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.
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.