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Kanchanaburi, the Cave temple and the Russians at Erawan Falls…

15 Jan

After spending a delightful Christmas and New Year with my brother on the Southern Islands of Thailand I decided to make the most of my Thai 30 day visa and headed to Kanchanaburi, east of Bangkok.

I checked into the Jolly Frog “Backpackers”. Its Lonely Planet description of a “young backpacker” “happening” crowd should be rewritten to “perfect for old, fat, bald tattoed Western men either seeking or with young, beautiful Thai women”. Still it was amusing to watch them in the bar at night chatting to other “old Western men”. The mind boggles as to what they chat about.

I went out jogging after I’d checked in hoping to see the Bridge Over the River Kwai at night but was chased by Thai dogs, one of which tried to bite me through his muzzle (!) so gave up on the idea.

Next day I chose the safer option of a bike and cycled to the Bridge.

The railway bridge was built as part of the Thai-Burmese railway (415 km long) intended to link Thailand and Burma and as a supply route for the Japanese conquest of India. The Bridge was built with parts from Java, Indonesia.

I went to the Thailand Burma Railway Centre in town which explains everything about it including the huge number of lives lost during its construction.

113,000 died during the construction from exhaustion, malaria, cholera, beri beri and vicious beatings from their Japanese captors….13,000 of them were allied prisoners of war. The rest Asian labourers.

They called July to October 1943 the “speedo period”. During it, the men had to work 18 hours a day in hellish conditions, sleeping in bamboo huts or outside, ravaged by mosquitos, without shoes (it was during the rainy season), with a little watery rice to eat and few medical supplies.

They used spikes from trees as needles to insert drips, traded with locals to try to get some extra food and carved their food tins to count the days and their location. They tried to keep cheery by having competitions on the number of bowel movements per day. The winner would get a cigarette.

I cycled to a Buddhist Cave temple outside town. It was quite interesting with small Buddhas inside but was a bit creepy as I went deeper into it as I was alone. The Cave was used by the Japanese for weapons storage and torture during the War.

Local women were selling food outside the cave and as they had finished serving they shared their lunch with me which was very kind.

I took a local bus to Erawan Falls. I walked to the top of the falls and got the dry skin on my feet eaten by the little fishes. The best pool was number 7 at the top as it had the fewest Russian travellers.

Most of the Russians who arrived in a huge tour bus were at pool number 1 which involved the least walking from the carpark. The Russian men all wear tight speedo swimming shorts. I wish someone would open a bermuda swimming shorts shop in Russia. It would make life more pleasant for many people. The Russian girls are very slim and reasonably pretty until the age of about 25 when they seem to get fat. This is ok as by then they seem to have found Russian husbands wearing speedos.

The older Russian women complained all the time about the nice fishes.

The fishes got their revenge by eating the dry skin on the Russian women’s feet in a particularly vicious way. I tried to explain to the Russian women that it was nice to have the fish eating the dry skin and they charge 200 thai baht for this service in other places. They just shrieked loudly about this and then instructed their Russian husbands to dive in on top of me in the pool! Oh well!

By 2pm their big fancy tour bus had taken them away and I had the pool to myself as the Thai tourists there do not swim. They just look at the waterfalls, eat lots of food which they have brought with them and sleep! They also try to hike to the top of the waterfalls wearing high heels which is not very successful but they smile a lot and are nice so that’s ok!

Another day I took a local bus to Hellfire Pass. This is a really deep pass which the Pows were made to cut through hard rock for the railway to pass. They called it “hellfire” as at night with the lanterns burning (they had to work right through the night as the Japanese wanted the Pass cut very quickly) the men working thought it was like the fires of hell. There is a great museum here which has been set up by the Australian government. There is a good movie but I got into trouble when I sat down to watch it as you are only allowed to stand and watch it for some reason. I also got into trouble as I had a picnic with me and you are not allowed food there. So I went back outside and ate my food. A nice local man gave me some nice fruit from a tree. I don’t know the name of the fruit but it was delicious and kind of him to give it to me. He got it down from the tree with a very big stick.

I walked along the railway cutting. It is really good as you walk and press the buttons on the audio guide and it gives you a lot of information. It was very, very hot though and I could only imagine how hard it must have been to work here with hardly any food or water. One of the prisoners recounted that he came back after the War was over and was so sad that all the lovely teak trees had been cut down. One of the only things that kept him going was the lovely view of the trees.

After being woken very early in my Hotel in Kanchanaburi by a Thai women shouting about how she had not been paid by her “Western boyfriend” I left Kanchanaburi and headed further East to Sankhlaburi…next post adventures over East…where I got to use my Burmese words again with some of the refugees there…

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Weekly photo challenge: Family

1 Dec

I love the traffic in Saigon. 14 lanes of motorbikes weaving in, out and around each other. The families on the bikes are incredible. I caught this family just down from Reunification Palace where the Vietnam War ended in 1975.

Death of the book….

24 Nov

Is it the death of the book as I know it?

Tonight in Phnom Penh I tried desperately to swap an original Lonely Planet guidebook for a new one on Vietnam before I go to Vietnam in a few days.

Off I went to the bookshop which had a sign saying “buy, sell all books”.  She offered me a dollar for a used novel but nothing for the LP.

“Do not want” she said.

I walked alongside the Mekong River which is full of little stalls selling books (all copies).  I tried a new tact…”two books for one….good for you, good for me”.

“Cannot” was the reply.

I went into another bookshop where the vendor was hiding behind a pile of used books.  I asked her if she was interested in my LP.

She said “no, these books are gifts from travellers, cannot buy second hand but can sell you copy”.  I tried to tell her that the copies are poor quality and fall apart in a few days with their poor bindings…but to no avail.  She wouldn’t even swap two for one.

I tried a 7 year old book seller in the street carrying his little box of “copy, new books” around his neck.  He took a cursory glance at my books pointed to a tiny fold in the corner and said “no good, not new, no one buy old books”.  He tried to persuade me to buy some of his “copy, new books” wrapped in clear cellophane.

The trouble with all this copy book business which seems to be huge here is that the death of the original book seems upon us…no one wanted my second hand LP.  And I didn’t want a copy where the maps are so fuzzy you can’t read them at night, the edition date on the back has been updated by a year, and the pages fall out after a few days…

And if everyone buys copies what will happen to the book industry? And what happens to all these copy books which only last a few weeks?  Is it truly the death of the book as we know it?

Holding my nose while signalling with my free hand I asked if the dead raccoon dog could possibly be put on the roof…

16 Nov

It was the first time I’d smelled a dead raccoon dog and it wasn’t good.  Putrid.

I’d got on the bus in Muang La, Northern Laos heading for Phongsali, more Northern Laos.  I climbed over piles of sacks filled with rice wondering to myself why it might not be possible to stack these after the folks get in rather than have women in beautiful silk sarong style skirts and mothers with tiny babies strapped to their backs, clambering over them.

But this was Laos.

The journey was 200 kilometres on a road not yet “Chinesed”, that is, smoothed and tarmacced by the teams of Chinese road builders( which I saw many times during my trip through Laos with their huge “Cat” diggers with Chinese characters on the side).

200 km turned into 10 hours of hurtling over rough dirt tracks, through little villages.

Not long after the trip began,we stopped for a pee, a common Laos bus experience involving everyone on the bus getting off and peeing at the side of the bus.

More than once I have watched, with envy, a grandmother hiking up her beautiful patterned silk skirt and peeing standing up, thinking to myself these locals know what they’re doing!

I didn’t need to get off but couldn’t miss the hilarity outside in front of the bus.

The driver and his assistant had caught some little furry animals.  They seemed to be really pleased.  I’m still not sure what these criters were but it seemed to be a rare find (someone mentioned that they might be called bamboo rats).

One contained, they caught another and in true Lao style strapped them both, still alive, to the undercarriage of the bus as we hurtled along.

After a stop for lunch, we got going again and soon reached the dead endangered wildlife shop.  There the guy sitting in front of me negotiated and bought the raccoon dog.

It had been a beautiful animal alive.  But it smelled terrible dead.  He hoisted it through the window checking whether its bowels were emptied, this was about a foot from my nose, then placed it at his feet. Meanwhile the criminal prosecutor sitting behind me had treated himself to some dead squirrels.

The raccoon dog was not smelling good at this point.

I held my nose and wrinkled up my face to indicate to its new owner the horror of the smell.  He smiled back and after another pit spot showed me how he now had it contained in a blue plastic bag which was dripping with blood. He looked very pleased with himself.

A few minutes later even the locals were wrinkling their faces and holding their noses. I held my nose again and pointed to the roof wondering if the raccoon dog could live there before being bbq’ed that evening.

The driver’s assistant quickly made his way through the bus, got the dog, opened the front door of the bus, climbed on the roof and put it up there, all while the bus was still moving.

A bit later two local hill tribes ladies came on selling silk worms contained inside bamboo branches.  The guy in front of me bought some, presumably to eat with the raccoon dog, and delighted in showing me them!

As I got off in Phongsali I thought to myself how boring the bus journeys are going to be back home…raccoon dog sandwich anyone?

“A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future”

18 Jul

“I am a fortune teller” Em’s mum said.

“Really” I said.

“Yes really”.

I took a pause from drinking my Iranian style afternoon coffee enjoying the sugar lump melting on my tongue as the tea passed over it……

This sounded good.

My future on a plate or saucer…

No more uncertainty.

I could just chill and enjoy the present knowing precisely what my future would hold.

“Can we do it with the tea?” I asked excitedly.

“No.”

“Why not?” I asked feeling a little dejected..was there some problem with my future?

“We need Turkish coffee to do it.”

“And do you have some?” I piped up trying to hide my enthusiasm.

“No.”

Oh well that was that.  I’d just have to see what the future held day by day.

Or would I?

Surely in a city of 1.5 million people I could source some Turkish coffee. It couldn’t be that difficult after all here I am circumnavigating the globe…a little coffee finding mission “pif paf” easy easy.

And so early next morning I began my search.

I got my first lead from my hostel.

They suggested that I try the “Turkish Coffee and Istanbul Cafe” in the KLCC Pavilion.  Off I trotted to the futuristic, ultra modern shopping centre.

The Turkish Coffee and Istanbul Cafe wasn’t quite what I expected.  I was thinking medina style middle eastern cafe full of shisha pipes, low tables and people sinking into cushions.

I wasn’t imagining a super posh high quality middle eastern rug retailer complete with tablecloth restaurant.

Still not one to be deterred I entered.

“Do you sell coffee?”

“No we don’t”.

I explained my predicament to the nice salesman.  I needed to know what my future held I said.  He mulled it over, chatted to a colleague and produced a business card for the “Istanbul Bazaar”, Ampang Triangle, Selangor, which he assured me stocked Turkish coffee.

He said I could walk there and that it wasn’t far.  Of course, I’d learned never to trust any directions or indications of distance in Asia.  Especially since it didn’t even feature on my extended city centre map.  Not to worry I’d just ask someone if there was a bus or something…..a few hours later after a few enquiries at the bus station and the train station and of many local people, I arrived at Ampang Point, still seeking the “Triangle”.

The security guard inside the Ampang Point shopping centre assured me that I was near.

“Over there” he said pointing to the back exit of the shopping centre.

Of course, never trust directions.

It wasn’t just over there. It was well round the block and round again.

A helpful local called the number on the business card for me and eventually the owner met us outside the local branch of “Maybank” and took me round yet another corner to the “Istanbul Bazaar”.

I entered and there it was…”Kurukahveci, Mehmet Effendi” (Turkish Coffee).  I felt both exhausted and elated.

After all my small coffee mission had taken me around 4 hours to complete, had involved the help of no less than 12 local people, 2 local buses, 2 local trains, a lot of walking, a few shopping centres and a few cafes for fuel and rehydration purposes.

I placed my purchase, like treasure, in my rucksack and began the long trudge back to my hostel.

Tomorrow I’ll know my future.  And pif paf to those who think wearing perfume can alter something as important as that….

“What time is the first bus out of here?”

17 Jul Petronas tower models, Chinatown

I have this feeling each time that I arrive in a big city that I’m not going to like it….it’s usually because I’ve either come from a much smaller place or from the mountains or the sea and I suddenly feel a bit hemmed in by the big buildings, the traffic noise seems amplified (it’s not crickets and proboscis monkeys but car horns) and there are so many people….

It was not any different when I arrived in KL.  And to make things worse I came in at 3 am without having booked a hostel…a mate had drawn me a little map…you get to the big gate at chinatown, there is a McDonalds, you pass it and then there is 7 Eleven and the hostel is just down a little side street.

Sounded easy….

At 3am after a couple of buses and a flight though it all looks so different.

I couldn’t find the gate.  I did find a McDonalds and a 7 Eleven but not the right ones….there are too many of these things in KL.

I wandered around checking out hostels with my huge pack and with the sympathetic eyes of the hostel owners on me.  Many of the places were full. Arsenal were playing Malaysia and lots of folks had reserved rooms they said.

Eventually around 4am I settled on a place which offered me a private room for 38 ringit a night.  It was a good deal. In the heart of Chinatown. Own space. A fan. Electricity points that worked.  I was,of course, worrying about the expense. Until I did a reality check. This is 2011. I was in the huge city of KL. In the heart of the vibrant Chinatown with my own space for about 7 quid a night….

The next morning I awoke bleary eyed and did what I often do when I arrive in the city from the country. I went to reception and asked the time of the first bus out.  They said I could get a bus to Malacca at any point.  The receptionist kindly suggested that wouldn’t it be better to have a day or 2 to rest and see the city.

I pondered.

His colleague from the travel office arrived at this point and suggested that he show me a little of Chinatown and we grab some breakfast.

Off we went through the myraid of little streets, through stalls selling genuine copy “Gucci bags, watches” genuine copy “Nike trainers”. We passed stalls roasting chestnuts, were offered “cupping”, reflexology, massage…we eventually settled on a little restaurant decorated with cherry blossoms, had a delicious breakfast of rice porridge, pork and veggies, chatted to some guys who were over in KL for work and were envious of the time I had to see the city….

And guess what…..I started to like KL.  After all isn’t a city just a number of little “towns” joined up…isn’t there magic even in a place of 1.5 million people….and shouldn’t I just breathe and soak it up….I’ve now been here for about 5 days. Each day I think I should head on a bus out of here but then one of the other “little towns” sucks me in.   It’s a good lesson to myself to breathe, relax and not to take the first bus out…

65 hours with a pack of cards, a muffin and a beer served by a barmaid in skimpies – the joys of the Indian Pacific

7 Apr

Sometimes I wonder where I get my ideas from.

Mention train travel in Australia and most people just laugh.  After all, they have budget airlines with cheap prices and fast air travel across this vast continent.  And it is vast. The distances are huge.  Sydney to Perth / 4352 kilometres, Adelaide to Darwin 2979 kilometers.

You can fit all the land area of Europe into Australia.  They have postcards showing this for the non-believers.

Of course not one to be deterred by mere distances nor scared by long journeys (I’ve got all the time in the world these days after all) I eagerly purchased my backpacker train pass for $450 for 3 months with its unlimited travel on the Indian Pacific (Sydney to Perth), the Ghan (Adelaide to Darwin) and the Overland (Melbourne to Adelaide).

Eager to escape the rain of Sydney for the blue skies of Perth I duly boarded the Indian Pacific at Sydney Central Station with a few good books, a year of travel photos to sort and a muffin to eat.   In my mind was the romanticism of the Orient Express and maybe a murder to solve on the train (joking of course!)

And plenty of time …the journey takes 65 hours and involves 3 nights’ sleeping on the train in a day / nighter seat.  Average speed is 85 kilometres per hour.  The premium service costs $345o for a cabin but for a mere backpacker it’s a seat, a sleeping bag and a lot of hours to pass upright.

The Indian Pacific

The Indian Pacific

DAY ONE

Day one we rolled out of Sydney at 2.55 pm.  I had a very quiet carriage so two seats to myself and turned them round to form a foursome for sleeping purposes.  I wasn’t so organised so ended up a little hungry with only a muffin and a bit of bread and nutella for tea…mmm…met David a backpacker from Boston who inspired me with his super light backpack and penchant for sleeping rough in cities..he has slept in parks in Sydney and Melbourne and in an alley in China..of course as always he was a contradiction having spent $400 on a hotel room in Singapore where he swam in an infinity pool with a view of the city. Nice!

DAY TWO

Day two we arrived at Broken Hill early doors having been warned by train staff that it was the end of double seats..of course I didn’t believe that…after all who would be getting on at the so called “Silver City” of Broken Hill?  This town has the world’s largest deposits of silver, zinc and tin…but not much else.   However, the platform was crowded..turned out that there was an annual horse racing event at Broken Hill which is well attended by those from Adelaide..

I was joined in my double seat  by Maria a Swedish 60-something backpacker. This lady has visited Australia 6 times so far. She owns a small farm holding in Sweden and sells off a bit of land to fund each trip.  At this rate she’ll  soon be living on a postage stamp.  Truly inspiring, she has wooffed, taught Swedish, been to a yoga camp and learned a new meditation technique during her trips to Australia.

One of the good things about train travel is the time you have to chat to your fellow travellers and the restaurant car where you can all meet up to have coffee, play cards and chat some more!

We got into Adelaide late afternoon.  It was raining.  Maria left me here.  We exchanged details, book ideas and I encouraged her to try South America for her next adventure!

I managed to stock up on some groceries at Adelaide with a delightful local dropping me at the supermarket and then dropping me back at the station.  People are super kind to backpackers with a Scottish accent in Oz….

We left Adelaide 6.40 pm.

I was joined in my double seat by Patricia a sixty something Canberrian off to visit her daughter on a merino sheep station in the Outback situated 9 hours’ drive from Adelaide.  We chatted about Outback life, her daughter having left a career in PR in London and Sydney to live in the middle of nowhere where she now does a 6 monthly food shop, her kids are educated over the air and her nearest mate to meet for coffee is a 4 hour drive away.  Still they can hear the birds singing, see the stars and they also have satellite internet access!

Patricia left in the middle of the night near Tarcoola waking me up to say bye and pass me her details should I ever be in Canberra.  I moved to sleep on the floor with my sleeping bag.

DAY THREE

After yet another not too bad night’s sleep we arrived early morning in Cook on the huge, harsh Nullarbor Plain.

By this time I was rather confused by the time.

Passing through 3 time zones during this journey (eastern standard time, central standard time and western standard time- that’s how huge Australia is) on the train they use “train time”.  Perth is 2 and a half hours behind Adelaide.

” Train time” involves changing clocks one hour at night and then another one and a half hours the next day.  This allows the time change to be “phased in” and ensures that everyone is on the same time for meals and stuff.  And when staff tell you how long you’re allowed off the train they talk in “train time”.

Cook which is situated 1,100 km from Adelaide and 1,500 km from Perth,  was once a thriving railway settlement but now has only a few residents. It’s one of the world’s most remote outposts.

There is pretty much nothing here.  The few residents run a local shop and work on the railway.  Their population is more than doubled with flies.

Me and the resident flies at Cook

Me and the resident flies at Cook

There was a hospital here once.  Its been demolished recently.  One of the guys on the train was a bit sad as he came to visit it having been an inpatient some 30 years previously.  I think they hope to re-open it if they get more support…

Cook..advert for hospital patients

Cook..advert for hospital patients

After Cook it was back on the train and into the restaurant car where Emily a young Kentuckian was celebrating her 22nd birthday with a muffin and a candle provided by train stuff…we played cards for a few hours and chatted. We made friends with Alissa, a nurse from Canada and a Jordanian engineer who was sad to be leaving Adelaide to start a new life in Perth.

Between Watson (just before  Cook) and Nurina lies the world’s longest straight section of train line.  It’s 477.8km long though when first measured they thought it was a mere 477.14km in length.

Longest straight length of railway track in the world

Longest straight length of railway track in the world

That night we rolled into Kalgoorlie.  Described in the Lonely Planet as “an outback success story with streets wide enough to turn a camel train in” Kalgoorlie is truly unique.  There is something fascinating about this place. I mean where else can you do a tour of a supermine and a brothel all in the same day?

Kalgoorlie is a mining town.  This means it’s full to the brim of men, brothels (and not shy and retiring ones at that!), diamond shops and bars where you’re served your drink by a barmaid wearing “skimpies”.  We HAD TO celebrate young Emily’s birthday of course so headed along to one of the Wild West style pubs complete with Wild West doors, barmaids in skimpies and men who seemed more than happy to see some girls! Had a few beers with the locals who told us about life in a mining town.

Then it was back to the train just before 11 (train time!) for a quick shower and another not too bad night’s sleep on the floor.

DAY FOUR

We rolled into Perth early morning.  I felt quite refreshed after my long journey.  In fact I wasn’t that keen to get off the train.  After all I’d still not finished  any of my books nor had I sorted out my photos but hey ho I’d been served by a barmaid wearing skimpies, learned and played a card game called “spoons” which I lost on many occasions and met some awesome fellow travellers.

You know it’s maybe not that daft travelling by train in such a huge continent after all….

Me and the Indian Pacific

Me and the Indian Pacific

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