“Did you know that ‘but’ means ‘no’?”
It was evening, and we were sitting in the common area of our guest house, an open structure with chairs, benches and a pool table, sat on the edge of the beach. Two locals were potting poolballs in exactly the way I had failed to a moment ago. Every so often, bats raced over our heads as they flew through the common room to eat the bugs that clustered, suicidally, around the lights. There was the sound of waves breaking. BK-C and I were arguing about education policy with a Dutch life coach. She had just interrupted my reasoned and, if I may say, elegant, riposte to her previous argument, to deliver to me this tiny bit of life coaching.
I really hate people telling me what to think, especially through the medium of meaningless clichés. I took a deep breath, had a sip of my gin & tonic, and carried on: “but what you’re not taking into account…”
That’s it. End of story. I was very restrained. Why have I just recounted this tale of me being a little bit of an arse to an otherwise very nice lady? Well, mainly it’s because I’ve just discovered that it’s actually very difficult to start a post summarising a long period of travel without resorting to meaningless clichés, grand generalisations, or speculations about what you may or may not be thinking/expecting/visualising. Travelling, in other words, is a lot like the rest of life. There are highs and lows. There are good days and bad days. Life is not, in fact, a beach everyday. Ok, maybe every other day. And maybe there have been some phenomenal experiences that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. But the point is, I’m going to have to use some sub-headings here. Maybe even a list.
Things to Remember
THERE HAVE BEEN distinct phases to our travel. We travelled from Bangkok, into Cambodia, up through Vietnam, through Laos, back into northern Thailand, and back down to Bangkok. I think of this as Stage 1.
I’ve previously written about our time in Vietnam and Cambodia, so let me just select a few things from Laos and northern Thailand. In Laos, we visited Luang Prabang, which is a city of much culture, history and wonderful temples. We got up early, when it was still dark, and went to watch the giving of alms, where long lines of orange robed monks took offerings of rice from the devout kneeling at the side of the road. Then we wandered around the morning market, sampling all kinds of new foods, before ending at a local coffee shop where we drank coffee strong enough to bring back the dead, sweetened with condensed milk. This is one of my favourite memories.
It’s hard to make generalisations about an entire people, but of course we all do, and I’m not making an exception for the people of Laos, who were unfailingly lovely. We travelled up the Mekong River from Luang Prabang into northern Thailand; rocks loomed out of the cold morning mist, and we huddled underneath blankets as our junk boat cut through the water. Eventually, the sun burnt away the mist and we were left seeking shade as dense jungle swept by on either side of this wide, wide river. That evening, we docked at a tiny village in the middle of the jungle, for our homestay. As we walked up the dusty hill amongst the houses on stilts, people came to their doorways to stare, in silence; young children in raggedy, dirty T-shirts hid from us; a dog, panting in the heat, watched us, her teats gorged and hanging, two puppies playing underneath her; we looked behind, and a straggling group of older children had begun to follow us. I have never felt more foreign than at that moment. That night, we saw stars like I have never seen before. Two other guys and I broke the awkwardness of no common language with our hosts by making shadow puppets on the wall for their kids, the mother smiling on. Then we fell asleep on the floor, under mosquito nets, wrapped in the utter, utter silence of the night time village.
IN MAE HONG SONG, northern Thailand, we were two of the few westerners in the sleepy town, and ate phad thai omelettes sitting on the floor, looking out over a lake where the brightly illuminated pagoda was reflected. Later, we bought hand woven textiles from a little old Karen woman at the night market, the prices embarrassingly cheap.
The next day, we hired a guide and hiked through what seemed to be unspoilt jungle to reach two local villages, one of the Hmong people, the other of the Karen people. There was no trail, there was no path – just hacking our way through head high bamboo. Yes, we ran out of water towards the end, and yes we had to remind ourselves that we were having fun – but it’s not these things that I remember, it’s the children playing with a kite made out of the plastic bags, the wrinkled faces of the old women as they watched us wander about the village, the constant fear of standing on a snake amidst the bamboo…
FROM THAILAND WE flew to Hong Kong, and spent a month in China. This was Stage 2. China gets a stage all to itself because it’s so big and because at times it was something of a trial. I’ve written extensively about the country, so I won’t recount it all again here except to say that hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge was one of the best treks I’ve ever done.
WE FLEW FROM Shanghai to Taipei, and spent three weeks in Taiwan. Then we flew to Tokyo, and spent three weeks in Japan. After that, it was to Yangon for three weeks in Myanmar. This was Stage 3. We were travelling fast, we saw a lot and we had some of the best and most memorable experiences of the trip so far. I intend to write more about all three countries (I took a lot of notes and a lot of photographs), so I’ll just pick one thing from each place.
At the southern tip of Taiwan is the national park of Kenting, a beautiful expanse of rolling hills, cliffs and coasts that has much in common with the south west of England, except that it’s tropical. We had no transport of our own while we were there, but Vincent, the wonderful owner of our hostel, took pity on us and drove us around the coast to show us his favourite places. He gave up a successful career as a web designer in Taipei and Beijing so that he could open a business in Kenting and spend his time surfing. We reaped the rewards of his choice.
IN JAPAN, WE had the luck to visit during sakura, cherry blossom time, and the trees were bright and bristling with flowers, the petals shivering in the wind. On our first full day we travelled to Kyoto on the Shinkansen, bullet train, and after checking in at our Capsule Ryokan hotel (all tatami floors and folding floor futons), we hot footed it to the Toji Temple, where a monthly flea market was just starting to close. There, we darted between stalls to look at people’s wares even as they were packing them up; BK-C bought vintage kimonos and antique washi paper, whilst I, inexplicably, bought a hand painted Union Jack flag from the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics. Then we went into the gardens of the Toji Temple, and had our first taste of why Japanese gardens and temples are so famous the world over. We’ve visited a lot of temples whilst we’ve been traveling. It’s fair to say that we’ve become a little jaded (in fact, the worst kind of traveller – the constant comparers: “yeah, this is ok, but it’s not as good as Wat Pho in Bangkok.” Or “yeah I could climb those steps to go and watch the sunset from the top of the temple, but it’s not going to be as breathtaking as that place in Luang Prabang. Why bother?”). But I never got bored of visiting Japanese temples. Their elegant aesthetic, the precise beauty of their gardens, the quiet contemplation of sitting on the tatami floor – I fell in love with all of this.
IN BURMA, WE visited Bagan, a vast, scrubby plain where, from the 9th to the 13th centuries, Burmese kings vied to build increasingly magnificent temples, and where over 2,000 of those temples remain today. We hired electric bikes and zoomed about the plain in the 40 degree heat, slipping and sliding in the sand, visiting whatever temples took our fancy. Although there were plenty of tourists at the bigger temples, most were deserted, and we explored them Indiana Jones style, with torch and whip. Ok, maybe not the whip, but certainly the torch. On the walls of many remained 1,000 year old drawings, and it is a remarkable feeling to stand alone in the dark, quiet and relative cool of one of these temples and to stare upon the doings of people long dead, the pictures drawn before Chaucer put quill to vellum to pen the Canterbury Tales, even before Richard I sat on the English throne. There is no glass, no grill between you and these incredibly precious paintings, just air and your own sense of wonder. I shall name our firstborn Indiana.
THEN WE FLEW back to Thailand, visited a couple of islands, and headed south into Malaysia, where we’ve been for the past month. Malaysia has had the most consistently great food of the trip. Because of the uniquely cosmopolitan make up of the country, you can eat Indian curry for breakfast, Chinese food for lunch, and Malay food for dinner – and every time you’re eating the local cuisine. Increasingly, as we travel, I find myself spending less time – or sometimes no time – reading the ‘sights’ part of the Lonely Planet, and instead spending hours salivating over the ‘eating’ section, in order to plan what restaurants and street stalls we’re going to visit. Eating is a pleasure, everyday; seeing temples is not.
On Saturday, we arrived in Singapore. Next, we’re travelling to Indonesia. When we leave Indonesia, in September, that will be the end of Stage 4. Stage 5 will be Australia and New Zealand. We return on 2 January, 2015. I’m sure that won’t be a downer.
Things to Forget
Inevitably, and yet also in a way that surprises me, every time, life is not a montage of edited highlights, even when travelling full time. As I write this it is a Sunday, and BK-C and I are sat in our room, spending the day writing and reading. It’s our first day in Singapore, and we’re spending it indoors. We travelled really fast in the first five months, and it takes a toll. You have to have down time. After a while of spending two or three nights in a place you start to crave continuity. And you realise that you can’t go on walking into furniture in the middle of the night when you get up to go the toilet. Eventually you’ll fracture something (once I thought I had, and lay in bed, in the darkness, suffering in silence and wondering what lie I could tell to my friends and family about how I fractured my leg).
BK-C and I seem to measure everything in the domestic: could we live here? Would we want that table in our house? Would we get better service here if we were regulars? It’s different for other travellers, of course, but for us one of the most important things about a place we visit is where we stay. Our room has to be somewhere where we can spend time, where we can lie on the bed and read, or pretend to write and instead stare out of the window. For other travellers it’s about meeting other people, the location of the accommodation, the availability of wifi… and of course all of those things are important to us, but if a room is nice, then none of the other things really matter. Every place must feel like a little home. This means, of course, that if we don’t like our accommodation then it can colour our entire experience of a place. In Langkawi, our room was a dirty box with no window, and thus the whole island was a downer for us. At times like this our friends and family seem a long, long way away, and we wonder why we’re here (similarly, you feel very alone when you’re sat on the toilet at 4am for what is the tenth time that night, in your guesthouse’s little shared bathroom that, as you’re going to realise later, has open topped walls abutting the common room).
However much you try and keep in touch with home, there are things that you miss. Two sets of friends have got engaged whilst we’ve been out travelling: both sets are getting married before we’ll return. My father-in-law’s cancer has come back. My granddad has died. Two sets of friends have had babies. Many more children of friends have changed alarmingly quickly (I mean, is that normal? Shouldn’t they stay in stasis or something until we get back?). England still haven’t won the world cup. Again.
Things to Learn
This wouldn’t be a self-reflective post on a travel blog if I didn’t have a list of all the things that I’ve learnt whilst we’ve been away. So here it is.
- The place where we sleep is also the place where we read, and thus it must be nice; or we must make it nice through the medium of post it notes on the walls, filled with lists of things to do and quotes from inspiring people. Yes, we are losers, but I knew that before we came travelling and so it has no place on this list.
- Our favourite places have history and culture and a creative scene.
- Don’t let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t take your phone, your ipad, your laptop with you: they’re wrong.
- It’s heartbreaking not to be able to attend your grandad’s funeral.
- I scream like a girl when I see a cockroach. Every time.
- Gaffa tape is one of the most useful things you can travel with.
- You can never eat too many chinese dumplings.
- It’s still hard to make time to do all the things you want to do, even when staying in a hut on tropical beach (this must be what retired people feel like).
- British humour isn’t universal. Or, there are a lot of people in the world who just don’t understand how funny I am.
- Mutton is delicious, and should be used more in Britain.
- I’m still not very good at relaxing.
- Condensed milk in coffee is ace.
- Indian food makes a fantastic breakfast. A curry trumps a full English, any day.
- Sitting on a chair designed for primary school children doesn’t in any way affect your ability to enjoy your food.
- You don’t always need to plan, and things will work out.
- But it’s still better to plan. I’m not a hippy, for goodness sake.
- Don’t send text messages to people at home telling them what a killer time you’re having on your tropical island. They’re either asleep or at work when you send them, and both seem to make people grumpy.
- Bigger mosquitoes are easier to kill than small ones.
- Tea without milk is good, often better than tea with milk (I’m looking at you, Lipton Tea).
- Tiger Balm is the most effective thing to put on bites. Try it.
- Except ant bites, for which nothing works. Wear mittens in bed.
- Writing everyday makes me happy. So maybe I am a little bit of a hippy, after all.
THIS IS THE bit where I end with some wise and meaningful words. Like the beginning, though, it’s difficult not to stray into clichés and platitudes. The learning that comes from travelling is lots of little pieces of wisdom that accrete over time, like the lint in your tumble dryer. So, I’ll just settle for this: it’s been amazing.
But I can’t wait for what the next six months will bring.
What I’ve Been Reading For The Past Six Months
Ferried over rough seas, bounced at the back of minivans, perched on mounds of luggage, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my kindle over the past six months. This is what I’ve read, in no particular order:
– Wool, Hugh Howey
– Great House, Nicole Krause
– Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China, Paul Theroux
– The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss
– The Wise Man’s Fear, Patrick Rothfuss
– Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s, Graham Stewart
– Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s, Alwyn W. Turner
– MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood
– 1Q84, Haruki Murakami
– Road of Bones: The Epic Siege of Kohima 1944, Fergal Keane
– Show Your Work!, Austin Kleon
– The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
– Dance, Dance, Dance, Haruki Murakami
– The Collected Short Stories of Anton Chekov, Vol. 1, Anton Chekov, (Constance Garnett translations)
– The Glass Palace, Amitav Ghosh
– Life After Life, Kate Atkinson
– Reading Like a Writer: A Guide For People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, Francine Prose
– On The Steel Breeze, Alastair Reynolds
– The Complete Short Stories, Franz Kafka, Vintage Classics
– Burmese Days, George Orwell
– How To Shit Around The World: The Art of Staying Clean and Healthy While Travelling, Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth
– A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony, Hector Garcia
– Hiroshima, John Hersey
This post was written in Juara, Pulau Tioman, Malaysia, and Singapore. It was uploaded in Singapore.
NEXT TIME: The street food of Penang. Almost definitely this time. No more travel montages.