Saturday, December 29, 2012

Blasts from the passport

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10 August 2010 - 7 December 2012


When I first set off from Scotland with my shiny new passport, I was irritated that I didn't get any stamps in Italy, and then none in Greece either. How was I supposed to show people where I'd been without them? By writing overly detailed blogs with disconcerting regularity forever?

But then I left the Eurozone and my comfort zone behind and those pages quickly started gathering ink, especially in the last six months when I finally got round to visiting the countries I'd been lazily putting off precisely because of their visa requirements, which gobbled up entire pages with relish.

When a Myanmar visa left a single blank page remaining, I knew our time together was growing short. I spent the next month lying low in Thailand and debating whether to make the final trip to Malaysia or Japan, so I'd have a comfortable 90 days to wait for a replacement passport to arrive after sending the lame, old, useless creature back to its home country to be laid to rest. Then I impulse-booked a flight to Sydney instead.

So, as a celebration of those trips we took together - and because I don't have a passport right now, so don't have much else to do - here's a typically thorough gallery of all the passport stamps and visas I accumulated since October 2010. Farewell, dear companion; I shall not look upon thy like again. I plumped for a 48-pager for next time, that ought to see me through the next six months at least.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

In-between days


"I can't keep up my full tilt, full power, red hot, maximum pace all the time. I've got to take the odd breather, haven't I?"
- Holly, Red Dwarf

If you have a terrible sense of humour but you've become jaded to the innuendo potential of 'Bangkok,' you might like to head south to the seaside town of Bang Pu to rekindle this childish enthusiasm for an hour or two.

You'll probably be surprised to learn that this unremarkable location is the single place I've spent the most time this year, returning time and again between jaunts in other parts of Asia to spend a week or two each time in a well-equipped aparthotel (I think that's a portmanteaux of 'apartment' and 'hotel,' rather than implying they practice racial segregation).

This was a place I could spend time with my girlfriend, when she wasn't busy with family stuff, catch up on work, blogs and TV downloads, and generally do other things there isn't so much time for when you have to take a cross-country bus trip every three days. As much as I always looked forward to the next trip, it's nice to take some time off from travel agent hassle, Wi-Fi frustrations and other self-imposed annoyances, or I could go crazy. More so.

That's probably why this place has never featured in these blogs, as there isn't much to talk about in these in-between days apart from the odd friendly cat and less friendly dogs, but I found a few things to get up to in the local area when I felt particularly restless. Now I'm back to travelling solo, I doubt I'll stay here again. We'll see. I have a hard time staying in any place for too long, especially when I have the choice of being pretty much anywhere I want to.

Thank you, Bang Pu - your dubious food stalls and semi-reliable internet access helped preserve my sanity during downtime.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

I notice you have a similar skin colour to me, let's be friends




Being the odd one out has never bothered me. Maybe my introverted brain didn't develop the circuits that drive people to be accepted as part of a tribe, or maybe those neural connections gave up when it became clear at an early age that I was never going to be the life of the party and should exert more energy watching Thunderbirds and writing stories about speaking wardrobes instead. But living in Asia for two years, I've never felt like I don't belong any more than I did during my insecure teenage years on the island I happened to be born on. So I'm British, so what?

Alright, so being born and bre(a)d in England leaves more of an impact than just genetics, and I frequently exhibit (what I imagine to be) typical British traits when I get uppity about impoliteness or bad table manners. I've also not let go of the values I absorbed while living in that society, which can be a frequent source of frustration as I spend most of my time in Thailand where values are, let's say, different. I've already confessed to being confined to British tastes too, but that's more to do with being busy and settled in my ways. How many new bands did you discover this year compared to when you were skipping lectures at 20?

But that doesn't mean that if I glimpse another British person in a crowded market in a foreign country, our shared heritage will be sufficient motivation for me to go over and strike up a conversation with him. I'm quite particular about my friends, especially when there's already a good chance he's a dick. I'm not saying I'm averse to making non-foreign friends in foreign lands (though I don't do anything to encourage it), but generally the more similar we are, the less interested I am in talking to you. I don't know why the reverse is often true for you.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A childish day out again again again again again again again again again again again



It wouldn't really be a trip to Thailand without seeing some helpless animals forced to perform for my amusement, so after getting off the boat at Sriracha I was delighted to find out they had a Tiger Zoo nearby. Let the animal rights atrocities commence!

Monday, December 17, 2012

I don't want Si Chang the world



I'm a sucker for an unnecessarily time-consuming challenge (examples here, here, here... actually just this blog in general), and when Thailand's wet season started to trickle away and I headed out to visit more islands, setting foot on all of them seemed like a satisfying and doable task. Then I found out there are 1,430 of them and it didn't.

I have all the time in the world, which in practical terms means as much time as a 30-day visa waiver gives me each time I come in and out of this country for the remainder of my mortal lifespan. Forever doesn't seem so long any more, especially when you take into account that I like to broaden my horizons and do different things now and again with this finite span.

All things considered, I've probably only got eleven or twelve Thaislands left in me. I'd better make them good ones. Koh Si Chang was a pretty good one.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Here's what you could have lived...



The Many Worlds Theory has been the basis for some really good and not so great science fiction, and the speculative notion that every possible choice and decision we make in our lives creates a valid alternative reality branching off to different destinations provides comfort to some scientifically minded people in lieu of conventional beliefs in an afterlife. Personally, I don't find anything comforting in the thought that there's an infinite number of dimensions where I'm a pinworm laying eggs inside the anus of a sick child, differentiated only by an infinite number of slightly differently coloured waistcoats I'm wearing, but some people will clutch at anything.

When I had that realistic and depressing dream where I was a slave on a Somalian pirate ship, was I offered an insight into an alternate plane of existence? Where does that leave the dream where I had a detachable ribcage that I stored in the freezer?

I don't dwell too much on what might have been if I'd stayed in the UK and hadn't set off travelling, which is either a sign that my life's going pretty well or just reveals a disappointing lack of imagination. What happened happened and I enjoyed most of it. I always react defensively when someone tells me I'm 'lucky' to be earning a living while travelling all the time, which sounds to me like they think I'm not paying my own way and making the sacrifices involved, but I do realise I'm privileged. I've spent most of the last two years in countries where low salaries, oppressive ideologies or lack of choice mean not everyone can have the same freedom to choose their lifestyle that I've had. I do look up from the laptop now and again to see what's happening around me.

As someone who mostly gets his own way in life, the path I'm on seems to be the one that's right for me, so I don't know if there's much freedom of movement for my inter-dimensional brothers (and sisters, sexist). That's excepting dystopian realities where fascist governments restrict my choices and control my every move. Yes, there may be a universe where that didn't happen. Brilliant satire, Dave.

But there have been a few notable junctions along the way where I could have gone left instead of right, and which could have led to things being very different. For a bit.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

MOT


Fine-tuning the Davebot™


When you're travelling long term, there comes a time when you have to accept that leaving your country behind doesn't also mean you're off the hook from dealing with the basic maintenance requirements of your fragile bone sack, just because you can't get medical care for free out here. For me, that time was two and a bit years, when I took a break from restless night buses and immigration stress and finally got round to dealing with basic health obligations I'd been putting off months or years after their recommended deadlines.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A childish day out again again again again again again again again again again



That's right, I spent my final, precious afternoon in Myanmar laughing at wheezing gibbons in rusty old cages in a dingy zoo that hasn't been noticeably renovated since before the First World War.

I pretend I'm interested in comparing how animals are treated in different parts of the world, but really I just like to discover obscure mammals I've never heard of before and see monkeys having amusing intercourse, so Yangon Zoo satisfied my fairly low requirements.

For anyone who's sick to death of golden stupas by now, this post comes with a stupa-free guarantee. I'm pagodad out.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Where it all Bagan



Enough of these pristine pagodas with inflated ticket prices, give me a one-week pass and the freedom to wander around a load of dilapidated old ruins to my heart's content, before an impending return flight and the need for something approaching a reliable electricity supply and internet access drives me back to what could be called 'the city' by a loose definition of the term.

Welcome to Bagan! It's very nice, for a day.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Mandalay me down to sleep



Look, it's a place you've actually heard of for a change! Though that's probably just because of that unrealistic song about the emancipated elephant. Trust me, Nellie wouldn't make it more than 10 metres down the dirt road before a 1980 Toyota Corona with no headlights smashed into her. That'd give her something to trumpety-trump about. At least wait until daylight to give yourself a fighting chance, you stupid pachyderm.

There were more pristine payas and crumbling colonial constructions to see in the old capital of Mandalay, but its most striking feature is the four-square-kilometre Royal Palace, which I was already debating over buying a ticket for before a soldier told me it was off limits anyway, making the decision a lot easier. Sod it, I went up a big hill instead.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Yangon a minute



If you arrived in Bangkok and found your illusions of technologically backwards Asia cruelly shattered by the ubiquity of smartphones, head to the Myanmar embassy and arrange your visa pronto, as visiting this emerging travel destination is really like stepping back in time. Specifically to about 1986, judging by some of the nostalgic Toyotas trundling along the dusty roads.

Yangon is where most flights go to, and with its mixture of painstakingly maintained government parks and appallingly run-down public buildings it gives a fair overview of this slightly mad country. You might know it as Rangoon if you're more than 100 years old or the sort of stubborn pedant who refuses to acknowledge that names change and still insists on calling Myanmar 'Burma,' Starburst 'Opal Fruits' and people with darker skin than you 'coloureds.'

There's something very distinctive about Yangon though, and it took me most of the first day to realise what it was. There are no motorbikes here. There aren't even any bicycles, apparently due to a government initiative to reduce congestion that seems to have targeted precisely the wrong end of the spectrum. After going back and forth to Hanoi a few times the previous month, where cacophonous bikes are standard issue, this was a welcome shock.

Monday, November 26, 2012

A Buddhist trilogy (of five)



They take Buddhism very seriously in Myanmar, which isn't a surprise when you consider that many countries suffering through oppressive regimes and terrible quality of life end up turning to faith for some paranormal relief. At least they chanced into one of the less tyrannical religions, though that's a bit of an unfair stereotype, as demonstrated by the frequent participation of Buddhist monks in the persecution of the country's minority Muslim population. So much for Buddhism being the harmless one.

But hey, enough of the dwelling on local politics and opening my eyes to the misery and suffering around me, this is supposed to be a holiday! Let's visit some of Myanmar's most significant Buddhist sites and pay extortionate and ethically dubious entrance fees to the fascist state instead.

My girlfriend was keen on visiting Myanmar's Famous Five Buddhist sights during our visit, and being a sucker for anything approaching a quest or OCD checklist I was happy to help, but unfortunately we didn't have time / couldn't be bothered to travel to some of those further afield, so here's 60% of them. Hey, it's better than I usually manage!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Burmese days



When I wrote about my visa run across Myanmar's southernmost border with Thailand, I half-heartedly expressed a desire to see more of this country than just a harbour, but I didn't expect to be back so soon. But when flights to Nepal and Indonesia turned out to be slightly more expensive than I'd budgeted for two people, it seemed an obvious choice to explore further afield in this strange nation before my girlfriend started work and I'd be out on my own again.

Travelling in Myanmar was very different from more mainstream Asian destinations, but in other ways it wasn't as much of a leap or challenge as I'd been led to believe. While I can criticise some overly demanding tourists for their expectations from a country that's had its development severely stilted, there are some things that probably matter to me more than most travellers, like the terrible internet access that made it frustrating to get my work done during these two weeks.

Due to this dodgy/non-existent internet access, I made the unprecedented decision not to write any blogs while travelling in Myanmar, instead taking notes and photographs that seemed funny or relevant at the time and trusting that I'd be able to make some kind of sense out of all this when I got back to my Thailand apartment, loaded up on snacks and ready meals from 7-Eleven and locked myself in with the router for a week.

We'll see how I get on when I write about my trips to Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan separately, but first here are some chaotic, general notes about Burmese idiosyncrasies that didn't fit anywhere else, and will hopefully set the right tone. I mostly had a good time.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thieving Bastards IV: The Colossal Waste of Time

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Finally, fuelled by blind rage and in spite of sanity and the desire to not waste my life, I've caught up with the present in my compulsive searching of literally every photo I've ever put in this blog.

You'll notice this is an extremely slim version compared to earlier ones, which is most likely the calm before the shitstorm as the Asian travel industry gradually uncovers my photos of places they can't be arsed to send a photographer to themselves and spread them around. Or it could just be that my photos are no longer of any value now I've exhausted the major tourist traps.

A high proportion of these travel company sites and blog posts are from November 2012, so they wouldn't even have existed if I'd done this a couple of weeks ago, and there'll doubtless be new ones springing up even as I type this. If I do waste another weekend searching for new (s)hits, it won't be for at least a couple of years.

Please don't take this lapse in vigilance as an excuse to use my photos for your own nefarious commercial purposes. Like you ever needed an excuse to steal someone's intellectual property, you stinking, cheating, lying, thieving poos!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thieving Bastards III: This Time It's Racist

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More tedious cataloguing of innocent bloggers and dastardly companies who used my photos without asking, this time from the first six months of my second year of travelling (September 2011 to March 2012). I'm hoping there'll be fewer of them as I get closer to the present and beat them to it, but then I'll probably be compelled to search again in a couple of years' time and see how things are getting on. I'm bracing for frustration, let's dive in.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Thieving Bastards II: Boo-Bloody-Hoo



Further adventures with Google Reverse Image Search uncovering who's stealing my photos for innocent and nefarious purposes. If you like anything you see, have the courtesy to credit your sources or be forever labelled a thieving bastard.

Covers the second half of my first year of travelling in what's sure to be an endless, fruitless exercise in pissing myself off.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Thieving Bastards I: The Insanity Begins



I started writing this post earlier this year when I discovered Google's 'Search By Image' app for Chrome (if you didn't know about it already, I may have just killed your afternoon) and was irritated to find out some companies were using my travel photos to help flog their tours and other wares. But I abandoned the task for two main reasons:

  1. Because searching for every individual image out of the thousands on this blog to see where they're being used elsewhere on the internet is an even more fruitlessly time-consuming task than even I was prepared to undertake.
  2. Because it's a bit hypocritical to condemn people for using my images without permission or giving credit when I've done that a lot myself, especially for the first few months of travelling when I didn't have a camera. Though I was just a kid with a non-AdSense earning blog who wanted to illustrate a post about haggling in Egypt, which I think is a bit different to a company purloining my less terrible snaps to sell their overpriced tours of South Korea.

I tried and failed to leave cynicism and litigation at the door when exposing these DIRTY, THIEVING BASTARDS, and tried to take it as a compliment that they thought my amateur photos were worth nicking. This doesn't include images that show up in galleries or wallpaper sites under the irrelevant name of a pop singer, there are too many of those to bother with. Just the sites that know what they're doing.

This covers my first six months of blog posts, because I do actually have things to be getting on with. It still took bloody ages to do, but since when have I let that get in my way?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

That's what real work looks like



When my tranquil mountain retreat in Sapa turned out to be less recuperative than expected, I got away from the computer and had the sort of really relaxing rest that involves trudging along muddy paths for hours getting burned by the sun and almost getting trampled by buffalo. I liked it a lot.

I've always been a farm boy at heart - my dad's a farmer, so I don't have to go back generations or anything. I love watching people doing the sort of real, practical work I would have been doing if I'd been born at any previous point in time and eaten my greens as a child. Though even if I'd been born in the 19th century I still probably would have forsaken the fields to write about ghost sightings in saw mills for The Cheshire Observer or something. Useless twat.

There are plenty of tribal vilages in the Sapa area, but Cat Cat (which isn't pronounced how it's spelled, sorry to disappoint) is easily the most accessible, just a mile or so downhill from the town. That would do nicely.

Monday, November 12, 2012

That time I didn't have malaria



Where can you go after being blown away by the insultingly photogenic Ha Long Bay? If you're a more ambitious and less burned out traveller than I was at this point, you could head south along Vietnam's dysraphic spine to visit demilitarised zones, napalmed jungles and more ancient cities, but I went north into the mountains for a rest.

That was the idea anyway. But less than an hour after drifting off to sleep in a cosy hotel bed in a comfortably cool climate, my fifth different bed in as many nights, I woke up delirious, shivering, sweating and subsequently doing a few other things I won't describe here because you'll probably be eating at some point today.

I'm still not sure exactly what was to blame, but like any other unqualified internet commentator I have my wacky theories. As sceptical as I am about these pseudo-medical observations, I will give you one piece of sage advice: if you're already struggling to get to sleep due to a mysterious fever and troubled thoughts, don't make the mistake of looking up your symptoms online.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Conquest of Monkey Island™



No sooner had I got my sea legs, than they were snatched from under me as we went ashore for some extremely medium-duty jungle trekking on Cat Ba Island™. After getting suitably sweaty, we took another short voyage to spend the night on Monkey Island™, which was inevitably disappointing given my impossibly high expectations.

Not only did I not see any monkeys, I didn't see a single pirate skeleton ghost or come across seemingly random objects for my inventory that would later prove ingeniously useful when combined with other objects or parts of the background. I feel like I've been the victim of an extremely long-winded marketing con by Vietnamese travel companies in collaboration with Guybrush Threepwood and the good people of LucasArts. I've heard they are contemptible sneaks. Still, I always enjoy a rickety wooden cabin.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Dave in a cave again ag… however many we’re up to



The counting system for my caving blogs is a lot less formalised than for my childish days out. These are more jazz. Here’s another couple of well jazzy caves I visited, hollowed into the not-floating islands of Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay. They make the punier caves in Vang Vieng look like something a cartoon mouse would chomp out of a skirting board.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Islands don't float



Comparing my travel blogs with those written by other people, one of the major things you'll probably notice - apart from mine going on forever while theirs tend to fade into silence after a couple of months, the quitters - is that I don't talk about the people I meet. The reason for this is that I don't choose to meet people very often, preferring my own company and having had enough bad experiences to feel socialising with drunk strangers isn't worth the gamble of making a new friend who I'll immediately alienate by not staying in touch.

I tried to explain this in an earlier post about how extroverted people aren't willing to understand that introverted people's brains work differently to theirs, but comments indicated that these people still aren't willing to try to understand even after I've just explained it to them. So I won't waste more time trying to open your mind and convince you that I'm not some kind of aberration for not feeling comfortable in large groups for extended periods, I'll just comfort you by admitting I had quite a nice time talking to some of the people on my lazy package tour of Ha Long Bay. Some of them.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Ha Long is a piece of string?



That depends on the scrupulousness of the travel agent you book your tour of Vietnam's tactically voted Wonder of the World with, and how stubborn you are to fight through their deliberately ambiguous sales pitch and outright lies about 'VIP' boats and 'superior' bungalows before they admit that everyone just gets handed the same length of tatty old string frayed at the edges and with a couple of frustrating knots that they've tried loosening with scissors, but that just made it look worse.

If you enter the tour company's office prepared to deal with their bullshit, and don't get indignant when the tour guides advise you that you shouldn't leave any valuables in your boat cabin because the crew routinely breaks into rooms to look for anything salvageable, you'll probably have a great time in Ha Long Bay. Once you've accepted that you're going to be scammed, the satisfaction lies in minimising the collateral damage.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Say Hoa Lo to my little friend



Sometimes you can learn too much about a country and lose those initial, innocent, ignorant impulses you might have had back when you weren't burdened by knowledge and experience.

I was in South Korea for over a month before I remembered 'oh yeah, this is that place they're supposed to eat dogs,' and it wasn't until my sixth day in Vietnam when I visited Hoa Lo Prison - which the incarcerated United States Air Force POWs sardonically nicknamed the 'Hanoi Hilton' - that I recalled 'oh yeah, there was that whole war thing...'

It's not like I hadn't seen 20,000 terrible films about it, all admittedly from the American perspective (though rarely with a positive outlook about the whole thing). So I was keen for the chance to redress the balance and see events portrayed from the other side of the conflict.

Though I wasn't quite prepared for the level of selective editing involved. This museum's white-washed trip down memory lane is the most darkly amusing cover-up I've seen since I visited the Korean DMZ and learned about the North's childish excuses when they were caught digging infiltration tunnels to the South. I may not be a historian, but my dad's a farmer and I know the smell of bullshit.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Mm, that's nice too



Iiiiit's October 28th again, and you know what that means! No? It means I just noticed it's the pointless anniversary of a day when I presumably wasn't doing very much last year, so made a greatest hits compilation of photos of ace natural sights I'd seen over the previous year.

I'm not exactly running low on new things to show you - I've got almost two months of backblog scheduled in case I get hospitalised or something and can't provide you with your bi-weekly fix of disappointing, low resolution photos of things you'll have to trust looked spectacular when I looked at them with my eyes through slightly wrong prescription glasses. But a tradition's a tradition, even a pointless, non-existent tradition, so here's another year's worth of nice nature things.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The twenty-seven deadly Sinhs



As a child, I remember eating Asda Take A Break and Puffin chocolate bars, their cheeky own-brand knock-offs of Kit Kat and Penguin respectively, and wondering how they were getting away with that. It turns out they didn't get away with the second one after all, because there are rules to stop opportunists cutting in on someone's market niche when they've built a solid reputation over many years.

Those laws don't exist in Vietnam though, and when one particular Hanoi-based travel agent called Sinh Cafe was singled out for its good value deals and relative lack of scamming by the writers of those bulky Lonely Planet books that so many people insist on carting around even though it's 2012, it didn't take long for every other travel agent in the city's Old Quarter to steal its name and branding in a successful bid to trick gullible tourists into thinking they were dealing with a credible business.

I was looking for a good travel agent to book a tour of Ha Long Bay, and because it's 2012 I got some help from the internet. This is apparently the real Sinh Cafe website (now rebranded as The Sinh Tourist to set itself apart from the imitations), and I was told there were at least 15 dodgy knock-offs in the Hoan Kiem district alone. Walking around that area in search of a book shop, I counted at least 27 Sinh Cafes, and I wasn't even really looking.

Here's a needlessly thorough gallery. (Note: Does not include real Sinh Cafe).

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The tortoise hunter



They're pretty big on tortoises in Hanoi, which is good as I'm pretty big on them myself. They carve stone effigies in their universities, cultivate mummified specimens in their temples and there are even legends about giant ones swimming around in the impractically small Hoan Kiem Lake. Oh hang on, that'll be turtles if they're swimming won't it?

Ah well, same thing, innit? Like saying 'monkeys' when you mean apes, or 'Chinese' when you mean anyone east of Bangladesh. Same thing, innit? No, it isn't. Get out of my sight!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Hello there Vietnam, how are you this morning? Good.



I think I'd been postponing Vietnam so long for the same reason as China, as I didn't fancy having to arrange an annoying and expensive visa when other countries let me in with just a passport stamp. It's nicer to feel welcome than like I'm some sort of annoyance (Hanoiance?)

But I'm glad I finally got round to it, as this might be one of my favourite South East Asian countries as well as one of the worst. Great sights, fantastic food and the most mental traffic I've experienced since Cairo. Those idealised images of Vietnam you have from 1990s travel documentaries of people in conical hats getting around on non-motorised bicycles are long gone. Hanoi's population of eight million owns six million motorcycles. That means everyone apart from the kids has one, though they probably have illicit scooters stowed beneath their beds.

I didn't enjoy walking in Hanoi very much, but risking almost certain death crossing the street was still preferable to getting ripped off by taxi drivers. If these blogs suddenly cease before I get to Ha Long Bay, you know what happened. Please give my organs to the needy and let the medical students make mistakes on my corpse so they don't slip up on living ones. As a precaution, I've always had a blog post scheduled to go live in the event of my death with more details - that's normal behaviour, right?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Well, that about wraps it up for Myanmar



I know, I really should have gone to the Thai embassy in Vientiane to arrange an extension to the overland 15 day visa exemption before crossing back into Thailand from Laos, but I didn't fancy the prospect of spending another 24 hours in that place, and anyway I wasn't anticipating my bank screwing around so much with my life, feelings and bowels that I'd need to do a visa run to Myanmar and give myself more waiting time.

If I had that sort of foreknowledge, I would have done myself in a long time ago, though at least I could have saved myself some girl trouble and Sri Lanka. Let it go, there are more countries to slag off. Myanmar isn't one of them, as I didn't spend long enough in the sovereign republic to get a balanced perspective. I didn't even spend long enough to watch an episode of Ren & Stimpy.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Chiang Mai of the slightly to the north east



My break-neck tour of Laos lasted just 10 days, which is probably something like the average but was a shock to my system, as I'm used to giving myself about twice as long as I need in every place to account for work days and days where I just can't really be bothered to go out and would rather watch Red Dwarf and eat biscuits. I've been travelling for two years without a break, got a problem with that?

Laos was a testing ground to see whether I could get all my work done on long distance bus journeys to free up time once I got to my destination, now that I've replaced my laptop with one that has a battery life longer than two hours (how did I cope with that for so long?) This new system works well for me, but I still could have done with spending a little longer in the old capital of Luang Prabang - the first and last place in Laos that didn't just stress me out and reminded me a lot of Chiang Mai in Thailand.

Apparently, you can take a seven-hour speedboat journey between those two places, so could theoretically divide your time between Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang until your respective visas expire, making the trip across the border every two to four weeks until your inevitable death. Not the worst retirement plan.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Sploosh!



Who said I never take pointless risks? Oh yeah, it was me. But after I missed out on the deadly tubing in Vang Vieng I was excited by the prospect of swinging Tarzan-style into the raging torrents of Kuang Si Waterfall, forgetting for a second that I hadn't been swimming in more than a year, was never all that good at it anyway, and that any time in my life I try to show off or join in with anything that requires physical fitness I just end up embarrassing myself.




It all came flooding back when I managed to swing back into the tree and get carried further out than I intended in the fast-moving river, but I somehow didn't end up dying. I guess it's back to the safety of temples and museums from now on. But first, here's some waterfalls and bears.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Dave's in some more caves



I enjoyed my time in South East Asia's capital of drink, drugs and smashing your head open on jagged rocks because you had too many drinks and drugs, despite not indulging in any of those things myself. Though on Thursday I did have a hot coffee for breakfast and then bought a bottle of iced coffee from the convenience store within 30 minutes! What can I say, the hedonistic attitude is infectious.

But enough about my wild caffeinated mornings, I also got away from the shanty resort to see some of Vang Vieng's ace scenery, which is presumably the reason this place became popular among backpackers in the first place, before its popularity became a selling point in itself and kept people like me away.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Red Dwarf X is here, gimboids



Here's a break from my zany travelling escapades to inform those of you who haven't been keeping up with retro TV resurrections that the new series of Red Dwarf starts tonight on Dave at 9PM! (Or some time tomorrow on illegal torrent sites for those of us not living in the UK).

I don't know if these six new episodes will really recapture the spirit of the show that was so important to me from the age of eight and up, but the spoiler-free news I've let myself peek at suggests it's at least the best it's been for almost 20 years. I'm extremely optimistic. Plus, even if the jokes have lost it, I can just mute the volume and enjoy those spectacular sets and model shots.

I missed out being in the audience recordings earlier this year, which is one of the times I've most missed being in my home country, though even if I was there, lousy Wi-Fi probably would have meant I was beaten to the fast-selling tickets anyway.

Okay, back to my day job of [enjoying / getting pissed off by] South East Asia now. Did I forget something? Oh yeah, 'smeg' etc.


Update: Oh yes, it was good! What a relief.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

How not my kind of place can you get?



I'd heard a lot about Vang Vieng since first coming to South East Asia, having to endure the same overheard conversations as each new group of fresh backpackers is wowed by lecherous travellers' tales of drunken tubing down a river in 'some country called Laos.' It was enough to put me off going this far, but the prospect of another half-day bus ride direct to Luang Prabang convinced me to stop here along the way and see whether it was as bad as I feared.

It sort of was, but weighted more towards the amusing end than just depressing.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Buddhy hell



I just realised I missed a trick by not using that title for the Ten Courts of Hell blog more than a year ago, so I had to get it in somewhere.

If you're the sort of free-thinking or stubborn traveller who prefers not to base their plans and schedules on the experienced advice of others, you might have made the mistake of spending more than one night in Laos' tedious capital Vientiane. But have no fear, there's a slightly unusual sculpture park constructed by an exiled shaman just an hour's bumpy bus ride away, which is well worth the trip to fill all those unforgiving minutes. Maybe I'll listen next time.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Paradise Laost



I've been trying to track down South East Asia's legendary lost kingdom of Laos, but I think I took a wrong turn. This place I'm in is called Laos all right, but there's nothing 'lost' about it, if the endless guest houses, karaoke bars and white people walking around distastefully topless are anything to go by. Are we talking about the same Laos here?

Laos doesn't come close to being a tourist-unfriendly country, especially compared to the likes of Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and China where I had to put in a lot more effort to find places than just hopping in a jumbo with seven other white people and a couple of Koreans and being escorted around the conveyor belt of popular sights. I got sick of this pretty soon and went back to using the local buses and hand-scrawled directions, but even these buses are air conditioned and have pedal bins in the centre of the aisle. You don't even get that in Japan.

I was most worried about Wi-Fi before going, after some bad experiences in the aforementioned countries where hotels either lied about being connected at all or connections were interrupted any time a bird sat on a telegraph pole, but in 21st century Laos I was able to keep up with work and illegally download new episodes of Breaking Bad in record time. You won't have to squat over any toilets and you can still use all the Thai you learned in Thailand, so you don't need to learn many new phrases. What do you mean you didn't even learn any Thai?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Paradise is overrated



Travelling isn't all that stressful, it's life that's stressful. I get stressed at the drop of a hat, which is why I can never wear hats. I tried it once, let's never speak of that again.

Or at least I thought I got stressed a lot. It turns out all that time I was just getting a bit annoyed. Now I know what stress is, and what it's capable of doing to my formerly invincible body. I won't bore or sicken you with the details, but I have my reliably unreliable bank to thank for making an annoying situation steadily worse and piling on problems and bureaucracy like a stress Buckaroo until my digestive system couldn't cope any more. No, I don't have any formal medical training. Why do you ask?

The result was that I had to spend a lot longer limboing in Bangkok than I'd planned, or than Thai immigration allowed me, with a dwindling supply of emergency baht and no way of accessing my own money that I work for.

Then I remembered I was in Thailand, where there are loads of idyllic islands designed for just these situations, and sought to counteract the most stressful experience in my life with the most relaxing. It was going quite well for an afternoon until the typhoon struck.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Another pointless ebook

My second year of travelling and writing about it is now available as a FREE E-BOOK!

That's right, I put myself through this time-wasting ordeal again, despite having work and life to do.

These edited (though mostly not) blogs cover September 2011 to September 2012 in the Philippines, Borneo, Thailand (several times), Cambodia, South Korea (twice), Japan (twice), Sri Lanka (never again), China (not all of it) and Laos (some of it). I saw a petrol station in Brunei too, if you're interested.

That's right, it includes my Laos blogs that haven't been published online yet. So why wait for them to come on TV when you can rent the VHS? PDF rather. Just as redundant a format. I couldn't get the Kindle converter to work.


(62 MB)


Go on, what's the worst that can happen? It could have a virus that destroys your computer and accesses your personal information, I guess. I'm not a very good salesman. But I'm not making any money from this vanity project, so who cares?




  • 280 PAGES!
  • BRAND NEW! lazy introduction
  • UNSEEN BLOGS! for a couple of weeks until they go online anyway
  • NEEDLESSLY! comprehensive appendices
  • STILL NO HYPERTEXT OR LINKS! for difficulty of navigation

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Two years later...



Well now, the massively misleading travel map is starting to look more impressive now I've scraped the edge of one of the world's biggest countries. East Asia's coming along pretty well, though it now looks like I've got something against Vietnam. I suppose I'll have to rectify that.

At the time of writing, I still don't have a clue where I'll be spending the next 12 months, though I should probably get out of Asia soon or I might be trapped here forever. I'm still not ready to go back to my home country and see friends and family again, as much for their sake as my own. What if I've turned into one of those despicable 'travellers?'

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Monkeytropolis



Another flight connection in Thailand meant another chance to finally get round to things I'd pointlessly missed out the last six or seven times I passed through immigration's revolving doors. The monkey infested historical town of Lopburi was one of them, and you could ask why this wasn't my first destination in Thailand back in February '11, and why I haven't been living here permanently in the nineteen months since.




Oh yeah. That's why.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Typhool me twice


Macau Tower on Sunday and Tuesday.
I wonder which photo they'll use in the tourism brochure?


If more evidence were needed that I don't learn from my mistakes, the inaugural event of the South China Sea Typhoon Season 2012 caught me by surprise, despite these same meteorological menaces spoiling my travel plans in the Philippines this time last year.

I wasn't the only one to be embarrassingly unprepared for the weather though, as everyone except the nonplussed locals seemed similarly unable to cope with these freak storms arriving precisely on schedule, crowding into doorways, looking around in helpless confusion like a doomed polar bear on a dwindling ice cap and bemoaning the effect this weather was having on their poorly planned holiday, while the fatalities slowly added up.

I wasn't so callously self-absorbed of course, mostly being in Macau because it was the next place along and having already taken most of my tourist photos in my first few days here when, if anything, it was a bit hot and dry. No, I was much more concerned with not being able to access the internet, which already required trips to cafes and government buildings in the city centre several times per day, thanks to my heritage hotel being too Luddite to even have sit-down toilets. How would I survive?

Monday, September 10, 2012

The dark side of Macau



I spent a little longer in Macau then I'd intended, having already booked my flight for the end of the month but cutting my time in the People's Republic of China mercifully short due to various stresses. I completely failed to make the most of this extra time though, and didn't even bother leaving the four square kilometres of the peninsula to check out the islands. There'll be more islands in other places - this was my China detox.

I always seem to end up getting stranded in these colonial outposts, and Macau is one of the nicer ones. For once, the colonists were Portuguese too, not British, so I didn't even have to feel guilty!

I don't really have a theme for these compulsory pictures of tourist sights. I notice all my pictures are usually taken in the day time, because my camera doesn't take very good night shots and I'm usually in bed by nine, so I stayed up late to get some blurry night time photos. Sorry to disappoint anyone who came here hoping to read about the disgusting stuff that goes on here - read this instead. But if you want a less depressing, conservatively bland experience, check out my photos.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Things I didn't like about China


I liked this


Here's a post that'll come back to bite me and threaten to expose the values I've tried to explain to / impose on others out here in less liberal Asia as a sham. Those frustrated English teachers blaming their host country for their own shortcomings, Malay girls dropping casual homophobia into unrelated conversations and internet trolls boldly leaving racist comments behind anonymous IDs will finally be able to point out my hypocrisy as I reveal why I didn't like China very much.

I don't just travel so I can justify moaning, by the way (compare this to this). Sometimes I really enjoy my time in countries, but China wasn't one of those times. I haven't technically finished China yet, but I'm sure Macau will get creative with problems of its own that I can deal with elsewhere.

First I'll clear up that I don't have any problems with Chinese people, which should be taken as read. I've met nice Chinese people travelling in many places, who came from Real China as well as Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and other expat destinations. Of course I have - what country doesn't have 'nice' people? Except maybe England. That's right, I'm following the wrong assumption that slagging off my own country gives me a free pass to be mildly racist about another one.

Most of the problems I had with China are problems its Chinese residents have to deal with too, on a daily basis. And there are a lot of residents. And they can't even moan about it on Blogger.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Oh, Yuexiu sir!



If you've had the patience to follow these blogs for a while, I hope I've succeeded in making some of the major differences between China and other countries in this part of the world clear. Things that might not be so evident if you live in the West, where people don't seem to be very interested in absorbing much from over here except their cars and some of their food, but that can make spending any amount of time in China, Korea or Japan very different experiences.

But when it comes to public parks and other green spaces, the differences become less clear as you could really be anywhere in North East Asia. Things like old people exercising on playground equipment with impressive dexterity, middle-aged women dancing with an impressive lack of shame, pristine mountain trails, boring flowers painstakingly categorised, attractive old things to climb and no other white people in sight.

Really, it's only the constant, loud spitting right onto the footpath that reveals you're on the Chinese side of things, but let's put a lid on my bubbling Sino-stress until I leave this country and can let it foam out in unabridged borderline racist anguish. I'm already cheating the system to write these blogs on a German IP address, I shouldn't push my luck. Here are some pleasant parks.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

You can Canton me



After the economic tedium of Shenzhen forced me to seek solace in model villages, I was happy that Guangzhou had a lot more going for it. Alright, so it's pretty much the same stuff I saw in Taipei when I first came to Asia almost two years ago, but at least that gives my time in this continent some kind of circular narrative. Like those circular doorways I'd been missing too.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Well, that about wraps it up for Earth



They really are big on the model village thing in Shenzhen. Not content with representing their own splendid country in miniature form, they've only gone and boiled down the whole world into 48 hectares of scale models and rides. Or rather, lots of nice places from Europe and some things they've seen in Hollywood films.

As with my trip to Splendid China, there was a more meaningful reason behind my visit than just wanting an excuse to pretend I was sixty feet tall. Alright, it was mainly about that, but I've also been putting a lot of thought into where I want to go next, now I'm through with this part of the world and my second tranniversary is fast approaching.

It didn't make my mind up, but it did strengthen my convictions.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Well, that about wraps it up for China?



Shenzhen may be southern China's commercial success story, but it doesn't have a lot going for it in terms of history and culture. That might be why they've over-compensated by cramming as many of China's greatest hits as possible into three square kilometres at the charming, impressive and amusingly named Splendid China. Grand!

I thought this would mean I could tick off essential sights like the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and those Avatar rock formations so I wouldn't have to see the real ones, but seeing these places in lovingly detailed miniature only made me want to visit more, like the sucker for advertising I obviously am.

If only I could find some way around these internet restrictions that are threatening my livelihood, I'd stay in China for a while. But today was a chance to leave those frustrations and malfunctioning virtual private networks in my hotel room and spend a sunny afternoon stomping around replica fortresses like a Godzilla without the excuse of having children in tow. I mean, child.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Anonymous Hong Kong eateries

This was originally written for my friend Jemma's food blog, because I wanted to try something different and failed. I'm mainly re-posting it here because it's annoying having it wafting around in my drafts.


Eating blind has mostly been a rewarding experience in the various non-English speaking countries I've lived in over the past 18 months, though it carries risks. I won't go into some of the disgusting things I've eaten by accident here.

But for a change, I was visiting Hong Kong with someone who spoke the dialect, and could help me understand what I was putting in my mouth. Unfortunately, it turned out she couldn't read Chinese, so most of the time we were back at square one with the blind leading the blind. At least our senses of taste were still working, so here are three random, anonymous dining options from Tung Choi Street in Hong Kong's ridiculously bustling Mong Kok district.

Friday, August 24, 2012

There's my goddamn escalator!



When I was a kid, I loved escalators. Yeah, me too, you might be thinking. But you didn't love them like I did. You didn't get the same exhilarating feeling when you stepped onto the runway and watched it concertina up into a black, ridged metal step, now fully formed through a process of memory or mechanisms you couldn't understand.

Maybe because your nose was closer to the ground in those days, or you sense of smell hadn't been rendered impotent by too many microwaved cottage pies, in your memories you can smell the metal, before that exciting, nerve-wracking final stretch when the stair collapses in on itself and you perfectly time a death-defying hop over the curb or risk definitely going under like your mum told you would happen once and you unquestioningly believed, because why would she lie?

Maybe you did like escalators that much. The thing is, I liked them for a long time, well into my 20s and into my Edinburgh years, before a few too many trips to the desolate Ocean Terminal shopping centre in Leith, riding up and down the cobwebbed escalators while I waited for a friend to finish her shift at the Vue and get me in free to some shit stoner comedy film or other, finally destroyed the magic. Since then, I've ridden escalators much too frequently around the world in cities with subterranean transit systems, from Athens to Tokyo. The dream is over. Escalators are just moving stairs. I got over it.

So I was excited at the prospect of riding the world's longest escalator system in Hong Kong and trying to rekindle this childhood enthusiasm, because let's face it, I could do with a bit of that. This escalator turned out not to be affiliated with the Big Buddha after all, but located in the central district of Hong Kong Island, imaginatively called Central.