Sunday, June 30, 2013

Mekong? No, you Simon



I've liked the idea of following a mighty river from source to mouth ever since I travelled along the banks of the Nile in Egypt and met someone who'd followed it up from Tanzania (mostly by accident, to be fair - he was travelling around Africa and the river kept getting in the way). It's as good a pointless quest as any other.

So far I've mostly failed to encounter rivers of significance, the exception being the Mekong which handily carves out many of the borders in mainland South East Asia. I first saw it when crossing Thailand into Laos, where I followed it north as far as Luang Prabang, and later encountered it again in Cambodia. (At least, I saw a few big rivers in Phnom Penh and it's apparently one of those).

If I'd done my duty and braved China's tyrannical immigration laws to follow the Mekong from its source on the Tibetan Plateau all the way down to Vietnam, I'd be celebrating a futile victory in the Mekong Delta. As it is, I just had a couple of nice days of sightseeing by boat and bicycle.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Insanity is a full-time job

If anyone was following the Jeab Incident out of morbid curiosity, it's been resolved to my minimal possible satisfaction for the time being, so I've taken down the associated blog posts (and libellous Facebook accounts).

All I wanted was confirmation that she wasn't trying to run away with my money forever, and after mediating (very impartially!) through one of her close friends on Facebook it seems things are back the way they were - uncertain, but with the inevitable anxiety postponed to a future date.

I didn't expect to get anything back for years when I loaned money to an unemployed single parent in a low income country, I just didn't appreciate all my emails being ignored. As each day yielded nothing but silence I got gradually crazier to the extent that I've probably damaged her reputation among her friends... the ones who can speak English and understand what the hell I was going on about anyway. I've tried to rectify it with all the people I spoke to directly.

I went too far, but she really should have replied. It didn't look great from over here. I wish we'd managed to get there without the unpleasantness, but at least now I have my evenings back. Getting the £5,500 back can wait.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Peek-a-boo, I annihilate you!



After visiting museums that roundly chastised and demonised Americans, it was time to head out into the jungle to celebrate the achievements of local North Vietnamese heroes. There was still time for more American-bashing, to be honest.

When you strip away the horrific death and suffering angle, the Củ Chi tunnel system is really impressive, and even if the white-washed presentation of the People's Army and demonising of the American killers is a little suspect, it's probably fair considering the number of films and TV shows I must have sat through that characterised the sneaky Vietnamese as being 'one' with the jungle. Because there are no racist overtones there.

These guys had nothing but their wits and managed to drive out the world's greatest military superpower. So what if they might have sent a few kids armed with grenades on kamikaze runs into the enemy camp? Let's put all that behind us and play in some tunnels together.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The war in Viet Flippin' Nam



The war museums in Ho Chi Minh City aren't as humorously revisionist as Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi, but there's still plenty of anti-American sentiment and ambiguously loaded word choices to make the Revolutionary Museum and War Remnants Museum worthwhile stops.

The plaques even seemed to get so sarcastically critical at one point, with the Declaration of Independence being juxtaposed against images of crying men with their legs blown off and their deformed Agent Orange offspring. They might as well have hung a banner reading 'Thanks, America' and piped a sincere symphonic rendition of the Star Spangled Banner on repeat. But I think they got their message across regardless, and if I was American I would have felt some ancestral shame and duty to confront these exhibitions of my nation's cruelty, however one-sided.

Yeah, really must get over to India one of these days...

Friday, June 21, 2013

Learning Vietnamese



It feels like a long time since I've slammed face-first into the language barrier, being spoiled by the ESL Philippines and hanging around exclusively touristy areas of Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand after a couple of months in Australia where they spoke something that sounded kind of like English. I just nodded and didn't take the beer tinnie out of my mouth.

So on arrival in Vietnam, I really wasn't prepared for people not being able to speak my language fluently. Even though I've been to this country before and experienced this firsthand through several confusing, open-ended conversations with the staff on night buses, I just forgot language was an issue. I guess I've got really lazy since getting an English-speaking girlfriend and only learning a few choice Bisaya phrases so we can converse discreetly around foreigners. Those conversations are none of your business.

I brushed up on a couple of essential Vietnamese phrases I found scrawled in my notebook from my previous visit, which I'm doubtless pronouncing wrong as no one understands even when I attempt to say the names of major cities, and I always keep a sweaty page of food vocabulary to hand so we don't accidentally eat non-kosher animals like pigs and prawns or non-sane animals like doggies.

I also learned numbers one to ten using a handy memory aid. That's right, long-time followers - that shiver running down your spine and death rattle escaping your throat can only mean one thing. It's the long-dreaded return of my mental mental images. The system bloody works! Almost certainly for me alone.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Innocence lost



Today, my opinion of humanity took a downward turn. Long, unedited, inadvisedly personal dismay-attack follows.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Never Sai never a-gon (Saigon)



Even if you weren't forced to play Russian roulette against your mates or to endure other fictionalised horrors of war, Vietnam isn't one of those countries you forget in a hurry. It's no Brunei. While I mostly enjoyed my 10 days in the Socialist Republic the first time around, my memories of majestic landscapes and incredible coffee evidently soured over time to leave only bitter recollections of scammers and a stress attack so intense, I thought I had malaria.

For my changing opinions of Vietnam, you only have to dip into my blogs over the last eight months:

'This might be one of my favourite South East Asian countries as well as one of the worst'

21 October 2012

'I'll come back and do the south some time'

15 November 2012

'For all [Cambodia's] faults, I'll probably come back some time to stay slightly longer again. I can't say the same about Vietnam'

30 March 2012

'Every traveller I've spoken to about the international scam capital of Vietnam since experiencing it myself has said they won't go back there for that reason alone, and I have to agree with them'

11 May 2013

So when Jackie and I were debating where to spend a couple of weeks in-between Thailand and a return flight commitment from Singapore, Vietnam wasn't exactly top of the list (I really wanted to go to Sumatra, but the risk of actual malaria put Jackie off. Maybe when we get divorced).

After weeding out places I'd been to and had no real need to see again this lifetime, the undiscovered south of Vietnam somehow ended up being the least unappealing. I did it for you guys really, I know you like it when my life's difficult.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Not all Asian people are from Thailand



Being the only country in this part of the world not to be colonised by marauding Europeans, Thailand has a unique perspective on the world and its diverse peoples, and tends to favour classifying this diversity in stark black and white terms that are easier to deal with than all that complicated real-world stuff about ethnic and cultural diversity.

As a frequent visitor to this country, I'm familiar with what Thais think about white people, or 'farang' as they actually came up with a word for. We're all rich, obsessed with sex and have an irritating tendency to vocally complain when we're cheated and lied to. What a drag! One Thai person I knew had such a unified view of white people that she couldn't get her head around the idea of people from Eastern Europe looking for work in the UK or the World Wars being fought primarily between white people, even though she had no trouble appreciating her country's turbulent history with the likes of Cambodia and Burma where the people come from similar stock.

Another country where the people apparently look exactly the same as the Thais is the Philippines, as tour guides, street vendors, waitresses and hotel staff will unfailingly assume Jackie is from the same country as them and try to speak to her in Thai rather than cracking open their faulty English to talk to me, even though I speak more Thai than her. The only Thai Jackie's mastered is ฉันพูดภาษาไทยไม่ได้คะ ('I can't speak Thai'), though hearing her say this in Thai only drags the confusion out for longer, so we ended up switching to the lazy English option and I've convinced her to put on her best exaggerated American accent to avoid further ambiguity.

Mostly this is just a boring nuisance as we have to go through the same explanations and endure the forced merriment when the truth comes out that there are other countries out there where people don't look farang, black or Chinese. But the more it happens, the more it unreasonably pisses me off as the world continues to deny my girlfriend the chance to be treated equally as a fellow international traveller.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Phi Phi? You should have gone before we left



Completing my Krabi trilogy, the most overcrowded island hopping day trip was also the most disappointing. These two factors weren't unrelated: people are rubbish.

While a similarly clement afternoon on Hong Island left plenty of room to manoeuvre, the basically identical beaches and waters of Phi Phi Leh were littered with bobbing bodies as reddening Western tourists clogged the sea while pale Asian tourists crammed into the shade.

To see one island singled out and spoiled this much is confusing and a bit depressing, especially as wherever you point your longtail boat around here you're going to drift ashore on an idyllic island sooner or later. Why single this one out? The reason might be exclusively down to its starring role in some film about a Beach (name escapes me), because some people need that sort of validation to consider a place worth visiting. You'd never catch me being so shallow.

Personally, I was drawn to the Phi Phi Islands for their childish name.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Literally everything I'm carrying now


Mine's the stuff on the shoulders.
The rest is because I'm a (gentleman/packhorse)


Two years on, how does my luggage compare to this same time in 2011 after I'd only managed a piffling nine months of travelling? Have I learned to relax and accept airline baggage fees or become even more minimalist to spite them? Do I have any original items left? Is there anything I've been carting around for nearly three years that I really needn't have bothered with? What's with all the bloody socks?

I still feel self-satisfied when I get the occasional admiring or confused comment about the small size of my baggage (a woman at Sydney Airport was flabbergasted), but luggage has become an issue for the first time on this latest trip as Jackie's been taking the opportunity to stock up on cheap foreign inventory for her family's store, as well as feeling pressure to buy gifts for everyone back home.

This is a completely new situation for me, someone whose only concession to souvenirs is buying a new 'Save the Arbitrary Animal' T-shirt a couple of times a year when the armpit tear in the old one becomes too difficult to obscure, and has resulted in headaches and paranoid frowns each time we pass a local market and a few more items are added to our already heaving bags with the promise that it will somehow fit, contrary to the laws of physics. I don't know if Jackie's a Time Lord or what, but to her credit she was ruthlessly minimal with her clothing when we set off to leave a gaping space for stock, and so far we've managed to convince airlines that those bulging backpacks, suitcases and shopping bags really are suitable cabin bags. Maybe she's a Jedi?

This has meant I've spent a lot more time in plain, characterless malls this time around in Malaysia and Thailand than usual (which means more than no time), with more to look forward to when we head to Korea and Japan in a couple of months for what's looking increasingly like a business trip. Maybe I can claim it all as expenses.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Accidental tour of Krabi



One of the most impressive things about Krabi, once you've got over the overwhelming natural beauty, is how comparatively little hassle there is when walking the streets. I noticed its absence instantly, when gearing up to reject the sales pitches of tuk tuk drivers we were passing on the way to the beach, but they didn't make a peep. We walked along Ao Nang's commercial beachfront and I didn't get any coded offers of masturbation from a single transgender masseuse. What the hell is going on?

Fortunately for my sanity, there were still inept hotel staff to screw things up and villainous travel companies to screw me over and keep me grounded, before I started to consider whether I might be in a slightly derivative heaven. When a budget package tour we'd booked featuring an elephant ride and jungle trekking to a waterfall somehow resulted in us having hired a clueless taxi for the afternoon and going to a temple instead, I knew I was back in Thailand, love it or hate it. Both, in large measures.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

We don't need no stinkin' Kong



The island-speckled seas, inquisitive fish and conspicuously absent hawkers of Krabi made this region my favourite stop in Thailand the first time around. But despite expressing the wish to see more of it in the future, I never got this far south again on my frequent return trips to this country. I guess the extended night bus put me off.

Returning two years later, I'm still confident it's my favourite place in this mostly great country (sorry, Lop Buri, you're still up there), especially now I've seen more of it than what was included on one lazy production line day tour. I've done three of those lazy day tours now. Here's the Hong Island one.