You are currently browsing the monthly archive for July 2009.

In Macau at the moment and just pondering whether to go a little early to Hong Kong or not. The scale here in Macau is just a little bit more manageable here, ~550,000 inhabitants and also cheaper. I am paying 120 patacas (MOP) a night which is about NZ$24 and is the most I’ve paid for a night so far. I paid extra for a window and now everyone tells me HK is more expensive…

Macau. From the airport I took the wrong bus (I didn’t have the right change and they don’t give change on these buses so a nice lady gave me MOP$2) and spent a wonderful time touring the islands of Taipa and Coloane (bit of a misnomer because they have filled in the space between the two islands to make one effectively) before locating the right one which leads across a bridge to the peninsula of Macau (it’s joined to the mainland). These islands hold between them some enormous casinos such as the Venetian and the Sands. The economy of Macau is basically gambling and tourism. Macau is the gambling capital of Asia and earns more revenue than Las Vegas.Incredible eh!

It’s a former Portuguese colony and has many churches and Portuguese architecture. In addition it also has Portuguese/African/Asian food! My taste buds are already watering… Not really being a backpacker destination, there is no real backpacker area but I managed to find (with the help of my ‘friends’) a place called San Va Hospedaria established for over 70 years ago which probably explains the decor. It is supposed to be the cheapest in the area, which also has some nicer places which also operate on a per hour basis. It’s that kind of area.

The Con. So of course you know I am a hardened traveller immune to the blanishments of random friendly strangers and stone-faced taxi drivers. Little did I know that my ‘scar tissue’ only went so deep. So I was minding my own business, wandering along the main square on my way to find a place  to stay when I am accosted by ‘Sonny’ and ‘Tina’ who ask me where I am from and then mention that their sister is moving to Auckland next month to start nursing. They are Filipino but in Macau in order to look after their sick mother who is in hospital to get a heart transplant. They would be grateful to me if I would come with them to give her some idea of what it will be like there. They take me to find a place, I walk with them to their uncle Roger’s house, Sonny and Tina sweating profusely all the way, where we will wait for ‘Kathy’ to finish work. It twists and turns amongst these alleys and soon I am all turned around and not quite sure where I am. We walk up to the third floor of some apartment building and I meet Roger.

Roger is a dealer at the Grand Lisboa – a big casino in the centre of town. We get to talking and he starts telling me about a way he has about cheating. Apparently there are private games where people play in hotel rooms so they can bet big, they need a dealer in order to play fair. There are no cameras in these rooms. He starts teaching me Poker-Blackjack-21, I notice with a start that he has no fingers on his right hand, just a thumb. His thumb nail is extra long, as is the custom in Asia. We proceed and I am having fun, he tells me about the lousy US$200 tip he made with Mr Watanabe last night after he won US$30,000. The a/c unit hums, the curtains drawn, Roger chain smoking and the white-washed walls garishly lit with fluorescent bulbs, a lack of decoration or personal items suggesting a dentists waiting room or a transient inhabitant. I watch his thumb manipulating the cards.

After we play for a bit, he asks me whether I am keen to collude with him, in this business, that I should not tell anyone and that I’d need to put up some money, that there are two in the game and that he’s be happy to set me up in a game. All very obvious really. As I start making noises to go he notes that he has a client that is coming soon and that maybe I want to play against him using his system? He will fund me and he pulls out his wallet and drops two crisp $100 notes on the table. No problem if I lose it. I’m thinking, if you don’t mind, why are you living in such a dump? I demure. He insists. I decline. He parries. I riposte. Finally I say no. That done he rapidly shoos us out and we leave.

On the way home Sonny asks me to give him MOP$100 for medicine for his sick mother in the hospitalal. I have an idea – I only have MOP$500s from the ATM. He says, then we will buy cake. We buy cake – I owe him MOP$10 for the room. I give him MOP$100. The question you are all asking, is why? I am still unsure of why I gave it to him. Some unwillingness to accept what I already knew. The betrayal of trust yet again and so soon. His knowledge of where I am staying and my room number. Some kind of masochistic urge to watchhis reaction as I gave it to him, asking him when he would repay me, watching his body language as he left with Tina.

I returned to the hostel and put my memory to the test. I backtracked and found Rogers apartment, a miracle really. I had the urge to ring on his buzzer to see his face as I said hello, him knowing that I know where he lives and that it’s a scam. But really, how do I know how he lost his fingers? Macau is chockablock with Triads, drawn by the money of the casinos. The filth below the shiny streets of the tourist areas. The seamy side of life is just as present, even if you pretend it isn’t. As a traveller you can’t ignore it.

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Bangkok, my old friend, back again in your embrace. Paul Theroux is adamant in his description of Bangkok as “a hugely preposterous city of temples and brothels” and though I haven’t been that bold in my explorations, I concur. I am in transit, leaving to the Gomorrah of the East – Macau, city of a thousand one armed bandits!

Chiang Mai. This city is the largest in the north of Thailand and the gateway to treks, waterfalls, national parks and the isolated border areas near Burma and Laos. I took the night train, 2nd class, and compared it with my Vietnamese experience. White, sterile, the harsh fluorescent light remaining on all night which makes a comparison with an operating theatre not too far astray. The air conditioning was nicely tuned to keep frozen meat frozen. Less use for those attempting to sleep shivering in their shorts and t-shirts.

Chiang Mai is laid out with an old moat surrounding an ‘old’ city and the larger city sprawling beyond and around. It is bisected by some major roads and little sois come off these which follow the old water buffalo tracks and it is studded with old wats that rise above the surrounding houses. There is a fairly strict height law in place which restricts buildings near wats which almost excludes all of the city in the wall from buildings more than two stories high. 

I really hit the jack pot and rambled into a wonderful guest house called Giant House which while simple, did have the kitchen area opening straight onto the street and a collection of disparate inhabitants from all corners of the world. Many of them were on two week massage courses and I sadly only received one brief back rub on the last day from a friendly Tibetan! They had complimentary bikes so I entertained myself by losing my way in the little lanes, coming across wonderful organic food restaurants and jazz bars.

I probably should mention that at some point during some long term travel, one gets nostalgic for some rest (I know how this sounds…) and a desire to stay in one place for a bit. Chiang Mai is such a place. I visited the local university for a film viewing, was invited to enter a massage course, narrowly missed out on visiting a palmist, stayed up all night talking to a Dutch girl who discovered the keen southern man in Southland and went on a cooking course! Delicious stuff those cooking courses.  For one day I cooked eight dishes including pad thai, chicken green curry, tofu masaman curry, spring rolls, T.V.P with basil leaf (my biggest miss) and fried bananas with ice cream! Lots of fun and I certainly enjoyed the flaming wok and lack of washing up.

Train travel. What a wonderful way to travel! I am ranting now for I have been inspired by Paul Theroux’s book where he travels for four months from London to Japan and back on the Trans-Siberian. Of course he completed that 35 years ago so probably not as relevant now but certainly one of the best books I’ve read on my trip so far. The perfect accompaniment and I believes now that reading ‘on scene’ is much more powerful. My own trip back to Bangkok via train was wonderful – overnight but with enough daylight to take in the electricity pylons straddling the land like the bridges of cellos, a green fastness enclosing the train as we sped through jungle over rusty bridges, being fed some poor excuse for a chicken rice dish (the worst meal I’ve had in Thailand so far), woken by my friendly top bunk mate drunk as a skunk after a session in the dining car on Chang and again experiencing the fear that my bag will be stolen while I sleep, the carriage being one long compartment. Why was getting to sleep on thetrain such hard work? You’d think the rhythmic clickity-clack, swaying motion, harsh fluorescent bulbs, the regular tramp of the guards boots and the slam of the door as persons unknown enter and exit the carriage would lull me. 

My final day in Bangkok sped by, dropped my bag off at 6am and straight to the Chinese embassy to pick up my passport, burnt all photos to DVD, bought a fake ISIC card, posted two packages full of presents home, uploaded all photos to Flickr as backup, completed my income tax return and posted, sold my read books and bought the Count of Monte Cristo, received a one hour foot and lower leg Thai massage (feet like semi-soft butter!), met a fellow kiwi and finally sat down and started and finished Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Finished off with a wonderful red curry and masaman curry with A. which really rounded Southeast Asia off. So long!

Benighted* readers, you have no doubt exulted in happiness at hearing this momentous news! Alternatively you couldn’t give a toss. I sit rather in the latter camp, ’tis but a date and who’s counting?

Bangkok. Once again I return to its clutches. It is the main travel hub of south-east Asia after all. And with some surprise I found I rather liked it second time around! Acclimatised both to the culture and heat allowed me to become familiar with the layout of the city, customs and transport network. I visited many sights – Jim Thompson’s House, Wat Pho, the Royal Palace, Sukhumvit, Chinatown, Siam Square and of course the mother of all markets, the Chatuchak weekend market. Rode the Skytrain, the Metro and conquered the use of the bus system, kind of. I stayed close to Khaosarn Rd in a place only advertised via word of mouth and only admitting people effectively vouched for by people who had stayed there before. Impossible to find if you don’t have exact directions (down an alley and down another alley and round another corner at a dead end with a discreet sign announcing its presence. This place was to become my home for five days.

My purpose for mentioning this is not to get you to ask me where it is, but rather to note the shadow world of long-term travellers. This species has effectively become more at home on the road rather than in any specific location and travel according to their resources, which often means cheaply in south-east Asia especially Indonesia and Thailand, and especially India. They travel in order to pursue knowledge such as local custom, languages, healing techniques, massage, music, yoga and meditation. If there were a place in NZ where this species gravitate towards, it is Golden Bay.  They travel according to the seasons thereby spending the best months where it is pleasant (the highlands of northern India are now coming into their prime). All in all some wonderful people and so nice not to need a lock on the bedroom door!

Memories. Some abiding memories of my first three months include:

Facing the demons and jumping off the rope swing in Vang Vieng, seeing people eating far too much happy pizza, the Russian guy all f*ckedup from a scooter crash and fixing himself up with cotton swabs and antiseptic cream ‘to save money’, Tristan almost getting clotheslined off his scooter by a ladyboy bar girl holding a whiskey bucket sign, a shark fin breaking the surface of the water just as we were about to get in to go snorkelling, the lights of the squid fishing fleet edging the entire horizon in High Bar, sleeping the night in Bom’s restaurant after losing the key to the room and failing to wake anyone, seeing Job2Do live playing Pink Floyd covers in the jungle at Half Moon festival, realising how far I’d come from my greenhorn days when on returning to Bangkok and seeing through the first three scams I was offered!, Tristan never actually using his fire pois, inquiring of a cute Irish girl as to her skill in building Molotov cocktails, wandering Angkor Wat on my own and finding a deserted temple to relax in, never having had to wake Tristan and task him with ‘getting out now’, struggling with using Lonely Planet vs. freewheeling it, entering our hotel lobby in Phnom Penh and seeing all the staff online surfing p*rn on the lobby computers, swimming in that lagoon high above the waterfall in Luang Prabang, that manic bus ride into Hanoi, meeting a fellow Aucklander in Sihanoukville there for the ladies (he goes every year…), asking the immigration official in Phuket whether he could use his discretion when he was fining us for overstaying whilst holding a cheeky banknote in my hand, watching an Australian disgracing himself in a ping pong show and his mate yelling aussie, aussie, aussie as he showed the room his tackle, being the only ones in our resort on Koh Lanta – creepy, patiently explaining the phrase ‘have a cup of concrete and harden the f*ck up to different nationalities while Tristan exclaims the impossibility of explaining such a complex saying cross-culture and of course  travelling with Tristan!

Nomadic vs. sedentary. I just finished Jules Verne’s Round the World in Eighty Days and this fascinating introduction to the book struck me. The writer refers to an intellectual study of travel writing called The Ethics of Travel by Syed Mansuruk Islam. Seeing as its just so damn relevant I shall reproduce some of it here.

Sedentary travellers … are not necessarily inactive but they concentrate so much upon reaching a pre-established destination that they entirely ignore the ground covered. Islam comments that ‘they might travel in the fastest possible vehicle and cover a thousand miles yet they remain where they are, because they are on a rigid line which keeps them grounded in the enclosure of their home’. Conversely, ‘nomadic’ travellers follow a ‘supple’ rather than a ‘rigid’ line, experience movement as a continuous shifting, a vivid and bumpy ride across boundaries and cultures which brings about what Islam calls ‘the openness of the encounter with the other and the process of becoming’.

The sedentary traveller is likely to cling to his prejudices and shun contact with the unfamiliar culture he had entered. Such is the sedentary traveller, a mere location-swapper whose cultural baggage insulates him from external influence: he never troubles to learn a foreign language and insists on dressing in his habitual garb. The nomadic traveller, on the other hand, relishes the nameless spaces** in between cities and especially the delays and detours which give rise to those unforeseen encounters, challenges and negotiations which are indeed the essential raw material of travel literature. The touristic ideal of ‘nothing going wrong’ – a prospect of travel so predictable that homecoming becomes its sole highpoint.

 Simple message really and a challenge to all those travelling to make the most of it! What it also means for me, is less reliance on the guidebook and more on intuition, asking questions of locals and plain getting lost more often!

*Applying to those in the cold and darkened isle of New Zealand.

** To be canvassed in a later post. Hat tip to Amy B!

Siem Reap is cool. My time is almost up then onto Bangkok to sort visas and then Chang Mai and then the Middle Kingdom. Also Tristan has left me for some minor music festivals in Serbia and Prague and some lame band called Radiohead in Europe, so solo travelling from now on!

Siem Reap. Swank mixed with the poor. This place is very close to Angkor (5km) and effectively provides all services for the hordes of tourists visiting this place. Pretty nice, has a river flowing through it, an all important ‘Pub St’ and legions of NGOs. Met up with some nice people and managed to have dinner for a few nights on the street together with them.

Angkor. Many of you have been there before so I shall spare you from reliving everything in minute detail. The thing that really struck me was the sheer scale. Angkor Wat is simply the largest and most recognisable temple amongst the many scattered temples. It’s not my favourite, my personal preference being the Bayon. Very cool temple with dozens of large smiling stone faces everywhere. The ‘tomb raider’ (Ta Prohm) temple with its strangler vines and silk cotton trees growing right through the entire temple was neat too. In short, the stone temples are all that are left of the ancient Angkor civilisation, the temples usually being built at the centre of the capitals for the various kings. Their palaces and cities were made of wood and have now disappeared. There is a profusion of SLR cameras (no doubt bought with this place in mind specifically) aimed like sniper rifles at promising lintels, devas, steles, asparas, laterite protrusions and lingams. Ironically, what the place most immediately sparks is the depth of the devotion of those living in that age as well as their mastery of rice cultivation, that they would spend decades dragging rock from 30 km away and constructing gigantic monuments to their gods in order to chalk up some credits for the flip side. The place is truly to be savoured and I spent three days checking it all out, two on motodup and one on bicycle seeing the favourites one last time. One recovery day in there as well a 5am departure to capture the dawn breaking over Angkor Wat (of course it had to be cloudy that day) and conquering over 20 individual temples.

Cambodians are justifiably proud of Angkor, Angkor Wat is even emblazoned on the national flag. It is a point of national pride that is key to rebuilding their shattered country after the war years. On the downside, it can be a point of conflict between Cambodia and some surrounding countries, some of whom were under the sway of Angkor historically. For example the Preah Vihear temple dispute continues to bubble and is regularly in the news here.   

What I can say is that you can’t appreciate the place until you have been there and seen the incredible scope of the various complexes. It didn’t really stick until I had been driven for two days from temple to temple by motorbike, it’s BIG.

The patter. A typical dialogue goes a little something like this:

Urchin: Hallo Sir! You buy from me .. [insert – cold water, guide book, Coke, pineapple, bracelet, flute, t-shirt]?! Where you come from?

Yours truly: No, I [already have some water, Coke rots your teeth, you should be in school, excellent English, call me Dr Jones, I already have a t-shirt, only girls wear bracelets, she (point vaguely in some direction) offered it to me for [1/2,1/3,1/4] the price!]. Also, I’m from the moon.

Urchin: Why not?! OR You lie! OR Your mendacity knows no bounds.

Y.T.: Keep up the good work. [exit stage right]

Moral of the story is that this is a training ground for Cambodia’s future service industry workers. Their English is to a large extent, fairly good. The key is that they continue to go to school to read and write and also attend English schools (which is free for most I think).

The difficulty with giving. Cambodia strikes me as having the most beggars, cripples, homeless and orphans (not mutually exclusive) of all the countries I have visited so far. I have resisted virtually all the pitying cries, incessant wheedling and puppydog looks directed my way. Siem Reap has more NGOs dedicated towards orphanages, children’s hospitals, landmine victims and schools that you would have thought possible. Is it necessarily the hardest affected province in Cambodia? No, simply the one most often visited by Western tourists with soft hearts. Am I being hard by not deciding to give on the street be it a meal or money? I would argue that it is better to direct time and money directly to a charity where I know what the purpose and result of my action is. You have to think that for many of these charities the money may be ill-spent. There is a great organisation called Stay Another Day which has a list of organisations in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia where travellers can volunteer their time to assist the local populace. Alternatively simply rock up to a place (orphanage etc) and ask whether they can use any help (English teaching), then you know that the $/effort is going to the right place. Thanks to Tally for illuminating!

All Alone! Whether you like it or not, Alone is something you’ll be quite a lot. Dr Suess

You may question my slight hiatus – I put it down to  expensive and poor internet connections and the allure of a beach! We pick up the adventure in Saigon…

Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon. The big economic motor of Vietnam, it isn’t as nice as Hanoi I thought but many people prefer it. I went to see the Reunification Palace which used to be the Presidential Palace before the south lost. Really impressive building and lots of interesting history of where some bombs were dropped down the main staircase in 1975, the two tanks that were filmed smashing through the gates in April 30 1975, forcing the surrender of the South, the receiving room where such luminaries as Helen Clark and the Hungarian Prime Minister were received, underground bunkers and the party floor where the Prez had a gambling room, cinema and dancing floor installed. Also the War Remnants Museum which documents the effects of the war with a focus on Agent Orange and other defoliants (and the horrific side effects on children born of those exposed), cluster bombs and napalm. The pictures they have here are truly awful. There was a fascinating section on photographers who had died during the war. There was also an area which covered the prison camp system of the south where they interned captured NVA and Viet Cong and tortured them. All in all, its somewhat amazing how the Vietnamese of both sides can seemingly move on from this awful time and not still harbour resentment against those who inflicted so much pain. For example it is embarrassing how little the US Government provides for land mine clearance, both in Laos and Vietnam. Maybe there is a story there.

Cambodia – Phnom Penh. We scuttled into the backpacker hangout of ‘lakeside’ which despite the swank sound, is a rapidly disappearing lake used for overflow when it rains. The Cambodian government is reclaiming about the middle third of the lake with massive pumps that go night and day in order to develop it. Such shortsightedness! Sitting on the edge of the lake on a pier and looking out at night you could imagine how delightful it may have looked in earlier times. More specifically it really is the theme of my stay in Cambodia – a country really f*cked up after many years of civil war and a now deeply embedded corruption which does the people little credit. The capital is developing at breakneck speed with enormous office blocks being built left and right (including some outrageously impressive buildings for Government agencies and persons such as Prime Minister Hun Sen and his daughter…). There is also a nice Silver Pagoda chock-a-block with hundreds of gold and silver Buddhas.

S-21. Anyways, of course there are two main destinations for travellers in Phnom Penh. The first is Tuol Sleng aka S-21, the largest torture centre during the plague of the Khmer Rouge. This is now a place of contemplation and a shrine and I strongly believe that it is incumbent upon us as world citizens to travel to these places of death and see and understand and communicate how these things were possible. S-21 is slap bang in the middle of town, a former school with four blocks, each three stories high. It has been left largely in the state in which it was found by invading Vietnamese forces who put a stop to the slaughter. All those windows looming over you is very eerie and you can imagine the screams of those tortured echoing around the playground (so as not to worry the neighbors they installed glass windows – fortunately the city of 1.5m had been reduced to 40,000 as Cambodia was being dialed back to  year 0). As you walk through the school you can see the instruments of torture, places where prisoners were held and also the infamous rows and rows of pictures of those detained. They stare out at you in black and white and projected emotions of fear, shock, distrust, blankness and sheer horror down to me. There were many young children amongst the prisoners, its hard now to understand how this was possible. All in all, a powerful experience I am glad I undertook. Today, there is an international criminal tribunal underway to prosecute those responsible, or those still alive (whole story in there). Our very own Dame Cath Tizard is one of the judges. They are currently prosecuting Duch, the chief prison warden of S-21.

Choeug Ek killing fields. The second major destination is the Choeug Ek killing fields which are 15km south of Phnom Penh and this is where the detainees of S-21 were shot, strangled and bashed to death, roughly 18,000 of them. The crazy thing is when you think that although this is the most prominent site, it houses only a fraction of the total killed through this killing system in sites across the entire country (not to mention the hundreds of thousands who died of starvation). It is a peaceful place when we arrived, wonderful weather and no noise from traffic. The place is dominated by an enormous Buddhist stupa which houses about 5,000 skulls and other bones. I lit some joss sticks and placed some flowers, it seemed the right thing to do. As you wander around the place, there are holes everywhere where they dug up mass graves and disinterred the bodies. They haven’t dug up all the mass graves either. The other thing which really brings it home is that as you walk along the dusty paths between the graves, you see scraps of clothing and pieces of what I at first took to be white stones. In actual fact the whole place is littered (scattered?) with bone fragments of the murdered.

Finding Face. I met up with Paul, a friend of Richard L. who has been living in Phnom Penh for the last two years. He kindly invited me to a film screening of a documentary which is partly set in Phnom Penh and addresses two areas in Cambodian society, the culture of impunity prevalent here; and female acid attacks. I know, pretty hard core for a traveller! The movie was kept secret as there were fears it would be shut down otherwise. The title was Finding Face and in brief it concerns the story of a beautiful 15 year old girl who becomes the mistress of a senior Cambodian Minister and when his wife finds out, she finds the girl and pours a bucket of acid over her face and body. Horrific stuff but the catch is that due to the Minister’s connections and position, his wife 10 years on has not been prosecuted. I could write screeds on the stories of corruption I have heard but I shall refrain! In short, nothing is ever what it seems in any developing country and I thank Paul for opening my eyes to this scourge which incidentally is not limited to Cambodia, also being prevalent in India, Bangladesh and other countries where the ultimate destruction of a women’s self, begins with her primary asset (as reckoned in most third world countries), her beauty.

I am now in Siem Riep after a short stint at the beach in Sihanoukville.