Hell is a Tropical Island: Or, Why I Am An Awful Backpacker


IT’S BEEN A while since I last posted, I know. In Burma it was because access to the internet was patchy at best, and that was without the regular power cuts; but since then? It’s because I’ve been gripped by a terrible apathy: Tropicalislanditis.

Normally, I’m never without my little notebook – I write down things we see, what people say and how I feel. It’s all recorded for you, dear internet, so that I can reproduce it in what I tell myself is a witty, urbane manner. Ok, so it’s for me too, so that I can feel slightly smug about it all (although I’d probably feel a lot smugger if I was quicker at posting stuff on this blog). But since Burma, I’ve been without my notebook.

Let me explain: after leaving the 42 degrees heat and 80% humidity of Mandalay we travelled to Ko Samui, an island off the east coast of Thailand. There we met both sets of parents, and spent a blissful ten days with our family in a resort with a private beach, smoked salmon for breakfast, and eye watering prices in the restaurant. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to stay in one place for so long. Needless to say, we did very little beyond reading, eating, drinking and playing pool.


After that we parted with our parents and headed over to the west coast of Thailand to the little island of Ko Lanta, where we got a fantastic deal on a bungalow right on the beach, and I celebrated my 31st birthday. Then we took a very circuitous minivan, car, ferry, taxi route to travel south to the Malaysian island of Langkawi. And here we are now, sitting in Starbucks to use the wifi, whilst outside it rains.

Here’s the thing though: we’re bored. Worse: we’re bored and WE CAN’T BE BOTHERED. It’s the worst combination. Yes, you’re right, that is the sound of tiny violins being played, or perhaps the drip drip of your heart bleeding for us. Tropical islands are wonderful places to relax, but they are not great places to do things. I mean, I could probably go and rent a jet ski and make some heroic charge towards the swimmers paddling close to the shore, but my chest isn’t quite chiselled enough, my skin not quite bronzed enough, nor my wrist not quite braceleted enough for that particular brand of hedonism.

YOU’VE FELT THIS before – those of you with children, cast your mind back, those of you who are retired, stop pretending that reading the paper in the morning is being busy – it’s Sunday early afternoon and the day stretches out before you, a wonderful expanse of Not Working, the morning behind you as a leisurely lounge on the sofa. You could do anything, absolutely anything, yet you can’t quite rouse yourself to leave the sofa. You feel vaguely anxious that you’re not making the most of this precious free time, yet you want to take the opportunity to relax; you’re bored, but the TV or the radio or that book is keeping you glued down; and you realise that you slightly despise yourself both for doing nothing and for thinking that you should do something other than relaxing. You only really start to unwind in the evening because by then you don’t have the anxiety of time pressing down on you, and you end up going to bed late, only to wake up completely unrefreshed on Monday morning but having achieved absolutely nothing – nothing – with your weekend.

That’s pretty much what it’s like being on a tropical island all the time. Although it’s possible that I may be missing the point.


I haven’t even bothered to break out my big camera since we left Burma. That’s why I’m showing you a picture of a pineapple right now – I don’t have any decent photos, just what I’ve been snapping on my phone. Still, who knew pineapples grew on the ground like this? Not me.

I like to find solace by tormenting the local wildlife.

I like to find solace by tormenting the local wildlife.

YESTERDAY, THINGS REACHED a crisis point. We didn’t set an alarm, and when we did rouse ourselves, we just lounged about in our tiny, cramped, windowless yet air-conditioned room in the guesthouse we’re occupying, caught in a paroxysm of apathic homesickness, looking at facebook pictures of how friends at home are re-decorating their houses, building new garden sheds, or Having Fun Without Us. We didn’t want to go to the beach, because it was stiflingly hot; there was no one else in our guesthouse to socialise with, probably because the rooms are like prison cells; and we didn’t want to wander the streets of the town we’re in because this is tourist central and I don’t want to buy another pair of board shorts, thank you, or eat at your overpriced and yet underspiced restaurant. We had a long, soul searching discussion about why we’re travelling, what we’re getting out of it, and when did we become so bitter and ungrateful? (actually, I’ve always been bitter, but I’m generally better at hiding it). Then we realised it was time to take things in hand: so we went to buy some stationery.

After some initial horizon scanning, we identified the things that were important to us in life and travelling, tabulated the data to identify what could/couldn’t achieve whilst travelling, and then set a colour coded schedule for the coming weeks with some overarching strategic objectives. What else would you do in this situation?

After some initial horizon scanning, we identified the things that were important to us in life and travelling, tabulated the data to identify what we could/couldn’t achieve whilst travelling, and then set a colour coded schedule for the coming weeks with some overarching strategic objectives. What else would you do in this situation?

The problem is, we’re kind of inbetween most other people we meet who are travelling. There’s the early twenty-somethings who (with some notable exceptions amongst the people we’ve met) generally want to get drunk and wear as little clothing as possible; and then there’s the older travellers, generally in their 50s or 60s, who are either very well travelled and just Better At Life than us, or instead credulous and herding together for protection. There aren’t really many people in between. Apparently all the 30-somethings are at home having, well, homes and families and things. If you want to put a label on us, then I think that we fall into the flashpackers category, although it’s a bit of a loose term.


Both BK-C and I are on career breaks. There are definite things that we want to achieve – apart from seeing the world, of course – whilst we travel. For me, it’s my writing. For BK-C, it’s to eat a lot of different foods and talk to a lot of different people. Maybe it’s because your thirties are the first time that you start to feel the grains of your life slipping past, but it’s hard to find the right balance between doing things and not doing things – too many experiences in too short a time and you quickly become tired and jaded, doing too little over too long a time and you soon become bored and apathetic. Right now, we’re in the latter; at the end of Burma, we were in the former. So now we’ve got colour coded goals, we’ve got plans about when to get up, when to lie in, and – of course – where we’re going to go. Yeah we’re probably massive losers, but tomorrow we’re heading to George Town, on Penang, the food capital of Malaysia, and honestly? I can’t wait to get up off the sofa.


This post was written and uploaded on Pulau Langkawi, Malaysia.

NEXT TIME: Normal service is resumed and I actually write something about the places we’ve been. I’ve got posts about Burma and my final China post stacked up, so expect something on them. I’m also dying to write about Malaysian food, but I’ll save that until after George Town. 

Burma: First Impressions


IN A DEPARTURE from the norm, arriving in Burma has moved me to blog about it immediately – no two month wait for me to get round to writing up my notes this time. If you’ve been following my blog, then you’ll most recently have been reading about my time in China. Since then I’ve been to Taiwan and Japan, but don’t worry about that – save to note that the particular, efficient, tech-loving and rule abiding nature of Japan is a world away from Myanmar (yes, that’s right, I am using the country’s old and new names interchangeably – deal with it).

ON THE FLIGHT from Kuala Lumpur, where we’d just been for a 12 hour layover, there were many different faces – Indian sub-continent, East Asian, Thai, Burmese (the largest ethnic group in Burma), European. A reflection of the ethnic diversity of both Burma, and (no doubt) Malaysia, along with the increasing popularity of Burma as a tourist destination (I read that in 2013 300,000 tourists visited the country; this year it is estimated that 1 million will visit). There was also a group of Muslims returning to Yangon after having been on Hajj. One older lady sat staring out of the window, fondling a set of prayer beads, her lips soundlessly mouthing suras. Her prayers were interrupted every so often by epic belches that caused the few Europeans (all French except us) to turn round in their seats. She would go from silent prayer to holy burp back to silent prayer as if nothing had happened. Later, she swapped seats and ended up next to BK-C, who she showed pictures of her grand daughter. I passed in and out of sleep, glad that it was BK-C attempting to explain that we had no faith when the lady asked if we were Christians.

Arriving in Yangon airport was a lesson in how quickly Myanmar is changing. At the time of writing, the most current Lonely Planet guide was published in November 2011, and so much crucial information is out of date (another guide is due to be published in July 2014). The guide is very clear that getting a visa on arrival is impossible, though the first thing that we saw when we landed was a booth with a big sign above it saying VISA ON ARRIVAL, with a big queue in front. We’d got our visa in Bangkok, probably the best and quickest place to get it (if you’re planning on doing the same, then I recommend twotravelaholics comprehensive explanation of the process). I don’t know how the visa on arrival works, but solely on the strength of an advert on the front of the tourist map we were given, I think that you can arrange it through the website myanmarvisa.com. It looks to be about three times as expensive as getting one in Bangkok.

Similarly, the LP is adamant that it’s impossible to withdraw money from ATMs in the country, noting that you should bring enough US dollars to last your trip and that you should change them on the black market, where the rate is ten times better than the official one. At the airport there were huge billboards advertising that one particular bank now allows you to withdraw money at its ATMs using Mastercard; we’ve also heard that it’s possible to withdraw money on other cards (though have done neither ourselves yet). This morning, we asked at our hostel about changing US dollars into the local Kyat, and were pointed to an exchange booth on the opposite side of the street: it had a big digital sign saying that it exchanged US Dollars and Euros, and it gave a decent rate (i.e. nearly the rate that XE.com shows). I understand from the hostel that the rate is the same everywhere – so I presume that they’ve brought the official rate up to cut out the black market. Finally, there’s a decent internet connection, and wifi, in our (admittedly very new) hostel, when everything that we’d read said that what internet we’d find would be slow. So from just spending 24 hours in the country it’s obvious that the place is changing rapidly, in concrete everyday ways that should impact on people’s lives.


BUT THESE CHANGES don’t make Burma any the less striking upon arrival. The taxi ride from the airport made me feel like I’d stepped into a Hunter S. Thompson book. It was dark, about 8pm, and the heat was still oppressive. Sweat beaded around my hairline, and the air felt hot in my lungs. “Hey brother,” said the taxi driver, as he lazily began tailgating the car in front at approximately 100mph, “you want the air conditioning on? It’s one dollar extra.” Looking at the circa 1985 standard issue fans that he had in the dashboard, we declined. No seatbelt, erratic driving, weaving in and out of traffic, plenty of horn honking – we weren’t in Japan anymore. The world whooshed by in series of typical SE Asian vignettes – people eating outside on plastic furniture, flashing neon lights above shabby shops, vehicles parked on the pavement. We passed the scene of an accident, where a woman lay on her side on the tarmac, unmoving. Two men in helmets stood above her, waving their arms. I told myself that she was just in the recovery position, and then she was out of sight.

Stopped in traffic, I saw the driver of the taxi next to us open his door and spit out a long red line of spittle. This was from chewing betel nut, a mild stimulant, which is apparently done in all of SE Asia but I’ve never actually seen myself. A young girl, carrying her baby brother in her arms, walked amongst the cars stopped at the lights. She stood next to my window, and looked in. I gently shook my head at her, heart wrenching inside, and she turned and walked off.

A man washes leaves to wrap betel nuts in, for selling.

A man washes leaves to wrap betel nuts in, for selling.


As we got further into the centre of Yangon, the usual SE Asia scenes took on a different, older cast, as they were all conducted in front of run down buildings that looked like they hadn’t seen any maintenance since the British left in 1948. I’ve seen plenty in Central America that fits the term “faded colonial splendour”, but this was the first time in Asia.


Unlike the rest of SE Asia, western clothing hasn’t taken over, and so most people – men and women – still wear longyis, sarong-type wraparound skirts. They probably make it easier to get back up again when you trip over the holes in the pavement.

Breakfast the next morning was mohinga (a kind of curry noodle soup), served by a laughing Burmese lady, eaten sitting on plastic chairs on the side of the street, and washed down with endless refills of green tea. We walked around, looking at the old buildings, avoiding the holes in the pavement, speaking to the locals – feeling happy to be in Burma.

Breakfast: it was 62 pence, for both of us. And it was delicious.

Breakfast: it was 62 pence, for both of us. And it was delicious.




China Goes Wild, Nearly: Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge


ABOUT A QUARTER of the way through his account of travelling through China by train in the late 1980s, Riding the Iron Rooster, Paul Theroux writes: “so far, China seemed a place without wilderness. The country had been made over and deranged by peasant farmers.” He wasn’t wrong. Even in Guilin, a place of ethereal beauty, concerted efforts had been made to make it the Authorised River Tour of the Place On the Back of the Twenty Yuan Note With Visits To Ancient And Totally Authentic Farming Villages. In Yangshuo, a town amongst the limestone karsts that are the area’s trademark, farmland extended right up and indeed onto the stone towers. So when we told people that we were going to Yunnan and they said that it was a beautiful wilderness, I was sceptical.

Coming into land at Kunming airport, we’d seen acres and acres of poly tunnels stretching off into the glinting, plastic distance. Somewhere in the haze there were also mountains, but they seemed very far away. We decided to try and get closer to them by travelling to Dali City, about four hours drive west of Kunming. After similar experiences in South East Asia travelling through mountainous country, I was expecting a very windy journey on the bus. But I’d forgotten that Chinese roads are all straight. I presume that if they encounter any mountains on the way, they just blow them up. At least it meant I didn’t get travel sick.


Dali is a pretty little walled town that sits on the edge of a lake and under the shadow of some fairly imposing mountain scenery. We were there mainly on the recommendation of an American girl that we’d been on a cookery class with in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. After we’d started talking again following the customary where-is-the-hostel-my-bag-is-heavy-I-told-you-it-was-this-way argument, we were able to appreciate why she’d recommended the place. This was the view that evening from the terrace in our hostel:

Trav10-3 The next day we wandered into the town itself, which was full of quiet streets lined with waterways and peach blossom trees.


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We came across an antique market, where traders laid out their goods on groundsheets at the side of the road. A combination of Chinese tourists and what appeared to be some serious buyers browsed through the goods, the buyers holding up pieces of jade and amber to examine them with their eyeglasses. In addition to these semi-precious stones there was a whole assortment of old Chinese wares from coins, teapots, and opium pipes to knives, chairs, and books. We didn’t know it at the time, but – with the exception of the Terracotta Warriors – these were the only genuinely old things that we’d see in Mainland China. Most “antiques” in China are just new things made to look old, and usually not very well. Most were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and those remaining are cossetted away behind closed doors, reserved only for the serious collectors. Later, in Beijing, we visited a big antiques market and were bitterly disappointed because it was all “handicrafts” and things that had been made to look old by reversing the vacuum cleaner. So we were glad that we took the chance in Dali to buy something genuinely old, purchasing a well used Chinese seal set made of solid copper (and, less good for my luggage, weighing about a kilogram). We haggled with the seller – fairly ineffectually – through a Taiwanese-American lady who happened to be there. She didn’t think that we got a very good deal, but we didn’t care because we loved it.

I’ve been carrying this around in my bag ever since, waiting until we meet up with our parents in Thailand so that I can offload it to them. Haggling in China is different to what we’d experienced previously. In SE Asia it’s a fairly good-natured affair, and you usually start off at about half the asking price and work upwards. In China, you start off at quarter the price and try your very hardest to stick to that price. Every Chinese trader we dealt with drove a hard bargain and gave nothing away. Which explains why I ended up paying £7 for a pair of gloves when I visited the Great Wall. £7 may not sound like a lot, but, trust me, when you’re buying gloves made in China, in China, it is. There’s a well known Chinese phrase: “It’s always easy to fool a foreigner.”

After the antique market we continued down quiet lanes until we reached a street that contained approximately 30% of the population of China. This is the other side of Dali – the one that’s been discovered by the Chinese tourist market. We blended into the crowd in our usual way by posing for pictures.


The Chinese like to go to popular places and do popular things. If it’s not popular then, well, it’s not popular. This means that it can be surprisingly easy to escape the crowds in China. The Yunnan Provincial Museum, for example.

WE DISCOVERED THE other 70% of the Chinese population at our next stop in Yunnan Province: Lijang. It’s supposed to be a beautiful old Chinese town, with distinctive architecture. In fact, it’s a new Chinese town built to look old, with Disneyland architecture. It has spectacular views of mountains and many, many shops, most of which sell dried Yak meat for you to take home to remind you of that time you went to Yunnan province with everyone you know.

Trav10-10 Trav10-11  Fascinating though the people watching was in Lijang, we were there only as a stepping stone onto Tiger Leaping Gorge, the one thing in China that I Definitely Wanted To Do.


So early one morning we said goodbye to our backpacks and boarded a minibus to Shangri-La (no joke, this is actually a place in Yunnan – formerly called Zhongdian until it was renamed in 2001 to attract tourists, supposedly because it’s the place that British author James Hilton based Shangri-La on in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon), which passed by the small village of Qiaotou, where the trail for Tiger Leaping Gorge begins.


Looking back from the start of the trail.

Looking back from the start of the trail.

We arrived at the trailhead having made three new friends – from Germany, Israel and France. We set out at a brisk pace, hoping to escape the expected hordes of other tourists. After all, the Lonely Planet lavishes praise on TLG, calling it the must do hike in China, and Chinese tourists are ubiquitous in the rest of Yunnan. But, in fact, we were alone as we made our way up a twisty paved road that soon gave way to a gravel path. It was a clear, sunny day and we looked out over a steep sided valley patched with rice terraces. We paused to look out over the view and adopted a more leisurely pace. After about half an hour, though, our Israeli and German friends said goodbye and marched off at speed – they were intending to hike the entire gorge in a day, whereas we had the leisure of two days. It was just myself, BK-C and Lorette, our new French friend. For most of the rest of the day we didn’t see a single other person and had the most spectacular views in all of China just to ourselves.

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If you’re a francophone then you can read Lorette’s account of our TLG hike here. If you’re not a French speaker, then you can enjoy her pictures and, if you venture further into her blog, you’ll see her wonderful, wonderful drawings, some of which she shared with us that evening (packing your sketch book and a set of watercolours at the expense of an extra coat definitely makes you a proper artist). Lorette was one of those chilled, inspiring and life affirming people that you seem to meet when travelling, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. She’d been working in Cambodia for the past eight months, teaching physiotherapy, and was on her circuitous way back there now, before finally heading back to France. Losing ourselves in conversation helped us to conquer the 28 gruelling switchbacks to the top of the gorge.

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We lunched on big, cheap bowls of noodles at Tea Horse Guesthouse, about half way, and then stayed the night at the confusingly named Half Way Guesthouse, about three quarters of the way along. Perhaps an hour before we reached Half Way Guesthouse, we caught up with the group of Chinese hikers who we’d shared the minibus with and who had overtaken us whilst we lunched at Tea Horse. At one point we all paused to appreciate a particularly breath taking piece of scenery. One of the Chinese hikers spread his arms as if to try and encompass the view, evidently overtaken by the beauty of the moment. Then he took a deep breath, gave an almighty shout, lobbed an empty plastic bottle deep into the gorge – where it will presumably join the ever increasing pile at the bottom – and stomped off. The Leave No Trace philosophy still has some way to go before it reaches China.


THE NEXT DAY, we rose early and hiked onto the end of the trail for most, Tina’s Guesthouse. Leaving BK-C at the guesthouse to read her book, Lorette, a Korean guy we met called De-Ha, and I all tramped down a steep, steep path to the ferocious river below. On the way down there were the usual stalls manned by locals selling drinks and snacks. We’d seen perhaps three of these the previous day on our journey along the trail, their owners lazing in the sun on what must have been a very slow day indeed. They sold water, soft drinks, beer and wild walnuts, a speciality of Yunnan. On the way down into the gorge, one of them also sold big bags of surprisingly authentic looking green stuff labelled Cannabis. We pointed this out to each other and raised our eyebrows at the owner, and she just laughed. The gorge was steep and I can’t imagine that the Chinese police make a habit of patrolling the place, though the owner was risking a bullet in the neck by selling drugs. It’s a mystery to me why anyone would want to buy booze or drugs half way up a mountain, but this is what amounts to the wilderness in China – a place where someone else hasn’t set up a shop yet. Go to Tiger Leaping Gorge, and go now. Don’t delay – soon it will be full of plastic bottles and, maybe, stoned westerners.

Trav10-20 Trav10-19

Looking to Hike Tiger Leaping Gorge Yourself? I recommend these blogs as a good resource.



The second one allows you to download the GPS track for your smartphone in GPX or KML format. I used the GPX track in MotionGPS [CHECK] on my iPhone, though discovered that I didn’t really need it as the path is well marked.

NEXT TIME: I finish up my travels in China by visiting Xi’An, Beijing and Shanghai.

This post was written on the bullet train from Kyoto to Hiroshima, and finally uploaded in Kuala Lumpur airport.

On Becoming a Celebrity in Yunnan Province


I’VE BEEN READING Paul Theroux’s account of travelling through China by rail in the late 80s, Riding the Iron Rooster. Although Theroux is one of the world’s great curmudgeons, you can’t fault his perceptive eye for a place, and as we travelled through China ourselves I found my self nodding furiously at his insights into Chinese culture. “I’ve noticed that too,” I thought to myself, “so that makes me just like Paul Theroux!” I imagined myself incognito in the background, the great travel correspondent watching, observing and taking notes. Then I went to Yunnan province, and realised that it was impossible for a foreigner to be incognito in China.

We flew from Guilin to Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan. I was all for taking the train, but then I discovered that it would take 24 hours so we flew instead and it took 1 hour 30 minutes, costing the same as we would have spent on the train. Every time I looked at travelling from one place to another in China, I found myself surprised anew at just how big the country is.

China map

China – it’s big. (Map courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin).

And it’s all one time zone: the whole country runs on Beijing time. When we were in Guilin, in south eastern China, it was getting light at about 6.30 in the morning – in Kunming, in the south west, it wasn’t light until about 7.30. In Xinjiang, the country’s westernmost province (bordering Pakistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) the sun doesn’t rise until 9.40am in the winter, over two hours after the sun rises in Beijing. This is bonkers.

We arrived in Kunming early evening. It was a pleasant 20 degrees centigrade, the setting sun making the picturesque park at the centre of town – with its little bridges, weeping willows and peach blossom – seem particularly lovely as we stumbled past it with all our bags, lost in the usual daze before we found our hostel. Kunming is known as the “Spring City,” because its weather is always nice – not cold in winter, and not too hot in summer. It has pretty tree-lined streets and boulevards lined with trendy shops, all kept clean and tidy by officious looking men with walkie-talkies who order the street cleaners around and move on homeless people. We’d read in the Lonely Planet that the city was very popular with international students and that a lot of people came there to learn Mandarin – but we hardly saw any Westerners whilst we were there; perhaps a handful, at most (and they were grizzled and unfriendly, the sort of traveller who would be rude to you because you had the same colour skin as them).


The next day, we wandered through the park in the centre of town. It was sunny and teeming with tourists. Stalls sold snacks, drinks and tourist tack. A man on a stage whipped a crowd into a frenzy as he auctioned off mysterious looking cardboard boxes. We ate fried potatoes covered in salt, pepper, chilli and possibly crack cocaine they were so addictively delicious. And we had our own crowd. Yes, we too were a tourist attraction. In a garden full of peach blossom trees people were posing for photographs beneath the peach blossom, until they saw me and BK-C and then they stalked us amongst the blossom for a quick snap of the funny looking foreigners. One woman just came up and asked for a photo with BK-C. BK-C demanded one in return, with her whole family:


What cracks me up most about this picture is how deeply unimpressed the older lady on the far right looks. At this point I was holding my two fingers up in the V for victory sign that is such a popular photo pose in this part of the world. She was having none of it.

Have yourself a bite. The first one's free...

Have yourself a bite. The first one’s free…

Trav9-2 One man followed us around for about 20 minutes until, when I was teapotting in front a giant teapot (why wouldn’t you?), he plucked up the courage to ask for a photo with me. It must have been my uncanny teapot impression.

I think that spending a lot of time with just the two of us may have jeopardised our grip on normality somewhat.

I think that spending a lot of time with just the two of us may have jeopardised our grip on normality somewhat.



This was our first encounter with our new found celebrity status. It’s carried on throughout East Asia. Some people pretend to take pictures of whatever’s behind us when they’re really taking pictures of us:

Here’s a man that I photographed pretending to take pictures of something behind us. He quickly refocused his lens on something else when I pointed my camera at him.

Here’s a man that I photographed pretending to take pictures of something behind us. He quickly refocused his lens on something else when I pointed my camera at him.

Other people just come right out and ask (which actually I prefer, as it feels less like you’re an animal in a zoo). If there’s a group of people sometimes we’ll rotate through the whole group doing photos with them. It’s given me a new appreciation for famous people – it must be very tiresome your face not being your own. Our new favourite thing to do is to either randomly pose for people who are secretly taking pictures of us – one couple literally fell over themselves with excitement when we did this – or to photobomb other people’s photos (people go mental – in a good way (I think) – when we do this). This must be what it’s like to be Bill Murray.

WE WEREN’T THE only people in the zoo. Chinese people come to Yunnan province not just for the spectacular scenery, but also to see the many different ethnic minorities who make the province their home. All over the province, there are groups of Chinese tourists having their pictures taken with members of these ethnic minorities in their traditional dress. The ethnic Han Chinese (who make up 92% of the population of Mainland China) seem to view these people as a form of walking entertainment – a bit like the Disney characters who walk around Disneyland, posing for photos. They’re an oddity to be ogled.

 In Dali and Lijang, there was a big business of renting out the traditional dress of different ethnic minority groups so that Han Chinese tourists could dress up, have their photos taken and laugh at how funny they looked.

In Dali and Lijang, there was a big business of renting out the traditional dress of different ethnic minority groups so that Han Chinese tourists could dress up, have their photos taken and laugh at how funny they looked.


WE VISITED THE Provincial Museum of Yunnan, where there was an exhibition on about the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Yunnan’s Peoples.” Given the interest that Chinese tourists had in different ethnic groups, we thought that it might have been popular. But it wasn’t.

The museum was a grand looking building with marble colonnades and a huge sign with golden lettering. It sits just off a main road and outside it was busy, hot and noisy. Inside the cavernous foyer it was cool, dark and silent. Two security guards were fossilised at a table just inside the doorway, next to a knife arch and a sign saying that all bags would be searched. They wore green uniforms with epaulettes and big, peaked caps. As we walked though the arch and it screamed that we had metal on us, one of them slowly rose and sighed. I offered him my bag to search but he just waved it away and led me over to a bank of lockers – all empty – and locked it up there, using a 1 Yuan coin from his own pocket to pay for the locker. Upon first inspection, the information desk in the centre of the foyer appeared to be unmanned, but actually the man sat behind it had died with his mobile phone glued to his forehead, his cheek resting on the desk. A worried looking woman eyed us from her hiding place behind the cash register in the gift store. On the other 4 floors we saw many men in uniforms guarding the dust gathered in the corners, along with the occasional, presumably lost, Chinese tourist. We left having learnt little about Yunnan, but plenty about the resource profile of Chinese state run institutions.

THERE IS A postscript to our experiences of difference in Kunming. The day after we left the city, there was a horrific terrorist attack at the train station – 29 people were killed and many more injured when a group of people ran through the station with knives, stabbing and slashing indiscriminately. Those responsible for this attack were Xinjiang separatists. Xinjiang province, in the North West, is mostly populated by Uighurs, a people who are ethnically and culturally very distinct from the Han Chinese: they look like Afghans or Tajiks, have their own language, and follow Islam. After our experience of seeing and being ethnic minorities in China, it might be tempting to draw conclusions about the motivations and causes for this act of terrorism that elide what is, in fact, a complex situation. I’m not seeking to do that. This terrorist attack was a despicable and deplorable act that can never be justified. But I also can’t help thinking that China’s approach to its ethnic minorities does little to win hearts and minds.


NEXT TIME: I discover that China isn’t all cities and farms.

This post was written on the bus from Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan, to Taipei, and posted in Kyoto, Japan.


Conversationless in China (From Hong Kong to Guilin)


THE SINGLE MOST stressful part of travelling is arriving somewhere new. You step into the airport, or the bus station, or the train station, and you’re either mobbed by people trying to sell you a taxi, a hotel, a ripoff scam; or everyone ignores you, the signs are incomprehensible and you have no idea how to get where you need to go. Arriving in Hong Kong was none of these things – our bags were on the carousel when we arrived, I was able to pick up a map of the city for free, and there was helpful signage telling me exactly how to get where I wanted to go (American airports please take note).

Stepping off the bus at 10 o’ clock at night onto busy, bright Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui we were all smiles. No one tried to sell us a tuc tuc ride, no one gave us a second look. “It’s so nice,” we said to each other as we wandered towards the hostel. “It’s like London,” meaning, of course, not that Hong Kong is anything like London (because it’s not), but that the people here were wealthier, the place was more cosmopolitan and we were just another face in the crowd, rather than The Clueless Tourists With Matching Backpacks. Yes our hostel was on the ninth floor of a building, just above a brothel catering (it seemed) exclusively to drunk Indian men, and yes our room was only the size of a postage stamp whilst costing considerably more than anywhere else we’d stayed, but we were happy to be in Hong Kong.


Because we needed a visa for the mainland, our first day was sacrificed to Chinese bureaucracy, including what seemed like an inordinate amount of time asking people if they had change because the photocopying machine in the visa office only accepted $1 coins. It was maddening, but at least it was warm in there, whilst outside it was 8 degrees – downright freezing after the heat of Bangkok.

The rest of our time in the city we spent walking. Hong Kong was clean and bright and full of people walking with a purpose. Actually, that’s a lie. Hong Kong was full of people strolling with a purpose. The people of Hong Kong, even the ones in suits, had an unhurried air about them. Yes, they were going for a business meeting, but what was the rush?  I don’t know Hong Kong, maybe the fact that it’s cold in your city and I’ve packed a wardrobe that, in hindsight, might be considered a little optimistic, consisting almost entirely of shorts and T-shirts? But the people of Hong Kong were deaf to my inappropriate clothing predicament, and instead we bobbed around behind people, trying to squeeze past, trying to walk fast, but mainly shivering in our matching his and hers long sleeved thermal tops (purchased during a similar clothing crisis just before going backpacking in Yosemite, California. I really don’t when BK-C and I started buying the same clothes, but it has to stop).


There we are, together, wearing all of our clothes that we brought with us, with our Special Hiking Gear and our Nearly Matching Buffs wrapped around our heads to keep us warm, BK-C with her Special Reflective Coat on so that she’ll be Safer Crossing the Road. For some reason, the Chinese people with us at the time of the photograph found us to be extraordinarily funny.

We visited Hong Kong Park, a very orderly place with asphalt paths, an aviary cleaned four times a day and a botanical house with lots of different plants from around the world and free wifi (as all Government buildings have in Hong Kong); we went on a Feng Shui course and a tea appreciation course provided for free by the Hong Kong tourism board; and we failed to get up to go for the free Tai Chi classes at 8am. All in all, we were very much in favour of the city.

Lens-size comparison club at Hong Kong Aviary.

Lens-size comparison club at Hong Kong Aviary.


It’s not the size of your lens that counts, it’s what you do with it.

The wonderful thing about travelling, though, is that you can be completely anonymous. It doesn’t matter if you have matching clothes which are probably a bit smelly. Nor does it matter if, after spending 24/7 together for 2 months, you start finishing each other’s sentences or, worse, just stopping half way through a sentence because you don’t need to finish it:

“Have you got the…?”
“Of course.”
“Ah. I was looking…”
“Yes, but I’ve put it in the other one now.”
“How did you…?”
“I moved the bag with the things.”
“So where are the things?”
“In the other bag.”

All of our conversations are now thus. Or, more recently (after we’ve fought over the seat with the better view of the restaurant so we can stare at other people whilst pretending to listen to what the other is saying), because we’ve exhausted all our other topics, we’ve taken to comparing things, people, places, foods (“if you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?” or “what’s the worst place we’ve stayed in?” or “where do you stand on croissants versus pain au chocolat?*”)

So when we met up with my old friend from university, Jenni, who’s now teaching in Hong Kong (“Honkers”), we were relieved that she was too polite to comment on the fact that we were wearing the same clothes, or that there was a faint edge of desperation in our desire to talk to Other People. It was nice not to be anonymous for a night, to have a common history and a shared future.

With our mind on the next stage of our trip, we talked about the differences between Hong Kong and the rest of China. Jenni told us that Hong Kongers consider themselves to be quite different from “mainlanders.” “They don’t like the mainlanders,” she said. “Hong Kongers consider them to lack decorum, like their spitting all the time and doing a poo in the street.” (For the record I have never seen anyone taking a shit in the street in mainland China, though the unique nature of Chinese toilets does mean that I’ve shared that intimate moment a little more closely with some than I would like). “When we set critical writing for the students [at school],” Jenni said, “they always complain about mainlanders.” Since the handover in 1997 Hong Kong has been part of China but has operated under a different economic and political system, which by the terms of the handover must continue until 2047. “One country, two systems,” is the Chinese mantra when it comes to this former British colony. But Hong Kong is quite different to mainland China – there’s no censorship, internet sites aren’t blocked, and capitalism has a freer reign.


I was thinking about these differences as we took the Hong Kong metro as far north it would go, so that we could cross over into the city of Shenzhen, in mainland China. The border crossing was easy; the other side, though, was dirtier and more bewildering than Hong Kong. At the exit to the metro station (which, mercifully, was also the train station) we were met by a man in an old, moth eaten uniform. “Train ticket,” he said to me as I passed. I stopped to talk to him, momentarily duped by his uniform. “Railway?” He said to me uncertainly, then more enthusiastically when I stopped. “Railway, railway!” At that point, I realised that he had none of the confident, bored authority of an official; he was just a tout, trying to scam unwary tourists into handing over their train tickets, probably so he could charge them an extortionate fee for showing them where to get their train from. In China, if someone looks like they’d rather be somewhere else, then they’re probably the person you need to speak to. If they offer to help, then they’re almost certainly not (although I must add that when we’ve asked someone for help, we’ve always found them to be unfailingly polite, if someone bemused by our attempts to mime what we’re after).


FROM SHENZHEN WE caught a sleeper train to Guilin. We shared the carriage with three generations – grandmother, daughter, and toddler. They spoke no English, and we spoke no Mandarin, so we did the soon-to-be familiar routine of hellos, smiles and blank looks of incomprehension. Every time I looked at the little boy he hid his face behind his grandmother, and refused to return my smile. His mother tried the usual routine which all parents seem to do in China when they see us, of man-handling their child into a wave and repeating, “hello! Hello! HELLO!” I have never seen a child do this independently.

We disembarked from the train at 5.45am on a Sunday to find Guilin dark and wet. We were faced by the usual barrage of taxi drivers and touts, firmly telling them that no, thank you, we did not want a taxi, despite our body language desperately screaming that there’s nothing we’d like more than to climb into their warm, dry car. Instead we walked 45 minutes from the train station to the hostel, through dark, deserted streets, arguing all the time about whether it was the right way, searching endlessly for a toilet, and being startled occasionally by an electric scooter appearing out of nowhere from behind us (they’re all over China: swift, silent, and – as with the scooters in Vietnam – deadly because they’re ridden as frequently on the pavement as on the road).

It rained for the entire time that we were in Guilin. We sat in the hostel common room, bundled up against the cold, and read our books and surfed the internet. Occasionally we wandered out to get some noodles at a local place where you ordered from a grumpy woman at a cash register by the front entrance, before going inside to present your receipt to two angry ladies who either shouted at the chef or threw together your noodles themselves. We wouldn’t have been able to do this unless a kind lady we met at the hostel had written down for us what we should order. Each time we went there, I pointed at the Chinese characters she’d written in my notebook and held up two fingers. One time, we sat next to a Swiss-Chinese man who wrote down a different dish for us to try. But we preferred the first one, because it cost only 3 yuan (30p).

And, yes, we also went for a ride down the River Li and took lots of pictures of the limestone Karsts which the area is famous for, all eerie looking in the rain and the mist which clung to their peaks.


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“Some people they say to me, will we see anything because it is raining?” our guide said to us on the bus on the way to the river. “I say to them: yes! You are actually very lucky. Because when it is not raining, there is no mist, and it is not beautiful. So congratulations for choosing to come today, when it is raining!” At the end of the trip down the river, we all trooped up to a vantage point and were ordered by our guide to take photos of the view. She held up a 20 Yuan note to show that this landscape was on the back, but the Chinese tourists didn’t need any telling and were already pushing each other out of the way to get the photograph. So we stood in the rain, and watched them, and felt very lucky. And that was Guilin.


*This last conversational topic was suggested by our good friend Benny Chastney, after hearing of our conversational dearth. Personally, my head says croissant, but my heart says pain au chocolat. If you’d like to send us new conversational topics just fill out the comments box below. Write now, don’t delay – we need your help.

This post was written on the train from Beijing to Shanghai. It was uploaded in Taipei, Taiwan.

NEXT TIME: I visit Yunnan Province in South West China, and discover that there really are parts of China that aren’t cities or farms.

Cycling in the Mekong Delta: Or The Long Reach of the Limerick Fire & Rescue Service


OUR FIRST DAY in the Mekong Delta ended in what we would all have been afraid to do in HCMC – going for a bike ride. “My back brake doesn’t work,” I told the owner of the rickety city bike that I’d been handed. He took hold of both handlebars, grasped the brakes, and demonstrated to me that “yes, but the front brake works.” We both laughed over my stupidity, and with a slap on my back I was on my way. Our group pedalled sedately along the road towards the village, passing shacks and farms, people waving at us from the roadside, mopeds honking at us from the road. It was nearly peaceful.


Yes the roads were a little narrow and yes the mopeds came a little close, but we Definitely Felt Safe All Of The Time.

At the entrance to the village proper, we stopped atop a bridge to take photos of the river. As I am prone to doing, I lingered a little longer to get a few more pictures. Then, packing away my gear, I rode off in pursuit of the rest of the group. I wasn’t the last to leave the bridge, but within  a few minutes of cycling into the village I was completely lost, without a single one of my fellow cyclists in sight. Perhaps I was distracted by the dog’s head on the barbeque that I saw, making me miss the hairpin turning just after the bridge that everyone had made. Perhaps I should just have been paying more attention. Either way, I was untroubled as I cycled through the market, dodging shoppers and moped drivers. Fortunately breaking the highway code in Vietnam didn’t mark me out as clueless, and I was keen to promote an image of confidence to anyone who may have been watching, so I cycled on – secure in the knowledge that I would eventually meet the rest of my group and that the final person on the bridge would soon catch up. The road curved round, I followed it, and soon I was out of the centre of the village and cycling along a dirt path bordered on one side by the river, and the other by people’s houses. I will admit to feeling some uncertainty at this point, but I cycled on – I really don’t know why. Then I saw a bridge crossing the river – a narrow, concrete affair with no sides – and I figured that I probably needed to go across to get back, as I’d already crossed the river once, right?


So I dismounted, and walked across with the bike, and you will be surprised to hear that I didn’t fall in. No, instead I reached the other side and cycled on for a full two minutes along an uneven, partially flagstoned path, before finally stopping. I was outside somebody’s house, a low brick structure with a corrugated iron roof. A dog regarded me cooly from beside the entrance. My unease began to peak – I was alone, in Vietnam, without a single word of Vietnamese except “thank you.” I paused to take in the situation, gripping my ineffectual rear brake in thought. The dog came over and began sniffing me. I tried mentally to map which way I should have gone, where I went wrong. Perhaps triggered by the scent of its barbecued cousin, the dog began to growl. It bared its teeth at me. I may have uttered the words “nice dog.” Whatever I said, it was clearly ineffectual as the dog ran towards me and I pedalled pedalled pedalled back the way I came. I didn’t pause to see how long it chased me for, but as I pedalled I thought to myself how thankful I was that I’d paid for that rabies vaccination.

And then, miraculously, I saw two figures cycling towards me – Colum, a fellow traveller and a firefighter in the Limerick Fire and Rescue Service, closely followed by BK-C. “We’re the search party,” shouted Colum. “Great,” I replied, “what took you so long?” (or that’s the reply the wittier version of me would have given – in fact I was gushingly grateful and happy at seeing people I knew).

And that’s the time that I got rescued by an Irish firefighter in the Mekong Delta. After that, I felt ready for anything that Vietnam could throw at me.


NEXT TIME: I learn about the war in Vietnam.

This post was written in Vang Vieng, Laos.

Ho Chi Minh City & The Mekong Delta


HO CHI MINH City (also known as Saigon, its pre Vietnam-American war name, or simply abbreviated to HCMC) and the Mekong Delta: two very different places with a lot in common. HCMC is a sprawling, urban rush, whilst the Mekong Delta is a peaceful, rural area of farms and waterways. But both play an important part in Vietnam – Saigon drives the country’s economy and the Mekong Delta feeds the nation’s people. Both are some of the most densely populated areas in Vietnam, with the sky scrapers and streets of Saigon contrasting with the farms, fruit trees and rice paddies tightly packed into the Delta. And both share a common Southern Vietnamese heritage, a separation in attitude and history from the North that is still felt by many Vietnamese today. As people are fond of saying in Vietnam (of just about anything) – it’s same same, but different.

HCMC WAS OUR first stop in Vietnam. It topped the steadily rising crescendo of beeping horns that we’ve experienced as we’ve worked our way through Thailand and Cambodia. The streets are notoriously busy, thick with mopeds and the occasional car. Crossing the street in HCMC – or indeed anywhere in Vietnam – is one of those travelling rites of passage that is so often written about as to be cliché. There are ‘pedestrian crossings’, but no one stops at them; there are red lights, but these are optional; and there are pavements, but these are mostly for mopeds, so what the hell do you think you’re doing walking on them? In Hanoi, where I am as write this, we were at a busy intersection of a main road, waiting for a less-fatal opportunity to plunge across the road, when two distressed looking American ladies came up to us. “Have you crossed the road here?” they asked.
“We’ve never crossed the road here, specifically,” I replied, “but yes we’ve crossed the road in Hanoi.”
“Oh that’s great,” one of the women enthused, “we just got here. Can we cross with you guys?”
“Sure,” I said, gripping BK-C’s hand tightly whilst subtly attempting to position her as a human shield between myself and the oncoming traffic, “we’ll go over after this red bus… ready…and go.”
And we strode out into the road, in front of a battalion of buzzing mopeds which all beeped obligingly, either to tell us that they’d seen us and would drive around us, or that they were going to collide with us (I’m never sure which). We reached the other side in one piece, the American women deliriously happy that they’d survived their first road crossing. All such crossings are thus in Vietnam.

After you...

After you…

These are the drivers that had their lights on...

These are the drivers that had their lights on.

School children practice badminton in a park in HCMC. Badminton is big out here - it's common for courts to be marked on the streets. Perhaps the absence of mopeds driving across the court at the 2012 Olympics is why Vietnam's one Olympian badminton player failed to advance past the elimination rounds.

School children practice badminton in a park in HCMC. Badminton is big out here – it’s common for courts to be marked on the streets. Perhaps the absence of mopeds driving across the court at the 2012 Olympics is why Vietnam’s one Olympian badminton player failed to advance past the elimination rounds.

AFTER THE CITY, Mekong Delta was wonderfully quiet and horn free. We visited a market with our guide, Vien, and marvelled at the diversity and plentitude of the produce, most of which we needed Vien to identify for us. Vegetables, fruits, fish, snakes, chickens, flowers – it was all there.

The Vietnamese take their dried shrimp very seriously.

The Vietnamese take their dried shrimp very seriously.

A Vietnamese lady doing her daily produce shop. The marvel is that I saw ladies like this also crossing the road unscathed in HCMC.

A Vietnamese lady doing her daily produce shop. The marvel is that I saw ladies like this also crossing the road unscathed in HCMC.

I can't testify to the animal welfare standards in Vietnam - but at least they're not battery farmed.

I can’t testify to the animal welfare standards in Vietnam – but at least they’re not battery farmed.

A member of our tour group is a hit with the local women.

A member of our tour group is a hit with the local women.

I have no idea what the person in the top right hand corner of this photo is wearing.

A fruit seller watches a bag seller pass by.

Banana flowers, delicious in salads.

Banana flowers, delicious in salads.

In the Mekong Delta, intensively farmed and super self-sufficient, nothing is left to waste. The water hyacinth, Vien explained, typifies this approach. It is encouraged to grow by the side of the river, to prevent erosion; it is dried and then weaved into baskets; used as feed for animals; as a fertiliser; and finally its leaves are laid on the ground in the dry season to keep the moisture in the soil.

Over the course of a day and a half we also visited a fruit farm, a bonsai farm, a pottery, a floating market and a handicrafts market. Although there were a few tourists in some places, they where overwhelmingly thronging with locals. The impression that I was left with was of a highly efficient, complex and, above all, successful agricultural economy. Even the rolling pin in the handicrafts market used to make sesame snap was recycled – it was an old shell casing.

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NEXT TIME: I go cycling in the Mekong Delta. Hilarity ensues.

This post was written in Hanoi, Vietnam and Vang Vieng, Laos.

Siem Reap & Phnom Penh: Or, Why I Love Morning Glory



– 53% of the population are aged 24 or under; 32% 14 or under;

– Average life expectancy is 63 years;

– Average daily income is $6.50/day, placing Cambodia at 129th in the world;

– Cambodians are the nicest people you’ll ever meet.

Children wave excitedly from the back of a rickshaw on the streets of Phnom Penh.

Children wave from the back of a rickshaw on the streets of Phnom Penh. We didn’t meet a kid who wasn’t excited to see us.

FIVE DAYS: THAT’S all. It didn’t seem enough time to spend in Cambodia, but we’re on a tour with Toucan Travel for our first month of travelling, whizzing through SE Asia. Despite only being there for five days, Cambodia has stayed with us. We entered overland from Thailand, spending three hours in a weird no-man’s land between the countries filled with run-down casinos and fake Christmas snowmen, incongruous in the baking heat. Our first stop was Siem Reap, from where we launched our trip to Angkor Wat. The centre is backpacker-fantastic, with the neon lights and booming music of the bar-lined Pub Street. But wander beyond and you’re quickly lost in dark streets with glowing shop fronts, mopeds galore and not a western face in sight.

“Is it right, right, left from the hotel?” asked BK-C.
“Definitely,” I replied. “Or right, left, right.”
“We’ll work it out.”

45 minutes later we were hopelessly lost. It was nighttime, and there are no street lights in Siem Reap. As with everywhere we’ve been in SE Asia so far, the pavement is a place for parking, not for walking. The only people who walk are the poor or foreigners. Curious faces peered out of shopfronts us as we stepped around mopeds and cars, avoiding potholes at the side of the road. Whole families buzzed by on mopeds, babies balanced on the handle bars. There was the occasional smell of drains, the frequent smell of street food. I refused to pay a dollar to get a tuc tuc back to somewhere that we knew. We pressed on. “If we go left here I think that should rejoin the main street.” We didn’t. Words were said. We walked some more. More words were said. We got a tuc tuc.

Thank goodness we did, because it turned out that some idiot had been leading us in completely the wrong direction.

Not once in this unplanned sojourn did we feel threatened. As with everywhere else in SE Asia, tuc tuc drivers are ubiquitous, all offering their services. A polite “no, thank you” and a smile, though, and they’ll smile back and leave you alone. No one’s pushy, everyone has a ready smile.

Later, riding on quad bikes at dusk through dusty tracks, we saw some of the smaller villages around Siem Reap. People worked the fields, children played outside stilted shacks, cows wallowed in mud. Clinging on to the back of the quad bike, BK-C waved at kids as we passed and they waved back. We watched the sun set over the rice paddies, and felt immensely lucky to be there.

The sun sets over a rice paddy  outside Siem Reap.

The sun sets over a rice paddy outside Siem Reap.

BK-C prepares to operate. Everywhere in SE Asia, people wear surgical masks. Mostly to protect them from the dust or smog when they're riding their mopeds - or in Vietnam, where there's a big line in leopard print surgical masks, just for fashion.

BK-C prepares to operate. Everywhere in SE Asia, people wear surgical masks. Mostly to protect them from the dust or smog when they’re riding their mopeds – or in Vietnam, where there’s a big line in leopard print surgical masks, just for fashion.

WHERE WE CAN, we try to avoid restaurants and instead eat where the locals eat. A line of mopeds outside a street food stall is always a good sign. It was at such a roadside stall, sitting in a tiny plastic chair, that my love affair with morning glory began. Morning Glory with Beef turned out to be a tasty dish of spicy, tamarind-tangy beef with a delicious shredded, green bean-esque vegetable – Morning Glory – chewy and crunchy at the same time. Yes, I ordered it purely on the strength of the name, but I never looked back.

Yes, its true, I have become one of those people who insists on taking a picture of their food before they eat it,. If I had 3G I'd be uploading it to instagram. I just don't know what's happened to me.

Sour Beef Soup With Morning Glory. Yes, its true, I have become one of those people who insists on taking a picture of their food before they eat it. If I had 3G I’d be uploading it to instagram. I just don’t know what’s happened to me.

As we sat and ate our lunch people would drive up on mopeds to buy soups from the giant bubbling pots at the front of the restaurant. The owner would ladle them into little plastic bags, like you might take home a goldfish from the fair in, and then they'd zoom off. Meanwhile, nearby shop holders would wander up and give the big pots a contemplative stir. If they liked what they saw, they'd get it to go as well. If not, they'd wander on. We soaked it all up.

As we sat and ate our lunch people would drive up on mopeds to buy soups from the giant bubbling pots at the front of the restaurant. The owner would ladle them into little plastic bags, like you might take home a goldfish from the fair in, and then they’d zoom off. Meanwhile, nearby shop holders would wander up and give the big pots a contemplative stir. If they liked what they saw, they’d get it to go as well. If not, they’d wander on. Through all of this, the staff of the restaurant stared entranced at the tv, occasionally with hands over their mouths, all caught up in the drama of a Cambodian soap. The food may change the world over, but the people don’t.

I didn't have the guts to try these.

There were large dishes of fried insects in quite a few places in Cambodia, especially in rest stops at the side of the road. I never saw anyone eating them. I wasn’t about to be the first.

CAMBODIA’S YOUNG POPULATION, the youngest in SE Asia, is largely a result of the Khmer Regime. Half of the population are post-regime baby boomers and remember nothing of the genocide between 1975 and 1979 when 1.7 – 2.5 million Cambodians were killed out of a population of approximately 8 million. Pol Pot is what people outside of SE Asia are most likely to remember Cambodia for, and it seemed wrong to go to the country without engaging in some atrocity tourism ourselves. It’s that awkward-morbid thing where you want to visit and feel that you should do, but almost feel bad for wanting to go. So we went, and it was horrific, and sobering, and utterly terrifying. The killing fields were very peaceful, with silent white bones placed in piles. I thought if that happened to me, I’d like there to be such a place for people to visit.

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Chum Mey, one of only 12 survivors of S-21, the infamous prison where over 17,000 people were tortured and subsequently killed under the Khmer Rouge. He visits the prison everyday to sell his book and to talk to tourists.

Chum Mey, one of only 12 survivors of S-21, the infamous prison where over 17,000 people were tortured and subsequently killed under the Khmer Rouge. He visits the prison everyday to sell his book and to talk to tourists. I’m not sure that I could do that if I were him.

WE DROVE BACK to Phnom Penh, leaving the Killing Fields behind. The cool air conditioning of the van was a relief after the sticky heat of outdoors. I’d like to say that we travelled in silence, each wrapped in some deep thoughts about the inhumanity of killing – but that would be a lie. As soon as we were in the van, the serenity of the place behind us, we were raucous and joking.  What’s both chilling and hopeful is that those things happened – all those Cambodians were killed (with an 800,000 people error margin in the death toll. Think about that: 800,000 may or may not have died, and we’ll never know) and yet life just goes on, eventually mass graves becoming a tourist attraction with an organised shuttle bus from the city, and vendors selling Coca-Cola.

We were bound for the market in Phnom Penh, a place bustling with people and life. There we jostled and haggled, browsed and bought – and over a big bowl of Morning Glory, I met a man called Sovann, who worked for an NGO, and who told me that the future of Cambodia was in its communities, which his organisation was helping to build.

He lamented the recent protests in Phnom Penh, over wages, where – a couple of days before we arrived – three protestors had been shot and killed when police fired into the crowd. We’d seen camps of police, their riot geared racked up in neat piles on the floor, outside of the Palace in the centre of the city. It had all seemed quiet, the most significant action being when we saw an officer helping an old lady to cross the road. Two days after we left, however, there were more protests, and more deaths.

In the market, though, like after the Killing Fields, people were living life. We joked with stall holders and haggled good naturedly over snacks. Five days hadn’t been enough to even scrape the surface of Cambodia, but it was enough to convince me of the essential good naturedness of Cambodian culture, to convince me that whatever problems the country had in the past or faced now, it’s people were on the up – and, of course, enough time for me to enjoy plenty of Morning Glory.

We vowed to return to see more of Cambodia, and departed for Vietnam.

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NEXT TIME: You suffer too many ‘ironic’ references to Vietnam War movies, whilst I eat some delicious Southern Vietnamese food.

Angkor Wat: A Photo Essay

WE ROSE AT 4am. It was still pitch black when we reached Angkor Wat, yet people were queueing for tickets. We traipsed along the causeway crossing the temple’s moat, led by our guide’s torchlight. It was warm; cicadas buzzed in the trees and the glassy black moat reflected the stars. Angkor Wat was a grey outline across a wide pond. We joined the seething mass of tourists and guides, all stood at the water’s edge, awaiting the breaking of the night. Red began to creep up the edge of the sky. We and a thousand others began to snap blurry images of the temple’s towers.


When the sky was light we crept further into the temple to witness the rising of the sun. The smell of incense wafted across us as we quickly left the crowds behind, and we found ourselves at the foot of a smaller building, which we climbed using steep stone steps. At its top we paused, not a soul in sight, and watched the sun rise.

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When the sun had fully risen, we joined the rest of our group – those wise enough to have had the extra two hours in bed – and followed our guide (a short, well meaning, though somewhat long winded man), through the temple as he explained to us the history of this twelfth century temple, the largest temple in the world.

There were a lot of engravings.

They were amazing, interesting, full of history and…. a little bit boring. Unfortunately, our guide also had a very pronounced accent and at one point spent ten minutes telling us how the French had used semen to mend a part of the temple. “They used semen?” I asked. “Yes, that’s right,” he replied, pointing to the cement on the ceiling, “semen.” Obviously, I was very mature about this mispronunciation.

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Eventually, mercifully, the engravings ended, and by popular mutiny we decided not to follow the guide’s suggested course through the temples, and instead bussed directly over to Ta Phrohm, AKA the “tombraider temple,” where Angelina Jolie was filmed jumping through ruins as Lara Croft. Many photographs ensued. Roots wider then me gripped, broke through, supported and entangled walls built many centuries ago, their trees rising tall tall, high above, their tendrils coiled and looped like someone had poured them over the temple. Here and there, the face of Buddha peeked out from between roots.

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Inside, the temples were dark and wonderfully cool except for shafts of muzzy sunlight lancing through the broken roofs or walls. Here and there, monks prayed, and wizened old women sat burning incense or selling trinkets. Outside, the sun hammered down, ratcheting up the humidity.

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We made one final stop, to Bayon – the temple of the faces.

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We left hot and tired, having only seen a fraction of the whole complex, but happy to have been there. And that was Angkor Wat, the largest temple in the world.

Trav3-19NEXT TIME: I enjoy morning glory.

Upon Arrival

WE ARRIVED IN Bangkok tired, unwashed, and with the faint whiff of vomit about us. The flight from Dubai had been traumatic. Five and a half hours in which the flight crew attempted to serve two meals and three drinks to us and our tired co-passengers, interrupted by long bouts of turbulence over India.

The turbulence was a problem, hitting us just after dinner had been served. There’s a special art in getting food into your mouth rather than your ear when the world is moving up, down and sideways, seemingly all at once. The turbulence was making BK-C feel queasy, so she donned her eye mask to try and shut out the world whilst I continued to plaster food all over my face. Fifteen minutes later she said she needed a sick bag. There was no sick bag. The crew were busy with clearing away dinner, and I couldn’t get anyone’s attention. So I gave her a cup – you know, one of the really tiny plastic things that they give you on flights. Not a great substitute for a sick bag, but BK-C managed. With the first cup. Unfortunately, she was still wearing her eye mask and wasn’t able to see the second cup that I held out for her.

“Oh no… you just missed the cup,” I offered, helpfully. As if she didn’t know. It was everywhere. On the traytable, on BK-C, on me. The guy sitting next to her moved pretty damn quick, I can tell you. Meanwhile, I offered a consoling pat on the back and attempted to mop up ineffectually with a tissue. Trapped in the window seat, it was all I could do. “Oh well,” I said brightly, “at least we’ll be in Bangkok soon.” BK-C began to weep gently behind her eyemask.

SO, AS MANY other stories doubtless start, we arrived in Bangkok. Prepared for the worst, we approached the baggage collection only to find that our bags had arrived. Prepared to be ripped off, we approached the taxi rank, only to walk right up and get a taxi that ran the meter and charged us less than we expected to pay. Unprepared to be wandering around Bangkok so soon and in such good, if tired, spirits, we walked like zombies through gringo-central, where we were staying, slack jawed, wide eyed and mono-syllabic through lack of sleep. Ate Phad Thai. Were disappointed. Slept for two hours. Felt worse. Met tour group. Bought some hippy flip-flops, failed to haggle. Ate at a restaurant, drank first beer of the trip. Nearly fell asleep in food. Did a tour of 7-11 shops looking for wheat-free portable food for BK-C for the long journey to Cambodia the next day. Bought more snacks and then some more just to be sure. Collapsed into bed. Declared Day 1 of travelling to be a success.

Not, as I thought when I bought this snack, wasabi peas.

Not, as I thought when I bought this snack, wasabi peas.

NEXT TIME: We visit the largest temple in the world. I do an impersonation of Lara Croft.