Who does not love exploring?

Hells bus part 2

We wake at 6:00 am and wander onto the street to see two hundred orange robed Buddhist monks receiving alms, mainly sticky rice. There is a really surreal feeling to the sight, almost like the day has not woken properly and we are seeing its fading dream. Gucci clad tour groups from high end hotels line the street, they are wearing orange shawls and handing rice to the monks in a frenzy of karma trading. We do not want to intrude as they do and just stand watching from a respectful distance. I cannot get a photo of the amazing procession without unwittingly snapping one of these party crashers.

Not yet ready to face the day we crawl back under the fan and into bed to make a few more Z’s

Midday, our second brutal commute through Laos has begun. We are on a Jumbo van to the airport. Jumbo vans are awesome, they are tiny one litre Diahatsu flat bed trucks with bench seats and roofs installed. About twelve people can fit in the back, backpacks go on the roof, the sights and smells are within grasp as they putter you to your destination.

We wait in the tiny one gate airport for two hours watching pink and white toga wearing people talk with British accents to a large family of Sri Lankan tourists. The dark Sri Lankans look quite happy about the near forty degree heat. The flight has its ups and downs, that is to say we go up, then straight down. It only takes forty minutes to fly what would have been a fourteen hour bus epic, it is seventy US dollars well spent. Thankfully we land in Vientiane without mishap, despite more liquid being spotted under the plane and a very second hand looking decor inside.

An un air-conditioned taxi with a stern driver takes us through the country’s capital to the bus depot, we stop counting intricately painted Buddhist temples at seven. The French influence is even more obvious here with baguette stands displaying their wares on every corner.

With our shorts sticking to our bums and backs itching from hot packs we discover that a bus is leaving south on Route 13 in ten minutes. We find a baguette to munch and I buy Jette a can of coke, I spoil myself with another bag of Spicy Crab Lays chips. We take a deep breath and settle in our seats near the back of the bus. Despite having bussed through some of the worlds poorer nations this is easily the worst bus I have ever graced. The last four rows of seats have been removed and replaced with hessian sacks of either rice or fabric. Every available space, even the bit where you normally put your feet, is filled with these dusty sacks, the aisle, the roof, there are even two sacks dangerously close to the driver’s foot pedals.

If you speak with someone who has endured the unimaginable, lets say a five year term in a Balinese prison, they will not give you an orderly description of their experience. More likely you will get a highlight reel of the worst parts, spikes on a graph showing suffering on the ‘X” and time on the ‘Y’. I think this is how I am also best able to paint an accurate picture of our five hours inside this muggy hessian sack. In short it felt like we were reliving all the bad bits from the bible.

The bus waits in the full sun for twenty long minutes before leaving. By now sweat is dripping from the end of my nose rhythmically and Jette has finished her coke. My packet of chips has swelled in the heat fit to burst.

Half an hour into our journey we stop and two scooters levitate past the rear window and are lashed down next to the three goats who have been enjoying a cool breeze on the roof. A bag of rotten, half eaten something has been shoved into the ashtray adding a zesty tang to the muggy air. We drive off through a winding mountain pass which reveals a very unnerving fact about this bus. Not only do the brakes smell like burnt rubber but the top moves completely independently to the bottom. The weight of sacks on top of the bus makes the roof swing about four inches away from each corner. This movement sends shudders down the bus, both in the passengers and in the rusted sheet metal which covers the frame and is fast loosing its battle to keep the outside world out. A credit card sized gap where the window opens up provides our only link to sanity as a cool breeze sometimes wafts away our body odour. Someone sitting in front throws water out of their window, it is sucked into ours and covers our grimy shirts. A child is crying constantly. Heat, hot dust, dust which gets on your teeth and down the back of your throat. Dust which balls into sweaty bobbins when I run my hand up Jette’s forearm. My hairline near the neck is brown with sweaty dust.

The air inside the bus smells like a wet sneaker. The bus stops to allow the driver to fill up the steaming radiator. All the passengers disembark and run into a rubber plantation like Khmer Rouge soldiers. Jette braves the plantation for a wee stop, needing to maintain eye contact with our bags I simply go at the back of the bus. I catch a glimpse inside the engine bay, a mechanic has held this engine together with silver tape and hose clamps, what little confidence I had in our transport evaporates. We finish all of our water, which was too hot to quench a thirst anyway. My chips are finished and I feel nauseous with the diesel smell. Jette’s head is rolling on her shoulders, she bears the haunted look of an African child in a famine. The bus rumbles and squeaks onwards at a steady forty kilometres an hour.

The scenery disappears as the sun sets somewhere in the haze. I am pretty sure I just spotted a grandma on a pushbike pass us before the darkness steals all views. Now our only senses available are smell and sound, these remind us constantly that we are moving somewhat closer to our goal. The dark takes with it our confidence of finding a room for the night, we are planning to get off at the corner of Routes 13 and 8. A small town without a name or any information available. I am glad to have the DEET in case we need to sleep in a sun shelter beside a rice paddy. An indeterminable time bumbling along in the dark, tired with nerves from jumping when the chassis groans or when the driver falls onto the horn, and finally we are off the bus. We are standing at the junction wearing our very dirty packs and trying to spot a hotel, hostel or welcoming looking local. We had planned on pushing through to Ban Khoun Kam nearer Kong Lo caves but the journey of about two hundred kilometres took over five hours and has completely drained our batteries, the energiser bunny is no longer dancing or banging his cymbals.

Thankfully we find a room, at a roadside hotel with a mattress that still has its plastic cover on and a fan that gently mixes the muggy air. We wash our faces and fall into a nearby diner where a man wearing clownish makeup is dressed as a lady. He/she tries to flirt with both of us. We leave. At the only other diner open a young teen apologetically serves us noodle soup and omelet, we eat with abandon while looking over the families shoulders to absently watch a sit-com on television. A gangster is cutting off a man’s ears.

Back to the room, we lie under the fan. Prone and shirtless on the sticky-hot plastic mattress cover we see geckos outside chasing flies. They make weird frogish noises.  I get up and photograph a bug the size of your hand and jump back onto the bed. We have a plan in place to get to the cave tomorrow, sleep spirits us away before we can worry too much about tomorrow.

Our commute is not quite finished however, the morning brings a renewed vigour and enthusiasm to see this cave which we have made such a detour to explore. We catch an early Jumbo to Ban Khoun Kam. I am standing on a back ledge in the breeze as the van weaves its way along a serpentine road. The karst formations are sharp, unlike the smooth (possibly older) ones in Vietnam. Sharp spikes like grey meringue pies stick up out of the lush surrounding jungle. The scenery is surreal, like a mental patient’s painting.

Many scooters and construction vans pass us on the way. A thirteen kilometre tunnel is being dug through a mountain to speed movement through the region. I spend the whole ride on the back ledge holding on with one hand and frantically photographing the scenery with the other.

We get to a guesthouse where the guide book promises we will be met by English speaking Jimmy. Jimmy unfortunately is in Canada on work. His younger sister shows us to a room. A room with a musty, rattling air-conditioner unit fighting to abate the thirty-five degree heat. We meet our first Westerner for days. Claudia is a young German girl, she is traveling on her own as her boyfriend had to return to Germany for work. Some companies in Germany give their workers the option to take up to three months sabbatical on minimum wage, which they can pay back with a pay reduction once they return to full time work, this sounds very much like a win/win scenario.

We are served 2 very fresh baguettes for breakfast which we fill with omelet before jumping on Claudia’s prearranged Jumbo out to the cave. Our pilgrimage to the caves is almost done. It had better be worth the effort!

Hells bus part 1

grey Hells bus part 1Early morning, somehow and for the first time in our travels the bloody alarm does not go off. We frantically skip breakfast and showers, pack and race to catch the bus, which turns out to be an old 44 seater saved from a scrapyard somewhere, at least it is not packed too badly, for now.

Two hours in to our trip from Luang Nam Tha to Luang Prabang we stop at a roadside market where ladies are selling bags of live eels alongside pigs, chickens and peanuts under dusty bamboo stalls. Jette and I run off the bus to find a toilet, having no luck we wander back to the bus where the ticket boy and driver are hauling two scooters onto the roof. With the scooters tied firmly down and the locals on our bus comparing recently purchased eel bags we rattle onwards. We shake and roll through serpentine roads lined with high green grass. Breaks in this grass corridor reveal impossibly steep, impossibly green, terraced hills with small bamboo huts dotted on their slopes. I can just make out the silhouette of farmers taking well earned breaks from the heat under these shelters. Gaps in the grass corridor along bridge crossings reveal small hamlets. Bamboo huts sit on stilts where small grubby children play in the dirt with wheel-less toy trucks. Adults either slowly make handy crafts or just lie in the shade laconically. Gaps on high mountain passes reveal karst formations, which hide under their green coverings almost apologetically, poking out of rice paddies. A green carpet thrown over the flatter areas.

These are the glimpses of Laos we see through the grubby window of this smelly old dirty bus as we dodge scooters at forty kilometers an hour. I feel as though we are in a 3D cinema, being granted occasional glimpses through a smeared canvas of green. Buffalos look up in slow buffalo-like surprise as the driver toots his horn, he honks the horn at thirty second intervals.

We wind down a particularly steep section of road past rubber plantations and stop near the big palm leaf tree. I introduce two fellow Australians to the joy of spicy, crab Lays chips as we wait. Before long the heat of the bus forces us all outside to investigate the hold up. Roadworks at the bottom of the pass has caused our pause, which will last for two hours. I am playing UNO with a Frenchman, a Swede and a German lady (sounds like a good joke) when the bus rolls on again, with brakes that still smell caustic. Jette still has her nose in the guide book trying to figure out what we will do when we arrive at Luang Prabang, five dusty, bouncy hours later.

So who took her shirt off the line then mate? This was the only question which really matters. I do not care how many people stay here, who came and left yesterday or how much the laundry service washes each day. I only care about who took Jette’s favorite, quick drying shirt off the line outside our room between the time when we left for breakfast and returned from breakfast (with bellies full of omelet, great coffee and French baguette).

Jette decides to give up on her shirt so we wander off to look at temples.

grey Hells bus part 1We are in Luang Prabang, having enjoyed the magic bus ride from Luang Nam Tha we settle into a lazy morning wandering this Buddhist temple dotted town between ice water breaks and politely declining tuk-tuk rides. Templed out we have lunch at the same Italian/Franco.Italian restaurant which served such great breakfast and decide to hire a scooter for the afternoon to explore the region. I sign a form absolving all rights to a claim, we jump on a scooter and set out to the Kuang Si waterfall. A one hour ride through isolated villages, past buffalo encrusted ditches sees us at the reserve car park just as the vendors are packing up their sticky rice in palm leaf and chicken on bamboo skewers. We walk two kilometers past a bear rescue centre (they had apparently only saved one bored looking bear and need funds) to the now deserted waterfall.

Recent flooding has washed away the bridge and lower viewing platform so we sit on the upper level, drink warm scooter shaken coke and photograph the falls. Brown flood water cascades over seven levels into a confused looking pond at the bottom. Should the water be clear and the weather a little less muggy this area would truly be a shampoo commercial set. I desperately want to explode out of these waters shaking a full head of Sunsilk hair in the tropical sun. Shiny new ferns cling to the rocks as trees look to be loosing their footings on the precarious cliffs surrounding the falls. We happily snap away, then realize we are not alone. Two Aussies burst into frame and introduce themselves as Chigga and Davo. Davo is currently missing a flight from Bangkok to Sydney, Chigga seems just happy wandering. They rented motorbikes in Chang Mai and “Kind of lost track of time mate”

Chigga tells me that it is possible to climb the falls. He rips of his shirt to reveal a large, hairy beer tumor and dares me to follow suit. I pass the camera to Jette, take off my shirt and thongs and wade into the water.

Despite looking green and slick the rocks are amazingly grippy. It is possible to walk up these rocks, in ankle deep water, to the third tier. Chigga and I strike shirtless muscle poses on a ledge and are soon joined by Davo. Lounging in a jacuzzi sized pool, ten meters up a multi tiered waterfall in Laos with two fellow countrymen I again thank my travel angel for his tireless behind the scenes work. I feel like I have found the fountain of youth, that if I stayed here would not age one day, at the very least I may see a few shampoo commercials being shot. Unfortunately the other two soon bore and make to leave. We climb down to inspect the photos which Jette dutifully took as we played explorers.

I sit on the scooter with a wet bum, the one hour ride to town is colored by villagers winding up their day and the sun casting salmon tints over the rice paddies. After dropping off the scooter we arrive at the hostel to be welcomed by joyous news;

“Lady nex, door, tay your top, acci-lent, solly”

grey Hells bus part 1Reunited with her top, Jette leads me to the night market, via another Buddhist temple, to celebrate our news by buying daggy, bright, falang pants similar to mine. We eat at the Franco/Italian restaurant and retire early, ready for a brutal commute tomorrow.

We have decided to try to see the Kong Lo caves in central Laos. This network of caves is both hard to reach and spectacular.

So there was this Australian, a Frenchman, a Swede and a German playing UNO somewhere in Laos…..

Luang Nam tha, Laos – Jungle boogie

1,300,000 kip or around $160 aus in Luang Nam tha will get you two local guides, incredible food, ok lodging and many lessons on jungle medicine.

Early the following morning, with jet lag still failing to catch Jette we meet our guide for the jungle trek. Kong is in his mid twenties, a short Lao man from the Khmu group. He is incredibly fit and has the quietly apologetic air common to rural Asians. It is almost as if Kong wishes he was more transparent, less real than he is. He is so softly spoken that throughout our trek Jette and I find ourselves constantly asking him to repeat himself. Each time he does though, he becomes more softly spoken, apologetic and harder to understand. Kong, however is comfortable in the jungle, his father took him on regular treks through the jungle and passed on his knowledge. Kong’s parents are farmers and have nine children, no doubt they were hoping that at least one would stay and help with the farm, none did.

After a forty-five minute drive, the minivan drops us beside a small bamboo town, ever present curious children peek at us in their grubby clothes. Kong runs off to find an assistant for the trek. He returns with a tiny lady in tow who is wearing a printed t-shirt and a long traditional dress. She maintains shy eye contact with her green thongs throughout introductions. We bundle our respective loads onto our backs and set off through rice paddies. It takes four hours to walk from 500 meters to 1,600 meters in the heat, all the way we battle humidity, spiky vines, bugs, leeches and sticky red mud which fill our shoe treads and render them useless.

On the trail Kong shows us many types of plants, both medicinal and tasty. Ginger, one tree used to treat diarrhoea, one for nausea, one to bring on labour, one for toothache. Kong also helped his assistant to collect various vegetables and spices on the way to use for tonights dinner. I am starting to feel like the lead actor in Avatar as Kong displays his impressive knowledge and connection with the jungle. I would not have been surprised if he had pulled out a tendril and plugged himself into a tree or fern, that would have got awkward.

Hot, sweaty, dirty and tired we finally arrive at our jungle camp, a basic platform set in the saddle of two mountains. Kong disappears with the assistant to cook dinner, leaving us to pull out torn, musty mattresses to read and snooze. The buzzing of crickets and cicadas fills the hot, still air.

As night falls we wander to the other hut where dinner is being cooked in a bamboo tube propped in a small fire. I cannot for the life of me figure out how the bamboo does not burn through as we cook. Kong busily throws in the various spices and exotic plants collected on the trek into the tube, along with some buffalo, chili and rice. Sometime later he determines that dinner is ready and pours the contents out onto a palm leaf, also gathered that day. The food tastes incredible. Slightly spicy with just a hint of muddy bamboo flavor and tender beef. I cannot believe it had been glooped out of a bamboo tube and cooked on an open fire. Over dinner I ask Kong about unexploded ordinances left behind after the war. He says that we could feel safe walking down the right hand side of the hill but not up to the left, that way has a risk of mines and possibly unexploded bombs. Mental note!

With dinner finished, the washing up done (by means of throwing the palm leaf into the shrub) we set out on a night walk to find some animals. Two hours later, still stumbling through the dark sharing a single torch we have not seen a thing except a lone millipede carefully navigating a fallen tree. Myriad insect noises and vague rustling comes from the darkness, teasing us as we bumble past. Kong takes us past a tree with four parallel lines cut into it. He tries to tell us that a panther recently must have climbed this tree. Neither Jette or I fall for this. It is clearly a fallback, a consolation prize, shown to people when the animals do not cooperate.

Finally back at the sleeping platform we tuck in our slightly ripped mosquito net and lie down to sleep. Jette does not sleep very well. The night for her is one long torture as she imagines large bugs creeping under the net and into her sleeping bag. The sounds of the insects surrounding us is magnified by the pitch black darkness. The bugs fall silent and allow Jette some sleep in the early morning hours when rain washes away their song and cools the air.

The walk out is much more agreeable than the walk in was. An early start before the heat, combined with about eighty percent downhill sees us happily and muddily sliding back to a second village and our pickup. On the descent Jette and I are slipping and sliding quite a bit in the fresh mud. Surprisingly Kong’s assistant, in her plastic thongs, only slips once.

A bouncy bumpy minivan ride finishes back at Luang Namtha depositing two sweat and mud streaked trekkers onto the main road. We wander to the same hotel due to its locality and set about quarantining our dirty trekking clothes until we are able to find a laundry.

Tomorrow we head south, we are going to bus our way south through Laos and into Cambodia. To maintain a respectable budget we have allowed ourselves one flight only from this point onwards, this means that tomorrow will be a long bus day.

No Bangkok sex tourism

“No Bangkok sex tourism allowed”

Down a dark alley in the main tourist centre of Bangkok (where the American GI “Cowboy” opened the city’s first gogo bar after the war and started a bit of a trend), right amongst the ping pong shows and sleazy tourist traps quietly sits this grand old lady of the city.

Approaching the hotel the first thing we see is a large red sign proclaiming; “No Bangkok sex tourism” Inside the musty lobby above the quietly efficient receptionist is another large sign with more rules:

  • No Bangkok sex tourism (just to be sure)
  • No noise after 11pm, no exceptions
  • Remove shoes
  • No loud swimming after 10pm

…amongst others. This quiet hotel away from the groups of viagra and beer swilling men who infest Bangkok will suit us perfectly. I have just picked up Jette from the airport after her big commute from Denmark to Bangkok, despite having had four seats all to herself she is still a bit tired. I am also tired after a busy few days with my sister and her family in Jakarta. We drop our bags in our room and walk back to the lobby, which sports a sign proclaiming the hotel’s 60th anniversary. We need internet to do some planning.

A very drunk and seemingly stoned man is bleeding from his knuckles all over the reception desk, he is trying to explain to the lady that he is not a trouble maker and that it was an accident, whatever ‘it’ was. We grab the internet code and find a quiet corner. “Only drinks and books on the table, no feet or bags” …the rules continue. I take a risk and put my computer down on the table.

Two hours later we have flights and an airport transfer booked, and we are fed. We are flying to Luang Nam Tha in Northern Laos for a few days of trekking before making our way south down through Laos and into Cambodia. Planning and eating done we go back to our room for an early night. I look at the only decoration in our musty room, an interesting article about the hotel’s history.

The Atlanta Hotel was the first hotel in Bangkok to have a swimming pool. The owner filled the bomb shelter with water when the war finished. In the 70’s this stately old hotel was used by the dregs of society as a brothel and opium den, the writer alluded to unspeakable acts being a regular theme during this time. The original owner’s son returned to Bangkok and, upon seeing the state of his first home, kicked out the drug users and took back control. Eventually he renovated the building to its former glory. Since then the Atlanta has passed through many hands and is now a quietly grand, if run down, budget hotel in the heart of Bangkok…and no sex tourism allowed. Despite the musty no doubt legionnaire contaminated air conditioner and the ghosts of its past life who haunt the corridors I would highly recommend this hotel, unless your reasons for a visit to Bangkok are less than noble.

grey No Bangkok sex tourismA restless night’s sleep under the rattling air-con, an early taxi, two short flights in aging planes with frayed seat belts, a short tuk-tuk ride to town, drop our bags at the nearest hotel, take a short stroll and POW, we are on a shiny new red scooter wobbling along a dirt track in Northern Laos.

We are glad to have survived the second flight into Luang Nam Tha. As we walked up to the plane off the hot tarmac I spotted a growing pool of liquid dripping from the fuselage down to the right rear wheel. On top of this the pilot left his intercom on as busily dodged the mountains to land. This treated the whole cabin to an auditory peek into the cockpit. The pilot’s terse instructions to the co-pilot were over laid with a mechanic voice repeating over and over in her tinny voice “Avoid terrain, avoid terrain, avoid terrain….”

Need less to say we are glad to be on the ground on our scooter. We are also determined not to waste the afternoon lazing about we set out to explore and hope that jet lag does not find us until tonight. Jette was in her office in Denmark less than 40 hours ago, now she is wearing an ill fitting helmet and clutching my waist as we explore far flung Luang Nam Tha in forty degrees of humidity.

We are among the very few travelers in this region and enjoy a few hours riding along dirt tracks through small agricultural villages, bouncing up steep dusty driveways to various Buddhist Stupas and through a long jungle corridor to a waterfall. A toothless old lady at a cafe scuttles out of the shadows to demand her 4, 000 kip entrance fee before scuttling back into the building to leave us and the valley alone. The slippery mud track in proves a challenge in our thongs, navigating bridges washed away in recent flooding even more so. When we make it to our destination a buckled bamboo shelter standing over a small brown waterfall greets us along with a lone cricket chirping. The muddy water is not at all inviting but I slip down to the bank to wet my hair and wash off road dust.

Back down the valley a lone teen throws a circular net into the stream and watches us depart on our scooter. I am covered in sweaty dust again before the first corner. Small bamboo huts with corn drying in front and young curious faces peeking out mark our progress along the pot holed road. We dodge school children on pushbikes, buffalo and pigs (not on bikes).

grey No Bangkok sex tourismOn one straight stretch I stop and explain the mechanics of riding a scooter to Jette. I relinquish the drivers seat and watch her grinning manically as she carefully picks her way between tractors, cows, chickens, bikes and other scooters, I am left to wait nervously by the side of the road for her triumphant return. We drop the scooter off and pay the $3 us rental charge. Back at the hotel room we shuffle our gear around in an effort to decide what we need to survive two days in the jungle.

DEET, DEET and more DEET, lots of water and lollies.

Kidzania Jakarta – One amazing day with my nephew

I love the names of some Indonesian cars. Two have especially captured my attention. The tiny Suzuki “Rush” and the Toyota “Avanza”. Avanza is an antidepressant, and is especially useful when the patient suffers panic attacks. What a wonderfully apt name for a car headed to the street of Jakarta. Mel has organised for Ferdi the driver to help me out for the day. There is no way would I brave these streets myself, well maybe on a scooter, no way in a car. Ferdi has been driving in Jakarta for 18 years. The man deserves a medal as he always looks completely relaxed with his wide smile and a ponytail which pokes out from under his baseball hat. Getting out of the car to drop us off at Kidzania, Ferdi lights a clove cigarette and tells me not to rush.

8am, after our 45 minute drive, I explore a very exclusive and currently very deserted shopping complex with my four year old mate. Ameer is feeding me a steady stream of facts. “Fish makes you strong…I think Grandma is nice…I share with my sister, because I am nice to her…” (I also learn that sticky fingers show up really well on the crystal-clear Tiffany and Co window).

The reason we have arrived so early is to avoid traffic. Mel told me earlier, with a haunted shudder, that the commute here normally takes about 45 minutes but can stretch to over 2 hours in rush hour.

We walk past Prada and Louis Vuitton handbags in windows next to expensive looking suitcases and Jaguar cars. Ameer and I ride the elevators and muck around, killing time, as cleaners scrape chewing gum off marble tiles. This is the neighborhood where Mel’s other campus is, read rich people. I keep Ameer occupied by pointing out an arts exhibit. An artist has bent and stretched numerous red bikes into myriad different shapes. We try to guess what the bike riders would look like. “Uncle Ben, The man who rides this bike must have long legs…longer than Grandpa even!” he decides. I agree, the bike is over four metres long.

Just as I am starting to see the world through young eyes a steady stream of little Buddhas yelling signals 9am. Little Buddhas are fat, rich little Chinese kids. Dubbed little Buddhas by Mel, these kids display the most breathtakingly atrocious behavior. Over the course of the day I see them slap their nannies, push in line, punch smaller kids and acting like they own the place. They quite probably do.

grey Kidzania Jakarta   One amazing day with my nephewAmeer and I make our way to Kidzania. I know nothing about Kidzania apart from seeing a few photos from Mum’s recent visit with the kids. I also know it is meant to be quite a spectacle and did not miss the glint in Ameer’s eye when I uttered that magic word. I pay with real money and receive an electronic wrist band that is coded to show that Ameer is with me. The entrance price is very reasonable considering that we are allowed to stay for seven hours. Ameer is given a handful of Kidzos (The official currency of Kidzania) ands we walk to the ‘Air Asia’ counter. A fully grown lady greets us, she looks somewhat silly behind the small counter but takes it all in her stride. Smiling she checks Ameer’s ticket and waves us through immigration and into a plane-corridor.

We walk down this plane-idor into Kidzania. This incredible playground occupies almost the entire top floor of the shopping complex. Ameer and I stand in a tiny cobbled street amongst the first to arrive and try to get our bearings. Amazed I look at miniature two storey buildings, then up to the ceiling which is painted with clouds to resemble the sky. I feel just like Gulliver, except that instead of being tied and bashed, I am welcomed by costumed princesses, rabbits and policemen. They smile and wave, displaying early morning enthusiasm that fades as the day progresses. Tiny bakeries nearby warm their ovens for baking lessons, the kids can earn kidzos working in the hospital, putting out fires or fixing the race cars.

Our first job is to find the bank. I walk Ameer into the Kidzania branch and hear, not for the last time “Solly sir, only kids arrowed”. I wait outside in the street as Ameer makes his deposit. There are tiny “Kidzania Bank” ATM’s everywhere where Ameer can withdraw Kidzos with a real bank card to buy a drink or lollies at tiny supermarkets. Supermarkets are staffed by young workers who, not surprisingly are paid in kidzos. There is a whole economy here, as I watch Ameer in the bank I wonder if the global financial issues have affected the price of the Kidzos.

Both Ameer and I are somewhat overwhelmed by choice, we walk about for a while, dodging the ambulance which rushes a patient to the hospital for treatment by small doctors.  Ameer decides he wants to be a doctor so we walk, past small construction workers pouring cement and past painters gleefully covering a building with a vomit of colours, to the hospital. I feel a rush of Uncle-esk pride as Ameer, waiting patiently in line, ignores the little Buddhas and leans over to inspect a tree with interest. For the second time in less than half an hour I hear “Sorry sir, only kids allowed” Looking around slowly I try to come to terms with my exclusion from activity.

Every work station has large windows that allow stranded adults to proudly watch all the action (Me?, I watch with thinly veiled envy and pride). A man dresses Ameer in a white uniform and shows him into the back of an ambulance. It is not long before my nephew is whisked away to tend to a patient (from the acting school nearby) leaving me to look around. An ACA TM insurance fire engine with small fire fighters buzzes electronically past to an Acor TM Hotel which is on fire. The Honda TM driving school is next door and in front of me the Pokari Sweat TM-electrolyte drink” Hospital awaits my nephew’s return.

It all starts to make sense.

What better way to sell your stuff. Spoilt wives can drop their children here with nanny and go off to chase Tiffany and Co downstairs. I block out this blatant advertising as the ambulance speeds back to the emergency department, I see Ameer at work. He gently leads his patient to the consulting room where the grown doctor stoops and shows him how to use the stethoscope and remove bandages. With his patient fixed Ameer is paid with 5 kidzos and given a bottle of Pokori Sweat TM – electrolyte drink. Ameer hands this to me as it tastes funny. I thought it a bit ambitious, trying to market a sports drinks to a four to eight year old demographic. As we leave the hospital I spot children up in the second floor using a real, full size, Ultrasound machine on a patient. I want a go! Unfortunately this activity is for over six’s only, Ameer will have to wait.

I stand outside the glass door peering in as Ameer earns Kidzos making smooth, rich, Silver Queen TM chocolate, he grinds Java TM coffee and produces a tub of Pok Moi TM noodles. The noodle place amazingly has a real freeze dry machine and a proper packaging machine which wraps Ameer’s noodles, after he finished designing the label of course. I am torn between how truly amazing this place is, how much Ameer is learning and the in-your-face advertising which is every where. One little girl did look ridiculously cool as she whizzed by in a tiny electric Blue Bird TM taxi, with her plastic high heels and shopping bags blowing in the breeze as nanny gave chase.

Ameer starts to look tired after making his Noodles so, spotting a disco complete with short drink mixing station and tiny dancefloor, I decide he deserves a knock off drink. The sign on the door says; “Six and over only” but I put on my Uncle hat, crack my knuckles and prepare to dispense some important advice. To Ameer’s great delight I show him my best dance moves and give him a preparatory talk on sneaking in to discos. I try to get an identification card from an older kid but fail. Immune to my nephews big brown eyes, the ‘bouncer’ refuses entry so unfortunately Ameer will have to wait to road test my secret moves.

We share a lunch of tiny hamburgers made by small hands in the “Hungry-burger” bar. Without any prompting of pressure from Uncle Ben, Ameer decides to try the climbing wall. He is harnessed by a smiling man and for the second time today makes me very proud when he climbs right to the top of the building without hesitation and rings the bell. It amazes me to witness the difference between children and adults on a first climb. Adults usually freak out at some point, whereas kids trust so easily. When his climb is done, and about five metres above the concrete floor, Ameer just lets go and falls onto the rope, giggling. Once he is given his prize of two Kidzos Ameer takes me to the Walls TM ice cream factory where he makes a lime icy pole for me. My ice cream, however, mysteriously disappears before I can get to it.

Ameer is starting to yawn and looks burnt out so I decide it is time for home. We have only made it through four hours and done less than a quarter of the activities on offer. We walk through Kidzania immigration where the officer gives me a proper, no jokes, questioning. She tells me that we cannot reenter once we leave, I say this is fine. She then turns her attention to Ameer asking if he has spent all his Kidzos and if he has really finished. The immigration officer finally scans our wristbands, checking that this bearded guy really is Uncle Ben and grants us exit. I grab Ameer’s hand and walk out the door before the sounds of fun wafting to us from inside can cause any second thoughts.

In the car on the way home I am under instruction to keep Ameer awake at all costs so that he will sleep tonight. I frantically shove barbecue shapes into his mouth and put a movie on for him. Despite my efforts Ameer is snoring before the opening credits finish. As for me, I am still trying to come to terms with this incredible place. I’m trying to decide if it is a great playground or simply a marketing tool, a massive monument to cold war brainwashing techniques. It doesn’t really matter either way. Ameer is going to grow up to buy stuff with real money one day and he had great fun today so who cares?

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This business partnership has expired.” Ben has no idea what adventures are in store when he sets out to discover what lies over that next mountain.

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