Saturday, March 30, 2013

Let's actually do Cambodia properly this time and I mean it this time (for a week)

I seem to have an aversion to Cambodia that I don't have for other popular South East Asian destinations, but it's one I've tried to get over by staying for incrementally longer periods each time I buy the $20 visa and head into the kingdom of tuk tuks, amateur con artists and more tuk tuks. The first time I stayed for about 20 minutes, the next time a couple of days and this time more than a week, so it must be growing on me. Actually, I'm not sure why I haven't spent much time here before now.

It might all come down to the bad first impressions I had of the country, which were being scammed a fistful of dollars on a visa run in March 2011 and a few dollars more by a money changer when I went back in November. Although Cambodia isn't quite as bad as Vietnam in that regard, it left some indignant consumer rage in my system that cancelled out any awe I might have felt wandering around the ancient temples, which are spoiled by too many tourists anyway. Those photos from the Angkor Archaeological Park took ages to crop down and are my crowning achievement in precision tourist genocide. Hmm, maybe I should have used a less sensitive term.

Luckily for me, Southern Cambodia was a lot less photogenic and I seemed to spend a lot of the time deliberately taking photos of things that annoyed me. But for all its faults, I'll probably come back some time to stay slightly longer again. I can't say the same about Vietnam.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Tamest dreams

This will be the final instalment in my Tedious Dreams Trilogy, I promise, but I wanted to talk about lucid dreams - something I've been intrigued by for years and actively pursued for a while, before my tragic and embarrassing lack of imagination caused me to grow disillusioned. You'll see why.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Rama IX is watching you

The face of King Bhumibol Adulyadej (stage name Rama IX) will be familiar to anyone who's visited Thailand. Whether you stuck rigidly to the tourist trail or headed off the beaten track to explore the cities before realising your mistake and running back to the tourist trail, the patriarch's kind, bespectacled face keeps a constant vigil from billboards, overpasses and even inside homes. That's a bit weird... right?

When I had a Thai girlfriend, I broached the topic of the king's omnipresence and Thailand's dystopian lèse majesté laws, which punish any verbal or written trash talk of the royal family with between three and fifteen years' imprisonment, but she didn't see anything wrong with that. When she recalled incidents she'd heard about Thais and non-Thais being convicted for speaking ill of the king, she seemed to feel real hurt like someone had insulted a close member of her family. That's a bit weird... right?

Of course, this was the culture she'd been brought up in, so it was natural for her to see the king's portrait everywhere without it seeming comparable to looming statues of North Korean tyrants or something. And it might be completely harmless. But as someone who was brought up in a culture that values freedom of expression, where print and broadcast media aren't controlled by the government (sorry, conspiracy theorists) and where a comedian can freely explore the possibility of his queen's vagina being haunted with the blessing of the BBC, I was always slightly suspicious of Thailand's king. His portrait had started to feel like George Orwell's oppressive Big Brother, especially in favourite royal seaside escapes like Hua Hin that need to keep up appearances even more in case they pay a visit.

But now we're not together any more, I don't have to worry about hurting my ex's feelings and I'm finally free (in an emotional if not legal capacity) to dish the dirt on King Bhumibol...

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Shit optimistic Khao San Road salesmen expect tourists to say

The Philippines' non-generous 21-day visa and the impending austerity festival of Passover taking Jackie out of action meant I was back to living the bachelor lifestyle for a couple of weeks and trying desperately to find something new to keep me occupied in this well-travelled part of the planet. As ever, that meant a flight connection in Bangkok with a few days of regeneration and hibernation in its irritatingly convenient tourist district.

Bangkok's Khao San Road area deserves all the criticism it gets, but I have to admit it's a bloody convenient place to spend a night or two before booking a bus to anywhere the hell else in Thailand. Walking around these packed streets and getting hassled by suit salesman and taxi drivers every five seconds is surprisingly non-stressful though, and my theory is that it's so annoying, it stretches annoyance beyond its elastic limit until it snaps and becomes funny instead.

Here are the scenarios I imagine these overly optimistic salesmen are imagining in their heads when they make their cold sales pitches to clearly uninterested passersby.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The home stretch?

No, I didn't traverse 100% of that green space in Australia and China before moving on.
I'm not Pac-Man, I'm a human being, dammit

At the start of 2013 I had an extremely vague plan for how my trips might look through to September and the third anniversary of me setting off from my home country. For the record, today is the less prestigious 2.5-year tranniversary (or 30 months if that sounds more impressive - it somehow doesn't). I thought it was still worth clocking.

I didn't know if I was ready to go back 'home,' even just for a visit, but I was ready to leave Asia, and if I was going to go to the Americas or something next, a stop-off in the UK on the way wouldn't be out of the question. If I could get back in time for the Edinburgh Fringe in August, that would be more exciting than showing up in the aftermath, I could pretend the celebration was for me. So I figured I'd have a small farewell tour of South East Asia before heading progressively west through India and Turkey or somewhere, on the way back to Europe. I wasn't all that enthusiastic about it though, as part of me felt that going back would be going backwards and signify some sort of failure, despite the experiences I'd had.

This extremely vague plan all got a bit screwed up when I met Jackie and we planned to travel together to some of the countries she really wanted to go to. This is just the sort of screw-up I've been craving - it's great to actually have an incentive to go to places rather than just treading water in South East Asia because I'm scared of South America. As we started to make plans and the next six months started to look a little clearer, it suddenly struck me that Jackie's desire to spend some time working overseas and my search for a reason to go back home didn't have to be mutually exclusive, if you see what I'm getting at...

(I mean we're thinking of going to the UK in a few months so she can get work and I'll take a rest from immigration hassle, catch up with friends and stuff. Oh, right, you got it).

Friday, March 15, 2013

Going underground

I was worried when we got to Palawan and were told that the Philippines government limits access to the island's famous underground river and that all permits for this week were sold out already, but this turned out to be just artificial tension to make the trip more exciting, as they keep plenty of reserve tickets at the tourist office for walk-in sales.

I was even more excited when we arrived in Sabang and I saw that the subterranean river is classed as one of the New7Wonders of Nature, despite knowing full well that these selections are rigged and arbitrary. But shut up, it's a tick, and along with Jeju Island and Ha Long Bay I've only got four to go now (until they change the list again to honour the other thousands of equally worthy sights around the world).

It was ace.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


To help Jackie decide whether she really wanted to commit to travelling in the company of my stress and other neuroses, we went on a honeymoon to Palawan which was everything we could have hoped for. Not only did I get a nice mix of interesting nature, nice buildings and funny animals (as well as leaving the sleaziness of big cities behind), but thanks to a dodgy airport cafe omelette I was also incapacitated for a day.

It's almost like some supernatural entity conspired to show Jackie all the worst sides of me (inside and out), and she still somehow seemed to think I was okay by the end of it, while her flaws remain ingeniously hidden despite her protests to the contrary.

I know I promised that this blog wouldn't turn into a vomit-inducing romance novel, I guess I couldn't live up to that promise. I'm afraid It's only going to get worse.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

A prelapsarian day out

Theologians have speculated on the location of the Biblical Garden of Eden for centuries, placing it everywhere from Lebanon to Missouri.

But those holy fools and insane Mormons were way off - I found Eden on the slopes of Mount Talomo, about 50 kilometres from Davao City. It wasn't even that difficult, it was well signposted and it's in all the tourism literature.

Admittedly, it has changed a bit in the last 6,000 years. I don't remember a zip-line in Genesis, but maybe it's mentioned in one of the apocryphal gospels.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

I have a good feeling about this

My experience of the Philippines improved considerably when I got to Davao and met Jackie.

Contrary to what may be implied by my flight schedule and some of the dubious guesthouses I've accidentally ended up staying in recently, I'm not a sex tourist. A combination of empathy, respect, disgust and fear keep me safe from even considering the prospect of (ab)using a prostitute or trying to get a genuine massage (even when I went for a haircut here, the barber whispered in my ear and it turned out to be a thinly camouflaged brothel), so I'm free to be disgusted by the haggard old men with their young travel-companions-with-a-tip without any nagging sense of hypocrisy that I'm similarly taking advantage and being taken advantage of.

True, most of the girls I've got close to while I've been travelling have ended up using me as a bank, much as the guy I shared a flat with in Scotland did, but in these situations we were all looking for a potential long term partner in each other (the Scottish guy excepted). It usually took around six months or £12,000 for me to realise there was no hope of salvaging things.

Like most people, I'd be happy to share my life with one great person, but having been subjected to enough aspirational propaganda over the years, and not being burdened by the social obligation of Korean women to settle down with the least worst thing that comes along before I reach the freedom deadline of 30, I have to keep trying for as long as necessary or die alone having given it my best shot. I have a good feeling about Jackie.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Ohhh, THAT Philippines

The typhoons that spoiled my last visit to the Philippines in 2011 did such an efficient job, they even washed away my memories of this country's more horrible aspects, which all came flooding back in the two days I spent in Cebu. (All this weather imagery is just for effect, it was only comfortably cloudy this time).

I specifically chose Cebu as my entry point over Manila and Angeles because I'd been to those other places before and have no desire to ever go back. Unfortunately, it turns out Cebu's basically the same, just on a more compact scale. It may be on a dinky island, but it's no paradise.

Things were even more pronounced as spending nearly two months in Australia meant I'd lost my South East Asia sensory immunity, and walking around the dangerous city streets I was overpowered by the stink of the jeepneys and polluted streams, the trash strewn all over the place, the depressing young girls hanging off the arms of foreign pensioners, the even more depressing beggars rolling around with skateboards for legs and the parodoxical holy imagery decorating dens of sin.

It was also distressing to notice other people's perception of me shifting from generally failing to acknowledge that I even exist in Australia (perfect) to being openly stared at and a target for all sorts of scams and services. Before Cebu, I'd been able to comfort myself that any times I might have been approached by prostitutes in Thailand, there'd been enough ambiguity that I could pretend they were asking about something else. But now I don't have that comfort any more, unless 'fucking' means something else in Cebuano. Why did I leave Australia?

I'm in this country for three weeks, so if this doesn't all become darkly humorous soon I might lose my mind.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Second first impressions

Drawn back to South East Asia by the lower cost of private rooms and paying people to cook all my meals for me (it really is all about that), the obsessive-compulsive, collector part of my brain is annoyed that there aren't many new lands left to visit in these parts, but the realistic part of my brain that occasionally speaks up reminded me that that's not important. It's not like I'm out here collecting passport stamps, this is my actual life.

Travelling extensively in this part of the world has taught me which countries I like and which are to be avoided, and there's always more to see - especially in countries I didn't visit for so long the first time around. Indonesia is an obvious choice, as even though I had some of my worst travel experiences in that country I've only been to two of its islands, but I opted for the Philippines again, which I really didn't see much of in 2011 thanks to arriving at the height of typhoon season. Maybe plans are useful sometimes.

I was so disappointed by the Philippines last time, mostly the fault of the typhoons admittedly, that I passed some time trapped in my rain-battered hotel room recalling my first impressions of all the countries I'd visited up to that point, to see whether my initial experiences coloured my overall opinion of a place. The jury's still out, so I've brought the list up to date with more first impressions of the countries I've visited since.

I checked the weather forecast for Cebu and it looked peachy, so I was optimistic that the Philippines would do better the second time around. I was wrong. But that's probably a good thing, as it turns out people enjoy my blog most when I'm angry, stressed, uncomfortable and generally not enjoying myself for your entertainment. Always glad to be of service.