Wednesday, December 21, 2011

First impressions from Vietnam

The border crossing between Laos and Vietnam. Cold!
Vinh is not on anyone's list of places they would like to someday visit, but it's a large city on the main road between Hanoi and Saigon and serves as a bus hub for travelers in Vietnam. Most tourists try not to stay here for the night.
I came here from Phonsavan, Laos and when I arrived at 8pm there was a bus ready to go straight to Hanoi. I decided to stay in Vinh for the night because 13 hours on a cramped public bus had been enough of a day for me.
I had just spent 6 weeks in Laos, a country largely forgotten by tourism (although that is changing quickly). Laos is an incredibly laid-back place, where time doesn't exist and people are friendly but largely detached. Voices are never raised, saying no is impolite, and there is no real bargaining culture. Prices are low, the internets, as the drivers, are mind-numbingly slow. Although I didn't realize it till I left Laos, my concept of patience was radically transformed in those six weeks. I have much to write about Laos, its diverse culture and its incredible landscapes, and this will come in due time.
Invited to chiken feet and rice wine dinner outside the pool hall!
A culture shock was waiting for me in Vinh. Now I was in a comparatively huge city, with insane motorbike and bus traffic, and people who were much more direct and inquisitive.
I found a pool hall that night, called Lan Ann Billiards Club. It's right next door to another pool hall : the Vietnamese seem to love pool, and also billiards (Lan Ann has two full-size heated slate billiard tables).
Lan Ann Billiards Club storefront

I returned to Lan Ann the next day and then decided to stay for a few days more - in fact, I am there right now at a coffee table with free wi-fi.
The place is packed with shooters of all levels and ages (although almost no women save for the racker girls). Here are a few first impressions from pool and billiards culture in Vietnam :
  • It's an intensely social activity : each table has 2 to 6 players, and a slew of onlookers
  • Pool etiquette is non-existent : the spectators lean with both hands on the table, bump into the players and each other, talk loudly, put ashtrays on the tables and no one seems to mind.
  • There is no emphasis whatsoever on precision in the rules or game mechanics. I saw the same racker girls placing the head ball anywhere from below the 2nd diamond to almost the middle of the table, the rack skewed up to 15 degrees, and sometimes no where near the center of the short rail. There was no checking for tightness of the rack. Again, I was the only one apparently concerned about this.
Of course I will have to check out other places in Vietnam to verify that this is indeed the case everywhere - but what a difference compared to Germany for example, where there is very little talking, the rules are very strictly respected and enforced, and the houseman will be very vocal if an ashtray or drink gets anywhere near the table.

What is going on here? If you know please comment!
It seems that there are two main games played on the pool tables here (they are proper American 9-foot pool tables, but with tight pockets (see pic). I have not been able to figure out the names of the games, but one of them is played with playing cards (see previous post) and the other is not. This second one was the one I got familiar with here.
3-cushion anyone?
In this game, you use all 15 object balls racked randomly. After the break, one of the players will have the even balls and the other the odd balls, meaning one player has to sink a total of 7 balls and the other 8 (and I'll have a post someday about other asymetrical games that can be played on a pool table). There is no prescribed order the balls have to go in, simply the first one to finish his or her group wins. Fouls result in ball in hand. I did quite well against several players at this game, although it took some time to get used to the unusual ball groups - it was difficult at first to get the "big picture" of your pattern when some of your balls are stripes and some are solids. The game isn't bad and resembles 8-ball in many ways. The tighter pockets did cause some changes in my shot selection, mainly to make sure that the object ball would stay close to the pocket in case of miss.
The VIP room at Lan Ann Billiards Club
Billiards (as in without pockets) is quite healthy here as well - they play mostly Straight Rail, but also 1-cushion and 3-cushion billiards. I did not see any advanced Straight Rail play like I saw in Germany, and the highest scoring inning I witnessed here was 10 (I saw over 100 in Germany, and I believe the world record is over 5000!).
Although virtually no English is spoken here, it was a great place for me to start playing real pool again after the Laos lull. I am off to Hanoi tomorrow afternoon, where I am sure to find more pool!


Thursday, December 8, 2011

The 5 perils of billiard travel

We've all been there - you're in a new place, looking for a good game of pool, but something about the table is not quite right. You might say a good player should not worry, since the equipment is the same for both players, but occasionally it's just a bit extreme...
This is a compilation of common and less common problems, annoyances and pet peeves about playing in unfamiliar places.

1. The chalk

Everything's perfect in this new bar you just found. Cheap gin, loose women, clean balls. You put your quarters up on the table, wait your turn. You get called over, your opponent breaks, runs 3 balls, informs you that you have stripes. You grab a cue, and proceed to look for chalk. You don't see it, so you ask your opponent for it, and he just laughs and says something dumb like "a good player doesn't need chalk". You look at the tip of your cue, and suddenly realize that this bar has never had any chalk. You painfully shoot through the rack, miscue 18 times in the process, win, and refuse to stay on your rightfully acquired table to play the next banger.
Solution : Stash chalk everywhere in your car, on your person, or find a secret spot inside your favorite bar to hide a emergency cube!

2. The balls
Raleigh, NC

Another common group of annoyances involve the quality of the set of balls.

  • Incomplete set : "Only 6 stripes?... Okay, I guess errrrr take out one of the solids and we can rack them up without the wing balls"    "This sucks!!!"     "Yeah! Now I hate pool!"
  • Over-sized cue ball, presumably dating from before the discovery of magnetism - all the cut angles change and drawing the ball is more difficult
  • Under-sized cue ball, sometimes still found on snooker-type coin-ops in Europe.Cut angles are a mess, and applying follow is pointless.
  • Cue ball has more craters than the moon. It rolls erratically at low speed, it even sounds weird when it collides with other balls. You have to make sure you don't stroke onto the edge of a canyon and ruin your tip 
Solution : Carry your own set of balls, or at least keep your own personal cue ball behind the bar.
    Raleigh, NC
3. "House Rules"

These can be a minefield. At best they are just stupid but don't take away too much from the game. Examples :

  • The 8 must go in clean. Occasionally found in backwoods bars in the US, this rule is total garbage and is often not mentioned until after you just made what you thought was the game winning carom.
  • Siem Reap, Cambodia
  • If the cue ball is in the kitchen and you have no shot, one of the legal object balls can be spotted. Similarly, this is not mentioned when you are in the described situation, only when your opponent is!
  • Scratch on break is loss of game. This is just about the worst one of all, and its adherents will vehemently defend it saying that's how it's done on TV, have you never played pool in your life?
  • No shooting with the bridge. Ridiculous.
Solution : Learn to be comfortable playing a wide range of variants. Agree to the rules beforehand. Do not over argue your point, even when you know you're right, just play the damn game and beat them at their own rules.
4. The Table

Don Det, Laos
By far the source of the majority of problems, the table is rarely perfect. Some of the following issues can be dealt with by experienced players, and others affect the game so dramatically that the good player loses any advantage.

The most common affliction is the non-level table. When slight, it's not so bad, you just have to shoot a little harder than normal to avoid the roll-offs. When it's massive, you can tell because all the balls tend to migrate to the lowest point on the table, and you can actually use the table roll to curve object balls around other balls.
At least an effort was made to try fix this one!

As we all know, it's exceedingly rare to find Simonis 860 cloth on a random bar box. Additionally, the cloth is often mistreated by ignorant bar managers and clueless customers, commonly by means of spilled drinks, cigarette burns, "tapped in" spot ball mark. The felt does not sit fast to the slate, so it bunches up like cheap carpet when you form your bridge. The balls roll unpredictably and tend to settle in local minimums of felt thickness.

Recently, I've run into many tables with the peculiar property of making balls jump when they make contact with the rails. This is usually due to having cushions that are set too low, and can drastically alter the banking properties (to the point of balls jumping clear off the table at certain angles). Another common rail problem is when the rubber is too old or of poor quality, the balls come out very slow from the banks and the angle of reflection is greatly lengthened. Rail issues are difficult to adapt to, but at least they don't affect the simple "make the ball" shot. This tends to disadvantage the best players more than the worst ones.

Solution : Treat the table with respect, even if it's bad. There's a reason it got the way it is, do not contribute! Ask about other places to play in the area. Have your bodyguard, personal chef, or butler learn basic table maintenance and repair.

5. The Extreme

Then, there are the worst of the worst. Places with one stick, with no tip. Tables that have been kept outside for months, then brought back in on a whim. The table that doubles as the all-you-can eat buffet on Thursdays. The game room that is also a working barn. The closest table mechanic lives 400 miles away and is from an ethnic group that is currently involved in an armed conflict with yours.
Below, a selection of some of the more extreme things you find when looking for pool around our strange planet.
If you know of a particularly decrepit table or place to play please share with us in the comments!

Truck stop in the middle of the desert, Ethiopia

Hamed Ela, Ethiopia - see previous post
Don Det, Laos
Vang Vieng, Laos - This place calls itself the Q-Bar.

The 4000 Islands, Laos

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Phnom Penh nights, custom tables, and the gaming culture of Cambodia

Phnom Penh traffic, minutes before I was drenched in monsoon rain on the back of  a motodup
Cambodia struck me with its apparent contradictions :
- Some of the most impressive historical sites in the world, and a disturbing recent history that appears unacknowledged from within.
- Extreme wealth side by side with poverty
- Tourists come to Phnom Penh for the genocide rubbernecking, stay for the raging nightlife

As soon as I arrived, greeted by the famous and ubiquitous Khmer smiles, it was obvious that the people here loved taking their minds off of the numerous difficulties they face, in particular through a wide appreciation for games of all sorts. These games include Makruk (which they simply call "oh" here), an acient relative of chess as we know it, and people do play it everywhere... Tuk-tuk drivers waiting for their next fare, kids at the market, they all love playing.
After being convinced by other tourists, I did go visit the genocides sites including the S-21 prison and the killing fields. It was worth it, and I guess I would recommend it, although I still do think some people go there for  morbid emotional stimulation and I'm not really sure I'm cool with that.
One night, along with another American I had met and traveled with from Koh Chang, we were looking for some bar to go to and had hopped into a tuk-tuk. Riding through the center, I saw a sign : "HOWIES BAR - FREE POOL" and immediately ordered the driver to stop.
The pool table at Howie's which some would characterize as a gaff table
We walked in and were greeted by a horde of girls behind the two tiny bars inside the tiny place. They were all playing games, with tourists, with locals and with each other. Connect 4, and a strange little game played with dice were the big hits. They would play the tourists "for a drink", but of course when the girls would win they would order the most expensive drink on the menu, which did not contain much alcohol at all. No giant worries, though, because that drink was still only $2.50.The girls simply never lost, though, so if you have too much pride you will windup leaving with a very light wallet!
Clearly a customized table!
Walking from the connect-4 bar 5 feet, I bumped in to the pool table, with its uncommon (to be polite) lavender felt. I played a few games that night, pick-up pool with a whiteboard list on which to write your name and wait your turn, winner-stays-on style. The pockets were enormous, the balls rolled relatively true given the looks-like-it's-been-through-several-wars state of the felt. However, there was definitely something unusual about that table, and finally I figured out what it was : the table was not proportioned normally - it was too skinny! About 2 inches were missing from the short rails! That night I played a few games and we went back to the guesthouse relatively early after a full day. I wound up staying in Phnom Penh for over a week, after having met some very cool expats living in the city. I came back several times to Howie's bar, and met Howie himself on one of those nights. Turns out he had worked for Boeing in Seattle, and that's where he fell in love with pool. He told me all about his table...
He cut 2 inches off the short rails because the 7-footer was too wide for his bar. He built and added a ball return system to the original drop-style pockets, and he widened the pockets in order to increase the speed of the games so that his customers would keep interest and to even out the chances, giving more people a chance of winning. Although I like tight pockets for practice, I think these customizations are what made this table so enjoyable for simple bar pickup pool.
Another thing designed to speed up the games were the house rules, which differed from the Phnom Penh and general South East Asia regular rule folklore (for a later post). This is what he had :
  • The game is 8-ball
  • Fouls result in ball-in-hand, anywhere on the table, for the opponent
  • The table stays open till you make a called shot
  • No defensive shots allowed (Howie clarified to me that not all defensive shots are illegal, only the ones where you slowly push the ball with no chance of messing up)
  • You have to make contact with a ball of your group
  • There is no rule regarding touching a rail after contact (making the no defensive shot more of a necessity)
  • Any foul while shooting at the 8-ball is a loss
  • Part of the homemade ball return on this unique pool table
Howie does know the "normal" rules for American 8-ball, but put these special rules in place again to accelerate the play, and make it simple for weekend players to enjoy the game in a competitive sense, and I think these are overall a great set of rules for that purpose - and yet the game is still a lot of fun for more serious players.

I really enjoyed Howie's, the great staff he had, who were friendly and quite skilled at their gaming craft, Howie himself and his great stories, and the general atmosphere in Phnom Penh. If I ever go back to Phnom Penh, and I hope I will, I will stop by Howie's and try my luck at staying on the table as long as I can! Go and pay a visit to Howie next time you are in Cambodia!

One of the ball rackers at Howie's bar, along with Howie's son

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Ko Chang : playing pool with playing cards, in paradise

My view on most days on Ko Chang
Ko Chang is a large island in the east of Thailand. Although tourism has been present here for quite some time, it is far less developed than in the south Thailand islands of Samui and Phuket. In fact, the entire eastern side of Ko Chang is almost devoid of tourist accommodation.
After consulting with some experienced backpackers, I decided to stay in Bang Bao, a tiny fishing village on the very southern tip of the island - this was a good compromise between lost island paradise and tourist commodities.

Life on Ko Chang is pretty laid back - activities in which I partook included snorkeling, boat tours, circling the island on a motorbike, sampling all sorts of spicy soups, and a ton of just kicking back in a hammock.

The bay right under the cottage - decent snorkeling here too!

 Life is slow and easy here. Cheap, too, for the most part.
I had a nice bungalow for the first few days, with air-conditioning and a private bathroom (while still getting used to life post-Ethiopia, these were drastic but welcomed luxuries!). Towards the end of the stay I moved into a more rustic bungalow, right on sunset cliff. There, I just had a fan and a mosquito net, but hearing the waves splash below definitely helps with having a good night's sleep!

Lunch on the snorkeling boat. Pineapple and shrimp go well together.
It was my first time snorkeling - this was definitely a highlight of my stay on Ko Chang. Sea urchins with giant black spikes and centers colored in iridescent blues, greens, yellows and oranges, a mind-blowing variety of coral formations, fish large and small, a few beautiful jellyfish are just a few of the things for which I would have liked to have an underwater camera, but alas...

Matthias takes the shortcut to the snorkeling waters
During my first hours on Ko Chang, I met a group of three French tourists (from southern France - they pronounced "gauche" with the "O" sounds like we Normandinians would pronounce "roche", which cracked me up every time). Great people, all with a love of traveling and lots of cool stories to share, made for lovely long dinners and conversation as well as solid partners for daytime activities. More about Elodie, Simon and Matthias in the obligatory pool material further down this post!
Motorcycle fuel is stored in old Samsong whisky bottles...

Another highlight of the trip was meeting Tim, an American living in Barcelona working remotely as a freelance web designer. We got along from the start and wound up traveling together after Ko Chang, all the way to Phnom Penh. Tim and I rented motorcycles (more like glorified scooters, but still - it was the first time for each of us!) and circled the entire island. About 1.5 hours each way (there is no road completing the circle in the south), we saw the gradient of development, going from 5-star spa-resorts in the western strip to abandoned temporary fishing hamlets guarded by tourist-hungry dogs in the south eastern end.

 We had heard that the road on the eastern side of the island had some damage. This was confirmed when we got to a spot on the road with a single cone and a sign that explained "The road has aproblem. Please use careful.". A couple of kilometers later we were greeted by a gigantic gap in the road caused by a recent landslide. As first-time bikers, we had some apprehension about going around the massive hole on the strip of mud that was propped up for that purpose (this is the only way to get to that side of the island!). We did make it across without problems, very fun!
The road deteriorated quite a bit in the south eastern end. Unfinished pavement, no pavement, more landslides and crazy dogs were par for the course, but we were rewarded with breathtaking views from lesser-known vantage points. It will still be a while before the whole island is covered in bland tourist paraphernalia, but it will happen - maybe 5 or ten years. Things are changing very fast in southeast Asia, some of it is good of course, but the price to pay is traditional lifestyles and unspoiled paradises such as Ko Chang will not realistically be the same tomorrow.

Snooker-sized american pool ball set, on a snooker table
 Night life in Bang Bao is virtually non-existent. There are a few restaurants, but they close quite early in general and by 11pm you have nothing to do but go back to your bungalow, flashlight in hand, dodging mosquitos and the occasional sleeping hound. After one such restaurant dinner with the French, as we were walking back we saw some locals playing what appeared to be snooker in a local food shack. I got the French to come with me on promise of buying them a beer, were it to be available, and everyone had a great time trying to figure out the rules of this crazy game in spite of the insurmountable language barrier.

This guy is explaining the rules to me. I'm not getting it.

 This game is played with a deck of playing cards. I have a feeling this a version of the game that my good friend Jonas experienced in Cambodia (see this old post).
Each player gets dealt 5 cards face down. If any player sinks a ball, then all players may reveal and discard the corresponding card. Whoever plays all his cards first, wins. For example, on my turn, I may have an 8. If I shoot and make the 8, I play my 8 card, but the other players also get to play their 8 if they have one (or several for that matter).
The game is actually quite interesting tactically, because you can actually figure out the contents of your opponents' hands by observing which shots they attempt (if you are relatively sober).
There is quite a bit of defense. In fact, sinking a ball for which you didn't have the card, or fouling in any way meant you had to take an extra card from the deck (and if that one had already been played, too bad for you!). Unfortunately I only won 1 rack and came out down about $12 after 2+ hours of play, not so bad for such an experience. The locals were super friendly and happy to try to teach the game (and to take my money).

The whole crew

I leave you with a Ko Chang spicy soup pr0n selection. Can you name them all?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Gambling in Bangkok

After 3 weeks in adventurer mode through Ethiopia, a dramatic reversal of lifestyle seemed appropriate.
Addis Ababa -> Bahrain, Bahrain -> Uneventful
Bahrain, Bahrain -> Bangkok : Secured the "ghetto upgrade" (you are on a giant aircraft and the flight is so empty you can claim and entire central isle) :

The elusive ghetto upgrade
Coca-cola in Arabic
List of things I learned between Bahrain and Bangkok :

  • Coca-cola is still identifiable as Coca-cola by westerners when written in Arabic
  • The average Greek sexpat to Thailand doesn't believe that Greece is at fault in the Eurozone crisis
  • The average German ecotourist is profoundly upset with Greece
  • Walking out of a plane in Bahrain, three temperatures - normal plane temp,  followed inside-a-steel-walkway-in-the-desert-heat, and finally ICE FRIGGIN COLD air-conned airport luxury overload does not help with jetlag
  • Most taxis in Bangkok are hot pink. Very hot.

Bangkok for me consisted mostly of having an upset stomach and moving up in pad-thai spice-level. Also, I found a pool scene. 

What Jim looks like when he's 2 ahead in a race to 5 for 1,000
Pool in Bangkok is mostly drunk farangs trying to impress Thai prostitutes for reasons that escape me. Redeemingly, for this young but storied city, it's winner stays on (read carefully you silly Frenchmen, you are the only nation in which I've never see a winner-stays-on table!). This means you can put your name up on the board, and wait till your turn to dispatch, one by one, a legion of drunk bangers. Each rack, the loser pays about $0.50 after losing and the winner breaks the next rack. Rules alternate between British style 2-shots-on-foul and  the less insane "ball in hand" rules more familiar to American players, but either way, the rules are enforced by a neutral cohort of bar-employed racker girls who actually know their job well.
I was in one of these bars, winning hard, when Jim came along and played some instantly recognizable "serious pool". After he beat me he asked if I would gamble, for minimum 1,000 Baht. So we went to a nearby and more serious pool hall that I had previously scouted out. I played some of the most fun big table 8-ball in my life and came out exactly even after about 4 hours of play. 

After Bangkok, it was time to find the famed island paradise of Koh Chang - for next post!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Alien Earth - The Dallol volcanic explosion crater

Green lakes of acid, the lowest subaerial volcanic vents in the world, and sulfur-crusted landscapes combine to create the Dallol volcanic explosion crater.

It's very hot here, sulfur and acid fumes define the olfactory landscape. Gurgling sounds of various frequencies and volume meter the progress of what will become the world's newest ocean in about 10 million years.

In pictures :

The land cruisers put the size of the Danakil salt flats into perspective


Ibrahim, our driver, standing on a stone mushroom

Lake of sulfuric acid

Our Afar guide for the day. He did not bring any water for this trip, unreal.

Hamed Ela