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We decided to go to Birmingham for the weekend, pretty last minute in the wake of Wolfie's successful exam. We have been meaning to go to more meets and do more touring around the UK this year, as we have felt somewhat detached from the British fandom at large. This saw us visit Manchester two weeks ago and having never gone to a Birmingham Meet before, we thought we would take the opportunity to visit.

The Meet itself was quite good, although it was difficult to meet people as there were a fair number of cliques in evidence. We arrived at around 12:30pm having got the train down from Leeds and the meet was already in full swing with around eighty already in attendance. This number was pretty static for the rest of the day, although the meet thinned out later on (it went on until 8pm which I thought was fantastic - the meets usually end in Leeds about three hours earlier). I must admit I had my reservations about it being in a gay bar, but Sidewalk was pretty good apart from the poor range of drinks, which is so often the main drawback of LGBT establishments. Indeed, in terms of atmosphere it was probably the best meet I had ever been to, although, as I say, it was quite difficult to meet people and we spent quite a while awkwardly waiting for something to happen. It took us about two hours before we got talking to some new furs, and when we did, they turned out to be new too and in a similar situation to ourselves. Some of them were even from Yorkshire in a huge irony. Still, Wolfie's plan of drinking and then just talking at people until they interacted worked later on, and we got to meet a fair number of people into the local fetish scene, which was also quite good as we have already started to plan future events. Alas, due to the inclement weather, the fursuit walk was cancelled, meaning I had to spend my time fursuiting around the bar, largely being ignored by anyone with a camera. I did fursuit with a few of the new guys though, and with a soundtrack of Green Day for most of the afternoon (with a fair number of the younger furs singing along), I was pretty content even if the fursuiting was somewhat limited. We did get some photos outside the bar though, where my head got a little damp due to the rain. The food in the bar was also very well-priced and the place reminded me a little of Baa Bar, the former venue of the Leeds Meet which we had to vacate in the end of 2015. We would certainly like to go back, but I think we will have to make the effort to get to know more people online first. It was quite difficult to meet people initially.

One of the main reasons to go to Birmingham was to sample the local craft beer scene with Vulpecula, who had approached me around Christmas time proposing a meeting. We arranged to hook up at around 6pm, so I headed off to the hotel around an hour earlier, leaving Wolfie in the bar to meet some more furs. Time was tight but fortunately Vulpecula met me in the lobby of my hotel rather than in the bar he had initially suggested so it was less of a rush (even though I was still around ten minutes late). We then headed back to Sidewalk to pick up Wolfie before heading towards the Burning Soul Microbrewery. Time was tight as this place shut at 8pm, but we needed food so we stopped off to get a pie in the Bullring on the way. Then we walked all the way over to the other side of the city and into the heart of an unassuming industrial estate, before entering a grey warehouse which contained the brewery. Vulpecula knew the staff there and upon identifying we were from Leeds, we had a good chat about the craft beer scene in our home city, which was something that Birmingham seems to model itself on. Indeed, across the bars we visited on Saturday night, the high regard Leeds has within the beer community kept coming up, which was rather heartening to hear. Burning Soul very much reminds me of the North Brewing Company near my office, and the layout was very similar. We had two nice beers here, a malty pale ale and a vanilla chocolate stout, while people played pool around us. Everyone was really friendly, sharing table space and the like, and there was a hairy bloke who looked a little like Si King from the Hairy Bikers, which I found quite amusing.

We left just before 8pm, heading around the corner to The Gunmakers' Arms, a former rough pub now next to the Two Towers Brewery, serving as an outlet for them. This was a very small operation and the bar itself very much had a 1970s working mens' club feel, something that Wolfie was quite entranced with. What with fursuiting, he had had about four more pints than I had and was starting to struggle a bit, although he did enjoy the wallpaper on the ceiling and the authentic historic decor. There weren't many people in this bar but the elderly gentleman serving was really nice, telling us all about the history of the brewery, while the ales were pretty solid too. We had a very pleasant pint in here, before heading over to The Lone Wolf bar, which had only just opened two months previously and where you could smell the paint on the wall. This is very much like Foley's in Leeds and they have a nice range of beers, some of which being accompanied by taps in the shape of various animals, including wolves. We grabbed a couple of local beers here, and noticed that they had the new Cloudwater dIPA, version 12 in the fridge, along with some stuff from the Verdant Brewery of Cornwall, one of which I had not heard before. Consequently, we grabbed a few cans to take out before heading to the final bar of the night, Tilt. This is back in the city centre in a covered shopping centre, and the owner admitted that their inspiration was very much the Tall Boys Beer Market in Leeds. The twist here is the 15 pinball machines littered around the bar, which was a very odd shape with a number of little rooms. The toilets were literally miles away, and we were fortunate that they were in the middle of a Vocation Brewery tap takeover, Vocation being a local Yorkshire brewery. We had had their core range but they had a number of special ones on tap too, so we tried a couple of those while chatting to the bar staff. We picked up some more cans here before Vulpecula had to dash off for his train, the last 11:20pm service being as annoying as the 11:18pm bus service back home.

Picking our way back through Birmingham city centre, we noticed the new trams, which had not been there before. Apparently, the extension from Snow Hill to New Street is quite new, and highlights again Leeds's poverty when it comes to infrastructure. As it was barely midnight and it was on our way back to the hotel, we decided to drop into BrewDog, where we were delighted to discover there was a Time and Tide tap takeover ongoing. We grabbed a few beers here and sat down, only for the lady next to us to spill her beer all over Wolfie. She was most apologetic and Wolfie shrugged it off, but it was a sign that perhaps we needed to go. I remember having a rather nice chat with one of the barmen here - who would recognize me on Sunday when we returned, drinking there while we whiled away an hour waiting for our train - so I must have made a good impression. Upon returning to the hotel, Wolfie grabbed a pizza while I just fell asleep, knackered after a rather long day.

What didn't help was being woken up by the fire alarm going off at 8:20am because someone had burnt some toast. We found this out later, but fortunately the ringing dropped off pretty quickly, allowing us a few more hours of sleep. We checked out at midday, deposited our bags and grabbed a roast pork dinner from a local craft beer bar that really just served the mainstream craft beer. The food, a sharing platter for two in a deep metal dish, was delicious though and definitely set us up for the rest of the day. The plan was to go to Walsall to meet up with Kael and his boyfriend, who are both Polish but have lived in the UK for over ten years. The plan was to meet at 2pm so after our dinner, we headed over, making the seemless twenty minute journey over there. I had never been to Walsall before, although Wolfie has been on work, and I found it yet another unremarkable commuter town, although probably nicer than Birmingham itself which has an air of delapidation about it. The interesting thing in Walsall was the range of architecture, with no one building on the main high street being the same. We saw the church which had been converted into a shopping centre that had been opened by Princess Diana months before she died, along with the impressive Guildhall and Town Hall, very much done in the Victorian style. The highlight though was St Matthew's Church perched on top of a hill overlooking the town. The view was slightly spoiled by the corregated iron roof of the ASDA on the left-hand side, but a walk around the church soon alleviated that, particularly on its far side which has a rather unique passageway underneath the alter. You could also see the old town walls too, now forming one side of a Lidl carpark, which they have also plonked some pretentious housing on. After this, we headed down off the hill to a delapidated street which had really suffered in the recent high winds, with one abandoned house apparently having had its roof blown off. We then retired to an Irish bar, where we had a couple of beers and a nice chat about a range of topics. We got on rather well - we had never met before and there is now talk of spending a weekend together with mutual friends - while the barlady admitted that Walsall was not the best place to live but okay to visit. It seemed fine to me as we walked back through the town and towards the station two hours later, with Kael needing to get his car and us needing to get back to Birmingham. Once we did, we picked up the bags from the hotel in the driving wind and rain, before heading back to BrewDog for a few as we waited for our train. At the station, we grabbed some food and saw some cool dogs before boarding the train and heading back after a brilliant weekend.
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It was a rather odd Leeds Meet yesterday as many of the regulars weren't there. This meant it was quite quiet, although we had an influx of a large number of new people from as far afield as Carlisle and Birmingham. This made for a rather fresh and relaxed meet, where it was possible to chat with everyone and there was enough space to be comfortable. I believe that everyone had a good time although the number of people who left immediately after the fursuit walk was somewhat concerning. Speaking of which, I got to fursuit for the first time at a meet in ages and had a great time, largely because we got to go on a number of fairground rides as part of the Winter Ice attraction around the Library and Millennium Square. This saw us hit a minion in furusit before going on a little spinny car thing, which unfortunately a number of us having to get off as we were too heavy. In Millennium Square, we also got to ride a mini rollercoaster, which was about as ferocious as I can personally put up with, before whizzing down a helter-skelter, which was great fun. The staff manning the amusements were great and while we decided to avoid the huge spinny waltzer thing, which undoubtedly would have made me sick in fursuit, it was a fantastic two hour walk. Alas, some people were getting tired so we couldn't do everything we wanted to do, but it was fantastic nonetheless. We even met some of the cosplay crew outside the Library, as they were having their meet too at the same time, and it's fair to say that I have my fursuiting mojo back after being a little apathetic towards it in recent months. Indeed, I can't think of a recent weekend when I have done so much suiting that hasn't been a furcon.

The bar thinned out quite quickly after the meet, and Avon was rather pissed so just walked off home when he felt like it, meaning that by 6pm there was only about seven of us left. A few furs I hadn't spoken to before, including a bird suiter called Navaa, were in this number and we opted to go to Trinity Kitchen as we hadn't been there for about a year. Consequently, the stands had changed and I was delighted to discover a haggis themed one, only to be disappointed by the fact that they had already completely sold out. The same was the case at the place serving halloumi fries, which made me think how bizarre it was to have an eatery place running out of food so early on a Saturday evening. By the by, I ended up with a baked feta and butternut squash pierogi served with coleslaw and while it was a little stodgy, it was very hearty quality fayre and I certainly wasn't disappointed. The coleslaw was crisp and sharp too, making it perfect.

After this, Patter, Stray, Luna, Wolfie and I headed over to the new-look Atlas Brauhaus, which has been modelled as a German style bar, having reopened in October. The range of beer is far less exciting than it used to be, but the snack food of potato and cheese dumplings were delicious, even if the cheese wasn't fully melted inside, giving it an appearance of butter. The beer was largely fizzy German pilsner, which was alright, but they did have a number of their own ales brewed by Stod Fold which were good to try. We had intended to only get one beer here, having to get up early for a charity event on Sunday morning, but alas the times were good and we ended up staying far later than we should have, having an inciteful geopolitical debate in the process.

We got home just after 11pm, giving me enough time to shower before heading to bed, having to be over at Temple Newsam for 8:45am. This was for the annual Bark In The Park event that we do - a sponsored dog walk on behalf of a local hospice. They usually do it across two venues, but had consolidated it down to one this year, meaning it was at least easier for us logistically. We picked up Arcais just after 8am and trundled down there, arriving bang on time and suiting up before many of the walkers arrived. We usually just provide the entertainment but this year they wanted us to go out with collecting buckets. This saw me stand at the bottom where the one mile walk branched off from the three and five mile ones, while Arcais took the entrance. Many of the dogs were quite scared of us and barked, but many of the kids liked the furry characters, including one who hung around for half an hour and wanted to take me home with them. We saw a cute doggo friend being sick on something in his throat, while some others just wanted to say hello, making it a delightful three hours of suiting. The weather was ideal for us, cold but dry, although the ground was a little tacky, which is why we stuck to the paths largely. There seemed to be fewer people there than last year, but we were reassured there weren't, although they had taken over a huge grassy area this time rather than having a smaller stall in the main house area. Either way, it was great fun and we did manage to raise a fair bit of money. After this, instead of going to our usual pub meet, we decided to go over to MOD Pizza in Kirkstall as Arcais hadn't tried it and they offer pizzas with diary-free cheese, which is useful to her. I had only been once before, back in early January, and loved it. It didn't disappoint again as it was exceptionally good - and I like the deli sandwich bar idea but with pizza (even if I did have one of their standard pizzas - chicken, BBQ sauce and blue cheese). Due to other commitments, Arcais needed to leave early afternoon, so we dropped her off back home and have done little for the rest of the day. Wolfie has been revising as he has an exam on Tuesday and I went to the gym. That's pretty much it.
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So a week last Sunday (5 February), I left my friend Paul at Herne Hill, heading to Earl's Court via Victoria, a pretty straightforward journey that didn't take particularly long. Upon alighting at Earl's Court, I crossed the road and found my hotel with some ease, checking in before relaxing a short while, with the need to head back out again not so pressing. I departed about half an hour later, grabbing some food at a local Gregg's as I went, as I was scheduled to meet JM Horse on the steps of St Paul's at 4pm. In the end, I was about fifteen minutes late, but this was largely due to marvelling at the wonderful architecture of this iconic building, not to mention the monument to commemorate the Great Fire of London, which stands like a golden orb in an adjacent square. If this vista was breathtaking, this was nothing compared to the view that is afforded on the sixth floor of a nearby shopping centre, which overlooks St Paul's and gives a stunning panorama of the London skyline. Apparently, this was a public space that hardly anyone knows about and is somewhere that JM comes quite often, and it certainly was a little-known gem.

Speaking of little-known gems, we were soon walking to another - the Guildhall School of Music inside the Barbican Centre. My stepdad studied cello here in the 1960s but the current building dates to 1977 so was built after his time. It is situated in a triumph of urban planning that must have seemed like a good idea at the time but turned out to be pretty bad as the years progressed. The whole area is quite sterile and somewhat soulless. It was meant to be a model village built out of purple bricks, with indoor walkways connecting the complexes and a number of pubs and restaurants scattered about. Many of these are since closed and most of the residences are no longer occupied, but the main stage area is still a hub of performing arts, with the theatre of the Barbican Centre being the centrepiece. There is still a number of fountains adorning the main square, which is perfectly symmetrical, a symbol of the urban planning of that era. Perhaps this is one of the things that was wrong with it - it was just too perfect - but either way it made for some very interesting exploring, with JM admitting that he sometimes comes here to work as it's quite close to where he lives.

As we walked, we talked about a range of things, but travel mainly, which was quite appopriate as soon I was boarding my first ever Boris bike as we were bound for Stepney Green, some ten minutes' ride away. I was a little apprehensive initially as I hadn't been on a bike in about twenty years, but once I got used to the sensitive three-gear system, it was quite a breeze, particularly as the network of cycle lanes insulated you from the traffic. We rode to Tower Hill, with the Tower of London looming on our right before following the line of the DLR, only cycling on actual road for a short while until we found a bicycle rack near Whitechapel Road. It was an excellent ride, albeit a bit nippy in the bitingly cold early February air, but it is such a fantastic system and one I wish would be emulated in other British cities. I like everything about this, from the green bicycle shape light as you are riding to the ability to lock your bike if it's broken, pushing a button to alert an attendant that it needs fixing.

Our first stop in the Whitechapel area was Rinkoffs Bakery, which was underneath a rather sorry looking housing estate but which had been there since 1911, serving the Jewish community in particular. As a consequence, their baked products were of exceptional quality and we were urged to try the crodoughs - half croissant and half doughnut - which were thick and layered as opposed to the lighter varieties to which I am more accustomed. We took three - for myself, JM and Bastett who we were meeting in a pub down the road - with us making the mistake of not eating them until after we had got to the pub, meaning we were eyeing them hungrily as we were drinking our beer. The King's Arms was about ten minutes' walk from the bakery, which gave us more time to chat before meeting Bastett, who was already sat down when we arrived. The range of beer was impressive and I tried another Cloudwater dIPA along with a few other interesting tipples as we chatted some more about a variety of things. Alas, even though it was only approaching 7pm, time was running short as JM and Bastett had to go to a Super Bowl Party, meaning I was largely free for the rest of the evening.

I had noticed earlier in the day that there was a new BrewDog bar in London, conveniently in Homerton which wasn't too far from where I was. As a consequence, I was directed to the nearest tube before waving goodbye to my friends, with me getting to Stratford by Underground and Homerton by Overground shortly afterwards. I had already had about five pints that day and was desperate for a pee, but fortunately I discovered the bar pretty easily so there was no huge crisis. The bar had only just opened and was in the middle of a housing area, which was quite an odd place to choose, although I had been reassured that Homerton is an up-and-coming area. It was quite quiet though, at least initially, but this gave me time to chat to the three guys behind the bar. By 8:30pm, I was the only one there, but things got a little more lively after that when a couple of regulars walked in, including a rather angry looking Scots bloke. They all knew the bar staff though and before I knew it, I was embroiled in conversation and they were buying drinks for me. In the end, it was quite a good night, but I wasn't in any mood to call it a night, meaning that by the time I left, it was past 11pm. I walked to Hackney Wick station with one of my new friends, but upon arrival I was informed by a member of TfL staff that I had missed my last train and that I needed to call a cab. Fortunately, the nice gentleman gave me a number and soon one of the local taxi firms was on hand to meet me. My driver was a rather nice Albanian gentleman and we talked a lot about his homeland, making the rather long drive seem quite short. The price was only £28, which wasn't too bad for a journey across London I thought, although it was an added expense that I could have done without paying. On the way back to the hotel, I picked up some food before heading back to the room with the intention of watching the rest of the Super Bowl. We were already into the second quarter and as I settled down to watch on the bed, I must have fallen asleep as I awoke to the sound of Lady Gaga doing the half-time show. I watched this for a short while before falling asleep again, awaking at some point towards the end of the fourth quarter before switching the TV off. It was a shame that I missed it really as it was one of the classic Super Bowls and having watched the last three, I somewhat lucked out. Still, I had had a good evening so I couldn't complain all that much.

On Monday I had arranged to meet up with Paul at the British Museum at 1pm ahead of going over to Tower Hill for my first work meeting at 6:30pm. Remarkably, I was bang on time, probably as a result of having to check out at midday, and he was waiting for me in the main square of this rather impressive building with its Greek style portico out front. I had never been to the British Museum before, despite being to some of the world's top cultural venues, so this was bound to be a huge treat. I got through security okay and put my bag in the locker room, being charged double due to it being overly heavy, before we had a quick chat about all of the things we wanted to see. I wanted to check out the Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles and the stunning carvings from the city of Nimrud, the remainder of which having been destroyed when ISIS took over the city a few years ago. This made visiting here even more poignant, while the craftsmanship behind such intricate pictures was truly breathtaking. The fact that all of the friezes told a story, and a rather brutal one at that considering the warriors were paid by the number of severed heads they had, made the sight even more remarkable. The same was true of the Parthenon Marbles of course, which had such beautiful detail, particularly on the dress work and the horses' form. It was quite a treat to see them so close up - of course they had been situated just below the roof of the Parthenon originally, which only highlighted the dedication that had gone in to craftwork that no-one was ever destined to see. Paul wanted to see the Mildenhall Treasure, which is a large collection of Roman silverware dating from the fourth century. Discovered in 1942, remarkably most of the items are preserved, including the truly beautiful Great Dish or Great Plate of Bacchus. Weighing over 8kg and with a diameter of in excess of 60cm, this was the outstanding item in the collection, although there were a number of smaller bowls and spoons which were equally intricate. While in this very room, we also got to see the Lindow Man, whose tortured facial expression and twisted corpse was disturbing, particularly based on the knowledge of how he died. Despite all of this, however, the highlight for me was The Rosetta Stone, largely due to my fascination for languages. Seeing this most famous of linguistic tools, which enabled the Egptian hyroglyphs to be deciphered was a real heart jumping moment and I was privileged enough to get exceptionally close to it, just dodging the huge posse of Chinese students who were marching in behind me. These were the main sights and once we had seen them, we were free to amble around the Museum in a more relaxed fashion, taking in some of the lesser-known exhibits. After all, we knew we were never going to see everything so we just did what we fancied. My favourite was arguably downstairs in the African section where there was a tree constructed entirely out of machine guns, while we also got to learn a lot about clothing in that region. I also enjoyed the airy centre of the Museum, the Great Court, with its towering glass roof and stone column right in the middle. The Holy Thorn Reliquary was another exhibit which was a highlight, along with the intricate carvings of the religious nuts depicting a range of Biblical scenes.

We spent about four hours in the Museum in total and barely scratched the surface, such was the wealth of the collections in there. However, we were all Museumed out and it was only half an hour until closing, so we decided to grab our bags before going for a quick half in a local Sam Smith's pub, a place which had retained its fabulous Victorian feel. It was definitely stuck in a timewarp but it was a great way to end my trip with Paul as I was then bound for the work section of my visit to the capital.
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The weekend before last (4-5 February) I spent in London ahead of the biggest conference in my company's calendar, which I was due to attend on the Tuesday. I always try and use this as an opportunity to see friends in the capital, as it is a place I rarely get chance to visit, and with work paying for the travel, it does save on costs. Meanwhile, noticing that Middlesbrough were playing at Tottenham in the late Saturday kick-off was too good an opportunity to turn down. I hadn't been to a football match for nearly two years and not an away day in London for about nine years, which is quite shocking considering I used to go to four or five games a season in the mid-2000s. Furthermore, there looked to be quite a gathering on the messageboards I frequent, with 11 Boro lads from Teesside and London confirmed, so I asked them to get a ticket on my behalf and booked the trains accordingly.

I had to change at Sheffield due to engineering works, but this allowed me to have a fascinating conversation with a Canadian student from SoaS, about a range of political things. We shared similar views on most issues, so it was great to rant about things like Brexit and Trump, as well as have my views confirmed by an outsider who had been subject to the xenophobia which has taken this country alight. Her course in philosophy was also quite interesting, so the two hour journey passed in no time, with us exchanging business cards at the end, promising to keep in touch. I walked her out of St Pancras station before grabbing an overpriced sandwich and a poo, before headng down to Sydenham Hill to meet my friend Paul, with whom I was going to stay the night and with whom I was going to the match. We had just enough time to deposit the bags and take a shower - as well as meeting his daughter, who is now 18 years old. This was a bit of a headfuck considering I had first met her when she had been five or six, highlighting the passage of time as I hit my mid-Thirties. It was great chatting with his partner Carol too, with whom we had a greater conversation once we had returned after the game over some delicious vegan curry which was expertly prepared.

We left shortly before 3pm, with our destination the One Mile Road Brewery just outside of White Hart Lane. The initial plan had been to go to an Irish Centre, but it had been suggested earlier in the week that this microbrewery was opening its doors for away fans and was serving beer and food to the Middlesbrough contingent. They certainly didn't skimp on the accommodation, with the food being catered by the excellent Parm Star, which offers the Middlesbrough delicacy of parmos in a burger bun. The two ales they had on were also delightful and at £4 a pint, reasonably priced for the capital, while I couldn't quite believe that there were around 250 Boro fans drinking craft beer in a microbrewery as opposed to the fizzy lager and dodgy pubs that used to be par for the course when we were doing this ten years ago. We met a couple of the old lads again in the bar, some of whom I hadn't seen in nearly a decade, although as we had arrived quite late, some of these acquaintances were quite fleeting. Alas, we did get to speak to a couple of the lads though, including some Leave voters, which at least added a personification to them as outside of politics they were personally decent people. In a way, this did heal the wounds somewhat, although not enough to assuage the anger completely. Still, this was a football day rather than a politics one and with kick-off approaching, we finished our drinks and headed off, being amongst the last ones to leave as Paul needed to grab his parmo burger before heading off. He was suitably impressed, as I told him he would be as I had tried Parm Star before, at the Canal Mills Beer Festival back in November.

The journey to the ground was through the same dodgy housing estate we had walked through to get to the brewery, but the distance wasn't too far and soon we could see the huge concrete pillars which will form the stadium extension shadowed in the gloaming, with huge cranes towering in the sky to meet the moon. It sounds romantic, but it was just a football match, as our friend Adam, who was the only Spurs supporter amongst us, told us how great their chairman Daniel Levy is. By the by, we walked around the arse end of the stadium and entered, where we discovered that Paul and I had two seats away from the others in our own private row which was nice. It was great watching a match again and the Boro fans were in full voice, while the home fans were muted for most of the match. We sang, we shouted, we encouraged, but we also got frustrated as our lack of offensive prowess was apparant for all to see. In the end we lost the game 1-0 having conceded a soft penalty, but we made their star players - of a side that were sitting second in the league at the time - look quite ordinary. Granted, we played the offside trap well a couple of times in the first half, but our defence was quite strong, limiting them to few chances. It was just a shame that we didn't look like scoring at all in the entire match, apart from one shot towards the end which could very easily have been the equaliser. All in all then it was exceptionally frustrating and I left the ground fearing the worst, with other results going against us and the relegation trapdoor approaching nearer and nearer. Whether we survive is going to be touch and go, but if we are to survive, scoring is a must.

White Hart Lane is in the middle of nowhere, with transport links at a premium. The problem is particularly acute at the end of a match as you have 35,000 people heading towards the limited infrastructure. We opted to walk down White Hart Lane to Seven Sisters Tube station, noticing local bakery Percy Ingle along the way, one of the few pasty shops not to have been taken over by Greggs. In all honesty, this part of Tottenham was a place where gentrification was forgotten, so getting out of here was a priority, which made the wait to enter the tube station all the more frustrating. Still, in the end it was reasonably efficient as after a ten-minute wait, we were allowed on to the platform and got a train almost immediately. We were headed towards Euston and the Bree Louise pub, a bar that hasn't really left the 1950s with its open kegs covered in tarpaulin and bare wooden decor. We had agreed to meet Colin and Adam here, with all of the others having headed back to Teesside on the official coaches, and we arrived about five minutes after they had done, largely because they had told us that the bar was behind Euston station when it was really next to it. We initially started off outside before perching in a corner inside the bar, sharing a rather large table with a hairy bloke and his partner. We had two drinks here, flat real ale type but of reasonably high strength and thus flavour to be interesting, before heading our separate ways, in our case back to Paul's house. It was great seeing the lads again and I had half a mind to go down again at the end of the month for the Crystal Palace game, which is a must-win affair as they are one of our relegation rivals. Alas, the tickets have since sold out but with a £30 cap on all away tickets mandated by the league, at least it's now more affordable and I would like to do another London away day again before too long.

Once we had returned to Paul's, we chatted for a while and watched Match of the Day followed by the Super Bowl preview show before going to bed around midnight, with me waking up at around 9am as everyone had already arisen. I was on an air bed in the living room and so was awoken to the sound of voices and cooking in the adjacent kitchen, with Paul rustling up a fantastic cooked breakfast, which was the perfect way to start the day. We ate with his daughter Grace and chatted for a while before heading out to nearby Herne Hill, which has a farmer's market on the main street every Sunday. This was very interesting as there was a range of high quality local produce, with the food being of particular interest. I had a raspberry version of the Portuguese Pastais which was delicious, while Paul bought some cards from a local craft stall. The market has become so popular that its frequency changed from every month to every week, and it was certainly busy when we were there. It was only up and down one street but there was a surprising diversity of produce, and it was a shame that I couldn't take some of it back with me as it looked so good. Alas, having no access to a fridge for the next 48 hours meant taking the cheese wasn't wise.

After this, we headed to one of the local bars, where we grabbed a couple of local ales, including one brewed in a brewery just down the road. Paul went to their tap room later on in the day, but I had to leave mid-afternoon as I had arranged to meet JM Horse outside St Paul's (via my hotel at Earl's Court, where I intended to drop off my bag). A trip to this brewery tap is definitely on the agenda for a future visit though, one I am hoping to make very soon. We watched a little of the Six Nations as we chatted over our final beer, with my head right in front of the big screen TV so probably obscuring the view for some people. Still, this was the only place with a chair so what could you do? Opppsite from us we saw a dog playing with his owner, and he desperately wanted some cream from a dessert one of this party was having, but he wasn't allowed any. Meanwhile, we both enjoyed our final pints before Paul walked me back to the station, seeing me off as I headed for the furry part of the trip with very happy memories of the last 24 hours and a resolve to visit the capital far more often.
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Sunday was an incredibly lazy day of doing chores, nothing overly exciting, but we did get back in the early hours of the morning after an interesting 24 hour stay in Manchester.

We went over there on Friday night with a list of intentions, but circumstances dictated that we didn't get round to doing many of them. We had hoped to go to a local fetish club called Club Lash, but work overran and by the time we had checked in to our hotel, it was touching 11pm. As a consequence, by the time we would have got to the club (which wasn't in the city centre) the event would almost be over and thus we felt it wasn't worth bothering with. This was a shame as we have been aiming to go here for the best part of two years, and the winter months are always the best as the hotels are more reasonably priced. I was quite disappointed as this isn't the first time that work has interfered with my social life and I feel that things may soon be coming to a head there. All of this made me terribly depressed and the train journey across the Pennines was done in some kind of daze, not aided by my irritation with the uncouth yob who was cutting his fingernails on board, letting the nail shavings descend onto the floor.

By the by, we did end up going into central Manchester and trying a number of bars, including the fantastic Cafe Beermoth in the financial district, which served a good range of beers across their 17 taps. They also had some really nice spicy pork and apple snausage, as well as some blue cheese infused ones, while we also got to sample a newly launched beer called Santa Muerte, a chocolate and vanilla porter. They had a wide range of Mikkeller's Spontan series in the back, but they don't offer takeout, meaning we had to miss out this time, even though there were two beers there that we had not had before. Cafe Beermoth was slated to close at 12:30am and it was thinning out about half an hour earlier, so we departed to go to No 10 Watson Street, another craft beer emporium on the other side of the city. Manchester is deceptively big - bigger than Leeds certainly but with wider roads giving the appearance it's larger than it actually is. As a consequence, we got from one side of the city to the other in about fifteen minutes. Along the way, we just so happened to walk past BrewDog, so we decided to drop in for a beer as they had a few new ones out this week. Alas the Cloudwater collab was out, and the Vermont IPA died as she was pouring it, meaning we had to settle for the new Born To Die offering, which was resinous and perhaps overly dry. While we drank, we played chess, with Wolfie and I pretty evenly matched, although I had to concede as we had finished our drinks and he had a Queen advantage over me (while I still had one Bishop). This partly came about because the bar refused to serve me draft beer at 1:02am even though they were happy to sell takeaway bottles. I've never been refused service in a BrewDog so anally, perhaps it's a Manchester thing I don't know. Either way, we left the bar a little disgruntled, crossed the road and headed to No 10 Watson Street, which was open until 2am but the bouncer on the door said that they had decided to close early as there were so few people inside. Fair enough, so we headed back to the hotel.

We had intended to go to the Manchester Meet on the Saturday, but we failed to set an alarm, meaning we slept in until the early afternoon. We had booked late departure in the hotel, so we could check out at 5pm, and as we had packed a range of fetish stuff, we decided we might as well use some of it that afternoon. As a consequence, we didn't leave the hotel until 4pm and didn't get to the meet until going on 4:30pm after we had grabbed some food at Subway, where we were greeted with a fight between a pissed bloke in a stripy top and a burly bloke as we walked up Canal Street. The pissed bloke then decided to pick on a homeless person before trying to get into the furmeet venue, with the bouncer on the door stopping him. As a result of this, he then decided to phone 999 and insisted he had done nothing wrong, before swearing at the operator on the other end of the phone. Meanwhile, as he was stood between the entrance to the bar and the street, I didn't really want to cross the rubicon, which was just as well as there were a number of furs to talk to outside, despite the grey, cold and damp weather that afternoon. It was good chatting with Skapup again, albeit briefly, while in the end we just spoke with most of the Leeds crowd who had come over. I am not really a huge fan of Canal Street and the furmeet venue in particular after events which happened there eight years ago, so I wasn't overly bothered about missing much of the meet, but in the end I didn't need to go inside as we had an enjoyable hour chatting in the street. I do feel a bit bad that we missed the opportunity to make more friends in Manchester, particularly the ones who had been messaging me on Twitter, but in the end we were busy doing other things and the events on Canal Street that afternoon really didn't sell the Meet to me anyway.

We met Tommah at the meet and he told us he was heading to a local sandwich shop called Northern Soul he highly recommended, so with little else to do we decided to join him with a number of others in tow. Fen, with whom we had arranged to have drinks after the meet, was also there while we bumped into a limping Patter as we walked up Canal Street meaning most of the people to whom I had spoken prior to the weekend were now with us. Enteirah found us in the place, which did some excellent toasties and mac and cheese, with me opting for the latter having had a Subway sandwich just two hours before. Ent's Croque Monsieur was undoubtedly the highlight though as it looked so perfect. The place was a tiny kitchen set inside a deliberately ramshackle shed, with an arched corregated tinned roof and dusty old benches and tables. It was most excellent and a place definitely worth visiting again when next we are in the city. After our meal, we opted to go to the Thomas Street Brewhouse to grab some more ales, with our number decreasing as the evening wore on. In the end, there were only four of us - Patter and Fen along with Wolfie and myself - and so we decided to go to the Port Street Beer House for a nightcap. Well, I say nightcap but it was only 8pm yet Fen and Patter wanted to head home so we decided to go for one final drink before returning to the hotel to pick up our bags ahead of getting the 9:26pm service to Pudsey. It was quite difficult getting a table in PSBH but a troupe of ladies were just leaving, meaning  a booth became available. They were really nice and chatty, with them expressing sympathy over Patter's broken metatarsal, which was the reason for his limping and being on a crutch. It was a nice final drink overlooking an M&S home sense store, but the atmosphere was convivial and we were amongst good friends, friends that we really should see more often. We made a mental note to visit Manchester more often, not least because of its kink scene, which is far far superior to that in Leeds, much to my frustration.

We just caught the train to Pudsey, which was in an absolute state as we departed, with bottles and rubbish littered everywhere. This wasn't the worst aspect of the journey though, as about fifteen minutes in, a group of five entered our carriage, with one of them complaining they had been assaulted further down the train. The guard was very apologetic but this resulted in an hour dissection of the incident, followed by police statements being taken at Halifax, where the train was delayed for about ten minutes. The alleged perpetrators came bundling down the carriage at this station, offering to shake the victim's hand, before they had their date with PC Plod. In the meantime, we just drank beer and watched it all unfold, before resolving to get out at Bradford for one final drink. There were two reasons for this - the early nature of the night (it was still only 10:45pm) and the opening of a new underground complex of bars called Sunbridge Wells. Based in the catacombs under the city, this is a marvellous new addition to Bradford, with five bars of varying types along with a number of small stalls and concessions. I was a little worried about getting our two bottles of beer we had bought from BrewDog in Manchester the night before past the bouncers, which is why we drank them on the train, but they were very friendly and let us in. The first thing we saw as we walked up the long corridor leading towards the main atrium was a nice lady selling pork pies, and she told us about all the varieties she had, including the open top ones she was selling. I went for a regular pork pie, which was absolutely delicious, as Wolfie showed me around the various things inside as he had visited while I had been in SE Asia in December. The main bar was quite loud, but we did have a quick drink there, deciding to avoid the nightclub as that was even louder. The range of beer there wasn't great, while we couldn't get a seat in the 1920s speakeasy either. However, after exploring the warren of stairwells and rooms inside the catacombs, we did notice there was space at the gin bar so we parked ourselves by the door and I went up to order. The guy behind the bar sounded exactly like Luna, but was very knowledgeable about his gins. Wolfie ordered a cocktail called a French 75, not realising there were gins and tonics too, while I opted for a rather dry gin as my first. Later in the evening, we both got a second gin and tonic - Wolfie with a gingery one and me a pink gin with strawberries and blueberries. Both of these were delicious and for £7 each, quite good value. We stayed in the venue until 1am, with the atmsophere comforting yet electric, but the door constantly being left open by people was a bit annoying. The guys behind the bar were all really attentive though and were genuinely interested in our experience, so it will definitely be worth going back. Wolfie and I had a good chat, although a small argument did ruin things slightly, before we grabbed a taxi shortly after 1am to go home.
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The last few days we have been in Madrid for Furrnion, a new Spanish convention held in the outskirts of the city. We arrived on Wednesday evening, with a protracted route from the airport seeing us walk from terminal one to terminal three, pay an extortionate amount to get the metro to terminal four before we could get a C-1 train to Atocha and a C-5 train out of there to La Serna, where the convention was taking place. All in all, it took us nearly three hours and by the time we arrived, the bar was quite desolate. Indeed, after surprising myself by being able to do the entire check in procedure in Spanish, we were told we only had ten minutes left until the bar closed, meaning we had to dump our bags and run there, generating a load of static electricity on the Perspex stairs as we did (this was a serious problem, so much so that someone drew a picture of a fursuiter being electrocuted by the static on his way to the lift). Upon arrival at the bar, we grabbed a drink and saw three obvious-looking furries sat at a table. This trio turned out to be Teal, Pyro and Mipsi from Sheffield, Mansfield and Cambridge respectively, so we had travelled all the way to Spain to see three English people. Apparently they had arrived on the Monday and had made this more of a vacation than we did, while during our ninety minute discussion we also got to see some of Teal's excellent etched artwork he was selling in the Dealers Den. Mipsi had travelled with her mother, who wasn't around that evening, but spoke to us regularly throughout the event. By the time 1am rolled around, we were all needing sleep and so we all went to bed to prepare for the festivities ahead.

Thursday was scheduled to be our touring around Madrid day, with nothing scheduled at the con until the evening. I had intended to get up early but I awoke feeling the most lethargic I have ever felt in my life and I simply couldn't get out of bed. Whether it had something to do with the cold that Wolfie had picked up a few days earlier I don't know, but this tiredness seeped into the other days of the con, affecting my enjoyment of it. In the end I only ended up doing an hour and a half of fursuiting throughout the whole event, even though I desperately wanted to do more. This wasn't aided by my notoriously poor stomach, which was struggling with the rich food and gassy beer, resulting in chronic burping and flatulence. I tried to limit the alcohol intake but at a con with scant few events and a load of friends around a bar, many of whom were Irish living up to the stereotype, it was incredibly tough.

Anyway, we managed to surface around lunchtime on the Thursday and made it into the city centre, getting off at Atocha after a half hour journey on the efficient Renfe suburban rail network. From Atocha, we walked amongst the grandiose buildings up to the Plaza del Sol, the main hub of Madrid and where many congregate. There were quite a number of people in fancy dress here - Mario and Luigi (who kept waving at me and beckoning me to come over), the Simpsons, the exact same Pikachu suit I had seen in Vietnam and a purple dog who mysteriously vanished as we walked around the main sights of the square). Speaking of the sites, there was an impressive statue of King Carlos III on horseback pointing towards the old red post office building, a wonderful architectural triumph that used to be the head of secret police in Franco's time. On the pavement outside there's a bronze plaque marking the zero point of reference from which the nation's road system is based. On the other side of the street there is also a statue of a bear shaking a tree, the symbol of Madrid, while the Tio Pepe neon sign is as famous here as Piccadilly Circus is in Britain.

Our next stop was just a short hop away, Plaza Mayor, where we saw an obese Spider-Man shouting at passers by before beguiling an elderly Chinese tourist. There were a few more of these street performers here in this beautiful palazzo type square with an undercover walkway around its perimeter with a number of small shops and cafes. There were four policemen on horseback in the centre of the cobbled square which some kids took an interest in, while we also took in another man on horseback statue in front of the stunningly painted exterior of the old bank I believe which formed the centre point of the northern part of the square.

As we departed from the entrance opposite to that through which we had arrived, we noticed that the obese Spider-Man had moved and was now near us. I tried to sneak a picture but to no avail. Just outside the square, we stumbled across the Mercado de San XXX, built in wrought iron in 1913 and now an incredibly popular place for local workers to have lunch. The range of fresh local produce here was quite remarkable while there were some tastes from around the world too such as from Italy and Japan. With fresh fish, charcuterie, and other produce on display, we had to walk around a good four to five times just to decide what we wanted. As we did, we narrowly gatecrashed the recording of a Spanish TV show doing a feature about the place while we were also accosted by a nice lady offering some good value wine, which she allowed us to sample before we bought a glass. Alas, with just €50 notes on us, we couldn't really buy too much (we got the wine on credit card), but the salmon and cream cheese bruschetta was particularly tasty and it was great perching by the window (it was the only free space, all the tables were full and we got moved on once by the wine lady who said we were blocking us) and looking out on the world with glass of wine in hand.

The unfortunate thing is that due to the lack of food, the glass of wine went straight to our heads, so we decided to stop off at a tapas place opposite the Cathedral, which was going to be our next stop. Here we got a nice platter of meats and cheeses on bread, 12 different ones to share and two beers all for €17. There were some the same so we could have one of these each, but we did have to rearrange some of the others so we both got to try everything. It was here that I learned about the pathetically small Article 50 notification bill and Jeremy Corbyn's three-line whip on it, none of which surprised me as it was all so sadly predictable.

The next stop was the Cathedral, quite a modern affair, having been consecrated n 1993 by the Pope John Paul II, whose statue stands outside. It has a Neo-Gothic interior albeit one with a modern twist, with chapels in a contemporary style. The stained glass windows were particularly striking, and some were in a modernist more jagged design not too dissimilar to the pop art movement. Aside from this, it does look and feel like an older church, with the only giveaway amongst the towering columns and arches being the shininess of the stone used in the construction. The roof and friezes are particularly striking, in resplendant bright colours again showing their youth, but it is the impressive vault with its 16th-century image of the Virgen de la Almudena which is the definite highlight. To reach this, we had to go around the corner of the church and underneath, which was different to the usual staircase inside affair that has been the case for the churches we have visited in the past.

The Almudena Cathedral is right next door to the grand Royal Palace, which was unfortunately closed for five days, four of which coinciding with our trip. There was a line of people waiting outside the ticket office for some reason but it never opened, meaning that we only got to look at this marvelous building through the wraught iron gates. Started in 1734 and opened in 1755, the Palace is not too dissimilar to Buckingham Palace, although it is not used by the King as a residence, just as a place for state ceremonies. The golden clock was probably the most striking aspect of the building while behind us we got to see the wonderous view of the dual bell towers of the Cathedral towering above us. This view was far better than that through the wooden fence which bordered the edge of the square separating the Palace and the Cathedral, which threatened a breathtaking view but only really gave us a tree poking out of a grey patio. There were a few slit-like holes cut into the wood and we thought we would get a fabulous vista, but in the end it was only concrete slabs.

The good view came later on, when we went to the park surrouding the Temple of Debod, an ancient Egptian temple that looks a little bit like a 1960s housing estate sculpture. Sounded by a rather antiseptic pool, this temple was rebuilt in Madrid after being dismantled near Aswan in 1968 when the Aswan Dam threatened its preservation. Indeed, at the time, a plea was issued to save the monument and the Egyptian government donated the monument to the Spanish after their help in saving the Abu Simbel temples. The reassembled gateways have been placed in a different order than when originally erected and it was opened to the public in 1972. The initial construction was started in the 2nd century BC, with later kings adding to the complex. The park itself is high on a hill overlooking the Palace, thus affording a very good view of it, along with the valley below. This is a good place to go traffic watching, particularly as the park was quite quiet due to it being a rather bitterly and surprisingly cold January day. While we walked over here, we saw a street performer dressed as a llama or something. She beckoned me over and when I put a euro in her hat, she started moving her neck wildly and snapping her jaws in a delighted way. It was quite a pleasure to watch, and definitely worth the donation. On our way to the Temple of Debod, we also had a brief walk around the modest English country garden style gardens of the Palace, which were set deep below the actual building itself.

Another park we visited was across the road - the Plaza de Espana, which sits in front of two of the tallest buildings in Madrid. Here stands a rather impressive statue of Cervantes, which was built between 1925 and 1930. The main tower part of the monument largely consists of a stone sculpture of Cervantes overlooking bronze sculptures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on horseback, with two representations of his true loves next to it, Aldonza Lorenzo and Dulcinea del Toboso. The fountain also acts as a water feature meaning once you climb on to it, you cannot get all the way around, which was a little irritating. Aside from this, the park is rather modest, with little else to recommend it.

By this time our feet were aching and Wolfie needed a drink so we stopped at a McDonald's due to the lack of anywhere else quick. With a Coke slurped and a rather peppery Quarter Pounder with Cheese nommed, we headed back down Grand Via, the city's main theatre district, admiring the grandiose architecture as we went before heading to the Fabrica Maravillas, one of the local microbreweries and one of the most highly rated. Alas it wasn't slated to open until 6pm and it was only 5:35pm so we had to wait a while. Not fancying just hanging around, we headed towards Irreale, the other craft beer bar recommended to us in a blog post I had discovered. On our way, we noticed a traditional Spanish pub with a Brewdog and Kernal Brewing sign outside but we opted not to go in as we can try these beers anywhere in the U.K. Literally next door to this establishment there was an off license, and the beers near the front door grabbed my attention so I dragged Wolfie in. The lady behind the till was very accommodating and even showed us the secret beer den downstairs where there was one gentlemen sat drawing on paper, with laptop open, enjoying a bottle. The lady was alone in the shop so couldn't accompany us, while it turned out the gentleman was from Gothenburg and had an extensive beer knowledge. We chatted about booze for a while, telling him of our great trip to his home city in late 2015. Indeed, we told him about a range of bars he hadn't heard of before, largely due to not living there for over ten years. He also recommended another bar to us - The Stoych Cafe - along with some beer bottles to take home, which we did when we called back later in the evening. All of this meant we had three bars to try and we started with Irreale, the one furthest away, and also because Stoych wasn't open when we went past.

There were fourteen beers in Irreale, five from Spain, and with a tasting tray of four each, we asked the nice lady behind the bar to choose the best ones. In the end, she gave us the fifth one on the house, while it was interesting to note the number of British beers on offer, including Yorkshire's own Magic Rock. The bar lady was clearly American and it turned out she knew Castleford as she once had a former boyfriend from the region. She was delighted to hear we were from the region and talked with us extensively, before serving the numerous other people who had started arriving, turning the bar from a quiet place (we were the first customers) to a packed establishment by the time we left. Our next stop was Stoych, where we were in luck as there was a tap takeover of exclusively Spanish beers on. With sixteen to choose from, we randomly got guidance from a Slovak man sat near the bar, who had popped in himself to get the handful of beers he hadn't yet tried. His recommendations were excellent, particularly the chocolate vanilla one, and we did enjoy our time in this airy yet traditional with rather long bar with wooden fittings and a red tiled floor. The final stop, Fabrica Maravillas happened after our return to the off license, where the nice lady had been replaced by a hairy man. We bought four beers for the room before going to FM, with the visit largely necessary due to my weak girl bladder and my bathroom needs. It was a good stop though, with the beer freshly brewed on site and we had a nice surprise as Slovak man who we had spoken to earlier was serving behind the bar. I didn't place him initially, meaning some awkward backtracking when he asked what I thought of the beer, but he didn't seem to mind and told us a lot about the beers in his bar. They had six, and we sampled just one, concluding that we should head back to the hotel to try and catch some furs before the bar there closed at 11:30pm. It was already 9:15pm and we were a good hour away so we downed our drinks before heading out. We were going to get some more bottles but the barman had gone and we didn't want to wait, which turned out to be a blessing as we struggled in the end to drink the ones we already had. So we headed back to the hotel having had a nice amount of beer, opting to use the metro instead for convenience. We got back with an hour to spare ahead of the bar closing but there weren't many people there - just the trio from the previous night plus Ferret and Nall, who we spoke to extensively during our stay. We had missed the group trip to the supermarket earlier in the evening and in hindsight this was a mistake but at least we got to have a nice conversation with some cool people. Wolfie went to bed just before midnight while I stayed up, facilitated by bumping into a few others in the corridor of the fourth floor of the hotel as the lights had gone off. We got this sorted but through the adversity we met two Galician furs, with whom Mipsi shared an impressive basket of strawberries. Sat in the corridor, I was a little scared we were disturbing people but no one seemed to mind, so we kept chatting for a while, going to bed shortly after 2am.

Upon our arrival, the hotel had been transformed into more of a con space, with signs up indicating the directions of things and some huge vinyl images on the glass panels of the revolving door. This gave a sense of excitement as I awoke on Friday morning, missing the opening ceremony due to chronic tiredness and only registering at 1pm. As we were sponsors (and the sponsors olé exclusivity had already passed) this meant we could go straight to the Dealers Den, which was its usual collection of artists and Fursuit makers. Teal, who had been misnamed Teaf throughout the conbook, was there so I said hi, saying I would buy stuff on my return to the U.K. Mipsi's mother was desperately trying to sell me a green tail, saying it was definitely my colour, even though I'm a pink pup and have five tails already. We also popped into the rather modest Art Auction adjacent to the Dealers' Den, where there were only three pornographic entries and about thirty overall. There was a mix of good stuff and less good stuff, and there was no surprise what sold well and what didn't in the auction itself. Aside from this, with the con schedule pretty light, it was a largely chilled day although we did go to Koltas's "Your First Furry Convention" panel for a laugh, which just turned out to be exaggerated stories about WUFF and a huge drinking session as he bought beers for everybody. We walked in halfway through and he noticed Wolfie immediately, giving him a hug but not seeming to notice me, with my presence registering about thirty seconds later. We both got a free beer and we contributed by talking about WUFF, meaning that it turned into a wonderful way to meet the Irish furs, with whom we were going to spend most of the con.

The other event we did on the Friday was the snack exchange, with us bringing sherbet, licorice, Haribo and Marmite. Teal had brought some stuff too but fortunately different things so we set up a British table while the Irish brought TayTo crisps and a range of other goodies which were clearly British and not Irish such as Cadbury's chocolate. They had quite a lesaiz-faire attitude to proceedings while we laid ours out quite delicately, even sampling some stuff as we did. Meanwhile some of the other goodies were great, particularly the Spanish ones as the hotel supplied a large amount of tapas. This made me regret not bringing haggis, which I feared would be difficult to heat up, particularly when I got to try the goat stomach stuff which had exactly the grey appearance, undulating texture and strong offal taste you would expect. The most popular thing on our table was probably the Marmite, watching people's faces as they say they hate it while reaching out for more was brilliant. Trying to explain this to inquisitive Spaniards was tricky as it's such a unique thing, while at one point the only Chilean in attendance stole it and spent a good half hour walking around with it. It was good with the local breadsticks and at least he did give us some local chili dips to try. Meanwhile the food kept on coming - flan and cake from Spain along with a range of other food such as marshmallow while there was also a wide range of meats and cheese on crunchy bread. It was here that we got to speak to the Irish furs and learn more about the community there, done over a packet of cheese and onion TayTo crisps. I remarked that the mascot on the front looked like Mr Benn, tweeting this later only to get a response from the real Mr Benn talking about letting himself go. It was very well-played and caused great hilarity as we sat around one of the large tables drinking and chatting. Wolfie had gone to bed and the karaoke was in full swing, with a number of furs doing their best to murder good songs with Uncle Tom by David Bowie particularly bad. As everything was running late for some reason (the lack of events overrunning surely made this impossible), the disco didn't really happen and in the end I ended up in Alexander's room drinking blue vodka stuff and chilling with the Irish furs. It was a great way to end a great evening but the lethargy soon caught up with me and with an early Fursuit walk the next day, I felt 4am was late enough for me. Apparently the party went on until after six.

Our tiredness meant we didn't get up for breakfast, like we didn't throughout our entire trip, but we had bought some bread, cheese and meat (and more beer) at a local supermarket the day before so it didn't really matter. I managed to grab a sandwich before groggily clambering into my fursuit, getting downstairs just before noon and in time for the walk. It was a rather short affair, going around the hotel largely, including two flights of stairs so we could walk through the desolate tent that was later to become the gaming area. At least when we walked up the perspex stairs in fursuit, we didn't get static shocks, while the walk around the Dealers' Den was particularly good. The fursuiter guiding the parade largely spoke in Spanish though, which made it a little difficult for us non-native speakers. Saturday was also Open House Day, where members of the public could officially come along and join in the fun, so there were a number of children around along with some anime cosplayers. They quite enjoyed the parade of around fifty fursuiters or so, and in the end we wandered outside around the hotel, congregating in a concrete area out back where the group photo was to take place. It was here, then later inside the fursuit lounge, where I hooked up with the six Irish fursuiters, who wanted a group photo of their community at Furrnion. I was also invited to take individual pictures of my own, which was rather fun, while in the interim we just talked, with Shirodragon, a blue female dragon fursuiter the one I spoke to most, along with GerMANShep, who seemed to be the lead organiser of the group. After this, I wandered around the hotel for a bit before desuiting around two hours later, culminating what was to be my only time in fursuit due to my chroncally bad stomach which was like evisceration throughout the entirety of the con. I do regret the lack of suiting, particularly because my fursuit got a lot of positive feedback, but I simply struggled with the pain.

After showering and chilling, we wanted to grab some food, but were accosted on our way down by GerMANShep who was about to conduct a panel on the Irish language. This started quite late due to technical issues but soon there were about twenty of us in the main panel room learning about the three key words in Irish (man, water and dog) along with other gems such as 'please may I go to the bathroom'. GerMANShep insisted that after his not particularly intensive course we would be able to speak more Irish than 80% of Irish people, while the Irish themselves in the crowd were just chipping in and generally taking the piss. It descended into something farcical quite early on, and in the end saw us introducing Father Ted and Balamory to the handful of bemused Spaniards who had also wanted to learn Irish. While all this was going on, Swifty was buying jug after jug of sangria largely to appease the two greedy fursuiters up front, one being Talon and the other being a lady I only know as Daddy's Cummies girl as she kept talking about Daddy's Cummies throughout the con (whatever that means). After about 45 minutes of fun and general pointlessness, we disgorged, smiling at the farcical nature of the talk and at this point we headed to get food. We walked towards the McDonald's, in the opposite direction to the supermarket we had visited the day before, hoping for something better than fast food but the tapas bar didn't serve substantial meals and the pub next door had no bugger in it. So McDonald's it was, but it was quite a find as we had the Signature Menu range which was basically a posh burger served on a thin wooden tray, with the fries in a little bucket. We had to use the touchpad self service machines to order, which was confusing as once you had paid, a little card was deposited and it wasn't clear what you had to do with it until we were told it was a little GPS tracker and we should sit down. We both got the Smokehouse burger, which was pretty nice, but nowhere near as good as the perfection that is a Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Still, food was food and at least we had eaten.

The rest of the evening was a mixture of chilling in the room and drinking in the bar, although I struggled to get into it due to my stomach and lethargy. I was trying to limit drinking so I opted to go into the art auction, where I ended up bidding on a small €10 piece, largely out of sympathy as no-one else was putting their hand up. To be fair, it was quite a nice souvenir piece, and it certainly didn't deserve to go unclaimed. Quite a large number of items did, with Swifty, who had had a lot of sangria by this point, feeling really sad that some of the items weren't selling at all, urging me to place more bids (while interestingly not putting any bids in of his own). He, along with GerMANShep and a few others, was waiting for a Little Red Riding Wolf image to come up, which had been labelled as not for sale in the art auction but figured it may be as it actually was there. In the end it wasn't, with many of the final items going unclaimed as they were the rather fantastic door decorations and signage and the like, which was far too bulky for the majority of us to take back. The auction lasted about an hour, with the dual language situation making it a rather disjointed experience, before tipped back into the bar for some more drink. Alas, by this stage I just wanted to head to bed, which was upsetting as I had tried to remain reasonably sober so I could fursuit at the disco. In the end, it wasn't to be, as Wolfie and I shared the final few craft beers alone in our room with the thump of the disco music tantilisingly playing down below. It was frustrating not being there, but I simply couldn't hack it, which meant it was a rather disappointing end to the convention for me.

I had arranged to meet my work colleagues on the Thursday, but as it turned out, one of them had flu meaning we had to rearrange our meeting to the Sunday. This meant that I had to get up quite early, not only to meet them for lunch but also to pick up the artwork I had bought at 11am. This I did before joining the Irish furs for a brief five minute discussion about Donald Trump's immigration policy, with the need to pack and check out of the room meaning I had to cut this conversation short. At 12 noon, we headed down to the lobby, with us dropping our bags behind the reception as our flight wasn't scheduled to leave until 9:35pm. We then rejoined the Irish furs for a few minutes before I had to catch the train into town, leaving Wolfie to spend some time in the hotel before meeting me in the city centre later that afternoon. I was in luck as there was a train pulling into the station as soon as I arrived, meaning I got to Atocha with half an hour to spare, enabling me to see the beautiful architecture of the Prado Museum, the Plaza Canovas del Castillo fountain and the stunning white neo-classical building on Plaza de Cibeles upon which there hung a 'Refugees Welcome' banner. This is the Cybele Palace (City Hall). Walking through the January drizzle to see this was far more preferable than taking the Metro, so I am glad I did it, and it was just as well as I arrived at my destination, the closed down market on Fuencarral bang on time. One of my colleagues was there to meet me and he took me to a nearby tapas restaurant, Lateral, where we bought a drink and waited for the other two to arrive. This didn't take long and soon we had an enjoyable meal over which we talked about a range of things. The food was delicious, with the lentil soup, the bacon croquettes, the brie and chicken bruschetta and the cream cheese wrapped in salmon being particular highlights. For dessert we grabbed a melon compote with four spoons before heading over to a cafe-cum-burger bar where we had a gin and tonic to round off the afternoon.

The meeting lasted three and a half hours before the trio needed to head off, leaving me with not enough time to get back to La Serna. Wolfie thought I was meeting him back at the hotel so he was not happy, although I did take my rucksack in case of this eventuality so I am not sure why he was so surprised. Anyway, apparently most of the furs had taken a siesta and he was sat on his own, which is why he was a little down, so I told him to get to Atocha station early so we could head to the airport promptly. This is what he did, with me meeting him at the station about forty-five minutes later (once he had rang me to confirm the Spanish on the ticket machine for him). It was just as well really as getting to the airport required a change at Atocha and with no Metro Line 8 running, it being closed for renovation for three months from Thursday (so it was fine the day we arrived), we had to get the bus service from Terminal 4 where the train dropped us off, to Terminal 1 where we needed to be, which ended up being a good ten minutes' drive away. We chekced in smoothly and ended up having a lot of time in the terminal, so we grabbed a steak from the Urban Grill concession and followed the news, watching in interest as the number signing a UK Parliament petition on Trump's state visit kept going up and up and up quite swiftly. This gave me some hope about the future of the UK, meaning boarding our plane and heading back wasn't quite the chore it usually is, although the ridiculous customs queue did dent my hope, particularly as we saw a war of words between two sets of dickheads started because one guy was wearing his sunglasses in the terminal building. With the persistent drizzle that so symbolises Britain descending over Manchester, along with a very late trip back to Leeds which didn't see us get home until 1am, it's fair to say I have had better homecomings but at least we had some good memories of the con, even if it wasn't everything I had hoped it would be.

lupestripe: (Default)
Wednesday 14 December

Defago had to work on the Wednesday, but told me that we could meet late afternoon. This meant I had most of the morning free to explore the rest of Vientiane, deciding to start the day at around 10am with a trip to Patouxai, a rather triumphant arch at the northern end of Lane Xang Avenue. Looking a little like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Lane Xang is very much the Champs-Elyssees of Vientiane, dating back to a time when the French colonials were here, building the city. Indeed walking north along this street as I did, you can see a number of old colonial style buildings, while on the eastern side of the road there are a few temples and markets, which I will come back to later. Having not had any breakfast, I stopped off at the local convenience store M Mart, only to discover that the only sandwich of interest they had was pulled pork that looked quite like cavity wall insulation. Consequently, I just grabbed some crisps and went on my way, with the large brown concrete arch coming closer and closer into view. It definitely looks a little like the Arc de Triomphe although the masonry at the top is definitely more of an Asian style with its trio of turrets. In the base of the arch, there are four columns inside which vendors sell a range of goods, from tat to food and drink. The ceiling is adorned with reliefs of Hindu deities - Rahu eating the Sun, Indra, Brahma and Vishnu, adorned in gold on a rather pleasant sky blue hue. Up close, the structure does have an element of being unfinished, but the climb to the top for a nominal fee does afford excellent panoramic views of the city and so was definitely worth doing. One of the reasons why it appears unfinished may be because the Communists chipped away at some of the Hindu iconography that was symbolic to the former royal family, with the name changed to Patouxai (VIctory Gate) at this time. The original monument was built in the late 1950s and is quite a good use of space. You climb up a dingy spiral staircase, the only light coming from ciruclar portals with images of gods carved into them, which usefully block most of the light from coming through. Halfway up, there is a huge hall dedicated to market stalls, with vendors selling a baffling array of tourist tat before you get to the top, with its 360-degree views of the city. There are four small stupas up here and a central complex, which again contains more tourist stalls and a final spiral staircase right to the top. There was a small school party of children up here when I went, making conditions somewhat cramped, and to take a photograph I had to put my bottle of water down. Due to the lack of space, I accidentally knocked it off the staircase and onto the floor below. It landed with a heavy thud, with a shocked security guard somewhat unhappy by the disturbance of the solitude. Fortunately, I wasn't in trouble but I did fear it for a while. This allowed me to take in the views with greater ease, and it was fascinating looking out at this rather compact city from all angles, seeing it sprawl a little to the north but stop dead at the river to the south, beyond which there lies Thailand. I also got to see the Presidential Palace, which is on the soutern side of Lane Xang Avenue. This was the best view I could get really as the palace is closed to visitors, while there is a huge gray metal barrier erected across the front gate, assumedly because they are repairing it. This meant that this vista was probably the best I was going to get of the building, built in the French Beaux Arts-style by the former colonial power. Today it's used for government ceremonies.

After this, I headed back down Lane Xang Avenue on its eastern flank, darting further east when I saw an interesting golden portal adorned with naga dragons with a Buddha sat atop with a striking red background that took my fancy. There is much gold in Vientiane due to the Buddhist temples and it glistens profoundly in the tropical sun. It turned out I was heading towards Wat That Foun near the UN compound, with the diplomats using the temple grounds as a car park. There was a range of impressive structures here, largely whitewashed walls with stunning golden roofs with intricate carved detail. I also saw two temples being built here, with the concrete shells before they were painted on display. This was fascinating as it was a glimpse at how these wonderful buildings are constructed. Furthermore, outside one of the more impressive temples, there was a frieze on either side of the entrance, one detailing the benefactors who had contributed to the construction of the temple and the other detailing the temple itself. It looked old, but it had actually been built between 2010 and 2013 at a cost of just over £200,000. This altered my perception somewhat, as many of the temple constructs look like they had been there for centuries, but clearly the vast majority of them had been relatively recent. It was a testament to just how important religion is in Laos, like we had seen in Georgia the month previously with the number of churches they were building. I ambled my way around here for half an hour, enjoying the solitude of the grounds as there were very few people about, before leaving out of another entrance, turning right and rejoining Lane Xang Avenue further down. My next stop was just a short walk away, the indoor morning market of Talat Sao, which was set back behind the main road, slightly shrouded by more modern developments. The market had a strong 1960s concrete feel about it, and there were many vendors there selling a wide range of things, from pens (one of the brands had a logo which was a horse's head coverted into a pen, which was freaky) to flat screen TVs and everything in between. The market was on two levels, but very few shops were open on the top floor, with rows upon rows of jewelry sellers in particular shuttered down. It was a good market though from the point of view that I was never pestered, meaning I could bimble along at my own pace taking in the sights and sounds. It was moderately busy, but not overly so, although I didn't stay too long as I didn't want to get lost in the labrynthine nooks and crannies of the place. Interestingly, to get out, I had to duck under a large metal pipe which was placed near the entrance, but duck I did, emerging into the bright sunlight which took some getting used to, due to the lack of windows or anything inside.

The next stop was the charmingly neat Wat Sisaket, built in 1818 and completed ten years later. Destroyed by "the foreigner" as the entrance signed proclaimed and rebuilt in 1935, it's a charming square containing a small temple on its southern side. Around the periphery of the square there is a covered walkway in which there are many identical stone statues of Buddha. In the walls themselves, there are little arched nooks within which contain more statues, while there were also a few other wooden items on display such as the hang hod, which was used for water blessings, it being a long trough carved in the shape of nagas. There was also a stele there, which details the construction of Wat Sisaket (which was then called Wat Satasahatsarama) while there was also a stone carving of a horoscope on the date construction began, Thursday 4 March 1819. While I was walking around, I noticed a couple getting some professional photographs taken. They were both dressed in seemingly traditional garb, with the gentleman having a sword and the lady in a dark blue and gold kimono-type dress. I am not sure whether they had just got married, or whether they were starring in a show or something, but I thought the courteous thing to do would be to get out of their way. I think it was here where I popped into the temple and noticed one of the monks teaching a couple of students, so I bobbed out pretty quietly and headed over to the aforementioned Presidential Palace, sneaking a view of the pastel green building as I best I could before heading to the museum of Haw Pha Kaew next door. Haw Pha Kaew used to be the king's personal Buddhist temple, dating from the mid-sixteenth century. However, it was destroyed by the sacking of Vientiane in 1828 and rebuilt by the French. It now houses the modest museum of art and antiquities, an ragtag collection of largely Buddhist artefacts which have no labels in any language other than Lao, making it all rather confusing. With no guide either, it was very much a case of looking at some random objects with very little context. The exterior of the building is arguably its strongest feature, with the gold leaf on red background particularly striking. The wooden doors and windows were ornately carved and the level of craftsmanship was exemplary. It was quite peaceful walking around the pagoda, shoes off of course, but the splendour of the exterior wasn't really matched by the inside which was rather drab. The temple is named after the Emerald Buddha (Pha Kaew), which was one of the most scaared icons in the country. Pilfered by the Siamese in 1779, it currently resides in Bangkok and I am not sure whether or not I have seen it there. The bronze Buddhas are probably the most impressive sight in the museum even if some of the inlay decorating their eyes and navals has been removed while the Buddha in the beckoning rain position with its jewel-encrusted naval was one of the most priceless arefacts there. Dominating the room was the wooden naga throne, which was highly decorated and once was a pedestal for an image of the Buddha while an elaborate candleholder was also present and dominating this rather small box-like space. To be honest, I got around it in twenty minutes and so left pretty swiftly, stopping to catch the bronze statues of a kowtowing boy and girl on the lawn outside.

With the time approaching 1:30pm and thus around the time Defago said he would be free, I had just enough time to walk along the river to Chao Anouvong Park. It was quite desolate, with only a couple of people skating, meaning I got the perfect view of a rather impressive fountain containing a number of naga dragons around a central larger dragon. The dragons around the exterior were all staring at the narly dragon in the middle, who had quite a gob on and looked somewhat scary. Behind this, looking out towards the river and Thailand beyond was the statue of Chao Anouvong who led the Laotian Rebellion against the Siamese and was the last king of the country from 1805 to 1829. With sword in one hand, his arm points out towards the Thais in a symbol of defiance while it is also interesting to note that he was the king who completed the construction of the previously mentioned Wat Sisakat. Along the base of the statue there were rows of donkey and elephant statuettes, placed there by various devotees one presumes although I am not sure of the purpose. There was also a man sleeping by the base of the statue and he looked up at me, nodded and thenwent back to his slumber. There was little else in the park aside from a trio of attractive Spanish tourists, who spent a little time at the statue before heading into the city centre. I followed them, walking back to my hotel via Nam Thou Place, with the fountain now switched on and looking quite resplendent. I grabbed a small sandwich from M-Point Mart along the way before heading back to the hotel to have a flop on the bed.

It turned out Defago was somewhat delayed, meaning I managed to have a quick snooze before heading back out into the city and around the corner to the Lao National Museum. I only had about an hour, which wasn't really enough to get around it, resulting in me having to rush the last four rooms only to discover I had been locked in and I had to find the nice attendant to let me out. It is rather dusty, with a drab Victorian feel to it, along with the feel of it being obviously state sponsored. Set in the former maison of the French resident superieur, the museum details the history of Laos from the neolithic period to the present day. There is quite a teleological feel to it, with everything culminating in the "inevitable victory" of 1975, with the final rooms dedicated to the perfect state and the perfect national character, which was fascinating in itself. The language used to describe foreigners, particularly the French, was quite strong while the Thais and Burmese were labelled "fedualists". The Japanese and Americans were also given a thrashing, with black and white photographs detailing the horrors of World War II and the overspill from the Vietnam War. Many of these incidents were depicted in paintings on tapestry, with the scenes clearly embellished for political purpose. In one section there were black and white photographs of "National Heroes" but there were no explanations so I couldn't find out what they did. The bronze frog-drum was the definite highlight of the museum, dating from ancient times and being one of the first things you come to, while the Khmer sculpture of Ganesh was another exhibit which stuck in the memory. The transcription on wood of a traditional Lao folk song was also of interest, particularly due to my love of language, while the collection of golden Buddhas locked in a wrought iron cage were not dissimilar to those I had seen earlier in the day. Anyway, I had to skate through this quite quickly and another fifteen minutes or so would have been preferable, but it was worth the trip and I was glad I had made the call.

I went back to the hotel again at this point, to discovere that Defago would soon be on his way. We met at around 5pm, just before sunset, and headed out to the west of the city where some riverside restaurants were. It was quite busy down here and in the fading light, we opted to grab a beer and go down to the beach to try and catch the sun falling. Unfortunately, it was already quite dark by this point so there wasn't an awful lot we could see, although seeing the lights of the restaurant terraces above us and those in the distance of another nightlife area was certainly fascinating. There were only a handful of people on the beach so it was rather quiet, although it was interesting that as we were going down, the vast majority of people were coming the other way. Once it had got fully dark, it was quite disorientating and we thought it best to get back onto the shoreline and have a wander. We stumbled across one of the night markets along the promenade, with a number of identical red tents snaking their way along the pavement, with the vendors inside selling a range of goods. The market was quite popular and we had to push through the crowds on occasion, although usually there was enough space for a gentle stroll. The market sold a range of things but primarily clothing, although I did manage to pick up a number of souvenirs including a little pink squirrel keychain for about £3 and some delicately created paper pop-up cards of some of Laos's key tourist sights. While walking, we also stumbled across a little fairground game, where you had to throw three darts at a wall of yellow balloons. The aim of the game was to pop three balloons with three darts, which sounded easy but it was easier said than done, even from a nominal distance of about 3m away. More often than not I burst two balloons rather than three, meaning I didn't get a prize, although it was great fun participating for a while.

The rest of the evening was made up of eating and drinking. Our first bar was Chokdee Cafe, the only Belgian beer bar in Viantiane and very popular with the small ex-pat community in the city. Indeed, the vast majority of people there were not local, but I was surprised by the sheer range of beers they had available, both on tap and particularly in bottle. Many of these bottles were displayed in the entrance where ghekos were crawling all over them, looking all sweet like ghekos usually do. We grabbed a meat platter here along with the beer and chatted a while, just drinking in the charming atmosphere and the warm night air. We then headed back to the car, stopping off at a little sweet stall that Defago knew well. Here they served a range of fruit-flavoured jellies in bowls of coconut milk. The jellies were made from a range of different fruits and were displayed similar to an ice cream trough you would get in an ice cream parlour in Europe. Most of the fruits were unidentifiable to me, so I asked Defago to pick out three for me to sample. Served with ice, which added a crunchiness to the creaminess of the milk and the smoothness of the jelly, the dish surprisingly worked and I would be lying if I said I didn't fancy more.

After this, we got back to the truck and headed to a burger bar that Defago knew. Burgers aren't particularly popular in Laos, and we occupied only one of the two occupied tables here, but the burger was exemplary. It was here that I got to meet one of Defago's colleagues, a Danish guy who had lived in the country off-and-on for about fifteen years. He was really nice and soon we were headed over to the last stop of the evening, Wind West, where there was drinks aplenty and live music from some very talented musicians. You could request any song you wanted and they would play it for you as part of their mammoth two-hour set, and there was a range of Laotian and English songs. The ambience was fantastic and the acoustics really amplified the music, although the price of the beer was rather steep. I made something of a faux-pas as I accidentally spat my beer out at the Danish guy when Defago made me laugh, resulting in embarrassed apologies from me. He left soon after and I hope I didn't offend him, while Defago and I stayed for another beer before slipping out shortly before 11pm. He drove me back to the hotel, where I grabbed a final beer from the hotel bar before heading back to the room after another long but wonderful day.

Vientiane

Jan. 20th, 2017 11:31 pm
lupestripe: (Default)
Tuesday 13 December

I flew into the capital of Laos, Vientiane, with Defago, a local fur I had met at FURUM and with whom I had arranged to travel during my five-day stay in his country. Unfortunately, the only cheap flight meant having to get up at 3:15am, a time not aided by the fact that Kuala Lumpur Airport is so far away from the city. Defago had booked a taxi for me the night before, which was just as well as everywhere was desolate, with the only life coming from the hotel reception staff. I checked out and fortunately didn't have to wait too long until my ride showed up. The rain was pretty heavy but the traffic on the motorway was light as we rushed towards the airport. In all honesty, I probably should have booked the taxi half an hour earlier as we were cutting it fine, but fortunately we got there with some time to spare, and after a rather pleasant conversation too. Defago was quite easy to spot at the airport and once we had done the customs and check-in thing, we had a quick bite to eat at Burger King before boarding our plane.

The flight was largely uneventful, but as we had booked at different times, we were sat in different places. The advantage of this was that I could get some sleep, even if I was wedged into my middle seat by a rather large Chinese gentleman. Upon disembarking at the other end, I had to join the queue for a visa, for which I had to pay the princely sum of $35 in crisp bills. Fortunately I knew this in advance and had some. The visa system was rather efficient, although there was time to speak to a rather charming 50-something American who was doing some teaching in the northern hilly region of the country and a batshit crazy German spiritualist who kept lamenting about how "sorry she was they were losing us" in reference to the Brexit vote. I had travelled halfway around the world partly to get away from this and the number of times it cropped up was amazing, but I managed to express my ire and lament myself, wishing that I had moved to Germany six years ago when I had the opportunity. Anyway, now wasn't the time for regrets.

Defago met me on the other side of customs and we had soon collected our bags. We met his brother, who had brought a rather large pick-up truck, inside the airport terminal and after introductions, we emerged into a wonderfully sunny morning as we made our way to the car. The drive into the city centre was quite short, around fifteen minutes, meaning I was soon outside my hotel, the Day Inn on Pangkham Road. This bright and airy place was quite cheap but unfortunately I arrived at around 9:30am meaning it was far too early for check-in. Defago had headed off, arranging to meet me in the early afternoon and thus giving me a few hours to kill. The hotel were kind enough to let me leave my luggage at the front desk, freeing me to have a wander around this rather compact little city for a couple of hours. It was a nice day after all and I didn't really have much else to do. I could have gone on one of the ubiquitous tuk-tuks or jumbos, but I tend not to trust these things when abroad, and the city was so small that walking it was pretty straightforward. Consequently, I turned right and headed towards the river, ignoring the pleas from the various drivers to hop on board.

My first stop was Nam Phou Place, which is effectively the heart of the city, marked by a large fountain. It wasn't operational the first time I was there, but later in the day when I walked past it again, it had come to life. There was a range of eateries and bars around the fountain, of varying quality in all honesty, as well as the Ibis Hotel which I didn't even realise they had. This wasn't my main interest though as I wanted to walk around some of the wats, remembering some of the fantastic temples I had visited on my trip to Bangkok seven-and-a-half years earlier. I visited a good number that morning - Wat Mixai, Wat Hai Sok, Wat Ong Teu, Wat Chanthabouli and Wat Inpeng from memory - and each one had similarities but also subtle differences. Most of the wats weren't temples but complexes containing a range of buildings, some of which being important religious buildings. The sim is usually the grandest structure, adorned in gold and beautiful paints, although it was interesting to see in some complexes that buildings were being constructed and that they were mostly made out of concrete. You would have thought they would have used a better material, but the bright colours and breathtaking artistry puts our use of concrete (see Coventry as an example) to shame. A number of the complexes contained separate towers, no less ornate, with a bell or gong while there were also more functional buildings which were used for teaching. Inside Wat Mixai there was even a girls' school, with a number of girls of around ten years of age running around playing. It was interesting to observe that each student had their own unique identification number sewn into their uniform (white shirt, blue dress) above the right chest pocket, which I guess is a part of the state-run system they have there. Unfortunately for me, the naga dragon, a long snake-like serpent is a very strong feature of Laotian Buddhism and so there were dragons adorning most of the stairways up into the buildings. In some places, there was rather scary statues of three or five-headed dragons which really freaked me out, while in a couple of complexes I got to see the gravestones of some of the local families, which are golden pillarboxes standing near the walls. As is common, I had to take my shoes off to go inside the temple, but I was often unsure where I could or could not go. Not wanting to offend, I only went into places where there already shoes planted outside and where no teachings were taking place. This didn't work all the time, but the monks I saw were all very kind, just walking around the temples in their orange robes largely oblivious to my presence. The same was the case for the surprisingly large number of European tourists, a good chunk of which were elderly men with younger local women, but there was a healthy backpacker contingent too.

Walking from wat to wat was a pleasant way to spend the morning, and there was a large number of beautiful trees and plants in full bloom. Defago had recommended a cafe, the Cafe Perisian, as a place to get a coffee but I was too interested in the sights to bother with that. The temperature was a relatively comfortable 28C with little humidity, while the city had adopted a pleasant charm which didn't make it feel much like a capital at all. Indeed, the centre is really only centered on around six streets in a largely gridiron system so navigation was straightforward, and by the time I headed back to the hotel just before lunch, I had seen a good chunk of Vientaine already. Upon arriving back at the hotel, my room was ready, so I checked in and headed upstairs, with a porter showing me the way. The room was bright and airy, with a nice view out onto the road and the rather classy looking restaurant beyond it, and upon discovering that Defago was running ever so slightly late, I flopped on my bed and had a quick snooze. I awoke about twenty minutes later, discovering that Defago was on his way, and soon I was back in the pick-up truck and being driven to a popular lunchtime eatery near his work out in the suburbs. Call Pho Zap, it specialises in Laotian cuisine and I had a pleasant local version of pho which was far less spicy than its Vietnamese equivalent. There was a dark paste on the table which accompanied it, rather strong tasting and bit like rotten farts, so I didn't eat much of this concoction. Defago was quite a fan though and lapped it up. With my meal, I got a bottle of the ubiquitous Beerlao, one of the country's main exports and a beer you can get pretty much anywhere. In the UK, you can get the basic variety but in Laos there were a number of other fizzy lagers they produce including the smoother Beerlao Gold, which was largely my beer of choice throughout the trip. It did make a nice accompaniment to the meal and after it, once we had managed to sort out a lack of water in the workings of the pick-up truck, we headed out of town and past the Beerlao factory on our way to the Buddha Park.

The Buddha Park is around 25km out of Vientaine and the further you go from the capital, the worse the road gets. Indeed, it becomes very potholed very quickly, which is quite a surprise as it leads to one of Laos's major tourist attractions. On the way, we called off at a little spa/hotel resort which had clearly seen better days. It was set by the Mekong River which forms the border between Laos and Thailand, and indeed you could see Thailand on the other bank. A major destination itself around fifteen years ago, it has slowly drifted into decay, with the naga dragon fountains and sculptures set in the woodland looking a little forlorn (if not slightly terrifying). Speaking of terrifying, there were two rather aggressive-looking ostriches in a cage behind some Lao writing, assumedly meaning don't feed the bastards, while there was also a charming Mad Max aviary containing peacocks and a paltry selection of other birds. In this small complex, which was just to the side of the hotel area, there were statues commemorating Laotian myths and Buddhist allegorical stories, but Defago's knowledge on this wasn't particularly strong and so he couldn't really tell me much about them. There was also a concrete stage, rather sad and disused now but with masonry which reflected a grander time, before we stumbled across a truly bizarre collection of dinosaur sculptures which were somewhat out of place. There was also a couple of huts, examples of traditional Laotian housing, but as we couldn't get into them, we couldn't really see much.

The weird sculptures kept on coming at Xieng Khuan, the local name for the Buddha Park, as there was a collection of baby dinosaurs set at the front gate. Set in parkland adjacent to the river, the Buddha Park is effectively a collection of ferro-concrete sculptures which have no real business being together. There are a large number of Buddhas, including a reclining one which is 25m in length, while our friend the naga dragon made a number of appearances too along with every conceivable deity in the Hindu and Buddhist religions. Created by Luang Pou Bounlena Soulilat in the late 1950s, a man who claimed to be the disciple of a cave-dwelling hermit from Vietnam, it is quite a mess of a place but fun to walk around for an hour. There was no guidebook so I was largely looking at a range of concrete sculptures with no real context, but the madman behind the perimeter fencing who was playing his flute for donations added a nice ambience to everything, although he was quite scary once we started talking to him. It was a shame the Park didn't employ him full-time really as he did add a pleasant feel to the place. Anyway, the highlight of the Park for me was the giant pumpkin/alien spacecraft structure with a dead tree sprouting on top of it, which greets you to the right as you enter the complex. You enter the structure through the gaping mouth of time and you can explore representations of the "three planes of existence", hell in its belly, earth halfway up and heaven at the top, which leads out to a ledge upon which you can see the entire Park and the river beyond. We met a nice American guy here, who was worried about fitting down the spiral staircases contained within, but upon noticing that he and I were "of similar size" he was happier with it. Most of the interior was quite dark as there were only small windows in the structure, and this made the hell section full of sculptures of tortured souls somewhat disturbing. Still, this was probably my favourite bit in this labrynthine turnip largely because it was where the most was happening.

After the trip, we headed back to town, calling off at a roadside cafe to pick up some delicious sugar cane juice in a green plastic bag with plenty of shaved ice. It's a common way of serving it here. We also picked up a spicy local salad and some grilled meatballs and sausage in an unctuous sweet sauce. Sat by the river, looking over to Thailand and eating street food with a friend was one of those seminal moments in my life, very similar to the Georgian experience I had had a month previously. I felt very lucky to be there and it was an excellent snack, while I even got phone reception from Thailand, making sending text messages three times cheaper (so I sent a message to my mother). The lady serving us the food was very friendly, so we prolonged our stay somewhat, before we headed to the duty free shop at the Friendship Bridge, one of only three border crossings into Thailand from Laos. It was very much a standard duty free place, but we did spot some local rum in handy 75ml bottles, so we bought one traditional and one coconut flavoured one to try later in the week. After this detour, we stopped off further down the road to take in the huge operation that is the Beerlao Brewery. It employs many people and we could see a number of lorries delivering freight to and from the factory, while Defago was telling me that it was quite common for trucks to line up down the road waiting to be filled with beer to be exported all around the country. As I have mentioned previously, the ubiquity of Beerlao was quite surprising as most restaurants stock it, while the company even do standardized yellow signs for the bars which offer the beer, the only difference being the name and details of the bar, which is written in red writing. We stood outside for a few minutes before making our way back to the hotel, calling off at the odd pyramid stupa That Dam which was situated on a roundabout in the middle of the road parallel to where my hotel was. It is an inverted bell shape, like an unopened lotus flower, and is called the Black Stupa, with legend saying it was once covered in gold and guarded by a seven-headed dragon. The tale says the gold was taken in the 1820s during the Siam-Laotian War although others say it went in 1828 during the sacking of Vientiane. Due to this, it's quite a forlorn and unloved structure, sitting unkempt in the middle of the road. This gives it an odd atmosphere as there are a number of good restaurants around it, along with a wine shop. It is still regarded as the city's guardian spirit too.

I was dropped off back at the hotel after this, needing a shower and a rest before our planned evening out. Craft beer isn't a huge thing in Laos but there are one or two places, and knowing I am a fan, Defago drove me slightly out of town (again towards the Beerlao Factory) to Core Beer Brewhouse, a microbrewery specialising in their own brews. They only really had an IPA and a Witbier but both were very pleasant, although I doubted their full commitment to craft due to the huge neon Heineken sign above the bar. And of course Beerlao was there too. We grabbed some food here - a miscellany of sausages, rice and salad - as we sat in the corner and enjoyed the live band and then the rock music which was being played. Unfortunately, they ended up playing a whole album by the same band which was far less diverse than Defago's excellent playlist which had accompanied us in the pick-up truck as we drove around (seriously, he got me into the new Green Day album through this - I bought it when I got home) and after a long day and an early start, we soon left, getting back to the hotel by 10pm. From memory, I think we were going to be joined by one of Defago's friends, but he couldn't make it, which precipitated our early departure, but judging by how tired we were, this was probably for the best. It was good to end it here as we had another long day in the morning, suffice to say that it had been a very good first day in Laos.
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It's been quite a busy week of socialising really, with an event on Tuesday and a further one this evening.

Tuesday we headed over to York to see Oracle. He usually heads over to Leeds but we had kept meaning to try the new BrewDog bar in the Minster city so we decided to head over there for a change. We arrived about half an hour earlier than we had expected, meaning we had to spend a bit of time killing time eating pork pies at the railway station but Oracle turned up just before 7pm and we ambled over to Micklegate to get some food. We went to Jinnah, a curry place I had frequented a few times and one with a great diversity of cuisine. I tried a spicy version of a korma along with a luscious garlic naan and while my curry lacked quite a lot of meat and the large vine leaves got in the way somewhat, it was still quite delicious. After this, we headed over to BrewDog, a cosy but rather large bar with a range of 14 beers on tap. The names are hung up on clipboards which was rather a nice touch, and upon arrival we were greeted by two of our barmen friends from Leeds, what with the York crew being off on their belated Christmas party. We grabbed a sample tray - in this case containing three out of four BrewDog beers, a rarity as we had never tried them - and chatted in one of the corners, being put off slightly by a smoochy couple who were snogging every five minutes on the table next to us. This soon started to grate and I kept saying 'Phil Collins' in an annoying voice in an attempt to put them off, but alas to no avail. After Theresa May's devastating Brexit speech on Tuesday, and the turmoil that this now presents for me personally and professionally, it was good getting out for a few hours and it was certainly calming catching up with a good friend.

Today was Adia's birthday so we joined her and Soma, as well as Taneli, at Stockdales steak restaurant in Leeds city centre. The last time we had gone here was my birthday in 2015, 14 months ago, and we had the same waiter again, someone we both recognized upon being shown to our seats. This time I had the wagyu sirloin steak with dripping chips and gravy, along with a shared bottle of excellent Italian red, and it was delectable, if slightly expensive. Still, you get what you pay for, and it was certainly worth it, but the cheeseboard afterwards was the real highlight with a range of seven local cheeses and artisinal crackers. The waiter gave us a free glass of wine once we had finished our bottle and we ordered another one after that such was it's cherry and blackcurrent fruitiness, while it was a fundamentally delicious meal with great company. Last time I went, I was a little drunk so it was great experiencing it in pure sobriety and although it was sad that everyone left early, after three quarters of a bottle of wine, it was probably for the best. We tried to go to Ham and Friends, the new wine bar run by the Friends of Ham people but for some reason it was closed, even though I had seen people in there before and we were told it would be a December opening. Anyway, one for next time, so we just headed home, getting back to the house before 10pm after a great evening. The only other thing to note was my brief trip to Shuffledog beforehand to write Adia's card, which included one of the finest poems I have ever written. Perhaps she will tell you one day.
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Thursday saw Funky Fox come around, largely in an attempt to resume our anime nights. I have been woeful at watching anime of late and really should get back into it, which was one motivation for having him around. We saw two in the end - Hunter x Hunter and Poco's Udon World - two animes with very different plots but with a similar style of warm humour that I quite like.

Saturday was largely spent with Arcais Panda, who we picked up just before lunchtime. The plan had been to drive to Yorkshire Sculpture Park but Wolfie's iPhone took us a weird and wonderful way out of Bradford meaning we were pushed for time what with the early dusk. Arc wanted to take us to The Oil Can Cafe in nearby Holmfirth, home of Last of the Summer Wine, and having had nothing to eat, we decided to call in. The place is an old shed and is full of classic cars and motorbikes, while the theme is vintage 1940s with little wooden shops selling habidachery and Union Flag bunting laid everywhere. Attached to the hoists of the ceilings were rows upon rows of bicycles while the popular little cafe at one end served a range of British staples. Arc recommended the hot roast beef sandwich with gravy and chunky chips, and it certainly didn't disappoint, particularly with a splash of mustard. Service was perhaps a little slow but it was a pleasant place to while away an hour, with the range of automotive paraphenalia on the walls of considerable interest.

After our food, we had a wander around the classic cars parked up, spying some interesting black animal sculptures made out of oil drums and the like. We also had a look at the workshop area which was sadly quite bereft of cars, with things coming into full force during the summer months no doubt. After this, we decided to walk into town, which was about fifteen minutes away along the riverbank. It was quite a pleasant walk, with the weather gloomy but not overly cold, although there were some icy and muddy patches in places. As we went, we talked about something and nothing until we reached the town, which had a surprising diversity of bars and restaurants. I really wanted to go to one, but Arc and Wolfie but their feet down, although we did get to go to the Longley Farm ice cream shop, a company whose yoghurts I remember eating as a kid with my school dinners. Here I grabbed a mint choc chip and a white chocolate ice cream, which was incredibly delicious and a nice snack to eat as we walked back to the car. Where we had parked, it was just outside one of Arc's friend's houses so she popped in for a chat, after she had fed some ducks crumbs from her ice cream cone. We weren't outside her friend's house for long though as we needed to head back as the plan was to call at a supermarket to pick up some food before having a vegan feast back at home.

Arc is having a vegan month and offered to cook some food for us, which turned out to be fried halloumi wraps with aubergine raita and lettuce, served with lime and coriander cous cous and baked crunchy chickpeas. The raita gave the wraps a little caustic taste which I didn't particular enjoy, while I didn't even realise you could bake chickpeas, which was a new taste sensation for us. The food was lovely, which we had picked up at ASDA, where Draken had met us and while we were eating, we watched a few episodes of Don't Tell The Bride, playing our usual bingo game to see if we could predict what happens in this rather formulaic show. It was great being sat around chilling with friends and a nice relaxant after another week of stress, and once we cracked the gins out, things got better and better. Arc and Draken have started dabbling in mixology and got a gin spice accompaniment for Christmas to go along with their extensive gin selections. We tried three gins in the end, with different spices and tonics added to each depending on the flavours of the gin. I am really getting into gin, so much so that I downloaded the Ginto app to keep a track of all the ones I had tried, and it was definitely a rather sophisticated yet communal way to spend the evening. After this, we chilled upstairs, demonstrating a few bits and pieces in the attic and taking some photo memories of the day.

Sunday was a largely quite day as Arc and Draken hadn't left until about 1:30am. This meant I surfaced quite late and we pottered around the house a little before heading down to the Brew-endell Beer Festival at the Brundell Social Club in LS6. This was the fifth annual edition of this small festival but the first time we had ever been. I knew about it last year, but we were in Preston for Sterling's birthday so we couldn't go. We were in two minds as to whether this would be any good, but free entry meant it was worth a shot and we rocked up at about 6:30pm after being rather unfortunate with buses. It was very much a social club, with a main bar and two additional bars opposite serving the festival. There were about 32 keg beers and a further 20 craft style ones, but the menu suggested an element of rotation as over 100 were listed. As we were there in the final hours, entry was free but it did mean less choice, although there were easily enough beers here that we hadn't had before, particularly from Scotland and the rest of the world. Interestingly, they had a few unique local brews as well as a couple which are rarely seen outside of the United States, so we did enjoy a good five or six over the course of the evening. Usually, they have a good range of craft just behind the bar, making it the best social club I had ever been to, while they also had Pieminister pies, which were excellent with the drinks we were having. It was a very delightful evening, even if Wolfie did spend a lot of it on his phone, and while we had a bit of a weird argument at the end on the subject of what is or is not sexual, it was a good night indeed. It's just a shame the social club is a good twenty minute walk from our bus stop, in one of the suburbs. Still, the beer festival is a very good additon to our schedule and we will aim to come back next year, even if our heads feel a little delicate today.
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Taking a brief break from writing about my SE Asia trip to talk about last Friday night, which saw us go down to Sheffield to say goodbye to Ferdy, who is moving to New Zealand for a year.

We headed down to the Iron City after work, opting to book a hotel as we didn't know what time festivities would finish. There was a plan to visit a Turkish restaurant but with proceedings starting at 6:30pm and us having no hope of getting there by then, we realised that if the meal was prolonged, we would have little time to see everyone before having to head back on the train. This turned out to be a very good decision as in the end we were out until 2am, pretty much leaving when the clubs closed. Also, with Wolfie and I being delayed by work, we didn't get down to Sheffield until nearing 8pm so staying overnight was definitely a good option. We drove down for convenience so decided to stay at the Sheffield Metropolitan Hotel, a funky little place that was very cheap, probably owing to the fact it was the first Friday after New Year. We were upgraded to a business suite and it was very pleasurable.

With a little time to kill as everyone was finishing their meal, we headed to Pizza Hut, largely because we don't have one in Leeds anymore. I had forgotten how good their pizzas are, and with unlimited salad too, we certainly packed adequate soakage for the drinking ahead. We also got to try one of those cola dispensing machines that add a dash of fruit to the mix. These are often pretty hideous but my raspberry one was quite nice. I mentioned drinking but in the end we didn't have very much, largely because Wolfie was on call, meaning that we had to limit our intake. This also meant I kept buying low-strength beers, so we were actually pretty sober throughout.

We met everyone in BrewDog at around 9pm, with just Ferdy, Nineleaves and Kunzai being the people we knew. A lot of Ferdy's family were out plus we also got to meet her husband, who is a boisterous football fan so we hit it off quite quickly, particularly as he spent a lot of his time ribbing a Newcastle supporter who was also one of his friends. There were three beers we had yet to try in BrewDog so we sank those, while I snuck away to buy Ferdy the only New Zealand beer they were selling, a ribbed bottled beer from Tuatura. She drank it a few days later and said it was delicious. As we were drinking our final sample, people had headed over the road to The Old Inn, a more traditional beer house that was sadly playing loud boom-boom dance music. We headed over there after we had finished in BrewDog and it was a little too loud for me, with forming a conversation quite difficult. They tended to serve real ale too, which was nice enough but lacking the flavour of craft, while Nineleaves and Kunzai were clearly frustrated about the lack of being able to talk. It was also quite rammed, so after this we headed over to the newly remodelled Devonshire Cat, along the way singing 'Nigel's a cunt' to the tune of Pigbag, which may have been a little immature but somewhat cathartic.

In the Cat, we sampled a few Abbeydale beers in shock with the fact they have trendifyied the place, sticking the bar right in the middle of the room. It does seem to have less of a craft beer and more of a real ale focus, which is a shame, but then the Abbeydale brew master was in and perhaps it was just a tap takeover. With Wolfie not wanting to drink any more, I moved on to the cocktails, trying a bramble one and a creamy one containing egg white, which surprisingly worked. We also had some monkey nuts as they had no other snacks, with us leaving discarded shells all over the tables. Alas the time soon came to say goodbye as Ferdy and her husband still had a lot of packing to do ahead of their flight out on Sunday, so we said a teary farewell before they headed off, with the four of us (Wolfie, Nineleaves, Kunzai and myself) heading back to the hotel shortly afterwards for some sleep, walking as Wolfie's painful foot which had inflicted him on the way up to BrewDog had now cured itself due to the alcohol.

Saturday was largely a day of hanging around before heading back to Leeds in time for EF registration at 7pm. We nearly didn't make it due to a lorry carrying haybales on the M1 catching fire but we did get back which was something of a relief. During the day, we just potted around really, in the first instance waiting for Nineleaves and Kunzai to check out as they had thought you could leave by noon when it was actually 11am. We moved our car around from the hotel carpark to a nearby Q Park before taking a walk by the River Don as this was part of the city I had not yet seen. To be honest, there isn't much down here and we ended up in a little cafe run by a Moroccan family, who served us delicious tea and cakes. The lady behind the counter was really friendly and we noticed the rows of tagine pots on display, so we know where to come when we want a tagine in Sheffield. Nineleaves and Kunzai met us here before we walked towards the city centre to check out the Peace Gardens and the interesting museums it contains. Many of these have a Sheffield theme, with the history of metalwork one being of particular interest. The range of items sculpted out of steel was quite wonderous, from the functional such as cutlery and a dog-shaped knife to more ceremonial pieces such as a punch bowl and commemorative cups to symbolise the millennium. There was a lot of focus on the apprentices they were training in metallurgy while another exhibit detailed all of the high-tech industry that Sheffield now manufacturers, disproving all of those people who complain about Britain's lack of industry these days. High quality bespoke manufacturing is where it's at, and it was good to see this weaved into the narrative of how Sheffield developed off the back of metalworking. Another exhibit was effectively a shrine to the philanthropy of a Victorian gent but I didn't spend too long in here as I needed the toilet, spending quite a lot of time engaged there.

We were waiting for another fur to arrive from Chesterfield, who ended up being about two hours later than advertised, prompting us to get our own lunch. We initially tried Head of Steam but the BBQ meat didn't appeal, while the nearby restaurants were of a similar vein. Kunzai didn't want to walk too far so we ended up in The Graduate, a standard pub with pretty standard food. I had a mac and cheese burger, which didn't quite work as the mac and cheese was a little too bland, while I got a Fuggle Bunny ale that was far too proud to be British for comfort. While here, we had a nice chat while watching Manchester United v Reading in the FA Cup Third Round on television. After this, we met up with the other furs and ended up in Nosh, a little coffee shop where I had a white hot chocolate, which is sadly rarer to find than you would think. It was delicious but conversation was a little stilted as everyone was obsessed with Pokemon Go. Consequently, we didn't stay too long here and we made our excuses, with the remaining quartet heading for sushi and us heading home.

It was a great weekend and it was sad to see Ferdy leave, although we are hoping to visit her and her husband soon. I do hope New Zealand goes well for them and I'm looking forward to hearing about their adventures.

Hanoi

Jan. 10th, 2017 11:52 pm
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The airport in Hanoi is a long way from the city centre, with the journey taking nearly an hour. Fortunately, I had pre-arranged a pick up with the hotel, meaning that there was someone there to meet me as I got off the plane. The guidebook had warned me about scams regarding taxi drivers from the airport and so I felt this was the safest option. The driver was friendly enough, and it was great to watch the sun descend over the city as we approached it. The closer we got to the centre, the more manic it became, with the streets getting narrower and the traffic denser. The number of motorbikes in particular increased but this was definitely more of a car orientated city than HCMC. The Spring Flower Hotel, where I was staying for two nights, was pretty much right in the downtown, shrouded by trees and motorbikes so hard to see. The lady at the check-in desk was nice and the friendly porter walked me to my room, where I unpacked, relaxed for half an hour and opted to explore the local area.

It was around 7pm and I had arranged to meet a handful of local furs in the morning. Consequently, I had the rest of the night free and not fancying an evening on my own in the room, I thought I might as well look around. There was an interesting looking walking tour of the Old Quarter in the guidebook which took in most of the major sights, so I joined it halfway as this was the most conveinent based on the location of my hotel. As I was walking, I noticed a larger number of tourists than there had been in the south, with many of them frequenting the lively bar joints around P Hang Bo. There was also a not insignificant number of older Western gentlemen with young local women. In the dark, perhaps the walk wasn't as good as it would have been in the daytime but I did get to experience a flavour of the city, particularly around some of the markets which really only come to life at night. Alas the most eclectic and biggest covered market, the Dong Xuan Market, was closed but at least I did get to see the Cua O Quan Chuong, the well-preserved Old East Gate of the city which was perhaps a little Arabic in style and lit up in a warming yellow light. As I was walking around, I did see a number of blacksmiths still hard at work, making things like mirrors and tin boxes for the tourist market. As was often the case in other cities, each craft had one particular part of the city and I also saw some herb merchants as well as shops selling toys and silk.

One of the highlights was the St Joseph Cathedral, built in the neo-Gothic style and inaugurated in 1886. It's humungous facade which soars into the night sky over a charming little piazza containing a statue was breathtaking, with the twin bell towers and centred cross above a clock defining its form. Alas the Cathedral wasn't open but it was certainly worth a visit as it was the most discernable attribute of the French colonial period in the country. Another highlight was the area around Hoan Kiem Lake, the body of water that sits pretty much bang in the centre of the city. In the middle of this there is an island upon which sits the Ngoc Son Temple, meaning Temple of the Jade Mountain. To get there, you must cross a scarlet bridge constructed in a classical Vietnamese style, but alas by this time of night both of these were closed. They were lit up rather fabulously though while the nearby Martyrs' Monument depicting a woman with a sword and two men holding guns and a torch was a poignant memorial to those who died fighting for the independence of Vietnam. Being a furry, of course the frieze of a tiger near the Temple's entrance was the thing that grabbed me most.

Crossing the road, I then walked past the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre, which was described by the guidebook as containing performances most akin to 'Punch and Judy In A Pool'. The art of watery puppetry, or roi nuoc, is over one thousand years old but has only really travelled outside of northern Vietnam over the last fifty. Believed to have been invented by rice farmers who saw the potential for the water as a stage, or during a time of flood, the farmers carved water-resistant human and animal puppetds from the timber of a fig tree and staged performances in lakes, ponds or flooded paddy fields. These days a tank of water about waist-deep in depth is used with the glossy painted puppets being 50cm long and weighing up to 15kg. Puppets can last for about four months if continually used and indeed creating puppets is a good livelihood for many northern Vietnamese villagers. Eleven puppeteers are involved in each performance with training taking three years, with it very much being a family business. Some puppets are attached to poles while others float on the water, with the darkness of the auditorium making them appear magical. Live music also accompanies all of this, and it really would have been great to see, but alas it was late and the place was closed. Next I headed towards the temple at house 102 but it was down a dark alleyway and I was somewhat scared to go in, despite it being marked by a large rainbow tapestry hanging from a lamppost outside.

After this, I was feeling somewhat peckish and being unable to find the restaurants the hotel had recommended to me, I headed back to the drinking area to go to a bar that served beer from the Pasteur Street Brewing Company. This wasn't quite a branch bar but they do run in close cooperation, so I grabbed a pint of a beer I had not yet tried in HCMC as well as a platter of local Vietnamese meat and cheese, along with some local jerky. It was all rather delicious, with the variety of cheese being quite a surprise, and it was a relaxing way to end my day. I had actually seen the bar as I had walked past on the walking tour, but as there had been no-one in at that time, I decided to make an excuse about money, promising to come back later. When I did, which was when I ordered food, there was a group of American backpackers sat at the table in front of me, recalling their travelling experiences quite loudly. Normally this would have annoyed me, but their tales were actually quite exotic, if only because they had gotten involved with things that perhaps they shouldn't have done. Still, sat on my own in a bar, their tales were quite amusing and it passed the time as I waited for my food to arrive. After I had eaten, I toyed with having another beer but the early start was really starting to take its toll and the rowdiness of the area was starting to grate. It was one of those places where restaurant owners pestered you to come in as you walked past, and it was teeming with locals and tourists drinking while sat on plastic chairs on the pavement. The atmosphere was quite stoked, with loud music eminating from a number of clubs, and it was all a little much for me in my tired state. As a consequence, I headed back at about 10pm before grabbing a shower and going to bed ahead of a full day ahead of me on the Thursday.

Can Tho II

Jan. 8th, 2017 11:36 pm
lupestripe: (Default)
Wednesday 7th December

The Floating Market takes place at 5am every morning apart from the three days of Tet (effectively Chinese New Year). There are a number of them on the distributaries of the Mekong Delta, meaning we had to hire a boat to take us there. This had been sorted by M Wolf the night before, but it did mean an impossibly early start, with me stumbling out of the hotel, bleary-eyed, at around 3:30am. We were due to meet fifteen minutes later so I aimlessly wandered around while I waited. There were very few people about - an old man who looked at me in a weird way and the local council rubbish collection clearing the streets after the night before. With 4am coming and going, and with no sign of M Wolf or his friend, I was starting to get a little concerned. A bloke turned up and vaulted over the locked gate which led to a jetty which was used for boarding one of the party boats. Next to it, in the shadow of the larger vessel, were a few small motorboats and it was one of these that we were going to be using. Indeed, this gentleman, who spent the next ten minutes spitting into the river and smoking, was going to be our captain and he was quite a nice chappie. By the by, my friends turned up nudging 4:15am, which was a little annoying as I could have had an extra half hour in bed, and soon we were clambering on to the unstable wooden boat. We were given a lifejacket, which didn't fit me due to my cavernous belly, and soon we set off, skimming along the water and through the darkness, travelling about 8km to the site of the market. On the way, we saw the numerous hotels on the river bank while we also traversed under some bridges, which had a considerable amount of traffic on them considering the early nature of the hour. This wasn't too surprising though as the Vietnamese consider a lie-in quite slothenly, with many starting the day incredibly early.

Speaking of early, we arrived at the market about twenty minutes before it was due to open, and just as the day was dawning. Consequently, we decided to get breakfast at one of the waterside cafes which dot the river. Called Kim Xuyen, they only serve four dishes (Bun Nuo'c Leo Soc Trang, Hu Tieu Mi, Hu Tieu Sa Dec and Hot Ga Lop La). The latter was pretty Western, so we opted to go for the other three, with the three of us sharing them all. They were basically thin soups with noodles, lemongrass and lettuce, with a different meat accompanying them. Pork and beef were the main ones and they were freshly prepared on the premises, which made them exceptionally tasty. Indeed the range of flavours and textures in these dishes were quite fantastic, and the freshness of the dishes made them one of the highlights of my trip. Halfway through our meal, the lady proprietor put on the big flat screen TV hanging on the wall, the one element of modernity in this rather basic restaurant, upon which Vietnamese pop songs were being played. They were quite interesting, with the usual semi-clad women doing dance moves and some DJs with quite impressive couture. I got quite into this, finding it fascinating, so much so that as we got up to leave, I caught myself dancing at the songs, which was only encouraged by the owner's family, who were sitting at the table next to us. Aside from them, there had been only one other group in the restaurant at that hour, a similar boat party to us, but they had gone as we were finishing up our meal.

Watching the day break over the water was quite magical, even if our view was somewhat impeded by a number of boats and miscellaneous wooden structures. Still, it was one of those happy 'sticks in the memory' moments and one where I felt quite privileged to be alive, despite the ungodly hour. After our breakfast, the three of us boarded back onto the boat, where I was greeted once again with my ill-fitting life jacket and we chugged along the water looking at the range of boats operating as market stalls. This was very much a food market, with fruit in particular being a speciality, and each boat was selling different things. There was one with pineapples piled high, and another with bananas, while yet more sold a range of different fruits. One of these was a hut attached to the bank but set over the river, which had baskets of about five or six different types of fruit that we can't get in the UK. There were about five other customers in the small shop but I was paying more attention to the shopkeeper's dog, who was scampering around and being silly. Alas he didn't want a stroke, but M Wolf did buy me some spongy sticky orange fruit which made a good dessert to our substantial breakfast. Before this, I had picked up a coconut from one of the small rowing boats which also ply its trade around the market, coming to your boat to sell a range of drinks. This was sumptuously sweet and good to sip as we moved backwards and forwards between the market stalls. The boats were all spaced out over around 400m of water, allowing the customers to come and go as they pleased. It wasn't overly busy in all honesty, and about half of the boats there were tourist vessels similar to ours. but there was a charming rural atmosphere and it was fascinating to watch generations of families ply their trade on the waterways. Adding to the rustic nature of the scene was that many of the boats were quite old and delapidated, clearly being there for a number of years.

After about forty-five minutes, we had exhausted the market and opted to head back to the hotel, spying some fisherman catching muscels I think using a rather large net, basically the old fashioned way. We also saw a floating petrol station, which allowed boats to fill up with diesel. The sun was breaking through the clouds by this stage, turning the morning into something rather beautiful, and speeding back towards Can Tho under the bridges and against the scenery which had been shrouded in darkness on our way there provided an exhilarating contrast. Once back at the hotel, we split and I headed for a brief snooze, still reeling from the lack of sleep I had had the night before. I had instructions to meet up with M Wolf at 9am so we could do and explore the main museum in Can Tho, an interesting place almost solely dedicated to asserting Vietnam's claim to the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. Claimed by China, the exhibition highlighted a number of maps from European, Vietnamese and Chinese sources to 'prove' that the islands were Vietnamese. The dispute is one of the key political issues in the region and something I did know a little about prior to my trip, but to see this collection used for such a political purpose was certainly a thought-provoking experience. The rest of the museum, particularly on the top floor, was dedicated to the history of Can Tho, particularly during the Vietnam War. As all of the captions were only in Vietnamese, I didn't get an awful lot out of this and with time pressing, I decided to go outside and take a look at the trophies from that war, effectively shells of missiles and bombs which had been recovered, along with some jeeps, a fractured helicopter, a plane and some cars. Stripped of their glory, rusted and unloved, they made a sorry sight of triumph. There were also a number of pristine anti-aircraft type guns on display with their guns pointing upward, which I assume the Vietnamese had used in the War. In the museum we also saw the government issue fire drill poster, which is only interesting because it seems to be standardized across the country.

This was pretty much the end of my time in Can Tho and indeed with M Wolf, and as we reflected over our three days together on a concrete bench outside the museum cafe, next to the spoils of war, I did feel somewhat sad. He had been a great guide and a fantastic friend, and I would miss him and the other Vietnamese furs in the south. He kindly gave me a gift of two bottles of coconut wine, along with another coconut spirit which was locked inside a coconut. Fearing I couldn't get this on the plane, we opted to crack it open on the bench, although removing the welded-in stopper proved to be somewhat difficult. We did manage to pop it open in the end though and poured ourselves a glass, toasting the trip and remembering the good times. What I didn't bargain for was the sheer strength of this stuff, which at 10:30am was somewhat inappropriate, but we did have a cheeky shot or two, which was quite smooth but with a strong alcoholic hint. M Wolf had mentioned something about going to a cafe for breakfast but with time pressing, he just walked me back to my hotel before saying goodbye, allowing me to gather my things and then book a taxi to the airport, which was just outside the city. Having not had any breakfast, the small cafe inside the spartan terminal didn't really offer much, and so I had to settle for a packet of the local Pringles as I waited for my plane to Hanoi. There was something of a scare as my luggage had developed a crack in it, meaning I had to sign insurance exonorating the airline of guilt should further damage occur. Unfortunately, I was told this as I got to security with my shoes already off, so I had to go back and sort this before proceeding. This only gave me a sense of nervousness but fortunately everything was fine, and the flight took off and landed in the Vietnamese capital on time.

Can Tho

Jan. 5th, 2017 11:02 pm
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Tuesday 6th December

I had to get up quite early as M Wolf had agreed to meet me at a local bus station at 8am. I grabbed some breakfast, a miscellany of crusty bread and sausage mainly as I couldn't quite acclimatize myself to having noodles and the like to start the day, before I packed my bags and checked out of the hotel. A taxi was waiting for me, with the staff having called one on my behalf before I ate, and soon I was chugging through the suburbs along with the rush hour traffic. The distance was quite short, merely a couple of kilometers, but it still took nearly 45 minutes to reach my destination. It turned out to be a rather non-descript street with numerous open shops spilling out onto the road. There didn't seem to be a bus station in sight but I spied the logo of the bus company with which we were travelling so I assumed I was in the right place. The road certainly matched that given to me by M Wolf but it was 8:15am by this stage and he wasn't there. Furthermore, there were about ten shops I noticed with the same logo, meaning that finding the right one could prove to be tricky. Fortunately, upon walking into the waiting room of the first one I saw to ask for directions, I spotted M Wolf sitting on one of the orange plastic chairs so everything was resolved.

Apparently we were waiting for a minibus to take us to the main bus station further on the outskirts of town, and once a bus appeared he hopped on. Our ticket to Can Tho, the regional capital of the Mekong Delta some three hours to the south-west of Ho Chi Minh City, was for a bus leaving at 9:30am so we were pushing things a little tight. However, our little bus soon filled up and soon we were making the short way to the expansive bus station, where we had to wait on yet more orange plastic chairs for our bus to arrive. The interior was pretty modern but the PA system consisted of a man with a microphone and an amplifier stood outside the doorway reading the signs on the buses as they drove slowly past. There were two huge orange ones in front of ours and we had to wait for the people to board these before boarding our own. Upon stepping onto the bus, I was surprised to receive a black plastic bag similar to those you put dog excrement in, as well as noting that everyone was taking their shoes off as they reached the top of the steps. This was quite an alien concept to me, but after putting my huge suitcase into the hold, I followed suit and took off my shoes. It was then that the novelty of this hit me as instead of rows upon rows of seats as you would normally expect to find on a bus, there were two isles separating three rows of reclining seats which were recumbent in a horizontal position. There were two bunks, a top and a bottom, and M Wolf and I had nabbed top ones. They were pretty difficult to climb into, particularly with my backpack which contained my fursuit head, but eventually I managed to position myself into the bed, with my feet resting in a compartment underneath the head of the person in front of me. It was certainly not an efficient way to seat people on the bus but it was incredibly relaxing, even if my main view for the journey was the grey ceiling of the bus rather than the scenery outside. I rested my backpack on my legs, stuffing my shoes into the cubby hole by my feet, and this got a little uncomfortable after a while, but it was good just to lie back and listen to podcasts as the world rushed by.

It was an incredibly sunny day, not that the air conditioning in the bus would have let you believe that, and there was a fair bit to see as we made our way down a reasonably modern highway, whizzing past rice fields and the numerous tributaries which make up the delta. Halfway through the journey we stopped at another bus station where there was a huge cavernous market. Not having had any breakfast, we picked up a grilled sausage which was a little too sweet for my taste while M Wolf asked whether I wanted to try a special type of nut which is roasted on an open fire. The skin is flaky and black, but you are meant to peel this away to leave a white little nugget not dissimilar to a cashew. It was incredibly rich, a little creamy, not to mention dry and I had had enough after two or three. Furthermore, the disposal of the skin, which was like charcoal on the fingers became somewhat irritating as we ended up with a small carrier bag full of debris. Despite this, it was a rather nice break into our three hour journey and was certainly needed despite the comfort of the seating arrangements.

We arrived at the other end just after 12:30pm in the blistering heat of the mid-day sun. The air was warmer and stickier here than it had been in Ho Chi Minh City, making walking around a little more unpleasant, but soon we were in the air conditioned comfort of the main bus terminus where we had a choice between getting a bus to the city centre or a taxi. As the bus was free and we were in no real rush, we decided on that, even though we had missed one and had to hang around for another twenty minutes. Still, we idly passed the time chatting and eating the remainder of the overly dry black nuts we had bought, before we boarded the minibus and pootled our way into town. With a population of around 800,000 people, Can Tho is certainly not a small place, but it is easily navigable so getting to my hotel right by the Can Tho River was pretty straightforward. My hotel was the Kieu, a futuristic building plonked on the riverbank, which was quite desolate as I walked inside. I did have a porter open my door though and the lady at the front desk was pleasant as she checked me in, before I was shown to the eleventh floor. Alas, here there were some workmen mending a door to one of the outside balconies, meaning that things weren't particularly quiet during the day, but I was only staying for one night and the workmen had buggered off by the time I went to bed. In the meantime though, I got settled and had a quick shower, before meeting M Wolf and his friend for some late lunch at around 3pm. The place we went was just over the futuristic pedestrian Ninh Kieu Bridge, which had a huge metal lotus as its centrepiece. This is lit up in a range of gaudy colours at night, along with a number of hotels by the river and the main road bridge into the city, which we had passed over on the bus as we approached. There were also a number of moderately sized boats moored up to the bank where banqueting took place in the evenings. I refrained, however, with M Wolf taking me to a restaurant on the other riverbank which he assured me was very good. I wasn't so sure.

Called the Hoa Su Restaurant, the place specialized in a range of exotic meats including but not limited to turtle, tortoise and snake. They were served pretty much as they looked when they were alive, keaving you with little doubt as to what you were eating. Things only became more uncomfortable after we had ordered - with me telling M Wolf to go for something traditionally Vietnamese. I have eaten a lot of exotic meat in my time and have generally found that the reason why people don't eat it is because it's shit, so we decided to go for a few traditional fish dishes. All well and good, until our waitresses came back with about eight silvery fish in a plastic carrier bag, which she then proceeded to tip into a pot of boiling water. As she put the lid on, you could hear the fish banging their heads against the metal in an attempt to escape. The gruesome part was when the pressure of the boiling water forced the lid up off the lip of the pan, and this enabled one of the fish to escape. The waitress jumped back shocked as the pathetic creature flapped listlessly on the wooden decking of the pagoda in which we were sat, and she scooped it up and took it away, assumedly to suffocate in a bin or something. After seeing that, I was somewhat put off by the meal, which had the shrivelled carcasses of the fish combined in a broth with rice and a collection of vegetables. Apparently the heads are a delicacy and the meat was certainly tender, not to mention fresh, but I have had more comfortable dinners. And of course, if they have live fish, I feared they may have live snakes and being sat in a pagoda over a drained out section of the river made me quite uneasy. Still, we had beers and friends and good conversation so it wasn't all bad, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't glad to leave. M Wolf was talking about coming back in the evening but fortunately I put him off this idea and we ended up snacking elsewhere.

After the food, we decided to explore the city, utilizing a bicycle that M Wolf had rented. The back seat was clearly a storage place for a plastic box of some kind as it was just bare metal, making the ride along the bumpy roads far from comfortable. Having no cycle helmet as we rode along the busy rush hour streets was somewhat scary, while the reduction in pressure of one of the tyres, necessitating a repair at one of the many roadside garages only added to the sense of peril, Still, I did get to see a load of interesting stuff including the intricate and golden Munireangsey Pagoda, built in 1946 to serve the city's Khmer population, right in the middle of the city and the main recreation area, a paved park (Luu Huu Phuoc - a golden bust of this bespectacled gentleman also sits in the park) with a glorious gate in the Chinese style. I had a short wander around while M Wolf fixed the bike, attracting the attention of some teenagers skateboarding at one end, before we headed over to the central lake, which was something of an oasis of calm in the bustling city. From here you could see the golden spire of a nearby temple, which we tried to reach but unfortunately the heavens opened and we had to duck for cover. Finding somewhere was tricky but we did manage to situate ourselves underneath a balcony, which did a moderate job of keeping us dry. Unfortunately the downpour was relentless and with darkness starting to set in, time was running out to see the city. This forced M Wolf to run to a nearby shop and pick up a couple of luminescent blue macs, which we could use to keep us dry as we pedelled around. Typically, as soon as we put them on, the rain started to ease but at least we were prepared should the rains come again. They didn't really, although the following half an hour was punctuated with the occasional shower, so we decided to visit a small tea shop along the way back to the main road. I wasn't sure whether M Wolf knew the proprietor or not, but either way we sat down around a little red plastic table on little red plastic chairs and shared a few small cups of Dac San Tan Cuong Thai Nguyen tea over a pleasant chat, all of which being in Vietnamese. The hot water for the tea came from a thermos which she poured into a little teapot where the dry tea resided. In all honesty, it was a little too dry for me, but then tea without milk or sugar often is. It was quite a pleasant flavour, a little like grass and cardboard I guess, and although the samples were free, after five cups I thought I should probably buy some. Consequently, I bought two packs of the stuff for around £7 in total, which made a nice souvenir on the way home. It was a shame there weren't any other teas on offer really, as it would have been good to sample more, although the other more biscuity tea we did sample was quite pleasant.

M Wolf's friend had gone by this time, with us losing him between the lake and the tea shoppe, but we soon met up again back at the main road, where we parked our bike and headed into one of the shopping centres. I am not sure why we went here really, perhaps because we were soaking from the rain, with the shoulders of my t-shirt clinging to my damp body (which had been the enduring sensation during the tea tasting) but either way we wandered aimlessly around a supermarket for a while before I bought a packet of crisps and my first souvenir for Wolfie, a pink dog who only sang in Vietnamese. As I was paying, one of the shop assistants got out the store batteries to test whether he works, and indeed he does, making for an excellent gift to take home. M Wolf thought it was quite amusing but not as amusing as I did when I gave it to my partner. Sadly, he hasn't put any batteries into him here yet, and he has been somewhat neglected on top of the linen basket.

M Wolf's friend had to head off after this, leaving M Wolf and I to explore the university area of the city, which was about fifteen minutes' cycling away. I can't remember if we cycled or walked it, but I do remember it was down one of the main roads of the city, where there was a large number of restaurants spilling out onto the pavement. Before getting to the university, however, we ducked into the student area with its vast array of bars and eateries. Situated by a small river, with the road hugging one of its banks, it was almost European in style although the grey concrete bank with a white stripe at the top was uniquely Asian, as were the number of motorbikes. We were still quite full from the disturbing fish meal we had had earlier in the day, but outside MT68, the desserts took M Wolf's eye so we decided to sit down and have a light dinner. The range of food here was quite extensive, even if it wasn't to European tastes. The spring rolls made from steamed fermented rice batter with pork, shallots and mushroom filling (Banh uot cuon) served with orange fish sauce were quite crunchy with a dry texture (although I wasn't a fan of the sauce and picking them up with chopsticks without spilling the filling proved tricky), but it was the dessert called Banh beo which was weird, a gelatenous rice pancake which was used to wrap around some croutons. It was an odd combination and quite slivery, somewhat sweet, but not as sweet as the third dish which was thick condensed coconut milk and rice flour coagulated around skunk vine leaves called Banh la mo. This was quite moreish, unctuous even, and of the three dishes tried it was probably my favourite.

Having eaten, we headed further down the road, which disgourged itself near a pretty major highway, on the other side of which was the dark imposing entrance of the university. There was little light over here and very little to see, but we crossed the road anyway and headed into the complex. The grasshoppers and crickets could be heard as we walked down the narrow country lanes which make up the university grounds. It's actually quite rural in feel, with concrete buildings of various departments dotted about. We didn't see much sign of life apart from some people playing sports, while one of the small convenience stores was still open. Around the residential area, which we first struggled to get in, there was a modest supermarket and another restaurant which looked completely dead, but there was surprisingly little life around as we walked up and down nearly all the streets over the course of an hour. Indeed it was quite peaceful, with only the occasional motorbike driving past us, but it did enable us to have a good conversation at least, which was no bad thing. This conversation continued as we headed out of the university and back towards the city centre, stopping along the way at the Anca Loc bar where we were told there was a good beer. We had also been told that M Wolf's friend would meet us here and this was on, then off, then back on again as he had an issue with his motorbike. He grabbed some food while we were still stuffed, enjoying a few beers as he ate. We were told this was one of the better places in Can Tho, and it was pleasant enough, although not overly outstanding. Indeed, it was the typical restaurant in the region, with one large room with chairs spilling out into the street, with the bar situated at one end. The atmosphere was quite good though and they had both Saigon Special and Saigon Export, so at least there was a little variety. Still, with time pressing on and us needing to go to bed early due to a 3am start the next day, we decided to head off pretty soon, heading back to the hotel proper just before 9pm.

On the way, we spotted one of the famous night markets (I think it was the Old Market), which had just erected itself in the middle of a street. There were only two rows of stalls here, largely selling clothing, so it didn't take too long to walk around, while there was only a small number of people around so the ambience was somewhat muted too. There were a fair number of tourists though, which was interesting, while back towards the hotel, the party was in full swing with a number of establishments being lit up in gaudy neon lights. The pleasure boats on the river were pumping out loud music, which seemed a little odd with diners on them, while I got to stop off and look at the impressive golden statue of Ho Chi Minh in one of the parks by the river. The lotus flowers on the bridge were also lit up quite impressively and under normal circumstances, I would have loved to have stayed around and soak up the atmosphere. However, having such an early start meant that I needed an early night so with reticence I said goodbye to M Wolf and headed back to my room, only to be met by a charming little gheko scuttling across the floor. I didn't really want to pick him up and show him out though, so I just left him there, with this praying on the back of my mind as I tried to get to sleep as they do run exceptionally quickly. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why I slept so poorly, being woken up numerous times meaning that by the time I awoke proper, I had only had three and a half hours of useful rest. Still, it was a brand new day, albeit dark, and another adventure was afoot - a trip to the Floating Market.
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After our lunch, we ignored the rapidly darkening sky and headed west in an attempt to finish the walking tour. D Ham Nghi was quite lively, with a range of street eateries disgorging a range of scintillating aromas onto the street, many of them packed with hungry diners. Halfway down the street, we stopped at a rather confusing supermarket to pick up some bottles of water, and here I also tried to pick up some strong factor suncream, fearing that I was going to run out of my supply pretty quickly. Alas they had everything but so I had to leave the store empty handed. Further down the street, we spotted 23/9 Park, a small strip of land between two rather busy streets, the southern most of which fringing the backpacker area replete with cheap digs and cheaper restaurants. The park used to be where the old railway terminus stood, hence its long thin shape, but there is little evidence of this these days as the area has been cultivated with pagodas littering it. This was quite fortunate as the heavens opened as soon as we had arrived, forcing us to dodge the torrential downpour by sitting underneath one of the wooden structures with around thirty other people. Many people were standing but after a three hour walk (albeit with a lunch break in between), I opted to sit as young kids played around us. A couple of the snack sellers also dived for cover, and the atmosphere was rather convivial, with a good mix of backpackers and locals waiting for the rain to abate. We were waiting quite a while, around forty minutes in the end, with the rain deceptively easing up on occasion only to become more of a downpour once again. There wasn't too much to see in the park in all honesty, and as soon as the rain did eventually stop, we navigated our way around the huge puddles which had formed on all of the pathways before heading out of the area and towards Ben Thanh Market.

Outside the market there sits a roundabout and here is where the imposing gold statue of Tran Nguyen Han, a general of the fifteenth century leader Le Loi, should have been. Alas it had been removed for cleaning or some reason, meaning that we could not get to see it, nor the small white bust of Quach Thi Trang, a fifteen-year-old girl who was killed in the area during anti-government protests in 1963, that sits below it. In the background sits the market, with the belfry and clock definitely having a French colonial feel about them. The exterior of the market looks very much like a Victorian railway station. Inside, however, it's a far more sober affair, with rows upon rows of market stalls offering a range of produce, with tacky souvenirs and food being the main two things on show. It was quite pleasant strolling around, despite the number of vendors who were desperate for me to buy things, and although we didn't stay long underneath the concrete roofs, I did enjoy our rather short stay here.

We emerged from one of the side entrances of the market and set our sights on the War Remnants Museum, which was about half an hour's walk from where we were in the same area as the Reunification Palace, which we had visited the day before. On the way, we spotted an unidentified statue of a chappie on a horse wielding a bayonnet, which certainly added a lot of character to the roundabout upon which it was situated. As we pressed on, I recognised a lot of the buildings we had zoomed past on our motorcycles the day earlier, meaning I had started to acquire a vague sense of geography about the city. Unfortunately, about two-thirds of our way to the Museum, the heavens opened again and we were suddenly deluged, being forced to dive under a canopy of an electrical appliance shop along with fifteen other people. These guys were quite friendly, with one lady even offering us some sugared nuts, which we politely declined. With the Museum set to shut at 5pm and the time already pushing 2:45pm, waiting for the rain to abate was incredibly frustrating, but it did relent in the end and we were soon pushing on to our destination.

In the end, we didn't have time to see everything at the Museum, although we did see around two-thirds of it. Formerly the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, it's very name tells you that the accounts were far from unbiased, but the harrowing images of the horrors of the Vietnam War often made the text associated with them justified. The brutality of the wars against the French and Americans, particularly on the civilian victims, was detailed in disturbing detail and some of the photographs on display will forever live with me such was their disturbing nature. Many of the atrocities highlighted are well-known in the West and indeed many of the more graphic imagery came from American sources, including those of the infamous massacre at My Lai, but this didn't detract from their impact or the sheer sense of futility about this failed endeavour. Even more poignantly were the life stories of some of the men behind the cameras, men like Henri Huet and Larry Burrows who were killed reporting from the front line. Many brave photographers died trying to relay the full scale of what was happening to audiences back home and the Requiem Exhibition was a tribute to these fallen journalists. Being a journalist myself, I have nothing but respect and admiration for these men and women, with certain sections of the exhibit bringing me to tears. The final shots some of these people took, literally seconds before they were killed, were particularly heart-wrenching and made you think about the nature of humanity itself.

Agent Orange and other dioxins was used as a means of clearing the jungle during the American War and in another part of the museum, there are photographs of the people who have been deformed by their exposure to such toxic chemicals. The pictures of the children in particular were incredibly tough to view and some of these powerful images have been scorched on my memory. The same could be said in the outside area, which is devoted to the notorious French and South Vietnamese prisons on Phu Quoc and Con Son Islands. Here a vast range of tortures were inflicted on the detainees including the infamous tiger cages which were used to house Viet Cong prisoners. There is a guillotine present here too, while images of the injuries sustained by torture victims accompany gruesome accounts of each of the techniques used. On the other side of the outside area there sits a range of US armoured vehicles and military hardware while the downstairs area is devoted towards anti-war movements internationally, which adds a little respite to the sheer horror of the rest of the Museum. I have never been to a Museum that was so uncensored and so brutal in detailing what happened during this twenty year period in the mid-twentieth century and while it was certainly necessary, it also challenged my perspectives on a range of deeper issues.

We left the Museum as it closed at 5pm, with M-Wolf walking me back to my hotel, where he suggested I get a shower before heading out for the evening. The plan was to meet Graffiti Rabbit at the Pasteur Street Brewing Company, a craft brewery in the heart of the city that was on my request list and a place that Graffiti had kept meaning to try. They picked me up at my hotel at around 6:30pm and we arrived shortly afterwards, parking our bikes in the little garage underneath the first story bar. The narrow room was quite busy but there was fortunately one free table, which we occupied before deciding to order one of their tasting sample trays so we could try as many of the beers as possible. This was quite useful as Graffiti wanted to try them all too, while M-Wolf wasn't really a huge fan of beer but I thought I may be able to find something he would like. A lot of the beers were quite similar to those you get back home, but a few were brewed with local produce such as jackfruit and these were definitely worth a try. A 13% chocolate and vanilla porter also caught my eye so I grabbed one of these too, as well as a tasty looking spicy chicken burger as we had not eaten dinner. Once the beers arrived, I took my friends through all the different styles, and indeed some were more preferred over others so I let them finish off the ones they liked and I had the rest. They had thirteen different beers on the board and as we downed the ones we had originally ordered, temptation got the better of me and I started ordering some of the others. This was partly at Graffiti's insistence as she wanted to try some more beers too, while the conversation was good and we wanted to prolong the evening as long as possible, knowing that this would be the last time I would see Graffiti at least until I don't know when. She had just come from work and thus was in smart clothes, not to mention quite tired after a gruelling day, so we decided to wind up at around 9pm, with me opting to walk back to my hotel as it was literally just around the corner. I gave them some Cadbury's chocolate as a gift from England before we went our separate ways, with me thanking Graffiti for all of her work in arranging the furmeet the previous day. She was exceptionally helpful and great fun to be around, and I was quite sad when we had to depart. Hopefully I will see her again real soon because I had a great albeit short time in her city and with the furs there.
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I arrived in Singapore early afternoon on Sunday 18th after a largely uneventful flight out of Laos. Defago, who had been such a wonderful guide during my five-day stay there, had picked me up in his pick-up truck at around 7:45am, driving me the very short distance to the airport in Viantiane. The airport is quite small so after checking in, there was enough time for a small sandwich and a tea at the Dex Coffee shop, where I thanked my new friend for all his help. I had never met him before the trip and it was a huge sacrifice to show me around for so long - and on his birthday too - and for that I'll be forever grateful. I flew with Lao Airlines, the national carrier, who gave me an adequate fish meal on the plane while I had the entire row to myself, meaning I could move over to the window seat and look at the majestic terrain of Thailand and the crystal blue waters of the ocean as they sailed beneath us.

Customs in Singapore were as efficient as ever and soon I was on the MRT bound for Bugis, near where my hotel was. I had booked into the ibis and upon arrival, went straight to the check in desk for silver members, where I was delighted to learn I got a free upgrade to an executive room from a single. There was a phone here which allowed you to make free international calls, including to the UK, which was great as I could use it to speak to my mother, whose birthday it was. So after I had settled in and allowed the time in Britain to become reasonable, I gave her a ring and chatted for a short while before heading out into the city to meet with the local furs.

Junias was arranging affairs as Hollud was singing with a local church, and knowing I had a strong love for craft beer, he decided to take me to a new microbrewery in town called Red Dot. There was talk about going to see the new Star Wars movie, Rogue One, but most of the Singaporeans had gone the night before and I am very much 50/50 on the franchise anyway. No doubt I'll see it with Wolfie at sometime anyway. Junias and I met at Bugis MRT station where we picked up a taxi to the destination as it was somewhat out of the way. Typically everyone else was late for our 5pm gathering, so we ordered a beer from their moderate range of in-house brews and waited for the others to come. They did in dribs and drabs, with Alexis being the next to arrive about fifteen minutes later. Others soon followed, with our party being ten by the time happy hour was over at 7pm. In that time, I had tried five of their beers including their monster green lager, Sauvignon blanc ale and an 11% red. Junias was drinking faster than me, but yet seemed quite unaffected by the alcohol. Meanwhile I had also ordered some disappointing nachos as I was peckish, with other snack foods such as battered squid and viagra chicken wings (we never did work out the viagra reference suffice to say it was something about the potency of the chili) appearing throughout the course of the evening. We preloaded the drinks a bit before the end of happy hour as the subsequent price hike was quite steep, while we also ate our main meal here, with me opting for the wagyu steak as it was very cheaply priced by our standards ($33, the equivalent of £18.50). It was served with potato and peppers, as well as Gorgonzola sauce, which our resident food furry questioned due to the strong flavours of both the steak and the cheese. I thought it worked though, although I do kinda wish I had picked the burger instead as it was far more substantial not to mention $10 cheaper. The service in the bar was patchy and sometimes they forgot to get our orders, but then they were distracted by the heavy rainstorm which developed as we were there, needing to put the reed shutters down on all sides of the bar to contain the inside portion of the establishment. Watching the rain literally bouncing off the tables while being in the dry was a very evocative experience, particularly in contrast to the gaily lit Christmas lights. This also necessitated the singer coming inside from the little exterior pagoda from where he was crooning but in many respects the differing acoustics only enhanced his performance.

A Japanese fur happened to be visiting Singapore for two days on business but by the time he had landed and checked in to his hotel, time was pressing. Needing somewhere more accessible, I suggested going to Beerwerkz on Clarke Quay, I place I went with Junias back in 2013 and one I know brews excellent beer. With the party consenting, we hopped in a taxi and made the short journey there, with me ordering a sampler tray of four when I arrived, along with some rainbow cake as it looked fun. The Japanese fur arrived soon afterwards and I suggested getting the standard tasting tray as opposed to my miscellany, which was reached by me asking the waitress to give me anything available now that wasn't available three years ago. There were only three beers, including a rather nice apricot one, so I asked her to surprise me with the fourth. It was a nice evening but after the five 3/4 pints in Red Dot, I was starting to feel a little tipsy so switched to diet cokes towards the end of the evening. I received a nice surprise when Hollud turned up late on, and I was tempted to go for a beer in his presence, but he stuck to the unlimited soft drinks so I thought I would do the same. After an hour of further chatting, we noticed that the establishment threatened trespassers around the beer tanks with shooting, which seemed a little harsh before we decided it was best to go our separate ways. Hollud drove me back to my hotel, during which time we had a nice chat, after which I claimed my free beer from the hotel bar before going upstairs to watch the Singapore Infomercial Channel and The Cube with Philip Schofield, which for some reason was being shown. All in all then it was a very good night albeit one where I drank far more than expected. Still it was great spending it with friends and it added another happy memory to an already marvellous trip.

On Monday I awoke quite groggily at around 9:30am, with the previous evening's festivities still on my mind. I took a quick shower, packed and checked out, ensuring to check in to my flight along the way. Unfortunately, the computers in the hotel lobby weren't overly responsive and I had a few issues printing my boarding pass, not aided by the need to do various security checks to access my email. As a consequence, I was half an hour late for my 11:30am rendezvous with Junias at Chinatown MRT station, but fortunately he was still waiting for me when I got there. It was only a short walk to our lunch destination, one of the many hawker markets in Singapore. Offering cheap food as well as a wide variety, I went exploring with Ky, who recommended trying the chicken a and rice. As is so often the case though, food in this region is communal so we ended up sharing each others' dishes. There were five of us having lunch, with more meeting us later in the day, and as well as having chicken breast and thigh with rice, I also tried banana fritters and a green cake variety. I also got to sample the inappropriately named carrot cake, which actually contains radish and egg in an omelette form so neither cake nor anything to do with carrot. The fritter was nice if you like banana, which I don't, while the green cake was rather dry and dusty. I also got two Bandungs to have with my food, the intense pink colour and rose infused evaporated milk being an exceptional taste experience that sadly I can rarely get at home.

We stayed in the market for around an hour and a half, chatting about jobs and work largely, but also about Ky's plans to open a topless nipple coffee bar. After this, at around 2pm, we decided to go to Downtown via Chinatown to check out the Marina Bay Area of the city. I had walked through Chinatown before, the area in Singapore being somewhat sanitised compared to those in other cities, but the sheer number of food stalls highlighted the excellent gastronomy not only in this city but also across the region. No wonder I've inevitably put on weight. Once we got to the station, we went just three stops to Bayfront, emerging at the iconic Marina Bay Mall with its indoor boating river and casino complex. Here you can buy a cocktail containing sapphires for $20,000 (£12,000) which I kept telling Ky I was looking forward to him buying for me. I had been here before, three and a half years ago, but we had a brief walk around, catching Pokemon as we went as there were a number of reasonably rare ones such as a Magnatite, a Rhyhorn and a Pikachu. Fortunately Ky let me tether to his phone to catch them. While here, we also witnessed an incident in one of the toilets, where a Chinese man had collapsed in one of the cubicles. This resulted in a rather well-set fellow vaulting over the cubicle wall to release him. Later on, we saw him being supported by two security guards looking rather weak. We suspect he may have been overworked. Our primary destination here was the observation deck on the 56th floor of the building, which is also the world's biggest cantilever. It was pricey to get up there, costing $23, but as it was something I had never done before, I thought it worth it. All five of us purchased tickets at the underground ticket hall and are promptly accosted by a photographer with a green screen, who wanted to take our picture for one of those overpriced tourist photos. Then we entered the lift, which whizzed us up to the top floor, where we were accosted by a second man who wanted to sell us the photo we had just taken. At a price of $75, it was exceptionally expensive but Junias bought the copy and gave it to me as a gift, despite my protestations. It is a nice present but far overpriced and not a patch compared to the exquisite panoramic view of the city and harbour afforded at the top. We could see pretty much every direction apart from west, with the other two towers of this iconic skyscraper impeding this view. There is the Infinity Pool on the other side, which is glass lined and gives the impression of swimming out into the city. Alas we couldn't get there but did enjoy looking at the sparkling blue ocean water with its multitude of ships, not to mention Marina Bay itself with its floating soccer pitch and Louis Vitton pop up store right on the water. To the north, the iconic cityscape of Singapore's tower blocks could be seen, juxtaposed with the early colonial buildings where the city once started. To the west we could glimpse the cranes on which the city's trading past is based while to the east we could see a range of tourist attractions such as the pit lane for the Singapore Grand Prix, the national stadium and the futuristic spindly trees of Gardens By The Bay, which is where we were bound next. Looking down at the city, whose residential tower blocks stretched as far as the eye can see, it was amazing how small everything looked, particularly the boats and the symbolic Murrlion. It was quite windy up here, and I had grabbed a coke so my fingers were quite moist due to the condensation forming on the plastic glass, meaning I was quite scared I would drop my camera phone when stretching over the protective metal wires to take shots. Fortunately I didn't and after a quick look at the 57th floor restaurant - closed to non-hotel guests but a safer place to take images as it didn't overlook the sheer drop directly - we headed back down to ground level to go to Gardens By The Bay, thinking how weird it was that up top there had been literally just a wooden floor between us and the ground due to the cantilever design.

The Gardens are very close to Marina Bay and so it only took about ten minutes to walk there. Along the way we saw a few interesting art installations including some metal dragonflies in a lagoon while we also navigated our way through some loosely themed gardens such as Indian and Chinese on our way to the main attraction. These were two large glass domes not dissimilar to the Eden Project, the flatter of the two containing a range of flowers and the taller wave-like structure having a recreation of a hill forest. We went to the Flower Dome first, with its numerous arrays of different gardens containing a wide variety of plants. I'm not much of a botanist so I probably didn't get as much out of this as someone who is more knowledgeable but the cacti exhibition was interesting, particularly those plants which looked like spiky willies. A number looked somewhat tentacle-like, which was a little disturbing for me, but this was balanced by the various wood carvings which littered the area, many of them animal themed. The dragon was definitely the most impressive but the three galloping horses that you could only see from one side of the complex were also good. There were also a number of iguanas and lizards hiding amongst the trees. Like outside, there were a number of specific gardens including a Californian one, a Mediterranean and Australian, but the differences were subtle as most of the flora looked like any other to me. There was a charming sculpture in the centre of three travelers - a man, woman and child - about to depart with their bags. Part of their bodies are missing, signifying leaving part of themselves in Singapore and considering my flight home was due soon, it was quite poignant. Less poignant was the gaudy Christmas display also near the centre with rotating military drummer boys, a giant snow dome and other aspects of the Americanised Christmas which has seemingly been exported around the world. All the usual twee Christmas songs were there too, and this was the same in every country I visited, even if they aren't particularly Christian or haven't seen snow for literally thousands of years. Still, it was ripe to take the piss out of, as we did as a group while looking at all the plants too, making it a particularly good day with good friends.

With time pressing, we left the Flower Dome after about an hour, making our way over to the adjacent Cloud Dome. Upon walking into this cavernous structure, the first thing you see is a huge waterfall, the largest man-made waterfall in the world, tumbling over mountainous greenery. It's quite a sight, made even more impressive by the sound of cascading water as it thunderous over the drop. We took a picture and walked around to the main entrance of this manufactured mountain, where a lift sped you up five floors to the top. The idea behind the project is to recreate a mountain forest to highlight the threat they are under due to climate change. This means you can walk on various levels over a woodland canopy containing a number of native species. At the top, at the waterfall's source, there is a "Lost Garden" which was so full of tourists it didn't look particularly lost to me. You then descend a number of levels learning about this habitat. At night, it's lit up and they pump condensed water vapour into the atmosphere to simulate the cloud level, with the top section being above the clouds and the bottom being beneath them. It's a very clever effect and adds authenticity although due to the time of my flight, we could only watch them start to pump the vapour into the glass cavern. Next time I would like to visit it properly, as I've been told the light show, as well as that of the adjacent garden with its man-made trees is quite impressive. The whole complex is carbon neutral with biomass being the primary fuel, and it was great to learn more about an ecosystem I had previously known little about. We did have to rush at the end though, with our enjoyable ramble with friends lasting far longer than anticipated, but all we missed was the climate change science and projections, which is something I studied extensively and in more detail at university.

We only had an hour until I had to go the airport via my hotel to pick up luggage and Junias had arranged a group gathering at Satay By The Bay, a local slightly overpriced food court. Ky and I went ahead to secure a table for sixteen, taking pictures of the cityscape over Marina Bay and seeing a giant black lizard on the roadside along the way. He slunk back into the undergrowth while sadly we didn't see any otters, despite signs highlighting a number of other crossings in the area. The food court was just a five minute walk away and I started to feel somewhat emotional, knowing that this would be the last time I would see many of my Singaporean friends for quite some time. We found a table pretty quickly as a tourist family told us they would be leaving in ten minutes, so I went for a walk to look at the gastronomic options as well as pick up a beer, a fruity orangey Tiger Radler. Those we had left behind at the Gardens arrived a little later, with Hollud appearing from work shortly after that. The two of us then went exploring for food, with us both opting for the Turkish food before I ordered 20 satay from one of the local outdoor grills. Hollud wanted to share a pitcher of Erdinger, which four of us did, while we largely communally shared the food so I got to try a number of other local delicacies including a rather crunchy spring roll which I struggled to scoop into my mouth using chopsticks. The atmosphere was great and with darkness descending, the lights seem to bring the Market alive. It was a great way to spend my final hours in Singapore but alas time was ticking on and by 8pm it was time to leave. Saying goodbye to everyone was incredibly tough but at least Hollud and Junias came to the hotel to collect my baggage and then to the airport to see me off. One of the furs gave me a lift, saving some time, meaning I could spend longer at dinner which was appreciated. The check in procedure was swift, giving us a final half hour in Starbucks before I had to go to my gate. Here I accidentally drank Hollud's soya tea while we reminisced about the last three weeks and particularly FURUM. Leaving was such a wrench but I resolved to come back more frequently, largely because I have so many excellent friends in the region. I will deeply miss them but it was a fantastic stay in the region.
lupestripe: (Default)
We had initially arranged to gather at 11am for our trip to downtown KL but we pushed this back to 11:30am due to our late night the night before. In the end, we didn't leave until after noon, at which time around fifteen of us headed to the nearby Taman Jaya MRT stop to catch the train into the city. The night before I had kindly been given a charged up card to pass through the ticket barriers so it was quite straightforward for me, although we did have to wait for others to pay for their journeys. Our trip was only six stops, one beyond KL Sentral, and the skytrain afforded us a magnificent view of the city and the various skyscrapers, office blocks and shopping malls that dot its western periphery. The journey must have taken only twenty minutes and soon we decamped and walked across a rather dusty road into the market, where we congregated in the food hall upstairs as we waited for others to arrive. I had been here before, three and a half years ago, and remember the neat assortment of stores, many of which selling tourist related products. The food hall was definitely the highlight and I opted to go for something steady - chicken and rice - on account of the bloatedness still experienced from the previous night's titanic meal. In hindsight, I should have probably chosen the satay as my food was rather bland and lukewarm, although I didn't see the satay concession until well after I had ordered my food. With it, I also got the delightfully bright pink Bandung rose water drink, a sweet delight and one of the highlights of traveling in the region. This one contained some gelatinous black root, which was far from pleasant, particularly texturally, but I did manage to avoid most of this. I was sat on a table with three others and we talked about Britain mainly and very sadly Brexit, before I hooked up with Hollud once again who was en route to the bathroom.

We spent about an hour in the market, with a desire to visit some plushie shops next on the agenda. I had visited these knock off stores before, including the unfortunately named Kiddie Love, so the group split and some went there while CT took me to see a charming Buddhist and then Indian temple along the way. The former was choked in incense, making the air thick and unbreathable, but the gold iconography was particularly striking as was the pagoda architecture. The Indian temple on the other hand was a symphony of colour, with an Amsterdam-style triangular tower at its entrance. We had to take our shoes off to get inside, so only two other furs including CT joined me, but it was great looking at the iconography in a number of pastel shades. On our way here, we had also seen an interesting graffiti mural on the side of a wall, one of a number that have recently adorned the city. This one featured a crocodile giving a cookie to a squirrel underneath the Malaysian flag. I'm not sure what it's meant to symbolize but it was a charming image nonetheless. After this, we picked our way through a rather desolate market before reconvening with everyone outside one of the plushie shops, just after we had stopped at 7 Eleven so CT to pick up an energy drink with a picture of a tiger on it. Along the way, we walked through the Chinese market which was somewhat subdued, what with it being daytime. CT wasn't a huge fan of KL's night Market, saying it's better elsewhere. In the end, we went into two plushie shops including the aforementioned Kiddle Love, where there was a range of Chinese imitations of western brands, sold very cheaply. Here I bought a little Eevee for my desk, at which point Alexa showed me a disturbing video of an Eevee evolving into all seven of its evolutions simultaneously, a barbarous sight which was slayed by an ecstatic young girl with a flame thrower as the owner of the original Eevee looked on, distraught at the fate of his pet. It was all rather sad and slightly unnerving.

After our trip to the plushie stores, the next port of call was the Petronas Towers, five stops further down on the MRT. Consequently, we headed back to the station, where it seemed to take a rather long amount of time to get everyone's tickets sorted. I just waltzed through with my pass and spent a good ten minutes on the other side of the barrier on my own. Once the ticket issues were sorted, all fifteen of us headed to the platform and soon boarded the next train, which took us quite speedily to the iconic structure. We got off at the mall underneath the towers, opting to surface to have a look more closely. The view was far better than it had been in the summer of 2013 during my last visit, as the burning of wood by Indonesian farmers had created a significant haze. At the time, we had to cancel our picnic in the fountain park just in front of the towers, but this area was resplendent in sunshine last Monday, and we got to see the beautiful water features in operation. We took a large group photo on the steps outside the towers but not before Hollud had had the opportunity to use the executive bathroom in the shopping mall for a price of two ringgit. I went to the normal bathroom for free, which was perfectly clean enough, which got me wondering what you got extra for your money. He was quite a long time - as it turned out buying a rich hot chocolate from a chocolatier - leading me to speculate as to the perks he was enjoying. In the end, he just got a man passing him a towel after he had washed his hands, a man who presumedly just sits on a chair and watches you pee. Disturbing.

I desperately wanted to see something new of KL and CT suggested going up one of the two local tower blocks to catch a panoramic view of the city. Both had restaurants on their higher floors affording excellent views of the Petronas Towers, however the first place we tried wouldn't let us in as we were dressed too casually. This was annoying as we had turned up at 4pm at which point they told us to come back one hour later when the restaurant opened. In that hour, we just mooched around, ending up in Haagen Dazs where six of us shared a chocolate bomb, a sphere of milk chocolate inside which was a collection of different flavoured ice creams. When you poured the accompanying hot chocolate source on the ball, it fell away to reveal the contents within. I wanted the white chocolate equivalent but I was sadly overruled, although suffice to say that this gooey mess of a dessert was a real treat. The same could also be said of the cookies and cream milkshake I enjoyed with the meal, which may have been a little overpriced but was certainly delicious.

A few furs had disappeared already by this point, needing to catch flights home, but just before 5pm it was time for Hollud and Ky to leave, with the former welling up at the thought that FURUM was over. We all bid them farewell, with me promising to visit them in Singapore the following weekend, while the remaining twelve of us headed to the second tower to have a drink at Sky Bar. Fortunately, this venue with a pool right in the middle of it didn't have such a strict dress code so we were allowed to enter, going up to something like the 43rd floor which afforded an excellent head-on view of the Petronas Towers and the fountain park below. We could see many of KL's skyscrapers sprouting from the ground like trees while in the middle of the forest there seemed to be an old colonial house which looked quite out of place. Annoyingly, the viewing window was separated halfway by a grey bar which was just at eye level, meaning you needed to stoop to see the full view. Still it did mean that when seated, you could turn around and have a wondrous sight over your shoulder. The beers were expensive - we ordered a bucket of six Asahi as it was the cheapest option - but it was certainly a good way to end our afternoon in the city.

We headed back just before 7pm as there were plans to have dinner with the furs who were still around, all largely Malaysians as the Monday was a holiday in the KL region. I got a lift back to the hotel with one of the furs, freshened up and then headed down to the lobby where we sorted ourselves into cars before heading out to the restaurant. I was with CT, and looking for a parking space, he ended up driving into the newly constructed car park of The Starling shopping center, so newly constructed that it wasn't yet finished. We did manage to find a space eventually though and we all congregated at the Restoran Damansara Uptown Hokkein Mee, which is a favourite of the local furs and apparently a place they come annually. They specialize in brown Hokkein noodles, which are more savoury than their albescent equivalent and I had mine with pork. With it, I got a beer as well as a zesty lime drink, and I must admit it was an appropriate and excellent meal to end the Malaysian leg of the trip. We talked for a while, with me being sat next to the guest of honour Cheetahpaws, who was initially quiet but started to become more engaged as the evening progressed. I also talked to a number of other new friends I had made, so much so that I was out far later than I had intended to be. With a 3:15am start for a flight to Laos the next day, I needed to be back, but I didn't get back to the hotel until well past 10pm. Still I didn't mind too much as this was to be the last night I would be with the local furs for a while and I wanted to make the most of it. Many of them were KL residents so were heading back to their own houses, with a party slated at one of them. Alas due to my early start, I couldn't join them and so I got a lift back to the hotel, one of only three furs staying there that night. After all the happy memories and the bustle of the con, it was quite lonely and desolate being back here, so much so that I just retired to bed as soon as I got back, remembering to take a shower first. I would have loved to have stayed and chatted with the others but the early flight was a priority so I ended it there, along with my time in Malaysia, which had been quite magical.

FURUM II

Dec. 18th, 2016 01:27 pm
lupestripe: (Default)
It was an early start on Sunday morning as the Group Photo, followed by the Fursuit Walk, was scheduled to take place at 10am. As a consequence, I awoke rather groggily from my short night's sleep and ambled downstairs to check whether anyone was suiting for the group photo. It turned out many were, so I slunk back upstairs to get into suit, struggling as ever to perform at such an early hour. Ten minutes later and I warily entered the main stage area and waited for further instruction. The first order of business was an opportunity to take photos with the guest of honour Cheetahpaws in the official photo section in the Fursuit lounge, which was done along the lines of the Tropical Paradise theme. I wasn't too fussed about this so I just danced to some music in the main area while we waited. Around twenty minutes passed before CT announced for the fursuiters to go outside and congregate on some black matting just in front of the pool. I ended up being in the middle, second row from the front after the organizers requested a smaller suiter to stand in front of me. This was fine by me as I know what it's like to be blocked by a tall bastard in front of you, and indeed my pink fur was so vibrant in the equatorial sun that I stood out very easily. After the Fursuit only picture, everyone else was invited to take part in the group shot. After a little rearranging, the picture was taken, with a number being shot just to be sure. With just 130 attendees, the whole process was quite swift, with the second floor balcony providing a perfect vantage shot for the picture. A number of other people were also taking photos at ground floor level, meaning they weren't in the group shot, but at least there will be a large number of showpiece images from the event.

After this, we were invited to go back into the main hall, where we were requested to find a spotter for the Fursuit walk. This was a new one for me - individual spotters for each fursuiter, who literally held your hand as you navigated the admittedly uneven surfaces on the walk. I was a little taken aback as I hadn't considered this, and considering many of my friends are fursuiters, I didn't really know who to choose. The sixteen-year-old nodded at me but wasn't much use so I asked Defago, who agreed but had missed the spotter briefing conducted by Raptor so didn't really know what to do. Before the walk, we were asked to line up in the main hall next to our spotters and at this time a random person popped up by my side. I had no idea where Defago was, and to be fair this new guy was very good, advising me throughout the walk about the uneven pavements and various other pitfalls, of which there were many. The route walk consisted of us walking to the Amcorp Mall, which was just down the road from the hotel but across a rather busy highway. Stepping into the thirty degree Malaysian heat and bright sunshine was quite a shock but in a partial, the effects weren't too bad and I soon got used to it, while the efficient nature of how the walk was conducted meant we were t outside for long. The mall itself was air conditioned and thus cool, and there we met a number of people who were fascinated by the suits, including many children. We were asked to worship a huge fan dispensing cold air, during which time the opportunity was took for another mannequin challenge photo, while another photo opportunity presented itself at a mural painted in the farthest corner of the shopping centre. As with most walks, there was little scope to act as the line had to be kept moving, but I did try my paw at ordering food at a cafeteria, as well as attempting to try on some dresses at a little market stall out front. Everyone was quite receptive to the suits, aside from the security guards who were somewhat perplexed, and after an hour or so we returned back to the hotel to rest and desuit.

I felt quite sleepy after my shower and flopped on the bed, only to fall asleep for two and a half hours due to the previous late night. Fortunately, this was around the length of time of the scheduled lunch break (the Fursuit walk was actually half an hour shorter than advertised) so I didn't really miss anything, groggily surfacing at around 3pm for the afternoon's events in the main hall. This consisted of a number of panels - including Fursuit 101 with Alexa, a Flash animation event and a guest of honour talk - and I flitted around here and the dealers' den, where a few new artists had set themselves up. I discussed more with the creator of the gorgeous lion Fursuit about possibilities for shipping but decided against making a purchase there and then due to the costs of the holiday in general. During these two hours, I spent a lot of time taking photos of fursuiters to show the folks back home on Twitter how great the con was. At one stage, there was a fake US political campaign about voting for a particular suiter in 2020 which I didn't fully quite get but there was a miscellany of suiters and non-suiters posing by the pool for it for quite a while. I also chatted a fair bit here, with my knowledge of Pokemon through Pokemon Go (the first time I had seriously bought into the franchise) proving again invaluable (seriously I had so many conversations and saw so many references to this that I would have been rather lost without my rather limited and basic knowledge). We were also asked to do yet another mannequin challenge, what would be my last of the con, as we chatted around the pool. There were also a number of spandex suits at this event, and I was told after I had arrived in SE Asia that it was something of a spandex con, which was a shame as I could have brought my stuff over. The few spandex suits regularly on show did look rather good and certainly weren't inappropriate or out of place.

The closing ceremony was slated to take place at 5:30pm and as there was a prize draw too, based on badge number, I thought attendance would be positive. It was also a nice way to round off the con as pretty much everyone was gathered in the same place, a final gathering before we all went our separate ways. I arrived about fifteen minutes early and found a seat, but the huge ears of a fursuiter in front of me meant I could not see much, so I opted to stand at the side once the ceremony had began. It started with general thanks before the draw began, with this taking a significant amount of time due to the number of prizes on offer, which must have numbered about forty. There was a range of cool stuff, from Pokémon plushes to Zootopia memorabilia, and there were many things I quite coveted myself. There were a few items I am glad I avoided though, particularly the EF shirts which weren't that exotic for me, considering I had attended two of the three related cons. I also thought these would be better items for the local furs and would have gladly given up my prize as a result. In the end, this wasn't an issue as lot after lot was drawn and I was unsuccessful every time. The sixteen-year-old, Aris, won the coveted mobile phone and a large number of items passed me by. However, I was in luck as mine was the last number to be drawn, FR130. Admittedly, it was for a joke prize, an empty box the con chair had just found lying about, but it turned out that this was a fantastic prize for me to win as it was a souvenir from FURUM from the previous year. The box was a furry take on some local candy called Tora, complete with furrified nutritional information and sarcastic comments. The main logo is a pencil and this was replaced by a cute looking tiger while the Tora logo was written in the same style but advertising FURUM. It was exceptionally well done and as I didn't attend last year's event, I felt I was the best person to receive the prize. I met the artist too, which was a great thrill, and am currently transporting this fragile item home in my hand luggage, guarding it closely. Mine was the last lot to be drawn, after which the convention was declared over, and we all dispersed with many happy memories.

It was then that the goodbyes started, just a few but still quite difficult. A number of people sought me out personally to thank me for attending, including Aris who was heading back to Johor with his family that evening. It was tough saying goodbye but I was at least consoled by the fact I would see the Singaporeans the following weekend when I stopped by their city. There was also a huge farewell meal planned that evening, which around forty-five furs attended, and I was told to meet in the lobby at 7:30pm. This gave me twenty minutes to rest in my room before heading back downstairs, where a large group was waiting. As was often the case, it was a loose congregation time and we didn't leave until after 8pm, with me sharing a taxi with Hollud and a few others. Our destination was Murni Discovery, a highly rated restaurant specializing in a range of Malaysian cuisines. Upon arrival, it started to rain, making it difficult for the poor staff who already had to accommodate so many of us. Initially, we had a long row of plastic tables that stretched from outside the restaurant front and past the boutique next door, ensuring that no one could enter or exit the shop. We then moved to the other side of the premises as we thought there wouldn't be enough room, but with the rain getting heavier, we went back to the shop front where at least we had some food. In this period, I went out with Hollud to a local pharmacy to pick up some more mosquito repellent as I could feel them swarming, having not put any stuff on as I had been told the restaurant was an internal affair. With repellent bought, we returned just in time to order. I got a traffic light non-alcoholic cocktail and a Golden Seafood Special Platter, which turned out to be a mistake as I had completely misjudged the portions. The first telltale sign was the size of the cocktail, which was effectively a pitcher full of sweet juice all to myself. It was tasty but its syrupy nature meant it was quite filling, meaning that by the time my humongous plate of food arrived, I was in no position to start it yet alone finish it. This dish came with everything and the fish and chips would have been enough, without the huge helping of noodles, the muscles and the chicken sausage wrapped in chicken and battered. All of this was covered in mayonnaise and an unidentifiable sweet red sauce, adding to the richness. Hollud was in a similar situation although he did manage to finish his, even if it did result in a food coma and the cancellation of his second room party as he just needed to sleep. I finished about two thirds of mine, which was more than enough, even if I did just have two sandwiches to eat all day. I think Hollud was aided by the fact his drink as just fizzy Ribena, containing far fewer sugary juices than mine.

After the dinner, we rolled back to the taxi, having ordered one on their convenient local app Grab. Once back at the hotel, I went to lie down before heading to a small room party in room 325 for a while. Around twelve people were here, and I stayed a while before CT invited me to his room (101) for the official staff party. I plodded down, taking the reminder of my beer and coconut rum, and spent an enjoyable three hours here talking with the staff, many of the Thai furs and Defago, who turned up a little later. We tried a few snacks and the one Japanese fur who was here, and who I had met at Hollud's the previous evening, had brought some smooth sake for us all to enjoy. It was great meeting him and seeing his suit, even if he only had the head as he had unfortunately lost his luggage en route. He told me to let him know if I ever was in Japan too, which was nice. One thing we did do during the party was see all of the official photos and videos taken during the con, fueling many happy memories. There were a significant number of Lupe but I had hoped for more, making me wonder whether I needed to sort a special partial attire for him rather than just using my standard t-shirts and jeans. While we were at the party, CT asked the opinions of the foreigners about the con while we also planned Monday's trip into KL. The party lasted a lot longer than expected so I asked CT to grab me another beer from 7 Eleven when he went to pick up how toothbrush, meaning I had enough drink to last me past 3am. At this time, half of the group had left including all the Thais and CT was making noises about going to bed so along with Defago I said goodbye to everyone and headed to bed, looking forward to the day of exploring ahead.

FURUM I

Dec. 16th, 2016 08:16 pm
lupestripe: (Default)
I arrived in Malaysia for FURUM, the second iteration of the local furry convention, just after lunchtime on Friday 9th after an exhaustingly early flight out of Vietnam. The queue for immigration didn't help, KLIA being its usual disorganized self, but after around half an hour I was let into the country, where I found my bag waiting for me at the carousel. Then it was just a quick scan at customs - thankfully I decided not to risk taking the second bottle of coconut wine from Vietnam, opting to leave it behind as it would take me over the limit - before heading out into the main concourse to pick up the express train to KL Sentral station. This was easy enough to find, although I did toy with going to Wendy's on the way, and soon I was speeding towards the city centre. On the train, I spoke with Canis Enigmas, who told me that he could pick me up at the railway station and drive me to the hotel instead of me having to take the MRT so after a disappointing McDonald's, I waited at the taxi drop off point for him to arrive. Apparently he had already done one circuit, with me being ten minutes ahead of our prescribed meeting time, but I didn't have to wait long for him to arrive and soon I was speeding towards the hotel venue. On the way we chatted about a range of things and it was great seeing him again for the first time in three and a half years. There were also some other Malaysians in the car and chatting with them set the tone for what would be a very social weekend.

We arrived at the hotel about twenty minutes later after initially unsuccessfully navigating the one-way system. Upon arrival, we were greeted to a sumptuous lobby area bedecked in dark wood, with a few traditional Malay furnishings. This lead to a charming courtyard area which contained a small swimming pool. Some of the con team were already setting up in the room that was to be the Main Event space, and I stuck my head in to say hello before depositing my luggage in my room. It was upstairs, on the second floor, and when I arrived I was disheartened to smell the unmistakable odour of tobacco emanating from my room. The door had been left open, as is often the case here, so I shut it, only for an attendant to knock some five minutes later to tell me the toilet was leaking and it needed fixing. Great start. In the end, it wasn't the toilet but the douche, an item I never use, but to be fair they fixed it quickly and headed off. The room was quite tired, with a few cracked tiles and the like, but it kinda grew on me. I relaxed for about twenty minutes before heading to the nearby Amcorp Mall to pick up supplies - some food as breakfast wasn't included, beer and some chemicals to make the room smell nicer. I then headed back to the hotel room and had a shower, before turning on the huge CRT TV from circa 1992 that was perched on a chair opposite the bed. I flicked around and noticed that "Inside Out" was just about to start - a film I had always wanted to see but had never got around to doing. Consequently I watched it and thought it fantastic, although I did cry in a number of places. Considering it's a kids film, it does have a number of powerful messages and I thought the whole film was rather poignant. Plus it had loads of pretty colours, which is always a positive.

As it was ending, Canis dropped me a message on Telegram saying that a number of furs were going for food and asked whether I wanted to join. About ten minutes later I was down in the lobby and about twenty after that we were in the Sunway Pyramid shopping centre enjoying Ramen at their ground floor Japanese place. I got pork noodles, which was rather tasty, particularly with the perfectly cooked hard boiled egg at the top. I amazed people, as I have done throughout this trip, with my ability to use chopsticks while I also got to try Suntory beer for the first time, having researched the brand for my presentation on beer for my Japanese class a few years ago. It was pleasant enough but not really worth the wait. Primarily though it was great to be back around old friends, and I definitely was welcomed back into the group, feeling very at home around everyone. After the meal, we all went out separate ways, back to our respective cars for the trip back to the hotel. On the way, we saw some charming pale face rabbit posters in Indian headgear urging Mall goers about various aspects of safety while upon reversing out of the car park, an illogically placed cone meant Canis pranged another car with his. Fortunately there was no damage and we could continue on our way, back to the hotel where everyone opted for an early night, tired after their travels to get to the con. My hand was somewhat forced by the fact there was no bar on the premises, with the hotel being run by a Muslim family and thus completely dry. With the cafe shut at 11pm too, there was little else to do but go to bed considering there were no room parties slated.

Saturday was a lie-in morning, what with the opening ceremony not being scheduled until 3pm. I had heard rumours of lunch arrangements at the adjacent A&W and this was confirmed to me when I went downstairs to the Main Event hall. There I met up with Hollud, along with a sixteen year old from Johor in southern Malaysia who said he liked British people and that my presence was the only reason why he had travelled four hours to be here. This was a bit odd but I guess I was flattered, while being the only westerner at the convention meant I barely struggled to make acquaintances as I found many people wanting to come and talk to me. This was particularly the case after the Sunday afternoon, when I had put an array of British confectionary and food stuffs out on the tables next to the Fursuit lounge. They were demolished inside ten minutes, making me wish I had brought more. Anyway I digress. Before I went to A&W I also took the opportunity to register for the con, where I was asked whether I wanted to participate in the Fursuit Games later in the day. Taken aback somewhat, I assumed they were struggling for people, so I consented and then spent fair chunks of the afternoon worrying about it. By the by, the con pack I received upon registration contained a T-shirt, small conbook
and a manual fan, which was to become most useful as the con progressed. I took all this to my room before reconvening with Hollud downstairs, and then around five of us joined around forty others at the fast food outlet. Famous for their root beer, I had never been to an A&W before, but apparently they are quite beloved in Malaysia, so much so that there was one either side of our hotel. The furs had rented out a private party area and apparently this was an order in advance affair, which is something I didn't particularly know. This wasn't a problem though as I just ordered there and then, with the root beer indeed being the best thing about the place by far and away. The food was alright - I had a beef hotdog coated in the middle with thick bland chili sauce and some insubstantial curly fries - but the root beer served with two scoops of vanilla ice cream was smooth and sweet and sumptuous. I also liked the big bear mascot they have but hey I am a furry. I chatted more in the bar, particularly to Hollud and some of the Singaporean furs who had made the short journey north. As before, it felt like I had never been away (I still am an honorary Singapore Fur) and the lunch meet was a nice relaxing way into the con.

We were back in time for the opening ceremony, which took place in the modestly sized conference hall. It was also succinct, hosted by chairman CT and only twenty minutes in length, covering all of the key points, a situation from which I think other cons could seriously learn. The Fursuit lounge was just adjacent to the main hall, useful for the dance later, and I was surprised by the sheer number of people who were in suit already. Indeed I was surprised overall by the number of suits - 44 in a con of 130 - and there were some truly fantastic ones on show. After the ceremony, I popped over to the Dealers' Den where I fell in love with a beautiful lion partial Fursuit, made out of fantastic light purple, pink and blue fur. The follow-around eyes had stars and the expression was charming. It's very rare I fall in love with a suit but this was different, and I just wish I could have fit him in my suitcase so I could take him home. In the end, despite discussing the possibility of posting him, I came to the conclusion that it was becoming too expensive, particularly when you factor in customs charges too. Furthermore, it was just for the head and tail, no arms or feet, making the price seem less good. I do really want him though, and still I am yearning for him, so I'll keep an eye on the maker and see if I can get a commission of my own in the future. There were a number of other good dealers too and I got a few things for Wolfie, particularly a pink plastic Pawpsicle and an anime comic about some wolves. I also got an anime style headshot for my character as I hadn't had Lupe done in this form before.

With time ticking on until the start of the Fursuit Games, and with me receiving numerous queries about where my suit was, I thought it was time to go and suit up. Draken had made me a partial for this trip, with the Malaysian heat and a lack of baggage space meaning I felt the full suit wouldn't be particularly appropriate. The shade of pink was slightly different but apart from this, it worked rather well and I was very pleased with how cool it was, in both senses of the word. With the nerves building, I made my way down to the Main Event area as the minutes counted down to the start of the Games. There were twelve of us competing and we were divided into three teams of four - gold, silver and green denoted by a ribbon tied around the wrist. I was in team gold and once we had found our teammates, the first game was prepared. This was essentially an exercise in constructing a hula hoop which we then had to throw over an inflatable cactus. I was quite apprehensive by this point but we had a good team strategy which saw us assemble our hoop first. Alas our aim wasn't great and in the end we finished second, picking up three points in the process. The second game was a form of charades, where we had to perform simple words in front of the audience to guess. We had two minutes and had a target of fifteen. We could signal an X if we did not know how to portray them. I feared the worst but in the end the words were quite simple such as "point" or "gun" so I didn't need to pass. The audience got my actions pretty quickly and in the end we scored thirteen, putting us in second place for this round too, giving us a score of three more points. As circumstance would have it, the other two teams traded places, with the winners of round one finishing bottom here and vice versa, meaning heading into the final round we were all tied on six points each. The winner-takes-all round three was a form of musical chairs but with squares of paper laid on the ground, which we had to dance around before jumping on when the music stopped. The bottom six suiters got one point each, with the fifth place getting two up to the winner getting ten. I felt a little apprehensive starting off but as the suiters fell, I developed a strategy which meant I was almost always next to one of the squares. This paid dividends as the suiters continued to fall, with the last four being two from team gold (including me) and one each from the other teams. It was at this point that I knew we had won but we forged ahead, with the final two ending up being the two gold competitors. Consequently we won the Fursuit Games by 10 clear points (27-17-15) while ultimately I ended up winning the musical squares game. This was exceptionally unexpected, particularly as this was my first ever Fursuit games, but I was delighted to contribute so much to the winning team. I had had fears of letting everyone down but we were a fantastic quartet. Upon receiving our prizes - a nice polar bear mug - we were asked to do the pineapple pen dance, which was something I didn't know. After being briefed by my teammates I just about managed to pull it off but I did have to glance over continuously to see what they were doing. In front of an audience it was all a little embarrassing but I was still quite high from winning the event. After this, we were also asked to participate in one of the very many mannequin challenges we did during the weekend, with this one involving us lording our prizes as the vanquished looked on in agony. It was all a bit of fun.

As part of the prize for winning the musical squares game, I was invited to the Guest of Honour dinner, which had been for Supersponsors only. I had wanted to attend but the Supersponsor tickets had sold out quickly so after a quick shower and change of clothes, I ambled over there. I got the impression that there were more spaces than attendees but many of my friends on staff were there, including Marvin Raptor with whom I was sat opposite. A couple of the female furs from the Dealers' Den were also there and after sampling a tasty albeit moderately warm soup, I hungrily got stuck into the four platters they had placed in the middle of the table to share. The grey mushroom and lamb was arguably the best, but the vegetable stir fry was also tasty. The lurid yellow pineapple curry was my least favourite, not only because it contained pineapple but also because it was too hot for my liking. After the main course, we were given a platter of fresh fruit - papaya, mango and watermelon - along with a creamy dessert which was exceptionally good. This fruit combination is particularly common across SE Asia and it is one of my favourites although I'm not a particular fan of watermelon in all honesty.

The Fursuit Dance had been slated to start at 9pm but there was talk of bringing it forward. In the end, it was extended from an hour slot to two, meaning it stretched to 11pm. After excusing myself from dinner shortly after 8:30pm, I left the rather drab surroundings of the hotel restaurant and donned my Fursuit yet again for some dancing. It was around this time that I spoke to Defago in-depth for the first time, which was just as well considering we had been planning to tour his home country of Laos following the con. We talked while taking a break from the dance in the Fursuit lounge and we plotted the five days I was to spend in the country, meaning I could get on with making arrangements. I also met a fur from Bahrain during the same conversation as he too is a friend of Defago's. In the middle of all this there was the Fursuit dance, an eclectic mix of dance tunes and some slower numbers too, some of which worked and some of which didn't. Aerosmith's "Livin' On A Prayer" was a particularly highlight, particularly as everyone knew the lyrics and was thus singing along. Earlier in the day I had been sold some pink glow sticks but the designs were weird, meaning I couldn't work out how the wrist ones worked. I did don one around my neck though and during the dance I was handed a large polystyrene truncheon which glowed red, blue and green. The dance was fun but at times it felt a little isolating, with friendship groups dancing with each other and me having to force my way in on occasion but largely I had a good time. We also had another mannequin challenge as part of the dance, which was one of about four I ended up being involved in.

As the dance overran, the Motorfurs meet did too, but I had been invited to a room party in Hollud's suite so I couldn't really attend. It was a shame as I wanted to take a photo of Lupe in his brother's Japanese sports car for Wolfie. Hollud's suite was far more impressive than my basic room but still suffered from the same issues of cracked tiles and tiredness, while his dusty four-poster bed was somewhat flimsy. There were about fifteen furs at the party, to which I brought M Wolf's Vietnamese coconut wine, which went down quite well. The Grand Tour in which sycophants indulged Jeremy Clarkson and then Avatar were on the TV while we spent a good few hours chatting and sharing snacks, including some incredibly succulent Singaporean pork jerky which was greasy but full of flavour. It was a great evening but as it progressed, Benji ended up drinking too much toquilla, experiencing being drunk for the very first time. He was okay until he started standing, very much like my first time, but then he wanted to be sick. He spent a while jumping up and down, trying to convince himself of his sobriety until we guided him to the bathroom and let him expunge the toxins. He was there for two hours, with a few furs helping him, turning to me for guidance as to what to do. I'm not an expert but after half an hour of unproductive wretching I thought it best to guide him to his room, which the remaining three of us did. We put him to bed, informed his roommate of the situation and headed to bed ourselves, having stayed up to nearly 4am and far far later than we had intended.
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After our delicious pho, we hopped back on the scooters and headed over the river to the Hachiko Dog Cafe, whose slogan is 'Dog Is Friend, Not Food'. This is one of a number of dog cafes in HCMC where you can order a tea and sit playing with the dogs. This cafe was over two floors and we started off in the downstairs one, where there were about twenty different types of dog frolicking around. It was very much puppy heaven, with a handful of attentive staff keeping an eye on things, particularly mopping up any little accidents which may have occurred (from the dogs obviously, not humans, there was a separate human toilet). We had to take our shoes off at the door, and after getting past the dog-proof gate, we entered the airy room where most of the dogs were having a snooze. There were two dogs play fighting in the middle of the room, I think they were mother and son, while a quite angry Dalmatian was barking at everything. He needed some controlling, but the atmosphere was relaxed, with around fifteen other guests there. I ordered a bubble tea and sat down on the floor, only for a small brown puppy to come bounding over literally a minute later and jump on my lap. Here she curled up and went to sleep, refusing to budge until I lifted her off a good half an hour later, by which time I had developed pins and needles in my left leg. She was great to stroke and hold though, and I was delighted that she trusted me so much, although once I had let her go, she wasn't really interested in coming back, opting to snooze elsewhere. There was a small yappy dog who didn't much care for me at all while the rather large husky was very boring. Meanwhile, some of the Vietnamese furs were playing with a toy car, getting a number of the dogs to chase after it by passing it back and forth to each other. Somewhile later, after having had my rather delicious beverage, we headed to the upstairs area where there were yet more dogs, but sadly space was at a premium here so we headed back downstairs pretty quickly. While sat on the floor with pupper, I was engrossed by the TV in the corner of the room above the door, which was playing Vietnamese love songs. The lyrics were highlighted, meaning I could follow the pronunciation of the language but when after the end of my stay, I still couldn't work out all of the different tones. On the walls, there were a number of pro-dog pictures including famous ones of various dignitaries such as the Queen and Bill Clinton.

After about an hour at the dog cafe, it was time to leave, with our next destination being DL Nguyen Hue, one of the main drags of the city. It was here that Graffiti had arranged the Fursuit walk as part of the furmeet, which I was to discover would be the largest ever to take place in Vietnam with around twenty-five attendees. We parked the scooters in an adjacent underground car park before congregating on the long pedestrian walkway which was flanked by two roads. At one end is the river, aside which there fluttered all the flags of the ASEAN countries, while at the other end there is a huge golden statue of Ho Chi Minh set in front of the glorious colonial architecture of the People's Committee Building. Built between 1901 and 1908 the former Hotel de Ville is a remarkable white building with red tiled roof and is now one of the most important in the city. Meanwhile, the statue was constructed in 2015 to celebrate the 125th birthday of Ho Chi Minh. Opposite this is the construction site of the new Saigon Metro, a joint Vietnamese-Japanese venture, while down the pedestrian street there are a number of fountains, with the area getting livelier and livelier as the afternoon progressed. We congregated at a bench about halfway up and saw all of these sites as part of the Fursuit walk. Our numbers swelled pretty quickly and it was great meeting everyone, with six Fursuiters also in attendance, including Graffiti herself who had her bunny suit with her. I had carried my Fursuit around with me all day, with the head comfortably squeezed into my backpack and while the mercury was still hitting around 30C, I was quite excited about the walk. Once everyone had arrived, I nipped into a nearby public lavatory to put on my Fursuit arms, with this being the first time I had ever donned a partial, thanks to Arcais and Draken making it for me before I went away. This was a godsend in the heat and enabled me to do a full two hours of suiting non-stop although hugging kids was a bit strange without the huge furry body. Everyone else had partials too, largely due to the heat, and by 4pm we were ready to start the festivities. We got quite a good reception from the local kids, while a bubble seller set up pretty early on so I had fun playing a game of smash the bubbles. The local suiters were all quite interactive, making suiting easy, while a number commented on just how good I was with the children. While I was suiting, M Wolf was taking photos and videos, going somewhat overboard so I needed to make some space on my pitifully small SD card mid-walk, hiding behind trees as I took off my Fursuit paws to do this. There are still some excellent pictures though, particularly of me by the roadside waving to the passing cars, which again got a good reception. Later on, a Western couple in a coffee shop on the fourth floor of a block of flats noticed me so we exchanged waves for a while before continuing with the walk. Two hours was long enough, particularly as it was starting to get dark, so at around 5:45pm we called it quits and desuited, with the locals not too bothered about ruining the magic by getting changed in the middle of the street. Again, as I had to take my t-shirt off to take my arms off, I dipped into the toilet to change before packing everything away, initially forgetting that I had left my tail on. The road was getting increasingly busy with revelers by now - we had already moved away from a guy dressed as Kung Fu Panda and later on we were to see two people dressed as Pikachu and one as a giant pink cat advertising N Cat, a local fashion jewelry store. He was friendly at least, while next to this, someone had set up a sound system and was blaring out poor pop tunes to all and sundry, a common theme I have noticed across Vietnam.

After the walk, most of the furs left and I was driven back to my hotel, where I was allowed to freshen up before going back into town around an hour and a half later for dinner. We ended up on the same street, with the Bitexco Tower, the tallest in the city, lit up wondrously. In its shadow, we ate at Hi Salad, a restaurant specializing in delicious local salads, particularly those serving beef. The food wasn't overly substantial however and afterwards we headed into the suburbs to go to a favourite street food restaurant of the group. These places are very rough and ready, with dirty walls and stainless steel tables but the food is often amongst the best in the region and this was certainly the case here. I had a scrambled egg and potato omelette Deeley with local sauces, a speciality of the city and excellent filling-up food, while I also had the rather ubiquitous yet bland iced tea. The owner was a delightful elderly lady who took pride in all the food she served, and this was clearly a small family run affair. The food was very hearty and a perfect end to the day, which has sadly passed all too suddenly. Saying goodbye was incredibly hard but with people having work the next day, this was a sad inevitability, but I was to see M Wolf and Graffiti on the Monday so this softened the blow. I thanked everyone for their excellent hospitality before being driven back to the hotel, through the choked city traffic of a Sunday evening, with everyone else doing the same as us, heading home after an evening at a local eatery.

With jet lag still a factor, I went to bed early, a decision aided by the 10am start I had arranged with M Wolf the next day (Monday). We had decided to meet up at Haagen Dazs again, where I was to discover that this was M's first ever time in HCMC and he wanted to see the main sights as much as I did. However, initially he was over half an hour late, which made me feel less guilty about turning up at 10:15am so I grabbed an overly expensive bowl of ice cream and waited for him. The same friendly security guard who had been there the previous morning was sat on a small plastic stool once again, and we exchanged knowing glances as I waited. I'll admit that all the officials in HCMC, and there are many, were all incredibly polite and engaging. Once M had arrived, we decided to go to the War Remnants Museum, the place we had sacrificed the day before in order to go to the dog cafe (so worth it), in the afternoon as it was scheduled to close for a long lunch within the hour. This meant that we decided to do a walking tour of downtown Saigon as detailed in the guidebook. This covered many of the sights that we had already seen but it also enabled us to tick off the remaining ones in an efficient manner, starting with Turtle Lake (Ho Con Ra), a concrete flower-like structure set in the middle of a roundabout. It's actually quite striking considering the drabness of the material and was definitely worth the small detour to see it. We then double backed on ourselves and headed towards the centre, with me being surprised just how compact it was. As we walked, M and I chatted about a range of things, and it was good getting to know him, even if I sometimes struggled to hear him over the noise of the traffic. We walked past Notre Dame Cathedral and the Post Office Building, where we had been the previous morning and headed towards the People's Committee Building again, with the Bitexco Tower our primary destination. On our way though we managed to check out a number of famous hotels including the Continental, built in 1880 and a favourite among press corps during the French War. Graham Greene also regularly stayed here. We also saw the Caraville Hotel, which was the home of foreign news bureaux and the Australian and New Zealand embassies during the Vietnam War. A bomb exploded on the fifth floor here in 1964 and for the rest of the war, the iconic curved window was taped up. The ornate opera house, again in the French style, makes up the trio of interesting buildings in this area.

Further down the road and towards the river, we veered left to catch the statue of Tran Hung Dai, who defeated the Mongols. Here we sat by the river, looking out at the undeveloped other bank, with the red star of Heineken on a collection of billboards the only thing to see. It was good having a little rest though, as well as a further chat, before we made our way past the Majestic Hotel, requisitioned by the Japanese as a military barracks in WWII and towards the main drag again where we saw the towering might of the Bitexco Tower. At 68 stories and 262m in height, it towers impressively over the area, and is designed to represent a lotus bulb (although the guidebook fantastically described it as a CD rack with a tambourine shoved into it). The tambourine is the 49th floor, which for a substantial fee of 200,000 VND you could go up. We decided to do so, initially going into the shopping centre part rather than the main entrance by mistake. After paying, a lady wanted to take our picture in front of a green screen, with us not knowing what was going to be put behind us. We couldn't really get out of it so we accepted, although we didn't pay for the souvenir photograph in the end. The pricy tickets entitled us to 20% off at the probably equally overpriced restaurant so we skipped this too, opting for a nearby street cafe where we had more delicious pho. However, the panoramic views over the city were undoubtedly worth it, with the Saigon River snaking through the city. In the distance, beyond the wasteland of the other bank, we could see tower blocks under construction while to the north and west, the city continued as far as the eye could see. The view was incredible, what with it being a fabulously sunny day, and I had a good fifteen minute wander observing it from all angles. In the tower, there was also a list of the top twenty tallest buildings, with me having been to five of them, while the small Ao Dai Museum was a fascinating addition, exploring the changing designs and styles of the national dress for women in Vietnam. These silk gowns are lightweight and glamorous, and it was interesting charting their evolution from the early seventeenth century to the present day. There was a twelve minute video fashion show to highlight this, along with a number of Ao Dai dresses on display reflecting changing trends. The hippy influenced ones of the Sixties and Seventies were the most garish while the intricate patterns of the early era were perhaps my favourite, with traditional wooden shoes held on with rope to boot. We spent a good while up here before heading across the road for a tasty lunch as already described.

June 2017

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