Days 67 to 68: Old Men And Their Toys

July 22nd, 2001

Day 67. After the rushing about of the past few days I decided to take it easy and just relax.  But this is actually quite hard to do as Bangkok is a mad, hot, humid, noisy, busy place with everything turned up to loud just because it can.  I ended up not relaxing but going for a very long walk around town to see if there were any hidden gems.  Sadly I didn’t really find any but managed to find all of the smelliest fish markets in town; the smell of fish being dried in the sun in a hot and humid polluted city is possibly one of those smells which will live with me for the rest of my life, unfortunately.  Just before lunch I managed to find the STA travel office and booked a flight to Hanoi for the 26th July.  I really wanted to go on the 25th but there was no way I was getting up at four in the morning for a flight!  It was here that I had my first mental aberration and I don’t really know why.  My original plan was to go around the world in eighty days as I’d read a certain book of that title once and thought that would be quite easy.  But a few weeks before leaving I extended this by almost double to a hundred and fifty days, but now in STA they said I could change my dates for $15us and for some reason I said I want another month.  Why!  India nearly killed me and I wanted to continue!  So confused I headed out with an extra ten days each for Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

While still dazed at what I’d done I ‘chickened out’ of Thai food and had a KFC for lunch, I was getting bored with spicy noodles and rice so thought that bland western food would be a change.  It was in here that I saw the seedy side to Thailand and to human nature.  An old grey-haired man walked in holding the hand of an extremely young looking boy, I would guess not much more than fourteen.  The man who spoke in French and pigeon Thai, stroked the boy’s bottom as he sat down to which the boy gave an appreciative smile.  The boy ran around to get everything for the old man and when he took the meal over, he sat on the old guy’s knee with one arm round him while the old man fed him fries, occasionally kissing after eating one.  I was not only horrified but also embarrassed.  He was a westerner and so was I, did people here think what he was doing was normal?  Did they think being European I was the same?  I left immediately as I found sitting there quite sickening and quite depressing and was concerned that by staying and doing nothing people would think that I was complicit in the act.  I’m trying to think why this kind of thing happens; it’s probably typical western exploitation.  The parents of the child may have been desperate for money and maybe all but sold the child for a few baht.  It makes me ashamed to be European.

Day 68. On a lazy day I headed off to the national museum where I was hoping to learn something about Thai culture which on the outside seems to be extremely westernised.  However, inside it just seemed full of Indian Hindu history with lots of Indian tourists looking at it.  I’m really getting quite bored with museums now as I’ve seen so many but more worryingly I’m getting a little worried that I’m starting to blame India for everything bad in my life at the moment.  But maybe that’s to be expected as I believe that I still have a bit of India living inside me!

Walking around Bangkok there are quite a few strange things to see but one in particular I should mention.  People like sticking things in various orifices around their bodies although they do tend limit this to the area around the head.  There were lots of people walking around with tissue sticking out of their noses which I couldn’t figure out whether it was to stop their noses from running or because of the pollution.  Then on the busses I noticed some men seemed to keep their bus fare in their ears, using it as a handy coin sized purse!  I felt sorry for the bus conductor having to handle earwax covered coins.  Urgh.

Day 66: Attention All Buddhas!

July 20th, 2001

Day 66. During the flight the guy next to me was clearly agitated, standing up all of the time and trying to reach across my legs to see out of the window.  I asked him if he was OK to which he replied in broken Hong Kong English that he simply wanted to look out of the window as he’d never flown before.  He was like a little kid and just like a kid he was getting really annoying, so I swapped seats and let him sit next to the window.  The bugger didn’t even say thank you and just barged straight past me knocking my coffee flying, so when the plane landed I got my bag from the overhead baggage rack and accidentally dropped my opened bottle of water on his lap.  I wasn’t around to see it but would’ve loved to have seen him trying to explain to Thai customs why he’d wet himself.  “So sir, why are you so nervous, something to hide!”

At the airport I was a little confused with the customs declaration form.  It turns out that you cannot import any Buddhas into Thailand but I guess this couldn’t have always been the rule otherwise the major religion in this place would never have taken off as Buddha was from Nepal!  Heading into town I quickly discovered the new experience of Thai driving.  It is very similar to Indian driving although the roads are better and so people can drive faster but whereas in India people swerve at the last minute to miss each other, Thais don’t choosing to use the force of hitting the vehicle in front to slow down; well I suppose it saves on the brakes.

After finding a cheap place on the Khao San Road I relaxed a little before heading out for dinner.  The thing I’ve noticed here more than anywhere else I’ve been is the amount of backpackers, it’s amazing, I’ve hardly seen another backpacker in over two months.  The Khao San is really bizarre, full of neon lights, fake watches, bags, CDs, loud restaurants selling westernised Thai fair, a Boots Chemist for homesick Brits, all this immersed in a cloud of pungent weed smelling smoke next to signs which state, “warning, death penalty for position of drugs”, which I hoped meant “possession”.  But the food and beer is cheap, good and plentiful.

Day 69: Madness, Madness….

July 23rd, 2001

Day 69. Today was the day that I’d really been looking forward to.  I set off early to get a coach to Kanchanaburi.  The coach was quicker than the three hours I’d expected but I think that this was due to the driver refusing to use his brakes and bumping any car in the way off the road!  From the bus station I managed to get a Songthaew to a railway bridge that passed over the river Kwai.  A Songthaew is a bizarre means of transport in Thailand which is basically a pickup truck with two benches along each side of the open back, you jump on board cramming yourself into the always overcrowded vehicle and pay the driver when you jump off.  I figured if you fell off in between stops then you didn’t have to pay!

I was dropped off at the side of the road where I could see the railway track heading north towards to the river and bridge I wanted to see.  This was the famous ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’ as immortalised in the film by Sir David Lean and by the acting of Sir Alec Guinness.  While walking across the bridge I could do nothing but think of all the lives lost building the railway and their suffering at the hands of the inhumane Japanese.  The thoughts of what the Japanese had done and their reasons for doing it became even harder to understand when stood there looking out at the peaceful surroundings and beautiful countryside.  In the middle of the bridge where I was stood hundreds of POWs were sacrificed by the Japanese, used as a human shield against bombers sent to destroy the bridge.  The line spoken by James Donald at the end of the film was playing repeatedly in my head, this line was simply, “Madness, madness…”  I found this place really emotive but my thoughts were broken by the noise of a train approaching and the sudden realisation that I had to quickly run off the bridge or get run over!

Bridge over the River Kwai, Kanchanaburi, Thailand

After walking around the bridge museum I set off walking back to the main bus station via the allied war cemetery.  I’ve been around a number of such cemeteries in Belgium and Northern France but the feeling I got here was more upsetting.  Yes, those people who died in the wars in Europe died in horrific ways and whatever you believe about the causes of wars and how governments start them, you have to respect what those people did, fighting for our freedom, fighting in a war they didn’t choose to or even start.  However, unlike their friends in Europe who generally had a fighting chance when captured, the people in these graves were starved, worked or beaten to death, many dying from infections or disease.  They had no chance and standing there today almost fifty six years on from the Japanese defeat it makes it all that harder for me to understand why the Japanese have never apologised for, or even acknowledged what they did, particularly as it’s still in living memory.  It took quite a long time until I found a grave stone which had an age on it which was as old as mine.  It’s moments like these which make me realise how lucky I’ve been to be born at the time I was.  People of my age and younger from my grandfathers generation lay in this field, while today people of my age and younger from my generation are travelling around the world without a care and whose only major decision is which restaurant are they going to eat in tonight.  My grandfather’s generation was why I was here; surrounding me the majority of graves were for soldiers aged between eighteen and twenty two, my grandfather was eighteen in 1941 and twenty two in 1945.  He received the Burma Star while in the RAF but never talked about what he did during the war in Asia or anything to do with it but looking around here sort of explained why he didn’t.  It seems like a totally different world now, and it hopefully is.  After this I walked on to the nearby site of a former prisoner of war camp.  Luckily the museum was really poorly put together because anything more emotive would have been too much.

Days 70 to 71: Something’s A Foot!

July 25th, 2001

Day 70. I thought I’d do the tourist thing and visit the Grand Palace.  The palace grounds contain an unusual collection of buildings from ornate Thai Wats to palaces with a slight western influence all surrounded by a menagerie of colourful, glittering statues of dancers and soldiers.  All of the temples and imagery are really beautiful but as with India it is hard for me to really understand why such imagery should be worshiped, then again I have the same trouble with Christianity!  I was more concerned about the sign stating “please take your shoes off before entering the Bot!”  What the hell did that mean, I had no intention of entering anyone’s Bot.  I was later told by a guide that “a Bot is the inner sanctum of a Wat.”  I replied, “I don’t know, why are you asking me for, you’re the guide!”  She paused for a second and looked at me with a distain which could only mean she was thinking, “Oh, I’ve never heard that before” and then carried on talking.  In one of the temples we were shown the “world famous” emerald Buddha which I pointed out to our guide, who was slowly becoming increasingly apathetic to my presence, that I’d never heard of it before.  She seemed shocked at this and replied “Why not, I know your queen likes tea.”  Seemed a bit of a bizarre answer, I don’t know whether the queen likes tea, why would I, she likes shooting foxes, but the tea thing, no idea!

Grand Palace Bangkok, Soldiers

Next on my ‘things to see list’ was Wat Pho and the second largest Buddha in Thailand which probably explains why it’s reclining, it’s too fat to sit up.  This has to be seen to be believed, although again I don’t quite know why it should as all this big statue worship is really quite freaky.  While trying to take a picture of this thing a nice Italian tourist who I assume could not speak and was closer to Neanderthal man in the evolutionary chain than me, pushed me out of the way so he could take a picture; really quite ignorant and he ruined my picture.  He then proceeded to stand smirking in my shot for the next five minutes preventing me from taking a picture.  I had all the time in the world, it didn’t bother me, the only thing that did was the really horrific smell I kept getting every now and again.  After a while I realised it happened when the Italian guy’s partner walked passed.  Unfortunately, it is customary to take your shoes and socks off in the Bot of the Wat, this she had done, however her feet were possibly the smelliest I’ve ever had the misfortune to whiff.  Every time she walked past someone you could see them turn, scrunching up their noses looking on the floor to see what animal had done the offending smell.  I couldn’t help smirking back at the Italian guy as I knew he had to share a hot humid hotel room with those two fungus ridden feet.  However, it could explain why he couldn’t speak, the stench had probably destroyed his vocal cords!

Grand Palace Bangkok.  Dancer

Day 71. Today has been my last full day in Bangkok and to be honest I am a little more than bored now, I figured that I would take in one last temple to fully explore my boredom and then try to see if there were any rip off goods available as Bangkok is meant to be the place to go for cheap imitations.  As my guide book said, “Wat Saket affords beautiful views over Bangkok” I headed there as my temple of choice.  Mmmmm, very flat, very messy, very grey, very concretey, very smoggy and very noisy; it’s a view but it’s not beautiful.  It was however, one of the few places I haven’t had a whiff of fermenting fish.

View from Wat Saket (Golden Mount).

After heading back to the hotel I just stuffed my face with hawker food.  Buying street hawker food is quite a weird experience, I avoided it in India as I didn’t want to risk getting ill for all the good it did me, but everyone here said that there was no problem.  I was still a bit nervy as I wasn’t quite sure whether my stomach was still subletting living space to a few hundred squatting parasites but Graham an Aussie I’d met in the guesthouse convinced me that I should just go for it.  Some of the food was actually very nice, but then I decided to try a meat kebab thing, as yet species undefined, which was glazed in a sugary, honey, syrupy thing.  It was so sickly sweet I had to throw most of it away, the locals were stuffing it down, people here have a really sweet tooth.  At this point I thought that I needed a drink to wash down the sugar so I went and got some fresh mango juice which like in India was handed over to me in a little clear plastic bag!  The bizarre thing here is that they even serve hot drinks this way and watery hot meals.  I can’t actually figure out how you eat these things as you can hardly use a fork to get the chunks of meat and veg out.  Then this evening the most exciting thing happened, my first solid poo in four days.  My gastrointestinal problems seem to have become my obsession and an important diary entry but for me this is momentous and perfectly timed for tomorrow’s flight!

Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh’s Dream

July 26th, 2001

Say Vietnam and it conjures up images of Hollywood movies and mini-series about the Vietnam War.  It’s portrayed as if Vietnam didn’t really exist before 1964.  However, Up until the early 10th century Vietnam was under the rule of successive Chinese dynasties but soon after gaining independence the first divisions started to appear.   This led to a north south divide in the 17th century which was remarkably reminiscent of that during the Vietnam War.  At this point the Europeans stuck their paws in with the Portuguese supporting the South and the Dutch the North.  Later in 1802 the French stuck their military and religious oar in and helped the Nguyens take Saigon however, the country’s initial tolerance of Catholicism did not last and in 1858 using persecution as an excuse the French attacked Vietnam and after much fighting in 1887 French Indochina was created.

In 1940 the Japanese invaded Indochina but unlike the rest of the allies the French collaborated with them and a puppet French colonial government remained.  Even though the French were collaborating with the Japanese and complicit in some heinous acts against the allies, they were eventually kicked out in early 1945 and after the Japanese defeat in August 1945 Vietnam declared independence.  The French wanted to take the country back which led to the First Indochina War but eventually in 1954 French troops were completely out fought and surrendered to the Viet Minh so ending the French claim to the country.  Sadly the warring parties created a North/South partition with the communists holding North Vietnam while the South was supported by the USA.  Although there was a plan to reunify the country disagreements soon emerged and the USA began increasing its military presence which led to the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Incident which the US saw as a trigger for a military assault on the North Vietnamese.  With US casualties mounting they withdrew on 29th March, 1973 with the South finally overpowered on the 30th April, 1975.  Later on the 2nd July 1976 reunification was officially declared with the formation of the communist Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Just twenty four days after the twenty fifth anniversary of unification I’m now visiting the place, free of the imperial yokes of France and the controlling fist of America, this is a true communist country with all the ironies which exist within it, such as the fight for freedom.  They fought for freedom but are only free to do what they are told.

Day 72: Gay And Engaged

July 26th, 2001

Day 72. With my arrival in Hanoi my plan of going around the world just visiting countries which drive on the left is on a temporary hold.  The journey here was pretty uneventful, well apart from the American teenager I had the pleasure of sitting next to who had a huge chip on his shoulder regarding the Vietnam War.  I was making the usual ‘travellers’ conversation and made the simple error of asking why he was going to Vietnam.  He then started on a tirade of expletives about a place called “Nam” where the “short slant eyed gooks” were “evil commi” people who still had American GI’s captured in their prisons.  And that’s the PC version!  Unlike this gentleman, I had realised that I was flying on Vietnam Airlines and so tried to distance myself from him.  I replied, “God, this ‘Nam’ place sounds horrific, glad I’m going to Vietnam as it’s meant to be fantastic and the people really friendly.”  I then pretended to read a book for the rest of the flight hoping that no one thought that we were travelling together.

After boarding a minibus to central Hanoi I noticed that the other backpackers on it started to convey a certain amount of fear.  This puzzled me at first but I soon realised that this was due to the fantastically bad Vietnamese driving which I must have become hardened to in India so hadn’t even thought about it.  While scaring everyone the driver and his assistant were now in the process of telling everyone that the hotels that they wanted to go to were fully booked and that they would take us to others.  I was amazed that everyone appeared to be taken in by this and went along with them, how did they think that he knew about every single hotel!  Then again, if it had not been for my Indian experience I may well have thought the same.  Sadly, thanks to some evil people I’ve met travelling I now rarely take anyone at their word.  So I took it upon myself to tell people that they shouldn’t believe what they were being told and should check themselves.  However the driver was annoyed at this as he would lose his commission, and told me to get out of his bus immediately!  Luckily this happened not too far from where I wanted to go and as it happened everyone took my lead, jumped off the bus and found their own places.

I’ve managed to find a complete dive for $2us a night, which is a bargain although it’s a bit grotty with the towel in the room smelling of pee which isn’t a great sign, and if you push hard enough on the walls you can see though the crack in the wood into the next room!  Content that I’m now somewhere cheap enough to replenish my dramatically diminished by Hong Kong funds I went for a wander around Hanoi.  The old town is beautiful, a mixture of Vietnamese, Chinese and French architecture, the noise, smells and clutter of the street markets adding to the pleasant experience.  Even the constant calling of “hello motorbike” by men asking if I wanted a ‘Honda om’ (motorbike taxi) was hassle free.  I could either ignore them or say no without them getting annoyed unlike their Indian rickshaw counterparts.

While walking around the Hoan Kiem Lake a young boy came up to me wanting to try his English and started asking the usual stream of questions such as “Are you married.”  I’ve got into the habit of saying “No I am not married but I am engaged” as I’ve learned that it usually stops further questions of why I am “So old and single and have no children.”  He nodded in a weird way, as if to say “yeah, I understand” however a few minutes after telling him I was engaged he went on to ask, “So you’re gay then?”  “What!,, …..No!  I said I was engaged”  I replied quickly.  He nodded his head again and said that he understood.  After a few moments of peace in which he was clearly thinking, he said, “So you don’t have a girlfriend then and you’re gay.”  The best part of the conversation was the way in which he said gay, he sounded like the Italian Captain Bertareli out of the sitcom ‘Allo Allo.’  It took all of my effort but I managed to succeed in not pushing him into the lake but he looked really confused at what I was trying to say.  Then it came to me, to him, the word engaged must have sounded like ‘and gay’.  So I explained everything in great detail to which he said for a further time that he fully understood.  However, just as I was about to walk back to the guesthouse he asked, “Do you have a girlfriend then?”  I thought bugger this, I’ll lie and confuse him and replied, “No because I’m gay” and walked off.

Day 73: Dog Ruff

July 27th, 2001

Day 73. After seeing a couple of temples and pagodas I just strolled slowly around the city until it started to rain quite hard.  On the way back from the pretty Tran Quoc Pagoda on Ho Tay Lake I followed the train track which seemed to run straight through the town centre.  Around here I noticed that there were a few small cages containing a number of small dogs and walking on further it soon became apparent that these were being cooked and eaten at the small stalls which lined the track.  It puts a whole new twist to the song, “how much is that doggie in the window.”  I kept being offered dog meat which I ignored at first as dogs are mans’ best friend and all that, but then I remembered what I’d concluded in India.  To me this is disgusting, but here it is the norm.  I also thought that as a meat eater I was being a little hypocritical as I eat beef, lamb, pork etc.  If I do that and don’t eat dog because I assume it’s of a higher species then that’s stupid, if you categorise animals in that way then you should never eat meat at all it’s practically ethnic cleansing.  So using this silly argument I tried a small piece.  I can’t say what it tasted like, it was interesting, a bit gamey and tough possibly even a bit ruff rough, but if any one says they’ve eaten it and it tastes like chicken, rubbish!  Walking off I figured I’d probably lose a few friends over this but I bet they’ll all be the hypocritical meat eaters!

Train to Hanoi, Vietnam.

Lying on my bed this evening I’ve discovered the Vietnamese obsession with Karaoke which must be second to none!  Somewhere, not very far away there must be a karaoke bar which seems to start up at 1am, .....arrggg.  It’s truly awful, the people clearly cannot sing which is not helped by the diabolical choice of songs.  In between the Vietnamese timeless classics of “ping pong diddle I po…” and “why my pee pong so long dooooo” there were terrible renditions of “stand by your man” or to be more correct “stan bee-or min” as it’s sung here.