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Isn’t that nice?
Somewhere in the throbbing heart of the United Arab Emirates, steeped in broiling natural heat and, I imagine, steam, they have taken the sweaty time to read my blog and found the information contained within to be the very best and most interesting.
Perhaps through some cruel administrative trick they are denied access to normal portals of information and rely on me to tell them that Austria isn’t too far away from here.
“Abdul, Abdul! It’s not too far! He went to find a lake and suddenly was at the Austrian border!”
“Excellent! With this, and the news that cows don’t like walking uphill, we have a broader understanding of countries on the northern fringe of the Baltic peninsular. Pass me more steam.”
My blog is also popular with speed readers. I’ve been toying with moving it all over to a Wordpress site and my last post went to both to see what happens. Within two seconds of hitting “publish,” I got an email to say someone liked it. I was very impressed. Two seconds. Superman on methamphetamine would have been slower.
Or, I’m beginning to wonder, is some form of trickery afoot?
Remember the good old days when the son of a Nigerian King would write a last ditch desperate email while under house arrest? With the guards momentarily distracted, beads of sweat would drip down on his computer as he frantically wondered who on earth he could turn to. Me! That’s who. All I had to do was give him my bank account details and he would be saved! And his children. And half the village. In return I’d get millions of dollars and presumably a golden chicken of some kind.
I never believed Mr. Mbaso. Nor did the other twenty thousand people to whom he miraculously found time to write. But was he any different to someone who likes my blog two seconds after I post it? And I’m not too sure that the Dubai steam cleaning company finds my information to be the very best and most interesting. You may have read my posts. They tend not to contain any information at all.
I want to build an audience because if I do, maybe a few will buy my books and then I can justify writing some more. To do that, apparently, I have to engage. Wise and powerful gurus tell me to ‘Read what others have written and comment on it!” Comment comment comment! They will then come find you!
But doesn’t that make me a bit Mr. Mbaso-like? Or a tad steam-cleany? Doesn’t it make the internet a paper-thin mockery of something good?
I began writing this after my morning coffee and then I noticed that Facebook had a little red thing, which means something I’m sure. I clicked, and it said, “You haven’t written anything for ages! Write something or everyone will just wander off and ‘like’ someone else and you’ll die of the plague.” *
*(It didn’t mention dying).
But I wrote something, Facebook. Just the other day. It had mountains in it, with pictures and everything. Is the world so fickle that I must heap random stuff on them constantly?
Rich people complain that people may like them only because they are rich. Similarly, we don’t know if someone likes what we write, or if they just want to steam clean something we own. It’s a great shame that marketeers have taken over the world and I’m not sure I want to join in.
Marketing is important, of course. As you know, it’s rare for me to quote dead circus owners, but P.T. Barnum once said, “Without promotion, something terrible happens. Nothing!”
He also said that every crowd has a silver lining.
So, should I dash around the internet saying “Great Blog!!!” to everything I see? It makes me feel tacky, disingenuous, participating in some kind of fraud. I want people to know that if I comment (which I have never actually done because I don’t know how), then it’s because I wanted to.
My novel The Midlife of Dudley Chalk (available on Amazon, see what I did there Mr. Barnum?) began by asking the question “What is real?” That question was inspired by a friend’s mother who had Alzheimer’s and who genuinely believed that her whole married life was one of bliss and romantic perfection. My friend said it wasn’t. It was crap. So, I wondered, was it crap? If her brain told her that it was perfect, wasn’t that as true for her as the “crap” was for other observers? If she saw it in her head and believed it in her heart, then wasn’t it true? Whatever that means?
The Midlife of Dudley Chalk examines this by putting him in a coma and sending him to another world where everyone in his life is playing a different role. He falls in love with the comatose patient in the next bed, a girl he has never actually met. Post coma, he’s back in the “real world”, trying to find the girl he may have imagined. My friend Ralph read it and couldn’t work out which world was real and I said, “Does it matter? Both were real for him.”
As it was for my friend’s mother.
The shifting sands of reality come very close to home when you write a blog, or do anything with a like and follow button. You don’t need Alzheimer’s or a medically-induced coma to be surrounded by a world that may or may not be true. All you need is a place for people to like it, or comment on it, and you are suddenly transported to a place where steam cleaners in Dubai thank you for information that is the very best, and most interesting (url attached).
Should I join in the game? Because I really don’t want to.
“Try not to look like you’re going to die.”
I have climbed several mountains recently, and I’d like to climb Triglav, the highest in Slovenia and so peaky that it’s proudly emblazoned on the country’s flag, but I’m not quite ready for it. I’m getting better though.
I returned from South East Asia having not walked anywhere for 5 months. It was too hot and too humid. Consequently, all my exercise and even gym visits of the previous summer were undone by the tropics. I imagine that jungle warfare was quite slow, with both sides clearly visible to each other but with everyone doubled over, out of breath, saying, “Wait, hang on, give me a minute. It’s really humid, isn’t it? Where are they? Oh yes.”
The air in Slovenia was fresh and lovely as I arrived at Ljubljana airport. Tatiana was there to pick me up, which she did as a very welcome surprise.
It took six weeks to find somewhere to live but I’m happily installed in a small village near Kranj. Kranj (which I like to pronounce as though it rhymes with “flange” but it actually rhymes with “bran”) is the fourth largest town in Slovenia. Is it touristy? No, not really. I miss the immediate mountains of the Bohinj valley, but, and here’s a surprise…it’s flat! I can ride my bike.
I have everything I need and Joze and Marta, my new landlords, bring me little Red Cross parcels and check that I’m alive.
It may be flat, but just up the road the mountains look down upon us, and I can see the ski resort of Krvavec. When the snow comes and with a decent pair of binoculars, I should be able to see people falling over without falling over myself.
“I’m not going to die.”
“Are you sure?”
Tatiana had some free time and suggested that we climb Stol. I said that sounded like a lovely idea, not really knowing what Stol is.
“It’s the mountain behind Bled.”
I stole a picture from the internet so you can see what Stol looks like in a) a stolen picture and b) when it has snow on it.
Yeah. It’s the Mount Fuji looking thing behind the famously wet Lake Bled.
Off, then, we set. A thin unmade road from the village of Zirovnica goes up and around silly bends and exhausted hikers to a lovely kocha called Valvazorjev Dom. If you’re not sure what a kocha is, it’s the term used for the mountain hut/chalets that pepper these mountains and provide succour, beds, alcohol and food to those that hike. They are quite brilliant, and I love them. The name “kocha” comes from the small houses that were once the simple dwellings of tied workers, but these mountain saviours are large, warm and comfortable. This network of wilderness hotels keep the mountains alive and it’s a mystery to me how they are kept stocked. Valvazorjev Dom marks the start of a long walk up hill.
The combination of “long,” and “uphill,” made me wonder why I don’t put more thought into saying “Okay, that sounds like fun!” Tatiana, as I may have mentioned before, is young and fit and is far more inclined toward inclines than I. At some point during the proceedings she was prompted to ask after my health. Encouragingly, it took less than five minutes for me to tell her I was fine.
Theoretically, it’s possible to go up Stol and come back down again in about six hours, but I got up late and, you know, the tropics. It was clearly going to storm by the time we reached the almost top.
Stol is a Twin Peaks kind of mountain, and on top of the first peak is a kocha! Slowly it got closer and I could hear the sound of goats and tinkling bells and chatting voices. Civilisation was to be found at the top of a mountain that divides Slovenia from Austria. It was good to sit down and drink beer.
We discussed the idea of getting back down again but it was impossible. Joking aside, I wouldn’t have made it before it got dark and there was, indeed, a storm a-brewin. Tatiana is Russian but speaks excellent Slovene, and she organised food, alcohol, and what turned out to be bunk beds in a kind of dorm. She made complex phone calls because being stuck up a mountain wasn’t the plan, and then her phone ran out of juice with no way to charge it. We gave in to the wonderful isolation of a hut up a mountain. We looked over at the other, higher peak and thought it a shame we wouldn’t get there.
We strolled around though, now that the pressure of getting home wasn’t a factor. I asked the girl who, with her husband, were running the place for the summer.
“What happens when the beer and food run out?” I asked.
“It comes in by helicopter,” she said.
That’s the answer to that, then.
Later, a group of young people from the Czech Republic arrived and they had iPhone chargers for Tat’s electrical needs. A fire was lit and the dark swell of a stormy night up in the Karavanken Mountains enveloped the lot of us. We told stories by the fire, and it was primal and it was good.
The light show of a mountain storm was like a fluorescent bulb that won’t quite turn on. It was constant and stroboscopic and oddly silent, lasting most of the night. I’d stumble about in unfamiliar corridors looking for the toilet and in a blinding flash there’d be the static lit image of a Czech person doing the same thing.
In the morning, it was raining in a fairly major way, mixed with bits of thunder and wind. We put it off as long as we could but had to leave in the cold and lashing rain. We got to the car grateful and wet.
Other trips to other kochas were warmer, dryer, and not quite so long. Tatiana would still ask if I was okay, and actually, I was. I got better as we climbed more things and she claimed to notice an improvement. We found a wonderful gorge just north of here and we climbed and swam our way upstream until we could go no further. On another occasion we searched for a lake where she could swim, got lost and found ourselves at the Slovene/Austrian border. I hadn’t realised it was close. It was all very Sound of Music.
For a month, I remembered why Slovenia is the place I call home.
Now it’s autumn and rain is falling on the apple tree by my balcony. I’m not wearing shorts for the first time since January 13th when I arrived in Bali. Tatiana is busy again and my thoughts turn to writing. I’m sorting out the two novels I have for sale because I need to sell some. And I’ve started writing another. All is quiet, as autumn tends to be.
I guess soon the snow will come and Tatiana will say, “Do you want to go skiing?” And I’ll say “Yes! Okay, that sounds like fun!”
Then I’ll remember that I’m a bit rubbish at going downhill too. And yet I’ll enjoy it, and get better at it, and be glad I got the chance.
I booked a bus to Phnom Penh from the sunny deck by the river. Not a bus exactly, but a minivan which drove around the town of Kampot in a random fashion, eventually picking up a French couple, driving a short distance and stopping. The driver got out and disappeared into a, I don't know, laundry?
I spoke to the French couple. "Are you going to Vietnam?" they asked, in the manner of people who knew the answer but were breaking ice.
"No, Phnom Penh, actually," I said, smashing the ice into confusing shards. We all looked worried and consulted maps in case it was possible that the bus would go to both places. It didn't look feasible and now the driver had vanished.
The solution came in the form of another bus with Vietnam on the front, and soon I was alone in the minivan. I got out.
Some time elapsed with me sitting on a cement-covered plastic chair amid chatting Cambodians and then a girl arrived from (I later discovered) Israel. She was given a slightly cleaner chair.
Eventually a car arrived and both me and the Israeli girl wondered why she was being directed to it and my bag was being hauled out of the minivan. A mere 20 minutes of discussion showed that the minivan wouldn't go to Phnom Penh because it was New Year, and so we would go by car with several other people. Too many other people for a car that size but hey, it was New Year. We were apparently lucky we'd get there at all.
In the city we shared a Tuk-Tuk to the river and from there I scouted out a hotel. My stay included an evening with an Australian sex tourist and a day visiting the killing fields.
Why did I just gloss over those two contrasting but fascinating events? Because I have decided to start a blog on wordpress, which seems to be easier than doing it here. I'm going to shift over to that blog, but during the transition period, I'll write more on there and less on here. If you want to read more about the killing fields (and life according to Bruce the Australian Sex Tourist), head on over to:
Phnom Penh was a good city, actually. What little I saw of it. And then I caught a very bumpy plane ride to Kuala Lumpur, where I shall remain until I fly back to London. This trip is coming to an end.
A mere 7km from one of the world’s great attractions, Siem Reap is yet another physical assault. Crossing the street is almost impossible, and walking along the street is no easier. Food, massage parlours, ugly dogs and broken cats, mobile phone stalls and South East Asian madness is everywhere you step. It is all amplified by the heat. Indiana Jones in a pit full of snakes is me trying to get down a road in Siem Reap.
Potential harm does not lurk here, it runs up, drives up, collects around you and insists by sheer weight of numbers. Anyone who owns a set of wheels wants to drive you somewhere, and if you say no (if I say no) they instead offer you the delights of Cambodian women. On my second day, I walked down the main street and discovered that the massage girls will actually stand in front of you, three abreast, and put their hands on your chest to physically stop you from going any further. This isn’t a sensuous experience, but like the prelude to a mugging. Shouting at them merely results in them shouting back. This is no different to anywhere else in South East Asia, and I think I was disappointed because I went there to see Angkor Wat. Silly me.
On the Thursday I booked a guided tour of the temple for Saturday morning, 5am, sunrise. On Friday morning, while still asleep, the phone by my hotel bed began ringing at 4:45am. I ignored it. Surely a dozy night porter had dropped a sleepy forehead on the button to my room.
When I was actually awake some five hours later, I realised that it was probably the tour people trying to pick me up on the wrong day. I went to check. No, they have the right day, Saturday. It’s here, look, see? Okay.
Friday night I lay awake all night. I tend not to get to sleep until about 3am and I was told to be ready by 4:30am, so why bother sleeping? At 4:30am I was outside the hotel encouraging mosquitoes to bite me. They bit me until 5:15am, when I decided that the tour was not coming, had in fact arrived a day early, and I might as well take my bleeding lumpy ankles back to bed. I went back to the tour company. Oh, they said. They must have made a mistake.
On Sunday, after two nights without sleep, the bus arrived and drove me and six others off to see the sun rise behind the world’s largest temple complex. The tour guide was young, funny, and the least politically correct person currently working outside of the White House. Seven kilometres away, after hearing about how all white people look the same to him and he didn’t understand why Hindus had to break everything and he was pleased to say that the Muslims he knows stick to chickens when they have a desire to kill something, we saw the pine-cone towers of Angkor Wat in the slowly brightening dawn sky. Pre-dawn was the nicest part of the morning actually, because the sun came up behind cloud and the thronging masses, there to see a marvel of architecture but excited to see a daily event that happens no matter where you are, seemed cheated.
Inside Angkor Wat our tour began. To be honest, I would rather have just been there myself and not had the distraction of a tour guide, but it was good. It was good the way the Sistine Chapel was good – very busy, glad to have been there, but feeling very little in the way of emotional contact because of tourists, and guides, and where to put your feet. There was no wow moment. That would have to come later, when at some dinner party I could say I’ve been to Angkor Wat.
The sunrise trip was followed by hours of plodding through Siem Reap because I had checked out of the hotel at noon and the bus was going at 7:45pm. At 7:45pm I was still in the hotel lobby waiting to be picked up and decided that it was the wrong date all over again. But no! I was picked up a mere 10 minutes after the bus should have left and a group of us, all convinced we’d missed the fastest moving bedroom in the world, were driven to the bus station, climbed aboard the bus and got into bed.
Before getting into the bus I asked a man if this was the bus to Sihanoukville, and he didn’t answer me. I asked if I should shove my enormous bag into the hold myself, and he didn’t answer me. This communication technique was employed by all members of the bus staff for the entire journey and presented a problem when suffering from a full bladder. There was no toilet. Getting out of a top bunk in the dark when hammocks were slung in aisle was a challenge, and wanting to know if the bus would be stopping long enough to pee was greeted with silence. I peed against an ATM for the first time in my life, needing to be close enough to the bus to prevent it from simply driving away and leaving me without luggage in the middle of Cambodia. I was not the only person to do such things.
Was it a good way to travel? Yes. And No. I don’t want to do it again so I think no wins.
Sihanoukville is by the sea and the sea is warm and the sand golden and, at the time, was covered in half of Cambodia. It was Buddha’s birthday I think. Or a holiday of some kind. I got this information from the manager of the restaurant at the hotel by the sea, who engaged me in long conversations in completely incomprehensible English. At one point, recognising only such words as “Love,” and “Poison,” I wondered if I was being introduced to a cult. This uneasy feeling was compounded by his insistence on staring at me while I ate, his hooded eyes and grim voodoo countenance not wavering while I worked my way through something with rice, or something with noodles. I think at one point I upset him. Walking into the restaurant one evening I noticed that the cook lady and the cook’s assistant lady and the five waitress girls were lined up on small blue plastic chairs watching an Asian film on the TV. They were transfixed by it, but THE MAN IN CHARGE got up from his voodoo sitting position and changed the channel to something Hollywood, and the spell was broken. He did it because I walked in, though he knew I had a book and wouldn’t be watching it anyway. The next night the same thing happened but I said no, please, don’t change the channel just for me, everyone seems to be really into this badly acted saga of moustaches and polyester suits. And he looked annoyed while the girls said (I gathered) “He said no need to change the channel!” and so his supremacy was challenged by the only person who could do such a thing. A paying guest. He then glared at me with greater intensity and I suspect the mutineers would pay later with longer hours and less pay.
But now I write from a sunny deck beside a calm Cambodian river, the kind of river one might expect to see a young Martin Sheen boating his way to find a mad Marlon Brando lording it up in a jungle of lampshade hats. I have taken a wicker hut with a fan and a mattress on the floor, an outside loo with a frog on the cold-water shower head, a wicker window held up with a bamboo stick, and a mosquito net. There’s a small fan – the first room I’ve taken without AC during this unusually hot period. But I like it. The place is run by a French couple and he makes the best food I’ve had since arriving in Cambodia. Maybe the best food since January. The river is home to longboats that head out to sea in the evening to catch shrimp in the waters that border Cambodia and Vietnam, and return at 4 in the morning. They are incredibly loud, long and functional and I asked if they ever take passengers to spend a night catching shrimp, but my French host says no. They invade another country’s waters, as the Vietnamese invade Cambodian waters, and having white passengers just isn’t a thing they can do. A shame. I watch them go as the moon rises and I want to be on one.
I don’t know how long I shall stay on this sunny breezy deck with the good people of France. The only logical place to go from here is Phnom Penh, where I already have a ticket to Kuala Lumpur and the last stage of the journey. I want to see Phnom Penh for only two reasons. Firstly, there’s an airport that will get me back to where my flight home will take me back on May 2nd. The other reason is to see the Killing Fields Memorial and museum and a whole lot of tragedy. I don't want to see it, don't want those images in my brain, but it's important I think. The trouble is, it’s the Cambodian New Year in a few days’ time and it is the worst time to be going to Phnom Penh. Everything is closed and all the prices double. Everything, including the museum, will be unavailable for another five days and so, stranded with excellent food, I have just been working out how long I should stay.
I shall keep you posted
Hands up anyone who’s been on a bus with no seats. Anyone? Me! I have. There are no seats because they have all been replaced by beds. As you walk down the bus, double beds are on the right and single beds on the left, stacked two high. I was in a single bed, top bunk, half way down. It’s called a Hotel Bus and it’s either a really brilliant way to make an overnight trip, or a really bad way, depending on your bladder, the road surface, the technique employed by the driver and how many hammocks have been hastily slung in the gangway.
This travelling collection of beds went from Siem Reap in the north of Cambodia all the way down to Sihanoukville on the southern coast, taking about 13 hours and 10 years of your life. It was wonderful. No, it was awful. No, it was…I have no idea. I still can’t decide.
Where was I last time I wrote? Oh yes, floating dreamily in the warm clear waters of Thailand with mermaids. Tired of having a wonderful time, I caught a normal bus to Bangkok which took all night, dumping me in the middle of the busiest bus station in the world at 5 in the morning. Tired and wondering where all my worldly possessions were, I fended off a plague of taxi drivers and found a miserable noisy dirty space to collect myself and my belongings. The taxi rash thinned out because buses were arriving and I was beginning to look like a bad bet.
Eventually a fairly quiet taxi driver engaged me in conversation and talked my ancient atrophied brain into a trip to a good hotel. I hadn’t booked a place, more confident of finding one ad hoc than actually arriving in Bangkok at all. And so, he took me to a nice hotel.
The nice manager of the nice hotel carried my bags to the room, which wasn’t nice, and then he gave me the price for a prostitute. When I said no he said…"Did I say 3000? I meant 2000." When I said no again it went to 1500 and a list of all the things my new "love me short time" friend would do. I then explained, in as calm a voice as I could muster, that there is only one woman in the world for me and all I want is a shower and a sleep. I shall convert his facial expression into words. The contours of his entire being said…” So, why are you in this hotel? A man of your age alone in Bangkok coming to this hotel? This one. Where you don’t even have to leave your room to get all the things you are obviously here for? I don’t understand, but perhaps you are suffering from a mental or hormonal imbalance of some kind.”
He left, I bolted the door, and slept on top of the bed for fear that I was sleeping where so many had paid 3000, or 2000, or 1500 before. The only good point was that it was 7 in the morning and hotels don’t normally let you in until noon. After a long night on a bus, I slipped into a coma.
On reading this back, I realise I sound like a prude, or someone who really does want to meet a new 1500 baht friend and is protesting too much. I've actually had time to reflect on such things and really, it's just how I am. I do not judge. There are men in the world who don't have a relationship, can't get a relationship or simply don't want a relationship. There are men in the world who like prostitutes in the same way they like brunettes or a sense of humour. There are women in the world who have to sell themselves or starve to death, or who chose it as a perfectly reasonable job. Get them together and everyone is happy. But I don't like the assumption that I'm travelling here for one simple reason. Even someone in Slovenia said it was obvious why I wanted to go to Thailand. With that kind of negative reinforcement, the only lone men who dare travel to this part of the world will be sex tourists and it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The next day I booked a hotel with good reviews and tackled the Bangkok skytrain to find myself in a land less determined to make my ending a happy one. The hotel was a walk from Sukhumvit road where the red light district is, but that road is long and varied and the area was described as a village in the city. I got a junior suite of 3 rooms, it was cheap, and comfortable, and friendly. I stayed there for 10 nights. I had work to do and this was a good place to do it.
Of Bangkok, I can only say that I spent 10 days walking up and down one road, grabbing food at a Chinese restaurant and Oreo biscuits from the 7-11 and scuttling back to the safety and comfort of my rooms. Just before leaving I thought I should see the city so I took the skytrain to the river, established that it was brown and busy, then caught the skytrain back again. I also thought that I would try, for the first time ever, a Thai massage. I mean, if you’re going to have one, wouldn’t it be good to say you had one in Bangkok? TripAdvisor gave good reviews of one that was just down the road. I wanted the real thing, not a half-hearted prod and then demands for extra, and what could be more comforting to a man trying to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings than TripAdvisor? I went to see what was what.
I shall tell you what was what.
Behind the glass front door was a small man behind a large brown desk. I asked how much a Thai massage was, and he said it’s 400. That’s what, 10 euros? Aha! I don’t mind paying 400 so I can say I had a Thai massage in Bangkok. Then he said it was 1900.
What? I thought you said 400?
It is 400.
So what’s the 1900?
It is 400 for the massage and 1500 for the girl. At which point he pointed to my right and inside a room just off the lobby was a line of women sitting on a long bench seat, all vying for my attention. They looked like animate carnival balloons -- boobing, squashy, brightly coloured. The small man behind the large brown desk casually explained what I would get for the 1500 and all I had to do was pick the one I wanted.
I tried not to look startled. I wanted say that that I didn’t really want them to do anything at all, including sitting next to me on a bus, and after explaining that I didn’t have any money on me and was just checking the price to compare it to my usual brothel, I beat a hasty retreat. Well done TripAdvisor. If you recommend a restaurant and I shall assume the waiter will say it’s 400 for the meal and 1500 for the waitress.
I left Bangkok on a bus that promised to take me to Siem Reap in Cambodia, the place to go if you want to see Angkor Wat. I decided that I did want to see Angkor Wat way back in Malaysia and it felt pretty good to be achieving my one and only solid goal.
I had read that getting into Cambodia (or Scambodia, as the internet calls it) is a nightmare gauntlet of thieves and tricksters, and that certainly seemed to be the case. As we approached the border the bus guy came around with forms to complete and a demand for money and our passports. I said no. Think about it. You leave a country for free, and you pay for a visa in the next country, not on a bus 10 miles before you get there. He gave an inflated price for the visa and wouldn’t stop asking until several people also said no, and he gave up. I felt quite proud of myself for starting a revolution and imagined myself a champion of the people and defender of the oppressed. Actually, my motives were a little more selfish. When travelling for an extended period in parts unknown, you develop a Gollum-like devotion to your passport and wallet. All other things can be lost, but those become my precious and I wasn’t going to give my precious to a stranger on a bus.
When we got to the border we were told that those sensible people who had taken advantage of buying the visa on the bus only had to check out of Thailand and then go through passport control in Cambodia. Those of us foolish enough to try it ourselves had to perform the extra, time-consuming, degrading step of begging for a visa from evil officials who would take advantage of our white and foolish bodies.
The extra degrading time-consuming personal assault that would be getting a visa actually involved going to a small office on the Cambodian side, paying 8 dollars less than on the bus, and getting our visa in a matter of minutes. It was the easiest step rather than the hardest. The hard parts were finding the offices to check out of Thailand, to check into Cambodia, and to fight off the thousands of beggars, con-artists, passport photo scams and bag-grabbing children. The Thai-Cambodian border is a con-artists’ convention where they climb over each other like breeding frogs to out-scam their rivals.
We made it to the other side, where the bus had broken down and were told we’d be put on another. The other bus never happened and we drove all the way to Siem Reap in first gear and with no ability to stop. This was demonstrated when people tried to get off.
That was Bangkok, getting out of Bangkok, and arriving in a town that nestles up to the largest temple complex in the world. I thought Siem Reap might be calm. Indeed, an Englishman on the bus told me it would be a good place to relax. If he thinks the place is relaxing he must be related to Gordo Cooper, the early Mercury astronaut who fell asleep waiting for his rocket to take off. There is nothing calming about Siem Reap.
I feel another post coming on…
Many years ago, while on a Greek island, I tried scuba diving for the first time ever. It did not go well. Essentially, they said here's how you breathe, there's the sea, let's go! Scuba equipment includes an inflatable vest and you control it with a couple of buttons. Let air in, let air out, it is for controlling your buoyancy. The people in Greece said DO NOT TOUCH IT! When in the sea I sank to the bottom and watched everyone swim away into the murky water, leaving me like a bottom-dweller, panic-stricken. I breathed too much, too fast, not knowing how to get back, if I would ever be found, if I would die when the air ran out. It felt claustrophobic. The only way I could move was to pull myself over the rocks by grabbing at the seaweed. A horrible experience which I vowed never to repeat.
Fast forward 18 years and I went snorkelling in Bali and loved it. I wondered if I should try scuba again. Perhaps.
And then I found myself living over a scuba-diving place. A sign if ever there was one.
The "try diving" package includes a two hour boat trip to the famously beautiful islands of Koh Phi Phi (Google it, really), food, one dive with the chance of more, and pleasant company. We set off yesterday morning at 7 to collect more people and then headed off in a long-tail boat to the real boat, a large sea-going wonder that takes over 40 people, but there were just 9 guests, the Finnish guy who runs the school and five young Finnish girls who teach diving, plus the Thai crew. Mostly it was people from Finland (guests too) and I really wanted to tell you that I got into the sea and saw a fin in the water, a poorly disguised Jaws joke (I wasn't really going to do that. Really, I wasn't.)
As it turned out, I was the only one on the "try diving" trip. The others were either snorkelling or were already adept at diving, so I had my very own instructor. We went through the manual and she gave me instruction while heading for the island and when we got there I donned the gear and made ready to walk the plank. It did feel a bit like that. I stepped toward the edge of the platform at the back of the boat (my instructor and another Finnish girl already in the water waiting for me) and was told to hold my mask, hold my weight belt, and jump (walk forward till you fall into the sea, actually). And I really didn't want to do it. My last experience of scuba was terrible, the equipment weighs a lot, and you are about to fall into the sea. You know how The Mob tie concrete to bodies and dump them in the sea? It felt like that, but while still alive. At least in my "never again," mind. This time, though, something was different. All the girls were lovely, filled me with confidence, and M (I cannot remember her exact name I'm afraid, but it starts with M) said she would never, ever, leave my side. And so I stepped forward, fell into the sea, went under and bobbed back up again. The flood of information that accompanies any new physical task had swamped the fact that the vest had been filled with air. She told me, I watched her do it, she said I'd bob to the surface, and it had all slipped my mind amid nervous panic.
It was odd, floating on the water but breathing air from a tank. Part of my brain was convinced that the air wouldn't flow. Okay, THAT breath worked, but what about the next?
I held the rope from a buoy and with her hand on my shoulder strap we sank a few feet beneath the waves and stopped. It was time to do the three things I'd learned on the boat. Take out the mouthpiece and blow a steady stream of bubbles and put the mouthpiece back. Then remove the mouthpiece and let go, using the standard technique for finding it again. Then clear my mask of water. I'd learned the hand signals and we established that I knew what I was doing so far, and so with Captain Nemo determination we pressed the button the let the air out of our vests and together, her holding me, we sank down to the sea floor some 10 meters below. I breathed in. I breathed out. I didn't die, and she didn't let go of me.
M is young and blonde. We were accompanied by one of the other Finnish girls, who is also young and blonde. I felt like I was swimming with mermaids. Mermaids who, we established later, were about 5 years old when I last decided that scuba wasn't for me. But under the water, they were the ones with the years of experience, and I was a clumsy child, forgetting the simplest things while seeing wonders all about me.
M pointed things out to me as we passed them. Shoals of bright fish, coral that reacted when she wafted water over them, walls of coral reaching high above us. It was all colour and movement. She used hand signals to tell me what I was doing wrong and how to correct them. She tugged at my vest, adjusted my buoyancy, gave me a guided tour of a world quite dazzling.
And then she pointed up and I looked. It was hazy at first but I knew what it was. She'd said we might see one. Then it came back, closer, easier to see. It was a shark. Me, the underwater world's rarest and most ungainly creature was in the same water as a shark, and I was amazed by it. It was about 5 feet long I think, and very very shark-like. A harmless reef shark (unless you're a small fish), but not something I ever thought I'd see.
The dive lasted 50 minutes and it was such a positive experience I chose to do another. But, not being a young Finnish mermaid I needed a rest, so I chose to go on the excursion into town for coffee and shopping and sightseeing.
The town was washed away by the 2004 tsunami and quickly rebuilt because the islanders have nothing but tourism. It is a pretty place.
Back on the boat we headed off to another spot and once again I donned the gear. This time my instructor was Iris, who is fun and lively but takes the notion of diving very seriously indeed. They all do. This time, it being my second dive, I was shown how to control my buoyancy myself with the air in, air out buttons, and also something else. The vest, it seems, is the same size as your lungs. And so for fine control over sinking or rising, you can breathe deeper or more shallow (never forgetting to breathe of course), and I found this idea appealing. It works too!
And so there were moments in both dives when I experienced complete weightlessness. Moments when I could float meters beneath the sea and simply enjoy where I was and what I was seeing. Those moments were brief, but for the first time ever I knew why people scuba dive. It isn't being stuck on the bottom and being left to die! It's like being in space, surrounded by fish and mermaids.
The Raya diving school filled me with confidence and I want to do more. This trip is all about budget, so I'll see if, toward the end, I have enough money left to get my PADI certificate. I'd be pleased if I did.
One the way back I was talking to a Finnish couple on holiday in Thailand for a week. It's a popular place for Fins, apparently, and they said that the Raya diving school has a very good reputation. Indeed, they impressed the Fins during the Tsunami by tirelessly rescuing the lucky, and recovering the unlucky. Weeks of using their boats to help. I can imagine that.
One other thing about my terrible Greek diving experience. They did come to find me eventually, and I still have a photo they took of me looking unhappy and holding up some marine creature I was told to hold. On this trip to Phi Phi, however, I have no pictures of me under water. I wasn't holding a confused animal. Why? The mermaids weren't there to take holiday snaps of me. They were there to make sure I knew what I was doing, that I was safe, that the fishes were safe, and everyone ended up feeling good. I'm very glad I met them.
And I saw a fin in the water (I just had to say it, didn't I).
Just a quick entry before I set off for my scuba diving tomorrow and bore you with bubbles. I've just been sitting talking to a cat.
Yes, odd that this should tempt me to write.
This morning I went to breakfast at the little Halal, plastic chair eating place near the rooms over the diving shop. I like it in there. The food is cheap, the ladies smile, and the iced coffee is perfect. I then set off for the beach before it got too hot.
It was already too hot of course. It was 36 degrees today but it feels hotter on my English extremities. I didn't take a camera and wished I had, because I went past the jetty where the longtail boats head off for the islands and found a small slice of paradise. The tide was just right for getting to a small tidal island, and I was, perhaps for the first time on this trip, completely happy. I really like Thailand, and I really like this beach.
As I walked back from the island and toward the jetty I was accosted by a group of schoolchildren, all smiling nervously and giggling. They were about 10 years old and formed a fuzzy group of about 15 kids in green uniforms. One of them was pushed forward and hesitantly said that they were learning English, and did I have time to answer some questions. Yes! I said. They asked me where I was from in uncertain, slightly garbled English, and seemed suspicious when I said England. I don't think they were expecting to have found someone from exactly the right place. Bullseye. Brownie points.
They asked me numerous grammatically incorrect questions. Did I like Thailand, did I like Thai food, did I like Thai people, what did I do in my spare time. One boy then asked if I like....something. I didn't know the word. He said it again. Still nothing. They all said it. Nope. Then the leader, a girl holding an iPhone, spelled it for me. T...O...W...E...L. Do I like towel.
Do I? Yes, I suppose I do. I told them I have a blue one, of which I am very fond. I imagined their school using The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as an English textbook.
Then they took a photo with me in the middle, and it was very sweet and wonderful. As I walked along the sand I saw lots of little groups of kids all having conversations with the tourists, and some had teachers with them. My group had clearly struck off, fearless, in search of educational opportunities.
I like Thailand. It's not at all what I expected.
Later I went to change up some Euros and the exchange rate had gone up since the quote of yesterday, resulting in a theoretically free breakfast. When I got back I read for a while, wrote for a while, then went out for dinner. I sat and calculated that I could live in this room and eat at the Halal plastic chair smiling lady eatery every day for the rest of my life without having to work. That's an interesting concept isn't it. Thailand is still fairly cheap. This room, which has everything a man could need, costs 12 euros a day. All of my food and water and nibbles (I seem to have developed a passion for oreo biscuits) come to 10 euros a day. I get more than 22 euros a day for doing nothing, so I could live by the beach and, well, do nothing. I'd be good at it.
I sat outside as the muezzin from the local mosque sang out the evening call to prayer. It's a sound I've only come to hear since travelling in South East Asia and in the hot evening air when everything seems to have quietened down, it's something I enjoy listening to. For some odd reason, I always end up with Roberta Flack's "The First time Ever I Saw Your Face," in my head. That's not a bad thing to have inside your head.
The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
With the sound of a single human voice drifting toward me, a single white cat drifted toward me too, rubbed itself against my leg and lay down beside me. I am an animal person, enjoying their company more even than towels, and it's the first "pet" that's come to talk to me since I left England. It was a day of communication, and when travelling alone, those moments are important.
You can buy sightseeing tours, which are, I think, quite expensive. Alternatively, you can get a taxi driver with no sense of direction and you get a free sightseeing tour, and he even drops the taxi price out of sheer embarrassment. A handy tourist tip. There should be a crap taxi driver app for the fiscally aware sightseer. It could be called CrAppSi.
But we shall get to that later. Firstly, the odd little place in the Malaysian rain forest ended, eventually. I discovered that the room had unusual acoustic properties in that every conversation from miles around were amplified within its thin walls, it filled with mosquitoes through the numerous gaps in the windows and I was invaded by geckos. I don't mind geckos. I do mind noise that goes on until 3 in the morning. And when the noise of other guests (entire families in one room) finally stopped, I discovered one more horror. Air conditioning units drip, and the dripping was onto the enormous tin roof of the car port. Every night was a constant bang, bang, bang, bang, bang (you get the idea).
I then took a lovely apartment overlooking Langkawi harbour. It was the best Airbnb experience ever, I think. I went from a hot tin water-torture box to a huge apartment, and it was more wonderful than a home-cooked meal for this weary man who's now been on the road for what, it seems like ever. Langkawi has some wonderful and popular beaches, and all forms of transport assume you want to go there. But just down the road is the public beach, right by a lovely shady park. A long stretch of golden sand and warm water and not a single person there. It was lovely.
I took the boat from Langkawi to Thailand. The internet told me that arriving by air gives you 30 days Visa on Arrival, but by boat or road gives you 15. I got 30 days. Internet, you are wrong, shocking though that sounds.
I stayed in a marvellously cheap place in Satun, the town where the boat docks. It was comfortable, quiet, friendly and deep down good. I can't say I was a huge fan of Malaysia and I decided from day one that I like Thailand. When I asked how to get to the bus station for my ongoing journey, the woman went to find her boss, who not only said he'd take me to the bus station, but asked if I like fish.
“Um, yes,” I said, never having met a fish I didn't like.
“I have some. I'll make you some fish at 7pm.”
Which he did.
The following day he drove me to the bus station and refused to take any money for it. He said that everyone in Satun feels like family, and as I stayed at his place, I was family too. What a very lovely introduction to the country.
I took a 5 hour bus trip north to Krabi. The bus was decked out like a travelling bordello. It had wonderful orange fringe curtains at the windows and a ceiling composed of some squashy material in orange, cream and magenta, bedecked with mirrors. It felt like a long-distance Beatles album.
Krabi, has some rather wonderful islands, is not too far from Phuket, and an hour or so by speed boat from the famous island of Phi Phi (pronounced, amusingly, as pee pee). That's where they filmed The Beach, with Leonardo DiCaprio. Pee pee isn't the only island of course. There are lots of them. Lesser islands dot the seascape and they look as one might imagine – tall spikes of tree-covered land popping up here and there. I saw them from the bus, and climbed out into the blazing heat of a Krabi afternoon. Being more interested in A/C than travel, I took a room in a hotel close to the bus station, and then made my way to the beach.
The hotel ordered me a taxi and after a while, a strange little contraption arrived, part motorbike, part car, part travelling circus. I sat in the back and we headed off at terrifying speed toward the beach. There is a famous beach here called Ao Nang, and that's where the driver decided I must be going. I mean, I'm white, therefore I am going to Ao Nang. The hotel girl told them where I was actually going, but this man concluded otherwise. I sat in the back holding onto my belongings and my breakfast as we defied physics on every bend in the road, and then I saw the sea and all its twinkly blue island festooned loveliness. Not my beach, obviously, but it was rather lovely.
I had my map app telling me we should go right at the beach and he went left. I banged on the window and he pulled over and I got out and we consulted the map and he did a U-turn. Amusingly, he did another U-turn a few hundred yards later and off we set again in the wrong direction. He really really wanted me to go to Ao Nang. I banged again.
He got out maybe 6 times to ask how to get to where I was going, and when someone pointed left, he went right. And vise versa. Eventually my map and his bike/car thing were in agreement and we were within seconds of my new abode. So pleased was he by this, he asked someone where it was, who pointed, and off we went again along the beach toward Ao Nang. It was lovely. A sightseeing tour de force. It took for ever.
But all good things must come to an end and finally he reluctantly stopped long enough to track down my hotel. He looked so ashamed of himself that he wanted to charge me half price, but I gave him full price anyway because his mistake was my absolute pleasure, and I was also worried about the health of his children, having such an easily confused taxi driver for a father.
This room is not much more than the dirt cheap room in the rain forest of Langkawi, but offers no water torture or unwanted nocturnal conversations. It is over a PADI diving shop, 600m from the beach that's just next to Ao Nang beach, and is clean, comfortable, safe and quiet. I booked 5 nights here, the longest I've booked in one go because I'm tired of constantly looking for the next place to go and thought I'd stop a while. I was very lucky with my random choice.
I walked along this beach yesterday and it's beautiful and quiet. At the far end is a small headland and then you get to Ao Nang. Ao Nang is land of the white man. It is wall to wall tourists. The beach is no better than here, but the tourist industry herds them there in their millions. I didn't like it and I'm glad I'm at the less well known part.
There are trips a-plenty to choose from, including Phi Phi of course. I was almost tempted by it, but some research tells me that Phi Phi takes over an hour by speedboat and when you get there, all you see are tourists. Not my idea of fun, despite how beautiful the place looks.
But didn't I want to try diving? Yes, I seem to remember that. I was snokelling in Bali and I thought...I'd like to try diving, despite having tried it 25 years ago and saying never again. And aren't I temporarily living over a diving shop?
I just asked about it, and for people like me who once said Never Again, they have a one-day try diving thing. They leave at 7 in the morning and get back in the evening. There's food. And snokelling too if you don't want the second dive. And a bit of sightseeing.
“Where do you go?” I asked.
“Phi Phi,” she said. "It takes a couple of hours on the boat but it's a beautiful trip."
So I booked it. I go on Saturday. On the water and under it.
If I live, I shall tell you about it.
Eagle Square, Langkawi. No idea why it's called that.
The empty public beach...
The sun going down on Ao Nang, Thailand
I really ought to write more often. So, where was I. Oh yes, hoping that Penang would be less challenging. In a way, it was. I caught a super cheap, super clean, super easy train from China Town to the bus station, which resembles an airport. The bus had huge seats and carried me in comfort for about 5 hours up through the slightly mountainous rain forest to Penang, an island on the east coast. Yes, it's an island, but served by a few big bridges and it turned out to be, sadly, a bit like KL lite. Lots of tall buildings in George Town, and once again, almost all Chinese. It's eighty percent Chinese, apparently.
George Town has a clock dedicated to Queen Victoria, and while most of the street names seem Chinese (what do I know), many are overtly British. I stayed in a Chinese hotel in Argyll Street. There's Leith and Cameron and Downing streets too. A fort Cornwallis. With everyone driving on the left and all the electric sockets of the British type, it feels like we never left.
So I stayed a while in Penang. I liked the hotel, which was older but oddly charming. The Malaysian man on the desk was quietly amusing and very helpful. He seemed to know everything and would impart information if he thought it was actually helpful. I returned from one punishingly hot walk through the streets of Penang and commented on the dangerous temperature, and without looking up from his paperwork he simply said...”It's the end of the world, I tell you.”
The food was good in Penang. I had, I think, some of the best Indian food I've ever had. And on one occasion I wandered past a large hall, full of old tables and cheap plastic chairs. A vast array of dishes were arranged at street level and I was interested in what these dishes contained. I recognised nothing. I wandered beyond the threshold to investigate further and was suddenly presented with a plate with a large mound of rice on it. “What do I do now?” I asked. Another woman came to my rescue and told me what each metal tray contained. Fish curry, tofu, some vegetable things, some unpronounceable things. I scooped some onto my plate of rice and was charged 3 ringgits. That's what, 60 cents. It was very good and very filling.
When I got back to the hotel I told the man I'd just had lunch for 3 ringgits and he said it was impossible to make food for that price, and what colour was the woman?
“Was she Malaysian or Chinese?”
“I think she must have been Chinese,” he said. “I bet you were the only tourist.”
He nodded. I'm not sure what the nod meant.
The breakfast room was on the top floor, a kind of roof garden, and it was managed by an Indian woman and Chinese woman, who fussed over everyone. The Chinese lady gave me a Vitamin C drink because I had a cold, and kept rushing up to me with slices of orange. On my last day she tried to give me aspirin which she said she got from her son in America. Later, she was going to the hospice to chat to people. That hotel was a small oasis of old-world charm, which is why I booked three nights but decided to stay for six.
On leaving Penang, I boarded a boat to the island of Langkawi just off the coast of Thailand. It was a boat, I think. The water was flat and the windows opaque and it was packed with immovable human cargo and their accompanying bags. I got on, squeezed into a seat and watched Jurassic World on a tv screen until we had presumably finished a sea voyage and got out at what looked like Jurassic World. The island is all stunning peaks covered in rain forest. On the boat I sat next to an Australian couple who were visiting Langkawi, as many seem to do, for the beaches and relaxation. It's billed as an island for honeymooners. I told them I wasn't staying at the beach, I'd gone for the Geopark Hotel because the picture showed a cable car up into the mountains and I thought it might be cool (as in temperature, not, you know, cool). While watching Jurassic World, I said, “That's where I'm going.”
It was a joke, but I was alarmed to discover that's exactly where I ended up. The Geopark Hotel isn't just in the Geopark, an area of wonderfulness that covers much of the island, but it's in the middle of a theme park! I have a natural hatred for theme parks and I found myself spending three nights in one. Admittedly, it's quiet at night because the park is closed, but during the first day I discovered that I'd have to eat as tourists do – badly and for a lot of money – and if I didn't eat before the park closed I'd have to go hungry or sneak out and bag myself a T-Rex.
The first day was horrible. All I could see from my bedroom window was hoards of happy holidaymakers and the music and announcements that go with the masses enjoying themselves. I went out and sneered at them.
But later in the day I discovered several things. There was a German restaurant that served Italian food made by a man from Algeria, which was too irresistible a combination. Also, there's a duty free shop. Yes. A duty free shop. Now all the bad things in life were affordable. And that cable car. It mocked me from my bedroom window because, as I discovered, it's the steepest cable car in the world. I know I use hyperbole hundreds of times in my posts, but this one isn't hyperbole at all. It really is supposed to be the steepest in the world. I am afraid of heights, I'm ashamed to say, but this thing challenged me with every little swinging gondola.
The second day was better. I got up, realising it was silly to be miserable in the middle of a theme park and I bought a ticket for everything. All I needed to do was conquer my bilious horror just looking at the cable car and learn to be a tourist.
It's not that it's steep. The cable car at Vogel in Slovenia is steep (it took me many goes on that to get over the fear of it and I'm still convinced it's steeper). No, it's that it's so high above the ground. Vogel never goes that far above the trees and you can almost pretend that you're not going up a mountain. This one dangles high over a rain forest. And if you're still alive when you get to the top, there's an added insult. You get from one peak to the next in a flat but terrifying cable car that really has no need to be there except to kill people.
So off I went. The gondolas take six people, but a VIP ticket can get you a gondola all on your own. Who, I wondered, would want to be in a gondola on their own? Isn't it bad enough with company?
Being a man travelling alone, I was invited into an empty gondola. The girl asked if I'd like company and I said YES!!!!! She just laughed, and as the thing never actually stops to wait for you, I had to get in. I set off, alone.
The first part is okay. The cable is a huge exponential curve, starting flat and then getting steeper and steeper as it reaches the final third. I filmed it. Sadly the internet here tells me it will take 39 hours to upload so you'll have to wait for that treat, but let me try to describe it. It was very very quiet. When I moved, it swung unnecessarily, and I clutched the seat and chose to film out the window without actually looking. And then, when it got to the final third and the near vertical part, the wind got up. I could hear nothing but wind and sweated my way through every little swinging horror. Miles below me, giant dinosaurs looked like ants. Yes, it was high.
I got out at the first peak and tried to look like it was all perfectly normal. I took photos, knowing that in a moment I'd have to face the long flat one that went from peak to peak.
I was alone for that one too. “Why am I doing this?” I said to my video camera.
I returned with company, thank goodness. Five of us came down and the chat made the whole thing so much easier. I hardly noticed the wind, but the man from KL said they had decided to return because a storm was coming. I had noticed it too. Flee is perhaps a good word to describe it from my own perspective, but I think all of us thought it was sensible to get down before the wind got too entertaining.
So having survived the world's steepest and perhaps most unnecessary cable car in the world, I went off to enjoy the other delights of the theme park. And I have to say, it's fun being a tourist. The 3D art exhibition was far more impressive and entertaining than I could have imagined, and one of the rides I wanted to do again and again. About thirty people sit in a kind of truck and are “driven,” into a world of 3D CGI dinosaurs which, in time-honoured tradition, suddenly decide to attack the truck. It gets thrown about, you get wet, you are chased by a T-Rex and almost killed by creatures that, through the use of 3D glasses and an enormous wrap-around dome, really do seem real. I loved it. I loved the theme park. I'd recommend it. I am no longer the man who sneered at the thronging hoards a mere 24 hours before. They know how to enjoy themselves, something I have never grasped.
And so I am up to date. After Jurassic World I headed off the a very cheap place in the middle of the rain forest. I am in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by locals. I haven't seen a tourist for a couple of days and when I walk along the road, heads turn and people wave. This is a Muslim country and it's the first time I haven't been surrounded by Chinese people. The majority of the women wear the hijab. I am surrounded by ready smiles, the little kids all wave and stare at me. Even groups of men, sitting at plastic tables under the shade of a tree, turn their heads and wave at this odd non-local walking along in 35 degrees. Only mad dogs and Englishmen, as Noel Coward used to sing. I seem to be the only tourist here. I did see a white guy on a scooter, heading for a beach, no doubt, that he's the only one I've seen.
When I arrived there was nobody here. Even the Chinese taxi driver got out, scratched his head and said...no people. I said I'd be fine, and waited for half an hour before I found someone.
Later, I wondered if I might die of thirst because bottled water is vital and I seemed to be surrounded by nothing but trees. Luckily, down the road is one of those dark places that sell everything. All but everyday items are covered in a slight coating of road dust. I found water and pot noodles and oreo biscuits and cheesey bread and coffee. I would live! The shop includes two old ladies who sit amid boxes, a cat which I think is still alive, and a young girl serving behind the counter who speaks excellent English. Today, my second water and pot-noodle run, resulted in a long chat about where I've been and where I'm going next and what I do for a living and basically, anything that isn't working in a dark shop on a lonely road in a rain forest. The old ladies smile at me. The cat doesn't move.
This evening I found a street food place that was set up like the one in Penang. I got rice and something that I think was chicken curry and a drink for next to nothing, and the two women kept looking at me as though I was conducting an experiment. Perhaps I was. I like to say that I ate where it cost nothing and I recognised even less. I like to chat to real people. I like that the tiny children look at me as though I were a T-Rex in a theme park.
I'm here for a few more days. I investigated the mangrove swamp tonight too, strolling amid monkeys and watching those fish that walk out onto the mud. I was happy doing that. I was happy telling the girl in the dark shop that I started this trip with Christmas in London and then a wedding in snowy Poland and I'm now in country number four. “Where next?” she asked.
“Thailand,” I said.
“I don't know. Let's see what Monday brings.”
I'll keep you posted.
The desk in the Kuala Lumpur hotel room has a list of things you can buy as a souvenir. It actually says “Souvenir Price List,” on the top in case you're in any doubt as to what it is. I can understand Coffee Mug, at a moderate 50 ringgits (about 10 euros, just divide by 10 and double it). Or how about a tumbler glass at only 10 ringgits? These seem like souveniry things and you could get a tumbler glass on a plane couldn't you. But there are no less than 47 things on this list, including a 32 inch television (2,500 ringgits), a sofa chair, a standing lamp, or how about a Queen-sized mattress for 1,600? If you bought all 47 items you could completely recreate this hotel bedroom anywhere in the world, if you could get it all home. You'd have a souvenir hotel bedroom.
My last week in Bali was a lot of fun. The place was half hotel half hostel so it had a good social area where I had my most social moments of the trip. One night Ben, who was busking his way around Asia, played and sang and it was a good evening. A young English policemen, Darrel, turned us into a kind of trio despite me shocking everyone that night by having 3 beers, and much fun was had by all. Different nationalities, ages, backgrounds, reasons for being there, we all found a common place to become temporary friends.
After a week of that I descended into hell. I got a car to Denpasar airport and discovered just how miserable it is making a semi-domestic flight in this part of the world. It took a full three hours to get in the airport entrance and onto the plane. Bags are X-rayed as soon as you walk into the airport. Then again (with walk-through detectors) to get the check-in desks. Then again before immigration. The queue looks, to the untrained eye, like a queue. There are red taped-off lanes just like we're used to. But hoards of Chinese people simply think this is a way of slowing their progress to the front. Not just Chinese of course, but it's been the Chinese New Year which last for ever and large numbers of Chinese tourists are abroad, abusing the British notion of forming an orderly queue. Other nations use other techniques. They make the queue move faster by pushing from the rear. The walk in a group through the walk-through metal detectors as if they simply aren't there. It was, in a word, horrible.
After those three hours I had a three hour flight to Kuala Lumpur through some notoriously bumpy skies (please don't let the wings fall off, please don't let the wings fall off) and finally we had arrived. To another two hours of queue fighting to get through immigration. Two hours for someone to say Welcome to Malaysia. When I got to the baggage carousel, there were only three bags going around and around. One of them was mine. I bet the other two belonged to English people too.
There is a window in this room. It looks out upon skyscrapers and endless traffic. Behind me is China town and the famous Petaling Street where market stalls sell typical stuff to tourists. The guy who drove me into KL from the airport was Chinese and he pointed it out. So I thought that China Town was back the road a bit. But in the other direction – the direction in which my window points – is the equally famous Low Yat Plaza, Malaysia's largest IT mall. I know, because I spent the best part of two days there trying to buy a new laptop from the 20 million possible choices. I am typing this on one of those choices because it took me two whole days to actually buy one. The point I'm making is that, while Low Yat Plaza is in the other direction, it's madly Chinese. Have you seen BladerRunner? Harrison Ford has the job of tracking down androids who look just like us, and amid all this high tech is a world of noodles and back-street Orientals cooking up fake creatures and other high-tech wonders. That world was based on Low Yat and its environs, I'm sure.
So for a week now I've been immersed in Chinatown and high tech. I also seem to be in a place frequented by prostitutes, which at first I found slightly alarming. I kept wondering why I was suddenly attractive. I kept wondering why surprisingly alluring women saw me and reacted as though I had made their day. Then I realised that as a man of a certain age, alone in South East Asia, I'm sure I do look like the kind of man who would make their day, at least financially.
In fact, the first hotel I booked gave me such an uneasy feeling that after two nights I booked into the somewhat nicer hotel next door. I felt instantly better. Everyone was nice. Nobody looked like they were going to love me long time.
The first morning in the new hotel (this one, where you can buy a Souvenir 32 inch TV and matching Queen-sized mattress) I went for a walk (to buy a laptop) and when I got back the cleaning girl was cleaning the room next door. Mine hadn't been done but I didn't need it, and all my worldly good are in there and I prefer a damp towel to robbery. So I asked if I could just grab some more bottled water and coffee of the room.
“Yes!” the girl said. “You want your room cleaned?”
“No, I'm fine, just water is great. And coffee. I do like coffee!”
“Well, if you need anything, just call me,” she said.
She then wrote down her name and phone number. Sam. Not very attractive. She looked like she had a comb-over and stubble.
Later I went out and Sam was cleaning another room. “You are so SWEET!” she said.
Later, she explained to me how hard it is being a transgender person from Pakistan in KL and she tries to save money and send it home and she can't explain to her family that she wants to be a real girl and sometimes she has to take money for sex because we all need money and she doesn't like condoms.
You know the long queues and terrible turbulence in the plane and then the extra two hours of queuing? That was more comfortable than having Sam the cleaner try to gain entry to my room. I am, I admit, out of my depth in the big city, and I look forward to the next stop. Tomorrow morning I catch a train to the bus station, and then a 6 hour bus ride to the island of Penang up north. I hope it's less...challenging.
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