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.
I was so prepared for this one. With the benefit of experience, I arranged for my hotel to pick me up from the airport when my flight arrived late at night, as there was no way I was dealing with Filipino airport taxi hassle after last time. I was paying extra for the privilege, but after a full day of flights and airports on a time zone extended 27-hour day, I felt it was worth it.
Obviously, the lift didn't show up and I had to deal with taxi hassle after all. I really wish that was the end of the story and I'd just gone to sleep mildly annoyed. But unfortunately, I was put in a room next door to an American guy arguing with his prostitute.
The reviews I'd read of this place didn't mention it was in such a sleazy area - maybe other guests were prepared for it or something - but being forced to listen to this horrible man yelling down the phone to the girl's 'manager' demanding his 2,000 pesos back (about £30) made me wonder why the hell I'd left utopian Australia behind.
Although he eventually admitted that they'd had sex, the crux of his argument was that she'd failed to satisfy whatever specific perversion he'd requested. His pleas were unsuccessful, despite his unconvincing threats to report them to the US Embassy (yes, that would work). He eventually let the girl go on her way after her friend arrived, and after dwelling for a while on the unpleasantness of what I'd just experienced, I eventually fell asleep. This is going to be a nightmare.
I knew Australia was going to be smooth and easy as a developed country where I spoke the language, but I wasn't prepared for quite how hassle-free it was. It was almost as easy as getting into China. I didn't think I'd ever write that sentence.
I'd arranged an e-visitor visa and my passport was valid, so I didn't really have anything to worry about, and the apathetic guy behind the immigration counter clearly could not be arsed that day, audibly sighing as he opened my passport to the first random page and shoved the stamp on the crease. I didn't even know they could do that.
I got to Kings Cross easily enough and caught up on about 13 hours of intermittent sleep in a shared dorm as various international drunken people staggered in and out of bed or picked up a guitar to have a strum at 3AM. I knew it was only going to be for one night, so I wasn't even suicidal. Australia was almost entirely nice after that.
Arrival in Hanoi was quite pleasant, and didn't reveal much of the relentless scamming that would sour the rest of my experiences here. I could also enjoy the motorcycle swarms from the comparatively safe vantage point of a shuttle bus, before I'd have to cross roads by foot in the evening. The person I was travelling with swore she saw a dog being spit-roasted on a roundabout (not in that way, if you arrived here looking for that), but maybe she just saw what she'd been fearing. We never saw it again.
Like Cambodia, my first experience of this country was out of necessity for a visa run rather than a proper visit, so I could spend a little longer in Thailand. The boat crossing from Rangong to Kawthoung was enjoyable, and the transition to Myanmar was made clear by the inflating number of armed, stern-faced border guards. I hung around for about 45 minutes before getting the boat back, but obviously wasn't put off too much as I went to Myanmar properly a month later.
The night bus journey from Bangkok to the Nong Khai border was much the same as the other night journeys I've taken in Thailand, and crossing to Laos was comically stress-free. The sole guy stationed there to check passports and visas once they'd been issued was just watching a crackly TV, and although I'd been slightly cheated by a Thai travel agent when arranging my visa and transport to Vientiane, rather than doing it all myself like I usually would, it was slightly satisfying to speed past the overcrowded songtaew heaving with sweaty European backpackers in an air conditioned taxi. Normally I go for budget travel all the way, so let me have this one.
I walked into Macau from Zhuhai and jumped in the first taxi I saw, only to be told by its annoyed female driver that she didn't speak English and couldn't understand the address I'd written down and was struggling to pronounce. She eventually worked it out and I checked in with another woman who didn't speak any English, and who put me in a more expensive room than I'd reserved.
The next day I realised her error and explained that I wanted the cheaper room I'd originally booked, which she eventually accepted with audible grumbling. This room was about half the size of the one I'd been in previously, with no overhead fan and only one power socket, meaning if I wanted to get work done I had to take out the table fan and watch the sweat instantly bead up all over my skin in this sweltering, ancient building, where the walls didn't go all the way up to the ceiling and my enjoyment of my neighbour's relentless chain smoking and phlegmy coughing was unimpeded. I got what I paid for, I know, but I was too stubborn to move back to the other room after already making a fuss once. I don't ever need to go back.
This is probably the most surprising entry I've had to a country, as there was absolutely no hassle whatsoever. All that build-up from the paranoid American media about China's hostility to foreigners, and I literally just walked into the place, through a tunnel from Hong Kong to Shenzhen. It was really easy to find my hotel from the subway too. In fact, this might be the single easiest, briefest and hassle-freest immigration I've had. So it was a shame that the shit firewalled internet made it difficult to do my work and drove me out after nine days. I'll probably go back, either when I take a break from work (fat chance) or when the SEO industry finally collapses like it deserves to and I don't have to worry about Wi-Fi any more, though I probably wouldn't be in the mood for a holiday.
I was travelling with company, which usually makes things more enjoyable, and getting from Hong Kong airport to our hotel on the 15th floor of a vertical street in the world's most populous district was as smooth as Korea. I was only slightly concerned about immigration being racist dicks to a Thai visitor and assuming she was trying to sneak in to find work until proven an innocent tourist, and sure enough she was questioned for longer than most other people until she pointed to her white boyfriend and was let on her way. Like Singapore a year earlier, Hong Kong really reminded me of the UK, which might seem like a strange thing to say and probably requires at least two years of travelling in countries that are even less like the UK to understand.
The theory holds up for Sri Lanka, which I ended up not enjoying all that much and was ominously foreshadowed in my first experiences. I had to get a couple of buses from 'Colombo' airport (nowhere near Colombo) to the city itself, which must have taken a ridiculously meandering route as it took a tenth of the time when I arranged a taxi for my return flight at the end, and then a pushy tuk tuk driver persevered in taking me to several hotels I hadn't requested en route to the one I'd asked him for and already booked.
I don't know why he thought that strategy would work again after seeing my unimpressed face the first two times. But the worst part came at the end, when I stupidly got out of the tuk tuk without my backpack and got half-way down the street before I realised. I decided it wasn't too big a deal and I could just buy new clothes (I always hold tightly to my laptop bag), but then he came back round the block and generously let me retrieve my bag, for a non-negotiable fee. I know I was at fault, but I'd already paid him generously for the ride and now he was just being a dick.
This was quite a lousy one actually. I first came to Japan by boat from South Korea, and maybe because I was the only non-Korean foreigner, Japanese security questioned me for about 20 minutes after I arrived in Fukuoka and searched through my bags, even reading through my note book and laughing at my attempts to write/draw kanji addresses and place names for my itinerary. Whether they were condescending or not, I just wanted to get to my hostel, and when I did it smelled like damp and my living space was sarcastically small even by Japanese standards. I stayed in other places in the country later, including a capsule hotel which was roomy enough, they weren't anything like this.
I was looking forward to this one for a long time, and with the cold weather, excitingly confusing Hangul language signs and easy shuttle bus connection to my Seoul hostel, I felt very welcome. My mood only dropped slightly when I realised the hostel I'd booked was in a really busy nightlife area, and that I was sharing with people who enjoyed that sort of thing. The next morning I walked in the snow for the first time in two years, it was brilliant.
This is the only country I've 'been to' that I haven't really been to, spending the entire time on board a bus or passing in and out of immigration (twice) on the needlessly wiggly international journey between the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. I'd actually been looking forward to this stupid journey for a few days and had quite a relaxing day reading and looking out of a bus window, so my lasting impression of Brunei is quite a pleasant one. Possibly a better time than I would have had if I'd actually visited, Brunei seems a little silly.
Further reading: First first impressions