Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Monkeying about...

And then there was one. My man trip was over and I was all by myself. Now, rather than fawning around thinking about the past I needed to get on with the future. So I went to visit a past friend from Uni.

It had been a while since I last saw Hilary, in fact, our 2001 Communications Ball might have been the last shot....
I've aged

In fact I blame the UK for my massive ageing. Look at me two days after arriving on this little island.

You think that’s bad – check out me out in Paris, June 2000. A point to note -how stereotypically French is the guy behind me?

And the exact same spot 10 years later…..

Who ate all the pies???

Anyway, Hilary has been living in Phenom Penh for a good two years, and with her fiancé (now husband) slumming it as the CEO of one of the country’s largest banks, I thought it was worth a visit/use of far better facilities than a backpackers.

ដែលមិនចេញស្តី, សេចក្តីហាមឃាត យុវតី, មនុស្សស្រី, ក្មេងស្រី

Picking me up from the airport she gave the run down and the lie of the land. The bars that we could head to, the markets we could push through, the parties we would attend and the sites that I should see. And we got to all of them, although not in that order.

First thing was first, and that was a shower and a drink to catch up on old times.

Pulling in to Hil’s house my old ex-pat lifestyle from Pakistan flashed before my eyes. The driver, the guards, the maid, everything. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more at home than those few days. It was how I grew up, and what I recall from most of my childhood.

That night, after a few bars, we headed to a party held at the home of a member of the diplomatic corp. I would say which one, but seeing the party was in aid of him moving back to his country and the aim was to consume his entire liquor cabinet, I’ll leave it there. But it made me think how my parents must have lived - albeit me and my sister running around like idiots - and how amazing their lifestyle was.

The next day it was off the Killing Fields and S21, the infamous torture cells used by the Khmer Rouge. Hiring ‘Sammy’, my new rickshaw friend, we made the 30 minute ride out to the Killing Fields. One thing you notice about Cambodia is how empty it feels, particularly after coming from the throb of Saigon. I’m not going to go in to the details, but some of the sights and stories are quite disturbing, and to think it wasn’t that long ago.

However, the night was a different beast, with Australia vs Iraq in the Asian Cup. And what a surreal event it was. On one side of me as a high ranking Australian official, and the left of me were four Iraqi gents who said they worked for the Iraqi High Commission (I would have thought that any High Commission would be nullified with a regime change – but that’s probably just my ignorance). Although not overly hostile, I did feel a little bit like the UN stuck in between the factions. My weapon of choice – scotch.

Waking the next day at 5.30am it was time to head of Siem Riep.

My driver – Sammy – had arranged for another driver to pick me up from the bus station. So arriving just a little out of town, I looked around for a sign with my name on it. Not seeing one I started to get a little confused, and that’s when I spied my tuk tuk driver in the distance…holding a sign with a drawing of Bart Simpson.

I was going to like this town.

First thing first - find a hotel with a pool. That settled it was off the Angor Wat to get my three day pass to see the temples and take in the sunset over the entire area. I’d write a lot more about the temples and slumming around Siem Riep, but all I really did there was temples in the morning, lounge by the pool in the afternoon, and go out to the aptly named ‘Pub Street’ at night. It was a slow, relaxing few days with a cooking class here and there, a few books.

With my two days in Siem Riep slowly turning in to six, as I was in no rush to go anywhere. But all good things come to an end, and after spending five of those days with Mr Suni (my tuk tuk driver) it was time to say goodbye.

After I wore a colourful shirt to sunrise over Angkor Wat, Mr Suni couldn’t stop talking about it. So you can imagine his delight when I literally gave him the shirt off my back. Hopping on to the bus to head back to Phenom Penh, he drove the tuk tuk behind the bus for at least 5 minutes to make sure I was safely on my way (either that or he wanted to make sure I was out of town and there was no chance of securing my shirt).

So it was back to Phenom Penh before a flight to Chang Mai.

I really liked Chang Mai. It’s laid back, there’s a party if you’re looking for it but don’t have to, and lots of activities. Doing the standard white water rafting and cooking classes again, they were all a precursor for my crossing the border again for Laos, where I was spending two nights and three days living in the tree tops with the gibbons; zip lining between rickety huts about 150 metres up in the trees.

Hopping on the 3 hour bus ride to the border (trying to avoid a conversation with the English guy next to me asking if I carry some of the hash he had on him), a slim little canoe across the river and I was back in Laos and ready for the 3 hour drive and 2 hour hike in to the jungle.

Hiking through the jungle it was a few hours before we stumbled upon a single steel cable leading out in to the canopy and disappearing into the trees. Clipping in to our harnesses, we shot off the side of the mountains/tree branches/platforms/anything, only having our faith in an unregulated, untested, unsafe Laos activity – nothing wrong here….

For the next two days most of our time was spent hiking between these amazing tree houses perched high up in the tree tops, before zipping around the canopy and never touching the ground. It was an amazing experience, particularly looking out over the jungle and seeing lightening bolts shooting across the sky.

The beer in side pocket comes as standard...

But after two days – one gibbon spotted - it was time to head out of the hills and back to camp before catching a flight back to Bangkok.

I was ready to go home.

At the age of 30 I realised my backpacking days were behind me. I was excited to be heading back to a new job, a lovely girlfriend waiting (well actually Anna was in Ecuador for another month which was a killer of a wait), a comfortable couch and many friends to see.

I wanted to eat better, exercise again and apply myself to this new, settled down life. I was growing up. No more backpacking for me, this was my new life now:

But before I left to return to the real world….I of course had to check in to a five star hotel to remind myself of this!

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Good morning...

và đây là nơi mà tôi nghĩ rằng  của tôi lừa dối tôi!

Arriving in Hanoi I was a little disappointed that we weren’t going to spend as much time as I wanted there – but I have vowed to come back. The city itself is a gasoline, Moped fuelled mad place. No sooner were we there then we were wondering which way to look with little Vietnamese buzzing around us like bees. This was all too much for us after the ‘relaxation’ of Laos the day before.
Easing our way back in to civilisation, we headed out to Halong Bay, a stunning archipelago of islands off the north east coast. An amazing piece of the world and a great place to cruise around; although once again four or five people who were obviously away for the first time ruined it a little. Wankers do come in all shapes and sizes. A particular annoyance was how clever thy thought they were constantly saying ‘How Long Bay’, when asking how long it took to get to where we were going. Almost as good as every second person that says ‘Angkor What?’ – such amazing originality!

However, offsetting this little group were a Canadian couple that lived in South Korea and the soon to be newest addition to our little crew, Monica.

We spent a couple of days in the Bay, including an island stay ala ‘The Beach’ which was an amazing place before back to Hanoi to begin the non-boozing side of our trip, well, after New Years at least! For this celebration, we headed down to Nah Trang on the coast for a few days.

Coming in to Nah Trang is like driving in to a coastal town, cruising down the highway with the beach on one side and the cliffs on another. However, listening to the best of Credence Clear Water Revival on the radio, including Fortune Son (a song about the Vietnam War) was a little strange for me to be honest and I wasn’t too sure whether to go with it or laugh – did both – the taxi driver was confused.
Nah Trang was a strange little place. After coming from the buzz of Hanoi, the stunning beauty of Halong Bay, to be deposited in Magaluf with Tom Yum soup didn’t make sense. The place was hustle and bustle with huge hotels going up, hawkers scouring the beach to sell you things (picked up a sweet ass towel though) and tourists wandering the beach stuck in the quasi-limbo between breakfast and party time, it felt a little removed. But we were basically only hanging about New Years – and what a cracker it was. Heading down to the Beach Club, as per usual, Gov and I separated and I soon found myself in a drinking game with a group of Vietnamese and an amazing night to remember. Probably my second favourite New Years to date.
My awesome towel
So 2011 was on us, so I felt it was time for a change. The only thing I could thinhk of was a hair cut. Rolling in to the hairdressers I asked for it all off! It took 20 minutes to wash my hair due to the sand, gunk, booze and everything else contained within, but eventually the job was done. Commenting on it, Monica said ‘preferred it longer actually’. Well thank you Miss Hindsight!
Welcome to my year...!
I also noticed that no matter where in the world you are, hairdressers use the exact same photos of models in their windows. I would have thought that a Vietnamese hairdresser would use some Vietnamese models to illustrate the styles they do. But no, you’re standard picture of Brad Pitt hangs by the door.

Deciding that we needed to get moving the next day we arranged to get our motorbikes to make the trip down to Ho Chi Minh trail. Much discussion was had about the route, but in the end we ditched the traditional ride along the coast and decided to take the Ho Chi Minh trail, skirting the Cambodian border, and heading deeper in to the highlands and jungle.

Now I’d like to give you a run down on what this was like, but I simply can’t. It was definitely the highlight of the trip. For three nights we stayed in the middle of the Vietnamese country side, nearly died at least twice (mine was nearly going over the handle bars at 60kms when a dog shot our in front of me and near call with a bus), ate from truck stops, saw some amazing sites and all in all just had an amazing time. 513 kms of enjoyment. My personal favourite was watching Gov trying to ask for toilet paper at one stop where they didn’t speak any English – it was quite an amusing game of charades!
Flagrant false advertising!
A strange thing happened to me while riding down south – I felt home sick. I don’t think I’ve ever felt home sick in my life. And it was for the UK, not Australia. I missed Anna, I missed my routine, I missed my bed and I missed day to day life. I just couldn't get these things out of my head - it was a strange feeling fr someone whose travelled a bit.

After three days on a bike, you start getting exceptionally cocky, which isn’t cool given you’re hurtling between semi trailors and oncoming buses at 90kms an hour, and all the while a stray dog is darting out on front of you. Or, in Dwayno’s case, a child throws a Coke can at you because your 6“3’ frame scares them (or watching him break about 15 different chairs due to them not being made for his proportions).
Larger things to the right...
By far the best part – and what for all three us knew was looming over our head – was the approach in to Saigon. After being told by our guide, Sun, that we needed to rest for the night before we hit the start of Saigon traffic, we were a little nervous about what to expect

No matter what we were told, nothing prepared us for it! Navigating the millions of motorbikes, people holding you by the shoulders as your driving through, being cut off, driving on the footpath, the honking, the beeping, the shoving, the veering, the honking, the colours and pollution, the honking – it was like being a fish in a school. Amazing experience! Imagine Mario Kart, complete with people chasing you with bananas. Finally getting in to Saigon in one piece, we needed a proper shower and – as good as Vietnamese food is – some complex carbs were the order of the day!

A plate of carbonara and a beer later and we were in a happy place.
Converting the locals to pasta...
Saigon (now officially called Ho Chi Minh City), once the capital of the South, is a city that seems trapped in its past. Although it fell to the North in the 70s, there’s a real sense of a city still occupied; nothing like the festival feel that comes with Hanoi. After speaking with some, the older generation still feel that they are South Vietnamese, and propaganda glamorising the north part of the country is still everywhere. Stories and museums about the war cover it, obviously, from the Vietcong angle, giving little balance to the side of the South – and those that still live there. With that, you can kind of feel the ‘tension’ that exists: To the victor the spoils I guess.
Which one's the tank...?
Most of our time in Saigon was spent in Museums, Coo Chi Tunnels or seeing the sights; however, in a bit of small world-ism, as were sitting out the front of a bar I gent walked passed, looked at me and said: ‘Bart?’

Now I hadn’t seen Conan since a house party in London in mid-2007, so a back street bar in 2011 Saigon wasn’t a place I was expecting a reunion. Conan ended up spending the next few days with us before Gov and I flew off to Koh Pi Pi and Dwayne headed back to Aus.
Do not challenge locals (or Anna) to rock, paper scissors... 

Back to Thailand

The worst thing about Australians travelling is visible at Phuket. Bargain flights, fat blokes from the suburbs and their wives dripping in fake gold jewellery and rip off designer clothes they just bought from a street vendor down the road are everywhere, with teh only piece of Asian culture is that they have soy sauce in McDonalds: Aussie Costa Del Sole!

We were there for one night before we headed to Koh Phi Phi, so we measured ourselves for suits, caught up with some of Gov’s mates, and wandered through the night listening to chants of Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, and some pissed up bogan questioning why the Thai man serving him drinks couldn't understand English. After listening said bogan’s guttural murmurings, I was wondering why he couldn’t speak it either.

Very next day was a boat ride to Koh Pi Pi, which at least has some natural beauty. Unfortunately the Thais, knowing what brings in the Jetstar crowd, have concreted this over with hamburger joints and Mui Thai shows. Didn’t faze me too much as I was down and out with avian flu and only saw Pi Pi from my bed!!!

So after several days of lapsing in and out of my death bed... it was time to head back to the mainland and Gov to go home. However, Phuket decided to throw the kitchen sink at us in the final hours with a taxi driver not showing up to take him to the airport, an attempt to overcharge us at the hotel and some dodgy handmade shirts, it was a rush to get to airport in time for Gov’s flight – and it was a close call with him throwing his bags to me as he sprinted for the check in desk. I managed to get about half a gram of hash in to it before he checked in – haven’t heard from him since!
The only purpose of this photo is for the world's best photo bomb!!!
With Gov heading home, I was relishing the opportunity to get back to the quieter side of Asia and leave the flashy lights behind. Now, I know what you’re thinking – getting old so not really up for it any more.

In part..yes, but more so that it’s not that special anymore. Here comes that travel snob….

I can see how the Thai/Laos party life is exciting if it’s all new to you, but living in London, spending weekends in European cities on a whim, and basically living the life of Peter Pan for the past 6 years, I’m just used to it, really. Also, add in the travellers who are ‘discovering themselves’ but don’t yet realise that the party ends as soon as you return home, and it all becomes just a little monotonous.

Why do you think I haven’t gone back to Aus yet – I don’t want the party to end!!!!

But with this little party over, I needed something new, so it was off to Cambodia to visit an old friend.