Monday, February 22, 2010

Japin' round the world: Phuket! Let's go to the beach.

So for the final leg of my tour of South East Asia, I found myself in sunny Phuket (the sunny weather is scarcely a defining feature, as most places I've been here have been sunny too). It's a good tonic for the hectic pace of life you get in Bangkok, and also is near the beach so it's a good place to relax before I get started on my Australian adventure.

As a result I didn't do a lot of sightseeing here at first, and instead just flopped down for the most of the day, either at the beach, or watching the hostels extensive film collection. Thanks to the latter I've had a good chance to catch up with some films I'd been meaning to watch.

Just before heading here I have also had the chance to observe a strange local custom I had otherwise missed before. It happened first at the bus station, where I was waiting for my Bus to Phuket. Suddenly a whistle sounded, everyone stood, and some music began. I looked at my watch and realized it was 6pm precisely, and gathered that from the standing crowds and music, that this must be the national anthem of Thailand playing. I have never seen this kind of publically enforced patriotism, and I couldn't help but laugh quietly at the time. I witnessed this charade a second time whilst eating, which on this occasion came up on a TV. This time the anthem was accompanied by some pictures of the king looking, well, kingly and a few shots of the Thai army doing maneuvers as well as the happy populace looking cheery (it is the land of 1000 smiles so I'm told) with a fluttering Thai flag behind them, and then it was over for another day. I've also heard that in cinemas before a film begins this occurs too, regardless of the time of day. Strange to witness for the first time, and I can't really see it taking off at home. Unless it's presented like this.

Sadly the journey here was not the best I've had, and this was entirely the fault of the passenger sitting next to me. At first I thought of her as a kindly person, as she helped me with a couple of things, like showing me how the fold up table came down. However, this lack of knowledge here must have been a signal that I was generally incompetant, as when we were given our complimentary food, she grabbed it before I could do anything and opened it for me, and so on. I find it hard to know if this was in kindness or sympathy, needless to say I found it a bit patronising and was quite surprised she didn't try to tuck me in for the night. My real bone of contention however, came when it was time for sleep (this was a 12 hour overnight bus) as she decided to curl up in the insufficiently sized seat, which then started encroaching on my area. To cap it all she then started snoring, and that put paid to any plans I had for sleep that night, not that I sleep well on buses anyway. As a result I was very tired when we finally arrived and could not get to the hostel quickly enough.

Phuket town itself is a relatively quiet place, and there isn't a lot here apart from the beach. This suited me down to the ground at this point, but if you do intend to stay here it's best to use Phuket as a planning hub for island or beach hopping. That said there are a few things to do here. For example there's a fairly busy night market at the weekends, and also the other day I happened across some kind of street festival which seemed like quite a big deal. There was the usual pazazz of music, food and traditional dance. Some which was good, others which were piss poor even by local standards.

As for beaches round here, I firstly went to Patong Beach which is the bigger beach near Phuket town. This beach could literally be anywhere in Europe, as the only thing defining it as distinctly Thai are the Thai massage huts near the beach. It's your usual tacky touristy beach, full of sun loungers, screaming kids and aging Westerners with their disgusting lobster tans - seriously why can't some white people tell when enough sun is enough, bright red is not a good colour for someone's skin. Also I was sat near an elderly northern couple who were loudly discussing their trip. The surreal thing about this conversation - or at least what I could gleam from what they were saying - was that one of their friends out in Thailand with them was back in the hotel, ill, and they were looking to get to Bangkok in a couple of days to get him some medical treatment. Naturally I assumed that the poor companion might have some kind of nasty reaction to the heat, or a bad stomach. Then I heard "kidney failure" mentioned and then began to wonder why on earth these slow witted idiots hadn't rushed their friend to a dialysis unit. I think after one day I'd had enough of Patong beach.

I found a much better beach further along the road, which is called Kata Beach. This fits the image of a Thai beach a lot better than Patong. It's much bigger, and even though there are a lot of tourists, it's easy to forget as it's so big it's hard to fill it up. Also here, there are beautiful clear waters full of tropical fish, white sands and stunning scenery. I also found a piece of Paradise on the aptly named Phi Phi (pronounced Pi Pi, yes laugh up the humorous urinary similarity) Island. Here I managed to do some snorkeling round the coral, and see the fish up close etc. Unfortunately, being the wuss that I am, I was constantly panicked by the thought of rogue jellyfish and sea urchins inflicting pain on me, but it passed quickly, there aren't any killer fish here really. The island itself is a young revellers dream as it's it feels just enough like an old fashioned tropical island, although the tourist trade clearly holds some sway here. I wish I'd spent a night there now.

Another interesting experience I had in Phuket was a trip to the national park, where there was a 15 meter waterfall and a gibbon sanctuary (cue the "aww's" from animal lovers). Part of the experience here was boarding one of the 'local' buses. These clearly seem to be pick-up trucks, with a roof attached to the back, and they also operate as a package delivery service for locals. It really was quite a journey to remember. However we misjudged the timing of the last bus so had to hitch our way back. I've never hitched before, and it didn't end like a cheap teen horror film, where the unsuspecting hitchers are hacked to pieces by the local masochists, so it couldn't have gone better. It was actually a really pleasant experience, the couple who picked us up were really nice, so basically the lesson learned is you don't need buses all the time round here. At least with hitching you get air con!

So that was the end of my South East Asian trip, so I headed back for Bangkok - which was more comfortable aside from the occasional annoyance from a chubby hyperactive child - to make myself ready for the flight to Australia. However, I did read today that a Tsunami might possibly hit the Pacific coast of Oz, which did leave me wondering if Cairns will still be there when I arrive tomorrow. By the sounds of it it's not going to affect Australia much, which is good news. I'd have hated to have got my hopes up for Australia, only to find nature had other ideas for my trip. Not this time nature! NOT THIS TIME!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Japin' round the world: Looks like a lady, when actually it's a chap!

Right so having had enough of Cambodia, I made my way to Bangkok. This was not the easiest of journey's as crossing the Cambodia/Thailand border is quite a protracted affair. You have to queue up for ages just for them to stamp and check your passport. Thankfully - and contrary to rumors I've heard - this didn't require me to part with any cash, although I think if I'd been coming from Thailand it would have been a different story altogether. After the long wait at the Thai border, I then was faced with a long bus ride to Bangkok, and then another fairly drawn out journey to find the hostel (which isn't very near the center of town). All of this in 35 degree heat did try my patience a little, but thankfully the hostel wasn't terrible so I took some comfort from that.

So what to say about Bangkok itself? Firstly it's very different to what I was expecting. It's quite a modern city and unlike any other cities I've been to in South East Asia, the locals tend to leave you alone. Perhaps it's because Thailand has been a destination for western tourists for as long as it has, has made tourists seem unremarkable. Add to that the fact that there is a definite feeling that the Thai people are generally better off than their Cambodian and Vietnamese neighbors makes this place seem almost like coming home for me. It's a massive relief after seeing all the poverty and problems in South East Asia to return to a country which is generally doing ok for itself - by comparison at least. As a result of this fact, the city feels more familiar than others in Asia so far (Hong Kong aside), as there are many recognizable brands here. One of which is Tescos strangely; I guess the comments about them taking over the world weren't too far from the truth?

Of the things to see, I have taken a walk down the famous Koasan road where many tourists stay or shop when they stay in Bangkok. However, I personally am not a fan of it. It feels really seedy, not the least because the western tourists there are either a bit dodgy themselves or are clearly just there for the many vices Bangkok is known for, or don't have the mind to leave and take in some of the nicer things Bangkok has to offer. Also it's very dirty and the food is over-priced, small in portion (a rare thing in South East Asia) and not very tasty. I can safely say the restaurant I ate at here was the worst I have ever encountered in the world ever, and that is not something you get to say everyday.

Getting away from Koasan, there are much better things to see. If you are a fan of shopping for instance, there is an extensive shopping complex in Siam Square in the heart of the city. Personally I wasn't there to shop, but simply to enjoy the air conditioning, which is great to begin with but after a time becomes a bit too cold. Also worth seeing is the golden mount, which is a spectacular golden Buddhist temple built on top of a small mount. Basically there is a hell of a lot more to Bangkok than the tourist traps.

Also the royal palace, and some of the temples around it are really amazing to see. The level of detail going into them was surprising. The Thai architects also seem to make a big thing about using gold a lot too. There are scores of golden Buddhas around the place and all the most grand buildings are decked out with gold (or at least gold imitation) tiling. Needless to say the Thai royalty have a big obsession with bling.

As well as bling, the Thai king also seems to like making sure everyone can see him in some capacity, as there are many portraits of him along some of the main roads and on government buildings and schools. It's almost like a cult of personality, which is made quite funny by the fact that the king looks pissed off in these portraits. I don't know if this is his definition of looking regal, or if he just really hates having his picture taken, but judging from the pictures alone he's not a happy chappy. Another telling thing is these portraits are made to make him appear younger than he is (he's about 83). Rather than him aging gracefully in the pictures and on the banknotes as our Queen does, he seems to stay at a perpetual age of about 40-50.

Anyway after a few days of Bangkok I can safely say I've had enough of the place. It's really hot, and quite a large city, so takes a long time to travel from one end to the other. Also I find myself hating the other westerners I see around the city, who are more gentrified tourists on package holidays, mindlessly barging their way round the sights of the city, or are weird sex tourists hanging round with women half their age - not that this isn't common in South East Asia, but here it shows more. I think I'm going to head to the beach now in the south of Thailand for a bit for a real rest.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Japin' round the world: Angkor...what?

Now based in Siem Reap, I have been able to enjoy Cambodian life outside of the city. Being here has also given me some time to see the Temples of Angkor, which are the reason for Siam Reap's significance on the Cambodian map.

I only ended up spending a day seeing the temples, and in retrospect I think this was enough, as there is the option of getting a one, three or seven day pass to the temples. This was enough time as firstly, it was very hot and it caused me to sweat like Richard Nixon, and secondly it involves more physical activity than you would first imagine; some of the temple stairs are like climbing up a vertical rock face, and I was unwisely wearing flip flops which made the task quite interesting. Another issue is there is only so much time you can really look at temple for. There are so many dotted around the place that once you've seen a few you feel like you've seen them all. Sure if you know a lot about the temples and are really interested in ancient history or archeology then you'll love it. But for a TV and internet obsessed journalism graduate, it's not really a week long excursion kind of job.

The temples are impressive though. Some are absolutely massive, and are made of stones that originated from over fifty kilometers away is quite awe inspiring. In many cases the temples have crumbled a bit, but in some ways this adds to their ancient charm. Other look as if they've been restored with completely new stone, and it makes you wonder to what extent is this a reconstruction or the real article. Also each temple is - unsurprisingly - crawling with locals trying to sell you things and here they are much more tenacious than the average souvenir selling pest you meet in the South East Asian region.

These sellers are much more used to tourists saying no so are more persistent, or attempt to use subtle persuasion to make you buy from them, or start telling you information about the temples you didn't ask for and attempt to get a dollar off you after. Still it's quite easy to see them coming and in which case you can tell them to go away. In a way it's a pain as you sometimes can't just stand and take in the sights, as you suddenly hear someone shouting from a few meters away, "Sir! You buy t-shirt" etc. Still having grown used to this style of selling I can't say I wasn't expecting it.

Of the temples to see I'd have to say I enjoyed Ta Prohm the most. It's a walled temple, which is a little further from the main road connecting the temples than others. For this reason you get less souvenir sellers around, and it's quite peaceful, except for the general jungle noises around, which makes it feel more ancient temple-like. In it you also see it's been restored to a lesser extent, so it feels like it's still lost, and you've just happened across it for the first time in years. Albeit with several hundred other tourists. Either way I can see why it's been used as a location for some films (sadly one of them was Tomb Raider, but as it was such an impressive temple it can be forgiven).

Finally to end the day I went back to watch the sun set over Angkor. For this I went to a temple which was up a hill, and gave a spectacular view over the forest land around the area. All in all it was a brilliant experience, but a tiring one. I'm generally feeling quite tired of moving about all over the place and with two weeks yet before I get to Australia I might find somewhere quiet in Thailand to relax for a bit before the Australian leg of my journey.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Japin' round the world: Genocidal Japes

So now I'm in Cambodia. You'd think all South East Asia was near enough the same, but rest assured it is not. Compared to Vietnam, Cambodia is noticibly poorer. There are many more beggars here, the countryside is stunning if a bit littered with rubbish, and also the cities aren't quite so densly populated. Of course the latter point is a definate step in the right direction after the insanity that was Ho Chi Minh City. The only downside here is pretty much the same one I faced in Vietnam and even a bit in Hong Kong. That is, that to the local populace I appear to made of solid gold and everyone wants a piece of the action. The biggest offenders here are the tuk tuk drivers (tuk tuks are those little motorbike-car hybrid vehicles). Some of them will actually follow you for a couple of minutes, as you repeatedly tell them to leave you alone. Once again, I wish I had some kind of blunt instrument to make my lack of interest in a tuk tuk ride known to all.

Well anyway, despite the background noise of tuk tuk drivers asking, "where you go" and the occasional restaurant owner asking, "where you from," I took in a few sights in Phnom Pehn the Cambodian capital. Most of these were related to the atrocities between 1975 and 1979 when the Khmer Rouge decimated the country. One such sight was the former S21 prison.

This was constructed hastily out of a high-school (as you can imagine the Khmer Rouge weren't that fond of the educated, which shows when you study their political aims and their understanding of marxism, so using a school made sense). This was a terrible place, and I wonder if going to Auschwitz has the same effect on people, but the brutality that went on in S21 is pretty unspeakable. Also there is a strict no laughing rule whilst on-site, which whilst seeming a little weird is understandable. In any case there isn't a great deal to laugh about there. The whole place feels like the prison in Nineteen Eighty Four, as does the Khmer Rouge regime seem a little like the power mad IngSoc party, as the things that people were asked to confess to were akin to the thought crimes of the book.

Afterwards I went to visit the Killing Fields, which is also quite a grizzly experience not least because of the human remains littering the fields, and the many mass graves dotted about the place. Its peaceful now, but in a sort of 'silent as the grave' manner. It's one of those sights you really have to see to understand the madness of humanity sometimes. Not to mention it's an important lesson to what can happen if the wrong people take power, and no one does anything.

From what I've learned the whole Khmer Rouge system was pretty poorly conceived by a group of mad and misguided fools. For one thing the revolution was not really a popular one, all that had simply happened was the Khmer Rouge just took power and sought to change the country into a artificially constructed agrarian economy, with a heavy emphasis on self sufficiency. Even the final idea turned out to be bullshit anyway, as they ended up importing heavily, and exporting for profit, which sometimes left no food for the workers producing it. Also they had the most clumsy and self praising (to the regime) national anthem ever. In summing up it was a horrible mess.

After all the depression and death I'd seen, it was time to go somewhere a bit more upbeat, so I've now made my way to Siem Reap in the north west of Cambodia. It is very a nice here, if a little touristy, but it's a lot more easy going after all the cities I've visited. Over the next few days I'm going to take in the Temples of Angkor and hopefully be inspired by humanity for once this week instead of horrified by its darkness, or mildly irritated by persistent tuk tuks.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Japin' round the world: One fatality en-route to Saigon? Does that constitute a good journey in Vietnam?

So I finally made it down to the Southern edge of Vietnam, to the surprisingly westernized Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City officially, although the locals don't seem to call it that). The journey to Saigon, from Hoi An, was a little marred by the fact that the bus driver managed to run someone over an hour into the journey. This was pretty unpleasant, the bus was traveling some speed when it hit the guy and, judging by the fact the bus rocked a bit after hitting him, I think he might have gone under the wheels also. I had a pretty good view of the aftermath from my window and it didn't look good. The worst thing was the way that the locals dealt with the victim, as instead of waiting for an ambulance, they picked him up themselves - without a stretcher or anything - and placed him in the back seat of a car. This was quite frustrating to see, having learned before that that the one thing you don't do to a person injured in a car accident is to move them.

After this and about 24 hours of sheer bus travel (including some truly shocking Vietnamese variety performances being obstinately played on the bus's video screen) I arrived in Saigon. Eventually I got set-up and went out to explore. There are a few things to see here, but in general the city makes me feel like being in Hong Kong again. Saigon is a world away from what it's like in Hanoi. It might have something to do with this being the economic hub of Vietnam, whilst the North is the seat of government. Still saying that Saigon is a crazy place. The roads are wider than Hanoi but that only means they cram more traffic onto it. To put it into numbers, there are 4 million bikes on the road here and that statistic is quite believable when you witness the roads here.

So what is there to see in Ho Chi Minh City? Well I took in a few interesting sights. One good thing to see is the Reunification Palace, which is where the President and Vice President of South Vietnam - prior to the reunion of South and North - lived and worked. For the most part this place looks very 60s in design. The interior gives that feel too. It's quite a lush palace all in all, and to be fair I wouldn't have minded being the South Vietnamese president if that had come as part of the package. What's a little strange are the tanks sitting outside the building, which are there to represent the fall of the Southern government.

Another sight worth seeing is the War Remnants Museum, which gives a look at some of the uglier sides of the war - and considering how ugly a war it was, (a sort of a Nick Griffin of a war if you will) it's pretty ugly. There are lots of pictures detailing the horrors of the American massacres of civilian villages, and also of the results of the napalming that went on. However, like in Hanoi, there is a definite feeling that the story is very one-sided. Obviously what the American's did was criminal and they shouldn't have even been in Vietnam, but it was akin to propaganda. The fact there was a hall named "Historical Truths," which any History student will tell you is a bullshit statement, kind of sums up this matter for me.

I also took in the Chu Chi Tunnels whilst I was in Saigon. Now these were interesting, as they were used by the Viet Cong to hide from the Americans and ARVN (The Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the name of the South Vietnamese Army). These had been widened for westerners but were still tiny to fit into, and it's obviously hard to imagine living down there. They are almost like human sized rabbit holes , but imagine a rabbit hole being inhabited by militant rabbits who build their own weapons - like some kind of evil Duracell bunny - and you kind of have it. Whilst I was here I also took the chance to fire an AK47. It may seem like an obvious thing to say but machine guns are bloody loud and this wasn't helped by the flimsy ear-protection offered by the shooting range. They were literally an old pair of Sony Headphones. Still it was a really cool experience and I had a few shots on the automatic setting also, which was awesome!

Still, I had now done Vietnam for long enough and it was time to head to pastures new. So now I have hopped across the border to Cambodia, where I shall remain for the next week or so. Still Vietnam left me with a good impression. I'd heard conflicting reviews about the place but on the whole I enjoyed my time there. It was as cheap as was promised, has some great sights to see, and is generally pretty safe for travellers, as long as you don't do anything stupid of course.