Wow. It’s cold here. I don’t think autumn had even started when I left. Now it’s properly winter. I feel a bit like it’s all been a dream and I’ve been unconscious, like the kid from Flight Of The Navigator except that I’ve definitely aged during my time away and I have memories.
I could spend a small eternity typing up my travels properly but it would take too long and I doubt anyone will want to devote the majority of their day to reading it.
Instead, in the spirit of Dave’s write up of California and Kip Pardue’s account of his trip to Europe in the awesome Rules Of Attraction, I shall attempt to recount my expedition as if I was telling you what I did in few breathless sentences.
Here goes (deep breath):
Took a train to Reading and had a final fish ‘n’ chips before flying out of Heathrow the next day, connected at Doha in Qatar and arrived into Bangkok’s new International Suvarnabhumi Airport where it didn’t look like the paint had dried yet. Saw the Wat Phra Kaew (Grand Palace), Wat Pho (housing the reclining Buddha, 46m long and 15m high), Wat Intharawihan (with its 32m standing Buddha), went to Siam Square, rode the sky train. Had a few all-nighters and met a lot of ex-pats who all had their horror stories and their Thai partners, drank in a lot of cool bars with a variety of tourists and Thais who ranged from very knowledgeable and interesting to self interested and xenophobic. Saw some Muay Thai and enjoyed a cold beer while the contenders punched and kicked (and kneed and elbowed) to frenzied live music. Split for Cambodia and found myself on the road (waterlogged dirt and rubble track) from Poi Pet to Siem Reap in a violent tropical storm where the lightning struck too close to our bus too often. Found a beautiful guest house set up by some friendly Norwegians who had purposefully neglected to put TV’s in the rooms. Saw some carefully recreated models of the Angkor temples in stone (the Khmer equivalent of Bourton-on-the-Water in the Cotswolds), chatted to some monks who knew more about premiership football than I did (not difficult) and we speculated where the money from the UN and tourism actually goes, visited local craft workshops and went drinking in Bar St. in the spectacular “Angkor What?” where I danced to a lot of Arctic Monkeys. Chartered a boat to a Kampong Pluk, a remote flooded village on stilts, took a bigger boat along the Tonle Sap river to the town of Battambang and back and spent a day with my mouth open walking around the temples at Angkor – especially at Bayon with its wistful faces gazing out into the jungle and at secluded Ta Prohm where it wasn’t difficult to imagine Lara Croft guiding me through the ruins. Headed to Phnom Penh where I checked into another friendly guesthouse and saw The Killing Fields where, if you were unaware of the history, the tranquillity would only be disrupted by small traces of human bones and teeth in the dirt. My driver asked me if I wanted to pay to go and fire a selection of old munitions in a bunker somewhere nearby and I said no. Saw The Khmer Royal Palace, The National Museum, one of the city’s orphanages and then went out drinking with some of the Cambodians who worked at my guesthouse, the beer was dangerously cheap and I was offered sautéed ants. Avoided the notorious “Heart Of Darkness” club but was dragged to a similar dive where I danced to the Macarena for the first time in years. Took a bus into Vietnam where I saw my first gangster and his arrest for trying to bring a gun into the country. Hit Ho Chi Minh City on a sunny Friday afternoon where everyone rides motorbikes like they need to get to a hospital. Walked all over Saigon and saw the Fine Arts Museum, the late 19th century red brick Notre Dame Cathedral, the beautiful French post office, the Museum Of HCMC and its accounts of the American War, the War Remnants Museum which was intense, as I was leaving I was cornered by a man who had prosthetic legs and only stumps for arms. I got lost as it was getting dark and barely found my way back to the backpacker area. I took a day out to visit Dam Sen Water Park, hooked up with a Brit and two Swedish girls and we rode the slides and lazy rapids and barely noticed when it poured with rain. Went to see the nasty Cao Dai Great Temple (Graham Greene described it as “…A synthesis of the three religions …Christ and Buddha looking down from the roof of the cathedral on a Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in Technicolor.”), and spent an afternoon avoiding man traps and scuttling through Viet Cong tunnels at Cu Chi. Again, refused the offer of firing live rounds. Dragged myself to see a few movies with a German girl. She was lovely but the films were Nacho Libre and The Wicker Man remake. I’d wished she’d been less lovely so I could have avoided the films. Next day took her to the zoo, bowling and for lunch followed by a few games of pool. No play. I told myself it was because I’d let my beard grow and how much can you really trust a man with a ginger beard? Rode north to lazy Mui Ne Beach and rented a beach hut. It was low season so hardly anyone about but I had good food and peace away from the hoards. Despite the place having the ‘Saint Kevin’s Stump’ standard of local landmarks, it was picturesque and the sand sledding was good fun. Stopped in Nha Trang further up the coast. I signed up for a boat trip around a few islands but was gutted when they said we weren’t stopping at the islands and I realised I was stuck on a boat for a whole day’s booze cruise with a contingent of timid Japanese, a couple of Korean guys, an ageing Canadian and his Vietnamese ‘friend’ and that the only people I could talk to were four loud girls from Tazmania who looked like they were wearing badly-fitting fat suits. Next day I got scooped up by a local tour guide called ‘Eddie Murphy’ who was insane but he did take me round the cultural sites on the back of his bike including the Cham temple of Po Nagar, a local arts centre, the city’s French Gothic Cathedral and the Long Son Pagoda with a giant white seated Buddha on the hillside behind it. Made for Hoi An where most of the best French colonial buildings remain and drifted round the shady streets in a dream when not eating good sea food and drinking cool local beers. The labyrinth of little streets and alleys were lit by hazy sunshine by day and Chinese lanterns after dark. Got fitted for a jacket, a shirt and some boots in the afternoon and collected them in the evening. Boarded a coach and was deposited in old imperial Hue, chilled out in a few bars, got drunk in a Belgian bar and found more Norwegians to drink with in a bar called DMZ. Got lost in the ancient walled city but found an obscure garden restaurant where they offered a set menu of at least fourteen courses and the food was sculpted into various unlikely shapes. It looked a million dollars but cost ten. I spent the night on the bus to Hannoi where people drive more chaotically than they do in HCMC but you can’t use the pavements because they’re full of bikes and their owners who are gathered eating with friends. Found the best patisseries for breakfast, negotiated the slipstream to get round and saw the Hoan Kiem Lake where there are supposed to be giant turtles but no one’s ever seen them, crossed on to an island to explore the Ngoc Son Temple, saw the water puppets at the Municipal Theatre, and drank the bia hoi (brought in fresh daily and dirt cheap). Journeyed to Halong Bay in the north east where the endless rocks rival Krabi in Thailand, did some sea kayaking and swimming and spent a night on top of a boat staring at the stars. Took another trip on a sleeper train north west to the hill town of Sapa for a day or two of trekking along the mountainous slopes and rice terraces which was exhilarating both because of the spectacular views and because it was a lot cooler, I got mild food poisoning but it didn’t get in the way too much. Rode the coach from Hanoi to Vientiane which took 26 hours. We took three hours to get across the border from Cau Treo into Nam Phao and after the gorgeous jungles and hills of eastern Laos we broke down a few hours outside the capital but got rescued by another bus which gave us plastic kids seats so we could sit in the aisle. I spent my last few days in Vientiane being useless and lazy and sitting by the Mekong river drinking beer because I didn’t have time or the energy to go anywhere else before I had to leave for Bangkok. Laos was very easy going and friendly. But I realised that you do need to take your time as things happen slowly! My coach from Vientienne dropped me on Khao San road at 4:00am which is a strange place to be when you’re not drunk at that time. I crawled into a guest house and waited for it to be time to fly home.
By the end of his Euro trip Victor claims that “I no longer know who I am and I feel like the ghost of total stranger.” I can’t claim that. I feel like my own ghost.
But it was worth it.