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.