Vietnam

Sunday, August 3. 2008
Out of sync, but since I finished it first, it gets posted. Because no-one has posted anything since the last fucking ice age finished.


Uncle Ho walked in the door.
“Uncle?” I said. “Don’t you have a war to fight?”
“No, my son, the war is over. Haven’t you heard? We won.”
“Who’s we?”
“Never mind that. I have not come to make small talk. I have a mission for you.”
“Uncle, I’m not well, I need help.”
“You will get all the help you need later, but first, your country needs you.”
“My country?”
“Vietnam is calling you, son. The time has come to do your patriotic duty.”
“But I’m not…”
“Hush, your fever has made you delirious. Soldier, we may have won the war but the fight continues. The people have lost their way. I need you to run a reconnaissance mission.”
“Yes, Uncle. I can do that.”
“Good. You were not given a choice, you know. I have men ready to detain you even as we speak if you were to hesitate.”
“That worries me. You are just a hallucination, right?”
“Go now, there is no time to waste.” And then he left.
What could be wrong with the country so badly that I was chosen to investigate? What skills did I possess that might make me the man for the job? My keen people skills? My ability to search out the truth in all corners?
“No, my son, it’s your delirious fever induced illness.”
Who the fuck said that?
Anyway, I knew then it was all of the above. So I set out immediately to get to the bottom of it all. But first, I had to pass out on the bed.

The morning tour would have been better if I hadn’t been in mind-shearing pain. Like most big delta towns, Chau Doc lives and breathes by the grace of the river. A great deal of the people live along or near it, make their living from it, get their food from it, and do their commerce on it. The canals make as good a transport system as anything else and goods come from all directions to from the floating market. We got on a boat and did a few laps around it. Then to a floating house – entire neighbourhoods exist floating on the river, water real estate. They have power, TV, satellite reception, addresses, everything. This one had a fish farm under it. The guide threw handfuls of fish food into the water, turning the fish into a turbulent storm of scales in the feeding frenzy. This was the highlight of the day. The next stop was a Cham neighbourhood and little more than the commission shopping spot. Then a ride up and down the canal to see more of what we already had seen. All I wanted to do was die, or get out and tear my head off. Things were bad.

It all ended and I wish I’d been better off, in no way was I to appreciate it at all. Win some, lose some. I ate some food and took whatever meds I had, and lay down. Roman went off to get bus tickets. I had thought I might take in a few more towns on the way to HCMC but I had made the executive decision to get to a hospital. The best thing was to get to Ho Chi Minh City, and so it was settled.

“Ah, my son, you are doing well. I need you to report.”
Roman had disappeared, and Uncle Ho was sitting next to me instead. I told him what I had seen.
“Why do the people fear the sun so much?”
“They cover their faces with those masks not to hide from the sun but so the brilliance of their white skin will not dazzle passers by.”
“I don’t know, I saw this one lady on the bus, and when she took her mask off she looked as dark as anyone working in the field in Cambodia.”
“Heresy!” Uncle Ho was screaming. “How dare you vile foreigner claim to be able to discern between the lustrous pallor of a Vietnamese maiden and the cretin us black skin of the Khmer! You cannot possibly have the optical sensory needed to see the delicate balance!” He was red in the face now. “The horrendous dark skin of the lowly peasant is a mark of dishonour no Vietnamese will tolerate!”
He paused to regain himself.
“What else have you to report?”
“Nothing, Uncle.” I lied, fearing another outburst in my weakened state would be my undoing.
“Very well.” He was back to his normal, genial and composed self. “This city will tell us much. Do not waste a second!”
Then he was gone, and we had arrived.
A brief conflict with the taxi guys and we ended up in a metre taxi – and I thought these things didn’t exist in Asia. We got a fair deal, considering how the driver could have gone the scenic route, and I stayed glued to the window the whole way. Ho Chi Minh City. Everyone who actually lives there still calls it Saigon. I like the sound of Saigon too, the only thing the alternative name has going for it is my own respect for ol’ Uncle Ho, so form here on it we call it Saigon.

And it’s big. And lively. It was love at first sight. Saigon is alive, flowing, breathing, making it work. The streets are wide and easily accommodating the madness of the traffic, jams and gridlock feel like an impossibility even in the face of all those vehicles. The footpaths are wide and inviting, the lights bright and welcoming. The neon calls you in and the fluorescent lamps guide your eyes. The stream of people doesn’t stop, ever, and through it all the taxi glided effortlessly to Pham Nga Lao, the backpacker ghetto of Saigon. We were instantly picked out by a little old lady who took us around to every guest house that might have accommodated our needs, and finding most of them full, never gave up until we were satisfied. The back alleys are a charmed place, the kind of alleyway life that’s a world away from the noise of the streets. Real family life goes on back here, as it always might have, the guest houses merely utilising the extra rooms that were there as the neighbourhood blossoms into a budget accommodation area. Locals outnumber tourists and people still stare. This is as good as it gets in a big city, in the biggest city, and absolutely delicious.

Not so tasty are the legions of moto drivers and cyclo guys who shout, hoot, whistle and holler at every single tourist passing their range of vision. The neighbourhood has its charm but before long you are spending too much energy on asshole patrol, and wondering what you might possibly do to ward them off. At least they only hang out on the main streets.

I shared a room with Gemma while Roman decided to pay extra for some solace. Gemma went into the toilet while I lay down. She didn’t come out, instead Uncle Ho opened the door.
“Have you new information, my son?”
“The cyclo drivers and motorbike guys are incredibly rude to me, don’t they have any respect?”
“They are being incredibly respectful and restrained, I would think. They are nothing but the dregs of the imperialist and capitalist southern regime the true warriors of the north obliterated. I commend them for not dragging you by your legs around the city tied to the back of their motorbikes.”
“They are that bad? I heard they are often displaced or spent lots of time in ‘re-education’ camps.”
“Careful, my son, I can tell when you put quote marks around the word ‘re-education’. They were vital tools in integrating the south back into the folds of family.”
“Not state run torture centres.”
“How dare you suggest such a thing!” Uncle Ho was rising with venom, spitting like a cut snake. “The lackeys of the southern regime needed nothing less than the kind tolerance of the hands of their betters to show them the way, lest they be lost forever to the lies of their former masters!”
I wanted to ask if using them as human mine detectors was tolerant, but caught myself.
“The cyclo and moto drivers are unable to perform any services to the benefit of the state. We are grateful for their obedience and continuing service to our visitors.” Calm now, he smiled as he said the last words. “The rudeness is only in your mind, my son.” Then he was gone again.

Stepping outside to get some dinner, as soon as I stepped out of the alleyway I was whistled at like a dog by a guy in a taxi and followed all the way down the block by two cyclos shouting, ‘Where you go? Where you go?’ All the while dodging touts at the front of restaurants trying to manhandle me physically into their places. Restraint, I thought. Who is showing it now?

The hospital proved to be a scene of chaos. I was directed to a building to the side where I gained access to a doctor and medication. I have no idea what the pills she gave me were, but the fever left and so did Uncle Ho. I was free to wander around Saigon and visit the tourist attractions. The reunification palace, the war museum. I arranged a ticket out of there and woke up early on my last day there to catch the bus. Sitting in the travel agency office, the man who sold me the ticket the night before wasn’t there. Calling out for someone to come, it was Uncle Ho who emerged.
“Uncle, where have you been?”
“Waiting for your medication to start working. It does wonderful things, does it not?”
“I don’t get it.”
“Don’t worry, son. You’ve had some time to relax, now back to work. You will have much to report on soon. But enough for now, the bus is here.”

The first place was Mui Ne. And what a low point it was. Not really a town, more a strip of highway lined with guest houses, hotels, restaurants, travel agents, and other beach related crap. It’s a beach destination but not a terribly inspiring one. The buildings have encroached on the sand so there’s not a very wide strip of beach there anymore, and the rainy season runoff from the river turns the water a brown colour.

I took a jeep tour of the area. The details annoy me, so I’ll just say it was a blow out. Finished way too early, earlier than promised, and nothing I couldn’t have done on a motorbike (or on a moto tour) and not even close to worth the money. So annoying. The dunes were kind of cool, if you’ve never seen real dunes before (I suspect a lot of people out there have not) but nothing against the ones at Levy’s Point, near my parent’s house. The fishing village on the beach smelled like fish and the stream that flowed down into the water from the hills had a band of annoying would-be guide children. I smiled and ignored them. Later, the guide asked me if I spoke English – apparently the kids had just figured I couldn’t. I was right to ignore them, because I saw them following anyone else who went and actually paid them any mind, wailing to give them money. All in all, colossal let down and over before ten in the morning.

Which actually worked, since I had time to get a bus out of there before I committed to the room. I did exactly that, got some food and some sleep and was out of that crass little stretch before I even realised I was there.

Asleep on the bus, Uncle Ho came to talk. I asked him a question to start.
“Why did those people lie to me, Uncle?”
“They did not tell you a single lie. The fault is with you, for you should have been more discerning.”
“How can I be? All these tourist places looked the same and sold the same thing, and I don’t understand Vietnamese.”
“You should have known from the beginning, my son, what it would be like in the end.”
Then he was gone. Had I forgot to take the medicine that morning?
Dalat was founded by the French colonialists in 1919 as a hill station, somewhere to escape the heat and toil of lording over the natives. It is just that now, an escape from the heat with a distinctly European climate. Nights are genuinely cold, which means you can buy warm soy milk and cakes and stuff. Not a bad trade off, and good thing I still had my jeans. I took a walk around town as it got dark and it is still Vietnam, still with the traffic and the yelling and the honking, but the streets don’t go in straight lines. Later on I would find myself reminded more and more of European towns I’d been to two years previous, especially the vistas looking over lakes to rows of pine trees, in particular, times when you couldn’t see the locals. And as I found out later, locals love the place. It’s big with couples in particular, honeymooning and so on.

I took a tour the next day and spent it all in the company of Vietnamese people. Not a huge drawcard for foreign visitors, apparently, and I had found myself on a Vietnamese tour group. The guide spoke English enough to explain the places we went but the other four tourists didn’t. I don’t think I saw another white person the whole day, which was somewhat refreshing and a glimpse into how Vietnamese travel.

It was an exercise in noise, concrete kitsch and commission stops masquerading as attractions. It’s not unpleasant, but when seeing it becomes an exercise in being taken advantage of because you happened to pay for the privilege of taking a tour and happen to be stuck at the whims of a driver and incarcerated in his car – well, it grates after a while. And concrete is no substitute for stone in construction, if there is going to be any kind of artistic merit to your work.

I had some bad noodles for dinner. Apparently waiting for the meat to cook would have delayed them overcharging me. When I was on the toilet, between stomach cramps and liquid shit, Uncle Ho drifted in and out of my vision.
“Are you real, or just a symptom of eating undercooked beef?”
“You will grow strong eating real Vietnamese food.”
“That’s not how it works.”
“You will learn to love painted concrete.”
“But it looks low-budget and tacky.”
“You will love the opportunity to make some extra money for your travel agent by gaining him some commission.”
“But I can get the same stuff much cheaper at the market.”
“And you will learn to shout like the rest of the crowd. Did I see you attempting to line up in a civil manner? You must cease this pointless activity!”
“Are you even looking at me?”
Uncle Ho gestured silently for a while, as if addressing a large crowd, his voice somehow muted. And then faded away. Then I vomited into the sink.

The morning brought no further gastro-intestinal distress. The bus took me to Nha Trang, where I was assaulted by the development and destruction masquerading as progress. That night, I was robbed by a gang of prostitutes. I left as soon as I could get out of there.
I saw Uncle Ho again, but he didn’t say anything. He was shuffling around the streets, in the dark, his clothes torn and shabby, with suspicious yellow stain over the crotch. I tried to ask what had happened, and how I thought there were no homeless people in Vietnam. He just kept walking.
These costal resorts have given way to massive development, which increases pressure on the environment, and in turn, land prices. This forces buildings closer and closer to the water and eventually there’s nothing but a concrete barrier, a small strip of sand, and water that hasn’t been blue in years. The ironic thing about this is, it seems not to deter people from coming, but increases tourism. More people come to see the polluted wasteland it’s become and in turn, the worse it gets. There’s no sense in this, and it’s the foreign visitors who bring it the worst.

The night bus was pain. Squeezed in the back, not enough room to stretch out fully, my feet were racked in pain by the time we arrived in the morning. Roman and I found a room and rested. Hoi An was somewhere I’d wanted to see for a while, so that offset the black mood a little. But not much. Hoi An is easily the most beautiful place in Vietnam. While that’s not the hardest thing to achieve, and can’t really be attributed entirely to the Vietnamese, you would have to admit that it still being that way is to their credit.

Founded as a trade town, with interests over the years from China, Japan and Europe, famed for the high quality of its silk products, Hoi An these days is a well preserved little town filled with Chinese temples and houses, European colonial vestiges and tailor shops. And I do mean a lot of them, some 500 of them, and the big draw is getting clothes tailor made on the cheap. And I do mean cheap – a men’s suit will go for as low as $20. That suit won’t make it as far as Hanoi, but you’ll still have yourself a new suit for a little while.
Strolling through the streets, if you can somehow block out the calls of the moto drivers, drink sellers, souvenir sellers and the touts working for the more enthusiastic tailor shops, Hoi An is not only visually arresting but incredibly agreeable. However, since you will be yelled at by some Vietnamese shithead every three steps, this ain’t gonna happen. So while you gander at the fine architecture and marvel at the high quality restoration and preservation, try to hold back the feelings of rage toward all guys on motorbikes. As you peek into a temple or house so Chinese the Chinese would pay to see it, resist the urge to overturn the drink stall that is home to the lady trying to gouge two dollars for a can of Coke. Be offended as the staff at the bicycle parking lot lie to your face and tell you the locals also pay three times the normal rate to park there, after they herd you in with whistles and batons. Watch as another potentially wonderful spot goes to hell because it happens to be in modern Vietnam.

“Uncle Ho, what went wrong here? Are you even out there?”
He was not. I didn’t see Uncle Ho for days. Arriving in Hue, I fought my way through one of the fiercest scrums of taxi guys and hotel touts the world has ever seen, I’m not even kidding. Violence was necessary to emerge intact, and I had gathered a very determined small crowd of persistent ones that followed me all through the car park. Do these guys think I just didn’t see them yet? Or hear them? Walking faster I managed to lose them, but not immediately. The stream of offers and enticements mixed with the usual outright rudeness gave way to an unusual, exasperated mouthful of insults and swearing in English and they dropped off.

Every corner held at least one guy lounging on a motorbike, rousing only to shout at me. Any charm that Hue might have held was obliterated by these assholes. Trying to make a living, sure, I have to respect that, but their total lack of honour in their approach did nothing but drag me down into their dirt. I don’t need their dirt, I don’t need their shit, I didn’t need to eat that crap but yet it was forced upon me over and over, shovel loads of it, it chased me down streets and alleyways, in places I thought I was alone, in corners I thought were quiet. Even the people selling food and drinks at the side of the road were over the top, desperate in their pitiful quest to overcharge me for a snack or bottle of water. Have some dignity, shut the fuck up, leave me alone.

The citadel was big, but there was almost no signs pointing to anything other than what was for sale. History, culture, discovery – get your photo taken in costume on stage with two strangers, also in costume. Finding anything in there was almost pure luck.

Another overnight bus took me to Ninh Binh. I was assaulted by the manager to take a tour while I was still eating breakfast. Damn, again with the bad decision. Tam Coc is a river running between rice paddies that goes through a few caves and is undeniably pretty. You enjoy the experience in a boat rowed by an old lady, and you pay pretty good money for the opportunity (remember that). It takes about two hours, and while the scenery was great, I can’t help but remember the rest of the bullshit that went along for the ride, like so many gremlins dragging the boat underwater. The day was overcast, making photography a chore rather than a pleasure, and the waterway was pretty crowded. After the third cave, you get besieged by other boats trying to sell you food and drinks. I had my earphones in well before this and pretended to not hear or see anything. I managed to overhear the lady trying to sell me stuff ask me to buy a drink for the lady paddling the boat – a trick I was hip to. If you give in, all that happens is the drink gets sold right back to the seller, for half the price. Yes, you just gave them a dollar each for nothing. Fuck that. Eventually, they all gave up trying to screw me and we headed away.

The next step happened not long after that, and out came the box of shit to sell me. Again, the ignore card worked and she gave up pretty fast. The way back was a lot busier – the package tourists had arrived in their tour busses. The last attempt on my wallet and dignity came as I alighted – the squealing appeal for a tip. Two dollars, she asks for. I don’t even glance at her, let alone give her money. Hey, I paid for my ticket. She wants more money? Ask for a raise. Or something. Two dollars is not much money, except in Vietnam it is. You can eat for a day, more if you are a local, and most Vietnamese make half that in a day. She asks because Vietnamese either have no shame, or are willing to sell their dignity to whoever might buy, and because people pay. Leave no stone unturned, to tourist un-pumped.

The rest of the day wasn’t really worth it, or the money I paid the moto guy for driving me. I should have known better, but by then I was already past all of it. All of it.
On a bus to Hanoi the next morning, I took the only seat left and had to sit next to a decrepit old man. I tried not to touch him, and he smelled vaguely like armpits and a toilet. But he kept leaning on me, and grabbing at my pockets. Only then did I look at him properly. It was Uncle Ho.

“Uncle, what’s become of you?”
“Give… Money… Give me…”
And that’s all he could say, all the way to Hanoi.
Not the idyllic and quintessential Asian city promised, but more of the same, just in much more cramped style and with even less politeness than ever. If such a thing can be believed, Hanoi is the capital in so many ways, it takes the number one tag. The most annoying, the most lies, the dirtiest, the place we all want to be away from as soon as possible. Do you enjoy stepping out of your hotel to, only to have waiting taxi drivers not yell, shout or scream at you (all better alternatives than what actually happens) but whistle at you, like you were a dog? Then they smile and wave you over and when you stick a hand in their face and walk past, they let loose a few lines in Vietnamese that they don’t even bother to whisper or mumble, but say it out loud and I imagine that they don’t even care if you did happen to understand. Which you don’t, but there are some things you can get the flavour of without subtitles. And this happens every corner you walk past, and in the Old Quarter of the city, where all the tourist crap is, there are packs of at least three waiting on every corner. The narrow streets might make walking a genuinely dangerous notion, because the locals extend their total lack of giving a shit about anyone that’s not them (a friend of mine currently resident in China has this line about the Chinese that I think applies more than readily to the Vietnamese – “people I don’t know, don’t exist”) and probably wouldn’t even slow down if they ran you over, unless it was to swear at you for wasting their time – but it does mean than the phenomenon of being actively followed by these cocksuckers is reduced. I still found myself followed by more than one shouting driver one many occasions, but it was marginally less than elsewhere in the country.

To say there’s nothing worth seeing would be wrong. If you’ve never seen a Chinese style Confucian temple before (they tend to be sober affairs, devoid of too much clutter and flair), then the Temple of Literature is worth a look. The museum at the site of the old Hoa Lou prison is cool because it’s where they tortured maybe-next-US-president-not-black-guy-or-woman. Strolling around the lake is also nearly relaxing, if it weren’t for the constant grind of traffic and people pretending to be collecting money for the Red Cross (seriously, have these people no dignity at all?) and the military museum has a massive and very cool sculpture made of wreckage recovered from downed American aircraft. The displays are yet more propaganda, but I expected nothing less.

I had enough. I walked the streets on my last night, and saw Uncle Ho sitting in a restaurant. He didn’t seem to know who I was.
“Uncle, how could it all be so bad? What could have infected this country, so much like its neighbours, yet without the spirit and passion that makes them places you would actually want to visit? Where has the tradition gone, the hospitality, the culture? Have you thrown it all away in the desperate grab for American Dollars? Have you any idea what has been lost, or has the act of losing it caused you to forget even what it was in the first place? Uncle?”
Then he started shouting at me.
“Get the fuck out of here! I don’t know who you are, stupid foreigner! Get lost!”
Later, I realised he had stolen my wallet as I panicked before I fled. I had to sell all my things just to pay for a taxi to the airport.
On the way, I saw Uncle Ho for the last time. He was trying to hitch a ride to the airport – ostensibly to escape. The taxi hit him, splattering his brains all over the road. That was the last I saw of him. The driver didn’t even flinch.

Profundity in newsprint

Tuesday, June 17. 2008
Though I regret making my first post in ages nothing but a direct quote, this was too good. From The Guardian:

In the era of CCTV, memory storage, eternal emails and Gordon Bell, we can all preserve our every asinine thought, meaningless utterance and minor accomplishment. That is why it is so important that the real achievements of history's greats be well preserved and presented, and as accessible as possible.


Ain't it the truth.

Thailand, part two

Sunday, June 1. 2008
Next stop was Phuket. I don’t want to enervate myself further, but let’s just say that I hated every single square centimetre of the island and one night was one too many. Perfect beaches with sand like talcum powder, covered in disgusting resorts and fat Eurotrash. Nights filled with neon and more go-go bars than you can count. If I was sixty, divorced and relatively wealthy, this would be heaven – and that’s exactly the target market. It’s almost no fun and totally the wrong scene if you’re me. Or have standards. Or morals. Or decency. Not to come off like a puritan – I spent quite a while looking at the menu, so to speak, at the bars, but it was just too much. A longer description would probably be ideal, because it’s quite a scene, but maybe some other day. Why couldn’t this shitehole have been ground zero on Boxing Day 2004? Maybe it would have been wiped off the map altogether and we’d all be talking about it in the past tense. Maybe all the resorts would have gone away and something more rustic, close to nature, something with some vibes would have sprung up – instead almost nothing was washed away, except the people who deserved it least. The whole place needs to be crushed. So I got the fuck away, ever more jaded at the whole of southern Thailand and what it’s become, the circus it’s become, the excuseless parade of crap that it’s become.

OK, that would be a cop out, to not tell you how it is, what the place it like. It’s paradise lost, it’s a natural beauty covered in horse shit, it’s an amazingly tasty looking plate of ribs covered in ants. I like the last one best. You can still see what it was, before the infestation, and you know how good it might have tasted. You might even still be able to eat it, if you were desperate enough, or didn’t care, or didn’t know, or didn’t realise. It is an island, blessed with some incredible stretches of sand, sand so soft and powdery you almost won’t believe it. It squeaks underfoot and doesn’t stick to your skin at all. The water, for all the people who come and visit and in spite of all the boat traffic, remains clear and blue. You can see the bottom all the way out as far as you might dare swim, lest you get hit by a passing longtail boat, and all the other factors, like the weather, are everything a tropical resort should be. It has everything, and after year upon year of being the it destination in Thailand, all the amenities and all the infrastructure is there. Hell, you can fly direct to the airport from most every major city in the region, and quite a few well connected terminals further afield, like Sydney, LA and Frankfurt, making it no more than a connection away. Getting there is easy, and as expensive as the top end might be, go mid range or budget and your winter holidays just became sun soaked at a more than reasonable price. Everything else is mostly Thailand prices too, from the drinking and eating to all the little bits of life. I see the attraction, don’t get me wrong, but I’m a snob sometimes, I admit it, and I like my beaches a bit nicer.

Nicer in this case means trash all the resort umbrellas on the sand (they stretch from one end to the other), get rid of all the people selling things (you want to eat, drink or get rubbed down? Get off your arse and cross the road) and move the development back (even just a little, so it’s not right on the edge of the water, and preferably a kilometre away, so some semblance of nature can be felt). How relaxing can it be to lie under one of a hundred or more identical umbrellas and be constantly badgered by sales people while the road thunders behind you? Not all if it is like that, sure, but enough if it is to make me think some folk are getting shafted there. But it’s been there for years, and my complaints are nothing new. If you don’t like it, leave. I follow my own advice. But not until I’d seen the nightlife.

Patong beach is just one stretch of sand that turned this place into a circus. And it’s the main spectacle once the sun goes down. Platinum card users but expensive seafood and deluxe hotel rooms, wine imported from God knows where, over-zealous locals shout about everything they want you to buy at inflated prices. Suits are the most vividly hawked item, for some reason these guys try 100% harder than the rest. The only thing not showed in your face are the strippers – and that’s because you’re in the wrong street.

Venture down that street and you’ll be blinded, either by neon or God himself, and more shouting girls than you could ever hope to grope. Or be groped by, because that’s how they get you in. Stand in your way and grab you. There’s nothing subtle about it, nothing at all, and each and every one of them could be yours. For a price. I’m telling you, it’s almost too much. Each place has its own name (I’d call mine ‘Slutte Garden’) and each laneway has a name, my favourite being ‘Soi Easy’. That’s ‘Easy Street’, more or less, and nothing could be more appropriate. There’s an average of two girls to a pole and not nearly enough guys to go around. This means they all try extra hard to get you in. It’s an experience, to be sure, but would I want to go back? The soullessness of it all sours me greatly, in hindsight. I’m not travelling to get a fill of that kind of action and if I wanted mindless titillation, I’d watch a porno. If I wanted to get off but didn’t have a consenting partner, I can jack off no problems. That’s what it’s all about, you getting off and them making their share for doing it.

So that’s Phuket. Pray for an earthquake, or go running directly there, because I’ve either described your heaven or your hell.

Next stop, Gulf of Thailand coast. The islands of legend, the real heart of why Thailand is the place to be, the real deal. Right? Dare I say I was disappointed by it all, again? Already? It was already clear to me that Thailand, or at least, the dirty south, was not going to be my gig. Still, I had to see it and I was fast regretting that I’d budgeted so much time to do so. The gulf coast islands are, in order of south to north and, incidentally, popularity – Ko Samui, Ko Pha-Ngan and Ko Tao. Samui was the first to be discovered, and it was backpackers who did the uncovering. Back in the seventies when all this was new, the original hippy trail types came upon an island of amazing natural beauty and splendour, a place so amazing that they couldn’t believe they had it to themselves. It wasn’t even a place the Thais were hip to, indeed, the whole tourism industry in Thailand would have been in its infancy. So they found it and enjoyed it and word got around about it. It started off in the hippy trail, but it was always going to get big, and eventually the 80’s happened and boom – now it’s famous, now it’s developed. Pha-Ngan was always there, visible from Samui, but was always more rugged and harder to get around, unruly to non-existent roads meant the first generation of beach seekers hired local fishermen to take them around. It remained more or less a low-key little sister to Samui, and still is in many ways, except once a month when the full moon comes around. Then it explodes. Back in the nineties, they say, at Paradise bungalows, I hear, it might have been someone’s birthday – they had a big party on the beach at Hat Rin and it was awesome. They went back the next month, and so it began. Now it’s the biggest beach party in the world, the new year’s event pulling near 40,000 people. It’s the stuff of legend and me, not jaded by it all, was planning to hit it up – hence the timing and all. Ko Tao, it’s there, it’s got a good diving scene – it’s not part of the story, so let’s let it go.

So what happened out there? I arrived in Surat Thani, the main transit point for getting a boat out there, and getting off the bus there was no public transport in sight. Just some asshole travel agent guys. I followed one and he wanted 650 to get to Ko Samui – I nearly swore at him. As I left he tried to get me to haggle. Haggle over the price of transport on a major route! This wasn’t a taxi to a distant border town or a boat to a far off beach, this was one of the most travelled routes in Thailand. He was set up just right to rip people off. I should have spat at him. I walked out and up the road, wondering where the bus station was. After all, the bus had left me there, so it couldn’t be far. It actually is, some ten kilometres away, so my conclusion is that the bus company gets a slice off one or more of the local travel agent guys to deliver ignorant tourists like me. Angry and confused, and it was late, I went up the road in search of something, and came across another travel agency (I passed a few but no-one talked to me) and the guy working there asked me where I was going. Ko Samui, I said, how can I get there? He’d sell me a ticket, and gave me a reasonable price. Lulled into a sense of security, I sat down and talked to the guy.

I had just met the friendliest, most honest travel agent in all Thailand, no shit. He was the real deal, and he talked me out of going to Samui. Why? The new moon was but two days away, and there’s half moon and full moon parties as well, you know. I knew of them, and didn’t mind the idea of seeing one of them, so I agreed and he told me the best way at this time would be to take the night ferry, leaving at eleven, and I’d be there at the crack of dawn. He was open about his commission and I was cool with it, so I got the ticket and thanked him. He let me leave my bags there so I could go get some food (it was about seven o’clock by now) and I did. Surat Thani is another concrete jungle that looks just like Hat Yai and with about the same amount of charm. The night market is big enough, and sees hardly any foreigners that they don’t even think to rip you off a few baht here and there. I got fed and went back to the travel agency. The guy was still there (his name was Joke) and we got to talking about the industry he was in and all of that, about how many rip-off guys you meet, and he told me I wasn’t just paranoid, it was all true. They’ll go for any white guys they see, some of them, unscrupulously. He didn’t use that word, his English was kind of sketchy, just good enough to get by in a conversation, but he would have used it if he had known it.

He was pretty grateful for the conversation practice and since his boss had gone, he let me use the internet there for free. I later heard he charges 50 an hour, a little steep, but seeing as it’s a duck shoot for tourists along that street, I understand. We talked until nine, when he closed, and then he gave me a lift to the dock and we ate dinner together, had a few beers, and then he paid half even though I had more. That’s how I knew he wasn’t just being nice to a customer – he’d just made himself a new friend. The boat left on time and he waved me off. What a nice guy.

The other backpackers on the night boat were not interested in talking. So much for that. It was easy enough to sleep, but before I knew it we were there, even before the sun was up. Off the boat and into the waiting arms of the taxi mafia. Waiting with laminated signs with the names of beaches distant, and vastly inflated prices. I tried to bargain, to reason with them, but no, they wouldn’t move – this was the ultimate example of the attitude towards tourists in this part of the world. Take them for all you can, especially when you have them over a barrel. Me, I walked. The shouted at me that it would take too long, but I still walked. The haven’t reckoned with the likes of me yet. And so I walked, and the sun came up, and it was hot. Bags heavy. Long way to go. A few people stopped and tried to get me to go to their bungalows, but they weren’t in the right place or price range. The girls (or whatever) still at the go-go bars from the night before called me over with the same vigour they would have been shouting with the night before. That’s stamina.

Eventually, not 20 minutes off the boat, a lady on a motorbike stopped and gave me a ride on the back. She asked no money and took me where I wanted to go. Well, almost. There’s Rainbow Phangan Bungalows, right in the middle of the south coast, and Rainbow Bungalows, almost to the end of the beach, right near Hat Rin. I wanted the former, but got the latter. It was no difference in the end, and I didn’t realise for days that I wasn’t actually at the place I thought I was at, and the price was 300 for a bungalow. I settled in. It was stuffy and the bed was hard, but that’s what three hundred Baht buys you there, I guess.

After food and a sleep, I rented a motorbike (fully auto this time) and went exploring. Hat Rin was right next door, which was surprising given that I thought it had been further away. A little home-away-from-home village is there these days, plenty of cafes and restaurants, guest houses and books shops, dive shops, travel agents, internet cafes, bungalows and bars. The only Asians you see are working there, the only foreigners you see are there to party in the sun. The atmosphere I didn’t find all that evil or wrong, but there’s nothing Thailand about it at all. It’s the difference between milk fresh from the cow and processed cheese that comes in plastic wrapped individual slices – it all came from the same place, only one is worth going out of your way for, and only one is any good for you in the end. It’s the junk food side of Thailand, the Disneyland style of backpacking. It all looks nice, inviting even, but it’s all priced like the taxi mafia and outside of full moon times it looks half empty. The legendary Hat Rin, now the epitome of modern Thailand.

Around the island on the bike and the west coast proved to be as disappointing as anywhere. The promise of nicer beaches and maybe some solitude was wiped away as every square inch of sand has been co-opted by some resort or another. No public beaches to be seen. So I went back, ate some pedestrian Thai food at the Thong Sala night market, walked around Hat Rin a little more, feeling incredibly lonely amongst all the people. So many nice faces and so little of them wanted anything to do with me. Even the people working there were indifferent, lest I go and partake of their service. For sure, it’s a BYO friend situation. It started raining and I went to go sleep.

The next day was Black Moon party. I took the bike out and went to the site of the party and met some English people there. It was at one of the beach side bungalows and they were going to be staying at ground zero. The site looked pretty cool and the staff told me that there would be several hundred people showing up. No kidding. Happy enough, I went out further on the bike and found the north of the island was simply amazing. The kind of quiet beaches with white sand and longtail boats I imagined. Bungalows scattered on the sand like Lego blocks dropped from the sky. And the water was turquoise, shining like a jewel in the sun. Hat Rin, on the other hand, looks distinctly grey, like there’s too many people nearby. The accommodation operations there are pretty cheap too, the only issue is getting there. The taxi mafia will sting you around 500 for a ride there, possibly double what the room costs. Still, if you were going to stay a while and not go down to Hat Rin, and if you squinted hard enough, you could pretend it was old-school Thai travel again. Almost.

I caught the sunset at a beach I had almost to myself and then got some food. I drove up to where the party would be and had a beer at the Seven Eleven across the road. There I met some people doing the same thing – an older Canadian guy and a pair of Japanese girls. We got some bottles and went to their place, where another older guy came and met us. The music was already pumping next door but people don’t rock up to those things for a while, and we had plenty to drink. The older guys were retired and semi-resident (as much as a foreigner can be in Thailand) in Phuket and had some very informative stories about the seedier side of life. The Japanese girls were fun until they drank themselves into an early night; in the end I went to the party alone. There were plenty of punters there, but on closer inspection it was mostly Thais selling things. Body paint, fake drugs, massages and drinks. Still there were enough people dancing to make it fun. Things get quite wobbly at this point, for reasons best not explored here, but suffice is to say that it was a memorable, if kind of stereotyped, night dancing in the sand.

Next day I managed to check out the bungalow and fully intended to get off the island, having had more than my fair share or things. This too proved to be a step too far on the ambition scale and I got as far as a café in Hat Rin, where I’d stopped for a drink two nights before. They remembered me, as I’d stayed chatting for a while. One of the guys there was Burmese and I was eager to hear about his story, as a bit of prep for my upcoming side-step to Myanmar. He told me a lot of the staff on the islands were Burmese, either with a proper working permit or not, because the Thais can pay them half the proper rate. I heard about life in Hat Rin from his point of view and felt disappointed I wouldn’t be there for Full Moon, but there was no way I’d be staying that long. I sat and got some water and discovered that my hangover was worse than anticipated. Family Guy swirled on the screen in front of me and it was raining like the end of the world outside. Eventually it eased off and I wandered off to get a room. I found a cell-like place for 200 Baht and was happy enough. It didn’t look terribly secure so I kept my valuables close by. I made it back to the café and stayed another few hours and by then it was getting dark. What a day.

The next day it rained some more and I thought about getting a bike and going looking for the people I met at Black Moon party, but apathy got the better of me. I went and bought a book at one of the shops (the lady remembered me from the last few days but despite her friendly ribbing me – ‘that three times you come my shop now!’ – I didn’t get a discount. No haggle zone, indeed. I hung out at the same café again, eating this time, and in the evening my Burmese friend took me for a walk around and onto the beach. It’s kind of nice there at night, the distant sounds of music and TVs far enough away to make the waves the principal soundtrack, and the lights glittering like candy in the water. Neon on salt water is an appetising and tempting combination but I was feeling the paranoia creeps and half expected the guy to try something, or sell me something, but his agenda was clean. I feel bad for brushing him off now, in hindsight it’s clear now that he too was a good guy on an island of shysters and punks.

I made it off the island the next day, on a boat to Ko Samui. In giving Ko Pha-Ngan one last summary, I have to note that not having seen it during Full Moon, I can’t give a full picture, but as much as my personal distaste for the place might be, I don’t outright hate it, and might well go back in days to come. It’s not genuine anything, it’s an arcade game where you have to keep feeding coins to get the fun coming out, but taking it for what it is, hell, there are much worse places you could be. It just isn’t my scene, it just isn’t what I’m searching for, it just isn’t what I’m about. But there’s worse, and I was just about to find out how bad things could be.

The 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami hit the wrong island. As much as Phuket needs a biblical flood to purge the earth of its stinking taint, Ko Samui needs it even more. If there ever was any natural beauty about it (and I’m sure there was, once) it’s all gone now. And endless stretch of concrete and buildings, I haven’t got the intestinal fortitude to describe it in any kind of gory detail it deserves. It rained on the boat on the way over and a lot of bags got wet. Not mine, you understand, because I am vigilant. Off the boat and the taxi mafia are waiting, this time with double extortionate pricing. Chaweng and Lamai are the it beaches and they were taking 200 and 250 for a 15 minute ride. That kind of money would be a rip off to get all the way across the island. I walked right past, found a friendly looking place and ordered an ice tea. The people there were good sorts and let me leave my bag while I went searching for a room. That was harder than expected, made easier and harder by a guy giving me a ride on his bike, but to an expensive place where he would have got commission on my room. But he cut down a long walk by half, and I managed to track down a 300 Baht room and a cheap bike. I went back for my bags and set off around the island.

It was horrific. Worse than the ecological destruction in Phuket. Did I ever think that was possible? Ko Samui has been known about since the early seventies and forty years is a long time for people to get busy with the concrete, especially in a land where tourism is the big dollar. I understand how it happened, but on my loop of the island I still shuddered to see every piece worth taking advantage of has been taken. Everything even remotely worth cashing in on has been cashed in on. Around at Lamai it’s clear the beach is stunning, but lined with crapola and bars. All the pretty girls are either for sale or currently rented out. There’s no love for a solo guy surviving on his wits and morale. Chaweng was worse, you can’t see it from the road. You have to dismount and wade through car parks and gardens attached to hotels to even see it, where it’s lined with restaurants. I didn’t find it till after dark. I missed nothing. I got a curry at a local market and cruised past the girlie bars but found I didn’t even have the get-up-and-go to be groped by a stranger over an overpriced beer. That’s how defeated the place made me. I went to the bungalow and checked out first thing in the am.

Taxi to the dock, boat to the mainland, bus to Surat Thani and back to hang out with Joke at the travel agency. He was still there and happy to see me, and talk about where I’d been, and what I thought of it. He sounded like he agreed with my take on things, but not too much out loud. He was impressed at my bargain room finding skills and looked up the train times heading north, then we parted ways.

The bus leaving to Phun Phin, where Surat Thani’s train station is, went nowhere for a long while, then rolled along for a longer while, getting to the station too late to make the 6.30 to Bangkok. I could wait for the nine o’clock train, but that would land me in my destination at 2.30 am. Undesirable. Dismayingly I sank into the gutter and went for the Lonely Planet. I could quote exactly from it, but it pointed me around the corner to the Queen hotel and it was indeed around the corner. And cheap. Not all was lost. The first train in the morning I could get on was at 10.40, so I was only really half a day in arrears. I would be there in plenty of time to look around and be able to leave the following day. So it was I wandered around Phun Phin at night. It is a real nothing place, the sole redeeming feature is that lost travellers seem to be common enough not to earn too much attention. I think I planned to do some writing there but ended up jerking off and going to sleep, the frustration at the island experience melting away.

To be honest, I don’t know what I was expecting from that end of the world. A budget tropical escape, a truly cheap getaway in a poor land, where service is bad and conditions worse, but it’s cheap. That’s what I wanted, but somewhere the locals figured if you build luxury of varying degrees, people will still pay for it. And then there’s more money for everyone. I wanted what it once would have been, but like I already said, 40 years too late. It’s a recurring theme in Asia. The hippy trail is long, long dead and anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar and a charlatan. There’s traps for people who go looking for just that and I’m glad my sense were up to the task of sniffing it out. I could go on, but like all adventures, this one has to move on.

Prachaup Khiri Khan is about halfway between Surat Thani and Bangkok, and so even if there wasn’t any good reason to stop I might have done anyway. After Indonesia I shudder at the thought of longer than needed bus or train rides. So at about two in the afternoon I got off the train (the only one to get off there) and found no-one. No people, taxi drivers, travel agents, nothing. It was so refreshing I can’t even tell you. That it was blazingly hot didn’t help but didn’t hurt either. I ambled (yes, it’s the kind of laid-back town where ambling is possible!) down the street to the hotel and checked in then went for a walk. The esplanade curves around three semi-circular bays, each with a little mountain at the end, and from the point right in the middle you can see almost all of them. The ocean is dotted with fishing boats and small islands and the road is lined with racks of drying fish hand squid, so it smells pretty rank. But it all looks pretty, none of the soullessness of the south to be seen, and later on I found out how fast this kind of town can shut down. Past sunset there’s the night market and not a great deal else going on. A good time to get some reading down, or whatever.

I walked south down the esplanade and jumped a wall onto the beach and walked toward the hill. There’s an airstrip and air force base there, so you can’t wander too far, but along the water was fine. It looked amazing, not quite the scenery I saw in Krabi but still a wonderful tropical stereotype of a picture. Up the hill I was beset with local monkeys and the view was outstanding – two of the bays stretched off in perfect half circles as the town lay below. It was even hotter up there as the breeze bypassed it all, but it was an astoundingly good moment. I wandered back down and looked at the other bay and unfortunately it had the same problem as the other side – jellyfish. I’m sure they weren’t killers, or even painful, but better not to find out. Still, a swim would have been nice.

I walked back into town and found some food and internet café, had a lie down and then went to the night market. Wonderfully mundane and not another tourist in sight. Every face at the market gave me the same reaction, and I ate for cheap. I ended up sleeping pretty early that night. There wasn’t all that much to do there but for a laid back little fishing town, a brilliant overnighter between more vivid adventures.

In the morning I walked north and climbed the hill there. That one is in town and there’s a temple on top, which I had to myself. There’s even more monkeys there, and a statue and pond at the bottom. The cheeky little devils have the most fun climbing the statue and leaping off into the pool below. The view at the top was as good as the day before and I also figured that you could see over to Myanmar, since it’s at that point that the border is closest. It looked the same to me, but I know things are different over the other side.

All that was left to do was get a bus to the next town. Hua-Hin would be it. Less than an hour later I was there, almost leaving town because the conductor didn’t let me know it was time to get off. It was on the way out of town he dropped me, where the locals came to my aid and pointed me in the right direction, even calling ahead to the guest house I had picked out. That was another unexpected moment. The guesthouse was called the All Nations and it was run by an old English man who was most helpful and friendly. I got the room above the bar, which was a nervous moment because it had the potential to be noisy, but it turned out that I wasn’t ever there at a noisy time. For the best, really.

I took a walk to the beach and was instantly annoyed. Massive hotels crowd the shore and the usual mix of package tourists line the way, some clinging to their Thai women, all depressing as hell. I guess the beach epidemic is a nation-wide disease. I took a swim and went right on back, nearly getting brained by a kite-surfer. Getting back to the guest house there was another guy talking to the owner, and we got to talking, and then another English guy came out and that is how the drinking began. It all spiralled out of control, from the bar at the All Nations to a karaoke place to a few go-go bars to the Seven Eleven to another karaoke place… It was a classic bender of a night and all appendages were kept pantsed. But it was a close thing, since Hua-Hin has a healthy selection of go-go bars, and the ladies are much less aggressive than further south. So you can hang out with a drink or two and play pool or table tennis and not get groped too violently. Still, it leaves a man with ideas, and the power of ideas is not to be taken lightly.

Woke up the next day with a horrific hangover. Stumbled out and bought some water and went right back to bed. Emerged again past midday and had breakfast with the English guys. There was breakfast beer. It wasn’t bad. The day was wasted hanging out and talking. By the time we felt right again it was dark and we went for a walk around the streets we’d been on last night and we remembered not very much of it at all. A few of the girls knew our names, which was a little much. We chose a few places and had fun flirting with the girls but had a pretty early night. I went out for one last look around, about when things were closing, and a girl picked me up. Took me back to her room, showered me and then didn’t want to sleep with me. I found it impossible to sleep next to her, and she was quite open about being a working girl – she told me that she hadn’t gotten paid that night because her client’s dick was too big for her. That’s honesty. I think she just wanted to wake up next to a nice looking guy (and no bonus points for bigging myself up – there was no hard sell to pay her for it, it was quite odd) and it’s as simple as that. I couldn’t do it and ended up walking home at about 2 am to my own bed.

I took these adventures as a sign that maybe Hua-Hin could be addicting, and character destroying. So I up and left to the next town down the road, Cha-am. That was a mistake. It just wasn’t much fun there. The beach is ok, but the main activity is jet-skis with banana boats tied to the back. It’s a Thai thing. They go flying along, fully clothed (Thais really are quite conservative, the ones who work in ‘entertainment’ industries learn how to act around white guys so they can make it) until they wipe out. It’s great fun to watch but a real hazard if you’re swimming. And that’s all there is – a strip of buildings, foreshore full of food stalls and souvenirs, beach. I walked the length looking for a place to stay that was reasonable, and eventually found it, but by that time I’d seen most of the strip. In the heat. With my packs. So I hung out at night and got going in the morning. No adventures, funny tales, interesting bullshit, nothing. And then it was onto Bangkok.

The bus arrives at the southern bus station and I swerved past all the taxi guys onto a mini-van. Not the real bus but he was cheap and going my way, and the locals paid the same. There was a Swiss guy in there too and he’d been to Khao San before, so he helped me find my way. Khao San Road is another part of backpacker legend, since the hippies set up their first guest houses in Bangkok away from the city centre all those years ago. It has now evolved into a monstrous mess of neon, street stalls, taxi drivers, shysters, massage places, guys selling suits, guest houses, classy hotels, restaurants, everything the traveller of any budget might require. Everyone knows and everyone goes. It has its fair share of scams and dodgy business but for the most part its safe fun. But like all circuses, it gets old fast and is much better when you have someone to laugh at it with.

The Swiss guy took me down the road and onto the next street, the blessedly laid back Soi Rambutri, where there’s no booming music or neon. It’s more like Hat Rin than its neighbour and actually has trees. The guest house was right at the end and featured prison-cell like rooms for cheap. Can’t complain. I had several things to organise so I hit the ground running and went to soak up the atmosphere, weigh it up and judge it for myself. Mostly, I felt lonely. I figured that meeting people would be easy there, but how wrong I was. Backpacking in Thailand is a lonely experience if you came alone, don’t think it’s any other way.

So Khao San Road. The first issue and number one bugbear is not surprising at all. Taxi drivers. All of them need to go and die in a hole. I know they’re just making money, making a living, but the Khao San crew are a tight bunch who fix prices and don’t budge. So they sit around all day waiting for the one or two foreigners they can rip off, instead of making an honest living driving around the city picking up real fares – that they don’t make as much money from. So they sit around all day, leeches that they are, and shout ‘hey where you going’ at every foreigner walking past. Lazy, indecent pieces of shit. I dreaded walking outside because I hate the inevitable hard sell, and I hate having to stone cold ignore all of them. After that, the ‘buy anything’ places were pretty damn annoying. They have signs claiming to buy anything, but give terrible deal and then re-sell at vastly expanded prices. But they don’t shout, so it’s ok. Then there’s the suit guys. They work the hardest, following you down the street with the sales pitch, and if you shake their hands, they don’t let go. I guess they don’t sell many suits – and they get quite a commission. Everything else is just a minor annoyance after that, from the people selling t-shirts and books outright refusing to bargain, to staff being all too willing to short change you or otherwise fuck you over.

The rest, as I say, is a circus. After dark it really comes alive. And on a Saturday it goes crazy. Things get worse, too, as the taxi drivers morph into dealers (who then call their policeman friend down the other end of the street with your description so he can bust you easily) and the working girls emerge. But sitting at the street side bar and watching it all go past is easily a Bangkok highlight, even if the beer is overpriced and the girl got the order slightly wrong. And if you happen to be in the market for fisherman’s pants, novelty t-shirts, souvenirs, dreadlocks, second-hand books, spice-free Thai food, fruit shakes and tailored suits, you are in the right place. If you want peace, quiet and any kind of connection to real Thailand, you are shit out of luck.

So I took myself off on my little two legs that night to go looking for it. Down alleyways and lanes, over bridges and in doorways, should you go looking? You can catch a city with its proverbial pants down, maybe checking its makeup in a side mirror or even adjusting itself in a shop window. You can steal a sideways glance at how the locals see it, you might even catch some colours. That night I saw a little slice of Bangkok and it’s nowhere near as noisy, crowded or chaotic as reputation would have you believe. Sure, next to the rest of the land it is the ugly beating heart, but that’s because it is home to so many people, where the next biggest city doesn’t even come close. It is the biggest city in mainland Southeast Asia, and the only cities it really rolls in the same division with are Jakarta and Manilla. It’s not as dirty as legend would speak of, but again – compared to the rest of the land… This reputation clearly comes from the fact that a lot of travellers land here and get their image of it out of context, then go on to the more sedate corners. Up against a city like Jakarta, Bangkok is almost serene at times. Not to say it’s quiet, but it has corners of no hassles. I walked to the centre of things, Siam Square, and the footpath was jammed with an impromptu market and hard to get through. The only logistical issues are pedestrian related – walking around is a bitch, and local train-based public transport doesn’t go nearly far enough. If only the underground Metro went as far as Chinatown, maybe even up to Baglamphu, then everything that needs to be connected would be and life would be grand.

Bangkok is just too big to be taken in like that. So I went back, overwhelmed, perhaps more than I care to admit, because the next few days I felt like shit and emerged only when necessary. Part let down at the lack of meeting other travellers, part being overwhelmed by the big city, part the heat – I didn’t get too far.

A few more night and day time excursion out on foot, some experiments in using the local busses (when all the destination are in Thai script only it’s kinda hard) and a trip to the biggest market I ever saw later, plus a run-in with a familiar face from Indonesia, and I had to get out of there. I packed my things and made a dash for the southern bus station. I made it, two busses later, and had a ticket to Kanchanaburi.

In the meantime my passport was in the capable hands of a travel agent. I had a copy, so I was all good to leave it there. Kanchanaburi arrived in the window and I ran past the now-obligatory gauntlet of taxi drivers to walk into town. I found the guest house area without issue and set up shop at the Jolly Frog. The plan was for a few days at most, but the story will unfold that I was there a good nine days. I don’t stay anywhere for nine days, so clearly something happened. Long story short, after seeing the war cemetery and couple of museums around town (Kan is the site of the POW cemeteries from the Siam-Burma Death Railway and home to the Bridge on the River Kwai) and getting out to Hellfire Pass and hiking along the old railway bed, I actually met some cool people.

First was Dan and Jenny, followed by Dan, and then Jack and Ben. They all happened to be English and easy going. Later there would also be Tim and Carrie but we’ll get to Carrie later. We took to hanging out in the guest house and drinking, mostly in front of the Seven Eleven and the little pier that the guest house had. It’s as simple as that – I spent a week partying on down, budget style, with some friendly folk, while waiting for my visa to come through.

Dan and Jenny were a couple who had been travelling for a long while and were getting to the end of things. Dan had been there for three weeks already because a local Thai girl had got her claws into him. Ben and Jack were just starting a month in Thailand and were proper English lads. Together it was a good combination, although hangovers like that I can always do without. Later, during a beer run, we would find Carrie barefoot and we took her in. Carrie was a Salt Lake City refugee, running away from being a Mormon by doing as much crazy shit as possible. She was very much the catalyst for a lot of what came after. It all started drinking b the river, and someone suggested swimming. It looked kind of dirty in there, but what the hey, and we jumped in. Soon it was diving off the side and off the rails, and then from the roof when we could get up there. Someone spotted a building overhanging the river down the way – the next day we swam down there and there was a ladder to climb up to it, leading to a nice platform to jump off. Eventually Dan went first and it was deep enough, so it was on for young and old. We went from one dare to another, jumping, diving, backwards, naked… it must have been nearly 20 metres up, and the ladder to get back up was right there.

It turns out it was part of the water tower facility in town, so when attempts to swim up the river back to the Jolly Frog failed, we just walked through the buildings and out onto the road and back in the front. No problems, no security issues. It’s kind of a laid-back place.

Such days were good fun, and the people were awesome fun to hang out with. It turned into kind of a sepia montage toward the end, some four consecutive nights drinking at the dock and into hangovers the next day, and into more idleness in the end. I had to leave because I had a flight to catch – and I escaped the days of Thailand, the nights of loneliness, all of it – the bus back to Bangkok, one more night at the same guest house, collect passport, get bus ticket to airport for the four am run. All this was done, and after negotiating Bangkok International, I was finally the fuck away from it.

Thailand, part one

Sunday, June 1. 2008
Many things, is this place. Many things, and many more that are central to the backpacking mentality that not coming here would be inconceivable, that avoiding it for whatever reason would just be an outrage. I knew what I was getting into, I knew what to expect, I heard all the hype, I saw the movie but didn’t, unfortunately, get around to reading the book. So entrenched, both historically and geographically, in the ‘hippy trail’ is Thailand that skipping it is not even on. I was looking forward to it, and to a degree, I bought into the hype. I’m going to go out on a tangent that even I stutter with, but it’s so apt that you got to hear me on this one. Just work with me, people.

As far afield as there are youth hostels and backpackers, you hear about Thailand. I had conversations about it over pints of beer in Estonia, Scotland and China. I don’t doubt that the same is more than possible the world over, much the same way as a cultural reference in US television becomes known even in places where the products or places are unknown. Everyone knows about New York, or San Francisco, or about Starbucks, or Krispy Kreme. Krispy Kreme is the real headline here.

For years, US sitcoms and movies would mention Krispy Kreme, interviews with bands would mention them, and writings on the internet, webcomics and the like, would drop the name without a second thought that the readers would might not know what it was. It has come close to becoming what Biros are to ball-point pens. In Australia, we certainly knew they were donuts, but as to the flavour and texture? Clueless. I always imagined a crisp, slightly crunchy feeling as the main drawcard, based on the name alone, and I assumed from the references that they were popular and that popular would equal quality. I guess that’s the real point here – popular equals quality. That real hype won’t set you wrong, that a true superstar is impossible to ignore or be repulsed by, that the genuine high quality of the goods on offer will always win the day.

Then Krispy Kreme set up franchises in Melbourne. I assume other cities in Australia felt the wrath of the calorie binge, but this is a focus group. One in Collins Street, down the end with all the gleaming office buildings, close to the corner with Spencer Street. The other underground in the shopping complex under Melbourne Central. This was the busier one, and the one that first took my tastebuds to the promised land. I lined up, bought two donuts, each with enough calories to satisfy a human adult for the better part of two days, and got ready to taste the dream, to feel the hype on my tongue, to get some of what I knew was surely the most popular donut in the world – and therefore the best.

And you know, it was ok. Too sweet for my taste, too unrefined sweet. The glaze is the crispy part, I’m guessing, because it was otherwise a standard affair. How these got to get so damn big, I couldn’t fathom. Maybe my tastes run that contrary to the rest of the demographic? Or I’m just unlucky – whatever the case, Krispy Kreme didn’t set my world on fire and the disappointment was all the more, having heard so much of them in the years before.

See where this is going? Thailand is nice, to be sure, but it’s not the be all and end all of travel. For some people, it may well be. This backpacker will not be counted on that list, but anchors up people, because that doesn’t mean it didn’t bring some cracking stories out. One thing after another, the one thing I can say for certain is that Thailand sure ain’t boring.

“Don’t believe the hype!” is hype. Thailand enthrals me. Thailand entraps me, Thailand pulls me in and showed me what it’s like to be sent through a washing machine on spin cycle. Thailand also disgusts, annoys, distorts, depresses, crushes and infuriates me. Which side will win out? Which part of this sage will capture the headline? Will I discard the Krispy Kreme for the sweet and juicy mango, or turn into fat bloated man chasing after skinny twenty-two year olds from dirt poor families with a fistful of 100-Baht notes? Where will our hero end up? Or has he revealed too much already?

Sungai Kolok is your beat up border town. The only claims to fame it can muster are being the closest thing to Malaysia’s east coast and the odd bomb threat called in on the train station. Down south, way south, past the dirty south where things get genuinely real, the locals are Muslim, and not the kind and pacifistic Muslims they are supposed to be, but the we want independence at any Goddamn cost and anyone who stands in our way we see not moral issue with blowing them away type. The kind that gives the rest of them a bad name, the kind that makes the Thai government look like total jackholes when the troops get rolled out against them and everyone loses. But that’s another story, and all it does here is explain why the station was positively crawling with dudes carrying very, very big guns. Big fuck-off guns, and huge smiles. What on earth was going on here? One such weapon-toting Guy Smiley helped me buy a ticket for the next train, after I espoused the local taxi mafia and walked there, and I had myself two hours or so to kill. I sat and waited, and I can’t say if this is totally accurate but maybe a quarter of the folk waiting around had guns. I’d heard that the area had a separatist problem, but was this really necessary?

On the train, every single bag was inquired about, so security (all smiling like maniacs) could see if there was an abandoned and potentially explosive bag in the mix. There were not, and we all went on our happy little way to the north. Later, I would read that travel in the area is advised against by pretty much everyone and that the Sungai Kolok station is especially dangerous and has been attacked before. The last I heard was that the locals don’t target civilians or tourists – I guess they updated their rules, and I failed to get the newsletter. Either way, I got out alive, and all the guns were not just for show, there was a decent chance something might have gone down. Fuck me dead.

Getting off in Hat Yai I was confronted with a city of monumental ugliness. Someone said this place was nice, what the hell was going on here? It’s more of a border town than anything, the crossroads where lines south to Malaysia and north into Thailand all meet, and I got there maybe in time to get a bus elsewhere but since it had been a long enough day anyway, I stayed on plan and found a room. Exceptional value at 160 Baht, but worth every cent I didn’t spend, I found the grungiest room in town. No sweat, I can deal, and there was a fan and a power point. The mattress could have been softer, but I was to learn that in the sub-200 Baht category, this was very, very normal. Thailand will cost you more than the southern neighbours, and the lower end is lower again, so cheaping it out leaves you with a case of envy (if you’re a lesser soul than I) and in anywhere worth being (as in, anywhere but Hat Yai) the lowest you can get away with paying is 300. That’s 10 Aussie dollars, just about, and at the current rate, it’s ten American too. Which is a lot of cashola to be doling out on a bargain basement room – and damn, this is just the beginning.

So Hat Yai was a concrete jungle, and I was feeling queasy. Something had upset the equilibrium of my digestives, so I took it easy and opted out of going for local food, finding something more familiar. Sometimes, you just need a hamburger. It was also raining heavily, so there was little choice in the matter, as stalking through the night market was going to be wet. And it transpires that our hero stumbled upon a too-true fact about Thailand in his decision to stay away from local grub – but we won’t be premature about this just yet.

In the morning I left the cheap hotel and tried to wrangle my way to the bus station. This was an altogether too difficult task, it seems, because around the venerable train station is a small city of travel agencies and transport privateers, all wanting to take you not to the bus station but to their friend’s travel agency. The tourism industry in Thailand is so well oiled, entrenched, maintained and unopposed that real backpacking, in the independent travel sense, becomes almost hard, almost impossible in places. Overrun as it is by visitors and with the twin sucker punch of most visitors (myself included) being illiterate in Thai and with public transportation often far removed from centres of society and commerce, it’s all too easy to bail out and just go with the friendly, smiling (I mean, what’s with all the fucking smiling?) and overcharging travel agency man. This is not what I am about, and avoiding it as long as possible is my mission. So I left the jerks at the train station, walked in the general direction of the bus station and on the way caught a taxi who offered to take me the rest of the way for a decent fare. On the way he happened to take me to his friend’s travel agency. Looking back, I should have known. They offered to take me where I wanted to go for double the price I’d been quoted at the train station, and put me up in a resort that was going to cost a week’s budget every night. I said a polite no and skipped out of there, making the taxi guy take me to the bus station.

He was not so friendly after that, having missed out on what he thought would be a very juicy commission sponsored by me (ha!) and I could hear his ragged, shallow breathing as he took me where I actually wanted to go. He didn’t even say thank you when I paid him. The bus station was surrounded by travel agencies, and the chorus of “hey you where you going… Hey you, where you go…!?!?!” rang out as I was spotted and marked. I got in, saw the counter and bought a ticket to Trang. It cost me eighty baht, and eventually, I relented and took a private mini-bus from there to Ko Lanta, but only because this was my only option. Instead of paying about 500 straight from Hat Yai, I got there for about 300, plus that taxi guy, but with a whole lot of extra crap caused not by any difficulty or situation I had to get through but by the army of private transport goons who put themselves in my way. All through Thailand you get harassed, annoyed and harangued by these guys. Walk anywhere with a backpack and they all assume they have hit the jackpot and either shout the eternal cry of the private transport industry bastard (“hey you where you go?”) which tails off into a whine if you ignore them, and get repeated with a slight trace of anger if you keep walking, like you didn’t run right in and throw your wallet at the guy simply because you didn’t hear him the first time. Is this genuine, this petulance? Or put on in the hopes you might feel sorry and go anyway? Or something about the Thai people I am yet to discern? I hold my judgements, because I know how these things can get taken out of context and mixed up – but I know which way my bets are hedged.

So yeah, I missed something there. The ordinary public bus got me from Hat Yai to Trang, and Trang is a town I half thought I might spend the night, but on a rival it looked like a younger brother of Hat Yai’s concrete and crap veneer, so I resolved to get to Ko Lanta. A look around revealed the public bus station was a long way away and a quick canvassing of local business people told me that if I was to get local transport that way, there would be two busses and two ferries and I would be a long way from the beach. I believed them, and I actually think they might be right, but we will never know. In the couple of hours I had to hang around in Trang, waiting for the next mini-bus to go, I sat at a café next to the train station and had myself a mango shake. One of the waitresses took a keen interest in me, but being too shy to talk to me, I found myself in a surreal high-school-romance drama. I got little notes passed to me by her friends. Eventually I had to leave, having not actually spoken to her, but I wrote down the old e-mail address and left her to it. I didn’t actually see her too well, but she might have been cute. Her little notes were, and I kept them all.

Ko Lanta was disappointing. The mini-bus, packed like a sardine can full of white people, with me right in the back getting leg cramps (I was paying extra for this?) took two ferries to get to the beach and where we got out was camped a couple of taxi drivers. Bidding for the car started at a thousand baht. I heard this, went ‘fuck that’ and started walking. I earned the honks of every taxi on the road, maybe they thought I just couldn’t hear anything but their honking, and so then they all slowed down and yelled at me. I was willing to part with about 30 baht, mostly because I didn’t know the way, and eventually I got a ride for that much. The driver took me into a side street and there seemed to be a lot of accommodation options along the way. He tried to get me into his place, for the princely sum of 600 a night, with the lie that it was high season (half true) and that everywhere else would be full (totally untrue). I told him no thanks and walked off. He didn’t try to follow.

About ten minutes of walking past some very expensive looking options (and worryingly full) and I spotted a guy who asked me if I wanted a room. He pointed me across the street where I was shown a bungalow on stilts with a big double bed and told I could sleep there for 300. I said fine, as it was the cheapest I’d seen all day. You might be able to find that mystical cheaper option somewhere, but like I intimated, it was sort of high season (Lanta isn’t that popular yet to really heave at any given time of the year) due to the winter holidays gripping Europe and the hundred-baht-hero is never going to win easily. At least not without spending a fortune on taxis to look around, or all day with his luggage. The hero concedes, and promises himself to eat cheaply. No sweat, captain.

Three hundred baht is, like I said, ten Aussie, and in Malaysia you could get by on that for a whole day, maybe just a little more, if you didn’t drink. In Thailand, or in the south at least, it sounded like that would all go to the room and anything on top would be piled into the budget, potentially causing a crisis down the line. Food is cheap enough, but not as cheap as elsewhere, same goes for transport, even when the real public deal is tracked down. At least beer is cheaper, and cheaper still when you don’t pay – like we will find out soon enough.

The bungalow was nice, if the place overall was a little shabby, but hey, we who don’t want to pay for comfort don’t get it. The room was nice but the mosquitoes were angry and seemingly not held at bay by the mozzie net. Nearby was a cheap Thai food option and reasonably priced motorbike rentals. The beach, called Long Beach, was indeed long, but lined with restaurants and massage places. That’s legitimate massage too, for the connoisseurs out there, so don’t get too excited. It looked a little grubby too, but it was the main beach and there were others about. The first night I was there I wandered down to check the night life and was underwhelmed, because it was supposed to be pretty busy, but I found little evidence of this. Still, I sat and had a drink, hadn’t done that in Thailand yet, and eventually got talking to two Germans. Their English wasn’t so good but we got by, and they told me the island was mainly the choice for older people, not the party-all-night crowd. Great. Hopefully I’d salvage something from this, having already been unimpressed by the weather, the scene, the cleanliness, the crowd and the overall vibe – and I saw what might be the answer come over and sit down on a sitting platform on the beach.

The question really is, where are the Thais in all this? They’re there, trying to rip off or serve the tourists, who are the lifeblood of the local economy. Most visitors who come are short term and care so little about the people and culture side of travel that they stomp all over it like an unwanted slice of watermelon. They want their two weeks in the sun, they want to escape from freezing winters and snowy nights, they want their little slice of paradise – or something darker, all too often – so the kind of vibe I like to travel on is almost always totally missing from the picture. The Thais are reduced to bus drivers, waitresses, hotel workers, cleaners, cooks, masseurs, tour guides, shop attendants – the underclass, you might say. They work hard, oh so very hard, and see hordes of white, rich tourists come to see their beautiful piece of the world and turn red on the sand for a while, pick up and leave. On the Andaman Coast it would be possible to go from beach resort to beach resort via boat and never see anything that wasn’t a fancy hotel or nicely groomed section of sand for weeks. It’s no wonder they work so hard to get every last drop out of these visitors as possible. But that also leaves almost no room for anything else, and the youth scene, I am sad to report, is in a bad way of its own.

So the locals, what of them? I walked over and started my half-drunk rap on the two girls I saw come over. They were, honestly, the only things worth talking to on the beach, and this one bar I was at seemed to be the only place doing anything worth talking about. So we talked, and their English was just up to the task, and a few more drinks later I went for a swim with one of them. That was fun. I left my shorts on the beach and when I came back a crab had taken up residency in them. My t-shirt was very wet, but she was too. It was time to get to bed at that point but she told me to be there the next afternoon at one, and I went to bed. Things had gotten a little crazy, and pointed the way to further fun. Maybe even that double bed wouldn’t be wasted all on me.

The next day I showed up on the beach at one, but no sign of the girl. Fair enough, seemed about the flavour of the story. So I rented a motorbike and took myself around the island. Getting away from the main commercial strip on the north side of the island you get to a series of nicer beaches and on the far side you get to some amazing scenery, as the road runs next to some cliffs that drop into a turquoise jewel coloured sea and off the way sit numerous perfect looking islands. Did I nearly drive right off the road because a curve came along and I was staring at the view? Maybe. Yes. Hell yeah, it’s really amazing, and this is where I first realised why people come from all over the world to see this part of Thailand. It looks better than the photos and postcards and movies, because it’s there in full 3D panoramic reality, genuine surround sound and smell-o-vision optional extras if you have the senses required still intact. Best yet, down the back road of the island, I had it all to myself, more or less. Sure, another vehicle came the other way occasionally and there were cafes and guest houses dotted along the way, but compared to the overcrowded parts I’d seen of Thailand already, this weren’t bad at all.

I stopped at a place called the Panorama café, because the view was surely worth the overpriced food they were going to serve up. And I was right. I’m always right. The food was expensive by Thai standards but the view was magnificent. The sky was partly heavy with tropical clouds, bruised and blue and all grey, and the southern sky was clear blue. The ocean below reflects the sky above from a prism is perfect blue tones and it swells and flows. A handful of islands are visible from the deck perched on the cliff where I was sitting, most of them uninhabited but very visitable (by overpriced longtail boat charter) and one even had a fully fledged resort on it (on the side you couldn’t see from the main island, wow). I was more than happy with the view I had gotten myself and if the huge clouds hadn’t spurred me onward to finish the day’s riding I might have stayed even longer. The people running the show were over-the-top friendly and all smiled like it was going out of fashion. Again, why all the smiles? I didn’t dwell on this as I followed the road to the fishing village at the end of the line, a place where life seems to go on like it always has, oblivious to the touristic orgy going on elsewhere on their island. Doubtless, slightly more intrepid souls like mine where the only white people to get that far, because there wasn’t a sandy beach no-one was interested. Simple houses with simple people, most of who waved and smiled. This point of the island would have been washed away by the tsunami, I thought, as I climbed over the rocks at the point and went as far as I could before going back. I thought about how far I’d come since Meulaboh and how such a disaster could be felt so far apart. It’s a sobering thought, so I stayed with the beauty of the place a while and drove back to the bungalow. I got caught in the rain, but no-one’s counting.

Back at the beach that evening, I ran into the same two girls as the night before. Things were going swimmingly, I was buying drinks for me and them, and I just about had my hands down her underwear when we all got distracted by some fire twirling. Oh, ah, very nice. But when I got back to the girl, she was off in a dark corner with some other dude. Confused, balls busted, drunk – pissed off, annoyed and downright messed up. Did I read the signs all wrong? Or was this a strange place? I took a walk down to the water, and her friend followed me. Oh well, she said, there’s other girls out there. Are you coming back? I imagine her concern was for the bill, not for me, as cynicism was at an all-time high. I said yeah, in a minute. I need a little bit of a walk here. Ok, she said, and left. I took my chance to wander up the beach a ways, then double back in the dark and scarper to the bungalow where I showered and slept. First thing in the morning I paid up and took the first mini-bus that had room for me and I was so far out of there, several thousand baht in unpaid bar tab and one emasculating bitch later. I can never go back.

The next stop was Krabi. Krabi Town, to be exact, since Krabi is a province, and most of the action there is beach-related and nowhere near Krabi Town. But high demand and little beach front property means expensive digs, so Krabi Town and a rented motorbike are you best friends. The mini-bus dropped me at a travel agent type’s place across from the dock, no doubt there was a commission thing happening here, but the room was only 150 and the bike 200, so the numbers were good. The guy running the place was nice and friendly, but this was only for show, as I later found out. Not wanting to dwell on the rest of the day’s events, because it wasn’t the best day I’ve even had on the road, I’ll fast forward.

The beach at Ao Nang is nice, long and clean, but cluttered with fat Europeans getting their two weeks in the sun. The locals? Serving drinks and food to them. Resort town, I thought to myself, and wished I had something more to do. I eventually went for a quiet drink and had to fight off the advances of the most desperate bar girl hooker in town. I won’t say it wasn’t fun, but it got really old and old fast. Annoyed with that scene, I got some food and looked elsewhere. Pause, now, for a minute, to learn something.

A go-go bar is a regular looking bar, perhaps with more neon than is really needed, and with the addition of slightly more expensive drinks, a stripper pole and way too many female staff. It’s illegal to show naked boobies in Thailand, so any dancing that the pole sees is simply suggestive, but not much is left to the imagination. The deal usually is, you go in, buy a drink, talk to the girls, play pool, Connect Four (every bar in Thailand has a set, how this came about I am mystified) and various other bar game, watch the inevitable Premier League game on TV and have some fun. The girls speak enough English to get by, but the conversation is pretty limited. Should one of them catch your eye, you buy her a drink, at about double the going rate, and half goes to her in commission form. This is the introduction, the prelude, to paying for sex. After such an occurrence, you can pay a ‘bar fine’ of a few hundred baht and take the girl home. Or to her place. After that, how much you pay her is negotiated. I’ve heard anything between two thousand and two hundred in possible, but here’s the most important thing – I never actually did any of this, I learned about it the hard way, and from people telling me, and every single girl you see in these places is for sale. All of them. I knew none of this before finding the next place.

And we uncaused to see our hero in a laneway full of bright neon and pretty girls all calling to him. It’s widely known that he is attracted to bright and shiny objects, and it’s also pretty well known it’s been a while since he got any. This is a bad combination, when his ignorance of the whole scene is taken into account. He’s what you might call a ‘greehorn’, and very nearly gets taken – only his tightarsedness gets in the way.

He chooses a bar and goes in, gets a drink and plays pool with an unexceptional looking girl. He feels tired, sits down and immediately sees an amazingly pretty girl. Just unbelievable. They talk, her English is not so good, but they talk and he gets another beer. Eventually the owner, always the oldest and most wily of the ladies, tells him he could take her home and it will only cost 2200 baht. He makes a repulsed face at this, knowing how much food that could buy. He regrets both his small budget and moral compass (which told him to leave a long time ago) and quickly leaves. Truth be told, he was only a beer and a half away from saying ok to this – which makes it all a very dangerous combination. Neon, beer and working girls. It had been a lesson, and on the way back to Krabi Town the bike gets a flat. What a night.

In the morning, extortion. The once-friendly guy makes up some story about the bike needing major repairs, maybe, and I should pay for it anyway. What? How does he know? We should take it to a shop. The argument rages, and the fact that nothing was signed and no liabilities talked about makes it a very harsh scene. I knew that this kind of scam took place, and that the almost too cheap prices hinted at a sinister underlining. I argued and argued, the dude eventually falling into the realm of incomprehensibility and walking off. I take the bike to see if it needs serious repairs and its doesn’t. Just a new tube. Fine, that won’t be too much – but the guy asks for five hundred and I gag at this. He actually stuck his middle finger up at me, can you believe it? So friendly the day before, now trying to stick me for all it’s worth, and he’s left without a leg to stand on. Unlucky for me, some other tourists were there and they took his side, telling me to just pay and walk away. So I did it, and left without saying a word. What a motherfucker. Two lessons in 24 hours, Thailand was turning into quite a tough place to get by at times. Maybe you do need to know the rules.

Malaysia (the return)

Thursday, March 20. 2008
So it was I went back to Malaysia. Good thing it has two coastlines, or I’d have been on a serious backtracking binge, the kind I’d rather avoid. The only repeat that stood in the way was KL, and I had things to do there anyway. Crossing from Singapore could not have been easier, you get off the bus and up an escalator, line up for a few minutes, show your passport, go down some steps and onto another bus (in theory the same one as the first time, but that doesn’t always happen) and then onto another building where you all get off and deal with the Malaysian side of the deal and then once again, onto a bus and from there to the bus station in Johor Bharu. Given the state of things, it seemed a trifle unnecessary to go to all that effort, all the getting on and off, but the two countries do need to keep each other at some kind of arm’s length in the great pissing contest that neighbouring nations like to stir up.

At the bus station in JB there was zero downtime getting onto a bus to Melaka, minutes if any, such was the fortune of my timing. I had steeled myself for the harsh reality of the non-Singapore world again, but Malaysia is not Indonesia. It feels like it, quite often actually, but everything works and is quite clean, people don’t hassle you; nor do they want your life story at every corner, which is both relieving and somehow saddening. Days would pass without real interaction from strangers, and it turns out that I actually miss it a little. Seems Indonesia got under my skin more than just a little bit, seems it got right under there. The bus ride to Melaka saw me sleeping most of the way. I woke up just in time to see that we were there already, sooner than I had thought. A Hungarian dude I met in Singapore told me about a new hostel in town, and how to get there, so cutting a path through the taxi-drivers gauntlet I made for local bus 17 and paid 80 sen, getting off next the Equatorial Hotel. The place, called Emily’s, is only about a minute form there, but I went slightly the wrong way and ended up spending a lot longer looking. Having found it, I rang the doorbell and the guy running the place stuck his head out and looked slightly surprised to see someone coming in. They had room, and I told them who told me about it (it had only been open about a year so it wasn’t in any of the guidebooks yet) and I settled in. The place was magnificent, they had gone to a lot of trouble to decorate it very nicely indeed, all with recycled materials.

There were fish ponds, plants and gardens, everything was painted nice and a lot of it had been done by guests of the place. The showers were especially nice, all flowers and murals, the shower head coming out the brickwork. It was a nice place just to hang out, a quiet and friendly place to be, a million miles away from the busy streets outside. That night there were some friendly folk in the house too, so it was I didn’t get out and see any of the town. It was kinda late, mind you, so I hadn’t planned on doing anything like that – but rarely is the accommodation so accommodating. In fact, it might well be a top-five hostel, just for the ambience and décor alone. Be sure to drop by if you’re ever in town. The dorm room was a two-bed dorm, so it was more of a shared-twin, and the first night I shared it with an Irishman named Wesley, after that it was all mine.

Wesley and I had a drink and a talk that night, the ‘adventure’ I had in Singapore came out and he told me he’d achieved the same high score in the bed I was now sleeping in. Thanks, you Mickey bastard, if you weren’t so nice I’d defame you right here for that. But as it was, he was off to Singapore the next morning, leaving me free to explore the city.

My first impressions were so bad that I went right back to the hostel to breathe in the atmosphere (it really was that nice in there) and sulk. I got the laptop out and wrote of other times, taking the opportunity to get it down while no-one else was around. Looking back on the history of the place, I felt there should have been so much more. All I’d seen were some painted red buildings right next to the main road, so the traffic was out of control, and some of the most annoying rickshaw drivers in all Malaysia. A walk into the fabled Chinatown yielded little charm. It turned out that I’d missed the best bits, quite unluckily, so it was a good thing I didn’t give up right there and jump a bus to elsewhere.

I had the garden all to myself most of the day and the space turned into a talk-fest of the evening. That second night was quieter, it was just the guys running the place, myself and an elderly Swedish lady who was taking her retirement and doing it longer and harder than most kids do these days. Much respect to Christina, one of the originals. She had nothing bad to say about anything and nothing was happy stories to share around. If she had travelled in her youth, or been to Asia before she didn’t say, but there was none of that ‘if only you’d been here twenty years ago’ crap people of that age group love to dribble onto people like me. Yeah, like when I was five? Sure thing, Grandpa.

The next day I gave it all another shot and the long and meandering history of Melaka came out of those painted red walls. Colonised by Portuguese, Dutch and English powers over the centuries, it had always been an important trading point and strategic position. Even today more trade flows through the Straights of Melaka than either Suez or Panama canals, and so it has been for hundreds of years. Before the Europeans came the Melaka Sultanate controlled major sections of the Malay peninsula, Sumatra and Java, and sending the Europeans on their way were the Japanese, during the brief occupation during World War II. The remaining historical buildings are mostly Portuguese in origin, the church on the hill, the town hall, and the buildings around there. Now, they all hold museums of differing subject and quality, and to my mind they mock the shabby nature of the modern building around. There’s absolutely nothing to stop people now building fine looking pieces of real estate, but instead we get the same concrete and aluminium garbage that infects too many otherwise good cities.

So that was exploring Melaka. The Chinatown area looks like any commercial district in a second-rate city most anywhere in Asia, with the exception of Jonker Street, a nice clean thoroughfare with footpaths and some really interesting shops. I bought a t-shirt. I stayed on there a bit longer, because interesting people showed up that night, and we all went out and bought charcoal and things to cook on the barbeque. It was a ravishing good time. I was planning to leave in the morning but stayed around to hang out with the people who had appeared, and didn’t get to the bus station until almost five. KL is close, so it was no big deal, but it did mean that once I was in KL my hostel of choice was full and I had to settle for slightly more expensive option. The same place, in fact, where I’d stayed that first night back in January. Things has come full circle indeed, but this time there was no Egon, no Yanti and no friendly faces in the crowds. Nothing to do, lean on or even go and see. I called my friends from my uni days and we arranged a meet-up, but I was at the mercy of their timing and schedules.

Lucky for me, William had about as much free time as someone could hope to have while also having a decent life otherwise, so he became my main man. The next day, having moved across the street to slightly-cheaper-digs, we went to a hot spring. It turned out to be an oversized puddle with hot water in it, no problems there, you just roll up, jump in and no worries. Not a changing room in sight, or a ticket booth. It was kind of beat, but you know it’s in that good way. The next few days I stayed in crappy hostel and William took me around to see stuff. Batu caves, where the local Indian community have big festivities every year, Genting, where there’s a casino and some huge hotels and overpriced crapola (locals love the place, tourists either don’t know or don’t care) and always William had the good info on where to get the best food. We ate like kings, we did, all night long, it was one place after another. It was incredible. Food in Malaysia is always good to start out with, but with insider info it can’t be beat.

Monday rolled around, after an expensive and went-nowhere attempt at going out on Saturday (out of my league, out of my budget and the local girls can obviously smell a lack of money, damn man) I had lunch with two people I lived with in my uni days and split. By this point I’d had more than enough of KL, having had some empty days there to deal with, and was in need of something fresh. The three o’clock bus to Jerantut did not deliver.

Jerantut is the place to be if you want to get to Taman Negara, a prime old slice of rainforest. But having had a pretty big serving of that flavour in Indonesia, and having paid for it, I elected to skip this one – especially since it had been raining and nothing does more for the local leech community. The other thing you can do is get your connection onto the Jungle Railway, as the tourist industry calls it. The locals just call it the train, but I like to think we’re more poetic. It is part of the train line that runs from Singapore, up through the peninsula, into Hat Yai in Thailand and continues on to Bangkok. It branches off south of KL and goes up the west coast to Butterworth, and after Bangkok there are some five lines radiating away into the rest of Thailand. None of these cross the Thai border anymore – once upon a time, I hear, it crossed into Cambodia and into Vietnam and from there crawled up the coast into China, joining the vast network of trains there, which also link up with the trans-Siberian and eventually Europe. Once upon a time, therefore, you could travel by train all the way from Lisbon, Portugal, across Europe and Russia, down through China and Indochina, all the way to Singapore. War in Southeast Asia ended the existence of the trains in Vietnam and apathy has lead to Cambodia’s network falling apart. The French, God bless them, build one whole rail line in Laos, and it’s mere kilometres long.

The point is, if you want a train journey of any measure in Southeast Asia, you have really the one choice. And it’s the Jungle Railway. If only it passed through KL, if only there were clearer schedules about using it, if only there were more trains. I was pretty confused by it all to begin with, as my fact-finding mission to KL Central had yielded a bunch of confused looks. The night express trains were straightforward enough, but during the day? Local trains? Huh? Oh well, and consulted the guide book map. The closest point to KL where it looks convenient to get on is Jerantut, and hey, they have plenty of backpackers going that way. Cheap digs are to be found, I knew, but also I would have to endure the hard sell from the local guides. This I could handle, then leave in the morning. Jerantut is a real hang-dog town, a real nowhere. Small and unexceptional, I got some good food at the night market, had a chat to the locals working at the hotel, got the low down on what things were like there. The tourist industry was about the limits for most of them, and even then it was kind of a contact high situation, because Taman Negara was actually quite a ways off, they just happened to be the transport hub people had to negotiate.

And so I did, getting my gear together and setting off in the morning for the train station. The ticket to Wakaf Bharu cost all of 12 ringgit, and I would get there about ten that night. There would be a three hour wait in some pissant town. Not pleased about that, I still got to take the train. The first one that pulled up was really quite a nasty piece of work, bad seats and grimy. But hey, for the price? Could not complain. And I was moving by train again! Rejoice! Plus, the views really were all that, as the line rumbles over rivers and streams, through valleys and cuttings. It must have been a hell of an engineering feat to put this all together. Sadly, though, the evidence that it’s not really surviving is all too clear. 12 ringgit for a twelve hour trip? Doesn’t happen mate, not unless there’s a hardcore subsidy propping it all up. And there most surely is, and quite a healthy culture of overstaffing too. Every station had three to four workers who were doing very little, and on the train itself there were a handful of idle staff. This is where your tax dollars go, Malaysians, right here.

The time came to alight in the middle of nowhere, inexplicably. Why here? What the hell? Ah well, may as well make the most of it. I sniffed out an internet connection and sat glued to a keyboard for a few hours. I emerged, ate, got some chendol, and went back to the station. It was half an hour before my train was supposed to resume, but there was a train on the platform. I grabbed my bag and a fat foreigner leaned out the window and told me to hurry up, the train was leaving. Still confused about this, as I’d been told the train I was to get in half an hour was the only train during the day, I jumped on just as it pulled away. The ticket guy looked at my ticket and looked confused, and told me I had the wrong train. Oops. I could stay but I had to pay an extra two ringgits – horrors. This was the express, he explained. Where the fuck was this information that morning? Overstaffed and incompetent. Times like that I really get nostalgic for Japanese trains. Don’t we all?

So the show went on, the scenery was epic and the fat guy turned out to be Dutch. He had quite a right-wing lean to him, but since I could barely understand him it was kind of ok. He was entertaining enough, I guess. There were a few other tourists on the train, but I was content to stare out the window. Night fell and the station of our alighting drew closer, and as this happened the until-now idle train staff sprang into action. Where were we all going, they wanted to know. Oh no, don’t get off there, there’s a station closer to where you want. Sure, I said, confident that they were full of shit. Wakaf Bharu is nowhere special, but it is the closest stop to Kota Bharu. Not the station before, or even the one before that. Many people passing this way are going to the Perhentian Islands, and they are a boat and a bus from Kota Bharu, but I saw one couple get shanghai-d by a train dude into getting off two stops and a half-hour (at least) taxi ride from the dock. At that time of night the boat surely wouldn’t be running, so I figured he had it wired. Get them off at Tanah Merah, where his friend the taxi driver has them by the balls, and from there to their friend’s hotel near the docks where they get taken to a travel agent to buy tickets. All with commissions, of course, all flowing back to train guy.

I ignored them all, pretending not to understand when they told me to get off at the wrong place. Wakaf Bharu came and I jumped out. The taxi mafia were waiting, all in place for the daily orgy. They know when the train passes by and they wait for travellers to overcharge. My love of taxi drivers is famously non-existent, and this is the kind of shit I deal with that only makes it worse. Malaysia, for what it’s worth, has precious little of this business, and the tricky business on the train is especially rare. Getting scammed is almost unheard of, so I was taken aback to see it going on. After negotiating with the taxi guys – it was too late for the real bus, and this was always going to happen – we got a decent price and there were three of us, so it worked out. The guy did try and take us to the wrong place, but we sorted him out. He didn’t speak any English, so there wasn’t even that ‘that place is full / closed / dirty’ rap they usually spew out. He just tried to make us get out at the wrong place.

The right place was indeed right. A very nice option indeed. Friendly people, good crowd, a few too many mozzies, but workable. Kota Bharu by night is nothing remarkable, but neither is it by day. However, the night market is exceptional by any standards and we ate like kings of old, grabbing huge chunks of meat by the bone and smearing it all over our faces, all with our hands. Raucous good fun. I had a piece of chicken that was at least half the bird, plus curry, rice and some vegetable matter, all for five-fifty. Mind blowing stuff.

For various reasons I had to spend the next day in Kota Bharu, even though I really didn’t want to, but it turned out that I could have been stuck in worse places. This was all because I had done the dreaded pre-planning, a happening that only rolls around when there’s an even I need to be in a certain place at a certain time for. I was aiming to be on Ko Pha-Ngan for the full moon, apparently they have some kind of party, and I had plane tickets to Burma, but I would also need to get to Bangkok in enough time to get a visa sorted out. I did some figuring and it looked good enough on paper, good enough I supposed, and to pull it off without having to pay for a three month Thai visa or get the free one-month job extended would mean spending that one extra day in KB. So I had time to look around, the market there is big and busy and colourful, and I happened to be there on a day when they had a big culture demonstration. So that was good, and there’s hardly any tourists around. It’s a transit point into and out of Malaysia and a jumping off point to the Perhentians, but still not many of them were wandering around. The market was interesting enough, but smelled really strongly of fish, and the demonstration was a little put on. The MC guy was annoying as hell, he had the stereotype one-liner ready for every nationality, the same one you always hear, and to hear them reeled off with such practice was almost impressive. But not really. It was a cringe fest. The cultural bits were pretty cool, KB is the centre of Malay culture in Malaysia, and they’re also incredibly Muslim down there – I hadn’t seen so many headscarfs since Aceh.

The city was also where the Japanese invaded Malaya in the war, so there’s a museum dedicated to those times and the following occupation. It was fun to see the mis-translated Japanese in the English captions. I wondered if the Malay ones were as bad, or if the mistakes had crept in from translating the Malay into English. Either way, I didn’t point out the mistakes to the guy working there. He looked well bored with it all, and I didn’t expect much.

It was fun for the day, but I’m glad I didn’t have any more time to kill. For one, the mozzie problem in the dorm room was nothing short of epic, and sleep was a strange foreigner. In the morning I gleefully got up, packed, ate, and beat the rain to the bus station. Rain had been an issue and people had been stuck on the islands, the boats not up to travelling in such conditions, and even if I’d wanted to go I wouldn’t have made it. So nuts to that, the Thailand plan is in action. The local bus ran to the border town and I got off and made the crossing on foot, the first time I’d ever had to do such a thing.

Indonesia (part two)

Thursday, March 20. 2008
Bukit Lawang, for the negatives, is a surprising place. Tucked away not only from the mainstream of the rest of the nation but largely from the corruption that plagues it, it remains 100% locally owned and operated, not a single store is owned by absentee landlords in Jakarta, not a single guesthouse either. I heard that the community helps itself out and keeps things this way, effectively keeping the army and gangster types out of the picture. This is one of the reasons such little help came their way after the flood, and the sole reason the road to Medan is one of the worst in the country, despite it running to one of the more popular destinations. What could be a smooth 45-minute ride becomes nearly three hours at the wacky races. This is Indonesia, indeed.

The sense of community, the pride in what they have, the love of the jungle and the knowledge that keeping it safe and pristine is what brings people and long-term development – it’s all there and the locals are more than happy to espouse what their community is all about. The other side of the coin is that they have been through a lot. The flood, combined with the overall downturn in tourism, hits a place like this hard. The local economy is almost entirely dependent on tourism. Such a tight knit place hold together through anything and the last thing they want is to have someone go under and let the goons get a foothold, so their deal is all-reaching. That is to say, they’re all in on it, you aren’t getting paranoid.

When you get there, it’s an immensely friendly place and the road suspicions come rushing in – what’s in it for them? Am I being taken for an elaborate ride? Or have I found a corner of the country where they are genuine and real? Or maybe they have the best marketing guru ever, and it’s all part of the experience they’re selling? Give the tourists a good time and they’ll stay and spend up, just keep feeding them that jungle boy image and sharing the beers. In the end, it’s probably part of both. The friendly part is indeed genuine, sure, but they aren’t just turning it on because they’re nice. They need that fat wad of Rupiah to shed as many notes as possible while you are there, and it just so happens they’re pretty good at making it happen by being genuine. Or something.

The underhandedness is there too – the principal activity is to go trekking in the jungle, an activity for which a guide is mandatory, and the price is set by the national park rangers, and people in Jakarta tell them what to do. The price is supposedly set in dollars, but upon getting there everything is in Euros. The exchange rate yields a few thousand Rupiah more per dollar, and multiplied over 45 or 55, makes a real difference. Especially if you want to pay in Rupiah and they set the rate, and sneak in a few extra points on their side. This turns 55 dollars into somewhere in the region of 800,000 Rupiah and more than a few hurting budgets. Then you call them on their calculations and they relent, all while not even looking ashamed. The truth is, the majority of that money goes right to Jakarta where they couldn’t give a crap about some jungle they can’t cut down without getting caught, and the rest goes to not only your guide but to the entire network of guys who haul equipment for cooking, camping and rafting. It’s still a pretty generous rate for them, but it equates to the difference between this all ending and it hanging on a bit longer. I think. It’s quite a confusing place, and I’m glad I did my trek and got out the next morning.

I did a one night jaunt into the green inferno, camping out beside a stream, with a guide named Darwin and an American couple. It was hot, sweaty work, but we went at a slow pace and even saw some stuff. It was truly incredible, and especially given the number of people who go in and out every year, and a credit to the guides. They told me they pretty much grew up wandering in and out of the place, learning about the ins and outs, the plants and animals, how to treat it right. They learned it from their parents and grandparents, who made a living off the jungle by knowing the rare roots and plants and selling them to Chinese herbalists. That’s how they got to know the place so well, and now can make a living showing people like me around.

The path was not even enough to be called a path, and without Darwin it would have been thoroughly impossible to get anywhere at all. We would have been truly lost and in way big trouble. It all looked the same and somehow Darwin picked his way through it all. Over tree roots as big as fallen trees, around vines you could build a suspension bridge with. Trees big enough to practically live in. Trails of ants and termites that were more like rivers, so many of them were passing by, in a stream ten wide. Single giant ants as big as centipedes, and centipedes as big as people’s hands. Everything was familiar but on a scale almost unbelievable, like we had been seeing nature in miniature our whole lives. Every corner turned up giant life like I’d never seen before, and jungle views that outstripped anything I’d seen before. This was truly wild and primeval, nature at its most immense.

After about six hours walking, we got to the camp site and it was perched on the edge of a stream. The joy of getting our sweat soaked clothes off and into the river was unparalleled, all the while marvelling at how Darwin stayed totally dry. Jungle boys, indeed. Down the stream a way was a waterfall and a pool below just waiting for us to jump in. All around there wasn’t a single sign of humanity about, nothing but us people. Not in the sky, not lying around, nothing. We were out in nature, an experience you never reflect on because in this modern life, we seldom get even close to it. Later, the guides cooked a truly memorable five-star meal, out in all that. It was our group and one other guy, a German guy doing an eight-day trek, truly full on. He would see it all, no doubt, and have an experience to remember. He was cool, and we sat around playing cards all night until we went to sleep.

Sleep out there was the only negative part. A thin camping mat that did nothing to shelter my soft body from feeling every single rock beneath, a rough experience on my stomach that, combined with the anti-malarials I had started taking, gave me cramps all night. Not a wink did I sleep that night, all I could do was lie awake in pain and listen to the jungle and the river. It was almost deafening, all that noise.

The next day we packed up and walked out, another four hours, and rafted down the river in a raft made of inner-tubes lashed together. I don’t need to tell you it was some killer fun.

Getting back I ran into all the local guys I’d met the days before, and their deal changed from getting me into a trek (not that they had to try hard) but to get me to leave not in the local bus but with one of them driving a Kijiang I would pay for. Pay another 900,000 Rupiah for. The memorable line was, “it’s less than 100 Euros, that’s fine, right?” It was then I realised they were hybrid creatures, part really cool guys and part parasite, trying to attach themselves to my wallet. I can’t blame them fully for their situation, it’s like this everywhere in South East Asia, they are just better at it in those parts. I took that as my cue to get the heck out – not that I had any reason to stay anyway. So it was a mixed experience, and while I couldn’t get around saying to people to avoid the place, because it really is wonderful, it comes with a real caveat. You’ve been warned.

I hit the bus station really early and got right on a Kijiang headed to Medan. I was slightly peeved that someone had claimed my favoured seat of shotgun (the only solution to having longer legs in a ride built, seemingly, for midgets) and had to squeeze into the back. The seat right on the left hand side is best in this case, because the seat in front doesn’t go all the way to the edge and it gave me a little room to stretch. The other passengers were accommodating in this, they just climbed over me to get in and out. The Kijiang in this case only really gets going when full, so we hauled on outta there packed, with the conductor sitting on the roof. Got to love that. Shotgun was occupied by a big lady who probably needed it more than me, and upon arrival in Medan she told me she was going the same way and assisted me in getting across town to the other bus station (one city, two stations) and she told me she did it quite often, the Bukit Lawang to Parapat run, because she ran guest houses in both places, and she was taking me under her wing. And big wings at that, she was a large lady! I was kinda worried it would translate into me having to stay at her place at the other end, when I really wanted my freedom to choose, but her place was going to be full and the pressure was off. The bus we got onto she took all the time, so I figured it was a good option. And true to form, she paid for two seats as to have room to sit in comfort, leaving me with a bit more wriggle room.

She told me the truth about what happened in the flood, and the donations, and the compensation after the flood. Her husband, Tony, died that day, and now she was left with two operations and three kids under twelve to raise. I was really touched by her story, another side of all that. She all but held my hand off the bus and onto the ferry in Parapat, for the next destination was over the other side of the lake.

The lake, what a place. What a place. I’d still be there, likely, if I could. I don’t spend too long in places all that often, neither am I likely to de-camp like that. But Lake Toba is different. Right in the middle of Sumatra, it’s a lake with an island in the middle, an island bigger than Bali even, created by what must have been the absolute mother of volcanic explosions. The blast that made Toba must have been truly unbelievable, making events like Krakatau look like a nasty fart, and the tsunami look like a ripple. Unimaginable, especially as you sit by the lake looking over at the cliffs that form the other side, covered in green, with nothing to disturb you except, well, nothing. Quiet, still, peaceful, interruptions only happen when you want them. And it’s a beautiful setting, away from the traffic noise, the cars and the honking, the shouting, nothing. The air is clean, and all is calm. It was perfect.

On the ferry I met Antony, from Argentina. He’s a backpacker soul from way back, he’s been everywhere, really everywhere, and he’d just been to Sri Lanka and was doing Indonesia in two parts. Laid back, funny, keen sense of humour. We camped at the guest house and agreed it was world class, everything, and the prices puts the value of it all at ‘excruciatingly good’. For 25,000 Rupiah I got my little slice of calm and quiet with a view to kill for. The restaurant had a menu as long as my legs and while the costs were slightly inflated, it was still cheap. And so good too! What quality fare. Even the basics of fried rice and fried noodles were exemplary. Everything else was magnificent and the array of milkshakes and fruit juices was staggering. Combined with a lack of anything else to do, we would get up and eat breakfast and then ask each other, oh, what will we do now? Is it lunchtime yet?

It’s that kind of place. So in lieu of anything else to really do, here’s some history and stuff. This part of Sumatra is inhabited by the Batak people, whose reputation extends far beyond their modest ambitions in life. First coming to light to western eyes when Portuguese missionaries discovered a cannibalistic tribe who tried to kill them, sparking a fever back home to convert the natives in the heart of darkness, like the good old days when Africa was calling them. The Portuguese did indeed convert them to Christianity, so in the middle of Sumatra today you’ll find a Protestant community. This has the added benefit of no mosques to wake you up at all hours of the morning. Churches abound amongst the traditional architecture and the other Batak traditions held on, mostly because of the isolation, leaving cannibalism to the dustbin of history. The geography is especially fascinating, the island of Samosir floating in the middle of the crater lake that is Toba, joined onto the mainland by a narrow strip of land on the west side and with a small peanut of land, called Tuk Tuk, jutting out of the east side, narrowly avoiding becoming an island of its own. The trans-Sumatra highway runs down the east side, so the town of Parapat is a lot closer to Tuk Tuk than the main town, on the west side, Panguguran. Tuk Tuk is ringed by a single road and has all the views, and so also the guesthouses and restaurants. It’s a highlight of the Sumatra trail and is still isolated enough to keep things low-key. Especially when I was there, the very end of the rainy season, which is the low season. Apart from Antony and myself, there would have only been a few more people there. This left us plenty of attention from the staff, which was not so cool when they were trying to sell us less-than-legal stuff or, in one case, scary looking – but more than welcome when they were the cute, friendly and downright flirtatious waitresses. Waitresses who have plenty of time to hang around and chat and make jokes with us, because there’s only four people to serve.

And I can’t tell you enough about how amazing this place is, because it’s just that good. Trust me.

We arrived on Sunday and left on Friday. Friday was the beginning of the Chinese New Year weekend and the whole place was booked out. Had been for months. Every place on the island was booked out and had been for months. We had no choice but to leave. Antony and I agreed we were two days short of having spent just the right amount of time there, but we could do nothing against the Chinese onslaught. At least the locals knew to fleece them – all the room prices magically gain an extra zero for the weekend. Friday morning we were already disenchanted – gone were the only sounds we heard, the occasional footstep, and replacing it were voices. Loud voices. Fireworks. Annoying people. Paradise was lost. The Chinese came, and took it all away.

But before all that, all that, the people who filtered on in were good types. A pair of Canadian boys, one of whom you would swear was Stifler, of American Pie fame. The other was the straight guy to his full-on approach to life, and they were great to hang with. I swear, Stifler even sounded like Stifler. His real name was Casey, but fuck that, I’ll call him Stifler. I know he doesn’t like it, but screw him, this is my site. His friend was Andrew and he was known as Pud, cause he’s a little pudgy. They’d drank their way around South East Asia and had come out to Toba for one reason or another, and while it wasn’t the rolling party of further north, they were having a good time. They’d hooked up a gig teaching English for a week at schools around Bukittingi and had some really out-there tales. Also joining us for the last few days were some boys who were studying in Singapore, who had a week or so to have break and had come out to Sumatra after Bintan got rained out. They were good fun too, and so the picture was complete.

One bad thing happened, and for the purposes of completeness, it shall be entered in here. I’m not happy about it, but one day I might look back and laugh. Laugh and laugh, because damn, there’s nothing else for it, really.

We rented bikes, Antony, me, and an American girl. Around the top of the island, no problems. Saw lots of cool things, it was beautiful. Up the middle of the island, over the mountain, no problems. Past there, the road got bad. Asking directions, everyone said we could get through to Tuk Tuk that way – but we could not. It ended up we ran out of petrol, in the middle of nowhere. We got a stunning view of Tuk Tuk, but get there we could not. We hitched back to Tuk Tuk and faced the music. And angry rental place and having to pay a lot of cash to get people to retrieve the bikes – the only black spot, but it’s a big one. What a fuck up. It was bad, but a testament to the power of the place that it was only a temporary setback.

So the days there were easy, and Antony agreed it was almost too easy. But it was also an opportunity to reflect on just how hard getting around Indonesia was, from the absolutely pitiful roads and beat-up transport, to the constant attention from curious locals, to the paranoia growths from having to watch every note leaving your pockets, each with the little question attached: is this too much? There’s few places in Asia, nay, the world, that quite reach the lows that you can see in Indonesia, but the highs are equally worthwhile, if further between. The people were almost unfailingly friendly, even in the most urban of places, even when they were shooting for your wallet, even when they couldn’t actually give a crap about you, there was never any signs of malice or direct confrontation. Maybe they don’t know just how bad their lot is? To be true, very few of the people I spoke to had ever travelled very far, let alone to a foreign land. Veronika might be alone in that respect, and she seemed to view the world the same as the rest of them. A sense of patriotism, that yes, Indonesia is not the nicest place to look at, but it’s our Indonesia and we are still happy with our lives. To which I can only say, right on! And it’s this that endears me to them, despite the pain involved in getting around, despite it all, the people make a country and there’s a lot of dour Englishmen, angry Scotsmen, jaded Aussies, pissed-off Americans, depressed Kiwis, sour Frenchmen, unimpressed Dutchmen and so on and so forth who could take a lesson or two, who could look around at how nice their homeland are and think, yeah, it’s not so bad – if only we could be as nice to each other as these natives seem to be to each other. How about that.

But I digress; a fun side note on the days in Toba is that the waitresses were genuinely friendly people, and their names weren’t “business names” as we had thought they might be, but their actual names – the Protestants had left a legacy of more than just religion, but a penchant for European names. While in town I met Dylan, Desy (‘Daisy’), Fike (‘Vicky’), Emma and Marta (‘Martha’), to name a handful. We jibed them at the start to tell us their real names, not believing them, but only right at the end did we find out that indeed they were not taking the piss. It was of these that the waitress Daisy took a liking to me, and me to her, assisted by the fact that neither of us really had anything much to do and she could speak pretty damn fine English. We’d take ten whole minutes to order, going over the menu and asking dumb questions, just to make her laugh. Coming so soon after the days and nights hanging out with Tutie in Meulaboh, I wondered just how much of what I felt was genuine, but these things happen on the road, and they happen all the more in Asia. On the road in Asia, well, I wasn’t to look to hard at it all. I did have plenty of time to sit around and ponder at just how different the two girls were, with their different dialects and religions, dress sense, outlook and life prospects, and yet how convergent they were to my eyes. In the crudest terms, I also reflected when I was alone in bed that I would have to marry both of them before so much as getting close to their panties. A realisation I didn’t linger too much on, but there you have it.

Antony and I jumped on down to the little dock at two thirty and waved down the ferry back to Parapat, where we were collected by the bus company guy and deposited at the bus station for an hour or so to wait for the bus coming from Medan to swing by and gather us up. We had a stimulating conversation on the topic of surfing and Indonesian snack foods and then the bus appeared and took us into its bosom, where we would be ensconced for the duration of the rest of the day, the entire evening and into the following morning, whereupon Bukittingi would be waiting. Getting off the ferry into Parapat was like leaving paradise and arriving back in the utter mediocrity of the world as Indonesia had made it. Oh, this place. Yeah, I said to Antony, I remember this place. Fuck, what are we doing back here again? We could only daydream about quiet evenings by the lakeside and afternoons kidding around with Daisy as we sat in the dusty concrete hellhole of a bus station, and these memories twisted into instruments of torture as we fought the road twisting and turning all the night. I had the seat right at the front, sitting next to a lady with a baby on her knee. It kept kicking me, which wouldn’t have been an issue except it was wearing leather shoes and kept hitting the same spot. Antony had the seat that had been welded next to the driver, his testicles perilously close to the gearstick. It was a rude awakening after the blessed days by the lake.

Bukittingi bus station was even worse than Parapat. A swirling mess of busses constantly swinging through, full of people trying to get us on their vehicles, the rest shouting above the noise. Before the bus had even finished getting into the station there were guys on board asking where we were going, thinking we might have endured the overnight ride just to get a connection to Jakarta. That’s another 40 hours away on roads that outdo even the ones we had just come from. Antony, he’s so calm and relaxed, even in the face of such absurdity, he stopped me from cracking and taking a swing. The guy was just optimistic. We stumbled around the station for a while and then got a minibus to the other side of town and found, at length, somewhere to sleep. Which we did for the rest of the morning and into the afternoon, when the mosque woke us up, rude as ever.

That fucking mosque. It’s hardly going to enamour anyone to their religion when they insist on making the call to prayer five times a day at mind-shearing volume, surely there’s something in the Quran about not doing that. That the room’s balcony was right in the firing line for not one but two mosques did not help. I swear, one loud speaker was aimed right at the window. The thing about Bukittingi is that there’s not a great deal to see, but the surrounding villages and such had plenty to keep a healthy mind occupied. There was a healthy backpacker oriented scene – minus, of course, the numbers of backpackers that they used to get in those parts, meaning plenty of traveller-aimed cafes all advertising tours ranging from day trips to the countryside to ten day expeditions to the Mentawai Islands to visit the natives, or alternatively, to go surfing. Wandering into one of these places doubles as a silent invitation to become a captive audience to the sales pitch, which becomes all the stronger the longer you show disinterest. This is unfortunate, because they are otherwise fine institutions going through a hard time because of shit they didn’t do, but it gets rapidly annoying. This one place, the guy gave us the spiel almost every chance he could, and then actually asked us if he had been annoying us, like he didn’t quite get it. Still, we weren’t interested in any of that, so we weren’t shopping around for a guide, so we could just let it pass without too much consternation. That afternoon, after wandering around the local market, we were sitting in one such café and Antony noticed someone walking past – it was his friends Sebastien, who he’d met in Lombok. He was French and almost as well travelled as Antony, and as such was over the whole ‘cheap as possible’ angle, and splashed a good amount of extra funds on things like flights and nice hotels. He still retained the hatred of being nickel and dimed at every turn, to the point of being even tighter in some ways than me, grumbling over a few thousand Rupiah for a ticket to somewhere, or the ubiquitous ‘parking attendants’ who expect payment for looking at vehicles. I am with him on a lot of these things, especially when someone tries to take money off you when there’s not even an attempt at a sign pointing out there was a cost, but he took it to a new level. Then would go out and not think twice about spending 100,000 Rupiah on a room when 30,000 would be more than adequate. Each to his own, and truth be told, we got on just fine at the beginning, then started to grate on each other, then finally made some kind of peace and left with mutual respect.

The next day we rented motorbikes, after quite a lot of hassle, and set off on an ambitious day trip around the area. I say ambitious because we didn’t quite get through half of what we aimed to, partly because we set out so late, and partly because it was slower going than we figured, so no lowering of flags here. First stop was the Harau Valley, a slice of greenery cut between two massive cliffs, waterfalls cascading down the sides into rice paddies all the way along each side. It was well worth the distance to get there, a distance made easy by the fact I had an automatic bike this time and it was like riding a dodgem car. Sit down, feet on the sides and go – no effort, no troubles, nothing. No even as hard as riding a bike, it was almost dangerously easy, I felt like I could lose control via getting too comfortable and complacent on the road. In the end such premonitions were proved true, but the undoing of me was not a lack of concentration but a pothole the shape and size of a bathtub. I didn’t see it in time coming under the car in front, and seeing just how deep it was I swerved around it too late, spilling the bike and narrowly missing getting taken out by the oplet next to me and Sebastien following me. I scraped my knee and landed half on my shoulder, half headfirst – thank Christ for the helmet I had on, or I would not be here writing this now.

It all happened next to a little shop, where a cop happened to be at the time. He stepped out and pulled me up and sat me down, while someone tended to the bike. The cop bought me water and bandages, helped patch me up and made sure I was ok. Apart from the injuries described, I was just fine, and ready to head off again as soon as we could get away. But the crowd that had gathered all wanted to check me out and make sure it was all ok, so it took a few minutes. It might have been plenty worse, but we sorted it out and kept rolling.

The valley was indeed a beautiful place, the waterfalls were numerous and the locals friendly. The fields were green and we stopped to go wander about and take photos. Between the paddies trailed paths that meandered rather than corralled the green, and in the distance were the far cliffs and the occasional farmer tending to the crops. It was quiet and still, but for the breeze and the insects.

The next stop was a village that would have had a building supposed to be a local tribe’s king’s place, the exact details I’m sketchy on. We got there after it closed, mainly because we took a long time getting lunch, so while we could hang out in front of this thing we couldn’t find out anything much about it. It was a building in the Minangkabau style, which looked suspiciously like the Batak style. The Minangkabau earn a mention here, because even if the name doesn’t ring any bells, you know about these people. Originally from West Sumatra, with Padang being the centre of their heartlands, the Minangkabau had already spread through most of what is now Indonesia and Malaysia by the time Europeans arrived to make something of them. Taking with them their language and cooking, their culture and their lifestyle, they had spread so far and stayed the same to the point that their influence is found all through the area, while they remained as ever. Padang food, their cuisine, forms the basis of what most people think of as Indonesian food, and their biggest claim to fame is their language went on to be known though so much of the archipelago that when the time for independence came and Bahasa Indonesia was standardised, the Minangkabau dialect formed the basis for the new official language. It also makes up the base for Bahasa Melayu in Malaysia, adding yet another notch to their belts.

So the king’s house was closed and the sun was on its way down. We were so close to the equator that drawn out sunsets were purely the realm of cinema and fanciful artwork – the sun just falls below t he horizon and like a light being turned off, it gets dark. Driving in the dark is not so bad, but when the constant vigilance needed to keep the bike out of potholes, it becomes a lot less fun. We got most of the way before the dark came, and the rain came too that night, turning what had been a fun day out into a case of, get me home right now or else. Food tasted good that night.

Our days in Bukittingi at their end, we had another place in our sights, just down the road, at another lake. Maninjau, this time, a smaller crater lake than at Toba, but still just as impressive. It sounded just the right place to make up for lost days resting and lounging at Toba, and we couldn’t get out of Bukittingi fast enough, couldn’t get away from the incessant calls from the mosque fast enough. The road to Maninjau took the bus down a road that switch backed down the hill into the crater no less than forty-four times – each turn is marked and numbered, just to keep track. Accommodation is pretty basic, but more than enough, and would have been easily sorted out if Sebastien hadn’t been adamant about going around and checking each place out. I’ve never spent so long searching for a room in my life. We eventually settled at the original place we looked at and were then in the more than capable hands of a bald guy named Bingo. His hospitality was right up there and his beds were clean; if only the same could be said for the lake and the views. The lake was where all the water drained from the rice paddies and villages without plumbing, so the potential for swimming was somewhat dampened. Still, in the late afternoon the water was nice and warm from being in the sun all day and I didn’t hold back. A lake is for swimming so I took a dip. The view, which has magnificent potential, looked disappointingly cloudy the afternoon we arrived and had not improved by the following afternoon. We asked some locals about this and they told us it wasn’t cloud, but haze from forest fires further south in Jambi. I’d heard about this happening, but so soon already into the dry season I hadn’t expected to hear it happening already. This was bad news and we never got to see clear across the lake, even the next day when we took a bus up to the top of the forty-four turns and walked along the road to a point overlooking the lake from above. We came, we looked and were annoyed at the world in general. By this point we’d picked up another soul, from Algeria, so the French connection was alive and well. We hiked down through the jungle back to the lake, and after Bukit Lawang I had my fair share of jungle walks. This one was only a couple of hours and along a pretty easy to follow trail. We saw a few small monkeys and way too many leeches, way too many. We didn’t want to stop and smell the proverbial roses because of them, but I say, seen one jungle, seen them all. Leaving the jungle we were greeted with a postcard view over the lake, farms and rice paddies filling in the bits in-between. That made our day’s exertion worth it all. Later, Sebastien and I played volleyball with some local kids. I say we won.

That was to be it, the foray into West Sumatra was pretty well over. It hadn’t reached the highs of the North, or the emotion of Aceh, but I couldn’t say it wasn’t worth my time. Plus, I had to get there in order to get out of there, and that’s a pretty good incentive to go anywhere, and if there’s shit worth doing it’s an outright bonus. Still, the saddest thing about the next day was saying farewell to Antony and getting the bus back to Bukittingi with Sebastien, where we had connections going in different directions. This is where it all turned into a survival game, where the object of the exercise was to get me the hell out of Indonesia, into the warm and welcoming cradle of Singapore, where hot showers and hawker food awaited. It should have been easy; it could have been as easy as getting my act together two weeks earlier and buying a flight from Padang direct to Singapore for less than I ended up paying (not even kidding, people) and instead ended up in a sport of clashing wills and dried up patience.

Once upon a time, not even a few years ago, discount air travel was but a cruel joke, the domain of travel agents misrepresenting fares by leaving out taxes and fees to make them look sane. Then the dawn of low-cost, low-service aviation happened across Europe, turning Prague and Barcelona into unrecognisable haunts dominated by drunk Englishmen and Italians fighting over soccer games. The concept spread and now South East Asia is well served by budget carriers, who still continue the trick of not including taxes and fees in the advertised fares (surely this is less than legal?) leading to seeming dirt cheap fares, when the reality isn’t so sweet. But it does mean that comparable distances can now, in some cases, be traversed by air rather than road or sea at almost the same price, for a fraction of the hassle. Hidden land mines to be aware of include to and from discount airline airports, but that’s beside the point – the extra cost more than makes up for it, if it’s getting from Padang to Jakarta in two hours instead of the 40 punishing hours the bus needs. Or, in my case, the extended days at the wacky races that took me to Singapore.

From Bukittingi to Pekanbaru should have been about five hours, and this time was thought up by a retard midget son of a syphilitic whore, because it takes much longer. The two hours waiting at the bus station was no picnic and then the bus that I had bought a ticket on looked like a relic that belonged in a museum, or more fittingly, in a fucking junkyard. Welcome to seven hours on the worst bus in Indo – but at least it’s taking me away, away from the identical probing questions and pointing, away from the schoolkid interviewers, away from yet another plate of nasi goreng, away from concrete ghetto hellholes and exhaust fumes enough to kill Godzilla. I love the place and the people, I love them to death, but the day to day reality was starting to set in and it was time, time to leave. The people on the bus were some of the worst breed, the questioners who speak not a work of English but don’t even get the message that earphones equals leave me the fuck alone, I don’t want to tell you yet again I can’t understand your goddamn question. Fuck off, fuck off. There are usually two guys staffing any one given bus, the driver and the conductor. On longer rides they will swap several times. This bus had a third, a fat guy I shall herein refer to as ‘Fucknuts’. Fucknuts seemed to have no job except to fall asleep using my pack as a pillow, poking me in the arm and trying to wheedle cash out of me whenever he felt he might get away with it. This last thing was particularly annoying, as his technique was so very bad – I wanted to send him to Bukit Lawang for some lessons. After a few hours of poking me in the arm to ask inane questions, the conductor came by and joined in, then took money and checked tickets. He saw my bit of paper, acquired at an office in the bus station for 55,000 Rupiah, and nodded. Fucknuts took this chance to try and convince me I had to then buy a second ticket from him, a message I got eventually, but outright refused to acknowledge. I had a ticket, and happily showed him, but this stopped him not. He borrowed a pencil and wrote on the back, 15,000. I was incensed, and there was no way I would give it to him. I had a ticket, and likely paid too much anyway, so no. He would not get anything from me. This crap continued for a good ten minutes, with more than enough poking to justify me popping him in the teeth. He gave up, but it wouldn’t be the end.

We came to Pekanbaru and it was already dark. There hadn’t been many people on the bus all the way, and the few who were left got off at the edge of the city. This left me, driver and Fucknuts. I saw a sign pointing out the bus station six kilometres away, and they pulled up and told me to get off there. I wasn’t happy but couldn’t argue. The bus was stopped and Fucknuts had my bag off the bus already. I naturally followed him off with my shit and the bus pulled away. Fucknuts took me to a taxi driver, who I tried to talk to, and I told him where I was going. I had a map, see, one that most people failed to read (had I hit a pocket of illiteracy?) and I knew exactly where I had to go. The guy said five thousand, a reasonable sounding number, and I pulled out a five thousand note to confirm that I had the understanding right. He took it from me and gave it to Fucknuts! I was angry about this, as a deal had obviously been done selling my ass to the taxi man. Drop the foreigner at the edge of town and sell him out the taxi man, what a pile of shit. The five grand was probably commission, and they could have been more subtle about it. Had I been a less rational and calm man I would have chased down the fat bastard and started something, but they had my pants around my ankles for sure.

Fucknuts left and I was there negotiating with taxi man. Turns out he wanted 40,000 for the fare and all I was willing to pay was 20,000. This turned into a disagreement and he wasn’t going to haggle, so I took my bags and walked off. No-one followed me. I would have walked all the way into town, another eleven kilometres away. I would have done it too, had salvation not driven out of the night.

Salvation drives a motorbike and pulled over, and asked my name and where I was going. He offered me a ride and didn’t need to ask twice. I showed him the map and we were off, into the night, bags and all. The place I was going was right in the middle of the city, where the two main roads intersect, and should have been easy to find. Except I didn’t have a helmet and the cops were out in force, and my driver didn’t want a fine. So we skirted around the side streets and it was no surprise we didn’t find it. My driver suggested that it would just be easier to stay at his place, an offer I jumped at. Giving up on the intended destination, we arrived sweaty and hungry at his place at around eleven. Getting to Singapore shouldn’t be this hard, I mused, as I was shown to his domicile friends. He was a student at the local uni and lived in student housing (grim at best, let me tell you) with a bunch of other students. And they were all the friendliest, kindest people I could have hoped to be saved by that night, all keeping their distance and politely asking questions. They bought me food and one of them gave up his room so I could have somewhere to sleep. The kicker? They weren’t locals, but Bataks from Medan. Once again, Bataks to the rescue. What can’t they do?

In the morning I was given food and taken to my transport, all without asking for anything in return. Such humble and friendly people, hospitality is alive and well. I couldn’t be more thankful to all of them, not at all. Saying goodbye, I almost wished I could hang out another day with them, but good sense prevailed and I got in the ‘travel’ and off we went. Four hours on some truly diabolical roads to Tanjung Baton, where an hours passed until we squeezed onto the boat. The back seat of the travel was especially heinous, cramped with no room for my legs. I was in pain most of the way, but the boat was roomy and only smelled a little strange. No-one bothered me all day, not people sitting next to me, not strangers at the transport terminals. No-one. Getting out of Indonesia should be so easy.

The view for most of the day was plantations, palm oil plantations. The rainforests in Riau have long been destroyed and oil discovered underneath. All this oil travels in pipes to the port of Dumai and goes off somewhere else. The port also carts off the last of the timber, all under the haze of refineries in the distance. Picturesque it ain’t, riding calmly down a river is a million miles away. The boat speeds along at Indonesian speeds, without traffic to hinder it. There are worse ways to get where you need to go. At Batam, on the other end of this epic, were taxi drivers. I must have been asked by about thirty drivers where I was going. The domestic terminal is right around the corner from the international one, and I knew it would be close, yet all the offers to drive me there – the never ending gall of these people! Honestly. As I walked from one to the other, things were already looking nicer, the road sealed nicely, the drains uncovered, but not crumbling, and the building was shiny and happy, all glass and aluminium, and it was clean, no-one hanging around, no touts, beggars, hangers on or other assorted scumbags. I could feel Singapore was just over the way, just over there… And then I asked about tickets and somehow, the price had jumped from 17 Singapore dollars just over a year ago to 28 dollars now, and come to think of it, this wasn’t the same place. This is totally different, actually, am I in the right place? I can get to Singapore, right? Yes, they said, last ferry for the day. Twenty eight dollars. What the fuck had happened? Where was I? Unable to unravel the mystery, I took this last sucker punch on the chin and paid up. I had just enough to cover my arse, and a few small notes to get a last taste of Indonesian snack food into me. I waited around for the security guy to appear and turn on the machine and then waited some more. It was almost over, almost there. I almost expected some cataclysmic even to erupt and keep me there longer, indefinitely, yet delaying my long flight from their land to the chosen paradise over the waters – but nothing happened, and the five people waiting got on the boat and we left.

I had intended to call Veronika and Tutie before I left, but there just hadn’t been time. It had been almost two days straight of cars, busses and boats to get me to that point, with the only downtime used for the novelty of sleeping. Looking over a map now, I covered Sumatra from one coast clear to the other, and then some, and over to Singapore all in one go (more or less) making two epic days on par with my jaunt, close to two years before, up the east coast of China. It left me in almost the same state, too, except now I had Singapore in front of me, not goddamned Shanghai.

So not everything got done. Seeing how much ground I had covered in nearly a month, and excluding my chosen exit strategy, I had barely seen a third of Sumatra. This realisation was a little disheartening, but all the same – I’d done things few people had, seen some truly amazing things and some truly terrible sights. I’d broken hearts and brightened others. I’d had my arse reduced to rubble and been thrown about like a basketball in the space shuttle on re-entry. Is that what adventure is? I’m not sure, but I would like to think so.

Indonesia (part one)

Thursday, March 20. 2008
Like getting beaten up in a parking lot, or slipping off a diving board and landing in the water belly-first, Indonesia is an intense assault on your person, values, outlook and health. Not to mention your finances. Like an old van running on duct tape, rust and petrol vapours, it keeps ploughing forward against all common sense and logic, spewing exhaust into a greying twilight. Night is falling on the archipelago but the people either don’t know, don’t notice or don’t care. Quite possibly all three, but again, against probability herself, they appear entirely unconcerned.

From the silver and black dome of the mosque of Banda Aceh to the untameable tangle of deep, dark forests in West Papua, Indonesia stretches across thousands of islands; the heavily populated heartland of Java, the frontier outposts of Flores and Timor, the unlikely twisted volcanic sprawl of Sulawesi, the necklace of tiny islands of Maluku and the Banda Islands, the immense mass of Kalimantan and the huge looming figure of Sumatra. From one end to the other you’ll find no less than 300 ethnic groups and even more languages, but they all live under one flag, speak one language and live in one country. Of all the nations built by the colonising Europeans, Indonesia is the most disparate, the most unlikely of them all, but one of the most enduring. For one reason or another, it has all hung together and found a path (but more often than people might like to admit, the round hole has been hammered out to fit the square peg). Indonesia presents a picture so varied and disparate, it leads me to despair and excitement all at the same time trying to figure it out in my head, let alone write it down with any clarity. Because clarity is one thing that Indonesia lacks, in too many ways it lacks the easily navigable paths in society that many take for granted, offering either a spider’s web to untangle, if you have the patience and fortitude, or a maze of trees with plenty of roots waiting to trip you up if you lose either virtue.

After it was all over, the thing I found myself saying to most people about Indonesia was about the people. Ninety-nine percent of them were amazing, friendly, open, curious and genuine. The remaining one percent just wanted to attach themselves like parasites to my wallet. And it’s that one percent that come at you every turn of the way, the taxi drivers, the wannabe tour guides, the unscrupulous guest house staff, the ticket sellers, the self-styled parking attendants, the oppurtunising bus conductor. But more on all these scumbags later; they are the moon of shit that obscure the sunny smiles of everyone else who would brighten your day, everyone else who smiles at you and actually means it, everyone else who made the trip entirely worthwhile. Not many places will I tell you something like this, but Indonesia is not like other places in so many ways, it surprises me not one little bit – it might just be that the people outrank the places as the highlight of the experience.

The scope of this chapter is partly the reason for all this. Tourism in Indonesia is perhaps eighty percent focused on the tiny island of Bali. You might have heard of it, and you might well have been there too. You might be a writer on this very site, and have been there, and still not posted anything about it; I know we can’t all be prodigious writers, but I digress – the point is, most visitors don’t get too far from Bali, and even then neighbouring Lombok is the secondary choice. A comparative trickle make their way up through Java toward Jakarta, and those who would go out and see anything further afield are a true rarity. In Malaysia I met many folks who were heading north to Thailand who all dismissed Indonesia, and those heading south were going no further than KL or Singapore before flying elsewhere, or home. There was precious little love for Indo, and the reasons were simple enough to grasp. A tourist scene to intensely focussed on one area leaves little knowledge or development elsewhere, combined with a bad image and ongoing security concerns help would-be visitors consider safer options. Give a middle aged family man a choice between Thailand and Indonesia for his family holiday and even the smallest risk will likely steer him to the safer option. Understandable for Mr. Family Guy and his two week’s holiday in the sun, not so easily forgivable for would-be adventurous backpacking types, yet time and time again I heard people dismiss Indonesia for these reasons. While my opinion of these cowards is restricted to grievances in this forum, I know that the great God of Backpacking is watching and shaking his head, saying, I thought you were cool.

It wasn’t always this way. The combined body blows of nightclub bombings in Kuta and the horrors of the tsunami drove visitor numbers even lower, leaving a long established tourist infrastructure to service declining numbers, and while one might think this could lead to the cream floating to the top in the form of lower prices and survival of the fittest style remaining guides and whatnot, we aren’t so lucky. Those who survived are those who wanted it the most, and you better believe they did so not by being the best, but my whatever means necessary. Lean times breed tough people and tough types know the game better than you. Adding insult to injury, Indonesia hasn’t bounced back nearly half as well as some of the neighbouring economies have in the long wake of the 1997 currency crisis. This leads to further tightening of belts and a lowering of standards of public services. Your average traveller will notice this in certain places more than others and is best exemplified by the crater sized potholes that conspire to reduce sanity and increase arse-pain nationwide. Further compounding the mess is the ongoing search for political identity in a post Soeharto reality. While the old goat was mostly unloved by the people at the end, a good section of the public still say things were better under his iron hands and not just because his tourist visa policy was to give most nationalities a free, two month visa on entry. These days you must pay 25 US for a thirty day visa, or get a sixty day visa before you land. All in all, it’s not the prettiest picture presented to would be visitors and while I can see the point of view of those who shun Indo for easier pastures, I also stick my finger up at them as I fly away and shout, your fucking loss, wankers! So long!

With such hubris did I venture onward into the vastness of Sumatra. The background now painted, here’s the why of what I was doing out that way. My good friend Veronika, from such adventures as Last Time I Was In Indonesia and Fast Times At Takushoku High, got herself a job working for an NGO in Aceh, where post tsunami mopping up continues. She had long been wanting me to up and visit and somehow managed to be surprised when I told her I was coming. So from Medan I would arrange transport to Meulaboh, a onetime headline maker, but now relegated to footnote to a disaster. Meulaboh hit headlines on Boxing Day 2004 as ‘ground zero’ in the disaster and was near wiped off the map, along with Calang further up the coast. Much of the rebuilding effort was focused on this area, second to Banda Aceh. But I get ahead of myself, because the getting there was more adventure than adventure ought to really be.

All the posters make the same claim, so do the people selling the tickets. Four and a half hours to Medan, they say. They manage to fit two lies into that one grand statement, since the ferry takes at least six hours (six and a half for me) and actually goes to Belawan, a forty five minute and ten thousand Rupiah bus ride from the middle of Medan. So there’s that, and then the immigration facility that not only screams “you’re in Indonesia now, bitch, so bend over and take it like a man” but takes 25 of your dollars for a visa. Such nice people. At least it’s easy and the line as long as the ferry’s passenger list, so it’s over quickly. And unlike the airports in Jakarta and Denpasar, they couldn’t give a rat’s arse if you have a ticket out of the country – stick, stamp, tear, here you are, have a nice day. Next!

Then you run the gauntlet for the first time. Belawan has a unique mix of immigration officials, making sure you go the right way, ferry company people, directing you to their company bus, and the usual array of alternative transport providers attempting to get as much cash as possible from uninformed white folk. Who knows who to trust? I didn’t, and I’m a supposed veteran of the Indo hustle. Luckily I ended up on the bus, which was the right move – another group of foreigners wasn’t so lucky and I saw the vultures had moved in. Good luck guys.

And back in Indonesia. The senses are the first victim, the smells and humidity, the heat and noise are all amplified somehow, it all could be Malaysia still, only it’s like the grime and reality knobs have been pushed up a few notches. And the closer you get to Medan, the higher they go, and in the city they hit eleven. Medan is not a highlight on any itinerary, it’s a place to arrive in, then get the hell out of. It is unique, in that it’s the only place I’ve been where no-one has a single good word to say about it, the silver lining is only visible when you get to leave. It’s an especially soulless Indonesian city (which are like snowflakes and Sting albums, no two are exactly alike but they all follow the same sort of pattern) that goes on and on. The third biggest city in the country, behind Jakarta and Surabaya, it boasts little in the way of history or heritage, but I was later informed her shopping centres were second to none. Again, big deal. Attempts to describe Indonesian cities of any size stretches the vocabulary and explanatory abilities of most people, and going into the realm of simile produces such lines as ‘slapped in the face with a warm, rancid trout’ and ‘whirlwind of pollution, rust and concrete’, all designed to get across somehow the sheer assault on the senses being in these places produces.

They never stop moving, traffic is at dangerous levels, public transport is everywhere but it’s restricted to battered old busses of various sizes (known variously as angkot, oplet and a variety of regional variations, and the omnipresent becak, a motorbike with a two wheeled sidecar welded on the side. There’s seemingly no state-run public transport, from what I could tell in the chaos and dust is that the routes are agreed upon by consensus and which bus runs to where is knowledge acquired by either osmosis or telepathy. Becak are like taxis and he who would get in without agreeing on a price first values not the contents of his wallet very much. The bigger the city, the more these guys try to fleece the white man. And while it’s true that a few thousand Rupiah might not really mean anything to the average visitor, it all adds up to the locals who are living lean – but on the other hand, it becomes a constant growing pain as the nickel-and-dime-ing gets irritating, annoying and, at the end of it all, quite a lot of money. Especially in local terms, because while that five or ten thousand Rupiah means about a dollar or so, that’s half your bed for the night covered, or dinner, or most of a beer. Keeping it relative and the frustration grows all the more.

So the streets constantly rumble with these barely running vehicles and a staggering number of private cars, in varying states of disrepair. It really feels like nothing is new, or clean, or conditioned, or up kept past the absolute minimum requirements. After a few days, then a few weeks in country, it all becomes commonplace and routine, and it takes a really bad ride to shock you. But the initial blow is simply staggering, especially having come from Malaysia, which scores less points than more expensive countries, but in context, ain’t all that bad. In fact, it’s downright classy in comparison. All this begets a truly depressing level of pollution, smog that hangs in the humid air and clings in the heat. There’s nowhere to walk, you have to share the road and watch your back; rare pedestrian areas are badly paved and missing blocks lie in painful wait. It brings a new level of caution and danger to the simple task of urban trekking, as going outside for a walk becomes a chore to dread. This, compared with the total lack of interesting things to see, is why people come to hate Medan. As their entry city, they recall it with the same horror as the initial shockwave and the fact they had to spend any amount of time there.

The accommodation options are all equally horrifying. Cheap, yes, but in Medan you gets what you pays for. A bed, little more, and quite possibly an introduction to the Indonesian mandi. The places targeted by passing backpackers are run by friendly but oppurtunising locals. They’ll arrange anything for you but their commissions are truly greedy; they will happily get food and drinks and quote you a good price, only to show up with your hot meal or cold drink and show you, then tell you, “price go up”. What are you to do? Don’t worry, you think, it’s only five thousand Rupiah. That’s nothing.

So that’s Medan. I got on the phone to Veronika, she told me to get the bus the following night, leaving me with a tick over twenty four hours to fill in town. I used the chance to get some writing done. The transport came at about eight, it was what they call a kijiang, an eight seat Toyota people mover style vehicle. They are probably the same as a Tarago, or similar make, but they are badged as ‘Kijiang’, so that’s what they are called. I also heard them referred to as ‘travel’. Transport to the west coast of Aceh is almost all by kijiang and my lucky arse was in the middle seat, middle row. There was no seatbelt or leg room. I could go into staggering detail about that night, but to relive it seems somehow sadistic. It was dark almost the entire way and the road twisted and turned like a cut snake. The driver was putting in a good tilt at qualifying for the Dakar Rally, speeding as fast as he could and overtaking without caution, then slowing to a crawl in a second to creep around a pothole, then flooring it. I was thrown around like a ping pong ball at the Chinese nationals. Sleep was a distant fantasy, an illusion, a cruel idea fed by my brain, tangled in delusions.

We rolled into Meulaboh about eleven the following day. The guy next to me had found out where I was supposed to be going and told the driver to drop me there. I thanked all sundry and took a second to take stock. What the fuck had I done? Where was I again? Oh man, time to go see if I got all the details right. I approached the security guy with a hearty greeting and he knew my name. I was expected. He took me inside where I was met by a young lady wearing a headscarf. All I saw was the headscarf, an item that instils an aura of distance – not out of aggression or attitude, but more out of respect and lack of insight into the world it comes from. I made the politeness thing happen in my daze and missed her name, all I got that she was a friend of Veronika’s and she gave me water – or offered it and I was being Mr. Polite Guy. I wasn’t allowed to stay inside an office on my own, so I was temporarily placed out the front porch with the security guy. This was fine, since I had a comfy plastic chair to sit in and read, and later to sleep in, and headscarf kept coming to make sure I had water and snacks. So I sat and marvelled at the sensation of sitting in a chair that wasn’t bucking me around like the most pissed off bull at the rodeo and everyone passing through came to meet me. I had a good chat with the drivers, all locals, and all doing their utmost to improve their English, since every second assignment involved moving one of the foreign staff. It was here I heard my first tsunami stories, just bits and pieces, since I wasn’t exactly in a position to go digging too deep. Lost almost my whole family, lost my house, but I’m still here – now that is a positive outlook.

Eventually Veronika showed up. I’d been forewarned that hugging was off the agenda, but unsure as to why I settled with the handshake. She looked exactly the same as I remembered. I was told that I still had to remain where I was for a little while and afterwards I would be escorted to my new temporary residence. This was fine by me – by that point, everything was fine by me. Headscarf was hanging around, making sure I was ok, and the drivers came and went with various staff members. Staff members I also met and whose names I forgot almost instantly, something I take no responsibility for. Eventually this all ended and I was taken to a building not two minutes walk around the corner and I got to take my pick of shitty rooms. It was a beat up building all right, they called it the Barrack House, and it was a tsunami survivor. I figured decent buildings were hard to come by, and there’s also that line about beggars and choosers. I took the cleanest looking room and got given a mattress. With my bags, the mattress was the only other thing in the room. It looked a little on the empty side, but it wasn’t without some kinds of simple charm. Lord knows, I’ve paid to sleep in worse than this.

The content of the days there in Meulaboh were simple, charmed and yet somehow totalled a week before I eventually left. Looking back, the combination of the distance from the beaten backpacker circuit and recent tragic history make it possibly the nicest place to be, at least in terms of all the things that make Indonesia a tough place to be. There’s no gauntlet of people harassing you at any point, the becak drivers only wave or honk once. I didn’t see a single taxi driver and the two visits I made to the bus station were almost sane experiences that resulted in me paying exactly what anyone else might. Traffic around town is noisy, fair enough, but at a level you’d associate with sanity rather than the usual story of bruising craziness. It is a small place, with a big reputation. I heard of only one other backpacker being sighted in town, and by all accounts he looked lost and confused, as he made his way down the west coast on some crusade to avoid the mainstream. It also became clear in hindsight that in terms of South East Asia as a whole, Indonesia is an appendix in most people’s books and in that Sumatra is a footnote. Aceh is but a sentence of that, and Meulaboh a single word.

And to pretend that word isn’t ‘tsunami’ is to be looking the wrong way. Even if you had no idea as to what happened, it’s impossible to miss the rows of identical concrete houses, like they came on a freighter from IKEA in a big box marked ‘HOUSE’. Then there’s the foundations and rubble, the half-trashed houses still to be cleaned up. You can almost use these as a guide to get to the beach, because they get more and more frequent the closer the waves come. Then there’s the beach itself, the sands polished by the pounding, and a line behind it of what once was a building lined highway. The stumps of a bridge are all that’s left to remind you that there was even a road there in the first place. Land that’s no longer usable has little but the foundations of the old houses, derelicts stand in some places, left that way because while the building might have stayed upright, the entire family that once lived there didn’t make it back. The beach is lined with palm trees, easily thirty metres high, all which survived that day. The locals told me the wave was higher than the trees.

Into this the world’s better off peoples donated millions of dollars. The 220,000 people who come under the dead or missing columns in Aceh alone actually saw most of this help them, but a natural disaster is a lot like a wedding. It brings out the best and worst in people, and anyone with an eye on the media at the time probably remembers beat-up stories about donated money going missing or misused or finding its way into corrupt official’s pockets. This happened in the post-Soeharto days, and every president since has made it part of their addenda to at least look tough on corruption. Following the poor showing after the Bohorok floods in North Sumatra in 2003, the government, fully aware of just how many eyes would be on them this time, were extra tough on making sure the cash got where it was supposed to go. But perceived slow progress lead to questions being asked, and in too many cases, answers being made up. The west coast of Aceh was a hard place to get to in any case, what infrastructure had been there pre-tsunami had been extremely compromised by thirty years of civil war and upkeep was little more than a cruel joke in such time. Even with the construction of a new highway, it takes about 15 hours from Medan, and 9 hours from Banda Aceh. Things were always going to be slow, and the other striking thing about Meulaboh is the sheer number of international NGOs and relief agencies who still have headquarters in town. That’s a lot of chefs in the pot and while I hear co-operation was the order of the day, things were always bound to his some speed bumps.

In the most recent peace deal, Aceh was granted special autonomous status within Indonesia, rather than full-on independence. This lead to two things. First, Sharia law became law of the province. This lead to the entrenchment of an already hardcore Islamic mentality, which in this post War On Terror society is always going to have a few eyebrows raised at it, especially by xenophobic Americans. Not that I want to stereotype or over-simplify, but when the foreign invasion happened, when the charity of the west was unleashed, with it came the dogs of war on both sides. The other thing was the Sultanate of Brunei built giant mosques in nearly every little town, as a congratulations present for putting the war behind them and embracing a similar level of religious fanaticism.

Best exemplified by simple incidents and at worst, incited full on racism, one story from Veronika’s NGO was from the first Ramadan after they came to town. The Sharia police showed up and told them they couldn’t operate the in-house kitchen or employ locals to work there, because the smells were upsetting the fasting neighbours, and by extension the staff must be uncomfortable too. They were asked to stop cooking for the month. How to handle this? It could be taken as a cheap shot from the locals, wanting any excuse to take the foreigners down a peg, or a slightly messy grasp of how to do business in Aceh. In the end a compromise was reached and the kitchen stayed open (a good thing, since getting food was otherwise near impossible during Ramadan) and both parties walked away having scored points, but it was far from worth it. Feet were stepped on all the way. To their credit, the foreign workers adapted pretty well to the local customs and laws – things that even other Indonesian workers sometimes had to pause and consider, even the Muslim ones – but let’s not pretend that they were out rapping with the people every night, or going to the mosque, or learning Achinese. The public relations issue was perhaps the core problem, outside the one everyone had to face up to.

For me, walking out of the Barrack House to get some lunch turned into a parade. Every child playing in the yard, every schoolkid outside and within shouting distance, every local man sitting around waiting for some business to come his way – they all shouted to me, the chorus of ‘hello mister’ and ‘where you from’, and a litany of others, ranging from the overly welcoming ‘I love you’ to the polar opposite ‘fuck you’. No doubt there was no true malice (or, unfortunately, passion) in these sentiments, it was just a snippet of English they had picked up. But after the first day of this, it gets so very old, and I could easily imagine the life of the NGO worker, having uprooted and moved to the arse end of Indonesia to help out these unfortunate locals, dealing with the daily parade his life has become. So I can’t blame him for spending his days moving from air-conditioned office to air-conditioned brand new clean NGO branded four wheel drive to air-conditioned house, all without having to see or deal with the locals. The Indonesians he sees are his workmates and they all speak English and the novelty of working with a white man has long worn off. He makes a salary that would be enviable in his homeland, which equates to a king’s ransom in local currency. He is seen by the impoverished, disaster struck locals riding around in his charity-money bought 4WD chariot, with his nice clean clothes, and living and working in houses that they could never afford. They see this, and look at the concrete building that was given to them and the lack of options for their life, and where the sense of disenchantment comes from is not hard to fathom. Both sides need to take a better look at things and possibly adjust their behaviour, but if it were somehow up to me to suggest an alternative – well, I’d be fucked.

So it goes on. By now most of the rebuilding is done, most homeless have been re-homed and only a handful live in shanty towns (but there’s still enough). Education is now the biggest priority, as most of the children don’t have teachers or even parents. This part of the operation, the end game, is at a crossroads, as the NGOs weigh up the value of spending money this way. My god, I’d hate to be the person having to make that call. The vestiges of all this generosity on the locals became clear when I got to be photographer for the day and followed Veronika to work for the day. We went to a school about an hour from town, where they do classes about simple things like hygiene and the importance of not shitting in the drinking water, stuff like that. I was not officially there and so took full advantage of my position of novelty. They’ll be talking about this for years. All I did was hang around and play stupid games with the kids and I was the centre of attention. And the first thing a lot of these kids did to me? Stuck their hands out and asked for money. Already they knew to associate white man with free money, and so the origins of their attitude and behaviours become clearer. I was told the Achinese were far from poor, and while not exactly able to finance the rebuilding of their shattered lives by themselves, didn’t really need all that money that had been donated. It wasn’t a lack of funding that was slowing things, far from it, and neither was there any problems getting it where it needed to be, it was the bureaucracy and bottom-line reading NGOs and the unrealistic expectations of their home offices, far away on the other side of the world.

It’s a messy place, a messy picture, and it’s so very Indonesian. Let me tell you about the beach instead. It stretches as far as you can see in both directions and the small waves pound right on the shoreline. The yellow sand is hot and warm and clean, and huts provide shelter and food. And coconuts from the palm trees get served up with a spoon so you can get all the flesh out. You could spend days just sitting down there and staring, and since the Sharia cops don’t come by until sundown to make sure no-one has any fun after dark, you can get your shirt off and swim all you like. Possibly the best part is that almost no-one else is there, so you more or less have the whole thing to yourself. The locals, never much of a beach loving folk to begin with, are still understandably spooked by the events of that Boxing Day.

That’s the portrait I saw of the town. Every night, Veronika was busy with her boyfriend, someone I met and liked, but he felt very clearly threatened by my presence. So it was up to her friends to show me around and take me to get food, and the chances I had to actually talk to her were limited and far between. Quite an odd thing, really, given how far I had come to be there, but she’s still Indonesian and some things you can’t break into. Good thing her friends were so nice. The first night was with Iwi, who was from Jakarta, and we took a becak tour of the sights, as much as they were, and then to get food. She knew quite a lot about the town and what had happened where, who built what and where to get some good food. The second night, and almost every night after that, I was carted around on the back of a motorbike driven by none other than Headscarf, who turned out to have a real name. Astuti, known as Tutie to her friends and workmates, and she became the first Muslim friend I ever made. To her credit she took my not-so-subtle take on atheism (when religion came up) and didn’t get offended at my jibes. Addressing remarks to the ceiling, and so forth. And more than that, she gave me an inside peek at the real life of a Muslim, an small insight into real-world Islam. I think we were equally as curious of each other, me having never really spoken to a genuine headscarf wearing Muslim past what it took to buy something, and her, with a deep curiosity about the west and English slang expressions. I take credit for teaching her to say ‘king oath’ at the appropriate time, which is of course, whenever possible. And the obedient little girl she is, she went right on and used it – to be fair, she already knew quite a few blue expressions, having dated an Aussie guy for more than a year. I say dated, but in the details she breezily and happily imparted to me, it became clear that she would not yield to him against Allah – they never so much as held hands, let alone threw down in the bedroom. She told me how he would try and talk her into it, and by the sounds of it there was some serious blue-balling going on. She said she would have married him without question and then given herself to him, but he was adamant about ‘trying before buying’ and thus it ended. I personally can’t bring myself to think too much of whoever this guy was, but I sure as hell could see what he saw in her.

She was a special person, no doubting it, and it’s one of the happier accidents so far that she got to look after me almost every day and night I was in town. So much better than being left to my own devices in a place like that, where the beach comprises 100% of the interesting things to do – and fellow travellers are non-existent. At least I had someone, and if it had to be anyone, how good that it be her. When it came time to leave, I was genuinely sad and knew that I would miss her a great deal, but not even my hopelessly romantic mind could concoct a scenario whereby anything could be made of it all. At very least I wouldn’t be able to wander around any further, and almost certainly being an atheist would be a little bit of a problem. Not to overstate it. But when she explained the headscarf and why she chose to wear it, I know it was the personal nature of the explanation that had me entrapped, but I then and only then fully realised why anyone wears it. And the benefits of a clean life, without vice, including all my favourite ones, seemed not a far away delusion but almost the inevitable path worthy of following. Yes, dear readers, I was enamoured. Was she really all that? Or was my brain finding a new way to torture me? Either way, amongst the separation anxiety I was somehow glad to be away from her and her positive influence, free to cock things up as I saw fit, but all not without taking a few lessons and a new perspective on things.

Also, I must add that she lived in the same company house as Veronika and I was invited over there to eat several times and at home, in the company of her housemates, she dispensed with the headscarf, letting me see what would in a stricter time and place, be reserved fully for her own family and husband. I’d gotten to know her with it on all the time, and had grown to know and respect her as a person that way. When she took it off, you could see just how beautiful she was underneath. Her natural beauty would have made her a heartbreaker back home, and that was when I truly realised the reasons for covering it all up outside. Maybe we men really do just see a pretty face and a hairstyle. Maybe. It could have just been she was really pretty and it blinded me all the same. Either way. I can’t say too much for sure, but yeah – probably for the best I was on my way.

The last night I was in town there was a going-away party for someone, so there was a large gathering, and it was good to have all the people I’d met in one place to say goodbye to, even if it wasn’t really for my benefit. The weekend I had stayed for had been a bit strange, with rumours floating around all week about a giant crocodile leading everyone to go looking for it. We indeed went out on a search for information and eventually saw in a newspaper t hat it had been caught and taken to Medan, ending any adventure we might have.

It was all a lot to take in and think about, and I could have stayed longer if I’d wanted, but it was odd enough already that I was there, and another week would have been outright strange. So I got a bus ticket and headed down the coast to Tapaktuan, where more beaches awaited. And a waterfall, so I heard, and it meant that I wouldn’t have to go all the way back to Medan in one go – after the first such trip, I was in no hurry to do anything of the sort. Tapaktuan it was, so I said goodbye to everyone and packed the mozzie net up and took to the road again.

It struck me as I walked around the small town that it was the first time I’d been on the road in Indonesia by myself – Veronika, or someone appointed by her had always been there with me. It was without apprehension, indeed, with a spring in my step I left the hotel in Tapaktuan to find the treasures it held, all without asking directions or anything, and joy as I felt that undeniable rush of being on the road. The road is life, and somewhere unexplored is undeniable.

I was walking, it transpired, the wrong way. A couple of times I attempted communications but to no avail. Eventually, on the edge of town, a guy on a motorbike stopped to talk and he took me on his bike, and we went to where I thought the beach was. I was wrong, but it was still ok, because he took me to the waterfall. I was more than a little paranoid, not just because he looked a bit strange and there were two teenagers follow with machetes – in hindsight, I should have bolted like a rabbit – but it was all cool, and he took me to the waterfall. There was a pool to swim in and it was a pleasant little place indeed. Later I would find out this was not the famous waterfall, but a nice place is a nice place. I could sleep easy even knowing I hadn’t found the right place because surely I’d made it somewhere few backpackers stumble over. So there.

I got a ride back to my hotel and left with an unclear message. Would he come back to show me somewhere else? Did he expect something? Did he really have my name totally wrong? These things and more would have to wait as I walked the other way down the road in hope of some sand and waves. I did indeed find some, and a nice plate of noodles, and another sunset. I didn’t swim there and the sand was pretty rocky. A reef just off the coast meant the breakers were a way off, so it all about the pretty scenery. And noodles. It later turned out that this wasn’t the famous beach, but I cared not a lot, because I still found a beach and a waterfall in Tapaktuan, and that’s why I went there.

The next day was me back at the crazy races. One bus to Subusalam, where I caused a scene by being the only white guy to hang out in probably forever, and another to Berastagi, where the girl sitting next to me crept closer and closer and eventually used me like a blanket – slash – pillow. After the no-hugging rules of Aceh, I was happy to have someone to hold onto like that, although it was a little weird given I didn’t know even her name or what she was trying to do. I asked people about it later and they all said the same thing, that it was really odd and I had just happened to meet an overly-friendly local who took her chance to cuddle up to a good-looking white boy. Spluttering in embarrassment at the ‘good-looking’ part, all I could do was marvel. And curse my inability to not speak more than a handful of Indonesian, least of all I see if she wanted to hang out some more. She was cute, after all. Somehow innocent and yet somehow a little lascivious, that bus ride was. On top of that I got to see the scenery of the Sumatran interior from pretty much coast-to-coast in a day, the same scene I had missed out on on the way over. It was incredible, so wide and green, every hill crest bringing with it a panorama of jungle, or plantation, and rolling hills as far as the horizon. Green, life, green like I’d never seen before. The wet season was just wrapping up, so this was possibly as colourful as it was going to get. Good thing, because any greener and my eyes would have been hurting. Hurting, I tell you. The hills roll on and on into mountains, volcanoes in fact, as Aceh and North Sumatra share in the same area no less than four of the biggest in Indonesia, and this is a country with a lot of volcanoes. It was volcanoes I was heading for next, because Berastagi, where I disembarked is a painfully dirty, painfully typical Indonesian town on the road, and if it weren’t for the two giants sitting either side of said road, no-one would bother getting off the bus. Sibayak is the easier to get to of the pair, and easy is right. There’s a paved road most of the way up, a point from where all you need to do is scramble about half an hour to get to the top.

But I get ahead of myself. The bus disengorged me into the darkness, so finding my target was a little tricky. I say bus, but for the record it had been all Kijiang since Meulaboh, and the guest house I was aiming for should have been right close by. My wandering took me to some even darker streets and then I went back the way I’d come, only to find I’d almost exactly been dropped right at the gate. Duh. Inside I found a very friendly family-run establishment and a big, cheap room that could have been better sealed from the elements. Not to complain about it, for the price? Such is the tale oft-repeated in these parts. There was one other foreign couple staying there, and the guy was a nice Dutchman, with curly red hair that made him look a little like a hamburger selling clown of repute. He was up for tackling the volcano in the morning, but his girlfriend was apparently not so hot on the idea. I elected to give it a swing on my own, and got some food then headed to bed.

I didn’t get going as early as I might have liked but I still made it to the entrance and onto the road heading up, then down, then up again in good time. I ran into quite a few Indonesians coming down as I headed up, making me think I might have left my run too late, but I was OK. The sight of me coming the other way, bouncing around and singing over my headphones, must have been one to remember.

The top had a genuine caldera and lots of genuine gas vents. It all smelled like rotten egg farts. It was more than allegedly active, it was downright grumpy. All the water on the ground was green from the sulphur and the rocks around the vents were all fluorescent yellow. It looked like it had been spray painted deliberately, until you realise that no-one could possibly get there to do something so menial. I scrambled around the crater-shaped crater, totally happy it looked and smelled like a real volcano ought to, and found a nice high point to sit and eat lunch. The clouds had rolled in and obscured the view somewhat, but there was just enough room as they floated around to get a good glimpse of the valley below. It was almost disgustingly picturesque. All that was left to do was walk back down the way I’d come. A turn off at the bottom took me past a pack of stray dogs, who had colonised part of the road, and the under-construction geothermal power plant, to the hot springs. There I had a nice long soak in the hot water and made friends with the local family also taking advantage of the hot waters. Not for the first time I made some people genuinely shocked that I was still unmarried and without children at the ripe old age of twenty five. Then, all I had left to do was get the oplet back to town and lie about for a few hours, and then feed myself.

Berastagi behind me, and with no desire to hire a local guide to take me up the other volcano (dare I say, seen one active, gas spewing volcano, seen them all?) I jumped a bus heading to Medan and stayed there long enough to get a bus out of there . Bukit Lawang (“Lawang Hill” for the sticklers out there) would be the arse end of nowhere if there wasn’t an Oran Utang rehabilitation centre there. A small town on the edge of a massive national park, it won a kind of lottery when it got the nod for the primate palace, and has been a high point on the Sumatra stumble since way back. Watching the Orang Utangs, sadly endangered, is an activity both locals and visitors can enjoy with equal joy, but during the week it seems to be mostly tourists who show up to the daily feeding sessions to see the giant orange furred creatures show up to swing around and cop a free feed. The town is perched on either bank of the Bohorok River, which in 2003 flooded and wiped out 95% percent of the buildings. Caused by illegal flooding making the area unstable, it was big enough and in a notable enough area to attract international attention in the form of aid money. Locals talk about the flood without hesitation but are all equally mystified as to where all the cash went, seeing as they all had to rebuild their homes and businesses with their own hands, time and money. I later heard that locals were even charged 36 million Rupiah (almost four thousand American) for reconstructed homes that cost no more than half that to build; deaths were compensated to the tune of three million Rupiah – a slap in the face to the bereaved. But this is Indonesia, and life goes on.

Thoughts and Typos

Thursday, March 20. 2008
I noticed that the first attempt to post this got cut off; who knew Serendipity had a word limit? Let this be a lesson to us all. I've arbritrarily cut the article in half and will re-post in a matter of minutes. I'm at an internet cafe in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, and this is the worst connection in the land. Also, it'e the cheapest. Who would have thought?

Also, IE seven in on these machines. It only took Microsoft eight years to get around to implementing tabbed browsing. That speaks all for itself. There's nothing I can add to that fact to make it any funnier. Except, it doesn't really work, I haven't used a browser this buggy since Netscape was still a relevant name in software. Or early versions of Mozilla. But hey, who's counting? I've had three crashes in half an hour so far, so pray with me pilgrims, can I get a Hallelujah from the back?

Now the ladies!

Now everyone up the front!

On a more serious note, aplogies for the typos, I'm typing right into the browser here, and I'm only human. Also, the J might be dead, so someone please go and check his apartment for a bloated corpse, filled with maggots and vermin. It might have happened, really. Either way, he owes me an e-mail or something. Lots of people do, come to think of it, but I digress.

Hallelujah!

Dispatches from a South-East Asian Hellhole, part three

Monday, March 10. 2008
There I was, stoned on the beach. The music was booming, but the punters were outnumbered by ladies trying to sell body-painting and massages, and guys trying to shift fake ecstasy pills. Every turn, instead of offering a scene of unbridled decadence, was the everyday scene of someone trying to sell you something that was either temporary or fake, and usually both, for way more than it was worth.

Then there she was, sitting next me, grabbing my arm. I turned, somewhat awakened from my stupor, to see a local girl. Everything was spinning, but I didn’t recall her even then, and I’d come to the beach party alone. Who was she? What did she want? Soon enough it was clear, since it took less than two minutes from first encounter to a hand on my balls. Tiring of the party scene and the fact I had sand in my asscrack, I took this as a good a sign as any that it was time enough to be leaving. I stumbled off into the crowd, fighting off three would-be drug dealers and a face-painting, to find my shoes. They were where I’d left them earlier in the night, in such high hopes of a good time, but like everything here, the hype machine and native skill for hollowing out the middle of all things good and profitable has turned it into a husk of former glory, all while appearing completely intact.

The girl was still attached to my arm. Suspicious enough of her intentions, but out of my mind to the point where it didn’t register, I made her hold my shoes while I tried to remember where my bag was. Another loop of the beach and I remembered it was right near where my shoes had been. Back we went and then it was time to leave.

Stumbling off into the dark, she said some things to me, question like things, and it didn’t cross my mind as to why she would care where I was staying. A dirt-hole down the other end of the island, I told her. And my bike? Yes, I have a bike. How did you know? This last question was met with a confused smile. Bless her, she doesn’t understand. I groped around in the dark for a few minutes, trying the key in the ignition of every bike that looked like the same colour as mine. Eventually I was sure I had the right one, but the key didn’t work. Mystified, I looked around and she was still there. I half wondered why she was still following me, there were surely plenty of other dudes still partying down. She came over and put the key in.

Why the fuck do you have that? How the fuck did she get it? When? Jesus, I probably should have clicked then and there. We got on the bike and I drove drunkenly out onto the main road, over the dirt and sand track, swerving around palm trees. I wobbled about a kilometre down the road and she told me to stop, we’d better go to her place. Better invitations don’t come often.

Her place was a hundred metres away. In the door and she already had her clothes off, fast followed by an attempt to get mine on the floor too. Unobjecting and still with a mind full of clouds, I lay back and let her get to the heart of the matter. Drunken fumbling and necking turned into the more hardcore equivalent, and then onto even more penetrating variants on the theme; I’d go into detail but you know, I am a gentleman.

Intoxication can have a negative effect on activities of this kind and before I was ready to call it a night and leave, she was dry. There would be no fixing this, so I took the task to hand and furiously so, pulling her head and body into a more receiving position. The violence of this action no doubt took her by surprise and she accepted it with a startled yet welcoming grace, and encouraged my efforts. I re-doubled them, and soon enough the explosion came.

All over her. I won’t ever forget the surprised shock of her squeal, much like when someone cutting a citrus fruit get juice squirting into their eye. And into her eyes I came, and her nose and mouth. All down her chest, it just kept coming. She tried to push away from me but I held her with my free arm until I was down unloading. I caught a glimpse of her as I fell to the side and before my momentary unconsciousness overcame me, I saw she had her mouth tightly shut and both her eyes closed.

Into the bathroom she stumbled, blinded by my seed. I roused to the sound of the shower as she hosed it all off. I took my chance now to wipe my dick clean on her pillow and get dressed. I was halfway out the door when she comes flying, naked and wet, out of the bathroom and squealing, you give me money now! Two thousand! And to this I laughed, and gave her a plaintive, ‘no’. I saw her eyes were still half closed, and she hit the corner of the bed and nearly tripped over. One thousand, she cried as she regained her balance. No, I already paid enough, catch you later.

I slammed the door and was on my bike and up the road before I realised the sun was already up. I laughed to myself as I drove, wobbled, down the road to my hovel, finally, I win for once. I never saw her around the island again, nor would I recall her face if I did, and I didn’t even get her name.

Dispatches from a South-East Asian Hellhole, part two

Monday, March 10. 2008
The pickpocket got nothing and the bag-razor artist got more than he bargained for. Behind every set of eyes I see I know what lurks there, a crocodile’s teeth filled monster, with eyes like a demon. I keep my money and credit cards in a plastic bag, stuffed in a condom and shoved as far up my anus as I can get it. This is the only truly safe place to keep your cash and plastic, and even then I catch at least two sly-fingered bastards creeping up there each and every day. The guy who razored my backpack got an electric shock he’ll not soon forget, as he cut through one layer of fabric only to hit the fine electric mesh underneath. He squealed and ran, the damage quickly repaired with duct tape.

Before you think about buying your ticket here, with dreams in your head of dirt cheap digs, learn to sleep in the foetal position with your bags held close to your chest, wrapped around you with chains and padlocks. Even in the apparent safety of your hotel room, every hotel manager has a master key and a hidden peephole to see when you’re asleep and will not hesitate on breaking in to rifle through your things. Practice doing this on moving trains and busses too, practice doing it instinctively as you will find yourself falling asleep on moving vehicles more often than you think. Between the sleep-inducing combination of forty-degree heat, windows and no air-con, you will most likely be targeted by sleeping gas, poison needles and spiked drinks at every turn. The friendly face selling bottles of water has a special supply and an accomplice on the bus, the conductor knows which seat has the spring ready to stab you through the seat cover and every friendly stranger sitting next to you has roofies in the trail mix they will offer you en gratis. The ability to roll into a protective ball with your valuables in the middle at the first feeling of oncoming sleep is invaluable, so learn well. Credit cards that go missing will be maxed out within the hour, long before you can report it missing, and the local cops won’t speak a language you understand, and are mysteriously illiterate when it comes to your phrase book.

The upside to all this is the 200,000,000 whatevers in local currency that you have wedged into your wallet (the largest bill is a five-thousand), is equivalent to ten US dollars, and is your budget for the entire month, after the bribe to the border patrol guy is paid. This is more money than any of these locals will see in their entire life, so don’t blame them for trying to take it. Blame the system, and remember, bring lots of condoms. That fat wad makes quite an intense shape when rolled into a bundle (try spiking it into a funnel at one end, and don’t forget the lube) but an added benefit is it will help you hang on until you can find a clean enough toilet. Almost every toilet will have some variety of hepatitis or herpes on it, so hunt for the cleanest looking ones and bring plenty of chemical disinfectant.

The locals take particular pleasure in making you ill; this is because they are pissed off at the size of your bankroll. While the sage advice to not eat anything at all is practical only for stopovers, your digestive system will soon adapt to the diet of rancid meat and chillies that you will be served on a daily basis. No matter what you order, the smiling face will shout to the cook, “time to clean out the rat traps!” and you must steel yourself for the coming ordeal. The amount of chilli powder in your food will be enough to knock off a horse, so eat only what you need to stay alive. You will then have just enough time to throw a million this-or-that’s at the owner (expect no change, ever) and get to a toilet as fast as you can. The food-to-toilet time gradually increases, to the point where you have such control over your sphincter that it’s like a tap. After the liquid has finished rushing from your colon, use more of the local currency to wipe (it’s cheaper than toilet paper, so don’t worry) but try not to let the locals see this part. The royal face on the note is particularly important to their native religion and you can be executed on the spot for even looking at it without a look of reverence on your face. So be careful about that.

Dispatches from a South-East Asian Hellhole, part one

Monday, March 10. 2008
You can’t trust these people. Every turn you are met with smiling people, trusting greetings and genuine faces; they genuinely want all your money, they all trust that you are stupid and they smile like Satan himself, knives hidden behind their backs.

Natural beauty and crippling social problems, a unique mix of heaven and hell awaits the hardy soul who would venture this way. It’s not at all like they will tell you back home, survivors either convince themselves that it was meant to be like that and they had a great time or they lie to protect their ego, before vowing never to go there again and heading back into their straight life without ever wanting to emerge again. I alone have the fortitude to let you know how it really is out here, I alone have the courage, the strength, the testicles to tell you the unadulterated truth. Anonymously in the internet I shall let it all hang out with no shame whatsoever.

The only souls in this wasteland of human horrors you can really trust are your fellow travellers – and even then you need a vetting process to weed out the morally crippled and socially corrupt ones. Not that either of these traits is all that negative, in fact I recommend growing a few calluses on your soul to get you looking a little like that, just so it all doesn’t hurt as much at the end of the day. No, those types often thrive all too well here, it’s just that they are equally as likely to steal the contents of your wallet as the natives.

So when you meet one in a bar or train station, in a guest house or on a bus, you need to check him out. The simple one is to get out your mouse-trap loaded fake wallet (carried in your pocket most times to foil and punish would be pickpockets) and “accidentally” leave it on your seat as you go to the toilet, or to the bar, or to get some water – if it is returned to you intact, then ok, the guy might be the type. Kerouac Cat was just this type. I got off the bus on the pretext of getting a bottle of water and slyly left it there on my seat and he had it in his hands when I got back. He returned it with a jaunty warning about less-than-trustworthy folk being around. Later on he confessed he noticed I hadn’t returned with any water, and even later on I noticed he’d disarmed the mousetrap and removed the Monopoly money I had in there. Crafty little bastard.

KC is kindly allowing me to publish these dispatches to the world on the “internet”. I thank him here for this chance, and hope that I encourage others to follow in my, and his, footsteps. Keep an eye out for more soon.

Singapore

Tuesday, February 26. 2008
Somewhere in the beginning of the haze that was 2007, the last chapter of the last story got lost in the fog. Somewhere in the haze that was leaving Indonesia, it appeared in the distance; ghosts of the past came home and ghosts of the future appeared in the edges of vision. Singapore, the Lion City, still has to tell its story, and yet still has stories to tell…

The place I’d gotten on the ferry might have been different, but on the Singapore side everything was the same as I remembered. Getting off, not a single taxi driver had breached security to come and hassle me, everything was clean and orderly. An easy walk to customs and an overly friendly dude behind a desk, the same way out and right through Harbourfront Shopping Centre and into the MRT station. A wave of the MRT card over the scanner and I was in; last time things weren’t so simple. I hadn’t had an ATM card and the money changer had been closed, and an impassioned appeal to the man working at the station had yielded no charity, but he did tell me to try the shop around the corner. I did, and the Indian man there generously changed my cash into Singapore dollars. I’d made it to Little India and spent about twenty minutes stumbling in the rain, looking for the hostel, before finding it and a girl out the front had told me the place was closed. She was joking, taking advantage of my unhappy visage and obvious labours, and sucked me in totally.

This time around, I strolled effortlessly from station to reception and enquired as the availability of beds, forgoing the urge to greet the man sitting behind it with a hearty “remember me?” and threw my bags down before venturing over the road to the Tekka Centre to get some food. Food, food and Singapore go hand in hand. Memories of those last days on the road came back, the act of covering familiar travelled territory a powerful tool to trigger these things. I remembered laksa that burned with chillies and soothed at the same time with coconut milk, I remembered icy deserts and fried noodles. All these things and more came back like old friends as I stepped into the hawker stalls, and late as it was they were still going strong. Most were closed but the row of Muslim food stalls across the back stay with it all night. Over chendol and noodles, I looked around and those days, just over a year before, came back. The Englishman I’d hung out with, and her. There’s two “her”s in Singapore for me, and neither of them are around anymore. Neither write back and neither, I imagine, want much to do with me now. That’s ok, kind of, but like all stories of the heart, the truth is less evident than anyone will ever admit.

She took me here the day after, on our only day together, to buy me lunch. She told me she was falling in love, and how happy she was, even though we knew the timer was well and truly clicking. That’s how she was, that’s just how she was, a passionate and strong girl in a space that was too small for her. And she’d seen something worth reaching for and grabbing, and she did just that.

I had fried rice but never finished it. I couldn’t eat.


I went back to the hostel after taking a walk around Little India. The underbelly of Singapore, the improbable underbelly it has to have, is on full display here. The alleyways behind Desker Road house the city’s red light district and when I’d heard about it the first time around, I couldn’t believe it. Singapore is so clean, so socially ordered, so puritanical and so very, very uptight – there was no way it was any more than an exaggeration or a mistake. But it had been there, red lights in doorways housing sultry and professional looking working women, street walking lady boys, and girls in doorways. I walked past, red faced at the audacity of it all. It became part of the tapestry I had in my mind about what life in the city was like, a small but important corner that colours the rest, and I had to make sure it was still there. The government has such a grip over civic life that they could surely erase it from the cityscape as easily as they had moved it on from Bugis Street years ago, and I was happy to see that things had not changed. Satisfied and tired, I went back.

Around the table in the common room was a German guy and a Japanese dude. Always present in the house are the Philippine girls, and one was just coming in, bags in hand, greeting the staff with enough familiarity to make me think she was coming back from one of many visa runs over to Johor Baru. I let these girls be, remembering it had taken a few days for them to talk to me, and had a long chat to the German guy. The Japanese dude was silent and shy, and seemed pretty boring, so I let him be. Things change, but they stay the same, and then some.

At night we’d be together, during the day we’d be together, all year we were together. The start was cloudy, different targets and a lack of definite words had conspired to confuse things just enough to nearly end it, but it had stayed good and it stayed fun. Always there when the other called, always cute, she was. So small, but with the attitude of a giant. She had come to study in Australia from Singapore and took with her the baggage of all Singaporeans, a sense of civic duty mixed with the complex family patterns of the Chinese living at the end of the Malay Peninsula. Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, all mixed together to create a blend of obedience and expectation – a pressure not just from teachers and the self, but from the endless line of ancestry looking over their shoulders. It was a good year.

On the MRT to Orchard station the next day I thought I saw her. Someone who looked just enough like her to make me look twice, and stumble over myself. No way would that happen, not there, not like that. It wasn’t her, but it made me think about however ready I might have thought I could be to ever see her again, I would never be.

I went to the Qantas office to refund the ticket they made me buy to get out of the country. All it cost was 75 Singapore Dollars. What a load of crap. I could do nothing about it, so I took it, and left. Walking down the length of Orchard Road to Raffles Hotel, and onto the Padang and the collection of colonial buildings around it, and then to Chinatown to eat, and then tired already back to the hostel. I’d seen it all before and besides, the battery was dying in my camera.

Her ghost is still in there. It never ended well, setting a pattern for bad endings that would follow me a long while after. You can run but you can’t hide. I never spent so much as a second of time in Singapore with her, but the place and my memories are so strongly linked, she might as well have been with me the whole first time. I hadn’t intended to go there that first trip, but lack of options to get home had forced my hand. I’d enjoyed it, no doubt, but she was on my mind. That girl, I still remember her warmth and her voice and her love… I sat around the hostel, a million miles from where I should have been, when the girl who had come in the night before started talking to me.

You look boring. What? I reached and pulled myself into the moment. I think you mean, you look bored. It’s a little different. And then we got to talking. She wasn’t Philipino, but Indonesian, Javanese to be precise, and she was a traveller like me, transiting for a few days on the way to somewhere cheaper and more exotic. She usually came via Singapore and stayed at this hostel. I’d just come through Sumatra so we had notes to compare. She wasn’t all that good looking but she laughed when I made a joke, good or bad, and it was kind of cute. She had a hard edge to her, I could tell she’d been through some things in her time. Turns out I was right, like I always am right. She’d gotten divorced and had a kid, not yet two years old. I could see there was still some pain there, but still she was friendly. We went to eat that night, at a place that did African food. It was terrible, the worst thing on the menu in the whole city, no doubt. I had some chendol after and it was even worse, some Indian version with spices and crap in it, it was truly horrific. I didn’t realise until days later, but we stayed up talking past two am.

I’d stayed up drinking with Mat until about three, over at the all-night eating places in Little India, after a brief tour of the red light sights. Mat had no trouble going up to the “ladies” and asking them what they offered. Seems fifty Singapore will get you off – like the rest of things in town, butterflies of the night were more expensive in the Lion City. Mat never realised but I was timing it so that I would get home about the same time she would be coming in and it couldn’t have worked out better – she saw me and told me to wait upstairs. She took a single room for the night and we used the rest of the night like we were supposed to. That would be our only night together, since her visa was out and was going to have to make the run the following evening and I’d be gone by the time she got back. So it was what it was and we took our chance. She had a kid back in Manilla and I’d never been with someone who’s given birth. Years before I had the experience likened to ‘space-walking’ and that slipped into my mind as it slipped in. Not the best place for my mind to be, but quickly I was back. And yeah, it was like walking in space.

The next day she took me to lunch, and we stuck together the rest of the time, making the most of it. I can still see the look on her face as she looked at me through the taxi window, and the feeling of sinking as I walked back up the stairs. One night? Some kind of cruel joke is how it felt, but we shouldn’t question to far these things.

The next day I woke up and around about midday went out walking. I ended up walking all the way to Sentosa Island, a place I’ll say little about, since I despise it such. It’s Singapore divided by Disneyland, and is the opposite end of the scale to Desker Road. The Yin and Yang of life in such a city, opposite ends that both colour the whole picture. Plastic fantastic beaches? No thanks. I decided there and then I needed to leave Singapore. It was all getting to me. It was hot, expensive, and there were other places to be. I took the MRT back and flopped on the table in the common room. She was there, as always – for whatever reason she was spending these three days in town but didn’t seem to leave the hostel. Strange things, but not everyone goes there for the same reasons me. This time I took her to get food and it was much better. The way she looked at me over my desert told me I might not get away from her as just friends.

I took her virginity the last night she was in Melbourne. The next day she’d get on the shuttle bus to the airport and leave me for the summer. All year it had been something of an issue between us, what with me being a hormone charged teenager wanting his, wanting her, wanting it so badly, and with her and her quasi-religious leanings – I never understood fully her point of view, but most nights I got her naked and “serviced” her, and then I’d service myself. This was as close as we would get, as close as she’d let me get, and I never forced the issue. But I can only say It was the sense of occasion that led her to let me take her that last night. Anyone who has deflowered a girl knows it’s never the best, but somehow the “sacredness” of it all makes up for it. All I know is I never saw sheets that red, or ever felt that close to someone, or ever hurt so bad the next day when she left. Later, I neglected to hide the ruined sheets and when my sister helped me pack my stuff for the summer, she stumbled upon it and just as quickly, hid it again.

Her father died on New Year’s Eve. I still have the e-mail, she told me she wouldn’t be the same again and she wanted to end it. I was spending the summer chasing my tail, spinning around and going crazy, the only thing I had to look forward to were the nightly chats on ICQ. I wanted none of that kind of talk and told her everything I could to change her mind, and when she came back early to re-sit a couple of exams (the first but not the last time I would be responsible for a girl’s lack of academic fulfilment) I took the initiative and moved into Tommy G’s place in Richmond, so I could go and hold her. I did this, and she was still the same girl, and we talked and talked and I held her all night and it was OK then, but it was never the same.


I was leaving the next day and so was she. Three am rolled around and I made noises about going to bed. She said yeah, it was time to sleep. At the top of the stairs I gave her a hug, and she kissed me. I kissed her back. From there it was a few metres to her room. We had to move the bed so it wouldn’t bang on the wall so loudly. I left when she had to go to the airport, at about five thirty, and got a few hours in my own bed. She was long gone when I got up to eat breakfast, and a few raised eyebrows from the other people in the dorm room were all that was left of it. To tell the truth, it was fucking amazing – but this isn’t that kind of place, we don’t work blue around here. At least, not that blue. She wasn’t that good looking and still had ‘mummy tummy’ but attitude is all the more important, and the moment is telling. I know so little about some things, and ever more do I come across things that defy my use of vocabulary and words in general. Let’s let this be one of those times.

I never saw her after that, just as I never saw either of the other girls who still follow me around Singapore. I half expected one to walk into the hostel common room and I know the other is hiding just behind a corner – and I’m sure they are both happy with someone else. This only makes me feel a little better. If I’d still been with either of them, my life would be very, very different – and I couldn’t swap the last few years for anything like that. Plus, I know I would have gotten bored eventually. I’m a prick like that, and I did a lot of growing up in the meantime, but I know there’s still a lot to go.

Eventually I became cold to her and she left me. I was more hurt because of the pain I caused her, more than any heartbreak I might have felt. A week or so later she showed up at my door and we had sex again, but nothing came of it, and in a month I kept seeing her with a friend of mine. Paranoia set in. There’s scars on my arm that testify to the punishment I endured in this time, and marks that tell you just how little sleep I was getting. Eventually I made her tell me what was going on and I confronted him. His line was the immortal, “I never thought we were friends in the first place”. I should have destroyed him, but I had a steady hand on my arm. Instead I got drunk and spewed all night. I never spoke to either of them again.

My pelvic bone hurt as I took the local bus 170 to the border and over to Johor Baru. Damn, she was rough, but wasn’t it better that way? I just know I’ll find myself back in Singapore in times to come, and then there’ll be three girls faces hiding in the crowds.

Malaysia

Tuesday, February 26. 2008
Why Malaysia? It was the cheapest ticket I could get out of Melbourne. Why leave? I was at a real dead end and I had the chance. Why didn’t I get around to telling people until a week before I left? Because it went, deal with Christmas and the inevitable ‘what are you doing with your life’ speech from my parents, then deal with new years, an event detailed on these very same hallowed pages, chronicled for all to read. Then there was dealing with the wash up, and then I figured I better tell people I wouldn’t be there much longer. This gave me about a week to do, and inevitably, people were shocked, surprised and upset, but this soon gave way under the all-conquering spell of beer to acceptance and a form of understanding. Or so I like to think, because if it was any different and the paranoid voices are right – nobody, not even myself, was satisfied with the way it all transpired. Yeah. What a way to get back on the road, a road long thought of, dreamed about, followed many times in daydreams and internal discussions – with the pain of real separation anxiety weighing down every step more than any backpack ever could. This sucks, I thought, as I lined up at the Jetstar counter at Tullamarine. What the fuck, I mumbled, as the lady told me the airline required a return ticket before they would let me on. The other reason Malaysia had been such a tempting choice was that they didn’t need to see this kind of proof I’d be leaving their shores, so imagine my reaction at this news. I went to the sales desk and they sold me a fully-refundable ticket out of Singapore (apparently they didn’t actually care about how I’d be leaving Malaysia at all, just that I was leaving somewhere) and I made it on time.

A two hour delay in Sydney was spent reading at the duty free bookshop and feeding my last Aussie coins into a vending machine. Looking at the people waiting patiently at the gate, there were mostly touristy looking white folk and better off looking Chinese Malaysian types, and for the most part they seemed to be on one end or another of a holiday in the sun. There was one other who set off the backpacker type radar, because I’d seen him checking in with a huge pack, and he had the slacker look about him, hair just long and blonde enough to assume he’d spent a year picking fruit and not cutting it, the look topped off with board shorts. I felt like talking to no-one and every second felt like an eternity, waiting to leave the country and get on with it. Get on with it! And eventually we were hoarded onto the plane and I sat and waited. So long, all that.

The airport at the other end was nice. Very nice, actually. But as third-world as a country might get at the edges, governments do love to make the airport look as shiny as possible, so it’s never an indication of what lies beyond. Check out a bus station, that will teach you a real lesson about what goes on. My information told me that the cheapest beds in Kuala Lumpur were in Chinatown and tended to fill up pretty fast, so I turned down the cheaper option of a bus for the overpriced express train and navigated my way from KL Central to Pasar Seni and then I was on my own on the wild streets of Asia again. It felt somewhere between the slum of Jakarta and the clean of Singapore – navigable, but watch your step and the traffic is a bitch – but you don’t need that local-only sixth sense to get around, while the traffic lights seemed to be mere suggestions (when they were working). I found one backpacker place and was told the dorm was full, but they also ran another place nearby, and to try there. I did, after finding several whore-filled side streets first, and took the second last bed. Satisfied, I dumped the bag and got some food. Down home and dirty, the bed cost a few dollars and the noodles half that again, and the ice tea had lime in it. Things could have been worse, I told myself. The Chinatown market was in full swing, but it petered out after a few streets, reflecting the more puritanical outlook on life in Malaysia and the relatively small population of the city – a far cry from the millions crowding Asia’s other capitals and crowded metropolises, even dwarfed by Australia’s big cities, KL is home to a mere 1.2 million souls, and most of them are doing OK. Sure, they’re not going to be buying Porches any time soon, but they’re a good long way from the gutters.

I was tired, or at least, not in the mood to fight off offers of foot massages and beer, so back to the dorm room. It was a windowless box with four double bunks in it and the bedding was minimal (I had to actually ask for a sheet to sleep under) but it was temporary home, road bed, and the same thing to seven other souls. A Japanese guy, a Taiwanese guy, and Aussie with the mother of all hard-luck stories, and a collection of bags that indicated occupation, even if the owners weren’t there at the time. I was listening to the hard-luck story – he’d lost his passport and credit card in China and somehow ended up in visa-limbo between China and Vietnam, and missed his flight home as a consequence. Already out of pocket for a temporary passport and a lost flight and with no credit card to pay for it, he’d had to ask his dad for money to get home. Which is funny if you’re twenty, not so funny if you’re thirty five and probably should have been more careful. The real money shot was that his dad hadn’t shelled out for the optional extra of food on the flight, and he barely had enough cash to get to the airport the next day, meaning a few hungry days ahead. And during this story, who might walk in but the backpacker type from the airport in Sydney. Small world, no? His name was Egon (“egg-on”) and he was Estonian. Having myself been a veteran of Estonia, we had some common ground from the start. Impressed that I had not only been there but done more than just gotten trashed in Tallinn (the general activity of visitors to Estonia) I enamoured myself to him right away. Not that I needed to, because a friendlier, more open minded and easy going young man you would have to travel a long way to meet. The smile on his face was constant and genuine, the interest he showed was real and his overall lust for life as fiery as I’ve seen on anyone. He’d just finished eleven months on a working holiday in Australia, having worked in offices and farms, mostly in the north, and four-wheel-drived his way around the rest. I’d made my first road-friend for the year and we’d eventually stick together for a week and a half. He had about a month to get up to Bangkok and so had to hustle through Malaysia, which suited me just fine. I would be back in KL again at some point so if I missed anything this time, there would be time again later.

The next morning another part of the dorm family came clear, and it was the rarest of creatures. A female. Not that you never get to share a dorm with girls, it’s mostly boys, and on the backpacker trail it’s not too long before the single girls start sleeping in double rooms with any of their pick of the guys going their way, making it all the rarer again to see a single girl show up. Her name was Yanti and while she was German, she was half Indonesian, giving her a look that might have made her at least part-local anywhere from the middle east all the way to the Pacific Islands. She was new on the road too, having done a month in India before doing some of Thailand and south into Malaysia, with almost a year ahead of her. India is a destination all of its own, and the feelings she described were things I’ve heard before. A month there just isn’t long enough, and life there is so real, close to the ground, spiritual; touristy decadent Thailand must have felt absurdly cheap after that. I could only take her word for it, and she became the third piece of the puzzle as she spent the day with Egon and I seeing sights and generally wandering around the city.

KL is not designed for pedestrians. Getting around, thanks to the light rail slash subway lines and the ever-friendly monorail, is easy enough, but moving on foot is an activity not for the clumsy of foot. While easier than Jakarta (because there’s actually a footpath) it’s not like taking a quiet stroll around. The first place was to the Petronas Towers, my love of phallic buildings winning out, but not to go up and see the view but to try and get tickets to go up and see the view. They only hand out so many a day, you see, and the supply lasts until about midday. We got there at about midday and took the last three tickets. Quite lucky. We’d have to return at 6.15 to take our turn, but I wasn’t going to complain. We mostly wandered after that with little idea of where to go, just a general idea, and when the rain came we took shelter in a local café and had some ice tea.

Even when it’s rainy season in Malaysia, it’s still hot and steamy. Walking about in this is only a fun sounding idea when you’re shivering through winter somewhere, because the reality is that you feel wet and clingy all the time and there’s no escape, except an air-conditioned building. The tourist centre was just that and we hung around there much longer than we really needed to, because it was cool in there. But eventually we got hungry and left in search of food.

We found a local café sort of deal, a self serve exercise staffed by locals who didn’t speak out language but helped as much as they could. It was all good. Rice, various stir fried and curried bits and pieces, all unknown, all spicy as hell, all cheap and all good.

A visit to the mosque later and it was time to lie down for a while. Yanti had some friends staying somewhere else and had put together a plan to go out that night (apparently it was Friday) and we were invited. It didn’t take long to say yes. So a lie down and a trip to the shop to get booze later and we were on our way to look for where they were. This took longer than planned because they couldn’t give directions and we couldn’t follow them. We did get there, but only after a few frayed nerves and Egon got lost on his own (and that’s not the last time that will happen) – and so started the drinking. We had to catch up and they wanted to leave, giving us little time to do what we needed. Drinking games filled the void and soon enough we were gone. KL’s club scene is not impressive, or even on my list of things to do before I die, but it’s there and it was a good night, not so much for the music (commercial stuff, but not too commercial) but the company. Yanti’s friends were cool, Egon was cool, and Yanti was cool. Good vibes all around, and these two Singaporean girls were into all of us and so it went, into the early hours, to some beers back at the guest house, followed by getting told off for being noisy, and some people who weren’t staying there staying there. A good night, even if it was off the schedule and budget.

The next morning I talked Egon into going to Cameron Highlands, if he was going to leave, because that’s where I was going. Hungover we tackled the bus station, a raucous mess of people and offices that make no sense and is especially hard to deal with when hungover and hungry. But we got tickets and were on our way out, almost as soon as we had gotten there.

The bus left late, confirming every stereotype about the Malaysian sense of time. We had neglected to eat before leaving and had to make do with junk food and bottles of tea until we got where we were going. This wouldn’t have been so bad, if it was a short trip, but it’s close to four and a half hours up to the town of Tanah Ratah. The whole area was a hill station in colonial times, somewhere the gentry could go to escape the heat of the cities and towns and supposedly retains some of this heritage. It was indeed cooler up there than down in KL, but it looks like any other little Chinese built community, all functional concrete. Careful observation shows a few rows of buildings with some character, but for the most part the atmosphere isn’t anything special.

Off the bus and the touts were out for our business, but they weren’t pushy or gouging, it was honestly quite friendly, and as cheap as advertised, plus they gave us a lift to the guest house. Not that it’s a long way from the main road, but it’s the thought that counts. Eight Ringgit later (that’s less than three Aussie dollars for all the bean counters out there) Egon and I had dorm beds in the attic of one suspiciously decrepit building, but all that mattered was we could now go and get some food.

The area is mostly agricultural, all sorts of produce grows up there, as well as the local specialties, tea and strawberries. These would be two of my favourite things in the world, so picture me in all that, and throw in some pretty mean jungle trekking and it’s getting a lot like Christmas. The guest houses in the area have pretty cheap rooms and beds but clean up on selling tours, because the public transport in the area is limited at best and mostly non-existent. This is how they can get people signed up to their tours, prices starting at twenty and getting as high as eighty Ringgit, and make those ends meet. Around the table in the attached bar that night we heard that it was easily possible to get to the trail heads, farms and plantations either on the public bus (make sure you get there on time) or by hitching. So in the morning we were up nice and early and got the rattling local bus up to the start of one trail and up we went. It might be cooler up there but still it’s humid and the trail is marked, but easy to follow it’s ain’t. It’s rough going, seriously tough work needed, and there’s plenty to trip you and plenty of puddles to land in.

It took about two hours of what felt like real jungle going. There was barely ever a view out of there, so dense is the jungle, and the trail becomes little more than the gaps in the trees. If it hadn’t been marked, there would have been trouble. But emerge at the top we did, shoes covered in mud and sweaty as all heck – to a weather station and a road. There were tour groups in busses up there, checking the view. We could but laugh at them, because we were the real deal and we had earned that view. All that was left was to walk down and as unappealing as that sounded, it turned out to be ok, because the views across the tea plantations were absolutely amazing. Green rolling hills cris-crossed with the little pathways between them, stretching off into the infinite green and then into the infinite blue of the sky.

We walked down the road for about an hour, waving to the occasional worker lazing about. Every corner presented either a new panorama or a wall of rock and jungle. The heat was there but not the humidity, so there was no struggle with the weather. Neither did we see any cars, so talk of hitching a ride was theoretical at best. Eventually a car did come up behind us and Egon stuck out his hand and behold, we were off. Trying not to get their nice clean car dirty with our mud encrusted shoes, our benefactors were headed in the same direction, at least as far as the main road, where doubtless we would encounter a lot more traffic. At the bottom there was a bunch of shops, stalls, farms and other businesses. Every second vehicle seemed to be a tour bus, some carrying people staying at the same guest house as us. How very backpacker of them, making their way around the sights in air conditioned comfort. It must have been such a struggle.

We saw the butterfly farm, a meshed-in hothouse full of flowers and butterflies, and past that an array of possibly local insect and lizard life. It wasn’t quite worth the price of admission, but seeing as we’d seen no wildlife in the actual jungle, it rounded out the excursion nicely. Getting a ride back to Tanah Ratah was not as easy as first thought, every car was either full or a chartered tour bus full of lazy bitches, or just driven by dicks who had no heart. It seemed like longer, but eventually we got picked up by a couple from Singapore after about ten minutes. They were going our way and as an added bonus, went via the local Chinese temple, then dropped us in town. I hope they weren’t too pissed when they saw the mess we made of their back seat.

The rest of the afternoon was a bit of a mess. As soon as we got into a restaurant it started raining – and this was some real rain, like from the dawn of time. A sheet of water fell from the sky. Being out in the jungle would have been suicidal at that point, it was hard enough going with the puddles from yesterday’s rain still on the ground. Imagine what it would be like in the monsoonal rains? Forget about it. The rain also scarpered plans to hitch down the road to a tea plantation, where a lazy afternoon of learning about tea and drinking tea would have occurred, that and the local bus that was supposed to leave at three o’clock was cancelled, meaning the next one would get us there in time to see it close for the day. Knowing when to walk away, we did, retreating to the guest house.

Nothing was achieved after that, until the evening when we hit the attached bar and sat around trading stories and talking regulation backpacker shit with everyone else. I felt for the first time the insanity of the whole deal, deep in conversation with a Scottish girl, a South African guy, a Danish guy and Egon – I came to Malaysia for this? Where might the locals be? It’s the epidemic sweeping all backpacking spots, and I know as well as anyone that the only locals to be found are the ones working there. In Europe, this hadn’t been such a big deal, seeing as hanging with Europeans in Europe is totally acceptable in my controlled world, but years of dealing with them in Japan has given me a dim view of how most white folk – especially short term visitors and mature-age entry residents – look at Asia. I make no bones about the fact I have looked deep into the dragon and know how the beast works, I have a handle on the epic story of China, I even can claim to be a student of Islam to a degree. All this is good in theory, but even the most well intentioned left leaning types can come to Asia and become mini-colonialists. The next time I hear a six foot Scandinavian wax lyrical about the toilets, that day I become a murderer.

But the inherent hypocrisy in going to foreign lands and interacting minimally with the natives is, and I accept this one hundred percent, almost always unavoidable. I’m not going to move to Malaysia, and even if I did, learning Malay would be unfortunately low on my list of priorities. Thus the language barrier remains. A handful of phrases will get you a long way as a traveller, this is true, but you’ll never get down and dirty with the locals because you know how to ask where the toilet might be, or can order food for all and sundry at a restaurant. Instead, getting a glimpse at the soul of a country is best attempted by seeing as much of it as possible, chatting to those you meet who might have some language in common, hitting the museums, art galleries, trying the food, learning the history, learning how to pronounce the names of places properly – anything you can think to add to the list, do it, just do it. Not on the list is playing drinking games and trying desperately to hit on the Swedish girl sitting next to you.

I’m not belittling the chance to talk to someone from the other side of the world about their life and story, about where they are from, because that’s exactly what comes of these times in the evening. It’s just a side product of the whole deal and shouldn’t be treated as the main event and all too sadly, people end up doing just this. I meet way too many people who have come through Thailand and experience a totally different Thailand to what the locals do. Yes, they eat the same food and could go hang on a beach if they wanted to. But almost no locals participate in the diving industry, and every second motherfucker coming from Thailand seems to have done nothing else up there. Then they whinge about how crowded it is and how they don’t like the food. Give me a break.

Am I sounding bitter? I shouldn’t, because after the festivities were over I went to bed and no-one slept with any of the Swedish girls. I think I might be the winner in that scenario, what do you reckon?
Penang is really a general name for a handful of places. The town of Butterworth is on the mainland and across from there is Pulau Pinang, a sizeable island where the main settlement is called Georgetown. I think Butterworth and Georgetown are simply the best sounding colonial names ever, but prove pretty damn difficult for the natives to pronounce properly, so the whole area gets labelled ‘Penang’, for simplicity. Everyone can say it, everyone knows what you’re talking about, everyone is happy with the situation. It does mean the more brainless of the tourists get confused as to exactly what it all means – but fuck them, they probably have a hotel room with air conditioning.

Getting there was a chore in itself. Egon and I woke up and packed plenty early, got some breakfast and rocked around to the bust station right on nine am, only to be told that the bus had inexplicably left already. What the fuck? This is Malaysia, nothing leaves on time in Malaysia! But short of getting angry, the lady called the driver on his mobile and told us to get a taxi to the town up the road where it would wait for us. So we ran to the road and behold, a taxi waiting for us. We high-tailed it up the road and there was no bus to be seen, we got all through town and still no bus. We turned and went back a little, no bus. On the edge of giving up, the bus came around the corner. Somehow we had beaten it there, so who knows how this shit works? We get on and the driver isn’t even pissed at us. We paid the taxi an extra dollar for his work and we were on our way, and just as well, the next bus is at five pm and would land us there way too late to get a cheap bed.

This was all well and good, us feeling bad for having delayed the bus somewhat, until we stopped at the bus station in Ipoh and the driver took a half hour toilet break. Clearly, running to a schedule wasn’t something he was getting a bonus for that day. We got to the bus station in Georgetown in good time in the end, the roads in Malaysia are great and traffic is hardly a problem. None of the cities are particularly massive and despite the cheap costs of life there, the country seems prosperous. No doubt the oil production helps.

Anyway, we split a taxi from the station into Chinatown with a British couple and found Love Lane, where we had heard there was quality accommodation options, and that the street was quieter than the main thoroughfare where the majority of sleeping options were. One place looked inviting and we stepped in to be greeted by an old guy with long grey hair. Do you have any beds for tonight? Yes, best in town! My place is the best, you go anywhere else and check, you always come back here. Sounds good, how much? You backpackers, always want cheaper! Is good price, why you always argue about price! You come in, I show you room, best in town!

Meet Jimmy. Jimmy knows everything and takes no bullshit. He knows his market and runs a tight place. He has the attitude to match. I liked him immediately. And for the emaciated sum of eight Ringgit a night, the deal was unbeatable. And he wasn’t just making it up, his place was spotless and had atmosphere. And on top of this, Jimmy was a travelling man himself, having come from Taiwan, and had been everywhere in the area. He knew how to get there, what things cost, where to stay, all the guest house owners worth knowing, what to see, and a bit more besides. This sort of inside information is invaluable in Asia, where people make a good living leading kind-hearted hippy travelling folk astray. Having a guy like Jimmy on your side is a weapon not to be underestimated, so the attitude is worth putting up with.

Jimmy also has friends all over town, and enemies too. If you want food, he knows where to go, heck, they’ll even bring it to you so you can chow down right there on Jimmy’s front porch. Renting a motorbike? Jimmy knows a reliable guy, his bikes won’t break down (human error not withstanding) and so it goes, just don’t tell him you’re going somewhere he doesn’t approve of, or you cop an earful.

The rest of the day we just walked around the streets of Georgetown, checking out the remaining examples of colonial architecture and digging the street scene. We ventured upon a Chinese temple and understood nearly nothing of what we were looking at, until a Japanese tour group came along and I followed surreptitiously, translating to Egon under my breath. Scamming a free half-tour, I love it.

Back in Cameron Highlands we’d met around the campfire a Danish guy named Mathius, your typical six foot plus Viking type, who had a pretty decent sob story himself. He and his girlfriend had both caught Dengue fever and had spent the last three weeks lying in bed in a KL hotel, feverish and with a headache, wishing they were anywhere else. They had just felt well enough to get out of there and up to the highlands, where he felt good but she’d taken ill again. So he was trapped wherever she was, and not exactly interested in hiking through a jungle (although personally, I couldn’t conceive of a better idea to re-create a genuine colonial experience than to stumble blindly through a primeval jungle while dying of breakbone fever) so he was content to hang out at the guest house and meet people. I took an instant shine to the guy, and everyone likes Egon, what with his raffish smile and dentist ad good looks plus Estonian exoticness. So it was with great pleasure that we ran into him again in Georgetown, this time with a healthy looking girlfriend, Julia, in tow. We conspired to rent motorbikes together the next day and set up a time, and then went for a few beers. Nightlife in Malaysia is a bit of a dead end, full stop. Penang Island is no exception, the handful of places running the drinking businesses doing it without much style and so much tax on alcohol as to make you wonder why you came. But hey, it was there to be sampled and so we did, stepping along Chulia street and around her army of lady-boy hookers to get to the places Jimmy told us to go – and were not blown away by the result. If it’s a laid back evening you’re looking for, then sure, but a little action goes a long way.

The next day we ponied up to rent bikes and one Victorian learner’s permit later, I was off. Legally it doesn’t let me drive fuck all in Australia, and not without the company of a fully licensed driver in shotgun – and I’m sure it doesn’t let me do anything in Malaysia either, but it looked official and that’s all that mattered. That I never rode a manual bike before, also irrelevant. I had experience on automatic farm bikes and four-wheelers in rural settings, but in traffic in town, nope. Quick to learn and eager to drive, we all set off toward the petrol station. The crew at this point was myself, Egon, Mathius and Julia on one bike, and an Indian guy we’d met the day before. The ride to the petrol station was an event in itself, what with me not knowing how to shift out of neutral and Egon managing to fuck up braking to the point of crashing into some dude parked at the side of the road – we were on our way. No-one knew how to fill them up, either, so as we poked and prodded and tried to get into the tanks, a line slowly grew behind us and the attendant looked less happy every passing minute. You’ll be happy to hear that we figured it out and that it was also dead cheap, but we did not feel like masters of the road.

Back at Jimmy’s to get Egon’s hand cleaned up (superficial scrapes and cuts, nothing needing serious medical attention) and directions out of town, and then we were rolling. Once I figured the gears out, it turns out to be a hell of a lot like riding a push bike, just heavier and capable of doing a hundred k’s an hour. The dynamic was essentially the same, so I took to it without too much trouble. Then it was a matter of figuring out the ideal speeds for turning, and then getting a taste for local traffic conditions (not as hairy as Jakarta or KL and not the infamous Taipei Rally, but still Asian) and learning to use the invisible third lane (you know, the one in between the two existing lanes that the locals use at any time necessary with scant application or “rules” or “laws”) and I was flying. Really, I shouldn’t be allowed on the road, but I’m damn glad I got there. Where had this been all my life? Between digging the experience of hurling my bicycle around suburban Tokyo all those years and hanging on for dear life while the J attempts to win the Rally, I might have put two and two together, but no, it was meant to be here and now, and I might just be hooked on this.

The destination, it was widely agreed, mattered little. Riding was so much fun, especially once we hit the back of the island and it turned into a green tunnel into the mountain, with all the twists and turns you can eat. We stopped off in all the small towns and at the fruit farm to sample the local produce, and took some turn offs to see it we could find some beaches. We failed to do so, but managed to lose Egon somewhere. It’s still a mystery as to what exactly happened – we waited around for a while but he never showed, so we resolved to keep going around the island and when we arrived back at Jimmy’s after negotiating Georgetown traffic successfully, there he was, wondering where the fuck we had been.

We heard stories of beaches and the like from others that night, but the real thrill of Penang was the riding. We sat that night in a café on Chulia street and waxed lyrical about it and all agreed on this fact. Joining us were a Scottish girl from Cameron Highlands and two people she knew from a local university, a French girl and a Thai girl. The conversation was good, except for some class-A bullshit from the Scot (bile on this topic I’ll not put in here, it’s best not worrying about, but suffice is to say if you’re going to lecture us on the topic of how important it is to ‘learn the lingo’ of a country, make sure you know how to pronounce the names of places properly – while it’s not her fault that Thai Romanisation suffers from the same missing aspiration apostrophe as Taiwan does, it still made her look right fucking foolish). At the end of the day it was good times, even if we missed some of the known tourist spots in Georgetown itself, and even if the city is nowhere near as picturesque as the publicity might suggest – which just shows, a power sightseer can always learn a new way of doing things.
The next day we were up, breakfasted and out the door down to the ferry terminal, enroute to Malaysia’s most northern outpost. Langkawi Island is a destination for two main reasons, both eternally appealing to the backpacker and the more general tourist alike, and as rare commodities in the rest of Malaysia they make up for the downsides to visiting. The island is blessed with Thailand-esqe beaches and the glory of duty-free status, and thus beer is not just affordable, it’s downright disgustingly cheap. And not just at the duty free stores of Kuah Town (the biggest settlement and home to the ferry terminal) but at corner stores and the supermarket at Canang Beach, where the fun is at. A drink at a bar on the island goes for half what it would elsewhere in the country, about four Ringgit, and a frosty can of Tiger can be had for as little as one-twenty. With the exchange rate currently sitting at 3.20 Ringgit to the US dollar, you do the maths. The same can will sting you at least seven at a similar retail outlet elsewhere in the land. So the more astute reader will already be putting the pieces together, and yes, the rest of this chapter is awash in drunkenness. Combined with an unfortunate delay in actually hitting the keyboard to commit this all to digital paper, things are a touch fuzzy, but bear with me, as rough seas are all a part of the ride.

The ferry was like a fridge. Such air conditioning would comfortably keep meat bacteria free and encourage penguins to colonise the corners of the boat. The unfortunate passengers were all dressed for the thirty degree plus day outside and suffered accordingly. A dodgy VCD of ‘Transformers’ kept the shivering, huddled masses entertained for the two hour crossing. And in amongst this was me, somehow impervious to the cold, sleeping the whole way. Egon and I had taken the two front rows and had them all to ourselves, so we took advantage of this and stretched out. Upon arrival we were set upon by the usual array of taxi drivers. Having run this gauntlet, we secured rental motorbikes (but not after extended arguing over the price) and were off, flying without abandon across the wide highway that served the southern coast of the island. Speed limits and turn signals are things that happen to other people here. Believe me, we were two of the more sane drivers out there.

Canang Beach was found by following the signs. Gecko Guesthouse, recommended by Jimmy, was harder to locate, but after three passes along the same stretch of road, we stumbled across it and took the last of the cheap beds. The owner was a nice enough lady who deals with one too many Thailand veterans – backpackers who think they are king shit because they negotiated Thailand, burned out hippy types who leave things lying around, enlightened weirdos who all wanted discounts because they were staying a few weeks. They all got a refusal, and one based in fact, because the rooms were booked pretty solid for weeks. The single dorm room was consistently full too, and I say the owner was nice because there was really only one bed left and I was allowed to sleep on the floor. For this I was still charged the same, but even at slightly inflated Langkawi prices it was a decent deal.

The crowd of our-age people were all cool. There was a pair of Dutch girls, a Kiwi guy, a Swedish girl. The English couple were unfortunately English, but we still let them tag along. The principal activities around the island involve beaches and all beach related activity. So, lying in the sun and swimming. Between our pasty white Baltic complexions and Egon’s current collection of open wounds, neither of these were going to sustain us for any length of time. Thankfully we had our bikes and the gall to tempt fate even further by flying around the island at outrageous speeds, and this became what we did for the next day and a half. We stayed two nights on Langkawi and saw pretty much every part of the main roads (admittedly not all that long) and every beach we could get to. The road also leads up the mountain in the middle of the island, where we pretended to be Moto-GP drivers all alone on a twisting mountain track and discovered the observation tower at the top was closed for reservations. The beaches ranged from slightly grotty, because of proximity to lots of tourists, to small and rocky right next to the main road, to secluded and sublime curves of golden sand and turquoise waters. In all this I managed to prang my bike, hitting the end of a small concrete retaining wall while doing a shoulder check to see if Egon was following me. I came off the back and the bike skidded out. I was unscathed and the bike a little scratched up, but it was a close one. Next time I’ll be sure to use the mirrors.

The nights were spent drinking cheap drinks from the duty free clandestinely in the dorm room. The open seating, suspiciously empty given the ‘full’ status of the rooms, were a no-BYO-zone, but since we were all staying in the dorm it presented no great obstacle to getting smashed. The in bar to be at afterwards was not a bar at all but a handful of mats and candles on the beach, staffed by the beach boy slash Rasta population of the island. It was a sublime location, the only sounds were the customers and the occasional tune from the staff on acoustic guitar, and the waves gently coming in on the beach. As the night goes on, things get rowdier, and the local colour comes out. And by that, I mean Captain Black Sparrow. I’d heard about this guy as far away as in KL, and doubtless tales of his exploits are known much further along the trail to the north too. He looks, for a much used comparison, like Johnny Depp in those pirate movies we all love so much. Only more so, because he’s 100% natural and 100% fuelled up all the time. Just don’t call him Jack and you’ll be mates for life. Where the Captain goes, loyal followers gather, and a good time is promised. When things finish up on the beach, the crowds are moved to the Reggae Bar right at the end of the tourist strip (to keep the noise down, see) and things get even louder and crazier as the local percussion band provides a constant dance beat going. It’s a good setup, both places are run and staffed by the same people, all locals, and the aim is to provide a service that the younger crowd is after. Once a week the action is moved to a small island off the coast for a more out-there experience, but the boat there ain’t free, neither is the return trip, and that’s once part of the setup that needs filing off. After all, it’s 20 Ringgit less people would have spent drinking, without a doubt, and as such is 20 Ringgit they would have gotten anyways. Plus more people would be up for it if it were free to get to, I’m just sayin’.

So at the end of the days on Langkawi, everyone had a hangover and an urge to head north to Thailand. Me, my path was going a different way, so I along took a different ferry to my new friends. But not after discovering a not-small ding in the front wheel (ploughing a motorbike into a solid block of concrete tends to damage it, it turns out), so my farewell to Egon was done under cover of an operation to dump the bike, get deposit back, and hide in the ferry terminal, lest the big guy who owns the bikes come looking for the dick who fucked up the front wheel. What can I say, I might have a talent for these things.

Back to Penang for the night, some larks around the hostel tables, a late night and an early morning later I was on another ferry, this time bound for Medan, Indonesia.

Dear Sports Fans

Tuesday, February 26. 2008
Welcome to the no-spellcheck zone. This means I'm sitting in some rathole of an internet cafe and fittingly, this one is in the middle of nowhere. The train is taking a well deserved three hour break after the strenuous two hours it did this morning getting here; as a result I have little to do in place with even less to occupy me. Also, I should have changed my underwear this morning. This is not the time for regrets, however, as it is really a time for celebrations! I'm about to shower you all with page upon page of text, glorious text -- and I just know you've all been salivating, mouths open, waiting for my bounty to rain upon you.

That time is here. And while there's doubtless some horrendous fuckups in this text, I couldn't be bothered holding the other posts to my usual lofty standards. There's a lot of reasons for this, resons that I can't go into here, but if they look a little odd, well, fuck you.

Behold! And anyway, it won't nearly be as bad as that tripe 'John' rolled out. Dude, we have standards here! STANDARDS!

BDO

Wednesday, January 23. 2008
I realize that this posting skips ahead a way and misses quite a few recent and important events, but i want to post it now while the memory is fresh. Rest assured the tale of woe preceding these events will follow shortly.

Sunday just gone saw the annual drugged up mosh fest that is the Big Day Out, at the Gold Coast Parklands. Given that i have only just arrived back in Australia, i was shocked to discover that Rage Against the Machine would be headlining this most hyped of festivals, the very band that i had long given up hope of ever seeing. A quick perusal of the line-up showed a distinct lack of any other bands i actually gave a crap about but as fortune
had it a friend had a spare ticket, and i was happy enough to shell out the $130 just to see the Rage in person.

Having learned the perils of not staying nearby in previous years (let's face it after 12 hours of rock, drugs, and alcohol, no-one should have to take a bus for 2 hours) I arranged with some friends to get a hotel room in Surfers Paradise for the weekend. This turned out to be somewhat more entertaining than i had anticipated: We booked a 2 person room, which turned out to be quite large, with a desk, balcony, massive bed, and sofa bed. As a result of all this, we soon found our room filled with 10 people. Now, this was a 4 1/2 star hotel, and we only had 2 keys, so sneaking in and out was certainly an adventure.

But back to the festival. I can honestly say that i love the summer festival vibe here in Oz, the festivals in the UK definitely have more atmosphere, largely i think due to the camping/multi-day nature of them, but you can't beat a Brisbane summer day for bikini clad, tit's out action. Awesome.

And so to the bands. Unlike previous years i did not bother to get there exceptionally early as there was nothing that i cared about until around 3pm. We arrived around 11:30am, waltzed through the front gate (and not to matilda) without so much as a queue, and proceeded straight to the beer tickets line. Here i have to mount my high horse for a second. Can the organisers of festivals please come up with a better method of distributing beer? Having to line up for an hour to get tickets for beer, then half an hour for said beers is unacceptable.

If you insist on going the beer tickets route, at least offer the option to pre-buy quantities of beer-tickets at the time people purchase their festival tickets, thus eliminating at least one (the longest) line. You don't need a degree in economics to see that this will result in higher sales, and more profit as people will most likely over buy, and yet they will still be happy at not having to wait for hours for the chance to go to another line and wait for hours. Is it really that hard?

After we were all suitably liquored up, the rocking began in earnest: Operator Please were first on the list, as two of my friends are fans. I'd not heard of them before, but was assured that they were a local Gold Coast band, (wo)manned by adolescents with a need to rock. They turned out to be a kind of J-Pop/alternative/nonsense band, complete with a violinist in a Japanese school girl outfit (and very fine she looked too). They reminded me of the 5-6-7-8's seen in Kill Bill, not really my thing, were well and truly good fun.

The first band i actually wanted to see was Regurgitator, I was so amazed to see them on the bill, as last time i was in Oz they had broken up, I remember Quan's last interview with Richard Kingsmill of Triple J where he basically told Australia to go fuck themselves for being racists c*#ts. Anyway, apparently he has recanted, and they are back slinging there own particular variety of pop-rock. Before these festivities though there were a few hours to kill.

We headed to the side-show area of the festival and were treated to Box-Wars! This is a movment started in Canberra, Oz, whereby grown people fashion armor and weapons from cardboard boxes proceed to beat the crap out of each other. It was mid afternoon by the time this got under way and the participants were filled with the vim and vigor that can only come with loads of beers consumed in the summer sun. They put on a great show and by the end not one of them had a costume left or didn't have welts on their shoulders and torso.

I met up with my brother and headed down to Regurgitator, to remember the ninties, Brisvegas-style. Regurgitator took the stage, dressed all in white with massive Aviator sunnies, and proceeded rock our very souls. The first couple of songs were good, slow warm-ups, before they launched into Black Bugs, to thunderous applause. Polyester Girl thrilled the hit-single lovers in the crowd, but the highlight of the set was ushered in by Quan's brief introduction "Here's an old song", before launching into a heavy rendition of Kung Foo Sing. I can honestly say that Regurgitator kicked even more arse than i remember, and it's great to see them back together rocking out.

Now, in my experience festivals are largely filled with waiting around for people or trying to meet up, this one was no exception, the next couple of hours were spent downing beers and trying to rejoin a group of friends to head off to see Tom Morello's acoustic project, The Nightwatchman. We eventually all got together despite the lack of mobile coverage, and headed off the the Converse Essential Stage (yes, like football stadiums before them, festival stages have souled out and allowed sponsors to name them). This was the prelude to the days greatest disappointment: apparently Billy Bragg and The Nightwatchmen had swapped timeslots, without any announcement being made, and we had missed them by an hour or so. Top work organisers. Thanks very much. Oh, and Billy Bragg sucked so bad it hurt. His music was fine, and i do love the whole one guy with a guitar thing, but out of an hour set, i think he talked for about 45mins.
Shut the fuck up and rock!

Anyways, as the headliners rolled around the girls in our group insisted on seeing Bjork, and i was interested myself as to what the Icelandic Pixie would be like. It turns out the answer is annoying. There were some cool bits, I am after all a sucker for cool lasers and smoke machines, but on the whole her visual heavy performance seemed a little out of place in the open air environment. However, this was fine as it gave time to rest before the main event.

Rage Against the Machine appeared in front of the biggest crowd that i have seen in front of the main stage. Helped, no doubt, by the fact that there were no descent DJ's or Hip Hop acts headlining in the other tent. Zack was looking particularly cool with his new 70's style afro, while Tom Morello, well, let's face it the man's look hasn't changed one iota. There was much debate as to how they would kick off, with the smart money going to Bulls on Parade for the first tune, however as the first driving notes of Testify rang out through the speakers there was no room for complaining, as their performance was truly inspiring. Bulls on Parade appropriately followed, while Bullet in the Head kept the anger rising. Now, I have seen all the Rage DVD's and Zack is a bit lack-lustre in some of them, but damn, that guy was on his game, jumping around like a mad thing, and providing a masterclass in hip hop rhyming and timing. The crowd noise died down as the singles thinned out, with classic album tracks like Down Rodeo and People of the Sun, delighting the real fans, and bemusing the bandwagon jumpers. However, the parted seas were soon joined when Gorilla Radio kicked our arses, and it is a great sight when 50,000 people are screaming "It has to start somewhere....". Vietnow drove us on, delivered with similar vehemence and followed with a nice rant from Zack on how happy he was at Howard being recently deposed (to which we vociferously agreed), and an impassioned Freedom closed out the set. Zack even managed to get out the screams at the end of this song, which, after a long set of screaming impressed mightily.

Needless to say no-one was moving and the chanting was soon rewarded with an encore. Renegades of Funk got everyone moving again, and War Within a Breath (a personal favourite) brought the anger back; We were all left drained and elated by Killing in the Name of..., suitably left until last.

It's been about 15 years coming but i can say that they were honestly worth the wait, and i am looking forward to seeing them again, this time away from the festival environment.

Definitely the best show of 2008 so far, and it's going to take some beating....