Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Seven-odd Days Nearer Tibet

Less than a week left... Jeeeeez. I do not know quite how to feel. One side of me is excited to see what has and has not changed. The other is screaming out that the world is far too big a place for me to return just yet. However, needs must and I suppose this complaint is symptomatic of the notorious...


So where did I leave this? Aha.

Having spent a few chilled out days on Railay for which I took part in the most treachorous trek I have been on yet, I spent around 16 hours travelling via longboat-minibus-'VIP' Bus from Krabi to good ole' BKK. The journey was not particularly pleasant, and the driver did his utmost to make sure that us passengers did NOT feel like VIPs. He clearly thought, however, that blasting 90's techno at 5 in the morning would provide the carriage with some nice ambience. He was wrong.

Bleary eyed, me and my fellow travellers arrived somewhere around Khao San Road and underwent an expedition to find some accomodation. This proved to be a pain in the arse because even at 6:30 AM, pretty much every guest house was full. I understood it was high season, but this seemed particularly strange. Then a thought occurred to me; Wasn't it the King's birthday?

Organisation not being my forte, I had somehow chosen to arrive in the Thai capital during what is one of the country's most important national holidays. It was going to be manic. Fun, but manic. Luckily, I came across some accomodation which was coincidentally the same place I stayed at when I first arrived and having charmed my way into getting a discount ( ;) ), I caught some much needed shut-eye.

I have said it before, but I like Bangkok. I can understand how it intimidates those that have just arrived in Asia, and it is pretty damn polluted. But there is SO much to do. Furthermore, living in BKK is easy. You know what to expect from Rambutri, you can catch a taxi, bus or skytrain anywhere, there is culture or partying to be had if you want it, and its also much cheaper than the South. Unsurprisingly, because it makes such a good travel hub, it was here that I randomly bumped into friends I thought I had said farewell to (you know who you are). For this reason, we ended up celebrating the birthday of Rama IX in a very messy fashion.

It began pretty civil; We took a quick walk to the river only to find that the crowd was 200 people deep. As such, it was decided that we should have a nice Thai meal. From here we had the pleasure of watching the loudest fireworks I have ever seen/heard for which the sky was then filled with thousands of floating lanterns - quite the spectacle. Then we headed to Khao San Road.


I am so glad I had the sensible idea of running back to the hotel to return my camera because waking up in a drunken stupor wondering if you had lost it this time is particularly stressful.

Much in the same fashion as my last outing there, I do not remember anything past 12 AM. I did however have the educational lesson that Chang, Thailand's most prominent beer brand, is really strong for a reason. I knew it was potent anyway for it advertises a 6.4% on the bottle. However, it turns out that due to the lack of a purification (or whatever) process, your individual beer could be anywhere between 6.4 and 10 percent. Wonderful. Having been kicked out of 'The Club' within 45 seconds; (Not for being drunk and disorderly I might add. I just decided to bring my own Chang in with me, and when I argued that I had in fact purchased such a beverage at the establishment's bar, the bouncer then informed that they do not serve Chang); I ended up back at the same venue as last time and once again had another 'Bangkok Blackout'. Good laugh though.

The next day, my Canadian travel partner/Bangkok expert showed me around the Siam Paragon which is probably the nicest shopping mall you will ever go to. One level is dedicated to Lamborghinis, Aston Martins and other elite-class cars that I had never heard of. Then at the bottom there is an aquarium that has a bloody whale shark in it. If you wanted to shell out for the scuba experience they offer, you can tick off pretty much all the big marine sights in one go. The Paragon also has the nicest cinema, ahem, movie theatre, that I have ever been to. I ended up watching that Unstoppable, with Denzel Washington, and it is surprisingly good. Who would have thought trains could be so intense? On retrospect, I realise I was actually quite stressed out at one point, but this is understandable based on a certain viewer's hilarious reaction to a scene which I will leave for personal re-enactment. I am still chuckling now. Long story short, definitely go see it. I give it four stars.

After attending a Thai leaving-party for which an off-duty ladyboy, masseuse and party guest decided to demonstrate his(?) knowledge of spinal-pressure points on me for two hours whilst I ate,  I eventually remembered why I was in Bangkok in the first place and it was time to head North towards the 'culture capital' of Chiang Mai. I would not necessarily agree with such a description, but either way, everyone was raving about the place so I figured it would be sensible to make that my next destination. Furthermore, the desire to leave was fuelled by the fear that I would have a similar experience to what I had in Hanoi (I succumbed to what travellers have coined, the 'Hanoi Rut'). In spite of my previous experience with the 'VIP Sleeper Bus', the low cost had tempted me once again and as expected, I had worse of a time on this one than I did before. Valium would not have helped here, (I sound like an addict now. I'm not). Eventually I managed to catch some sleep, but I woke up in the lap of a very disgruntled Israeli lad. Sleep deprivation, and humiliation. Lovely.

As luck would have it, I survived the journey and was offered some free coffee by very friendly Thai people as compensation. Immediately I noticed a difference between Chiang Mai and Bangkok. The main reason being that whilst they were keen to find out where I was staying and present the prices of their accomodation, they understood that as a customer in a market economy, I actually had the right of choice. In addition, the Bangkok haze has definitely not extended its perimeter north which allows the traveller to enjoy the aesthetic charm of the 'Old City'. Pretty much all the guest houses, spectacular temples, and sights can be found within the boundary of a very large, square moat. The outer-region is where you will find the shopping malls, by-passes and Go-Go bars.

Furthermore, people who visit Chiang Mai like to trek. You cannot walk 200 metres without finding travel agents or guest houses offering SHOCK PRICES for 2D-1N/3D-2N offerings. Personally, I think trekking's alright. Actually, I won't get started here for my rant began and ended in Halong Bay - rhetoric which I think left an impression on a fair few ears. However, if I was to pay big money again,  I would have to be guaranteed that my experience was an authentic one. For example; many people are lured to the North with the illusion that they will re-discover the mysterious 'Long Neck Tribes'. However, when I heard that such people have began to deliberately dress as such for the satisfaction of tourists, I became quite cynical.

Anyway; I spent a couple of nights in the city for which I was invited by a random ex-pat to go for a few drinks at the local Thai student-bar disctrict and nightclub. This was certainly an experience, and being one of but a few farang certainly turned a few heads. Another highlight was when one of my friends stated that there was an elephant in the vicinity. I just frowned, thinking that she was making a sly comment about someone who was somewhat obese. But when, after their insistence, I turned around, my expression had turned to shock when I discovered that there was actually an elephant, in the main road, outside of the bar I was in. An elephant being offered a drink by a prostitute - only in Thailand.

Tiger cubs are also incredibly cute.

So Chiang Mai. A lot to see and a hell of a lot to do there - the adventure capital/Venture Capital (ha), so to speak. However, I certainly did not love it enough to regail other travellers with my impressions in a certain lusty voice that everyone seems to do when you ask about the place. In fact, I was beginning to wonder what the big deal was about the North. That is until I reached my current destination - Pai.

After around 774 mountain turns, curves and hairpin bends later, I had reached the sleepy town of Pai. Or at least it would have been sleepy if I had not made the cock-up, once again, of not consulting my guide book for, you know, guidance, and not arrived during one of the only times that Thais from throughout the country make the pilgrimage north to celebrate... uh... something.

Having searched for accomodation for around 2 hours (I was sprinting barefoot over pretty much every hill in the area whilst my buddies looked after my bags), and having been charitably offered shelter for free by both a Georgian and a Thai worker (which of course I appreciatively, but stubbornly refused) we very nearly had to set up camp by the river and pay the extortionate fee of 300 Baht for a tent. That was until, under the blessing of a guardian angel, a random Thai guy popped out from what looked like a bush and questioned...

                    Random Man: "Yu wan' room?"
Me: Exhaling deeply. "YES! HOW MUCH!?"
Man: "500 Ba--"
Me: "DONE!"

The accomodation was pretty shit for which security was in the form of a bamboo lock, but it was a roof. And I am travelling, I am not looking for The Ritz. Just not a bloody tent. At least not in mosquito-valley. I am aware that they would not have been able to bite me, but with them and 200 hippies, quite literally, buzzing around me, it would have been more tranquil to have slept next to one of the many electric-generators here.

The next day we awoke early to scope out some cleaner accomodation, for some of the Thai tourists would be leaving, and we were luckily able to scavenge a room at a guesthouse, the name of which I still cannot pronounce. Pa-vee, Ra-yee, Pra-vee, Ra-jee's House or some bollocks like that. Actually, just a tip for those of you who might be considering your first trip; It is a great idea to actually look at the title of your accomodation before you venture out on a night out. Otherwise, getting back is a bit of a problem. It has been over 3 months and I still just see my accomodation as a room-with-no-name.

My days here so far have certainly been some of the more exhilirating ones of my trip, and the beauty of it is that I do not have to pay some agency or get some tour guide to set up my activities for me. Furthermore, Pai is stunning. As far as landscape is concerned, Pai's views easily sit as some of the best of my trip. So much so that one of my new-found Dutch friends was actually crying on the mini-bus as we scaled the beautiful terrain. I am assuming that this was due to the sight of Northern Thailand's mountains and paddy fields, because she was also busting for the toilet at one point.

There are a lot of hippies here though. Its like Sussex University in the mountains.

Today, I awoke half-hungover, half sore from the Muay Thai beating I received two days ago. Muay Thai training, not bar brawl I might add. And the thing is, I did it to myself. My trainer hardly hit me. Instead, he pushed me BEYOND LIMITS (AKA; A pretty good workout at the gym. I have been travelling and drinking with only occasional exercise for 3 months) for which I learnt that I can punch, kick, knee and elbow pretty damn hard. At one point I actually hurt the poor guy because I misunderstood his spar command and instead of a jab, I sent a shin straight at his rib. Whoops. I shall definitely be continuing this sacred sport upon my return home though.

Furthermore, for the first time in at least a decade, I CAUGHT A FISH at an absolutely stunning location. I make this sound more epic than it actually was, because for the next two hours, I spent my time untangling the line, stabbing the hook into my fingers, and casting, only to find my bait flying towards the windows of one of the resident guest's huts. Provider, I am not.

And that, I believe, is my Northern Thailand update. I could continue but I am bloody starving and I need to get on it in preparation for another 'Half Moon Party' un-exclusive to Kho Phangan. As such, I shall love and leave you once again, but check in next Monday for the epilogue of Chapter Uno of my travel exploits. I still cannot believe I am flying out in less than a week. I bet its bloody cold there as well.

Actually, its pretty chilly here too. Its probably 20 degrees.


Kob kun kap for reading. Sawadee kap!

P.S: My family will be pleased to hear that I am accumulating souvenirs. If anyone desperately needs anything, let me know and I will do my best to get it. It is not the hassle of finding such items, but there are only so many straps on my backpack that I can tie shit to. I've already got extra clothes on there.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Bangkok Blackout - Omaha Beach v.II

So last night I thought it would be a good idea to try out Kho Phi Phi's 'Burger Challenge' - 800 grams of beef (tower of three burgers), followed by; a plateful of potato wedges, 20 doughnut sized onion rings and a large bowl of coleslaw. I had 30 minutes and if I completed the challenge, I would get the meal for free as opposed to paying 500 Baht.

I wanted to die.

Having thrown in the towel at the last hurdle (8 more onion rings) and a tactical chunder later, I realised what a f***ing stupid idea it was and will never ever do it again.

As of this point in time of writing, I have exactly three weeks left until I return back to the United Kingdom. There is also a woman behind me talking to a baby on Skype making the most irritating sounds. I cannot quite believe how fast it is going, but this is unsurprising when one does so much on a daily basis. To make matters worse; On those all too frequent days where I don't actually do anything, I have usually been in a zombie-like state from a copious amount of alcohol. As such I declared that my time in Kho Tao would be...


Furthermore, as a lot has happened over the past 3 weeks, I will only discuss the 'highlights' to keep this prose as succinct as possible. See this as the Thailand update.

So I arrived in BKK International Airport at around 11 in the morning on the 8th November. The whole flight went pretty smoothly, but getting up at 5 AM to catch the damn thing was painful. Immigration was an entirely different matter. In one of those typical Sod's Law moments it seems I chose, quite possibly, the slowest person in the world who seemed to enjoy staring at the computer screen without actually doing anything. I knew the Thais were laid back but this was ridiculous. Anyway, I eventually proceeded through, collected my bags and met my mini intro-tour leader, Shell.

For those that don't know; Even though I have been travelling independently for quite some time, I found a pretty cost-effective package called ThaIntro which I thought would alleviate the burden of 'travelling' for a week. Basically a vacation on a vacation. Furthermore, it was a guaranteed way of meeting people and I certainly met some cool  and interesting characters. Some of the stories I have to tell of our adventure, I will definitely be leaving for real-life conversation. Even now I can't quite believe what actually happened.

After a 40 minute taxi ride I arrived at our guest house and chose to go off solo and explore the local area. Immediately, I was beset upon by men repetitively screaming "Tuk-Tuk!?", and within 10 minutes I had one guy trying a ridiculous scam. He basically claimed he worked for Unicef (It was across the road) and wanted to tell me where to go and what to do. This was fine, but having been travelling for over 2 months, and having pretty much seen it all, I saw straight through him. Part of the conversation was like this: -

Man: "My friend, I am just on lunch from my job." (Points at Unicef building)

Me: "Oh yeah? Well what do you do?"

Man: "Oh, haha. You know... Looks around. Things."


Conveniently his tuk-tuk mates were hanging around so I politely told him to stop wasting his time and headed back to meet the rest of the group, the majority of whom were English with a couple of Canadians mixing it up. (Much love to you all).

I have always been intrigued by Bangkok because it really is the decompression chamber of first-time travellers. I'll be honest, I had heard some pretty crappy opinions of the place prior to going, but I actually liked it. I'm not sure if it is because I am now more experienced and as such had no culture-shock to taint it; but having come from the very intense hustle and bustle of Vietnamese cities, Bangkok was just fun. Even the notorious Khao San road, which is basically just a long street filled with 7-Elevens (my God, I love these stores; They take convenience to a new level), bars and Western restaurants. Not a particularly cultural place, but you must see it if you are there.

The first night was a relatively early one (2 AM, ha) for I was shattered and we had to get up 'early' to undergo a river cruise and Wat sight-see. However, the occurrence most worth mentioning was my first, and probably last, Ping Pong show. (For those that do not know what these are, I suggest, and warn beforehand, you Google them). 

To be honest, I really did not know what to expect. Well, I did in that these women were going to be particularly adept with their, uh, 'region'. But some of the acts were just plain bizarre. One of them was basically Jesus and somehow turned water into what looked like Pepsi. I'm aware it was wine in the Bible.

Being Chris Dennett, of course I was not going to just 'watch' the show. No. Instead; of all the couples (why they were there I will never know), perverted men, and shocked onlookers like myself, I was the one that got picked to hold balloons whilst the 'Ponger' defied physics and fired darts at them. It was not a pleasant experience; I resisted being pulled up the whole way; And I specifically held the balloons at the lowest point to ensure my hand would not be the target. And no, contrary to what people may imagine, I did not get a 'look'. 

The show only got weirder when, going to the mens' toilets, I was greeted by a completely naked Thai woman doing her makeup in the mirror. Immediately, I thought I was in the wrong and backed out to leave, but the dancer insisted that I was in the right place. It wasn't the fact that this woman was naked, it was the fact that she was so nonchalant about a man being in proximity of her in that state. A real pro I guess. 

The performance climaxed with the most non-intimate sex show I have never wanted to see and it was at this point that I questioned what me, my friends, and in fact the whole audience were doing there. Suffice to say we left pretty much speechless as we loaded into our taxi for a night out on Khao San road which is where I discovered buckets..

The Bucket: A venomous concoction of alcohol, chosen mixer, and Red Bull that may as well be speed and amphetamines, all contained in a cute sand-bucket. Colours may vary.

I do not remember anything.

According to my sources, I spent the whole night dancing non-stop and when we made our own 'street party', I relished in the joy of jumping on board mopeds that were not my own. If it was not for our local friend who took us out, I would probably be in a bad way. So moral of the story; Buckets are lethal.

The next day, our still-drunken group underwent some sightseeing of the Grand Palace and the Reclining Buddha. Due to the fact that we could not enter the grounds without the legs completely covered up, I deliberately purchased the most garish trousers I could find. Eventually I completely crashed and the rest of the day, not helped by the heat, was pretty painful. Luckily, we were to take a sleeper train to the Khao Sok national park where we slept in floating bungalows. Before I move on, I will quickly mention the train station because it was here that I experienced the National Anthem.

Thai people love their King. A Thai person may not be particularly politically-inclined but scrunch up a Baht note the wrong way and you will probably have a Muay Thai kick to the face. And so it was, at precisely 6 PM, that some music started blaring out of the speakers followed by police whistling for everyone, farang included, to stand. People that know me can rightly imagine that I was grinning throughout. And they do this twice a day, every day. Going shopping? Well you better be standing at 8 AM. Cinema? You best get the hell up before the film starts if its a 6 PM showing. 

The national park itself was beautiful. The best comparison I can draw upon would be to describe it as an inland Halong Bay - steep limestone cliffs that puncture through a glassy, fresh-water floor. It was here that my friends and I made the stupid decision to, after spotting a monkey, trek into the jungle without any insect repellant on whatsoever, and thus we got bitten to shit. Ironically, the member of the group who did not venture in was the one who contracted Dengue Fever. Go figure.

Having spent a pretty well-slept night and had three meals served by the most unconvincing ladyboy I could ever imagine (why would I in the first place), we boarded our boat and eventually underwent a bumpy ride to Surat Thani - the gateway to the South-East Thailand islands. Destination; Koh Phangan. I might as well bring up my life-threatening (not really) encounter with the local wildlife. 

So I'm waiting for my connecting bus and I wanted to wash my sweaty face in the toilet sink. As I entered the surprisingly clean (for SE Asia) tiled room, I noticed a beetle struggling away on its back. Why, after all this time, evolution has not granted them with the ability to recover from this position, I will never know. Not being one to leave a creature in need, I eventually managed to flip it over where it remained for a while, looking more than a bit stunned. On my way back, a thought occurred to me that due to its position, someone would probably step on it and I felt duty-bound to do something to stop it. Sam (love ya' mate) immediately contributed to the situation with...

Sam: "Actually, I remember watching this cool programme on the Discovery Channel about bugs that spray acid in self-defense."
Me: "Bollocks."

Bent down and about to touch the critter, the bastard did just that and with a loud hiss, acid went spraying everywhere. I cannot remember the last time I jumped so hard. Moral of the story - In a tropical country, leave bugs alone. No matter your intentions.

Moving back on with the story, we boarded our ferry (ETA 4 hours) for Kho Phangan. Now I am sure that the vast majority of you have heard about something called 'The Full Moon Party' - an infamous night where quite literally tens of thousands of travellers and holidaymakers make the pilgrimage to down as many buckets as possible and dance until sun rise. I had already made the decision that I was going to stay the week so I could see what all the fuss was about. However, once I arrived, I realised that every bloody night on Haad Rin beach was some kind of moon-esque party. This meant only two things; A financial drain; And days that would be spent in the nearest backpacker cafe waiting for the hangovers to lessen in severity.

Kho Phangan was actually surprisingly beautiful despite its reputation. For example; Myself and the rest of the gang managed to trek up a very powerful waterfall. Unsurprisingly, not everyone left unscathed. And, if, miraculously, you actually made it to the main beach in the day time, you will see that it actually looks quite nice. To quote the Arctic Monkeys; 'They say it changes when the sun goes down.' Furthermore, I felt like I lived there for I must have bumped into at least 50 percent of the friends and acquaintances I had met when travelling.

Eventually, after a Half Moon party in a UV-laser filled jungle and a few intense nights, the night of the 21st finally came around. Preparation for the evening involved slapping on as much UV paint as possible and then 'getting on it'.

Parental Advisory
The most accurate way to envisage the Full Moon Party would be to compare it to Saving Private Ryan. Thousands of people arrive by the boat load and storm the beach with the intention of getting as pissed as possible. Then when night eventually turns to day, thousands of people are left splayed about on the beach completely inebriated. 

One story I heard from a friend was that at about 9 AM, he decided that he would try to swim to the neighbouring island, Ko Samui. Now please bear in mind that it takes half an hour to get there by FERRY. Turns out that his mate had to get the Thai NAVY who then found him 2 kilometres out at sea, simply bobbing around. 1000 Baht fine later, he got a slap on the wrist and found his transport back home. Gareth you are an absolute legend and completely lucked out. Could you imagine doing that back in the UK!?

As for myself, I got back at about 8 AM, had two hours sleep and immediately headed over to Kho Tao where I pretty much did nothing but recover on a beach for three days. I had already said goodbye to some friends who had to head back home and it was time for a detox.  

Kho Tao itself is a diver's paradise and is possibly the cheapest place in the world to get qualified. If I recall correctly, you could become PADI certified for around 180 pounds. I was in no state, financially and health-wise to do so, but I would definitely like to return.

Due to the relatively timid time I had on this island due to feeling worse for wear from lack of sleep and Thai Red Bull, there isn't all that much to write home about except for bringing up my mini golf experience. Or more like, impossible mini golf experience. I mean, look at this: - (I'll put pictures up in a couple of days as the internet is SLOOOOW)

The establishment's owner warned us that the game would probably take about 2 hours and he was not bloody kidding. Some of the holes were so ridiculous that in the end, ANY sane person would simply smack the ball as hard possible - contrary to the course's clear guideline that it was not a driving range. 

Having bumped into the Canadians whom I left in Hoi An on Haad Rin beach, not only did I find myself bunking with them at a dive resort in Kho Tao, but we also decided to venture over to Kho Phi Phi together. In order to do so, we had to board a 9 hour sleeper boat over to Surat Thani. 

Now, I cannot speak for the 70 other people who laid on mattresses half a Western-body's size besides, in front of and practically on top of me, but I feel that the description of 'sleeper boat' was there for comic effect. Even Valium, which can be legally bought over the counter in SE Asia, could not help me here and I had to make do with the occasional 45 minute nap, due to the f***ing fan which seemed to have no 'OFF' button. I also do not recommend that you try to sleep with an iPod set on Shuffle and full volume, for waking up to drum and bass is not pleasant.

When we finally made it to town, around 12 of us were shoved into a vehicle that really was faithful to the term 'mini bus' whilst our driver decided to secure all of our baggage by leisurely throwing each item on the roof. However, all was not lost for whilst we waited for our connecting coach to Krabi, our hosts decided to put on a movie which I thought would at least be somewhat relaxing. Oh wait. Apparently at 5 AM, Jackass: The Movie is an appropriate choice. I love it, but at that time in the morning it was a bit bizarre. 

You may infer correctly that we eventually made it to Kho Phi Phi and here I have been blessed with some of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. Yesterday, myself, some Barcelona-Ultra Spaniards, some Aussies, a Brazilian and coincidentally, but unsurprisingly, other lads I had previously got hammered with in Halong Bay, all set sail on board a long boat around the surrounding islands including the famous Maya Beach - AKA, THE Beach.

On this trip, I was also blessed with the opportunity to snorkel with sharks. This would have been lovely if they were not my one and only phobia, and if my dive buddy did not have traveller's diarrhea, thus having to abandon me as he swam faster than anyone I have ever seen, towards land. It was once some random South African helpfully informed me that a group of Black Tips (they are pretty harmless but still look like 'proper' sharks) were swimming towards me that I decided to follow in suit of my partner, but this time towards my boat.  In all honesty, it was pretty cool, and I have never been able to see them AND moray eels together before.

As for THE Beach, I was glad I saw it for it is beautiful, but it really does not look like anything compared to the film. Because the cove, alongside Phi Phi, was flattened by the tsunami, and the fact that the filmmakers shipped tonnes of sand and bulldozed everything to get it just right, it was pretty hard to recognize. Furthermore, the fact that there were about a thousand tourists there made me appreciate the intention of the characters in the story to keep it a secret. However, this did not stop me acting like every other camera-toting Japanese person, and I happily took a million photos. I even decided to reenact scenes from the film, which in retrospect, is kind of gay. 

Such a description actually encapsulates my impression of the South 'Thailands' - utterly beautiful, utterly worth seeing, but utterly touristic. It is quite inspiring to see just how fast-developing the West islands are since 2004's disaster, but, as fun as the constant partying has been, I am yearning to experience some real culture of the 'country'. To quote The Beach;

"The only downer is, everyone's got the same idea. We all travel thousands of miles just to watch TV and check in to somewhere with all the comforts of home, and you gotta ask yourself, what is the point of that?"

As such, it is my intention to make one more stop to the paradise-like beaches of Railay, and then make the journey to Northern Chiang Mai. Here I will be kick boxing, assuming my rib's healed from where I fell off a table whilst dancing in a foam party, elephant trekking, stroking tigers and eating ALOT. Just like back home. ;)

In conclusion then, I have been having one hell of a time in Thailand. Parties, sun and adventure. Now all I need is to escape the hordes of holiday-makers and potentially get killed by a Muay Thai master. Until then, I will aim to have another post up in about a week's time for a I would like to have at least six published by the time I return. Not too long now, I guess.

Kob kun kap.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Hunting in Halong Bay - Halloween in Hanoi


I have been thinking for a long time about how best to introduce this third publication in my travel blog. But no other words fit the bill. The past two weeks have left me; more intoxicated than I have ever been; trembling from physical exhaustion; and with a constant yearning for just one more hour's sleep - but they have been, quite possibly, the most epic two weeks of my life.

Where to begin?

So I last left you with the words that I was off to Halong Bay (for the first time) with the group I journeyed North with. This would have been fantastic, for the scenery is truly stunning, had I not been running around the boat for 3 hours, anxiously wondering where the hell my camera was. Turns out it was on the bus, specifically where I was sitting.

Anyway, having spent the night on the coast, where my curiosity as to how much an actual massage cost left me being chased by prostitutes on mopeds, I woke up relatively refreshed for travels onwards to Hanoi. Here, I spent a couple of days doing the typical tourist thing of sightseeing and drinking cheap Bia Hois for the pricey sum of 12p.

Two sights are worth mentioning; The first was when I went to visit good ole' Uncle Ho's (Ho Chi Minh) Mausoleum. The building truly is impressive, and whilst Ho Chi Minh was not actually there due to him being embalmed alongside Mao, Stalin and Lenin in Russia, it was easy to see how much this nation revered their great revolutionary. The ironic thing is, it turns out, that Ho Chi Minh did not actually want to be canonised in such a way. True to the communist ideal, it actually went against basic Marxist principle for one 'leader' to elevate himself beyond the proletariat in such a way. But hey, I have already written a similar essay on this at uni so if you truly are interested, which I highly doubt, I'll hook you up. ^_~

Much to my amusement, there are also these white lines that create a deliberate box around the building. I took no notice of these and immediately after stepping across, I had some seriously pissed off looking guards whistling and waving at me, and I do not mean in the way a builder would holler at a passing female. In all honesty, I thought I was going to be shot, let alone go to prison.

The second sight was less eventful but was equally bizarre; the Water Puppet Theatre. This art form, it seems, has some degree of cultural heritage in Vietnam, and whilst I enjoyed it, I could not help smirking because all I thought of was that scene in Team America where Kim Jong Il hosts a big party. I mean that with all due respect, Vietnam.

After a particularly messy evening which left me stumbling through the congested roads of Hanoi completely inebriated the next morning, I had to say some very slurred goodbyes to my travel companions. It was time to move on to my new accomodation - the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel in Ma May. The adventure began here.

I previously mentioned that a very good friend of mine, Russ, was going to meet me in Vietnam. You would think that after a few months apart and a rendezvous in a strange land would cause a great scene. I was also anticipating this. Instead, I woke up in an alcohol-induced delerium in my dorm room to find that very guy just stood there. It was one of my more surreal experiences to say the least. Not because I was finally meeting up with my was-to-be travel companion, but just because it was so... normal. No dramatic greetings or flailing arms, just an "alright mate" and a brief, but well meant man-hug.

We caught up in front of an Irish guy who realised he just was not going to get to sleep at that point in time, and instead he joined in the banter. He was one of the many people who indulged us in some hilarious story about his friend who managed to literally fall down the 'Mushroom Mountain' at Ko Phangan, twice. I was crying.

It took no time whatsoever for the pair of us to decide to set sail on the hostel's renowned Halong Bay tour. We had already become a big hit with the hostel staff (more on you guys later), and if the social life there was anything to go by, we knew we were in for something special. Please note that photos from around this time are missing as I am using a new memory card. I will grab some I've been tagged in over the next couple of days.

Fast-forwarding a four hour bus ride to the Halong Bay dock, I instantly knew who our tour-mates were for our uniform consisted of none other than brightly coloured sombreros. We must have looked completely ridiculous to every other tourist there, but little did they know that they were missing out.

Our first night was to be spent sleeping onboard a particularly large junk that somehow fit all 40 of us and in all honesty, the day is a blur. One minute we were jumping off the top for which those that made a particularly bad collision with the water would earn free beer (it is surprising just how tempting such an offer is). The next, we were kayaking to some beach which was apparently 'nearby'. It would have been quicker for Russ and I to have rowed to Japan due to the zig-zagging we did. I blame you Russ.

After some competitive beach football (I scored a hat-trick) and lazing on the beach, I was beginning to get to know my ship mates and after another particularly arduous kayak (my god it can be a pain in the arse), we indulged in a much needed seafood dinner. Unfortunately, it is from here that my memory becomes, for a select few of us decided to sneak away to a bedroom and drink prohibited self-bought alcohol. One of the group (Rob, the Moustached Wonder) definitely had the equivalent of moonshine for it tasted strangely of Oreos and was definitely not legit. Suffice to say, by the time we were playing Ring of Fire, I had absolutely no clue what was going on and apparently spent the rest of the night in a girl's vest top pissing in bins directly outside toilets and occasionally throwing up. All signs of a damn good night.

Having been awoken by a particularly annoying Vietnamese guy, our group were transferred over to Castaway Island for which we all pretty much spent the day recovering on the beach followed by a particularly intense Banana Boat ride. I am not sure if it is because we were the last ones to have a go, or that our squad were all lads, but Tom the Skipper certainly wanted to hurt us. Trust me; Being told as the front man to stand up and run down to the back whilst shooting across at full speed is particularly nerve wracking. It also did not help that we had spent the past hour talking about shark movies and at one point I was left stranded solo, kicking below the surface particularly hard that time.

Something happened that day that I will prefer to keep as a story to tell in person, but in short, a good lot of us bonded together to form THE HUNTERS - an incredibly cool group of people who I will most definitely be making an effort to stay in touch with. I will however mention that the evening was reminiscent of The Great Escape.

I do not know why but after another intense bout of drinking games, I got an idea into my head that I simply had to steal a boat. In retrospect this was utterly stupid, but it just felt right at the time. In the rowing boat, I got caught twice, but at this point I realised that the Vietnamese guards could not be everywhere and so I legged it down the beach to grab a kayak. Before I knew it, some guy with a torch was heading straight down the beach towards me and I ended up cowering in one of the many beach huts, only to return to Russ who had been watching the whole drama. And this was not even the grand finale.

At about 4 AM, I decided that I really needed a bottle of water. The bar had closed but I thought that if I left a note under the bar-top glass, technically it is not stealing. As soon as I stepped into the darkness I could sense a presence in the air. But I was thirsty. Having carefully stepped over the bar, I quietly opened the fridge only to immediately hear and see the most angry Vietnamese man I have ever met coming after me with some kind of bat. I darted off, half grinning, half scared for my life, and hid under my mosquito net as I watched his legs and torchlight scour the area. I will never try and take an Asian man's goods again, stealing or not. It was bloody hilarious though.

Far too soon however, the tour had to come to an end, and our very hungover group set sail and boarded a bus back to Hanoi. But the chaos was not to end there.

Immediately upon arrival, 15 of us decided to sign up for the ominous 'Snake Village Tour'. The title gives the impression of some kind of tranquil safari. In reality the night involves; a course of around seven snake dishes (including their penis); killing your own snake, ripping out its beating heart and downing it with a shot of rice wine and bile; and as many rice wine shots as you can manage. To be honest, I thought I handled it all pretty well despite nearly slicing the snake in half and being told that after being asked to boogie in the after-club I responded by staring at some motorbikes for five minutes. However, the next day I spent the morning in a very drunken blur confessing my guilt about snake killing to Dominique, one of the lovely hostel staff whilst I devoured about eight breakfast baguettes.

Sadly, I had to say my first goodbyes to some of my new-found comrades (Russ included) and the next three days were spent literally laying out on a bean bag with hope of some form of recovery. Progress was slowed by constant temptations of "just a few" with the hostel staff, dorm mates and tour crew. But at least I had some kind of rest before Halloween. Jeeeeeeeez.

The night itself cannot justly be described in words but can best be summarised as follows: -

  • My group won a pretty damn good prize for the best costumes - another Halong Bay Tour. We went as none other than the Channel 4 news team from Anchorman but because three of us had already been, we thought it only fair to offer the prize to the Brick and Veronica Corningstone of the group.
  • I spent the grand total of 60,000 Dong (two pounds) for I got free beer all night. 

I kid you not. Everyone was in such high spirits and the atmosphere was enhanced by the effort that the hostel put into its party. Let alone the fact that we were spending Halloween in VIETNAM of all places! The locals simply did not know what hit them, and I woke up in the early hours of the morning as temporary public enemy numero uno with the staff, which I would prefer to explain in person. Ha. Sorry Dan. 

Beaming after such a successful evening and a hilarious post-night, hungover discussion with my dorm mates, I concluded that it was time to leave Hanoi before the city sapped me dry, finance and health-wise. Thus, some very cool Canadian forest fire fighters, the 'Hunters' and myself headed down South on some horrible contraption called a 'sleeper bus' - destination, Hoi An.

In reality, the bus was not too bad because I discovered a little thing called Valium. Furthermore, I was hypnotized by the most sparkly show I have ever seen - a bizarre Vietnam pop-concert. The one back to Hanoi where I am currently waiting for my flight to BKK however, was an entirely different story. 

Some of you will be wondering why I  returned to Hoi An when I had already been there. In all honesty, I was simply glad to get out of a city, and this town is particularly charming. However, I did not get the R&R I needed at all because, of course, there are bars in Hoi An. One night in particular involved me being chased by two Vietnamese security guards, completely naked, after half the club decided that jumping in the sub-zero pool was a good idea. 

My mum will hate this, but I did however, get to ride a motorbike for the first time in my life which was fairly chilled out, if not for the initial flat tire that left me skidding all over the place. My Canadian escort Ben, Sonja (whom, it turns out, lives very close to where I live) and I ventured to a certain natural wonder called Marble Mountain. It was here that I saw some particularly inspiring views, despite the torrential rain which only seemed to add to the experience. 

Eventually though, the remaining Hunters (or Channel 4 News team, whichever you fancy) had to disassemble, and I was, admittedly quite sad about this eventuality. But such is the way of travelling, and I have a feeling we shall reunite in the not so distant future. As for the Canadians, this was not as such a parting, for we will be meeting on November 21st. The Full Moon Party...

God help me and ensure that I do not wake up in Cambodia or something. 

And so it is here, back in Hanoi with my darling hostel staff-friends, that I find myself anticipating my next adventure in Thailand. ETA 11:30 am, November 8th, 2010.

There is so much left unsaid that to even attempt to put my travels into prose would create an anthology, and let's be honest, this is long enough already. Besides; Some things have significantly more impact when spoken about in person. And of course, some memories I will be keeping to myself. ^_~ 

However I will provide a photograph that shall aid you in your inference...

As for my final impression on Vietnam?

Vietnam is a country that is drastically different depending on where you go. For many, this offers insurmountable opportunity for diverse experiences. For others, this means that there is no particular 'season' that one should travel there. My only regret is that I did not find the time to head towards the Mekong to get a a bit more of an authentic feel. However, instead I chose to take in the nightlife of what truly is an Asian 'Tiger' as economists say, driving towards development and progressive tourism. In many ways then, Vietnam and its people are leaving the past behind them. After all, and correct me if I am wrong, this is the longest that a war has not been fought here. As difficult and wrong as it is to make generalisations, there is validity in the common traveller's sentiment that the people are out to get your money. And why not? Us tourists, travellers, pilgrims, whatever you want to call yourself, earn significantly more than 90% of the population. But at what concessions? 

After all, the Vietnamese, whom to this day adulate their revolutionary leader, are supposed to be leaders on the communist frontier. But such a facade is hard to believe amidst the corporate Highland coffee chains, buzzing night life, and expensive beauty salons. Ultimately to myself, Vietnam, a country I loved, is a nation of contradictions. Where else will you find RC cars racing around skateboard-wielding children, soccer-star teens, and coffee-cup wielding yuppies, all under the watchful gaze of Lenin?

A huge shout-out goes towards my Gap-crew, my shipmates, my fellow Hunters and Huntresses (you know who you are), Gary Payne, McKarley Culkin, the Canadians, the Channel 4 News Team, my dorm mates (Lewis, Gareth, etc), Sonja, the Swedes, in fact, just about everyone I have met so far. And who could forget the lovely Jenny, Dominique, Romy, Dan and all the other hostel staff who had to contend with my drunken state at night, and me in my pants in the day. I have met some incredibly cool people and I wish you all the best with wherever you end up. We'll meet again. 

Dam biet.

As for you readers, see you in Thailand.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Good Morning Vietnaaaaaaaam

So, true to form, my attempt to keep you updated more frequently turned out to be fruitless. For those of you that know me; I am not particularly organised at the best of times, let alone when I've been jumping between alien towns every two or three days. However, I SHALL endeavour to compel you with my prose on a weekly basis. This is assuming I'm not ridiculously hangover.

I first left you half way through my conservation project which was situated in the Perenthian Islands, Malaysia, and as such, I will start here. If at times I sound a bit vague, this is deliberate so that I can bore you with my worldly "When I was in..." statements every two or three statements upon my return - the obligatory persona of a gap year 'traveller'.

The second week continued pretty smoothly with the exception of me injuring myself every other night. For example, if I was on say, 'poacher watch', which was a 3 am - 8 am shift every three nights, one aspect of my duties was to patrol the beach up and down every hour. This would have been a piece of cake if I hadn't forgotten about the f***ing ropes that moored the resort's boats every single time. It got so ridiculous that on one occasion, upon hearing of a nesting turtle, I sprinted towards the action (much in the same way a zombie would on amphetamines) only to trip and fall face first onto some sand, coral or baby turtle. Well... Hopefully not the latter.

In my free time, the volunteers, Malay staff, and I, would jump on the banter wagon in the means of flying off objects into the sea, jungle trekking, kayaking, snorkelling or even scuba diving. Beach football just was not quite the same without certain tourists, and getting my arse handed to me by the Malaysians in volleyball became dull and humiliating so I gave these a miss towards the end.

Alas though, all good things have to come to an end, and around the 4th October, it was time to quite literally set sail from the Perenthians towards new lands - my next destination, Teman Negara. Leaving the project was quite a momentous event in terms of my travels because it signalled the beginning of my first attempts at backpacking solo, and being that Teman Negara is the world's oldest rainforest, I wanted to jump in at the deep end.

After a couple of hours driving on dry land, I met my transfer host whom was to be taking me to the jungle. Being that it was just me in the minibus for the rest of the journey, I realised that the next few hours were either going to be really damn boring, or just weird. My driver seemed to prefer the second option.

Now do not get me wrong, he was a nice enough guy, but when someone seems to trust you enough to start divulging details about his sex life after an hour and a half, you know you have either done something right, or really really wrong. For example, at one point, my conversation went like this:

Driver: Good sleep?
Me: Yeah it was alright.
Driver: I was thinking... As a young man, do you use a condom?
Me: Excuse me?
Driver: Well, I have three children. And I want a fourth. My wife claims she is not ready for a fourth, but I am getting impatient.
Me: Riiiight? Where the hell is this going?
Driver: Sometimes, after some fun I 'shoot' outside if we don't have condoms. But now we must have condoms. I am thinking I might put holes in the next one. THAT'LL SHOCK HER.

At this point he began to laugh hysterically to himself, and suddenly I had never been more excited to slum it for a few nights in a mosquito-infested forest. Anyway, eventually I made it to the town of Tanah Rata and my initial impression was that it looked like how I imagined Vietnam to look like in VC territory. Ironically, as I approached my chalet, one of the staff was attempting that song from The Deer Hunter - the evening was getting more and more surreal.

Finishing dinner on a floating restaurant (which by the way, was pretty cool) I was informed that first on my itinerary was a night safari walk through the outskirts of the forest. It was also here that I met a hilarious Korean named Kim (funny that), who was easily the most enthusiastic person I have ever met.

Kim: What football team do you support?
Me: Chelsea.
Kim: Che-see!? OOOOOH WOOOW!

In fairness, he was a top lad, and we saw some pretty cool stuff together. On the night safari I saw millions of termites that, upon closer inspection, could be differentiated between two sizes. It turns out the bigger ones actually guard the smaller, and it was almost as if they were directly communicating with each other as a platoon would. Furthermore, I was given the pleasure of seeing scorpions in their natural habitat, caterpillars that were covered in spikes, and Hunter Spiders that directly stalk their prey as opposed to trapping them. Basically, the jungle completely changes at night, and one could not help wondering what exactly lurked in the foreboding darkness.

[Warning. The below section contains some foul language]

A special mention should also go to my sleepless night in Aki Chalet. Being in the rainforest, you somewhat expect to be disrupted by the occasional mating call from a tiger, boar, or at least some kind of jungle pigeon. However, much to my surprise, I had the pleasure of listening to none other than roosters.

I had ventured into one of the most world's most prehistoric forests and the most frequent sound at 4 AM was a COCK-A-DOODLE-DOO.

At first I found the experience quite ambient and embraced it as such. This was until I found out that there was another nearby. Then another... And another. Each cry setting off the next until you were left with some infinite loop of f***ing chicken sounds. It got so bad that I actually resorted to throwing a bar of soap into some nearby brush with the hope of knocking the bastards out.

[The author would just like to note that he is completely against animal cruelty and most likely did not hit one of the roosters.]

Eventually it settled down. But no. Just as I was drifting off, the mosque's first call of the day for prayer kicked in. At this point, my desperate cries of frustration did not sound too dissimilar to the sounds coming from the mosque. Only those who live in a farm can appreciate the unwanted symphony I had. This is assuming your bedroom was actually situated in the chicken coop itself... And that the farm was located in the Middle East.

[The author would also like to point out that he has complete and equal respect for all religions and that the calls for prayer from mosques are actually quite beautiful. Just at this point in time it was the icing on the bastard chicken cake.]

The next day I trekked through the jungle, sometimes suspended 40-odd meters high, cruised through some rapids, and even met some Orang Asli people. These guys are basically nomadic, tribal people, and even though the meeting was perhaps spoilt by clear indication of interaction with the government, it was fascinating to see how these people adapt to their environment. It was also here that I attempted to make fire. I was shit. I also held a poison dart which would stop your heart if you did not find the appropriate antidote, and tried my lungs at a blowpipe.

My first attempt was hilariously bad in which my dart did not even reach half way. The second broke, of all things, the tiniest platform that supported the target, but third time lucky, I scored a direct hit.

After two nights and having met some really interesting new friends, one of whom was a director for that Countryfile BBC show, I left the jungle with the intention of seeking respite from the humidity. Next stop, the Cameron Highlands.

"This place is beautiful," was my first thought. Surrounded by rolling hills that provided the foundations for impossibly well-maintained tea plantations, it was difficult not to indulge in the typical tourist habit of taking photos of the same damn view hundreds of times. Furthermore, it was also quite strange in that in some parts, it looked identical to rural England, but with the difference of being elevated thousands of meters in a tropical country. Undoubtedly this was due to its colonial heritage, a fact that was reaffirmed by the same tour guide who looked as if I had just shot his dearest relative when I questioned the difference between 'Boh' Tea and PG Tips. Turns out that there are numerous factors at play in the production of tea; a topic which must have been fascinating to everyone but myself.

I spent my three nights at a place called 'Father's Guesthouse' (cheers for the recommendation Paddy), and the guide books are not kidding when they say the people are friendly. Even the guests, in their chilled out state, were particularly open and I met some cool acquaintances here. The only catastrophe that occurred was when I managed to trick myself into thinking that I had locked myself out of my room. It was here that in just the towel I had used to dry myself after a shower, the shy Muslim receptionist and all the guests had the pleasure of seeing my naked physique first thing in the morning (I thought I had left this habit at university). It also turned out that the humiliation was completely unnecessary when I found my key next to my toothbrush. C'est la vie.

The food was good too. I think I had three banana rotis (a type of pancake) in the span of two hours.

Feeling a tad more rejuvenated from the inevitable traveller's fatigue (I had been on the road 6 days at this point, ha) it was time to move on. Having, for some reason, decided to persuade two travellers to go to a town I had neither been to, nor knew much about, I also wanted to check this certain locale out - the town of Melaka.

I realise that I am pretty much breezing through all the details about the actual travel/transport aspect. Firstly, this is boring. Secondly, apart from having smacked my head when drifting off to sleep which also woke up every Muslim family on the coach, the infrastructure in Malaysia makes travel pretty painless. It really is easy to fall into the typical routine of 'find map, look at map, get bus/train/boat/plane, taxi to hostel'.

Melaka, Malacca, Melakkacccaaaa, however you want to spell it, is known as one of the more historical/cultural areas in Malaysia. When you ask around, people rave about the place but never seem to give you a specific idea as to why.  Furthermore, it is also really close to Kuala Lumpur. This makes it an ideal stop over point if, like me, you cannot be bothered to hang around in an overcrowded, dusty capital until your connecting flight.

I arrived on the Friday and was left outside the entrance to my chosen hostel, Jalan Jalan Guesthouse. It turned out that it was conveniently smack bang in the middle of Chinatown. If you do find yourself in this town, I highly recommend this place as it really is a home away from home, and I met some incredibly cool people here. Sam, the owner, whom all previous guests seemed to worship, is such a laidback guy and it was actually pretty emotional having to leave.

The first person I met was a topless, pale, French/German bloke called Phil. It would however, be an injustice to use such a boring name, and from now on, I will refer to him as Nipples (they were really red). Once again, for those that know me; If I like you, I will probably try to wind you up in every way possible. Nipples got such treatment, and was a constant, albeit reluctant, rider on the banter wagon.

I actually thought at first that he was a nut case, but this only helped me warm to him later on in my stay.

Jalan Jalan was also my first experience with dorms. Before I left I was a bit apprehensive about having all my possessions in the vicinity of complete strangers, and admittedly, I did wake up a bit paranoid during the first night. However, after a night on the beers, my whole perspective changed. It is absolutely hilarious to wake up and find someone who you had not seen earlier, asleep directly opposite to you. I also proceeded to wake up everyone in the room in my drunken state. Hey, better to actually be that annoying guy, than be around him.

Dorms are also incredibly sociable. Within two seconds I was chatting to a guy who had been travelling for 14 months (WTF?). Two minutes later I was with a group of ten, wandering around the famous Jonker Street night market. And then two hours later, I was attempting to drunkenly excuse myself in Spanish to some random Latin chica whom I had woken up in her early sleep.

I guess what I particularly liked about Melaka was simply how relaxed it is. By relaxed, I do not mean the kind of non-atmosphere stressed people try to find on a beautiful deserted island like the Perenthians. But it is simply the vibe of the place. Malays, reknown for their hospitality, were particularly friendly and tolerant here. You only had to walk down the street to find a mosque, Hindu and Buddhist temple within meters of each other. Furthermore, the place is just... nice. Hungover on Sunday, me and my good friend (enter Tako the Dutchman) cycled along the busy highway, just in time to encounter the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen. You did not even have to be particularly doing anything to have a really good time. It was also the first place I found that I could see myself specifically going back to Malaysia for. Perhaps I got lucky with the many people I met, but it is well worth a revisit.

Prior to the evening of the beautiful sunset, I had once again decided to go out on the piss, but this time in a Malaysian club. Once again, I chose to rave about this certain venue that I had never even been to, and rallied a few troops to join me. My god was the walk long. The group consisted of; me; Tako; Julie the German; Steve the 44 year old intrepid American explorer who was clearly reclaiming lost years by travelling true student-style; the former head of Australia's Green Party and State MP of Brisbane whose name shall respectfully not be mentioned; and a very well accomplished Spanish architect. I have never had a night quite like it.

Being that it is a Malaysian country, the night club circuit in Malaysia appears to remain a relatively fresh concept for the locals. Sure you can head to KL and blow your cash in bars oriented towards Westerners, but this club clearly did not get many Westerners. As soon as I walked in I felt like Jay Z.

Guys specifically went out of their way to pat you on the back or shake your hand. Girls, whom were usually pretty reserved, would actually line up and call for your attention (Helen, you will be pleased to hear that I politely smiled and moved on ^_~). It was weird, funny and exciting, all at the same time. I had gone travelling with the intention of making shocks in different cultures, but never did I expect to do this in a successful nightclub. The night only got better when at four in the morning, I found out that the Melaka McDonalds was a 24-hour one, and that I could actually order a Sausage and Egg McMuffin before 6 AM. Cultural, I know.

I could go on about all the cool and random things that happened, but I will leave this to discuss in person. As I am sure you can tell, I had a particularly great time in this town and was sad to leave. I even got used to the prayer calls from the mosque that I was lucky to have directly opposite to my room. Why they cannot do it without megaphones is beyond me. However, the sadness quickly subsided, for after a particularly eventful night at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, I was finally going to the Land of Heaven and Earth. AKA, Vietnam.

Shout out to the numerous and diverse personalities I met over in Malaysia. Some of you sent some very touching messages and I hope that we do get to meet for some debauchery in Thailand. Also, Dollah, please do not die in the monsoon.


Once again, the preceding part was way overdue. However, I hope it gives a good impression as to how much you can do in a matter of days when travelling. I think that I have averaged about 4 hours sleep a night but have not regretted a minute of it. Even eating curry for breakfast becomes normal after a couple of weeks.

My intention is to spend around 4 weeks in Vietnam and am currently writing this section from my hotel in Hue, the old capital. I am just over a week in.

My arrival at Ho Chi Minh airport (or Saigon as everyone but the government seems to call it) immediately made way of for a typically bizarre incident. When queuing to go through passport control, my first interaction with a Vietnamese official consisted of someone insisting that I go to the 'Asean' section as opposed to 'All Passports'.

Now, I am pretty sure that I do not look Asian. I have been in Asia for over a month, seen and done a lot of things, however, with the exception of a tan, I think it is safe to say that I look European. Well, not according to this woman. Maybe she was playing some weird Vietnamese prank where the fantastic punchline at the counter is "Hey, you are not Asian". Choosing to decline to partake in this exchange, I waited for her to eventually turn around so that I could run off to the other queue. This took two attempts.

Eventually, I made it out of the airport and was completely overwhelmed by how busy it is. It is commonly known that Vietnam, with over 14 million motorbikes, is not reputed for its urban calm. Hiring a taxi involved me getting practically thrown in by the driver while the ten thousand mopeds in the local vicinity tried not to clip the car's wing mirrors.

But do not get me started on crossing the road. This is in itself an adventure/suicide mission for which the only way to make it in one piece is to man-up, and walk slowly. The drivers are somewhat used to pedestrians and do all they can to avoid you, even if this means mounting the curb then skimming your shins on the way down. They also like to beep everything. It is more of a case of exclaiming; "HEY! I'M ON A MOPED. LOOK AT ME!"; than trying to get people out of their way because on one rare occasion, I saw a moped beep its horn at least seven times when no one else was on the road.

From Saigon I visited the Cu Chi Tunnels - a 200+ kilometer network of underground tunnels that the North Vietnamese used to fight the Americans. This was pretty damn cool in two ways; A.) I am a military history nerd; and B.) I got to go in them.

Furthermore, I was told that I could fire a real gun - my eyes lit up.

Choosing from an actual menu that consisted of AK47s, some rifles and some huge machine guns, I opted for the M16 - the gun that lost the war. My god was it loud and this was with ear muffs on. I have no idea how soldiers came back with their hearing intact; or in fact came back at all with the range and power of these things. 

From Saigon I made my way with my fellow group of travellers (who I am still with) to Nha Trang. I will not divulge too much information about this place because in my opinion, there really is not that much to talk about. It is famous for its beach and nightlife, and was surprisingly developed, but due to poor weather, I could not make the most of this luxury. I will however mention my first experience with a sleeper train, the mode of transport I used to get to my second destination.

Sleeper trains offer the traveller a (usually) cheap option to carry out a long distance journey overnight. They are pretty self explanatory in that instead of a seat, you are assigned a tiny cabin and one of two bunk beds. Those closest to me will undoubtedly rightly assume that this was an excuse for me to get more hyperactive than a four year old and go out of my way to piss off most of the other passengers. In a nut shell, if you are with the right group of people, a sleeper train will guarantee you a memorable evening. Thus far I have been on two.

By far though, my favourite destination in Vietnam has been Hoi An - a sentiment that I think is common with most travellers. Similar to Melaka, Hoi An is a busy town that is being deliberately conserved by the government because of its World Heritage status. Unless you are on the outskirts, you will not find a tall building anywhere. Instead, you are surrounded by over 500 tailors for which you can have a custom suit/dress/shoe made for you for a fraction of the price it would cost you in London. I decided to wait it out for I would like to revisit it on my way back down. However, I have already picked out a navy cashmere wool material for my potential purchase. Yeaaaahhhh...

The night life is not bad either, and I somehow managed to blag a free shuttle to a 'beach club' with a few characters. My brother will be pleased to hear that it was in this evening that I wore my chinos, and just like he thinks that I look like some Spanish matador in them, I was affectionately named 'Yacht Boy' by most of the other punters. Seriously, if you want to make an impression, crack on a pair of these bad-boys.

It turns out that I will be making a rendezvous with none other than the same guy I planned to do this whole trip with in the first place, my close friend Russ. As such, I will be making my way back down the country over the next two weeks so I will keep the details brief for now to avoid an overlap. However, my time in Hue can be summarised as follows:-

  • I had the smart idea of taking a cyclo around town. The driver then insisted that I take a 'massage' or some 'boom boom' and made a sudden detour. Let's just say I got pretty angry.
  • I ended up having a random drink with some Vietnamese teacher who repeatedly called me 'very handsome'. I made a quick exit.
  • Today I climbed on top of a captured military tank. I very nearly fell off.
For now though, my bed is calling for I have a particularly early start. Due to severe rainfall in the central area, I am taking a domestic flight to Hanoi tomorrow for which I will then immediately board a coach destined for Halong Bay. I hear the place is beautiful so am excited to go. This time will be a brief visit, however the following week I am forcing Russ to join me on this booze cruise that my friend Stuart Laing recommended (cheers son).

And so for the second time; much love, be safe, and keep me updated.

Mai mốt gặp lại.