Wednesday, July 31, 2002
Impressions of China (warning: only been here 5 days)
The cities are much more industrialised and 'Western' than expected. And the people have been friendlier than I was led to believe.
I went to a small cafe yesterday. The owner sat me down with the only English menu he had and kept me stocked up with green tea. As I was finishing my chicken with ginger, a gang of chinamen came in and sat down. First they offered me a cigarette (the chinese view tobacco as one of the four major food groups) then they insisted I sit with them and sample some of their food and some potent local rice wine - toasting various members of the party as we went along. Apparently the Chinese prefer to do things in groups (hence the communal showers). Communication was slightly hampered as they knew no English and I no Mandarin. But my phrasebook cause much interest - they took it in turns to read as though it were the latest John Grisham. Eventually it all became too much and I made an excuse and left. But utterly beguiling none the less.
Currently in the backpacker mecca of Dali. Altho supposedly an 'ancient' city, most of it seems suspiciously modern. It probably took a pasting during the Cultural Revolution (when anything pre-1949 could be attacked as anti-communist) and has been extensively rebuilt by the government to attract the tourist dollar. It's still very pretty, mind.
Monday, July 29, 2002
Buses. Took a 24 hour bus from Mengla to Kumming in Yunnan province. It didn't have any seats. Instead 30 bunk-beds / cots were available. These are designed for Chinese people who are not renowned - as a rule - for being tall. Certainly not as tall as me. This situation was exacerbated by:
1. The bad state of Chinese roads
2. The bad state of bus suspension
3. The gung-ho approach of our driver
I think I spent more time in the air than on the bunk and felt like a pancake by the time we arrived.
China. What can I say? Excellent food. Appalling bathrooms. The toilets consist of chutes leading directly into fields or common pipes if in a hotel. One is reminded of Glastonbury's legendary conveniences. Showers are shared and often unisex. However cities are well-developed in terms of facilities.
Oudomxay - dodgy border town. The streets are ill-lit and full of bored teenagers roaming in packs. Get me out of here. Had an interesting conversation with a Lao guy tho. He asked me a couple of Dutch what we thought about comunism. Good and bad was our reply - and his too. He also thought that one-party states were more efficient than multi-party ones. Hmmm...
And so northward. By bus from LP to Oudomxay. There are 3 buses - 8am, 11am and 1pm. I bought a ticket for the 11am and was told to get there at 10.30. I was greeted by what appeared to be a giant tuk-tuk. So I plonked myself on a bench and waited. And waited. And waited. Meanwhile the bus filled up with people, infants, baskets of bananas, electric fans, sacks full of unidentified round, hard things and a small motorbike. The 11am bus became the 1pm bus. Then we left. After 2 hours of bouncing around I decided that hanging off the back on the tailboard might be more comfortable. It was and the views as we trundled up and down the hills were spectacular. We passed thru many tribal villages clinging to the side of the hills on stilts. It was almost alpine - apart from the naked children, obvious poverty and distinct lack of yodelling. Occasional flashes of incongruity as well - such as blue plastic garden chairs sitting outside a bamboo hut.
The Mekong River. Do you remember the river of chocolate river from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Well the Mekong looks just like that. I cannot confirm that it tastes the same.
Luang Prabang - for those that find Vientiane unbearably fast-paced and urban, there is LP. The waterfalls nearby are spectacular. Some unusual sites tho. The State Water Company Offices seem have installed inpromptu bandminton courts in their grounds. And the Red Cross have shown unexpected entreprenurial spirit by opening a sauna and massage parlour for tourists.
Vang Vieng - a kinda of backpacker holiday camp. Whitewater rafting, walking around caves and pancakes laced with non-standard herbs. None of which currently appeal. Oh and it rained continuously for 3 days.
The local brew - Beerlao is incredibly cheap - about 50p for a litre of the stuff. The draught version is excellent whilst the bottled version has the impairment of tasting of cardboard.
There is an Arc de Triomphe Laos-style in the middle of Vientiane - a gothic Buddhist affair made of concrete that even the official signs describe as "ugly". The view is quite interesting tho. Uniquely for a South East Asian city there are no buildings over 6 stories. And lots and lots of trees. So Vientiane - flat and green.
Tuesday, July 16, 2002
I am a millionaire. Well in Lao Kip anyway (US$100). Now in Vientiane. If Bangkok is "You, you, you. You buy my elephant / use my tuk-tuk / want Thai girlfriend?", Vientiane is "Uh, you've just woken me up". Possibly the most laid back capital city I have ever visited.
Service with a Smile
Everybody smiles in Thailand. It's the standard way of keeping your public sweet (and Thai's also excel at flattery). and it rubs off on you a bit as well. I'll come back looking like a Moonie - or worse a New Labour cabinet minister.
Friday, July 12, 2002
OK, fully visa'd up now. Heading to Laos tonite, followed by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, then Thailand again. Excited? Oh yes...
I Pity Da Fool
Okay. Am I an idiot? The evidence for: I gave some clothes to my guest house in Chang Mai as laundry and promptly forget to pick them up. I left with one sert of clothing that after 5 days ahas now begun to smell. Doh!
The museum at Sukhothai descibes the meanings of different poses of the Buddha statues: standing, sitting, walking (a delicate catwalk sashay in fact). There are about 8 in all. Why has no one produced a fully-poseable Buddha action figure? He Walks, he Sits, he Overcomes his desire to release himself from suffering into enlightenment. Or something.
See the ruins of Thailand's first state capital. Which are actually quite dull. Lots of Buddhist chedis and the occasional 50ft Buddha. What makes it a little unusual is the geographical dispersion of the ruins. You can cycle thru paddy fields and farmers quietly washing their motorbikes and then you come across a bloody great ruined temple. It gives you some tiny inkling of what Sukhothai might have once been like.
The trekking experience wasn't quite over yet. Tong suggeted the five of us go out for a beer. He took us all to an empty kareoke bar where short thai women wearing platform soles that wouldn't disgrace an oil rig delicately trilled out Thai pop classics. After a couple of beers we decided to join in. Unable to identify songs by artist, only title we finally located Michael Jackson's Beat It. I like to think Wacko Jacko would have been touched by our interpretation - but then, I am one of the most deluded men you may ever meet.
Chang Mai. A heavily-touristed city in Northern Thailand used mainly as a base for trekking. I went on a 3 day trek last weekend. And here's what happened:
The trek started at 10am with two tour guides (Sunshine and Tong) and eight tourists (a Dutch couple, two Danish girls, a Yank, an Aussie, a Northerner and me). Everything went relatively well on the first day. We yomped thru the jungle to a Karen tribal village to stay the night. The Karen orginate from Tibet and remain largely outside Thai society. Altho the village was hardly untouched it was all pleasantly rustic. Perhaps a bit too rustic for certain members of our party. Having gone to bed early, I was awakened by a scream followed by terrified sobbing. One of the Danes had encountered a house spider when going to bed and proved to be massively phobic where insects were concerned. It was decided that the Danes would curtail their trek - the Dutch were only doing 2 days anyway so on the second day the party split in two and Tong led off us anglophones into the jungle. A singsong was initiated to keep spirits up. One song ("My Highland Goat") in particular caught Tong's fancy and he could be heard humming it at various points over the next two days. We reached the camp by the waterfall after a leisurely 4 hour walk. This wasn't enough for Tong, and after we'd shed our packs we went on an hour's speed march to another waterfall ("same same but different"), running precariously across tiered paddy fields. At some point, I fell in the muddy water up to my knees. Doh! Fortunately, all was not lost as Tong's impressive cooking skills cheered me up no end. On the last day, I spent an hour on top of Hong Di, a 40-year old mother two. Lest you get the wrong impression, Hong Di is an elephant. Elephants are surprisingly hairly and unsuprisingly thick-skinned. At one point, whilst crashing up a mountain path we encountered another elephant going the other way. A brief game of chicken ensued which we won. Elephants are easily distracted and Hong Di's keeper was constantly coaxing her away from snacking on leavy trees. A baby elephant accompanied us on this trip - presumably therearen't creches for elephants. Then we rounded everything off with some bamboo rafting. Someone foolishly gave me a steering pole and we almost came to grief.
Wednesday, July 10, 2002
Koh Pangan: Not a lot to say really. It's got a beach. It's got a Buddhist monastery. It's got an enormous rave every month. That's it really.
Tuesday, July 02, 2002
I was on a bus from Krabi to Surat Thani. All along the journey were these enormous limestone pillars rising verticaly out of the ground.
"Is the a geologist on the bus?" I idly wondered out loud.
"Er, we're geologists", said the couple in front of me.
Apparently, these pillars are karsts (in no way related to the tedious scouse britpoppers). Millions of years ago this part of Thailand was underwater and layers of coral formed. Then the sea levels changed and erosion left these stagering things high and dry.
So there you go.
Arrived in Hat Yai, a sleazy border town where Malays come over to get some action. Walked into an internet cafe at 11pm. Saw a couple of women in there. Fair enough. But hello, what's this? They're playing a Doom-type shoot 'em up. Closer (but discrete) inspection indicated deceptively manly lines to their faces and bodies. Yes folks, ladyboys. Judging from their recreational technology use it seems no matter what interior decorating you do you just can't change some things.
Monday, July 01, 2002
Malaysian Rewind: Club Tropicana
It's like the set of a movie. A bay of turquoise water, a short stretch of clear white sand before you hit the lush green undergrowth. But the trees aren't made of fibre glass and the horizon isn't a painted backdrop. It really is where the sea meets the sky. It's real. As real as the beach huts on stilts made of plywood and corrugated iron. As real as the rows of cafes offering barbecuded barracuda all the way along the surf. As real as the piles of rubbish you stumble on in the jungle or around the sides of the rockpools. This is my first proper tropical beach resort thing - Palao Perhentian Kecil. It's OK. If you want to go diving or snorkelling you can see the coral and fish. Or else you can sit on the beach and work on your tan. I am very short-sighted and burn like a match. All the leisure activities specific to this environment centre around light: either its ambiguous effects on the skin or its power to illuminate underwater objects for your vision. You could make a case for beaches as Bataillean solar economies of excess and nihilistic waste. But that all sounds disapprovingly puritanical. Anyway, Bataille was rubbish at volleyball...
Malaysia Rewind: Cameron Highlands Tour
I have booked up for a tour of the Cameron Highlands by coach. A motley mix of white backpackers and Chinese/Malay families. First stop, the flower gardens. I like flowers. They look nice. They smell nice. I wander round in a haze of perfume. The families buy tonnes of potted plants. The backpackers look faintly bemused. Next stop, strawberry farm. Bit of a letdown this. A load of greenhouses with strawberry plants in. We walk up a row of plants. We walk down a row of plants. Nothing exciting happens. Why are we here? Ah, the shop. Where we can buy punnets of strawberries (titchey) or jam (watery and oversweet). The backpackers go for the bemused look again. The families buy everything in sight. One woman buys ten pots. Maybe she's speculating on a world-wide surge in strawberry jam demand. Maybe she enjoys annoying her relatives during birthdays ("Playstation 2? What's that deear? Have a nice pot of strawberryjam..."). Okay what's next. The Butterfly Gardens. That's a bit wet isn't it? No, cause it has rhino beetles (the bull-barred cherokee jeep of the insect world). And scorpions. And stick insects that could take yer arm off. And, best of all leaf frogs. Now your average leaf frog does not do very much. But they look like some leaf/frog hybrid created by origami-obsessed genetic engineers. They aren't letting us buy any scorpions so parents are feeling nervous, their credit cards twitching. Time for a nice cuppa. The coach cruises thru the stately beauty of the Boh tea plantation. The little bushes are tended by Bangladeshi and Indonesian immigrants - the pay is too poor for Malays. We see the tea being crushed, fermented and filtered. The smell is overpowering. We are then packed off to the shop to purchase our cups of tea and assorted giftery. There's a riot at the checkout among the families for boxes of tea and shortbread. I wonder if any of them buys one of the workers by mistake. Finally the apiary and the local market. Apiary? That's just bees innit. And not even GM killer bees. So, a let down after the miniscule savagery of the Butterfly Gardens. We are told that honey is a cure for fever, constipation and (oddly enough) the runs. Tehy're probably just waiting on FDA clearance before AIDS and cancer are declared honey treatable as well. And in the market they sell fruit. Brilliant.
So the tour is largely an excuse to part tourists from their money. There's one born every minute. In this case - me.