60. For Paddington....

April 14th, 2011

(Written: 23rd March 2011)

Paddington!  The solution was Paddington. He has been in my pocket everyday for 8 months and he is going to continue the overland route.  Granted I'm still down about the whole thing but maybe this will recover the situation a little.......  So on the 20th March I sat on the sea front waiting for the ship to sail away into the night with Paddington on board.  But sadly this romantic image didn't happen because as is usual for Asia, the loading of the ship took too long and I had to head back to pack my bag for tomorrows amazingly short 50 minute flight to Darwin.  Hey, I suppose that in Jules Verne's around the world in 80 days, even Phileas Fogg had to fly, so I'm in good company....

East Timor

44. Now with Added Pictures

February 3rd, 2011

Just a quick note that all past blogs now have added pictures. This has been done in a fit of boredom as I figure out visas and have to deal with a British Embassy who don't want to help.  Sodding FCO.

45. For Better or for Worse....

February 4th, 2011

Crossing over the border from Vietnam to Laos everything changed. Although it's yet another place I've been to before this time it was only 5 years ago so I didn't expect it to be too different. The mansions of Vietnam quickly became the mud-huts of Laos just because of a pretty arbitrary border. The temperature also changed dramatically just due to the mountain range, from 15 degrees to 30 within a few kilometres. There's something pleasing to the eye about Laos, it is clearly a very poor place with lots of poverty but it doesn't appear to suffer from poverty if that makes sense, you don't really get begging maybe because everyone is in it together. There are more rudimentary wooden houses built on stilts in this country than there are concrete or brick and rushing is just something those silly tourists do.

Vientiane, Laos

So imagine my surprise when I entered the capital Vientiane. Apart from the fact that they have now introduced a new 50000 Kip note (£3.70) making money far more manageable, last time I was here the biggest note was 10000 Kip (70p) meaning you had to walk around with bundles of cash, it is so busy now. Even 5 years ago it had a few nice restaurants and coffee houses but now it seems to have become little more that a weekend getaway for Thais and long term foreign passport holders in Thailand popping over on the visa run. It's the first time on the trip I've not been able to get a room by just turning up, it's so busy with westerners. It took me over an hour to find something. However, although the city has changed a bit with expensive boutiques and restaurants, the local people haven't but after just two nights I headed to Vang Vieng as there's still nothing to do here.

Vientiane, Laos

What can I say about Vang Vieng. I think undoubtedly if it's your first time here then you will love the place but I think anyone coming back as I have may well call it paradise lost, many guide books do. I'm sure those who visited in 2005 and had been before would have hated the place then but for me this place has gone too far. Where it was a good place to come and chill 5 years ago now it's the place to come and dance till the early hours while taking crystal meth. The whole centre of town pulses with heavy drum and base until the early hours of the morning leaving locals with little sleep. In the middle of the river where there once was a island with nothing more on it than a couple of lodges, the rest forest and wildlife, it's now pretty much been cleared with fairy light lit buildings and sandy dance floors taking their place.

Vang Vieng

Backpackers walk down the street just in swimming trunks and Bikinis with no consideration for the locals. Even just 5 years ago there were signs clearly asking people to respect people sensibilities by not kissing in public, not getting drunk, covering themselves up and warning that drug use is punishable by death! Now the streets are full of mainly drugged up Americans (a new backpacking phenomena to this part if the world) with glazed eyes and gormless expressions. Sex tourism is also on the increase with many old western men walking around with young women, sometimes even boys, for love or money? I think we know the answer to that. The sad thing is, it still is a beautiful place but all this detritus seems to supersede it.

Vang Vieng

Maybe I can behave a little too old sometimes but I've always seen travel as something different, something a bit special. Maybe it's because when I was a kid the biggest treat was the once a year camping holiday to North Wales in a borrowed Lada or if we were lucky a small self catered flat above a bus depot in Boscombe, all this after an 8 hour vomit ridden drive! We could never afford a family holiday overseas and to this day I've never been on one so even now I still see travelling overseas as a massive privilege which is not to be abused. As such I've always said that for those lucky enough to be able to afford overseas travel, "Travel is not earned by us by attaining wealth, but gifted by those from the country of which we are visiting." I should have that on my epitaph when I'm killed by a local for behaving inappropriately! But all that said, if you travel a bit out from the centre of Vang Vieng you can again find paradise. I hired a mountain-bike for a couple of days hoping to rediscover it.

Vang Vieng

I had a great time cycling around the local villages, just 2 miles out of town it was already a completely different place. While cycling along a irrigation channel I happened upon a couple of caves rarely visited by tourists. The guy outside had a great little business renting out torches but apart from that I was left on my own to explore. It was quite weird walking through a dark and humid cavern all alone with a very small light. In one of the caves, which looked like I was walking down the throat of some ancient serpent, I decided to stop after half a mile as I figured if the torch went, I'd be in serious trouble. But it was amazingly peaceful and provided the escape I needed. Back outside of the cave I got talking to the torch guy. I asked him how Vang Vieng had changed over the years and got the terse response that "no one here likes it." In fact, he used to live in the centre but two years ago it all became too much and he left. He actually used to own a guest house in the town but didn't like the type of backpackers the town now attracts. Basically, he added, "the drugged up American's treat the place like it's their 'spring break' and don't think that different countries may behave and expect different behaviour to how they behave back home." I've paraphrased that and colloquialised it slightly as what he really said was a little uncalled for and a bit strong but I guess this maybe because there is still a lot of hatred of America in this country due to what is called the "Secret War."

Vang Vieng

He went on to intrigue me with mention of the "Secret War" and the secret CIA base which was located in the centre of Vang Vieng during the Vietnam War (called the American War here). So to quenchthis intrigue I decided to leave the dazed, drunk and vomit ridden backpackers to it, and head to Phonsavan, not only to see the Plain of Jars which was the reason I was revisiting Laos in the first place (I'd missed them last time) but I was now on a mission to learn something about the Secret War. So at the bus station which was crowded with hundreds of backpackers en-route to either Luang Prabang or Vientiane, I jumped on the bus to Phonsavan....... The only tourist going that way........

46. The Secret War

February 9th, 2011

The journey to Phonsavan was vomit making. The road went up and down mountains zigzagging all the way for almost 6 hours. I felt very ill and also very cold as the temperature here was barely 10 degrees on top of the Plain of Jars. But what evidence was there in the town of Phonsavan of the ancient civilisation which once lived here...... None, all the buildings were concrete and built within the last 30 years. This town had been completely wiped off the map with hundreds of other towns and villages in the region. It’s become one of those towns you don't really want to stop in but rather have to. The day after arriving, which is a landmark for me as I've been travelling for exacty 6 months, I headed out on a tour of the Plain of Jars which also included some of the history of the "Secret War". It would be impossible to visit this place and not become aware of the recent history of the place as everywhere you go red and white markers create a safe path to walk amongst thousands of unexploded bombs. Hillsides are littered with red and white markers highlighting where a bomb has been found and awaiting defusing.

Phonsavan, Lao

But first I should at least mention a little of the Plain of Jars. The Plain of Jars is exactly as the name suggests, a plain with many jars scattered about the place. These stone carved massive jars were carved maybe 2000 years ago, by whom no one knows or even why they are here or what they are for. Considering that most of the jars are grouped together on ground that is raised from the surrounding plain and that if this mirrored Stone Age man in Europe then these would be for either offerings or to be used as urns. Given their number and some of the carvings on them I would tend to go with the latter. They are quite a weird sight though, an enigma.

Phonsavan, Lao

Then the other side to the story here. On entering a cave we were told the horrific story of what happened here. On the night of the 24th November 1968 women and children from the local villages had gathered here for safety from the constant bombing from American aircraft. For some unknown reason an order was given to attack the cave and with that two American fighters were launched and fired a missiles directly at the opening of the cave. No one made it out alive. Such was the heat of the fire remains of those inside, if not turned to dust, were unrecognisable and no one knows the exact number killed although one figure given is 374. Even now the cave is full of bones, gathered and placed around Buddhist alters. Deliberately targeting civilians has been done before, famously during the 2nd World War but in 1968? Why, especially knowing full well the cave was full of women and children. In total over 320,000 people were killed during the war.

Phonsavan, Laos

But what makes this much more abhorrent is that the Americans still “officially” deny that any of this took place. In the early 1962 the US signed the Geneva Convention clearly stating that they would not attack Laos. In fact there is a famous quote from the American’s during the Vietnam war which to paraphrase goes "the Vietnamese deny the existence of the Ho-Chi-Minh trail so we deny bombing it." Obviously the trail through Laos did exist and the Americans did bomb it. As American broke the Geneva Convention for 9 years, in theory it must be tried for War Crimes and made to pay for clean-up but it hasn’t. America still goes on about Japanese war crimes, what's difference to Japan?

Phonsavan, Laos

But there is more to the "Secret War" than just this. Between 1964 and 1973 more bombs were dropped on Laos than the whole of those on both Germany and Japan during WWII, about 2 million tonnes. And what's most amazing about that is that you probably have never heard of it. Sadly many are still being killed today as there is one type of bomb that lives on. The cluster bombie sounds quite harmless given a sweet kiddy name which ironically is the demographic it now kills. This bomb was dropped to primarily target civilians and it continues to do so as cluster bombs were renowned for not exploding on impact (about 30%). There is a huge percentage lying just under the surface of the earth all over the plain. These things are the size of tennis balls and so kids pick them up either mistaken, or in the hope they don't explode as a challenge to impress their mates or simply in be hope they can sell the metal they are made out of for a bit of cash.

Luang Prabang, Laos

While in the town I visited the British Mines Advisory Group (MAG) which has been out here since 1994 trying to make the area safe. Along with the British there are small teams from Germany but one country is notable by its absence (apart from a small independent charity), America. The American government has offered help but there appears to be strings attached. Laos will only accept the offer of aid if American accepts what it did during the 9 years they were involved in the war and apologises for it. America will simply not do this, the reasons why I can only guess at but I personally I think that an admission would mean that the events of that war would become "official" and then America would have to accept and come to terms with committing a war crime with possible prosecution. You have the bizarre situation that everyone knows what happened but because it is not official (legally argued, defended and prosecuted) then the little guys suffer.

Luang Prabang, Laos

As interesting as I'd found my visit here I was glad to leave as quite frankly I was getting annoyed with each new discovery of the war I made. I made my way back down to Luang Prabang which is a really beautiful old town in the north of Laos and although a lot more touristy now it still has amazing charm. There was a bizarre incident at a temple when I saw two Buddhist monks shouting at the Chinese girl to get out of the temple but she was having none of it. The monks were not telling her to go because she was Chinese but because she had amazingly short shorts on and a top which showed her shoulders. That's simply not done but she refused to leave! You'd think that someone from China would respect Buddhism particularly as they are rediscovering it again but I guess what I saw in Lhasa goes here too.

Luang Prabang, Laos

So after just one day here I headed towards the Thailand border travelling up the Mekong river on a traditional old long boat. At over 200km this journey took two full days but as boring as that sounds, the scenery was amazing and the journey quite enjoyable with the boat visiting local villages on the way to drop off people and produce. It was also particularly nice after the stomach retching road journeys I'd had in Laos.

Luang Prabang, Laos

So after finding a hotel in Huay Xai for one last night in Laos (I avoided the one which said, Clean room 50,000Kip, Normal room 40,000Kip, surely normal is clean!), it was time to head south again......

47. Stolen and Broken

February 13th, 2011

After checking out of Laos I headed down the little hill to the riverside to get a boat across the Mekong to Thailand. While waiting for a boat I took a quick look at my passport to see the exit stamp only to discover something which horrified me slightly. Quickly scanning through my passport I noticed that I only have one clear page left in the whole thing. I had paid for extra pages in the hope this would not happen but due to certain stupid customs officials who rather than stamp in a page already used, I only have one page left for one full page visa. Thinking back, this problem was also not helped by the Kazakhstan incident which took up two extra pages and the need for a second Chinese visa.

At the Thai border I had to ask the guy on the border to stamp the passport on one particular page as most countries have a rule that you cannot enter without at least one full page left. Luckily after a bit of confusion he obliged but I decided to quickly head off to Chiang Rai and try to get an overnight bus from there to Bangkok. There I would go straight to the British Embassy to sort out my passport.

I've been to Thailand many times as it is a perfect base to explore the rest of South East Asia. It's a bizarre country of contrasts as most are in this region and I love and hate the place. Love it for not only do they drive on the left but because it has all the modern conveniences and services you have and expect back home, it's a modern clean visibly wealthy country. I hate it because most in the UK have figured this out and we are currently turning the place into another Ibiza! There's also another reason why I love and hate Thailand, love it because money can buy you anything and hate it because money can buy you anything! Probably doesn't make much sense but for example, you can stop in a top end hotel looking like a vagrant (as I did) for a relatively small amount of money, no one cares what you look like they just want the cash. However, that same cash can buy an old western guy a young boy or girl to do with what they wish...... and nobody cares what it looks like, they just want the cash! Sadly if you are unlucky you will see this.

 (The image below requires Flash to be installed) At the bus station

 

Looking out of the bus window on the overnight bus is like a whole other world, with sights you tend to be oblivious to when just taking in the tourist areas. The facade of wealth gets broken slightly when you, sat in your VIP coach with cool aircon, fully reclining single seat which has built-in massage function (seriously, it did), look out of the window to see a fully laden Sawngthaew go past. A Sawngthaew is nothing more than a pickup truck with a metal frame put over the back and two long benches for seats down each side. The back was crammed to the rafters with those lucky enough to have seat trying to sleep with hankychiefs tied to the metal frame to create a "head hammock" in which they rested their heads. My 10 hour overnight trip had cost me a little over £10. These guys didn't have that kind of money. But this is the thing with Thailand and most other places to be truthful, you can see the wonderful sights or you can go around the back see how the place really works. As Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in 'A Scandal in Bohemia', "Watson, you see but you don't observe." I always think this applies to this intrigue of looking beyond the obvious and I wish more people would do when backpacking otherwise I think you might miss a little of the experience. Anyway, tonight was special for one reason, this is the 100th place I've slept on this trip, only I wish it could have been more comfortable!

It took nearly 2 hours to find somewhere to stop for the night. It's peak holiday season at the moment with the weather quite hot and dry. I celebrated the fact I'd found somewhere with a chocolate bar, a rare treat on this trip so far. While I was crunching the whole nut bar I thought, this is very crunchy only to discover that over half of one of my teeth was now missing. I couldn't believe it, all that remained was about quarter of the tooth but luckily the filling was holding firm. Now not only did I have to get my passport sorted and my computer fixed I now needed to find a dentist.

Bangkok, Thailand

So first, the British Embassy. After their help in Uzbekistan I was quite optimistic about their help here so imagine my surprise when I asked to speak to someone about my passport, as the website did not offer any advice to help, and the security guard refused me entry. He said I could only speak on a yellow phone outside the building which in turn only had a recorded message on it. The message said to consult he website and if that did not help then I would have to phone a premium UK phone line to an outsourced company for help. The message actually advised you to get a credit card ready to pay for the service. I could not believe this. My own embassy not prepared to help without paying, and not to my complete surprise the phone line was not helpful so had to go back to the embassy the next day but the guard still wouldn't let me in. Horrible people, horrible place. Unfortunately after all the hassles of Central Asia, there is a distinct possibility that the thing which is going to end my overland challenge is the sodding British and their inability to look beyond bureaucracy.

So next.... The laptop.... Sadly although I'd got an international warranty for the laptop, it's pretty useless when you have a UK computer and you can only get the parts from there! I was advised to try Singapore so there's another change to my planned route. So next the dentists.....

Bangkok, Thailand

It took me a while to find a dentists. I'd first tried a medical centre someone advised but they wanted me to hand over a 10,000Baht as a deposit before they'd do anything. That's over £200GBP! So I eventually found a place recommended by other travellers and sat waiting in the reception. While there I got talking to an Argentinean guy who seemed quite pleasant and I didn't think more about it. Due to 'hygiene' regulations I had to leave my bags outside at reception when I went in. The dentist was really nice although did laugh at my teeth! But as he could not show me that the syringe for the anaesthetic was new and not used I declined it. Expecting quite a lot of pain, I was quite relieved that by some freak chance I'd had root canal treatment on the tooth previously and amazingly there was next to no pain. So for a little over £40 I had a temporary but rather nice looking new tooth.

Bangkok, Thailand

So happy having everything sorted I could in Bangkok I headed to the reception to pay, pickup my bags and then go to book a bus out of here. Reception handed one of my bags and then turned away to deal with the next customer. I interrupted and asked about my other bag at which point the two receptionists quickly got up and rushed into the street. Unfortunately it transpired that the Argentinean guy (or wherever he was really from) who they had seen me with had said it was his and taken it. They'd assumed we were together and I guess this was probably the guys plan when he befriended me. I have to consider myself lucky that he didn't take my camera bag but he had got a small amount of cash, my guidebook, my Aussie hat and worst of all one of my camera memory cards.

Africa Memory

I was gutted about the hat as I've had that since my first world trip and have used it on many adventures since, it's been to more countries than most people I know and does hold some great memories. Then, the memory card, this was quite stressful as although I'd backed up half of my memory cards the evening before, half I had not which potentially included my pictures of Nepal. I'd gone back to Nepal especially on this trip as in 2001 my camera had broken and I'd lost my pictures and now they could have gone again. Irony!

I couldn't check straight away as by some bizarre chance I'd bumped into a guy I'd met in Xian in China and agreed to go together to Aythana, the old Thai capital. It is an amazing place with ancient Buddhist monuments scattered about he city and worth a visit for anyone who comes to Bangkok. However, my thoughts were with the memory cards so maybe I didn't appreciate it as much as I should have.

Bangkok

Sitting in a cafe on the Kho Sanh Road I slowly went through my memory cards. With each one I was getting more anxious until eventually the worst was realised. He had stolen the Nepal memory card. But there was still a chance I'd backed this card up.... One by one I went through the images sipping a very strong coffee until..... Phew, the last card I'd copied the evening before was the Nepal photos. I couldn't believe how lucky I'd been, which may seem quite an odd way to look at it considering all the crap that has happened in Thailand since I got here. But enough was enough, I've spent 6 days here, broken teeth, broken computer, crappy embassy and a useless passport. It's time to leave before something else happens, so I headed west to Kanchanaburi.

Bangkok, Thailand

48. Madness, Madness....

February 23rd, 2011

I've been to Kanchanaburi before but decided to revisit as it was an excuse to quickly leave Bangkok. The countryside around the place is beautiful but it is not the main reason for coming here. There is a famous river running through the town caller the Mae Klong River. Sadly the river is no longer called this due to a geographical mistake by Pierre Boulle. He was a famous author who wrote about a bridge that passes over the river. The river which he wrote about actually starts just a few kilometres further downstream where this river changes its name.

Kanchanaburi, Thailand

When I arrived at the bridge I couldn't believe the number of people here. 10 years ago it was busy but nothing like now. Tourist shops and restaurants everywhere but I guess the good thing about having so many tourists here is that the events that took place in this area nearly 70 years ago won't be forgotten. Walking on "The Bridge over the River Kwai" to the other side it was just as emotive as the first time I did it although now it did have the added irritation of loud groups of Chinese tourists everywhere, but for once it wasn't that irritating as they were also here to see a place where many Chinese suffered. Although 13,000 prisoners of war died building the "death railway" but people forget the 80,000 to 100,000 civilians from Malaya, especially Singapore, who also died.

Kanchanaburi, Thailand

As before, I stood in the centre of the bridge thinking about the atrocities committed here. My grandfather got the Burma star but although he was out in this part of the world he never talked about what he did or what he saw. Maybe it was guilt that he got away and didn't suffer the pain that the guys did here, I really don't know, but knowing what suffering the Japanese put the PoWs through it is really beyond belief. Where I was stood on the bridge British and Dutch prisoners of war were tied to prevent bombing (unsuccessfully as two American bombers took out the bridge and every PoW in sight just for good measure) and the same words went through my mind as last time from the David Lean film..... Madness, Madness.....

Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Leaving the site I saw a group of Japanese tourists doing something totally inappropriate but I do think and hope that they didn't realise what they were doing. When Japanese have photos taken on holiday they nearly always hold up fingers in a V for victory sign. It doesn't mean this but trust me the stares and words said to them meant that everyone thought it did. But in Japan I had learned that they are not really taught about this part of the war, only really about Hiroshima and Nagasaki so they probably didn't know how insulting it could be. Back in the main cemetery I did the usual thing and found a 36 year old, a certain Mr C Ricketts, died after the building of the second metal bridge which is the one that stands here today.

Phuket, Thailand

But now it was time to head south again towards Malaysia. So I bought my ticket which I was delayed in doing slightly as everyone was stood silent while the national anthem played, this happens almost every hour in Thailand, and if you dare move the police get very unhappy with you! It’s like a massive game of musical statues but when the music stops you can move. Anyway, I thought I'd split the journey and go to Phuket Town, that's pronounced pookit and not Fuckit as I thought it was the first time I came to Thailand. Phuket Town is actually quite pleasant with a nice Chinese old town in the centre of which I found a nice guesthouse. It surprised me as I'd heard so many bad things about this place but then when I went to visit Patong further around the coast all the bad things came flooding in.

Patong, Thailand

This place is full of lady-boys quite aggressively and physically trying to pull you into their building offering massage or strip shows, there are fat Russians with beer bellies hanging over their trunks so much so that from a distance they look naked. On top of that the place is full of British salesmen trying to get you to buy timeshare. I always said the British were turning Thailand into another Ibiza and it turns out I was wrong.... We already have and it's horrific. Lady-boys are quite funny people, they try to look and behave exactly like women but fail miserably. They take it too far with the tell tale sign that they are in fact boys, well apart from the big hands, stubble and cocks, is the fact that they constantly brush, stroke and adjust their hair to get it out of their eyes. Girls generally are pretty used to this from childhood and ignore hair blowing about, but it really seems to irritate the boys.... Anyway....

The worst hassle here was not from these guys by actually from the British salesmen so I thought I'd take them for a ride for a change. They wanted to sell me some sort of package which opened up use of their "absolute" brand of holidays and hotels but as far as I could see all you would be paying for was the use of a holiday internet search engine. I said I would go to listen to the salesmen if they gave me a free lunch, taxi back to Phuket Town and a free night in a pricy hotel in Ao Nang a little further around the coast. Amazingly they said yes! After a very boring presentation but an excellent meal the guys started to try to sell me the benefits of the package which was basically and rather amazingly £20,000 for a 38 year subscription where I would get one week’s free use of a hotel per year. Errrr, who buys this kind of rubbish? Obviously I wasn't having any of it and left even though they kept trying and even reduced the figure further to £3000. The guys got very aggressive at the end when they realised I was not buying this thing, but I had a free dinner, taxi back and a night in a posh hotel. As I was leaving I asked who bought this kind of stuff and did they get many cancellations the day after. He responded, "We don't get cancellations, you can't!" I suddenly realised, that's why the "British" company was based in Thailand, so they could avoid the law which guarantees the right to cancel. Basically if you buy here you were screwed. And people were buying it!

Ao Railah, Thailand

So off to Ao Nang I went ready to spend a night in my nice posh hotel. Ten years ago his was a place for the independent traveller to chill and relax with barely one resort here but then something happened. The Boxing Day tsunami hit and wiped out many of the cheap backpacker guesthouses that lined the sea front. Although people talk about how fast Thailand got back on its feet after he tsunami, people rarely talk about the personal cost. Here, the multinationals took advantage of the situation. Peoples businesses were destroyed and if the person was lucky enough to survive they could not afford to rebuild, so to get much needed money they sold their prime land to the multinationals at a rock bottom price as they were desperate. Now the famous brands line the sea front along with hundreds of Indian suit makers (coming over from Malaysia to make a quick buck) changing the feel of the place. The locals will tell you this if you get them drunk in the bar but it's a typical example of what big business is doing here. They hate both the multinationals and the Malay Indians. On the worryingly near xenophobic comment from the guy I left the bar and the guy slowly drowning his sorrows in some cheap whiskey. Actually, that's a really bad phrase considering.

Ao Railah, Thailand

Having said all this, although there were "lady" bars heading out of town, this place is most definitely the place to come if you want to get away from the package tours and a visit to Ao Raileh for a bit of hiking and relaxing is always the highlight. But now it was time to cross into Malaysia following the route I took 10 years ago. I didn't plan on this but the route I wanted to go on the east coast was now all but closed to tourists thanks to Islamic insurgents. These buggers are really making a mess of my plans.....