Travel blog from India and South East Asia, 2008-09.
My senses are reeling. we landed two hours later than scheduled, and we were relieved to see a smiling young man holding a card with our name on it. He’d been waiting for three hours. He led us through a throng of touts to a dusty car park. his car was battered – there were dents everywhere dents were possible to be. we climbed into the back, where we discovered the seatbelts were merely decorative.
The drive to our hotel would have been hair-raising if we’d been awake enough to hold our lives in any special regard. I had expected to see cycle rickshaws weaving in and out of the traffic while going the wrong way down a main road, but the true extent of the chaos must be directly experienced to be fully appreciated. Our man, impatient at waiting at a roundabout simply mounted the pavement, thumb holding down the horn, undercut all of the traffic in the nearside lane and cut back in front of a truck. I congratulated him on his maneuver. ‘I have other duties today’, he replied.
Although the near-continuous blowing of horns and shouting seemed impenetrably complex at first, by the end of this first road journey I’d figured out the rationale. Drivers of all vehicles use their horns to indicate the following: when moving forwards, when moving backwards, when turning left or right, when changing lanes, when parking, when turning around, when lights change, when lights don’t change, when there are any pedestrians, cyclists or animals, and when the planet is round.
Our hotel in Karol Bagh is probably as good as it gets in India without spending serious money. The room is cool, clean and the bed is comfortable. We don’t want to leave, although finances may force us into a more modest dwelling before we leave Delhi.
Food will be a big problem for me in India. As it is, I walk a narrow line between a healthy concern with food hygiene and an eating disorder. This is the case in merry old England, where the water is uncontaminated and the regulation of commerce is existent. We ate our first meal on the rooftop of the hotel. I allayed my fears that every bite was a potential health hazard by sipping a beer that cost three times as much as the food. It’s nearly 24 hours later and there hasn’t been a violent intestinal protest yet.
We watched a few minutes of one of the dozens of soap operas seemingly available on every channel and slept for a long time.
We started our second day in Delhi with omelettes on the roof. Perfectly tasty and nothing too much to worry about. I declined tea and coffee. Their time will come, and it will be after I stop worrying about the bottled water. A good scam here is to sell tap water in bottles. Unless you’re curious about Indian healthcare facilities, you have to be careful to buy bottles that are properly sealed. Royal Blue is my brand of choice.
After breakfast, we tried and failed to get a rickshaw to Connaught Place. After two streets, our rickshaw driver pulled over, turned the engine off and began a lengthy monologue that ended with his emphatic assertion that we were to visit a shopping emporium chosen by him, at which we would receive very good deals. His commission from the shop was implicit. The good thing about rickshaws is you can get the fuck out of them at more or less any point of your choosing. So we did.
This turned out to have been fortuitous, as so traumatised were we by the auto-rickshaw industry that we found our way to Karol Bagh metro station and got a tube. I don’t mean to sound imperialistic, but it’s fair to compare the Dehlia metro to the London tube, in that the station signs are almost identical in design. It is also quick and efficient. This is where the similarities end. A single fare costs about ten pence, and we repaired with little fuss to Connaught Place.
I will have trouble describing how lame Connaught Place is. I was warned about it by British Indian friends, but secretly hoped for grand old buildings and lots of green grass. I should have listened to my friends. The air was thick with exhaust fumes, there was nothing to see, and the only entertainment on offer was guessing the opening gambit of the next tout to harass you. If you stand still in Connaught Place for more than two seconds, someone will come and pester you. The same is true if you’re walking at any speed in any direction. My favourite tout was the ear doctor who offered to clean my ears for a few rupees, who showed me a notebook in which previous satisfied customers had written notes of recommendation. Amanda from Northern Ireland may well have enjoyed the benefits of a good ear-cleaning back in 1998, but I left neither shorter for cash nor cleaner of ear. Delhi’s noisy enough – in fact, he would get more business if he offered supplementary wax injections. I managed not to suggest this to him.
We got on the metro headed for Chandi Chowk, in the heart of Old Delhi – a total assault on the senses. The combination of smells alone were dizzying. Fried food, urine both stale and fresh, rotten vegetables, spices, detergent, sweat, concrete dust, you name it. The offers of rickshaws and guided tours were as numerous as in Connaught Place, but the touts were less of a nuisance in every way.
Crossing roads, I wondered why a concept as simple as right-of-way simply doesn’t seem to have caught on over here. I can’t decide if everyone thinks they are more important than everyone else, or if they realise they are as unimportant as everyone else, and their individual contribution to the maelstrom is negligible.
Chandi Chowk would be the first stop on the depraved poverty tour, if such a tour existed. People were lying in the streets in their dozens, covered in boils and (frankly) weird looking pustules, regarded no more or less by the people walking by than the hundreds of stray dogs meandering everywhere.
We stumbled upon the Red Fort. It looked amazing. There were touts and panhandlers everywhere, of course, and all the tourists seemed to have sat down by the police car parked near the entrance. We joined them. It provided the only feasible opportunity of the day to consult a map or guidebook without it being far more trouble than it was worth. You can’t take bags into the Red Fort, so rather than entrust them to the cloakroom housed in what I can only describe as a urine-soaked dungeon, we resolved to return the next day without bags.
We’re not short on time in Delhi. In fact, we’re here too long. Many people recommend leaving Delhi soon after arriving, and they are wise and venerable indeed. We’re here for a whole week, so I’m happy to stretch out the tourism.
On the way back to Karol Bagh, we decided to stop off at New Delhi train station, to get a feel for how things roll there. Things there roll depressingly. We have to get a train from here to Varanasi, for which we have mercifully bought e-tickets. Our cabin was unassigned at the time of booking, and we were told to consult a reservations board before departure. We wondered if we could find out where this might be ahead of time.
We tried to find the Tourist Information Office. According to Lonely Planet, it is upstairs at the station, and they tell you to ignore anyone telling you it’s moved/burnt down/been renovated, etc. This advice was hard to reconcile with the fact that the IT REALLY ISN’T THERE! There was a vast amount of scaffolding and deconstruction work going on, and the advice of a bona-fide station employee (at least, I think he was genuine, since he was checking people’s bags and tickets on their way through the security metal detectors) that the information bureau is now located solely at Connaught Place seemed reasonable. The thought of returning to Connaught Place that same day was too depressing, and we decided to pitch up to our train on the day and wing it a little. We considered footing it to Parahganj, but tout-psychosis set in and we ran for the relative safety of the metro.
We inadvertently returned to our hotel the long way round. Schools had just turfed out children in their hundreds, and we got a lot of attention from them as well as the touts. Every shanty street looked the same, and we trudged with increasing desperation until we finally spotted something familiar. nb, it wasn’t the herd of goats in the middle of the road.
I washed my hands twice, bought two big bags of crisps, two big bottles of water and a packet of cigarettes. Then I wrote all this. Then the Mumbai siege began. Yikes.
We’re going to the Taj Mahal tomorrow. Of course. And then to Varanasi, the so-called spiritual heart of India, where they burn the bodies on ghats by the Ganges. Also, if you die in Varanasi, you’re offered the chance to break the cycle of Samsara, should you wish. I’ll try not to let you know how that goes.
On the Kashi V Express to Varanasi, India
Of the many street smells of India, there is one I can’t identify. It’s a little like kissing someone who has a heavy cold – mucus and lemsip. Maybe I’ve answered my own question – maybe it’s mucus and lemons. This smell is everywhere in Agra, where we visited in the course of the obligatory trip to the Taj Mahal. Agra reminded me of a festival site at the end of a long weekend. Except there’s no-one rounding up the plastic bottles. The Taj sure is something. In fact, I find it hard to imagine anything more beautiful existing anywhere.
We hired a car and driver from Delhi to make the round trip in a day. Lots of people live at the sides of the road in homes built out of tin and timber. Some live on the central reservation. The pollution from exhaust fumes is so considerable that whenever I smoked one of my many cigarettes during the journey – every moment on Indian motorways feeling as if it could be my last – I wondered if I was actually giving my lungs a break from having to breathe the air.
Our driver was a good fella, but his limited, heavily-accented English did not play well with the incessant noise of engines and horns in the course of entering my less-than-perfect right ear. I must have said ’say that again’ to him more than fifty times. Sometimes our conversations became so hilariously farcical that when I finally understood what he had said, I would reply, ‘You can say that again’.
We attempted a little project called ‘Get a train from New Delhi station’. It wasn’t that bad. Our second visit to NDLS was better than the first – I found the tourist information bureau – it DID exist! – found our platform and got there in plenty of time. I chatted to a guy bound for Moradhabad. He was a barber. If I understood him correctly, he is going to Russia for three months. I wished him luck with that. I have no plans to ever set foot in Russia. He told me he was Muslim and asked me what religion I was. When I told him I had no religion he looked at me as if I’d told him I could breathe underwater. I said I didn’t think there were many Muslims in India. I didn’t understand his reply, but he looked as if he was only too aware of that fact. This was the first conversation I’ve had with an Indian that didn’t result in me parting with money. It only took a week.
I’m writing this on the night train to Varanasi. This being our first of many long distance journeys by rail in India, we booked a private booth with fold-down bunks. It’s not exactly the Larium and hashish hippie trail magical mystery tour of the 60s and 70s – we watched some Family Guy on the latop and napped. We had something that was billed as tomato soup, but tasted like salty red mud. It was 20 rupees. We’ll see how that goes through the system.
There’s a hypnotic picture of a Hindu god on the wall opposite my bunk. It might be Krishna, I don’t know, but it’s surrounded by Mandalas, snakes and flowers. I chanted ‘hare krishna, hare krishna, hare hare krishna’ while staring at it. Then a fly flew into our cabin and I killed it after an epic battle. I didn’t last long as a Hare Krishna.
Varanasi: Welcome to the Monkey House
We’re in Varanasi. It is beautiful, and it’s not hard to see why it is considered the spirutual heart of India. In the evenings, the haze of smoke over the river works with incense, bonfires and candles to induce a dream-like state of consciousness. Our room has a balcony overlooking the Ganges river. The Ganges is septic – it contains no oxygen. What it does contain is more than a million faecal bacteria per hundred ml of water. To provide some context, a safe figure for bathing would be about five hundred bacteria per hundred ml. This enters my mind with much alacrity every time I see groups of men completely and repeatedly immersing themselves in the river. Hindus make pilgrimages to Varanasi in their thousands in the belief that this holy river will cleanse them of a lifetime of sins. Some drink the water. This tradition has led to the creation, over hundreds of years, of ‘ghats’ – small harbours with steep steps leading to the water’s edge.
Our guest-house is on the Schindia ghat. I was sitting on the balcony a few minutes ago, fully absorbed by my Kurt Vonnegut collection entitled ‘Welcome to the Monkey House’. This turned out to be serendipitous, as all of a sudden I was surrounded by monkeys. We’d heard they steal anything you leave out. Book abandoned, I bid a hasty retreat to the room, hoping they didn’t share my taste in literature. I would have stayed out there amongst my hairy cousins had it not been for the mother/baby team making threatening noises at me. Monkeys! I should have been braver. I have, after all, had rabies shots at great financial expense, and it would be a shame to waste them. I always wonder how anyone who has ever seen a monkey could have trouble with the theory of evolution.
The main burning ghat is just a few yards down from our ghat. I should explain – people bring their dead from all over the state to cremate them by the ghats of Varanasi. The dead are carried through the streets, shrouded in satin and silk, to the ghat where they become the filling in a sandwich of wooden planks. A fire is lit, and they burn. You can stand above and amongst the burning ghats, unable to avoid inhaling the thick smoke of a dozen corpses. They get through a couple of hundred bodies a day.
You are strongly discouraged from taking photographs for obvious reasons, although the matter of respectful behaviour does not stop aggressive touts from trying to take you to a place for a ‘better view’ in return for a few rupees. Touts are numerous – it is a rare visitor who leaves Varanasi without a silk product of some kind, usually purchased soon after a boat trip – but they are not as persistent as the ones who plague Delhi.
We have been offered a lot of Opium since arriving in Varanasi. The sales pitch of choice is ‘full power seven hour’. It would probably take me seven hours just to figure out what to DO with Opium.
We’ve had a good time here. We’ve enjoyed long, lazy mornings on our balcony, long lazy lunches at the Brown Bread Bakery and long, lazy afternoon walks along the ghats, venturing from time to time into the narrow, winding cobbled streets where you jostle for position with cows, goats, motorbikes, stray dogs, mounds of cow shit and rivers of urine contributed to by species of all kinds. An American we talked to described asking a local for the location of the nearest toilet. The local replied, ‘You’re in India – piss anywhere you like!’
I like staying in places for more than a couple of days, with little to do other than wander around. In fact, the less you have to do, the more you feel at home. You also notice small details. For example, only for the first time today did I spot a rubbish bin between our guest house and the Ganges. It is the first such public utility I have seen in India. The futility of this rubbish bin cannot be overstated. It has a capacity of about ten litres. It is virtually empty. A few yards away, a pile of rubble in front of someone’s house features about a thousand plastic bottles, cigarette packets, crisp packets and empty chai cups. The streets aren’t as squalid as in Delhi, but it’s bad enough that the neat little rubbish bin with ‘Dust Bin’ carved on the side in Hindi and English becomes comically pointless.
I’ll miss this guest house. It sets a high standard for guest-houses everywhere. It’s called the Schindia Guest House. We found it by scouring travel forums for information about accommodation in Varanasi. On one of them, there was a thread dedicated to this very place, with half the contributors singing its praises, the other half damning it to hell. Fascinated, I knew there was no way I was going to stay anywhere else.
Our first morning at breakfast revealed telling signs of what might cause uptight people exasperation. A couple of young Frenchmen asked the proprietor, one Kush Barman, whether the lemon tea on offer was black tea with lemon in it, or just hot water and lemon. Our host turned, treated the hapless Frenchman to a few seconds of stony silence, then responsed. ‘My menu is perfectly clear. Decide what you want, then write it down.’
I might have imagined him wearing the faintest hint of a smile as he stormed off to the kitchen. Once out of sight, our fellow breakfasters joyfully launched into anecdotes about previously displayed eccentricities. To order food at the guest house, you write your room number along with your order on a little pad of paper which sonmeone comes round to collect every few minutes. The previous evening at dinner, we were told, a group of women had handed over their slips of paper, which Kush took one look at and tore up in front of them. They had ordered more food than he could be bothered to rustle up, and that was his way of letting them know.
I’ve had no such encounters here – everything’s been perfect. I love eccentric characters and the entertainment they provide far more than I dislike not getting what I expect from time to time. We’re getting a night train to Calcutta this evening. Varanasi has been wonderful; the Schindia Guest House especially so. I would also recommend the Dolphin roof-top restaurant, the Lotus Lounge and the BB Bakery, should you ever find yourself here. Just don’t be tempted to cleanse your sins in the Ganges.
I spent our last day in Varanasi pacing up and down a lot. Nas had a 39 degree fever the day we were due to embark on a 14 hour journey to Calcutta. Failing to take our train would have caused no end of trouble, but it probably would have been less hassle than phoning my beloved’s father and asking him to help arrange the shipment home of the body of his first-born child.
We paid for a cheap day room at our guest house so Nas could rest as much as possible before the journey, and I filled the day sitting on the ghats talking to locals and drinking Chai. We got a rickshaw to the train station, where we learned that most trains were delayed. One American said he’d disembarked a whole twelve hours later than scheduled. We found our platform, dumped the bags down and settled in for a long wait. Luckily for us, our train was only a few minutes delayed, but by the time we climbed aboard, we’d befriended a Norwegian couple and a cheery Dutch guy. We enjoyed recklessly leaning out of the train doors to catch a breeze, taking advantage of India’s absolute lack of authority figures telling you you’re not allowed to do something.
The male half of the Norwegian couple was not having a good time. He looked as if he would have welcomed death. It’s one thing to get sick, it’s another to get sick in India, and it’s yet another thing to get sick on a long train journey in India. My physical inconveniences were related only to excessive stature. Me and my huge bag had a narrow bunk in a berth I shared with two little old Indian ladies. The foetus position was called for. Space did not allow this to happen easily – my bunk was one foot wide. Determined to achieve my goal of sleeping the sleep of the unborn, I hooked my leg and arm around some strappy hoops and shoved my butt out into the shared airspace of the berth. Since I was wearing my blue Dickies, I couldn’t help but hum ‘Blue Moon’ to myself, wondering if the sight of a skinny blue western butt would make a little old Indian lady scream when she woke up with it hovering over her face. I hoped not.
Calcutta’s Howrah station was the first ‘normal’ station we’ve encountered so far, in that it’s a grand old building with a taxi rank outside that seems to fulfill its designed function. Our taxi to the hotel was uncharacteristically quick, cheap and without exasperating detours to silk shops. Soon after checking in, I took a stroll around the neighborhood while Nas unpacked and showered. You probably don’t want to know this, but it’s REALLY hot and sunny in Calcutta – more than thirty degrees during the day. The locals seem to find it a bit nippy, judging by the amount of sweaters and jackets being worn.
We’re staying in the Chowringhee district. I took to it straight away. I didn’t get any where near as much hassle as in Delhi or Varanasi, and the big boulevards make finding your way around pretty straightforward. The only confusion arises from the fact that the street names have old and new names. For example, our street is Free School Street if you prefer the British Imperial name, or the Mirza Grahib if you’re of the modern persuasion. The trouble is, most Indians couldn’t seem to give a fuck, so some street signs, shop awnings and maps say ‘Free School’, while others say ‘Grahib’. Some say nothing at all. This makes map reading and orientation twice as difficult as it should be.
I ran into my Dutch and Norweigan friends, and tried to enjoy an omelette in a cafe despite cockroaches dancing across the tables like Fred and Ginger. We also found a bar. After ten dry days in the holy city of Varanasi, the sight of a large bottle of Kingfisher being set down in front of me was most welcome.
We also had the best meal we’ve had so far in India. In England, you’re forever being told that Indian restaurants in the UK aren’t ‘authentic’. My experience of Indian restaurants in India so far suggests this is total bollocks – they’re exactly the same! Menus are dominated by vindaloos, tandooris and kormas. The ‘Peter Cat’ restaurant of Calcutta is famous in the region for Bengali haute cuisine. The waiters wear traditional Rajasthani outfits and the chefs are recognised as among the best in the subcontinent. We arrived at just the right time, as shortly after we sat down a queue of people formed outside. We had vegetable samosas that have as much in common with the samosas you get from Tescos as a head massage has in common with being punched in the face. They were more like good cornish pasties – light and fluffy rather than stodgy and greasy, and filled with perfectly cooked vegetables in a thick, rich sauce. We’re going back for more. They also served Kingfisher in pewter mugs. I can’t say enough good things about drinking cold beer from pewter mugs served by chaps in full Raj regalia.
England managed to give away the first test cricket match. As if I didn’t already get enough piss taken out of me by Indians on account of the symbol of fertility in my left nostril.
We’re in Bombay. We laugh in the face of terror. We flew here from Calcutta, having enjoyed several days of conviviality and many bottles of Kingfisher with the guys we met on the train from Varanasi. I’m good at temporary friendships, but it’s still a little sad to wave goodbye to people whose company we’ve enjoyed in an unexpectedly charming city.
After landing in Bombay, we paid close attention to the customary announcement of both time and temperature. The time was 6pm, the after-dark temperature a sweltering 30 degrees. My immediate impression is of a city in rapid development. A pseudo-intellectual might say it is a city self-consciously shedding India’s less appealing characteristics while capitalising on its strengths, purloining European notions of civility and bonhomie when and where it suits. In other words, people seem to obey traffic signals!
This is the financial capital of the Indian sub-continent, the streets of commerce vibrant and relatively clean. It’s the home of the Indian film industry, which makes more money and movies than Hollywood. There are dozens and dozens of plush restaurants, bars, nightclubs and sky-scrapers, and yet – get this – more than HALF of Bombay’s population live in slums. It’s a familiar sight in London to see a tree-lined street with beautiful Edwardian houses backing onto a downtrodden council estate, but it is nothing compared to the stark contrast you see as you come in to land at Bombay airport; high-rise buildings jostling for position with thousands and thousands of tin boxes, mud huts and mountains of plastic bottles. Seeing the humans who inhabit the slums washing themselves and their clothes in murky puddles makes me wonder if there is really such a thing as poverty in western Europe.
Confession – we went to a McDonalds. I had a McVeggie Meal which cost 111 rupees. After chalking up twenty veg curries in a row I’m not even particularly ashamed of myself.
In my fevered imagination, an Italian man with a heavy accent (think Nintendo’s most treasured character) converses with an English gentleman. “What are you doing for Christmas?” says the gent. “I’m-a going to Goa,” says Mario. “Yes, but where are you going to go-a?” replies Lord Snooty. This farcical exchange continues for a while, ending acrimoniously when Snooty asserts that the Italian is without both brain and passport. (In case you didn’t know, ‘With Out Passport’ is believed by many to be the source of a crude and notorious acronym.)
This tedious preamble should lead you to conclude that I am in Goa, and that Christmas is upon us. That Goa was a Portuguese colony should go some way towards explaining the festive atmosphere in the vicinity of our locale, which is Colva Beach. While I was enjoying a postprandial whetting of my whistle (the tasty local beer is called King’s Black Label) a procession of people transporting floats in celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ flowed past. It transpires there are many Indian Catholics in Goa. I don’t know why this came as a surprise to me.
Tacky it may be, but the experience of hearing familiar Christmas songs while nursing sunburn in a beach shack over a cold beer is not an entirely unpleasant one. Indeed, the sight of a large and three-dimensional representation of Frosty the Snowman being wheeled through the sun-baked streets caused me a great deal of mirth.
Tangentially, I cannot listen to ‘Jingle Bells’ without doubts being raised in my mind about Batman’s dedication to hygiene. Indeed, Batman’s malodorous constitution is paralleled only by Robin’s propensity towards desertion in the line of duty in my associations with this particular piece of music.
I swam in the Arabian sea today. The water was as hot as the hot towels you get on aeroplanes. I floated around for twenty minutes without feeling even the slightest bit chilly. If it’s cold where you are – and it probably is – I apologise for this gratuitous reminder that for me, this year’s winter exists only as an abstract concept. If it makes you feel better, I’ll be back next winter, colder than you and probably hosting several viruses simultaneously.
The late Bill Hicks had a routine about a friend from LA who would call Bill up on the phone every Christmas. “Hey Bill, how’s it going in New York? Snowed in, huh? Bummer. Me? I’m out by the pool!” “Oh yeah? Well, I’m reading a book! Yeah, we’re thinking back east, you fucker!”
I don’t want to be the prick who brags incessantly about how it’s 36 degrees and sunny where he is, but since there isn’t a lot to do in Goa but sit on the beach in 36 degrees of sunshine, blogging is difficult. We’re here for another week or so. Our days conform to minor variations on the same routine. When you’re in a new place, you try out all the bars and restaurants and beach shacks and local dishes and shops and banks and internet cafes, and you develop preferences and habits that become harder and harder to deviate from.
We get up when we wake up, usually mid-morning. We shower, cover ourselves in sunblock and go to our favoured food and drink establishment for breakfast. We are greeted by our favourite waiter. If any other waiter attempts to serve us, he rushes to take over. We gravitate towards what now consider ‘our’ table. Part of me protests this habit, imagining myself to be a spirit unencumbered by the desire for familiar perspective, but self-consciously avoiding a particular table is even more ridiculous than not doing so. Y’know, like how a teetotaler is controlled by alcohol far more than the guy who drinks modest amounts every day.
I cannot help but opt for what is billed without irony as ‘The Full Indian Breakfast’. This is a masala omelette with toast and chips, a cup of masala chai and a tiny glass of anything but freshly squeezed orange juice. This costs around 80p and is delicious. I read the India Times, where animosity towards Pakistan (or simply ‘Pak’, as it is written here) dominates the front pages. I am growing fond of the informal writing style of Indian newspapers. For instance, an English newspaper might report that ‘Two local men were arrested by police in Magdoan last night after assaulting a Pakistani national.’ The Indian newspaper would opt for ‘Two Goans nabbed by top cops last night after Pak gets slapped about a bit.’ This is not a perfect example, but I am exaggerating only a little.
After breakfast, we do what we gotta do, such as internetting, banking, shopping or grooming. I had myself a fine haircut the other day. I now have very short, very neat hair. When he’d finished expertly snipping, he grabbed my head with both hands and turned it sideways, as far as it would go. For a second, I thought he was merely inspecting the trim around my ears, but then he suddenly and sharply turned it some more. Cr-aaaa-cccc-kkkk! So loud a crack it was, and so unexpected a sensation – which was a perfect combination of pleasure and pain – that I began laughing helplessly. I managed to contain myself enough for him to repeat the process the other way. I heartily recommend it.
In the afternoon we go to the beach and do what people do on the beach. I’m fairly well tanned now, although my nose stays stubbornly red. I’ve read a lot of books, working my way through our hotel’s collection. I borrowed an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel called ‘Tender is the Night’. After treating my brain to so much Vonnegut and Murakami, I’m finding it a struggle. I know he’s a great writer and I’m not worthy of inhaling the steam off his poop and all that, but he doesn’t half labour his points. I reckon about 80 per cent of his prose does nothing to advance the plot or reveal character. Endless descriptions of room furnishings… what is the point? Does anyone need to know the colour of the wallpaper in a protaganist’s boudoir? Still, me objecting to an excess of words is like Ainsley Harriot complaining about there being too many TV chefs nowadays.
I swim a couple of times a day. The sea is so warm that you can spend as much time as you want splashing about without getting cold. The sea tends to be rough, but I enjoy getting turned upside-down by huge waves then pulled backwards by the rip tide, nature the cat, me the mouse.
A friend once told me how when he was thirteen or so, he’d taken himself to task, telling himself sternly in the mirror that he was never to take drugs. This was no doubt a result of having received some anti-drugs propaganda at school that day. He told me this while high on MDMA. When we make solemn vows to ourselves, it is almost certain we will break them. For instance, before setting sail for India I vowed to follow a strictly vegetarian diet. I lasted one night in Goa before I ate a grilled Pomfret straight from the Arabian sea. One thing led to another and I found myself tucking into roast turkey on Christmas day.
More habits form. I have found myself eating Indian food one night, then Chinese, then European, then sea-food on the last night of the cycle. We usually end the night where we started the day, drinking Kingfishers and sharing banana pancakes. Nas is gently mocked by various waiters for her relative restraint in alcohol consumption, ‘Are you sure you’re English?’ being a typical question. Our bar is equally frequented by Indians and Europeans, and the atmosphere is convivial. The fact that they show English football would in ordinary circumstances be off-putting to me, but having paid our dues in Delhi, Varanasi and Calcutta, I feel no great shame in catching a game or two in the grand manner of the red-faced Brit Abroad. They also have karaoke on Tuesdays. The karaoke host is himself a fine singer, although hearing an Indian accent lent to Robbie Williams’ ‘Angels’ is hard to take seriously. I treated Colva Beach to the only song I ever do when I do karaoke, which is ‘Suspicious Minds’.
So basically, I’m sunburnt, I’m drinking lots of lager, watching football and swaggering about the place showing off my shitty tattoos. Essex accent not yet adopted, but there is opportunity yet.
So, that’s it. I managed six weeks in India, and the only thing that defeated my immune system was the common cold. In moments of weakness before we started our trip, I allowed myself to see India as a country to survive – to get out of the way – on route to more exotic parts of Asia. Not twelve hours out of India and I’m a little sad that it’s over so soon.
The sights and smells of Chandi Chowk in Old Delhi, where the imperial might of the Red Fort casts a shadow over the evident victims of leprosy and tuberculosis remain vivid memories. Not to mention the surreal beauty of the Taj Mahal, and the sitars, tablas, bells and Hindi chants drifting up from the holy stench of the Ganges, orchestrating my fight with monkeys for domination of a balcony. Never has anywhere challenged my preconceptions like Calcutta. The only place that was exactly as I expected it to be was Bombay.
I rounded off my India trip with a highly satisfactory experience – selling something to an Indian shop-keeper for more money than I would have accepted. The opposite scenario, where I haplessly give people far more money for things than they would have accepted has been the order of things so far. Now I have at last graduated from the Indian school of individual commerce.
This grand negotiation was sparked by the trade of a couple of books, allowing me to spend my last few Rupees on a copy of ‘White Tiger’, a novel by Aravind Adiga. This book is not in short supply in India, having been awarded 2008’s Booker prize, whatever that means. It’s a scathing indictment of democracy and entrepreneurship in India. Some of the many things I’ve witnessed in India that defeated my reasoning are explained in this book, so reading it on the journey from Goa to Bangkok neatly wrapped up my India experience.
I already want to make another trip to see some of the many places I didn’t make it to. Rajastan, the Punjab, Darjeeling, Kerala, Chennai, Bangalore – I think I’ll need another couple of lifetimes.
The journey from Goa to Bangkok was punishing. We started our final day with a trip by rickshaw to the main post office in Margao with the intention of shipping back all the crap we brought with us but don’t need. We had already packaged, at reasonable expense and inconvenience, our box in the way required of the Indian postal service. Our error was not taking our passports to the post-office. Bureaucracy is unflinching, and there was no option but to return to Colva to get our passports and head back out there again. Then we got a taxi to Goa’s airport in order to sit around waiting for our delayed flight to Bombay. I often brag that I never get bored. Lies! I thought we’d spend similar hours hanging around at Bombay, but the security measures are so hilariously excessive as to eat up all your spare time. We’d checked in a full three hours before our flight was due to depart, and we still only just managed to get to the gate on time. I showed my passport and boarding card to no less than ten officials before getting on the plane.
Hopes of sleeping were dashed by the douche-bags we seemed to be sitting amongst. Seat-kicking sister-fucker wide-boys behind us, and my nemesis to my left. A girl with a spluttering cough, who covered her mouth never. A brief aside: Who the fuck doesn’t cover their mouths when they cough and sneeze? My beloved also thinks she was entertaining herself physically under her Jet Airways blanket. Her right shoulder was moving with suspiciously rhythmic regularity, and she was biting her lip. When she wasn’t coughing all over me, that is. The old guy in front of us with a seedy mustache looked like Gary Glitter’s cousin, and struck me as a chap for whom ‘Bangkok’ is as much an instruction as a destination.
Anyway. It wasn’t a long flight, but it would have been good to spend some of it asleep. The time shift east meant that when we landed, a new day had broken. I am impossible when sleep-deprived. Without several hours of sleep in a bed, I become foul-tempered, obnoxious, and a physical wreck. Excitement about reaching Thailand (the only south east Asian country never to have been ruled by Europeans) just about kept me rolling steady, although upon arrival we were dopey enough to do the first thing you’re not meant to do when you arrive in a strange land, which is hop into an unlicensed cab. Fortunately, our driver was not intent on killing us before or after deriving all the physical and monetary pleasure he could from our bodies. Indeed, he took us swiftly to our hotel, charging the amount of Bahts we had budgeted to part with.
Hmm. Our Bangkok hotel. I clear my throat with embarrassment. It is wildly opulent, and one of the reasons I am glad to be making this six-month trip along well-trodden paths while closer in age to thirty than twenty – I simply have more cash. Le Fenix, a little to the east of Siam Square, is a lavishly decorated example of fine modern architecture. The bed is big and comfy. The wall-window provides a striking night-time view. There is a swimming pool on the top floor allowing you to cool down while looking down over the city. We have wi-fi, a huge flat-screen TV with dvd player, a shower that really cleans your clock, a stereo you can plug your ipod into, and a fancy-pants roof-top bar and restaurant. Best of all, they let us check in at 9am, allowing us to go straight to sleep. We’re here for three nights of luxury before we go trekking around northern Thailand. Jungles, rivers, hill-tribes and elephants are all anticipated, but internet access is not, so blogging from an elephant may remain a pipe dream.
I’m off to fill myself with food that isn’t curry with rice and rotis. Get this – there are close to fifty-thousand restaurants in Bangkok, meaning one for every hundred residents. Om nyom nyom.
A few moments ago I was lying on the bed in my hotel room in Bangkok, fresh from a nap and idly listening to the second movement of Beethoven’s 5th symphony while reading David Mitchell’s finely-tuned fourth novel, Black Swan Green. To complete this sensory extravaganza, I greedily consumed a tube of fruit-flavoured Mentos, to which I have developed something of an addiction. I finished the pack, screwed it up and took aim at the small and overflowing waste basket on the other side of the room. The target was tiny, the distance great. It was a fifty-to-one shot at the very least, but the screwed-up empty packet of Mentos soared successfully from my hand to the bin in a graceful arc. No-one saw. What a bitter pill this was to swallow for a piss artist of my calibre.
This was the first time I experienced even the slightest disappointment in over two weeks. The standard Thai greeting, Pai Nai, means ‘Where are you?’. This is more of an existential query than a geographical one, as the typical answer is ‘Pai thiaw’, which means ‘Out having fun’. I have recently been nothing but out having fun. We took a trip up to northern Thailand, to the golden triangle – a beautiful, notorious spot where Burma, Thailand and Laos meet. On the way there, me and some new friends swam in seven-tiered waterfalls, kayaked under the death railway bridge on the river kwai, stayed on a raft house, visited the Chang Mai and Chang Rai night markets, rode elephants and bamboo rafts, took Thai cooking classes, and trekked through the jungle, meeting village hill tribes in the process. The children were very excited about the arrival of a tall white climbing frame. Here are a couple of them trying the climbing frame out.
The climbing frame went on to play football with the hill tribe kids for an hour (in 35 degrees of heat at high altitude) before trekking 10 kilometres with a large backpack. I slept well that night, even if it was on the floor of a bamboo hut.
I’m sad that this phase of our trip is over. We have a few boring days to recover in Bangkok before heading off on a round trip to Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. I’ll probably get restless enough to write up a couple of detailed stories. Not many pics though – I own a Fuji which takes fine pictures, but stores them on one of the more obscure varieties of memory card and needs drivers for computers to recognise it. My poor neglected Flickr account resembles the ruins of antiquity.
Buddhism in Thailand
I’m about to spill words out of my head in a characteristically incontinent and haphazard manner, relying on a deadpan tone to create the impression of worldliness. My aim is nothing grander than to mildly entertain friends and strangers in the process of appeasing the creative urge. However, I would like to preface this post by making clear that I don’t for a moment think that Thailand is any kind of utopia. It has many problems of the social, economic and political kind. I do not share the view that people get the government they deserve; I judge a country by how the majority of its people behave. In this regard, I find Thailand a fine example of how life should be lived. That it is a predominantly Buddhist country may go a long way towards explaining this, but that does not mean I wish everyone was Buddhist. In fact, it’s a cause of pain to me that people don’t behave decently towards one another simply because it’s the rational thing to do. Anyway.
There’s many a monk in Thailand. I was surprised to see monks using ATM’s, smoking cigarettes and typing text messages until I talked to a Thai man my age who had spent a couple of months as a monk. For many young Thais, spending a short period as a monk is comparable to an Englishman obtaining a Duke of Edinburgh award – it makes your parents happy, it looks good on your CV, and if you’re lucky, you might learn something useful.
My ex-monk enjoyed his two months of abstinence from worldly desires, quietly accepting the present moment, patiently observing it turning into the next present moment. He doesn’t believe in the countless superstitions that have evolved over the last two and a half thousand years, and I was pleased to hear him confess that most Thais don’t either. I share his view that Buddhism is the same as any other religion in its critical message – ‘PLEASE can you just be KIND to each other!’
Buddhism distinguishes itself from most other religions in that its followers by and large recognise the gist of the message as more important than the dogma that goes with it. In Buddhism, threats of punishment and promises of reward are not made by an omnipotent deity watching your every move. There’s no systematic scripture, and no body of pseudo-academics – sorry – theologians – to interpret and dictate it. The Buddha explicitly stated that he was nothing but a man, and made no claims of holy progeny.
With this in mind, it’s hard to imagine what a Buddhist extremist might be like. Thailand is characterized by its polite, smiling, non-confrontational population. I don’t anticipate Buddhist extremists murdering teachers of heretical thought to little girls in the near or distant future. The regime of a Buddhist dictator would probably be limited to compulsory haircuts once a week. Fillets instead of full roasts. If there was such a thing as the Buddhist Inquisition, the Siamese Tomas de Torquemada would travel from town to town, assembling the locals and asking them to let him know if there’s anyone among them who might benefit from some extra rice with their supper.
Nor can I imagine politicians justifying their use of bombs, bullets and white phosphorous in resource wars of choice by evoking the teachings of Gautama Buddha. ‘If, like me, you’re a man of faith…’, said the famous catholic, Tony Blair. ‘God told me – George, go fix Iraq!’, said born-again Dubya. ‘Kill the infidels in the name of Allah,’ said any number of mullahs. But no-one is going to say, ‘I think the best way to achieve nirvana is to drop bombs here, here and here.’
I have no Duke of Edinburgh award, nor do I intend to become a Buddhist monk, but if forced to choose between the two, I would shave my head and reach for the orange duvet cover every time. No tents to put up, no storms to weather, no red anorak to wear. No implicit congress with the chinless victims of inbreeding, either. Buddhist monks in Thailand, as far as I can tell, are living the dream.
You can buy monk-buckets from most mini-marts. What is a monk-bucket? Monk-buckets are orange plastic buckets which contain a tube of toothpaste, a toothbrush, a packet of instant noodles, a small bottle of soy sauce, a bottle of water, a carton of detergent and a can of deodorant. You buy them to give to monks you might happen upon. Thais routinely pay their karmic dues in this way, buying essentials for monks who are famously light on possessions.
Monks smoking cigarettes is a funny one. They get around the obvious dubiousness of such a habit by cheekily claiming that since abstaining from tobacco was not specifically recommended by the Buddha, it must be ok. It would be churlish to point out that cigarettes didn’t exist in their current form in the time of the Buddha, and that chain-smoking L&Ms isn’t really compatible with a life devoid of desire. The same presumably applies to ATM’s and mobile phones.
That said, I admire anyone who smokes in Thailand. They’ve introduced a law whereby cigarette manufacturers are obliged to print photographs above their branding which graphically illustrate the perils of long-term tobacco use. Sometimes it’s a dissected lung, sometimes it’s rotten yellow teeth, sometimes it’s a picture of a low-birth-weight baby in an incubator. Since there’s little prospect of me becoming pregnant, I make a point of asking for the packs with the baby on them. This law has breathed fire into the street-trade economy, as hawkers on Th Khao San road do a brisk trade in silver cigarette cases. That’s not a typo, by the way. It’s TH Khao San. The backpacker ghetto in Bangkok.
For a long time, I thought I was a misanthropist – someone who dislikes people in general. It turned out I only dislike shit-heads in general, but the sheer abundance of shit-heads in the United Kingdom makes the distinction complicated.
British and American men of a certain age often share the same curious trait – they think themselves superior to anyone who looks or speaks differently to them. ‘Dude, I ain’t fuckin’ eatin’ that shit, I’m going to fuckin’ McDonalds, man, then we’re doing some shots and getting some pussy’ is as commonly yelled as ‘Fackin’ ‘ell, mate, they’re showin’ the fackin’ Chelsea game over there’ by red-faced, shirtless fat morons. I wish these people’s hearts would stop simultaneously, such that they’d fall to the ground like ripe apples, clutching their chests and, for the first time in their thoughtless, arrogant lives, shut the FUCK up.
Sorry. I had to get that off my chest. It’s probably my fault for coming to a country that values concepts as far-out as shirt-wearing.
How can I recover from my immature descent towards being snippy on the internet? Well, let me tell you how much I’m looking forward to not having to take anti-malarials every day. Once we’re out of Laos (highly malarial) and Cambodia (medium risk), I can stop taking Doxycycline. It makes me feel like I need to burp, but no burp will come. Daily discomfort, even if mild, becomes wearing after a time, and the friendly bacteria so beloved of the Yakult corporation will be relieved to learn of the end of hostilities. I was so close to making a record-breakingly tasteless analogy pertaining to gut bacteria just then, you don’t even know.
Last night, while I was asleep, my gooey and congealing new tattoo left a perfect print on my white cotton pillow. I’m going to have to turn it inside out before we check out to avoid getting charged lots of baht for damage. The spontaneous tattoo has also reduced my budget somewhat. Pre-tattoo, I was enjoying Singapore Slings in the smartest bars in Bangkok. This evening I had a pad thai and a couple of beers for less than two quid. The sacrifices I make!
I was always taught that it was rude to stare at people in wheelchairs. Nevertheless, stare at a man in a wheelchair is exactly what I did last night. Not only did I stare, but my eyes widened and my jaw slackened. Whether or not I tilted my head slightly to one side is beyond my recollection, but for the sake of this story assume that it did.
He saw me staring, but far from being affronted by my uncivilized behaviour, the man in the wheelchair flashed me a grin and gave me the thumbs-up. He looked as if he wanted to give me a double thumbs-up, but one of his hands was clinging onto the back of a pick-up truck traveling at thirty miles per hour. He was stealing a ride like Marty McFly does in Back to the Future.
‘If I was handicapped, I’d want to be as hardcore as that guy!’, someone said. ‘Maybe that’s how he ended up in a wheelchair in the first place!’, said someone else.
I said that that I thought that life had handed him a pair of lemons, but instead of making lemonade, he squeezed the lemons in life’s eyes, ground the pips into dust, made life snort the dust, then kicked life in the seat of its pants until life went running off crying for its mummy.
There’s a scene in ‘King of The Hill’ in which Hank Hill asks his exotic new neighbour if he is Chinese or Japanese. ‘I’m Laotian, Mr Hill – I am from Laos.’ Hank pauses for a few seconds of confused silence before responding, ‘Right. Is that CHINESE, or JAPANESE?’
You should take it from this that I am in Laos. The life expectancy here is a little over fifty. One in four children do not reach the age of four. Half a tonne of bombs per person was dropped on Laos by Americans in the Indo-China ‘conflict’. Some bars in Laos decorate their interiors with unexploded shells, and some of these bombs have names scrawled on them. These are names of American soldiers who wanted to personalise the already crystal clear message that was, ‘Fuck you, you commie yellow bastards!’
There’s a Shakespeare quote for anybody visiting Laos who doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the remaining evidence of the world’s most powerful nation bombing every kind of shit out of impoverished farmers predominantly armed with sharp sticks on the other side of the world from them: ‘To weep is to make less the depth of grief’.
We took a slow boat down the Mekong into Laos from Thailand. We stayed in a tiny village where electricity was strictly rationed. When you check in to a guest house, they give you a candle with your key. I tried reading by candle light, which proved difficult. Partly because you risk setting fire to your book if you hold it too close to the flame, but mostly because I was shit-faced on Lao Whisky after spending the evening in the company of some locals. The local dram is fifty-five per cent alcohol, I learned too late.
The next day we arrived in Luang Prabang, a charming town of French colonial architecture (and bakeries) which is clean and quiet. I ate a local dish called Orame. It has chunks of wood in it that have been soaked in chili oil. You suck the wood!
I’m in Hanoi. Wireless internet is free in more or less every hotel and cafe. The French colonial influence means great coffee and bread, and the buildings and tree-lined boulevards are reminiscent of Paris.
At first I thought that every Hanoi resident was obliged by law to recklessly operate a moped at all times, such is the horror of the traffic. You cannot move for mopeds. There are zebra crossings in Hanoi, but they serve as a stage for performance art, as tourists and locals trot like drunken ballerinas between swerving, honking bikes. I imagine a techno remix of Swan Lake playing in my head whenever I cross the street.
Vietnamese food is not the greatest; chunks of gristly meat stir-fried in murky sludge and heaped on an oval plate is standard fare. Fresh spring rolls are a treat though. They are not fried, are about six inches long, a couple of inches in diameter and translucent. The bits of carrot and onion within them can look slightly vein-like. These characteristics contributed to one of our travel-buddies naming them ‘floppy dicks’.
We visited a prison which was built by the French to house Vietnamese dissidents, then later used by the Vietnamese to house American GIs and pilots. I think John McCain might be amongst its alumni, although the English translations in the museum were vague. During their reign, the French were fond of introducing the guillotine to any Vietnamese people who said they might prefer it if they fucked off. I suppose it’s not the worst way to be callously murdered, but seeing one preserved for posterity still sends a chill down my spine.
Vietnamese money is, like the venerable Aussie dollar, made of what I think is polyester. It doesn’t crumple or tear, and it doesn’t matter if you get it wet. The only problem is the number of zeros at the end of each bill. One British pound buys you about 26,000 Dong. I took out a million Dong this morning, supposing that it would last me the rest of my time in ‘Nam. The machine was kind enough to dispense two 500,000 Dong notes. It may as well have sprayed insect repellent out of the cash slot for all the good it did me. Trying to pay for things with my 500,000 Dong note became embarrassing after a while.
We said goodbye to one of our travel buddies last night. She insisted on buying shots, so we’re a little tender today, and not altogether enthusiastic about taking a night train out of Hanoi this evening. The shots we were drinking were B52s. I’m not sure how tasteful that was, given the history of location. There are so many Australians here. I’m not complaining, but I am starting to say things like ‘She’ll be right’, ‘It’s all good’, ‘Aw, it’s dinkum, she’ll be right’, etc.
Heatstroke in Vietnam
I thought heatstroke was something that happened to other people. I should have been born in a hot country – heat doesn’t bother me at all. We spent weeks in Goa (37 degrees at midday) in direct sunlight, and I didn’t get so much as a headache. I finally got my arse kicked by the sun on a beach in Vietnam. I lay in the sun for an hour, then swam in the sea for 20 minutes, then I drank a beer. Then I lost peripheral vision and felt as if someone was drilling into my skull. I also had the distinct feeling I would be violently emptying my stomach of all content a few minutes hence.
I made my way back to the guest house – no mean feat with limited vision in Vietnam, land of ten million recklessly ridden motorbikes – and stumbled towards the lift. It was on the 10th floor. Our room was on the 8th. It stopped at every floor on the way down. I am not kidding. Every single floor. When it finally arrived, I dashed into it, desperate to reach the puke-safe environment of my room. A pair of fat American tourists shambled towards the lift with ‘Hold the elevator, buddy!’ expressions on their grotesquely over-fed faces. I thought about it for a quarter of a second, then dementedly and repeatedly pressed the button for my floor, ready to thumb the yanks in the eye if they threatened to disrupt my voyage.
After an eternity of waiting, I reached my room, predictably located at the far end of the corridor. I was ready to fling the door open, drop to my knees and puke the puke of the just. I was hindered by the FOUR cleaners in the room. They were physically blocking all puke options. One was dettol-ing the toilet, one was scrubbing the sink, one was emptying the bins. I don’t know what the other one was doing, but I pleaded with her to leave immediately and come back later. No speak English. I mimed a technicolor yawn and put my hands together in a praying position, gesturing towards the door. No avail. I said ‘please leave’, ‘go’, ‘out’, ‘ill’, ’sick’, ‘later’ – nothing worked. In fact, each attempt to communicate my desire for immediate and absolute privacy confused my unwanted companions further.
Close to madness, swallowing mouthfuls of vomit, sweating like the proverbial Liverpudlian in an electronics shop and almost blind from heatstroke I had a flash of insight. The do-not-disturb sign! I grabbed it and held it proudly aloft, like the final custodian of the Olympic flame. At once, all four cleaners understood, and left with smiles and bows. The click of the door latch coincided exactly with the sound of vomit hitting toilet. Perfect!
Hoi An, Vietnam
I found myself one evening at a street-food stall in Hoi An, Vietnam, which specialises in fresh spring rolls. The procedure is that you help yourself to communal ingredients by the handful, wrap them in fresh pancakes and dip them in shared sauces. The proprietor mistook my neurotic hesitation for technical inadequacy, and gleefully wrapped a few up for me and shoved them straight into my mouth. I had, in less than a minute, gone from being someone with a hygiene-related obsessive disorder to someone who was literally eating from the palm of someone’s hand. Cured! Cured to the point that I can heartily recommend the ‘Bale Well Double Spring Rolls’ just off Phan Chu Trinh Street, Hoi An.
Holidays In Cambodia
Proving genocide can be difficult. If anyone survives – well, it can’t have been genocide, and if everyone gets killed, who is left to complain? For example: the Armenian genocide perpetrated by Turkey is still not acknowledged by some western countries.
The genocide in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 is not disputed by many sane people. This is because the Khymer Rouge documented their deranged slaughter of a quarter of the population most conscientiously. The motto of the Khymer Rouge, inspired by the late Pol Pot and sweetly sung by the band Down I Go was, ‘To keep you is no benefit; to destroy you is no loss’. They weren’t kidding.
The urbanites of Phnom Penh who were moved to the countryside to begin their new lives as slaves were the lucky ones. Educated people such as teachers, doctors, writers and spectacle wearers were arrested arbitrarily – it was better to punish ten innocents than to let one guilty person go free – and systematically tortured before being hacked to death in a field and shoved into a mass grave.
We visited the S-21 prison, which was a converted school. There were thousands of mugshots decorating the long corridors, taken at the point of arrest. Most facial expressions revealed, as you would expect, terror and anguish, but a few men were laughing grotesquely at the camera. One exception was a prisoner holding her baby; she stared through the lens of the camera with pure rage in her eyes.
Sometimes we think thoughts that aren’t really opinions. They’re just transitory blips that may or may not contribute to a reasoned opinion later on. This was the thought I had when I saw the picture of the lady with the baby: It would be better if nothing had ever existed than for this to have happened.
Then we visited the killing fields, where between one and two million people were clubbed or hacked to death with blunt machetes. Saving ammunition! To drown out the screaming, they played music at deafening volume. Cambodian music is droning and dissonant, and as a soundtrack to a prolonged massacr it is suitably grotesque.
The regime of the Khymer Rouge lasted for four years, before the invasion of the Vietnamese forced them to retreat to the jungles. This marked the start of two decades of civil war. The Khymer Rouge were assisted in their struggle by the Thai, US and British governments, who provided them with finance, arms and food. They were even offered the Cambodian seat in the United Nations in the early eighties. So much I didn’t know. They certainly don’t teach that in schools. All I learned of history was that we gave the Germans a thorough and deserved kicking, as a consequence of some arch-duke bloke getting shot.
Tourism has only existed in Cambodia for a decade. It is expensive. Pol Pot more or less outlawed any form of human activity other than farming rice, so restaurants, bars, bookshops and venues for the arts are all owned by Europeans or Australians. They are priced accordingly, and are beyond the reach of Cambodians. This unsettles me. In Thailand, you socialise alongside Thais. Same in Vietnam. Not quite so true in Laos – restaurants are just for tourists – but the locals are very happy to join you in drinking the night away.
A lot of travellers talk about how smiley and happy Cambodians are. I fear this is wishful thinking. It seemed to me that most Cambodian men over the age of 35 have the thousand-yard stare, even the ones with a full set of limbs.
The number of amputees is astounding. Most beg for money, and it’s not uncommon to be sworn at if you don’t make a contribution. I’d do the same if I was them. After all, a government of my country in my lifetime paid for some of the landmines, yet here I am making merry while they struggle to survive.
As the Khymer Rouge slowly dissolved, many discreetly returned to the general population. People my age must spend time wondering which of their neighbours might have been the ones who tortured their parents to death.
One of the main architects of the Khymer Rouge stands trial for crimes against humanity in a couple of months. Perhaps that will provide some opportunity for Cambodians to exorcise some of their demons, but I fear it will take another generation or two for the mutual suspicion and bitter collective memories to lose their sharpness.
Snorkelling in Thailand
I was unfortunate enough to catch a few bars of the latest Nickelback song while flicking through Thai TV Channels. This is what I thought when I heard the chorus: It would be better if nothing had ever existed, than for this to have happened.
But then I looked out my balcony overlooking Sairee beach on Koh Tao and the world felt right again. I’m staying on this tropical paradise for a month or so, doing little other than snorkelling, eating, drinking and sleeping. I am also trying to keep count of my lucky stars.
I have been in Koh Tao for only a week, and have no reference by which to judge the climatic anomalies of a tropical island, but I am reliably informed that it has in recent days been particularly, unconscionably and relentlessly hot. These conditions have led with some predictability to a tropical storm. Tropical storms are quite something – their limitation of normal human activity is absolute. I was beaten back to shelter by pint-sized units of rain which assaulted me horizontally and at pace. It’s a fine day for tapping away at a computer, and no mistake. Shame, then, that I have tickets for Muay Thai tonight, and the stadium is quite a walk away.
Snorkelling is a far more complicated affair than I could have imagined. You can clear your mask if it fills up without taking it off, you can dive to depths of ten metres then clear your snorkel without fully surfacing, and you can be attacked by big fish.
It never occured to me that you need to be wary of big fish that aren’t sharks. Which is why, when I spotted an enourmous grey gill-breather, I followed it with all the gusto of Steve Irwin, while he was still living and full of caffeine. I was, I am told, lucky to escape with my toes. It was a Trigger fish, a variety of piscine unfriendly to humans during their season of courtship.
Perhaps when George Dubya Bush infamously expressed his belief that man and fish could one day peacefully co-exist, he wasn’t being quite as oafish as many thought. Perhaps he’d recently been snorkelling, and antagonised a Trigger fish.
Bookshop on Ko Tao, Thailand
I was in my favourite book shop on Koh Tao. I approached the counter with my selections, ready to begin the protracted haggling required when trading old for not-quite-so-old in Asia. The Thai girl behind the counter giggled. Was asking for a hundred Baht for Michel Houellebecq’s ‘Atomised’ comically optimistic? The book is crap, essentially the wank fantasies of a middle-aged French misanthropist, peppered with references to the idiocy of those of a Caliphate persuasion, but it’s in good condition.
‘Too much?’ I asked. ‘Hundred Baht ok ok; but you look like Pinocchio!’ She seemed flirtatious. Perhaps she thought that comparing me to a deceitful, wooden, fictitious bastard was complimentary. Certainly, it would be uncharacteristic of a Thai to insult someone. I asked her if she liked Pinocchio, and she said yes. That didn’t really clear things up though; you can’t rely on the responses to yes/no questions in Thailand. People are relentlessly polite, and consider the word ‘No’ to be rude in almost all circumstances. ‘No’ is communicated by a smile and an ambiguous shake of the head.
This is useful to remember if you’re lost in Thailand and need directions. Do not ask ‘Is this the way to —–’ as you will almost certainly be told ‘yes’, even if you’re heading in the opposite direction. Instead, ask ‘Which way to —–?’
Still. My apparent resemblance to Pinocchio is a new and unsettling development.
My beloved has been working towards a Rescue Diver qualification, and I’ve been left to my own devices for a couple of days. My time has mostly been spent on the beach, reading when I haven’t been swimming.
Even as a seasoned haggler, the rate at which I’ve been getting through books threatens the integrity of my budget. I’m going to have to muster up the courage to purchase a Russian tome. Maybe something by Dostoevsky. Ben Elton, Irvine Welsh and Will Self are too quickly assimilated. Have you ever read a Russian? Is this a suicide mission? I declare that I am, in the literary sense, a Russian virgin, and I use those words only out of interest to see how many hits it gets me from prurient Google search terms.
There are scant literary options left. Unlike in major cities, the vast majority of second-hand books on the beach and island towns are thrillers. I am not a snob; I love crime fiction by the likes of Christopher Brookmyre, and am not averse to some James Patterson from time to time. Or at least I used not to be – have you noticed that all recent outpourings from J.P seem to have been written ‘with’ someone else? The man’s output is astounding – I’m convinced that these days, all J.P does is phone up his co-writer with a rough outline of a story, and his not-so-ghostly writer does the rest.
I said I wasn’t a snob, but I’m not even fooling myself. It strikes me that almost all thrillers are variations on the following tale:
The protagonist has stumbled upon something he shouldn’t have, and is consequently on the run from shadowy gangster types. He has an encounter with the FBI, and narrowly escapes with his life. He is forced to take on the shadowy gangster types alone, until by chance he meets and is helped by a lonely woman who until this point has allowed life to wipe its muddy boots all over her. They have sex. He proves to be an attentive lover in spite of the untreated bullet wound in his shoulder, and she has her first orgasm in years. One honest but hard-boiled cop is sympathetic to our hero’s plight, and vows to avenge the corruption in his own organisation while helping to kill the bad guys. They are successful against all odds, following which the cop quits the FBI to fulfill his dream of opening a bar in Hawaii, while the protagonist and his newly empowered girlfriend live happily ever after.
It makes for a compelling yarn, no doubts about it, but if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all. Anyway. I didn’t mean for this blog to turn into a book group of one, but if I haven’t been reading, I’ve been snorkelling or drinking beer, and there is only so much that can be said about either.
Wait – there is something that can be said about both! We’ve spent many evenings in the company of professional divers, as I am friends with a couple of instructors who lives here on the island. When people pass their Divemaster qualifications (which takes weeks), they are obliged to face one last challenge – the Snorkel Test. This means having a small bucket of Rum, Thai whisky and a mixer of some sort poured into your snorkel while you have a mask covering your eyes and nose. The only way to breathe is to first drink the contents of the bucket. It’s extremely juvenile, but highly entertaining. Obviously, if it all gets a bit too much, you spit the snorkel out and/or remove your mask.
Here’s the thing though – not so long ago, someone DIED taking the snorkel test while on Koh Tao. The guy was from Japan, where losing face is notoriously unappealing. Imagine being there when that happened!
Save Ko Tao Festival
We went to the ‘Save Koh Tao’ festival last weekend. It is an annual event to promote awareness about environmental issues on the island. It’s depressingly common to see discarded plastic bottles and cigarette butts littering what is otherwise a tropical paradise.
I should perhaps keep my pessimistic thoughts on environmentalism to myself, but the amount of litter scattered around the festival site was too much even for this cynical bastard. We’re doomed, doomed! If a few hundred sandal-wearing hippies on a tropica
l island can’t be bothered to put their rubbish in a designated receptacle, then, well…
Songkram, Ko Phi Phi, Thailand
You may have seen the news – it’s really tense here in Thailand at the moment. The situation threatens to spiral out of control at the slightest provocation. People are lurking on every street corner with whatever weapons they can get their hands on. It saddens me to say this of my beloved Thailand, but even children – yes, children – are shooting each other indiscriminately. The Home Office has issued a warning to British people that they shouldn’t travel to Thailand unless armed with water pistols.
Yes, the Thai ‘Songkram’ festival began today, and it is typically celebrated with the reckless dissemination of water. Koh Phi Phi has turned into Water Fight Island. A water pistol is a must if you want to stand a chance of defending yourself against unprovoked attacks from slap-happy Thais. Loose affiliations are formed and broken; farang and Thais were united by a common purpose as we helped defend our guest-house from ice-bucket attacks.
One of the biggest bummers about being human is that we’re never satisfied. A cup of tea is always better with a slice of toast. A slice of toast is always improved by melting some cheese on it. Melted cheddar is improved with a splash of Worcester sauce. I can’t think of a single activity, emotion or product that couldn’t be made better or worse with the addition or subtraction of something else. For example, while typing this sentence I am also listening to an iPod and half-watching a frankly bizarre Japanese cartoon on Thai TV.
What I mean to say is, it is very difficult to appreciate the present moment just as it is. Many of what should have been peak experiences in my life were completely lost on me at the time. Case in point: playing a gig to just shy of ten thousand people, supporting the Pogues in Dublin. I spent most of the gig trying to decide if the tastelessness of buying wine in a cardboard box can be forgiven if it is purchased to consume with your family over the Christmas period, when excessive consumption causes everything to taste of everything else anyway. It works the other way around, too – you often don’t realise how shitty a particular period was for you until it’s over. In my case, 2005. That year can fuck right off. Anyway.
I managed to appreciate a present moment earlier today. I was walking barefoot down a white sand beach into warm turquoise water under blue skies with the hot sun on my back, about to swim out to a coral reef, snorkel in hand, ready to harass some tropical fish. It suddenly struck me: Things could not be better. I actually said to myself, ‘This is a perfect moment – appreciate it!’
I trod on a sharp stone exactly a quarter of a second later and hurt my foot. There is nothing to learn from this.
Blogging is difficult when you’re living a lifestyle of tropical minimalism. I eat, I sleep, I read, I swim. I’m in good shape; swimming and snorkelling every day does that. I can hold my breath for two minutes and do 50 press-ups, although probably not at the same time. I hope I won’t return to being a hopelessly lazy slob when I get back to England.
The only slightly unusual thing I did recently was to narrowly avoid contributing to a man’s death while getting a haircut. Maybe you’ve heard of Libet’s Half-Second Delay. I have a book on the subject, but it’s a couple of thousand miles away at the bottom of one of many cardboard boxes which my worldly possessions call home. From memory – and I hope I don’t misrepresent it – a scientist named Libet conducted a series of experiments in which he wired up a subject’s brain in such a way as to monitor its electrical activity. Having done this, he asked them to say ‘now’ and to raise their hand at a moment decided by them. The burst of electrical activity in the brain at the moment of saying ‘now’ is clear to see.
What was curious was, when the person said ‘now’ – the moment they articulated their conscious decision – the activity of the brain seemed to suggest it had already prepared the signals to the nerve endings in the subject’s hand about half a second before.
‘Well, it would’, was my first instinct when I first read of Libet’s Half-Second Delay. But half a second is a long time, longer than most people seemed to expect. This is a crude explanation of the experiment, and if you’ve read this far, you might like to look up a scientifically-worded account of the phenomenon. Not on Wikipedia!
I don’t think Libet himself ascribed any philosophical consequences for his experiment, but since then dozens of high-minded articles, academic papers and stoned conversations have been inspired by its apparently calamitous impact on the proponents of free will. Opponents to this idea point to the fact that Libet’s experiments also showed that a subject could over-rule their own decisions at the last moment.
This experiment popped into my head not because I was sitting at the top of a mountain smoking Thailand’s finest and chanting ‘Om’, but because I was sitting idly in a barbershop waiting to get my hair cut. There was a Thai guy already in the chair, so I had to wait a long time. Thais are generally very careful about their appearance, and the hairdresser was scraping delicately around his ears, neck and eyes with a cut-throat razor.
My mind was blank. My eyes fell on a mosquito. It seemed to be taunting me, the little bastard. It paused in front of my nose, did a little figure-of-eight, used its wings to flap out ‘ner-ner ne ner-ner’ and came in for the sting. I rolled my neck, squinted, and raised my hands to take my vengeance on my insect tormentor with a resounding clap.
As my hands were hurtling towards each other and the mosquito, I had a sudden and vivid understanding of the consequences of a loud and sudden release of energy for my fellow customer. Namely, blood spurting from one or both of his carotid arteries, the shrieks of a hairdresser holding a bloodied razor blade providing a soundtrack. My brain sent my nerve endings a message meaning nothing other than ‘Abort! Abort!’, and my hands met silently. Manslaughter averted! The mosquito bit the palm of my hand and flew out the door.
I wish my sub-conscious had made such an intervention when we walked into a travel agent’s shop on Koh Tao about a week ago and asked for tickets to Phuket. We took an overnight boat out of Koh Tao. We were loosely assigned berths on the starboard of the poop deck. I slept for about five minutes. When we reached dry land, we took a coach to Phuket. I slept for about five minutes. Then it took us two hours to find our hotel. It was a good hotel for many reasons, and worth the effort of finding, but is also the only positive thing I can find to say about Phuket. It’s full of fat old cunts buying themselves as much focky-focky as their grossly obese bodies can cope with. Every bar is dedicated to this commerce; every bar looks exactly the same: The Sweethearts Bar, The Love Bar, The Good Time Love You Longtime Bar, etc. We’d foolishly paid for three nights in advance. Not much else to say.
We’re currently on Koh Phi-Phi, which is lovely. We went to the beach where they filmed The Beach. If the beach could speak, it would say ‘leave me alone’. We should have done. Nas is doing some scuba diving. I’m not an enthusiast; I find all the equipment claustrophobic. I’m going rock-climbing instead. We’re going to Koh Lanta in a few days before heading to Malaysia.
I dreamt that I was giving Wayne Rooney guitar lessons. He wanted to learn Greensleeves, and I was taking him through it phrase by phrase. I remarked that some historians thought Henry VIII had written Greensleeves. He said that in Liverpool, to ‘Henry the 8th’ meant to put all of your weed into one bong.
Yeah, I’m blogging my dreams now. Blog paralysis. We spent a week and a half on Koh Lanta, where I had a great time with Islamic sea gypsies until our Thai visas ran out. I will write a lot about it, but not yet, and not here.
We fly back to London in three short weeks. We’re in Malaysia for the next two weeks. I’m a little underwhelmed by Malaysia, although I think this is mostly because it isn’t Thailand. I think I might have mentioned – I love Thailand.
Kuala Lumpur is a hectic city, and very hot. It’s never less than thirty degrees, which is great if you’re by the sea-side, not so great if you’re elbowing your way through Chinatown with heavy bags, tiredness and hunger.
I have to say that KL (as it is referred to by KL’ers) does a very good job of relieving the symptoms of tiredness and hunger. Our hotel was cheap and comfortable, and the choices of food on offer were astonishing as much for their tastiness as their prices. Satay is the Malay staple – sticks of barbecued meat marinated in sugary peanut sauce. The most I’ve eaten in one sitting was ten. Chinese food is everywhere – the only thing to get used to is that Chinese and Malay cuisine uses all parts of an animal, from lips to butt-cheeks. I must have held up my chopsticks and asked, ‘what the hell is THIS?’ a dozen times, never to receive a satisfactory answer. It’s usually tasty though.
Malay is a strange language. It uses the Roman alphabet, and is a bit like English gone wrong. Ticket counter? Tiket kaunter. Yes? Ya. My name is? Nama saya. You get the idea.
We’re in the charming old colonial town of Melaka now. We’re here for another night, then we head out to the Tioman islands to squeeze in a final few days of diving and snorkeling. Then we head home via Singapore, a few days after which I will be thirty, unemployed and living with my girlfriend’s parents.
Question: Who wouldn’t love Singapore? Answer: Gay drug-traffickers who like crossing roads at times of their own choosing.
Singapore is jokingly known as a ‘fine city’. This is because of the number of essentially harmless activities which lead to exorbitant fines. For instance, chewing gum is contraband. Drinking water on a train or crossing the road when the green man isn’t flashing will cost you heavily. Also, homosexuality is illegal. This troubled me until I saw a few hundred men congregated in a park, mincing around with pink balloons, megaphones and banners, without encountering police harassment. In practice it seems homosexuality is illegal in Singapore in the same way that marijuana is illegal in the UK.
I love Singapore. If Singapore was a public school and had a Latin motto, it would surely be Cleanius, Modernius, Efficius. There is no litter in Singapore. There is no antisocial behaviour. Everything runs like clockwork for the benefit of the average citizen. Most people seem to view the successive Governments as paternalistic rather than authoritarian, and are happy to concede a certain amount of personal liberty in return for a very high standard of living.
Food is the national obsession. Singapore has dozens of food courts, which are like shiny, gleaming shopping malls, but instead of GAP and Topshop, it’s Sushi stalls, noodle stalls, gourmet sausage stands, etc. You grab a table, and shovel down platters of mixed origin until you are fit to burst. It’s all so good that you can pretty much choose at random. We have been stuffing our faces, I tell ya. Meal-times don’t exist in Singapore. People who eat only three meals a day are considered unwell. A fat man is desperate to burst out of my skinny-as-a-rake figure.
It’s great to wash everything down with Singapore’s award-winning Tiger Beer after a couple of weeks in Malaysia, where alcohol is sometimes hard to come by. Speaking of alcohol, the ‘Singapore Sling’ was invented by a barman at the Raffles Hotel nearly a hundred years ago. We went there to drink an original. They cost 27 dollars each. I am too ashamed to tell you the price in sterling, but you can look it up on xe.com if you’re curious. We sipped slowly. I also visited the largest book-shop in Asia. It sure wasn’t small. It could probably serve as an aircraft hangar should the need arise. I know I am prone to droning on about Vonnegut, and I’m sorry if my mentioning him yet again is tedious, but I have to mention – they had in stock multiple copies and different prints of every single Vonnegut title – all 25 of them. I picked up one of his later collections of essays and opened it at random. The first paragraph that caught my eye made me laugh so hard that adjacent customers began to regard me with alarm. It read:
I laugh my head off at Laurel and Hardy, but there is something tragic in them somehow. These men are too sweet to survive in this world, and are in terrible danger all the time. They could be so easily killed. We went to the cinema to watch the Star Trek movie last night. I am neither a movie fan generally, nor a sci-fi fan specifically, but I really enjoyed it in spite of the inevitable presence of a hacking cougher behind me.
Yiddish humour insists that there are two types of schmuck, a schlemiel and a schlimazel. A schlemiel always spills his soup, while a schlimazel has soup spilled upon him. I am the latter schmuck. A hacking cougher is slightly preferable to a seat-kicker, but I’m always in front of one of the two. I do wonder about the so-called Law of Attraction, you know…
Anyway, good as the film was, it occurred to me later that although it felt like it had a happy ending, a happy ending was barely possible after the swift and successful holocaust of 8 BILLION intelligent, peaceful Vulcans. Still, at least Leonard Nimroy was ok. Sequel when?
Anyway. We’re popping – yes, popping – to Indonesia for three days, then back to Singapore for more mountains of food and pitchers of Tiger beer before flying back to London four days later. I’m looking forward to drinking some wine. I’ve had two glasses in six months, which is rather less than my usual two bottles per six days. I also can’t wait for reunions with beloved friends, family members, canines, decent clothes, guitars and Macbooks.