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Travel Writing

Dubai Pocket Guide

From the back-lot trailers of Hollywood to the changing rooms of British football’s Premiership, a once unfamiliar word has entered the lexicon of the rich and famous. That word is ‘Dubai’.

If you can’t find the city on a map, open a newspaper or glossy magazine and the chances are you’ll find it there. Dubai will be in the story about the famous footballer who has bought a house on a property development that’s visible from space, or the two Hollywood stars who fuelled rumours of a romance by checking into the world’s tallest hotel together. 

Few people had heard of Dubai in the last decade of the 20th century. Now, even among the talk of the town, the town is the talk. In the mid-1990s, if anyone knew anything about Dubai, it was that the emirate had oil and an airport with luxury cars in the duty free. Today, however, this economically-diversified, rapidly expanding, cleverly-marketed hub for business and tourism in the Middle East has become a global destination of choice for the likes of the Beckhams, and Brad and Angelina. Bayern Munich and Chelsea come here to train – any excuse will do.


The city did not meet my expectations. I was pleased. I arrived in Nagasaki fearing that I would be infected by the sadness of war, as if it were hanging in the air like residual radiation. But the only living things that weep in modern Nagasaki are the willows that line its narrow rivers; the only painful groans come from the old streetcars as they limp through the city.


Relics of the event that turned the name of this southern Japanese city into a household word are displayed at the Atomic Bomb Museum in Urakami. When listed they read like ghastly items on some satanic inventory: Two bleeding ovaries, one incinerated hand melted onto glass, dead bone marrow.


Then there are the statues of Christ and His angels, discoloured and disfigured by the heat and the blast; the waxwork models of keloid scars; and photographs – monochrome pictures of a monotone landscape: Twisted, flattened, a battlefield like any other except that it was created in an instant and contaminated for a lifetime.

Vietnam - Hanoi

I met the boy with the rhyming name near the lotus pond at One Pillar Pagoda. He wore a floppy, fraying straw hat and had an old leather satchel slung over his shoulder. In one hand he held a battered copy of What They Don’t Teach You At Harvard Business School.

As I was turning to leave for downtown Hanoi he flicked away his cigarette and sidled up to me. “Excuse me sir,” he said. “Do you ever walk on Hampstead Heath?”


Pham Tuan Anh, 17, is a typical Vietnamese youth, too young to remember the bombing raids in the last desperate years of ‘The American War’. Intelligent, inquisitive, forthright and witty, Anh – he tells me his name means ‘England’ – is keen to learn English. When he is not studying economics at Hanoi’s Foreign Trade College he hangs around the capital’s most popular tourist attractions, hoping to speak with Westerners. “I could tell by your clothes where you come from,” he boasts. 


In return for posting a letter to his friend in


“To begin at the beginning…” The opening words of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood are narrated through headphones as I set out on an improvised walking tour of Laugharne on a pilgrimage to the Welsh town immortalised in the poet’s “play for voices”.


There is no better way to see Laugharne (pronounced “Larne”) than through Dylan’s eyes, with his words and word images caressing the ear and feeding the imagination, filling the town’s quiet, Georgian-windowed streets with a cast of eccentric characters created in Dylan’s nearby home and cliff-top writing shed.


Captain Cat, Ocky Milkman, Polly Garter, Mrs Organ Morgan, Nogood Boyo and Rosie Probert still walk the streets, clean their doorsteps and haunt the living when you amble around Laugharne with Under Milk Wood playing on your Walkman. Choose from Dylan’s New York broadcast, or the classic Richard Burton version, or the most recent 1988 recording, with Anthony Hopkins as First Voice, produced by George Martin, of The Beatles fame. That version even has the sounds of coastal Carmarthenshire in the


The 40-watt moon short circuits in flashes of tropical electricity as I head for my houseboat cabin. The first drops of rain pit-pat on its palm frond roof as I notice my right big toe glowing like ET’s finger in the darkness. After a few moments it leaves my foot to join the other glowing toes that dart over the surface of Lake Vembanad. Forgetting that there are such things as fireflies, I slump back bemused and vow never to drink coconut toddy again, at least not during this trip into the heart of Kerala’s backwaters and lakes.


The 200sq km Lake Vembanad, which stretches from the Indian town of Alleppey (Alappuzha) to Cochin (Kochi), is the largest lake in Kerala, a southern state that, according to legend, was created when Parasuraman, the sixth incarnation of the Hindu Lord Vishnu, stood high in the Western Ghats, cast his axe far into the Arabian Sea and commanded it to retreat.


But the water wasn’t completely obedient. Around 1,900km of backwaters remain, earning Alleppey the nickname “Venice of the East”, although the surrounding countryside is actually

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