On Writing and Food in Penang

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WHEN I WAS perhaps 4 or 5, I entered a competition on Saturday morning television to win a Lego pirate ship. It was the sort of competition where you had to put your address on a postcard and send it in, and then the next week they would, live on TV, draw the winning postcard out of a huge, stuffed postal sack. Gordon the Gopher may have been involved. Despite the evidence from the postal sack that the odds were stacked against me, I was convinced that I was going to win. When I was younger, I’d entered another competition and won a video about dolphins, so it stood to reason that I’d win this one too.

I got up early, as I did every Saturday, to watch the draw. I didn’t win. So I went upstairs to climb onto my parents’ bed, wake them up, and tell them that I hadn’t won. What I remember most about that event is my own sense of bewilderment at my parent’s lack of surprise (“oh dear, maybe next time”). In that bewilderment was the germ of an idea that the world might not be set up for me to win at everything.

Whenever I enter a competition now, I still think about that Lego pirate ship and my parents’ lack of surprise. Yes, I know, this is in danger of getting a little twee – so I’ll get to the point.

I recently entered the Daily Telegraph’s Just Back From… weekly travel writing competition. I did not win. They have a very large postal sack, and a very high quality of entrants. But it didn’t stop me checking my emails incessantly – the 21st century equivalent of getting up to watch the draw. As with the Lego pirate ship, though, there are still lessons to be learned, plans about how it could be better written – I’m sure you don’t need me to spell it out for you. This isn’t Oprah. Anyway, this was my entry.

“Murdered at Panghore by a gang of Chinese Robbers,” reads the headstone of Christopher Henry Lloyd, who met his unfortunate demise in 1876. Strewn about me are the tumbledown graves of two centuries of sailors, merchants, and civil servants, all buried in George Town’s protestant graveyard. Here the usual tragedy of cemeteries is made up by a global crowd of those who were just passing through (“James Winlock, Midshipman, US Navy, Died At Sea, 1876 Aged 21”) and those who tied their livelihoods to the tropical island of Penang (“To the memory of Anne, widow of George Herne, late of Trelawny, Jamaica, who departed this life at Caledonia Estate”).

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Long term readers of this blog will remember my delight in visiting old graveyards. Everybody needs a hobby.

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“Do you have a flag? No? Well then you can’t have this island. It’s mine. I claimed it. With my flag.”

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Life in holey death.

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I didn’t see the gravestones of any elderly sailors.

The indelible pen of British colonialism marks George Town, but leaving the graveyard and heading for the Chinese Clan Jetties, it is the multiculturalism of the town that seems empire’s most enduring legacy. At the entrance to the Lee Jetty, I watch a woman in improbably high heels set light to a paper money pile, sending the offering to her ancestors. Walking on, I peer curiously into the neatly arrayed houses, incense burning outside some, barnacles clinging to the silted stilts of all. Water laps, the sun shines and it is calm here; the only thing troubling me being the sweet, strangely tantalising rotting chicken smell of durian fruit coming from one of the houses. My stomach growls, and I realise that I’m the best thing to be in Penang: hungry.

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The problem with adding pictures to something solely intended for print is that it exposes your artistic embellishments. Those highheels aren’t “improbably” high at all. And, now I come to think about it, “improbably high heels” is a terrible cliche. Damn.

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I’ve seen Speed 2. I know how this ends.

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I really miss crab sandwiches.

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 A short walk from the jetties and I’m in Little India, my lunchtime destination. I feel out of place eating with a fork and spoon, so I join other diners in getting messy with my hands by dipping rice balls into ten different curries, arrayed in tiny bowls on a banana leaf, meat free and deliciously spiced. Iced tea sweetened with condensed milk provides a mercifully cooling counterpoint to the whole meal, and afterwards I sit back, watching tri-shaws cycle past, listening to the frantic sitar music of the sarong shop opposite, and wandering how on earth I will ever move again.

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There’s no such thing as a small portion of rice in Malaysia.

Eventually I do, and spend the afternoon bouncing between Churches, Mosques and Confucian Temples. Not nearly soon enough, it’s dinner-time and I’m seated at a hawker stall. I dine on Assam Laksa and grilled stingray, the Laksa a sour, tangy and fishy noodle soup famous in Malayan cuisine, the stingray doused in a spicy, sweet rub and popular, judging by the queue, with most of George Town.

Trav18-12“One. More. Drink.” orders the old Chinese lady serving me, wrapping me on my knuckles with a set of chopsticks to emphasise her point, and baring her single tooth in what I hope is a grin. I give it some thought. “Well, I suppose I could have another carrot juice, and perhaps some of those satay skewers…” Things have moved on in George Town since the days of Chinese robbers – today the only person lightening my wallet is myself, as I stand up to see what else I can possibly eat.

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(The winning entry, in case you’re interested, can be found here).

This post was written in Solo, Java, Indonesia, and uploaded in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. The competition entry was written in George Town, Penang, Malaysia, in the downstairs cafe of our wonderful hotel – Lang Hoose.

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Six Months of Travel: Things To Remember, To Learn, To Forget

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“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.

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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.

Trav16-6 Trav16-7 Trav16-5 Trav16-9 Trav16-8IN 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.

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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…

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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.

Trav10-16  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.

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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.

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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.

Trav16-24 Trav16-23 Trav16-25THEN 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.

Trav16-26 Trav16-27On 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.

Final Words

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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

Goodbye London, Hello World

The FutureTHERE ARE GOING to be some changes round here.

I love South East London as much as the next man, but it does have some vital deficiencies:

-There’s no sea.

-There’s no sand

-I have to go to work

I realise that the last one isn’t strictly restricted to living in London (but from the way some Londoners go on you could believe that nothing happens outside of the capital). But it’s such a major minus, I thought that I’d chuck it in there anyway.

So we’re leaving to go travelling for a year.

The future. A perpetual roller coaster ride of excitement, and definitely not a year living in cockroach infested hostels.

The future. A perpetual roller coaster ride of excitement (much like this blog), and definitely not a year living in cockroach infested hostels (not like this blog).

THE TERM IS “Career Break,” which is a wonderfully professional sounding phrase for a year long holiday. And the really weird thing about it all, to my mind at least, is that no one has said that we shouldn’t do it. I’m kinda expecting someone to stage an intervention soon, y’know? We’ll come into our flat from work or something and all of our friends and family will be there.

“We had to go along with your crazy talk for a while, David,” they’ll tell us, “we thought you’d get it out of your system but now you’re talking about actually booking real tickets that will let you get on a plane. This madness has to stop.” Then everyone will nod sympathetically, their expression sorry but serious, like when someone tells you they’ve just run out of gin at cocktail party, and they’ll all repeat “it has to stop.” Then my mum will cut our passports into little pieces and everyone will go home.

There's going to be a lot of pseudo-arty pictures featuring sunsets and lens glare. ("Oh God not ANOTHER breathtaking sunset. Better get the camera...")

There’s going to be a lot of pseudo-arty pictures featuring sunsets and lens glare. (“Oh God not ANOTHER breathtaking sunset. Better get the camera…”). Yes, it’ll be sickening.

There’s a lot of literature around career breaks. And Chapter 1 is always “how to tell your family, friends and work colleagues that you’re leaving.” There are always sections like “overcoming nay sayers,” and “convincing your boss.” I don’t know if it’s because a lot of this literature is American and apparently having a holiday as a US Citizen is pretty much a criminal offence, but this has not been my experience. I haven’t met a single person who thought it was a bad idea. Perhaps my parents might have had more reservations if they’d have first asked where we intended to store all our stuff for the year; but, seriously, that back room has needed clearing out for some time now. Dad, you won’t even notice the difference when it’s filled with all our junk instead of yours*.

Honestly, you'll be sick of inanimate objects silhouetted against the sun by the time our year of travelling is over.

Honestly, you’ll be sick of inanimate objects silhouetted against the sun by the time our year of travelling is over.

SO WHERE ARE we going? The headlines: SE Asia and Australasia. The details:

Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Japan, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand.

That’s the plan anyway. We were just going to get a one way ticket to Bangkok and let the wind take us, but then we got a fantastic quote for flights from the wonderful Travel Nation and we realised that we could save quite a bit of money and stress on the road if we booked our flights in advance, so that’s exactly what we’ve done (for a rundown of the pros and cons of each approach, I recommend Bootsnall). No perhaps it’s not what Paul Theroux would have done, but there’s still a five month gap from when we fly into Rangoon in April until we fly from Bali in September.

So I reckon that’s plenty of time to get lost.

I've never been so excited about the prospect of getting lost. When taken with my poor sense of direction, it's a winning combination.

I’ve never been so excited about the prospect of getting lost. When taken with my poor sense of direction, it’s a winning combination.

SO WHAT DOES this mean for Elsewhere, Underwritten? You’ll see some changes over the next few weeks. I’ll still be continuing with my longer, more in depth pieces on the places that I’ve been in Britain and beyond. And the California series is certainly not over. But you’ll also start to see some shorter pieces on my preparations for our Round The World Trip. The focus will still be on a slightly offbeat, under the skin look, with an eye to the absurdities of life. I can’t help but feel that the trip to the Chinese Embassy to pick up our visas is going to feature somewhere, in a kind of it-was-a-horrifying-five-hour-wait-to-be-told-that-we-filled-our-forms-in-wrong kind of a way.

And I don’t even want to contemplate the fact that I might end up with a matching backpack to my wife (OMG we are those people. We might as well just give it all up now and buy matching gilets).

In short, there’s a lot to write about, and that’s before Mrs Knight-Croft and I even leave the country.

And then, on 3 January 2014, I’ll get to write about stuff like a real travel blog. You know, actually involving travelling.

I hope that you’ll stay with me for it.

Lago de Atitlan

For those who are curious, all of the pictures featured in this post were taken during our two trips to Central America in 2009 and 2011. The sunset is Roatan, Honduras, the dive bombing in Belize, the city sunscapes Leon, Nicaragua, the get lost picture Antigua, Guatemala, and the volcano picture Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala.

*I am, of course, incredibly grateful to my parents for agreeing to look after all our stuff for a year. Though every time I tell them that we bought another book or piece of furniture there’s a significant pause at the other end of the phone.

Got any recommendations about where I absolutely need to visit in SE Asia and Australasia? Let me know.