Friday, 16 January 2009

What's yet to come

My destination will always remain the same, that I can't change - but certainly, I haven't set in stone everything between lying here on the couch in my bedorom to getting into my new room in Japan, it's a journey without ties, it's why I could never buy a round-the-world plane ticket, how boring is the idea of that? Knowing that you have to go to a certain place at a certain time, not allowing you to think for yourself as and when you want to go somewhere.. if you decide to join a group of people and go somewhere else, you have to force yourself to get back or to somewhere else at a specific time - I've no interest in such a thing. My plan is not to use planes at all if I can help it. If I can, I'll get a faster motorbike and see how far I can reach until it just won't go any further.. How amazing is it to think of how far you could go with just a bike and the road ahead? To me it's enthralling, I can't wait. Maybe I'll go without the bike, maybe I will, that all comes down to money, as many things do - but one things for sure, I will go, I'll make it work and it'll be the swansong to end the first quarter of my life (I intend to be at least a hundred!).

Now Dave (Lee, who I met in Hong Kong) is talking to me, it's been just under eleven months since I met him in a small Hong Kong dorm.. the times I had.. the times I will have. I can't wait, but I know I have to.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Enter Bangkok

Knowing you're leaving for somewhere else, somewhere a lot further than normal, led me to having a half-lazy day of making sure I was ready to leave. That meant spending the remaining bit of Dong I had left, as it's nigh-on impossible to get rid of the Vietnamese currency outside of Vietnam, let alone for a decent rate. Thankfully, I never had too much on me at one time, simply because you don't need that much - plus, it made me feel strange seeing millions come up on the screen, 2,000,000 Dong is about £62 - I just hoped they didn't take out pounds instead. So waking up in the morning led me to start talking to Tracey, a well-travelled Canadian girl with the right attitude about absolutely everything. We wandered on from our dorm (where all the beds were mattresses on the floor) and found a restaurant/cafe with wi-fi for our laptopping needs and some of the best air-con around. From what I remember it was chocolately things and spaghetti bolognese, the food of a pasta-starved English boy. After that it was another cafe before I departed, I had something to be getting to...

My flight was booked, 14th April 2008, 17:55, $101.50 from Ho Chi Minh City to Bangkong, Thailand. Total flight duration is an hour and a half - so to give myself time before boarding, I tried looking for ways to book a taxi early on. Due to my natural urge to bargain and get the best price possible, I didn't accept it was going to cost me £5 by taxi, so asked around and found that bike (of course!) was the cheapest option. That meant approaching pretty much anyone stationary on their motorbikes/scooters/whatever and asking them how much to the airport. Half the price of a car! Thanks very much, I said, then pondered.. how am I going to get my bag there? "You put bag here!", says the ever-helpful guy in charge of the bike. So he turns my back upside-down (no idea why), pops it in-between his legs, we negotiate to 80,000 Dong and I jump on the back - shorts, t-shirt, helmet and sunglasses, I'm ready to go.

Winding between cars at what feels like high speed, swerving and rarely stopping, the traffic flowing with a wind-like quality, twisting in on itself and all with the cacophony of sirens and horns to accompany the madness. The airport is roughly twenty minutes away on bike, I get there quicker than any car would even hope to, and find that I'm now off into the most expensive-looking building in the whole of Vietnam; Ho Chi Minh Airport. A funny goodbye, in a way - I enter into what equates to nothing more than an over-blown shanty town, and leave through what could be a brand new airport in the UK for all anyone knows. Check-in wasn't as smooth as I could have hoped for, my bag was over 20kgs, the limit on hold-luggage being 20kg.. thus I had to remove items from it to get the weight down and take a large bag of bits and pieces that I've managed to accrue along the way as my hang luggage.

I make my way through the short route to the waiting lounge; everyone is either of Thai or Viet blood it seems, all bar two white guys in the corner. We get talking and end up on the plane together, the majority of seats spare, just in case you wanted to sleep perhaps! The ever-friendly air-hostesses come up and down for food, I announce that yes, I would love some food. And no, I don't have any Thai Baht. No Baht? No food. I only have about 50,000 Dong left, £1.5 or thereabouts - no amount of my suave and persuasive demeanour can convince any of these fine ladies to part with even a bottle of water. Darn.

After sharing stories and whatnot, me and my two new compatriots Sam and Lawrence, figure that since I only know the name of one road, and that we're all new to this country, hey, we may as well stick together. So we do! We find a taxi rank just outside of the airport after a brief trip through customs to get another stamp in our passports (this time a free visa for thirty days) and strike up conversation with a family who've been living in Thailand for quite a while now, they give us some sound advice on how to determine prices with taxi drivers and what to look out for. For that we're thankful and we bundle into a car. The taxi driver has an evident love of British rock, many tapes litter his humble vehicle and he trots out some melodies in his finest humming voice - all whilst we gaze at the new surroundings we have upon us. It's gone 8pm and it's night-time, we're going down a real motorway, with real tarmac and big billboards advertising laptop computers and other life-style bits and bobs.. this is not Vietnam, that much is clear. Where are all the bikes? Where's the dirt-track road? It's different, that's for sure.

If you've read or watched The Beach, it tells you of the first back-packer destination that everyone heads to, possibly because that's where everyone else is, that's where all the cheap hostels and dorms are, it's where the journey begins - Khao San Road is that very place. While it is simply the name of a road, everything surrounding it on the connecting and adjacent roads is what makes it, bars, 7-11 stores, hostels, guesthouses, crowded streets, counterfeit t-shirts.. it's a big mish-mash of hilarity and intruige; it's certainly recommended, even to just see what it's like. We near the centre of Bangkok - it's well-lit, tall buildings are everywhere, and.. large portraits of the King and his family are running down the middle of this street, they're housed in huge decorative golden frames and look in pristine condition. We go past a few large elaborate temples and similarly decorative bridges, much in the style of the frames of the pictures of the King.

Then we realise that we're in Bangkok and we're near where we need to be. I realise this because, as someone told me, it's coming up to the Thai New Year (Songkran) - except, I forgot this, until I saw all the crowds, and remembered what that person told me: people line the streets, throw water (any which way) at each other, get this white clay paste and smother it on each other and generally have a great time. A great wet time. That means a great wet time for us with our large non-waterproof backpacks, because we have to go straight into that crowd across the road, straight in there on a search for a guesthouse for the night, without getting wet. Bearing in mind most of the weight of my backpack is my computer and books.. either getting wet would be quite the disaster.

We usher the driver to keep driving a bit: "Keep going..keep going!", "But this is Khao San Road!", "I know! So keep going!"

Unperplexed by the crowds, he doesn't understand why we just asked him to take us to Khao San Road and then tell him to keep going, past Khao San Road. We decide, sod it, we have to get there, we've got to get into somewhere to sleep for the night regardless, the crowd isn't going to disappear anytime soon. The people are one both sides of this road and we're about to get out in the middle.. buggery.

Suffice to say, we jumped out quickly on deciding what to do, get our bags out of the boot, cross over the road, skirt around the crowd a bit until we find a road that looks like one that we should be going down, and see thousands upon thousands of people crammed down it.

We push through lightly, weaving in between people and see a road to our immediate right - guest house.. 300 Baht! From walking across the road, into the crowd slightly and looking to our right, we find a guest house immediately - the name of said guest house? First Guest House. Perfect. Even more so when we find out they have spare room for the night, in the middle of the New Year. 300 Baht by the way, is about £5. That's £5 per room, for a double bed - Sam and Lawrence bunk up together to save on cash, £5 for me is more than okay. The owner speaks not one word of English, this doesn't matter. We understand she needs a small key deposit, that the showers she's pointing at are in fact showers, and that our room is up the hall. Fantastic. We dump our bags in there, I make a quick check for cockroaches, and unlike as seen/read in The Beach, mine contains none. Shortly after, we meet outside of our respective rooms and determine that yes, taking cameras is a ridiculous idea when everyone right outside the guest house is armed with either a bottle of water, a water pistol, a water balloon or a hose pipe. We arm ourselves with a couple of hundred Baht and head out into the wet, humid Bangkok air and get soaked, drunk, into various gangland-esque water fights with Thai teenagers, guys from Israel fresh out of conscription and a couple of Australians. One of the best nights ever.

The view from the end of the hall from the guest house: this is when it was winding down..

Friday, 29 August 2008

Cu Chi Tunnels

I'd never read up on Vietnam before I arrived, I simply wanted to get out of China and into somewhere different, somewhere with any semblance of character. Thankfully I found that - both in the people and in the surroundings. Some of this has been shaped by war, some by the requirement of tourism to keep the smaller towns going. The one thing that everyone seemed to be doing or recommended to do was to go to the Cu Chi Tunnels, a couple of hours outside the centre of Ho Chi Minh. A tour was booked, US$5 including the bus ride there - the only 'downer' was that we weren't told we also had to pay to get in (two different tickets, bizarrely), which a few of us were slightly annoyed by, but really, it's pennies and worthless moaning with such nice weather and hospitable people showing us about. Plus, I didn't fancy my chances on finding my way back from the remote place we found ourselves in!

Myself and a girl I'd found a room with the night previous decided to get onto this tour thing, and it proved itself to be a worthwhile spend of a day. The tunnels themselves were carved out by anyone and everyone living in Vietnam during the war that has scarred large parts of their land; essentially tunnels in the mud that were lived in for a few years for some. To say they were cramped is an understatement, my legs were buckling after a small amount of crouching and hobbling about, perhaps being 6'3" isn't a fair comparison, but a lot of people (myself included) felt claustraphobic even before we'd gone into the holes in the ground. It's a marvel to wonder how utterly terrifying it would have been to have to live down there, have no decent way to defend yourself against the oncoming American forces; even moreso when you see the huge craters left by bombs throughout and after the war (as some lay dormant until happened upon by anyone unlucky enough to stumble into any).

Other than the tunnels themselves, the other main draw for people to come here is the freely available guns to shoot.. yes, war-torn by guns and bombs, and they have a shooting range with a variety of different weapons for you to try out - from pistols to AK47s and other ridiculously loud instruments of pain. I hesitated for a few minutes while this Polish guy I met (who has his own dentistry practice which I may have to visit myself sometime this year) had his go at firing an AK47. As we were about to go, I said 'Sod it', manned up and bought five rather long, scary-looking bullets to put in this scary-looking gun. They cost less than £1 each and could be bought just next to the range, prices written on an A4 bit of paper on the desk.

Nervously I put on my ear protectors, which weren't in fact ear protectors but old headphones with the cord cut off. Fantastic. The guy looking after the guns put the bullets in, and of course the gun was secured down so people couldn't just walk off with them or fire willy nilly. I looked down the sight, pulled the trigger slowly and, well, it was really, really, really loud. So loud I was surprised the guy who put the bullets in was just standing next to me with nothing protecting his ears, I was glad for the old headphones! All five shots went pretty quickly but I savoured how utterly horrendous the recoil was on my shoulder (despite it being secured down), how powerful it is and sickeningly scary to think these exist.

I come away from the experience dazed, making my way up to the rest of the group with a confused conscience.

I get back to my room much later on, crack the laptop out and think 'What next?'; then I book myself a one way ticket to Bangkok the next day for around £50.

One of the many tunnels burrowed into the ground

One of the horrific traps they created to combat the invading forces - I'm not sure which one I'd rather not encounter, an army with guns and bayonets, or a nail-encrusted trap you have to pry yourself from, if at all possible. With this one, your weight is paramount to how hard this trap will clasp onto you, some are barbed

Guns and bullets, get your guns and bullets..

So I got my bullets..

And took my sweet time

The Polish chap I spent the day with, getting into one of the tunnels. I almost backed out, but in the end myself and three girls (one from Northampton, strangely enough!) waited until everyone else that had gone in had exited at the other end, and got through the 100m (or so) tunnel as quickly as possible. No regrets!

The view from one of the well-touristed government buildings in Saigon

Saigon And Beyond

Getting into a habit of doing things I don't enjoy was never intended, but again, I find myself on a night-bus in Vietnam. Truth be told, they're not all that bad, but are most certainly not my preferred method of travel and sleep-catching. They're fine for getting somewhere and can be excellent for meeting willing travel buddies, plus, they're dirt cheap, just don't expect to get anywhere quickly!

I'd spent a few nights in Nha Trang (two or three, my memory is already fading), sun-soaked, yet I didn't manage to get any part of my body any more tanned, even with a day relaxing on the beach with a book. The next logical place on the Vietnam trail was Saigon/Ho Chi Minh, whichever you prefer - a £6/$12/200,000Dong night-bus took me there in the evening. A friendly but short-spoken guy came to my hotel and told me the bus was "around the corner". I had to lug my bag about ten minutes through Nha Trang to some other bustling streets, felt more like an hour though - especially when it's 35 degrees at 8pm!

The bus was a seater, so no lying down, barely any sleep, but I did manage to nod off at some point as I was woken in the morning by the driver, I glanced left and right, picked up my glasses, my bag, and promptly got off the bus and wandered up the road at 5am with pensioners running past and doing star jumps and dancing in the tennis courts and fields to my left. Two minutes later: "Bollocks". I forgot my book, I put it behind my back so I wouldn't forget it in the morning.. and it turns out I did forget it, and I only had fifty pages (out of six hundred) to go before I finished it. I ask my friend I shared the journey with to look after my bag for a minute and run full pelt back to the bus.. which is no longer there. No! It had my book.. which, whilst annoying, is replaceable - but also had my bookmark, my bookmark being a Polaroid of myself and my friend Laura who I met in Amsterdam (who worked at the Flying Pig Hostel there). Arse.

I lament this for a while and trudge back to my bag, hoist it onto my back and start the regular search for a hostel in the morning mist and sweat of Saigon.

If Hanoi was held at its edges, stretched twice its size and then had some money dropped onto it, that'd be Saigon. It actually has a store that sells electronics, something I'd not seen anything of in any other place in Vietnam. The streets are a lot wider, there are a heck of a lot more cars, but still their numbers pale in comparison to that of the scooters and motorbikes. The slight layer of dirt still clouds the pavements, the sky is never truly blue, but the people smile, the kids play football with tennis balls and the government buildings piss on everything else around them. All the money spent on visas to enter their country could be doing a lot more than making their large white buildings even whiter.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Annnd it's back!

And my box arrived on its two week journey across land/water/whatever from Hong Kong, including some clothes I'd posted, bits of paper, business cards from various places and people, annnd my hard drive, with all the photos on it I'd take along the way!

That means an update soon - I'll be getting to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and then back through China; it'll just take a while. :)