Sunday, December 31, 2006

Out of Combodia

I'm sorry to say, the place didn't really do it for me - I didn't even last a week. Not to say there weren't some good things, but I kind of feel "been there, done that". Once I got through the border crossing, it was a quick van ride to Stung Treng, at which point I found out why there are no buses on this piece of the road - there is no bridge across the river to get north from Stung Treng. Instead, there is a funny little causeway that runs about half way across the river, then there is a ferry. No large vehicle would make it. Improvements are on the way - the whole road is being extensively rebuilt (with Chinese money) and there is a bridge about half complete at Stung Treng. Once these projects are completed, the transportation links in this area will be revolutionised (I hope the good people of Laos will in fact be linking their national highway to this new road, otherwise there will still be that weird "lonely track through the bush" to navigate).

The best thing about Stung Treng was my hotel room - it was massive (two double beds and room for two more), spotless as pretty much all accomodation I have been is has been and had cable TV, all for $5. So, no real regrets the next day to catch the bus for the longest single bus journey of my trip - all the way to Phnom Penh. This was Christmas eve, so I splurged on a waterfront 3 star (I guess) hotel. Now there have been places where I have wanted to move on from - PP is the first place to actually make me wish I was at home.
The nice area of town, along the river, is fully colonised by the tourist industry and just not very nice. The touts were either aggressive or pathetic - one poor boy just stood mutely in front of me, pleading with his eyes for me to have my shoes (sneakers!) shined. He wouldn't stop being a cling-on and to my shame, I shouted at him. So, my first reaction was to just get on the next bus to Vietnam: since I didn't want to cut and run so quick, I bought a ticket to Battambong, up in the north west.

Of course, then Phnom Penh turned out quite nice and peaceful - I did what thousands of locals do every day and promenaded along the river. I was sitting having a smoke when one of the young girls selling books from a clothes basket hung around her neck tried to sell me books I don't want. Instead of pushing, she sat down with her friends nearby; after asking me for food "I'm Cambodian, I have no money, I am hungry", she not only got some food but offered to share it with me. Of course, I didn't accept, just felt ashamed at my attitude, once again. I also found an almnost deserted spot in my hunt for the railway station, up near the American embassy.

The poor railway station has seen better days - its interior furnishinsgs have been removed, the exterior is in desperate need of a clean up. It probably symbolises the state of Cambodian rail quite nicely - they only run the one train a week, to Battambang, but the track is so badly damaged, it takes three times as long as the bus. But good news: the Malaysian government has donated track and the Asian development bank has provided mony not just to restore the track, but to extend it - to the Thai border in the north and across the Mekong and into Vietnam in the south - all by around 2015, so that there can be a direct rail link from Thailand into China (and then onto Moscow - now there's a formidable rail trip to do!).

So - no trains for me in Cambodia - I took the bus up to Battambang - a very peaceful riverside town of 80,000 or 126,000 people, depending on your source. It was what I needed, and very cool to walk around of an evening (albeit hot and dusty during the day). There, I found my favourite restaurant of the whole trip - the White Roses, a simple family run place where I had my second dish of Loclac (beef in a very mild gravy over a salad with fried egg, chips and rice - reputedly a very traditional Khmer dish) and tried out the Khmer version of a curry. I was only there a couple of days, but the urge to completely skip Siem Reap and Ankor Wat and make a break for Vietnam completely overcame me.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Into Cambodia

What an adventure this turned out to be! I was actually planning to stay one more day in Laos, but that was then I thought it was still Friday, or maybe even Thursday: I was completely freaked to find the bank closed, meaning it must be Saturday, and caught a truck south (no buses now, except for the early morning minivans). What a mistake - I had been told that if I got to this little town near the border, I'd be able to arrange minivan transport into the first town in Cambodia (Stung Treng). Unfortunately, I mentioned this plan to the truck driver - he volunteered to take me to the border. I had misgivings, as I'd then need to make my own way south from the other side, but thought "what the hell, it will work out".

Now, the thing is that there are two Cambodian border crossings - I knew to avoid the one by the river, as it could not issue visas. But I also "knew" that the Laos border post was in a little village off the main road, so that when my truck driver dropped me at a little village off the main road with a Laos border post, I thought nothing of it, and merrily exited Laos. I was told the Cambodian border post was "1 kilometre" with a vague gesture, with an offer to take me by moto for a dollar, which meant it was probably around the corner. So, I walked. Then I walked some more. And then some. It got dark. I kept walking - I'd already figured that the border post they meant was the river one, so was really looking for the other border. No sign of it, so I thought it best to go back to where I had started from. This meant walking back up this narrow little dust track, cratered with potholes and with a ravine down the centre, in the sort of complete darkness produced by having the moon in my eyes. By the time I got back, my clock said it was 8:30 (it got dark around 5:30). About half the village was already asleep. Within a couple of hours, they all were. Such is life in a tiny Lao village.

I was officially out of Laos but not in Cambodia, and with a used up visa for Laos, feeling just a little bit concerned for my position. Plus, there was nowhere to sleep, except for this concrete slab outside someone's house. The funny thing is - while I sat there, a few guys wandered around, a motorbike made several trips past me and yet having some foreign bloke preparing to sleep seemed no more unusual than seeing a chicken wandering around. One fellow, on his way past, said a cheery "hello" and that was it.

Since the motorike I had seen was the only vehicle I had seen the whole time I was there, I thought my transport options to Cambodia were a little limited. So, at first light, I snuck back over the border into Laos: a dog barked at me; that was the only official response to my illegal entry. Back out on the main road, a proper minivan to Cambodia picked me up and took me down a different little track in the bush to a different Laos border post and the right Cambodian one. My troubles were not quite over: the Cambodian border people were all "you left Laos yesterday, you cannot enter with that stamp" and the Laos border people were all "you have used your visa, go to Cambodia for a new one" Luckily the minivan driver knew the whole story and got things straitened out for me, or I might be still there, confined to a 100 metre stretch of dirt between the two countries.

There is one little post-script to all this. The region is notorious for its scammers and, indeed, both border guards had imposed spurious overtime charges and even the damn bank had not used the right exchange rate in taking back my unused kip (the girls had giggled to each other, one pointing out the sign with the official rate to the other as she charged me a different rate). But fighting these little scams (always a dollar here or two dollars there) takes up so much energy. Plus, the bank is then just as likely to say "no dollar today" or, as the border guard did say to one woman who protested "you come back Monday". So, I was down a few dollars (and a night on concrete if you include my helpful truck driver). But when I handed over my $21 for the Cambodian visa, the very cheerful fellow handed me back $30 in change.

Labels: ,

To South Laos

Vientiane was a surprisingly small, quite chilled out sort of capital city - its CBD is comprised of a large number of food, beverage and accomodation providers as well as heaps of internet cafes and virtually no large shops, just a few "minimarks" (I am still not sure if that is an abbreviation of minimarket or miss-spelling of minimart - they're basically a convenience store) and the plethora of little shops selling a narrow range of items so common here. Getting comfortably settled for a while here would be very easy, as it has some quite excellent cafes and bars to check out, so it is going on the list for a return visit (yes, as I have travelled south, I have decided I need to come back and linger in this region).

The Dream Express day bus took me quickly through fairly bland countryside to Savannakhet, a town I am ashamed to say I still know nothing about. I stayed in a GH near the bus station and had trouble finding anything to eat other than noodle soup. There was a honking big two day party when I was there - the day before I arrived, the Prime Minister of Vietnam and a Thai Princess had attended - to celbrate the opening of the new bridge across the Mekong to Thailand. But I thought the bridge (where the party was) and the road to where I was staying was it in terms of this town and so moved on quickly. It is only by looking at someone's website that I have become aware that there is a whole central town area along the river that I missed completely.

But it is Pakse and points south that truly attract me to this region (although I hope next time the transport is a little better - I spent more than four hours squatting on a little plastic stool in the aisle, as more and more travellers crowded in around me; still, little things like the old woman to one side offering to share her breakfast, and the child on the other taking great delight in photographing me with his mum's cellphone made it a cool trip). In Pakse, I decided to spend up large to make up for the stool, and go for a hotel rather than guest house - it still cost $5! But there is another hotel just down the road which looks like a splendid option for decadence - the Champasak Palace, so-called because it was built by a Lao Prince, although he never formally took up residence (something to do with the departure of the Freanch), and only $23! I was worried about getting to Cambodia in time for Christmas, and so didn't spend much time here, but when I come back, I want to go out and look at the coffee plantations to the East, and then explore the 4000 island district. Seeing these things properly is more a matter of a couple of weeks rather than days, so I passed them by this time round but it is these explorations which have convinced me of the need to come back.

Labels: ,

Thursday, December 21, 2006

A visit to a museum

So far, I have been to the museum in every place at which I have stopped, but most have left me little wiser and no more appreciative of the culture in which I find myself. But this changed today, when I visited the National Museum (also known as the Revolutionary Museum) in Vientiane, Laos. Despite the shortcomings in the displays - the over-reliance on the catch-phrase "American imperialists and their puppets", the shadowy black and white photography, the very terse English captioning - I came out feeling very sobered by the experience.

A lot of the trip has been about feeling good about the sights I am seeing, or the food I'm eating, or its cheapness (here in Vientiane, you can buy a coke and pack of smokes for $1, or replace the coke with a big bottle of Beer Lao for $1.30) or getting grumpy at the innumerable tuktuk drivers who want me to use their services (which include "wssshht opium, you want something?") or tired after a long bus trip on hard seats.

Today gave it a more historical or political context - the entire top floor of the Museum is given over to the struggle of the people of Laos to establish their independence. The country as it is today has only existed for little over thirty years - until it came under the "protection" of Thailand, it had simply been a number of small Kingdoms who, no doubt, would be warring with each other for territory. Then Thailand came and took the north (at least) and, in the 19th century, France beat Britain to colonise. The Americans came on the scene after that, which lead to what is called the 30 year struggle - from World War II through to 1974. It is only then that the Laotians were finally able to establish Laos for themselves: it is little wonder that the first thing the communist led government did was to close the border and oust as many foreigners as they could. And so it stayed - it was practically impossible to visit this place until very late in the 20th century. It leaves me feeling quite special to be allowed in, given the history, as well as providing yet another reminder of the nature of my own country, which was also colonised against the wishes of the indigenous people.

The French influence is still very strong here - in the architecture, in the language (the Romanised version of Laotian uses French rather than English vowel sounds) and in the food - the baguette is as common here as sliced bread is back home. Despite it being a very recent opening up to tourism, Laos has moved ahead very quickly to provide some sort of tourism infrastructure. They have even built a complete town, effectively (Vang Vieng) to capture the appetite of tourists to go tubing in spectacular surroundings and to drink, eat western food and watch Friends of an evening.

I was also curiously pleased by something else I saw in the Museum: I like that they are still finding major cities from medieval times and before; there are two within 70 km of Vientiane which have only recently been discovered. You wonder what other mysteries this country might contain. Plus, there is the wonderful fact that despite having an area of (I think) a hundred square kilometres covered in stone jars (some weigh a tonne, others are more modest, and there are thousands of them), there is no explanation available as to who put them there or what they were used for. One possibility is that they're connected with burial rituals, another is that they're for making alcohol.

Labels: ,

Great Bus Journeys of the World

There is lots of interest iin documenting - whether it be by book or TV progamme - the great train journeys of the world but only people like Alaxei Sayle have written on the great bus journeys (and his book of that title has little to do with buses). But it there was ever to be a list of the great bus journeys, the trip from Luang Prabang would have to be on it. Many travellers opt for the night bus down, so see nothing of what the trip has to offer. I hate night buses - unless they're passing through a truly boring stretch of countryside - so opted to take the trip by public bus, in two stages so that I would have daylight most of the way. The only downside of the bus is that as it bumps along, my camera protests and gives up any attempt to render the landscape - I thought it would be extremely rewarding to do this trip by motorbike, so that I could stop whenever I felt the urge. Hehe - travelling SE Asia by scooter (the Korean Kolao comes well recommended and can be picked up for $650) could be an interesting project, although I shudder to think what would become of me if I was to enter one of the many urban maelstroms this region has to offer. Minced Barry perhaps.

So, after a leisurely breakfast at the cafe of the guesthouse I wished I had stayed at, I had a late morning departure from the bus station - an easy walk from the centre of town. I think Luang Prabang is already at something like 700 metres above sea level: pretty much immediately, and for a couple of hours thereafter, the road ascends. Mind you, the bus was not going very fast, so we didn't get THAT high - I understand the highest peak in the region is a little over 2000 metres. But once it has ascended, the road pretty much runs along the top of these hills. Every so often, there is a little village clinging precariously to the edge of the road. A botanist would have a great time identifying the various tree and flower varieties that grow along the route. The clarity of the immediate surroundings gave way to the smoke obscured images of the more distant mountains (slash and burn, regrettably, is the main method of clearing land here). The thing that really impressed me was that no matter how high we got, nor how steep the slope, every so often you'd see a spot where some brave soul had decided to cultivate the land, and build a rudimentary shelter. Oh, plus that at all points, people seemed able to maintain cellphone coverage.

At some point, the mountains are replaced with huge cliffs of karst - these loom above the road, sometimes on both sides, with quite a forbidding effect - I am not sure how far south this range extends, as it got dark by the time we hit Kasi. There is a final flourish of karst at Vang Vieng and then the landscape completes its transition into alluvial plain, with the road crossing over numerous small rivers. I had the misfortune of staying at VV - it is a town which is almost exclusively devoted to serving the needs of foreign travellers who come to tube the river by day and party large at night, in between episodes of Friends and The Simpsons. It had very little to offer me: after a quiet beer and curry, I fled to the retreat of my guesthouse and caught the first bus to Vientiane.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Sometimes serenity...

After Chiang Mai, there are no more trains; it is the end of the line. My choices were bus or bus and boat: since I envisage quite a lot of bus travel coming up and the boat trip down the Mekong is made to sound less than appealing, thanks to the hard seats and the overcrowding for two days at a stretch, I took the easy way out. I flew in to Luang Prabang, on Lao Airlines, an airline which apparently has a Government Health warning in the USA. It was absolutely fine, the same model plane is has been used until recently by Air New Zealand on its domestic routes. They even provided a meal (typical Laotian fare of crabsticks and croissant) along with a beer to wash it down.

Sometimes, when places have been talked about a lot, it becomes hard for the reality to match the anticipation. The Taj Mahal was a great example: when I saw it for real, my reaction was one of "is that all"? So, when people rave about the quiet and peace of Luang Prabang, you have to wonder. But it lived up to its reputation and then some. Just contrast my walk out to the Chiang Mai airport with my walk in from Luang Prabang. The first featured a four lane highway, a flyover, a shopping mall, countless traffic, noise, air pollution - the works. The second was like a walk along a country lane - such traffic as there was was mainly kids on bikes. Of course, once in town my sense of direction failed me completly: Luang Prabang is set on a finger of land three streets wide, between the Mekong and one of its tributories. After dumping my bags at the first Guest House I found, I set off to find the river. What I found instead was a dwindling gravel path in near complete darkness. Starting afresh, with a good look at the map, I found the river and dined in one of the many restaurants set into its banks.

By the end of my first full day, I was thinking that, yes, its very quiet, very serene, but just a bit, um, dull. I'd done the night market, walked the length of the main street several times, had my dinner and a drink, and was back in my new riverside guesthouse by 8:20. I even went out and watched some football, just to get out of the room, because town was very quiet, very quickly.

By the time for me to go, on the morning of my fourth day, I was thinking "can't I just stay here, it is so nice in this soft bed" and I could feel a full on lax mode taking over. I was getting used to the fact that there was hardly any traffic, not really a lot of people, and all restaurants except for the pizza one were pretty much empty of an evening. I'd found a good breakfast place, which served nice warm crusty slightly sweet baguettes (which probably explained why I'd had a dream about them). I had some books and lots of music - why move? The serenity had got to me.

Labels: ,

Monday, December 18, 2006

Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad (1911)

I completely forgot that I had already read this when packing it to bring with me, but as soon as I started reading, it came flooding back. It was nice to be reacquainted with Razumov and a forgotten literary crush, Nathalie Haldin. I think I gained a bit more traction on the views of the revolutionists this time round, although I remain confused at the stance taken by the book to revolution. After all, as it soon becomes clear, we are reading the record of Razumov after his stand against a certain revolutionist leads to such a degree of remorse that he effectively dies of it (how dramatic!). My tentative conclusion is that all the talk of revolutionists is just to provide a framework for what Conrad really wants to look at, with perhaps some satire for good measure.

The setting is Russia under the Tsarist's autocracy: it is not clear exactly when, but the revolutionists are starting to make their views heard and to take action to bring about an overthrow of the current poltical apparatus, because the true destroyers are "they who destroy the spirit of progress and truth, not the avengers who merely kill the bodies of the persecutors of human dignity". The action is necessary so the "real" Russians escape from under the thumb of the oppressor.

Razumov is no revolutionist: if he has any political views at all, they are to support the status quo. He has no family, no close friends, no-one except himself - a state of profound aloneness is his defining feature, one which is said to make him entirely Russian as he has no other allegiances. He does have some sort of mysterious benefactor, one who provides him an income without it ever being disclosed why. His sole desire is to do well at his studies, win a Government prize even, in order to establish his name and place.

This desire is brought to a dramatic end when Viktor Haldin enters his life and states (rather than confesses) that he "removed" Mr de P (by throwing a bomb at him). This was a necessary act, because Mr de P "served the monarchy by imprisoning, exiling or sending to the gallows men and women, young and old, with an equable unwearied industry", bent on extirpating anything that resembled freedom. Viktor has been impressed by Razumov's taciturnity, thinking his silence makes him "profound", saying that he has a "solidity of character which cannot exist without courage". Importantly, in a letter to his sister Nathalie, Viktor describes Razumov as leading an "unstained, lofty and solitary existence", which is taken as both being the highest form of praise and an indication that the two men were co-conspirators. Of course, they had never exchanged a word.

And so the novel is largely about the impact of these events on Razumov: they force him to two successive moral quandaries. He immediately decides that this will be the ruin of him, but he is faced with choices. He is asked to help Viktor escape: is this the right choice? Or should he turn him in to the Police? In the ordinary case of murder this would be the right-thinking person's choice, but if the State is truly poison, is it still the right choice? Is it even murder? I'm glad not to have to make such choices, but ultimately I think he did right - his benefactor was someone with a lot of pull, and was able to help him make a secret denunciation. It is an important plot point that Razumov's part in all of this is never known by the revolutionists. Viktor is arrested and hanged. But what is one to do then? Can the State be trusted to keep his secret? He buys its silence by agreeing to masquerade as an actual co-conspirator of Viktor, and using his network to get to the heart of the revolutionist organisation, safely out of Russia in Geneva.

Here, he faces a second quandary. He meets Nathalie, who is presented as innocence personified:
I became aware, notwithstanding my years, how attractive physically her
personality could be to a man capable of appreciating in a woman something else
than the mere grace of femininity. Her glance was as direct and trustful as that
of a young man yet unspoiled by life's wise lessons. And it was intrepid,
but in this interpidity there was nothing aggressive. A naive but thoughtful
assurance is a better definition. She had reflected already ... but she had
never known deception as yet, because obviously she had never fallen under the
sway of passion.
Interesting the qualities that make up the ideal woman, for this narrator. But the point of her innocence is that it makes it very difficult for Razumov to play his part as co-conspirator with her brother, when he effectively killed him. She is so grateful to him for being a friend to her brother, and for helping his cause; although it is not necessarily her own, she believes in its necessity. Indeed, she goes so far as to say that despite the fact that revolutions "fall into the hands of narrow minded fanatics and of tyrannical hypocrits", then "all the pretentious intellectual failures", the true progress comes after that, when the "right man" will come forward. She, of course, has Razumov in mind. So, this is at the heart of the novel: in light of this belief in him, what will Razumov do? Can his conscience be mastered?

One last word about the revolutionists, and why I think there is a hearty dose of satire being directed at them. Their leader is one Peter Ivanovitch, who is generally referred to as the "burly feminist" or the "great feminist", who ahd written an autobiography in which he claimed to have been imprisoned and beaten by the powers that be, but was able to make a rather dramatic escape - thanks to, he says, to a woman. And so he proclaims the greatness of the Russian woman, saying "the greatest part of our hopes rests on women". But he comes across as a fake; worse, a charlatan. The one Russian woman of the people we see him have any dealings with, he treats like dirt.

I wonder if he was ever imprisoned or any of the things he claims to have happened to him ever did. I wonder this because of the narrator, a teacher of English language (who provides the Western eyes of the title). His opening thought is that words are the great foes of reality, that there "comes a time when the world is but a place of many words and man appears a mere talking animal not much more wonderful than a parrot". I like the line, but dont think it means very much: more important is the idea that through use of words, alternate realities can be constructed, and this book explores that - through Razumov using words to create a false reputation, through terrorist rhetoric (which is so often so abstract as to mean little), through Peter's self-aggrandisment and, indeed, through the claims of the narrator himself not to be inventing anything at all but instead to be passing on Razumov's record and his own observations from meetings with some of the people involved, particularly the Haldins.


Saturday, December 16, 2006

No-one mentioned the earthquakes!

I was feeling a bit melancholic, very conscious of being alone now that there are hordes of fellow travellers around. It really did not help that the Guest House I ended up in, after the popular ones I had visited were all full, turned out to be completely empty - albeit in an ideal location, clean and very cheap. But my four days in Chiang Mai with its attendant pleasures, big and small, have helped lift the mood.

Small pleasures were to be encountered simply by walking around: the mother and young child scootering through town, singing to each other; the coffee-maker happily dancing away behind her counter (until she noticed I had noticed, then she smiled and went back to work); the surreal sight of some young monks throwing bricks into the air (I presume someone was catching them, to continue their building project); the beauty of the moat late at night when the crowds and noise have subsided; even the fellow who stopped to tell me I have "beautiful hair" before trying to sting me for bus fare to Burma. Then for the larger pleasures - the coffee, the food, the shopping. This place is really well set up for coffee - I think there might be just the one Starbucks, but they'll be having a hard time making inroads against the local competition. Take Black Canyon, at the local branch of which I established a routine of having my morning coffee. Their shop was nicely designed, the staff chorused a welcome as I entered and bade me take a seat, their coffee was very good, they do a full meal and alcohol service, plus lots of non-alcoholic drinks and many variations on their core drink, coffee. And this is just one of the local chains, and there are heaps of other one-off ventures.

Of course, there was plenty of Thai food to be had: I wandered around and never went to the same place twice for food, and never repeated a menu item, except once. This is because I went to a flash restaurant my first night there, which specialised in the local dish, Khaoy Soy - basically a curry broth, flat noodles, meat of your choice, veges and crispy fried noodles on top. The only problem was, this place gave the customers so many choices and allowed so much degree of self-assembly of the dish, that it became very likely that it would be screwed up. As I did. So I had to go to a place where they just say "this is how it is" in order to have a dose of the real thing. If someone was ever to get tired of Thai food, then there are plenty of places providing food from most cuisines of the world, and at dirt cheap prices. Special travellers' cafes would have a wide range of Eurpoean and local food, and they'd do a roaring trade - making me wonder how come we have nothing like it at home.

The problem with shopping is that it is very difficult to carry it around. I wandered around several markets, as well as the famous Night Bazaar and the Airport Central Plaza, which had a section devoted to local arts and handcrafts. There were so many things I wanted - great ceramics, textiles, art, silverwear, clothing and random bits and pieces. I had to compromise, and get some nice chopsticks, some shirts and some wooden bookmarks. I reckon I could easily come to Chiang Mai and fill up a container of stuff to furnish a house.

In fact, as I was walking about, I thought I could easily live here: it has pretty much all I depend upon, in terms of food, coffee, entertainment (although no movies worth watching) and amazing bookshops, the accumulated deposits of thousands of travellers.

There are a couple of downsides: it is very noisy (tuktuks and scooters mainly) and, on my second night, there was an earthquake. Sure, it was a small one, but they scare the hell out of me, partly because there is no way of knowing just how big a quake it is going to be. When I visited the museum, things became clear - there are FOUR faultlines in the northern Thailand region, one of which goes bang through Chiang Mai province.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

One night in Bangkok

Fascinating that I should know this is a song title, but have no other recollection about it. Turns out it ios a Frankie Goes to Hollywood song, with the chorus
One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble
Not much between despair and ecstasy
One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble
Can't be too careful with your company
I can feel the devil walking next to me

It really was not that bad. I had intended to spend no time at all there, just skip through as quickly as possible, particularly after the interminable bus journey north. The trains were departing and arriving at such eccentric times and the buses were leaving every half hour or so. What I did not know was that, being public buses, they'd be stopping at every bus stop, so long as they had room. My bus was never full, so for the entire 300+ km trip, we'd be stopping, picking someone up who wanted a ride for a kilometre or a hundred of them, then setting them down. Plus, we'd dawdle through towns trying to drum up business, with the driver tooting like mad, and the barker yelling out "Bangkok, Bangkok..."

So, the journey was something over six hours. At least the bus was comfy, very cheap, and had lots of vendors wandering on and off. Once in Bangkok, we zipped out to various suburbs before I was deposited at a random petrol station, somewhere near the southern bus station. At least, I assume that's where I was to get off, as everyone else did. I had no idea where I was, except that I was outside Bangkok's reputedly largest and best shopping mall (I bet they all say that) so dashed in for a restock on the donuts and orange juice. I had no idea how the local bus system worked, could see no sign of a railway line or the underground so, finally, grabbed a taxi. What fun that was - he had little English, I have no Thai beyond the basic food items, and I didn't think that asking him for a basil chicken on rice would help me. He wanted to take me to the airport, to Khao San Road and who knows where else. I had the Lonely Planet glossary - but instead of telling me how to say train station, it was more like "I wonder, kind sir, if you would be kind enough to give me proper directions so that I might find the train station." Try reading that lot out in Thai! Or picking out which words might mean train station. Thankfully, I thought to say "Chiang Mai". Equally thankfully, he didn't think the Thai equivalent of "fuck my days, what a fare." He was still insisting on the airport, but had now added the bus station to his suggestions. Me going "no bus, no plane" left him confused, to which I added by going "choo choo". I don't think saying Humphalong helped, as the actual place was called Hua Lomphong, but it was the best my memory could do for me after a long day on a bus and the sugar rush from the donuts. But his mind was working, and eventually he cracked the code, at which point he said he was from Chiang Mai himself, had been in Bangkok for a handful of periods of indeterminate length. His story sort of meandered out at that point, as a lot was being lost in translation.

Driving through Bangkok in the early dusk left me regretting I wasn't staying, because it looked very cool, lots of interesting eating houses. So I was quite pleased when there were no seats on any trains going north, unless I cared for 3rd class. Despite the train system having been reported to be completely full for the next week or so (I'd even asked a travel agent to book me a berth ten days ago, but they'd been unable to comply), I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could get a lower berth sleeper for the next evening.

That left me in Bangkok without a plan, with no guidebook, nothing. Sure, when I travelled away from home for the very first time 20 odd years ago, Bangkok was my first destination but that was little help to me this time - all I could remember was Khao San Road, and I didn't even know what direction it was in. Luckily the Bangkok Post came through for me: I'd read an article about the buffet dinner in the new Brasserie restaurant in the Silom Road Holiday Inn. They'd raved about it, so once I found a hotel (by standing outside the railway station and scanning the rooftops - hardly ever fails) I was off. The meal cost three times the price of my hotel, but I'd not eaten all day, and they had loads of tasty things to try (plus turkey, since Christmas is coming).

After a pretty much sleepless night (I was used to lots of motorbikes and tuktuks screaming past, but it was the several dogfights that made sleeping hard), I had a full day ahead of me, and I was a bit sick of shopping streets. So it was a bonus when I saw the skytrain went to the central pier - from where you can have day long access to the river boat system for 100 baht. And the last stop was near Khao San Road, so I thought I'd pop in and see what they'd done with the neighbourhood. Like a lot of young travellers coming to Bangkok for the first time, I'd stayed there, but didn't last long: 20 years ago, it was already a cliche. I found myself a nice clean chinese run hotel in the middle of Bangkok, away from the banana pancake and reggae set. These days, it is a theme park. There were always a lot of stalls catering to travellers, but the road is almost completely closed now. It also seems so much smaller than it did. And yet, travellers still come on to the Lonely Planet Thorntree every day, asking how quickly they can get there.

But my day in Bangkok was fun - there was some sort of rowing competition happening across the river, and Amnesty International was running a little event to celebrate World Dwarfs day (or something - I missed the critical middle word), and riding up and down the river was nice as well.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Prachuap Khiri Khan

This place deserves a post all to itself: it is another of the places I had noted as being where I should stop, and it has been the best so far. If only I didn't have a problem with idleness, I might well stay here. It has certainly made the pretty much horrible train trip from Hat Yai worthwhile. I have enjoyed being on the trains so far - they've all been pretty low key affairs, full of kids playing, people shouting into their cellphones, striking up random conversations with each other, windows fully open to let the warm air blast through the cariage, and the vendors coimg in at almost every station to sell a bewildering array of things. But the Thai rail system has been buying Dawoo Diesel railcars, also know as Sprinters. They certainly have a high level of service: within three hours of getting on, the charming attendants had been around three times, twice with cakes and drinks, the other time with a full meal (no beer, but). But the main feature of these trains is that they try to pretend the world doesn't exist - they're airconditioned, their windows have advertising painted on them and from the inside seem to have that black mesh that some microwave door wndows have. This particular train was late and had the kid from hell sitting directly in front of me: I first noticed him when his grandmother was taking some pills - his reaction was to slap her face; later, his finger went straight in her eye. He kept yelling, turning around in his seat so he was facing me (still yelling) and was just fractious the whole time he was on the train.

All in all, I was looking forward to getting off. My first impressions of Prachuap Khiri Khan were a bit daunting - it is a fairly small town, all locked up tight (it was 2:45 a.m. - all the trains on this line seem to run at night), and I worried about (a) finding my hotel and (b) gaining admittence. I had to wake up the poor lady running the place, but she was cheerful about it, and rented me a stupidly cheap room, one I upgraded from this morning.

The thing about this place is that it is where the train line hits the Gulf Of Thailand, when going north. It is a town of around 26,000 people, largely focussed on fishing. So when I walked along the waterfront promenade (they have built a sea wall so don't have much beach) this moring, various folk had laid out their fish, either to dry, to cut up, to sort or whatever. It is a perfect crescent, maybe 2 km long, with a few islands dotted about. The oddest thing is, it was almost completely deserted when I went back tonight for dinner - just a few people sitting on the seawall, the lights of a few boats in the distance, a refreshing breeze nd the newly risen moon. There are quite a few restaurants, but hardly had any custom at all. Just across the road from the waterfront, there are a couple of hotels with balconies - in all, it would be an amazing place to just laze about.

Oh, the shame!

I failed to make it back from Hat Yai to Songkhla without yet another sudden downpour: this time I was close to the big Carrefour mall I had noticed, so ducked in to check it out. They had a poor excuse for a food court, where most of the action seemed to be focussed on the glass-enclosed kareoke booths or what seemed to be pokie machines for small kids. Nonetheless, I managed to stick it out there for several hours, looking at the various shops. But they had a particular food item I succumbed to, one that is not exactly a native of Thailand but is hardly ever to be found in New Zealand.

Yes, they had a Mr Donut stall, and it was soooo good! I had several, along with this violently orange "orange juice" which was terribly sweet. But it gets worse, in at least two ways. Which shall I mention first? The fact that, the next day, when I had a few hours to kill between arriving in town and my train north, I went back and had a second dose? This time with the extra large "orange juice". And then went and had KFC? Two cultural observations can be made about that experience which means it was a worthy one to engage in: here, they not only provide knives and forks, but people actually use them. Second, they serve up the Pepsi in real glasses. Yeah, stetching for justification here! But the night before, after my first encounter with Mr Donut, I kept coming back to the Sante Fe restuarant, which featured a dining area in the shape of a mock up of a train carriage. Ultimately, I could not resist, and spent more than I've been spending on a couple of nights in a hotel to get a handful of chips, some inedible salad and a New Zealand eye fillet steak which had been beaten out of all recognition and then smothered in sauce so that its taste was completely masked.

So, that's what my visit to Hat Yai did to me. As for Songkhla, I still have not seen its waterfront. After my steak, I did get off the bus quite a bit earlier than I intended, so went exploring - found about a million kareoke bars, some just open front shops, some a lot more elaborate. But all efforts to get to the waterfront were thwarted by locked gates. I did have one interesting encounter. I had been walking for quite some time in the heat, my hair felt like it was plastered to my head, my skin is not reacting well to the heat. Nonetheles, I was walking past a building of uncertain useage when a woman with no teeth launched herself at me, got her arm twisted around mine, and started patting me down - she seemed particularly interested in my belly, rubbing it as if some sort of genie was to appear. (Unlike the Thai herbal seller, whose pitch was "you are very fat, you need these", it seemed to strike her as an appropriate size.) Although she had no English, her gestures made it pretty clear that certain things would be available to me, if only I would go inside with her.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

No bombs, not so far

Last time I was taking refuge from the heat, this time it is the rain. There was a crack of thunder, big spots of rain appeared out of a greying sky, and then down she came. I was going to have food, but the place I was standing outside only had remnants from the lunch rush, none appetising. In my search for something more appetising under the same verandah, I found an internet cafe. Although there is a typhoon or tropical storm heading for Southern Thailand, I don't think this marks its arrival - I checked a weather map this morning, and there is to be no serious disturbance to the weather for the next five days. This is the same typhoon that killed 50 or so people in Vietnam, after hitting the Phillipines, so I think I'm glad I won't be making its acquaintance.

Getting into Thailand yesterday was as easy as pie, and the time difference worked in my favour. I woke and was thinking I had slept half the day away. By the time I caught the bus to the Malaysian border town, walked from one country to the next (I kind of like that way of approaching a border crossing, even if in this case it only meant going over a small bridge), wandered the kilometre of the road up to the railway station, my watch was saying it was nearly noon. I had no desire to hang around Sungei Kolok, since this is where the bombs went off a couple of weeks ago (sure, I was going to be fine even if I did hang around, but still, I didn't want to stay there) and I knew that the first of the only two trains left before noon. But Thailand is an hour behind Malaysia, so my train was still in the station. The trip up was pretty uneventful - lots of scrubby regrowth, a few paddy fields, the occasional town, a wat or a mosque, soldiers on the train carrying handguns and most stations having a complement of soldiers with automatic weapons. All seemed very genial and relaxed, however.

The best thing about it was that I wandered down the train, as someone had said somethng about a dining car. A fatherly figure handed me a menu, the army brass smiled and asked after my travels. When my food arrived, the fellow said "I hope you like chilis", because here, basil chicken means some chicken pieces, a few shrivelled bits of basil, and lots of luscious thick slices of juicy chili, red and green. Yum. That, a beer, a smoke, and the world going by windows added up to bliss.

From Hat Yai, I caught the local bus out to my destination, Songkhla. Buses here look fairly normal on the outside, either green or red, but inside they're tricked out as kareoke lounges. My particular bus had red leatherette seats, a mirror finish stainless steel ceiling, and a regular size TV above the driver, playing a never repeating stream of Thai pop videos, with the lyrics presented kareoke style, so you could sing along if you really wanted to. The more passengers there were, the louder this was turned up. And for a normal size bus, the barker/conductor seemed to be able to stack a huge number of passengers in. Ah well, at least the videos weren't Linkin Park, which is what this morning's bus featured.

There is apparently a beach/port at Songkhla, which I think is why I chose it (I'm travelling without a guide book, just a few rough suggestions of suitable stopping points, which no mention made of why I thought I should stop there - it all adds to the adventure) - all I saw last night were a couple of fishing boats tied up at the bottom of the street I am staying on. Instead of checking that out, I looked around the town, found a very nice man with a coffee shop. I also decided to have a proper restaurant meal, but I think I must have missed a protocol lesson along the way. When I was finished, I caught the waitresses' eye to get the bill, but she just smiled at me - she was pretty, I smiled back. We went through this four times as she circulated, before I actually asked if I could pay.

This morning I geeked: in Malaysia, I was really impressed with their stationery shops. Not commercial - I mean stationery for personal or school use. Kota Bharu had several, they had pen displays at least a couple of metres long, one (I counted!) had 30 different erasors, they have pile after pile of various sizes, shapes and colours of exercise books. I think I visited three, wanting to take photos, but even I have limits to my geekery. But this morning, I was in a department store in Hat Yai, and I couldn't resist - I bought an entire collection of pens. By the time I get back to Singapore and pick up the things I have my eye on there, I should be able to start a small shop of my own.

One last comment about Kota Bharu: I was in the museum, and realised that I had inadvertently broken the law. There was a display showing how the supermarkets and other shops had, in accordance with KB's establishment as a city of Islam, started seperate check out counters for men and women. They used the particular supermarket I had been in to demonstrate, so I really do know I went through the wrong line. That's the second time so far I've broken the law: the first was when I entered Singapore. I kind of knew that they'd had some sort of clamp down on duty free tobacco products, and saw a small sign saying that they all had to be declared and have duty paid. This, I failed to do.

Labels: ,

Monday, December 04, 2006

Kota Baru

Ooh, it is hot, so I have taken refuge in an internet cafe - the first time I have had to do this. Mind you, until now, I have had a car or train to keep me cool, or in Singapore I could just dash into the nearest shopping mall and develop a sudden interest in electronic components or whatever to cool off. But I am in Kota Baru, in the far north east of Malaysia, and it is a bit lacking in air conditioned shopping facilities. Of course, my hotel room is air conditioned, but I am not quite ready to bar myself into my small green windowless room.

It is Monday, so that makes it about day 12: it is pretty much a week since I spoke to anyone, other than to exchange civilities or to buy something. After spending my working year focussed on communicating, it is actually quite a pleasant change to simply be on my own and not carry any kind of conversational burden.

My last day in Singapore, I was pretty whacked, I hate to think how many miles I had walked the day before (but how else was I going to randomly find a Viennese Coffee house in Singapore?). So, when I woke up, I was feeling a bit like the central character Sully in Richard Russo's Nobody's Fool after a hard day's work, where he'd feel fine at the end of the day but wake up in pain. I dont think I went more than a kilometre from the hotel, but it was still interesting. Just north of the hotel seemed to be Singapore's official hippy district, taking up the street for a block or so. Then there was a textile district, for another block, and around it was middle East Moslem territory, including a Yemeni restaurant which looked cool. In the evening, I went south, thinking I might take a drink in Raffles but feeling far too scruffy to enter its portals. Instead, I went into the Raffles shopping centre - a place which could have been pretty much anywhere in terms of its aesthetic and shops.

All, that is, except for the foodcourt, which seems to be a Singaporean institution - I hadn't actually been in one for an evening meal, and was surprised at its popularity. It seemed that this was simply the regular way for a lot of locals to get their evening meal, and when you're paying $2-3, why not? I wish we had some more like them back home (Auckland has started down that path, first with Food Alley and then several newer ones). I had wanted to carry on down to the river, as the night before I had noticed how spectacular the lights of the cluster of buildings were. My little digital wasn't up to the task of a photo, but I'm also carrying a film camera (one I bought off trademe the day before I left), so thought I'd experiment with night photography. Except that it doesn't work.

Last Friday, I left on a nearly all-stops train. For the first few hours, we were driving through land that was obviously cultivated; although I had trouble picking out what any of the various trees were, they were far too regular to be anything other than a plantation. Despite being third class, the train was pretty much brand new, air conditioned, and very comfortable - I was on it for 8 or 9 hours without a problem, although I suspect that on a particular down hill part just before dark, the driver was pushing it along a little faster than he ought to. It made for an exhilerating ride. The train was being slapped on both sides by the jungle, making noises trains really ought not be making and every so often it would actually jump into alignment with the tracks. The night was spent in a small town on the banks of the Lipis river; unfortunately it was raining almost the whole time I was there, so I didn't come away with a very positive impression.

On Saturday, the train was much older, a bit of a wreck in terms of furnishings, but still clean, comfortable and fast. This train really did make all the stops, but the landscapes were much more interesting than those of the day before - lumpy land, lots of jungle, weird rock outcrops and sudden cliffs. I took it as far as Gua Musang - maybe it was because the sun was shining, but it seemed like a very pleasant little town. Another train, even older and shabbier, brought me up here yesterday, where I am sure I got involed in some sort of scam but, since it didn't cost me anything except to get railroaded into a more expensive (and nicer) hotel than I had planned, I'm not worried. I wasn't planning to take a taxi from the train station, but I was waiting at the bus stop with another fellow, when a taxi driver offered to take us both into town for bus fare. Fine, I think. In town, the taxi driver has a mate, who wants to show me where the hotels are. I do shake him off, but then the taxi driver materialises and suggests I am heading the wrong way. I can see a hotel so, just to get rid of him, I head towards it - at which point his mate latches on to me and comes into the hotel as well. Damn sure he was claiming a finder's fee.

But my spirits were restored: I was out looking for food, and got talking to two very nice police officers, just talking, they weren't questioning me or anything, just wanting to be helpful. Then I had food, and I was fine again. Not that I am finding food buying particularly easy here: some cafes, you only know they're a cafe because there are a few tables, and maybe someone eating at one or two. Others have a few ingredients sitting in a glass cabinet, but I have no idea of what language I need to convert those things into dinner. Then there are cafes with menus: the things I recognise (like Nasi goreng) don't look like anything I've had at home and most things I simply don't recognise. Ah well, I haven't starved yet.

Tomorrow it is Thailand, which should be fun, as it is the King's birthday, and I have been warned that the train system nationwide is "full", to some destinations for a couple of weeks.

Labels: ,