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April 30, 2010
Hat Yai, Thailand

We’re in Thailand. We were expecting it to be a blissful release from the stinking, humid, filthy cities to the south, but unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to make it to the coast. So now we’re holed up for the night in Hat Yai – another stinking, humid, filthy city, only in a country with a lower standard of living, so the stink and filth levels are even higher.

The view from the train windows was uniformly one of squalor and poverty. “How can they just live in their own rubbish like that?” Chris asked incredulously.
“They don’t have regular trash service.”
“So? Couldn’t they just get together and agree to throw their rubbish in one place? Like, ‘hey, nobody’s using that spot, let’s dig a pit and throw our garbage in it?'”
“…Yeah.”
“I mean, fuck, if you’ve got a dead duck in your front yard you can either throw it away or leave it there. Throw it away.”

We got caught by a tout fresh off the train, who asked us where we were staying and wanted to drive us tere. Chris also made the mistake of telling him we were going to Ko Tarutao the next day, so he then dragged us off to his buddy’s travel office. I can’t stand these people, but I’m always too polite to say anything. That needs to change. Eventually we got him to just drive us to our hotel in the back of his pickup.

We’re staying at the King Hotel, a creaky and dilapidated building that is nonetheless better than any hostel, which we don’t have the patience for at the moment. We went out to get dinner, which was a hassle, since this Muslim southern province sees few Western tourists and hardly anybody speaks English. We ate some tiny plates of unidentified meat at a bar and then beat it back to the hotel. The desk clerk had earlier tried to push his minivan service to Pak Bara (the harbour town that’s the jumping-off point for the islands we’re so desparately trying to get to), and we had neither the will nor the time to check out other options, so we agreed. We tried to ring a bunch of places on Ko Lipe to get accommadation for tomorrow night, to no avail. Now we’re just looking up their websites but half of them are down and the half that are up don’t allow bookings less than 48 hours in advance anyway.

We’re tired and frustrated and still not having fun. I dislike this place even more than Chris, since it reminds me so strongly of Korea, from which I fought so long and hard to escape. The filth, the humidity, the sweat, the motorcycles, the clamour, the language, the people. It’s exhausting me. It’s exhausting both of us. It wasn’t meant to be like this. It’s been three days now and we’re nowhere near where we want to be, and not enjoying ourselves in the slightest. Every day is a struggle to stay fed and find somewhere to sleep and try to inch ever closer to our goal. This wouldn’t be so bad if only there was some redeeming features; if only we were enjoying ourselves, as well as putting up with the hassles. But we’re not. So far there’s been nothing to enjoy.

Chris mentioned over dinner that he wished we were in America. I keep thinking of Europe, of Belgium and France and Ireland. It can’t just be culture shock, because I’d even love to be back in Japan. Or South America. I’m just burned out on Asia. Whcih is a shame, because according to our plans we’ll be here another six months or so.

Something I’ve decided in the last few days, however, is fuck the plans. If we don’t enjoy a place we’ll leave, and if we want to do something else we will. If these islands are no good, if South-East Asia continues to be the sweaty, fetid armpit of the world, we’ll jump a plane to Los Angeles or Beijing or Santiago… somewhere different. I’ve visited six foreign countries now, and every single one was in Asia. It was geographic convenience that sent us here first, but I’m tired of the place.

This has been an exceptionally negative entry but that’s how I feel right now and I just needed to dump it out. These islands better be good. Christ, I’d settle for just being able to get there. Whoever it was that said the fun is in the journey, not the destination? Fuck that guy.

April 29, 2010
Butterworth, Malaysia

I’m writing this in a rustbucket town called Butterworth on Malaysia’s west coast, the mainland counterpart to the old British colonial island of Penang. This is not a place we ever intended to be, but the grim realities of travel forced our hand.

Let’s back up a little.

The last day in Perth sucked. Leaving was hard. Saying goodbye to everyone was hard. Combining the anxiety of a major life change with the anguish of effectively splitting up with my girlfriend was really really hard. But after we said our teary farewells to everyone and entered the departure gate, things started to look up.

Then we got on the plane. Jesus Christ. I’d never been on a budget airline before, and while I wasn’t expecting the perks of Qantas or Cathay Pacific, neither was I expecting the seats to be crammed so far together as to leave literally less than 30 cm of leg room, a hundred people shoved into this torturous position for five hours. For the sake of a few extra rows of seats they put you in a position that is pure anguish. They even cover up the emergency exits for fuck’s sake.

In addition to being crammed into this squeezed L-shape, the food and drink is incredibly expensive. I shelled out four dollars for a bottle of water that couldn’t have been more than 50 mils. The corpulent bastard to my left ordered all kinds of stuff for himself and the aroma was agonising. Sleep, in those stress positions, was impossible. We alternated between sitting straight up and leaning forward on our dinner trays, neither of which were tolerable. “This is basically hell on earth,” I said to Chris, who agreed. When we finally did land, it was hungry, thirsty, tired and full of a bitter loathing for that fucking plane.

And the fun of our first day didn’t stop there! I was under the impression that Changi International Airport was one of the finest in the world, featuring sofas and reclining chairs and rentable beds and an in-built hotel. These illusions were shattered when our battery cage plane rolled to a halt and we gratefully spilled down the stairway directly onto the tarmac (a practice I’d assumed was discontinued about fifty years ago). Then we entered the Budget Terminal, a tacky and unappealing shed quarantined and separated from the real terminal complex.

After managing to find a bus and get to the proper terminals, we discovered that
a) There were no reclining chairs or rentable beds, or if there were, they were in arrival areas forbidden to filthy budget arrrivals such as we
b) The airport hotel was both booked out and and way beyond our price range
c) There is nothing fantastic about Changi Airport. It is just another fucking airport, with the same restaurants and bars and cafes as the others, the same chairs designed to be hard to sleep in, the same soul-draining tedium.

It also had no free wifi, in a fine display of Singaporean entrepreneurial spirit. We tried to nap on some booths at a cafe, and eventually I went to McDonalds to use their public terminals to try to find a hostel. With a shortlist in hand, we took the MRT line into the city in desperate search of an elusive bed. Both of us wanted so badly, more than than anything else, to be back home asleep in our beds with our girlfriends – or failing that, any bed. Any bed at all.

Singapore is only a few kilometres from the equator, and the sun rises quickly – it went from pitch black to broad daylight in less than an hour. It’s also hot and humid and no fun at all to be lugging 15kg backpacks around in. I’d assumed it would be a gleaming, pristine city-state of technological marvels, as I’ve been told, but it actually reminded me a lot of Seoul – first-world, strictly speaking, but covered in filth and stinking.

We made it to a hostel only to find that it was booked out, but the owner was happy to direct us to another hostel – which didn’t even answer the door. We passed a hotel and asked how much a room would be, and were both unsurrpised and disappointed to learn that a twin room would be $272 per night (roughly $200 AUD). Again, though, the desk clerk was happy to direct us to another hotel which he said was cheaper – it wasn’t, but the desk clerk there circled a few hotels on our map she thought might be more feasible…

This went on for hours – in sweltering humidity, on 24 hours of no sleep, with muscles screaming from bearing the weight of our backpacks – until we took shelter in a McDonalds, drank some coffee and came up with a new plan: get the fuck out of Singapore.

This plan was bold and decisive. It gave us hope and strangth. We struck out to the south, towards the old railway station on Keppel Road, and spent some time talking to the stationmaster and trying to figure out timetables. We decided to take the 1.30 train out of Singapore, which gave us three hours to kill.

And we had learned a valuable lesson, the hard way. Not planning things in advance may be daring and exciting and adventurous, but it leads to being tired and miserable and sweaty. So we went and found an Internet cafe, looked up some hostels in Kuala Lumpur, rang them from a payphone and made a booking for that night. And soon we were on a rickety, staggering train winding its way up the Malayan Peninsula, well into the heart of Malaysia, leaving behind that wretched, sweat-soaked, expensive hellhole of a city-state far behind us.

We were still longing for beds. Chris hadn’t slept at all in the last few days, and was almost delirious. It was another scenario – like the Osaka bar at 5 am, or the Cathay Pacific Flight during my escape from Korea – where my body wanted so badly to go to sleep, but noise and light kept waking me up every time I nodded off.

We arrived in Kuala Lumpur after nightfall. Apart from being louder and brighter, it was the same as Singapore – stinking and humid. Both cities reminded me of Seoul, and I hate things that remind me of Seoul.

We took the monorail out to the Golden Triangle district to search for one of the hostels we’d called, and chose the Pondok Lodge, which was Lonely Planet’s top pick. It was along a busy street of restaurants, above a bar, but as we hiked up those stairs we could almost taste the beds.

After being led to a cramped room by the brusque desk attendent, and receiving a stolen Emirates Airline blanket (which didn’t come close to covering the bed) rather than sheets, and turning a crank to take a cold-water shower with about three pressure jets working, and observing that our room was just as hot after an hour of air con, I began to reflect on the title of our guidebook. Pondok Lodge was, after all, the top pick in Lonely Planet; Southeast Asia On A Shoestring.

We went out to buy dinner with what little ringgit we had, and sat sullenly in plastic chairs at the edge of the street with shitty satay chicken sticks. “I just want to get out of this part of the world,” Chris said through bleary eyes. I couldn’t agree more.

We went back to the hostel. We asked to change rooms, since our air conditioner wasn’t working for shit. I stole a thinner pillow from another room. Despite the raging noise from the busy street outside,we fell asleep.

I woke up in the morning with some disappointment, as I was still in South-East Asia, but with a good night’s sleep things were better. Not “good,” certainly, and the fun level was still at 0 per cent, but all the shitty things were back to being funny, rather than making me want to blow my head off. We ate the Pondok Lodge’s meagre complimentary breakfast, and then set out onto the street. Having accomplished our Escape From Singapore, we now needed to effect an Escape From Kuala Lumpur.

Our first set of bad news was that sleeper trains were booked out till Saturday. Fuck waiting in Kuala Lumpur for another three days. After spending some time in an Internet cafe, annd talking to a friendly travel agent, and eating a decent lunch, we decided to take a bus to Butterworth and then figure out some way to get across the border the next day.

The central train station in KL was closed for renovation, so we took a taxi out to the temporary station, set up in a car park outside a stadium. As we got our bags out of the boot a man emerged from the bushes and started mumbling at us. We ignored him for a moment, assumin he was some kind of street crazy, before realising that he was trying to ask us which bus we wanted. I’ve already learned to ignore touts, which is annoying, because I confuse them with people who are just trying to help.

We’d arrived at a good time, as our bus took off about five minutes later. It was air-conditioned and comfortable, but there’d been an accident of  some kind on the northern highway, so we weren’t making good time. The entire nation of Malaysia, from what I could see out the window, appears to be a palm plantation with a highway and a rail line running through it. Cities and towns had identical concrete apartment blocks rising out of rioutous green foliage, giving me more Korea flashbacks.

I dozed off about an hour away from Butterworth, but Chris woke me up. This was at about 10.30 pm. The bus tooled along a few streets, and the dude at the front called out “Bawah.”

A woman a few seats ahead of us got up. “What’s he want?” Chris asked.
“I think he’s asking if we want to get off.”
“What? No. This bus stops at Butterworth.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because it says Butterworth on the side.”
“That means it goes to Butterworth, not that it stops there.”
“Is this… Butterworth?” Chris called out.
“Bahwah,” the man agreed.

We got off the bus, retrieved our bags from the luggage compartment and watched it drive off down the road. “How the fuck were we supposed to know to get off?” Chris asked.

By coincidence, it had dropped us off directly outside one off the hotels/hostels we’d looked up back in KL, the Garden Beach Hotel. It was a decrepit concrete block with a ditch of fetid water encircling it, which I nearly fell in. We didn’t like the look of it, which proved to be a moot point when nobody answered the doorbell anyway.

The train station was nearby, so we hoofed it over there to see if any sleeper trains left tonight. They didn’t, so we asked a taxi driver sitting at a nearby cafe to drive us to the Butterworth Travel Lodge, which we’d rung earlier in the day. They had a twin room for us, so they took my passport details and a 100 ringgit deposit, and we took the elevator up to our room.

It was a proper hotel, but a pretty shabby one. We were fine with that, but both our laptops were dead and Chris really wanted Internet. I would have been content with an adaptor, just so I could type our ordeals up. We went across the road to a service station and bought some food. On the way back, we stopped in at the very nice Palm Inn Hotel to ask if we could buy or borrow a power adaptor.

The guy at the desk was nice enough to fetch his own travel adaptor to lend us, and while we were waiting for him I browsed through a pamphlet. It was 105 ringgit for a twin room; the Travel Lodge was 78. The Palm Inn had wifi and a free breakfast. Chris was giving me a look.

“Can we change?” he asked.
“We already put down a deposit…”
“Can’t we just get it back?”
“Well. I want to. But I can’t go over there and break that poor man’s heart.”
“We’ll just make up a story. Say we found a train leaving tonight.”
“Yes! That’s fantastic!”

We went up the road, back to the Travel Lodge. Chris “explained” our “situation” and asked if we could leave and get our deposit back. The clerk agreed. It was only when we were in the elevator that I realised I’d been holding a Palm Inn pamphlet the whole time, idly tapping it on the desk, and we both cracked up.

And now we’re at the Palm Inn, which for an extra 9 AUD, split between the two of us, has granted the miracle of wireless Internet. And it’s only 35 AUD all up. We also have our own bathroom and good beds and a good free breakfast. By comparison, the Pondok Lodge, which had none of those things, cost 20 AUD between us. You can squeeze every penny if you want, but why bother? What will you get, another few months of travelling  time? I’d rather travel in relative comfort for less time than travel in shitty shoestring accommodation for more time.

Curiously, the one thing this hotel doesn’t have is toilet paper – just one of those spray hoses for your ass. I don’t understand those. Doesn’t it just spray the shit everywhere? Even if it did get your ass clean, it would be soaking wet when you pulled your pants on. No, I don’t get it at all.

Luckily I brought a roll of toilet paper in my bag. But I sure didn’t expect to be using it in a hotel.

Perth, Western Australia

We spent this weekend camping down south, as a final hurrah before going away. It was great, despite being fucking freezing. We went skiing in suits again. I drank my North Korean wine. We went for a last kneeboard and a last disc and a slalom. It was also sort of sad, though, because for a long time it’s felt as though this trip isn’t really happening. It was difficult to comprehend. You can’t really imagine yourself actually doing it, because it’s so vast and different to your life at home. But this weekend it really did feel like it was looming up, and I realised how much I was going to miss everyone and how much everything in my life was about to change.

My cousin Georgie, who is a flight attendant working for Qantas and based out of Sydney, was supposed to be in Singapore on the 28th. She told us we could come to her mind-bogglingly ritzy hotel and ask for her at the front desk, and I was totally looking forward to doing so at 4 in the morning, which I don’t think she’d anticipated. Then her flights changed and now she’s leaving two hours after we get in, so we’re back to our original plan of bunking down for the rest of the night somewhere in the airport, which is probably still crammed full of Europeans trying to get back home after that unpronounceable volcano messed everybody’s plans up. That’s a shame.

Anyway, I still have a dozen little things to do, and then I have to SUIT UP to go have dinner at Chris’ house.

1 day to go!

Perth, Western Australia

You know what I need from you, WordPress? A better imaging system. I want that thing where you click on the thumbnail and it expands to full size in another window. How am I supposed to dazzle and delight our friends back home with blurry, jagged jpegs that have been reduced to the size of a postage stamp in MS Paint? I guess I’ll have to download a plugin or something. WHAT IS THIS, THE MIDDLE AGES

Anyway, here is a blurry jagged jpeg of what I’m taking with me around the world:

Clothing
Underwear x7
Socks x6
Explorer socks x1
Button-down shirt x2
T-shirt x2
Hoody
Jeans
Boardshorts
Converse sneakers
Trail shoes
Thermals
Belt
Thongs*
Shorts*
Watch
Vacuum packing bag

Electronics
ASUS 900HA netbook + charger + little USB mouse (I hate touchpads)
External harddrive
30G video iPod + case + headphones + connection cable
USB stick
Nikon Coolpix S560 + charger + cable (do not buy this, it is shit, shell out the extra $100 for an Olympus)

Toiletries
Retainer + case
Toothbrushes
Toothpaste
Soap
Razor
Chapstick
Sunscreen*

Other
Novels x2
Wallet – driver’s license, 2 bankcards, Medicare card
Travel towel* (going with a regular beach towel for now)
First aid kit (see Costs page for contents)
Anti-malarials
Australian passport
Irish passport
Vaccination record
Passport photos (for visas)
Notebook + pen
Insect repellant*
Leatherman
Sunglasses
Plastic toy horse (long story)
Tissues
Sealed Glad-bags (learned my lesson after a wet day on Miyajima)

*Have yet to buy, either here or in SE Asia

Now I just need to actually pack all that into my bag and see how it fits! Oh, and since we decided to squeeze in a last-minute trip to Collie for the Anzac Day long weekend, I also need to pack for that.

5 days to go!

Perth, Western Australia

It’s common knowledge that the world outside Australia, Europe and North America is a constant nightmare of seething diseases, oozing infections and Lovecraftian parasites, where much of the populace is stricken with horrific maladies that send them crawling up and down the streets, moaning through mouths speckled with weeping sores, or else lying in sweat-soaked sheets shaking with fever as monstrous insects burrow deeper into their brains.

That’s why it’s important to take proper medical precautions when travelling. A fully stocked first-aid kit could prove to be the difference between life and death, unless, like me, you don’t have even basic knowledge in first aid. I’m picturing myself lying at the bottom of a ravine with the bone sticking out of my arm, using my other hand to triumphantly retrieve the triangular bandage/sling from my first aid kit, and then bursting into tears because I have no idea what to do with it. Why the hell aren’t first aid courses part of the standard high school curriculum? They spent months and months on STDs, trying to scare the hormones out of us, and not one second on CPR or anything like that. I know how to put a condom on a banana, but I don’t know what to do if somebody drives their car into a letterbox in front of me and is launched out the windshield.

In any case, a first aid kit is better than nothing, so we bought some standard St. John’s packs from Woolworths and are now fortifying them with other things we need. They came with gauze, pads, bandages, bandaids, tape, scissors, a needle, tweezers and an emergency reflective blanket (which I can see myself simply pulling out and using when I’m cold); to that I’ve added anti-diarrhea tablets, a fuckload of painkillers and some antiseptic cream. I’ll also be adding cold and flu tablets, paw-paw cream, antihistamines and maybe something else for gastro sickness. I also took a few medi-swabs and gauze pads from the ridiculously overstocked first aid kit at work (that we will never use because in the event of a code blue all the first aiders in the store come running with their own kits), but I’m not sure why I bothered, because medicines are more important than bandages and space is at a premium.

On the topic of medicine, we also bought our antimalarials. This a fun subject and is apparently the cause of much debate amongst backpackers: in the tropics, do you bother taking anti-malarial pills, or do you just hope not to get it? The reason it’s a debate is because, depending on your brand of antimalarials, the side effects can be pretty severe, sometimes being indistinguishable from malaria itself. We’re taking doxycycline, the side effects of which include:

  • Severe headaches, dizziness, blurred vision
  • Fever, chills, body aches, flu symptoms
  • Sever blistering, peeling and red skin rash
  • Urinating less than usual or not at all
  • Pale or yellowed skin, dark coloured urine, confusion and weakness
  • Severe pain in your upper stomach spreading to your back
  • Nausea and vomiting, fast heart rate
  • Loss of appetite, jaundice
  • Easy bruising or bleeding

If I suffer from any of those I’ll just stop taking it and run the risk. There’s no point protecting yourself against malaria if you’re half-dead and can’t enjoy your trip. You have to take precautions to guard against mosquitoes anyway, to prevent dengue fever, for which there is no pill or vaccination.

The other question was when and where we should be taking them. Some health maps can be pretty dire, urging us to be popping pills all the way from Singapore to China, but the CDC map is a lot more reasonable. We’ve decided to take them only in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos (and, of course, for the necessary four weeks after leaving a malarial zone). The absolute maximum amount of time we’ll spend in these countries is a month, or about twelve weeks, so we each got fourteen weeks worth of pills. Come to think of it I’m not sure how we calculated that, since it’s two weeks short. Well, whatever. It’s not like the people who actually live in malaria zones have the luxury of taking pills every day.

Malaria Zone sounds like a 1980’s Nintendo game.

13 days to go!

Perth, Western Australia

I had what I thought was a case of attempted credit fraud last week, when – on the same day my World Nomads payment cleared – I had a $394 debit show up in my account from some electrical company in Sydney. I told the bank about it, cancelled my card etc, but they said nothing could be done until the payment was actually authorised.

Instead of going through, it just disappeared the other day, and Bankwest has done a fucking shithouse job of explaining why. I get that sometimes companies use financial details with different names, so you might be concerned when you buy something and it shows up as a golf course in another city, but this was another payment in addition to my World Nomads debit, for a different amount of money.

I’m still waiting on my new card, and this incident has made me realise just how much shit I’ll be in if my details are compromised while overseas. My Cirrus card and my Mastercard are literally the only means I have of withdrawing money abroad. I don’t relish kicking around in some third-world border town waiting for a new card to get FedExed to me just because Bankwest’s online statement system is fucking loopy.

In other news, I folded and bought some Salomon Tracks trail shoes at Kathmandu. It was an Easter sale but they still cost $150, which was the absolute maximum I wanted to spend on footwear. No doubt Chris will be laughing at me when he picks up a better pair in Kuala Lumpur for $50. I’m one of those people who’s utterly powerless to resist when a sales assistant starts working their black magic. They sure are comfy though, even if it does feel weird to be wearing a thick shoe after four straight years of Converse.

18 days to go!

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