennium bug, nothing happened. The morning dawned and things
continued pretty much as they were.

But change did begin to come, slowly, at first, but now
accelerating all the time. Every time I go, I can see, smell
and feel the changes since my last visit.

By the late 1990s, I’d kind of got over Hong Kong and was
looking for more. I felt the place to go was definitely
Shanghai, and friends who lived there were saying the same
thing.

In those early days, you felt the hand of the military. If they
said a show had to end at 2am, that’s when it ended. Obviously
there were bars and people were drinking, but you’d come out
and sense the military were just round the corner, always
monitoring what was going on. A friend of mine, Mian Mian,
wrote a book called Candy about the underground scene of that
period, about how the creative work of artists, painters,
singers, writers, was being monitored, and also about how
people would stay out beyond the curfew and go back to people’s
houses to party. It was published in several countries, but
banned in China.

Now though, it’s almost gone the other way. The clubs go on
until six or seven in the morning. There are shopping malls,
Gucci and Prada everywhere – and not just in Beijing, Shanghai
and Hong Kong. There’s a chain of nightclubs called Babyface in
12 of the major cities. If you had a chain of 12 British clubs,
it wouldn’t be perceived as creditable – but it is out there,
because the country’s so vast, and Babyface is one of the most
credible chain of clubs in the world. Every major DJ goes
through there at some stage during their career.

Shanghai set out to take over from Hong Kong and I think it’s
done that. It’s got the most amazing futuristic skyline which
rivals and even betters Tokyo. When I’m in town, I stay at the
Grand Hyatt which starts on the 54th floor and goes up to the
87th floor of the Jin Mao tower. So sometimes you are sitting
on the 60th floor, above the clouds, looking down at the Bund,
the city region on the bank of the Huangpu river. Everywhere
you look are futuristic buildings but it’s also steeped in
history, and there’s so much going on. It feels like you’re at
this magical place at exactly the right time.

There is a definite Chinese pop sound developing, but I was
shocked at how influenced it is by American music. Even the
dress sense is very American and hip-hop influenced. Yet it
doesn’t seem to cross over into dance music, which remains very
much the underground sound of what’s going on. I’m about to
start working with a singer I met on my last trip: she’ll get
international exposure, and I’ll have a song out in that market
sung in Cantonese.

Shanghai and Beijing may be out in front, but I often play in
Guangzhou and I have been all over the country. I have used
private planes, but usually I just take a domestic flight from
Beijing. Often, if we’re heading out to rural China, it’s just
me, my support DJ, my tour manager in one row, and no other
Westerners on the plane. Playing in somewhere like Shenzhen, a
big, polluted, overpopulated, industrial city, you can be the
only Westerner in the club. You are a long way from home and
you feel it.

I once did a gig on the Great Wall too. I like the idea of
taking DJing out of the realms of the nightclub but that was a
challenge. It was pouring with rain, we were on a wall in the
middle of nowhere looking over into Mongolia. It didn’t help
that it was in the middle of the Sars virus scare.

So where’s next? To be honest, my main focus these days is
scoring films, but I still love DJing and travelling and am
always looking for ways to push the boundaries. So for the last
three months, we’ve been working on setting up a big event for
next year. It’s in Siberia.

Where to paint the town red

Tom Pattinson, editor of Time Out Beijing, picks the
best places to party

Beijing

Coco Banana
6 Gong Ti Xi Lu, Chaoyang district (00 86 10 8599
9999)

The younger and smaller sister of Banana, one of Beijing’s
longest serving clubs, Coco Banana has taken up the reins as
the capital’s must-play destination for international DJs. This
relatively intimate club holds only around 800 people and
superstar DJ Tiesto helped the opening go off with a bang. LED
screens and light panels on the floor ensure the dancefloor is
filled – often with girls in hotpants – while the awesome sound
system means the DJs stay on the decks all night.

Shanghai

Bon Bon
2F Yunhai Tower, 1329 Huaihai Zhong Lu, by Hengshan Lu
(00 86 21 133 2193 9299)

While newer clubs such as Attica have encroached on the
Shanghai clubbing market, it’s still Bon Bon that attracts the
biggest crowds of the trendy Shanghai youth. UK dance brand
Godskitchen holds the DJ residency and international DJs take
to the booth every weekend to play some of the best music
ranging from hip-hop to drum’n’bass to house, rather than the
usual Chinese techno. With sleek, minimalist design, Bon Bon is
one of the few clubs that put the music before the whisky and
green tea sales.

Jinan

Cinderella No.23 Club
East Gate of Provincial Sports Centre, 124 Jingshi Lu
(00 86 531 8290 6586).

In what only a few years ago was the back of beyond for the
club scene, Cinderella’s has put Jinan on the clubbing map. The
independent club that isn’t owned by one of the huge nightclub
chains such as Babyface has gone out on a limb by forgetting
the commercial house and techno music, keeping to a strict
policy of refreshing modern dance. Expect to find international
DJs on occasion thrown in with the best DJs China has to offer.
Expert bartenders and quality sound and light systems attract
the young, rich and beautiful of Shandong Province.

Hangzhou

G-Plus
169 Qing Chun Lu (00 86 571 8721 5152)
Formerly known as SOS, this 2,500-capacity club has recently
been taken over by Shanghai club giant G-Plus. Stylish and
spacious, the management are among the best in the game,
providing the perfect mix of big-name DJs with their own music
policy. A favourite of Dubfire, Deep Dish and Paul Van Dyk as
well as the stylish elite of Hangzhou.

Guangzhou

Yes
2nd floor Liuhua Plaza, 132 Dong Feng Xi Lu (00 86 20
8136 6154).

The biggest club in Guangzhou, if not China, has huge open
spaces and tall ceilings that allow clubbers to move freely
around without feeling crushed. A great sound system and a
policy of booking some of the biggest names in the world mean
this vast space is regularly packed. However, when no big-name
DJs appear, the space can look cavernously empty.

· Time Out Beijing is published monthly in English and is
available from newsagents in China.

· Paul Oakenfold – The Authorised Biography is published by
Bantam on 24 September. To order a copy for £17.99 with free UK
p&p go to observer.co.uk/bookshop or call 0870 836
0885. Paul’s new album Paul Oakenfold: Greatest hits and
remixes is out on New State Music/Perfecto on 22 October.

India travel map

Who are you calling Dumbo?

‘Sai,’ I shout, attempting to be authoritative. ‘Sai, sai!’ In
elephant lingo it’s supposed to mean left. But Nam is having
none of it. She is marching straight into the bush, with no
regard for my command.

I’ve signed up for a mahout course, and spent the morning
trying to get my elephant driving skills right. But something
seems to be lost in translation. Nam has spotted some succulent
branches, and does not care that the more spiky ones are
hitting my face as she tramples forth. I hang on to her ears
for dear life.

For several days, I have been enjoying the cultural sights of
Luang Prabang, the former royal capital of Laos. The south-east
Asian nation is fast becoming a popular destination with
travellers, and Luang Prabang is the highlight. It’s a
beautiful town on the Mekong river, mixing Buddhist temples
with French colonial mansions in a mountainous jungle
landscape. Despite decades of war and 30 years of communist
rationalisation, Luang Prabang has managed to keep alive its
historical identity and its tradition as a Buddhist spiritual
centre.

But after several days of sightseeing, it’s time to get more
active. In just two days, I can learn how to ride an elephant.
While a number of travel companies offer elephant rides in the
vicinity of town, there’s only one that teaches you the secrets
of being a mahout. I sign up.

The elephant camp is just a few miles outside town, yet we’re
deep into the jungle. The location – on the Nam Khan river, a
Mekong tributary – is stunning, surrounded by high jagged
mountains.

I’ve been assigned Nam. Or maybe it’s me who’s been assigned to
her. She is a 46-year-old female elephant who used to work in
the logging industry, bringing down trees. In elephant years,
she is a grand old lady and has retired. Nam – one of five
elephants in the camp – is a beautiful beast, and for the next
two days we will eat, bathe and go for rides together. If I
manage to climb on top of her.

Mahouts scale these animals as if they were mere donkeys. By
contrast, it takes me several ungraceful tries, and in the end,
a good push on the bum to climb Nam. I’m only three metres off
the ground, but I feel dizzy. The guide down there looks so
tiny. I’ve been on a horse before, but this is different. On an
elephant, you actually sit on its head, and there is neither
saddle nor reins. To get a stable position, I have to learn how
to squeeze my knees together behind her ears. At first, I
desperately grab her ears for stability. It takes a while to
get confident enough to let go.

I have also tried to learn the commands, but in my slightly
panicked state they are difficult to remember. I’ve learnt that
‘pai’ is ‘forward’, ‘ho’ means ‘stop’ and ‘map’ is an order to
sit. ‘Quoa’ is supposed to make her go right, and then there’s
‘sai’ which the instructor insists means ‘left’, but I clearly
haven’t got the authority to pull it off yet.

Nam knows the way anyway; she has been doing this several times
a day for a long time. After some more training and practice,
we finally seem to understand each other. The ‘hos’ and ‘maps’
seem to work better, or maybe she is just humouring me. At
least she doesn’t rush off for food all the time. I even manage
to look at my jungle surroundings and appreciate their beauty.

We round the day off by taking the elephants to a clearing in
the forest, where they will stay for the night. Our instructors
tie one ankle of each animal with a long iron chain twisted
around a tree. If you want to keep elephants, building fences
is pointless. They will trample them in seconds.

We stay over at the elephant camp, in a nice lodge on the other
side of the river. I hook up with three other mahout wannabes
on the terrace. We exchange tips and stories from our long and
extensive experience with the elephants – all six hours of it.
As the sun and the compulsory Beer Lao go down, the stories get
better.

After breakfast the next morning, we take Nam and the other
elephants down to the river bank for their morning bath. A
small crowd has assembled. It’s the camp’s other lodgers, who
have got up to watch the elephant bathing, and the mahout class
is the morning attraction. I barely manage to maintain my
jungle cred as I hang on for dear life.

But this is fantastic fun. We’re in the river, splashing about.
It’s a big commotion – the elephants are quite playful, using
their trunks to hose us down. We’ve been given brushes, and I’m
scrubbing Nam as hard as I can. Her skin is extremely tough and
coarse, so it’s hard work scraping off all the dirt. Our last
job as mahouts is to feed the animals. Nam has been eating away
in the jungle all morning, of course, but there’s still plenty
of room for bananas and sugar cane. She gobbles up one bunch of
bananas after another, and I’m amazed how fast and precise her
trunk is.

Eventually, it’s time to say goodbye. My ‘sai’ and ‘pai’ were
coming on nicely, but I don’t think I’ll be quitting the day
job just yet.

· A two-day mahout course costs $119 (£60) per
person. Contact Tiger Trail (00 856 71 252655; tigertrail-laos.com).

Direct flights to Luang Prabang run from Bangkok, Singapore,
Siem Reap (Angkor), Vientiane and Hanoi. Alternatively, take
the bus from Vientiane (seven hours) or the boat downriver on
the Mekong from Chang Rai in Thailand (two days). Visas are
sold at the airport or at the border.