5th October 2011
Thanks for the congratulations everyone…
India is hot, smelly, hectic, confusing and absolutely electrifying. I am sure that someone once said that we only feel truly alive when we are staring into the jaws of death, if not I’ll happily take credit. As I sit in an Autorickshaw with my heart in my mouth a truck angrily beeps at us because our driver has decided to swerve in front of him, a massive grin spreads across my face and I can’t shift it. I am definitely alive – maybe not for much longer but right now I am godammit!
The Bangalore autorickshaws, mopeds and cars continue their perpetual, savage, high speed Tango all around us. Alicia tightens her grip on my leg, blanching at the small child holding on to her father’s back as he brutally swerves to avoid a cart being pulled by a cow who in turn is being driven by a small boy. Pollution and exhaust fumes choke my throat and sting my eyes. The incessant horn beeping assails my ears like a thousand hornets – and I still can’t wipe this fucking smile off of my face. Eventually our rickshaw pulls off the main street and ploughs through the night time throng of MTB road. Brave human traffic mingles with the mechanised kind creating a havoc that is as exhilarating as it is intimidating.
The cosmopolitan areas of Bangalore are reasonably well lit, friendly and feel almost like London. MTB road most certainly aint one of these. It is dark, dingy and feels about as safe as swimming the channel with your legs tied together. Piles of rubbish are everywhere, the smell of raw sewerage hangs acridly in the nose and, as the only white faces to be seen, everyone stares at us. Or more correctly at Alicia’s chest. I’m a man; I understand these things but, boys, seriously? Put your eyes back in, it’s not like they’re hanging out. I ask our driver how much I owe him, he mumbles something in Tamil. I don’t understand so he mumbles it again. I think he’s hoping that in the interim second I will have gained some cultural awareness and have learnt at least a little of the native tongue. I haven’t. He calls over a well dressed guy in a suit who brings with him five friends. They converse; I might as well be a brickie on the tower of Babel. The well dressed guy tells me the driver says to pay him what I think he’s owed. For that death defying journey? Fuck me mate, I’ll have a hundred Rupees please! By now a small crowd of men is surrounding us and watching like hawks as I tentatively take out my fat western wallet….Oh my god, are these people going to eat me? I thrust sixty Rupees into the happy driver’s hand. Forty would probably have done but we need to get the fuck out of here. I thank him with a smile, grab Alicia and push our way out through the crowd that babbles esoterically around us. The hotel ahead shines like a beacon on a dark night. Salvation is ours.
Tomorrow we fly down to Trivandrum for a week chilling by the beach in a sleepy little resort called Varkala ( if we can find a hotel….) I think after the thrilling, exhausting ride that has been Bangalore we’re gonna need it. Peace out people! XXXX
9th October 2011
Hey all, I trust everyone is well and good?
We are in a beach resort called Varkala and it is seriously roasting. We both got a bit brave at the beach yesterday and sat out all day. Massively sunburnt, won’t be doing that again. I hope it’s nice and warm at home? Snigger snigger….
Varkala town is typical India, smelly, hectic, noisy, colourful and enthralling, but as you head towards the resort at North Cliff things take on an entirely different pace. The resort clings precariously to the edge of the cliff like the last Lemming of the pack that has chickened out of jumping. A windy path meanders its way along the edge and is lined by people selling everything from yoga classes to fresh fish; I’ve nicknamed it ‘no thank you alley.’ It seemed fitting. The people here are really friendly, the first night here we sat in a cocktail bar, that played Bob Marley 12″s, watching the sun set over the sea. The clear view out to the horizon gave this incredible vista of purple’s and orange’s that the camera couldn’t capture in a thousand years but we’ll put some pics up anyway! Somehow or another I ended up on the flyer for the cocktail bars DJ dance party last night which involved me taking down my Ipod and putting on some reggae. I wanted to see if India was ready for Drum and Bass yet but Alicia provided the sensible head…..
We’re staying here for a few more days then off to Kanyakumari on Weds to see temples and where the three seas of India meet. Until then…..much love…X
13th October 2011
We’re at present at the arse end of India in a place called Kanyakumari and it is hotter than Beelzebub’s bumhole after a night on Vindaloo and chilli vodka. In between the fantastically confusing Indian rail network and a hotel room that a small family of rats would turn its nose up at, it’s been a challenging 24hrs. Still, that’s travelling for you, bad with the good and all that…….
Taking the train through the Indian countryside is beautiful, bizarrely it’s much better to get a cheap seat, that way you can sit at the open window hanging out with a big dopey grin on your face…pushing your way through a crowded carriage, while an old man in a dhoti is carving one out in the hole in the ground that passes for a toilet, is slightly less poetic. Obviously he had the door open…Why wouldn’t you?
It was a painful thing to leave the picture perfect beauty of Varkala but we’ve swapped paradise for something far more intriguing, enigmatic and absolutely insane – real India. Kanyakumari is still on the tourist trail but is geared far more towards the Indian tourist market; westerners are here but not many. There are pretty places here, this morning we got up, and along with about 200 other people, watched the most amazing sunrise over the spot where the Indian Ocean meets the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. When I say ‘got up’ I actually mean ‘were woken up at 5am by the Chai Wallah knocking on the doors in our corridor.’ On top of the flea pit room we’ve understandably moved on from that particular establishment….
We travel north tomorrow for a couple of days in a village by the sea called Kollam where hopefully the room won’t come with a health warning, so until then my special people….Toodles. XXXX
20th October 2011
Before we had planes, trains and automobiles we had boats; cruising through the back waters of Kerala on a purpose built houseboat in 4 star luxury I can’t help but think that we’ve all but abandoned a much more civilised form of transport.
For the princely sum of about a hundred quid you get an amazing boat, a funny little driver called Bitou and a talented chef with a name I couldn’t begin to pronounce…
The Keralan back waters are an interconnected series of canals, lakes and rivers that stretch from the Arabian Sea far inland. For centuries people have been using them as a transport system, trade routes and, judging by the tiny little shacks over the water, a sewer as well. Raw, floating human shit and discarded plastic aside it’s a beautiful, peaceful place. Opera on the ipod makes a fitting sound track. Traditional wooden canoes carry people up and down, fishing nets hang from huge frames into the river (Yep, that’s the same river they all shit in…) They are manned in the same way that they have been since Mongol traders sent by Kublai Khan introduced the practise around 1400. The only difference is these days they all have mobile phones that they chat on as they swing the nets. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of old and new that just about sums India up really!
We spent an incredibly peaceful 24 hours on the boat eating, drinking and generally not doing a whole lot before being brutally torn asunder from this pretty, calm world and cast back to the stinking cacophonic mayhem of Alleppey. We’ve (fortunately) moved on to a sleepy little tourist town called Fort Cochin where we’ve seen some traditional Keralan dance called Kathakali and had a general mooch. 15 hours on a train tomorrow to get to Goa. Still, at least we can recover with a week on the beach enjoying the sun….life’s tough my friends. Toodles! XXXX
26th October 2011
Time takes on such a different quality while you’re away. It seems to move so slowly but then you look at a calendar and realise that it has rocketed by without you noticing.
We arrived at Palolem beach in the south of Goa six days ago. Tired and stinking from the fifteen hour train to get here, I wandered up and down the beach, sweating like a fat man on a treadmill, trying to find us somewhere to sleep. After seeing a few scum holes and one place where the guys were too stoned to talk, let alone prepare a room, we ended up in a beach shack being looked after by a strange little community who all wanted to be our friend! The Nepalese cleaner spent most of his working day sleeping in our hammock, the owners six year old daughter beat us at card games she made up as we played and the local lothario sat down each night to tell us about the tourists he had ‘looked after.’
Palolem beach is a beautiful place, for now. In the same way as so many other places we have seen here, tourism and poor infrastructure are inexorably destroying it. We stayed at a beautiful spot in a place called Kollam, as we went to leave the next morning I found the contents of the bin we had filled the night before chucked on the beach by the hotel cleaner. When you see things like this it’s easy to point the finger at the locals but you soon realise that the government simply doesn’t have control of things like rubbish collection and disposal like we do in the UK. Whether this is a lack of will or resources I don’t know. But as beautiful and fascinating as India is it’s surely one of the first places on the planet where the simplest of Malthusian principles is playing out – there are just too many people in one place.
Anyway, off my soap box. Palolem is a really friendly place, the sea is hot, the scenery mind blowing and the sand is white, if interspersed with a little dog and cow shit. Last night we had dinner with a nice German couple and watched an amazing thunder storm over the sea – pics to follow when I can be arsed! We leave this evening to get an overnight bus to Hampi where we’ll be spending a few days walking around ruins and hopefully recovering from the million insect bites we have got here! Toodles people, chat soon! XXX
1st November 2011
As I lie completely awake, staring at the heavily vibrating roof of the sleeper compartment in a bus, I try to think of the best possible way of describing the experience. Although I had many hours in which to do this the best I could come up with was ‘Really, really, f*cking uncomfortable.’ It is like drinking four cans of Red Bull then trying to sleep in miniature bunk beds that are being dragged over cobbles by several rabid wildebeest. The highlight of the journey is a ten minute conversation with Alicia in which we discuss the obvious ill health of a kid we just saw carving one out by the roadside, in the middle of a town, in broad day light. Only in India…. Eventually, bleary eyed and feeling like the grumpiest bear ever with the sorest head ever, we arrive at Hampi.
Hampi is a bizarre place that seems to have been lifted straight out of an Indiana Jones film. The landscape has a desolate, blasted appearance that’s almost lunar and has some of the weirdest geology I have ever seen. Megalithic stones are balanced on top of each other; massive hills are constructed of gigantic boulders creating a honeycomb mountain where it seems anything could lurk in the deepest nooks and crevices. The stones are as smooth as they are huge; it looks like the BFG has scattered his marbles about the place. My first thought is that the only thing that could have created such a strange landscape is glacial runoff but I am assured that it is volcanic activity and erosion, that was by Dollar the dodgy rickshaw bloke though so if anyone has anything to add please do…
Hampi was, for two hundred spectacular years, the city Vijayanagar and home to over 500,000 Mughal people. After such a short period it was razed and pillaged, by the Deccan’s, leaving the ruins that are still there today. The residents of Hampi Bazaar live in the old buildings despite the best efforts of the Indian Archaeological Survey to get them to move on. Essentially they are destroying the livelihood that their town relies on, as tourism is the only source of income here. This is centred around a small part of the vast complex though and the main temples and sights are remarkably well preserved. The detail that remains on the buildings is absolutely astounding and when you remember that all this was achieved over a relatively short period of time it becomes all the more miraculous. After three days of wandering around temples and palaces and elephant stables and avoiding treading in the ubiquitous cow sh*t, we move on to Anjuna beach in North Goa.
We have decided to change our plans a bit and are travelling to Nepal earlier than we had planned to save a bit of money and catch Nepal at its peak season. We fly to Delhi on the 3rd Nov to start our last week in India where we will be seeing the Taj Mahal, just because you have to, and Varanasi, which is by the sounds of things the closest you will ever come to true insanity on earth without the aid of psychedelic substances! So for now…Toodles! XXXX
7th November 2011
Since I have been away I have been given several vital pieces of advice for dealing with India: Never trust a fart, keep calm and grow a beard. The beard comes naturally with very little effort, the farting thing…well the first time you do trust one is also the last. Trust me. Keeping calm, now that comes to the zenith of importance in Delhi….
I don’t think that I have ever in my life been somewhere that has such an abstract, chaotic, cacophonic buzz about it. This place is cocaine for the eyeballs. It’s like someone grabbed a million images to twist your mind, some amazing architecture and a billion inventive beggars, and then put them in one place after liberally spraying them with eau de faeces…. Everywhere you turn something new startles you. The very process of walking down the street is a cross between a voyage of discovery and a desperate battle for existence as rickshaws, motorbikes and the occasional cow weave their way between you and the rest of the human torrent.
Some of the sights here are fantastic, Huyamans tomb, the Red Fort, Ghandi Smriti to name a few, but if I’m honest the reason to come to Delhi is just to be here. The bazaars of old Delhi hustle in the same way they have for centuries, tiny shops spring forth from tiny streets and huddles of people loudly haggle over bundles of vibrant cloth. Everywhere you go someone is selling something. Or sleeping….lots of sleeping people….
The touts, beggars and blaggers here are something else. The award for most inventive goes to the guys who try and poke wax in your ear so they can clean it. Most hopeful is probably the chap who tries to polish your flip flop wearing feet. Most disturbing is the guy who cuts his own foot open and pretends he’s had an accident; we’re not talking a little cut. He approached us, screaming and crying, with a six inch gash down his leg and foot. It was pretty horrible and I gave him a little money, you become inured to it but everyone’s human, only to be told by a friend that he had seen him two days before trying the same trick. You have to be in a bad way to do that….or f*cking insane…
Yesterday we spent a long day travelling to Agra and back to see the Taj Mahal. Someone once wrote that the Taj was ‘A teardrop on the cheek of heaven.’ I’d be inclined to agree although I’d also add that Agra itself is like a crusty on the arsehole of hell. Not a nice place….noisy, polluted and full of people whose main ambition is to strip you of as much cash as is humanly possible. That said though the Taj is worth it. You stand on the platform looking up at this incredible edifice that you have seen pictures of all your life and it’s like you are seeing it for the first time. It’s vast, beautiful and the detail is mind blowing. Even though you know exactly what it is you’re going there to see, you still can’t help but be shocked. Equally shocking are the crowds of pushy Indians who would probably trample their own Nan’s to get a better shot……We spent a fantastic day there and at Agra fort which is in itself fascinating although the Taj steals all the limelight. We also got taken to several shops we didn’t want to go to by a rickshaw driver looking for commission. That’s India!
Delhi has been done now and we fly to Varanasi tomorrow to dodge touts, float on the Ganges and watch an open air cremation or two. Toodles! X
11th November 2011
After the bottled bedlam that was Delhi what we really needed was a nice chilled out place to gather ourselves, breathe fresh air and contemplate life…..Instead we went to the most ludicrously mental place on the face of the planet – Varanasi. In terms of pure fascination Varanasi has to be my favourite place on this trip so far, but then I am a strange little chicken.
Pilgrims travel from far and wide across India to come to this holy city and wash themselves in the Ganges, I doubt they feel all that clean after it but who am I to judge another man’s devotions? Varanasi itself is a typical Indian city, overcrowded, dirty and incredibly vibrant, insane, inexplicable and inherently infectious – figuratively and literally. But if you head down to the Ganges River, which runs past it as if it doesn’t want to venture inside, another world is waiting….in more ways than one. People come from far and wide in the belief that to die in Varanasi is to break the cycle of reincarnation and head straight to heaven. Hindu’s believe that if you live a good life you will rise in fortunes in the next, live a bad life and you plummet down through the caste system heading towards coming back as an animal. Reading between the lines I wonder if the people who come here to breathe their last have something they’re worried about….. So to this auspicious end, dead bodies are carried through the streets on brightly coloured stretchers, washed in the river and placed on funeral pyres that are dotted along the Ghats (the steps leading down to the river that stretch for miles.) In our world death is hidden from us, by the curtain at the crematorium, the closed coffin, the zipped up black bag. Here it is paraded for all to see. The first time you walk past a bonfire and see a burning, sizzling corpse, the smell is indescribable, it makes your blood run cold and yet you can’t turn away…..Maybe our taboo treatment of the final journey awakens in us a morbid fascination…..either that or I’m just warped! Something about being allowed and even expected to watch this most personal event seems perverse, voyeuristic; in Varanasi it’s just a way of life. That’s not to say though that it’s a dark place, alongside the morbid elements is also an abundance of riotous life being lived at fever pitch in a billion beautiful colours. All along the Ghats people are singing, praying, lighting candles for the dead, playing cricket and selling everything from boat rides to opium. We took a boat at dawn to watch the sun come up and see people in their morning devotions; I was genuinely moved by the depth and commitment of religion here. Further in towards the town we visited a few temples and I was struck by the same thing, even a cynical old atheist such as me can’t help but applaud other people’s faith, whatever works for you at the end of the day…. One monkey temple we visited that was infested with our amusing simian cousins was ripped apart by over flowing sectarian violence seven years ago killing a few and maiming a few more, I suppose that’s the other side to faith in your own beliefs – faith that someone else’s are wrong.
Varanasi was our last stop in India and after a rickshaw, a train and three busses we eventually arrived at a place called Lumbini in Nepal last night. Today we wandered in the sacred gardens where the Buddha was born and got mobbed by school kids who all wanted to practise their English, take photos and touch our skin to see if it felt like theirs. I really am having the time of my life….. Tomorrow we travel to Pokhara to get a bit involved with some trekking and see what local produce I can procure…
21st November 2011
It’s half five in the morning, it’s dark, it’s colder than a yeti’s bum crack, we’re halfway up Poon Hill and the going is tough. The giant stone steps that look like they have existed in position since the beginning of time are covered in mud and water making them as slippery as a wanking eel. I’m wearing a woolly hat, mittens and about five layers but I still can’t stop shivering, despite the walking. Alicia says she needs to stop so we stand out of the path by a little clearing in the dark, wet Rhododendron trees. She starts to explain, in language that would offend a squadie, that she is never doing this again and that I’m less than her favourite person right now, then she stops mid sentence. The mist that comes with every exhalation hangs inanimate as we lose our respective breaths. Rising dramatically out of the top of the clouds is the cap of Annapurna II and we’ve only just noticed. It seems to hang in the air above the cloud like a mirage or a painting. It doesn’t seem real. Wisps of snow tell tales on the wind, it seems blue in the half light before the coming dawn. I have never seen anything so serene, so beautiful, so fucking big; and we haven’t even reached the top yet.
Poon hill is one of the major viewpoints for the Annapurna range of the Himalaya, the trek there takes about two days and then a further two and a half days back in a loop to keep things interesting. One of the other major views is Sarangkot which took us 6 hours to trek to from Pokhara and we saw nothing but cloud, however I did find a local horticulturalist who was happy to show me his produce. Since we got to Nepal about ten days ago the mountains have evaded us. The weather here has been really cloudy, wet and generally unpleasant. When we went to book the trek Alicia wasn’t sure if she was going to come as the weather was so horrible but eventually after a bit of blagging from me and the guide that we used, an absolute legend by the name of Bhim, she agreed. I think she is happy with the decision now we’re back although there were times when she probably regretted it!
We set out from a place called Naya Pul, about a two hour drive from Pokhara, and instantly the views blew us away. Although the good stuff was obscured from view by heavy clouds, they lent an ethereal majesty to the vast valleys we walked through. A ferocious river roared next to the trail, the water was cloudy, almost like milk, from the contorted journey down the hills and mountains like a billion tiny capillaries, that get smaller and more numerous as you go up higher, feeding the main arteries that take the water on its perpetual quest for the ocean, carving the landscape as it goes. We stopped for the first night in a diminutive village called Tikhedunga that clung desperately to the side of the valley. After a dinner of Dal Bhat, which is possibly the finest source of nourishment known to man and the only one I know where they bring you as much as you like, we climbed into our sleeping bags in a freezing cold little cell that served as a room.
The next morning we set off for what we had been told was the hardest day. Within ten minutes of walking we started the ascent to Ulleri. To cut an arduous story short we climbed a thousand metres in about an hour and a half. To say my girlfriend was impressed would be outright lies but she managed really well. It kind of destroys you though when you see a tiny old woman with a massive wicker basket strapped to her head, wearing flip flops and climbing with a sure footed dexterity that you can never match, and she’s not even out of breath.
Day two kind of went on in the same ilk; harsh climbs followed by savage descents that make the harsh climbs seem pointless. But the scenery was absolutely exquisite. Epic, verdant valleys were laid out below us, the hills were shrouded in cloud that kept the mountains dignity, the undergrowth and trees we passed were all dripping wet and the only sounds were the trickle of water and Bhim singing the Simple Simple song. Along the way Bhim found me a little treat to help my mind relax, smoking and looking out from our guest house in Ghorepani into thick cloud we wondered if the early morning trek to Poon hill would be worth it or if the cloud would thwart us again.
We got to the top of Poon hill for sunrise and it was nothing short of spectacular. The vast South Annapurna range was spread out before us like a postcard. With every inch the sun rose, every breath of cloud, the view changed dramatically. Mountains shifted into view then disappeared into the cloud as if they were never there, the ascending sun cast glorious colours on to the crisp, white canvasses that pointed to the sky. The thick cloud was below us and the mountains stood proudly out of this thick grey soup. I ran around with a grin like a kiddie at Christmas, taking pictures from different angles and standing watching in wonder. We shared the dawn with a hundred other trekkers who all had identical grins of delight and massifs reflected in their eyes.
Day three turned out to be the hardest for Alicia, her knees started hurting and she was feeling the cold and the early start, but out of sheer determination and a little help from Bhim and I, she pulled herself up thousands of steps and we stopped for the night in Tadapani. After the dramatic appearance of the Himalaya at Poon hill we can’t seem to get rid of them. The cloud cover has cleared and now we can see them all the way from Pokhara. As we descended through a picture perfect valley on day four the mountains watched us, peeping over hills as we rounded them and towering behind the branches of trees giving us brief glimpses followed by epic views. The sun shone on us and as we neared Sunali Bazaar I started to feel pretty gutted that we weren’t doing more. Alicia was ecstatic that we were getting closer to a warm hotel room and hot shower in Pokhara.
The final day felt like an anti climax. We walked through the valley back to Naya Pul and were picked up by a taxi by ten AM. After a hot shower and massive laundry run we went out for a few beers with Bhim last night, I’m going to miss that insane Nepalese oddball. We’re back in Pokhara for a few days then off to Bandipur and Gorkha. Toodles! XXX
4th December 2011
As far as modes of transport go, sitting with your legs straddling an elephant’s arse and facing the wrong way is neither comfortable nor salubrious…. You guys think a lot of gas comes out of me!
However, it is pretty serene if uncomfortable and I can’t help but feel humbled by the sheer power of this intelligent and gentle creature. Latikama crashes through undergrowth that would take us an age and a great big khukri to get through. The other animals in Chitwan Park seem to think that if Latikama trusts us then it’s ok for them to do the same. As a result of this borrowed belief we are able to creep up on and sit and watch a mother Rhino with her cub from only five metres away. She is wary and rightfully so; poaching has reduced their numbers to a critical point. The Mahout is careful to leave them an escape route, which is a relief because I don’t want to see a rhino fight an elephant from the front row. I’ll wait for it to appear on YouTube. A massive stag nonchalantly watches us through the undergrowth as he grazes, keeping an eye but only out of interest; his harem don’t bother to watch us at all. As we rumble through the forest a low flying branch knocks my prescription sunglasses off of my head and into the undergrowth. Exclaiming ‘bollocks’ loudly, I grumpily inform Alicia that I’m going to be ‘f@cking blind for the rest of the trip now…’ The happy Mahout speaks to Latikama in a series of high pitched whoops and clicks and she rummages through the tangled, huge patch of undergrowth where my green sunglasses have fallen….and promptly hands them back to me with her trunk…. Impressive to say the least. Later on we go to watch the elephants bathe in a nearby river, I decide it all looks a bit fun so get in and help clean a smiley female, called Chakadee, who squirts me in the face with her trunk. A couple of Marsh Mugger Crocodiles watch passively from the other bank. I nervously ask if they are the dangerous ones out of the two species at Chitwan. I’m cheerfully informed they are. That’s nice then…
Then on to Kathmandu, a city I have wanted to visit for a long, long time. It’s a fascinating place where 20th century motorbikes hurtle down tiny 17th century streets that are packed with throngs of people, Saddu’s collect alms, and tiny workshops line the streets. On every corner is a temple of icon and I have never seen so many Pashmina’s. Today we drove for an hour with a high taxi driver to Dakshinkali – a temple to the Hindu goddess Kali where they sacrifice animals. Vegetarian Dal Bhat for dinner tonight I think…. A Buddhist monastery in the hills around Kathmandu has a huge, hidden hill behind it where hang the prayer flags of millions of people. A billion hopes flapping in the light breeze, its deserted twists and turns through trees and flags feel like a wonderland. I expect a white rabbit to rush past at any moment – if he does I’ll tell him to avoid Dakshinkali….
Bhaktapur, Bungee and more trekking next, then off to Thailand for a well deserved holiday! Toodles! X
9th December 2011
The self preservation gene is a funny old thing. As I stand on a bridge, 160 metres above a roaring river, I don’t actually have the time to question my own safety. That little gem doesn’t kick in until the split second after I take a swan dive, then it says to me ‘What the f@ck did you do that for? Bell end!’ Nice one, bit late now… As I hurtle through the air at a speed of apparently 150km/h… with all the grace of a whale with Parkinson’s, I have little time to reflect that in a real life or death situation my personal self preservation gene has poxy timing. I feel the rope go taught then ping me back up and my bollocks tear through my body and lodge in my throat. If I’m totally honest I remember very little apart from shouting expletives and ‘Again, again!’ which is no easy feat when you have bollocks in your throat…
Aside from the adrenalin rush of a life time, Kathmandu has been an amazing place. It’s colourful, exciting, perplexing and fascinating. Which is pretty much what I’ve come to expect from Asian cities but there’s a little more here. Religion is woven so richly into life; on almost every corner is a shrine or icon of some description. On one street we found a large chunk of wood, hundreds of years old, that people have nailed a billion coins to in the hope of warding off toothache. People walk by and quickly touch it for blessing, people of all ages, not just the old. As an atheist I’ve often held the belief that without religion the world would be a more peaceful place, less warfare, more tolerance etc. Maybe that’s true and maybe it’s not, but without religion would the world be as colourful and textured? Even in a world that becomes more secular by the day I can’t help but think it’s comforting that in some places people are still defined by their rituals rather than their spending habits. We spent a morning at Pashpathinath, one of the largest Hindu temples in Kathmandu. As was the case with Varanasi, Pashpathinath was built in a venerated position by a sacred river and cremations are performed in the open air for all to see. I’m going to spare the macabre details, and believe me they are bloody macabre, simply because, for how horrifying it was, it somehow managed to be quite special. I think I need to explain myself before you guys think I have a twisted obsession with burning corpses. The ritual that surrounds the cremations is quite special to watch and although in the western world we are shielded from the nitty gritty side to our ultimate destination there’s something quite comforting about the way it is handled. The body is bought down to the Ghats on a stretcher covered in Marigolds amidst singing and music. Prayers are said and water from the river is used to bless it, the whole process seems to go on for quite some time and I’m going to save the details as I could only observe from a little way off and I wouldn’t want to get it wrong! What struck me was that the family and the community are involved right up until the end, as the ashes are washed away into the river. There’s no barrier to the grief, no curtain to hide the details. I like their open honest treatment of mortality, maybe that just comes from living above a funeral parlour for a decade!
We had scheduled another trek for the end of Nepal but unfortunately I got a bit brave with street vendor food and spent yesterday trying to work out which end it was coming out of next! I think we’re off to Bhaktapur tomorrow to wander around the medieval streets, then Nagerkot to say goodbye to the mountains and then it’s Thailand for some sun!
19th December 2011
Thank you so much for all the birthday love people. You rock my world!
Thailand is a gorgeous place, the people are really friendly, the weather is hot and the beer is a lot cheaper than it was in Nepal! We flew into Bangkok on Wednesday and on leaving the air conditioned airport we were instantly hit by the heat. After being locked out of Kathmandu airport for an hour in the freezing cold, first …thing in the morning, this was quite a relief! Bangkok is an amazing city, it’s clean and organised, everyone drives in lanes instead of the free for all that is India and Nepal. There are even little countdown timers that tell you when the lights are going to change, amazing! We stayed near to Khao San Rd which is the vibrant heart of the tourism industry here, pumping cheap, sickly cocktails that have about as much alcohol as a thimble of nun’s wee. It’s a buzzing, colourful place where the streets are lined with food vendors that send a million tantalising smells wafting through the air. Tattoo shops recognise you as English and pounce and most of the Thai people you see are trying to sell you a suit. We took a trip to Patpong night market and were spectacularly ripped off at a Ping Pong show of which I’ll spare you the details. It’s about table tennis kids, honestly… 😉
We arrived at Ko Chang four days ago and we have been lucky enough to witness the fascinating mating rituals of one of the planets most enigmatic species. If you stay still and quiet for long enough and concentrate on one pair of these prolific creatures you are rewarded with a scene of drama and suspense worthy of a Shakespearean production. The male prowls the locale looking for a suitable partner, it seems that he isn’t very particular in the qualities he looks for whereas the female is quite choosy and fickle; she will immediately abandon one potential suitor if another of superior physical stature comes along, indeed she will often have a regular mate who she has left behind to migrate for the winter. When the pair has found each other the ritual begins. They spend a lot of time communicating and passing tacit messages that they both seem immune to although the attraction is obvious to every other specimen present. Eventually, and sooner if they have been imbibing the alcoholic sustenance all around them, the male moves in to progress to a more physical congress. This is the crucial moment and if he succeeds they will suck each other’s faces for a while before leaving to copulate on the beach where there will other pairs doing the same. Welcome to an 18-30’s holiday…
Ko Chang’s incredible beauty has been overtaken and subverted by the influx of mass tourism resulting in a place that is as devoid of culture as it is character…but hey, it’s bloody hot and the beach is pristine so I won’t complain too much! We had originally intended to spend Christmas here but I don’t think either of us can take it for that long, having come from the rich, textured culture of Nepal this place is a bit like the devil’s armpit. It’s a shame that in places like this tourism destroys the very thing that attracted the tourists in the first place, but still they come in droves. It’s a little bit like shagging the goose that laid the golden egg after you’ve already cut it open to see if you can get more out…
After this place has finished stripping us of our cash we are moving on to Siem Reap in Cambodia to see the temples at Angkor and that’s where we’ll spend Christmas. I can’t think of a better Christmas present than spending a few days wandering around a place that I have wanted to visit since I was a geeky little boy who would read books on ancient civilisations instead of playing football! So a very Merry Christmas to one and all and if anyone sees Santa can they tell him to redirect my presents and that I’ve been a very good boy this year.
6th January 2012
Sawasaday peeps! Don’t ask me to spell it in Khmer…
I’m hoping everyone is well and celebrated Christmas and New Years in style. We are nearing the end of our first fortnight in Cambodia and it has been a fascinating ride. Christmas day was spent snorkelling in the crystal sea off a paradise island, not a turkey or party popper in sight. After that we headed up to Siem Reap to see the temples at Angkor. Siem Reap itself is almost wholly supported by its proximity to the temples but in spite of that fact is actually quite a charming and approachable town, if more hectic than going to a funeral on Crystal Meth…
As I’ve said before, the temples at Angkor are something I have been waiting to see for a very long time, the first evening we headed up to Angkor Wat for sunset and I was like the Duracell bunny but more excitable. We walked down the causeway, across a rather impressive moat, coated in pond skaters, and I had an impossibly huge grin spread all over my face. We walked in and I thought my heart was going to stop, it was more beautiful, awe inspiring and f*cking huge than I ever could have thought possible. The next few days were spent going around the different sites and we were both struck by how architecturally different they are from each other. The most atmospheric by far was Ta Prom, if you have time check Google images for a better idea, I’ll put pics up eventually! If the Angkor temples are a testament to what man is capable of then Ta Prom shows us what Old Lady Nature can do. The jungle has run riot here, tree roots shatter buildings, crawl through the tiniest cracks and explode in a savage display of man’s impermanence. We think that we are clever and for the most part we are, Ta Prom shows us that Mother Nature is a cruel bitch and will, ultimately, always take back what is hers. We, and the effigies we create in our own image, are merely dust postponed and we should never forget that. But then I think that the fragility of mankind is also our most beautiful attribute, it is our impermanence and our understanding of that fact that makes us love so deeply and fully. We fear loss because we understand that we CAN lose, be that losing life or the life of someone we love. You will never adore your partner as much as you will when they are taken from you – in whichever sense that may be. Life will never be as beautiful as it will in that last half beat before your heart stops for good.
Forgive me if I’m dwelling morbidly here but as amazing and beautiful as Cambodia is there is an extremely dark underbelly. The people, although massively friendly and happy, are all very deeply touched by the events of thirty years ago – The Khmer Rouge takeover. I’m only going to touch on it briefly as I want to go into more detail at a later date but we are both finding it hard to deal with some of the places we have been to and the stories told by people we have met. We met a guy a few days ago who lost his entire family and an arm to a landmine leftover from this period and yet felt no bitterness to the people who placed it there. The Cambodians are a people who have suffered greatly and continue to, all at the hands of bent foreign policy from meddling western powers, a situation that is repeated throughout history and echoes darkly through to our world today. I’ll get off my soap box and save it for another day…
We are in Battembang at the moment and we leave tomorrow to head to Kompong Cham, quick overnighter then it’s off to Kratie to see river dolphins!
12th January 2012
Imagine, if you will, a savage drinking session with men who drink like a pack of rabid squadies in a room decorated like a kitsch seventies nightmare. Throw in a europop sound track, an awful lot of confusion and little girls dressed like Kings Cross’ finest and you have a Cambodian wedding.
Apparently it’s good luck to have foreigners in attendance, which explains our invite, so Alicia and I, along with a German called Mervin, provided our blessing to this auspicious occasion. Around our table the beer started flowing as soon as we sat down. Rather than enjoying a quiet drink and easing into it, it seems that tradition dictates all glasses are filled with beer (and ice, the bloody heathens) and at a signal everyone clashes glasses shouting ‘choulmoy’ and downs their drink. The glass clashing and ‘choulmoys’ get more passionate with each round, the word choulmoy is unfortunately very close to the Khmer word for ‘fuck’, causing a few moments of hilarity at our expense. This may sound like fun, and believe me it is, but after they do this ten times in twenty minutes problems start arising – even for such seasoned drinkers as we are. Vomiting is imminent but no quarter is given although it is desperately asked for. After the beer is downed everyone holds their glass up and shakes the ice to prove that they have done their bit for tradition, and there is absolutely no getting away with it. At some point during this brutal physical abuse the food is bought out. Some of which is extremely nice, some of which is extremely weird. Watching Alicia, hammered, trying to make chop sticks work is possibly one of the funniest things I have ever seen, I think the guy’s sat with us would agree. I can confirm that chicken feet taste like nuts, deep fried locust are actually quite nice and what I suspect was a jellied duck embryo nearly bought all the aforementioned back up and onto the table.
Suddenly the drinking stops and the dancing begins, by now I’m behaving like the village idiot (as I often do at weddings, sorry again Jo and Al!) and doing the trance stomp mingled with some very Asian hand movements. Fortunately my new best friend, a ten year old girl called Nikal, takes me in hand and shows me how it’s done. I swiftly yield to my inebriation and retire to a table to down beer with and old man called Uncle Pom. I’m not sure if that was his name or just the one I gave to him…
After such a night obviously what is needed is a day in bed groaning softly to myself or maybe even crying and holding my beleaguered liver. Alternatively we could get in a mini bus designed for fourteen people but manages twenty, along with a gigantic bag of sweaty meat. The four hour journey, over roads so bad they would test a Hummer, takes seven and I spend that squashed up next to an Aussie with personal hygiene issues. As luck would have it though he was also hilarious and armed to the teeth with Diazepam. Maybe there is a god after all…
Finally we got to the dustiest place on earth – Ban Lung; the dirt here is bright red and gets into every pore. We are pretty much in one of the most remote parts of Cambodia and it’s great. Today I swum in a volcanic lake, tomorrow its waterfalls and mopeds then we’re off to trek in jungle so remote even the locals don’t know where it is.
18th January 2012
Since we came to Cambodia a month ago I’ve had some stuff bubbling under the surface and I feel I’ve seen enough now to talk about it properly. If you’re after a laugh stop now, this isn’t pretty, cheerful or funny in the slightest.
As beautiful as this country is there is an evil undercurrent and it’s tangible, omnipresent, it lurks in the shadows of people’s eyes, in dark corners that have become tourist destinations and desolation in the eyes of the man with no legs who asks for spare change; it’s the spectre of genocide that still haunts this Elysium corner of the earth.
Maybe some of you are more informed than I was, I knew that Cambodia had been through some tough times, I knew that huge numbers of people had lost their lives here for the sake of twisted idealism, I knew the name Pol Pot and I knew that the British government was complicit in some way. What I wasn’t prepared for was the scale, the stories of inhuman brutality and the devastating effect that the population are dealing with to this day.
Where to begin? I struggle to know who has precedence, the man of my age with one arm who lost the other as a child playing in the fields? Or the woman who watched her sister get dragged away but couldn’t show a human reaction as this would have been deemed to be contrary to the revolution?
Maybe a little history is in order; I’ll give you the condensed version. On the 17th April 1975 the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh to a reception of joy, the population were jubilant that the devastating civil war had ended, these people weren’t political – just overjoyed that the war was over, what did it matter who was in charge? Over the next few days the urban populations all over the country were literally emptied and forced to march to the countryside to farm. Children were separated from their families, hospitals were emptied; those who fell by the wayside were shot or left to die. Imagine where you live for a second; juxtapose these events into your own existence. Visualise what happens when a population is forced at gunpoint to abandon life, possessions and money and take to the road. In a heartbeat equality is achieved at a price too terrible for most of us to envisage. What followed was heart breaking. Starvation, disease and brutality on a scale not seen since the Nazis.
We have heard stories of babies ripped from the womb to enjoy a few moments of life before being dashed to the floor, their lungs probably didn’t have time to clear from the amniotic fluid and breathe air. We’ve seen equipment used to simulate drowning – simulate because dead people can’t answer false accusations. A woman cried in Alicia’s arms as she recounted how they took her father and sister, in another story we heard a woman’s nipples were ripped off with pliers and she was stung by scorpions placed on her. It’s easy to blame the foot soldiers, but when you hear a man speak who knew that if he didn’t carry out these atrocities he would be next it’s hard to judge him.
I’m sorry to be so graphic here but I think that in our lives we are insulated from the true horrors of the world. It’s too comfortable and easy to imagine these events as far off and obscure; they happened either within or close to most of our lifetimes. Can it happen again? I think the answer to that is yes, as humans we will always have the potential to destroy our fellow man; it’s purely a matter of circumstance.
Landmines left over from this dark period still wreck the lives of Cambodians today. I hope that what I’ve said here can invoke a little sympathy and emotion, there’s not a lot we can do about what happened but everyone can help the recovery. These people seem quite kosher if you can spare a few quid.
24th February 2012
They say time flies when you are having fun which potentially explains why, at present, my life is rocketing past at the speed of a womble whose bollocks are on fire. After a month spent in Phnom Penh sweating and feverishly scribbling away at my latest project we are finally back on the road again. The last few days have been amazing; first we went to Kampot and Kep where we hammered around on a moped while Alicia held me in a death grip not dissimilar to the mating posture of a horny koala. Now we’re in Sihanoukville where the menu at our favourite beach bar includes happy pizzas, magic milkshakes and Asia’s finest rolled for you by a man whose eyes are redder than the devils dick. This place is not for the faint of heart, or lungs.
Tomorrow we leave Cambodia after two very happy months indeed. I’ve made lots of new friends, bonded with some old ones, seen stuff that’s blown my mind, smoked stuff that’s blown my mind, and generally carried on in the half arsed, slightly dazed manner to which you have all become accustomed. It’s difficult to come up with highlights but there are a few bits that spring to mind. Eating deep fried crickets from a street vendor, crossing a plank over a river on a moped with my eyes shut, (fear, not bravado!) watching elderly expats fumble with teenage prostitutes in Phnom Penh, arguing about world politics with a pugnacious Scotsman, swimming in rivers, lakes, waterfalls and a suspiciously green swimming pool, drinking shots with the biggest man I have ever seen and then throwing them up down the side of a rickshaw on the way home…It’s not all been pretty but it has been of the highest level of entertainment!
Obviously there has been the serious stuff too, Cambodia is a place that has been rocked to it’s very core by a twisted ideology that threatened to destroy it, abandoned to its fate by a world too belligerent to care and raped by its own politicians; yet it has risen from the proverbial ashes like a phoenix on Berrocca. This is a fascinating country to visit for its past but it’s the Khmer people who have made this a truly fantastic place for us and I can’t compliment or thank them enough.
I won’t be on here for a while; apparently Vietnam is having a paddy about facebook at present, as a capitalist nation pretending to be a communist one in order to oppress its people it has to throw its Bolshevik toys out of the pram every now and then to remind China it’s still red…
So until next time my lovely, lovely people
4th March 2012
I think that the best way that I could describe my initial impressions of Vietnam would be to compare it to having a hangover; not a ‘throwing up while brushing your teeth’ one, more of a ‘my head hurts, my wallet is empty and nothing seems quite right’ one. Life here moves at a frenetic speed but between the warped lines of space and time melting there are some beautiful details that are easy to …miss.
I have to say at the outset that it is a fascinating place, Chinese pagodas jostle for space with skyscrapers, women wearing traditional, bamboo cone hats sell coffee from longtail boats while they jabber into a mobile phone and a statue of Ho Chi Minh benevolently watches over children selling coca-cola… I’m struggling to understand this place politically or economically, on one hand you have the ubiquitous propaganda billboards depicting smiling communists working together for a unified Vietnam but on the other hand you have restaurateurs attempting to charge you for the napkins you haven’t used, to say this place is schizophrenic is a godamn understatement! It comes across as the people are embracing a market driven, capitalist future while their government still holds onto the final vestiges of a totalitarian state. I was reading the suggestion that a single party state can keep a firm grip on the market and drive the economy forward without the quibbling that democratic governments face – maybe they have a point; however I can’t get my western head around a lack of political plurality. Call me old fashioned but I like politicians who can be held to account for the nefarious shit they get up to…
A visit to the war museum in Saigon gives a compelling insight into the psyche of the regime; an understandable anti-American flavour creeps into every exhibit and begins to take on a preaching tone. What the yanks did to this place was a terrible thing but you find yourself wishing they’d reign in the rhetoric as the facts speak for themselves. I did however learn that one of the main manufacturers of Agent Orange (a kind of charming, strategic version of weedkiller that’s been causing birth defects since it was used) was Monsanto, which surprised me due to their recent history of philanthropic company policies. (He says sarcastically…)
The roads here are easily the scariest thing I have had to deal with on the whole trip, fuck the bungee jump, the Indian beggars and Alicia’s hair after going in the sea; this is real fear, cold palpable fear that crawls down your spine and nestles in your full pants. At least in other Asian countries the moped drivers will try and avoid you, here they take fucking aim, as do the coaches, trucks and so on… Driving yourself is an option; at least you don’t have to cross the screaming torrent of killing metal, however, now you are even more invisible than you were as a pedestrian. In Saigon one man crossed the street and led Alicia and I to safety on the other side; which leads to my next point, as long as they aren’t trying to fleece you for every Dong they can, the Vietnamese are lovely.
We’re in Dalat at the moment, where it is actually cold in the evenings, I don’t know how you guys at home are coping but I’ve had to put on a light jacket for the first time in three months! I think I deserve some sympathy? Don’t worry though because we move on to Nha Trang tomorrow where the temperature is closer to the mid thirties which is much more acceptable. What can I say? It’s a hard life…
15th March 2012
There is something soothing about the sound of lapping water. As I write the sea whispers its gentle lullaby that suggests I go back to sleep, but I look out at the early morning mist clinging stubbornly to verdant megaliths which jut proudly towards the sky and somehow I don’t want to.
The bay’s milky, turquoise sea is punctuated nearly two thousand times by these black and grey escarpments who…se austere personalities are shamed by the thousand shades of green which grow upon them. A billion ripples texture the water forming esoteric patterns which are observed by myself and an eagle who glides gracefully above me following the invisible paths of thermals that lead across his sky. I feel completely alone and, save for the distant chug of a diesel engine; I can hear nothing that reminds me that I am a part of the human race; right now that’s fine by me.
A small craft meanders between two islands, it must be the source of the noise but its distance removes the two from one another so they stand separately in my senses. The silhouette of a man stands and observes the myriad boats that are awakening to greet the dawn, emissaries of a destructive industry which brings money and its associated misery to this heart achingly exquisite Eden. Let’s not talk about that now though, let’s just enjoy this charismatic slash of lush heaven where nature forgot to place anything ugly.
We spend two days drifting in that chilly, damp paradise and I can honestly say that Halong Bay is more than pleasing to the eye; it is a place of awe inspiring beauty that touches you somewhere inside and etches itself on to the grain of your soul. Short sighted mass tourism is only interested in raping a place for as much money as it can before it gets ruined and the tourists move on to the next Elysium field. This can only be countered by going to these places and showing the custodians why we adore them in the hope that they can be protected, if not for the sake of beauty itself then for the revenue it can provide.
After this paradise we head back to Hanoi and its noise traffic and bustle. I love this city in all its loud, yet humble, glory. It lacks the brash screaming electricity of Saigon but in my eyes that’s no bad thing. It’s still as loud as hell and more frantic than a trapped cat that needs a wee; it just manages to do it in a more dignified fashion than its southern cousin. Travelling through Vietnam I have been struck by how different all the urban centres are, there’s a wide scope ranging from the chilled beaches of the south to the mountain grace of Dalat, from the creative and pretty Hoi An to the majestic and cultured Hue. I’ll admit, I haven’t always loved this country but I have remained fascinated throughout.
We have a couple more days in Hanoi then we tackle a twenty four hour bus journey to Laos that I am assured is as hellish as it is pretty. Where did I leave that Valium?
30th March 2012
I’m having one of those days where I feel like my head is going to explode leaving not much more than a bloody stump attached to an extremely sexy body…if I find the guy who designed the website I’ve just given my credit card number to, I’ll ring his f*cking neck. We’re in Laos at a dusty little backwater called Phonsavan which has delusions of financial grandeur…Honestly, I love my history but if these people think I’m paying 80 quid for half a day out looking some empty pots then they have another bloody thing coming!
Bitching aside, Laos is a place of mind boggling beauty, think Jurassic Park without the scary lizards… Limestone karsts rise from the jungle below into the mist above like stern sentinels, the Mekong lazily winds its way through the parched landscape that cries out for the imminent monsoon and a haze that portends it filters the sunlight giving it a brightness that belies the overcast sky. We came into Vientiane on a hellish twenty hour bus journey complete with a nasty border crossing and a touch of travellers belly bought on by a dodgy sandwich, it’s all fun and glamour! As far as capital cities go Vientiane is an absolute treat, it’s open, it’s quiet, the people are friendly and you can cross the street without first genuflecting, writing a will and kissing your arse goodbye…
After a few days there we headed to Vang Vieng which is basically about as much fun as you can possibly squeeze into a small and perfectly gorgeous area. The scenery is like a painting but better, the bars show Friends or Family guy on a permanent loop, the smoke is pokier than a poker player’s pokey bit and the rock climbing is fantastic. On that subject Alicia made it to the top of an eighteen metre rock face on her first ever climb…well impressed! We even managed to go in a hot air balloon which is easily the most civilised way to travel on the face of the planet, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the absolute joy of drifting in the wind a kilometre off the ground in perfect silence; definitely a high point of the whole trip.
From Vang Vieng we went to Luang Prabang which is a sleepy little town on the Mekong. In the early morning the streets are filled with Monks in saffron robes collecting alms to take back to the myriad wats in varying states of grandeur or decay. Luang Prabang was gorgeous but we were somewhat distracted while there by planning the next section of our trip: Oz and New Zealand. We have decided to move on earlier than planned to break things up a bit, it’s amazing how things that would ordinarily blow you away can become commonplace…I built a whole stoned philosophy about mankind’s troubles around this simple tenet, Alicia suffered the boredom so you don’t have to…
9th April 2012
Every now and then the gods of travel land a minor miracle in your lap and it would be plain rude to shun them; hence why I am writing this in the lobby of a stunning hotel where we are staying for under 10 dollars. Get in.
To be fair a treat is very welcome, tomorrow we fly to New Zealand to spend a month living in a campervan. Sometimes you have to enjoy comfort while you can! It’s with a heavy… heart that I leave Asia, the last six months have been some of the most insane of my life, obviously not counting the lost years of my early twenties spent with my head firmly inserted into my arse…
We left Laos nearly a week ago after finishing the country off by spending three days on Don Det: an island in the Mekong which is crawling with flashpackers, mosquitoes and more boat trips than you can shake a stick at. I couldn’t help but feel that the main settlement was overcrowded and fairly hideous but you only had to walk five minutes down a dirt path to find tranquil bliss and nature at her most beautiful. Laos is a surreal place to travel, it’s somewhere where bus journeys still feel like an adventure, at least that’s what I kept telling myself while we bounced around like popcorn for eight hours as we drove over roads that have more holes than the governments last budget. However bemusement quickly turns to mild concern when the bus breaks down in the middle of a shallow river, the waters start lapping at the doors and a truck has to tow you out…
Laos is a stunning country, personally I felt that the tourism industry there has quite a lot to learn about how to entice western dollars but nonetheless the place is Eden; I kept expecting a smiling snake to pop up and offer me an apple. After a bus journey that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Dante poem we arrived back in Bangkok, it seems to get bad press from a lot of travellers but I love this place. It’s brash, loud, colourful and out to strip you of every last baht it can; but no one’s perfect…
I’m kind of struggling to find a way to sum everything up, there have been far too many stories to write on here and I lack the articulation to tell you about all the weird and wonderful things we’ve seen and done here. It’s a place that defies description, after six months I can honestly say that I am no nearer to understanding it although I have developed a deep love and respect for it. If the rest of our trip is anything like the last six months have been then we’re in for an awesome time. So it’s goodbye tuk tuks, Pad Thai, rice, Lizardbeth the gecko and joss sticks and hello to whatever the lands down under have to throw at us.
16th April 2012
When I look back at my blogs from this trip I notice how many times I’ve used the adjectives ‘amazing’ and ‘beautiful’; I’m going to have to extend my vocabulary to describe New Zealand…
We arrived in Auckland after a sleepless flight from Bangkok where we adopted a crippled Kiwi to pass the time. (Get well soon Penny!) Our first stop was to pick up Lovebug the campervan, so called due to the five foot insect graffiti painted on the side. I’m in love, given my choice I would potentially live in one forever. However this would also involve me developing a dodgy Irish accent, clearing drains and referring to dogs as dags so maybe not… Although we have missed the summer the weather here isn’t too cold just yet so I’m yet to freeze my jacobs off and cooking on a camping stove in the back hasn’t lost its novelty yet.
As New Zealand is incredibly expensive, and we are incredibly skint, we’re spending a lot of time on the road. We’ve driven from the top of the North Island to halfway down the South in a week. The scenery truly defies description, to say it is anything is to sell it short. I seem to spend half of my time here saying the words ‘Fucking hell, look at that!’ or walking around spell bound with a big dopey grin on my face. Obviously it’s not like me to have a dopey look on my face…
Somehow the sky here seems bigger than anywhere else; it seems to roll for a million miles and serves as the canvas that the dramatic mountains are painted on in a myriad of ostentatious shades of green. The sculpted hills plunge into shadowy gorges and wide valley floors where impossibly clear rivers and streams trickle and surge; the water is so clear it seems blue. We’ve stopped tonight at a place called Lake Tekapo; it looks like another world. I almost refuse to believe that anywhere so clean, pristine and untouched could possibly exist on earth. The Kiwi’s seem to have a respect for the planet that the rest of us could learn a bit from, we’ve improved in the UK on issues like litter and recycling but here it’s taken to a new level but I suppose to foul somewhere so beautiful is anathema.
My one criticism is that for all their environmental virtues the Kiwi’s are absolute a*seholes on the road. They treat driving like it’s an adrenaline rush, I swear it’s not seen as sporting to use the overtaking lanes, why would you when there are blind corners with oncoming trucks?
Tomorrow we move on to Dunedin to play with Penguins and Seals before moving on to Milford Sound to walk, kayak and smile a fuck of a lot.
30th April 2012
I can’t believe that another country is nearly crossed off the list, the trip is disappearing faster than an English summer, judging from some of the status updates on here!
As excited as I am about going to Oz and seeing Mr Kev, J9, Denis and the legend that is Ketamine Phil, it’s going to be a shame to leave NZ. Such a beautiful country deserves more than one trip and I will definitely be back, preferably when I’ve got a little more money in the bank. I think that you can tell how civil a country is from various small touches, one of those being public toilets. As my personal poo clock is unfortunately stuck on a time whereby we have always left a camp site, I’m getting to know these quite well…
We are in Roturura on this sunny, if bloody cold, morning. Yesterday we paid a small fortune to go to one of the local thermal parks where we walked around a blasted landscape that has been shaped by the internal workings of the planet. You get a sense of the world being a living entity on which we exist; mud pools bubble mysteriously like witches cauldrons, steam billows from unseen vents and geysers spray water high into the heavy air. Around these entrances to a hellish underworld gathers mud and minerals that are green, red and a hundred shades between. The whole town is pervaded by a cloying smell of sulphur, I half expect to see Dante and Virgil wandering along having a chat. NZ’s tectonic positioning brings more to the table than pretty features; we stopped in Christchurch on our through. The city centre is pretty much still a building site, we were both bowled over by the destruction there. Repeatedly we have met people who lost houses or loved ones in the earthquake and each time they tell the same story of insurance companies dragging their feet and leaving them homeless and skint. Sounds about right…
The natural beauty of this country is amazing, even seen from the road. Some of the most beautiful places we’ve seen were places we where we just pulled over to look. We visited the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers, nearly getting caught out by the oncoming night and stranding ourselves at Fox, my bad again… Both are set in similar, eerie valleys that are devoid of colour and life yet stunningly beautiful in their neutrality.
Before we left the south island we spent a day walking the Abel Tasman track. The section we did took about seven hours and should have been absolute bliss except that I dropped our only bottle of water. Nice one Chris… This resulted in a seven hour stomp, with matching headaches, in the heat, trying to make two apples last us all day. It was stunning but hard bloody work!
So that’s NZ, done although we’ve barely scratched the surface! We fly to Perth tomorrow for a week before moving on to Melbourne then back to Asia. I fear my liver may suffer somewhat in the coming fortnight…
23rd May 2012
The oppressive jungle heat holds me in a rough embrace. Tributaries of sweat pour from every pore of my body and flow freely in rivulets down my chest, arms and legs. I am completely alone, save for the mosquito’s who whine in my ear and bite wherever they land and something unseen in the thick bush that emits a high pitched, intermittent rattle. This is great! I feel like Indiana Jones!
Soon I’m joined by several Americans, one of whom I mentally christen “Fuck Yeah Chad” after the initial, exhausting seconds of conversation. My childhood fantasies of trailblazing discovery evaporate; however as I have been fruitlessly looking for a promised, paradise lagoon for ages now, I’m glad of the company. The trail steepens and frayed, knotted ropes, whose fragile appearance raises an eyebrow, tell us we’ve found the right path. The steep trail turns into a series of vertical, jagged limestone descents that are covered in slippery mud. With no safety gear, most of the group are defeated; doggedly, Fuck Yeah Chad and I push painfully on.
Eventually, with my heart in my mouth, I climb down the last six metres, encouraged by a whooping Chad. It would be classed as dodgy with ropes and a harness; without them feels like suicide. I reach the bottom and realise that there was a far safer way down. Oh well, never mind that now, there it is – exquisite paradise. The small, tidal lagoon is at the bottom of a wide, rocky, cylinder upon whose precipitous sides cling a million light, dark, big, small, green, brown, red, plants, flowers, weeds, trees. The midday sun is high overhead but off to the side throwing a glorious ying to the shadowy yang. It’s too much; my awestruck, gormless face breaks into an equally awestruck, gormless grin and I join Fuck Yeah Chad in the whooping. I barely remember to take off my rucksack before I dive in and wash the battle mud and sweat from my body.
Hat Rai Leh in Thailand is by far my favourite beach on the trip so far. This small peninsula of land that is only accessible by sea is beautiful, relaxed and quiet; a million miles away from the hideous carnage that clings to the once pristine, voluptuous curves of Koh Phi Phi, only an hour away by boat. The limestone cliffs make for challenging rock climbing, the calm sea begs to be swum in and to top it off we’ve treated ourselves to some decent accommodation for once…well, you can’t slum it all the time!
After leaving New Zealand we spent a fantastic fortnight in Australia that went far too quickly. A massive thanks to Phil, Kev and J9 for the first week in Perth where we saw penguins, watched V8 racing, Chelsea win the FA cup and drank far too much. A big sorry to Daniel whom I randomly bumped into but didn’t see again. It’s amazing who you can find on the other side of the planet! The second week we spent in Melbourne being looked after by Denis and Clare where we visited a prison, saw more cute penguins and got slightly obsessed with a Duck Billed Platypus whom I christened Donald. A huge thank you guys! After a far too brief tour of Oz we jetted off back to Asia again, landing in Kuala Lumpur which I can confirm is an incredible city. Alicia’s expression of pure delight and wonder at seeing the KL skyline at night from 335m above the ground, on the viewing deck of the KL Menara tower, has to be one of my favourite moments of the trip.
As much as it breaks my heart we are now entering the last parts of our journey. We travel to Bangkok tomorrow from where we fly to Myanmar, a country that is emerging from fifty years of oppression under a series of despotic military Junta’s. I’ll let you know how that goes!
4th June 2012
The cool, shady air of the gilded Stupa hits me like the welcoming hug of an old friend – the climb uphill in 40 degree, pre-monsoon fury has soaked me to the skin. Inside a kneeling woman softly chants a beautiful incantation, children sleep on straw mats and the soothing scent of the incense she holds in her praying hands is like a cold drink for the soul. I turn and look out, from this high vantage point Inle lake is spread out below me like a shimmering topaz. The brutal sun is reflected in a calmer, more forgiving light. Longtail boats buzz up and down, like angry wasps, carrying flowers, vegetables, rice, wood and eager tourists whose identical grins of wonder reflect the one I’ve been wearing since we arrived in Yangon. There are a few traveller ailments: diarrhoea, mozzie bites, blisters. Facial cramps, from smiling like a Cheshire cat on acid, is by far my favourite.
I have hardly been able to wipe the grin from my face for days. Yangon fascinated me, it was everything that an Asian city should be: vibrant, loud, colourful and more hectic than an excitable Furby. The monsoon rains, that have hit the south but not the north where we are, just added to it. I’ve never seen rain of such ferocity, when it pours the air is alive with an infinity of iridescent pinpricks and the streets gush and bubble with filthy grey water. Afterwards the sun roars from behind its hiding place in the clouds and the air becomes thick and palpable.
The first thing you notice on landing in Yangon is the people. You can’t miss them, for a start they are everywhere but for seconds their huge grins come before them. Before we even left the airport people were greeting us saying “Min garla bah.’ and smiling impossibly huge smiles. Trust me, it’s infectious. The Burmese are so welcoming that we felt truly settled in by the time we left to travel north to Inle.
Now, as beautiful as Myanmar is, and as lovely as the people are, this is no easy place to travel. There’s money for a start. There are no ATM’s in the country that westerners can use so you have to bring all your cash in US dollars. Woe betide you if you don’t bring enough. Then when you get here you have to get at least half of it changed into kyat which has a shifting exchange rate based on how gullible you look, how clean your notes are, what denominations they are and how friendly your particular dodgy backstreet changer is feeling. Then there’s the notes themselves, most of the time you get 1000 kyat notes, 5000 if you’re lucky. 1000 equals a dollar. We changed up nearly a thousand. Go figure. Hardly surprisingly the bastard managed to con us out of 80 dollars. I said they were lovely, not perfect. Before you say ‘Why didn’t you use a reputable money changer Chris?’ They are as rare as rocking horse shit. After the money changing there’s travel itself. To get north we had a hellish 13 hour, over night bus journey, packed in like sardines with ear splitting Buddhist chanting as a sound track, that stopped at midnight and restarted at 3am. Once you are turfed off the bus in a place you’ve never heard of, where no-one speaks English, at 5 in the morning you then have to find your way to the town you can’t pronounce and you’re not even sure is near. But then you get to Inle…
I’ve actually found it, after all these years. Paradise. If I happen to die here that’s fine, chuck me on a bonfire and sprinkle my ashes over the lake; I’ve never been anywhere so calm, so luxuriantly beautiful and clean. The rice paddies are lush and green, the mountains frame the shallow lake where tufts of weed poke out and the sky rolls forever. Today we cycled for hours and were repeatedly dragged into homes and tea shops for endless cups of green tea and conversation. Everyone smiles here, I’m yet to see anyone that doesn’t (except for some miserable yank bastard at the hotel but then if I was a yank I’d probably be miserable too…)
The Burmese people are some of the friendliest I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with; some are extremely willing to talk politics, some aren’t, given their circumstances it’s understandable. At present they are on the cusp of change but it’s a tenuous process. Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party swept the recent by-elections, as you may have heard, winning 44 of 45 seats, reflecting popular opinion. The current president Thein Sein seems set on a programme of democratisation but he still has to appease the old generals who can change their mind on a whim. To give an example, a few years ago they moved the capital for old established Yangon to Nyi Pyi Taw on the advice of an astrologer. The general election is set for 2015, the NLD will win but there’s no guarantee that the generals will relinquish their grasp on a people who crave change and development. It has the potential for great things or disaster. I pray to the gods that these amazing people are finally given the life that they deserve.
We have two more days here then we are off to Mandalay and then Bagan, but for now I’m off to sleep better than a baby who is full of warm milk and Rohypnol.