Bracknell on Steroids • The Lost World • “Unexpected Tower In The Bagging Area” • The Eighth Wonder of the World • Another Asian City, Another Old Temple • Scaling the Elephant’s Back • Water Cooler Washout • The Best of Asia
Taiwan – what the hell was I doing in Taiwan? Of all places?
As a country Taiwan had ranked pretty low on my most-desired destinations – as it probably does for you. That’s if you can even tell it apart from Thailand.
My mental image of the place was of an enormous industrial park, like Slough or Bracknell on steroids. It was the kinda place where I imagined people got really excited – tumescent, even – about aluminium siding and copper foil.
However, this October I had a few days free, and a little money to spend, and the desire to go somewhere new. As much of South-East Asia was being ravaged by Typhoon Mangkhut, that pretty much put all beach or outdoors-y destinations out of the running. I decided on a short city break – you at least have options if you’re stuck in a city in the rain.
And it just so happened that the only city that fulfilled my criteria of being a) inexpensive (both to fly there and within the city itself), b) different and c) not obscenely far away was Taipei.
Literally two days before, I thought ‘sod it’ and booked an early morning flight. At worst it would only be four days. If I could kill time for four days in – say – Vientiane, I could kill time for four days anywhere. Even a colossal industrial park in the East China Sea.
Look, I’ll be honest with you – I’m no Anthony Bourdain, or Michael Palin, or Paul Theroux. I haven’t ridden a camel across the sweeping dunes of the Sahara, or hiked my way up a glacier in the Arctic Circle. I haven’t visited a black market arm’s fair in the Khyber Pass, or traded shots of tequila with the Mexican cartel. There’s a lot I haven’t done.
But I do try – in between working a full-time job and any number of part-time gigs – to fit in at least three new countries a year, and as many trips in and around Thailand as I can squeeze in. I’m trying. And if some big media company wants to bankroll me to do more than that, hey, you know where to find me.
Anyway, what all this means is – I don’t have time for bad experiences. If I get a few days in one location, it’s a big treat. In that time, I’d like to get as clear and vivid an impression of this new country as I can – its culture, its cuisine, its people, its buildings, its natural wonders. I want to know what the locals are eating, what they’re doing for fun, what they value and what they don’t. What’s the point of going otherwise?
To that end, I’ve got a few rules I try and adhere to religiously, a code for the sometime traveller, if you like:
Swimming Teeth • Cast Adrift on Coconut Beach • Takin’ A Walk • The Restaurant At The End of the World • Back in the Big City (…kind of) • “Never Get Off The Boat” • Lost For Words • The Conquering Heroes Return • I Get My Revenge on the Animal Kingdom
It wasn’t the smartest idea I’d ever had.
We were sat on a ramshackle wooden fishing vessel – practically a canoe with an outboard motor bolted on the end of it – somewhere out in the Gulf of Thailand. It was night-time. Behind our tiny vessel, a mile or so away, we could make out a small cluster of lights, what the locals rather ambitiously dubbed ‘the Village’. And behind that there was nothing.
I mean, really nothing – the biggest, vastest expanse of nothing I’d ever seen. Had it been a starry night, or a full moon, you might have made out the jagged outline of the rest of the island of Koh Rong, the lights of the Village cradled between humps of densely-forested hilltops. But it wasn’t, and we couldn’t.
The First of Many Tedious ‘Nam Movie References • Crack Coffee • The Start of My Elaborate Plans, The Start • Determined Farmers, Hobos, And Other Pre-Dawn Characters • The Smell of Nuoc Mam In The Morning • “Is Chow Allowed In The Barracks?” • Finally Going Up The River • Charlie Out The Bush
Can Tho … shit, still only in Can Tho.
Every time I keep thinking I’m gonna wake up back in the jungle.
I’d gone to the worst place in the world. I’d gone up the river in Vietnam. And like a snail crawling along the edge of a straight razor, I’d survived.
Actually, I’d had quite a pleasant time. There was complimentary coffee, and fresh fruit. The most dangerous things I’d encountered had been the mosquitoes, and maybe a potential dose of E-coli from the coffee water. It wasn’t exactly Apocalypse Now … it was barely Apocalypse Later. But I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
That Bloody Gibson Quote Again • The Lands Beyond The Mall • Drunken Old Chinese Men • Bang A Gong, Get It On • A Walk In The Park • Over The Bridge • Humour Not Actually A Finable Offence in Singapore • … Was Still More Impressive Than Manneken Pis, Tho • The Zurich of SEA (And Why That’s Not Necessarily A Bad Thing)
Singabore. A mall with an airport attached. Disneyland with the Death Penalty.
It’s fair to say that Singapore has a less-than-magnificent reputation among travellers. To many visitors, it’s sterile, authoritarian, soulless and chronically overpriced – the Dubai or Zurich of South-East Asia.
I’ve been to Singapore twice now, and while I’d never describe it as an essential destination, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy myself both times. I think there’s some truth to some of these criticisms – it is expensive, it can seem a little sterile at times, and there’s no getting away from the fact that the ultra-wealthy city state isn’t afraid to indulge its control-freak tendencies at times. However, I also don’t think they tell the whole story.Continue Reading
The Oral Hygienist Cometh • The Real Blade Runner • Confessions of a Suburban Voyeur • In The Yamen • Checkmate – No Mates • Life In The Kowloon Walled City • Another Mall • Getting Philosophical Over A Coffee • Finally Braving The Rain
The Kowloon Walled City was a small settlement in the Kowloon area of Hong Kong that – due to some typically Byzantine colonial shenanigans – continued to be administered by China long after the surrounding area had fallen under the control of the British. This created a bizarre enclave within Hong Kong in which the British couldn’t violate Chinese sovereignty by entering, and the Chinese didn’t particularly want to deal with the hassle of passing through British territory to administer. Essentially, it was ungoverned.
The Walled City quickly became a refuge for illegal immigrants, drug addicts, unregulated businesses and local mafiosi, all of whom quickly realised they could do what they wanted inside without the local authorities interfering. Thousands of members of the Hong Kong underclass poured into its walls, and the 6.4 acre enclave expanded upwards until it became an enormous cluster of crumbling, leaky tower blocks. It quickly gained a reputation as a den of iniquity, where prostitutes, Triads and – horror of horrors – illegal dentists skulked along its cavernous hallways, plying their wares (and their teeth). It was dank. It was dirty. It was dangerous. It was kinda cool.
Thailand ain’t all Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket. In fact, there are a whole bunch of great places that most tourists skip over entirely. If you’re looking to get off the proverbial beaten track in Thailand, here are a few often passed over places that are worth seeing:
Boring People In Parachute Pants • More Monkeys • Diggin’ On Swine • Even More Monkeys • Why I Didn’t Do The Campuhan Ridge Walk • Craft Beer and Tacos at the Ubud Food Festival – More Authentic Balian Experiences • Why The World Needs Fewer Men In Polo Shirts • Starbucks – Now With Added Culture • Dreams of Escape
The second stop in my brief tour of Bali was the town of Ubud, about an hour or so north of Denpassar.
Ubud is widely considered to be the ‘cultural’ bit of Bali – the place where one goes to nod sagely while pretending to be interested in a local dance performance, or to nod sagely while pretending to be interested in some old temples. It’s also gained a reputation as a place where lots of unwashed Westerners in baggy trousers go to bore people by going on about how they’re ‘finding themselves’ over an overpriced flat white in some tourist-trap coffee shop.
I have to say, though – despite this, I liked Ubud a lot. You’d have been horribly misled if you were expecting to find some untouched, authentic rural retreat – it’s pretty much impossible to go anywhere in town without seeing a white face. But somehow Ubud manages to seamlessly absorb everything the outside world has thrown at it (the town welcomed over 250,000 visitors in 2014 – this in a town of just 30,000) while retaining its own individuality. From the highest of the highest-end resorts to the lowliest backpacker hostels, everything from the distinctive architecture to the distant sounds of Hindu chanting and the ubiquitous wavering green rice fields never lets you forget that you’re in Ubud. I loved that.
A Downer on Sundowns • Lookin’ Classy in Uluwatu Temple • The Great Ape Heist • A Rant About Taxis • Kicking Sand In Faces On Padang-Padang • Another Celestial Let-down • The Codfather • Now That’s A Fucking Sunset • Some More Shameless Gluttony
One thing you quickly tire of in Bali is sunsets.
Well, not the actual sunset, per se – there’s not much you can do about the Earth’s orbit of the sun.
It’s the pressure that gets attached to ‘watching the sunset’ in every travel guide ever. If you’re visiting Bali, you get the impression that you can basically sleep for the remaining 23 hours a day. It really isn’t worth doing anything if it doesn’t come with moody dusk lighting attached. As I mentioned in my last post, ‘watching the sunset’ is an entire industry in Bali. It’s the business model of places like the Rock Bar.
Now, I like a good sunset as much as anyone. But after the underwhelming (read: rock-obscured) sunset at the Rock Bar, I’d grown a little tired of them. I had a whole day to kill in Jimbaran and its surrounding areas, and I didn’t want to spend it twiddling my thumbs waiting for the world to rotate in a sufficiently Instagram-pleasing fashion.
Your Humble Correpsondent Revels In His Own Ignorance • The Beverly Hills of Bali • Hotel Hard-Sell • This Gun’s For Hire, Even If We’re Just Dining In The Dark • Actually, More Like The Beverly Hillbillies of Bali • Come, Armaggeddon, Come • Paying Big To Look At Some Rocks • Why Mickey Mouse Ruined Everything
Indonesia’s an interesting place.
It’s the fourteenth largest country on the planet, covering an area roughly equivalent to 1,904,569 sq km. It is the largest country in South-East Asia in terms of both area and population, and its population is over twice that of its nearest regional competitor, the Philippines. In fact, its population (a staggering 261.1 million) dwarfs that of every country on the planet besides China, India and the United States. Its capital, Jakarta, is the third largest city on the planet by urban area – larger than New York City or Seoul. It is the world’s biggest Muslim country, and also boasts the world’s largest Buddhist temple (at Borobudur).
All of which makes it somewhat remarkable that Indonesia gets so little attention from the rest of the world. It doesn’t even get much attention within South-East Asia. With the exception of the odd natural disaster or the occasional execution of some hapless Australian drug-smuggler, Indonesia doesn’t really make the news all that often. It’s the biggest country in the world that nobody knows about.
I put off going to Indonesia for a long time for that reason. It just seemed too big, too unknowable. I like to get a good, thorough impression of most of the countries I visit. But that wouldn’t be possible with Indonesia. Where the hell would I even start? I could have spent a month touring Java alone.