Asian Escape

Posted: 24th May 2010 by admin in Uncategorized

2010 was embraced standing freezing our asses off at Trafalgar Square
drinking champagne and mulled wine in a vain attempt at staving off the
blistering cold. Joyous celebrations and late hunts for toilets ending
up with a long wait for a tube and the trudge back home to the comforts
of bed. The next few days hurtled by moving apartments, a long night
with Keith at Aladins and various drinking holes, packing, last minute
shopping and then finally the 4th of January crept up on us.

The journey started in typical stressful fashion, the bloody Somali
taxi company sending their driver 45 minutes late (we ended up ordering
a different cab and telling the aforementioned company to sod off)
arriving at Victoria, waiting for the Terravision, creeping through
London’s dark streets seated listening to White Light/White Heat, one
final finger to the cold before being enveloped in the stark dullness
of Stansted. Long lines, check in, pub dinner, security, gate, terror
of sitting amongst 5 kids in the 4 rows around us, no entertainment
system (or so we thought), take-off, the screaming began….. all 4
babies at once.. one of them sounding like he was being strangled and
spanked at the same time.. the most insane high-pitched blood curdling
screaming that did not abate for at least 1 hour at first, then a short
break to recoup and off again… even with headphones and death metal
at top volume I could still hear the little fekker. The chorus of
insane babies was not broken until about 4 hours into the flight when a
short period of recess occurred which gave me the opportunity to slip
into sleep for a few precious minutes/hours. The babies started again.
I watched Ashes of Time Redux on my small player. Time surprisingly
swept by quickly and soon we were fastening seatbelts and descending on
Kuala Lumpur.

Ten months of work, 2 months of cold and darkness were all forgotten in
that instant of walking off the plane into 29 degree heat at 8.20pm…
suddenly life was easier to bear….

Fast Forward queues and ATM’s and buses and taxis and check-in’s and
finally Ann and I were seated at the Prithya Curry House serving up the
best Roti Chanai’s and Sambar around. A walk down town, one pint at the
awful awful Reggae Bar, then another beer on the street outside a
Chinese eating hall with an extremely friendly proprietor and some
eager local piss heads nearby rambling on while the market stalls
detached their goods and packed them neatly in boxes for tomorrow.

The warmth just making everything ok. Asia once again. Mmmmm.

Part 2:

Long long stretches of time have passed and in those stretches
have been opportunities to write long paragraphs about amazing

periences but jotting them down seemed redundant.

I have, instead, preserved them as memories. They occupy space in my
mind and further experiences shuffle into place as they occur.

However. In short, this is what the first 2 months in Asia have brought:

Dire snow and icy frowns moulded onto pale faces were left behind
bundled in their winter garbs. London was exceptional for 10 days.
Windy streets, great meals indoors, wine, new years eve in the city,
family. On Jan 4th Ann and I boarded Air Asia bound for Kuala Lumpur.
13 uncomfortable (but cheap) hours later we arrived to the brilliance
of summer, eternal summer. Streets awash with gentle sunbeams, smiles,
cheap food, exotic fruits, crystal blue skies…… Three days in KL
swept by drinking beers with the locals in a small chinese shack,
marching around Chinatown, gorging on delicious Indian food three times
a day, sleeping in late, fiddling with the AC remote. Jan arrived on
the 7th and we headed down to Singapore. Despite my slight annoyance at
the country from my previous (2001) visit I was pleasantly surprised.
We spent 3 days eating fantastic food, walked the old town, Indian
town, participated in some festivals, found an underground metal

The next day we were sitting on a plane to Borneo. Long romanticized in
books and movies for being lush/remote/exotic we were all excited at
the prospect of wandering around Kuching and its surroundings for a
week. It rained all week. All week. The only day it let up was funnily
enough the day we had reserved for visiting the Fairy cave outside of
town. In short, Kuching was amazing… the Junk restaurant serving
fall-off-the-bone lamb shanks, the immense majesty of the cave, the
complete lack of tourists, the small villages across the river where
small children followed us asking our names, the wonderful local bar
where we watched the borneans dance entranced by the fantastic

Soon enough we were on the plane heading back to Singapore. For one
night. Then Ann and I boarded our Cebu Pacific flight to Clark.

Angeles… Sin City… we stayed for one night, had American food at a
wonderful old bar (Margarita’s) and tasted our first cold San Miguels
(which cost 4kr/40p/60cents) next morning was a 4 hour van ride through
beautiful fields/villages/cities ending in the ascent to Baguio.
Hillstations have always held a special place in my heart, growing up
in India and all, and Baguio held her own. Spread out over varying
peaks and valleys/cool air/race courses/parks/churches/hor
se rides/golf courses spread around trees/50’s diners all kitsch without
trying to be/ the red lion bar where we stayed surrounded by old
ex-pats and their considerably younger brides. A couple of days went
past quickly and once again we were moving. 5 hour local bus to Sagada.
Awe inspiring views. heart stopping plunges. shabby bus. locals eating
Balut next to me ( duck embryo in a shell ), finally reached what can
only be described as paradise. A small village in the mountains.
Totally peaceful. Insanely lush and beautiful. A place to exhale.

Next we headed to Bontoc… night spent accidentally stumbling into a
drag karaoke bar (enormous fun)… then Banaue to view the world famous
rice terraces (Unbelievably stunning) after what can only be described
as one of the most terrifying (read: Dramatic nature) bus rides of my
life (Yes.. even more than some Himalaya trips). We stayed at a hotel
perched on the mountain side with a 100 meter drop off the balcony down
to a river…. Night bus to Manila. (Enter Jan & Sarah) 5 days
spent peeling back the rough exterior and finding a
thriving/friendly/vibrant capital. Chinatown food/great lebanese
food/great burgers/great guest house/great breakfasts/ Sarah played a
show at a bar called HOBBIT HOUSE where all the workers were vertically
challenged. Jan and I suppressed our laughs. Days spent shooting videos
for Zhaeng Zhaeng. Visiting the Chinese Cemetary/Northern cemetary.
Flight to Tagbilaran. Awesome night on the pier there playing with the
children and sipping cold ones. Bus to Panglao. Beach life. Taxi to the
Chocolate Hills, one night in Loboc in jungle huts, Tarsiers, old
churches, glorious nature. ferry to Cebu. Pizza from an exceptional
wood-fire oven. TV.

Bangkok. Days at Wong’s. Shrimp Penang at Family/Kenny’s. Chatuchak
Weekend Market. MBK. Bangkok never disappoints. Flight to Krabi. Meet
Ann randomly at the airport. Same flight. Koh Lanta for 10 days. Cousin
daniel randomly arrives. 38 degrees. INSUFFERABLE. cooler evenings at
Independance chatting and listening to ipods. Klapa Klum for food.
Mango House for breakfast.

I split from the gang and head to Hat Yai. One night there surrounded
by Chinese businessmen having a CNY prozzie fest. Women in the lobby of
my hotel screaming ONLY 400 BHAT !!! ( 7 pounds ). I stay in my room
feeling sad/disgusted.

Kota Bharu next. Meet up with Daniel. Head to Perhentian Islands.
Bumpiest boat ride of my life. Paradise costs. Beach life for 7 days.
Gorgeous bungalows. Amazing walks to Long Beach. Insane food at Bubu’s.
Bottle of Malbec. Nights on Coral Bay with the gangs of
locals/tourists. short snorkelling trip. Time to leave. Over-night bus
to Penang. Eat the most mouthwatering Indian feast ever. Meet Sam +
Jan. 2 nights later bus to KL. Indian food once again.

Philippines x 2. Back on Cebu Pacific. KL-Manila-Cebu all in one night.
Not one wink of sleep. Disoriented. layovers and finally we are back in
the same hotel/crashing. Back eating the same pizza. Meeting the same
traveler who was passing through Cebu a month ago. Sleep a few precious
hours and its back to the Airport to catch the morning flight to

Landing in Siargao was the scariest/worst landing of my 32 years on
this earth. I don’t think Jan or Daniel would argue. The small
propeller plane totally overshot the already tiny runway and because of
the dense palmtree forest at the end he couldn’t speed up and take off
again so he slammed the brakes on and we endured what felt like minutes
of skidding/slidding sideways and turning almost off the runway burnt
rubber permeating the plane until it skidded to a halt with 1 meter of
runway to spare. The whole crew/passengers let out a collective sigh
and clapped violently at the fact that we were still alive. I don’t
think my heart could take another one of those. An American guy next to
us said he had flown here dozens of times and that had never happened
before. Oh well..

9 Days of Paradise. The friendliest locals on earth. Beautiful views.
Hammocks. Villages to die for. Fresh seafood. Games of Pool. 101 Bar.
Tomorrow heralds the end of our time in Siargao but I can honestly say
this: I WILL BE BACK (but perhaps I will take a ferry next time!!)

Tomorrow: Fly to Cebu on same small propeller plane. Sunday: Fly to Palawan to head to Port Barton!

Part 3:

A damp rain welcomed me to the balcony of 101 Guest House, backpack
tightly fixed, thoughts on the journey ahead, a slight notion of dread
at the prospect of saying goodbye to the people who had made the time
here so enjoyable.

The pick-up truck lumbered up the sand path, a huge plastic tarp ready
to shield our bags from the onslaught of the heavens. Inside the car
the radio spewed out more American brainless anthems with stolen
bass-lines and lyrics to turn the stomach. Coincidentally, the two
Americans who were destined to be our companions for the next day or
two mentioned in passing “Whatever happened to the Black Eyed Peas,
they used to be SOOOO good”. I suppressed a conceited laugh.

We arrived at the airport with time to kill, resisted the temptation of
an early morning beer to help speed the process along, waited patiently
under the tin roof of the Airport that spread out no further than 40
square meters. After a few moments of confusion and mysterious
to-and-fro’s on battered walkie talkies a uniformed representative of
Cebu Pacific informed us all that due to the slight drizzle our
propeller plane was unable to land safely and had turned back to Cebu.
The flight would not be rescheduled and we would be forced to wait 4
days for the next one. Alternatively, she informed us, in 25 minutes a
ferry would leave from Dapa to Surigao and we could use our plane
tickets on the morning flight the next day to Cebu.

Half the crowd dispersed, some opting to wait the 4 days until the next
flight, our merry gang of procrastinators only spurred into action by
the thought of missing our onward flight on Sunday to Palawan. We
poured into a jeep, hurtled through lush forests of palm trees and wide
expanses of rice fields, through the charming streets of Dapa down to
the Port where the ferry blasted it’s final horn allowing us a few
precious moments to jump onboard.

The American’s (as they will be affectionately referred to) began wild
gesticulations about the importance of securing the corner table, being
at arms length from the beer bar and sporting the most acceptable
views. We hurried onboard, and after a few minutes managed to find the
table empty. 4 hours passed in relative haste, watching the perfect
islands drift by, fishermen waist deep in the mangroves tangling with
nets, abandoned factories with their sad chimneys empty of smoke. All
this time with the constant narrative of an American who has had too
much to drink and not enough time to process his thoughts belting out
random information and wild stereotypes as the noise of the engines did
little to dampen his passion.

Surigao was a small blot on the map. A place neither of us had planned
to visit and therefore knew nothing about. We checked into the Tavern
Hotel and spent a pleasant night in the company of another, vastly more
interesting, American who had spent 16 years traveling the Philippines
as a Pilot and land investor. Apart from his insider knowledge of which
airlines to fly and those to avoid (based on safety standards that he
was part of regulating) he also gave us advice on buying land on
Siargao and a list of contacts who would prove useful.

The night ended in typical Philippino fashion: at a bar, with San
Miguels and a plate of Calamansi while a dolled up trio of women sang
their hearts out to the Karaoke machine tucked away in the corner.

The next couple of days were a mixture of relief and the ridiculous. We
managed to check back into our hotel of choice in Cebu after a
relatively uneventful flight from Surigao. Perched our weary frames on
rigid chairs at Kukuks Nest for the delightful Bella Napoli Pizza.
Spent the day wandering around the mall buying chappals. An evening
ride of futility trying to locate the Bourdain recommended Lechon of
Cebu with the most talkative taxi driver in the history of people

Ended up settling for another restaurant which disappointed
exceedingly. Fell asleep after a couple of beers at the Turtles Nest
and woke up bright and early to catch our flight to Palawan.

Due to a mix up on Daniel’s iphone we missed the flight. By five
minutes. Rebooked them for Tuesday, headed back into town eager to
catch the Pacquiao Clottey fight due to start at 11am. Checked in again
to Tonros Appartelle and fought the heat to find a cab. We paid 650
peso’s each to enjoy the fight at the Park Lane hotel bedecked with a
vast buffet, waiters dressed immaculately in starched shirts and gold
name tags, throngs of Philippinos loading their plates in gravity
defying arrangements eager to not starve during the nations most loved
sportsman’s battle. We took our places, ate, cheered, lapped up the
atmosphere, left quickly just after he was announced the winner on
points and exited the hotel to find a ghosttown. The truth of the taxi
drivers words rang clear: “In Philippines, when Pacman fight, no crime,
no traffic, no taxi, no car, no police. Everybody watch fight and shout
for Pacman.”

Surely enough, on our walk home cars began to start their engines and
life slowly resumed in the Philippines second largest city.

We finally left Cebu after victoriously finding the CnT Lechon place
and enjoying the most unspeakably wonderful pork on earth, consuming
further orders of Bella Napoli and funding the San Miguel factory in
their further endeavors.

Puerto Princessa was a typical Philippino town. Although surprisingly
clean, lacking any real pedestrian element and waning houses shunning
the use of camera’s.

On an impulse we decided it best to leave straight away and head down
to the Underground River in Sabang. The van that was adamently promised
to depart every day at 2pm didn’t and we were left with the unsettling
thought of a 4 hour Jeepney ride. After spending more than 2 hours
loading more than half a tonne of produce and goods onto the
beleaguered roof we crammed into the jeepney and took our seats with
the 64 other passengers. Children hung from bars, rice sacks piled on
the floor promised awkward leg positions and the real possibilty of
cramps, two children cried incessantly, the heat was oppressive, our
stomachs almost empty and the road none-too-kind to a vehicle of shot
suspension. Before leaving almost an hour late we pulled into a cold
storage unit where 2 blocks of ice weighing over 300 kilo’s each were
pushed up onto the very roof above us sending shivers of anxiety and
panic through our paranoid minds. I began to make my peace waiting for
a huge bump in the road to send the whole load crashing down.

Thank God it never happened. Four hours later and after suffering insane cramps we arrived at the deserted beach, Sabang.

Part 4:

After reckless sleep and a dozen other nightmares morning broke its
singular veil and transported us to the world of vivid sight and
realism. Heavy bodies broke the soft canvass of fresh sand leaving
behind irregular foot prints, proof of a night of slight excess.

The National Park office was grasping at lucidity, guards wiping sleep
from their eyes and attempting to conduct themselves with authority and
assuredness. We paid our fee’s, accosted an aging Englishman and his
hysterically young escort to share a boat with us, and proceeded to
walk barefoot down the pier (hot concrete) to the array of brightly
coloured boats moored offshore and bobbing up and down with the slow
heaving of the ocean. Our guide divided the gathered tourist into
groups of six and proceeded to shepherd us into the waiting boats. With
a couple of heaves the spluttering of the engine gave way to a mighty
roar and the six of us turned and hurtled off on paths immeasurable and

The engine shut off and we leapt into the water, wading slowly onto the
pristine shore. Palm trees bent in unison along the wide, perfectly
white beach. A clear heaven above so blue and infinite. Green mountains
awash in tones of jade and muddled with trees rose beyond the scope of
our reach and towered with majesty and silence.

A path had been nailed together through the jungle with wide planks of
dark wood and a few scattered signs. Five minutes later we turned a
corner and reached the entrance to the famed Sabang Underground River.

The water was crystalline blue. Achingly clear. A couple of
paddle-boats tugged at their ropes under palm tree leaves. We donned
helmets, filled out forms of consent and hopped into the narrow boats
to begin the 3.5 kilometer journey into the mountains. The darkness was
crushing and immediate. The whole world was left as a silent murmur
beyond the fragments of light that still clung to the rocks around the
entrance. We were immersed in darkness. Save a flashlight at the front
of the boat you could not even distinguish the passengers in front. The
landscapes became eerie as the temperature changed to a strange

Behind us the boatman paddled while rattling off sentences of
instructions as to which direction to turn, where to look, how deep a
certain cave was, reassuring the French women that the flying shadows
were swallows and not in fact bats……The cave opened and closed.
Deep vaults and narrow hallways, spectacular formations and deep
marble….. We rowed…. the minutes passed….. kilometers seemed like
meters….faces following the glow of the flashlight opening the
impossibility of darkness to new interpretations.

Two hours later and the small sliver of natural light reflected on the
water like a comforting embrace. The outside became nearer and nearer
until all of a sudden we were face to face with the very palm trees
under which our boat had been tethered. I was mildly glad jumping onto
firm ground, and yet equally pleased at the sights rendered to us in
the complete darkness of the cave.

We gathered our things, as the herds of Japanese and Chinese tourists
poured upon the opening (late risers, damned to visit in groups and not
in silence) and walked upon the nailed planks back to the beach that
opened up from under trees and shed such brilliant light.

Back on land we ate a quick meal before negotiating a share van with a
couple from France back to Puerto Princessa. Two hours later, after
numerous pleasant stories we spent the following 2 hours searching for
rooms in a city built long before the predicted boom. After driving
around to almost 9 different guest houses we finally found a place and
settled in.

The night passed quickly. Internet. Pool. Beers. An unspeakably
unimpressive meal courtesy of Lonely Planets unending recommendations.
Sleep, deep sleep, when time becomes irrelevant and you awaken not
knowing if it is 4am or 4pm. Wonderful.

A frantic search for cheap passage to Port Barton ending in frustration
and dead ends….. heading to Banwa guest house to try their
methods…. momentary decisions to leave Palawan and suffer the
indignation of 6 days in Manila….. hope restored… a van found….
costly…. but private… and we left in a cloud of smoke with beers
cold and an amicable driver… off to the famed Port Barton… three
hours away through jaw-dropping nature and the simplest roads…
villagers smiling and waving… kids ecstatic in their glee….
fishermen tending to nets and waving as we passed by in a blur of white
and tinted windows…. finally the decision to stay bore fruit as the
van turned onto the mud roads that would eventually spew us out on the
beach. Glorious lush jungle, impossibly beautiful villages, toothpaste
commercial white smiles, waving children, buffalos resting in small
ponds, school bells chiming, mountains concealed in thick tapestries of
vegetation, rice fields nearing harvest, dust caked roads snaking their
way between the tall palms and thick foliage. And suddenly, after a
turn in the road Port Barton appeared… the sun hungry, the ocean
sparkling down narrow alleyways leading to the beach.

We bid our driver farewell, found a decent lodging, and thus began our
5 days here. Days spent in hammocks reading Theroux, nights spent at
Judys with playlists and ice cold beers.

Today heralded the infamous Island Hopping day.

We awoke far too early (8pm), grabbed some breakfast, strolled up the
beach as the fishermen were already hours into their day, met Jo and
David, and set off on the smooth waters of morning.

Today was one of the best days of my life.

We first dropped anchor near a huge reef, snorkel gear attached, in we
jumped, swam in aquamarine waters, the colour of bliss, throngs of
brightly coloured fish, intense visibility, huge corals, white sand,
gigantic angel fish, the boatman hopped in an moments later had speared
a 2 kilo Lapu Lapu to take over to Paradise Island later for lunch, we
marveled at the brilliant colours as the fish beat its last breaths in
the storage bin. Onwards to another island were time felt like it stood
still…. water lapping onto powder white sands, driftwood, shells,
palm trees, strange jellyfish washed up along the rocky outcrop.

The boat then headed to Paradise Island as we sat and glanced down a
full 5 meters to the seabed unobstructed in our visibility. The waters
were calm and rested. Paradise Island was a 10 meter long beach with a
small bungalow, a hammock, a barbeque pit, a dog, a cat and a few
roosters. The boatman gutted the fish and threw on a huge mackerel
steak he had been given by a passing boat. They cooked the Lapu Lapu
while a pot of rice boiled to the side. We all walked over to the shade
of a tree and ate a feast with toes rubbing in the sand and the sound
of silence permeating so wonderfully. An hour later a few locals pulled
up on a boat and offered us Tanduay with coke as they grinned and asked
us if we liked the Philippines.

Two more snorkeling sites were next on the agenda, clear waters
providing amazing worlds under the ocean to explore. Some of the spots
were even better than Thailand which I did not expect for some reason.

Exhausted I pulled myself back up onto the boat just as a rainshower
broke overhead. I sat there on the bow bobbing up and down as the rain
splashed all around. Those moments are rare in life… when there is
nobody talking to you, nothing to achieve, just perfect nature, perfect
silence, perfect mood and environment to reflect and inhale and just
enjoy being.

A half hour later we headed to the island of C where the annual fiesta
was underway. Walking through the small immaculate gardens and past
bamboo bungalows with small children grinning from behind windows and
the teenagers riding bikes through puddles. We watched our first cock
fight amidst a flurry of betting and gesticulating. For all my natural
hatred of the creatures (waking me up every morning at 3, 4, 4.30, 5,
5.36, 6.13 etc) I was actually rather sickened to see the fight. The
Philippino’s almost laughed when we left looking slightly ill-at-ease.
However, it was a slight blot on an almost perfect day.

We downed some cold beers, watched a basketball game, showed the kids
some magic tricks, then it was time to head back to Port Barton lying
at the front of the boat looking up at the sky.

The evening holds the promise of a farewell party at Judy’s for an
American who seemed stoned and drunk already at 4pm. Lets see if he
even makes an appearance.

Part 5:

Footnote, yet above: The American managed to sit at the bar until 2 am
despite having consumed perhaps the yearly average of alcohol and pot
in the prior hours. The englishmen, however, conducted themselves in a
shameless manner, rather typical of Brits abroad, and outstayed their
welcome at Judy’s Bar and I doubt would be invited back ever again.

The last days in Port Barton were splendid. Calm seas, calm hammocks,
books read, nights propped up at Judy’s, days spent at Capsalay
watching the fiesta. Time caught up with us finally and it was time to
pack our bags, leave this unspoilt paradise, and hop onto a Jeepney for
the 4 hour ride back to Puerto Princessa. The journey was uneventful.
Hours later we were sitting at Fresh Cafe with Judy and a Canadian
friend of hers eating a well deserved breakfast and considering how to
spend our 5 hours in PP. The girls invited us over to a friends house
and the afternoon passed with chats and Red Horses.

Cebu Pacific-Manila. Pensionne Natividad. Clean rooms. Friendly
service. Bolting straight for the Shawarma Snack Corner to gorge on
freshly grilled chicken kebabs and the deliiiicious garlic/chilli
sauce. I felt at home even though I had only been there twice before, 2
months earlier.

One day in Manila. Spent in Jeepney’s. Intramuros. Chinatown. Lunch at
the amazing MXT. Walking around taking photographs. Back to Natividad.
Packed. Airport. A couple of cold San Miguels to signal our departure.
Smuggled bags of Calamansi hidden deep in backpacks. Air. Landed.
Taipei. Bus. Rainy Highways. Comfort. Feelings of home. Taxi to He Ping
Fuxing. Ann opens the door. John standing by. Hugs and familiarity. My
home 4 years ago. Remembering the smell, the floors, the kitchen, the
bathrooms, the couches, the balcony. Head straight over to the Fucking
Place (best bar in town) to get some beers and catch up.

3 days pass. Sightseeing. Gorging on fantastic food. Watched the Homo
Jews play a gig in Shida. Delirium Tremens, nights at Fucking Place,
days spent in cabs. A journey to the countryside to view the cherry
blossoms which had already almost disappeared… walked around gardens
and under trees overhanging with heavy flowers…. smelt fresh air….
took photographs..

Daniel & Ann left in a shiny black limousine. I moved back into my old room. Slept better than I had in months.

These days are spent taking pictures, developing old film, hanging out
with John and Victor at night. Eating. Drinking. Sitting on rooftops
enjoying white wine with James. These days are quiet and calm and
familar.. and these days are just what I need right now.

Part 6:

Staring out of an airplane window is one of the few times in life that
I truly reflect. As the wings shudder under the force of take-off, and
the city I am departing from becomes but a small blot on a landscape
soon to be marred by clouds, I stare out into the blankness and process
what the past few days/weeks have meant. Alone, anonymous, with no
expectations or pressure to begin conversing, left totally in that
beautiful limbo where the real world is as it is in reality, far below.
Empty skies, occasional aircraft lights, flickering fishing boats, the
moon, storms, and the soft reflection of yourself lost in thought and

Landing brings a whole new wave of emotions.

This time, however, I was landing in Bangkok.. and not back in Oslo to
begin work again. Bangkok.. a city reviled by many. Despised for its
pollution, incessant traffic, chaotic streets, tuk tuk drivers…. a
place that I love.

Spent one night at Lee 4 (familiarity) ate a Prawn Penang at Kenny’s,
skipped Wongs, went back to my room to try and get an early night for
the flight up to Chiang Mai. Airport. Walked past the very desk where
Jan and I had sent out a PA message for STINKY LEE to contact the
information desk, chuckled, caught my flight, headed straight to
Mountain View finding out that Ann and Daniel had also moved over
there.. the old gang resurrected.. Spent 8 days in Chiang Mai watching
awful Champions League games, eating lots of Mexican food and Pop Am,
recording some insanities with The Mosquito’s, getting drenched to the
bone under Songkran which was fun for 4 minutes and then became
increasingly vexing. Decided on the spur of the moment to head to
Vietnam, one of the only countries in SE Asia I hadn’t been to and had
wondered about.. Booked flights… Bangkok.. another night at Lee 4,
dinner at Kenny’s, up early for the flight to Saigon…. airport
madness again…. red shirts and blockades on the roads… lean back..
close my eyes….


After meeting up with some crazy wild eyed yoga girl from Estonia,
sharing a cab into town, then immediately ditching her after enduring
30 minutes of quasi-spiritual-puke faffing I checked into a nice clean
hotel and headed out for some Pho. As with every new country it’s the
small differences that you notice first. In Saigon it was the traffic.
Swarms of mopeds like a cholera cloud of rampant mosquitos bearing down
on every available inch of space. Crossing the road would have been
impossible if I hadn’t read earlier that you just start walking and
weave in and out. It worked fine. Every single centimeter I was asked
for something.. Taxi… Good girl…. cigarettes.. smoke smoke…
taxi.. motorbike.. cheap for you…. it was the prophetic backdrop of
what would end up trying my Indian patience over the next 2 weeks. The
Pho was excellent. 2 dollars for a huuuuge bowl. Came with all the
condiments you would expect and the broth was delicious. Point 1 in
favour of Nam.

Due to the complete lack of desire to walk into bars alone and sit
trying to start conversations with random travelers and have to relive
all the usual questions (where you from, how long you been out, where
have you been, where you going, did you like it, how was the food,) I
decided to head back to my hotel and just watch The Wire.

Up fairly late. Ate rather decent Indian food, headed to the airport and caught a plane up to Hue. Excited.

On this 4 month trip in Asia I have endured the 2 worst landings of my
entire life and some bizarre engine failure issues in Malaysia. This
landing would knock no. 2 off it’s spot and go straight in behind
Siargao in first place. The Vietnam Airlines started it’s decent to Hue
after a pleasant flight.. the ground got closer and closer and I
suddenly realised the pilot hadn’t done that thing where just before
touching down they kinda swoop up a bit and then GENTLY ease the plane
down. He basically just flew straight down into the ground with the
biggest bang/shudder/heave/jolt I have ever experienced. I was 100%
sure the plane would break in half… it shook violently and then after
a minute or so came to a complete halt with some bizarre noises going
on down below…… I was mighty glad to get off the beast and get back
onto ground transport, f*** the statistics.

I spent 3 days in Hue. Firstly disappointed at the weather, grey,
overcast, secondly irritated by the INCESSANT salesmen/woman barking at
you every 2 meters, the Vietnamese food was nothing like I had
expected, greasy and deep fried and bland, only a couple of dishes made
my mouth water, the palace was alright, but modeled on the Forbidden
City, and once you’ve seen that there are no comparisons…. the
temples were BLAH… the city itself completely devoid of any charm,
the locals as friendly as your wallet was big, if you weren’t buying
the smiles faded immediately. I found the local people totally
charmless, I tried smiling, talking to them, walking down side-alleys
to get away from the foreigner highway, but everywhere I went the only
genuine smile I ever got was sometimes off a small kid. The people were
there for the hard sell. Vietnam had taken the path of least resistance
and decided that everybody’s place in life was on a GROUP tour…
Everything was 6 people here… 18 people there… all get on this bus,
eat at this restaurant, sleep here, drink here, tomorrow we leave at
10am, etc.. almost everyone I met was on a TOUR of the country? They
had bloody ITINERARIES? These are not 50-60 year olds who obviously
prefer the comfort and ease of someone else planning everything.. these
were 25 year old couples, Irish, Americans, Brits in their 30’s who had
travelled the world and were heading down Vietnam on a package deal. I
left most bars early because there were only huge groups of people on
the same tour hanging out and chatting amidst their beer swills. No
place for an independent traveller.

So. Hue. The only good thing about it was that on the last night I met
a Canadian couple (on a package tour) who had booked a van down to Hoi
An leaving early the next morning and had some spare seats. They asked
me if I wanted to tag along and I told them I would love to provided I
could wake up at 7am. I did. Which in itself is a miracle, but even
more so after on my way back to the hotel a Thai man and his
“accompaniments” invited me to share some rice wine on the street. Fun
ensued. I woke up sore headed and amazingly at 7. Headed to the hotel
to meet them, watched the aging gaunt figures of 60+ year olds on their
package holiday tour walking out after a man waving a flag to board a
bus to go see the sights. The creak and crackle of bones and false
teeth intensified my feeling of lostness.

We set out. 3 hours into our journey which was largely unspectacular
apart from a couple of mountain passes the tour guide turned to me and
said “Hey, there is the stop for the tourist bus. You can get off now”.
Perplexed as hell… Huh? What do you mean? I am going with these two
to Hoi An. Thats why I got in the bus 3 hours ago in Hue. Thats what
this whole thing was about. “Oh no.. driver says he will lose his job
if more people are in the van than these two”. Canadian man “What are
you talking about? We booked the whole van and we want him to come and
we told you that in Hue already so why do you bring it up now?”. Keep
driving. Of course the wanker wants a “tip” for the driver. God this
country is doing precious little to redeem my already ultra negative
opinion about it. After lunch in Danang and some more squabbling about
the tip we arrive in Hoi An. I leave the driver a small tip just
because the journey was “free” anyway and thank the couple. Hotel, out
for lunch. Hoi An seems small and clean and fairly nice. The buildings
are agreeable and the weather is slightly better. I attempt again for
the next 4 days to leave my bad attitude in the hotel room and enter
the streets fresh faced and full of optimism to grasp Vietnam and truly
begin to like it. I fail each day. I honestly honestly have tried.. but
there is NOTHING here to make me truly like it. Everything I love about
other parts of Asia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, is severely
lacking here.. Even the fact that people rip you off is not the
problem, its the way they do it. The incessant lies, the complete lack
of interest in anything other than money, the bare faced cheek of these
vandals. The food continues to be fairly decent, local specialties are
nothing if not ok. The bar life is dreadful since its the same package
groups from Hue who have moved down here. The only highlight was when I
gave tons of free music to a bar tender and he payed for my bill that
night. Other nights are spent sitting in the bar wondering what the
fuss is about. Dead air hangs around everywhere.. there is no buzz.. no
excitement.. no allure.. no charm.. nothing. just a cold country full
of rip off merchants and people who don’t care a damn about you unless
you are pouring money into their hotel or restaurant. Even on the
street the only time you ever get a Hello is when its quickly followed
by a “Please come to my shop sir..”…..

And before anyone starts crying “Well.. if its a tourist area you can
expect that”… eh.. no… I have been to multiple tourist areas in
this world and this type of treatment is definitely saved for the

In a huff of frustration I left Hoi An to give another place a shot,
Dalat. Unfortunately on the way there I would have to stop one night at
Nha Trang which I was not looking forward to. The train was delayed for
5 hours so I sat on the floor outside the station and started a
conversation with an English couple who were NOT package tourists. We
spent the 5 hours having a grand old time sipping beers, listening to
music and finding out that they too completely couldn’t stand the place
and were trying to leave the next day. As world travelers who had
conquered vast areas of the globe too, they were at a loss for words at
the reason why nam gets so much praise. We boarded the train. I felt no
excitement as I usually would on Indian trains/Thai trains…. any
train…. I sat and watched The Wire until we finally reached Nha Trang
at 3 am.

Outside the station was the usual barrage of motorbike and rickshaw
drivers. I chose one guy after getting him down from 20,000 to 10,000
for the short ride to the hotel area. As usual as soon as we arrived
there he pulls out a 50,000 and says thats what he wants to be paid. I
gave him 20,000 just to tip him a bit and the twat just followed me all
the way to the hotel saying he wanted 50,000. I actually had to slam
the shutters of the reception door on him so that he would leave. Nice
first impression. Then came the wonderful morning when I woke up and
headed down to reception to tell them my AC didn’t work only to be
informed (by a smiling woman) that the guy who checked me in last night
didn’t know the price really and now the room was 4 dollars more than
it was last night and since I had woken up at 1am (how convenient) and
missed check out then I would have to pay 12 dollars for this night
instead of 8 for the last night. All this with smiles and laughter to
try and turn your attention from the fact that they are quite literally
screwing you. And all of this after I was told a bus ticket to Dalat
was 6 dollars then I asked to book it and suddenly it was 7 because
this was a “different” bus. She just laughed the whole time knowing
full well what she was doing and I told her (smiling like a bastard)
heheheh.. yeah.. goes up 1 dollar just like that eh? haha. keep your
ticket.. I will buy it elsewhere.. She replied saying I would never
find one for 6 anywhere. I went next door and got the same ticket for 4
dollars. Man this country.

The rest of Nha Trang was like a horror movie. Full of tanned 18 year
old Scandinavians who mistakenly ended up in vietnam instead of ibiza.
Party idiots with their henna tattoos and stupid “In The Tubing” shirts
that have become a curse all over SE Asia since after Vang Vieng turned
to shite. Groups of pink bald brits with football tattoos propping up
bars and staring at the local women. Loud Aussies swearing and laughing
in that sheepish way. I went down to the beach. Turned around and
headed back to my room. Where I will stay until the thirst for a brew
drags me out. Tomorrow is Dalat. Not really got much of that childish
optimism left.

After a God-awful wake up call at 6.30 am to catch a rickety bus that
was 3 hours late to Da Lat I finally found a room (not realizing there
was a festival on, though saw no evidence of it) and spent 2 alright
days walking around this highlight of Vietnam. Cool mountain air,
passable food, and the mix-match of old buildings set against trees.

I ended up walking for 3 hours and trying over 15 travel agencies
before finally securing a ticket on the nightbus to Saigon. I was told
i had a good window seat, so left the agent with a smile on my face.

Had a last minute bite at Peace Cafe and strangely enough just before i
was about to leave Megan came running in after having looked for me in
a few places during the day. We had a quick quick catch up and I had to
run off to catch my bus.

Of course… I got the middle seat on the last row which meant two
different elbows vying for space and worse, the 6 hour tirade of heads
falling asleep on my shoulder and having to jolt forward to wake them
up. Add onto that the sight of a scooter meets truck accident at high
speed and my night was filled with the visions of a mans head split
open and a pool of blood longer than a python snaking downhill.
Horrendous. Lifeless corpse just laying atop asphalt with only his
trousers moving with the wind.

Dropped off at 4am in the Backpacker area….. spent 30 minutes being
told everywhere was full although they weren’t… they just didn’t know
how to speak English.. Conversations went as follows: (Ring bell, wait
2 minutes) “Hi, you have room?. “yes. 14 dollar”. “Ok. 14 dollar!”…
“ we full now”…. ad infinitum. I finally got a place…
crashed…. woke up… walked around… tragically followed the LP’s
advice on where to eat Pho and had possibly the worst one ever…..
spent some hours in my room, went to the bar district, got turned off
by the constant sellers and a Dutch guy who decided to sit next to me
with his local whore and tell her stories OUT LOUD about how FAST AND
FURIOUS 3 is the best movie ever… That and the weird woody allen look
alike 60 year old who sat uncomfortably close to me at my restaurant
and kept having spasms and shaking all the time while staring at me
continually. I was almost about to make a scene……. home to sleep….

Up at 7. Into a cab. Price arranged. He drives in the biggest
********** circle around town. I am pathetically close to missing my
flight (and thus my onward flight to London)..I keep shouting to him
that I know the way to the airport so PLEASE GET THERE, as my early
morning fuzzy head is freaking out at the prospect of missing 2
flights… he gets mad at my insinuation that he is cheating me
(although of course he is )… I keep pushing and finally he starts
making turns that seem logical… we arrive with precious minutes to
spare… I pay him what we agreed on… he starts a livid charade of
how its 2 times as much because he had turned the meter on (hence the
circus ride around town)… I told him I had specified a set deal… he
freaks and “suddenly” understands English and starts screaming at me
David Lynch style… With minutes ticking away I just throw the money
at him and swear profusely at the miserable bastard (who suddenly
erupts in a sunrise of smiles, the most genuine smile ever in the
history of the country), turn and leg it into the airport and JUST
manage to check-in.

Landing in Bangkok amidst all the western hype of the red shirts/etc
was a calming and reviving experience. Finally I started feeling happy
again, people SMILED, the taxi drivers didn’t try to rip me off, at
least not in the same way… God… Vietnam…. what the heck is wrong
with you… A person who has found things to smile about in Karachi,
Detroit, Cairo, Guangzhou, some of the “assholes” of the earth
according to most…. and yet struggling to offer a single nicety about
that vast nation. Absolutely disappointed. Never ever going back. Ever.
A soulless country with no buzz, no excitement.. a country resigned to
ripping off tourists and not giving a flying fuck about them… no
interest at all in their lives… only to ask questions in order to
steer you into their shops. Even my taxi driver in Bangkok as I was
hurtling towards MBK asked me “Where you come from today sir”…
“Saigon”…. “Oh… Vietnam no good. People no smile. People bad..
People only cheat and cheat. No nice people”… I agreed
wholeheartedly…. I told him I loved Thailand and he said “Yes.. we
honest. Good heart. Sometimes Thai people cheat but only some and only
little bit bhat. We have good heart. We smile real smile”. Gospel.

For once I will actually reduce the entire nation of Vietnam by saying
the only joy of going there was to tick it off my list. No other
country on earth has suffered such indignation.