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30 May, 2010
Vung Tau, Vietnam

My laptop alarm woke me up at 8 o’clock in the morning and I immediately had a bunch of things to get sorted before we met up at ten: have breakfast, withdraw cash, go to the mechanic to get my money back, come back from the mechanic empy-handed, pack my bags, strap my bags onto the bike, and try riding it with the bags attached. Those last few things I probably should have sorted last night.

After one last free breakfast of underripe bananas and bad jam baguette at out hotel, I retrieved my bike from the parking lot and rode to the “mechanic.” I showed him that my front shocks were still bad and he nodded profusely. Before I could ask for my money back he went into his shop, came out with an assortment of tools and started unscrewing the cap on my right suspension rod. Oh, Christ, he’s gonna make it worse and I do not have time for this, I thought. He spent about fifteen minutes unscrewing it, filling it with oil, balancing a nut on top of the spring and then screwing the cap back on. Then he did the same with the other. It was 9.30 by the time he was finished, but – to my surprise – he actually seemed to have accomplished something. The fork no longer made a horrible crashing noise whenever I compressed it.

I thanked him and drove back to our neighbourhood, quite pleased that my suspension seemed to be fixed – until I took it up the curb to park it outside the hotel, and that small bump knocked everything loose and made it as bad as before. Vietnamese mechanics! Unrivalled quality annd professionalism!

Resigned to my fate, I went back up to the hotel room to start packing. Chris had gone off somewhere to get his bike washed, but I stuffed my improvised saddlebags full of the bulkier stuff from my backpack – sleeping bag, hoody, shoes, plus the tools and maps that came with the bike – and then went to settle the bill. When Chris came back we rode our bikes over to the concrete lot to wait for the others to show up, so we could leave the bikes with them and bring our stuff over.

Jimmy (whom I was calling Johnny until about noon today, EMBARASSING) showed up within about ten minutes, and I managed to carry two backpacks, two saddlebags, two bike helmets and a heavy bike lock over to the lot in a single trip. Because I’m a man, and you can always do it in a single trip. Now, with about five occy straps, I had to get all that attached to the bike with the weight equally distributed.

 

That’s not my bike, by the way, that’s Jimmy’s. If you think that’s a bad pack you’re right, because it fell off about five minutes into the ride and he had to restrap it all.

My own bag strapped down quite well, and it was very satisfying to do. There’s something beautiful about a motorcycle with saddlebags or panniers attached, a journeyman bike, ready to undertake a long voyage. It took each of us more than an hour to get ourselves all set up, though, between 10.00 and 11.30, under a midday tropical sun in an empty concrete lot. By the time we were done we’d each lost about a litre of sweat and were more than ready to say goodbye to Saigon.

Escaping the city wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought it would be – I’ve grown used to riding in Vietnamese traffic, and it didn’t take very long at all before we were riding across the river on an enormous supension bridge that looked like something from Japan or Korea rather than Vietnam. I was seriously impressed.

 

After crossing another river on a ferry, we went down some muddy red backroads, with quite a few potholes that had me swearing at that idiot mechanic with every jarring impact. But soon we pulled out onto a long and busy highway, lined with petrol stations and construction sites and billboards in Vietnamese. They use our alphabet, but with a swarm of little marks hovering around every word, like with Polish or Turkish. There comes a point where you should really make your own alphabet.

 

Max and Jessica were on a single bike, with two heavy packs weighing them down, so they went fairly slowly. Jimmy’s a fairly cautious rider, so he hung around them quite a bit. Chris was roaring on ahead and eventually slowing down to wait for them to catch up, before roaring on ahead again. To my surprise I found myself much closer to Chris on the spectrum, pushing way ahead, testing the bike and seeing how fast it could go. (Not very – imagine my surprise the first time I went to change into fifth gear and discovered it doesn’t exist on a Minsk.) The city is one thing, but on a straight highway – even a busy one – I don’t feel anxious or worried at all. I hope I never have an accident, because then I’d lose that confidence born of ignorance. I was only wearing a button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and one point had a vision of what would happen to my forearms if I came off, let alone the rest of my body. I pushed that thought from my head pretty quickly. What’s the point in being afraid, brothah?

 

There was also a moment when it occurred to me what I was doing – riding a motorcycle from Saigon to Hanoi – and how awesome that is. There’s a number of reasons I wasn’t really feeling it before. Even being in Vietnam is “amazing” to some people – not exactly a culture shock, but a culture buzz I lost long ago while working in Korea. When you’re around a lot of people who are doing the same thing as you it loses its adventurous exoticism. After only a month in South-East Asia, seeing someone strap a three-metre wide glass cabinet on the back of their scooter and drive down the highway taking up an entire lane seems like the most ordinary thing in the world. And for the past few days, not only have we been around a lot of backpackers, we’ve been around people dealing with motorcycles, people who’ve done the exact same trip and know a lot of people who have. I made fun of Chris for expressing that thought a while back, saying he was like an indie hipster who thinks something isn’t cool anymore if a lot of people get into it. But I see what he means. While it’s still awesome, it does lose some of its unique and exciting lustre when you know so many other people have done it.

 

Of course, that’s just the people we’re around right now. The number of people who ride motorcycles through Vietnam is still miniscule, and it will still be a great story to tell. The Vietnamese certainly sit up and pay attention when we ride past. I had a Honda Dream ride alongside me for a while as we were going down the highway at 70 k’s, and the pillion passenger kept trying to shake my hand. That wasn’t really practical so I put my fist out for a bump, but he didn’t understand that, so they drove ahead a bit to try Jimmy. I should have gone with a high-five. Everyone understands that. Did you know the second-most widely recognised word in the world is “coke?” (The most widely-recognised is “okay.”)

Anyway, it’s a fantastic way to travel. Even on a shitty inland highway with nothing to look at and roadworks regularly forcing us into the oncoming lanes of traffic, it was great fun. Riding a bike is great fun. It beats sitting in a minivan any day.

 

We arrived in Vung Tau at sunset, without any of the Minsks disintegrating beneath us. On the whole I’m fairly pleased with mine. Yes, the front shocks are abysmal. Yes, it’s so old it keeps slipping into half-gears. Yes, the right peg is loose so that the weight of my foot makes it press down on the brake lever. Yes, the engine sounds like it’s full of rocks and sand. Yes, it has no fuel gauge and no speedo and only one mirror.

But it runs. It responds to throttle. The brakes and the clutch work. It gets me to where I need to be. Saint Christopher willing, it will get me to to Hanoi.

 

It is, however dripping a shocking amount of two separate fluids onto the floor of our hotel’s laundry, where the owners are letting us keep the bikes. I drew it to the attention of one of the employees, thinking we could put some newspaper down or put the bike outside, but she responded by taking a pair of jeans from one of the laundry hampers and putting it under the drip. I hope those jeans don’t belong to anybody.

29 May, 2010
Saigon, Vietnam

Feeling obligated to sample at least one sight Saigon has to offer, we visited the American War museum today. It’s just a typical war museum: photos, shells and bullets in display cases, old helicopters and planes out the front, uniforms behind glass cases, baby fetuses deformed from Agent Orange, a room devoted to showcasing the glorious genius and tireless peace-seeking efforts of Ho Chi Minh while omitting the fact that he ran a brutally efficient police state… pretty standard really.

By the time we reached the third floor, Chris came up to me and asked “So, did the Viet Cong not commit any war crimes or anything?”

“No,” I said. “They were the good guys.”

“Really?”

“No. Of course they did.”

“So why isn’t there anything in this museum about it?”

“Because it’s still a communist country and they still lie to their people.”

In their defence, the museum does display two sides to the American story: the war crimes, but also the fact that many GIs were good people who just wanted to go home, they had a rough time of it too, the My Lai massacre was stopped by an American chopper crew, many Americans back home were opposed to the war, etc. But they only display a single side of the North Vietnamese story, which is that of noble, heroic freedom fighters.

Before I came here I was always sort of subconsciously opposed to the Vietnam War without ever really thinking about it, particularly because I was a teenager when George Bush was in office and the parallels with the War on Terror were obvious. But fighting the North was the right thing to do. The South Vietnamese did want us there. That doesn’t excuse war crimes, it doesn’t excuse conscription, it doesn’t excuse having a ridiculous and selfish reason for helping the South. But the principles were sound.

It’s the same today, really. Iraq needed to be freed from Saddam Hussein, Afghanistan needed to be freed from the Taliban. Obviously there are a dozen other dictatorships across the world, and the US has its own personal interests at stake; freeing oppressed people is merely a desirable side-effect. Whether or not you find that kind of selfish pragmatism odious is your opinion. But it’s better than nothing.

It’s the manner in which the US fights its wars – the reckless, ruthless, careless way of conducting combat operations – that fucks everything up. From spraying Agent Orange across the Vietnamese countryside to shooting at anything that moves in Iraq, the US does a spectacular job of blowing hearts and minds to pieces.

With the museum finished, we devoted the rest of the day to getting ourselves out of the city. While our bikes were being overhauled yesterday, Chris and I visited the Dan Tinh markets to buy some gear. These are also known as the military markets, because they’re devoted to selling reproduction American military gear. It was a cool little place – a genuine covered market, with confusing warrens of tiny stalls and alleys, overflowing with all kinds of stuff. Boots, bags, dog tags, lighters, hats, cutlery, helmets, canteens, compasses, switchblades, belts, oil cans, patches, watches, rings, medals, jackets, socks, backpacks, ammo boxes, flashlights, bedrolls, sleeping bags, tilley lamps, gas masks, sunglasses, locks, goggles, whistles, shovels… virtually everything you need to take Hanoi except actual weapons. The merchants will insist that they’re genuine war relics, but I’m pretty sure GIs in the 1960’s weren’t wearing the same tan combat boots you see on troops in Iraq in the 2000’s. And I’m pretty sure that stuff that’s been around for forty years will, y’know, age.

 

Anyway, it was still a pretty cool experience to be outfitting ourselves for an expedition in a foreign marketplace, bartering with every stall owner and communicating across a language barrier. We bought some US Army boots, some compasses, and some big satchel bags we can just occy strap to the sides of our bikes. I like the idea of cobbling together all this random stuff: an Australian riding a Belarussian bike with American boots and saddlebags and a Chinese knock-off of a Japanese helmet. Through Vietnam.

Anyway, we got all that sorted yesterday, but today we showed our new companions there so they could buy some things themselves. On one bike is Max and his girlfriend Jessica, both English; on another is an English girl named Jane and a German guy named Mathias; and riding solo like me and Chris is a Canadian-Vietnamese guy named Johnny (who made the monumentally stupid mistake of buying his bike before taking it for a test ride).

Now, although we each paid prices ranging from $360 (me) to $450 (Johnny) for our bikes, every single one of them is having issues of some kind. Richard Hammond rode a Minsk in the Top Gear Vietnam Special, during which he called it “the AK-47 of motorcycles.” Maybe he was referring to its ubiquity, because he sure as hell couldn’t have been talking about its reliability. I know they were built in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, but Jesus, come on.

Me, Chris and Max picked ours up from Kurt’s mechanic today, where they’d been having various bits of work done on them, for around $50 each. Aside from getting racks fitted, mine had needed the front suspension replaced, since it had been completely stiff and useless when I bought it. When we picked them up I thought the suspension still seemed a bit off, but since I don’t know shit about bikes, and was keen to just get a move on, we paid the guy and left. As we were riding back I noticed that it was really off – it was compressing, but it felt like there was nothing cushioning the blow, so the rods were still crashing together with a KRSHUNK every time I went over the slightest bump.

 

When we got back to the empty concrete lot in the park opposite our hotel, Chris took mine for a spin and declared that it was “fucked,” and that we should take it back to the mechanic and either have it replaced or get my money back. I rode it a few more times. It’s not absolutely catastrophic. I can ride it, and while the bumps are disconcerting they aren’t uncomfortable to me personally. It just feels and sounds like it’s very bad for the bike.

So on the one hand I wanted it fixed, and on the other I wanted to get the fuck out of Saigon. I was feeling that special kind of irritable stress that only comes from spending a lot of money on something you really want and not having it work out. I had a headache, I was hungry, and it felt like we had way too much to do in such a short amount of time. I felt quite strongly that if I took it back to the mechanic he would either a) insist that the bike was fine and refuse to give me any money back, or b) take it back and fix it, condemning me to another day in this goddamn city. And charging me more money. And quite possibly just fucking it up again.

The problem with anything mechanical in a country like this is that it’s never done properly. It’s just jury-rigged or patched up so that it will struggle on a little bit longer. It’s like at Collie, when we’d patch up the biscuits every time they broke and say “Yeah, we definitely need to buy new ones,” but they’d last another five years until they were more glue than rubber. Only it didn’t cost me fifty bucks to patch up a fucking biscuit.

Eventually we decided to talk to Josh, the guy who runs Cafe Zoom and seems to have more of an inkling about bikes than the otherwise-lovely Kurt and his mechanic. When we got to Cafe Zoom he wasn’t there, but would be showing up in about an hour, so Chris and I took off to refuel and try to find somewhere that sells two-stroke oil. Cue another half hour of riding around in nerve-wracking Saigon traffic trying to track down an auto shop. My bike was also stalling a lot and seemed to be having fuel problems; we consulted a roadside mechanic with lots of pointing and gesturing, and he fiddled about with it in the dark and replaced the fuel line. I’m not sure how much of a difference that made. The bike certainly has mechanical problems, but I suspect a lot of the issues were caused by me riding it poorly, from a combination of inexperience and frustrated, anxious stress. This isn’t helped when I stall it in the middle of an intersection and have to kickstart the bike while traffic is whizzing around me and an angry bus is bearing down on me bellowing with its horn.

In the end we returned to the concrete lot, where Max and Johnny were looking over their bikes. This disparate group we’re fusing together has a lot of issues in sticking to appointments and getting things sorted, particularly since we all have different shit to sort out and different problems with our bikes and/or luggage, but Johnny said Josh should be at Cafe Zoom around 8.30. I was ready for a fucking Panadol, so we said we’d go back to the hotel first and then meet them.

When Josh eventually did rock up to the cafe, closer to 9.30, he reassured us that the suspension acting like that was not uncommon for a Minsk and wouldn’t fuck the bike up. I’m okay with that – since it’s not uncomfortable, it just sounds like it’s bad for the bike – provided it is true. For all I know the shocks will snap in half on the road out of Saigon and the wheel will go through my face. We’ll have to get a second opinion somewhere down the line.

For now we’re ready to get out. Mathias and Jane have actually bailed completely, since their bike’s gearbox is messed up and they’ve lost the patience for dealing with the myriad mechanical flaws each Minsk has, every bike’s collection of fuck-ups unique, like a precious snowflake. They may meet up with us along the way in more conventional means of transport, but for now it’s just me, Chris, Max, Jessica and Johnny. We’re meeting up in the concrete lot tomorrow at 10 to try to escape the city. First stop is the southern beach town of Vung Tau (not far from where the Battle of Long Tan was fought). With a bit of luck we may just make it out of the city without getting separated or having our motorcycles explode underneath us. See you on the other side!

27 May, 2010
Saigon, Vietnam

The official name has, of course, been Ho Chi Minh City for 35 years, but I think that’s stupid so I’m calling it Saigon. What is it with communists and renaming shit? Saigon’s a much better name, a solid name, an evocative name. It conjures up images of a southern stronghold, a freewheeling city of American GIs, Vietnamese hookers, and helicopters taking off from rooftops with refugees clinging to the landing struts. That’s the funny thing about a war that happened long before I was born and has been immortalised in countless movies and video games. It becomes unreal. It means about as much to me as the Star Wars or the War of the Ring.

In any case, the Saigon of today is nothing special – just another loud, busy, sweaty South-East Asian City like Phnom Penh or Bangkok or Hat Yai. It’s clearly ranked a little higher on the Human Development Index than Cambodia is; there’s a lot less homeless beggars on the streets, and a lot more stores selling electronics and perfume and high fashion. Or at least in this neck of the woods; we’re staying at the Mai Phai Hotel on Pham Ngu Lao Street, which is sort of like the Khao San Road of Vietnam. Saigon’s probably only on par with Bangkok in terms of quality of living (which is not bad), but there are quite a few parts comparable even to Seoul. Maybe things will seem a bit less modern out in the countryside. Or maybe my standards are just lower after Cambodia.

As for communism, of course, that’s pretty much a joke. Like China, Vietnam has become a capitalist free-for-all. The Vietnamese are quite ruthless hawkers and bargainers, in my experience rivalled only by the Thais, and I have to wonder how communism was ever expected to work with such a mercenary people. Of course, just because enterprise is free doesn’t mean everything else is. It’s not a police state with black vans grabbing people off the sidewalk or anything, but they do censor the Internet (forced to go through a proxy for Facebook, urgh, HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSE), it’s a single-party state, and the press always toes the government line. Of course, it’s probably better than it was back in the day.

But what is it with communism? Why did a philosophy designed to free the oppressed workers and make everybody equal invariably go hand-in-hand with the obliteration of freedom? Okay, preventing free enterprise was sort of the entire point, but freedom of speech? Freedom of the press? Freedom of movement? Freedom of assembly? What went wrong? We’re going to be travelling in the former/current (depending on your definition) communist sphere for quite a while now, so I’m becoming very curious about this. I’m not sure how communist Cambodia was after the Khmer Rouge fell, but Vietnam is certainly proud of its heritage, with hammer and sickle flags hanging from many of the street lamps. Once we get to China it’ll obviously be a communist-fest, and Mongolia and Russia are next on the agenda. Quite a big segment of the world when you think about it. I’m interested in the history, and I’m interested in whether there were ever any communist societies that weren’t also dictatorial police states. Wasn’t Chile meant to be fairly free under Allende? I was born too late to be indoctrinated as a child into fearing the pinkos (and, fortunately, too early to be indoctrinated into fearing the towelheads), so I have an open mind. The debacle on Wall Street is certainly evidence enough that while capitalism may be better than communism, it’s not really ideal either. I think Europe and Australia manage to strike a nice balance between too much government control and too little.

Anyway, I’m rambling. About Saigon. There’s bikes here, and lots of them. As soon as we came into the city we were confronted with the mind-boggling tsunami of motorcycles that constantly floods down every street like the waves in The Day After Tomorrow. I would estimate that there are quite literally 100 bikes to every car, with 99% of them being tiny little automatic scooters. Saigon alone must account for half of Honda’s annual profit margin. Every street is a flowing river of scooters, with intersections becoming a complex dance of interlocking manoeuvres, like a school of fish that instinctively knows which way for everyone to turn to avoid collisions.

For us, this was more than just an Oriental quirk to marvel at and take photos of, because we’re in Saigon to purchase motorcycles and ride them north to Hanoi. Buying them in the city means riding them out of the city; riding them out of the city means riding them in that traffic. It’s quite literally going to be the hardest part of the journey. At least when we reach Hanoi I’ll have several weeks’ experience.

Chris had done a bit of research online about people who were selling bikes here, and since this is one of the first hotels with a working phone we managed to organise to meet someone on the very first night, only a few hours off the bus. Speaking of which, a brief and irritating interlude: for once we actually put into practice our policy of walking down the street from the bus stop and hailing a taxi on our own. We told him the hotel we wanted to go to and he said “Yes, one dollar.” We get in, it takes us two or three minutes to drive there, and then when we get out he demands ten dollars.

This is a very common occurrence and I still don’t know what to do about it. They’ll pretend they said ten dollars to begin with and hide behind the language barrier, and the Vietnamese pull scams much more aggressively than the Cambodians, who are sort of lazy with it. It was nighttime, in a city we didn’t know, with all our bags strapped to us (plus the motocross helmets we bought in Cambodia, since you can’t get them in Saigon). I wanted to walk away, but he could easily pursue us I didn’t know how aggressive he’d get. We ended up giving him five bucks and he fucked off. We then found out we’d actually been a stone’s throw from the hotel when he picked us up, and he’d just driven around the block. It really pisses me off when I arrive in a new place and somebody tries to fuck me over (often successfully) in the first five minutes. It’s not a nice welcome.

Anyway, we met up with these two English guys, Joel and Eliot, to see their bikes. They were both Minsks, which is a two-stroke workhorse built in Belarus and frequently exported to Vietnam. It’s a very popular touring bike in this country, because despite breaking down often it’s also easily repaired, and very common and cheap. We took both of them for a spin. Chris was quite happy with Joel’s, but Eliot’s felt like a piece of shit; the throttle often didn’t respond and the entire bike felt like it was about to fall apart at any second. I pretty much expected a Minsk to be like this and thought it would be OK, but Chris tried Eliot’s as well and said it was awful compared to Joel’s. Since he knows bikes much better than me I’m going on his advice with everything, so we said we might buy Joel’s and would call him back tomorrow.

The next day we arranged to meet a guy called Kevin, who works as a dealer here and had 12 Minsks for sale. He was all the way out in District 9 on the edge of the city, which was a bitch to get to, but we needed to see a wide range of bikes so we paid a cab about 180,000 dong to take us out there. That’s about twelve or thirteen AUD; the dong is 15,000 to the dollar. They still have notes right down to 1000 dong, though, which is ridiculous, because you build up a huge collection and constantly have to shuffle around in your wallet. And doing mental arithmetic with such huge numbers is a headache. There comes a point where you just need to revalue the currency and issue new demoninations, you know?

So we eventually found this guy’s place way out on the edge of the city and spent a few hours looking at his collection of Minsks. I’m going to let Chris succintly describe how this went down:

He had around twelve or so and he pointed two of his best ones out off the bat. Over the course of three hours, we tried four bikes. None of them impressed me whatsoever. Performance-wise they were all just shit. Two broke in front of us, one needs a lot of repairs and another wouldn’t even fucking start. We waited another half an hour or so for the mechanic to fix the accelerator cable that had slipped out on one of the “great quality” bikes, and even when he fixed it it fucked up. I said to Kevin that the gearbox is clumsy and it won’t grip in second gear untill you rev the absolute shit out of the bike. He just replied with: “Nah, it’s just a sensitive gear and you just have to know how to handle it, I’ll let the mechanic ride it, he knows how to ride anything.” So we watched the mechanic ride it down the street and it broke down again. Five minutes later he had walked the bike back to us and I asked Kevin to phone us a taxi. Looks like I’m going to buy the bike I found last night because this Kevin guy is a fuckhead.

And he was a fuckhead, because aside from trying to sell shitty bikes, there came a moment where we mentioned Joel. As soon as we slipped his name, Kevin called him a fucking cunt and ranted about him for a while, apparently for no other reason than the fact that Joel’s trying to sell bikes and Kevin apparently considers that an unforgivable invasion of his territory. He even mentioned some bullshit about the Vietnamese mafia being after Joel. We were in a basement garage with some kind of loud machinery going, and he was speaking to Chris rather than me so I didn’t really hear what he said, but I could tell his attitude from his tone and the look on his face. Really dark and hate-filled. It put both of us off him straight away, particularly since Joel was such a nice, friendly guy whereas Kevin was clearly a profiteer from the beginning.

We left with absolutely no desire to do business with him, but fortunately we had another Minsk try-out lined up that evening, from a guy called David with an unplaceable accent. This one went quite well – it started first time, the throttle actually made the bike react and it rode well. I let Chris test ride it, even though it would be my bike, because at the time Saigon traffic still scared the shit out of me. He bargained us up to $360 US, and I bought it off him later that night, storing it in a huge underground parking lot in the park across the street from our hotel.

Incidentally, the next day I called Kevin to tell him we’d bought other bikes and wouldn’t be needing his, but thanks for his time etc. He was very keen to know the name of the guy I bought from, asking me to repeat it a few times as though he was trying to get the spelling right. Presumably he’s compiling a list of all the inerlopers he thinks are threatening his private Minsk dealership empire. What a wanker.

David had recommended a local mechanic to us, since both the bikes have a few issues. Chris’ rear suspension is completely rooted (something Joel neglected to mention, which soured us on him a little), my front suspension is not great, I need some racks put on the back for luggage, and both bikes have loose foot pegs. So we rang this mechanic’s daughter, who spoke good English, and said we could meet her when she finished work and she would lead us to his house. She gave us vague directions and said she would be out the front of an international school at 4 PM.

And thus, with two or three days riding experience, atop a rickety Belarussian motorcycle, I followed Chris out into the heart of rush hour in Saigon.

It wasn’t actually as hard as I thought it would be. You’re never really going more than 40 k’s an hour, so you have plenty of time to react to things. When you come to an intersection or want to turn you simply have to go very slowly, so the oncoming bikes have time to calculate your course and flow around you (this is also how you have to cross the road as a pedestrian: with very slow baby steps). You just have to be hyper-alert, go with the flow, and try not to make sudden turns or stops.

So surviving in the traffic is fairly easy. Finding your way around, however, is a whole different kettle of fish. We’d been given poor directions to begin with and were soon both late and lost. After failing to find a phone so we could ring her, we decided to head back to the hotel, call her, say we got lost and arrange a new time.

We also had to go through the rigmarole of fueling the bikes up, which is a hassle, because the Minsk runs on a two-stroke engine that requires motor oil to be fed directly into the petrol tank at a 20-to-1 ratio. So for every litre you put in, you also need to measure out fifty millilitres of oil. Too much and you gunk up the engine so it needs to be thoroughly cleaned out at a mechanic; too little and the engine block will literally explode. So after carefully measuring this stuff out, you then have to sit on top of the bike and rock it back and forth a few times so the petrol and oil mixes. I’m no expert on internal combustion engines, but I think this could well be considered an inefficient model.

As we were returning the bikes to the underground parking lot, we had a stroke of good luck. An English guy called Max, whom we’d met the other night, was in the area testing out a bike he was considering buying from an American dealer named Kurt. They were about to take it to Kurt’s mechanic, and said we could come along if we liked, so we did.

We followed them down a few streets (and along a short stretch of highway where we really got to open up, which was nice) and shortly arrived at a backalley mechanic, whose entire shop seemed to consist of a few square feet of ground out the front of an Internet cafe, with a bunch of tools lying on the pavement. He didn’t speak English and Kurt doesn’t speak Vietnamese, but they seem to have worked out a fairly solid system of pointing at things and nodding. Bulletproof. He said replacing the suspension might run to 160, 000 dong, which is about eleven or twelve dollars. A few more bucks for the pegs, a few to have the oil changed and the brakes tightened, etc. I’m not really fussed. If we don’t get these things sorted now we’ll just have to do it on the road. (We’ll probably have to do it on the road as well, since these bikes are notorious for breaking down, but it would be nice for Saigon to be in my Minsk’s single, scratched rear-view mirror before that happens).

We talked to Max and his possibly French friend Mathias for a bit, since they’re planning on the same sort of ride we are – a leisurely trip up the mountains and beaches with an indefinite end-date in Hanoi. We may actually ride with them if we end up leaving the city at the same time. They both have girlfriends with them, and it would be nice to travel with a larger group of people. We’re meeting them at noon tomorrow and going back to the mechanic, so they can talk to Kurt again and we can see how progress on our bikes is going.

I own a motorbike. That’s very odd. I can also say that I learned to ride a motorbike in Cambodia and Vietnam. That’s very cool.

On the health front, Chris is feeling exhausted and sick again, and my ass has once again stopped working after a three-day respite of glorious free passage. It was like travelling through the Schengen Area without a care in the world and then slamming against the Russian border without a visa. (And that was either the best or the worst analogy I have ever crafted.) I wish my body weren’t so temperamental. Thank you to all the well-wishers out there, though. Particularly those of you who publicly posted about it on Facebook. I have such loving friends and family.

Speaking of which, I find it disconcerting when people talk to me on email/Skype/Facebook and tell me they like reading the blog. Cut out the middleman and leave comments, folks! Part of the reason for keeping an online travel journal is so I can keep you all updated on what we’re doing. If you leave comments, that gets more of a dialogue going. If my Dad can figure it out how to leave a comment anyone can. Oh, and Dad – sell my car already. I don’t need it anymore now that I have a

MOTORCYCLE!

22 May, 2010
Kampot, Cambodia

The car is sitting impatiently behind the oncoming truck, flicking its headlights and honking its horn. Chris zooms past. Nicole zooms past. Just as I go past, however, the driver decides he can’t possibly wait one more second for me to pass, and has to overtake the truck now, right now, squeezing in between the two of us and leaving about an inch of clearance as I rush past in the opposite direction. “Jesus Christ, buddy!” I yell, not that he can hear me, instinctively veering towards the shoulder of the road and gearing down. I look up to see Nicole and Chris far ahead of me, and give the bike some more throttle to catch up, weaving through scooters, bicycles, ox-carts and four-wheel drives.

It’s thirty kilometres back to town. The road is narrow, slick with water from the thunderstorm that just passed, and lined with muddy puddles on either side. I’m wearing shorts, sneakers and a t-shirt, with no safety gear except a helmet. I have less than two days’ experience riding a motorcycle. And I’m becoming very much aware that the drivers of larger vehicles don’t give a flying fuck whether I live or die. This is the most dangerous thing I’ve done in a very long time.

But I’m having an absolute blast.

Three days ago, Chris and I were sitting in our windowless hotel room in Phnom Penh. We were sick to death of South-East Asia, sick of the poverty, sick of the filth, sick of the heat, sick of the boredom. We’d applied for our Chinese visas, and had nothing left to do except sit around waiting for them to clear, dreaming of Himalayan mountain vistas and high altitude temperatures.

The problem was that Cambodia doesn’t border China, and the only flights to southern China were expensively routed through Beijing. We’d resolved to go via Laos, since Vietnam doesn’t issue arrival visas, and to spend no time trying to see the country – just burn through it and get into China as fast as possible.

“Dude,” Chris said, as I was sitting on my bed writing emails and he was sitting on his looking at our Cambodia guidebook, “Laos is pretty big.”

“Yeah,’ I said, “but not the bit we’re going through.” Laos has a panhandle, like an upturned Oklahoma.

“Yeah we are.”

“What? No we’re not. We go to the northern border of Cambodia and that puts us in the bulging bit of Laos.”

“No, no it doesn’t. It puts us at the very southern part of Laos.”

I moved over to his bed and looked at the map. He was right. We’d have to travel through the whole panhandle plus the bulge.

“It also says,” he pointed out, “that most roads are unsealed, so it takes forever to get anywhere, and the only way to travel is by minibus.”

Both of us were quiet for a moment. I knew that, like me, Chris was reliving the agonising four-hour minbus ride from Siem Reap, crammed in between a bunch of fat Australian sex tourists.

“We can probably do it in about a week…” I said dubiously.

Chris’ eyes had flicked to the right, to the long and curving shape of Vietnam. “We could go through Vietnam,” he said. “It’s more modern. They’ve got that railway going up the whole length of the country.”

“We’d have to wait here again to get visas.”

“We can just get rush service. It’ll be cheaper than living costs for three days.”

“Alright,” I said. “Yeah. We’ll go through Vietnam.”

“Actually…” Chris said slowly. “If we’re going to go through Vietnam, why don’t we do it on bikes?”

This was how we ended up in Kampot. I didn’t know how to ride a manual motorcycle, and there was no chance in hell I would learn in the chaotic streets of Phnom Penh, so we researched a quieter country town to go to. Kampot was perfect: it’s relatively nearby, it’s next to Bokor Mountain (which was something I wanted to see anyway), and basically the only activity listed on its Wikitravel article is renting motorcycles. We booked a bus ticket, picked up our passports from the Chinese embassy, dropped them off at the Vietnamese embassy (where the guard out the front tried to scam us into applying for visas through him, for an extra five bucks), and then headed off for a weekend in Kampot.

It’s a nice little town. Don’t believe Lonely Planet when they tell you it’s full of “charming French colonial architecture,” but it is (relatively) clean, and quiet, and friendly, and still large enough to have a few Western amenities around. The day after we arrived, we located a rental shop run by a chain-smoking Cambodian man who rented us an XR250 for ten dollars. I rode pillion while Chris took us around town, looking for a quiet spot for me to practice. Eventually we found a vacant lot along the riverside with plenty of space for turning and getting up to speed. So I spent an hour or two practicing the gear changes, and braking, and taking off, while Chris stood in the sun with his arm shading his eyes, calling out help and advice.

It’s really not hard at all. If you know how to ride a bicycle and how to drive a manual car, driving a motorcycle is pretty easy. After we had lunch, we drove back to the rental place to pick up another bike for Chris, then headed back to the lot for more practice. On the drive there, Chris realised his bike was in shit condition (in particular, it had a brake lever bent half out of shape) and took it back to exchange it. I rode in circles under the sweltering Cambodian sun for half an hour, assuming Chris was having a lengthy argument with the store owner.

He had been, he told me, when he returned on a marginally-less-shit bike, but he’d also been talking to an Icelandic guy. This guy said that if we wanted to talk about motorcycles, we should head to a restaurant just out of town called the Rusty Keyhole. The owner was apparently a Brit who owned four bikes, and also served the best pork ribs in the world.

I needed to practice riding in South-East Asian traffic, and finding this restaurant was a good task to have at hand, so we ventured out onto the roads. It was a little unnerving, but I manage to keep a cool head and avoid any major catastrophes. Of course, Kampot is about a thousand times quieter than Saigon will be.

We did eventually find the restaurant, and spoke to the owner, a jovial English chap named Kristian. He gave us a bit of advice about riding in Vietnam, although he’s never done it himself, and we said we’d be back later that night for dinner.

Then, while buying water from a supermarket that evening, another motorcycle drove past. A real motorcycle, not one of the tiny automatic scooters that infest South-East Asia like so many disease-ridden cockroaches. It was a KTM 950, with two ammo boxes on the side for saddlebags, adorned with stickers showing flags as far-flung as Spain and India. We’d actually been admiring it outside a riverside restaurant the previous night, but now it was driving around the roundabout and pulling up to park outside the supermarket next to us.

And then, as though we’d walked into a cliched ad or movie of some kind, the rider of this beast of a motorcycle – a machine that put our puny 250s to shame and made our testicles shrivel up – removed their helmet and revealed themselves to be a woman.

Her name is Nicole. She’s a thirty-two year old Swiss woman who rode her bike all the way from Switzerland to South-East Asia, shipping it from India to Malaysia, and she’s been on the road for eleven months. She was a goldmine of information about long-distance riding. She was also wearing Crocs, so she was basically Chris’ dream woman. We invited her to have dinner with us at the Keyhole that night, and then went to return our bikes to the store. This was disheartening, since we then had to get out to the Keyhole by paying two Cambodian men to ride us out there on the back of their scooters.

They were out of ribs, which was disappointing, but we had a great time talking to Nicole and getting all excited about our Vietnam trip, which – with my mastery of the clutch – had transformed from a nice dream into a solid reality. She mentioned that she was going riding with Kristian the next day, and as we were paying the bill he invited us along, also offering to rent us his own dirtbikes, promising they would be in good condition rather than welded together with chicken wire and old saucepans.

Incidentally, here’s a picture of Kristian and his daughter, who looks uncannily like Phoebe did when she was a chubby little baby:

Now, this is both an awkward change of subject and something I wouldn’t usually bring up in public, but I’ve resolved to keep a truthful record of our journey, and I am therefore compelled to inform you that I’ve been constipated for about a week. Yeah, didn’t see that coming. I was totally prepared to deal with traveller’s diarrhea – bought medicine and everything – but did not expect the exact opposite. I’m purging my body of enough matter so that I’m not actually swelling up like a balloon, but I have to fight for it every step of the way, and I still often feel bloated and unwell. I have no idea why – my diet is fine, and on the day we came to Kampot I ate nothing but fruit and an entire packet of digestive biscuits. I bought the bullet yesterday and purchased laxatives from a dodgy open-to-the-road pharmacist, Kampot not exactly having any reputable clinics or chemists. They were apparently packaged in France and haven’t expired yet, so I guess they’re OK.

Now, pop culture has conditioned me to believe that laxatives will produce an immediate and hilarious effect. The instructions told me to take them in the morning on an empty stomach. We were due to meet Kristian and Nicole at 10.00; I woke up at 8.30, mixed them into water and drank it. Then I waited. And waited. And waited.

Either I was sold placebos or they aren’t quite the universal solve-all I thought they were. Nothing happened, and I really wanted to go ride motorcycles with Chris, so we left. “Man, if I took laxatives I wouldn’t risk even leaving the room,” Chris marvelled as we walked down towards the riverfront.

“I don’t think they do what people think they do,” I said. “They just… ease it up a little and make it better next time.”

“How do you know that?”

“I don’t.”

But nothing happened throughout the day. I wasn’t forced to go running into a rural Cambodian squat toilet. I might have preferred to. As it stands I think I’ll be visiting a clinic in Phnom Penh or Saigon.

That was definitelya case of TMI. I’m sorry, but I’m a noble jounalist, and no detail may be spared, however gross or uncomfortable.

Anyway, at 10.00 we all met up along the riverfront, at the former site of Kristian’s restaurant, which he now uses only for storing his bikes. We sat around for about ten minutes watching a dead dog bob up and down in the river, before he arrived and opened the shutters up to reveal his magnificent dirtbikes. These were also 250s, but bigger than the one I’d been using yesterday, and therefore more comfortable on the back and the ass. We went back to the Keyhole for breakfast, then took off into the dry rice paddies and backroads surrounding Kampot.

It was an absolutely awesome day. We rode up to a reservoir,and along a bunch of muddy off-road tracks, with red soil that reminded me of the Outback. I soon gave up on avoiding the puddles, and accepted that my shoes were going to be soaked in red mud by the end of the day.

We were overtaking scooters carrying Buddhist monks in saffron robes, school students on bicycles, ox-carts packed with bags of rice, tuk-tuks with Western tourists and motorcycles carrying crates of live chickens. We rode out to the beachside town of Kep, where longtail boats were drawn up on the muddy shoreline and shy children shook our hands.

The kids are adorable. Everywhere you ride you’ll hear one shout out “hello!” and even though you’re on a rocky trail and should really keep both hands on the handlebars, you still wave at the direction the sound came from.

 

Later in the day we rode up to a Buddhist shrine hidden in a mountain cave. Kristian left us there and headed back home, while we payed for a teenage girl to guide us up to the shrine. It was nice and all, but it was full of plenty of other Cambodians, one of whom tried to charge us a dollar for the “shrine entry fee, foreigners only.” He obviously hadn’t been in the tout business very long because he sucked at convincing us. We ignored him and went back down to our bikes, resolving to ride back to the Keyhole for dinner. Since the shower in our guesthouse is pretty blocked up, I was also hoping Kristian would have an outdoor hose so I could wash my shoes and socks.

As we rode back into town, we could see huge thunder clouds looming above the hills ahead of us, and it became pretty clear that we were racing against the storm. We lost. It started raining about halfway there. And when you’re riding a motorcycle, rain fucking hurts.

We pulled over into a sort of shack on the side of the road, standing under a crude patio where the resident family of Cambodians were also sheltered, staring suspiciously at us until the rain let up and we left. Thus began the long, nerve-wracking ride back into town along wet roads with insane traffic. First rule of thumb for riding in South-East Asia: give way to anything bigger than you. They don’t give a fuck. They won’t wait a few seconds for you to pass, they’ll try to overtake immediately and expect you to veer into the gravel on the side of the road. Trucks also believe that driving in the middle of the road across both lanes is their birthright. It’s a steep learning curve, but I expect Vietnam to be a vertical wall.

At around four o’clock we rolled up at the Keyhole with muddy feet, calluses on our hands and painful ass blisters, to the welcome reward of a fantastic BLT sandwich. I washed my socks and shoes as best I could underneath the outdoor tap, and marvelled at how wrinkled my feet had become after four hours encased in moisture. It was an absolutely brilliant day, the highlight of the trip so far, and I am now really fucking looking forward to Vietnam.

I think I can do it, too. The hardest part will be getting out of the traffic of Saigon. After that it’s just one long, sweet highway to Hanoi. That’s the beautiful thing about Vietnam: it’s got one big city in the north, one big city in the south, and it’s a fairly skinny country in between the two. Perfect. The only other countries I can think of that are like that are Chile (but lacking the polarised big cities) and the USA (lacking the skinniness).

Of course, we have to buy bikes, get them serviced, buy gear, buy saddlebags, figure out how to strap our bags down, learn to handle the traffic… but once we get out there, on that road, man oh man. I’ve been frustrated with Chris over the past few weeks for his insistence that motorcycles are the only decent way to travel, but now I get it. I understand. I’m dreaming of the two of us riding across the Americas from tip-to-tip in years to come. I’m dreaming of riding around Ireland with my Dad. I’m dreaming of MOTORCYCLES, VROOM VROOM!

Now if you’ll excuse me, we have to go back to the Rusty Keyhole for dinner, where the cooks have promised to set aside a pair of delicious pork ribs. Good day to you, sir!

18 May, 2010
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

There’s a supermarket near our hotel that stocks Cadbury chocolate for $3.80 US. I keep buying it. My rationalisation is that I’m paying roughly the same for it as I would back home. Besides, I need some pleasure. I was saving for this trip for so long in Perth that I rarely bought chocolate or alcohol or went out or afforded myself any luxury. I’m tired of that. I want to live like I did in Korea: encapsulating myself from the heat and foreigners outside, and filling my body with booze and chocolate. Yes, that seems healthy.

I applied for my Chinese visa yesterday (alone, since Chris was too weak to get out of bed). The Chinese embassy is a fortress-like structure topped with barbed wire, surrounded by guards and with what looks like a hasty brick wall cosntructed over its only driveway. Here I found that it was only possible to apply for a 30-day visa, not a 60-day visa like I wanted. The signs on the wall said you can apply for a 60-day visa with special supporting documentation, but I didn’t feel like arguing with a curt Chinese bureacrat behind a thick wall of bulletproof glass, so a 30-day visa it is. You can extend them once inside the country, and at the rate we’re burning through places we may not be there a month anyway.

I also picked up a bunch of amusing propaganda leaflets, such as “HOT NEWS: Tibetan And Other Ethnic Minority Cadres Have Become The Mainstay Of The Tibet Autonomous Region; Tibetan People Enjoy Full Decision-Making Power Over The Development Of The Economy And Society.” I’m not making any of that up; not even HOT NEWS.

This pamphlet informed me that “Tibet was peacefully liberated in 1951” and that, prior to this generous act of altruism by the Chinese government, “the lords could freely beat, punish, sell, present, or even lock up and kill the serfs.” Thank goodness China put a stop to all that!

I suppose this is just a taste of what’s to come. I also suppose that I’ll have to watch what I write while I’m in China. Expect an outflow of what I really think once I’ve left.

Went with Chris to the SOS International Clinic yesterday, where he spent some time with a European doctor of indeterminate nationality and found out that he has a bacterial infection. He’s on antibiotics now, so hopefully he can get red of the unrelenting exhaustion that’s been plaguing him since Bangkok.

Eating dinner at a steakhouse later that night, we had a long conversation about what we’re going to do. Chris has been sick for more than a week now, and being sick will not do much to endear you to a foreign country you dislike to begin with. And he didn’t experience the same uplifting of spirits that I did at Angkor Wat.

Chris and I are very different people and we’re on this trip for very different reasons. I was content at home. I felt some dissatisfaction, and certainly felt that I needed to either focus on a career or go be somewhere else, but I certainly didn’t have anything like the intolerable ennui that he felt. I am likewise content here; while I dislike Phnom Penh and South-East Asia in general, I’m content to wait around for a Chinese visa and continue backpacking. There are three things I dislike about this place:

1. The heat.
2. The overwhelming poverty and squalor.
3. The lack of anything interesting to see and do.

Take away any one of those factors (as happened at Angkor Wat, where 3 was removed) and I can probably tolerate the other two. I’m content to simply be in these places, to be on the move, to be somewhere other than Perth. I’d prefer to be more than just “content,” obviously, but I’ll settle for long periods of contentness intersparsed with a few days of awesomeness.

Chris won’t. He hates getting in buses and trains, and he hates cities, and he hates travelling the way we have been. He wants a motorcycle and he wants to be out in the wild away from everyone. This is why he was (and still is) strongly considering scratching Asia and flying straight to North America to purchase a bike and head down through the states and into South America. He’s not on this trip just to see something of the world, like I am; he’s trying to fill a hole, a hole of dissastisfaction. The only time he ever managed to fill that hole was while working in the Kimberley, at a remote eco-resort, out in the wild. It seems logical, therefore, for him to go and live in a similar place in Canada (also, fortunately, a country where an Australian can easily and legally purchase and ride a motorcycle).

He’s decided to see China, at least, partly because of an obligation to geographical convenience and partly because we think it may offer the things he wants. He’s not alone; I’m certainly looking forward to getting out of this equatorial sweat-box and escaping to high-altitude temperatures and dramatic mountain vistas. It’s still inevitable that we’re going to split up at some point. That sucks, obviously, but what I really want – both of us to be having an awesome time – is apparently no longer going to happen. And I’d rather travel alone than travel with a miserable Chris (which is a moot point anyway, since if he’s miserable he’ll leave).

Whatever happens, happens. Maybe one day we’ll meet up again and ride motorcycles from Murchison Promontory to Cape Froward. Or maybe we’ll both love China, and Mongolia, and carry on with the original plan after all.

If he does go off on his own he better fucking write his own journal and contribute to this blog. Otherwise the title will just look silly.

This is an odd change of subject, but we also went to the genocide museum today; Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, a former high school that was converted to a prison and torture camp under the Khmer Rouge.

Cliff’s notes for the Khmer Rouge: A communist group that seized power in Cambodia in 1975, led by Pol Pot. Declared Year Zero and forced everyone out of the cities to work in the fields in the hope of achieving an idyllic agrarian state. As with all communist regimes, it either couldn’t or wouldn’t try to achieve this goal without also removing freedoms of every kind. Ridiculous rice quotas were set that resulted in mass starvation. The regime was also extremely paranoid and hated “elitists,” defined as anybody who was connected to the previous government or was “educated” (i.e. could read, wore glasses, had been abroad…) All of these people were methodically tortured and killed, and as the Khmer Rouge’s paranoia deepened, it started to turn on itself and send its own officials to these concentration camps. One of the worst genocides in history, with an estimated one third of the Cambodian population killed, it was finally ended in 1979 when Vietnam invaded and put a stop to it.

The museum has exhibits on the history of the Khmer Rouge as well as showcasing what went on in this awful place. There are countless rooms containing iron bedframes and torture implements, with photos showing the corpses found strapped to them by a Vietnamese photojournalist.

Everyone who arrived at S-21 had a mug shot taken, and there are hundreds of these photos lining the walls in some rooms. Every single person you see was tortured and killed. Other rooms contain torture implements, paintings depicting what would happen there, human skulls, and illustrations of the Killing Fields – where soldiers would slam baby’s heads against trees or throw them up into the air to shoot at them. There are signs around asking you not to smile, which I thought was just a tad unneccesary.

Like the Hiroshima museum, it made me think a lot – largely about the guards, and how they could possibly do such things. There’s another room which explains that many of the guards were indoctrinated teenagers, who lived in constant fear of being imprisoned and tortured themselves. The paintings depict them as stern-faced, committed to the communist regime, brainwashed, utterly ruthless and uncaring. But I wonder if in reality they were nauseous, wracked with guilt, avoiding eye contact with their victims just as I avoid eye contact with the deformed beggars in the streets.

Of course, even if they were pushed into it with fear and threats, somebody was making those threats, somebody was frightening them. The buck has to stop somewhere. Like Hiroshima, you simply cannot comprehend how a human could do that to another human, directly or indirectly.

In spite of the signs asking you not to, people write shit on the walls, mostly American claptrap about God loving and saving the victims, or messages of peace and understanding – pleas not to let this ever happen again.

That’s the point of turning such a grisly piece of history into a tourist attraction, of course. As with Hiroshima, the message is: Look. Listen. Understand. Take note, because the more people who are horrified by these atrocities, the less chance there is that they will ever happen again.

The thing is, that while nuclear war has been successfully averted so far – possibly because everybody in the world saw what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and fully understood the consequences – genocide and torture and unjust imprisonment continues to happen today. The planet is, in fact, absolutely rife with it. It happens in the Congo, in the Sudan, in Burma, in North Korea, in Chechnya, in Tibet…

…and, of course, in the United States.

Go ahead and tell me that it’s okay, because the people the CIA tortures are (alleged) terrorists. The Khmer Rouge’s preferred buzzwords were “traitors” or “enemies of the state.”

It was also, incidentally, the United States that bombed Cambodia to shit throughout the early 70’s and contributed greatly to the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power.

Anyway, there’s something annoying about tourists going through this place, writing stuff like “never let it happen again!” and then doing nothing about the same atrocities that are being committed, perhaps by their own government, even as they scrawl their message on the wall. It’s just naive. I know I’m also doing nothing – that I continue, in fact, to buy expensive chocolate while beggars plead for money on the streets – but at least I have the decency to acknowledge it, and to feel somewhat bad about it.

You know, poverty is one thing, but deliberate cruelty is another. If you ever have money to donate, give it to Amnesty International.

16 May, 2010
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

We left Siem Reap yesterday in the early afternoon, aboard one of the ubiquitous “buses” (minivans) that ferry tourists across South-East Asia. I’ve come to despise these minivans as the absolute lowest form of travel. They’re always overcrowded. The air-conditioning is always broken. The driver will always, without fail, simply toss your bags onto a spare seat when he knows damn well that there are another ten or so people to pick up and he’s going to have to move them into the storage area anyway, chewing up more time. And they’re cramped. Impossibly, intolerably, infuriatingly cramped. The stress positions these buses force you into would make a Guantanamo Bay torturer proud.

This ride was even more unpleasant because we were stuffed in with four fat, loud, crude, boisterous, middle-aged Australian and British sex tourists of exceptional ugliness. Chris and I ended up crammed onto opposite sides of the back seat, the wheel wells robbing us of the miniscule leg space available so that we had to tuck them up against our chests. The sex tourists, on the other hand, spread their collective corpulent mass out between us with aplomb, all the while complaining loudly about the limited space. “Yeah, you’ve got it rough,” Chris said later. “Cramming some kid up against the window while you stretch your legs out in the aisle.” When they demanded the driver stop the minivan so they could take a piss, I was fervently wishing one of them (or ideally all of them) would step on a landmine.

I had them pegged as pedophiles, of course, though after my iPod battery died I heard one of them discussing his Thai bride and how he’d lavished her village with gifts and money. The idea of a fat, old and ugly Westerner essentially purchasing a bride off a village is still distasteful, but better than what I had them marked as. Still. They were gross and the concept of Asian brides is gross. At the airport bookstore in Phuket there were entire shelves full of books about how to get yourself a Thai girlfriend. I don’t… urggh. It’s weird. I guess if both parties are happy with the outcome it’s fine.

I still hated those fat rude fuckers on the bus. It only took about one hour on that minivan to completely wipe away my Angkor Wat buzz and make me hate South-East Asia again. I’d rank it slightly above the Tiger Airways flight out of Perth, but only just.

We arrived in Phnom Penh after nightfall, and I got hit by a beggar literally three seconds off the bus, as I opened my bag to get my notebook out and she saw the piece of bread the travel company gave us to stave off starvation on the long ride. “Yum-yum,” she said. She looked pretty grubby and desperate, and was annoying, so I gave it to her. Chris, meanwhile, was climbing into a tuk-tuk with a guy who’d hailed us right in the doorway of the bus.

Here’s a good travel tip which I’m sure I’ve already mentioned: never ever ever ever ever accept a ride from somebody at the airport/bus station/train station. They’re all scam artists who will take you directly to a guesthouse that pays them a commission, and will usually charge far more just for the ride itself.

We both know this, but the alternative is to walk fifty metres down the road lugging all your shit with you and hail a new guy. After that bus ride from hell, neither of us were in the mood. I just wanted to find a guesthouse, check in, and drown myself in the toilet. So I threw my bags in with him and we set off towards the riverfront guesthouse strip.

We hadn’t really researched anywhere to stay in Phnom Penh, which neither of us had an excuse for, since we had four days with wifi in Siem Reap. After the tuk-tuk driver did his predictable “no, you stay here, very nice!” routine, we had him take us all the way to the south end of the city, where Chris had looked up a single place. They were full, but they sent us down to a hotel called the Green House, where we finally got rid of that fuckhead con artist and got to put our bags down and get out of the heat for a minute.

The tuk-tuk driver had told us this part of the city was largely deserted, with no good restaurants nearby, which I naturally assumed was a lie so that we’d settle for one of his guesthouses. Turns out it wasn’t. We had to pay about six bucks just to get up to the restaurant strip and back. Food in Phnom Penh is pricier too. Maybe I’m an asshole for complaining about paying $6 US for a meal in a nice alfresco restuarant when beggar children are trying to sell me flowers as I eat, but it was a long day and I’d had enough.

It was also Saturday night, which meant that the bars and restaurants around our thin-walled hotel were playing loud music until the wee hours of the morning. Directly outside our window was a projector screen playing non-stop music videos to an empty courtyard. I could have tolerated this if it was decent music, but it was all whining, meandering love ballads. They sounded like they were being sung by an Indian guy wearing loose white clothing, handing a carefully plucked flower to a blushing young woman. It’s the Asian equivalent of what people were listening to in the 30’s and 40’s. I guess some parts of the world never had a rock revolution.

Also, Chris says he woke up about 3 am and heard what he described as “a team of horses pulling a sea container down the road.” So, yeah, don’t stay at the Green House.

Today we moved back up into the central part of the city, trying to track down a hotel Chris’ girlfriend suggested to us after she came here in January. This place (the Angkor Bright, by the way Elisha, not the Angkor Reach) should do us fine for now, with air-con and wifi.

We’re in Phnom Penh because we have to be, not because we want to be. We need to apply for Chinese visas, which may take some time. Also, Chris is sick and needs to see a doctor. He’s been weak and tired and sometimes feverish ever since Phuket, but he’s also a typical Australian male who believes, contrary to all available evidence, that doctors are useless and will not fix your illness. Now that he’s reached the point where he barely has the strength to carry his backpack, he’s relented. I booked an appointment for him tomorrow at the SOS International Clinic, for a staggering $80 US, which we hope his travel insurance will cover.

Until these things are cleared up we’re stuck in this wretched third-world city of heat, poverty, filth, sweat, crime, drugs, and naked beggar-children picking through the garbage in the gutters. I suppose we’ll visit the genocide museum and maybe go to a shooting range, but for now we’re holed up in our hotel room researching China. I sort of wanted to go see Bokor National Park, but this place robs me of the desire to do anything except leave.

14 May, 2010
Siem Reap, Cambodia

There are three reasons people come to Cambodia. One is child prostitution, as discussed earlier. The second is drugs – I’ve been offered weed at least three times, and while I was walking to a nearby Caltex yesterday to buy some water a guy pulled up beside me on a motorcycle and tried to sell me opium, coke and “skunk,” whatever that is. The third is Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat is used as shorthand for the entire complex of ruins to the north and east of Siem Reap. It’s an absolutely massive place, spread out across many square kilometres of jungle and forest. The correct term is Angkor Archaeological Park; Angkor Wat itself is merely the largest and grandest temple.

It’s also the shittest, because it’s covered in writhing swarms of tourists and it’s being extensively restored, which means another run-in with fucking scaffolding. This was a real problem at many of the larger temples: scaffolding, wooden beams, cement, “restoration.” A travesty committed by authorities who obviously don’t understand the allure of a ruin.

Take Ta Prohm, for example, the temple where they filmed Tomb Raider. Travel resources describe as the most amazing and atmospheric ruin in the whole place, because it’s overgrown with jungle… or at least it was, before 2010, when the powers that be decided to clear it all out.

I cannot understand a mindset that looks at this incredible decaying jungle temple and says “Right, let’s clean this thing up! Scrape all the lichen off, put some cement stairs and wooden walkways in, and fix all those crumbling blocks. And get rid of all those trees. I want this place looking brand new!” As with the bleached coral in Thailand, it’s depressing, because it gives you the sense that you’re a decade too late to appreciate the place.

The other annoying thing about Angkor Wat is the hawkers. I know this is a desperately poor country and they need whatever they can get, but after hearing SIR COLD DRIIIIINK? ONE DOLLAAAAA? fifty or sixty times, my patience was wearing thin. They’re a stronger breed than the garden-variety hawker, too. They’ll lock onto you from sixty or seventy metres away.

Having gotten those two gripes out of the way, I’ll mention that Angkor Wat was nonetheless amazing. I needed something awesome to restore my faith in this trip and, praise be to Saint Christopher, this was it.

We bought three-day passes for US $40, and rented bicycles for a dollar a day, since most of the major temple complexes are within riding distance. After being disappointed with Angkor Wat, we ventured a little further afield, and found that there are dozens of other sites that are completely secluded. No hawkers and no other tourists whatsoever. This here is either the Victory Gate or the East Gate of Angkor Thom:

This was absolutely deserted, hundreds of metres away from anyone or anywhere.

Another fantastic thing about the more remote sites (and even some of the major ones) is that you’re allowed to climb all over them. No velvet ropes, no guards. You can scramble up a pile of fallen blocks, walk along the walls, go nuts. This probably isn’t good for the ruins, but it suits me just fine. It’s like Shadow of the Colossus in real life.

For the record, yes, that is sweat drenching my back. This is typical when walking down the street in South-East Asia, let alone when riding thirty-five kilometres on a bike and then jumping around on ruined temples.

Chris is sick, unfortunately, which meant he didn’t really have the energy for riding his bike, let alone temple athletics. At one point he nearly fainted/vomited. This was after climbing to the top of a very steep and very high temple, and then sitting with his legs dangling over the fifty metre drop at the edge of the platform. Oh Chris! So on the second day he stayed in bed, while I ignored my ass blisters and rented a bike again to try to take in some of the northernmost temples.

That day, however, was a public holiday commemorating the king’s birthday. The King of Cambodia doesn’t have nearly as much of a public image as the King of Thailand, who likes to shovel himself down people’s throats, but apparently his birthday is a big deal. There were a lot of Cambodians seeing the ruins on their day off. The road between Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, a long stretch lined with huge fig trees, was a pleasant cycle when Chris and I went down it on our first day.

On the second day I felt like I was in India. Parked utes, minivans and tuk-tuks lined the side of the road, and the narrow part left for traffic was crawling along at a metre a minute. I got stuck behind a van going at a sloth’s pace, carrying about thirty Cambodians. At one point a pair of elephants went past. It was annoying, but also kind of cool. I mean, you don’t get elephants on the Mitchell Freeway. And fortunately the Cambodian holiday crowd was all centred around that one road for some reason, with the other ruins being as deserted as the first day.

I wasn’t kidding about thirty people to a van, by the way. This country really knows how to get the most from its vehicles. I’ve seen up to five people on a single motorcycle. The average is three, and lone riders are a rare anomaly.

Traffic is, as always, chaotic. Due to the ass blisters I was generally riding while leaning forward with my arms crossed over the handlebars, which is a lot more comfortable but gives me less control. Which was not good when four-wheel drives came barrelling past with about ten centimetres of clearance.

There’s also a lot of Korean tourists here, on “HANATOUR.” When I fled Korea I thought I’d never have to see a frizzy perm and sun visor again, but there you go. But, as I said, it’s easy to get away from the crowd and go eat your lunch on top of a big, crumbling tower.

I don’t know a lot about Angkor Wat’s history. I know it was built around the 12th century by the Angkor empire, which stretched across much of South-East Asia. They were originally Hindu temples but later converted to Buddhist purposes. The Angkor empire eventually declined as the Thais and the Vietnamese ate up its territory, and the temples fell into disrepair. They were rediscovered by the French colonists in the 19th century and thus began the odious process of “restoration.”

There’s information signs all over the place and you can hire guides to explain the historical significance and artwork. Stuff that. If I want to learn about the history I’ll look it up on the Internet. I’m here to indulge my inner Indiana Jones.

I came to one ruin, Preah Khan or something, which was surrounded by a wall about a kilometre in every direction. After walking through the actual ruins, I decided to follow the northern wall back to where my bike was, rather than retrace my steps.

I kept thinking about landmines. Cambodia is rife with them, and while the odds of there still being any left anywhere near Angkor Wat is astronomical, I still found myself sticking to the ruined flagstones wherever possible.

As I was walking along, I suddenly noticed a pair of black dogs on the path ahead of me, standing there staring at me. I wasn’t sure if they were domesticated or strays, and since this was rabies country, I decided to quickly scramble up a statue of a garuda onto the wall. I walked with some difficulty along it, since it was sharply crenellated, and eventually looked down at the dogs. They barked and then ran off into the undergrowth, leaving me stranded on top of a five metre wall (the statue having been thoughtlessly designed so that it was possible to climb up, but not down).

Eventually I came to a spot where the wall had partially collapsed, so I could easily hop down the rubble to the ground. Angkor is such a swell place.

I took about three hundred photos. They all come out looking the same, of course, but there’s just something photogenic about the place. I can’t look at a fig tree growing out of an eight-hundred year old wall, its roots intertwining seamlessly into the stonework, and not take a photograph of it. Even if I already have twenty-two other photos of the exact same thing.

On the third day, today, we hired a tuk-tuk driver for $12 to take us around for the afternoon. It was a welcome respite for our asses. We drove out to the outlying Roluos temples (which weren’t worth the bother) and revisited one of the better parts of Angkor Thom, playing chess on top of a crumbling old archway. We also had children come up to us and tie flowers onto our fingers, then beg for money. Not to mention the blind musicians, or the woman cradling her deformed baby on the path up to the sunset hill. Sometimes this country feels like one huge guilt-trip.

I don’t feel anything about that, and that in turn doesn’t make me feel anything either. Yes, I have $20,000 to blow on private travel pursuits, and if I were to give that to a person here they could live like a king for the rest of their life. The fact that I earned that money by working for it does little to mitigate that – compared to most of the world, I was born into incredible luxury. If you’re reading this right now, on a computer, so were you.

There’s a massive imbalance in the spread of wealth, opportunity and living standards across the human race. Even when confronted with it, I don’t feel particularly compelled to do anything about it. Perhaps because there’s nothing I can do to alter the big picture. Perhaps because I’m just not ready to do so yet. Or perhaps simply because I’m selfish; like Henry Goose, I feel only gratitude that my maker cast me on the winning side.

Nonetheless, I’m at least going to acknowledge the privileges that my Western birth granted me, and make the most of them.

We’re moving on to Phnom Penh tomorrow, the capital. From there we need to look into getting Chinese visas (and Laos visas, to get there). I’d also like to see the genocide museum, and Bokor Mountain.

Chris is still dissatisfied. Angkor Wat didn’t particularly enthuse him, and he’s strongly considering going to North America, even having applied for a job on a ranch in Canada. I won’t be following him. I still want to see China. He still sort of wants to see Mongolia, so if he sticks around through China and leaves from Beijing I may go with him. I’m not sure what I’d do in Canada, though, nor am I interested in working again just yet. I might take the Trans-Siberian west, go through Europe a little bit, maybe work in Ireland. I’d have to travel on my own for a while to see if I was ready for a solo trip through Africa.

I don’t know. We’ll see. I don’t like the idea of travelling alone, but I’d rather be alone than be with Chris when he’s not enjoying himself, miserable and hostile.

In any case, we’re in Cambodia for a while yet. I like Cambodia better than Thailand, and not just because of Angkor Wat. It’s cheaper, and Cambodians also seem friendlier. People say hello when you pass them in the street. Thais will only say hello if they’re trying to sell you something.

I’m never sure of how to wrap these things up. Let’s finish with a photo of the reassuring sign on the wall of our first guesthouse:

10 May, 2010
Siem Reap, Cambodia

We decided to leave Bangkok after one day of walking around paying for temple admission fees under the unforgiving sun. The Grand Palace was closed to us because we were wearing shorts, but we got into Wat Pho to see the giant reclining Buddha. I guess it was pretty big. I dunno. Temples are okay, but not something I have a huge urge to go see, especially in sweltering heat.

Back at the hostel we decided to at least give Cambodia a shot before writing off South-East Asia entirely. A train leaves for the border every morning at 6 am, but buses leave a little later in the day, so we opted for one of those. At Wat Pho we’d run into a girl Chris used to work with, and her boyfriend, and we ended up hanging out with them later that night until about 1 am. So we didn’t drag ourselves out of bed until about 8.30, and we didn’t arrive at Mo Chit bus station unil just before ten.

Fortunately there was a bus leaving about ten minutes after we got there, so we climbed aboard and were on our way. It was about a four or five hour trip, which was particularly unpleasant since the A/C was broken and neither of us had eaten yet. It stopped off at a 7-11 around noon and I bought some shitty packaged croissants and cookies, which wasn’t much of a meal, but made my stomach shut up.

Everything I’d read or heard about the Cambodian border crossing warned that it’s one long, difficult slog through a human corridor of touts and conmen trying to fuck you over at every step. This proved to be correct. We were assailed by tuk-tuk drivers as soon as we got off the bus in Aranyaprathet, the town on the Thai side of the border. They offered 80 baht to take us to the border, several kilometres away, which seemed reasonable.

Of course, they didn’t actually take us to the border – they took us to the Cambodian consulate in Aranyaprathet, where an official-looking man sat us down in a garage-like structure next door and told us we would have to pay 1500 baht (about 50 AUD) for the privilege of Cambodian visas, stamps and immigration cards. Neither of us are particularly wily travellers yet, but this was an instant red flag, since everything we’d read said you could geta visa on arrival at the border. I told him this, and he claimed we were at the border, which we clearly weren’t.

There was a Danish couple nearby who’d also been taken straight there by the tuk-tuk driver, and the male in the pair (whose name I believe was Megan, lol) agreed that this was bullshit. The man insisted over and over that we were at the border and that we needed to pay for shit like immigration cards, which is not true anywhere in the world. “I don’t think that’s right,” I said. “We’ll go to the border and look ourselves. If we’re wrong we’ll come back here and you can laugh at us, but first we’ll go see for ourselves.” We had to repeat stuff along those lines several times, because conversations are always great fun when the person you’re talking to doesn’t speak English too well, but eventually he must have realised he was sprung because he went silent and was staring down at the papers on the desk. As we were about to walk away he called us back and quietly admitted that the border fee was really only 1000 baht. This sounded more like it, but I didn’t see the point in getting a visa there if we could get one at the border, particularly since this asshole had already been lying to us.

So both we and the Danes jumped back into our tuk-tuks and instructed the drivers (who were, of course, in cahoots with the “visa officials”) to take us straight to the border. Instead they drove us to the Cambodian consulate. The one that was next door, literally five metres away.

“What are you doing?” we said. “If we wanted to come here we would have walked. Take us to the border.” We had to listen to a whole spiel of “no, this place, you get visa, come inside, I take care you,” but we stood firm and eventually she relented and drove us to the border. She only stopped once more along the way at another fake visa office – this one a fucking stall on the roadside – but this time we didn’t even bother getting out. She drove us along the road another hundred metres or so, to the real border crossing, and begrudgingly accepted our 80 baht fare.

We went through Thai customs, convinced that it was the real one this time by the queues and counters and signs warning us against precisely what we’d just been through (which might have been useful back at the bus station, guys). On the other side we crossed a bridge and went through Cambodian customs, with a polite and helpful young man assisting us all the way. He spoke good English and seemed to be on the level, telling us many times that the Thai side of the border was crawling with rip-off artists, but that “Cambodia freedom” and that he was an official tourist bureau guide. This was, of course, a signal that he was eventually going to fuck us over. We got onto the free bus with him, which took us to the bus depot, with him yammering on the whole way about how we could use dollars or riel and how “Cambodia freedom.”

Poipet didn’t seem as seedy as I thought it would be. It was slightly dirtier than Thailand, and covered in casinos, but on the whole it wasn’t the third-world shithole I imagined in my head. Still a thoroughly undesirable place to stay any longer than you have to.

When we got out at the bus station it was about four o’clock, and we had the option of either taking the slow bus to Siem Reap, or taking a much faster taxi. With four of us we figured we could get a pretty good price for a taxi, but Mr. “Tourist Guide” placed himself as our intermediary, and insisted that each of us pay 500 baht (16 AUD, a ridiculous sum). He went on about how petrol was expensive (despite the fact that the car clearly ran on LPG) and how the taxi driver was starving and so on. We eventually got him down to 300 each, and were holding out for 250, but he wouldn’t budge. I was willing to relent, since Chris and I had exactly 600 baht left between us, but the Danes were more stingy.

Our alleged benefactor was getting increasingly frustrated with us, as we told him we couldn’t afford it, and he asked us how we could afford to be travelling. Which is a fair point. I don’t like the idea of haggling with poverty. I’m spending $20,000 on an ultimately selfish backpacking trip, and 50 baht equals about $1.50. That’s nothing for us, but it’s a lot for them. I wasn’t too cut up about it, though, since the guy had essentially lied to us about who he was and what his job entailed. I was just tired of arguing and wanted to get into Siem Reap. Eventually we convinced the Danes that $10 each for a two hour taxi ride is a pretty good deal, and we were on our way.

The road between Poipet and Siem Reap was sealed last year, so it was a pretty smooth trip. Apparently it used to be a rocky road covered in landmine craters. Now it’s one long stretch of bitumen across the plains. Well actually I think they were fields, although nothing seemed to be growing in them, and the gathering storm ahead of us was whipping up huge clouds of topsoil.

We passed a lot of motorycles performing Herculean feats of load-bearing. A whole bunch of dead chikens, two dead pigs; one even had huge boxes covered in tarps suspended on either side, an entire ute tray worth of cargo balanced precariously on a motorbike. We also saw a lot of kids. I can’t remember the exact figure, but a huge percentage of Cambodia’s population is uner the age of 25, I guess because most of the baby boomer generation was killed off by the Khmer Rouge in the 70’s.

Cambodia is also, incidentally, the country with the worst rate of child sex slavery in the world. It’s entirely a market for Western pedophiles who fly here to take advanatage of it. There’s posters up about it and a hotline you can call and everything.

The thing is, even if I saw someone whom I was personally convinced was a Western sex predator, I still wouldn’t be able to call that hotline. What if you were wrong? You’d need absolutely damning evidence before bringing that down on a person.

Anyway, the scamming wasn’t over yet – the taxi took us straight to a stand of tuk-tuks, who gave us a free ride to a commission-paying guesthouse. It was actually a pretty nice guesthouse, though ($6 US each for for an air-con twin with wifi and private bathroom), so we agreed to stay there. Then we went out for dinner and came back to find that despite the air-con having been on full blast for an hour, the room was still stinking hot and the ceiling fan screeched when you turned it on. The wifi was also weak, although I suspect that’s going to be the case everywhere.

We needed some form of cooling apparatus, so we lugged our backpacks down the road to another place, where a nervous young man fiddled with the keys to our new room for about ten minues before we could get in. I was in the shower when Chris came back and announced that this guy didn’t normally work here and couldn’t tell him the wifi password or how to get the air-con working properly, so we were leaving. I towelled myself off and followed him down the road again, a looming thunderstorm threatening to break out any minute.

We found a place just in time called the Family Guesthouse, or something. It’s in a pretty crummy building but it’s nonetheless better (and cheaper) than our digs in Bangkok. The wifi is still weak and the room not as nice as the other two places we tried, but the air-con manages to struggle feebly against the heat, which is the most important thing. We’ll probably try to look for a better place tomorrow morning. For now we just need some sleep. Our hostel in Bangkok had the air-con stuck on the most freezing setting and our mattresses were rock-hard, so last night was not very refreshing.

One final irritation to round off the day was that my Mastercard has stopped working. God bless you, Bankwest. It worked just fine two days ago on Khao San Road. They better be able to fix it, or I’ll be relying on Chris all through Cambodia.

Incidentally, the de facto Cambodian currency is the US dollar, which is the first time I’ve ever seen one. They sure are stupid – they’re all green, so you can’t tell them apart at a glance, and they’re all the same size, so I don’t know how blind people are meant to tell them apart. Plus they’re made of paper. Get it together, guys.

This was a really boring blog entry. Having people treat you like the biggest rube on the planet isn’t much fun, but I doubt reading about it is either. I’ll try to do something more interesting tomorrow. We’ll be visiting Angkor Wat sometime over the next few days, which is the first thing on our very loose itinerary that I really want to do, so that should be good. Until then I can sleep satisfied knowing that we made it through the gauntlet without being scammed too heavily.

8 May, 2010
Bangkok, Thailand

I pictured Khao San Road, the famous backpacker hangout of Bangkok, to be Phuket minus the beach. I was pleasantly surprised. Sure, it’s full of hawkers selling you cheap trinkets and suits and the ubiquitous MASSAAAAAAGE, but it doesn’t have anywhere near the same level of seediness. I’ve yet to see a single sports bar or overweight Western pensioner with his hand on the leg of a Thai hooker. Some of the side-streets, which are lined with leafy deciduous trees with lights strung through the branches, are downright pleasant.

We flew out of Phuket on some budget airline called One-Two-Go, or something. I was dreading another sardine experience, but we were lucky enough to be put in the emergency row, which gives you a lot of extra leg room. This plane also gave us free food and drinks, unlike Tiger. Chris spilt his Sprite all over his balls. I started reading Dune, which is so far reminding me of the Wheel of Time series. The plane smelt like vomit for some reason, but our noses got used to it. I considered what would happen if I yanked the emergency hatch levers five kilometres above the ground. On the whole it was a pleasant flight.

Although I like flying, planes and airports in general, probably because they represent doing something interesting with my time, I’d prefer to use them as little as possible while travelling. I’m not sure why, but I have an urge to travel by train and bus and avoid flying whenever possible, even if it’s cheaper and more convenient. There’s just something more adventurous about traversing an entire continent by land than shoving yourself behind a lunch tray with every other Joe Six-Pack on the 1.30 shuttle to Bangkok. Of course, our alternative methods of travel are usually the local equivalent of Greyhound, which is hardly more romantic, but there’s just some irrational thing inside me that says as soon as you’re up in the air, you’ve lost contact with the thread of travel and you may as well be flying straight in from your home country. Or something. I can’t quite articulate it.

I’d like to walk, or maybe cycle, all the way from Times Square to Santa Monica Pier one day. I’d like to travel overland from London to Singapore. Or Cape Town to Tokyo. Something about watching the landscape and the culture gradually change day by day really appeals to me.

Anyway, Bangkok is where we had to decide what we were doing – ditching South-East Asia entirely and going straight to China (or even North America), or giving Cambodia a shot and hoping that, unlike Thailand, it has some redeeming features to go along with its heat and squalor. We’ve opted to go to Cambodia. It would feel like a cop-out if we just wrote off a whole region after ten days on the heaviest tourist trail in Thailand.

Bangkok (or at least Khao San Road) is also slightly more appealing than we thought it would be, so we might kick around for a few days rather than head straight for the border. Chris is running a fever at the moment, so if he comes down with something we’ll be here a few days anyway. I’ll do some exploring tomorrow. And maybe take some photos – I haven’t been posting any, not just because it’s a bich, but because so far I’ve only taken about a dozen. If you’re not enjoying yourself you don’t really feel the need to document it.

Oh, and out the window of our taxi (and later tuk-tuk) I’ve seen virtually no sign of the protests, apart from a single barricaded street (with a big open hole in the barricade admitting traffic) and a few soldiers with assault rifles and coils of razor wire hanging out and smoking in front of a hotel. I haven’t really been keeping up with the news over the last week. I heard the Prime Minister came to an agreement with them or something, but then there were some attacks today where a couple of cops were killed, so who knows.

I’m not concerned about it in the slightest. The demonstrations have only shown the slightest inklings of occasionally turning violent, and even then it’s aimed at police and military, not civilians, and especially not tourists, who are the economic lifeblood of this country. The road outside is swarming with backpackers from all over the world. Everybody else is going about their daily lives just fine. Don’t worry, Mum.

6 May, 2010
Phuket, Thailand

Ko Phi Phi is where they filmed “The Beach,” something local tour operators are quick to capitalise on. We arrived not long before noon, and in the short walk between the pier and our hostel I saw about fifty signs outside agencies telling us we could sleep on the beach where Leonardo di Caprio once walked. Whoop-de-doo. The main town of Ko Phi Phi is stacked with the usual hotels, dive shops, travel agencies, market stalls, hawkers and various other methods of separating Westerners from their money, but it has very narrow streets, high buildings and twisty alleyways, sort of like a medina, which was more pleasant than anywhere else we’ve been. It’s also built on a thin stretch of sand between two bays which is no higher than two metres, so it was absolutely devastated by the tsunami, with about three thousand deaths. There’s no signs of that anymore though, other than specially constructed tsunami shelters with wide stairways and flat roofs, and signs all over the island telling you how far away each one is.

After checking in and getting lunch, we rented a kayak to paddle to a bay less crowded, and hopefully do some snorkelling. Ko Phi Phi has a very dramatic landscape of huge limestone outcrops, rising up in sheer cliff faces from the water, with vegetation and foliage still somehow managing to cling to the sides. And, unlike Ko Lanta, the beaches are pure white sand, and the water a sparkling turquoise. From afar, it’s absolutely gorgeous.

 

Look a little closer and you see the rubbish cluttering up the beaches, and the layer of grime and chemical slicks from all the boat engines that clings to the island shoreline. You have to swim out maybe thirty or forty metres before you get to clear water. Even when we rounded the north-west point and found a secluded bay, this disgusting yellow-brown crap was floating on top of the water. Not to mention the enormous piles of empty water bottles, coke cans, styrofoam waste and general rubbish heaped up by the cliffs.

Nobody seems to give a fuck. This was paradise, once upon a time. Now it’s ruined.

We went for another half-decent snorkel. The location for it was impressive: huge limestone pinnacles rising straight up from the ocean floor. We swam through swarms of tropical fish, hovered above the regulator bubbles rising from some scuba divers below us, and enjoyed the company of a little remora fish (until the fucker bit us). The coral in this bay was doing its best to cling to life. A monkey came out onto one of the ledges on the cliff face above me, sat down with his legs crossed like a British gent reading a newspaper, and starting picking fleas out of his fur. It’s telling that the most interesting animal I saw on the dive wasn’t aquatic.

 

After that we paddled over to the southern half of the main bay, which is called “Monkey Beach” owing to the presence of a small troop of monkeys that like to pick through the rubbish there. Picture two or three monkeys sitting on a beach surrounded by a crowd of about twenty or thirty Westerners taking photos. Kayaking further south, back towards the main bay, we came across a number of snorkel tour boats, pulled up in the lee of the cliffs. I spotted one stupid bitch lugging a lump of coral she’d torn off back to her boat. This kind of ignorance boggles my mind, and the only reason I didn’t give her a piece of said boggled-mind was because I’m too polite, and I also thought it would be pretty weird to be reprimanded by some dude who just surfaces next to you wearing a mask and snorkel.

Maybe it’s naive to make a judgement based on three islands, but it seems to me that this is Thailand in a nutshell. They cover the islands in resorts and lodges and bars and resturants, swarm the place in longtail boats, destroy the native environment and don’t seem to care. I know tourism was Thailand’s ticket out of the third world, but if you don’t take care of your environment, it will be your ticket back in.

Or maybe not, since the tourists don’t seem to care either. After nightfall, we couldn’t walk down the street without getting flyers for bars and parties shoved in our faces. Europeans, Americans and Australians were walking around plastered, drinking in the streets, buying buckets of booze from roadside vendors. I don’t understand the appeal of this at all. Yes, alcohol is cheap, but not when you factor in the cost of the plane ticket to get you halfway around the world. Ko Phi Phi is Northbridge in the tropics.

We resolved to leave the next day.

Our room was right in the lobby of our hostel, and the top of the wall was open to it, so we were woken up at about 1 am by some loud British bitches, at 3 am by a thunderstorm and at 5.30 am by the hotel staff banging saucepans or some shit. We had breakfast, bought ferry tickets, sat around in the bookstore cafe and then got the fuck out of there… to Phuket.

The phrase “wretched hive of scum and villainy” gets thrown around a lot by anyone who’s ever seen Star Wars, but Phuket is more than qualified. Northbridge or Itaewon on their very worst nights can’t compare to this. Take everything I said about Ko Phi Phi, remove the nice landscape, replace about 80% of the backpackers with 50-65 year old men with Thai girls hanging off them, make virtually every establishment a sports bar, multiply the hawkers by 1000% and you have Phuket. This place is fucking gross, not in a squalor-and-poverty kind of way, but in a seedy kind of way. It’s the Westerners that make this place gross. Walking down one of the main street at night we were handed dozens of flyers for “ping-pong shows” (yes, that kind), go-go bars, ladyboy dancing, prostitutes, cheap DVDs, cheap laser pointers, cheap shit of all shapes and sizes. It’s certainly very lively, but in the same way that a cockroach infestation is lively. I can’t even begin to understand the kind of person this place appeals to. We will never share a milkshake.

Actually, a bunch of loud, middle-aged Australian tourists came into the restaurant where we were having an early dinner, and would not shut the fuck up with their horrendous, screeching accents. I never realised how bad it can sound and I pray to the heavens that it’s an east coast dialect. Chris and I get mistaken for Brits all the time, so maybe we’re in the clear. I was still lovingly thinking of my Irish passport the entire time, as we shovelled our food down our throats to get away from this braying group of pigs as soon as possible.

We’re pretty much ready to leave. The Andaman Islands were all we really had on our list for this country, and we actually had an estimate of two or three weeks for them. So much for that sixty-day visa. We’re going to at least give Cambodia a shot, and if we don’t like that we’ll probably bail on Vietnam and fly straight to southern China. Or, if we’re in a full-on “fuck this” mood, we’ll fly from Bangkok to LA. Only $800 on Skyscanner.

In any case our plane to Bangkok doesn’t leave until the day after tomorrow, so we’re stuck on this festering shithole for another day at least. Maybe we should explore around a bit. Maybe it’s just Patong Beach that’s seedy and gross, full of Thais with shark smiles who treat Westerners like walking ATMs, and full of Westerners who are happy to be treated that way. Although nothing I’ve yet seen in Thailand suggests I should give it the benefit of the doubt.

Oh, and Chris wrote something up for those of you who are rolling our eyes at how we’ve been reacting to things:

You are all painting it up as if we can’t hack the heat or the dirt or the transport or the people. It’s not that at all. Its that there are no redeemable qualities. The shit we are writing about are mere observations. We came to this part of the world to see beautiful beaches and snorkel with marine life we wouldn’t see otherwise. We are leaving this part of the world with a very different outcome. Most people seem to come here in groups to laze on the beach, get drunk with friends and shop. Because they come from countries like the UK, they are pleased with what they find and the island paradise party extravaganza environment. We have both grown up on the coast of our own paradise that we now realise we took for granted. We do not fit in this tourist-swamped, money whirlpool of a life. These last 9 days and the next few are going to continue to be unpleasant, not because of the dirt or the people or the transport or some more dirt, but because we are not here for the right reasons. We did not come here to shop and drink, or join a group that is happy to watch a handful of monkeys sit on a dirty stretch of sand and take photos. Nor are we here to walk through streets and be offered MASAAAAAGE’s every second of the way. What you must understand is that we are not after the beaten tourist track. We are after the untouched trail. The one that has no neon signs or salesmen. I don’t know if Mitch does, but I am more than willing to admit I was wrong to come here for the reasons I did.

I don’t think we were wrong to come here for the reasons we did, per se, but we were certainly lied to by travel sources that promised pristine coral and amazing wildlife. (What am I going to do with this fucking snorkel and mask in my pack for the rest of the trip? It cost $100, I’m loath to get rid of it.) I also don’t mind beaten trails and other tourists, provided those tourists are looking for the same kind of experience we are, and the beaten trail provides that. I do not want to come to what is essentially Bali, where people come to get drunk and sit on a beach and sit in a pool and buy cheap shit and then fly home back to their wage-slave life.

I’m not sure exactly what I do want, but it’s definitely not that.

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