Day 630: A Moment of Terror
You know that stomach-dropping moment of terror you have when you realise that you’ve just, like really, really messed up? I had one of those this morning. Last week, when I did this trip in reverse, I put my GPS tracking device on the window sill next to my bed (economy class gives you a bunk bed in a room with 32 other people) as it likes to have a window to look out of in order to get a signal. Nowt wrong with that, I collected it in the morning and all was dandy.
However, on the return leg my bed was nowhere near the window. I didn’t want to leave my GPS thing there overnight as if some light-fingered gentleman did grab it, I would lose all my GPS tracks for the last couple of weeks: including the proof that I had actually stepped foot in North Korea. This would not be a good thing.
So I did what I sometimes do and got a reading before I went to bed and then turned the damn thing off until I got up in the morning. This is why you sometimes see a dead straight line connecting two places on the map (see the ‘Proof’ link above^). As I’m going over the sea, it doesn’t look too bad and who is seriously going to think I took a helicopter from one point in the middle of the ocean to an other? As I tried to explain to the police in Congo, I’m not James Bond. More irritating was the fact that even though the GPS was on for the entire 48 hour journey from Lhasa in Tibet to Beijing, it didn’t pick up a SINGLE signal. On the GPS map it’s just a straight line – madness. It seems to be a problem with trains: I had the same experience in Europe and in Korea; my GPS just doesn’t like them.
ANYWAY, in the morning I woke up at 7am and put my GPS device on the windowsill. I was awake and sitting on a nearby bunk writing up my blog. At 8am the ship had docked and I got up to grab my GPS… and it was GONE!
I panicked. I threw my stuff in my bag like a madman and ran out of the cabin, completely freaked: I had lost my GPS, but worse: I had lost the proof I had been to the DMZ. Without my camcorder, it was going to be pretty tricky convincing The Guinness World Records to just take my word for it.
Thoughts flashed through my mind: maybe I could get them to search everyone’s bags and pockets as they disembarked. Really Graham? They’re going to do that for you and a thirty quid GPS tracker? Maybe not.
Damnit. I had held onto that little critter since Day 1 – along with my iPod and my backpack it’s one of the few things that I’ve carried with me every single day for the clast 600 odd days of travel.
As I rushed down the stairs to the ship’s reception area, I was greeted by a stewardess holding out in both hands (as they do when giving here – something I really like) my bloody GPS. A passenger had thought everyone had left the cabin and taken it.
I’ve never been so relieved in my life.
I felt like hugging her, but I thought it might not go down too well in this part of the world.
After that little drama was over, it was skip skip skip hop hop hop to the bus station in Qingdao. There were no buses to Shanghai this morning, but there were a ton this afternoon. I bought a ticket, dropped my backpack off in a locker and went out to find somewhere with wi-fi and beer.
Hmm… easier said than done.
Strangely enough for the place where Tsingtao beer is made (Tsingtao is the old pre-pinyin spelling of Qingdao – pinyin being the new spelling standard brought in by the communists – hence ‘Beijing’ instead of ‘Peking’), it was all but impossible to find a bar. But I shouldn’t have been so surprised. In China, and in Korea for that matter, the Western concept of drinking-for-the-sake-of-drinking hasn’t really stuck: meaning that unless you go to a dedicated ‘Irish’ or ‘American’ bar, the only place you can sit down and enjoy a swift half is in a restaurant: and you’re expected to order food with your drink.
I pounded the streets for hours looking for my Holy Grail, but it remained elusive. I made do with a restaurant: there was no wi-fi, but at least there was beer. And gloriously GLORIOUSLY cheep beer at that: 50p a litre. Seriously. I bought two.
But time and tide and blah blah blah soon I was saying tatty-bye to the remarkably pleasant German concession town of Qingdao and heading FULL STEAM to the Chinese Megacity One: Shanghai.
Day 631: Jew Loo Loo
I arrived in Shanghai at 5am, got into a taxi and told him to go to ‘Jew Loo Loo’ (downward tones, like you’re angry) as per Chris’s text message.
Chris and Debbie are old chums of mine from Liverpool. Chris was the quiet kid who got my bus (while I was busy swinging from the stair banister like a orang-utan and failing to impress Kate Nelson with my zany antics) and Debbie was my ex’s mate who used to go to the Krazy House and ignore me (that’s what the vast majority of girls did at that time of my life, so I don’t hold it against her). They’ve been living in Shanghai for a couple of years now, teaching at a local English school.
So, another couch to surf, only this time they couldn’t leave me a negative reference. Ha!! Chris and Deb work as teachers here in Shanghai, and as they left for work, I set out to get myself a Vietnamese visa, which (with any luck) should be the LAST GODDAMN VISA I NEED TO BUY BEFORE I ARRIVE IN A COUNTRY. And that, my friends, sets my pants on fire with glee.
What doesn’t set my pants on fire is when I waste two hours getting to the Vietnam Consulate (I made a couple of bad choices when it came to which trainlines to take), only to find that the DAMN thing is closed until Monday because of a Vietnamese holiday.
Given my camcorder is bust, my laptop screen is cracked, all my clothes STINK after being drenched in Korea, my shoes are on the verge of being banned by the UN inspectorate of chemical weapons and there’s going to be no way I’ll be out of here before this weekend, I was beginning to think that the gods had it in for me. But Chris and Debbie’s gaff was really lovely, situated in the leafy French Concession part of town.
As much fun as it is for an Englishman to take the piss out of the French, I do respect their tree-lined avenues: Britain and Australia could really do with taking a leaf (literally) out of the Frenchie’s book on this one: they look great, they keep you and your car in the shade and when the sunshine filters through the branches, the lighting would make Terrance Malik dance.
Back at Chris and Deb’s flat I found out that the wonderful David Collins from Lonely Planet TV was up for lending me a replacement camcorder (second series anyone?!) while mine got fixed. Better still, he would have it in the post tomorrow: which meant (if I was really lucky) I could be back online on Monday. Hallelujah!
Days 632-634: Rounding The Bund
The next day I set off to the part of town that had all the laptop hawkers and fixers, aiming to get Sony Jim sorted out – the large black blob to the right of the screen where the crack emanates is growing like Venom, and will very soon engulf the LCD entire. Quite what Sony where thinking when they designed a computer with a hard glass screen with a backing of floppy plastic I’ll never know.
Anyway, I scouted around for a price thinking oh this is China it’s bound to be cheap. Ha. No. The best price I got was 200 quid. Considering I paid 300 quid for the damn laptop in the first place, I, like Queen Victoria, was not amused. I resolved to plough on with the crack until it stops my ability to write my blogs, mess around with Photoshop and make nice videos for YouTube.
On Friday night Chris and Deb and I went out for an awesomely cheap curry-and-all-you-can-drink bonanza with their teacher mates. On Saturday, quickly shaking off the resulting hangover, we headed out to see The Bund – the Shanghai waterfront, complete with this HILARIOUS building:
My word – and I thought I had a dirty mind!!
Anyway, the OTHER side of the river (our side, the side of The Bund) is just peachy: very, very reminiscent of my hometown of Liverpool, well the nice bits – you know down by the Pier Head before they built that shed next door.
Next up I needed to replace my Vans. Wading through the hooky drain water in Seoul had left them incapable of ever smelling normal ever again: I had tried washing them TWICE in Chris’s washing machine and they still had the power to melt my face like the Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Think wet dog with a soupcon of rendered fat and a sprinkling of sweat from a sumo’s butt-crack and you’re still not anywhere near.
We found the shoe supermarket, but as it’s China, there is pretty no way of guessing whether anything is real or not. But that wasn’t my biggest problem: that was getting my size. I’m by no means Sideshow Bob when it comes to my shoe size, but I guess that even years after foot-binding was made illegal, the Chinese have still got a love-affair with dinky feet and therefore resolutely refuse to cater for anyone who has feet any larger than Bilbo Baggins.
Eventually I found a pair that fit, the only problem being they were BRIGHT RED (should have figured on that – this being China and all). Oh well, maybe if I click the heels together three times… no, that doesn’t work either.
But given the Hobson’s choice on offer, I plummed for the scarlet slippers. Then I haggled the price down from 55 quid to 15. I’m good at stuff like that these days. We headed back to the flat with Sonic’s hand-me-downs and we watched British box-office flop ‘The Infidel’ which is about as funny as finding a lump on your testicle. In fact, it’s probably the least funny ‘funny’ film I’ve ever seen. Seriously: it was sub-Wayan brothers. If I ever met David Baddiel (the writer) I may have to break his hands with a hammer lest he attempt to write any more similar dirge, I would be doing the world a favour.
Days 635-639: A Fiery Dish of Hades
By Monday I was up and full of beans: the Vietnam consulate would be open. I headed down there and queued up for over an hour, only for them to stop taking applications when I was one person away from the desk. Come back after lunch. And the bad news didn’t end there. Chinese customs where holding my replacement camcorder. And they wanted – wait for it – 400 POUNDS in tax to release it from customs.
And it got worse: customs in China takes 5-7 days to clear incoming goods. Next Thursday is a ten-day holiday in China. Yes: not only did customs was 400 quid, they would also be keeping the camera for at least TWO WEEKS.
I did what any other swaggering squashbuckler would do in this situation: I went to the pub. I took along an American guy called James who had also just been knocked back from the Vietnam consulate. After a couple of jars of the amber nectar, we headed back to the consulate and got our applications handed in: the visas would be ready tomorrow.
Fair enough. Now: what the HELL was I going to do about this bloody camcorder? I decided it would be a Bully’s Special Prize of a good idea to take it down to laptop city (where the grass is green and the girls are pretty) and see if one of the many Sony shops down there could do a number on my camcorder in just a couple of days.
You have to understand: I’ve had camcorders fixed in the UK before and it’s taken them WEEKS just to diagnose the problem and MONTHS to fix the damn thing. But this is China, and I guess people are a bit more handy. James came with me and, unbelievably, there was a place that said they could have it fixed on Wednesday. I love the UK, but at some things it totally sucks the big one: this being a great example. Hurrah for China! The price they charged for parts and labour came to about the same as what they charge back home just to look at the bloody thing.
Much happier about the situation, James and I joined Chris and Debbie for a meal at which I stupidly ordered the pepper beef. Eek.
No, seriously, eek!
Amongst my other not-inconsiderable achievements in my life is the fact that I managed to complete the Curry Hell challenge at the Rupali restaurant in Newcastle, as seen in the Viz. I got a certificate and a trophy and man did it hurt to go to the toilet for days afterwards: for poos and wees.
But this pepper beef must have been concocted by nothing short of a madman. I’ve never seen so many chilli peppers, except when I visited that chilli pepper factory. And as we struggled to eat this fiery dish of Hades, the air-conditioning could not do anything to stop the sweat pouring from our brows, much in the manner of Ted Stryker.
The next day James and I picked up our visas and on Wednesday I went to pick up my camcorder only to find that when I tested it, there was a problem. It wasn’t recording or playing back right: dropping frames like the goddamn Chuckle Brothers. Can you come back on Friday?
Chris and Debbie were leaving on holiday tomorrow for Laos. That would be a no, then.
Eventually he said it could be done for six o’ clock in the evening tomorrow. Debbie, the legend that she is, said I could stay at their flat until I got the camera back, even though they wouldn’t be there. Cool! A Shanghai flat to myself. House Party!
No, Graham, that wouldn’t be very nice now would it?
So after a final meal (mmm…. pizza) together, Chris and Debbie left me on my Billy Lonesome the next day. They were having administration nightmares of their own: their school still hadn’t given Debbie her passport back (she had given it to them over a month ago to get her visa renewed). In the end (and at the 11th hour) Debbie did finally get her passport and they set off for the airport.
Bah! Wish I could fly.
Later on Thursday I picked up my camera and (joy of joys!) it was working again. I thanked the guys and headed home to put the growing mountain of video tapes from Nepal, Tibet, China, Korea etc on my hard-drive. Boring, but someone had to do it.
On Friday, I met up with James and we went to the Shanghai Expo together. I would have gone earlier, but I wanted to get it on camera, but to be honest I shouldn’t have bothered: the architecture on display just set me up for a full on rant which I’ll post in the Featured Column when it’s finished.
That night, Chris and Debbie’s mate Matt came over for a few beers and action movies while I backed-up the last lot of tapes onto my computer. Matt has done a rather spanking overland adventure of his own: Manchester to Sydney, and unlike the Oz Bus, he didn’t cheat by flying. I may need to pick his brains if I’m going to get from East Timor to Australia in one piece.
So that’s it: a week of errands and housekeeping. But now I was set on the blocks, ready for the starter’s pistol. I have everything I need to race through the countries of SE Asia in double megaquick time: just one hurdle remained: Taiwan. Given that Taiwan and China are mortal enemies, how on Earth did I expect to go from one to the other and back?
In answer to the question I posed at the end of the last blog: VERY EASILY. Yup, just like the globe (thanks to oil companies and climate changer deniers), relations between China and Taiwan are warming. In fact, they’re becoming positively cosy. Just last year it would have been impossible for me, as a Johnny Foreigner, to travel directly from China to Taiwan and back. I may have been able to do it on a cargo ship to Hong Kong, but to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t holding my breath.
Hurrah then for THE MAN IN SEAT 61 (http://www.seat61.com) one of the best websites in the world for overlanders such as myself, and one I do not hesitate to recommend. When I was in India, I set Odyssey fan Alex Zelenjak in Sydney the task of finding me a route to Taiwan. It didn’t take him too long to find one on the seat61 website: amazingly, there is a ferry that runs direct from the Chinese city for Fuzhou to the Taiwanese island of Matsu. Better still, the trip only takes a couple of hours, if that.
Now, technically speaking, I don’t have to go to Taiwan and it will make no difference to my Guinness World Record. Why is that? Because it’s not a member of the UN. It used to be; but in 1971 Nixon wanted to chummy up to Chairman Mao, and it got ousted by mainland China. Nevertheless, Taiwan (which calls itself The Republic of China in official circles) is a completely autonomous state and unlike Greenland, Galapagos and Bermuda, it doesn’t have another country’s name in brackets after it. Hence why I’ve included it in my journey, along with Vatican City, Kosovo, Western Sahara and Palestine.
So the stage was set, all I needed to do was get my arse on a bus and head down to Matsu, which I promptly did today, leaving Chris and Debbie’s flat key with their friend Matt and waving Shanghai goodbye. I clambered on board the nighty-night bus down and raced south.
On Sunday I arrived at Fuzhou a massive SEVEN hours earlier than it said in the Lonely Planet (not their fault: China is developing so fast it’s hard for anyone to keep up). This was wonderful news for me, as it meant that I could saunter down to the port at my own pace and take the morning ferry to Matsu, returning the same day and therefore winning me an extra day of travel more than I deserve. The ferry was tiny but utterly sufficient, and on the way over I watched the first half of The Ghost Writer on the communal television.
Now Matsu isn’t the island of Taiwan itself, and visiting it and saying I’ve been to Taiwan is a little like going to Jersey (just off the coast of France) and saying you’ve been to the UK. Well, technically you have. You’d get a UK passport stamp if you went to Jersey, just like I got a Republic of China (ROC) stamp by going to Matsu. This is important as I want to set a precedent for when I get to the South Pacific: I may not visit the capital island of each nation, but as long as I step foot on one of the islands within the contiguous boundary of the country, it counts.
The wonderful thing about Matsu is that, unlike Taiwan (a good 12 hours away), it takes less than an hour and a half to get there, and when you’re on a tight schedule and an even tighter budget, things like this are a godsend.
Arriving under slate-grey skies, I had to pinch myself to remember I hadn’t just arrived in the Isle of Wight. The island I was on is called Nangan, one of several islands that make up the Matsu chain. I took a stroll along the waterfront, spying a nice big illuminated sign that advised the mainlanders to ‘sleep on their spears’, a reference to the fact that plucky little Taiwan still has designs to take the whole of China back for itself.
Taiwan used to be part of China, that was until the Communist revolution which took place just after World War II. In a fit of that’s-what-I-would-do, the ousted government, the Kuomintang, nicked all of China’s gold and buggered off to Taiwan, battened down the hatches and stuck a mighty big finger up at Chairman Mao and his daffy regime. Lucky for Taiwan that they did, for although the Kuomintang were a mile away from what any sensible commentator would call a reasonable government, the people of Taiwan were spared the worst of that idiot Mao’s phenomenally stupid policies: mainly the ‘Great Leap Forward’ in which 45,000,000 of his countrymen needlessly died over a period of four years: yes, FORTY FIVE MILLION.
Why that c— is still on China’s money I have no idea.
I know it’s hard to generate empathy for that kind of seemingly improbable figure, I mean forty thousand thousands is a lot to take in; so think of it this way: just imagine for a moment that you woke up tomorrow and EVERYONE IN LONDON WAS DEAD.
Everyone: the Queen, the Prime Minister, all your mates and your family that live down there. All those celebrities you hate (and some that you love), every single cab-driver, every newspaper seller, every hawker in Camden Market, every Aussie pub worker, every Beefeater, every punk on Westminster bridge, the mad Christer on Oxford Street, all the people who used to cram into the tube every day: office workers, policemen, window-cleaners, politicians, actors, ad-men, writers, journalists, musicians, teachers, doctors, plumbers, architects, lawyers, junkies, winos and whores. Every single one. Dead, dead, dead and dead.
Lifeless corpses, twisted and contorted in the last few moments of thrashing pain, scattered bloody and quashed all over the ground. And you have to step over the bodies to get out and the bodies lie on every square of pavement, every blade of grass, every step. You walk for eight hours and you’re still stepping over bodies, your hand over your mouth trying not to vomit from the stench, other people’s blood soaking your socks inside your sodden shoes and the dead in every direction, as far as the eye can see.
That would be less than half of the number who starved to death under Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’, the true figure suppressed until this very week, making Mao (yes) the greatest mass murderer of ALL TIME, beating long-time favourites Hitler and Stalin.
Sorry to get all morbid on you, but as Stalin himself said: One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic. And I hate statistics. Two million people died of Aids last year. Over two thousand kids are going to die TODAY from diarrhoea (something that you can help prevent by clicking here: http://www.justgiving.com/theodysseyexpedition) and it’s just so damn hard to be as upset and indignant about these faceless masses as everyone seemed to be when Princess Diana’s drunken chauffeur smacked into a wall.
Anyway: Taiwan. Yes. Was part of China, maybe will be again one day, but not today. I had tremendous difficulty finding a cash machine that took my card (as I did in Korea and Japan, for that matter), but at least (unlike Korea and Japan) my phone worked here. I ended up walking from one side of the island to the other (TINY island), but the cash machines there didn’t care that I had just climbed up and down massive hill to get there: they still wouldn’t accept my cards, although the cash machines did have a (somewhat pointless) English text option so at least you knew what was going on. Lucky a lady taxi driver was willing to exchange a ten dollar bill for some local cash so I could buy some food before I fainted.
Over half the island’s population is the Taiwanese army, understandable considering how damn close this place is to China, but they’re friendly enough, although so damn young; it was like when I went to Israel and I was grilled on the border by a IDF chick who was barely out of nappies.
I don’t like it when people in authority are younger than me. Stop it.
With a little more time, I could have done a nice trek around the entire island (why did nobody do that in Lost?), but before I knew what was what I was back on the ferry heading back to China and watching the second half of The Ghost Writer (which was, in the end, crap). Arriving back in Fuzhou, this is where the Chinese visa I procured in Korea came in handy.
I took the local bus back from the port to the main bus station. There was a bus leaving for Guangzhou (south, near Hong Kong) in a couple of hours and the lovely girl from the station accompanied me on a trek to four different cash machines before we found one that worked (could you imagine Greyhound doing that?!). Snapping up the last ticket (just!) I thanked her profusely and headed down the road for some grub. Found a Chinese restaurant that did ‘Western Cuisine’ (no octopus today, I’m afraid) and tucked into a smashing sizzling steak (served with a fried egg, of course) before hopping on the bus for my second overnighter in a row: it was time to head to Country 173: Vietnam.
And the bus so pulled entered Chinese city Guangzhou and exited the ginger adventurer who you liked. If I have ridden a direct bus to Nanning (my under destination on the way to Vietnam), I will be late in the evening, and I will meet must discover the money bed and bed=waste, therefore (other) overnight bus as if future way, future way, future way, future way, way in the future…
I jumped in the extraordinary Guangzhou subway have gotten down to the river, and enjoyed along strolling which took a walk, until I arrived at the Shamian island, first yielded to split between Britain and the French and without a doubt the most lovable spot in the city: The colony is magnificent, is forgiven despairs idiot wool anger and does not need important place destructive `cultural revolution (to makes human to want toward government apparatus member’s note – it not to be a revolution, if government tells you to make it): And make apex’s concrete jungle respite from the equipment and the ancient veteran.
Altogether 100% pleasant. Though destroys a matter: (Whose did the friend of mine rest me to meet in India) is here and I thinks of him in Guangzhou this weekend. But did not worry; If all progress are smooth, I in meet me in Vietnam in several days above partner Stan, Helen and Thro.
I used me to wait for that my friend poured into hotel bathroom old `which taking advantage of the glib poo showed off. Unfortunately for me, may use only boggage is two are squatting the human, and you knew how many I hate is squatting the human. This is a truly hao Chinese hotel, I possibly imagine the state leader to the main International bank agglutination and CEOs squat likely the animal which should die in theirs $5,000 set of Armani clothes. Possibly is squatting the human is a great level, but that does not increase my affection for the fearful insult’s matter. Why and is its that air conditioning obtains sucks in your model the modern building everywhere, but always as if bypasses the bog? If that is the request are too many, the ventilator is good. Therefore (, because is squatting manpower handle does not have the U-bend dementia together with whole `), I found myself to squat likely the chimpanzee and sweat likely the horse, smelled the first 15 person’s base deposit to use doom this bed closet. Yuck.
When I escaped finally that test, I discovered was normal civilization third (before is seized) the washroom to get down or the flushing sits or the U pipe tee T one. Bah! If you want the help to prevent this kind of matter to occur again on my body, throws in pot’s some money in our justgiving page: http://www.justgiving.com/theodysseyexpedition and you knew you and all, and will like having good washroom karma several weeks.
I then pointed out that the discovery one good café has a precise hot cup Qiao and some hour internetage in the island. Unfortunately to hate the globalization to possess you, the only choice opens to me is Starbucks. But it surrounds in the tree a merry good old building, therefore I had not complained. There I serve the purpose to chat with two lovable Canadian, Zhu Li and Jiexika, teaches in China in this. This confirmation scattered and between the overall net contacts the matter and I guessed that is I is very why late obtains on-line these Bork. Then, that is my excuse, and I insist it.
Later we in other west cooked serve the restaurant (my shortcoming not to grab some voice voice! I thought that I have made here in Britain compared to me!) Eats China’s food, and pleasant Zhu Li freely I (although quite feeble) protested that pays a bill for the human. Therefore in mine abdomen (a YEY free supper! Thanks the girl!) And increases 2-3 new waiters to mine collection, I go at nightfall to discover my bus. The name which later nearby subway station uncouthly will progress in the discovery has discovered that I will be compelled while the taxi (not to have big to the recent station: The taxi is cheap in China), in caper before underground and is surprised the halfway I underground ride the spread-eagle town am only 30p.
30 urinations!! You have heard that London?! 30 urinations. Why if somebody wish explanation public (clue in name) does transport to an I sufficient reason in Britain by the privatization, I will be willing to hear it. Viva the la transportation revolution acts Calavera!! You waited for, is responsible until me….
I arrived in the Chinese town of Nanning exceptionally early in the morning and looked about for transport to the border. I honestly can’t remember how I got there, but I did and was one of the first people that day to cross into Vietnam. I’ve got to say: nice border post: it seems to double as a national park. After being stamped out of China and being stamped into my ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY THIRD country (WOO!) I took a free ride on one of the large electric golf buggies that take you to the nearby minibus park.
I arrived just after nine and was gutted to be told that the next minibus for Hanoi wasn’t going to leave for another hour. That was until I saw that the nine o’clock minibus hadn’t made it out of the bus park yet. Arms flailing and bags akimbo, I whistled the minibus which ignored me and was just about to make off down the highway before my banging on the back window slowed it down long enough for me to clamber aboard.
‘Hanoi?’ I asked, gasping for breath.
‘Hanoi!’ said the driver and welcomed me on board.
The minibus arrived in Vietnam’s capital city around one in the afternoon and it wasn’t long before I was at the southern bus station looking for a coach to Saigon (now called Ho Chi Min City, but not by the people who live there. Or me.). There was one leaving at 3 o’clock that went direct and would take 48 hours to get there. Another two nights on buses: that would be five in a row.
It seemed simpler than changing in Danang, so I went for it. It was only when I got on board did I see the error of my ways. Mollycuddled by the splendour of Chinese buses, I had forgotten just how back other countries (like the USA) treated their coach-going public. There was cargo everywhere: in fact the back seats had been removed to make way for more cargo and there were people making beds on the cargo. All the overhead shelves where full of cargo, as was the cargo hold and even the spaces under the seats were jam packed with cargo. The passengers seemed a minor concern. The reels of electrical cable on the floor at my feet meant that my knees where up by my chest, but that’s okay, because the seat in front of me was so damn close I couldn’t have sat with my knees out straight anyway.
In a fit of bugger it, I bought the seat next to me, but before we got going a bus pulled up alongside: it was a bed-bus, the kind you get in China. Within seconds I was off my bus and asking them were this luxury liner was going.
Danang. Halfway to Saigon. That would do.
I charged back into the ticket terminal and demanded my money back, using the (fair) point that I wasn’t cargo, I was a human being. I’d be prepared to put up with these kind of shenanigans in Africa were there was no other choice, but to sit and try to sleep scrunched up for two nights in a row when I could be laying horizontal on a bed of swan’s feathers FOR THE SAME PRICE would be nothing short of insanity.
They were a little reluctant to give me my money, but I was in no mood to play that game, so I did what I always do in these situations, whipped out my phone and started dialling the tourist police. Works a treat
With my refund in hand, I jumped on the bed-bus to Denang. What’s more, this bed-bus had fully adjustable beds, so unlike the Chinese ones, you could put the back completely upright! Oh happy day! Even better, it left before my original bus, and if all went to plan, I’d get into Saigon six hours earlier, even though I’d have to change buses in Danang. RESULT!
As we departed, I saw that it was Hanoi city’s 1000th birthday this year. Happy birthday Hanoi! I have wonderful warm memories of this place from when I was last here, it’s a cracking town: billions of scooters buzzing around like benign hornets, a beautiful central lake, sensational food and lovely people. I pressed my hand against the window. Sorry I can’t stay Hanoi, I’ve got a promise to keep with an old friend.
Wednesday’s blog can happily be tagged on the end of this one. What happened? Well I got off the bus in the morning in the city of Danang, had breakfast down by the river and then returned to the bus station to take the FIFTH overnighter in a row to Saigon. I looked out of the window and watched Vietnam go flying by in the pouring rain.
Brief and to the point, I don’t think it warrants its own entry, do you?
Arrived Saigon at about 9am and scooted over to District 1 to meet up with me auld mucka Stan, here in South East Asia on holiday with his soon-to-be better half, Helen. My backpack which I left in the luggage storage under the bus had got soaked on the way down here (apparently the middle of Vietnam is currently flooded), and I was in desperate need of the three ‘s’s: a shower a shave and a s—. Stan and Helen graciously allowed me to abuse their hotel bathroom and before you could say ‘doesn’t he smell nice’, I was fresh-faced, bright-eyed and bushy tailed.
Also here in Saigon (having lived here for the past three years) was an old friend of Mandy’s and mine from Australia, Thro. Thro (pronounced ‘throw) is here working as a teacher, has got himself a tasty young Vietnamese girlfriend and has (understandably) fallen in love with the place. Well, how could you not? It’s just brilliant: tons to see and do, the traffic is manic, the nightlife is electric and joy-of-joys, beer is 30p. A pint. WHY AREN’T YOU HERE?
Thro was putting me up for the night, negating the need for me to CouchSurf, and at lunchtime I went downstairs from Stan n’ Helen’s guesthouse to meet him. As we said our hearty hellos, a British guy said ‘It’s Graham, isn’t it?’ and shook my hand. ‘Hi. Are you Thro’s mate?’ I asked.
‘No I just randomly saw you – I’ve been following your blog.’
Holy monkey guts! I thought the only people who read this drivel was Mandy and my mum. I better stop being mean to awful places like Cape Verde (and find a way of checking the webstats), just in case, you know somebody takes offence and then meets me in a dark deserted alleyway in Timbuktu…!
So me, Stan, Helen, Thro and this guy Sam set off to find some lunch, which we did at a smashing bakery around the corner. While I was stuffing my face with pies, Stan and Helen organised an afternoon’s trip down the Cu-Chi tunnels – the secret network of underground burrows that kept the Vietcong one step ahead of the yanks during that episode of madness we call the Vietnam war.
Thro couldn’t come, he was working in at four: but he did take my soaking wet clothes to chuck in his washing machine (Thanks Thro!!) and after saying goodbye to Sam, I set off with Stan & Helen (and their Italian friend Emilio) to go for a jog down the tunnels of doom.
I’ve been down these tunnels before, but I wanted to get some fun footage to make up for the two weeks I missed out on when Javier the camcorder was up on blocks. So we watched the hilarious 1967 propaganda film, squeezed into a hole in the ground the size of a postage stamp, breathed in sharply through our teeth as the various deadly booby traps that the VC used were shown to us, I got to shoot a M-30 (LOUD!) and then Stan and I legged it through 200 metres of tunnels not wide enough to swing a kitten.
After we got back to Saigon, the Cu-Chi four grabbed a (superb) meal at the Indian restaurant over the road from their guesthouse, I then dropped my gear off at Thro’s and the five of us headed out for drinkies, drinkies and more drinkies. We popped into the Apocalypse Now bar (the Heart of Darkness is sadly no longer with us), but a surprising hatred of dancepop amongst the troops (I hate it too, but tolerate it on the grounds that I haven’t been to too many Heebie-Jeebies in the last two years) led us back to District 1. We stayed up drinking and talking bollocks so late that I was thankful that the battery in my watch is dead – old friends aside, I had a bus to catch in the morning.
After a good couple of hours kip, I was roused by Thro on his way out to work. I started uploading my epic Korea blog now that I could access Facebook and YouTube and Twitter (something I couldn’t do in China). When Thro got back from work at 12, I was still at it (I hope you appreciate how much work goes into these damn things!), but I was ‘nearly done’. The last bus for my next country – Cambodia – left at 2pm. But then, there was an alternative…
At 11.45pm there was a night bus to Cambodia. In fact, I could buy a thru-ticket all the way to Bangkok in Thailand. That meant I could hang out with my buddies a little longer and save on accommodation costs (something that at this stage of the journey I do not take lightly). And if by some miracle I made it to Chang Rai in Northern Thailand by the following morning, I wouldn’t have actually lost any time.
Okay. The decision was made. I headed over to Stan & Helen’s guesthouse and booked my ticket. Only, damnit – I had lost my debit card. Christ. 650 days on the road and I had only lost my card once before, on the cargo boat from Dominican Republic to Jamaica, 600 days ago. Bah!
Luckily I have a back up (there are some things you have to lose along the way…) but it was back at Thro’s. He subbed me the ticket to Bangkok (I owe this guy BIG TIME) and we went back to cancel my card and grab the rest of my gear.
You know HSBC is supposed to be ‘The World’s Local Bank’? Why then can’t I pick up my replacement card from a branch in Malaysia, or Singapore? From their slogan you would think I could regard any branch anywhere in the world as my ‘local’. But I can’t. This obvious (and let’s face it, populist) bit of bikini marketing could be the extra mile that HSBC takes you that no other bank possibly can (there are no Bradford and Bingleys here). But no, after all, where’s the profit in ensuring that your customers are never more than a few days away from a replacement debit card? Let them use their backup Barclaycard instead, we don’t want their overseas withdrawal fees anyway.
Buffoons. Glad I’m not a shareholder…
So an afternoon spent shooting pool and drinking on the balcony was followed by a short walk to a Vietnamese restaurant and a slap-up feast, all for less than a fiver. One thing that’s quite annoying (or cool, if you think about it) is that in Vietnam, a quid is worth 30,000 Dong (hee hee! DONG!), which means that if you withdraw 35 quid you become a Dong Millionaire. If you took out 3,500 quid, you’d be a Dong Billionaire. (If you’re wondering why I don’t just use the pound sign, this laptop has an American keyboard, sorry, quids will have to do.)
But counting the noughts becomes a drag after a while and you have to wonder why the government just doesn’t knock three noughts off the currency. Or join the Euro.
So dinner be done and after a few to many rounds of the grand game of backpacking, La Tete Merde, the night closed in on us. I said my tatty-byes to Stan and Helen and waddled up the road to the bus awaiting. It had been a blast catching up, but the time had come to move on. Sleeping on the bus was made infinitely more difficult by the broad Yorkshire accents to my left emanating from a couple of volume-control-deficient morons who thought it acceptable (if not desirable) to natter loudly all night about absolute bollocks. Well, I like doing that myself sometimes, but not on a bus full of strangers. I grumpily stuffed my iPod into my ears, turned the volume up to eleven to drown out the incessant drone and was soon whisked off to the land of nod.
So here we are, 180 countries down and just 20 to go – it’s mad to think that I only left Shanghai just over two weeks ago, and in that time I’ve managed to visit Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia – and with any luck I’ll be in Brunei (181) before close of play tomorrow and the Philippines (182) by the end of this week (typhoons permitting). But if you think I’m “nearly there”, think again. Every single remaining state is an island nation and none of them have anything approaching an international ferry service. This could take a looooooooong time.
A loooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooong time.
Here’s a draft of a sketch of a inkling of The Plan from here to the end of The Odyssey Expedition. But as always, everything is open to change.
183: East Timor
There is a Pelni (Indonesia’s national ferry service) ship that goes from Denpaser in Bali to Kupang in (West) Timur. I’ll be crossing the border, then sitting in Dili for a few days while I apply for (yet) another Indonesian visa.
After returning to Kupang, I will take a Pelni ship to West Papua. From there I hope to persuade a swashbuckling yachtie to take me to the South-West Islands of Palau: only a few hundred kilometres north (as opposed to the capital Koror which is a thousand kilometres away). I’ll then be coming straight back to West Papua.
185. Papua New Guinea
Just a case of crossing the border from West Papua.
186. Solomon Islands
If I island-hop through PNG and make it to Bougainville, I should be able to take a canoe over the short hop to the Shortland Islands and tick the Solomons off the list. From there I should be able to island-hop via Gizo to Guadalcanal, the main island.
And here’s when it becomes REALLY tricky…
Have a gander at this map of the Pacific Island states I knocked out on the back of a napkin…
Take a note of the scale!!! From the Marshall Islands down to Fiji I’m going to have a cover a distance approximately the same as from Darwin to Melbourne via Sydney. This is no Caribbean Island hop, these are gargantuan chucks of bitchin’ ocean I have to cover.
The only options open to me are hitching a ride on cargo ships and cruise ships. Cyclone season starts at the end of this month (and continues to May) so yachts are right out. Even if someone was mad enough to take me, it would just be too dangerous – I mean, have you SEEN A Perfect Storm? Ygads!
So here’s the sketch of how I’m going to do this…
The isolated (and isolationalist) island of Nauru is really hitting hard times these days. The rich phosphate deposits that secured the island’s finances are now completely depleted (as of this year), leaving an impoverished island in the middle of nowhere that is going to be a real bitch to get to – it’s the only Pacific Island where you need a visa and an invitation to ruck up. Seriously guys? Seriously?
My hope is that I can hop a supply/cargo ship from The Solomons north to The Marshall Islands, one that stops at Nauru along the way. But these things may only come once every few months.
Micronesia (like jungle) is massive, stretching across a vast swathe of the Pacific Ocean. The bit I’m interested in is an island called Kosrae in the far east of the nation, which I could use as a stepping stone to…
189. The Marshall Islands
I lie awake at night fretting about ever reaching The Marshall Islands. So far from just about anywhere they cajole and torment me in my dreams. But if this semi-mythical cargo ship can take me there, I’d be one happy Odyssey bunny.
If a cargo ship has got me this far, maybe it can take me a little further: to the western half of Kiribati. From there at least I know I can take a Kiribati Shipping Services ship (which comes once every couple of months) down to…
Here I’ll have to make the decision whether to stay on the Kiribati Shipping Services ship to Fiji or swing a left to:
Again, this place is a little off the beaten track, but it’s position between the US Samoan islands and Fiji means that if I’m lucky, I might be able to find something that can float me to:
If I get here, the hump should be over: I’ll be on the cruise ship circuit. Hopefully in return for entertaining the troops with tales of my adventures (and possibly the odd song and dance routine), I’ll be allowed to hitch a ride on a cruise to:
Fiji seems to have the best international transport links with the region, and I may regret not coming here first, but if all works out, I should be able to stay on the same cruise ship through the Fijian islands and on to:
And then onto:
196. New Zealand
My original final destination, things have changed a little since I failed to reach Sri Lanka, Maldives and The Seychelles. It shouldn’t be too hard to find something to ship me to:
Arriving in Sydney (because I owe Alex Zelenjak a pint in The Three Monkeys), I’ll be headed down to Melbourne and kidnapping my long-suffering girlfriend Mandy for the trip across the Nullabor all the way to Perth. If I can find a cruise that is going to Europe or South Africa, there’s a good chance it will stop at: 198. Sri Lanka, 199. Maldives and 200. The Seychelles.
CAN YOU HELP?
If you have any contacts in the South Pacific who are involved in shipping or cruises, please pass them on via the CONTACTS page. In return for helping me finish The Odyssey in one piece I’m willing to give plenty of publicity to any company or individual that would like to get involved.
The bus arrived at the Cambodian border at around 3.30am, and we had to wait until the damn thing opened (at 7am) before we could proceed. Bit of an odd way of doing things, but the idea is that you sleep on the coach so you’re first over the border in the morning. The problem is that Saigon is only three hours away from the border. Maybe if Saigon was seven hours away it would be somehow more sensible, or maybe if the border was open 24 hours, but I guess it beats the bus leaving at 3am.
By 8am we were in Cambodia and flying along on the way to the capital, Phnom Penh. The annoying couple nattered annoyingly for the next few hours, and I was tremendously concerned that my iPod might run out of batteries before they did.
Cambodia will for a long time be stained with the memory of what happened when pint-sized tin-pot dictator/serial killer Pol Pot and his bunch of thicko thugs they called the Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975. In the space of just a few years, they had decimated the population, destroyed the economy and enforced starvation on untold numbers of men, women and children.
All in the name of, not progress…, but ANTI-progress. Yup. Pol Pot, being a bit of a Luddite, wanted to take Cambodia back to some mythical time in the past when everyone was a happy subsistence farmer. So anyone who wore glasses or spoke a foreign language was bludgeoned to death with the butt of a rifle.
Now I’ve met one or two people on this trip who share Pol Pot’s romanticised ideal of subsistence farming. Apparently, it’s what we should all do. Live in harmony with nature! Dig for victory! Save the planet!
I hate to say that these people stupid and deluded: but they’re stupid and deluded. Subsistence farming is the most wretched way of living in the modern age, because (whisper it loudly) sometimes crops FAIL.
And if the crop fails, what have you got, farm-boy? A whole heap of nuthin’. And what can you buy or trade with nuthin’? Nuthin’. Now it might be alright if you’re part of a loving, giving community and they give you some free food to keep you going for a year, but what if their crops have failed too? What if the rains don’t come for an entire region? You think Dharma is going to do a supply drop on Hurley’s head?
And, excuse me, but what if you don’t want to be a farmer? I certainly don’t, and neither (obviously) does anyone who chooses to live in a city, which is now most of us humans. I can’t even keep a pot plant alive for more than a few weeks.
China in the 50s, Biafra in the 60s, Cambodia in the 70s, Ethiopia in the 80s. Subsistence farming is a great idea. If you’re a pint-sized sadist who likes to watch children with skeletal legs and swollen bellies collapse face down in the dust. But why are the simple farmers in Africa always so damn happy, eh? What’s with those big African smiles? I just think they are damn happy just to be alive, since there’s a good chance that their parents and many of their brothers and sisters are not.
But I digress. Cambodia is getting back on it’s feet and although Pol Pot escaped justice by inconveniently dying in the late 90s, some of his cronies are now languishing in jail for their crimes against humanity. With a influx of tourism and the Chinese keen to develop the area and build new roads, the future could be exceedingly bright for little ol’ Cambodia – as soon as they tackle the child prostitution and endemic corruption. But that aside, I love Cambodia: the people are warm and inquisitive and the food is a cracking fusion of Chinese and SE Asian dishes. It’s cheap and cheerful and I could happy spend weeks rampaging around the magnificent Angkor Temples: one of my existing seven wonders of the world.
Before too long we were herded off the bus and stood at the side of the road in a little market cowering under plastic sheeting from the torrents of rain that was pouring from the sky. Groovily enough, as I was about to buy a can of Coke that was floating in the icy water of a coolbox, a British guy offered to buy it for me. When I asked why I was the recipient of this remarkable act of charity, the guy, James, told me that he had been watching my TV show in Phnom Penh where he worked as a teacher.
Thanking James and making a mental note that if this level of recognition continues I’m going to have to stop getting so delightfully drunk every time I’m stuck somewhere for the night, I climbed aboard a connecting bus: this one would be heading to Siem Reap, Cambodia’s second city and home to the remarkable Angkor Temple Complex. The last time I travelled this way, the road was in such a state that it was (perversely) much quicker to take a boat along Tonté Sap River. Not now though: the road had been sorted out and the journey time between the two cities had been cut in half.
So at 3pm we pulled into the bus station to the south of Siem Reap (meaning “Thailand Defeated” – a reference to an ancient battle on this site) and I was picked up by a kid on a motorbike tuk-tuk who worked for the tour agency I had bought my ticket off. He gave me some unhappy news: that the connecting bus to Bangkok wouldn’t be leaving until midnight.
What what? That’s madness… the border is just a few hours away! It would mean another night sleeping on a bus and I wouldn’t get into Bangkok until 11am the next day.
This was an unacceptable turn of events. He told me to get some food and he’d see if he could get me on an earlier bus. So I found a restaurant with wi-fi and set about stuffing my face with tasty seafood fried rice while hurriedly stuffing some blogs up on the website. After 20 minutes the kid came back – the news was not good. The last bus to the border left at 3pm.
The stupidity of the situation was quite gobsmacking – why didn’t they just delay the 3pm bus for half an hour and make it connect with the bus from Phnom Penh? Weird. Anyway: there’s always a plan B, and despite the kid’s protestations that I’d never make it to the border in time, I secured a shared taxi ride to the frontier.
I made it over the border with the minimum of fuss and found that, contrary to what I’d been told, the border was going to be open for another couple of hours at least. So I got stamped out of Cambodia (a little miffed about the lack of a transit visa option – $25 for a full tourist visa for just a day was a little OTT) and marched into country 175 – Thailand.
Ah, to be back in Thailand: backpacker HQ. As far as I’m concerned, if you haven’t been to Thailand you’re not a real backpacker and if you don’t like Thailand you’re not a real backpacker either. That’s my prejudice and I’m sticking to it. I love the place – the original Land of Smiles™, cheap accommodation, white sand beaches and go-go girls (if they do actually turn out to be girls).
Sadly, the days of the three month entry stamp are now over and I only got two weeks. But I’m buzzing through on this trip anyway, so it doesn’t make too much of a difference. I found a few buses heading to Bangkok, but none of them were going to get in before 11pm.
I had the crazy notion that if I got to Bangkok’s Northern Bus Station quick enough that there would be a late bus heading north to Chiang Mai, or, even better, Chiang Rai – from where I could spring my surprise attack on Laos and Burma.
While I was still negotiating with the bus guys at the side of the road, a coach was departing.
“Bangkok?” I shouted.
The middle aged lady hanging out of the doorway nodded her head frantically.
“Yes, yes – come aboard.”
So I did. It would have been easier if the bus wasn’t still moving, but this driver was gung-ho for getting to Bangkok. He sped along the road, gunned it around corners and possibly ran a few red lights. Must have been late for his dinner.
Which was good for me: it meant that by 9.30pm I was in Bangkok. However, a lady that spoke English informed me that the last bus to the north left at 8pm and that I’d have to spend the night in Bangkok.
This was not what I wanted to hear and after getting off the bus in West Bangkok I thought about it for a bit: if someone asked me when the last bus or train ran from Liverpool to London I’d have a vague idea, but I wouldn’t know for definite. There have been more than a few times on this Odyssey in which I’ve been told one thing by the locals only to find the reality is something very different.
Sod it – I’ll take a taxi to the northern bus station. Even if the last bus up north has gone, I can at least find out what time the first one goes in the morning.
I arrived at the bus station at 9.55pm.
“Where you go?” asked the guy hanging around at the front of the ticket desks.
The guy pointed at a nearby desk.
“Ten o’clock. Last bus. Hurry.”
I couldn’t believe my luck. I bought the ticket and legged it over to the bus platform, grabbing a bag of crisps and a Coke on the way – I had had nothing to eat since Siem Reap. The bus was pulling out and again I jumped on board while it was moving.
“Chiang Rai. Ticket?”
I handed over my ticket, monopolised the five back seats and got my head down for the night. With a mixture of luck, quick thinking and bull-headed determination I had saved myself an entire day of travel: tomorrow I would knock another two countries off the list. HELL YEAH!
Before my brain could register where I was and what was going on, the front of the bus bounced a good foot off the ground, jolting my fellow passengers awake. I braced myself for the bounce to hit the back of the bus, which it duly did, throwing me up in the air.
We had hit something.
Statistically, I was possibly due a crash, so I’m glad this was a tremendously minor affair. The strange thing was that the driver kept driving – and driving fast. Maybe it was a hit and run. But passenger discontent forced the driver to pull over and a group of us shuffled off the bus to inspect the damage.
The panel near the left headlight was a bit smashed up, but aside from that, there was no damage worth writing home about.
“What did we hit?” I asked.
Nobody seemed to want to answer me. It could have been an animal, but I would have expected more blood and guts. Maybe it was a massive pothole which appeared without warning, but then why the damage to the front of the bus? It was all a little odd. One thing was for sure: I was now wide awake. I looked at the time. It was 4.30am.
By 9am we were pulling into Chiang Rai bus station, a good few kilometres south of town. I jumped on the back of a moto-taxi and had him take me to the city centre. I legged it into the first tour place I could find and asked about the Golden Triangle Tour.
I had done this exact same tour several years ago and it’s possibly what sparked my interest in border hopping. It took you to the Lao island of Don Sao in the Mekong River where you could mooch around for an hour in the country of Laos without the necessity of buying a visa. It then took you to the Burmese border and after you dropped your passport off at the gates, you were allowed to grab a swift half in Myanmar before returning to Thailand no questions asked.
Kinda what I thought they would let me do in Libya and Algeria, only without the beer.
I knew these tour left early, that’s why I ran, but it was too late: the tour left at 9am and it was now 9.20am. Not that that really mattered because there wasn’t a tour today anyway.
Oh well, in the spirit of independent travel I’d just have to do it myself. I threw my backpack and my Odyssey bag (containing my laptop and my latest camcorder tapes) into the left luggage area (it wasn’t even a room – it was just an open-air counter) and jumped on the departing local bus to Chiang Saen. I then spent the rest of the day fretting about all the stuff I’d lose if my Odyssey bag wasn’t there when I got back.
The Golden Triangle takes its name from the bit of the Mekong River where the borders of Burma, Laos and Thailand meet. The ‘Golden’ bit probably derives from the same place as the ‘Golden’ in The Stranglers ‘Golden Brown’ – that rather useful stuff that seeps out of a scarred poppy head – opium, heroin, morphine: whatever the hipsters are calling it these days. Back in the day (who am I kidding?) this place was famed for poppy production and what would become the staple crop of the British Empire in the East Asian area: Opium. Yup, that stuff what’s very naughty and illegal even for grown-ups. That stuff we fought not one, but two wars against China for the crime of making it illegal in China. That stuff which (together with cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy) funds 99% of all the world’s crime.
Yup. That stuff.
But I wasn’t here to chase the dragon, I was here to chase my dream of stepping foot in every country in the world without flying. By midday I was in Chiang Saen bartering my way over the river and back. I thought the price was a bit steep until I realised that I would be in the riverboat on my own: so there I was, chauffeur driven over the Mekong into Country 176: Laos.
Laos isn’t as well known as Cambodia or Vietnam, I guess it needed a war or a massacre to put it on the map. The sad thing is that Laos had a war and a massacre, only it was kept secret for many years by the Americans who had merrily carpet bombed the place for the best part of the Vietnam war. So they endured all the needless slaughter, but didn’t get the publicity or the Oscar winning movies. A bit like the Democratic Republic of Congo in the late 90s.
A hangover from the Vietnam War era is the vast number of landmines and unexploded ordinance left behind to this day. Woe betide any hapless backpacker who goes wandering off the beaten track. Or small child for that matter. I am quite startled that the American government hasn’t cleared them up yet. Must have better things to do. Like start daffy unwinnable wars in the Middle East.
Stepping foot in Don Sao brought back great memories of doing this same trip eight years ago, only that time I continued on to Laos and spent an absolutely awesome week there trundling down the Mekong and hanging out in the remarkably laid-back capital, Vientiane. Not this time though, but I was here now and saw no reason to rush. I ambled around the village: overflowing with tourist trinkets and tat, and managed to find a little spot for some lunch – spicy pork noodle soup – delicious!
One of the things that all the shops sell is snake whisky, or should I say snake and scorpion whisky – no, it’s not a brand name, it’s a local spirit with the (hopefully) dead body of a snake plopped inside, and in the snake’s mouth, a scorpion.
Dare me to try a tipple?
Oh, go on then…
Urk. Tasted like watered down whisky with some mud from Glastonbury thrown in for good measure.
“What’s in that one?”
“Oh – that’s tiger penis.”
“That’s what I thought you said. Oh dear. You put the willy of one of the most endangered species on earth into an alcoholic drink?”
“Yes. Wanna try?”
Hmm… another fine concoction of low quality whisky and mud. Don’t look at me like that – from the looks of things, the thing in question had been in that jar for a long long time. They’ve probably been using the same one since 1973. It was supposed to make me more ‘virile’ (whatever that means) but as (at this rate) I’m not going to see Mandy for another six months, any magical properties the mystic tiger penis possessed was somewhat wasted on your humble narrator.
But if I were you, I’d stick with the Viagra, nature boy
After food and whisky I headed back to the Thai side of the river and from there attempted to jump on a – let’s hope I spell this right – sawngthaew – a small van with two wooden benches in the back facing each other. Annoyingly, the last sawngthaew to the Burmese border left fifteen minutes before I got there. Pondering whether there is another profession in which you knock off at two in the afternoon (teaching…?!) I was left with the only option of getting the local bus over halfway back to where I started from and heading to the border from there: this was turning into more of a Golden L-Shape.
I didn’t get to the border until 4pm, and by this time they were gearing up for shutting the bloomin’ thing at five, so I had to get my skatey skates on. This border is quite a cute one and they do something I SO SO WISH they did elsewhere: you wanna see a bit of Burma? Fine: hand over your passport and a bit of dosh and you’re welcome to stay for up to 14 days, as long as you don’t stray too far from the border. Oh and we’ll keep your passport in this drawer for safe keeping. Have a good day y’all!
SO THEN BURMA: Ah yes I hear you cry from the bottom of your wishy-washy liberal hearts, I’m not supposed to go there am I? Well, tough: I’ve got to visit every country and that’s what I’m going to do, and I didn’t hear any objections when I visited the similarly brutal backwards dictatorships of Saudi Arabia, China, Haiti, Congo, Guinea, Comoros, Iran, Mauritania, Libya, Angola etc: you know, all them countries where any form of protest will wind up with you most likely labelled and ex-parrot, pushing up the daisies and joining the choir invisible.
I actively support tourism to all of these places cursed with gruesome and ridiculous governments for two simple reasons: 1. carefully spent money helps local businesses and people and 2. your very presence shows the people there that there is another way… and possibly light at the end of the tunnel.
Incidentally, does anyone know the capital of Burma…? If you said Rangoon you’re WRONG… it’s called Yangon now. But if you’re a smart-alec and you said Yangon you’re still just as WRONG. The potty junta that runs Burma moved the capital to a Countdown Conundrum in the middle of nowhere called ‘Naypyidaw’ a few years ago. True! Naypyidaw! Look it up!
Anyway, I’m no moral relativist: I think what is shitty and horrible for one person on this one planet would be shitty and horrible for most other people on this planet too. AND YES I THINK WE HAVE ‘IT’ RIGHT IN THE WEST AND PLACES WHERE LIFE IS NASTY, BRUTISH AND SHORT HAVE GOT ‘IT’ VERY WRONG. End of. Others disagree, but then they probably see their fellow humans as a fascinating but separate sub-species whom the gods have deemed it necessary to suffer their way through life in order to serve the greater good of ‘culture’ (ah – that old and wanky lie). I say f— that, ‘culture’ is a transient amoral happenstance that should never EVER trump universal human dignity, freedoms or rights. The next time somebody rabbits on at you about respecting other people’s beliefs or cultures (usually whilst defending some daft barbaric practice or stone-age justice system), after you finish laughing you’d do well to point out the strongly held beliefs of the Nazi party in the 1930s where not ones that any decent human being would ‘respect’.
In the end, beliefs are not, and should never be held up as, sacrosanct. That’s what I believe and if you don’t like it or respect it, GOOD FOR YOU!! Now we’re getting somewhere!
So I bought a Myanmar beer and damn well enjoyed it, moreso since I had now knocked 177 countries off my list of 200… with just 23 more to go, maybe I too was seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
I was in Burma for all of half an hour, and by now I was experiencing a tremendous sense of deja-vu. Possibly because I had done exactly the same trip and drank a Myanmar in exactly the same café (get to the roundabout and turn right) eight years ago. It feels nice to be on familiar terrain again: with the exception of The Philippines and East Timor, I have been to every country in South East Asia before.
So then it was a race back to Chiang Rai in Thailand to get there before the last overnight bus left for Bangkok at 7pm. I flew on the back of a motorbike-taxi (losing my hat on the way – had to stop and get it back) to the bus station for the 5pm bus, only to find it had just left – the next one would be at 6pm. “Unless you want to run for the 5pm one” said the helpful chubby lady, pointing at the 5pm bus that was just leaving the station gates.
On the rickety old local bus I managed to blunder into Chiang Rai town at 6.50pm, which didn’t give me much time to head over to the main bus station (a few miles away): what gave me even less time was the fact that, much as I worried all day, my bags were not in the cloak ‘room’ when I returned. But I didn’t have to worry so much as I figured the reason for this was that the cloakroom was closed. I would have to come back tomorrow.
Quite why you would close the cloakroom before 7pm when the bus station was still being used I’ll never know, but after a frantic few minutes, not helped by the hyena-like laughter of some annoying teenager who thought this the funniest thing he’d ever seen or heard of (don’t judge too harshly, Graham – Mr. Bean is unfathomly popular around these parts too), I was shepherded by a helpful guy with the most f—ed up looking skin condition I have ever seen into the main ticket area (just closing) and the guy behind one of the desks handed my bags over amidst a huge sigh of relief from this hapless adventurer.
With that I jumped in a nearby tuk-tuk, waved money about and asked the driver to get me to the main bus station pronto-forthwith-quickquick-and-don’t-spare-the-horses. He told me I had got in the wrong tuk-tuk – there was some kind of queuing system (which looked nothing like a queue). Gathering my bags I darted over to another tuk-tuk and hoped that this guy would actually take me somewhere, which he did (for a price).
Arriving at the main bus station at 7.05pm, I prayed I wasn’t too late for the last bus to Bangkok and low-and-behold I wasn’t: There was one at 7.10 and another at 7.30.
But they were both full.
This was doubly rubbish and annoying as my bus last night in the reverse direction was all but empty. Why I didn’t buy my return ticket this morning I’ll never know.
But if there is one thing that The Odyssey is all about, it’s making the best of a bad situation, so I elected to take a another bus a fair chunk of the distance towards Bangkok: to Chiang Mai (not Rai), a good few hundred kilometres south of here.
It was just before midnight that my bus pulled into the magnificently SQUARE city of Chiang Mai and as there were no buses to continue my stupendously quick jaunt around Indochina, I pulled into the local backpackers for the night. A cosy affair filled to the brim with crusties and globetrotters: my kinda place. Met a bloke from Old Swan in Liverpool who used to walk past my house every day on his way to Cardinal Heenan high school on Honey’s Green Lane and managed to upset, offend or amuse my fellow wayfarers until the wee small hours.
It was a good good day.
After two hours kip (I actually didn’t bother using my bunk – the communal area of the backpackers did just as well), by 7.30am I was shovelling breakfast into my fat ginger gob and by 9 o’clock I was on the bus to Bangkok. The wheels on the bus went round and round, round and round, round and round as I tore south through the country like some kind of angry Scotsman. Only without the girly skirt.
Arriving at Bangkok in the evening, I once again skirted the manic city I know and love and snapped up a ticket on the last bus to Singapore – country 179 – which if you’d care to glance at a map of the area (or, even better, work from memory) is on the other end of country 178 (Malaysia) and just a short ferry ride away from country 180 (Indonesia).
Buying a thru-ticket from one country into another via a third country is a pleasure I haven’t experienced since I was in Europe, and the concept of ticking off not just Malaysia, but Singapore AND Indonesia before breakfast on Wednesday was a treat like no other – especially given it would knock my countries-to-go total down to a seemingly manageable TWENTY.
I might – whisper it softly – I MIGHT FINISH THIS INFERNAL CHALLENGE YET!!!
I awoke on the Tuesday morning after a fairly pleasant night’s kip to find that we were still in Thailand. My, it’s a tall and thin country, and I was truly going from top to bottom. Around lunchtime the coach breached the frontier into Malaysia, me holding up proceedings by spending the last of my Thai Baht on some KFC at the border.
Malaysia passed in a daze: we sped through the Cameron Highlands without even stopping for a cup of tea and a scone; we even bypassed the capital, the wonderfully named Kuala Lumpur, and by the evening we were on course to hit Singapore before sunrise the next day.
Don’t feel jibbed that I didn’t take in more of Malaysia, I’ll be back in a few days… well, I’ll be back in Malaysian Borneo… countries 181 and 182 lay that way.