Saturday, March 30, 2013

Let's actually do Cambodia properly this time and I mean it this time (for a week)

I seem to have an aversion to Cambodia that I don't have for other popular South East Asian destinations, but it's one I've tried to get over by staying for incrementally longer periods each time I buy the $20 visa and head into the kingdom of tuk tuks, amateur con artists and more tuk tuks. The first time I stayed for about 20 minutes, the next time a couple of days and this time more than a week, so it must be growing on me. Actually, I'm not sure why I haven't spent much time here before now.

It might all come down to the bad first impressions I had of the country, which were being scammed a fistful of dollars on a visa run in March 2011 and a few dollars more by a money changer when I went back in November. Although Cambodia isn't quite as bad as Vietnam in that regard, it left some indignant consumer rage in my system that cancelled out any awe I might have felt wandering around the ancient temples, which are spoiled by too many tourists anyway. Those photos from the Angkor Archaeological Park took ages to crop down and are my crowning achievement in precision tourist genocide. Hmm, maybe I should have used a less sensitive term.

Luckily for me, Southern Cambodia was a lot less photogenic and I seemed to spend a lot of the time deliberately taking photos of things that annoyed me. But for all its faults, I'll probably come back some time to stay slightly longer again. I can't say the same about Vietnam.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Tamest dreams

This will be the final instalment in my Tedious Dreams Trilogy, I promise, but I wanted to talk about lucid dreams - something I've been intrigued by for years and actively pursued for a while, before my tragic and embarrassing lack of imagination caused me to grow disillusioned. You'll see why.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Rama IX is watching you

The face of King Bhumibol Adulyadej (stage name Rama IX) will be familiar to anyone who's visited Thailand. Whether you stuck rigidly to the tourist trail or headed off the beaten track to explore the cities before realising your mistake and running back to the tourist trail, the patriarch's kind, bespectacled face keeps a constant vigil from billboards, overpasses and even inside homes. That's a bit weird... right?

When I had a Thai girlfriend, I broached the topic of the king's omnipresence and Thailand's dystopian lèse majesté laws, which punish any verbal or written trash talk of the royal family with between three and fifteen years' imprisonment, but she didn't see anything wrong with that. When she recalled incidents she'd heard about Thais and non-Thais being convicted for speaking ill of the king, she seemed to feel real hurt like someone had insulted a close member of her family. That's a bit weird... right?

Of course, this was the culture she'd been brought up in, so it was natural for her to see the king's portrait everywhere without it seeming comparable to looming statues of North Korean tyrants or something. And it might be completely harmless. But as someone who was brought up in a culture that values freedom of expression, where print and broadcast media aren't controlled by the government (sorry, conspiracy theorists) and where a comedian can freely explore the possibility of his queen's vagina being haunted with the blessing of the BBC, I was always slightly suspicious of Thailand's king. His portrait had started to feel like George Orwell's oppressive Big Brother, especially in favourite royal seaside escapes like Hua Hin that need to keep up appearances even more in case they pay a visit.

But now we're not together any more, I don't have to worry about hurting my ex's feelings and I'm finally free (in an emotional if not legal capacity) to dish the dirt on King Bhumibol...

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Shit optimistic Khao San Road salesmen expect tourists to say

The Philippines' non-generous 21-day visa and the impending austerity festival of Passover taking Jackie out of action meant I was back to living the bachelor lifestyle for a couple of weeks and trying desperately to find something new to keep me occupied in this well-travelled part of the planet. As ever, that meant a flight connection in Bangkok with a few days of regeneration and hibernation in its irritatingly convenient tourist district.

Bangkok's Khao San Road area deserves all the criticism it gets, but I have to admit it's a bloody convenient place to spend a night or two before booking a bus to anywhere the hell else in Thailand. Walking around these packed streets and getting hassled by suit salesman and taxi drivers every five seconds is surprisingly non-stressful though, and my theory is that it's so annoying, it stretches annoyance beyond its elastic limit until it snaps and becomes funny instead.

Here are the scenarios I imagine these overly optimistic salesmen are imagining in their heads when they make their cold sales pitches to clearly uninterested passersby.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Ohhh, THAT Philippines

The typhoons that spoiled my last visit to the Philippines in 2011 did such an efficient job, they even washed away my memories of this country's more horrible aspects, which all came flooding back in the two days I spent in Cebu. (All this weather imagery is just for effect, it was only comfortably cloudy this time).

I specifically chose Cebu as my entry point over Manila and Angeles because I'd been to those other places before and have no desire to ever go back. Unfortunately, it turns out Cebu's basically the same, just on a more compact scale. It may be on a dinky island, but it's no paradise.

Things were even more pronounced as spending nearly two months in Australia meant I'd lost my South East Asia sensory immunity, and walking around the dangerous city streets I was overpowered by the stink of the jeepneys and polluted streams, the trash strewn all over the place, the depressing young girls hanging off the arms of foreign pensioners, the even more depressing beggars rolling around with skateboards for legs and the parodoxical holy imagery decorating dens of sin.

It was also distressing to notice other people's perception of me shifting from generally failing to acknowledge that I even exist in Australia (perfect) to being openly stared at and a target for all sorts of scams and services. Before Cebu, I'd been able to comfort myself that any times I might have been approached by prostitutes in Thailand, there'd been enough ambiguity that I could pretend they were asking about something else. But now I don't have that comfort any more, unless 'fucking' means something else in Cebuano. Why did I leave Australia?

I'm in this country for three weeks, so if this doesn't all become darkly humorous soon I might lose my mind.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Second first impressions

Drawn back to South East Asia by the lower cost of private rooms and paying people to cook all my meals for me (it really is all about that), the obsessive-compulsive, collector part of my brain is annoyed that there aren't many new lands left to visit in these parts, but the realistic part of my brain that occasionally speaks up reminded me that that's not important. It's not like I'm out here collecting passport stamps, this is my actual life.

Travelling extensively in this part of the world has taught me which countries I like and which are to be avoided, and there's always more to see - especially in countries I didn't visit for so long the first time around. Indonesia is an obvious choice, as even though I had some of my worst travel experiences in that country I've only been to two of its islands, but I opted for the Philippines again, which I really didn't see much of in 2011 thanks to arriving at the height of typhoon season. Maybe plans are useful sometimes.

I was so disappointed by the Philippines last time, mostly the fault of the typhoons admittedly, that I passed some time trapped in my rain-battered hotel room recalling my first impressions of all the countries I'd visited up to that point, to see whether my initial experiences coloured my overall opinion of a place. The jury's still out, so I've brought the list up to date with more first impressions of the countries I've visited since.

I checked the weather forecast for Cebu and it looked peachy, so I was optimistic that the Philippines would do better the second time around. I was wrong. But that's probably a good thing, as it turns out people enjoy my blog most when I'm angry, stressed, uncomfortable and generally not enjoying myself for your entertainment. Always glad to be of service.