Archive for February, 2011

21
Feb
11

get a job

I may still have a job ready and waiting for me in the UK when I get back, but after five months of bumming around I thought I should at least look at doing something productive. Now before my employers get worried that I’ve found something better, or my family worry they may not see me on April 6th as planned, I’ll quickly get to the point.

I’m writing a few blogs for ‘The Wisden Cricketer’ magazine website. Yes, that’s right – my first gig at doing some serious writing is for the biggest selling cricket magazine in the world. And before Mr Taxman gets in contact with me, it’s an unpaid job!

Have a read here –

http://wisdencricketer.com/blogs/blog/2011/02/21/world-cup-fever-bangladesh-v-india-in-a-pub/

I said I was a media whore, didn’t I!

21
Feb
11

mellowing in mumbai

Arriving in Munbai the other night was one of the highlights of the trip. Within twelve hours of arrival I realised that I was wrong about judging Mumbai so harshly from my past experiences. It’s definitely still just a great big dirty Indain city, but nowhere near as bad as what I remembered it to be. It’s left me asking myself a couple of questions. The first one is whether or not I am simply mellowing in terms of seeing poverty and general carnage that is everywhere you look in this part of the world and the second is whether Mumbai, and in particular the south of the city, has started to clean its act up a tad. After a couple of days reflecting I’m pretty such that it is a bit of both.

This was my third visit to Mumbai, although I count the second time loosely as all we did was stay in a rather ropey airport hotel, well away from the main area of the city in the south. It was a memorable overnighter for the three of us, arriving in the middle of the night at a hotel that Dave rather cringeworthly (is that a word?) apologised to the hotel receptionist on our arrival for the recent bomb damage to the hotel. ‘We were not affected by that, sir’ said the confused man behind the counter. Dave looked around, inspecting the cracked walls and general filth in the hotel entrance before retorting with a simple ‘Bloody hell, what happened then?!’….We were finally escorted up to our room in a lift suitable for no more than two western men. Somehow we crammed in the three of us, two porters and our luggage. After inspecting our bathroom which included a ‘recently disinfected for our comfort’ sealed toilet, we retired to bed to find the sheets covered in balls of black hair. We decided it belonged to the Russain prostitute that had the misfortune of staying in the room prior to us. Only in India.

Anyway, excuse that little walk down memory lane but it’s one of my favourite tour stories. My now confirmed slightly harsh opinions on the south of Mumbai goes back to 2006. I wrote a bit about that in this last update, but didn’t include that it was my first time outside of Europe, other than the Caribbean. To be thrown in at the deep end like that was bound to strike such high emotions and feelings for such a place. As a young traveller who had only seen the odd shot on TV of what India looked like, it was a massive culture shock. I couldn’t believe people actually ‘lived’ in such squalor and abject poverty.

I remember back in 2006 on occasions I couldn’t bring myself to look outside the tuk tuk or taxi window at some poor kid sleeping on a pile of rubbish or the woman who would gesture for food for her baby when you stopped in the latest traffic jam. Now, poverty sucks, and it sucks massively – but the more you see of it, the less it effects you. That’s not to say I still don’t feel for the situation that a huge percentage of people in this part of the world find themselves in, I do. But you just detach yourself from the position of feeling sorry for every single person, because if you do then the place will just tear you apart – like it did to me, Ben and Rob in ’06. I now look at everything in front of my eyes and take it all in. When I wrote previously that India could be rewarding, this was the kind of situation I was implying. You tend to appreciate what you have and how lucky you are just to be visiting these types of places.

There is no doubt that the more you travel around ‘developing’ countries, the more you mellow in terms of a dislike for a place for being just dirty and full of in your face poverty. I remember chatting to a couple I know from the UK whilst in Antigua who were commenting on the poverty they faced when they came into St Johns, the capital city. I hadn’t even considered that the people that lived in the little quaint huts were poor, hence my use of the word quaint. They lived within a couple of miles of some of the best beaches imaginable and had a massive tourist industry to take advantage of. Poverty? I suppose it was to a couple that hadn’t been to the real developing world. I would hate to put them through that first taxi ride I went through back in 2006.

Back to Mumbai. I genuinely think the place is tidying itself up. Sure, the ride in from the airport past the countless slum dwellings are still very much in place. People still sleep, eat, drink and live on the streets. But there is just something about the city, again especially in the south, which struck me as at least trying to be cleaner. Hand sanitizer was readily available at the airport and bars. The airport itself had been totally revamped, even housing a pre-paid taxi rank which ensured the driver would actually take you where you wanted to go, as opposed to either taking you to his friends hotel or stopping off on the way at several of his mates shops. The south seemed clear of the beggars that harassed you every time you walked out of your hotel in 2006. I hope these people have not been moved on by the authorities, instead gaining some much needed self respect that a job can give them. Begging is a terrible thing and in my opinion anyone that hands over money is a wrong doer. Where do you draw the line? I wrote back in Cambodia that I was now finding myself handing over left over food or a mouthful of water. That for me is much more productive than just a handout of cash. The pavements are now much clearer than they used to be, with the general filth and rubbish swept away out of sight.

Sure, I’ve grown up and become wiser to the world since that first visit five years ago. But I left Mumbai convinced that the city and its people were starting to show more self respect for its own city. I don’t like such dramatic terms as ‘rites of passages’ but going back to a place I had nightmares of was a little daunting. I’m thrilled that I have changed my opinion of Mumbai and equally delighted I chose to challenge myself again through travel. I said I had my travel mo-jo back and the last few days have confirmed that is the case.

Dave rejoined me on this trip just twelve hours after I said farewell to Steph back in KL. After failing in our attempts to get into the revamped Wankhede Stadium, we found ourselves a sports bar in Colaba to watch the opening game of the World Cup. After turning down an extras role in a Bollywood film, we settled into our seats at the bar and did what we do best. Drink Kingfisher beer whilst watching some cricket. The atmosphere in the bar was cool, we even had our first TV interview of the tour from a local news crew. Some things may change, such as my mellowing towards a big, dirty Indian city – but I’ll be a whore for the media whilst on tour!

Talking of which, hold the back page. I may just have some exciting news to announce…….

18
Feb
11

feeling the buzz

It’s taken a while but I’ve finally got my traveller mo-jo back. Sure, my mood improved as Vietnam went on and it certainly was lifted further by the sight of Steph in the arrivals hall in KL, but it just hasn’t been at the same levels that it was when I set off back in early October. Every day was similar to the last while every sight I laid eyes on wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen dozens of times before. Call it travel weariness, post cricket tour blues or whatever, but I just found myself becoming so blasé about nearly everything that I was doing and everything that I was seeing.

Waking up this morning, refreshed from a proper chill out on the isle paradise that is Langkawi, I couldn’t help smile at the prospect of seven weeks on the Asian sub continent visiting several new places with some more great friends. Langkawi has been superb and spending time with such a close friend has been awesome, but after ten days of doing as little as possible, I’m ready to strap on my backpack for what is the final chapter of this tale and get right into India and Sri Lanka. Maybe it is because the end is neigh. Seven weeks out of six months is nothing and I’m starting to realise that this trip isn’t forever. I had an email from my sister the other day admitting that she was starting ‘the final countdown’ till my return on April 6th. I’m not doing the same just yet because in my opinion, the best travel part of the trip is about to occur.

There is something incredible about India. It is like no other place on earth I have been too. I kind of expected parts of South East Asia to be similar to the parts of India I have been too in the past, but I found it just didn’t compete in terms of an experience. South East Asia is cool, it’s a dead easy place to travel once you get settled in (which for me took about twenty four hours) I wrote right at the start of the trip that part of me was travelling to be challenged on a personal level again. There were certainly challenging times. The several days spent finding our way across Sumatra were hard work. Getting to Borneo from Brunei turned into an adventure that saw me skip a destination I planned to be in at the end of the day and arrive in a city I wasn’t supposed to be in for another twenty four hours. My Ray Mears impression in the Khao Sok jungle nearly ended my trip before I had even started topping up my suntan. On a more personal level, dealing with the after affects of Australia alone was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. All of it has been a fine experience, but it still hasn’t come close to touching the feelings I have whilst travelling in the Indian sub continent. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed my time here, I’ve loved the vast majority, but I feel ready to get stuck into everything India can throw at me, no matter how tough it will get.

Brushing my teeth in tap water this morning for the last time in four weeks made me smile. Even a simple day to day task in India such as cleaning your pearlers involves making sure you have some bottled water close to hand. All of a sudden people will be out to rip me off again. Tuk tuk drivers will bargain for a ridiculously overpriced fare for the shortish of journeys. Good deals on hotels will be ruined thanks to ‘added service taxes’ on check out bills. Kids will undoubtedly be pulling at my clothes on any walk through a city centre asking for food or money, not taking no for an answer. Food will become an issue once more, as I won’t be able to eat what I want, when I want without getting ill. Everything in India is a challenge, from the moment you wake to the moment you sleep. And after several weeks easy travel up and down Vietnam and an excellent beach holiday chill in Langkawi, I’m ready for that challenge.

Now, obviously first and foremost the reason I am revisiting India for the third time in five years is because of the latest cricket tour. This will be a very different cricket based trip than any other one I have been on because the matches are one day internationals as opposed to five day tests. What this means is a large number of ‘days off’ and travel days between cities in comparison to the usual week per city you usually get when watching a test match tour. My itinerary for the next three weeks is pretty crazy. Two nights in Mumbai (if our delayed plane ever leaves Langkawi), three nights in Nagpur and then three in Calcutta. This will be followed by the extended break in Bangalore for a week thanks to the ICC switching the India game there and then a couple of nights in Chennai. From here it will be across to Anjuna in Goa to chill out before heading back to Chennai for our last group game. So, including the two flights I need to take to get to India, that’s a grand sum of seven flights, seven hotels, five England cricket matches and at least one train. And that’s all before my flight to Sri Lanka on March 18th. Now you can see why I needed a ‘holiday’ in Langkawi before hand?

All of it is very exciting. The main reason I am fascinated by India so much is because it’s unique nature. It’s frustrating, enchanting, passionate, contradictive and in the end, rewarding. Everywhere you look there is something you see which blows you away. I’ve seen some things in India that have stayed with me so vividly, unlike any other country I have visited. I’m also really intrigued to see how I find the place this time around as a more seasoned traveller of Asia. We were talking before bed last night after places in the world we had been to that we disliked. There were several that sprung to mind but only one was described by myself as a place that I ‘hate’. That place was Mumbai, and in particular the south of Mumbai, where I spent ten days fighting off beggars, illness and the shock of seeing such poverty that the ride from the airport shoved in my face like a punch from a heavy weight boxer. Not that I’ve been punched in the face by anyone since I was about twelve, and it certainly wasn’t from Mike Tyson or Lennox Lewis but still, you get the point. The reason I have booked me and Dave into a hotel in that same part of town for two nights is to see if that feeling of hatred for that particular part of the world is still justified. Are the people really that much ruder than other parts of the world I have now visited? Is the city really just on a level of it’s own in terms of poverty, dirt and poor hygiene? I’ll find out and will let you know.

All of that intrigue and I have barely even mentioned the cricket. Cricketers are treated like gods in India. The star players advertise everything from fast food to hair products to the latest car. You think David Beckham is a big face for brand names in the UK? You should see MS Dhoni and Sachin Tendulker. They hold the weight of the entire nation on their shoulders, especially when it comes to one day cricket matches. To be there for a World Cup will be a special time. Away from the England games, I’m especially looking forward to watching the games involving India with the locals who will be supporting their nation as if their lives are reliant on the main host nation winning the trophy. I’m not as massive fan of Indian cricket because of the IPL, but it would be great for the tournament if they do well. I’d certainly take an England win in the final against India right now!

Postscript – Our flight from Langkawi finally left some two hours late and Steph checked in for her flight home with a matter of minutes spare. As she ran off to check in at the international departures terminal, I waited for her bright orange suitcase at the domestic arrivals! Hopefully this isn’t a sign of things to come. Oh, and in final news I had developed a love for the American comedy ‘Scrubs’. I never thought I’d say I would like a funny from across the Atlantic but I suppose that’s what happens when you are chilling in your hotel room with your mate who happens to be a female. I’ve also started to wear linen, though Steph was far from behind that idea!

14
Feb
11

you don’t know man, you weren’t there

Excuse the terrible title, but it was the best Vietnam related title I could come up with whilst sat on Cenang beach doing what I have been doing best on this wonderful island – chilling out. Langkawi is just as good as I remembered it was. In fact it’s even better, given the extended period of time here not to mention the excellent company Steph has provided. Anyway, more of that at a later date. I promised some scribbles on Vietnam and the latter part of this ‘holiday’ in Langkawi has given me that opportunity to pen something. Other than South Africa and Australia I spent longer in Vietnam than I have done in any other country that I have visited in one hit. As you know from previous entries, I failed in a conquest to get from the south to the north of the country in my four weeks in the ‘Nam (ironically just like the Americans)…….Anyway, despite this I feel pretty well placed to offer an opinion on the country and the people that reside there.

First off I suppose I should go back to why I chose Vietnam as a place to follow the Australia tour. Well, the main reason was because it was a new country to me, and one of many things I have learnt on this adventure is that arriving in a brand new country is always an exciting time. Pretty obvious really. Secondly it was a well located place to stop on the way to India, where I will be in a few days time watching England try and turnaround there rather patchy one day form in the Cricket World Cup. Thirdly, the Indian Embassy in Malaysia, which was my other ‘cheap’ flight option from Sydney, was not keen on issuing Indian visas to foreigners. I’m not sure why, but as ever with Indian bureaucracy, nothing surprises me. Finally and just as importantly for someone that had just been down under for seven weeks, it was a cheap country to live. And I mean really cheap. 30p for a bottle of beer? OK, yes please. Especially after nearly two months of getting excited when you find a bar that charges only £4 for a pint. £10 for a room with a double bed, shower, TV, fridge and free wifi? OK, if I must. Especially after spending over £20 a night in seven bed dorms whilst sharing rather ropey bathroom facilities in parts of Australia.

You get the picture, if Australia was pretty crippling in terms of getting by on a budget then Vietnam was the opposite. I just could not spend my ‘Dong’ if I tried. On that note there is something that never fails to brings out my childish sense of humour whenever I mention the word ‘Dong’ when talking about the local currency. It’s just fantastic. Try it yourself and see if you are just as childish as me.

I liked Vietnam. I didn’t love the place in the way that I love say a Sri Lanka, a Cambodia or even a Langkawi (which really is the dogs private parts) but still, Vietnam was cool enough. Sure, parts of the country that I saw are ridiculously touristy in the same way that weekend break cities across Europe are, but it still seemed to maintain a charm that I appreciated. For instance in Hoi An there seemed to be more tourists than locals, but it still had a nice feel about the place, not spoiled by the high volume of visitors. Ho Chi Minh, which is an obvious start and finishing point of any trip to Vietnam, had a couple of streets that you could akin to the likes of Khao San Road in Bangkok in terms of white faces. All of this could easily cloud a view of Vietnam which would be unfair to the countries natural beauty and in the main, very friendly local people. Lets be fair, when things are as cheap as they are in such a country which is a diverse as Vietnam, there are going to be tourists. Live with it.

So live with it I did. Although for my first fortnight in Vietnam it’s safe to say that I wasn’t a happy bunny. You all know that by now (if you don’t then feel free to read back) so I’m not going to go over old ground. Once I snapped out of that low point I felt I got right into Vietnam, especially recapturing my old love for the long bus journeys between the cities that I squeezed into my itinerary. These were the occasions where I got to spend a bit of ‘quality’ time with a few people that make travelling all that more enjoyable when you are on the road alone. Whether it be Andi, the street wise Irish girl on the bus from Hue to Hoi An, or the young couple who only ate rice, noodles and chicken on the overnight bus to Nha Trang, to American Doug, my excellent companion from Da Lat back to Ho Chi, it gave me a chance to chat with fellow independent travellers again. For sure, I didn’t make much of an effort in that first stint in Ho Chi to get to know anybody new, but it was a common theme throughout Vietnam that finding like minded people to hang out with was hard. Anywhere else I have been has not been an issue, but for a couple of reasons that I think I have sussed out, it was tougher in Vietnam.

For starters I stayed in hotels. I wasn’t the only one, hostels in Vietnam are limited and as such are quite often booked up months in advance. As of such spur of the moment types, like the whole of Vietnam was for me, can only book into hotels. Secondly, when a hotel room is just as cheap as a dorm room, I like most others who are travelling for so long are always going to choose to have that bit of privacy after months of sharing. Not being in dorm style accommodation definitely restricts chances of meeting new people. Another reason for the lack of meaningful companionship was the lack of single travellers I bumped into away from the bus trips that we are placed together on. One of my biggest personal changes on this whole trip away is my newly discovered ability to enjoy going out to eat and drink in my own company. I wrote back in October (interestingly just after I visited Langkawi for the first time) that I found it hard work motivating myself to have a change of clothes, take a shower and go out to find somewhere nice to eat. I’ve changed for the better. I like nothing more than finding a little restaurant such as ‘Mumtaz’ in Ho Chi or the ‘VCafe’ in Da Lat, ordering a good feed, downing couple of beers and observing the world go by. So, it wasn’t as if I was a social recluse. In fact, far from it. I was the one challenging people to games of pool in the bars I frequented in the evenings and I was the one who tried starting a conversation with the odd fellow single traveller I bumped into. The thing that it comes down to is that a high percentage of people that visit Vietnam are couples or tour groups, making it tougher to strike up a relationship with a new person.

Apart from the fantastic food and beer, the fondest memory I will take from my time in Vietnam is the spectacular views the country gave when travelling through the mountains or alongside the rugged coastlines. My favourite thing about travelling is stumbling upon a place of natural beauty that you had no expectation of and Vietnam gave me several of those. The main one was my last scooter ride through the mountains that surrounded Nha Trang. My first couple of rides in and around Hoi An and Danang were good fun, mainly because they were the first times I had been on a bike before. But the one I took later into the Vietnam leg of the trip was mind blowingly brilliant, giving spectacular views of volcanic like mountains on the islands located just off the mainland. Throw in the odd fishing village on the way, a winding road that hugged the coastline plus the lush green vegetation that surrounded you and you have close to perfection on earth. The hills around Da Lat gave some breathtaking views, especially the one I got on a bus journey where we had to pull over thanks to a mudslide that had blocked the mountainside road ahead. If ever there was a place for an unscheduled stop, this was it. We were practically in the clouds, looking down over the valleys while admiring the view that included a brilliantly placed waterfall, gushing freely down the mountain thanks to the close proximity of the rainy season.

The people were friendly, with the only annoyance being the continual hassle from the lazy bastards that act as dug dealers and pimps whilst sitting around on their motorbikes. Come on boys, this isn’t Phuket. You’re giving your country a bad name here so back off a bit. Sure, these kind of offers can be found all over South East Asia, but not in the same quantity as what I found across Vietnam. Just because I am a single western tourist doesn’t automatically make me a drug taker or someone that has to pay someone to have sex.

I recommend you give Vietnam ago someday. And if you do, hire scooters. It’s difficult to explain just how good it is zipping around the untapped Vietnamese countryside on the only mode of transport that matters in the ‘Nam. I suppose I can finish as the title says, ‘you don’t know man, you weren’t there’

Perhaps it wasn’t such a terrible title after all.

06
Feb
11

these are a few of my favourite (and not so favourite) things

Well the travel leg of South East Asia is all but done. Sure, I’ve got another eleven days back in Malaysia with the now not so mystery guest that is Stephanie Bouttell, but this is now my holiday. I may have had a more chilled time in Vietnam than I did during the manic early stages of my trip, but crashing in a chaotic, noisy, polluted city such as Ho Chi Minh for nine nights cannot be classed as a holiday. Jumping on buses every third or fourth day after this to discover pastures new does not get classed as a holiday. However, getting on a plane to meet an excitable best friend for a break on the familiar isle of Langkawi does definitely get classed as a holiday. Remember my affection for Langkawi? If not, click on the October tab at the side of the page where you will find my gushings still present.

Basically, don’t expect to hear from me for the foreseeable future. After such a long time without seeing Steph, or even talking to her for that matter, it’s safe to say writing will be put to one side for now. It’s not as if you want to read all about us lying on a beach by day, getting stupidly drunk by night and gossiping non stop for the time that we are together anyway!

So as a tribute to this marvellous part of the world, here are a few highlights of mine in a Q+A style write up thingy.

Thailand
Most endearing feature?
Is it uncultured to say the brilliant Chang beer?
Least endearing feature?
The ‘hello welcome’ bullshit cat call you get from every bar that you walk by. Shut up and I’ll decide where I want to eat and drink.
Best travel moment?
The excitement of finding my way to Khao Sok from Surat Thani by the cheapest possible method, using local transport. I was loving those early adventures, even if they were more challenging.
Biggest shock?
The lack of ‘backpacker’ style bars to meet people in Karon Beach, Phuket. The more places I go to, the more I dislike this part of the world. Shit and hole spring to mind.
Best night out?
A tough call between the two nights out with Simon in Bangkok or the drinking games with the Canadian students in Khao Sok. As I survived the jungle that day, it would have to be the Canadians who come out on top.
Favourite random moment?
Sat on the back of a crowded minibus from Phuket to Surat Thani sat next to a young Pakistani lad and a slightly older bloke from Israel. When he found out the lad was from Pakistan, he paused for a second before announcing ‘Israel is friends with Pakistan, yes?’ in a wonderful impression of a middle east peace envoy. I pissed myself.
Would I go back?
Yes. To visit the north of the country in and around Chang Mai. I hear you get a lot less hassle.

Cambodia
Most endearing feature?
It’s people. The Khmer people as a whole have very little in terms of possessions and have to deal with high levels of corruption on the back of a torrid recent history. Through it all they seem remarkably upbeat about life.
Least endearing feature?
The karaoke videos you have to endure during any bus ride. It’s that loud, even a particularly raucous live Oasis gig on my MP3 failed to drown it out.
Best travel moment?
Cycling round the temples of Angkor was cool but the winner for sheer experience was playing games in the courtyard of CCH orphanage with the kids. Amazing how a simple bouncy ball can bring such enjoyment.
Biggest shock?
The docile crocodiles and snakes that had been pumped full of more drugs than Pete Doherty to ensure they wouldn’t harm the tourists that visited the floating villages. Not nice, even if the locals were just trying to earn a buck or twwo.
Best night out?
A surprise given my recent ‘food glorious food’ entry, but a night on the streets of Siem Reap tucking into a Khmer BBQ. It didn’t fill me up, but it was awesome cooking your own food while supping on a dirt cheap Angkor beer.
Favourite random moment?
The sign at our guesthouse in Kep that announced ‘No hard drugs allowed’ made me chuckle. I wonder if reception had a list of allowable ‘soft’ drugs?
Would I go back?
Most definitely, ten days just wasn’t enough time in such a great country. I’d like to visit the likes of Sihanoukville and spend more time round Kep and Kampot. Plus, it would be great to see how the country develops and whether or not it still maintains its positive vibe.

Malaysia / Malaysian Borneo
Most endearing feature?
Being able to walk down Langkawi’s main beach strip and not get hassled by jet ski renters, bar staff or woman selling general tit tat.
Least endearing feature?
The water you have to cross at the 10th hole at Gunung Raya golf course? No, I’d have to say the island of Penang. The guidebook raves about it yet slags off Jakarta, which in my opinion is a far better spot than Penang’s capital, Georgetown. Another shit hole.
Best travel moment?
The easiest answer of any – the feeling of triumph when my guide told me I had reached the summit of Mount Kinabalu. A stunning place to watch the sunrise.
Biggest shock?
The pain and discomfort felt when coming down Mount Kinabalu. It was tough going up, but more than manageable. Going down was torture, I could barely move for the last two kilometres, every step was greeted with a groan or a swear word. Or both.
Best night out?
The smash up in Kota Kinabalu with a couple of nurses from the UK, Rachel and Emma. One of those nights that you know was awesome, but cannot recall much of it thanks to the effect of Carlsberg export and rum and coke.
Favourite random moment?
My realisation that we Brits are so lucky when it comes to the language barriers when we travel abroad. I was sharing a dorm room with a German girl and Italian lad of similar age and we held a conversation in my mother tongue. I felt rather guilty about it at the time.
Would I go back?
Yes. I am going back, on Monday.

Brunei
Most endearing feature?
The ferry terminal out. The superb trip into Borneo just about justified the previous twenty four hours that were a bit of a non event.
Least endearing feature?
The lack of entertainment? The lack of things to look at? The lack of decent food? The lack of beer? The lack of a decent bus terminal? The lack of a working plug in my dorm room? You get the picture, take your pick.
Best travel moment?
Being saved in the Brunei countryside by Malaysian Nancy after I got on the wrong bus. I’d still be in Brunei now probably.
Biggest shock?
Walking home from the capital cities Pizza Hut (the only thing still open) at 8pm and seeing the grand sum of two cars and one person on my ten minute stroll home. She was a rather out of place prostitute. If that’s what she needs to do, I’d guess Bandar Seri Begawan was not the ideal place for her to make some money.
Best night out?
I was only there a night. Thank goodness.
Favourite random moment?
Taking an entirely different ferry and route into Borneo than my original plan. I had never even heard of Lawas till I got on the ferry.
Would I go back?
No chance. Been there, done that. Didn’t buy the t-shirt because no shops were open.

Singapore
Most endearing feature?
The ease of getting round with the spotless, zippy monorail system.
Least endearing feature?
Lack of decent, cheap bars around Little India, the area of town we were staying.
Best travel moment?
Sat in the common room of the hostel watching crap on youtube and hearing Basingstoke Pat struggle to get up the stairs. A new travel buddy had arrived.
Biggest shock?
Going in to my terribly cramped, sweaty dorm room only to find an Indian lady crying her eyes out. Sure the hostel wasn’t that great, but it wasn’t that bad!
Best night out?
Well seeing as I was only there for two nights and the first night I was avoiding emotional Indian females by chucking up in the streets, then obviously the second night is the winner. A street curry and a few beers with Pat. Though I was ill again the following morning too. Nice.
Favourite random moment?
The rather natty jingle on the monorail that was directed at encouraging people to give their seats up to the elderly or people with disabilities. It was cheesiness personified.
Would I go back?
I have no real desire to go back. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t particularly interesting.

Indonesia
Most endearing feature?
Being made to feel welcome by nearly everyone we met. Indonesia gets a bad press, especially Sumatra. I found a high percentage of people to be very warm, helpful and generous.
Least endearing feature?
Down town Pekanbaru. Driving round and round the same few streets searching high and low for people that wanted to travel to Bukittinggi. We finally left after finding an extra four passengers some several hours after we had arrived at the bus depot. Which, incidentally, we had been told to arrive at a good hour before the bus even arrived. I tried explaining to them what a ‘bus timetable’ was used for, without success.
Best travel moment?
The ferry from Batam Island to Tujong Buton in Sumatra. We were the only two westerners on the ferry and were treated as VIP’s by the crew, being invited on the deck for cigarettes, coffee and photographs. Fantastic travel.
Biggest shock?
The lack of westerners in central Sumatra. Sure, arranging ferries and buses is hard work and extremely frustrating, but come on. It’s good to get away from the likes of Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh sometimes. The again it wouldn’t have been so special had the place been so full of travellers. They can stay on their open bus tours (which are great when you can’t be arsed to sort things yourself) Also how much I enjoyed Jakarta, which I had zero expectation. A fine city.
Best night out?
Easily the first night on Gili Trawangan. Which was actually more of an all day, all night affair. Missed sunrise by about an hour after hitting the fall finally in the wee hours of the morning dancing on the beach.
Favourite random moment?
Within two minutes of arriving on Gili T we bumped into Winslow who was having breakfast. Literally ten seconds earlier I had said I bet we bump into him before we find a place to stay. Yes, it was a small, compact island, but was still home to several hundred tourists.
Would I go back?
Yes. When my energy levels are fully restored then a trip across Java would definitely be classed as a must. Plus the Gili islands were stunning, a lovely place to revisit for a break.

Vietnam
Most endearing feature?
The natural beauty of the place. I have found that across most of SE Asia, but the southern Vietnamese countryside and coastal area are spectacular. The mountainous coach trip from Nha Trang to Da Lat was a highlight.
Least endearing feature?
The continual offers of drugs, tours, guides, prostitutes and anything else you can thing of by the lazy bastards that sit on their scooters all day in Ho Chi Minh. A decent city, but leave me alone. I said no yesterday, what do you think is the answer today?
Best travel moment?
The third scooter ride through the mountains overlooking the coast outside Nha Trang. I had confidence in what I was now doing after riding in Hoi An and loved the sense of freedom in such an incredible part of the world. The volcanic style mountains out at sea were breathtaking.
Biggest shock?
My down beat mood on arrival. It took a good couple of weeks to shake off.
Best night out?
More of a best day out than night out. A all day session with a scouse bloke called John in Ho Chi Minh, where we both chewed the cud over many Saigon beers.
Favourite random moment?
An older American bloke called Doug who introduced himself to me on the bus ride back to Ho Chi Minh. We hit it off straight away and ended up having an afternoon playing pool and eating curry in a couple of my ‘locals’. Not enough of that in Vietnam, unfortunately – hence the random part of it happening right at the end of the trip.
Would I go back?
For sure. I’ve only done the south of the country thanks to the Indian Embassy and their archaic rules when it comes to bureaucracy. A trip up to Hanoi and Halong Bay would also give me the chance to visit Laos, one of a couple of SE Asian countries I now haven’t visited.

Thanks to Dr Matt that offered up the question above of ‘Most favourite random moment’ in each country.

And in other questions……

Gilbey asks – ‘Are there still millions of kids selling books and sweets in S E Asia?’
Yes Gilbs, there is. Favourites seem to include photocopies of every single guide book you could imagine plus that popular crime writer Steig Larsson seems to catch my eye on a daily basis. Sweets seem to have been replaced with cigarettes though. Oh and if you tell them you don’t smoke then they whip out a pack of chewing gum in a flash. Obviously if you don’t smoke it means you have just given up and require a substitute.
Martin asks – ‘What’s the most satisfying pint/drink you have had?’
That is the toughest one yet, Mart. Well done, there are that many to choose from. The one that stands out was the ridiculously expensive mug of Heineken that I supped in the revolving restaurant at the top of Menara Tower, overlooking Kuala Lumpur. It was the first sky scrapper I had been in and was blown away by the views across Malaysia.
Fred asked several questions, including – ‘Where have you felt most relaxed on your travels?’
Langkawi, Fred. I was loving my own company at that particular moment and just lying on such a beautiful beach listening to some music with the warm sea lapping at my feet was perfect. It was the first chance I’d had to relax for months, what with the stresses of leaving work, moving out of my flat to only start travelling some two days later.
‘At the other end of the scale, what’s been your biggest strop of the trip and what prompted it?
See Indonesia section and that morning in Pekanbaru. A proper strop on.
‘Where’s the weirdest place you’ve had to spend the night?’
Well apart from sleeping top to toe with you in Kep (!) I’d have to say I’m struggling with this one. If you could class weird as different and annoying than I’d have to say Bukittinggi. Before I go any further I want to say I really liked Bukittinggi and wished we had longer there, but any place where the rooms with squat toilets are more expensive than the rooms with western, sit down toilets is a bit odd. Plus, the local mosque next door to the hotel wasn’t satisfied at just waking the whole town up with a call for pray. They broadcast the whole service which featured a spluttering child reading what seemed like the whole of the Koran at 5am.
‘What has been your scariest experience in an “Oh my God, I could die” sense?’
Realising I was completely lost in the Khao Sok jungle and had seen hardly anyone else around all day who could hear me shout for assistance. The best decision I made was to cross that river and scamper back up the other side of the verge. If I hadn’t, well I’d have spent the night in the jungle with no food and about 200ml of water. In recent news I nearly came off the scooter in Nha Trang when I braked hard in wet conditions because some moron pulled out in front of me. I have seen two crashes since then involving locals and decided that a fourth ride in the space of a fortnight might be pushing my luck a bit!
As some will know thanks to her spam emailing, Mum (Donna) has also come up with several questions. One was – ‘What has been your favourite, if any, foreign food?’
A bit of a cheat as it was Indian food (you did say foreign) in Ho Chi Minh. I tracked down a cracking small curry house called Mumtaz which not only felt very homely, but also served great curries. I liked it that much I ate there four nights while in the city and plan too before I leave for Kuala Lumpur. I slag the lonely planet off a bit on here but I discovered the other day when checking up on something that it highly recommends this restaurant. Good work.

Thanks to everyone who submitted questions. I’ll do some scribblings at some point on my experience of South Vietnam, but for now that can wait. It’s almost time for a holiday safe in the knowledge that my bank has incredibly found my change of address form nearly five months on from me submitting it in person, and has kindly allowed me access to my own money again. For a minute then I thought Steph would be getting the first round in. And every round after that, come to think……damn 😉

03
Feb
11

wankers. sorry, bankers

When you go away on your lonesome for a trip such as this you have to have the odd plan in reserve in case certain issues arise. By laws of average, leaving English shores for six months was bound to present the odd logistical challenge, and four months in to the day since I left Gatwick I have been presented with my first major drama.

I have no money.

Well not exactly no money. I have 210,000 Vietnamese Dong (which equates to £6.61) left over from my last ATM transaction back in Hoi An, but apart from that I am all out of local dosh. Now, this is of course a very cheap country. Last night I drank three bottles of Saigon Export in a street café for the grand sum of 36,000 VND. I stupidly even left a tip of 14,000, which I may very well have to claim back this evening given my new found poverty. Even though the price of food and drink are cheap, a couple of hundred thousand Dong isn’t going to last longer than a day. Put bluntly, I’m a little bit up shit creek without a paddle.

This is another one of those moments where travelling the world alone presents a far greater personal challenge than travelling with a mate or partner does. For instance, if this happened back in Cambodia with Fred, Indonesia with Pat or even Australia with several dozen mates, I would simply ask for a small loan until my bank gets off it’s arse and stops being so stupidly contradictive when it comes to security. I’d be sorted for a few days and would even have a partner in crime to take pity on me by buying me booze all afternoon to cheer me up. Sadly, that is not the case here in the ‘Nam so all I have for company is a ridiculously brilliant hotel room and my laptop for company.

As I mentioned, this was the type of scenario I expected at some point on the trip. When you are using your bank card in ten different countries there was bound to be a mishap somewhere along the line. My back up plan involved a plastic box hidden in my backpack (that used to actually house my business cards at work) that is my emergency box. There are earplugs, a swiss army knife, a back up MP3 player and several lemsips. There used to be 30 US Dollars in there too, which would be useful around about now, but that was spent getting into Indonesia. Thankfully there is also some left over currency from home in there too. I thought I had the grand sum of £20 as a back up, but it turns out I don’t. I have the massive sum of £40! I’m so rich it’s unbelievable…..

Now, with this in mind I could go and get it changed into the local cash my wallet so desperately needs, hire a scooter, have a lovely lunch somewhere and return to the hotel later this afternoon for my return call from the bank. But there are two issues with doing that. The first being today is officially New Years day. All banks, post offices and money exchangers are shut. Although Da Lat is much busier than I thought it would be, it’s still no Ho Chi Minh in terms of useful places to exchange money. I’m sure I could talk a random local into changing my Sterling into Dong, but I’m not convinced I’d get a favourable exchange rate. Secondly, and more importantly is my need to ensure I have enough money to pay for a bus back to Ho Chi, settle my room service charges here and then find somewhere to sleep in the countries second city for a couple of nights. Luckily I have already paid for my current reside, which ironically is the most expensive place I’ve slept in all trip.

The lovely lady working the night shift on the Nationwide switch board was very polite. Very polite, but also unable to do anything since my account was frozen thanks to me not informing them that I had moved out of my flat in Hereford and would now need my mum and stepdads address in Bristol as my listed place of rest. Which I did. In the flesh. In the Nationwide branch in my home town. Twats. Quite why it takes them nearly five fucking months to realise that I hadn’t been living in Hereford is beyond me. Look at my banking history you plebs. Payment from my work – stopped. Payment to council tax – stopped. Payment to Npower – stopped (eventually, that’s another story. They are twats too by the way) Cash withdrawals from any ATM in Europe, let alone the UK – stopped. Why is such security necessary now, so long after I moved out? Fucking moronic, power mad twats. I hate banks right now.

Excuse the colourful language but I stayed wonderfully polite on the phone to the lovely lady – I had to get that off my chest. I’ll get a five to ten minute window this evening or tomorrow morning to withdraw some cash before it gets blocked again. Then it’s up to me to change my address again online (even though some incompetent employee lost the form originally) before it gets released for real. What are the odds the ATM’s here have run out of cash because of Tet?

In other news the people of Da Lat seemed to fully enjoy it’s Tet celebrations by driving the whole family round town on their scooters, buying lots of red balloons and setting off fireworks at midnight before waking me up at 7.30am this morning by banging loud drums in the street outside my hotel for an hour and a half to no particular beat or rhythm.

Ah. The joys of travel.

Oh, and on that note here’s some pictures of my scenic journey to Da Lat from Nha Trang which I cannot be arsed to tell you about because I’m in a mood. Pictures are worth a thousand words and all that anyway……..

01
Feb
11

food glorious food

I mentioned briefly in the previous update that I found myself in the rather embarrassing position of ordering a local dish for lunch, only to find within the space of a couple of mouthfuls that I had chose something that wasn’t particularly favourable to my palate. Sat there, with one uneaten plate full of bland egg fried rice and another plate featuring a ridiculously disgusting attempt at stir fried beef (that tasted what I imagine dog food to taste like) I thought to myself why is food such a big talking point when it comes to visiting new countries.

There is some god like status amongst some travellers who eat only local food. Yet if you actually talk to these people they fully admit that the food doesn’t fill them up and quite often they will speak about a dislike for a local dish that they will eat time and time again because ‘the guidebook tells them too’. On my twelve hour overnight bus from Hoi An to Nha Trang I got talking to a pleasant couple who were overseas on a six month trip. We had stopped off at a standard South East Asia service station at around midnight where they decided to tuck into a plate of rice and something described as chicken. It looked more like the left overs off the Christmas turkey after it had been in the fridge festering for a week after the big day than something freshly plucked that afternoon. As they picked away looking miserable at their chosen dish, I supped away happily on a can of 333 beer and noshed on a couple of cheese spread baguettes. The lad looked particularly glum, having been ill from the previous nights feast at a street vendors stall. Asking him if it was nice, he shrugged and said it just tasted like any other dish he had eaten for the past month. When I asked him why he chose the dish he suspected would give him about as much enjoyment as a kick in the nuts, he said because it was all part of the Vietnam experience.

This was a good answer. The standard answer that all miserable, malnourished travellers give when they are questioned by some smart arse like me who has gone way past that stage of trying to impress the world at just how cultured I am because I eat food that I dislike just because the locals do. I made the point to the pair of them that they should be congratulated for trying the local fare (as everyone should do before they judge) but not feel guilty about reverting back to type, especially when on the road for so long. Not that I mentioned it to them but they both looked ill, no doubt due to the standard of food they had been forcing down their throats. This is not meant as a snobby comment, but some of the food quality in South East Asia is questionable, especially in the local dishes. They are made cheaply, because that is all the locals can afford. Without sounding like Jamie Oliver it’s safe to say that cheap meat is not good meat, as the young lad could now testify thanks to his dodgy stomach that morning and his continued boredom at what he was eating. There is also the body shape factor to consider. Westerners are naturally built differently than the average Asian and as such need more of a certain type of food to stay healthy and feel strong.

Don’t get me wrong, I have eaten locally in every country that I have been too. It is definitely part of visiting any new country, but quite why there should be a pressure to eat local food all the time is beyond me, and always has been. I remember having some fairly decent ‘tagines’ from a street vendor in Morocco with Fred, where we entered quite an in depth discussion in eating the local fodder when in a new environment. My point was that I’m always open to trying new food, but if I don’t like what I’m shoving down my throat then I won’t feel guilty about finding some food elsewhere that doesn’t originate in the country that I find myself in. For the record the tagines were good, but I still wouldn’t eat them every day through choice.

Another thing that came to me while supping that excellent can of 333 was the sheer volume of Chinese and Indian takeaways that you can find in any town or city anywhere in the world. Now OK, we all love a cheeky curry on the way home from a night out on the town, but the majority of these are set up to serve the large overseas population of people with Chinese and Indian descent who only eat their own food. How many big cities around the world have areas of a town labelled as ‘Little India’ or ‘China Town’ where a huge percentage who go to eat the food there are of Asian descent? Obviously I don’t know the statistics, but I’m sure more people of a ‘western’ background pop in for a bit of Asian cuisine than people of an Asian background pop into Toby Cavery for a quick roast dinner.

What I’m trying to get across here (without generalising) is that people the world over like to revert back to type. Why should I, as a British traveller who is away from my home country for over half a year, not want to enjoy a steak and chips for tea or beans on toast for breakfast? I was sat next to the staff who run my small hotel in Nha Trang this morning who were all tucking in to noodles, bamboo shoots and plain rice for breakfast at 7am. I simply could not stomach something like that because my body would tell me to stop eating such a dish for breakfast. I’m sure if I forced it down me day after day my body would adapt, but why would I want it to? I know for a fact that a full english breakfast is a far tastier option. In the words of Alan Partridge, ‘I’d eat that every day of the week if I could, but then I’d be dead’ before having to explain to his Eastern European girlfriend that ‘It’s full of cholesterol, Scottish people eat it. Not many of them see the other side of fifty’

Sorry, but four months in and that’s my first Partridge related scribble. It had to come.

Anyway after getting that off my chest it’s time to report on what else has been going on in ‘The ‘Nam’. Well, after a few days recuperating from the restless night bus in Nha Trang, I have arrived in the rather plush surroundings of a brand new Best Western hotel in Da Lat. It’s a four star effort that goes way against the grain of where I have sleeping for the past few months. Basically we are at the end of the elongated build up to Tet, which is the time of the year that the Vietnamese celebrate new year. It marks the start of spring based upon the lunar calendar, which is quite fitting seeing as the weather on my arrival (which was on the back of a scooter) is spectacular. It’s actually the first time I’ve seen a full blue sky since leaving Australia. What that means is that all the cheaper two star hotels that I’d usually be kipping in are booked months in advance by the locals who tend to all gather back in their home towns to be around family and friends over Tet. Da Lat is short of beds at the best of times so when I stumbled upon an offer where a room here is nearly cheaper than what I paid for a seven bed dorm in Adelaide, it was a no brainer. Besides, this country is so cheap I’ve been miles under budget for the three weeks I have been here. Call it a little treat.

Anyway, not a great deal went on in Nha Trang apart from me hiring another scooter and going on what can only be described as a stunning coastal and mountainous ride through the countryside. It’s a fantastic way to get out of the tourist trappings that do exist here, even if a little hairy on occasions when riding back into town in the rain through rush hour. The views were breathtaking what with the almost volcanic looking islands off the coast that peaked through the cloud plus the little Vietnamese fishing villages I stumbled upon. The road was a little more challenging than the one I took to Danang as this one winded in and out of the mountain sides like some sort of race track. I had to keep reminding myself to concentrate on the road instead of gazing in awe at the views that were before my eyes. This is what travel is all about to me – stumbling upon these marvellous adventures that you have discovered by putting yourself out there. Sure, riding a scooter with no experience or road awareness is pretty irresponsible, but you only live once and I would not have seen such natural beauty if I didn’t take the odd so called risk.

Besides, as the girl in that roadside café said (through gritted teeth from the crap food she was eating) it’s probably better to not have too much awareness of what’s happening on the roads here as you wouldn’t even dare cross them, let alone drive or ride on them!




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