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.
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!