Monday, 1 June 2015


I got a surprise gift today from some people I have never met!

Clients of my wife recently travelled to China and one of the places they visited was the Potala - the Holy Palace in the Snow Land - the temple/palace of the Dala Lama's (well maybe not the current 14th Dala Lama who has been exiled from China).

It was such a lovely surprise, the book has a huge number of gorgeous colour prints inside and I was so impressed by their kindness in thinking of me.

Sunday, 31 May 2015


Kiva small loans are a great way to help fund projects and individuals in developing countries. It is a simple idea, lend $25 to someone starting a project and over time they repay you (and the group of lenders who also participated) and you re-lend to new projects. Pretty simple. You can find Kiva via this link.

The latest loan we made was to a project in Laos providing clean drinking water. In Laos, nearly half of the population lacks access to safe drinking water, causing widespread waterborne illness.

TerraClear is a social enterprise with the mission to increase access to safe drinking water, especially in remote households.

Since 2010, TerraClear has been locally manufacturing ceramic water filters, which provide effective and long-term household access to clean water. 

TerraClear's success has been built on promoting an affordable and easy to use product with an innovative design. TerraClear became a Kiva Field partner at the beginning of the year to increase its outreach and provide these water filters to its end users. Ceramic Water Filters have helped over 40,000 families to access clean water in Laos.

Currently, TerraClear is scaling up production and delivery to more remote areas. To achieve this, Kiva has partnered with Nexus Carbon for Development to provide a loan of $24,000 to TerraClear to purchase a second delivery truck to service remote households of Laos with safe drinking water. TerraClear recently purchased its first new truck – made possible by the generous support of the Kiva community – which is already helping to bring clean, safe drinking water to over 500 people across rural Laos every week.

The second truck will allow TerraClear to transport 120-130 water filter sets per trip, which will reduce the number of trips from the provinces back to the distribution center. This will dramatically increase the number of filters reaching households every week.

As TerraClear is scaling-up, this investment will require some time to produce returns. The loan has been structured with two repayment dates with the expectation that lenders could get paid back earlier if TerraClear produces results quicker than anticipated.

(Info on TerraClear from Kiva website)

Saturday, 30 May 2015


The Greater Sydney area is a huge melting pot of cultures. We stumbled across a cafe in Smithfield called "My Yerba Mate" which serves great latin food and also specialises in the drink "Yerba Mate". I had never heard of it before. It is a tea/coffee like drink made from a plant in the holly family and a traditional beverage in a lot of South American countries.

I was really surprised by the taste, they made me a "mocca" style version and it had a strong flavour halfway between tea and coffee, it had a lot of body to it. Lorenza had a "latte" style and it was not as strong, I preferred the version I had. The owner of the cafe has done a lot of research into the beneficial effects of Yerba Mate and was very passionate about it. Here is a link to some info on Wikipedia. They sell 36 different varieties.

My Yerba Mate is at 895 Horsley Drive, Smithfield. They are next door to my favourite shop in Sydney - the Cooperage wine making shop.

Monday, 25 May 2015


We were travelling back from Myanmar, via Kuala Lumpur in 2013. We grabbed a sandwich at an airport cafe and got talking to the guy who served us. He was a very modest Shan refugee from Myanmar, who lived in a refugee camp and had a work permit for some part time employment. He was married and had one child. His wife was still living Myanmar with their child.

Sang, told us about his life and the hardship he and his family faced in Myanmar. His years living in the refugee camp were difficult also, his wife had lived there with him until just after the birth of their baby, but she decided to go back home to family with the child for a time. They planned this to be just a brief time apart, but it turned into 3 years.

Both Sang and his wife had registered with the UN as refugees and had applied to be resettled in the USA. In 2013 he told us it may take a few years to happen, but they were willing to sacrifice living apart a few years for a longer term goal.

Social media can be a great thing, we connected via the mystery of the Internet with Sang before leaving. Now and then I have sent him a message asking Sang how things are going and he has replied in English the best he can.

Today, out of the blue I got this message "hello Robert how are you and your wife. My wife, our child and I are now in Texas". We wish them the best of luck and hope we hear how they progress with this huge change in their lives - may they always be well and happy.

Friday, 19 December 2014


Following the siege in Martin Place, Sydney on Dec 15 and the mass shootings at Peshawar School in Pakistan on Dec 16, I read the following post by a friend of mine ...

"Never forget who the enemy is. The enemy is not Muslim, he’s not Christian, he’s not Catholic, he’s not protestant, he’s not Baptist, he’s not Hindu and he’s not Buddhist. The enemy is intolerance, he is bigotry, he is jealousy, and he is narrow minded. He can be white, black, yellow. He can be redneck, he can be a preacher and he can be a zealot. Do not bear false witness against your neighbour. Love your neighbour as you would love yourself. If you abide by this credo you will be blessed as those around you will be."

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

LUANG PRABANG - a quiet and peaceful former capital in Northern Laos

I have posted this report on a trip to Luang Prabang with kind permission of Tran Hoang Yen, who visited LP in July 2014. It has a lot of good info and insights for anyone considering a visit to this world heritage listed town. Over to Yen for her report:

Mekong River

This note is to express my feelings after my trip to Luang Prabang (LP) and to share with my thoughts and some information with friends who would like to visit this place in the future.

Travel to LP

From Hanoi, the best and most convenient way to reach LP is by airplane. There are direct flights operated jointly by Vietnam airlines (VNA) and Lao airlines using ART72 planes. I traveled at the peak time of airlines risk but I am not afraid of that. Flying with ATR is not always as smooth as a Boeing or Airbus but it is ok when you fly short distances, only about an hour.

The price of ticket from Hanoi to LP is around 300USD return; however, if you are lucky and book in advance, you can have quite a cheap fare. If you fly with a Lao plane, they will serve you a light snack and drink (include beer Lao), however, if you fly with VNA, they only serve you water J. I think I was lucky as on the way back I boarded on a quite new Lao plane and it was good trip back.

When you reach LP international airport, you can catch an airport taxi that costs you around 100,000 Kip to town. However, I prefer to take a private car, kind of taxi without taxi meter sign on top. Just step outside of the airport and ask for that, it will cost you 60,000 Kip for 2 persons. Or you can catch a Tuk Tuk for the same price, so I think a car would be better.

The exchange rate is 1 USD = 8000 Kip.

Stay in LP

LP has plenty of guesthouses and a number of hotels. Just get on Google you find all the information you need on the accommodation there. However, if you have never been there, it is hard to imagine the location of the place you would like to stay. After being there, I can share with you that, basically, LP has 4 main roads along the town. 2 roads go along 2 rivers banks, Mekong and Nam Khan. In fact, these two roads are a loop around the main town. The other two roads are in the town. All the nice guesthouses, hotels and restaurants face to the two rivers banks. From my observation, those that are facing Nam Khan River are normally more expensive than the other side. And of course those inside the town are cheaper. I myself prefer to choose a guesthouse facing the Mekong River bank as the price is better. If you go in the low season like me, the room will be cheaper, only 20-30 USD you can have a nice room on this side.

Food in LP

It is fair to say that, this is a tourist destination but the price of food there is reasonable and many
buffet at market
options for you to choose.

You can have a 10,000 Kip buffet dinner in the night market. You will be given a plate and you can choose your dinner from more than 20 dishes per time with the price of 10,000 Kip. And if you want, you can treat yourself better with a grilled fresh fish with the price of 25,000 Kip and a big bottle of beer Lao with 10,000 Kip. In short, a dinner here with beer will cost you around 30,000 Kip if you go with a group more than 2 persons.

You can also try Lao style BBQ-hotpot buffet along the Mekong River bank at the cost of 60,000 Kip per head. This place is always full of people, not only tourists but also local people. The food here is very nice and fresh and the service is also very good. BBQ uses 100% charcoal for cooking.

Along the 2 rivers banks, there are many restaurants and cafes for you to choose and the price is quite reasonable. They normally have a picture menu with price in front of the shops for your convenience. I spent 4 days there and I love one place called the Bakery Café, a small café shop with about 5 tables located along Mekong River, which has a great view, nice food & drinks, free wifi and reasonable prices. I visited this place once or twice a day breakfast, lunch or for a drink. If you visit LP, I recommend you to try this place.

steel bridge

Do in LP

LP is a tourist destination, so tour agents do quite a good job. If you would like to travel around, just come to a tour agent and choose the tours you want and pay. They have plenty of tours for you to select from. If you have 2 days, you can cover some popular destinations here such as Kuangsi waterfall, Pak Ou cave, Mount Phousi, the Royal Palace museum, etc.

Once you are in LP, you should visit Kuangsi water fall, around 30km from the town, it is a beautiful
Kuangsi Waterfall
area called Kuangsi Water Park. Inside the park, besides the waterfalls there are many limestone-water-ponds where you can swim, there is also a bear rescue centre. Before this place was free but recently they charge 20,000 Kip/person and I think this is the right thing to do as you should pay for environmental service you use. This money can be used to keep this place always clean and natural as it is. I have to say that Lao friends have done a good job here to keep this place always clean.

One more thing you should do is rent a bike to ride around LP with the price 20,000 Kip/day. Before I went to LP, I saw on a friend’s FB a photo of a nice steel bridge in LP and I decided I have to cross this bridge. My friend and I rented 2 bikes and crossed this bridge. After crossing the bridge we decided to turn into a small road along the river and make a journey without a defined destination. We kept cycling to a narrow earthen road until we reached a handicraft village. We found very nice things here. The village produces traditional silk and paper. I love the way people here make paper, which is 100% natural. Paper was made from tree skin, colored by leaves and seeds, and decorated by natural leaves. The paper then produced note books, picture frames, lanterns, etc. This is really impressive and I love those environmental friendly products in this village. I also love the way people here conserve their traditional handicraft. If you want to buy some of these products, just do it as the price here is 5 times cheaper compared with those selling the same things in the airport.

In the afternoon of the day we went riding, we decided to explore the other side of Mekong River, so
paper products
we got on the ferry with bikes to cross the river. The ferry costs 10,000 Kip/trip/person. On the other side of Mekong River is Chomphet district and rarely tourists come here, it seemed that we were the only two tourists at this district.

Chomphet district has a number of villages and each village located from 3 to 5 km to the next one. The roads here are totally earthen made, and are really, really bumpy and quite hilly. In addition, there was almost no one on the roads; I was a bit worried when riding along this road as we rarely met people as well as houses along the road. However, similar to the morning, we decided to have another journey without specific destination, we thought that we will reach 2 or 3 villages then will turn back. There was nothing much along the road except for quietness and the beautiful landscape.

We reached the 3rd village and saw that it was going to rain, so we decided to turn back. Lucky us, if we met the rain on the way back, it would be hard to ride as the road can be very slippery. Honestly, it is nothing special on this side, however, we love to see the different things around and have a good afternoon exercise so the day after that both of us had pains in our legs and arms. I told my friend that cycling along this district felt like we had done a “Tour de Luang Prabang”.

Wow, I wrote quite a lot already. I can say that LP is a very peaceful and interesting destination. I
waiting for the monks
love the way people here live, gently with each other and gently with the environment. Be warned that if you like active and noisy places, please do not come here as you may feel it is too quiet sometimes both at day time and night time. There is one cultural activity I almost forget to tell you about - at around 5:30 -6:00 am, many monks start the day by seeking alms along the main street. This is a daily activity in this town.

HN 27/7/2014

Thursday, 24 July 2014


We took a trip in 2007 from Hanoi to Hue via the “Reunification Express”. Our tour notes read “we use 4-berth, air conditioned, soft sleeper compartments”. Once on the train we found that “soft” meant a 50mm foam mattress thrown on top of a hard, flat bunk. “air conditioned” meant a draft coming from a vent in the roof that varied between hot and hotter. It was obvious that the only way you would get any sleep would be with the assistance of the yellow label 1996 Bordeaux wine we had purchased in Hanoi.

the infamous "Bordeaux"
 Back in Sydney it was the night of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gra and as we were travelling with a gay friend in our little group we had decided to get into the spirit and have a fancy dress party. We picked up our costume clothing at various market stalls in Hanoi and changed on the train. My pink feather boa was stunning!

We took a wander through the train and the locals all got a good laugh and poked a lot of fun at us - they took it all in the fun it was meant to be. On the walk through the train we came across the “6-berth non-air conditioned, hard sleepers”. Aside from the six people in the bunks, many of the compartments also had a few extra passengers on the floor as well. This made me realise what relative luxury I was travelling in. Things like this make you remember how good you really have things in life.

Our Mardi Gra continued in the carriage next to ours, there was another tour group there who decided to join the festivities. We got chatting to lots of different folks, Germans, Swiss, Kiwis, Americans, etc. One interesting couple we spent sometime in conversation with were from Paris, on their way to Saigon to meet with their daughter. The daughter had just spent a few months in Australia as part of a round the world trip. We naturally exchanged contact details and discussed the art of wine making for sometime, as the chap from Paris was a fellow wine making hobbyist.

Our new found French friends did not seem phased by our ridiculous outfits, even if they seemed a little conservative (she was a director of a french bank and he was a business consultant of some sort), both in their late 50's or early 60's. We shared some "Bordeaux" in plastic cups and did our best to converse in Franglais and hand signals. We bid them bon nuit around 2am and got some rest in our sleeper compartment. The mattress felt much softer thanks to the "Bordeaux".

Since then we have caught up with Alexandre and Catherine in Paris for dinner when we have been there in 2007 and 2009. Seems like a long time, we must catch up again soon.

fancy dress
dinner in Paris