Apart from that brief unpleasantness in Australia, travelling up and down to Townsville on one of those wretched overpriced Aussie coaches, this ‘phase’ of The Odyssey Expedition has seen little land travel. Much of the past eight months have been spent at sea and I had almost forgotten what it was like to have to hold in a poo for days until a decent karzee presented itself. I would quickly have to relearn that lesson if I was to press on with this insane little quest. Last night, again intending to go to sleep before the dawn chorus for once in my life, I found myself quite embroiled in the football. As I mentioned in my last post, I’m not the biggest of sports fans, but I do like to take a passing interest – and big important matches are always of interest to me.
Yesterday was the end of the English Football Season, and with a ton of games being played all over the country (including Everton and Liverpool, though sadly not against each other) there was only one match that everybody in their right mind should have been watching: Man City vs QPR. The reason was clear. If Man City won this match, they would win the league for the first time in 44 years. If they lost or drew, then Man United, that team of manky automatons so adored by glory-hunting f—wits the world over, would win. Again. For the twentieth time. YAWN.
You see there is no joy in doing something for the twentieth time, unless maybe there’s been a big gap since you last did it. If Man United won the league again, everybody, including their biggest fans, would have just shrugged their shoulders and said ‘oh’. It’s boring watching Michael Schumacher win every Grand Prix (that’s why they now make him drive whilst wearing boxing gloves and one big shoe), it’s boring seeing Australia win the Ashes, it’s boring seeing Ian Thorpe win every single swimming event at the Olympics – as Mohammed Ali knew, you had to lose once in a while to keep things interesting. And explosion of delight when the underdog wins is something that Man United fans will never really understand.
I was living in Manchester in 1998 when Man City were relegated to what was then the second division – the third tier of professional football. They won the last match of the season in magnificent fashion – 5-2 away from home, but in order for Man City to stay up, one of the other three teams in the relegation zone had to lose their final match. The jubilation at the win was soon replaced by despair as the news of the other results filtered through. All the other teams in the relegation zone had won their matches. Man City would be going down. I’ve never seen so many grown men cry in pub before, with perhaps the exception of when Jemini scored nil points at Eurovision. Although that was a very different pub.
To go from that to being a gnat’s pube away from winning the Premiership in just over 10 years is epic, and by God I wanted them to win, just to wipe that smug look of those Man United fan’s faces. So by 89 minutes when City were 2-1 down, with a draw not good enough, my nails were bitten down just as much as if I’d been a City fan all my life (which of course I haven’t, being a scouser, that would just be weird).
And, like the end of a great film, it all turned around in the last few minutes, despair turned to hope and hope turned into jubilation. They won 3-2 and in doing so won the top league of English football for the first time since the 60s. Well done, Man City, you entertained the pants off me for 95 minutes, and for that I salute you.
And you know what was also great? The fact they were given so much injury time – a Man United trick if ever there was one. Well I get the gloves on the other foot now eh, United? One less minute and they wouldn’t have scored the third and final goal. DO YOU SEE THE IRONY, MAN U? DO YA?!!
All this deviation from the narrative – HOW ON EARTH DO YOU VISIT EVERY COUNTRY IN THE WORLD WITHOUT FLYING? – is probably irksome to most, not least if you’re not English, couldn’t give a toss about football or a girl. But one more thing, my team, Everton, won their last match. Liverpool lost theirs, so Everton finished higher than them in the table. Again. BRING IT!!
Er… so where was I?
Ah yes: travel.
It was therefore another late night/early morning combo for this hapless backpacker. The train for Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province and gateway to Laos, was due to depart at 7am. So all packed and fully recharged, I set off at 6am to begin the race down to Singapore. Boarding the marvellous Guangzhou underground with my magic plastic token, I headed over to Guangzhou East station (Kunming is in the west, but never mind) for the train.
But it was not to be! First up, there was no train running at 7am. THE INTERNET LIED! Second, the afternoon train, due to depart at 3pm, was full. My only option was the night train, which left at 7pm. I should have left yesterday. But there is always an alternative to the train and it’s called the bus. So I raced over to Guangzhou main station to find out who/why/what/when/where is going on with regards to buses to Kunming. There was a bus leaving at 11.30am which would (if I was understanding this correctly (which I wasn’t)) get into Kunming at 8am tomorrow. Fantastic! That would be way quicker than train, and, since it was a sleeping bus, infinitely more comfortable than a hard seat: I’d get a bed.
But it was only a bit past seven, so I set off to do some internettage before I left. I was holding out hope that Mr. Gaby Sharef of Gold Star Line Shipping would get back to me about a ship that may be leaving Kuala Lumpur for Sri Lanka this week. I walked and I walked and I walked. With all my bags. In the scorching hot morning sun of Southern China. Looking for a café with wifi, a Starbucks, a McDonalds, anything… but no. Everywhere I went I was confronted with splash screens in Chinese asking me for my local mobile number, something I didn’t have. This was turning into a nightmare.
In the end, I jumped back on the underground and headed back to Chris and Debbie’s flat, well, not to the flat proper as I had locked myself out when I left, but to the café around the corner that I knew had free internet (I had used it the day before). Only problem: the café didn’t open until 10am. So I sat and waited. As soon as they opened, I went inside and logged on. Gaby had indeed written back. There was a ship leaving Kuala Lumpur on FRIDAY EVENING! If I could make it, I could be on.
I did some mental calculations. I arrive Kunming tomorrow at 7am. Bus to border with Laos, 12 hours, bus from border to Vientiane, maybe 24 hours. I could be in Thailand on Wednesday evening. It’s 11 hours from the Laos border to Bangkok, 14 hours to the Malaysian border at Hat Yai, and then a further eight or so hours from there to Kuala Lumpur. All thing being equal, I could *maybe* make it for Friday morning. It would mean 4 straight nights sleeping on buses, but it could be – theoretically – done.
And so I charged back to Guangzhou main station determined to make the connection. This time next week, I could be in Sri Lanka. Ah, but only if it were so…
The bus was a typical Chinese sleeper, a marvellous way to travel in which everybody gets a flat bunkbed to themselves, the air-con is turbo-charged, but that’s okay, because they give you a nice heavy blanket. I spoke about the joys of Chinese long-distance coaches last time I was here in September 2010, and my point still stands: compared to the crappy, dirty, seat-only-reclines-10° coached of the UK, the US and Australia, this is head, shoulders and balls above rest. If there’s one thing that depresses me more than anything while travelling around the world on public transport, it’s how dreadfully wretched my country is when it comes to the form of transport that it pretty much invented.
So I jumped up onto my bunk and before I knew it we were off through the paddy fields and jasmine vales of Southern China. We raced through the night and I steeled myself for an early start tomorrow. As things transpired, I needn’t have bothered…
8am came and went. It was by this stage I realised that when the nice lady at the Guangzhou bus station has said the bus took 14 hours, she meant to say it arrived at 14 hours. As in 2pm the next day. This did not bode well for my race down to Kuala Lumpur for the Gold Star Line ship leaving on Friday. Now it would be afternoon by the time I arrived in Kunming, at best. Oh why didn’t I leave Guangzhou on Sunday as I had intended?! Buggeration on stilts.
So it was after two in the afternoon before the bus rolled into to Kunming East Bus Station. I went inside and was told that the bus for Laos left from the Southern Bus Station – which makes sense, since Laos is pretty much due south of here.
Having bus stations on the outer rim of a large city makes so much sense it almost makes my brain explode that London has STILL not adopted this model. It’s absolutely nuts that coaches in the UK drop you off RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE of the congested city centre of London. I’ve been on buses that have taken longer to get from the start of the M1 to central London (10 miles) than they did from Liverpool to the start of the M1 (200 miles).
A northern bus station at Edgeware? A western one at Heathrow? A southern one at Morden? An eastern one at Woolwich Arsenal – all easily linked to the Underground? WHY THE BLOODY HELL NOT, EH?
I’ll tell you why not: because none of the wankers in charge ever have to take the bus.
Anyway, a short taxi ride over to the Southern Bus Terminal was just what the doctor ordered. It’s a shame that I didn’t get to spend more time in Kunming, it gets a good write-up from all the people I know who’ve been there. But I’ll give them this: EVERY SINGLE BUILDING had a solar-powered water heater on the roof. THIS I LIKE.
There was a direct bus to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and it was leaving at 6pm. This was the good news. The bad news was that it would take 35 hours to get there. This would dump me in the middle of Vientiane at 4am (there is a one-hour time difference), and the border to Thailand doesn’t open until 6am.
But needs must and all that jazz. I bought at ticket for 587 Yuan, which is about 50 quid (I think) and set off to double-check the interwebs for any news about this ship on Friday. I walked over to a massive shopping centre, but it wasn’t a shopping mall as we know in the west, it was more like a covered market, only in a shopping mall. That’s why I called it a centre, not a mall. Malls have no soul. Thousands of shops selling all kinds of clothes, toys, trinkets and collectables. The commercial face of modern China. How Chairman “let’s do away with money” Mao is still on their banknotes is anybody’s guess.
I asked at the information desk if there were any cafés with wi-fi, but the guy didn’t understand me. Then a chap in a suit came over to explain what I wanted to the information guy. No, there wasn’t anywhere for me to get online. Wonderfully enough though, the guy in the suit, Wen, said I could use his office to get online. THIS is the kind of incredible altruism and generosity of spirit that has made my journey to the four corners of the planet so incredibly enjoyable and life-affirming.
I didn’t want to take the Mick, so I was only online long enough to see if there was any update from my friend Gaby Sharef. It seemed that if I could get down to KL in time, the ship was still on. I thanked Wen and was on my merry way.
The ‘VIP’ bus to Vientiane was AMAZING. Usually on a sleeper bus around these parts you get yourself a skinny little bed, which is more than enough for me. But, what’s this? Oh YES – a proper, big-enough-to-fit-two-people bed. I was smacked of the gob and no mistake. I knew that the road down through the mountains of northern Laos would be twisty as hell, but I actually found myself looking forward to this two-night trip.
Every so often we stopped for food, one of my personal SEVEN WONDERS OF TRAVEL (along with The People, The Architecture, The Culture/History, The Landscape, The Fauna and The Price of Beer), especially in places like China where everything you eat is weird and wonderful.
Back onboard and I had taken the driver’s mate’s seat at the front of the bus, good job too, if I hadn’t I would have crossed over The Highest Bridge In The World and I would have been none-the-wiser. As it was, in the inky blackness of the highway at night I couldn’t see anything much anyway, but it was nice to know.
Attention novice backpackers! The country of Laos is pronounced ‘Lao’!! Just so you know. I crossed the border at Boten at first light, a golden temple welcoming me into the land of a million elephants. Laos is the unsung hero of South-East Asia, a shooting star-shaped country that straddles the Mekong River all the way down to Cambodia. Like Afghanistan, Laos is an artificial construct, a buffer zone between two empires – Laos being invented to keep the French at arm’s length from the Kingdom of Siam (now Thailand). It didn’t work, and before long the French had annexed the country and the various tribes (including the Hmong, the people next door in Clint Eastwood’s excellent film Gran Torino) fell under the tyranny of The Tricolor.
Although in the grander scheme of things that was nothing compared to the suffering meted out by the Japanese during WWII and the subsequent thumping from the Yanks between 1965 and 1973 when the place was carpet bombed day and night in a vain attempt to weed out the perceived North Vietnamese hiding there. Walnuts and sledgehammers come to mind. To this day, Laos remains one of the most heavily landmined areas in the world – a clean-up job the American government still refuses to carry out.
This would be my third visit to Laos, the first being on my round-the-world trip in 2002 and the second being the quick border-hop I did from Thailand in the October of 2010. The first time I was here I took a two-day boat ride down the Mekong. It was great. This time, as though making up for my cheeky Odyssey border-hop, I would be travelling down from the northern border with China all the way to the capital, Vientiane.
It’s maddening the amount of time and money I wasted visiting these places first time around, only to come back again a year or two later. And here was me dreaming of a nice straight line connecting Uruguay and New Zealand, hitting all the countries of the world on the way.
At the border I met a couple of Israeli backpackers who were hoping to catch a bus to Vang Vieng, a town a hundred or so miles north of Vientiane. I told them that my bus was going that way, and they ended up catching the bus with me. Apparently, I was the first backpacker they had met who didn’t have a go at them for the Israeli-Palestine situation. Yeah well you don’t visit every country in the world without broadening your mind when it comes to the vast scope of world politics, and I can’t help but feel that the microcosm that is Israel has been used as a whipping boy by closet anti-Semites and tyrannical middle-eastern dictators and rabble-rousers for far too long.
Anyways, the drive through the mountains was spectacular and much more pleasant than the last time I did the trip from Luang Prabang to Vientiane on a coach – that time there was a guy constantly being sick out of the window and HACKing up at the top of his lungs all the way to Vang Vieng. I recall there was a cheer when he finally got off.
The bus got into Vientiane even earlier than expected – at around 3am. Nothing to do but wait in the tatty old bus station until the border opens. I tried to get some shut-eye, but ended up chatting with a backpacker called Arin. She asked me if I could guess where she was from and my first guess was South Korea… which was right! Oh yeah! Slam dunk! Man of the World, you better believe it! Arin joined me in a taxi from the main bus station to where the buses leave for the Thai border, but she got out at the airport from where she was flying home to Singapore. I wish I could bloody well fly…
The buses to the border didn’t start until 7.30am, so I took a shared Tuk-Tuk, which was so painfully slow it was painful. He even stopped to get petrol. Consequently, it was around 6.20am before I got stamped out of Laos. Unfortunately for me, the courtesy bus over the Mekong River had either just left or hadn’t started. As a consequence I was left waiting until 6.45am before I crossed into Thailand. After passport formalities, money change, tuk-tuk haggle and all that jazz, it was 6.55am. I raced to the bus station. It was 7.03am when I arrived. The 7am bus to Bangkok had just left.
There was now little hope of me getting to Bangkok in time to subsequently get down to Kuala Lumpur in time to subsequently get on the Gold Star Line ship that was leaving for Sri Lanka tomorrow night. I paced up and down, fretted and squished my forehead between my thumb and index finger. There was nothing for it, I’d just have to buy a ticket for the next bus at 8.30am and see what happened. Well, I’ll tell you what happened. First up, it didn’t leave until 9am (why couldn’t the 7am bus have been late?!). Secondly, the bus proceeded to stop at every village, hamlet and off-license to pick up more passengers. Or just hang about needlessly.
By midday it was obvious that barring some kind of miracle (the bus from Bangkok to KL takes AT LEAST 24 hours) I would be missing the boat. Then my phone beeped. It was Mandy. Gaby, my friendly contact at Gold Star Line, had written to tell me that the ship wouldn’t be leaving tomorrow evening… it would be leaving tomorrow morning. As I don’t own a Bugatti Veyron, I figured the race was over. Gaby said he’d try to sort me out on a ship leaving at the end of the month.
So then, Bangkok for the weekend?!
Why the hell not eh?
I’m glad that the ship did leave early, otherwise I would have been having kittens as the bus driver wasted six hours of the thirteen hour journey sitting around waiting at bus stops. He even stopped for half an hour on the outskirts of Bangkok to fill the tank. I don’t know if it’s a superstitious thing, but I have noticed that coach drivers all over the world are incredibly reluctant to turn their engines off. Even while getting petrol. Of course, I got off the bus and stood a good few metres away, ready to dive behind another bus lest our one blew up.
Arriving in Bangkok I had the strangest feeling. Here’s me, Graham Hughes, the backpack king, coming to Bangkok – the city of a million backpackers. But would anybody know, much less care, about my travels? I felt like an exile returning long after everyone had forgotten the hoo-hah that got me exiled in the first place. Would the old magic still be there, or would I have become that very same jaded old cynic that I’ve been fighting against all my life?
The first signs where not good. I negotiated for a moto-taxi to take me to Khao San Road – Bangkok’s backpacker central. But less than halfway there, the heavens opened. The driver and I sought shelter on a train station platform and for a good hour I tried in vain to hail a cab. In the end I paid the driver half the cash and headed over the footbridge to get a taxi from the other side. There a friendly Thai lent me his umbrella to stand at the side of the road – I mean, this rain was Monsoonal. I eventually got a cab to stop, gave the guy his umbrella back and tried desperately to explain to the driver that I wanted dropping at the top end of Khao San, not the bottom. Of course he took me to the bottom and so it was a good 40 minutes before I reached where I wanted to be.
Then I started the thankless task of wandering around in the rain with all my bags looking for hotel that wasn’t full. I tried my usual haunts up Soi Rambutri, just northwest of Khao San, but the first seven places I tried were fully booked. Then, finally, I tried the Wild Orchid hotel on Soi Chana Songkhram – they had a single room with fan for 300 bhat. That’s about five pounds. I’ll take it!!
Dropping my stuff off in my room and after three consecutive nights sleeping on coaches, I headed down to the restaurant bar downstairs and ordered a much-needed Chang beer. I think it cost about a quid. As the crisp cold foam hit the back of my throat I felt for the first time in ages like I was home. I ended up chatting with some Canadian backpackers until dawn. Yes, I still love Bangkok.
I spent the day in the backpacker bar hunched over my computer attempting to find a clever way to get to Sri Lanka without flying. Now my mind had turned to the possibility of getting on a cargo ship to India (much more frequent) and then taking the ferry over to Colombo from Tuticorin.
The ferry had stopped back in the early 80s as a result of the ongoing violence in the north of Sri Lanka, but with the Tamil Tigers now effectively (and quite possibly illegally) wiped out, the ferry had resumed. After finding some ships that might suit my purpose, I decided to have a look at the ferry timetable to see how frequent this ferry was and how much it was going to cost. That was when I found out that the ferry had once again ceased operations – this time back in December last year, around the time I was in Tuvalu. WHY DOES NOBODY TELL ME THESE THINGS?!!
So it’s Sri Lanka or bust.
Since the Gold Star Line ship from Kuala Lumpur had probably already left by now, my attention turned to Singapore. Several big companies – most notably PIL, Swire and Mariana Shipping have their offices in Singapore and I’m keen to thank them in person when I get there. I’ve avoided asking these companies for any more favours, since they’ve already done so much for me, but with no response for NYK, OOCL and MOL, and with a flat ‘no’ from Evergreen, I’m now more than ever relying on a handful of companies to help me complete this quest.
I figure I’ll just head down to Singapore – from where a Hapag-Lloyd ship is leaving on Tuesday – and see what happens. But in the meantime, there was fun to be had. In the evening I headed out onto Khao San Road and let the party begin! I was filming myself eating some fried cockroaches (the things I do for fame) when I got chatting with some more Canadian backpackers (what is it with me and Canadians?), before long we were having our feet ‘massaged’ by fish…
drinking a tower of beer outside the Khaosan Palace…
…and heading over to Pat Pong for some go-go-girl action. Only this is Bangkok, so there’s a good chance that it’s not a girl. I’m not falling for that one again.
Another day of sifting through shipping timetables and arranging matters for further down the line. The most (de)pressing of which is what the hell is happening with Series 2 of my TV show. Well, some of you know the ins-and-outs of this, but most of you don’t. To cut a long story short, I was well and truly stitched up by the Powers That Be concerning Series 1. Criminally so, in my opinion. If I tell you that I have, to date, been paid less than £1,500 per episode for a show that’s been on heavy rotation for almost 2 years you might understand where I’m coming from, especially if you live in one of the fifty countries that my show has been repeated a zillion times on Nat Geo Adventure.
Please understand that I’m not doing this for TV, I’m doing The Odyssey Expedition for its own sake, as well as hoping to convince any would-be adventurers out there that travelling the world is not as dangerous or expensive as Fox News would have you believe. But still, fair’s fair and I’m pretty sure I’m the worst paid producer/director/cameraman/presenter in the world right now. Unfortunately for me (there’s more!) the status of all the footage I’ve shot since one minute past midnight on Jan 1 2010 has never been clarified. Can I take it to an independent production company? Can I make another series myself on my laptop? Can I just stick it on the internet? What do I call it?
Last week in Hong Kong, my agent and I tried to get a straight answer… and it looks like they might be willing to set me free. If so, then the second series of my TV show, covering my journey from Egypt to New Zealand and back to Liverpool will – one way or another – be available for you all to watch before the end of the year. A production company in Liverpool who I’ve worked with before are keen to take it on (as 90% of it has already been filmed, it is what most people would call ‘a no brainer’) and you’ll be pleased to hear that series 2 will be in High Def, with bespoke music and no droning voice-over (save that of little ol’ me). I’ll be taking on the role of series editor and, ya know, even it we only sell it for a single series run to Botswana Television, I’ll still (finally) make my money back.
(Of course I’m planning to make millions from my best-selling memoir about how the most beloved corporations in the world screwed me over. It’ll be called ‘Stabbed In The Backpack’. And let that be a lesson to ya – TRUST NOBODY. I wish I’d paid more attention to the goddamn X-Files.)
Before I knew it, it was time to hit the town. Gavin Mac, a long-time contributor to this blog (as much as Statler and Waldorf are ‘contributors’ to the Muppet Show), was out in Bangkok and so I headed over to Soi Cowboy to meet with him. There was a whopping traffic jam on the way over there and the ride took well over half and hour. For some reason, Gav had arranged to meet me in some pub whose live band were massacring The Beatles in between bouts of Country and Western. After wandering around in vain FOR AN HOUR (thanks a bunch, Gav Mac!) I gave up and took a taxi back to Khao San. I had no sooner sat down and bought a 20 baht (that’s 40 pence) can of beer than Gav rang to ask where the hell I was.
You know, the fact that Gav always posts without a photo and that Gavin Mac isn’t even his real name really put the onus on HIM to find ME, don’t you think? I flatly refused to return to Soi Cowboy (a seedy place full of old white men looking for company) and so the mountain came to Mohammed.
It wasn’t long before we were accompanied by some delightful Irish girls and a Kiwi whose family came from Somalia – his cousin was a pirate, before being killed by the Russians. He told me he had never met anyone who knew so much about the situation in Somalia. I guess that’s why it’s in the state it is in – where are the George Clooneys of the world where Somalia’s concerned? Out of sight, out of mind – it’s painfully true.
The night rapidly descended into chaos. Gav Mac was an early casualty, as was one of the Irish girls who resorted to chucking her guts up over the road. I definitely remember Chelsea beating the Germans at penalties (which, come on, was a treat, even if it was the southern softies), after that my memory flickers and wanes. I did wake up the next day wearing a bracelet with ‘I HAVE BAD AIDS’ embroidered onto it in big friendly letters. Nice.
Sun 20.05.12–Mon 21.05.12:
When you gotta go, you’ve gotta go. I don’t need The Hangover II to tell me that Bangkok is more addictive than crack. I could happily stay here a long, long time, become that crazy drunken hippy guy with the nifty hat and the funny stories. But there is adventure afoot and nobody ever won an award for finishing 98% of a race. I HAVE FOUR COUNTRIES TO GO AND – ONE WAY OR ANOTHER – I WILL CONQUER THEM ALL!!! Wahaha!
After my snail-like experience on the public bus from the border with Laos to Bangkok, I opted for a ‘VIP’ bus to take me down to Singapore (you can buy a direct ticket for about forty quid). It left at 6pm, giving me ample time to get myself a new fake student card on Khao San Road. Yes, I’m a criminal mastermind, I know. The bus left from Ratchadamnoen Klang street, just south of Khao San, and with a couple of German girls to chat to and exceedingly comfortable chairs, the journey towards Surat Thani was a rather pleasant one.
We arrived at Surat Thani early Monday morning. The German girls got off and I was transferred to a minibus which took me down to Hat Yai, the last city before you hit Malaysia. There was a choice of getting the 1230 bus or the 1500 bus. I opted for the 1500, as it got me into Singapore at the (kinda!) sensible hour of 6am, whereas the 1230 bus would see me dropped off at the Golden Mile at the zany hour of 3am, which didn’t sound much fun.
It was another minibus that came to take me and some fellow backpackers over the border and down to Phuket in Malaysia. One thing that drives me nuts about everywhere in the world except Europe is that you have to complete a daffy form every time you cross an international border – a form that says all the things that are already on your bleedin’ passport. Name, Date of Birth, Passport Number, all that bollocks. Since they’ve had electronic readers for donkey’s years and now most new passports have a chip in them, what gives? Malaysia, to its eternal credit, have done away with these stupid slips of paper and now you just hand over your passport, have your index fingers electronically scanned and in you go. Nice one, Malaysia! THIS I LIKE.
Back on the minibus, I got chatting to two girls from the USA – Jen And Kate. Between us we knew pretty much all of the state capitals, except for Michigan and Illinois – God that killed us. On arrival in Phuket, I raced over to somewhere with free wi-fi just to stop my brain having a meltdown. Lancing and Springfield (d’oh!) are the droids you’re looking for.
It was a big coach that took me down to Singapore (I was the only one of the original Khao San ’packers to go that far) and I almost had the run of the bus to myself. HUGE reclining seats, of the type to put Joey and Chandler’s to shame, made me feel like this was forty quid well spent. An ancient German called Wolfgang across the aisle babbled on in a way that made me think he might be an old Nazi. Then I felt guilty about thinking the worst of all old Germans, I mean who knows, maybe he was part of the plot to kill Hitler. Then he said he liked Iran’s news because they were the only ones who were truthful about the Jews. Well, think what you like about old Germans… sometimes you’ll be right.
One day, a British gent called Tom sat down before a map of the world. At the very tip of the Malay peninsular he noticed a small, jungle-covered island. Being a genius (a British syndrome if ever there was one), he figured that if he put a settlement there, one day it would be the shipping capital of the world. All ships travelling to and from The Far East and Europe would have to stop there to trade goods or pick up supplies. Tommy Boy convinced the British East India Company to get onboard with his crazy brilliant scheme and thus Singapore was born.
I left the bus (a wave and a glad-to-never-see-you-again smile to Wolfgang the old Nazi, who responded with a ‘Sieg Heil’ as if it was funny… he’s probably at home now putting his cat in the oven) and headed over to Kuni’s place, a short walk from The Golden Mile shopping complex. Hailing from Japan and one of the most well-travelled people I’ve ever met, Kuni has been to a whopping 110 countries and has hosted over 950 CouchSurfers here in Singapore. I would be surfer number 959. What a guy! He should have been in work, but was home waiting for the aircon repair man to come. Good call as a lack of aircon is a killer in a place that is just 1° north of the Equator.
You don’t reach the heady heights of CouchSurf stardom by just hosting one person at a time, and in true CS style, Kuni was simultaneously hosting two other people – both of whom were from Germany. I decided it best to keep my experience with Wolfgang to myself. Ira was from a town south of Stuttgart and was lovely. Christoph was from Hamburg and still asleep. As Ira was heading over to the nearby Singapore museum I decided to tag along.
It was a good walk over to the old colonial quarter. The museum, from the front, was magnificent, built in 1887 for Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee. There was some modern garbage around the back, terrible glass cubes of that lazy, unimaginative, internationalist school of architecture clinging onto the side of this otherwise beautiful edifice in a fashion that is tantamount to building rape. It’s re-engineering The White Album so it now features Little Jimmy Krankie on the kazoo. It’s having Han shoot first. How The Powers That Be allow such monumental acts of vandalism is beyond me, but then all modern architecture is beyond me. Everything built in the past 50 years is the structural design equivalent of cheap, nasty, talentless, saccharine, materialistic, autotuned, modern RnB crap – or even worse, the utter bobbins that passes for art these days.
Sometimes I do despair that I’m the only one pointing out that The Emperor actually, really, honestly, truly, I’ve-Googled-It-And-Everything HAS NO FRIKKIN’ CLOTHES ON!!!
Ira and I took the free tour, hosted by a nice British lady, which took us around the museum and gave us the low down on Singapore’s history, from its founding by Sir Thomas Raffles, through to the Japanese occupation (in which thousands of Singaporeans were tortured and put to death), to independence and beyond. Singapore today is, like Dubai, a benevolent dictatorship very much in the vein of Hobbes’ Leviathan. There are fines for jaywalking, chewing gum and drinking water on the Underground. There is no minimum wage, no legislative elections and no real political debate.
This is not necessarily a good thing, yet Singaporeans (on the whole) are doing rather well at the moment and so are unlikely to start demanding free and fair elections any time soon.
In any case, after Greece’s disastrous elections (WHO ON EARTH HOLDS ELECTIONS IN THE MIDDLE OF A NATIONAL CRISIS?!!) resulting in wins for the utter dickheads on the far right and far left, I can’t help but feel a little torn between my love of democracy (and jaywalking) and my desire to see things actually get done. Travel for a day on Singapore’s cheap, clean, efficient public transport system and you’ll be questioning the wisdom of asking Joe Bloggs what he wants (when you know damn well the answer will be ‘to pay no tax, bring back the death penalty and get rid of them bleedin’ immigrants’).
Eek! But, all in all, Singapore is a definite success story, the biggest port in the world with more than 75% of world trade passing through on the way to China and back.
Ira and I grabbed a cheap bite to eat (£1.50 for a HUGE bowl of spicy noodly soupy stuff) and then she pushed off to the airport to continue her journey into the wild blue yonder. Meanwhile, I set about arranging to meet up with my friends in the shipping industry, with a view to continuing my journey back home.
Come evening and it was definitely time to go out for a mooch. Being just north of the equator, Singapore is hot. Bloody hot. I keep saying it would be nice to have a day in which I don’t sweat, but I don’t think it’s coming anytime soon. The night-time brings a slight relief and, well, at least there’s no chance of me getting sunburnt. Michael, the guy I stayed with in Hong Kong, had put me onto his mate Gary would be doing stand-up tonight on Northern Circular Road on the south bank of the river. Christoph, my fellow CouchSurfer, and I set off from Kuni HQ on Beach Road and walked down towards the imaginatively-titled Singapore River.
Singapore is currently holding an arts festival, so there’s lots of zany goings on at night. A rather bizarre dance-routine to The Village People’s YMCA in a fake American-style diner over one way, a grid of women slowly thrashing about in water-filled barrels at the other. Nice! We arrived at the comedy night a little late, but at least my new student card got me a discount on the entry price.
One thing that is interesting about Singapore is its ethnic makeup. It’s mostly Chinese (over 75% of the population), and then Malay (about 15%) and then Indian (around 8%). Technically, the Malays are the indigenous people and the Chinese and Indians were enticed (or forcibly brought over) here by the British. There is admittedly a marked segregation between Chinatown and Little India areas of Singapore, so it was great to see comedians of all ethnicities come on stage and well and truly take the piss out of all things Singapore. Some of the joke went over our heads (I don’t know Singapore that well) but for the main part it was frikkin’ hilarious. Especially when Gary put his large comedy glasses on and became the spitting image of Kim Jong-Il.
Gary’s an interesting guy, not just for his stand-up work: he’s also the director of Singapore’s first zombie movie (a step in the right direction if you ask me). Unfortunately, filming has wrapped so I can’t fulfil my life’s ambition of playing a angry, salivating member of the undead. I’ll just have to leave that to the Newt Gingrich’s of the world. After comedy, Christoph and I headed back to Kuni’s, grabbing some fantastic tucker on the way home. Seriously – if you love Chinese and Indian food, Singapore is the place to be.
I had arranged to meet with Captain Paneer of PIL, the shipping company responsible for my crucial forays to Tuvalu, Marshall Islands, Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand and Taiwan. I wanted to thank him and the company for being so incredibly generous and helping me to over half of my final 17 countries. And so I headed over to the PIL offices in the business district of Singapore clutching a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label. About 45 minutes later I walked out with a spring in my step. Captain Paneer had offered me a spot on a ship going to Sri Lanka. A few more days in Singapore and I’d be on my way. It was a huge weight off my mind. Country 198 effectively in the bag, I turned my attention to countries 199, 200 and 201.
My current plan for The Maldives is to pound the streets of Colombo until I find a small independent cargo operation that runs over to Male’, the capital of Maldives and back. By the way, that hanging apostrophe isn’t a typo, it really is spelt Male’. After The Maldives I’d just have to find a way of getting to The Seychelles.
A few months ago, Odyssey fan Jason Budzinski from the US brought a CMA-CGM shipping route to my attention. Every other week it goes from Sri Lanka to The Seychelles and then to Mombasa in Kenya. This would be perfect, but as it goes right through the middle of the High Risk Pirate Zone, I’m not expecting they’ll let me onboard. But back at PIL, Captain Paneer told me something interesting: I’ve been saying all this time that I would invalidate the anti-piracy insurance of any cargo ship I took through the Red Zone. This simply isn’t true. So long as I sign a witnessed Letter of Indemnity, there will be no effect on the insurance. This gave me hope. If I can get on this CMA-CGM ship I could honestly be back in the UK before the end of JULY.
In the afternoon I met with Desmond Aw, one of the top blokes from Mariana Shipping who helped me onboard the Mell Sembawang, the ship that allowed me to tick Micronesia and Palau off the list. Again, I brought a gift – no good deed should go unrewarded. Afterwards I went to the main post office in Eunos to pick up one of my old hard-drives that Mandy had sent over for me. I back up all my video tapes as I go, and now, thanks to the Powers That Be releasing me from any obligations to them, it’s time for me to stitch together a rough cut of series 2, episode 1 of Graham’s World (don’t worry – I’m changing the title!). Hurrah!
It was after 9pm before I returned to Kuni’s place and it seemed we were having a party! A new CouchSurfer, Nate from the USA, had turned up, and Kuni’s CS mates had popped around. Christoph and Nate were preparing din-dins. Some of Kuni’s friends were even more well-travelled than him: one had been to 170 countries. I think between every person in the room there wasn’t a single country in the world that at least two of us hadn’t sullied with our presence.
After the party, Nate and I embarked on the task of getting the dishes done. We were almost finished when we noticed a pool of water forming beneath our feet. A pool that soon became a flood. After getting the night security guy up to turn the water off, we did what we could to mop up the mess. Kuni took it all with good grace, and since I had only got a few hours sleep last night, once we were sure the leak had stopped, I crashed out.
PIL you are the BEST!! Not only did I awake to find an email granting me passage on board the MV Kota Wirawan, which leaves next Monday for Colombo, I have also been offered a place onboard a ship leaving Sri Lanka to come back to Singapore and then a third ship to Madagascar. Now I have just TWO more shipping jaunts to organise and I’m done: The Maldives and The Seychelles.
Behind the scenes while I was on board the Mell Sembawang last month, Dino, Mandy and my Mum were working tirelessly to try to get me on a ship from Hong Kong to Colombo. Once it became clear that Hong Kong was a dead end and that I intended to head down to Singapore, Dino put me onto a mate of a mate of his, Philip. He had been looking for a ship that could help me out. This week he was out of Singapore, but he had asked his friend Marcus who worked for the Baltic Exchange (kinda like Bloomsburg, but for ships) to continue to keep an eye out for anything going me way.
I met Marcus for a liquid lunch. Since my travel to Sri Lanka was now in the bag, instead of talking shipping timetables we talked life, the universe and everything. Marcus had put me onto an acquaintance of his from Australia, Justin, who is working in ship security and might a good brain to pick about safely getting around the Indian Ocean. After an incredibly long lunch (Thanks Marcus!!), I headed down to Little India to meet with Justin for a couple of drinks on his balcony with his kiwi mate. Since I had already had a few, instead of talking ship security we talked life, the universe and everything. Around 7pm, I jumped the MRT down to Clarke Quay – a swanky bar area of downtown Singapore – there I would meet John, a British guy Justin described as ‘an old pirate’ who might be good for giving me the latest on the old Somali pirate situation. However, by this point I was three sheets to the wind and so instead we talked… oh you know the rest.
Around 11pm (a think) John needed to get going and I was left jabbering away to some poor souls who had the misfortune to sit opposite me. About ten minutes later, John returned with a gift. ‘You must be missing this’ he said before slapping a portion of chips down on the table. Proper British fish n’ chips and a carton of curry sauce. Apparently, there was a British guy living here in Singapore who missed his old chippy so much he set up his own – and DAMN it was good. Thanks, John!!
It was the most unhealthy power-up of all time.