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March 27, 2007

Travelling Around the World – a Literature Review

As you know, the main reason people go on holiday is to read novels. And I, while backpacking the globe, was no exception to the rule, getting through the best part of eleven books. I now present my potted reviews for each of them, so when you re-read my travel blogs you’ll know what I was enjoying (or, indeed, not enjoying), literature-wise, at the time.

NB. I didn’t actually take 11 books with me – I variously gave them away, was given them, bought them at second-hand bookshops and swapped them at hostel book exchanges along the way. It is largely the latter that accounts for the randomness of the selection. The bookshelves would frequently have a title from my List Of Books To Read, only it would be in Finnish, so I would have to settle for ones whose authors sounded familiar, or just looked pretty.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (started in Newcastle, finished on a Greyhound in Arizona)
This, along with Catch-22 and Crime & Punishment, is one of the three best books I have read. For one thing, at £1 for 800 pages it was really good value for money. It was written in the early seventeenth century so the translation is pretty close to Shakespearean English; luckily, I’m used to that so I found it relatively easy to read. It’s funnier than Shakespeare. Even if you’ve not read it you’re likely to at least know that Don Quixote is a middle-aged country gent who decides to become a knight and gallivants around La Mancha with his ‘squire’ Sancho Panza in search of adventure. From this simple premise and Quixote’s wild, fairy-tale-influenced imagination, hilarious japes almost write themselves. Quixote’s attempts to rescue damsels, free slaves and defend his lady’s honour leads to all sorts of trouble, and gets Sancho beaten up (or tossed in a blanket) on regular occasions. The second part of the book, in which the first part of the book has been published and read by the characters Don Quixote meets, is pure genius.

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh (Flagstaff – Los Angeles)

Evelyn Waugh was a man.

- Scarlett Johanson in Lost In Translation
Yes, Scarlett, but did it not occur to you that the ‘bimbo’ you’re denigrating was being ironic when she checked in under that name? But this isn’t about overrated films; this is about a relatively short comic novel set in 1920s London high society. Apart from the off-putting joke names, it’s a good read, and very funny.

The Mysterious Flame Of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco (Los Angeles – Beachcomber (unfinished))
Apparently Eco is the thinking man’s Dan Brown, so I was quite interested in reading this, though it wasn’t one of his two books I’d heard of. It’s about an old bookshop owner who wakes up from a coma with amnesia. So it’s basically about him regaining his memory. It’s good until Eco spends way too long describing the childhood house to which he returns and explores as if it’s all new. Thanks to booze, my concentration was shot to bits so I gave up not only on the book but any claim to be a thinking man by picking up…

Angels & Demons by Dan Brown (Auckland – Nelson)
I was given this, okay? And it took me a month to lower myself to read it. So shut up. Like The Da Vinci Code, it’s a page-turner with prose so bad it reads like it was typed with a sledgehammer. It’s also a fun mystery-thriller with interesting ideas about science and religion and it makes me feel clever to be several steps ahead of the stupid characters. It’s basically got the same formula right down to the kindly old man who gets murdered at the start and his sexy young relative who joins Robert Langdon on the investigation. I can’t say whether it’s better or worse than TDVC but the amount of times Brown required me to suspend my disbelief – the Pope’s death not being exciting news, the really fast plane, a stereotypical English tabloid journalist who’d worked for “The British Tatler”, the incredibly nice man being the baddie twist – was audacious. I really fancy writing a Dan Brown-style (but good) thriller. The Bob Woolmer thing has really inspired me, God rest his soul.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (Queenstown – Christchurch)
A rare book that was both on my List and at a book exchange in English. It’s Vonnegut’s personal account of being a prisoner of war and witnessing the carpet bombing of Dresden. I like his freewheeling prose and black humour, but for some reason – maybe I read it really quickly – it didn’t make as much impression on me as I’d thought.

You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers (Christchurch – Moreton Island)
I’d heard of Eggers because he’s one of the hip young breed of authors The Guardian keeps going on about, and loved him so much they had him write short short stories for the Weekend, which I didn’t like and had forgotten about when I picked this up. It’s about two Americans in their mid-twenties, Will and Hand, who decide to travel the world in a week and give away a load of unwanted money. They end up going to Senegal, Morocco and Estonia. The book’s also about the death of their friend Jack and its aftermath, told in flashback. I like Eggers’ dry humour and impressive eye for detail, in particular Hand’s habit of speaking pidgin English to foreigners. Not being a fan of The Catcher In The Rye, however, I didn’t much dig narrator Will’s Holden Caulfield-style angst, which tends to smother proceedings.

Idlewild, Or Everything Is Subject To Change by Mark Lawson (Moreton Island – Singapore)
“Mark Lawson,” I thought, “that rings a bell. It couldn’t be-” I looked at the back cover and sure enough, there was the chubby sometime presenter of Newsnight Review, looking about ten years younger. He’d written a novel in the 90s – a what-if about John F Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe if they hadn’t died when they did. I’ll damn it with faint praise and call it fun. But despite a couple of dodgy twists he’s better than Dan Brown.

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres (Singapore – Bangkok)
It starts off being really funny, then the violence starts and it just gets bleak, and doesn’t really relent. Brilliant. I enjoyed it more than Slaughterhouse Five as an anti-war book, despite this one being fiction. I’d quite like to see the film now, because it’s supposed to be shit.

The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (Kanchanaburi – the Mekong River)
I mentioned indirectly on my Laos blog that I didn’t much care for this book. Sure, it has those classic Victorian literary ingredients: an aristocrat who toys with the lives of others, supernatural phenomena, and opium dens. And there’s Wilde’s famous wit, of course. But things just pissed me off like Wilde revealing little of what Dorian actually does to make his portrait age so quickly, and the story suddenly jumping about twelve years ahead in the final act. The main thing is that when I get IDed nowadays, I can quip that I have a portrait in my attic that looks old enough, and know what I’m talking about.

Thud! by Terry Pratchett (The Mekong – Ha Long Bay)
I used to read Discworld books all the time as a teenager but this was my first for a while. It’s a City Watch book, and they’re usually the best. This one’s great because it explores racial intolerance and multiculturalism – you know, important issues in contemporary British society – by pitting the races of Ankh-Morpork against each other. It’s very clever and given the subject’s sensitivity, well-handled despite Pratchett’s cheeky use of stereotypes.

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad (Hanoi – a GNER train between Doncaster and York)
This is the only book I read that was set anywhere near where I was travelling, i.e. the second half of it is in Thailand (briefly) and Malaysia. Like that other Joseph Conrad book I’ve read, Heart Of Darkness, it’s all about an employee of a trading company who is posted to the jungle and ends up becoming a sort of lord to the people there, and Marlow tells the story. Okay, there’s more to it than that – Jim drifts around Asia to escape the memory of a disgraceful incident in his youth and the novel is all about honour and redemption. It’s a good story and I love Conrad’s hilarious minor characters (such as the notorious Robinson, who is described glowingly as a maniac, then turns out to be a frail, quiet old man), but it’s not exactly a page-turner; Conrad spares no detail and frequently lets the plot slow to a crawl. What makes this more annoying is the fact that most of the book is supposed to be Marlow speaking, and you’d think any sane person telling an anecdote like this would cut down on the superfluous imagery.

Now I’m just reading the news in the hope that I’ll come up with some more blogs.

March 14, 2007

On homesickness and the cultural bends

As round-the-world trips go, six months isn’t particularly long. Indeed, I did rush through a few places and was gently berated for it by people I’d only just met. However, it was still more than twice as long as the longest period of time I’d been away from home previously (a term plus a week or so on either side at Warwick), and it was certainly a long time to be away from Britain. For most of the time my absence from Mother England didn’t bother me. Usually, while reminiscing about the previous months, I would just find it weird that that one time in Texas felt so long ago yet I hadn’t been home, which felt so recent, since then. The first two times I felt any kind of homesickness was at Christmas – which not only was Australian, but lacked parents and much of a build-up – and on that long, dark and lonely Malaysia-Thailand bus ride.

But they were minor and paled in comparison with a massive bout of homesickness I was struck down with between Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang, about a month before my flight home. It was strange. Suddenly, I started getting reminded of things back home and realised that I really missed them: decent sausages, a selection of cheeses, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Mighty Boosh, musical guilty pleasures (my minidisk player contained only the best albums I owned), a crisp Saturday morning in winter with The Guardian, Jonathan Ross on Radio 2 and copious amounts of Yorkshire Tea. At the same time I lost my appetite for adventure and the backpacker life – I didn’t want to see any more temples or caves, just wanted western food, and couldn’t be arsed to bargain for anything.

I thought it could be a geo-psychological thing: I worked out Chiang Mai was the nearest I’d been to home since El Paso, and instead of continuing in that direction I was going against my gut instinct by heading south-east into Laos. It could have been something to do with the fact that I didn’t meet that many Brits in Asia. The States and New Zealand in particular were full of them, so it was as if I had a comfort zone there; although I met plenty of English-speakers in Malaysia and Thailand, there wasn’t as much sense of community as I’d felt while travelling with other Brits. Another explanation is that it was the first time on the trip that I was actually ill; as you may recall, I was on the Lao Diet. Maybe my gut instinct wasn’t to keep travelling north-west, but to empty itself at regular intervals.

Whatever its cause, my pining for the proverbial fjords lasted about 5 days and in the end I really enjoyed Laos, and the rest of French Indochina. I’d go so far as to say I came out of the homesickness with my attitude towards home and travel completely reversed. I’d got over the scarcity-of-Brits thing, which, while being subconscious, sounds terribly un-PC. I arrived home a week ago looking forward to seeing friends and family again, but knowing that I was going to miss so much about backpacking:
- Friendliness; the ability to start a conversation with a perfect stranger based on the fact that you don’t look like the locals. How am I going to meet girls now?
- The good humour and general affability of the South-East Asians
- Bargaining: the day wasn’t complete until I’d knocked at least 25% off the price of something
- The weather – I was usually soaked through with sweat by noon, but now I’m back I wonder why I thought winter was so good. For some reason I wasn’t expecting the trees to be so bare either. I should be used to the Newcastle March but I’ve barely left the house since I got back. Still, at least April’s around the corner.
- Canadians and their shit-shows
- Australians and the amusement they take from Sisqo’s The Thong Song
- Scandinavians and their beautiful but impossible-to-figure-out womenfolk
- Vietnamese beef noodle soup
- Banana pancakes
- Beerlao
- The ability to walk around comfortably in flip-flops – I made the mistake of walking to the shops the other day when it was 5 degrees C
- The grime you get on your feet after walking around in flip-flops all day and the pleasure of washing it off
- The lack of decision to make every day about what to wear on my lower half (if it’s hot: my one pair of shorts; if it’s not: my one pair of jeans)
- The freedom and ease of deciding one day to pack up all my belongings and go somewhere new.

Bhupen, my travel buddy for the middle part of Vietnam, warned me of the experience he’d had arriving in Singapore after several months in India. He said the sudden availability and accessibility of everything and general cleanliness gave him the cultural bends – a reverse culture shock. The first 24 hours back in Newcastle were indeed horrible. I freaked out a bit at the familiarity of home combined with the unfamiliarity of being at home. Little things weren’t quite right either: the internet was down for a bit; it seems Virgin have taken over Telewest since I’ve been away and they’re not showing Sky Channels because of some childish disagreement; the central heating was screwed up; and the folks had no Yorkshire Tea. I was also rather jetlagged which didn’t help. I got over it quicker than I thought and although I haven’t been out of the house much, things are feeling normal again and I’ve actually started thinking about getting a job. I’ve even eaten a meal at a restaurant which, at £15, costs ten times more than the most I would pay in Thailand, and didn’t think twice about it. Well, until now.

At least there are some things I won’t miss:
- Asian butchery: when you buy a whole roast chicken on the streets of Luang Prabang, don’t let the woman chop it up for you because she’ll just hack wildly at it with a cleaver, the resulting pieces being full of shards of bone, and a nightmare to eat.
- Angry dogs and the fact that I haven’t had my rabies vaccination
- The availability of T-shirts of Tintin in Vietnam or “au Cambodge” despite the fact that he never went to either
- The roads.
Er, that’s it. Why the hell did I come home?

March 09, 2007

How I got home

All good things must come to an end. My flight home was out of Bangkok at half past midnight on Monday. With my limited time, and Bangkok being Bangkok, I didn’t fancy spending an extra night there, especially as I’d have a whole day to kill. According to the ever-reliable Rough Guide, I could leave the economic inequality of Siem Reap in the morning and arrive at the western ghetto of Khao San Road early evening. It would mean travelling for 36 hours in total but I felt a mammoth journey like that would be a fitting end to my adventure.

However, the road between Siem Reap and Bangkok is rather notorious. So notorious that the Warehouse bar in SR sells a pretty lame t-shirt that says “Bangkok to Siem Reap? Overland??” I met loads of backpackers on my loop through Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia who were coming the other way and had had nothing but bad experiences on the route. A typical Bangkok-Siem Reap story involves:
- leaving the KSR at 7am
- the drivers changing a ‘flat’ tyre apparently for the sake of making the schmucks who bought this cheap ticket wait for ages
- waiting ages at the border while you get scammed for visas
- discovering that the roads in Cambodia are utter shite, enduring a constantly bumpy ride for hours
- the bus actually breaking down and waiting for new parts as the sun sets
- the bus breaking down again, waiting for and being bundled onto even more uncomfortable pickup trucks
- arriving just outside Siem Reap at about midnight, tired and miserable and prepared to pay whatever this dodgy guesthouse that the driver has brought you to is asking.
“But,” most of them assured me, “the time it takes is all part of the scam – apparently it’s not so bad the other way because you don’t need a visa going into Thailand.”

On Sunday, the day after my day of temples, being All Templed-Out I had a lazy day. I decided to check the internet for tips on the Siem Reap-Bangkok trip. All I found were scare stories about buses breaking down. Eh, that’s the internet for you, I figured – although it seemed like getting a taxi would be a quicker and more reliable option. The trouble was, the folk I’d been hanging out with were going in the other direction, so it would cost $30-40 just to Poipet (the border town). Mr Nini at the guesthouse was selling bus tickets to Bangkok at $12, but when I told him I had a plane to catch and after he’d picked his jaw up off the floor, and unhelpfully advised that I should have taken the bus that morning, he strongly suggested flying from SR, for $150. Eh, it’s only because he’d get a bigger commission, I figured, and bought the bus ticket.

After several nights of excess, and needing to get up at 6am on Monday, I decided to have an early night. As I said my farewells to the people I’d been playing my last game of Shithead for the foreseeable future with, it became apparent to a Swiss girl reading nearby – one of these smug, seen-it-all types – that I was going to Bangkok overland. “You’re going to Bangkok tomorrow?” she asks. “Yeah, you’ve done it have you?” “Last year.” Still not entirely confident of my decision and seeking assurance, I ask, “What time did you get to Bangkok?” “Ooh, about 10.30, 11.” “pm?!?!” “Yeah, our bus broke down, twice.” It wasn’t the most ideal information to acquire before hitting the hay, so being kept awake by the dog howling across the street, I contemplated all the ways it could go wrong. I find that, if I do this, I’ll devise the worst-case scenario and if I expect this, then whatever happens will be good. I reckoned I would still make the plane, even if I had to bribe the bus driver to drop me at the airport instead of taking me to central Bangkok.

I was downstairs and checked out with ten minutes to spare before the bus would pick me up from the guesthouse at 6.30. The easiest way to travel in South East Asia is to book a bus through your guesthouse, because you get picked up from there. There are usually several bus companies who each have several guesthouses to pick up from so sometimes it takes half an hour or so to do the rounds. Nini kept telling me “not long” but there was no sign of the bus company until 7.30. The sign was a guy on a motorbike who said he’d take me to the bus. He explained that the delay was down to a lack of fluid for the brakes or something. He took me to another hotel on the other side of town, where there were about ten people waiting, but, conspicuously, no bus. Several buses turned up in the next hour but they were all either from the wrong bus company or going to Phnom Penh. Soon there was just me and John, a Newcastle Uni alumnus heading to Ko Chang, left. We were about to share a taxi when what should turn up but the bus. We got on and it spent another half hour picking the rest of the passengers up. Then it spent half an hour waiting for the brake fluid to turn up. So God knows what the first 2 hour delay was for. I hadn’t reckoned on leaving almost 3 hours late, so now had to contemplate missing my plane entirely, spending a small fortune on the next available flight back, then waiting for it. In Bangkok. Which, obviously, I didn’t fancy.

The road to Poipet was indeed shite. Allegedly one (or both) of the local airlines has bribed the Cambodian People’s Party to not upgrade the road in order to protect their tourist revenue. Although the road is pretty much dead straight, it’s basically hardened mud so with every rainfall it gets churned up and sets so that you’re shaking along at 30mph with no idea when it will end. There do seem to be roadworks, but these just seem to smooth it out a bit; there’s no sign of tarmac. It’s clear how easy it is for the bus to break down or get a flat; we passed one bus where the driver was changing a tyre and, I don’t know if it was for the sake of pathos or what, but its passengers were all trudging down the road as if the bus was actually done for and they had to make the rest of the journey by foot. Every time our bus slowed down to a stop we thought it was our turn, but it was always just to negotiate a really big bump. We arrived into Poipet at 2.30, after a gruelling five hours on the road from hell. We were piled on to another bus to the border crossing, had our passports stamped to officially leave Cambodia, ran the 300m gauntlet of casinos and beggars, and reached Thai soil – the first world, as far as I was concerned.

After I’d completed my immigration card, a dishevelled middle-aged Chinese guy approached me and, brandishing his own passport, immigration card and pen from one of the casinos we’d passed, laughed nervously at me. He had to repeat this nervous laugh twice before I translated it as “Yes, I know it’s a Chinese stereotype but I only came to Cambodia to gamble at the border; I lost all my money and can’t read English or Thai so need someone to fill this card out.” I obliged, but it amused me.

I was off on the “VIP” bus inexplicably decorated with Japanese cartoon characters by 3.30, and my God were the roads good! The bus, however, was painfully slow; it was as if he was trying to start in third. I could imagine it breaking down. Amazingly, it didn’t happen; we arrived in Bangkok at 7.30. I bought a bus ticket to the airport, indulged in one last pad thai (Thai stir-fried noodles), one last banana pancake and one last Singha beer and by 9 I was on my way again. It transpired that I’d totally forgotten to eat fried crickets and buy an ironic Canadian flag for Sancho (my bag), but overall it was a better state of affairs than the one I’d resigned myself to at 9am.

I changed into my suit at the airport to reduce Sancho’s weight before check-in (he was still over 20kg but this didn’t cost extra), and, of course, in order to return to Britain in the finest way possible. Unfortunately I didn’t get my free upgrade to business class using the excuse that I was overdressed for economy. It seemed like a busy flight. The flight was about as delayed as the Poipet bus, and by this time I was knackered; I was nodding off in the departure lounge, during the safety instructions and during Marie Antoinette. Luckily I was refreshed to see The Departed again, some Extras and most of Babel, of which I missed the end because we began the descent. After almost 13 hours in the air, at 7.30am (2.30pm Bangkok time), we landed at Heathrow. I’d made it around the world! I’ll let that sink in for you. I then had two hours to make it to Terminal 1 and catch my flight to Newcastle – plenty of time had this country not messed up the rules about carrying liquids on domestic flights. They didn’t like my litre of duty-free Tanqueray, so sent me on a wild goose chase to check in my hand luggage (luckily for no extra cost).

Thirty-six hours. My brain was mush on that flight to Newcastle. I couldn’t even finish the Sudoky in the complimentary Telegraph [spits]. Though I am out of practice. Waiting for my luggage in Arrivals I wondered how much duty-free alcohol Heathrow security have been confiscating off unsuspecting returnees. Do they tell everyone that they can put it through checked luggage, or only the ones like me who begin to strenuously cite their basic human right to bring cheap liquor back from holiday? It’d be quite a scam: airports like Bangkok maintain their revenue, while the Heathrow staff get free booze. Just then, my day bag appears on the conveyor belt. I pick it up – it’s lighter than it should be. One of the straps is open. There’s no gin inside. Remembering the time when our luggage got lost in Heathrow after Cuba and when it turned up my cigars were gone, I began, “you fucking-” before noticing the missing item nonchalantly dawdling behind.

Relieved, I made my way out of the airport, getting electric shocks off the trolley, and called Mum to pick me up: “I’ll be the one in the flip-flops, Vietnamese army cap, Khmer scarf and three-piece suit.” I stood outside in that familiar Newcastle wind. Thinking things couldn’t be much more different from where I was 24 hours before, I heard, “Are you after a taxi there, son?” “No thanks.” I chuckled to myself – the only thing missing was “where you go?” Some things never change. Then I realised I was actually standing at the taxi rank.

Mum turned up, I got in the car and we went home.

March 07, 2007

Holiday In Cambodia

Follow-up to This Is The End…well, almost from Esprit de l'escalier

Pretend that I’m still in Cambodia as you read this. I wanted to write it back on Sunday but Blogs/Khmer internet wouldn’t let me.

I did fire an AK-47 in the end. My last day in Vietnam saw me visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, sixty clicks north of Saigon, a key battleground in the American War, being a major base for communist guerrillas in the South. The Viet Minh dug a massive network of tunnels, where they lived and later sheltered from intense American bombing. A fair bit of it has been preserved and you can crawl through a 100 metre stretch to get a feel for what it was like (hot, dirty and cramped). The museum does a good job of glorifying the courage and cunning of the VC, presumably to get the tourists pumped up and willing to spend lots of money to shoot guns at their adjacent firing range. It cost about 10 quid for a full clip, but I was cheap and only got 5 bullets. Enough as it turned out, because it’s bloody loud. Your ears ring even with the muffs on. Who’d be a soldier?

I also took in the Holy See of the Cao Dai religion, which is nearby. Now for once this isn’t bullshit: Cao Dai is a uniquely Vietnamese religion. It was founded in 1927 and combines elements of Catholicism, Taoism, Buddhism and other eastern belief systems. Its churches are gaudily decorated with all manner of symbols, from dragons to masonic eyes in triangles. Since the last pope fled the repressive Diem regime in the late 50s and died in Cambodia, all decisions have been made using seance. French writer Victor Hugo is one of its three saints. We saw half of their midday ceremony, which consisted of primary-colour-clad clergy and white-clad parishioners kneeling on the floor and praying, accompanied by fairly monotonous music and singing. I reckoned the last 20 minutes would be much the same so made my excuses. For all I know they could have started breakdancing. I wouldn’t put it past them.

And so to Cambodia. Although loads of people I met said they loved it, I had the feeling that I’d been saving the worst country til last. This is the country that went through America’s secret war, the Khmer Rouge, was plagued by civil war and although it’s now relatively safe and stable, it’s incredibly corrupt and unequal, with people buying their way into decent jobs and the government selling the people out to foreign investment. My first impressions reinforced that view: after crossing the border the first thing you see is casinos; where they haven’t built casinos there are wood and corrugated iron shacks. There’s razor wire everywhere – a reminder of the apparent lawlessness. Even the country’s colour scheme adds to the mood: the land is brown – a stark contrast to the lush green of Vietnam.

The first stop (of, er, two) was the capital city Phnom Penh (henceforth PP; if I end up abbreviating Pol Pot, he’ll be PP2). Unplanned extra days in Laos and Vietnam had eaten into my time here, so I only had two nights. The royal/religious/arty stuff is supposed to be good, but PP’s other main draw was rather more intriguing: the Khmer Rouge stuff. This consists of Tuol Sleng Prison aka S21, which is in the city, and the Choeng Ek Killing Fields, which is just outside. Myself, German Mats and Dutch Rachel hired a tuk-tuk for the day. With this the decadence continued: whenever I was offered a tuk-tuk or motorbike ride, I could reply, “no thank you, my man is waiting for me”, like a regular colonialist (strictly speaking he was our man, but meh).

S21 was a school that the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975, converted into a prison and used to detain, interrogate and torture 20,000 suspected enemies of the revolution (of whom 7 survived) until Vietnam invaded in 1979. You see the original cells, torture instruments, and hundreds of haunting mugshots of the victims. Many of the prisoners were taken to Choeng Ek to be disposed of. Here you see dozens of mass graves and a monument to the dead stuffed full of the skulls they unearthed. There are killing fields all over the country; as many as 3 million died under Pol Pot’s regime. It’s difficult to get your head around the scale of the slaughter, especially as it was all so senseless, and as the surviving perpetrators have never been brought to justice (thanks to the former Khmer Rouge president). And as a pedant, I found the use of guns and electricity by a regime trying to recreate Year Zero a bit hypocritical.

I’d heard all about the Killing Fields firing range on my travels – it was rumoured that you could blow up a cow with a bazooka, until I met an Irish guy in Saigon who actually had. Naturally I thought this was distasteful; why would anyone want to fire a weapon after seeing the brutality of the Khmer Rouge? It turned out that the range wasn’t actually at the Killing Fields, but the tuk-tuk drivers liked to plug it as part of the day’s package. We declined anyway.

After having my man drop me off by the palace I wandered back to the guesthouse (the best way to see a city). Phnom Penh is a bit of a cross between Hanoi and Vang Vieng. Yes, I couldn’t pick two more different places, but hear me out. PP is a fairly large, bustling French-influence capital city with a river and a lake. However, the lakeside is pretty tranquil, and where most of the guesthouses are; each one having its own bar, pool table and TV, the area is quite difficult to leave. I stayed at Happy Guesthouse – so-called, I’m guessing, because of all the people smoking weed. What didn’t make it so happy, and rather jarred with me, was the choice of DVD that guests spent the evening watching. PP seems to attract people who get off on brutality – to some Khmer Rouge history isn’t harrowing enough, so they return to their lodgings for a relaxing evening watching the likes of Saw and American History X. Good films if you’ve spent the day with kittens and flowers, but the three of us were in the mood for a stiff drink.

So we went to that other other must-see place in PP, the nightclub Heart of Darkness. I was there on the Apocalypse Now reference, but it’s a bit of a legendary place. It’s basically a Cambodia-themed Sugar – similar size, music and, er, darkness, and fun when you’re really drunk, with a mostly young, Khmer crowd. I’d met people in Laos who’d gone one night then heard that there’d been a shooting there the following night. The most exciting thing that happened was when I beat a Khmer girl (who may or may not have been a prostitute) at pool. The crowd went wild. The Rough Guide had called the place overrated and disappointing so maybe my expectations were low but I had a good time. I tell you what is overrated though, Rough Guide: your beloved Foreign Correspondents Club – it was nothing like Casablanca.

You know what else is overrated, Rough Guide: you. Your maps are frequently bollocks, you can’t spell, your pronunciation guides are baffling, and the overpriced amok at that Arun place in Siem Reap you recommended certainly did not having me going back for more. Maybe amok is supposed to taste that bad, but the Cambodian people have been through enough so I’d rather blame you.

My second, and last, stop was Siem Reap. After dropping me at the guesthouse the motorbike driver, clearly hankering after another fare the next day, asked if I was going to see the temples. “What temples?” I asked. “Yes”, he replied, somewhat enigmatically. It turns out several clicks north is Cambodia’s main tourist attraction, Angkor Wat. Angkor was the capital of the Khmer civilisation whose peak was around 1000 years ago. Basically there are loads of temples (wats) and other stone remains of the city, some of them well-preserved, others weathered and overgrown with jungle, but largely very spectacular indeed. There’s so much to see that the sinister Apsara organisation which owns the site (depending on the rumourmonger you talk to, it’s Japanese or Vietnamese and only gives the Cambodian government somewhere between 5 and 30% cut of its profits) sells seven-day passes. I gave myself two days to see it but managed to cycle around the main places – including Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom – in a day before succumbing to that infamous backpacker affliction, being Templed-Out.

Tourists have only been going to Cambodia for about ten years, and Siem Reap’s an interesting place as it’s grown so quickly. There are both a Siem Reap Airlines and an Angkor Airlines. There were so many tourists at Angkor Wat – not quite enough to spoil my day, but hotels are going up all the time in SR, so it’s only a matter of time. There’s already a street which is full of bars and restaurants – an Aussie ex-pat told me that there was nothing there 7 years ago when he moved there (one of the first of many). He now works at the golf club – that’s the kind of place SR is. While people are getting rich off this trade, equally visible are the people who are getting nothing. As in Vietnam there are people – mostly children – selling books and postcards on the street. But there are also more beggars than I’ve seen anywhere else – again mostly children. It’s pretty heartbreaking, especially when the kids are so intelligent and good at English that they should be working for, say, restaurants, instead of the simple nephew of the owner, which tends to be the case (especially that place that did amok).

I met up with Glasgow Jim from my Vang Vieng days and we had a couple of good nights out, highlights of which included going to the seedy as Zanzibar bar (another Rough Guide recommendation) for a laugh, getting four grown-ups on one scooter (incidentally the most I’ve seen is 2 adults and 3 children), speaking broken French for about an hour, speaking in Canadian accents for about 2, having fun fights with the beggars (they have a good sense of humour these Khmers, even the ones who can’t afford shoes) and getting locked out of my guesthouse at 3am and having to drunkenly climb over a ten foot wall with foot-long iron spikes which would’ve impaled me if I’d slipped. Near-death experience: check.

One of the funny things about South East Asia is the peculiar marketing strategy of quasi-plagiarising well-known brands. One can buy trainers that look like Chucky T All Stars, but actually say North Star on them. One can buy Adidas-style sports wear, made by Asdadi. In Cambodia whole shops are trading on the similarity of their name to a more renowned one – I saw a 7-Nice and a 7-Twenty. Khmer beer is a curious one because you have Angkor and Anchor – I assume Angkor is the original one, yet Anchor is equally as established. If you ask for one, you invariably get the other. The Rolex I bought for $15 dollars is definitely a Rolex, because it says.

Next week (or earlier, if I can be arsed (and I haven’t really been since returning)): my journey home.

February 26, 2007

This Is The End…well, almost

Follow-up to Chuc Mung Nam Moi! from Esprit de l'escalier

Saigon…shit; I’m still only in Saigon…Every time I think I’m gonna wake up back in the jungle.

- Willard, Apocalypse Now

So I’ve made it to Ho Chi Minh City, or, if you prefer, Saigon. Neither is the politically-correct name, but apart from all the Soviet Union flags, there’s no longer anything that makes the city appear very communist – Nam seems about as free-market as countries come – so I’ve been calling it the latter.

In order to stop me going on any big tangents, I’ll rewind and start from where I left off. About an hour after my last blog I caught a bus to Hoi An. On the way, I met Colorado Phil, who I originally met in Fiji and last saw in Auckland. That was pretty freaky, mainly because of how long it had been. Then in Hoi An I met a British couple I’d last seen in Austin, Texas. Then I saw another couple who I could swear I recognised, then realised, after they’d disappeared, that I’d met them on the Kiwi Experience. That is the kind of backpacker trail place Hoi An is.

Hoi An is also the kind of place – like streets in the Old Quarter of its anagramsake Hanoi – that’s full of a certain type of business, namely arts and crafts shops, and, more importantly, tailors. You wonder how they make a living with all that competition. Apparently, after the communists took over in South Vietnam, they rounded up all the artisans and sent them off to a re-education camp in Hoi An. The Ho government didn’t reckon on these staunchly petit bourgeois folk making such a fuss as they did, and before long, the quaint little town had turned into a haven for the small businessman. The army was never called in to quell the resistance as the camp guards, in their fine new bespoke uniforms, kept curiously quiet about the situation.

With only two weeks left I reckoned I wouldn’t mind carrying about a backpack bursting at the seams, so I went crazy and bought a three-piece finest Italian cashmere suit (pronounced “syoot”, as the only class of people normally rich enough to afford such things do), a bog-standard tuxedo and four shirts, all for less than ninety pounds. As you can probably imagine, I am now making Sinatra look like a hobo.

Hoi An was pleasant, with a cool bar called Tam Tam, a restaurant that served 10p beer, and a nice beach nearby, but it was easy to run out of things to do so after three days I went to Nha Trang. Because Vietnam is so long and skinny, there is an unavoidable series of stops on the journey south. Nha Trang seemed at first to be the token Costa Del Sol/Surfers Paradise-style beach resort, with high-rise, high-price hotels, but I ended up staying for three days and I quite liked it. I think it was because of the multitude of bars and their crazy happy hours catering to people like me at an unavoidable stop. We (myself and Bhupen, from Bradford, with whom I travelled from Hue) also scored a cheap room, after visiting dozens of expensive places. And there was a fun boat trip to outlying islands with a floating bar and Rotorua-style international karaoke. There was also diving, but I never stayed sober enough to be okay to do it the following morning. I wouldn’t’ve minded going surfing again though, but, of course, Charlie don’t surf. I’ve been trying to cultivate a wild man of Borneo look for when I return in a week, but I had to maintain my level of decadence so I went for a cutthroat shave after three weeks of abstinence. It wasn’t too scary, except when he threw in an exfoliation (blimey, I almost put “defoliation”, which would’ve been a bit of a faux-pas here in post-Agent Orange Vietnam) and ran the razor around my eyes. I didn’t lose any blood, or organs, but my chin was possibly smoother than it’s been since I was ten.

I ended up staying an extra night because the Vietnamese’s week-long holiday was over, so the night bus to Saigon was full up. By the way, I put two and two together and realised that it’s automatically a Happy New Year, because it’s an excuse to jack up the prices. So yesterday, instead of wandering about Saigon (or perhaps going mad in my Saigon hotel room and breaking a mirror) I was stuck on a boiling 11 hour bus ride, with only the tiresome, derivative, straight-to-DVD foxy boxing Holly Valance vehicle, Dead Or Alive, my Conrad book, which I was trying to make last, and killing the scores of mosquitoes that entered the bus every time its doors opened to keep me sane.

Saigon’s alright, but it’s impossible to get a banana shake outside of the backpacker zone. The War Remnants Museum is excellent. So powerful that it’s kind of put me off firing a Kalashnikov at Cu Chi tomorrow, which I thought would have been the more tasteful place to do it, given that the Vietnam War was slightly better than the Pol Pot genocide, the Killing Fields being the other place one can play Soldiers with real guns. We’ll see.

February 19, 2007

Chuc Mung Nam Moi!

That means Happy New Year! Again. I arrived in Vietnam just in time for Tet, their new year, or as they like to call it, Happy New Year, as if the happiness is a given.

I flew to Hanoi from Vientiane. The journey by bus, which is universally considered to be a nightmare, takes 24 hours. By plane it took 1. I kinda felt like I’d cheated, so resolved to travel by land until Bangkok.

Hanoi is a bit like Bangkok, in that it’s full of traffic (moreso perhaps, because of all the scooters; crossing the road is an adventure every time), dirty and noisy. Yet somehow, I like it far more. It’s got a certain charm, and trees. I stayed in the Old Quarter, at a place called Real Darling Cafe, which I’d recommend. After the hard mattresses of Northern Thailand and Laos, it was the first place I got a good night’s sleep. The staff are friendly and helpful, and the trip to (the more stunning than Milford Sound) Ha Long Bay they organised wasn’t a big old rip-off. Many people I’ve met say that the Vietnamese are unfriendly and don’t like westerners because of the wars, but they’ve been alright. Maybe they’re in high spirits because of Tet.

Loads of businesses shut down for Tet, which limits/adds expense to travel and sightseeing, but I’m glad I was here to see it. It’s like Christmas crossed with New Year, Guy Fawkes Night and, because of all the men in sharp suits riding around on scooters, a Mod Convention. Friday was NYE; the days preceding it were like the last days before Christmas, with the streets of the Old Quarter rammed with presents and prospective buyers. Each street seems to have a speciality: there’s a hat street, a toy street, a tin stove street. Instead of fir trees, people get tangerine trees, and they take them home strapped to the back of their scooters.

Everyone went to the lake to see in the New Year. There were a lot of teenagers and military on leave but still in their uniforms (conspicuously not about to launch any offensives this year). Very few people were drinking, which was surprising. The fireworks at midnight lasted fifteen minutes, and after applauding most people dispersed to start street fires or headed to the temples to light incense and pray. Apparently on NYD, everyone stays at home for a big meal so I assumed that the lack of traffic waking me up at 7am would last. It didn’t and by lunchtime everyone was racing around again.

One of the sights I managed to see was Ho Chi Minh. Yes, the Ho Chi Minh. He’s dead, but government embalmed him and put him on display. They say “Hey kid, wanna see a dead body?” then make you walk for miles to get into the Mausoleum grounds, in an act of typical communist bureaucracy. Surely, I thought, this is not what Uncle Ho would have wanted. However, I can testify that he was not spinning in his glass casket. I also went to the Military History Museum which has a lot of war memorabilia but not a lot of history, so you have to learn it by osmosis. The captions which refer to anything associated with the South Vietnamese as “Saigon puppet” were amusing though.

I took an overnight train through the old DMZ to Hue where I’ve been for one night. It’s really hot, relatively quiet and has a bunch of historical sites to cycle around, like the old palace and royal mausoleums (or mausolea). Accomodation’s pretty cheap here – I paid $6 for a room with air-con and cable TV. So I’ve been catching up with BBC World. How about that Britney Spears?

February 13, 2007

Land of a million elephants

Follow-up to Opium country from Esprit de l'escalier

I thought I was joking when I said Thai scams were so rubbish it’s as if they’re a decoy for something bigger. As it turned out, leaving Thailand turned out to be if not a meta-scam, then a bona fide scam, or possibly scamola. In Chiang Mai I stayed at Libra Guesthouse, which was cheap and run by a big extended family who spoke good English and were helpful and gave me a deal for the trek and it was cool cos there was always something going on. I liked it, basically, so signed up for their deal to get to Luang Prabang in Laos by bus to the border and by slow boat down the Mekong River.

The bus seemed fine and we arrived to Chiang Khong on the border (i.e. the river) without incident at 3pm. Here, we sat around in a restaurant and the travel people got us to fill out the visa forms. They showed us the price list for the various nationalities – Brits had to pay 1700 baht (Canadians had to pay 1900. Suckers, I thought at the time). They went off to get the passports sorted out as more buses turned up and by the time they returned and we could cross the border to Houay Xai it was 5.30. There were about 50 of us on this package and we were ferried across the river, happy and oblivious.

Our first point of call on Lao soil was the passport control. Because it was after 4pm, we had to pay an “overtime fee” of 20 baht which we felt was a rip-off. Then we saw the real visa-on-arrival rates, which were roughly 500 baht less than we’d paid. The travel company had pocketed about eight quid per person commission on top of the 20 we’d already spent. So had we done this independently we’d be 520 baht better off. Before we had time to bitch we were escorted to a travel agency where we were given a welcome talk from a shifty fellow who introduced himself as Mister Information. He stressed in broken English the importance of paying for everything in kip, the Lao national currency, and not baht, which is “currency foreigner”. It just so happened that they had a currency exchange counter right there, so everyone dutifully went and bought kip. Still smarting from the visa thing, I smelled another hefty commission, so changed far less than the lady urged. And it turned out that all the prices were quoted in baht. The free night’s accommodation was only free if you didn’t need a single bed. Luckily I’d met Jon and Pedro, and we immediately bonded over our love of not being ripped off, so shared a triple.

For the next couple of days of boat travel there was a scam at every turn. Free breakfast was shit (but what does one expect). They urged us to buy cushions for the boat which allegedly had wooden benches; they were wooden benches but they had cushions already. The price of the boat ticket on its own was less than the lovely people at Libra had told me. Information had also told us that accommodation in Pakbeng, the one-horse town we were to spend the night, was hard to come by, so some saps booked pricey rooms from Houay Xai.

The boat ride itself wasn’t as cool as the Rough Guide had reckoned – I was expecting to be one of few falang riding an authentic cargo boat, not one of 50 on specially-designed boats. Still, I met a bunch of folk I’ve ended up travelling through Laos with. And we got a glimpse of rural Lao life on the Mekong – there were people fishing, bathing, and selling tat to passing boats of tourists which never failed to pull up. The countryside is beautiful, and there was a whole bunch of fauna, like elephants, water buffalo and dead dogs floating by. There was even adventure: on the second day to Luang Prabang, there were two boats carrying a mixture of package losers like myself, and independent types. The boat I wasn’t on ran aground (it’s dry season and the rocks are fearsome) and our boat was requistioned to rescue the passengers. A more upmarket package boat was nearby so to free up space on our boat they agreed to take 20 of us, including me. It was pretty comfortable, so I finally felt I was getting my money’s worth.

In New Zealand, a diet of pies gave me a fair bit of flab that I haven’t managed to shake off. Then I discovered the Lao Diet. Basically, you arrive in Lao and start eating anything and everything. Then you start feeling ill, so you stop eating, then you throw up in the middle of your night in Pakbeng. For another day you still don’t feel hungry, but when you do, repeat the process. I was a bit cautious after Pakbeng so I haven’t really followed it through, but it’ll probably work.

I think I sound like my mum if I say this but Luang Prabang is gorgeous. Laos’s second “city”, it’s full of historical buildings and temples. It’s pretty touristy too, but I totally let it off. After travelling through former British colonies, for the remainder of my trip I’m seeing how our neighbours the French did with their white man’s burden. Thailand was never colonised. It’s a wonder they’re so civilised. Anyway, the French were only in Laos for 50 years, but 50 years after they left, there’s still a big Gallic flavour. It’s pretty much like Thailand* but with added baguettes, wine and petanque. It’s the first place on the trip where I’ve met French tourists whose English isn’t so good; it’s as if they expect Laos to still teach the language of their old oppressors in school. I wonder how they get on, but don’t know how to ask.

Monks are everywhere in Laos. They wear orange robes, have shaved heads and carry parasols, so they’re pretty dapper. Every dawn they walk around town and get free rice in the almsgiving. I headed out one day to see this. After seeing one group of monks pass, a lady approached to sell me rice. I couldn’t see any more monks so declined. As I walked away she called “Oh come on, you know they’re not allowed to…you know.” A good point, but I’m not getting any either.

You get a lot more opium in Laos. Maitre d’s and tuk-tuk drivers all ask, if you decline their primary service, if you want “smoke”. With the drug market in such a healthy state, it’s books which are the hot commodity. The Lao government doesn’t seem to mind people reading what they want because bookshops are everywhere, but apparently books aren’t imported so they rely on travellers to bring reading material from abroad. I was chatting to a novice monk in LP who was practising his basic English and he asked, conspiratorally, much like a pill-hungry flake at a festival, “Do you know where I can get a good book?” I actually had The Picture Of Dorian Gray which I was on my way to trade in, but this didn’t meet his criteria, so I didn’t mention it.**

Laos is marginally more expensive than Thailand for everything except beer. The beer here is the legendary Beerlao. It follows that I should invest a lot of time in the pursuit of inebriation while in Laos so therefore I went to Vang Vieng. I’d never heard of the place until I was in KL, where I met a Hungarian girl who raved about the place. She was like the Robert Carlyle character in The Beach, except as far as I know she didn’t commit suicide. More people on my way up north said it was good too, so I cut short my time in Thailand and Vietnam to go for a few days. The main thing about the town is the tubing. You rent a big inner tube, jump in a tuk-tuk and float down the river, stopping at bars and rope swings along the way, for the best part of a day. I did this twice. I know the phrase “this is the life” gets bandied about a lot these days, but VV is The Life. Myself and Michelle, a Canadian girl from the slow boat, also rented scooters for a day and went exploring caves and lagoons and it was brilliant, especially as the guy whose bikes they were didn’t notice the damage I’d done to mine when I took a spill. The town itself was slightly lame as there are loads of bars showing DVDs that are known not by their actual names but by the TV show they show (e.g. The Friends Bar, The Family Guy Bar, The Other Friends Bar), and because of civil unrest (yes, Laos is a dangerous place, Mum) there was a police curfew so the bars shut at a godly hour. We had a good group of people though, which always helps one’s enjoyment of places. Never got around to smoking opium, but scored some good craic.

I was the only westerner on the local bus to capital city Vientiane yesterday, where I fly to Hanoi this afternoon. I have 3 hours to see the sights and buy a Beerlao t-shirt.

*The country is more developed than I heard it was – there were supposed to be no ATMs but there’s at least two.
**He didn’t really say that – he said, “I want a book.” I just wanted to make a sly dig at the overrated Oscar Wilde.

February 02, 2007

Opium country

Follow-up to Drinking lager with a gin & tonic and Baileys chaser from Esprit de l'escalier

Now that I have your attention, I have to admit that opium has not featured heavily in the days since I last wrote. First, a few follow ups (or follows up, if that is the correct grammar, attorneys general style).

I said that one wants to check two things when tail-seeking in Thailand: that the broad in question is not a fella and not a working girl. Given that ladyboys are generally taller than their female compatriots, it follows than one should just go for the short ones. But here one risks entering Gary Glitter territory, so age is one more thing to check. Not that this has happened to me, nor to “my friend”; I’m just providing a public service.

There’s loads of 7-11s here. Like one every 100 metres or something. They’re competing with the King (who has shrines and posters appearing at a similar rate) for brand dominance of the Thai high street. I’m surprised there’s not a law against it.

The funny thing about Bangkok (or one of them; probably not as funny as the other funny things about Bangkok actually but I’m going off on a tangent so I’ll end these parentheses here) is that its nickname is the City of Angels. And it is rather like its nicknamesake in that it’s huge, sprawling, smoggy and you either love it or hate it.

Another day there fail to win me over. I went to the National Museum, where I very nearly fell victim to another stupid scam. Outside tourist attractions smartly dressed men approach approaching farangs and tell them that the sight is closed. It’s usually obvious that it’s actually open so one just ignores them. I expect that the man hopes that the tourist believes him and joins his exorbitant city tour or whatever he’s selling, but I can’t imagine that anyone does. I’m surprised how lame this and the tuk-tuk-tailor alliance are. Or maybe they’re just there to lull the tourist into a false sense of smugness at beating the scam so that they get conned by the meta-scam that the whole country is running. (As an aside, I’m fairly sure that the only people who do the “wai” – the prayer-like gesture of respect – to tourists are those who are trying to scam them. The two guys outside museums and the woman who over-charged me at the left luggage have been it.)

I didn’t buy a camera in Bangkok. I went to the Chatuchak weekend market which is where, according to my dive instructor, “you can buy anything”, only to be told “you can’t buy cameras”. They sold everything else and it was nice to wander about. So I went to Chinatown* which has a district for women’s shoes, one for textiles, one for toys and one for cameras, but for some reason they all shut on a Sunday afternoon the bastards. Long story short I bought one in Chiang Mai, so there may be photos on here soon.

I took the sleeper train up to CM, after one shit overnight bus too many from Chumpon to Bangkok (the “VIP” one broke down and we had to board a crappy one that excelled in sleep deprivation). I had a bed on the train! Crazy. In CM, apart from buying a camera, I signed up for a trek, which seemed to be the done thing. Having already done trekking in Malaysia, I wasn’t that bothered and wanted to just do white-water rafting, but apparently ‘tis not the season (now being the dry season), and CM didn’t seem to have much to offer. Everyone said it’s small, quiet and chilled out, but it’s actually just a big city with traffic and industry and things. Compared to Bangkok though, it is small, quiet and chilled out and its network of alleyways are nice to get lost in but it wasn’t enough to keep me here for several days.

I did catch some muay thai (Thai boxing) on the first night. Most of the 8 fights were between kids, 7 or 8 being the youngest. It was pretty entertaining, though there was only one knockout, no blood, and a couple of fights just involved red kicking blue, blue getting red in a headlock then both of them kneeing each other until they fell down then repeating. We were advised by our waitress (who had rather large hands) not to bet because it was fixed. Imagine school football matches being fixed! They should do that. There was one grown-up fight, female, between an English and a Thai and the English won.

The trek involved getting a converted pickup truck with 11 other farang and our guide, Nikon, an hour out of the city. We trekked up a mountain, stayed at a Lahu (a tribe orginally from Tibet) village for a night, trekked down the mountain via a waterfall and stayed at a rafting camp for a night, then rode elephants and bamboo rafts (again) and white-water rafted. It was a good experience.

The hill tribe wasn’t as primitive as I thought I’d paid for. There were apparently 4 other groups like ours staying in a village of 200 people, and the Lahu were obviously used to the attention. They all wore western clothes, sold us Coca Cola and even had electricity (from government-funded solar panels). The youths were in tracksuits, and because it was the last day of their new year celebrations (we reckoned the guides tell this to every group), were getting hammered, setting off fireworks and fighting, and reminded me a lot of charvers. We stayed in a hut made entirely of bamboo, which was surprisingly sturdy but looked like you’d put your foot through the floor with every step. The celebrations involved a dance that went on for hours, the only accompaniment being three drums and a couple of cymbals beating the same basic rhythm, and an old man singing. When the “music” stopped in the wee hours, the cocks started crowing ‘til mid-morning. All good fun.

Thai kids are the best, even when they aren’t beating the crap out of each other. At the waterfall the next day we’d just finished lunch (Nikon cooked everything – it’s weird that you don’t get sandwiches here) and as if on cue several cute kids appeared and wanted us to play with them, give them piggyback rides and that. Their friendliness and curiosity is obviously a ruse to obtain gifts from the farang that pass through every day. One cheeky bugger asked for my travel journal. That was the place where I saw opium growing. The poppies weren’t up yet but Nikon said it was opium. So that’s my opium experience.

Jeez, I’ve been writing this for ages. The elephant ride was fun, because our one didn’t have a mahood and went off eating trees and didn’t understand our commands (which sound very much like charver: “h’way” for go and “how” to stop). The white-water rafting was cool despite the relative lack of rapids. It was the first time I’d done it anyway and there was just enough to impress me. Bamboo rafting was same-same as Kanchanaburi (where, I forgot to mention, I stayed in a rafthouse on the River Kwai, i.e. it floated) but longer.

And I believe that’s me up to date. Oh, I drank a load of Chang beer last night. It’s 6.7% alcohol. As you know, normally I get anti-hangovers, but not from Chang I discovered to my cost. I might call this a Changover, so bad and unlike anything else it is.

*Because all my remaining countries are as poor/unfree or poorer/unfreer than China, and therefore there won’t be any Chinese immigration, I think that will be my last Chinatown experience ‘til Stowell Street. They’re everywhere – America, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia. I feel like I’ve been to China already.

January 27, 2007

Drinking lager with a gin & tonic and Baileys chaser

Fascinating creatures…looks like a lady but really it’s a man. I don’t find them attractive; it’s just confusing.

- Alan Partridge, 1997

Yes, I’m in Bangkok – the capital of Thailand, rather more infamous than famous thanks to pollution, sex tourism and ladyboys. It’s noisy, humid and the smog levels are so high that the sun turns red and viewable three hours before sunset. It’s apparently very safe (intimidating yet docile packs of stray dogs roam the streets – a bit like hooded teenagers in the UK), but at the same time it’s Scam Central. One of the most popular scams I’ve heard about is one where a tuk-tuk (that’s a three-wheeled motorised buggy) driver offers to take you sightseeing for a very low price only to take you to a tailor where he’s promised a commission. All the “victims” I’ve spoken to managed to get out of it, so I don’t know why they keep doing it. I did see one schmuck who’d been ripped off bigtime. His t-shirt read “Harlay Davison”.

I don’t really like Bangkok, though people who’ve been here for longer than three days say it grows on you. And that’s not just dirty old men either. But I don’t fancy spending longer than necessary here. I got a visa for Vietnam at one of the travel agents near Khao San Road (probably the biggest backpacker ghetto in the world) but it took several days so I got out of town once I’d seen the temples and palace. I’ll check out the weekend market tomorrow (I’ve finally decided to buy a digital camera) then get an overnight train to Chiang Mai. Unless I meet a group of folk who are up for a laugh, I shan’t be going to Patpong, the red-light district where, as well as a night market, they have them ping-pong shows. I don’t fancy going there as a single man, especially with these why-would-I-need-to-pay? good looks.

Between Wednesday and today I’ve been in Kanchanaburi, where there’s a bridge over the River Kwai. There was a film about it. I think I started watching it but got bored. Back in the Second World War, the Japanese had thousands of Asian workers and POWs build a railway from Thailand to Burma, and thousands died of malnutrition, disease and brutality. It took 17 months to complete and was operational for only 22 more. First I went to the Railway Museum, where I learned a lot, then to the bridge, which was packed with tourists, then to the WWII Museum, which would have made my afternoon rather depressing were it not laughably shit. They had lifesize but far from lifelike plaster models of people like Mussolini and Churchill.

With the history out of the way, I spent the following day cycling around the Kwai valley, dropping into a couple of cave temples and a monkey school, which was endearingly tacky (like most of Kanchanaburi). The next day I splashed out (about 12 pounds) on a day trip which took in the Erawan waterfalls, elephant-trekking, bamboo-rafting and a ride on the Death Railway. It was tourism on a mass-produced scale, which diluted the sense of adventure, but luckily it was a young group and we had a laugh. The guide also tried to rip us off by plugging the chicken at our free lunch in a “good restaurant”, then after a disappointing dining experience for those who’d partaken, tried to extract an extra 40 baht from them. The elephants were awesome. They had a baby one who performed a skit involving a harmonica, a hula hoop and a dance. It was depressing and hilarious at the same time.

I like Thailand overall, and the people are friendly and up for banter even when they’re not after money. Bless them – they really love the king and wear yellow polo shirts because the King was born on a Monday and yellow is the colour for Monday. It causes deep offence to slag off the King, so I’d better not say anything about how he needs to upgrade his NHS specs, in case they put me in the Bangkok Hilton (that’s a prison (well, the one I’m talking about is) – noticeboards all over Khao San contain requests for people to visit Western drug mules who are serving life sentences there).

The whole ladyboy thing? I reckon it’s well easy to spot them. However, folk who’ve been here longer reckon those ones are only the tip of the iceberg. So one has to establish whether the Thai girl one’s just met in a bar is indeed a woman as well as not a hooker. Unless, of course, one likes that kind of thing.

Did you know
Ping-pong the game was invented in Patpong, and the show was actually the precursor. In 1949, sport (and brothel) enthusiast Raymond Cresswell saw the patpong balls and thought they’d be good in a tennis-style game utilising a table, and named his creation after the inspirational locale. When Cresswell resigned his presidency after one ladyboy incident too many, the sport’s governing body changed the name slightly in order to disassociate itself from whores. Of course, “ping-pong” took off and eventually patpong became “them ping-pong shows”.

January 12, 2007

The third and final leg begins: Indochina

Disclaimer: I already wrote this entry, but lost it in a copying accident, so this probably won’t be as good as it would’ve been.

My last two-month chunk of travel brings me to South East Asia. Two months is probably not long enough for the region, so I’ve been rushing through Singapore and Malaysia for the past week. The culture shock has not been forthcoming as yet, probably because both countries are former British colonies, and they’re fairly developed, Singapore especially (I like to think that the latter is a result of the former rather than the authoritarian regimes which followed independence).

It’s been nice these past few months to see how our old possessions are getting along without us. The British influence here is palpable – they drive on the left too, Singapore has double-decker buses and hackney cabs, they drink a lot of tea, and there are Scottish-sounding place names (even Singaporeans sound a bit Scottish, for some reason). But then again, there are big Chinese and Indian populations, which make their mark too. And it’s not Chinese or Indian culture that you get in the UK either, at least where food is concerned. I’ve seen intestines and noodles, pig brains and noodles, fish head curry, century eggs (they’re black, but surely aren’t a hundred years old?) and ducks roasted whole – head and all.

Highlights so far include the Night Zoo in Singapore – I’m not a zoo person but this was a bit different because you can see the nocturnal animals up and doing stuff. The otters were the best, though bibs wouldn’t have gone amiss. I was pleasantly surprised to discover Tiger Beer is brewed in Singapore. The Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur are pretty cool – not only are the caves awesome, but there’s a whole bunch of Hindu temples and artwork in and around. I got a couple of decent, albeit initially unwanted, bargains off an aggressive Chinese t-shirt stall proprietor in KL’s Chinatown. Yesterday I got muddy and bloody on a jungle trek in the Cameron Highlands, where they grow tea and indigenous tribes live.

And now I’m in Britain’s original Malay colony, the port of Penang, the kind of place where sailors catch venereal diseases. Already I’ve had Ho Fun with meat, though you’ll be disappointed to hear that no ladyboys were involved. Just food.

I’ll leave you with some questions that the Malaysian National History Museum raised, but that I haven’t pondered yet: why was the communist insurgency defeated in Malaysia but not in Vietnam, and what can the West and other Muslim countries learn from Malaysia as an Islamic democracy?

October 2017

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